Monday, December 5, 2005, 7:05 a.m.
On the morning of the day on which he would be kidnapped, Jimi Afzal cut himself while shaving. It was a small nick, but it bled, and he was unhappy because he didn’t want anything to serve as a distraction to the proposal he was pitching at his 9 a.m. meeting.
He’d worked hard to earn this meeting. He was an associate editor at one of the few mid-sized independent publishing houses left in London. He had long wanted to do a series of nonfiction books with a brilliant man who had been nominated for a Nobel Prize in physics and was a friend of his parents. When the gentleman was over for dinner, as he had been often at the Afzal family flat, he got to talking about physics, and life, in a way that was compelling and accessible. Jimi just knew there was the potential for a series of books that could become classics. After careful wrangling, he had gotten the agreement of the friend, the support of his mentor editor, and an appointment with the executive editor of the company, whose approval would be needed for such an ambitious project. An appointment that day. December 5, 2006, at nine a.m.
He dressed in his best suit, skipped breakfast, pulled on his grey wool coat and left his flat on Westbourne Gardens a half an hour early.
The street noise, the people, the winter chill, were all nothing more than backdrop to the presentation he was running again and again on a loop in his head. He was momentarily pleased that he’d reached the platform in the Queensway tube station of the Central Line just as a train was arriving—perhaps the augur of good things to come.
So lost was he in his own thoughts that it took him seconds to realize the air had somehow turned orange. That his eyes were tearing. His throat burning.
Everyone else turning, coughing. Panicking, even, in an oh-so-British, excuse-me-my-good-man, let-me-off-the-train-and-up-the-bloody-escalator kind of way.
His eyes were burning now, but he was in the flow of people heading towards the exits. Emergency services were arriving. A voice of authority over the speaker system. Stay calm, exit in an orderly fashion.
A young woman next to him was crying. I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, she was sobbing. He put his arm around her shoulder and said, “don’t panic, you’ll suck in more bad air.”
But all he was thinking was 9 a.m. This can’t make me late. Damn terrorists.
Then he was up and back outside. Ambulances, stretchers, constables, arriving news crews.
He dropped off the girl, still sobbing, to emergency personnel, and walked through the crowd of terrified people.
Can’t be late.
He started walking east on Bayswater, wondering if life was normal a street over.
Behind him, blaring horns, snarled traffic, shrieking people, chaos.
“Are you all right? What’s going on?” A woman’s face leaned forward.
He looked up to see a black limousine beside him, the back passenger window rolled down.
“Terrorists, I suppose. Chemical attack.”
“Horrid! So sorry! You all right?”
“What? Yes, don’t know about the others, but I’m fine. Eyes sting, that’s the worst, really.”
“You need any help?”
“I just need to get to work.”
“Well, there I can help.” The limo door popped open. “Climb in, then.”
“Oh, no, don’t want to bother…”
“Come on. I’ll feel I’ve done my part.” The limo’s passenger was also dressed for work. Power dressed, black designer suit, black-rimmed sunglasses.
All right. Maybe the day was saved, after all.
“If you really mean it, thanks so much.”
He climbed in, and the car snaked forward. It had been past the tube entrance when the evacuation began, and now it was inching out of the area. Seemed it would be free of the mess fairly shortly.
“Where to?” the woman asked, extending a hot cup of tea.
“Golden Rachmann publishing. It’s…”
“I know it,” she said, and smiled. She picked up the telephone handset and had a brief discourse with the driver.
“It’s not far past my stop,” she said. “Not a problem.”
“Thanks so much.”
Even given the favor the woman was doing him, and the tea he was now holding, he again retreated into his head, into the midst of his presentation.
The tea was in a real cup, with a saucer. It was heaven in his throat, which still burned. The woman finished her own tea, put the cup on the small table where the hot pot was, leaned across him and said, “This is me.”
The car rolled to a halt, and she climbed out in front of a chic building.
“Thanks so much,” he said again as the car began to move.
Thank you for seeing me, Mr. Rachmann. I believe we have an extraordinary opportunity before us…
The words played again and again in his mind.
They were beginning to make less sense.
His tea was gone. He sat his cup down next to the woman’s empty cup.
He looked out the window, and was shocked to see countryside. He was confused. So confused. His head was spinning.
Driver, you’ve got to let me out, he said, banging on the window. Driver, we’ve missed my stop.
But the car kept going. He swayed, and lurched back towards the long bench seat. No, this wasn’t right. This wasn’t right at all. Through the worsening haze in his mind, he tried to open the back door, even though the car was moving. But it was locked. It wouldn’t open.
Let me out! 9 o’clock. I must, really… he said. And he passed out on the back seat without fully comprehending that he wouldn’t make any more 9 a.m. meetings for a very, very long time.
Sunday, December 18, 2005, 6:50 p.m.
Nutmeg and ginger. No matter how many pine scented candles were sold as part of the Christmas season, for Juliet Kettner, it was the aroma of baking with nutmeg and ginger that would forever signal to her that the season had truly arrived. She hummed along with the radio station that was playing Christmas songs, and peeked in at the gingerbread men in the oven. The kids would be back soon, and she knew they’d all prefer the chocolate chip cookies, but now they, too, would have ginger-scented memories of the season.
What a great day. The first large snowfall of the season had blanketed Warwick on Friday, canceling school and warming hearts everywhere. By today, Sunday, when the kids from church had planned to go Christmas caroling, the roads were clear yet the ground was still white. How perfect was that?
The kids had a blast caroling, both at the homes of targeted “shut-ins,” as well as up and down blocks where friends and families resided. Finally a group of a dozen or so had come back to the Kettner house for pizza and snow play, ending with hot chocolate and warm cookies by the fire.
The Kettner house was a block from Stanley Deming Park, a large village park that had a classic sledding hill. The remaining middle-schoolers had grabbed saucers and sleds and headed out, promising to be back by 7 p.m., since it was a school night. Parents would start arriving soon to pick up their offspring.
Juliet tossed another log on the fire in the great room and headed to the front door. She could see the outlines of the kids trudging back up the final hill from the park. Right on time. They were singing as they approached, another old standard. “Grandma got run over by a reindeer…”
She grinned and opened the door, reminding them to stomp their boots before coming in and shedding snow clothes. Their breath was white, their cheeks were crimson from the cold, but they were in high spirits.
“Everyone into the great room! Popcorn is out, grab a cup of cocoa as you pass through the kitchen. Half have marshmallows, half do not, take your pick! Cookies coming in right away!”
The gingerbread was ready. She used a spatula to scoop them onto a Christmas-angel shaped platter, and waded into the great room, Christmas tree lighted and glowing in the corner, room now stuffed with kids, laughing, dropping to the floor, arguing over television channels. She put down the trays of chocolate chip cookies first, and then looked for her son’s friend whom she knew particularly liked gingerbread. Didn’t see him first time through.
“Anyone seen Ryan S.?” she asked. They had multiple Ryans, and went along the school habit of differentiating them by first initial of last name.
“Probably in the bathroom,” said Ian T.
But a few minutes later, he hadn’t re-emerged.
“Seriously, guys, where’s Ryan?” she asked again.
“He was with us, Mrs. K. He was racing with Jonathan and D.J.”
“He wiped out big time, twice!” added Jonathan, enthusiastically.
Juliet had done a sweep of the entire first floor, to no avail. She called her own two kids out of the crowd to see if Ryan’s snow clothes were in the pile by the door. They didn’t seem to be.
“I’m going to check the park. I’ll be right back,” she said. She pulled on boots over her stocking feet, wrapped a coat around her, and went out.
In contrast to the house, the outdoors was eerily still. There were no streetlights in the hilly part of the park where the sledding had taken place, so the snow was grey, and shadows loomed large. All the sledders were now gone. The park was entirely empty.
“Ryan?” she yelled. “Ryan S.?” she yelled louder. The whistling wind was the only reply.
She trudged by herself along the abandoned hill, seeing the various sledding tracks cut into the snow banks, worn flat by multiple uses. There were no huddled children left with an unnoticed broken ankle or broken back.
There was nobody.
Maybe a friend from Ryan’s neighborhood had offered him a ride home, and he had neglected to tell anyone?
That had to be it.
Juliet turned around and headed home. As she got to the top of the hill, she saw something protruding from a couple of well-pruned bushes that made a barrier between the park and the sidewalk. She walked up to it and tugged.
It was a round purple snow saucer. Around the rim, the name “Ryan S.” was written in black Sharpee.
Juliet was still clutching the abandoned saucer when the first three parent-cars turned onto her block. The second car, a white Prius, was Ryan’s mom. She was in the car alone.
Juliet Kettner’s heart sank.
Forever after, she would think of this as the day that had ruined the warm comfort of nutmeg and ginger for her, forever.