The Night of Power

a Mahboob Chaudri story


The burning in his lungs was a hawk with sharpened claws, and it tore at his flesh with cruel anger.

Ana aouz cigara, he thought, his throat parched, his breathing hoarse. I must have a cigarette!

But it was Ramadan, the month of Saum, and the Holy Quran commanded all able-bodied adult Muslims to "eat and drink until so much of the dawn appears that a white thread may be distinguished from a black, then keep the fast completely until night."

The sick were temporarily exempt from fasting, as were nursing and pregnant women and travelers making long journeys, though they were all obliged to make up any of the 30 days they missed for such reasons as soon after the end of the month as they were able. Only the very young and the very old were fully excused from participation.

He had no reason not to fast, so he tasted no food in spite of his hunger, his cracked lips touched no water in spite of the heat of the day, and — worst of all — the packet of cigarettes in the pocket of his thobe remained unopened, and its cellophane wrapper crinkled in laughter at his suffering as he caressed it with longing fingers.

He looked out the plate-glass windows of the great Presidential Hotel, past the green-tiled roofs and golden central dome of the Guest Palace to the sea, where the sun’s nether rim flamed but a centimeter above the slate-grey waters of Gudabiyah Bay. He watched without appreciation as the fireball extinguished itself in the Gulf and brilliant streaks of salmon and orange and brightest yellow washed across the ivory sky. He clenched his teeth and waited impatiently as darkness fell, and the imams peered solemnly at their white and black threads in the gathering dusk.

Then at last, at 8:07 PM, the signal canon sounded. Almost instantly there was a cigarette between his lips and he was drawing its soothing smoke deep within himself, blessing the Almighty for having given him the strength to conduct himself faithfully throughout the day.

Praise Allah, he thought, only three days more and I am free of this torture for another year!

When he had smoked his cigarette down to the filter, he stubbed it out in an ashtray and crossed the lobby to the doors of the Al-Wazmiyyah Coffee Shop. The room was already crowded, but he filled a plate with mezzah and ouzi and kofta kebabs from the Iftar buffet and found an empty table by the window. He ate slowly and sparingly and drank three glasses of cool spring water, then he left the restaurant and, after a brief stop to pick up the object he needed, rode the elevator to the fourth floor of the hotel.

The corridor was deserted — all the Presidential’s guests but one, he felt certain, were downstairs at the buffet, even the Westerners, who had been cautioned not to eat in public during the daylight hours as a sign of respect to Ramadan and to the Muslims observing the fast. He walked quickly down the hallway to the fire door, let himself through it, and climbed the last two flights of stairs to the hotel’s top floor.

Here, too, there was no one to be seen, no one to see him as he crept along the thick brown carpeting to the door marked 613. He put his left ear and the fingertips of his right hand to the wood and listened intently. There was nothing to be heard from within. His hand darted into the pocket of his thobe, not for his cigarettes this time but for the ring of keys, which he clasped tightly in his fist to keep them from jangling as he drew them forth.

He selected one key from the dozen on the ring and fitted it soundlessly into the lock set into the doorknob. He held his breath as he turned the key, turned the knob, and swung the door inward just enough to allow himself to slip through the opening and ease it shut behind him.

The room was dark, illuminated only by the faint glow of the hotel’s exterior lighting that filtered in through the drapery covering the single window.

He waited. The only noises in the room were the gentle hum of the air-conditioner and the deafening pounding of his heart. When his eyes had adjusted to the almost-blackness, he was able to make out the shape in the left-hand bed, imagined he could actually see the one thin blanket rising and falling with the breathing of the figure who lay there asleep.

He stole across the room to the side of the bed and reached once more into his thobe’s deep side pocket.

When his hand reappeared, he was holding neither cigarettes nor keys. He was holding a small black revolver which glittered evilly in the diffused light admitted by the curtains, and his hand was steady as he touched it to the temple of the sleeping man in the bed.

• • •

Mahboob Chaudri’s temples throbbed and his pulse raced with exasperation as he stood looking down at the dead man.

"Where in the name of the Prophet is his clothing?" he demanded of no one, though there were four other people in the room to hear him. There were angrier words in Chaudri’s mind, but he was able to bite them back before they escaped his lips. Fasting is only one half of faith, he reminded himself. During the month of Saum, hostile behavior was also to be avoided — as were lying, backbiting, slander, the swearing of false oaths, and the glance of passion. So it was written, and — a devout believer — so Mahboob Chaudri would comport himself, the better to avoid distraction from the pious attention to God which was the meaning of Ramadan. It was not easy for him to calm his thoughts, but he held them inside his mouth with the tip of his index finger as he returned his gaze to the bed.

The dead man was completely naked, covered only by a light blanket of a blue several shades paler than his eyes. He was a Westerner, a Caucasian, but his skin was richly tanned. He had close-cropped blonde hair, a fine Roman nose, and what Jennifer Blake under happier circumstances would have called a dishy moustache. There was a small black hole just above his left temple, and the blood that drenched his pillow was still damp.

The Pakistani turned away in disgust. In spite of the air-conditioning, he was hot and sticky in his olive-green Public Security uniform. There was a line of perspiration on his upper lip.

"Where are his trousers?" he exclaimed, fighting to keep his voice below a shout. "His shirt? His shoes and stockings? Where is his billfold? Where are his papers?"

"The murderer — " Abdulaziz Shaheen began, but Chaudri cut him off.

"Yes, yes, of course. The murderer has taken everything away with him, including the gun and the keys they used to let themselves into this room."

"But, why?" said Jennifer Blake, a willowy brunette in a trim gold-and-white suit with a nametag on one lapel that identified her as the hotel’s night receptionist.

"So that we would not be able to determine the victim’s identity, of course." Chaudri had been called away from his Iftar meal at the Juffair police barracks to investigate a report of a gunshot at the Presidential Hotel, and he was tired and hungry after a long day of fasting.

"That’s not what I meant." The Blake woman frowned, her cultured British tone beginning to broaden under the strain of the evening’s events. "It’s bloody well obvious that’s why his kit was taken off, excuse my French. What I meant was, why was he here?"

"Yes," said Mirza Hussain from a straight-backed chair by the low couch where the receptionist, Shaheen, and an elderly woman bundled up in a terrycloth bathrobe were all sitting. "That is exactly what I have been asking myself all along. Why was this man sleeping in room 613 in the first place? Why, for that matter, was he in the hotel at all?"

"He was not a guest?" asked Chaudri.

"I never checked him in," Jennifer Blake said firmly. "Not tonight nor any other night."

"Mr. Hussain? Mr. Shaheen?"

Although the Presidential was part of a large American chain, it was — like all major hotels in the emirate — run by Bahrainis and staffed by a mixture of British expatriates, Indians, and Pakistanis. Mirza Hussain was general manager, Abdulaziz Shaheen chief of security.

Both men were native Bahrainis, both now wore the traditional Arabic long white thobes and red-and-white-checkered ghutras, but there the resemblance between them ended. Hussain was built along the lines of the country’s ruler, Sheikh Isa bin Sulman al-Khalifa; he was small in height but rather portly, with golden skin, a greying moustache and chin-beard, and wise black eyes behind the glittering lenses of a pair of spectacles with thin golden rims. Shaheen was muscularly built and cleanshaven and olive-complected, a decade younger and a full head taller than his superior.

"I have never seen him before," said Hussain, with an uncomfortable glance at the lifeless figure on the bed. "Perhaps Miss Ramsey or Miss Messenger checked him in during one of the other shifts."

The security chief shook his head. "I don’t think he was a guest," he said, and paused to draw deeply on the cigarette held between the thumb and index finger of his right hand. When he spoke again, wisps of smoke puffed from his mouth along with his words. "But of course I can’t be certain. It should be easy enough to find out."

"You yourself do not recognize him?" Chaudri persisted.

"No. I have no idea who he was. But whether he was a guest here or not, he had no business in this particular room, that much is certain."

"And why is that?"

It was Mirza Hussain who answered. "Standard hotel practice, mahsool. Sometimes important visitors drop in on us unexpectedly. We must always have space available to accommodate them. So, no matter how fully booked up we may be, we keep this one room vacant in case of an emergency. It is never rented out in the ordinary way."

Chaudri made an irritated grimace and turned back to the dead man in the bed. "Then what were you doing here sleeping?" he muttered. "What is it you were doing in room 613, where you ought not to have been at all, asleep so early on a Ramadan evening? And who is it who shot you, by all that is holy? Why were you here, and why were you killed, and by whom?" He curled his nut-brown hands into fists and rubbed wearily at his eyes. "All right," he sighed, "let us begin at the beginning. Frau Jurkeit?"

The older woman in the bathrobe stirred restlessly on the green leather sofa. "I am in ze room next door," she said, her English heavily accented. "Room 611. I am here in Manama wiss ze trade delegation from Bonn. We were to meet in ze coffee zhop downstairs for dinner at 8:30, but I twisted my ankle as I was dressing and decided to dine alone in my room. I ordered a — how do you say it? — a cutlet from room service." She glared disapprovingly at Mirza Hussain. "It was undercooked. Tomorrow I shall recommend zat we try ze Hilton instead. Just after nine o’clock I heard ze shot from zis room."

Chaudri took a pad from the pocket of his uniform jacket and made a note. "And what did you do then?"

"I called down to ze desk and reported what I had heard to, I assume, zis young woman."

"You did not look out into the corridor?"

"Certainly not!"

"Ah, yes," Chaudri remembered. "Your ankle."

"Mein Gott, it had nuzzing to do wiss my ankle! Someone is shooting a gun, do you sink I am sticking my head outside for a better look?"

"No, no," he said quickly. "Of course not. Miss Blake?"

The receptionist brushed a stray lock of hair into place and took up the story. "It was three past nine when I spoke with Frau Jurkeit, I checked the time as I hung up the phone. I immediately rang Mr. Shaheen’s office, but he wasn’t there at the moment. Then I tried Mr. Hussain, but he didn’t pick up, either. So I did what I ought to have done straightaway, I expect — "

"You rang up the Manama Directorate," Chaudri completed the woman's sentence for her. "And the officer you spoke with reported to the Investigation Officer, and the Investigation Officer sent for me. And by the time I arrived here at the hotel, you had located Mr. Shaheen and Mr. Hussain, and you gentlemen had already come up to this room and let yourselves in, and discovered — "

He let his voice trail away and indicated the body in the bed with a wave of his hand. He worked his jaw thoughtfully from side to side and went on. "And discovered a naked man in a room where he ought never to have been, shot to death by an unknown assailant who then took all the victim’s clothing and other belongings away with him when he left."

"It seems incredible," said Abdulaziz Shaheen. "What will you do now, mahsool?"

The Pakistani clapped his hands together decisively. "Now," he said, "I will begin to earn the salary which the Public Security Force is so generously paying me."

• • •

It was almost midnight, and Mahboob Chaudri was alone in the room with Abdulaziz Shaheen. Mirza Hussain had gone down to his second-floor office, where he had promised to keep himself available in case his further presence should be required. Jennifer Blake was back at her post. In a few moments, she would be relieved by Gillian Messenger, who would be on duty at the reception desk until 8:00 AM. Frau Jurkeit had long since returned to her own room next door. Even the body of the murder victim was gone.

Much had happened during the last two hours. Two and three at a time, the Presidential Hotel’s entire night staff and those members of the daytime and graveyard shifts the security chief had been able to reach by phone had paraded in and out of room 613 for a look at the dead man. Yousif Albaharna, the daytime doorman, thought he might have seen him entering the hotel that afternoon, but all Westerners looked more or less alike to him, he admitted sadly, and he could not be sure. No one else could remember ever having seen the man before, and both Gillian Messenger and Leslie Ramsey were certain they had not checked him in as a guest.

The Forensic Medical Officer had arrived shortly after 11, had examined the body, had confirmed that death had resulted from a single shot to the head from a small-caliber weapon, had grudgingly agreed that the victim had most probably been asleep at the time the shot was fired, had stood around impatiently while the final groups of hotel employees filed past the corpse, and then at last had instructed two uniformed natoors to carry it away on a stretcher. He would perform an autopsy in the morning, he announced, and then he was off.

Mahboob Chaudri had been kept almost continuously busy. He had interrogated the staff. He had conferred with the FMO. He had supervised the activities of the team of photographers and fingerprint men sent out by the Criminal Investigations Division. He had gone down to the lobby and verified that both of the keys to room 613 were present in the room’s mail slot on the wall behind the reception counter, where they belonged. There were several sets of passkeys available to the maids, and the manager and security chief each had a set of his own, of course, but these, too, he had been able to account for.

It seemed improbable that the dead man and his murderer had entered the room together. A more likely explanation of the sequence of events was that the victim had let himself in, either with a skeleton key or by springing the lock with a strip of celluloid, and had then undressed and gone to sleep. The murderer had followed some time later on, had committed his crime and gone away with the dead man’s belongings, unaware that there was anyone next door to hear the fatal gunshot and report it.

Thus far Mahboob Chaudri had proceeded with his investigation and with his thinking, and now he sat with Abdulaziz Shaheen and sipped gratefully at the strong Arabic coffee which Mirza Hussain had sent up for their refreshment. There was a bowl of fresh dates next to the fluted qraishieh on the room-service dolly, and the fruit had happily dulled the edges of Chaudri’s hunger.

The security chief lit a cigarette from the butt of his last one and slipped the almost-empty packet back into the pocket of his thobe. "If only we could put a name to the man," he grumbled. "If we knew who he was, that might tell us why he was here in the hotel, in this room. And if we knew why he was here, that might tell us why he was killed, and who it was who shot him."

"In the morning," said Chaudri, "we will circulate his photograph around the embassies, the banks, the Western companies, and hopefully someone will recognize him. But all that must wait for business hours. If only there was something else we could be doing now."

"What a night to feel powerless," Shaheen growled. "On this, the most powerful night of the year."

Mahboob Chaudri looked up from his thoughts. In the flurry of activity surrounding the murder, he had forgotten that this 27th night of Ramadan was Lailat al Qadr, "the Night of Power," when the first teachings of the Holy Quran were revealed to the Prophet of Islam for the guidance of his followers.

"‘This night better than a thousand months,’" Chaudri quoted, "‘when angels and spirits descend to the Earth, and it is peace until the rising of the dawn.’"

He got impatiently to his feet and began to pace the deep golden carpet, his hands clasped fitfully behind his back.

"Well, for once the blessed Book is mistaken," he said. "There has been no peace for me this night, oh, dearie me, no. And there will be no peace for me, not until I locate the gun and identify the villain whose finger pulled its trigger, not even should all the angels and spirits in Heaven choose this very moment to begin their descent."

And at that very moment, Mahboob Chaudri ceased his restless pacing. "To begin their descent to Earth," he said slowly, staring down at the faint impression in the empty bed that showed him where the dead man had lain.

Then, to the amazement of Abdulaziz Shaheen, he grabbed up his peaked uniform cap from the nightstand between the two beds and dashed from the room without another word.

• • •

Milling crowds of men in long white thobes and women in veils and long black abbas thronged the Baniotbah Road as Chaudri wheeled his dusty Land Rover out of the Presidential Hotel’s parking lot and headed north toward the Muharraq causeway. Andalus Park was filled with picnickers, and children splashed in the fountains as wide awake and gleeful as if it were the middle of the afternoon rather than the middle of the night. But this was Ramadan, and Bahrain’s Islamic population would celebrate with food and drink and gaiety till long after dark, then sleep for several hours and arise to celebrate again until Sahari, when the first light appeared in the east and the muezzin’s call to dawn prayer announced that it was time to resume their fasting with the ritual of Niyya, the renewal of intention.

The crowds thinned out as he swung across the Khawr al Qulayah waterway, then picked up once more when he reached Muharraq Island. He left the Land Rover in a no-parking zone at the entrance to the International Airport’s main terminal building and welcomed the rush of cool air that greeted him as he stepped through the glass doors.

As always, the terminal was buzzing with activity. Day and night had no meaning here: Bahrain was a refueling point for flights connecting the Western world with the Far East, and there was a constant ebb and flow of transit passengers whiling away the hours between legs of their journeys, in addition to the frequent takeoff and landing of planes beginning or terminating their runs in the emirate. As Chaudri paused in the teeming passenger hall to get his bearings, the information boards above his head showed the arrival of a Korean Airlines flight bringing construction workers from Seoul and the imminent departure of an Air France 727 returning bankers, corporate executives, and diplomats to Paris.

When he found the small glass-walled checkpoint he was looking for, a solicitous natoor listened to his request and handed him a thick bundle of white cards. He went through the stack carefully, and when he had examined them all he shuffled back to the middle of the pile and removed a single card. He read it again, and a third time, and then he put it in his pocket and returned the rest of the cards to the natoor and drove back into Manama to the Police Fort at Al Qalah, where he closed himself up in a tiny investigator’s cubicle and placed a long-distance telephone call to a distant city where it was still late the previous afternoon.

• • •

"I appreciate your staying on so late," said Mahboob Chaudri, as they stepped off the elevator into the quietly tasteful lobby of the Presidential Hotel. "So early, I suppose I should be saying — it will be dawn in another few hours. Which way is it we are going?"

"This way." Mirza Hussain led him past the entrance to the Al Wazmiyyah Coffee Shop (still open, but practically deserted now), past the reception desk (where Gillian Messenger stood diligently at her post), and down a broad corridor lined with boutiques, a newsstand, a hairdresser, all dark and long since closed for the night. "I am responsible for whatever happens at this hotel," he said as they walked. "Never before has such a terrible thing taken place here. Naturally I stayed."

"It is almost over now," Chaudri told him reassuringly. They were at the end of the corridor, facing a heavy wooden door marked "Abdulaziz Shaheen, Chief of Security" in both Arabic and English.

Chaudri knocked loudly, then twisted the doorknob and walked in without waiting for a response. The Presidential’s security chief was seated behind a cluttered desk, a half-smoked cigarette in his hand. He had apparently been reading through the contents of the file folder lying open on the desk before him, but he closed it at their entrance and pushed it casually off to one side. His dark face was drawn and tired, and there were shadows beneath his deep-set black eyes.

"Mr. Shaheen," said Chaudri, "we’ve come to talk with you about the murder."

Shaheen nodded silently and waved them to a pair of chairs. He put his cigarette to his lips and inhaled deeply.

"According to the stories of Frau Jurkeit and Miss Blake," Chaudri began, "the death shot was fired at approximately nine o’clock last evening. Now, of all the puzzling questions this crime presents, the question which has been interesting me the most is this one: why was this man in bed, probably asleep, at that rather early hour of the evening? The simplest answer would be that he was in bed because he was tired. But why was he tired? During Ramadan, both Arabs and nonbelievers keep late hours as a rule — and even were it not Ramadan, nine o’clock is rather early for a man of that age to be sleeping, isn’t it?"

"Not necessarily," Mirza Hussain frowned. "If he had had a busy day, he might well have decided to go to sleep early. But why here in my hotel? He was not a guest. He had no business here. He most certainly had no business in room 613."

"Yes, yes," said Chaudri. "But still the question bothered me. Then, an hour ago, you said something which supplied a possible answer, Mr. Shaheen."

"About the Night of Power, you mean?"

"Indeed. You reminded me that tonight, the 27th night of Ramadan, is Lailat al Qadr, and it struck me that perhaps our victim had just recently descended to Earth, like the angels and spirits written of in the Holy Quran — not in a winged chariot from Heaven, no, but in a silver bird from some other time zone. Though it was only nine in the evening to us when he died, if he was a new arrival from, say, the United States or Canada, his inner clock would have insisted that it was, for him, the middle of the night. Perhaps that was why he was in bed when his murderer found him in room 613."

Abdulaziz Shaheen stubbed out his cigarette carefully and took a fresh packet from the top drawer of his desk. He left the drawer open, Chaudri noticed, stripped off the cellophane and peeled back the foil, and tapped the packet against his forefinger. "So you think he was a newcomer to Bahrain?" he asked, as he flicked a thin gold lighter into flame.

"I know he was. When I left you in such a rush, I drove out to the airport and found the officer in charge of Customs and Immigration. He gave me all of the disembarkation cards filled out by the passengers who arrived in Bahrain yesterday afternoon. Those cards are containing quite a bit of information: name of the arriving passenger, home address, employer, reason for visit to the emirate, and so on. One of yesterday’s cards caught my eye. It was made out in the name of Stephen Kimble, an American, and his employer was given as Presidential Hotels International, with an address in California, in the USA."

Abdulaziz Shaheen breathed out a cloud of smoke that masked the expression on his face for a moment.

"I placed a phone call to the Presidential chain’s Los Angeles headquarters," Chaudri went on. "It was still daytime there, and I was able to speak with a Mr. Deming, who recognized my description of our unfortunate corpse and identified him as a company executive named Stephen Kimble and told me exactly why Mr. Kimble had been sent to Bahrain."

It happened so swiftly that, had Mahboob Chaudri not been waiting for the movement, he would certainly have missed it. Abdulaziz Shaheen’s hand darted into his opened desk drawer and came out holding a .25-caliber Browning automatic pistol. His dark face was cold and hard as he jumped up from his chair with the gun in his fist.

"I must insist that you keep both your hands in sight," he said, his voice tight and strained. "I’m sorry, Mr. Hussain, but I really must insist."

Mirza Hussain sat very still, one hand in the pocket of his thobe. His eyes told a tale of infinite weariness and sorrow. At last, with a deep sigh, he took his hand from his pocket. He was holding a packet of cigarettes and a plastic lighter. He lit a cigarette for himself and held out the packet to Chaudri.

"No, no," the Pakistani shook his head. "I am not a smoker. It is, I think, an evil habit. But it does not seem to have interfered with your reflexes, Mr. Shaheen. I’m glad I stopped in to see you on my way up to the second floor and warned you of what to expect from this visit. Now, if you will give me your pistol, I will hold it while you are seeing what else is to be found in Mr. Hussain’s cavernous pockets."

"You are thinking of the murder weapon?" Hussain smiled grimly. "I don’t have it here, gentlemen. Perhaps I should have brought it with me, after all. But it is back in my office, in my closet — in Stephen Kimble’s suitcase."

• • •

"You were embezzling money from the hotel," said Chaudri flatly, when Abdulaziz Shaheen had confirmed that the manager’s pockets were indeed empty, save for a ring of passkeys and a handkerchief.

"Yes. Never very much at a time. Always small amounts, small amounts. But over the last three years I have diverted almost fifty thousand dinars into my private account. I was very careful. I thought it would be impossible for anyone to discover what I had done. Apparently I was wrong."

"Embezzlement," remarked Mahboob Chaudri, "is also an evil habit. More evil than smoking, since it does harm not only to oneself but to others as well. But I am interrupting. Please forgive me and go on with what you were saying."

Hussain told his story matter-of-factly. There was nothing in his manner to indicate that he saw anything out of the ordinary in the events he was describing. "Kimble flew in yesterday afternoon," he said. "He took a taxi from the airport and came directly to my office without stopping at the reception desk. We spoke for a few moments only. He was exhausted from his journey, and I took him up to 613 and let him in with my passkey. He did not tell me why he had come — we would talk further in the morning, he said — but I knew. The home office had found out about the missing money. He had come to investigate, and he was sure to learn that I was the thief. If only I could have another few days, I thought, I could get my affairs in order and get out of the country before anyone was the wiser."

"So you killed him," said Abdulaziz Shaheen.

Hussain looked down at the glowing tip of his cigarette. "Yes. I waited until Iftar was well under way, when I could be certain that the sixth floor would be deserted, then I went upstairs and let myself back into the room. It was dark, he was sound asleep. I shot him. Then I gathered his belongings and put them in his suitcase with the gun and brought it down to my office."

"You realized that if we knew who he was," Chaudri suggested, "we would quickly learn the reason for his visit to Bahrain. And that would tell us it was you who had the only motive for killing him."

"I thought I was safe. Unless room 613 is in use, the maids clean it only once a week. It would be days before the body was discovered, I felt certain, and by then I would be safely away. It never struck me that there might be anyone else on the sixth floor when I fired the shot. I never stopped to consider that you would be able to trace him through Customs and Immigration without his papers. I must have been mad. If I had thought of that, I would never have killed him. I would have dropped everything and fled."

Mahboob Chaudri got to his feet. "But criminals never think of everything," he said. "Not even wise men think of everything. Perhaps it is their remembering that fact which makes them wise."

• • •

"In another hour it will be Niyya," said Mirza Hussain, lighting a cigarette. "I’d better smoke now, while it is still permitted."

Chaudri marveled at the state of the man’s mind, at the idea that he felt it acceptable to embezzle money during the month of Ramadan, felt it permissible to commit murder then or at any other time, but would be careful to avoid food, drink, and tobacco during the daylight hours as if he were truly a devout Muslim.

They were standing in the warm night air in front of the Presidential Hotel’s main entrance, waiting for a Public Security van to come and take Hussain away. The streets were almost empty, the city was asleep. But shortly the Islamic population would begin to awaken, in time to enjoy another meal before the time of fasting began.

"Listen to me, mahsool," said Mirza Hussain softly. "I have perhaps ten thousand dinars hidden away at my home. If we were to go there, you and I, I could give you half of that money and use the other half to make my escape. You could say that I broke away from you, that you chased after me but lost me in the darkness. No one would ever know the truth."

Chaudri did not respond.

"Five thousand dinars," the murderer continued. "That is a great deal of money, mahsool. It is, I imagine, more than your beautiful green uniform earns you in an entire year. Does my proposal not even tempt you?"

Chaudri considered the question. In fact, five thousand dinars was slightly more than he earned as a policeman in two years. It was enough to make the down payment on the bungalow in Jhang-Maghiana he was planning to build for Shazia and the children. It was enough to allow him to return to Pakistan much earlier than he had ever dreamed possible.

Was he tempted? Was he resisting temptation now, or was his mind truly pure?

The answer came to him with the clarity of polished crystal.

"No," he said firmly, truthfully. "Your proposal is not tempting me, Mr. Hussain. It is not tempting me at all."

It was still quite dark, but soon the sky would begin to lighten. Soon it would be possible to distinguish a white thread from a black, soon the muezzin would call the faithful to the renewal of their fast, soon the Night of Power would draw to a close.

Mahboob Ahmed Chaudri took in a deep breath as he stood there before the great hotel with his prisoner at his side. He could feel the power enter his body, his lungs, his very being — the power of a thousand months. He raised his gaze to the heavens and offered up a silent prayer of thanksgiving and joy. As his lips formed the unspoken words, a shooting star arced across the sky and lost itself in the velvet infinity of the night.

A great sense of peace descended around him and into him, a peace Mahboob Chaudri knew would last until — no, beyond — the rising of the dawn.

 

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