Seekers in Darkness
The year in Al Khubar reaches its nadir in December. Which is not to say that the sun ceases to burn, or the day grows too short: but a southern wind, merciful to some as a respite from desert heat, blows strongly enough to trouble the placidity of the gulf, and sand devils, whipped up by this wind, scour the beaches. A few ardent surfers, a scattering of sail-boarders, maybe some low-season travellers might brave the gale: for the most part, though, the sea-front is deserted and the markets are quiet: the hotels fall back on their business traffic, and the tiny Kingdom is rested from one facet of its great wealth for a while.
Marak looked down upon the ribbon of white sand which bordered the bay and reflected. The fuselage-like capsule wherein he stood, atop Al Khubar’s expensive King Abur Clinic gave a feeling of flight, as though, on the thirty-second floor, one was not attached to the ground at all; but rather in some palatial zeppelin which moved, or at least swayed a little, in the wind. He sighed. For all of the comfort the Royal Suite provided, he was not a man accustomed to idleness. He had attended this place every day for two months and that was too long for a man of his disposition. However important his role here, he would wish it to be done with. Mohammed Al Fait, the man known as Marak, was unquestioning of this city state. If he disapproved of its vast coffers of oil-generated gold, he did not speak of it, or allow the diplomatic glove to slip from his hand. He moved carefully here.
Jordanian son of a wealthy family of importers Marak had travelled many leagues, both politically and geographically, from his childhood home: this even though, on a clear day, he might almost descry his father’s warehouses from such a high window. The Gulf was not so large, after all. His father had sent him to Oxford for a first class degree, expecting the travels of his rather quiet and deferential child to end there, and carrying the expectation that he would return to take up his family’s business interests. But the maelstrom of university life offered another perspective to the keen-brained Marak. Upon the banks of the Isis he met a beautiful and idealistic sociology student called Ydala, and it was in the spell of her challenging intellect that he learned to ask questions of his privileged life. After his graduation he went, not back to the family firm, but to America with Ydala to train as a soldier. His first career steps were through cloying assault course mud in backwoods Montana. His philosophical metamorphosis occurred in the chrysalis of Ydala’s sleeping bag. The emergent butterfly dried its wings and flew to Iran with her to sip at the nectar of fundamentalism, but did not find what it wanted. Marak understood his place in the universe the first time he took up an assault rifle, and, although this was something of which Ydala was less certain, she followed him to Afghanistan to fight the Americans, and to Syria to attack the demons of Zion.
Ydala died in Southern Lebanon, her flashing black eyes dimmed by the absolute obliteration of an Israeli rocket. Something of Marak died there too. He never fully recovered from Ydala’s death. For a while he became a machine; a total mercenary without conscience or creed. If guns were to be hired Marak’s meter was always running, be it in Palestine or Georgia, in Ethiopia or Ecuador. Then, when that aspect of his grief was satisfied, he turned to terrorism for his revenge. He learned the clandestine art of the bomb-maker, the steady aim of the assassin. He became, to some extent, what Salaiman Yahedi already was. In that at least, Yahedi had been wrong about Marak in his characterisation of him for the Crown Prince, but correct in discerning that killing of itself was not to Marak’s taste. For all of his action-filled life, Marak remained quintessentially rather above the blunt end of struggle. He venerated the symbolism of the gun rather than the fell justice of the bullet. Very westernised and scarcely a practising Moslem, he was, despite his history, in all things a charmer: a gentleman with a revolutionary fire in the thing that passed for his soul.
This morning it was important to conceal that fire. A visit by Prince Shumal was due.
His royal personage would enter the building by a private access, travel up to the suite in his own private lift. In a few moments the doors behind Marak would open and he must be facing them when they did. It was etiquette: it was expected.
Beside Marak stood a doctor whose input to this meeting would be as important as his own. To their right was a critical care unit: a tented bed surrounded by electronics and machinery dedicated to the preservation of life at the edge of extinction. Occupying this bed, amid a tangled waft of tubes and wires, was Melanie Fenton. There was little to remind Marak of the brittle, vibrant young woman who warmed the damp air of a Scottish morning for him, now some eight weeks since. Melanie, pitifully thin and pale as death, lay crumpled before him, a discarded snakeskin. She made no movement, no sound save the regular rhythm of her assisted breathing. A monitor bleeped out each tortured beat of her heart.
There were approaching footsteps, murmurs of deferential conversation. The doors to the suite were thrust aside by an irruption of white-suited security men, who peeled back like the petals of a rather vulgar lily to reveal the Crown Prince, a stamen in a yellow robe, in their midst.
Shumal paused in the doorway as he took in the room; Marak and the doctor, Melanie’s comatose form. As though aware of the incongruous picture this made, his own truncated form little more than waist high to the tallest of his guards, he gestured to his aide, an earnest, darker-suited young man who waited behind him: “Where are nurses? This is our guest: she is precious to us. She should be attended constantly.”
Then, bowling into the room with arms outstretched, he greeted Marak and the doctor warmly.
“My friend! And Doctor Schulmann! Thank you for coming!”
Each man bowed slightly and smiled. Shumal’s diminutive stature belied his power, yet he commanded respect.
“This is the girl?” Shumal moved to Melanie’s bedside, brushing aside enough tubing to gain a full view of her face. “Ah, so young!”
“Her name is Fenton, your Highness.” Marak murmured. “She is the one we spoke of.”
“And resourceful of you it was to find her, my dear Mar- ak.” The Crown Prince emphasised the second syllable of Marak’s name in the ancient tradition. “But then when you told me of her illness….” He sighed: “I did not dream of such as this!”
He brushed aside the film of the tent, taking Melanie’s hand and lifting it, with its attendant catheters, from the bed. “She has fine skin – a beautiful child, no doubt. Doctor, does she make progress?”
Schulmann pursed his lips, allowing Shumal to see a diplomatic reply coming before it left them. “Do not hold anything back from me, Doctor: I want your honesty, you understand?”
Schulmann nodded sagely. “Frankly, your Highness, no. Her vital signs are weak, she does not breathe without assistance, as you can see, and she has support for all her physical functions. There is no obvious evidence of brain activity beyond that which you might expect in a deep coma patient.”
“And will she recover? How long does this take?”
“Who can say? She is stable. Sometimes such a patient may regain consciousness, sometimes not; but as to when? It might be in a day, a week, a year. Or never.”
“She is in a vegetative state.” Marak explained. “She lives because we do not let her die. That is all.”
“Were she less important to Your Highness;” Schulmann said, “We would have discussed her prognosis before now.”
The Crown Prince regarded the girl in the bed solemnly. “How did this come about? You say she was well when you found her? Can she have been poisoned?”
Marak could only repeat aloud the story he had turned over in his head for many weeks now. “She was in robust health on the plane until about thirty minutes after we took off. She appeared to suffer some form of stroke, or perhaps an epileptic fit. After a few minutes of spasm this subsided, so that all seemed normal; though she complained of head pain. She collapsed a half-hour later. She had to be defibrillated twice in the plane.”
Marak left his original plan unsaid, which had been to recruit Melanie into the service of ‘The Portal’ in Cairo – to turn her great gifts as a seer to his cause’s use. A plan that had to quickly change in mid-flight when he realized there was no hope for his prophetess without the best medical help, which within his circle of influence only the Crown Prince could provide; Al Khubar was the one conceivable destination. So he had telephoned Shumal with his tale of an opportunist kidnapping and a hostage useful to the Amadhi cause.
He shrugged: “As for poison, Your Highness, I think not. My crew are trusted.”
“We made all necessary tests for poisons, Highness,” Schulmann said. “Nothing was discovered. The symptoms are more consistent with some episode of a neurological nature. Yet there are things there which do not fit.”
The diminutive prince cocked an eyebrow: “How so?”
“I say she does not respond to our treatments, Highness. That is not quite accurate. It might be more precise to say she is impervious to them. There seems nothing we can use which will register any affect – nutrients, stimulants….her body remains in absolute stasis whatever we attempt. This is odd: I might even say unique.”
“So perhaps if you took away these machines….”
“Maybe so.” The Doctor secretly thought that such a measure would be more than his career was worth, but he did not say so.
The Crown Prince nodded. “You will do your best, Schulmann, I am sure. She is in the most capable hands.” He turned to Marak: “We must meet soon. My aide will call you.”
After Shumal had left, Schulmann and Marak exchanged glances.
“You did not elaborate.” Marak accused.
“No, I did not.” Schulmann spoke almost as if he did not want Marak to hear him. “Because I am a medical man, Marak, and what I see here is unnatural. If I am asked to explain it…” He left the sentence unfinished, “I am not sure I believe it myself.”
Schulmann could not explain; not even to himself, how it was that the tiny almond of the Amygdala, an inch or so of simplicity in that great unknown which is the human brain, should be so active in a coma patient: how it was that the pulses from that one region of Melanie Fenton’s torpid intellect should be so strong. It was, indeed, unnatural. To the more susceptible of his superstitious proclivities it smacked of witchcraft.
And to speak of witchcraft…
“Beloved?” Francine’s lips whispered in Arthur’s ear; “Have I found you?”
“Francine,” opening one eye Arthur turned his head to hers, inhaling the rose scent of her morning. “When could you have lost me? We have been no further than a breath apart tonight.”
“I did. In my dreams I could not find you and I was afraid. The darkness is filled with shadows – yet here I am.”
“So, all is well…”
“Indeed, sir? How can all be well? I am a fallen woman!”
At this more spirited response Arthur stretched, revelling in the nakedness of the feminine flesh that pressed to his. He gently bit Francine’s nose. “We have certainly travelled many a mile, you and I, but not one yard of it felt like a descent to me. I love you, foolish child. If you fret so about your reputation, it takes no more than a mere proposal of marriage from me to make of you a Lady as high as any in the land (should you do me the honour of accepting it, of course). Don’t tell me you didn’t consider that?”
“Oh! I am a fortune-seeker now, am I?” Arthur suffered a playful blow from a cushion to his head for this insinuation. “And I suppose all the blame for this liaison must lie with me?” She leapt from the bed, treating him to the perfect curves of her hips and back as she half-strode, half-danced to the window, gesturing theatrically at towards St. Benedict’s Island; “And not with this monster of an ugly rock?”
Arthur was delighted, but concerned. “Francine, my darling. You can be seen from the street?”
The effect of his remark was far greater than he intended. Francine squealed, genuinely shocked enough to jump back from the glass, clutching her arms to herself. “My nightdress! Arthur, my nightdress! Did you take it from me?”
“My dear, you never wore it! Do you have one?”
“How do you dare? How… Of course! Of course I have one! What must you think of me?”
“I think you must be in danger of freezing. Come back to bed.”
“Nay, sir!” Francine would not, but snatched her valise from the settle before retreating behind her screen. A minute of fumbling and foolishness so intense Arthur could almost read the confusions in her mind followed. When she emerged she was respectably gowned, and measurably calmer. “I feel weird!” She said, in a voice not quite her own; “This is just mad!”
Arthur enunciated a thought that had been long in growing: “At times of great stress…”
The hotel room door opened enough for Francine’s son, Samuel, to peer in. He had heard his mother’s cry of alarm. In an instant his eyes had taken in the bed, and Arthur lying upon it.
“Mama? Is all well?”
Did the child miss, as Arthur certainly did not miss, the few seconds of complete estrangement in his mother’s eyes – an expression which nearly found a voice: “Who…?”
Francine recovered herself quickly, “Yes, yes. Go and dress yourself, my sweet. We shall take breakfast shortly,”
Samuel had already interpreted the scene: “Mama? Is this…”
“Yes, Sam. There are things here you do not understand, but trust me, I beg you? Go and ready yourself. We must journey back very soon.”
Reluctantly, the child’s head withdrew and the door was gently closed. As soon as she was certain he had gone, Francine sat by Arthur’s side of the bed and he would have held her hand but she snatched it away.
“You had no idea who he was,” Arthur said gently; “There was an instant there when you and he were strangers. There are times you and I are strangers, are there not?”
“Aye.” Francine stared at her lap, “Yet there are times too when I am closer to you than anyone I ever met or could imagine meeting. Those times are such that I cannot feel shame for the things we have done together here. Shameful as I know they should be, I cannot!” She stood, no longer afraid for her modesty, to cross to the window once more. “Nevertheless there was a time I was alone last night, and I cannot explain it. I had lost you. It was dark and there was some one far off I thought might be you. I called out to you, but you made no answer. Oh, Arthur, am I mad? Have you fallen into the clutches of a madwoman?”
Arthur rose from the bed, pulling his shirt about himself and preparing to dress. “No, Francine, you have fears perhaps, but you are not mad. Even if you were, I could not deny you. I can console you by this much, that the strange utterances you make are clues to your hidden past, and we shall discover their meaning. For myself I only have one fear, that we shall find as the skein unravels that you were – and therefore haply are – wedded to another. My dear one, last night you were never further than a whisker from my side and in sleep, with such contentment on your face as I could wish to be writ for me, you uttered a name. You said, ‘Peter’.”
© 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.
Featured Image Adam Borkowski from Unsplash
Darkened Hall Rui Silvestri from Unsplash