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A secret grave is unearthed in the desert revealing the bodies of 19 women and the shocking truth that a serial killer has been operating undetected in Jeddah for more than a decade.
However, lead inspector Ibrahim Zahrani is distracted by a mystery closer to home. His mistress has suddenly disappeared, but he cannot report her missing since adultery is punishable by death. With nowhere to turn, Ibrahim brings the case to Katya, one of the few women in the police department. ...
A secret grave is unearthed in the desert revealing the bodies of 19 women and the shocking truth that a serial killer has been operating undetected in Jeddah for more than a decade.
However, lead inspector Ibrahim Zahrani is distracted by a mystery closer to home. His mistress has suddenly disappeared, but he cannot report her missing since adultery is punishable by death. With nowhere to turn, Ibrahim brings the case to Katya, one of the few women in the police department. Drawn into both investigations, she must be increasingly careful to hide a secret of her own.
Portraying the lives of women in one of the most closed cultures in the world, award-winning author Zoë Ferraris weaves a tale of psychological suspense around an elusive serial killer and the sinister forces trafficking in human lives in Saudi Arabia.
"A formidably talented writer....An adroitly plotted, fast-paced mystery....Ferraris's characters are compelling and utterly human."
"A formidably talented writer....An adroitly plotted, fast-paced mystery....Ferraris's characters are compelling and utterly human."
The SUV hit the sand drift, skidded, and stopped in the middle of the road. The Homicide team got out, four men in plainclothes, their shirts wrinkled, faces stung by the sun. Only one man had thought to bring a scarf for his head; the others made do with sunglasses.
The local police pulled up behind them. The Bedouin who had found the corpse could see at once, from the subtle way the men’s bodies showed deference, who was in charge. Lieutenant Colonel Inspector Ibrahim Zahrani did not introduce himself. The Bedouin approached him, anxiously recounting how his truck had jacked off the road, throwing one of his sheep out of the flatbed and forcing him to stop. When he’d gone to retrieve the sheep, he’d found the body. Everyone followed him over a rise in the sand.
It was hard to tell at first whether it was a man or a woman. Five sets of boots stopped in a semicircle around a mutilated face. The cheek and left eye had been ripped away—probably a bullet’s exit wound—and the remaining skin was desiccated gray and coated with sand. From the tiniest sliver of black poking up from the collar, Ibrahim guessed she was female.
His first thought was that some desert boy had shot his sister through the head for a “crime” that involved the family honor. Who else would bury someone way out here? Too far south to be Jeddah, this was a forgotten strip of sand sixteen miles inland from the main road, which was not even a proper freeway itself. They’d gotten lost twice driving up here and had had to wait for the local police officer to come and get them.
He gave the face another look. It was not a desert face. Even with all the destruction, you could see it was Asian.
Ibrahim glanced at his watch: 1:30 p.m. If they were lucky, they could be done before the most infernal hours of the day. It was early autumn, really just an extension of summer. The heat was already clipping his thoughts like an impatient listener. The local officer, Hattab al-Anzi, didn’t look like a man who worked a desert beat. Pasty-faced, squinting, covered in sweat. He gave a honk and drove off, presumably to fetch the coroner, or perhaps the forensics team, who were no doubt stuck circling the same roads Ibrahim’s men had just cursed to hell.
Behind them, the sheep were bleating in the truck bed. Half the road was covered in sand. Just a few meters ahead of where they’d stopped the SUV, the road was impassable. Such an isolated spot. The drift might have gone unnoticed for weeks.
“Any idea if this happened recently?” Ibrahim asked the Bedouin.
“Yeah, we had a windstorm last night. A bad one. Certainly bad enough to blow a dune over the roadway.”
When he said dune, he motioned in the direction of the body. All Ibrahim could see was a great vista of sand broken here and there by outcroppings of rock. It took a loosening of perspective, some stiff stumbling back to the road, before he saw how the area around the body was slightly raised. There had been a dune there—not a very high one, probably a barchan, its back to the east-blowing wind.
He watched his men trample the crime scene and heard his junior officer Waseem Daher admonish them. “Go back to the street! You’re stepping on evidence!” No one listened, but they stood near him, turned to him when he spoke, always eager. Daher hadn’t fully realized his power over other men.
The sun beat down on them like licks from a blowtorch. When the cars finally arrived, they came funerary style, a procession of Red Crescent ambulances, the coroner’s van, two Yukons with forensics teams. The local cop, Hattab, brought up the rear.
“Stupid guy,” someone said. “Would someone tell him you’re not supposed to lead from behind?”
“He’s just making sure he can get out first, in case we have another windstorm.” This was Daher.
Within minutes, the scene was a maelstrom of men. The forensics guys cordoned off the area around the body with long sticks and a swirl of blue tape. Ibrahim intervened; he wanted the whole dune sectioned off, so they expanded the area, pushing the men farther back. Two younger officers had arrived with the coroner, also named Ibrahim but whom everybody called Abu-Musa, the “father of Musa.” He was actually the father of Kareem and should have been called Abu-Kareem, but at a coffee shop one afternoon he had attempted to explain to Chief Inspector Riyadh that musa, which was the name of the prophet Moses, was also the genus classification name for bananas. And they were so named because Moses’s mother had stuffed a banana into the baby’s mouth before placing him in a reed basket and pushing him down the Nile. The banana was nutritious but, more crucially, kept the baby quiet so that the Egyptians wouldn’t kill him. Chief Riyadh, unused to following such convoluted intersections of history and myth, simply sucked on his hookah and grunted. “You know this how, Abu-Musa?” The name had stuck.
Inspector Ibrahim had never worked with Abu-Musa before, but the man’s temper was legendary, as was his overbearing righteousness. Right now Abu-Musa was waiting for forensics to finish excavating the torso. Two Red Crescent men moved in to help set up the vacuums that forensics would use to remove the sand, and Abu-Musa shouted at them: “Get back from there! You don’t touch her!”
“She’s dead,” one of the RC responders replied.
“No one should touch her! Now get out of here.” Abu-Musa pushed the man aside. He wasn’t worried that someone might disrupt the evidence; he was watching out for virtue crimes, a man touching a woman’s body, defeating her honor even in death.
The familiar crackling of tires on asphalt and a small explosion of dust announced the arrival of another SUV, this one carrying Detective Inspector Osama Ibrahim.
Osama got out, surveyed the scene, and went straight to Ibrahim. The two men shook hands, and Osama offered an apology for not having welcomed him to the department before this.
Everyone was acting deferential. Ibrahim had been in the department for two weeks now, a transfer from Undercover. He had seniority only because, at forty-two, he was older than most of the other officers; because he had worked Homicide many years ago; and because he had royal-family connections. He was sure that soon the cracks would start to show.
“Local Bedouin found a woman’s body in the sand,” he said. “Have a look.”
Osama went off.
The Red Crescent responders were grumbling about Abu-Musa and discussing an incident that had been in the news. A female student at the Teachers’ Education College in Qassim had fallen ill. The college had called the Red Crescent, but when they arrived, the authorities had forbidden the paramedics from touching her. They’d been afraid she would die but apparently more afraid that, touched by strange men, she would lose her dignity. Amid all the arguing, the girl had died. Fortunately, these two RC responders seemed appalled by the whole event and were wary of the same thing happening to them.
“The fuck he thinks we are—a pack of pimps?” one spat.
Osama came back looking shaken. Ibrahim recognized the look. You believed you were immune to death, having seen whole rooms splattered in human fluids—and then one woman’s face struck you down again. “Local trouble, you think?”
“Maybe.” Ibrahim studied the scene. “Is your coroner always so aggressive?”
“Yeah, but only when female victims are involved.”
There was a sudden crack. It was a small sound but it provoked a wave of curious silence. One of the Red Crescent men had stepped into a soft part of the sand, and his foot had encountered something hard, which had splintered. Ibrahim went over, shouting: “Nobody move!” Surprisingly, everyone obeyed.
The man had already lifted his foot out of the sand, and Ibrahim could see from his face what he’d found.
“That sounded like bone.”
“It was.” The depression where the man’s shoe had been was filling with sand. Ibrahim caught sight of what might have been another face.
They were five meters away from the original body.
“Everyone stay exactly where you are,” Ibrahim boomed. “Except for you.” He pointed at the forensics photographer. “Take photos of everyone, exactly where they are now.” The man scrambled into action. Then Ibrahim pointed to Daher. “Get the local guy to radio in a request for some trackers. Murrah, if you can get them. As fast as possible.” Daher jogged to the cop car, where Hattab was enjoying the AC.
Ibrahim stood guard, his gaze challenging anyone to move so much as a millimeter. Like children in a game, they stood awkwardly frozen, their faces throwing off the burden of heat and now alive with expectation, the strange delight of being told what to do when it actually counted.
His men had trampled the area well, but by the third body they could still find no pattern.
The Murrah trackers who arrived—a grandfather and his nephews—spent hours going over the site, memorizing boot prints, sandal prints, eliminating the men who were there with such deftness it seemed magical. They didn’t even need to consult the photographs the forensics guy had taken. Then they started again, looking for the things that didn’t belong. They probed the ground, bending over with hands on knees, squatting, kneeling, staring at the same spots in the sand for whole minutes at a time, following subtle trails. They found the next six bodies with hands like divining rods, feeling mysterious geometries in the air above the sand, and only then did a pattern of sorts begin to emerge.
The bodies were all female. They had all been buried at the back of what had been a crescent dune. There was an underlying rock formation that gave the area some stability, that made it possible, for example, for a murderer with a penchant for returning to the same burial site to actually find that site in the case of a sandstorm blowing his dune across the road. A slight depression leading down from the road meant that no matter how many windstorms came through, the sand would reaccumulate at this spot. Over the course of months it would rise up into a dune, blown by steady winds. In a storm, it would topple onto the road, like a slow-motion wave crashing onto a beach. The road would be cleared and eventually the sand would rise again.
As the body count grew, Ibrahim kept returning to a single thought: Why here?
They had to bring in water trucks, and a local restaurant (only thirty-two kilometers away) prepared huge plates of rice and lamb, wedding style, which the men ate distractedly, if at all. The blasting waves of heat began their killing spree by stealing the men’s appetites. Two men collapsed and had to be driven back to Jeddah in a Red Crescent van.
He bent over body after body, the heat like hooks cutting into his back. Sweat dripped so freely that his shoes were wet. Even the Murrah began to look wilted.
The scene unfolded like an archaeological dig, sprawling out toward the desert, growing up over surfaces decorated with canvas blankets, stakes, lights brought in as the sun grew red and dipped to the edge of the Earth’s plain. Nineteen bodies in all. He dreaded the number when he heard the coroner say it. Abu-Musa came to talk to him, the first time he’d done so all day. The sunset made his grizzled face almost pretty.
“Did you hear what I said? Nineteen bodies,” Abu-Musa said. “Nineteen. You know what this means?”
“ ‘And over it is nineteen?’ ” Ibrahim recited.
Abu-Musa nodded, looking quietly pleased. That verse from the Quran, mysterious out of context, had prompted men over the centuries to conjure wild fantasies about the importance of the number nineteen. The most recent incarnation came from Tucson, Arizona, where an Egyptian biochemist, Rashad Khalifa, claimed that the archangel Gabriel had revealed to him in the text of the Quran a hidden mathematical code that could be unlocked using the number nineteen.
But the subsequent verse in the Quran was a simple explanation of it: And we have set none but angels as guardians of the fire, and we have fixed their number.
It meant there were nineteen angels guarding Hell.
“Could be a coincidence,” Ibrahim said.
“Are you sure about that?” Abu-Musa smiled, a cold gesture. “I believe you won’t find any more bodies out here. Whoever did this has his reason.”
“All the same,” Ibrahim said, “maybe it just happens to be nineteen.”
Katya Hijazi was carrying the latest batch of files down to Inspector Zahrani’s office when an explosive round of laughter from the situation room drew her attention. She crept down the corridor, wanting to know what was so funny at a Homicide meeting.
The crowd was dispersing, and she watched them through the doorway, the men talking, conversations erupting here and there, laughter, nods of agreement. No one looked her way, they were too busy staring at Waseem Daher, one of the junior detectives whom Katya had met twice and already counted as among the few people she would gladly shove into an industrial meat grinder. Last week, Daher had accused her of being a hotshot who fancied herself the centerpiece of every investigation, thanks to growing up watching CSI and believing that forensics officers actually did all of the investigative work. If he noticed her in the doorway, he didn’t let on.
Pictures of the victims’ faces filled most of the whiteboard at the front of the room. Katya had been so busy in the lab that she hadn’t seen the bodies yet. Every time she went downstairs, the examiner’s office was crowded with senior officers and Ministry of Interior agents. They had never had so many bodies at once. In fact, they didn’t have enough freezer space in the women’s lab, so they had put the overflow in the men’s side of the laboratory and prayed that no one else in Jeddah died until they finished processing the evidence.
It had taken three days to remove the bodies from the site. They had even brought in an archaeologist in the desperate hope of establishing that the bodies were historical. But from what forensics now knew, the most “historical” of them had died ten years ago.
Katya had spent the past four days bagging and labeling the clothing of the dead and running blood and fiber samples like a drone, disconnected from any greater knowledge of what she was doing. Information about the murders had to be ferreted out through hasty conversations with Majdi, one of the male forensic pathologists, or by some old-fashioned investigating of her own: eavesdropping and “borrowing” the reports that never managed to circulate to her desk. She had a few reports in her arms right now, but they’d turned out to be duds.
She did know that the investigators still hadn’t identified any of the women. They were mostly immigrants: Filipinas, Sri Lankans, Indonesians, most in their early twenties. All of their faces had been torn apart, and there were no fingerprints. The facial-reconstruction specialists had just produced some sketches, and these were what Katya was after.
As the men started coming through the door, she drew to the side. She didn’t want to go up to her lab and sit in front of a machine for the rest of the day. She wanted to interview people, scour the streets for potential witnesses, do all of the things that would most contribute right now and that these men were gearing up to do, or doing easily, without worrying about what it would mean for their virtue. But she couldn’t interview people. Maybe they would find it improper to talk to a woman. She would have to have a male chaperone. She would have to have some authority to force them to talk. She could always shove her way through the door, but there were more subtle obstacles than a door. There were gateways in the mind, blind alleys and narrow passages, labyrinths that made up whole cities of thought, whole worlds from which people would never make an exit, surrounded as they were by heavy stone walls from the era of the Rashidun Caliphate.
She went to the end of the hallway, dropped the files in Zahrani’s box, and went straight downstairs to the medical examiner’s office. There were two entrances to the lower floor of the building—one for men and one for women. She took the appropriate door and wound her way to the front of the building, where she found Adara in the female autopsy room.
“Oh, good, you’re here,” Adara said. “Put on some gloves and come over.”
Katya did as she was told and braced herself to look at the five bodies lined up on stretchers against the wall.
“They originally numbered the victims in the sequence in which they were found, but it turns out that was haphazard, and now they want to renumber them according to the chronology of their deaths, which makes this one the most recent.” Adara motioned with a needle to the chest she was currently stitching closed. “They just brought her in this morning.”
“How long has she been dead?”
“It’s difficult to say, but no more than six months.”
“I don’t know anything about it,” Katya said. “I’ve just been running blood samples and looking at the photos of their faces.”
“Well, their faces pretty much tell the whole story. Every one of them was shot through the back of the head at point-blank range. Bullet exit wounds damaged most of the faces, but it’s still possible to see some facial characteristics.” She motioned to the woman on the table. “What else I can tell you is that she was between twenty and twenty-five years old. There is a broken tibia, a broken femur, no evidence of rape. And then, of course, her hands.”
Katya looked at the woman’s arms and nearly fell over. The hands were missing—both of them. That explained why there were no fingerprints.
“They’re all like that,” Adara said.
“Yes. Each one was cut off with a single stroke after the victim was killed.” Adara’s hands were making rough work of the stitching. She threw down the needle, went to the sink, and threw up.
“Sorry,” she muttered. “Pregnant.”
Adara wiped her mouth and rinsed it with some water before coming back to the table.
“Do they still have their feet?” Katya asked.
“I know the investigators have just gotten some facial-reconstruction sketches,” Katya said. “They’re planning on showing them to the consulates.”
“And you think…?”
“That that’s going to take a few years. The consulates won’t know anything. Look how bad they are with the living.”
“Well, yes,” Adara said. “I think they’re right to presume that most of these women were foreign laborers, probably housemaids.”
The biggest shock to the department was the possibility that one person had done this, that one person, over the course of many years, had been silently killing women and no one had noticed. Katya had already begun assembling missing-persons files, but it was likely that these women had never been reported missing. Their employers probably assumed that their housemaids had run off, like many of them did, in search of a better job or to get away from an abusive situation. The housemaid wouldn’t want to be found—she might be sent to prison.
It was possible, too, that whoever killed these women had hired them as housemaids himself. That he kept them in seclusion, tortured them slowly, one at a time, before killing them. That from the very moment these women entered the country, no one but the killer knew they existed.
“What do you know about serial killers?” Adara asked.
Katya shook her head. “Not much.”
“Well, I just heard that they’re bringing in a man from the American FBI, someone who specializes in serial killers.”
“That seems excessive,” Katya said. “I mean, we’ve had them before.”
Adara looked at the bodies lined against the wall. “I guess they figure that this one is different. A new breed, perhaps. He’s been working for at least ten years. Chief Riyadh is ashamed. Everyone is feeling humiliated. They didn’t know this was happening. They’re ten years late. It took the police four years to track down that serial killer in Yanbu. Riyadh’s not going to let this case last that long.”
On her way back to the women’s lab, Katya stopped at Majdi’s office, but he was on the phone, and ministry agents were milling about. She quickly ducked back into the corridor and took off down the hall. Just this week the religious establishment had issued a fatwa against female cashiers, saying it was sinful for women to work in public positions where they might come into contact with men. It might have become yet another ridiculous fatwa that Saudis would allow themselves to feel guilty about but would roundly ignore, except that the grand mufti in charge of validating the fatwa actually extended its reach by banning women not only from cashier positions but from every other kind of job that would bring them into contact with men. The first line of battle on these things was in government positions, and especially those in law enforcement. She hoped the king’s brothers or the king himself might do something to overturn it, but until then all the women in the lab were holding their breath.
It was only to be expected that at the worst possible moment, his son’s life would implode. Zaki’s marriage had been a disaster from the beginning. Ibrahim had watched the pressure build for three grueling months. Even the shocking appearance of nineteen dead bodies was not enough to alter this inevitable motion toward the deep, dark, inward-sucking force of his failed family.
His favorite son, Zaki. Ibrahim sat in the courtroom and listened as the boy tried to explain himself to the judge once again. He had made a mistake. It was all too easy when you didn’t know the bride before you married her. They—both of them—were just asking for a divorce.
The judge made no sign that he’d heard but something in his eyes told Ibrahim that he wasn’t buying it, that he heard men say this sort of thing all the time. But what was Zaki supposed to say? That he had never meant to marry a woman like Saffanah: righteous, religious, praying five times a day, and asking him to take her to Mecca once a week? The judge would kick him out of the courtroom for his disrespect to Islam.
The way Zaki told it, when he woke in the morning, he’d find his robe, his ‘iqal, and his ghutra neatly laid out on the bed. And socks—she always put a pair beside the robe, on the off chance that he was one of those idiots who actually wore them. In the kitchen, he’d find his breakfast on the table, his coffee poured and sugared, his bread fresh from the oven. After breakfast, he’d find his wallet and keys on the table by the front door. He would only see Saffanah once he’d climbed into his car and looked back at the apartment. She’d be standing behind the half-shuttered window looking out at the street. At least he assumed it was her behind the burqa; there was no one else at home. He had no idea what she did all day. She was too pious to own a cell phone. She said they were tools of moral ruination. When he came home in the evenings, his dinner was waiting for him. His prayer mat was laid out with a clean change of clothes. She did such a good job of taking care of him while the whole time refusing to give him the one thing a husband expected. At night, in the bedroom, she wouldn’t touch him. He had never seen her naked. He knew it was his right to demand it, but he didn’t want to force her. In fact, he wasn’t sure he wanted it at all.
Just a few days after the wedding, even before Zaki had started to complain about it, Ibrahim had sussed out the situation. Though Saffanah was never in his way, her distance, silence, and pitch-perfect obedience were going to start getting in the way.
“This,” Zaki had shouted one night, “is why I hate religion!”
“Don’t say that,” Ibrahim said, shocked. “She is not Islam. She is not even a good version of Islam.”
They had already told the judge that they hadn’t consummated the marriage and that Saffanah was still a virgin. Delicately, Zaki had suggested that a doctor could confirm it. Saffanah’s father, Jibril, had shot out of his chair, shouting in protest. The judge had quieted him with a wave of his hand and then turned to Zaki with a look of deep skepticism.
“But it’s true!” Zaki said.
Jibril was quick to respond. He argued that it didn’t matter what had happened in the bedroom. Saffanah had been married for three months now. No man was going to believe she was a virgin, even if she was. Ibrahim hated to admit that the bastard had a point. It was going to be difficult for Saffanah to remarry.
She was sitting on the other side of him. Not a single piece of skin was showing anywhere on her body; her burqa was an impenetrable slab of black, and she was wearing socks and gloves. But her posture said everything. She slunk down in her chair, arms curled around her torso, head bowed. Saffanah—“pearl.” She was awkward, clumsy, painfully self-conscious. Her face was misshapen, lumpy like bread dough. Nothing glimmering. Pearl-like only in that she had become the hidden wound in Zaki’s soft interior.
The only time Ibrahim ever saw them interact was when she brought Zaki his dinner. She wouldn’t eat with the men because she believed it was improper for a wife to eat with her husband. What would happen if she ate faster than him? She’d finish before him! She might even eat more than him! She would, in her own words, be “acting like a husband,” which was a capital crime. Ibrahim tried explaining that “acting like a husband” was a legal euphemism for the crime of homosexuality, but when he said the word homosexuality she covered her ears and started muttering prayers because the word was sinful. She prayed for Ibrahim’s protection as well, since he was the offender who spoke the wicked word, and when he said no, don’t be ridiculous, she spent the rest of the evening sprinkling the house with holy water—quietly, mind you—and submitting herself to Allah.
She made Zaki’s mother look like a rare specimen of moderation.
Ibrahim knew that his biggest mistake had been not standing up to his wife, Jamila. She had pressured Zaki into marrying Saffanah, a spinster at twenty-two. She had been terrified that she would never marry because the Prophet had said that good Muslims should marry. She was desperate, and no one would have her. And Zaki, at nineteen, was not terribly handsome, a younger son with a mediocre job, or so his mother liked to remind him. Ibrahim could have done more to stop this from happening. What was the rush? But with Jamila he had learned to pick his battles, and in this case, she had opened with a volley of bazookas and RPGs, followed by a mini nuclear device, and he just hadn’t had the strength to fight back. Now he was paying for it, having to shepherd Zaki and Saffanah through months of misery.
Ibrahim looked at the couple, both facing forward, ignoring one another. He wondered what would happen if Saffanah spoke up in her defense. Their defense. She would probably ruin it by telling the judge that her husband was an infidel: He smoked. He didn’t pray five times a day. In fact, he didn’t pray at all. And he listened to music. It struck Ibrahim suddenly as the saddest part of this whole fiasco that Zaki had once owned a guitar, had had ambitions to play it, had even formed a loose band, and then, because of his foolish and overbearing mother, had married a stranger when he should have been off plucking guitar strings in someone’s garage and enjoying the last of his young adulthood.
From the other table, Jibril was gloating. The longer the silence dragged on, the more pleased Jibril seemed with himself. He had the law on his side, the bastard. The marriage contract stipulated very clearly that if Zaki should decide to ask for a divorce, he would have to pay Saffanah fifteen million riyals—enough to support her comfortably for the rest of her life. As a divorced woman with no one to keep her, she’d have to beg off her parents for eternity. But of course no one in the family had that kind of money. Who would? He’d known plenty of men who’d divorced their wives and never paid a penny, or at least had never paid the millions they’d sworn to pay. So it should have been simple for the judge—Zaki and Saffanah wanted a divorce, and the Hadith said that all you needed to do was tell your wife “I divorce you!” three times, and that was it. Done. Could it have been any easier? But her father refused to take her back.
It was annoying the judge too. He sat there, exchanging the odd glance with Ibrahim, scratching his already overscratched beard, staring at his water glass, the ceiling fans, the broken tiles on the floor, all in an effort to look studious when clearly he was at a terrific loss. Ibrahim could see his mind working. The good side was saying: Let the kids have their divorce! But the pompous side was grappling with the legality of breaking the contract.
When it was his turn to speak, Jibril stood up and told the judges that Zaki had ruined his daughter and that until he could pay what the marriage contract stipulated, her family wasn’t going to take her back. Clearly it was taking all of Zaki’s self-control not to start shouting. Ibrahim felt the urge himself. He wanted to tell the judge that Jibril was the king of the pimps. That he’d divorced his first wife without paying so much as a halala and that as a result, Saffanah and her mother were wretchedly poor. That Jibril had seven ex-wives and four current wives, every one of them pregnant, with twelve children between them already, and if he weren’t so prodigious in the bedroom, he might actually have more generosity of spirit for his first child, the poor Pearl, and her tragic mother.
Jibril was still speaking. As much as he loved his daughter, he simply couldn’t take her back. Saffanah was already twenty-two; her chances of remarriage were practically zero. How would she support herself ? Was she supposed to be a burden on her parents for the rest of her life? Were they going to pay for her meals, her lodging, her regular trips to Mecca? What would happen when he died? His daughter would be alone, with no children, no money, no husband, no future. Then it would be the job of the state to take care of her, would it not? And everybody knew what a wonderful job the state did of caring for its independent women! She’d wind up a prostitute, and everyone knew it.
Only he didn’t actually say the word prostitute, he said indecent. She’d wind up indecent. Yes, Saffanah—the woman who pulled crumpled prayer schedules out of the trash and ironed them flat—Saffanah would start turning tricks at the Corniche. Ibrahim watched as the judge silently churned that bit of cream. Indecent. It was precisely the sort of word he needed to focus his resolve. The problem had been complicated until that word arrived. Now it was simple: there was no way to justify condemning a woman to a life of dissolution, no matter how much she might want to escape her current woes.
The judge’s face told him everything: No divorce, kids, sorry.
Ibrahim felt his temples throbbing. Just last week a man had divorced his wife in this courtroom because she’d been watching a male newscaster on TV all by herself. She’d been alone in a room with a strange man. Never mind that he was on a flat screen. That stupid husband could get a divorce, but Zaki couldn’t?
Triumphant, Jibril took a seat and turned to his daughter. “I love you, Saffanah,” he whispered, “but it’s the truth, and you and I both know it.” Then he looked at Zaki and actually smiled.
They stood outside the courtroom and watched Jibril drive away. Zaki helped Saffanah into the back of the car. She fumbled for the seat, banging her head on the door frame. Ibrahim had seen this performance before. Zaki would tell her to put her seat belt on. More people died every year from not wearing a seat belt than from any other reason, did she know that? She’d shake her head—not No, I didn’t know that, but No, I’m not buying it. She’d cross her arms, the Saffanah seat belt, and sit that way until he started the car. There was no wearing seat belts where Saffanah was concerned because the belt might outline her body and any man in a passing car would be able to see her shape, and that was unacceptable.
After watching her bump her head on the door frame, Zaki said: “You should get a burqa with a slit for the eyes.”
She didn’t reply.
Ibrahim went to climb in the passenger seat but Zaki stopped him. “Baba, please drive. I’m going to walk.”
“What?” Ibrahim blurted. “No. Just come home. It’s too hot to walk.”
Zaki’s face was pale with pent-up rage. “If I get too hot, I’ll take a cab,” he said. He shot one final glare at Saffanah and walked away.
Ibrahim got into the car and looked at Saffanah in the rearview mirror. She was facing forward, her head tilted in a defiant way. “Put on your seat belt,” he said, just for good measure.
He started the car. He knew it was wrong to be angry at her, but he couldn’t help it. Her hostile, guilt-charged silence was familiar. Jamila did it all the time, only without the religious overtones.
They were three blocks from the courthouse when he heard a choking sound from the backseat. He spun around to find Saffanah pulling on the door handle. He stopped quickly. She pushed the door open, leaned over, and vomited onto the street, but because she wouldn’t raise her burqa, the vomit spilled onto the fabric of her veil and down the front of her cloak. Only a small splash of it reached the pavement.
Ibrahim leaped out and went running to her side, but by the time he got there, she was sitting upright again, her vomit-stained veil sticking to her chin. She would never take it off in public, even in the car, even covered in vomit.
“Wait here,” he said. He left the car double-parked and jogged down the street until he reached a corner bodega, where he bought tissues, bottled water, and chewing gum. The shop owner, God bless him, was a generous man who rushed upstairs to his apartment, nicked a face covering from his wife, and gave it to Ibrahim. When Ibrahim got back to the car, he laid the items on the backseat next to Saffanah. “Here,” he said, “something to clean you up. And a new burqa.” Then he got in and started driving.
He took the freeway and was nearly home before he noticed Saffanah using the tissue to wipe off her face. She bent over so that no one driving by could see the delicate operation, and she removed the stained veil and put on the new one. Then she put a stick of chewing gum in her mouth. A few minutes later she opened a bottle of water, slid it under her veil, and took a sip.
Ibrahim breathed in relief and turned his attention back to the road. He’d driven past the turnoff for their neighborhood and was now heading into the southern outskirts of the city. Traffic was thin here; he could already see desert ahead. On impulse, he decided to keep driving.
A few minutes later, Saffanah started watching the window. He wasn’t sure how much she could see through her veil and the tinted windows, but clearly she realized they’d gone past their usual exit. He decided not to explain it. The air in the car smelled of vomit, so he cracked a window and turned up the AC.
He took an exit for a housing complex that looked newly built. He drove past the empty homes, imagining how boring it would be to live out here, with strangers for neighbors. There were no stores here yet, just empty, palatial houses.
He could tell from her posture and the tilt of her head that she was alert, curious. Coming up on the right was a large field and a few camels behind a wire fence. There was a small house to one side. He stopped the car, parked on the side of the road, and went to the back door to help her out.
It surprised him that she didn’t protest. She hadn’t asked a single question or spoken one word since she’d gotten in the car. He’d been trying to think of her as a daughter—had been trying for a few months now—but he kept coming up against the knowledge that he would never let one of his own daughters act like this, he would never encourage this kind of pious isolation and flaunting of religion—a variation of religion, somebody else’s version. But when he opened the car door and Saffanah got out, the lightness in her step pleased him. Maybe this whole time she’d just needed to get out of the city.
A middle-aged Bedouin man came out of the small house and started up a conversation with Ibrahim. Saffanah stood to the side looking at the camels, three of whom had come to the fence and were now leaning over it, stretching their long necks to reach her. Nervously, she approached them, lifting her hand carefully to rub one behind the ear. The camel snorted and stuck his nose in her neck. Doesn’t he smell the vomit? Ibrahim wondered. But apparently not, because the camel fixed his teeth around the bottom of her burqa. Saffanah twitched and pulled away, and with a rip the burqa came free. She quickly ducked to the side, hiding her face from the Bedouin, but she needn’t have worried. The man was quicker than her. He turned to the camel immediately, shaking his head with a laugh and reaching for the burqa. But the camel was trotting away and the Bedouin had to chase him across the yard.
It took Ibrahim a moment to notice that Saffanah was laughing. She straightened very slowly, the smile still in her eyes, and when she saw that the Bedouin had politely turned his back to her, she actually looked happy.
“Dirty bastard,” the Bedouin muttered to the camel. “You’re a dirty old man.”
Two other camels were still at the fence, sniffing interestedly at Saffanah’s neck. Ibrahim watched her, half listening to the Bedouin scold his camel. Suddenly Saffanah nuzzled her nose into one of the camels. It was a miraculously small gesture that conveyed something quite grand: neediness and sadness, the desire to give comfort as much as receive it, and a kind of pleading quality that said: Please forgive me.
Maybe it was the gesture, maybe the vomiting, but a sharp thought cut straight through his mind. She’s pregnant. It wasn’t rational. Saffanah was too religious to have gotten herself into something like that. It didn’t make sense. But fifteen years of police work had taught him to trust his intuition. Pregnant? All of the blood in his arms seemed to come to the surface. He jammed his hands into his pockets and wrapped one around his cell phone. His skin prickled. Saffanah?
He wasn’t angry, exactly. He felt amazement and chagrin. When did she meet the man who had deflowered her? He felt certain it wasn’t Zaki—his son complained far too much about her frigidity to leave much room for doubt. Zaki left the house as often as he could; God, she could have been meeting any number of men!
She had noticed the change in his demeanor and was now petting the camel in a nervous way. As soon as the Bedouin was far enough away, Ibrahim moved toward her. He removed her hand from the camel’s face and held it. It was the first time he’d touched her.
“Saffanah. Look at me.” He said it kindly, but she turned to him as if he were holding a whip. He squeezed her hand reassuringly. “You’re pregnant.”
She jerked back, a spasm of shocked denial.
“It wasn’t a question,” he said, squeezing her hand harder now. “How far along are you?”
“I am not—”
“I’m a cop, Saffanah. I know when someone’s lying. Just tell me; I won’t tell anyone. I promise.”
She stared at him. She did a damn good job of pretending indignation. In fact, she’d done a damn good job of pretending everything. And she was stubborn. There was no way she was going to admit to the truth, and bullying would only entrench her resistance. He sighed.
“All right,” he said, letting go of her hand. “I just thought—with you throwing up back there…”
She turned back to the camel pen. The camels kept nudging her, and she continued to pet them, but her hand worked mechanically.
He realized that they could never send her back now. If her father found out, he’d make Zaki pay for the child forever. If Jibril found out that it wasn’t Zaki’s kid, he would have his daughter tried for adultery.
Ibrahim’s arms were still tingling and he realized he was afraid for her now. “Well,” he said, “after what happened today, I think the best idea is to go home and have sex with Zaki.” At the word sex her hand froze on the camel’s ear, then slowly continued. “After a while, you get pregnant and have a baby. If you want to do it differently, Zaki’s going to realize that it’s not his. Does my wife know?”
She gave him a look of outright disgust.
“Well, thank God for that,” he muttered.
Something was forged between them in that moment, the magnetism of shared secrets. She stopped petting the camels, curled her arms around her waist, and stared at the fence. If this were his own daughter—one of the twins, say, because Farrah was hopeless—and if she weren’t already pregnant, he’d tell her she’d better get an education before ruining her lovely figure with pregnancies and the kind of slovenly overeating that comes from boredom and from being stuck at home like a good Saudi housewife. He’d tell her she’d better get a career in case her husband turned out to be a jackal and left her with kids to raise on her own. He’d try to forge some strength in her, the kind of fierce, dignified personal power that was, in his family at least, the most highly regarded quality in a woman. But he sensed that Saffanah would recoil at these sentiments.
The Bedouin brought back her burqa, and Ibrahim thanked him. It was wet with camel spit and torn at the edge, but Ibrahim insisted it was fine. Saffanah took it gratefully and put it on at once.
They walked back to the car, but Ibrahim forced her to sit in the front seat, and he wouldn’t start the car until she put on her seat belt, which she did slowly, like a reluctant child. They didn’t talk, but he could tell that she wanted to say something. Probably: You don’t really think I’m pregnant, do you? He wasn’t in the mood.
By the time they reached the main road, the sun was setting. It filled the sky with a dazzling pink and for a moment he felt cocooned in a spool of cotton candy. It reminded him of being a child and going to the funfairs in the evenings. He’d gone to those same funfairs with his own kids, but Jamila had always made it a torturous experience. And now what would happen to Zaki and Saffanah, going to funfairs openly hostile to each other with a child that wasn’t even theirs?
He reached into the door pocket and found his cigarettes, lit one, and dropped the pack on the dash. He felt vaguely guilty for smoking around a pregnant woman, but lo, the surprises weren’t over that day. Saffanah picked up the packet and took out a cigarette. He was too amazed to speak. Saffanah—smoking? She didn’t even shoot a guilty look in his direction before lighting it, inhaling right through her veil.
In that moment, everything became clear. Saffanah as he knew her was a total lie. Her religiosity looked like a pretense now, a shield to keep Zaki away—perhaps because she was in love with someone else? Hell, she’d been trying to alienate the whole family. Who she genuinely was, he couldn’t have said.
“You shouldn’t smoke,” he said lamely. “Not if you’re pregnant.”
She didn’t reply. Glancing over, he saw that her veil was sticking to her face; a wet trail was streaking down each cheek. She was crying.
Ibrahim parked on the corner farthest from the house. He wanted to give her a chance to collect herself before facing the family, should any of them happen to be lurking outside. The street was empty. They sat quietly in the car, Saffanah facing the window and probably seeing nothing. It was dark, and he knew from experience that wearing a face veil in the dark made you the equivalent of blind. He had actually tried it himself one night—he and his brother Omar had walked up and down the block with their wives’ burqas on their faces, trying to settle an argument about whether Omar’s wife, Rahaf, could possibly have walked into the neighbor’s car accidentally, thus setting off the car alarm and infuriating the neighbor. Omar had insisted she’d done it on purpose, but Ibrahim argued that even if your burqa had eyeholes, it was hard to see what you were doing. So Saffanah’s being turned away from him seemed like a silent plea for privacy—or forgiveness, he couldn’t say which.
Once he finished his last cigarette, they got out of the car, Saffanah fumbling in the dark. He came around to her side of the car and said, “Walk beside me. I don’t want you setting off any car alarms.” She obeyed and they made their slow way down the street, Ibrahim watching her every step to make sure she didn’t trip. When he got her to the house, he heard his wife’s voice as she came down the staircase, a low grumble that was unintelligible but which he implicitly understood. She was complaining about something, probably Ibrahim’s inability to get his son a divorce.
Saffanah refused to remove her veil until they reached the second-floor landing. (The downstairs neighbors were a constant threat to propriety.) So he walked her to her door. She gave him one last frightened look before she went inside.
Ten minutes later, he was driving back into the city. He took the Corniche road. Roundabouts and their statuary glittered in the lights—from traffic, streetlamps, floodlights, and apartment buildings, a flowing river of light at the edge of the dark Red Sea.
He parked in his usual space beneath Sabria’s building, the space allocated to her apartment and that she might have used had she been allowed to drive. If the neighbors paid any attention to him at all, they assumed he was her father. He looked old enough. (Although once a female neighbor had mistaken him for a driver and asked him for a ride.) In paranoid moments, he considered parking on the street so no one would suspect that Sabria had a male visitor, but parking was scarce here. It was a relief to have a dedicated slot, because it seemed the more he came here, the more urgent he was to see her. In the beginning, she had needed him more—for sexual fulfillment, for comfort, and even for simple things like going to the doctor. They weren’t married, yet she had become, in essence, his second wife. Over the past two years, his need for her had grown greater than he had expected.
He saw a woman going into the elevator, so he took the stairs. The neighbors were mostly foreigners—a doctor from India, a few Egyptian couples, not the kind of people who gave much thought to Sabria’s marital status or to the man who visited her every night and left before dawn. All the same, he thought it prudent to avoid talking to them.
He took the stairs two at a time and wasn’t even out of breath when he reached the fourth floor. He went straight to her door. When she didn’t answer, his chest started to feel tight. His heart was pounding. He should have taken the elevator. He knocked again. No answer.
Fishing in his pocket, he found the key. She had given it to him a year ago, and he kept it on his key chain, dangling there as innocently as his own house key. He had never used it. He wasn’t even sure it would work. But it slid into the lock, and the door opened.
The apartment was dark. The stillness made him nervous. She always had music playing, the television on, Al-Jazeera flickering silently in the background. Food cooking on the stove. He stood in the quiet and launched a single question at the universe: Where is she?
Feeling oddly like an intruder, he sat on the sofa and tried to reach her on her cell phone. It went to voice mail on the first ring, which meant that it was off.
He went directly to the neighbors. Iman and Asma were a blatantly lesbian couple who claimed they were sisters. They had a wall in common with Sabria’s apartment, and on quiet summer nights when the noises from their bedroom strained through the wallboards, Ibrahim would lie there wondering if the women would ever get caught and who would miss them if they were executed. They seemed to exist in a world of their own.
They were the only neighbors who ever came to the apartment, who ever exchanged more than an occasional hello with Sabria. Asma opened the door and gazed at him with the diffidence she had demonstrated ever since Sabria told them he was a cop.
“I’m just wondering if you’ve seen Sabria today?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Not since yesterday.”
“Did you hear her go out?”
“No. Why? She’s not there?” Even Asma seemed to find this odd. “Maybe she went to the store?”
“I thought she’d be here.”
Asma called to Iman, and the two women stood there puzzling out the last time they’d seen Sabria. It had been two days, in fact, once all the details were straightened out, but Iman was certain that she’d heard noise coming from Sabria’s apartment late this afternoon.
“It sounded like she was at home,” Iman said. “I heard the television.”
“Okay, thanks,” Ibrahim said. “If you see her, tell her to call me.”
He went back to the apartment. He hadn’t talked to Sabria since the night before, but she’d been just as ever. Happy to see him. Smiling. Plying him with chicken and rice and a bowl of halawa mixed with cream. Sliding into his arms as he sat in a postdinner coma watching her; arousing him with the warmth of her hands, the power in her thighs as she climbed onto him.
He took another look around. No sign of forced entry on the doorjamb, the handle. Windows locked. Nothing out of place. Only her purse, keys, and cell phone missing. She had gone somewhere. There’s going to be a stupid explanation. But he couldn’t think of one. Every time he’d toss out an idea, he’d feel a skipping panic, little splashes of excitement before each notion sank. He was surprised that it could happen as easily as that—that the most important thing in your life could vanish so quickly and quietly.
The worst part was that there was no one to tell.
He lay awake, staring at the wooden window screen of the men’s sitting room. Dawn hadn’t broken, they hadn’t even sounded the first call to prayer, but he’d woken up anyway, panicked about Sabria.
In the five years he’d known her, she’d never been on time for an appointment. Yet in the two years since they’d been together, she’d never missed a date. They didn’t have a date per se, but they saw each other three to four times a week. If he could only tell Omar what was happening, his brother would, by his very embodiment of authority, provide an answer. But what was Ibrahim going to say: I’ve had a mistress for two years and now she’s gone?
It was tempting to blame his paranoia on the discovery of the bodies. He remembered this from before, working Homicide in his late twenties. Every time there was a murder, he grew panicky if something went wrong at home. Now more than ever, he needed the rest of his life to retain its delicate, secret structure.
Someone had to know where she was. She didn’t have many friends. She worked during the day, in a women’s-only shopping mall. Her coworkers were as mysterious to him as any stranger in a niqab. Her family was in Indonesia, or maybe they’d moved back to the Philippines by now. She never talked about them, only about her mother, who was dead.
His mind tore through the possibilities, cutting intersections, ignoring pedestrians, hitting wide-open freeways that circled him back around a whole metropolis of problems that hadn’t existed before last night. Had she grown sick of him? Had she left for someone else? Why not a good-bye note? Had someone taken her? She was anonymous. Who even knew she was there?
He could think of a few people who might want to hurt her. Her old employer, the bastard who had raped her when she was working as his housemaid. But the bastard had fallen into dark history, was never mentioned anymore. And why would he come after her? If there was a reason, or even the hint of a threat, she would have told Ibrahim first thing.
Maybe someone from one of her Undercover jobs might be looking for revenge. She had been hired for Undercover five years ago, which was how they had met. She’d done a number of assignments with Ubayy al-Warra before being transferred to Ibrahim. He’d been working a female shoplifting network and needed an infiltrator. It was hard enough finding a woman for such a task, let alone a proficient one. Sabria had been excellent.
She’d eventually decided that the job was too taxing for her. He knew all the cases she’d worked on with him, but there were dozens more she’d done in the two years with al-Warra that he knew very little about. She hadn’t talked about them much except to say that they were uninteresting.
The house began to stir. He leaned his head against the wall and checked his phone. No calls. Few people would have understood that he was sleeping with a woman he hadn’t married, and those who would have understood were too close to his family. He couldn’t trust that they wouldn’t say something, and he didn’t like people carrying dangerous secrets around. Only Sabria had ever had that privilege.
They weren’t married because Sabria was already married. She’d been forced into it by her former employer, the same man who had raped her, neglected her, and who was no doubt brutalizing some new young housemaid at this very moment. Mahmoud Halifi. He had disappeared over five years ago, shortly after Sabria had fled his house. It occurred to Ibrahim that if she ever saw Halifi again, she might do something rash. She carried pepper spray and was proficient at kung fu, but Halifi was twice her size, all raw muscle and fury and animal brutality. He could easily overpower her.
Halifi had raped her multiple times, but it wasn’t until Sabria became pregnant that he forced her to marry him. They conducted a two-minute ceremony in his living room, and the bastard had actually notified the records office, making it completely official. She had miscarried a week later. In order to divorce him, she would have to find him, and she hadn’t put any energy into that over the past five years.
The fact that she and Ibrahim couldn’t marry didn’t bother her as much as it bothered him, but when he really thought it through, the conclusion ended somewhere with his wife having him killed quietly in his sleep or arranging for him to be ostracized by his family and friends for the rest of his life.
He got up, got dressed, and managed to leave the house without having to talk to Jamila, even though it meant missing breakfast with the twins, who were ten. He sent them each a text telling them he’d see them after dinner and would they please remember that it was Thursday—they had a date for ice cream? They both replied with happy emoticons.
He reached Sabria’s apartment and did another sweep. Still empty. He went back to the neighbors, who said she hadn’t come home the night before. So he returned to her apartment, sat at the kitchen table, and began calling hospitals.
It was clear from the chatter that the department was quite proud of not having a specialist in serial killers on hand. It was, in fact, a matter of national pride that they didn’t need one. And there was a certain hunger in the men’s faces knowing that an American was going to enter the room to explain something only an American would know. And they would, ever so politely (Ibrahim could see them planning their deftness), berate America for importing its violence to this virgin country; a country not immune to violence, but certainly one that had never produced a Hannibal Lecter. (He felt certain there were men in the room who didn’t realize Lecter was fictional.) There was an eagerness, too, that said Very well, we may have produced Osama bin Laden, but you produced a kind of viral Jeffrey Dahmer that has spread around the world, and apparently only you have the vaccine?
He overheard someone whisper “Do you think he’ll talk about Ed Bundy?”
“Ted Bundy!” Daher corrected sharply, slapping the officer on the back of the head.
It had been a long weekend. Ibrahim had spent the whole time worrying about Sabria, but now, watching the situation room fill up, he tried to put her in the back of his mind and focus on the case.
A few officers weren’t there, and half of forensics was still out at the gravesites. They had finished removing the bodies, which had all been brought to the examiner’s, but in the past twenty-four hours forensics had uncovered something else: the killer had buried one of the severed hands near the body it belonged to. This had prompted the forensics and excavation teams to widen the area around each of the bodies in search of more artifacts. They had found another two hands buried near another body, but that was it.
Ibrahim was surprised that he was still in charge of the case. Riyadh had sent him to the desert because he’d been out of practice with Homicide cases for ten years. Now he suddenly found himself sitting on top of what might be the biggest case of the decade. He figured he could expect to hold on to it for another hour at the most. At the back of the room, the department’s other detectives were forming a group: Osama, Abu-Haitham, and the tall, bluff Yasser Mu’tazz, plus two others whose names he couldn’t remember.
As soon as the American appeared, all expectation collapsed. Ibrahim could almost hear the Shit! in mental unison followed by an intake of breath when Dr. Charlie Becker walked into the room. Her face was a clean porcelain, her button-down shirt almost a mockery of Saudi manhood: white and loose, but clinging in just the right places. She wasn’t even wearing a headscarf, and her long auburn hair had a springy quality that made it seem alive whenever she moved her head.
She looked momentarily confused, as if she’d walked into the wrong room in the wrong country. She glanced back at her guide, Chief Riyadh, who strode forward, nodding paternally at her before taking up position in front of his men with a careful sternness on his face.
“Gentlemen, I’d like to introduce you to our FBI specialist in serial killers, Dr. Charlie Becker, who has graciously flown in from a conference in Dubai.” It was clear from Riyadh’s voice that he’d had no idea that Dr. Becker was a woman until she’d arrived at his office. “Dr. Becker does not speak Arabic, but Officer Kazaz has offered to translate.” Everyone looked at Kazaz as if he were a newly anointed king.
Ibrahim caught sight of the old Murrah grandfather Talib al-Shafi who had been responsible for most of the tracking at the gravesites. He was standing by the door, a slight man, his thick gray hair braided and tucked up beneath his headscarf. As Charlie walked into the room, he studied her walk, looked at her feet, seemed to find them acceptable, then turned and left.
“Thank you so much for having me,” Charlie said, surprising everyone. She could not have known that the crisp, high notes of her voice broke against walls that had not rebounded a female sound for years. She noticed the effect of her words on the men’s faces and blushed ever so slightly before pressing on. “I’m a psychiatrist by training but I got involved with the FBI as a specialist in certain kinds of deviant behavior, and now I focus exclusively on serial killers. I understand you have one on your hands right now.”
A few men nodded, but the rest were dumbstruck by her manner, both vulnerable and confident, by the fact that her hair announced its presence by glittering in the fluorescent lights. Most men in the room had a good enough grasp of English to understand what she was saying. The translation was merely a backup. Ibrahim stepped forward.
“Dr. Becker,” he said, “thank you for coming. I’m Inspector Ibrahim Zahrani and I’m in charge of this case. We do appear to have a serial killer and we’d appreciate anything you could tell us.”
“I understand you’ve never had one before?”
This triggered a discussion once it had been translated. “Of course we’ve had serial killers before,” Daher remarked in Arabic. “Does she think that we’re completely backward?”
“Tell her about Yanbu,” someone else said.
“She already knows about that,” the translator replied. “She’s asking about this department specifically. Has anyone in this room ever dealt with a serial killer before?”
“Sure,” Osama said from the back of the room. “The warehouse killer.”
Kazaz translated this.
“That’s a spree killer,” Charlie said, promptly ending the discussion. “Spree killers are different. They get carried away with bloodlust. A serial killer is someone much more thorough, and generally more careful.”
Ibrahim noticed Katya Hijazi slip into the room. She stood just inside the doorway and tried to look as if she belonged there. Charlie noticed too, smiled at her, and fumbled whatever she was saying, causing the rest of the room to turn and stare at Katya. Finally Charlie gave up and said “Hello” with a vague expression of pity on her face. Katya looked as if she wanted to slap her.
“Anyway,” Charlie went on, “the most important step in these types of investigations is to identify what you’re dealing with. And you’re halfway there. You already know he’s a serial killer. Until you start identifying some of the victims, there’s not much anyone’s going to be able to tell you about your killer specifically—such as where he might have met these women, what sort of neighborhood he lives in, what sort of job or family or other public façade he might have. So I’ll tell you what we know about serial killers, and then I’ll speak generally about yours, given what we do know about the patterns of his killings.”
Once the translator had finished, the only sound in the room was the low whir of air coming through the air-conditioning vents.
“For most serial killers, it starts with a fantasy,” Charlie said. Someone had offered her a bottle of water, and she cracked it open, took a sip. “Everyone has them, right? You fantasize about being the boss at work, about your wife loving you more than anyone else in the world. Whatever it is, it’s probably normal.”
Somewhere beside him, Ibrahim heard a long, low whispered “Ayyyyyyyywa.” Yeeeees. He suspected Daher.
“Most killers kill for obvious and intelligible reasons—greed, anger, revenge—but for serial killers, the reasons are personal, internal, and not fully comprehensible. They are more like compulsions. Their murders satisfy a deep inner need, the playing out of some fantasy that they’ve nurtured, usually for a very long time. Since childhood. Their fantasies are brutal. They commonly involve sadistic sexual violence and disfigurement. You’ve seen disfigurement here.” She glanced at the whiteboard, where photos of the nineteen shattered faces hung in neat rows. “But the important thing to know about the fantasies is that they’re like addictions. I know you don’t have a whole lot of gambling or alcohol or even drugs here. But you do know about them, and I’m sure you’ve seen them.
“Typically, alcohol medicates a problem or a pain, and so does fantasy. So the killer is relying on his fantasies to make himself feel better. He’ll nurture his fantasies for many years, and like all addictions, it gets to the point where he needs more in order to sustain the buzz. One beer doesn’t get a man drunk, so an alcoholic will start to need ten, or twenty. For the killer, he reaches a point where he needs to make his fantasy real.”
Charlie looked out over the room. She was more confident now, no traces of self-consciousness. She noticed Daher, something in his face, and said: “You have a question?”
He shook his head.
“No, go ahead,” she said. “Mr…?”
“Daher.” He cleared his throat. “Waseem Daher.” It was funny to see him so uncomfortable. “I was just wondering. He’s crazy, right? He thinks it’s okay to kill someone for his sick fantasy. Why is that?”
“Good question. Psychologists used to call these people psychopaths or sociopaths, depending on certain factors. But it’s more common these days to think of them as having what we call antisocial personality disorder, or ASPD. Briefly, it means that they don’t have a conscience like you or me. They are often incapable of love, which means they don’t develop lasting relationships unless there’s an obvious cause for it, like sex or money. They are impulsive and aggressive. But the most defining aspect really is that they have absolutely no sense of guilt.”
“So they don’t understand how to treat people?”
“We-e-e-ll,” she said, “they don’t feel what normal people feel, but they do understand people to an amazing degree. They are capable of deceiving even those who are closest to them—family members, coworkers—and they can do that precisely because they understand them. They’re usually very good liars. And highly intelligent.”
Daher nodded uncomfortably.
“Should we be looking at old criminal files for our killer?” Ibrahim asked.
“Yes,” Charlie said, “you should absolutely check, but you may not find anything. In some cases, serial killers have a history of violent crime, but it’s more true to say that they’re very, very good at not getting caught. And if you do look at criminals, look for pyromaniacs and stalkers. Those are the most common early crimes for this type of individual.”
“Specialists talk about six phases of killing,” Charlie went on. “These are psychological phases that were identified back in the eighties that most serial killers go through. The killer begins with a fantasy. Phase one. He withdraws into his inner world and develops the fantasy. Phase two begins when he starts actively looking for a victim. Most killers will start in a place that’s familiar to them, somewhere they’re comfortable. Their favorite street, a neighborhood café. This could take weeks or months. The victim has to match the fantasy.
“The next few phases can happen very quickly. Phase three, the killer tries to win the victim’s trust. Four, the killer captures the victim and reveals who he is. Five, he murders her. Six, he crashes from the high of living out his fantasy. So let’s make up an example: a killer sits next to a woman at a bar.”
Daher shook his head with a frown.
“Oh, right,” Charlie said, “not a bar. You don’t have them. Maybe a restaurant then.”
Daher shook his head again.
“Yes, Mr. Daher?”
“That’s unlikely to happen here. Men and women sit in different parts of restaurants.”
Charlie nodded. “Okay. How could a man encounter a woman here? In public.”
The men looked at one another. Did this woman not understand anything about Saudi Arabia?
“He could talk to her on the street,” a voice said. It was Katya, still near the doorway. Everyone turned to look. “But that doesn’t mean she would talk back. She probably wouldn’t.”
“Under what circumstances would she talk back?” Charlie asked.
“If she knew him.”
“Most likely, she wouldn’t know him. The killer would want her to be a stranger.”
“Okay,” Katya said. “She wouldn’t talk to him unless, perhaps, he needed her help.”
Daher, who had been watching this exchange with a dark look on his face, put in: “Like Ted Bundy.”
“Good point,” Charlie said, still looking at Katya. “So maybe he lured her with a false vulnerability. Where else could he find a woman?”
“Well, she could have been his housemaid,” Daher said.
“She probably wouldn’t have been,” Charlie said, “at least not consistently. In phase two, when he’s trolling for the perfect victim, he’s looking from afar. He’s studying the victim for signs that she’ll be like the woman in his fantasy—and the more you get to know someone, the less like fantasy they become. So the killer looks for superficial things, usually physical characteristics. For example, Ted Bundy preferred women with their hair parted in the middle.”
“Well,” Daher said with a dry laugh, “our killer won’t be looking for a particular hairstyle.”
Charlie gave him a wry smile and turned back to Katya. “Right. He might be looking for facial features, then?”
“Maybe,” Katya said. “Or just… a body shape.”
“Excellent. Maybe she’s always petite. Or skinny.”
Riyadh, who had been standing to the side, said: “All of the victims were between one point eight and one point nine meters tall. And all of them were immigrants, mostly from Asian countries.”
“How tall is one point eight meters?” Charlie asked Katya.
“Just under six feet,” Katya said.
“Oh, okay. So they’re pretty tall.” Charlie turned back to the room, but not before giving Katya a secretive smile. “It’s not very common to find tall women among certain racial groups, so you already know one thing about him: he likes tall, Asian women. He’s targeting an unusual type. One of your main problems is going to be determining how your killer found and captured his victims. How he won their trust.
“There’s one more important classification about serial killers that you’re going to want to look at, and that’s organization. How organized is he? Another way to think of this is, how elaborately does he plot and execute his fantasy? Planning a murder takes time and energy. Some murderers kill their victims right away. That’s the disorganized type. They tend to be sloppy. They also tend to be excessively gory and violent. The organized types are different. They make the killing phase—that’s phase five in the sequence—last for days or even weeks. They usually don’t kill the victims right away, and even if they do, they don’t dispose of the body right away. They want to keep enjoying the thrill of watching their victim being abused. They want the fantasy to last as long as it can. It only ends when they get sick of it. Our Behavioral Science Unit developed this classification, and it extends to crime scenes as well. The disorganized killer will leave, well, a messy crime scene. But an organized killer is elaborate and has usually planned out exactly how to hide every trace of his crime. Except for one thing: the totem.”
“What’s that?” This was Kazaz, the translator.
“A totem is something he’s saved from the kill—usually a body part, but it can be anything. It’s something like a trophy. It reminds him of the experience, and he can go back to it with pleasure or pride.”
“The hands,” Ibrahim said.
Charlie looked at him, her attention like a spotlight. “Yes, he removed the victims’ hands. Both of them, right?”
“That’s right,” Ibrahim replied. “He cut off all of the women’s hands, but just yesterday we found three of them buried by the bodies.”
Charlie was thoughtful for a moment. “The hands are probably his trophies. It’s definitely worth asking why he only buried three of them. There may be some evidence on those three that will lead you to understand why he chose to cut hands off in the first place. You may not be able to figure it out until you catch him, but if you understand it, it can be a very valuable clue.
“You’re going to need to find out more, of course, but from what you have learned about this guy, I think you’re dealing with a very organized killer. He took the time to dispose of the bodies. And given their state—the missing hands, the mutilated faces—and the isolation of the locale, he’s obviously been working systematically. The most recent victim was three months dead?”
“No more than six,” Ibrahim said.
“Then I hate to say it, but he will probably kill again soon. He will be, right now, planning his next kill. The real question is, how is he getting access to these women? Where is he finding them and what do they have in common? You obviously have a lot of work to do in terms of identifying them. He’s going to realize that you’ve found where he buried his victims, and he will adapt his methods. He probably won’t go to the same place to find his victims anymore, but he may not be so willing to change his ‘type.’ ”
This was followed by an uneasy silence.
“Well,” Daher remarked in Arabic, “maybe we should start telling our women to stay indoors.”
Charlie looked to Kazaz for a translation, but he frowned.
The room fell silent, full from its intellectual meal. Ibrahim detected a slight shakiness: so many officers unused to taking directions from a woman.
“I think that’s enough for now,” Chief Riyadh said. “Dr. Becker has kindly agreed to be available to answer questions over the next month, so we’ll be able to talk with her in more depth once the medical examiner has finished his reports and we’ve heard from forensics.”
The group broke up slowly. Charlie and Riyadh stood at the front of the room chatting, and Daher made a man-pack with his friends. Katya slipped out of the room.
In the hallway, Ibrahim bumped into Talib, the Murrah tracker.
“You left early,” Ibrahim remarked.
“Well, I knew it wasn’t her.” He tossed his chin in the direction of Dr. Becker.
“Thank God for that. But you said you didn’t have a footprint of the killer.”
“Oh, we had something,” Talib said. “Not clear enough for a photograph, but good for our purposes. Enough to get a sense of him.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this at the crime scene?”
“It took a long time to eliminate all the other men who were at the scene.”
“All right,” Ibrahim said. “It’s definitely a man, then?”
“And where does he live, this killer?”
Talib smiled. “What a funny question. What makes you think I can answer it?”
“He lives in the city. Nothing wrong with his back. He’s much taller than me, probably heavier.” With a small pair of hands, Talib cupped a gesture around his gerbil-size paunch.
“And are you going to tell me how you came to this?” Ibrahim asked.
“He uses his right foot differently than his left. And the way that he uses it differently means he either has an injury or drives a car. The right is more flexible, all the way along the bottom of the foot and even the ankle. Twists side to side a little when he walks. It’s the stronger leg too. He’s probably right-handed.”
“And he’s a man because?”
“Only men drive cars.”
Ibrahim smiled, then let out a laugh. “Yes, sorry. Glad someone’s using logic.”
The Bedouin waved his hand in a courtly gesture that said I’m quite certain you’re better at logic than I am.
Ibrahim unlocked his office door and said good-bye to Talib. He barely had time to switch on the lights before the other men came in: first one of the junior cops, Shaya, then Daher and his followers. He saw a flash of black in the hallway and wondered if Katya had wanted to speak to him as well.
The office was small—two tables and a desk, the best the department could come up with for now. It was totally inadequate for meetings. The men sat on the stools, perched on his tables. They wanted direction, he realized. He sat down.
“Well, the American was helpful,” Daher said. “Nothing like a woman’s face to focus the mind.”
“It wasn’t your mind being focused,” one of the others said.
“No, no,” Daher replied. “I now have a very clear sense of what we should be doing. We should be sitting in a conference room staring at a white shirt.”
The men had been pushing the boundaries since Ibrahim started at Homicide. They had realized that he wouldn’t take offense at their joking. In the car riding out to the desert, before they had found the bodies, Daher, who had been reading something on his cell phone, boomed out: “Gentlemen, it’s time to move to Malaysia!”
“Oh no.” Shaya had rolled his eyes.
“Oh yes! And do you know why? Because Malaysia has taken the remarkable step of banning bras. Yes, indeed. They are—and I quote the sheikh who made the ruling—‘devil’s cushions.’ And no good Muslim woman should wear one, because they exaggerate the shape and curvature of the breast.” He tossed his phone on his lap with satisfaction. “Imagine, please, a whole nation without bras!”
It had made Ibrahim laugh then, but now he was beginning to get fed up.
“We ought to be ashamed,” he said. “This man has been killing for over a decade and we haven’t found out about it until now.”
The room fell silent.
“I’m sure someone noticed these women were missing,” he went on, “but whoever they were, they didn’t nag us. No one’s been showing up at our office for ten years running. That’s because they probably live on the other side of the world and they can’t show up. They don’t have the means.”
He hoped he wasn’t going too far—or revealing his own angst. They had to find a killer; he was supposed to coordinate these overgrown boys with intelligence and a knowledge he didn’t really possess, yet the only thing he could think of was Sabria. Nothing like a woman to focus the mind.
“So basically it’s our job to find out every single thing that we can, because someday we’re going to meet all those people who noticed and we’re going to have to tell them what happened.”
He looked around. They all knew the situation: the Homicide Department had a 90 percent success rate in capturing and prosecuting murderers. Never mind that the figure might have been a little bloated by those zealous officers who “encouraged” confessions by any means possible. The fact remained that the department had a lot to live up to. And right now, Ibrahim was ten years out of practice.
“Do you think they’ll keep us on this case?” Daher asked.
“Until I hear otherwise, it’s our job to find the man who did this.”
Excerpted from Kingdom of Strangers by Zoë Ferraris Copyright © 2012 by Zoë Ferraris. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted July 18, 2013
This is the third in a series of mystery novels set in Saudi Arabia (the initial book in the series being City of Veils). All three of them have been first rate mysteries. What really sets these books apart, however, are the inside views that they give of the Saudi culture.
Not surprisingly, women face difficulties if they have any aspirations toward a career. But, in addition, Ferraris notes how both men and women can face difficulties adjusting to any kind of healthy interactions with each other and often have to resort to secret lives. Well worth reading.
Posted April 10, 2013
Well written, well drawn characters, and a feeling for what an intelligent Saudi woman's life is like in a religious (and oppressive, in my opinion) culture. The author was married to a Muslim man and lived in Saudi for years. She knows firsthand of what she writes!
I have also read the other two books in this series, and they are equally fascinating and gripping.
Posted July 24, 2012
Found this book very interesting. A lot of details on Islam and the culture of Saudi Arabia. Also, it was well written and the story itself kept me looking forward to returning to it.
Posted December 20, 2012
No text was provided for this review.
Posted December 7, 2012
No text was provided for this review.
Posted February 23, 2013
No text was provided for this review.
Posted July 29, 2012
No text was provided for this review.