Find out more about the author here: Carolyn Baugh
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A Forge Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-7560-5 / 0-7653-7560-5
$25.99/ 288 pages
On Sale Date: September 29, 2015
Nora Khalil had just reached the river path when an incoming text vibrated against her upper arm. She came to a quick halt, wiped sweaty hands against her leggings, then yanked her phone off her armband, read the text, and called her partner. He picked up immediately. "You jogging?" "Running, yeah," she corrected him, trying not to pant into the mic. "We found him. Where can I pick you up?" Nora squinted at the early-morning traffic inching tortuously across the bridge, then back in the direction she had come. "I'm at the river. Looks like you should stay off the expressway. I'll come up Cherry 'til I meet you." "Ten minutes." The tabla-heavy beats of a Nancy Ajram track overtook Nora's earbuds. Nora stood for a regretful moment, watching the quiet, olive-green water. The skinny Schuylkill River wound its way along the western edge of Philadelphia's Center City. To Nora, it looked like it flowed directly from the Art Museum, which sat imperiously atop Fairmount Hill. Cliché or not, running the museum's steps was her favorite workout, and she frowned, annoyed, as she turned and headed away from the river, in among the stately town houses of Cherry Street. She let her sneakers fall into rhythm once again with the music. It was much less than ten minutes before John Wansbrough's black Suburban intercepted her at the densely congested Benjamin Franklin Parkway. He pulled up, and she climbed in. "Good morning," she said, yanking the door shut and then tugging gently on her earbuds. "Don't sweat on my leather, now." Chest heaving, she narrowed her eyes at him. "You have your piece and badge?" he asked. She nodded. The 9 mm Glock was strapped to the small of her back in a sweat-stained velcro-and-elastic carrier that also held her ID. All of this was neatly concealed under her long, loose tee with the words TEMPLE UNIVERSITY emblazoned across the front. She arched her back slightly as she buckled her seat belt, shifting the gun slightly left so that it wouldn't dig into her spine as she sat. "So what's the story?" "The lead from little miss gangster turned out to be right on. Good work, by the way." Nora had spent most of the previous day with a young Junior Black Mafia recruit, such that she'd memorized her every tattoo. Progress had come only after a trip to the basement of the FBI building. Furious, Nora herself had pulled out the long, refrigerated drawer, and then sank her long fingers into Daniella Miller's braids and held the young woman's face six inches from the cold, knife-slashed body of fourteen-year-old Kylie Baker. Soon afterward, Daniella was willing to tell what she knew about Dewayne hiding out in a loft apartment in Northern Liberties with a high-priced white hooker. "Calder and Burton staked them out and finally spotted Dewayne when he passed by a window. Took a while to nail down the warrant." He waved a folded white piece of paper at her, then tucked it back into his navy-blue blazer. Nora checked her watch. It was almost seven thirty. "Calder still there?" "Yeah, waiting for the cavalry." "He'll be tired. He always ends up shooting stuff when he's tired." "That's why you get to go in first. Rookie's privilege." Nora flinched. "Didn't you promise to stop calling me that after I'd been with you guys for six months? You do know that I went through all this with PD. I've paid my dues." John Wansbrough snorted. "Are you suggesting that being a rookie with the Philly PD is anything like being a rookie with the Federal Bureau of Investigation?" Her partner gave her a patronizing smile born of twenty-six years of active duty. Nora responded with a small groan. "Right. What was I thinking?" Traffic was bad. Wansbrough flicked on the red and blue lights embedded in the front grille and window, and Nora watched as early morning commuters grudgingly pulled to each side to make way for the SUV. Wansbrough navigated the snarls with great efficiency, and Nora envied him his cool. Although she'd passed the necessary driving tests for the police academy, she still hated driving. There had been no real need, growing up in the city. She had walked everywhere, or ridden the subways and buses. When the Philadelphia Police Department had tapped her to join the FBI's Safe Streets Violent Gang Task Force, she ended up working full-time with the FBI, and got a desk and a navy-blue Ford. But it was almost always parked in the garage under the field office at 6th and Arch. Nora was a competent but nervous driver and always felt better with the pavement under her feet. She sighed, still regretting the abrupt end to her run along the river. She had just paid far more than she should have for a pair of pink and gray Adidas Energy Boosts, and she admired them as she sat waiting for her pulse to slow. For Nora, being locked in the interview room with Daniella Miller yesterday evening had been like living through a five-hour assault. Nora had learned at least seven new swear words. Running it off this morning was all she had wanted to do. It had taken every ounce of her strength to keep from throat-punching that woman. Even just going over it in her head now enraged her. Wansbrough glanced at her, noting the deep V that had settled between her eyebrows. "What?" Nora shrugged. "Come on, what? Nervous? You're a pro at this now." "What, oh, the bust? Nah. Well, a little." "Daniella the gangbanger??" Wansbrough guessed correctly as Nora laughed. "She was somethin' else." Nora nodded. "You kept it together, though. Except in the basement, maybe." "I just ... do you know that's the first time somebody called me a 'white bitch'?" Her partner raised his eyebrows. "No one has ever called me white before. Do I look white to you?" Wansbrough laughed out loud. "Well, girl, you don't look black. Did you think you were black or something?" "I always got 'sand nigger.'" John's wide forehead creased into a scowl. "I'm gonna have a long, long talk with you about using that word in my presence. After we get Fulton into custody." He switched off the flashing lights, indicating to Nora that they were near. She sat up a little in the seat, taking in the neighborhood. Northern Liberties had undergone a series of gentrification efforts, and rehabbed buildings and town houses preened under the muted early morning light. Nora spotted Calder's car parked across from a former factory; long fire escapes snaked along the building's sides, linking the cramped, wrought-iron balconies. Just beyond Calder's car was that of Agent Lin. His partner Jacobs sat up front, with two sergeants from the sheriff's office rounding out the task force group in the back. Nora struggled for their names and came up blank. "Looks kinda conspicuous, don't you think?" she observed as they pulled closer. "Too early in the morning for anyone to be paying attention," Wansbrough said. "Difference between us and the bad guys is the bad guys get to sleep in." At Wansbrough's suggestion, she called Calder. "Hi, Nora." "You awake?" "For you, always." "You're on speaker, Ben." Wansbrough tsk-tsk'd as he began parallel parking the Suburban, then said loudly: "Focus on this arrest, Calder, and keep your mind off my rookie." Nora glared at her partner and tapped the mute button. "What did we just talk about?" He waved away her glare. "Never mind. I also told your dad that, as a father, I would keep you safe from young men with bad intentions." Nora's nostrils flared. She opened her mouth and then shut it again, speechless. "Plus," John added, "Ben's so obvious. He needs to tone down his flirting a little. Or at least do something original." He tapped the mute button, opening the line, and grinned at Nora. "What do you have, Ben?" The Suburban's dashboard screen flashed with two photos. One was a face she'd memorized by now, Dewayne Fulton. The other was of a thin white woman with a curtain of chestnut-colored hair. Special Agent Calder cleared his throat loudly and said, "Apartment 4-F is a corner unit. Two occupants: Fulton, Dewayne, male, a.k.a. 'Reality,' boss of the Junior Black Mafia, aged twenty-one, and the lessee, Halston, Lisa, female, aged twenty-six. John, you want us to cover the balcony by sealing off the fire escape?" "You read my mind," Wansbrough said. "Two with Ben, four with me. Burton-you there?" Eric Burton's voice floated through the speaker, succinct as always. "Yes, John." "Burton, you come with me and Nora. Calder, try not to shoot anyone today." "I hardly ever shoot anyone on Fridays," came the response. Nora strapped on the bulletproof vest John handed her, then accepted the task force raid jacket. She looked at John. "Crowbar?" He shook his head, pulling off his sunglasses and tucking them carefully into the visor clip. Gesturing at the building, he said, as though stating the obvious, "Nice building. Doorman. Key." They slid quickly out of the car and jogged toward the building. Eric Burton and Lin and Jacobs materialized behind them, all looking grim and unshaven. Eric was shoving his arm into a black Windbreaker that matched the one John had given Nora. She saw Ben Calder leading the rest of the arrest team toward the fire escape. She wished that Ben was with them. Ben's flirting made her uncomfortable, but Eric's icy cold shoulder always left her disconcerted. Nora pressed her badge against the glass door. The concierge stared at the group in confusion, then hesitantly released the lock. They watched her closely, but she did not seem to be reaching for a cell phone or any buttons that might function to warn Unit 4-F. She wore a name tag reading JUANITA, and she stared at them with fearful eyes. Wansbrough advanced on the woman quickly, showing his badge and smoothing out the warrant for her perusal. "Federal officers. I need the spare key for 4-F." She began in heavily accented English, "We do not..." John leaned in close. "Now." The concierge leapt out of her seat and unlocked a cabinet set against the wall. Her hand shook slightly as she handed over the key. "Shut down the elevator and let no one up the stairs," Nora said over her shoulder, as the five of them started the climb. Juanita did not need to be told twice. Unit 4-F was clearly marked. Wansbrough plunged the key into the lock and turned it quickly. The door was chained from the inside. He gave his team a mirthless smile, then motioned at Eric to join him. The two leaned against the door and shoved hard. The chain snapped immediately, and as the door swung open, the five of them darted into the spacious loft apartment as Wansbrough shouted, "Federal officers! Come out with your hands up!" The door crashed against the inside wall, and Nora heard shouts of surprise from behind a low divider wall that demarcated the bedroom area in the otherwise entirely open space. Billowing, gauzy curtains dangled from the tall ceiling down to the low wall, concealing what lay within; beyond these, a woman's voice began screaming and did not stop. With fierce, abbreviated motions, Wansbrough waved Burton and Lin into position in front of the door they'd just entered, and directed Nora and Jacobs toward the open kitchen area. They hunkered down by a set of cabinets, a position that still afforded them a sweeping view of the loft. Nora worked to breathe deeply in order to slow her thumping heart. Wansbrough darted to the low wall, crouching, waiting, and called again for Dewayne to come out and surrender himself. It was only a moment before Dewayne Fulton pushed aside the curtains and burst out from behind the half wall, wearing nothing but boxer shorts and a dark web of tattoos. He was waving a heavy pistol, what looked like a .44 Magnum, and stumbled slightly. He saw Burton and pointed the gun at him, but Wansbrough landed a sweeping kick to Dewayne's knees from behind. Dewayne thudded to the floor, the gun discharging. The bullet plowed into the exposed brick of the wall, and a shower of shards rained down on the polished hardwood. In an instant, Wansbrough had his knee in Dewayne's back and was twisting his gun arm up behind him as Dewayne unleashed a hail of expletives. Nora and Jacobs leapt in unison over the dividing wall, seeking the source of the uninterrupted screaming. They saw a mostly naked woman, her long, brown hair a disheveled mess, sitting upright in the middle of a king-sized bed. "Shut up," Jacobs yelled at her, aiming his gun in her direction. The screaming stopped. Nora trained her own gun on the woman as she scanned the bedroom area. She called out to Wansbrough, "We've located Lisa Halston!" Nora found that her back was to the one solid retaining wall and what looked like a bathroom door, and it flashed through her mind that her position wasn't secure. The woman on the bed raised her hands as if in slow-motion, and Nora saw immediately that her pupils were wide and dilated. The bedside table was piled high with more ice methamphetamine than Nora had ever seen in one place. Nora began edging back toward Wansbrough and Burton, and was about to tell the woman to get slowly off the bed, when the bathroom door behind her flew open, and Nora felt steel at the base of her neck. She froze, not breathing, her eyes holding Jacobs's alarmed gaze. Jacobs immediately began shouting, "Federal officers! Lower your weapon!" The gun rested just below Nora's tightly wound chignon. The weapon was at least as heavy as the .44 Dewayne had been wielding. A woman's voice shrieked in Nora's ear, drowning out Jacobs's. "I've got your girl! Now get the hell out of here or I'll kill her!" Nora could feel the woman's breath in her hair. Nora had not stopped pointing her gun at the woman in the bed, who watched the scene in detached, but mercifully silent, terror. Nora was rigid, waiting breathlessly for what would happen next. She heard no voices or movement from the next room, though she strained for any hint of Calder and his team. From the corner of her eye, she saw Wansbrough peek around the divider wall. Nora knew he didn't have a clean shot. They exchanged a quick glance, then his low voice called out, "Drop your weapon. You got nowhere to go here." The woman's voice seemed to climb an entire register higher. "You drop your goddam weapon or I will kill this bitch, so help me God..." Nora called out in as calm a voice as she could muster, "We've got some drugs in play here, John, so we may not all be thinking clearly..." The gun dug more deeply into Nora's neck. "Shut up, just shut the fuck up!" In the living room, Nora heard Dewayne Fulton begin laughing almost hysterically. Nora fought for breath and found her gun arm starting to shake. She thought about plunging her elbow backward into the woman's sternum, but she was too scared that the heavy gun would go off. Suddenly the sound of a gunshot thundered through the loft, and Nora found herself tumbling to the floor, as the nearly naked woman resumed her screams. * * * The wait was interminable. It was rush hour, and the medical examiner, the EMTs, and the evidence techs from the field office had all been slow in coming. The very blood-soaked Nora could only seem to focus on her shoes. And her partial hearing loss, for which none of the support crews had any remedy. The tech team was busy photographing the scene within the loft apartment and cataloging the weapons in preparation for transporting them to the office. The two men and one woman would wait for Nora and Calder to carefully collect the meth and its accompanying paraphernalia; Benjamin Calder was an expert on street drugs-how they looked, how they were made, and the intricate silk roads of production and distribution that entangled the city. He had logged endless hours on this case. They all had. But it was Nora and John who had been on the scene shortly after Kylie Baker's body was discovered. They had found her mother shrieking with grief on the bloodstained grass of her Kingsessing home, refusing to leave her daughter's fast-cooling, knife-slashed body. It was the first time since Nora had entered law enforcement that she wished she'd listened to Baba and picked a different career. Not that being murdered at fourteen had made Kylie Baker at all remarkable. It was Philly, after all. And Kingsessing was ... well, Kingsessing was boarded-up buildings that somehow still seethed with listless energy. It was the sound of daytime screaming. It was head wounds that left indelible, forever-stains on gappy, stumbling sidewalks. Nora had had no reason to wander that far into Southwest Philly before joining the force. She had grown used to Kingsessing, the domestic violence calls and small-time drug busts and even the occasional corpse with a bullet wound or two. But this task force work found her looking at a little girl whose neck was slashed so deeply that her trachea lay exposed. Nora had knelt beside Kylie's thin, naked frame. She was charged with counting knife wounds for the preliminary report, but she found herself counting other things as well. She counted the number of piercings arching up along the cartilage of Kylie's right ear (six). She counted the dusting of freckles along the bridge of her nose and across her smooth cheeks (eighteen). She counted the shards of brown bottle glass that lay on the sidewalk, just beyond the girl's jarringly fuchsia toenails (seven large shards, three small). Apart from its extreme violence, Kylie Baker's murder had drawn the task force's attention as an act of vengeance. Her brother Kevin's gang trafficked in meth and heroin-not only in Kingsessing, West Philly, and Northeast Philly, but over the Delaware River in angry, dilapidated Camden. Kevin's gang, the A&As, had engineered a drive-by shooting that took out a member of the Junior Black Mafia. Dewayne Fulton led the Junior Black Mafia. But rather than take revenge for the shooting by killing a member of Kevin's gang, he had killed a member of Kevin's family. Kylie. Everyone knew the story. Everyone was talking about it. The two gangs ran strong in Kingsessing, where crack houses outnumbered grocery stores, and there were more pawnshops than schools or parks. But something had broken in Kylie's mother as she had watched the task force begin work on her little girl's corpse. She had turned to Agent John Wansbrough and said, plain as day and loud enough for all the neighbors to hear, that she would talk. She would tell him everything she knew about every gang member she had ever known. From her own son Kevin and his gangbangers to Dewayne Fulton and his. Nora had looked up, her latex gloves damp with Kylie's blood, listening to the girl's mother in open-mouthed astonishment. John, stunned, had had the presence of mind to coax her into the Suburban and take her with him to the William J. Green, Jr. Federal Building. There, he recorded a detailed statement before the shock of Kylie's death wore off and the fear of the gangs reasserted itself. The Safe Streets Task Force acquired more information on Philadelphia gang members from Mrs. Baker than they had from all sources in the entire previous year. It was Mrs. Baker who had told them where to locate Daniella Miller, and Daniella Miller who had given them Dewayne himself. And now, Ben and Nora sat on the small balcony, watching the swirl of activity inside and down below in the street. Nora had peeled off the task force Windbreaker, drenched with the blood and tissue of Halston, Lisa, aged twenty-six, and she sat now in her T-shirt that had never quite dried from her morning run. Nora had asked for a large glass of water, then demanded that Calder pour it over the back of her head. She was grateful her hair had been tied in its customary knot. Still, both of them had stared as the pinkened run-off dripped through four floors of wrought-iron balconies to tumble down to the street below. Calder went back to the kitchen to refill the glass three times before the improvised shower ran clear. Nora kept resisting the urge to pat the back of her head. Finally, she wrapped her arms hard around her knees. "They're ruined, Ben." Calder put an arm around her shoulder. "I will get you new ones. I promise." She pushed his arm off. "I really, really liked these." He tilted his head, regarding the blood-soaked sneakers. "They are pretty fly." "Were pretty fly." "Yes, were pretty fly. Now, they're pretty nasty." She turned her head to look at him. "What if you had missed?" He grinned at her, green eyes flashing. "But I didn't miss." "But what if you had missed? You were on stakeout all night. You were a wreck. You're always a wreck after stakeouts. How could you trust yourself with that shot?" "Nora, I couldn't miss. With all that shouting, no one heard us come in the balcony door. I was, like, four feet away. And ... it was you." She tilted her head slightly, realizing suddenly how much she liked the way he had said that. Then, to make sure he didn't sense her feelings, she pointed at her ear. "What? I can't hear you because I'm actually deaf now." "I'm sorry, Nora. We didn't know there was a third person in the apartment." "How long had you been watching the place?" "Hey, as soon as we got the information from Daniella Miller we started watching the place." She went back to staring at the commotion four flights down, willing herself not to think about the life snuffed out to save her own. Below them, Wansbrough was overseeing the bag that contained Lisa Halston's nude and mostly headless corpse as it was bundled away by the medical examiner. The third in the threesome, apparently a working colleague of Lisa's, had been turned over to the police for prosecution. They had found no identification for her in the loft, and once she had stopped screaming, she could not be coerced to speak. John had wanted Nora to come down so the EMTs could check her out, but she wasn't budging. Irritated, he finally stopped motioning up to her and called her cell phone. "Nora, just let them see you," he said. She switched the phone to her good ear. "John. It's okay. I'm okay. I just want to go home and take a shower." "Nora, come down now ... it will take five minutes." "I can't ... Calder and I are bonding over how he almost killed me." Calder waved down at him. Wansbrough was frustrated. "Look," he said, "Like it or not, I know you're shaken up. Burton and I will take Fulton downtown, and Calder can drive you home after you secure the scene up there. Take it easy the rest of the day, and we'll meet up to talk to Dewayne tomorrow morning at nine, when the meth is out of his system." He hung up without saying good-bye, and went back to sorting through the controlled chaos around him. Dewayne was the last to go, and Nora watched curiously as Eric Burton ushered him into the back of Wansbrough's Suburban. Nora and Calder walked through the crime scene together, stopping at the bathroom out of which Lisa Halston had pounced on Nora. They stared at a laptop computer. It sat next to an empty condom wrapper on the tiled floor. The darkened screen gaped up at the ceiling. "Why is there a laptop in the bathroom?" asked Nora. Ben took a pair of latex gloves from an evidence tech. He pulled on the gloves and then tapped the screen. "Password?" "Grumpy hooker?" Nora suggested. "Nice," said Ben. He tried a few entries, then shrugged. "We'll take it to Jonas and Libby." They catalogued it with the techs and then made their way out of the building, passing Juanita, who appeared in the midst of a classic concierge-breakdown as she fielded frantic inquiries from tenants and neighbors. Nora nodded at her as they passed out into what was left of the cool autumn morning. Traffic was light on the way back to Center City. Calder was quiet, and Nora observed him carefully. His auburn hair was thick and close-cropped, and his features were strong. His pointed chin was covered with stubble after his night in the car. The green eyes had dark shadows under them. "Hey, you okay there?" she asked. He nodded. "How many people you killed so far?" Calder glanced over at her. "Total? In the past four years of service?" "Yes. Total." "One." Despite herself, Nora laughed out loud. "All that shooting-?" "I try to aim for like, legs and thighs ... I wasn't a college track star like you, so I have to get the advantage somehow." "Very savvy," she admitted. "What's next?" Ben shrugged. "I'll take this laptop to Jonas and Libby. I'll write up my report about what happened with Halston, Lisa, twenty-six, and hope it matches what the medical examiner finds so that Internal Affairs doesn't make a big deal about it. I'll go home and play a violent video game and hope we get to do it all again tomorrow." Nora smiled. "I'm not even gonna worry about you..." "No, no worries," he said, pulling up in front of the Cairo Café. "Okay, Nora. If you need anything, call." She nodded. "Thanks, Ben." She opened the car door, then paused. "Ben." "Yeah?" "Thanks for saving my life." His eyes locked with her wide, brown ones, and she watched him exhale slowly, looking for words. She slipped out of the car before he said anything she might want to hear. She was careful not to watch him drive away as she pushed open the door to her father's restaurant.
* * * The Cairo Café sat quietly in the midst of the Logan Square neighborhood, only a few blocks from the river and the Market Street skyscrapers-just out of the way enough, it seemed to Nora, to be doomed to constant struggle. It was small but spare, with simple two-top tables and long leather benches running along each wall. It could seat about fifty people comfortably and, in its twenty-seven years of business, it had never departed from the staid, pressed, beige tablecloths and primly folded cloth napkins. The requisite Quranic verse warding off envy hung over the hostess's stand (although there was never a need for an actual hostess), and various Egyptian relics were rather randomly placed throughout the dining area. The electronic bell announced her, echoing through the empty restaurant, lancing through the soft strains of an old Abd al-Wahhab tune that spun from the CD player. It was ten thirty, and they opened for lunch at eleven. "As-salaam alaykum," she said into the dimness. Baba set down his glass of tea and hastily stubbed out his cigarette."Wa alaykum as-salaam, ya Noooora!" He was sitting at his customary table near the cash register, enjoying a quiet moment before dealing with the first customers of the day. He offered her a rough cheek. "Inti fayn?" Where have you been? "I didn't think you were home at breakfast." She bent to kiss him, waving away the remaining cloud of smoke, then sank into the chair across from him. "Working," she answered in English. "In that?" he asked, taking in her running clothes. He didn't notice her blood-soaked shoes in the muted light, and she hurriedly pulled her feet under her seat. "Casual Friday," she said. "And you know you shouldn't be smoking inside the restaurant. Your employees can sue you." "I'll never do it again," he said contritely. This was Ragab's latest strategy for dealing with his daughter's many "don'ts." She narrowed her eyes, recognizing the strategy for what it was, and moved on. "Did you get Ahmad his breakfast?" "He can't get his own breakfast?" Nora frowned at her father. "He can but he won't, he's spoiled. You have to lay something out for him or he won't eat. You know this." Her father made a disapproving noise and patted his own girth where it strained against his button-down shirt, as though to say that that was certainly not his own approach. "I think he's become more spoiled since he's started studying for this test." Nora sighed. "Well, he's entitled, he's studying hard." The SATs were two weeks away, and Ahmad had been haunting the Kaplan sessions. Her father shrugged, then regarded her. "What can I make you to eat?" he asked. "You want a foule sandwich?" "Nothing now, not hungry." Nora wondered if the writhing in her stomach would ever ease, or if she would ever stop feeling the gun at her head or the sticky heat of Lisa Halston's life splashed across the back of her neck and hair. "Eat with me. Don't be rude." "You're not eating," she observed. "I'll have Katie make you some tea," he said, gesturing at the straggly ponytailed server hunched over her phone, thumbs a blur. But not even tea sounded good to Nora today. She stared distractedly at the Egyptian newspaper splayed out across the table, open to the sports section; Arabic headlines shrieked the footballers' latest triumphs. "You could get that paper for free on your phone, by the way." "Phone, phone. Phones are for calling. Everything is on the phone now, you lose the phone, you lose your whole world," Ragab said. "Anyway, what can I do to the phone when I read that Zamalek has lost again to the Ahly bastards. I can't smack it, like this," he gave the page a dismissive slap with the back of his palm. "What, I'm going to throw my phone across the room? I didn't buy the insurance." She smiled at him, shaking her head. Ragab was a born extrovert who knew almost all of his customers by their first names. His booming laugh always seemed to fill the small restaurant and spill out onto the street beyond. He had only shouted at Nora once: when Zack Gray from the boy's track team had had the audacity to try to ask her to prom. Apart from that, she had only really seen Baba enraged and explosive when Zamalek lost to the Ahly club in the Egyptian national championships. He had actually punched his fist through the living room's drywall. He leaned in. "What are you working on, anything interesting?" "Nothing I can tell you about," she whispered; this was their routine, and she gamely responded the same way every time. Nora rose. "I'm going up to take a shower, Baba. And maybe a nap." He squinted at her. "What is this, are you okay?" She nodded. "I finished a project at work, and my boss gave me the rest of the day off." Simple. Ragab smiled, his features relaxing. "Good, good. You can go to Friday prayer for once!" "Maybe," she said. She quickly kissed the top of his head and headed through the kitchen to the back stairs leading to their apartment. She tried not to think of the health code violations attached to her bloody sneakers.
* * * Nora stood for a long time under the shower with all of her clothes on. Even the shoes. Especially the shoes. The water swirling into the drain was at first tinged slightly pink. Little by little Nora had begun peeling off layers and pushing them into the far end of the tub. She shampooed and rinsed no less than ten times before emerging to wrap herself in a fraying green towel. She rubbed a circle in the fogged mirror and stared at herself. Her facial features were her mother's, the brown eyes, the caramel skin and high cheekbones, the prominent nose that was the legacy of her mother's father. After the long, hot shower her hair had reverted to its unrepentant curl, and it fell in inky coils to her shoulders. Nora liked to tell other people that her mother had asked her to join the force-that it had been her dying wish. It had great shock value, and wasn't exactly a lie. Nora, habibti, you are so strong, so smart. Fast feet and fast mind, ma sha Allah. I'm depending on you. Your father is a good man. But he is not wise. You need to help him. Help him take care of Ahmad. Protect Ahmad for me, and make sure he can grow to be a good and wise man. Her mother had asked her to take care of her family, and this turned out to be the way that made the most sense to Nora. "I know today wasn't what you had in mind, Mama. I'm sorry," she said softly. She transferred a load of Baba and Ahmad's things from the washer into the dryer to make room for her bundle of sopping clothes, wishing-as always-for her own place, her own space. Then she slid under her blanket, and the quiet tears that came had slightly less to do with dead hookers and rather more to do with wishing her mother's voice could suddenly break the stillness with an old Arabic love song, or that her warm hand was there to rub Nora's back and stroke her hair until she slept.
* * *He was waiting. In the same room from which she'd fled, he was standing, his face dark and angry. The tall one with the dark glasses did not disentwine his coarse hands from her hair until he shoved her into the shabby room, cursing her. It won't happen again, he said, by way of apology to the waiting man. Tonight she's learning the consequences of running. Isn't that right, whore? Isn't that right? If you didn't have a customer waiting, I would have taken that bitch who tried to help you and cut her up right in front of you. But I'll deal with her later ... Rahma cowered, terrified for the stranger she had now endangered. He leaned close to her face, and she saw through the dark glasses the blank, shriveled skin where his eye had been. His breath was hot against her face. You and the others will learn what it is to defy us. As the tall one's footsteps echoed on the stairway, Rahma watched in terror as the man crossed to her. She whimpered, hating the scent of him, hating him, hating him. He had something cupped in his clenched fist, something she couldn't see, and it scared her that he was hiding it from her. Could there be something worse or more fearsome than what had gone on in that room the night before? He sank on one knee onto the mattress and clamped his free hand over her mouth, a sure sign that he was going to rape her again. But suddenly his clenched other hand opened and he wiped his palm under her nostrils, pushing hard against her nose-she struggled for air, trying hard not to inhale through her nose, but she was gasping and choking, and then she felt the powder shoot up into her nose, exploding behind her eyes, boring into her brain, and she was overcome. It will be better for you now, he was saying, and his voice seemed distant and detached from his body. It will feel better, you'll see. As she felt her muscles relaxing, and her body sliding away from her, she was aware that he was on top of her again, pushing apart her legs and pulling down her camisole to expose her just-budding breasts. This time she did not scream. Copyright © 2015 by Carolyn Baugh