Satan’s Rock

Part Eleven

The Crooked Prince

“I will dispense with introductions.” Against the brick echoes in the vaults of his father’s palace, Prince Shumal’s voice was high, sing-song, almost a falsetto.   Yet it was utterly devoid of any humility – a voice that could command.  “Those of us who know each other already know too much.     Those who can should remain strangers.”

There were murmurs of assent from around the circle.   All meetings of the Brotherhood began in this way.

“I will tell you;” Shumal went on; “that this place was swept for devices this morning.   We are free to discuss.   Now, our brother,”  He waved a vague hand towards the man in traditional Khubali dress,  “will explain a problem which has arisen.  A very serious problem…if you please, brother?”

“Highness.”  The man was an Arab.   His face wascreased by the scars of action, the badges of a soldier.   He spoke in measured words:  “As you know, a recent action initiated by one of us here did not go well.   A target survived.”

Yahedi met the man’s stare, which had singled him out as he spoke.

“You refer to the London target?”

The Arab inclined his head.

“The security cordon was warned.”   Yahedi stated.  “Such was my report.”

“But a target was missed, right?”   The American intervened.

Yahedi responded quietly:  “If you are suggesting the miss was any fault of mine, brother, you should take great care.”

“No-one here is accusing you,”   The Prince cut in hurriedly.   “Your efficiency is not in question.”

“The target was, indeed, warned.”   The Arab continued.  “The warning was given by one of us.”

“Really?”    Yahedi was surprised for the second time that morning.  “Why, can I ask?”

“I had to.”  This time it was the woman who spoke.  “The alert came through the embassy – a logged call.   If I had not passed the call on, my cover would have been blown.”

“And we have worked for many years to put our sister here in place,”   The Prince said:  “She has a grade two clearance with British Intelligence.   She was very clever, in fact.   Were you not, sister?”

“I gave the warning through the American Embassy staff line.  US embassy staff have a low opinion of British Intelligence, so they gave it little credence.    They allowed your target to present himself for you.   That insured you would still have a clear shot.  You just didn’t hit him.”

Salaiman Yahedi never flared, never lost his temper.   Whenever he felt himself at a disadvantage he would evince great calm.  But there were ice crystals in  his eyes that only the innocent or the stupid might ignore:  “The man simply ducked.”   He said with exaggerated gentleness.   “He was warned.”    His gaze was focussed on the woman, who flushed and looked away.

“He did not ‘duck’.”   the Arab said.

“He did move evasively;” The woman rejoined as levelly as she could, “But not because he knew a bullet was coming.”

The Prince took up the thread.  “You did not see, brother, because your gun-sight was focussed on the target, not upon what went on around him..  He bent to retrieve a piece of paper which fell in front of his face.”   Shumal’s voice rose to its most exasperated pitch.“A piece of paper from the sky, for love of Allah, blessed be his holy name!” 

True, Yahedi reflected, his gunsight had been trained closely upon the target’s head.  He had not seen any piece of paper.   Of the faces around him, Bourta, clearly, had known of this: the Indian, the American, they had not.   He had already pigeon-holed those two as the paymasters: presumably very generous ones, otherwise why would they be allowed to meet with such as Bourta and himself?   The Arab?  Salaiman was fairly sure he was not there because of his money.   The woman…he let his stare rest upon her once more.   She was ill at ease.   Why?   What anxiety caused those long, spidery fingers to be continually working?   He knew why he had been sitting in Hyde Park at that early hour of that particular morning, but why had she been there?

Bourta voiced the question in everyone’s mind,  “How could that happen – at the exact moment of the shot?    Did it drop from a tree, or something?”

“And to place it so exactly!”  the Indian chimed in.  “To drop paper on a precise spot?   Not possible, I think.”

“You know what I think?”   Asked the smiling American:   “Bullshit!   That’s what I think, Sheik.   Of all the half-assed crazy stories I ever did hear that has to be the craziest.”

“It happened.”  Said the woman.  “The paper does exist.  I understand it is A4, printed with a picture of a young white male, apparently enhanced in some way.  MI6 have it in their possession.  And no, there are no trees in that precise area.”

“We think.”  The Arab said, “It was dropped by a bird.”

“That is a very large piece of paper” Said the Indian eventually:  “For a bird.”

“Can we get to this paper?”    Yahedi asked.

The woman shrugged:   “I am trying, but my level of clearance does not go that far.  I only have the surveillance footage.”

“I got my own theory.”   The American’s voice had a steely edge.  “My theory is that I paid a cool half-million for a hit that didn’t hit.   And the agreement your target tied up with the British that very morning cost me another one hundred and fifty million, because they’ve accepted the JAN-net ground defence system not the Hetton-Patton version, and my Company’s fenced out for maybe the next fifty years!”

“We all have our reasons for wanting this target neutralised.”   Shumal said gently.  “It will be taken care of.”

“Why, thank you, your Highness!   But that’s no god-damned use to me now!”

“Peace, brother, peace! “  The Prince commanded:  “Did you think that our cause was to be so used, that you could treat us like contract killers?  You test our hospitality!”

There was silence, as each member of the group tried to assimilate what they had heard.  The American’s youthfully-tweaked countenance was becoming very red indeed, but he said nothing.  

At length Prince Shumal spoke:   “Let us examine this from an added perspective.  We need to take heed of a new and dangerous adversary.   Brother,”   He gestured to the Arab;  “ I think you have something to tell us.”

“YourHighness.”  The Arab addressed the whole group.  “We must accept that someone, or something, had forewarning of this execution.  Your informer was anonymous, yes?”   He glanced at the woman, who immediately (a little too quickly, thought Yahedi) nodded assent;   “And specific as to where and when the hit was to take place.   So, an insider, a mole?    But it was a further incident –apparently quite miraculous – which saved the target’s life.”

The Arab leaned forward, earnestly seeking to engage his audience:   “We are all professionals.  We move in a century of great human progress founded upon skill and scientific accomplishment.    That is why it will be hard to accept, for us, that this miracle was the work of a sorcerer.”

“A what?”   Said the American.    “What, like a wizard or something?   Oh, come on!”

The Arab spread his hands:  “Nevertheless….in our brotherhood, greater wisdom has taught us acceptance of these things.”

“It is the only explanation,”   Shumal cut in:  “Unless you truly believe in coincidence.   I am certain there were no leaks in this particular barrel.  It was a very important barrel.   And if it didn’t leak, and if he really was saved by a picture floating from the sky, then I take sorcery.   I do not believe in such coincidences.”

“Prince, you can’t believe this.”   The American was astounded.  “I cannot believe you believe this!”

“The pieces fit.”  The Arab said.   “In our history there are plenty of instances where one with the gift of sight used a bird as a familiar.   A bird would understand the action of an object floating in the air.   There can be no other explanation.”

“I’m damned sure I can think of one!”  The American muttered.

“Then I invite it.”

Prince Shumal got to his feet.   “We cannot change what has been.   But whether we believe the agent at work here to have acted at the behest of Allah or the Devil, we must find out who, or what it is, lest it should interfere with other projects.  Our brother here…..”   He indicated Bourta, “Will introduce himself to you, sister, and you will strive together to learn more: I want to see that piece of paper, and I want to know who telephoned the original warning.   Our brother has special skills:  he will be of great value to you in this.”

Again, Yahedi found his attention occupied by the woman.    There was a certain cast to her eye – only momentary, but unmistakable – an unguarded second which spoke of duplicity, perhaps even of betrayal.   And now he was convinced.   He glanced across at Bourta, knowing the Moroccan would have seen it too.  There was eye contact, a mutual understanding: the woman must not be trusted.

“This execution is deferred for a while.”   The Prince continued:   “We have generated too much interest in the target; but we shall return to him, at a later date.   In the meantime, brother….”   He smiled crookedly at the Indian:  “We have your affairs to sort out.  Never fear, no pieces of fluttery paper on this one!”

“That’s it?”  The American asked, coldly.   “We just let it go at that?”

“We will do all we can, my friend,”   The Arab said.   “We cannot change the past.”

“All this fatalism is very commendable,” The American’s voice was granite-edged:  “But you guys are in the business of changing things.   Now I have lost a contract because of your inefficiency, and I have put a cool two million into your god-damned ‘Revolutionary Fund’ and I want something changed.   OK, not the past – let’s discuss how we get to the guy who has my contract – but I want some guarantee here today:  I want something back.”

“Of course, of  course!”   The Prince was placatory:  “We understand this.   These are matters best discussed in confidence, between you and I.   We shall set up a meeting together, I will look to it.”   He spread his hands in a dispersive gesture:  the meeting was concluded.

There was a procedure to follow now:  discretion required that only a few might exit by the tunnel at one time – too many emerging onto the street outside the palace walls would invite suspicion.  So the Prince would detain those with whom he had further business, releasing others whose business was already done.  A brief word sufficed for the American, a promise to set up a meeting, then he was allowed to leave.   Bourta singled out the woman to pursue the mission given to them both by the Prince.  A great deal of verbal communication passed between her and Bourta: but the whole content of their discussion did not amount to a fraction of the meaning which Yahedi and Bourta exchanged between them with one momentary glance.   Had she seen it, the woman would have felt much less secure.   Bourta and the woman departed, more or less together.

 Yahedi wondered about the Indian, just as he wondered about the Arab.  Both were strangers to him, and though as far apart in character as two individuals might possibly be, each had another mystery about them which was unexplained.  It was the Indian who was next to depart, leaving Yahedi and the Arab to remain with the Prince.

 “Do you like the look of our brother?”   Shumal murmured, gesturing towards the Arab, who stood apart.  “I am convinced he is of great value to us. Takes one to know one, eh, Yahedi?   An exemplary man at arms, hmmm?    And a creature of such intelligence!   His organisation – this ‘Portal’ of which I am sure you have heard – is at one with God and our cause.   Walk with me.”  Prince Shumal took Yahedi’s arm, guiding him towards a far corner of the room.  “You see, killers, my friend, are twice a penny:  is that the expression?   They fall over themselves to work for us.   One is lost to us, another is there to take over… this is the way of things.”

“Children ready to die for a cause, Highness, are not killers.   They are food for killers.”   Yahedi responded.   “And many who are not children; though they pretend to much, do not have the necessary ice in their heart.”

The Prince patted his hand.   “I have faith in you, Brother.   I know your stamp.   There are those who feel that you are vulnerable, some say even that you are corrupted: they mislike your Jewish ancestry, mistrust your western affinities.    I say to them, no, we do not need to fear this.  Yahedi is our friend.    It is not true that he defers to the highest bidder, that his only god is the dollar.   I say this, Yahedi, my friend, because I trust you.  I believe you do work for us.   I believe that, but I and our brothers know our Arabian friend is loyal…”

“If you wanted him,” Yahedi cut in: “I would not be here today.   You would have sent him after me long before now.”

“How do you know the hunt does not start here?”   The Prince chuckled.  “Perhaps I shall give him your contract this very morning?   What do you think, Yahedi my friend: could he collect?”

Yahedi shook his head, recognising that however menacing the Prince’s words might sound, he was asking for an honest opinion.  “No. He is a man of arms, but he is not of our breed.  Send him after me and I will send you his head by return of post.   I do not doubt he is a good soldier, a devoted servant of Allah.   But it is a thing apart to assassinate a woman, or to take out someone who has no gun, whose back is turned, who is standing hand in hand with his children.”

“So be it.”  The Prince nodded. “The truth, brother, speaks of a time long delayed which cannot be delayed much further.  An hour when you will both be needed.  In the meantime, we must clean up this situation.”   He handed Yahedi a small briefcase. “Go now, brother.  Take this with you.  Allah keep you until we next meet .”

Back at his hotel, Salaiman Yahedi opened the briefcase the Prince had pushed into his hand.  It contained fifty thousand Dollars in neatly wrapped large bills, and a photograph of the American.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Image Credit: Abuli Munaravi on Unsplash

Satan’s Rock

Part Ten

Al Khubar

Peter’s first encountered Howard, the man who seemed to be stepping into Melanie’s father’s role when he called to collect her, at the outset of a Saturday afternoon they planned to spend together.   ‘Brickwood’, Melanie’s home, stood on a hill above Levenport’s ‘Old Town’.  It was a large house of brick and hung tile walls beneath a vast, high-pitched roof which, should it ever emulsify and fail, would be entirely beyond her mother’s means to replace.

Marco, who was Melanie’s father and Karen’s first husband, had bought it.   If it had not been Karen’s own choice, she forbore to say so; instead suffering the woodworm, creaking stairs, multi-paned windows and huge polished doors in the name of married love.   Since Marco’s departure in his Porsche she had become less constrained, often openly cursing the large, cold rooms with their perpetual resources of spiders and dust.

A tall, fair-headed man answered the door.

“Hello.  You must be Peter.”   The figure who filled the doorway, at least six-two or three in height and of what could best be described as a solid build, was dressed in a blue sloppy sweater and brown chino’s which did nothing to flatter his waistline or each other.  There was no evidence that he cared one jot about this.   In fact, his whole demeanour seemed to suggest that he was careless about most things.   “Come in, son.”

What was it that made Peter so resentful of total strangers who called him ‘son’?   He sought what he always did in a meeting with anyone new: a straight eye and an honest expression:  he found neither here.

“Hi!”   He said, shyly. “Are you Howard?”

“You got me gov’nor!”  Howard raised his hands in a mock surrender.  Peter winced.

 “I am the same.” 

“I’m pleased to meet you.   Melanie and I were going across to St. Ben’s: is she ready?”   Peter asked, as politely as he could muster.

“Oh sure, sure.  No hurry though.  Come on in and wait, Peter.  Do you want a drink, or something?  Coke, eh?”

Peter slid uneasily into Karen’s kitchen, declining the offer of a drink.

“Well, I’ll have a coke, anyway, I think.   Sit down, son.  Tell me about yourself.   What do you like to do?  Fishing?   Music?  What hobbies have you got, Peter?”

“Er….computers, and …. reading I suppose….”  Peter answered, with the uncomfortable feeling he was twelve years old again.   Howard poured himself a glass from the refrigerator and, tasting it, clearly did not much like what he drank.  But he brought it to a chair opposite Peter and dragged himself into the seat with a tortured scroop of wood on tile.   Sitting across a table from this full-on and truly quite massive figure, Peter was at a complete loss.

“Really?  Computers, eh?  Just games and stuff, I expect?”

“Well, some games.  But I’m more into programming…..”

“Are you good?”   There was a palpable wall of antipathy building itself across the table:  Peter felt it and he was pretty sure that Howard did too.   Yet it seemed that in some strange way he, Peter, was the one in control.   When he ventured to look into the large man’s eyes he was sure he saw anxiety there – an almost spaniel-like desire to please.

Melanie’s feet were to be heard clattering on the stairs.   She was nearly knocked backwards by the wave of relief that hit her as she entered the kitchen.

“Hi Mel!”   Cried Peter,   “Are you ready?”

Rising to his feet and more than ready to leave, he felt his shoulder gripped by a detaining hand.  This action was so firm as to make Peter think for a fleeting moment that he might be under arrest, or something.

“I’m quite good with computers;” Howard said.  “Maybe we can get together sometime, Peter, Hmm?  I might be able to help.”

Managing a few non-committal words of gratitude, Peter struggled free , taking Melanie’s hand (something he very rarely did) as he steered her towards the door.   Not until he was in the clear, outdoor air beyond it did he regain his composure, recovering his breath as he led the way, almost running, into the street.

“Hey, slow down!”  Mel protested: “What on earth did he do to you in there?”

“Wow, Mel!”

“Well, I told you he was sort of odd.”

“Yeah, but ….look, sorry Mel, but he’s surreal.    I don’t remember seeing him before – is he new in town?”

“He just moved here.   From the Midlands, he said.”

“What’s his work – what does he do?”

“He’s an engineer, or something.   He works for Catesby’s.”

Catesby’s:  a big local factory building bridges.   Peter tried to picture Howard building bridges.  “Weird.”   Was all he could say.

Melanie wasn’t sure why she felt so upset.   Was this not so, so similar to her own first reaction to Howard?   Had he just tried to break ice with Peter the way he had with her? 

“I’m sorry you don’t like him.”   Wait a minute!  Was she defending him now?  “He’s asked such a lot about you.  I think he was looking forward to meeting you.”

This, for reasons which rushed in upon him like a flood tide, was not good news to Peter.   There was something wrong with Howard; the whole thing,   the set-up.

“Did he ask you to wait back a few minutes so he could talk to me?”  he asked.

“Well, not in so many words, but – yes, I guess he did.   Oh Peter, was it that bad?”

Nothing he could tell her would adequately express what he felt inside.   He didn’t know why, but he knew instinctively: Howard and he were enemies.

#

Al Khubar came alive in early morning, a teeming anthill of activity rushing to beat the sun.   Yahedi left his hotel at seven, before morning prayers when the temperature was still in the low thirties, accepting the hot wall of air which greeted him as he left the controlled climate of the New City like a blessing from Allah.   He loved the heat, but he would not endure it in a suit, as westerners did.   The street market was already wide awake, bustling with life.   The stall he sought was there as usual; its proprietor sitting exactly where he expected him to be.

“You do not change, old man.  You are the ageless one.”

“Ah, but my heart and my head still work!”   The old man cackled through black teeth:  “My cloth is still the best cloth – I have saved it for you, honoured friend.”

Yahedi smiled in gratitude, knowing that the stallholder had no memory of him and would forget him completely as soon as he had gone.   He bought traditional Arab clothes, the robe of white, the thobe, a red chequered cloth headdress or ghutra, and a tagia to keep the ghutra in place.  He haggled enthusiastically, shook the old man’s hand in the traders’ way, the quick slap of palms between two who have struck a bargain.   Then he returned to the Hyatt to change and to eat.  There was an hour for rest and reflection before he must once again venture into the Old City, and his business there would be important – important enough to have drawn him half-way across the world.

When Salaiman again emerged from the New City, the sun was a laser of fierce heat which boiled the north wind into a skin-stripping blast.   His new headdress flapped and rattled against his cheeks, the white thobe he had bought wrapped around his legs.   They were flimsy enough, these defences, but they were the best that could be had and he was graceless enough to sneer inwardly at the fat, sweating westerners who passed him with their brash unmelodic voices, seemingly always raised in complaint.  These unfortunate souls, who lived solely for the purpose of circulating money, had some driving ambition to make the entire world look exactly the same. In their ideal universe the Old City district of Al Khubar would soon have a MacDonald’s at every corner, a Wal-Mart in its fountained gardens.   Their concept of a different culture was no more than an extension of their own.  They would be satisfied only when this beautiful city’s heritage was reduced to a couple of lifeless ancient shrines which they could photograph beneath air-conditioned domes before returning to steak and fries  in their western hotels.   All the rest, the colours and sounds and shapes and emotions and the religious vitality of the place, would be grist to the corporate mill, ground down to serve the rapacious appetites of the ‘suits’.   Allah forefend!  Were there not already two MacDonald’s in the New City?  Did not five of those elegantly sculpted skyscraper hotels rest in western hands?  

            Yahedi directed his sandaled feet away from the business district, into the maze of narrow alleys which networked the old town.  Here was anonymity.    Among these white stuccoed chasms he was just another citizen.  He walked with purpose for he knew his route well; yet every now and then he would stop, listening for the echoes of  pursuing feet.  At any unusual sound or movement he would double back, deliberately losing himself in the labyrinth for a while.  He did this three times, not in the certainty of being followed, merely because he thought it might be so.

Yahedi took an hour to reach his destination.  A squat, blanched concrete taxi office stood upon the west side of a street which backed onto the Palace walls.   Beyond a faded green panelled door he was greeted by a familiar spiced-meat smell and the customary zing of flies.   The sole occupant of the office, a tubby male of middle years, had his teeth buried in a sandwich of  prodigious proportions.

“No taxi!”   This apparition grunted, showering his desk with crumbs in the process.  “Come back two o’clock.”

“I would like to go with my child to Kafjiha tonight.”   Yahedi stated.

The fat man made a gurgling noise, possibly indigestion:  “Will it be a return fare?”

“Just for me.   My child remains in Kafjiha with my father.”

The sandwich waved at the door.  “Across the street – the third door to the left of the alley.  Do not knock.  They will open if they know you.”

Yahedi, leaving, heard a click as the fat man picked up the ‘phone.

It was a plain wooden door in a plain mud and plaster wall.  Bourta, Yahedi’s friend, opened it as he approached.   “I said I would greet you personally!”  He grinned.   “Did you have any trouble?”

“No, the town is already asleep.   Am I the last, then?”

“By no means!   Come, let us make ourselves known to the Prince.”

The door gave entrance to a narrow passage that was nearly filled by Bourta’s broad form as he led Salaiman along its length.  They passed a small arbour with a seat fitted into the left-hand wall wherein sat a pale-skinned woman of uncertain years, dressed in fatigues.  She was perched uneasily upon the hard wood of the bench, an AK-47 resting across her knees.   In the poor light Yahedi could not read her face or see her eyes, or notice how they followed him with the  half-interested appraisal a tiger might give a passing rat.

At first, the passage was lit dimly by a glass roof high over their heads, where a bird, once brightly coloured, its wings now tawdry from panic and futility fluttered, unable to escape.   But then, at a sharp turn to the right, the way plunged abruptly into darkness. 

Wooden steps led precariously downward.  This was no longer a passage but a hole, rough-hewn into a great mass of brick and rock.   A burrow made by man-rabbits; a warren beneath the very walls of the Royal Palace itself.   Yahedi, twenty-first century assassin, knew this tunnel well.   Thirty steps to descend, then it became a passage once more, though the light did not return.   Each time he groped his path through this one, with companions or alone, Yahedi mused at the naiveté of those whose great wealth and power persuaded them that such measures were necessary or even desirable:  a secret passage, in Allah’s Holy Name!   Was this some kind of game to these people?     Did the Prince imagine that his family, or the rest of the world for that matter, was unaware of his associations and meetings?   He, Yahedi, moved freely in the world knowing that his every step, his every word and gesture, was likely to be watched.   He devoted the better part of his waking life to evasion, spent much of his considerable fortune upon disguise:  but never once did he persuade himself he could gain more than a few precious days, or hours, advantage over those who would capture him.   All of his twenty passports bore names which were known; today he had another, number twenty-one; by tomorrow, if not already, this name, too, would be attributed to him.    Surveillance?   That was a part of the net which would follow him forever, just a few steps behind.  Then there were the spies, the infiltrators, the professional moles, the turncoats, the traitors…the list was endless.

Oh, yes, this passage would have been a secret once:  for a few days, even weeks perhaps, the Crown Prince Shumal might have held clandestine meetings in his rooms with those who had trodden this path.   Then an aide would have become suspicious, or one of those who had cut the tunnel would have succumbed to ambition or torture, or maybe both.   From then on the secret way would have been permitted to exist, not because it was a secret, but precisely because it was not.  Because it was useful to know that those whom the Prince wished to meet in secret would pass this way, and those were the people a Prince’s enemies might wish to investigate.  Thus, Yahedi passed through with his head bowed, unspeaking:  wherever the camera was, he did not want to show his face to it. 

            As the tunnel began to re-ascend, a winding, upward stairway which led into the Prince’s private apartments, he had time to consider: the London affair had ended unsatisfactorily, but in the normal course of events that would not be sufficient to warrant a personal audience.  A sealed envelope, a further instruction, was the usual procedure.  So why this rare summons from the Prince?  Bourta had spoken of greater things.  Had the balance within the ruling family changed?   Everyone knew of the struggle for power which had followed the illness of the old King, of the ascendancy of his son El Saada – Saadi, as he was known:  an extravagant, spoiled wastrel never likely to secure the succession; a vassal in whose hands the oil state of Khubar’s place in world politics might just remain safe, but only for a generation: for Saadi was a known homosexual, a crime in itself in Al Kubhar, as well as the predestined end of a royal line. Was this the reason?  Was Shumal, the Crooked Prince, ready to assume his heritage at last?   Did he have work for a killer like Salaiman Yahedi?

Bourta turned the stone handle which rolled a marble relief to one side, admitting them both to the Royal Apartments.   The Crooked Prince himself was waiting for them.

“Blessings of Allah upon you, and upon you, my friends.   Come, take some tea with us.”

Prince Shumal was the uneasy head the crown of Khubar would rest upon, should the Crown Prince El Saada not survive.   The second of only three sons born to the old King, his public image, like that of the heir to the throne, was well-washed and gauzed:  his photographs, hung discreetly below those of his elder sibling, showed a clean-shaven accountant-like visage, gazing benignly at the world through horn-rimmed spectacles.   Unfortunately, this laundered version of his appearance meant he could rarely appear to his subjects in the flesh.   When he did show himself, it was always whilst riding behind the shaded windows of a limousine, shrouded in traditional royal dress.  In such disguise, no-one could see he was sitting upon a box.

“The Prince,”  a British Royal had once said valiantly after meeting him;   “Is a person of great character and unique charm.”   Adding confidentially to his Aide-de-Camp;   “Whom I hope I shall never have to meet again.”    He didn’t.

Prince Shumal’s stature (he was no more than four feet six in height) was never referred to; nor was his rampant habit of nose-picking, or his lascivious manner with the palace servants, especially the female ones.    He was a Royal personage, after all.   And in so many ways Shumal was a much better proposition than Ashedi, the youngest son of the old King, who was widely acknowledged to be an idiot.  Prince Shumal, for all his negative qualities, had a mind like a knife, and all the presence and confidence which rank and money could bring.   He was also a subversive, and a champion of the poor: as unlikely an angel as you could wish to meet, Yahedi thought:  what if heaven is made up of all such as him?

Yahedi accepted the Prince’s offer of tea (it would have been unforgivably discourteous to refuse), taking this opportunity to glance around at the other occupants of the room.   The apartment itself was unchanged since his last visit:  a modern, lavishly appointed air-conditioned flat, decorated in deliberately unostentatious colours:  matt browns, subdued greens.  There were two doorways, or rather arches, each of simple, square-carved marble, which led on to the Prince’s private rooms.   Two windows led out onto balconies, these heavily curtained against prying eyes.  The floor was cool grey marble. A vast flat-screened television all but filled one wall, while others were covered with tapestries – Mohammed with the angels, Martha with her boy-child at the holy well – all very devout and many as old as the palace itself.  His fellow visitors –  Bourta of course, a man of obviously Indian extraction in western dress he vaguely recognised and another in traditional dress he did not – fitted uneasily into this marriage of old and new.   They perched upon sumptuous leather couches which formed a circle in the centre of the room, sipping at their tea.   All waited.

There was a rumbling sound of stone on stone.   The marble relief panel slid aside and two more guests stepped into the room.   The first to emerge was a tall Caucasian male, slim and athletic in build.   This man, Yahedi decided instantly, was an American, and a man of some means.   His surgically enhanced face, his unnaturally bright eyes shining through thick spectacles, even his deliberately casual clothing exuded wealth.   And everything about him spoke of youth, of vitality – only the thin, papery skin of his hands, where they protruded from the sleeves of his expensive sweater, betrayed his real age. Yahedi guessed at sixty.  He might have been more.

“Hi fellas!”   Said the American, with a shuffle of his feet, almost a little dance, then a wave to encompass everyone in the room.  “Hi Sheik!”

The deliberate effect, the calculated travesty of etiquette gained the attention it sought.   Everyone in the room formed an immediate impression of the American.

A second visitor stepped out of the darkness, blinking at the onset of light.    This person instantly drew Salaiman Yahedi’s attention:  not because she was a woman, or because she was quite remarkably beautiful, although that should have been enough, but because he had seen her before and he never forgot a face.   Today she was smartly but modestly dressed in a business suit, her head covered according to custom, but when they met before she had been jogging and wearing tracks.   He had almost tripped her, one early morning in Hyde Park.

   © Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.     

Satan’s Rock

Part Nine

The Coming of Howard

Morning was slow to discover Francine’s recumbent form, the sunlight needing to creep over the bole of the uprooted tree before it could find its way into the pit that forest giant had created; lighting first upon her back, then, when it had enough warmth to offer, bringing a gentle glow to her cheek which caused her to stir.  Had she slept?    Had she fallen?

The blessing of the sun was welcome, for the rock beneath her, so possessive of her whole being the night gone, was warm no longer.  It was merely stone now, and whatever mystic properties it might have harboured to entice her had fled, leaving her with a sense of loss so intense it brought her near to tears.  There would be precious little time to grieve, however, because she was not alone.  Footsteps were shuffling behind her, and the sound that roused her to complete wakefulness that of heavy breathing, loud enough to all but eclipse the gentle rustling of the wind.

“Here!”  A man’s voice thick with accent, a foreign burr, although of what origin she could not tell,  “It is her!  It is the woman!”

Another voice  answered.  Someone not yet sharing his companion’s position in the pit yet, possibly not even in view.  “You’re certain?”

“Yes, certain!  Yes!  Come, help me – we must get her out of here!”

The other voice’s owner, making complicit sounds, was drawing nearer.  Hands that were not gentle closed about her shoulder.   “You, woman!  You must come with us!  Get up!”

Francine tried to shake herself free.  The rough hand grabbed her wounded arm from under her  and she screamed at the pain.  “Sir!  I beg you…”  She twisted her head angrily, to find herself looking into eyes so cold they conveyed the utter futility of begging.  He was as bronzed, this man, as he was lean – as he was strong, but there was no mercy in him; no kindness.  He began dragging her, half-carrying her because her feet would not, to the side of the pit where his companion stood watching dispassionately.

“Help me here!”  Francine’s captor snarled.  “Take her arms!”

But now there were – were there not – other voices.  English voices raised in a hue and cry.   Desperate to resist this man, Francine wrenched herself away, shouting,  “help me!  A rescue!”  As loudly as she could.

With muted expletives the bronzed man caught her again by that painful arm,  clamping a hand across her mouth and she bit down upon a finger, or maybe two, as hard as she could.

“This way!”  A voice she knew;  “See him?  Take him down!   Shoot, man!”

In immediate answer the lusty thunderclap of a fowling piece echoed in the cold air and the man who had been reaching down to hoist her from the pit rocked backwards with an agonized yell.    New voices were all about Francine now, gaining substance in the shapes of men – two at least of whom had guns.

With their appearance her captor became the captured; the pit a bear trap in which he was the wild creature, snarling his fury.   He clutched Francine to his chest, shielding himself as he backed towards a trodden ramp of mud that seemed his easiest ascent. 

“You, fellow!  Give yourself up!”   Arthur!   Arthur was there, standing at the lip of the depression with a duelling pistol.  “You have no means of escape, sir!  Release the lady now, do you understand?”

It occurred to Francine at that precise moment that her captor was unarmed.  Had he been in possession of even a knife this was the moment he might be most expected to have it in his hand.  It occurred to her also, as it probably already had to those assembled, that without help from the top of the slope this creature would be hard put to keep her between him and Arthur’s party when he attempted to climb from the pit.  His companion was no longer in evidence –  she judged that he had either fallen or fled.    Francine was not a great burden but she could be an awkward one, and if she were a dead weight…

Francine fainted – or at least, she appeared to do so.

She heard the shot, felt the arms that clawed at her jerk as she fell,  and the body that she was pinned against become as limp as she.   Then there were other arms, many arms to raise her up, cradle her and carry her.   And the only arms she wanted to carry her were there, and they were Arthur’s.

#

It was a parched springtime, that year.   Day followed day, week followed week with little rain. Late April was hot: lengthening days, longer and longer hours of sun. In early May the first storms began.

Peter, who loved fierce weather, walked Levenport Esplanade en route to his lectures many times with thick mists of cloud overlaying the town and rain lashing the pavements in untamed percussion.  On such days The Devil’s Rock was a grey shadow, Saint Benedict’s House a shrouded Valhalla barely visible at its peak.    When lightning flickered behind them rock and house were silhouetted like some great behemoth from the mythology of the sea: if the lightning struck, as it sometimes did, a white trace joined house to sky for a telling moment, a brief pathway between earth and heaven.   Then the thunder banged so loudly it seemed the basalt itself would split, and dry echoes crackled around Levenport’s sheltering cliffs.  At times like these Peter could easily imagine he was listening to a conversation of the gods.

Melanie rarely joined Peter on such tempestuous journeys, she being deterred by such practical difficulties as hair, wet clothes, and a nervousness of thunderstorms.    On finer days, though, she often met him on the Esplanade, and as the summer became ever wetter and less welcoming, spent more and more of her evenings wandering the Arcades with Peter, or ‘hanging’ with him in his room.  The reasons for the growing closeness of their companionship were defined one evening at the beginning of May. Their conversation was drawing to a close upon a reflective note.

Melanie asked,  “Did you ever hear from Vincent again?”

Peter shook his head,  “No, not after that phone call.   It’s really strange, thinking back to all that.  I suppose everything was OK, though.  I mean, that guy didn’t get shot, did he?”

When the attempt on Senator Goodridge’s life was broadcast on the television news its effect on the pair was sensational:  yet neither Melanie nor Peter knew how Goodridge’s life was saved because the details were never announced.   Peter had managed to persuade Melanie that his piece of clairvoyance was a one-off: some kind of anomaly or trick which they should keep as a confidence between themselves.  He had his own reasons for this as we shall relate, but it was true that he had not been contacted by anyone, and assumed that the mysterious purpose of his visit to St. Benedict’s House had been met.

Melanie did not disguise her jealousy.  “Shame.  You get to go to all the interesting places.  I should like to see that house, and your tablet of stone.  I wonder what would happen if I touched it?”

“Probably nothing.”  Peter shrugged,  “I think the things I saw had more to do with those iffy cakes of Alice’s than any stone.”

(But this was a lie.  He still dreamed those images, and one of them in particular haunted him.  He feared, really feared, that in some way and for some reason Melanie might one day get to touch the rock, to see the things he had seen)

“Alright,”  Melanie said,  “play it down if you want to.  Me, I think you’re a great seer – which, incidentally, makes you just a little bit creepy….”

“You speak truth.  As for creepy, I do occasionally get an urge to read the thoughts of your innermost mind.  Isn’t that normal?”

“Normal?   Lol.   Speaking of creepy (which you are) do you know my beloved mother has gone out tonight?   I am alone in that big dark house?   Don’t wait up for me, that’s what she said!”

Peter smirked,  “Do you want me to come over and look after you?”

“What,expose myself alone to the tender care of a letch like you?  Er….no!”

“Letch, now! Better dust off the garlic then.”

“Yeah, cheers.   Night babes!”

The next morning was a wind-blown and rainy one.   The more surprising for Peter, then, that he found Melanie waiting for him, sitting huddled in one of the shelters on the Esplanade.   Her face was traced from recent tears.

“Hey, “He greeted her, “Whassup Mel?”     Peter could not remember seeing Melanie cry.

 “I had to get out of the house.”  She said miserably.

“Why?”

“This morning I came downstairs and there was a man I’ve never seen before in the kitchen.   He was just, like, wearing underpants or something. It was horrible!”

“Ah!”   Said Peter.

“Alright, go on; tell me it had to happen.  I know – I knew it.   Mum’s a good looking woman, entitled to a life and all that….stuff.   It still doesn’t help when it does happen.  She’s my bloody mother!”

“It may not have happened;” Peter suggested gently: “I mean, he may just have slept on the couch, or something?”

“Oh, it did!   You should have seen her when she came down.   She was drooling all over him…it was just sick!”     Melanie wiped her hands across her face. “Oh!  Oh, and his name’s Howard, she insisted on telling me!   Howard!  As if I wanted to know his bloody name!”

“You’re upset.”  Peter sympathised, putting his arm around Melanie’s shoulders.        Truthfully, he had known that Karen, Melanie’s mother, would find a new companion.   His mother, Karen’s friend, who was expert in divining the nature of people, had told him so.  “She’s not a woman who likes being single” she had warned.   “Melanie is going to have to come to terms with that.”  Well, the prophesy had proved to be right – rather sooner than anyone (except maybe Karen) would have wished.

Even so it was difficult to accept, not just for Melanie, but for Peter too.   His own family lived in an oasis of calm amid troubled seas; for whatever you could imagine Bob and Lena to be, they were metaphorically joined at the hip.  You could not imagine them as separate from each other.   Once, in the days when he first knew her, Karen had appeared to Peter to have something of this same unity with her first husband, Marco, because children of the age he was then do not enquire into the stability of relationships, and his friendship with Mel had not deepened enough for her to trust him with tales of late night arguments, long absences, icy silences.   But whatever Karen was as a person then, she was very different now.

“Maybe he’s not….well, you know, permanent?”   Peter suggested lamely, aware even as he said it that his thoughts had led him in the wrong direction.

“Oh!   So my mother sleeps around now, does she!”   Melanie grinned at him weakly.  “Peter, will you come home with me tonight?  I mean, I don’t want him to be there again and me to be on my own, yeah?”

Peter hugged her shoulder: “Sure Mel, ‘course I will.”

And, after college that evening, Peter did as he promised.

Thus began a routine which developed:  before long Peter was walking Melanie home on a regular basis, and soon he was staying for half an hour, or an hour, in which the pair might go through their college work together or play video games.

Peter became an accepted visitor at Melanie’s house.   Karen seemed to see the value of his companionship.   She was not unaware of the tumult that a new man’s presence in her life would cause, or so determined as to ignore her daughter’s feelings; and if Peter, who was mature for his years, might buffer the effects of this collision she was thankful enough.   After that first ill-judged night when she had let passion overcome discretion and then seen the gravity of her error in Melanie’s face, Karen kept her relationship with Howard at arms length for a while.  But she knew where it was leading: and certainly Melanie would have to live with this.   Then, on a more practical level, as Mel spent a greater and greater proportion of her life with Peter, visiting him in the evenings, spending time with him at weekends, she was able to devote more of her own time to Howard.

Nevertheless, Karen trod carefully.   She made certain Howard was never there when Melanie returned from college, and she always told her daughter when he was to visit.   If she planned time away, she took care to involve Melanie, no matter how grudging the response.   With a delicate balancing act always in her mind, she juggled the lives of the people she loved (or was growing to love) in such fashion for a while: and, for a while, it seemed that things might be working out.

#         

When the hot summer northerly is blowing, an aircraft landing at Al Khubar must approach from the sea, where the runway is built out upon a man-made peninsula into the Bay of Ulman, or as it was known in early pirating days, the Sea of Thieves.

On such a summer day an airliner, heading first out to sea, will drop steeply as a stairway from the clear, azure sky and, as it passes below two thousand feet, turn tightly eastward for its final approach.   The cabin has been made quiet by the precipitous descent, until that banking turn.   Then it is common for an almost unanimous gasp of admiration to be drawn from strangers’ lips, as they get their first view of the miracle that man has worked upon the shore of the bay.   For the city of Al Khubar is such a testament to the capability of man to create beauty, that all those who have not seen it before, and many, too, who have, will be awestruck at the sight.  The graceful arch of the Sharm-Ayah suspension bridge which spans the whole bay stands so high you feel the plane might easily fly beneath it: then beyond, in the marinas of the western shore, line upon line of the most elegant yachts that were ever built lie at anchor.   But it is not these which draw the stranger’s eye; nor is it the smooth half-moon of verdant green grasses and trees which follows the shoreline so precisely from West to East.  No, all this is lost; for beyond the bay, beyond the green park-land which consumes two and a half hundred thousand precious gallons of water a day; beyond even the eight-lane highway which skirts the Park’s northern rim, stands such a city as western eyes have never seen.   Towers of tinted steel and white concrete rise in perfect symmetry.   Where there is a sickle-shaped skyscraper rising a thousand feet to the east, another to the west must be just the same.  Galleried glass tiers of shops and offices rise in steps, their profile clover-leafed into courtyards, storey upon storey.   Each courtyard is a space with trees and grass to sit, or stroll, or meet with the trams which network the city at every level.  The dome of the Great Mosque is the hub of lawns and hedged gardens which spread from it like a wheel, two great fountains behind it firing jets like crossed swords into the sky.   In a land where water is wealth there are even canals here, bisecting the new city with Venetian roads.   Amidst all of this the old town of Al Khubar sits, antiseptically white, within its defensive walls.   And amidst the old town, its walls even higher, stands the mighty palace of His Majesty King Assan.

Salaiman Yahedi had seen this sight so often down the years, yet it surprised him each time with its capacity to rob the body of breath.   As one who had long been stateless, Yahedi had no particular preference for any of the great cities of the world:  each was an interlude, a brief stop-over, a job to be done.  Yet, for all that, Al Khubar and its people drew him as certainly as any homecoming could.   He always felt a tinge of regret that he could not rest longer here.

After the air-conditioned plane had delivered him through the air-conditioned gate to Arrivals, and he had collected his minimal suitcase, Salaiman scanned the busy air-conditioned terminal for faces that he knew.   Mahennis Bourta stood out easily from the crowd.  The big Moroccan was at least half-a-head taller than most: his face, a tight, muscular mask of sinew and flesh, was split by a horizontal gash of a smile.

“Yahedi my friend!    Allah be praised!   Why, you look so well!”

The wide, slashing grin vanished as the pair made their way through the throng.  “I have a car for you.   I am to take you to the Hyatt, where you are booked in under this name.”   Bourta slipped a passport into Yahedi’s hand.  “Sleep Salaiman. We are to meet tomorrow at the usual place.”

“Really, so soon?   What is the mood, Bourta?”

“The mood, my friend, is that London did not go well.   The mood is not good.”

“There were reasons – not of my doing.  These things happen.”

“Ah!”  Bourta said, expressionless.  “There were bigger reasons, Yahedi, bigger than you know.   Here is the car.  We will talk in the morning, and |I urge you.”  He rested his hand on the assassin’s arm, “To prepare yourself.”

   © Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.     

Image Credits:     Harry Grout on Unsplah

 Sangga Rima Roman Selia on Unsplash