Exiled heart, p.17

Exiled Heart, page 17

 

Exiled Heart
 



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  Automatically, he winced as he remembered her expression from earlier that day. She’d haunted his dreams as he’d tried to sleep upon his return home. He couldn’t think about her, not when he needed to use his down time that night to begin studying the math he’d need for the GED.

  After ringing up a customer’s gas and soda, he rubbed his arms and contemplated a walk around the building to warm up.

  Thoughts of Claire could do that.

  Or not.

  After pouring a hot, steaming cup of coffee from a dispenser into his travel mug, he returned to the counter and picked up a printout of mathematical terms he’d brought with him. Definitions of parallel and perpendicular fought with his realizations about Claire. He couldn’t deny it. He wanted to get to know her better, even if Sabirah still had a hold on his heart. What did they call it in America? Dating?

  Camel bells on the door jingled.

  Eddie Davis, his mentor from the police department, strolled inside.

  Ziad straightened and shoved his papers aside. “Hello, my friend.”

  “Ziad.” Eddie grasped his hand in a brief handshake and leaned in for what he called a bro hug. “You too, huh?”

  “Me too what?”

  “Third shift.”

  Ziad sipped his coffee. “Yes. Why are you here?”

  “Late night snack. Kind of like you.” Eddie leaned against the counter. “I guess you heard I’m moving out to District Five Monday. They like to change things up occasionally.”

  Ziad nodded.

  “Good news is, you’re coming with me.”

  Ziad grinned. “I am?”

  “You bet. You’ll have your own ride, but I’ll be your first line of defense.” Eddie nodded toward his mug. “What are you drinking?”

  “Arabian coffee. Yassir keeps some hot at all times.”

  He shuddered. “Man, I don’t see how you drink that stuff.”

  Ziad set it on the counter. “It is an acquired taste, I presume.”

  “When did you start drinking it?”

  “When I was a child.”

  His friend chuckled, a deep, rich laugh that always brought a smile to Ziad’s face.

  Maybe Eddie could help. “May I ask you something?”

  He nodded. “What’s up?”

  “How do you… how do you date someone?”

  “What?” Eddie’s teeth flashed whitely against his dark skin. “Wait a minute. You, Ziad, want to date?” He began shaking his head, then stopped. “You’re serious.”

  Ziad smiled.

  “Who’s the lucky woman?”

  “Um…”

  “Wait a minute. You keep talking about Claire.” Eddie planted his fingers on the counter. “Her?”

  “I cannot deny it.”

  “My, my. The Lady Claire.”

  “Why do you call her that?”

  “‘Cause she’s classy to the core.”

  Ziad stared at him. “How do you know her?”

  “We went to high school together, and I sometimes chat with her at the hospital. Class of 1992 at Wando High. Sad about what happened five years ago.”

  Ziad didn’t say a word.

  That smile returned to Eddie’s face. “Dating her, huh? Do you realize she’s turned down every guy who’s asked her out but two?”

  Ziad cocked his head. “What? Why?”

  “You’re asking me?” Eddie placed his elbows on the counter. “So back to dating. You’re already doing it.”

  Ziad frowned. “I am confused.”

  “Look, man, if you think dating is flowers, movies, and an expensive dinner, then you have high school definitions of dating. The grown-up version is what you’re doing. Getting to know her.”

  Except now she won’t speak to me.

  “But don’t beat around the bush either.”

  Another term he didn’t understand. “What?”

  “If you like her, be intentional. Just don’t string her along. You know.”

  “No, I do not know.”

  Eddie laughed. “Man, you’re a tough case. So you like her. Convey that. Tell her.”

  The bells jingled again.

  Ziad instantly recognized Claire’s sister, one of the twins.

  “Faith?”

  Her eyes lit up. “Right. I just got off work at the Purple Oyster. How’s it going?”

  “I am tired.”

  “You and me both.” She stuck out her hand. “Hi, I’m Faith Montgomery.”

  His friend shook. “Eddie Davis. You related to Claire?”

  “My big sis. Well, y’all, I hate to run, but I’m pooped, and I need to get some milk and cereal before I had home.”

  “And I need to get my coffee.” With a wink in Ziad’s direction, Eddie added, “Not that stuff you call coffee. I’ll be back.”

  “Get to work, Ziad,” Yassir, the night manager, called from his office. A newspaper rattled.

  Like he worked hard.

  Ziad returned to his math terms while Eddie wandered toward the coffee urns at the back.

  The bells clanked once more.

  From dead to busy in the span of ten minutes.

  Two men dressed in cargo pants and dirty T-shirts wandered inside. Almost instantly, their East African features reminded Ziad of Jeddah and the sailors who would visit. Most likely, they’d come from the cargo ship he’d noticed docking a couple of hours earlier in the adjacent port. Ziad’s nose twitched at the scent of tobacco. They wandered toward the beer cooler, not too far from where Faith pulled open a door for the milk cooler.

  With a box of Cocoa Krispies and a gallon of milk, she approached the counter with the two sailors right behind her.

  Ziad rang up her purchase. “Six forty-eight.”

  She handed over a five and two ones, and he made her change. “Would you like me to walk you to your car?”

  “I’ll be fine.” Faith offered a weary smile. “It’s not too far back to the Purple Oyster.”

  It might be further than you think. Ziad watched as she paused to say goodbye to Eddie before pushing through the doors. He rang up the case of beer for the sailors, who followed close behind.

  “I do not like the looks of them,” he muttered to Eddie, who set a cup of coffee on the counter.

  A female scream shattered the still air.

  Coffee forgotten, Ziad charged outside with Eddie hot on his heels.

  Ziad skidded to a stop.

  On the pavement near the edge of the convenience store, a young man dressed in a pair of shorts, a button-down shirt, and deck shoes convulsed with foam seeping from the corners of his mouth. Two others ran into the night.

  Faith, her skin sallow in the yellow glow of a streetlight, had her hands over her mouth and stared at the scene. Her milk puddled at her feet and soaked the cereal box. With wide eyes and slack jaws, the sailors had begun backing away.

  “No one move,” Eddie ordered. He radioed for paramedics

  Ziad fell to his knees beside the victim.

  With one final, violent jerk, he lay still.

  Ziad felt for a pulse. Nothing. As sirens began wailing in the distance, he began CPR.

  “I—We need to go,” one of the sailors stated in heavily accented English. “Our ship—”

  “Will stay in port until we get this sorted out.” Eddie caught them all in his glare. “When backup gets here, all three of you are coming to the station to give statements. I’ve got guys after the two jokers who ran away.”

  “But—” Faith began.

  “We need—” the sailor protested at the same time.

  Eddie put his hands on his hips. “No. All of you.”

  Footsteps rushed toward them.

  “We got this,” a paramedic said.

  Ziad, his hands and arms now aching, straightened. His lower back protested.

  “He’s gone,” a paramedic said a moment later.

  Ziad muttered under his breath and turned away as he raked his hands through his hair. Zap. Number nine in two months, mo
re than one a week.

  “Let’s go,” Eddie said. “Detective Rothschild is inbound right now.”

  Ziad stared at the convenience store. Silhouetted in the bright interior lights of the store, Yassir waited for his employee with arms folded across his chest. “Ziad, get back here. Now.”

  “Sir, he’s a reserve officer, and I need his services at the station,” Eddie called.

  “But—”

  “This is police business. Understand? He’ll be back after we’re finished.” Eddie faced his friend. “Ziad, take Faith.” He turned his attention to the sailors. “You two, come with me. Now.”

  Ziad guided Faith to his 4Runner. He helped her into the front seat and followed Eddie to headquarters. “You will need to make a statement.”

  She hesitated.

  He walked her across the lobby to an elevator. “It will take only a few minutes. Do you want me to call your parents?”

  Her eyes widened. “No! Please don’t. If they find out what happened, they’ll flip and want me to quit my job.”

  He sighed. What about the other sisters? “Is Grace around?”

  “Out of town with her boyfriend’s family.” Faith fiddled with the strap of her purse.

  Not Allie, since during the few times he’d met her, he’d realized she redefined judgmental. Emma? No, Ben had mentioned special plans with her that must have included some romancing. Delia? Not when she was a month away from giving birth. That left Claire.

  Not his first choice at the moment, but she was his only choice. After introducing Faith to Detective Rothschild, he got a cup of coffee from a vending machine and settled at the desk he shared with Eddie. His fingers trembled slightly as he dialed Claire’s home number.

  It took a few rings, but her sleepy voice answered, “Hello?”

  “Claire, it is Ziad.”

  “It’s two in the morning.” The edge in her words told him everything he needed to know. She hadn’t forgiven him. Not that he blamed her. “If you’re calling to apologize, how about waiting until dawn?”

  “I am not calling to apologize. I would like to but later. Faith is with me at the police station.”

  “What?” Anger melted to concern. “Is she okay? Did you arrest her for something?”

  “No, I did not. She witnessed someone dying from a drug overdose.” From Zap, he almost added but caught himself. “She told me to call you instead of your parents to come and pick her up.”

  Nothing but dial tone.

  He peeked into a conference room. Her head bowed, Faith waited.

  Where was the detective?

  “Ziad, this way,” Eddie softly called. He gestured to another conference room. “I’ve got one of the dudes in here. The other’s down the hall. Separate statements, you know.”

  A tried and true tactic he’d deployed in his former life.

  Detective Rothschild arrived and turned to Eddie. “Officer Davis, do you mind interviewing Ms. Montgomery?”

  “Not at all.” The policeman headed down the hall.

  Ziad had to know. Was his hunch correct? “Sir, would you mind if I stayed here?”

  The lighter skinned one stared at his name tag, then sneered in Arabic with an Egyptian accent, “You, a clerk? In here? What are you doing? Playing policeman?”

  “No, I’m—”

  “English only.” Detective Rothschild cast a baleful glance at the sailor. “Ziad, you may stay.”

  Ziad folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the wall next to the door. The detective’s questions were all that he’d expected, and all delivered in a friendly, almost folksy way to put his subject at ease.

  “What is your name and occupation?”

  “Yousif Ali, sailor on the Lady Beatrice.”

  “Had you seen the victim before?”

  “No.”

  “Did you know Faith Montgomery?”

  “Who? That girl? I saw her at the Purple Oyster. A waitress, I believe.”

  “Did you see anything suspicious in the club?”

  “Nothing.”

  The detective approached his questioning from different angles, all yielding the same result. And no mention of Zap. He was simply taking a statement.

  Oh, did Ziad want to say more! He couldn’t. Not without decisive proof. As they talked, he examined the sailor’s body language and expression. The consistent gaze, somewhat tense features, and upright posture indicated a young man who’d purely witnessed a death who had nothing to do with it. Except for one thing. He kept his elbows on the table, his hands together as if praying with his chin resting on his fingertips.

  Ziad tried not to stare at the small black line that snaked its way from between the ring and pinkie fingers of his left hand onto the top. His breath caught. Could it be? The urge to break into the questioning nearly overwhelmed him.

  Detective Rothschild finally rose. “Thank you, Mr. Ali. I appreciate your time. Let me interview your friend, and then you’ll both be free to leave.”

  Ziad watched the sailor go. He stepped into the hall. “Sir, a word, if you would.”

  Detective Rothschild cocked his head.

  Ziad hesitated. “I noticed something on the Egyptian’s hand.”

  “How do you know he’s Egyptian?”

  “His Arabic has the accent. He had something on his hand. Here.” Ziad gestured to the spot. “Could we get pictures of his hands?”

  The detective hesitated. He sighed. “Not without good reason.”

  Ziad wanted to scream.

  “But,” he continued, “We did have video cameras running.” He nodded toward a camera high up in a corner and facing where Yousif Ali had sat. “Let me see if we got something on his hands. Will that do?”

  It had to suffice. Ziad nodded.

  Seeming to understand the sense of urgency rising in Ziad’s gut, Detective Rothschild caught his arm. “I’ll leave whatever I find in your box. I heard you and Eddie are moving to District Five on Tuesday. Congratulations.”

  Ziad could do nothing more.

  “There you are!” a female voice cried.

  Claire rushed across the room from the elevator.

  She ignored them and hugged Faith.

  “I’m fine.” Faith pulled back. “Just shaken up.”

  “Well, you scared me!” Claire released her and turned her attention to Ziad. All too easily, he noted the exhaustion in her eyes. “You were right to call me.” She shook her head. “If you’d called Mama and Daddy, they’d have flipped.”

  “That is what Faith said.”

  She picked up her purse from where she’d dropped it on a table. “Thank you.”

  “You are welcome.” He glanced at Faith, who had once more slouched on the couch. “You need to take her home.”

  “Yeah.”

  This time, he seized the moment before it passed. “Claire.”

  She glanced up.

  “May I come by tomorrow? I mean, in the afternoon. After I have slept off tonight.”

  “You hate third shift.”

  “With a passion. At least it is my last night. I am on days from now on.”

  She nodded. “I’ll be around.”

  He hoped she wasn’t lying. As he watched her return to her sister and leave, he began planning his apology.

  And how to continue to date her or whatever he was doing.

  22

  Sunday Sabbath. Time to rest. Claire muffled a yawn as she pulled to a stop under her house. She’d gotten Faith to her apartment and then fallen into bed by five. Her alarm had aroused her at nine for church. Then came lunch at her parents’ house before some errands. After a short nap, she’d have a light supper before once more tucking herself into bed.

  She popped the Mustang’s trunk and peered inside. Despite her present opinion of Ziad, a smile curled her unwilling lips upward as she stared at that infernal lamp.

  All because she’d forgotten a Saudi custom Emma had warned her about.

  “I’ll get you back, Ziad,” she m
urmured as she carried it inside. She peered around the family room. Where to put it? Maybe in the den. Or the dining room. Better yet, in a closet upstairs. No, he’d not get the best of her. She placed it on one of the nightstands in her bedroom. Only until she figured out how to return it to him.

  Where was her stuff? Oh, yeah. Downstairs on a table in the carport. Time to sleep before she did so standing up.

  As she reached the bottom of the stairs, Ziad’s 4Runner pulled into the driveway.

  She clasped her Bible and bags to her chest. Maybe she could flee upstairs and lock the door.

  Why did he have to wear that black T-shirt and jeans? They revealed a long, lean frame filling in with muscle, as if he’d spent dedicated time in the gym these past few weeks.

  Her heart pounded. She pressed her lips together. He’d have to work for her forgiveness.

  His expression neutral, he stopped a few feet away. “It is good to see you. I would like to take you to supper. It is almost six, after all.”

  Emma’s words when she’d visited the afternoon before played in her head. “I know it was awful, and I’m sorry. I know he hurt you, but I think he’s doing the best he can under the circumstances he’s got. At least listen to him before making up your mind, okay?”

  I’ll try, Em, but don’t expect any grand surprises.

  She caved. “Let me go and lock up.”

  The smile on his face told it all. Sheer relief. Within minutes, they headed toward the Ravenel Bridge. Ziad sat erect as he drove, both hands on the wheel, his gaze hidden behind his sunglasses as they rode in silence toward whatever destination he’d chosen.

  Claire twisted her hands on her lap.

  At last, they pulled into the parking lot of a Middle Eastern deli. Judging by the amount of cars, it must have been good.

  Ziad didn’t open her door for her.

  Not that she would have expected it.

  He did open the door to the deli and let her precede him.

  Oh, wow. She didn’t try to speak over the chatter of voices. Her stomach rumbled at the luscious scents of lamb, rosemary, and other spices she couldn’t place. Sparkling brass and beaded curtains leading to different dining alcoves winked at her. She stepped very close to Ziad as they pressed into a line several people deep.

  “This is… What’s good here?” She had to raise her voice to make herself heard above the chatter in the lobby. “I’ve never eaten Middle Eastern before.”

 
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