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Authors: Ausma Zehanat Khan

The Language of Secrets

BOOK: The Language of Secrets
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Copyright Page

 

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For my husband, Nader Hashemi, scholar, activist, defender of human rights.

We have watched the world grow dark around us—You remain the light.

 

1

I came between a man and his thoughts,

like a breeze thrown over

the face of the moon.

The snatch of poetry caught at Mohsin's thoughts, making a mockery of the thousands of burnt-out stars flung wide against the banner of the sky. Penniless stars, spending their dying light in hopes of winning accolades from poets who thought of nothing save the rumpus of love, except as a point of comparison.

The blue night of Cuba, stars in her hair—

Her eyes like stars, starry-eyed, in fact—

Bright star, glowing star, lost star, falling star, the countless congregation, the silver-washed dusk, the pinpricks of night—

Mohsin found the celestial images ridiculous.

Especially when his personal light had gone unheralded—how cavalier of the poets not to have spoken of Mohsin's wife.

Sitara
, he thought.
This wasn't how I expected to die.

*   *   *

Blood leaked from his stomach onto the snow, joined by a second flow from his right leg, a deep red oozing that made him wonder how long it would take for the stars to fade, and whether anyone would come in response to his calls.

But why would any of the others come now? Wouldn't coming to Mohsin's rescue endanger everything the others had worked toward, everything they had planned for—everything they were still planning now? To call the police or summon an ambulance, to do everything in their power to save his life, when they had retreated to the woods for secrecy and darkness—no, the others would make a calculation, the same one they had made many times before.

What was one life measured against the impact of the Nakba?

What was one forty-year-old
shaheed
, when they were prepared to sacrifice innocents to their cause?

The night was purple, the stars a blurry reminder of the difference between Mohsin and the others. The light against the darkness, and other such clichés.

Mohsin had been pretending all this time. Shaking things up to see how they fell out.

He'd yielded to one leash, then another, jerked this way and that, nobody aware of what he was really up to.

What had Mohsin been doing with these people, these jihadists in the woods, scrambling around under cover of darkness, pretending to hunt one another like snipers?

The real question was: what wasn't he doing?

Even Sitara didn't know the answer to that.

*   *   *

He'd tried to be careful, using details from his life to build a fragile trust that would widen his network of contacts. He'd thought he'd been successful. People had trusted him, relied upon him, accepted his decision-making. They'd traveled to the backcountry of Algonquin at his suggestion. The winter camp had been Mohsin's idea. Or maybe Hassan had steered him in this direction, hunter rather than prey.

Don't encourage them to do anything they wouldn't choose to do on their own.

It was the mantra against entrapment, learned by rote at many after-hours meetings at hole-in-the-wall kebab shops, where the
doogh
was salty and the
koobideh
sublime.

He clarified his thoughts, the December chill scraping against his face. Not for the first time, he wished he'd opted for a fuller beard, with the signature of a mustache above it. But Sitara hadn't wanted him to keep a beard at all.

He thought of his wife with regret, of the growing distance between them in the weeks before the camp. She had wanted to come with him. How badly she had wanted to come. And if he'd really been planning a camping trip, he would have welcomed her presence beside him.

But not this, not now. Now he could be grateful that she was far away and safe.

He'd spent the summers of his childhood canoeing through lake country. From Smoke Lake to Big Porcupine. From Rock Lake to the Two Rivers. Or farther west, where the sunsets at Galeairy soaked up the requisite redness of Group of Seven maples.

So he'd known the terrain. And he'd thought he could outmaneuver Hassan in his plans for the jihadist training camp. He knew the routes out of the park and over the water. Hassan Ashkouri didn't.

Not the first thing he'd been wrong about, but probably the last.

And no one had warned him, not even Grace.

It was funny in a way, dying out here in this far-flung part of the forest, with the pines crackling under the weight of snow. The members of the camp had wanted to discuss remote detonation devices; they'd asked him to ferry weapons across the American border. Instead, Mohsin had rattled on about the geology of the park, the eskers and moraines of the Canadian Shield's bedrock. The boys had tossed around words like “tundra” in response, and Mohsin had smiled into his beard, privately laughing at them all.

Jokers. Hustlers. Idiots. Fools.

But Mohsin was the biggest fool of all.

He hadn't changed anything. The training would continue.

While he met his death on a drumlin at the edge of a meltwater channel. A glaciofluvial landform, the glacier long extinct. He rolled the words over his tongue.

The stars were going out.

The stars shut down the night and my hopes.

He couldn't walk, couldn't move, the blood dribbling from his body at its steady pace, gluey against his hand.

I have dipped my fingers in martyr's blood.
He said it to the sovereign sky, speaking to an audience of leaves.

Poetry—winding you up with its archive of questions, its vainglorious phrases.

And Mohsin loved a good, dirty limerick as much as any couplet of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the greatest contemporary poet of his homeland. A poet he knew well, a poet he understood.

His breathing began to slow.

It would have been better, maybe, to recite the
kalima
as preparation for his meeting with his Creator, whether it took place in the southern or northern regions of the afterlife. Either was certainly possible. But Mohsin had always been something of a renegade, choosing to stand by himself, undefended.

Are you a stone wall, bleak and undefended?

He wasn't. He missed his friend, Esa Khattak.

And thought it sad that Esa didn't know that Mohsin still thought of him as a friend. Everything Mohsin had done up to this point—hadn't it been to reconnect with Esa, to prove they were more alike than his friend had come to believe? To win back Esa's regard?

Maybe there was a way.

He fumbled through his inside pockets for his Swiss Army Knife. A little at a time, he moved his hand against the rough bark of the tree his body had come to rest against.

This wasn't for Sitara.

There were other concerns apart from love.

And he couldn't offer the same love again.

 

2

Esa Khattak was grateful for Martine Killiam's call. She was a superintendent with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and she had asked for a consultation in his capacity as head of the Community Policing Section, a request that was both courteous and unmistakably firm.

He was relieved to be getting her call, given the outcome of his last case. The hounds of the press were at bay for now, but the rumors of a pending inquiry were gaining traction. The conclusion of the investigation into Christopher Drayton's death had sparked a national outcry, leading the Minister of Justice to issue a personal reprimand.

You've bungled this, Khattak. And you've taken Tom Paley down with you.

Khattak knocked on Martine Killiam's door.

Tom Paley, the chief war crimes historian at the Department of Justice, had been a friend. When he'd passed away from a heart attack last month, his case file on Christopher Drayton had vanished.

And now the press was calling for Khattak's head, accusing him of delay, denial, and too close an association with the Bosnian community. No one was happy with the outcome.

Esa thought of Tom, often. Of the care he'd taken to ensure that the truth about Drayton's death would come to light. Tom couldn't have foreseen that Esa would be left alone to face the glare of the national spotlight. And it occurred to Esa to wonder if Superintendent Killiam had been assigned the task of calling him to account.

At his knock, the superintendent rose from her desk to greet him. Her smile was tempered by the reticence of her manner as she shook Khattak's hand. A woman in her late fifties with a strong, square face, Killiam had spent her life in the RCMP, forging a respectable path for herself through narcotics and organized crime. The second half of her career had focused on human resources, with a portfolio that encompassed thousands of employees. With Killiam's appointment to the role of human resources officer, there had been a change in the wind for women who joined the Force. She'd originated a mentorship program that paired senior female officers with promising new candidates, alongside wider latitude and opportunities for promotion. But Killiam's most telling achievement was her strictly enforced zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment.

Khattak respected Killiam's methodical approach to police work. It lacked imagination perhaps, but it could not be faulted on thoroughness. Behind the rimless glasses Killiam wore, he sensed she was making a similar evaluation of his background. And his current troubles with the Department of Justice.

“I asked you here because a man has been murdered in highly sensitive circumstances. I need your help as a liaison with INSET.”

Khattak glanced past the glass doors of Killiam's office to a space beset with human traffic. A small team was shifting through a thoroughfare of computer terminals and whiteboards, listening to a technical consultant explain a new operating system. A second group was gathered around the coffee machine. A few heads had nodded at Khattak in recognition as he passed. He'd raised a gloved hand in response.

BOOK: The Language of Secrets
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