Authors: Nichole Christoff
Twilight came and went, leaving Philip and me to head south and search the streets of Marylebone itself. We ditched his Metropolitan Police pals and visited every mini-mart, eatery, and coffee shop that catered to the Middle Eastern crowd. We didn't come any closer to Oujdad and I tried to take solace in the fact Philip didn't come closer to Barrett, but it was small comfort. Whether Philip found him or not, Barrett was still in serious trouble.
As the evening wore on, I began to believe he might not be the only one. More than once, I dry-swallowed painkillers when Philip wasn't looking. My wrist throbbed with every beat of my heartâand my heart was sore with anxiety for Barrett. Maybe that's why I felt jumpy. Maybe that's why the spot between my shoulder blades itched. But more than once, I got the distinct feeling I felt itchy because somebody's eyes were on us.
Try as I might, though, I couldn't make anybody on our tail. The Sunday evening streets were bustling as Londoners finished weekend errands before the start of the workweek or met friends for dinner and one last hurrah. Without his headgear, Helmet Head could've been among them and I'd never have known.
Still, I lingered in front of a drugstore's reflective plate-glass window, taking a long look down the sidewalk behind me. I saw nothing suspicious. I let the excuse of a passing ambulance pull me into an about-face. I spotted no one obvious along the street. In fact, I never saw the same pedestrian nearby, never recognized the same car crawling through traffic.
But someone was trailing after Philip and me.
The twitch along my spine confirmed it.
I'd just sneaked another peek over my shoulder when Philip halted in the center of the pavement. I literally bumped into him, but he didn't notice. His eyes were on the orange and green hand-painted sign hanging over our heads.
Jots and flourishes spelled out The Silk Road CafÃ©. Did the place sell Syrian, Lebanese, or Persian cuisine? From the outside, the distinction was unclear. On the inside, the differences were probably obvious only to the sons and daughters of those countries. Sadly, the Westerners who dined here probably couldn't tell the difference. Worse than that, they probably wouldn't care.
“I'm starved,” Philip announced. “You?”
Actually, I was so hungry I could've eaten the restaurant's sign. But what really appealed to me was the notion that the streets would clear while we ate a meal. And that would make whoever followed us much more conspicuous.
Inside the restaurant, the rich aroma of coriander and cinnamon mingled with the succulent promise of roasting lamb and nearly made me weep. Philip chose a recessed boothâone of those semicircular arrangements with a dancing votive in the middle of the table and plenty of ambiance. With my arm aching and my feet throbbing, I slid onto the curving, velvet bench, glad to finally sit down.
A server appeared. He had a face as wrinkled as a raisin and hands as manicured as a surgeon's. He took our order, and I tried to banish my fears to the far side of the restaurant's front door.
That didn't work, so I tackled one of them head on.
I said, “What will happen when you find the man who shot Dalmatovis?”
Philip offered me a slice of warm pita bread from the basket parked on our table and ripped his own apart in his hands. “He shall be arrested and questioned and face the full measure of the law. Why do you ask?”
“Because that man saved lives last night. Hell, he saved
“An outcome for which I am extremely grateful, but what about the law?”
“Considering the dead man is a known assassin,” I snapped, “I'd think in this instance the law could bend.”
“Are you sanctioning bending the law?” Philip asked. “Or breaking it? The law is absolute, Jamie. Bend it and it's broken.”
I saw his point. But I refused to admit it. I shoved a corner of pita into my serving of baba ganoush with more force than was strictly necessary.
Philip observed the move, cleared his throat as if he were reprimanding his butler. “You wouldn't be losing your objectivity, would you, Jamie darling?”
Oh, when it came to Barrett, my objectivity had fled months ago. Thankfully, the arrival of our entrees gave me a good excuse not to answer.
“Perhaps you're tired,” Philip remarked, cutting into his lamb.
“I'd like to wrap up this case,” I admitted.
“No, I mean perhaps you're tired of all you do on behalf of others. Perhaps you're tired of Washington. Jamie, come to London.”
I didn't like the direction this conversation was headed. It was too close to the route Philip had taken during our university days. And it reminded me of the road not taken. Besides, I was worn out with worry and a broken bone. I wasn't in the mood to fence with my old friend.
“No,” he countered. “I mean come to Londonâpermanently.”
My old friend, Philip Spencer-Dean, was serious. He wanted me to come to Londonâpermanently. And though I didn't want to, I could feel just how serious he was in the depths of my innermost heart.
Outwardly, however, I chose to wave off Philip's suggestion. “I'd have to rebuild my business from scratch. I don't have a ready-made client list in Britain. And then there's licensing to consider. Getting a PI license here would take forever.”
“Not necessarily. Not with someone well-connected to advise you.”
“Now I suppose you're going to remind me how well-connected you are.”
“I am, rather.” Philip let a sly smile slip across his lips. But then the grin faded into something more somber. “Forgive me, Jamie. I shouldn't have raised the subject. Please forget I mentioned it.”
But I couldn't do that. Not when my old friend scowled down at his lunch. I didn't know what had upset him, but he took it out on his tabouleh. With his fork, he scooted the stuff back and forth across his plate. Until I covered his hand with mine.
“What's wrong? Why do you want me to move to London?”
Philip shook his head. “You've made it quite clear you've come to Britain for professional reasons. It would be wrong of me to interfere.”
“Interfere? In what?”
“In your business affairs. In your life. Jamie,” Philip whispered, leaning close to me in our secluded booth. “Have you ever wondered why I didn't marry that hotel heiress? Or the swimsuit model? Or the Olympic medalist?”
“Frankly, I thought you'd get hitched to the Swedish baroness.”
“Well, I didn't.”
As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I wanted to call them back. Because as long as we remained just friends, Philip couldn't break my heart and I couldn't break his. I'd known this as a university student. I knew it now. But by asking him how he feltâabout other women, about marriage, about his reasons for wanting me in LondonâI'd opened the door in case Philip wanted to confess any kind of deeper feeling. If he did, our hearts would be vulnerable. And our friendship would be altered.
But then Philip went ahead and altered it.
“I didn't marry them,” he answered, “because none of them were you.”
Before I could turn his revelation into a joke, Philip took advantage of my silence. The glow of the tea light on our table licked at his sleeve as he carried my hand to his mouth. And without taking his eyes from mine, he pressed a kiss into my palm.
I jumped as if he'd touched me with a live wire. Electricity sizzled through my synapses. I knew the name for this kind of reaction. It was called attraction. And I couldn't deny that I felt itâthat when it came to Philip I'd always felt itâbut that didn't mean I had to act on it.
But Philip's little kiss had me believing he was as attracted to me as I was to him. That thought sent my stomach into free fall. And there I was, back in college, trying to decide how far to go with the charming Englishman who had a wicked sense of humorâand a perfect understanding of what it meant to be the offspring of a high-powered parent.
But then Philip's mobile phone fluttered in his suit coat pocket and my stomach twisted into a thousand knots for a whole new reason. If Philip's minions had found Ikaat's father, that would be welcome news. But if they'd found Barrett, it could mean disaster.
I watched Philip carefully as he carried on his end of the conversation. A dent formed between his brows, suggesting he didn't like what he was hearing. I, on the other hand, was elated.
Because Philip's frustration probably meant that Barrett was still free.
As Philip gave terse orders to the poor underling who'd had the misfortune to phone him, a man approached our table. Veering from the direction of the kitchen, he snatched up a tray from a nearby busing station and lifted a dish towel from the waistband of a passing waiter. He tucked the towel into his own beltline and spun the bill of his navy-blue baseball cap so the interlocking white letters
sat backward on his curly head.
As he got busy gathering our dirty dishes, he certainly looked like a busboy. His white oxford shirt, rolled to the elbows, served as the uniform for restaurant staff everywhere. But not every busboy wore an American baseball cap. And only this one had followed me from the aisles of the Middle Eastern market. Because this busboy wasn't a busboy at all.
He was the leather merchant's young assistant.
“You are American?” he asked. His lips barely moved.
In foreign lands where people have the freedom to express their curiosity, I've been on the receiving end of that question often. I've felt no fear in answering it truthfully, although maybe I should have. Here, in this bistro, with this boy, I refused to let fear enter the equation this time, too.
“Yes, I'm an American. Born and raised.”
The busboy wet his lips.
I could see a confession form on the tip of his tongue.
Philip's phone clattered onto the tabletop.
The young man turned on his heel, retreated from our table.
Philip said, “It's not looking well for the doctor's father.”
My pseudo busboy set his tray on a vacant table near the swinging kitchen door. With long, laborious strokes, he wiped the already clean surface with the cloth from his waist. He didn't so much as glance in my direction, but I knew he was keeping tabs on me just the same.
To Philip, I said, “What makes you say Armand Oujdad's in trouble?”
“An old school chum of mine just received word that the Albanian mafia have declared open season on the old man. Anyone who can mow him down will get paid, andâ”
Philip's cell phone vibrated again. He took the call. I eyed the busboy. He'd abandoned his dirty dishes, made for the kitchen door. With an inclination of his head, he told me to follow.
Of course, doing so would be foolish.
Asking Philip to excuse meâand praying he was so absorbed in his call he'd assume I went to the ladies'âI hotfooted it after the fake busboy.
The clang and clatter of a hundred pots and pans greeted me as I entered the kitchen, but that was all. No one, from the chief cook to the bottle washer, wanted to see me. And that was fine by me.
My New York Yankees fan was nowhere in sight, but a tin-wrapped door standing ajar on the far side of the room practically called my name. I made my way through the humid warmth of the workspace, past well-cared-for stainless-steel and enameled surfaces installed over half a century ago. Pushing my way through the outdated fire door, I found myself in a darkened hallway.
The passage funneled into a back alley and a circle of light cast by a dilapidated pole lamp. The young man hadn't come this way, though. He wasn't waiting for me in the yellow circle.
I returned to the building, avoided the kitchen, and walked up the hallway this time. It branched like a two-tined fork. The left side became a corridor of curling linoleum and crusty paste wax that continued into darkness.
On the right, though, a spiral of wooden steps climbed through the building. The edges of its treads had been chewed soft by time and generations of tripping feet. I couldn't see past the first turn in the stairwell thanks to a sharp curve and engulfing darknessâand I sure as hell wasn't going to go up there alone into the unknown.
“Please,” the fake busboy said, materializing at my side.
Automatically, I reached for my sidearm. But I'd left it in Virginia. So that left me with nothing to do but will my racing heart to slow.
“Please,” he said again, “you're looking for a man? A man who is hiding?”
“Then no one must know I show you this.”
And with a gesture instructing me to follow, he brushed past me to climb the steps.
Behind me, the clatter of the restaurant's kitchen seemed a million miles away. Philip, in the dining room, was even farther. If I got in trouble following this kid, if this was a mugging about to happen, if I was walking into danger, I'd have to get out of it on my own.
I knew all that as surely as I knew my own name.
But I started up the steps behind the boy anyway.
As we climbed, the gloom yielded to bare bulbs plugged into wall sconces that had been converted from gas in the Edwardian Age and a rabbit warren of crooked hallways. London's fire marshal would've had a field day in hereâhad he known the place was still in use. I got the definite feeling, though, that the backstairs network in this run-down building was a very well-kept secret.
On the upper floors, I became aware of scents and sounds indicating an entire population in hiding here. The odor of cooked cabbage competed with the smell of moldering wallpaper and lovely lemon dish soap. Behind a closed door, a tired baby cried for his bed. Somewhere, a radio scratched its way through several news broadcasts in English, French, and German, only to settle on a language spoken farther east. And when my young guide halted at the foot of a short flight that appeared to terminate at the attic's access hatch, I could've sworn I heard a dozen angry men busily rearranging furniture on the floor above us.
My companion raised a finger to his lips.
“Remember,” he whispered, his voice thick with the vowels and consonants of his mother tongue. “No one must know I show you this.”
He pointed to the attic access. Apparently, he wanted me to go up there. But I wasn't about to walk into a room where Conan the Barbarian was in the middle of his interior decorating.
That's when my guide took matters into his own hands. He threw his weight into the stack of forgotten fruit crates crowding the landing beside us. He sent them crashing down the stairs. And then he fled down the steps after them. Over my head, the thrashing stopped. At any second, I expected a demolition team to burst from the attic, irritated by the interruption. But footfalls rang on the metal rungs of an unseen fire escape.
And then there was silence.
I should've left right then and there. I could've chalked the whole experience up to a wild goose chase, gone back to Philip, and allowed him to order me a nice chocolaty dessert. But instead, I climbed that last flight of stairs. I may never know whether it was curiosity that drew me onâor something deeper. In the end, though, I was glad I hadn't turned tail and left well enough alone.
The trapdoor to the attic was riddled with woodworm scars, but the critters themselves seemed to have vacated the premises. Cautiously, I pushed my sound shoulder into the door's splintered surface. The hatch opened with the grind of rusty hinges.
I found myself at eye-level with the attic floor. There, rats had done their business right out in the open. A couple of bent spoons, and syringes so old and overused their plastic cylinders were cloudy on the inside, hinted that this had been the spot for business of another kind as well.
Neither users nor dealers had been here for some time, though. That much I could tell from the condition of the floorboards. They were black with the morning's rain because, at some point in the not-too-distant past, half the building's roof had fallen in, leaving nothing to keep the weather out.
The hole in the roof couldn't keep the moonlight out, either. I relied on it as I crept into the attic, alive to every sound that would betray that I wasn't alone. Nothing moved among the roof rubble, the mildewed mattresses, or the bundled blankets abandoned along the far wall, though. No one jumped at me from behind the broken-down armchairs, busted wardrobes, or the dented camp stove that had been dragged up there, either.
Near the stove, the sharp bite of new kerosene was strong. So was the stink of cheap cigar smoke. I pinched my nose against them both and began to toe my way through the junk littering the place.
I kept a keen eye open for whatever my young Yankees fan wanted me to find. For the life of me, however, I had no idea what he expected that to be. I was willing to bet anything of value had long since disappeared. It had either walked out with the drug users or gone through one of the glassless windows that offered an enchanting view of the brick-walled building across the alley and down some fire escape with the crowd we'd crashed in on.
It was the thought of that crowd's return that had me making for the trapdoor in a hurryâuntil the growl of a wounded animal stopped me in my tracks. Every instinct I possessed, however, insisted I hadn't heard an animal at all. I'd heard a man.
I scooted between the remains of a dining table tented with a moth-eaten sheet and a burnt-out refrigerator, shoved aside a shopping cart full of old shoes and stacks of yellowed newspaper. Here, under the canopy of the remaining roofing, the stench of the cigar was stronger than everâand so was the oily stink of the kerosene.
I took a step, slid in the stuff. It slicked the ruined floor. I took a sniff, realized it soaked a heap of moth-eaten curtains and a couch so old it probably had sat in front of the telly for the broadcast of the Queen's coronation. I didn't know who'd splashed around so much kerosene or why, but a groan from behind the sofa kept me from worrying about it.
I shouldered aside a rack of plastic raincoats, rounded the end of the sofa.
And found Lieutenant Colonel Adam Barrett facedown on a scrap of carpet.
He tried to shove himself upright when I hollered, or at least onto all fours. But he couldn't quite make it. His armsâthose iron-strong armsâtrembled, then collapsed.
That's when I noticed his shoes were missing. It was a neat trick captors use to keep a prisoner from running very far. And it was proof he'd been somebody's prisoner. Still, the soles of Barrett's socks were shredded as if he'd tried to escape. Or been force-marched to this location.
“Jamie?” he grumbled. “Get out of here.”
“Not on your life.” I knelt beside him, looped my good arm through one of his and tried to help him from the floor.