Exiled heart, p.31

Exiled Heart, page 31

 

Exiled Heart
 



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  Ben resumed his seat. His brow knit as he stared at his hands. They’d begun shaking, and he wrapped them around his cup. “She’s critical. Pretty bad internal injuries. The doc’s addressing those right now. The next twenty-four hours…” He placed his hands flat on the table and hung his head. “She broke her back, Ziad.”

  “What?”

  “Some vertebrae midway between her shoulders and hips—don’t ask me which ones—were fractured during the crash. Bone is pressing on her spinal cord, so she’s paralyzed from the waist down.”

  Ziad’s heart plummeted. “I—”

  “They’re going to operate once all of the swelling goes down. Right now, they’re using drugs to try and reduce it. Once she wakes up from the surgery, they should be able to tell pretty quickly if she’ll be able to walk.”

  If she woke up.

  Claire.

  He flinched as if branded by a hot iron. He jumped up. “I need to be alone.”

  “Ziad—”

  “Leave me be. Please.” With that, he bolted to a small courtyard off the café.

  He fled to a far corner and collapsed on a bench. Resting his elbows on his knees, he gripped his hair so hard his scalp burned. In Arabic, he whispered, “Why, Allah? Why? Why punish her? What do you want with me? I know I can’t have her as my wife. Don’t punish her for my bad works!”

  He shuddered as he took a deep breath. “What do I need to do to get her back?”

  No answer came. Not that he expected it. Not after everything tonight.

  Ziad began shivering since he’d left his windbreaker in the car. His temples throbbed. He straightened and rotated his neck. That helped, if only a little. How much time had passed? His watch told him almost an hour. He needed to return to Claire’s family.

  An idea hit him. He detoured to the hospital’s gift shop. A vending machine of artificial flowers sat outside its darkened windows.

  He fished a five from his wallet and inserted it.

  In return, he received a bouquet of silk flowers.

  Arrangement in hand, he strode to the security desk in the main lobby. “Do you perhaps have a pair of scissors I could borrow?”

  The guard shot him a look. “You want what?”

  “Scissors.”

  She handed them over.

  Ziad undid the tape holding the bouquet together and extricated a red silk rose. After trimming the stem, he offered the other flowers to the guard. “For your help.”

  She chuckled. “Gee, thanks, Officer.”

  When he arrived on the second floor, no one was there. Panic threatened his calm. He dashed to the nurse’s desk. “Claire Montgomery—”

  “Third floor,” a nurse told him. “They moved her to ICU.”

  He dashed up another floor.

  Everyone huddled together on couches and chairs in a corner. Ziad slouched beside Ben. “How is she?”

  “They got her stabilized enough to move her up here. She’s heavily sedated now to keep her from moving.” Ben sighed. “Delia’s taking Mom and Dad home. Faith’s staying with them tonight. Em and I will be here. Grace is on her way from Clemson. Allie’s got sick kids at home.”

  “We’ve got you on the list to see her,” Emma said. She uncurled from her tuck. “C’mon. I’ll show you where she is.”

  After announcing them, Emma led him down a hall with sliding glass doors on either side. She pointed to one on the left. “Come out when you’re ready.”

  With that, she left him alone.

  A nurse noted Claire’s vitals. With a small smile, she slipped away.

  His love lay stone still on the bed. A large bandage covered the cut above her eyebrow, and bruising had swollen her eye nearly closed and left a menagerie of black and blue behind. Her dark hair fanned out on the pillow. He sifted some through his fingers. “Claire, my habibti, my sweetheart.”

  He took her hand. In Arabic, he whispered, “I love you so much. I want you to live. I want to marry you. To be with you…”

  Who was he kidding? That could never happen.

  He pulled over a chair and sat down. “No matter what happens, you’ll always be my sweetheart. My habibti. No one else on this earth will have my affection. No one.”

  He pressed her hand against his face.

  The nurse touched him on the shoulder. “Officer al-Kazim, I’m Jeanie, her nurse.”

  “How is she doing?”

  “She’s holding her own.” She made some more notations on a chart. “She’s here with us, even if it doesn’t seem that way. We have her heavily sedated so she won’t move and injure her spine further. I’m sorry, but we’re getting ready to bring in a new patient. We always ask everyone to leave while we do.”

  He nodded. He pushed to his feet, then slid the rose between Claire’s fingers. “To know I love you, habibti. That you will be mine always.”

  Ziad bent and kissed her on the forehead just above the bandage. He deeply inhaled. Even in the hospital, she hadn’t lost that fresh scent of soap and shampoo.

  When he returned to the lobby, he dropped onto a nearby chair. Nausea joined the headache. “Where’s Emma?”

  “Bathroom.” Ben leaned his head against the wall with a small thump. “She’s scared.”

  “I am as well.”

  Emma returned.

  He closed his eyes. An hour passed with hardly a word between him and Ben. Then another.

  “Ziad, hi.”

  Detective Rothschild stood there.

  Ziad rose. “Sir, have you finished?”

  “We have. Is the family here?”

  “I’m family,” Ben said as he did the same. “FBI Special Agent Ben Evans. Claire’s brother-in-law.” Emma joined him. “This is my wife Emma. The others have gone home. What do you have?”

  The detective led them down the hall to a conference room.

  Funny how he didn’t include Ziad. No, he wasn’t family.

  No matter. He knew what had happened, had witnessed it firsthand.

  Rather than driving to District Headquarters, he headed to his apartment. By the time he unlocked the door, his stomach fairly heaved. He bolted into the downstairs bathroom and vomited into the toilet. Moaning, he sat back with his head resting against the wall. Maybe he could sleep on the floor that night. No. He needed a bed. Somehow, he made it upstairs.

  Forget his nightly ablutions. He slumped onto the mattress and closed his eyes. The events of that night twisted in his mind.

  Claire screamed as she fell.

  Glass shattered.

  Blood streamed down her face. “Ziad, save me!”

  “Habibti, reach for my hand. Reach!”

  Their fingertips brushed before they both tumbled into the abyss.

  He came to with the soft tinkling of a stream.

  Claire sat in a white caftan with Sabirah across from her. A set of scales sat between them, a C etched in it this time instead of a Z.

  Ziad sat up. “Claire, no. Not you.”

  Sabirah began placing stones one by one onto the scales. Many on the Hasana’at tray, but her Sayia’at tray sagged.

  Claire bowed her head.

  “No!” Ziad shouted.

  His eyes flew open, and his chest heaved. This time, cold sweat drenched his uniform. He nearly ripped it off and slammed his hand onto the ceiling fan’s switch.

  The air cooled his body, but his mind churned. He flopped face first onto the bed as he tried to process the dream. His heart sank. Not even Claire—who believed in Isa as her Savior—was safe from the pits of hell.

  Despair crashed over him.

  Oh, he wished he could take her place!

  Claire will be all right.

  He raised his head. Had someone spoken?

  Would she?

  He doubted. And if she died, she’d suffer eternally.

  Just like him.

  38

  The next day, Ziad stared at the information in a folder Detective Rothschild had left for him. He’d worked fast in the twenty or so h
ours since Claire’s accident. To Ziad, it read like a crime novel, including the suspect’s aliases.

  John Brown.

  Reginald Dalton.

  Eric Johnson.

  Floyd Wright.

  Mustapa Amin.

  Huffing out a breath, Ziad focused on the window. Muted sunlight struggled to break through gray clouds blanketing the area. Finally, he returned his attention to the folder. Detective Rothschild had worked backward from the scene of the crime. Someone had seen the carjacking and called the police. In the previous two weeks, hospital employees noticed Brown lurking around the intersection where Claire traveled. Ben told the detective about Claire’s car being in the shop for body work because someone had rammed it in a parking lot. Surveillance footage from the shopping center showed it happening. Clearly, Brown had planned his crime well.

  “There you are.” Detective Rothschild tapped on the door frame. He joined him, as did Angie Rogers. “Angie, you know Ziad, right?”

  “I do.” Angie’s dark curls bobbed. “How’s Claire?”

  Ziad recalled his earlier phone call to Ben. “Holding her own. They will operate first thing in the morning. Ben took Emma home for some rest.”

  The detective nodded to the folder. “I guess you saw the info I left for you. What are your thoughts?”

  “I have my suspicions.” Ziad took a deep breath. How much should he reveal? All. It might ensure that Brown remained in jail. He nodded toward Detective Rothschild’s laptop. “May I use your computer for a minute?”

  “Of course.” The detective shoved the laptop in his direction.

  Ziad located and printed a picture of Prince Yasin. He held it up. “I believe John Brown is linked to this man.”

  Detective Rothschild frowned. “How so?”

  “That is what we need to ascertain.” Ziad rose. “I would like to be in the interrogation room with you, if you do not mind.”

  “We can do that. But let me take the lead, all right?”

  He nodded.

  “Let’s go.” The detective led the way down the stairs to the second floor, where the interrogation rooms were housed. They paused in an observation room.

  Ziad rubbed his chin as he studied their suspect.

  Brown, his right arm encased in a cast, slouched on a chair. His left wrist was manacled to a three-foot chain attached to a bar on the table. He drummed his fingers on the roughened top. Snake tattoos coated the pale skin of his bald head. More snakes wrapped their ink bodies around his arms.

  “Medusa,” Angie muttered.

  Ziad glanced at her. “So sorry?”

  “A Greek goddess who had a head full of snakes. If you looked at her without a mirror, you’d turn to stone.”

  Interesting.

  She shifted. “Alan, I’ll observe from here since this is your case.”

  “This way.” The detective nodded to Ziad, and they slipped into the room.

  Ziad leaned against the wall next to the door.

  Brown, his eyes hooded like the reptiles adorning his scalp, lifted his chin. “I ain’t got nothing to say.”

  Detective Rothschild Mirandized him again, to which Brown replied, “I told that public defender I didn’t want him in here.”

  “Your choice.” The detective folded his arms and leaned his elbows on the table. “We pulled your prints. Sent them through our databases. Seems you either have a multiple personality disorder or a number of aliases.” He listed them, then added, “You’ve got a rap sheet that could fill this room. Assault and battery. Robbery. Attempted murder. All in the DC area. You violated parole by leaving Virginia.”

  Brown shrugged. The corner of his mouth curled. “I’ll get out.”

  “Don’t count on it. Not after the judge revoked your bail today. Why did you, who has committed quite a bit of crime in the DC area, come down to Charleston for a simple carjacking?”

  Brown snorted. “Maybe I needed a vacation.”

  “We haven’t talked to the vic yet. We’ll do that soon—provided she survives. She dies, you go down for Murder One, understand? We know you planned this well, and that’s only with a few hours of work.” Detective Rothschild tapped his folder. “You loitered at the hospital a lot. We’re starting to see a pattern. You were following her. Learning her routines. Who knows what we’ll find later?”

  “Yeah? Maybe she and I have common interests.”

  Detective Rothschild’s eyes narrowed. “What? Like crocheting or something?”

  “Look, Detective.” Brown nearly spat that word. “I never knew the woman before yesterday. I saw opportunity. I took it. But you ain’t gonna pin anything on me that it was planned. Just as dusk can’t touch dawn, you can’t touch me!”

  Ziad stilled. Oh, too well did he remember that remark coming from Prince Yasin’s lips over a year and a half before. He opened his folder and glanced at the prince’s picture. An idea came into his head. “Detective Rothschild, may I?”

  Questions formed in the detective’s eyes, but he rose. “Have at it.”

  With that, he exchanged places with Ziad.

  “Who are you?” Brown asked. “You ain’t no detective.”

  “First responder on the scene.” Ziad fished a pack of cigarettes from his windbreaker. He lit one and blew the smoke toward the overhead lights.

  Brown stared at the white cylinder. His eyes began gleaming. Was he salivating?

  Ziad bit back his smile. “Would you like a smoke?”

  “Yeah, man.”

  Ziad held out the pack.

  The chain clinked along the table as Brown extended his left hand and took one.

  The tail of a tattoo peeked between the knuckles of his ring and pinkie fingers. Score. Ziad offered his lighter. “Better?”

  Brown sighed, slouched, and blew out a stream.

  Ziad opened his folder. “I am curious. Do you know this man?”

  He placed Prince Yasin’s photograph on the table, then studied the suspect’s face.

  Brown’s eyes widened. His mouth slacked.

  But only for a second.

  He quickly smoothed his reaction into disinterest. His feet shifted as if he wanted to run.

  Ziad waited a few moments. “I see you know him.”

  “Maybe.”

  “It… struck a chord with you. I believe that is how you say it. How so?”

  Silence.

  “Mr. Brown, we can sit here for the rest of the night if necessary. And the next day. And the next since your bail was revoked. Far better to discuss this now. You hand us a name, perhaps there can be a deal.”

  More silence.

  Detective Rothschild stirred. “Mr. Brown, if our vic dies, chances are really good you’ll get the death penalty. He’s right. You talk, we talk to the Circuit Solicitor on your behalf. Maybe she’d let you continue your ‘vacation’ here in Charleston rather than let the Virginia authorities extradite you.”

  Brown puffed away as if considering his options. A minute ticked by. Then two.

  Ziad let him. The uncomfortable silence would force him to talk.

  Finally, Brown cleared his throat. “I don’t know his name.”

  Ziad frowned. “Why not?”

  “Look.” Brown stabbed his cigarette on the scarred table top. “You know my Islamic name is Mustapa Amin. I went to services at my mosque the day after Thanksgiving.”

  Ziad nodded.

  “So this dude.” He tapped the printout. “He approached me. He had an accent like yours, said he’d heard I could be of service to him.”

  “How so?”

  “To do a job for him.” Brown clamped his jaw shut.

  “We can help you, but first, you must help us.”

  “Look.” Brown leaned forward. “You gotta believe me when I say I’d walked away from doing stuff like that. I knew I could get caught.”

  Ziad frowned. “Then why risk your freedom?”

  “He offered me money.”

  “Like how much?”

  “Try tw
o million.”

  Ziad stilled. A slow burning began in his gut. The nerve of Prince Yasin! He threw around millions as if they were dollar bills. Suddenly, he realized Brown had started really talking. Focus, Ziad. Now.

  “I had visions of going down to the Caribbean. You know,” Brown smiled through the blue haze of cigarette smoke, “living there. Finding me a woman. I took it.”

  “Did he tell you his name?”

  “Nope. And he didn’t ask me mine, instead said he knew I was the one because of that tattoo you’ve been staring at. I figured he was someone important if he had that much money to spend. And he told me I wouldn’t get caught. Just as dusk can’t touch dawn, I wouldn’t get caught. ‘Course, he hadn’t counted on that woman.” Brown uttered an epithet about Claire.

  Ziad’s jaw tightened.

  “He told me to kidnap her. Take her somewhere, rape her, and drop her off on the doorstep of this guy’s apartment.”

  Something cold unfurled inside of Ziad. “Whose apartment?”

  “A guy name Ziad al-Kazim. He gave me the…” His gaze drifted to Ziad’s name badge. His eyes widened. He jerked back, and the chain holding him to the table snapped taut. “Dude, I—I—I didn’t know. I…”

  Ziad gripped the table so hard his hands hurt. Brown said more, but he didn’t hear him through the noise in his head. He tensed, coiled energy ready to strike. No, he couldn’t. Far better to leave now than to be charged with assault and battery, especially in the presence of the detective. He pushed to his feet. “You will get your punishment. I suggest you give a full confession. Perhaps then the judge will have mercy upon you. And perhaps Allah will have the same on your soul.”

  With that, he stepped into the hallway and leaned his head against the wall with a small thump. He glanced at his hands. They trembled. He clenched them into fists and stuffed them into the pockets of his windbreaker.

  Detective Rothschild joined him, and they headed toward the stairs and his office. “Good job. Angie’s working on getting us some info. Let’s talk before I finish debriefing Mr. Brown.”

  Angie breezed into his office and set her laptop down on a small table. “Ziad, our analysts tapped into ICE databases and looked up your prince.”

  Detective Rothschild leaned against the edge of his desk. “How so?”

 
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