The imam’s warbling voice ricocheted off the domed ceiling of the mosque and reached Azzam’s ears past a sea of prostrated bodies. Cold tile pressed against his knees through the thin fabric of his summer-weight trousers, feeling gritty beneath the skin of his palms. With his nose mere inches away from the feet of another man, he wished, not for the first time, that shoes could be a requirement for certain members of the mosque. Beside him, his employer, Omar, recited the prayers with eyes closed, a thin patina of zealous sweat shining against his forehead. His prayers were always loudest, his bows lowest, and his gratitude to the imam most profuse.
Azzam wished he could harness that kind of fervor. It would make his ruse so much more believable.
The rote words of the salah sprang easily to his mind, drilled into his head by his father since he was old enough to talk. As it always did, his mind wandered while he, for all intents and purposes, appeared to be declaring undying allegiance and support to Allah the righteous. He knew this invalidated the entire prayer, but he supposed his covert activities for the last ten years would do far more to bar his entrance to Paradise. If Islam even had it right to begin with.
“Assalamu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh.” (Allah’s peace, blessings, and grace be on you believers.) The close of prayers jolted Azzam back to attention. Men rose around him, the hum of their voices amplified by the tiled interior of the mosque. He looked up to see Omar extending a hand to help him up, which he accepted.
“It’s not as easy to rise as it once was, I’m afraid,” Omar said, as they threaded their way through the crowd. Even though their faces fit right in with the crowd, their London accents sounded odd against the background Arabic chitchat.
“Maybe you will let me help you to your feet someday,” Azzam replied, shaking his long legs to restore his circulation.
“Nonsense. That would make me feel old.” Even though Omar was in his mid-sixties, a combination of wealthy living and good genetics made him look like a man perpetually stuck in his forties. There were times when Azzam looked at him and thought he hadn’t aged a day since their first meeting almost thirty years ago, when Azzam had been a frightened young man alone in London after the death of his family, and Omar had been a benevolent man offering him a job in the mailroom at Sun Corp.
They exited the mosque together, standing at the top of the steps for a moment while they waited for Omar’s car to pull up to the curb. Above them, the golden dome of the mosque gleamed against a cloudy evening sky.
“Where would you like to go for dinner? Is Karida cooking for us tonight?” Azzam asked, watching a black taxi coast by.
Omar stuck his hands in his pockets, looking relaxed. A man at ease with both the world and his place in it. “No, Karida is visiting her sister in Madrid. We have some business to attend to before dinner. Let’s discuss the matter then.”
Azzam felt cold dismay displace his calm demeanor. He very much disliked accompanying Omar when he was attending to business. Business in another man’s hands would mean meetings and deals. In Omar’s hands, it meant death.
He wiped his face of emotion and started down the steps ahead of Omar to meet the car that had just pulled up to the curb. After opening the door for his employer and then slipping into the backseat, the car pulled away into light London traffic. “Does this business have anything to do with what I will be working on next week?”
Omar’s cryptic smile told him nothing. “Look at you, Azzam, your knees up practically to your ears. They ought to make Town Cars better suited to tall people.”
“I am six-five, sir. There is very little in the world that’s been made to suit me.”
Omar laughed. “Including women, I’m sure, but that doesn’t mean you have to disdain them altogether. Let me set you up with a good woman, Azzam. There are so many beautiful girls in Baghdad who would give anything to come here to London to be your wife.”
This was not the first time Omar had made this offer, nor the first time Azzam had refused. As much as Omar wanted to treat Azzam like a son, Azzam couldn’t stand the thought of Omar stepping in to arrange a marriage for him like his parents would have if they were still alive. The thought made him sick.
But Omar couldn’t know that. Must not know that. Azzam’s survival relied on Omar’s mistaken belief that Azzam was his devoted, loyal employee and brother in arms.
“Thank you, but no. I am quite happy living as a bachelor. Besides, I work so much I doubt whether I could keep a wife happy, even if you could get one to agree to marry me in the first place.” The lies were easy to tell, less easy to believe. A pang of loneliness throbbed in its usual spot as Azzam allowed himself, just for a moment, to consider what life might be like if he had a wife waiting for him at home.
He imagined homemade meals awaiting him after work, amiable companionship as they walked around Hampstead Heath in the evenings. He did not think that forty was too old to start a family, so he imagined adding to their little family until weekends were filled with football games and picnics, the mornings chaotic and the evenings relaxed.
There he stopped and forced himself to remember the real reason he was single. It was enough to dispel the happy fantasies entirely.
The car headed toward the Thames, then turned down a poorly lit side street lined with grungy warehouses. Glooming shadows swallowed the feeble light of sparse streetlights, turning the car’s headlights into searchlights. Their driver pulled up in front of a one-story warehouse sided by corrugated aluminum, the front of which was painted with a large number faded beyond easy recognition.
“This should only take a minute,” Omar said as he followed Azzam out of the car. Their footsteps crunched against the gravel, both of them stepping lightly so as to avoid scuffing their dress shoes. “Do you remember the deal you were working on three weeks ago?”
Azzam riffled through his memory. “Yes. You wanted me to siphon off one hundred fifty thousand pounds and deposit it by small increments into an offshore Swiss account.”
“That’s the one,” Omar said, prying the warehouse door’s handle up, then sliding the door open. “I thought you might enjoy seeing the fruits of your labor.”
Azzam followed him into a tidy warehouse. As his eyes adjusted to the fluorescent lights, he could see looming stacks of crated materials lining the walkway, each accompanied by travel documents and marked by a serial number. At the end of the walkway was an open space where a dozen men chatted and congregated around a tall, open crate. The men took note of Omar’s arrival by falling into a respectful silence.
Omar approached the crate and rested his fingers against the splintered lip. “Come over here, Azzam. Take a look.”
Azzam approached the crate with reluctance. He was aware of the tang of pine from the boards of the shipping crate, the caged smell of too many men in an enclosed space. He could not make out the contents of the box until he was standing right next to Omar. What he saw was a row of eight large glass cylinders filled with amber liquid nestled in a bed of wood shavings. The fluorescent lights imbued the cylinders with a sullen glow that reflected and magnified his dread.
“What are they?” he asked.
“Ricin. Weaponized ricin,” Omar replied, letting his eyes linger on the cylinders.
“Oh,” Azzam said, quick to quell the dismay that burned like bile in his throat. Omar had shown him their acquisitions before, but he never knew how to react. If he was too enthusiastic, he might overplay his hand. Too unenthusiastic and he risked giving himself away. He strove for middle-ground neutrality despite his horror and it usually served him well. “Ricin. Yes, I see. What will it be used for?”
“A Christian conference in Houston. We have a cell there that’s been working on a way to release this into the air ducts. The infidels will go home with a cough that will, within days, turn into pulmonary edema and death. Clever, don’t you think?”
“Quite.” Azzam felt Omar’s eyes scrutinizing his face.
“You don’t approve?” Omar asked. He sounded hurt.
Azzam’s heart beat faster at the question. “No, no, not that,” he said, anxious to assure Omar that they were of the same mind when it came to murdering innocent people. “I just do not know enough about bioweapons to know whether or not to be excited by this.” He didn’t dare sneak a peek at Omar’s face to see whether he accepted this answer. He kept his face neutral and his eyes trained on the ricin. It was imperative that Omar believe he was a true believer in their cause, even though he’d devoted his life to undermining it.
“I see. Well, know this: This is enough ricin to fatally disable every single person who attends that conference. It’ll be dispersed as a gas. They’ll never even know what’s happening to them.” Omar’s patrician face stretched into a beatific smile, all sharp angles and lines in the poor lighting. “Allah will be so pleased.”
Azzam wanted to spit in his face. “So glad I could help, sir.”
Omar clapped him on the back. “Let’s eat.”
© Erika Mitchell 2013