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Way of Escape

S.E.W.

(Society for Emigrant Women)

by

Ann Fillmore


CHAPTER ONE: VIA DOLOROSA


Snow was falling gently on Golgotha as Carl-Joran hurried down the hushed and somber shadowed steps of the Via Dolorosa, the Street of Sorrows.

The wet, overhanging, heavy canvas awnings, garish store signs and banners had lost any color they might have possessed to an omnipresent smudged tan of the wetness that was beginning to freeze. Here and there a dry little snowflake would make its way through the intermittent slits and land with a spittt on the broad stone steps, worn by thousands of years of footfalls, including those of Christ who had labored up and up, carrying his cross on his bloodied shoulders.

Palestinian shopkeepers dragged barred shutters across storefronts and locked doors and windows tight against the quickly impending darkness and the onset of curfew. They hustled to finish before the Israeli soldiers, rifles slung loosely and sauntering along the lower streets would come up the stairwells.

Carl-Joran wanted to be out of the Palestinian quarter before dark. It wasn't healthy for a tall, blond Swede, even one obviously in his late forties, to be in Jerusalem alone, especially him with the number of enemies he'd made among the ultra-conservative Muslims. Besides, he was dead. For two weeks now, he was officially deceased and supposed to remain so.

Halima would be furious that he had left Haifa. Her long black face, so like a thoroughbred horse in its intensity, would storm and those sable brown eyes, seething fire, would confront him. It had taken the tall Swede months to become accustomed to a woman boss who could snort him down nose to nose. Her shoulders weren't as wide as his, thank goodness, but her height and energy were on a par.

At the gate stood the familiar cream-white Mercedes, its door being held open by the small Palestinian chauffeur. Carl-Joran slid into the back seat with a long sigh of relief.

"To the Nof," he told Taqi.

"Yes, boss," replied the tiny man putting the car into gear. They rolled carefully down the tight streets and headed for the highway leading northwest to Haifa. On such a cold, dark Sunday evening, there would be few travelers and they should make good time. Perhaps three hours? A late supper and a hot shower would reward Carl-Joran's return to his living quarters on the top floor of the Nof Hotel.

Traffic, although light as expected, was its usual deadly game. In a country where buses and trucks were driven by former tank corps personnel and jet pilots, taxis by Palestinian day laborers and personal cars a rare commodity, the highways and byways tended to be high-speed killing fields. In addition, lights in the countryside were almost nonexistent and traffic signs and signals meaningless. Wandering donkeys and sheep had right-of-way, unless they got whapped by a passing truck, which turned them into semi-permanent speed bumps. Traveling was always chancy at best and dangerous at worst and that didn't take into account the occasional bombings and terrorist attacks.

Having a driver as skilled as Taqi Nabil-Nasiri d'Din was of tremendous benefit to the clinic. About sixty years old, the former Lebanese Christian Palestinian engineer who looked like a gray-haired dwarf, would have given over his life, in fact, in a way, had done just that, to help the S.E.W. cause.

Carl-Joran did not know much of the small man's private history, except that at present, through the S.E.W.'s influence, he had acquired a very rare, for a Lebanese citizen, Israeli residency permit and was working as a chauffeur and sometimes tourist guide.

Taqi had never confided in Carl-Joran and Halima had done no more than hint that Taqi's devotion had to do with a daughter who at the time of her death ten years ago had been working as a nanny in a royal Kuwaiti family. No one had been able to help Taqi rescue her when she'd struck out with a broken vase in defense of herself against being raped by a visiting houseguest. No one dared even step in and testify on her behalf at her trial. Taqi called her death by garroting a murder and over the last five years of S.E.W.'s existence the clinic's staff had come quickly to believe in such statements.

Palestinian and Swede made no small talk as the darkness settled around the speeding car. Carl-Joran dozed fitfully. Sound sleep was impossible due to the jolting turns and kidney shocking bumps in the road. One of S.E.W.'s larger expenses was keeping the old Mercedes Benz in operable condition. In moments of lucidity, Carl-Joran pondered the news he'd managed to acquire on Golgotha from their American representative, Barbara Monday. It was not good.

Just outside of Haifa, the smoother going on the improved highway let the big Swede fall into a troubled dream-sleep where he was once more flying through the air on the blast shockwave, crashing into the garbage heap and dying—again. The pain…the pain...the screams...

A hand shook him. Shook him again. And again.

"Baron, Baron Hermelin," the small Palestinian was repeating over and over with great respect. "We have arrived at the Nof."

Carl-Joran opened his stinging, tired eyes. "Ah, thank you, Taqi."

"Please for me to say, you must let Dr. Legesse help you some more. You did dream of Cairo, you were crying," the small man said softly.

"Yes, yes, I promise to tell Halima," Carl-Joran fibbed and nodding at Taqi, crawled from the Benz and stretched. There was a warmish breeze coming off the Mediterranean. It crept up the cliff side and softly caressed his face. The contrast between Jerusalem and Haifa was almost hard for a body to take. Ohhh, thought Carl-Joran, that bed is going to feel so comfortable! He bent his long frame and waved at Taqi, "Good night."

Taqi smiled wanly and drove off, leaving Carl-Joran to stuff his huge hands in his pockets and amble into the nicely lighted hotel entry.

Built narrow and stark upright off the cliff edge that soared above the Baha'i gardens and, further down, the harbor area of Haifa, the Nof Hotel was not the finest in the city, but it was certainly the most pleasant, in Carl-Joran's opinion. Besides the incredible view, it had an excellent Chinese restaurant in the lower floor, and where in Israel could a hungry person order Chinese take-away delivered to the room at midnight on Sunday?

The doorman acknowledged the arrival of the familiar giant Swede, the desk clerk saluted tiredly and pulled the day's messages from the slot, holding it out for Carl-Joran to snatch as he moved across the dark blue carpet to the elevator.

His room, or rather, small suite was on the top floor. Facing him, upon entry, were the wide French doors whose curtains he never closed. They opened onto a balcony from which could be seen the vast expanse of black night and sparkling city lights that filled his rooms with their glow. Beyond the city was the ever-busy harbor. There were constant booms and bumps and whistles and tugboat toots as the ships docked, were unloaded and loaded. From the hillside immediately below the hotel, the soft spotlights of the Baha'i Gardens and the gold roofed Temple to the Bab scattered tinted shadows on his ceiling.

He dropped the messages, unread, on a coffee table to let them mate with others of their kind. He was certain that's what happened, as the stack seemed to be increasing exponentially like coat hangers in a closed closet. Next, he dropped his lanky hindquarters into a chair, pulled off his boots and smelly socks. His hand went to the phone, he dialed the Chinese restaurant by memory and ordered several large dishes. Because he was their favorite customer, they would also include his usual pints of imported Swedish beer without asking. Probably the owner himself would deliver the meal. Carl-Joran hauled himself to his big feet. A trail of soiled clothes marked his path to the shower.

The excellent meal awaited him when he came out in his purple bathrobe. He vigorously toweled his shaggy mop of ochre-yellow blond hair, which, he noticed in the bureau mirror, was beginning to resemble the winter coats of the little dun-colored horses that dotted hillsides around his castle in Norrkoping. He needed a haircut, badly, and they'd have to trim his bushy eyebrows. Luckily, he could at least go out in public enough to take care of such things here in Haifa, as he was relatively safe this far into Israel from prying Arab or Iranian security forces' eyes. The towel was cast off to be with the soiled clothes. The maid would take care of them. He sat to eat and at the same time, typed into his laptop computer some rough notes on the day's events.

He'd met up with the tour group Barbara Monday had traveled with near the Russian Orthodox shrine inside the immense Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre on top of Golgotha. The church is filled with shrines devoted to the death of Jesus. This particular shrine was teensy, maybe six feet long by three feet wide by five and a half feet high at its best. It housed the supposed tomb, made of huge stone slabs, where Christ had been laid after crucifixion.

Since there was no way Carl-Joran could have comfortably, perhaps even uncomfortably fit into the shrine with any other body, he'd waited for Barbara to do her touristy stuff and exit. They had casually walked side by side to the dark, untended section of the maze of shrines and conversed as if discussing the state of disorder of Christian churchdom, a not uncommon topic for tourists when viewing the chaos of disrepair of this mausoleum.

Barbara was her usual gorgeous, alert and headstrong self. She'd recently had her rich brown hair sharply cut to above her ears and, of course she wore exceptionally New York stylish clothes: a dark, wool suit with a heavy silk blouse and leather boots. She was young for the work she had chosen to do—perhaps thirty now and adamantly single.

Right out of her Master's degree studies, she became attached as a consultant to U.N.E.S.C.O. That was still her official job. Unofficially, she was coming to spend most of her hours as the American representative of S.E.W., with the blessings of the U.N.; at least, those in the U.N. that knew of the Society's operations.

Barbara gave him the message as casually as possible. The last thing they wanted to do was attract attention. Last week, sources in the underground run by a coalition of American battered women's shelters had approached her regarding a woman who needed to be rescued. This was a woman the shelters could not begin to assist long-term, as it would have been highly dangerous for their own personnel, as well as for her. Any day now, Polly Marie...the last name was left out of the conversation, would be severely terminated in an arranged accident by her famous husband's hired killers if S.E.W. did not act. Too dangerous to even discuss on the phone or over the Internet, Monday had flown to Tel Aviv and taken a tour bus to quietly meet with Carl-Joran in the bitter cold on Golgotha.

Arrangements would have to be made as they had been made many times before.

Whatever would work to extricate Polly Marie would be considered, whether it would involve Dr. Halima Legesse faking some medical excuse for a trip to Sweden or even declaring the woman dead, or disguising her as a man. Whatever worked.

The food in Carl-Joran's stomach, plus the two beers, went right to his head. His eyes closed and he caught himself only at the last second, falling forward into the remains of the kung-pau chicken. As he stumbled across the room, he managed to strip off his robe before tumbling onto the bed. He kicked the extra blanket over his poor feet, which hung over the bottom of the bed, as always. His eyes shut.

A metallic rattle startled him. Hot food smells, the warm reek of camel and donkey dung, unwashed people milling back and forth as the big official black car with little Swedish embassy flags fluttering on the front pushed its way through the afternoon bazaar. He was relieved the meeting was finished. As Swedish consulate to Israel, he was always stuck with receptions and parties and official do's of one sort or another and this do had been at the Swedish embassy in Cairo. He was glad to be done with it and he wanted to be done with Cairo, which was not one of his favorite cities.

Who was this driver? Not someone he knew. Usually he wasn't so careless. The heat was oppressing him. Sweat trickled through the dun-blond hair on his chest and diverted into rivulets along his ribs and he considered leaning forward to ask the driver why the air conditioning wasn't on.

The bazaar scattered into tight alleyways that fronted garages and mews converted into flats. Tighter and tighter. The limo stopped. There was no reason to stop. Carl-Joran let a window down slightly. This was not any one of the many avenues leading to his hotel. Then the driver bailed out.

At that moment, Carl-Joran knew the chill of fear that made the heat vanish, the sweltering sun darken. He got the wide back door open, his head and shoulders out before the pressure vacuum of the exploding shell extruded the rest of him at high velocity from the rising, disintegrating vehicle. He was blown along the roadway like a seed popped from a squeezed grape THA-UPPPP! to land with astonishing force in a pile of trash.

Gas fumes raging in searing green light whirled along the tarmac and pieces of flaming car tumbled out of the sky like tiny comets, cascading around him. He burrowed into the mess of old boxes, broken glass and plastic bags. The blood from so many cuts seeped over the dusty pavement. He slipped in it. The flames, the smell of burning, the screams of bystanders, themselves burning and cut to shreds by the flying hot metal, roaring gas fumes and glass shards. Smoke roiled through the alley, filled the nostrils. He crawled and crawled through endless mounds of garbage and camel shit. His stinging knees left trails of blood along the messy morass in the drain. He crawled for he knew not how far or how long.

Muted light, noises—a hospital ward. He was naked. A kind nurse explained in broken English that his clothes had been seared off him, along with his I.D., but by the grace of a beneficent Allah, his only wounds were thousands of shard cuts and a skin burn about equal to a day lying unprotected on a beach. Several people had been killed, she related before being pushed aside by Dr. Halima Legesse in doctor's greens. "You may leave us," Halima said to the nurse and the poor little Egyptian nurse vanished.

Halima whispered urgently, "Don't say your name, Baron, don't speak. You are dead. Carl-Joran Hermelin is dead."

She forced him to his feet and into strange clothes plus an Arab headscarf to wrap around his entire face. Her voice repeating, "This is good. This is an opportunity. Sadiq-Fath will believe you are dead. Our enemy will think you are gone and he will get careless."

Carl-Joran tried to say something and she pressed a firm hand into his back, ordering, "Be quiet, do as I say and you'll be safe. We're leaving. Come now. Taqi's waiting downstairs. We're going back to Haifa."

Sneaking along the corridors, ducking out the employees' exit, quietly, unobserved, unnoticed. Taqi held the Mercedes's door open.

Halima was screaming at him...

"Hermelin! Hermelin! Wake up from the dream!"

Carl-Joran brushed at the air around him.

"You'll not be hitting me!" she warned.

He forced open one eye. This was his hotel room. He was at the Nof. He could see the swirl of gold and brown of Dr. Halima Legesse's full length Ethiopian dress. That accursed bellboy had fallen to her wiles again and let her in. He moaned, "Go away. I was just asleep."

The towering black woman had no mercy. Arms akimbo, large knobby hands splayed onto her hips, she bellowed, "It is noon."

"No," he insisted, putting a pillow over his head.

She grabbed it and smacked him with it. "Get up. We all are to meet in one hour. Get up."

"At least let me put on my clothes!" he begged.

"You are awake? You are not going to go back to sleep?"

"Yes," he half sat up, pulling the sheet around his nakedness. Halima may be a doctor and she may have seen and doctored most of his body at one time or another, but he did want to retain some modesty. He jerked back his pillow and laid it on the sheet in his lap.

"Yes, you will go back to sleep?" she queried snidely.

"No, no," he shook his head emphatically and squinted up at her. The bright sunlight coming in the windows blinded him. "I'm getting up. I promise. Okay?"

"Okay. You be there." She grabbed up the laptop computer from the table. "Are your notes in here? A little something we can make sense of?"

"Yes," he ran a hand through his unruly hair, "yes, yes, take it with you. Then you can't accuse me of forgetting it later."

She closed the small computer, put it under one arm and slung around on her sandaled heels, her long, gold and brown skirt swishing noisily as she walked out of the room and Carl-Joran heard the hall door close behind her.

"But I will eat breakfast first!" he shouted rebelliously at the door.


END OF SAMPLE


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