Exiled heart, p.25

Exiled Heart, page 25

 

Exiled Heart
 



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  Ziad forced a smile as his phone began ringing. “If you would. Thank you.” Maybe Ben. Several minutes earlier, his friend and Angie had approached the store like they were a couple shopping for antiques. No, Claire called. “Hello, m’lady.”

  Her smile radiated across the airwaves. “I hope I caught you at a good time. How was the game?”

  “Good.” Ziad doodled in the newspaper’s margins. “Where are you?”

  “Headed to Mama and Daddy’s to check on Daddy since Mama’s out of town. Then to the paint store.”

  “Good.” He straightened as another young man approached the shop, this one slouched and wearing camouflage fatigue pants, a T-shirt, and a backpack over his shoulders. He seemed as likely to go to an antique shop as Ziad was to go to a bar.

  “Ziad?”

  Oh, no. He’d tuned her out. “So sorry. What were you saying?”

  “Uh, I’ll be back at six. Allie’s dropping Anna Kate off at 6:30. Want to come over at seven for supper?”

  “Of course.”

  “And I remembered something about that truck driver I treated a few weeks ago. I was catching up at work and pulled his file. Daoud al-Rashid.”

  “His name?”

  “Uh, yeah,” she drawled.

  “Thank you. I will see you soon.” Ziad hung up and set his phone on the counter in front of him so the lens of the camera pointed toward the shop’s entrance.

  A few minutes later, Daoud al-Rashid strolled from Pullman’s Antiques and Rugs.

  Ziad clicked away—until the young man headed straight toward the coffee shop.

  He set the phone down, then ducked his head as the bells over the door clanked. Pretending to work his puzzle, he kept a discreet eye on him. Yes, the very same man from the mosque stood not twenty feet away.

  Daoud ordered a drink. He didn’t stay, and when he left, Ziad didn’t catch sight of his left hand.

  But he did remember his face.

  Across the street, Ben and Angie stepped outside. A text summoned him to meet them at the Starbucks on King Street. This time, Ziad couldn’t bear the thought of coffee and instead ordered a sweet iced tea. He found them upstairs at their usual table.

  Once Ziad had seated himself, he leaned forward with his elbows on the table. “What did you discover?”

  “Lots.” Angie glanced at Ben. “Tell him.”

  Ben nodded. “Mr. Pullman was out this afternoon. Seems two clerks were working since it was pretty busy, a girl named Prissy behind the register and another girl floating around the floor. Yousif Ali was nowhere to be found.”

  “Where was he?”

  Angie shoved her drink aside. “We think in a room because another young man who looked like he had no business at an antique shop came inside.”

  “Daoud al-Rashid,” Ziad blurted. He showed him the pictures from his phone.

  Ben stared at them. “How do you know?”

  “Claire called. When we had supper after the Fourth of July she mentioned treating a truck driver for a cut on his left hand. She noticed a tattoo between his left ring and pinkie finger.”

  Ben and Angie traded looks. He said, “That fits with what we saw. And he was talking quietly on his phone in Arabic. Sounded like he was confirming that he was where he should be. And I saw the tail of that tattoo on his left hand.”

  Angie leaned forward. “The clerk behind the register greeted him by name and took him behind the counter. We almost overstayed our welcome, but finally, he came from the back with that pack on his shoulders.”

  “It looked the same as when he arrived.” Ben stared at some notes he’d made on a pad. “My theory is he brought something to the shop that weighed the same as the product he was taking out.”

  Something cold settled in Ziad’s heart. “Zap.”

  “We’ll see.” Angie skimmed a finger down her own set of notes. “Goodness knows, Prissy warrants checking out. So does this Daoud al-Rashid guy. Ben, your tasks.”

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  “His left palm will have a scar,” Ziad added. “Can I do anything to help?”

  “Sit tight,” she said.

  Ziad glanced at Ben, who ever so slightly shook his head.

  Best not to push it. But if he could do anything in his power to prevent the spread of Zap, he would.

  #####

  “Sonja? What are you doing here?” Saturday afternoon, Claire approached her friend, who stood next to a rack full of paint chips.

  Sonja’s eyes lit up. “I live in your neck of the woods now, remember? Seems we’ll be doing our fair share of running into each other.”

  “I’ll say.” Claire nudged her friend. “Painting already?”

  “Dom said I could redo whatever I want.”

  “A new husband error.”

  Both women laughed.

  “Seriously.” Sonja removed a card with paint chips in a mellow shade of gray. “What do you think? Gray mist or storm cloud?”

  “Gotta love the names.” Claire grinned. “For what room?”

  “The den. It’s kind of dark.”

  Claire pointed to the lighter color. “Gray mist. It’ll keep the room light.”

  “Ah. So what about you? What brings you here?”

  A bit of sadness tinged Claire’s heart as she thought about her reasons for visiting the paint store. “I’m redoing Little Jack’s room.”

  Sonja’s eyebrows shot up. “Whoa. What? Since when?”

  Not wanting to get into the real reason behind her decision, Claire shrugged. “I felt like it was time. Why not turn it into a guest room? And make it dramatic, like with reds and blacks? So Samurai red it is.”

  “Oooh, I like it. Elegant as all get out too. Say. Want to have coffee? I’ve got a bit.”

  Claire agreed. After they bought their purchases, they wound up strolling down the walkway of the shopping center to Mocha Joe’s. Claire chose a table by the window. “Sorry. It’s on the hot side today.”

  “You’ll get no argument from me.” Sonja took a sip of her iced coffee and sighed. “This is going to get dangerous. Mocha Joe’s is all too close now.” She set her drink down. “So really. Why are you redoing Little Jack’s room after five years of not touching it?”

  What could she do? Lie? Claire couldn’t. Not to her best friend who had an amazing gift of perception. “I guess with dating Ziad now, I feel like a new season in my life has begun.”

  “You’re doing well?”

  Where should she start? Ziad was rapidly becoming her best friend, one to whom she bared her heart. Maybe it was their shared experience with grief. Or that when she was with him, he treated her like a queen. Her cheeks heated just by thinking about his touch, the way she came alive when he held her close. “Very. For our birthdays, he’s taking me to supper at the Grille and then to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Charleston Playhouse.”

  “Whoa. Getting fancy, are we?” A smile crossed Sonja’s face, then faded just as quickly. She took a deep breath. “May I speak candidly with you?”

  Claire’s breath caught, and her guard went up. “You’re going to say we shouldn’t date because we’re not equally yoked.”

  “I’m speaking as a friend who loves you and will love you no matter what, okay? I’d be a fool if I didn’t say I was concerned.”

  Her and everyone else. Claire folded her arms across her chest. “We just started seeing each other. It’s not like we’re serious or anything.”

  “I know.” Sonja fell silent as if carefully considering her words. “But I also know how emotions, including those that come with new relationships, can cloud reason. Why do you think Dom and I dated for four years before he even proposed? I knew he came from a messy divorce. I knew his ex hated my guts. But boy, those first days were heady. My emotions were screaming to marry him and the sooner, the better.”

  A dreamy smile flickered across her face.

  “But Sonja, I’ve finally found someone who gets me. I never thought I’d get that chance again, an
d I did, okay?” Hot tears sprang to Claire’s eyes. “We see eye to eye on so many things. We have the same values. He likes many things I like. And he’s such a gentleman.”

  “I know.”

  “Sonja.”

  “I do.”

  “How old were you when you met Dom?”

  “You know. Thirty-seven.”

  Claire carefully began pushing her point as she toyed with her cup. “And hadn’t you thought you’d missed your chance?”

  “You know I did. We talked about it a lot at Bible study. But don’t you also remember that I begged for prayer for wisdom?”

  Thwarted again. What could Claire say? No? All too well she recalled many nights when Sonja had shed tears regarding following her head rather than her heart. “I get that.”

  Her friend took her hands. “Listen.” She stared at the table for a few seconds. “I’m not here to approve or disapprove or judge. You know me better than that. I’m here as a friend who loves you and cares about you.”

  “I get that. And I’ve got this,” Claire added as she ignored a small twinge of worry that had appeared in her soul. “I appreciate your concern, but I promise I’m going to take things really slowly with him.”

  Doubt remained in Sonja’s eyes, but she nodded. “Understood. If you need to talk, I’m here for you, okay?”

  Claire nodded.

  “Well, let me get back. Dom’s probably wondering if I’m planning on repainting his entire house since I promised him I’d only be gone for an hour. Say. Let’s double date sometime.”

  A small bit of relief eased the tension in Claire’s shoulders. “I’d like that.” Once outside, she grabbed her friend in a brief hug. “Thanks.”

  “For what?”

  “For loving me where I am, not where you think I should be.”

  “You know I do, sister. Take care.”

  Claire watched her drive away. As she headed toward her house, she pushed that worry she’d felt earlier aside. Truly, she’d be sure to take things slowly with Ziad. They had time, and she fully intended to get to know him very well before taking things to the next level.

  30

  “This has been a great day.” Two and a half weeks later, Claire sighed in contentment and licked her chocolate cone. Her heels clicked on concrete as they strolled along the sidewalks of historic Charleston. She glanced at Ziad. Oh, ever so handsome in his suit and white shirt with his jacket slung over his shoulder. “Thanks for being there for me today as we repainted Little Jack’s room.”

  “My honor and pleasure, m’Lady Claire.” He popped the remainder of his cone into his mouth.

  “I know it seemed strange to do it on our birthdays, but it’s the first chance we’ve been off together.” She briefly closed her eyes as her tears echoed in her mind.

  Ziad had known what to do. He held her.

  “And my apologies for getting paint on your cheek.”

  She smiled as they entered the gardens near the Battery. “No worries. It came out. And that play tonight was great. I hope you were okay with Shakespeare.”

  “It was… difficult to understand at times.”

  She chuckled. “I’m sure. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Perfect for tonight.”

  “And a wonderful comedy.”

  She settled on a bench and patted the seat. “Let’s enjoy the night for a moment. I have something for you.”

  He cocked an eyebrow and joined her. “Oh?”

  She grinned. “A clue.”

  “Ah, the lady knows I like mysteries.”

  She handed him a small, elongated package she pulled from her purse.

  Carefully, he unwrapped it. “Hmmm. This is a… set of spoons. Claire?”

  “Not just any spoons. Very nice, elegant, antique spoons. Read the note.”

  He held it up in the faint glow of the streetlight. “‘To sample and enjoy life. With a bit of elegance.’ Hmmm. I can only imagine.”

  She raised a finger. “Patience, my darling. Your next clue is at the 4Runner.”

  They rose and began walking toward the SUV. Ziad took her hand. “It is a good thing I am a—what does Ben call it?—a fitness freak. Ice cream is all too accessible.”

  She laughed, then tucked her arm through his. “Me too. How does it feel to be forty? It’s a big milestone, after all.”

  He playfully groaned. “No different.” The barest of sighs escaped him. “For sure, I never expected to be here. It is a different birthday from… last year.”

  Something lurked behind his statement. No way would she pry. They arrived at the 4Runner and climbed inside.

  She reached under the seat and pulled out another wrapped gift.

  He cut the tape with his pocket knife. “Arabian coffee. From Mocha Joe’s, nonetheless. And another clue.” He glanced at her. “ ‘To someone who always knows the finer things in life.’ You are truly mystifying me.”

  She chuckled. “I have to keep you guessing.”

  “Then back to your place so I can get to the bottom of this mystery.” He cranked the engine. They snaked their way through the streets of old Charleston. Once they’d made the turn onto the Ravenel Bridge, he took her hand. “Ben mentioned a trip to the mountains.”

  “His folks have a cabin there.” She smiled as she remembered when she and Emma had hatched the plan over lunch a couple of days ago. “Are you interested? I’m sure you’re ready for a vacation.”

  “Absolutely. I…” He frowned and braked hard.

  The motion threw her against her seatbelt. “Ziad!”

  He yanked the wheel to the right and pulled onto the sidewalk as he turned on the hazard lights. “Call Nine-One-One.”

  “What?” Her anger evaporated. She followed his gaze, and her heart nearly seized. About fifty yards away, someone had pulled back the chain link fence on the railing of the bridge.

  Ziad threw open the door. “Do it now. Tell them a jumper is on the bridge at marker eight. Now!”

  Before she could say another word, he dashed toward the railing.

  Fingers shaking from adrenaline, Claire grabbed her cell phone and dialed.

  #####

  One wrong move would spell disaster. Or one word. Sweat built on Ziad’s palms as he approached the tear in the fence where a young man had squirmed through. Softly, he called, “Hello there.”

  From where he sat on the rail, the young man whirled. He tensed. “Don’t come any closer, or I’ll jump!”

  Ziad glanced toward the 4Runner.

  Claire stood outside with her phone to her ear.

  He focused on the young man as his mind scrambled for a solution. “What is your name?”

  “Thomas.”

  “May I join you, Thomas?”

  He shrugged.

  Ziad knelt and undid the laces on his dress shoes, then removed his socks so he’d have better contact with the railing. He wormed his way through the chain link. Below, the water of the Cooper River coursed silent and deep. And deadly since hitting it from over thirty meters up would be like slamming into concrete. You are sitting on a fence at the stables where Emma keeps her mare, he tried to tell himself. With both hands on the railing, he eased to a sitting position. After a moment, he asked, “What brings you here tonight?”

  Thomas didn’t answer, only maintained his slouch.

  “It is a long way down, is it not?”

  Even in the dim glow of nearby streetlights, tears pooled in Thomas’s eyes. “Leave me alone. Let me jump!”

  “Why?”

  “Why not? Look, man. You don’t know what I’ve been through.”

  “No, I do not.” Frantic thoughts whirled through Ziad’s mind—all of them in Arabic. He took a deep breath to slow them, to let the words form in English. What he said would either get the young man to swing his legs over the railing to safety—or send him plunging into the water. His hearing sharpened to the point where he even picked up Thomas’s ragged breaths over the noise of the traffic behind them. “It is beautiful, is it not?”
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  “Why should I care?”

  “Just an observation, my friend.” Ziad glanced to his right and left. From Charleston and Mount Pleasant, police cars and emergency crews streamed toward the bridge, their lights glittering in flashes of ruby and sapphire. “It reminds me it is good to be alive.”

  “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Thomas slid closer to the edge.

  Oh, no. Ziad stilled. This young man wanted to die. Wrong words would ensure he did. “Sometimes, life gets really hard. We want to give up, to let it all go.”

  “What do you know? You haven’t lost your girl. Your job. Your parents aren’t getting divorced.” Thomas nearly spat that in his direction.

  “How old are you, Thomas?”

  “Seventeen. Just go away!”

  “I cannot do that.” Ziad scrambled for what would talk him down. “At seventeen, it is not easy to take a long view of life.”

  Thomas snorted.

  “Truly. And sometimes even when older, it is easy to lose perspective.”

  Stony silence.

  “Just over a year ago, I lost my family. My wife. My four sons. My parents. Someone murdered them. Then I lost my career and standing in society.”

  Thomas stared. At least his sneer had vanished. “Did you want to kill yourself?”

  “Sometimes, yes. But I could not find the courage.” Careful, Ziad. Don’t give him any extra reason to kill himself. “And now, I am glad I did not. Even in the span of a year, things are so much better.”

  “How so?”

  “I have a new country. New friends who care about me. A new job. A new love.” Ziad shut down thoughts of Claire for the moment. “I learned it is possible to start life afresh.”

  “I don’t believe you.”

  Ziad took a deep breath. A peace settled over him, as if he were saying the words needed to draw the teenager into life again. “If you jump, Thomas, you may think you have won because all of your pain will be over. I urge you to broaden those thoughts. This is now, but years down the road, things will be very different. I guarantee it. If you short-circuit that by jumping, you will leave behind unspeakable pain in those who love you. Would you want them to suffer like that?”

  No answer.

 
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