Born on 9/11
Version 5.05 5/11/09
Version 5.05 5/11/09
62 Chapters - 305 pages
Highway I-94, Indiana. June 25, 2006, 0300 Hours.
Highway I-94, Indiana. June 25, 2006, 0300 Hours.
Lighting flashed on the horizon, and for a split second, Adam Mackin felt he was driving a military vehicle back in Iraq. The Mustang cruised by a highway sign. It read 200 miles to Detroit. That meant another three hours of driving to Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit. His father snored in the passenger seat and he wished he could do the same. The Rolling Stones played, "You can't always get what you want," on the radio.
Adam smiled at the photograph on the dashboard of him standing by the Askariya mosque in Samarra. He wore the same clothes on and off duty, and had fifteen pairs of Army fatigue pants and tee shirts. Dressed in army casual now, he did not care if anyone objected to his attire. Patriotic duty demanded military attire.
The picture brought back good memories. The mosque was undamaged then. He was impressed when he learned of the 72,000 gold pieces covering its dome in the small, agricultural town. It doesn't look like the picture now, he thought. He recalled seeing the collapsed dome a few days after the bombing. Now the entire country appeared on the brink of open civil war.
Three days remained on his ten-day leave, and he was starting to enjoy being back home in Milwaukee. So why was he using the short time remaining to drive hundreds of miles with his father to attend his stepsister's graduation in Dearborn? He could not deny his mother’s wish. Rachel was not close, but he was curious about her city.
With a population of one hundred thousand people, Dearborn was the world headquarters of Ford Motor Company and the University of Michigan, and a mecca for Muslims in America. Arab Americans comprised thirty percent of the city’s population, with large numbers of Lebanese Americans and Muslim Iraqi immigrants arriving since the first US-Iraq war. Adam wondered if he would see someone he knew in Iraq.
The bright moon rose high in the night sky. Even in the dark, he could marvel at the wheat fields that rustled from both sides and stretched deep into the heartland. It was a stark contrast to where he'd been the last few years. The song ended and he switched the radio off. Xavier woke up and stretched.
No longer Muslim, Xavier was only part Arab. It did not matter. Adam did not trust Muslims or Arabs, and resented his father for being absent for most of his life. Adam's mother raised him Catholic and he identified himself as an American with German-Polish roots. He had nothing to do with his father.
Adam rubbed his chin. "Xavier, I'm puzzled about something in Islam."
Xavier smiled. "You've never asked me about Islam before, or anything else for that matter. What's puzzling you?"
"The different sects."
Adam laughed. "No, sects. Why are the Sunni and Shia so pissed off at each other all the time?"
Xavier sighed. "Don't ask me. Go ask an Imam or somebody like that."
"But how did this hatred get started in the first place?"
"It's lasted over a thousand years and now involves over a billion people. It's a family feud." Xavier sat upright. "The split started with a spat between a father and his kids, just like me and you."
As usual, Adam would have to pull it out of his father. "How could the major conflict in Islam possibly have anything in common with us?"
"The two of us have a little disagreement, right? You don't like me, just like the Sunnis don't like the Shias."
Adam tried another angle. "All right, who started it?"
Xavier leaned in close. "Mohammad and his eleven or thirteen wives. It depends on who you talk to." He cleared his throat. "Muhammad only remarried after his first wife of twenty-five years, Khadijah, died. Almost all of the women he subsequently married were widows. Muhammad married them because they were destitute and he wanted to change Arabian culture, which emphasized virgin brides."
"Showing some love for the old ladies, huh?"
"The only child to survive Muhammad was his daughter with Khadijah, Fatima, who married Mohammad's cousin, Ali, the first male to accept Islam."
"Can we stick to the story, please? How did the fight get started?"
"The feud originated over who should take over after Muhammad as leader of the Muslims."
Adam's eyes lit up. "Now we're getting somewhere. So it started when Muhammad died."
"Yes. Should the caliph be his son-in-law, Ali, who Muhammad adored as a brother and who fathered Muhammad's loving grandsons, Hasan and Husayn? Or should it be one of Muhammad's fathers-in-law?"
"Abu-Bakr declared himself caliph even before Ali had a chance to contest."
"The father-in-law won? Not fair."
His father looked at him and nodded. "Abu-Bakr's supporters are Sunni, and Ali's upset supporters became Shia. There was a fitna or civil war and Sunni caliphs killed Ali, Hasan, Husayn and many of Muhammad's close relatives. The fitna continues to this day."
"Talk about a blood feud. Is it ever going to end?"
"When Khomeini came to power in Iran in the 1979, the Americans got into it and funded Saddam who was a Sunni to take on Shia Iran. Like it or not, Saddam, for all his brutality, kept the peace in the Middle East for years."
"But then Saddam got too big for his britches and invaded Kuwait, which was a friendly Sunni state, right. It's a good thing we stopped him by invading Iraq.”
"By arming Shias in Iraq alongside Iran, we've turned the fight global," Xavier shouted. "Americans should have kept their noses out of it." He reclined on the seat and shut his eyes.
Adam turned back to his driving, more confused than ever. He wondered where Rachel stood on this.
Chapter 1: Birthday
Dearborn, MI June 25, 2006 0700 Hours.
Dearborn, MI June 25, 2006 0700 Hours.
Fatima Al-Hasan was quiet but her mind was in turmoil. She had to decide what to do with her life today. There were few options and it seemed as if all paths led to the dark side. Was Adam's return into her life a sign?
Adam had just finished telling Fatima that his birthday was, ironically, September eleventh.
She placed slices of toast on plates and poured coffee. The early morning light painted everything in the dining room, like a dream. As she arranged napkins, butter and jelly, she glanced at Adam out of the corner of her eye. Dark brown hair in a no-nonsense crew cut - jeans and a white tee shirt - a chain with military dog tags fell across a muscular chest. She blushed.
Fatima was Rachel's friend for a long time, and rented a room on the second floor. Rachel left for her graduation at six-thirty, shortly after her father and brother arrived. Now Fatima was stuck. She needed a ride over to the school, but Xavier was carsick and refused to move.
It had been seven years and Fatima had completely forgotten about Adam. Army life must have been good for him. He had certainly filled out. She thought of his rock-hard body sweating in the desert sun of Iraq. She had been an immature 14-year-old with braces back in nineteen ninety-eight when she met him at his high school graduation. She had immediately developed a crush.
Now she was twenty-one, slender with a slight olive complexion. She wished she had dressed in something better than faded blue jeans, an embroidered pastel green blouse, and the customary long, white headscarf.
He might have been curious about her then, she didn't know, but she wondered if he could possibly be interested in her now that she was older and the braces were history. She blushed again, trying to hide it behind her scarf.
She asked, "How did you feel since it happened on your birthday?"
"It absolutely changed my life." He buttered a slice of toast. "I was at home, eating breakfast and watching television when I saw it. God! It was awful."
She sipped her coffee and nibbled on a piece of qatayef.
He spread jelly on his toast. "I'd taken the day off from school. It was a Tuesday but we'd won a big game over the weekend. We'd planned a big party at my parents' house. All my friends were going to be there."
Fatima pulled the tassels of her headscarf. "A day to remember."
Adam stared out the window, as if looking at the past. "Mom and Dad had already gone to work," he said. "I flipped channels and ate a bowl of cereal, my morning routine. Suddenly, a news flash showed the first plane crashing into the tower. It just looked like a terrible accident at first. Where were you when it happened?"
Fatima raised her shoulders and sighed. "Home."
"I was almost finished with breakfast," Adam said. "When a second plane crashed into the buildings. I was glued to the news from that point on. I became increasingly fearful that two planes hitting two buildings could not have been an accident. This was a deliberate attack on the United States."
Fatima continued, "My aunt said she feared it was an attack of Middle Eastern terrorists and she was afraid we would be blamed."
Adam didn't seem to hear her. "My mind reeled. What would the next target be, the White House? The Capitol? Was it the Russians, the Chinese? Who on earth would attack us like this? Then the first tower collapsed into a cloud of dust and smoke and I cried."
His toast forgotten, he continued, "There must have been thousands of people inside that tower. I saw bodies flying. Then the second tower collapsed. How could such massive steel structures collapse so easily?"
Fatima felt a strange twinge of guilt and wondered why. "I am so sorry."
"I ran to the windows and scanned the skies half-expecting to see a plane heading for my neighborhood. I never felt that way before."
She gripped her cup. "Everyone was scared at that moment. Even..."
"I spent the entire day glued to the TV. Two of my best friends came over. Then another plane hit the Pentagon. We took a vow to enlist right after graduation."
They remained silent for a long time. Fatima wanted to say something, but she felt Adam needed her to be quiet. He stared into his coffee until Fatima eventually spoke.
"Any regrets since you joined?"
"No - none. But people always ask the same questions."
"How did it feel to kill someone? What do they expect? We're human."
Fatima wondered what he meant.
He continued. "We always second-guess ourselves. Maybe I was too eager. Maybe I wanted to be the first one to get a kill, you know."
"Did you actually kill someone?" She paused for a second, and then added, "Wait, I don’t want to know."
Adam had already started talking. He seemed to have a lot on his chest, and she was glad he was opening up to her.
"We were part of an operation to break down resistance around Balad, and my unit got a nightly list of targets. We crept through the town, working our way down the lists, setting off C-4 plastic explosives at each address."
"Do you mean you bombed people's homes?" Fatima eyes widened and she wished she could close her ears.
Again, he didn't seem to hear her. "One night they assigned us more than 100 targets. At this one house, we blew the gate. A guy was sitting in his car when it exploded. He stumbled out on fire and fell dead. We searched the house but it turned out to be the wrong address."
"Didn't you try to save him?"
"Why? He was the enemy."
Fatima could tell Adam's conscience bothered him and she suspected he was still really decent. So much had happened since they last met. He was happily venting, but didn't seem to care in the least how she felt. Did he hate her because she was Iraqi American?
Chapter 2: Alice I
Dearborn, MI June 25, 2006 0700 Hours.
Dearborn, MI June 25, 2006 0700 Hours.
The bomber stared at the blank sheet of paper on the kitchen table. Orange sunlight from a window above the sink streamed into the two-bedroom apartment. He needed more light and had the overhead florescent on, but its flickering bothered him. The refrigerator rumbled in the background and disturbed his concentration again. He wiped his forehead and ground his teeth.
This was the delicate part. He had to mix the powders without causing even the slightest friction. Unintentional explosions were common, and they usually resulted in serious injury or death. He kept making stupid mistakes and had already ruined a batch. He was not his usual self. He could not stop thinking about Al-Fredah, ever since he found a stack of Al-Fredah's writings yesterday.
The bomber stayed up the whole night reading the last story his nemesis wrote. What was it that disturbed him so much about Al-Fredah's story? It was strange, but it was fiction, right? But why was it so strange? Why, on his deathbed, did Al-Fredah write about a woman who claimed her father molested her? It did not make sense, and the Bomber was completely obsessed, reading between the lines, trying to understand Al-Fredah's motive in writing this story.
A few days ago he finished the second pipe bomb. The two devices lay on a small table waiting to be packed. Soon, his friend would drop off the two 'Alice' military backpacks. He needed to finish the last bomb, load the knapsacks, and have everything ready to be delivered tonight.
The two ingredients for his homemade explosive were easy enough to obtain. The purple powder he got from a drugstore and the white dust from a paint store. To increase the explosive power, he used a rolling pin to grind the coarse grains into two heaps of fine power on the kitchen counter. Each ingredient was safe to handle on its own, however, when mixed they became highly reactive.
He took a pinch of purple dust and dropped it on the sheet of white paper on the table.
It was too warm in the apartment and the heat made everything more volatile. His hands perspired profusely inside the gloves. He removed the latex and dried them with a towel. A sweaty palm was the one problem a bomb maker should not have to deal with, but it was just another obstacle he would have to overcome to pursue he passion for explosives. He got a pinch of white powder, hovered close to the paper, and dropped it on top of the purple granules. Nothing happened. So far so good.
He needed to dig deeper into Al-Fredah's history, to the relationship Al-Fredah had with his own father. Perhaps then he would be able to unravel the riddle of the man. Many aspects of his enemy’s life disturbed the bomber, but none more than why Al-Fredah questioned God. He added another sprinkle of purple, then white, and gently shook the sheet a few times. Still nothing. Good.
On his left, a small, thick metal pipe stood upright, secured in a grip on the kitchen table. The bottom of the empty container was capped, and the top had sharp, coarse threads. The container had an inner liner of soft plastic to help prevent friction, especially when moving. It also prevented powder from getting into the screw threads. They made this improvement after a cell member paid a dear price.
He steadied his hands and poured the mixed explosive into the center of the pipe. It floated to the bottom of the tube and remained stable. He placed the paper to the table, exhaled, and scratched his beard.
He was already a day behind schedule and they had to get Alice in place as soon as possible.
He had a lot more mixing to do before he got anywhere on the last one.
Chapter 3: Football
Dearborn, MI June 25, 2006 0715 Hours.
Dearborn, MI June 25, 2006 0715 Hours.
Adam smiled at Fatima. From his conversation with Xavier, he'd learned that 'Fatima' was the same name as Mohammed's stepdaughter. "I'll bet you didn't know that about me, did you?"
Fatima shook her head slightly. "I had no idea you were that good."
Adam tossed his head. "Football was my life in high school. I started as a running back in 1998. I had a good junior year and a better senior year. Towards the end I was averaging over a hundred yards a game."
Fatima sat with her arms folded at the dinning table next to Adam. He liked talking to her, and was starting to relax and enjoy himself.
Fatima looked puzzled. "But a full scholarship offer is a big deal."
He liked Fatima's slight accent and enjoyed her scent, a mixture of soap, shampoo, and musk oil. The earthy fragrance was subtle, a refreshing change from the powerful perfumes most women used. He remembered she had a crush on him, and maybe she still did. She was all grown up, but there were many other things different about Fatima. She was passionate, charming, and a generous listener, in sharp contrast to the disinterested, demanding and egotistical women he seemed to only attract. She was a familiar stranger, and he felt connected to her, as if they were traveling on the same road.
"It was Coach Kennedy who helped me get in," Adam said. "What a competitor he is. He told me, 'If you don't use your God-given talent, you'll regret it for the rest of your life, son.' He knew a few scouts."
Fatima gazed at Adam with wide eyes, "Which College was it?"
Snippets of Fatima's hair peeked from under their cover, creating secrecy and temptation. Her headscarf and Iraqi features were familiar, and she appeared mysterious and reserved compared to the open book of American women. The harder a woman was to get, the more meaningful the conquest and Fatima would be the biggest prize yet.
"An East Coast private university," Adam said. "I don't like to talk about it because I--."
"It was Cornel," Xavier said without looking up, "a once in a lifetime opportunity."
He hated it when his father tried to lecture him. Xavier was gone all his life and had no right to tell him anything. Relax. He just had to let it go. He had to be careful not to lose it in front of her. Fatima was a great audience, and he was desperate for relief from the war. Miraculously, he had discovered a forbidden fruit in the most unexpected of places.
Adam glared at his father but said nothing. They were risking missing the graduation but Xavier insisted he needed to rest his back after the long trip. Adam was also tired, but he wanted to go and Fatima needed the ride. His father was being completely thoughtless, as usual.
"You could have served after college," Xavier said, "Just like you're doing now."
Adam whispered to Fatima, "He's still upset with me for joining the army four years ago." Adam thought for a moment then continued, "I had no choice. Its like what Mom told me about coming here today. 'It's what you do for family,' she said."
Xavier was quiet, with his eyes closed and feet up.
"Family is a precious thing." Fatima nodded sadly. She appeared frail, and looked around as if she had lost something.
They sat quietly for a minute. Adam wanted to hold her hands but was unsure how she would react. Years ago, they sat like this, with a strong chemistry flowing between them. Were those feelings still there? He had to be honest with her.
"I only have three more days of leave," Adam said. "I didn't want to waste a single minute traveling anywhere, least of all out here."
The bridge of Fatima's nose creased in a frown and her lips tightened. "Why did you come to Dearborn then?" She was gorgeous even when serious, and appeared less self-absorbed in her appearance than other women.
"As a favor to Mom," Adam said. "Mom said Rachel attended my high school graduation, and I was lucky to be able to attend hers. Remember, you came to Milwaukee as well?"
“I haven't seen either of them since my graduation in 2002. Mom wanted me to see them before leaving for my third tour. They are all the family I’ve go on this side, you know."
Fatima smiled. "I was lucky to see Milwaukee. I liked it when you showed us around. It was really the best trip of my life."
"We did have a good time, didn't we?"
In a short period, they had grown close. However, she was too young for him then, and he remembered backing off emotionally to cool things down. They never kissed, but it could have gotten to that point if he wanted it to. Was she going out with someone now? Was he crazy for even thinking she would go for him after he joined the service?
"So you drove all night from Milwaukee?" Fatima asked.
"I left after midnight, picked up Xavier in Chicago around 2:00 AM, and we made a few stops before arriving here at 7:00." Adam turned to his father and said, "You've had enough rest, Xavier. The graduation starts at nine-fifteen. Let's go now."
Xavier groaned and refused to move.
Fatima glanced at her watch. It was past 8:30, and she was half-hour late. She bit her lip, drummed her fingers, and stared at the immobile figure in the corner.
"Xavier," Adam shouted. He sounded too harsh and quickly added, "Please."
Xavier did not budge.
"If you don't get up now we will leave without you," Adam threatened.
"You must really love your mother," Fatima said.
He was losing the confrontation with his father and glad for the change in topic. "Yes I do. She means everything to me, along with Harry, my stepfather. My grandfather passed away last year and Mom went into a depression. She's only asked me for one favor and I couldn't break her heart further."
"I'm sorry to hear about your grandfather," Fatima said. "I completely understand how she feels."
There was genuine compassion in her voice. Adam looked away with a tear in his eye. He missed grandpa a lot.
In their silence, Xavier's labored breathing suggested he was falling asleep. Christ, what now?
Fatima had a mischievous smile. "Why didn't you bring your girlfriend with you?"
"What girlfriend?" Adam asked. Was she trying to find out if he was available? Boy was he ever. "I haven't had a relationship in a long time. Too long."
"I don't believe you. I bet there are a lot of girls who would jump--."
Adam sighed. "I used to be a romantic, but no one ever waits for me to return. People move on with their lives and I’ve become no more than a curiosity from the past."
"How about in Iraq?" Fatima asked.
He could talk to her for hours. He preferred smart women. He felt engaged and challenged, not threatened.
"You're kidding me, right?" Adam paused and said, "Excuse me for a second." He turned to his father and shouted, "Hello, Xavier? Can we please go now?"
His father stirred.
"Rachel is already there," Adam said. "She left hours ago and is expecting us to be there. We have to leave immediately or we’ll miss the whole thing."
Xavier yawned and stretched his thin frame. "Alright."
Finally. The man's selfishness knew no bounds. Poor Fatima kept waiting without saying a word.
Xavier smiled apologetically. "Thanks for giving an old man's back a little rest. I'll freshen up quickly and be ready in a few minutes." Xavier walked down the hallway and disappeared from view.
Adam turned his gaze to Fatima. "Dating is virtually impossible in Iraq. You know that."
Fatima stared at him and said nothing.
"There are huge cultural differences. And after a long, hot day in the sand, there is little energy for romance."
"What about in your spare time?" Fatima asked.
"The bombs, booby traps, and snipers keep you isolated behind blast walls and thick windshields," Adam said. "Trust me, bringing back a war bride is not an option in this war."
"Then, why did you give up dating, plus the chance to be a star athlete in college?" Fatima shook her head slightly and appeared confused. "I don't get it."
Adam heard the faucet running in the bathroom and considered freshening up too.
"On that day, everything changed," Adam said. "After the 9/11 attack, I felt something I never did before, like I was part of a huge family. I was no longer alone."
Fatima listened quietly.
"We were all in the same boat, and taking water. There was real urgency to act, and everyone felt a strong need and common purpose to defend ourselves. Each person was willing and prepared to do their part."
Fatima nodded. "Like putting out a fire."
"I didn't see how I could have gone off to college when all over the world terrorists were planning their next attacks on America."
"But why did you have to invade Iraq?" Fatima's voice wavered. "We had nothing to do with 9/11." Her face was serious, but not accusing. That was a relief.
"A soldier has no alternative but to fight where he is told," Adam said. "I was hoping to get posted to Afghanistan. We still haven't caught Bin Laden."
Fatima turned away and said nothing.
What did her silence mean? Was the war a deal breaker? The eternal optimist, he refused to accept that. He had his mind set on her and he was going to win her over regardless.
Chapter 4: Detector I
Dearborn, MI June 25, 2006 0730 Hours.
Dearborn, MI June 25, 2006 0730 Hours.
They were loaded and ready to rock and roll. It was another beautiful day in Joe's neighborhood. Joe's cell phone vibrated again. So that's what it was. He felt something earlier but could not figure out what it was. He was so preoccupied getting prepared it almost escaped his attention. Was he having a senior moment or something? How long had it been buzzing? It was either Scully or Frank.
The LED read "Private." It was Frank. Christ. He ran down the hallway to take the call outside. He was close to the exit when he tripped on a rug and flew through the doorway and down the steps. He was able to maintain his balance and jump on the ground, but he twisted his ankle and felt a sharp stab of pain.
"Grasshopper here," Joe said softly, in pain and out of breadth.
"What have you got?" Frank asked.
"Nothing yet. We're just heading out."
"I wish you luck. You know how important--."
"Don't worry. We've got this one and then we're going on another one tomorrow."
"I don't like it when you cut me off Joe."
"I'm sorry, Sir."
In the short pause, Joe heard his mentor breathing heavily into the line. The foot pain evaporated instantly as the hair on the back of his neck rose and his whole body shuddered. He braced himself for the worst. Frank was mad.
"I told you I'm having lunch with the head of the council today," Frank said. "You were briefed on this weeks ago."
"You know what she's going to say when I see her in a few hours?" Frank paused for effect and Joe heard him breathing through the line again.
Joe mimicked the woman's high-pitched voice: "I've got a hungry monster to feed."
"Exactly," Frank said. "Her demon got a light snack four months ago. That leaves everyone hungry and nervous, get it? Plus, it was another East Coast exclusive, and that's only good for the short term."
"Why? I thought it was all good."
"No it isn't. If only one side is scoring, then that itself may develop into a problem for us. New York is fully independent now, with their own SCIF and a thousand people spread across the globe. Miami, Washington, Philly and others will soon follow."
"What's the problem?" Joe asked. "Aren't we on the same team?"
"We can't appear to be regional. We have to be national in order for this to work. That's where you come in. I placed Detroit on the map four years ago, right after the big one, but since then nothing. You are part of my cell. I brought you in and we've got to prove we're still up to snuff."
"I'm trying my best, Sir," Joe said. "I have a few feelers--."
"I need you to try harder Grasshopper. There's a lot at stake here, as you know. It's already 2006, and the big November show is only two years away. If you want to be a player at the table, now is the time to come all in. Don't wait for everyone to show their hands because it'll be too late then. Opportunity knocks only once."
"I will not disappoint--."
The line went dead.
Joe grinned and put the phone away.
Frank was such a genius at motivating people. He was a top leader in the Family, having spent years at the Agency and Bureau, but rarely did he use his power and influence to dominate subordinates. It was not his style. Instead, Frank used reverse psychology to make others feel like he truly depended on them. That was his secret, making others feel like they were part of his position.
Joe was motivated, despite being chewed out. He felt vital to the success of an important mission led by an elite group with immense power across the world. They would be very grateful if he could pull off the tricks they needed. He glanced towards the sky and filled his chest with air. It was a long time since he showed anyone the old magic. He still had it in him, and was going to use it before they started questioning his commitment.
He made a fist and threw a powerful punch in the air. He would give them something better than a little snack. And, he'd give it to them right today. Joe rubbed his hands, and hopped inside the unmarked white SUV with government plates.
Chapter 5: America
Dearborn, MI June 25, 2006 0730 Hours.
Dearborn, MI June 25, 2006 0730 Hours.
Fatima loved morning light with its golden promise of life. Today, however, she dreaded its arrival and resented its passage charting her unfolding plans and shortened life. Where were her sunglasses? They were missing since yesterday. She had too much on her mind. She needed to calm down and put her affairs in order. She should not waste time with Adam.
"You came to America about ten years ago, right?" Adam was interesting and a cute distraction, like a huge lollipop with a rainbow of flavors. She enjoyed his company tremendously, but she had too much to do.
"A little longer. My grandparents and I emigrated in 1992, after the first Iraq war." Fatima paused to stare at her fingers, and continued, "My grandfather was a pharmacist. He saw there was no future in Iraq and decided to bring me here."
"What about your parents and siblings?"
"My mother died when I was an infant. My father re-married soon afterwards and had three children. I grew up with my mother's parents in Baghdad, before we were forced to flee to a refugee camp on the Syrian border."
Adam sighed. "I'm so sorry to hear that."
"It was a long time ago."
"I hear similar stories each day. They are millions of victims of this sectarian war. What part of Iraq are you from again?"
Fatima rolled her eyes and bit her lip. She did not want to argue with Adam. "We lived in Al Quds, in north Baghdad. It was a nice area." She loved the country of her birth and became increasingly disheartened as she saw it sliding deeper into chaos.
"Al Quds?" Adam laughed. "That's so funny. I've been there a million times. It's such a small world isn't it?"
Fatima did not think of it before but it was rather amazing. "When we first saw each other, we were totally different people. What's funny is that since then, our lives converged and became similar. And even more strange, here I am chatting with you again to prove it. Is that weird or what?"
"I'm simply glad to finally meet a civilian who knows what I'm talking about, who's lived in Iraq, and who even understand the different neighborhoods in Baghdad."
Fatima smiled. He made her feel good. "We lived upstairs of my grandfather's store. It was a big house and we had a lot of relatives living with us."
Adam raised one eyebrow. "Things have changed a bit since you left." He looked funny when he did that. She knew exactly how much her old neighborhood had changed, but she wanted to remember it the way it was. Otherwise, she would become sad, lose control, and start crying again.
"There were food and clothing shops all along on the street. Cars, trucks, motorbikes, bicycles, people, it was always busy, and we were allowed to play outside."
Adam shook his head. "I'm sorry to tell you, but the place is hell now. You wouldn't recognize it."
Fatima ignored him and remained in her bubble. "On Fridays, we brought sweets and visited friends. On many weekends, we traveled all over Iraq to see relatives."
Adam smiled apologetically. "Please don't blame me for destroying your neighborhood. They were at each other's throats for a while, and it was in pretty bad shape by the time we got there."
Fatima sighed. "Both Shia and Sunni are in our clan. We love everyone equally." She thought for a moment then added, "I love my adopted country and my native country. Why do they fight each other?"
Adam shrugged. "Where did you live when you came to the USA?"
"Right here in Dearborn," Fatima said. "I've been here fourteen years. I graduated from the same high school as Rachel."
"When did you graduate?"
"Two years ago."
"You've known my stepsister since you were young, huh?"
"Yes, plus Rachel's mom knew my family a long time ago, in Baghdad." Fatima tossed her head and continued, "I'm renting a room. We've lived here for many years."
Adam raised an eyebrow again. "You knew I was coming then."
Fatima smiled. "Rachel is the only one here. She didn't mention it."
"Mom spoke to her yesterday."
There was eerie silence.
Fatima had to ask him the question. "How do you feel about the war now?"
Adam shrugged. "We may have gone in for the wrong reasons but we cannot leave the country the way it is, in a mess. We have to bring about some form of stability first."
There was another moment of awkward silence. Fatima tightened her jaw and stared at her feet. She was unsure what to say to him. She hated and wanted him at the same time. And, if she was to live, she really needed someone's help. What should she do?
Xavier entered the room suddenly. "Thanks for waiting."
Adam bounced to his feet and waved his hands in front of Fatima. "After you."
"Would you like something to drink before we leave?" Fatima asked Xavier.
"No time for that," Adam said.
Xavier smiled widely at Fatima. "You're so sweet."
"We can both agree on that," Adam said.
Fatima shook her head. If only he knew.
Chapter 6: Exit
Dearborn, MI June 25, 2006 0745 Hours.
Dearborn, MI June 25, 2006 0745 Hours.
Adam stared at Fatima, standing frozen against the closed front door of Rachel's house. Her slender face appeared bleached, like a faded, porcelain Japanese mask. Her lips moved slightly but there was no sound.
He brushed Fatima's headscarf gently aside to see through the peephole on the door. A police car was double parked on the curb outside. A tall blond man in a dark blue suit sat on the hood talking on a cell phone. Behind him stood a Michigan highway patrol officer, his stern gaze on the residence.
Adam backed away from the door, framed by oozing daylight. He tripped on the rug and stumbled against the wall. The dark hallway threatened to cave in on him before Xavier's clueless voice brought him back to the present.
"What is it?" his father asked.
For once in his life, he was happy to hear Xavier speak. It meant a world of difference. He could relax and let go of his defenses. He was home after all.
"The police," Adam said.
His father gave him an anxious look.
"Why aren't you leaving?" Adam asked Fatima. "Are the police coming here?"
Fatima tightened her jaw and remained quiet. Beads of sweat appeared above her lip and she wringed her hands nervously. Her vulnerability merely fueled her attractiveness.
Xavier’s eyes grew wider. "I'm sorry, but we're just got here and we are not involved in--."
"Not now." Adam stopped Xavier with a quick stare and turned to Fatima. "We don't have anything to hide, do we?" He was curious about her. Why did she change so quickly? Did she have a split personality? What was going on?
"Only Allah knows what they will do," Fatima said softly. She nimbly stepped around him and away from the door, dashed down the flight of stairs leading to the basement, and yelled, "Hartman, Hartman."
She banged on the side of the wall and jogged up the stairs.
"What did you just say?" Adam chased after her into the living room and grabbed her elbow. "Who is Hartman?"
Fatima bounced on her feet impatiently. "He's with the police. They are going to make us late for the graduation." She pointed to the rear and said, "Hurry, let's go out this way."
Adam shook his head and took a step back. He had never seen Fatima acting so strangely and was concerned about her. Was she on any kind of medication? How could he broach this subject diplomatically?
Fatima scowled for a second, turned, and hurried to the rear exit.
"Don't you want to find out what they want first?" Adam shouted. He halted in the kitchen and stretched his arms out to her. "Wait. They may need to talk to you. You're the only one who lives here."
Fatima struggled to open the top bolt. "They'll probably search the whole house."
"Stop." Adam shouted. "Please don't leave. Not like this." All of a sudden, he felt attached to this wonderful memory from his life before the war. His blood froze and his heart pounded like a young boy with his first crush. He was afraid to let her out of his sight, this ground he desperately needed, searched for, and longed to recapture. It was important for him to be with her today.
Fatima grasped the doorknob and pushed her shoulders against the wood panel.
Adam's mind raced with doubts. "Why would they search here?"
Fatima waved her arms wide. "Immigration is cracking down hard in this area. They know we rent to non-documented people in the basement."
Adam pounded the kitchen counter. "Illegals? Do you expect me to believe that?"
Fatima held her arm out to him. "That's probably what it is."
Her eyes bore into to him, pleading. Adam shifted his weight from side to side and hesitated. Why was Rachel's family breaking the nation's immigration laws? Did they not realize this was a federal offense?
The flood of immigrants was a huge problem that threatened American prosperity and culture, and sometimes he wondered what was the point of fighting overseas when American borders went unprotected?
Fatima gave him a last look and slipped outside.
Adam stared at the closed exit and felt his heart leaving his body to follow Fatima. His entire body felt cold as if his blood completely drained, and his mouth became parched with thirst. What should he do?
He glanced at Xavier in the living room.
Xavier waved him over. "Let's leave without her."
"Why is she acting like she's spooked or something?" Adam asked.
"Don't look at me. I have no idea what goes on in this house."
Adam could not take their separation any longer. He had to find her. He jabbed his thumb at the rear, and said, "Wait and see what the police want. I'll go talk to her and bring her back."
Xavier said, "No, you should stay here with me. They will want to--."
Adam stepped outside and missed the rest of his father's statement.
A small porch led to a wide lawn that extended to a concrete wall, and a huge oak tree on the right side. Fatima darted towards the back wall.
Adam shouted. "Why are you running? Stop."
Fatima kept moving, headscarf fluttering behind like a butterfly's wings. Excited and tense at the same time, Adam ran to the oak and halted. He vision blurred and he struggled to focus on fleeing figure.
"Don’t move," Adam shouted.
Fatima came to a standstill; her slim profile against the bright wall was eerily reminiscent of an event in his past. What was it? He could not recall the scene but he had a gut feeling it did not turn out peaceful.
The wall waved in the distance as Adam mumbled repeatedly, "Calm down."
Fatima spoke with her back to him. "I'm avoiding them because I'm late. What's wrong with that? They're not after me or you."
Adam took a deep breath. The familiar smell of oak and freshly cut grass filled his senses. It was humid and his nostrils were not dried out as usual. He was not in a danger zone. He was home.
He relaxed his jaw and stretched his fingers towards her. "Let's go inside and tell the police we have to go out."
Fatima turned and stared angrily at him. "Do you think they'll say, 'Okay, just drop by the station when you get a chance?' That might happen to you where you live, but believe it or not, Muslims don't get that kind of courtesy."
"Then let me explain," Adam said coolly.
Fatima crossed her arms and frowned. "They'll make an exception for you because you're white, but not for me." She was a beautiful even when she tried to be ugly.
Adam chuckled. "Don't be silly, things aren’t that way. America has changed for the better, thankfully. Trust me, they're not that bad."
"If you don't believe I'm innocent, then you're as bad as them." Fatima dabbed her eyes and approached the wall with her head lowered.
If she was trying to make him feel guilty, it was working. He had to keep his mind in control. What was she up to? He wanted to trust her but had only recently arrived in town. He was confused and his sister was not around to answer his questions. Why were things not going according to plan? Everything appeared mysterious and off the cuff, who knows what was going on?
Fatima found a foothold on the wall and prepared to climb.
Adam stood under the oak tree and watched Fatima strain to ascend. His heart feared she might get hurt while his head remained curious about her attempt to escape. Unsure what to do, he felt uncomfortable with the indecision. It was almost a new feeling for him, so programmed he was to take immediate action.
Fatima appeared resolute. "You don't care much for your sister, but Rachel is like family to me. I cannot disappoint her on the most important day of her life."
"Where is her mother and everybody else? She must have relatives in Dearborn."
Fatima looked to the side yard. Adam followed her eyes and saw nothing. She spoke hurriedly, "Her mother is finishing a business deal in London. There will be distant relatives and plenty of acquaintances, but none as close as you and your father. Please, we should go now."
She lifted her right leg up, searched for a spot to step on, found a crack, and pushed off the ground. She clung to the wall like a spider and found another spot for her left shoe.
Adam's stomach constricted and his muscles taunt. He had a bad feeing Fatima was going to have a nasty fall.
Fatima shifted her weight over, pushed her body up six inches higher, and groped for a hold with her right hand. She grabbed a crack and pulled herself up, tethered precariously for a moment, then slipped.
He was there in time to catch her. She stood on her feet but did not let go of him.
Adam smiled nervously. "Now if you had broken something, we would never make the graduation, right?"
She felt soft, fragrant, and comfortable. Caught in her warm embrace, he closed his eyes and it was as if he was in a sensory deprivation tank. He felt nothing besides her. His stomach sunk, his heart pounded and he felt something he did not feel in a long time. He had goose bumps.
Fatima breathed into his ear, "Come on and help me up." Adam checked the back door. Nothing. Xavier was still inside. It was possible the police merely parked outside Rachel's house and headed to another house or apartment building. And if it was an immigration raid, it did not matter if they left since Fatima was an American citizen. She was from a different culture, though, and maybe that explained why she responded differently to the situation.
"Alright, I'll help you get to the graduation. But I'm keeping a close eye on you."
She squeezed his arms. "As you wish."
Adam scaled the wall effortlessly and reached for Fatima. "Let's get out of here."
Fatima smiled and extended her arms to him. "Thank you."
Adam pulled her up, steadied Fatima on the narrow ledge, and then gently placed her into the backyard of a one-story residence. With a last glance at Rachel's empty yard, he jumped to the ground.
Chapter 7: Alice II
Dearborn, MI June 25, 2006 0745 Hours.
Dearborn, MI June 25, 2006 0745 Hours.
The steel cylinder was quarter-full with the fine powder. The overhead light flickered and the fridge's condenser started up again. The bomber mopped his brow and took a break.
It was important where and how he placed the fuse in the pipe. He knew it had to go in the open end. If placed in the capped end, the explosive material would blast out of the pipe prematurely. He held the thin electrical wire and glanced at the ceiling for a moment.
Chemistry and explosives were his life. He studied the history of alchemy, from Socrates onwards, and especially liked the work of Muslim alchemists Jabir ibn Haiyan, Abu Bakr al-Razi, Aidamir al-Jildaki, Al-Tughra'I, and Al-Majriti. The field literally exploded after Chinese alchemists searching for the elixir of immortality in the seventh century discovered gunpowder accidentally.
In the twelfth century they started making bombs, and a century later, the formula was in the hands of Mongols, Arabs, and Europeans. Cannons became larger, and in the sixteenth century, a portable firearm, the musket, was developed. However, gunpowder remained the sole explosive for a thousand years, until an Italian invented nitroglycerin in 1846.
More than history, the bomber had a passion for experimenting with explosives. That was why he respected Al-Fredah so much. The man was a dedicated genius who spent years perfecting minor aspects of the craft, killing his brother accidentally in one premature explosion, but proving the impossible time after time. Compared to Al-Fredah, the bomber was a child learning to crawl, eating crumbs off the floor. He had years to go before he would begin to master some of Al-Fredah's simplest techniques.
He slowly inserted the red strip of fuse down the center of the metal pipe. He had to be careful not to touch the sides of the container. This seemingly harmless contact was the cause of many accidents. The wire could build up a static charge and ignite the powder when he touched it.
He could have used the safer fuses designed for fireworks, or the gunpowder inside fireworks to make a fuse from scratch. However, they were not as reliable as an electrical fuse. Plus, he needed time to get away from the explosion. That definitely ruled out a mechanical fuse. He could have gone with a chemical one, however, that would have taken more time, and procuring the toxic materials might arouse suspicions. Electrical was simple and accurate, precisely what he needed.
The wire touched the soft bed of powder and he paused. There were no sparks.
He wanted to worship his nemesis. Perhaps he secretly did. However, Al-Fredah's personal life was too revolting to even consider this possibility. He was weak and had lost faith. He had sinned against his father, a man who loved and taught him everything.
How could the godless bastard say such things about his own father? His entire family was deeply religious, so why did he not remain the same. At least he should have kept his views private. Then, he would have been able to respect Al-Fredah for the genius he was, instead of hating him for the absolute fool he became.
He had to be careful not to become too bothered with Al-Fredah. An error of a fraction of an inch was all it would take for disaster to strike. He edged the red strip into the soft bed of colorful dust and released it. It stood upright on its own. Now he had to carefully add more of the volatile powder until it filled to the top of the container.
What caused Al-Fredah to become so ungrateful?
Chapter 8: Alone
Dearborn, MI June 25, 2006 0800 Hours.
Dearborn, MI June 25, 2006 0800 Hours.
Adam ignored Fatima and hurried toward the intersection with Pine Street.
The patrol car drove pass Avalon and continued along Pine Street, away for him. He ran to the curb and waved his arms in the air, but the car sped on. The wide, tree-lined street glistened in the morning sun. Two hundred yards away, police cars with lights flashing were double parked in the middle of the road. Several officers stood in front of Rachel's property. Was Xavier among them? He took a quick look over his shoulder and saw Fatima fleeing the car in the opposite direction.
His heart sank as he stared at Fatima, then the police. She turned the corner and disappeared. Why did she leave in such a haste? He had to hurry and catch up with her. Adam sprinted to the procession of police cars and black SUVs.
A burly man held his hand out. "Police business. Please move across the street."
"What's going on?" Adam asked.
"I can't comment. It's an ongoing investigation."
Adam pointed to the house. "I'm looking for someone inside."
"Do you live here?" Another officer asked.
"He's a visitor."
The first officer stared blankly at Adam. "Whom are you talking about?"
"Xavier Ali. I left him inside ten minutes ago. He needs to go to his daughter's graduation right now.
"Wait here for the sergeant. You can ask him your question."
"Where is he?"
"Inside. I'll let him know you're here."
Adam watched a succession of Michigan police officers enter and leave the house, accompanied by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. The officer he spoke to was lost in a sea of activity inside the yard, and he was unable to approach closer.
It appeared to be an immigration raid. Fatima was right. On the other hand, it could be more serious. How long did he have to wait? He did not even know who the sergeant was or what he looked like. Seconds ticked by and he was nowhere closer to understanding what was happening. He was just wasting time when he could be with her. He made a quick search for Xavier, turned around, and dashed back to the car.
Once inside, Adam revved the engine, shifted gear, and abruptly froze as his anxieties about driving returned. Whenever he drove or moved about in a vehicle in Iraq, he had to be on the alert at every moment. Insurgents often used trash to cover a roadside bomb, and launch attacks from all directions. He grabbed the steering wheel tighter, expecting danger to approach from anywhere.
After many years, today was the first time he sat behind the controls as a civilian. He knew Iraqi veterans found it difficult to adapt to normal driving when they returned home. He also had a completely different attitude towards traffic, pedestrians, and litter than before. Driving on busy freeways was easier since there was less of a chance of a surprise attack. However, deserted local streets filled with trash and litter were much harder to deal with.
He scanned the empty street for improvised explosive devices and inched the Ford forward. At the intersection, he peered down Cedar Street, inspected both sidewalks, and saw a shape on the left side. Was it Fatima waiting for him? Or a trap he had to avoid? He approached slowly and got within a hundred yards. It was a harmless shadow. Thank heavens. But oh, darn. He pounded the dashboard and sped up. He had to find her at once.
The car was not accelerating fast enough and he slammed the gas pedal to get more power. At the intersection of Cedar Street and Arizona Avenue, there were no pedestrians. He dashed ahead on Cedar Street, swerved left to avoid a pile of construction trash, and screeched to a halt on California Avenue. It was completely unoccupied.
Where was she? He went down several blocks and made a right. There was still no sign of Fatima. Could he have missed her? Should he double back? He paused in an empty intersection and gazed intently around. How long was it since he left her? How far could she have gotten?
A car behind honked loudly. Adam snapped out of his reflection and struggled to pull the car over as his heart and thoughts raced. He flashed an apologetic smile to the woman who glared at him, and moved ahead. That was close. He almost lost it again.
He took a deep breadth and remained parked on the curb. Fatima was gone. How could he have lost her? He really liked her. She was so different from all the other American women he knew. Like an old friend, he felt he could trust her. She did not agree with everything he did or said, but she understood what he was going through. She was almost in his arms but he let her slip through. Why was he his worst enemy when it came to women?
He promised Rachel to give Fatima a ride to the graduation. What would he tell his stepsister now? Maybe he should return to Milwaukee, but then Mom would ask him about the graduation. He loved his mother. She remained the most important person in his life and he never lied to her. Mom was sensitive, and he and Harry did everything they could in order not to disappoint her. She expected him to attend and would never accept an excuse. Damn. What should he do?
In search of a distraction, he flipped the radio to his favorite talk show, hosted by Jim and Andrew. They were discussing terrorism, a frequent topic on the program. The show, broadcasted daily in Iraq, was popular with the troops and Adam was a loyal listener.
Jim spoke in a booming voice, "On this very day in 1985, a terrorist bomb aboard Air India flight 182 brought down the Boeing 747 off the coast of Ireland, killing all 329 people aboard."
"Really, on June 23rd?" Andrew never doubted his partner but always tried to have him double-check his information.
"Yes." Jim was emphatic. "As a matter of fact, if I remember correctly, also around the same date in 2001, a federal grand jury in Alexandria indicted 13 Saudis and a Lebanese in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. That attack killed 19 American service members."
Adam was twelve years old at the time and paid little attention to the news back then. He learned about this atrocity much later while stationed in Iraq. It was an al Qaeda assault that foreshadowed similar attacks around the world.
"Then there were the attacks in London that happened around the same time last year."
"On July 7th."
"We spent a lot of time discussing this all last year and earlier this year. Why don't you remind our listeners what happened?"
"They're crazy," Jim screamed. "They're a bunch of loonies."
"Just give them the facts, will you."
"A cell of suicide bombers targeted London's public transportation system. Four Muslim suicide bombers killed 52 people and injured 700 others that day. Absolutely disgusting."
"They struck four locations at the same time."
"But that's not all," Jim shouted. "Two weeks later, there was a similar suicide attack. Luckily, this time the bombs failed to detonate."
"All of the Muslim suspects escaped. They are at large and free to strike again."
Adam was glued to the show as usual, and had many questions. Did the British terrorists move to the America? How long will it take before terrorists started trying similar attacks here? He had to keep eye out for sleeper cells operating at home.
Jim and Andrew took a break for a traffic report, and Adam turned the radio off. He had to ask Rachel how much she knew about what was going on at the house. He read the directions to the high school, placed his hands on the keys, and stopped short of turning the ignition. Was he too paranoid tonight? He hoped it was not related to post-traumatic stress. It was a debilitating mental condition, and he saw what it did to his best friend, Max.
After 9/11 and Iraq, he was guarded for good reason. Sometimes, though, he re-experienced combat events and the line between Iraq and America became blurred. Many veterans had lost it after an episode. Twenty-year old Sepi taught he was taking fire outside a 7-Eleven in Las Vegas and shot two gang members with an AK-47. Another veteran caught a man breaking into a car in Tucson and shot him dead.
The fact is all veterans suffered from PTS in one way or another, and a lot of them are unable to regain their former lives. Many return from Iraq to face crumbling marriages, mounting debt, alcohol, drug dependence, and tangles with the law. Just a few months earlier, in March 2006, Smith killed the 22-year-old mother of his twin children by drowning her in a bathtub in Utah. Another veteran shot his wife and then himself in the summer of 2005, nine days after returning from Iraq. In July 2004, a sergeant shot his wife in Killeen, Texas.
Dozens faced homicide charges for fatal car crashes resulting from drunken or reckless driving. Many were deeply paranoid and dozens committed suicide. Sometimes a whole group snapped at another member like Specialist Davis, who was stabbed and set ablaze by fellow soldiers a day after they returned from Iraq. Besides PTS, many had health problems, from disability and traumatic brain injury (TBI) to "Gulf War Syndrome." Adam had several concussions and suffered from frequent, excruciating headaches.
Was he dodging re-adjustment to life in America by remaining in the Army? Like Max? He quickly put the thought out of his mind. It was too painful to consider.
He had troubled sleep and each morning Mom complained his screaming kept her up at night. She said it was related PTS. Maybe it was, but being hyper-vigilant kept him alive. He sometimes displayed exaggerated responses, and he knew he had a long way to go before he could be normal again, but he did not suffer from any severe effect of PTS.
He checked the rearview mirror, lowered the car window to let off some steam, and drove off. Immediately his eyes reddened with tears from an impending allergy attack. He rapidly wound up the window. It was too late. His vision became impaired and he saw only blurred shapes. He needed to stop and rest for a while, but he had to get to the graduation on time.
Christ, what was that? A large gray object lay on the road ahead. Was it moving, or were the tears causing him to see things? He wiped his eyes, jerked past a waste bin, and stopped abruptly again. Up ahead was another suspicious mound. He approached slowly then bolted away from the piles of construction waste overflowing from the sidewalk. He maneuvered around other shady objects for ten interminable minutes, and finally arrived at Rachel's high school.
Chapter 9: Detector II
Dearborn, MI June 25, 2006 0900 Hours.
Dearborn, MI June 25, 2006 0900 Hours.
Joe held the cell phone close to his ear as he paced the windowless room. He heard low static and an intermittent crackle. Was the call dropped? The phone had gone on power saving mode and he was afraid to press a button to wake it up. He might accidentally end, hold, or mute the call. How long was he going to be on hold? He had a ton of things to do.
Frank needed him and he would not disappoint his mentor. Not today.
Joe rammed his knees into the man's stomach. At six feet, five inches, 280 pounds, he could do serious damage, but he never went too far. The new shirt clung to his back and beads of sweat dripped down his arms. He paid double because the sales clerk promised its fine material was highly breathable, but it was no different from the others, and worst, the stiff label irritated his neck so much he felt like ripping the thing off and tearing it to shreds.
Screams reverberated inside the room and Joe could not hear the phone. He banged the wall and stepped outside. "Hello, Scully, are you there?"
The line remained silent. Damn broad. If she was not putting--.
A husky female voice came on the phone. "Hello Joe, sorry to keep you waiting."
"Scully. What the hell you're doing keeping me on hold for five minutes?"
"I said I was sorry."
She sounded like that country singer in the movie, "A Coal Miner's Daughter." Her voice always melted him and he could never stay mad at her for long.
"All right. What have you found so far?"
"What do you mean? There're many choices, you just have to find one good one."
Joe wished he had one of those super intelligent computers they used in the movies that instantly gave answers to all questions. Each year, they spent billions of dollars on highly complex computer programs filled with bugs, which they have to keep fixing. Could they not use some of that wasted money to make a simple program that was useful to people like him for a change?
"It's not easy." Scully paused. "Both have to match…"
"Not necessarily. I told you to think outside the box today, didn't I?"
The line was silent.
"All right. Where have you checked? What about our local businesses? We've poured a ton of money into development here."
"That was the most obvious place to start. I looked up current and old cases."
He pulled himself against the wall to let someone pass in the narrow hallway. Why were so many people milling about inside? He could not even hear himself talk.
"Nothing there. I'm been searching regional resources."
"How many variations have you tried Scully?"
"Whatever you gave me. I tried it as--."
"Only one?" Joe banged his fists against the wall. "Why the hell are you wasting my time? That's a commodity I don't have the luxury of losing right now."
Her silence was maddening.
"And…?" Joe said loudly.
"Nothing so far."
"Well, keep looking damn it. Try different combinations and call me as soon as you have something." He hung up.
There were two-dozen people working over there, so why was he unable to get a simple task accomplished? He would have to do it himself at the local station. His Detroit perch overlooking the city would be ideal, but there was a lot to do before he could return to base and join Scully. Damn it. He might have to swallow his pride and call for outside help.
Luckily, there were several brothers in "the Family" whom he could call. Joe grinned, kicked the door open, and re-entered the room.
Chapter 10: Graduation
Dearborn, MI June 25, 2006 0900 Hours.
Dearborn, MI June 25, 2006 0900 Hours.
Dearborn High stretched in a wide arc from the center of a three-way intersection. At its apex, a massive two-story structure stood guard over a sprawling complex of low-lying bungalows, sports fields, and parking lots. A gymnasium on the left rose high above the main parking lot that overflowed with cars. Three police cars formed a line in the middle of the street and security directed traffic away from the jammed campus. It gave the impression of being more like a Hollywood premiere than a graduation.
Several blocks away, Adam exited the Mustang. The campus was swarming with thousands of well-wishers and hundreds of blue gowns. A dozen police watched over the scene at the gated entrance, and more uniformed officers assembled inside.
Adam approached a blonde male around his own age at the entrance and asked, "Is there a problem here?"
The young man stared him down then asked, "Who are you?"
"I'm Adam. I just arrived from Milwaukee."
"What's going on here?"
"Rumors. Obviously not serious enough to cancel the event."
"Rumors? What kinds of rumor?"
"A lot. Who knows?"
"So the police are here as a precaution?"
"There are a lot of Muslims who come to this school. There are always rumors of terrorists coming here to attend the graduation as guests."
"I guess tonight they're hoping to make a big catch."
Adam glanced around quickly. Were Fatima and her friends from the basement domestic insurgents? He felt ashamed for thinking this. He had no idea who were downstairs, and should not jump to conclusions. It was just a coincidence, right?
"Who said terrorist would be here?" Adam asked. "How do they find--?"
Bill started walking. "Who knows dude. Sorry, I've got to run."
Adam was stopped by the phalanx of security at the gate, and then quickly waved through. He did not carry a bag and no one bothered to check his pockets. The information he received from Bill was interesting but not surprising. The city appeared as a Mecca for American Muslims of all persuasion, including no doubt, adherents of radical, violent Islam. However, the security situation appeared well under control. This was Dearborn, not Tikrit.
Inside the campus, Adam discovered a diverse group of Anglo, Latino, Asian, and Middle Eastern people milling around in small groups. Adam scrutinized a bunch of faces searching for Fatima and Rachel. The two were probably not involved with terrorism, but he had to talk to them to be sure. However, with movement limited to a crawl, finding them was not going to be easy.
The vast number of people in Arabic dress amazed him. For some reason, Muslims were moving to Michigan. Rachel and her family were part of this trend. Why were they settling here? What drew them there in the first place? He had no idea but he planned to investigate it later.
Adam squeezed his way toward the ornate wood doors of the main building and found himself surrounded by people who dressed and spoke Arabic, a few words of which he understood. Most of the Muslim women wore a hijab or headscarf on top of typical Western clothes, but many had their entire face and body covered in Arabic clothing. This dress and the headscarf were both forbidden in French schools, and even in Moderate Muslim countries like Turkey, for good reason.
Adam closed his eyes and he was back in Iraq. His stomach tightened and his game face switched on. Wait a minute. There was no reason to be afraid. He was not in Iraq. He popped his eyes open and smiled. He was home and there was nothing more beautiful than the sight of a packed American high school at the beginning of summer. It reminded him of game day. He loved high school and yearned to relive just one day from his past, to re-capture the tinniest part of the best years of his life. His graduation was the greatest day of his life.
He entered the military at the tender age of eighteen. It changed his life completely, forever. Adam sighed. He came of age among strangers and enemies in a foreign country thousands of miles away, and his biggest regret was not becoming an adult and maturing among friends in his close-knit community.
The previous week had been a coming out party for him in many ways. He felt as if he was asleep for years, stuck deep inside a dark cave, but when he came home this time, he awoke and stepped into the light, and discovered life could be fun, joyous, and remarkable. Relieved from the crushing weights of seriousness and anger, a large part of him, larger than he was willing to admit, was tempted to remain in the light.
But how could he? He had no choice but to return into the darkness and only three more days of sunlight remained. Damn. He missed not having someone close to talk to, missed being in love. He did not want merely sex, which he found empty and guilt-ridden. No, what he needed was a soul mate, an equal partner on the journey through life, a kindred spirit, one of God's beautiful creations.
He had so much to give and was deserving of someone's affection, so why was he so desperately alone? His heart wilted each day without love, and if he did not find someone soon, he feared it would become encrusted with bitterness. He did not want to die alone and unloved, like so many others in the shifting sands of Iraq. Would he see Fatima again? He had to tell her how sorry he was for leaving her in the car. He searched the faces of dozens of women to no avail.
He wanted to be with Fatima, but what would he do if he could not find her? Maybe he should start looking for someone else. Unexpectedly, he had landed in a great spot for a hookup. Was he wasting a good opportunity? He was never this close to women in Iraq, and it was great to be able do so on leave. Regardless, he only wanted Fatima. Why was he attracted to her so much?
In his peripheral vision, a woman appeared like Fatima. He spun around to check and bumped into a man with a long beard standing right behind him. Covered in gray Islamic clothing and prayer cap, the man glared at Adam and spoke loudly in Arabic.
Adam apologized to the agitated figure. "Sorry." Why was long beard so upset? Was he someone the police was looking for? Adam glanced to his left but the woman was gone. He moved forward and peered into another face.
It was good to be in the midst of Muslims without fear or hang-ups. There were a few suspicious characters around, but Adam felt a level of comfort he did not have in a long time. He liked different cultures and it was a pleasant change. American was the most diverse country in the world, and the most beautiful and interesting as a result.
A group of young men played dice along the side of a wall and ignored his greeting.
Adam sighed. America's diversity could also be its Achilles' heel. There was the growing danger of polarization as more Americans retreated into separate, hostile camps, be it red or blue, black or white, rich or poor. These divisions could undermine the country and prevent Americans from solving the problems of the 21st century, from lack of energy and global warming, to health care and immigration. Permanent economic decline would be the result. And it could get worst, a lot worst. He saw what divisions did to Iraq and shuddered at the thought of what America could also become.
Adam felt like he was on a personal mission. He was fighting overseas to keep the country free and safe for all Americans. Their security was important and he did not want a repeat of 9/11. But that was only half the job and when he returned, he intended to work to tear down walls and build bridges across the gulf separating Americans. He knew firsthand there was no security without unity.
The people around him seemed friendly to each other. This had unity. If only all of America was the same. He had a great idea. Each one of America's enemies should be required to view a recording of the graduation, to see Muslims happily living in a diverse, secular society. In fact, if Iraqis saw the peaceful gathering of different cultures and sects, maybe they might not tear each other apart as much.
Adam returned to the task at hand and hurriedly scanned a large group of people in an open plaza. There was nothing out of the ordinary. He covered his tired eyes from the bright sunlight, walked a couple of hundred feet, and paused under a shaded spot. He had to get some answers. Maybe he should start to ask around for Rachel.
A group of young woman approached on the left.
Adam waved and said, "Hi there, can you help me?"
The girls giggled and walked away. Adam searched for someone else to ask. Maybe he would run into Xavier. That would certainly clear up many questions.
A female graduate approached alone, wearing a blue headscarf in place of the traditional cap and tassel.
"Hi there," Adam said, "Can you help me?"
She paused and asked, "What’s the matter?"
"I'm looking for someone." Adam stepped closer as a police helicopter roared overhead. "A whole lot of excitement today, huh?"
"It just got started." The young woman smiled. "They'll start the ceremony soon."
"Jasmine. Who are you looking for?"
"My sister, Rachel."
Jasmine acted surprised. "Rachel? The Rachel? Rachel Ali?"
Adam nodded. "Yes, do you know her?"
"I didn't know she had a brother. How come I never met you?"
"I'm not from around here."
"Where are you from?" Jasmine appeared interested in him. It was a change of luck and Adam relaxed.
"It's hard to say. Originally, I'm from Milwaukee, but I've been in Iraq so long I don't know what to say anymore. It's kind of weird trying to answer that question."
Jasmine started to a laugh. "You're her brother? Come to think of it, you do look alike."
"That's what Mom says. Have you seen Rachel?"
She thought for a few seconds. "Not today I haven't, sorry."
"How about Fatima?"
"Her friend?" Jasmine stared at Adam. "No."
There was an awkward pause. What was going on? Were the two women competitors?
Jasmine seemed upset and prepared to leave. "Do you need any thing else?"
"Actually, I'm looking for somewhere to go after the graduation. Where do you guys usually hang out?"
"Wherever. Downtown, the mall, a park, or by the river."
"Sounds like a lot of fun."
Just then, a loud bell rung and a loud speaker announced the start of the commencement ceremony.
Jasmine flashed a broad smile. "Here's my number. I've got to run. I'll see you back here or call me later." She dashed off to the front seating area.
Adam grinned and went in search a seat in the shade. After a few minutes, he ended up at the back of the audience in a metal folding chair, next to a boisterous Anglo family, in the full sun. He exchanged small talk as his eyes searched for Fatima. He just had to wait. Rachel would receive her diploma on stage, and he planned to ask her about Fatima then.
The program started with the principal's welcome, followed by recognition of the school's ROTC graduates and students bound for military service. Adam paid close attention as America's future warriors approached the stage. Each was young and innocent, just like he and his best friends, Max and Sean, appeared when they joined.
The threesome served two tours in Iraq with distinction and honor. However, from early on, Adam became worried his friends were changing and growing apart from each other. The job was stressful and they took it out on each other. Adam tried to provide an island of refuge for them, to remain in the middle, the same person he always was. But the increasing conflict between them divided Adam's loyalty and pulled him apart at the seams. It all happened so quickly. Everything had changed and it could never be the same again. There was too much water under the bridge, even between him and Sean.
The new recruits marched on stage, overflowing with confidence. Pride and patriotism welled up inside and brought Adam close to tears. He silently made a prayer for them and renewed his commitment to his service. Individually introduced, seven ROTC members had Arabic names, as did a dozen or more graduates headed into the service, mostly as translators.
He was glad to see Arab Americans enlisting. They would be very useful in Iraq. However, the few Arab female recruits among them would be totally out of place in the Middle East. He wished them luck.
Adam scanned the crowd. There were dozens of men with beards, perhaps a few terrorist sympathizers among them. There were also several uniformed police officers, and others who appeared like Federal agents. The zone was well covered.
On stage, the recruits stood at attention to the school choir's rendition of the national anthem. The entire audience stood up and sang in unison, and Adam's vision blurred as he sang along. The cadets gave a last salute and marched off stage.
The program continued with recognition of outstanding students. Adam was impressed by how many students with Arabic names were praised for academic excellence, local community service, and acceptance at prestigious universities. Then, from out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Rachel. She wore a green headscarf and stood by the stage, holding a cell phone to one ear.Adam's chest heaved and his thoughts raced uncontrollably as he sprinted after his target. When would the enemy strike again? Loudspeakers echoed in the background, like call to prayers from a thousand minarets. His eyes darted about as he weaved through the crowd. He tracked Rachel's every movement, drew closer, and suddenly lost sight of her. Did she see his coming? Was she trying to escape?