He was having a very relaxed day. The weather was nice, unseasonably warm for October so he went out after lunch for a walk to Ballston Commons to do a little window shopping shortly before one o'clock. Then the cell phone rang. It was Bobby. From then on, everything in his day changed and it hadn't stopped yet, even now which is what-six forty-five in the evening, on his way to Westfields Marriott in Chantilly twenty eight miles away.
He agreed to meet him at the park. Bobby offered to get him a burger. "No, thanks," he said, "I already ate. Go ahead get your Big Mac and fries, I'll meet you there in fifteen minutes, give or take."
The guy was just now catching on to the... the trick of the trade, he thought. It's a good thing he didn't go ahead and deposit the money in his account.
"I guess you're just going to have to find a way to handle this," he told Bobby at the park, watching him work on his burger and fries across the picnic table under a pine tree.
"Heck, I never gave this any thought at all. You read about it all the time, especially here in Washington but you never really pay attention," Bobby said. "So how do people do it? Launder money?"
"I don't know. Open a Swiss bank account? Get it out of the country?"
Bobby stopped eating for a moment and gawked at him. "You're not serious," he said.
Both of them admitted never having thought that possession of money in large amounts could be a problem, as much of a problem as working and busting your guts for it and getting it in your name.
But spending it isn't, Ahmed told Bobby. Not if you don't make a show of it. Bobby took that one in and appeared to be working on some ideas in his head. Put it in a hole in the ground? Keep it under your pillow, use it a little at a time? In any case, Bobby asked if Ahmed could talk to his people and work out some kind of payment arrangement.
Perhaps partial payments like regular paychecks by electronic transfer or even hardcopy check for what could appear as legitimate services, that sort of arrangement. Make it look like he worked for them parttime, moonlighting as a consultant at what-two hundred bucks an hour? Something like that. Beats what Leon Justice would be making plus what a couple of his high-grade cohorts in the front office made. Why not?
He told Bobby not to worry, he'll ask his people. But when, he didn't know. On any given day, he had no idea how to get a hold of Kamal if he didn't answer the phone or return his call. It could be he's out of town, either in Detroit or New York. Well, today, it would turn out different starting with Bobby, after finishing his lunch at the picnic table, asking him to get in Bobby's car for a minute where Bobby handed him an envelope that looked like the same one that contained the twenty thousand dollars but this time had in it a floppy diskette.
They were both short of time, had to get back to work, so they split not more than a minute after Bobby made the drop. Also, knowing what just took place between them, they began to have the sense that it wasn't wise to stay in the same place too long. He got out of Bobby's car scanning the immediate vicinity of the park through the corner of his eye, the envelope tucked out of sight inside his coat and feeling it somehow weighing ten times more than it did.
And it might as well had because three days later, owing to the floppy diskette he carried in that envelope, many people will die.
As soon as he got back to work, Ahmed browsed the drop using the IBM laptop in his fifth-floor office, a cozy twelve by twelve room with a large window looking down on Fairfax Drive in Ballston, Arlington. Looks just like what Abu Kamal and his friends wanted from Bobby, he thought as he went over the file on the nuclear power plants. He was curious about the other file detailing the arrival of the Israeli Defense Minister at Reagan National. It appeared the route from the airport to the Pentagon had been changed drastically, and so was the planned security, as was explained with some lengthy footnotes on the pages.
He wondered what Bobby's idea was for making it part of the drop.
Oh, yes, he suddenly remembered. These were supposed to be samples only. But they're very good samples from what Abu Kamal told him they wanted to see from Bobby. He put the diskette back in the envelope and started reaching for the phone to try his luck with Kamal just as it rang. Weird, he thought when he picked up the phone and heard Kamal's voice, beginning to imagine that maybe the two of them communicated telepathically without being aware of it. The man asked about the drop and Ahmed was happy to say that he was just about to call him to let him know he had it and ask how he wanted to get it. Being in nearby Foggy-Bottom in D.C., he said he'll send Ghulan, the driver, to pick it up right outside the front entrance of the office building.
He went down the lobby fifteen minutes later and waited no more than five before he saw the Mercedes pull up by the curb. The window rolled down as he approached and he dropped the envelope into the empty passenger seat, waved at Ghulan while the window started rolling back up and the car was off on the road again.
Three hours later, Abu Kamal called again, his voice tense, agitated. It had an ominous tone in it as he said come to the Westfields Marriott in Chantilly around seven o'clock.
He was now on Route 66 approximately fifteen miles away according to directions given to him when he called the hotel earlier. He felt a bit uneasy as he got nearer with every mile that went by. Ever since he heard that tone in Abu Kamal's voice, he had been trying to figure out what might be going on. He was sure it had something to do with Bobby's sample drop.
He remembered hearing that tone of voice one other time, when he was working in Detroit in the company headquarters where Kamal had an office suite. There was a foul-up on an oil shipment Kamal had helped broker from Oman and a quick meeting was held. Ahmed was there. When the man responsible for the foul-up was pinned down, that's when he heard that same tone of voice from Kamal as he spoke next. But it sounded many times as ominous because you also saw the foreboding expression that went with it on the man's face.
Shit, I wouldn't want to cross this man, he thought then.
Up till then, Ahmed's impression of him was that of a good benefactor mostly because Kamal had put his signature in the INS petition form for Ahmed Khalifa's H-1B visa which got approved and allowed Ahmed to stay and work in the country. That impression grew stronger when Kamal recommended him for the plum job opening here in Virginia.
In all that time and to this day, a period of a little over a year, he had also built up an understanding in himself, and he's sure Kamal was aware of this too, that he owed Kamal more than he could repay him for. Thinking just for a moment about perhaps being back in Hyderabad had he not lucked out by knowing the man particularly that time when his temporary visas in the U.S. and Canada were about to expire gave him a painful jolt. Everytime.
He owed the man. So when the man tells him to do something, tells him to come and go somewhere, they both knew that Kamal only had to say it, any day and any time of day.
This was as much as Ahmed had known Kamal personally. He had known his goodness, and now on his way to obey the order for him to be at this Westfields Marriott hotel, that tone of voice still echoing in his head from Detroit to Arlington, he felt apprehensive and worried at the thought of possibly seeing the opposite side of him.
What could happen should he have a falling out with him, Allah forbid? He'd lose his job, the working visa, and he'd end up hiding from the INS as an illegal alien. Or, get out on his own, back to Canada maybe or someplace else, but definitely not back home. Not yet. Not while he's just getting his foot in the door, the door to material and economic freedom here in America. He's not especially thrilled at the idea of living here permanently, making a life for himself and his own family if he got to that. The three years he had been in north America, he had seen and felt things, many things that made him understand those who become disenchanted with life here, some even to the point of hating America and working against her.
Barring material and economic hardships, he would still prefer home, living in his own culture, with his own people and with their own spiritual life-Islam. He is a Muslim first before anything else, as is anyone who is.
He had fulfilled one of the Five Pillars (duties) of Islam which is a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a believer's lifetime. This he had done with his early life's savings the year he turned twenty-one. The other four-profession of the Faith, Prayer, Almsgiving and Fasting during the month of Ramadan, he struggled to make a part of his life. He admitted to his personal weakness in keeping the faith at times but continued to make the effort to improve upon it. He prayed and gave to the poor and the mosque and fasted during Ramadan.
He is a peaceful man. A moderate man who does not believe in violence and extremism, fanaticism and the use of terror to defend his belief and preserve his self-respect. And so, deep down inside and in the back of his mind, he had this mire he imagined he had stepped into. And he couldn't pull himself out of it since it became apparent what it was all about, after Kamal told him the kind of government information he and his associates were interested in, even before they knew about Robert Grundell.
He didn't want to believe it and tried not to think about it after that. He didn't want to be a part of it but he knew he was now, and no longer in a small way as when he first realized it a few months ago.
Something must be afoot and awaiting him in Chantilly. So now he cleared his mind of all thoughts, braced himself for what might be and drove the few remaining miles to the hotel dutifully.
Abu Kamal Ramshallah had been on the phone most of the afternoon since he browsed the diskette in his laptop in the Columbia Plaza apartment in Foggy Bottom where Omar Husain was staying. He did good calling Ahmed Khalifa while he was visitng Omar, a dedicated guardian of the Faith, a devoted believer of the Prophet Mohammed and servant of Allah. He was also a highly trusted intelligence officer in the U.S. operations of the Organization, one of the most active and well-financed radical Muslim groups operating worldwide, known as the Global Islamic Defense Organization.
Kamal was very pleased with the sample drop from Bobby especially when Omar came to read it with him, the two of them sitting side by side in front of the computer, going over the detailed description of the North Anna and the Surry nuclear power plants near Norfolk, Virginia, and the ones in North Carolina-the Brunswick plant by the Cape Fear river near Southport, and the well-protected 900 megawatt Harris plant near Raleigh.
They were particularly interested in the security that protected the plants. With the information contained in the diskette on the subject, they couldn't have asked for more. This isn't just a sample drop from Bobby, whoever this Bobby is, Omar told Kamal. This is as good as it gets, compared to what his spies had been feeding him, stuff anybody could get from the internet.
With this much detailed security information, we can find ways to penetrate these facilities, Omar had started thinking immediately and later told Kamal, blow them up to smithereens. No security, no matter how thickly layered, is foolproof if somebody knows how it's designed.
They went ahead and looked at the other file in the diskette. That's when their balloon deflated and came down to earth.
"Did you ask Bobby for this?" Omar looked grim, surprising Kamal at this sudden change.
"No, I didn't," Kamal replied positively. "I didn't even talk to him. In fact, I haven't even met him. Everything I said was through Ahmed."
"You know what this means?"
"If what that page on the screen says is real, yes, I understand."
"They changed the entourage of the son of a bitch. Now he's being picked up at the airport by helicopter and transported directly to the Pentagon. So, now we got to re-do our plan to kill the devil. We have less than three days to come up with a new plan based on this. But- "
"Let's slow down and think for a minute." Omar got up and walked to the window of the ninth-floor apartment, taking in the view that covered the Memorial Bridge over the Potomac river and across to Virginia-Arlington Cemetery, the Pentagon and beyond.
"They knew about our plan," he said after a half a minute, partly to himself. "They knew."
"They must have found out from some source," Kamal said. "They must have a source."
"Of course," added Omar, still looking out the window, thinking. "That's one thing-the who and the how of it. Another is-" he turned around slowly to face Kamal, gazing at him from under a pair of thick, dark eyebrows. "Why did Bobby pick this one to send you?"
They held their eyes steady at each other as if to pick each other's brains, Kamal moving his head slightly sideways, figuring, concentrating, either getting ready to spill a flood of ideas or waiting for Omar to do it first.
It was Omar who spoke first and with another question: "And did he know you, we, had anything to do with it?"
Kamal caught on to his mind-thrust and from there on they took turns at looking into all the possibilities at hand.
Kamal: If he did know we had anything to do with it, then he's not working for us; he's working against us and that diskette is a false lead; if we change our plan to kill the bastard based on that new entourage, we could be walking into a trap.
Omar: Why, they'd probably have a double in that helicopter when we attack it while he's being slipped away somewhere else. Further, they know who we are and even right at this moment, we're sitting ducks. But they won't do anything. Not yet. They're going to wait and see what kind of move we make from here on in. On second thought, giving it the benefit of a doubt, what if Bobby's on the level? Then what he gave us in that diskette is real. One way or the other, we got to make changes to our plan.
Kamal: Meaning, it's a pure coincidence that he picked this one to send us?
Omar: And a very fortunate one for us. Therefore, we have an ace up our sleeve and he's worth every dollar we pay him. But we don't know this. And we better find out starting right now.
This was where Kamal made the second call to Ahmed Khalifa, shortly before Ahmed's quitting time at work at five o'clock.
The possibility that they didn't have Bobby loomed larger than the opposite which urged Kamal to separate himself from Omar immediately. However, they needed to spend more time together to make some fast decisions, but not where they were. With the chance they're taking, they didn't consider the place in Foggy Bottom safe any longer so they agreed to meet later in the evening in Kamal's hotel office suite way over in Chantilly where he usually based his activities when he came to the Capital area.
Before they split, they made some hurried phone calls, local and long distance-New York, Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore-to people who needed to be told of the changes in plan which they didn't have yet; some of them-those within traveling distance to Chantilly and whom they got a hold of in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, they directed to the hotel immediately.
In Chantilly, Kamal spent more time on the phone chasing after some of the people they weren't able to contact. Omar did the same with those he knew personally. There were several in Detroit and New York, the people they were answerable to and to whom they spoke dutifully, and respectfully.
It was now a few minutes past seven. Kamal's ear had started to feel sticky with perspiration from holding the phone hard against it for the past fifteen minutes while he listened to one of his superiors in Detroit. The conversation had consisted mostly of questions coming to him to which he gave quick, short and precise answers.
Yes, sir, the files are definitely authentic. Written in U.S. government bureaucratic language. No doubt about it.
Yes, sir, we will contact the man tonight. Our man Ahmed Khalifa is on his way here now to do that.
We will get back with you as soon as we come to a decision. Yes, sir.
While Kamal was saying that, he turned towards the door of the spacious office, saw Ahmed being ushered in by one of the men he and Omar had been gathering for the past hour in the outside room and motioned him to one of the seats in front of the desk.
Ahmed sat quietly for the next five minutes while Kamal finished up with Detroit, took two more calls apparently from people of lesser authority for he cut them short, and dialed a number to say: "He's here," and after a short pause, "Right. Tell Hassan to take all the calls from now."
After he hung up and set the phone down, his back to Ahmed, he took a few long seconds to turn around, quite obviously thinking and thinking hard among other things what appearance to put out when he turned around. The past few hours, it seemed like he had been puzzling over an enigma where there was absolutely no clue whatsoever. The possibilities he and Omar had explored earlier didn't stop at Bobby. It extended to Ahmed Khalifa as well.
Going back to what if they didn't have Bobby, and on top of that, things had gone further the other way where they, their enemies, got Ahmed too: Is Ahmed turned? Could he be? Is he or is he not? What should I assume, so I know what expression to put on my face to him? How to talk to him?
Quickly, just before he faced and walked up to Ahmed holding out a hand with a half-smile, he decided he was going to let Ahmed think that he's buying what Bobby put in the diskette. Because this approach worked with whether or not Ahmed was now working for the U.S. government and all the enemies of Islam.
"Thank you for coming," he said, leading Ahmed down a short side corridor to a glass-walled room. He spoke softly, but behind the calm in it together with the traces of perspiration on his face, Ahmed heard a slight tension. "Please," he said, as they entered the room half the size of the one they came from, motioning Ahmed to an armchair by the window.
In the corner of the room on the other side of the window was a table loaded with a hotwater and coffee maker, trays of cookies, pastries and fruit. Underneath the table was a refrigerator that hummed softly. Kamal said to help himself to anything in there, excused himself for a quick second and went out, closing the door behnd him.
Ahmed who had been all eyes and ears since he arrived, got up to help himself to a cup of tea even as he saw Kamal through the glass wall just going through the outside room heading to the door. While he filled a cup with hotwater, he saw a man come in through the door. Light-complexioned, early forties. Egyptian or Syrian like Kamal. Middle Eastern people vary so much in appearance. Some are so light skinned and looked like southern or western Europeans. Others so dark it's hard to tell them from Africans. The man could even be Lebanese for his light skin and fair, more western European feature, he thought as Omar got closer.
Kamal stepped up to the man quickly and the two of them put their heads together and talked in a low voice with Kamal doing most of the talking, and fast. Then they started moving towards him in the room, making small steps while hurrying up to finish their conversation practically in whispers.
Had he somehow gotten wind of what they were talking about since a couple of hours ago, he wouldn't want to be sitting in this room right now. Because earlier when they first touched on the possibility that he might be turned, Omar got overly incensed, almost foregoing any doubt and coming close to a decision to 'take care' of him immediately. But Kamal quickly talked him out of it, saying Ahmed does not know anything, unless he's really a mole way back in Detroit, or even Toronto where he came from. After weighing things over, Omar agreed, giving him the benefit of a doubt the same as they did with Bobby.
"But we'll see," he said in a low voice a few feet from the door. "After I talk to him. And Bobby too."
They hushed just before Kamal grabbed the door handle and turned it.
"Ah-h, good," Kamal said as he swung the door open and saw Ahmed with a cup of tea. "I could use some of that myself. Have something to eat too, please."
"Yes, I will, thank you," replied Ahmed, getting up to meet them halfway.
"Ahmed Khalifa, meet another one of the company's major stockholders," Kamal said, stepping aside between the two men for the introduction. "Rahim Akbar. From Baltimore."
"Ahmed," Rahim Akbar (Omar Husain) greeted. "Salaam aleikum."
Ahmed said the same and they shook hands. They sat down across from each other while Kamal went straight to the corner table to make himself a hot tea. "Rahim," he said. "Hot or cold drink?"
"Light coffee, no sugar, please."
Kamal made small talk while he busied himself at the table.
How's work today?
Then without warning, Ahmed started talking casually about the diskette. Omar, using one of his many aliases, surreptitiously began homing in on everything he said and did. Every word, every movement, every gesture.
"It was an excellent drop, Ahmed," Kamal said, stirring a teaspoon of Coffeemate in Rahim's coffee. "We're all very pleased with it. We find the files extremely vital to our business and we sure can use every bit of information it contained."
"Good. Good," said Ahmed, working hard to boost his self-confidence. "I'm very happy to hear that."
Rahim watched him secretly, every moving part of him. The eye, the head, the hands and feet, even the reactive movements between his mouth, nose and cheeks when he drank the hot tea. He would read the thought running in Ahmed's head behind the expression on his face if he could.
Omar Husain, Chief Intelligence Officer and Commander of major U.S. operations of the Organization, was very thorough, very precise and careful with his work and expected no less of those under his command. Abu Kamal Ramshallah who held the position of Intelligence Liaison in the Organization respected his character and abilities both as a Muslim individual who lived by his Shahadah, a devoted follower of Muhammad and a defender Soldier of Islam.
Kamal took the seat against the wall between the other two, going around the marble-topped cocktail table after handing Rahim his coffee.
"Yes, yes," he said as he settled down, blowing on his tea. "Your friend Bobby did very well for us." He took a sip then lowered the cup on the table, adding: "What we want to talk to you about now, perhaps Rahim could explain better-"
"I will try to make it simple," Rahim began, sitting back after taking two small sips of the coffee and leaving it on the table too. "It's a common practice of the company to analyze-authenticate, you understand, all the data it receives. So, what we want to do now simply is to perhaps talk to Bobby, if that can be arranged."
"Of course," Ahmed said, leaning forward with the cup of tea in his hands and a compliant smile on his face. "I could call him right now if you want."
Rahim couldn't decide if the reaction was too eagerly contrived or too innocently real. Should we believe what this Pakistani says? Do we trust him, or shoot him? The way Abu Kamal described him, talked about the route his life had taken since leaving Pakistan sounded like he would be one to be trusted, as Kamal had since Detroit. Indeed, he might even be welcomed into the Organization. If he's not an enemy which leads us to see that Bobby's only using him, no, we don't want to shoot him.
Also, we don't want to talk to Bobby just yet. Find out about this one first so then we'll know how to talk to Bobby next. Bobby gets the idea his cover is blown because of Ahmed, knowing who we are, where we are, he and his people could just decide to cut the plan short, whatever the plan is, and come and round us all up.
"There's no big hurry," he said, sitting back, relaxed. "We don't want to rush you."
"No, it's not a problem," Ahmed countered. "In fact, right now is as good a time as any to catch him. He's probably just come home from a fast-food or a Chinese carry-out eating dinner in front of the TV. I know how the man lives."
He laughed and the others joined him with a snicker, Omar saying: "Do you?"
"Yes, 'cause I do the same thing and once in a while I'd join him."
That drew more snickers in the room.
"I can imagine what good neighbors you two must have become," Omar said.
"Oh, yes, yes," Ahmed said, now getting more comfortable. "I've gone out with him weekends to singles bars, dances, looking for women, or just having fun."
"Sounds nice," said Kamal. "Of course what's there to do for two single men on a Saturday night in a town like this teeming with single lonely women?"
"Any luck?" Omar asked.
Ahmed fidgeted in his seat a moment, embarrassed. "Depends what you call luck," he replied, now feeling a social connection with the two. "We met some ladies a few weeks ago and double dated. It was nice, but I don't know about these American girls, women. You can't be too serious with them."
"Yes, that we all know," Kamal said and as if all three of them agreed altogether, they turned to their cups and took a sip.
"However, it might be different if she's of the Faith," Omar suggested, gesturing with an open hand extended on an upright forearm as if to give a blessing.
"I have yet to meet one here," Ahmed replied. "An American Muslim woman. And one who had at least made the Haj."
Omar perked up, suddenly homing in on Ahmed's whole personality, not just parts of the person that might give telltale signs of what he might be lying about or concealing.
"Interesting," he said. "And have you?"
"Yes, when I was twenty-one years old," Ahmed replied. "My home village in Hyderabad, actually it was only a dirt road about four hundred feet long with about two thousand people living in shanties on both sides of it, I grew up with a group of boys who formed an alliance based on the ambition to make the pilgrimage to Mecca no later than the age of twenty-one."
The men's face grew with fascination. "Marvelous!" Kamal said. "What happened?"
"I only know of three others besides myself, out of fifteen boys, who made it. I used up all my savings and came home totally broke but very happy that I was able to say my salat in the holy land many many times."
Here, Omar regarded Ahmed with admiration and was close to forgetting any doubt about his loyalty to their cause-their faith, culture, beliefs and way of life. Everything that every true Muslim throughout the world had been fighting for and shielding against the decadence and tyranny of the Christians and the Jews here in America, back home in the Middle East and all over the world.
He'll never forget when he himself fulfilled that one Pillar of Faith, the one he, like many other Muslims, considered the grandest of all-the Haj. He was only thirteen when he made the pilgrimage with his parents-his dear beloved parents who were now dead, killed by the hated Israelis in that massive attack of their homes in southern Lebanon twenty years ago. Yes, the Israelis-the Jews, and those crusading Christians forever oppressing our people, turning us against one another. We must continue the struggle against them, stamp them out of existence, weed out the brothers whose minds and hearts they had poisoned.
And what of this young Pakistani who looked so innocent, sounded so naïve? Is he as pure-minded and dedicated to the ways of Islam as he just now appeared to us? Or has he sold his soul for the material comfort of life in America?
He turned to Kamal briefly and glanced Kamal's look of confidence, a little smile on a corner of his mouth as he drank his tea. It was at this moment that Kamal indeed felt inclined to trust Ahmed but without totally letting his guard down. There will be other times to look deeper into the truth that lay hidden in the young man's heart. Now, he wanted to hear about this supposedly angry American government worker who would sell his country to get even. Or maybe just to put on a good front to us? So they can get to us and catch us?
Kamal sounded very much convinced with what Ahmed had told him about the American, how the man does not give a damn about his government, the people he works with in that agency, whatever it's called, because they don't give a damn about him either. Well, first he'd want to hear it from Ahmed, then he'd want to listen to the man himself, picture his appearance from his words, maybe hear a sound of that anger and uncaring for his country.
"So, tell me," Omar said next, "how long have you two known each other?"
"Bobby?" Ahmed asked, caught unaware by the sudden switch of subject.
"Since I moved across the courtyard from him. Seven, eight months now."
"What's his full name again? Kamal mentioned it one time but it's been awhile."
"Robert Grundell. He works for the Office of Civil Defense Logistics of the Treasury Department."
"Ah, yes. Now I recall. How well would you say you know him?"
Ahmed took a few seconds to give an answer, thinking about some of the things he had told Kamal about Bobby.
"I know him only as much as he has told me about himself and what he does at work, and on his free time. That part of his life right now I know quite well," Ahmed said with a smile. "Like I just told you. Fast-food dinners during the week, weekend nights out."
"Yes, yes," said Omar, also with a smile. He turned to Kamal briefly before looking down, thinking, then continued: "Do you trust him?"
Ahmed knew this was what the two of them were after. He knew they were coming to this, and he was prepared to give them an answer.
"Yes, I do," he replied peremptorily. "I have no doubt about his motivation."
Kamal looked at his watch and said: "Let's see, would you say he's about done with dinner?"
"If he's home, it doesn't matter what he's doing. He'll talk to me, anytime," Ahmed replied, adding that Bobby had said at the park that he would like to talk with them too about something, if possible. He told them what when Kamal asked.
They said fine, by all means, and asked him to make the call. Kamal brought the phone at the end-table near him to the coffee table in front of everybody and pushed the speakerphone. Ahmed dialed and they heard Bobby's phone ring three times before it was picked up.
"Bobby!" Ahmed greeted.
"Ahmed, mah man! What's up?"
Omar and Kamal were quickly impressed at the cheerful sound of camaraderie between the two. Kamal was especially curious to hear Bobby's voice after all these time of hearing only about him. Omar tuned in on the man's tone of voice, how genuine or phoney it sounded, to perhaps catch any give away that might cue him in also on whether Ahmed or the both of them were just taking them for a ride. One question he had in mind: Does Bobby know ahead of time that Ahmed would be with them? Hence, is this possibly a rehearsed phone call?
"How was your day?" asked Ahmed.
"What part of it? You don't want to hear about the same friggin' thing all the time so I won't tell you about work."
Ahmed laughed merrily, at the same time talking to the men in front of him with his eyes by looking at each one back and forth quickly with a you-hear-that? or see-what-I-told-you? message on them. He would do this everytime something came up to substantiate what he had said about Bobby.
The men looked amused and sat quietly to listen.
"I'll tell you something nice for a change," Bobby said next with a tingle in his voice. "I got a call from Paula. She wants us to go out again. How d'yuh like that?"
"She must be desperate. It's only Monday. They usually wait till late in the week to see if they get a better offer," Ahmed said and laughed.
Bobby cracked up. He replied: "If you weren't my friend especially after that great Tandoori chicken dinner you made us last week, I'd feel insulted by that. She told me she had other guys calling her, but me I didn't even call her. She called me!"
"So what do you want me to say? You're hot, man. Whoop-tee-doo!"
"Actually, I want you to say you'll be okay Saturday. Paula says her friend too, the one you went out with-"
"Rosie," Ahmed threw in.
"Yeah. They would like to double up with us again. She said they really had fun with us that weekend."
Ahmed shot a timid glance at the men in front of him. "That's nice to know. Tell 'em yes, sure, I'm free Saturday."
"Great!"Bobby said, his voice filled with enthusiasm that couldn't sound more real to Omar and Kamal.
"Well, I'm glad I called."
"I was gonna call you shortly, tell you about it but you beat me to it. So, anyways, lemme ask how your day was? And did you talk to your people about what we talked about in the park today?"
"I had a good day, thanks. Busy, a little bit of work to catch up with. I earned my dollar today."
"That's more'n I can say about many of the people I work with. Fuckin' parasites!"
"You're not going to get into that again, mah man," warned Ahmed, but he was actually thinking let him get fired up some so these two in front of him would hear for themselves. Thus, he added as an opening for Bobby: "So what if all they do is collect their big fat paychecks for doing nothing. It's not your money. What do you care?"
"That's right, what the hell do I care?" Bobby, getting fired up now. "What do I care if they sit on their big fat asses all day and let the whole fuckin' country go down the sewer. Wanna know what I'm gonna do if that happens?"
"Shit, I'll just pack up and move to another country. The fuck do I care?"
Ahmed raised his eyes at the men sitting quietly in the room, his eyes telling them 'Wanna hear more?', 'That's our man talking and that's what he sounds for real.' Kamal shook his head sideways for a moment then smiled and reversed it to up and down. Omar sat motionless, waiting to hear more, thinking, analyzing, no telling by the look on his face what he's coming up with from what he'd heard so far.
Ahmed decided to get some more poison out of Bobby.
"How about if you blow the whistle on them. Fuck 'em up like they fuck you up."
"Yes, I've thought about that a lot. We had a Division meeting today where they made an official announcement of the promotion of this one asshole to a new higher position. Fucking asshole got up and talked about what his job is about-keeping track of everybody's work, everybody turn in a work report to him every week, that kind o' shit. This guy has never done anything for years in the office but bullshit and kiss ass. Would you believe that? So some guys in the office are talking about protesting his promotion, saying we don't need this asshole around and his position is not necessary and is a total waste of taxpayer money; sorta blow the whistle on management waste and bureaucracy."
"So, are they going to do it?"
"Oh, yes. One of 'em said he's going to start the write-up today. I know him well. I'm going to help him do it. Another guy started going around spreading the word and collecting signature pledges this afternoon."
"Good. Good for you guys. I hope you win the protest. That'll be one parasite less. Anyway, to answer your other question-yes, I mentioned to my people that you would like to talk to them about what you told me." Ahmed turned up to Kamal and nodded, signalling get ready to join in.
"That's good. Thanks. When do I get to talk to them?"
"As a matter of fact, right now," Ahmed said, getting up and moving the base unit of the telephone to the middle of the table closer to everybody. "Let me introduce you to them first, tell you who they are. Then they can speak for themselves."
'Bobby, this here is Mr. Abu Kamal Ramshallah, senior board member of the company. Mr. Ramshallah, Robert Grundell, also known as Bobby.'
'Hello, Mr. Grundell.'
'Bobby's fine with me.'
'And you may call me Kamal. Pleasure to meet you, Bobby.'
'Pleasure to meet you, Kamal.'
'And this here is Mr. Rahim Akbar, a major stockholder of the company.'
'Hello, Bobby. How do you do? And you may call me Rahim.'
'I'm fine, thanks, Rahim. And you?'
'Very well, thank you.'
At this point, Ahmed said: "Gentlemen, if you'll excuse me a moment, my tea is cold. Care for a refill?" he asked the others who said they're fine.
"Bobby, Kamal here speaking."
"Yes, I can tell."
"Before we talk about anythng else, first let us thank you for... the drop today."
"I read up on what was described in the envelope Ahmed gave me last week and just went by that. Is that alright with you?"
Kamal turned to Rahim who had edged closer to the telephone.
"Yes, Bobby, you did very well," Rahim said. "And I'm sure there is not a single reason to doubt the authenticity of the data in the files."
"Not at all," Bobby said, not defensive, not trying to convince, just stating a fact naturally. "Those files are kept current constantly. I know. It's my job to do that on some of them. Others I keep an eye on 'cause I have the 'need to know'. That's in my P.O. Position Description."
Rahim turned to Kamal, nodding slightly, a look on his face saying we're almost there, almost safe to count on what this guy, and Ahmed too, is saying, and therefore what the diskette contained. Which means re-drawing the plan, and we have three days to come up with a new one. To kill that Israeli bastard.
"We believe you, Bobby, and we want to thank you again for your help." Now he nodded at Kamal to express his full concurrence. Over at the corner table where Ahmed stood mixing a new cup of tea, he heard and saw everything and was finally relieved to see the men pleased at what they're hearing directly from Bobby.
"So, Bobby, what is it you want to talk to us about?" Kamal asked. "Anything we can help you with? Anything at all."
Here, Bobby discussed the predicament he told them he suddenly realized he faced minutes before he almost deposited the money in his bank account. He left it open to them to decide the best payment arrangement. The two men sounded to Bobby to take the matter lightly, even chuckled a little at this what they obviously considered a very minor concern.
In the end, they decided the best thing to do was to put Bobby on the payroll as a consultant. His designation, for accounting purposes, would be the good old job title government agencies use for many of their catch-all make-work positions-Research Analyst. Only difference is they'd be hiring him at an hourly rate about four times that for a federal government GS-14 do-nothing job held by a career bureaucrat with twenty-five years service.
Comes to a little under two hundred thousand a year. It'll come in a regular bi-monthly paycheck at Ahmed's office which he could just pick up there or Ahmed could bring home with him, hand over to Bobby or slip under his door if Bobby's not in.
The last thing they talked about was the location for future drops, personal contact and communication. Everybody agreed to the use of cell phones only when it's totally unavoidable. Public phone is preferred. They swapped phone numbers and at this point Rahim moved to end the phone call, suggesting that from now on, they avoid contact of any kind unless it's absolutely necessary.
After Ahmed left, Omar walked over to the corner table to make another cup of coffee, head down, thinking as if counting the number of steps to get there. Kamal sat back waiting to hear a word, anything from the Chief Intelligence Officer about his take of the situation. What's the bottom line? Do we go by what's in that diskette?
Two minutes went by in silence with nothing but the tinkling of the teaspoon in Omar's coffee at first, then his footsteps as he walked back to his seat, sipping the coffee standing up. When he finally raised his head, he nodded at Kamal and Kamal knew the bottom line then when Omar bent down to the telephone on the coffee table and pressed the intercom line to Hassan Bahaji who'd been sitting in the ante-room waiting for something to happen.
"Has everybody arrived?" Omar asked after Hassan got on.
"Everyone but two, boss," replied Hassan Bahaji, veteran of the fourth Arab-Israeli war in '73 from Damascus and now a high-ranking combat officer of the Organization. He was to lead the attack at Reagan National but shortly would learn of the final decision of the change of plan from that. "The ones from Philadelphia," he added. "They're on their way now. We'll bring them up on what's going on when they get here."
"Good," said Omar. "Is everything ready in there? The screen? The pictures?"
"Yes, sir. But which plan are we working with now?"
"The one for Operation North 27."
"That's the one I got in the machine now," said Hassan. "Everything's ready. We're just waiting for you."
"We're on our way."
As soon as he hung up, Hassan strode to the door of the meeting room behind him at the table, opened it a couple of inches and called on someone to come out.
"Take over," he said to the man. "Don't let anybody through no matter what. And don't take any calls, just messages, no matter who."
"Yes, sir," the man said. Hassan then stepped aside to let the man take his seat at the table while he stood by the door and waited.
Operation North 27, he was thinking. It's a totally different game plan. And could be many times as critical. This could take all night. He looked at a wall clock across the room which showed 8:05. All of a sudden he felt famished and remembered that he hadn't had dinner. When he got Commander Omar's high-priority call to his Baltimore apartment earlier at four o'clock, all he did was grab a soda from the refrigerator before jumping in the Toyota Corolla and doing Foggy-Bottom, D.C. in about forty-five minutes.
At Foggy-Bottom, due to some new development from intelligence, he and Omar quickly worked out a rough of the alternate plan they called Operation North 27. Very rough. No details. All times were approximate, nothing under a two-minute projected accuracy in all stages of the assault because of lack of detail information. Omar said he had the information they needed but had yet to do some authenticating, analysis work before they could apply them. And there was no contingency plan at all. Everything was up in the air. Then they had to round up everybody to this hotel in Chantilly, Virginia, in Abu Kamal Ramshallah's office suite, way out here a few miles from Dulles International airport. There were some brothers coming from Baltimore and Philadelphia. Others from central New Jersey and as far as New York City and southern Connecticutt.
Only took the whole afternoon and early evening to do it.
A few seconds after he had been standing outside the door of the meeting room, Omar Husain came from the other room with Abu Kamal Ramshallah. He too glanced at the wall clock as they hurried. When they came near, the man at the table stood next to Hassan and the two of them bowed dutifully. Then Hassan turned to open the door.
Stepping into the meeting room, a sudden clamor of chairs sliding back filled the room as fifteen men who had been sitting around a long conference table, some for as long as an hour now, stood up to greet them. Those within arm's reach of Omar Husain put out a hand which he shook, recognizing several of them, close associates in the Organization. The rest acknowledged their entry by bowing quietly.
They walked around the table to the opposite side of the room where a six-foot square rolldown screen hung on the wall. Omar stood on one side of it, Kamal on the other. When everyone was seated back and the quiet resumed, Omar nodded at Hassan who was now behind the digital projector on the other side of the room and an aereal site photograph of the Pentagon appeared on the screen. It covered an area one-mile all around the five-sided building of the United States Defense headquarters which is bounded in a triangular area on the east by the Jefferson Davis Highway 110, on the south by Virginia's I-395 and on the west, running north-south, by Washington Boulevard Highway 27.