It was still quite dark at six o’clock in the morning; the only light illuminating the rain-soaked street was from a lamp post a half a block away.
The young man’s pace quickened as he turned the corner, the blowing wind pummeling him with cold rain, sleet, and airborne grit. He leaned into the tempest, tightened his jaw, held his woolen hat on his head with his left hand to keep it from blowing off, and began to run with great effort toward his destination: The Hussein Ibn Malafi mosque, the spiritual and political hub of a particular Muslim neighborhood in London, England.
Zulaqi Hazerai had been up since three o’clock – which had become normal behavior for him of late – with what his doctor called intestinal/psychological stress syndrome, an ailment brought on by the eighteen-year-old’s worrisome concerns over the fate of his half-brother and mentor, Laqish, who had disappeared somewhere in America three weeks earlier. He also grieved for his other half-brother, Muhammad, who had been brutally murdered in America two weeks before Laqish went missing.
Zulaqi had not slept for more than three hours a night since he’d learned of Muhammad’s murder and Laqish’s subsequent disappearance, and the sleep deprivation – along with the stressful innards that kept him from eating regularly and digesting his food easily – had taken a toll on his physical constitution, leaving him weak, a little disoriented, and high-strung. Indeed, the little sleep he did get each night was fitful and broken by recurring, frightening nightmares of being left alone in the world. Ever since he was a small child, his oft-occurring, and sometimes-violent, dreams had had a tendency toward the frighteningly bizarre.
Before his brother Laqish had left for America, he assured Zulaqi that he would send for him as soon as he could, as soon as he established himself as the new imam at the Ibn Asir Meshqiri mosque in Boulder, Colorado. “You are a mature eighteen-year-old, Zulaqi,” Laqish had said, trying to bolster the boy’s self-esteem, for he knew that Zulaqi was not nearly as mature as he should have been at that age. “I am sure you can take care of yourself until I summon you to join our struggle in America. It won‘t be but a few weeks, I assure you. Now, remember this: Trust no one, and never leave the apartment unarmed, just like I taught you.”
Laqish had ostensibly gone to America to avenge the murder of his twin brother, Muhammad, and also to take control of Muhammad’s mosque in Colorado and turn it into a magnet for holy jihad in the Rocky Mountain Region of the United States, just as he had done with the mosque in London. He told Zulaqi that he was counting on him to be at his side in America in the fight against the many infidels of the West.
Zulaqi, of course, was excited to be going to America, if only to utilize his skills against the Great Satan and other enemies of Islam, skills he’d honed sharp since he was a young boy – he was a master bomb maker and a knife-wielding assassin.
Yet, as bloodthirsty as Zulaqi was, he had been rendered ineffectual as a jihadist operative because of his present, weakened physical condition. He just hoped that his physical and emotional afflictions would not be permanent, because he needed to be strong for his brother … that is, whenever he would be summoned to join him. He hoped it would be sooner than later.
It was on December 9, just a few days after Laqish had gone to America, that Zulaqi was notified his brother was missing; he was told the disturbing news just two weeks after he’d learned about the death of Muhammad. That evening, he began losing sleep in earnest … the next afternoon he began losing his lunch with regularity.
* * *
At three o’clock in the afternoon of April 29, the General Assembly auditorium at the United Nations headquarters in New York City was abuzz with a nervous excitement as the delegates to that feckless organization awaited the appearance of their new Secretary General, Mikki Paarsalu, and his inaugural address. It was a historic occasion, mainly because he would be the first United Nations Secretary General from a former Soviet Bloc country.
The delegates, the press, and world governments all had no idea what he was going to say. Over the past week or so, Paarsalu had been very tight-lipped concerning his political views and future programs. Indeed, no one knew any more about him now than they had before he became a finalist in the U.N. sweepstakes; a paper trail of his political philosophy was virtually non-existent. Indeed, he was a ghost, a will-o’-the-wisp, a blank slate, a mirage. The pundits were tongue-tied, the public was befuddled, and the international community was clueless … but Paarsalu purposefully remained an enigma, giving no media interviews before, or after, he was elected to the exalted post. The French and British had sponsored him, the Ruskies and Mandarins followed suit; however, the Americans opposed him, and that was enough for the rest of the assembly’s delegates to support Paarsalu over the Spaniard, Casablanca. Indeed, he was elected in a landslide – mainly because most of the delegates were voting against the chosen candidate of the United States – even though hardly anyone knew what his political underpinnings really were. His vetting had proven more daunting than anyone had thought it would be.
As he walked down the hall toward the auditorium, he smiled as he remembered the conversation he’d had with his father and Jack Davidson just thirty minutes earlier via a conference call, the gist of which was: “Mikki, hit them with everything you’ve got … Take no prisoners … Those who will agree with you the least, are the ones who will fear you the most.”
* * *
The six, rapid-fire gun shots from the Smith & Wesson Model 29/.44 Magnum hand gun in the below-the-ground shooting range at The Sheridan County Sheriff’s Department, sounded like an old World War II machine gun.
When the smoke cleared, he spun the gun around his middle finger and slammed it back into his hip-holster, just like his favorite, old-time cowboy actor, Alan Ladd. When the cacophony died down, and the concentric-circle cardboard target made its one-hundred-foot, mechanical journey back to the shooter, he smiled, took off his ear protectors, turned to his brother and said, “See of you can beat that, Morty.”
Morty Cohen, who had taken off his ear protectors when the shooting had stopped, stepped into his brother’s shooting lane, reached out for the target, pulled it off the chain, studied it for a moment and said, “Six bullet holes within a five-inch-diameter circle. Not bad, Solly. But if I beat it, you’ll buy me dinner tonight, right?”
Solomon Cohen, Morty’s identical twin, smiled and said, “Gladly.”
Without hesitating, Morty stood back, quickly pulled his own .44 Magnum sidearm from his hip-holster, and blasted off six shots in quick succession at his target one hundred feet away. Then he brought the gun’s barrel to his lips and blew the smoke away, just like his favorite cowboy actor, John Wayne.
When the target made its way back to Morty, Solomon stepped up and reached out for the still-smoking, bullet-ridden sheet of thin cardboard. “Well, baby brother …” (Solomon was five minutes older than Morty) “… it looks like you out-did me by … maybe half an inch. So, okay, I’ll buy you a porterhouse steak dinner at The Outback Steakhouse tonight … but only if you’ll admit that I am the one who taught you everything you know about shooting ‘the most powerful hand gun in the world,’” trying to sound like Clint Eastwood in “Dirty Harry.”
Morty smiled and said, “Can I get a Bloomin‘ Onion with that steak?”