Part 27: Homecoming

Chapter 1

Summer 1993

Jahni pulled into a parking space at the airport and winced at the shriek his tyres made. Did he have to drive over here so fast? His sensible side nagged at him, the way it had as he weaved through the afternoon traffic. His less sensible side insisted that, yes he did have to. Because he wanted to arrive before Sophia.

No sign of her when he got to the terminal, which gave Jahni irrational pleasure and then made him annoyed at his own pettiness. Madari wouldn’t know or care which of them arrived first. He bought a coffee and strolled over to Arrivals to wait. Sophia arrived ten minutes before the plane landed. She had good timing, Jahni had to give her that.

“Hello, Kahil.”

“Sophia.” He bowed his head to her. “You’re well?”

“Fine, thank you. And you?”

“Fine. You changed your hair.”

“Yes,” she said, smiling and touching her hair.

It was a week since he’d seen her and it had changed since then, so she’d had it done for Madari coming home.

“It’s very nice,” he said, since that seemed to be what women liked to hear. She thanked him and they lapsed into silence, watching the Arrivals board. Madari’s plane showed a five minute delay on its arrival time.

“I think I’ll have some coffee too,” Sophia said. “Can I bring you another one?”

“No thank you.”

She left, walking more quickly than usual. Hurrying in fact. Not like her, Jahni thought. She usually glided elegantly around, all her movements smooth and graceful.

She’s nervous.

Jahni felt some nervousness himself. Those strange days in Zaire with Madari, dreaming they were lovers, were in his mind constantly. But now they must be fully awake again. Friends. Commander and second. Never more than that. Never again. What made him nervous were doubts that he had the strength to stay awake.

Sophia returned with her coffee just as the board changed to show the plane had landed.

“I suppose the unit is all in an uproar getting ready for the Colonel to return,” she said.

“Well, a highly disciplined and organised uproar.”

“He reports for duty the day after tomorrow?”


“Good.” She smiled as she took a sip of coffee and Jahni had to control the growl that wanted to rumble in his throat. He’d be at work tomorrow; had his own last minute preparations for Madari’s return. Paperwork mostly. Meanwhile Madari would have the day free, and Jahni knew for sure Sophia would have kept her otherwise busy social calendar empty for that day.

She didn’t have to dream of being Madari’s lover, she had the reality. It wasn’t fair. He dumped his empty coffee cup in a waste bin and folded his arms, scowling. Of course it wasn’t fair. Life wasn’t fair, and sulking about it didn’t help. A man faced reality.

It took another fifteen minutes before Madari finally appeared, hauling his trunk on wheels and carrying a flight bag and brief case. Jahni saw him and waved, irrationally pleased at spotting him before Sophia did. Oh, well done, idiot, you’re taller than her. But he forgot such nonsense, forgot this ridiculous rivalry and both of them smiled and waved. He was home. That’s what mattered.

Madari dropped the bag and briefcase as he reached Jahni and Sophia, glancing from one to the other. But of course, he couldn’t hug Sophia in public, did no more than briefly take her hands in his.

“My dear, so good to see you.” He turned to Jahni. “Kahil. My friend.” They could embrace and did, laughing, slapping each other on the back, in suitably manly style, breaking apart quite quickly. Still, he felt a small moment of triumph.

“Let’s get away from the exit,” Madari said, as more people piled out behind him. He grabbed his flight bag and briefcase, while Jahni grabbed the handle to pull the trunk and they all moved away, to a clearer space.

“I can’t stop looking at you,” Sophia said, smiling and putting a hand on Madari’s arm when they stopped. Jahni understood that. His eyes felt glued to Madari, familiar and yet new.

“Didn’t they feed you out there?” Sophia asked. “You’re skin and bone!”

Madari laughed at that. “I did lose some weight because of the poisoning. But mostly it’s down to hard work!” He wore Western style clothes, trousers, a long sleeved T-Shirt and a short jacket. Practical for travelling, but they emphasised how thin he’d become.

“I’ll soon fatten you up again,” Sophia said.

“And sitting behind your desk all day will help,” Jahni said, grinning.

“Indeed. I’m looking forward to getting back to barracks.”

“Kahil told me about the beard,” Sophia said, raising her hand as if she meant to touch it, but then catching herself. “Will you be shaving it off now?” She looked hopeful when she said it.

So, she didn’t like the beard? “I quite like it,” Jahni said. “It reminds me of the old days.”

“Well, I might keep it for a while,” Madari said.

Sophia got a determined look in her eyes then, which Jahni read as ‘we’ll see about that.’ Perhaps she didn’t like kissing men with beards. Jahni hadn’t minded it, but he was hardly going to let a little thing like a beard stand in the way of that opportunity. Sophia might think differently. Of course, she was a subtle woman, she’d hardly demand that Madari shave, but if she wanted the beard gone, she’d find a way to make it happen.

“Well,” Madari said, after they all just stood for a few seconds, Jahni and Sophia looking at him, him looking back at them, all of them smiling. “We can’t stand here grinning at each other all day.”

“I’ll drive you home,” Jahni said.

“Oh, I thought you’d have to go back to work,” Sophia said. “I was going to offer. We do have some things to talk about, Faris.”

They did, but Jahni saw Madari give a tiny wince at the prospect, before he spoke softly.

“I know. But I’ve had a long journey and I’m very tired. I just need to go home and rest.”

“Of course,” she said, her voice faltering only a little. “But if Kahil needs to go back to work.”

“No, I’m fine, I said I’d be out of the barracks all afternoon.” Jahni grabbed the handle to pull the trunk again. “I’ve got my car here. Plenty of room for this beast!”

“That’s true. I’m not sure it would fit in your two-seater, my dear,” Madari said to Sophia.

She frowned at the trunk as if it had personally offended her. “No, I suppose you’re right. Shall we have lunch tomorrow at my flat then?”

“Yes, that would be very nice.”

She still looked frustrated, and Jahni understood that feeling. Perhaps she’d keyed herself up for this reunion, ready to talk through the various issues the two of them must have to discuss and instead of that discussion she was forced to restrict herself to small talk and told to wait until later. Oh, yes, he understood that.

They all headed for the car park, stopping only for Madari to pick up a newspaper, which he stuffed into a pocket of his flight bag. Whether he was ‘enjoying his airport’ as usual, or just wanted to catch up on the local news, Jahni didn’t know.

They parted from Sophia in the car park, and Madari watched her go, before Jahni led him onwards to where his car was parked.

“So how are you, Kahil?” Madari asked, as they heaved the trunk into the back of the car. “You certainly look well.”

“I’m fine. What about you? Sophia was right, you do look thin.”

“It is down to extra work,” he chuckled as they got into the car and Jahni started it up. “I’m quite lean and stringy right now. I could probably do with some fat on.”

“You’ve got the body fat of a pencil,” Jahni muttered, driving out of the car park, into the sunlight. But he smiled, still happy to have Madari home, however skinny he was. “It’s good to have you back, Faris.”

“It’s good to be back.” Madari rested a hand on his arm, briefly. “What you said when you came to visit…”

“Still stands. I promise. I don’t say it will be easy. But I meant it. Things are different now.”

“Good. Good. As… as it should be.” He settled back in his seat. “Now, tell me about everything I’ve missed. How’s the unit? What missions have you had?”


They talked about the unit and the work it had done for the last six months, almost all the way to Madari’s village. Madari loved to hear it. Though Jahni didn’t show off exactly, he spoke with justifiable pride about what he’d achieved in those months. Rahama had been right, this had been a great opportunity for him and Madari looked forward to seeing how much his command skills had come on.

For the last few miles, Madari brought him up to date on the things he’d done in Zaire since Jahni’s visit. He’d written to him about them of course, but still Jahni hung on his words as he spoke.

“Home,” Madari said, voice almost awestruck as they stopped at the gates into the compound. Jahni made him stay in the car while he opened them and drove Madari through them ‘in style’ as he put it, laughing, as if he were Madari’s driver.

The house looked good. Those security features installed not long before Madari left marred its appearance somewhat, but otherwise, all seemed well. The compound was weed-free and swept clean of any more than a day or two’s worth of the sand that built up in it. He even thought the window and door frames had a fresh coat of paint.

“I should check the horses,” Madari said, glancing at the stable as he got out of the car.

“They’re fine,” Jahni said. “The groom’s been here every day. And Youssef checked them this morning. I called him.”

“All right,” Madari said. He glanced over at the tarpaulin-covered shape that was his car, sealed up against the sand while it stood idle.

“I cam out here and took it for a short drive once a week,” Jahni said, noticing where he was looking. “Just to turn it over. And I changed the oil and filled the water bottle a couple of days ago. It’s ready for you to drive.”

“You changed the oil?” Madari said in a dubious tone.

“Well, I mean, I paid a mechanic to change the oil.” He grinned. “I am a busy man.”

“I’m sure. Let’s get the trunk.”

Inside, the house was dust free, and smelled fresh and aired. Jahni had brought Youssef in to prepare the house for Madari’s return. When they took the trunk through into the bedroom he found his bed made with fresh sheets and turned down to air.

Tired as he was, Madari would have liked to climb into that bed now, but it was only four in the afternoon and he had Jahni here. Not a good idea to say he wanted to go straight to bed.

“Let’s have some tea,” he said, putting his flight bag on the bed. He’d unpack later. Now he wanted some tea.

“I actually did the shopping myself,” Jahni said, when Madari found the fridge, freezer and cupboards stocked with food. “Returning the favour.”

“Thank you.” It seemed so long ago, when Jahni returned from Britain and Madari had ensured he found his flat waiting and ready for him, not dusty and un-lived in. “I notice you bought your favourite kind of biscuits.”

Jahni chuckled as Madari took the packet from a cupboard and put some onto two plates. “You like them too!”

Though Jahni offered to help, Madari made him sit and wait while he made the tea himself. He wanted to get to know his kitchen again, get back into his old routines. Only once it was done, did he let Jahni pick up the tray and take it into the living room.

Ah, his favourite chair. A table in arm’s reach with a lamp and a humidor on it. He trailed his fingers lightly over the humidor, but didn’t open it. He’d have a cigar later, after dinner. Jahni poured the tea and handed him the cup and a plate of biscuits, before sitting down with his own.

“So, was it hard for you to say goodbye to everyone?” Jahni said.

“Very. I made good friends there. Karen said I might see her again sooner than I expected, so who knows what she’s plotting?”

“And the little girl. You seemed very fond of her.”

“Yes, um…” He sipped his tea. Yes it had been very hard to say goodbye to Kibibi. He’d retained enough control not to upset her or make a fool of himself but, once alone, he’d shed some tears. He wasn’t ashamed of them. “Yes, I’ll miss her.” He hesitated. “For a while, it was like being a father.”

“Oh,” Jahni said. He drank his tea and ate one of his biscuits, before continuing. “That’s something you’ve never really talked about.”

“It’s something I’ve never really thought about much before now. It was an interesting experience.”

“Right.” Jahni had a nervous look. What was he thinking about? Did Jahni fear Madari might ask Sophia to have a baby with him?

“Karen suggested I bring Kibibi home with me. She was mostly teasing me,” he added when Jahni stared at him. “But it could have been possible. I could have adopted her.”

“But you didn’t want to?”

“It’s not a realistic idea is it? For a man in my position? Even if I wanted to, it’s not a practical idea.”

“I suppose not.”

“What about you, Kahil? Do you ever think about being a father?” He almost feared the answer. What if Jahni did want a family? A man who wanted a family needed to start by acquiring a wife.

“It’s not something I’ve ever really considered. I know if my parents were alive, I’d have been made to consider it by now! My mother was on at me to find a nice girl as soon as I finished university.” He sighed. “I suppose she’d have ended up rather disappointed in me.”

“Kahil, you’re a decorated hero, your parents would have been proud of you.”

Jahni looked at him for a while, then bent to refill his teacup. “You know that I wasn’t referring to my career, Faris.”

Madari flushed and covered his momentary agitation by holding out his cup for a refill too. “I have some photographs,” he said. “Karen took a lot of photographs. I’m going to frame some of them. Would you like to see them?”

“That would be nice,” Jahni said.

After going through the photographs, something Madari suspected Jahni grew tired of more quickly than he did himself, they went to check on the horses.

All seemed well there. The animals were healthy and looked well exercised, the stable was clean. Madari sighed as he patted the noses of the horses. He really needed to make time to do more riding. He loved to ride, he loved these horses, but they were expensive to keep and he needed to justify that expense more. His grandfather used to say that an officer should have a horse. That he wasn’t a real officer without one. Madari had three. It was possible he could be overcompensating.

“Come riding with me on Saturday,” he said to Jahni, who looked startled at the sudden invitation.

“Well, okay. If you want.”

“We’ll have a trek. Take some food. It will be nice to see the local scenery again.”

Jahni nodded, looking happier. Though not a great rider himself, the idea of spending the day with Madari seemed to please him.

“It’s something we should do more often,” Madari said. “These animals need more exercise.”

They left the stable and strolled in the yard, walking slowly all the way around the house. Madari glanced down startled when Jahni took his hand. For all the months away the only hand he’d held had been Kibibi’s. Though he’d felt close enough to Drummond to do the same, the Englishman would have found it strange. And Karen, he felt close enough to, but it wouldn’t have been appropriate. So only the child.

To feel Jahni’s hand in his made a lump rise in his throat, a mix of joy to be home and sadness at the new boundaries they’d set for their relationship. They walked on, through the deepening twilight, the air cooling, a breeze teasing with gentle fingers.

“Will you stay for dinner?” Madari asked.

“Of course.”

“I missed you, Kahil.” He didn’t add anything to that this time. Just let it be. A simple statement of his feelings.

“You’re home now,” Jahni said. “Look ahead. Not back.”

They strolled on, circling the house. Three times, Madari thought. He should walk around it three times. Like a ritual, to reclaim his territory. But Jahni stopped them after the second circuit, saying he was getting hungry, so they went back into the house.

With lamb in the oven and the vegetables prepared and waiting, Madari remembered his trunk and flight bag still sitting in the bedroom and they went in there to unpack.

Jahni took the flight bag and emptied it out onto the bed. Meanwhile Madari unpacked the trunk piece by piece, putting things in their place at once, leaving the room several times to put book on shelves, or papers in his study.

Back in the bedroom, Jahni threw the dirty clothes into the hamper and picked up the book Madari was currently reading. “Should I just leave this one by the bed?”

“Thank you, yes.”

Did he notice the edge of the photograph sticking out of the pages? The picture of the two of them that Madari used to mark a place in the book. He’d used that the whole time he was in Zaire and at times it quite distracted him from his reading. Once he’d almost panicked, when he returned a book he’d borrowed from Karen and realised he’d left the picture in it. But it reappeared in his desk in-tray the next day and she didn’t say anything about it.

“Er, Raslan given you any trouble?” Madari asked, as Jahni gathered up Madari’s shaving gear and other toiletries.

“No. I think his father-in-law must be making him actually work for a living.”

“Have you seen him at all?”

“Just at a couple of big receptions, that kind of thing.”

“I trust he looks well,” Madari said in his driest tone.

Jahni snorted. “He looks fat.”


“Well, okay, maybe not actually fat. But he looks married that’s for sure.”

Madari chuckled at that. “Ah yes, a common side effect I believe.” He patted his own stomach. He was too thin. “Perhaps if I got married I would fatten up enough to please you and Sophia.”

Jahni didn’t answer straight away and Madari realised he’d gone too far.

“Kahil, I…”

Jahni stood up, arms full of shaving gear and toiletries. “Having a second helping of dessert seems like a less drastic solution.” He walked out of the bedroom.

Madari bit his lip. Damn. That had not been funny. Why had he thought Jahni would find that funny? He felt suddenly awkward, second guessing everything he’d said since coming home. Slow down, he thought. Watch him and gauge his mood and emotions. Be more sensitive to his feelings. After all this time apart and everything that had happened just before that, Jahni had changed. Madari had to account for that.

He’d have to get to know him again. Or at least… bring himself up to date. The other way around too of course. The next few days could be… dangerous. He needed to be careful.

Jahni didn’t come back into the bedroom, so Madari finished the unpacking himself and went back to the living room, carrying a small item he’d taken from his flight bag.

“Kahil,” he said, finding Jahni setting the table and wearing a grim expression. “I brought you home a souvenir.”

Jahni looked up, surprised, and smiled, losing the scowl.

“You didn’t have to do that.”

“It’s just something made by some local craftsmen, in a cooperative.” He handed over the parcel of tissue paper. “Nothing expensive, but I think you’ll like it.”

Jahni unwrapped the paper to find a pendant of polished blue-green stone, on a leather thong with a few highly polished wooden beads each side of the stone, all showing the wood grain in swirling patterns.

“Hand made,” Madari said, as Jahni put it over his head. “So it’s one of a kind. The stone is unique to the local area, some kind of -” He stopped, mouth suddenly dry as the stone came to rest just below the hollow between Jahni’s collar bones.

“I like it,” Jahni said. “Thank you.”

“The colour of the stone appealed to me, because it’s rather like our uniforms.”

Jahni’s smile turned teasing. “Can I wear it to work then?”

“I think that could be construed as favouritism.”

“Are you saying I’m not your favourite?”

“Well, I haven’t brought gifts for anyone else in the unit,” he said, glad the awkwardness of before had gone. “Though I have brought a nicely carved and inlaid trinket box for Colonel Rahama.”

“What have you brought for Sophia?”

And there was the awkwardness again.

“A bracelet,” Madari said. “Do you want to see it?”

It had been more expensive than the pendant. But Jahni wouldn’t care about that, would he? Women were concerned about such things, but not men.

“No, thanks,” Jahni said. He touched the stone of his pendant. “I’ll see it when she’s wearing it. I’m sure it’s very nice. I’m going to check on dinner.”

Madari watched him go, heading into the kitchen. Yes… he definitely needed to start getting to know Jahni again. Suddenly he found himself walking on the edge of a cliff with disaster only a misstep away. He adjusted the cutlery on the table, then sat down and picked up the newspaper he’d bought at the airport.

“You’ve heard about this scandal at the mayor’s office?” Madari said, when Jahni came back in.

“Of course. The papers have been full of it for weeks. Haridi’s trial is coming up soon.”

“Next month it says here. What a terrible situation.”

“Do you know him?” Jahni said. “You seem shaken up about it.”

“No, it’s just…” He broke off. Did he want to say, ‘I’m like that’? Or ‘We’re like that’?

The scandal in question had begun with a police raid on a small sauna in the city, where the police had reports of sexual impropriety between men. And one of the men arrested turned out to be a senior official in the office of the mayor of Az-Ma’ir, a man named Haridi. What would have been a small story on an inside page turned into front page news.

“It’s just what?” Jahni prompted.

Unlike Madari, Jahni seemed unperturbed about the story. Perhaps he didn’t relate to Haridi, didn’t see himself as the same sort of man, the way Madari did. But should Madari think of himself that way? He didn’t trawl saunas for sex with men as Haridi had.

Though Madari felt some sympathy for the man, he also felt contempt. He was married, a father, according to the paper. Well, who knows how much of that had been his choice? But still, a man in his position should exercise self-control, for the sake of his family, who now shared his disgrace. Madari controlled himself, despite the temptation he faced every day.

And if Madari hadn’t been weak and ill when Jahni was in Zaire would his self-control have been enough to keep him from giving in to the dream? Wasn’t kissing and lying together on the bed sinful too? Did he really have any right to condemn Haridi, when he was on a path that could take him to the same place?

Jahni came and sat beside him, looking at the newspaper, the picture of Haridi, wild-eyed and frightened in a police photograph. “A junior official in his department tipped the police off,” Jahni said. “He’d followed Haridi there a couple of times. Nosy bastard.”


“Well, he is. He’s a highly religious man, I’ve heard and he’s going to give evidence at the trial. Rat bastard should have minded his own business. Of course, some of the papers are treating him like a damn hero.”

“But… well, what do you think of Haridi himself? Of what he did?”

Jahni shrugged. “He was a fool. He put himself in danger.”

That wasn’t exactly what Madari meant, but he decided not to press the point.

“Speaking of saunas,” Jahni said, “I bet you’re looking forward to having one after all this time.”

“I have missed them,” Madari admitted. “As long as nobody is trying to murder me, I find them relaxing.”

“Yeah, you and Haridi could compete for the best ‘bad day at the sauna’ stories.” Jahni grinned and Madari flushed and shook his head.

“You shouldn’t joke. His life is ruined. Worse, the lives of his wife and children.” Because he gave in to his desires. A man paid for that. Always.

“Sorry,” Jahni said, looking chagrined. He put a hand on Madari’s shoulder. “This has really upset you, hasn’t it?”

Madari sighed and pulled himself together, summoning a smile. “I’m fine. Forget it.”

I’m not him.

“Then let’s eat.”

Chapter 2

Jahni stood in front of the desk that he could only call his for the rest of the day. He frowned at his gathered officers. Not that he was angry with them, but he’d learnt that the frown effectively said ‘Today I am still your CO, not your friend.’ Tomorrow he’d stop frowning. At least, at them.

“The Colonel will be back tomorrow and I want the unit in top shape for him. All offices, barracks rooms, training areas, stores, to be cleaned. All equipment to be in full working order and spotless. All paperwork up to date.”

A couple of them glanced at his In tray and Jahni suppressed a wince. Yes, he had plenty of work to do too.

“I’ll do full uniform and kit inspections this afternoon. Decide among yourselves who’ll supervise what.” Delegation encouraged initiative, Madari had taught him. The unit was ready for inspections at any time of course. But he wanted them in better than the best shape for Madari’s return in the morning.

Ultimately, Madari would care more about the work they’d done for the last six months, than about sparkling floors and tidy desks and Jahni could only stand by his actions during that time. But to have the place in perfect condition ready for the handover would give Jahni a sense of closure.

“Gentlemen,” he said, softening his stern demeanour. “It’s been an honour to be your commanding officer, even temporarily. I’ll be giving good reports about all of you to Colonel Madari. Now, let’s go and get the place ready for him. Dismiss.”

He sat behind the desk as they rose, chairs scraping, talking among themselves, sorting out who’d take charge of what work. One man remained when the others left. Lieutenant Raian, one of the first officers to join the unit after its formation.

“Sir,” Raian said when Jahni looked at him questioningly. “I have a request from my father. He said he’d very much like to meet the colonel.”

“For any specific reason?”

Raian laughed, somewhat sheepishly. “I do, ah, talk about him a lot when I visit home.”

Jahni smiled. He couldn’t argue about that. If he’d still had a family home to visit he knew he’d do the same. “I’ll ask him tomorrow.”

“Thank you, sir.” Raian left and Jahni looked at the stack of paperwork in his in-tray. Right. He picked up a pen and clicked the button on top in a slow, deliberate action. Locked and loaded. Between him and his clerks in the outer office they could conquer the stack of paperwork.


Madari tapped on the door to Sophia’s flat at eleven-thirty that morning. He carried a bunch of flowers and felt much refreshed after a good night’s rest and sleeping late that morning.

Sophia already knew he was on his way up, since he’d buzzed the intercom to gain entry to the block, so answered his knock almost instantly. He stepped inside, holding out the flowers.

“For you, my dear.”

She didn’t speak, just threw her arms around his neck and kissed him hard. When he recovered from the shock of that, he returned the kiss and put his arms around her, one hand held awkwardly because of the flowers.

After a moment, she stepped away, blushing, raising a hand to cover her smile. Madari was blushing himself, skin tingling with heat, his body warm and very wide awake now.

“Goodness,” he said. “If that’s what I get for the flowers, I can’t wait to give you your gift.”

She giggled, a girlish sound he hadn’t heard her make very often. He liked the change from her usual cool and sophisticated personal. He liked that he could disturb her poise.

“I’ve been waiting to do that since the airport yesterday,” she said, taking the flowers. “And if we’d been in Rome I could have.”

“Different rules here, I’m afraid.”

“I know. Never mind. Let me look at you.” She looked him over, and he returned the gaze, intrigued by her outfit – a gauzy, white dress that stopping just above her knees. Her legs, very nicely tanned, were bare and she wore simple flat sandals. Not at all her usual tailored look, and certainly not something she’d wear outside. Too much of her arms and legs on show than would be acceptable in public. Madari found it entirely acceptable.

“Sophia, you look beautiful,” he said. “I believe you’ve changed your hairstyle.”

“Oh you noticed at last,” she said in a mock affronted tone.

“It looks very nice.”

She put down the flowers and stepped up to him again, sliding her arms around his waist, turning her face up. He ran his fingers through her soft hair, in its new shorter, less structured style.

“And you, my dear Faris, are very lean and tanned and handsome. Mmm, a little too lean.” She touched his face. “But I’m still not sure about the beard.”

“A man of my age and position should have a beard.”

“But you told me you can’t have one because of your work. The whole gas mask thing.”

“I’m not in the thick of it, like Kahil. I haven’t had to wear a gas mask in years.”

“Oh… well, perhaps I could get used to it. It does look quite distinguished, I suppose.” She could barely hide her doubt though and he could barely hide his smile. Despite what he said, he fully intended to shave the beard off. But teasing her and Jahni for a couple of weeks could be amusing.

She sighed and rested her head on his chest. He kissed her hair and stroked his fingers down her back.

“I’ve missed you, Faris. And I feel to blame for you going.”

“You’re not to blame. Or we both are, but I’m home now. And I missed you too.” It surprised him how much, how much time he’d spent daydreaming about her.

“We have to talk about some things,” she said, stepping back. “But we’ll eat first.”

“All right,” he said, more keen on the eating than the talking. Movement made him look down to see Giotto nosing around his feet and he bent to pick the cat up. “Well, hello, my old friend.”

“I think he’s missed you too,” Sophia said. “I hear you were his catnip supplier while I was away.”

“I was indeed.” Madari laughed as they walked into the living room, her carrying the flowers, him carrying the cat. “I’m pained to think he had an ulterior motive for welcoming my visits.”

“All that cat’s motives are ulterior.”


Jahni had cramp in his hand from writing – which was ridiculous. What kind of heroic soldierly injury was that? He didn’t do Selection to get writer’s cramp.

A glance at the clock showed him it was close to noon now. He’d lowered the blinds to keep out the sun’s glare. He wanted his lunch, but should finish reviewing these requisitions first. Didn’t want another mix up like last month. You’d think the supply officer would have checked if the unit really intended to order a hundred cases of ammunition of a calibre that didn’t fit any of their weapons.

He glanced up at the cabinet on the wall that held the Heckler and Koch G3 Madari had carried in their guerrilla days. The ammunition would have fitted that. Perhaps Supply thought Madari intended to wage a one-man war.

He walked over to the cabinet, to take a closer look at the rifle. It still worked, though had a tendency to jam now, and it would be dangerous to rely on in battle. But Madari had a sentimental attachment to it. He kept it here, since it was less aesthetically pleasing than his grandfather’s old rifle that hung on the wall of the house. Despite its battered and scratched surface Jahni found the G3 quite a handsome weapon. Good lines. Images of the old days came back to him, of the rifle cradled in Madari’s arms, and he reached up to open the cabinet, wanting to touch it.


“What?” Jahni snapped, turning to see one of his clerks at the door of the office.

“Ah, if you’re done with the requisitions, I can run them over to Supply.”

“Ten minutes,” Jahni said, striding back to the desk and pulling a folder towards him. He shook out his sore hand and picked up the pen to start signing again.


Madari and Sophia finished their lunch and took coffee into the living room. She had done the cooking herself, or at least finished the cooking and served the meal, which meant her housekeeper must be out. They were alone.

“Would you like to see some photographs?” Madari said, when they were settled on the sofa. “Karen, um, Lieutenant Bennett took quite a lot. I thought you’d like to see some of them.”

“All right,” she said, looking mildly put out, perhaps guessing correctly that he was trying to put off the talk she said they had to have. He took an envelope from his pocket.

“I hope there are some of Karen herself,” Sophia said. “I’ve obviously been very jealous of her.”

“Ah, she’s quite attractive,” he said, “but you needn’t worry. We were friendly, no more.”

“I’m teasing,” Sophia said, taking the pictures from his hand. “That’s her? Yes, she is attractive.”

“She reminded me of you,” Madari said, and she looked at him surprised. “I know, she doesn’t look like you and of course, she was very different in many ways, so loud and, well, Australian. But she has the same confidence in herself that you have.”

“You’re not used to that in women.”

“No. Aside from my grandmother, perhaps. ”

“I’d have liked to have met that lady. From your stories, it sounds as if she skipped the lessons about deferring to the men.”

“Yes indeed. She even kept Ahmed in line. To some extent.”

She looked through more of the pictures. “That’s the Brigadier? He’s exactly what I pictured. Oh, is that Kibibi?”

“Yes, that’s her.”

“What a pretty little girl.”

“Yes. I found it hard to say goodbye to her. Foolish of me, I know.”

“Of course not!” She laid a hand on his arm. “You’re a kind and rather sentimental man, however much you’d deny that. Of course you grew fond of her. I’m sure you’ll miss her.”

She looked at the rest of the pictures and then gave them back to him. As he put them away in the envelope, he knew he couldn’t put this off any longer. Time for that talk.

“Sophia, it isn’t your fault I went away. There were many reasons.” He rubbed his forehead, recalling everything going on at the time, how scattered he’d felt. “I think I grabbed at the chance of some time away to deal with it all.”

“Was I one of those reasons though? Because I stayed away in Italy for so long?”

When he looked at her, she held his gaze, not ashamed, not asking for his forgiveness. Just wanting to understand.

“Yes. You were. Your… new situation… I didn’t know what you would expect of me when you came back.”

“You thought I would expect you to marry me.”

There, the word was out. A relief almost. Now they could talk.

“Is that what you expected?”

“I didn’t so much expect it as fear it.” She grimaced. “Oh, dear that sounds awful. Faris, I care so much for you. And I know you’d be a good husband. I, on the other hand, am not sure I’d be a good wife.”

“Oh, Sophia, of course…”

“For a man like you, I mean. I know you’re more liberal and modern than many of your countrymen. But by my standards you’re very old fashioned. Don’t get me wrong. I like that about you, it’s part of your charm. But I think I would find it less charming in a husband than I do in a lover.”

“I see.”

“I shock you, don’t I?”

“Yes.” He smiled and cupped her cheek with his hand. “But that is part of your charm.”

“And you would find it less charming in a wife than in a mistress.”

“Most likely,” he said. “There are more expectations on a married couple to conform.”

“Exactly. And I like us the way we are.”

“I do too. I meant what I said in my letter. I want to go on as before. Though I do worry that it looks insulting to you if I don’t at least ask you to marry me. I worry what people will say.”

“I’m not insulted. I know your motives,” she said. “And I don’t care about gossip. I know about things that the gossips only speculate about.”

He blushed and looked down. “You mean about Kahil.”

“Yes. I understand what role I play in your relationship with him. But I also know what you’ve promised me and that you’re a man of honour.”

It took him a while to answer her. How guilty should he be about what happened in Zaire? That had not been a dream, it had been real and it broke the promise he’d made to her. Yet their situation had been so strange at the time, he didn’t even know if he and Sophia were still a couple. Anyway, it was in the past and it wouldn’t happen again.

“Kahil and I have made promises too. I intend to keep them.”

She nodded and leaned against him. He put his arm around her, trailing his fingers on the bare smooth skin. For a moment, he thought of Mr Haridi. If that man had had a woman like Sophia perhaps he could have stayed strong.

“I did miss you,” she said. “I spent so long wondering what I would actually do if I came home and you proposed. I’m not sure I could have said no. Even if I had doubts, marrying you would be better than losing you entirely.”

“I know that I couldn’t stand to lose you,” he said, and it was more than just reassurance. He had missed her, had thought of her often. Not only missing the pleasures of the time he spent with her, and the sex of course, but her presence in his life. Was this love? Could he love her, when he was in love with someone else? They had never said “I love you”, to each other, and he didn’t say it now, but he knew that she was an essential part of his life and he would be much poorer if he lost her.

Their relationship had started out calculating, on his part at least, but his feelings had grown deeper and more genuine since then. The strength of the pain their separation had caused him had surprised him.

“I’m home now,” he said, not sure if he said it to her or himself. She smiled and moved closer to him, into his arms, turning her face up to his. He kissed her softly, and moved back.

“Welcome home, Faris.” She stood up and took his hand, to lead him to her bedroom.


Returning from lunch, Jahni decided that though he still had paperwork to do, he needed to burn off some steam, before he took a flamethrower to that damn In tray.

Private Zahal had recently returned from doing Selection, and had probably never broken a sweat the whole time. Standing six-feet five and weighing at least a hundred pounds more than Jahni, a little sparring with him could be just what Jahni needed.

They faced each other on the mat.

“Remember those two hundred push ups I made you do because of that speck of dirt on your rifle?” Jahni said, grinning.

“I remember.” Zahal had gone on to do fifty more – just for fun. Possibly not the best provocation.

“And those fifty laps of the barracks afterwards?” Now Zahal scowled. He only liked to run in short bursts. Like a shell. Jahni began to circle him and Zahal turned, tracking his movements.

“Yes, I remember. Sir.”

“After today I won’t be your commanding officer any more. So if you want to be able to say you gave your CO a good kicking, this is your last chance.”

Zahal grinned and pounced, with more speed than a big man like him should be able to manage. Jahni soon began to wonder if this had been a good idea after all.


Madari lay with Sophia’s head on his shoulder, one arm around her, her fingers trailing on his chest. In the warm room only a sheet covered them. He sighed and she looked up at him.

“Was that a sigh of satisfaction?”

“Oh, very much so.” He brought his other hand across and stroked her hair, which was now limp and disarranged. “It was wonderful.”

It surprised him how much his sexual frustration had built up during those months away. Yet, before he’d met Sophia, he’d gone for several years without sex and hadn’t felt much frustration at all.

A side-effect of his mental state at the time, he supposed. Something that had changed in recent years. A good sign. Though dangerous too. If his libido had returned to normal levels, then it was more essential than ever that he had an outlet for that. An acceptable outlet. He glanced down at Sophia. His foreign mistress. Acceptable, if not terribly respectable in some circles.

Certainly more acceptable than Haridi’s solution. Was Mr Haridi in love with someone? A man that he could never be with? When he picked up anonymous men at that sauna, did he dream of another face?

Sophia sat up and combed her fingers through her hair.

“Are you going somewhere?” Madari put his hand over hers as she moved to get out of bed.

“We can’t stay in bed all day.”

“I beg to differ.”

She smiled at that and said, “Well, that sounds good to me, but first I want to take a shower.”

“And that sounds good to me too.”


The hot water eased Jahni’s aching muscles after the sparring match with Zahal. He’d burnt off more than enough steam there. He’d be feeling it for days. Leaving the shower, he dried off quickly, dressed and left the officer’s locker room. Zahal was just emerging from the men’s locker room next door.

“Good workout, Private,” Jahni said. “You’ll have to teach me some of those moves.”

“Yes, sir. Glad to, sir.”

“Get back to the barracks room and get your kit ready,” Jahni said. “My inspection is in thirty minutes.”

“Yes, sir. Captain, it’s been good to have you in charge.”

“Thank you, Private. It’s been valuable experience.”

“I’ll be happy to see the colonel back, got a lot of respect for the colonel, sir. But all the men say it’s been interesting to have you running the show.”

“Interesting, eh? Well I think that’s good to hear. Dismiss, Private.”

Zahal left and Jahni walked back to his office, trying to keep up his stern look despite the grin trying to break out on his face. That meant just as much as any good report from Colonel Rahama.


Madari came back into the bedroom, wearing his robe, to find Giotto had taken up residence on the bed. He lifted the cat off and shook out the sheet, let it settle slowly and smoothed it out, before dropping his robe and slipping back under it. It felt cool against his skin, which was still warm from the shower he’d shared with Sophia. Not put off by the eviction, Giotto jumped back onto the bed and let Madari hold him and scratch his head gently.

Like that first morning here, Madari thought. After the first night he and Sophia made love. Their relationship had come a long way since then. He smiled at her as she came in, carrying a tray with a of jug of iced water, two glasses and a gold coloured box with a red ribbon on it.

“Chocolates,” she announced, setting the tray on the bed, before slipping out of her robe and getting back into bed. Madari put his arm around her as she took the lid off the chocolates and offered him one. The chocolates, the cat, her warm body pressed against his, skin to skin – a domestic scene of bliss.

He sighed with pleasure, utterly relaxed. This felt very different than those half dreaming afternoons lying on his bed at the lodge with Jahni. Even kissing and holding each other like that, he’d been tense, fearing they go further, beyond the limits they’d agreed too, constantly assessing his own strength and the power of the urges in him. His physical weakness kept them both safe then. Now as he lay with his woman he felt strong, his health restored and his urges indulged. So very different.


Jahni stalked along the line of cots, checking the neatly laid out kit and the men standing stiffly at attention. They were perfect, of course. His men always were. Like Madari he insisted on the best effort.

Still that didn’t relieve his tension. He had no worries that Madari would find anything wrong when he returned tomorrow, and he was even very close to finishing all of his outstanding paperwork. So there’d be nothing but new work and Jahni’s report in Madari’s In tray. But still the tension wouldn’t break.

He should finish up the last of that paperwork and go to the gym, he thought. Beat his personal best ten K on the treadmill. If that didn’t help… should he go to a hotel bar tonight? There was a medical convention in town. The city was full of salesmen. And saleswomen.

No, he couldn’t do that. When Madari had only just come home. They still had things to talk about, catch up on. But would Madari spend the evening with Sophia? He must be with her right now…

Dismissing that thought, Jahni moved on through the unit’s barracks, training rooms, ready room, equipment stores, rec room, the gym, everything ship-shape and ready for Madari’s inspection in the morning. It was almost four in the afternoon when he completed the inspection.

“Sergeant,” he addressed the man who’d accompanied him. “I’m going back to my office. Please see to it that the men and facilities are in this good a condition for the colonel’s inspection tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir. I’m sure I can find them something else to polish, sir.”

Jahni smiled. Of course. A sergeant could always find the men work to do. He dismissed the man and went back to his office.

“Could you call Colonel Rahama, please,” his clerk said, passing him some other messages as he sat down. Jahni called right away, Rahama’s secretary putting him through.

“Ah, Captain Jahni,” Rahama said, “I just wanted to see if you’re free this evening for a small dinner party. I understand if you’re not, at such short notice. But my wife insists we must celebrate Colonel Madari’s return. She was quite annoyed with me for not thinking of it myself.” He chuckled. “I’m not sure where the ladies come up with all of these special rules.”

“I’d be happy to come, sir.”

“Excellent. Nine o’clock then. We won’t be formal. If I have to wear a stiff collar any later than six o’clock I become quite irritable. Do you know if Faris has his mobile telephone with him? I do need to invite the guest of honour.”

“No, sir, his phone is here in his desk.”

“Ah. I’ve tried him at home, but he must be out.”

“I think he’s… at a friend’s house.”

Rahama paused for a beat and then said, “Ah yes, of course. I’ll try him there. Thank you, Captain, see you tonight.”

He knows about Sophia, Jahni thought. Well of course, it was hardly a secret. She had even been to parties at Rahama’s home. Usually the larger parties though, not the small intimate ones. So would she be there tonight?

Well, he’d see. It would be an interesting development. An acknowledgement, on both sides. And Rahama’s wife probably had the deciding vote there. So that filled Jahni’s evening at least. But he’d still go to the gym before he went home to change. Tension still churned his insides.


Sophia was at the party with Madari, along with several other senior officers and their wives. Jahni was not only the most junior officer there, he also the only man unaccompanied by a woman. He lurked by the table of hors-d’ouvres until Madari escaped from the other officers and came over to him, smiling, and they shook hands.

“Hello, Kahil. I’m sorry, I got caught up before I could come over. Have you had a busy day?”

“Why do you ask that?” He put on an innocent look. “You can’t be accusing me of getting behind on paperwork, or allowing the men to be sloppy with their quarters and kit, can you?”

“My apologies,” Madari said, a teasing tone of his own in his voice. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I know how much you love paperwork.”

“I’m thinking of requesting more, to break up all those dull training and exercise sessions.”

Madari laughed at that. How relaxed and well he looked. Better than yesterday. Of course he’d had some sleep now.

“What about you?” Jahni asked. “Busy day?”

“Oh just relaxing at Sophia’s.” They both glanced over at her, talking to Rahama and his wife. Interesting. She was here with Madari. Not just as another guest at the same party, as she had been on previous occasions. Was she more respectable as Madari’s mistress now that she was a widow than she had been as another man’s wife?

Did her being foreign make a difference? Everyone knew they had different standards. Something that might be a scandal involving a local woman was ignored in a foreign one. People expected them to be different. Jahni certainly did. When he went to the hotel bars he never even thought to try to approach an Arab woman, should it be likely one would be there alone.

“Kahil?” Madari said. “Are you awake in there?”

Jahni shook himself from his thoughts. “Sorry,” he said. “So, um…” Tread carefully now. There were limits, even with a friendship as intimate as theirs. “Did you and Sophia sort everything out?”

Madari looked more serious. Not gloomy, as if things had gone badly. More a suitably serious expression for a serious subject.

“Yes, we did. We’ll be going on as before for now.”

“For now?”

“Well, who knows what might happen in the future?”

“Women are fickle,” Jahni said.

“I believe there’s a famous aria to that effect,” Madari said, smiling. Jahni shrugged. Opera had never been an interest of his. “But,” Madari went on, “not really in this case. She’s the one who wants things to continue as before. So she’s not fickle at all.”

“I’m glad,” he told Madari, and meant it. Though an unworthy part of him still wished they would split up, mostly he was glad for them to continue as before. Their relationship as it stood suited him as much as it suited them. If she didn’t want to change it after as huge a disruption in her life as her husband’s death then he could be sure she wasn’t going to turn around and change it on a whim later. And it suited the new rules he and Madari they’d established for themselves and their own relationship.

After dinner the guests sat outside on the terrace, paper lanterns attracting moths, and sipped their coffee. The ladies stayed with them, since everyone wanted to hear more stories of Madari’s time in Africa. Jahni knew he must be censoring some of those stories. He’d hardly tell mixed company the details about the horrible accusations he was there to report on. Mostly he told them stories about amusing incidents, or funny characters he’d met there.

Of course he talked about the little girl Kibibi a lot, and then brought out the photographs of her and his other friends. Jahni caught Madari’s eye and gave him a ‘you’re carrying those around’ look. Madari returned it with a sheepish smile.

“Oh, what a pretty child,” Madame Rahama said when the pictures came around to her and her husband.

“Quite delightful,” Rahama agreed. He was a soft touch for children, Jahni was quite aware. “You must bring her over for a visit sometime, Faris. I look forward to spoiling her.”

“Perhaps he should have brought her home permanently,” one of the other officers said, chuckling. The men – except Jahni – chuckled at that, but Madame Rahama spoke up.

“I’m sure Colonel Madari would make a good father.” She glanced at Sophia as she said it and Sophia’s eyes went wide for a moment. She didn’t respond though, sipped her coffee instead. Not for the first time Jahni wondered about her age. It was a little hard to gauge, he’d never seen her without make-up and he assumed she coloured her hair, so couldn’t tell how much grey she had. But she wasn’t old enough that she couldn’t have children, was she? He wondered if Madari knew her age. That was silly. He must do.

The parents in the group fell to talking about the joys of having children then and Jahni noticed that while Madari took a lot of interest in their stories, Sophia appeared uncomfortable. Did she feel judged? To still be childless at her age would be considered quite odd locally. Although they made allowances for the strangeness of foreigners around here, still, could she help but feel judged?

She must have noticed his gaze as she looked up and caught his eye and she gave him a small, wan smile that he returned. If she did feel judged, he understood that. People still raised their eyebrows at him when he confessed to the shame of being unmarried. ‘A handsome young Royal Guard officer like you, still a bachelor?’ they said. And he knew the silent follow up question was ‘what’s wrong with you?’

If they only knew.

Chapter 3

Madari sank into his chair at last, with a sigh of relief. He’d been on his feet since arriving at the barracks that morning. Jahni and the rest of the unit couldn’t wait to show him they were still the best of the best. He’d indulged them, inspecting every part of the facility and its equipment. Some of that equipment was new, bought on Jahni’s authority, and Madari looked forward to talking to him about what other innovations he’d made. Rahama had told him last night that he’d encouraged Jahni not to just tread water while waiting for Madari’s return, but to take the unit forward.

The desk in front of him was neat, and the in-tray held only items from that morning. Anything belonging to Jahni was gone and even Madari’s rather old fountain pen that he used here sat in its usual pot, along with a half-dozen new and sharp-pointed pencils and three black and three blue biros. Madari suspected his clerk of organising those, rather than Jahni.

“You haven’t been using my pen, have you?” he asked Jahni, picking up the fountain pen.

“No, you told me not to.”

Madari nodded, happy about that. “A fountain pen nib adapts itself to the writer,” he said.

“Why didn’t you take it to Africa with you?”

That was a good question. He’d left many such items back here at home. “I think I wanted a clean slate out there. But, I also wanted to miss these items, even everyday ones like this pen, so that coming home would feel even sweeter.” He smiled. “That sounds foolish now I say it.”

Jahni chuckled. “It sounds very like you. And is it? Coming home I mean. Is it sweet?”

“Very. Now, we have to go over your reports. You need to bring me up to speed on all the missions you had while I was gone.”

“Yes, sir.” He glanced at his notebook. “Oh, one thing, before I forget. Lieutenant Raian asked if you would allow his father to meet you. He says he’s always talking about you when he goes home. I suppose his father is curious.”

“Of course. Have him come in. We’ll give him a tour.”


“Absolutely. You know how proud I am of the unit. It will be nice to show you all off.”

Jahni chuckled at that. “That’s not what you say when journalists ask for a tour.”

“You know my standing orders regarding journalists.”

“Repel with lethal force if necessary?” Jahni said.

“I don’t think I ever mentioned ‘lethal’ force.”

Jahni smirked. “That was one of my innovations while you were gone.”


“Thank you for the tour, Colonel,” Mr Raian said, offering Madari his hand as they returned to Madari’s office.

“It was a pleasure, sir,” Madari said. “I’m always happy to meet the family of any of my officers. You have much to be proud of.” He smiled at Raian, who looked down, modestly.

“Oh, yes, I’m very proud of my boy.” He beamed at Raian and patted his arm. “I have to admit to being wrong, about him joining the Army.”

“You didn’t want him to?” That surprised Madari. Raian was confident, cool-headed and with good natural authority. A born officer.

“I wanted him to take over the family business. But his younger brother is shaping up well there, so it turned out all right in the end.”

“He’s better at that than me anyway,” Raian said.

“May I take you out to lunch, Colonel?” Mr Raian said, glancing at the clock as its hands approached noon.

“Thank you, but that’s not necessary.”

“I insist.”

So Madari let him insist, and the two men left the barracks together in Mr Raian’s chauffeur driven Mercedes. They didn’t bring the lieutenant with them, the exclusion surprising Madari. He’d have thought the man would want to spend time with his son. But Mr Raian had said that he and Madari needed to talk a little business, and dismissed his son with a wave. Madari didn’t quite understand what he meant by ‘business’, but he looked forward to seeing what he could learn about one of his best officers.

Mr Raian took him to one of the finest restaurants in the city, where they sat at his ‘usual’ table, Mr Raian undoing the buttons of his suit jacket as he sat. According to the lieutenant, his father did a lot of international business, spent half the year abroad. He wore no headdress and could have been an American to look at him in his grey, tailored business suit.

As they waited for their lunches, Mr Raian leaned across the table. “I’ve been thinking that it’s time my son had a promotion to Captain.”

Madari smiled, thinking it was typical that a businessman should have such a direct approach. “I assure you he has excellent promotion prospects. In the future -”

“He should be a captain at his age. I checked the typical ages for promotions. Isn’t he good enough?”

“He wouldn’t be in my unit at all if he wasn’t,” Madari said with a frown. “Sir, I understand your ambitions for your son. But we’re still a small unit with low turnover. There are no vacant captaincies at the moment.”

“Then make one. Promote Captain Jahni to major.”

Madari bristled at this civilian telling him how to run his command. Somehow he managed to stay polite, though there was a hard frost in his tone.

“I appreciate your advice, Mr Raian, but I won’t be acting on it at this time.”

Mr Raian leaned back in his chair. His face was still quite neutral, Madari’s refusal and chilly manner not seeming to worry him. Does he think he’s in a business negotiation? Madari wondered.

“If he was still in another part of the Royal Guard he would be a captain by now.”

“That’s probably true, but as I explained, we’re a specialised unit.” Madari rubbed his forehead, looking for a way to explain. “Mr Raian, as the Special Forces group expands, the prospects for promotions will increase. Until then, your son and all of the officers understand that promotions won’t come as fast as they would in another company of the regiment. If their main concern was furthering their rank they wouldn’t have volunteered for the unit.”

Surely that was clear enough, even to a civilian. Mr Raian nodded. Perhaps he did understand.

“You drive a hard bargain, Colonel.”

Madari frowned at him. “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t understand what you mean.”

“What’s your usual arrangement?” Raian said, taking out a small notebook and a silver pen. “Is there a specific rate for a captaincy?” He waited, pen poised and Madari could only stare, until his mouth caught up with his brain.

“You’re offering me a bribe?”

“An incentive. I’m sure that bringing my son on a few years sooner than you intended is a small -”

He didn’t finish, as Madari stood up, bashing into the table in his haste, making water glasses wobble and splash. Mr Raian instinctively put his hand out to stop his glass from toppling over.

“That is not the way it works in my unit, or the Royal Guard.” He hoped he was right about that last one. Bribery was still a problem in the Army as a whole, Madari knew that, despite efforts to stamp it out. But Rahama had effectively ended it in the Royal Guard as soon as he took charge. Any questionable promotions had indeed been questioned.

Madari had never been offered a bribe – hoped that meant he had a good reputation as an honest man – and he’d wondered sometimes how he’d react if he was in that position. Now he knew. With anger and disgust. How could any commander sell promotions and place an officer in charge of men’s lives when he wasn’t qualified or ready for it?

Mr Raian put away his small notebook, scowling. “My son said you were an intelligent man, Colonel. But I’ve now got less respect for his judgement.”

Did Lieutenant Raian know about this? Madari would have to question him when he got back to barracks.

“For the sake of your son, I won’t report this to the police.” A waiter came over with their meals and the expensive food suddenly looked vile to Madari; as if it was infested with maggots or other filth. It turned his stomach. Without another word, he strode out of the restaurant, leaving Mr Raian and the baffled waiter behind.

He walked a couple of blocks, allowing the fresh air to cool his rage. As he calmed down, his stomach reminded him that he still needed to eat, so went to a coffee house, bought food and sat at the tables outside, still needing the fresh air to clear his head.

Corruption was an old problem, of course. It would take a long time to go away. The thought that his grandfather could have taken bribes struck him suddenly, making him wonder about the family money he’d inherited. And his father. A supply officer was in an excellent position to look for sweeteners and incentives from suppliers chasing contracts.

No, he couldn’t believe that of either of them. His father least of all. Even as a child, Madari had been able to see how seriously he’d taken his work. He’d often said that soldiers placed their lives in his hands when they went into combat with the equipment he bought for them. A man taking bribes would be buying from the supplier that offered the biggest bribe, not the best quality. People wouldn’t still call him the best supply officer the Royal Guard ever had if he’d conducted his business like that.

And Ahmed? He’d made the Royal Guard into one of the best regiments in the Army. Officers made a regiment. Choosing them on anything but ability wouldn’t build strength into the regiment but rather weakness. What about nepotism, and favouritism? Could Ahmed have been guilty of those? Could Madari himself? Mr Raian had said to make Jahni a major, and Madari had actually been thinking about that lately. Though Jahni hadn’t been ready for it before Madari went to Africa, in the fortnight since he returned Madari had seen a new maturity in him. The experience of command had given him that.

Still, he’d always been wary when it came to Jahni, trying to avoid anything that could be interpreted as showing favouritism. Jahni might indeed be ready for promotion to major. He certainly had the ability, but he would be on the young side for that rank. People might assume things. They already assumed things; no use encouraging them even further. Perhaps he should discuss it with Rahama, get a second opinion? But did he want Rahama to think that he didn’t trust his own judgement? For that matter, did Madari trust his own judgement when it came to Jahni? That was a worrying thought.

His lunch finished, Madari wiped his hands on a napkin, and left the coffee house to find a taxi back to barracks.


Lieutenant Raian knocked on Madari’s office door and Madari beckoned him inside. From the look on his face, Madari suspected he knew exactly why Madari had called him here. That made Madari curse silently. He knew. Damn.

“Close the door,” he said.

Raian did and came to stand at attention in front of the desk.

“Sir,” he said before Madari could speak. “My father called me, before you came back from lunch. I know what he did. I can only say that I’m sorry.”

Madari frowned. “You didn’t know beforehand?”

Raian stared, horrified. “No, sir. If I had, I’d have told him not to even think about it.”

He appeared sincere. Madari sighed and waved a hand at the chair on that side of the desk. “Sit down, Lieutenant.”

“Thank you, sir.” He sat, but certainly didn’t relax. “I really am sorry, sir. I told him just now on the phone that he insulted you. And that what he did was illegal.” A nervous look crossed his face. “Are you planning on going to the police, sir?”

“No,” Madari said. “Not this time. Please ensure he understands that I am not just… driving a hard bargain. That if he approaches me with such an offer again I will report him.”

“Yes, sir, of course,” Raian said, hastily. “I’ll make sure he understands. I can only ask that you won’t hold this against me in the future, Colonel.”

“Of course not. You will be a Captain one day, Lieutenant, and who knows what after that? Nobody needs to pay me to see that you achieve your full potential.”

“Thank you, sir. I know that promotions won’t be as fast in the unit – you explained that when I came in. And I haven’t regretted that for a second.”

“I’m glad to hear that.”

“Serving here, with you and Captain Jahni, helping you to create this new type of fighting force. It’s such an exciting challenge that I’d rather serve in this unit as a private than as a major anywhere else.”

Madari couldn’t answer for a second, overwhelmed by the enthusiasm from Raian. So much pride in the unit and in himself that he’d made it to serve here.

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” he said, when his voice came back. “That means a lot to me.”

“It’s hard to make my father understand that. He thinks being in the Army is only about getting promotions. As if that’s the only way to measure success.” He smiled wryly. “He’s a businessman, not a soldier. He doesn’t understand about things like duty, or service, or challenging yourself to be the best.”

“Well, despite that, you clearly do. Go back to your post, Lieutenant. As far as I’m concerned this matter is closed.”

“Thank you, sir.” He rose and marched smartly out of the door, closing it behind him. Madari walked to the conference table and poured a glass of water. Today’s paper, lying on the table, caught his eye while he sipped the water. The headline was once again about the upcoming Haridi case and the scandal still engulfing the mayor’s office.

Madari looked over at the chair where Raian had sat and thought of the pride radiating from him. If Madari were ever to disgrace himself like Haridi… he’d lose all of that pride and love and loyalty from his men. He could never do that to them. He had to stay strong. For the unit. The phone rang and he drank the rest of the water and picked it up.

“Sir,” his clerk said, “I have a woman on the line for you. She says her name is Lieutenant Bennett.”

Karen? Well, this was a surprise.

“Put her through.”

“Wotcha, Colonel,” Karen said a moment later. He smiled at the traditional Australian greeting.

“Karen, it’s good to hear from you. Where are you?”

“Port Said.”

“What? You’re in Egypt?”

“Just got off the ferry from Limmisol.”


“Can’t catch you out on the geography, can I? I had some leave accumulated, and after listening to you talking about the Middle East for six months, I fancied seeing it firsthand. So I hitched on a military flight to Cyprus and here I am.”

“Are you coming here? It will be very good to see you.”

“Of course, I… hang on.” Her voice grew more distant. “No, I don’t want to buy any melons. Bugger off.” She came back on. “Bloody hawkers.”

“Karen, do you speak any Arabic at all?”

“I’ve got a phrase book. ‘Bugger off’ doesn’t seem to need any translation though.”

“Oh, yes, I can see this trip is going to turn out very well.”

She giggled at his dry tone. “Look, I’m going to spend about a week in Egypt, checking out those pointy buildings everyone raves about.”

“Pointy buildings…” He almost giggled himself. “Yes, they are worth a look. So, I’ll see you in about a week.”

“I’ll call you when I’m on my way. Can’t wait to see you again.”

“I look forward to it.”

He ended the call with his mood lifted considerably. Someone else to show the unit off to. Someone who wouldn’t poison the good mood that came from doing that the way Mr Raian had. He went into the outer office and through into the private office Jahni had now.

“I have some good news, Kahil. You’re going to be able to continue those very interesting discussions you had about feminism.”

Jahni’s ‘did you get hit in the head?’ expression brought Madari’s mood all the way back to the good side of the ledger.


Madari and Jahni entered a briefing room a few days later to find the men waiting for them, but Madari frowned at the arrangement of the tables and chair, all in forward facing rows, like a classroom.

“No, no, this won’t do,” he said. “I want more of a round table discussion here. Arrange the desks seminar style, please.” He sat at the desk at the front, taking papers from his briefcase, while Jahni turned to the men.

“Come on, let’s get these desks moved.”

The men started heaving the desks and chairs around. As they worked, Jahni glanced back at Madari, who worked on his papers with a smile on his face. He’d been in a good mood for a couple of days, clearly looking forward to Karen Bennett’s visit. Jahni couldn’t deny he was too. Though they’d argued almost every time either of them said something, back at the lodge, it had always been in good humour. By the time Jahni left, he’d seen how much she respected and liked Madari and that had made it less difficult to leave. He trusted Karen to watch Madari’s back.

“I hear they’re rearranging the furniture down at the mayor’s office too,” one man said.

Madari’s smile vanished. Jahni thought he saw him wince at the mention of the mayor’s office. That scandal story had really bothered him.

“Why’s that?” another soldier asked.

“So all the men can sit with their backs to the wall,” the first man said with a smirk. The rest of the men laughed and Jahni felt his fists clench involuntarily. This time he felt sure he saw a grimace twist Madari’s face, even though he had his hand partly in front of it now.

“That’s enough,” Jahni snapped. The men settled down immediately.

“Sorry, sir,” the first man said. “Just a little joke.”

“Private, if I wanted to hear a comedian, I’d go to a nightclub. Meanwhile, this evolution does not require talking.”


“That’s how they’d talk about the unit,” Madari said, as he packed away his papers after the briefing ended and the men had left.


“That… joke. Things like that. If we ever… if we were caught, it’s not only us who’d suffer. The unit would become the butt of jokes. And not only jokes. I hear more than that. Hatred. Contempt.”

“Faris, that’s not going to happen. We decided.”

“We decided. But are we strong enough?”

“Yes,” Jahni said. No defensiveness, or justification. They were strong enough. He knew it. Simple as that.

“You’re right,” Madari said, setting his jaw, his distracted and distressed expression clearing. “We are strong. We won’t let the men down.”

Chapter 4

“Why is she coming on the train?” Jahni said as they walked into Az-Ma’ir’s central railway station. It was busy, the evening rush hour in full swing. “Wouldn’t it be quicker to fly?”

“I think she likes to see the country and meet people,” Madari said. He examined the arrivals board. “Platform eight. Come on.”

They made their way through the crowds heading home and others coming into the city for the evening. Dodging luggage and rushing commuters, they found platform eight and waited there, the train due in a few minutes. As usual, Jahni surveyed the area carefully. He couldn’t go anywhere now without looking for trouble, Madari thought. But they were out of uniform and anonymous in the crowd, leaving him feeling more relaxed than he did when wearing his uniform in public.

The train arrived and disgorged a crowd of people, most coming from the coast like Karen.

“There she is,” Jahni said as the crowd poured through the barriers, showing their tickets. “Karen!” he shouted, waving. “Over here!”

Madari saw her too, wearing khaki trousers, a long sleeved shirt and sturdy walking boots. Very practical and modest enough for local standards. She carried a pack on her back and had a wide brimmed hat resting on top of that. Spotting them, she waved back, grinning.

“Karen, welcome to Az-Ma’ir,” Madari said as she came up to them. He feared she’d attempt to hug him, but was relieved when instead she held out her hand for a shake. He returned it warmly and Jahni did the same.

“Great to be here, and to see you, Colonel, and you Kahil. You fellas look great.”

“How was your journey?” Jahni said as they moved away from the platform.

“Fine, fine. But they had no food service on the train. Any chance we can stop for a quick bite?”

“I was going to invite you out to dinner,” Madari said.

“I won’t make it that far,” she said, “my stomach thinks my throat’s been cut.”

Well, it was at least a couple of hours until dinner. “Of course.” He led her to a small coffee shop on the concourse, tables arranged outside. While Karen and Jahni secured a table and settled down, Madari went to the counter and came back with coffees and cake and a sandwich for Karen and a bottle of water. She drank the water quickly.

“Thanks, Colonel, I was parched.” She started on the sandwich while the men sipped their coffee and Jahni ate cake.

“I bought that for Karen,” Madari pointed out. Jahni shrugged.

“There’s plenty.”

“So, any adventures since you left Port Said?” Madari asked. “Did you like the ‘pointy buildings’?”

She laughed. “Yeah, they were great. Had a pretty good trip, not too many adventures. A camel on the line delayed the train for a bit once. But the guard shot it, so it only held us up for an hour.”

She might be kidding, she had that teasing look in her eyes, hoping for a reaction perhaps. Madari affected a casual air. “Camels can be such a pest this time of year.”

“So, you went through Egypt on the train, then got the ferry over here, then got a train to the city?” Jahni said. “On your own?”

“Well, there were a few other people aboard,” she said, glancing around at the bustling station.

“Karen is quite capable of looking after herself,” Madari said.

“Men didn’t bother you?” Jahni asked.

“Sometimes,” she said with a shrug. “But a couple of older ladies in a sauna in Cairo taught me some phrases to ward creepy blokes off.” She frowned in concentration and spoke slowly in Arabic. Madari blushed and Jahni choked on the coffee he’d just taken a sip of. Karen grinned. “Of course, I don’t know what that means. But it seems to work.”

“Ah, yes,” Madari said, glancing at Jahni, flushed too as he recovered from his choking. “Yes, I can see it would be quite effective.” He got the feeling from her grin that she knew exactly what it meant.

“I’ve got a couple of other ones if you want to hear them.”

“No, thank you,” Madari said, raising a hand before she said anything else, realising for the first time how much he missed her. His time since he came home had been so busy, getting up to speed on everything, that he’d had little time to brood on his friends from Zaire. But seeing her here, now, on his home ground, made him remember how sad he’d been to say goodbye to her.

“So, are we going to give Karen a tour of the barracks?” Jahni asked. Of course she’d want that, and of course Madari wanted to both show off the barracks and stir things up a little. He’d mentioned her a few times to other officers, and many had scoffed at the concept of a woman officer. He just had to see how they responded to her in person.


“Are you sure you won’t join us for dinner?” Madari said as they walked into the hotel lobby and made for the reception desk.

“Thanks, Colonel, but I’m just exhausted. I need a long soak in the bath and then my bed.” She dropped her pack by the reception desk. “Besides, I don’t think I’ve got so much as a clean sock in here, never mind anything to wear out to dinner.”

“They have a laundry service here,” Madari said. “Please feel free to use it.”

“You know you don’t have to pay for me to stay here,” she said, looking around at the well-appointed lobby and the wealthy looking people occupying it. “I’m used to roughing it.”

“I insist,” he said. “You’re my guest.”

Typical of him, Jahni thought. He’d skimp on accommodations for himself, yet put his guests up in five star luxury.

“Well, if you insist,” she said, grinning. “I’ll try to behave myself.”

“They are used to foreigners here.” Madari teased her a little with that, and she chuckled.

“Crazy foreigners, eh?”

Madari turned to the desk and started to check her in. Jahni looked around. “It’s a good hotel,” he said. “The rooms are excellent.”

“Oh. You’ve stayed here?”

“Um, for a night now and again,” he said, hastily, suddenly wanting to dismiss the subject. The receptionist was looking at him. Did she recognise him? If she did was it as the famous Captain Jahni, or as the man who picked up foreign women in the bar?

Foreign women… He glanced at Karen again. Even rumpled and tired she was attractive. That ready smile and the twinkle in her eye. Her sun-bleached hair and golden tan. Rather different than the businesswomen usually found in these hotels. And her body of course…

Looking too long, she’s seen me. Look away.

“You’re checked in,” Madari said, turning to Karen. “The porter will take your pack and someone will come up in an hour to collect your clothes for laundering. You can order dinner from room service whenever you’re ready.”

“Thanks, Colonel.” The porter appeared, picked up her pack and took the room key from the receptionist. “I guess I’ll see you fellas in the morning then.”

“I’ll pick you up at nine,” Madari said. “Sleep well.”

She leaned in closer and for a second Jahni thought she was going to kiss Madari, but instead she nodded at the waiting porter. “How much do I tip him?”

Madari chuckled, the momentary panic vanishing from his face. He told her and Jahni clicked his tongue.

“Double that,” he said. “He’s a terrible tipper.”

“Kahil!” Madari protested.

“Faris, waiters spit in your soup everywhere in this city.” He couldn’t keep the smile off his face as he said it though, happy to see it make Karen laugh. Madari just rolled his eyes.

“Okay, goodnight,” she said, following the porter to the lifts.

“Of course,” Jahni said when the lift doors closed and she vanished from sight, “a good looking woman doesn’t need to tip as generously as a man.”

“No. I suppose not.” Madari glanced at the large clock over the reception desk and they left the hotel, walking back out into the evening sunlight, a doorman holding the door open for them.

“So, just us boys for dinner,” Madari said as they strolled to where his car was parked. “Do you want to go anywhere in particular? I hadn’t made any reservations.”

“I always hold a table open for you at my place,” Jahni said, slipping on his sunglasses. “And there’s a football match on later.”

“That sounds good.”

“Unless you were going to head over to Sophia’s.”

“No, she’s busy tonight.”

“I suppose she’s keen to meet Karen?”

Did Madari grimace there? Was Sophia a little jealous of the woman who’d spent six months with Madari?

“Um, yes, she’s very keen to meet her.” They were all getting together tomorrow, and Jahni knew Madari planned to take the group out to the falconry centre so he could show off Ruya.

“And I’m sure Karen is keen to meet Sophia.”

“Well, not exactly.” Madari sounded uncomfortable. “Karen doesn’t exactly know about Sophia.”

Jahni stopped and stared at Madari. He took off his sunglasses to get the full effect across better.

“She doesn’t know about Sophia? All those months and you never mentioned her?”

Madari stopped too when Jahni did, a step or two in front of him. He turned to Jahni putting his own sunglasses on, hiding a nervous look in his eyes.

“It would hardly be proper for me to discuss my private life with a young woman.”

“Does Sophia know?” Jahni said, trying to keep from smirking. “I mean that Karen doesn’t know she exists?”

“No,” Madari admitted. “Come on, before I get a parking ticket.” He hurried on and Jahni caught up, falling into step with him.

And he’d thought taking Karen to the barracks was going to be fun. Sounds like that would be just the start.


Madari arrived at Karen’s hotel the next morning at nine, in his staff car. He thought she would probably enjoy that, and anyway, it was a much nicer car than his own. He really should get a new car – he’d started to feel rather ashamed of taking Sophia out in his old Volvo. Not that she said anything about it, unlike Jahni who kept pointing out this week’s good deals on new cars and asking if he needed a new supply of mothballs for his wallet.

Karen was waiting for him in the lobby, wearing clean and well-pressed khakis and a white cotton shirt, along with her walking shoes. It wasn’t a uniform, but it had the same feel about it. Anyway, it looked modest and smart enough that he could introduce her to his fellow Royal Guard officers without embarrassment. Of course the embarrassment would come once she opened her mouth…

Sijad opened the door for them as they approached the car.

“Thank you, Sergeant.”

“Ma’am.” He nodded his head, returning her smile. Conquered already, Madari suspected.

“Nice car,” Karen said as they drove through the city streets.

“Perhaps one day you’ll have a staff car and driver yourself,” Madari said. She had the potential to make the senior officer ranks, but would sexism even in her country keep it from happening?

“That would be nice. I could have a nap on the way to meetings. Does the colonel ever do that, Sergeant?”

“That would be classified information, ma’am,” Sijad said, a smile on his face.

“Your discretion is appreciated, Sergeant,” Madari said. He had dozed off on occasion in this seat, but only when exhausted from a long mission.

They reached the barracks and Sijad dropped them outside the Special Forces unit, before driving off to park the car.

“Colonel Rahama is keen to meet you, but he’s busy this morning, so I’ll take you along later. Now, let me give you the tour. Kahil is around somewhere.”


“So are you a medic, Lieutenant?” One of the officers asked after Madari introduced Karen to them in their ready room.

“A medic? Oh no. Nothing like that.”

“An administrator?” another man asked.

“You mean like a clerk?” Karen said, still smiling, her voice still neutral, but Madari felt sure he heard an edge of something in it. Anger, impatience? “No. Not a clerk.”

“So you’re …”

“An officer,” Madari said. “Like you gentlemen.” Some of them looked dubious at that. The ones who didn’t were too busy staring at the exotic creature in their midst.

“You give orders to soldiers?” Raian asked, sounding amazed.

“I’m taking up a posting leading a team of weapons analysts after I get home from leave.”

“You’re trained to handle weapons?” Raian sounded horrified by the barbarity of the Australians arming women.

“Tends to be something you pick up when you join the Army, don’t you find?” She grinned at her fellow lieutenant and he blushed.

“Miss Bennett handles a rifle as well as most of you,” Madari said, and was surprised at her small frown at him. He supposed he’d done a lot of jumping to her defence since they started the tour. Odd that she wouldn’t like that. Did she feel she didn’t need his defence?

“Perhaps we should take a stroll over to the firing range,” Jahni suggested, an innocent expression on his face.

“I’d enjoy that,” Karen said, with a wicked smirk.

“What’s your weapon of choice?” Jahni said, as they headed for the range, several of the officers following. “I know you like the Kalashnikov, but we don’t have those.”

“I’d love to try your MP5s,” she said.

“Of course. And, I was just thinking, sir,” he said, turning to Madari, “that maybe you should let her have a try of your old G3?”

Madari looked surprised. “Well, of course, if she wants to.”

“The gun you used when you were a guerrilla?” Karen said. “Yeah, I’d love that. I’m familiar with those.”

“Of course.” Madari sent a soldier to fetch the weapon and some ammunition.

At the range Jahni gave Karen one of the MP5s and they had a long chat about it, mostly telling each other things they already knew, and Madari recognised that they were putting on a show for the gaggle of curious officers.

Once Jahni finished his instructions, Karen loosed off the rifle at the target. She wasn’t any kind of remarkable shot, Madari already knew that. Though she had a sharpshooter rating, she probably didn’t perform to that standard today, using a rifle she had no experience of and perhaps conscious of her sceptical audience. But the fact she could fire the rifle at all and not hurt herself with the recoil, or be frightened of the noise impressed the rest of Madari’s officers regardless of her marksmanship.

The G3 lay ready on a table and she moved on to that next, checked it, loaded it, and now the officers were even more impressed to see her handle the larger weapon as easily as the shorter MP5. By Madari’s estimation she performed better this time, the longer gun perhaps suiting her more. She had fired around a dozen shots when the rifle jammed. Madari winced.

“I’m sorry, Lieutenant, it’s a little worn out now. If you let me…” He took a step towards her to take the rifle, but she had already started to break it down on the small bench in the firing range booth. Her hands worked fast, perhaps even faster than a man’s larger hands could. The officers watched in silence as she cleared the jam, reassembled the weapon and fired off a few more shots, before turning to Madari and taking off her ear defenders and safety glasses.

“Nice weapon, but could do with an overhaul. Be as good as new then.”

“Thank you,” Madari said, taking it as she handed it back to him. “You’re right. I’ll send it to our weapons master. I’m sure he’ll be able to get it back into top shape.”

Karen looked around at the rest of the officers, most staring, with a mix of expressions on their faces ranging from amusement to shock.

“What’s wrong, fellas? You never see a lady firing a machine gun before?”

“No, Lieutenant,” Jahni said. “Most of them haven’t.”

“Right,” she said. “Any volunteers to go stand downrange with an apple on his head?”

That brought nervous laughter, though most probably didn’t understand the reference.

“You’re not that good,” Jahni said, and Madari felt sure he winked at her. He turned to the officers. “Okay, show’s over. Everybody back to work.”

The officers tore themselves away reluctantly, leaving only Madari and Jahni and Karen. A soldier cleared away the weapons.

“Well, that was enjoyable,” Madari said as they left the range. “Now, I think Colonel Rahama will be free and he’s dying to meet you.”


Rahama stood up from his desk and held out both hands to take Karen’s when they were shown into his office.

“My dear Lieutenant Bennett, how delightful to meet you. Colonel Madari has spoken so highly of you.”

“And vice-versa, sir. Please, call me Karen.”

“Oh, no, I insist I shall call you Lieutenant.”

Was that for the novelty of it, or simply respect, Madari wondered. Rahama wouldn’t patronise her – he knew how hard won an officer’s rank was – but he probably found the whole situation quite amusing. Karen didn’t seem to mind though, and they were soon chatting away like old friends, mostly about Madari, to his considerable embarrassment.

“Now, shall we all have lunch,” Rahama said, after they’d sat over coffee for nearly an hour, Madari and Jahni barely getting a word in.

“The colonel was always raving about the standard of the food in your officer’s mess,” Karen said. “So I’m dying to try it.”

“Then you are my guest. Come, let’s continue our chat in the dining room. I want to hear more about the way things are done in the Australian Army, Lieutenant.”

“Of course, sir.”

They went to the mess, Rahama and Karen walking together and talking business. Madari and Jahni walked behind them and exchanged looks. It wasn’t only charm and banter flowing between Rahama and Karen, Madari noticed. They spoke about army life, the differences in their methods, command. They had much in common, he thought, bizarre as that seemed. Both took every opportunity to learn from someone who had knowledge they didn’t have. And both seemed to find a kind of quiet amusement in those everyday absurdities of life that produced anger and frustration in other people.

Rahama always had his particular table in the mess, of course, prominently on display, and seemed to relish it today, enjoying the attention Karen. Not all of the officers in the room felt the same, and there were many stares and much muttering. Many of the looks were directed at Madari, as word got around that he had brought this woman into the barracks. What could he be thinking?

His discomfiture at that was only minimal though. Since bringing in Jahni and setting up his new unit he’d gained a reputation as a man who didn’t play by the rules. That had bothered him at first, but as both those moves proved successful and received Rahama’s support, he’d grown less self-conscious. So he was a reformer, even something of a radical? People would have to live with it.

“So, did you enjoy your lunch?” Madari asked as they sat with coffee afterwards.

“Oh, it was very nice,” she said. “Though… well, very French. I mean great, five star, but I’m hoping to try some more local dishes.”

“Sheep’s eyeballs?” Jahni said, with what was definitely a wink this time.

“Battered and deep fried?” Karen came back with.

“Please,” Madari said, “we just ate. Karen, you’re quite right. I’ll ensure you get some good regional cuisine while you’re here. Tonight in fact, after we go to the falconry centre we’ll all go out for dinner for some authentic local food.”

“I can’t wait,” Jahni said, wearing a smirk on his face that Madari didn’t understand. He didn’t think Madari would take her to eat something nasty, did he?

“Well,” Rahama said, “I intend to monopolise this young lady for the afternoon and show her the whole place. I’m sure you gentlemen have work to do.”

“Oh,” Madari said. “Well, if you have time, sir.”

“I’ve cleared my diary,” he said. “Off you go now. Miss Bennett is quite safe with me.”

“Karen?” Madari said, and she nodded.

“That’s fine, I’m looking forward to it.”

It made sense, Madari supposed, for Rahama to give her the tour of the whole base. He could take her to any part of the barracks she was interested in, where Madari could really only show her around his own unit, not the other companies, without potentially treading on toes and causing friction.

“Well, enjoy yourself and I’ll see you later in my office.”


A soldier brought Karen back to Madari’s office later in the afternoon and looked on the verge of asking Madari to sign a chit for her, before Madari dismissed him.

“My feet are killing me,” she said, dropping into a chair beside Madari’s desk. “The old Colonel can cover a lot of ground for a man his age. He should have a golf cart!”

“I’ll suggest that to him. I hope you’ve found your tour interesting.”

“Definitely. Lots to think about. You fellas do things differently from us all right, but I’ve picked up some ideas.”

“Very good. I expect the colonel has picked up some ideas from you too, I know I have.”

“Going to start bringing in some lady officers?” She gave a quirky smile, clearly knowing the answer to that one.

“I can’t see that happening for a while yet.” He glanced at his watch. “Kahil and I will be done in about an hour, unless something comes up, and then we’ll head over to the falconry centre.”

He ordered his clerk to bring them some tea and when it arrived, looked at the door, wanting to close it, but knowing it would look strange when she was alone in here with him. Yet he needed to say something to her in private. He compromised, leaving the door standing half open and beckoning her over to the window. With a curious look on her face, she joined him.

“Karen, we’ll be stopping to pick someone else up on the way to the falconry centre.”


“A lady. A very close friend of mine.” Did she understand? Did he have to spell it out?

“Oh, your, um, girlfriend, sir?” She actually blushed when she said it, her voice unusually cautious, as if fearing she’d jumped to the wrong conclusion.

“Yes,” he said, relieved she got it. “We’ve been friends for several years. She’s a very important part of my life. I know it may seem odd to you that I never mentioned her to you before, but please don’t misunderstand why that was. Please don’t think I don’t trust you. It’s simply that we don’t talk about our private lives that way. I’m only telling you now because I don’t want you to be taken by surprise later.”

“I understand,” she said, nodding.

“You’re not offended?”

“Of course not. You’re an odd sort of bloke, Colonel, but I know you’ve got your own ways here.”

“Thank you for understanding. I’m looking forward to introducing you two now. My friend’s name is Sophia Giordano. She’s Italian, but she lives here in Qumar.”

“Oh, well I can’t wait to meet her. Er, does she know that I didn’t know about her?”

“I haven’t mentioned it,” Madari said. Sophia would understand of course, she know the customs here, she know Madari was old fashioned. Of course she would understand. She’d find it surprising if he had mentioned her to Karen. Wouldn’t she?


Madari checked the rear view mirror and then caught Jahni’s eye. Jahni wore a rather disappointed look, Madari couldn’t understand why. Personally he was relieved to see Karen and Sophia chatting away in the back seat as if they’d known each other for years.

Thankfully, the subject of exactly when Madari had first told Karen about Sophia hadn’t come up, so Madari had begun to relax on that score. After her discretion over his emotional crisis following that nightmare at Christmas back in Zaire, he trusted she would be just as discreet here.

Of course, he had to wonder if Karen was now questioning why it was Jahni Madari wanted to speak to on that night, and not Sophia. Forget it. That probably hadn’t even crossed her mind.

At the falconry centre the other three waited outside by the car, the women still chatting and Jahni just frowning, until Madari brought Ruya out, perched on his wrist. She gave his guests her usual baleful glare.

“Oh, she’s beautiful,” Karen said. “Can I touch her?”

“With the gloves on,” Madari said. “She’s a little highly strung.”

Jahni snorted at that. “Careful, Karen. By highly strung he means ‘unspeakably vicious’.”

“Oh she is not vicious,” Madari protested as Karen put on a handling gauntlet. “Ignore him. He’s been afraid of her ever since she gave him a little nip.”

“A little nip! She tried to rip my arm off.” He showed off a triangular scar on his right arm. “She got down to the bone.”

“You just have to be confident with her, show her who’s the boss,” Madari said, watching carefully as Karen reached out with her gloved hand. Ruya made a half-hearted shredding attempt, but then let Karen pat her lightly on the head. “See? She’s never bitten Sophia either, has she?”

“No, I’ve always found her quite friendly,” Sophia said.

“Females sticking together,” Jahni muttered. “I’m going to bring my body armour next time.”

“I don’t think Kahil likes animals or birds very much,” Madari observed.

“I like them fine, as long as they aren’t vicious.”

The evidence didn’t support that. Jahni was nervous of horses, had always been exceptionally wary of the guard dogs back at the prison, had once said that camels should be exterminated from the face of the planet and he and Ruya had been enemies at first sight. He apparently found the birds and beasts too unpredictable.

As Karen started teasing Jahni about being afraid of kittens and budgerigars, Madari moved away to the training area, ready to show off Ruya’s skills. The others called out encouragement and praise as he put her through her paces. Jahni cheered up, probably thanks to Karen’s joking. In a few minutes he was laughing and joking with the two women.

It surprised Madari how much he enjoyed seeing Karen again, and how much he’d missed her since he left Zaire. However unlikely the idea seemed to others, to himself even, he didn’t want to lose touch with her. He wanted to continue their friendship. He had absolutely no romantic designs on her, but found her intriguing, loyal, dependable and just a pleasure to be around.

And as a young officer, she had so much potential. He’d always prided himself in his ability to develop the careers of bright young officers. Perhaps he couldn’t do that directly with her, but he could offer her advice as she progressed in the ranks. He hoped she’d accept that.

If he had no romantic intentions towards her he had to wonder who else might. Did Jahni find her attractive? They were developing a friendship, he could see that, and it pleased Madari to see them get along so well. But could they develop something more? How would Madari feel about that? Jealous, perhaps, and yet that would feel very selfish, when he had his own woman. Could Karen be for Jahni what Sophia was for him?

She could even be more. They were so much younger than him and Sophia, and with less baggage, no previous marriages. What if they… he flinched as Ruya landed back on his wrist after a flight, digging her claws in deep, as if punishing him for not taking enough notice of her, too busy looking at his friends.

“Ease off, girl,” he said softly, taking a piece of meat from the bag on his belt and handing it to her. She tore into the raw flesh, while Madari glanced over at the other three again. They were smiling at his flinching, having seen him taken by surprise.

Jahni and Karen looked good standing side by side. An ideal couple in many way. Intellectual equals, both ambitious. He was a couple of years older and three inches taller. She was a match for him in wit and personality. He couldn’t imagine Jahni would want a traditional, submissive, wife.

Wife? Madari’s mind ran ahead, seeing them in wedding clothes, a guard of honour from the unit. Perhaps some kind of secondment, or UN position could be arranged to allow her to stay here. And in a few years time… now his imagination really ran away, and he saw a sturdy little boy, dark haired like his father, playing football with Jahni. And a pretty little girl, younger than the boy, golden-brown hair, hazel eyes. Pretty, but as feisty as her mother. The children would call Madari “Uncle” and he would dote on them, spoil them…

Ruya bit him hard on the thumb and he gave a cry of protest at the pain even through the gauntlet. Bird and man glared at each other, she bored with his lack of attention, he angry that she’d brought him out of his fantasy of the future. But then he sighed and gave her more meat, knowing the fantasy was absurd anyway.

“I told you!” Jahni called, grinning. “Unspeakably vicious!”

Perhaps, but with a sense of timing second to none. Still… he looked at his laughing audience again. The two of them did look good together.


They went on to a cafe for supper after they left the centre, took a table outside and lingered over a pot of tea after they finished the meal.

“Kahil, you should take Karen on to a nightclub after this,” Madari suggested.

Jahni looked surprised. “I suppose.” Then he nodded. “I’m on duty at three a.m. so yes, I could do that, then drop her off and go to work.” He liked to cover some of the standby shifts, Madari knew, be with the men who waited on alert through the night for any emergency calls and observe the handover to the next shift. “If you’d like that, Karen?”

“I didn’t even know you had nightclubs!”

“Of course,” Madari said. “There’s probably less drinking in them than you’d be used to. But just as much dancing.”

“Suits me,” she said. “I’ll have to change though. It’ll only take me five minutes.”

Jahni snorted. “I’ve heard women say that before.”

She tossed a paper wrapped sugar cube at him and he caught it.

“Why don’t you and Sophia come?” Karen suggested to Madari.

“Oh, my dancing days are long over,” Sophia said.

“And Faris’s never started,” Jahni said, crunching up the sugar cube. Sophia chuckled at that.

“I did try to get him to dance at our Christmas party at the lodge,” Karen said. “But he wasn’t having it.”

“I haven’t managed to get so much as a foxtrot out of him since I met him,” Sophia said. “He’s not a dancing man.”

“Dancing is interesting to watch other people do,” Madari said. “But a rather undignified activity for a colonel.” He used his most haughty tone, but let his amusement at their teasing show in his eyes.

And Jahni was going to take Karen dancing. That could only be good.

Chapter 5

Madari stirred, waking slowly. Warm bed. Sophia beside him, warm skin. Her bed, not his own, he realised as he opened his eyes and took in his surroundings. His mobile phone was ringing on the bedside table and the next trill from it cut through the mists of sleep and made him reach for it. Sophia stirred against him and muttered, half-awake.

Not wanting to disturb her, seeing from the clock that it was barely five, Madari slipped out of bed and out of the room, grabbing his robe on the way. He closed the door quietly behind him as he answered the call.


“It’s me.” Jahni’s voice came on the line.

“What’s the situation?” He pulled on his robe, already mentally going over the unit’s current readiness. Who was on standby? Who would have to come in from home? Who was on leave? Any of their vehicles out of action right now?

“There’s no emergency, I… sorry it’s really early, I didn’t think. I just thought you’d want to know right away.”

“Know what?” Madari said.

Jahni’s voice dropped slightly lower. “It was just on the radio. Haridi was found dead.”

“What?” Madari checked himself as his own voice rose. He moved away from the bedroom door and into the living room. The rising sun slanted in through the gauzy, pale yellow drapes, bathing the room in a golden light. Giotto was curled into a ball asleep on a chair and didn’t wake up when Madari came in and spoke. “What happened?”

“They didn’t say on the radio, but I called a contact at the police department. He hanged himself.”

“My god.”

“I just thought you’d want to know. It seemed like the story affected you.”

“Yes. Thank you, Kahil.”

“You shouldn’t let it bother you so much. You’re not…”

“I know.” He stopped Jahni, perhaps some paranoia there. These phones were not secure. “I’ll see you in a couple of hours. Thanks for letting me know. Oh, did you have a nice time with Karen last night?”

Jahni chuckled. “She wore me out.”

Well, if anyone was listening let them make of that what they will.

He hung up and, too awake to go back to bed, he instead went to the kitchen and started brewing coffee. The cat wandered in, finally disturbed by his movements, and Madari poured some milk into a saucer for it. In the quiet of the early morning the gurgling of the coffee machine and the cat lapping the milk were the only sounds.

Sophia found him still sitting at the kitchen table an hour later, gazing out of the open window, a now cold cup of coffee in his hands. When she came in, rumpled and sleepy, he felt bad for not at least taking her in a cup of coffee, or making her some breakfast. But it was still very early, a little after six.

“Oh, I thought you’d be gone,” she said. “Did you get a call, or did I just dream it?”

He couldn’t tell her. Yes, he’d got a call, but he couldn’t tell her what it was about. Couldn’t discuss that with her.

“I did get a call, just not something I had to go in for.”

She rubbed his shoulders, pressed against his back for a moment, and kissed him on the cheek. “You should have come back to bed. I like waking up with you.”

“I like that too.” He turned, sliding his arm around her waist and caressing the curve of her hip, hand slipping over silk, the warm skin underneath so soft and smooth. His woman. What man wouldn’t be happy with such a fine woman? So lovely and intelligent, such delightful company. She was all a man could – should – want.

And no matter how much he told himself that, he’d never really feel it in his heart. He cared for her, even loved her. But not enough.

“I’d better go,” he said, standing up.

“Have you had breakfast? No,” she said, looking at the tidy kitchen, “you haven’t. Let me at least make you something before you go. You take a shower and get dressed and I’ll make us some eggs.”

“Thank you, my dear.”

As he headed to the shower he couldn’t help but think of Haridi’s wife – widow. She would not be making breakfast for her husband this morning. Her house would be full of policemen at this moment.

As he stepped into the shower his thoughts strayed to Jahni and Karen again, imagining them having breakfast together. Of course, they had not. Jahni had gone on duty, so must have dropped Karen at her hotel and his assertion that she had worn him out applied only to dancing. He’d certainly never joke about it to Madari if he meant something else.

But imagining Jahni and Karen becoming more than friends seemed less like a fantasy this morning and more like an urgent solution to an immediate problem.


After rising earlier than he had planned, Madari sought coffee in the mess as soon as he arrived, even before he went to see Jahni in the office. He found Rahama in the mess, early for him, reading the morning papers.

“Ah, Faris, good morning. Join me, please.”

Madari got his coffee and sat with Rahama, glancing at the papers. Only a couple of them, late editions of the city papers, carried the breaking story about Haridi.

“Bad business, this,” Rahama said, surprising Madari as he indicated the front page of the Az-Ma’ir Sunrise, which had the story.

“Um, yes,” Madari said, in a guarded tone.

“I’d met him, you know,” Rahama said. “At receptions at the Mayor’s office. A good man.”

Madari almost choked on his coffee, but put it down carefully instead. Of all the things he’d heard Haridi called these last few weeks ‘a good man’ was a new one.

“A fool of course,” Rahama went on, “to put himself in such danger. And because of that the city has lost a good servant.” He clicked his tongue, shaking his head. “A fool.”

Was that… a warning? But Rahama couldn’t know about Madari’s feelings for Jahni, could he? He might suspect. How many tiny ways had Madari and Jahni given themselves away? Looks and gestures that only someone who knew them well, and was an astute observer would spot. As Faraj had, and Noor had even so many years ago. Even before anything had actually happened between them.

There were those rumours of course, and while Rahama was far too intelligent to consider rumours as proof, he’d certainly consider their existence to be significant.

Yes, Madari thought. I was just given a warning. An interesting warning though. A warning not to be a fool.

“So, where is Lieutenant Bennett today,” Rahama asked and Madari wanted to sigh with relief at the move to a more pleasant subject.

“Madame Giordano is taking her to the spa and out shopping.”

“Ah, the ladies know how to indulge themselves while we men work,” Rahama said, chuckling, perhaps at saying this while being engaged in the less than stern work of reading the newspapers over coffee. “I hope I’ll have the chance to see her again before she leaves.”


“Here they are,” Madari said, making Jahni look up from studying the menu, to see Sophia and Karen coming into the restaurant. A waiter led them to the table and the two men rose to greet them.

Sophia had outdone herself, Jahni thought, knowing she’d been out with Karen today, to buy something for tonight. Karen wore a fine linen Shalwar-Kameez in sky blue, trimmed with silver embroidery. Her hair fell loose around her face in soft waves, and her makeup, though still much lighter than Sophia’s own polished and sophisticated look, was more obvious and brought out a glow in her. He’d thought her pretty before, but tonight he could use the word beautiful.

A feeling of being watched made him glance at Madari, who seemed to be studying his reaction to Karen rather closely. Did he think Jahni was looking at her too long, too blatantly? What did he feel if Jahni was? Disapproval? Jealousy?

Jahni lowered his eyes, only looking at the ladies again when they reached the table. But Karen did indeed take the eye. He wanted to remark on it, but felt sure that would incur disapproval. Would she find it strange that neither man said anything? Or did she realise that was the custom here? Fortunately Sophia came to the rescue, as they all sat studying their menus.

“Don’t worry,” she said, leaning close to Karen. “They’re both absolutely overawed with wonder at how lovely you look, but their upbringing keeps them from saying so.”

Karen chuckled. “That’s good to know. I was starting to think, ‘what am I, chopped liver?'”

“Karen always looks lovely,” Madari said. “Don’t you think so, Kahil?”

“What?” That was just strange. “Oh, yes, of course she does.”

“Why, thank you, Kahil, and you’re looking very lovely yourself tonight.” She winked, he blushed and both Madari and Sophia chuckled. Jahni sighed with relief when the waiter arrived.

Though there wasn’t enough food for Jahni’s liking, still he enjoyed the evening, mostly because of Karen and Sophia’s company. They seemed to have become fast friends already and they laughed and joked and teased the two men gently. The evening would have been complete, if Madari had been a little more himself.

It amazed Jahni that Sophia didn’t notice it and become jealous, but Madari spent most of the night singing Karen’s praises. Her wit and intelligence, even her looks, though he referred to those in a guarded way. Now Jahni was the one feeling jealous. Was Madari attracted to her? He claimed she was too young for him, but that didn’t stop other men his age going after women her age. Had her made-over appearance tonight caused him to be unable to control his interest in her? She did look much more feminine. Her attractiveness came as much from her healthy, athletic look, Jahni personally thought, but couldn’t deny that tonight’s look was a pleasant variation.

He’d already considered asking her on a date alone before she left. But if Madari was interested in her, that what should Jahni do in that case? Would Madari be jealous of him? Oh that was insane. Which of them would Madari even be jealous of?

As the ladies went off to the bathroom together, Jahni sighed and passed a hand over his forehead, trying to unravel this knot.

“Are you all right?” Madari asked, a concerned look on his face, enough tenderness behind it to increase Jahni’s confusion.

“Just getting a headache,” Jahni said. “I didn’t get enough sleep.” He’d gone home at lunchtime after his early morning shift, but trying to sleep in the afternoon never worked out well.

“Let’s get some air on the terrace for a moment. I want a cigar anyway.”

They stepped outside into the cooling night air. This restaurant was on the upper floor of a tall building and the city’s lights spread out beneath their feet as they strolled to the rail.

Madari offered a cigar to Jahni, who shook his head, not in the mood for one, but enjoying the scent of the smoke when Madari lit his own up. That scent always evoked Madari in his mind, whoever was doing the smoking.

“Kahil,” Madari said, “I have something I want to talk to you about. You might think this a strange thing for me to say, and it’s almost certainly not… proper.”

Oh, god he was going to say something about his feelings for Karen. Jahni was glad the darkness hid the flush rising up his neck and face. A mix of anger, embarrassment and jealousy. Madari couldn’t be foolish enough to think she’d be interested, could he? After all, the age gap… though she’d been interested in Face. Well the culture gap then. Too many misunderstandings likely.

“I think you should make some efforts to pursue a relationship with Karen.”

It was a good thing the terrace had a sturdy hand rail, or Jahni might have fallen over it as he shot up straight from leaning on it, to stare at Madari.


“She’ll be gone in a few days, so I know there isn’t really a lot of time.”

“Are you telling me to… seduce Karen?”

“Of course not!” Madari scowled, looking outraged. “But I think you could at least start things off. Let her know you’re interested, want to keep in touch, visit perhaps.”

“You mean you’re not…” No, don’t go there.

“Not what?”

“Nothing, never mind. What makes you think I am interested in her?”

“You should be.”

“I should be?

What the hell did that mean? Anger started to rise in him now. Had Madari decided he had some kind of moral superiority, because he had a woman and Jahni didn’t? Did he think that made him less of a deviant? Perhaps Jahni should tell him a few home truths.

“Do you think I’m not interested in women?” He said it in a low voice, though there was nobody else on the terrace. Still they could hardly shout about it. “Do you think I live the life of a monk? Is that what you think?”

The look that crossed Madari’s face was almost enough to defuse Jahni’s anger, almost, but not quite. Staring, shocked at the idea that Jahni had secrets from him, about something so important. But the anger didn’t go, because he was angry with himself too. Did he think it something to boast about, picking up foreign women for casual sex? It would disgust Madari, and it disgusted Jahni too, before the frustration grew too much. The women didn’t disgust him. They just meant nothing. They produced no reaction when he thought of them later.

Perhaps Madari had a point then. Perhaps Karen was someone he should pursue. He could have a real relationship with her, get some of the emotional as well as physical satisfaction Madari got with Sophia.

“Karen is ideal for you,” Madari said, not pursuing the subject of Jahni’s sex life. “You like her. She’s attractive.”

“She’s Australian.”

“You have something against Australians?”

“Only the fact they live several thousand miles away.”

Madari waved a hand, as if this presented a minor problem. “You have the telephone and visits. And who knows what the future holds? There are ways to get around any problem.”

“Next you’ll be suggesting I marry her.”

“There’s no reason you shouldn’t.” Madari turned to look out over the city, apparently unable to look Jahni in the face after that remark.

“There’s no… I can think of one reason.” A reason standing in front of him right now, talking more rubbish than Jahni heard him spout in some time. Madari glanced back at him.

“No, that’s a reason you should marry her. I think we’re both still struggling with the new… boundaries we’ve put on…” He glanced around. “Ourselves. Sophia helps me stay strong. Karen could help you do the same.”

Jahni gazed out over the city, wondering if Madari had fallen and hit his head today, or if someone had slipped something hallucinogenic into that cigar. This was madness, wasn’t it? Telling the man you loved to go and marry a woman that he didn’t actually love.

Was there method in it though? Was there any sense to it at all? It would do for him what Sophia did for Madari – socially that is – shield him from gossip. And if Karen didn’t even live here then he’d have a wife as a shield, without actually having to change his lifestyle in any way. With regular visits the sex would probably be as frequent as he was getting now anyway.

People would have to stop gossiping if he and Madari both had women. If they both had… wives! Is that what this was about? He took Madari’s arm to make him turn.

“Are you going to marry Sophia? Is that what this is about? You want me to have a wife too, so I won’t be jealous of you?”

“No, of course not! Kahil, believe me, I have no intention of marrying Sophia.”

“And does she have any intention of marrying you? Because if she does, I know where the smart money would go.”

Madari scowled at that. “Sophia is not that kind of woman. And no, she is not interested in marrying me. We’ve discussed this. I told you, both of us want to continue as before. Kahil, honestly, I’m thinking about you here. Karen would be a fine wife. And I’ve seen her with children, she’d be a good mother.”

Jahni’s headache started to come back. He’s got me married and with children now. He rubbed his forehead.

“Faris, this is all moving a little too fast for me.”

Madari smiled, sympathetically. “I’m sorry. That’s my fault. I’m getting carried away. Yes, I’m running ahead of myself. I just think this is something you should think about. I don’t expect you to propose to her before she leaves, just… open negotiations.”

“This is all because of the Haridi thing, isn’t it? That really upset you. Faris, you’re not… him. Neither am I.”

“We’re both in danger. Perhaps not as much as him, but something could happen at any time. We need to work out a way to keep out of danger.”

“We’ve both learned a lot about self-control these last few years.”

“Relying on only one weapon in a battle is not a good strategy.”

“This is a battle?” Jahni said it with a smile, not sure what to make of that idea.

“I battle every day,” Madari said. And Jahni knew he did the same himself. He was still in danger, despite those new rules. If Karen really could help him be strong, wouldn’t he be a fool not to consider that strategy?

“I’ll think about it.” He glanced back at the doors into the restaurant. “We’d better go back and join the ladies.”

In a year, could he say “our ladies”? Or even “our wives”? Madari claimed he and Sophia weren’t interested in marriage, but what if this fantasy scenario of Madari’s played out, and Jahni and Karen married? How long afterwards before Madari and Sophia did the same?

Chapter 6

“We were starting to think you’d skipped out and left us with the bill,” Karen said, when Madari and Jahni returned to the table.

“I’m sorry,” Madari said. “Just having a cigar.” He glanced at his watch. “I think I’ll ask for the bill now anyway. I know Kahil is rather tired.”

They split up outside. Jahni took Karen in his car, to drop her at her hotel and Madari hoped he’d take the advice to at least declare an interest. Meanwhile, he took Sophia home. She seemed a little frosty as they pulled away from the restaurant. Was she annoyed with him for leaving her alone with Karen while and Jahni talked? No, that wouldn’t bother her. Was she worried about what they were doing or saying out there? She’d probably be amazed to know what the subject had actually been.

“So, Faris, when are you going to have business cards printed up for your new sideline as a matchmaker?”

Ah, perhaps she wouldn’t be all that surprised.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Don’t play dumb. I think when you get home Cupid may have thrown a brick through your window as a warning against horning in on his turf.”

He sighed. Had his attempts been less subtle than he’d hoped?

“I just want to see Kahil find happiness with a good woman.” He glanced at her with a smile. “As I have.”

She didn’t respond to the unsubtle buttering up attempt, and spoke quietly. “To put him beyond your reach?”

“I’d think you’d be pleased about that,” he snapped back, and then bit his lip, regretting the tone. The relationship between himself, Sophia and Jahni was… complicated. It wasn’t fair to accuse her of simply being a jealous woman. “I’m sorry,” he said, after an awkward silence. “I didn’t mean that.”

“Faris, Kahil is not you. If he wanted to deal with your situation in the same way you have, then he’d have a queue of ladies lining up to help out.”

“He would?”

“Of course he would. He’s a decorated hero, and please don’t try to pretend you don’t notice how handsome he looks in his uniform.”

Madari blushed, glad the darkness hid that. “Um, I see.”

“But he hasn’t chosen that route. Please, Faris, just let him be. He has to find his own way of coping.”

“What if he can’t?” Madari said it so quietly he didn’t know if he asked her or himself. “What if there’s no way for him to be happy?”

“Are you happy?” Sophia asked, taking Madari aback, leaving him unsure how to answer. Honestly, he decided.

“No.” That felt so stark he wanted to qualify it. “That isn’t just about… him and… It’s about other things. But being with you makes me less unhappy than I would be.” And would that be all that Karen would be to Jahni? A comfort. A distraction. But never his happiness. Even if they had children together?

“We both know the only circumstances where you two could be happy, but they aren’t going to happen.” He realised she was looking at him with pity and distress in her eyes. “That’s not fair, but it’s life and you have to cope the way that’s best for you.”

He drove on in silence for a few minutes, then said, “Are you happy, Sophia?”

She thought for a long time, until he believed she wasn’t going to answer. Then she spoke quietly.

“I am content.”


“Still pretty early, isn’t it?” Karen said, looking at the dashboard clock as Jahni drove towards her hotel. “Why don’t we go dancing again?”

“I’m too tired,” Jahni said and mentally heard Madari scold him for missing an opportunity to start ‘declaring his interest’. That made him grimace. For a romantic man, Madari could talk in a very unromantic way sometimes.

“I was on duty last night,” he added. “I got some sleep this afternoon, but not enough. Maybe we could go out tomorrow night?”

“Great,” she said. “Just you and me? I mean I love the colonel, and Sophia is a sweetie, but just the two of us would be nice too.”

Wait, was she actually declaring an interest in him? Jahni glanced over to see her looking at him in the dark interior of the car, with what looked like an appreciative expression.

“I suppose we could still go for a drink,” he suggested.

“How about at your place? I’d love to see your flat.”

He held in a gasp at the bold proposal. An Arab woman certainly wouldn’t suggest that. His voice squeaked slightly when he spoke again and he had to clear his throat.

“It’s nothing special, but if you want to see it, then of course.” He glanced around and got his bearings for the route to take, away from her hotel and towards his flat now.

Okay, calm down, he thought. Don’t make assumptions. Yes, the foreign women are more forward about these things, but be careful not to insult her. He’d let her make the running until he felt more sure of what she wanted.

“You have a lot of security,” she said, looking at the serious locks and bolts on the door as he let her in.

“I have a lot of enemies,” he said. “Though of course, a lot of them are dead or in prison.”

She giggled at that. “You’re a tough guy, aren’t you?”

“I’ve been called that. I’ve got some wine in the kitchen. Red okay for you?”

“Sure. You drink then?” She followed him into the kitchen where he found corkscrew, wine and glasses.

“I’m not as devout a Muslim as Faris.”

“Is the colonel all that devout?”

“What do you mean?” Jahni started twisting the screw into the cork.

“I didn’t see him praying all that often, out in Zaire I mean. Or reading his Koran. He was always wearing those prayer beads though, so I don’t know.”

Prayer beads? “Amber beads on a wristband?”

“Yeah, he wore them most of the time.”

Jahni grinned and pulled the cork with a satisfying pop. Wore them most of the time, eh? “Well, he’s a believer,” he said, remembering her original question. “But everyone has different degrees of practice.”

“Okay,” she said, with a shrug. “Come on and pour, I’m parched.”

“Shouldn’t we let it breathe?” Jahni objected as she pushed the glasses towards him.

“Wine’s for drinking not breathing.”

That made him smile and he shrugged and poured the wine, and handed her a glass.

“Okay, give me the tour,” she said.

It hardly took a long time. For the first time he felt slightly embarrassed about his small and simple flat.

“I know it’s not very fancy for a Royal Guard officer,” he explained. “But I’m hardly ever in it, and I’m not one for entertaining.”

“Hey, if it suits you, it’s fine,” she said. “Nice little bachelor pad.”

Yes. As a married man of course he’d be expected to have a house, with children’s rooms… God, he was worse than Madari. His cosy, low-maintenance flat suited him fine. He really didn’t entertain; Madari was the only regular guest. Sophia had been here all of twice that he could recall. It was his sanctum.

They took their wine into the living room after the short tour and he invited her to sit. Should he sit beside her on the sofa, or take a chair? But the way she sat, one leg tucked up, turned to the side, she was clearly inviting him to sit beside her. Okay then. He sat. Not too close. But close enough for her to reach out and touch his arm without having to stretch.

“I’ll have to leave in a couple of days,” she said. “Got to report for duty.”

Between the strangeness of a woman talking about having to report for duty and her touching him, he wasn’t sure how to answer.

“Okay,” he managed.

She sighed and shook her head. “I can’t read you, Kahil. You’re pretty closed off. I can’t tell if you’re interested or not.”

“Interested in what?” he said and cursed his own denseness. What did he think she was referring to? Stamp collecting? Keeping tropical fish? “Oh, sorry. Yes of course I’m interested.”

She smiled. “You’re not the world’s best flirt.”

Depends on who I’m flirting with, he thought, blushing to recall some of the flirting he’d done, either conscious of what he was doing or unconscious. Now that he should be doing it consciously, it was coming as naturally to him as playing the trombone came to a duck.

“I’m more a straight-talker,” he lied.

“Me too,” she said. “But sometimes, even I don’t want to talk.” She put her glass down and moved closer and he caught the hint quickly enough then. He put his own drink down and let her come into his arms, bending his head to kiss her.

When they broke after a second she opened her eyes. “That was nice. I thought it would be.” She smiled. “I never kissed a man who’s passed Selection before.”

He chuckled. But it made him think of something else. She knew who he was. None of those other women did. Suddenly that mattered. At times in the hotels he even used a false name. At the most he told them only his given name. But she knew his name, his rank, all of it. And if they made love now, it would be in his bed. He glanced at the door. He’d never had sex in that bed. Was that strange? No, this was his sanctum after all. Strangers couldn’t come here. But Karen was his friend.

He took her in his arms again, ran his hand down her side to her waist, fingers spreading wide over firm flesh. Leaning in, she closed her eyes and he kissed her again, taking the time to relish the scent of her this time. Expensive scents from the beauty parlour and spa Sophia had taken her to. Her hand stroked through his hair and his free hand moved back up her body to touch her breast, making her sigh against him. His body started to react strongly and he moved closer again, pushing her back on the sofa.

“Hang on,” she said. “Don’t want to crush this too much.” She meant her clothes, the linen would crease badly.

Should he say it? Would she think it too forward? But she’d made the first move. She hadn’t pushed him off when he touched her breast. So he dared himself to take the chance and said it.

“We can move to the bedroom.”

She held his face between her hands and kissed him quickly. “Good plan.”

In there she pulled the kameez off quickly herself, revealing a silk camisole underneath, before coming back into his arms, still standing. They moved slowly towards the bed, almost as if they were dancing, but neither was in any rush. If this was to turn into some kind of long-term thing, then Jahni had to make an impression on her. A quickie wouldn’t do, not if he wanted her to come back from Australia for more.

Did he want that? He wanted her now, his blood pumped, his skin flushed, and he was already aroused. But what about later? He laid her down on the bed and slid off her loose fitting trousers, revealing shapely, well-tanned legs.

His mouth went dry at the sight of her, wearing only the skimpy camisole and tiny white briefs. His head spun and he had to join her quickly on the bed, fearing he’d fall if he didn’t. That he was aroused by her didn’t surprise him, but the intensity of it did. He’d always sought out more obviously feminine women, rather like Sophia really, because, well, that’s what women were meant to be like.

It shocked him that Karen’s lean and athletic body should be such a turn on for him. He wouldn’t call her manly, but neither was she full-hipped or large-breasted. And yet he wanted her so badly that, when he gave in to his surging desire, he no longer had any thought in his mind but possessing that superb body.


“I should go back to my hotel,” Karen said, sitting up in bed.

Jahni stirred from a doze beside her and rubbed his hand on her naked back. “You don’t have to go.”

“Don’t want to start a scandal.”

More like help prevent one, Jahni thought, if someone saw her leaving his flat early in the morning. After the whole Haridi story broke he’d wondered sometimes if anyone ever followed or watched him or Madari.

She got out of bed and strolled naked to the bathroom. Hearing the shower running, Jahni raised his arms over his head and knew he had a ridiculous smile on his face. That had been… interesting. If anyone ever asked him what Australian women were like the first word that came to mind would be “uninhibited.”

So what now? This wasn’t supposed to be about getting a one night stand. Hell, he hadn’t even expected it to happen. He was supposed to ‘declare an interest’. He’d done that all right. So had she. So where did they go now? If she was a local woman he’d be morally obliged to offer marriage at this point, but suspected Karen would consider that to be moving a bit too fast.

She came back in with a towel around her, the ends of her hair wet and sticking to her shoulders. The waves had fallen out of her hair, but that didn’t detract from how good she looked. Searching around the room, she collected up her scattered clothes.

“Bloody hell,” she said, looking at the kameez and the trousers. “I should iron these before I go. Looks like I rolled them in a ball and shoved them in a backpack.”

“Karen,” he said. “Can we talk?”

“Okay. What’s on your mind, tough guy?” she said, coming over to the bed and sitting beside him. He sat up at once, unable to resist drawing her into his arms, smelling the scent of his own soap on her freshly showered skin. Had to be said, he never smelled that good with it.

“You’ll be gone soon,” he said. “I just want us to be clear about where we stand.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” she said. “I don’t consider us engaged or anything.”

“Oh, no, of course not, I just thought… we should stay in touch.”


“Maybe you’ll come back, or if I could visit you.”

“That’d be great.” She looked at him, frowning. “Kahil, you’re not… I dunno, thinking this makes us a couple now, are you?”

“No, of course not,” he said, moving back from her just a little. Oh hell, had he miscalculated here? He’d made certain assumptions about what she wanted, about why she wanted to go to bed with him. Had he been wrong?

“I’ve never been any good at the long distance thing. And Australia’s a really long distance from here.” She shrugged. “And of course, I’m always moving about.”

“That’s true.” He pulled away in his mind too, from this ridiculous idea. It wasn’t even his idea, it was Madari’s. Just how far would he go to please Madari? Would he marry a woman to please the man he loved? How insane was that question anyway?

“Kahil, you’re really gorgeous, and I hoped we might get spend some time together, but I don’t think I led you to believe I had anything else in mind.”

“No, you didn’t. It’s fine. This was great.”

He shouldn’t be surprised. Western women were different. He knew that. They thought nothing of pursuing sex in a way the local women he was brought up with never would. Why had he expected Karen to be any different?

“Well, I’d better get a wiggle on,” she said, getting up again. He let her go.

Damn. He’d missed the boat somehow. Should he have played harder to get and kept her interested in coming back later? Now he’d missed what might have been an opportunity to try to make this whole situation at least more bearable. Madari would think him an idiot. Madari didn’t have to know about it. If he asked, Jahni would be properly evasive, as a man should be about such matters, even to his most intimate friend.

As he watched her dress, he knew one thing for sure – he’d miss that body.


Karen left two days later on an evening flight, Madari and Jahni seeing her off at the airport. She and Jahni had spent some time together, including in bed, since that first night. But she hadn’t changed her mind about the relationship progressing no further. She’d be happy to see him again, she’d said, as a friend, but made it clear that they were not a couple.

“Safe journey, my dear,” Madari said, handing her some sweets and a book of puzzles he’d bought her for the trip. Jahni gave her a couple of magazines, and more sweets.

“Oh, you fellas are too nice,” she said, smiling as she took the gifts. “That will help keep me going. Okay, I’ll drop you a line when I get home. It’s been great to be here.”

“I hope we’ll all be together again soon,” Madari said, glancing at Jahni, who looked away. Did he expect Jahni to hand over a wedding invitation now? A few more words of goodbye and she was gone, disappearing through security and into the departures lounge.

“Why don’t we -” Madari began, but Jahni cut him off.

“No, I don’t want a coffee. I’m a little bored with this airport. Let’s just get out of here.” Madari stared at him, taken aback, but then nodded.

“Actually,” Madari said, as they stepped out of the terminal doors. “There is one thing I’d like to do.” He led Jahni across the road to a small parade of shops and businesses catering to the traveller, like car rentals, money exchanges, hotel bookings. But Madari led Jahni to the small shop with ‘Barber’ painted on the window. He smiled at Jahni’s surprised look. “I think it’s time for the beard to go.”

The shop was quiet, the barber and his apprentice sweeping up, perhaps about to close, but they didn’t turn away business. Jahni supposed he might as well have his hair trimmed while he was here and took a seat next to Madari, watching the man shave him.

It bothered him. While he could take or leave the beard, he knew Sophia didn’t like it. So was Madari shaving it off for her sake? Was he moving closer to her? With their new vow to keep their relationship proper, normal, then Madari had no reason not to grow closer to her. Replacing the intimacy lost with Jahni with a new level of intimacy with her.

And what choice did they have? They couldn’t go on as they had been living before. Always on a knife edge of fear that they’d lose control. Were there other choices? He looked out of the window across to the entrance to the terminal. Yes, there were choices. They could walk out of here, get on a plane and go somewhere… else. Anywhere that they could be together and safe. Europe. America. Australia.

But looking at the airport also reminded him of his work. The battle to take the airport during the restoration. The hijacking he’d broken here. Those memories reminded him of his duty, to the king, the regiment and to himself, to his career. Madari, Rahama and the king had all invested so much in him. They had such high expectations of him – as indeed he had of himself.

He sighed and wanted to groan as he sat back in the barber’s chair. Is this what it felt like to be wrenched apart six different ways in some kind of barbaric execution? To be shredded inside? Drawn and quartered?

Madari looked at him in the mirror and Jahni realised he must be letting his distress show too much on his face as Madari’s expression grew concerned and he turned to look at Jahni.

“Are you all right, Kahil?”

“I’m fine.”

The barber had paused when Madari moved and Jahni waved at him to keep going.

“I’m fine,” he repeated and watched the barber finish the job. As the beard fell, Jahni grew more and more gloomy. But suddenly, Madari sat up, his face clean shaven again, smiling at Jahni, and Jahni saw the same face, the same smile as before he went to Africa. The same man.

Jahni smiled back and this time he meant it when he said, “I’m fine.”