World Of Shadows
(The First Chapters)
The traffic was, as usual, miserable and Ali, though used to Istanbul traffic, cursed it anyway. His mantra for coping with this today was the same as his mantra for coping with it every day: I hate this fucking traffic, I hate this fucking traffic, over and over again as he muttered obscenities at other drivers swerving in front of him or to the side. He had the Ford today and wished he had the Opel which could dart in and out of lanes quicker than this model, but the Opel was with Fatih in Bursa and so he only had a choice between this and the Volvo, which Attila insisted he needed today. Just his luck, he thought, to have to go across the bridge four times in this. Oh well, and he sighed. Such was life. At least, once at the restaurant, he would have a decent meal.
He wondered what mischief awaited him at Akif’s place. His older brother always seemed to bring him business but not always the kind of business he preferred. Usually they were paying customers, though there were also the friends of friends and cousins of cousins who, Akif would suggest, were entitled to a special discount. And then there were those charity cases he would steer Ali’s way: those in need of unique solutions to complicated problems, which, it always seemed to Ali, involved foreigners somehow. “Brother,” Akif would say, that little smile lounging on his lips, that dim, but discernible, twinkle in his eye, “should we not help these poor foreigners in our land? Is that not the proper Ottoman way?”
And so Ali was always a little leery when Akif called to ask him to drop by the family restaurant on an off day, not his usual evening meal, or the Sunday dinner with his mother and brothers and their wives, his nephews and nieces. No, this was a lunch meeting with someone Akif wanted him to meet, someone with a “difficult situation” that needed his opinion, his possible help. But it was what he did, he thought to himself. He helped people, did favors for those in need of favors, or at least saw to it that someone did. Maybe it was negotiating the arduous, maze-like process of getting goods through Turkish Customs, or getting a foreigner a tax number, or helping someone’s son or daughter get a student visa to study abroad, or just aiding an illegal worker to find a job, or a lost husband, or a wandering daughter. It was his job, so to speak, and he did it well. So it was quite natural for Akif to call and ask him to drop by the restaurant that day to meet someone. “She needs your help,” he had said, and Ali knew that once again his brother was tending after strays.
After an hour’s drive to go ten kilometers in what normally would have taken maybe twenty minutes, Ali was relieved to finally park the Ford in the small lot in front of the restaurant and get out to stretch. His uncle Murat was standing in the open doorway smoking a cigarette. He tilted his head to the side, opened his arms in anticipation of the hug he knew was coming, and smiled. They embraced, kissed both cheeks, and patted each other’s back. “Ali,” Murat said, “you look the picture of health.”
“Don’t I always?”
“Yes,” Murat said, “except when you don’t.”
“And will I still look the picture of health after eating your beans?”
“They are a gift of God,” Murat said. “My own wife couldn’t cook better.”
“Didn’t she cook this batch?”
“It was Zeynep’s turn today,” Murat smiled. “But they are like sisters in the kitchen. Where one’s hands leave off, the other’s begins.”
“Ah,” Ali nodded. “My mouth waters already.”
Murat took a final pull on his cigarette and then tossed it in the street beyond. He draped his arm over his nephew’s shoulder and they entered the restaurant together. Akif was leaning on the pastry counter talking on his cell phone when they entered. Like Murat, he wore a sports coat but no tie, his top button of his shirt undone, his belly of “Turkish muscle” partially eclipsing his belt. But his brown eyes sparkled when he saw his younger brother enter and he quickly ended his call.
“Brother,” Akif said, kissing both of Ali’s cheeks and hugging him, “you’re here.”
Ali was escorted into the main dining area flanked by both his brother and uncle, like a returning veteran of some foreign war. The only thing missing as far as Ali could tell was a military band: the trumpets, the drums, the clashing cymbals. Ali was steered toward the rear corner booth where a strikingly beautiful Asian woman sat next to Serkan Erkaya, a lawyer friend who occasionally brought business both to the restaurant and Ali. Upon seeing Serkan, Ali felt some relief because whatever clients he brought always paid.
Serkan rose to greet Ali, kissing both cheeks and holding onto his hand as he said, “So good of you to come.”
“Cay?” Akif asked. Ali nodded. “And more for you, Miss Chen?”
They all turned to watch her then and Ali was once again struck by her beauty. It wasn’t any one element, like the eyes, or the lips, or the shape of her nose, or the way her hair seemed to shimmer in the light, but all of it taken together just took one’s breath away. It was almost as if she were too beautiful to be real, but of course she was real, sitting there next to Serkan, at this table, in this restaurant, making them all realize just how imperfect they were, and making them all long to call her name in some dark room in the middle of the night. So Ali was smitten in spite of himself, and tried very hard to regain his professional detachment as he waited patiently not just to hear if she wanted more cay but just what she wanted from him.
“Yes, thank you,” she said in English with a flawless accent, or at least flawless to his very Turkish ears.
And so Murat went off to get more tea and they all settled back as Serkan took charge. “She needs your help,” he said to Ali in Turkish. “She seems to have lost someone here in Istanbul.”
“How lost?” Ali asked. “And is this person a tourist here?”
“No, it appears she came for work.”
“What work?” Ali asked. “And when?”
Serkan looked at Lily Chen and then translated Ali’s questions for her into English. Lily Chen looked lost in thought for a moment, then she turned her eyes on Ali and said, “Can I speak in English? I don’t know any Turkish. Do you speak English?”
“Some,” Ali said.
“It is okay, then?”
“Yes,” he nodded. “I know enough. Please tell me.”
“She came about a month ago for a job in the tourist trade. She was supposed to work for a large hotel that catered to Chinese. At least that’s what she told me. But after she got here, I stopped hearing from her. At first I didn’t worry because I thought maybe she was busy getting settled, and she didn’t have a phone. But then when I called the hotel where she was supposed to be working, they told me they never heard of her and that they didn’t know what I was talking about. They didn’t cater to Chinese and they never heard of the person who was supposed to be their agent. That’s when I panicked and came here.”
Ali listened impassively. This was the kind of story he heard too often, only usually with Russian girls. It was not the kind of business he liked to get mixed up in, these people were usually hard to find and when found, they tended to be quite ruthless. And the girls, well the girls were almost never found, or if they were, it was not so easy to get them away from the people who now owned them. And a month, a month was a long time in this kind of trade, and a trail like the one she described would probably end at the airport, but this woman’s beauty, her innocence touched him deeply, and so he knew without saying anything that he would take this job and do the best he could to find her, however hopeless it seemed. It was what he did: hopeless favors for helpless people. An occupation, of sorts, for a man who lived in a city that at times wasn’t sure what it was.
“And this girl?” Ali asked. “Who is she for you?”
“My sister,” Lily Chen said. “My little sister.”
And that decided it, of course. It was family. And Ali, being a Turk, knew just how important that was.
“You will help her?” Serkan asked.
“Money is not important,” Lily Chen said. “This is my sister. I want to have her back.”
Ali nodded, said, “Serkan will discuss money. I will need a picture, and information about the man who is the agent. Anything you can remember.”
And that was how it started, at his brother’s place, the search for Lily Chen’s sister, the killings, the trouble, the events that changed their lives.
Later, after Lily Chen left with Serkan to go back to her hotel, Ali sat at the corner table staring at the picture of Lily Chen’s sister Sherry.
“She’s very pretty,” Akif said as he looked over his shoulder at the picture. “Not as pretty as the sister Lily but very pretty just the same.”
Ali nodded, stared at the picture a little longer, then laid it down on the table and sipped his tea. He thought of all the girls like her, that came to cities like this one full of hopes, of dreams, only to be cheated, abused, and sold like so much clothe at the bazaar. He suddenly felt sad, sadder than he felt in a long time, sadder than he felt on waking today.
“You should see The Greek,” Akif said. “He has a long arm. Maybe he can help.”
Ali smiled slightly at the mention of The Greek, thinking how The Greek really wasn’t Greek, or at least not just Greek, he had some Greek blood in his veins, of course, but mostly he was Turkish, with a little bit of Russian in him, but everyone referred to him as The Greek just the same. He had been one of his father’s closest friends, maybe even the closest, certainly the one they remembered most from their childhood in The Black Sea region, back on the tea farm in Rize. He often helped in the summers with the harvest and then would sit in the shade on the porch with their father drinking raki till the early hours of morning before getting a few hours sleep only to rise again to go back in the fields. Those were the years before his father’s illness, before his brothers and he went off to college in Istanbul, before death took its toll and money was a problem, and The Greek seemed to hover in the background, helping here, lending there, offering work, a connection, someone he knew who knew someone else who could help. And though there was no blood connection, The Greek was always like an uncle, and even now, when Ali made his living helping others, The Greek often helped him. And yes, he did have a long arm; he did know everybody.
“Yes,” Ali finally nodded. “Maybe he can.”
The Greek lived in one of the houses sitting on a hill in Beykoz overlooking the Bosporus. After the gate, you had to pass through a small yard to get to the front door which faced the street. The building was quiet, The Greek’s residence assured that, and the neighbors on either side of his house seemed to be on permanent vacation. Ali could only remember seeing someone there maybe two times in all the years he’d been coming here, and that person, an old man in wool trousers and wearing a cap, could have been a caretaker, not a resident. The Greek, though, had three floors in his house and the first floor, where he spent his days either in the kitchen looking out on his small vegetable garden or serenely watching Irina bake bread or make preservatives, or in his den, drinking tea and smoking his pipe, perhaps, while reading his books on history or his beloved Nazim, was where one always found him if one came during daylight time and he was at home.
Irina, too, was usually there, if he was, though sometimes she was not. She was at least thirty years his junior, closer to Ali’s own age of 34, and beautiful in that classic Russian way: tall and slender as a ballerina with long, shapely legs and small breasts and cheekbones that could slice bread. Her hair was blond now, with streaks of black, but had, in turns, been black, brown, auburn, red, and once even silver. Her hair, like her past, was varied and colorful, and though Ali knew only a little of that past, he knew enough not to ask to learn more. Details emerged over the 10 or 12 years they had been together, for him to learn enough, but what he was sure of was they met while Ali was still in America studying and it was common knowledge she was working the streets then for some powerful Russian gangster and The Greek somehow changed that. There were various stories of how they met: he was a favored client, he was in business with her owners, he was her savior, he bought her, he killed the man who had her contract in an old fashioned duel, he won her in a card game, and on and on. Ali never knew which was true, and if Akif knew, he never said. But whatever the circumstances, it really didn’t matter for it was obvious to everyone that she was devoted to him and The Greek, for his part, was wise enough to put no restrictions on her but was silently grateful for her presence in his life.
So when Ali knocked on the door, it was no surprise to find Irina on the other side, her blond hair streaked with strands of black, dressed in an old flannel shirt of The Greek’s and probably nothing else, though Ali was too discreet to be certain of that. She did not smile but did not frown, either, just stared at him with that beautiful impassive Russian face and opened the door wide enough for him to enter. Ali nodded and she indicated the hallway leading back to his den where he found The Greek sipping tea from an old ceramic mug while sitting in his favorite rocking chair reading a book on natural history by the Roman Pliny.
“Ah, Ali,” The Greek said as he slowly rose.
“Uncle,” Ali said, and kissed both his cheeks and lightly embraced the older man.
“Sit,” The Greek said, indicating the only other chair in the room. “Would you like some cay?”
“Thank you, uncle,” he said and then noticed Irina in the doorway who turned and was gone.
“Your brothers?” The Greek asked. “They are well?”
“Yes, uncle. Everyone sends their regards.”
They chatted some more, small talk to fill the minute or two it took for Irina to return with tea, and then after the tea was served and she vanished again into the depths of the house, The Greek turned his deep-set soft brown eyes on his younger friend, the youngest son of his long dead best friend, and asked, “And your business is going well?”
“Yes,” Ali nodded. “As always, there are people who need help.”
“To be of service,” The Greek smiled, “is a lofty occupation.”
“Yes, but as usual, sometimes I am asked to do things I need help in doing.”
“Find a lost girl who could be here on our streets, or was just passing through on her way to be sold to some other streets in some other country.”
“Hm,” The Greek said, and said no more, but just gazed thoughtfully past Ali’s shoulder to some long ago memory he did not wish to share.
“I need your help, uncle,” Ali said finally. “You know so many people, even among those who bring shame to our city.”
The Greek nodded, said nothing, but reached to the table next to his chair and picked up his pipe. Ali watched as he carefully emptied the ash into an ashtray and then refilled the pipe with tobacco, lit a match, and puffed on the pipe before settling back in his rocker and looked Ali’s way. “Is this girl a Russian girl?”
“No, uncle, a Chinese.”
“Chinese?” The Greek asked. “And brought here by Russians?”
“No, uncle, by Chinese.”
“A Chinese girl brought here by Chinese?” The Greek seemed to ponder this for a moment, then sighed. “I do not know of any Chinese gang working girls on our streets. Just Russians and Kurds.” He thought some more. “It is possible she was just on her way to Saudia Arabia. Those Arabs like Oriental flesh.”
“Maybe,” Ali said. “But I must find out, if I can, what happened to her.”
“Is this for someone you know? Or just business?”
“Akif asked,” Ali said. “And Serkan is involved.”
“Serkan,” The Greek said and thought some more. “You still do business with him?”
“He is an old college friend, uncle, who does not forget his old friends.”
The Greek shrugged. “Well, if he helps...”
“He brings us business.”
“Hm,” and The Greek smoked some more without saying anything. Ali’s eyes traveled in the meantime around this familiar room, scanning the bookshelves, the globe in the corner, the row of atlases stacked against a far wall, the 26 volume set of the Oxford Dictionary, and the pictures of Irina, his brothers, his father and mother, and himself. He was younger in those pictures, standing with his cousin Fatih on a river barge on The Black Sea, and the pictures of his father and mother were all from the tea farm in Rize, none from his father’s last days in Istanbul. Ali felt some comfort here, in this room, with this man, his past so intertwined with this moment in the present, even the tobacco smoke was familiar, like some favorite kitchen aroma from his youth. He could close his eyes and almost hear his father’s voice joking with The Greek the way they always joked in those days. And that made him feel sad, too, but not unhappy, if such contradictions were possible in anyone other than a Turk.
“Do you have a picture?” The Greek asked.
“Yes, uncle,” and Ali passed it over to him.
The Greek studied it for a long moment before attempting to pass it back. “Do you have another?”
“Keep it, uncle,” Ali said. “I had copies made.”
“Hm,” and The Greek looked at it again before opening his book and placing it inside. “Very young,” he said. “And very pretty. A virgin?”
“I didn’t ask.”
“Well they are all virgins,” The Greek said, “for the first year, and then they are not.” He sighed again. “I’ll ask around but I do not know of any Chinese here.”
“Thank you, uncle.”
“Will you stay for dinner?” The Greek asked. “Irina is cooking hamsi.”
“I wish I could, uncle, but I have many things yet to do.”
“Do they involve a woman?” The Greek asked and smiled. “You are getting old enough that you should marry. All your brothers have wives.”
Ali blushed slightly and laughed. “Maybe,” he said. “You never know.”
And after the usual kisses and hugs, he was gone.
The Greek sat for a long time after Ali left lost in thought. Irina came in silently and stood behind his chair, gently massaging his shoulders, his neck, saying nothing for nothing needed to be said. She knew, without being told, that favors were asked, favors would be given, and risks, whatever they were, would be braved. Ali and his brothers were not her family, but she understood they were his, and he was the only family she knew here, maybe even anywhere, and so whatever loyalty he felt, whatever obligation, she felt the same. So she just rubbed the tension from his body as best she could and continued to do so as night fell and the only light in the room came from the bowl in his pipe.
Ali had women problems, or, to be more accurate, a problem with a woman, a very specific woman with whom he thought he might one day possibly marry. And so when he left The Greek’s he travelled through that miserable Istanbul traffic to meet her at the tea house on Buyuk Camlica. This trip would have taken him ten minutes normally but it was rush hour and so he arrived a half hour late, though it didn’t make any difference because she text messaged him to say she would be late, too.
He thought himself lucky when a car pulled out in front of him opposite Comlek Tasfirinda Kurufasulye which he hoped would be where they ate later since it was famous for their bean dishes, much loved by Black Sea people, and it was also at the bottom of the hill leading to Buyuk Camlica. This was very convenient, especially since he knew on a warm October night like this, the parking field at the top would be crowded and he might have to wait for a space. So he parked his car and hiked up the hill anticipating another half hour wait for Seyda to come. At least, though, the view always pleased and inspired him, even making him forget the traffic, and, at moments like this, renewed his love for the city.
After 20 minutes of gazing serenely at the lights beyond, he made his way to the teahouse, grabbed a table, and had his first glass of cay waiting for her to arrive. And it was as he finished his second glass that she appeared, breathless and slightly windblown, at his table.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said, brushing back her long dark hair and smiling wearily. “The traffic.”
The traffic was everyone’s excuse to be late for school, for work, for interviews, for doctor appointments, for dates, for lunch, for dinner, for their own funerals. The traffic. But as Ali looked across at her as she sat down and carefully slipped off her coat, he no longer cared how long he had to wait, for seeing that face made it all worthwhile.
He considered her a classic beauty in the Turkish sense: dark, sensuous, mysterious, with black eyes that could stare calmly into a fire or burn just as intensely with flame. It was the eyes that held him captive, and the mouth, with those full lips that could pout or smile depending on his attentiveness, and her black hair that seemed to frame her face perfectly. He knew he loved her, but could never quite tell if she loved him in return, and though they never spoke of their feelings, this relationship being still too new for that, he knew, like all Turkish women and unlike those of America where he had studied, once she decided to see him, she saw no one else. They were a couple, yet he did not know with any degree of certainty if that would lead to permanence. Nor was he certain he wanted it to.
They ordered more cay and a plate of cookies and he listened as she described her day teaching marketing at her college, Yeditepe, the students, the food in the cafeteria, her final draft of her dissertation for her PhD at Istanbul University, the new courses she was proposing for next year, his ears filled with her daily life, and he couldn’t help wondering just what they had in common, if anything, and yet there was nowhere he would rather be than right here listening to the music of her voice.
“I’m sorry,” she said, looking at him with those deep, dark eyes, “I’m babbling. You must be terribly bored.”
“No,” he said, shook his head, smiled. “I find it interesting,” he lied, thinking, it’s not what you say, but just your being here saying it that pleases me. But he didn’t think he should say that, it would come out wrong somehow, so he preferred evasive action instead.
“You don’t look like you’re interested,” she said, her eyes still impossible to read. “I think maybe you’re wondering again about what we have in common. Aren’t you?”
“No,” he lied again. “I’m just listening attentively.”
She laughed then, that light as air laugh that delighted him so, and said, “You are such a liar, but luckily for you, I don’t mind since you lie to flatter me.”
“You like being flattered?”
“Doesn’t everyone?” and she laughed again, that wonderful laugh that floated around him like a whiff of her perfume. “And you do it so well,” she said. “Is that part of the technique you do in your work? You flatter your clients so they listen to you?”
“You make me sound calculating.”
“No, just clever,” and she laughed again. “Aren’t you clever?”
“Clever enough to pursue you,” he said, and laughed himself. “That’s clever, isn’t it?”
“And again, flattery.” She touched his hand across the table and her smile turned slightly seductive. “But you did manage to capture me, didn’t you?”
“Would I be here with you tonight if that were not so?”
And Ali thought then that this was something more than he imagined, and maybe even what he hoped for, for he was not clear himself just what he was hoping for here. He knew he was intrigued by her, and certainly wanted her to be taken with him, but still uncertain just where he wanted to go. She was different than the other Turkish girls he had dated once he came back from The States and though he was not happy with them, he thought that was because he had been away too long and had become Americanized. But she had studied in the UK and the fact that she had an American boyfriend there still troubled him, just as the way she seemed so independent one minute, then totally girlish the next. Women, he thought, will always confuse him, but his feelings shouldn’t be conflicted, not if they were genuine. The only time, though, that he knew he wasn’t conflicted was when he looked into her eyes.
She turned the conversation around by saying she was hungry. “But let’s not eat here,” she said. “I know where you’d rather eat.” And she did know, of course, which both pleased and frightened him a little because he began to think that maybe he really should consider marrying the girl. And marriage, though he was at the appropriate age for it, made him more nervous than he cared to admit.
And, of course, as they were finishing their dinner of beans and pickled vegetables, she said, “People keep asking me what you do for a living and I just don’t know what to say. What should I say?”
“Tell them I’m a kind of social worker helping people with their problems.” And he thought to himself that that was as good a description as any.
“Is that what you do? Help people?”
“Yes,” he nodded.
“And who are you helping now?”
“Well, I have my cousin in Bursa now helping the owners of a new company get the proper permits to open a factory that will dispose of chemical waste.”
“Yes, my cousin works with me. I’d go myself but it’ll take at least a month and I don’t like being outside of Istanbul for that long.” He smiled. “I miss too much.”
She smiled coyly herself and asked, “Am I included in what you would miss?”
“What do you think?”
She smiled again and though he disliked playing these flirtatious games, he had to admit she was one of the reasons now why he didn’t go to Bursa himself.
“And are you helping anyone else?”
“Some students who want to study abroad.” And then he thought of Lily Chen. “And I was just asked to find a missing Chinese girl.”
“Here? In Istanbul?”
“Maybe,” he said and sighed.
“There aren’t too many Chinese here,” Seyda said. “That should be easy enough.”
“Insallah,” he said and thought instead of Allah helping him, he had The Greek.
Later, at home, he tried to be as quiet as he could so as not to disturb his mother sleeping in her room at the other end of the hall. He often thought of moving out on his own, but that was so rare here, to live outside the family if you were single, that instead he stayed, comfortable in the fact that his clothes were always washed, his shirts ironed, his meals cooked. Of course he missed the freedom he had in the US but his mother rarely questioned him, just calmly accepted the irregularity of his hours, the strange phone calls, the missed meals that she so lovingly prepared, but his brothers told her not to worry, this was the life he now lived and he was not doing anything illegal or immoral. So in a sense, he had the best of all worlds, and though his mother had hinted on several occasions that she would like to see him settled down with a family of his own, just like his brothers, she never pressed the point or showed any signs of disapproval.
Ali sat in his reading chair and thought about calling Fatih to see what progress he was making, then thought better of it. Fatih was quite capable, and besides, knowing him the way Ali did, he was probably out entertaining the owners, though they would undoubtedly be paying for it. He had a knack for creating a festival mood wherever he went, something Ali never seemed to cultivate. He had always been the serious one, his brothers would say, the one who surrounded himself with books, argued politics with friends, had long discussions into the night about philosophy or his own individual interpretation of the Koran. They all thought he would enter public service or become a university professor, but instead he found himself doing his own brand of public service and enjoying the freedom that it gave him.
So he sat in his reading chair and took a book by Muhammad Asad from the shelf and began rereading it. And eventually Fatih, his brothers, Lily Chen, The Greek, and even Seyda receded in his mind and he was at peace with the world, with himself.
The Greek had his coffee at the kitchen table. Irina had brewed it for him and poured it into his cup, leaving a glass of cold water on the side, before leaving him to brood over what he had to do. He would start with the Russians because that was logical but he knew he would also have to talk to the Kurds and that would be problematic. Even seeing the Russians could be trouble if he wasn’t careful and so The Greek thought this whole business was fraught with complications and potential danger and he was, as his aging body told him every morning and reminded him again at night, getting a little too old for this sort of thing. He sipped his coffee before it got too cold and let his mind drain. There were just too many things to consider this early in the morning and he found himself looking for distractions so he could enjoy what little time he had left before those potential problems manifested themselves into the demons we fear the most.
The feral cats suddenly appeared outside the back door that lead to their small yard and he watched them impassively as they brushed against the glass, wanting their daily meal. Irina fed them; she had a fondness for strays, and given her background, that did not surprise him. He, therefore, turned a blind eye to the stray dogs that slept outside their gate waiting for Irina’s charity as well. One of them, a three legged mongrel with soft, soulful brown eyes, was a special favorite of hers and was thus even allowed to sleep under the awning in the back at night. Even The Greek felt sorry for him but he managed not to let Irina know that he fed him kofte on the sly. The cats, though, were bolder and The Greek watched them for a while, thankful for the distraction. But, as all distractions eventually were, it ended and he finished his coffee, drank a little water to wash down the grains he swallowed, walked down the hall to the front door where his jacket hung, slipped it on, and left the house without saying a word.
He didn’t have to. Irina knew very well where he was going and why.
Ali went to his brother’s restaurant for another meeting with Lily Chen. Serkan was there alone waiting for him.
“I thought it best we speak privately first,” he said as Ali sat down at the table. “Lily Chen will be here soon but we need to settle a few things before she arrives.”
Ali was used to the way Serkan did business and so was not surprised by this. He listened as Serkan outlined the payment schedule and fee structure. As usual, he was generous to Ali and though his rates to his clients were high, they never seemed to complain. Serkan had that special gift that helped him to accurately assess each client’s ability to pay and then to charge appropriately. And he never cheated his friends.
“I trust this is satisfactory?” he asked when finished.
“Yes,” Ali nodded. “It always is.”
“Well, it has to be, doesn’t it?” Serkan said as he settled back in his seat on the other side of the booth. “I pass clients your way, you give me referrals, we help each other. Friendship is a two way street, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Ali agreed.
“Besides, these new rich Chinese can afford it. This woman is our age but we look like paupers next to her. She didn’t even blink at the fee.”
“Lawyers make that much money there?” Ali asked.
“Lawyers make that much money everywhere but Turkey. At least this lawyer doesn’t seem able to do it.”
“You’re too honest,” Ali said and smiled.
“Not that honest,” Serkan laughed, “but evidently not that dishonest, either. Anyway,” Serkan continued, “we should have studied Chinese, not English. Those people are the ones who will buy the earth.”
“You think so?”
“They will eclipse the West,” he said. “”And we must be smart enough to act as their brokers.”
“I’ll leave that to you,” Ali said. “I’m not that clever.”
Serkan laughed again. “I’ll teach you,” he said. “Come to dinner some night and bring your girlfriend to keep my wife company while I train you.” Then he looked at him closely and said, “You still seeing that same girl?”
“Yes,” Ali nodded.
“Are you going to marry her?”
Ali shrugged. “Insallah,” he said and smiled.
“Then you will be like the rest of us: not so free and easy with your time.” He laughed. “These Turkish women won’t let you.” Then he winked conspiratorially. “This Chinese woman, though, is beautiful, don’t you think? If I wasn’t married, I’d be tempted to explore the East.”
“As I remember, when you were single, you were always tempted.”
“Ah yes,” and he sighed. “But Merve has tamed that side of me. You, though, are still not tied down.” And he grinned at him. “Be careful you don’t get involved with your client.”
And it was then, before Ali could respond with a clever remark of his own, that Lily Chen entered the restaurant and Akif escorted her to their table. Ali looked at her then, the way she almost glided across a floor, the slender shape of her hips, the way her hair caught the light, her full lips, and couldn’t help but be attracted. But he mentally shook his head to clear it of any such thoughts and kept only one train of thought in his head: she was a client, this was a job, that was all there was to it. And yet, he couldn’t deny the fact that he was obviously drawn to her. And that, in and of itself, he found most disorienting.
“I hope you don’t mind meeting again,” Lily Chen said as she sat down opposite him, “but I have some more information that might help you locate my sister.”
And she gave him the name of the hotel she was supposed to be working in and the ad her sister responded to in China that promised work abroad. It was in Chinese but Lily Chen had written the English translation beside it and Serkan had translated it into Turkish. It read:
Do you like helping people?
Are you good learning languages?
Do you want to work in foreign cities?
We may have the perfect opportunity for you.
Respond to the following address.
And an email address followed which was, Ali knew, impossible to trace. But the ad, he thought, was unspecific enough to promise almost anything, even the work she was probably forced to perform now. And that saddened him enough for him to wonder if he could maintain his much needed objectivity in this.
“You should perhaps go to the hotel,” Serkan suggested. “Maybe there is something there to find.”
“Maybe,” Ali conceded. “Probably not, but it is a start.”
“If you don’t mind,” Lily Chen asked, “could I accompany you?”
Ali looked at her then, those eyes pleading, those lips slightly parted, a film of moisture coating them an even deeper shade of red than they appeared at first sighting. “It is probably nothing,” he said.
“But I feel so useless sitting in my hotel room waiting for a call,” she said. “At least this way I would feel like I am doing something. Please, Mr. Melek. I would really appreciate this.”
“Ali,” he said. “Call me Ali.”
“All right,” she said and smiled in such a vulnerable way he had a hard time resisting. “Please let me come with you.”
He nodded then, and noted her shoulders heave slightly in a sigh of relief, her smile broaden, her eyes come alive. “Thank you,” she said, and he nodded again, then caught a glimmer of a smile flicker across Serkan’s face that Ali had a hard time reading before it disappeared into the neutrality of his lawyer’s expression.
And so Ali found himself driving her to Taksim where, amid the bars, restaurants, and hotels that catered almost exclusively to foreigners, they found the hotel in question. He had managed to find a parking space a few blocks away, parking on the sidewalk like everyone else, and they walked the distance in silence. Just before they entered the lobby, though, Ali took hold of her hand to prevent her from entering and said, “Let me do all the questioning. It’s possible they will know English, especially at the front desk, but it’s better if I speak in Turkish. It allows for more complete answers from them.” And then he found himself hesitating slightly before releasing her hand, and that troubled him.
The lobby was open, airy, with plush black leather arm chairs and sofas strategically positioned to give the impression of intimacy but with the focus still on the front desk. And it was at that front desk that Ali had his first inkling that maybe it might just be possible to find Lily Chen’s sister. It wasn’t in what was said, but rather what was not said by the head clerk at the counter, and the look that passed between his assistant and him when it wasn’t said that caused Ali to take a sudden interest in the assistant with downcast eyes and a brow that seemed to say there was more in his head that wanted to come out but his mouth wouldn’t let it in front of his supervisor. “Thank you,” Ali said to the head clerk and smiled sadly. “We didn’t think she came here but we had to try.”
“Yes, of course,” the head clerk said. “But as I said, we do not have any Chinese guests here, and we never have had any as long as I’ve been here.”
“And that is a long time?” Ali asked.
“Over two years.”
“Yes,” Ali nodded. “That is long enough.” He turned to Lily Chen then and said in English, “I’m sorry but this is a dead end, I’m afraid.” He sighed and then added, “But why don’t we go to a café and sit for awhile to think of other possibilities. There is a nice one near Saint Antuan’s Church that we can try.”
He turned then to the two clerks and thanked them again, but his eyes lingered on the assistant long enough to catch his eye. “If you do hear anything, though, please let us know. There’s a reward for any information that could help us locate her.”
And he ushered Lily Chen out of the lobby and began the walk to the café.
“I am thinking we will have someone to join us,” Ali said as he took a table outside on the avenue. “Let us be in the open so he can see us.”
And shortly after their tea arrived Ali spotted the assistant hurrying along, glancing over his shoulder furtively, but obviously on the prowl for them. When he saw them, he walked by quickly, but not before catching Ali’s eye, and headed for the church. Ali excused himself, told her to enjoy her tea, and followed the clerk inside.
At first he didn’t see him, and had to walk past the rows of lit candles, the pews all facing the altar of this Roman Catholic Church, but then saw him in the rear waiting for Ali to find him. As Ali approached, the clerk exited the church and Ali found him outside next to the statue of the pope. “Hello, cousin,” Ali said as he stood beside him. “Lovely day today.”
The clerk nodded, mumbled something almost inaudible about the weather, then fixed his eyes on Ali as he asked, “Is it true about money being offered for information?”
“Yes, cousin,” Ali said. “Why would I not speak the truth about that?”
“For information about the Chinese girl or for information about the Chinese?”
“For any information that helps us locate her.”
“She is that important?”
“To her sister she is.”
“How much money?”
“It depends on the information.” The clerk’s eyes shifted then, looking to the left, to the right, as if in some Hollywood movie involving gangsters and crooked cops. Ali almost laughed, but seeing how seriously frightened he was, he stopped himself. Instead he asked, “What do you know, cousin?”
“Not here,” the clerk hissed. “Not now. Meet me tonight on the Arabian Street. I’ll tell you then. And bring money with you.”
“The information first,” Ali said. “Then, if it is good, I’ll get you the money.”
“Can I trust you?” the clerk asked, looking both scared and suspicious at the same time.
“Can I trust you?” Ali said.
The clerk hesitated, then whispered, “Tonight at eleven. Be at the bottom of the street.” And he quickly walked away.
Lily Chen was waiting for him when he rejoined her at the table, her eyes anxious, her shoulders tense. “Was that the clerk from the hotel?” she asked.
“Yes,” Ali nodded. “He says he has information for sale.”
“About my sister?” she asked. “He knows where she is?”
“I don’t know if it is about your sister exactly,” Ali said, “but it is about the Chinese.”
“What about the Chinese?”
“I don’t know yet. I must meet him here tonight, at the bottom of a street we call the Arabian Street. He’ll tell me then.”
“What time must we meet him?”
“We?” Ali said, looking almost amused. “I didn’t say we.”
“Please,” she insisted. “I must go with you. This is my only sister.”
“I don’t think that is a good idea.”
“You don’t trust him?” she asked.
“It’s not that I don’t trust him,” Ali said, “but this area can be unsafe at night.”
“I know how to behave in a city,” she said, suddenly more confident, her eyes hardening. “I come from Shanghai and I am not a little girl.”
He looked at her then, reappraising, weighting the pros and cons in his mind, and finding that he was pushing his better judgment aside in favor of having her company instead. “Okay,” he said finally. “You can come. But you must follow my instructions.”
“Yes,” she said. “Of course. I’ll do whatever you say.”
And the tension eased from her shoulders then, the anxiety faded from her eyes, and Ali found it shifted to him instead, but he wasn’t exactly sure why.
The Greek was in Kadiköy for a meeting with Sergei, an old Russian friend and sometime business associate. Sergei was lean and long with a hook nose and a thin scar that cut a clean white line through the right cheek of his salt and pepper beard. When he smiled, which was not often, one could see his two upper teeth were gold.
The two men sat on benches facing the Bosporus at the ferry stop. They were both eating grilled uskumru they had bought from the fish peddlers who lined the dock in small boats catering to the crowds going in and out of the terminal or strolling along the shore. Sergei finished his first while The Greek chewed thoughtfully on a slice of bread. Sergei wiped his mouth, his hands with a large white napkin, folded it in quarters and tucked it in his pants pocket to discard later. Then, without looking at The Greek, he said, “I haven’t seen any Chinese myself but I hear rumors.”
“About Chinese girls passing through.”
“To here, to there, to someplace else.” He shrugged. “The Silk Road, you know. All kinds of spices still flow along its ancient paths.”
“And who’s bringing them in?”
“Not us,” Sergei said, and then his mouth turned downward as if sucking on a lemon. “The Kurds, maybe.”
“No, I’m not sure,” and he sighed. “It’s not like the old days when you always knew all the faces and the names that went with them. There are a lot of new faces now and names I cannot pronounce. Things are different, brother. These last few years I feel like an antique.” He extracted a cigarette from a crumpled pack in his shirt pocket and offered one to The Greek. They both smoked in silence, watching the boats sail by on The Bosporus.
Finally The Greek said, “If you hear any names, you’ll let me know.” It wasn’t meant as a question and it didn’t require a response. Both men understood each other too well.
“Be careful, brother,” Sergei said before flicking his cigarette out beyond the barrier to the water below. “We are both too old for these kinds of games with these new people.” And he looked at him long and steadily in the eye. “I would lose sleep if anything bad happened to you.”
And they both stood, kissed each other on the cheeks, and embraced. Insallah, they both whispered in their ears. Insallah. And then Sergei was gone and The Greek stared out at the sea for a long time until night fell and he rose to go home to Irina and a bottle of raki.
Ali came to pick up Lily Chen at her hotel which was conveniently on the Anatolia side, near enough to his home in Maltepe that he wondered if Serkan picked it out in advance knowing he would help her. She was dressed a little too formally with a dress that shimmered when she walked and heels with a light coat folded over her arm, it still being warm in the evening even though it was autumn. He was once again struck by her beauty and though it pleased him to look at her, he almost wished she were a fat ugly man so he could concentrate on what needed to be done and not find himself distracted by the way her hips swayed as she approached the car or the shape of her calves and the few inches of thigh he saw above her knees as she slid into the passenger’s seat or the brightness of her smile as she said hello. He had never really been attracted to the Asians he knew in school in America, always preferring the dark sultry look of women like Seyda or being fascinated by blondes, but this one, this Lily Chen, made his heart race a little quicker. And that, he thought, could prove troublesome if he didn’t find her sister soon.
Once they were started on their way, Lily Chen looked at him carefully and said, “You don’t seem happy. Is something wrong?”
“I was hoping you’d look plainer,” he said, and then regretted it.
“Well, I don’t want to call any attention to us and dressed that way, looking like that, it’ll be hard to blend in.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “You don’t approve.”
“No, no,” he said, a little too quickly. “I do approve. You look very attractive.” And here he grew almost embarrassed as he said it. “It’s just that I did not want you to look so attractive tonight.”
She suppressed a smile and then looked out the car window. “I’m sorry to displease you.”
“You don’t displease me,” he said without thinking, and then thought that that didn’t come out the way he meant it, or perhaps it did and that bothered him even more.
They rode in silence then, the only sound coming from the CD player, songs by Kazim Koyuncu filling the distance between them, Taksim, two cultures apart. He tried not to think of her sitting there in the car next to him: her perfume in his nostrils, the shape of her legs, the way her hair caressed her shoulders, the fullness of her lips, her dark, deep eyes. Instead he tried to concentrate on the music, Kazim Koyuncu’s voice, the traffic on the bridge, whatever was in his car’s headlights.
“That music is beautiful,” Lily Chen said finally breaking the silence between them. “Who is singing?”
“His name is Kazim Koyuncu. He was a singer from The Black Sea region. He died young.”
“Very beautiful,” she said, and then, “That’s where you are from, isn’t it? The Black Sea.”
“Yes,” he said. “From Rize.”
“And that’s your eldest brother’s restaurant where we met?”
“Yes,” he said. “It is Akif’s but we all invested in it. That’s why we call it My Brother’s Place because it is my brother’s place for all of us since it belongs in part to all of us, all the brothers.”
“You have three brothers?”
“Yes.” And then he found himself telling her of his family: Akif’s wife who cooked at the restaurant along with his Uncle Murat’s wife, and Akif’s two sons, and his other brothers and their wives and children, his mother, the tea farm in Rize, his cousin Fatih who worked for him, and his uncles, aunts, other cousins, his large extended family all living in either Istanbul or Rize.
“It must be wonderful to have such a large family,” she said, “and so close together. I just have my sister,” and her voice trailed off, her gaze went back to the window. “Just my sister.”
And Ali, though he wanted to offer some comfort, could think of nothing to say so he said nothing.
Once in Taksim, Ali parked as close as he could to the Arabian Street but they still had to walk almost 10 minutes before they reached it. Ali looked at his watch. It was 10 minutes of eleven: time to start down the street. It was a long walk down a narrow, steep street surrounded on both sides by restaurants and cafes. They began the walk down, passing posted menus, Ali exchanging greetings of merhaba with restaurant managers soliciting business, the sights, the sounds, the smells overwhelmed Lily Chen who followed him, the walk being too narrow to walk by his side, the steps a little uneven making it difficult for her in heels, and the angle being very steep which made it even more difficult for her to keep up, but eventually they were just steps from the bottom when two men appeared coming up to them and stopped in front of Ali, blocking their path.
“Hello, cousin,” the shorter one said, his black hair spiked, his eyes piercing like daggers in the night. “Looking for someone, cousin?”
Ali stood slightly angled to the side, his right arm tense, his left ready to block. “Just strolling, cousin,” he said.
“There’s nothing to see down here, cousin,” the smaller one said. The taller, broader one loomed over him and seemed not to be paying attention to the conversation, as if what they were speaking was a foreign tongue.
“We’re not looking for anything,” Ali said. “Just walking off the meal.”
“Better to walk it off uphill, cousin. You burn off more calories that way.” Then he looked at Lily Chen standing off Ali’s shoulder and smirked. “Though she doesn’t look like she needs to burn off anything. Looks very fine just the way she is.” Then he winked at Ali. “Cost you much, cousin? Or does she give it away for free?”
Ali was silently thankful that Lily Chen didn’t understand Turkish but he also wished there weren’t two of them, especially that bigger one.
“But like I was saying, cousin,” and he smirked some more, “nobody here to see but my brother and me. The hotels are all closed and everyone went home.” He winked again. “Know what I mean, cousin? Time for you to go home, too.”
“Thanks for the advice.”
“No problem, cousin. We give it away free tonight. Next time, though, it’ll cost you.” And he looked at Lily Chen and added, “Cost her, too. You understand?” Then in English, “You look for work, honey? You want be my yellow rose in my garden of delights?” His hand went out and he brushed her cheek. “You want earn extra money, yellow rose?”
Lily Chen stiffened, fright in her eyes, and Ali pushed his hand away. “Enough, cousin,” he said. “Don’t touch her again.”
The bigger one moved up a step then, but the smaller one just smirked some more and put his hand out to keep him at bay. “No problem, cousin,” and he laughed. “But if I were you, I’d go home now. My brother gets upset easy and I can only control him so much. You wouldn’t want to get hurt, now would you, cousin? Or have your girlfriend here get hurt, too, would you?”
“Okay,” Ali said, his throat suddenly a little dry, but his eyes holding the other’s in a steady gaze. “I understand.”
“Now go home before my brother and me change our minds.”
Ali nodded, backed up a step and turned. Whispered to Lily Chen, “Turn and start walking back up.”
She looked at him a little confused but was astute enough to sense the danger was over if she did what he said. The walk up seemed to take years longer than the walk down and neither of them turned to see if they were being followed. Once at the top, Ali looked back to see the bottom empty of everything except darkness. He took Lily Chen’s hand and led her back to the car without saying anything. Nothing, though, needed to be said.
Once back at the car, Lily Chen collapsed into his arms, her body shaking, her heart pounding so violently he could feel it beating against his own. “Those men,” she said, and then words failed her. She just held him tightly for a long time. And the night ended when she finally let him go.
Ali woke up toward morning with a start, slightly disoriented with the strange room, light filtering in through unfamiliar curtains, a bed larger than the one he normally slept on, a strange female body next to him, naked, soft, and very much familiar to the touch, now that he touched her and Lily turned to him and smoothly glided into his arms, her thigh resting comfortably on his, her hand brushing the hair on his chest, her mouth melting into his. And so the morning started as the night ended and Ali stopped thinking and just enjoyed the beginning of a new day.
The Greek had not slept in the night, but sat up in his den quietly smoking his pipe while finishing a bottle of raki to ease the thoughts in his mind. There were too many memories associated with the people he now must see, too much bad blood, debts honored and paid, loyalties conflicted, grudges outstanding, love and hatred still simmering in pots long neglected. It was a world he walked away from years ago, and though there were still contacts kept, and some current business still transacted, there were some people he must see now who he swore never to see again. There were just too many wounds that could be reopened and the peace he had found in his twilight years, the peace he enjoyed with Irina, could be irrevocably altered. And he knew she knew this, and yet she said nothing. And he did not know if that was a blessing or not, for he feared nothing in life except the loss of her company. He could face whatever life chose to throw in his way, but he could not bear to lose the home he had created with the last love of his life. Yet he must reenter that world of shadows and shifting loyalties for the sake of his commitment to the one family that represented the good part of his past.
So though he longed for his bed and the warmth that awaited him there, he sat with smoke around his head and fire in his gut instead, and let the toughness that he had so diligently smoothed over resurface.
Lily wished she could make him breakfast. “I am a very good cook,” she said. “But here, in this hotel room, I do not have a kitchen.”
Ali smiled, thinking, she was breakfast enough, but did not say it. Instead he marveled at how quickly things changed, how a little scare like last night by those two men had frightened her enough to open her bed to him, her protector. And how much he enjoyed playing that role, especially for her.
“I was so frightened last night,” she said, “but now that you’re here, I’m not afraid anymore.”
And then she crawled into the safety of his arms and told her life story. “There is a fourteen year difference between my sister and me,” she said. “She was a surprise child for my parents and because she was unexpected, she has always been showered with attention by both them and me. And when our parents died several years ago in a car accident, she has been my responsibility. A kind of younger sister who is like a daughter to me, too.”
She grew silent then and Ali thought she had fallen asleep until he felt the tears she was crying wet his chest. He cradled her then, rocked her gently in his arms until the sobbing stopped and she drifted off into sleep. Ali laid there then, thinking. He was connected to her now, in the most primitive ways, and he would not only protect her, but would go out soon to search again for her sister. And as she restlessly stirred against him, he held her tighter, and soon slipped off to sleep himself.
There were Kurds in Tarlabaşi that The Greek needed to see. He was never very popular with them, even in the old days when he had dealings with them, there always being a feeling of distrust coloring any business they conducted, but he knew at least if he asked a question of the right Kurd, he would get an honest answer. And though they always suspected he sided with the Russians, there were some who knew him well enough to know it was only with some Russians, and they knew he had killed a few himself once, so they showed him the proper respect that they would show someone, who although not an ally, was also not a competitor.
Emre was small, wiry, intense. His mouth seemed to be in a perpetual frown, and his eyes burned holes in whatever he looked at. With The Greek he wore tinted sunglasses, out of respect, for he knew The Greek had once saved his father’s business, and thus he was honor bound to call him uncle, so when The Greek showed up at the social club he held court in, he rose to give a proper greeting, and put the sunglasses on so his eyes would not offend unintentionally. They retired to a back room, leaving the men who looked up with suspicion to their cards and their cigarette smoke.
“We have not seen you here in a long time, uncle,” he said after they both were seated and cay was brought in by one of the boys in training.
“I am not in business anymore,” The Greek said. “Just asking this as a favor.”
“And this favor involves us?”
“I’m not sure,” The Greek said and sipped his tea. “But whether it does or not, hopefully you can help direct me to those who can.”
“Any service, uncle, that I can provide, I will provide.”
The Greek nodded, sipped some more, watched Emre stir sugar into his tea and waited until the spoon was replaced on the saucer to continue. “I am looking for a Chinese girl,” he said. “A girl brought here along the old Silk Road for trade.”
“Chinese?” Emre asked. “I know of people who trade in women but Russians mainly, and Eastern Europeans. No one I know trades in Chinese.”
“I was told the Kurds traded them.”
“And who told you that, uncle?” His eyes started to burn behind the glasses but he lowered them instead of looking directly at The Greek. “Could it be Russians who said that?”
“Yes,” The Greek said.
“They are lying.”
“These are liable Russians.”
“Then they are mistaken,” and Emre blew on his tea before sipping.
“Could it be some Kurds you do not know?”
Emre sat back in his chair and looked at his glass thoughtfully, as if it might contain the answer to this question. He stared at it for a long moment, then shrugged. “Maybe,” he said finally. “I do not know every Kurd, but I do know we have no business with the Chinese. The Arabs, of course, and some export women there, but not any Chinese that I know of.” He looked at The Greek then and tried to smile. “I will ask around for you, uncle, but I do not expect any answer other than the Russians. It sounds like something they would do. They have a long association with the Chinese, after all. Do they not, uncle?”
“Perhaps my source is misinformed,” The Greek conceded.
“Maybe you should see that bunch in Selamsiz, uncle,” Emre said. And though he did not make any reference to it, he knew The Greek knew that bunch very well. He was, though, not surprised to see no change in The Greek’s features on mentioning that gang. “But I will ask on your behalf here.”
“Thank you,” The Greek said and drained his tea in one long swallow. “That is all I ask.”
Ali decided to go back to the hotel alone and was not surprised when Lily did not ask to join him. She has had a scare, he thought, and needs time to recover. But he held her before he left and thought how pleasurable it would be to return. “Hurry back,” she breathed into his ear. “I miss you already.”
It took him almost an hour to get across the bridge and then another half hour to get to Taksim. His frustration at the traffic, though, did not compare to the frustration that awaited him at the hotel when he inquired about the assistant clerk.
“He doesn’t work here anymore,” a new clerk told him.
“But he was here yesterday,” Ali said.
“What was true yesterday, cousin, is not true today.”
“And his supervisor? When does he get in?”
“He doesn’t work here anymore, either. I’m the new head at the front desk.”
“All this since yesterday?”
“All this starting today.”
“Could you give me their addresses? I need to speak to them about some business we discussed yesterday.”
“Sorry, cousin, but we don’t have records of where they live.”
“Their names then?”
“Sorry, cousin, but no one here remembers.”
Ali looked at him in disbelief. He had dealt with uncooperative people before, especially when navigating the bureaucratic maze of government offices, but this blatant lying was a new high in mid-level arrogance. He wanted to reach across the front desk and smack this smug little man but knew that would get him nowhere. Instead he leaned across and said, “You don’t know who you’re dealing with, do you, cousin?”
“Maybe you’re the one who doesn’t know,” said a voice that sounded all too familiar behind him. Ali turned to see the two from last night blocking his exit through the lobby. The shorter one smirked and said mockingly, “Do you, cousin?” Then he looked at the new head clerk and said, “He bothering you, bro?”
“I do have work to do,” the clerk said.
“You want us to remove him?” and he sneered as the bigger one moved next to Ali and put his arm around his shoulder, tightening his grip. Ali tried to shrug it off but the grip was too tight and only made the bigger one grin.
“I think he’s leaving now anyway,” the clerk said.
“You leaving, cousin?” the smaller one asked.
“Yes,” Ali nodded.
“You need help finding your way?” the smaller one asked, his smirk growing broader.
“No,” Ali said.
“And you got all questions answered? No need to come back anymore, right, cousin?”
“Right,” Ali said, his teeth clenched against the pain in his shoulder as the bigger one tightened his grip even harder.
“Then be on your way, cousin,” and the smaller one nodded his head to the bigger one who released him. “Insallah.”
Ali nodded, walked a little stiffly to the front entrance, and, without looking back, was gone.
The Greek was in Selamsiz where the word Natasha meant prostitute and the choice appeared limitless. It saddened him, remembering Irina on these same streets over a decade ago but he had no time for any emotions that could get in the way of what he must do. There were Russians here he had to see, and as much as he did not relish the thought of seeing them again, he knew the feelings would be reciprocal. For there was bad blood between these Russians and him and even though years have passed, the feelings remained.
He found the social club just as he remembered it: dark, filled with smoke, men in dark suit jackets, no ties, gold chains around their necks, their shirts open three buttons, hunched over their card games oblivious to everything until he walked through the door. Then suddenly the room was deathly quiet and the smoke seemed to part. They all looked at him with blank faces, though he could, if he looked closely enough, catch a glimmer of hatred in those dead, dark eyes, but he was too busy looking into the eyes of a younger man, in his early thirties, sitting at a table toward the front of the room. Those eyes were not expressionless, and The Greek knew the years did not erase the stain on either of their hearts.
“Well look who comes here,” the younger man said. “And what can we do for you, grandfather? Looking for another girlfriend at your age?”
“I’m looking for Ivan,” The Greek said.
“You’re out of touch, grandfather,” the younger man said and laughed. “Ivan is no longer here. He’s dead,” and he smirked, “like you should be.”
“Surely,” The Greek said, smirking himself, “he didn’t leave a boy in his place.” And he looked around at the mostly younger men sitting at the tables. “Who’s in charge now of this…” and his lips curled as he spoke the word “…establishment.”
“I’m no boy, grandfather” said the younger man standing.
“And I’m no grandfather,” said The Greek. “Now tell me who’s in charge before I lose my patience and teach you how to respect your elders.”
“Teach me?” and the younger man started to advance, his fists clenched, the hair up on his back.
But before he crossed more than three steps a voice called out from the corner, “I’m in charge now, uncle. And Vitaly, you can sit down.”
The Greek looked over to see an even older, more familiar face, but one that still knew how to listen before he spoke, and who knew The Greek long before the younger Vitaly was born.
“So,” Andrei said, “you have come for a reason, uncle? Or do you just want a glass of cay?”
“For information,” The Greek said, “but a glass of cay would be good.”
“Then come sit here, uncle. I have a nice spot just for you,” and he indicated the chair next to him with its back to the wall. “You’d be comfortable here, don’t you think?”
The Greek nodded, crossed slowly to the corner passing Vitaly without even looking at him. And when he was settled, Andrei turned to the room and said, “Vitaly, go bring our uncle some cay.”
“Why me?” he said, his eyes flashing hot, his body tense.
“Why not?” Andrei said and his look could freeze the blood in any man who dared oppose him. So Vitaly got up, knocking his chair back as he stood, and stomped out to the back room to get the tea, and Andrei smiled The Greek’s way as he said in a voice loud enough for Vitaly to hear, “I’ll drink some, too.”
They stared at each other, both with the traces of a smile on their lips, in their eyes, while waiting for the tea. And once it arrived, they sipped, rubbed their fingertips together, sipped some more. The Greek could not help noticing that Andrei had aged considerably since he last saw him a decade ago. He was still handsome, though his eyes seemed deeper inside his skull and there were more lines on his face. His body, though, was still lean and muscular, but his shoulders sloped a bit, The Greek thought, from the weight of taking on the mantle of boss of his uncle’s former family. He was not Ivan, The Greek knew, who could control his businesses and still looked rested and carefree. Andrei seemed to bear the burden more visibly than his uncle had.
Finally Andrei said, “So, uncle, what information do you seek from us?”
“I am looking for a Chinese girl,” The Greek said.
“Oh?” Andrei said, his eyebrow rising. “Is this for you personally?”
“It’s for a friend,” The Greek said. “He’s trying to find her. We believe she is here to work in an occupation other than the one she applied for.”
“A common dilemma many young girls find themselves in.”
“And I wonder if you know anything about who is working in the Chinese trade,”
He shook his head. “No, uncle. We only specialize in natashas who are mostly Russian, or Eastern European. They are very popular with our local customers and I, personally, see no profit in diversifying.”
“I was told someone here on this side might be, though.”
“And who told you that, uncle?” And he gazed pensively at The Greek. “Could it have been our Kurdish friends? Surely you don’t believe the things they say about us?”
“It seems everyone says the same thing,” The Greek said. “And everyone points fingers at everyone else.”
“Then someone is lying, uncle,” and he smiled. “But who could that be?”
“I don’t know,” The Greek said, “but I will have to find out.”
“I wish you luck, uncle. But as a word of advice, which I am sure you don’t need,” and his smile was almost cordial, “be careful where you ask the questions. People get sensitive here about the kind of work they do.”
The Greek nodded, finished his tea and placed the glass carefully back on its saucer. “Thanks for the cay and the hospitality.”
“Any time, uncle. It’s always pleasant to see an old timer who still knows his way around.”
The Greek stood, turned, and began his slow walk out. As he passed Vitaly, though, the young Russian spoke loudly enough for him to hear, “Tell Irina if she still wants work, I can always find it for her.” He said it in Russian, knowing The Greek knew it, and hoping he would pretend he didn’t.
The Greek stopped, turned to face him, tilted his head quizzically, a half smile on his lips, and asked, “Pardon?”
Vitaly laughed, and some others, too, joined him, but Andrei just sat still as stone. “What’s the matter, grandfather? Hard of hearing?”
And The Greek stepped one step closer, his right ear inclined toward Vitaly, his right hand halfway to his ear, cupping it as if to hear better. “Pardon?” he said again.
And Vitaly started to rise, to shout in his ear so he could not pretend to not hear, but when he was halfway up, The Greek suddenly pivoted on his right foot, brought his left leg up and kicked Vitaly sharply in the groin, then, as he started to double over, grabbed his hair with his left hand, pulled him up against him, turning him as he did, and magically produced a knife in his right hand which he held against his throat. Some of the others started to rise from their seats but stopped as The Greek said, “I’ll slit his throat if anyone comes near.”
Everyone froze, except for Andrei who said in Russian, “Stay.”
Then The Greek hissed into Vitaly’s ear, “Pardon? You said something to me?”
Vitaly muttered, “No.”
“Nothing?” The Greek asked. “You said nothing?”
“Yes,” Vitaly said. “Nothing.”
“That’s good,” The Greek said. “Make sure you always say nothing to me.” Then he lowered the knife and pushed Vitaly away. “Anyone else have nothing to say to me?”
Andrei laughed then, and he stood. “You made your point, uncle. No one here has nothing to say to you.” And he nodded in appreciation. “It is always good to see an old timer who knows his way around.”
And The Greek left the same way he came in: slowly, deliberately, with dignity.