“It’s the end of the world, my friend,” said Muhammed Azri Yahakub.
The road was fast and empty, long bends snaking between dark, forested hills. The half-moon, floating on its back, scudded through cloud in a halo of petroleum colours; seeing the moon at this angle always reminded me that I was half a world away from where I started.
I looked at him, his face in darkness behind the wheel, and he glanced back at me.
“The end of the world,” he said. “It’s coming.”
Red was asleep on the back seat. All I could see of her was a flow of black hair over the collar of my blue leather jacket, which she’d pulled over her head. She was the reason I was here.
We’d flown in to Kuala Lumpur four days earlier and gone directly to meet her detective. Dalip Subramanian, investigator, was a big Indian fellow with a spreading waist-line, long wavy hair threaded with grey, a fine nose, and photosensitive goggle glasses. I’d never been in a private detective’s office before, but Dalip’s tended satisfyingly towards movie-set cliché: peeling walls, ceiling fans, ragged Venetian blinds on the windows, the burly detective sprinkling food into an aquarium of fancy fish. He’d been looking for Red’s children for two years. They’d been missing for ten.
“I’ll give you Bobby,” said Dalip. “My junior investigator. He’ll take care of you. No extra charge — if you wouldn’t mind taking care of his expenses.”
Two days later, I was sitting in a small restaurant in Kuantan, Malaysia’s second city, across the street from a pet-shop where the long-lost kids worked every day in the back, grooming dogs. Today it was closed. Half an hour earlier someone inside had half-raised the roller-shutter to let Red in: the daughter she hadn’t seen for ten years. Ten years without contact, without news, without even a photograph.
I waited, watching the street. A gangly youth emerged from beneath the shutter and made as if to run away down the street, but before he could take off a girl appeared, appealing to him and pulling him by the arm back into the shop. Minutes later, a broad young Malay walked up to me and shook my hand. He introduced himself as ‘Bobby’ and took a seat, facing the street like me. He was clean-shaven and good-looking, strongly built but carrying some extra kilos which were beginning to blur his athletic build.
“I already checked out the back,” he said. “The boy left.”
“Oh,” I said, “that’s a shame. It was the girl who got in touch. She hadn’t told her brother she was doing it. Or her father, obviously.”
I’d almost forgotten that Dalip had promised to send someone, but I was glad of Bobby’s presence. Over the next three days he would be our driver, bodyguard, liaison with local police and with Dalip back in KL. I liked him. He was urbane but focused and looked like he could handle himself if necessary. I rented him a room, directly above ours at the guesthouse we were staying at, and in the mornings I would hear a series of gentle thumps on the ceiling as Muhammed Azri Yahakub prostrated himself in prayer, his forehead and nose touching the floor in sujood.
We’d hoped we’d be making this drive back to Kuala Lumpur with Kayla and Steve in the car. We’d come to take them back — and we’d failed. A montage of images kept scrolling through my mind. The hours in the police station; the confrontations in the pet shop and that filthy apartment; that two-faced Chinese bitch and the whiskery, slope-shouldered impudence of the kidnapper; my left hand around his throat and my right fist drawn back, his hands splayed out in front of his face; the defiant stare of the boy and the eye-rolling frustration of the girl, all of it still whirling and blending in my mind.
Dalip kept messaging us. “Act now.” “Do not hesitate.” Don’t trust the authorities.” “Be aggressive.”
But it hadn’t worked; it was too rushed; too big a decision for Kayla to make with so little time. Steve had already made his mind up, refusing to meet with us and telling his sister not to trust us. Once the father got involved we didn’t have much choice. The day had slipped out of control, and once the three of them — the boy, the girl and their father — had been taken into police custody, putting them beyond our reach, there was nothing left to do but get our things from the guest house and head back across the island to Kuala Lumpur. A four hour drive usually, maybe three on these empty roads. It had been a long day, beginning with hope and ending with this feeling like the end of the world. Red immediately sought relief in sleep.
I sought it in conversation with my new friend. Bobby and I were brothers in defeat, commiserating over the debacle. But there wasn’t much more to say; outcomes were unpredictable; time would tell. We’d spoken about nothing else for three days, and now we drove in silence, thinking our own thoughts. There was a tacit agreement that there was nothing more to say at this point.
Instead, with a three-hour drive ahead of us, we took the time to get to know each other a little. How he got into investigative work. His wife and new baby. My father’s death, my life in Viet Nam. And then the world, the wars and migrations, sky-changes and the death of oceans, the resignation that was settling like a pall of ash that we could not go on like this.
As we drove through the dark, staring ahead through the windshield at the pool of our lights on smooth curves of the road as it wound between brooding hills, we talked about Islam and the West, and the traditional enemy of mankind. We spoke of the hideous massacre at the Bataclan theatre in Paris, which had happened a week or two before. We found common ground: we both knew that ISIS, and before it Al Qaeda, was no spontaneous phenomenon; that the terrorism of the past fifteen years was being used to destroy Muslim lands and strangle freedom in the West. I said it was amazing the way events always seemed to unfold to the benefit of those who wanted to amass and centralise power.
“The Anti-Christ,” said Muhammed Azri Yahakub, “is very old, my friend. He knows everything.”
The Anti-Christ… This was not language I would have used, at that time; I would have talked about the transition of empires, the amassing and transmission of the secrets of accumulation and manipulation, mind control and magic, the construction of a system of delusion; but ‘the Anti-Christ’ worked for me. I probed a little; and he told me there was a vast entity dwelling beneath the ocean, waiting and watching through all the cycles of history, and the time for him to emerge was not far away.
“Beast from the Sea,” I said.
“Al Dajjāl,” said Muhammed Azri, “the One-eyed, the Deceiver.”
“One-eyed? That’s interesting.”
“His right eye mangled like a grape.”
“Meaning he doesn’t see… fully?”
“He is blind to creation,” said Muhammed Azri. “But he sees into you with perfect vision. And so he can manipulate you, and make you believe whatever he wants.”
“What does he want to make me believe?”
“When he comes he will do miracles. The blind will see, the dead come back to life, and he will make two rivers to flow, one of water and one of fire. His eye will shine bright like a star. That’s what we believe. Under his rule, corruption and immorality will spread everywhere. Cheating, murder, incest, everything. Time will accelerate. Famine will come.”
“Al-Dajjāl — is it one man, in your belief? Or a spirit that animates many?”
“I am Sunni,” said Muhammed Azri, “and such interpretations are considered valid.”
“Maybe he’s already here,” I said.
“You could be right, my brother,” said Muhammed Azri. “You could be right.”
“This is the Age of Deception.”
“Deception, corruption, chaos. Loss of honesty. Authority in the hands of those who do not deserve it. Loss of knowledge, religious ignorance.”
He seemed to be reciting.
“Sudden deaths and pointless killings. Rejection of Hadith. Usury, adultery, fornication. Nomads will compete in the construction of very tall buildings. Women will appear naked despite being dressed. People will seek knowledge from misguided wandering scholars. Liars will be believed, honest people disbelieved, and faithful people called traitors.”
“Sounds like now to me.”
“After forty years the Mahdi will come, with Isa, to kill al-Dajjal.”
“Jesus. We worship him too.”
I didn’t tell him I was an atheist, which was still true at that time. Strange that Jesus meant more to Muhammad Azri Yahakub than he did to me.
“The falcon cannot hear the falconer,” I recited. “The centre cannot hold.”
He was nodding. “What is that?” he asked.
“Things fall apart. The blood-dimmed tide is loosed; the ceremony of innocent is drowned. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
I knew I was mangling it a little, but never mind.
“A poem called The Second Coming,” I said. “The world is falling into chaos. The poet hopes for the Return of …Isa… but all he sees is a vision of a huge beast crossing the desert. It’s the Anti-Christ… I think… or the Beast, I don’t know.”
I did better on the second stanza.
“Surely some revelation is at hand;
“Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all around
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough Beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
“Wow!” said Azri. “There is power in those words.”
“Written about a hundred years ago,” I said. “Ninety-five, to be precise. 1920 in our calendar. William Butler Yeats, an Irishman.”
We drove in silence for a while.
“Shall we stop for a smoke?” asked Bobby.
I looked round. Red was still asleep with her head under my jacket.
“Let’s give it another half an hour,” I said. The thought of waking her to face her pain made me too sad.
So I told my friend about discoveries of the ruins of great cities submerged under four hundred feet of water on the coastal shelves of India and Japan; we agreed that advanced civilisations had arisen and been destroyed more than once, perhaps many times, on this planet; and that each time, humanity had started again, slowly building and discovering, reconstituting themselves and their societies and technologies almost from scratch.
I didn’t know what he would make of that, but he agreed, and told me that this would be the last cycle, according to his religion: we were the last generations, and would see the beginning of the end of everything.
“All I wanted,” I said, “was to help her get her kids back before the end of the world.”
“We will, my brother,” said Muhammed Azri Yahakub. “I promise you. We will.”
Clouds scudded across the moon; on either side of the road, jungled hills hunched like massive creatures in the dark.