BY A THREAD
by Marty Beaudet
Number One Observatory Circle was in chaos. A small army of black-suited men raced about, hand-to-ear, trying to hear the rapid-fire updates coming through their earpieces. They barked orders or gathered grimfaced in groups of two or three in the foyer, murmuring in low tones about the necessary next steps. Lights blazed throughout the house, mocking the hour displayed on the nearby atomically synchronized clock: 3:32 a.m.
In the midst of the madness Vice President John B. Sepeida struggled to get himself dressed, while just outside the door a roomful of people demanded his attention. Each had a matter of great urgency to communicate to him through the fog of interrupted sleep that still clouded his consciousness.
None of the competing communiqués, however, could match the gravity of the phone message that had ignited the situation just fourteen minutes earlier. Air Force One had disappeared from radar just minutes out of Vienna en route to the European Union capital in Brussels. The simultaneous loss of communications with all those on board, and corroborating eyewitness accounts of a midair explosion near Regensburg, Germany, left little doubt that the President of the United States had been killed. Whether it was an act of terrorism or an untimely accident would be determined in the coming hours. At the moment, Sepeida needed to get to the White House Situation Room to assume the reins of government.
As his motorcade sped toward 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Sepeida strove to get his head around the barrage of data and instructions that flowed ceaselessly from the aides, Secret Service personnel, and legal advisor—six people, in all—who accompanied him in the limo.
That he might soon be the President of the United States was difficult enough to grasp. But the sheer amount of instant knowledge required to assume that job was mindboggling. As Vice President, Sepeida always knew that such a day could come without warning. He wondered now if anyone could truly be prepared for that moment. Especially when it came in the middle of the night.
The streets of the capital were almost empty at this hour. The lead police vehicles were able to change the traffic signals to green ahead of their arrival, keeping the motorcade moving at a continuous clip of nearly sixty miles per hour down the wide, straight extent of Massachusetts Avenue NW.
The only interruption of that pace was at two roundabouts, the first of which they had just passed. The second came just six hundred yards later at Dupont Circle, where they would swing southward down Connecticut Avenue to the White House.
Now, as the Vice President’s vehicle slowed, entering the second traffic circle, he turned to his legal counsel and asked her opinion on a constitutional matter.
Her answer was cut short by the sudden roar of an engine to their right. A large truck with headlights dark was barreling up New Hampshire toward them. The limo driver tried to react, but was hemmed in by the lead and trailing vehicles.
The truck slammed into the Vice President’s car so hard that, after flipping two and half times, it came to rest upside down in the Dupont Circle Fountain.
And this above all, unto thine own self be true, and it shall follow as the day the night—thou can’st not then be false to any man.
One week earlier.
The 21-year-old redhead felt like he was being watched. But after almost two years as a missionary in Austria, he was used to it. He was well aware that, in business suits far too conservative for their ages, and with their prominent plastic nametags, he and his companion stuck out like sore thumbs. This, of course, was by design. The Church prided itself on its missionary program and wanted its “elders” to be instantly recognized anywhere in the world. They were repeatedly reminded that emissaries of the Lord did not hide themselves “under a bushel.”
Today Elders Davis and Pearson were hosting an informational display on the broad sidewalk outside Humanic, a five-story behemoth that touted itself as Europe’s largest shoe store. The spot was ideal for their purpose. Mariahilferstraße was the heart of Vienna’s shopping district. Here, boutiques, department stores, and restaurants stretched for a full kilometer, nestled among two centuries of architectural style, from baroque to minimalist modern.
It was Saturday, the boulevard’s busiest day. Because Vienna’s blue laws required shops to close at 1 p.m. and stay closed on Sunday, these were the only few hours in which working Viennese could get their shopping done, presenting the missionaries an opportunity too good to pass up.
Like fishermen wading among spawning salmon, Davis and Pearson trawled the teeming sidewalks for an easy catch, having cast their lines from a small piece of the pedestrian zone they had staked out earlier in the day. Courtesy of their visual aids, beaming Mormon families smiled from posters promising “Families Are Forever,” glistening temples symbolized eternal glory, and a selection of pamphlets explained how to achieve both.
Davis knew that hooking one of the locals was a difficult proposition. Vienna was the erstwhile capital of the Holy Roman Empire. As countless Austrians liked to remind him, this country had been staunchly Roman Catholic since the Fall of Rome. While most Austrians were outwardly polite to a fault, they were intensely private when it came to religion. Airing one’s personal faith in the public square was distasteful to them.
Vienna was nevertheless a cosmopolitan city, home to myriad transplants and refugees from less hopeful places. Twenty percent of the city’s population was said to be of foreign origin. From what Davis had seen during his time here, dozens of nations were represented just within the core districts of the city. Immigrants from invariably poorer—and often less free—countries were ideal candidates for the message he and his companion had to share. People who took the initiative to leave their homeland in search of a better life were, by nature, seekers; exactly who the missionaries were looking for.
At length Davis traced the gaze he had been sensing for some time. It emanated from a swarthy young man leaning against the glass façade of the shoe store, some twenty meters away. He judged the observer to be about his own age, definitely not Austrian; both of which qualified him as a good prospect. Older immigrants tended to be too set in lifelong traditions to consider changing their religion; younger and better-educated generations, on the other hand, usually had broader interests and greater exposure to diversity, making them more receptive to the ideas in which the missionaries trafficked.
Davis met the young man’s gaze and gave him a polite nod and a smile. He was encouraged when the smile was returned. But when the guy began making his way through the crowd directly toward him, his manner seemed oddly deliberate. A typical visitor would look around a bit first, maybe stop to check out the display materials before making direct eye contact.
Davis wondered if this particular visitor wasn’t just a tad too enthusiastic. But before he could consider it any further, he found himself face to face with the strikingly handsome stranger, who stood a few inches shorter than Davis’s own nearly six-foot stature. His mocha skin was movie-star smooth and framed in a full head of close-cropped dark hair and three-day growth of facial hair. His intense brown eyes were softened by an effusive grin as he stretched a hand toward Davis. “Hi. I’m Jassim,” he said in English. His manner was matter of fact, as though he’d been expected.
Davis wondered if the guy had mistaken him for someone else. It was usually the gregarious missionary who cornered the timid passerby, not the other way around.
“Elder Davis,” he said, returning the introduction and shaking the proffered hand.
The stranger laughed goodnaturedly. “So is that the ‘younger Davis’?” he asked, cocking his head toward Pearson who, oblivious to them, was attempting to corner an ambivalent elderly woman.
After nearly two years in the mission field, Davis found this joke tedious. Nevertheless he had grown accustomed to the question and answered with practiced patience. “Elder is just a title,” he explained, as he had a hundred times before.
He stopped short of mentioning the priesthood to which the title pertained. He had already surmised that the man was Middle Eastern, and therefore likely also a Muslim. The missionaries were prohibited from overtly proselytizing Muslims, in which case his guest would have to be explicit in his request for information before a religious discussion could be initiated.
“That’s my companion, Elder Pearson,” Davis added by way of explanation. “We’re missionaries.”
“Ah,” replied the stranger. “Your companion.” A raised eyebrow suggested that he may have misunderstood the use of the term.
“My assigned missionary partner,” Davis clarified.
“I see.” Jassim’s tone suggested that he saw more than had been intended. “Well, then if you are not elder, you must be about twenty, no?”
“Close. Twenty-one,” Davis corrected. It was a strangely personal question for a first encounter. Not comfortable being the topic of conversation, he changed the subject. “Feel free to browse the information here.” He gestured toward the nearby display. “And don’t hesitate to ask any questions you may have.”
Jassim declined to look in the direction that Davis was pointing. “Thank you. I do have a question.”
Davis smiled. “Sure. What is it?”
“Do you do this all day?”
Another odd query. Davis wasn’t sure how to answer. “Well, not exactly. But we do spend the majority of our time talking to people, if that’s what you mean.”
“You must be good at conversation, then.” There was no hint of sarcasm in the stranger’s reply and Davis couldn’t help but laugh, despite some apprehension.
“I don’t know about that,” he said.
“Well I would enjoy conversing with you,” Jassim said. “When do you rest from your labors?”
“Uh…,” Davis hesitated, again unsure, of both the stranger and the intent of his question. “We get Mondays off.”
“Surely you will eat before then!” Jassim said with mock astonishment, making a show of looking at his watch.
“Uh, yeah,” Davis laughed, “but we usually—”
“Then you will join me for lunch,” the stranger interrupted. It was a simple declaration rather than a question.
Davis balked. Caught off guard by the invitation, he found himself speechless. It took him a second or two to realize that he was standing slackjawed. “Uh, well—”
Jassim cut him off. “It is your job to talk to people, no?”
“Well, yes, but—”
“Then you will be my guest for lunch,” Jassim declared, not allowing a rebuttal. “You can talk to me,” he said with a cheerful grin, “and you will be doing your job.”
“Really, it’s very nice of you to ask,” Davis said, doing his best to reject the offer without offending. “But we’re working right now.” In most circumstances he would welcome such eagerness in a prospective convert, but this guy’s invitation was all a bit sudden and more than a little strange.
“Yes. It is rude of me to interrupt,” Jassim apologized. “How long will you be here?”
“A couple of hours, but—”
“Perfect,” replied Jassim with a satisfied grin. “I prefer a late lunch. I will come again at one-thirty,” he declared. He waved goodbye and slipped into the crowd before Davis could formulate a response. He could only stare after the enigmatic stranger. What was that all about?
* * *
“That’s just weird,” Elder Pearson said when Davis described the encounter to him. “What did he want?”
“No clue. He didn’t give me a chance to ask.”
“Well, if he comes back, we’re not going anywhere with him,” Pearson declared, despite his junior status. When he saw that Davis didn’t agree immediately, he added more emphatically, “Don’t be stupid, dude! The guy’s a weirdo. Who just walks up to a stranger and invites him to lunch? He’s probably an axe-murderer or something.”
“He wasn’t that bad,” Davis disagreed. “I mean, he was totally friendly,” then added, before Pearson could go off again, “Relax. We’ll still blow off the invite.”
“Any way you want, dude. You’re the senior,” Pearson said with a wry smile.
“Chaplain on the block!” The voice boomed through the corridor outside Sami Jabarrah’s solitary cell. A moment later a guard was shouting instructions at him through the tiny portal in the cell door.
“Remain seated on the bunk, your back against the wall. Keep your hands visible.”
Sami did as instructed. After three years, he knew the drill well.
The lock turned and the cell door swung open, revealing an Army captain. His uniform read “Mayes,” but Sami knew him as “Jeep,” the Islamic chaplain assigned to minister to the prisoners. If you believed Jeep’s story—and Sami wasn’t sure he did—the chaplain was a convert to Islam. More likely, however, this was a lie intended to gain the trust of the prisoners.
“Salaam alaykum!” Jeep said in salutation, as the guard closed the cell door and locked it behind him.
Sami ignored him. He had not now—or ever—asked for a chaplain’s visit. The very concept of a chaplain at Camp Delta was offensively incongruous with the mission of the place, which was to break the men they interrogated. No one who truly had the spiritual welfare of a person in mind could condone what was done in this place. As far as he was concerned, the chaplain was complicit in the atrocities, even if he never personally laid a hand on anyone. Despite the man’s cheerful air of camaraderie, Sami remained wary of him.
“There is good news,” Jeep continued, despite Sami’s intransigence. “But we don’t have much time, so listen up.”
Sami could hardly do otherwise.
“The Supreme Court has ruled your detention illegal, and ordered your release.”
Sami’s heart stopped. Hope was a cruel thing, but so hard to resist. Could it be true? Was his nightmare finally coming to an end?
“You will be leaving the island within the hour,” Jeep continued, as Sami’s breath caught in his throat. “But you will not be going back to the States.”
Sami exhaled, his face a mask of intense concentration. He stared deep into Jeep’s eyes, searching for meaning, but said nothing. He’d learned to hide his emotions during his time at Gitmo. But they were in such chaos now, he was certain they would erupt in a fit of madness. What was the chaplain saying? What did this mean? Did it bode well or evil? Was it another one of their mind games?
“A plane is waiting at the airstrip to take you to Munich. You will be given an apartment there, and will be free to come and go as you wish.”
“I want to see my family.” Sami’s voice was taut, his storm of emotion channeled through his narrowed eyes. He wanted to go home to Bethesda, not Munich, or anywhere else.
“Not yet.” Jeep’s voice was empathetic, but his eyes conveyed something more. “You must do one thing first.”
Sami waited, but Jeep offered no further explanation. Instead, he pressed a Quran into Sami’s hand. “I want you to take this gift and keep it close to your heart.” His manner was oddly deliberate. “In it you will find hope. Pay close attention to small things.”
Of course the Quran was “close to his heart.” What did the chaplain mean? Small things? Sami accepted the holy book, but as he tried to take it, Jeep held his hand fast and fixed him in the eye.
“I’ve assembled a few passages that I think you will find comforting. You should take a few minutes to consider them when you’ve got the time and place,” he said. His words were stilted; slow and deliberate, almost as though they had been rehearsed. “Do you understand?”
Sami understood the words, but the meaning of the chaplain’s odd behavior escaped him. Not that he really cared. He wanted only to see his family. He wondered long ago whether his wife had already given up hope, and whether his son, now 7, and daughter, now 5, remembered him. He hadn’t even seen the child his wife was carrying at the time of his abduction. Was it a son or a daughter?
“Why am I going to Munich?” Nothing he had heard so far could take the edge off his bitterness.
“You will learn everything you need to know during your flight.” Jeep’s terse reply was dismissive, but Sami persisted.
“You say I will be ‘free to come and go’ there.”
“Yes,” Jeep confirmed. “Although you must stay in Munich until your task is completed.” The chaplain’s words were clipped. His eyes darted from Sami to the top of the cell, where a camera never slept. He seemed to be in a hurry.
“And if I refuse?”
“Don’t be foolish.” Jeep’s tone became urgent. “If you run, you will be killed. And if you try to contact anyone, your family will suffer consequences.” For a chaplain, his message was anything but uplifting. “These guys mean business, Sami. Don’t cross them.”
Just then there was a firm rap on the door. “Prepare for prisoner transfer,” announced the guard’s voice. The portal opened. “Turn and face the wall. Put your hands behind your back and do not move until instructed.”
For three years he had wanted only one thing: justice. This was not it. But it appeared to be the next best thing, and he wasn’t going to be foolish enough to turn it down. If it got him out of this island hell, it was a good first step.
In a city that oozed Baroque at every turn, Café Kafka’s interior was a stark, modern contrast. Bright, clean, and cozy, though a bit nondescript; it was a neighborhood hangout easily missed by tourists.
The unlikely trio was seated in a booth by the front windows, a floor-to-ceiling grid of panels that had been swung open to allow access to the cool breeze. Only a row of movable planters separated them from the sidewalk, allowing for indoor-outdoor dining.
The café’s name struck a chord with Davis. An undeclared drama major during his one year at Central Oregon Community College, he had read plenty of Kafka. At the moment, he felt like a Kafka character, caught up in a vaguely absurd situation over which some unseen, mysterious entity had taken control. He didn’t know why he was here, yet he’d felt powerless to refuse.
Their host however, while admittedly peculiar, was not proving to be unpleasant. At the very least he was good for a meal, and Davis was grateful for that much; he didn’t get to eat out very often. By the parsimonious standards of a self-supported missionary, restaurants in Vienna were an expensive proposition.
True to his word, Jassim had returned precisely at one-thirty. But the missionaries, contrary to their own agreement, did not break the lunch date. As the junior companion, Pearson had expected Davis to take the lead. Davis, for his part, had meant to say no, but for reasons he couldn’t explain, he found himself unable to. And in the midst of his awkwardness, Jassim had taken charge. Davis simply fell in beside him as the trio headed down Capistrangasse toward the restaurant. As they walked, Davis avoided looking at Pearson who, he was certain, was lasering silent disapproval in his direction.
When the waitress arrived, Jassim ordered without even having opened the menu. Clearly, he was a regular here. Davis, not wanting to abuse the hospitality of their host, ordered an inexpensive Käseteller—a plate of local cheeses with fruit and bread—that cost only nine euros. Pearson, whose proficiency with even High German was still only marginal, was clueless when it came to the local Wiener dialect in which the menu was printed. Too proud to ask for assistance with translation, he resorted to his default request: bratwurst and sauerkraut.
Their server, recognizing another hapless American’s dilemma, explained to him in English what was clearly printed on the menu in German: this was a vegetarian establishment. When Pearson sighed and slumped in defeat, she gave him a sympathetic smile and suggested the lunch special: lentil soup, Greek salad, and pita with hummus.
After the waitress had gone, Jassim resumed the line of questioning he had begun earlier. But while he had been speaking English on the way to the café, he picked up now in German. Given Pearson’s language constraints, this shifted the bulk of the responsibility for the conversation to Davis.
“You two live like you are married, no?” Jassim probed. The missionaries had explained earlier that they weren’t permitted to be apart, except to use the bathroom. Jassim was incredulous at this, and seemed obsessed with it, peppering them with additional questions.
“More like roommates, really,” Davis answered, wanting to avoid the cheap shots and gay innuendo that always accompanied such revelations.
But Jassim wasn’t done. “Roommates?” he asked with a wink. “So you don’t sleep together?”
“But this is unusual, no? Even married people don’t spend every minute together!” Jassim persisted.
Davis was anxious to retire the present line of questioning. But before he could change the subject, Jassim continued, switching back to English. “If you’re not lovers,”—Pearson squirmed at the use of the term—”and you’re never apart, then how can you see other people?”
Before either missionary could attempt to explain the concept of celibacy, they were rescued by the arrival of their lunch. Davis was thankful that after their server had disappeared Jassim didn’t resume that particular thread of conversation.
Still, he didn’t give them a full reprieve. “So,” he said, still in English, “you two must have first names, no? Surely your friends and family don’t call you ‘Elder.’”
Davis could see that Pearson was annoyed, but failed to intercept him before he answered. “Of course we have first names,” the junior missionary said. His tone was patronizing. “We’re just not allowed to use them.”
Jassim rolled his eyes. “Allowed?” he asked with particular emphasis, unfazed by Pearson’s irritation. In fact, he seemed to enjoy the provocation. “I thought America was a free country? Why don’t you do as you please?”
The loaded question fell like discarded ballast in the sea of silence that washed over them. Davis and Pearson cast furtive glances at each other, but neither spoke. Davis sighed and smiled a white flag of surrender. He didn’t want to argue. He could see where Jassim was headed and knew it would be pointless to try to refute him. Pearson, on the other hand, was flushed and agitated. He was also at a loss for words.
Patient and silent, like a stealthy predator that had backed his quarry into a corner, Jassim waited.
Just then the waitress checked in to see that all was satisfactory. They all said it was and returned to their food in silence. When Davis looked up, he saw that Jassim was staring at him with a disturbing intensity. Reflexively, Davis returned his attention to his lunch. After seconds that seemed like hours, he decided he preferred the badgering to the silence.
Yet Jassim’s next parry offered no more comfort than his earlier line of questioning. “How may I call you my friend if I do not know your name?” he asked. Not waiting for an answer, he added, “Where I am from, it is a sign of disrespect to withhold one’s name.”
Davis had spent two years fielding questions that were, for the most part, predictable. Why don’t you drink? How many wives do you have? Do you allow black people in your church? For these he could always rely on a dependable library of stock responses passed down from a long line of missionaries before him. But Jassim’s challenge had left him flummoxed.
He had no perfunctory response at the ready. Jassim’s penetrating gaze didn’t help him find one either. It was as though the guy were looking right through him. He felt naked and exposed, though he didn’t sense any overt hostility. In fact, Jassim was smiling. The question he had thrown out seemed as much invitation as gauntlet. Was this guy looking for an argument or was he just curious?
The implied intimacy in Jassim’s casual manner was simultaneously discomfiting and fascinating. Such total ease among strangers was completely unfamiliar to Davis. In his experience, even church members tended to be merely familiar, never intimate. Acquaintances who had known each other for twenty years still called each other “Brother” and “Sister” rather than by their first names. And you could be sure that no one at church would ask embarrassing personal questions—at least not directly. If they wanted to know something about you they would either beat around the bush or go behind your back to get the latest gossip. But they didn’t put you on the spot as Jassim was doing.
Davis often wished he could overcome his shyness with strangers. Even when he made a point to be more outgoing, he found himself observing by default, rather than engaging. It was his love of acting that had taught him to cope with many socially awkward situations. He had learned to play the extrovert when necessary; he could teach a Sunday School class or speak in public, for instance. But he still struggled with one-on-one interaction such as this.
Who is this guy anyway? It occurred to him that after nearly an hour’s conversation he still knew almost nothing about him, except that he was from Kuwait. Jassim had been the one asking all the questions.
Davis decided to turn the tables. Tossing caution aside he said, “So, Jassim,” emphasizing the name, “you don’t know our first names, and we don’t know your last name. I guess that makes us even.”
“True,” said Jassim, with a self-satisfied grin, glad, apparently, to have drawn Davis into the game at last. “Alles gleich,” he interjected in German—all things being equal—“I will exchange my last name for your first names.” His expression was that of a chess player who had just checked his opponent.
Davis knew he’d set himself up for this. And he knew he could refuse to continue. But did it really matter? It was a minor rule. If they broke it, who would know?
“I guess that’s fair,” he conceded.
Pearson interjected. “But Elder, the rules—”
Davis cut him off. “What’s the big deal, Elder? It’s a harmless introduction, right?”
Pearson shrugged. He wasn’t going to make a scene. It wouldn’t look right for the Lord’s emissaries to be arguing. If it was wrong—and he was sure it was—the sin would be on Davis’s head, not his. He was required to follow his senior companion. “Whatever,” he conceded with a sigh.
Jassim looked at Pearson and smiled. “Jassim al-Shammari, at your service,” he said with an exaggerated bow.
“Craig,” the missionary muttered.
“A pleasure to meet you, Craig,” said Jassim. It was obvious he was pleased with himself. He gave Davis an expectant look.
As payback, Davis took pains to make him wait. He unfastened his top shirt button, reached under his shirt, and took his time withdrawing the wallet that hung about his neck. At length he withdrew his Oregon driver’s license. “Here you go, Mister Shammari.” He dangled the license as one would a Milk-Bone before a dog.
Jassim took the license and examined it for a moment before handing it back. “I am pleased to meet you, Kevin,” he said, gloating.