Chapters 1, 2, and Part of 3

One

More in resignation than anger, Brigadier General Qasim bin Jabaar fondled the electrode intended for intimate contact with the blindfolded shopkeeper. His guest—bin Jabaar preferred the term to prisoner—hung from thick metal chains attached to an iron hook embedded in the ceiling of the windowless, concrete-walled interrogation cell. The cell occupied a corner of the basement directly below the cafeteria in the Sultanate of Moq’tar’s Ministry of Security.

Bobby Gatling, the American security contractor hired to advise the Ministry, stepped out of the shadows ringing the cell. Bobby had no authority to prevent bin Jabaar from acting as he wished. He could, however, offer counsel based on hard-won experience ferreting truth from suspected terrorists during a thirty-year Army career.

Bin Jabaar held a hand up like a school crossing guard. “Yes,” he said. “I know what you are going to say.”

Bobby paused then stepped back.

Bin Jabaar turned to his guest. Colonel Gatling was not the only one put out by the shopkeeper’s reticence. He had hoped that nothing more than the impressive presence of the Minister of Security would induce the shopkeeper to cooperate. Bin Jabaar was an imposing man, if not as tall as his American advisor who neared two meters at six-feet-five-inches. He took pride as well in an erect, athletic posture that cut quite the trim figure even in middle age. Bin Jabaar’s silver hair, matching mustache and toasted-almond complexion prompted frequent comparisons with the Egyptian film star turned European sophisticate Omar Sharif. His wardrobe affirmed such observations. Even in this dank, chilly cell he wore a well-cut dark blue suit complemented by a custom white shirt and elegant navy-and-crimson silk tie. His ensemble identified a man who gave considerable thought to everything he did. Indeed, he’d chosen his wardrobe to reinforce a well-earned reputation among fellow revelers during what remained of the festive New Year’s Eve he still hoped to celebrate.

The shopkeeper whimpered then mumbled the name of one of his children. Of what use was that? Bin Jabaar already knew the names of the man’s children, the schools they attended and even their favorite sweets. What he required was useful information. Actionable information. Information that would reinforce his value and that of the Ministry.

Bin Jabaar’s disappointment produced a frown. He would have taken umbrage had anyone—the shopkeeper included—suggested he had scowled. He was at heart a warm and gentle soul, a loving husband and a doting father. Family, friends and associates knew him as a man who revered tradition yet easily adapted to the new global order while rejecting its excesses.

That his fierce love of country periodically compelled techniques of interrogation some might construe as distasteful or, in naïve circles, cruel he found regrettable. Even Colonel Gatling, who took a skeptical view of his approach, acknowledged using or approving such measures at one time or another.

But the Persian Gulf presented no end of challenges to a sultanate as small as Moq’tar. What was a patriot to do?

Subordinating his natural sensitivity, he passed the electrode to his assistant.

Stretched out like a lamb prepared for dhabihah—ritually prescribed slaughter—the shopkeeper elicited what might have been taken for a bleat as he struggled in vain to plant his feet on the concrete floor.

Bin Jabaar came nearer. “Do you know what the Americans say, Ali?” He modulated his rich, resonant voice as if chatting with a member of the venerable London men’s club in which he once had been a guest. “You will not consider it too forward if I continue to address you by your first name, will you?”

“Please,” the short, heavyset shopkeeper pleaded in a raspy whisper. The owner of an electronics store in downtown Moq’tar City, he had never before been arrested or, to his knowledge, watched by the Ministry of Security let alone been subjected to questions that left purple welts across his back and thighs. More to the point, he’d done nothing that such treatment should be inflicted on him. Of that he was almost sure.

Bin Jabaar’s assistant, unenthused by his summons to duty given that January first had arrived only five minutes earlier, wolfed down the last of a particularly satisfying goat-cheese-and-date pizza delivered by Hungry Herdsman Pizza #4. Facing little prospect of a New Year’s Eve celebration, he found solace in the fact that no one chided him for being a vegetarian. Yielding to his professional responsibilities, he tightened the chains.

The shopkeeper uttered a sound midway between la—no—and a helpless grunt.

Bobby cleared his throat. He felt like a ghost standing in the corner of a cell lit by a single compact fluorescent bulb in response to the new green initiative to which all government agencies had been committed.

Bin Jabaar smiled, although the shopkeeper could not see him. “An important American,” he informed his guest, “once said that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” He turned to Bobby. “Is that not so, habibi?” he asked, using the Arabic term for “my friend.”

Na’am,” Bobby answered in Arabic. Yes. “A candidate for president. Many years ago. He lost.”

“Of course,” mused bin Jabaar aloud, “what Americans mean by liberty may be quite different from how we define the term here in Moq’tar or elsewhere in the Gulf.” He turned back to the shopkeeper. “Philosophical discussions aside, my dear Ali, we can all agree, I believe, that the defense of the nation must be the primary concern of every loyal citizen.”

Sweat tumbled from the shopkeeper’s forehead like a mountain spring after a hard winter rain. His blindfold sagged under the weight of the moisture it had absorbed. “Please. I know nothing.”

“Ah, nothing about what?” bin Jabaar inquired. It struck him that Ali might finally have given himself away concerning several recent and seemingly amateurish bombings in Moq’tar City. While doing minimal damage, they suggested a lack of security in the sultanate. This would not do. The matter cried out for resolution. In a region suddenly given to protest and revolution, the potential for disaster lie just below Moq’tar’s surface like an improvised explosive device covered by a thin layer of sand.

Bobby again stepped forward.

Again bin Jabaar held up his hand. The squeamishness of Americans puzzled him. Expressions of horror at nothing more than routine procedures at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo revealed a weakness unbecoming a superpower—if America still was a superpower. Not that he doubted the credibility of this particular American. Although imposed on the Ministry by Sheikh Yusuf, the Sultan’s favorite son, the Colonel presented credentials unmatched by anyone in Moq’tar. While warfare highlighted most of Moq’tar’s history, the sultanate’s relatively new army had yet to fire a shot in anger. The newly reorganized Ministry struggled to gain Sheikh Yusuf’s full confidence.

A sound emerged from the shopkeeper’s throat suggesting gargling to prevent the flu.

Bin Jabaar folded himself at the waist as if bowing before the throne and lowered his ear to the man’s mouth. “What, Ali? Tell me. Insh’allah—God willing—this will all end very soon.”

“I… I…”

Bin Jabaar nodded to himself. His guest was weak. Like most Moq’taris now, he was a man of the city rather than of the mountains or desert. Yet although Ali might appear to be at some remove from the still-anonymous terrorists who plagued the sultanate, he offered some hope of a connection, no matter how tenuous.

Most important, the shopkeeper enabled the Ministry of Security to add to its ample statistics relating to the arrest and interrogation of cowardly plotters. Metrics, Sheikh Yusuf insisted, were the hallmark of a modern society.

Bobby held his place but not his thoughts. He had one more card to play. “Perhaps tomorrow, after this man has had a little more time to think, he’ll shed some light on the situation. As it is, you still have time to go out with your wife.”

Bin Jabaar well knew that the shopkeeper’s arrest placed him in a delicate position. It had forced him to renege on his promise to celebrate New Year’s Eve at the new Swiss-French restaurant overlooking the Gulf. The owner ran a similar establishment in Davos, where annual ski trips with the children had established a prized family tradition. His wife had looked forward to lovely sautéed veal or perhaps lamb chops Provençal, a fine wine and, this being a special occasion, a stunning dessert. Upon learning of the unwelcome modification to their evening, she had expressed profound displeasure.

Unmoved if somewhat unnerved, bin Jabaar placated his wife’s anger by pledging that the urgent business before him would conclude in sufficient time to make a late but deliciously dramatic entrance to an elegant soiree at the home of a well-to-do friend with business connections from Istanbul to Shanghai. The event promised to last until just before morning prayers. Should the shopkeeper force him to betray his oath, there would be hell to pay—for both of them.

“I know you have something to tell me, Ali,” bin Jabaar coaxed. His voice hinted at a dangerous impatience without betraying the anger welling up inside him. “You may confide in me. I have only your best interests at heart.”

The shopkeeper gasped for air. “I… yes. I will tell you.”

Bin Jabaar straightened and motioned his assistant to set the electrode down. Having come to his senses, Ali would name names, specify dates and identify materials requested by the bomb makers—or those who served as middle men or connections for middle men in what undoubtedly formed a large and complex web of traitors. If fortune smiled, insh’allah, the Ministry of Security would acquire workable leads. If not, he would still compile data sufficient to demonstrate the Ministry’s persistence.

The assistant slackened the chains.

The shopkeeper slumped onto a small stool as if his spine was no more rigid than a woman’s underthings.

Bobby stepped forward.

This time, bin Jabaar offered no resistance.

“Are you really sure this man knows anything?” Bobby whispered.

Bin Jabaar gently grasped Bobby by the elbow and guided him back into the corner. “Certainty lies only with Allah. The safety of the Sultan, of Sheikh Yusuf, of Moq’tar’s sovereignty… this is a heavy responsibility.”

“It is, indeed. But Qasim,” Bobby said softly, “shouldn’t you be more focused on getting the Sultan to sign the succession papers?”

Moq’tar’s constitution, written at Washington’s behest by a Harvard post-doctoral fellow during a summer vacation at Cape Cod “to adapt democracy to regional cultural imperatives,” would legalize Yusuf’s succession to the throne following the Sultan’s ultimate leaving of this world. Death was not a word spoken in His Excellency’s presence. The Sultan had sworn to live forever.

“Stability,” Bobby continued, “builds security.”

“So it does, habibi. And so I assure you, Moq’tar will remain stable. The succession document represents merely a formality. Even without it, nothing will change. Moq’taris love Sheikh Yusuf as they do their Sultan. But with security threatened, there can be no stability.” Bin Jabaar pointed to the exhausted shopkeeper. “This man will provide information to help secure the throne. And this is where my greatest responsibility lies.”

Bobby leaned closer. “Moq’tar’s security is also my responsibility, Qasim. Sheikh Yusuf has set Moq’tar on the right course. That’s one of the reasons I’m here.”

“Most certainly, habibi. But the money is good, no?”

Bobby glanced at the shopkeeper. “Times change, Qasim. Moq’tar is transitioning to democracy. Washington expects certain standards to be upheld.”

The corners of bin Jabaar’s mouth fell. “I appreciate your concern, Bobby. But if Moq’tar stumbles, I and not you will have to live with the consequences.” He guided Bobby towards the door, stopped and clasped both of Bobby’s arms. “I tell you as Allah is my witness, our guest is not innocent. He will reveal much to us.”

“And if you ultimately determine that he has nothing useful to say, that he lies out of fear for his life. What then?”

Bin Jabaar reached up and wrapped his right arm around Bobby’s shoulders. “Some things, habibi, it is better not to know.”

The muscles tightened in Bobby’s jaw and neck.

Bin Jabaar patted him on the back as if the two had just shared an amusing story over a glass of champagne. “I must confess,” he continued softly, “I do feel somewhat guilty.”

Bobby cocked his head.

“I have been keeping you from enjoying this otherwise festive evening. You doubtless have anticipated the company of the lovely blonde lady, the physician, you have been seeing.”

“No. Not tonight. Unfortunately.”

“I am sad to hear it. But the night is still young. Moq’tar City lies at your feet. Go now. And may this New Year bring you and all of us good health, peace and prosperity.”

Bobby took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “From your lips to God’s ears.”

 

Two

Ambassador N. Ronald Ellis held the telephone receiver to his ear with his left hand and poured a Scotch with his right. Settled in at his desk at the Embassy—he’d gotten to bed by two-thirty and finished breakfast only fifteen minutes earlier—he found himself occupied with yet another phone call from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Cardwell. And it was what time in Washington? Nine-thirty? At night? On New Year’s Eve? He lifted his glass. Okay then.

Cardwell, growing increasingly uneasy about Sheikh Yusuf’s presumed succession to the throne, had stepped away from a dinner he was hosting at his home. His anxiety mirrored that of the people above him. They wanted a firm answer to the question, When would the Sultan sign the papers? Thus Cardwell’s calls kept coming despite the Ambassador’s assurances that the succession papers would be signed, and that occasional acts of violence posed little threat—make that no threat—to Moq’tar’s relationship with the U.S.

“It’ll be a done deal in twenty-four hours,” the Ambassador responded. “Tomorrow, Yusuf is taking his father up to the mountains where the Sultan used to steal horses or camels or something when he was a kid. Soften him up then hand him a pen.”

Ostensibly, Yusuf and the Sultan would be taking the Ambassador, who’d presented his credentials only a month earlier for his first posting as a diplomat, on a sightseeing tour of the Mountains of Allah, the Sultan’s ancestral home. There, with majestic views of Moq’tar before them and no distractions, Sheikh Yusuf would present the succession papers for his father’s oft-delayed signature. “Colonel Gatling, the Crimmins-Idyll guy, he’s coming too. Big moment. Yusuf wants a little extra security.”

Cardwell yet again stressed Moq’tar’s unexpected but emerging importance to the United States’ strategic position in the Gulf, what with all the unrest in the Middle East, including nearby Bahrain where the Navy based the 5th Fleet.

“Sea lanes, air dominance, force projection,” said the Ambassador. “It’s a military thing, right?”

The Persian Gulf was fraught with danger, Cardwell continued. If anything happened to the Sultan, legal processes would have to be in place to assure a seamless, peaceful transfer of power that would maintain America’s dominance of the Moq’tari government. “It’s a partnership, Ron. It’s critical that Americans look favorably on Moq’tar. And it’s just as critical that Moq’taris take a positive view of Americans.”

“Not to worry. The new guy who checked into the Embassy after Christmas, he should help. I mean, that’s why they sent him, right?” He opened a desk drawer and withdrew a small mirror. A bachelor in his early forties and five years older than Sheikh Yusuf, he’d made a night of it at the New Year’s Eve party hosted by the Embassy. So had Yusuf, his special guest. The Ambassador hadn’t fully recovered. His eyes were red. Patches of whiskers somehow missed by his electric razor dotted his cheeks and chin. No matter. He still displayed the ruddy face of an outdoorsman with a full head of glistening black hair brushed straight back in the style of Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in the first Wall Street movie. Although new to diplomacy, he gave the impression of a man as comfortable navigating the halls of power as skiing in Aspen or sailing the waters off California and Hawaii.

Why would anyone think differently? A Silicon Valley entrepreneur who’d turned a bottle of Scotch with two Indian doctoral students from Stanford into a fortune, he’d made hefty contributions to the president’s campaign—and to his opponent’s. Now he would establish a reputation as more than a businessman. The future could put him in London, Paris, Rome, Tokyo or Beijing. Moscow or Buenos Aires wouldn’t be chopped liver, either. And who knew? Maybe a major post in Washington. The White House even. Meanwhile, he’d babysit Yusuf, make his mark with the powers that be and maybe uncover a few business opportunities while he was at it.

“So anyway, Ron, Happy New Year,” said Cardwell. “And see to it those goddam papers get signed tomorrow. I can’t tell you…”

The Ambassador held the receiver at arm’s length. Couldn’t Cardwell just email from now on? Then he could pass the message to someone on the Embassy staff, stretched ridiculously thin though it was. Which reminded him again of the new guy. “So anyway, Bob, don’t worry about Dymme. I know how important he is, and I’ll get him up to speed. Well, not me personally. I’ll have Colonel Gatling sit down with him. We want Dymme to know who all the players are, right?”

Cardwell went on.

The Ambassador poured a second Scotch. Career guys at State—men who’d never bankrolled a startup or met a payroll—just didn’t know when to quit. “Got it, Bob. Get back to your guests. And no sweat. You don’t think anything, or anyone, could keep Yusuf off the throne if that’s where the United States of America wants him? Do you?”

 

• • •

Sheikh Yusuf, hunched forward in his leather recliner, stared at the sixty-five-inch television hung over the credenza nestled against the far wall of his office. “Sana Saeeda,” he mumbled. Happy New Year.

“Basketball?” asked Zoraya, his only sister and a widow before her time. Although she’d stayed at the Russian Embassy’s party well past midnight matching vodkas with Ambassador Kazanovitch, she looked far better rested than Yusuf. Her makeup and hair, thanks to her foreign stylist, Monsieur Pierre, were impeccable. She’d also taken her usual care with her wardrobe having selected a stunning cobalt blue suit and matching shoes she’d picked up in Paris. She fondled the petite-nonfat-latte-touch-of-vanilla espresso she’d brought up to her brother’s penthouse office suite from the Mobys coffee bar on the ground floor, open 365 days a year at Yusuf’s command. A perfect wake-up and start to the New Year. “I can’t believe you’re not at home,” she said. “What does Ameena think about your coming into the office?”

“She’s still sleeping, I’m sure. Anyway, there’s business to do.”

“Last-minute preparations for tomorrow’s trip up to the mountains with Father?”

Yusuf raised his impeccable macho-double-shot-caffe-mocha-hell-yes-whipped-cream. What was with Zoraya anyway? The trip to the mountains was his business.

He shifted his focused to the replay of the New Year’s Eve game he’d missed between Moq’tar’s national team and Tunisia. He’d learned to love hoops during his years in America. But more was involved. Basketball went with the global culture. Moq’taris had become big fans like everyone else—more evidence of their desire to share in the benefits of the global economy.

“And you will finally get Father to sign the succession papers?” asked Zoraya. “Nothing could be more important to Moq’tar’s stability.”

Moq’tar’s center blocked a Tunisian shot.

Yusuf cheered.

Zoraya needed no words to communicate her disapproval.

Yusuf took a soothing gulp from his espresso. As if he, of all people, wasn’t lasered in on the matter. He struggled to hide a small grimace. When he wanted nagging he’d go home to Ameena, his first and, much to his father’s chagrin, only wife. For now, he’d let Zoraya’s comment ride. No matter how often she overstepped her bounds—princesses were, after all, only for show—he could never berate her. The eleventh of his father’s twelve legitimate sons, he shared the same mother only with her. Although only a year older, she acted as if she was his mother. Yet he truly loved her, which was more than he could say about his feelings toward his brothers.

“So?” Zoraya asked.

“I’ve told you, I’ll make it happen. That’s the point of the trip, isn’t it?” Yusuf had no doubts about the next day’s outcome. Or his right to rule. Not to mention his ability. He’d proven himself the only son fit to succeed to the throne—a role his father acknowledged de facto if not de jure by transferring full executive power to him over the past decade. And why not? Yusuf’s brilliance, accented by a dash of shrewdness and flashes of cunning, long had established him as the Sultan’s favorite. A BA in finance from the University of Texas and top position in his MBA class at Berkeley—not to mention two years as a rising star at Lehman Brothers before returning home—earned him the role as CEO of what he was painstakingly fashioning as Moq’tar, Inc.

Moreover, he’d fathered the Sultan’s newest grandchild, four-year-old Little Muhammad, reassuring his father, if at one remove, of his own manhood.

Zoraya tapped her fingers on the glass-top coffee table, glanced at her nails and stopped. “By the way, I am coming along tomorrow.”

“The hell you are!” snapped Yusuf.

Zoraya smiled. “I have Father’s blessing to charm Ambassador Ellis. In writing.”

Yusuf collected himself and shrugged. “Suit yourself. Not like I need your help.” He’d made a New Year’s resolution to get the papers signed and so he would. No grass would grow under the feet of Yusuf bin Muhammad bin Hamza—if grass grew in Moq’tar.

“Well then,” said Zoraya. “That’s settled, isn’t it?”

 

Three (partly)

Seven hundred meters above the Gulf, Sultan Muhammad bin Hamza al-Moq’tari peered out across Moq’tar. His cliff-side perch, buffeted by a blustery wind, stood at the edge of the Throne of the Shepherds, a rocky, bowl-like cleft in the Mountains of Allah set between twin limestone peaks rising an additional two hundred meters. From below, the peaks’ gentle slopes suggested the breasts of a modestly endowed woman. American Embassy employees and security personnel dismissed them as the A-cups.

The Sultan—Shepherd of His People, Wellspring of Generosity, Icon of Manhood and Guardian of the Gross Domestic Product—held aloft his fabled saif, the curved sword given him by his father. In early manhood, following his father’s assassination, the Sultan wielded it along with the threat of the infidel English’s gunboats to wreak vengeance on the murdering dogs and unite Moq’tar’s three major and recurrently hostile tribes. The blood of a warrior with the heart of a lion still flowed in the Sultan’s veins even if his daily blood pressure readings remained low. Let anyone disparage the Throne of the Shepherds in his presence, and they would experience his wrath. Muhammad bin Hamza al-Moq’tari ruled with an iron fist even if that fist had grown arthritic with age, which could only be guessed at as well over eighty and perhaps beyond ninety.

His white thobe filling like the sail of a felucca in the wind, the Sultan ignored Yusuf, the Ambassador, Colonel Gatling, and his daughter, Zoraya, standing respectfully a dozen paces behind him. He knew that they’d accompanied him on this welcome visit to his ancestral home to persuade him to sign the succession papers. Did they take him for a fool? Did they think him now weak and womanly? And was Yusuf that ungrateful? Did he seek to hurry him to the grave?

Both elated and depressed, the Sultan surveyed the tribal lands he had tamed and united. A large oil field some twenty kilometers distant occupied the western extent of the sultanate. From there, desert sands flowed eastward dotted with small villages. The dunes led past the international airport to Moq’tar City, the sultanate’s capital and only major urban center. The growing skyline revealed hotel, apartment and office towers in various stages of completion. Most dotted the Corniche, the palm-lined boulevard running along the Gulf next to the beach. Building cranes suggestive of the minarets of the Grand Mosque rose among them and peered down on the greater expanse of mud-brick and British-colonial buildings that until a few years earlier comprised a secondary seaside way station. Just east of downtown, a massive sports arena, refinanced after the global recession, squatted toad-like on the desert floor. Further east more dunes stretched twenty kilometers to a border lacking any topographical definition but imposed arbitrarily in colonial days.

The Sultan sighed. He longed for the simpler, purer past when a man required only a tent, a horse, a saddle, a rifle, a pistol, a sword, a knife, forty good warriors and up to four young wives at any one time—and no more lest the law of Allah be violated—all with large eyes and ample breasts. And a good set of binoculars. A radio would be a welcome addition not to mention a pair of British army boots. No doubt cigarettes and a lighter. Sheep and goats, naturally. And gold to which the spoils of war would continually add.

How Moq’tar had changed, the Sultan thought. How he had changed, assaulted without mercy by the pitiless infirmities of old age. Now, the Shepherd of His People followed Yusuf’s counsel while rarely venturing from his palace. Yet he knew his role and all that he represented remained vital to the nation, even if Yusuf’s ceaseless promotion of business left him confused and disturbed. For this reason, he relented when Yusuf insisted that showing the American Ambassador his beloved mountains this morning formed the critical part of the day’s agenda. An agenda! What had life become for the conqueror poets wrote of honor, singers chanted of courage and mothers told tales of maidens ravished?

Yet the Sultan understood fate and its demands. Failure to maintain Washington’s good graces could spur grave consequences. Should America withdraw its protection, his neighbors, dearly beloved brothers all—not to mention the ayatollahs across the Gulf—would seek to crush Moq’tar like a fig beneath the hoof of an angry camel.

Still, he maintained the courage to stand up to Washington in matters of the gravest importance. Fifty million Jews lived in America. At least. They ran everything. The younger Bush’s advisors who forced him to invade Iraq were Jews. Obama was one of those African Jews who hid their identity. Still, he had kept Moq’tar Jew-free.

Yes, a few Jewish businessmen from America had apartments in Moq’tar City. But with U.S. interests in the sultanate’s oil, millions of dollars in military aid and Yusuf pursuing even more investment from American banks, what could he do?

No, that was it for the Jews.

Except for several from Britain and France who imported clothing and machinery. And the Jew from Luxembourg who provided wealth-management consulting to several members of the royal family. Another from Argentina brokered halal beef, and how could he oppose that? And some Jew from Hong Kong, who didn’t at all look Chinese, imported electronic devices. A Canadian businessman came to mind. He brought with him his own food. The Jews’ dietary laws—ridiculous!

As for Israelis—by the Prophet’s beard, no! Except for the cardiologist who flew in monthly after the Sultan quietly visited Jerusalem. Zoraya had urged him to go to Moscow, but the Israelis offered a procedure that promised not only to extend his life for years but also to enable him to pleasure his newest wife, an Italian beauty considerably younger than Zoraya. He had only to take his blue pills.

But beyond the physician, the systems consultant Yusuf engaged for the government and a few others involved in financial software, electronic security, communications systems, drip irrigation, livestock husbandry, hotel management and currency exchange, not a single Israeli polluted Moq’tar. The Shepherd of his People guarded his nation’s purity with ferocious dedication.

Finish SLICK! by ordering your copy now.