Crouching on the closet floor, her arms wrapped tight around her knees, Layla gulped down her breaths to stay quiet. Egyptian government officials were on to them. They suspected an authorized operation. They’d somehow figured out where the safe house was. It was only a matter of time until they found her now, like a doomed game of hide-and-seek. She cursed the stuck window that had prevented her from escaping the safe house.
The door to Pierce’s bedroom opened and heavy footsteps approached. Layla licked her lips, then dared herself to peer through the slats in the closet door. She could see four men enter the room, including Gamal. And the man now opening Pierce’s nightstand drawers—Youssef. If only Jehan could see him now. He was hardly boring. He held Layla and Pierce’s fate in his hands.
Layla trembled as she watched Gamal circle the room slowly, his feet heavy on the tiled floor. He paused as he came toward the closet door. His hand reached for the knob. Layla’s heart thudded so loudly she was sure Gamal could hear it. She could see, through the slats, the crease of his black trousers. The shine of his shoes. She felt her muscles tense, as if preparing for action. But she couldn’t take out all four of these guys, not without a weapon. Pierce’s guns were in a box on the fire escape.
Pierce strode into the room. “I’m calling my supervisor,” she announced, causing Gamal to turn away from Layla’s closet. “He can confirm my role at the embassy.”
Layla’s heart leaped with gratitude. Pierce wasn’t giving up yet.
“That will not be necessary,” said Gamal, his gaze still sweeping the room while Youssef and the two other men looked under the bed. “I want you to talk to my supervisor,” Pierce insisted, punching numbers on her cell. “I haven’t done anything wrong. I’m a legate at the embassy.”
“We cannot be too careful,” said Gamal. “There has been concern for some time about American interference in Egyptian matters.” He reached into the nightstand lamp and removed the bulb, then inspected the light socket carefully. The other men were also picking up objects and scrutinizing them.
“There are no bugs here,” Pierce insisted. Then she paused and went on: “But maybe I’ve been infiltrated. Is it possible someone could be using my apartment when I’m at work or away on business trips?”
“Anything is possible,” said Gamal, his gaze sweeping the room.
“In that case, would you mind looking in the living room for wiretaps?” Pierce asked, as casually as if she were asking a friend to come and check for spiders. “Now that I think of it, I did see something unusual about the ceiling fan. You’d probably know better than I would. I have to confess, wiretapping devices are a little above my pay grade.” She laughed, almost flirtatiously, and managed to draw all four men back to the living room.
Layla marveled at Pierce’s calm under pressure. But as soon as the bedroom door closed behind Youssef, she didn’t waste any time. She bolted out of the closet. There was no getting out that window, and no breaking it without causing a scene. Her only hope was to get out through the bathroom window, which also looked out on the fire escape. She slowly opened the bedroom door and confirmed that all four men were with Pierce in the living room. They were already taking the ceiling fan apart. She dashed to the bathroom and softly closed the door behind her. Then she opened the small window above the tub. This one opened all the way, and she could just squeeze through it and onto the fire escape, pulling her tote bag out after her.
With only her tote bag and the box with Pierce’s two guns, Layla hurried down the three flights of the fire escape and ran to the park around the corner. A police car sped down the street, siren blaring, just as a cat popped out from behind a garbage can, making the lid clatter. Layla’s skin prickled. She sat on a bench and took a deep breath. The siren’s wail faded as the cars sped away from her. The police were not coming for her. She had escaped. But she had to get the rest of the incriminating evidence off the safe house’s fire escape, and fast.
Layla watched a group of teenagers play soccer on a poorly lit field and a young mother soothe a crying baby in a stroller. A breeze touched her face, so welcome after the stifling stillness of that closet, and she relished the sensation of air moving in and out of her chest. Never had she felt so relieved to stumble across such a boring scene. To breathe the fresh early evening air. She approached the teenagers and offered them money to quietly retrieve the bags and boxes from the fire escape. “I’m leaving my husband,” she explained, pulling a thick wad of...