Not even Jibril’s own father could help him.
“You must forget the girl, son. Trust me, there will be scores of others. You have a bright future ahead of you, backed by Sulaiman’s money, if only you’d take it. You’ll be able to afford a house full of wives!”
Jibril thought darkly, Nobody understands. And though Miriam tried to comfort him, assuring him that she would always love him no matter whom she married, it was cold comfort for the boy, who burned for her body with all the fiery intensity of a volcano.
At last the day came when all Jibril’s hopes died. Miriam was married to a sheikh, Mahmoud Basta, a paunchy, bald man old enough to be her father. If she was distraught, she hid it well, maintaining a serene grace throughout the ceremony, and afterward, when she bid good-bye to her second, much beloved home.
The newlyweds lived close to the city, in the Basta family palace at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, and Miriam was able to visit her uncle Sulaiman’s house often. On these visits, she would sometimes see the hollow-eyed Jibril staring at her from across a room, pain etched on his face like a mask. At these times she felt pity and great sorrow. But the emotions were for Jibril, not for herself. Mahmoud was a kind husband, loving, indulgent and decent. When Miriam gave him a son at the end of their first year of marriage, he wept for joy. Over the next five years, she gave him three more boys and a girl, Leila. Over time, Miriam’s children came to fill the void that had been left by her doomed love for Jibril. Watching them play while their doting father looked on, she sometimes felt guilty that she was so happy, while Jibril, she knew, remained broken and lost. She had heard through friends that he drank heavily, and spent his days in the hookah bars and whorehouses of the souk, squandering all the money her uncle had given him.
The last time Miriam saw Jibril was at her husband’s funeral. Mahmoud, who had never reined in his fondness for baklava and sweet Moroccan wine, died of a heart attack at the age of sixty-two. Miriam was forty, with a fan of fine lines around her eyes and a comfortable layer of fat around her hips, but she was still a beautiful woman. Jibril, on the other hand, had aged terribly. Shrunken and stooped, with the broken veins and yellow eyes of a heavy drinker, he looked twenty years older than he was, and was as sad and embittered as Mahmoud had been happy and generous-spirited.
He staggered over to Miriam, who was standing with her eldest son, Rafik. She realized immediately that he was drunk.
“So,” Jibril slurred, “the old bashtard’s gone at lasht, is he? When can I come to you, Miriam? Tell me. When?”
Miriam blushed scarlet. She had never felt such shame. How could he do this? To me, and to himself? Today of all days.
Rafik stepped forward. “My mother is grieving. We all are. You need to leave.”
Jibril snarled. “Get out of my way!”
“You’re drunk. Nobody wants you here.”
“Your mother wants me. Your mother loves me. She’s always loved me. Tell him, Miriam.”
Miriam turned to him and said sadly, “Today I have buried two of my loves. My husband. And the boy you once were. Good-bye, Jibril.”
THAT NIGHT, JIBRIL HANGED HIMSELF FROM a tree in the Menara Gardens.
He left a one-word note:
THE YOUNG GIRL PUT THE BOOK down, tears welling in her eyes. She had read the story hundreds of times before, but she never grew tired of it and it never failed to move her. Sure, she lived in 1983, not 1892; and she was reading the book in a grim, freezing-cold children’s home in New York City, not some Moroccan palace. But Miriam and Jibril’s tragic love still spoke to her across the ages.
The girl knew what it felt like to be powerless. To be abandoned by one’s mother. To be treated like an object by men, a prize to be won. To be shoved through life like a lamb to the slaughter, with no say whatsoever in her own destiny.
“Are you okay, Sofia?”
The boy put a protective, brotherly arm around her. He was the only one she’d told about the book, the only one who understood her. The other kids in the home didn’t understand. They mocked her and her old, dog-eared love story. But he didn’t.
“They’re jealous,” he told her. “Because you have a family history and they don’t. You have royal blood in your veins, Sofia. That’s what makes you different. Special. They hate you for that.”
It was true. Sofia identified with Miriam’s story on another level, too. A blood level. Miriam was Sofia’s great-grandmother. Somewhere inside of her, Miriam’s genes lived on. The book Sofia held in her hands, her most prized possession, was not some fairy tale. It was true. It was her history.
“I’m fine,” she told the boy, hugging him back as she pulled the thin rayon blanket up over both of them. Even here, pressed against the radiator in the recreation room, it was bitterly cold.
I am not nobody, she told herself, breathing in the warmth of her friend’s body. I am from a noble family with a romantic, tragic history. I am Sofia Basta.
One day, far away from here, I will fulfill my destiny.
THE PARKER CENTER IN DOWNTOWN L.A. had been the headquarters of the United States’ third-largest law enforcement agency since the mid-1950s. Made famous by the 1960s television show Dragnet, the drab, nondescript concrete-and-glass building on 150 North Los Angeles Street housed, by 1996, some of the most expensive, state-of-the-art technology found in any police station in the nation, everything from retina recognition scanners to thermal imaging cameras. The Detective Bureau was particularly well equipped, with incident rooms lined with banks of computers and storerooms stocked with a veritable buffet of surveillance gadgetry.
Unfortunately Detective Danny McGuire was too junior in rank for his investigation to be considered worthy of one of these rooms. Instead the six-man team that made up the Jakes homicide investigation had been stuffed like bad-tempered sardines into a windowless hole in the basement, with nothing but a whiteboard and a couple of leaky pens to fire their deductive instincts.
Standing in front of a chipped whiteboard, pen in hand, Danny scrawled a few key words: Jewels. Miniatures. Insurance. Alarm. Background/Enemies.
“What have you got for me?”
Detective Henning spoke first. “I talked to five jewelers, including the two in Koreatown you suggested, sir. All said the same thing. The Jakes pieces would’ve been broken up and the stones either reset into rings or sold loose. Chances of us recovering an intact necklace or pair of earrings are nil. Unless the job was done by some random junkie who doesn’t know any better.”
“Which it wasn’t.”
“Which it wasn’t,” Henning agreed.
One of the few certainties they had established was that whoever broke into the Jakes mansion was a pro, familiar with the estate’s complex alarm system and able to disable it single-handedly. He’d also managed to subdue two victims, raping one and killing the other, with minimal disturbance and in a frighteningly short space of time. Angela Jakes was convinced she had never met her assailant before. He was masked, but she hadn’t recognized his voice or the way he moved. Nonetheless, Detective Danny McGuire was certain that the man they were looking for had inside knowledge of the family. This was no opportunistic burglary.
“The art angle’s a little more promising,” said Detective Henning.
Danny raised a hopeful eyebrow. “Oh?”
“Jakes was a dealer, as we know, so naturally enough the house was stuffed with valuable paintings, most of them contemporary.”
“Wow,” another officer chipped in sarcastically. “I don’t know how you keep coming up with these insights, Henning. You’re like gold dust, man.”
Everyone laughed. Henning’s status as McGuire’s teacher’s pet was a running joke.
Henning ignored the interruption. “If the killer really knew his art, he’d have gone for the two Basquiats hanging in the study, or the Koons in one of the guest bedrooms.”
Someone said, “Maybe they were too heavy? The guy was on his own.”
“We’re quite sure about that, are we?” asked Danny.
“Yes, sir,” said Detective Henning. “Forensics confirmed there were only one set of prints found in the house besides those of the family and staff. But in any case the paintings weren’t heavy. All three were small enough for one man to carry and they had a combined value of over thirty million dollars. But our guy chose the miniatures, just about the only antiques in Jakes’s collection.”
“Were they valuable?” asked Danny.
“It’s all relative. They were worth a couple hundred thousand each, so maybe a million bucks in total. They’re family portraits from the nineteenth century, mostly European. The market for them is pretty small, which makes them our best bet by far on the tracing-stolen-goods route. I got the name of a local expert. He lives in Venice Beach. I’m meeting him this afternoon.”