Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Sixteen years ago.
“I need a drink,” the sailor growled to the barkeep. “Whiskey, straight.”
At the other man’s hesitation, the man jerked his head, sending wisps of black hair cascading toward the trail of bodies on the floor that led to his stool. Eight men lay in various states of disrepair. Some were groaning and clutching themselves; others were too far gone for that, and had drifted into the small mercy of unconsciousness.
“I can get it myself, if you’re of no use to me.”
The barkeep, who’d had enough cunning to evade the mutaween for years now, let his trembling fingers find a bottle of Johnny Walker and tried not to think about the cost to replace all the bottles that had been smashed when the ninth body had been flung over his cowering head and into the rail of spirits behind him. He started to slosh this liquor into a dirty glass, but the man at his bar languidly reached across and snatched it out of his hands.
“No need for that,” the sailor grinned, and took a long pull from the bottle. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he gestured vaguely at the amber liquid in the glass the barkeep still held. “You look like you could use some of that, yourself. Drink with me. And don’t give me any garbage about what’s haram.”
The bartender’s eyes flicked over to the two other people left conscious in the room. The new belly dancer had been a classy addition, he’d thought, but she was having a hell of a first day. She cowered behind the makeshift stage that had taken over the center of the small room, eyes wide with fear.
The other man, down at the end of the bar, took a slow sip from his glass, and nodded to the barkeep. The dip of the man’s head was full of assurance, but the man holding the glass of Johnny Walker wasn’t certain that what it was assuring was in any way comforting. He thought it might mean more broken bottles of whiskey.
He thought he needed the drink. He downed it in one go.
The sailor grinned. “See? We drink together. There’s no reason we can’t be friends!” He eased back onto the barstool, and added, “Unless of course you also object to questions about the death of Ali al-a-Din?”
Wordlessly, the bartender shook his head. When the man at the other end of the bar cleared his throat, the host nearly fainted with relief.
“You seem quite invested in unraveling the mystery, my dear boy.”
He spoke English, but appeared unbothered by the Arabic that had just been exchanged. His accent was British, as were the elbow pads on his tweed jacket. He was short, but not overly short, and thin, without being too thin. His face was more or less symmetric. He was extremely unremarkable.
But then he looked at you, and his eyes bored through yours and into your skull and snaked their way down into your soul and saw your deepest, darkest secrets, and laughed at them. Because his own were so much darker.
The sailor pushed back from the bar, whiskey bottle in hand, and sauntered over the bodies of the men who had attacked him when he’d started asking questions. It had been a remarkably short fight, and he had laughed the whole time like he was telling jokes with his best friends. He had been telling jokes, bawdy ones, mostly about the mothers of the men he was breaking.
Easing his way toward the other man, he gestured at the prone figures, and asked in flawless English, “Do these belong to you?”
The eyes blazed. “Not anymore. For what I was paying them, I’d have expected them to last at least a little bit longer, even against Sinbad the Sailor.”
The other man gave a slight nod and a bow. “At your service. But I believe you have me at a disadvantage, mister…?”
The small man nodded back. “Correct. I do have you at a disadvantage.”
Sinbad laughed, hearty and genuinely amused. “You’re a funny one, Mr. Correct. I don’t find myself overly persuaded by your opening argument.” He jerked his head backward at the scene behind him.
“It’s ‘Professor’,” was the other man’s only reply.
He waited, with his burning eyes, and something in them slithered its way down Sinbad’s spine.
“I’ve faced down whales the size of islands, and snakes that can swallow elephants,” Sinbad boasted. “What threat could you pose me?”
The Professor didn’t answer his question. Instead, he cocked his head slightly and asked, “Why do you care about the murder of al-a-Din? What’s the carpet peddler to you?”
“Nothing,” Sinbad rumbled. “But he’s a favorite of my mistress. She herself called upon me to respond in kind.”
“Ah,” came the reply. “The Mother of Stories seeks to defend herself. And you are what she sends?” He scoffed. “She does not know who pursues her, then.”
With blinding speed, the sailor smashed the whiskey bottle on the bar and drove the razor’s edge at the other man’s throat. It slid open his skin and hovered there, just a fraction of an inch deep. A promise.
A trickle of blood made its way down the Professor’s neck.
Sinbad whispered, “Why don’t you tell me, then?”
The Professor seemed unmoved. “Or what? You’ll kill me? I assume you believe that I killed al-a-Din, so I understand that your mission is to extinguish me. Hardly a good bargaining posture for getting me to open up to you.”
“I’ve already opened you up. Your death doesn’t have to be fast,” Sinbad snarled. “You have fingers. Would you like to remain attached to them?”
A bead of sweat crept down from the Professor’s sandy hair. Sinbad grinned. “Nervous?”
“Warm,” the other man replied. “It is beyond my considerable imagining how people have been scrabbling over this blister on the the world for as long as they have.”
“Read the Qu’ran,” murmured the sailor. “Or your bible, if you will. The stories will tell you why. You should know the power of stories, if you are one of us.”
The professor coughed gently, trying to move his throat as little as possible. He was sweating profusely now.
“Right…” he said, blinking salt from his eyes. “Stories. Where… where did you say your mistress was?”
“Hah!” laughed Sinbad again. “You speak of bargaining postures, and yet you try to trap me in words. I think… I think that something is wrong with you, my friend.”
The swarthy man lowered his makeshift blade as the Englishman erupted into a coughing fit. He gasped, sucking at the air as if he had suddenly run a four minute mile.
“No…” he wheezed. “You… said…” His eyes unfocused, and he clawed at Sinbad. “I’m not… I’m an… actor… I was… on… location…”
The sailor stood quickly up and backed a half-step away from the dying man. “What deviltry is this…?” He whipped his head around, dark hair cutting through the hazy atmosphere.
The bartender was gurgling quietly behind the bar. None of the other men in the bar were moving. At all. Even their chests.
Noiselessly, the dancing girl gyrated on the stage. Her hips slid back and forth opposite her shoulders, and her neck swung in counterpoint, like a snake. Her eyes, though… her eyes… they bored into Sinbad’s, and into his skull and snaked their way down into his soul and saw his deepest, darkest secrets, and laughed at them.
Because her own were so much darker. So very much.
“Have I got your attention?” she purred.
Sinbad felt something in his chest, and shook his head in disbelief. “They said… they said al-a-Din was killed by poison. How…” he wheezed, “… how did you know which bottle I would drink from?”
She smiled, and as the poison began to take his vision, he thought that her teeth were fangs. “I didn’t. I poisoned them all.”
“All of them… just to get to me?”
She nodded. “What are they to me? What is anyone? You are merely a means to an end. I have no use for your life.”
“Will… will you kill her? My… mistress?” Sinbad’s heart ached, and not merely because it was beating at two hundred beats per minute.
The dancing girl stopped her writhing. Her eyes blazed. “Oh, yes, my dear. I will kill her. And all of her children. Until none, are left, not even myself. Especially myself.”
Sinbad was on the floor, clutching at his chest. He didn’t know how he got there, but numbness was radiating out from the center of his being and into his fingertips. The dancing girl’s face filled his vision. She was pretty, but it was like she was carved from marble… from ice. So… cold.
Except the eyes. Those burning eyes.
“Got a light?” she inquired. But he couldn’t answer. He couldn’t do anything at all.
Nimble fingers flicked into the pocket of his pants, and withdrew a matchbook.
“The Sesame Cave Hotel.” She scoffed. “It figures.”
There was a scratch, and a blossom of fire sprang sulfurously to life. With a casual flick, the woman tossed it behind the bar. She watched the flames that roared into life for a moment, with her burning eyes. Then she sneered dismissively at them, and sauntered out of the bar.
The flames grew. After long minutes, a raven fluttered down through the open door into the room that was being swallowed by an inferno. Another joined it. They looked around the room, heads cocked from the door to the bar, then back to the corner of the room, then to the stage, and finally to the door again. The birds moved in perfect synchrony, their heads like a pair of eyes belonging to one far away.
One of they cawed into the fire. It crackled and roared in response. The other crow cawed back once more.
“No, brothers,” Sinbad’s corpse lifted its head, twisting it round, twisting, twisting. The neck bones snapped until the head could face the crows, and the flames. “She is not the one. This is not the end. Your Ragnarok has not yet frozen its way upon us. There is still one who will rise. A sword unsheathed. A queen reborn. A story retold.”
“Then…” the head lolled to one side, “then, the gods will tremble.”