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?”
“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.