Authors: Christine Pope
His expression darkened ever so slightly when she mentioned Santa Fe, but then his face cleared. “I am glad you like everything. But now…are you hungry?”
“Famished,” she said honestly.
“Then let us sit down.”
Madison followed him into the casbah, where she took a seat next to him. A bottle of white wine sat chilling in one of those ceramic coolers, and Qadim pulled it out and then poured some for each of them. She was a little surprised by that choice, simply because they hadn’t shared anything besides red wine so far, except during their first dinner, but it did seem to work well with the lighter fare he’d set out for them tonight. There was a board with cheese and fruit, and bacon-wrapped dates, and all sorts of other delicious morsels — a kind of patty of stacked potatoes and cheese, and broiled chicken on skewers, and a bowl of sliced mushrooms and peppers bathed in olive oil, with bread for dipping.
A few of the items she recognized from the times she’d had tapas, but others she’d never tried before. Once again, she wondered how Qadim had managed to put all this together. Their other meals he’d basically cooked the old-fashioned way, and yet she couldn’t figure out how he’d done so on this go-’round. There simply hadn’t been enough time.
“You want to let me in on your secret?” she inquired as she picked up a small slice of toasted sourdough bread and spooned some of the mushroom/pepper mixture on top.
“I am a djinn,” he replied, a glint in his dark eyes. “Is there any other secret besides that?”
“Well, no, I suppose. It’s just that I actually saw you cooking the other meals, but….”
He lifted his wine glass and sipped before replying, “Yes, I did use my powers to prepare this one. I hope that does not make it any less appetizing.”
She had to think about that revelation for a second. Then she realized it really didn’t matter one way or another. After all, she was fairly certain that he’d coaxed a few things along while putting together all their meals, even if he’d done most of the work himself. “No, it’s all wonderful,” she said. “In a way, that makes me feel better, because then I know you didn’t wear yourself out trying to get all this ready.”
“No, I most certainly did not wear myself out.” His gaze lingered on her mouth, and a welcome warmth stole over her, the one that told her it didn’t matter that they’d already had sex multiple times in the last twenty-four hours. Her body still craved more.
“Well, that’s good to hear.”
He slanted her a sidelong look but didn’t say anything, and instead popped one of the bacon-wrapped dates into his mouth. They ate in silence for a few moments, both of them content to concentrate on the varied flavors of the food before them. In the background, the sound of the waterfall, and, a little farther away, the fountain in the center of the lobby, both combined to soothe away the quiet. For the first time, Madison realized that Qadim never put on any music during their meals. She wasn’t sure why this was the first time she’d noticed that lack, except maybe she’d had so many other things to focus on that it really hadn’t entered her mind.
Back at the bomb shelter, she’d had music on all the time. Anything to fill the silence, to make her feel that she wasn’t so alone. Clay had compiled an eclectic library — everything from Mozart to Daft Punk — and she’d loaded the favorites she’d had on her phone as well. The playlist varied from day to day, but the only times she wasn’t playing some kind of music were those occasions when she’d watch one of the numerous movies or TV shows he’d stockpiled on the shelter’s servers.
She hadn’t really missed any of it. Madison supposed that had a good deal to do with the man sitting next to her.
“Do djinn play music?” she asked then.
He shifted so he could face her a little better. Expression thoughtful, he said, “Yes, but again, I would classify those of us who play and create music more as artisans than artists. They are not striving for anything more than to create something soothing or lovely that can be played in the background. They do not think of it as art.” An eyebrow went up as he appeared to contemplate her expression. “Would you like some music?”
“It’s not really necessary,” Madison replied. “But I always listened to a lot of it.”
“Music is easy enough to supply. They had a system in place for that here.” His eyes shut briefly, as if he was concentrating on something. In the next instant, the sounds of Spanish classical guitar began to flow from speakers hidden around the lobby.
“Thank you,” she said. “I suppose I didn’t realize how much I missed it.”
“Then we shall always have music, if it pleases you. Is what is playing now acceptable? It’s what was set up on the hotel’s system, but I can get something else if you like.”
“No, it’s lovely,” she said honestly. After all, what better in a setting like this than the impassioned sounds of a lone guitarist playing Rodrigo’s
Concierto de Aranjuez?
“I find it pleasant as well,” Qadim said. “I will admit that I rather feared you would choose something cacophonous, as that seemed to be what was popular with your people lately.”
You kids get off my damn lawn!
Madison thought with some amusement, but she didn’t say anything. She doubted Qadim would get the reference, and really, it was probably expecting a lot to think that a being who’d been around for thousands of years would appreciate modern pop rock or hip-hop.
Actually, she couldn’t stand hip-hop, either, so she and Qadim had something in common there.
“Well, I liked to get down with the best of them,” she remarked, “but generally not while I’m eating dinner.” His brows drew together in a frown, and she chuckled. “Dancing. Do djinn dance?”
“Oh, yes. Our own dances, but we have learned some of yours as well. Do you know how to tango?”
she thought, but then shook her head. “No, I never learned how to do any kind of ballroom dancing. Jacob and I tried salsa a few times, but unfortunately we were both a couple of gringos with left feet.”
There was no ignoring the edge to Qadim’s voice. Jealousy. And how foolish was that, when almost every other human male on the face of the planet had been dead for more than a year?
“Ex-boyfriend,” she said casually as she reached over to pick up her wine glass from the low table. “We split up long before the Heat came to Albuquerque. He’d been living in Washington State for almost a year.”
“Ah.” Qadim did seem to relax then. He selected a piece of sliced cheese from the wooden board and laid it on top of a piece of bread, but he didn’t eat it right away. Instead he asked, “And there was no one else?”
“No.” The line of questioning might have sounded odd, but Madison thought she understood the reasoning behind it. He wanted to make sure she wasn’t still mourning a lover lost to the Heat. “I saw a few people here and there, but nothing really clicked. And I was busy with my work.”
“Yes. I’d gotten a couple of lucrative commissions and was really focused on that. I always thought there would be more time. Time,” she repeated, a trace of bitterness entering her voice. Why, she wasn’t really sure, except that when you were twenty-six years old and doing better than you’d ever hoped you might, you got the idea that you were invincible. That there would always be another chance just down the road.
Qadim didn’t miss the sharpness of her tone. Frowning slightly, he put down his bread and cheese and moved closer to her. “I wish….” He paused, as if sorting through his thoughts, attempting to make sense of what he was thinking. “No, I will not lie and say I wish things had been different for you. Because if they had, then we would not be sitting here like this, and I can think of nothing I want more than you.”
There was a whole host of things wrong with his statement. Intellectually, Madison understood that, knew their present happiness was certainly no fair trade for all the lives that had been lost. But she also knew no one — not even a djinn — could change the past. Things were what they were, and so she could be glad that, crazy as it all was, she had somehow ended up with Qadim, a man who seemed to cherish her in a way no one else ever had.
She didn’t know what he saw right then, looking at her. But his eyes filled with a certain warmth, and he plucked the wine glass from her hand, then set it down on the table. In the next moment, his mouth was on hers, sweet and sharp with the sauvignon blanc they’d been drinking, but hot in a way that nicely chilled wine had never been.
Oh, yes, that mouth, those kisses — they could make her forget. They could push aside the world she’d lost, the voices and faces that still haunted her thoughts.
When she was in Qadim’s arms, she didn’t need to think about anything else.
he next day
, Madison went back to the bomb shelter so she could gather information to aid Qadim in his planting projects. He’d wanted to come along, but she pointed out that there was no real reason for him to do so.
“You’ll get bored out of your mind, sitting there and watching me dig things up on the computer,” she told him. “And you still have work of your own that you wanted to get on with.”
He grinned at her. “I very much doubt that I would get bored by looking at you.”
“I’m serious, Qadim.”
“So am I.”
“Anyway,” she began, because she knew if she let him, he’d tease her right back into bed. As tempting as that might be, they couldn’t spend every waking moment having sex.
Well, all right, maybe they could, but that really wasn’t very practical as a long-term survival strategy.
“You have work to do, and I have work to do,” she continued, hoping she sounded severe enough to convince him. “And it’s perfectly safe for me to go around Albuquerque. That one djinn — ”
“Hasan,” Qadim supplied, mouth tightening slightly.
“Yes, Hasan. He’s obviously made himself scarce, and it looks like all the other djinn have, too.” She paused and added, “Have
seen any of them lately?”
“No,” he was forced to admit. “Even in the otherworld, we tended to keep to our own palaces. Now that we each have our lands here, I believe that we will be even more inclined to stay in one place.”
She smiled. “You see? They’re all of getting settled into their own territories. So there’s really no reason for you to be hovering over me all the time.”
“Is that what you think I do? Hover?”
“No. That’s not what I meant.” They’d been in the kitchen, cleaning up after breakfast. She set down the coffee mug she’d just rinsed out and went over to him, putting her arms around his waist. Damn, that felt so good. Making love with him was spectacular, but there was something to be said for the quieter pleasures of merely holding him, feeling the strength of his body pressed against hers. It could simply be that it had been so long since she’d had any physical contact with anyone, but she thought there was something more to it than that. “I appreciate you being worried, but at this point, I really don’t think there’s any reason. And I’ll be careful. I got around Albuquerque for a year without being caught, remember?”
He didn’t reply at first, only put his arms around her and held her tight. She felt his lips brush against the top of her head, just before he said, “Yes, I know that. And I never intended to imply that you did not know how to take care of yourself.”
“Well, then.” She pulled away so she could look up at him. His expression was unsmiling, his dark eyes worried. “It’ll be fine. And I’ll only go for a couple of hours.”
“Very well. I don’t like it, but — very well.”
She kissed him and offered a smile, but he still looked somber. And a few minutes later, she headed out on foot for the shelter, since her electric bicycle was now permanently out of commission. She wished she had it with her now, but a walk would do her good. If she had time, maybe she’d take another look at the bike, which she’d dragged inside Clay’s old house before coming back to stay here at the hotel with Qadim. Even though it might be damaged beyond repair, she hadn’t wanted to leave it just lying in the street. It had served her well for months, and it seemed disloyal to abandon it like a piece of junk.
The weather was fine but windy, the air penetrating the T-shirt she wore. She’d need to pick up some warmer clothes when she was at the shelter. Qadim had given her a wardrobe fit for a princess, but that wouldn’t do her much good when winter came and she had to venture outside.
It was a little scary to walk alone through the open fields near the hotel. She knew Qadim was probably keeping watch until she reached the shelter of the buildings he’d yet to tear down, but she couldn’t help glancing upward from time to time, making sure that Hasan or one of his buddies wasn’t up there somewhere, ready to swoop down and grab her.
However, the sky remained blue and empty, and she reached the concrete ribbon of I-25 without incident. Once she was hidden under its bulk, she paused and took a breath. So much for protesting to Qadim that there was nothing to be worried about. Obviously, she was worried, or she wouldn’t have kept checking to make sure she was alone.
The rest of the journey was better, just because she fell into her old habits, scuttling from alley to alley, flattening herself in the shadows of buildings when no alleyway was to be had. When she turned down the street where Clay Michaels’ house was located, she let out a little sigh of relief, then sprinted the rest of the way, since there was no real shelter to be had there.
And none in the backyard, either, thanks to the way Qadim had blown up the gazebo in a fit of pique. The metal door seemed painfully obvious now, glaring in the bright October sun. Well, there wasn’t anything she could do about it, except get in there and shut it behind her as quickly as she could.
Which she did, slipping inside and closing the hatch, then spinning the wheel so the locks would slide into place. She did the same thing at the next airlock, and then she was at the main entrance, where she entered the key code and went inside.
Even though she’d only been away for a few days, the place felt unused, abandoned. Luckily, she wasn’t the type to leave a mess behind her before she went out, and so the kitchen was tidy, the bed made. But the shelter still seemed oddly forlorn.
Well, she couldn’t worry about that right now. The shelter had served its purpose, keeping her alive until she could find a better place to go. True, she probably would never have guessed that her next sanctuary would be the Hotel Andaluz, but neither would she have thought she could end up with one of the hated djinn. She didn’t hate Qadim — far from it. In fact, she —
No, she needed to stop there. She’d allow herself to say she cared for him, cared about him as well, but their relationship certainly hadn’t progressed far enough for her to admit anything else.
Anyway, she wasn’t here to analyze her feelings for Qadim al-Syan. She was here to get some intel.
Her laptop was still sitting in the bedroom where she’d left it plugged in. She gathered it up and went into Clay’s office, where the interface for the server was located. Because she’d already inventoried everything in his desk, she knew it contained a number of blank thumb drives. She’d put the information she needed on as many of the drives as was necessary. Then she planned to bring all the drives and her laptop with her back to the hotel. At that point, she and Qadim could sit down and go over the information she’d gathered, see what was there that might be useful.
Even though she knew this room almost as well as she knew her own, the lack of any sort of personal items in the office still bothered her. Yes, she’d always understood that Clay was apparently alone in the world, and yet it seemed strange that there wasn’t one photo of his parents, or of anyone else, either. The walls had been hung with high-end photographs, mainly of the northern part of the state, up around Santa Fe and Taos. They were beautiful, but the space still didn’t have any more personality than a high-end hotel suite.
She didn’t have time to worry about that now. Clay had taken his secrets to the grave with him, and Madison knew she should just be grateful that he’d created this shelter and felt enough of a connection with her family that he’d allowed her to use it. Without the shelter, she would have been dead months ago.
The terminal was only sleeping, not completely shut off, so once she wiggled the mouse and typed in the password, she was in. A few more clicks of the mouse had her navigating to the section of the database that held all the agricultural and horticultural information. She already knew that Clay had basically dumped the knowledge bases of several universities into the system. Where he’d gotten all that information, she had no idea. For now, she could only be grateful that it hadn’t been lost along with so many other artifacts of the world before the Heat.
She drilled down further, finding the items either specific to New Mexico itself or to arid, high-desert climates. Even so, the information she needed would probably take up at least four or five of the thumb drives.
After starting the first transfer, Madison got up and went into her bedroom — although she really didn’t think of it as “hers” any longer — and got the overnight bag down from the top shelf in the closet. Some more underwear, more bras, and then a couple of long-sleeved T-shirts and sweaters, followed by a few extra pairs of socks. Yes, she supposed she could have scavenged all that from Albuquerque’s abandoned stores, but these things were hers, and she wanted them with her.
When she was done, she headed back to Clay’s office, ejected the first thumb drive, and then inserted the second one and started all over again. This time she went to the family room to collect the sketchpad she’d left lying there. The drawing of Qadim stared up at her, and she gently ran a thumb down one side of the paper. Yes, she’d gotten fairly close to what she would consider a faithful representation, but what she hadn’t been able to capture was the gleam in his eyes, or the wicked curl at the corner of his mouth. To be fair, she’d done this from memory, and from a glimpse caught from many yards away, but she still thought he deserved a better portrait. Maybe he’d let her paint him. He deserved to be done in oils instead of this rough charcoal.
Which meant she’d have to transport a ton of supplies to the hotel.
she told herself. Painting a portrait was a frivolity, nothing that had to happen anytime soon. But maybe if the idea appealed to Qadim, she could have him come here and “blink” everything she needed back over to one of the empty rooms at the Andaluz. It would definitely be a lot easier than having to carry everything on foot, now that the bike was pretty much out of commission.
She took the sketchbook into the bedroom and slid it on top of the overnight bag. After that, it was back to the office and another thumb drive. Rinse and repeat.
The silence in the shelter unnerved her. She’d switched off the sound system before she’d left on her last trip into town, and hadn’t yet turned it on when she came back in. Of course not; she’d been hurrying to get away from Qadim. In retrospect, that seemed like the most ridiculous idea ever. But back then, she hadn’t known what he would come to mean to her.
Actually, she still wasn’t sure exactly what he meant to her. She only knew that she couldn’t imagine being without him.
The fourth and final thumb drive was full. All in all, the entire process had only taken about forty minutes, which was better than she’d hoped. Right then, she decided against inspecting the bike. She wouldn’t need it any time soon, after all. And it was fine where it was, leaning against the wall in the entryway of Clay’s house. With that project postponed, she’d be back at the hotel in the next half hour. Qadim might be out, continuing with his project to remove all of Albuquerque’s ugly man-made artifacts, but she’d have her laptop and could start sifting through the data. That way, when he returned, they could begin analyzing the information and then decide what else they might want to add to the plants and trees he was setting out all over the newly cleared land.
She stuck all the thumb drives in the side pocket of her overnight bag, then set her laptop on top of the clothing inside before she zipped the whole thing up. The sketchbook wouldn’t fit, but she could slide that on top of the bag. The handles should hold it in place well enough as she walked. After all, she wasn’t planning to run or climb. Just a nice sedate walk back to the Andaluz, and then she could unpack everything and wait for Qadim.
Force of habit made her seal up all the airlocks behind her as she left the shelter. They really needed to do something about that exposed door, though. The rosebushes didn’t do much to hide it. Maybe she could have Qadim plant a large shady tree where the gazebo had once been.
she asked herself.
It’s not as if you’re going to be living here ever again. Who cares if it’s visible?
Good question. She supposed she found the idea disrespectful somehow, as if she was dishonoring all the hard work Clay had put into constructing the bomb shelter by leaving it so open to anyone who might pass by.
Besides, she really had no idea what was going to happen with her and Qadim in the long term. Everything was sunshine and roses right now because they were still firmly in the honeymoon phase of things, but she wasn’t so naive as to think that state of affairs could last indefinitely. And once they decided this whole human/djinn thing wasn’t really working for them, what then?
Well, they’d go their separate ways, she thought with a pang she really didn’t want to acknowledge. If she analyzed her feelings too closely, she could get herself in trouble. But she knew she needed to be sensible about this. What kind of future could a djinn and a human who wasn’t Chosen have, after all?
Maybe she could convince him to take her as close to Los Alamos as possible without actually being affected by the devices — whatever they really were — that protected the town from djinn incursions. She should be able to make it the rest of the way, and then…what? They’d take her in, no doubt; she had a feeling they would welcome some new blood, especially since they probably wouldn’t have seen any other survivors for a while now. Of course, the flip side of that situation was probably that everyone was already paired off, since they would have all been sharing the town for an entire year. She’d be on the outside, that was for sure.
And man, are you borrowing trouble,
she scolded herself as she headed out of the side yard and down the street. As before, it was empty and quiet, the weeds and the rust and the wind slowly whittling away at the artifacts man had left behind.
You and Qadim are doing just fine. More than fine. It’s not so crazy to think that he might still want to make you his Chosen, if you give him enough time to warm up to the idea.
What that would be like, she wasn’t really sure. Certainly she’d never thought she might one day be immortal, forever preserved at the peak of her youth. Or maybe not quite her peak, according to the djinn. She still wanted to shake her head at them only wanting to take humans who were somewhere between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-five.