if anyone wonders how Jesus raised the dead, don’t try to explain the miracle. kiss me on the lips.
Was it his imagination, or was the adhan louder in Riyadh? As dawn split the sky, the wail of the muezzin rang through the capital, echoing off the glass walls of Faisal’s penthouse and the skyscrapers that surrounded their building. Groaning, Faisal buried his face in Adam’s shoulder as the muezzin repeated his call a second time. Adam stroked his side, kissed his forehead—
Faisal pulled away, kissing Adam’s fingers as he rolled out of bed. He tugged, ever so gently, a silent, tiny plea for Adam to follow him.
Adam pulled his hand back. He looked away.
Faisal acted as if nothing had happened, as if he hadn’t asked and Adam hadn’t rebuffed him. He padded naked into the massive ensuite attached to his bedroom, stepping into the glass-walled shower large enough for a football team to share. He rinsed quickly, his lips moving in silent prayer, and then toweled off and pulled a snow-white thobe from his closet and pulled it over his head. As the adhan finished, Faisal stood at the foot of a midnight prayer rug in the corner of the bedroom, facing west, and raised his hands next to his head. “Allahu akbar.”
Adam rolled over and closed his eyes.
Something sour settled in his stomach. This was always going to be between them. Faisal was Muslim, devoutly Muslim. In the years they’d been together, he’d never missed a morning prayer. The sun would sooner set in the east than Faisal would cease believing.
I want to share Islam with the man I love.
The moment he let the thought unspool in his mind, a thousand memories fought against him. What have all those years in Iraq taught you? You’ve seen the violence! The harsh cruelty. The inequality. What are you thinking? More importantly, what was Faisal thinking? If he wasn’t born into the culture, would he—
Faisal’s soft voice rolled over Adam like a lapping wave. “Allah, bless my love, and shelter him in your arms. Bring peace to his heart and his mind and fill his soul with the certainty of love.”
Damn it. His teeth clenched. How could Faisal—eternally patient, always kind Faisal—be a part of the same religion as the terrorists ripping Iraq apart?
That was ridiculous. Lumping Faisal with those monsters was like equating Mother Theresa and the Westboro Baptist Church. He wanted to puke, his stomach rebelling against him, furious that he’d even had the thought. Faisal is obviously nothing like that. And, he trusted Faisal, didn’t he? Of course he did, more than he trusted himself.
But when he looked at the world, he didn’t see many Faisals in it. And maybe that was one of the reasons he loved him so much—Faisal was everything right in a world that seemed so unbearably wrong sometimes. If the world was full of a faith as beautiful as Faisal’s, he’d have no problem throwing himself into believing whole-heartedly something so beautiful and pure.
That wasn’t the world he found though.
The bed dipped behind him as Faisal’s hands slipped up his back. Warmth pressed into him, from hip to shoulder, and Faisal dropped a long kiss on the back of his neck. “Sabah al-khair,” he breathed into Adam’s hair. Good morning.
The dark thoughts fled. Adam rolled into Faisal’s arms, bringing their hips together. His legs tangled with Faisal’s and he threaded their fingers. Against his thigh, Faisal hardened, and he rocked gently against Adam’s leg.
Adam smiled. “You’re having a good morning.”
“It’s heading in the right direction.” Faisal winked.
“Every morning I wake next to you is a good morning.” Faisal leaned in and kissed his throat, sucking at the skin over his collarbone. “You are back in my arms.”
Adam shivered. Faisal rolled his hips against Adam’s thigh again as he softly bit down on Adam’s pec. Gasping, Adam arched into his hold, and Faisal flipped Adam onto his back, covering him as he worked his hips between Adam’s legs. Adam threw his head back, his cock hard against Faisal’s, pressed between their taut bellies.
Faisal slowly drew Adam’s hands over his head, holding them against the pillow as he kissed Adam’s chest, slowly tracing patterns across his pecs with his tongue before sucking Adam’s nipple. Shuddering, Adam grasped Faisal’s hips with his thighs and locked his ankles behind Faisal’s back. His heels pressed into Faisal’s round, tight ass, trying to pull him closer. “Please,” he begged. “Make love to me.”
Faisal hated it when he asked to be fucked. “What we do is not so crass,” he’d said once. “There is too much love inside me for you, to reduce our lovemaking to such a word.” Not that it was always tender and slow and careful. There were more than a few nights where Faisal had remade Adam’s world, making him come so hard he nearly blacked out.
Judging by the light in Faisal’s eyes, Adam was in for another serious pounding. He bucked his hips into Faisal’s, rubbing their cocks together.
In a flash, Faisal was on him again, kissing him hard and pushing him into the mattress, leaning his weight on Adam’s hands and into his hips. His tongue tangled with Adam’s, until his teeth nipped at his bottom lip before he pulled back and kissed Adam’s throat again.
“You’re the only man I’ve made love to in Saudi,” he breathed.
They hadn’t ever talked about past lovers, or when and where and how they’d each discovered their love of dick. What had it been like being gay in the Kingdom, growing up under Abdul’s falcon gaze? Had he lost his virginity in a palace or a dorm room?
Adam had lost his in the backseat of a Toyota Camry, parked behind the high school football field the summer after graduation.
All his lovers, every one, paled next to Faisal. He couldn’t even remember them, not their faces or their dicks, or what they’d done or how they’d made Adam come. Faisal had taken all of his past and remade it, rewritten Adam’s life until he only craved Faisal’s touch, only remembered the feel of his love.
“Love me again,” Adam pleaded, whispering. “Faisal—”
Shifting, Faisal pushed, and Adam arched, his hips and jaw falling open as his breath stuttered. He was still ready, mostly, from the night before, still slick and wet with lube and Faisal’s own cum. Faisal was gentle with him until he was all the way in. He waited, peppering Adam’s chin with kisses as he held still, trembling above Adam while Adam panted.
Finally, Adam pushed back against Faisal, rocking into him and dragging Faisal closer with his ankles. Impossibly, Faisal went deeper, touching as far into Adam as anyone ever had. His breath hitched, and Faisal caught his gasp in a kiss.
Adam squeezed Faisal’s hands. “Make me feel you.”
Faisal’s eyes flashed. He drove into Adam, slowly, but harder than the last thrust.
“Make me feel you,” Adam breathed. “All day. I want to walk in Riyadh and know you’ve made love to me. Know that you’ve taken me—”
Another kiss, this one more frenzied, and Faisal’s thrusts came faster, harder, until Adam broke the kiss and threw his head back, mouth open, eyes screwed shut. Faisal kissed his jaw, nibbled his way up to Adam’s ear. “‘When lovers moan’,” he recited, his voice nothing more than a growl. “‘They are telling our story.’”
Adam arched into him, feeling Faisal to the center of his being. The thrust, the pull, the white-hot brand inside of him. Faisal’s mark, indelible on his body, on his soul. Grunting, he squeezed Faisal’s hands so hard his bones hurt, clenched his thighs around Faisal’s hips until they were moving as one. Faisal hammered him into the mattress as he rode Faisal’s thrusts, each impact driving Faisal deeper and deeper into him. He would feel this for days.
“You are my house of love with no limits,” Faisal whispered, raw, like he was confessing. “Adam—”
Roaring, Adam came like a lightning strike, this orgasm slamming into him and through him, shaking him apart as Faisal speared him. He bucked, clinging to Faisal, shuddering around him, arms and legs and body trembling. Faisal shouted, buried his face in Adam’s neck, and pounded Adam as Adam felt his heat pour into his body, overflow from within him.
Faisal collapsed, breathing hard, clinging to Adam as he stayed buried inside. Adam kept his ankles locked around Faisal, not letting him go. Faisal’s breath, his hard panting, drowned out the sound of the air conditioner, until it seemed there was nothing else in the world except Faisal and the bed they were in.
A delicate kiss landed on Adam’s cheek. “Ana bahibak, habibi.”
I could live like this forever.
Sorrow hit him like a train. How long was forever in a doomed love affair? What would tear them apart first? Faisal’s family obligations or Adam’s lack of faith? I want to share Islam with the man I love. Then why had Faisal fallen for Adam, and why did he keep loving Adam so completely, so perfectly? Why hadn’t he cut Adam loose so long ago?
How much did Faisal love him, to stay with Adam, even when their worlds were so far removed?
Did Adam love Faisal that much?
Of course he did. He loved Faisal more than oxygen, more than the sun loved the desert.
Then surely, he loved Faisal enough to consider something so important to him.
He shifted, and Faisal pulled back, finally separating from Adam with a sigh. Adam hissed, rolling to his side as Faisal collapsed beside him and drew him into his arms. Oh yes, he would feel Faisal all day long.
Outside, the sun had crept above the horizon, shimmering over the desert and turning the sand to liquid gold. Riyadh’s skyscrapers were beams of white light, glittering so brilliantly they burned Adam’s eyes. He squinted, tried to look away, but the outside world was blinding. Even the Kingdom Tower was nothing but a sheer haze in the light.
Soft snoring rose from Faisal. Adam smiled and cupped Faisal’s face, brushed his thumb over Faisal’s arching cheekbone. You have completely captured me. Is there anything I wouldn’t do for you?
Darkness clouded his joy again, rushing in from all sides. You’ll lie for him. You’ll hide what you’re doing for him. From everyone.
From your own government.
Know what that makes you?
No. He was helping catch a killer. That was a good thing, a noble, just cause. Even if it came out one day, surely the US government would understand the position he was in: help the greater good, even if you have to keep a secret. That was worthwhile, right?
Or was he just trying to make the ends justify the means?
Stopping a killer was the right choice. If he could help Faisal—help Saudi—in any way, then that was doing good in the world. How he could help Faisal, he didn’t know. But Faisal believed he could, and, these days, Faisal was the one who believed in him more than he himself did.
He’d trust Faisal in this, like he did for everything.
When he and Faisal woke for the second time that morning, Faisal disappeared while Adam showered and reappeared with nearly a dozen garment bags in his arms. He cleared a section of his closet and hung them up, then came back with four shoe boxes as Adam was drying his hair.
“What’s all this?”
“I ordered you clothes last night.” Faisal smoothed the front of a starched dress shirt, a crisp white so bright it made Adam squint. “They brought them up overnight.”
“They? Someone just shopped for you in the middle of the night?”
“Well, for you.” Faisal smiled. “I texted Abdul’s assistant while we drove here. I gave him your sizes and told him what you needed.”
And then Adam spotted the labels—Tom Ford, Brioni, Brunello Cucinelli, Ermenegildo Zegna. The cheapest suit hanging there cost more than Adam earned in a month. “Are you insane?”
“I don’t need clothes like that! That’s—” he added it up quickly“—that’s more than I make in a year hanging there! I can’t afford that!”
“They are a gift, habibi.”
“I can’t accept that. It’s too much.”
Faisal blinked. He seemed stunned, for a moment, almost speechless. Had Adam ever seen him at a loss for words before? “It’s not too much for me. It’s nothing compared to how I care for you. Please, habibi, let me give this to you?”
“Jesus, Faisal, do you have any idea how much all that costs?”
“No,” Faisal said. “All I knew was that you needed clothes and I could give them to you. And I want to give them to you.” Faisal sighed when Adam stayed silent. “What if I lend them to you? You may use them whenever you want? Would that be acceptable?”
He hadn’t wanted to love the suit, but when Faisal helped him into the serge suit jacket, his eyes had almost rolled back in bliss. It was a far cry from his stretched uniform, and even farther from his contractor getup. The pants hugged his thighs and his slim hips, and the jacket made his waist look trim and tight, his shoulders straight and square. In the mirror, he had clean lines and sharp angles, and he almost didn’t recognize himself.
Faisal wrapped his arms around his waist and rested his chin on Adam’s shoulder. “I should have had you try this on earlier so I could take it off you again.”
He tipped his head back and rubbed his cheek against Faisal’s. “You shouldn’t have done this. But thank you.”
“You look as gorgeous as I thought you would.” Faisal kissed his cheek, his temple, and then stepped back. He was dressed in his own suit, a smoke-gray Tom Ford with a black button-down. He held onto Adam’s hand. “Are you ready?”
“No. I still don’t know how I can help you.”
“You will, habibi. I know you will.” Faisal kissed his fingers.
They were only eight kilometers from the Ministry of Interior, but it still took a half hour to drive down King Fahd road and navigate their way through the ministry’s security. Guards snapped to attention as Faisal pulled up in his Mercedes—one of four cars in the garage, along with his Lamborghini—rolling down the window to say salamu alaykum. The guards almost fell over themselves in a rush to open the gates, saluting as they replied, “Wa Alaikum Salaam, Your Highness.”
The Ministry of Interior headquarters looked like a flying saucer had landed in the middle of Riyadh and perched itself on a dune, overlooking the city. It was quintessentially Saudi—hyper futuristic and old world all at once. It was also heinously ugly.
A reception of guards—all saluting at attention—and a gaggle of officials waited at the end of the long drive and the glass-walled front entrance. Faisal gave his keys to a valet, who stayed bowed the whole time, and strode breezily to the assembled group, greeting them with handshakes and salaam. They all bowed their heads and replied, “Wa Alaikum Salaam, Your Highness.”
Adam hovered behind Faisal, jaw clenched, spine rigid and tight enough to snap.
“You must stop waiting for me each morning,” Faisal said, shaking his finger at the men with a smile. He stopped at the oldest, a short man with graying hair under his red-checked, starched keffiyeh. He had a round belly, and his white thobe clung to his waist. He had the air of a well-loved grandfather, with a lined face and a silvery mustache. “Please, Abu. I insist.”
“But, His Highness, Amir Abdul, has insisted—”
“Leave my uncle to me.” Faisal smiled, squeezing his shoulder. “Now, may I introduce you to my closest friend, Your Excellency? This is Adam Cooper.” Turning, he beamed at Adam and beckoned him to join them. “Adam, this is Abu Nayef, Deputy Minister of Interior and a family friend.”
Abu Nayef gripped Adam’s hand in both of his own, shaking firmly as he peered into Adam’s eyes. He switched to English effortlessly. “Welcome to the Kingdom, sir. A friend of Prince Faisal’s is most welcome.”
In Arabic, he said to Faisal, “I thought we were not requesting foreign assistance in this matter.”
“Adam is here as a personal favor to me. He is not representing any government or agency, and his presence here is to be kept discrete.” Faisal answered in Arabic, and then smiled. “And my friend is fluent in our language. Isn’t that right, ya Adam?”
“Na’am,” Adam said.
“Please, you will let me know if there is anything you need while you are with us, Mr. Cooper.” Abu Nayef shook his hand again, and then beckoned Faisal into the building. “Your Highness, we are gathering the information you have requested.”
Faisal fell into step beside Abu Nayef, drawing Adam to his side. “Excellent, thank you. And Detective Al-Fasih?”
“Waiting in the command center.”
“Alhamdullialh,” Faisal said. They entered the Ministry, the crisp coolness of the air conditioning breaking over them. A courtyard filled the center of the building, a vaulted breezway open to the floors above. Marble floors squeaked underfoot, and crowds of thobe-wearing Saudi men moved through the building. Adam spotted a wisp of black, there and gone, shadows in a sea of white.
“Abu, promise me,” Faisal said, turning to Abu Nayef as they neared the elevator bank. “You will not put on this morning’s display again. Not tomorrow, not the next day, and not the day after. Not again, so long as I am here.”
“Promise me, Abu Nayef.”
Abu Nayef sighed. “If Amir Abdul finds out…”
“I will tell you a secret: he will not care.” Faisal smiled as the elevator doors opened. “Ceremony is not as important to my uncle as it is to everyone else. Or to me.” Adam followed him into the elevator, and Faisal pushed the twelfth floor button. Abu Nayaf stayed in the foyer with his attendants.
“I know Amir Abdul well,” Abu Nayaf said as the doors began to close. “He feels quite differently about you and the respects you are owed, Your Highness.” The doors closed before Faisal could respond.
Sighing, Faisal leaned back, tipping his head to the elevator wall, mirrored from floor to ceiling.
“Your Highness,” Adam said softly. He arched his eyebrows.
“Please, not you too.”
With a chime, the elevator came to a stop and opened on the twelfth floor, depositing them on a long, marbled hallway. A single door broke the clean lines at the end of the hall. Faisal led the way, holding the door open for Adam.
Inside, a sweeping conference room filled the entire length of the hall. Windows overlooked Riyadh along one whole side. A long conference table sat near them, and beyond, tables were pushed together to make desks and workspaces. Laptops perched on several surfaces, their cords snaking to the ground and across the carpet. Rolling whiteboards lined the opposite wall, covered with autopsy photos and documents typed in Arabic. Adam had a rush of almost deja vu, all the years of crime scene television he’d watched colliding with the present, but Saudi-style.
“Welcome to the command center,” Faisal said.
“There’s no one here.” He’d expected a case as serious as Abdul and Faisal had made it seem would be buzzing with activity, round-the-clock detectives and investigators tracking down every lead, phones ringing off the hook. This place seemed abandoned, as if a layer of dust were about to descend.
“This investigation is classified. The team working it is small: myself, Abu Nayef, Detective Al-Fasih, and now you.” He frowned. “Where is Detective Al-Fasih?” He called out across the room. “Salaam!”
A dark shape popped around the side of a white board half-way down the long room: a head wreathed in black and a bronzed face, wide, white eyes ringed in black liner. “Your Highness!” a voice cried, surprised.
A very feminine voice.
“Good Morning, Detective.” Faisal waved as Detective Al-Fasih hurried from behind the white board, heading for them with her eyes lowered. She wore a long black abaya and had a hijab wrapped around her hair and face and pinned in place, framing her face in a sea of black. From under the hem of her abaya, Adam spotted delicate sandals and a shock of vibrant red toenail polish as she walked.
She stopped in front of them, still with her eyes downcast. “I’m sorry, Your Highness, I didn’t hear you come in. I was reviewing the forensic reports.”
“That is no problem at all.” Faisal smiled, ducking to catch her gaze. She started, and then lifted her chin, staring at Faisal. “I am pleased you are dedicated.”
Her eyes darted to Adam, and then back to Faisal.
“Detective Amina Al-Fasih, please meet Adam Cooper, my closest friend. Detective Al-Fasih is the one I told you about last night, who put the pieces together and identified the problem we are facing. She is the smartest of her peers in Riyadh. We are lucky to be working with her.”
Amina flushed. “Your Highness—”
“I’ve read your file, Detective. You have a very impressive career. I asked for you personally for this case, to work with me and Adam, who will be joining us. We will need your expertise.”
Amina pressed her lips together. Her lipstick smudged, slightly, and the corners of her eyes tightened. It was hard for Adam to gauge her age. She seemed timeless, like a photograph. There was an air to her that, despite her shock at being caught off-guard, seemed world-wise. Smarter, definitely, than Adam. More experienced. He smiled, trying to be deferential. “I… didn’t know there were female detectives in Saudi,” he said, trying to fill the silence.
“I was one of the first applicants when the police opened to women,” Amina said. “I was in the first graduating class of women from the police academy. I worked my way up from thefts to domestic disputes, and then into homicide. My case clearance rate is over eighty-five percent.” She looked Adam dead in the eyes.
Definitely smarter than him.
“The Kingdom realized that half of our population was not being served by our justice system,” Faisal said. “Half of the domestic violence calls were issues between wives, or were wives beating their housemaids. There were an uncomfortably high number of women who were murdered, too, and the Saudi police—all men, then—were not very good at investigating crimes involving women. Blind men in the dark, groping at things unseen. It was decreed that the police would open to women, and women would have equal careers to men. Cases would not be divided, either. Men and women would work together to learn from each other.” Faisal nodded to Amina. “Detective Al-Fasih is one of the highest rated detectives in the country.” He didn’t differentiate between male and female detectives.
“That’s pretty progressive for Saudi.” Adam still had in his mind a vision of the Saudi woman locked in her home, hidden behind high walls and a face-covering niqab. He’d had no idea women were working, especially not in the police.
“My uncle decreed it,” Faisal said. “When he was the Minister of Interior before me.”
Adam’s jaw dropped. Crotchety Uncle Abdul, a force of progressivism in Saudi Arabia?
“Detective, will you brief Adam on the investigation so far?” Faisal gestured to the conference table. “I will make tea.”
Amina’s mouth opened and closed like a guppy, watching as Faisal turned away and grabbed the kettle from the sideboard before walking out of the room. She straightened, gathered herself, and then pulled out a leather chair and delicately sat at the head of the conference table. She folded her hands on the surface, and Adam caught the glint of a gold band and a diamond the size of a moon rock on her ring finger. “You’re married?”
So much for conversation. Amina blinked at him. He felt like a painting in a museum, on display and under inspection. Amina could probably see right through him. Right through them.
Faisal, what are you thinking, putting us under the gaze of one of the best detectives in Saudi?
“You are a friend of Amir Faisal?”
Adam nodded. He probably looked like a bobblehead.
“You are a detective? From America?”
“No, definitely not. I’m—” He swallowed. “A reporter.”
Amina scowled. “We’re not publicizing this case. It is a matter of national security.”
“I’m not here as a reporter. I’m here to help.” Adam shrugged. “However I can. I’m honestly not sure what I can do, but… I’m here to help,” he said again, lamely.
She studied him, eyes narrowed, judging him. Finally she nodded, as if coming to a decision for herself. “You seem like an honorable man, so far. You are not behaving indiscreetly. Amir Faisal trusts you.”
That burned, a little too close for comfort. He shifted, swallowed hard. “I try.”
“In shaa Allah, we all try to honor Allah.” Finally, Amina smiled, just faintly.
The door opened and Faisal returned, carrying a tray of glass teacups and the kettle filled with boiling water. Tea bags and sugar sat in little bowls, and Faisal delivered both Amina and Adam steeping cups before sitting with his own glass.
“Shukran,” Amina said. There was a softening to her, even as her eyes darted between Adam and Faisal, sitting side by side.
“Please,” Faisal said. “When you are ready.”
“Of the fourteen bodies, we have forensics on three,” she said. “Two women and one man, all recovered from near Riyadh. The rest of the cases were closed without investigation and without an autopsy. Five of the women remain unidentified. Three of the men were too badly decomposed for identification and remain unidentified as well.” Amina rose and pulled a stack of folders from one of the worktables, returning and laying them side-by-side. “The woman found four days ago is Ruqqaya Farooq. She has an arrest record. She was arrested for theft in the Gold Souk and served one year in prison some years ago. Her address is listed as Suwaidi, but there are no details.” Amina held Faisal’s stare for a long moment.
“Suwaidi?” Adam asked.
“One of Riyadh’s poorest neighborhoods,” Faisal said softly. “Mostly a slum. It is a… difficult area. Twenty years ago, it was a no-go for the city’s police and military.”
“It’s only a little better now,” Amina said. “The second woman is Hawa Barakat. There is an entry visa in her name from seven years ago, and then nothing.”
“Where is she from?” Faisal asked.
“The male is Hayatullah Murad. His body was found a year ago, and the medical examiner says he died within one month of when his body was discovered. I have put in a request for his records from the ministry, but they haven’t arrived yet.”
“I will inquire,” Faisal said.
“Alhamdulillah.” Amina nodded. “Hayatullah’s autopsy does state his death was ‘not natural’, but stops short of saying it was a homicide.” She slid a photo of Hayatullah down the table toward them. Adam remembered it from the packet Abdul had given him. A man frozen in shock, his throat ripped open.
“That doesn’t look like a clean cut.” Adam spun the photo to him. “It looks like a serrated blade made this wound. The edges are ragged, like the skin was ripped. Not sliced.”
“It’s extremely violent,” Amina said. “And unusual. Swords and daggers in Saudi are smooth, not serrated. Unless they are kitchen knives. But, the viciousness of the attack suggests the killer is male. It takes significant strength to inflict this kind of violence. See how the throat is cut clean through? Almost to the bone?”
Adam nodded. He could see, all right.
“Most Saudi men are not familiar with their kitchen knives,” Amina said. Faisal laughed, softly.
“Any defensive wounds, or DNA recovered from the body?” Adam asked.
Amina arched her eyebrow. “A good question, for a man who is not a detective. There were bruises on his upper arms, as if he’d been grabbed from behind.” She held out her hands, grabbing the air in front of her, miming the attack. “There is also a notation on the autopsy record that there was ‘significant genital trauma,’ but there are no further details.”
Faisal and Adam shared a look. “What about Ruqqaya and Hawa?” Faisal asked.
Amina sighed. “There are similar bruises on both Ruqqaya and Hawa’s arms, according to the autopsy records. There is also evidence of sexual assault, though no foreign DNA was found in either woman. Both women were severely battered, though. The forensic examiner notes that it is difficult to tell which injuries are due to the murder and which came in the days or weeks beforehand.”
“Are you saying they were tortured?” Adam couldn’t keep the disgust out of his voice.
“No. There’s no evidence of that. No evidence of long-term restraints, for instance,” Amina said. “They were not held captive. They were most likely killed shortly after they were abducted, and dumped quickly. Lividity is consistent with the photographs of where the bodies were found. But both women led hard lives before their deaths. They were probably homeless, living on the streets, and subject to the harshness that comes with that.”
Faisal’s frown deepened. “What about the other women? Do the forensics indicate how they lived? Or the men?”
Amina shook her head. “All we have to work with right now are Ruqqaya, Hawa, and Hayatullah, whenever we get his file.”
“What do you suggest, Detective?” Faisal leaned forward, his entire focus on Amina. Under the table, his foot bounced, a nervous jangle Adam had never seen before.
“We must know more about the killer’s victims before we can begin to understand him or his crimes. Who are these people he chooses to kill? If the victims were only women, I would ask if these were honor killings, or a mutaween who is out of control. But there are male victims, too.”
“Men can fall under the suspicion of the mutaween, too,” Faisal said carefully. “Religious extremists across the Middle East have murdered both men and women for their slights against Islam, real or imagined. Or manufactured.”
Amina nodded, assenting. “This is true. It would be… unusual in Saudi. We have not seen that kind of atrocity in the Kingdom before.”
“First time for everything.” Adam shrugged.
Amina continued, as if he hadn’t spoken. “We must find out where our killer is meeting his victims? Are they all from Riyadh? The bodies have been found around the country. Is he traveling to kill?”
“There have been several long haul truckers who were convicted of multiple murders across the United States. Could the killer be someone like that here?” Adam asked.
“That is possible,” Amina said. “Again, we must know more about the victims. What were their lives like? Who did they know? We are operating on so little information right now.”
“Did the killer target these people? Or were they victims of opportunity?” Adam was trying to contribute, he really was.
Amina looked, for a moment, impressed with him. “I would lean toward the victims being targets of opportunity, based on Ruqqaya and Hawa’s lifestyle. However, without knowing more about Hayatullah, I cannot say. And, of course, we don’t know anything about the other victims yet.”
“We’ll need to know more about them soon, but let’s start with what we know. Do you have Ruqqaya and Hawa’s photographs?” Faisal asked
“Then, shall we canvas the slums to see if there are people who knew them?”
Amina looked aghast. “Your Highness, I will be happy to do this for you.”
“Nonsense. We can go together.”
“If you’re concerned about my virtue, Your Highness, or my safety, I can assure you, I have swept the slums before. For questioning and for arrests.”
“I believe you are more than capable of taking care of yourself, Detective—”
“Then please, Your Highness—”
“Are you concerned about my virtue?” Faisal interrupted.
Amina took her time answering. “A member of the royal family does not need to risk themselves in Suwaidi,” she said.
“Even though I am an al-Saud, and even though my uncle is the governor of Riyadh—”
“Your uncle is the Crown Prince,” Amina said, correcting him. “Next in line for the throne.”
“—He is my uncle,” Faisal finished. “I am not his son. I remain a distant relation in the royal family. I am nowhere close to the throne. I have no intention of campaigning to move up in the family, either. Please, I ask you: you may dispense with the formalities you would bestow on my uncle. They are not necessary with me, and I don’t wish to obsess over them.”
Amina looked as if Faisal had asked her to shovel garbage and serve it to him for dinner. She arched her eyebrows again, but stayed silent.
“Please,” Faisal said again. “You may call me Faisal.”
Silence. “Then you may call me Amina.” She finally said. She turned and strode back to one of the workstations, pulling a purse from underneath. “We will need to pray before we go, or else we will be praying on the side of the road. I will take you to the mosque.”
“Alhamdulillah.” Faisal rose, smiling. He turned questioning eyes to Adam.
“I’ll wait in the car,” Adam said softly.
Royal decree stated that a distance of no more than 800 meters may pass within urbanized Saudi Arabia without a mosque. There were more mosques than Dunkin Donuts in Boston, or bodegas in New York. Adam waited in Amina’s police car in the backseat as Faisal and Amina prayed in the mosque nearest to the Ministry.
Faisal had turned to him as he left, saying, “I will be back quickly, habibi.”
Which just made Adam feel worse, because Faisal loved his daily prayers, and the ritual meant the world to him. He would often come out of his prayers rejuvenated, refreshed, as if he’d had a weight lifted from him. Who was Adam to rush him through? “Take your time,” he’d said. “I’m fine.”
And he was, if he ignored the thousand pairs of eyeballs staring into the back of the police car as they passed him by. Why was a white man in the back of a Riyadh police cruiser with the doors locked? His skin crawled, prickling under the weight of the stares.
Amina returned before Faisal, sliding into the drivers seat and buckling her seat belt. She eyed Adam in the rearview mirror. “How do you know Amir Faisal?”
“We work together overseas.”
“As a reporter.” Amina stared.
“I don’t recall many news articles about Amir Faisal. If any. Ever.”
“He likes his privacy.”
“A very Saudi trait.” Amina gave him the ghost of a sly smile, the corners of her mouth barely turning up.
“I thought women weren’t allowed to drive in Saudi,” Adam blurted out, trying to change the subject.
Though, Amina nearly hadn’t driven. In fact, Adam had almost driven, just to break the stalemate between Amina and Faisal at the Ministry. Stubbornness must be a Saudi trait, right up there next to unending politeness. Combine the two, and the world could stop. Amina had insisted that Faisal be allowed to drive, while he had equally insisted that it was Amina’s police vehicle and he would not take it away from her. They had passed the keys back and forth in front of the car as Adam had slowly wilted in the backseat. He could have taken a nap.
“Another of the Crown Prince’s reforms. Did you know women make up more than half of the university graduates in Saudi? And that there are more women who hold graduate degrees than men? The trouble is, there was nowhere to go once these women leave university. But when the oil markets changed, Amir Abdul realized the country needed to change, too, and fast. Where could he find educated workers to build a new economy? Right here, in Saudi.” Amina smiled. “But for women to go to work, we needed to be able to drive ourselves. Almost overnight, we were told to get out of the house, get into our cars, and get jobs.” She laughed. “Still… it takes a strong man in Saudi to sit in the passenger seat while a woman drives him. There have been vigilantes who have forced cars off the road and beaten both the woman driving and her male passengers. Many times, it is a father teaching his daughter how to drive to university.”
Adam didn’t know what to say. He held Amina’s stare, frozen.
The passenger door opened, bringing the furnace heat of Riyadh into the car in a rush. Even in winter, it was near broiling in the desert. Faisal slid in and slammed the door. He smiled at Adam in the rearview mirror.
There it was, the rejuvenation that came every time Faisal prayed. Amina hadn’t changed much. She was still all business, perfunctory and utterly capable, her presence making Adam feel as gangly and awkward as a teenager. But Faisal seemed to be reborn five times a day, his soul coming alive each and every time.
“Alhamdullilah,” Faisal said. “Now, we are off.”
Amina shifted into drive and pulled away from the curb.
“Suwaidi has the worst slum in Riyadh,” Amina said, parking her police cruiser on a narrow street in front of a small market shop. Crates of limp vegetables sat under an umbrella and a broken fan. One of the fluorescent lights flickered inside. “Most of the people who live here are incredibly distrustful of the police. Most people here have criminal records, too, though many of the crimes they were charged with are crimes of poverty: prostitution, petty theft, drug possession, public nuisance. And, more than half of Riyadh’s missing persons cases and murder cases tie somehow to Suwaidi.”
“Maybe our killer found his victims here.” Adam leaned forward, his head between the two front seats. “Targets of opportunity?”
“Especially if he was looking for drugs or sex, it would be very easy in Suwaidi. And if he was a long haul trucker, as you suggested, he could take the bodies out of Riyadh and drop them around the country.” Amina pointed down the busier thoroughfare at the end of the narrow side street. “There is a distribution hub for one of the Kingdom’s largest freight companies only eight kilometers away, near the airport.”
“Let’s get started,” Faisal said. “But first—” He pointed to the shop. He had asked Amina to find a local market close to the slum.
Amina and Adam followed Faisal into the dim shop, hanging back as Faisal struck up a conversation with the owner. At first, the owner seemed almost bored with Faisal, lazily listening to his greeting with a roll of his head as he kept one eye on the football game playing on an ancient, static-filled television mounted high in the corner over the door. But, a minute later, he was clapping and shouting into the back alley, rousing three young boys—his sons, it looked like—to work.
The boys gathered two crates of bottled water and every piece of fresh fruit in the store, and then brought the crates to Faisal. Smiling, Faisal passed over a stack of riyals to their father. It was obviously too much, as he tried to give half back, but Faisal refused to take the change. He placed his hand over his heart and bowed to the owner, then grabbed one of the crates and passed it to Adam before picking up the second.
They filed out to the sound of the owner calling a hundred blessings down on them and praising Allah for their visit.
“Now,” Faisal said on the sidewalk, after sliding on his sunglasses, “to Suwaidi.”
Amina stared at him from behind her own shades, lips curled up in a tiny, almost bemused smile. “Follow me.”
Once, men following a woman in Saudi would have been unthinkable. Not long ago, it had been the law that women were to follow behind men everywhere in public. Part overbearing patriarchy, part practicality—while wearing a full niqab, women could barely see where they were going, and if they followed in the footsteps of their male escorts, they stood less of a chance of blundering off the sidewalk and into traffic. But, like the other reforms, as the niqabs came off, a tumult of change followed as a consequence. Now, Amina walked with her head held high, and only two out of all the men they passed gave them a second glance.
By the time they reached the edge of the Suwaidi slum, beginning beneath the overpass and stretching further than Adam could see, he had almost soaked through his suit with sweat. Rivers of perspiration ran from his forehead and dripped into his eyes, making them sting. He was breathing hard, as if he’d run a marathon instead of walking a few blocks in the punishing heat. Faisal passed him a bottle of water as they stopped in the shade, and he downed it in one go.
The Suwaidi slum teemed before them, a mass of despair and degradation. The smell slammed into Adam as he sucked down the hot air, a putrid mess of squalor and garbage and raw sewage steaming in the heat mixed with thousands of unwashed bodies. Lean-tos and shabby shelters were built out of cardboard and frayed plastic, whipping on the artificial wind rolling off the overpass overhead. Bodies lay in the scattered fragments of shade, seemingly half-dead in the heat. Most were dressed in rags, clothes that had once been new now torn and dirtied beyond salvation.
Most of the people Adam saw were women. Some were Saudi, but many others were obviously foreigners. Pakistanis and Indians, Bengalis and Filipinos. Africans and Syrians and Iraqis. A mishmash of languages hit him, soft croaks and broken gasps rising from deadened faces with deep-set yellowed eyes.
“Many of them are runaways,” Amina said. “Housemaids who ran from their employer, for one reason or another. They cannot leave the country without a note from their employer or sponsor. Living here was the better choice than remaining where they were.”
“That’s horrifying,” Adam said.
“This is an improvement from what it used to be.” Amina peered at him from behind her sunglasses. “Before there were women in the police, most of the domestic violence that went on behind closed doors was never reported or investigated. Now, we had over a thousand reports of domestic violence last year in Riyadh alone. Nearly all of them were charged and brought to trial.”
“What is the punishment for domestic violence?”
“It is swift,” Amina said. “And repeat violations are not tolerated.”
“Still…” Adam nodded to the slum, and to the destitution.
“Poverty and despair have many causes. Unfortunately, they can’t be erased overnight,” Faisal said. “The city’s mosques all come to give sadaqaat daily.”
“Charity and almsgiving,” Amina said when Adam frowned. “If they did not, no one here could survive.”
“Do you have the photos?” Faisal asked. Amina pulled three copies of Ruqqaya and Hawa’s photos from her purse and gave a copy each to Faisal and Adam. Faisal tucked the photos in his suit jacket and hefted the crate in his arms again. “We will meet back here in two hours. Adam, stay with Amina?”
“Wait, where are you going?”
But Faisal was already setting off, striding into the slum and smiling at the first dilapidated cardboard shack he came to. He dropped to his knees and pulled out a bottle of water and an apple and passed them to a rail-thin African woman who pulled herself up slowly. Adam started after him.
Amina grabbed his elbow, stopping him. She dropped her hand a moment later. “Don’t,” she said. “He should do this alone.”
“The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, ‘Allah loves the God-fearing rich man who gives freely in charity, but remains obscure and uncelebrated.’” She smiled. “‘If you disclose your sadaqaat, it is well, but if you conceal your charity and give silently to the poor, that is better for you.’”
“Charity is not for showing off in Islam. It is private, between the giver’s soul and the receiver’s, and Allah. He is not doing this to show off to you, or to me.”
Their conversation that morning roared back to Adam, still smarting him when he thought about it. He watched Faisal, and as Faisal passed another bottle of water and a bag of dates to a toothless old Syrian woman, he saw the edges of folded riyals tucked beneath the water as it slid into the old woman’s hands. She smiled at Faisal and reached out to touch his cheek. He smiled back.
“Let him give as his soul requires. We have our work to do as well.” Amina nodded to the crate at Adam’s feet. “And we have our own alms to give. Come.”
Adam followed her into the slum, staying at her heels as she moved from lean-to to lean-to, whispering salaam and passing out water. She held Ruqqaya and Hawa’s photos in her free hand, holding them up and asking each person they spoke to if they knew either woman. Silent shakes of the head or a wave of a hand met them every time.
Until they made their way deep into an overlapping web of frayed plastic and tarps, and found a woman lying on her side on a small mountain of water-warped cardboard. She was no older than thirty, but her eyes looked at least two decades older, already world-weary and wary. A threadbare abaya covered her torn clothing, and she pulled it closed when they came near. She eyed them as they approached, but sat up when Amina squatted and held out a bottle of water. “I know you,” she said. Her voice was raspy, as if she’d already used it up in her short life. “You’re with the police. I’ve seen you here on raids before.”
“No raid today, in shaa Allah,” Amina said with a smile. “I am looking for two women.” She held up Ruqqaya and Hawa’s photos.
The woman barely glanced at the photos before staring hard at Amina.
“You know them,” Amina said. It wasn’t a question.
Her breath sped up. Her eyes darted to Hawa’s photo again, then back to Amina. “She get herself into trouble again?”
Amina hesitated. “In a way,” she said carefully. The young woman looked down into her lap. “I’m sorry,” Amina said. “Verily to Allah we belong, and verily to him we return.”
“Should have known,” the woman said. “Her being gone for so long.”
“Hawa lived here? What about Ruqqaya?”
Snorting, the woman tossed her head. “That bitch.” She almost snarled at Ruqqaya’s photo. “Trying to get back into the same shit that got her here in the first place. At least Hawa knew enough to get out!”
“What was she involved in? Drugs? Prostitution?”
“No drugs,” she said, her voice like iron. “Never drugs.”
“She—” the young woman stabbed at Ruqqaya’s photo—“made them say the misyar first. She could not stoop so low as the rest of us.” She spat into the dust beside her cardboard.
Amina frowned. “She kept to the Quran?”
The woman laughed hard, her voice like a rake against dry concrete. “That one lived between its pages. There was nothing for her but that book. But that’s where she came from, yes? She and Hawa never knew nothing but that damn book.”
“What do you mean, where they came from?”
“She was Al-Khansaa.”
Amina rocked back on her heels. Adam, standing beside her, steadied her shoulder with his hand. “A jihadi bride? From the Caliphate?”
“A jihadi widow now. But she was more, too. She fought in the women’s brigade for the Caliphate. She was married to one of those idiots, even had a couple kids with him. She used to boast of the foreigners she killed in Syria. But she lost everything in a drone strike years ago.” The woman shrugged, as if it happened so often it was just bad luck for Ruqqaya. “She came home when there was nothing left for her. And ended up here.”
“Hawa was Al-Khansaa too?”
“She was a jihadi bride, but she did not fight. Her first husband died, she said, in Syria, but she was remarried without her say-so and shipped off to Saudi with him. I don’t know what happened after that. She didn’t want to talk about it.”
Living here was the better choice than remaining where they were. Amina’s words echoed inside Adam. He tried to swallow. Couldn’t. He handed the woman an apple.
“So Ruqqaya never gave up her jihad?” Amina asked. “She was still a fervent believer?”
The woman nodded. “Very much. She used to boast about how she would trick Americans into misyar. She would pick up American military men when they went to the hotels. Young, dumb boys, still with pimples on their faces. It’s the only place they can get alcohol, in the foreign hotels. She could cover herself in makeup and look all right, enough to offer herself for the night. She made them say the misyar first. She said she was tricking the infidel.” She snorted.
“Misyar?” Adam asked.
“Temporary marriage. It makes sex between a man and a woman legal, like magic.” The woman snapped her fingers, grinning. Her front teeth were broken in half. “Ruqqaya said she would slit their throats someday soon. She was saying that for over a year, though. We told her she was full of shit, and she wouldn’t cut off her only source of money.” The woman grabbed between her legs, laughing.
“Do you know if Ruqqaya had any friends still in the jihadis? Or if she was talking to anyone in particular? Who she might have met with?”
The woman shook her head. She sat back, sipping her water. “I’ve told you all I know about Ruqqaya. If I knew more, I would tell you. Even if she’s dead, I would happily ruin her to the police.”
Amina stood, the conversation over. “I am sorry you lost your friend Hawa.”
“Hawa was a good woman.” And that was that. She was done with them.
No one else in the Suwaidi slum would acknowledge they knew either woman. It was as if they all knew Amina had heard what she had, and that was all that was going to be said on the matter. After an hour and a half, and when the crate of water and fruit was empty, Amina guided Adam back to the overpass to wait for Faisal.
Adam swayed in the shade, dizzy from the heat, until Amina brought him a bucket of water from a fruit vendor across the street. “Don’t drink it,” she warned. “But you can cool off.” He dipped his hands and arms in the water and splashed it on his face, spitting out the drops, and then cupped some and poured it down his neck and back. He couldn’t get any more soaked, not with the amount he’d sweated. He’d thought Iraq was hot.
Half an hour later, Faisal appeared, beaming. He had no suit jacket, no shoes, no socks, no belt, and no watch. But he was happy, content to his bones, like he was after he prayed.
Adam felt like sun-baked shit, even worse now, seeing the end result of Faisal’s endless well of charity. Why hadn’t it occurred to him to give away his suit jacket, at least? Did he just not live in that same caring headspace? Or soulspace?
He wasn’t as good a person as Faisal was. But he’d always known that. It was no surprise.
“Alhamdullilah,” Amina said when Faisal joined them. She said nothing about Faisal’s missing clothes. “We found someone who would talk to us about the women.”
They stopped to eat a late lunch on the way back to the ministry. Adam felt like he shouldn’t be allowed in public, not with how bad he looked—and felt—but Faisal wouldn’t hear it. Amina stopped at a Carrefour hypermarket, and Faisal bought shoes for himself and a new shirt for Adam. Then they trooped into the family section of a Sri Lankan restaurant Amina recommended, sitting in the area where men and women could eat together, away from the eyes of single men.
Amina gave Faisal the rundown of her and Adam’s conversation with the young woman while Adam sucked down three iced teas and Amina and Faisal worked their way through a kale and coconut salad and curry. Adam’s stomach revolted at the thought of food.
“So now we have more questions,” Faisal said.
“And, possible leads.” Amina pointed a bit of coconut speared on the end of her fork toward Faisal as she spoke. “Ruqqaya was a jihadi. And, still a passionate believer. She was probably in contact with the fundamentalists of the city.”
“She and Hawa were both connected to the caliphate, but only Ruqqaya was still active. Yet they both were killed. Why?”
“Not all fundamentalists agree with the misyar,” Amina said. “Someone could have been punishing them both. For straying from the path, in their own ways?”
“Perhaps. We will need to follow up with the known jihadis in Riyadh. Do you have a watch list?”
“It could be just a coincidence,” Faisal cautioned. “As you said yourself, half of the missing and murdered in Riyadh go through Suwaidi. There are bound to be commonalities between so many people, even though they might just be coincidence.”
“What are you thinking?”
“I still am trying to figure out how strangers meet in Saudi. Specifically, how does a strange man meet women?”
“These days, through work, through shopping, as a taxi driver, or a doctor, or a teacher…” Amina pursed her lips. “Or as a police officer.”
Adam watched Faisal and Amina go back and forth as he brought the glass of iced tea to his forehead.
“He must have been someone who inspired some level of trust in his victims. At least enough where they were willing to go with him, all the way to their death. There are no reports of violent kidnappings connected to any of our missing persons.”
“If the women picked him up as a customer, if they were prostitutes, they would have gone anywhere with him.”
“That explains the women. But not the men.”
Amina sighed. “We need to know more about Hayatullah. If he was connected to the jihadis, that will focus our investigation. If not, we will know to go in a different direction. Have you heard anything about his file?”
“Abu Nayef sent me a message and told me to call him.” Faisal pulled out his phone. “We can do it together.” He dialed, then put his phone on speaker and set it in the middle of the table. Amina and Faisal leaned in, heads together.
Under the table, Faisal’s hand found Adam’s. Faisal squeezed. Adam squeezed back.
“Amir Faisal, salaam,” Abu Nayaf answered. “I am glad you called.”
“I got your message. You have news for us? I am here with Detective Al-Fasih.”
Abu Nayef paused. “Your Highness, I have looked into the file on the individual you requested,” he said slowly. “And… his file is housed on the joint intelligence server. The one we maintain with the Americans.”
Amina hissed and drew back, eyes wide. Faisal’s jaw clenched, and he squeezed down on Adam’s hand, hard.
“If I pull the file, the Americans will know. They will make inquiries. They will want to know why we are looking into him now.”
“Why is he being tracked jointly?” Faisal asked. “Can you see, before you pull his file?”
“Oh yes, Your Highness. He is on the most closely watched list. Hayatullah Murad was released to the Kingdom from Guantanamo Bay almost twenty years ago.”
Faisal met Amina’s gaze, then Adam’s. “Pull the file, Abu Nayef. We need to know everything about Hayatullah Murad.”