New York’s Plaza Hotel is something special. Its location on the southeast corner of Central Park, its gleaming white exterior, traditional lines, and French windows all contribute to its ambiance. Marble floors and crystal chandeliers greet the well heeled as they enter.
"Thank you, kind sir," Sarah said as a bellman opened the door and offered to help her out of the seat. "But what I really need is someone to assist my crotchety ol’ friend here. He’s pretty feeble." Sarah winked at the Plaza’s attendant and whispered, "It’s Admiral Adams."
"Yes, we’ve been expecting him," he said in hushed tones.
Another attendant joined in. "I know you," he beamed. "You’re Sarah, the CIA agent, the girlfriend."
"I’m pretty sure about that first part, but not the girlfriend thing."
The bellman just gave her a puzzled look. She wasn’t fooling anybody.
"Hey, remember me? What’s a guy hafta do to get out of here?" Being an invalid made the Admiral cranky.
Sarah and the driver scurried to the trunk. They removed the collapsible wheelchair but didn’t have a clue what to do next. They searched for a lever to unfold it. Oh, I see. You just pull these two handles apart, and voila!
"Hello? I could sure use a hand."
"Keep your pants on, big boy," Sarah chided. It probably wasn’t the best comeback she could have chosen.
As others figured out who was in the car, a small crowd surrounded the white stretch limo. "Thor, Thor, Thor," they chanted.
With nothing else to do, Adams lowered the window and waved to his fans, thankful his nickname had stuck. Thurston, Thurston, Thurston wouldn’t have had quite the same ring. Celebrity was a new experience for him, though at the moment he would gladly have exchanged it all for a pair of working legs.
"Sarah? Could you come here for a moment?"
Nottingly sat down backwards in the car, her legs dangling outside. Leaning back against Thor, she said, "Yes, dear."
No one had ever called him "dear." "Say that again and you’re gonna have a shadow."
"What do you say we go for a carriage ride through the park - dear?"
He smiled. "Don’t we have to check in?"
"Nope. I can’t even give ’em a tip. The manager says they’re going to take our stuff to our room, and that everything’s comped."
"What do you mean ‘our room’?"
"Yeah! She’s giving us the Presidential Suite. Two bedrooms. I asked."
"My, my. Haven’t we been busy. But the carriage thing? I don’t know. So far you haven’t even been able to get me out of the car."
Looking around, she said, "I think we might find a volunteer."
With the help of two grinning passers-by (who beat out twenty others for the privilege), the Admiral was lifted into an elegantly appointed carriage. Sarah jumped in beside him, held his hand and laid her head on his shoulder. Her wavy brunette hair cascaded softly down Thor’s chest and tickled his neck. This felt a lot better than getting shot in Afghanistan.
The stately horse-drawn carriage pulled away from the curb, veered left, and descended into Central Park. All along the way, strollers and joggers turned, stared, smiled, and then expressed their gratitude to America’s new prince and princess. The image was like Prince Charles and Lady Di, except these two actually were falling in love.
Springtime in Central Park is a wonderful experience. Spindly redbuds scream in their passionate purple garb, while stately dogwoods stand majestically alongside dressed in their elegant whites. Beneath them, islands of azaleas blush in purple, red, and pink as if falling in love with the scene above. The towering hardwoods are just beginning to sprout in their vibrant greens. The clicking of the large steel-rimmed wooden wheels on the narrow and winding roads somehow added to the romance. The chill of the spring air felt refreshing on their cheeks. Sarah pointed toward a large pond with a profusion of azaleas on the embankment beyond, reflecting their splendor in the still water. The Admiral looked and smiled. Neither said much of anything.
After some time, Sarah spotted a hotdog vendor and asked the carriage driver to stop. It was past lunchtime and this looked like the perfect place. After dressing their dogs, Sarah helped Thor hobble over to a wooden park bench. A family of mallards caught their eye. They watched as mom led the way, her ducklings all in a row behind her. The proud papa, splendid in his iridescent green and blue plumage, waddled alongside.
They both silently wondered, hoped perhaps, that this might someday be them, married, with family in tow. Thor reflected, however, that unlike the ducks, she would wear the prettiest feathers in the family.
"Sarah. This Christian stuff is important to you, isn’t it? I mean, your religion means a lot to you, right?" He knew the answer. The question was a doorway to something else.
"Yes and no. Why do you ask?"
"You know I don’t share your faith."
"Does that bother you?"
"We obviously like each other. I mean, I like you, and...."
"And I like you." She knew where he was going now.
"Our relationship: is it dependent upon me agreeing with you?"
"Believing yes, agreeing no. We can disagree on many things without it being a problem. See, my faith is a relationship, not a religion. Actually, I don’t like religion very much. As a matter of fact, neither did Jesus. He wasn’t the least bit religious."
Adams cocked his head. He was puzzled.
"For me it all boils down to one thing. Is Jesus God? If he is, my life has meaning. If he isn’t, I’m a fool, and I don’t have a clue how we got here or where we’re going."
"I don’t believe in miracles, and I’ve never been able to stomach anybody’s religious mumbo jumbo. But you’re nobody’s fool, of that I’m certain. And there’s something good going on inside you."
"Thank you, Thurston." She smiled, wrapping her arms around him. "You say the sweetest things."
"So how do I get from where I am to where you are?"
"Faith." Sarah could see that her answer deflated him. "Don’t worry. Ultimately it takes more faith to believe there’s no God than to acknowledge that he lives. It’s not a leap in the dark, just a step into the light."
His smile returned. He was embarking on a grand adventure. "So how are you gonna convince me?"
"Oh, I’m not. God is."
Sarah jumped up off the bench and reached for his hand. She’d seen another carriage out of the corner of her eye. "I’ve got a date tonight with this really cute sailor, so if you don’t mind, I’d like to get ready."
They found themselves being escorted to the Presidential Suite. The bellman opened the door, and Sarah wheeled Adams inside. The room, actually a suite of them, was as opulent as anything she had ever seen, and she had seen a lot. Thor, on the other hand, had absolutely no frame of reference. The barracks at Diego Garcia it was not.
Nottingly leaned down and gave Thor a peck on the cheek. The bellman coughed to remind the amorous couple that he was standing right behind them. "Where would you like these things?"
"Oh, I’m sorry," Sarah blushed.
"It appears there’s a room upstairs," Thor said. "Put her things - that would be the big bag - up there if you would."
Sarah followed the bellman up the elegantly curved staircase as Thor wheeled himself around the lower floor, but with only one arm, moving straight was a challenge. Unaccustomed to being a left winger, he found himself going in circles. He noticed that the suite’s living room was strategically placed in the corner overlooking Fifth Avenue and the Park. It came complete with a wood-burning fireplace and a baby grand piano. There was a full dining room, a small but elegant kitchen, and even a library. Around the corner, he found his room. A beautifully cushioned king-sized bed stood beneath a stunning crystal chandelier.
Rolling toward his bathroom, he was taken aback by its extravagance. It looked nearly as big as his living room back in Georgetown. There were a couple of vanities and a separate shower and roman tub, all constructed of a gorgeous black granite shot through with rich burgundy veining.
The bellman turned and asked, "May I hang your clothes, sir?"
"Sure, thanks. As you can see, I’m not very mobile."
"My pleasure, sir." He placed Thor’s bag on a tapestry stand and hung its contents in the walk-in closet, and placed the remainder of the things Sarah had packed for him in the dresser.
The Admiral struggled to get his wallet. He wasn’t used to the tight confines of the wheelchair.
"No sir, please. That won’t be necessary. It is our privilege to host you. Stay as long as you’d like - as our guests. The manager has asked me to give you this note. It confirms our hospitality."
Thor reached out for the letter and opened it. It said that he and Sarah were welcome but that their money wasn’t.
"If you’d like, I can arrange breakfast here in your dining room tomorrow morning, before or after you do the Today Show. Oh, and sir, Ms. Nottingly asked me to inform you that she would like an hour to prepare for this evening. She’ll be ready by six o’clock."
The Admiral chuckled. "She will, will she? The question is, will I be ready for her? Easy on the eyes, that one."
"Yes, sir," the bellman replied. "If I may say so, sir, she’s what my daddy would call a ‘keeper’."
"Yeah, smart too, but more than that, she’s a saint."
Adams had a way of putting people at ease, and the bellman was no exception. He found himself chatting with the famous Admiral as if he were an old friend.
"The whole country’s smitten with her. You’re perfect together."
"Let’s hope I can get her to agree," Thor laughed.
The bellman just smiled. "I’ve placed your theater tickets next to the menus on the dining-room table, but I doubt you’ll need them. The theater has already called us. They’re as excited as we are. You’re a hero, Admiral, especially here in New York."
Thor expressed his personal gratitude for the courage so many New Yorkers displayed during those dark days.
The bellman turned to leave. "Oh. Your car: I’m told it will be waiting for you at the Fifth Avenue entrance at six thirty. You’ll want to be ready to go by six forty-five. The Tavern on the Green is just around the corner. Later, the driver will take you to the theater. Tomorrow morning, the same driver will be back at six. He’ll take you to Rockefeller Center. It’s only about thirty blocks from here. Should take you less than ten minutes."
"You guys are great," Thor told his newest fan.
"I’ve placed a couple of keys on the table next to your tickets, Admiral," the bellman smiled, "but you won’t need them, either. We’ll have security at your door, and the NYPD has a detail of plain-clothes officers stationed throughout the hotel. We want to keep you safe."
Before leaving, he held out his hand. The Admiral made another effort to find his wallet, but the bellman didn’t want a tip. He was reaching out in friendship. The reluctant hero returned the gesture.
Now alone, Adams rolled his chair to the door and checked the room rate. It was almost two months’ salary. He pushed back, turned and looked up the curved stairs. The door at the top was open just a crack.
With some effort, he made his way back to his room and guided his chair into the walk-in closet. Locking the left wheel, he pushed up on the armrest, retrieving the suit Sarah had chosen. Adams positioned his chair so that he could lift himself onto his bed. Awkwardly, he undressed himself and wiggled into his gray suit. He managed most everything single-handedly except for the buttons on his shirt and, of course, his tie. Hopefully, Sarah wouldn’t mind.
Adams rolled into the bathroom, washed his face, and combed his hair. He was forced to use his teeth to open the bottle of cologne he had brought. Setting it down on the counter, he spit the lid into his hand, grimacing at the bitter taste it left in his mouth. Now he’d have to brush his teeth again, reprising this morning’s challenge of placing the toothpaste on the brush with one hand. He was quickly gaining respect for handicapped folks, who put up with worse problems every day of their lives without complaint.
He tipped the cologne bottle back into his hand, spilling much more than he had intended. With the bottle back on the counter, he shook the excess into the sink and rubbed what remained on his neck and chest. Some hero, he thought. Now I smell like a three-dollar floozy.
Mission accomplished, the good Admiral pushed his chair back into the bedroom, this time without himself in it. He wanted to wait for Sarah on the elegant couch at the bottom of the stairs so she could sit next to him. He hobbled from door jamb to bed, to the nearest leather chair, and onward to the door of the library. This proved easier to navigate, for it was small and filled with furnishings. His leg had been healing faster than his arm, he observed. No broken bones there. Without even breaking a sweat, he traversed the remaining distance and plopped himself triumphantly on the sofa where he awaited his date/shirt-buttoner.
They were pleased with their progress. Everything was falling together. The new components had arrived overnight as requested. They were just what the doctor ordered, or the engineer, in this case. The doctor would come later.
As they worked, Anwar had arranged to have a TV nearby. He and Aymen had come to love hating Blaine Edwards as he waxed poetic about his role in bringing the story to the American people. FOX news had long since passed CNN in the ratings game, but there was nothing like scooping their rivals on something as gruesome as a crucifixion to widen the Nielsen gap. Of course, it wasn’t beneath Edwards to rub it in. He was a bottom feeder; there was very little beneath him.
Both Arabs turned around as the familiar and hated voice intoned, "We interrupt this program to bring you the following News Alert. FOX News has just learned that the Prosperity Building in Washington may have been infected with anthrax." Edwards had no hard evidence of contamination, but hey, a scare was as good as the real thing.
Abu and Halaweh dropped their socket wrenches and stared at each other. How had they found out so soon? It should have taken days before the symptoms started showing up.
"You suppose one of our delivery boys got careless?" Aymen asked.
Before Anwar could answer, Blaine explained. "We have an exclusive interview with Robert Mosley, President of EnviroCare, a Washington area heating and air-conditioning firm. Mr. Mosley, what did you discover?"
Mosley, conducting his end of the conversation outside his D.C. office, cleared his throat. "Well, Blaine, as part of our service here at EnviroCare, we provide our best customers with a regular monthly inspection package, just to make sure everything is operating at peak performance."
Edwards wasn’t interested in the commercial but he allowed the overzealous businessman his fifteen seconds of fame. "One of our men, about two hours ago, found something suspicious at the Prosperity Building. He called his supervisor, who immediately raced to the scene. He notified me, and I in turn called the police."
"And what did they find?" the arrogant newscaster probed.
"Well, Blaine, my men found a commercial filter box sitting on the floor next to the main system."
"Isn’t that normal?"
"No. Our guys bring their replacement filters with them. We don’t leave cases on site. But they also noticed that this case had a tube running down into it. Come to find out, the box is filled with a white, powdery dust. Rather than removing particles from the air like a filter is supposed to do, this contraption was actually adding contaminants."
Edwards’ face immediately turned ashen. "Mr. Mosley, did you say this device was adding a white powder to the office environment?"
"Yes. That’s exactly what it was doing."
Blaine coughed, obviously struggling to regain his composure. "Does the dust look something like this?" Edwards motioned for the operator on his right to lower his camera so that it could pick up the thin layer of fine white powder that had collected on the news anchor’s desk. He drew his finger across the surface. Edwards was no stranger to white powder, but this wasn’t the same stuff he normally put up his nose.
Back on location, one of the FOX technicians showed Mr. Mosley a monitor. The particulate on Edwards’ anchor desk was clearly visible.
"Yep, it looks just like that." The President of EnviroCare had just changed young Edwards’ life.
"Does your firm service our building?"
"Why, yes, we do. Do you think you might have a problem?"
At this point the audience had no idea what was going on. Why was their favorite program being interrupted for a smattering of dust so fine it could hardly be seen? Sure, Edwards was full of himself; that was part of the mystique. But this was pushing it.
Uncharacteristically, Blaine turned away from the center camera and looked behind him. That move alone sent the studio’s executives, all of whom were monitoring the breaking story from their offices, scurrying.
"We have a problem," Edwards growled, although only the back of his head could be seen. Removing his mike from his jacket lapel, and his earpiece, Blaine dropped them on the floor, stood abruptly, and marched out of camera’s view, presumably out of the room. Not knowing what else to do, FOX News cut to black, leaving America in the dark.
Anwar Abu and Aymen Halaweh looked at each other as if to ask, "Now what?" Their window of opportunity had been slammed shut. They hadn’t expected anyone to discover their blowers for several more days, giving them enough time to receive the remaining components for the new, bigger systems before any suspicion was raised. A sizable order had been placed, but would it ship?
"You think the Feds will find us, Aymen?"
"How common are the components you used on the small blowers?"
"Very, I think." Anwar was starting to sweat, despite his reassuring response. "They can be used for a lot of things. The distributor didn’t think twice about it. And yesterday I divided up our new order between four different outfits so they wouldn’t be suspicious. I’ve already wired them the money."
"Then we may be okay, at least for now," Halaweh concluded, his voice rattling. "None of the large components are even made by the same factories. I checked that yesterday. They’re a different scale, too, and they’re hydraulic, not electric. And you know the Feds are never going to find ILM. I’d say we’ve still got time before the FBI figures anything out."
"But we need to call the boss, let him know what’s up."
"And we need to hurry. We’ve gotta find out when the rest of the trucks are coming - and then find some fools to clean them for us."
Sarah peeked around the door. She hoped Thor was dressed and waiting, so she could make a grand entrance. "Are you ready?"
The grin on Adams face spoke volumes. Pleased, she sauntered down the stairs with a flirtatious walk that was somehow both sultry and demure. Whatever it was, it was having the desired effect. Thor’s prodigious jaw dropped. He had seen her walk many times - always an enjoyable experience - but never with the express purpose of pleasing him.
"Well?" she asked. "What do you think?" Yes, Count Dracula, what do you think of O positive blood?
"Miss Nottingly, you are too beautiful for words, and that dress...."
It was evidently a good answer. She navigated the final steps and gave her reviewer a kiss. Standing back up, she lifted her arms and twirled around. Her shoulder-length brown hair was perfectly curled and full of body. It floated outward, bouncing softly against her neck.
The pink cocktail dress was tight above the waist, revealing her slim figure, but loose around what little leg it covered. Sarah wasn’t dumb; she knew her legs were her best feature. But before tonight, she had never had the nerve to show them off quite like this.
"You look positively..." he searched for a word. "Perfect."
"Thank you. And you, my dear Admiral, look smashing. I think this is the first time I’ve seen you out of uniform. In a suit, I mean." She smiled. "And just as I hoped, my dress matches your tie."
Yeah, and they’re about the same size, too, he thought. But he said, "Would you do the honors? I managed everything but the buttons and tie."
"I know what to do with buttons. The tie...I’ve never done one. How do you make ’em work?"
"You’re going to have to stand behind me so I can guide your hands as if they were my own."
After finishing the buttons she did as instructed, adjusting the large and small ends of his tie. Somehow, with more laughter, fumbling, and starting overs than were probably necessary, they tied a decent single Windsor around Thor’s muscular neck.
Stepping back to admire her handiwork, Sarah bumped into the piano. Smiling, she rolled off an arpeggio.
"You can play that thing?"
"Eight years of lessons with Cassie Summers. You can learn a lot from a lady who earns her living playing piano in smoky dives. But I haven’t touched a keyboard for months. Been a little busy."
"Play something for me. Sing something. Anything."
"We have enough time?" Sarah was kind of hoping they didn’t.
Thor looked at his watch. It was just past six. "We have a lifetime."
Fighting off stage fright, she pulled out the piano bench and swished her hands under her bottom so she wouldn’t wrinkle her dress as she sat down. It wasn’t the piano she was worried about. She knew that well enough. It was the audience. What if he’s into Garth Brooks? What if all he listens to is Barenaked Ladies? He’s going to run away, screaming. Oh, what the heck. You wore the dress; let it all hang out.
"Okay. In honor of tonight’s play, Admiral, how about something from The Sound of Music?"
So far, so good. Looking back down at the keyboard, she placed her hands gracefully on the ivories. With some difficulty, she managed to get through the instrumental introduction. She hadn’t expected a piano, and she was rusty. But she’d been trained as a jazz pianist. The songs were in her head, and that was all she really needed. Her first few bars sounded more like Thelonius Monk than Bill Evans, but she smoothed out as she warmed up.
The piano was turned so that her right side was exposed to him, not hidden by the instrument. And quite a view it was. Her dress featured a plunging neckline that revealed just enough to avoid being risqué. The whole affair was precariously held up with tantalizingly thin spaghetti straps nestled in the hollow between the rise of her shoulder blades and the base of her neck. Even the back was cut low.
Normally Sarah had a voice that would make a robin blush, not strong, certainly not operatic, but light and sweet, a good match for her delicate piano style. But at the moment, she was struggling a bit. She hadn’t soloed in a while, was unsure of the words, and was trying far too hard to please her audience. For his part, Thor was enthralled.
"‘My day in the hills has come to an end, I know.’" She stopped, lifted her hands, and took a deep breath. "I’m afraid I’m a little rusty."
"You sound as good as you look," he smiled.
As the words came back to her, she started again. Thor seemed pleased, so she pressed on, singing "Climb Every Mountain," "I Am Sixteen, Going on Seventeen," and an upbeat rendition of "My Favorite Things." With each song Sarah gained confidence. She found herself slipping into the role of Maria, embarking on a crusade to soften a captain’s heart. Okay, an admiral.
Their thirty minutes passed all too quickly. "‘It’s time...to go. I cannot tell a lie-ie,’" the Admiral croaked, betraying his familiarity with the play. "Listen. Can we forget the wheelchair? I think I can make it, if we don’t move too fast."
"Sure. Your leg, your call."
Arm in arm, they made their way out of the room, past the guards, down the elevator, and to their waiting car. Before they had settled into their seats, they arrived. The Tavern looked inviting as its thousands of crystal window panes illuminated the twilight. It was like something out of a fairy tale.
Seated, they placed their orders and looked at each other awkwardly for a moment, wondering what to say.
Sarah jumped into the deep end. "I want to apologize."
"I was responsible for sending you in there. It was my job to interpret the intelligence data and I...I muffed it. I nearly lost you because of my ignorance - arrogance, really."
There was something slightly incongruous about hearing that kind of admission from someone in a pink dress, especially that dress. But she was serious. As much as Thor wanted to laugh, he knew better.
"A lot of us looked at the film, Sarah. We all saw what we wanted to see. I was the one they played for a fool. You want the truth? You saved me. Every time I had to muster a little more resolve, I thought of you. I needed to come back and find out if our first kiss was anything more than, ‘Good luck, sailor.’ Was it?"
"Yes. So you forgive me?"
"Well..." Thor sensed an opportunity. "I’m not so sure. I might need a little convincing."
"Now flyboy, don’t be pressin’ your luck," she said, batting her lashes.
"How guilty do you feel?" he replied, pushing it.
"A hundred on a one-to-ten scale. I’d do pretty much anything to know you’d really forgiven me." She liked the idea of becoming vulnerable. This could be interesting. "What would you like?"
"You," he said. "You are what I want."
"What do you mean? I’m right here." A touch of concern crept into her voice. She closed her eyes and bit her lip. It was time, she thought, to get something off her chest. Not that there was much there. "Thor, you need to know that I...." She paused. "I’m a virgin. What’s more, I plan to stay that way until my wedding night."
He regained his balance nicely. "Well, there you go. You’ve gone and wrecked a perfectly good illusion. All this time I thought a virgin was an ugly girl in the third grade."
Sarah shook her head in mock disgust, but she had trouble suppressing a grin. "So now I’m ugly and retarded, am I?" she laughed. You’re digging yourself a pretty deep hole there, mister." She waited a moment. "Now that you know you’re not gettin’ any, do you still want...me?"
"Yep. I want the virgin Nottingly."
"Okay. You’ve got yourself a girlfriend. Now what?" Now that the relationship had been taken to the next level, turnabout was fair play.
"Then I think it’s time you let me check under the hood." It was probably not the best choice of words, and Sarah wasn’t sure what he meant. Worse, the dress was clearly having its intended effect. Thor was a man of discipline, a gentleman, but he was only human, and male to boot. No longer able to help himself, his eyes fell, an inch at a time, gazing first at her lipsticked mouth, down to her gracefully pearled neck, and then to the small yet perfect curves below.
"Under the hood? What hood?" she asked, raising her eyebrows. She had dared herself to be flirtatious, but now she was afraid she’d gone too far. She felt exposed, self-conscious, and drastically under-dressed. God, I wish he’d stop staring at me like that.
Thor lifted his eyes. They met hers. "Under the bonnet, silly. I want to know what you think. Being an agnostic doesn’t make me a pagan."
"I could have sworn your eyes were looking elsewhere."
He smiled sheepishly. "Can you blame me? I mean, you’d look great in a burlap sack, but in that dress...."
"You’re right. I’ve got no one to blame but myself. I’ve never had the courage to wear it before." She relaxed.
"So what do you want to know?"
Thor did his best not to look down. There would be no retreat, no giving back the ground he’d gained. He simply lost himself in her eyes.
"Umm, Earth to Thor. Do you read me? Come in, please," she said, tapping her nails on the table. "What do you want to know?"
He came to. "Just enjoying the view."
"I’m glad you like what you see. But...."
"The staircase is grand, but it’s what’s upstairs that counts."
"Why, Prince Charming, the things that fall from your lips."
Thor sat up and cleared his throat. "Sarah, you’re the CIA Bureau Chief for the Middle East. You should know more than anyone. So tell me: what causes Muslims to kill. Islam is obviously the only common denominator in all of this. You’re an intelligence analyst - analyze that."
Nothing like a simple question to get a date off on the right foot.
"That’s only the world’s most important conundrum." His question had taken her by surprise, coming out of the blue like that, yet somehow she was pleased. She relished the idea of being appreciated for her mind, not just her looks. This was a refreshing change for Nottingly. Sarah had become accustomed to boys, and later men, pursuing her because of her appearance, only to run away when they discovered she could think. She usually intimidated those who’d courted her, but not this time.
"You mean them, as in our pals Ghumani, Haqqani, and Quagmer?"
"No. I’ve already figured out that they’re just a symptom, one of many Islamic clubs. I was speaking more generally, as in Muslim militants."
"It’s so odd using a religious term to describe a violent group, isn’t it? Muslim militants," she repeated. "Islamic Jihad, Holy War. Even the names al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Jemaah Islamia have religious roots. Hezbollah means Allah’s party, for cryin’ out loud. I don’t like being judgmental, but...."
"There’s something wrong with murdering for Allah," Thor said. "Even more with the way they turn their murderers into martyrs. Sarah, I don’t know much about this either, but I’ll bet we’re going to find our answers buried in the words of Muhammad."
"In Muhammad’s Hadith," she said, "not Allah’s Qur'an, right?"
"I’m the one checking under the hood, remember? You’re the intelligence officer, so I get to ask the questions."
"Sir, yes, sir!" she replied, snapping a passable salute. "Ask away." She adjusted one of her straps.
"Tell me, Sarah. Since these people are your business, what does the CIA know about them?"
She sighed. "The CIA doesn’t know enough to be dangerous. We’re focused on everything but the one thing they all have in common. But, like you, I’ve read the Qur’an." She dove right in. "I’ve also read Tabari and Hisham’s edits of Ibn Ishaq’s biography of Muhammad. It’s the earliest source, edited a couple of centuries after the Prophet died. Sadly, from a historical standpoint, it’s about as useful as Homer’s Odyssey. You know, you catch bits and pieces that help you put things in context, but it doesn’t exactly ooze credibility, especially since he admitted leaving out anything he thought might discredit Muhammad. But the problem is, without it and Tabari’s History, the Qur’an doesn’t make any sense."
Thor just looked at her in amazement. Homer? Yes, indeed. I do believe Helen of Troy here has something upstairs. "So you don’t think the answer’s in the Qur’an."
"Apart from Muhammad, not really. Tied to him, certainly. It’s easily the worst book I’ve ever read. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. No chronological order, no grouping things by subject. It’s just random rantings. Heavily plagiarized. And Allah’s completely out of character - not only hateful, but he speaks in first, second, and third person, singular and plural, all in the same surah. And repetitive - good grief! The same butchered Biblical accounts are repeated dozens of times. If God wrote the Qur’an, as Muslims claim, he needs an editor.
"The real goldmine is the Hadith. If you’re interested in Muhammad’s words, that’s where you’ll find them. And I think you’re right; all the terrorist types seem plenty interested in what their Prophet had to say."
Adams found his eyes drifting. Fortunately, his mind wasn’t. "It’s so odd. Here you are, a CIA Intelligence Officer, and me, I’m a soldier, yet here talking about a religion - one that no one wants to talk about. Did you notice how fast the media started calling them ‘radical groups’ and ‘extremists’ rather than Muslims, or even Muslim militants?"
"They think we’re fighting terrorists, not Islam. But that’s like saying we fought Kamikazes - not Japanese - in World War II," Sarah observed. "Al Qaeda is to Islam as the S.S. was to Nazism."
"How can we understand what causes them to kill if we don’t understand who they are and what they believe?" he asked.
She nodded, earrings dangling. "Ultimately, Islam is Muhammad, just as Buddhism’s appeal is in the life of Buddha. Confucianism rises no higher than the mind of Confucius, and Judaism stands or falls on the truth of Moses’ words."
"Is this all your opinion, or did you learn this stuff on duty?"
"Are you kidding?" She tossed her hair. "At the firm, religion is off limits. It’s considered profiling." The waiter topped off her champagne, though she had only had a sip. It looked inviting in its crystal flute.
"Handicapped intelligence." Adams shook his head. "They want you to find the answer but don’t allow you to look in the most logical place. The terrorists are from many nations, men and women, young and old. They have but one thing in common - Islam. How could you not look there? No wonder we’re so clueless."
Sarah and Thor took time out between bites to fill their minds as well as their stomachs. They found life’s mysteries more interesting than good food or idle chatter. Sarah, for one, was happy to have Thor focused on the place between her ears instead of the space between her breasts. Occasionally, though, she let a strap fall and linger on her arm.
"Considering their present animosity for Jews, Islam’s beginnings are particularly intriguing," Sarah shared. "Muhammad - well, it’s supposed to be Allah speaking - tells stories in the Qur’an about Abraham, Adam, Noah, even Moses, the guy who wrote the Torah. Yet Moses was a Jewish leader, a Jewish prophet. Fact is, Muhammad says the Torah was from Allah, as were Jesus and his Gospel."
"The stories are all messed up, aren’t they?" he asked rhetorically. "From what I can tell," he said, hoping to impress his date, "Muhammad’s struggle was complicated by the fact that he was illiterate. He didn’t understand the Jewish scriptures, so he got them all twisted around."
"Yes, but the question is, was it incompetence, or were Muhammad’s errors purposeful?" Sarah observed, taking a bite of her appetizer. "I believe there’s an agenda behind the way the Bible stories were altered. Anyone with their eyes open can see right through the Prophet’s act. But either way, in the seventh century there were plenty of Jews in Arabia. They knew their scriptures. When Muhammad butchered their history, they called him on it."
Thor connected the dots. "So the Messenger gets steamed. He doesn’t like being contradicted. To get back at the Jews for embarrassing him, he claims Allah wants them dead. Backed by the Big Guy, he goes from pretending to be one of them to being their worst enemy."
"That’s the Qur’an in a nutshell. In a duet with Allah, Muhammad tells his followers to kill any Jew or Christian under their control - crucify them." Sarah had shared something few in the West knew.
"Yep. Literally. It’s worse than you realize, Thor. Everything they did to you and your men came right out of the Qur’an. Lying in wait came from Qur’an 9:5. Inflicting a punishment sufficiently grevious to be a warning for others is from 8:57. And crucifixion? Surah 5:33."
"We spent fifty billion on intelligence gathering and we would have learned more reading a five-dollar book?"
Sarah nodded. After what you’ve been through, you should reread surahs four, five, eight, nine, thirty-three, forty-seven, and forty-eight. They’re a manifesto for war against Christians and Jews - more racist and vengeful than Mein Kampf."
"That was my take the first time through. Allah clearly wants us dead. And that sure seems to explain Muslim behavior, doesn’t it?"
"Yes, but we need to learn more about this stuff." She took her second sip of Champagne. "I’ll tell you something, though; every rock I turn over has a snake under it."
"Same for me," Thor confessed. "But I’m a long way from figuring this out. I’d like to learn more about the relationship between Muhammad and Allah and find the connection between Islam and terror. I believe there is one. Otherwise, why would they celebrate killing? Driving nails into men while singing Allahu-akbar is about as sane as honoring a suicide bomber in a parade after he’s murdered a slew of innocent people."
Sarah pushed her dinner around on her plate. "I can tell you this much: Allah commands Muslims to fight - surah 4:77. In at least four places, he tells them to terrorize. And in dozens more he promises paradise to anyone who’s martyred killing infidels."
"Nothing’s changed in fourteen hundred years. It all started with Muhammad."
"True," Sarah agreed. "Take the History of Tabari. Page after page it’s the same story. Muhammad led a terrorist cell in Medina. He and his followers routinely butchered civilians, terrorizing them for financial gain."
The historian in Thor began to emerge. "Islam’s first two caliphs were no better. Abu Bekr started the War of Compulsion - forcing every Arab to surrender to Islam or die. Then Umar savaged civilians from Persia to Egypt. They led the second and third Islamic terrorist cells."
"Yes. The fourth Islamic terrorist network was called el-Kharij. They assassinated Muhammad’s cousin - then-caliph Ali - because he wasn’t a ‘good enough’ Muslim. Bin Laden is a Kharij, Thor. They specifically target ‘bad’ Muslims and kill anyone who impedes Islamic rule."
"What do you mean ‘bad’ Muslims?"
"Well, ‘good’ Muslims are like good devotees of any doctrine. They study their leader’s writings, emulate his deeds, and try to follow his commands. Since Muhammad was a terrorist, ordering his faithful to murder infidels, that makes all ‘good’ Muslims bad people. But ‘bad’ Muslims simply pick and choose the parts they like and ignore the rest."
"So what happened after Kharij?"
"In the eleventh century the el-Hashashen - the marijuana terrorists - began killing Sunni Muslims. Then Ibn Taymiyah terrorized people around thirteen hundred. His no-tolerance tactics foiled the Mongolian Muslim invasion into Syria."
"Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and his Wahhabis came next, right?"
"Very good, Thor. They were seventh on the Muslim militant hit parade. Their goals were identical to those of Muhammad, Bekr, Umar, el-Kharij, el Hashashen, and Taymiyah - death to all who stood in the way of global Islamic rule. The Wahhabis fought the Muslim Turks around 1750. Today’s Saudi dictators, by the way, are Wahhabis."
"Okay, Sarah. Fast forward to the 1920s, and you’ll find the Egyptian, Sheik, Hassan al-Banna, right? He started the Muslim Brotherhood to combat the non-Islamic governments in Egypt and Turkey."
"Yes. Al-Banna was a student of el-Kharij and deployed the same methods. In ’48, Sayyid Qutub went from managing Egyptian public education to writing books on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood. His book, Signposts Along the Road, made him the Martin Luther of Islamic terror. Up to this point most of the victims had been ‘bad’ Muslims. But Qutub was more generous with his hate, expanding it to include Jews and Americans. He saw us as impediments to a one-world Islamic government. His most famous line: ‘Demolish all nations established by man and destroy whatever conflicts with true Islam.’ His followers were the first to preach that nuclear bombs could be used to destroy the West."
Thor nodded. "And this all brings us to a name most Americans know, or ought to: Sheik Abdel Rahman."
"Right. He was the senior professor of Qur’anic studies at Al-Azhar, Islam’s preeminent university. But he’s in prison today in America. As you know, he’s the blind sheik who was convicted of masterminding the ’93 bombing of the World Trade Center. He was also the one who plotted the assassination of Anwar Sadat. As the most respected authority on the Qur’an, Rahman is the spiritual leader of today’s Islamic terrorists."
"Wait a minute! The media keeps saying that the terrorists have corrupted Islam. But how’s that possible if the leading Qur’anic scholar for the leading Islamic university is a convicted terrorist?"
The waiter refilled her coffee cup. He had been listening too. "May I interest you in dessert?" He offered her a menu.
"No, not for me. I won’t be able to wear things like this if I eat anything on that."
"Nothing for me, either. But I’d like the check. We’re off to see a play."
"The Sound of Music. I know. The theater asked us to call them as soon as you were on your way. I think they may have something special planned. Oh, and as for the bill, there won’t be one. You’re our guests."
"That’s kind, but please," Thor protested. "At least let me leave a tip,"
"No, sir. We all drew straws for the honor of serving you. I won. All I want is what every American wants. Answers. How do we stop the killing? He filled Adams’ cup. "I voted for the President, I’m embarrassed to say. A lot of us did. But now I’ve changed my mind."
"And why is that?" Sarah was at the edge of her seat.
"We need to elect Admiral Adams President. One more promotion."
"What?" Nottingly almost slid out of her chair. She hadn’t figured on being first in line for the First Lady’s spot.
"We’ve gotta put an end to this. I mean, who do you think is responsible for today’s terrorist attacks? I’ll bet their names aren’t Flanagan, Fortunado, or François." From the expressions on their faces, the waiter could tell they hadn’t heard. "You don’t know, do you?"
"What? What happened?" the nation’s most famous intelligence officer queried the waiter.
"About an hour ago they reported on TV that two office buildings in Washington were poisoned with anthrax. Looks like they may have even gotten that loudmouth Blaine Edwards."
Thor was no fan of Edwards, but the battle was bigger than one fool’s lack of restraint. "You said they poisoned buildings?"
"Yeah, from what they reported the crazies built a contraption that fit inside air-conditioning systems. Real ingenious."
"What buildings did they attack? Has anyone claimed credit?" Sarah was particularly upset by all of this. The likely perpetrators were her beat and she was AWOL, hundreds of miles away, on a date no less. To make matters worse, she suddenly felt naked, wearing an outfit she wouldn’t be caught dead in at Langley.
"The Prosperity Building and FOX News. But they’re pretty sure there were others," the waiter replied.
Nottingly looked down and reached for her tiny purse. She moved her diminutive 38 caliber aside and pulled out a cell phone, CIA issue like the pistol. In the digital mode the phone was reasonably secure. She quickly transitioned back from date to agent.
She pushed the call button with a perfectly manicured nail. The blush color had been chosen, like Thor’s tie, to match her dress. Even with a gun in her purse, she looked a lot more like a Bond girl than a secret agent. On the other hand, there was no longer anything secret about Miss Nottingly.
"Hello, Sarah. It’s JT." A sophisticated version of caller ID had identified her.
"Hi, pal. What’s this I hear about HVAC systems?" Jonathan, JT to his coworkers, was Nottingly’s most senior agent. Their unit was focused exclusively on Islamic militants, but to avoid being accused of religious bigotry or racial profiling, they used the moniker Middle East Bureau. Geography didn’t have lobbyists. Their focus was also the reason for her gun. Muslims weren’t shy when it came to eliminating perceived threats.
"Real clever this time. The plan was so well orchestrated, all roads point to your pal Omen Quagmer. Although it hasn’t been announced, we’ve found two more infected buildings. One is in Boston, the other in Baltimore. They’re set on crippling our economy. A lot of people are gonna die this time, Sarah."
"They won’t be happy until we’re all dead," she growled, swept up in the anguish of the moment. It was an observation she should have kept to herself, especially in this place, with so many ears. Her view wasn’t public policy. And in truth, she didn’t even know who "they" were.
"Be careful," JT admonished. "Look for a dusting of white powder on dark horizontal surfaces. That’ll be your best clue if you’re in one of the poisoned buildings."
She listened intently. The only sign of what was being said, beside her momentary lapse, was her expression. And even that didn’t help. Sarah, on duty, was as coy as they came. She could play poker with the best.
"How long since the install?" she asked, knowing that the answer would have a substantial impact on the number of casualties.
"Twenty-four hours. The FBI is rounding up everyone who was in the first two buildings. We’ve begun testing them, and started giving everybody a full cycle of Cipro. We’re fingerprinting them, too, just as a precaution, in case it was an inside job. Actually, we’re doing it to prove it wasn’t an inside job. This has become so politicized the media is insinuating that the anthrax is being spread by radical right-wing extremists."
"Has Director Barnes informed the White House?"
"Yes. That’s the reason we’re late in releasing the info on the other two buildings. The President’s concerned this will agitate her opponents and push us toward war again, or some such rot....Sorry, Sarah," Jonathan caught himself. "We work for Madam President. I shouldn’t have added the editorial comment."
"Should I return? Does the Director want me back on duty?"
"No. I already asked him," JT replied. Then he whispered, "He’s loyal to the President, but secretly I think he likes your Admiral. Stay with him. I’ll call if something changes. Enjoy the play. And the presidential suite."
Sarah smiled. "Can’t a girl have any secrets?" she asked her friend and coworker.
"No," JT laughed. It was true. Sarah was a hot commodity, prime time the world over. Secrets for this CIA agent were now few and far between. Her every hiccup was in the unforgiving glare of the media spotlight, something she could have done without. "Admit it, Sarah. I was right about the Admiral, wasn’t I?"
Sheepishly, Nottingly replied, "Yes. Thanks, JT. I owe you one."
Hanging up, Sarah turned to Thor, "Sorry. I had to call the office. But there’s good news: I get to stay."
Thanking the waiter, America’s couple made their way across the crowded room. The restaurant’s patrons applauded as they passed. They even managed a cheerful rendition of "God Bless America." It was a far cry from waiters singing "Happy Birthday" to an embarrassed patron.
Once outside, they were surprised again. There were three motorcycle units and three police cars on either end of their white stretch limo. This was getting a bit overwhelming. With a great deal of commotion and fanfare, they climbed into the back seat. The procession pulled away from the Tavern, weaved its way out of the park, and then headed down New York City’s fabled Fifth Avenue.
Each intersection along the way was replete with additional police directing traffic away from the procession. Word had reached the good folks of Manhattan. Thousands were now lining what looked like a parade route. Both sides of Fifth Avenue were two or three deep with waving spectators. Some held signs aloft. "Adams for President," read one. Another said "Promote Admiral Adams." A third: "NY-heart-TA." Sarah even saw one that read, "Princess Sarah for First Lady."
It was like Beatlemania in the sixties, but the crowd was more diverse. Those who wanted Adams to run for public office didn’t even know what party he belonged to. In truth, they didn’t care, nor did Thor. As career military he’d avoided politics with a passion. Yet overnight, America had all but dragged him into the gilded arena of egos. Thanks, but no thanks, he thought quietly to himself.
Sarah, sitting on Adams’ bad side, squeezed his right hand. She didn’t know if she was supporting him or if it was the other way around. Perplexed by it all, They instinctively rolled down their windows to wave to the adoring crowd. While they didn’t understand all the fuss, they couldn’t help but feel appreciated.
Silently they pondered how fate had brought them to this peculiar place. Grappling with their destiny, they felt inadequate and ill prepared. Uncharacteristically, neither said a word. Normally gregarious, and now more at ease with each other, they didn’t know what to say.
The crowd grew consistently larger and more vocal as the motorcade approached 42nd Street. Acknowledging those who had gathered to wish them well, the Admiral and the Agent entered the theater to more applause. Thor and Sarah thanked everyone, waved, and blushed. Uncomfortable with the attention, they gestured for the audience to sit down. No one did. Instead, the announcer proclaimed, "Ladies and Gentlemen, tonight we have the honor of sharing our theater with a genuine hero, Admiral Thurston Adams and CIA Agent Sarah Nottingly. Thanks for all you’ve done to bring us together."
With that the curtain was raised but not to begin the play. The cast all gathered around: Maria, the Nuns, the Captain, even the children. Borrowing a scene from the real-life drama that had inspired The Sound of Music, the orchestra began to play "America the Beautiful." As the cast lifted their voices, the audience joined in. It was like singing "Edelweiss," the national song of Austria, in the face of the sulking Nazis. This time America was thumbing its collective nose at a different breed of terrorist. The nation was announcing, ever so eloquently, that it was united again.
After a short eternity, the ovation finally subsided. The curtains were drawn closed, then opened again. Maria rushed back onto center stage twirling, arms and face raised to the mountains. As she began singing her opening number, Thor’s mind drifted back to their hotel room where a lifetime ago his own Maria had sung the same song. The parallels were lost on no one. But only Sarah and Thor knew just how similarly their lives mirrored the play. There were no children, covetous uncles, or greedy baronesses, but the rest of the story fit like a glove.
As dates go, this was shaping up to be a good one. But all too soon it was over. Adams and Nottingly were invited backstage to meet the cast. They met the theater’s owners, powerful businessmen and women, celebrities, even the mayors, Bloomberg and Giuliani.
Finally, America’s couple made it back to their suite. Sarah sat on the hearth, lighting the fire. The Admiral had a bottle of Merlot wedged between his legs. Corkscrew in hand, he made a valiant effort to remove the cork. The wine, like the room, had been a gift.
Sarah seemed mesmerized by the fire. Its soft, warm light flooded the room as it danced off the walls and furnishings. The crystal chandelier had been turned down low so they could enjoy the panoramic views of the still-vibrant city. They would have given anything to be able to stop time at this very moment.
Love can be an irresistible force all on its own, but surroundings like these couldn’t help but kindle the flame. The wine glasses were half filled with the libation of lovers.
Even with his arm in a sling, the Admiral was dashing, yet there was still a playful, boyish look about him. Though confident, he could be shy at times. He wore his emotions openly. All of that combined to drive women crazy, and this woman had clearly gone round the bend.
Sarah turned to face her companion. He returned her smile. Reassured, she no longer cared where he looked. She knew that she pleased him, all the way from her flowing hair down to the pink shoes matching her dress - high heels, nothing sensible about them. Still sitting ten feet apart, they just looked at each other. The recipe was one part discovery, one part admiration, and ten parts anticipation. As eternity’s moment marched on to the drumbeat of a crackling fire, Sarah was sure Thor could hear her heartbeat. Her body warmed, but not from the flame, from the fire raging within. None of this felt like anything she had ever experienced.
He felt the same melody of emotions. There would be no conquering. They had both surrendered to the most powerful force in the world.
Suddenly words, the words, began to rise in the Admiral’s chest. His heart longed to say them. But he longed to speak them with her heart pounding next to his. Thor was certain he would be able to feel it beating through the thin fabric of her dress.
But his head said no. The argument between his head and heart wasn’t about what to say, only when to say it. As he sat there admiring her, his head and heart engaged in a spirited debate.
Then Sarah kicked off a shoe. Thor’s heart jumped. She looked so desirable. His body screamed to hold her. Any moment now she would stand and cross the room, long legs, graceful hips, slender waist, flowing hair, and a face so radiant its image was burned into his very soul.
Now! If he didn’t speak now, his heart would overwhelm his head and the words he was hungering to say would be lost. The moment, this moment, could never be repeated. The other shoe fell to the floor. His head and his heart now cried out in unison, commanding him to say, "Sarah, I love you."