Olivia Nikitas sat in the shade of an improvised awning, a canvas tarp that smelled like a dead goat. She checked her watch again, drummed her fingers nervously on the table. The hand-lettered habib café sign hung crookedly by a couple of wire twists. Most of the buildings on both sides of the street lay in ruins, either bombed-out shells or pulverized beyond recognition. The proprietor, Habib, had dragged his coffee machine and generator into what was left of an antique shop. Olivia admired his entrepreneurial spirit. As a freelance journalist, she had been covering the carnage in Syria since 2023—?six years now. The spirit of Aleppo was pretty thoroughly annihilated, so the appearance of the Habib Café, barely ten weeks into a shaky postwar era, looked like a positive development.
Across the street a cat slipped through a mountain of wreckage, its movement so sinuous and fleeting that at first Olivia thought the cat was the shadow of something passing through the air, like a bad omen.
She picked up her coffee, a potent Arabic blend spiced with cardamom. Holding the cup in the fingertips of both hands, she brought it to her lips. The luxury of fresh coffee equaled a minor miracle after the deprivations of war. Even in the heat, with sweat trickling from her hairline and her shirt sticking to her body, Olivia savored the scalding jolt of caffeine.
A little girl, maybe seven years old, came running down the street, the ragged cuffs of her trousers whisking up dust. She called to the cat, grabbed a bent spine of iron rebar, and hauled herself after it, climbing a potential avalanche. Her arms and legs were bird-bone thin. Olivia winced, sitting there on her comparatively fat American ass. She put her cup down, feeling irrationally guilty for the indulgence.
The cat darted under a slab of broken concrete. The little girl peered after it, calling, “Qetta, qetta.” The gap was just big enough that she might be tempted to crawl after the damn thing. Olivia lifted her sweat-damp hair away from the back of her neck and looked around, hoping for some adult supervision. Good luck with that. The city was overrun with orphans. Olivia started to stand.
In the distance, a gunshot popped.
Olivia went rigid. Technically, hostilities had officially ended. But that wouldn’t prevent a rogue sniper from taking up position. The shot had come from the direction of the Green Zone. By now, Brian and Jodee had left and would be out in the open. Jodee Abadi was her escort into the Old City, and Brian Anker was her would-be escort into a different kind of hazardous territory: a relationship impervious to her usual strategies of detachment. Brian wasn’t the first guy to take on that mission, but he had already gotten farther than most. If Olivia’s heart was a door, then Brian was the pushy salesman who had wedged his foot in the gap when she tried to slam it in his face. For that, she resented him a little. He was good about the resentment. He was good about everything. It really pissed her off.
Another gunshot popped. Where are you guys?
Suddenly she felt it, the brittle substratum of the enforced peace. It could give way at any time. Foreign military forces led by the Americans, barely held the city together. Soon something would break. A new insurgency, maybe. In the months since the end of the war, Olivia had gotten used to leaving her Kevlar vest in her room. She still brought her headscarf, though, even if at the moment she wore it loosely around her neck.
Two gunshots, and Brian (and Jodee) in the open.
By reflex, she reached for her phone, but there was no point. This district of Aleppo was a cellular dead zone.
The sound of something scraping and sliding pulled her attention back to the girl. A broken window frame surfed down the piled debris and cracked to pieces on the street. The little girl had her broomstick arm shoved all the way to the shoulder under the concrete slab. If the slab moved, it would crush her. Olivia quickly crossed the street. “Hey, kid! Be careful.”
From the top of the mountain of rubble, the girl looked at Olivia and pointed down. “Qetta, qetta.”
“Yeah, I get it. Your cat is under there.”
Olivia looked east, willing Brian and Jodee to be there. Instead, a couple of old men crossed the street, their summer white dishdashas seeming to float them above a haze of dust. Olivia hated that she worried about Brian. That’s what you got when you let the salesman stick his foot in the door. She should have known better.