Secret Places in this Violent World

chapter 4

i never see the sun, how can i know that love is endless?


Riyadh hit him like a slap across his face, a searing heat so blindingly intense he almost faltered. The brightness stabbed at his eyeballs, even through his shades, and Adam raised his hand to shield his face as the world outside Abdul’s private jet whited out. 

Footsteps pounded up the jet’s stairs, and a gentle hand touched his wrist. “Habibi.” 

He blinked, his eyes watering, as they adjusted to the punishing Saudi light. Faisal stood on the step below him, his fingers circling Adam’s wrist, thumb gently brushing over the pad of Adam’s palm. “I’m glad you came.” 

“I’ll always come for you.” 

Faisal grinned, and he peeked at Adam over the rim of his own shades, his dark eyes dancing. Adam flushed. “I mean—”

“Ya Faisal!” 

A deep voice called out from the rolled-down window of a blacked-out Cadillac sedan, idling near the jet’s stairway. Two armored SUVs bracketed the Cadillac, and Adam could just make out the shapes of hulking men in the front and passenger seats of both SUVs. Escorts. Protection. For who? His gaze snapped to the Cadillac—

Abdul al-Saud glared up at him with the same fierce, dark scowl he’d worn when he burst in on him and Faisal at the Gulf. Two years fell away in a moment, and Adam’s spine liquified as his intestines knotted, shame like a deluge of ice water pouring over him. Even in the baking heat, he shivered. He hadn’t seen Abdul, hadn’t spoken to the man, hadn’t even stepped foot in Saudi Arabia since that day—

“He asked to come with me to pick you up,” Faisal murmured, guiding Adam down the jet’s stairs. “He wants to talk to you.” 

“About what?” Adam’s boots hit the tarmac, and Abdul rolled up his window. His scowl stayed in Adam’s gaze, imprinted like a nuclear burn on his eyeballs. Jesus, he wasn’t ready for this. He wasn’t prepared, wasn’t even dressed right. He was in his boots and his cargo pants, his contractor-cum-reporter undercover look of shitty polo and khaki utilities. Next to him, Faisal wore a dark suit in a light, desert-friendly fabric, tailored impeccably, as if it had been sewn around his body. The jacket ruffled on the light breeze, and his eggplant shirt—was that silk?—was unbuttoned down past the hollow of his throat. 

But there were imperfections where usually there were none. Adam picked them out one by one, his worry growing with every flaw in Faisal’s appearance. Bags and dark circles peeking out from beneath Faisal’s shades. Stubble along his jaw. Wrinkles in his suit jacket, his pants. A scuff on his shoe. Things Faisal never did, never revealed. 

He stopped Faisal with a hand on his elbow. “What’s going on? What’s wrong?” He couldn’t even begin to imagine why he was here, why he was about to climb into a car with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, or why Faisal looked like he hadn’t slept in two days. 

Faisal swallowed. He looked beyond Adam to the Cadillac and the darkened window where his uncle sat. 

“You said you wanted my help?” Adam stepped closer, lowered his voice. “Do you need to get out of here again? Or…” 

Was this about to be a breakup, Saudi royal style? Was Abdul waiting with a suitcase of cash and a non disclosure agreement about Faisal? 

Faisal reached behind Adam and grabbed the Cadillac’s door handle. “My uncle will explain everything.”

Frowning, Adam followed Faisal into the car, sliding into the seat behind the driver and the privacy panel, facing backwards—facing Abdul. In the middle of the leather bench seat opposite Adam, Abdul glowered as he watched Adam’s every move. His gaze knifed into the spaces between Faisal and Adam’s bodies, the milimeters between Faisal’s hip and Adam’s. 

Faisal cleared his throat. He pressed his knee against Adam’s as he pulled his shades off and tucked them into his suit jacket. 

Abdul’s glare darkened, his tight lips turning downward. 

“Your Royal Highness,” Adam started. His voice cracked. He coughed. Tried again.

Abdul waved him off. “Don’t start,” he growled. “Let’s get this over with.” He reached beside him and grabbed a folder, thick with papers and bound closed. He eyed Faisal, sighed, and then handed the folder to Adam. 

It is the Saudi breakup. He didn’t want to take the folder. Abdul, impatient, jerked it toward his face, and reflexively, he grabbed it. 

His heart sank, boiling in the rumble of his churning stomach. 

The folder’s front was inscribed with the seal of the Presidency of State Security, and then the seal of the Mabahith. Saudi: Top Secret was scrawled across the front in vibrant red Arabic script. 

Well, it figured that the sexuality of one of the royal family was a state secret. Glum, he flipped the top of the folder open— 

A photo of a corpse stared back at him. 

She was naked, her body hidden beneath a sheet pulled up to her armpits. She was lying on a steel surface, a gurney, perhaps, and the lighting suggested the photos were taken in a morgue. Her face was bruised and mangled, one side charred and burned, but not from fire. Her skin on half her face was a deep brown, leathery and tanned, almost as if she’d been partially mummified. Desert burns. She was left in the sun for days. The burn followed the line of her neck, her shoulder, disappeared beneath the sheet. 

A ragged slash severed her neck, almost down to the bone. The blood from the cut had been cleaned off, and beneath the torn flesh, Adam could see the severed structures of her throat: her esophagus, her trachea, the severed ligaments on the sides of her neck. 

In life, she had probably been beautiful. It was hard to gauge her age, but when he tried to focus only on the uncharred half of her face, he was finally able to pick out the crows feet and the thinning of her cheeks, the marks of age starting to creep up on a person. Two teeth were chipped.

“She was found three days ago, out in the desert,” Abdul said. He had a way of speaking that turned everything into a growl, a displeased, offended sort of tone. As if just speaking to Adam offended him. 

“I know Saudi’s crime rates are low, but you guys have to have had a murder before…” 

Saudi Arabia loved to boast about how low their crime rates were thanks to their harsh criminal justice system and brutal penalties for any and all crimes. Human rights had never been on the list of wonderful things about Saudi Arabia. 

And you’re sleeping with one of the royals. 

A royal who could be killed if anyone found out. 

Abdul scowled. “Wanton murder is not the Arab way. Murder is rare in Saudi Arabia. Even more rare is the serial murderer. That is a truly Western invention. The first serial murderer in recorded history is from ancient Rome, and from then on, it seems a parade of Western serial murderers have followed through the millenia.” 

Adam bit his tongue on all the things he wanted to say. Instead, he frowned. “You think you have a serial killer in Saudi?”

“Turn the page,” Faisal said softly. 

More photos. Pages of them, corpses of women, and then corpses of men, all photographed from above in the morgue. All of them were partially charred, that sunburnt, mummified look scorching parts of their body. One man’s entire front was mummified nearly to the bone, desiccated and brittle, all his soft tissues long dried away. His empty eyeball sockets stared up into the camera, as if he could see through death and time and into Adam’s soul. 

“She was the fourteenth,” Faisal said, flipping back to the first photo. 

“Fourteen?” Shock colored Adam’s voice. 

“Up until three days ago, none of these deaths were connected. They were all found in different locations across the country. Some of the remains were so badly ravaged by the desert that they weren’t properly investigated at the time. Many of them seemed like another tragic desert death to the police.”

“People die in the desert all the time,” Abdul said gruffly. 

“We’ve collected the case files of all bodies found in the desert for the past five years. When we compared the autopsies, we found these thirteen—” Faisal pointed to the photos of the men and women behind the first photo “—who all had the same injuries and were all dumped in the desert. Their throats were all slit, like this. Many of these cases were closed and the wounds were blamed on animal predation.”

“How long has this killer been active?”

“The furthest back we found a case with these hallmarks is three years.” Faisal pointed to one of the photos, a man, half mummified from the desert heat and sun, his face half blackened and half twisted, as if he died mid-scream. The slice across his throat was ugly and ravaged, the flesh twisted and pulling back from the wound. To Adam, it looked like a bear had mauled the man’s throat. 

There were no bears in Saudi Arabia, though.

“We need to review the case files and forensics for each of these deaths. There’s not much to go on, though—” Faisal started.

“Do you understand the significance of fourteen?” Abdul blurted out, cutting his nephew off. He stared hard at Adam. 

Adam blinked. “I know it’s a lot of bodies.” 

Abdul cast a droll glare at Faisal as Faisal’s lips thinned. “I thought you said he was educated about Islam.” 

“He is, Uncle.” It was the closest Faisal ever came to a reproach. He shifted to Adam. “In our culture, seven is a metaphor for infinity. For forever. Everlastingness. When we make the hajj, during the thawaf, we circle the Kabba seven times. We throw seven stones at the pillars of Shaitan. In both of these things, the repetition of seven times symbolizes eternity. We are eternal Muslims. And we reject Shaitan, forever.” 

Adam nodded, his gaze sliding to Abdul once and then away. 

“She was the seventh woman murdered. When we checked our files, we found the seven male bodies.”

“So you think—”

Adam didn’t get a chance to finish. Abdul interrupted, his voice taut and tight. “Someone is sending a message,” he snapped. “Seven male victims, and now seven women. They want to kill all men and women. Destroy everything Allah has created.” He snarled as he waved his hand, as if he could wave away the murderer and all of the horrible death. “For a Muslim,” he said, his voice low, “the meaning is obvious. It is significant.”

It was Adam’s turn to press his lips together, turn his head down, and study the file. Silence filled the car, the only noise the soft hiss of the air conditioning pouring from the vents. “Why weren’t these murders noticed before now?” he asked.

“The bodies were dumped all over the country, in the desert outside the cities.” Faisal flipped through the file, pulling out crime reports from Jeddah, Riyadh, Dammam, Taif, Buraydah, Medina, and Yanbu. “She was found on Saudi Ten, on the highway to Haradh, outside the Al Badiah Dairy Farm.” 

“Dairy Farm?” Adam’s eyebrows skyrocketed. 

Faisal gave him the ghost of a smirk. “What, you don’t know Saudi is famous for its farming? Our farms feed the Middle East—”

Abdul sighed, long and loud, and stared out the window at his jet. It was parked, engines idling. Waiting, it seemed. 

Faisal snapped back to business, dropping his gentle teasing. “She was brought back to Riyadh by a patrol officer, and the detective in Riyadh who received the body put the pieces together, enough to start asking questions, at least. There were two other murders like this one in Riyadh province, one each in the past two years, and this was the third body to come out of the desert with a slit throat. They pulled the records of all desert deaths across the country. Finally, we see the pattern. Late, yes. But we see it now. There is a serial murderer at work in Saudi.” 

“Who are these people? Are there similarities between the victims? What do they have in common?” 

Faisal and Abdul shared a long look. They said nothing. 

Unease crept over Adam. “Why are you telling me all of this?” 

“As I said before, serial murderers are not an Arab creation. My people are… ill equipped to handle the magnitude of this,” Abdul said, speaking carefully. “I called Faisal home as soon as I received the report on this situation. Out of everyone in the Kingdom, the only person I absolutely trust to stop this madman and save my people is my nephew. Now he tells me he needs help.” His eyes burned, pinning Adam to the seat. “Your help.” 

“Me?” Adam blanched. He turned to Faisal. “I’m not a cop! I have no experience in hunting a murderer!”

“Your questions from a minute ago seemed to indicate differently,” Abdul said. 

“I watched a lot of TV growing up.” 

Abdul snorted. He turned back to glaring out the window. 

“Faisal—”

“Habibi.” Faisal cut him off. From the corner of Adam’s gaze, he saw Abdul flinch at Faisal’s term of endearment. “You work in intelligence. Your mind is crafted to sift through information, analyze everything, and find the hidden wisdom amid a storm of information. And you succeed, always. Don’t put yourself down. In this, you are exceptionally skilled.” 

“I’m still not a police officer.”

“I have a thousand police officers working for me,” Faisal said. “I don’t need another one. I need someone who can think this through with me. Analyze with me. Challenge me, push me, and everyone else, to think in new ways. I need someone who knows how to analyze the information we have, and more importantly, who knows the value of the information we don’t have. For example, the questions you asked. How do we profile a serial murderer? What are we looking for when we look at the murderer’s victims? What do the victims tell us? As my uncle said… we are not experienced with this sort of madness.” 

Unbidden, thoughts bubbled up inside Adam. He wasn’t trained to hunt serial murderers, but he was trained in profiling terrorist murderers, and the techniques were similar. “The victims usually can tell you about the killer…” he said, speaking slowly. “What does the killer look for in a victim? Why them in particular? Is the killer sending a message?” His mind churned. “Diving into the victims backgrounds should help you uncover more pieces of your murderer.” 

Faisal smiled. “Perfect. We’re already getting started.” 

“There’s one thing.” Abdul’s voice was like a sledgehammer. He stared down Faisal, until he looked away, and then looked at Adam. “My nephew asked my permission to request your help, and I agreed. But I agreed to accept your help, and only your help.” His stare could burn holes in the sun. “Not the United States government’s help.” 

“What are you—”

“This situation is a private internal security matter for the Saudi Arabian state. It is a matter of national security. This information is not being shared with any foreign government. Any government at all. We expect anyone who aids our investigation to show the utmost respect for our privacy, and our laws.” 

“You want me to help you catch a serial killer, but you want me to keep that I’m helping you—helping a foreign government—from my own government?”

Abdul, again, slid a quick glance to Faisal. This time, Adam could plainly read Abdul’s expression: you said he was smart. 

“If I do help you, what am I supposed to tell my bosses? The Marine Corps? The US embassy?”

“You won’t say anything to the US embassy in Saudi. They won’t know you’re here. In fact, you won’t really be here at all. Have you noticed a lack of passport officers here?” Abdul gestured outside, at the empty runway in the royal family’s private airport. “Let me be clear, Mr. Cooper. If you assist the Kingdom, you will be personally assisting the royal family. Personally helping me. You will have my deepest and unending gratitude, if you help my Faisal catch this murderer.” 

Adam exhaled. That… was unexpected. 

“But you cannot take this back to the Americans. Ever.” 

“Do you know what you’re asking?” Adam breathed. “Assisting a foreign government, without my government’s permission… That’s very illegal. It opens a huge door for blackmail. I’d be compromised for life.” 

Abdul’s eyebrows slowly rose, climbing up and up. He looked from Adam to Faisal and then back to Adam.

Adam flushed hard. His hands fisted, and he clenched his teeth, hunched in the seat. Faisal’s hand landed on his back, low and out of sight of Abdul. 

“You would be trusting us,” Abdul said. “Trusting me, especially. Consider, Mr. Cooper, that trust is a two-way street. I have had to trust you with the most precious thing in my life for these past two years, and I have managed to survive that.” 

Adam looked up. There were storms in Abdul’s eyes, emotions he couldn’t name raging beneath that steel-hard veneer. 

“Not a single soul in the western world has ever been as close to the royal family as you,” Abdul breathed. 

“I would still need to tell my boss that I’m… busy.” 

“Can you take a vacation? Like we did last year?” Faisal asked.

Abdul growled, closing his eyes and praying. Adam flashed back to their vacation together, nothing but a week of locking themselves in an apartment and fucking each other’s brains out. He’d wanted, after that, to have a real vacation with Faisal. Go someplace in Europe—Paris or Berlin, Helsinki or Rome—or someplace with a beach and booze and nothing to do but bask in each other. 

Burning those days in exchange for hunting a serial murderer in Saudi? 

Well, at least he’d be with Faisal. 

“Okay. I’ll do it.” 

Faisal smiled, a riot of joy and relief. “Thank you, habibi. I don’t want to do this without you.” 

For the first time, he spotted the fear, the naked terror, buried in Faisal’s gaze. What had Abdul laid on Faisal’s shoulders? In a way, he’d placed all the lives of Saudi Arabia in Faisal’s hands. Stop the murderer. Do not let another die. Do not let the murderer destroy all that Allah has created.

Abdul made a call on his cell, and, finally, the jet Adam had flown in on powered down, the engines quieting. “You will be staying, then.” 

If he’d said no way, apparently he was going to be back on that jet, promptly. 

The jet powering down must have been a signal for the drivers. Moments later, the convoy of SUVs and Cadillac rolled across the tarmac, heading out of the airport. The sun was setting, setting off a firestorm of vibrant light across the desert sands, and slicing shards of mandarin and burgundy rays through the mirrored skyscrapers of Riyadh, rising before them as they drove onto the highway. 

“Ya Faisal, I trust you can find suitable guest accommodations for Mr. Cooper?” Abdul stared out the window, his jaw clenching hard. 

“Yes, Uncle.” 

Abdul’s eyes closed. His lips moved in silent prayer. 

Faisal’s hand snaked into Adam’s. He threaded their fingers together and squeezed. 

“You need to rest, ya Faisal. Take Mr. Cooper to his accommodations. Both of you, get your rest.” His gaze slanted to them, a quick glare that took in their grasped hands and Adam’s pale, clammy face, and then shifted away. “You will need your strength for this investigation.”


Faisal took him to one of the glittering skyscrapers near the Kingdom Tower in downtown Riyadh. They went in through a private entrance and took a private elevator straight to the penthouse.

The apartment took up the entire top two levels. Marble floors gleamed throughout, and glass stairs led from a palatial sitting room to an upstairs master suite larger than the home Adam had grown up in. And, on the roof, a private pool and shaded terrace sheltered a fire pit and a clutch of lounge chairs behind a one-way mirrored half wall, perfect to see out over the entire capital while maintaining the utmost privacy inside the terrace. 

“Did you rent this?” 

Faisal shook his head. “I bought it when I got back from university.” 

Oh. Adam stood in the center of the living room, mentally calculating the price of the penthouse. The number soared higher than he could imagine. His stomach clenched as Faisal pulled back curtains and turned on the massive flatscreen embedded in a mirror along one wall, flicking the channel to the international news and turning the volume down low. 

Adam stayed rooted to the spot, like he might dirty the place if he sat down, or ruin something with his touch. Finally, Faisal came to him, taking his hand and pulling him to the massive low couch that stretched along one entire wall opposite floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the city lights. They sank into it together, Faisal wrapping his arms around Adam and tugging him close. 

Adam pitched across Faisal’s lap, laying his head on Faisal’s thigh. His head pounded, the day a dizzying whiplash of extremes. He hadn’t expected to see Abdul again. Ever.

Inadequacy made his stomach sour. Made his blood curdle. “Are you sure I can help with this? Hunting terrorists is different than hunting a murderer.” 

“I know you can, habibi.” 

Adam sighed. 

“I know that together, we can do anything.” Faisal pressed a kiss to his temple and threaded his fingers through Adam’s hair. “I need you,” he breathed into Adam’s skin. “I can’t do this alone.” 

“You don’t need me. You’ve never needed me.” He held the back of Faisal’s neck, keeping him close. The thought that Faisal needed him was absurd. Faisal was the most capable person he knew, far, far more so than Adam. 

Faisal had it all backwards: Adam needed him, more than Adam wanted to admit, even to himself. 

He needed Faisal so much it scared him. There was something incomplete about his life if he tried to take Faisal out of it, at least in his mind. 

Faisal’s lips pressed to his hair again, and then Adam felt, more than heard, his whispers against his skin, the breath against his ear. “The minute I heard my first love story, I started looking for you, not knowing how blind that was.”

Rumi. Adam rolled in Faisal’s lap and looked into his lover’s eyes. “Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They’re in each other all along,” he said softly, finishing the poem. 

“That is why I need you.” Faisal took Adam’s hand and pressed it to his chest. He could feel Faisal’s heat, his sun-warmed skin, through his shirt. Felt the steady, hard beat of his heart. “You are a part of me I do not want to be without.”

Adam kissed him, slowly, letting their lips and tongues tangle together. Faisal squeezed the hand he held, and beneath his palm, he felt Faisal’s heartbeat speed up. 

Outside, Riyadh’s city lights glittered, an ocean of stars awash in the desert, the Kingdom Tower standing sentinel over it all. And as Faisal pressed Adam’s naked body to the couch, and as Faisal moved inside him, their bodies tangled together, Adam’s back arching, gasps falling from his lips as Faisal kissed his collarbone, Adam felt the burn of the Tower’s empty eye staring down on them, watching as Faisal made love to him and breathed another poem into Adam’s skin. 

You are the Essence of the Essence, the intoxication of Love. I long to sing your praises but stand mute with the agony of wishing in my heart…”