Ausma Zehanat Khan Excerpt: A Dangerous Crossing

A Dangerous Crossing by Ausma Zehanat Khan is a the fourth book in the Rachel Getty & Esa Khattak series (available February 13, 2018).

For Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty, the Syrian refugee crisis is about to become personal. Esa’s childhood friend, Nathan Clare, calls him in distress: his sister, Audrey, has vanished from a Greek island where the siblings run an NGO. Audrey had been working to fast-track refugees to Canada, but now, she is implicated in the double-murder of a French Interpol agent and a young man who had fled the devastation in Syria.

Esa and Rachel arrive in Greece to a shocking scene, witnessing for themselves the massive fallout of the Syrian war in the wretched refugee camps. Tracing Audrey’s last movements, they meet some of the volunteers and refugees―one of whom, Ali, is involved in a search of his own, for a girl whose disappearance may be connected to their investigation. The arrival of Sehr Ghilzai―a former prosecutor who now handles refugee claims for Audrey’s NGO―further complicates the matter for Esa, as his feelings towards her remain unresolved.

Working against time, with Interpol at their heels, Esa and Rachel follow a trail that takes them from the beaches of Greece, to the Turkish–Syrian border, and across Europe, reaching even the corridors of power in the Netherlands. Had Audrey been on the edge of a dangerous discovery, hidden at the heart of this darkest of crises―one which ultimately put a target on her own back?

Prologue

Eftalou Beach
Lesvos, Greece

Ali watched from the beach as Audrey made her way down the hill. She crossed under the sign that passed for welcome on Afghan Hill. It was a lackluster attempt at a rainbow, the words “Safe Passage” painted in several languages. In French, they were wished “Bon Voyage,” in German “Gute Riese.” The language of most use was the Afghan language, Dari, and the words “Khuda Hafiz” translated more closely to “May God Be Your Protector.” Afghan Hill on Lesvos was named for the refugees who’d traveled the route from Afghanistan. They slept in the muddy groves on the hill, their shelters pierced by rain. They didn’t complain: they knew God was watching over them. It was how they’d gotten this far.

Ali had been following Audrey Clare since her arrival on Lesvos four months ago; she was a case worker from Canada, assisting Syrian refugees through the work of her NGO. He liked her because she didn’t make false promises—she was blunt with the kids who were old enough to take it, boys like him who were almost men. She had a sincerity that made him think if he ended up somewhere safe, he wanted it to be Canada.

Audrey was smart too; she’d picked up a few phrases in Dari. When she came across kids roaming through the camps, she warned them with a smile that made him think of a fairy. Her small frame masked a grim determination. He knew this because he’d made himself indispensable: he acted as Audrey’s translator.

Her NGO was called Woman to Woman, and its headquarters was at Kara Tepe, with a smaller office on Chios. She divided her time between Lesvos and Chios; once a week she made the trek out to Moria. The refugee compound inside Moria was separated from the sprawl on Afghan Hill by concrete barriers. It had formerly been a prison. Now only members of recognized NGOs were permitted entry into Moria. Audrey moved between the camps without fuss: Moria, Kara Tepe, Pikpa, Souda. Her NGO worked mainly with women. Ali qualified for her help only because of Israa. At the age of seventeen, he was the least significant of the refugees on the hill, in the boats out at sea, or stalled in the endless registration lines. The closest he’d get to refuge was the other side of Afghan Hill.

He wasn’t planning on staying in the camps. Kara Tepe wasn’t deliverance; it was a necessary evil, a pit stop on a journey abounding in necessary evils. No one stayed on Lesvos unless the sea was too dangerous to cross. They came to the islands with the goal of making it to Continental Europe. On Lesvos, they were given papers, blankets, and a good meal in the food tent that doubled as a dance hall. They may have been victims of circumstance, but they hadn’t forgotten how to celebrate transient moments of joy.

Audrey Clare understood this. She’d brought music to Kara Tepe. She’d brought coloring books and crayons and gallons of hot chocolate, and a rare fluency in bureaucratic language. She knew the transit routes better than anyone else he’d met. She also knew Fortress Europe had barred its gates—there was no way onward now. Even if the gates were flung open, Ali couldn’t leave. He had to wait with Sami and Aya, until he found Israa again.

Audrey was wise enough to know this. She was helping him look for Israa, asking questions of everyone she met: bakers, villagers, fishermen, ambulance drivers, policemen, representatives of the Hellenic Rescue Team, UN officials, members of the Italian Coast Guard, the loosely coordinated volunteers who came from Northern Europe.

She was meeting the boats at his side, and she kept her own list of names.

She’d told him to stay put; he was doing his best to listen.

He stamped his feet, waiting for Audrey to reach him. His jacket wasn’t warm enough for the cold, and he’d yielded his blanket to Aya, Israa’s sister. He’d grabbed another one from a tent when no one was looking, but as soon as he did this, he felt ashamed, remembering the volunteer from Denmark who’d slept in a chair so Aya could use her blanket and take her spot on the couch.

The Danish girl, Freja, was little short of an angel. She’d called them a tent full of miracles, a word most people didn’t use.

If he reached Canada, he’d write to Freja to thank her. He kept a notebook full of the volunteers’ information. He did this not just for himself, but for the members of his family who might one day make the journey out of Syria: some were trapped in ISIS territory, others under the barrage of Assad’s bombs. If his cousins made it out, he hoped Freja would remember him and show them the same kindness she’d shown him.

Audrey found him with Sami, waiting for the boat on the waves to spot the rescue team. Vinny was already in the water. The figure deep in the waves was Illario, who always took point on the boats. Peter and Hans were farther up the beach, using flashlights to guide the boat to shore.

Audrey caught at his hand, demanding his attention. From the anxious knitting of her eyebrows, he knew she had something to tell him.

“Did you find her?” He was frightened to know the answer.

She held up her satellite phone. “The Interpol agent I told you about is waiting for us at Kara Tepe. She needs to talk to you.”

Ali swung back to the sea. The boat was fifty feet out, riding the silver-blue of the waves, too far to see the faces of passengers.

“Israa might be on the boat.”

Audrey didn’t agree, but he wasn’t going to argue. “You go ahead. I’ll meet you at Kara Tepe once I’ve checked the boat. The others might need help.”

Audrey tried to convince him. “This is really important.”

He nodded over at Sami. “Go with her. You get started, I’m coming.”

She was reluctant to leave without him, but she knew him well enough to know he couldn’t be pulled away. Each new boat brought with it the hope that Israa had survived. He couldn’t leave the beach until he knew beyond doubt.

Sami followed Audrey up the road. He wasn’t agile like Ali; the movement of his limbs was tentative, as if his bones had been newly rearranged.

“Hurry,” Audrey called back.

*   *   *

Another boat, another dead end. The road that ran along the beach was deserted, and all the time the sky was changing, its velvety shadows deepening, the half-moon lost behind the clouds. Ali was tired after his efforts, but he was anxious to hear Audrey’s news. Then he’d find the tent he shared with his friends, and with the old man and his grandchildren. The children’s mother had drowned on the crossing, their father had been killed in Syria. The shelter they shared was crowded, but it was safe and clean, and warmer than the tents on Afghan Hill. He’d made friends with the boys who camped out on the hill—he wasn’t about to complain.

He was almost at Kara Tepe when he heard the sharp report of the shots.

Two gunshots in a row.

He began to run. There was noise and movement ahead, coming from Audrey’s shelter. He reached it before anyone else did, flinging open the door.

There were bodies on the ground: one woman, one man.

He looked the bodies over, blinking back tears, moving quickly. They had fallen on their backs, side by side, the gunshot wounds oozing blood. There was nothing he could do to save them, so he did what he had to do.

The flap at the back fluttered. A scream sounded outside. The camp was dark, just beginning to react to the noise. He caught a flash of Audrey’s yellow coat as the clouds passed overhead. She stumbled down the path behind the camp, her gumboots slipping in the mud.

People began to stir, but no one left their shelters. They were in survival mode, unable to think of others. The volunteers would respond, but he didn’t know how long that might take.

Audrey was headed to the water. If he ducked back the way he’d come, there was a shortcut to the main road. He passed people rushing up the road. Peter, Shukri, Vincenzo—his partners on the beach. He evaded their questions—Audrey was in trouble. He shouted at them to head to Woman to Woman, then he cut across the hill, using the switchback.

He was running on instinct; he couldn’t see in the dark. The trees threw up veiled shadows, their branches dancing wildly under a star-strewn sky.

He caught a glimpse of Audrey’s coat in the light, and the breathless sound of her sob. She tore off her coat. Some instinct told him not to call to her.

At a gap in the switchback, a shadow moved away from the hills. It closed the distance between Ali and Audrey, a metallic gleam glinting off the object in its hand. Whoever had fired the gunshots was chasing Audrey with a gun.

Her pursuer was letting her run, herding her to the road.

His breath tight in his chest, Ali’s chase became a sprint. She was pulling out of reach, but she came to a halt at a sound from the road.

The hill and track were deserted. She sprang off the track to flag a car.

Ali tried to make it out. It made its slow approach with its lights off.

The driver jumped out. Ali hurled himself down the hill, breaking through the cover of the trees. Pebbles scattered to his left. He stopped mid-descent, trying to pinpoint the source.

Where was Audrey’s pursuer?

A heavy hand clipped his head. His head down, he fell to his knees.

The shadow leapt past him to the road. He heard the sounds of a scuffle, echoed by a startled cry. A door slammed with a heavy thud. Tires scraped the road. The vehicle reversed and sped away.

Ali searched the cool, blue landscape of the beach. The shadow had disappeared.

Audrey Clare was gone.
 

1

Ottawa, Canada

Rachel Getty had never expected to find herself at a state dinner at Rideau Hall, the governor general’s residence. Even though she was at the tail end of the dinner, mingling with other guests, she found herself bemused, silenced by the splendor of the hall and by the amiability of the prime minister.

They’d left the long white dinner table with its golden candelabra and thickets of crystal glasses for an alcove under ivory arches, the whole scene illuminated by cascading chandeliers. It was pomp and circumstance on a scale familiar to most Canadians, gracious yet subdued.

That didn’t stop Rachel from feeling overwhelmed, as she peered, tongue-tied, into the affable face of the strikingly young prime minister. Trying not to draw attention to herself, she smoothed her hands down the length of her black evening dress, cut simply, and had Rachel known it, showcasing her athletic figure to great effect. She wore a pair of dangling earrings given to her by her brother, Zachary, and had even taken the trouble to style her lackluster hair into a smooth chignon.

Earlier, during the photo opportunity portion of this unexpected evening, she and her boss, Inspector Esa Khattak, had posed for a photograph with the prime minister and his wife.

Rachel’s sense of being out of her depth was diminished by the matter-of-fact welcome extended by both the prime minister and his wife, whose Quebecois accent fell charmingly on Rachel’s ear.

A few moments later, Rachel found herself in the alcove with Khattak and the prime minister. The two men were discussing the current status of Community Policing, the division of law enforcement Rachel and Khattak worked for. Despite a period of trial, Community Policing was back on its feet. A recent parliamentary inquiry into a war criminal’s death had exonerated Khattak of wrongdoing, and of late, CPS had been subjected to better press than usual. Khattak was back on the job with accolades in his file.

Rachel suspected this had more to do with a government contact they had assisted on a recent case in Iran than with any change to Khattak’s approach to police work. His administrative leave was over, and the budget of their section had been enlarged—they had brought back two of their original team members.

Across the glittering table in the dining hall, Rachel caught the eye of Community Policing’s tech supervisor, a burly middle-aged man of unfailing good cheer and deadpan wisecracking abilities by the name of Paul Gaffney. He raised his eyebrows, miming a la-di-dah gesture that made Rachel smile before she hastily schooled her features.

She listened to the pleasant timbre of the prime minister’s voice as he offered assurances to Khattak.

“I want you to know how grateful we are for the work you’ve done,” he was saying. “The portfolio we landed you with is a minefield. You haven’t had the kind of ministerial support you’re entitled to for being bold enough to take it on. As of now, that will change. You will still report to the minister of justice, but we will be amending the legislation that governs CPS’s mandate to make it simpler and clearer. We don’t want a repeat of what happened in Algonquin. I’ve also told the minister that you’re to have a direct line to me in case of any … obstruction.” He flashed his charming smile at Rachel. “Should Esa be out of commission for any reason, it’s been made clear to the minister that you are to have unfettered access.”

Rachel expressed her thanks. In the politest politician-speak possible, the prime minister was letting her know that he thought the inquiry into their work had been a fiasco. What was the point of bringing on someone like Khattak only to constrain him at every turn?

She breathed a sigh of contentment. Rachel’s personal philosophy was liberal in every sense. The prime minister didn’t need to charm her—he already had her vote. She listened as Khattak thanked him in his deep, attractive voice. He was dressed in black tie, his dark hair smoothed back across his head. He looked more like a television star than a policeman.

“It was kind of you to invite our team to dinner.”

The dinner was being held in honor of a delegation from South Asia, so Rachel suspected Khattak’s presence served the government’s interests, as much as anything else.

The prime minister hailed RCMP Superintendent Martine Killiam across the room. She didn’t smile, offering a quick nod of acknowledgment. When her gaze landed on Rachel, one corner of her mouth quirked up. Martine Killiam kept her eye on promising women in law enforcement: Rachel was on her radar. Not quite sure what to do, Rachel sketched a nonmilitary salute that brought the prime minister’s attention back to her.

“I see you know Superintendent Killiam,” he said.

Rachel cleared her throat. Any mention of the murder at Algonquin Park would cast a dark cloud over a festive occasion, so her reply was cautious.

“A little.”

“She speaks very highly of you. And she’s not the only one.”

The prime minister raised a hand, inviting a latecomer to join their conference.

Rachel recognized him at once. It was Nathan Clare as she’d never seen him, formally dressed in evening wear, a serious look in his eyes.

The prime minister turned a rueful glance on Khattak. “Politicians always have ulterior motives. Our government owes Nathan a debt—one he’s come to collect. I thought I’d make it official, so this time there’s no confusion with regard to your involvement.”

Rachel’s sense of awkwardness fell away; she observed the prime minister with interest.

“A case?”

And then she looked at Nathan in alarm. He was Khattak’s closest friend, a public figure very much in demand, but her attachment to him was personal.

He didn’t look at her, his attention focused on Khattak.

“You have to help me, Esa. Something’s happened to Audrey.”

Copyright © 2018 Ausma Zehanat Khan.
 

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Ausma Zehanat Khan holds a Ph.D. in International Human Rights Law and is a former adjunct law professor. She was Editor-in-Chief of Muslim Girl magazine, the first magazine targeted to young Muslim women. A British-born Canadian, Khan now lives in Colorado with her husband.

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