The Sheikh of Ma’aJannah

He looked to the south, into the deep Gulf. The sun warmed the flat solar sheets on the gentle sea, long strips of metal and white. He breathed in the moist air, fighting back a nauseous urge, the weakness in his knees. Then into scene of the murder.

The first thing he noticed was the smell. The rich, spicy scent of halal cuisine splattered on the rug. A man in white hunched over the corpse, collecting blood samples in a tiny sterilized bottle.

“They gutted him,” said the man, standing. Spiky blond, tan, big teeth. “John Biggin,” he said, taking a wide step over the seeping puddle of gore, extending his hand.

“Ali Jabar,” matching the firm shake.

“So you’re the head of security around here?” Biggin asked, sealing off the bottle of red.

Ali nodded. “And chief inspector. We must wear many hats.”

Biggin turned to the body. “The stakeholders will have to be notified. With the Sheikh dead, the power’s gonna shift around here.”

Jabar looked closer. He could see the ragged line through the Sheikh’s white garb and belly. The older man had gained some weight with his age and the wound had bubbled out through the cloth in meaty pink gouts.

“I will tell the family,” Ali said. “They will want to return to the mainland for the funeral ceremonies.”

“A perfect chance for the assassin to escape,” Biggin returned. “No. We have to seal off the island. No choppers, no boats, no jets. No one gets on or off.”

Jabar frowned, feeling the ulcer in his own gut surge. “Ok, Mr. Biggin. But we must be quick. While the Sheikh lies here his soul is in limbo. His family will not wait long. But please, Mr. Biggin, let me show the Sheikh the proper respect of one who follows Allah.”

“You were related?” Biggin asked.

“Yes,” Jabar said, weary. “My great uncle.”

“My condolences,” said the man in white, and he stepped from the room.

Ali approached the dead man. The Sheikh was sitting upright, eyes moist and staring, mouth set and proud. His hand at his side, bloody, frozen in the attempt to hold his life within his belly. Blood smeared the man’s tiny black phone, the spilled bowl of curry, the ruined ornamental rug.

Jabar reached forward and closed the Sheikh’s eyes. He unfolded a clean white sheet from the linen closet and draped it over. He tapped his com to summon his team, told them to bring a stretcher and cleaning supplies.

Then the afternoon horn bellowed over the floating island. Long and low, like a steamer, but infused with a sampling of the bells of Mecca.

Ali walked out under the sun, found the angled lines on the deck, unrolled his rug, and began to pray.

***

He spoke with the Sheikh’s wife later, when he had changed into dark formal clothes of mourning and thoroughly cleaned his hands. She wept and clenched his arm until her nails bit his skin.

After, there was a press conference and the news was released to the Ma’aJannah’s public. The microphones swarmed and he watched the auto-translated text of his speech reflected on the glass of the room, the wide expanse of the sea and solar fields.

He saw Biggin sitting with his boss, the old American investor Peter Crock. They whispered to each other and Biggin fired off emails on his PDA. Ali knew a power grab was in play.

When the questions were completed, he moved from the podium in trance, picked up a bottle of water and stepped into the sun. The nausea was still there, simmering in his gut.

The murderer was somewhere on the island. Maybe this very quadrant, perhaps even the conference room. The knife would be gone, sunk to ten thousand meters, probably the blood soaked shoes and shirt as well.

He walked across the lined deck and up a set of stairs which swept wide over the rocking sea. Then he buzzed through a set of sliding glass and into his office.

Dia was scanning through files on a number of monitors, lithe and delicate in her chair. She looked up. “I’m sorry, Ali” she said.

Jabar waved it away, mouth pursed, still thinking.

The Sheikh valued his privacy and his own suite was devoid of security footage. Even outside on the patio the cameras were fixed. The assassin easily could have shirked the camera angle and dove into the gulf. But according to the database, no ships or small craft, flying or floating, had exited the far perimeter, the ring of sensors that protected Ma’aJannah. “No chance of escape,” he murmured.

“Perhaps a submarine,” Dia said. “A small submersible could potentially go under the sensor ring.”

Ali shook his head. “There are dangling thermal and kinetic sensors down to the bottom. Sabotage was a very real possibility when this place was built. Especially on the solar farms.”

“So you think he’s still on the island?”

“You’re assuming gender now?” Ali asked coolly, watching her.

She chuckled.

“But yes,” he continued. “Very sure. It’s been an hour since the Sheikh’s death. Perhaps he’s hanging off the side on a beam waiting for us to drop our guard.”

“What about motive?” she said. “Who would want the Sheikh out of the picture? The Americans? His voting power will stay the same, only transfer to his oldest son, in the care of Khadijah.”

“You know the Sheikh’s family isn’t fond of the rule of law here. They think it anarchy, chaos. Alliances with heathens. They will return to Kingdom and rule by proxy.”

“Al-Isbin, then.” said Dia. “That is who will take his place.”

“More luxury hotels and private lagoons. He’ll kill the university, the wildlife refuge.”

“But is that grounds for murder?” she asked.

Ali looked up, clenching his jaw. “Dia – What are grounds for murder?”

***

When the sun set over the solar farms the metal glinted, a reflection of the bronzed clouds and purple sky. It shimmered for a long moment as the sun cut red into the waves. Then in the dark the vast fields powered down, seeping opaque into hibernation for the night.

Armed men walked the perimeter of the habitable island, a square mile of smooth plastic railings and ramps. They clomped with big rubber-soled boots on the deck, sweeping the nooks between the bloated flotation columns and the ocean foam with thick flashlight beams.

Ali wondered what Biggin had been doing. How had he been the first to respond? And why had he collected a blood sample?

Peter Crock insisted on his own personal security detail, per his shareholder status. The ultra-libertarian nature of Ma’aJannah gave him the legal right. There was no centralized police force, only private mercenaries and security teams. The investigation of the murder wouldn’t be routine police work – it would be a competition between Crock’s men and the Sheikhs. Ali shook his head at the folly of the thing.

After a cold, sullen meal he returned to the Sheikh’s quarters with Dia. The carpet and cushion had been removed and the room was stark and cold white under the overhead lights.

“He was eating lunch alone,” Dia began, thinking aloud. “Did he not lock his room?”

“He had trust…”

“In us,” Dia murmured.

“Yes,” Ali admitted, moving over to the desk with a small thin terminal. “But not just us. The idea of Ma’aJannah, a sovereign nation state. Built on new principles, new energy. Independent, beyond the petty squabbles and hatred and biases. Beyond violence.”

“A man of ideals,” she said.

“And he was killed for it,” said Ali. He had pulled white latex over his hands and was tapping at the computer. It had already been dusted for fingerprints, to no avail, and the blue powder contrasted sharply in the light. “He read the morning news. Checked the currency exchange rates. Heated a bowl of curry.”

Ali rubbed his thumb down his unshaven jaw, frowning. “After morning prayers. In his white thawb.” He moved over to where Dia was standing.

“You have the pictures?”

She nodded.

“Pull them up. Can you overlay with the room?”

She pulled out her PDA and attached the mini projector. Then he dimmed the lights and she pointed the image at the stark wall, the gutted man lying angled to the door, his palms open and smeared.

“See here,” Ali said, “his posture. Still upright, even as he sunk to the floor. That kind of wound takes some time to die, to bleed out. He probably faced his attacker, maybe even had an exchange with him.”

“He touched his phone,” Dia said. “He was trying to call. To call for help or send out a warning.”

“We checked the logs,” said Ali, pulling off the gloves. “Nothing was sent from the phone.”

“You know the Americans own that technology,” Dia said. “For all we know they could have zapped his phone prior to killing him.” She poked through her PDA, fashioning a complex query on the tables. “Look – the phone stopped sending pings around ten AM, only an hour before we found him.”

“Suspicious,” said Ali.

“Very. And who has the phone now?”

“We have it. Biggin offered to take a look, check for fingerprints, hacks and the like. I refused him.”

“Smart,” she said.

Ali’s com beeped. He glanced at it, an urgent text from the staff.

“K is freaking out,” he said. “She wants her husband off this unholy island and in the ground. The American doctor tried to recommend sedatives. I’m going to have to give in. I can’t push back forever. They pay my wage”

“This is your uncle, Ali,” Dia said. “Don’t you think he’d want justice? He thought that above tradition.”

Ali stared at the far wall, a real-time display of the island in minimalist style, color coded for various sectors, bold red swaths of energy consumption, green pulsing arrows from the solar farms and geothermal vents. The pixels cycled every few seconds, distinctly beautiful at the nexus where the colors meshed into fractals and patterns.

“My uncle was smarter than this,” he said. “This just doesn’t make sense, to leave himself so open.”

He felt a warm hand on his shoulder. He reached and touched it, her smooth skin, his own fingers running along her polished nails.

“Let’s go look at the phone,” she said.

They killed the lights and drowned the room in black, save the blinking map. Then they locked the door and went out into the night.

* * *

Before they reached the security office the call to prayer resounded across the island. Under the stars they drew clean mats from the bins on the walls and laid them due west and knelt and prayed. As he was reciting the words, Ali saw long shadows gathering behind and to his side, booted feet.

When they were done they rolled their mats and stood. Two dozen of the American security detail stood in full combat fatigues, thick body armor on chest and thighs, bulky black assault rifles. Before them, Biggin, a large pistol loose in his hip holster.

“Ali Jabar,” he said, stepping forward. “You are under arrest for the murder of Sheikh Mohammad Al-Busaidi.”

“What?” Incredulous, Ali stepped back, already near the edge of the planking. “You know that is an outrageous accusation. I was there with you, Biggin.”

“We have proof,” Biggin said, grinning with his big teeth.

“He was my uncle! How dare you accuse me…”

“Mr. Jabar. We’d prefer if you come peacefully.” Biggin gestured with his eyes to the men behind him. Two shouldered their weapons and stepped forward, dangling cuffs.

“Biggin, you bastard,” Dia hissed.

“It’ll be ok,” Ali said to her. “We’ll get this sorted out. The truth is on my side. Get the team together.” He held out his hands to accept the cuffs. “Dissect that phone,” he whispered.

***

“So you see,” Biggin explained, “the nanotubes found in the Sheikh’s tissue wound match the signature of the chef’s knives in Mr. Jabar’s apartment.”

He was standing before a projector display, two snapshots of electron microscope slides, both with identical complex crystallization.

The Sheikh’s wife dabbed her eyes, the black burka ruffled and slipping from her hairline, unable to look at Ali.

“This is absurd, Biggin. An obvious set-up. If I was the killer, why would I use my own knives? Could I possibly so idiotic?”

“I do not intend to decipher your motives, Mr. Jabar. Only present the facts. The bylaws of Ma’aJannah give the victim’s heir, in this case Khadijah, the ultimate onus of justice. It is her decision to accept this evidence and press judgment.”

Ali breathed deeply. His arms ached from the awkward confines of the cuffs. His throat was parched. His ulcer pulsed in acidic waves. But more than anything, the revelation of twisted justice washed over him like a Kafkaesque nightmare.

Khadijah rose, her head low. “I wish to bury my Lord and husband. Let the suspect Jabar be judged by the law of my own country, the Kingdom. I will plead mercy on his behalf.” Then she left the room.

Ali Jabar was led away.

***

The Americans had converted an old closet into a cell, stripped of shelves and supplies, steel bars supplementing the thick plastic windows. The room was stifling. Constructed next to a generator, big turbines from the geothermal pipes seeped heat. Save a thin strip of white through the cracks, it was lightless.

Ali sat, his head in his hands, fighting back nausea.

The hours passed in the hot dark and he could think of nothing but that long moment before he had seen the slain Sheikh, staring out to sea. Before he had seen Biggin, the nervous crowds of the press conference, Khadijah’s controlled grief. Just that vast and wide expanse. Pure and blameless.

A tiny knock came at the door. He had no way of knowing what time it was, but he rose and pressed his eye to the small strip of visibility between the steel bars. Dia – outside, eyes wide. He saw her open her mouth to muffled noise. The plastic is too thick, he thought. There’s no way she can tell me what she has to tell me.

Through the blur of the window he saw her fiddle with her PDA, attaching some sort device to the top. Then she crouched to the crack beneath the door. Light flooded through.

In the dark he could see it, painted across the floor, his shoes and ankles. He stepped aside, twisting to improve his perspective. A grainy video, thick yellow translation along the side. The Sheikh, labored and dying, speaking directly to camera.

Ali’s innocence confirmed. The assassin named. The plot revealed.

It was then his nausea went away.

***

In the morning a big blond American opened the cell, unlocked his cuffs and handed him bottled water. Three others kept their weapons leveled at his chest. He attempted to control himself, remain composed, but the knowledge of the situation sped his breathing and heart rate. He felt dizzy, almost drunk.

They led him outside to the wide square that doubled as a helipad, flags whipping in the morning wind. The air felt strange, charged, thick with the scent of ozone. To the south the skies were roiling and dark, nearly purple, and he could see long sweeps of rain slanting from cloud to sea. Lightning crackled within the maelstrom.

Biggin was there, mussed blonde hair, white shirt and khakis, the pistol holstered at his hip.

“We’ll make this quick. Head on out before the weather turns nasty,” he said. “Chopper will be landing any minute.”

Before long a speck appeared in the sky, black and growing larger, until the distinctive thumping grew and filled the air. It set down through a strong side wind, the wheels skidding in momentum. Biggin ran up to the pilot, yelled something indecipherable in the roar.

Khadijah appeared, clothed again in her black burka, but also a red drape of royalty billowing from her shoulders. The coffin was black plastic, something on hand for crew casualties, not VIPs airlifted back to the Kingdom for land burial. They rolled it to the back of the chopper and loaded it in.

Biggin jogged back to Ali, swirling his finger above his head in imitation of a rotor. “Chop, chop,” he yelled. “Let’s go.”

Ali eyed the storm to the south warily. It had grown larger, darker, and the wind was rising.

Just then the door to the Sheikh’s security office slid open, the entire team shuffled out, Dia at front.

Decked out in grey fatigues, they hefted newly stamped black Kalashnikovs. They stepped towards Biggin and his American guard. Ali watched the man’s hand go to his pistol holster, releasing the safety snap.

“What is this?” Biggin yelled. The rotor blades continued to roar.

“Jabar,” shouted Dia, jogging up. “I can’t let you take him.” She had the PDA in her hand with the projector.

“What?” yelled Biggin. He noticed the PDA.

Dia flicked it on, pointing it at the wall of the security offices. With the encroaching storm the contrast was strong and the Sheikh’s tortured face clearly visible. He was crying, his lips moving. With a soundtrack of the wind and the rotor blades, yellow text scrawled on the modernist plastic siding.

“Oh…Khadijah never wanted this…I’m so sorry…Khadijah…I loved you. Why?…you stab me Khadijah…you stab me for yourself…you selfish self… you murder me. Khadijah…the Americans…you want me out. So sorry Khadijah…Ma’aJannah wasn’t for you. Wasn’t for you. An…impossible dream…”

Ali watched the Sheikh’s wife as the accusations were leveled. He watched Biggin’s when the Americans were mentioned. When the vid flicked off Biggin stepped to Dia, screaming “A horrible forgery! You dishonor the Sheikh!”

Dia had her gun out and the Sheikh’s guard lifted their weapons. The Americans did the same, some kneeling, laser sights leveled.

Biggin sucked air through his nostrils, spat to the deck. “Forget it,” he hissed, tossing Ali’s cuff keys towards Dia.

Then he dashed back to the heli, climbing into the back. Khadijah followed, shielding her eyes with her black hood against the wind.

The chopper lifted off, battered by gusts, flying low over the frothing whitecaps.

Ali bent to pick up the keys and felt the entire deck lurch beneath, the flotation pillars riding the waves. The rain began, cold needles that struck the deck and bounced an inch in return. The security guards from both parties began to dissipate in both directions.

Dia came to him, shielding her eyes from the blowing rain. “Let’s get inside,” she said.

The wail of the storm was now relentless, strange voices that sucked between the floating deck and the waves, throbbing pulses, squealing joists. They jogged to the sliding security door but Ali turned and saw an American pointing.

From the bowels of the storm a line of black mist had been sucked from the sea. Strange yellow haze billowed from the peaks of the cloud, grey mist frothing at the base where the spout met the waves.

Dia turned and they saw it, the chopper still fighting the winds, veering away from the rising cyclone. And then it appeared as if the misting black vapor, the wind and sea, the very storm itself shifted, lurching towards the struggling black speck. The line of the spout, so vast against the whirring vehicle, shivered imperceptibly, and the chopper fell into it as though drawn by magnetism. The clouds roiled and the sight of the twister was lost and a bubble of red flame was swallowed up in the haze.

They stood pelted and soaking, watching the storm. Lighting raged, from sea to sky and back again, connecting regions of darkness in webs of jagged fire.

“Yes,” Ali finally said. “Let’s get inside.”

***

He turned away in modesty as Dia stripped and dried herself. She wrapped two towels around her chest and hips, sleek dark hair dripping down her back.

“Khadijah,” said Dia. “Why would she do it? And how would she gain access to your quarters?”

“The Sheikh’s family has universal access keys,” Ali said. “They may walk as they please, it is their property.”

“Even so, it was a strange plot.”

“And stranger justice.”

“That is so. Allah works in many ways. They say my Uncle was born during a monsoon.”

Dia looked at him, her eyes straight ahead. “I am sorry for your Uncle, Ali. But what will be done? Charge Peter Crock?”

“That is not my place. The Sheikh’s son now has the decision. But I do know my uncle would want his dream to live on. That requires the Americans.”

She touched his hand again and he did not have the modesty to push her away. Something in her touch dissipated all the nausea of the killings and treachery, replaced the acid in his stomach with a warm contentment. “Thank you Dia. Standing up to Biggin for me.”

The morning call to prayer began to swoon, through the white halls and rooms. Ali nodded, released Dia’s hand and removed two mats from the bin. They knelt together, watching the rain streak the glass. They set their foreheads into the rough fibers of the rug, facing Mecca and the black rock of Ka’bah. Even with his eyes closed he heard her recite the prayers under her breath and matched her word for word.

When they stood he rolled his rug and looked out the glass.

A thin beam of sun cut through the dissipating grey, hitting the fields of solar panels. They were growing warm in the light, glinting, even now nearly dry.