Around a bend in the desert road, and still practically within sight of Al Khubar’s South City business district, a white-walled hacienda-style estate lay sprawled upon rising ground against a backcloth of illuminated gardens. Bourta and Yahedi were chauffeured alongside its least elevated boundary wall, which was yet high enough to obstruct their vision of the villa at its heart. They would not pursue this parallel path for long. Two pillars crowned by sculptures of rampant lions framed bronzed double gates which parted expectantly as their limousine approached. Closed windows, bullet-proof and sound-proof, stifled Yahedi’s vocal outrage at this lurid display from the hearing of the armed guards, who waved them through.
Beyond, a driveway affecting to be made of crazy pavement led between cypress trees for some two hundred metres before it swept onto the forecourt area of the house. Blank stucco walls, interspersed with little windows of one-way glass stared out upon two other limousines, already drawn up before theirs.. A small group of figures, maybe four or five, were gathered in the luminescence of an open portico which admitted visitors to the inner courtyard. The driveway ran with a thin film of water just deep enough to splash almost musically up into the wheel arches of the Mercedes as it passed. To either side, huge fountains of irrigating water thrashed to and fro, symbolic of wealth the owner of this house must possess to defend himself and all that was his against the ravages of the desert sun. In the Kingdom, water was as negotiable, and as valuable, as gold. You had to have money to get it, you had to have connections and power in order to keep it.
At the margin of the forecourt, Bourta commanded: “Stop!”
Unspeaking, their driver drew the Mercedes to a halt, as, of one accord, Yahedi and Bourta opened their respective doors to slide out of the car, whilst keeping the bullet-proofed metal of the doors between them and their welcoming committee. Instantly the night chill of the desert caught them. Feet braced upon the stone of the driveway, handmade leather shoes gently moistened by the water on the driveway, they waited.
For what seemed like minutes, nothing happened. The decanted passengers from the other limousines, men expensively tailored, women glistening in very western fashion, idled through pools of conversation as they filtered into the belly of the villa and their transports moved away; until the few who remained, clearly staff, were free to focus entirely upon the hardened assassins. Neither Bourta nor Yahedi showed any intention of leaving the protection of their shielding doors, and their driver sat impassively waiting. A protocol long understood by those who guard and those who are guarded was being meticulously observed. At what seemed to be an agreed moment, one member of the welcoming party, a rotund figure of cummerbund and shining face, spread his hands to show he was unarmed, and kept them spread as he walked carefully forward. His voice had an almost febrile pitch: “We should have insisted you leave your arms at the gate, yes?”
“Far enough!” Yahedi said quietly.
The approaching man nodded, standing still. “Salaiman Yahedi, Mahennis Bourta. Welcome, my brothers: advance in peace.”
“Abu Khubis.” Yahedi had recognised the voice. “Why are we brought here?”
“To meet with the Crown Prince, Salaiman. He rests here tonight.”
At this, the tensions in the air seemed to disperse. Mahennis Bourta’s wide slit of a mouth broke into a demonic grin. “Khubis, you will never know how close you were to losing your manhood then.”
Abu Khubis nodded towards the villa roof, at its extreme eastern and western points where the moonlight reflected softly from the two AK 47s which were trained upon them. “Nor you to yours.” He said brightly. “Come, my friends. You are awaited.”
As Salaiman and Mahennis moved to join Khubis, their limousine whispered away from behind them to be parked in twilight with the other cars. Inside, its driver allowed himself to exhale for the first time in what seemed like an hour. Just once in a while in his drudge of a job, there were moments. This was one. Light of heart, he sampled the exquisite pleasure of a breath he thought he might never take.
Beyond the brightly-lit portico was a covered hallway. Here, Yahedi and Bourta mutely surrendered their arms, spreading them out upon a table obviously provided for the purpose. An arch, its plaster roof painted in blue and red and liberally leaved with gold, led them through to the inner courtyard of the villa. Surrounded on all of its sides by the main body of the house, here, as outside, water symbolised wealth and power. A blue, subtly under-lit pool occupied almost all space, sloped at its front edge, inviting easy access to its central depths. As a backdrop, some western sculptor had provided a marble rival to the Trevi fountain, with cavorting nymphs and cupid figures from which the flow of liquid gold cascaded or sprayed. Around the margin of the pool there was laid a wide apron in a continuous mosaic of mythic sea creatures in blue and gold, from which the level rose in six even stages into those salons and apartments which surrounded it. At this hour these rooms, almost all entirely faced with glass, should have been closed against the cold: but it was not cold here. Cleverly disguised ducts and vents provided a barrier of heat, enveloping the whole space in warm, gently humid air. Although the glazing might have been layered for soundproofing its principle function was privacy, for gas between its layers would cloud if the rooms’ occupants so wished, veiling them from prying eyes.
On the pool’s eastern side a mosaic walkway joined a bridge to a central island where was set a table, some upholstered chairs, and a mountain of casually scattered silk cushions. At the sight of the figure reclining amongst these the two assassins stiffened with alarm, for, though this was indeed the figure of a Crown Prince, it had not the squat, toad-like proportions they expected. It was a person altogether thinner and taller; whose finely-chiselled features bore arrogance, a vanity, a foppishness entirely inappropriate to the present company. This was not the Crown Prince Shumal: this was his older brother, and the heir to the throne of Khubar. This was El Saada.
In late afternoon an oppressive silence clung to the cloister’s grey stones, only broken once and again by a door slam as some cathedral servant or other emerged unwillingly into its icy precincts. They would pass through with a spatter of chill-hastened footsteps, to be quickly snapped up by a further door. Sagging gutters dripped steadily, their issue tracing ice-fringed paths to interlace among the grey flags. It was too late in the year to draw tourists to this sombre shade: too cold for the middle-aged woman with her rubbings, or contemplative strolls of the residing clergy. Notwithstanding the view the cloister offered of the South Tower, now glowing a gentle pink in late afternoon sun, or the filtered wafts of choral plainsong from the cathedral school, its walks were deserted, its sculpted tombs and memorials unremarked. The two men seated upon a grey stone settle there were alone in the most absolute sense; their words, hushed with conspiracy, sinking without echo in the damp air.
“Apparently there is to be a meeting.” Bishop Harkness said, his hawk nose at real risk of frostbite despite swathes of scarf and his huge overcoat: “Between King Assan of Al Khubar, the American Senator, Goodridge, and some other personage whose identity we have not established yet, but of sufficient worth to lend credibility.”
The monk studied his feet. A Chaffinch feeding in the frost-tipped grass regarded him warily. “So, a political bun-fight? Which is of what significance to us/”
“The venue will be St. Benedict’s Rock. It cannot be coincidence. There is an agenda here.” The Bishop’s sharp gaze did not miss a twitch of his companion’s eyebrow, “You smile, Brother? Does this amuse you?”
“No, no!” The monk demurred; “Although the choice of venue is certainly surprising. I merely thought of the irony: we have always seen preferential access to the Holy Stones as culmination of our mission to convert the Moslem to the true faith; what if the Moslems got there first? I digress; agenda for whom, I wonder? King Assan’s well-being is a somewhat temporary thing, is it not?”
“Something of a miracle.” Bishop Harkness agreed heavily. “In remission, conveniently pre-empting a forthcoming U.S. Presidential Election. I am deeply, deeply suspicious of it: the powers in his administration are aware of The Stones, I’m certain. How much more do they know, is what we have to ask.”
“One suspects very little,” The monk raised that sardonic eyebrow again: “As agency to avert one of their professional assassination attempts, perhaps: not much more. Although, if this specific Middle Eastern presence on The Rock constitutes itself as I predict, it might attract the attention of the Egyptian Portal sect.”
“Their devotion is not dissimilar to our own,” Agreed the Bishop levelly; “I would be better content if this were not a political gathering of such obvious sensitivity. Again, I ask, to fit with whose agenda? If it’s one of those blessed Ethereals driving this, what possible motive can it have? We may be missing something – this might be the precise reason the stones are awake.”
“Senator Goodridge is a Republican, is he not?” The monk smiled indulgently, “Surely, Bishop, our God is a Democrat?”
Harkness’s features were insufficiently exposed for the monk to tell if his companion had taken his bait. When the Bishop made no reply, he went on: “The girl – have we found her yet?”
“No, we have not.” Muttered the Bishop; “I am not discouraged. Whoever has her, she must surface soon.”
As had recently become his custom, Marak stayed late at the King Abur Hospital. On this particular night Lindemann, the doctor in charge of Melanie Fenton’s care, made a point of expressing his concern.
“The poor child has gone. There is no sign of mental activity. Yes, there are anomalies, but of brain-death I am certain. What we do here is ethically wrong. I assume she will still be a juvenile, with a family somewhere? They should be informed, Marak, and soon.”
Later that evening, those remarks had formed the substance of a telephone conversation with Prince Shumal. The Prince’s response was predictable.
“If the girl is dead, then she is dead. But she is not dead, Marak. While she still breathes while there is hope, would you have me sanction her death?”
“This is medical opinion, Highness. I fear there is no prospect of recovery in even the smallest measure. Her family must be inormed.”
Shumal did not reply for a moment. At length he said: “Did we expect too much?”
It was a curious, almost fatalistic question; was it merely rhetorical? Marak thought not. There was something in Shumal’s voice. “Okay. Like this, she is of no use to us.
Twenty-four hours then, Marak.”
“In which case, her family must certainly be informed forthwith.”
“That would be problematic for us all.”
“Your Highness, Lindemann will not be complicit in withholding such information. He will see it as tantamount to murder!”
“Marak, Marak! We have not murdered her! We have done all we can to save her! In her country she is listed as missing, is she not? No-one knows where she is; or whether she is alive or dead? Is it not essential to us all she remains that way? Police, Press, politocians – awkward explanations? At this critical time? Pull the damn plug, man! Allow her the dignity of death.”
“If that is your wish, Highness.” Marak stared at the lifeless figure amidst its bulrush cradle of tubes and lines, listened to the shallow, assisted breaths as they pumped out their rhythm, for what he felt would be a final time. He could scarcely recognise in this dried husk the vital girl with the hungry eyes of just three months ago. He sought in vain some tiny sign, some memory of movement., but found none. Very well; he would call Lindemann tonight with the Prince’s verdict, and no doubt LIndemann would take his protest back to the Prince, but when Shumal reached a decision there was no possibility of change. Melanie’s family would never know what became of their daughter. For himself, his vigil ended here: he would not return to this sad room, but when, tomorrow, the time came, he would pray for her. Filled with a deep sense of failure, he turned and walked away.
Word was handed down from Lindemann’s high office. This would be the last night. Nurses drew screens around the inert creature in the bed to bathe it, then, finally, because there was really so little to be done, withdrew. A pair of administering angels remained in accordance with their superiors’ command. For a while, with the screens back, they sat each side of their patient; they would do this for a day if their Prince commanded. But they seemed unable to stay long in such proximity: soon, irresolute, they each stood, walked away, returned to their charge for a moment or two, then retreated once more. There was a time when it might appear they, the nurses, might all be planets in orbit around the cold, dark sun which occupied the bed; attracted yet repulsed, fearing to be too close, unable to leave. But after all, it no longer really mattered. At last one nurse made her excuses: her feet clacked briskly away across the shining floor and the doors digested her. The remaining nurse hesitated in the middle of the room, then walked slowly to a couch upon its further side. Here she sat, watchful. The hours passed.
It was the afternoon of Melanie’s appointed day. Lindemann had dropped into the intensive care ward, made a few necessary checks and departed with a promise to return at 5:30pm. Only the nurse remained, idly browsing a magazine. Periodically she would move to Melanie’s bedside, confirm the readings on the machines, examine the integrity of the tubing and its connections. Once, an adrenaline bottle needed changing. Behind the bed the picture window was full of dust-blue sky, darkening. Afternoon sun cast a ribbon of light onto its occupant, light which flowed in a softly-defined river over the floor to make a shadow upon the opposing wall. It projected a complex profile of bed and tubes, stems of long reeds which seemed to move, slightly, with the flexing of their lens. Gradually these, in the dwindling light, began to fade until only the river of sun-glow remained. The nurse looked up, slightly impatient that she could no longer read. Then, like the throw of a switch, the sunlight was gone.
Lightning split the air. A jagged saw-blade of blue light photographed the room.
A thunder bomb crashed against the window. Startled, the nurse leapt to her feet, afraid its force might shatter the stalwart glass. It did not. A second lightning bolt followed the first, a second thunder-shock, as violent as the first. And, when the lightning went, when the room was completely dark to human sight, there came the voice:
“Al-yannnn! Aneyah! Anye-caaaaa!”
Remembering her duty, the nurse rushed to ensure her patient was safe. She got only halfway to the bed.
Rising from the sheets as though levitated by some invisible force, tubes radiating from her like snakes of Gorgon hair, Melanie Fenton stood erect. The starved girl’s body seemed to crackle with static charge. Her eyes were wide and unblinking, and her mouth was a yawning chasm from which the chant was pouring: “Aa-aateh! Aa-aateh! Aa-aateh!”
The nurse stood rooted to the spot. Like some terrible angel, refulgent in its own light, Melanie’s wasted form floated towards her. In the middle of the royal floor, all professionalism forgotten, though she was one among the elite of nurses in the land, she gave way to abject fear.
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