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By GARY FULLER
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Gary Fuller
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDamascus, Syria Four Months Later, Spring 2010
Death was the uninvited guest.
The eight men seated around a long wooden table in the center of the room felt the strong, chilling presence of that guest, waiting at the door for the proper moment to join them.
Penetrating the repressive heat of mid-day Syria, it had an unmistakable presence.
Damascus, commonly known in Syria as Al Sham, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. The old city, enclosed by high walls, lies on the south bank of the river Barada which now is almost dry. While the city itself has a population of just over 1.7 million, it is surrounded by suburban areas whose history stretches back to the eleventh century. Including these areas to the south-east, north and north-east of the city, the over-crowded metropolitan area is home to 2.4 million people.
The Oqaiba neighborhood, located outside the walls of the city near Souk Saruja, features the Al-Taoubah mosque. The mosque was built on the ruins of a prostitution house by order of the Ayoubi King Al-Ashraf Mussa during the middle ages.
In an old house just four blocks from the mosque, the secret meeting began.
Off-white walls without pictures or decoration, displaying only scrapes and a few dirt streaks, framed the overly-large room. A dirty dark green cloth struggled to cover the room's single window and ban sunlight from attending the meeting. Quiet hung in the hot air and surrounded the long table; empty except for the black hoods once used as blindfolds, now resting four on each side of the table, one in front of each person.
Seated at the conference table, Hassim Raqib recognized two of the men across from him. They had shared danger planting explosive charges in buildings far away from this place. He did not know they were still alive. That had been a long time ago.
What is going on? Why are we here?
In dark corner shadows beyond the table, the shapes of two very large bearded men holding AK-74 assault rifles became visible as Raqib's eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light. They stood silently in the background, watching. Like the uninvited guest, they waited.
Raqib's mind went wild. Sweat broke out across his forehead. I'm going to die here. His arms went numb, hanging at his sides.
A strong authoritative voice made him jump. "Allahu Akbar, God is great."
Fearful and uncertain, the eight men around the table failed to return the usual reply, "Allahu."
"You have been brought here today for a reason." The strong voice continued in Arabic, attempting to speak without the local colloquialisms that separated the citizens of one country from another. "Your kidnapping was unfortunate but necessary."
An uncomfortable silence held those around the table hostage as Raqib saw the same fright that he felt on the faces of the other men. Although his eyes had now adjusted to the dimness, he could not see the man who spoke.
The voice came from behind him. "You men have a very special, glorious opportunity to serve Allah, praise be to his name. We want you to listen and to learn. This would be impossible without bringing you here."
Another nervous pause, and then the voice continued. "As members of different revolutionary groups, you share the same goal: to restore the splendor of Islam. May Allah bless you all for you have truly served him well. But it is now time to unite our efforts. Sunni and Shiite have a common enemy. Hezbollah and Hamas have a common enemy. We all share that same enemy: the Little Satan, Israel, and the Great Satan, America. They stand in the way of our goal."
Raqib noticed that the men across the table were looking over his shoulder, behind him. Growing louder, the speaker's voice felt like a heavy weight falling on the back of Raqib's shoulders. "We must rise up against this enemy together. Only then can true Jihad be achieved."
The speaker moved to the end of the table where everyone could see him. Dressed in a white dishdashah, or thawb, to reflect the hot summer sun, his strong muscular build was visible even though the long sleeved, ankle-length one piece garment covered most of his body. While a short garment was for modesty, the long white tunic signified a position of status, royalty or wealth.
He wore the lightweight, white summer Gutrah or head scarf, as opposed to the heavy red and white checkered head cover called "Shumag" worn during winter. It was topped with a black Ogal band holding the head cover in place.
Maintaining local custom, he wore the head cover as host for the meeting to show proper respect for his guests. More importantly, it identified him as leader.
Looking around the room, the speaker's large, glaring eyes met the eyes of each man, burning deeply and branding each soul. "Your organizations are weak." He spat the words out. "They settle for tiny victories instead of winning the war."
Slowly turning his chiseled face, his gaze moved around the table, searching inside each man. "I know that is not enough for you. You want more, and praise Allah, now you can have it. A new organization has been formed, starting inside the United Nations itself. This organization will cross all boundaries and unite us in our common holy cause." He shook his head yes. "It is called Soldiers of Allah's Victory."
"I am Zakir Almahdi, Aide to the United Nations Yemini delegation and leader of this new organization," he said proudly, folding his arms across his chest. "Other brothers, part of their county's delegations to the UN, have already joined me in this glorious cause. And more brothers around the world, outside the UN, will be happy to do so also."
"You men here," he paused a moment for emphasis and then started shaking his head yes, "you men now have the opportunity to truly serve the Prophet and Allah as no other before you. Together, we can make history."
Suddenly Raqib's interest peaked. Did he hear him right?
"My brothers, it is time to put our insignificant differences aside and join together in the greatest event of the Jihad." Almahdi's voice took on an assuring tone, "You will be blessed by Allah and remembered as heroes. Yes, heroes."
Silence descended over the room again as Almahdi looked around the table. "Together, we will raise the banner of Jihad in the face of the world! We will liberate Palestine from the Jew oppressors!" His voice became louder as emotion took control. Fully extending his arm upward, Almahdi clenched his fist in defiance. "We will obliterate Israel. The Zionists will no longer be able to hide behind the rocks and trees."
Eyes enlarged, he glared at them as he lowered his arm. "It will end the shrewd, selfish manipulation that western imperial countries force upon our part of the world. We will be free and Allah will be glorified."
Raqib felt Almahdi's forceful stare searching inside him, questioning if he grasped what had been said. Did Raqib really have the courage for this task? He sat up straight and put his shoulders back. I am ready.
Almahdi continued, "This event will wipe Israel off the face of the earth and deliver a fatal punch to the face of the American Great Satan."
A slight smile appeared on his face.
"The result of your actions will be nuclear war."
Chapter TwoNew York City
"You've been wallowing in this depression for over a year!"
The frustration burst from his mouth, screaming for attention. No one had ever heard Peter raise his voice before.
"Listen to me, please!" The concern in the shout was overwhelming. He had to get through to his best friend, breach that protective armor. "Steven, there has to be a change, and soon."
Dr. Steven Grant, professor of political science at Columbia University, paced the floor of his New York City apartment. Now in his late forties, he still presented himself well. At just over six feet and two hundred pounds, his gray polo shirt and dark blue slacks disclosed only a hint of a paunch around his middle. The athletic grace of his movements reflected extensive physical conditioning.
He rubbed his hand through his light brown hair, just beginning to thin and gray around the edges. His head down, his blue eyes searched back and forth as if looking for a lost item on the floor. He did not want to hear these words, but he knew his best friend was right.
Steven's hand slid down and unconsciously scratched the elliptical scar that ran horizontally from near his left eyebrow to just inside his hairline. He often did this while deep in thought. "Peter, I ..." Not finding any more words, Steven shrugged and continued pacing.
Peter lowered his voice, but remained firm. "Listen, Steven. I know how much she meant to you, but it's time you face reality. Rebecca's not coming back."
Dr. Peter Standish, now fifty and balding, also a political science professor at Columbia, had known Steven and Rebecca since their marriage. He knew Steven even before that, when they both started their teaching careers at Harvard.
He sat at a small table in the area that served as both a dining and living room in Steven's Columbia faculty apartment on the West Side overlooking the river. Peter still wore his tweed sport coat, while Steven's hung on the back of a chair. Peter also wore an open collar shirt and looked to be in pretty fair physical condition. He should have. Steven and he worked out together in the gym three times a week.
Looking around the room, Peter felt the cold, impersonal emptiness of a morgue. The apartment held only dark loneliness since the removal of all the pictures: photos showing Becky enjoying a hot dog with Steven at Coney Island, her golden hair blowing in the wind on the Staten Island Ferry, and her playful smile when Steven made a silly face at her.
Not far from the Columbia campus, the Paterno, an apartment building in Morningside Heights, is located on the corner of 116th and Riverside Drive. Rising twelve stories, it provides tenants on the west side of the building, where Steven lived, an unobstructed view of the Hudson River and the far shore. The first six floors feature cozy one and two bedroom apartments.
Steven's family apartment on the eighth floor indicated his role at the university as a full professor with senior status. Three bedrooms, two baths and a small but reasonable living space made the apartment a comfortable home.
The master bedroom had enough room for a king size bed, dresser and single night stand, along with a small table and two comfy chairs that provided a secluded reading area. The second bedroom, used primarily for storage, contained a queen bed reserved for rare overnight guests. Having decided early in their marriage not to have children, he and Rebecca agreed Steven could use the third bedroom as a home office.
The apartment had once permeated with vibrant energy, pleasant conversation, tender kisses, and the sound of glasses coming together in toasts with warm laughter. The stark contrast of the life previously enjoyed here compared to the emptiness now felt in the apartment was brutally severe.
Peter swirled his cocktail and listened to the ice clinking. He sighed and pushed his glasses back on his nose. "You're hiding in the shadows of your office. You've withdrawn and alienated your students and colleagues alike."
Steven stopped pacing. The ceaseless pain still devouring his insides, he lifted his head and turned to look at his friend. He felt tears swelling in his red, swollen eyes. His lips trembled as he tried to speak. Then the emotional reservoir broke and the words burst forth, "Peter, Becky was my wife for twenty-one years! How the hell do I get over that?"
His voice filled with anguish. "She was the love of my life! I walk around the corner and still expect to see her standing here in this room."
A tragic accident took Rebecca's life more than a year before. An exceptional woman, so full of life, the sunlight lit her soul. Her dark eyes sparkled each time she flashed that beautiful but mischievous and seductive smile she would aim at your heart. Her sudden death took all that away.
Peter's voice softened, becoming a whisper. "She's gone, Steven, and she can't come back. She's dead."
Dead. The word hit him like hearing it for the first time. The cold truth swept over him once more. Not just the death of a loved one, it was the death of his soul mate.
Tears now flowed freely down the sides of his face. Steven's heart ached, ripped apart by the sudden death of the woman with whom he shared every intimate detail of his life. And since that darkest of moments, the pain was forever present, a scar upon his soul.
The accident could have happened to anyone, but it happened to her. The pickup driver had a sudden heart attack. Dead before he hit her, his truck veered across the center line and hit Rebecca's car head-on, killing her instantly.
Steven had not been there to protect her. The police said there was nothing he could have done. Had he been in the car at the time, he would have been killed too.
None of that helped.
I miss you, Becky. Pain engulfed his entire being. I will always love you.
Shaking his head no, he said, "Peter, I just don't know how to get beyond it."
Outside, the dark sky filled with gray clouds, crowding together to weep. Laden tears of rain beat drums of sorrow against the windows. Black, gloomy pools of water formed on the ground and gave no reflection.
Peter asked, "Have you thought about some help with this, some therapy?"
"Actually, yes. I got a referral from the insurance company, a Dr. Jonas." Steven grimaced, took a deep breath and exhaled his exasperation. "Supposedly he had several years experience, but he didn't seem that old. He must have memorized some theories in school because he just asked a few questions, then tried cramming me into some theoretical framework. He recited a few quotes and tried telling me about the 'normal' ways to reconnect with life."
"So he was a great help, huh?"
"Yeah, right." With a short laugh, Steven shook his head. "He didn't listen to me at all. There was no emotion, no feeling of any kind. He just fit me into this fractured mold of his."
Steven turned to face Peter. "When the esteemed doctor finished expounding, he stood up, shook my hand and said how nice it was that he could help."
"Yeah, it was nice alright." Peter's sarcasm reflected Steven's own feelings. "So much for that idea."
Steven resumed pacing, shrugged his shoulders and raised his hands, reaching for answers that were not there. "So what do I do, Peter? What do I do?"
"You find a way to get on with your life!" Peter spoke with an emphatic certainty that would not be denied. "Decide that life is for the living ... of which you are."
His tone moderated as Peter's voice betrayed his frustration. "Steven, the only time you get out is going to the gym with me. It's time to move beyond this. Actually, it's past that time."
Peter's voice softened even more as he began speaking with compassion. "My friend, you had an exceptional relationship with Becky. You know in your heart that she loved you. And she knows you loved her. Ask yourself, if you knew at the start of your relationship that it could only last this long, would you still choose to be with her, to marry her?"
"Yes." He paused, looking at his friend. "Yes, of course I would."
"Then be happy for the time you had together. Cherish it. And know that because she loved you, she would want you to be happy. She was proud of you, what you have accomplished, who you have become. She would be extremely disappointed if you threw that away."
A long pause allowed Steven to absorb that thought. It made sense. Slowly, it became reality.
Pouring another drink for both of them, Peter said, "Sit down a minute, Steven. I know this doesn't seem like the time, but I have something very important to discuss with you."
He handed his friend a drink as Steven sat down at the small table.
Dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief, Steven said, "I know you're trying to help, Peter. Thanks for being my friend."
Peter sipped his drink and put it down. "This is not the best timing, but we really need to talk about this." He waited.
Steven tried to compose himself, and forced a small, grateful smile. "Go ahead."
"Are you okay?" Peter paused, waiting for Steven's approval to proceed. "I need to change the subject, Steven, and I need to know you are listening. It's extremely important or I wouldn't bring it up right now."
Excerpted from LETHAL CONSPIRACY by GARY FULLER Copyright © 2011 by Gary Fuller. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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