Alex’s left arm was in a sling.
For a second Madari felt a surge of wild hope as his mind invented details. The shop owner had been wrong, Sophia and Alex hadn’t got into the car, they’d gone into another shop. They were hurt, but alive.
“Colonel,” Alex said, her face pale, voice shaking. “I’m so sorry.”
Hope vanished when he saw her skin and clothes were clean and undamaged. Not those of someone caught in a bomb blast only a couple of hours ago.
Since Madari and Jahni were both staring without speaking, Rahama went to Alex and gestured to her to enter.
“Please come in, Miss Black. I’m sorry for our reaction. We believed you were…ah, at the scene.”
“I wasn’t there,” Alex said, coming in. Rahama closed the door behind her. “I broke this arm yesterday at a Judo tournament.” She pointed at her arm in the sling. It had a cast on it. “So I couldn’t work today. The agency sent a sub. Greta. She…she was with Sophia.”
Her voice caught and a sob broke from her. At once Jahni stepped forward and took her in his arms. The embrace suprised Madari but he couldn’t condemn it. When Jahni let her go, she turned to Madari and he took her good hand in both of his.
“I’m so sorry,” she said again. “I should been there.”
“You couldn’t have done anything,” he said.
“I should have been at her side!”
She felt she’d left her post and he understood her feelings of guilt all too well. She was Sophia’s guard, but he was her husband. If anyone should have protected her, he should have.
“Miss Black, won’t you sit down?” Rahama said. “You don’t look well. Let me pour you some tea.”
She sat rather reluctantly, but accepted the tea easily enough. Jahni was still staring at her, as if unable to believe she was real. Perhaps that’s why he’d embraced her—to be sure of it. Had their relationship developed into more than friendship? Madari hadn’t seen enough of him lately to know if there was even a possibility of that.
“Faris,” Rahama said. “I think you should let me take you home. You too, Miss Black.” He looked at Jahni, a rather assessing look, Madari thought. “Major, your anti-terror unit is on full alert?”
“Yes, sir,” Jahni said, managing to turn his gaze away from Alex.
“Then return to your headquarters and await orders.”
Jahni looked at Madari with an expression so torn and worried that Madari felt his eyes fill up again. None of the bitterness and anger he’d seen so much of in Jahni’s face lately remained. In the middle of this sea of pain and grief, a small ray of light gave Madari a reason to keep his head above the water and not allow himself to drown in despair.
Despite his worry, Jahni had no choice but to obey Rahama’s order. When he left, Rahama made Madari sit and gave him a cup of tea.
“Can I help you with arrangements, Faris?” he asked. “Don’t think you have to do everything alone.”
“A…arrangements. Yes. Her brothers want me to take her to Italy for burial,” Madari said. He hadn’t decided for sure yet if he would. Would having her buried here make him fight harder for this land?
“Then leave it to me,” Rahama said. “I will arrange it all.”
Jahni arrived back at his office to be told he had a caller waiting on hold. A man who gave his name only as Sayeed. He’d been waiting for over half an hour.
Sayeed? Raslan? What the hell could he want? Jahni told the clerk to put the call through and closed his office door. His phone rang and he picked it up.
“Have you told him?” It was Raslan and his voice had an unfamiliar kind of tension in it.
“Told who what?” Jahni demanded, hardly in the mood for guessing games.
“Madari of course. About her money.”
“You know, don’t you? That she’s dead?”
“Of course I know. It’s all over the city.”
Jahni winced. Bad turn of phrase.
“And if you’ve told him already, then I’m dead, aren’t I?” Raslan went on. “They killed her because she’s his wife. He married her because she lost her money. I made her lose her money. He’s going to cut out all the stages in-between and decide I killed her.”
Jahni grinned. An expression with no humour in it, just a kind of sick delight. The unfamiliar tension in Raslan’s voice was fear. Sheer, ball-chilling fear. Was he thinking of the assassins Madari had killed? Was he thinking of the time Madari had threatened to send Jahni to kill Raslan in his bed? That would be harder now he lived in his father-in-law’s well-guarded mansion outside the city, or the just as well-secured townhouse. But Jahni would find a way in.
At last, Jahni had Raslan on the back foot. The snake must have broken out in a cold sweat when he heard the news. So what did Jahni do now? He could indeed go and tell Madari. But Madari had enough to deal with. Or he could be more thoughtful about this. Think long term. Consider how he might make best use of Raslan’s fear.
“I hadn’t told him yet,” he said. A huffing sound down the line must have been a sigh of relief. But he didn’t let Raslan enjoy the relief for too long. “But I could. Any time I liked. Unless…”
“Unless what? What do you want?” He sounded as if he was gritting his teeth. Probably was, having to ask Jahni that question.
“I don’t know yet,” Jahni said. “But I’m doing you a favour here, Raslan. You’re absolutely right. Madari would kill you for this. You know how rigid his principles are. He’d consider himself obliged.”
A small groan greeted his words and the sick grin twisted his face again.
“So you owe me a debt. I don’t know when I’ll call it in, but one day I will, and if you don’t pay up, you’re dead.”
“You can’t just leave me hanging like this.”
“I think I can. And thank you for the mental picture of you hanging. Most enjoyable.” He was enjoying himself. He wished he had a moustache so he could twirl it.
“Jahni, you bastard! Why don’t you grow some balls and come and try and kill me yourself?”
It sounded like a dare. Perhaps he hoped Jahni would lose his temper try to kill Raslan and be killed by his bodyguards. But Jahni had no intention of losing his temper. Raslan didn’t kill Sophia, despite his plotting. That was an irrational idea born of rage. Far better to keep the debt in hand for later use.
“I’ll get back to you, Raslan. One day.”
Madari was sleeping and Jahni was glad to see it. He knew Madari had barely slept for the last three nights. If that kept up, he’d collapse before the funeral they were on the way to now.
Rahama had hired an executive jet and made all of the arrangements. Madari just let it happen, Jahni thought. Though Rahama asked his approval for each decision, he said ‘yes’ to everything.
Rahama himself sat beside Madari and Alex sat beside Jahni, both sleeping too. Jahni would have liked to do the same. He’d slept a little more than Madari the last few days, but not much. When not on duty, he was either with Madari or trying to rest. But his mind was too full to allow him to sleep.
Several times over the last couple of days he’d reconsidered what he’d decided about Raslan, thinking of telling Madari the truth after all. If he waited, and Madari found out later, he might be angry with Jahni for keeping it from him. He didn’t want Madari to be angry with him. He wanted what they used to have so long ago. Before Madari even met Sophia.
It made him ashamed to think that way, because Madari had still been in so much pain back then. So afraid all of the time. So vulnerable. And now he was in pain again, and everything Jahni had felt back then had come back. Everything.
Shaming. Is this the time to start thinking about the desires that they’d both wrestled with for so long? With poor Sophia barely cold.
Jahni glanced down, as if he could see through the deck under his feet, into the small baggage hold that held her coffin. Baggage. He shivered at the word. Their actual baggage was all up here in the cabin. Nobody had wanted to put anything in the hold. It would feel insulting; implying the coffin was a mere packing crate.
Madari had not been allowed to see her body. Jahni knew what that meant. Both of them had seen many dead bodies, some horribly burned and mangled, but to see Sophia like that would traumatise him.
He looked at Madari again. At his gaunt face. You like him better like this, a shameful part of him said. You like him better when he is fragile and dependent on you.
It wasn’t that, he tried to argue with himself. He liked to feel needed. Who didn’t? That didn’t mean he wanted Madari to be weak and hurt. He wanted him to be strong and healthy and still need Jahni. Were the two states incompatible?
And if they were?
Madari stood at the window of a guestroom in the Borelli family house, wearing only his black suit trousers and an unbuttoned white shirt. His feet were still bare and becoming cold on the polished wooden floor. But he barely noticed that, his attention riveted on the large garden below. A woman and a small girl were out there, both dressed in black. The woman even had a veil, though lifted over her hat at the moment. Despite her mourning clothes the child skipped around the grass playing. Sometimes stopping to pick a flower. Her voice floated up to Madari. Laughter. Snatches of singing.
Too young to understand why her family had gathered here. Perhaps in later years she’d hear people talk of Sophia—a relative she’d never known. She’d see her picture. Hear stories of her. But she’d never know her.
At the same time, she could have been not a real child at all, a reminder of the future unfolding without Sophia, but a ghost. Both of them; the ghosts of Sophia and her mother, who must have played in this garden many times when Sophia was a small girl.
He sighed and turned away to continue dressing. Found socks and shoes and put them on, sitting on the large, high bed. He’d slept well in it. Or deeply at least. No recollection of any dreams. Exhaustion had done that, he supposed. The sleeplessness of the last three nights had caught up with him.
He and Sophia had been planning a trip to stay here in her ancestral family home. Would they have stayed here in this room? Slept in this bed as man and wife? Had Sophia once slept here with her first husband?
She’d proposed the trip so Madari and her brothers could get to know each other better. That would never happen now. Antonio and Rafael’s reception when Madari’s party arrived last night had not been warm. Not rude. They were polite and hospitable. They treated Madari with respect as her husband—no, widower—but he knew that after today he’d never visit this house again.
A knock at the door and Jahni’s voice called out.
“It’s me. Can I come in?”
Madari stood and called to him to enter. Jahni did, dressed in a black suit, white shirt and black tie, nearly identical to Madari’s own clothing. Appropriate, he supposed, so used to wearing the same uniform. They could have worn their uniforms for the funeral, but it felt inappropriate here. Too showy.
“How are you holding up?” Jahni said, closing the door behind him as he came in. “Did you sleep?”
“Yes. Quite well, actually.”
“They’re serving breakfast downstairs if you want anything. I’ve just been down.”
“I’m fine.” A maid had brought him coffee and then some toast at his request after he woke up, startled to find a young at his bedside. He’d asked for toast because he really couldn’t recall the Italian for anything else with his brain still befuddled with sleep.
He realised his shirt was still hanging open and felt underdressed suddenly, with Jahni there in his jacket and tie. He turned away and started to button the shirt. Jahni found a clothes brush and picked up Madari’s suit jacket from the back of a chair, began to brush it down.
“Kahil,” Madari said. “I want to thank you. After the last few months I couldn’t have expected you to be so good to me now. You are… a better man than I am.”
Jahni didn’t answer for a long time, still brushing the jacket, staring at it fixedly. Eventually he spoke with just a tiny catch in his voice.
“I think I’d like to forget the last few months. The whole of the last year, even.”
“I wish we could,” Madari said, with a heavy sigh. “I wish I could turn back the clock and have a another try at it all. To think things through before I speak. Especially when what I say can’t be taken back.”
Jahni looked at him, as if he wanted to ask a question. Madari waited for it, but Jahni didn’t say anything in the end. Madari could guess at the question, though. Had he just apologised for his marriage? Should he do so? Not only to Jahni but also to Sophia. Dead because of him. Dead to punish him. He could have let her go, to start a new phase in her life. Instead he made her a hostage to fortune and she paid the price.
Not only her—Greta Holstein, Alex’s colleague and friend who’d died in her place. Alex would fly on to Germany after this funeral, to attend Greta’s. Madari had considered going too and then feared he wouldn’t be welcome at the home of the family whose daughter died because of him. Here was different. Sophia was his wife—even if it had been for less than a year. They might blame him, but they couldn’t exclude him, or deny him his own grief. But he didn’t belong at Greta’s funeral.
He’d write to her family, though, expressing his sympathy. He’d written such letters before, to the families of his soldiers who’d died in the line of duty. That’s how he thought of her and would have thought of Alex if she’d been the one to die instead. But fate had spared Alex and left her full of the same guilt Madari was feeling. His fingers sought the buttons on the shirt cuffs and didn’t find them. Oh, yes.
“Could you bring me my cufflinks, please,” he said to Jahni. “On the dresser there.” Jahni spotted them and came over.
“I’ll do them,” he said.
“Thank you.” Madari held out his hand. Jahni must have fastened them by touch, because his eyes never left Madari’s as he fixed each cufflink in turn. He spoke quietly.
“I’m here for you today, Faris. Whatever I thought about your marriage, whatever we’ve both said, none of it matters now. I don’t ask for forgiveness for anything I’ve said or done. I don’t expect you to ask for it either. We both did what we did, said what we said. It can’t be taken back, but it’s done. We should leave it in the past and move on.”
Madari nodded, too choked to speak, moved a hand to touch Jahni’s face, but was startled by Jahni putting his arms around him and embracing him tightly. They’d embraced several times over the last few days of course, as Jahni held him to comfort him. But this felt different. Jahni said neither of them should ask for forgiveness, but perhaps he was volunteering it.
They stayed that way for a moment, then parted. Madari squeezed Jahni’s shoulder in thanks.
“You’re not only a better man but a wiser one. I agree with you.”
Jahni turned to pick up Madari’s jacket and helped him on with it. He reached out as if to fasten the buttons, but pulled his hand away at the last moment. Madari buttoned them himself. Yes. They would move on and look to the future. But that meant they would have to once again deal with some of their issues from the past. The ones they’d failed to deal with in such a spectacular fashion this last year.
But that was the future. Today was still the past. Today he buried the past. With Jahni’s hand resting on his back, he left the room to spend the day with the people he could call his family only until he left this house.
It was strange to see so many women at the funeral. Most of the funerals Madari had been to in his life had been only the men, while the women waited back at the house. His father’s burial had been an exception. He remembered the strange looks men gave his mother and grandmother as they stood at the graveside. But he’d heard his grandmother say to Ahmed that it would take a better man even than him to keep her from her only son’s funeral. His mother wouldn’t have made the same demand, more traditional in many ways than her mother-in-law. But in the morning, grandmother took both her and young Faris by the hand and led them out to join the procession to the burial ground.
There were many old women at this funeral who reminded him of his grandmother. Ancient and gnarled, but with strength in their eyes. They’d buried parents, husbands, perhaps even children and they prevailed. Sophia might have been one of them one day, if she hadn’t gone and married that damned Arab.
He’d heard those words—in Italian—drift though an open door in the house as he came downstairs earlier. He hadn’t recognised the voice and had controlled the surge of rage and pain in him. No sense in looking for a fight. Jahni had touched his arm, perhaps seeing him flush and grimace, though he couldn’t have understood the words that made Madari react that way.
This damned Arab, and the other two and their Englishwoman friend stuck out like sore thumbs in the church. Madari had been to Catholic funerals before, but had always sat at the back, where he drew no attention by not kneeling, and could follow the lead of those in front when it came time to sit or stand.
But now he sat in the front pew and felt sure that his delayed reactions were obvious to everyone and remarked upon. Not one of us. Jahni, Rahama and Alex sat a couple of rows behind and no doubt had the same trouble.
It was foolish to think of such trivia, he thought. Sophia would have laughed at him for it and told him not to worry about it. But it reflected on her, he knew. What they all thought of her for choosing him as a husband. That damned Arab.
The mass ended and Madari joined Antonio and Rafael in a large funeral limousine. Their wives and children took another and the rest of Madari’s party a third one.
In the car, they rode in silence for a while, following the hearse, as it moved through the village towards the cemetery. The Borelli family were the local nobility here, though their titles had long ago gone elsewhere and residents stopped in the street as the cortege passed. Any men wearing hats removed them. The silence was tense. Antonio wore a neutral, if strained expression, but Madari caught glances from Rafael that he could only read as anger.
“I am sorry,” he said softly, making the brothers turn to him. “I know that you blame me. I can’t argue with you about that. I blame myself too.”
“You should have just let her come home!” The words burst from Rafael, but Antonio shushed him.
“That does no good now, brother,” Antonio said. “Faris, she chose you. She chose to stay. She loved your country, your city. I…can only assume she loved you and that you felt the same.”
Madari flushed at that, not used to talking of such things, but more than the words made him blush. Shame too, because he didn’t love her enough. Because he married her for the wrong reasons.
“She knew the danger,” Antonio went on. “She spoke about it to me more than once. But she chose to stay.” He looked at his brother. “We have to respect that.”
Rafael looked down, face still flushed, eyes bright.
“She was so brave,” Madari said. “I used to have foolish old-fashioned ideas about women. She helped me change those ideas.”
“She was always feisty,” Antonio said, with a smile. They reached the gates of the cemetery and the limo slowed as it drove in after the hearse.
“I know after today we’ll probably never see each other again,” Madari said. “But I wanted to say it’s been an honour to be part of your family, even for so short a time.” He held out his hand and Antonio shook it at once. Rafael was slower, but after a hesitation, he reached out and took the offered hand.
“I find it harder to get past this than my brother does,” he said, in a hoarse and strained voice. “But I will admit, that of her two husbands, you are the one who came closer to being worthy of her.”
After the burial the funeral cars took them back to the house, where staff had laid out refreshments. Though Madari had learned Italian well enough to speak to the people here, still he found his memory of it already slipping away. Probably because he was tired, he thought.
Since Alex spoke Arabic and no Italian she seemed to have been dubbed an honorary damned Arab by the other funeral-goers. He saw one or two of them speak to her, presumably thinking she was the daughter of some obscure family member, but after that happened a few times, she ended up standing with Jahni, both of them quiet and watching the room. Rahama spoke quite good Italian, but he gravitated back after a while, until the four of them stood together. Apart from the Italians. Out of place, making desultory conversation.
After a while, Jahni went to fetch more coffee, and Rahama excused himself for a moment, leaving Madari and Alex together.
“How are you holding up?” he asked her, seeing the dark circles under her eyes, the exhaustion in her face. And she’d be travelling on to Germany tonight. He felt guilty again and reconsidered going with her.
“I’m okay,” she said, giving him a wan smile. “Frankly, I’ll be glad to get out of here. I feel like an interloper.”
“But you’re not an interloper, you’re a member of the family.”
“Not any more.” He sighed. The moment they’d filled in the grave he’d felt a sense of disconnection from the family. As if a thread had broken. Now he was a mere guest. “Don’t worry. We’ll get you to the airport in time for your flight to Germany.” He and Rahama and Jahni were staying in a hotel and travelling back in the morning.
“Thanks for letting me come here with you,” she said.
“But of course I let you come. Alex, please, don’t think that I blame you in any way because you weren’t there. There was nothing you could have done if you had been. And it would be no comfort to me to lose a friend as well as my wife.”
She sniffed and buried her nose in the glass of whatever she was drinking to keep him from seeing her eyes. He’d never seen her so emotional as he had been the last few days. That evidence of her fondness for Sophia touched him. They had become good friends, he knew, not just bodyguard and client.
The thought she was another friend he might not see much after today pained him and he rubbed his tired eyes with his hands. He just wanted to sleep now.
“Did you know you’re wearing odd cufflinks?”
Madari looked at Alex. “What?”
“Your cufflinks,” she said. “They don’t match. Ah… sorry.” She blushed. “It doesn’t matter. I’m sure you had more on your mind than cufflinks this morning.”
Madari looked at his cufflinks. She was right. They didn’t match. On the right cuff he had a platinum-plated square with a green stone in the middle. That was his. The left cuff had a round link, one semicircle of black enamel, the other of polished silver. He recognised it, but it wasn’t his.
It was Jahni’s.
He looked across the room, to where Jahni stood by the buffet table, talking to a man he must have found a common language with. Was he wearing the other halves of the two pairs? Madari remembered Jahni helping him put the cufflinks on. It couldn’t have been an accident. If he’d picked up two unmatched ones belonging to Madari, that would be an accident. But he could hardly remove one of his own and substitute it by accident.
What did it mean? A gesture of sharing? That he was here for Madari? That their lives were once again entwined. Or something else? A gesture of ownership. Mine again. Marked. Or in fact the other way around. That Madari owned him?
Should he say anything about it? He had to, didn’t he? Or else they’d each be left with two unmatched cufflinks and obliged to pretend they didn’t know it. Because, unless Jahni had been taking sleight-of-hand lessons, he could hardly expect to swap them back undetected.
Jahni must have sensed Madari’s gaze. He looked up and gave him a small smile. Supportive. Kind. An old smile. A smile from their past.
A past that was coming back.