The Touch of Revenge

The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold

and his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold.

[George Gordon(Lord)Byron, The Destruction of Sennacherib]

The new Assyrians had plenty of gold. They were financed by Henry James Clutterbuck, a billionaire whose son, Michael, had fallen with the Twin Towers. And, the new Assyrians were not coming down on the folds of the Hebrews, either. Rather, they were coming down on The Kingdom; on those who controlled one-quarter of the world’s oil; on those who had allowed or sent fifteen of their citizens to fly jetliners into skyscrapers. Finally, and most dangerously, they were coming down on the whole of Islam.

Clutterbuck had inherited gobs of money. His great-great grandfather, Marcus Daly, had bought Anaconda Silver, near Butte, in 1881 and eventually owned all the mines on Butte Hill. Imagine what happened when masses of copper were discovered? Marcus sold out to the Rockefellers in 1899 for thirty-nine million. Others had built on this and when Henry’s father, Joseph, married Louella Daly in 1950 the family fortune stood at five point seven billion. Henry had inherited one-third of this and added a cell phone manufacturing company, a company that made uniforms for the United States military, a few high tech companies, and a company that operated freighters on the Mediterranean and Red Seas. His net worth stood at four point eight billion, when his world came crashing down with his son and the Twin Towers. Henry, not surprisingly, blamed the Saudis. On September 23, 2001, he began to plan the ultimate payback.

Thomas Armstrong Speelmon had spent two years in Iraq during the first Gulf War. He was forty-three in 2001, his body buff as an NBA guard, and he ran three miles at least twice a week. The wound he’d received in his shoulder hardly bothered him and, since it was his left, he had no problem maintaining his championship fly casting form. Also, he could still bring down an elk at five hundred yards.

His Marine company had been stationed near Fallujah and he’d lost three of his best friends to IEDs. Also, he’d lost a cousin on 9/11. He was from Missoula, Montana and had known about Henry Clutterbuck his whole life. When he heard rumors that the billionaire was full of rancor and thirsting for revenge on those who killed his son, Speelmon decided to visit his neighbor.

The Clutterbuck home, a seventeen room mansion, sat on forty acres of land in the Bitterroots and overlooked a long steady in the Big Blackfoot River. The locals said the whole package was worth some thirty-one million dollars. Speelmon didn’t care, but he loved the room he’d been shown to by the butler. Charlie Russell paintings covered the walls and Remington bronzes were scattered on coffee and end tables. Tom Speelmon stood close and studied one painting. Underneath, it said BUFFALO HUNT, Charles Marion Russell, 1897. ‘Bet these aren’t prints, either,’ he muttered under his breath. He turned, as a door opened behind him.

The man was short and fit. His features were tiny, his hair black and short, his dress casual. His face, though, wore a look of anguish that seemed ingrained forever. He said, “Ah, Mr. Speelmon, is it? I’m Henry Clutterbuck. Welcome to my home.”

Speelmon stuck out his hand and said, “Good to meet you. Your home is gorgeous.”

“Thank you, Sir. Shall we adjourn to my office? I’ll have William bring us a drink.”

Speelmon glanced at his watch and smiled. “Well, it is two fifteen. I could drink a beer.”

“Good! Your brand?”

“Well, I kind of like that local stuff from the Bitterroot Brewing Company in Hamilton.

Sawtooth Ale, if you have it. Otherwise, Coors or anything.”

The butler had appeared. “And a shot of Beam with water for me, William. Thanks.”

“Heard the rumors have you,” said Clutterbuck, as they sipped their drinks.

“Hard to miss them. Any truth to it?”

Henry studied the amber liquid in his glass, a thousand mile stare in his eyes. Then, “Mr. Speelmon . . . hell, let’s not be formal. First names, alright?”

“Sure, but let’s be serious.”

“Of course. Thomas, Tom?”

“Friends call me Tom.”

“Tom, the things you’ve heard are not exaggerated. I’ve been over the edge for two weeks. Drunk most of the time. Raving . . . well, to hell with that. Convinced myself if I don’t make someone pay for Michael’s life I’ll have to put a gun in my mouth. So, I’m serious about getting some payback, damn serious. Understand?”

“Yes, Sir, I do. I served in Desert Storm. Fallujah, mostly. Saw some good friends blown up by IEDs. Had a cousin fall with the towers, too. So, I’m damn near as mad as you.”

“Understandable. Now, here’s my thinking so far.”

“I’m listening.”

“Attack Islam’s most sacred shrines, like the Kaabah. We’re going to be the new Assyrians, Tom. . .you know, come down like a wolf?”

Speelmon gave him a blank look. “Sorry, Assyrians?”

“An ancient people, Tom. Very aggressive. They controlled everything between modern Turkey and Egypt, including what is now The Kingdom, for half a century.”

“Okay, but we’re only a handful. How can we act like an army?”

“Come on, Tom, you’re just playing Devil’s Advocate.. You know if we take enough powerful explosive and destroy the Kabah and half that damned mosque, it’ll have the same effect on Islam as if we numbered in the millions.”

“Maybe, maybe . . . ”

“What?”

“Just remembered about the Assyrians. Something I learned at Hellgate High in Missoula. Didn’t God destroy them to save the Hebrews?”

“Yes, but we’ll be hunting the enemies of the Hebrews. I say God’s on our side. Remember, even the ragheads say ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend,’ right?”

“Heard that a lot in Iraq. Hard not to agree but this ‘God’s on our side’ argument’s a bit old, isn’t it?”

“Hell, Tom, I’m an infidel. What do I know? Anyway, we go with this we have to be ready to go all the way.”

“You mean . . . ?”

“Exactly, Tom. I’m willing to give my life for this.”

“No way, Henry, no way you’re front line on this. Even if you were Marine trained and battle hardened. It’s going to take us four or five years to put this in play. What’ll you be, sixty, sixty-five? Hell, I’ll be damned near fifty. No, you insist on going, I’m out.”

“Jesus, that’s not fair. I’m paying the piper I should get to sit in with the band.”

“You’re right and I agree with the sit in part. We’ll need a contact back here at home. You know, in case there’s a SNAFU.”

Henry Clutterbuck sat back and closed his eyes. A full minute passed and when he spoke his voice was low and halting, “I’d demand to go, Tom, but I think you’re the man for this. Can’t afford to lose you so I’ll stay here and man the phones.”

“Hope you’re right, but we should wait till you find out more about me.”

“Already found out. See, I’m not the only one folks talk about. I heard how upset you were, day after the towers fell. So, had you checked by a couple of private investigators.”

Speelmon leaped to his feet, his face the colour of blood. “Shit, you had no right . . .”

“Right, hell, I was obligated to check out anyone might get into this business. I had half a dozen put under the microscope. Come on, sit down and relax. I’m not concerned with your wild oat sowing or your two marriages. Hell, don’t even care you spent time in jail. You were part of a Marine Special Team and you know hand to hand combat and tactics. That’s why you’re my guy for this. So, you in?”

“Might be my only chance to do something. No way can I not take it. I’m in.” Thomas Armstrong Speelmon, named after a stubborn general who lead his troops into a massacre, offered his hand and the billionaire, who’d come from nothing, took it.”

“Good, good. So, four or five more men you think,” said Henry Clutterbuck.

“Yes, we don’t want to take a woman into that society. Needless complication.”

“Of course. And I’ve already got one man in place. Gordon Padgett is my agent for Sphinx Shipping and works out of Alexandria. Right now, he’s posing as a commercial fisherman in Southern Egypt. Remember, Christ’s disciples were fishermen and I believe we’re doing God’s work. Anyway, Gordo will take the material you need from one of my freighters and drop it off to you on the Saudi coast. So, Gordo and you and, what, three or four more. You have anyone in mind?”

“Five total sounds right. Let me think on it, get back to you. Here, tomorrow morning?”

“Fine, but won’t you stay for dinner? I’ll have William grill some elk steaks.”

“Henry, I love elk meat and I hope we’ll eat a lot of it together. Tonight, though, I have a prior engagement. See you around eleven?”

“Very well. Goodnight, Tom.”

“Later, Henry.”

Thomas Speelmon went straight to his first choice of people he’d like with him in Mecca. Timothy Beachboard lived just outside of Missoula and had served as an ordnance tech in the Corps. He’d been involved in finding and disarming IEDs and Speelmon had known him since high school. They’d been football heroes at Hellgate High together. They’d remained friends and went hunting and fishing together at least twice a year. Beachboard, since losing his house when his wife walked out with their daughter, lived alone. His two bedroom apartment was on Ryman Street, near Red’s Bar, a place Speelmon knew well

After getting no answer at Beachboard’s, Tom Speelmon went to the bar. There he found his old friend, sitting alone, nursing a Michelob Ultralight. Speelmon noted that his friend had put on a lot of weight since his wife split. ‘Too much junk food,’ thought Speelmon. ‘Few months of hard work and good food should fix it.’ He reached the bar and said,”Man, that’s a crap drink. Why not have a real beer?”

“Hey, Tommy, what’s shaking? Have a seat.”

Speelmon raised his hand and said, “Gimme a Sawtooth Ale, please”. Then, to Beachboard, “You eaten yet?”

“Nah, was about to have a buffalo burger and homefries. You?”

“Sounds good. I’ll order.”

He was back in a minute. “I asked the tender to bring our food to that corner table.” He pointed across the dark room. “Come on, let’s sit.”

“Jesus, Tommy, what gives? What’s wrong with the bar?”

“Nothing, just want some privacy.”

Tim Beachboard shoved his chair back and held up his hands, palms out. “Hey, I’m not that kinda guy. Don’t you go makin’ moves on me, boy.”

“Funny, Tim, very funny. Haha! Something serious to tell you, my man. Interested?”

“If it’s hunting or fishing, you know it. Otherwise, tell me what’s up before I decide.”

The food came, then, and both men dug into it. Tim shoved his plate back and lit a smoke first, “Okay, I’m listening,” he said.

Ten minutes later, Tim sat with his mouth open. “Good Lord, Tommy, that’s nuts. Three or four guys go to Saudi Arabia, blow up the Kaabah and . . . what . . . fly on to the Cote d’Azur

for baccarat, beer, and broads? Nice joke, buddy.”

“Serious, Tim. Look, I know you lost friends in Desert Storm and on 9/11. I’m telling you, Clutterbuck is serious. Hell, he even wanted to come with us. Said he’d as soon be dead as leave his son’s killers unpunished.”

Tim Beachboard lit his fifth cigarette in ten minutes and said, “I know you’re not crazy, Tommy, and I’m fairly sure I’m not. Even though those who destroyed the towers all died, their backers didn’t. Since we don’t know all of the names of those who recruited and financed the bombers, I’d like to see The Kingdom punished. Innocents will die, though, you know damn well. We do this, let’s not fool ourselves.”

“You’re right. But, innocents died on 9/11. Tit for tat, Tim.’

“Anyone else asked me to do something like this, I’d laugh at them. But, you I can’t just blow off. You gonna head this crew, Tommy?”

“It’s what Henry Clutterbuck wants. Think I’ll leave it up to you and the others we get. Any ideas who to ask?”

“A few, but I’ll leave it to you. Another beer?”

“No thanks, better head home. See you tomorrow?”

“Sure, come by my place for breakfast.”

“What, you got a stove? Unbelievable. Okay, around nine. I’ll bring coffee.”

 

After leaving Red’s Bar, Speelmon went home to his small house on E. Main Street, about a dozen blocks from Tim’s place. He’d lived there alone since his second divorce two years previous. A brief vision of his ex, Kathy, flashed across his mind. Long legs and red hair and a ready smile that had been smothered by the baggage he’d brought from Falujah. ‘Bloody ragheads did that, too,’ he thought. Then, ‘No, most of it was fucking Bush and his lies. Weapons of mass destruction, my ass!’

He opened his front door, turned off the alarm system and headed for the fridge. He took a cold beer into his tiny office and grabbed the phone. “Hi, it’s Tom,” he said, when a woman’s voice answered.

“Oh, hi, Tom. You want Wendell?”

“Please. Thanks, Katelyn.”

He listened to the hum on the wires for a moment. Then, “Lo, Tom,” said Wendell Wertz, another Speelmon high school buddy. “Wassup?”

“Right question, Double W. You got much on your plate?”

“No more than usual. You know I spend a lot of time on my language school, huh?”

“So you’ve said. How be you let your underlings run it and you and I take a little trip?”

“Underlings! You nuts? Man, it’s only me an Kate. We haven’t had a day off in five years. So, unless you can support us I have to say negatory, my man.”

“Money’s no problem, friend. This play’s being backed by Henry Clutterbuck.”

The wires hummed in Speelmon’s ear for a long time. Then, “Okay, I’ll definitely listen. We doing this on the phone?”

“No way. Tomorrow morning, nine o’clock sharp at Tim’s place. Can do?”

“Sure. Will there be others?”

“You’re smarter than that, Wens. See you at nine.”

The next two he called turned Tom Speelmon down. Family commitments for one, no interest in changing his life said the other. Next one Tom tried was an answering machine. He ran through the short list that had been in his mind and tried a number in Kamiah, just across the Idaho line. “Simeon Snowman here,” said the voice on the other end.

“Frosty, good to hear your voice, man. You going elk hunting soon?”

“Hey, Tom, been a while. Plan on getting an elk before Thanksgiving. Interested?”

“You know it, big guy. Got a big money deal, too, if you’re between jobs.”

“Between or not, I’d listen. My jobs never pay big. What is it?”

“Henry Clutterbuck is behind it. You know him?”

“Not personally, just know he’s some rich guy over your way. So, what’s the deal?”

“Rather tell you in person. You know Tim’s place at 196 Ryman, in Missoula? Can you be there by nine tomorrow?”

“Sure. Bring anything?”

“Just yourself, Sim. And that’s nine in the morning, okay?”

Tom hung up the phone in the middle of Simeon Snowman’s soft chuckle.

Next morning, over coffee and Crispy Cremes, Speelmon told them of Clutterbuck’s plan. After all the ‘Good Gods’ and ‘Holy Shits,’ he said, “Anyone here not know someone who fell with the towers?”

They all nodded except Simeon Snowman. Feeling left out, he said, “Don’t mean I’m not pissed off at these people. Man, they attacked my country. You know I’m mad!”

Wendell Wertz responded, “Simeon, we’ve known each other a long time. I believe you love this country but I’ve heard you curse them that destroyed the Nez Perce and stole their land. Some good if you’ve left the past behind.”

Simeon smiled a bit. “Forgiveness is good for the soul,” he said. “Anyway, I’m in.”

Turned out they were all in. By the time the meeting broke up, they’d decided to pose as Saudis, including growing beards, wearing robes, taking Saudi names, and speaking Arabic.

“It’s a bit tough,” said Wendell Wertz, who’d been teaching the language for four years, “but once you get over the right to left part, it’s okay.”

“Expect you to be a big help with this, Wendell,” said Speelmon. “Too bad we can’t get

Kate in on it.” Then, he looked into the eyes of each man before saying, “Fact is, once this gets going, none of us can see any friends or family.”

“Okay, boss,” said Tim Beachboard. They all filed out, then, a quiet bunch, each wrapped in his own thoughts, in this new world that had found them.

“Good. Now, I told Henry I’d see him by eleven. Anyone want to come with me?’

No one begged off as they hit the street.

 

In late late April, 2004, all except Gordon Padgett were in the forest near the Clutterbuck home. All had heavy black beards, dyed in the case of Wendell Wertz who was a natural blonde. And, all wore white thawbs and red and white ghutras bound with black agals, the standard male clothing of Saudi Arabia. They had had no contact with friends and family, other then messages from far off places, since October of 2001, and not even parents or lovers would have recognized them. Now, in the cold of a late Montana afternoon, they spoke in Arabic and used the names on their Saudi passports.

Thomas Speelmon, now referred to as Captain, said, “No problems with flying to Atlanta tomorrow?”

“Not that I can think of,” said Simeon Snowman. He was a slim man of forty-two and carried himself like a bullfighter. “Not sure we need all that time in Syria, though.”

Tim Beachboard, still a bit awkward in his robe, snapped a stick he’d been using to aimlessly stir the leaves that covered the ground. At forty-seven, he was getting a bit thick in the waist and his bulbous nose showed the effects of thousands of beers and whiskeys. He was still sharp as a ceramic blade, though, and his instincts never failed. “I agree,” he said. “Why waste time there? Go to Mecca now, get ready and do the job after the Haj.”

Speelmon nodded. “Listen, I’d love to but you all heard what Dr. Bitar, Wertz’s Arabic professor, said. Quote, Your Arabic is almost perfect, unquote. Almost. It’s that almost that could get us killed. So, we spend six months with a tutor in Syria, learn about operating a vendor’s van, become more comfortable in these duds, and head for Mecca next fall.”

“Makes sense to me,” said Wendell Wertz. His glasses were thick, his normally clean shaven face looked strange with the dyed beard, but he still looked every inch the scholar that he was. Wertz likely knew as much about Muslim culture as his friend, Sam Bitar. “Damn hard to overtrain for this kind of op, though I doubt I’ll ever be real comfortable wearing a dress.”

After the laugh, Snowman said, “What about this Padgett? We haven’t met him and I prefer to know the people I may need to cover my back.”

“Gordon Padgett won’t be covering any backs,” said Speelmon. “Once he hands us the stuff, he’s gone back to Egypt. Anyway, he’s coming to Syria for a few days.”

“Good,” said Wertz. “We still going to Aleppo?”

“Yeah, it’s a large city and should prepare us well for Mecca.”

“Don’t know, Captain. I was in Baghdad for eight months but damned if I feel ready for the holiest place in raghead land,” said Tim Beachboard.

“Can’t argue,” said Wertz. “Mecca’s a different ball game. And, what about the money for all this, Captain?”

“Thought we had that settled,” said Speelmon. “Henry’s given us access to a numbered account in Zurich and we have these no limit credit cards. Not to worry.”

“Last thing, what about the Semtex,” said Beachboard. “What if …..” He stopped and did a quick 180. “Hey, what was that?”

Speelmon gestured and they all ran toward the sound. “Likely an elk or some damn thing,” said Simeon Snowman, as he ran through the trees. Then, they reached the top of the little hill and saw the man hunkered in the bushes.

Fred Hubbard tried not to make a sound as he crept through a stand of evergreens on the eastern slopes of the Bitterroots. His Remington 700 was held at the ready. Every few steps, he stopped and listened. He felt the black bear but could neither see nor hear the animal. Then as he began climbing a small rise, he heard voices.

Startled, Fred dropped to the ground. He lay still and tried not to breathe. Two men were talking in a strange, musical language. After a moment, a third voice, louder, joined them. Fred crawled up the gentle slope. When he reached the top, an unbelievable sight lay before him.

Four men dressed in robes and checkered head dresses wandered around a small clearing, gesticulating and arguing with one another. ‘Or, maybe just chatting,’ thought Fred, unsure of how to interpret the scene because of the unfamiliar language. He studied the men, noting that all had beards and dark skin. No weapons were in evidence. ‘So, not hunters,’ Fred guessed.

He pulled his head back, so as not to be visible, and lay quietly, thinking. For some reason he was afraid to confront these men. Then, he made up his mind and began edging his way back down the slope. When he figured he was out of sight, Hubbard stood up. In doing so he felt a hard blow to his right eye. He gave a cry and fell to the ground, unconscious.

A moment later, back in the world, Fred Hubbard looked up into the faces of the four bearded men. His right eye was on fire but he began to rise anyway. “Hang on buddy,” said one of the men. “Your eye’s a mess and it’s bleeding like hell. Here, let us get you into Missoula to a doctor. Ilyas, take his other arm.”

Soon, they could see Clutterbuck’s mansion. “Hey, that ain’t no hospital.” Fred Hubbard’s voice was loud and angry. “What the fuck you guys doing?”

Thomas Speelmon’s voice was quiet and reasonable. “Just relax, man, you’ll be fine. Ilyas, how be you dart ahead, let them know we’re coming?”

“Sure, boss.” Snowman headed out, moving as fast as the thick woods allowed.

William Smythe opened the big oak doors and Fred Hubbard was ushered into Henry Clutterbuck’s home. Henry greeted him.

“Hello, I’m Henry Clutterbuck. Heard you had an accident.”

Hubbard’s mouth hung open for a moment. “Yes, Sir, I did and I’d like to see a doctor.”

“You’re in luck Mr. . . . ?”

“Hubbard, Fred Hubbard. Now . . . ”

“Like I said, you’re in luck. See, William here was a medic in Vietnam. He’ll fix you up good as any doctor. Right, William?”

“Do my best, Sir. This way, please.”

After the two had gone, Clutterbuck and the others went into the large kitchen. There was a smell of garlic and peppers and lamb coming from a number of dishes on the table. “William made shawarma and kabobs for lunch,” said Clutterbuck. “Dig in.”

Wendell Wertz chewed on a piece of lamb and took a sip of Bedouin-style coffee, before he said, “Any ideas what to do with that guy?”

Speelmon, who’d been worrying this bone since they’d found Hubbard, said, “Only thing I know is he can’t be set free or allowed to communicate with anyone outside of this house.”

Simeon Snowman, working on his second shawarma, said, “You have a talent for stating the obvious, oh fearless leader. Big question is, how.”

Beachboard giggled. “Yes, how, as the Nez Perce said to the Crow. How?”

Henry Clutterbuck looked at each in turn. “Good to see you boys still have a sense of humour,” he said. “Shouldn’t be a problem. William and I will look after our unlucky friend. Keep him warm and well fed and make sure he communicates only with us until the job’s done.”

“Sounds good. Guess adding kidnaping to our resume isn’t going to hurt,” Wertz said.

“You got that right, pards,” said Speelmon. “So, Henry, we head for Syria as planned?”

“Of course. Little over six months from now, this’ll all be over.”

“Hope so,” said Beachboard. “Pass me that kabob, please, Ilyas.’

Soon, the food was all gone and the four stood to leave. “Man, I can’t believe I’m starting to really like this food,” said Speelmon.

“Good thing we all are because it’s our diet till this is over,” said Wertz.

The flight from Atlanta to Rome was long and we had all slept a lot. After a short night and a long day in Rome, we lifted off from Leonardo da Vinci at 6:05 in the evening, bound for Istanbul. The layover at Ataturk International was almost two hours. Then, just as our patience was wearing thin, the call came over the PA system: Syrianair, Flight 5372 for Aleppo, Damascus, and Amman preparing for boarding at Gate 3. All passengers please report.

Wendell Wertz downed the last of his coffee and said, “Bout time. Come on, guys.”

At 1:10 in the morning, the 747 touched down at Nairab International in Aleppo. Actually, we were still six miles from the city. Going through customs and retrieving bags took a solid hour but the cab ride was only fifteen minutes in light traffic.

Our rooms at the Aleppo Sheraton, not far from the Language Institute in the Almuhafaza area of Aleppo had been prearranged. The taxi had us there by 2:30 and we were all sound asleep by three.

Next day we met our tutor and guide, Abdel-Hakim Al Halbi. He proved to be a slight young man with a whispy moustache. His eyes were black as obsidian, his nose large and his hands small but with long, pianist’s fingers. When he spoke, it was in a soft voice and we had to strain to hear. Speelmon said, “Speak up, no need to whisper.” Then, he introduced us all, using our Saudi names.

Abdel had come by van and there was ample room for us and our sparse luggage. Abdel spoke a stream of fast Arabic and the driver pulled into traffic. I said, “Sounded like you told him to take us to the Language Institute.”

“Very good, Sir,” said Abdel, whose name means ‘servant of the wise one.’ “I was told you are to stay there. Is that not so?”

“It is,” said Speelmon. “Would it be alright to call you Abdel and you call us by our first names? We are simple country folk from northern Saudi Arabia.”

“Of course,” said Abdel. “Excuse me if I get confused, since there are four of you.”

“All will be well in time,” Wertz said. “You know we’re here until fall?”

“Yes, and I am most glad. We have lots of time to see the city and the land around it.”

“Good, I am a student of the past and I already know that Aleppo is a very old place.”

Speelmon and I were in one room and Snowman and Wertz in another. We all unpacked quickly and joined Abdel on the street. The van was gone. “We shall walk,” said Abdel. “It is the best way to see the city.”

“Sure, but let’s walk to something to eat,” said Speelmon. “Anyone else hungry?”

Hearing nothing but yeses, Abdel said, “Fine, shall we try some street food?”

“Of course, since we plan to be street vendors,” said Wertz. “Can you introduce us to a vendor who will help us learn to operate a food van?”

“It shall be done.”

We had walked along Cappucini Jmn Kalioundiji and past the Polish Consulate, when Wertz spotted a street vendor.

We stopped and watched the man, fat from eating his own wares day after day, cut shawarma from a large mass of chicken strips slowly turning beside a low gas flame. He scooped up our orders and placed them in a piece of toasted pita bread along with some hummus. No one wanted the french fries that went with the meal, but we all ordered soft drinks.

Simeon took a bite and sighed with pleasure. “Better than most,” he said. “We won’t need months to learn how to do this.”

The man, still cutting meat, said, “True, but if you wish to become expert you will need an instructor and much practice.”

“Yes, and my Uncle Yousuf is just the man for the job,” said Abdel.

“Yousuf Al Halb?”

“Yes, you know him?”

“Of course, all of us know one another. Yousuf is the second best shawarma maker in Aleppo. I would be your best choice as teacher but, sadly, I am too busy to take an apprentice.”

A line of customers had formed and Speelmon said, “Yes, it is obvious your food is very popular. And very good. We shall eat here again.”

“Thank you and good luck with your learning.”

Next day, Abdel began helping three of his new students polish their Arabic. Wertz, already fluent, had left on a guided tour of the city. “He will see the usual tourist places,” said Abdel, his tone scornful. “Meantime we will go to the souq and see more of the real Aleppo. Also, you can meet my uncle and begin to learn the street vendor business.”

“Keep it in the family, huh,” Simeon said. “Same as we do in my clan.”

“Yes, as you know it is common in our culture. But, you have chosen to break from your clan, no?”

“Some of my brothers went into the family construction business and I tried. Unfortunately, I was all thumbs. After two years, my bothers encouraged me to give it up. Really, they insisted. I was costing them money. So, here I am.”

Speelmon and I looked out over the city from their third floor balcony. “God, it’s a real jumble.” said Tom. “What, four or five million people living around this hill they call The Citadel?”

“Don’t think so, man, more like two or three million. Similar in size to Mecca. After a few months here, the holy city should feel like home.”

“We’ll see. Hey, Abdel, we leaving soon?”

“The taxi is on it’s way, Mahmoud. Are you getting hungry?”

“Yes, I would like to eat before dhuhr.”

Abdel grinned. “We shall, since it is still hours away.” He turned at the sound of a car braking in front of the building. “Hah, here is our ride.”

Soon, we were squeezed into the ancient Citreon. Like most of the city’s cabs, it was yellow. The driver, a thick man in a black coat, white pants and a baseball cap with “Red Sox” on it, drove with one hand on the wheel and the other on the horn. It was the common way of all drivers in the city, Abdel had told us. Traffic was heavy, with many brightly coloured busses and cabs stopping and starting in almost every block. Also, vans and delivery trucks were plentiful and left or joined the traffic flow at will. There were few traffic lights and, at one point we came to an intersection that was most confusing, with vehicles coming from five different directions. “This is the main reason I do not drive,” said Abdel. “Seven of ten accidents in Habal happen at these places. Are you comfortable, Sirs?”

I had quit smoking and now looked sideways at our guide and said, gently, “Except for the heat, noise, and smoke pouring from the Boston fan, I’d say we’re all good.”

“Yes, but he is no Boston fan. Someone gave him the hat. I would ask him not to smoke but, since we are only minutes from the souq, it hardly matters.”

The souq was the most amazing place any of us had seen, although Speelmon and I had both been in Iraqi markets. Unlike Aleppo’s, none of them had been covered. And this one, according to Abdel, stretched for almost ten kilometers. We entered a wall of noise and a cornucopia of smells. “Food first,” Speelmon whispered in Abdel’s ear.

“Yes, my uncle’s place is but a few meters away. Follow me, please.”

Our progress was slow in the crowded passageways between hawkers of everything from beads to jewels, dresses to hats, prayer rugs, spices, knives and guns, fly-covered slabs of meat, cold drinks, ice cream, tin ware, boots, small prayer mats, vegetables, coins, and huge carpets. At last, Abdel stopped before a small food stand and a tall beardless man in a robe and turban. “Good day, Uncle,” said Abdel.

The man finished serving a customer, turned and said, “Hah, nephew, you have brought your Saudis. Greetings to all.”

Introductions were made and Yousuf offered them some food. All except Simeon, now called Ilyas, declined. The Nez Perce asked for a shawarma and Coke. “Sorry, no Coke,” said Yousuf, “but you might like my favourite, a blend of orange and pomegranate juice.”

“Yes, it sounds fine,” said Snowman. A moment later, he said, “Excellent, my friend, excellent.” He finished his shawarma and gulped the last of the drink.

Speelmon and I, now Mahmoud and Amed, turned from studying Yousuf’s operation. We were sweating from the heat thrown off by the propane heaters that cooked the meat and kept it warm. “Please, I’ll try one of those drinks,” I said and, “Me, too,” echoed Speelmon.

“So, you wish to learn my secrets,” Yousuf said, as he handed them their bottles of juice.

Speelmon swallowed his mouthful of juice before saying, “Yes, we plan to operate two vans in our home town of Ras al Khafji and, maybe, in Mecca during the Hajj.”

“A noble plan, my friends, but is it not difficult to get a licence to operate during the Hajj,” said Yousuf.

“It is, but our father knows members of the royal family,” Speelmon said.

“Not surprising, since I am told there are many thousands of them.” Yousuf laughed and slapped his thighs as he said this.

“Yes, over forty thousand,” said Speelmon. “Good for us, though, because many of them require the services of builders. Our father knows hundreds of the royals.”

“Excellent! Your plan is a good one. With the masses coming through Mecca during the Hajj, you should make a fortune,” said Yousuf. “Would you like another partner?”

Speelmon smiled. “Maybe,” he said. “May we call on you, if necessary?”

“Of course. Now, I’m sure my nephew has plans for you. I start at five sharp tomorrow morning. If you come a bit later, say after sunrise prayer at five seventeen, I will begin your instruction. Abdel, make sure you take them to the Citadel and the Umayyad Mosque.”

“Of course, Uncle. Be safe and prosper.” Abdel made a little bow and lead them out.

The souq was a madhouse at five in the morning. Trucks, vans, and donkey-drawn carts disgorged everything from World War One-era rifles to fine Saracen blades, from melons to squashes, from masses of cigarettes to boxes of pipes, and spices from cinnamon to marjoram.

At seventeen past five the muezzin’s call from a hundred mosques was heard throughout the city and a million and a half citizens of Aleppo turned south toward Mecca and knelt in solemn prayer. In an instant the uproar of the souq had become a perfect silence. After a few moments, we four rose from our prayer mats and began the tasks that Yousuf had given us.

Thomas Speelmon, now Mahmoud the Saudi, arranged strips of chicken on the rotisserie. This, along with the goat and lamb already turning on the other rotisseries, would become the day’s shawarma. Simeon Snowman, now Ilyas, began making hummus out of chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and a dash of salt. . Wendell Wertz, now Ayman, who had put them to sleep singing the praises of Lake Assad and the Arab castle, Qala’at Jaber, high on one of the lake’s islands was kneading the dough that would become the day’s Arab bread. I, now known as Amed, was busy peeling potatoes and slicing them for French fries. Yousuf Halib bustled around, alternately cursing his new helpers or patting them on the back.

The first customers came for breakfast just after six and Yousuf served most of them with the foods he’d prepared just after closing the previous day or earlier that morning. These included tis’iyyah, mena’eesh, or ful. All, of course, were served with hot, sweet tea or coffee. The old man greeted most of those who came by name and nodded to the four Saudis, as if to say, ‘No, I do not need help since I have done this for thirty years.”

We Americans, now Saudis, took a short break. “Too hot,” said Wertz, as we moved a few paces into the souq.

“You want hot, trade places with me,” said Speelmon. “Must be over a hundred degrees around that cursed cooker.”

“No doubt, but tomorrow we all switch places, right,” said Snowman.

“What we decided,” I said. “Me, I’m happy peeling spuds. Takes me back to my high school days when I worked part time at Burt’s Fish and Chips in Missoula.”

Speelmon stopped and looked around. Then, he looked a few daggers at his old friend. “Amed, you forget who we are and where we are from? Brothers, we must never forget our home and our mission.” His whisper as fierce as any shout, he looked at each of us in turn and said, “Remember where we are and who we are at all times.”

I was ashamed as I said, “Sorry, Mahmoud, sorry my brothers. Come, let us return to Yousuf before he needs us.”

Prayers and work, mixed with short breaks; heat and noise and unending lines of customers filled the long day. Yousuf, wanting to squeeze every piaster out of the hungry and the thirsty, did not close his stand until after isha, the day’s last prayer. This was after nine and we four “brothers’ were close to collapse as we rose from our prayer mats.

Abdel, when he came to meet us for language lessons, sensed that we would learn little that evening. “It will be a while before you are comfortable in your new work,” he said. “Perhaps, we should postpone our lessons for now.”

No one disagreed and Speelmon said, “Yes, give us three or four days. I shall tell you when the time is right.”

At our apartment, we all stripped to undergarments and fell asleep instantly.

Days turned into weeks. We began to find a rhythm in our days and the Arabic lessons became part of that rhythm. Yousuf gave us Sundays off and Abdel took us around the city, into the mosques and the country side. “You are becoming Syrians,” he said, as we stood on the shores of Lake Assad, the blue waters reflecting the few fluffy clouds that drifted over it. “Forget this return to your own country. Stay here. Uncle Yousuf is ready for a long rest. I am sure he will sell you his place in the souq.”

“A fine idea, my friend,” said Wertz, “But we have family and friends that draw us home.

In fact I believe we will leave earlier than planned. We are becoming competent at our work and, if you say our language skills are fine, we may leave in four months instead of six.”

“Uncle and I will be sad if you do that, but I understand it is hard to be far from your family.”

“Yes, but we are also eager to start our business. If we can be on the streets of Mecca well before the Hajj, we will be better able to judge our future success. No?”

Abdel, took his eyes from the splendor before him and looked at his new friends. “I cannot disagree,” he said. “But, I have an idea. Perhaps, this is the year for my pilgrimage; perhaps, I shall meet you in Mecca in November.”

We all started at this suggestion. Speelmon recovered first. With a big smile he said, “A wonderful idea, my friend. We shall let you know our location in the holy city as soon as we find a home. Now, I’m ready for a cold drink. Shall we go back?”

Yousuf was not happy to hear of our early leaving, but he laughed and said, “Hah, now I will have to go back to work. My friends, I shall miss you all.”

“Thank you,” said Speelmon. “Hope we haven’t been too much trouble.”

“Not much, except that day when Ilyas insisted that the goat meat was chicken and kept giving the angry customer the wrong meat.” He looked at Snowman and added, “One hopes you now know the difference. “And you, Mahamoud, burnt the shawarma meat a few times.” Again, he laughed, as he turned to Wertz and said, “Ayman, you have become a good buyer of meats and vegetables but there was that day when you ordered a thousand pounds of potatoes when I asked for a hundred.”

“Yes, a typing error in my Email to the seller. We sold them all before they spoiled, though, did we not,” said Wertz.

“Yes, but I almost drove people mad by pushing the fried potatoes so hard.”

I jumped in with, “Yes, and I cut my hand badly trying to peel fast enough to keep up with the masses who demanded those cursed fries.”

They all laughed and Yousuf said, “Ah, yes, Amed, you will carry the scar to remember me. Now, it is time to work. I want your best for the weeks that remain.”

Back at our apartments that evening, Speelmon suggested an after-supper walk. We had been doing this regularly, so that we might talk without fear. We were all convinced that our rooms were bugged. It was another reason why we wanted to cut our time in Syria shorter than planned. I had laughed at this. “Hell, you think the Saudis don’t bug people?”

“No, so we’ll be careful there, too,” said Speelmon. “Shall we go?”

The little park was like an oasis in the crowded city. There were trees and grass and benches to sit on and watch the families who strolled by. It was just a few minutes from the Language Institute on Altabarri Street in the Al Muhafaza District where we lived and studied.

When we were safe in the park, Speelmon said, “So, are we agreed? Give it another few weeks and head for Saudi Arabia?”

“Aye, aye, Skipper, let’s get ready to blow this joint,” said Simeon Snowman.

“Better let Clutterbuck know,” Wendell Wertz said. “He’ll have to make new plans.”

“Of course, he’ll have to rearrange a few things,” said Speelmon. “I’ll Email him later.”

We came to a pair of benches and I said, “Here, take a load off, guys.”

“Good one, Beach,” said Wertz. “Even though I’ve lost weight, this heat takes it out of me. Must be over thirty degrees right now.”

“Radio said, thirty-two degrees celcius just before we left,” said Snowman.

“What I mean. Man, these few months have been tough,” said Wertz. “Not sure I can take much more of this heat.”

“Got to,” said Speelmon. “Saudi Arabia’s south of here, remember. Gonna be hotter.”

“Forget that,” I said, “what about this Email to Henry? Think it’s wise?”

“Yeah, why would Clutterbuck be getting Emails from Syria,” asked Snowman.

“Okay, maybe we should phone him,” said Speelmon. “Either way, I don’t see a problem. Remember, Henry has businesses all over this region.”

“You’re right, might as well Email,” said Wertz. “Keep it short, though. Maybe just something like ‘headed south in a few weeks.’”

Speelmon laughed and said, “No way, I’m sending at least two pages.” We all gasped and he said, “Joking, guys, joking. Short and in code, boys.”

“Funny,” I said. “Should we give him a date?”

Tom hesitated a moment, then said, “How about August twenty-eighth, three weeks from today? Sim, Wendell?”

“Okay, sure,” they said together.

We sat and watched the passersby for a time before Simeon said, “Good, that’s settled. God, I’ll be glad to see the end of this whole mess. Gotta say, I’m starting to have serious doubts. Like, is this whole thing sensible?”

Wertz poked the Nez Perce in the shoulder and said, “Come on, buddy, shake it off. Remember why we’re doing this. Few months, we’ll be back home. Right?”

“Guess so,” said Simeon. “It’s just . . . I don’t know.”

“Hey, doubts are part of the job. We’ve all had them,” said Tom. He looked at his watch and said, “It’s going on nine. What’s that, seven tomorrow evening in Montana, Wendell?” Seeing Wertz’s nod, he added, “Okay, what say we head back. I’ll Email Henry and we can play a bit of HoldEm.”

“Good, maybe I can take back some of my money,” I said.

Gordon Padgett arrived a week later. He flew in from Cairo and we met him at Nairab Airport. He was a bluff, red-faced bear of a man with a soft voice. His dress was western, white pants and a shirt with the Great Pyramid on the front and the Sphinx on the back.

The talk on the short ride back to Aleppo was of Saudi Arabia and our home town of Ras al Khafji. “Yes, all is well with your parents and your sister, Fatima,” Padgett said, in response to a question by Speelmon.

“Good to hear,” I said. “We shall see them in a few weeks. Will you be there?”

Gordon pointed to his shirt. “Sadly, I must return to my work in Egypt. My return flight leaves three days from now at seven-thirty in the morning.”

“Only three days,” said Wertz. “We hoped you would spend a week or more with us.”

“Sorry, my friend, but duty calls. But, Nahlah and I and the boys will see you in Ras when we go for our annual visit in September. Yes?”

“We will be in . . .” began Simeon, but I interrupted and said, “Of course. We look forward to spending time with your delightful family.”

That evening, we had some lovely shish kebab at the Jdayde Hotel restaurant in Halab Square. We ate there a lot, because it was convenient to a large public park. After the meal we took a leisurely stroll to the park and found some secluded benches. Gordon Padgett, who had stuffed himself with three kebabs and a dessert, sat down with a sigh. He pulled a bottle of water from his pants and drank half of it in one gulp. “Are you alright, Mr. Padgett,” asked Speelmon.

“Think so. Man, that food was terrific. How come you’re not all fat?”

“We walk a lot and work out every day,” I said.

“Well, I get quite enough exercise pulling fish from the Red Sea and carrying them to market. So, how are things?”

“Good. We know the lingo and the vendor’s trade well enough. Didn’t Henry tell you we’re leaving early?”

“You know Henry’s a bit close mouthed. All he said was you wanted to meet me before the end of July. So, that was the reason, huh. When you leaving?”

“Late August is the plan,” said Speelmon. “Everything go with the stuff?”

“Frig the stuff. Call a spade a spade. It’s semtex, Tom, one of the original plastic explosives. Deadly as hell. Hope one of you knows how to handle it.”

“After three years defusing IEDs with the Marines in Iraq, I think so,” I said. “Do you have it secured?”

“Nope, don’t have it yet. You guys doing your thing after the Hajj, figure we’d get the semtex in early November. Okay?”

“Sure, give a few weeks to set things up. Alright with you, Beach?”

“Perfect, few days is all I’ll need,” I said.

Tom turned to Padgett. “Good, so where do we meet you,” he said.

“We meet in a little cove between Jiddah and Mecca. Got a map back in my suitcase I’ll leave with you,” said Gordon. ” So, a date and time?”

“Beach, you want to take this one? You’re the boss of the semtex,” said Tom.

“Well, it’s not rocket science,” I said. “Need a day to place it in the vans and wire it to the transmitter. Leave a few days leeway. So, if we go on November twenty-second, the nineteenth would be fine. Weather going to be a problem, Gordo?”

“Shouldn’t be, but better allow for a blow. Let’s say we meet on the fifteenth and, if the weather’s bad, go each day after that. Dawn’s the best time, don’t you think?”

“Or just before,” said Speelmon. “Say four in the morning, if you travel at night?”

“Boat’s got radar and running lights so that’s no problem. Thing is I have to co-ordinate with one of Henry’s freighters. I’ll get the semtex a week before our meet. Good?”

“Fine, if you don’t mind having to hide it for a week,” I said.

“No problem, I’ll just keep it at the bottom of my main fish box. It’ll be covered in a few hundred pounds of grouper at all times. Won’t hurt the stuff, will it?”

“Can’t see how. Sounds good,” I said.

Wertz and Snowman had been quiet through most of this but now Wertz said, “Time for a little poker. You play HoldEm, Gordon?”

Padgett smiled and said, “Yeah, I’ve played. Shall we?”

Over the next two nights, we learned a bit about Gordon Padgett. He took close to two thousand Syrian pounds from us, though, before revealing that he’d paid his way through UNLV by playing various forms of poker. At the airport, he offered us our money back. Speelmon, looking ready to hit the bugger, refused. “Get the hell out of here,” he said, instead.

We landed at Abdulaziz International in Jiddah at ten in the morning of the twenty-eighth of August. Half an hour later, we were through customs and standing in line for our luggage. It was pleasantly cool in the public terminal and not yet crowded with Hajj pilgrims. A man in a flowing robe approached us and said, “I am Mohammed Al-Baraq. My employer, Mr. Hany Niazy, asked me to meet four brothers arriving from Aleppo. Are you them?”

We all grinned because Al-Baraq had given the right name. Hany Niazy was in charge of all of Henry Clutterbuck’s operations in The Kingdom.

Speelmon stuck out his hand and said, “Yes, I am Mahmoud Al-Sadif and these are my brothers Ahmed, Ayman, and Ilyas, the baby who is named for my mother’s Afghan grandfather. Are you in charge of Mr. Niazy’s affairs?”

“Yes, please come with me.”

We shook hands, grabbed our suitcases and followed Mr. Al-Baraq. He was a tall man with a hooked nose and a short, pointed beard. His black eyes looked out from under bushy eyebrows that gave him a menacing look, but he had a ready smile and we all liked him at once.

Mr. Al-Baraq drove us south into Mecca and until we arrived at the Great Mosque. He entered Alyad Street and soon came to our new home. It was a small stone building and looked to be very old. Speelmon asked about this and Mohammed said, “Yes, but much newer than some. I am told that this house was built for a member of the royal family in 1898, so it is just over a hundred years old. Come, let us enter. I believe you will find all to your liking.”

Inside, it was cool and Simeon said, “I like it already. I had forgotten how hot our homeland could be in late summer.”

Al-Baraq smiled. “Ah, this is a pleasant day with the wind blowing from the Red Sea. Soon will come the wind from the desert. Have you not experienced it?”

“Not here in the south but we get some hot winds in Ras al Khafji. Do you know it?

“No, but I have heard of it. Near the Iraqi border, is it not?”

“Quite near. You must visit us after the Hajj.”

“Thank you, but my work keeps me in Riyadh most of the time. Now, shall we explore your new home?”

We walked through the house and saw a fine kitchen with a propane stove, three bedrooms, a bathroom, and a small living room with flat screen television and computer. “Is it good,” said Mohammed.

“Perfect, my friend,” said Speelmon. “Our stay here should be most pleasant. Have you gotten our vendor’s vans and licence?’

“Of course, as Mr. Niazy ordered.” He reached under his robe and withdrew a brown envelope and offered it to Speelmon. “The licence, as requested by Mr. Niazy, allows you four to operate two vendor vans near al-Haram Mosque between September first and December first of this year. Is this as you wished?”

“Exactly as we wished,” said Speelmon. “And, the vans?”

“In a small garage further east along this street. You will find the keys for the building, its address and the keys for both vans in that envelope.”

“Sir, you have done well. I see why Mr. Niazy sent you to us,” said Tom.

“Thank you. Now, unless you have further questions, I must excuse myself. The rest of my day is very full.”

“Of course. Will we see you again?”

“Unlikely. As I say, my work is mainly in Riyadh. Good day, gentlemen.”

“That went well,” I said, after the door closed behind Al-Baraq. “Shall we check out our new assets?”

“How about in an hour or so,” said Wertz. “I really need some time to unwind and stay in these nice cool room. Man, this heat is hard on me.”

“Quit whining, Wen,” said Speelmon. “Few weeks you’ll be used to it.”

“Maybe. You guys go ahead, you want.”

We found the vans, two steel grey Volkswagens, and drove them first to an al Baik. It had been recommended by al-Baraq and there was one only three streets away. We all ordered jumbo shrimp, fries and non-alcoholic beer. “This stuff is terrific,” said Simeon, after his first mouthful. “They have takeout, too. I predict we’ll eat a lot of this before November.”

“Got to agree,” I said. “But, we will also enjoy our own shawarma and bread. No?”

“We definitely will not starve,” said Speelmon. “Worse danger is putting on about fifty pounds between now and then.”

Wertz sipped his beer, bit into another shrimp and said, “I come back that heavy, no way Kate will let me near her.”

I laughed and said, “Damn, I wish you hadn’t reminded me of women. I try to not think about them.”

There were nods all around and Speelmon said, “Maybe there’s a local cathouse.”

We all slapped our knees and laughed at this. The five other customers in the small place turned and stared at us. “Enough of this,” said Speelmon. “Everyone done?”

Next day, Monday the twenty-ninth, we went exploring. We drove north but turned west to the Red Sea before we were halfway to Jiddah. The van bounced along a rough, rutted road for about two miles. Then, the deep blue of the historic waterway flashed before us. The road soon became a goat track and Tom pulled to a stop. “Okay, everybody out,” he said. “Let’s see if we can find that cove. Tim, you got the map Padgett drew?”

I reached under my thawb and into my pant’s pocket and pulled out the crumpled sheet of paper. “If this is the right path the cove should be straight ahead,” I said.

We headed toward the water and a cool breeze found us. “Thank God,” said Simeon. “Think I’ll stay right her until November. You guys have fun.”

“Good idea but didn’t you want to try for a fish? Thought you were a master fisherman,” said Wertz.

“Yeah, come on, Sim,” said Tom, pointing his long fishing rod before him. “Padgett said we might catch some grouper or skate in this spot.”

 

The cove was tear drop-shaped and maybe as big as two football fields. We spread out and looked for the sign Padgett said he’d left there. Simeon found the small MM for Missoula, Montana painted on a large rock at the southern end of the cove. Then, we all fished for a couple of hours. Tom lost the only fish anyone hooked.

“You guys see that,” he shouted. “Must have weighed twenty pounds. Snapped my line like it was sewing thread. Tim, you see it?”

“Just for a nanosecond. Looked like a big grouper. Good fish, maybe ten pounds.”

“Ten, hell, thing was fifteen for sure.”

Wertz walked over. “Hey, you two, you’re arguing over a lost fish nobody wanted. Who cares how big it was. I’m heading back to the van.”

We drove right past Mecca and went about ten miles south. Speelmon turned off on a side road and said, “You’ll be safe here, Sim. We’ll drop you and pick you up after it’s over.”

“Man, I don’t like it. Why can’t we stick together?”

“Jesus, we’ve been over and over this,” I said. “We need the transmitter away from the semtex in case something goes wrong. For God’s sake, give it a rest.”

“Hey, no need to get your drawers in a knot. Just I don’t . . . ah, shit, forget it. Let’s go back.”

Over the next few days we gathered our vendor supplies and got a bit used to the holy city. The heat was oppressive but the vans had good AC. As we drove around, we decided on who would do what. Tom, since he did it so well, would prepare the sharwarma meats; Sim would be in charge of hummus, spices, and condiments; Wendell would look after the bread making; and I would be in charge of fries and drinks.

We chatted with the various merchants we met and were congratulated on our venture. Many were surprised that we had managed to get a licence and a few seemed angry. One of these, a grizzled old man in a stained thwab, said his cousin had been trying to get a vendor’s permit for five years. But, he still sold us some fine lamb.

Our last, but most vital stop, was at the great mosque itself. Since it was so close to our house, we walked down Alyad Street and entered through a gate that had a guardhouse. The man on duty was in uniform and wore a side arm. “Hello,” he said, “may I see your identification?”

We offered our driver’s licence and he inspected them closely. “I see you are from the north,” he said. “Is this your first visit to Mecca?”

Speelmon took the lead. “No, but it is our first time doing business here. We have a vendor’s licence and plan to set up near the Great Mosque.”

“Yes, I see. Of course, you know of the rule that no vendor may be closer than fifty meters from the Cube? May I see your licence?”

“Sorry, we left it at our house,” said Tom. “We will tape it inside our van.”

“Fine. Good luck.”

We walked into the sacred grounds of the mosque. Only some three or four hundred people were present. I tried to imagine the hundreds of thousands that would be there in a few months. Then, I headed for the Cube while the others scouted out spots for the vans.

After a short prayer, I touched the building and stood for a moment, trying to imagine many thousands of males, all dressed in the same plain white sheets of cloth, slowly circling the Kabah and murmuring soft words of prayer. For some reason, my mind flashed a picture of the sign on the highway when we came to the city. It hung over a dividing strip and one side read MUSLIMS ONLY, while the other read NON MUSLIMS. Mr. al-Baraq had said, thinking we had never been to Mecca, “The non Muslim part of the road leads around the city.” Tom, our quickest thinker, simply said, “Of course, since no non Muslims may enter Mecca.”

Now, close to the Kaabah, a shiver went through me as I realized, not for the first time, how crazy it was to be here let alone doing the thing we planned. I turned a full circle but, praise be to Allah, no one was looking my way.

The others came up a few minutes later and, shortly, we left the Al Masjid al-Haram through a different entrance. “Well, that wasn’t so bad,” said Tom.

“No, but it will be a different ball game with a few million or more pilgrims in the city,” Wertz said. “This place will be a madhouse.”

“True, but we’ll just be simple vendors,” said Tom. “We’ll drive our vans here each morning, do our business, and drive away each evening. Right?”

“Hope so,” I said. Then, I stopped them and added, “Back there, close to the Kaabah, I had a vision of what the crowds would do if they found we were Americans.”

“Jesus, Tim, don’t even think of that,” said Simeon. “We’d be ripped to shreds before we could blink.”

“Enough,” said Tom. “Anyone ready for some al Baik chicken?”

 

The CIA tech whiz was one of hundreds monitoring the world’s Email traffic. Her name was Eunice McGregor and she was an old twenty-nine. On this day she wore a bulky Highland sweater and an ankle length tweed dress. Both served to hide a figure that most women would be eager to display. Her hair was short and bright red, the sweater a blue-green plaid. She wore thick, steel framed glasses and was just short of six feet.

When she knocked on her supervisor’s door and entered on his “Come,” Baxter Hayward sat up and took notice. In his three years working with Eunice, she had never brought up anything that wasn’t vital. “Have a seat, Ms McGregor,” he said.

“Alright, but just for a moment. My relief’s a trainee. Might miss something serious.”

She sat, adjusted her dress, and took a few seconds to study her boss. Bax, as everyone called him, was a short, thin man whose greying hair suggested he was north of forty. Eunice knew he was fifty-four and married with three grown children. Hayward was the most brilliant man she’d ever met and Eunice could not believe he smoked the cheap cigars that made everything around him stink. Her nose twitched, now, and she saw his eyes roll in response.

“Okay, okay, I know the bloody cigars stink. Just give me what you have.”

“Sorry. Here.”

Hayward took the message slip, gave it a brief glance and said, “Come on, McGregor, for God’s sake. I can’t read this gibberish. Is this some joke you youngsters have cooked up?”

Eunice took back the paper and handed him another.. She smiled and said, “Oops, gave you the Arabic by mistake.”

He read the translation in a few moments and said, “What the hell, some ragheads talking about gardens and seeds. What, the Baghdad Garden Society doing some fall planting? Shit!”

Eunice McGregor’s face turned red as her hair and her lips quivered. “Maybe, Sir, but check where it went.”

He looked and jumped from his chair in surprise. “Montana! What the hell? Don’t make sense.”

“Precisely why it’s in your hands. That mid-November date is a bit suspicious, too. Like, around the time of the Hajj. Might need a closer look.”

Baxter Hayward sat back down and stared at the woman whose instincts he’d come to respect. When he sensed his silence was making her uncomfortable, he said, “Good work, McGregor. Sorry I snapped at you. What should we do with this?”

“Not up to me, Sir, but someone should follow through. Since it’s domestic, it can’t be us. The Bureau, maybe, or Homeland Security.”

“Of course. Happens I’m meeting with the Director and Missus Claiborne tomorrow. It’s our weekly get together and I’ll just add this little tidbit to the agenda. Thanks, McGregor.”

“Only trying to do my job, Sir. Anything related comes up, I’ll let you know.”

It turned out the FBI and Homeland Security had also picked up on the Email’s odd destination. “I have agents rousting some of those crazies in Montana and Idaho. Should know more soon,” said FBI Director, Paul Fredericks. “Let’s get together then, okay?”

Three days later, he called them back. They met in a conference room on the second floor of the J. Edgar Hoover Building at 936 Pennsylvania Avenue. It was a wood paneled room with a large table in the center. Present were Fredericks, Jolene Claiborne, Head of Homeland Security, and Baxter Hayward, Assistant to the CIA Director. Also present were Special Agent Max Carter and George Fenwick, Claiborne’s deputy.

“Okay, here it is,” said Fredericks. “We rounded up members of the Aryan Nation, Posse Comitatus and the Montana and Idaho Militias. Some of them told us very strange stories. A lot of them mentioned a man named Henry Clutterbuck and a certain Thomas Speelmon. Seems Clutterbuck has a real hardon over 9/11. He’s at his home in the Bitterroots but we were told he had Speelmon as a visitor in late September, 2001. Speelmon hasn’t been seen since, but his sister has received regular letters from him, all sent from Recife, Brazil. Even more unusual, three of Speelmon’s friends are also incommunicado, except for letters from places like Bangkok, Lahore, and Capetown.”

“Right, that’s damn suspicious,” said Jolene Claiborne, a well preserved woman in her late fifties. “What else?”

Fredericks consulted the file he’d been reading from and said, “Lot of background on this Speelmon. Listen to this guy speaking to a gathering of Aryan Nation whackos.” He leaned over, pushed PLAY on the tape deck beside his desk, and they all heard, ‘So, you got these freakin’ ragheads knockin’ down buildings and blowin’ up trains all over the place.’ Then, a different voice said, ‘Well, it’s only a few fanatics.’ Then, Speelmon again, ‘Thing is, you can’t tell the suicide bombers from the rest. Want to know my thinking? Kill them all and let God sort them out.’ Fredericks hit the OFF button, as a general cheer roared from the speakers.

“Now, that’s what we’re dealing with. I think we’d better share this with the Saudis ASAP. And, we will definitely talk to this Clutterbuck and others.”

“Good luck with that,” said Agent Max Carter, who was based in Helena. “Guy’s big cheese in Montana. Surrounded by lawyers. We tried to see him, didn’t get past this pricey legal eagle in Missoula. Claimed his client was out of touch on a yacht in the South Pacific.”

“Okay, keep working on him,” said Fredericks. “But, let’s inform the Saudis.”

“Right, I’ll get a secure line,” said Baxter Hayward. “We know some of their security people in Riyadh.”

“No, we talk to them face to face on this one,” said Claiborne. She turned to her deputy

and said, “George, get me a government jet and have it at Dulles by four tomorrow morning. Clear us for Riyadh and set up a meet with Ahmed Siddiqui. You in, Paul?”

“Oh, yes. Bax, you want to join us?”

“Sure, I’ll bring the wine, we can party.”

“In the air, maybe, but not in The Kingdom,” said Claiborne. “Always found it funny, though, that Siddiqui’s name is so close to siddiqi. You know, that Saudi home brew?”

“Yes, the name means ‘my friend,’ said Fredericks. “Ahmed may be our friend but I still

keep him at arm’s length. He’ll blow a gasket, we tell him about this.”

The government Gulfstream 650 took off from Dulles at four twenty on the morning of August twenty-fourth. Six hours later it touched down at Mecca East Airport and a Saudi Security SUV whisked us into the city and headed northwest. After twenty minutes our driver had not said a word. So, in Arabic, I said, “Where are you taking us, Sirrah?”

He, a clean shaven man in a blue uniform, said, “Excuse me, Madam, but the honourable Colonel Siddiqui thought a quiet location would better serve our purpose. His own office, as you might imagine, is overrun with officers and criminals. So, he will meet you at a quiet police station on the Old Jeddah Road. Do you know it?”

“No, but I am sure it will be fine. Ahmed knows the situation much better than I.”

He moved visibly at the sound of his commander’s first name but made no response, except to say, “Very good.’

 

Ahmed Siddiqui greeted us at the door with three of his underlings. He was as I remembered him, a stout, handsome man with a short beard and handlebar moustache. His voice was clear, his words precise as he greeted us in English. “Ah, Madame Claiborne with the first name of a Dolly Parton song. How was your flight, Jolene?”

“Fine, Colonel, and your drive from Riyadh?”

“I slept so it was restful.” He introduced his subordinates and I introduced those with me.

Ahmed got right to the point. “I have read your Email carefully, Jolene, and run the names of the men through our databases. Not surprisingly, I got no result. You say you have the backgrounds of these missing men?”

“Yes, but I did not trust anything but face to face communications in this matter. Ahmed, I fear these men are a grave threat to your country.”

“I hope you are wrong, my friend, but please tell me why you think this.”

“Four of these six men have been members of extremist right wing groups in one of our most right wing states. Of the remaining two, one is a Nez Perce Indian and the other, who disappeared some days before the five, seems to be a very ordinary citizen of Montana. We believe he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“Interesting, most interesting, and you could well be correct. On the other hand, I am not a great believer in chance or coincidence. For our planning we will consider this man as dangerous as the others. But, what of this sixth man? What do you know?”

“You don’t miss much, Ahmed. The sixth man we have under the microscope. He is a billionaire named Henry Clutterbuck and he has business interests in your country. We are told by his lawyer that he is somewhere in mid-Pacific on his yacht.” I had seen one of Ahmed’s men blink at the rich man’s name, so I said to him, “You know of this man?”

The young fellow was mute but his boss said, “Yes, we know him. A friend of Prince Farouk, a third cousin to King Abdullah. This man owns a large Saudi registered company which maintains oil pipelines. I, of course, have never met the man or the king’s cousin.”

“And, I doubt if you will,” said Paul Fredericks. “He obviously prefers to stay hidden while his hired crazies do the dirty work. Doubt if we’ll catch him, either.”

“This is unimportant. What is vital is stopping the terrorists. Finding and disposing of them will be difficult but your help is much appreciated. We look forward to continued co-operation between our two great countries.”

“Of course,” I said. “My colleagues and I will instantly send you whatever we find out about these men.” My cell phone vibrated at that point and I said, “Sorry, but duty calls. Please, excuse me.”

Out in the hall I opened the phone and said, “Perfect timing, Louise. We’ll be out of here within the hour. Is there anything pressing? No. Good, see you tomorrow.”

Back in the meeting room, I said, “Nothing to do with this thing, Ahmed, but lots going on with a case we’re working in Newark, New Jersey. We must get back.”

“Of course, I know the drill,” said Ahmed. “Keep in touch.”

Amid handshakes and hugs, the Americans took their leave.

Ahmed Siddiqui turned to his second in command, Samir al-Biayki, a stout sixtyish bear of a man whose beard was almost white. His mad eyes and loud voice frightened all but the most foolhardy of his colleagues. He was a forty year veteran of the Security Police. “Samir, I want a 24/7 cordon of guards around the Al Masjid al-Haram. And Allah help any found asleep or otherwise shirking their duty. Also, have everyone call on all of their contacts throughout the city. I am convinced that these terrorists are here. Find them and silence them.”

“You speak and I obey. It shall be done. Is there more?”

Siddiqui now glared at his younger senior officer. The man, a youngish forty-three, withstood the look without blinking but the fear showed in his eyes. His name was Masoud Aryat and he was taller than his boss but much slimmer. He had been a fine soccer player as a young man and had twice played in the World Cup for his country. His specialty in the Security Police was in the area of commercial spying. The Colonel said, “We must increase our surveillance of this man Clutterbuck’s business. Get a man into the main offices in Riyadh and add another hundred microphones and mini cameras to those already in place. How long?”

Masoud thought for just a moment. “Hard to say, Colonel. I will get our best men on it and instruct them to be as quick as possible. As you know, it is a delicate problem. Cameras and microphones must be carefully hidden, but our people are most able in this field. Getting a man into the offices as an employee will be much more difficult. Give me three days and I shall report our progress.”

“Very well. You understand that no effort or expense is to be spared in this matter?”

“Of course, Sir,” they said together.

“Good, get at it.”

Following the rule, as explained to us by the guard, we parked our vans about sixty meters from The Cube, one in the northwest corner and the other in the southeast. Each was only a few steps from one of the gates to the square. Some vendors, not having a permit to enter the grounds, had set up on the side of the street. Once everything was ready, I went to say hello to one of them. He was selling only prayer rugs. “Good morning,” I said, “I am Amed Al-Sadif. My brothers and I are going to sell food until after the Hajj. How are you, neighbour?”

“I am well, Mr. Al-Sadif, but, as you see I am out here on the street. My contacts were unable to secure me a spot like yours.”

“Sorry, but you will do well here will you not?”

“I suppose. Would you like a prayer mat? They are some of the finest made in India. And, for you, only two hundred riyals. No tax.’

I quickly did the math. About fifty dollars. “A fair price, but I recently bought a new prayer rug on a trip to Aleppo.”

The man gave me a crooked smile and said, “Of course. What about your brothers?”

“I will ask them. Now, I must get back or they will be angry. Work, you know?”

“Yes. Later, I will try your shawarma.”

After two weeks with the vans, we took stock of our success. It was a Thursday, a day of rest in Mecca. I had checked our small house every day for electronic eavesdropping devices but had never found one. We sat, each with a drink of choice, and Wertz gave us the lowdown. “Guys, we’re doing well. Once the Hajj starts, I think we’ll make a small fortune. Wasn’t so damn hot, I’d stay here and rake in the profits.” He looked at his laptop screen. “In fifteen days, our profit is ninety-four thousand, three hundred and fifty riyals. About twenty-three thousand dollars or five thousand each.”

“Man, that’s a lot of shawarma,” said Tom.

“Yes, and they love it,” said Simeon. “Only had three customers say they didn’t like your meat, old buddy. They seemed a bit stupid.”

“Your concoctions get a lot of positive comments, too,” I said. “Wertz’s bread, now, is a bit shaky according to some.” I dodged as Wendell kicked at me.

Speelmon stood up and clapped his hands. “Good, good! Seems we’re all excellent vendors. Yousuf taught us well. The money’s a bonus, but let’s keep the main prize in sight. Close to two months to go. So, we keep our noses clean, avoid drawing any attention, and smile at everyone. Right?”

“Sure, Skipper, but this heat is driving me nuts,” said Simeon.

“He’s right,” said Wendell. “Not sure I can take two more months of it.”

“Guys, let’s not be wimps. Tim and I suffer as much as you two. Working those propane cookers, I get twice the heat of anyone. Hell, I’ve lost twenty pounds or more. So, suck it up and quit bitching. You faint or anything we’ll rush you to a doctor.”

“Think I’ll get some bigger fans,” I said. “And remember, you feel overheated take a break. Stand in the shade or near a fan.”

“Hell, I’ll be taking a permanent break,” said Simeon. Seeing our looks, he went on with, “Okay, okay, I know. I’m a big boy. I’ll survive the heat and getting up at four every morning and wearing a dress and . . . ”

“Sim, for God’s sake. Relax.” Tom checked his watch. “Going on six,” he said. Shall we eat?”

As we did every evening, we walked to the al Baik just four blocks to the north of Al Masjid al-Haram.

We sat down and Speelmon said, through a mouthful of chicken and fries, “You guys noticed more guards lately?”

Wertz swallowed some shrimp and said, “Yeah, lots more than when we first set up shop. Why, you think it’s a problem?”

“Everything’s a problem in our business,” I said. “Thing is, all the guards are getting used to us. Hell, most of them have tried our food at least once.”

Simeon ate the last of his fish, wiped his mouth and said, “Man, that’s good fish. Far as the extra guards, I say we just be extra careful. Right, Captain?”

“Sure, but I wonder what caused these extras to be put on,” said Speelmon.

“Maybe we should ask,” said Wertz.

“Wendell, that’s so simple it’s genius,” I said. “I’ll ask this vendor I’ve gotten to know as well. Tom, you want to ask the guard captain?”

“Sure. Another few weeks it’ll all be over, anyway.”

“Yeah, one way or the other,” Simeon said.

The Hajj came and went, the heat got worse, we made millions of riyals and by Tuesday, November fifteenth we were all on edge. It was the day we’d arranged with Padgett to pick up the semtex. Speelmon had told the head guard that one of our vans was in for repairs so at three-thirty in the morning he and I headed for the little cove. Padgett was to be there at four.

It was a starry night but we still needed a flashlight to walk the stony path. At the cove we stood beside the rock with MM painted on it and, at exactly four, began signalling Padgett. Speelmon turned on the light but kept his hand over it. Then, in quick succession, he removed his hand and put it back and removed it again. We waited for the return signal but none came.

By quarter to five we had signalled twenty times without an answer. “Damn, something’s wrong,” said Tom.

“Maybe not. Anyway, it’ll be light soon. We should just follow the plan and leave after daylight,” I said. ” Right?”

“No choice,” said Tom. He gave the signal again and we both looked out to sea. A light flashed once, twice, three times and we both jumped with joy.

As the sun began to show itself toward Mecca, we heard the soft splashing of oars. Soon, a two-man Zodiac appeared. Gordon Padgett stepped onto the beach a minute later. “Morning, Tom, Tim,” he said. “Sorry I’m late. Had a small problem with my outboard after I left the freighter. Turned out to be a dead plug. So, how’s it going?”

“Good, good,” said Tom. “You wouldn’t believe the money we hauled in during the Hajj. Worked like hell for it, though. You know, like that one-armed paper hanger?”

“Yeah. Guess you don’t want to share, huh?”

“Haven’t talked about it,” I said. “But since you brought the vital goodies, we might cut you a share or two. Right, Tom?”

“Might, but let’s see what he’s got.”

Gordo leaned over the beached Zodiac and lifted out a heavy, plastic wrapped bundle. “Here you are, gents,” he said. “Finest semtex the Czechs make. Prime stuff!” He placed the bundle on the sand, reached into the raft, and did the same to a second.

I took out my Swiss Army knife, opened the big blade, and cut into one bundle. Gordo winced, so I said, “This stuff doesn’t go off easy, man. You can drop it, kick it, hammer it, play ball with it you want. Needs a blasting cap or detcord to make it work.”

“I knew that,” said Gordon. “Just, you know . . .”

“Yeah, I know,” said Tom. Then, he looked at me. “Any good,” he said.

I’d been playing with the play dough-like substance. “Feels good, looks good, smells good,” I said. “No need to taste it. This is prime grade, Czech-made Semtex guys.”

“Alright, I’m outta here,” said Gordo. “Good luck, friends!”

“Thanks,” said Tom. “Look for us on al-Jazeera.” Then, as Padgett turned to push his craft into the water, Speelmon said, “We make it you get twenty percent of our vendor profits.”

Gordo just smiled but I said, thinking fast, “Yeah, and if we don’t you get it all.”

“Shit, wish you hadn’t said that,” whispered Tom, as we each lifted a fifty pound bundle and headed back to the van.

“Sorry, sometimes my mouth is too quick for my brain,” I said.

Nothing more was said, as we struggled up the hill with our loads of death.

Back at the house on Alyad Street, the semtex was hidden beneath a storage cupboard in the van, the day now as hot as an oven on bust. Inside, it was cool in the air conditioning. Tom headed for the shower and I reached for a cold drink in the fridge. After we changed places, we both hit the sack.

Simeon and Wertz came in just after eight that evening. “Closed up early,” said Wendell. “Not much doing and we wanted to check on you guys. Looks like everything’s fine.”

“Yeah, stuff’s in the van. Figured tomorrow we’d get it ready. Right, Tim?”

“No choice,” I said. “It’s too easy to find right now. Thought we’d drive into the desert, find a nice quiet spot behind a dune.”

“Won’t those guards start wondering, we shut down for a day,” said Simeon.

“Not for the day,” I said. “We start early we should be back before ten. Just use the same story. Van still being repaired.”

“Works for me,” said Speelmon.

The next day, as did most, dawned bright and hot in Mecca. We had a late breakfast of eggs and roast lamb. Around eight-thirty we headed into the desert NE of the city.

“What’s our story, we run into a police stop,” asked Simeon Snowman.

“Relax, my buddy, we’re just out for a break from the noisy crowds of the city. We’re just simple, small town Saudis, remember, ” said Tom Speelmon.

“Should fly,” I said . Then, I turned my head and yelled, “There, you see that. Just back aways. Stop, Captain, stop!”

“Jesus, Beach, don’t have a hemorrhage,” said Snowman.

The highway was deserted so Speelmon backed up until I said, “Right there. See, go behind those rocks, find a bit of shade and I’ll do the job.”

Wertz pulled the second van in behind them. He stepped onto the sand, lifted his robes, and said, “Man, won’t kill me to leave this bloody furnace.”

Speelmon took a cold Coke from the fridge and said, “Here, this should help.”

“Thanks, been thinking of rum and beer for miles.” Wertz grinned, before adding, “Member that time up at buddy’s cabin in the Roots? Got so drunk, went outside to piss and couldn’t find my dick.”

“Yeah, I can see you now. Runnin’ round with your fly open and your hands empty. We called you Needle Dick the Bug Fucker all through university ‘cause of that night.”

Snowman and I burst out in short laughs, before I said, “Okay, let’s get this done. Tommy, you want to give me a hand?”

Speelmon’s “sure” sounded a bit forced, high explosives not being his thing.

We removed the panels inside the van and I handled the semtex like it was play dough. My training had made clear that plastique was quite stable and I chatted with the others as I molded it under the side panels of the van. I forced it into the deepest recesses. When every crevice was filled, I attached the blasting caps and the receiver. Then, we replaced the passenger side panels and moved to the driver’s side.

Tom took out the last screw and said, “Hate to mention this, bud, but is it really useful to have half the blast go into the open mosque?”

“It’s okay, Tommy, I’m not perfect with this stuff. Thing is I thought we wanted to damage both The Cube and the Mosque. Well, this setup will do both.”

Wertz, sipping his second cold drink, said, “Let me tell you about this Cube thingy. It used to be surrounded by three hundred and sixty pagan idols In 630 A.D. Muhammed destroyed them. The largest, the stone of Hubal, stood atop the Cube. Muhammed’s cousin, Ali, stood on the Prophet’s shoulders in order to climb on top and topple the idol. Now, close to fourteen hundred years later, we will topple the whole damn Cube. Right?”

Tom handed me the next packages of semtex. “Good one, Wens,” he said. “Anything else I can do, Tim?”

“Yes, grab me a cold drink, please.”

By nine-thirty that morning, it was done. I took the transmitter and explained the setup to Simeon. “Right there, that red button,” I said. “You press that and . . . BOOM!”

“No sweat,” said a sweating Simeon Snowman. “Christ, this heat sucks. Ten miles going to be far enough?”

“Oh, yes, you’ll be fine, my baby. Tom, you got anything?”

Speelmon patted the side of the van. “Just this. Sim, you can’t hesitate.. If I say blow it, you press that button right away. Don’t think, just do it.”

“But, Skipper . . . ”

“No buts, my man. We all know what we signed up for. I say blow it, you know we’re in trouble. Press it and head for that cove like we planned. Gord’ll pick you up and you’ll be fine.”

 

Six days later we left the vans at Al Masjid al-Haram. It was eight-fifteen in the evening of November twenty-first. We went for a late supper at al Baik and were in bed by ten.

We got up again at two in the morning, November twenty-second. After Simeon had left in a Ford Escort we’d rented, Tom, Wendell, and I drove the vans to the Grand Mosque and pulled them up on two sides of The Cube. I made sure they were up tight to the walls.

By three-thirty everything was set. The semtex was in place and the trigger was hot. We stood around, grinning and shaking hands.. “We did it,” I said .

“Yeah. Damn, wish we had some champagne or cold beer to toast ourselves,” said Wendell Wertz.

“Soon. Right now, we should blow this . . . ” The Square flooded with light and an amplified voice said, in Arabic, “Freeze! Everyone on the ground. Now!”

The first part was no problem. We were like statues. Then, as we moved to hit the ground, two lights appeared far above Mecca. They were like the sun and just hovered there, miles high in a black sky. Moments later, a message was written across the sky in golden letters a mile high. It was in fifty languages and read:

LISTEN AND YOU SHALL HEAR THE WORD OF THE MASTER.

“Oh, my God,” said Wendell Wertz, his voice filled with horror.

“Exactly,” said Tom Speelmon. He fell to his knees.

A minute later the letters disappeared. Then, the lights dimmed and were gone. In an instant they were replaced by a new light ten times as large as the first two. It was so bright that people as far away as eastern Iran and Zimbabwe could see it and those in Libya and western Sudan thought day had come early.

As we and the Saudi police stood, blinded and petrified with fear, a voice came over us that would have caused us to be deaf for years. It was neither male nor female and sounded as though it came from a bullhorn as big as the Persian Gulf. It was heard from the Black Sea to the Atlantic and from the Med to the Cape of Good Hope. It shattered every pane of glass in Saudi Arabia and eight adjoining countries.

“This is the end,”it said.“I will permit no retaliation after this and all acts of terrorism will cease from this day forward.”

The lights went out and the blind men screamed in the darkness.

Then, “Blow it, blow it,” yelled Tom Speelmon. Ten miles away, Simeon Snowman pushed the red button that had been under his finger the whole time and the two vans went up in balls of flame and a sound like thunder. The black Cube and half of the mosque that contained it went with them. Exactly 2752 Saudis died.

 

The New Assyrians

The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold

and his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold.

[George Gordon(Lord)Byron, The Destruction of Sennacherib]

The new Assyrians had plenty of gold. They were financed by Henry James Clutterbuck, a billionaire whose son, Michael, had fallen with the Twin Towers. And, the new Assyrians were not coming down on the folds of the Hebrews, either. Rather, they were coming down on The Kingdom; on those who controlled one-quarter of the world’s oil; on those who had allowed or sent fifteen of their citizens to fly jetliners into skyscrapers. Finally, and most dangerously, they were coming down on the whole of Islam.

Clutterbuck had inherited gobs of money. His great-great grandfather, Marcus Daly, had bought Anaconda Silver, near Butte, in 1881 and eventually owned all the mines on Butte Hill. Imagine what happened when masses of copper were discovered? Marcus sold out to the Rockefellers in 1899 for thirty-nine million. Others had built on this and when Henry’s father, Joseph, married Louella Daly in 1950 the family fortune stood at five point seven billion. Henry had inherited one-third of this and added a cell phone manufacturing company, a company that made uniforms for the United States military, a few high tech companies, and a company that operated freighters on the Mediterranean and Red Seas. His net worth stood at four point eight billion, when his world came crashing down with his son and the Twin Towers. Henry, not surprisingly, blamed the Saudis. On September 23, 2001, he began to plan the ultimate payback.

Thomas Armstrong Speelmon had spent two years in Iraq during the first Gulf War. He was forty-three in 2001, his body buff as an NBA guard, and he ran three miles at least twice a week. The wound he’d received in his shoulder hardly bothered him and, since it was his left, he had no problem maintaining his championship fly casting form. Also, he could still bring down an elk at five hundred yards.

His Marine company had been stationed near Fallujah and he’d lost three of his best friends to IEDs. Also, he’d lost a cousin on 9/11. He was from Missoula, Montana and had known about Henry Clutterbuck his whole life. When he heard rumors that the billionaire was full of rancor and thirsting for revenge on those who killed his son, Speelmon decided to visit his neighbor.

The Clutterbuck home, a seventeen room mansion, sat on forty acres of land in the Bitterroots and overlooked a long steady in the Big Blackfoot River. The locals said the whole package was worth some thirty-one million dollars. Speelmon didn’t care, but he loved the room he’d been shown to by the butler. Charlie Russell paintings covered the walls and Remington bronzes were scattered on coffee and end tables. Tom Speelmon stood close and studied one painting. Underneath, it said BUFFALO HUNT, Charles Marion Russell, 1897. ‘Bet these aren’t prints, either,’ he muttered under his breath. He turned, as a door opened behind him.

The man was short and fit. His features were tiny, his hair black and short, his dress casual. His face, though, wore a look of anguish that seemed ingrained forever. He said, “Ah, Mr. Speelmon, is it? I’m Henry Clutterbuck. Welcome to my home.”

Speelmon stuck out his hand and said, “Good to meet you. Your home is gorgeous.”

“Thank you, Sir. Shall we adjourn to my office? I’ll have William bring us a drink.”

Speelmon glanced at his watch and smiled. “Well, it is two fifteen. I could drink a beer.”

“Good! Your brand?”

“Well, I kind of like that local stuff from the Bitterroot Brewing Company in Hamilton.

Sawtooth Ale, if you have it. Otherwise, Coors or anything.”

The butler had appeared. “And a shot of Beam with water for me, William. Thanks.”

“Heard the rumors have you,” said Clutterbuck, as they sipped their drinks.

“Hard to miss them. Any truth to it?”

Henry studied the amber liquid in his glass, a thousand mile stare in his eyes. Then, “Mr. Speelmon . . . hell, let’s not be formal. First names, alright?”

“Sure, but let’s be serious.”

“Of course. Thomas, Tom?”

“Friends call me Tom.”

“Tom, the things you’ve heard are not exaggerated. I’ve been over the edge for two weeks. Drunk most of the time. Raving . . . well, to hell with that. Convinced myself if I don’t make someone pay for Michael’s life I’ll have to put a gun in my mouth. So, I’m serious about getting some payback, damn serious. Understand?”

“Yes, Sir, I do. I served in Desert Storm. Fallujah, mostly. Saw some good friends blown up by IEDs. Had a cousin fall with the towers, too. So, I’m damn near as mad as you.”

“Understandable. Now, here’s my thinking so far.”

“I’m listening.”

“Attack Islam’s most sacred shrines, like the Kaabah. We’re going to be the new Assyrians, Tom. . .you know, come down like a wolf?”

Speelmon gave him a blank look. “Sorry, Assyrians?”

“An ancient people, Tom. Very aggressive. They controlled everything between modern Turkey and Egypt, including what is now The Kingdom, for half a century.”

“Okay, but we’re only a handful. How can we act like an army?”

“Come on, Tom, you’re just playing Devil’s Advocate.. You know if we take enough powerful explosive and destroy the Kabah and half that damned mosque, it’ll have the same effect on Islam as if we numbered in the millions.”

“Maybe, maybe . . . ”

“What?”

“Just remembered about the Assyrians. Something I learned at Hellgate High in Missoula. Didn’t God destroy them to save the Hebrews?”

“Yes, but we’ll be hunting the enemies of the Hebrews. I say God’s on our side. Remember, even the ragheads say ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend,’ right?”

“Heard that a lot in Iraq. Hard not to agree but this ‘God’s on our side’ argument’s a bit old, isn’t it?”

“Hell, Tom, I’m an infidel. What do I know? Anyway, we go with this we have to be ready to go all the way.”

“You mean . . . ?”

“Exactly, Tom. I’m willing to give my life for this.”

“No way, Henry, no way you’re front line on this. Even if you were Marine trained and battle hardened. It’s going to take us four or five years to put this in play. What’ll you be, sixty, sixty-five? Hell, I’ll be damned near fifty. No, you insist on going, I’m out.”

“Jesus, that’s not fair. I’m paying the piper I should get to sit in with the band.”

“You’re right and I agree with the sit in part. We’ll need a contact back here at home. You know, in case there’s a SNAFU.”

Henry Clutterbuck sat back and closed his eyes. A full minute passed and when he spoke his voice was low and halting, “I’d demand to go, Tom, but I think you’re the man for this. Can’t afford to lose you so I’ll stay here and man the phones.”

“Hope you’re right, but we should wait till you find out more about me.”

“Already found out. See, I’m not the only one folks talk about. I heard how upset you were, day after the towers fell. So, had you checked by a couple of private investigators.”

Speelmon leaped to his feet, his face the colour of blood. “Shit, you had no right . . .”

“Right, hell, I was obligated to check out anyone might get into this business. I had half a dozen put under the microscope. Come on, sit down and relax. I’m not concerned with your wild oat sowing or your two marriages. Hell, don’t even care you spent time in jail. You were part of a Marine Special Team and you know hand to hand combat and tactics. That’s why you’re my guy for this. So, you in?”

“Might be my only chance to do something. No way can I not take it. I’m in.” Thomas Armstrong Speelmon, named after a stubborn general who lead his troops into a massacre, offered his hand and the billionaire, who’d come from nothing, took it.”

“Good, good. So, four or five more men you think,” said Henry Clutterbuck.

“Yes, we don’t want to take a woman into that society. Needless complication.”

“Of course. And I’ve already got one man in place. Gordon Padgett is my agent for Sphinx Shipping and works out of Alexandria. Right now, he’s posing as a commercial fisherman in Southern Egypt. Remember, Christ’s disciples were fishermen and I believe we’re doing God’s work. Anyway, Gordo will take the material you need from one of my freighters and drop it off to you on the Saudi coast. So, Gordo and you and, what, three or four more. You have anyone in mind?”

“Five total sounds right. Let me think on it, get back to you. Here, tomorrow morning?”

“Fine, but won’t you stay for dinner? I’ll have William grill some elk steaks.”

“Henry, I love elk meat and I hope we’ll eat a lot of it together. Tonight, though, I have a prior engagement. See you around eleven?”

“Very well. Goodnight, Tom.”

“Later, Henry.”

Thomas Speelmon went straight to his first choice of people he’d like with him in Mecca. Timothy Beachboard lived just outside of Missoula and had served as an ordnance tech in the Corps. He’d been involved in finding and disarming IEDs and Speelmon had known him since high school. They’d been football heroes at Hellgate High together. They’d remained friends and went hunting and fishing together at least twice a year. Beachboard, since losing his house when his wife walked out with their daughter, lived alone. His two bedroom apartment was on Ryman Street, near Red’s Bar, a place Speelmon knew well

After getting no answer at Beachboard’s, Tom Speelmon went to the bar. There he found his old friend, sitting alone, nursing a Michelob Ultralight. Speelmon noted that his friend had put on a lot of weight since his wife split. ‘Too much junk food,’ thought Speelmon. ‘Few months of hard work and good food should fix it.’ He reached the bar and said,”Man, that’s a crap drink. “Why not have a real beer?”

“Hey, Tommy, what’s shaking? Have a seat.”

Speelmon raised his hand and said, “Gimme a Sawtooth Ale, please”. Then, to Beachboard, “You eaten yet?”

“Nah, was about to have a buffalo burger and homefries. You?”

“Sounds good. I’ll order.”

He was back in a minute. “I asked the tender to bring our food to that corner table.” He pointed across the dark room. “Come on, let’s sit.”

“Jesus, Tommy, what gives? What’s wrong with the bar?”

“Nothing, just want some privacy.”

Tim Beachboard shoved his chair back and held up his hands, palms out. “Hey, I’m not that kinda guy. Don’t you go makin’ moves on me, boy.”

“Funny, Tim, very funny. Haha! Something serious to tell you, my man. Interested?”

“If it’s hunting or fishing, you know it. Otherwise, tell me what’s up before I decide.”

The food came, then, and both men dug into it. Tim shoved his plate back and lit a smoke first, “Okay, I’m listening,” he said.

Ten minutes later, Tim sat with his mouth open. “Good Lord, Tommy, that’s nuts. Three or four guys go to Saudi Arabia, blow up the Kaabah and . . . what . . . fly on to the Cote d’Azur

for baccarat, beer, and broads? Nice joke, buddy.”

“Serious, Tim. Look, I know you lost friends in Desert Storm and on 9/11. I’m telling you, Clutterbuck is serious. Hell, he even wanted to come with us. Said he’d as soon be dead as leave his son’s killers unpunished.”

Tim Beachboard lit his fifth cigarette in ten minutes and said, “I know you’re not crazy, Tommy, and I’m fairly sure I’m not. Even though those who destroyed the towers all died, their backers didn’t. Since we don’t know all of the names of those who recruited and financed the bombers, I’d like to see The Kingdom punished. Innocents will die, though, you know damn well. We do this, let’s not fool ourselves.”

“You’re right. But, innocents died on 9/11. Tit for tat, Tim.’

“Anyone else asked me to do something like this, I’d laugh at them. But, you I can’t just blow off. You gonna head this crew, Tommy?”

“It’s what Henry Clutterbuck wants. Think I’ll leave it up to you and the others we get. Any ideas who to ask?”

“A few, but I’ll leave it to you. Another beer?”

“No thanks, better head home. See you tomorrow?”

“Sure, come by my place for breakfast.”

“What, you got a stove? Unbelievable. Okay, around nine. I’ll bring coffee.”

 

After leaving Red’s Bar, Speelmon went home to his small house on E. Main Street, about a dozen blocks from Tim’s place. He’d lived there alone since his second divorce two years previous. A brief vision of his ex, Kathy, flashed across his mind. Long legs and red hair and a ready smile that had been smothered by the baggage he’d brought from Falujah. ‘Bloody ragheads did that, too,’ he thought. Then, ‘No, most of it was fucking Bush and his lies. Weapons of mass destruction, my ass!’

He opened his front door, turned off the alarm system and headed for the fridge. He took a cold beer into his tiny office and grabbed the phone. “Hi, it’s Tom,” he said, when a woman’s voice answered.

“Oh, hi, Tom. You want Wendell?”

“Please. Thanks, Katelyn.”

He listened to the hum on the wires for a moment. Then, “Lo, Tom,” said Wendell Wertz, another Speelmon high school buddy. “Wassup?”

“Right question, Double W. You got much on your plate?”

“No more than usual. You know I spend a lot of time on my language school, huh?”

“So you’ve said. How be you let your underlings run it and you and I take a little trip?”

“Underlings! You nuts? Man, it’s only me an Kate. We haven’t had a day off in five years. So, unless you can support us I have to say negatory, my man.”

“Money’s no problem, friend. This play’s being backed by Henry Clutterbuck.”

The wires hummed in Speelmon’s ear for a long time. Then, “Okay, I’ll definitely listen. We doing this on the phone?”

“No way. Tomorrow morning, nine o’clock sharp at Tim’s place. Can do?”

“Sure. Will there be others?”

“You’re smarter than that, Wens. See you at nine.”

The next two he called turned Tom Speelmon down. Family commitments for one, no interest in changing his life said the other. Next one Tom tried was an answering machine. He ran through the short list that had been in his mind and tried a number in Kamiah, just across the Idaho line. “Simeon Snowman here,” said the voice on the other end.

“Frosty, good to hear your voice, man. You going elk hunting soon?”

“Hey, Tom, been a while. Plan on getting an elk before Thanksgiving. Interested?”

“You know it, big guy. Got a big money deal, too, if you’re between jobs.”

“Between or not, I’d listen. My jobs never pay big. What is it?”

“Henry Clutterbuck is behind it. You know him?”

“Not personally, just know he’s some rich guy over your way. So, what’s the deal?”

“Rather tell you in person. You know Tim’s place at 196 Ryman, in Missoula? Can you be there by nine tomorrow?”

“Sure. Bring anything?”

“Just yourself, Sim. And that’s nine in the morning, okay?”

Tom hung up the phone in the middle of Simeon Snowman’s soft chuckle.

Next morning, over coffee and Crispy Cremes, Speelmon told them of Clutterbuck’s plan. After all the ‘Good Gods’ and ‘Holy Shits,’ he said, “Anyone here not know someone who fell with the towers?”

They all nodded except Simeon Snowman. Feeling left out, he said, “Don’t mean I’m not pissed off at these people. Man, they attacked my country. You know I’m mad!”

Wendell Wertz responded, “Simeon, we’ve known each other a long time. I believe you love this country but I’ve heard you curse them that destroyed the Nez Perce and stole their land. Some good if you’ve left the past behind.”

Simeon smiled a bit. “Forgiveness is good for the soul,” he said. “Anyway, I’m in.”

Turned out they were all in. By the time the meeting broke up, they’d decided to pose as Saudis, including growing beards, wearing robes, taking Saudi names, and speaking Arabic.

“It’s a bit tough,” said Wendell Wertz, who’d been teaching the language for four years, “but once you get over the right to left part, it’s okay.”

“Expect you to be a big help with this, Wendell,” said Speelmon. “Too bad we can’t get

Kate in on it.” Then, he looked into the eyes of each man before saying, “Fact is, once this gets going, none of us can see any friends or family.”

“Okay, boss,” said Tim Beachboard. They all filed out, then, a quiet bunch, each wrapped in his own thoughts, in this new world that had found them.

“Good. Now, I told Henry I’d see him by eleven. Anyone want to come with me?’

No one begged off as they hit the street.

 

In late late April, 2004, all except Gordon Padgett were in the forest near the Clutterbuck home. All had heavy black beards, dyed in the case of Wendell Wertz who was a natural blonde. And, all wore white thawbs and red and white ghutras bound with black agals, the standard male clothing of Saudi Arabia. They had had no contact with friends and family, other then messages from far off places, since October of 2001, and not even parents or lovers would have recognized them. Now, in the cold of a late Montana afternoon, they spoke in Arabic and used the names on their Saudi passports.

Thomas Speelmon, now referred to as Captain, said, “No problems with flying to Atlanta tomorrow?”

“Not that I can think of,” said Simeon Snowman. He was a slim man of forty-two and carried himself like a bullfighter. “Not sure we need all that time in Syria, though.”

Tim Beachboard, still a bit awkward in his robe, snapped a stick he’d been using to aimlessly stir the leaves that covered the ground. At forty-seven, he was getting a bit thick in the waist and his bulbous nose showed the effects of thousands of beers and whiskeys. He was still sharp as a ceramic blade, though, and his instincts never failed. “I agree,” he said. “Why waste time there? Go to Mecca now, get ready and do the job after the Haj.”

Speelmon nodded. “Listen, I’d love to but you all heard what Dr. Bitar, Wertz’s Arabic professor, said. Quote, Your Arabic is almost perfect, unquote. Almost. It’s that almost that could get us killed. So, we spend six months with a tutor in Syria, learn about operating a vendor’s van, become more comfortable in these duds, and head for Mecca next fall.”

“Makes sense to me,” said Wendell Wertz. His glasses were thick, his normally clean shaven face looked strange with the dyed beard, but he still looked every inch the scholar that he was. Wertz likely knew as much about Muslim culture as his friend, Sam Bitar. “Damn hard to overtrain for this kind of op, though I doubt I’ll ever be real comfortable wearing a dress.”

After the laugh, Snowman said, “What about this Padgett? We haven’t met him and I prefer to know the people I may need to cover my back.”

“Gordon Padgett won’t be covering any backs,” said Speelmon. “Once he hands us the stuff, he’s gone back to Egypt. Anyway, he’s coming to Syria for a few days.”

“Good,” said Wertz. “We still going to Aleppo?”

“Yeah, it’s a large city and should prepare us well for Mecca.”

“Don’t know, Captain. I was in Baghdad for eight months but damned if I feel ready for the holiest place in raghead land,” said Tim Beachboard.

“Can’t argue,” said Wertz. “Mecca’s a different ball game. And, what about the money for all this, Captain?”

“Thought we had that settled,” said Speelmon. “Henry’s given us access to a numbered account in Zurich and we have these no limit credit cards. Not to worry.”

Last thing, what about the Semtex,” said Beachboard. “What if …..” He stopped and did a quick 180. “Hey, what was that?”

Speelmon gestured and they all ran toward the sound. “Likely an elk or some damn thing,” said Simeon Snowman, as he ran through the trees. Then, they reached the top of the little hill and saw the man hunkered in the bushes.

Fred Hubbard tried not to make a sound as he crept through a stand of evergreens on the eastern slopes of the Bitterroots. His Remington 700 was held at the ready. Every few steps, he stopped and listened. He felt the black bear but could neither see nor hear the animal. Then as he began climbing a small rise, he heard voices.

Startled, Fred dropped to the ground. He lay still and tried not to breathe. Two men were talking in a strange, musical language. After a moment, a third voice, louder, joined them. Fred crawled up the gentle slope. When he reached the top, an unbelievable sight lay before him.

Four men dressed in robes and checkered head dresses wandered around a small clearing, gesticulating and arguing with one another. ‘Or, maybe just chatting,’ thought Fred, unsure of how to interpret the scene because of the unfamiliar language. He studied the men, noting that all had beards and dark skin. No weapons were in evidence. ‘So, not hunters,’ Fred guessed.

He pulled his head back, so as not to be visible, and lay quietly, thinking. For some reason he was afraid to confront these men. Then, he made up his mind and began edging his way back down the slope. When he figured he was out of sight, Hubbard stood up. In doing so he felt a hard blow to his right eye. He gave a cry and fell to the ground, unconscious.

A moment later, back in the world, Fred Hubbard looked up into the faces of the four bearded men. His right eye was on fire but he began to rise anyway. “Hang on buddy,” said one of the men. “Your eye’s a mess and it’s bleeding like hell. Here, let us get you into Missoula to a doctor. Ilyas, take his other arm.”

Soon, they could see Clutterbuck’s mansion. “Hey, that ain’t no hospital.” Fred Hubbard’s voice was loud and angry. “What the fuck you guys doing?”

Thomas Speelmon’s voice was quiet and reasonable. “Just relax, man, you’ll be fine. Ilyas, how be you dart ahead, let them know we’re coming?”

“Sure, boss.” Snowman headed out, moving as fast as the thick woods allowed.

William Smythe opened the big oak doors and Fred Hubbard was ushered into Henry Clutterbuck’s home. Henry greeted him.

“Hello, I’m Henry Clutterbuck. Heard you had an accident.”

Hubbard’s mouth hung open for a moment. “Yes, Sir, I did and I’d like to see a doctor.”

“You’re in luck Mr. . . . ?”

“Hubbard, Fred Hubbard. Now . . . ”

“Like I said, you’re in luck. See, William here was a medic in Vietnam. He’ll fix you up good as any doctor. Right, William?”

“Do my best, Sir. This way, please.”

After the two had gone, Clutterbuck and the others went into the large kitchen. There was a smell of garlic and peppers and lamb coming from a number of dishes on the table. “William made shawarma and kabobs for lunch,” said Clutterbuck. “Dig in.”

Wendell Wertz chewed on a piece of lamb and took a sip of Bedouin-style coffee, before he said, “Any ideas what to do with that guy?”

Speelmon, who’d been worrying this bone since they’d found Hubbard, said, “Only thing I know is he can’t be set free or allowed to communicate with anyone outside of this house.”

Simeon Snowman, working on his second shawarma, said, “You have a talent for stating the obvious, oh fearless leader. Big question is, how.”

Beachboard giggled. “Yes, how, as the Nez Perce said to the Crow. How?”

Henry Clutterbuck looked at each in turn. “Good to see you boys still have a sense of humour,” he said. “Shouldn’t be a problem. William and I will look after our unlucky friend. Keep him warm and well fed and make sure he communicates only with us until the job’s done.”

“Sounds good. Guess adding kidnaping to our resume isn’t going to hurt,” Wertz said.

“You got that right, pards,” said Speelmon. “So, Henry, we head for Syria as planned?”

“Of course. Little over six months from now, this’ll all be over.”

“Hope so,” said Beachboard. “Pass me that kabob, please, Ilyas.’

Soon, the food was all gone and the four stood to leave. “Man, I can’t believe I’m starting to really like this food,” said Speelmon.

“Good thing we all are because it’s our diet till this is over,” said Wertz.

The flight from Atlanta to Rome was long and we had all slept a lot. After a short night and a long day in Rome, we lifted off from Leonardo da Vinci at 6:05 in the evening, bound for Istanbul. The layover at Ataturk International was almost two hours. Then, just as our patience was wearing thin, the call came over the PA system: Syrianair, Flight 5372 for Aleppo, Damascus, and Amman preparing for boarding at Gate 3. All passengers please report.

Wendell Wertz downed the last of his coffee and said, “Bout time. Come on, guys.”

At 1:10 in the morning, the 747 touched down at Nairab International in Aleppo. Actually, we were still six miles from the city. Going through customs and retrieving bags took a solid hour but the cab ride was only fifteen minutes in light traffic.

Our rooms at the Aleppo Sheraton, not far from the Language Institute in the Almuhafaza area of Aleppo had been prearranged. The taxi had us there by 2:30 and we were all sound asleep by three.

Next day we met our tutor and guide, Abdel-Hakim Al Halbi. He proved to be a slight young man with a whispy moustache. His eyes were black as obsidian, his nose large and his hands small but with long, pianist’s fingers. When he spoke, it was in a soft voice and we had to strain to hear. Speelmon said, “Speak up, no need to whisper.” Then, he introduced us all, using our Saudi names.

Abdel had come by van and there was ample room for us and our sparse luggage. Abdel spoke a stream of fast Arabic and the driver pulled into traffic. I said, “Sounded like you told him to take us to the Language Institute.”

“Very good, Sir,” said Abdel, whose name means ‘servant of the wise one.’ “I was told you are to stay there. Is that not so?”

“It is,” said Speelmon. “Would it be alright to call you Abdel and you call us by our first names? We are simple country folk from northern Saudi Arabia.”

“Of course,” said Abdel. “Excuse me if I get confused, since there are four of you.”

“All will be well in time,” Wertz said. “You know we’re here until fall?”

“Yes, and I am most glad. We have lots of time to see the city and the land around it.”

“Good, I am a student of the past and I already know that Aleppo is a very old place.”

Speelmon and I were in one room and Snowman and Wertz in another. We all unpacked quickly and joined Abdel on the street. The van was gone. “We shall walk,” said Abdel. “It is the best way to see the city.”

“Sure, but let’s walk to something to eat,” said Speelmon. “Anyone else hungry?”

Hearing nothing but yeses, Abdel said, “Fine, shall we try some street food?”

“Of course, since we plan to be street vendors,” said Wertz. “Can you introduce us to a vendor who will help us learn to operate a food van?”

“It shall be done.”

We had walked along Cappucini Jmn Kalioundiji and past the Polish Consulate, when Wertz spotted a street vendor.

We stopped and watched the man, fat from eating his own wares day after day, cut shawarma from a large mass of chicken strips slowly turning beside a low gas flame. He scooped up our orders and placed them in a piece of toasted pita bread along with some hummus. No one wanted the french fries that went with the meal, but we all ordered soft drinks.

Simeon took a bite and sighed with pleasure. “Better than most,” he said. “We won’t need months to learn how to do this.”

The man, still cutting meat, said, “True, but if you wish to become expert you will need an instructor and much practice.”

“Yes, and my Uncle Yousuf is just the man for the job,” said Abdel.

“Yousuf Al Halb?”

“Yes, you know him?”

“Of course, all of us know one another. Yousuf is the second best shawarma maker in Aleppo. I would be your best choice as teacher but, sadly, I am too busy to take an apprentice.”

A line of customers had formed and Speelmon said, “Yes, it is obvious your food is very popular. And very good. We shall eat here again.”

“Thank you and good luck with your learning.”

Next day, Abdel began helping three of his new students polish their Arabic. Wertz, already fluent, had left on a guided tour of the city. “He will see the usual tourist places,” said Abdel, his tone scornful. “Meantime we will go to the souq and see more of the real Aleppo. Also, you can meet my uncle and begin to learn the street vendor business.”

“Keep it in the family, huh,” Simeon said. “Same as we do in my clan.”

“Yes, as you know it is common in our culture. But, you have chosen to break from your clan, no?”

“Some of my brothers went into the family construction business and I tried. Unfortunately, I was all thumbs. After two years, my bothers encouraged me to give it up. Really, they insisted. I was costing them money. So, here I am.”

Speelmon and I looked out over the city from their third floor balcony. “God, it’s a real jumble.” said Tom. “What, four or five million people living around this hill they call The Citadel?”

“Don’t think so, man, more like two or three million. Similar in size to Mecca. After a few months here, the holy city should feel like home.”

“We’ll see. Hey, Abdel, we leaving soon?”

“The taxi is on it’s way, Mahmoud. Are you getting hungry?”

“Yes, I would like to eat before dhuhr.”

Abdel grinned. “We shall, since it is still hours away.” He turned at the sound of a car braking in front of the building. “Hah, here is our ride.”

Soon, we were squeezed into the ancient Citreon. Like most of the city’s cabs, it was yellow. The driver, a thick man in a black coat, white pants and a baseball cap with “Red Sox” on it, drove with one hand on the wheel and the other on the horn. It was the common way of all drivers in the city, Abdel had told us. Traffic was heavy, with many brightly coloured busses and cabs stopping and starting in almost every block. Also, vans and delivery trucks were plentiful and left or joined the traffic flow at will. There were few traffic lights and, at one point we came to an intersection that was most confusing, with vehicles coming from five different directions. “This is the main reason I do not drive,” said Abdel. “Seven of ten accidents in Habal happen at these places. Are you comfortable, Sirs?”

I had quit smoking and now looked sideways at our guide and said, gently, “Except for the heat, noise, and smoke pouring from the Boston fan, I’d say we’re all good.”

“Yes, but he is no Boston fan. Someone gave him the hat. I would ask him not to smoke but, since we are only minutes from the souq, it hardly matters.”

The souq was the most amazing place any of us had seen, although Speelmon and I had both been in Iraqi markets. Unlike Aleppo’s, none of them had been covered. And this one, according to Abdel, stretched for almost ten kilometers. We entered a wall of noise and a cornucopia of smells. “Food first,” Speelmon whispered in Abdel’s ear.

“Yes, my uncle’s place is but a few meters away. Follow me, please.”

Our progress was slow in the crowded passageways between hawkers of everything from beads to jewels, dresses to hats, prayer rugs, spices, knives and guns, fly-covered slabs of meat, cold drinks, ice cream, tin ware, boots, small prayer mats, vegetables, coins, and huge carpets. At last, Abdel stopped before a small food stand and a tall beardless man in a robe and turban. “Good day, Uncle,” said Abdel.

The man finished serving a customer, turned and said, “Hah, nephew, you have brought your Saudis. Greetings to all.”

Introductions were made and Yousuf offered them some food. All except Simeon, now called Ilyas, declined. The Nez Perce asked for a shawarma and Coke. “Sorry, no Coke,” said Yousuf, “but you might like my favourite, a blend of orange and pomegranate juice.”

“Yes, it sounds fine,” said Snowman. A moment later, he said, “Excellent, my friend, excellent.” He finished his shawarma and gulped the last of the drink.

Speelmon and I, now Mahmoud and Amed, turned from studying Yousuf’s operation. We were sweating from the heat thrown off by the propane heaters that cooked the meat and kept it warm. “Please, I’ll try one of those drinks,” I said and, “Me, too,” echoed Speelmon.

“So, you wish to learn my secrets,” Yousuf said, as he handed them their bottles of juice.

Speelmon swallowed his mouthful of juice before saying, “Yes, we plan to operate two vans in our home town of Ras al Khafji and, maybe, in Mecca during the Hajj.”

“A noble plan, my friends, but is it not difficult to get a licence to operate during the Hajj,” said Yousuf.

“It is, but our father knows members of the royal family,” Speelmon said.

“Not surprising, since I am told there are many thousands of them.” Yousuf laughed and slapped his thighs as he said this.

“Yes, over forty thousand,” said Speelmon. “Good for us, though, because many of them require the services of builders. Our father knows hundreds of the royals.”

“Excellent! Your plan is a good one. With the masses coming through Mecca during the Hajj, you should make a fortune,” said Yousuf. “Would you like another partner?”

Speelmon smiled. “Maybe,” he said. “May we call on you, if necessary?”

“Of course. Now, I’m sure my nephew has plans for you. I start at five sharp tomorrow morning. If you come a bit later, say after sunrise prayer at five seventeen, I will begin your instruction. Abdel, make sure you take them to the Citadel and the Umayyad Mosque.”

“Of course, Uncle. Be safe and prosper.” Abdel made a little bow and lead them out.

The souq was a madhouse at five in the morning. Trucks, vans, and donkey-drawn carts disgorged everything from World War One-era rifles to fine Saracen blades, from melons to squashes, from masses of cigarettes to boxes of pipes, and cinnamon to marjoram.

At seventeen past five the muezzin’s call from a hundred mosques was heard throughout the city and a million and a half citizens of Aleppo turned south toward Mecca and knelt in solemn prayer. In an instant the uproar of the souq had become a perfect silence. After a few moments, we four rose from our prayer mats and began the tasks that Yousuf had given us.

Thomas Speelmon, now Mahmoud the Saudi, arranged strips of chicken on the rotisserie. This, along with the goat and lamb already turning on the other rotisseries, would become the day’s shawarma. Simeon Snowman, now Ilyas, began making hummus out of chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and a dash of salt. . Wendell Wertz, now Ayman, who had put them to sleep singing the praises of Lake Assad and the Arab castle, Qala’at Jaber, high on one of the lake’s islands was kneading the dough that would become the day’s Arab bread. I, now known as Amed, was busy peeling potatoes and slicing them for French fries. Yousuf Halib bustled around, alternately cursing his new helpers or patting them on the back.

The first customers came for breakfast just after six and Yousuf served most of them with the foods he’d prepared just after closing the previous day or earlier that morning. These included tis’iyyah, mena’eesh, or ful. All, of course, were served with hot, sweet tea or coffee. The old man greeted most of those who came by name and nodded to the four Saudis, as if to say, ‘No, I do not need help since I have done this for thirty years.”

We Americans, now Saudis, took a short break. “Too hot,” said Wertz, as we moved a few paces into the souq.

“You want hot, trade places with me,” said Speelmon. “Must be over a hundred degrees around that cursed cooker.”

“No doubt, but tomorrow we all switch places, right,” said Snowman.

“What we decided,” I said. “Me, I’m happy peeling spuds. Takes me back to my high school days when I worked part time at Burt’s Fish and Chips in Missoula.”

Speelmon stopped and looked around. Then, he looked a few daggers at his old friend. “Amed, you forget who we are and where we are from? Brothers, we must never forget our home and our mission.” His whisper as fierce as any shout, he looked at each of us in turn and said, “Remember where we are and who we are at all times.”

I was ashamed as I said, “Sorry, Mahmoud, sorry my brothers. Come, let us return to Yousuf before he needs us.”

Prayers and work, mixed with short breaks; heat and noise and unending lines of customers filled the long day. Yousuf, wanting to squeeze every piaster out of the hungry and the thirsty, did not close his stand until after isha, the day’s last prayer. This was after nine and we four “brothers’ were close to collapse as we rose from our prayer mats.

Abdel, when he came to meet us for language lessons, sensed that we would learn little that evening. “It will be a while before you are comfortable in your new work,” he said. “Perhaps, we should postpone our lessons for now.”

No one disagreed and Speelmon said, “Yes, give us three or four days. I shall tell you when the time is right.”

At our apartment, we all stripped to undergarments and fell asleep instantly.

Days turned into weeks. We began to find a rhythm in our days and the Arabic lessons became part of that rhythm. Yousuf gave us Sundays off and Abdel took us around the city, into the mosques and the country side. “You are becoming Syrians,” he said, as we stood on the shores of Lake Assad, the blue waters reflecting the few fluffy clouds that drifted over it. “Forget this return to your own country. Stay here. Uncle Yousuf is ready for a long rest. I am sure he will sell you his place in the souq.”

“A fine idea, my friend,” said Wertz, “But we have family and friends that draw us home.

In fact I believe we will leave earlier than planned. We are becoming competent at our work and, if you say our language skills are fine, we may leave in four months instead of six.”

“Uncle and I will be sad if you do that, but I understand it is hard to be far from your family.”

“Yes, but we are also eager to start our business. If we can be on the streets of Mecca well before the Hajj, we will be better able to judge our future success. No?”

Abdel, took his eyes from the splendor before him and looked at his new friends. “I cannot disagree,” he said. “But, I have an idea. Perhaps, this is the year for my pilgrimage; perhaps, I shall meet you in Mecca in November.”

We all started at this suggestion. Speelmon recovered first. With a big smile he said, “A wonderful idea, my friend. We shall let you know our location in the holy city as soon as we find a home. Now, I’m ready for a cold drink. Shall we go back?”

Yousuf was not happy to hear of our early leaving, but he laughed and said, “Hah, now I will have to go back to work. My friends, I shall miss you all.”

“Thank you,” said Speelmon. “Hope we haven’t been too much trouble.”

“Not much, except that day when Ilyas insisted that the goat meat was chicken and kept giving the angry customer the wrong meat.” He looked at Snowman and added, “One hopes you now know the difference. “And you, Mahamoud, burnt the shawarma meat a few times.” Again, he laughed, as he turned to Wertz and said, “Ayman, you have become a good buyer of meats and vegetables but there was that day when you ordered a thousand pounds of potatoes when I asked for a hundred.”

“Yes, a typing error in my Email to the seller. We sold them all before they spoiled, though, did we not,” said Wertz.

“Yes, but I almost drove people mad by pushing the fried potatoes so hard.”

I jumped in with, “Yes, and I cut my hand badly trying to peel fast enough to keep up with the masses who demanded those cursed fries.”

They all laughed and Yousuf said, “Ah, yes, Amed, you will carry the scar to remember me. Now, it is time to work. I want your best for the weeks that remain.”

Back at our apartments that evening, Speelmon suggested an after-supper walk. We had been doing this regularly, so that we might talk without fear. We were all convinced that our rooms were bugged. It was another reason why we wanted to cut our time in Syria shorter than planned. I had laughed at this. “Hell, you think the Saudis don’t bug people?”

“No, so we’ll be careful there, too,” said Speelmon. “Shall we go?”

The little park was like an oasis in the crowded city. There were trees and grass and benches to sit on and watch the families who strolled by. It was just a few minutes from the Language Institute on Altabarri Street in the Al Muhafaza District where we lived and studied.

When we were safe in the park, Speelmon said, “So, are we agreed? Give it another few weeks and head for Saudi Arabia?”

“Aye, aye, Skipper, let’s get ready to blow this joint,” said Simeon Snowman.

“Better let Clutterbuck know,” Wendell Wertz said. “He’ll have to make new plans.”

“Of course, he’ll have to rearrange a few things,” said Speelmon. “I’ll Email him later.”

We came to a pair of benches and I said, “Here, take a load off, guys.”

“Good one, Beach,” said Wertz. “Even though I’ve lost weight, this heat takes it out of me. Must be over thirty degrees right now.”

“Radio said, thirty-two degrees celcius just before we left,” said Snowman.

“What I mean. Man, these few months have been tough,” said Wertz. “Not sure I can take much more of this heat.”

“Got to,” said Speelmon. “Saudi Arabia’s south of here, remember. Gonna be hotter.”

“Forget that,” I said, “what about this Email to Henry? Think it’s wise?”

“Yeah, why would Clutterbuck be getting Emails from Syria,” asked Snowman.

“Okay, maybe we should phone him,” said Speelmon. “Either way, I don’t see a problem. Remember, Henry has businesses all over this region.”

“You’re right, might as well Email,” said Wertz. “Keep it short, though. Maybe just something like ‘headed south in a few weeks.’”

Speelmon laughed and said, “No way, I’m sending at least two pages.” We all gasped and he said, “Joking, guys, joking. Short and in code, boys.”

“Funny,” I said. “Should we give him a date?”

Tom hesitated a moment, then said, “How about August twenty-eighth, three weeks from today? Sim, Wendell?”

“Okay, sure,” they said together.

We sat and watched the passersby for a time before Simeon said, “Good, that’s settled. God, I’ll be glad to see the end of this whole mess. Gotta say, I’m starting to have serious doubts. Like, is this whole thing sensible?”

Wertz poked the Nez Perce in the shoulder and said, “Come on, buddy, shake it off. Remember why we’re doing this. Few months, we’ll be back home. Right?”

“Guess so,” said Simeon. “It’s just . . . I don’t know.”

“Hey, doubts are part of the job. We’ve all had them,” said Tom. He looked at his watch and said, “It’s going on nine. What’s that, seven tomorrow evening in Montana, Wendell?” Seeing Wertz’s nod, he added, “Okay, what say we head back. I’ll Email Henry and we can play a bit of HoldEm.”

“Good, maybe I can take back some of my money,” I said.

Gordon Padgett arrived a week later. He flew in from Cairo and we met him at Nairab Airport. He was a bluff, red-faced bear of a man with a soft voice. His dress was western, white pants and a shirt with the Great Pyramid on the front and the Sphinx on the back.

The talk on the short ride back to Aleppo was of Saudi Arabia and our home town of Ras al Khafji. “Yes, all is well with your parents and your sister, Fatima,” Padgett said, in response to a question by Speelmon.

“Good to hear,” I said. “We shall see them in a few weeks. Will you be there?”

Gordon pointed to his shirt. “Sadly, I must return to my work in Egypt. My return flight leaves three days from now at seven-thirty in the morning.”

“Only three days,” said Wertz. “We hoped you would spend a week or more with us.”

“Sorry, my friend, but duty calls. But, Nahlah and I and the boys will see you in Ras when we go for our annual visit in September. Yes?”

“We will be in . . .” began Simeon, but I interrupted and said, “Of course. We look forward to spending time with your delightful family.”

That evening, we had some lovely shish kebab at the Jdayde Hotel restaurant in Halab Square. We ate there a lot, because it was convenient to a large public park. After the meal we took a leisurely stroll to this park and found some secluded benches. Gordon Padgett, who had stuffed himself with three kebabs and a dessert, sat down with a sigh. He pulled a bottle of water from his pants and drank half of it in one gulp. “Are you alright, Mr. Padgett,” asked Speelmon.

“Think so. Man, that food was terrific. How come you’re not all fat?”

“We walk a lot and work out every day,” I said.

“Well, I get quite enough exercise pulling fish from the Red Sea and carrying them to market. So, how are things?”

“Good. We know the lingo and the vendor’s trade well enough. Didn’t Henry tell you we’re leaving early?”

“You know Henry’s a bit close mouthed. All he said was you wanted to meet me before the end of July. So, that was the reason, huh. When you leaving?”

“Late August is the plan,” said Speelmon. “Everything go with the stuff?”

“Frig the stuff. Call a spade a spade. It’s semtex, Tom, one of the original plastic explosives. Deadly as hell. Hope one of you knows how to handle it.”

“After three years defusing IEDs with the Marines in Iraq, I think so,” I said. “Do you have it secured?”

“Nope, don’t have it yet. You guys doing your thing after the Hajj, figure we’d get the semtex in early November. Okay?”

“Sure, give a few weeks to set things up. Alright with you, Beach?”

“Perfect, few days is all I’ll need,” I said.

Tom turned to Padgett. “Good, so where do we meet you,” he said.

“We meet in a little cove between Jiddah and Mecca. Got a map back in my suitcase I’ll leave with you,” said Gordon. ” So, a date and time?”

“Beach, you want to take this one? You’re the boss of the semtex,” said Tom.

“Well, it’s not rocket science,” I said. “Need a day to place it in the vans and wire it to the transmitter. Leave a few days leeway. So, if we go on November twenty-second, the nineteenth would be fine. Weather going to be a problem, Gordo?”

“Shouldn’t be, but better allow for a blow. Let’s say we meet on the fifteenth and, if the weather’s bad, go each day after that. Dawn’s the best time, don’t you think?”

“Or just before,” said Speelmon. “Say four in the morning, if you travel at night?”

“Boat’s got radar and running lights so that’s no problem. Thing is I have to co-ordinate with one of Henry’s freighters. I’ll get the semtex a week before our meet. Good?”

“Fine, if you don’t mind having to hide it for a week,” I said.

“No problem, I’ll just keep it at the bottom of my main fish box. It’ll be covered in a few hundred pounds of grouper at all times. Won’t hurt the stuff, will it?”

“Can’t see how. Sounds good,” I said.

Wertz and Snowman had been quiet through most of this but now Wertz said, “Time for a little poker. You play HoldEm, Gordon?”

Padgett smiled and said, “Yeah, I’ve played. Shall we?”

Over the next two nights, we learned a bit about Gordon Padgett. He took close to two thousand Syrian pounds from us, though, before revealing that he’d paid his way through UNLV by playing various forms of poker. At the airport, he offered us our money back. Speelmon, looking ready to hit bugger, refused. “Get the hell out of here,” he said, instead.

We landed at Abdulaziz International in Jiddah at ten in the morning of the twenty-eighth of August. Half an hour later, we were through customs and standing in line for our luggage. It was pleasantly cool in the public terminal and not yet crowded with Hajj pilgrims. A man in a flowing robe approached us and said, “I am Mohammed Al-Baraq. My employer, Mr. Hany Niazy, asked me to meet four brothers arriving from Aleppo. Are you them?”

We all grinned because Al-Baraq had given the right name. Hany Niazy was in charge of all of Henry Clutterbuck’s operations in The Kingdom.

Speelmon stuck out his hand and said, “Yes, I am Mahmoud Al-Sadif and these are my brothers Ahmed, Ayman, and Ilyas, the baby who is named for my mother’s Afghan grandfather. Are you in charge of Mr. Niazy’s affairs?”

“Yes, please come with me.”

We shook hands, grabbed our suitcases and followed Mr. Al-Baraq. He was a tall man with a hooked nose and a short, pointed beard. His black eyes looked out from under bushy eyebrows that gave him a menacing look, but he had a ready smile and we all liked him at once.

Mr. Al-Baraq drove us south into Mecca and until we arrived at the Great Mosque. He entered Alyad Street and soon came to our new home. It was a small stone building and looked to be very old. Speelmon asked about this and Mohammed said, “Yes, but much newer than some. I am told that this house was built for a member of the royal family in 1898, so it is just over a hundred years old. Come, let us enter. I believe you will find all to your liking.”

Inside, it was cool and Simeon said, “I like it already. I had forgotten how hot our homeland could be in late summer.”

Al-Baraq smiled. “Ah, this is a pleasant day with the wind blowing from the Red Sea. Soon will come the wind from the desert. Have you not experienced it?”

“Not here in the south but we get some hot winds in Ras al Khafji. Do you know it?

“No, but I have heard of it. Near the Iraqi border, is it not?”

“Quite near. You must visit us after the Hajj.”

“Thank you, but my work keeps me in Riyadh most of the time. Now, shall we explore your new home?”

We walked through the house and saw a fine kitchen with a propane stove, three bedrooms, a bathroom, and a small living room with flat screen television and computer. “Is it good,” said Mohammed.

“Perfect, my friend,” said Speelmon. “Our stay here should be most pleasant. Have you gotten our vendor’s vans and licence?’

“Of course, as Mr. Niazy ordered.” He reached under his robe and withdrew a brown envelope and offered it to Speelmon. “The licence, as requested by Mr. Niazy, allows you four to operate two vendor vans near al-Haram Mosque between September first and December first of this year. Is this as you wished?”

“Exactly as we wished,” said Speelmon. “And, the vans?”

“In a small garage further east along this street. You will find the keys for the building, its address and the keys for both vans in that envelope.”

“Sir, you have done well. I see why Mr. Niazy sent you to us,” said Tom.

“Thank you. Now, unless you have further questions, I must excuse myself. The rest of my day is very full.”

“Of course. Will we see you again?”

“Unlikely. As I say, my work is mainly in Riyadh. Good day, gentlemen.”

“That went well,” I said, after the door closed behind Al-Baraq. “Shall we check out our new assets?”

“How about in an hour or so,” said Wertz. “I really need some time to unwind and stay in these nice cool room. Man, this heat is hard on me.”

“Quit whining, Wen,” said Speelmon. “Few weeks you’ll be used to it.”

“Maybe. You guys go ahead, you want.”

We found the vans, two steel grey Volkswagens, and drove them first to an al Baik. It had been recommended by al-Baraq and there was one only three streets away. We all ordered jumbo shrimp, fries and non-alcoholic beer. “This stuff is terrific,” said Simeon, after his first mouthful. “They have takeout, too. I predict we’ll eat a lot of this before November.”

“Got to agree,” I said. “But, we will also enjoy our own shawarma and bread. No?”

“We definitely will not starve,” said Speelmon. “Worse danger is putting on about fifty pounds between now and then.”

Wertz sipped his beer, bit into another shrimp and said, “I come back that heavy, no way Kate will let me near her.”

I laughed and said, “Damn, I wish you hadn’t reminded me of women. I try to not think about them.”

There were nods all around and Speelmon said, “Maybe there’s a local cathouse.”

We all slapped our knees and laughed at this. The five other customers in the small place turned and stared at us. “Enough of this,” said Speelmon. “Everyone done?”

Next day, Monday the twenty-ninth, we went exploring. We drove north but turned west to the Red Sea before we were halfway to Jiddah. The van bounced along a rough, rutted road for about two miles. Then, the deep blue of the historic waterway flashed before us. The road soon became a goat track and Tom pulled to a stop. “Okay, everybody out,” he said. “Let’s see if we can find that cove. Tim, you got the map Padgett drew?”

I reached under my thawb and into my pant’s pocket and pulled out the crumpled sheet of paper. “If this is the right path the cove should be straight ahead,” I said.

We headed toward the water and a cool breeze found us. “Thank God,” said Simeon. “Think I’ll stay right her until November. You guys have fun.”

“Good idea but didn’t you want to try for a fish? Thought you were a master fisherman,” said Wertz.

“Yeah, come on, Sim,” said Tom, pointing his long fishing rod before him. “Padgett said we might catch some grouper or skate in this spot.”

 

The cove was tear drop-shaped and maybe as big as two football fields. We spread out and looked for the sign Padgett said he’d left there. Simeon found the small MM for Missoula, Montana painted on a large rock at the southern end of the cove. Then, we all fished for a couple of hours. Tom lost the only fish anyone hooked.

“You guys see that,” he shouted. “Must have weighed twenty pounds. Snapped my line like it was sewing thread. Tim, you see it?”

“Just for a nanosecond. Looked like a big grouper. Good fish, maybe ten pounds.”

“Ten, hell, thing was fifteen for sure.”

Wertz walked over. “Hey, you two, you’re arguing over a lost fish nobody wanted. Who cares how big it was. I’m heading back to the van.”

We drove right past Mecca and went about ten miles south. Speelmon turned off on a side road and said, “You’ll be safe here, Sim. We’ll drop you and pick you up after it’s over.”

“Man, I don’t like it. Why can’t we stick together?”

“Jesus, we’ve been over and over this,” I said. “We need the transmitter away from the semtex in case something goes wrong. For God’s sake, give it a rest.”

“Hey, no need to get your drawers in a knot. Just I don’t . . . ah, shit, forget it. Let’s go back.”

Over the next few days we gathered our vendor supplies and got a bit used to the holy city. The heat was oppressive but the vans had good AC. As we drove around, we decided on who would do what. Tom, since he did it so well, would prepare the sharwarma meats; Sim would be in charge of hummus, spices, and condiments; Wendell would look after the bread making; and I would be in charge of fries and drinks.

We chatted with the various merchants we met and were congratulated on our venture. Many were surprised that we had managed to get a licence and a few seemed angry. One of these, a grizzled old man in a stained thwab, said his cousin had been trying to get a vendor’s permit for five years. But, he still sold us some fine lamb.

Our last, but most vital stop, was at the great mosque itself. Since it was so close to our house, we walked down Alyad Street and entered through a gate that had a guardhouse. The man on duty was in uniform and wore a side arm. “Hello,” he said, “may I see your identification?”

We offered our driver’s licence and he inspected them closely. “I see you are from the north,” he said. “Is this your first visit to Mecca?”

Speelmon took the lead. “No, but it is our first time doing business here. We have a vendor’s licence and plan to set up near the Great Mosque.”

“Yes, I see. Of course, you know of the rule that no vendor may be closer than fifty meters from the Cube? May I see your licence?”

“Sorry, we left it at our house,” said Tom. “We will tape it inside our van.”

“Fine. Good luck.”

We walked into the sacred grounds of the mosque. Only some three or four hundred people were present. I tried to imagine the hundreds of thousands that would be there in a few months. Then, I headed for the Cube while the others scouted out spots for the vans.

After a short prayer, I touched the building and stood for a moment, trying to imagine many thousands of males, all dressed in the same plain white sheets of cloth, slowly circling the Kabah and murmuring soft words of prayer. For some reason, my mind flashed a picture of the sign on the highway when we came to the city. It hung over a dividing strip and one side read MUSLIMS ONLY, while the other read NON MUSLIMS. Mr. al-Baraq had said, thinking we had never been to Mecca, “The non Muslim part of the road leads around the city.” Tom, our quickest thinker, simply said, “Of course, since no non Muslims may enter Mecca.”

Now, close to the Kaabah, a shiver went through me as I realized, not for the first time, how crazy it was to be here let alone doing the thing we planned. I turned a full circle but, praise be to Allah, no one was looking my way.

The others came up a few minutes later and, shortly, we left the Al Masjid al-Haram through a different entrance. “Well, that wasn’t so bad,” said Tom.

“No, but it will be a different ball game with a few million or more pilgrims in the city,” Wertz said. “This place will be a madhouse.”

“True, but we’ll just be simple vendors,” said Tom. “We’ll drive our vans here each morning, do our business, and drive away each evening. Right?”

“Hope so,” I said. Then, I stopped them and added, “Back there, close to the Kaabah, I had a vision of what the crowds would do if they found we were Americans.”

“Jesus, Tim, don’t even think of that,” said Simeon. “We’d be ripped to shreds before we could blink.”

“Enough,” said Tom. “Anyone ready for some al Baik chicken?”

 

The CIA tech whiz was one of hundreds monitoring the world’s Email traffic. Her name was Eunice McGregor and she was an old twenty-nine. On this day she wore a bulky Highland sweater and an ankle length tweed dress. Both served to hide a figure that most women would be eager to display. Her hair was short and bright red, the sweater a blue-green plaid. She wore thick, steel framed glasses and was just short of six feet.

When she knocked on her supervisor’s door and entered on his “Come,” Baxter Hayward sat up and took notice. In his three years working with Eunice, she had never brought up anything that wasn’t vital. “Have a seat, Ms McGregor,” he said.

“Alright, but just for a moment. My relief’s a trainee. Might miss something serious.”

She sat, adjusted her dress, and took a few seconds to study her boss. Bax, as everyone called him, was a short, thin man whose greying hair suggested he was north of forty. Eunice knew he was fifty-four and married with three grown children. Hayward was the most brilliant man she’d ever met and Eunice could not believe he smoked the cheap cigars that made everything around him stink. Her nose twitched, now, and she saw his eyes roll in response.

“Okay, okay, I know the bloody cigars stink. Just give me what you have.”

“Sorry. Here.”

Hayward took the message slip, gave it a brief glance and said, “Come on, McGregor, for God’s sake. I can’t read this gibberish. Is this some joke you youngsters have cooked up?”

Eunice took back the paper and handed him another.. She smiled and said, “Oops, gave you the Arabic by mistake.”

He read the translation in a few moments and said, “What the hell, some ragheads talking about gardens and seeds. What, the Baghdad Garden Society doing some fall planting? Shit!”

Eunice McGregor’s face turned red as her hair and her lips quivered. “Maybe, Sir, but check where it went.”

He looked and jumped from his chair in surprise. “Montana! What the hell? Don’t make sense.”

“Precisely why it’s in your hands. That mid-November date is a bit suspicious, too. Like, around the time of the Hajj. Might need a closer look.”

Baxter Hayward sat back down and stared at the woman whose instincts he’d come to respect. When he sensed his silence was making her uncomfortable, he said, “Good work, McGregor. Sorry I snapped at you. What should we do with this?”

“Not up to me, Sir, but someone should follow through. Since it’s domestic, it can’t be us. The Bureau, maybe, or Homeland Security.”

“Of course. Happens I’m meeting with the Director and Missus Claiborne tomorrow. It’s our weekly get together and I’ll just add this little tidbit to the agenda. Thanks, McGregor.”

“Only trying to do my job, Sir. Anything related comes up, I’ll let you know.”

It turned out the FBI and Homeland Security had also picked up on the Email’s odd destination. “I have agents rousting some of those crazies in Montana and Idaho. Should know more soon,” said FBI Director, Paul Fredericks. “Let’s get together then, okay?”

Three days later, he called them back. They met in a conference room on the second floor of the J. Edgar Hoover Building at 936 Pennsylvania Avenue. It was a wood paneled room with a large table in the center. Present were Fredericks, Jolene Claiborne, Head of Homeland Security, and Baxter Hayward, Assistant to the CIA Director. Also present were Special Agent Max Carter and George Fenwick, Claiborne’s deputy.

“Okay, here it is,” said Fredericks. “We rounded up members of the Aryan Nation, Posse Comitatus and the Montana and Idaho Militias. Some of them told us very strange stories. A lot of them mentioned a man named Henry Clutterbuck and a certain Thomas Speelmon. Seems Clutterbuck has a real hardon over 9/11. He’s at his home in the Bitterroots but we were told he had Speelmon as a visitor in late September, 2001. Speelmon hasn’t been seen since, but his sister has received regular letters from him, all sent from Recife, Brazil. Even more unusual, three of Speelmon’s friends are also incommunicado, except for letters from places like Bangkok, Lahore, and Capetown.”

“Right, that’s damn suspicious,” said Jolene Claiborne, a well preserved woman in her late fifties. “What else?”

Fredericks consulted the file he’d been reading from and said, “Lot of background on this Speelmon. Listen to this guy speaking to a gathering of Aryan Nation whackos.” He leaned over, pushed PLAY on the tape deck beside his desk, and they all heard, ‘So, you got these freakin’ ragheads knockin’ down buildings and blowin’ up trains all over the place.’ Then, a different voice said, ‘Well, it’s only a few fanatics.’ Then, Speelmon again, ‘Thing is, you can’t tell the suicide bombers from the rest. Want to know my thinking? Kill them all and let God sort them out.’ Fredericks hit the OFF button, as a general cheer roared from the speakers.

“Now, that’s what we’re dealing with. I think we’d better share this with the Saudis ASAP. And, we will definitely talk to this Clutterbuck and others.”

“Good luck with that,” said Agent Max Carter, who was based in Helena. “Guy’s big cheese in Montana. Surrounded by lawyers. We tried to see him, didn’t get past this pricey legal eagle in Missoula. Claimed his client was out of touch on a yacht in the South Pacific.”

“Okay, keep working on him,” said Fredericks. “But, let’s inform the Saudis.”

“Right, I’ll get a secure line,” said Baxter Hayward. “We know some of their security people in Riyadh.”

“No, we talk to them face to face on this one,” said Claiborne. She turned to her deputy

and said, “George, get me a government jet and have it at Dulles by four tomorrow morning. Clear us for Riyadh and set up a meet with Ahmed Siddiqui. You in, Paul?”

“Oh, yes. Bax, you want to join us?”

“Sure, I’ll bring the wine, we can party.”

“In the air, maybe, but not in The Kingdom,” said Claiborne. “Always found it funny, though, that Siddiqui’s name is so close to siddiqi. You know, that Saudi home brew?”

“Yes, the name means ‘my friend,’ said Fredericks. “Ahmed may be our friend but I still

keep him at arm’s length. He’ll blow a gasket, we tell him about this.”

The government Gulfstream 650 took off from Dulles at four twenty on the morning of August twenty-fourth. Six hours later it touched down at Mecca East Airport and a Saudi Security SUV whisked us into the city and headed northwest. After twenty minutes our driver had not said a word. So, in Arabic, I said, “Where are you taking us, Sirrah?”

He, a clean shaven man in a blue uniform, said, “Excuse me, Madam, but the honourable Colonel Siddiqui thought a quiet location would better serve our purpose. His own office, as you might imagine, is overrun with officers and criminals. So, he will meet you at a quiet police station on the Old Jeddah Road. Do you know it?”

“No, but I am sure it will be fine. Ahmed knows the situation much better than I.”

He moved visibly at the sound of his commander’s first name but made no response, except to say, “Very good.’

 

Ahmed Siddiqui greeted us at the door with three of his underlings. He was as I remembered him, a stout, handsome man with a short beard and handlebar moustache. His voice was clear, his words precise as he greeted us in English. “Ah, Madame Claiborne with the first name of a Dolly Parton song. How was your flight, Jolene?”

“Fine, Colonel, and your drive from Riyadh?”

“I slept so it was restful.” He introduced his subordinates and I introduced those with me.

Ahmed got right to the point. “I have read your Email carefully, Jolene, and run the names of the men through our databases. Not surprisingly, I got no result. You say you have the backgrounds of these missing men?”

“Yes, but I did not trust anything but face to face communications in this matter. Ahmed, I fear these men are a grave threat to your country.”

“I hope you are wrong, my friend, but please tell me why you think this.”

“Four of these six men have been members of extremist right wing groups in one of our most right wing states. Of the remaining two, one is a Nez Perce Indian and the other, who disappeared some days before the five, seems to be a very ordinary citizen of Montana. We believe he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“Interesting, most interesting, and you could well be correct. On the other hand, I am not a great believer in chance or coincidence. For our planning we will consider this man as dangerous as the others. But, what of this sixth man? What do you know?”

“You don’t miss much, Ahmed. The sixth man we have under the microscope. He is a billionaire named Henry Clutterbuck and he has business interests in your country. We are told by his lawyer that he is somewhere in mid-Pacific on his yacht.” I had seen one of Ahmed’s men blink at the rich man’s name, so I said to him, “You know of this man?”

The young fellow was mute but his boss said, “Yes, we know him. A friend of Prince Farouk, a third cousin to King Abdullah. This man owns a large Saudi registered company which maintains oil pipelines. I, of course, have never met the man or the king’s cousin.”

“And, I doubt if you will,” said Paul Fredericks. “He obviously prefers to stay hidden while his hired crazies do the dirty work. Doubt if we’ll catch him, either.”

“This is unimportant. What is vital is stopping the terrorists. Finding and disposing of them will be difficult but your help is much appreciated. We look forward to continued co-operation between our two great countries.”

“Of course,” I said. “My colleagues and I will instantly send you whatever we find out about these men.” Her cell phone vibrated at that point and the head of Homeland Security said, “Sorry, but duty calls. Please, excuse me.”

Out in the hall she opened the phone and said, “Perfect timing, Louise. We’ll be out of here within the hour. Is there anything pressing? No. Good, see you tomorrow.”

Back in the meeting room, she said, “Nothing to do with this thing, Ahmed, but lots going on with a case we’re working in Newark, New Jersey. We must get back.”

“Of course, I know the drill,” said Ahmed. “Keep in touch.”

Amid handshakes and hugs, the Americans took their leave.

Ahmed Siddiqui turned to his second in command, Samir al-Biayki, a stout sixtyish bear of a man whose beard was almost white. His mad eyes and loud voice frightened all but the most foolhardy of his colleagues. He was a forty year veteran of the Security Police. “Samir, I want a 24/7 cordon of guards around the Al Masjid al-Haram. And Allah help any found asleep or otherwise shirking their duty. Also, have everyone call on all of their contacts throughout the city. I am convinced that these terrorists are here. Find them and silence them.”

“You speak and I obey. It shall be done. Is there more?”

Siddiqui now glared at his younger senior officer. The man, a youngish forty-three, withstood the look without blinking but the fear showed in his eyes. His name was Masoud Aryat and he was taller than his boss but much slimmer. He had been a fine soccer player as a young man and had twice played in the World Cup for his country. His specialty in the Security Police was in the area of commercial spying. The Colonel said, “We must increase our surveillance of this man Clutterbuck’s business. Get a man into the main offices in Riyadh and add another hundred microphones and mini cameras to those already in place. How long?”

Masoud thought for just a moment. “Hard to say, Colonel. I will get our best men on it and instruct them to be as quick as possible. As you know, it is a delicate problem. Cameras and microphones must be carefully hidden, but our people are most able in this field. Getting a man into the offices as an employee will be much more difficult. Give me three days and I shall report our progress.”

“Very well. You understand that no effort or expense is to be spared in this matter?”

“Of course, Sir,” they said together.

“Good, get at it.”

Following the rule, as explained to us by the guard, we parked our vans about sixty meters from The Cube, one in the northwest corner and the other in the southeast. Each was only a few steps from one of the gates to the square. Some vendors, not having a permit to enter the grounds, had set up on the side of the street. Once everything was ready, I went to say hello to one of them. He was selling only prayer rugs. “Good morning,” I said, “I am Amed Al-Sadif. My brothers and I are going to sell food until after the Hajj. How are you, neighbour?”

“I am well, Mr. Al-Sadif, but, as you see I am out here on the street. My contacts were unable to secure me a spot like yours.”

“Sorry, but you will do well here will you not?”

“I suppose. Would you like a prayer mat? They are some of the finest made in India. And, for you, only two hundred riyals. No tax.’

I quickly did the math. About fifty dollars. “A fair price, but I recently bought a new prayer rug on a trip to Aleppo.”

The man gave me a crooked smile and said, “Of course. What about your brothers?”

“I will ask them. Now, I must get back or they will be angry. Work, you know?”

“Yes. Later, I will try your shawarma.”

After two weeks with the vans, we took stock of our success. It was a Thursday, a day of rest in Mecca. I had checked our small house every day for electronic eavesdropping devices but had never found one. We sat, each with a drink of choice, and Wertz gave us the lowdown. “Guys, we’re doing well. Once the Hajj starts, I think we’ll make a small fortune. Wasn’t so damn hot, I’d stay here and rake in the profits.” He looked at his laptop screen. “In fifteen days, our profit is ninety-four thousand, three hundred and fifty riyals. About twenty-three thousand dollars or five thousand each.”

“Man, that’s a lot of shawarma,” said Tom.

“Yes, and they love it,” said Simeon. “Only had three customers say they didn’t like your meat, old buddy. They seemed a bit stupid.”

“Your concoctions get a lot of positive comments, too,” I said. “Wertz’s bread, now, is a bit shaky according to some.” I dodged as Wendell kicked at me.

Speelmon stood up and clapped his hands. “Good, good! Seems we’re all excellent vendors. Yousuf taught us well. The money’s a bonus, but let’s keep the main prize in sight. Close to two months to go. So, we keep our noses clean, avoid drawing any attention, and smile at everyone. Right?”

“Sure, Skipper, but this heat is driving me nuts,” said Simeon.

“He’s right,” said Wendell. “Not sure I can take two more months of it.”

“Guys, let’s not be wimps. Tim and I suffer as much as you two. Working those propane cookers, I get twice the heat of anyone. Hell, I’ve lost twenty pounds or more. So, suck it up and quit bitching. You faint or anything we’ll rush you to a doctor.”

“Think I’ll get some bigger fans,” I said. “And remember, you feel overheated take a break. Stand in the shade or near a fan.”

“Hell, I’ll be taking a permanent break,” said Simeon. Seeing our looks, he went on with, “Okay, okay, I know. I’m a big boy. I’ll survive the heat and getting up at four every morning and wearing a dress and . . . ”

“Sim, for God’s sake. Relax.” Tom checked his watch. “Going on six,” he said. Shall we eat?”

As we did every evening, we walked to the al Baik just four blocks to the north of Al Masjid al-Haram.

We sat down and Speelmon said, through a mouthful of chicken and fries, “You guys noticed more guards lately?”

Wertz swallowed some shrimp and said, “Yeah, lots more than when we first set up shop. Why, you think it’s a problem?”

“Everything’s a problem in our business,” I said. “Thing is, all the guards are getting used to us. Hell, most of them have tried our food at least once.”

Simeon ate the last of his fish, wiped his mouth and said, “Man, that’s good fish. Far as the extra guards, I say we just be extra careful. Right, Captain?”

“Sure, but I wonder what caused these extras to be put on,” said Speelmon.

“Maybe we should ask,” said Wertz.

“Wendell, that’s so simple it’s genius,” I said. “I’ll ask this vendor I’ve gotten to know as well. Tom, you want to ask the guard captain?”

“Sure. Another few weeks it’ll all be over, anyway.”

“Yeah, one way or the other,” Simeon said.

The Hajj came and went, the heat got worse, we made millions of riyals and by Tuesday, November fifteenth we were all on edge. It was the day we’d arranged with Padgett to pick up the semtex. Speelmon had told the head guard that one of our vans was in for repairs so at three-thirty in the morning he and I headed for the little cove. Padgett was to be there at four.

It was a starry night but we still needed a flashlight to walk the stony path. At the cove we stood beside the rock with MM painted on it and, at exactly four, began signalling Padgett. Speelmon turned on the light but kept his hand over it. Then, in quick succession, he removed his hand and put it back and removed it again. We waited for the return signal but none came.

By quarter to five we had signalled twenty times without an answer. “Damn, something’s wrong,” said Tom.

“Maybe not. Anyway, it’ll be light soon. We should just follow the plan and leave after daylight,” I said. ” Right?”

“No choice,” said Tom. He gave the signal again and we both looked out to sea. A light flashed once, twice, three times and we both jumped with joy.

As the sun began to show itself toward Mecca, we heard the soft splashing of oars. Soon, a two-man Zodiac appeared. Gordon Padgett stepped onto the beach a minute later. “Morning, Tom, Tim,” he said. “Sorry I’m late. Had a small problem with my outboard after I left the freighter. Turned out to be a dead plug. So, how’s it going?”

“Good, good,” said Tom. “You wouldn’t believe the money we hauled in during the Hajj. Worked like hell for it, though. You know, like that one-armed paper hanger?”

“Yeah. Guess you don’t want to share, huh?”

“Haven’t talked about it,” I said. “But since you brought the vital goodies, we might cut you a share or two. Right, Tom?”

“Might, but let’s see what he’s got.”

Gordo leaned over the beached Zodiac and lifted out a heavy, plastic wrapped bundle. “Here you are, gents,” he said. “Finest semtex the Czechs make. Prime stuff!” He placed the bundle on the sand, reached into the raft, and did the same to a second.

I took out my Swiss Army knife, opened the big blade, and cut into one bundle. Gordo winced, so I said, “This stuff doesn’t go off easy, man. You can drop it, kick it, hammer it, play ball with it you want. Needs a blasting cap or detcord to make it work.”

“I knew that,” said Gordon. “Just, you know . . .”

“Yeah, I know,” said Tom. Then, he looked at me. “Any good,” he said.

I’d been playing with the play dough-like substance. “Feels good, looks good, smells good,” I said. “No need to taste it. This is prime grade, Czech-made Semtex guys.”

“Alright, I’m outta here,” said Gordo. “Good luck, friends!”

“Thanks,” said Tom. “Look for us on al-Jazeera.” Then, as Padgett turned to push his craft into the water, Speelmon said, “We make it you get twenty percent of our vendor profits.”

Gordo just smiled but I said, thinking fast, “Yeah, and if we don’t you get it all.”

“Shit, wish you hadn’t said that,” whispered Tom, as we each lifted a fifty pound bundle and headed back to the van.

“Sorry, sometimes my mouth is too quick for my brain,” I said.

Nothing more was said, as we struggled up the hill with our loads of death.

Back at the house on Alyad Street, the semtex was hidden beneath a storage cupboard in the van, the day now as hot as an oven on bust. Inside, it was cool in the air conditioning. Tom headed for the shower and I reached for a cold drink in the fridge. After we changed places, we both hit the sack.

Simeon and Wertz came in just after eight that evening. “Closed up early,” said Wendell. “Not much doing and we wanted to check on you guys. Looks like everything’s fine.”

“Yeah, stuff’s in the van. Figured tomorrow we’d get it ready. Right, Tim?”

“No choice,” I said. “It’s too easy to find right now. Thought we’d drive into the desert, find a nice quiet spot behind a dune.”

“Won’t those guards start wondering, we shut down for a day,” said Simeon.

“Not for the day,” I said. “We start early we should be back before ten. Just use the same story. Van still being repaired.”

“Works for me,” said Speelmon.

The next day, as did most, dawned bright and hot in Mecca. We had a late breakfast of eggs and roast lamb. Around eight-thirty we headed into the desert NE of the city.

“What’s our story, we run into a police stop,” asked Simeon Snowman.

“Relax, my buddy, we’re just out for a break from the noisy crowds of the city. We’re just simple, small town Saudis, remember, ” said Tom Speelmon.

“Should fly,” I said . Then, I turned my head and yelled, “There, you see that. Just back aways. Stop, Captain, stop!”

“Jesus, Beach, don’t have a hemorrhage,” said Snowman.

The highway was deserted so Speelmon backed up until I said, “Right there. See, go behind those rocks, find a bit of shade and I’ll do the job.”

Wertz pulled the second van in behind them. He stepped onto the sand, lifted his robes, and said, “Man, won’t kill me to leave this bloody furnace.”

Speelmon took a cold Coke from the fridge and said, “Here, this should help.”

“Thanks, been thinking of rum and beer for miles.” Wertz grinned, before adding, “Member that time up at buddy’s cabin in the Roots? Got so drunk, went outside to piss and couldn’t find my dick.”

“Yeah, I can see you now. Runnin’ round with your fly open and your hands empty. We called you Needle Dick the Bug Fucker all through university ‘cause of that night.”

Snowman and I burst out in short laughs, before I said, “Okay, let’s get this done. Tommy, you want to give me a hand?”

Speelmon’s “sure” sounded a bit forced, high explosives not being his thing.

We removed the panels inside the van and I handled the semtex like it was play dough. My training had made clear that plastique was quite stable and I chatted with the others as I molded it under the side panels of the van. I forced it into the deepest recesses. When every crevice was filled, I attached the blasting caps and the receiver. Then, we replaced the passenger side panels and moved to the driver’s side.

Tom took out the last screw and said, “Hate to mention this, bud, but is it really useful to have half the blast go into the open mosque?”

“It’s okay, Tommy, I’m not perfect with this stuff. Thing is I thought we wanted to damage both The Cube and the Mosque. Well, this setup will do both.”

Wertz, sipping his second cold drink, said, “Let me tell you about this Cube thingy. It used to be surrounded by three hundred and sixty pagan idols In 630 A.D. Muhammed destroyed them. The largest, the stone of Hubal, stood atop the Cube. Muhammed’s cousin, Ali, stood on the Prophet’s shoulders in order to climb on top and topple the idol. Now, close to fourteen hundred years later, we will topple the whole damn Cube. Right?”

Tom handed me the next packages of semtex. “Good one, Wens,” he said. “Anything else I can do, Tim?”

“Yes, grab me a cold drink, please.”

By nine-thirty that morning, it was done. I took the transmitter and explained the setup to Simeon. “Right there, that red button,” I said. “You press that and . . . BOOM!”

“No sweat,” said a sweating Simeon Snowman. “Christ, this heat sucks. Ten miles going to be far enough?”

“Oh, yes, you’ll be fine, my baby. Tom, you got anything?”

Speelmon patted the side of the van. “Just this. Sim, you can’t hesitate.. If I say blow it, you press that button right away. Don’t think, just do it.”

“But, Skipper . . . ”

“No buts, my man. We all know what we signed up for. I say blow it, you know we’re in trouble. Press it and head for that cove like we planned. Gord’ll pick you up and you’ll be fine.”

 

Six days later we left the vans at Al Masjid al-Haram. It was eight-fifteen in the evening of November twenty-first. We went for a late supper at al Baik and were in bed by ten.

We got up again at two in the morning, November twenty-second. After Simeon had left in a Ford Escort we’d rented, Tom, Wendell, and I drove the vans to the Grand Mosque and pulled them up on two sides of The Cube. I made sure they were up tight to the walls.

By three-thirty everything was set. The semtex was in place and the trigger was hot. We stood around, grinning and shaking hands.. “We did it,” I said .

“Yeah. Damn, wish we had some champagne or cold beer to toast ourselves,” said Wendell Wertz.

“Soon. Right now, we should blow this . . . ” The Square flooded with light and an amplified voice said, in Arabic, “Freeze! Everyone on the ground. Now!”

The first part was no problem. We were like statues. Then, as we moved to hit the ground, two lights appeared far above Mecca. They were like the sun and just hovered there, miles high in a black sky. Moments later, a message was written across the sky in golden letters a mile high. It was in fifty languages and read:

LISTEN AND YOU SHALL HEAR THE WORD OF THE MASTER.

“Oh, my God,” said Wendell Wertz, his voice filled with horror.

“Exactly,” said Tom Speelmon. He fell to his knees.

A minute later the letters disappeared. Then, the lights dimmed and were gone. In an instant they were replaced by a new light ten times as large as the first two. It was so bright that people as far away as eastern Iran and Zimbabwe could see it and those in Libya and western Sudan thought day had come early.

As we and the Saudi police stood, blinded and petrified with fear, a voice came over us that would have caused us to be deaf for years. It was neither male nor female and sounded as though it came from a bullhorn as big as the Persian Gulf. It was heard from the Black Sea to the Atlantic and from the Med to the Cape of Good Hope. It shattered every pane of glass in Saudi Arabia and eight adjoining countries.

“This is the end,”it said.“I will permit no retaliation after this and all acts of terrorism will cease from this day forward.”

The lights went out and the blind men screamed in the darkness.

Then, “Blow it, blow it,” yelled Tom Speelmon. Ten miles away, Simeon Snowman pushed the red button that had been under his finger the whole time and the two vans went up in balls of flame and a sound like thunder. The black Cube and half of the mosque that contained it went with them. Exactly 2752 Saudis died.

 

The New Assyrians

The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold

and his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold.

[George Gordon(Lord)Byron, The Destruction of Sennacherib]

The new Assyrians had plenty of gold. They were financed by Henry James Clutterbuck, a billionaire whose son, Michael, had fallen with the Twin Towers. And, the new Assyrians were not coming down on the folds of the Hebrews, either. Rather, they were coming down on The Kingdom; on those who controlled one-quarter of the world’s oil; on those who had allowed or sent fifteen of their citizens to fly jetliners into skyscrapers. Finally, and most dangerously, they were coming down on the whole of Islam.

Clutterbuck had inherited gobs of money. His great-great grandfather, Marcus Daly, had bought Anaconda Silver, near Butte, in 1881 and eventually owned all the mines on Butte Hill. Imagine what happened when masses of copper were discovered? Marcus sold out to the Rockefellers in 1899 for thirty-nine million. Others had built on this and when Henry’s father, Joseph, married Louella Daly in 1950 the family fortune stood at five point seven billion. Henry had inherited one-third of this and added a cell phone manufacturing company, a company that made uniforms for the United States military, a few high tech companies, and a company that operated freighters on the Mediterranean and Red Seas. His net worth stood at four point eight billion, when his world came crashing down with his son and the Twin Towers. Henry, not surprisingly, blamed the Saudis. On September 23, 2001, he began to plan the ultimate payback.

Thomas Armstrong Speelmon had spent two years in Iraq during the first Gulf War. He was forty-three in 2001, his body buff as an NBA guard, and he ran three miles at least twice a week. The wound he’d received in his shoulder hardly bothered him and, since it was his left, he had no problem maintaining his championship fly casting form. Also, he could still bring down an elk at five hundred yards.

His Marine company had been stationed near Fallujah and he’d lost three of his best friends to IEDs. Also, he’d lost a cousin on 9/11. He was from Missoula, Montana and had known about Henry Clutterbuck his whole life. When he heard rumors that the billionaire was full of rancor and thirsting for revenge on those who killed his son, Speelmon decided to visit his neighbor.

The Clutterbuck home, a seventeen room mansion, sat on forty acres of land in the Bitterroots and overlooked a long steady in the Big Blackfoot River. The locals said the whole package was worth some thirty-one million dollars. Speelmon didn’t care, but he loved the room he’d been shown to by the butler. Charlie Russell paintings covered the walls and Remington bronzes were scattered on coffee and end tables. Tom Speelmon stood close and studied one painting. Underneath, it said BUFFALO HUNT, Charles Marion Russell, 1897. ‘Bet these aren’t prints, either,’ he muttered under his breath. He turned, as a door opened behind him.

The man was short and fit. His features were tiny, his hair black and short, his dress casual. His face, though, wore a look of anguish that seemed ingrained forever. He said, “Ah, Mr. Speelmon, is it? I’m Henry Clutterbuck. Welcome to my home.”

Speelmon stuck out his hand and said, “Good to meet you. Your home is gorgeous.”

“Thank you, Sir. Shall we adjourn to my office? I’ll have William bring us a drink.”

Speelmon glanced at his watch and smiled. “Well, it is two fifteen. I could drink a beer.”

“Good! Your brand?”

“Well, I kind of like that local stuff from the Bitterroot Brewing Company in Hamilton.

Sawtooth Ale, if you have it. Otherwise, Coors or anything.”

The butler had appeared. “And a shot of Beam with water for me, William. Thanks.”

“Heard the rumors have you,” said Clutterbuck, as they sipped their drinks.

“Hard to miss them. Any truth to it?”

Henry studied the amber liquid in his glass, a thousand mile stare in his eyes. Then, “Mr. Speelmon . . . hell, let’s not be formal. First names, alright?”

“Sure, but let’s be serious.”

“Of course. Thomas, Tom?”

“Friends call me Tom.”

“Tom, the things you’ve heard are not exaggerated. I’ve been over the edge for two weeks. Drunk most of the time. Raving . . . well, to hell with that. Convinced myself if I don’t make someone pay for Michael’s life I’ll have to put a gun in my mouth. So, I’m serious about getting some payback, damn serious. Understand?”

“Yes, Sir, I do. I served in Desert Storm. Fallujah, mostly. Saw some good friends blown up by IEDs. Had a cousin fall with the towers, too. So, I’m damn near as mad as you.”

“Understandable. Now, here’s my thinking so far.”

“I’m listening.”

“Attack Islam’s most sacred shrines, like the Kaabah. We’re going to be the new Assyrians, Tom. . .you know, come down like a wolf?”

Speelmon gave him a blank look. “Sorry, Assyrians?”

“An ancient people, Tom. Very aggressive. They controlled everything between modern Turkey and Egypt, including what is now The Kingdom, for half a century.”

“Okay, but we’re only a handful. How can we act like an army?”

“Come on, Tom, you’re just playing Devil’s Advocate.. You know if we take enough powerful explosive and destroy the Kabah and half that damned mosque, it’ll have the same effect on Islam as if we numbered in the millions.”

“Maybe, maybe . . . ”

“What?”

“Just remembered about the Assyrians. Something I learned at Hellgate High in Missoula. Didn’t God destroy them to save the Hebrews?”

“Yes, but we’ll be hunting the enemies of the Hebrews. I say God’s on our side. Remember, even the ragheads say ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend,’ right?”

“Heard that a lot in Iraq. Hard not to agree but this ‘God’s on our side’ argument’s a bit old, isn’t it?”

“Hell, Tom, I’m an infidel. What do I know? Anyway, we go with this we have to be ready to go all the way.”

“You mean . . . ?”

“Exactly, Tom. I’m willing to give my life for this.”

“No way, Henry, no way you’re front line on this. Even if you were Marine trained and battle hardened. It’s going to take us four or five years to put this in play. What’ll you be, sixty, sixty-five? Hell, I’ll be damned near fifty. No, you insist on going, I’m out.”

“Jesus, that’s not fair. I’m paying the piper I should get to sit in with the band.”

“You’re right and I agree with the sit in part. We’ll need a contact back here at home. You know, in case there’s a SNAFU.”

Henry Clutterbuck sat back and closed his eyes. A full minute passed and when he spoke his voice was low and halting, “I’d demand to go, Tom, but I think you’re the man for this. Can’t afford to lose you so I’ll stay here and man the phones.”

“Hope you’re right, but we should wait till you find out more about me.”

“Already found out. See, I’m not the only one folks talk about. I heard how upset you were, day after the towers fell. So, had you checked by a couple of private investigators.”

Speelmon leaped to his feet, his face the colour of blood. “Shit, you had no right . . .”

“Right, hell, I was obligated to check out anyone might get into this business. I had half a dozen put under the microscope. Come on, sit down and relax. I’m not concerned with your wild oat sowing or your two marriages. Hell, don’t even care you spent time in jail. You were part of a Marine Special Team and you know hand to hand combat and tactics. That’s why you’re my guy for this. So, you in?”

“Might be my only chance to do something. No way can I not take it. I’m in.” Thomas Armstrong Speelmon, named after a stubborn general who lead his troops into a massacre, offered his hand and the billionaire, who’d come from nothing, took it.”

“Good, good. So, four or five more men you think,” said Henry Clutterbuck.

“Yes, we don’t want to take a woman into that society. Needless complication.”

“Of course. And I’ve already got one man in place. Gordon Padgett is my agent for Sphinx Shipping and works out of Alexandria. Right now, he’s posing as a commercial fisherman in Southern Egypt. Remember, Christ’s disciples were fishermen and I believe we’re doing God’s work. Anyway, Gordo will take the material you need from one of my freighters and drop it off to you on the Saudi coast. So, Gordo and you and, what, three or four more. You have anyone in mind?”

“Five total sounds right. Let me think on it, get back to you. Here, tomorrow morning?”

“Fine, but won’t you stay for dinner? I’ll have William grill some elk steaks.”

“Henry, I love elk meat and I hope we’ll eat a lot of it together. Tonight, though, I have a prior engagement. See you around eleven?”

“Very well. Goodnight, Tom.”

“Later, Henry.”

Thomas Speelmon went straight to his first choice of people he’d like with him in Mecca. Timothy Beachboard lived just outside of Missoula and had served as an ordnance tech in the Corps. He’d been involved in finding and disarming IEDs and Speelmon had known him since high school. They’d been football heroes at Hellgate High together. They’d remained friends and went hunting and fishing together at least twice a year. Beachboard, since losing his house when his wife walked out with their daughter, lived alone. His two bedroom apartment was on Ryman Street, near Red’s Bar, a place Speelmon knew well

After getting no answer at Beachboard’s, Tom Speelmon went to the bar. There he found his old friend, sitting alone, nursing a Michelob Ultralight. Speelmon noted that his friend had put on a lot of weight since his wife split. ‘Too much junk food,’ thought Speelmon. ‘Few months of hard work and good food should fix it.’ He reached the bar and said,”Man, that’s a crap drink. “Why not have a real beer?”

“Hey, Tommy, what’s shaking? Have a seat.”

Speelmon raised his hand and said, “Gimme a Sawtooth Ale, please”. Then, to Beachboard, “You eaten yet?”

“Nah, was about to have a buffalo burger and homefries. You?”

“Sounds good. I’ll order.”

He was back in a minute. “I asked the tender to bring our food to that corner table.” He pointed across the dark room. “Come on, let’s sit.”

“Jesus, Tommy, what gives? What’s wrong with the bar?”

“Nothing, just want some privacy.”

Tim Beachboard shoved his chair back and held up his hands, palms out. “Hey, I’m not that kinda guy. Don’t you go makin’ moves on me, boy.”

“Funny, Tim, very funny. Haha! Something serious to tell you, my man. Interested?”

“If it’s hunting or fishing, you know it. Otherwise, tell me what’s up before I decide.”

The food came, then, and both men dug into it. Tim shoved his plate back and lit a smoke first, “Okay, I’m listening,” he said.

Ten minutes later, Tim sat with his mouth open. “Good Lord, Tommy, that’s nuts. Three or four guys go to Saudi Arabia, blow up the Kaabah and . . . what . . . fly on to the Cote d’Azur

for baccarat, beer, and broads? Nice joke, buddy.”

“Serious, Tim. Look, I know you lost friends in Desert Storm and on 9/11. I’m telling you, Clutterbuck is serious. Hell, he even wanted to come with us. Said he’d as soon be dead as leave his son’s killers unpunished.”

Tim Beachboard lit his fifth cigarette in ten minutes and said, “I know you’re not crazy, Tommy, and I’m fairly sure I’m not. Even though those who destroyed the towers all died, their backers didn’t. Since we don’t know all of the names of those who recruited and financed the bombers, I’d like to see The Kingdom punished. Innocents will die, though, you know damn well. We do this, let’s not fool ourselves.”

“You’re right. But, innocents died on 9/11. Tit for tat, Tim.’

“Anyone else asked me to do something like this, I’d laugh at them. But, you I can’t just blow off. You gonna head this crew, Tommy?”

“It’s what Henry Clutterbuck wants. Think I’ll leave it up to you and the others we get. Any ideas who to ask?”

“A few, but I’ll leave it to you. Another beer?”

“No thanks, better head home. See you tomorrow?”

“Sure, come by my place for breakfast.”

“What, you got a stove? Unbelievable. Okay, around nine. I’ll bring coffee.”

 

After leaving Red’s Bar, Speelmon went home to his small house on E. Main Street, about a dozen blocks from Tim’s place. He’d lived there alone since his second divorce two years previous. A brief vision of his ex, Kathy, flashed across his mind. Long legs and red hair and a ready smile that had been smothered by the baggage he’d brought from Falujah. ‘Bloody ragheads did that, too,’ he thought. Then, ‘No, most of it was fucking Bush and his lies. Weapons of mass destruction, my ass!’

He opened his front door, turned off the alarm system and headed for the fridge. He took a cold beer into his tiny office and grabbed the phone. “Hi, it’s Tom,” he said, when a woman’s voice answered.

“Oh, hi, Tom. You want Wendell?”

“Please. Thanks, Katelyn.”

He listened to the hum on the wires for a moment. Then, “Lo, Tom,” said Wendell Wertz, another Speelmon high school buddy. “Wassup?”

“Right question, Double W. You got much on your plate?”

“No more than usual. You know I spend a lot of time on my language school, huh?”

“So you’ve said. How be you let your underlings run it and you and I take a little trip?”

“Underlings! You nuts? Man, it’s only me an Kate. We haven’t had a day off in five years. So, unless you can support us I have to say negatory, my man.”

“Money’s no problem, friend. This play’s being backed by Henry Clutterbuck.”

The wires hummed in Speelmon’s ear for a long time. Then, “Okay, I’ll definitely listen. We doing this on the phone?”

“No way. Tomorrow morning, nine o’clock sharp at Tim’s place. Can do?”

“Sure. Will there be others?”

“You’re smarter than that, Wens. See you at nine.”

The next two he called turned Tom Speelmon down. Family commitments for one, no interest in changing his life said the other. Next one Tom tried was an answering machine. He ran through the short list that had been in his mind and tried a number in Kamiah, just across the Idaho line. “Simeon Snowman here,” said the voice on the other end.

“Frosty, good to hear your voice, man. You going elk hunting soon?”

“Hey, Tom, been a while. Plan on getting an elk before Thanksgiving. Interested?”

“You know it, big guy. Got a big money deal, too, if you’re between jobs.”

“Between or not, I’d listen. My jobs never pay big. What is it?”

“Henry Clutterbuck is behind it. You know him?”

“Not personally, just know he’s some rich guy over your way. So, what’s the deal?”

“Rather tell you in person. You know Tim’s place at 196 Ryman, in Missoula? Can you be there by nine tomorrow?”

“Sure. Bring anything?”

“Just yourself, Sim. And that’s nine in the morning, okay?”

Tom hung up the phone in the middle of Simeon Snowman’s soft chuckle.

Next morning, over coffee and Crispy Cremes, Speelmon told them of Clutterbuck’s plan. After all the ‘Good Gods’ and ‘Holy Shits,’ he said, “Anyone here not know someone who fell with the towers?”

They all nodded except Simeon Snowman. Feeling left out, he said, “Don’t mean I’m not pissed off at these people. Man, they attacked my country. You know I’m mad!”

Wendell Wertz responded, “Simeon, we’ve known each other a long time. I believe you love this country but I’ve heard you curse them that destroyed the Nez Perce and stole their land. Some good if you’ve left the past behind.”

Simeon smiled a bit. “Forgiveness is good for the soul,” he said. “Anyway, I’m in.”

Turned out they were all in. By the time the meeting broke up, they’d decided to pose as Saudis, including growing beards, wearing robes, taking Saudi names, and speaking Arabic.

“It’s a bit tough,” said Wendell Wertz, who’d been teaching the language for four years, “but once you get over the right to left part, it’s okay.”

“Expect you to be a big help with this, Wendell,” said Speelmon. “Too bad we can’t get

Kate in on it.” Then, he looked into the eyes of each man before saying, “Fact is, once this gets going, none of us can see any friends or family.”

“Okay, boss,” said Tim Beachboard. They all filed out, then, a quiet bunch, each wrapped in his own thoughts, in this new world that had found them.

“Good. Now, I told Henry I’d see him by eleven. Anyone want to come with me?’

No one begged off as they hit the street.

 

In late late April, 2004, all except Gordon Padgett were in the forest near the Clutterbuck home. All had heavy black beards, dyed in the case of Wendell Wertz who was a natural blonde. And, all wore white thawbs and red and white ghutras bound with black agals, the standard male clothing of Saudi Arabia. They had had no contact with friends and family, other then messages from far off places, since October of 2001, and not even parents or lovers would have recognized them. Now, in the cold of a late Montana afternoon, they spoke in Arabic and used the names on their Saudi passports.

Thomas Speelmon, now referred to as Captain, said, “No problems with flying to Atlanta tomorrow?”

“Not that I can think of,” said Simeon Snowman. He was a slim man of forty-two and carried himself like a bullfighter. “Not sure we need all that time in Syria, though.”

Tim Beachboard, still a bit awkward in his robe, snapped a stick he’d been using to aimlessly stir the leaves that covered the ground. At forty-seven, he was getting a bit thick in the waist and his bulbous nose showed the effects of thousands of beers and whiskeys. He was still sharp as a ceramic blade, though, and his instincts never failed. “I agree,” he said. “Why waste time there? Go to Mecca now, get ready and do the job after the Haj.”

Speelmon nodded. “Listen, I’d love to but you all heard what Dr. Bitar, Wertz’s Arabic professor, said. Quote, Your Arabic is almost perfect, unquote. Almost. It’s that almost that could get us killed. So, we spend six months with a tutor in Syria, learn about operating a vendor’s van, become more comfortable in these duds, and head for Mecca next fall.”

“Makes sense to me,” said Wendell Wertz. His glasses were thick, his normally clean shaven face looked strange with the dyed beard, but he still looked every inch the scholar that he was. Wertz likely knew as much about Muslim culture as his friend, Sam Bitar. “Damn hard to overtrain for this kind of op, though I doubt I’ll ever be real comfortable wearing a dress.”

After the laugh, Snowman said, “What about this Padgett? We haven’t met him and I prefer to know the people I may need to cover my back.”

“Gordon Padgett won’t be covering any backs,” said Speelmon. “Once he hands us the stuff, he’s gone back to Egypt. Anyway, he’s coming to Syria for a few days.”

“Good,” said Wertz. “We still going to Aleppo?”

“Yeah, it’s a large city and should prepare us well for Mecca.”

“Don’t know, Captain. I was in Baghdad for eight months but damned if I feel ready for the holiest place in raghead land,” said Tim Beachboard.

“Can’t argue,” said Wertz. “Mecca’s a different ball game. And, what about the money for all this, Captain?”

“Thought we had that settled,” said Speelmon. “Henry’s given us access to a numbered account in Zurich and we have these no limit credit cards. Not to worry.”

Last thing, what about the Semtex,” said Beachboard. “What if …..” He stopped and did a quick 180. “Hey, what was that?”

Speelmon gestured and they all ran toward the sound. “Likely an elk or some damn thing,” said Simeon Snowman, as he ran through the trees. Then, they reached the top of the little hill and saw the man hunkered in the bushes.

Fred Hubbard tried not to make a sound as he crept through a stand of evergreens on the eastern slopes of the Bitterroots. His Remington 700 was held at the ready. Every few steps, he stopped and listened. He felt the black bear but could neither see nor hear the animal. Then as he began climbing a small rise, he heard voices.

Startled, Fred dropped to the ground. He lay still and tried not to breathe. Two men were talking in a strange, musical language. After a moment, a third voice, louder, joined them. Fred crawled up the gentle slope. When he reached the top, an unbelievable sight lay before him.

Four men dressed in robes and checkered head dresses wandered around a small clearing, gesticulating and arguing with one another. ‘Or, maybe just chatting,’ thought Fred, unsure of how to interpret the scene because of the unfamiliar language. He studied the men, noting that all had beards and dark skin. No weapons were in evidence. ‘So, not hunters,’ Fred guessed.

He pulled his head back, so as not to be visible, and lay quietly, thinking. For some reason he was afraid to confront these men. Then, he made up his mind and began edging his way back down the slope. When he figured he was out of sight, Hubbard stood up. In doing so he felt a hard blow to his right eye. He gave a cry and fell to the ground, unconscious.

A moment later, back in the world, Fred Hubbard looked up into the faces of the four bearded men. His right eye was on fire but he began to rise anyway. “Hang on buddy,” said one of the men. “Your eye’s a mess and it’s bleeding like hell. Here, let us get you into Missoula to a doctor. Ilyas, take his other arm.”

Soon, they could see Clutterbuck’s mansion. “Hey, that ain’t no hospital.” Fred Hubbard’s voice was loud and angry. “What the fuck you guys doing?”

Thomas Speelmon’s voice was quiet and reasonable. “Just relax, man, you’ll be fine. Ilyas, how be you dart ahead, let them know we’re coming?”

“Sure, boss.” Snowman headed out, moving as fast as the thick woods allowed.

William Smythe opened the big oak doors and Fred Hubbard was ushered into Henry Clutterbuck’s home. Henry greeted him.

“Hello, I’m Henry Clutterbuck. Heard you had an accident.”

Hubbard’s mouth hung open for a moment. “Yes, Sir, I did and I’d like to see a doctor.”

“You’re in luck Mr. . . . ?”

“Hubbard, Fred Hubbard. Now . . . ”

“Like I said, you’re in luck. See, William here was a medic in Vietnam. He’ll fix you up good as any doctor. Right, William?”

“Do my best, Sir. This way, please.”

After the two had gone, Clutterbuck and the others went into the large kitchen. There was a smell of garlic and peppers and lamb coming from a number of dishes on the table. “William made shawarma and kabobs for lunch,” said Clutterbuck. “Dig in.”

Wendell Wertz chewed on a piece of lamb and took a sip of Bedouin-style coffee, before he said, “Any ideas what to do with that guy?”

Speelmon, who’d been worrying this bone since they’d found Hubbard, said, “Only thing I know is he can’t be set free or allowed to communicate with anyone outside of this house.”

Simeon Snowman, working on his second shawarma, said, “You have a talent for stating the obvious, oh fearless leader. Big question is, how.”

Beachboard giggled. “Yes, how, as the Nez Perce said to the Crow. How?”

Henry Clutterbuck looked at each in turn. “Good to see you boys still have a sense of humour,” he said. “Shouldn’t be a problem. William and I will look after our unlucky friend. Keep him warm and well fed and make sure he communicates only with us until the job’s done.”

“Sounds good. Guess adding kidnaping to our resume isn’t going to hurt,” Wertz said.

“You got that right, pards,” said Speelmon. “So, Henry, we head for Syria as planned?”

“Of course. Little over six months from now, this’ll all be over.”

“Hope so,” said Beachboard. “Pass me that kabob, please, Ilyas.’

Soon, the food was all gone and the four stood to leave. “Man, I can’t believe I’m starting to really like this food,” said Speelmon.

“Good thing we all are because it’s our diet till this is over,” said Wertz.

The flight from Atlanta to Rome was long and we had all slept a lot. After a short night and a long day in Rome, we lifted off from Leonardo da Vinci at 6:05 in the evening, bound for Istanbul. The layover at Ataturk International was almost two hours. Then, just as our patience was wearing thin, the call came over the PA system: Syrianair, Flight 5372 for Aleppo, Damascus, and Amman preparing for boarding at Gate 3. All passengers please report.

Wendell Wertz downed the last of his coffee and said, “Bout time. Come on, guys.”

At 1:10 in the morning, the 747 touched down at Nairab International in Aleppo. Actually, we were still six miles from the city. Going through customs and retrieving bags took a solid hour but the cab ride was only fifteen minutes in light traffic.

Our rooms at the Aleppo Sheraton, not far from the Language Institute in the Almuhafaza area of Aleppo had been prearranged. The taxi had us there by 2:30 and we were all sound asleep by three.

Next day we met our tutor and guide, Abdel-Hakim Al Halbi. He proved to be a slight young man with a whispy moustache. His eyes were black as obsidian, his nose large and his hands small but with long, pianist’s fingers. When he spoke, it was in a soft voice and we had to strain to hear. Speelmon said, “Speak up, no need to whisper.” Then, he introduced us all, using our Saudi names.

Abdel had come by van and there was ample room for us and our sparse luggage. Abdel spoke a stream of fast Arabic and the driver pulled into traffic. I said, “Sounded like you told him to take us to the Language Institute.”

“Very good, Sir,” said Abdel, whose name means ‘servant of the wise one.’ “I was told you are to stay there. Is that not so?”

“It is,” said Speelmon. “Would it be alright to call you Abdel and you call us by our first names? We are simple country folk from northern Saudi Arabia.”

“Of course,” said Abdel. “Excuse me if I get confused, since there are four of you.”

“All will be well in time,” Wertz said. “You know we’re here until fall?”

“Yes, and I am most glad. We have lots of time to see the city and the land around it.”

“Good, I am a student of the past and I already know that Aleppo is a very old place.”

Speelmon and I were in one room and Snowman and Wertz in another. We all unpacked quickly and joined Abdel on the street. The van was gone. “We shall walk,” said Abdel. “It is the best way to see the city.”

“Sure, but let’s walk to something to eat,” said Speelmon. “Anyone else hungry?”

Hearing nothing but yeses, Abdel said, “Fine, shall we try some street food?”

“Of course, since we plan to be street vendors,” said Wertz. “Can you introduce us to a vendor who will help us learn to operate a food van?”

“It shall be done.”

We had walked along Cappucini Jmn Kalioundiji and past the Polish Consulate, when Wertz spotted a street vendor.

We stopped and watched the man, fat from eating his own wares day after day, cut shawarma from a large mass of chicken strips slowly turning beside a low gas flame. He scooped up our orders and placed them in a piece of toasted pita bread along with some hummus. No one wanted the french fries that went with the meal, but we all ordered soft drinks.

Simeon took a bite and sighed with pleasure. “Better than most,” he said. “We won’t need months to learn how to do this.”

The man, still cutting meat, said, “True, but if you wish to become expert you will need an instructor and much practice.”

“Yes, and my Uncle Yousuf is just the man for the job,” said Abdel.

“Yousuf Al Halb?”

“Yes, you know him?”

“Of course, all of us know one another. Yousuf is the second best shawarma maker in Aleppo. I would be your best choice as teacher but, sadly, I am too busy to take an apprentice.”

A line of customers had formed and Speelmon said, “Yes, it is obvious your food is very popular. And very good. We shall eat here again.”

“Thank you and good luck with your learning.”

Next day, Abdel began helping three of his new students polish their Arabic. Wertz, already fluent, had left on a guided tour of the city. “He will see the usual tourist places,” said Abdel, his tone scornful. “Meantime we will go to the souq and see more of the real Aleppo. Also, you can meet my uncle and begin to learn the street vendor business.”

“Keep it in the family, huh,” Simeon said. “Same as we do in my clan.”

“Yes, as you know it is common in our culture. But, you have chosen to break from your clan, no?”

“Some of my brothers went into the family construction business and I tried. Unfortunately, I was all thumbs. After two years, my bothers encouraged me to give it up. Really, they insisted. I was costing them money. So, here I am.”

Speelmon and I looked out over the city from their third floor balcony. “God, it’s a real jumble.” said Tom. “What, four or five million people living around this hill they call The Citadel?”

“Don’t think so, man, more like two or three million. Similar in size to Mecca. After a few months here, the holy city should feel like home.”

“We’ll see. Hey, Abdel, we leaving soon?”

“The taxi is on it’s way, Mahmoud. Are you getting hungry?”

“Yes, I would like to eat before dhuhr.”

Abdel grinned. “We shall, since it is still hours away.” He turned at the sound of a car braking in front of the building. “Hah, here is our ride.”

Soon, we were squeezed into the ancient Citreon. Like most of the city’s cabs, it was yellow. The driver, a thick man in a black coat, white pants and a baseball cap with “Red Sox” on it, drove with one hand on the wheel and the other on the horn. It was the common way of all drivers in the city, Abdel had told us. Traffic was heavy, with many brightly coloured busses and cabs stopping and starting in almost every block. Also, vans and delivery trucks were plentiful and left or joined the traffic flow at will. There were few traffic lights and, at one point we came to an intersection that was most confusing, with vehicles coming from five different directions. “This is the main reason I do not drive,” said Abdel. “Seven of ten accidents in Habal happen at these places. Are you comfortable, Sirs?”

I had quit smoking and now looked sideways at our guide and said, gently, “Except for the heat, noise, and smoke pouring from the Boston fan, I’d say we’re all good.”

“Yes, but he is no Boston fan. Someone gave him the hat. I would ask him not to smoke but, since we are only minutes from the souq, it hardly matters.”

The souq was the most amazing place any of us had seen, although Speelmon and I had both been in Iraqi markets. Unlike Aleppo’s, none of them had been covered. And this one, according to Abdel, stretched for almost ten kilometers. We entered a wall of noise and a cornucopia of smells. “Food first,” Speelmon whispered in Abdel’s ear.

“Yes, my uncle’s place is but a few meters away. Follow me, please.”

Our progress was slow in the crowded passageways between hawkers of everything from beads to jewels, dresses to hats, prayer rugs, spices, knives and guns, fly-covered slabs of meat, cold drinks, ice cream, tin ware, boots, small prayer mats, vegetables, coins, and huge carpets. At last, Abdel stopped before a small food stand and a tall beardless man in a robe and turban. “Good day, Uncle,” said Abdel.

The man finished serving a customer, turned and said, “Hah, nephew, you have brought your Saudis. Greetings to all.”

Introductions were made and Yousuf offered them some food. All except Simeon, now called Ilyas, declined. The Nez Perce asked for a shawarma and Coke. “Sorry, no Coke,” said Yousuf, “but you might like my favourite, a blend of orange and pomegranate juice.”

“Yes, it sounds fine,” said Snowman. A moment later, he said, “Excellent, my friend, excellent.” He finished his shawarma and gulped the last of the drink.

Speelmon and I, now Mahmoud and Amed, turned from studying Yousuf’s operation. We were sweating from the heat thrown off by the propane heaters that cooked the meat and kept it warm. “Please, I’ll try one of those drinks,” I said and, “Me, too,” echoed Speelmon.

“So, you wish to learn my secrets,” Yousuf said, as he handed them their bottles of juice.

Speelmon swallowed his mouthful of juice before saying, “Yes, we plan to operate two vans in our home town of Ras al Khafji and, maybe, in Mecca during the Hajj.”

“A noble plan, my friends, but is it not difficult to get a licence to operate during the Hajj,” said Yousuf.

“It is, but our father knows members of the royal family,” Speelmon said.

“Not surprising, since I am told there are many thousands of them.” Yousuf laughed and slapped his thighs as he said this.

“Yes, over forty thousand,” said Speelmon. “Good for us, though, because many of them require the services of builders. Our father knows hundreds of the royals.”

“Excellent! Your plan is a good one. With the masses coming through Mecca during the Hajj, you should make a fortune,” said Yousuf. “Would you like another partner?”

Speelmon smiled. “Maybe,” he said. “May we call on you, if necessary?”

“Of course. Now, I’m sure my nephew has plans for you. I start at five sharp tomorrow morning. If you come a bit later, say after sunrise prayer at five seventeen, I will begin your instruction. Abdel, make sure you take them to the Citadel and the Umayyad Mosque.”

“Of course, Uncle. Be safe and prosper.” Abdel made a little bow and lead them out.

The souq was a madhouse at five in the morning. Trucks, vans, and donkey-drawn carts disgorged everything from World War One-era rifles to fine Saracen blades, from melons to squashes, from masses of cigarettes to boxes of pipes, and cinnamon to marjoram.

At seventeen past five the muezzin’s call from a hundred mosques was heard throughout the city and a million and a half citizens of Aleppo turned south toward Mecca and knelt in solemn prayer. In an instant the uproar of the souq had become a perfect silence. After a few moments, we four rose from our prayer mats and began the tasks that Yousuf had given us.

Thomas Speelmon, now Mahmoud the Saudi, arranged strips of chicken on the rotisserie. This, along with the goat and lamb already turning on the other rotisseries, would become the day’s shawarma. Simeon Snowman, now Ilyas, began making hummus out of chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and a dash of salt. . Wendell Wertz, now Ayman, who had put them to sleep singing the praises of Lake Assad and the Arab castle, Qala’at Jaber, high on one of the lake’s islands was kneading the dough that would become the day’s Arab bread. I, now known as Amed, was busy peeling potatoes and slicing them for French fries. Yousuf Halib bustled around, alternately cursing his new helpers or patting them on the back.

The first customers came for breakfast just after six and Yousuf served most of them with the foods he’d prepared just after closing the previous day or earlier that morning. These included tis’iyyah, mena’eesh, or ful. All, of course, were served with hot, sweet tea or coffee. The old man greeted most of those who came by name and nodded to the four Saudis, as if to say, ‘No, I do not need help since I have done this for thirty years.”

We Americans, now Saudis, took a short break. “Too hot,” said Wertz, as we moved a few paces into the souq.

“You want hot, trade places with me,” said Speelmon. “Must be over a hundred degrees around that cursed cooker.”

“No doubt, but tomorrow we all switch places, right,” said Snowman.

“What we decided,” I said. “Me, I’m happy peeling spuds. Takes me back to my high school days when I worked part time at Burt’s Fish and Chips in Missoula.”

Speelmon stopped and looked around. Then, he looked a few daggers at his old friend. “Amed, you forget who we are and where we are from? Brothers, we must never forget our home and our mission.” His whisper as fierce as any shout, he looked at each of us in turn and said, “Remember where we are and who we are at all times.”

I was ashamed as I said, “Sorry, Mahmoud, sorry my brothers. Come, let us return to Yousuf before he needs us.”

Prayers and work, mixed with short breaks; heat and noise and unending lines of customers filled the long day. Yousuf, wanting to squeeze every piaster out of the hungry and the thirsty, did not close his stand until after isha, the day’s last prayer. This was after nine and we four “brothers’ were close to collapse as we rose from our prayer mats.

Abdel, when he came to meet us for language lessons, sensed that we would learn little that evening. “It will be a while before you are comfortable in your new work,” he said. “Perhaps, we should postpone our lessons for now.”

No one disagreed and Speelmon said, “Yes, give us three or four days. I shall tell you when the time is right.”

At our apartment, we all stripped to undergarments and fell asleep instantly.

Days turned into weeks. We began to find a rhythm in our days and the Arabic lessons became part of that rhythm. Yousuf gave us Sundays off and Abdel took us around the city, into the mosques and the country side. “You are becoming Syrians,” he said, as we stood on the shores of Lake Assad, the blue waters reflecting the few fluffy clouds that drifted over it. “Forget this return to your own country. Stay here. Uncle Yousuf is ready for a long rest. I am sure he will sell you his place in the souq.”

“A fine idea, my friend,” said Wertz, “But we have family and friends that draw us home.

In fact I believe we will leave earlier than planned. We are becoming competent at our work and, if you say our language skills are fine, we may leave in four months instead of six.”

“Uncle and I will be sad if you do that, but I understand it is hard to be far from your family.”

“Yes, but we are also eager to start our business. If we can be on the streets of Mecca well before the Hajj, we will be better able to judge our future success. No?”

Abdel, took his eyes from the splendor before him and looked at his new friends. “I cannot disagree,” he said. “But, I have an idea. Perhaps, this is the year for my pilgrimage; perhaps, I shall meet you in Mecca in November.”

We all started at this suggestion. Speelmon recovered first. With a big smile he said, “A wonderful idea, my friend. We shall let you know our location in the holy city as soon as we find a home. Now, I’m ready for a cold drink. Shall we go back?”

Yousuf was not happy to hear of our early leaving, but he laughed and said, “Hah, now I will have to go back to work. My friends, I shall miss you all.”

“Thank you,” said Speelmon. “Hope we haven’t been too much trouble.”

“Not much, except that day when Ilyas insisted that the goat meat was chicken and kept giving the angry customer the wrong meat.” He looked at Snowman and added, “One hopes you now know the difference. “And you, Mahamoud, burnt the shawarma meat a few times.” Again, he laughed, as he turned to Wertz and said, “Ayman, you have become a good buyer of meats and vegetables but there was that day when you ordered a thousand pounds of potatoes when I asked for a hundred.”

“Yes, a typing error in my Email to the seller. We sold them all before they spoiled, though, did we not,” said Wertz.

“Yes, but I almost drove people mad by pushing the fried potatoes so hard.”

I jumped in with, “Yes, and I cut my hand badly trying to peel fast enough to keep up with the masses who demanded those cursed fries.”

They all laughed and Yousuf said, “Ah, yes, Amed, you will carry the scar to remember me. Now, it is time to work. I want your best for the weeks that remain.”

Back at our apartments that evening, Speelmon suggested an after-supper walk. We had been doing this regularly, so that we might talk without fear. We were all convinced that our rooms were bugged. It was another reason why we wanted to cut our time in Syria shorter than planned. I had laughed at this. “Hell, you think the Saudis don’t bug people?”

“No, so we’ll be careful there, too,” said Speelmon. “Shall we go?”

The little park was like an oasis in the crowded city. There were trees and grass and benches to sit on and watch the families who strolled by. It was just a few minutes from the Language Institute on Altabarri Street in the Al Muhafaza District where we lived and studied.

When we were safe in the park, Speelmon said, “So, are we agreed? Give it another few weeks and head for Saudi Arabia?”

“Aye, aye, Skipper, let’s get ready to blow this joint,” said Simeon Snowman.

“Better let Clutterbuck know,” Wendell Wertz said. “He’ll have to make new plans.”

“Of course, he’ll have to rearrange a few things,” said Speelmon. “I’ll Email him later.”

We came to a pair of benches and I said, “Here, take a load off, guys.”

“Good one, Beach,” said Wertz. “Even though I’ve lost weight, this heat takes it out of me. Must be over thirty degrees right now.”

“Radio said, thirty-two degrees celcius just before we left,” said Snowman.

“What I mean. Man, these few months have been tough,” said Wertz. “Not sure I can take much more of this heat.”

“Got to,” said Speelmon. “Saudi Arabia’s south of here, remember. Gonna be hotter.”

“Forget that,” I said, “what about this Email to Henry? Think it’s wise?”

“Yeah, why would Clutterbuck be getting Emails from Syria,” asked Snowman.

“Okay, maybe we should phone him,” said Speelmon. “Either way, I don’t see a problem. Remember, Henry has businesses all over this region.”

“You’re right, might as well Email,” said Wertz. “Keep it short, though. Maybe just something like ‘headed south in a few weeks.’”

Speelmon laughed and said, “No way, I’m sending at least two pages.” We all gasped and he said, “Joking, guys, joking. Short and in code, boys.”

“Funny,” I said. “Should we give him a date?”

Tom hesitated a moment, then said, “How about August twenty-eighth, three weeks from today? Sim, Wendell?”

“Okay, sure,” they said together.

We sat and watched the passersby for a time before Simeon said, “Good, that’s settled. God, I’ll be glad to see the end of this whole mess. Gotta say, I’m starting to have serious doubts. Like, is this whole thing sensible?”

Wertz poked the Nez Perce in the shoulder and said, “Come on, buddy, shake it off. Remember why we’re doing this. Few months, we’ll be back home. Right?”

“Guess so,” said Simeon. “It’s just . . . I don’t know.”

“Hey, doubts are part of the job. We’ve all had them,” said Tom. He looked at his watch and said, “It’s going on nine. What’s that, seven tomorrow evening in Montana, Wendell?” Seeing Wertz’s nod, he added, “Okay, what say we head back. I’ll Email Henry and we can play a bit of HoldEm.”

“Good, maybe I can take back some of my money,” I said.

Gordon Padgett arrived a week later. He flew in from Cairo and we met him at Nairab Airport. He was a bluff, red-faced bear of a man with a soft voice. His dress was western, white pants and a shirt with the Great Pyramid on the front and the Sphinx on the back.

The talk on the short ride back to Aleppo was of Saudi Arabia and our home town of Ras al Khafji. “Yes, all is well with your parents and your sister, Fatima,” Padgett said, in response to a question by Speelmon.

“Good to hear,” I said. “We shall see them in a few weeks. Will you be there?”

Gordon pointed to his shirt. “Sadly, I must return to my work in Egypt. My return flight leaves three days from now at seven-thirty in the morning.”

“Only three days,” said Wertz. “We hoped you would spend a week or more with us.”

“Sorry, my friend, but duty calls. But, Nahlah and I and the boys will see you in Ras when we go for our annual visit in September. Yes?”

“We will be in . . .” began Simeon, but I interrupted and said, “Of course. We look forward to spending time with your delightful family.”

That evening, we had some lovely shish kebab at the Jdayde Hotel restaurant in Halab Square. We ate there a lot, because it was convenient to a large public park. After the meal we took a leisurely stroll to this park and found some secluded benches. Gordon Padgett, who had stuffed himself with three kebabs and a dessert, sat down with a sigh. He pulled a bottle of water from his pants and drank half of it in one gulp. “Are you alright, Mr. Padgett,” asked Speelmon.

“Think so. Man, that food was terrific. How come you’re not all fat?”

“We walk a lot and work out every day,” I said.

“Well, I get quite enough exercise pulling fish from the Red Sea and carrying them to market. So, how are things?”

“Good. We know the lingo and the vendor’s trade well enough. Didn’t Henry tell you we’re leaving early?”

“You know Henry’s a bit close mouthed. All he said was you wanted to meet me before the end of July. So, that was the reason, huh. When you leaving?”

“Late August is the plan,” said Speelmon. “Everything go with the stuff?”

“Frig the stuff. Call a spade a spade. It’s semtex, Tom, one of the original plastic explosives. Deadly as hell. Hope one of you knows how to handle it.”

“After three years defusing IEDs with the Marines in Iraq, I think so,” I said. “Do you have it secured?”

“Nope, don’t have it yet. You guys doing your thing after the Hajj, figure we’d get the semtex in early November. Okay?”

“Sure, give a few weeks to set things up. Alright with you, Beach?”

“Perfect, few days is all I’ll need,” I said.

Tom turned to Padgett. “Good, so where do we meet you,” he said.

“We meet in a little cove between Jiddah and Mecca. Got a map back in my suitcase I’ll leave with you,” said Gordon. ” So, a date and time?”

“Beach, you want to take this one? You’re the boss of the semtex,” said Tom.

“Well, it’s not rocket science,” I said. “Need a day to place it in the vans and wire it to the transmitter. Leave a few days leeway. So, if we go on November twenty-second, the nineteenth would be fine. Weather going to be a problem, Gordo?”

“Shouldn’t be, but better allow for a blow. Let’s say we meet on the fifteenth and, if the weather’s bad, go each day after that. Dawn’s the best time, don’t you think?”

“Or just before,” said Speelmon. “Say four in the morning, if you travel at night?”

“Boat’s got radar and running lights so that’s no problem. Thing is I have to co-ordinate with one of Henry’s freighters. I’ll get the semtex a week before our meet. Good?”

“Fine, if you don’t mind having to hide it for a week,” I said.

“No problem, I’ll just keep it at the bottom of my main fish box. It’ll be covered in a few hundred pounds of grouper at all times. Won’t hurt the stuff, will it?”

“Can’t see how. Sounds good,” I said.

Wertz and Snowman had been quiet through most of this but now Wertz said, “Time for a little poker. You play HoldEm, Gordon?”

Padgett smiled and said, “Yeah, I’ve played. Shall we?”

Over the next two nights, we learned a bit about Gordon Padgett. He took close to two thousand Syrian pounds from us, though, before revealing that he’d paid his way through UNLV by playing various forms of poker. At the airport, he offered us our money back. Speelmon, looking ready to hit bugger, refused. “Get the hell out of here,” he said, instead.

We landed at Abdulaziz International in Jiddah at ten in the morning of the twenty-eighth of August. Half an hour later, we were through customs and standing in line for our luggage. It was pleasantly cool in the public terminal and not yet crowded with Hajj pilgrims. A man in a flowing robe approached us and said, “I am Mohammed Al-Baraq. My employer, Mr. Hany Niazy, asked me to meet four brothers arriving from Aleppo. Are you them?”

We all grinned because Al-Baraq had given the right name. Hany Niazy was in charge of all of Henry Clutterbuck’s operations in The Kingdom.

Speelmon stuck out his hand and said, “Yes, I am Mahmoud Al-Sadif and these are my brothers Ahmed, Ayman, and Ilyas, the baby who is named for my mother’s Afghan grandfather. Are you in charge of Mr. Niazy’s affairs?”

“Yes, please come with me.”

We shook hands, grabbed our suitcases and followed Mr. Al-Baraq. He was a tall man with a hooked nose and a short, pointed beard. His black eyes looked out from under bushy eyebrows that gave him a menacing look, but he had a ready smile and we all liked him at once.

Mr. Al-Baraq drove us south into Mecca and until we arrived at the Great Mosque. He entered Alyad Street and soon came to our new home. It was a small stone building and looked to be very old. Speelmon asked about this and Mohammed said, “Yes, but much newer than some. I am told that this house was built for a member of the royal family in 1898, so it is just over a hundred years old. Come, let us enter. I believe you will find all to your liking.”

Inside, it was cool and Simeon said, “I like it already. I had forgotten how hot our homeland could be in late summer.”

Al-Baraq smiled. “Ah, this is a pleasant day with the wind blowing from the Red Sea. Soon will come the wind from the desert. Have you not experienced it?”

“Not here in the south but we get some hot winds in Ras al Khafji. Do you know it?

“No, but I have heard of it. Near the Iraqi border, is it not?”

“Quite near. You must visit us after the Hajj.”

“Thank you, but my work keeps me in Riyadh most of the time. Now, shall we explore your new home?”

We walked through the house and saw a fine kitchen with a propane stove, three bedrooms, a bathroom, and a small living room with flat screen television and computer. “Is it good,” said Mohammed.

“Perfect, my friend,” said Speelmon. “Our stay here should be most pleasant. Have you gotten our vendor’s vans and licence?’

“Of course, as Mr. Niazy ordered.” He reached under his robe and withdrew a brown envelope and offered it to Speelmon. “The licence, as requested by Mr. Niazy, allows you four to operate two vendor vans near al-Haram Mosque between September first and December first of this year. Is this as you wished?”

“Exactly as we wished,” said Speelmon. “And, the vans?”

“In a small garage further east along this street. You will find the keys for the building, its address and the keys for both vans in that envelope.”

“Sir, you have done well. I see why Mr. Niazy sent you to us,” said Tom.

“Thank you. Now, unless you have further questions, I must excuse myself. The rest of my day is very full.”

“Of course. Will we see you again?”

“Unlikely. As I say, my work is mainly in Riyadh. Good day, gentlemen.”

“That went well,” I said, after the door closed behind Al-Baraq. “Shall we check out our new assets?”

“How about in an hour or so,” said Wertz. “I really need some time to unwind and stay in these nice cool room. Man, this heat is hard on me.”

“Quit whining, Wen,” said Speelmon. “Few weeks you’ll be used to it.”

“Maybe. You guys go ahead, you want.”

We found the vans, two steel grey Volkswagens, and drove them first to an al Baik. It had been recommended by al-Baraq and there was one only three streets away. We all ordered jumbo shrimp, fries and non-alcoholic beer. “This stuff is terrific,” said Simeon, after his first mouthful. “They have takeout, too. I predict we’ll eat a lot of this before November.”

“Got to agree,” I said. “But, we will also enjoy our own shawarma and bread. No?”

“We definitely will not starve,” said Speelmon. “Worse danger is putting on about fifty pounds between now and then.”

Wertz sipped his beer, bit into another shrimp and said, “I come back that heavy, no way Kate will let me near her.”

I laughed and said, “Damn, I wish you hadn’t reminded me of women. I try to not think about them.”

There were nods all around and Speelmon said, “Maybe there’s a local cathouse.”

We all slapped our knees and laughed at this. The five other customers in the small place turned and stared at us. “Enough of this,” said Speelmon. “Everyone done?”

Next day, Monday the twenty-ninth, we went exploring. We drove north but turned west to the Red Sea before we were halfway to Jiddah. The van bounced along a rough, rutted road for about two miles. Then, the deep blue of the historic waterway flashed before us. The road soon became a goat track and Tom pulled to a stop. “Okay, everybody out,” he said. “Let’s see if we can find that cove. Tim, you got the map Padgett drew?”

I reached under my thawb and into my pant’s pocket and pulled out the crumpled sheet of paper. “If this is the right path the cove should be straight ahead,” I said.

We headed toward the water and a cool breeze found us. “Thank God,” said Simeon. “Think I’ll stay right her until November. You guys have fun.”

“Good idea but didn’t you want to try for a fish? Thought you were a master fisherman,” said Wertz.

“Yeah, come on, Sim,” said Tom, pointing his long fishing rod before him. “Padgett said we might catch some grouper or skate in this spot.”

 

The cove was tear drop-shaped and maybe as big as two football fields. We spread out and looked for the sign Padgett said he’d left there. Simeon found the small MM for Missoula, Montana painted on a large rock at the southern end of the cove. Then, we all fished for a couple of hours. Tom lost the only fish anyone hooked.

“You guys see that,” he shouted. “Must have weighed twenty pounds. Snapped my line like it was sewing thread. Tim, you see it?”

“Just for a nanosecond. Looked like a big grouper. Good fish, maybe ten pounds.”

“Ten, hell, thing was fifteen for sure.”

Wertz walked over. “Hey, you two, you’re arguing over a lost fish nobody wanted. Who cares how big it was. I’m heading back to the van.”

We drove right past Mecca and went about ten miles south. Speelmon turned off on a side road and said, “You’ll be safe here, Sim. We’ll drop you and pick you up after it’s over.”

“Man, I don’t like it. Why can’t we stick together?”

“Jesus, we’ve been over and over this,” I said. “We need the transmitter away from the semtex in case something goes wrong. For God’s sake, give it a rest.”

“Hey, no need to get your drawers in a knot. Just I don’t . . . ah, shit, forget it. Let’s go back.”

Over the next few days we gathered our vendor supplies and got a bit used to the holy city. The heat was oppressive but the vans had good AC. As we drove around, we decided on who would do what. Tom, since he did it so well, would prepare the sharwarma meats; Sim would be in charge of hummus, spices, and condiments; Wendell would look after the bread making; and I would be in charge of fries and drinks.

We chatted with the various merchants we met and were congratulated on our venture. Many were surprised that we had managed to get a licence and a few seemed angry. One of these, a grizzled old man in a stained thwab, said his cousin had been trying to get a vendor’s permit for five years. But, he still sold us some fine lamb.

Our last, but most vital stop, was at the great mosque itself. Since it was so close to our house, we walked down Alyad Street and entered through a gate that had a guardhouse. The man on duty was in uniform and wore a side arm. “Hello,” he said, “may I see your identification?”

We offered our driver’s licence and he inspected them closely. “I see you are from the north,” he said. “Is this your first visit to Mecca?”

Speelmon took the lead. “No, but it is our first time doing business here. We have a vendor’s licence and plan to set up near the Great Mosque.”

“Yes, I see. Of course, you know of the rule that no vendor may be closer than fifty meters from the Cube? May I see your licence?”

“Sorry, we left it at our house,” said Tom. “We will tape it inside our van.”

“Fine. Good luck.”

We walked into the sacred grounds of the mosque. Only some three or four hundred people were present. I tried to imagine the hundreds of thousands that would be there in a few months. Then, I headed for the Cube while the others scouted out spots for the vans.

After a short prayer, I touched the building and stood for a moment, trying to imagine many thousands of males, all dressed in the same plain white sheets of cloth, slowly circling the Kabah and murmuring soft words of prayer. For some reason, my mind flashed a picture of the sign on the highway when we came to the city. It hung over a dividing strip and one side read MUSLIMS ONLY, while the other read NON MUSLIMS. Mr. al-Baraq had said, thinking we had never been to Mecca, “The non Muslim part of the road leads around the city.” Tom, our quickest thinker, simply said, “Of course, since no non Muslims may enter Mecca.”

Now, close to the Kaabah, a shiver went through me as I realized, not for the first time, how crazy it was to be here let alone doing the thing we planned. I turned a full circle but, praise be to Allah, no one was looking my way.

The others came up a few minutes later and, shortly, we left the Al Masjid al-Haram through a different entrance. “Well, that wasn’t so bad,” said Tom.

“No, but it will be a different ball game with a few million or more pilgrims in the city,” Wertz said. “This place will be a madhouse.”

“True, but we’ll just be simple vendors,” said Tom. “We’ll drive our vans here each morning, do our business, and drive away each evening. Right?”

“Hope so,” I said. Then, I stopped them and added, “Back there, close to the Kaabah, I had a vision of what the crowds would do if they found we were Americans.”

“Jesus, Tim, don’t even think of that,” said Simeon. “We’d be ripped to shreds before we could blink.”

“Enough,” said Tom. “Anyone ready for some al Baik chicken?”

 

The CIA tech whiz was one of hundreds monitoring the world’s Email traffic. Her name was Eunice McGregor and she was an old twenty-nine. On this day she wore a bulky Highland sweater and an ankle length tweed dress. Both served to hide a figure that most women would be eager to display. Her hair was short and bright red, the sweater a blue-green plaid. She wore thick, steel framed glasses and was just short of six feet.

When she knocked on her supervisor’s door and entered on his “Come,” Baxter Hayward sat up and took notice. In his three years working with Eunice, she had never brought up anything that wasn’t vital. “Have a seat, Ms McGregor,” he said.

“Alright, but just for a moment. My relief’s a trainee. Might miss something serious.”

She sat, adjusted her dress, and took a few seconds to study her boss. Bax, as everyone called him, was a short, thin man whose greying hair suggested he was north of forty. Eunice knew he was fifty-four and married with three grown children. Hayward was the most brilliant man she’d ever met and Eunice could not believe he smoked the cheap cigars that made everything around him stink. Her nose twitched, now, and she saw his eyes roll in response.

“Okay, okay, I know the bloody cigars stink. Just give me what you have.”

“Sorry. Here.”

Hayward took the message slip, gave it a brief glance and said, “Come on, McGregor, for God’s sake. I can’t read this gibberish. Is this some joke you youngsters have cooked up?”

Eunice took back the paper and handed him another.. She smiled and said, “Oops, gave you the Arabic by mistake.”

He read the translation in a few moments and said, “What the hell, some ragheads talking about gardens and seeds. What, the Baghdad Garden Society doing some fall planting? Shit!”

Eunice McGregor’s face turned red as her hair and her lips quivered. “Maybe, Sir, but check where it went.”

He looked and jumped from his chair in surprise. “Montana! What the hell? Don’t make sense.”

“Precisely why it’s in your hands. That mid-November date is a bit suspicious, too. Like, around the time of the Hajj. Might need a closer look.”

Baxter Hayward sat back down and stared at the woman whose instincts he’d come to respect. When he sensed his silence was making her uncomfortable, he said, “Good work, McGregor. Sorry I snapped at you. What should we do with this?”

“Not up to me, Sir, but someone should follow through. Since it’s domestic, it can’t be us. The Bureau, maybe, or Homeland Security.”

“Of course. Happens I’m meeting with the Director and Missus Claiborne tomorrow. It’s our weekly get together and I’ll just add this little tidbit to the agenda. Thanks, McGregor.”

“Only trying to do my job, Sir. Anything related comes up, I’ll let you know.”

It turned out the FBI and Homeland Security had also picked up on the Email’s odd destination. “I have agents rousting some of those crazies in Montana and Idaho. Should know more soon,” said FBI Director, Paul Fredericks. “Let’s get together then, okay?”

Three days later, he called them back. They met in a conference room on the second floor of the J. Edgar Hoover Building at 936 Pennsylvania Avenue. It was a wood paneled room with a large table in the center. Present were Fredericks, Jolene Claiborne, Head of Homeland Security, and Baxter Hayward, Assistant to the CIA Director. Also present were Special Agent Max Carter and George Fenwick, Claiborne’s deputy.

“Okay, here it is,” said Fredericks. “We rounded up members of the Aryan Nation, Posse Comitatus and the Montana and Idaho Militias. Some of them told us very strange stories. A lot of them mentioned a man named Henry Clutterbuck and a certain Thomas Speelmon. Seems Clutterbuck has a real hardon over 9/11. He’s at his home in the Bitterroots but we were told he had Speelmon as a visitor in late September, 2001. Speelmon hasn’t been seen since, but his sister has received regular letters from him, all sent from Recife, Brazil. Even more unusual, three of Speelmon’s friends are also incommunicado, except for letters from places like Bangkok, Lahore, and Capetown.”

“Right, that’s damn suspicious,” said Jolene Claiborne, a well preserved woman in her late fifties. “What else?”

Fredericks consulted the file he’d been reading from and said, “Lot of background on this Speelmon. Listen to this guy speaking to a gathering of Aryan Nation whackos.” He leaned over, pushed PLAY on the tape deck beside his desk, and they all heard, ‘So, you got these freakin’ ragheads knockin’ down buildings and blowin’ up trains all over the place.’ Then, a different voice said, ‘Well, it’s only a few fanatics.’ Then, Speelmon again, ‘Thing is, you can’t tell the suicide bombers from the rest. Want to know my thinking? Kill them all and let God sort them out.’ Fredericks hit the OFF button, as a general cheer roared from the speakers.

“Now, that’s what we’re dealing with. I think we’d better share this with the Saudis ASAP. And, we will definitely talk to this Clutterbuck and others.”

“Good luck with that,” said Agent Max Carter, who was based in Helena. “Guy’s big cheese in Montana. Surrounded by lawyers. We tried to see him, didn’t get past this pricey legal eagle in Missoula. Claimed his client was out of touch on a yacht in the South Pacific.”

“Okay, keep working on him,” said Fredericks. “But, let’s inform the Saudis.”

“Right, I’ll get a secure line,” said Baxter Hayward. “We know some of their security people in Riyadh.”

“No, we talk to them face to face on this one,” said Claiborne. She turned to her deputy

and said, “George, get me a government jet and have it at Dulles by four tomorrow morning. Clear us for Riyadh and set up a meet with Ahmed Siddiqui. You in, Paul?”

“Oh, yes. Bax, you want to join us?”

“Sure, I’ll bring the wine, we can party.”

“In the air, maybe, but not in The Kingdom,” said Claiborne. “Always found it funny, though, that Siddiqui’s name is so close to siddiqi. You know, that Saudi home brew?”

“Yes, the name means ‘my friend,’ said Fredericks. “Ahmed may be our friend but I still

keep him at arm’s length. He’ll blow a gasket, we tell him about this.”

The government Gulfstream 650 took off from Dulles at four twenty on the morning of August twenty-fourth. Six hours later it touched down at Mecca East Airport and a Saudi Security SUV whisked us into the city and headed northwest. After twenty minutes our driver had not said a word. So, in Arabic, I said, “Where are you taking us, Sirrah?”

He, a clean shaven man in a blue uniform, said, “Excuse me, Madam, but the honourable Colonel Siddiqui thought a quiet location would better serve our purpose. His own office, as you might imagine, is overrun with officers and criminals. So, he will meet you at a quiet police station on the Old Jeddah Road. Do you know it?”

“No, but I am sure it will be fine. Ahmed knows the situation much better than I.”

He moved visibly at the sound of his commander’s first name but made no response, except to say, “Very good.’

 

Ahmed Siddiqui greeted us at the door with three of his underlings. He was as I remembered him, a stout, handsome man with a short beard and handlebar moustache. His voice was clear, his words precise as he greeted us in English. “Ah, Madame Claiborne with the first name of a Dolly Parton song. How was your flight, Jolene?”

“Fine, Colonel, and your drive from Riyadh?”

“I slept so it was restful.” He introduced his subordinates and I introduced those with me.

Ahmed got right to the point. “I have read your Email carefully, Jolene, and run the names of the men through our databases. Not surprisingly, I got no result. You say you have the backgrounds of these missing men?”

“Yes, but I did not trust anything but face to face communications in this matter. Ahmed, I fear these men are a grave threat to your country.”

“I hope you are wrong, my friend, but please tell me why you think this.”

“Four of these six men have been members of extremist right wing groups in one of our most right wing states. Of the remaining two, one is a Nez Perce Indian and the other, who disappeared some days before the five, seems to be a very ordinary citizen of Montana. We believe he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“Interesting, most interesting, and you could well be correct. On the other hand, I am not a great believer in chance or coincidence. For our planning we will consider this man as dangerous as the others. But, what of this sixth man? What do you know?”

“You don’t miss much, Ahmed. The sixth man we have under the microscope. He is a billionaire named Henry Clutterbuck and he has business interests in your country. We are told by his lawyer that he is somewhere in mid-Pacific on his yacht.” I had seen one of Ahmed’s men blink at the rich man’s name, so I said to him, “You know of this man?”

The young fellow was mute but his boss said, “Yes, we know him. A friend of Prince Farouk, a third cousin to King Abdullah. This man owns a large Saudi registered company which maintains oil pipelines. I, of course, have never met the man or the king’s cousin.”

“And, I doubt if you will,” said Paul Fredericks. “He obviously prefers to stay hidden while his hired crazies do the dirty work. Doubt if we’ll catch him, either.”

“This is unimportant. What is vital is stopping the terrorists. Finding and disposing of them will be difficult but your help is much appreciated. We look forward to continued co-operation between our two great countries.”

“Of course,” I said. “My colleagues and I will instantly send you whatever we find out about these men.” Her cell phone vibrated at that point and the head of Homeland Security said, “Sorry, but duty calls. Please, excuse me.”

Out in the hall she opened the phone and said, “Perfect timing, Louise. We’ll be out of here within the hour. Is there anything pressing? No. Good, see you tomorrow.”

Back in the meeting room, she said, “Nothing to do with this thing, Ahmed, but lots going on with a case we’re working in Newark, New Jersey. We must get back.”

“Of course, I know the drill,” said Ahmed. “Keep in touch.”

Amid handshakes and hugs, the Americans took their leave.

Ahmed Siddiqui turned to his second in command, Samir al-Biayki, a stout sixtyish bear of a man whose beard was almost white. His mad eyes and loud voice frightened all but the most foolhardy of his colleagues. He was a forty year veteran of the Security Police. “Samir, I want a 24/7 cordon of guards around the Al Masjid al-Haram. And Allah help any found asleep or otherwise shirking their duty. Also, have everyone call on all of their contacts throughout the city. I am convinced that these terrorists are here. Find them and silence them.”

“You speak and I obey. It shall be done. Is there more?”

Siddiqui now glared at his younger senior officer. The man, a youngish forty-three, withstood the look without blinking but the fear showed in his eyes. His name was Masoud Aryat and he was taller than his boss but much slimmer. He had been a fine soccer player as a young man and had twice played in the World Cup for his country. His specialty in the Security Police was in the area of commercial spying. The Colonel said, “We must increase our surveillance of this man Clutterbuck’s business. Get a man into the main offices in Riyadh and add another hundred microphones and mini cameras to those already in place. How long?”

Masoud thought for just a moment. “Hard to say, Colonel. I will get our best men on it and instruct them to be as quick as possible. As you know, it is a delicate problem. Cameras and microphones must be carefully hidden, but our people are most able in this field. Getting a man into the offices as an employee will be much more difficult. Give me three days and I shall report our progress.”

“Very well. You understand that no effort or expense is to be spared in this matter?”

“Of course, Sir,” they said together.

“Good, get at it.”

Following the rule, as explained to us by the guard, we parked our vans about sixty meters from The Cube, one in the northwest corner and the other in the southeast. Each was only a few steps from one of the gates to the square. Some vendors, not having a permit to enter the grounds, had set up on the side of the street. Once everything was ready, I went to say hello to one of them. He was selling only prayer rugs. “Good morning,” I said, “I am Amed Al-Sadif. My brothers and I are going to sell food until after the Hajj. How are you, neighbour?”

“I am well, Mr. Al-Sadif, but, as you see I am out here on the street. My contacts were unable to secure me a spot like yours.”

“Sorry, but you will do well here will you not?”

“I suppose. Would you like a prayer mat? They are some of the finest made in India. And, for you, only two hundred riyals. No tax.’

I quickly did the math. About fifty dollars. “A fair price, but I recently bought a new prayer rug on a trip to Aleppo.”

The man gave me a crooked smile and said, “Of course. What about your brothers?”

“I will ask them. Now, I must get back or they will be angry. Work, you know?”

“Yes. Later, I will try your shawarma.”

After two weeks with the vans, we took stock of our success. It was a Thursday, a day of rest in Mecca. I had checked our small house every day for electronic eavesdropping devices but had never found one. We sat, each with a drink of choice, and Wertz gave us the lowdown. “Guys, we’re doing well. Once the Hajj starts, I think we’ll make a small fortune. Wasn’t so damn hot, I’d stay here and rake in the profits.” He looked at his laptop screen. “In fifteen days, our profit is ninety-four thousand, three hundred and fifty riyals. About twenty-three thousand dollars or five thousand each.”

“Man, that’s a lot of shawarma,” said Tom.

“Yes, and they love it,” said Simeon. “Only had three customers say they didn’t like your meat, old buddy. They seemed a bit stupid.”

“Your concoctions get a lot of positive comments, too,” I said. “Wertz’s bread, now, is a bit shaky according to some.” I dodged as Wendell kicked at me.

Speelmon stood up and clapped his hands. “Good, good! Seems we’re all excellent vendors. Yousuf taught us well. The money’s a bonus, but let’s keep the main prize in sight. Close to two months to go. So, we keep our noses clean, avoid drawing any attention, and smile at everyone. Right?”

“Sure, Skipper, but this heat is driving me nuts,” said Simeon.

“He’s right,” said Wendell. “Not sure I can take two more months of it.”

“Guys, let’s not be wimps. Tim and I suffer as much as you two. Working those propane cookers, I get twice the heat of anyone. Hell, I’ve lost twenty pounds or more. So, suck it up and quit bitching. You faint or anything we’ll rush you to a doctor.”

“Think I’ll get some bigger fans,” I said. “And remember, you feel overheated take a break. Stand in the shade or near a fan.”

“Hell, I’ll be taking a permanent break,” said Simeon. Seeing our looks, he went on with, “Okay, okay, I know. I’m a big boy. I’ll survive the heat and getting up at four every morning and wearing a dress and . . . ”

“Sim, for God’s sake. Relax.” Tom checked his watch. “Going on six,” he said. Shall we eat?”

As we did every evening, we walked to the al Baik just four blocks to the north of Al Masjid al-Haram.

We sat down and Speelmon said, through a mouthful of chicken and fries, “You guys noticed more guards lately?”

Wertz swallowed some shrimp and said, “Yeah, lots more than when we first set up shop. Why, you think it’s a problem?”

“Everything’s a problem in our business,” I said. “Thing is, all the guards are getting used to us. Hell, most of them have tried our food at least once.”

Simeon ate the last of his fish, wiped his mouth and said, “Man, that’s good fish. Far as the extra guards, I say we just be extra careful. Right, Captain?”

“Sure, but I wonder what caused these extras to be put on,” said Speelmon.

“Maybe we should ask,” said Wertz.

“Wendell, that’s so simple it’s genius,” I said. “I’ll ask this vendor I’ve gotten to know as well. Tom, you want to ask the guard captain?”

“Sure. Another few weeks it’ll all be over, anyway.”

“Yeah, one way or the other,” Simeon said.

The Hajj came and went, the heat got worse, we made millions of riyals and by Tuesday, November fifteenth we were all on edge. It was the day we’d arranged with Padgett to pick up the semtex. Speelmon had told the head guard that one of our vans was in for repairs so at three-thirty in the morning he and I headed for the little cove. Padgett was to be there at four.

It was a starry night but we still needed a flashlight to walk the stony path. At the cove we stood beside the rock with MM painted on it and, at exactly four, began signalling Padgett. Speelmon turned on the light but kept his hand over it. Then, in quick succession, he removed his hand and put it back and removed it again. We waited for the return signal but none came.

By quarter to five we had signalled twenty times without an answer. “Damn, something’s wrong,” said Tom.

“Maybe not. Anyway, it’ll be light soon. We should just follow the plan and leave after daylight,” I said. ” Right?”

“No choice,” said Tom. He gave the signal again and we both looked out to sea. A light flashed once, twice, three times and we both jumped with joy.

As the sun began to show itself toward Mecca, we heard the soft splashing of oars. Soon, a two-man Zodiac appeared. Gordon Padgett stepped onto the beach a minute later. “Morning, Tom, Tim,” he said. “Sorry I’m late. Had a small problem with my outboard after I left the freighter. Turned out to be a dead plug. So, how’s it going?”

“Good, good,” said Tom. “You wouldn’t believe the money we hauled in during the Hajj. Worked like hell for it, though. You know, like that one-armed paper hanger?”

“Yeah. Guess you don’t want to share, huh?”

“Haven’t talked about it,” I said. “But since you brought the vital goodies, we might cut you a share or two. Right, Tom?”

“Might, but let’s see what he’s got.”

Gordo leaned over the beached Zodiac and lifted out a heavy, plastic wrapped bundle. “Here you are, gents,” he said. “Finest semtex the Czechs make. Prime stuff!” He placed the bundle on the sand, reached into the raft, and did the same to a second.

I took out my Swiss Army knife, opened the big blade, and cut into one bundle. Gordo winced, so I said, “This stuff doesn’t go off easy, man. You can drop it, kick it, hammer it, play ball with it you want. Needs a blasting cap or detcord to make it work.”

“I knew that,” said Gordon. “Just, you know . . .”

“Yeah, I know,” said Tom. Then, he looked at me. “Any good,” he said.

I’d been playing with the play dough-like substance. “Feels good, looks good, smells good,” I said. “No need to taste it. This is prime grade, Czech-made Semtex guys.”

“Alright, I’m outta here,” said Gordo. “Good luck, friends!”

“Thanks,” said Tom. “Look for us on al-Jazeera.” Then, as Padgett turned to push his craft into the water, Speelmon said, “We make it you get twenty percent of our vendor profits.”

Gordo just smiled but I said, thinking fast, “Yeah, and if we don’t you get it all.”

“Shit, wish you hadn’t said that,” whispered Tom, as we each lifted a fifty pound bundle and headed back to the van.

“Sorry, sometimes my mouth is too quick for my brain,” I said.

Nothing more was said, as we struggled up the hill with our loads of death.

Back at the house on Alyad Street, the semtex was hidden beneath a storage cupboard in the van, the day now as hot as an oven on bust. Inside, it was cool in the air conditioning. Tom headed for the shower and I reached for a cold drink in the fridge. After we changed places, we both hit the sack.

Simeon and Wertz came in just after eight that evening. “Closed up early,” said Wendell. “Not much doing and we wanted to check on you guys. Looks like everything’s fine.”

“Yeah, stuff’s in the van. Figured tomorrow we’d get it ready. Right, Tim?”

“No choice,” I said. “It’s too easy to find right now. Thought we’d drive into the desert, find a nice quiet spot behind a dune.”

“Won’t those guards start wondering, we shut down for a day,” said Simeon.

“Not for the day,” I said. “We start early we should be back before ten. Just use the same story. Van still being repaired.”

“Works for me,” said Speelmon.

The next day, as did most, dawned bright and hot in Mecca. We had a late breakfast of eggs and roast lamb. Around eight-thirty we headed into the desert NE of the city.

“What’s our story, we run into a police stop,” asked Simeon Snowman.

“Relax, my buddy, we’re just out for a break from the noisy crowds of the city. We’re just simple, small town Saudis, remember, ” said Tom Speelmon.

“Should fly,” I said . Then, I turned my head and yelled, “There, you see that. Just back aways. Stop, Captain, stop!”

“Jesus, Beach, don’t have a hemorrhage,” said Snowman.

The highway was deserted so Speelmon backed up until I said, “Right there. See, go behind those rocks, find a bit of shade and I’ll do the job.”

Wertz pulled the second van in behind them. He stepped onto the sand, lifted his robes, and said, “Man, won’t kill me to leave this bloody furnace.”

Speelmon took a cold Coke from the fridge and said, “Here, this should help.”

“Thanks, been thinking of rum and beer for miles.” Wertz grinned, before adding, “Member that time up at buddy’s cabin in the Roots? Got so drunk, went outside to piss and couldn’t find my dick.”

“Yeah, I can see you now. Runnin’ round with your fly open and your hands empty. We called you Needle Dick the Bug Fucker all through university ‘cause of that night.”

Snowman and I burst out in short laughs, before I said, “Okay, let’s get this done. Tommy, you want to give me a hand?”

Speelmon’s “sure” sounded a bit forced, high explosives not being his thing.

We removed the panels inside the van and I handled the semtex like it was play dough. My training had made clear that plastique was quite stable and I chatted with the others as I molded it under the side panels of the van. I forced it into the deepest recesses. When every crevice was filled, I attached the blasting caps and the receiver. Then, we replaced the passenger side panels and moved to the driver’s side.

Tom took out the last screw and said, “Hate to mention this, bud, but is it really useful to have half the blast go into the open mosque?”

“It’s okay, Tommy, I’m not perfect with this stuff. Thing is I thought we wanted to damage both The Cube and the Mosque. Well, this setup will do both.”

Wertz, sipping his second cold drink, said, “Let me tell you about this Cube thingy. It used to be surrounded by three hundred and sixty pagan idols In 630 A.D. Muhammed destroyed them. The largest, the stone of Hubal, stood atop the Cube. Muhammed’s cousin, Ali, stood on the Prophet’s shoulders in order to climb on top and topple the idol. Now, close to fourteen hundred years later, we will topple the whole damn Cube. Right?”

Tom handed me the next packages of semtex. “Good one, Wens,” he said. “Anything else I can do, Tim?”

“Yes, grab me a cold drink, please.”

By nine-thirty that morning, it was done. I took the transmitter and explained the setup to Simeon. “Right there, that red button,” I said. “You press that and . . . BOOM!”

“No sweat,” said a sweating Simeon Snowman. “Christ, this heat sucks. Ten miles going to be far enough?”

“Oh, yes, you’ll be fine, my baby. Tom, you got anything?”

Speelmon patted the side of the van. “Just this. Sim, you can’t hesitate.. If I say blow it, you press that button right away. Don’t think, just do it.”

“But, Skipper . . . ”

“No buts, my man. We all know what we signed up for. I say blow it, you know we’re in trouble. Press it and head for that cove like we planned. Gord’ll pick you up and you’ll be fine.”

 

Six days later we left the vans at Al Masjid al-Haram. It was eight-fifteen in the evening of November twenty-first. We went for a late supper at al Baik and were in bed by ten.

We got up again at two in the morning, November twenty-second. After Simeon had left in a Ford Escort we’d rented, Tom, Wendell, and I drove the vans to the Grand Mosque and pulled them up on two sides of The Cube. I made sure they were up tight to the walls.

By three-thirty everything was set. The semtex was in place and the trigger was hot. We stood around, grinning and shaking hands.. “We did it,” I said .

“Yeah. Damn, wish we had some champagne or cold beer to toast ourselves,” said Wendell Wertz.

“Soon. Right now, we should blow this . . . ” The Square flooded with light and an amplified voice said, in Arabic, “Freeze! Everyone on the ground. Now!”

The first part was no problem. We were like statues. Then, as we moved to hit the ground, two lights appeared far above Mecca. They were like the sun and just hovered there, miles high in a black sky. Moments later, a message was written across the sky in golden letters a mile high. It was in fifty languages and read:

LISTEN AND YOU SHALL HEAR THE WORD OF THE MASTER.

“Oh, my God,” said Wendell Wertz, his voice filled with horror.

“Exactly,” said Tom Speelmon. He fell to his knees.

A minute later the letters disappeared. Then, the lights dimmed and were gone. In an instant they were replaced by a new light ten times as large as the first two. It was so bright that people as far away as eastern Iran and Zimbabwe could see it and those in Libya and western Sudan thought day had come early.

As we and the Saudi police stood, blinded and petrified with fear, a voice came over us that would have caused us to be deaf for years. It was neither male nor female and sounded as though it came from a bullhorn as big as the Persian Gulf. It was heard from the Black Sea to the Atlantic and from the Med to the Cape of Good Hope. It shattered every pane of glass in Saudi Arabia and eight adjoining countries.

“This is the end,”it said.“I will permit no retaliation after this and all acts of terrorism will cease from this day forward.”

The lights went out and the blind men screamed in the darkness.

Then, “Blow it, blow it,” yelled Tom Speelmon. Ten miles away, Simeon Snowman pushed the red button that had been under his finger the whole time and the two vans went up in balls of flame and a sound like thunder. The black Cube and half of the mosque that contained it went with them. Exactly 2752 Saudis died.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s