Whither Zenobia?

By on Aug 26, 2012 in Fiction

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Woman in headscarf and sunglasses in Syrian market


That evening, when Constance met Klaus in the dining room, she wore Roberta’s dress and shoes. Almost a perfect fit. Made her stand straighter. Taller. She felt the difference.

The police had found nothing. The hotel manager, a well-fed man no taller than Khalid, counterfeited sympathy but told her that he needed Roberta’s room. After dinner, she moved Roberta’s possessions to her own room. She didn’t find Roberta’s passport but did discover her plane ticket and the extra passport photographs she’d insisted Roberta bring. She put them in her own purse. Safer there.

Dressing for breakfast the next morning, she slipped on a shirt and pants from Roberta’s suitcase. Studying the passport photos, she brushed her hair the way Roberta had. From the dining room window, she saw that Das Rollende Hotel and the young Germans had vanished. Could Roberta have gone with them? No. Those rowdy youngsters wouldn’t have been interested in her. She glanced at the half-eaten eggs and tomatoes and black olives on her plate, then looked up at Klaus. His big jaw was working slowly at a mouthful of pita bread. Made her think of a camel. A handsome camel, of course.

“I don’t know anything about you. Are you married?”

“Divorced.” He swallowed. “Luise is in Dusseldorf. She complained I was married to the past.” He reached across the table, clasping Constance’s hand with blunt tanned fingers. “The hotel and local police have contacted Syrian authorities about your friend, but you must talk to your embassy in Damascus.”

“Must I?” She sighed. “I know.”

Leaning toward her, Klaus whispered: “No, you don’t know. The secret police are everywhere. The disappearance of an American citizen is serious.”

They drove into the shabby town of Tadmor, parked the Land Rover, marched up and down the dusty streets, as if expecting to meet Roberta strolling out of a shop. Men stared at Constance, although she was conservatively dressed. The thin young males in cheap short-sleeved shirts and baggy trousers, with stubbly chins and brooding eyes, resented her. Why? What had she done to them? Did they hate all females?

“I should go to Damascus,” she told Klaus, “but I don’t know what happened to Khalid. Maybe they’re together.” She was falling off a cliff. Nothing to grab hold of, nothing to save me. She looked sharply at Klaus. “She’d be more likely to run off with you.”

Klaus hesitated on the sidewalk. “Your friend is an attractive woman, but that’s not a game I play.”

“What games do you play?”

“Time to get out of the sun,” he said, steering her into a small café.

As they drank tea, Klaus asked the proprietor if he’d seen a dark-haired American woman. The man shook his head. He seemed angry at the suggestion. Then they went to Tadmor’s police headquarters, but nobody had news of Roberta. The officers were more interested in a little handheld game that they passed between them.

When Klaus and Constance got back to the Zenobia Hotel, the manager told Constance that he needed her room. He apologized, then explained that they only had twenty-six rooms and were booked through the season.

“I understand. Please get my bill ready.” He held out a folded piece of paper. “Oh. Thank you.”

Klaus stepped forward, forcing the manager to retreat a step, and told him that he’d be leaving, as well. Nodding stiffly, the man waddled away.

“I’ll drive you where you want to go,” Klaus told her, as they went upstairs.

Constance packed her clothes, re-packed Roberta’s suitcases. Several times, she hesitated, wondering which suitcase to use. She wore another of Roberta’s outfits, a lightweight summer dress with matching jacket. What was the harm?

Downstairs, she saw Khalid over in the hotel bar with a miniature white cup of Turkish coffee. When the stubby little guide noticed her, he looked embarrassed but set down his cup and walked to her.

“My friend is missing,” she told him. His eyes were level with her nose.

“I heard this news. I am sorry.”

“I’m glad you’re back. I need to pay you for your services before I leave.”

“Thank you.” Khalid hesitated: “I hope your friend is well.”

“So do we all.”

Not only had Roberta abandoned her plane ticket and clothes, she’d also left behind some cash. Reasonable to use it to pay Khalid. Although they hadn’t completed the itinerary, she paid him in full. None of it was his fault, annoying though he was.

“I will be happy to drive you to Damascus,” he said, pocketing the Syrian pounds.

She looked over at Klaus, across the lobby. Tall. Tan. Waiting.

“I’ve made other plans.”

As Klaus and Constance loaded their luggage into the Land Rover, another trio of Syrian fighter planes roared above the ancient city. Razor blades attacking the desert sky.

“Maybe we should stay in the area,” Klaus said. “A while longer.”


I’m not like Roberta, Constance reminded herself as they bounced over the dusty road into the modern town. Always had to work. I’m an ordinary person. I’m not like Klaus, either — whatever he’s like. I believe in logic, in cause and effect, in reasonableness. People don’t just disappear. Not people I know.

She refused to accept that Roberta was dead or that they’d never find her. If she didn’t believe it, it couldn’t have happened.

In Tadmor, Klaus stopped at a small hotel, one of those hideous blocky buildings constructed with an eye more to cost than either grace or comfort. She followed him into a stark lobby, where a stout man in a soiled white abaya slouched behind the desk. The cracked plaster walls were covered with scales, as if suffering from a disease.

When Klaus registered them, she silently handed over her passport with his. Two rooms, of course. Adultery, illicit sex, whatever you called it, was illegal there — not that either of them was inclined to that. They carried their bags up to the second floor and to their separate rooms. In the narrow hall, they squeezed past each other, bodies almost touching.

In her room, she went straight to the tiny bathroom, with its dingy brown walls and rust-stained fixtures. Doubling over, she shook with fear and remorse. Then she washed her face and left the bathroom with its incriminating mirror, ordering herself to stay calm.

Roberta and Constance. Friends since Lowell High. They relied on each other. When Connie’s Ted drowned. When Roberta was abandoned by one damn male or another. When she thought she had cancer. When Connie lost her job. Roberta, the capricious one, Connie the practical one. Now, Constance wanted to slap her. Hard.

Before long, Klaus peered through the partially open door. Constance looked up at his oversized Germanic face. Stretching out a hand, he offered her an understanding, expectant expression. She walked silently with him back to his room.

“We’ve only known each other a few days,” she began. “Just hours.”

“You’re too rational.”

“Because I’m a woman?”

“How do I know?”

The yellowish blades of the ceiling fan knifed through the hot air as they peeled off clothes. Perspiring, they collapsed side by side on the dingy sheet, watching those blades turn.

“I haven’t given up,” she said, directing her words toward the mottled ceiling.

“I know.” His hot hand landed on her bare stomach.

“I owe it to her.”

“Yes, of course.”

He kissed the insides of her elbows, then the insides of her knees — the most beautiful parts of the body, he whispered. A hot dry wind rattled the cheap aluminum-framed window, nasty black insects scurried across the floor, the sheets became slick with sweat.

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Bruce Douglas Reeves' novella, Delphine, won the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition and will be published by Texas Review Press November 1, 2012. He's also published three novels (The Night Action, New American Library and Signet Books; Man on Fire, Pyramid Books; and Street Smarts, Beaufort Books and Ace Books.) Recently, he's completed a new novel, Cavanagh's Promise. He's published short fiction in nearly three dozen magazines and literary journals, including: The High Plains Literary Review, Runner's World Annual, Hawaii Review, The Long Story, Eclipse, The Drill Press, The Main Street Rag, Clapboard House, South Carolina Review, The Blue Lake Review, Danse Macabre, and The New Renaissance. Three of his previously published short stories, “Obsession,” “Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Mexico,” and “The Lady’s Not for Keeping,” now are available again at ANTHOLOGY BUILDER.