The week had passed all too quickly. While they missed Mary, they could have stayed in the warm Bahamian waters forever.
The Adamses had splashed the fishes aboard wave runners, peered at them through scuba diving masks, and even eaten one or two during candle-lit dinners. Midnight skinny-dips off the Agape, midday plunges into Thunderball Cave, late morning picnics on deserted white-sand beaches, and early afternoon fishing excursions had filled their days. Love had consumed their nights.
But now, back home in Troy’s study, it was time to go to work. Thor had another speech to write, this time an acceptance speech, his inaugural address. He shook his head. If he hadn’t lived through it, he wouldn’t have believed it himself.
At seven-thirty in Maryland, it was two-thirty in Jerusalem. This was the first chance the President-elect had had to check in with his old friend and new Knesset Member. "Isaac, tell me you didn’t do it."
"I know what it looks like, but it wasn’t us, I swear - at least it wasn’t the Israeli government."
"But the uniforms! They looked exactly like your SFGs."
"Yeah, I saw the film too. Three of them. And the men were Jews; there’s no getting around it. We’ve run the bombers’ DNA. We’ve also checked their photos. Just before the blast, all three raised their visors. It was like they wanted to be seen," Isaac reported. "They were members of something called the Temple Faithful. They tried this stunt once before, ten years ago."
"Well, they sure didn’t do Israel any favors, Isaac. The world is in no mood to listen to us now."
"I’m going to find out what really happened, my friend - and why. Something’s fishy."
"Yeah. Doesn’t smell right. Like where did these religious sorts get Special Forces Gear? For that matter, why would they wear them? Where did they get hold of sixty kilos of C-12? How did they get onto the Mount? Jews are forbidden. If they hadn’t been Jews, I’d swear it was an inside job. And tell me, why did the lights go on just before the blast? And why three bombers? There are - were - four main support columns holding up the dome. I’ve got more questions than answers."
"Keep me posted, will ya? Oh, and Isaac, I almost forgot. Thanks for coming. Thank all the guys for us. It was great to see you out of uniform."
"Are you kidding? We wouldn’t have missed Sarah’s wedding for the world. It’s a wonder she married such a loser."
"Loser? Yeah, right. I couldn’t even lose an election."
The wounds to Aymen Halaweh’s flesh would heal. His spirit was another matter. He had been shocked to learn that his own people had destroyed the Holy Shrine. Worse, it had been no accident.
Mamdouh Salim cut his protest off cold. "Forget it. The Dome was a political symbol, one built to annoy Jews. We used it as it was intended."
"No!" Aymen pleaded. "The Holy Shrine commemorated the Prophet’s Night’s Journey. His voyage to heaven began there."
President Salim placed a patronizing hand on the young man’s shoulder. "Son, you don’t believe that crap. Come on. You’re a bright boy."
He looked him in the eye. "Ask yourself, why would the Prophet have to come here to the temple of the hated Jews to get to heaven? He was in Mecca, at the Ka’aba, for cryin’ out loud."
Aymen’s jaw dropped. He was speechless.
"Hey, I haven’t memorized this stuff, but I know the Qur’an says that the big-eyed virgins are hangin’ out in the Garden of Eden. This isn’t the right direction, and you don’t go up to get there. Islam’s a farce, pal."
Aymen’s brows raised in astonishment. Like a retreating tide, President Salim ripped the sand from beneath his feet, undermining the very foundation of his faith.
"That garbage is for the masses. Helps us keep them in line. But nobody on top actually buys into it. Open your eyes, boy."
Aymen’s were. Wide open.
"Why do you think the Princes, the Ayatollahs, and the Sultans are such perverted bastards? Prostitutes, bestiality, gluttony - they do it all. Figure it out: they’re not religious. Islam is for the sheep, not the shepherds. Start living, kid."
"But what about Talib Ali?" Amen snarled. "You killed him. Why didn’t you tell me? You planned to blow up the Dome all along!"
Mamdouh’s gaze turned to ice. "You couldn’t handle the truth. Ali’s dead." Salim glared menacingly. "I can arrange for you to join him. Want to be a martyr, boy?"
The question wasn’t rhetorical. The young and formerly naïve Halaweh could see it in Salim’s cold, black eyes. It was the same look that had come over Kahn at the crucifixions. Aymen’s shoulders dropped. Unable to speak, unable to look at his leader, he retreated clumsily from the room.
"All around the globe, political and religious leaders alike are pleading with President-elect Thurston Adams to abandon his plan for dealing with the Arab world." Trixi Lightheart was sitting tall in the saddle. Though less-than-idealistic behavior had gotten her into this position, she was now an ideologue - spewing the politically correct agenda with an evangelist’s zeal. She knew the big networks were looking for anchors.
"Congressman Macon told his supporters today, ‘In light of the wanton destruction of the Dome of the Rock by fundamentalist Jews, it’s time to rein in the radicals. There is no room in a peace-loving world for religious zealots,’ he said. ‘We need to come together as a global community. The Admiral’s criticism of Islam’s Prophet is hateful, racist, and intollerant. His behavior has led us to the brink of war."
He had as much as said that freedom of speech was only for him and his supporters. "Hate speech," defined as anything they disagreed with, had to be silenced, muzzled, before the "unenlightened" hurt someone. Yet for the moment, the left was on the defensive, reeling, having been challenged and defeated at the polls by Thurston Adams and his coalition.
So following the commercial break, Trixi Lightheart wound herself up - for the good of the cause. "President-elect Adams’ plan, many are now saying, is far too expensive and risky. Moreover, Islamic clerics worldwide are condemning the Admiral’s attacks on their religion, saying that they are racially motivated and unjust. The Ayatolla has issued a fatwa on him for his inflammatory criticisms of the Prophet Muhammad. All moderate Arab leaders are saying that the late President’s proposals, granting the Palestinians statehood and removing all U.S. presence from Islamic Holy Lands, is the only peaceful solution to the present crisis. German and French leaders are objecting to calling Muslims terrorists, as the Admiral has done. The E.U. issued a statement condemning the Admiral’s unilateral strategy and rejected the notion they were coddling terrorists. They say that by blowing up the Dome of the Rock, the Jews have shown that they are the real terrorists."
For Thor Adams, watching the news was about as much fun as seeing his buddies crucified. No amount of fact, reason, or meticulous explanation ever seemed to quell their rhetoric. They saw the world one way; he saw it another.
"Truth is dead," Thor grumbled. "If it wasn’t for talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, America would be lost." The Admiral walked over to Troy’s TV and turned it off. If he’d had a gun, he might have shot it, proving once and for all that he was a hawk.
"We have met the enemy, and he is us," Thor moaned. "Will these deceptions ever end?"
Sarah agreed. "Who would have thought that subduing the Islamic warlords was going to be easier than battling our own media. Good grief! You’d think we were responsible for what Muhammad did and said, for the legacy of Islam. Why get mad at us? We’re just messengers."
"Yeah. Their emperor’s got no clothes. Rocky and Hoodwinker are a farce. Islam is lunacy - literally. It’s as obvious as the moon is different from the sun."
"Actually, Thor, all we’re doing is what the Qur’an said to do, compare scriptures: ‘Judge between them in the light of what has been revealed by God.’ Well, from what I can tell, God revealed that the Qur’an is a piece of garbage. I read it again." She thumbed through her copy. It was covered with notes, a code of some sort. "Allah’s primary theme is that everyone is ‘mocking’ Mo, ‘scoffing,’ and ‘laughing’ at him because they think what he’s saying is ridiculous. Mo is called a ‘liar’ and a ‘magician’. It’s said he’s ‘possessed by devils’, that he’s just a ‘crazy plagiarizing poet’. They call him a ‘sorcerer’, a ‘lunatic’, a ‘farfetched forger’, a ‘fool’, a ‘specious pretender,’ and ‘deceitful’ - in essence, a hoodwinker."
"I love you, and you’re easily the smartest woman I have ever known, but there’s no way that’s all in the Qur’an.
Sarah patted him on the head and turned to the 38th surah. "‘The unbelievers said: "He is a deceiving sorcerer, turning many gods into one deity." "There must be a motive behind the Qur’an. It is surely a fabrication."’’’ She flipped back one. "‘They laugh at the Qur’an and say, "Should we abandon our gods for the sake of an insane poet?"’"
She shot Thor a look, as she moved back a few more pages. "‘Allah has not sent down anything. You are only speaking lies.’ They rejoined, ‘We feel you augur ill. If you do not desist, we shall stone you to death, and inflict a grievous punishment on you.’ The Messenger responded, saying, ‘The augury is within your own selves.’"
Sarah read on. "‘When Our clear revelations are read out to them, they say, "This is only a man who wants to turn you away from what your fathers used to worship. This is nothing but a fabricated lie. This is nothing but pure sorcery."’ Then, ‘Those who do not believe, say, "Indeed, our fathers have been promised this before. The Qur’an is nothing but earlier peoples’ lore."’ In other words, plagiarism - stolen from Jewish oral traditions. ‘These are fables of antiquity which he has reinvented.’
"‘What sort of Prophet is this?’ ‘Why was no angel sent to him?’ Then, from surah 21, ‘Yet they say: "These are only confused dreams. He has invented them. Let him therefore bring a miracle to us as the earlier prophets did."’" Sarah looked over at Thor. "That no-miracle thing really burnt Mo’s britches. At least twenty times in the Qur’an, his critics accuse him of being the only Prophet who couldn’t do a miracle."
"Who said he couldn’t do miracles? He made three Jewish tribes vanish without a trace."
"Yeah," Sarah laughed. "And he made blind men dumb." She read from surah 11. "‘They say of the Prophet,
"He has forged the Qur’an."’ From the tenth, ‘We find you full of folly and a liar to boot.’ Then from the ninth surah, ‘There are some among them who talk ill of the Prophet.’ ‘For those who offend Allah’s Apostle there is a painful punishment. Have they not realized that anyone who opposes Allah and His Prophet will abide in hell forever?’"
"I will never doubt you again."
"That’s good, because I marked over 400 of these I could have read to you. To give you an idea of Allah’s propensity for repeating himself, three Bible stories appear twenty times each. Pharaoh gets pummeled because he didn’t listen to Moses, everybody drowns because they didn’t listen to Noah, and the townsfolk get scorched because they didn’t heed Lot. Do you see a pattern here?"
"Yeah. None of these stories are about messengers, yet Mo twists them to scare his followers into submission. So how does Prophet-Man respond to his critics? I don’t suppose he tells them he loves them, forgives them, and is willing to lay down his life to save them."
"No, no, no, no, no. Mo calls his critics liars, losers, evil, vile, lost, deaf, dumb, blind, dead, vain, conceited, shameful, sinful, slime, subversive, slanderers, hypocrites, insane, wicked, ignoramuses, conspirators, deceivers, malicious, oblivious annoyances. When he gets really miffed, he calls them mischief mongers, faggots, apes, nail biters, donkeys, and tongue twisters. But they’re in great company. He condemns the deity of Christ and his message more than fifty times. He even says that Jesus was not crucified, but twice says Pharaoh threatened to crucify Moses, a thousand years before crucifixion was invented."
"A doctrine of death - Good grief."
"Grief, yes. Good, no. Allah was fixated on pain and suffering. I lost track, but there must be a thousand places in which Muhammad and his pet rock speak of hell, demons, and punishment in the Qur’an. It’s an average of ten times per surah. Let me give you an example. ‘Allah cursed the infidels and prepared a blazing fire for them.’ Remember, in Qur’an 5:72 Allah defined infidels as Christians. ‘They will live in it forever and will find no savior.’ ‘That day their faces will be turned on the fire as on a spit.’ ‘"O Allah," Muhammad pleaded, "give them a double punishment and put a grievous curse upon them."’ ‘"We have prepared Hell for the hospitality of the infidels."’"
"‘We’, as is in Allah, is providing this hospitality, right?"
"Yeah, according to Islam, but not according to Sarah. Y’see, Allah only lived in the mind of Muhammad. Allah is dumb as a stone ’cause, well, he is a stone. That’s why Mo claims he says stuff like, ‘Their requital will be Hell, because they disbelieved and mocked My signs and My Messenger.’ There were no signs: no miracles, no prophecies, nada. And the Qur’an is easily the worst book ever written by most any criterion.
"And sweetness," she said. "In case you were wondering what hell is like, let me share how Allah describes it. ‘There will be boiling water for them, and cold, clammy, fetid drink to taste, and other similar torments. They will roast in the fire.’ ‘They will wear iron collars and chains around their necks, they will be dragged through boiling water, and then burnt in the fire.’ ‘The food of sinners in Hell is like pitch. It will fume in the belly, as does boiling water,’ according to Allah ‘cutting their intestines to shreds.’ ‘Seize him and drag him into the depths of Hell, then pour over his head the torment of scalding water. Taste it,’ Allah says. And just in case you wanted to know, ‘The fire of Hell is kindled by Allah himself.’"
"How many times did you say Allah talks about demons, hell, and punishment?"
"I stopped counting at around a thousand. But to be fair, he does say, ‘Allah is merciful and kind right after he tells Muslims he wants us to roast in hell. And he ought to know because hell’s demons love the Qur’an. In 46:29, it says: ‘We,’ again as in the schizophrenic Allah, ‘turned a company of jinns,’ those are demons, ‘toward Muhammad to listen to the Qur’an. They arrived when it was being recited, and said, "We have listened to a book which has come down after Moses confirming what was sent down before it showing the way to the truth and a path that is straight."’"
"Yeah. Straight to hell." Thor didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. "While I’m convinced Satan didn’t write it, I’m not surprised he likes it. It’s right up his alley."
"It gets worse, love. Allah has several surahs dedicated to war, fighting, killing, booty, terror, and martyrdom. In them he says, ‘If you meet them in battle, inflict on them such a defeat as would be a lesson for those who would come after them.’ As you know, he tells them to break treaties, and he specifically says that treaties with non-Muslims are not binding on his followers. He even says that when confronted by unbelievers, Muslims are to say ‘peace’. Muhammad says, ‘They will find out soon enough’ - what we’re really all about is the implication.
"He speaks of killer angels ‘drawing away people’s souls, striking their faces and their backs, crying out, "Taste the torment of burning."’ ‘O Prophet, urge the faithful to fight.’ Allah begins one of the War Manifesto surahs saying, ‘If they ask you of the benefits of accruing the spoils of war, tell them, "The benefits belong to Allah and His Messenger."’ Allah said, ‘Wipe the infidels out to the last.’ So no Muslim would be confused, in 8:60 Muhammad claimed Allah said, ‘Prepare against the infidels whatever arms and cavalry you can muster, that you may strike terror in the hearts of the enemies of God.’"
"We went into this mess expecting to find some small flaw in Islam that caused radicals to corrupt their religion and turn violent. But it’s just not true, no matter how many people say it. Islam itself is the problem."
"The historical facts, their own scriptures, all agree." Sarah breathed deeply. It saddened her. "The more Muslims learn about their Prophet, the more violent they become. The whole thing reeks."
"That’s obvious, but listening to the media, you’d think we were the terrorists. It’s so perverse." Thor shook his head. "It’s little wonder so few decent people run for office. Now I know why nobody speaks out. By the time these buffoons get through mauling my character, even you won’t like me."
Sarah couldn’t help herself and burst out laughing. Her love was unconditional. Besides, she knew him; his critics didn’t. To assail him they had to invent scandals, contrive motivations, cast aspersions onto him that mirrored their faults, not his.
Sitting in her mother’s companion chair, Sarah said, "Come here."
The most powerful man on earth did as he was told.
"On your knees," she ordered, hitting the floor as well.
"Father, help us forgive those who have wronged us, those who have lied about us." With her eyes closed, she continued to pray just loud enough to be heard. "Lord, we pray for our enemies, for those who despise us, for those who wish to kill us for exposing them. Not that they’ll get their wish," she chuckled, "but that you’ll soften their hearts. Let them know that all we want is for them to know the truth - to be free from the deception that kindles their hatreds. Call out to them in love. It is the only thing that can extinguish their rage."
With his head bowed, Thor said, "God, please give us your wisdom, so we can tell right from wrong; your courage, so we’ll do what’s right; your love, so we’ll do it for the right reasons; your faith, so we’ll stay the course; and your protection, so that we might survive until this job is done. Let our enemies know we love them, in spite of what they’ve done. We pray this in your son’s name. Amen."
Aymen’s world was upside down. It was in no better condition than the dome he’d helped topple. All his life he’d been told - sold - the same story. The Palestinian leadership, the clerics in the mosques and madrases, the beautiful people in the media, had all sworn that Allah was God and that Muhammad was his messenger. They had told him that Jews were responsible for his problems and that America was the Great Satan. Every insult, every injury, was their fault. They were God haters, baby killers. They were infidels worthy of death.
He had just mortally wounded his own shrine, yet his brothers were celebrating the damage it had wrongly done the Jews. Worse, he was complicit in the murder of his own colleague, and no one seemed to care. He had nailed men to crosses his first day on the job. He had helped poison great cities, inventing the equipment to spew hideous spores of death into the air. He had crafted elaborate electronic triggers to detonate nuclear bombs, and launching devices to assure that they would kill more people than could be imagined. For the first time, he thought about his victims. Were they infidels or innocents? Were they evil, or was he?
Aymen slumped in his chair. He was all alone; the lights were out, the curtains drawn. He leaned forward, letting his head fall. Tears welled up in his eyes. The pain was unbearable. He was tormented. His heart, mind, and soul were fighting a holy war.
Truth! He had to know the truth. But where would he find it? Not from the media, not the clerics, not his leaders - they had all deceived him. But why? The question rang in his head like a bell, pounding, clanging relentlessly. Why? Aymen shook uncontrollably, alone in the darkness of his cave-like dwelling. Panic washed over him. He began sweating profusely. Why? An evil spirit seemed to be pressing upon him, squeezing the life out of him. Suicide! Yes. That was the only way out. He would take his own life - just as he had taken the lives of others. Inspired yet quivering, walking yet stumbling, certain yet unsure, he searched for a weapon.
Aymen flung every cupboard open, pulled out every drawer, throwing their contents onto the floor. Tears poured from his eyes. In anguish, his heart pleaded for mercy, for an end to the torment. But it was all for naught. The knives were too dull. He didn’t have pills, nor did he possess a gun. In frustration, he fell to the floor. "God, why?" he screamed.
Curled into a fetal ball, he fell silent. He could hear his own breathing, feel his heartbeat. Then, out of the stillness, he heard a voice. Soft. Clear. Almost a whisper. "I love you."
He spun around, but there was no one. In the darkness, all he saw was his notebook computer, the one Mamdouh Salim had given him. The screen saver’s shifting pattern provided the only source of light. He knew it was tethered to the Internet. Is that where the voice had come from?
Aymen was desperate to know who had spoken to him. And why now, when he was so unlovable? He crawled to the table and tapped the enter key. The screen came to life.
"Nooooooooo!" he screamed. The image that emerged had been the last he’d selected, the last thing he’d viewed before his talk with President Salim. The Sacred Sea filled the screen, floating malevolently in its slip near the Lincoln Memorial.
He had to stop the madness. But how? The only Americans he knew were as deceived as he had been. Then Adams’ face popped involuntarily into his mind. He shook his head, trying to discard the image of his enemy, but it wouldn’t go away. The more he tried, the more it beckoned to him. "Aymen. Aymen Halaweh." The voice again! How does he know my name? Why is he calling me?
Kneeling on the debris-littered floor, with tears lingering on his cheeks, the young Palestinian engineer typed, "ThorAdams.com." Nervously he tapped the enter key. Just then something started to orbit Microsoft’s "e." Was it Allah’s moon, the American’s evil influence, or just a harmless symbol? As Aymen pondered the imponderable, his panic seemed to ease; his pulse slowed from suicidal to simply frantic.
ThorAdams.com linked to a homepage Troy Nottingly had created to support Thor’s candidacy. Halaweh now had choices. He could read Thor Adams’ bio, register to vote, read the text of his speech to the Joint Session of Congress, review the Plan to Save America, or examine how the Admiral intended to scuttle terror. None of that seemed appropriate at the moment. Up off his knees, Aymen looked around for the chair he had tossed aside in his frantic search for a suicide weapon.
Sitting down, he saw something that piqued his interest, a link to "Delusional Doctrines - What’s Wrong with Islam." His index finger trembled as he centered the cursor and clicked. A new page emerged.
The headline read: "God loves you and so do we." He shook his head, trying to clear his mind. Those words again. Why? Beneath the headline he saw, "However, He is not pleased with your behavior. Despite what you’ve been told, God isn’t about hate, revenge, or lust. He doesn’t condone holy war, the murder of innocents, or stealing what belongs to others."
Two links followed: "The History of Allah," and "The Life and Times of Muhammad." What he saw was no less shocking than Salim admitting he’d destroyed the Dome.
With each line Aymen’s breathing became more labored. His eyes widened. His heart melted within him. He shook his head, trying to comprehend it all. He looked over his shoulder, making sure that the drapes were drawn. These were powerful words, make-people-angry words, change-the-world words. It was a catharsis, an exorcism, an apocalypse.
"Mr. Newcomb, you have a call on line six," the chief of staff for the recently elected Knesset Member said. It was nearly midnight in Jerusalem. Most everyone had gone home but not Isaac. Adams’ parting words, "It was good to see you all out of uniform" haunted him. The uniforms, their uniforms, where had they gone, could they...?
Peeking around his office door, she added, "Normally, I wouldn’t interrupt you with someone like this. I know you’re trying to get to the bottom of the Dome disaster, but the voice sounds frantic. He won’t give his name, but he says he knows you. Something about SFGs and Afghanistan."
Isaac pressed the speaker button. "This is Newcomb. Who is this?"
"My name is unimportant. What I know, however, is. I am a Palestinian. You would call me a terrorist. Until a few hours ago, you’d have been right. I was in Afghanistan when you were there. The SFGs that were worn by the Temple Faithful came from your men."
"How? Why? Who are you?"
"I brought them back with me. Why? To embarrass you. Who I am doesn’t matter."
"Why did you call?"
Aymen blurted it out. "President Mamdouh Salim detonated the three bombs that brought the Dome of the Rock down."
"What! How do you know this?"
"I built the triggers."
"Oh, my God!" Isaac exclaimed. "How can I thank you for this?"
"Give me Thor Adams’ number. You must have it."
"Why?" Above all, Isaac was protective of his friend. Handing out contact information to a terrorist, no matter how helpful he was, didn’t seem like a terribly bright idea. "What possible use...."
Aymen cut him off. "There’s an atomic bomb sitting in a sailboat just outside Washington. I built the trigger for it as well. It’s set to go off in thirty minutes. That is why, Mr. Newcomb."
"Stay on the line, whatever your name is. I’ll patch him through," Isaac answered with a calm only a Mossad Major could possess. "Ori!" he screamed at the top of his lungs. "How do I make the conference thing work?" Newcomb was afraid he’d disconnect the former terrorist as he tried to dial the almost President.
Ori expertly handled the controls, pressing the right buttons, although she too was trembling. With the door open, she couldn’t help but overhear the extraordinary conversation. "Now dial your number."
"Hello," an angelic voice proclaimed.
"Leisel, this is Isaac Newcomb. I need the Admiral. Is he there?"
"Hi, Major," she said. "It was such a pleasure to...."
"Mrs. Nottingly," he interrupted. "It’s an emergency. I need Thor!"
"I’m sorry, Major," she said. "He and Sarah left here about forty minutes ago. They said they were going to the Lincoln Memorial. Thor was looking for some inspira...."
"Does he have a cell phone?"
"Yes, I believe he does. Let me see if I can find the number."
"Does Sarah have a cell phone?"
"Why yes, she does. That number is area code 410-555-1317.
Both Isaac and Ori scribbled it down. Newcomb dialed, forgetting to tell Leisel goodbye. If the terrorist was telling the truth, it wouldn’t matter. If he wasn’t, he could always call her back.
"Sarah. Where are you? Is the Admiral with you?"
"Hi, Isaac. You seem kind of stressed. What’s up?"
"Sarah, please, if Thor’s with you, give him the phone."
She looked crosswise at her cell. "Thor, it’s Isaac. He sounds weird."
Adams was reading Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address for what seemed like the hundredth time.
"Hey, Isaac. What’s up?" he said cheerfully.
"I’ve got a Palestinian on the line. He talks real good English but won’t give me his name. He said he built the triggers for the bombs that trashed the Dome. He said the uniforms, the SFGs, were ours, Team Uniform’s."
"So it was a setup?"
"Yeah, but listen! He says that there’s a nuke in Washington on a sailboat. He says it’s going to blow in thirty minutes. I’ve got him on the other line. He wants to talk to you. I’m going to conference him through."
I knew it! Adams thought as he walked toward the eastern opening of America’s national shrine. Seconds later, the technology worked. Thor heard Halaweh’s voice for the first time.
"Admiral Adams, my name is Aymen Halaweh. Until a few hours ago I worked for Omen Quagmer and Kahn Haqqani of al-Qaeda. I also worked for President Salim. I was in Afghanistan. I personally nailed Kyle Stanley and Bentley McCaile to their crosses. I set up the SFG cameras at the crucifixion that broadcast your ordeal home. I brought the suits back with me. Three of them, the ones with the star of David, were used by the Jews who were duped into blowing up the Dome. I also helped outfit the anthrax trash trucks. There were twenty-four of them, not twenty, like they reported on the news. You probably knew that."
Thor broke out in a cold sweat. "Why are you telling me these things?"
"So you’ll believe what I am going to tell you next. Do you remember the sailboat you pulled from the sandbar on Paradise Island?"
"Yes. How did you know about that?"
"It’s equipped with a web cam. We all laughed as we watched you do it. The crew knew who you were; that’s why they were so scared."
"The Sacred Sea - a forty-five foot sloop, right?"
"Yes. It’s in Washington, D.C., right now. Are you anywhere near the Lincoln Memorial?"
"Yes. Why?" The Admiral’s knees were beginning to buckle.
"There is a marina, on the Potomac, southwest of the Lincoln Memorial. The Sacred Sea is in a transient slip in that marina. It has a nuclear bomb on it. I built the electronic trigger. It is scheduled to blow," he looked down at the display on his PC, "in twenty-seven minutes."
"Sarah, give me your car keys," Thor screamed, holding out his hand.
"It’s my car. I’m driving. Where are we going?"
"Sarah, please!" he implored as he chased her toward the car.
Fortunately, the blue Jag was close, parked illegally, eastbound on Constitution Avenue. Sarah had figured if she got a parking ticket, she could get it fixed. Without even opening the doors, they both jumped in, Sarah behind the wheel.
The half-dozen Secret Service agents assigned to protect them were left in the dust. They scattered to the winds, first trying to stop them, then running for their cars, waving their arms and screaming into their lapels.
"U-turn. Do you know the fastest way to the Potomac Marina?"
"Yeah. My last boyfriend used to keep his boat there."
"Step on it. We’ve got twenty-five minutes. Do you have your cell?"
"You’re using it," she answered, whipping the XK-8 roadster around in impressive fashion. Two Secret Service Fords blew past them, going the wrong direction.
The Admiral reached into his pocket, handing his phone to Sarah. "Dial Director Barnes." Thrown side to side, he shouted into the other phone, "Aymen, are you still with me?"
"Yes." It was hard to hear. "The connection isn’t so hot. Lot of static."
"It’s wind. We’re headed to the marina. Are you going to tell me how to disarm this thing?"
"Yes, but you must hurry. We don’t have much time. And I’m not exactly sure...."
"Not sure of what?" Adams interrupted.
"I’ve never tried to disarm one. I built the electronic part of the timer. That’s all I know," Aymen confessed.
"Sarah, watch out. You’re gonna get us killed!"
She was driving on the wrong side of the street. The light was red, and there were way too many cars on their side. Weaving the Jaguar between oncoming traffic invited honks and one-fingered salutes.
She ignored Thor’s critique. "Here, I’ve got Barnes. You talk to him."
"Congratulations, Admiral. My staff and I look forward to work...."
"Good. Start now. Who do you have who knows about nukes? We’ve got one on a sailboat moored behind the Lincoln Memorial. It’s set to blow in...twenty-three minutes."
"I’ve got a team here at Langley, but even by chopper, it’ll take ’em twenty to get there."
Send ’em. The boat’s name is Sacred Seas. It’s white with a dark blue and gold stripe. Forty-five feet. Sarah and I will be on it."
He hung up. "Still with me, Halaweh?"
"What did you mean, you only built the electronic timer? How many timers are there on this thing?"
"Two. Mine, the electronic one, only activates the failsafe."
"Failsafe? As in, if someone tampers with the timer, it blows?"
"Great. Hang on, pal," Thor said over the roar of road noise and horns. He pressed the first speed-dial button on his phone.
"Hello. This is the Pentagon. How may I direc...."
"Chairman Hasler. It’s an emergency."
"Chairman Hasler’s office. How may...."
"Judy, get Bill. It’s an emergency."
"Yes, Admiral. He’s right here."
"Hi, Admiral. Congratula...."
"Later. Can you get an anti-terrorism team with nuke training to the marina behind the Lincoln Memorial in less than twenty?"
"Without gear, maybe. Why?"
"We’ve got a nuke that’s going to blow in twenty-one minutes. The boat is the Sacred Seas. Sarah and I will be on it, heading down the Potomac. Give ’em my cell number, Bill."
"You can’t do this, Admiral! The country needs you. Get out of there!" he said wisely into a disconnected phone.
Sarah, driving like Jeff Gordon on Sunday, made impressive time, especially considering the traffic. She drafted when appropriate, passed when not, and drove as much on sidewalks as she did on the wrong side of the road.
Holding on for dear life, they blew past a police car at seventy miles per hour. Thor looked over at Sarah. "And you call yourself a conservative?"
They were now less than a minute away. "Why are you helping me, Aymen?" the Admiral asked. A sinking feeling suddenly crept over him.
"I tried to commit suicide today." That wasn’t saying much, considering he was a Muslim terrorist. "I was wrong." That was saying a lot.
"Wrong about what?"
"Everything. Al-Qaeda, the Palestinians, Islam, my life."
The Admiral stared at the phone like it was playing tricks on him. He didn’t know what to say, so he prayed. God, don’t let me foul this up.
Sarah saw that the marina’s driveway was blocked by a security gate. No longer having a keycard, she closed her eyes and turned the wheel hard right, gunning it. The Jaguar obeyed her command, leaping through the bushes that separated the parking lot from the street. Screeching around the sea of parked cars, it growled to a stop in front of the gangway. She threw the wooden gearshift into park as Thor jumped out.
"There it is!" he shouted, pointing to his right.
At a full gallop, the Adams family ran toward the gangway. An elderly couple was leaving, removing their keycard from the iron gate at just the right moment. Thor glanced at his watch as they blew past the startled seniors. They would have eighteen minutes by the time they reached the boat.
"Where’s the bomb, the timer, Aymen?"
"Under the v-berth in the bow. But be careful. The crew’s crazy."
Bouncing under the Admiral’s weight, the pier made enough noise to wake the neighborhood. More to the point, it woke Atta and Riza from their sunset siesta. They had no idea the nuke was about to blow. Atta hesitantly peeked his head out the gangway door first. Then below him, Riza ventured a look. It didn’t take them long to ascertain what was causing the commotion. To their great dismay, the man they feared most in the world was barreling down upon them.
Certain they were outgunned by the unarmed Admiral, the menacing Muslim marauders did what came naturally. They bailed, jumping overboard. Had time not been so limited, Adams would have preferred to deal with them up close and personal. Some other time, perhaps.
With the agility of an athlete, the six-foot-two man of steel made his way from dock to deck to cabin in three strides. Two more cautious steps put him in the forward berth.
"I’m in. Where’s the timer?"
"I know. I saw you. There’s a web cam onboard and it’s online."
"The trigger, Aymen!"
"Top left drawer.
"Get this thing out of here. You’re going to have to sail it. They took the key with ’em. All right, Aymen, I’ve got the drawer open. There are two timers. Now what?"
"Are the LEDs illuminated?"
"Oh no? What do you mean oh no?"
"The electronic timer wasn’t supposed to activate the failsafe until T minus fifteen. It’s at least three minutes fast."
"What are you telling me? How do we turn this thing off?"
"I don’t know. Let me think," Halaweh anguished halfway around the world. "I built the electronic timers. The Russians built the failsafe and the tritium triggers."
Adams felt the boat rock. They were out of the slip.
"Can you turn the timer over?" Aymen asked.
"Yeah." Adams removed the wooden drawer, dropping it to the floor. He now held both timers in his hands. Turning each over he studied the wiring schema on their bottoms. "Hang on, Halaweh." He hit speed dial on his cell. "Hasler," he said.
"They’re en route," the General answered.
"Good. Call the Russians. Find out who built the series four niner seven niner triggers. We’ve got a problem. We only have ten minutes fifteen seconds. Call me when you know somethin’."
"Okay, Aymen, I’m back. What do we do now?"
"The green and the blue wires are from my timer. Do you see them?"
"Right. There’s plenty of light in here. What’s with the huge hatch?"
The reformed terrorist thought it best to ignore the question. "The yellow and red connect the failsafe trigger to the bombs. The white and black wires are from the battery. Do you see them all?"
"Bombs? As in more than one?" the Admiral moaned, looking at the diabolical spaghetti.
"Three. They’re wired in sequence. The device you’re looking at isn’t actually the nuclear trigger; it’s a pre-triggering device. It’s Russian but has Chinese, Iranian, and Pakistani parts."
"Swell, a regular terrorist potpourri," Adams grumbled. His cell phone rang, nearly scaring him to death.
"Thor, bad news. The Russians say the designers of that series are missing. They think several bailed to Iran. Big bucks."
Thor rubbed his forehead. He normally loved sailing, but this wasn’t much fun. He braced himself as the sloop keeled over onto its side. Single-handedly, Sarah had managed to push back and raise both jib and main. She had trimmed the sails and was headed out of town. But at eight knots, she wouldn’t get far enough in eight and a half minutes to negate the damage of three nukes. Nonetheless, he was proud of her.
"You never told me why you’re doing this."
"I was trying to kill myself when I heard this voice."
"Voice? What did it say?" the Admiral asked.
Normally Halaweh, being a terrorist and all, would have been embarrassed, but not today. "It said, ‘I love you,’" he shared. "When I looked for who said it, I found your website."
"Then why don’t we pray together, Aymen."
"Why not. I’ve tried everything else."
"God, it was you who spoke to Aymen. Please speak to him again and save us from this thing. In Jesus’ name, amen."
In all of his life Aymen had never dreamed that a man he had once wanted to crucify would say such words. Who is this man? Who is his God?
"Okay, my friend. Time to save the world. I’ve found the ship’s toolbox. We need to get down to business. Can I disconnect the battery from the trigger, or one trigger from the other?"
"No. There’s a back-up battery built into the system. And if the failsafe system detects a broken circuit, it will arm itself automatically."
"What if I cut the wires from the pre-trigger to the bombs themselves?"
"No! That will just set ’em off."
"Can you reverse whatever you did with your electronic switch and shut this thing down?"
"Any helicopters yet, Sarah?" Thor shouted, setting down the phone.
"Where are we?"
Adams looked at the timer. They were down to their last three minutes.
"Admiral. Admiral!" Aymen raised his voice so it could be heard on the phone’s speaker. "I’ve got an idea. I’m going to confuse the switch while you short the system. If we do it at the same time, it might work."
"Alright, let’s try."
"Give me a minute. I want to send my timer a series of unanswerable commands. You may want to pray while I’m doing this. And when you’re done, grab something from the toolbox you can use to short a couple of the terminals."
Aymen, still online, pounded the keys, programming the complex code. He was hoping to send his trigger a message, confusing it long enough to allow Adams to melt the electronic circuitry, keeping it from initializing its tamper-proof system. In the split second between being deactivated and the failsafe function engaging, Adams would have to disable the trigger by producing a timely short. It was possible, though not particularly probable.
"Can you find a short piece of wire in that toolbox?"
"Cut the insulation away from both ends. You’re going to need a piece ten centimeters long."
"Okay," the Admiral said, pulling out his Elmer-Fudd-meets-James-Bond miracle tool. He cut an appropriate section and then cut the plastic insulation from either end. "Done."
"Turn the electronic timer over and unscrew the base plate."
Thor found his Phillips attachment and did as he was told.
"Do you see the fuse?"
"Don’t touch it. I want you to connect one end of your wire to each side of the fuse holder. For the short to work, the fuse has to be disabled."
"How’d you get to be so smart, Halaweh?"
"MIT. I’m an engineer."
"Great. Now it’s time you pay us back."
"Is the fuse disabled?"
"Do you have two conductors handy, Admiral - something to bridge the gap between the white and black wires and between the yellow and red ones?"
"Yes, two screwdrivers."
"Good. Now how about something to cut one of the wires with?"
"Sure," he said, grabbing his universal tool. "But I’ve only got two hands."
"Your wife," Aymen said, looking at her on the web cam.
"Sarah. Release the sails and get down here. Hurry! We’ve got," he turned the timer over, "forty seconds."
"Get ready." Halaweh executed his code, sending the message surging through the Internet. "When the green LED flickers, short the black terminal to the white one. When the red flickers a second later, short the other pair - the yellow and red ones."
The Admiral concentrated, trying to remain steady in the cabin of the moving boat. It was literally do or die.
"Here come the helicopters," Sarah shouted, as she made her way to Thor’s side.
Thor heard them, but he knew the cavalry was arriving too late to save the day. He handed her his tool, having opened it to the needle nose apparatus. It came complete with wire cutters.
"What do you want me to do?" she asked.
"Halaweh, Sarah’s got the wire cutters. What do you want her to do?"
Just then the green light flickered. Thor shorted the circuit between the black and white terminals as the former terrorist had instructed. A second later, the red LED blinked, but as it did, the rotor wash from the hovering helicopter pounded the boat’s sails, knocking Thor and Sarah from the switch. Not knowing what else to do, the Admiral lunged forward, screwdriver in hand. Remembering where the contacts had been in his mind’s eye, he pressed the tool against the trigger and prayed. It sparked. That was a good sign. The LEDs were extinguished.
"What now?" he shouted into the cell phone.
"Cut the black wire before the trigger figures out what happened. If you don’t disable the power, the bombs are going to blow."
"The black wire. Are you sure?"
"No! Cut the white wire. That’s safer."
"Halaweh, which one?"
"The white one. I’ve got a good feeling about this."
Placing the pliers around the white wire, Sarah closed her eyes and sliced it through.
Then it happened. Boom! The overhead hatch exploded, firing the four-foot-square skylight heavenward. Enveloped in the blinding light, Thor instinctively grabbed Sarah and did his best to protect her from impending doom. They closed their eyes and gritted their teeth, expecting to die in each other’s arms. But nothing happened. Thor summoned enough courage to venture a look. Sarah was in one piece, as was he. Could death be this painless, this slow? No. It was over.
Adams sat up and pulled the white wires further apart for added insurance. They were going to live, as was Washington. Thor was relaxed for the first time in twenty-seven minutes. "Aymen, is it disarmed?"
Sarah wiggled out of his arms and climbed back topside. She wanted to get the boat back under control.
"Admiral, I’m showing disarmed on my display. Has the timer stopped?"
"Yeah, at three seconds. Cutting it a little close, don’t you think?" Adams collapsed, sprawled between the bunks, staring skyward through the open hatch. The timers rested benignly on his chest.
Halaweh smiled. He felt good for the first time in his life. "Admiral Adams...."
Thor propped himself back up. "Aymen, what was that explosion all about? It nearly scared us to death."
"At T-minus-three, the skylight blows. At T-minus-two, the rockets fire, launching the device. It’s in the v-berth you’re laying on. You would have been the next John Glenn."
The Admiral jumped up and headed topside. "Hang on, Aymen. I need to check on Sarah." He climbed into the cockpit.
"Nice day for a sail, don’t you think?" she said. The sun was now a bright orange disc hovering just above the western shore of the mighty river. A crescent moon loomed over the Capitol. It wouldn’t be the last of these they would see, but sunsets and moonrises would never look quite the same again.
Sarah was on the phone with Director Barnes, waving the CIA helicopter off. Not only was it making an ungodly racket, the swirling wind was playing havoc with her sails. Uniformed agents dangled from rappel lines as the noisy bird made its retreat. In the distance, she could see the Secret Service officers. Two were swimming toward the yacht, another four were running along the Potomac’s eastern shore.
"C’mere, you big brute, and bring your friend with you," Sarah cooed, holding the wheel steady in her hands. She had the Sacred Seas on a port tack, her sails full.
Thor gave his bride a hug, resting his exhausted head against hers. He handed Sarah the phone.
"Mr. Halaweh. God bless you," she said. "You saved our lives. If I book a flight, will you join us tomorrow morning at the Inauguration?"
"Tomorrow may not be good for me."
"Why not? What you did here today was heroic."
"Thank you, ma’am, but I’m afraid you may want to hold your applause. There are eleven more of these things."
She turned to Thor. "Sweetheart, I think you boys need to talk."