Howard Adams turned off the engine and gazed at the anthracite column of the high-rise. He counted the floors up to the ninth. The lamp by Sonia’s futon shone through the gauze curtains, a penumbra of warm yellow. Adams checked his watch. The haris, a young guy with a scruffy beard, might still be sitting behind the lobby desk. He would lift his head with a studiously blank expression when Adams walked past. The haris’s eyes would then follow the unbeliever to the elevator, well aware of the sins being committed in his building. The prayer bump on the haris’s forehead always caused a cramp in Adams’s solar plexus. Did the guy worry her at all? Sonia had flattened her mouth in that amused way of hers, half-closed her eyes, shaken her head—“I tip him well.”
There was still time. “Come around 9:30.” Ten yards ahead of him, two cops, both a little chubby, were leaning against a cruiser, talking and sipping from paper cups in their hands. He looked toward the police station on his left, a flat structure with some Arabesque flourishes. Next to Sonia’s building lay an excuse of a park, a quadrangle some city-planner had mercifully exempted from receiving another high-rise. Adams opened the car door. A mangy cat looked at him from the sidewalk, meowed silently. One of its canines was broken. He got out, pressed the fob to lock his BMW, walked around the back and crossed the street. With a sense of relief, he stepped into the darkness below the palm trees. Their leaves gave a constant scraping rustle in the sea breeze. The heat was still dry. He liked this weather. Too bad it would only last another month or so. Then the place would become a steam bath.
The Gulf Road traffic droned in the distance, modulated yet steady like a natural phenomenon. A man, darkly silhouetted, was sitting on a bench fifteen yards away, legs outstretched. Adams saw the glow of a cigarette. He turned onto a side path between scrawny tamarisks. Drip irrigation hoses snaked along the parched earth; he glanced up as a passenger jet cut silently through the night sky. His mouth felt cottony. He imagined his hands closing at the small of her back, slipping down to the swell of her buttocks.
He checked his watch again. Two minutes had passed. He pressed his palm to his sports jacket, felt the flash drive in the inside pocket, then quickened his pace as if in a rush. Would have been nice to bring a bottle, but he couldn’t well march out the door with a Chateaux Pétrus in his hand. “Honey….” Barbara lowering her novel. “Going to the embassy. Conference call, secure. Bunch of crazies making moves, it seems.” Eyeing him over the rim of her reading glasses, nodding. Crazies were always credible here. Particularly now. On the way over, he’d driven, very slowly, past a group of three- or four-hundred bearded men in dishdashas, marching along the main road of his residential area. Chanting, shaking fists above their heads. Wary eyes on his diplomatic license plate, but that was all. Arab Spring my ass. This was going nowhere in a hurry.
Did Barbara suspect anything? Surely not. She’d have cooked his goose by now. Very American, Barbara. No sense of humor when it came to the urges of human nature. This had to stay under wraps. Could ruin everything, his career included. One worked in a snake pit. There was also the money; his salary wasn’t what was keeping them going. Marrying a prim and proper heiress to a grocery store chain had its perks. He’d gotten used to them. But then, live while you’re alive, huh? No shortage of booze, luckily, in Sonia’s place. The flash drive would make her mouth open in that half gasp that kindled his innards. A little help with her reporting. All second-rate stuff, no harm to anyone. He’d talked to the press before, off record. Journos barely understood what they were writing about anyway, literal-minded, no finesse. But good to have an in with them. Might prove useful one day.
A listless fountain gargled at the center of the park. He glanced over the black marble structure, shining dully in the light of a distant street lamp. What was the thing supposed to represent? Leaves? Some kind of crystal? No idea. Maybe nothing, emphatically so. He didn’t get these people, even though he’d spent years studying their language, culture, religion, history, food, whatever, he’d studied it. Sometimes they exasperated him, their smug self-assurance, their air of being untouchable, of being in on some secret the rest of the planet had missed. Sonia, of course, did get them. But she was one of them, in some roundabout thrice-removed way.
The Caledonian Evening two months ago—the stuff you had to put up with when you were Deputy Chief of Mission. He’d been a grass widower. Barbara was stateside: quarterly check-in with the kids, making sure the 100+k were well spent on their halls of ivy. In the airport, she’d looked pink, a little bloated: the pills, against anxiety or nervous tension or stress, he wasn’t sure. “I’ll call you when I’m there.” A peck on his cheek, worried about disapproving glances from the locals. From the other side of the security check, a wave, hasty—always in a hurry, though nowhere to hurry to, really—, before disappearing into the swirl of dishdashas, abayas, and saris.
Caledonian Evening or not, you had to hand it to the Brits: classy embassy. Primo real state, right on the Gulf. Probably wrangled that before acquiescing, more or less gracefully, to independence for the country sometime in the fifties. Old villa, roofed veranda, spacious gardens, gnarled fig trees, star jasmine idyllically spilling over redbrick walls. Touch of the Raj. The place even smelled refined, in a tropical sort of way. He’d met Graeme Morris a few months earlier at a July 4 shindig. Nice enough guy, a bit rough around the edges, heavy around the midriff. Watery eyes like that of an exhausted Saint Bernard. This Highland pageant was his baby. On a dais by the veranda, a kilted combo squeezing wails from their bagpipes. A heavy hand clamped down on his shoulder. The Scottish patriot, tartan trews and all, thrusting a plate of vile mush into his hand: “Some chow, Howey, and can you entertain me lady here for a few minutes? Need to schmooze with that gatekeeper of higher education.” Morris nodding toward an assistant dean of a local university who might get him out of teaching English at his crappy school. “Howey, Sonia; Sonia, Howey.” Then stomping off in pirate-style boots, and her hand, fragile and warm, in his. The edge of a tattoo, showing just outside of where the hem of her floral-pattern dress circled her slender neck. Some triangular design that extended over her left shoulder, black lines on her peanut butter-colored skin. He longed to push the dress aside.
Her passport was Swiss, her lineage a ravel of White Russian, Lebanese, Jewish, and Moroccan. “But let’s keep quiet about the Jewish.” A wink. “You sound like a haram mixture.” Instantly surprised at himself. He’d stepped out before, sure, maybe had a girl come to his hotel room while away at a conference, but he didn’t think of himself as a man who put the moves on a woman. “I specialize in haram”—not a beat. Undefinable accent; light voice, but not girlish; and her laugh, though well-tempered, suggested she had long since quit caring. Three days later in her apartment, her back to him. With a sense of watching himself from across the room, setting down his bourbon. Hands on her shoulders, pushing her dress aside. The tattoo a stylized bird in flight, a composition of geometrical shapes; he’d seen part of its wing. Her warm skin under his lips; underneath the skin, the bone of her shoulder. Her perfume drowsily oud-based. Lifting her rich hair with the back of his hand, tracing the groove of her spine with his thumb down from the nape of her neck. When he unhooked her bra, he felt surprisingly calm; the guilt would come later.
But it never did, now, did it? This was inevitable. Barbara and you had your run. Nowhere left to go.
On one knee, fingers beneath the fabric of her mauve lace thong. Pulling it past her hips. It falling along her legs, joining her bra and the puddle of her dress, still encircling her high heels. Her ankle in his hand, stepping out of her thong with one foot, then the other. What expression now lay on her face? Were her eyes closed, her mouth open? His hands ascending the smooth length of her legs. An exhalation. Back on his feet, she turning in his arms. Her hand at the back of his head, pulling his lips onto hers. The fine stitch of pain, teeth closing on his lower lip; her breasts against his shirt.
A gust of wind whipped around Howard Adams’s shoulders and returned him to the present. He caught a whiff of cigarette smoke, looked back. A man grinding out a butt in the gravel. Adams turned onto a pathway that led toward the street. Another few minutes. Wouldn’t hurt to show up a little late. Play it cool and all. He kept walking. Out onto the sidewalk, a glance toward his BMW. A white delivery truck pulling into place ahead of it. No haris behind the desk when he stepped through the glass door into the cold marble-tiled lobby. The figure of a woman, a cone of flowing black, standing by the elevators, but luckily one just opened and she disappeared inside, let the doors close.
He pressed the button and the next elevator pinged open. On the ride up, he pulled his collar into place, brushed his hair back. He now wished he had stayed in the car, AC on. His shirt clung to his back. As he stepped from the elevator and walked to her door, he heard Fairouz, accompanied by sitars, singing wistfully about love. He smiled. Everything as always; he knew her tastes. He knocked. Quick high-heel steps on marble, door opening with playful slowness. Sonia in a wine-red dress, backlit by the light from her living room. Her hair over her shoulder, a wave of black with a touch of rust, edge of tattoo exposed.
“On time as always. Sure you’re not Swiss?”
“Just good old New England stock.”
“Same Puritan bunch.” Her dark eyes so-what-are-you-gonna-do-now’ed him, and as he pushed her against the wall and they kissed the door fell into its lock.
Her living room was sparsely furnished, mostly chrome and black leather. Not very Arab that way: no penchant for bling. She collected Asian porcelain. Two green dragons, mouths open and split tongues curled, peered at him from a glass side table. Through a gap in the curtains, the waters of the Gulf; across the bay, the downtown skyscrapers a host of glowing needles.
She was fixing him a Bourbon while he sat back on the futon, eyes tracing her figure. Soon he would be peeling away that dress, holding her naked body. She turned, two glasses in her hands; for herself, her customary gin tonic, “the Brits’ gift to India.” Ice clinking as she crossed the room.
He reached into his jacket pocket. “Look what I have for you.” Moving the flash drive from right to left.
She inhaled audibly. “You remembered.” Bending in the knees to set both drinks down on the quartz-topped table. Her voice oddly quiet. Plucking the flash drive from his fingers. “I didn’t want to ask again. Is it what I need?”
“Have a look.”
Quickly over to her metal desk. The laptop jingling itself alive. On the edge of her office chair, slotting in the flash drive, clicking on the touchpad.
“You know, when I came to the Gulf,” he said, watching her eyes race back and forth, “my uncle—he was in the State Department, Middle Eastern desk—he told me this place was always ready to boil over, but never did. We’ll see if he’s right this time around, huh? That stuff interesting for you? It’s a bit more than the general public sees.”
“Oh yes.” Closing the laptop with her index finger. “This will do.” Back at the table, she reached for her drink, and while taking a sip looked down at him, head tilted appraisingly.
“You know, Howey. You’re not a bad man.”
“Why, thank you.” Unease creeping over his stomach. “You’re not so bad yourself.”
“Wouldn’t be so sure.” Absentmindedly: “You’re average. And the average man has no business in this business.”
A key being inserted in the front door, someone pressing the handle. She placed the glass on the table and left the room.
Steps, heavy and crunching, in the hallway. Two men entered. One was the haris. The other was Graeme Morris, shaking his head in mild disapproval.
“Howey, Howey. What have you gotten yourself into?”
Where had his Scottish accent gone? He sounded like he was from south of the Mason-Dixon line. Morris reached into his dark suit and lazily flipped open an ID card in Adams’s face.
“We thought you might be unreliable, Howey, but not this unreliable, tsk-tsk.”
Adams began to raise himself. He felt his blood leaving his head. Don’t let them roll you. Be cool! Nothing happened! What’s the evidence? That flash drive, pah…! He got about halfway when the window to his side evaporated in a cloud of glass, shredding the curtain. Morris disappeared from his vision, flung across the room like a ragdoll. Then the bang followed. It was the last thing Adams heard.
About ten minutes later, Graeme Morris picked his way unsteadily across the room. He called for Sonia, shouted, screamed. His vision seemed granulated, smoke and dust swirled in the air blowing into the apartment. There wouldn’t be much left of the police station outside. He tasted burning chemicals and rubber, cordite. Something inside his ribcage felt torn. Adams’s body lay pretzeled into the wrecked side table. A red pool was still spreading on the marble. Carotid artery pumping feebly. A shard of glass had practically decapitated him. Morris stared. A sweetish vapor touched him. He saw the future in his mind: senior US diplomat killed in terrorist attack, marines carrying flag-covered casket, plaque on State Department wall, Fletcher scholarship in his name, the whole nine yards. He looked up. Sonia was steadying herself against the doorjamb, her left arm bent backward and outward. Her tattoo all twisted out of shape. He remembered a zombie movie he had watched last night. She was bleeding from both ears. Her mouth hung open in a frozen scream. The body of the haris—good kid, reliable, could have gone far—lay in front of her. He had slammed against the frame, and his head now faced backward. For the first time in decades, Morris felt tears running hot down his cheeks. He stumbled across the room. Sonia was speaking, but he could not hear anything.