Sûrah LXXVIII
THE TIDINGS
"Whereof do they question one another?"

78
LONG TIME NO SEE

FRANCHONE

For sure these folks don't plan on letting what-his-name, Almond, rot. It's obvious I'm his fall guy. Inadvertent. Lucky me. This cage was meant for him, I've figured out; keen deduction—duh—no brainer. I'm like you, Joy, just a stand-in, just a dresser-dummy dupe, while our originals—unbeknownst to one another—roam at large.

Franchone has refrained from doing damage to his cell, beyond a heel dent in the corkboard-padded door. Nor has he fashioned tools from the rudimentary furniture; a table and pair of chairs remain in place, moreover intact—sharing claustrophobic space with the stationary manikin.

FRANCHONE

Sooner or later someone has to notice they have goofed... before we starve to death. You hungry, Joy?

He eyes the painted-on mouth, then once more lends it voice.

JOY

Pinkney to the rescue, eh? Sir Galahad, you are not. Our damsel-in-distress is more at risk than ever—while you sit passively by on your Black-slacker ass.

FRANCHONE

I tried. I failed.

JOY

You tried to what; give aid and comfort or exploit the woman's woes? I'd say you failed because your dick dictates your misbehavior.

FRANCHONE

Fine; so shoot me. I deserve to die for falling short of dear ol' dad's ideals? I'm not a perfect human being; I make mistakes; I show poor judgment; I use women as means to my personal ends; I'm a faithless, no account fool who can't complete his education for want of discipline, keep a sweetheart, hold a job, or write a novel (not to mention a dissertation), plus I'm inexplicably smitten by some renegade, sloe-eyed Turk disposed to brushing me off like lint whenever I'm in proximity. Maybe I'll propose.

JOY

Then add insane to your list of attributes. You think Rahnavard needs a spouse? She, first and foremost, needs a friend—which rules out Don Juan Pinkney.

Stymied by his alter-ego's withering self-assessment, Franchone sulks in the studio, rests his head in his hands and slumps, only to sit bolt upright as a rush of air invades; a crack of light expands then floods the soundproof chamber; infiltrated; breached; Zahra, framed in the threshold like a halo-fringed Madonna, adrenalin pumped through veins no less provoked than his set free, confirms that he who sprang the trap in Ahmed's stead (no doubt unwittingly) is the very man whose presence spurs her impulse to retreat...

ZAHRA

Is you!

...offset by an equal impulse...