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by Aabby



The hand didn’t belong on his arm.  Khalil squirmed, trying to wiggle free.  The fingers just squeezed tighter until the knuckles bulged.  Khalil turned and met the eyes of a man almost his own height.  The man’s lower lip was firm, and his round eyes protruded.  He looked like the cook in a mural on an English manor wall.   Khalil couldn’t help feeling like the fish painted on a platter before him.

            His eyes shifted back to the hand.  It was ghostly white and softly sprinkled with light brown hair.  The man was in uniform, a proper bobby complete with billy club and handcuffs

            Out of the corner of his eye Khalil noticed a rubbish bin.  He lunged toward it, pulling himself free long enough to rest his hand on its metal edge.  The contents of his fist slipped free and fell in with the crumpled newspapers and coffee cups.  One lone Cadbury flake lay discarded, half eaten and crumbling in its vibrant yellow and purple wrapper.

            Khalil didn’t run.  No point.  He hadn’t done anything visibly wrong – the bobby couldn’t arrest him for walking down a crowded street.  His crimes were protected by the softer laws that allowed for freedom of speech, religion and the right to associate with whomever he chose.  Had the police in his own country stopped him he would be bleeding by now.  But he wasn’t in his own country.

            “ID?”  The tone was clipped, the accent lower class British, making the words undecipherable.  Khalil moved slowly; didn’t want the guy to turn violent, while he scanned the area.  Just off Piccadilly Circus, the street bustled with the morning rush.  It was almost opening time for the stores, though a number of breakfast places were already turning a crowd.  A short, lumpy man shifted against a wall, his back brushing up against the whitewashed, barely crumbling building.  So the bobby had backup.  Why was that?  They couldn’t have fingered him in advance, could they?  He had only just arrived in London, and had been avoiding the country for the past two years.  Since the last bomb went off.  Nonetheless Khalil couldn’t banish doubt – much as its appearance could potentially be a downfall.

            He pulled his passport out of his pocket and handed it over.  The impatient officer was now squinting in what passed for sun in this city.  Khalil didn’t need to even glance at it – he had already memorized the name, birthdate, country of issuance and immigration stamps.  His eyes were better utilized in scoping out the area. 

            The bobby leafed slowly through the pages, fingering each one as he visibly struggled to read.

            “When’d you arrive?  Oh, here it is.”  The bobby spoke, then continued to page through the passport.

            Khalil turned from him.  The ice cream shop was still closed, though a clerk could be seen through the glass.  She didn’t seem to be in any hurry as she arranged things behind the counter.  First, she stacked cups.  Then she opened a box of cones and began to transfer them one by one onto a tower that seemed shaky at best.  Four wire tables out front were still dripping from an earlier rain.  The clerk would probably come outside to wipe them down – would she be working the day of the bomb?  

            “How long will this take?”  Khalil was getting impatient.  He wasn’t supposed to be stopped like this.  He had wanted to see the area himself and not just rely on his brothers.  The bomb would have to go off at just the right spot, between the ice cream shop and the adjoining tube entrance.  Khalil noticed that passers by were staring at him, as if a dark man in London was still an oddity.

            The bobby ignored him.

            Khalil watched a double-decker bus drive by.  It was a distinctive red and full of tourists.  Glancing at the sky, he wondered how long the inevitable rain would wait before falling on their expensive cameras and unsheltered heads.  Western society in all of its absurdity personified yet to what matter? 

            “Excuse me, kind sir, I don’t mean to be difficult.  Can you please explain the problem?  I am not from your country and do not understand what is happening.”  In Algeria explanations were mute.  The process was simple: kicks, punches, a lot of blood and then finally a bullet or a bribe to freedom.

            The bobby ignored him. Again.  He was now looking back and forth between the passport picture and Khalil.  Of course they were identical. 

            “Look, I am in a hurry.  If you have a reason for stopping me, fine.  If not, I would like to go.”  Khalil held his voice firm, but kept it non-confrontational.  He wouldn’t win an argument since he wasn’t the one with the key to a jail cell.

            “I’m taking you to the station.”  The bobby didn’t look him in the eye, his gaze fixed on the ground.

            “Are you arresting me?”  Khalil let his shock show. 

            “Not yet.  I don’t like you, all you people coming here and causing problems.  This country used to be safe, you know?”  The bobby’s face had turned red.  “I want to ask you some questions.”

            “Kind sir, please.  I was just looking for the Virgin Megastore.  I am not causing problems. I am a bit lost.  Perhaps if you could just point me in the right way…”  How could he get taken in for questioning when he had merely been walking down a crowded street?  This type of thing didn’t happen here.  Khalil’s panic grabbed him much as he tried to will it away.  Captured.

            “I said I want to take you in for questioning.  Hands behind your back.”  The bobby had pulled out his handcuffs.

            “I thought you weren’t arresting me.”  By now a few teenage boys had clustered outside the tube station, drinking beer, the morning coffee of unemployed youth.  The group would probably kick the crap out of him if the bobby didn’t follow through with the arrest.

            “I don’t like you.”  With that the bobby reached out, silver handcuffs gleaming and open.  The pasty fingers with their brown hairs touched Khalil for the second time.  This time he wouldn’t escape them.

            Bombs were going off around the world almost daily now.  Arresting him wouldn’t be enough to stop this one.  Still, a doubt lingered – British authorities turned a blind eye with predictable regularity – unless they had specific intelligence.  Had someone betrayed him?




Palo Alto

George Harris yawned as he tried to read the profile in front of him.  The duties we assume in life get both easier and yet more burdensome as they become more familiar.  Standard, and predictable.  Suspected terrorist.  Algerian.  GSPC, or the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat  (the acronym matched the Frenchified version of the name, as befit a rebel group in a formerly French Colony.), now part of Al Qaeda.  A particularly brutal and fundamentalist Algerian group known for killing any one not Muslim, or not Muslim enough.  Once the Herald Tribune began ignoring their routine massacres in Algeria the group had hitched itself onto on to the larger organization.  A bomb in Africa was only sexy if it had an international brand attached.

Late-thirties.  Male.  Hostile, full of hatred, uncooperative and stupid.  Yes stupid, easily influenced, a moron.  Student of the Koran.   Living as if it were still the middle ages, when Islam ruled supreme.  Spent some time in an American University?  That meant he could rant in English as well as Arabic.

The kids at Stanford channeled their youthful energy into start-ups.  In the Muslim world the boys turned to jihad and death instead.  In both cases the indoctrination was the same – extreme – and otherwise known as brainwashing.

The dim lighting from his lamps was intimate and lent shadows to the room’s corners.  George couldn’t bear the harsh intensity of overhead lights so had installed dimmers throughout the house.  He perched on the edge of his ergonometric chair, papers littering his carved mahogany desk.

The file.  George rubbed his tired eyes as he continued to read, searching for something that would set this man apart.  Philosophy major.  That was something unusual and arresting.  Terrorists typically preferred rules based disciplines – such as engineering or math.  Accordingly, they looked for answers to their life in rules-based Islamic fundamentalism.  The teachings and thought process both adopted structure absolutely. 

His glasses slipped, and he pushed them back up his nose.

The man’s progression was predictable for his age group but starting to disappear.  Terrorism wasn’t conducive to a long life.  Fighting in Afghanistan, Bosnia and even Iraq.  Stays in the Sudan and Chechnya.  Algiers, London, Paris.  Then disappearing from the map until he appears again in London, after likely spending time in a training camp in a miserable and failing third world country.  The sudden change signaled that something bad was about to happen – shaving off a beard, returning from a foreign land, increasing cell phone calls. 

Which led to another clue – a number programmed into Khalil’s cell phone, for a now cancelled cell phone in Los Angeles.  Untraceable.  Why Los Angeles?  It seemed too obvious – since Khalil had attended college years ago in southern California.  Was it just a red herring; fake and distracting?  Or, had it been a handoff – meant to pass the number from one person to the next?

George felt exhaustion in every bone of his not so young body. But he didn’t have time for weakness because his work was too important – so he kept up the intensity.  Since we herd our people into shopping malls and office buildings, or some version of both at the same time, we need brilliant but idealistic types willing to question suspected terrorists.  Until some judge let the detainee out of jail on some ‘rights’ violation.  The government should have kept this one overseas with the rest of them, where our laws couldn’t protect him. 

George sipped his water.  It was lukewarm, the ice having melted hours ago.  He could refresh it, but why bother?  More pressing, the file before him was flimsy, and a bit too pat.  It wasn’t blacked out, or conspicuously short; tricks his superiors played.  Information could be sparse in national security because each agency controlled its own information.  All appeared proper, but it was hollow, containing only the echoes of the man he was to interrogate.    

The days had become long, the nights longer.  George looked around his study; it was both an office and a library.  He was, after all, a professor, another idealistic profession and one he was eager to rejoin.  But he’d written that paper on the psychology of the terrorist, and won an award for it.  That had lead to a visit, interview and security check courtesy of the CIA.  They thought he was some genius, so they gave him a job in secret interrogations (on leave from the Stanford – three years now).  Best of all, he got the tough cases – the guys who hadn’t cracked even, sometimes, after torture.  George also got the honor of serving his country. 

It was late.  The clock, nearly lost among a stack of books, showed a time of 2:13 A.M.  Thank goodness Karen was sleeping.  He could picture her lying in the bedroom nearby.  Her wispy blonde hair spread on white sheets – she would only sleep on white sheets.  She was smart, and had chosen to be a literature professor – Western literature.

George took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, then put them back on.  He was nothing if not a good soldier.  Discipline, once learned, never leaves you.

  But his mind continued to battle his will.  These terrorists, no, suspected terrorists (let’s not forget their rights), weren’t interesting anymore, if they ever had been.  He was hardened now, and worn down.  Why shouldn’t he be?  He worked his ass off, did his research, wrote his reports, and nobody cared.  Nobody. 

George fingered a paperweight.  It was more of a rock really, but it had been on his desk for many years, since his son – then very young – had painted it and presented it to him for father’s day.  A paperweight forever more.  

At the end of the year he would tender his resignation - again.  His long journey was ending and he would rejoin the real world.  Doing good had once seemed achievable, desirable and noble.  But the process of getting there ate you up.  It was a slow rot that left you hardened and indifferent.  All of the passion had left his body, oozing out of him each time he questioned someone who had no right to live, someone full of hatred and murderous intentions.  Profiling these fundamentalist terrorists was ultimately a waste of his intellect – better left to men with more energy and stronger fists.  The truth was that society only wanted the scum to disappear, perhaps onto an electric chair or, for the more liberally minded, into a cozy and humane jail cell somewhere. 

He turned back to the file, and began to read.  The sharp black letters seemed harsh against the white paper.  He willed himself to concentrate, to force the rush of his old enthusiasm to fill his body with restlessness and desire.  He had to create the feeling of a hunt.  For what else is intelligence work but a hunt for information that seeks to allude? 

George jumped, his head whipping around as he heard a noise.  Instantly he relaxed, it was Karen.  She looked annoyed, as she was most of the time these days.  Well, annoyed or indifferent.  Or, was George just over reacting?  That, he knew, would be her never ending comment.

“George, please come to bed.  It’s so late.  You aren’t studying for a final.”  Her voice was just above a whisper.  She never was good at being wakened – sleep deprivation didn’t agree with her.

“In a few minutes.   Honey.”  The words sounded awkward as he spoke them.  Their emotional connection these days was as empty as his file.  The words were there but the meaning was missing. 

The light went off as Karen flipped the switch.  “Now, George.  Someone has to keep you healthy, even if you won’t help.” 

People were dying and she wanted him to sleep.  Suddenly he knew why he did it; thankless, frustrating and hard as the work was. His enemies’ God brought death and destruction.  George’s God brought trials and tribulations – but also redemption.  He couldn’t fix the world, but he could save a person here and there. 

George bit back his words.  A fight this time of night would do no good.  The file would have to sit unread.  Even if people died as a result.  He stood up, wincing as pain shot through his back.  Then, George followed her to bed.


Los Angeles

Omar watched the girl in front of him.  Omar watched her because he wasn’t really listening as she prattled on, content in her simple-minded monologue.  She was typical of the campus girls.  Lean, in an athletic way.  Burnished brown hair and light hazel eyes – the irises speckled gently with mahogany.  Her short skirt, composed of a few ruffles, showed off her legs and exposed her for the slut she was.  Ah, Americana.  Her t-shirt hugged her breasts, highlighting her erect nipples.

            “Well, we spent yesterday at the beach and blew off our classes,” came out of lips glistening with glitter

            For a second he imagined her naked in front of him – as he knew she would be shortly.  Her legs sprawled open, the ever so ripe breasts exposed.  Then his mind went back to where it started.  If he attached a wire to a digital clock, would that be more precise than an old-fashioned dial clock?  How did each timepiece click to the second that formed a new minute?  Should he trust that a bomber would detonate the bomb on time or should he not disclose that a suicide mission was actually taking place?  Now that Khalil had disappeared, Omar should assume leadership.  He was smart enough.   True, the plan was complex  – hence Khalil’s involvement -  so much faith in the seasoned fighter.  But at twenty-four Omar was ready to assume a leadership role.  The basic details were already set anyway.  Only the execution remained.  That he could do. 

            Omar, of course, was fully conscious of the concerns within his organization.  The plot was too important to trust a rookie.  Surveillance was more sophisticated than it used to be.  Everything was just that much harder.  And on.  But, all excuses aside, whom else did they really have?  Eventually they may try to replace Khalil – but not until Omar had used the opportunity to step boldly into Khalil’s shoes.  After all, stripped down to its basic elements the plot was only a few bombs.  Bombs laced with sarin.  His own background was crucial.  How many brilliant scientists could a terrorist organization sneak into the United States?  And yet, sarin was only a few ingredients mixed so elegantly together.  Deadly to the chemist if done incorrectly.

            “So, then, I thought we could go to the party together on Saturday night.”

            Omar flashed his perfect smile.  The celebrity dentist in Century City.  He knew that his white teeth were dramatic, set off as they were by the deep richness of his dark skin.  He looked down at himself, pleased at what he saw.  The daily laps in his family’s pool in Riyadh had formed a muscular physique.  His ripped jeans and tailored t-shirt had been his uniform since college in Hamburg.  No point in hiding any of his assets.

            Completing his PhD. in chemical engineering would take years.  Except he had no intention of finishing.  Omar glanced around the broad expanse of UCLA’s lawn, with its steep steps heading up the hill.  The campus was a far cry from the Saudi desert of his youth.

            Omar put his arm around the girl standing before him, glad that she had finally shut up.  He caressed her stomach, feeling the downy hair that grew across it.  She reminded him of horseflesh, warm and firm.

            “Allah has sent you here to be my angel.”

            Life was so simple if you just followed the rules.  Everything clicked into place.  Mix methylphosphonyl difluoride  with a blend of isopropyl alcohol and inosproplyl amine and you get sarin.  Add gunpowder and ‘boom’.  Everything nearby was obliterated.  And life was certainly no more complicated when dealing with a woman.

            “You are so beautiful, my dear.”  Omar heard his voice lilting, wafting through the warm Southern California air.  The scent of perfume mingled with healthy sweat as he drew her just a little bit closer, enjoying the heat of skin through his thin shirt.  

            Ah, the sins of the flesh.  He loved the freedom he had here to indulge himself.  His sins would all be washed away when he died a martyr’s death.



Would they make him eat dirt?

            The footsteps hitting the cold concrete of the hallway were unmistakable in their direction and would clearly bring no good.  The air burned around him, without the promise of escape.  The shadowy cell didn’t even have a window cut into one of its four flimsy plastered walls.  He was alone, until they came to torture him again.  Or, perhaps even worse, to talk. 

            Khalil felt sweat beading on his forehead.  It dripped into the open cut still bleeding on his cheek.  The resulting salty sting felt bitter.  He shifted his body on the rags that served as a bed, feeling the dull ache.  Rubbing his wrists he marveled at the thick scabs that optimistically sprouted after each successive set of ropes was cut free.  At least the body could sometimes heal. 

            The footsteps continued their even pace.  His feet were crusted with mud.  The door was speckled with dried blood.  Dirt clumped up in the room’s corners, forming a breeding ground for beetles and worms.  The filth of the cell was emblematic of their souls. 

He concentrated, trying once again to focus his fragmented mind.  He needed strength.  Khalil pictured his brother and his cousin as they walked away from him for the last time.  Only a few hours later their bodies would be twisted, mangled, dead.  Their blood had pooled together, resting on top of a hot earth which refused to drink it in.  His dead cousin’s mouth had been covered with dirt, as he lay prone in the hot sands of their aching homeland.  The image still sent shudders through him whenever he tried to sleep.  Now, when they let him sleep. 

             He would avenge the deaths of Hassan and Josef.  No matter what these infidels did to him.  Pain was his friend.  Besides, it wasn’t the pain that got to him.  That shooting sensation of loosing your mind.  No, he was trained to resist this sort of ordeal.  Rather, it was the desperate attempts to remember his prayers, so beloved and his only source of strength in this world.  How could he forget something that was such a part of his soul?  Sometimes, tired, beaten, he did.  No, he almost did.  They hadn’t won such a victory yet.  Nor would they.  Allah was testing him, quite simply because he was chosen.  And, he would continue doing Allah’s work.

Still, the steps, getting ever closer.  The hallway wasn’t long enough. 

 Allahu Akbar, he repeated until he could almost taste the afterlife.  Dates and honey.  Meat, roasted and fragrant as it dissolved in his mouth.  The soft flesh of women as they rubbed up against him.  Allah had shown him little mercy in this world.  That would have to come later.

The heavy door opened.  Two Americans entered the room, moving quickly toward him.  With these people it was always haste.  They had no time for Allah.  Theirs was an evil world, full of temptation and sin.

    “We’re back to chat, Khalil.”  The tall one had red hair, light skin, freckles and brown eyes.  His voice had a harsh twang.  He wore a military uniform – a generic interrogator and a standard southern hick.  He sat down at the excuse for a table.

            The shorter, heavier one gestured to Khalil.  “Come on and sit.”  His tone was fierce, as always.  Khalil tried to collect himself.  The man’s clunky black boot hit his right shin, sending him crashing to the floor.  Khalil’s elbow broke the fall but sliced open.  He stared down at the blood.  A fly landed in one of the crimson drops.  

            “You can’t do that.  You know you can’t do that, you cocksucker,”  Big Red sounded indignant.  He must have seen much worse than a simple kick to the shin.  Did the Americans really believe that the good cop/bad strategy would work?

            “Shut up, you pussy.”  The other one said.  Khalil was still staring down as a beetle joined the fly.  He felt the air move just before a hand yanked him up by shirt and hair, shoving him into a splintering chair.

Dimly, Khalil was aware of his tormentors as they questioned him.  The room echoed as they spoke.  Not a word registered. He tried to focus on a spider, as it crawled down a bleak wall.   He was frightened.  His interrogators no longer seemed real and present.  They had worn him away, as they expected to do. 

And he hated them, despised them.  His feelings were so intense they almost dissipated the pain.  But not quite.  He cursed himself for his weakness.  Allah is great, Allah is good, he chanted.

“Tell us why you were in London, Khalil.”  The short one’s blue eyes were small, while his thin lips twisted up.  The veins splintered in a web of blue.

   He smelled their oppressive sweat and felt the heat coming off their bodies.  They carried a pungent, revolting stench, in spite of their detergents, deodorants and frequent showers.  No matter what they did, the odor of the damned couldn’t be rinsed off. 

He had long ago abandoned his body to the stifling heat that made his scabs itch.  Or perhaps the itch came from the bugs, feeding from his wounds as he tried to sleep.

“I told you, just visiting friends.  I lived there eight years ago.”  Khalil’s voice was soft, non-threatening.  The words were rote, the story created long ago and much repeated.

He took a small comfort in knowing that his eyes wouldn’t focus.  He used to find a point upon which to center his gaze during the torture; an attempt to concentrate elsewhere.  He no longer needed to.  Lack of sleep, the omnipresent bright lights and constant barrages had worked their charms.  He was disoriented, completely, irrevocably. 

But their mistake was that he was no longer a part of this world.  Nor did he desire to be.  That wish had died with his brother.  Didn’t he deserve to suffer?   Why hadn’t he gone with Hassan and Josef that day?  Perhaps had he done so they wouldn’t have died.  And he wouldn’t have felt this need to redeem himself.

One of the holographic men said something to him, infringing into Khalil’s memories.  “Not good enough, Khalil.  We told you before – you’re on a watch list.  We know you have a lot to hide.  Help us.  For your own good.”  Too many questions.  He stared at Big Red, trying to concentrate on his face. 

But Khalil could only see the spider.  He stood, and limped away.  He reached the wall, everything was so close together:  his rags, the toilet hole, the table with the interrogators and three chairs. 

He watched the spider for a minute and considered crushing it.  He also thought about using the grime of the cell to wash himself before praying.  But Khalil had no need for a grand gesture.  No reason to anger his interrogators and make the mission personal.

Behind him the short, fat one was speaking again.  “Look you fucker, get back over here, we’re talking to you.”

Khalil ignored him and walked to the sink.  After washing himself he faced Qiblah and began to pray.  This time the familiar verses came.  Khalil felt the surge of strength that comes when you’ve thrown an opponent off guard and gained control.  If the Americans came during prayer time they would have to wait. 

He heard a movement behind him.  The piss hit Khalil’s hair as he touched his forehead to the ground.  The warm liquid soaked into his jumpsuit, and he heard the interrogator zip up his pants.  So much for Khalil’s benediction. 


© Aabby 2013


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