In my new work tentatively entitled Hijab, Nawar Renfro, a refugee living in Seattle, witnesses the shocking death of an anonymous Syrian teenage girl. The girl’s horrific end sparks a chain of events that upends Nawar’s fragile new life and thrusts her back to Za’atari, a massive United Nations refugee camp in northern Jordan. Serving as an Arabic translator for an undercover FBI/CIA operation, she faces the unresolved pain of war while the team attempts to squelch an international sex trafficking operation. The more Nawar learns, the more she puts her own life in jeopardy.
At present I am writing a second draft of the book. Below is the first scene, where we find out Nawar works on a highly unusual part-time job–she’s a private detective who catches cheating spouses.
If Douglas knew, he’d be angry. Of course it wasn’t safe here–close to dark, falling mist glimmering in the hotel parking lot lights, a sheen of wet on shadowy cars and pickups.
Nawar scanned the full circle of her surroundings. Only she stood out in this Seattle brand of rain, and what made her presence more unique was the hijab she wore, water resistant, a dark violet color like an eggplant.
Douglas would use the word vulnerable. But her American husband did not know about a lot of things. Such as why she brought herself to this two-story cinderblock hotel to prove a stranger’s infidelity. If he knew why she felt compelled to hire out as a honey-catcher to snare cheating spouses, she would have to reveal something even bigger than that.
You need to tell him, she admonished herself. But the thought of doing so provoked what felt like a surge of ice, a reaction she knew to be irrational, and yet that feeling prevailed.
As much as she could determine, the only other person in the parking lot was the woman seated in the passenger seat of the white Scion sedan parked in front of her, facing the hotel. Her quarry. Or half her quarry.
It was time to go to work. A large jetliner pushed its roar a hundred feet overhead just beyond the hotel as it neared the SeaTac Airport runway and amid its disturbance Nawar pulled a cell phone and a pair of gloves from her purse.
“Wait!” she exclaimed into the phone to no one in particular, for nobody had called. “There’s a plane.”
The woman in the car adjusted the rearview mirror. Nawar guessed from the woman’s motion she was applying lipstick, while at the same time, curious about the hijab-wearing woman behind her car shouting into a phone, she’d given herself a view of Nawar. After checking the phone’s setting and confirming the flash function was disabled, Nawar brought it back to her ear.
“Okay, we can talk now,” said Nawar. “It is raining so hurry up.”
Nawar tilted the phone away from her ear, pointed it so the photo would disclose at least the silhouette of a passenger, took the shot.
“Tell me the room again,” she said to nobody. “Two-oh-seven? Okay.”
She dropped the gloves.
“Oh! I dropped my gloves. Now they are wet.”
She hunched down, hoped the outside lights would be sufficient, snapped a photo of the license plate, and picked up her gloves.
“I will be right there,” she said.
A woman alone in the passenger seat in front of the hotel, the license plate, the man inside registering for a room–it would be enough for most wives, but Nawar prided herself on thoroughness. Gloves in hand, she strolled to the car and around the passenger side until she was directly next to the woman.
“I cannot wait to see you,” she said to the phone.
She stepped to the sidewalk, turned to cross in front of the car.
“What am I wearing?” She laughed, turned as though only now noticing the woman, offered a smile, took another picture, and kept walking. Details about the woman–brown hair pinned back into a bun. Still holding the lipstick, dark red like a pomegranate. Eyelashes dark and long–probably fake. A somewhat narrow face.
At the entry she paused, still outside but at least under the cover beneath the second floor concrete walkway. Inside the man leaned over a counter, writing, no doubt filling out a form.
“Hey, Thomas,” Nawar spoke into the phone. “Just want you to know we have landed and are now at the hotel.”
She watched the man accept a key, turn, move toward the door. Nawar stepped aside, demonstrated her attention to the nobody speaking to her from the other end.
“Yes, it is noisy here. I hope the room is quiet.”
One second to see the man’s face–fleshy, a smile hinting anxiety, jaws moving as though chewing gum. Eyebrows like black caterpillars. He strode past Nawar to the Scion, opened the backseat door, leaned in.
“I already told you,” she continued. “We cannot afford the Space Needle. We are going to visit Pike Place Market tomorrow.”
The woman exited the car as the man pulled out a duffle bag. When they met at the sidewalk she leaned her head into his, not an easy gesture given her height, and they walked together that way toward Nawar.
“I will call tomorrow.”
When the distance between them narrowed to twenty feet, Nawar took her last photo. If none of the other photos were usable, that one certainly would work. She wondered about the man’s wife. Sadness. Anger.
But whoever she was, she would know the truth.
Okay, Douglas, I will leave now, she thought, stepping back into the mist toward her car, which she’d parked across the lot along the sidewalk on International Avenue. Back to you, where it is safe.
Another jet in the parade of planes agitated the sky of low thick clouds, and she pivoted at the far end of the small parking lot, gazed back a moment at the hotel. Cheap by American standards. Back in Syria her father would have scoffed at such a place, if he were still alive. But Syad would understand its efficacy, if he, too, were still alive. And it was a palace compared to Za’atari, the refugee camp where she lived after both men had been killed.
She sighed, turned back toward the street, crossed between the shrubs and onto the sidewalk. Her new home awaited.
“Well. Look what we have here.”
From her left a man in dark pants and a dark hoodie stepped into her path. She felt her body freeze, darted her eyes both directions on the sidewalk, scanned the cars parked along the highway. Nobody. Just this man.
“An Arab whore. Leaving her place of work. Nice phone.”
Nawar’s mind flashed back to a large tent in Za’atari, to a trim thirty-something Korean woman dressed in loose-fitting sweatpants and a long-sleeved tee-shirt–her taekwondo teacher there. Her kyo sah nim. Three years of lessons, but did she dare to use them now?
“Give me the phone, bitch.”
He opened his hand half a meter in front of her. Beneath the hoodie, his eyes shot menace, as though he might grab her. Strike her. Or worse.
Nothing is worth more than your life–that is what her kyo sah nim would say. Give him what he wants.
She raised the hand with the phone and he snatched it from her. He pressed his lips together, nodded his hooded head.
“Not bad.” His eyes thrust back at hers. “Now the purse.”
Nothing is worth more than…nothing–except what was in her purse.
Chi chirugi. She shot the heel of her hand up at an angle, threw the full force of her body forward, felt the pointed flesh of nose, drove hard and clawed her fingers into his eyes as he stumbled backward against a car, yelling in pain. She leaped back. Slumped against the car, he’d brought the hand holding her phone up to cover his nose and eyes, held the other hand out at his side to ward whatever her next move might be.
Bitkyuh surgi. That would be the next move–escape.
She launched up her leg, smashed foot into groin, and as he keeled forward she pivoted, hurled the same foot into the side of his knee, and he buckled to the ground while beyond the screen of parked cars along the road drivers sped by listening to audiobooks and radio stations.
“Take it,” the man groaned, on all fours now. He tossed the phone onto the sidewalk, brought the hand that held it back to his face, barely off the ground.
She kicked him again, this time connecting where his ear would be inside the hood, and he flipped to his side, sprawled on the sidewalk, helpless.
Bitkyuh surgi. Escape.
Another step forward–she stomped her foot down on the man’s head, ground it rapidly back and forth, hopped back, kicked him again on the top of his head where the man’s arms had left an open spot.
“Bitch!” he gasped.
Breaths heaving, her mind reasserted control, barred her from another kick. She retreated a couple of steps, stooped to pick up the phone, watched the man rock side to side on his back, both arms up around his head.
9-1-1…that was what she ought to do, but the thought re-stirred the liquid ice the way it did when she considered…
She didn’t want to think about that now. Bitkyu surgi. It was time to leave.