Exiled heart, p.3

Exiled Heart, page 3

 

Exiled Heart
 



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  Cheeks flushing, Ziad asked, “Have you ever had someone act grossly against you?”

  “Yeah, I have.” Ben winced. “My biological father. He walked out on Mom and me when I was six. Left us with nothing. No money. No shelter, not even suitcases for our clothes.” He leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table. “We were homeless. Mom’s parents took us in until she could get her nursing degree. It took five years for us to get out on our own.”

  He stared at the table and took a deep breath.

  Ziad tapped ashes into his empty cup. “If I have upset you—”

  “No, no. I was remembering. Yeah, I had some huge resentment against my father. It hit big time after Mom married Dad. I had to work through it, let it go. And to do that, I had to forgive. If Jesus could forgive me for my sins, who was I to hang on to old grudges?”

  “I do not need a religion lesson.” Ziad took a drag and jabbed his cigarette out.

  “I know.” Ben dumped his scraps into his empty coffee cup. “Look. We’re both tired. That’s another conversation for another time, okay?”

  Ziad tossed the butt onto the pavement. “Enough of this.” In Arabic, he said, “We should probably leave.”

  “Yeah. Hey, I have a question for you.”

  Ziad cocked an eyebrow. “What is it?”

  Ben’s Adam’s apple worked. “Em and I set our wedding date for March twenty-seventh of next year. In Charleston.”

  Suddenly, Ziad realized the implication of his words. His stomach dropped. “Does that mean your time with us is drawing to a close?”

  “Not for another year or so, but yes.” Ben shifted his cup between his hands and continued in English, “Her contract’s up next March, and I can understand why she wants to live in the States. Sorry, but I have to concede to her wishes on that one.”

  “I understand, my friend.” Ziad winced. “We will miss you. Having you here these past three years is,” he struggled for the right word, “a blessing.”

  “I’ve been honored to work with you as well.” Ben raised his gaze, which remained sincere in the dim light. “I do have one question for you.”

  “That would be?”

  “In weddings in the States, we have a tradition where the bride and groom have friends who have meant much to them stand with them when they say their vows. And you, by far, have been my closest friend during these past three years. I know it takes some planning, but I would be honored if you’d be my Best Man.”

  “Best Man?” Ziad frowned.

  “Oh.” Ben chuckled. “Emma said I’d better explain it to you. The Best Man is the groom’s best friend. Sometimes it’s his dad. Look. You’ve kept me out of trouble. You’ve had me into your home. We’ve been through a lot together. I want you as my best friend to be there with me.”

  “I would be honored. And Sabirah would be greatly pleased for a trip to the States. We could leave the boys with Mama and Papa. Yes, that would work very well.”

  Ben checked his watch. “If you don’t mind, I’ll head out. I know it’s early, but I’m exhausted.”

  “I will see you Thursday night.” Ziad rose, and they shook hands. “Until then, Ben.”

  He headed to his Land Rover. Thoughts whirled through his head. Ben’s impending marriage and move. Their discussion about his family feud. And visiting Charleston the following year.

  None of it mattered at that point. The weekend had arrived. He planned to enjoy it.

  #####

  “You knew I was going to be gone for a couple of days.” Half an hour later, Ziad folded his arms across his chest and glared at his wife.

  From where she stood in the doorway of their master suite, Sabirah leaned against the door frame. She closed her eyes. After a deep breath, she shook her head. “That’s not my point. You snapped at Khalid when he only wanted your attention so he could show you the perfect score he got on his letters.”

  Ouch. She was right. All four boys had ambushed him when he’d arrived home. Twelve-year-old Muhammed Amir with the grade from his math test. Tariq, his second at age ten, babbled about the video game he’d been playing. Then eight-year-old Basil, the budding engineer of the family, pushed forward to show him a bridge he’d made. And finally, little Khalid at the tender age of five had squealed for attention of his own.

  What had he done?

  “I need silence, Khalid.”

  That produced tears from his youngest.

  If anything he’d learned in his nearly nineteen years of marriage, it was to apologize when required. Now, he hung his head. “I’m sorry.”

  “I know.” She stepped forward and wrapped her arms around him. “You’re exhausted.”

  “I am.” He felt the curves her caftan hid. He buried his face in her neck. Hmmm. Jasmine, the scent he defined as her, filled his nose. “Could I stay like this all night?”

  She chuckled. “I wish. Change. After evening prayers we can all have some of that muhalliabia you like.”

  His stomach rumbled at the mention of dessert. “I’ll be down in a few minutes. But first…” He threaded his fingers through her ebony locks that hung to mid-back. He kissed her long and deep before whispering into her ear, “Perhaps we can have a little time together this weekend.”

  “Maybe so.” She ran her hand down his cheek. “Join us when you’re ready.”

  Once she shut the door behind her, his smile faded as he undid the tactical belt to his uniform and shucked his fatigue jacket. He knelt at the edge of the Oriental rug in the sitting area of their suite. After rolling it up, he counted eight tiles from one wall and eight tiles from the one perpendicular to it. With his fingers, he pressed on all four corners at once. It popped up. Using his fingertips, he lifted it free. Beneath it sat a compartment he’d installed upon buying the villa to house sensitive information related to his work.

  Only he knew about it.

  Not the children or his parents.

  Not even Sabirah.

  Ziad lifted the lanyard from his neck. For a moment, he rubbed the drive with his thumb. That same chill from earlier washed over him. He shivered and placed it in the compartment. Maybe after they solved this case, he’d laugh about his paranoia. Not now. He returned the tile and rug to their places.

  Once cloaked in a thobe and a pair of sandals, he joined his family downstairs.

  Papa gazed at him with that disapproving stare that would have raised his anger if he hadn’t realized the way he’d wronged his youngest son. Mama chatted with Sabirah and Rani, their housekeeper. The boys huddled around the television as they played video games.

  “Khalid,” Ziad softly called.

  Eyes downcast, his youngest rose and approached his father.

  Ziad knelt in front of him. “Son, I am sorry for the way I snapped at you. I was tired, but that’s no excuse.” He reached up and pushed a lock of downy hair off his son’s forehead. “I love you.”

  Khalid threw his arms around his neck. “I love you, too, Papa.”

  Tears sprang to Ziad’s eyes over those simple words. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Papa nodding in approval. He pulled back. “It’s time for evening prayers.”

  Ziad, his father, and his sons lined up and faced Mecca. Behind him, Sabirah, Rani, and Mama covered their hair. As his lips formed the words, a feeling he could only describe as serenity overtook him.

  An hour and a half later, Ziad’s yawns came every minute as he finally crawled into bed.

  Downstairs, Sabirah laughed at something Mama said.

  He closed his eyes and fell into a deep, hard sleep.

  He awoke and stared at the top of a tent. Screams erupted. He bolted to his feet and burst into the hot night air. He stood not in his suite but in an oasis. In front of him, his family lay in pools of blood.

  His eyes snapped open. Sweat sheened his forehead. His breath came out in a hard gasp.

  Beside him, Sabirah slept in a nightgown. She remained oblivious to his nightmare.

  It’s okay. I’m fine. I
m safe. So is my family. Ever so gently, he took her in his arms and molded his long frame to her petite one. He buried his nose in her hair as he repeated those four sentences to himself. Deep inside, he wasn’t so sure he believed it.

  3

  Early Saturday afternoon, Ziad slicked back his damp hair and gazed at himself in the mirror of the master suite’s bathroom. What a great way to begin the work week. Midday prayers. A meal with Sabirah. A bit of romancing afterward. Well, a lot. A grin teased his lips. His cheeks heated, and he opened the door to the bedroom.

  His beloved pulled the covers up and fluffed the pillows. Now, she wore a deep blue caftan rather than the western-style dress she’d sported when he’d arrived home for lunch. She almost ran into his arms.

  Blessing. That’s what Ben would have said. Ziad held her close and kissed her on the top of her head as he wove his fingers through her damp tresses. “We are so perfect for each other, habibti. Allah be praised he brought us together!”

  She pulled back. Her lips trembled, and tears pooled in her beautiful, dark eyes.

  “What is it?”

  Her hand shot to her face as she turned away.

  He put a hand on her shoulder. “What’s wrong? Did you and Emma argue last night when she visited?”

  “No, no.” She turned, and her taut features relaxed a little. “Not at all.”

  She drew in a shaky breath.

  He skimmed her cheek with his fingers. “Is it Khalid? You said it’s a mild fever he woke up with this morning.”

  “I…” She shook her head and sighed. “I’m fine. Just much on my mind.”

  He knew to let it rest. She would share when she was ready. And truly, he had to return to work. “I’ll leave early and be back by afternoon prayers.”

  She nodded as she busied herself with straightening the picture of her in her wedding finery that was on his dresser.

  Ziad pulled on his fatigue jacket, then buckled the tactical belt around his waist. After ensuring the strap was secure over his gun, he rubbed her shoulders. “When I get back, I’m sure Khalid will be running around, maybe even in the pool.” He nuzzled her hair. “Look at it this way. You got a day off from work.”

  “True.” Sabirah turned and coiled her arms around his neck. She kissed him until his knees trembled.

  Ziad seriously considered calling in sick for the rest of the day. “I love you, habibti. I’ll see you tonight.”

  He headed down the hall to the bedroom of his youngest. He peeped inside. Surrounded by toys and stuffed animals, Khalid slept on the floor with a blanket over him. He’d tucked his favorite toy, a stuffed dog Ben had given him, underneath his chin.

  Ziad knelt and kissed his hair before retreating downstairs. Mama and Papa had gone for the morning, as had Rani, so he let himself out and settled behind the wheel of his Land Rover. As he passed through the villa’s auto gate and turned onto the highway leading to SANG headquarters, his mind switched to work. A light load today. A staff meeting, then going through those blasted forms Prince Yasin had sent.

  Once at the office, he passed through security.

  As he walked by Sami’s cracked door, murmuring caught his attention. He paused and listened.

  His executive officer talked in low, urgent tones. Had they received a lead on the case?

  Sami would tell him when he was ready.

  Once settled behind his desk, Ziad checked his e-mail. Nothing of great import. All the better since he planned to leave early.

  He glanced at his chrome in-box. A single sheet of paper sat atop some files. Ah. He nodded in approval as he noted a schedule of Prince Yasin’s activities for the next few days. Sami must have printed it. He picked up a couple of folders. All routine paperwork. Nothing he couldn’t handle tomorrow. Right then, he needed to prepare for his weekly staff meeting.

  “Sir.”

  Ziad glanced up from his notes. “What is it?”

  Sami gazed at him. “Um, sir, we, uh, have a problem.”

  “A problem? Too many boxes to review? We can pull in additional staff.”

  Sami fidgeted with the pen he held. “It’s not that.”

  Ziad rested his elbows on the desk. “Then what is it?”

  “It, um, well…” Sami shifted from foot to foot and stared out the window next to his boss. “It has to do with our suspects.”

  Ziad’s chest tightened. “What about them?”

  “Uh, I don’t know—”

  “Out with it, Major.”

  Sami’s eyes widened. He took a step back. “They’re gone.”

  “What do you mean, they’re gone?”

  “They’re… not there.”

  Ziad jumped to his feet. He pushed past his startled executive officer and blasted through the door leading to the outside. The bright sunlight nearly seared his retinas. Squinting, he raced down two buildings to the SANG brig.

  Sami followed on his heels. “I went to check on them and—”

  “Quiet!”

  “Yes, sir.” Sami nearly ran into him as he flung open the door.

  Behind a ratty desk, the receptionist scrambled upright and saluted.

  Ziad ignored him. He raced down the hall to the three cells holding his prisoners.

  Nothing but concrete, single beds, sinks, and toilets. Could they have been transferred to Riyadh without his permission?

  He dashed to the small office of the officer in charge of the brig. “Captain!”

  The captain, a wiry man a good ten centimeters shorter than Ziad, met him with a salute. “Sir!”

  Ziad jerked his head toward the door. “Where are the prisoners?”

  “We released them.”

  Ziad’s eyes narrowed. “By whose orders?”

  The captain frowned. “G—General al-Talil’s orders, sir.”

  Ziad leaned on his hands against the desk. “The general left this morning and is in Riyadh until tomorrow.”

  The captain scooted backward. “Sir, I saw him with my own eyes.” He picked up a clipboard and leafed through it as if to reassure himself. “He signed for their release at 1115 hours.”

  “Let me see.”

  “What?”

  Ziad held out his hand and snapped his fingers. “The forms, Captain.”

  He handed him the clipboard.

  Ziad studied them. Messy handwriting, so unlike the neat, curving loops of his superior. Release time: 1115 hours. He checked the signature. Illegible. “What did this ‘general’ look like?”

  The captain chewed on his lip. “Like General al-Talil.”

  “We’ll check. I want to look at the video of this lobby.”

  The captain’s cheeks reddened. “It… has not worked in a month.”

  Ziad cocked his head. “A month? Why not?”

  “I hadn’t placed the work order yet.”

  With a low growl, Ziad tossed the clipboard onto the desk. “Why didn’t you contact me?”

  “I didn’t think it was necessary.”

  Ziad crowded him against the wall. “No one should have signed them out without my express permission.”

  The captain’s eyes widened. “But the general—”

  “I. Don’t. Care!” Ziad whipped around. “Major!”

  Sami cowered near the door.

  Ziad stalked toward him. “Come with me. We’re calling General al-Talil. Now.”

  They retreated to his office.

  Sami jumped when he slammed the door. Once the dial tone filled the room, Ziad punched in the number for General al-Talil’s cell phone. He messed up, then tried again.

  “General al-Talil.”

  Ziad glanced at Sami, who hung his head. “Sir, Colonel al-Kazim and Major Rafiq here. We have an issue.”

  “What is it?”

  Ziad paced around his desk. “The suspects were released without my approval. The captain of the brig said you signed for them.”

  “I did what?”

  Ziad repeated himself.

  “Impossible. I didn’t co
me into the office because I took the ten o’clock shuttle to Riyadh.”

  Ziad quickly did the math in his head. The general would have left for the airport straight from his house. “I agree, sir. Someone impersonated you.”

  The line fell silent for a few moments. Then came a sigh. “What’s done is done.”

  Ziad threw his hands in the air. “It’s blown the whole case.”

  “Not if we catch them. Do what you need to do to find them. When you do, arrest them and take them immediately to the airport. I’ll have a plane waiting to take them to Riyadh. I’ll be back tomorrow evening, and I’ll expect a report.”

  “Yes, sir.” Ziad hung up and sat down on the corner of his desk. He rubbed his chin as he considered the monumental task before them. “Major.”

  Sami kept his gaze pinned to the concrete floor.

  “Sami, look at me,” Ziad softly added.

  Like a whipped dog, Sami met his gaze with a sideways glance.

  Ziad returned to his chair. “Send out teams to stake out our suspects’ houses. Their mosques. Gyms. Unit buildings here at Headquarters. Coffee houses. Anywhere where they might go.”

  Sami finally met his gaze, if only for a brief second. “Already done, sir. That’s what I was doing when you got back from lunch.”

  “Good.” He clapped him on the shoulder. “Then sit tight.”

  His executive officer slipped from the office.

  Ziad focused on the single sheet of paper he’d left on the blotter. Prince Yasin’s schedule. Had he… Who else would have done such a thing? Prince Yasin had stashed the drugs in his own warehouse. He’d do anything to thwart the investigation.

  Ziad grabbed his beret from the blotter and yanked his keys from his desk drawer. He bolted through the door.

  Sami nearly ran into him in the hallway. “Sir, where are you going?”

  “To see the prince.”

  “Shouldn’t we—”

  “I’m following a lead.” Ziad stalked toward the outside door. “Isn’t that what as military policemen we’re supposed to do?”

  “But the general said—”

  “I’m doing my job,” Ziad whirled on him, “and that is following all possible leads. And yours?” He jabbed him in the chest. “You get those teams reporting to you and let me know what they find out when I return.”

 
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