October - 1985
In the Middle Eastern Country of Zeneen
George was home. Now he just had to convince the guys in the uniforms that he belonged. As he approached the uniformed men, four rifles rose in choreographed unison. Looking down four rifle barrels was not the homecoming he had envisioned, especially as the four trigger fingers below the barrels tensed.
He stopped just short of the front door. “My name is George Magdi. My father owns this villa.”
The guard in charge ran his eyes up and down a clipboard, “Your name is not on the list.”
“That is because they didn’t know I was coming.”
The tips of the rifles remained menacingly directed at him, trigger fingers still taut.
“If your name’s not on this list, you don’t get in.”
George tried to ignore the threatening guns, “Please check.”
The guard looked him up and down.
Several moments passed. Finally one of the other guards said, “Go ahead. Give them a call. It won’t hurt.”
Finally shrugging his shoulders, the guard with the list picked up the intercom. “You had better be who you say you are.” After a few moments he had a voice on the other end, “Excuse me, Madam Magdi. A man here says he is your son and he. . . ”
There was a shriek. With a look of puzzlement, he pulled the mouthpiece down and looked at it. The door flew open. “George!” Madam Magdi charged out of the door and swallowed him up in her arms. “George, you’re home! Humdilallah.”
“I couldn’t miss Sis’s sixteenth birthday.”
With her arm around his waist, she half pulled, half dragged him through the door, into a large room. “Everybody. George has returned!”
The room buzzed. George’s name echoed off the walls.
A young girl rushed across the room. “George, you’re home. What a great birthday present!”
“Yes Sis, I am home. Happy birthday.”
“Oh, George, it is. In fact, it is a very special birthday now.”
People came flying from all directions, hugging and kissing him, gathering around him. It was a welcome far exceeding his expectations.
He waved his hand. ”Hi everyone. Yes, I am back with the ones I love. I have been a big fool. Thank you for your welcome.”
As things settled down, his sister Maha snuggled up to him. “Oh George, I’m so glad that you came back. I’m having so much fun.”
“You look great, Maha, so pretty in that dress.”
As they continued talking and getting caught up, George noticed his father, all by himself in the corner, nestled in his favorite overstuffed chair. His heart jumped a bit. His father had not joined in his welcoming celebration. In fact, he was acting as if George wasn’t even there. “Father doesn’t look very well. He looks so pale and weak.”
Maha answered, “He has gone through a tough time. He was just this close,” raising her hand and showing her thumb just a little short distance from her index finger, “to being the leader of our country. He expended so much effort and emotion. It took just about everything out of him. He is so depressed. And it hasn’t helped that all the money we had in the bank has disappeared. To rub salt in the wound, we are sure that it is now helping General Tewfick’s wave of terror.”
“That really does make it worse."
“It has caused a lot of health issues. In fact, he had some severe chest pains a few days ago. He even insists he’s going to die. His problems are both physical and emotional right now. We are so worried about him.”
“I think I had better go over and make my peace.”
George walked over and sat on the arm of his father’s chair.
“How are you doing, Father?”
His father continued staring to the front.
“Father, when we had our big falling out, I was young, and I was wrong. You were right to kick me out. I was a big donkey. I am here now to ask your forgiveness.”
His father turned. Tears started streaming down the father’s face.
“Son. You don’t know how long I have yearned to hear those words.” He reached over and wrapped his arm around George. “Son, it is just as much my fault. I just forgot how rebellious I was when I was seventeen. I’m sorry. I should have been more understanding.”
Now it was George’s turn to tear up and give his father a hug.
“You know, Father, I have never told you how much I have always respected you. And even more so now for all you have done since the revolution. You came so close to being able to lead the country after the coup. If General Tewfick hadn’t had the army behind him, you would be ruling Zeneen now. And Zeneen would have been so much better off. Some of this crap that Tewfick is pulling is horrible. You have shown a lot of courage to ignore the warnings that I understand that you have received.”
“Well, thank you, Son. I appreciate that. But that is history now. It is what we do in the future that is going to count. It has been frustrating. I am exhausted now. I wish I could go on leading the opposition. But I just don’t have the strength anymore.”
“I can see that you are tired. But I think you have done marvelous things. Nobody has stood up to the tyrant as you have. Because of you, changes are going to come. The country really owes you a tremendous debt of gratitude. And there is no doubt that you are the one to lead.”
“Thank you. If you can give me some help, maybe I have a little more fight left after all.”
“From now on, I will always be here with you.”
His father said nothing but squeezed George harder.
For several moments they sat, hand in hand, watching the celebration going on around them.
George broke the silence. “It’s such a warm feeling to see everybody enjoying themselves so. It has been a long time since we were all able to get together. I‘m glad that we were today, even if it is for just one day. The outside world seems far away right now.”
“Yes, it’s great, isn’t it? It’s been a while.”
George looked at his father’s face. The tension that met his eyes made him very sad.
“Father, who are the guards at the door. They’re not Tewfick’s soldiers, are they?”
“Hell no! That would be like having the fox guard the chicken coop, wouldn’t it? They’ve been with me from before the revolution. They are loyal.”
“That makes me feel a little better.”
George gazed across the room to a glowing Maha. “Maha has really grown up, hasn’t she? She is becoming a very beautiful lady.”
His father nodded in agreement.
They both sat there taking in the festivities. Finally, George stood up, “Be back in a minute, Father.”
He was a few steps away when his father called, “George, you have made this old man very happy before I die.”
George returned and gave his father a hug. “You’re not old, and you are not going to die for a long time, Father. Remember, you’re going to lead the opposition. You can’t do that if you’re dead.”
“Thanks Son, perhaps you’re right. Having you here has really picked me up. I think I am ready to take on that bastard again.”
“That’s the spirit, Father. I’m glad to see the fire back in your eyes. Tewfick better look out.”
George turned and continued to walk to the bathroom.
Just as he was finished in the bathroom, noise exploded from the living room: the sound of a door being broken in - people screaming and yelling - shots being fired.
George cracked the bathroom door. He could not believe his eyes. The four “loyal” guards stood in the middle of the room, firing weapons in all directions. He saw his older brother spin and slump to the floor.
George quickly closed the door and looked around for a weapon, anything he could use to help his family. But there was none. Finally, realizing time was running out and he could do nothing, he pulled back a throw rug, opened a trapdoor, dropped down through the opening into the subbasement below, and shut the door above him. His heart thumped as footsteps passed back and forth above his head. He had tried to pull the rug over the trapdoor as he closed it, but it was difficult to do, and he was sure that he had fumbled the job badly. The trapdoor is not adequately hidden. His heart was beating wildly. He stared at the bottom of the trapdoor knowing that any minute it was going to fly upward. Minutes passed. The trapdoor must be hidden better than I thought. Finally . . . . eerie silence.
He tentatively pushed the trapdoor slightly open and peeked out. No intruders. He pulled himself up out of the opening and crawled on his hands and knees into the living room. A horrific sight met his eyes. Bodies were everywhere, bodies of all those he loved most. There was no one left alive. His father was slumped over in his overstuffed chair where George had just left him. Another dangerous rival to Tewfick - eliminated. His sister was lying in the middle of the floor. She would never see a day past sixteen. His brother lay next to her. His mother sat rigid, staring blankly into the room, her back against a doorway.
Rage filled his body! He beat on the wall. Shook his fist in the air. Screamed at the top of his voice, “Tewfick, You monster, I will get you! I will get you, if it takes the rest of my life! I will never forget you! I will kill you, you bastard!”
Thursday - Late Night
West Virginia, U.S.A.
Stale air, smoke, and ear-piercing country and western music smacked Hussein El Sherta as he grudgingly pushed open the door to Rowdy Ringo's Bar and Grill. The atmosphere was foreign to his cultural background. He did not like the surroundings, he did not like his mission, and he knew that he was not going to like the man he was about to meet.
He stepped through the doorway, paused, and through the thick air studied the scene in front of him. The room was packed with men and women dressed in cowboy garb. Tabletops were lost under mountains of brown longneck beer bottles. The band blared away with a melody and beat that pained his Middle Eastern ears. The lead singer, a woman in her thirties, wore a skin-tight florescent gold sequined outfit that formed a ‘V’ down the front to showcase a generous amount of an ample bosom. Hussein's skin crawled. Just about every activity that violated his Muslim background was now jolting his senses, an affront to his very being. Don't these people realize they are insulting Allah, and that Allah will deal with them in his own way? Fools!
He forced himself to ignore the overwhelming desire to abandon his mission, and scanned the room for a man he had never met, but whom he knew he would recognize on sight. With all the people and the hazy atmosphere, though, it seemed as if it bordered on the impossible. He didn't relish the idea of pushing through this chaos to continue his search.
As he stood there in indecision, with his body pulling him toward the door, he heard a voice at his side, "Are you Hussein?”
He turned and found a tough looking man with a black beard and a well-worn cowboy hat pulled down with the brim covering his eyes.
"Yes, I am Hussein."
The man nodded for him to follow and started threading his way through the crowd. Hussein fell in behind, getting elbowed and lightly shoved by the unruly throng, adding anger to his anxiety. They were almost across the room when he realized they were heading toward the back door, and he hadn’t seen Taylor, yet. He didn't like it.
He spoke above the noise to the man leading the way, "Is Taylor here?"
The man continued walking. They approached what appeared to be an empty booth situated next to the door. The bench facing him was indeed empty, but when he reached the booth itself, he realized that in the opposite seat, facing away from him, toward the door, and sheltered by the partition between booths, was a man. A man in his early forties with premature silver-gray hair. Dark steely eyes peered out of a well-tanned face. There was no doubt. This was Daulton Taylor. This was the man he had come to meet.
The dark steely eyes sized him up. "You must be Hussein."
"And you must be Taylor."
"Sit down. Wanna beer?"
Hussein slid into the seat opposite Taylor with the other man following behind. "I do not drink alcohol!"
The emphatic negative response obviously caught Taylor off guard. "Uh huh. Oh . . . okay, so what’d ya want?"
"I don’t suppose they serve orange juice, do they?"
Taylor gave him a look of utter disdain. "Betty Jo," addressing the waitress who had just walked up, attired in tight jeans and a western style shirt, limited to a few strategically located buttons fastened up the front and the shirt tails tied in a knot exposing a tanned bare midriff. "What do ya have that my non-alcoholic friend here can drink?"
"Coke, 7-up, soda water . . . that's about it."
"And another ditch for me, and a beer for Lawrence."
Hussein's eyes followed Betty Jo’s exit with interest.
"I see that you’re not against all the finer things in life after all," said Taylor as he watched Hussein with amusement.
"I was just thinking how disrespectful that woman is," said Hussein,
"Disrespectful? That’s not what I read."
"I don’t care what you read. Women don’t dress like that in my country. They have respect for themselves."
This brought a pause in the conversation. Hussein gazed out into the room taking in all the boisterous activities. He was confused. He didn't think there were cowboys in West Virginia. They were supposed to be out in the western part of the country, Texas, Arizona, somewhere like that. On his journey here he hadn’t seen any cows or open range that he associated with cowboys. Yet here was a whole room full of them. Where did they come from? It was all very perplexing. There was a whole lot that he still had to learn about the United States. He shook his head. He would get back to this puzzle later, but right now he had more important things to concern himself with.
He addressed Taylor. "You said you had some important information I might be interested in."
At this point Betty Jo returned with the drinks and set them on the table.
Taylor lifted his glass toward Hussein. "Here's to ya."
Hussein picked up his glass, made a token motion toward Taylor, and started to drink the cola. From his nervousness his mouth was extremely dry, and the cold, sweet liquid tasted good and refreshing. The liquid shot down his throat in one gulp. As he finished and placed the glass down on the table he realized that there had been a slight bitter aftertaste. This place is affecting all my senses.
Taylor eyed the empty glass. "You must’ve been awful thirsty."
Hussein ignored the comment. "What’s the information?"
"I think you may have some interest in a little conspiracy that’s come to my attention."
"What conspiracy? Does it involve General Tewfick?"
"I think the best way to explain it is to show you something in my pickup."
"In your pickup? Why not here?"
"When you see it, you will understand. Come on, let's go take a look."
"This had better be worth the drive here from D. C."
"You won't know till you see it, will ya?"
"Okay, let’s go."
"Follow Lawrence out. I'll take care of the bill and be right behind you."
Hussein and Lawrence started across the room. It seemed to Hussein that the people in the room had become even more raucous than before, if that was possible. Every step he took, he was being bumped and shoved.
"Hey, watch it buddy," a voice blared in his ear. Then he stumbled into someone else. He was having trouble walking straight. He seemed to be the problem.
What in the name of Allah is wrong with me? He was becoming very confused. The floor started to wave in front of him. He was dizzy, his stomach achy. He reached the entrance. He felt Lawrence grab him under his arm and guide him through the door. For a brief moment the fresh air seemed to help. All of a sudden, weakness consumed his body. His knees buckled. He grabbed a post and hung on for support.
"You'll have to excuse my friend," he heard Lawrence say through the fog. "I'm afraid he’s had a little too much to drink."
Hussein felt Lawrence brusquely dislodged him from his support and lead him out into the parking lot. It was all he could do to keep going.
They stopped at a car. With the assistance of a slight shove by Lawrence, Hussein sprawled face first across the hood. He felt a tug at the side of his pants and then the rattle of keys.
He realized that Taylor had joined them when he heard him ask Lawrence if there had been any problems.
"Nope, that stuff hit him fast."
"The way he chug-a-lugged his drink, I'm not surprised."
"Here're his keys." For several seconds there was rattling of keys. "I believe those’re the car keys. I've got the others. Did you get out okay?"
"Yeah, think so. With that booth by the back door, I don't think anybody ever saw me. It was a smart move to have Betty Jo cut off the door’s emergency alarm so that I was able to come and go without attracting any attention."
“Yeah, it’ll make it a lot easier to swear that you weren’t there, if any one ever questions it. “
The door of the car opened. Hussein felt a shoving motion. It was hard for him to focus on anything. Strangely, though, this all felt familiar. Then it hit him. He was now in his own car. His muddled mind tried to grasp the meaning of all this, but it just wasn’t up to it at that moment.
Then he heard the garbled voice of Taylor again. "Yes, Hussein, as I said, there is a conspiracy, and you're right in the middle of it. I'm afraid you're not gonna like this one bit."
He felt his head thrust back and a liquid, the foulest tasting he had ever experienced, seared his throat. He tried to resist, but it was useless. The smell of whisky reached his nose. Panic set in. He had never before allowed alcohol to desecrate his body. Then the world started fading away. Darkness came.
Hussein gradually emerged out of his dark stupor. He became cognizant of movement. A force shoved him sideways, sliding him to his left along the car seat. The steering wheel bumped his chest as he slid behind it. His head was throbbing; he felt sick. Why all this was taking place just didn’t seem important at the moment. Even when a new sensation surfaced, a forward, rolling motion, his befuddled mind refused to accept the situation. He grabbed his forehead and settled back, letting the back of his head fall against the headrest.
Taylor's menacing voice penetrated the fog. "So long sucker, I got a plane to catch." A car door slammed shut, jolting his elbow. All this wasn’t making much sense. The situation called for resolution, but his brain was temporarily out of order. The first item of business was to stop those little charges of dynamite that were detonating inside his head. The low drone of the engine made him sleepy. Sleep would be an excellent escape at the moment.
The shrill of a trouble alarm, buried somewhere in his subconscious, was starting to penetrate. He forced his brain to slowly click into low gear. What was going on? Where was this motion taking him? The effort to open his eyes failed miserably. In the brief moment he was able to get his eyes open, getting them to focus proved to be impossible. He settled back again as the pounding in his brain intensified. Shortly, though, he sensed that the rolling action was accelerating at an alarming rate. The importance of this realization hit, quickly energizing his system. His brain kicked into second gear, forcing his eyes open a little further, achieving a semblance of focus. His eyes flew open. The car was veering to the right off the shoulder of a roadway that was curving to the left. Ahead of him was nothing but a drop off and open space.
Instinctively, he slammed his foot down on the brake pedal and grabbed the steering wheel in front of him, jerking it to the left, trying to follow the curve. However, even with adrenaline gushing through his veins, the effects of the drug and alcohol reduced all reactions to slow motion. He felt the wheels leave the ground, and he was airborne. For what seemed like an eternity, he floated through air. Then the nose of the car started dipping. The ground was surging up to meet him.
With blood vessels protruding, he tightened his grip on the steering wheel, first frantically spinning it, trying to change his direction, and then pulling back on it with all his might, trying to lift the plunging nose. At the same time, he forced his foot down harder on the brake pedal, straining every muscle in his now rigid, straight body . . . But the car continued to fall . . . the direction unchanged . . . the nose still downward . . . the air rushing past the turned, locked wheels at an ever increasing rate, the locked wheels having no effect on the ever flowing wind rushing against the rubber.
Friday - Early Afternoon
Washington, D. C.
Standing at the window of his suite on the 9th floor, General Tewfick glowered down at the demonstration below. Twenty people were gathered in front of the Continental Hotel in Washington, D. C on this crisp, stimulating autumn day, to take advantage of the General’s visit to the U.S. They were there to protest, by presence and placard, the conditions in Zeneen, their tiny country tucked away in its own little corner of the Middle East.
General Tewfick, the ruler of Zeneen, was an imposing figure. He wore a well-fitted, neatly pressed, army uniform decorated with three rows of medals of various sizes, shapes, types, and colors. He had black curly hair over a stern, menacing face, olive in color. He was an astute man and used his height, appearance, and uniform to intimidate all who appeared before him.
He had taken over control of the country in 1984. For many years prior to that, life in that country had been by all appearances peaceful and serene. The general populace enjoyed a satisfying, uncomplicated life under the existing democratic government. Yet under the crust of the country, a ground swell of political opposition was growing among many segments. The most active of these were the fundamentalists, unhappy about the country moving toward more liberal and westernized ways, away from the doctrines taught by the prophet, Mohammed.
In that year, the government reached a financial crisis of major proportions. Many items were being subsidized, creating a heavy drain on the treasury. The government was paying out a staggering amount to cover these items. Finally, the burden became overwhelming, and the government was forced to take drastic action and eliminated all subsidies.
Immediately, protests broke out, small and orderly to begin with. Then as they continued, they became larger and more violent, spreading across the entire country. Many people and groups, people and groups who had no use or interest in subsidies, were fanning the coals of violence. Their interest was in the destruction of the government that was contrary to their own interests. The country was rocked by revolution, torn apart from within.
In only a few weeks, the government collapsed, and a major power struggle developed between these groups for control. When the smoke had cleared, one man stood atop the political rubble pile, the man who controlled the army--General Tewfick, who was now on a good will tour of the United States.
The General's secretary, Abdulla, entered the room, "General, Ministers Hamdy and Kamel and the American have arrived."
"Good, show them to the office and bring us some tea.”
For several minutes he continued his vigil at the window. He was in no hurry to join his visitors. In General Tewfick’s personal book of techniques to impress inferiors, rule number one was clear: keep them waiting.
Finally, he slammed his fist into the palm of his hand, silently cursed the crowd below, turned, and stalked out the door.
As he passed a hall mirror, he stopped and surveyed his uniform. The uniform was an important cog in the image he wished to project. He wore it at all times, routinely changing it two or three times a day, keeping his servant staff very busy cleaning and pressing. His uniform passed his inspection. He continued on.
At the office he found three men awaiting him, two that were on his staff. One was Col. Ali Kamel, the Minister of Defense, and the other Dr. Hossam Hamdy, the Minister of Finance. Both men, dressed smartly in business suits, had served him well during the coup, and were privileged members of his cabinet, the only ministers to be included in his traveling entourage.
They had also proved themselves invaluable in the days following the coup. After Tewfick established his position at the top of the new dictatorial government, he methodically strengthened his power each day, until it was absolute. He then immediately started to steadily siphon off the limited resources of the country. The harsh realization that the new regime was a hundred times worse than the old began to set in. Small fires of revolt, fueled by those disillusions again started flaring up all over the country. As they grew, the General turned more and more to control by the use of fear and force.
In order to keep this stronghold, he started implementing methods that were so harsh and so effective that all opposition in the country was systematically and ruthlessly crushed. Those in opposition had to flee the country and fight their battle from abroad. The two ministers had no qualms about assisting the General in this brutal campaign.
General Tewfick greeted his countrymen in typical Middle East fashion, placing his hands on each Minister’s shoulders and brushing both their cheeks with his. Minister Kamel then turned, and speaking in English, gestured toward the third man, "General, I have the pleasure to introduce to you Mr. John Harvey, the gentleman with the vast resources I’ve told you about." The General studied his guest. John Harvey was a large overweight man with dull, unkempt red hair. The ruddy complexion, the red streaks surrounding the green iris of his cloudy eyes, and the thin, purple broken blood vessels covering his bulb-shaped nose were the marks of a man who had partaken of more than his share of the devil's brew. He looked uncomfortable in a tan jacket that just didn’t quite hang right, and trousers that just didn't quite fit right. The jacket was unbuttoned, exposing a brown striped tie, hanging with an excessive exposed length of tail protruding below the tie itself. Behind the jacket and the tie was a plain dark brown shirt, the buttons straining under the assault of the stomach behind them and appearing in grave danger of losing the battle. Despite these failings in his wardrobe, General Tewfick could tell that Harvey’s general demeanor was one of shrewdness and confidence, a man he could not take lightly.
“Ah yes, Mr. Harvey,” said the General extending his hand. “It is so good to meet you. Your reputation has preceded you.”
"Hello, General," said Harvey firmly grasping an extended hand that returned an equally strong grip.
"I have heard much about your capabilities. I hope they prove true."
"I can assure you, you will not be disappointed."
"That is good to hear. Please, gentlemen, sit down," said the General motioning across to the sitting area of the room.
The four crossed the room to the sitting area. As they sat down, a servant woman wearing the galabeya dress and with her head wrapped in the tahgeea, both traditional and both in black, appeared, poured four glasses of syrupy tea, very sweet and very thick, and then shuffled out of the room without ever raising her eyes.
"I apologize for the refreshments, Mr. Harvey. I know you’re used to indulging in a stronger beverage, but today I’m afraid you will have to put up with our ways."
"Mahfish musquella. Tea’s fine with me."
"No problem, huh. I see you know Arabic."
"Just a few phrases. It helps in my business."
General Tewfick ignored this explanation and entered into the discussion with the conventional Arab preliminary question, "And how is your family?"
"I'm afraid I don't have much of a family, General. My business doesn't lend itself to such endeavors."
"Oh, such a shame. Every man should have the comforts of a family."
"Unfortunately, it just doesn't work out in my case. I noticed coming into the hotel that you’ve attracted quite a lot of attention outside,” remarked Harvey.
"You mean those donkeys harassing me? I don't understand why your government allows me to be treated like this."
"You don't like the protests, huh?"
"I do not like to be insulted. Why is such disrespectful action allowed toward a visiting dignitary? Why don't they stomp those dogs?"
"Our government protects all the people, General. It protects you against bodily harm. It protects the people down there to their right of expression."
"But, those people down there are offensive. They should be trampled, put in their place. We would never allow this to happen in my country. Your country speaks of freedom, but it cannot survive in this way.”
"Well, General, our country seems to be doing a pretty good job of surviving with freedom. Everyone has a say in how this country’s run. It has been pretty successful for over two hundred years now."
"Two hundred years! Please, spare me this longevity success story. Two hundred years is just a grain of sand in our hourglass of history. Future history books will prove how naive your young country really is."
"You mean force should be used to control the country?” questioned Harvey.
"But it seems to me this must leave the people unhappy. It has been my experience that unhappy constituents have a habit of starting revolutions."
"Ah, yes, a point well taken. Of course, they may do just that. But is that not what keeps you in business, Mr. Harvey?"
"I'm just selling you the weapons, General. Why you need them, and how and where you use them is strictly your business."
"Do you have any problem with this arrangement?"
"Oh no, no problem. It’s all your responsibility."
"Good, it pleases me that your conscience is clear,” said Tewfick.
"I think we will get along famously."
"I'm sure we will. Now down to business. I’m told there’s nothing beyond your reach. That your influence in some places is simply amazing. I have here a list of the goods I require. Some of them’re specialty items that may not be on the market."
"Let me emphasize, General, any item you want is on the market for one price or another. That’s my expertise. That’s why you hired me, to find where the market is, what the price is, and what is necessary to obtain the item."
"Ah yes," said the General. He handed Harvey a sheet of paper, "Here’s the list."
Harvey ran his hand through a short scraggly red beard as he scanned the list. "Uh huh, this is quite impressive. Do you want to start a war, or defend yourself against one?"
"Right now my interest is in making sure the stupid people in my country don’t do anything stupid."
"Like start a revolution?"
"Like start a revolution. Possibly, in the near future, if Allah wills, I might branch out and exert my influence on other countries needing the help of Allah."
“Whether they request your help or not?”
“I will determine if they need help or not.”
"Okay, the list is going to be challenging, especially the last item. But I’ll put it all together for you."
"How soon will it be before you have some information for me?"
Harvey again studied the list. “Well, as I said, it’s going to be a difficult. But, I don’t have any other pressing business right now, so I will be able to put all my effort on it right now. I should be able to have most of them if not all of them located within a couple of weeks."
"That’s impressive. We are leaving for Los Angeles shortly, and we should still be there then. Please contact me there. We will be returning to Zeneen in about two weeks. Abdulla will be able to provide you with the information on where I can be contacted." The General got up. "I will look forward to receiving your information then."
Harvey shook hands with all three men. Abdulla arrived, handed him an envelope, and at General Tewfick's instructions, was escorted to the elevator by Minister Kamel.
Friday – Early Afternoon
Los Angeles, California
The orange scented backyard of a southern California home was the scene of three men enjoying a moment of satisfying relaxation.
Sitting on an ice chest, shaded from the sun by a large backyard orange tree, thirty-three year old George Magdi, short, and stocky, with Middle Eastern features, sipped an ice tea.
Fair-haired, athletic-looking Don Jackson, sitting with his back against another tree a short distance away, was imbibing a slightly different beverage. “Damn, this cold beer hits the spot. I think it just exploded going down the back of my throat.”
"And speaking of cold beer," added tall, lanky Mark Reynolds, popping the top of a cool brew, "It’s a strange sight to see you with an ice tea in your hand, George. In fact, I think it’s got to be a first.”
"Yeah, I know. It pisses me off. No alcohol the day I’m working, is just another one of the aggravations of being on duty tonight," answered George. The duty referred to was as an air controller at Los Angeles International Airport.
This banter was part of the annual gathering of the Jackson, Reynolds, and Magdi families. The three men had shared an apartment while attending the University of California at Berkeley and had remained best friends since their graduation ten years previously. Since that time Don had become a FBI agent based in San Francisco, and Mark an exporter now living in Marin County, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco.
They had referred to themselves as the “Three Amigos” at Cal, and that name, now with the families included, had survived these many years.
Annually, for each of the last eight years, they had picked out a Cal football game, and the families gathered together to observe this autumn ritual with a weekend of visiting, eating, drinking, and football, alternating two years in the north, and the third year in the south. This was the south’s year, so it was George and his wife Sabrina’s turn to host the get-together before the game of choice, the Cal – USC game, scheduled to be played the next day at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
The beverages being consumed were especially welcome, as a vigorous session of football competition had just wrapped up in the open area of the backyard. They still were basking in the glories of college intramural football championships past.
"I would say, knowing your love of beer, that’s a sacrifice of the greatest magnitude. I give you a lot of credit," said Mark, commenting on George’s ice tea while reaching up and wiping the sweat from his brow.
"Yeah, I do too. At least we know all the planes will be safe tonight," said Don with a slight rubbing-it-in tone to his voice.
George just frowned.
The sound of children, the Magdis’ four-year-old son Jonathon; the Jackson’s’ six-year-old son Joey, and three-year-old daughter Georgie; floated across from a small play area at the side of the yard.
The families’ camaraderie, fellowship, closeness, and mutual love were obvious to all. When blended with their university memories, Cal football, and the football game itself, this get together was their ultimate weekend. One looked forward to each year with great anticipation. It was a time when valued friendships and relationships matured and bonded. Sadly and unbeknownst to the people gathered in the backyard, this get-together, number eight, would be their last. Before next autumn, drastic and tragic changes would take place in all of their lives. There would be no number nine.
As they were talking, little Georgie left her playmates, strolled over, and crawled up in George’s lap, giving him a big hug. George had a very special bonding with his godchild namesake.
George returned her hug. "How's my girl doing?"
She snuggled up even more. "Okay, Uncle George. . . . . I love you."
Bleached-blonde, outgoing Sabrina Magdi, who stood several inches taller than her husband, walked up. "George, I hate to disturb you, but I think the chicken’s just about done, and it’s time for the resident expert to create our steaks." Turning to the others she added, “As you know, George doesn’t just grill steaks anymore; he creates them.”
“And does a damn good job of it, too,” said Mark.
George, followed by the other two, swaggered over to the barbecue, exaggeratedly took the fork from Sabrina, and with much panache, inspected each thick slice of meat. After dramatically declaring each worthy of his grill, one by one they were deftly placed on the red-hot wires. The generated juice oozed out and trickled down, splattering on the red-hot coals below, each sizzling drop creating an instant burst of flame. An eruption of smoke swirled past the group, immediately arousing gastric juices.
At this point, Mark’s wife Jean, who had been in the house, rejoined the group and remarked about a commendation, awarded to George, hanging in the hall. George continued busying himself with the grilling, leaving the response to Sabrina.
"He’s had quite a few throughout the years, but he’s always stuck the certificate in a drawer somewhere and never mentions them. I felt it was high time to do something about it. I had to fight, but he finally agreed to let me hang this one up in an inconspicuous place in the back hallway."
"Must not be too inconspicuous," grumbled George.
"Well, now, that is impressive," said Don.
"Son of a gun," said Mark. "What happened, George?"
George ignored the question, but Sabrina continued, "A pilot of one of the commuter airlines suffered a heart attack with twenty-three people on board. None of the passengers had any flight experience, but George was able to talk one of the passengers down to a successful landing."
"If you can call bouncing off the runway, spinning a couple of times, and coming to an abrupt stop in a mud flat successful," laughed an embarrassed George.
"Well, there were a few bruises and broken bones, but no one was killed or seriously injured. I would call it successful under the circumstances," disputed Sabrina.
"I’d have to agree with Sabrina on this one, George," said Mark.
“Wow, that sounds like something right out of Hollywood,” said Holly.
"It was a ridiculous award, said George, his face pink with embarrassment. “It was a basic situation. I don't see what the big fuss was about."
"The fact remains. If you hadn't reacted as you did, many people would have been killed,” his wife proudly said, draping her arms around his shoulders and planting a kiss on the top of his head.
"Our hero!" teased Don.
"That's okay, George," interceded Holly, Don’s wife. "Don't let those guys kid you. This is all very impressive and something to be proud of."
With a change of tone, a sincere Don echoed, "Yeah, we’re all proud of you, George."
Mark repeated an emphatic second.
George continued busying himself, prodding and inspecting the steaks, giving the impression he hadn't heard a thing.
"Tell me, George old boy, after all that," questioned Don, "how did you happen draw a work assignment this Friday night? You’ve always been able to get off the Friday of our weekends."
"Yeah, it’s the big question," said Sabrina. "It’s very upsetting. With his seniority, he seldom works nights now, and even in the past he has always been able to get this special Friday off. I just can't believe the way it has worked out this year."
"Well, it’s going to happen once in a while. It just can’t be avoided sometimes," said George. "And, unfortunately, tonight is one of those times. Bad timing to say the least. Next year will be different, I promise."
After some mutual complaining about this turn of events, the conversation then shifted to the upcoming game with total agreement. The higher-rated USC Trojans were about to get pummeled. Cal would take no prisoners.
After finally exhausting this subject, the topic changed to the latest big news story, the hijacking of an Iberian Airliner by a group of dissident Basques. Don expressed an opinion that they ought to storm the plane and blast every one of the hijackers.
The sound of a telephone ringing drifted down from the house. "I'll get it," said Sabrina, rising from her lawn chair and starting up the rock steps to the back of the house.
The group continued the discussion with various opinions about the available hardline actions that were appropriate.
Finally, with the group failing to agree on a decisive solution, Jean commented, "Well, something has to be done about all this hijacking. It just doesn't seem safe to fly anymore,"
After a short period of silence, George, who had thus far not entered into the conversation, quietly spoke up, "You know, when something like this happens, I would like to know why they’re doing it. What’s behind it? How do they justify their actions?"
"How do they justify their actions? There is no justification for these actions," said Don sharply. "You don't mean you condone such action?"
George, with lowered voice and lowered eyes answered, "No, I don't condone it. It's just . . . . . it’s just . . . . . I think we should try to find out what’s behind it all.” Then raising his eyes and looking directly at Don, he continued with conviction in his voice, “There’re so many people in this world, living in oppression, and who’re desperate, very desperate. We can't comprehend this in our country. We tend to be satisfied. To just snuggle up in our safe little cocoon and not worry about anyone else. I don't think it would hurt to take a look at it from their point of view sometimes."
"No matter how you look at it, it’s wrong," argued Don.
"George," said Mark, "I’ve always admired your consideration of others. You’re the most compassionate person I’ve ever known. But I’ve got to go along with Don. I'm afraid these people are not worthy of any consideration. They’re not showing any consideration for the people on that plane. They’re just a bunch of radical thugs interested in furthering their own cause and not the least bit worried about who gets hurt in the process."
"I still think we should find out more about their cause, listen to what they have to say."
"You're letting your compassion get in the way of your good judgment, old buddy," disagreed Don.
At this point Sabrina returned from the house and interrupted the discussion. "George, telephone. Some man wants to talk to you."
"Maybe your boss’s calling to say you don't have to work tonight," said a wishful Mark.
"We can only hope," answered George. He slid the steaks to the back of the grill and started for the sliding glass door at the rear of the house. Looking back over his shoulder, he added, "The steaks’re ready. We can eat when I get back. I won't be long."
He entered the house, walked to the den, and picked up the receiver. “Hello . . . . Yes . . . . You're sure. . . . O.K . . . . No . . . . Yeah . . . . O.K . . . . Right . . . . Don't worry . . . . O.K . . . . Keep me posted."
Concluding the conversation, he lowered the receiver toward its base. He looked out the window at his family and friends, the hand holding the phone suspended in mid-air. He surveyed the happy, carefree scene in front of him. His expression slowly changed to sorrow. Tears welled up, shoulders sagged. With a long, resigned sigh, he continued lowering the receiver until it came to rest in its cradle. On the back of the hand gripping the receiver, between the thumb and forefinger, was a small, faint tattoo: two stars, side by side, intertwined at the touching points.