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Authors: Carla Banks

Strangers

BOOK: Strangers
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CARLA BANKS

Strangers

For Samantha

1

Haroun is dead.

The desert kingdom has taken him away from me.

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 2004

The message had come through earlier that morning:

It’s today
.

Joe Massey left his apartment in the northern suburbs and drove south towards the old city. The roads were busy. The traffic careered past him with blithe disregard for the law or for safety. Saudis lived with a different sense of their own mortality. The sky was almost white, and the sun glanced back from the surface of the road, stabbing into his eyes. He could feel the headache starting behind his temples.

He slowed as he approached the junction, ignoring the chorus of car horns that greeted his manoeuvre. He pulled in to the car park behind
the al-Masmak fort, a relic of old Arabia standing in the centre of the modern city that had sprung from the desert only decades before. His car slid neatly into the last remaining gap between two SUVs. The city was thronging with weekend shoppers, with visitors–and today, with sightseers.

He pushed open his door, and the sun hit him with a force that made him reel. It burned into his uncovered face, trying to peel the flesh away from his cheekbones, to burn through his upper lip.

He checked his watch. It was half past eleven. He could feel the sweat starting on his scalp and the itch between his shoulder blades that told him he had been seen, he was observed. The coffee he had drunk earlier tasted sour in his mouth.

As he left the car park, the narrow streets beckoned him, the dark heart of the city; the souk, where the fragrance of spices filled the air and the brilliance of fabric and rugs and brass glowed in the shadowy recesses of the stalls.

He had walked through those narrow streets often enough. But not today. Today the crowds were heading in another direction. He could feel their suppressed excitement like a charge of electricity through him. Voices called, people jostled past him. The smell of meat cooking caught his throat and made him want to gag. In the intense heat, he felt cold and dizzy, and he made himself pause and wait until the darkness at the edge of his vision subsided.

Then it was noon and the call to prayer sounded from the minarets. The shops closed and the streets
emptied. He sat quietly, waiting. The crowds would be back, soon enough. Once the people began to return to the street, he stood up and started walking. He didn’t need directions. They were all going to the same place.

Progress was easy now. He just had to relax and let the crowd carry him. Once, when he was a child, he had gone swimming off the Cornish coast. The current had taken him. One moment he was floating in the cool sea, rocked by the ebb and flow, next he was being drawn out, away from the beach, away from the shore, away from his family and safety. He’d tried to swim against it, then he had stopped fighting. The current had carried him round the bay and then released him into the gentle waters near another beach where he had waded ashore, unhurt. He closed his eyes, and let his memories of the sea overtake him.

When he opened his eyes again, he had arrived at his destination. The last time he had been here, it had been evening. The spacious, blue-tiled square had been full of people who had gathered to meet, to talk and to drink tea. Children had raced across the open space, expending their energies in shouts and screams.

Now, it was empty. He could see the police standing on the corners, see their eyes searching the crowd as they positioned themselves, their batons swinging casually. He had dressed to blend in, wearing the ghutra, the ubiquitous red-and-white chequered scarf, and a thobe, the long white robe
that served as a practical defence against the sun. Today, he had covered his eyes with dark glasses to conceal their tell-tale blue.

The air smelled of sweat and spices, and the staccato jab of Arabic attacked his ears. His mind escaped to another childhood memory, to the fair that came to the town every year with its crowds, the laughter, the shouts of the stallholders, the tinny music that meant freedom and summer. The smell of hotdogs and onions.

And now he could smell death. He had a sudden picture of Haroun sitting across the table from him as they talked over coffee, his dark eyes bright with laughter.
Joseph!
Haroun’s voice spoke in his ear. Haroun was the only person who had ever called him by his full name.
It is good to see you
.

It’s good to see you, too
…But the voices in his head faltered and faded.
Joseph

The crowd pressed forward and he went with it until he found himself in the shadow of a palm tree which gave him some relief from the sun. The empty square opened up in front of him. His eyes were drawn to the stones, blue-grey in the hard light, with intricate, interlaid patterns. There was no mark, no stain.

The hands on his watch barely seemed to move, and yet he had a sense of time running past him, faster and faster, as if there was some way he could stop it, as if someone was saying,
Now! Do it now! Now!
But it was too late. It had always been
too late. He could feel his heart beating fast, the breath catching in his throat.
Haroun!

Then the police were there, pushing the crowd back, back. Just for a second, he wanted to let himself go with them, to be carried to the back where the deadly stones would be hidden.
Be careful!
he had warned Haroun, but his warning had been half-laughing, a warning against the minor carelessnesses with which Haroun met the vagaries of life.
Joseph, you worry! Don’t worry!

And now this was the last thing he could do.

He held his ground until there was nothing between him and the waiting square but the line of armed police. The crowd closed in behind him, and the possibility of choice was gone. He saw that a tarpaulin had been laid out on the ground, less than twenty yards away from him. In the heat, a wave of cold washed over him and once again the blackness threatened at the edge of his vision.

And then two vans approached the square. One was unmarked. The other, incongruously, was an ambulance. They drew up outside the mosque. Armed men climbed out. They turned and stood by as the doors were held open, and a man was led out. He was blindfolded and shackled, and he stumbled as he stepped down on to the ground. His head lifted towards the vast emptiness of the sky above him as if he were straining to have one last sight of it.

‘Haroun.’ In his mind he heard the familiar
laugh and he felt his arms move in involuntary expectation of an exuberant embrace. But the blindfold meant that he would never look into that dark gaze again.

It was no more than a whisper, but the shackled man stiffened, and his head turned, blindly searching the crowd. Then he was forced to his knees, facing the holy city, facing Mecca. A man read out loud from a sheet of paper–the charges against the condemned man. Another man, dark-skinned and powerful, stepped forward. He carried a long, flat sword. He stood behind the kneeling man. Everything froze between one second and the next.

Then time seemed to jump as the bowed man jerked upright and the sword swung round on the indrawn breath of the crowd. The blood was a red fountain from the neck and poured from the severed head on to the tarpaulin.

Allah Akbar!
The roar from the crowd. God’s will is done.

His stomach contracted. His legs could barely hold his weight. The square seemed to darken in front of him, and the edges of his vision faded to blackness. He couldn’t pass out. Not here. Not now. He let his shoulders slump, breathed slowly and deeply until his head began to clear.

He knew, even though he had only seen the weapon and not the hand that wielded it, that he had just witnessed a murder.

2

London, April 2004

Tuesday was a bad day. It started out quite promisingly, but after that it was downhill all the way. When Roisin’s alarm clock went off at six thirty, the sky was leaden and heavy with clouds. By the time she had showered, the first spatters of rain were already hitting the window.

She went through to the kitchen and tipped some muesli into a bowl. The cramped kitchen still contained the original fittings from when the flat was built in the early sixties, a fact that would probably add enormous value when the taste for retro cycled through a few more years. The pots of herbs she kept on the window sill contrasted with the red of the formica tops to make it look like an old-fashioned Italian restaurant, and her eclectic collection of pans, the bottles of oil and the usual half-full bottle of red wine added to the effect. She didn’t much like the flat–a box in an
ex-council block–but the kitchen always felt warm and homey.

A year before, she had been in Warsaw. She and her then partner, Michel, had been about to open their own language school. They planned to teach English and Spanish through the year, and offer summer schools to students from all over the world.

Roisin had provided the start-up costs, sinking her savings and a small legacy from her father into the venture. Michel was to provide the financial backing for the first year of running the business until they had got themselves established in what was a competitive market. But the whole enterprise had gone sour.

She made herself stop thinking about it–there was no point in wasting energy in futile anger. She dumped her bowl into the sink and ran some water over it. She blasted her hair with the drier, which turned it into a blonde tangle. She swore and attacked it with the comb then pulled on her jogging gear and hurried down the stairs of the apartment block, wanting to get out before the rain began in earnest, before traffic really got going and tainted the air with fumes and noise. She knocked on the door of the ground-floor flat directly below hers.

There was a flurry of barks, and she heard grumbling as someone shuffled to answer her knock. A warm fug drifted out, a mix of dust, mildew and unwashed dog. George, the old man who lived
in the flat, observed her without obvious enthusiasm.

‘Rosie,’ he said. He yawned and scratched his chest. ‘Thought I heard you banging about up there. Suppose you want a cuppa, now you’ve got me up?’ His dog, Shadow, scratched at the wall behind him and tried to push his muzzle past the old man’s legs, whimpering with excitement. ‘Geddown,’ he said.

‘I’ll make it.’ George’s tea was a bright orange brew that he sweetened with condensed milk. She went into his kitchen before his ‘I can do that, thank you, missy,’ could stop her.

The kitchen was small–a mirror image of hers–and spartanly neat. A loaf of Mother’s Pride was on the worktop next to a carton of margarine, a bag of sugar and a tin of milk. She filled the blackened gas kettle–he refused to have anything to do with the brand new electric one his niece had bought him–and lit the hob. Then she waited interminable minutes for the kettle to boil and made them both tea.

He spooned in enough sugar to make her teeth ache and retired to his chair. Shadow laid a pleading chin on his knee. ‘Geddown,’ he said again, carefully tipping some of his drink into the empty dog dish by his chair. Shadow’s plump sleekness contrasted with his master’s thin frame. George, who was in his eighties, looked more frail now than when she had first met him six months ago when she had knocked on his door to sort
out a mail mix-up caused by the postman’s inability to tell the difference between 13 and 31.

‘I’m going for a run. I thought I’d borrow Shadow, if that’s OK.’

He surveyed the day outside the heavily netted window. ‘Running in this? You daft or what?’ He shrugged. ‘He may as well make himself useful.’ Shadow’s tail thumped on the ground. She and George kept up the pretence that he was doing her a favour by letting her take the dog when she went running. His knees were arthritic and their walks were sedate affairs. She waited as he finished his drink, listening as he gave her his take on the day. He probably wouldn’t talk to another person before she came back from work and dropped in to say hello. Then she clipped on the dog’s lead and left.

With the excited mongrel dragging her along, she went past the rows of front doors and stepped out into the chaos that was King’s Cross. The rain had stopped for the moment, but its fall had left the air smelling fresh, even in this polluted corner of the city. The traffic was starting to build up, people were heading towards the bus stops and the stations, and she could hear the rumble of heavy machinery and the shouts of the workmen from the building site. She walked down St Pancras Road, restraining Shadow until she reached the canal, then she let the eager dog off the lead and followed him down the steps on to the tow path.

Silence closed round her. She could smell the
dankness of the water and the musty fragrance of leaves that had lain rotting since autumn as Shadow pushed through the undergrowth. He came bounding back with a stick in his mouth and deposited it at Roisin’s feet, shaking the wet off his coat. Then he cast his eye in the direction of the canal, and began gathering his muscles for the leap. She issued a sharp instruction. He gave her a sideways glance, as if trying to decide whether to obey her, but maybe he, too, thought the water looked uninviting, and he danced away up the tow path.

The grey coldness of the water reminded her suddenly of the Tyne as it ran through her home city of Newcastle. The river had been the backdrop to her teens. When she was seventeen, she and her best friend Amy, high on pills, had climbed through the metal girders of the Tyne Bridge so Roisin could take a photograph of the mist on the water. She couldn’t remember now why they had decided to do such a thing, but she could remember Amy gripping her arm and bracing herself against a stanchion as Roisin leant out over the dizzying drop so she could angle her camera to get the picture she wanted. The memory made her laugh and a man, passing the other way, gave her a worried sideways glance and quickened his pace.

Shadow was running ahead now, so she broke into a slow jog, letting her mind wander as the rhythm took over. The tow path in the early morning was like a club. The same joggers and
dog walkers used it every day, and the London convention of avoiding eye contact and not acknowledging fellow human beings didn’t operate down here. She nodded ‘Good morning’ to familiar faces as she passed them, calling to Shadow as he got involved in the rituals of dog greeting that her father in an uncharacteristic moment of crudity had dubbed ‘ring-a-ring-a-arses’. She suppressed another laugh at the memory.

The tow path was wide and well paved here, overlooked by offices, expensive apartment blocks, and tall, red-brick buildings that rose an improbable height from the water. When she reached Camden Lock she stopped to catch her breath, leaning against the railings that surrounded it. There was a boat in, and she watched the boatman bracing himself against the foot grips to push the gates open. The water gushed in and his boat began its slow rise.

Another jogger was coming along the path towards her. As he came closer, she recognized him as a recently familiar face, a man who had joined the morning run a couple of weeks ago. He was tall with dark hair and an attractive smile. He had the tan of someone who had recently returned from a hot and sunny climate. She’d found herself wishing, once or twice, that their routes would coincide when they were going in the same direction.

She saw recognition on his face, and they exchanged smiles, then he was past her and
moving away down the tow path with an easy lope that suggested he could run for miles yet. She watched him for a moment, then looked round for Shadow, who seemed to have vanished. She called sharply and he came bounding out from nowhere. As she watched in horror, he cannoned into the man’s legs, and they teetered together at the edge of the deep, icy water. Then the man was sprawling on the ground warding off the frightened dog who was barking in his face.

‘Christ!’ She ran up to him. Her heart was hammering with delayed shock. ‘I am
so
sorry. That was my fault. Shut up, Shadow. Are you OK?’ She clipped on the dog’s lead. Shadow barked again and bristled with hostility. ‘Shut
up!
Here, let me help you.’

He was trying to get to his feet, his face clenching suddenly in pain as he put his weight on his foot. He took the arm she proffered to help him get his balance and tried his leg a couple of times. ‘I think it’s just twisted,’ he said, after a moment. He looked pale under his tan, and she could see him trying to disguise the pain he was obviously feeling. ‘Shit,’ he said as he tried again. ‘Sorry.’

‘Don’t apologize. It was my dog that knocked you over. I should have checked where he was before I called him.’

‘Is he all right?’ He reached out a hand to Shadow. ‘Here. Good boy.’ Shadow barked mistrustfully then fell silent as the man ruffled his fur. ‘You didn’t mean it, did you?’ He balanced
carefully, keeping the weight off his leg. He was looking down at her and as he smiled, she could see the laughter lines round his eyes. ‘I may as well take the opportunity to introduce myself. I’m Joe.’ He held out his hand.

‘Roisin,’ she said.

‘Rosheen
. I like that. Where does it come from?’

‘It’s Irish.’ She didn’t want to go into the complexity of her background, so she said quickly, ‘I’ve seen you here before.’

He nodded. ‘I started work at the hospital a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been meaning to get acquainted, so it’s an ill wind, right, dog?’ He addressed this remark to Shadow, who hung back behind Roisin, observing the scene dubiously.

‘This is Shadow,’ Roisin said.

His smile broadened. ‘I kind of thought it might be. Shit!’ He stumbled again as he put more weight on his leg. ‘Sorry.’

‘You need to get that seen to. Come on, let me help you up to the road. We should be able to get a taxi.’

‘No need. If I can just get up here, I can make it to the tube at Camden Town.’

She didn’t think he would be able to manage even that short distance. ‘I’ll walk with you. Shouldn’t you go to A & E?’

‘And spend the morning waiting to be told I’ve twisted my ankle? I’ll get it checked out at work.’

But he accepted her help up the steps, resting his arm on her shoulder to keep his balance. Once
they were at the top, he stopped, using the wall for support. ‘Look, I’ll be fine. You don’t need to hang around. You must have things to do.’

‘I feel responsible,’ she said.

‘Well, don’t. I should have been looking where I was going. Tell you what, let me buy you a drink later on, and I can give you an update. Give me your number.’

‘OK. I’d like that. But it’d better be me buying.’ She indicated the subdued dog.

‘Poor old lad.’ He reached down and tugged Shadow’s ear. He waited as she scribbled her number down, then glanced at the paper and put it in his pocket. ‘I’ll call you tonight,’ he said. She watched him as he hobbled away down the road towards the tube station, then she turned back to the canal. If she didn’t get a move on, she was going to be late.

That was the good bit.

When she got into the college where she taught English to overseas students, she was greeted by the news that one of her colleagues was off sick and she had to pick up two of his classes, groups of engineering students who combined a poor grasp of English with an insistence that they knew exactly how they should be taught, and who tested Roisin’s not very enduring patience for the next five hours. It was a comedown for someone who had come close–very close–to owning her own language school.

But those plans had come to grief in the bitter
war that Michel was fighting with his ex-wife. Their joint venture had somehow become entangled in the proceedings, and they had had no option but to sell, and sell at a loss. Michel had taken half of the money that was left. That was the law–the business assets were in their joint names. The fact that this had been Roisin’s money, and that very little of his money had yet been committed, was irrelevant. She had trusted him, and he had let her down.

So now she was in London with a mortgage that she could barely afford on a run-down flat in the middle of a building site, keeping her head above water with part-time contracts, and trying to decide what to do next. Teaching English to disruptive young engineers hadn’t been part of her life plan, but just at the moment she had no choice.

She left work in a bad temper and with a headache that wasn’t improved by long delays on the Northern Line. When she finally got home, she realized she’d missed the date for paying off her credit card and would incur a hefty interest payment.

And, of course, the canal-side man didn’t phone.

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