Written by Nada Hemida

Previously: Long Live the King: Episode 12 – Aya

“A band can be heard playing a strange yet enchanting, mystical music…”

After a few hours of sleep, I wake up to the smell of rotisserie chicken and molokheya. “I’ll be damned if I don’t move here after this is all over,” I think to myself before leaving the room and being greeted with a mouthwatering lunch. 

That night, I ask to borrow some of Aya’s clothes, and she doesn’t hesitate to say yes. While explaining how we’ll get to Sheikh Youssef’s camp, she helps me look the part by dressing me and making the slightest changes to my hair and the way I should walk and talk. She doesn’t ask why I’m looking for him, and I’m grateful for her ignoring the subject.

Sheikh Youssef’s camp is a humble place: a wide tent set up with palm trees redressed to their fullest height at the background. The inside of the tent is covered with multicolored carpets and the floor is covered with pillows for seats. A band can be heard playing a strange yet enchanting, mystical music. It’s a setting that lures you in; somewhere you could spend night after night without feeling the need for time to pass.         

Aya and a couple of friends are here with me, for my arriving alone would be oddly peculiar, especially since I’m a new face. We sit down, drink tea, and look like a peaceful group of friends enjoying the music, as my eyes hunt for Shehab. I suddenly realize that this could never have been my life, can never be. This place, it’s a dream. It’s where you run off to, to escape reality. My reality is hunting down criminals and killing them, or conspiring against a great threat. My soul would not settle for something so unruffled.

There he is.

He looks like he has lived here all his life: the skin dark from the harsh sun and the smile profound from the serene time he has seen for the past weeks. I wouldn’t have guessed he has something so valuable to hide.  

Politely, I excuse myself from the sitting – Aya nodding at me in understanding –  and make my way to him. “Would you like anything?” he asks openly.

“Yes, I would actually,” I answer and then whisper, barely audibly, “Shehab.” His eyes widen to the size of moons, and before he could act or speak, I say, “Come with me.” He stiffens, but nods at his co-workers and takes me up a small hill behind a tent where another band is playing.

A reflection of light notifies me of the silver knife he takes out of his sleeve before he whirls, takes a hold of me, and places the knife to my neck – and I let him. Now I know what happened to the others whom Karim Saleh has sent before me.

Who are you?” he demands, “and what do you want?”

“I am not your enemy, Shehab,” I say, unnervingly calm. I expected such a thing, and I did not come unprepared. “But I know who is. And they’re looking for you. They sent me here to find and kill you.”

He’s instantly alarmed, but moves his knife closer and I feel a slight sting, making me sigh exasperatedly. “You don’t want to do this,” I say, “because that’s not what I’ve come to do. I know that those you’re hiding from are condemning us all to hell if their plan goes accordingly – so I’m here to do what’s right.”

He is silent for a moment, considering, and then releases me with a slight push. He sheathes his knife. “I’m listening.”

I tell him about the case Karim Saleh had proposed to me, his lie, and I tell him what I found out. Shehab, cursing all the while, explains that he had his suspicions about who the client was, but he didn’t dare assume.

“So if you’re not here to take the vial,” he counters, “then why are you here?”

“Oh, no, you’ve got me wrong,” I say, “I am here to take it.”

He sneers, sounding almost animalistic. “Over my dead body!” he whispers.

So, he didn’t destroy it, I confirm. “Oh, just listen,” I say.

I try to give him a vague idea of my plan, but he’s smart – and intrigued – so I tell him everything. While he does seem skeptical, he nods along. “So, what do you say?” I ask after I finish.

“I’m coming with you.”