"Allahu Akbar!" shouted Yusuf as he depressed the plunger to his explosive vest -
And nothing happened.
All around him in the crowded Tel Aviv market, terrified shoppers and tourists stared in blank astonishment – some scattered to the pavement, some standing stock still, all processing how close they'd come to death. All noise, even the rumble of cars and buses, had ceased at Yusuf's exclamation and no one seemed capable of restarting the buzz of everyday activity.
Yusuf himself couldn't quite believe it - Samir had promised he'd wired the vest properly! Yusuf had even watched him just that morning, both of them slick with sweat which they insisted to each other was from the hundred and five degree summer heat. Just like now - and the long bus ride over - Yusuf assured himself the heavy sweat slowly ruining his one and only suit didn't have anything to do with nerves -
A big, heavy handbag caught him across the back of the head and he went crashing into a rack bootleg DVDs. The five foot old woman loomed over him, swinging again and again with her handbag while snarling in Hebrew. Yusuf had gained only a passing familiarity with the language - one of the reasons he'd been forced out of University - but even he could recognize the expletives.
The rest of the people just continued to stare. A few started laughing - as much from shock as from the sight of the old Mizrahi wailing on the skinny Pal. A young police officer managed to push his way through the crowd to see what all the commotion was about - and quickly shoved his way back the other way at the sight of Yusuf's explosive vest. Most of those present who weren’t laughing or whipping out smartphones to snap pictures of the would-be bomber now getting thrashed followed his lead.
The old Mizrahi didn’t let up. By the time the lone officer returned with backup – including a bomb squad, one officer already in that protective spacesuit - she wheezed with every down-swing of her bag.
"Ma'am," the young officer said, hesitantly laying a hand on her shoulder. "Ma'am please, if you could -"
"Grraugh!" she bellowed with another swing, delivering a satisfying crack to Yusuf's nose.
It took three more officers to haul her away.
Once a safe distance had been cleared around Yusuf, the bomb squad member in the suit lumbered up, muttering about having drawn the short straw that morning. Yusuf looked up into the plexiglas face shield, feeling impotent and childish as the officer went to work, deftly disassembling Samir's now obviously crude job. Yusuf almost felt the need to apologize to this gentleman - he certainly had better things to do today.
As the officer unbuckled the vest - and Yusuf shifted slightly to assist - he, or rather she, called to the other officers, "All clear!"
A woman! Yusuf's stomach tightened and he became intimately aware that through this entire ordeal he'd had a full bladder. That little issue hadn't seemed worth addressing in light of how he'd expected the day to go...
Now the other officers closed in - looming over Yusuf and casting him into shadow. "Right, you have anything else on you?" one of them snapped – conveniently speaking in English. "Give it up now and things might go easy for you."
Yusuf shook his head. No, nothing else. Nothing at all.
Yusuf didn't resist as the officers lifted him to his feet - hands gently lifting at his armpits, as if he were a little boy. They didn't even bother with the flexcuffs. Why should they? He was mostly harmless now.
The assembled officers lead him to a waiting police car. The crowd - still thick, despite the bomb squad – “With a woman!” Yusuf kept thinking - only jeered a little. Only a few, "Hey, something go wrong?" "Having technical difficulties?" "Where are all the virgins, huh?"
The officers waved for people to shut it. Yusuf just hunched up his shoulders, hoping no one he knew might be in the crowd. Today had proved to be enough of a disgrace already. Damn Samir. Just God-fucking-damn Samir! - and Yusuf winced at the blasphemy. And his achingly full bladder...
"What's your name?" one of the officers asked as they drove him to the nearest station - no sirens of course, they had the decency not to draw any more attention than necessary. "Hmm? You have a name, don't you?"
Yusuf didn't answer.
"Right then," the officer didn't seem all that put out. "You'll talk soon enough..."
"Did you rig the vest yourself?" asked the officer driving. "Hannah said the wires looked crossed every wrong way. Did you do it on your own or did you have help?"
"I don't think he's talking yet."
"Fine, no skin off my balls."
"But maybe his!" Both officers had a good laugh at that.
With the sirens off they didn't draw much attention - but the drive took much too long. They spent close to twenty minutes behind a bus that couldn't decide whether it had too many stops or was on the verge of breaking down. Yusuf idly hoped for someone else - maybe even Samir - to martyr themselves and take him along in the process! Exploded is exploded and he'd already tried to do it himself - that had to count for something with God. Maybe not the highest level of Paradise but certainly better than he would've had if he'd spent the rest of his life flunking out of University.
The radio of the police car whistled to life. Lots of frantic, "We've had a bombing in the mall!" and "Some guy lit up on the highway! There's burning cars everywhere!"
The others had kept their scheduled appointments with Paradise but not Yusuf. And judging by the vicious look one of the officers cast back at him briefly, he'd be the one paying for all the others...
"Aw fuck!" the officer driving said as they pulled into the station - a news crew right at the front door!
"How'd they get here so fast?" asked the other officer. "We haven't announced anything, have we?"
"Wait, they're Americans!” He said over his shoulder to Yusuf, “I don't think they're here for you."
Peering out the car window, Yusuf could see four people - a man impeccably dressed for a casual look and three less impressive men toting cameras and microphones - milling about the front door of the police station. The well-dressed man, clearly the one in charge, waved his hands around with a woman's exaggerated gestures to direct the others.
"Fuck it, we'll take him in through the back."
"We can't. Remember the renovations?"
The police car slid into an empty space in the lot. "We'll have to walk him in." Both officers turned to look at Yusuf - not so much with menace but with a tired superiority he remembered his aunts displaying when he was a child - "You promise to behave yourself? We don't particularly want to taze you in front of the cameras."
Just like his aunts. "Yes, yes..." Yusuf mumbled.
"Bon!" said the driver with false cheeriness. He climbed out of the car first - quickly going round to his partner’s side so they could both manhandle Yusuf out.
The three of them approached the station, Yusuf between the two officers but still unrestrained. Hopefully they wouldn't draw much attention...
The boss of the news crew - clearly a reporter, judging by his professionally sculpted hair - chattered rapidly. " - over there in shadows and shit! Do not compromise my fucking light, how many times do I have to tell you cocksuckers!? Fifteen years in this business a - the hell are you gawking at?"
One abused cameraman - a much browner hue than his boss, Yusuf noticed - gestured submissively to the procession.
The reporter rapidly composed himself - his back straightened, his chin raised, he stopped spitting when he talked - "Get the two kikes and the sand-monkey over my right. Okay? In five, four, three..."
He mouthed "two" and "one" and - "Israeli security forces struck another blow against terrorism today, capturing ten in a complex operation that may have saved thousands." Turning at precisely the moment Yusuf and the officers came within interview distance. "Gentlemen - "
The cameraman snickered at that. As Yusuf was rushed through the front door of the station, he could hear the reporter laying into his crew with words Yusuf didn't entirely understand but sounded offensive...
They hustled him into a poorly lit closet of a room - nothing but a table and two chairs under the solitary lightbulb. They left Yusuf without a word, bolting the door from outside.
Yusuf walked around the table and sat down - then immediately sprang back up to walk some more, a painful sloshing in his bladder. He paced once, twice, three times around the little room - God-fucking-damned Samir! Had he done it on purpose? Get Yusuf safely out of the picture to go after his sister? Samir liked thinking he was clever, that Yusuf didn't pick up on the little cues and longing glances - just because she was older and a doctor didn't mean Yusuf didn't have a brotherly duty to punch any lustful men in the balls!
Then why not let him explode? That would certainly free things up - but no, then Samir would never get any. "I helped your brother blow himself up!" was a lousy pick-up line. Better to say, "I stopped your brother from martyring himself and now he's safely being tortured by Mossad!"
Yusuf looked at the door - hands balled into fists, bladder all but pulsing inside - Torture! He hadn't counted on that. Hadn't counted on a lot of things really...
He hadn't counted on failing his exams for one - well, his hopes weren't exactly high for Statistics but the rest... He knew his history and literature as well as anyone else. Better in fact! Why, he'd even tried his own hand at some literary pursuits and even been published - or was going to be, the editors kept promising him. For the past seven months.
What would his mother think of him now? That's what lead to this in the first place - what would his mother have to say about all these failing grades. "Oh Yusuf, you are such a gift to me! You are such a good, studious boy!" she'd gushed when he'd been accepted into University - two years and a lifetime ago. She'd rushed to tell everyone in the neighborhood that Yusuf - her Yusuf! - was going to be educated and make something of himself.
And then she'd see his most recent grades and likely throw herself from the roof.
Better to be a martyr - at least she could still have pride in her son. Better to make something of himself the old fashioned way - the way all the old men playing dominoes described - "Striking a blow at the Zionist oppressors!" Not a doctor or a lawyer but much more dignified than a drop-out.
That's what Samir promised. "You're my friend, of course I'll help you - and I'll take care of Alia when you're gone." Of course, someone - an honorable man - had to watch after Alia back home. Even if she was already applying for fellowships at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins, she was still just a girl. Samir would take good care of her, the cunt-sniffing asshole!
Yusuf bent over, desperately clamping down his muscles so as not to piss himself...
A deep, baritone laugh rumbled all through the surrounding walls. The drab cement seemed to swell and pulse with each throaty, "Haw! Haw! Haw!" - down into the floors, spreading right into the soles of Yusuf's feet, quivering up his legs and stabbing into his poor distended bladder, the sudden stab of pain and humiliation as he began to drip -
The door swung open. A young officer ducked in just long enough to let a bucket clatter to the floor.
Yusuf dragged the bucket into a corner and let loose a torrent of piss - only briefly worrying about whether or not this might be what just the Zionists wanted.
* * *
In a dusty cramped trailer full of little children scribbling crude crayon drawings, Marie smiled as two of her students argued back and forth. She understood enough of the local Arabic patois to glean -
"You're not supposed to draw Muhammad!"
"I told you, he's not Muhammad!"
Marie didn't think the rough crayon sketch of a bearded man looked anything like Muhammad but kids were so cute when they argued over the things they thought grown-ups found important.
"I said it's my Uncle Rashid. He looks like Muhammad."
"You can't say that!"
But when the other kids started looking up from their own projects to get a look at the not-Muhammad, Marie had to intervene. "Okay everyone, eyes on your own work." Leaning over the picture in question - a rough sketch in blue and orange of an impossibly tall man with an even more impossible beard - she said, "Very good, Makaka."
"Moqtada," the girl who'd started the commotion corrected. Then, in the loose English they learned in another class, "Mizz Marie, he's not supposed to be drawing Muhammad. It's haram."
A Muslim word. Marie wanted to be open and accepting but every day seemed to produce another medieval superstition - no, that wasn't fair. These weren't Baptists, they're faith was deeply cultural and complicated. But Marie still felt obligated to show them a more enlightened avenue.
"Yes it is, Radhra," she said to the little girl. "So how do we really know this is what Muhammad looks like?"
Moqtada chimed in, "That's what I said!" Even though he didn't.
"So what does your Uncle Rashid do?" Marie asked sweetly.
"He's a soldier!"
Oh, this would be awkward...
"Well, um... That's very, uh, nice," Marie stammered.
"He's a brave, brave man and when I grow up I want to be just like him!" Moqtada said with an impish gleam to his eye.
Distantly, Marie wondered if he were doing this on purpose. Very distantly. She kept telling herself - They suffered so much that even a... whatever type of soldier Uncle Rashid was must have an... appeal. Of sorts.
Thankfully, she didn't have to keep playing along. The door of the little trailer classroom swung open and Serena entered. A pretty middle-aged woman, Marie had been surprised when first meeting her because she didn't wear a veil. Didn't wear anything one would expect on such a simple Palestinian matron - instead, she dressed very modern and western.
"Tomen, children! Time to go home!" Serena called to the half dozen students.
The Muhammad debate vanished as both Moqtada and Radhra popped up, snatching their little backpacks and scurrying out around Serena's long skirts, followed by the others. They left their crayons and manila papers scattered across the squat metal folding tables - as usual. Marie had learned pretty early in this job that cleanup was strictly women's work.
And as confirmation - "Oh, let me help you," Serena said, swishing over to help gather the scattered art supplies.
"No, that's okay, I..." Marie tried protesting. She hated how helpful everyone was always trying to be. She'd come all this way to help them after all - even if collecting a few stray crayons wasn't on the same level. Still, whenever one of them did something for her, Marie couldn’t help feeling an uncomfortable sense of her own privilege.
Or feeling like a load.
Honestly, that itched at her more - being a burden to these good people, with all they had to endure day to day... And then they would bow and scrape to her! It reminded her of the submissive custodians during her brief internship at Am-Web, always bowing and scraping and smiling so politely when she tried out her Spanish with them. The knowledge that she was receiving special treatment - privileged treatment, and white privilege at that - gnawed at her...
"...all very enthusiastic," Serena was saying. "I know Bashir, my nephew, he only ever wants to talk about your class."
Marie feigned a discomfort at the praise. "Oh, I don't know..."
Serena's smile lost a little of its warmth. "Yes you do."
Marie felt herself wilting under those hard, alien eyes. This always happened! They always did this! All their customs and nuances at times - particularly now - seemed like some elaborate shorthand to keep her forever off-balance, forever outside their -
No no no... She couldn't judge them so harshly, not with everything they had endured. "Quit the stinkin' thinkin'!" as her therapist would say. "Yeah... Yes. They're really wonderful too."
Serena stiffened at that remark. Just an involuntary recoiling from the Yankee girl which fortunately went unnoticed...
"And you know, I think they're really improving," Marie continued, gathering up the papers with their squiggly drawings of family, or trees, or... something. "Not that, you know, they weren't great - I mean, they're definitely..."
"Yes, yes," Serena said amicably as Marie sputtered on. She'd gotten used to the girl's overly cautious manner of speaking about everything. She'd have assumed it was a personal twitchyness if she hadn't witnessed it in so many of these American students spending their summers trying to "help." Always wanting so badly to "help" and then looking all pale and sick when given some specific instructions as to how.
That's how Marie started. She'd arrived with the latest batch of humanitarian boys and girls - some with the Peace Corps, some with Habitat, and some like Marie who seemed to be trying to do it all solo. Backpacking Samaritans. The poor wispy girl had appeared one morning at the Gaza school claiming she'd been sent over by "Achmed and Ithir at the old hospital." Seems the rough renovation work had been a little too rough.
Damned if Serena didn't find it all a little too rough herself. As a girl, Gaza had been a thoroughly modern city - even with the Israeli raids and border check points. Now, after the most recent purges and the institution of martial law, she felt like a prisoner in her own country. The old school where the children used to go had been reduced to rubble - "A Hamas training compound!" the state-controlled news had declared. Now they had to make do with these hot, stinking trailers donated by well-meaning, well-fed First Worlders -
Like Marie. Serena didn't know sometimes whether to pity the poor useless creature or slit her throat. As she babbled on, the latter started to look quite appealing...
"...very much like Monet. Oh, Monet was an impressionist..."
Serena interrupted, as politely as possible, "I've personally always preferred the work of Cezanne."
Marie looked at the older woman as if she were a dog that had suddenly stood upright and began to talk - and quickly, silently admonished herself. Why shouldn't Serena know Cezanne? "Oh, Cezanne's really good too!" Marie blurted out in a hurry.
Marie felt that old familiar tension of the host humoring the white girl. Damned Serena for making her - no, no. Quit the stinkin' thinkin'...
"So," Marie said conversationally, packing away the last of the crayons. "Same time tomorrow?"
Serena looked away to hide her grimace. "Yes. Of course." Might as well get all the use out of this dense girl while they could.
Marie snatched up her Jansport backpack and hurried out of the stuffy trailer, leaving Serena to lock up as usual. Outside, even so late in the day, the air felt thick with heat. And dry. That surprised Marie when she first arrived - Gaza was on the coast! How could the air taste so dry and stale?
She shuffled off down the street in the direction of the high rise she'd found a room in upon arriving. Fourteen stories - with the eighth floor under renovation. An Israeli missile had burned it out just last year targeting an "insurgent." Some might question the safety of staying in such a place but Marie would just laugh at them - or frequently practiced laughing at such questions regarding her bravery or integrity. Someday she might even get to do it for real...
Halfway, she remembered she had absolutely nothing left to eat. She cast her gaze around for a cafe or gyro stand - a sight more common than keffiyahs. And it's not like she had to worry about any catcalls or people angrily disparaging her "decadent western dress." Those preppie jerks back at UCB would probably have a brain aneurysm at that. Friendly and progressive Arabs - Shocking indeed!
Besides, Marie was wearing jeans.
She stopped in a now familiar cafe. Marie preferred their falafel mainly because it came with the tzatziki on the side - a must for a vegan diet. She politely never tossed the tzatziki until she was well out of sight.
"Hello, Hosni!" Marie said cheerfully to the old clerk.
"Ah, the pretty girl returns!"
Pretty girl. He always called her that, never by her name. Marie told herself it was only the most innocent of compliments. Not like that one Classics professor...
"Uh, one falafel, please?" The semi-regular stops had done more for her conversational Arabic than that Rosetta Stone CD.
"Yes! Yes!" Hosni busied himself whipping together her package. No one else in the shop - though he always seemed to single her out even during the lunch rush. Such a sweet old man, really...
Marie searched in her bag - and pulled out considerably less cash than she expected. Still enough for the felafel but just barely. Either she hadn't packed enough that morning or she'd need to ask her mom to wire some more much earlier than expected.
Several blocks away, Moqtada was boosting his popularity showing off the fat wad of bills he pinched from the Yankee teacher while she was in the bathroom.
* * *
The flashing lights of the two-dozen cameras nearly blinded Ari. He hated these bullshit photo-ops - especially with these fat, loud Americans.
This one in particular, an honorable Senator Graham of Kansas, was just the sort of turbo-charged fat man with a voice like a mortar Ari found himself hosting more often than he would've liked. The previous PM, Meir, had explained when Ari took the job that playing nice with these provincial yahoos was the only way to keep material flowing - and Ari, as much as he hated to admit it, agreed. Since the Great Awakening, as all those expat Pal weasels kept calling it, left them surrounded on all sides by some particularly antagonistic regimes. Really this time, not like the line they used to feed the Americans in the good ol' days when the Arabs were kept down properly...
"-honor and a pleasure to be here! Yes indeed!" Graham was bloviating. "The good people of Israel could teach a thing or two to them appeasement-happy, terrorist coddlers infecting the universities of my own country!"
They never could see anything outside the narrow lens of their own home towns, these honorable senators and congressmen. Ari smiled anyway, doing his diplomatic best for the media.
"We have to stand by Israel!" Graham continued, face red with the effort and flecks of spittle around his puffy lips. "All western countries must stand by Israel! Only with Israel can we hope to spread free markets and democracy throughout the Middle East! Only with Israel can we hold the line against Islamofascism!"
Ari never really understood what the fuck they meant by that word. The Pals may have been fecund fanatics but they never went about in brownshirts. Even the Iranians, with all their Holocaust denialism, didn’t go in for the full on Neo-Nazi drive. From what Ari understood, most of those types were found in the same small towns these honorable gentlemen represented.
But what the hell? The F word was good propaganda...
Once Graham had finally run out of blather, the questions started shooting in -
" - have a comment on the latest violence in Gaza"
" - position on the night raids by the IDF"
" - true that a terrorist suffered a 'wardrobe malfunction?'"
Ari recognized the CNN correspondent who'd asked that last one. He found them all to be smirking, sniveling lickspittles - even if they were technically on his side - but this one always aggravated him. A silver-haired poof with that obnoxiously droning Middle-American accent he'd become all too familiar with in this job.
"As a matter a' fact, he did!" Graham laughed - more of a cackle full of wheezing. "Seems the 'gentleman,' hehe -" he was really amused by his own little joke - "attempted to detonate an explosive vest and nothin' happened!" And he laughed so hard he couldn’t tell few others found it funny.
Ari wondered if Graham and his pet journo had worked this out ahead of time. He'd seen it before of course, the Americans having long ago co-opted their own news media. Whenever he tried to get these fat senators to share the secret, they would look shocked and loudly - and obnoxiously - declare the freedom and openness of the press.
If the silver-haired suck-up really was free, he didn’t show it - "Haha! Excellent!" he chortled subserviently back at Graham.
The rest of the media didn't share the CNN-tool's sentiments. The ones not glaring at him as a stain on their profession bombarded Ari and Graham with even more incendiary questions -
" - support the coerced confessions of suspects?"
" - bulldozed a primary school in the middle of the day?"
"Prime Minister Shekel!" boomed one, an old Israeli journo Ari had grown to hate with a passion. "Is there any truth to the rumors of the IDF's recent use of white phosphorous against civilians?"
That last one caused Graham's amiably empty grin to drop hard. The reporters saw it and a whole chorus sprang up -
" - burning civilians?"
" - does the US support this action"
" - supply the weapon!?"
Not even Graham's pet could pitch one of his nonsense questions through the sudden noise. While Graham began to shrink back - no easy feat for a man of his bulk - Ari seethed inside. Somebody talked! Goddammit, they were supposed to be keeping a lid on that, at least for the time being! And especially when these news-jackals were around!
Ari got so worked up planning which heads would roll, he nearly forgot to extricate himself and his wheezing guest from the burgeoning inquisition. It took the frantic buzzing of his ear piece, an electronic shriek of, "Get out of there! Get the fuck out of there! Now!" for him to refocus on the immediate reality.
"I'm afraid that's all the time we have," Ari said as loud as he could, as much to be heard over the reporters as to cow them. "That's all the time we have! Thank you, ladies and gentlemen!"
And a whole new round of protests rose up as Ari hustled Graham out of the room, between the hulking security Ari liked to display on these occasions and down a long corridor where access was restricted to only the people that mattered.
Seeing the hurt and anxious expression on Graham's face, Ari hurried to reassure him as they walked, "I'm terribly sorry about that. One of those rabble-rouser types, you know? No respect for the office, always spouting off."
Graham nodded feebly, looking like he could cry and vomit all at once. These Americans had such fragile egos...
It took the whole rest of the walk back to his office for Ari to raise the senator's spirits. Lots of "So terribly sorry," and "Yes, it's all very shameful of them," and "Very brave of you! Absolutely!"
By the time they sat down to the real meat of Graham's meeting, he seemed to have that old swagger back. "Hehe, I'd like to see him gettin' all mouthy with the Hezzies, am I right?" He wrapped a fist against Ari's shoulder, a little harder than the Prime Minister would've liked.
"Quite right, quite right..." Ari muttered amicably. How he hated this smiley glad-handing. He'd yet to meet a single American that didn't desire - no, need this sort of faux-friends banter before getting down to the serious business of weapons shipments.
Graham continued, "He reminds me of some li'l pissant I had to chase away from a speech once. Name of Tabby or somethin' soundin' kinda ay-rab like, you know? He kept on pesterin' me with questions 'bout 'finances' this and 'appropriations' that. I tell ya, had I been down at Stucky's and that there commie bastard had started spoutin' off..."
All these senators liked to fantasize about bar fights for some reason. And especially fighting communists. Didn't they understand he wasn't one of their pig-ignorant constituents? Ari had been with the IDF – admittedly in an administrative capacity but still - he’d been educated at Yale, he’d battled his way to the front of Likud and now personally signed off on the Mossad operations that so often caught the high-profile terrorists the Americans spent years invading the wrong countries for.
And none of that mattered here. This idiot senator had the weapons Ari needed. So he could do nothing but smile and nod.
"...and dragged 'em for twenty miles! Hahaha!" And he slapped his meaty hand on Ari's back, nearly knocking the wind out of the smaller man.
Asshole... "Senator, if we might speak business - for only a moment." Ari gestured for the big man to squeeze into one of the chairs opposite Ari's impressively massive desk. "As I'm sure you know -" though not very, considering the staffer that briefed the senator had reported him being less than interested in the subject - "we're expanding our Gaza operations. Bombings have gone up exponentially."
"Really boomin', huh?" Graham snickered.
Ari grimaced with good humor. "Yes... Now, with that expansion we've been expending munitions at an accelerated rate. Of course, Israel appreciates your support but... There's been something lacking lately."
Graham's wide grin contracted a little, his eyes darting about the office to avoid Ari's gaze. "Well, the thing is," the senator said, shuffling one foot on the floor, "thing is, we've got some, uh, problems of our own..."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Ari said, trying very hard not to grin.
"Yeah, um, I'm not tryin' to jew you or nothin' but there's only so much we can do these days..."
Ari waited for Graham to sit up in shock and begin apologizing... The senator continued to stare at his own scuffling shoes, utterly oblivious. Finally, Ari said with not a little effort, "Material isn't really a concern these days. It's more a manpower shortage. We're not a large country - not as large as you." He let that hang for a little bit before continuing. "No, senator, what we'd like to request - what I'd like to request, since this is hardly something to be run through official channels - is that your country steps up its 'emigration' program."
Again, speaking in the same language used for the rubes. Since that vicious hick had been installed in the White House – Ari could never remember her name, something Palmann – the US had been deporting Jewish citizens in exponentially greater numbers to Israel for some half-baked reason.
"Oh... Oh, yeah?" Graham's expression wasn't the easiest to read. Relieved? Confused? Hungry?
"Yes," Continued Ari, "I'm afraid we can't meet our own recruitment needs. Not with our present population."
The puffy lips turned up in a smile. Definitely relieved. "Well, that sure is different now in't it? I do believe we can accommodate you folks there. 'Course, uh, this might call -"
The door to Ari's office banged open. Had Graham not been stuck between the arm rests, he would've bolted out of his chair. Ephraim stalked into the room, his hook face already set in a scowl. "We need to talk," he said roughly to his own Prime Minister.
"Senator, allow me to introduce Ephraim Roth, Mossad's chief of operations," Ari said, taking great effort to keep his voice level.
Now Graham did bolt out of his seat - or squeezed out hurriedly. "Oh, it is a pleasure to meet you!" he gushed to Ephraim. "A real pleasure!"
The wiry old spy chief looked down out the proffered, puffy hand - then back at Graham's ruddy face. Ephraim's eyes remained cold and unblinking.
Graham took the hint and retreated back to his seat.
"We need to talk," Ephraim said again, glaring.
Ari's knee started to bounce, though thankfully his desk hid this nervous affectation from the other two men. He could always try pulling rank - Ephraim may have been top throat-slitter for the past three administrations but Ari was still the goddamn Prime Minister! A quick, dismissive, "We'll talk later, Mister Roth!" Throwing that "Mister" in there would really set old Ephraim off.
And then Ari would be offed...
"Yes, uh, excuse us, Senator," Ari said, shifting in his seat with the hope of bringing his knee back under control. "I'm afraid we'll have to finish this later. Ephraim and I," Ari stole a glance at the elder man - and quickly looked away to avoid visibly wilting under that hard gaze, "I mean, affairs of state and all."
"Oh?" Graham said, blind to the silent exchange between the other two men. "Oh, well, um, I suppose so. Affairs, like you said..." He squeezed out of the chair again, grinning good-naturedly and trundling out of the office.
As the door shut behind the American Senator, Ephraim hissed, "I should feed you to a gaddamned crocodile!"
Shaken, Ari tried to assert himself. "Now that's just -
"Shut it!" Ephraim snapped, stalking around the desk to loom over Ari. "I know you're something special with those Likud schmucks - some wunderkind because you've learned to cough up their America-loving cant before your brain was sufficiently atrophied like the rest of those buzzards!"
"Well, I think -"
"No you don't! You don't think, that's how-how this happens!" and he threw the folder down into Ari's lap.
Ari didn't have to look at it. He knew what this particular report would be about, judging by Ephraim's demeanor...
"I understand you're upset," Ari said tentatively. "But you were at the meeting too. You knew this was coming - I daresay you signed off on it."
Ephraim just stalked back and forth in the office, grumbling.
"Yes, it's painful now," Ari continued, hoping to placate the old war horse. "Change is always painful. But we're doing this for the long-term results -"
"Ha!" Ephraim barked. "Long-term, he says? Ha! What do you know about 'long-term' boy?" he demanded, shaking a long finger at Ari. "Do you know about building up an asset for years? Getting to know his family on their birthdays so when the time comes you know just who to dangle in front of him to get what you want? You know who to bribe? Who to terrorize? Who to garrote even in a dark room!?"
"Well, let's not be so graphic -"
"Ha!" Ephraim snapped again. "'Graphic' he says! Do you know graphic? Did you see any 'graphic' when you were blowing goys at Yale?"
"I served my term in the IDF," Ari protested.
"Oh, I know! The brave file clerk!" Ephraim returned to his stalking, still muttering obscenities in that thick Ashkenazi accent. A survivor of the Soviet pogroms, he'd risen fast through Mossad doing all the sorts of jobs polite society liked to pretend didn't happen...
But of course Ari knew it happened. He signed off on it these days - which, as he kept trying to remind himself, placed Ephraim under him in the hierarchy. "I understand you're upset but this was agreed upon. I'm certainly not happy about it -"
"But it's just the way things are going to be." Ari steeled himself, desperately trying not to flinch as Ephraim scowled at him.
After an uncomfortably long silence, Ephraim grumbled, "It's mingers like you who make people think Hitler was right." And he stormed out of the office, slamming the door on his way.
* * *
Yusuf had finally managed to fall asleep in the molded plastic chair when the cell door banged open. He silently cursed himself for jumping at the noise as a thick man with a thin gray beard and matching gray suit stomped in, hauling an additional chair behind him and clutching a thick folder in his other hand.
"I read your student records," the man said while pulling up the chair and straddling it, allowing him to loom forward with folded arms while still looking ready to bounce up at the slightest provocation. "Says you speak English?"
Yusuf remained silent.
The man nodded, "Alright, we'll get to that eventually..." He spun the chair around and sat back in it casually, leafing through the folder he'd brought. "What else, what else... Hmm, not the best grades? Especially in sciences? Well, don't let it get to you. Tends to go with better verbal skills..." The corner of his mouth perked up and he grunted in amusement, "Except in your case."
Yusuf winced. He'd hoped to be safely martyred before anyone started going through his story like this. Getting blown to bits he could deal with, but his failures being so roughly rubbed in his face...
"Does your mother know you're here?" the man asked without looking up. "I only asked because it also looks like she was covering your tuition since you couldn't find a job. Awfully nice of her, huh? Don't suppose she'd do the same for your little sister?"
Yusuf gnawed the inside of his lip. This damned, vulgar Zionist! He'd like to leap up and give the man a proper thrashing, give him a good long, "How dare you! You fucking dog!" Show him just what sort of man Yusuf was when some ugly outsider came along to disparage his family -
But he remained seated. And remained silent.
The man slapped the folder down on the table, causing Yusuf to jump. "Here's how it's gonna be," the man said, no longer smirking but still with an amiable tone in his voice - alongside the menace. "I'm going to play nice for a while and you're gonna sit there like a mute chimp, just looking at me. Then I'm gonna play mean and you're gonna cry and curse me and maybe confess to a whole bunch of stuff you didn't do just to make me stop. I've done this plenty of times so it won't bother me, it's just more pain for you before you tell me what I want to know anyway."
He leaned forward, savoring the effects of his words on Yusuf. "Or," he said, the smile returning, "we can skip all that and have a nice, friendly chat. Maybe get a cot in here for you." He cocked a thumb over his shoulder, "Would you like some tea?"
Yusuf remained silent - not knowing just what this strange man would do to him but assuring himself that as a Man and a devout supplicant of God he would survive it...
The man didn't waste any time. Leaning around in his chair, he whistled and the cell door again banged open. Two Israeli police - or soldiers, their uniforms didn't show any distinct markings - rushed in and harshly grappled Yusuf's arms, one of them slamming his head face-first onto the table.
There they paused as the man leaned close to Yusuf to whisper in a sing-song voice, "Last chance..."
Yusuf tried spitting in the man's face but the angle was all wrong - he just managed a bit of spittle across the table and on his own nose.
The man smiled and nodded to the two Israelis. They hauled Yusuf over to the corner with the piss bucket - now stagnant from hours of festering in this fetid cell. One kicked out Yusuf's knee to bring him down while the other took hold of his hair and jammed Yusuf's head in the bucket. He felt his own piss rush into his nose and eyes and mouth - an acrid, ammonia flavor that burned while still being bitter. Shocked, Yusuf tried to scream but only wound up with a mouthful of more piss.
They let him up, coughing and sputtering and wishing he had enough in his stomach to properly wretch. From the table, the man again spoke, "Now we're gonna do that to you a whole lot more. That is unless you feel like talking civilly."
Coughing out his own piss, Yusuf could barely find the air to sputter back, "Eyreh be afass seder emmak!"
The man didn't have anything to say to that - but he must've understood Arabic because Yusuf felt himself hauled back up, an Israeli hand again shoving his head into the piss bucket. It didn't burn quite as much this time...
The man didn't have anything to say when they let Yusuf back up again. Only a short breather, then back into it - over and over again. Yusuf threw up twice within fifteen minutes and felt a pounding in his chest - as if his body was hurrying to convert to this new strangled-with-piss followed by two-minute-breather configuration.
Every time they pulled him out, Yusuf hoped he came closer to when they finally gave up and put a bullet through the back of his head. Maybe if he couldn't convince them he didn't know anything or at least that he wouldn't talk, they would get fed up and just kill him. Instead, after the seventeenth or eighteenth dunk, the man called from across the small room, "Hell, that's enough!"
The two Israelis let Yusuf collapse to the floor, retching and blubbering. Ah good, he thought. Now they'd just kill him!
Instead, the man came over to loom over Yusuf. He held a large, heavy-looking flashlight. "Tough guy, ain't ya?" he asked, not expecting an answer. "That's fine. We deal with tough guys all the time. Y'know, I'd honestly be disappointed if you hadn't held out 'till now."
He kneeled down and let the flashlight lightly thump against Yusuf's piss-dampened shoulder. "I'm letting you catch your breath. I'd like to hear you scream properly for what's coming next." He started rubbing the flashlight against Yusuf. "Believe it or not, we're working from a standard manual here. We're not just making this shit up as we go. Next on the list is I shove this," and he brushed the flashlight against Yusuf's face, "up your ass.
Yusuf stiffened - now he couldn't be serious! No way the Zionists, depraved as they were, would resort to anything homosexual!
"Now, most guys break right then - maybe 'cause they don't expect us to really do it. Shock and awe sorta thing," the man continued. "But some," and he idly drummed the flashlight against Yusuf’s back, lower and lower, "some hold out. Then it's all jumper cables and pulling fingernails and pretty soon they're too dumb with pain to give us anything useful. Some'll confess to trying to blow up the Moon by that point!" and he let out a wheezing laugh.
No... No, no, no. No way he could be serious! But that emptiness Yusuf saw in the man's eyes, that twisting smirk he wore... Merciful God, he might actually do it! Yusuf didn't know if he could hold out through - through that! He'd try, God knows he'd try...
"Now, what we could do," the man said, "is we could bring in what’s her name... Oh right, Farzana!"
Yusuf gaped at the man. Now he really couldn't be serious -
"That's your sister, right? Farzana?" The man smirked down at him. "We can set her up in a room just like this one, go to work on her. We could set up a live feed to this room and you could watch everything!"
Seeing the man's toothy grin, Yusuf knew he was serious. He'd do all those things and worse to Farzana just so Yusuf could see it and know that it was happening, all of it, because of him...
The man hopped up and started pacing about. "Yeah, this can work. Since we've got your bucket, we don't have to wait for her to fill her own. You held out how many times? I figure we'll double the number, just to keep things interesting. And I've already got -"
"No!" Yusuf blubbered out, following it with a wet cough.
The man turned to him, smiling without a shred of humanity. "See? I knew you'd come around eventually. You did strike me as a smart boy." He came back to kneel again next to Yusuf. "Since we're going to be civil, you can call me John..."
* * *
The hookah wobbled atop the table Samir set to rattling with his bouncing leg. Damn fucking red wires and blue wires and God help him but Hamas would saw his head off for this!
It shouldn't have gone like this - damn but Yusuf should be gone! He should be blown to Martyr Paradise so Samir could be getting off with Yusuf's sister with a clear conscience and using the life insurance to fund a proper wedding and house and mistresses! Goddamn wires...
Yusuf had been surprisingly receptive to the idea. The poor guy had always dreamed of being a philosopher or professor of some sort, but his written English always mixed up “there,” “their,” and “they’re,” and the less said about his interpretation of Nietzsche the better... Getting dumped from the university after that had come swiftly, almost naturally. Yusuf, seeing the only dream he'd ever bothered to have snatched out from under him, lost all interest in the finer things in life like women and booze. When you're twenty, every little failure is the end of the world.
Except this latest little failure really was the end for Samir. Why had he ever gone to Hamas to cover his gambling debts? Oh yes, they would be happy to help him - as long as he returned the favor. And if not him personally then surely he knew someone...
Sure, Samir knew someone. Someone who probably crossed his own wires - the colorblind bastard - and now was sweating in some Mossad dungeon, probably giving the damn Israelis a novel’s worth of information on who put him up to it, where the materials came from - God's Balls, if Hamas didn't get him the fucking Israelis would probably be waiting in his fridge!
Samir again looked around the cafe he'd sat down at - eyes darting about behind his designer sunglasses. He could see so many happy people laughing, chatting away - old and young. The street just outside choked with energy, Arab and Israeli pushing against each other in all their respective little lives - how many of them waiting for Samir to step out of the cafe?
When he heard about Yusuf's "malfunction" - what the reporter on CNN had called it, barely containing his laughter - Samir had quickly packed and scrambled out of Farzana's apartment before she could ask what was going on. Not that they said Yusuf’s name, or gave any other description beyond “would-be mass homicide bomber,” but Samir knew only his good friend could fuck up that badly. And with all the other attacks carrying off, those Jewish monsters would have more than just interrogation on their minds when they went to work on Yusuf – or anyone else they happened to find. Better for Samir to get out fast.
It had been to protect Farzana of course - he told himself at the time - but now, not-so-gracefully swinging back his sixth coffee between puffs, he wondered if they weren't grilling poor Farzana right now too. She was Yusuf’s brother after all, that wouldn’t be too hard to figure out. And when they went after her, they’d naturally start learning about Samir and his occasional trips to the red zone, where you didn’t go unless you wanted to risk a Hellfire missile up your -
A car backfired outside and Samir nearly leapt up and soiled himself. Dammit, he couldn't just keep sitting here! They may be looking for him or they may be grilling Yusuf – literally - either way, sitting still wouldn't accomplish much.
His eyes darted about again behind the shades - the man by the door looked clean and well paid enough to be working for Mossad - the old men just two tables away happily chatting could be Hamas lieutenants - the girl pacing in front of the kitchen chattering on her mobile could be ratting him out!
Samir took a few deep breaths, trying to keep control of his jangling nerves and bowels. Thirty-seven steps to the door, thirty-seven steps out of this kill zone. One at a time, Samir assured himself. One at a time... After the first seven, he had to duck back. He'd forgotten his bag. Mossad would like that.
Ten steps now, the Mossad man by the door turned a page in his newspaper - Thirteen steps, the girl by the kitchen getting louder, maybe not ratting him out to the Jews but to someone much worse, like Farzana’s aunts - Twenty steps and the old men back by the table he just left pushed back their chairs, loudly preparing to leave, taunting him - Twenty-nine steps, rushing now, the man at the door getting up - Thirty-three steps, too late now as the Mossad man turns and walks out the cafe door and Samir follows right behind - Thirty-seven! He made it! Now he only had to worry about snipers...
Samir hunched up as he bustled along with the afternoon crowd, trying hard to keep his head out of any potential crosshairs. He could buy a ticket to Athens or Cyprus but first he'd need to get across the damn city. All sorts of ways to get zapped or "disappeared," even on a sunny day. God must have been feeling merciful for once because in one of his sporadic glances about, exposing his precious head, Samir spotted a bus. And not just any bus, an airport shuttle! No waiting, no other stops, just a dead shot to his great escape!
Samir shoved his way briskly towards the one pickup - trusting the surrounding Jews and fat American tourists to provide him cover from all the Israeli and Hamas sharpshooters he knew were swarming the rooftops by now. So close now, so close to that big green bus taking him all the way to freedom. Did Greek girls dig Arab accents?
Some old woman on a cell phone stepped in front of him as he came within spitting distance of the bus. No time to lose - he shoved her out of the way, a bit more roughly than intended but no one seemed to notice. As he finally stepped into that big freedom bus, Samir had the sudden realization he had no change or fare card. But the driver, an old Palestinian, just waved him in without bothering to ask. Solidarity? Laziness? Samir had the sense not to question Fate's good graces.
Free at last! No Mossad, no Hamas, no Farzana - although no Farzana's pretty friends did sting a bit. Though Samir still couldn't help the wide idiot-grin spreading across his face as the bus rumbled on. Maybe he could get a flight all the way to Germany? Would there be an in-flight movie?
He'd fallen so deep into his fantasies of the future that he had neglected to inspect his fellow passengers. What did it matter anymore anyway? Samir was ready to sprint all the way to the tarmac - maybe even take flight all by himself - as the bus pulled into the airport -
"Allahu Akbar!" shouted a boy down the aisle as he leapt up and loosed a detonator from his coat.
Samir looked at the boy - he couldn't have been more than fourteen - and that heavy coat, so uncomfortable in the afternoon sun he should have noticed it the very second he stepped on the bus. "Oh shi -"
* * *
The windows of the hotel room shook and Marie could hear a rumbling sound not too far away. An earthquake? In Israel? Did those actually happen?
Probably not - not the way her luck was going. An earthquake, that was something. Something requiring help, courage, concern for others.
An excuse to leave this damn room.
Marie could help if it were some sort of disaster. She'd taken that first aide class and all. But no, probably just a really big truck backfiring. Contrary to all those scare stories in the media, Tel Aviv was really quite peaceful.
And quiet. And boring. And full of people in designer labels wandering around texting each other and completely fake like the people she'd left behind at Berkley. Dammit, how could she make a difference like this!?
For about the third time that day, Marie got up to stalk around the soft wall to wall carpeting, thinking over how things could have gone so wrong -
"Marie, can we talk?" Serena had asked after that day's class let out.
"Huh? Oh, I mean, of course!" Marie said rapidly, a bit flustered by the older woman's serious tone.
Serena had approached her slowly - maybe friendly? Maybe to spook her? "I know how hard you've worked here and how much the children... appreciate you." She said, hands clasped together in front of her in that unmistakable gesture that this would be seriously bad news. "But..."
So they'd thrown Marie out. Just like that! Oh, Serena had tried to be gentle, tried to lay it on softly, but the bottom line was they didn't want her around their children anymore. Didn't want Marie filling their heads with all that "decadent westerner" stuff. Sure she was going with the stinkin' thinkin' now - So what!? Not like she hadn't earned it a little, not like they didn't deserve it. Ungrateful fucking -
Another sudden blast - definitely an explosion - nearly sent the hotel windows rattling right out of their frames. Two knobby, black helicopters loaded with missiles flew by close enough for Marie to see the pilots shouting at each other, trying to decide who to shoot for whatever just happened.
Marie stared out the windows, suddenly gasping as she realized she'd been holding her breath. Even so high up, she could hear the sirens and screams from the street. She hurried into the bathroom, locking the door behind her and pulling out her iPhone, hitting the contact marked "Mom."
A ripple of blasts sounded in the distance – muffled and shuddering through the fine tile all around her - as the other end of the line buzzed to indicate a far away cell phone ringing. C'mon, c'mon...
"Mom! Hi!" and Marie winced at how relieved she sounded. Mom would know something was up.
"Is everything alright?"
"Oh, sure. Just, um, the project here it - the project ended early so I'll be flying -"
"Honey, cou... eak up, yo... ike in a... el..."
Fucking bathroom. She was supposed to get better reception than this! "Home! I'm coming home! Early!"
"Oh, tha... so nice! Y... a... ive in... poo... butt!"
What? "Uh, I didn't get all that. Could you -"
"Mes... fo... an... hi... sprit..."
Had she called during cocktail hour? "Mom, listen. I. Will. Be. Ho -"
Another explosion - much closer - thundered all through the hotel and even set the wide mirror to rattling against its clamps. Marie screamed, higher and shriller than she ever thought possible.
"Nothing! Nothing, just, uh, stubbed my toe." What in God's name was going on out there!?
To be continued...