London

The hand didn’t belong on his arm. Khalil squirmed, trying to wiggle free. The fingers just squeezed tighter until the knuckles bulged. Khalil turned and met the eyes of a man almost his own height. The man’s lower lip was firm, and his round eyes protruded. He looked like the cook in a mural on an English manor wall. Khalil couldn’t help feeling like the fish painted on a platter before him.

His eyes shifted back to the hand. It was ghostly white and softly sprinkled with light brown hair. The man was in uniform, a proper bobby complete with billy club and handcuffs.

Out of the corner of his eye Khalil noticed a rubbish bin. He lunged toward it, pulling himself free long enough to rest his hand on its metal edge. The contents of his fist slipped free and fell in with the crumpled newspapers and coffee cups. One lone Cadbury Flake lay discarded, half eaten and crumbling in its vibrant yellow and purple wrapper.

Khalil didn’t run. No point. He hadn’t done anything visibly wrong – the bobby couldn’t arrest him for walking down a crowded street. His crimes were protected by the softer laws that allowed for freedom of speech, religion and the right to associate with whomever he chose. Had the police in his own country stopped him he would be bleeding by now. But he wasn’t in his own country.

“ID?” The tone was clipped, the accent lower class British, making the words undecipherable. Khalil moved slowly; didn’t want the guy to turn violent, while he scanned the area. Just off Piccadilly Circus, the street bustled with the morning rush. It was almost opening time for the stores, though a number of breakfast places were already turning a crowd. A short, lumpy man shifted against a wall, his back brushing up against the whitewashed, barely crumbling building. So the bobby had backup. Why was that? They couldn’t have fingered him in advance, could they? He had only just arrived in London, and had been avoiding the country for the past two years. Since the last bomb went off. Nonetheless Khalil couldn’t banish doubt – much as its appearance could potentially be a downfall.

He pulled his passport out of his pocket and handed it over. The impatient officer was now squinting in what passed for sun in this city. Khalil didn’t need to even glance at it – he had already memorized the name, birthdate, country of issuance and immigration stamps. His eyes were better utilized in scoping out the area.

The bobby leafed slowly through the pages, fingering each one as he visibly struggled to read.

“When’d you arrive? Oh, here it is.” The bobby spoke, then continued to page through the passport.

Khalil turned from him. The ice cream shop was still closed, though a clerk could be seen through the glass. She didn’t seem to be in any hurry as she arranged things behind the counter. First, she stacked cups. Then she opened a box of cones and began to transfer them one by one onto a tower that seemed shaky at best. Four wire tables out front were still dripping from an earlier rain. The clerk would probably come outside to wipe them down – would she be working the day of the bomb?

“How long will this take?” Khalil was getting impatient. He wasn’t supposed to be stopped like this. He had wanted to see the area himself and not just rely on his brothers. The bomb would have to go off at just the right spot, between the ice cream shop and the adjoining tube entrance. Khalil noticed that passers by were staring at him, as if a dark man in London was still an oddity.

The bobby ignored him.

Khalil watched a double-decker bus drive by. It was a distinctive red and full of tourists. Glancing at the sky, he wondered how long the inevitable rain would wait before falling on their expensive cameras and unsheltered heads. Western society in all of its absurdity personified yet to what matter?

“Excuse me, kind sir, I don’t mean to be difficult. Can you please explain the problem? I am not from your country and do not understand what is happening.” In Algeria, explanations were mute. The process was simple: kicks, punches, a lot of blood and then finally a bullet or a bribe to freedom.

The bobby ignored him. Again. He was now looking back and forth between the passport picture and Khalil. Of course they were identical.

“Look, I am in a hurry. If you have a reason for stopping me, fine. If not, I would like to go.” Khalil held his voice firm, but kept it non-confrontational. He wouldn’t win an argument since he wasn’t the one with the key to a jail cell.

“I’m taking you to the station.” The bobby didn’t look him in the eye, his gaze fixed on the ground.

“Are you arresting me?” Khalil let his shock show.

“Not yet. I don’t like you, all you people coming here and causing problems. This country used to be safe, you know?” The bobby’s face had turned red. “I want to ask you some questions.”

“Kind sir, please. I was just looking for the Virgin Megastore. I am not causing problems. I am a bit lost. Perhaps if you could just point me in the right way….” How could he get taken in for questioning when he had merely been walking down a crowded street? This type of thing didn’t happen here. Khalil’s panic grabbed him much as he tried to will it away. Captured.

“I said I want to take you in for questioning. Hands behind your back.” The bobby had pulled out his handcuffs.

“I thought you weren’t arresting me.” By now a few teenage boys had clustered outside the tube station, drinking beer, the morning coffee of unemployed youth. The group would probably kick the crap out of him if the bobby didn’t follow through with the arrest.

“I don’t like you.” With that the bobby reached out, silver handcuffs gleaming and open. The pasty fingers with their brown hairs touched Khalil for the second time. This time he wouldn’t escape them.

Bombs were going off around the world almost daily now. Arresting him wouldn’t be enough to stop this one. Still, a doubt lingered – British authorities turned a blind eye with predictable regularity – unless they had specific intelligence. Had someone betrayed him?

Click here for Chapter Two – Mirrors