As was the usual affair at this time in the evening, the streets of Gemmezeh were lined full of cars, packed in like sardines outside the glowing bars that go on for miles into the night. These parking spaces were officially free for any old fellow to sneak into, but unofficially there was a different set of rules.
For as the sun went down the valet boys would carve up this road between them, monopolizing each piece of turf and demanding money to leave your vehicle in what very much was a public street. It was a crude sort of racket, run by men whose dead, white shark eyes bore back into their heads, to a time where they could kill freely.
And it was as she stared into a set of this black holes that Emma decided for once she would not be handing over a fist full of change for the privilege of not having her window broken or wing mirror torn off. It was true that if she was to join her friends in the restaurant across the street that one or both of these things would happen. But to give this man money, or move so he could demand it from somebody else was simply not on the cards. She would at least waste as much of his time as possible. She didn’t feel like going to the restaurant anyway.
Smoking cigarettes as she played with her phone, Emma occasionally glanced up at the old killer and smiled, hoping to see signs of frustration in his face. But looking at him was like staring into a stagnant pond, a pool of dead, grey water where even algae and reeds would not grow. It was fine though, she wasn’t yet ready to leave. And neither was he.
When eventually she did get bored, Emma casually pulled on her seatbelt, looked for her keys despite knowing where they were, tried out a few radio stations and even changed her sweater before starting the car. She was hungry now, attempting to bore this valet to death requiring more energy than one might think. Her belly was rumbling for Chinese food and this meant a trip to Hamra.
With the light of the blue mosque fading out of view, her car descended into the tunnel. Ahead of her a battered moped was carrying two young men in dirty clothes, with a stack of plastic chairs tied to the back. If this kind of motoring was not common practice in this city, and indeed if they had not looked so hilarious as they both tried to hang on for dear life, it would have been worrying to watch these men swaying from side to side, the one at the back occasionally being wacked by the chairs as they went over every bump in the concrete. They had almost certainly stolen the furniture from outside a shop in Ashrafieh, a pair of comedian thieves from the age of silent movies.
Emma pulled up outside Chopsticks. The street that the Chinese restaurant occupied was conspicuously free of valets on this particular evening. You won’t be getting my money tonight, thought Emma. She went inside, heading straight for her favorite seats upstairs, barely noticing that the restaurant was completely deserted.
Upstairs this fact began to dawn on her. There was usually a woman who would take you to a table and a man mixing drinks behind the bar. The lights were on and music was playing loudly. Every single table in the place had been set up with starter plates. Emma wanted to leave, but knew this was ridiculous. Why would they leave the restaurant open and go home? Slowly she walked around towards the kitchen.
The only thing moving in the entire room were the live crabs in the fish tank. For a moment feeling as though they might be able to explain what was going on, Emma went over to the tank and stared though the glass. Through the bubbling water she could see something moving. But this shape was not inside the aquarium but behind it.
Emma screamed as the man in the mask jumped out towards her. Yet suddenly the room was full of people surrounding her with their faces obscured.
SURPRISE!!! They called out in unison.
For a few seconds everyone stood in silence, until the door swung open and the girl whose secret birthday party it was walked in.
An aging waitress who either did not know or care what had happened swung through the kitchen doors with a sullen face and a plate in one hand. She held the plate in the air.