Awful Shadow, ch. 13: Reem al-Qattan [null]

Monitoring: Reem al-Qattan
Kuwait City, Al Asimah, Kuwait

12:35 p.m. Arabia Standard Time
Thursday, July 5th, 2014
9:35 Coordinated Universal Time
Thursday, July 5th, 2014

Fast forward—

Knock, knock, knock.

Reem opens the door with a flourish that betrays none of the anxiety that she is feeling. She has never known her special guests to have friends dine with them, and if this meeting does not go well then there may be no repeat business from any of them. It would be a terrible shame, in part because they pay exceedingly well but more importantly because they pay well specifically to keep her quiet, and if they are not going to return then their final payment may be more lethal than cash.

“Welcome to the Grand Star of Kuwait Hotel,” she says, flowing over the words without a stutter. One arm is at the door, and the other points down into the dining hall. It is rather large, enough to feed conference-goers, but as per her guests’ usual requirements it has been totally cleared. A single table sits in the middle of the hall, like an island in a vast emptiness.

“We thank you for your hospitality, Madame al-Qattan,” replies the man, who gives a quick bow before moving on. His companion, a woman, inclines her head in Reem’s direction but says nothing. Like her usual guests, they are dressed in suits: the man in a gray outfit, like Miss Rerenga always wears, and the woman in yellow. As Reem closes the door behind them, she thinks she hears the sound echo behind her.

Following a short distance behind these newcomers, Reem pushes the first of several carts over to the table. Some people might think that personally seeing to the needs of a few guests, even regular ones, is below her station as the Grand Star’s hotelier, but these are well-paying guests and she wouldn’t trust anyone else to do it right. Even the food is prepared under her personal supervision.

Her guests and their friends are already exchanging pleasantries by the time that she has brought the cart over to them.

“—six months already,” Mister Snake is saying. “We’ll be celebrating the first year in no time at all.”

“I’m just looking forward to seeing everyone again,” replies the woman in yellow.

“Coffee,” Reem explains, as she pours into their cups, just enough to cover the bottom. “It’s very hot, much more than you might be used to.”

“Thank you,” the woman says before she returns her attention to the table. “Believe me, I remember just how infuriating you all can be, especially you,” she says, pointing at Mister Snake, “but still. I don’t mean to offend any of you, but it just isn’t good enough. I want to see the others, too.”

The man in gray doesn’t so much as glance at the coffee, but he eats a good number of the cookies on the center plate, plucking them away with elfishly-thin fingers. A trace of powdered sugar is still on his upper lip, clouding the ends of a few scars that are winding their way there.

“Save some room for the main course, Mister Takitini,” chides the woman in yellow.

“I’m sure he won’t disappoint us,” says Miss Rerenga. Takitini and the woman in yellow are shorter than Reem’s more usual guests, but Rerenga is a head taller than even Mister Snake. “Speaking of disappointments, though… I’m sorry to hear about Meifeng.”

“Of course you are,” says Mister Takitini. “I’m sure that you had high hopes for her as well. What about you, Mister Snake? I’d, heh, wager that your disappointment is a rather different sort than ours.” He scrapes his knife across the rim of his glass, back and forth in an seesaw motion. It takes all of Reem’s willpower to not wince at the terrible sound that it makes.

“Not as much as you think,” Mister Snake responds, “but first, shall we have lunch?”

After the others signal their agreement, Reem brings over the second cart and puts each dish in front of its owner before she goes around a second time to lift the warming covers. The woman in yellow, whose name is Miss Giathi (as she finally overheard on her way back with the second cart), gets rice with green lentils and dry shrimp. Mister Takitini gets a variety of meat porridge—simpler fare than what the Grand Star usually serves, but her guests ordered it as a special request and he doesn’t look the least bit disappointed.

To each their own, she thinks. It’s hardly the only special request that she’s fulfilling tonight. Reem lifts the third warming top to reveal Miss Rerenga’s meal, a plate of lamb stuffed with rice, fish eggs, and diced Hawaiian caterpillars. Then, steeling herself for the smell, she lifts the last warming top: heavily fermented fish served over rice and topped with ginger sauce. Reem has had to serve this and similar dishes countless times over the years, but she’s never gotten used to the stench.

She honestly prefers when they’re telling her about their…mafia activity, or whatever it is that they’re up to. Reem doesn’t know how her guest can stand it, but perhaps he developed a taste for the stuff in Norway or wherever it is that they first decided to ferment fish. She prides herself on having a certain cosmopolitan spirit, she does, but the fish is just too far.

Still, they pay well, and that’s the important thing.

Her guests get back to business as Reem turns on Mister Snake’s favorite mealtime album. In her mind she’s dubbed it the “howl track.” It sounds like audio lifted from part of a horror film, the type with too much pain and too little plot. Reem has never asked where he got it from or what went into making it.

“So, your disappointment,” Miss Giathi says. “I’m curious.”

Eyes closed, Mister Snake pauses to listen to a particular stretch of bawling and screaming. “Well, she didn’t choose to go there, did she? You thought she might take control, I’m sure. Tell me that I’m wrong.”

Mister Takitini shakes his head. “No,” he says between bites of his harees. “Her ability required a certain amount of…”

“Finesse,” Miss Giathi suggests. “Backing.”

“Yes. Both of those. We were handing her the whole country, you understand. They were building the entire system that she needed to properly take advantage of her ability, and all she had to do was wait until she could take control and subvert it. Instead…” Takitini sighs. “Luis is dead too, did you know that? Dead!” he shouts. He pounds the table with a fist, and the plates rattle.

“What? I hadn’t heard,” says Miss Rerenga, “How?”

“I heard it from Mister Rukomo,” explains Miss Giathi. “According to his journals and the interrogations of the boy’s family, he was overwhelmed by the emotions that he was feeling. Everywhere he went, it was despair, despair, fear, and more despair. It didn’t take him long to figure out that the world was ending, and then, apparently, he hung himself.”

Reem’s hand shakes a little as she refills Mister Snake’s coffee. She’d be worried, maybe, by this talk of the world coming to an end if their talk wasn’t already full of codes. More disturbing is this matter of a child committing suicide.

“Of course he did. So that’s two precognitives dead.” Miss Rerenga shakes her head. “Don’t. Laugh,” she says, looking at Mister Snake and holding a finger up in his direction. “We can’t be right about every one of them.”

Mister Snake shrugs and picks at his food. “You said ‘interrogations.’ They weren’t hands off, then.”

“No,” Miss Giathi admits, “but are you going to pass that on?”

He seems to chew on that, figuratively and literally, in a manner that brings to mind a cow chewing on its cud. “No,” he eventually decides. “It’s worth knowing, and I’d rather hear things like this than not. That leaves Simon, then. I wonder how he’ll die.”

“Don’t you dare,” Mister Takitini snarls.

Mister Snake laughs. “I wouldn’t dream of it. All of you would tell, and then there’d be a penalty, wouldn’t there? I’m content with the useless ones.”

“Not useless,” counters Miss Rerenga. “At least, you don’t know that.”

“Then why give me permission?” Mister Snake holds a piece of fish close to his eyes, looking at some detail that Reem can’t make out. “Why participate?”

She raises an eyebrow. “You never know the length of a snake until it is dead.”

“Of course.” He smiles as he turns back to Giathi and Takitini. “Well, if this China plan of yours is crumbling, do you have some more names for me, or do you still envision a use for these children?”

Reem doesn’t wonder whether she has a duty to tell someone about these people. Whether they’re actually talking about the deaths and manipulations of children or that’s just more coded language, they’re certainly doing something awful. They wouldn’t be speaking in code otherwise. Even if they’re spies and not criminals, there’s not an Arab among them. She highly doubts that they’re Kuwaiti agents.

Still. They’re also part of something bigger. Even if Reem informed the authorities and these four were taken in, they’re obviously part of an organization. They will have friends, or at least business partners, looking for them and wondering how they were found out. These four may be imprisoned or killed (or released without trouble because she informed someone corrupt) but their work will live on and sooner or later Reem will be found out and get buried in a riverbed.

So no, she doesn’t ask herself whether she ought to tell someone. Rather, she asks whether there’s a point to doing it—and the answer, as always, is “no.”

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