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The Distance Between Us by Masha Hamilton

- First Chapter

By

The Distance Between Us
Anyone who has watched people crowding around the scene of an accident on the highway realizes that the lust of the eye is real. Anyone who has watched the faces of people at a fire knows it is real. Seeing sometimes absorbs us utterly; it is as though the human being becomes one great eye. The eye is lustful because it requires the novel, the unusual, the spectacular. It cannot satiate itself on the familiar, the routine, the everyday.
--J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors

Chapter One

The whole of heaven is off-balance as they rumble out of the city: clouds one moment, darting sunlight the next. A dust shroud swirling around the Land Rover prevents Caddie from seeing where they are going or where they've been. Far behind them, a mosque wails its hellfire summons to those who believe. It's noon, then, and men of conviction are submitting their foreheads to the ground in a graceful wave, while she barrels forward into the formless, blind middle of a day.

The Land Rover rattles like a crate of scrap metal. Her shoulders ache, she's inhaling cupfuls of powdered dirt and they have at least another ninety minutes to go. But those are only irritants. Her real worry is the driver, a complete unknown. Rob and the hotel concierge rounded him up when the regular chauffeur, the one Rob assured her was "the best in Beirut," didn't show. A driver is their lifeline in dusty, uncharted territory. This guy, well -- she catches her breath as he swerves sharply and clips a roadside bush, aiming directly for half a dozen desert larks. The birds scatter and arc overhead, their fury sharp enough to be heard above the thrash of the engine.

"Christ," Caddie mumbles. In the rearview mirror, the driver gives her a squinty glare. Cobwebs form at the outer corners of his eyes, and dried grime thick enough to scrape off with a fingernail is caked behind his right ear. "Who the hell is he?" Caddie mutters to Marcus, next to her in the backseat. "Should we really be -- ?"

"Cautious Caddie," Marcus says. "He's okay. Rob wouldn't use him otherwise." He leans over Caddie to address Rob, who's on her left. "Right-o, Rob?"

"He's fine. Told you. Checked him out." Rob is focused on adjusting his tape recorder's input level. With his scruffy hair and taut energy, he looks like a street tough instead of a network radio reporter. Here, that aura serves him well.

"See?" Marcus says to Caddie. "Anyway, what's our choice? Sit on our bums all day?"

She smiles at him saying "bums" in his refined British accent. Something in him -- his inflection maybe, or his humor, or his experience in the field -- unknots her, and relieves her of the responsibility of having to control everything. Anyway, he's right. This story is too hot to pass: a Q-and-A with Musaf Yaladi, fiery-eyed, Princeton-educated thug-darling of the West, in his south Lebanon hideout. The elusive Yaladi is a Lebanese crime king, dabbler in terrorism and chief distributor for weapons, bogus American one-hundred-dollar bills and the raw materials for heroin produced in the Bekaa Valley. With a couple punchy quotes from him, the piece will write itself. She'll be the only print reporter to have it. Page One for sure.

They'll be fine, just fine. Caddie would prefer fewer variables, but she's done her usual checking, narrowed the risks to a pinpoint. She's confirmed that they aren't traveling through disputed territory, that Yaladi knows they are coming, that he wants to do the interview. The only drawback is that she doesn't know this particular minefield very well. With Israel, the West Bank or Gaza, it would be different. She's worked that territory for more than four years now, she and Marcus, and those back roads are carved in her mind.

Marcus fingers the leather band on his left wrist, a gift from an Arab mother he once photographed and managed to -- connect with, he would say. Caddie would say charm. He stretches his arms, the muscled forearms tapering to delicate wrists, then widening to broad hands, and smiles sideways at her in a way that excludes Rob, the driver, all of Lebanon. She imagines licking lemonade from his lips, its sour taste undercut with tangy sweetness. She rotates her shoulders to loosen them.

In the front passenger seat, Sven pats the video camera on his lap and chats to the driver in sunny, Swedish-accented Arabic. Long-limbed, he seems as comfortable as he would in his own living room. He's the most easygoing and polite of journalists, with an uncommon ability to nap anywhere on short notice. Caddie often runs into Rob and Sven on the same story. Privately she's nicknamed them Yin and Yang.

They pull up short before a barrier of razor wire and man-sized chunks of concrete spray-painted black with Arabic graffiti. A Yaladi roadblock. She didn't expect it this soon. The driver cuts the engine and the air grows defiantly still. The dust finally gives up and sinks.
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