Madari lay in bed, almost a week later. Not asleep. He’d spoken to Sophia on the phone that evening and as with so many of their conversations, what wasn’t said was as important as what was. She hoped to come home by the end of October, she said, and apologised that it was so long, but she wanted to finish up everything, rather than have to keep going back.
Madari said he quite understood and that he missed her. But his mind kept going back to the word “home”. She thought of Az-Ma’ir as her home. Not a temporary place and that one day she would go back home to Italy. No, Qumar was her home.
That made him nervous.
He’d come to realise how rarely he thought about the long term with Sophia. He didn’t make plans for their relationship, it just happened. He had no dreams for what it might become, the way he did with Jahni. It simply went on just as it was, day by day, week by week, month by month, and even year by year.
Of course, he suspected most men did the same. Played it by ear, as the expression went, until something changed. Women were different though. They made those long term plans.
When they’d become a couple, she’d told him that if he wanted marriage he must look elsewhere. He’d told her he accepted that they couldn’t marry. But had he ever made it clear that he wasn’t interested in marriage even if she was free? And Sophia herself, she’d never said that she still wouldn’t want to marry even if she was free. Perhaps she didn’t. But women usually did want marriage. If it was an option.
Now it was an option.
Of course, she knew about his feelings for Jahni. Would a woman actually want to enter a marriage when she knew her husband loved someone else, even if he’d sworn never to act on those feelings? Or specifically, would a woman like Sophia want that?
She was different from most of the women he’d known. Even his ex-wife, so well educated and independent minded by his culture’s standards could not compete with the pride and sense of self Sophia simply took for granted was hers to own.
Could he claim he could only marry a Muslim woman? A dangerous tactic. What if she offered to convert? Just how important was her Catholic faith to her? Certainly it kept her from divorcing, but that could have been as much about family and cultural pressures as religion. She attended mass, he knew that. But was that simply part of her social networking here? She didn’t talk much about her faith. He never saw her praying. If a priest came to visit it was only ever as a dinner guest, not as a confessor, that he knew of anyway.
He sighed and rolled over in his bed to where the sheets felt cooler. Perhaps when she came back he would ask her some careful questions about her religious faith.
Meanwhile, he had to sleep. His mind would not rest, occupied with Sophia, and with Jahni’s confusing behaviour. Though that might still be his imagination, he couldn’t tell.
Sleep, he commanded himself, seeing that it was after two, by the glowing hands of the clock by his bed. He tried the various techniques he’d learnt for inducing sleep without resorting to the drugs he now reserved only for really difficult nights. Was this a difficult night? No. The worries on his mind seemed almost trivial compared with some of the terrors that used to haunt his mind every single night.
Still, Dr Fauzi would not consider them trivial. Madari had an appointment with him tomorrow, so he’d see if the good doctor had any advice on the situation. The appointments were back to once a week, and the doctor had helped him accept the way things had to be with Jahni. But with the way things were at the moment, perhaps they needed to look at twice a week sessions again for a while.
That thought helped him to relax. No sense in letting his mind turn this over and over. The doctor would advise him how to proceed. Expert advice. That was key. His eyes closed, cutting off even the small amount of light coming through the curtains, the moon bright tonight. He started to drift away into a darkness that felt welcoming for a change, velvety and soft.
Until he heard the footstep.
Outside. Scuffing of feet outside on the hard packed earth of the compound.
He sat up in bed, instantly wide awake and listening. Blindly, he reached for the night stand and slid open the drawer. It opened smooth and silent on well oiled runners. He didn’t even have to grope to find the handle of his Browning in there, he knew exactly where it was. A slightly darkened area on the bottom on the drawer, where gun oil had seeped into the wood, served as a guide for him to position the weapon each night, so that he could always easily pick it up even in pitch blackness.
The darkness wasn’t that absolute tonight. Enough moonlight got in to make out shapes. No movement. The bedroom door was still closed. But he still heard the footsteps outside. Moving along now, near the house, moving away from his bedroom.
Moving to the front door?
He slid out of bed. Nobody was inside the house, he’d have heard them. Still, he stayed cautious, as he moved into the corridor and on into the living room, gun ready, steadied in both hands.
Could it be a thief? A burglar? A village like this had few crimes of that sort, but sometimes a thief might come in from outside the village, and prey on those who slept complacently in their beds. Madari was not complacent. A mere burglar was the least of his worries, in fact would almost be a relief. What he feared was someone coming to carry out one of the death threats he received regularly.
A new sound now, no longer sneaking footsteps, but a thin metallic sound at the door. Not the chunky, solid sound of a key, and anyway, apart from him, only Youssef had a key. Youssef would not be sneaking into the house in the early hours of the morning. Sounded more like lock picks, or a skeleton key.
Sounded like trouble.
He took a deep breath and moved to the side of the door. A coat stand stood at the side of it, coats, jackets and robes giving him cover. He’d positioned it deliberately for that purpose.
The door started to open and he stifled a gasp, clamping down hard on his fear, even as his heart started pounding and his breathing began to speed up. As the door opened further he saw a shadow cross it, the dark shape of a man, looking inside, waiting. Madari held his breath. The man would be listening too, just as Madari had.
Be silent, Madari ordered himself. Silent as a dead man, or you soon will be a dead man. Be unheard and invisible and perhaps you’ll be alive when the sun comes up.
The man moved again, apparently satisfied with the silence. He opened the door just enough to slip inside. The moonlight briefly showed his face. A young man. A stranger. Once inside, he closed the door behind him.
Madari glanced down and saw the glint of moonlight on metal in the man’s hand, made out the shape. Gun. No burglar then. An armed intruder, robber or assassin, it didn’t matter. If it was a robber, he’d really chosen the wrong house.
The man moved a few steps into the room. Stealthy, but in an amateurish way. Madari would have heard him, even if he’d been fully asleep.
Madari moved, gliding like a ghost haunting his own house, following the intruder, raising his gun. One more step forward and the muzzle of Madari’s Browning touched the back of the man’s neck. He froze.
“Drop your weapons,” Madari said. “All of them.” It bothered him that his back was to the door, but he’d hear it open, if the man had backup.
The intruder was still frozen and still holding his gun.
“I’d prefer you alive for questioning. Wouldn’t you prefer that too?”
“I will die before I answer your questions.”
“You’ll die before I ask any if you don’t drop the gun now.”
The intruder relented then, holding the gun away from his body and dropping it. Madari didn’t attempt to pick it up. His gun still pressed to the man’s head he moved close enough to kick the gun away, out of reach. It slid under a couch.
“Hands on your head.”
“I will not surrender!” The voice was almost a snarl. “You are an enemy of Islam! You must die!”
Madari backed away fast as the man spun around. He didn’t watch the man’s face, but rather his hands, saw the right hand reaching to the waist, to the other pistol in his belt, pulling it out…
Madari fired. He barely even knew he’d done it, until he heard the shot, the roar filling the room. Instinct acting much faster than conscious thought. Instinct saving his life. The shot took the man in the head, and the powerful handgun and the close range had a devastating and instantly lethal effect. The dimness of the room mercifully hid the worst of the horror and the gore.
The corpse fell backwards and what Madari knew was blood, though it looked black as ink, splashed several feet from the shattered skull. A crashing sound made him gasp and raise his gun again, but it was only the intruder’s second gun knocking over a lamp as it flew from his hand.
Madari’s back crashed against the wall as he reeled away from the dead man, from the savage death he’d just wrought. He gagged at the stench of blood and wanted to hold his breath and block it out. A long time since he killed a man. He only gave the orders, now and Jahni killed for him. Jahni and all the men.
Control… he didn’t dare take a deep breath, for fear of what the stink would cause his stomach to do, but he tried to breathe steadily. Eyes open. Ready. Ready. Watch the door. If he has backup they’d either burst in now, or be running away. Please, let them be running.
Nobody burst though the door and after a few moments, Madari breathed easier. He transferred his pistol to his left hand for a moment and wiped his sweating palm on his pyjama trousers, then wiped the pistol grip too. He needed… to… to check outside, yes. And to put some clothes on, and call the barracks.
He gave the corpse a quick glance. He had a dead body in his living room. It would be long time until dawn.
The intruder hadn’t cut his phone line. Madari couldn’t decide if that was carelessness, or simply confidence that he’d do the job and be gone before anyone Madari might call for help could arrive. Madari hadn’t even considered calling for help, because he knew it couldn’t arrive in time. He had to defend himself and only call later.
An hour after he’d shot the man, a helicopter stood in the road outside, and MPs were in his house. Many houses in the village showed lights, but the only person who came to investigate was the village constable. Madari told the MPs to let him into the house. This was on his “patch” after all.
For himself, Madari stayed outside the house, not wanting to see the corpse in the blaze of the electric light. The commander of the MPs questioned him and made a note of his account. There’d have to be a more formal interview later he said, a proper investigation, but of course it was clearly a case of self-defence. Did Madari recognise the intruder?
Madari said he didn’t. He’d been going over in his mind the faces of known terrorists and fanatics in the Special Forces unit’s files, but none of them fitted the man he’d killed. The man who had no face left to identify.
“We’ll check the guns… he had two you say?”
“Yes. One is under the couch.”
“Ballistics will check to see if there’s a match with any previous crime scenes. We’ll get his fingerprints. If he’s got a record for as much as shoplifting, we’ll identify him, and then start looking at who he’s been hanging out with recently.”
He might not have a record. So many of the men they’d captured and killed since setting up the unit were young, respectable men, of good families. Even wealthy men. Students some of them. So hard to understand how they turned into killers.
A car horn honked at the gates and Jahni’s car drove into the compound, parking beside Madari’s Volvo. Now how did he find out? Madari had resisted the urge to call him. There was nothing he could do here, Madari might as well tell him in the morning. Still, he smiled as Jahni got out of the car and strode up to him, a concerned look on his face.
“Are you all right?” he said, then, glancing at the MP, he added, “Sir.”
“I’m fine. I wasn’t hurt. I’m with the Major here now.” Madari indicated the MP. “Can you give me a moment, Captain?”
Jahni nodded and headed past him and into the house.
“I’m sorry, Major,” he said. “My second in command. I don’t even know how he heard about it.”
“That’s all right, sir. I think I’m about done for now. We’ll get our work finished and try to get the scene cleaned up as quickly as possible.”
But Madari still couldn’t go back inside. He walked, his feet in sandals now, dressed in a long shirt and loose trousers, the night air chill on his skin, as he still periodically broke into a sweat at the reaction to the shock and adrenaline rush. He came to the garden chairs and sat. After a moment, he heard footsteps behind him and recognised them.
“So, how did you hear about it, Kahil?”
Jahni came and sat in the chair next to him. “The duty officer called me. He said he thought I’d want to know. I think he called Colonel Rahama too.”
They sat in silence for a moment.
“I looked at the body,” Jahni said. “To see if I recognised him,” he explained, when Madari looked at him.
Madari laughed a soft, but bitter laugh. “Not much chance of that now.”
“No.” He didn’t seem too disturbed at the sight. He’d seen too many similar ones, Madari supposed. “Hell of a shot, sir.”
The ‘sir’ surprised Madari for a moment. Nobody was close enough to overhear them. Then he understood it. Respect, one soldier to another.
“That’s two men you’ve killed that were sent to kill you.” Jahni smiled. “Perhaps they’ll be too scared to send any more.”
“I wish that were true.” Madari sighed. “Probably means they’ll just change tactics to bombing.” He glanced over at their cars. “Are you careful to check your car?”
“Of course,” Jahni said.
“I mean it,” Madari said. “A thorough check, every time.”
“I do.” He shook his head. “They won’t get me that way.” He looked at Madari then reached over and took his hand. “Are you okay? You look pale.”
“Yes. Just… more blood than I’m used to seeing these days. And in my house. I can’t stop thinking about what would have happened if…”
Another honking car horn cut him off and he looked at the gate to see a Mercedes driving in.
“Colonel Rahama,” Jahni said, rising. “I think I should have put on my uniform.” He wore jeans and a long sleeved shirt. Very much out of uniform.
The Mercedes parked and Rahama stepped out of the driver’s seat, surprising Madari. Either he hadn’t wanted to wake his driver, or hadn’t wanted to wait for him. Rahama was not in uniform either. His casual, though snowy white, shalwar kameez, looked like something he’d wear at home, but that his wife would never let him go out, or receive guests wearing.
He spoke briefly to one of the MPs, who pointed towards Madari and Jahni. Rahama mustn’t have seen them sitting there in the darkness, only the lights from the house and the headlights of cars illuminating the compound.
“Faris,” Rahama said, hurrying over. Madari rose to greet him and was surprised to be pulled into an embrace, though a brief one. Rahama didn’t let him go entirely, held Madari’s upper arms, as if wanting to hang onto him, make sure he was still here. “My dear friend. Were you hurt at all?”
“No, I’m fine,” Madari said. “A little shaken perhaps,” he admitted. That sounded strange, he was an experienced and battle-hardened soldier after all. But Rahama seemed to understand and nodded as he let go of Madari.
“Of course. In your own house.” He turned and offered his hand to Jahni. “Mr Jahni. I knew I’d find you here too.”
“Sir?” Jahni said, shaking the Colonel’s hand.
“The duty officer told me he’d called you, so I knew the only question was which of us would arrive first.” He smiled. “I expect you drive rather faster than me.”
“Please, sit, Sharif,” Madari said. They seemed to be informal tonight, talking as friends, not commander and officer. Though Jahni had better stick with calling Rahama ‘Colonel’.
“Thank you, thank you.” Rahama took one of the two garden chairs. Madari should offer him refreshments, he knew that, but he still couldn’t go back into the house. He sat too, Jahni remaining standing, and they were all silent for a moment, listening to the voices from the house, the crackle of personal radios.
“I won’t stand for this,” Rahama said. “Attempts on the lives of my officers. I will not stand for this. First thing tomorrow… today in fact… I will authorise the funding and start upgrades on the security of your house and those of all the officers in your unit. All of the men live in barracks or married quarters, don’t they?” He directed the question at Jahni.
“Even so, we’ll look at what improvements can be made there too. Especially for the married quarters.”
Madari approved of that. Though on the barracks grounds, the married quarters were individual flats in accommodation blocks. Only a fool would try something in the dormitories where the single men lived, but if someone got into one of the flats and had a silenced gun… they could be long gone before anyone discovered the bodies.
On the matter of upgrading the security at his own house though, he had more mixed feelings. He had to be grateful for Rahama’s proposals of course, stemming as they did from his sense of duty towards the officers and men under his command and of course from his friendship with Madari. But the thought of turning his home into a small fortress was not pleasant. This was his home, his haven away from his military life.
“Until the changes are completed, I’ll authorise an armed guard. Or if you prefer, that can be permanent.”
“Oh… no, really, Sharif, I wouldn’t want that. I’d feel… well frankly, less secure.”
Rahama frowned. “I know plenty of people have been assassinated by their own bodyguards, Faris, but I’m sure you can choose loyal men from your unit.”
“It’s not that,” Madari said, he hadn’t even thought of that. “No, what I mean is… well tonight, the sound of the intruder moving around alerted me.”
Rahama looked puzzled, not understanding, but Jahni spoke up.
“If there’s a guard outside you never know if the sound of footsteps is him, or a man who’s already killed him and is coming to kill you.” Madari nodded his agreement. Exactly right. His tendency to wake up at any strange noise had saved his life tonight.
“Oh, I see,” Rahama said. “Yes, excellent point, Mr Jahni. We’ll concentrate on securing the house then. Don’t look like that, Faris, the modifications can be quite discreet, you won’t notice a thing.”
Madari thought of the times he visited the palace for briefings, how heavy some of the doors had suddenly become, thick steel plating installed in them and covered with a thin panel of wood. You wouldn’t notice a thing, until you tried to open them – by force or otherwise. Well, he supposed he could live with it. And it would be less intrusive than a rifle-toting guard outside.
He looked again at the house and sighed.
“Faris,” Jahni said, softly. “Do you want to stay with me for a few days? Until they clear up and install the security.”
Now having Jahni as a guard, that might be different. But Jahni’s flat only had one bed, and Madari had spent a night on the sofa there before and it took days for his back to recover. He glanced at Rahama and answered.
“I think I’ll stay in quarters on the barracks for a few days.”
Jahni looked disappointed, and Madari hope Rahama didn’t see the look.
So he had to go and fetch some of his things, which meant going back in the house. Thankfully the body was covered now, so he didn’t have to look at it. The village constable, Mr Sadrul, saw him as he came in and intercepted him.
“Can we talk a moment?”
“Of course. Do you need a statement from me?”
“Yes, sir. And… well, let’s go somewhere private.”
They went into the kitchen and Madari began to make coffee. Now the adrenaline rush had gone, exhaustion was catching up with him. Sadrul watched him for a while before he spoke.
“I haven’t had to deal with a shooting in a long time. Not since old man Elmi’s wife caught him carrying on with the woman from the laundry. You’d think at his age he’d have lost interest.”
“He certainly lost interest after that.”
“He tells me that since his wife came out of prison they get on better than they ever did before. Thank you, Colonel,” he said as Madari handed him a cup of coffee.
“Was there something else? Besides the statement?”
“Make sure they show you the paper he had in his pocket. It was… I suppose you’d call it his orders, to kill you. As if he was a soldier too.”
“These terrorists think of themselves that way, Constable. Soldier. Jihadis.” He frowned, thinking of when he carried written orders. “Wait a moment… were these orders signed?”
“Yes. The paper read ‘I authorise my soldier to execute the enemy of Islam, the apostate and demon, Madari.’ Sorry, sir.” He winced at the insults he recited. “The signature was simply ‘Saifullah’.”
“Saifullah? Sword of God?”
“Yes, sir. Does it mean anything to you? The MPs are speculating that it’s the name of an organisation, but it sounds more like it means a man.”
“I’d agree with you. I can’t think of any of our known suspects who calls himself Saifullah. Well, perhaps Military Intelligence will be able to find something out.”
“I hope so, sir. It sounds like… well, I’m sure they’re no match for your soldiers, but it sounds like your enemies are no mere rabble.”
“Indeed no. And with that in mind, I think we should come to an agreement. If you ever hear gunshots from my house, please don’t rush up here, even if you bring your own gun. You should call my duty officer and he’ll despatch MPs. I’ll give you the number and brief the office.””
“I have my duty, Colonel,” Sadrul said, rather stiffly. “To protect the residents of this village.”
“I know, but you’re not trained to deal with terrorist assassins. And you’re not paid enough for me to expect you to put yourself in such danger, my friend.”
Sadrul stopped his protests, though he would do whatever he felt he should do, Madari knew. But he’d done what he could to try and keep the man out of danger.
They sat for a while longer, Madari giving his statement of what happened. With the evidence of that note then it was a clear case of self-defence, Sadrul said. As Madari signed his name at the bottom of the statement, he couldn’t help but wonder about the other signed name they’d discussed. ‘Saifullah.’ Sword of God. Just another fanatic with delusions of grandeur? Or an important new enemy?
Only time would tell.
The men kept giving him awestruck looks over the next couple of days, which made Madari uncomfortable but also pleased that he had their respect. Don’t mess with our C.O., or he’ll blow your head off.
He got the same looks when he went to a meeting late in the morning, two days after the attempt, at the Defence Ministry. But he wouldn’t stay around afterwards to be pressed about it, to repeat the story. Frankly, he dreaded the repeat of the story he’d surely eventually get in his dreams at night.
It might not even be at night, he thought as he almost fell asleep in his staff car on the way back from the meeting, having slept badly again, in the officer’s temporary quarters at the barracks. But he caught himself nodding and, looking around, noticed he was near Sophia’s building.
“Sergeant,” he said to Sijad, his driver. “I think I need some fresh air. It’s lunchtime and I’m going to take a walk. Pull over please.”
“Yes, sir.” Sijad signalled and pulled in. “Do you want me to wait for you, sir?”
“No, thank you. Go and get your lunch. I’ll take a taxi back to barracks. I have my phone, please advise the duty officer.”
“Yes, sir.” He gave Madari a slightly worried look, perhaps not liking him roaming around alone when there were people out there trying to kill him. But he followed orders and drove off.
Madari walked in the direction of Sophia’s flat. It was a couple of streets away, he should be able to wake up by then. He reached into his pocket for a moment, to check he really did have his phone, and smiled when his fingers touched something else in there. Ah, of course.
A few minutes later Sophia’s housekeeper opened the door of the flat.
“Oh, hello, sir. How nice to see you.” She smiled. “Have you come to see the master of the house?”
“Is he receiving guests?” Madari asked as he came in, wiping his feet and taking off his cap. “I’ve brought tribute.” He held up the catnip infused toy mouse, which he’d bought a few days ago.
She chuckled. “You’ll find him in his throne room. I’ll bring you some tea.”
Madari went into the living room to find Giotto sprawled on the sofa, in the sunlit room, making himself as long as possible, now he had the whole sofa for his own use. But he sat up and then jumped onto the floor and weaved around Madari’s feet mewing. Madari bent to tickle him behind the ears and Giotto purred loudly.
The cat had been acting far more friendly since Sophia left. Perhaps he liked to see a familiar face, or perhaps it was his naturally mercenary nature, since Madari usually brought him a treat or toy.
When the housekeeper came in a few minutes later she found Madari sitting on the sofa and dangling the new toy mouse for Giotto to bat it with a paw.
“I see the training is going well,” she said, setting the tea tray down on a table.
“I’m not training him,” Madari said, surprised, but saw her smile and understood. “Ah, but his training of me is progressing very well, yes.” He threw the mouse a short distance along the carpet and Giotto at once pounced on it and then took it behind the sofa and stayed there, making strange noises as he enjoyed the effects of the catnip.
“You look tired, sir,” the housekeeper said, handing Madari a cup of tea.
“I didn’t get much sleep last night.” He didn’t explain why. He didn’t want to talk about it here. This felt like a haven. She offered him a plate of small cakes too and he took one gratefully.
“I can make you some lunch if you wish,” she offered.
“Oh, no. I couldn’t trouble you. I just came to see my little friend there.” He nodded back at where Giotto sounded like he was rolling around and mewing madly.
“Well, call me if you need anything. I’ll be in the kitchen.”
She left and Madari relaxed on the sofa with a sigh, enjoying the tea and the cake, enjoying the surroundings, the peaceful domesticity of it.
And he missed Sophia. Being here, surrounded by her things, with the scent of the place, made him realise just how much he missed her. A man could certainly grow accustomed to coming back to such a welcoming cosy home every night.
How different this flat seemed to Jahni’s when he’d been away. It didn’t have that same un-lived in feeling. When he’d gone there to check it, Madari often turned on the radio to relieve the oppression of the silence. But here he heard the distant sound of the housekeeper moving around, working, music from the radio in the kitchen, the cat playing behind the sofa. Were women simply better at turning a dwelling into a home?
What would Sophia do to his home if he took her there as his wife? For a while, he let his mind drift on that path. How much would she change it? He liked his simple, Spartan surroundings, and though this flat was hardly ostentatious, it had a lot more… stuff in each room than in his entire home. Would he want to live somewhere like this rather than just be a visitor?
That was a loaded question, he thought. Not a question simply about his home. A question about adding not more goods to his house, but a wife. And yet…
Why should he not marry her?
He frowned and sat up straight suddenly, then rose and went to pour himself more tea. Rather than sitting again, he started to walk around the room, balancing the cup and saucer carefully. The cat, tired of the catnip, emerged from around the sofa trying to look dignified and jumped onto a seat and curled up.
Why shouldn’t he marry her? Madari thought again. He’d spent weeks now thinking about how he could get out of marrying her, when perhaps he should be thinking about exactly the opposite. She was a fine woman and he cared deeply for her. They had a perfectly satisfactory sexual relationship. She was intelligent and good company. She ran a house with both efficiency and style and was a perfect society hostess. Aside from her being a foreigner, she qualified as the model wife for an officer of the Royal Guard. In fact, he could think of two other officers in the regiment who also had foreign wives. Nobody remarked on that any more. This was the modern world.
Why shouldn’t he marry her? He stopped by a shelf that held several framed photographs. One of them showed him, Sophia and Jahni. Yes, well, there’s why. He loved someone else and she knew that.
So what? Nothing could come of that. If he could make her feel sure of that, certain of his fidelity, even if he couldn’t offer her his heart, then why not marry her? It would work even better than him simply seeing her, when it came to convincing people that rumours about him and Jahni were wrong.
And Jahni… it would be good for him too. He’d been acting strangely lately, this change in their situation alarming him perhaps, confusing him. If he saw Madari married, would he regain the resolve to keep their relationship the way it should be? He’d be safer because of it.
They’d both be safer.