“Who?” Harris asked.
“Never mind.” Nash turned away from them and saw the CIA’s director of public affairs headed their way. “Oh, shit.”
Marian Rice approached her new hot commodity and said, “Good news—60 Minutes wants an exclusive with you. They’re willing to put all their best people on it.” When she saw Nash hesitate she said, “This is huge. I know you don’t like it, but it’s huge, and we have to strike now while you’re hot. Come on,” she said, grabbing him by the arm. “There are a few more people who would like to meet you.”
Nash resisted for a second, and then when he saw the shitass grins on Rapp’s and Harris’s faces he said, “Keep laughing. Great friends you two turned out to be.” He started to walk away and then looked over his shoulder with all the excitement of a man being led to his own execution.
HAKIM reached down and adjusted the seat a touch more, leaning it farther back. It seemed as if he was feeling better with each passing mile. He’d almost fainted twice during his escape. The first time was going down the steps of the house and the second was when he had to lower himself into the seat of the car. Each time the pain of his broken ribs tearing into the soft tissue of his lungs was almost too much to take. Looking back on it now he was sure that Allah had given him a helping hand. Nothing else could explain his not blacking out from the pain. As he turned onto Highway 65 and headed south a coughing attack almost became a horrific reality, but he forced himself to take slow, shallow breaths.
Now, nearly two hours later, he was feeling pretty good. The big sedan was comfortable and the owner had fortunately left him a full tank of gas. The wind was howling out of the north and he was he
aded south so he figured he could get in at least three hundred miles before he had to fill up on gas. He was nearing the outskirts of Little Rock, so everything was back to a two-lane divided highway. He’d already blown through several small towns on the journey south. The speed limit went from 65mph to 30mph and he hadn’t even noticed it until some guy standing on the corner motioned for him to slow down. After that mistake he tried to pay more attention. He set the cruise at 68mph and found an AM news station with a strong signal and settled in for the drive. He’d already listened to two local news updates and one national, and there still wasn’t a single mention about anything to do with what had happened in Iowa.
There was one big problem that he needed to deal with and one small one that could become a big one. He needed to go to the bathroom, and under any normal circumstances he’d have found the nearest gas station and made it happen, but he was in such bad shape that he didn’t dare try to get out of the vehicle. Just the thought of the pain that ripped through his body when he’d gotten into the vehicle brought on a wave of nausea. Hakim thought he had a solution, and he began scanning the billboards on the side of the road for the right place.
Sure enough, within a few miles there was a sign for a McDonald’s. Hakim got in line with all the other cars. He checked himself out in the mirror while he waited. He’d found a pair of large sunglasses in the center console, the kind that you saw older people wear over their regular glasses. They were so big they effectively covered most of the bruising around his eyes and also helped age him. He ordered a vanilla shake, large coffee, two bottles of water, a couple of cheeseburgers, some fries, and some extra napkins. He wasn’t hungry, but he thought it would be good to have some food in the car just in case. He filled the cup holders with the shake and the coffee and tossed everything else in the passenger seat. As he was leaving the parking lot he saw two signs that told him Allah truly was looking out for him. The first was a drive-through pharmacy and the second was a full-service gas station. If he filled up now he would have no problem getting across the state line without stopping again.
Hakim pulled up to the line of pumps farthest from the building and waited for a man to come out. It turned out to be a young kid, which was all the better. While the kid topped off the Cadillac’s big tank, Hakim slowly began sipping his vanilla shake. The total came to $38.50. Hakim gave him two twenty-dollar bills and told him to keep the change. As he crossed the busy street and pulled into the drive-through lane at the pharmacy he began thinking about his decision. Hakim had been up and down the Gulf Coast. From the Florida Keys all the way up and around to Brownsville, Texas. He had contacts in a half-dozen cities, none of them Muslims and most of them involved in the illegal trade of drugs. His most trusted contacts, and the ones who owed him the most, were down in Miami, but that was a long drive. Brownsville was as well. In his condition he could never make it to either city without stopping, and that would complicate things. He would have to dump the car because eventually someone would find the murdered couple and report the car stolen.
No, he decided, it would be better to drive to New Orleans. He could make it there in ten hours, arriving well before midnight. He would have to ditch the car and call his contact. There was one other option, and he was tempted to go with it, but he would have to see how things played out first. He picked up some heavy duty aspirin and antibiotic cream at the pharmacy and was back on the highway a few minutes later. Hakim figured when he was done with the shake he’d pee in the cup and then dump it out the window. With his decision to go to New Orleans, though, he needed to make a call. He fished the cell phone out of his pocket and decided to turn it on for the first time.
Hakim set the cruise at sixty-eight miles an hour and held the phone on the steering wheel while he waited for all the various signals to light up. It took about twenty seconds with the phone making some funny noises as it ran through its setup, and then it made a weird chirping noise and the screen told him he had one new message. For a split second, Hakim’s heart sank, and then he realized it was probably one of those messages left by the wireless company. He held the message button down for a few seconds and then heard the phone dialing. He pressed the speaker button and listened as the computerized voice told him what he already knew—that he had one message. A few seconds later a voice from his not-so-distant past sent a chill up his spine.
“You dare call me a coward. What are you? You sneak out of here like some frightened woman while I am in the shower and leave me to fight for myself. Stuck in the middle of America. You will pay!” Karim sounded so angry Hakim wondered if Ahmed had received a beating for not stopping him. “Allah will make you pay. I will tell everyone that you are a traitor. Nothing more than a woman with a man’s genitalia. And that I’m not even sure about. When I am done with my mission I will find you. I will hunt you like a dog and I will make you endure unimaginable suffering and humiliation. And trust me, I will not fail. I will find you.”
Hakim listened to it again. This time the surprise was gone and with it his fear of Karim. He looked down the highway for a moment and decided to throw caution to the wind. He pressed the callback button on the phone and left it on speaker. It was picked up on the sixth ring.
“I can’t believe you are calling me!” Karim’s angry voice came over the speaker.
“I can’t believe you have your phone turned on. Are you slipping? Are you letting your emotions get the best of all your self-proclaimed military discipline?”
There was an angry laugh and then, “You are running away . . . just like in Afghanistan. You are a coward.”
Hakim knew he was trying to bait him with lies. “And you are a psychotic killer of innocent people as well as a delusional liar.”
“I speak the truth, as Allah is my witness.”
“You are so arrogant. Allah does not condone what you do. You are not important enough for him to care about you.”
“And you have lost the way. You spent too many days in the West and have been weakened. You are soft. That is why I beat you so easily.”
“We will see who beats who in the end.”
“I am not running. Like Jonah, I am heading into the belly of the beast while you run off to your drug-dealing friends.”
“You mean you are going to kill more innocent people . . . or will you have Ahmed do it for you like you did the others?” Hakim paused and then answered his own question. “I think you will have Ahmed do it. You love yourself too much to risk being killed.”
“Why don’t you meet me in Washington and find out.”
“I think not. It is my duty to tell the world the true story of the Lion of al Qaeda.”
There was a long pause and then Karim asked, “And what would that be?”
“Why do you not like women?”