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Sophie Durand loved her work, but she didn’t want to die for it. Today the two desires had come into conflict, which would have been unsettling enough on any day but was especially irritating given how otherwise perfect a morning it had been.
A gust of hot wind billowed the awnings of shops and rustled the linen dresses hung out for tourists to peruse as they navigated the narrow market street of Amadiya. Sophie felt beads of sweat run down the small of her back, but she ignored her discomfort, biting into a pear as she meandered, waiting for her colleagues to rejoin her. Despite the locals and a small handful of other tourists, she felt exposed and alone, and her gaze shifted left and right while she mentally calculated methods of self-defense that were close at hand.
She’d noticed the first of the two men twenty minutes earlier, watching her from in front of one of the stalls in the open-air fruit-and-vegetable market. He’d made a small bit of theater, getting the seller to weigh a cluster of grapes, but she’d noticed the way he looked at her. Not with benign curiosity or even lustful appraisal but with disinterest so carefully blank that it caught her attention immediately. There seemed something surreptitious about his lack of expression, and when she caught him looking again, she’d decided to move on from the stall laden with oranges and forego any further fruits and vegetables for this visit. What she’d already acquired would have to be enough.
Nearly ten minutes passed before she’d seen the second man. At first she’d assumed it to be the same person, but then she had realized there were two of these strange men with their mustaches and their sun-bleached linen shirts. They looked so alike they could have been twins whose mother had dressed them.
Tourists, she had told herself. Surely not locals. Their stiffness and their mode of dress set them apart, although something about that observation troubled Sophie. It niggled at the back of her mind, this assumption that they were tourists, but their glancing attentions bothered her more and so she moved on, never mentioning to her two colleagues that she suspected the three of them were being followed.
Paranoia, she thought, and she went about her business. She finished her pear, wrapped the core in a small cloth, and tucked it into the side pocket of her heavy rucksack before slinging it back over her shoulder.
Sophie liked pockets. Her coworkers tended to tease her about the capri-style cargo pants she wore on the job, but she always argued that male designers had historically deprived women of pockets in their clothing, and in her line of work, she wanted as many as she could get.
In one of those pockets, her phone vibrated against her thigh. Barely thinking, she drew it out and glanced at the message on the screen: Are u really going to ignore me? Is that what it’s come to?
Sophie rolled her eyes. She didn’t have time for this nonsense, but she did feel a flash of guilt. With a glance around her, she tapped a quick reply. Just stop, for both our sakes. I’m not coming back to NYC anytime soon.
She kept the phone in her hand for a half minute, expecting a response, but when she glanced at the screen again, there was not even the telltale ellipsis to indicate a reply might be incoming. Sophie felt frustrated for a moment and then realized that maybe she was getting precisely what she asked for.
Exhaling, she slipped her phone back into her pocket and kept moving.
The population of Amadiya consisted of fewer than five thousand souls. Tourists were as common a sight as birds flying overhead, but their numbers were smaller. A few dozen visited each day during the summer, no more than one hundred in the cooler months. It was early June now and getting warmer by the day.
Martin had gone off to the post office, and Lamar had stepped into a shop to see if he could find a little kit to fix his glasses. Sophie realized she’d nearly forgotten one of her vital errands for the day, and she ducked inside a shop to purchase several small jars of tahini that she had promised their cook.
After she’d browsed the little shop and the merchant tallied up the cost of the nuts and figs and bottles of tahini, she glanced up and saw one of the mustache twins standing in front of a rack of various dried, bottled herbs. The man had his back to her, but his hands were motionless. He gazed at the herbs as if trying to understand their purpose, with no evidence that he intended to buy anything at all.
Moments after Sophie exited the shop, the man followed. She glanced back down the market street and saw his partner. They’d done an awful lot of browsing, yet their hands were empty. They had no shopping bags, no backpacks, nothing at all. The first man had apparently not even bought the grapes he had fussed over at the fruit stall. In that moment, she knew she hadn’t been paranoid at all. These men weren’t here for grapes.
Sophie collided with a man on the street. She recoiled as he touched her arm, and her head struck a display of straw shoulder bags hanging beneath a shop awning. She whipped around to face the man, shifting into a defensive posture, right hand clenched into a fist, and only then did she see it was Lamar Curtis.
Lamar cocked his head. “Well, you seem distracted.”
Sophie blinked, the words taking a moment to register. She mustered a polite smile—her business smile. “That’s a good word for it.” Her fist unclenched. “Sorry about that.”
“You want to tell me what just happened?”
Sophie cast a look over her shoulder but now saw no sign of the mustache twins. She shrugged her rucksack to draw Lamar’s attention to it.
“Figs and nuts. Tahini. A small portion of the truffles Dmitri wanted.”
“A happy cook means our bellies will be that much happier,” Lamar said, keeping it light, although he still studied her with cautious appraisal. He tapped his own bag, a heavily laden cloth sack he wore with its strap slung across his chest. “I’ve got apples and pears, a small watermelon, and those apricots you love so much.”
She smiled. “I bought grapes. Some fresh greens and herbs.”
Sophie frowned. “No oranges,” she said quietly. “Where’s Martin?”
“Probably off buying you roses,” Lamar muttered.
Sophie shot him a hard look. “You know it’s not like that. And now’s not the time to have this conversation.”
“You want to tell me what’s got you so spooked?”
“When we’re in motion,” she said. “Go find Martin and meet me at the edge. No more shopping. I want to get to the car.”
Copyright © 2019 by Christopher Golden