Parallel jet streams of steaming, hot, soapy water emanated from ten openings along a metal pipe that ran the length of the cinder block wall inside the HandyCare Car Wash on Grand Ave in West DesMoines.
Senjeep Zendawi, or “Jeep” as his co-workers called him, tossed a soaked towel into a blue plastic barrel and grabbed another from the rack. He wiped his brow with the edge of the towel and proceeded to hand dry the next car that emerged from the cloud of steam at his back.
He had worked for Mr. Parsons at HandyCare for four years, toiling diligently, rarely missing a day of work, and never complaining about the job. He had never asked for a raise and according to Parsons had served as a model employee, earning “Employee of the Month” awards several times over the past few years. Jeep liked the job and enjoyed working with his hands.
He had immigrated to the United States with several peers in his young 20s on student visas. He completed his studies, earning a degree in Philosophy at the University of Iowa. He joined a local Cricket club and played matches every Saturday in the Spring and Summer. After the matches, he would sit in the park drinking beers with his teammates and opponents, laughing and joking in the sun.
Following college, he secured a position as an IT analyst at the Heartland Blue Cross Healthcare office in downtown DesMoines. He worked for his uncle and mentor, Abud Terhani, the IT Director at Heartland Health, although nowhere in any of the corporate paperwork, was the relationship documented or revealed. He applied for his Green Card. And soon after receiving it, he switched jobs to the car wash on instruction from Abud.
Each day, for four straight years, Jeep watched the license plates of the cars that rolled through his car wash for the sign. It finally arrived last week, a black Jeep Liberty with the license plate ABUD 1.
Upon seeing the sleek beauty slice through the steam like a midnight-black palomino gliding through the desert, Jeep slung the towel over his shoulder, grabbed a spray bottle of Windex and opened the front door. He slid across the front seat onto his back in the passenger seat and sprayed the inside windshield and both side windows with enough solution to temporarily obscure the view from his co-workers. He quickly opened the glove compartment and accessed the user manual. A small manila envelope containing a USB storage drive dropped out from between the pages into the palm of his hand. Three folded, hand-written pages slid from the back of the book. The neat Arabic writing, unmistakably penned by his uncle Abud, laid out his instructions with crystal clarity. He stuffed the drive and the memorandum into his pants pocket and proceeded to wipe the windows dry of any trace of the Windex he had sprayed.
He praised Allah for bestowing upon him his final calling. He would never again return to the HandyCare Car Wash. He had a cause and his life would forever hold meaning in this world. He had his target, the female American conspirator, Melanie Horniday and her family. Later that evening, he would access the thumb drive, review the profile, family photos and address. Their brothers inside the American Military had obtained the Senator’s schedule and the pass codes to disable his security system. He would have no guards at night in his home. Jeep would slip in stealthily as he had learned in the South Sudan Islamic training compound prior to his arrival on American soil.
The method of death would follow the most brutal of protocols. First, he would turn on the gas stove and fill the house. Using a 16-inch clever, he would cut each throat in deep, swift strokes to disable each victim’s ability to make any sound or alert the others. As the victim’s blood ebbed out of their bodies, Sanjeep would lay out a small carpet on the kitchen floor and pray.
He would meet his earthly end in a glorious fireball, with a flick of his thumb against the contact of his cigarette lighter. And he would exterminate the enemy and her family in the process. He would join his cousins and his uncles in the grace of Allah, surrounded by his bounty and the rewards of his life well-lived.
The American people would learn in the most visible way possible that they paid a grave price for defying the will of God and the Brotherhood of Islam.
Sanjeep would know when to execute his mission when Al-Jazeera reported a significant victory in the wicked American city of New York. And then he would visit the mosque one last time to pray for his soul and to ask Allah for the strength and the skill to honor him in his will.
In a high-rise office in downtown DesMoines, Abud Terhani paused between staff meetings and project updates at the corporate headquarters of the Heartland Health Insurance Corporation. He ran his hand through the dark scratchy beard that covered the front of his neck like a mask.
Out of a hidden compartment of his soft leather brief case, he pulled out his personal iPad. He logged into a website marked only in Arabic writing and pulled up a menu of videos. He scrolled down a list and selected the newest addition.
In a dark room, with flags obscuring each wall, two sweat-drenched men sat tied to a pair of chairs with a small desk in front of them. Blood trickled from a cut above one man’s forehead. The other had such a blackened, swollen eye that his face appeared bloated and misshapen. Masked men stood in long cloaks beside them speaking in Arabic.
“The price of failure in the servitude before Allah is sharp like the sword,” one of the masked men spoke into the camera. “Ahmed Al Ahmadi has failed in his mission to destroy the imposter who mocks Allah with his false claims. For this disgrace, he pays the first price.”
At this, the other two masked men grabbed the bound prisoner’s right arm. They held his hand out across the desk, extending his right pointer finger and holding his wrist steady. The bound man did not react. He kept his head low. He did not fight the masked men around him.
In a lightning quick motion, the bright light from behind the camera reflected off the blade and blinded the scene as the metal struck the skin, sliced straight through to the wood and separated the finger from the hand as if removing the stem of a carrot. The man yelped recoiled his hand into his robe. He moaned quietly and rocked to deal with the pain.
The three masked men dropped to their knees and praised Allah before turning to the second victim.
They held up his right hand, revealing a thumb, and three fingers, but no pinky finger. Instead, only a half inch stub protruded from the end of the man’s hand.
“This unworthy sinner has failed to redeem himself in the face of Allah. The price for his fault shall serve as example to all who would honor God with their deeds. Do not fail God’s will. God is great. Praise be to Allah.”
The two other masked men repeated the phrase: “God is great. Praise be to Allah.”
And with that, the leader of the masked men grabbed the second victim by the hair, moving his head up quickly off the desk and backward. His eyes flashed. The flesh of his neck caught the light. The blade again sliced across the screen.
Abud’s phone rang and he closed the video window. He picked up the phone. A man of few words, he answered with a simple “Yes,” in a low quiet tone.
“The software vendor is in the lobby,” said his assistant from the phone at her desk outside his office. “They are early for their meeting with you.”
“They will wait,”
Abud stared at the back of his closed office door. He thought back to a similar video he had watched several years earlier. His older brother, Atul, who had taught him so much about the ways of God and the ways of the clan, had similarly sat with his face down on a cold slab. A masked man, whom he knew to be Al Khomeni Massaad, the Iman of the Mosque in his small village in Pakistan, held up his brother’s hand for the video camera. Abud recalled the missing ring finger, the slow-motion image of Massaad slicing through the air with his broadsword right through the neck of his brother. He closed his eyes at the sight of the body falling limp to the ground with blood spurting out onto the floor and onto the white and red flag behind him.
Abud pulled out his device and flipped across several pages until he came to a familiar image. He had his target, the same target his brother had failed to eliminate. He would honor his brother’s image and restore glory to his family. He would plan and execute the will of God and gain the favor of Al Khomeni Massaad.
Their intelligence officer back in the caves of Takur Ghar had made all of the arrangements. He would board the plane first with his special handicap pass. This would avoid roving eyes inspecting him on his procession down the narrow aisle. His seat would be the furthest from the cockpit. He would require no metal weapon for this execution. He would visibly identify the target and once acquired, he would simply approach him from behind, take his head between his arms, twist hard in one lightning fast stroke and sever his neck leaving the muscles, tendons and nerves frayed and lifeless.
He clicked an icon on his iPad. They had all the passenger information they needed about the NetJets flight. He would have one shot to catch his victim by surprise in a relaxed state. But if he could execute the protocol as effectively as he had done in his training exercises during his trip to India earlier in the year, then he would be able to end the man’s life in less than two seconds, well before any handlers or other passengers could react to stop him.
He tucked the device into his desk drawer, locked it and e-mailed his assistant that he would see the vendor now. Looking down at his right hand, he reached over with his left and felt the tiny nub that used to be his smallest finger.
He could not fail in this mission. Only he and his young nephew remained of their cell. The others had failed. The fate of the world rested on their shoulders and the success of their mission.
The last golden rays of the brightest sun in America glittered off the soft rolling waves of the Pacific Ocean. They danced and twinkled, illuminating a crew of Marines running along the shore in perfect stride with each other. The waves crashed 100 feet from the sand and rolled along casually toward the beach with little sense of urgency. The last surfers of the day, also Marines between shifts, waited out each wave, searching the horizon for just the right crest to challenge.
The scene played out just beyond the walls of the dull grey kitchen in which Colonel Lance Winger sat sipping his third coffee of the afternoon. Or at least, Winger imagined the vista beyond the windowless break room as he contemplated the status of his mission and the progress of his team. He could just as easily have been in Toledo, Ohio or Boise, Idaho instead of his bunker by the San Diego shore at Camp Pendleton Marine base, tucked on 500 acres between the I-10 and the mother Pacifico.
“What an ugly place,” he thought. “And yet surrounded by such beauty.”
He looked at his coffee, already cooling beyond his liking and thought about the boost he used to get in the field from the “No Doze” and the “Dramamine” that they used to take. He had managed a five Marine crew tasked with watching, guarding and sometimes containing the Holy man of the Middle East. They had tapped into his crude use of Facebook from their field mobile unit with help from their control center in Fallujah and lurked in the shadows at his events in a government sponsored attempt to foster, fan and control his cultural revolution.
The brass took note of Jaio’s exploding popularity and thought that he could be an effective catalyst in creating the kind of social instability that might help weaken certain Al-Qaeda supported regimes. A team of military strategists, anthropologists, economists and religion experts had spent dozens of hours analyzing a hot map on a white board in some nicely carpeted conference room at the Pentagon, deciding where and how they would manipulate Jaio’s people. The plan was to push him into areas that they deemed beneficial toward their cultural conversion strategy.
Winger’s team had expertise in blending into the desert sand. They could establish a presence in an urban setting without drawing any attention to themselves. A very international-looking crew, they could go into an area hot, meaning in their full Marine gear, or they could go in dark, meaning they would dress more like locals and merge into the city streets as inhabitants.
Even big, European Caucasian Cael Block could stand right next to a Mujahedeen soldier and convince him that he was a local construction worker.
Winger recalled how Block had melded into a small social club in a nowhere Israeli city, springing into action when he recognized a member of the Islamic Brotherhood taking interest in Jaio’s conversation with a group of young university students at the bar. Cael had Jaio out a back entrance like a magician’s sleight of hand trick. One minute, Jaio leaned casually against the brass rail of the bar with a rapt audience. The next minute, with help from a distraction created by fellow Marines Ruben Herrera and Devin Patel, they were gone out a back entrance before the Brotherhood militant could notice what had happened.
Winger took another sip, acutely aware of the ulcers forming in his gut from his five cup a day habit.
“That couple of hours where Cael and Jaio were on the run together,” Winger thought back to the best Marine he had ever overseen and the start of his transformation from obedient soldier to rogue AWOL crusader. “That must’ve been the beginning of his downfall. That had to be where he started to make his own foolish plan to emancipate Jaio from our influence. Damn you, Cael Fucking Block. Where the hell are you?”
He sensed the footsteps on the carpet in the hallway just beyond the door to the kitchenette and anticipated the transition to the tile. From the uneven gait, the result of a shrapnel wound to his left patella and the way his arms brushed clumsily by his firearm, he knew Captain Devin Patel had an update for him.
“Sir,” said the 5’7, 190-pound Marine, clad in all beige, almost too muscular for his small frame. “From inside Massad’s camp.”
He spoke in short staccato, only completing partial sentences, his quick phrasing enough detail to convey his message efficiently and accurately.
“An attack on a US Senator,”
“Johnson?” Winger answered in similar style.
“Confirmed. No details on timeframe or tactic.”
“Did you add a security detail?”
“Yes. Starting today.”
“No sign of him. He’s still dark and silent.”
Block’s defection from the team had wounded Winger. His friend - a promising modern young soldier that he had mentored and guided through his training and his first tours of intense urban combat - had deceived him, betrayed him and abandoned his bound service to the United Stated Marines.
He had to be caught. They could use the Holy Man’s presence on US soil to find Block. But Block would be the team’s top priority until they could bring him to justice and regain control over Jaio’s mission in America. Block moved him around too quickly, too efficiently and with too much assistance for them to have total insight into his whereabouts. And even when they did receive tips, more than half of them turned out to be decoys. The other half came with such little notice that they couldn’t get their resources in place. Block had managed to slip past them at every step, and he was always able to move Jaio like cargo from place to place, just out of their reach.
Winger felt the weight of the entire Pentagon on his coffee-soaked head.
“The Holy Man?” Winger asked Patel. “Have we cracked their Trinity Account yet? Do we have any eyes on his next public appearance?”
“Still no insight into his next gathering,” Patel blinked. “We know he is not with the Johnson’s right now. But we still don’t know where or when he will surface next.”
“Keep me posted of every detail as it comes in,” a twinge of frustration crossed Winger’s face. “Block isn’t this good with technology diffusion. He’s got to have help. Find his technology partner and break them, damn-it.”
“Sir,” Patel replied as he took leave of the kitchen.
As Winger returned to the last 2 ounces of his cold coffee, Patel paced quickly down the cement halls of their underground bunker, deep below the general barracks above them.
He opened his locker and removed a false wall, revealing a paper-thin smart-phone, not half the width of an iPhone 7. Taped vertically to the side wall, out of any line of sight, he punched in his 12-digit code and got to an internet browser.
He quickly accessed one of the most popular web sites in the world, a “fantasy” site for cricket fans. He logged into a private league and clicked on a match-up of the Indian national team against Pakistan. The match had taken place several years earlier and the scores were already locked in. The status of the league read as “Closed”. But the comments area remained editable and accessible only to the designated members of his league.
Patel scrolled to the bottom of the comments that had streamed back and forth between himself and his opponent, another Marine on Winger’s team. The comments appeared to have little to do with the status of the competition and many of them had been entered well after the match had concluded.
“Update on Jonas Orlando,” he wrote into a small text box at the bottom of the bulletin Board. “Speaking to group at University of Northern Iowa. One-hour notice. Take care of it.”