When they stepped out of the airport terminal and Alisha wrote down the address of her cousin, Nick almost wished she'd gotten caught at passport control.
The address was an apartment building in Tower Hamlets, one of the worst parts of London. A ghetto, some would say. It was infested with teenage gangs, and there were so many Muslims living there it was jokingly referred to as The Islamic Republic of Tower Hamlets. In recent years, there had been problems with gangs who had charged themselves with the mission of enforcing Sharia Law and harassing and even beating up people who they felt did not conform.
WHAT'S THE MATTER? Alisha wrote in her notebook, when she saw the look on Nick's face.
"Nothing," he muttered, sticking the address in his pocket. It was obvious she had never been to the UK and had no idea about the kind of place where her cousin lived.
They were in line out at the taxi stand. Trains and buses did not run in London after midnight, so taxi was the only way to get across town at this hour, past two a.m. Nick stood there for a moment, debating upon whether to wait until daylight to take Alisha to her cousin's place. But where would they go to kill time--just hang around in the airport for another five or six hours? He'd hoped to be in Paris by early morning and in Marseille by noon, at the latest.
Now it was their turn for a taxi.
May as well get this chore over with, he thought.
He stepped up and opened the door before the driver could get out. It was a classic London "black cab," the type with a roomy back seat area where you could put your baggage.
"Where to, mate?" the driver said over his shoulder. He was scruffy looking, with disheveled red hair a noticeable underbite.
"Tower Hamlets," Nick said.
"Not on your life, not at this hour." He started to pull forward while Nick still had the door open.
"Come on, man, I'll give you a big tip. An extra twenty pounds."
The driver laughed. "Twenty pound won't pay for smashed windows, mate. I ain't goin' there, full stop. Take you to Canary Wharf Station, if it suits you, but that's as far as I go."
He pulled away before Nick could make up his mind.
Alisha looked confused and didn't seem to understand the problem.
The next taxi pulled up, another black cab. "Bugger off," was all the driver said when Nick told him the destination.
The driver of the next taxi was wearing a turban, which Nick thought was promising.
"Tower Hamlets," Nick said casually, as if he went there all the time at two a.m.
"No vay," the driver said in an Indian accent, eyeing Alisha suspiciously.
"I'll pay you fifty extra," Nick said, "since it's so late."
The driver looked tempted. "Seventy."
"I vill not vait for you there," the driver warned. "Only drop you out." He smiled. "And probably vile I am still moving."
* * *
Even in the relatively light three a.m. traffic, it took over an hour for the taxi to reach Tower Hamlets. The driver took them through the center of London along Marylebone Road, on the south side of Regent's Park. They passed the famous Madame Tussauds wax museum, and the University College London complexly. Nick caught a glimpse of the London Eye in the distance.
For Nick, it felt good to be back in "civilization." The feeling was short-lived. He had been to London quite a few times but had never been to Tower Hamlets. The area was a depressing mix of kebab shops and mini-markets and four and five story "council houses," the British term for government-sponsored housing projects.
The turbaned driver slowed, looked uneasy as they passed a few clusters of young men hanging around outside all-night shops. He had typed the address of Alisha's cousin into the taxi's electronic navigator.
They took a right and went down a darker street with high rises on both sides, passing a couple of teenagers who stared bluntly as the taxi passed. The driver veered to avoid what looked like a big sack of fast food garbage sitting in the middle of the road, and then a cat dashed in front of the headlights, which apparently had been sniffing around in the bag.
The driver slammed on the brakes, throwing Nick and Alisha forward. He was a nervous wreck. He slowed the taxi, looking to the right. "Okay, this is the address. Please exit quickly."
Nick paid the man, squinting under the dome light, and gave him the extra seventy pounds. "I'll give you fifty more if you'll wait--I'm dropping her off, I'll be right back, ten minutes max."
"No vay," the driver said.
"Come on, don't be such a pussy."
The Indian raised an eyebrow. "I don't want to get killed, man! Go your vay, leave me alone!"
"Seventy," Nick said. "I have to go back to the airport." He didn't want to be stranded in this area in the middle of the night--he didn't even have a phone to make a call.
The driver glanced up and down the road, which seemed quiet at the moment. "Okay, okay, but if you don't come back in ten minutes, I go. And you must pay in advance."
"No problem," Nick said, and gave him the money, then dragged Alisha's suitcase out. She took a step to the right, but Nick said, "That's building B over there." The flats were five stories high, most of the windows dark, but Nick could hear the steady thumping of Middle Eastern pop music coming from somewhere above.
There were a couple of teenagers, dressed in black jackets, blue jeans and sneakers hanging around the front door.
Nick felt Alisha grab his hand. She held on tight as they passed the boys, who eyed him with what Nick interpreted as open hostility, but neither one said a word. For once, Nick was glad that Alisha was wearing the most conservative Islamic attire possible.
They entered the dingy lobby--it smelled like curry. The apartment number was B-12. There was a bank of intercoms and mailboxes, but B-12 was not labeled. Nick glanced at Alisha. "What's your cousin's name--full name?"
She pulled out the notebook and wrote, "DARIYA NOORI."
Nick pushed the intercom button for B-12. Nothing happened. He pushed it again, waited, and then muttered, "Come on, we'll just go and knock on the door."
* * *
A moment later, they emerged on the third floor, which smelled even stronger of curry, mixed with a fragrance that was pungent and familiar...marijuana smoke. There was the faint sound of a TV somewhere nearby. A baby crying.
They found the door to B-12 and Nick knocked on it, not bothering with the bell.
He glanced at Alisha and knocked again, then pressed his ear to the door. There was some noise inside...footsteps?
The door had a peephole and Nick stood back a little, making sure Alisha was in view.
"What do you want?" a woman's voice called out in an East London accent. "It's three thirty in the morning!"
"She's looking for her cousin, Dariya Noori."
"Dariya Noori," Nick said, louder. He held the paper up to the peephole so she could read the name on the paper.
"Never heard of her."
Nick frowned, looking at Alisha, then back at the peephole, now feeling a little anxious. "Are you sure? We know she lives here, or used to live here."
"Yes I'm sure. Go away!"
"What the hell is this?" Nick hissed at Alisha. "I thought you said you were positive about this!"
Alisha nodded, then shrugged as if to say "I was positive." It was hard to read her expression behind the veil.
"Listen," Nick shouted at the door. "I know she lived in this apartment at some point in time. Do you have any idea where she might have moved--"
"Go away or I'll call the police!" the woman said. She pounded once sharply on the door for emphasis.
"God damn it," Nick muttered, looking at Alisha. "This is it, lady. End of the road."
The door on the other side of the hallway cracked open against a chain, and an eye looked out at them.
Nick turned away and started walking back down the hall towards the stairs.
"Mmm!" Alisha said from behind him, right on his heels.
It was the first sound he had ever heard her make.
She grabbed his arm, and he whirled around on her. "You're staying here, do you understand? I gave you plenty of money, now fend for yourself!"
He turned away but she grabbed his arm again. He only half turned towards her this time--she waved frantically at him and pulled out her notebook. With a trembling hand, she wrote something down. Nick shook his head as he did this--he would not be swayed by any more of her "you promised me" crap.
She held the notebook up so he could read it.
Nick actually laughed out loud, and he turned away. "Have a good trip," he chuckled, and took a step down the stairs.
She made that "Mmmm!" noise again, which grated on his nerves, and chased after him, grabbing hold of his arm. He tried to shake her hand free but she clung to him like a child to her mother.
"Damn you, let go of me! I'm not taking you to Berlin, or anywhere else!"
Now the door across the hall from B-12 opened and some man was watching them.
Alisha was writing something else on the pad.
PLEASE? I AM ALL ALONE!
Nick looked into her tears eyes, fuming. "Take off that goddam veil!"
She backed away.
"Take it off!"
She kept moving away from him, fear in her eyes.
Nick moved aggressively towards her. "I'm so tired of that fucking mask and having no idea what you're thinking--take it off!"
She turned away but Nick grabbed a fistful of her robe.
The man from the other apartment stepped out. "Hey, she doesn't have to take off her veil--"
"Mind your own business," Nick snapped, pointing a finger in the man's face. He was wearing a bathrobe and looked Middle Eastern, was quite beefy.
He tried to stand in between Nick and Alisha, but Nick shoved him out of the way. He took a swing at Nick's head.
Nick intercepted his fist an in a split second had his fingers and wrist bent backwards. It was a move that a Russian Spetsnaz commando had taught him once in a bar in Bulgaria. The big man went down on his knees and let out a ragged gasp.
"Get back in your apartment," Nick said, and yanked him around towards the door, then shoved him back across the threshold. The man wasted no time shutting the door to protect himself. Alisha had reached the other end of the hall, but there were no stairs for her to escape, nowhere for her to go.
Nick said through gritted teeth, "Take... off... that... damn... veil." He was now determined to make her do it if it was the last thing he did. He didn't care if her face was so messed up it looked like a Picasso portrait--he was sick and tired of her treating him like he didn't deserve to see it.
She vigorously shook her head, her eyes wide, raising her arms to protect herself.
Nick tried to grab her wrists and they struggled. She was surprisingly strong.
"No!" she shrieked.
He froze, the word echoing in his ears.
The bitch could talk!
Nick stood stock still for a few seconds, stunned.
His right hand shot between her arms and ripped the black veil away from her face.
Nick gasped, and shrank back in horror.
The face was not disfigured or ugly or unpleasant in any way.
At one point in his life--when he was Leon Gilmour--he knew that stunning face almost as well as he knew his own.
He had been madly in love with her, had even proposed marriage to her.
And she had betrayed him, letting him go on a mission that she knew would result in his death.
This book will be officially released as an ebook on March 8th, 2016. To be notified when the serial publishing of Book 8 "Blood Diamonds" begins and of the official release date, please make sure you are signed up to my VIP Reader List. I hope you enjoyed the book!