Farah Nassour’s massive bulk drew stares in the opulent store. It almost filled the ornate love seat he rested on, his gut straining the buttons on his creamy silk shirt. Obese, ugly, wrinkled: who would make such choices, in this day and age? That he had money was evident in the cut of his vast suit and the fat rubies and diamonds on the pudgy fingers wrapped around his phone.
His clients loved it, he knew. It set him apart, reassured them he was amongst them, but not of them. He just laughed and counted the cash that flowed from their greed. And today he was determined to spend some of it on his parents, stares or no.
“I’m sorry, sir, there’s no answer. Can I take a message?”
He declined, ended the call. Flicked through some emails, one eye on the door to the prayer rooms. His thoughts were with Amele. Doubt wormed in his mind, but he pushed it aside. It was good that she get some rest, recover properly for the wedding. He tried her mobile again; the sound of her voice on the message soothed his nerves.
The door opened and his parents came out together, his father guiding his mother by the elbow. Fifty-two years. Again, his thoughts turned to Amele, of guiding her by the elbow in their dotage. His mother mistook the smile that played across his thick lips.
“Look at our boy, Hari, so pleased to see us. Aren’t we blessed?” The pride that shone from his mother’s eyes was what drove him, still. Making her proud, proving their sacrifices weren’t in vain.
“I would feel more blessed if he would join us in prayer,” his father replied. Forever a child in your parents’ eyes, Farah thought, no matter what you do.
His mother was declaiming her dismay at a rack of snow leopard coats when Graff appeared out of nowhere. The hairs on the back of Farah’s neck prickled with unease.
“They breed them. From clones.” The hunter addressed his mother.
“Oh, but it’s still such a waste. For a coat, for fashion.”
“It’s what they are bred for. Everything to its purpose.” He held out his hand in greeting. “Mrs Nassour, I assume?”
Graff was gracious, suave even, but Farah was unhappy. Never seeing Graff again was one of the pros he’d listed when he decided to walk away, to marry Amele and leave the corporation. Graff was more beast than man, driven by a lust for blood and power that sickened Farah. Hypocritical? Maybe. But maybe we all have our limits.
It was all perfectly legal. Shell companies, holding companies, tax havens, confidentiality agreements and a shitload of grease for all the outstretched palms along the way. That was Farah’s job: keeping it legal and keeping it quiet, and he did it well. Not without the occasional twinge of conscience, it has to be said. But the money and – until Amele came along – the drugs and the girls, took care of that.
Graff’s job was to lead the hunting parties. And take care of anyone who forgot what confidential meant.
“Excuse me, Mama. Business.” He kissed her cheek, the skin so soft it would break your heart. She smiled her understanding although, of course, she had no idea. As soon as they were out of earshot Graff said, “We have a problem. A journalist is asking questions.”
“You interrupt my personal time for this? Let them fucking ask.”
“They have information. Menus, prices, dates. Names.” He waited a beat, then, smug, “Where’s your girl?” He’d objected to Farah ‘playing house’, as he’d put it, with one of the girls.
“You’re a cunt Graff. Leave me and my family alone and find out where the leak is coming from.” Farah started walking away, his heart beating faster as the worm of doubt he’d felt earlier uncurled and stretched in his brain.
“You’d better be right or I’ll feed you both to my dogs.”
Farah was redialling before he took ten steps. Voicemail. Fuck! He rang the hotel again. His hands shook.
“The Palace suite, please.”
Answer, Amele. Please answer. A vision of her startling when he entered their bedroom leapt unbidden to his mind, swiftly followed by memory of the defiance in those first days and weeks. The fear crept through his veins. He pulled open his shirt, desperate for air. He’d saved her. Given her everything. Given her life. She knew he wasn’t one of them. Didn’t she?
“I’m sorry, sir, there’s no answer.”
His parents weren’t where he left them. The crowd of doll-like shoppers seemed to have expanded, and he struggled through them, a doomed salmon against the tide.
“It’s Mr Nassour here. I’m worried about my guest, she’s been unwell. Could someone check on her please?”
His mind raced, frantically seeking options, alternatives, coming up blank. The brute hand of betrayal latched onto his heart and squeezed. Not Amele, he prayed. Please. He saw his parents sitting on a sofa by the elevators, holding hands. Why did he bring them shopping? All this…stuff…was meaningless to them.
His phone rang.
“We’ve checked the suite, sir, and there’s no one there. Perhaps your guest has gone out?”
Awful certainty washed Farah in ice. He pushed through to his parent’s side, face ruddy with exertion. His father’s face creased in concern.
“Is something wrong?”
“Yes. No. We’ve got to go. I’ll explain on the way.” He helped them up, bustled them towards the doors, using his bulk to part the sea of shoppers, all the time scanning for Graff’s face.
They made it to the street. Farah signalled for a car, his anxiety easing a fraction as a sleek black limousine pulled up almost immediately. He tipped the doorman while the driver helped his parents in, realising too late that Graff was waiting inside, dark pleasure glinting in his eyes. Farah climbed in reluctantly, held his gaze. His parents sensed the tension.
“I hope nothing’s wrong?”
“Mama…” Graff held up his hand.
“I’m afraid the wedding’s off, Mrs Nassour.”
His parents looked to him, dismayed, concerned.
“Leave them out of this.”
Graff was a jackal, high on the scent of a kill. His mother pulled herself erect in a posture Farah remembered from a thousand battles fought on his behalf, a she-wolf guarding her cub. His heart broke a little bit more.
“I’m afraid Amele doesn’t want to marry your son. She’s gone to the authorities with some – well, quite awful and extraordinary stories, I’m sorry to say. It seems your son has been leading a secret life.”
A long, low ‘no’ was all Farah could manage as he saw he was the peasant to be sacrificed to appease the gods.
“Yes, Farah, your secret’s out.”
He launched his bulk at Graff, wrapped his hands around his throat, feral rage powering him. His mother screamed, his father tried to pull him back. They needn’t have worried: the fat lawyer was no match for a professional hunter. In a swift manoeuvre, Graff cuffed him, pushed him back against the leather where he lay, panting.
“Farah, what’s going on? What have you done?”
He’d already lost. They already believed he’d done something wrong. He’d lost everything.
“Mama. Father. Don’t listen to him. It’s not true.” His mother reached a hand towards him. Graff licked his teeth.
“Amele has evidence. Your son procured human flesh for cannibals. Isn’t that true?”
His mother recoiled, buried her head against his father’s chest. He beseeched his father but his father looked away.
“And Amele. She was saved from being food,” Graff grimaced theatrically, playing to the crowd, “to be your sex slave?”
“It’s not how it sounds.” He tried to sit up, tried to fight back with words. His mother was praying, her small body shaking.
“Not how it sounds? Look at the shame you’ve visited on your family. On the corporation.”
Farah’s father held up his hand: stop.
“I want to hear what my son has to say.”
Farah breathed silent thanks for his father’s sense of honour.
“I didn’t do it, I never touched it – them – it was just my job.” The panic was making him incoherent.
“It’s like a club, you wouldn’t believe who comes. Anyone who’s anyone has been. I’m successful! I rose above, I’m in the inner circle!” He twisted his bulk towards Graff.
“I’ll tell all. I’ll name names. Do you think I’m stupid? Do you think I wouldn’t protect myself?” He twisted back to his father.
“He’s one of them. He organises hunts. They hunt people, like animals, chase them, shoot them, people no one wants…”
His mother wailed, silencing the flow of words. His father pulled her close, making soothing noises. He looked at Farah for a long moment, then looked away. Graff smirked openly.
“Have some dignity, man. No one believes your lies anymore.” He addressed Farah’s father.
“Mr Nassour, the corporation deeply regrets you and your wife being caught up in this. We’re turning him over to the authorities. You and your wife will be given every assistance.”
On cue, the car pulled up in front of police headquarters. A waiting media pack swarmed the car.
“Father. I beg you. Mama?” He pleaded desperately as Graff jerked him upright. His father looked up.
“You have forsaken God. Ask Him for forgiveness.”
The driver helped Graff drag Farah from the car. Cameras flashed, but the image burned into Farah’s brain was his mother’s face, her red-rimmed eyes wide, bewildered, her tiny hand covering a silent scream as she watched her only son dragged away into the crowd.
As they pushed him through the pack, Graff leaned in close.
“Don’t worry about me, Nassour. You’re so ashamed at being exposed that tonight you’ll take your own life. Your poor mother will be distraught.”
Farah bucked and thrashed. People were knocked off their feet; a woman screamed. Graff and the driver struggled to regain control. Farah roared, shook an arm free, as armed police parted the crowd, weapons drawn. People scattered. Cameras recorded every move. The officers shouted. Farah kept fighting. Graff released his other arm and Farah made a break for freedom, a bull elephant about to stampede. Two shots rang out, in swift succession, and Farah was felled: suicide by cop.
The pictures hit the internet almost before he hit the ground. His silk shirt had been wrenched free of his trousers, exposing his bloated white paunch. The trail of coarse black hair leading to his navel an obscene zipper: the blood from the wound in his head dripping into his cold, dead eyes. A symbol of greed in an age of excess.