Prologue: Horizon

600 meters above the ground, the city looked flat. An odd grid of criss-crossing black lines and colored squares. Tiny boxes of different colors traveled along the lines. She didn’t know where those boxes had left or where they were going, but if she did know, she would be able to see both places from up here. Zahab al Aswad was a fairly large city, and she could see nearly the whole sprawl from up here

A good deal of the city lay on the ground beneath her and she could see the swathes of desert that lay between Zahab and Bani Sabaar, but none of that interested her. In a few moments, Majhool and all the other nations of the world would cease to matter. No, what the woman in blue stared out at was the ocean. She watched the sun dipping beneath the horizon. Setting on her life

“That dress always was your favorite. Shame more people didn’t get to see it” he said.

The dress he was referring to was as blue as the ocean the woman loved. It had no straps, however, so few men had seen it. But modesty and religious rules didn’t matter anymore

“I’m sorry it has to be this way” he said after a long silence

“Does it?” she asked bitterly

“I…I was wrong about so many things…”

“We both were”

“But think about it! I have so much to lose and you have — “

The woman in blue turned to face him. A wind started to blow her long brown hair to the side

“You don’t know anything about me or my life. You’ve never known. And that’s why this agreement was a mistake”

But that didn’t matter anymore either

“Just end it. Please. And you know what to do later” she said in a voice he could barely hear

He walked up to the fence. The tempered glass shattered from the blast. He stepped aside and let the woman in blue walk up to the gap

She refused to look down, staring at the setting sun

With the gentlest nudge, she fell


Chapter 1: Maybe Armed, Maybe Dangerous

Detective Ali Tabarik had come to hate everything about this operation, beginning with the law in question and ending with the fact that the Zahab al Aswad Police Department was about to bring justice to some people who, he felt, hadn’t really earned the police’s fury

And make no mistake, it was fury that would come to those people

All the same, the 20 man squad before him consisted of veterans of the force from the earliest days, when Zahab had first set up a police force of its own. Some, in fact, had been around for even longer — they’d come as part of the UAE’s military who did the policework at the dawn of Majhool, and transferred over when it was time to pull out.

Ali, on the other hand, had been on the ZAPD for a grand total 6 years. And he was the one briefing them. Of course he was going to savor every moment

“Good afternoon, gents. I hope you’re all doing well. No back trouble or anything” he began with a smirk, relishing the scowling faces of the SWAT unit. “You’re probably completely in the dark about the investigation that has lead to this raid. It’s okay, I haven’t been around as long as you guys, but I know what the ZAPD is like”

“If you say one more thing about our ages, I’ll show you what the ZAPD is really like” heckled a man so burly his kandura could hardly contain him

“Alright, on the insistence of Roidrage McGee here, let’s cut to the chase”

Ali pressed a button on the remote and the projector came to life, showing a picture of a building in an upscale downtown street

“This building houses about 450 people. All of whose visas are expired with a capital X. Looking into the families living here, these are people who came to Majhool in search of work and didn’t get any, and people who had jobs and lost them. As you know, in January of this year, men older than 18 were barred from sponsoring their own visas, so it was either get a job or go home. Some of them couldn’t. Others wouldn’t

The owner of this building is Rajesh Patel. This man has a very cliche Indian name and very deep pockets, because he’s been paying all the utilities for these people and letting them stay rent-free. He’s just a good Samaritan that way

So it’s our turn to send a message. Loudly, in true ZAPD style, apparently. We’re gonna go in, round up all the tenants and punish them for illegal residence. As for what happens with Cliche Name…well, that’s not our problem, is it? Any questions?”

“You’ve been a pretty big part of investigations into illegals. Are there lots of other havens like this?” asked one, a lanky officer with a cold, steely voice

“Nope. Keeping a haven like this is expensive, especially with the prices of, well, everything going up. Most illegals are in hiding, alone or with their families”

“Million dollar question, kid: are they armed?” The million dollar question was asked by Officer Abdullah Ghazal, notorious for being a loose canon with an itchy trigger finger

“Eh, they’re maybe armed, maybe dangerous. Keep in mind that these are literally jobless people, few will have guns”

“So do you have a plan for this raid, detective?” asked Captain Bilal Aswad brashly

“Don’t really need one, I’m guessing. Bulletproof vests, rubber bullets. Seal all exits and make arrests door to door”

“You’re green behind the ears, kid, and it’s showing. “Maybe armed, maybe dangerous”? “Rubber bullets”? Are you trying to get someone killed?”

“Surely the brave and bold SWAT unit commander knows he has nothing to fear from some illegal aliens?”

He stood and walked over to Ali. The young detective was impossibly tall, and the captain was a head taller than him

“You think you’re the smartest guy in the room, don’t you? You made detective thrice as fast as anyone in the history of the force and now you think you’re a genius shotcaller? You’ve found the bad guys, kid, now let the professionals handle this”

“And what do you have in mind, captain?”

“Allow me to elaborate”


Chapter 2: Flat Tire

“So, uh, would you like to hear my professional opinion?” Dr Philip Cole, the medical examiner, asked

“I think I’ve figured this one out for myself, Cole” replied Detective Rashid Awad

“Well, just so we’re on the same page, she was up there,” Dr Cole replied, pointing up to the top, “and now she’s down here”

Her long brown hair was pretty much the only indication the person on the ground was a woman. Practically every bone in her body had been shattered, and every inch of her coffee brown skin was tinged with the red of blood. Blood had also fanned out around her on the tiles at the base of the Tower of Babel, a circle at the center of which was something less human and more flat tire

Flat tire? I’ve been spending too much time around Cole

Rashid tuned out the sounds of press being held back by ZAPD officers and crouched beside the body. She was even more of a ruin up close. Her eyes were bulging on the verge of popping out, her teeth were cracked and her skull had been smashed. No doubt about it, she’d fallen off the very top of the tower. 600 meters

“That’s a pretty dress. Or it was, before it got soaked through with blood. You ever seen anything like it, detective?”

“I don’t think so. But then, I prefer not to think about cases once they’re closed. What can you tell me, Cole?”

“Actually, I’m gonna let my incredibly irritating assistant do the talking” Cole said, gesturing to the tall Indian woman standing beside him. “Oh, haven’t you two met?”

“I don’t think so. Detective Rashid Awad”

“Dr Anaya Bhatia” she replied in a British accent

“Okay, Dr Anaya, what can you tell me?”

She crouched beside the body and took a closer look

“The cause of death was definitely the fall”

“Oh good, we won’t have to autopsy her now” Cole remarked snidely

Poor girl. She has to deal with him, Rashid thought

“B-But there are no signs of a struggle” she added quickly

“How do you figure that?” Rashid asked, genuinely impressed she could make anything of the mess on the ground

“Her skin isn’t bruised and there are no ligature marks”

Rashid had no idea how she could look for bruises on…that, but he nodded in agreement

He walked some distance away from the body, leaving the medical examiner and his assistant to bicker. Taking in the crime scene from a distance, he turned on the voice recorder

“Alright, this would be the first log in the investigation of the suicide of…um, the woman in blue. No identification was found on her person. Cause of death: falling from the top of the Tower of Babel. Medical examiners agree that there was no struggle, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t jump under duress. Although…she has landed close enough to the tower that we can rule out a jump or push. The victim stepped off. This also doesn’t mean she didn’t step off under duress

There isn’t much evidence on the ground, gonna have to go up to the top and look there”

“Why on earth are you talking to yourself?” Cole asked

“I’m making audio logs” Rashid replied in a terse tone intended to make the ME back off

“Back in my day, detectives used to have a notebook”

“Well, it’s not 1946 anymore. I prefer to record my notes”

“Har har. Well, we’ve gotten everything we could out of the body for now. They’re scraping her off the ground as we speak”

Rashid didn’t like it when people talked so glibly about the dead, but Cole had been around the block for a long time. It wasn’t his fault that nothing really swayed him any more

“We’re going to the top of the tower. Might be some more evidence up there”

“Right on”

They walked through the park to the tower, giving a wide berth to where the body was being ‘scraped’ off the tiles. Those tiles circled the base of the tower and were inscribed with Majhool’s motto: ‘Life through art’, written in calligraphic Arabic. Rashid pondered irony of someone killing herself upon those tiles

“Detective?” Cole called, breaking Rashid’s train of thought

“What is it?”

“Well, I’ve always heard there’s no way up the tower. But I haven’t been in Majhool very long, so I don’t know…”

“That’s not really true. You and I aren’t allowed up there, but there is a way up. Mostly used by maintenance. But it’s secured well enough, how did she or anyone else get through?”

The Tower of Babel had to be protected, but not so much that the masses felt they were being kept away from it. It’s very existence, after all, was inflammatory to anyone with a fundamentalist Islamic or Arab mindset. Announced in 2011, this tower was meant to celebrate the co-existence of cultures that had been a part of Majhool going back to the sudden and mysterious appearance of the island back in the 60s. A cone rising 600 meters into the sky, with a narrow path winding along to the top, it was almost exactly the tower as it appears in the Bible and had been rendered by artists. It lacked the hallmarks of modern Arab architecture — it wasn’t covered in glass, for example, instead being made entirely of reinforced stone; the top was flat as well, lacking a spire

But that wasn’t the reason why the tower made the whole Gulf queasy. The tower only really appears in the Bible. Humanity after the Great Flood, as the story goes, had finally achieved true unity and resolved to build a tower that could reach the heavens. God saw that as defiance, and confused the language the humans spoke and scattered them across the world

The Gulf was a pre-dominantly Muslim region. Even in the Bible, the building of the tower was deemed heretical, and God had punished humanity for trying to build it. At a time when the Muslim community was under fire from nearly all corners of the world, here was the nation of Majhool seeming to spite their religious identity, and Majhool’s allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council did not appreciate it. Although no one, not even their close ally the United Arab Emirates, said anything about the tower, something had changed in the GCC’s attitude towards Majhool

Politics weren’t the reason this woman jumped off the tower, though, and Rashid was a little frustrated with the simplicity by which the keypad and retinal scanner locks on the door had been bypassed

“The door to the tower appears to have been shot through” he recorded

Rashid inspected the ground around the floor, looking for shell casings. There were none. “Shooter knows how to cover his tracks. It would’ve taken quite the gun to get through this door. Makes case for gun control in Majhool?”

Inside was a freight elevator that was as wide as the tower was at its top. The trio boarded it in silence. Since it was a freight elevator for maintenance crews only, the Zahab al Aswad government hadn’t felt the need to invest in the high-speed elevators that could be found in, say, the Burj Khalifa, so it was a long ride

“So…what’s up?” Anaya asked, trying to break the silence

“Us, in a few moments” Cole replied snarkily

“Very funny”

“You’re really fond of your dumb questions, aren’t you?”

“The silence was getting awkward!”

“This isn’t actually your first case, you know. I thought you would’ve learned to appreciate the gravity of murders”

“First of all, talking about things? It helps normal people process shocking events. Secondly, how have you decided this was a murder? Looks like a suicide to me”

“Well, it’s a good thing you’re not a detective, isn’t it?”

Rashid had been trying to ignore the argument in silence but there was no way he could tolerate listening to this for a 600 meter ascent

“Ya Allah, is it noisy all the time in the morgue? Or do the two of you shut up every now and then?”

“She started it!” Cole said, pointing to his assistant

“”She started it”? You’re old enough to be her grandfather!”

“Clearly he needs to grow up and show some respect, even if it to his juniors” retorted Anaya to Cole

“Clearly you two need shut the hell up!” Rashid said decisively

And they were silent till they reached the top


Chapter 3: Weapons Free

Two armored vans drove through the streets of downtown Zahab, accompanied by four squad cars. Each van carried ten officers of the ZAPD. Each of them wore light kevlar and helmets and carried assault rifles. They were en route to storm a building of poor illegal residents who had no way of going home, much less getting weapons

Ali felt embarrassed already, recalling the plan. But hey, they were 200% sure now that no officer of the police would die and that was the important thing. Or so Captain Bilal thought

“First thing’s first, we have to cover the exits. Lucky for us, only way out’s through the front door. We’ll have two men standing there” the Captain explained. He pointed out two of the squad. “You two will have the honor”

“The remaining 18 will split into two units of nine. I’ll be commanding one, natch. Our maverick young friend can take command of the other” he continued, giving Ali a nasty look

“Ali’s unit will cover the bottom seven floors, arresting any and all individuals. My unit will take care of the top seven and the penthouse, where this Rajesh character resides. Should be simple enough. Any questions?”

“What kind of gear are we packing?” one of them asked

“I’ve got approval for light armor, assault rifles and flashbangs. Those dirty outsiders won’t know what hit ’em. Remember, boys, on top of serving justice, this raid is also a show of force to anyone else who might think of staying in the country illegally”

“Rules of engagement?” Ghazal asked

“Ah yes, I should mention. We are weapons free, despite anything anyone else says” he replied. The sentiment being directed towards Ali was loud and clear

The vans came to a stop in front of the building’s entrance. The squad cars split up to blockade the area around the building, in case someone tried to escape. Ali started to see that making the news was the plan this time around, which was unusual for the normally secretive behavior of the ZAPD. Captain Bilal would get his show of force, alright

Rajesh Patel’s haven for illegals was a rather plain building. A big rectangle rising some distance into the sky, with windows along the sides. There were glass doors that led into a modest lobby, where the ‘receptionist’s desk’ was unoccupied. But with the operation going on, an onlooker might assume this was some kind of extremist stronghold

The two officers took up positions beside the front door. Ali and Bilal’s units stacked up in front

“Happy hunting, gents” Captain Bilal wished on the radio. “Let the games begin”

Ali’s trepidation continued to grow


Chapter 4: A Beautiful Kind of Death

Philip Cole and Anaya Bhatia stood at the edge of the platform, gazing out at Zahab al Aswad. They weren’t arguing

Despite all his steeliness, Rashid couldn’t help but half smile at the sight. This was what it was like to be a tourist getting an especially breathtaking view. He’d experienced this a few times himself, but never in Majhool. Rashid knew too much of the darkness that existed on the ground here

There were no bodies or blood, so Rashid left the MEs to it and walked around the platform himself. Since this place was off limits to the general public, the only thing preventing someone from falling off was a waist high tempered glass fence. There was a hole in the fence

“Fence shattered. Thinking same gun as the one used on the door, but need CSUs to check. Fence could be broken with a tool or even a rock. No shell casings here either”

He walked over to a pool of black cloth some distance from the hole in the fence

“Abaya. Might belong to the victim. Still no sign of identification or any other personal belongings”

Rashid walked back to the hole and stared down the tower from it. There was still some blood where the body had landed

“Even if the victim had bounced on landing, she didn’t go very far”

He noticed a concentration of police bubblegum lights in the distance. That’s what Ali’s up to, I’m guessing, Rashid thought

Walking away from the fence, he contemplated everything he’d seen before recording his final remarks for the day

“The woman in blue chose a beautiful kind of death for herself. Emphasis on ‘chose’, this was definitely pre-meditated. But there was clearly a gun involved, and it’s nowhere to be seen on the site, which means there was one or more other person with her. No fighting, she was either made to jump…or she might have jumped willingly. Further investigation needed”

He shut off the recording and called the medical examiners. It was time to leave


Chapter 5: Zahab al Aswad’s Brave and Bold

There was no fitting nine men on an elevator, so Ali and his squadmates sprinted up the stairs to the first floor. Each floor had six apartments. Ali did everything he could to suppress his compassion and misgivings and started leading visits to each one

“Open up! This is the police!”

“Is everything alright officers?”

“Sir, you and your family are under arrest for illegal residence. Get down on your knees and place your hands behind your head”

“Ma’am, you and your family are under arrest for illegal residence. Get down on your knees and place your hands behind your head”

“Zahab al Aswad police! Open the door!”

“You and everyone else in the apartment are under arrest for illegal residence”

“Officers, please, there must be a mistake”

“Have mercy, officers! I have no money to go home!”

“I have a wife! I have children!”

“You and everyone else in the apartment are under arrest for illegal residence”

“I’m sorry, you’re in violation of the law and you had a long grace period”

“I don’t make the rules”

“I’m begging you, officers! Give me a little more time!”

“I thought this country was different! I thought you were better than the others!”

I thought so too, Ali reflected

Apartment after apartment, floor after floor, the same soul crushing process. Men, women, children, guilty only of having hard luck, being handcuffed and escorted outside. Zahab al Aswad’s finest could only adopt cold, hard faces and continue the arrests. It was starting to get under everyone’s skin

So far, as they reached the seventh floor, the captain’s fears had been unfounded. Apart from begging, there had been no resistance to the arrests, though a few had tried to sneak out. That would have to be the only silver lining to this whole operation — the ‘kid’ was right again

And then he wasn’t

Apartment 704. Ali knocked on the door

“Zahab al Aswad police! Open the door!”

There was no answer

“Zahab al Aswad police! I said open up!”

Silence

“I won’t ask a fourth time! Open the door!”

Nothing

“Break it down” Ali ordered

An officer stepped up and bashed the lock with the butt of his rifle. Three hits and the door broke open

A Pakistani man awaited them

Portly and balding, dressed in a vest and boxers. He didn’t look intimidating in the slightest

The gun he held did. An AK-47, which was an unusual possession even for someone in Majhool, where civilians were allowed to keep guns

“Drop your weapon!” Ali yelled at the man

He looked at them. Trying to be unflinching, but failing. The weapon shook in his shivering hands

“Drop the fucking weapon! Do you speak English?” he yelled again

The man continued to look at him. Ali figured out the look — it was one of cluelessness. He didn’t know what Ali was saying

“Get that gun away from him” someone called out from behind Ali

“Sir, banduq nichay rakho” Ali ordered in Hindi, gently this time

The man shook his head. His hands shivered more violently now

“Hum police hain. Banduq nichay rakho” he said, more sternly this time

“Meray saath kya honay wala hai?” the man asked, the fear of God in his eyes

“Mujhay nahi pata. Banduq nichay rakho” Ali answered

The man’s hands moved. He seemed to go back and forth between raising the gun to fire or dropping it

“Please” Ali urged

“M-mercy” the man pleaded

“Oh, fuck this” Abdullah Ghazal, the loose canon said, before shooting the man in the head

“NO!” Ali yelled as the man dropped unceremoniously to the ground

“Who the hell told you you could fire, you dumbass?!” Ali shouted at Ghazal. “Who’s command did you shoot on?!”

“Shut the fuck up, kid. The actual commanding officer of this fucking mission gave me the go-ahead. Weapons free, remember? Now, let’s search this apartment, if you don’t mind”

The eight of them shuffled into the apartment in silence. Ali stood in the doorway, looking at the body

“Meray saath kya honay wala hai?” he’d asked. “What will happen to me?”

Zahab al Aswad’s brave and bold will happen to you, sir, Ali answered the question bitterly. He kneeled beside the body and closed his eyes


Chapter 6: Partner

“The good news is, you’ve got your partner back” Ali said, hollow reassurance in his tone

Rashid could only watch the news report in silence

“Shots fired in an apartment building tonight as the Zahab al Aswad Police Department raided a building that was known to be housing illegal residents. While one might assume a raid like this could happen without violence, one man was shot in the head when he threatened a heavily armed police squad with a Kalashnikov. Police Commissioner Abdullah Jaafari made a statement to the press after the successful raid”

The aged and grizzled commissioner appeared on screen, standing at a dais with news mics raised up at him

“It’s quite simple, really. If you threaten an officer of the law, the officer is well within his rights to respond in kind. We want the people of Majhool to know that the new immigration laws are not to be taken lightly, and if you resist arrest, you pay the price. No more questions”

The anchor returned to the screen

“That was all the commissioner had to say about the shooting, although he was plenty boastful about the raid itself. The public of Zahab, which was angry enough at the new laws and had plenty of reasons to be wary of the blunt and brutal police, has become more incensed after this incident. The message seems to be clear: if you can’t hold a job, leave or die”

“What a shitshow” Rashid remarked

“I know. Ghazal, the guy who did the shooting, is on administrative leave” Ali replied

“And you?”

“Well, the shooting happened on my watch so I’ll no longer be working on immigration crimes”

“Perfect timing, I suppose. A dead body already needs your attention”

“Aw. Did I keep it waiting?”

“You’ll have to keep it waiting a bit longer. We’ve both had a long day and we both could use a smoke”

“You’re speaking my language now, old man”


Chapter 7: Short Version

Rashid dropped the case file on the desk in their glass cubicle office before sitting down across from Ali

“This file is way too thin for you, Rash” Ali remarked, pulling the file to himself

“You’re not ever gonna stop with ‘Rash’, are you?”

“Noooope”

Rashid sighed. “My case notes are in recording. Here they are” he said, handing Ali the recorder

“Short version?” Ali asked, reading the first page of the report

“A woman — no ID just yet — somehow got to the top of the Tower of Babel and jumped off. Someone packing a hell of a gun was with her — Ali? Ali, what’s wrong?”

Ali had blanched. He stared at the photos with a look of horror. Intuition told Rashid it wasn’t the state of the body that stunned him

“Ali. Who is she?”

He was silent

“Ali. Tell me”

Ali swallowed and, in a voice that cracked like Rashid had never heard it crack, replied

“That’s Nina Kafiyah. My fiance”

To be continued

Lambda