Muse 2: Fariq's Final Fantasia
Cavalier de Fantasia à la Casaque Verte
1919 Henri Émilien Rousseau
Pride and Extreme Prejudice
She thinks of it as her unrivaled ability to disappear into a role, à la Meryl Streep. Becoming someone else is her forte. It’s a skill for which she can thank her dear old baba, and one she’s been honing all her life. She drifts through the smoke and shadows, unseen.
No one pays any attention to the dark-haired woman slipping quietly through the throngs browsing in the Marrakech souks as she makes her way back to the hotel. The always-crowded marketplace is made even more so by the arts festival that is just winding up. She welcomes the congestion of the Moroccan city. The crush of crowds, the cacophony of sounds and smells, and even the assault of searing heat all serve to make her invisible. Dressed in an unadorned pale yellow djellaba and carrying a bag of oranges, she‘s just another shopper.
Leaving the teeming market, she winds through several narrow cobbled streets of the medina to the arched entrance of the Farah Mariana and gratefully steps into the shade offered by the hotel lobby. The hotel isn’t air-conditioned, but at least she’s sheltered from the relentless African sun. Four hundred Moroccan dirham buys only so much comfort.
Inside, the only movement is that of the dust motes stirred into action by the fan hanging from the high ceiling. As expected, she finds the small hotel lobby empty. The popular Fantasia horse-riding event, a must-see for tourists and locals alike, is giving its closing performance of the festival tonight just outside the city walls near Bab Jdid. But even if the closing ceremony hadn’t drawn all the hotel’s guests to the spectacle, there is little about the hotel’s sad little lobby with its worn couches and threadbare rugs to inspire lingering.
Tonight’s equestrian performance will be short one rider. The spectators won’t notice. The magnificence of over a hundred Arabian stallions strutting in formation through flames and smoke will be as mesmerizing as ever. What’s one Berber horseman, more or less?
But she knows, and soon they will know too. A satisfied smile touches her lips. And he thought I couldn't do it. Silly man. She wishes she could have seen his face when he read the text she'd sent.
Heavy rain pounded the Knightsbridge street, driving most pedestrians to take shelter in one of the trendy boutiques and restaurants than line its wide sidewalk. The tall man turned sideways and pushed open the door to the aromatic tea shop with his shoulder, pausing to shake the water from his black umbrella before closing it. He glanced around the warmly-lit shop and spotted the attractive woman sitting at a small round table in the far corner. He noted that she was far removed from the busy counter. Good choice, he thought.
Her call had come as a pleasant surprise. To be honest, it had given him a little thrill. Normally, any contact between them was initiated by him. But she had called his personal cell phone earlier that afternoon -- causing him to wonder for a moment how she’d gotten the number before reminding himself that this was Mercedes, after all – and asked to see him. He would love to believe that she just wanted to spend time with him but, alas, he knew better. As happened from time to time, she clearly had a bee in her bonnet. And when Mercedes Karpov got a bee in her bonnet, it always meant he was in for some sleepless nights. He wondered what it was this time.
He nodded at her, then went to the counter and ordered coffee. Despite living in London for several years, he’d never developed a taste for tea. After adding a healthy dollop of cream and a teaspoon of sugar to the brew, he carried it over to the table in the corner. He leaned down so they could exchange the traditional European air-kisses in both cheeks, Chase wishing it were something more, and sat down.
“Hello.” He smiled fondly at the woman across from him. “How are you?”
Edmond Chase had known Mercedes for nearly ten years, ever since her father was killed on the job, and had been attracted to her for almost as long. She was nineteen then. When he first saw her at his funeral, he’d been taken aback at how self-possessed she was, how strong. The traditional NYPD ceremony, with its mournful bagpipes filling the cold air with Amazing Grace, brought a tear to the eyes of most of the attendees. But not to hers. After learning her history of loss, he understood, but even so… It was strange in a someone who was still technically a teenager, like she was playing dress-up in the personality of a much older woman.
She returned the smile. “I’m well. Thanks for coming. It's good to see you.”
“You look well, albeit like the cat who swallowed the canary, I must say. What’s up?”
The smile widened. “Well, I haven’t actually gotten the canary yet, but I soon will.” She leaned forward and described her plan.
“Are you out of your mind?”
Mercedes raised her cup to her lips and sipped the fragrant Darjeeling, never taking her eyes from the face of the man across the table. She’d known he would object, but she also knew he would come around once he heard her out. He just needed to sputter a bit first.
“If we haven’t been able to find him, what makes you think you will?”
Every man has his vanities. Donning a traditional Maghrebian costume and sitting astride a magnificent Arabian stallion in Fantasia was one of Fariq al-Abayghur’s, it seems. Al-Abayghur was one of the world’s most sought-after thugs. One would have thought that he'd stay out of sight, but he was nothing if not arrogant. That, and apparently a bit stupid as well, though as Mercedes knows, stupidity is beside the point. Arrogant men are often taken down by their own pride. What was it the Bible said? “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”
Al-Abayghur had assumed he’d be safe hidden amid hundreds of similarly-costumed men riding in the smoky spectacle of Fantasia. And he'd been wrong.
Always thorough, Mercedes had come prepared. She’d spent endless hours studying video footage of a posturing al-Abayghur on YouTube, marveling all the while at the man’s judgment in promoting his services on film like a late-night TV pitch man selling cleaning products. Though Mercedes had to admit that his “advertising” had worked (business had unfortunately been quite good), in today’s world, it was inevitable that every minute of that film would end up on the Internet, providing an easily-accessed self-study course for every would-be captor. That was his pride again, she supposed, and she’d given his video image a nod of thanks for his hubris.
She learned every gesture, every lift of his right eyebrow, every nuance of the arrogant smirk on his scarred face. That was the easy part. She supposed it was too much to hope for, but it would have been nice if the YouTube videos offered contact information. Presumably, those who wanted to avail themselves of al-Abayghur's services already knew how to reach him. Finding him, and then getting to him, would present the real challenge. After all, if several of the world’s major intelligence agencies had failed…
Mercedes followed many leads, only to have them end in blind alleys. An anonymous tip – she’d never discovered who sent it -- that the killer was thought to participate in Fantasia at the Marrakech festival was the break she needed.
The following summer, Mercedes attended every Fantasia performance of the five-day Popular Arts Festival. Dressed in unremarkable and decidedly dowdy garb with her hair concealed beneath a frizzy blond wig, she’d been just another tourist with a camera. But identifying al-Abayghur in the constantly shifting pack of costumed Berber riders had proven impossible.
She’d come away with hundreds of photographs, however, including many facial close-ups taken with a powerful telephoto lens. When she got home, she’d uploaded the photos to her computer, and it hadn’t taken her facial recognition program long to pick al-Abayghur out of the crowd.
She studied the image carefully. His costume was elaborate, and it was distinctive.
Mercedes picked up the phone and called London.
“Got 'im. This time next year, the world will have one less bad guy. And my baba will rest easier in his grave.”
Mercedes quickly makes her way up the tiled staircase and down the gloomy hall to her small room. After a quick glance up and down the hallway, she turns her key in the lock and pushes open the door.
The nondescript old hotel doesn’t offer much in the way of amenities, but it does provide anonymity. Security is lax, and no one cares much who you are as long as you pay up front. Mercedes wonders if anyone staying at the Farah Mariana is who they say they are. No matter, as long as they don’t know who she is.
She’s registered as Alexandra Feodorovna, a private joke that makes Mercedes smile every time she thinks about it. Good one, that. Baba would have appreciated it.
After closing the door and throwing the flimsy lock, she drops the bag of oranges on the floor by the door, then attaches the portable lock-alarm she always carries on her travels. The custom-made gadget securing the door to its jamb wouldn’t keep a serious intruder out, but at least she’d know they were coming before they could get through the door. They’d not get much farther than that.
Mercedes releases the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding, relieved to be behind the locked door. Anxious to expose as much skin as possible to the slight breeze provided by the lazy paddle fan overhead, she simultaneously kicks off the soft leather babouche slippers she wears and tosses back the hood of her djellaba. She runs a hand over the back of her neck, where sweat has soaked the wispy ends of her short curly hair and stuck them to her skin. She can’t wait to get out the long robe and the concealed shoulder harness she wears beneath. The leather is beginning to chafe her skin right through the lightweight T-shirt she wears under it. She knows she could carry a more comfortable weapon, but Baba gave her the Makarov and it’s never let either one of them down.
She grabs the neck of the long robe and yanks it over her head. By the time it hits the floor in a honey-colored puddle, she has spun toward a shadowy corner of the room, the gun in her hand aimed steadily at the heart of the man slouched there in a threadbare chair.
“It’s about time, Alexandra.” His deep voice chuckles as he says the name. “Where the hell have you been? I was beginning to worry.”
He raises the glass of anise-scented Tamrirt mahia that alerted her sensitive nose to his presence.
"Shall we drink a toast to a job well-done?"
"Shall we drink a toast to a job well-done?"
Continued in Part 3: The Monk