Exiled heart, p.6

Exiled Heart, page 6

 

Exiled Heart
 



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  Ziad flinched. He stood no chance now.

  “Rest easy, my friend.” Ben resumed his seat. “He reviewed the evidence we had, and he agreed it was a frame job. He is still willing to take a chance with you.”

  “Perhaps I could live off of my pension, then.” Ziad nodded. He could do that. He wouldn’t get paid, but at least he be a reserve officer and work on this GED.

  “Actually, you would need to hold down a job.”

  Something they’d not discussed. And another twist in what had turned out to be a labyrinth of complications. “A job? Why?”

  Ben straightened. “Because a refugee agency is resettling you, you will be expected to work. Normally, they would be the ones to get you that job, but David, Emma’s father and your sponsor, has a client who owns a bunch of convenience stores in and around Charleston. He is holding a clerk position for you in one near the port.”

  Ziad felt the blood drain from his face. “A clerk? As in…”

  No. He couldn’t!

  Ben bowed his head. His jaw twitched. “My friend, I know it may seem like it is beneath you, especially since the wage is not great. But it is a job, one that you do not have to do forever if you do not want to. Work for a few months until you get your GED. Then maybe you can do another job if you do not like it.”

  Ziad could only nod. In a low voice, he asked, “Is that all?”

  “When you are released tomorrow then you will be in my custody both on and off consulate grounds until we leave the country in two weeks.”

  Adnan cleared his throat. “What is your decision, Ziad?”

  Oh, why couldn’t he get rid of the fog in his brain? “I don’t know.”

  Adnan stared at him. “The prosecutor is on his way to the judge’s office. If he leaves today without that agreement signed, the trial will go forth as planned.”

  Ziad drifted to the window. Outside, a merciless sun beat down on the parking lot and bleached out all color. This was his homeland. Or was it? Years ago, Sabirah had become his home. Where she was, so was home. With her gone, his anchor had vanished.

  To go would mean turning his back on his homeland. But to stay meant his homeland would turn its back on him.

  He faced them. “I will. I’ll sign.”

  Ben rose and put his hand on his shoulder. “A difficult decision, my friend.”

  Ziad eased onto his chair at the table. “Where’s the paper?”

  “Here.” Adnan placed it before him as if it were fine china.

  Ziad read through the document. It outlined the conditions for his exile exactly as Adnan and Ben had explained. He signed and dated it.

  The captain and another guard served as witnesses.

  His lawyer tucked the paper, now worth more than all Ziad had in his bank accounts, into his portfolio. “We will see you tomorrow.”

  The three men rose.

  Ziad bolted to his feet. “Please! Let me go with you tonight.”

  In his mind’s eye, a sword flashed in bright sunlight. His chest tightened, and he sucked down panicked breaths.

  Ben must have understood his worry. He gripped him by the shoulders. “My friend, we will be back tomorrow. I promise.”

  Ziad blew out a hard breath and watched them go.

  “Sir, I understand your fear.” That came from the captain. “Insha’ Allah your release will come tomorrow.” He tugged his arm. “Come now. Just one last night.”

  Ziad allowed him to escort him back to his cell. As the bolt slid shut in the door, the same sound echoed in his soul. The die had been cast. The al-Kazim clan was gone now. Never to return to Saudi Arabia. Perhaps gone from the earth. And his own life? His future remained a huge question he didn’t want to answer right then. Or maybe not ever.

  #####

  Pain. It kept Ziad ramrod straight in the consulate’s Ford Explorer Ben drove. Each bump sent a jolt up his spine. During the week since his flogging, Ziad had remained bedridden in Ben’s second bedroom at the consulate. Only that morning had he felt well enough to rise and venture to his villa.

  Now, he wished he hadn’t. As the auto gate swung open, his breath hitched. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea. But he had to gather any belongings he wanted to take before Adnan began overseeing the cleaning out and sale of the villa.

  “You okay, my friend?” Ben asked in English.

  “It is still painful.” Ziad stared at the front porch. The clink of his keys on concrete that fateful night filled his ears. He shuddered.

  “I can call Adnan and have his guys start day after tomorrow.”

  “No.” Ziad shook his head. “I—I need to move forward.”

  “I’ll come with—”

  “Give me a few minutes alone.” Ziad grimaced when he realized how abrupt he sounded. Softly, he added, “Please.”

  “Understood.” Ben cranked up the air conditioner.

  Ziad opened his door. At least the humidity hadn’t begun creeping into the air quite yet. He eased from the leather seat and hobbled to the front stoop. This time, his fingers remained steady, and he entered the foyer.

  The door echoed as it closed behind him, a sound that reminded him of how empty his soul had become. Holding his backpack in front of him like a shield, he stepped into the great room. All nice and neat, just like Sabirah had kept it. Nothing moved, not even the gauzy curtains covering the windows. He avoided glancing at the kitchen where his ordeal had begun.

  Where to start?

  The wing where his parents had lived. Someone had changed the bed and removed the Oriental rug Sami had reported was stained with his father’s blood. What should Ziad take? Pictures, for sure. He had precious few of those thanks to his strict Islamic beliefs. Now, they were his one connection to a life fading to gray. He selected one of his parents together, then found his father’s campaign ribbons for his time in the SANG and the jewelry he’d given Mama when he’d wed Sabirah almost twenty years before.

  His back protested each step down the stairs, across the house, and up the stairs to where his family had lived. He paused in Khalid’s room. They’d removed the creamy carpet since blood had stained it beyond repair. Clean tile glistened in the late afternoon light. He found Khalid’s stuffed dog on top of the toy chest. Ziad’s back shrieked as he crouched and picked it up. He buried his nose in its soft fur. Little boy scent. His eyes filled, and he swallowed his emotion.

  He hobbled to Muhammed Amir’s room. They’d taken the mangled desk and chair. Ziad’s chest tightened. He glanced at the floor, then upward. His oldest lay against the wall, his head and chest pitted with bullet holes and with blood and gore on the walls behind him. Panic seized Ziad. His shoulders heaved. He backed against the door frame.

  Agony seared his spine. He closed his eyes against it.

  When he opened them, Muhammed Amir was gone. So were the bloodstains, most likely washed away or covered over by paint of a cheery pale blue. What should he take? A picture. His son had loved going shooting with his Papa, and Ben had snapped one of them at the range together.

  Ziad went through the rooms of his two other children. He got pictures of both, a boat from Tariq, and a little bridge Basil had made.

  One last stop, one he didn’t want to make. He limped to the master suite and stared. No more Oriental rugs. Their bed, as neatly made as it had been after that last time together they’d shared. Sabirah’s bell-like laughter briefly filled the room. A lump formed in his throat.

  Breathe. Take deep breaths. Get what you must get first, then focus on her. That steadied him. He turned his gaze to the sitting area and the tile that concealed his secret compartment. It still looked the same as the others. Hopefully, the investigators who’d gone through the villa hadn’t found it. How would he kneel without tearing his healing wounds?

  Very carefully.

  Grasping the edge of the couch, he eased onto his knees, then crawled to the tile. Once more, the compartment’s door popped up at the press of all four of his fingers. He nearly sagged to the flo
or as he stared at the jump drive. With shaking fingers, he withdrew it and cradled it in his hand.

  Ziad fisted his fingers around it. A year ago, he’d been so focused on Prince Yasin and arresting him for running Zap in the Kingdom. Hah! What folly. It had cost him the lives of his family, his dreams, and any hope of remaining in Saudi Arabia. I should leave it. It’s cursed and has brought nothing but pain.

  Take it. This time, that voice came in a gentle whisper.

  He lowered his head.

  He stashed it in an inner compartment of his backpack. Ben didn’t have to know about it. Not then. Probably not ever.

  After repeating the process in reverse to get to his feet, Ziad approached his and Sabirah’s dressers. Emotion tightened his chest as he gazed at the photograph she’d given him ten years ago on their wedding anniversary.

  “For you, beloved,” she’d whispered as they’d curled up together on their bed. At that point, she’d been almost bursting with their second son in her belly. “I had this taken a few months ago, right before I learned I was expecting Tariq.”

  He ran his finger across the glass as he gazed at her in her wedding finery. “You saved your dress?’

  “Of course! A bride never forgets that day.” She leaned over and kissed him slowly. “And that includes me.”

  “Oh, Sabirah!” He braced his hands against the dark wood and hung his head as his chest heaved. He raised his face. “I can’t do this. How… how can I leave?”

  He slid it into his backpack, then approached her dresser. In the upper drawers lay all of her jewelry. Most of it had come from the al-Talil clan. Necklaces. Bracelets. Earrings. Rings. He opened velvet jewelry boxes until he came to the one he sought. With trembling fingers, he flipped up the lid to reveal a diamond set in a circle of rubies.

  His present to Sabirah on their fourth anniversary, the year he finally understood the way a healthy marriage should work.

  “I love you.” He uttered those words to the still air.

  “I love you, too, my beloved.” Sabirah.

  He turned. “I can’t do this.”

  She sat on the edge of their couch in her wedding dress, then rose and approached him. “You must. It’s the only way.” She ran her hand down his jaw. “You will survive. I promise.”

  “I’m not so sure.” He closed his eyes and reached to tuck some of that ebony hair behind her ear. His hand found air. He stared at it. A hallucination. That’s all. New agony seared him, and he wanted to bellow from the grief.

  “Ziad? You up there, my friend?”

  Ben. How much time had passed? If the setting sun were any indication, too much.

  Ziad stepped into the hallway. He cast a glance at the bed one last time. With a deep breath, he turned to begin the next chapter of his life.

  #####

  “You know, I’ve lived here for four years,” Ben said as he and Emma stood together a week later in the Jeddah cemetery on top of a hill. “And I honestly don’t feel sad or remorseful about leaving.”

  Emma kept her gaze on the man who knelt at each of seven graves. “What do you feel?”

  Ben sighed. “Relief. It burns me that one of the Kingdom’s greatest patriots gets framed for murder and jailed for nearly a year, then exiled while the murderers run free.”

  Nearby, Ziad shifted his prayers to Muhammed Amir’s headstone, just as he had for the past fourteen days since his release from jail.

  Ziad finally knelt at Sabirah’s marker. He bowed his head. Grief choked his murmured words.

  Ben shifted his gaze toward where the sun made its descent. His final sunset in Jeddah. He glanced at Emma. The warm wind coming off the desert whipped her abaya around her and pushed back her headscarf so some errant curls escaped. She sniffled and lowered her head.

  He touched her hand. “Thank you for coming with us.”

  Her smile was watery. “I wouldn’t miss this.”

  Her presence eased his sadness, if only a little. He approached Ziad and laid his hand on his shoulder as he said in Arabic, “I am sorry, my friend. Sorry for all that happened.”

  Ziad refused to look at him. “I don’t know how I’m going to survive.”

  Ben remained silent for a few minutes. What could he say? He wasn’t the one being forced to leave behind everything he knew and enter a culture that would rub him wrong at every turn. “One day at a time. One hour at a time. One minute at a time if need be, my friend. Emma’s family will welcome you. I promise.”

  Ziad straightened. “What do they know about what happened?”

  “Emma’s parents? They had to know everything to sponsor you. All the rest of her family knows is your family was murdered and you are coming to the States under a special immigrant visa.”

  “Even her sisters?”

  “She and Claire, her older sister, are very close, but this is your story to tell, not ours.”

  “I would like for it to remain that way.” Ziad focused on him. “To be framed and spend almost a year in prison for my rash actions has greatly shamed me.” He shook his head. “They do not need to know.”

  “Ziad, we promise,” Emma said. She glanced at Ben.

  “Thank you.” As if someone had flipped a switch, Ziad strode toward the Explorer.

  Ben followed. He opened the driver’s door, then offered a last, backward glance toward the city below and the sea beyond. In a last flash of light, the sun sank below the water. Night had begun. He only hoped the sun would once more shine on his friend.

  7

  Thursday night, Brad Paisley’s “Online” blasted from the speakers of Claire Montgomery’s Mustang convertible as she turned into the long drive leading to her parents’ house. Under-lit trees on each side of the drive slid by. Ah, the feeling of royalty they produced. Three hundred horses pounding under the hood completed the feeling. Her yellow carriage. She pulled up beside a detached garage and cut the engine.

  Purse in hand, she bounded up the steps of the farmhouse and threw open the door. “Mama? Daddy?”

  “In here!” Her mother’s voice floated from the back of the house.

  Claire hung a left through the mudroom and emerged in the den.

  Beyond open French doors, Mama stood at the kitchen stove and pulled a hot kettle of water off the burner. She smiled over the rims of her reading glasses. “I got some hot water for tea all ready.”

  “I need it now.” Claire hugged her. “Sorry I’m late. Sonja’s meeting ran long, which meant we were late meeting up for supper. She promises she’ll make it up to you.”

  “That’s all right.”

  “Where’s Daddy?”

  “Speaking of meetings, he’s with a client at the office. He’ll be home by ten.”

  “Have you heard from Emma?”

  “Just a quick call. Their Lufthansa flight got delayed, so they barely made their flight to here. It was a quick conversation.”

  “Yikes. But they’re Stateside.”

  “Hopefully getting on their plane now.”

  Claire set her purse on the counter and located her favorite mug in a cabinet. “I told Daddy I’d go with him to the airport.”

  Mama offered her a small tea chest. “There’s not going to be room for you.”

  Claire froze as she reached for a bag of peach tea. “What?”

  “Don’t you remember? Ziad’s coming with them.”

  “Wait.” Claire frowned as she tried to remember an e-mail Emma had sent her. She dug out her phone and found the message. “That’s right. Something about his immigration status was unclear.” She set it down. “But I was planning on going with Daddy. I mean, I haven’t seen Emma in six months!”

  “Neither have I.” Mama settled at the kitchen table, reached into a bag, and pulled out a stack of programs for Emma’s wedding. “Emma’s probably going to have to sit on Ben’s lap. Would you want to sit on Ziad’s?”

  Claire cringed. She, sit on the lap of a Muslim male, a Saudi nonetheless? No way! “Uh, no.”

  “T
hat’s what I thought. Now have a seat.”

  Claire filled her mug, then joined her on the bench where she’d sat growing up.

  Mama paused from leafing through the programs. “Are you still good with Emma staying with you until the wedding?”

  “Of course! I’ve already got tomorrow planned.”

  Mama set a couple of spools of narrow, navy blue satin ribbon on the table. “What are you going to do?”

  “First, we’ll sleep in. Then we’re going to go out for lunch somewhere. Delia’s meeting us. So are Faith and Grace.”

  “Allie isn’t?”

  Claire shrugged at the mention of her oldest sister. “She said she’s got too much stuff going on during the day. We’ll still have fun. Manicures. Shopping for a fab dress for her to wear at the rehearsal dinner.” A grin crossed her lips. “Girl stuff.”

  They both laughed.

  “These turned out great.” Claire picked up a program and studied it. “I never knew the printer could do a job like this in ink to match our dresses.”

  “It took some doing. We need to tie the onion skin onto the front of the program.” Mama gently extracted a stack of thin sheets of paper. “Here’s how the cover came out.”

  “Nice.” Claire ran her finger gently over the fragile paper, where the theme verse for the wedding was printed. “This is really neat.”

  “And a lot of work. Emma finally called a few days ago and confirmed Ziad was indeed coming.” Mama laid her teabag on a saucer. “I didn’t want to send this until I knew who was going to be best man.”

  “Why was that an issue?”

  “Because of his immigration status. Things were… dicey there for a bit.”

  “Why?”

  Mama shrugged. “That’s the way they can be sometimes, I suppose. Anyway, we’ve got a lot to do.”

  Claire knew better than to press for details. “How much for each ribbon?”

  “Let’s try six inches.”

  Claire picked up a pair of scissors and snipped off six inches. She tied it and held up the result. “You like?”

 
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