Layla burst out of the hospital, her eyes stinging with tears, her breath coming in short, sharp gasps. A few people looked at her with sympathy as she hurried down the long hospital driveway.
Her tears baffled her. After all, she’d hardly known Alberto. They’d met only a handful of times. But as the words and images from the news report returned to her, she felt stabbed by the unmistakable sharp pangs of grief.
She ducked under the shade and protective cover of a palm tree at the end of the driveway. She covered her face with her hands, as if doing so could shut out the images from the news. But the pictures flashed incessantly in her mind. Alberto’s body had been discovered on the side of a road in Dahshur, a black bag tied over his head, his wrists and ankles bound. He’d been shot in the back. This was how the Muharib typically left their victims. He’d probably been there since yesterday, which was why he’d failed to appear at the Zamalek Rooftop to meet her.
Clearly, Alberto had returned to Dahshur to dig deeper. But maybe he’d dug too deep and put himself in danger. Maybe she’d even encouraged him on that path by asking too many questions.
Had her actions at the dig site put a target on his back? A wave of guilt subsumed her grief. She’d saved his life the night at the dig site, but she hadn’t been able to save him this time.
She took several deep breaths to steady herself, then rejoined the pedestrians on the street, walking in no particular direction, ignoring the curious stares. What had Alberto been seeking in Dahshur when he texted her the other day? What knowledge did he have for her that now she’d never know? She cringed with guilt at this new line of thought; nothing mattered now that he was dead. And yet, the thoughts took root in her mind. Had he gone the extra mile to pass her information and gotten killed as a result?
Dazed, replaying every conversation she’d had with Alberto in her mind, Layla wandered for blocks with no destination. She ducked into a shopping mall and rode escalators up and down. She left the mall and plunged deeper into the city, through crowded marketplaces with produce spilling out of bins, then deeper still into dark neighborhoods with laundry hanging out the windows and gaunt dogs roaming the streets.
Eventually, she found herself numbly descending the stairs to a Metro station, even though it was nearing rush hour and the crowds below were swelling. The safe house hardly felt safe right now; she never knew these days what kind of mood or condition she’d find Pierce in. She’d go back to her apartment, take a warm shower, try to pull herself together. She stood on the hot, crowded platform, letting herself get jostled and bumped. She welcomed the pain of an elbow in her ribs, a boot on her toe. She wanted to be just another face in the crowd, where no one would look twice at her. In the Metro station, filled with preoccupied commuters and systems of order—timetables, signs, announcements—she found a few moments of peace.
The scream of the approaching train on the tracks interrupted her thoughts. She let herself get carried along by the river of people into the train car. Just as the doors closed, she realized she’d boarded a women-only car. An elderly woman, seeing her tear-streaked face, stood up and insisted that Layla take her seat. She looked into Layla’s eyes for a moment and gave Layla’s hand a squeeze with her own soft, wrinkled fingers.
Layla sank into the seat, guilty for taking it yet grateful for this moment of kindness from a stranger, of genuine human connection. In that moment, it didn’t matter who Layla was. She was simply a person in need of some comfort.
She buried her face in her hands, took some deep breaths, and tried to pull herself together. When she looked up at the next stop, the older woman was gone, and the sign on the platform was visible. Opera. Just as the doors began to close, Layla jumped to her feet and hurried off the train. This stop was right near the Zamalek Hotel.
A human connection. That was what she’d felt with Alberto, a shared sense of purpose. Yes, she’d barely known him. But they were the same in many ways. Their paths had come together, briefly, on their pursuit of the truth. And so she found herself at the Zamalek Rooftop, occupying the corner table they’d shared before. She ordered a vodka and orange juice and, as an afterthought, a straight shot of whiskey, for Alberto. He’d drunk whiskey the evening they’d met there and discussed Pierce’s drug problem. “Expecting someone?” the server asked her when he set the whiskey down by the empty seat.
Layla roused from her stupor a little, suddenly embarrassed at how her thoughts had taken over. “What? Oh. No. They’re both for me.” As if to prove it, and because the server kept...