“Joshua Corin is a master storyteller.”—Douglas Preston, #1 bestselling co-creator of the Pendergast novels
It begins on a beautiful day in Atlanta, with a mosque full of Muslim worshippers celebrating the end of Ramadan. The festivities are cut brutally short when a military drone appears in the sky—and launches a missile into the building. Then, at a mosque in Dearborn, Michigan, another peaceful gathering is torn apart by the violent blast of a suicide bomber. The attacks set the entire nation on edge, with authorities scrambling to make sense of the situation and keep the populace calm while pundits and politicians of all stripes fight for time in the spotlight.
But for ex-FBI agent Xanadu Marx, her first instinct is revenge. Unwilling to let such savagery go unanswered, she plunges into the investigation the police have started—but only she can finish. Disregarding official warnings from the government and outright threats from others, she follows a trail of homegrown hatred and violence to uncover a conspiracy so cold-blooded that no one will believe her—even if she lives long enough to tell. . . .
Don’t miss any of Joshua Corin’s electrifying Xanadu Marx thrillers:
COST OF LIFE • FORGIVE ME • AMERICAN LIES
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Why were there two Fulton County police officers standing in the parking lot of the North Buckhead Islamic Center? Had one of the mosque’s congregation—congregation was the correct word, wasn’t it?—been arrested? Were they about to be arrested? Or maybe the mosque itself was under investigation. Their imam had seemed nice during that interview on 11Alive, but wasn’t that what they always said about serial killers, that they always seemed nice? Locals on their way to work slowed down as they drove past the North Buckhead Islamic Center, slowed down and stared and hypothesized.
And how especially peculiar that one of the cops appeared to be—unless they were mistaken—an Arab. The other cop looked like an everyday red-blooded American, sun-pink and straight-spined and blond-going-gray. And the two cops standing there in the parking lot, the American and the Arab, were deep in discussion.
Their names were Ray Queen and Malik Ali.
Ray Queen was the pink-faced one.
“It’s not like I hate Muslims,” said Ray.
“No, I want to make sure you understand.”
“Because I’m not a bigot or a racist or any of those things. If the KKK had knocked on my door way back when, I would have turned them away. I would have said, ‘No, sir.’ I know what people think. People think I’m a redneck. Now that’s racist.”
Malik forced out another “Okay.”
“I wear nice boots and listen to Toby Keith and people assume and it’s not right. Do rednecks play chess? You take out a board right now and I will kick your ass so hard that you’ll be tasting your butthole. But people like Sergeant Gallagher assume and it’s just not true. So what if I told a joke in the locker room? You’d think joking was against the law.”
To okay, or not to okay? Malik decided not to okay. And besides, by the level of the sun finally cresting over the shopping center across the street, the congregation would be pouring in soon and then finally, maybe, Ray Queen would shut up.
“You want to know the truth, Malik? It’s not pretty, but here it is. And I mean no offense by it. I swear I don’t. But Sergeant Gallagher would’ve had no problem with my joke had you not been in the room. Hell, he was about to laugh till he saw you over there in the corner. He was about to laugh! Instead he decides to write me up and give me this bullshit assignment—no offense—as a matter of ‘sensitivity training.’ I belong on the beat and instead I’m here at six in the morning guarding an empty mosque.”
“And yes, I know it won’t be empty for long. I know it’s a holiday. I even know the name of the holiday. It’s called Eid al-Fitr. It celebrates the end of Ramadan. Not bad for a so-called redneck, huh? And yes, I understand why the county feels there should be police presence here just in case some real racist decides to get trigger-happy with his AK. But this isn’t the right assignment for a guy like me. I belong on the beat. I just want to make sure you understand.”
Oh, Malik understood. Just as he understood why Sergeant Gallagher had assigned the one officer in his division with an Arabic name and vaguely Middle Eastern features to stand guard outside the North Buckhead Islamic Center.
Never mind that Malik was an atheist.
No, not an atheist. An agnostic. What was the difference again?
“You wish you were white,” Amina had told him. Tears in her eyes. He down on one knee. The Persian restaurant, usually loud but now suddenly quiet. No dishes jostling in the kitchen. No banal conversations from the tables around them. Just Amina and Malik and the $18k ring between his thumb and index finger and his left knee pressed against the carpet and the tears in her eyes accompanying those words. “You wish you were white.”
Later on, as he retold the event to his mother, who had been waiting impatiently by her phone, he’d added, “I think I would have been happier if she just said no.”
Amina’s rejection had robbed him of his appetite so Malik had spent much of the fasting month of Ramadan, which he no longer celebrated, eating very little. Amina had reduced the flesh from his bones, shrunk the organs inside his body into floating coals. He was becoming a skeleton. And why not? Skeletons were white.
Ah, but here came the worshippers, strolling in happy clumps up the sidewalk. Malik might no longer be devout, but he felt an instant nostalgia—at least with their attire. Not so long ago he had been a short-haired boy tightening the drawstring at the waist of his cotton sirwal to keep the baggy trousers from dropping to his spindly ankles during morning prayers. Had any of these boys jostling up the block daydreamed of Hershey’s chocolate bars during the long, hot Ramadan afternoons? Their older brothers and uncles and fathers appeared so serious, but the boys were playful this morning. So were the girls. All too young for a hijab and all full of mirth, and why not? Eid was a party!
Many arrived by foot, but some had no choice but to drive. Survival in Atlanta, especially in June, was dependent on owning a car and having access to air-conditioning. The more conservatively dressed congregants arrived in a small blue bus with the words North Buckhead Islamic Center written in Arabic script along its sides. These were the women in their full-body chadors. A separate blue bus pulled up a few minutes later with the long-bearded men.
Ray Queen smiled at one and all. Some smiled back. All the while, he kept the butt of his palm on the butt of his holstered pistol. Casually. Perhaps even unconsciously. They passed him and filed into the makeshift mosque. The sun swelled in the sky like a lemon balloon.
After about twenty minutes, Ray asked Malik, “How many you think?”
Malik shrugged. This had never been his neighborhood. Right now, his mother and sister would be on their way—but running late, as always—to the Al-Farooq Mosque, which accommodated over five hundred Muslims. The North Buckhead Islamic Center, at least by the size of it, served perhaps a third as many. But Malik didn’t know for sure.
And not, Amina, because he wanted to be white.
“I don’t remember the last time I went to church,” Ray continued. “I mean, it probably was a Sunday, right? Don’t get me wrong. I’m a good Christian. No offense.”
“Still, I’m glad we don’t have to be out here this afternoon. They say it’s supposed to hit a hundred. Can you believe that? Not even summer and it’s already triple digits. That’s not right.”
Perhaps not, but for the moment, the temperature was pleasant. One of the few benefits of being up and about at the start of the day. Malik thought back to an even nicer morning back in—what was it, March?—when he and Amina drove out to Stone Mountain and hiked up to the summit and beheld the world. They ate matching protein bars and held hands and were joined only by a childlike breeze. Later that day, they continued on to Savannah.
Yes, it must have been March. Mid-March. Amina was on spring break from Georgia State and Malik put in for vacation, and they spent three days in Savannah. She had never been, so they simply had to do the ghost tours and sunbathe on Tybee Island and eat at Paula Deen’s restaurant—which, given Amina’s strict vegetarianism, had proved quite a fun challenge. And at night, they had dressed up and walked the crowded streets, and had Amina ever looked so lovely? Had anyone? The next day, the streets were closed and half-a-million people lined the sidewalks for the St. Patrick’s Day parade and Malik and Amina oversaw the whole thing in each other’s arms, lounging on the balcony of their hotel room.
“At this rate, by August, it’ll be so hot that maybe we’ll have some of those spontaneous combustions you hear about on the news. Can you imagine? I’d like to see the boys in major crimes deal with that shit. But we’ll be done here in an hour, right? Not that I’m in a hurry. But no clouds in the sky means we’ll be able to really feel the sun soon enough. You know it’s the truth.”
No clouds in the sky also meant superior visibility. In fact, if Malik looked close enough, he could see the airplanes heading to and from the airport several dozen miles to the southwest. Life moved on—even if Malik didn’t, couldn’t. Amina had moved on. He had heard through the grapevine from their mutual friends that Amina had even gone on a couple dates. Nothing serious, they insisted. They were in his corner, they insisted. And what, Malik wondered, did they say when they hung out with Amina?
So many airplanes, all of them distant dots—well, not all of them. One of the airplanes was on a northeast path. Soon it would be above them. Over a mile above them. How high did commercial airlines climb? Almost a year ago—had it been that long?—one of those commercial airlines had taken off from this very airport and was hijacked. The terrorists had landed it in Florida. According to the news reports, one officer, a highway patrolwoman, was dead. Malik, who had been off-duty that day and watched the morning news alongside Amina, got dressed and rushed to the precinct. Was there anything he could do to help? No. And so he was relegated to watching the events unfold and, like so many, was helpless to stop the situation from snowballing into a tragedy.
Nothing, not even heartbreak, was more painful than helplessness. Not to Malik. And wasn’t heartbreak really just helplessness mutated by rejection?
The airplane was over the city now. Maybe a mile away. It didn’t appear to be getting any larger. Maybe there was some kind of glare or haze. Maybe it was one of those private jets. Maybe it was Usher. He still lived in Atlanta, didn’t he? Oh, to be able to dance like Usher. Amina could dance. In time, he would have learned. She could have taught him.
A half mile away and still little more than a dot in the sky. Odd. It had wings, so it wasn’t a helicopter. Even Ray Queen, who had been checking his Facebook on his phone, made a comment.
“You know what it is? It’s a drone. Some idiot bought himself a toy. What I wouldn’t give for a bazooka.”
A drone. Mystery solved. Some private citizen doing a flyby of Atlanta metro, probably breaking a dozen FAA regulations. And for what? People could be such fools. Society had laws for a reason. In a world without God—and this was a world without God—any meaning or order to life had to be manufactured. In a world indifferent to man’s survival in it, how could anyone be so boneheaded and selfish and break the law and reject its protection? It beggared disbelief. This was what Amina meant when she said he wanted to be white, but she was wrong. Malik didn’t want to be white. He wanted to be safe.
“Hey,” said Ray. “Want to hear a joke? You’ll like this one. Two rabbis walk into a bar . . . ”
And the drone gave birth to another, smaller drone.
Must be delivering a package. How fancy. Someone was about to receive the toilet seat or the 144-pack of Snickers they ordered an hour ago online. Belief in God? Please.
“The bartender says to the rabbis, ‘What can I get you?’”
The package zipped through the air, still on a northeast course, bound toward them with unrelenting quickness. Maybe a thousand feet away now. A long cylinder. No wings or rotary blades keeping it aloft.
How was it flying?
“And the first rabbi says . . .”
Five hundred feet now. Descending at an angle. Toward them.
“The first rabbi says . . .”
“He says . . .”
Malik ran for one of the short blue buses, dragging Ray along by the wrist, and they just managed to reach its far side when the missile struck the mosque.