Apology: I know I should be updating my other stories, and I will, but I burned myself out re-editing Chapter 8 of TBoaOG and took a break by writing these 22 pages of silliness. Also realized this is my second story featuring Akefia wearing really nice shoes. I confess, I just like dressing him up in different outfits. I think it's because I never had any Barbies as a kid.
Disclaimer: I don't own YuGiOh or anything related to YuGiOh.
Warnings: This story is radically non-canon. Malik and mostly everybody else is Muslim, because the only people who believe in the Ancient Egyptian gods these days are non-Egyptians. Citronshipping, no lemon, but not squeaky-clean either. Malik is in his early twenties. Also, Akefia is decidedly a lot weirder in this story than in any of my previous ones. Don't believe me? Read on!
Explanation of terms (everybody probably knows all this, but just in case):
Ramadan – Muslim holy month of fasting (no food, water or sexytime between sunrise and sunset)
Eid – (Eid al-Fitr) Three-day feast and celebration at the end of Ramadan. Eid can also mean Eid al-Adha, but that's something else.
Masjid – muslim place of worship (same thing as a mosque)
Hijab – head scarf worn by Muslim women (also means any kind of modest dress). Hijabi just means a woman or a girl who wears a hijab.
Maa al salama – Goodbye (Egyptian Arabic)
Al Jazeera – International Arabic news network
On s'appelle – Call you later (French)
Sivai – traditional dessert made for Eid
Mi casa es su casa – My house is your house (Spanish)
Eid Mubarak – Happy Eid! (literally means 'may you enjoy a blessed festival')
The macchiato he'd had for breakfast an hour ago was wearing off, and Malik was starting to give in to the inevitable crankiness that followed. He hated flying. He hated getting up when it was still dark. He hated having to go back to his apartment five times because he had to check if he'd remembered to turn off the heat, or left the refrigerator door open, or forgotten his phone charger. He hated the fact that there was no legroom in planes, and he hated the fact that half the time Egypt Air didn't even give you alcohol like any decent airline would, and he hated standing in line for the security checkpoint, like he was doing now. He just hated airports in general.
So why didn't Ishizu and Rishid come to visit him once in a while? Why did he always have to make the trip? He'd asked. "What kind of a place is New York to celebrate Eid?" Ishizu had replied, in shock, as if the very idea offended her. "Come home, we'll have a wonderful time like we always do!" There was no use arguing, of course. We, as in the communal we, would not be having a wonderful time anytime soon, but at least Ishizu would have a blast, he thought. In any case, if she had actually come and visited him here, he'd have to take her to the masjid, and that could be awkward, because he hadn't been there in years. The imam probably hated him. What if she started suspecting he'd been cheating all Ramadan? And God help him if she found his whiskey collection. No, this was all for the best. He shifted his messenger bag to the other shoulder. It was starting to hurt from waiting in line so long.
The alarm went off on the metal detector. Just great, he thought, another holdup.
"Whaddaya mean?" The guy in front of him was engaged in some sort of argument with the guard. He was dressed in a camouflage jacket and combat boots. Malik couldn't see his eyes; he was wearing sunglasses indoors, which was kind of a douchey thing to do under normal circumstances, but on this guy it looked badass. "I'll have you know I was in Vietnam." His voice was rough. Sounded like a heavy smoker. Malik couldn't see very much of his face, but his hair was completely white. Didn't look like a dye job. Weird.
The guard coughed. He was a skinny white guy in his twenties with a scraggly mustache. "I'm sorry, sir," he said, obviously trying hard to stick to protocol. "If you can't go through the metal detector, you'll have to consent to a private examination. If you like, we can have a medical practitioner inspect your, uh, prosthetic."
"I lost my goddamn leg fighting for this country," the Vietnam guy growled, "and this is the thanks I get?" He thumped his left leg below the knee; it gave off a hollow clang.
"Oh, goodness gracious," the woman behind Malik murmured. "How awful." She was a pretty middle-aged lady wearing a hijab; she was probably boarding the same flight to Egypt.
The Vietnam guy pointed to his hair. "See this? It turned white when I watched my best friend catch a grenade in the chest!" He scoffed. "I was crawling on my hands and knees through bug-infested swamps before you could say mama!" He snatched his sunglasses off his face and pointed to those still waiting in line. "The goddamn Viet Cong carved up my face in a POW camp, so you could all enjoy your precious civil liberties!" A couple of people gasped; there was a vicious-looking gash under his right eye that had scarred over. He turned back to the shaken guard, grey eyes blazing with fury. "And you want me to do what? Take off my leg? Like I'm hiding something?"
"I…I…I have to follow regulations…" the guy stuttered.
Pathetic. Airports got overly uptight about security these days – after all, Malik had had his bags searched enough times to know first hand – but this was ridiculous. "I can't believe this asshole," Malik muttered in Arabic to the woman behind him. She nodded earnestly.
"After all he went through," she said sorrowfully. "It's such a shame."
The Vietnam guy had heard them. "Damn straight, it's a goddamn shame!" he said. He understood. Holy God, was everybody in this line an Arab?
"Huh?" said the guard.
"I said, this is a travesty," the Vietnam guy repeated, this time in English. "Why don't you just cut my wrists right now? I sacrificed everything to keep you people safe, and you can't even repay me with a little goddamn human decency…"
People in the back of the line were sticking their heads out, trying to figure out what was going on. Suddenly, a thought occurred to Malik. He edged a little closer to the guy. "You know," he said conversationally, speaking in Arabic so the guard wouldn't understand. "I'm sure there's a lawsuit in here somewhere. You could make a case that they're discriminating against you based on the fact that you were in the Army."
The Vietnam guy raised an eyebrow at him. "What are you, a law student or something?"
"No, just a degree in criminal justice," Malik told him. He noticed, as an approving grin came over the guy's face, that he was quite a bit younger than he'd judged at first. Fifteen years older than him, at the very most, and probably less than that. He thought back. When exactly had the Vietnam War ended, anyway?
"I don't want a lawsuit," the man told him evenly. His voice was completely different when he wasn't yelling. "I just have to get on that plane…"
"Hey," said the guard abruptly, interrupting them. "Keep it in English."
Malik just stared at him. There was a funny look on the guard's face, almost like he was…scared.
"You can't speak Arabic here," he said, trying his best to sound intimidating.
The Vietnam guy narrowed his eyes. "Oh yeah? Says who?"
The security guard drew himself up to his full height, which was still about six inches shorter than the veteran. "Says me. Our customers' peace of mind is foremost, and we ask you to refrain from any behaviors that might agitate them - "
"What are you talking about?" Malik said, dumbfounded. "We are your customers."
The security guard stood his ground. "Rules is rules. No funny talk."
A manager had spotted them across the terminal and was making his way over. The Vietnam guy rounded on the security guard.
"I'll have you know," he spat, "I'm a Doctor of Jurisprudence. I went to Harvard. This is discrimination based on race, military history and disability, this is dereliction of duty, this is violation of the First Amendment…" The security guard cringed. "When I get done with you, not only are you gonna be counting food stamps for the rest of your life, this entire place" - he waved an arm around to indicate the airport – "is gonna be up forlease."
The security guard saw his boss coming closer and laughed nervously. "You know what," he said, "it's okay, you can, uh, go through…"
"Too late for that!" The Vietnam guy gave a derisive laugh. "This is gonna be on newspaper headlines all across the country! You think I'm joking? Let me tell you, I know Rupert Murdoch personally…"
The manager strode up, eyes narrowed. "Hey, what's going on here?" he demanded. The security guard shrank back. Even his mustache was drooping.
"The metal detector went off," he stuttered, "so I told this man he'd have to consent to a private search…"
"He was in the war!" someone shouted angrily from the line. "You were treating him like a common criminal!"
"He said they couldn't speak their own language!" the woman in the hijab piped up, indicating Malik and the Vietnam guy. "He said it was against protocol!"
"Treating us like terrorists!" an old Egyptian man yelled, shaking a frail fist for emphasis. "I'm going to another airport!"
A riot seemed on the verge of breaking out. Malik ran a hand through his hair, bewildered. How had all this happened? He glanced up at the Vietnam guy, who was looking on as the scenario worsened. But to his shock, the guy actually looked pleased. There was even a smile on his face. It was less of a happy go lucky grin and more of a I-know-I'm-going-to-checkmate-in-exactly-three-moves-and-there's-nothing-you-can-do-about-it smirk. He caught Malik's eye and winked.
The manager held up his hands, trying to placate the mob. "Okay, okay, people, calm down." He turned to the wimpy security guard. "Nielsen, go tell Perez this is going to be his post from now on." Nielsen seemed to be on the verge of arguing, but at the last moment, gave up and slunk away, looking for all the world like a dog with its tail between its legs.
The manager turned to the Vietnam guy. "I offer my apologies on behalf of the establishment," he said. "That was an uncalled-for reaction and totally out of keeping with our philosophy. We believe firmly in, er, embracing diversity."
The manager grinned hopefully at the Vietnam guy. It was returned with a deadpan stare.
"Uh, needless to say, we won't detain you any further," the manager said, loosening his collar. "And we will, of course, reimburse you for the cost of your flight. Have a safe voyage." He extended his hand. The Vietnam guy ignored it, and without a word, stepped around the metal detector. He grabbed his duffel bag off the luggage x-ray conveyor belt and strode away. Malik noticed he walked with a slight limp, but it didn't seem to slow him down at all.
"And, uh, you don't need to say anything about this to Mr. Murdoch, right?" the manager called after him, a note of desperation entering his voice.
"I guess we'll see about that, won't we?" came the casual reply.
Malik saw the manager slump as he watched the camouflage disappear around a corner. He cleared his throat.
"'Scuse me," he said, tapping the manager's shoulder. "Am I allowed to leave too?"
The manager heaved a weary sigh. "Sure." Malik was about to step through when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
"Psst," said the manager in an undertone, looking around somewhat shiftily. "I'll reimburse your ticket too if you can convince your friend not to tell the press."
I don't know him from a hole in the ground, Malik was about to say, but he caught himself just in time.
"Return flight too?" he asked.
The manager hesitated, but then nodded.
"You got yourself a deal," Malik told him. He shook the man's sweaty hand and stepped through the metal detector.
"Have a good trip," the manager called after him.
"Maa al salama," he tossed back, just because he could. Not bad. So that was why the guy had winked at him – he'd seen it all coming. Malik couldn't help but chuckle to himself as he walked away into the terminal. There was a distinct spring in his step. Anybody watching him would have thought he was looking forward to going home.
"No, Ishizu, I don't think they're going to cancel the flight. …No, why would I need a doctor? They didn't be – no, they didn't beat me." A pause. "Sweet Jeezy, have you been listening to anything I've been saying? Why the hell would they have a file on me?" Longer pause. "…Oh, good point. Hey, why do you know so much about the FBI?"
He'd called Ishizu and given her a status update. But she'd freaked out when he told her about what happened at the security checkpoint. She was watching too much Al Jazeera these days and had somehow gotten it into her head that Malik had been brutalized, or was soon to be brutalized (it wasn't clear which). Malik was trying to calm her down, but it was testing his patience. Ishizu had a histrionic streak a mile wide that came as a complete surprise unless you knew her well. Malik was so distracted trying to calm his frantic sister that he didn't even look up as he rounded a corner.
With the result that he walked straight into the chest of someone else coming around the corner from the opposite direction. He almost dropped his bag, but caught it just in time – and stopped dead when he saw who he'd just walked into.
The duffel bag had switched into a briefcase. The camouflage jacket was gone in favor of a very natty-looking charcoal grey pinstripe suit, and the boots had become Italian leather shoes. In fact, Malik might not have recognized him at all if not for the white hair (because that really wasn't something you saw too often). He'd kept the shades too. He sort of looked like he'd stepped out of a Bond flick now. Definite improvement.
The stranger pushed up his sunglasses to get a better look at Malik. Same grey eyes. Damn.
"I'm fine," Malik said to his phone. "Love ya, gotta go."
"On s'appelle," the stranger said into his.
They hung up at the same time.
A moment of silence.
"Cool outfit," said Malik.
"Well, aren't you lovely. I thought I was due for a style upheaval." Malik did a double take – holy crap, what had happened to his voice? It had gone from being rough and scratchy and…well, chain-smoker-ish, to rich and velvety, like chocolate. Or bourbon. Or any number of delicious things that were bad for you.
Malik just blinked and proffered his hand automatically. "I'm Malik."
"Utterly charmed." The stranger shook it. "I'm Akefia." There was a teasing look in his eyes that suggested he knew Malik was dying to ask questions, but was perfectly content to go on pretending nothing was out of the ordinary. "Can I ask you a somewhat personal question?"
Malik raised an eyebrow. "As long as I'm under no obligation to answer."
"Are you a natural blonde?"
"I'm North African," Malik said, "so that would be a resounding no."
"I didn't think so. You're too smart."
Well, this guy sure knew how to layer on the charm. "You must be a hit with the ladies," Malik told him. He just returned this statement with a dazzling smile.
"Well, let me tell you, I don't usually go for blondes," Akefia said, "but I would be very much honored if you would let me buy you a drink."
The question wasn't even a question. "Oh, hell yes," Malik said.
The bar Akefia took him to was one of those swanky places where business executive types went to hang out before their flights left. Lots of mahogany paneling, polished leather, vintage light fixtures and rich-looking guys in suits. Akefia fit in there; Malik didn't. The hostess cast a disdainful glance at Malik's mud-stained sneakers before Akefia told her she had the most gorgeous eyes and she ushered them in with a smile. Among other things, it was becoming increasingly clear that Akefia was the sort of person that flirted with absolutely everybody. Of course, Malik wasn't taking any of it seriously, but when they ordered it turned out, happily, that he and Akefia had other things in common – namely, a love of fine whiskey, which counted for quite a bit in Malik's book.
They clinked glasses. "To the start of a beautiful friendship," the man named Akefia said.
"What makes you so sure we're gonna be friends?" Malik asked him.
"Call it a gut feeling," was the reply. "So, tell me, why did you study criminal justice?"
Malik considered this. "That's kind of a tough question," he said at length. "What about you? Why did you study law?"
Akefia chuckled. He had a slow smile that was really nice to look at. Malik wished momentarily he had sunglasses too, so he could peruse it at length without being observed. He couldn't get over the guy's sudden metamorphosis – not only did he look and sound completely different, he was even acting different. He'd gone from being a tough-talking veteran to being GQ's man of the year. If circumstances had been different, Malik might have suspected him of being a scam artist, but Akefia hadn't seemed nervous at all when Malik had noticed his transformation. In fact, he'd seemed delighted to see him – almost as if he'd been hoping they'd meet up again.
"That's easy," he said in response to Malik's question. "I didn't."
"That was a little white lie to help our case along," Akefia told him, quite comfortably. "I know what I'm talking about, but if you put a J.D. after your name, people pay just that much more attention."
"Oh, I see." It kind of made sense. Akefia didn't seem bothered by the fact that he'd lied. It was slightly unethical in theory, but in the end, he supposed, it hadn't hurt anybody.
"Somebody famous once said that lawyers are the high priests of America," Akefia elaborated, "which makes sense, because as we just saw this is essentially a police state. When you control the law, you control the world. Now." Here he settled an arm around Malik's shoulders. "If you want my advice, go to law school. You'll be untouchable." He paused to take a thoughtful sip of whiskey. "Thank God, I've at least been around long enough to know when my rights are being violated."
"I hear ya," Malik said. Maybe he should start lying about being a lawyer too. It seemed to be a pretty effective way to get things done. Save money on grad school. Just then, he remembered something. "By the way," he said, with a glance at his companion, "speaking of exhibit A, that manager guy said he'd give me a free ride if I could convince you not to tell Rupert Murdoch about what happened." He shrugged. "I guess he thought we knew each other."
That smile came up again, and then, unexpectedly, turned into a full-on laugh, albeit a silent one. Akefia seemed to be really tickled; his shoulders were shaking and everything. Malik would have expected such a sharp dresser to be a little more uptight, but he seemed to know how to enjoy himself. Finally, the laugh started to die down.
"Oh boy, that's beautiful," Akefia muttered to himself, wiping away a tear of mirth. "Well, sonny boy, you lucked out. Murdoch's not gonna know a thing."
"What's so funny?" Malik wanted to know.
"Oh, nothing, nothing," Akefia said, a smile still lingering on his face. "I suffer from sudden inexplicable mood elevations. It's a medical thing."
"Sounds like fun," Malik said doubtfully.
"Oh, it's awful," Akefia told him soberly. "You should see me at funerals."
Regretfully, they'd had to cut their conversation short because the plane was boarding. Malik had half-hoped they'd be able to get to know each other better over the course of the flight – otherwise it was probably going to be an intensely boring eleven hours – but wouldn't you know it, Akefia was flying business class and Malik was crammed way back in economy. At least he'd brought some books. Any hope he'd had of peace and quiet, however, was shattered when he opened The Death of Ivan Ilyich to the first page and, as if on cue, the baby next to him started howling. Its mother tried to soothe it, but it only bellowed louder. She offered Malik a sympathetic smile.
"Sensitive eardrums," she told him, by way of explanation.
"Him and me both, lady," Malik had to stop himself from saying.
The child had what could only be described as superhuman lung capacity. They were at some point over the Atlantic when it finally stopped screaming. Malik's relief was short lived, however, as soon afterwards it began to hiccup. Irregularly. This was even more irritating than the yelling, in a way. At least the yelling was consistent. Whereas, now, there would be a brief period of silence. Just long enough, it seemed, to gather his frayed nerves and collect his thoughts. Maybe this is it, he would think. Maybe it will finally shut up now. Just when he started believing it and was about to make one more stab at reading his book, that accursed noise would come again:
It was kind of like water torture. Sure, anyone could tell him the baby wasn't doing it on purpose. But as the second hour of the flight gave way to the third, Malik was firmly becoming convinced otherwise. He could swear the baby was looking right at him every time it hiccupped. Maliciously. Just because the baby probably wouldn't remember this incident later in life didn't mean it didn't know what it was doing right now. Chubby little bastard. He tried putting a blanket over his head and going to sleep, but found it didn't help block out the noise and in any case he couldn't breathe.
He was just going to have to put up with it.
He had just, just gotten to a point where he was maybe going to be okay with it when the baby fiendishly switched gears. It stopped hiccupping and decided to start blowing raspberries instead, for no easily discernible reason. But instead of becoming aggravated again, Malik was just smiling serenely to himself. He was busy imagining the baby's soft, tiny body hurtling thousands of feet towards the frigid Atlantic – when suddenly he caught a glimpse of pinstriped cashmere off in the distance. A quick lean out into the aisle ascertained that it was indeed Akefia, making his way closer.
What would he be doing way back here? Malik wondered. Maybe he was bored too, or, god forbid, had his own screaming baby to deal with and had dropped by to pay a visit. They probably didn't allow screaming babies in business class – why would a baby need to fly business anyway? Why would a baby need to fly, period, come to that? Oh well, it would have been nice to have been able to commiserate. Malik looked up as Akefia approached, prepared for a greeting and maybe another one of those dazzling smiles.
Which is why he was utterly befuddled when Akefia breezed by him without even so much as a glance in his direction. He didn't even seem to have seen him at all, although he must have been impossible to miss.
Well, that was awfully rude, Malik thought. Maybe he was having another mood swing or something. Hadn't he read something the other day about how intelligent people tended to be at a higher risk for bipolar disorder or something along those lines?
Speaking of reading, there was something lying on his opened book. It was a piece of folded-up paper that hadn't been present before. Had Akefia dropped it there? Curiously, Malik picked it up and unfolded it.
It was all in capitals. Akefia's bold handwriting was not particularly neat, but it was legible.
Malik felt like he had been struck by lightning.
The baby blew a loud, especially wet raspberry, but he barely noticed it.
Meet me in the bathroom in five minutes. Malik read it again. And then once more for good measure.
He was about to get laid on a freaking airplane.
Whoa, whoa whoa. Hold on, Malik. What the hell are you thinking? There's no way you're going to actually take him up on it. For Pete's sake, we only just met each other, what, three hours ago? Are you insane? Even if Malik Ishtar had sex with dudes, which, on second thought, he most certainly did not, he would at the very least expect Akefia to buy dinner and a hotel room. And maybe a bottle of Chivas Regal. Now that was a nice picture, and one that could conceivably turn him gay for a very short period of time. Not whatever Akefia seemed to have in mind. He had to admit, though, there was a distinct, twisted appeal to the idea of having hurried, illegal sex in a tiny cramped bathroom thousands of feet above the earth in an aircraft filled with very religious people, but when you really thought about it, it was kind of a slutty thing to do. Especially with someone you just met. Also it was probably a felony or something – he wasn't sure. They'd probably covered the Mile High Club in one of the many classes he'd missed during his career as an undergraduate. Briefly he wondered if this was something Akefia did regularly for kicks – befriending people in airport terminals only to casually proposition them mid-flight. Maybe he'd picked up the habit in Vietnam. You know what another thing they did in Vietnam was? Heroin. What if Akefia was a junkie? Well, not that he really looked like one, but still, it wasn't impossible. He might have any number of horrible viruses. And what if nobody had a condom? What then? Malik would have to be balls-out crazy to consider such a thing seriously.
He remained mulling it over for the next four minutes.
Finally he rose to his feet and headed for the bathroom at the back of the plane. He had made his decision. Under no circumstances was he going to engage in any hanky panky aboard this plane. He was going to tell Akefia, set him straight with regard to the matter, and then, circumstances allowing, possibly get his number.
He pushed open the door to the bathroom and stepped in, closing it behind him just as hurriedly.
As expected, Akefia was already there, leaning on the sink and smoking a cigarette.
"What's up, buttercup?" he said with a grin. He'd loosened his tie and the top button of his shirt was undone. His sunglasses sat atop his hair, and his sleeves were casually pushed up to the elbow.
The space was barely big enough for one person; Malik was practically on top of Akefia as was. Didn't really help his case, but Malik was not about to have this conversation in the middle of the aisle. What also didn't help was that Akefia seemed to have gotten, somehow, even more devilishly good-looking in the interim – maybe it was the five-o-clock shadow around his jawline, or the fact that he was now close enough to smell his cologne. It was Bvlgari, he was almost sure. There he went, getting distracted.
"My answer," Malik told him haughtily, before he could change his mind, "is no."
"Your answer is no?" Akefia looked genuinely confused. "Did I ask you a question?"
"Well," Malik said, starting to feel a little sheepish, "I know what you want. And the answer is no."
"You know what I want?" Akefia blinked. "My god, this is phenomenal. I don't even know what I want."
Malik narrowed his eyes. "Are you fucking with me?"
Akefia put a hand over his heart. "You wound me. I would never do anything to hurt you, darling, although I'm afraid you've confused me terribly."
"Okay. Wait." Malik paused with his hands in the air. "So you don't want to have sex."
"What?" Akefia's eyes got big. "Are you offering?"
Then something seemed to click. "Oh, goodness, this is about that note, isn't it?" He laughed. "No wonder you've got your panties in a bunch. No," he continued serenely, "I was going to ask you something else, and I wanted a little privacy." He took another drag off his cigarette. The entire space was foggy with smoke now. "Don't worry," he went on, thoughtfully. "If I were trying to take advantage of you, I'd buy you dinner and a hotel room at the very least. And maybe a bottle of Chivas Regal, to be on the safe side."
Malik just gulped. "Um…you were going to ask me something else?"
"Ah, yes. How would you like a quarter of a million dollars? In return for doing me a little favor?" He blew out smoke. It looked almost blue under the fluorescent lighting.
Malik blinked. "Um. What?"
Akefia rolled his eyes. "You do a little something for me, I give you a hell of a lot of money, everybody's happy. What say you?"
Well, this had certainly taken an unexpected turn. "What do you want me to do?" Malik asked carefully.
"It's quite simple," Akefia said, blithely. "You see, I've just been notified by a trustworthy source that I've got a bit of a sticky situation waiting for me in Cairo. Has to do with my line of work. If you help me out, my situation will promptly become un-sticky, with absolutely no danger posed to you or your estate, whatever that may consist of."
Malik licked his lips. "Sounds kind of illegal."
"Hmm." Akefia looked thoughtful. "I suppose it is. Let me explain."
He pulled Malik closer and hooked an arm around his shoulders. "Want a cigarette?" he asked, as he pulled another one out for himself.
Malik shook his head and wordlessly pointed to the no smoking sign on the inside of the door.
"Oh please," Akefia replied. "As if anyone cares. All right, explanation time." He sighed, as if trying to come up with the best way to start.
"Basically, everything you know about me is a lie." He caught himself. "Not quite everything; I told you the truth when I said I never studied law. And, blondes really aren't my thing. You're an exception. Other than that, everything."
Malik was quiet.
"I never went to Harvard, and I don't know Rupert Murdoch. He probably knows my name, though. I was never in a POW camp, I was never in Vietnam, and I was never in the US Army, period. It would have taken that security guard about ten seconds to figure that out if he'd bothered to run my name through a search engine, but nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public, as a wiser man than myself once wrote."
Malik ran a hand through his hair. This was all a bit much to take in.
"So," he said slowly, "what about that scar under your eye? What about the leg you lost?"
"Well," said Akefia briskly, dropping his cigarette butt in the sink, "the scar is a story for another day. But the leg is where you come in."
Malik barely had time to let the words sink in before Akefia pulled up the bottom of his trouser leg to reveal an aluminum prosthetic. It was large, and shaped vaguely like a cast. Okay, he thought.
He almost yelled when Akefia slid it off. Because beneath it, his leg was perfectly intact.
"Now, this is where it gets interesting," Akefia continued. He reached inside the aluminum cast and withdrew two handguns.
Malik gasped. One of the guns was inlaid with gold, the other with silver. Both were intricately detailed with what looked like rubies.
A nervous laugh escaped him. "Okay," he said, "hold the freakin' phone. What exactly is it that you do?"
Akefia looked up at the ceiling. "Hmm," he mused to himself, "how can I explain this? Basically, when countries want to buy or sell arms," he explained, "I'm like the middleman. I take my cut, negotiate delivery and terms, test stuff to make sure it's working, that kind of thing. I run some air cargo businesses and work as a subcontractor for various military organizations. It's a bit of a funny business; if you want to drop ten thousand AK-47s in the Congo, you're fine if you've got the right paperwork, but these two little fellas could put me away for a long time." He shrugged. "Makes zero sense if you ask me, but I don't make the rules."
Malik blinked. He was still trying to process the phrase, 'ten thousand AK-47s'. "It's just firearms, then?" he asked doubtfully.
"I've got a few different pots on the stove, but it's mostly firearms." He was leaving it intentionally vague. He rubbed his chin pensively. "I don't usually deliver things myself, but this was kind of a small job. Unfortunately, it happened to come at a bad time for me."
So everything he'd presumed he knew about Akefia was wrong. He'd turned out to be a scam artist after all. And not just a petty crook either – he was a big-time businessman, involved in activities of dubious legitimacy. It was a lot to process. "So you're a bad guy," Malik finally said.
Akefia heaved another sigh. "You know, I resent that. I just give people what they want. I'm not responsible for war; human nature is."
Akefia, Malik thought, looked vaguely like some Old-West style cowboy – leaning there with a pistol in each hand, surrounded by filmy blue smoke. Malik had heard of these international arms dealers, read about them in Time, for god's sake, but never, in a million years, had he thought he'd actually meet one.
"These are .45 ACP Lugers," Akefia said, sounding incongruously blasé. "Normally they go for about a million each, but these, as you can see, are special snowflakes, and they're going to a very special client. I'll let 'em go for a little over three million total."
Ho-lee shit. Malik hadn't even known guns that expensive existed.
"And let me guess," Malik said, after a stunned pause. "That's your sticky situation."
"Bingo," Akefia said with a brilliant smile. "Bright kid. I'll be detained, interrogated and searched the instant this plane lands; you won't. If you can take these little guys for the time being and bring them round my place in a day or two, I won't have to toss them overboard, and all will be well in the land of Egypt. My client will be happy, I'll be happy, and you'll have a quarter of a million cash, which isn't too shabby for almost no work. What do you say?"
Malik hesitated. He chewed on his lip. "You make it sound so easy," he said.
"It is easy," Akefia confirmed wholeheartedly. "Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Say yes."
"I'll be sad if you don't."
"Well, let's see…."
"You could buy a house."
"God damn it," Malik muttered to himself. It was true – he could buy a house. He could move Ishizu out of the crappy place she lived now. He could pay off his student loans. It would be stupid to walk away from this. And who knew what would happen to Akefia if he didn't oblige? Despite barely knowing him, Malik was already caught up by his charisma. Did he want to help? Of course he wanted to help. But still…
"What's on your mind?" Akefia wanted to know.
"Fuck," Malik said. "I used to want to be a policeman when I was little. How the hell did I end up here?"
Akefia rubbed his back sympathetically. "Part of growing up," he told him, "is realizing you're no better or worse than anyone else. Besides," he said, in an undertone, "I wanna see you again."
Akefia's fingers were tracing circles between his shoulder blades.
"Come on," he crooned. "Say yes."
It could be very dangerous if he was caught. But Akefia seemed sure he wouldn't be. There was that quarter of a million to consider. And Akefia wanted to see him again.
"Oh, fuck it," Malik said. "Fine."
Akefia seized his shoulder and turned him so they were facing each other.
"Really?" he asked, dead serious.
For a second he thought Akefia was going to kiss him on the mouth – and he really wouldn't have minded. But instead, he kissed him on both sides of the face, traditional Egyptian style, although perhaps a little more passionately than tradition strictly required.
"You're a good kid," he said sincerely. He let his cheek rest against Malik's; he probably hadn't shaved since that morning, and it was ever so slightly scratchy. "And believe me when I say you've got nothing to worry about."
Malik felt his face grow hot; it was just from being so close. He tried to pull away but Akefia held him fast. He chuckled, and Malik felt him slip something into the back pocket of his cargo pants.
"Now you know where to find me," Akefia murmured. Malik could feel a gust of breath on his neck. "Don't keep me waiting too long." And with that, he bit down softly on Malik's earlobe.
Malik yelped and leapt backwards, a hand on his ear. He stared at Akefia for a moment, and then he felt an inexplicable giddy rush of giggles coming on.
"What was that for?" he asked.
"Protective spell," Akefia said, face straight. "Keep you safe."
"Bullshit," he said, right before he dissolved into laughter.
"Yup." Akefia pulled him close again, and this time he really did kiss him on the mouth. He had a sharp, masculine taste, like cigarettes and bourbon. Where and when did I specify that this was okay? Malik found himself wondering, but found all thoughts of agreements and negotiations quickly pushed to the back of his mind.
There were United Nations helicopters already stationed around Cairo International. Malik saw them from the air before the plane had even landed, and immediately started worrying about what he'd gotten himself into. He couldn't tell if the nausea was from anxiety or the sudden change in air pressure as they descended. It was probably both.
There was an interminably long wait after the plane landed. He could see the stewardesses talking to a uniformed official towards the back of the plane. They kept glancing up the aisle. The official had a grim, not-to-be-fucked-with look on his face. Malik was frozen in his seat. He felt like there was an iron cage locked around his chest.
"Hey Fahmy," came a cheerful, familiar voice from the other end of the aisle, and Malik's head snapped up. It was Akefia, walking leisurely towards the back of the plane. "Long time no see."
The official drew his gun in a flash and had it pointed at Akefia. "Stay where you are," he growled.
Akefia stopped and put his hands in the air. "I thought I'd save you the walk," he said innocuously.
Fahmy carefully took a two-way radio from his belt and barked out an order, keeping his gun trained on Akefia the whole time.
Almost immediately, a humorless voice spoke outside, amplified through a megaphone. "Akefia Al-Najjar, make no sudden moves." It rang through the air at tremendous volume. People on the plane started looking out the window to see where it was coming from. The young mother next to Malik clutched her baby even tighter. "Ohmygodohmygodohmygod," she was whispering under her breath. Malik fervently wished she would stop. She was just making him more nervous.
"You will be escorted from the premises," the megaphone went on, in an official-sounding monotone. "Ladies and gentlemen, do not panic. Remain in your seats until further notification." Akefia cocked his head, listening.
"Sounds like Ayman," he said to Fahmy, conversationally, when the voice had stopped. "Did he get a promotion?"
"Stop talking," Fahmy snapped, exasperated.
"Just curious," Akefia said innocently. Just at that moment, the sliding doors on the side of the plane flew open with a bang and a troop of Egyptian special forces stormed into the aisle. They were all in black, like SWAT teams back home. Each one of them was outfitted with submachine guns, night vision goggles, belts of ammunition, Kevlar…the works. A few women on board started shrieking.
Two of them came forward and seized Akefia by each arm. He went along uncomplainingly as they hustled him off the plane. From the look on his face you would have thought this sort of thing happened to him all the time.
"Thank you for your cooperation, everybody," Fahmy said curtly, before following Akefia off the plane. It was only then Malik realized he'd been holding his breath. He didn't know what he'd been expecting, but it certainly hadn't been that…
Malik looked out the window and saw them leading him away. The guy with the megaphone was standing atop a Jeep parked on the tarmac outside. There were even more special forces units on the ground outside, and several black vehicles from the UN narcotics control department that looked like they'd been parked in a hurry. He could even see snipers lined up on the roof of Cairo International, keeping their sights trained on the man in the pinstripe suit, until he vanished behind closed doors.
When the coast was clear and they finally let everyone else off the plane, Ishizu was waiting for him. "You're okay!" she yelled, sobbing while hugging him breathless. "They wouldn't tell us anything! I thought you'd been killed!"
"I'm fine, Ishizu," Malik said. He tried to pat her on the back. It was hard because she had his torso in a death grip. "Why would I have been killed?"
Finally, she relaxed her hold on him and drew back, sniffling. "I dunno," she said, wiping her nose. "I mean, people get killed all the time, you know." Her tone was matter-of-fact, as if this was a perfectly reasonable assumption to make.
"That's true," Malik said. "I got lucky, I didn't get hit by any of the stray bullets that were flying around."
Ishizu's eyes got very big. "I'm kidding," Malik said hurriedly. "Sorry, that was a bad joke."
"You're limping," Ishizu observed, voice cracking. "What happened?"
"I just sprained my ankle," Malik told her. "I'll be right as rain in a day or two."
"Let me help you," Ishizu said, grabbing his suitcase.
"Wait," Malik said. But when Ishizu turned back, her eyes were red and there was something almost feral in her expression, as if she was daring him to argue. His protests died in his throat. It had been a stressful day for Ishizu. She was clearly at the end of her rope. It would be better to just go along with it.
It was a couple days later before Malik set out for the address Akefia had given him. The address was in Heliopolis, which was on the outskirts of Cairo – Malik had never been there before, and since he didn't have anything else to do that day and it was relatively cool out (93 degrees was relatively cool for Cairo in August) he decided to walk it.
The Ishtars lived in Imbaba, on the west bank of the Nile. It was a pretty shitty neighborhood, and one of the reasons Malik was never too thrilled about coming home. It was nothing but narrow alleyways, and no matter what the time of day, somebody's laundry would always be dripping on you from one of the countless washing lines above. Most of the roads weren't paved, and if you didn't look where you were going you were bound to step in camel poop sooner or later. Needless to say, he appreciated the opportunity to get out and about whenever he could.
"Where are you going?" Ishizu wanted to know. She was in the kitchen, stirring something on the stove (she'd been cooking practically nonstop ever since he'd arrived).
"Out to see a friend," he replied evasively. The guns were heavy in the messenger bag slung over his chest. He was ever so slightly sad about having to give them back.
"Oh, who?" she asked. "If it's Hani I've got some sivai you can take him…"
"No, no," Malik replied hurriedly. "It's no one you know."
Ishizu looked befuddled for a moment, and then a sly look came over her face. "Oh-h-h…" she said knowingly, "my little brother has a thing." She laughed. "It's about time. Have fun," she sang.
Malik rolled his eyes, closed the front door behind him, and narrowly avoided a pile of camel poop.
As morning gave way to afternoon, Malik slowly made his way across Cairo. He wasn't in any hurry. He walked across the Qasr al-Nil bridge to get to the east bank of the Nile; it was packed with young couples and tourists and even ice cream vendors now that Ramadan was over. Everybody was out and about for the festivities. On the east bank, dusty unpaved roads gave way to leafy tree-lined streets as he got closer to Heliopolis. Masjids and garages and falafel joints were replaced by bars and nightclubs and restaurants. Hijabis in sandals became beautiful women in Western-style summer dresses. And the niggling doubts Malik had been suppressing over the past few days began to surface again as his legs carried him ever closer to his destination.
Akefia hadn't seemed concerned in the least when they'd dragged him away. But there was something ominous about those one-way glass doors he'd disappeared behind. What if he wasn't fine? What if he'd been locked up? What if he'd been deported? He could be in Guantanamo Bay for all Malik knew. Then what? The cops could be on his trail.
Malik walked along, trying not to psych himself out. There was probably nothing to worry about, honestly. He just needed to chill out. He was only a few doors away from the address now – but this was a business district, not residential. He frowned and double-checked – but he was in the right place.
Ah, here it was. Malik came to a stop in front of a multiple story plate glass building. It was almost evening, and the glass reflected the setting sun with almost-blinding brilliance. Al-Najjar Aviation Holdings, read a brass sign in front. It had to be the right place.
He sounded a buzzer in front, and the glass doors slid open. Beyond another pair of sliding doors was a lobby. Malik looked around, amazed, as he walked in. His first thought was that it looked more like a lounge than a place of business – that, or a really nice bordello. The fact that there was R&B playing in the background only served to confirm his opinion. A crystal chandelier hung from the vaulted ceiling, suffusing the space with low light. Everything was in shades of deep red – scarlet, burgundy, crimson – it was almost like stepping into the maw of a predator, but there was something undeniably sexy about it. Moorish sabra tapestries adorned the walls of the circular space, satin and velvet curtains veiled the windows. Malik guessed it was less crowded than usual; there were only a handful of people in the lobby, men in dark suits sitting on the chestnut or olive wood mosharabi sofas, preparing for meetings or waiting for appointments. They looked up at him briefly when he entered, without much interest.
Malik had just had time to begin fantasizing about living there when a female voice rang out from behind a desk.
"Excuse me. Can I help you?"
Malik approached the desk – it was a half-dome of mahogany, vaguely reminiscent of a seashell. The woman behind it was around his age, maybe a few years older – her dark hair was pulled back in a bun, and she was pretty in a classic movie star kind of way. There was a switchboard and several computers on the desk in front of her – one screen had a video feed from outside the front door; Malik figured she must have been the one who'd buzzed him in - but other than that it was entirely uncluttered.
"Hi," Malik said. "I'm here to see Akefia."
The woman blinked a few times, and then her lips curved in a smile of amusement. "I'm sorry, who?"
"Akefia. Um…he does work here, right?"
"You could say that." She looked him up and down, not even trying to hide her disdain at his decidedly unfancy clothes. "Do you have an appointment?"
"Er," he said, "kind of. He just said to drop by."
She arched an eyebrow. "Well," she said, at length, picking up the phone on the switchboard. "I can tell him you're here. What's your name?"
Malik gave it to her. The phone rang a few times and then the other end picked up.
"Hi, Akefia," she said. "There's someone here to see you." Pause. "He says his name's Malik." Another pause. Her eyebrows shot up. "Oh! Yes! Certainly. Straight away."
She hung up, with a look of mild shock. "He says to come up immediately." She pointed down a hallway behind her. "The elevators are at the end of the hall. Top floor."
"Thanks," Malik said. "Which room?"
"Just the top floor. Have a nice evening," she called after him.
When he reached the end of the hallway, there was an armed guard waiting in front of the elevators. Malik gave him a polite nod, half-expecting to be stopped – which he was.
"Top floor?" the guard asked. He must have been notified by the secretary somehow.
"You're gonna have to show me what's in your bag," he said.
"Um," said Malik. "Okay." He hoped the guard wasn't under any delusions about Akefia's line of business. Apparently he was on the up-and-up; the guard saw the guns, checked to see if they were loaded (they weren't), and then simply put them back with a satisfied grunt. Once in the elevator, he pulled out a ring of keys and turned one in some special-access keyhole. The elevator began to move upwards.
"Thanks," said Malik.
"No problem," said the guard, folding his hands behind his back.
Inside, the elevator was all mirrors. It gave the eerie illusion of infinite space. Malik wondered if they really had to worry about people assassinating Akefia. Maybe it was like when the President of the US drove anywhere and they had to send a convoy of guard vehicles with him. It would be very disturbing, Malik thought, to have to pre-emptively presume there were people out there who wanted to kill you.
"This must be a nice job, huh?" Malik said, for the sake of conversation.
"Most of the time," said the security guard, with a faint smile.
The elevator came to a stop on the 33rd floor, and the doors slowly slid open to reveal a truly opulent interior. Malik had been expecting some kind of office space, but it was more like a living room, crossed with, like, a library or something. Seriously. The walls were entirely made of bookshelves, from floor to ceiling. And there was a mini bar. The guard stepped out of the elevator and Malik followed him, trying not to gawk. Even with all the bookshelves, there wasn't enough space for all the books – there were stacks of them lying around on the floor. And, just like downstairs, everything was red, ranging in shades from vermilion to bordeaux. Malik was beginning to suspect what Akefia's favorite color was. There was a huge, arced window on one wall that opened onto a breathtaking view of Cairo. The summer evening breeze turned the pages of a book that had been left open on the sill. Above him, the domed ceiling was made of glass, and outside he could see the stars just beginning to come out in a deep purple sky.
"Darling, you made it!"
It was Akefia. He'd just emerged from a doorway – and looked positively delighted. He was wearing a maroon robe and slippers, as if he'd just gotten out of the shower. He came forward and kissed Malik on both cheeks and then – to Malik's surprise – did the same to the armed security guard.
"How you doin', Mo?" Akefia asked. "Stay for a drink?"
"Nah, I gotta get back downstairs," said Mo. "But thanks."
"Take it easy," Akefia said, as the guard stepped back inside the elevator. "Now," he said, holding Malik at arm's length, "you're looking well. I trust you found the place okay?"
"Yeah," said Malik. "I was a little surprised though, I was looking for a house."
"I'm too lazy to commute to work, so I just live here."
"Nice place," Malik commented, unable to refrain from looking around once again.
Akefia bowed politely. "Flattery will get you everywhere. You're welcome anytime, mi casa es su casa."
"Oh, before I forget," said Malik, reaching into his bag, "these are for you." He held out the guns to Akefia.
"You're wonderful," Akefia said delightedly, taking them. He held up a finger. "Wait right here." He disappeared through the doorway and reemerged after a moment with a black leather briefcase. "And this is for you," he said, offering it to Malik.
"Aha! Thank you."
"Thank you. Can I offer you a drink?"
Malik considered it. "That would hit the spot, actually."
"What's your poison?"
"Whatever you're having."
While Akefia busied himself with the mini bar, Malik sat down on a big comfy couch near the window and took the opportunity to look inside the briefcase. What he saw were stacks and stacks of money. He closed it again quickly, with what he was sure was a very dopey grin rising to his face. Ishizu would be able to live someplace nice now, like she'd always dreamed about. It would be his payback for all the years she'd spent raising him. And there might even be enough left to pay for some grad school…
But just then a thought occurred to him. It was over now – whatever had been going on between him and Akefia. They'd both kept up their end of the bargain, and now – well, it was time to go home. Linger over this drink for a while, maybe, and then back to reality. It had been fun for a while, these past few days, thinking Akefia might have taken an interest in him. But, let's be honest here, Malik, he thought, he needed you to do something for him. If you'd said no, do you think he'd have wanted to see you again? Malik guessed not. It had been nice crossing paths for a while, but Malik had his own boring little life to get back to, and someone like Akefia had to have someone waiting for him somewhere.
"What's up, pussycat?" Akefia asked, coming back from the bar. "You look like you're thinking hard."
"Oh, not really," Malik said. "Long day, that's all."
"Sorry to hear it." Akefia handed Malik a glass. He remained standing next to the window.
"Thanks," said Malik. "Eid mubarak." He clinked his glass with Akefia's.
Akefia looked momentarily blank, and then he covered his eyes and groaned. "Oh fuck! Eid! That's right! I forgot all about it." He sighed. "Eid mubarak, kiddo. See what happens when you live alone? Half the time I forget my own birthday."
"Oh come on," Malik said, half-jokingly. "You can't expect me to believe you don't have a wife or a girlfriend squirreled away somewhere."
"Believe it, my friend," Akefia said, a little glumly. He was looking out the window. Malik followed his gaze; it was dark out now, and all the lights in Cairo were on. The electric shape of the city stretched out over the ground. He could tell where the Nile was by the ripples of light in the water. "I move around too much," Akefia was saying. There was a furrow between his eyebrows. "Who wants to be packing up every two weeks and living someplace different?" He shrugged. "Gold diggers and mental cases, maybe, but that's it."
"So try a different girlfriend in each country."
"You're a comedian. I tried that in my twenties, but I couldn't keep them straight. I'm not complaining; I chose it when I chose this business. It comes with the territory."
Well. This was…not entirely unwelcome information. Malik rose to his feet and joined Akefia at the window. "Doesn't your family do stuff for Eid?"
"Nah," Akefia said, after a slight pause. "They're all gone." He decided to polish off his whiskey.
Gone? Malik felt a weight settle on his stomach. All this time he'd just assumed Akefia had everything. But he didn't. Malik was lucky – he didn't have parents either, but he did have a brother who loved him so much he'd threatened to kill him if he didn't come home for Eid, and he did have a sister who loved him so much she'd been cooking herself silly all weekend. Now he felt like a real asshole.
"Fuck," Malik said. "I'm sorry."
Akefia wrinkled his nose. "Don't be. Believe me, I've gotten over it." He smiled at Malik, and Malik understood – it was Akefia's way of telling him it was okay. Malik got it. Like anyone who'd lost their parents, he knew it was possible to be happy and also always a little bit sad. That was another part of growing up.
"That's enough about me," Akefia was saying now, "let's talk about you. Specifically, are you hungry?"
"Me?" The question had caught him off guard. "Um. A little bit."
"Good, me too." Akefia pulled out a pack of Camels. "Now, Malik, do you have to go somewhere, or can I take you out to dinner?"
He was just about to light the cigarette when Malik stopped him. "Wait," he said.
Akefia looked at him curiously. And then Malik stood up on his tiptoes and kissed him.
He wasn't sure why at first. Maybe it was because now he knew Akefia wanted him around even though their deal was over. Maybe it was because of that crooked smile he knew so well from seeing it in the mirror. Or maybe it was just because Akefia had used his name for the first time. The whiskey? That might be part of it.
He kissed him softly at first, and after a moment, Akefia started to kiss him back. And then he felt Akefia pull him closer, and he felt Akefia's hand go up to stroke his hair, and his heart started pounding, and he pulled away.
Akefia had a slightly dazed look on his face, but he was smiling. "Damn," he said. "You must be really hungry. I hope you don't do that to everyone who offers you food."
Malik laughed breathlessly. He felt like he'd just been running for hours.
Akefia's hand slipped from Malik's shoulder down to his chest. "Your heart's going a mile a minute," he said. His eyes flickered over Malik's face. The smile was gone. Malik met his eyes, but when he tried to look away found he couldn't. Like he'd been hit by a poison dart.
And then Akefia's hand went to the back of his neck, and Malik found himself pulled into another kiss. But where the first kiss was chaste and slow, this one was searing, insistent – night to the first one's day. Akefia entwined his fingers in Malik's hair. Malik gasped when he felt him bite down on his bottom lip, and Akefia seized the opportunity to deepen the kiss. He was kissing him savagely, hungrily as a man starving to death.
Akefia pulled away, breathing hard, and then bent to kiss Malik's throat. And despite himself, Malik found his body responding. Akefia felt it too; his hand went down to the small of Malik's back and pulled him closer. Malik wound his arms around Akefia's neck. His mind felt like it had shut off, but as their bodies were crushed together, he noticed one thing: Akefia's heart beat at a different rhythm than his. But it was beating just as fast.
Speaking Arabic at an airport is actually a very bad idea, don't do it. Once I got searched just because my backpack had Arabic writing on it. Airports be straight trippin'.