New York, summer 2005.
I should never have invited him back.
Ranjit Elahi looked at the unwanted visitor in his apartment, and felt another twinge of unease, mixed with extreme tiredness. After everything that had happened to him and his wife recently, having to entertain a virtual stranger with obnoxious opinions, in a borrowed apartment in a strange city, was the last thing he felt like doing.
He had definitely made the wrong decision when he had agreed to offer hospitality to Nissar. Well, there was precedent for that. Coming to New York at all had been a wrong decision. He and Miya were agreed on that - now. At the time, he hadn't seen any alternative. He wasn't sure about what he knew, after all. And with their family on the way, he hadn't wanted to risk losing his job. So, he had reluctantly agreed to his boss's request to go to New York to discuss the London project with their office there. One of the senior people there had asked for him personally, apparently, and it would be career suicide to refuse. Then again, he might be about to commit career suicide anyway. He was certain their supplier was ripping them off, and he felt he had to say something, no matter who he upset at work in the process.
Oblivious to Ranjit's inner turmoil, the stranger, Ahmed Nissar, continued his apparently unceasing monologue about the important work his organisation was doing among Muslims in New York, ensuring young Muslims didn't stray too far from the correct path, or at least, what his organisation told them was the correct path. He had the true fanatic's inability to tell when his audience was bored to tears.
Nissar, Ranjit thought with distaste, was one of the new breed of fundamentalists. He was barely concealing his disapproval that Miya was in the room at all, and certainly that she was wearing her preferred outfit of long flowing sweater and loose trousers, rather than being covered head to toe. Scratch the surface, he thought, and you'd find a fundamentalist as reactionary and conservative as one of the community elders Miya had been so happy to escape when she married him and moved to London.
He wished desperately that they were back home, in their familiar surroundings. Normally, right about now (well, around this time of day) Miya would have been finishing cooking dinner, and he would have been finishing up writing for the day, listening with one ear for her familiar yell, "Ranjit, put that machine away and come and eat!". Instead, here they were, stuck in an unfamiliar room in an unfamiliar city, listening to a stranger ranting on. It struck him that it was in some ways quite a funny situation. I ought to write something about this, he thought, and glanced across at his laptop, looking for the glittery purple box - a gift from a favourite niece - he always kept the computer's memory stick in... Oh, damn. He had a sudden vision of it sitting on his desk in his office back home. Oh well, at least it would be safe there.
Going to the mosque had been another wrong decision, he realised. But like both the trip to New York, and inviting Nissar back to their borrowed apartment - well, more accurately, allowing Nissar to invite himself back - it had seemed like the right idea at the time. Miya had wanted to accompany him, but the disturbance of the flight and the jet lag had brought on another bout of sickness and tiredness, and she'd stayed in the apartment on the couch to try to recover.
And so, still tired from the flight over and cranky from having to spend the whole day on his feet, he had gone to the mosque his uncle usually attended. Nissar had arrived shortly after he himself, finding a place at the back near Ranjit. After the prayers had ended, they had somehow fallen into conversation, during which Nissar had mentioned that he was currently living in a hostel which kicked him out onto the streets between 9am and 9pm, having just moved to the city... Before he knew it, Ranjit had heard himself say "Well, perhaps you should come back to our house for some food..."
Ranjit shook his head at his own stupidity and insensitivity. Miya was looking increasingly tired and unwell, and beginning to send him definite "get rid of this idiot" signals.
Nissar was looking at him expectantly. "I'm sorry... I didn't quite hear your last sentence?" he excused himself.
"I said, you are lucky to be staying somewhere so pleasant. It is fortunate that your uncle was able to lend it to you - it is impossible ever to feel at home in hotels."
"Yes, indeed," he replied blandly. Miya was glaring even more strongly now.
"I don't mean to sound rude, but I am a little thirsty."
"Would you like a drink?" he replied, and then inwardly kicked himself. Miya's glare intensified further.
"That would be very kind. Some tea would be welcome."
This man defines the meaning of 'pushy', Ranjit thought. He nodded to Miya to stay where she was and keep resting. He went into the kitchen, thinking that he would add a great deal of milk to the tea. Perhaps if it was cool, Nissar might drink it quickly, and then he would be able to politely suggest that his wife needed more rest and some peace and quiet, and that perhaps Nissar would like to leave them in peace. He suspected that any minute Miya might take matters into her own hands and start suggesting that she was suffering from another sickness attack. Then again, Miya being sick all over him might be the only way to remove Nissar from their borrowed apartment...
He froze with the milk carton still in his hand, paralysed suddenly with a dawning sense of fear.
Oh no. No, no, no.
He hadn't told Nissar that he had borrowed the apartment from his uncle. Not once, and nor had Miya.
He frantically replayed the conversations they'd had. Ranjit had a good memory for conversations, having developed the skill to avoid misunderstandings with clients and other contractors in the course of his job. No, he was certain they had never said that.
How did he know?
With the panicky intuition of the hunted, he knew suddenly that this was connected to his fears about the safety of the plans for his project. He would not have believed that his own cousin could be capable of this, he thought with horror. Breaking into his house, going through his things... he hadn't wanted to face reality, he realised despairingly, and now reality looked likely to kill him.
Oh no. Please, not here. Not with Miya in the room. Another wrong decision, he realised despairingly. He should have never brought her with him, but he'd thought she'd be safe... besides, he had had only a suspicion about his cousin, about what he had been up to, and hadn't wanted to accuse him of something so serious, he'd needed the time away to think about what to do.
His time, he realised sickly, had just run out. I must get her out of here. I need to call the police... what can I tell them? That a stranger is in my house? That I think he might be planning to kill both of us? That I never told anyone at work where I keep my notes or who I talked to about this, so no-one will find out until it's too late...
He was startled to hear footsteps behind him, and whirled. Nissar had entered the room. Ranjit reappraised him, and was not reassured by the solid muscle under the man's clothes, the softness of his walk, or the fact that he had not taken off his light jacket, despite the summer heat and the warmth in the apartment. Nor was he reassured by the look in the man's eyes. Those were not eyes with any capacity for forgiveness or mercy.
"You've been a while," the other man remarked blandly.
"It's this milk... I think it's off," he replied stupidly. Horror was freezing him to the spot now. He had a sudden and despairing realisation that he had got this wrong from the start. He should have gone straight to the police the minute he suspected his cousin, never mind that his family would no longer speak to him, that he'd have betrayed a member of his own community, his own family, never mind what he thought that person might - just possibly might - have been planning to do...
Before Nissar could speak again, soft footsteps indicated that Miya had followed them into the room. She replied to his last sentence, "Really? I'll go and get some more. I feel better now - a short walk will do me good." Before either man could say anything, she picked up her coat and handbag from the couch, then walked out of the apartment. Ranjit noticed with slow horror that Nissar barely controlled himself from starting after her. The man looked at her, then back at Ranjit, then at her departing back, then back at Ranjit, in the manner of a cat watching two mice, and trying to deciding which one to jump first.
Struck by a sudden flash of inspiration, Ranjit remembered that his mobile phone was still in his trouser pocket. He reached in, dialling 999 by feel alone... then remembering suddenly that that wouldn't work, and frantically hitting 'End call', then redialling 911, managing to do so just before the other man's eyes turned back to him...
"You let your wife go out on her own? Unprotected?" Nissar asked, mockingly. Ranjit noticed that his voice seemed to be changing. He had thought the other man was, like himself, mixed race Pakistani, but his voice now sounded odd, an unfamiliar accent creeping through, as if his unwanted guest had tired of pretence and let his mask drop. He was blocking the kitchen doorway now, and was obviously aware that Ranjit's eyes were darting frantically round the room, desperately looking for a way out... No.
He could not try to leave, he realised numbly. To give Miya the best chance of getting away, he had to keep Nissar with him for as long as he could. Please, he prayed silently, let the police get here quickly. As quickly as he could, he whipped the phone out of his pocket and shouted into it "Help! Police! There's an intruder in my house, 42 West St, the upstairs flat! Please..."
He never finished his sentence as Nissar reached across and, ignoring Ranjit's attempts to prevent it, pressed the 'End Call' button. "Now, why did you do that?" he asked softly. His accent had changed, Ranjit thought, idiotically. His mind chattered, who-is-this-man-I-don't-know-no-no-no-please-no-don't-let-him...
"I want you to leave my house. Right now. The police are on their way..."
Nissar laughed, very softly and with no humour. He padded closer, and Ranjit instinctively moved away, realising too late that Nissar was backing him into the corner of the kitchen, trapping him, preventing him from escaping. The other man's hand was reaching into his pocket, and Ranjit saw a sudden glint of light. No. I'm not ready for this. I did nothing to deserve this.
"They won't be in time for you."
"Please... my wife," he choked out, seeing the knife glint in the other man's hands, horrendously large, like a hallucination... the hilt was wrapped in cloth, and he realised with horror that it was to prevent leaving any fingerprints behind. He wanted to fight, but he had no idea how to. Miya, I'm so sorry.
The other man smiled almost sadly, a slow revealing of teeth that Ranjit realised numbly would be his last sight on this earth. He tipped his head on one side and sighed disarmingly.
"Believe it or not, I'm actually sorry about this?" he remarked in a questioning tone. Ranjit frowned, trying to puzzle that out, when he felt a sudden horrible pain, spreading all the way from his midriff through his body. As he crumpled to the ground, blood already pooling around him, pumping out with every beat of his heart, he realised that the question had been intended to confuse him, to make him hold still for a second, so that the other man could strike... as his vision dimmed, he could see Nissar already moving away from him, knife still in his hand, heading towards the apartment's door.
Please, let my wife live... As his vision dimmed, that was his last thought before the world left him.
"So, what do you think?" Police Officer Baines, Eddie Baines, asked. He and his partner, Police Officer Jim Abbott, were now on an hour's overtime, having caught the shout towards the end of their shift. He didn't mind the extra cash, but he could have done without having to just stand there guarding the damn door, whilst the CSUs and detectives wandered around inside the apartment. The guy was dead; not like he'd be getting up and going anywhere.
Abbott shrugged. "Who knows, and who cares? Not our business."
Baines grimaced. "I don't get that, you know? 'Sa regular homicide. How come it's Major Case?"
Abbott shrugged again. "Guy was British, worked for some big firm or other. Guess their people must be twisting arms."
"Yeah." They both looked across to where the tall figure of Detective Goren was staring at the body, apparently lost in thought.
"Huh. He's doin' his Sherlock Holmes thing again."
"You know. Looking for the one clue that will solve the whole mystery, elementary, my dear Watson..."
"Shut up, please."
As they returned to their task of standing there, guarding a door and waiting for the meat wagon to show up, Baines sneaked one last look across at Goren. What the hell was the guy thinking? Baines had no idea, but he would bet it was something smart, something he'd never think of. Everyone knew Goren's reputation. Maybe if he, Baines, was lucky and got that promotion to Detective Third Grade, he thought, he might work with Goren some time, though. That was a good thought.
Robert Goren stared at the dead young man in front of him, oblivious to the various expectant eyes on him - CSUs, patrolmen, and his partner, Alex Eames, who was standing nearby, waiting to see if he had any brilliant observations to share.
Another dead body, he thought morosely.