Joanna Howard

In Absentia

Someone had gone missing and didn't want to be found. The path to the embassy curved between short, plump palms. I adopted a quick pace in the shadows, and kept an eye over one shoulder. Through the open door, a costume party unfolded down the stairs. The footman announced the names. I slipped in unnoticed on the commissioner's arm in the beaded ensemble of Salome.

Who knew who was who? I watched them file in. An inventor arrived on the chime of the clock in a white coat and wig. He brought with him a mechanical doll who swayed up out of a giant tapestry bag, and wafted just out of his reach. She attracted the notice of the finer set with her long neck and careful gaze. As long as I watched her, she held her character. I know that later that night, at the buffet table, she emptied a sugar bowl onto the head of a new lover while across the room, her escort, brooding, soaked his throat in rum punch. The things we do to each other!

For my part, an artful diversion began when the bigger band, in striped jackets, took the stage. In the pause, the dancing guests held their position in an unlikely tableau, shortly, before the muted horns gave over to a thundering continental swing. Partners exchanged across the patterned tiles. The Sheik snatched up my hand, and we took the floor. He had a firm grip, the kind of legends. His eyelashes, darkly lined, beat softly against the hem of a perfumed head scarf. Eau de cologne. He led toward the terrace doors, and out into the moonlight.

Briefly, I felt I had been drawn into something legitimate and sweeping. I came this far to unwind the mystery, though I can't imagine why. That's hardly the way it should work. Still, I wanted to hear what he had to say. I suspected I had already failed at his native tongue. If he was guilty, he didn't want to confess.

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