Exiled heart, p.5

Exiled Heart, page 5

 

Exiled Heart
 



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  Ben withdrew into the shadows as more backup arrived, this time in the form of a team with a battering ram. The clang of metal on metal echoed through the thick air.

  The pedestrian gate crumpled inward.

  Most of the team rushed inside.

  Heart pounding, Ben approached the guards.

  One of the soldiers noticed him. His hand shot to the rifle slung over his shoulder.

  Ben raised his hands and called in Arabic, “I mean no harm.”

  “Who are you?”

  “Ben Evans. American FBI. May I show you my ID?” Ben kept his hands visible and his movements slow. “It is in my pants pocket.”

  The soldier nodded.

  Ben slid out his cred pack. He flipped it open. “See? I am American FBI. May you take me to your commanding officer?”

  The sergeant slung his rifle back over his shoulder. “He’s inside.”

  “What is going on?”

  “We got a call about gunshots at this house.” The sergeant kept his gaze focused on Ben.

  “I do not understand.”

  From within the villa, someone shouted. Feet scuffled. Two soldiers dragged Ziad, his hands cuffed behind him, through the pedestrian gate.

  Ben stared. “Ziad! What happened?”

  His friend stumbled as if not balanced. Blood from a head wound covered his face and streaked his fatigue jacket. His normally slicked-back hair stood out in spikes.

  Ben bolted toward him. “Ziad!”

  Ziad forced his escorts to stop. “Ben!”

  “What—”

  “Shut up.” The commanding officer shoved him back. Over his shoulder, he called, “Get him out of here.”

  Ben held his ground. “Why are you arresting him?”

  The officer glared at him. “Murder—of his entire family.”

  “Let me talk to him.”

  “I’m taking him to the—”

  “Please! Sir,” Ben softly added when he remembered his precarious situation. “Sir, if I may. I humbly ask for your generosity in that regard.”

  The officer stared at him, then nodded. “Let him through.”

  Ben knew he had maybe a minute. “Ziad, what can I do?’

  “Call my lawyer. Adnan Rahman.”

  “Get him out of here! Now!” The commanding officer shoved Ben so hard that he staggered. “Out of my way before I arrest you too.”

  Ben knew better than to argue and create a potential international incident. He backed toward the Montgomery villa.

  A van carrying Ziad sped away. Some of the policemen left while others began milling around.

  Sadness ripped through Ben. He glanced toward the upper portico. He didn’t see Emma or her Aunt Janet, only their fingers as they clung to the latticework in stunned silence. He faced the al-Kazim villa again. With shaking fingers, he pulled out his cell phone and dialed the number of his administrative assistant. “Carol? Hey, I need your help. Could you find the number of an Adnan Rahman?”

  #####

  “For the first time since I arrived three years ago, I don’t know what to do.” A week later, Ben sat in Sami Rafiq’s office at SANG headquarters. He rested his elbows on his knees and stared at the painted concrete floor. Over the quiet hum of the air conditioner in the window, he said, “When I visited Ziad this morning, I never saw someone as hopeless as he was.”

  Sami focused on his desktop. The tendons in the tops of his hands worked as he clenched and unclenched them where they clasped together. He shook his head and in English with the barest of accents said, “This is a frame job.”

  “Don’t I know it.” Ben straightened. “I wanted to wipe the smirk from that brig captain’s face.”

  “Ziad dressed him down last Saturday. Big time. Once the local police transferred him here since he’s a SANG officer, he personally requested to be on day duty.”

  Ben’s cheeks heated. “Scumbag.”

  “I’m serious about it being a frame job.” Sami reached into a drawer and pulled out a thick accordion file. “The medical examiner is a friend of mine.” A smile appeared, then vanished. “He’s like I am, a Saudi-American who returned to take care of his ailing grandfather. And now, he has no family here save for him. Because of that, we’ve become friends, and he provided me with his report on the autopsies. All eight died of multiple gunshot wounds even though Sabirah had a knife in her chest.”

  “Any ballistics reports yet?”

  Sami shook his head. “Those will take a bit, maybe even months. I can say that the number of bullet holes indicates way more bullets expended than he had in his gun. The ME placed time of death anywhere from 1800 hours to 2000 hours.”

  Ben jumped to his feet and peered over Sami’s shoulder. “This is purely circumstantial evidence with no motive, right? I mean, Ziad loved his family.”

  “But the SANG captain investigating the case has no love for Ziad. Their personalities clash too much, and he’s willing to formulate and believe anything, no matter how flimsy.”

  Ben ran his hands through his hair as he thought about that one. “Ziad said he called Sabirah when he was in al-Sharana. He called me too. Can we verify that?”

  A quick smile flashed across Sami’s face. “Already on it. I may live in Saudi now, but I understand the need for speed in something like this.”

  “Let’s hope the cell companies do.”

  Sami scowled. “Don’t count on it.”

  Ben stared out the window. Temps had soared to above a hundred, and the parking lot shimmered in the heat. “He also said he called Sabirah again after he headed out, around seven or so. And he stopped for petrol. Y’all need to talk with the gas station guys. See if someone saw him up there. And get a list of who was at Prince Yasin’s majlis. If we can place Ziad there at seven, then we’re golden.”

  Sami sighed. “Not so fast, my friend.”

  Ben whipped around. “What do you mean?”

  “In the States, we say innocent until proven guilty. Not here.”

  Ben swallowed hard. “Guilty until proven innocent.”

  “Exactly. Courts follow sharia law and are very capricious. If the judge hearing his case has a bad morning, he might declare Ziad guilty despite the evidence. And this is a capital offense. He’d have three mandatory appeals that could take fifteen years. In other words, he’d be beheaded or die a pauper since the al-Talil clan has essentially disowned him.”

  Ben rubbed his chin as he considered the dire outlook. He faced the window again. “It can’t get that far.”

  “How can we avoid it?”

  “Weight of evidence.” Ben turned and tapped the accordion folder. “We get the ballistics reports. Crime scene photos. Anything and everything. We take enough evidence to the prosecutor so he has no choice but to drop the charges. No prosecutor will go to a judge with a case full of holes.”

  “Insha’ Allah.”

  “Sami, it’ll work.” His phone began chiming. He ignored it. “We do our homework—”

  “You mean I do my homework.” Sami laughed without humor.

  “True. I sometimes forget I’m not in the States. I’ll take a look at it with you. Then you take it to Adnan. He’ll know what to do.”

  Sami shrugged. “One can hope.”

  “He will.” Ben’s phone chimed again, and he checked the number. Work. He had to get back to the office for an afternoon meeting. “Look. I’ve got to go. Keep me posted?”

  Sami nodded. His gaze radiated determination. “You know I will.”

  “We’ll see what happens.” Ben opened the door. “That’s the best we can do right now. Talk to you later.” He checked out, then headed outside. The heat nearly bowled him over. As he slid behind the wheel of his white Subaru Forester, he murmured, “Ziad, we’re doing our best. Hopefully, it’ll be enough.”

  6

  March 2010

  From where he lay on the bed in his prison cell, Ziad stared at the ceiling. Nothing had changed. Not in the days, weeks, and eleven months since he’d
become an unwilling guest of the SANG brig. What did it matter? With Sabirah and his family gone, he had nothing left.

  Footsteps approached.

  He sat up.

  They receded down the hall, just as they had since the interrogations had ceased shortly after his arrest. Elbows on his knees, he winced as he combed his fingers through greasy, long hair almost to his shoulders. And his beard? Heavy and thick since they’d confiscated the razors that had been part of the latest care package brought by Ben a couple of weeks before.

  He reached for his Koran, which sat on a table made of concrete blocks. He thumbed through the verses. Nothing in those words comforted him. Ziad rested his head against the wall and closed his eyes. The trial loomed a week away. At least when he was beheaded, he’d join his beloved in death.

  The gray of the ceiling blurred. Ziad dreamed in flashes, like bits of a movie popping through darkness. He sat in a garden where a stream emanated from the base of a tree sporting vivid green leaves and bursting with fruit.

  Sabirah sat on her knees across from him. His love dressed in a white caftan while he wore a white thobe. Her eyes sparkled as she gestured to a set of scales made of gold between them. The base contained the letter Z etched in English. Two trays, one labeled Hasana’at and the other Sayia’at.

  More darkness, then light.

  Sabirah cradled a gray stone in her hand. She placed it on the Hasana’at tray.

  Something thumped.

  Ziad’s eyes flew open. “Sabirah!”

  She’d vanished, just like his hopes and dreams almost a year before.

  He lay on his side. The hard concrete beneath the thin mattress bit into his hip and shoulder.

  His Koran now lay on the floor. Chalk one more up for Sayia’at. With an automatic, muttered prayer for forgiveness, Ziad reached for it. His world swam before him, and he tumbled off the bed. With a groan, he pushed himself upright and set the book on the mattress. He ran his hand along his ribcage where a bruise already formed due to his thinness from barely eating during the past several months.

  He cocked his head. More voices in the hallway. And footsteps. Someone was coming.

  Ziad hauled himself onto the bed.

  The lock rattled in the door.

  He stared at the ground.

  When the door swung open, the captain of the brig stood there. Not the one who hated him but a new one as of a few weeks ago. “Colonel al-Kazim, you have three visitors. Come with me, please.”

  Ziad rose, and his world tilted. He swayed but steadied. Almost automatically, he held out his wrists for shackling.

  “No need for those,” the captain said. “Your friends are here to see you.”

  Maybe Ben? He was due for his weekly visit.

  He shuffled in front of the captain to an interrogation room.

  “As-salaam ‘alayka.” Ben stepped forward and greeted him in typical Saudi fashion with a long handshake.

  Sami too.

  “Wa-alaykumu as-salaam.” His voice fell flat as he exchanged greetings with his former executive officer. He had no energy left to greet his attorney.

  Adnan Rahman only nodded, then set his briefcase on a square table and undid the clasps. “Your trial is still set for the eighth.”

  Ziad slouched in a chair. “I know.”

  “It is not going to go to trial,” Ben said in Arabic. He grinned—positively grinned.

  Adnan took off his glasses and polished them with the edge of his red and white gutra. “The three of us visited the prosecutor this morning. This time, we had the last piece of evidence to convince him to drop the charges.”

  Oh, why couldn’t excitement greet that bit of news? Ziad tried to focus on his lawyer. “What?”

  “The cell phone records.” Ben took several papers from Adnan and laid them on the table. “Sami said it would take time to get these, and he was not kidding.”

  “Eleven months.” Sami shook his head. “But worth the wait. They pinpoint your location in al-Sharana and near the petrol station when you spoke with Sabirah for the last time.”

  “Couple that with the number of eyewitnesses at the majlis, plus a negative ballistics report, and the prosecutor agreed to drop the charges,” Ben added.

  What? Was he serious? Ziad cocked his head. “I’m—I’m—”

  “Don’t get too excited.” Adnan rummaged around in his briefcase and pulled out a folder. “Your release comes with conditions.”

  Doubt chased away anticipation. He drew in a shaky breath. “I’m afraid to ask.”

  “We talked about this, remember? Tomorrow, before your release, you’ll be publicly flogged.”

  Ziad winced as if the whip had already struck him. Public humiliation and physical pain would complete his punishment for shaming the SANG and Sabirah’s family. “I… I can do that.”

  “Following that, you’ll be exiled from Saudi Arabia.”

  Ziad flinched. Then he remembered a conversation with Ben when his friend had visited a few weeks before. Ben had begun laying out a plan. “Ziad, my friend, we got the ballistics report back last week. Only three bullets match your gun. The rest are from an unknown weapon.”

  Ziad hunched forward with his elbows on the table. “That’s still enough to convict me since one of those went through Sabirah and my prints were on my gun.”

  “I know. That is why we need those cell phone records.” Ben’s jaw clinched. Switching to English, he continued, “Even if we get you released, you’re probably going to be exiled.”

  Confusion washed over Ziad’s muddled brain. “Why? I do not understand. This is my home. Upholding the throne has been my life. My life! How can they—”

  “Retribution.” Ben laced his fingers together on top of the table. “Adnan and I have talked with General al-Talil. He brought up a salient point. He fears additional retribution. Your sister fears the same.”

  Ziad’s head sagged. He couldn’t argue, not when his brother-in-law, in his one visit to the prison shortly after Ziad’s arrest, had spent two hours haranguing him for shaming the family.

  “Thing is, this is permanent,” Ben added.

  “What?”

  “Ziad!”

  He snapped back to the present.

  Adnan stared at him. “Did you hear me?”

  “Uh, no.”

  Adnan shook his head. “You’re to completely divest yourself of Saudi Arabia by selling your house, your rental property, anything you own, and removing your funds from the banking system.”

  Pain seared Ziad’s heart, and he gasped. “Please!” He hated the desperation in his voice. “I’ll do anything to stay here. Anything! Even—”

  “It’s a complete divestment,” Adnan said.

  Ben briefly touched his arm.

  Ziad’s world reeled. He closed his eyes. “But… where would I go?”

  Ben shifted. “We talked about this a couple of weeks ago.”

  What? Time had run together for Ziad. Two weeks? Or earlier? No wonder he’d forgotten. “Forgive me. I am not remembering.”

  Ben leaned forward and continued in Arabic, “I have been thinking about this for a while, and I started talking to some of the guys at the consulate. Look. You have a great reputation there. The staff was more than willing to work to get you a special immigrant visa. It is one reserved for people who worked with our government and are in mortal danger if they stay in their home country. You worked with us on several occasions, especially those related to radical Islamic terrorists. Since we helped you with the Zap bust and your family was murdered, we thought you were eligible.”

  Now, he remembered. “But I’m not a refugee.” Wrong. He had no country now. “But in Charleston, what would I do? Certainly not sweep floors for the rest of my life.”

  He wrinkled his nose at the thought.

  Ben closed his eyes for a long moment.

  Ziad fought through the haze of the past several days. Vaguely, he recalled Ben’s discussion with him. “We need to talk man to man here.
Sami and I paid the general a visit. We presented to him the exact same evidence as Adnan did to the prosecutor. He agreed with our assessment, but he is nobody’s fool in many ways. Your career in the SANG is finished regardless of the outcome.”

  Even today, nausea tinged Ziad’s stomach. He couldn’t argue with that. A SANG colonel accused of murder—even if found innocent—had tarnished the reputation of the organization. He tuned back into the conversation.

  Once more, Ben spoke Arabic. “But he also recognizes your service, twenty years this summer. With your sick leave, you could honorably retire today with full benefits, including a pension—if you will accept the conditions laid out by the prosecutor.”

  He had no choice. Ziad closed his eyes and took a deep breath. The queasiness remained as he contemplated his next question. “What would I do?”

  “This is what we discussed last week, remember?”

  “I don’t. So sorry.”

  Ben paused, then took a deep breath. At least he didn’t dress him down for words that had fallen into the gray mist of Ziad’s malaise. “When I went to Charleston with Emma last summer, I interviewed with the police department in case my transfer with the FBI did not work out. I ran into the chief by chance, and he invited me to come to his office. We talked. I mentioned you, that you were a great investigator with natural skills and talent. You have deep knowledge of Arabic and Middle Eastern culture. You would make a great reserve officer.”

  Finally, Ziad remembered. He’d be a volunteer, like one of many to fill gaps created due to budgetary issues. But one not allowed to carry a gun or make arrests. That would come in the future. Once he obtained citizenship and the necessary educational credentials, a GED was what Ben had called it. Pity his university degree wouldn’t suffice.

  “Ziad!”

  Irritation pushed at Ben’s voice.

  Ziad’s mind must have wandered again.

  Ben paced around the small conference room. “Look. Charleston is the fourth largest port in the States. The DHS guys plus the police department have been desperate for a native Arabic speaker who is familiar with the culture. And a good detective who operates on hunches and instinct is something that is a natural talent, not something that is learned. Just know I had to come clean with the chief.”

 
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