Read ARAB Online

Authors: Jim Ingraham

ARAB

ARAB endorsements

A reader’s response to EVIDENCE OF EVIL: “Jim. I just finished the novel Evidence.... It is by far my favorite of all. I started it yesterday and couldn’t stop until I had to go to bed last night. I just finished it up now.... Loved it.” –Jan Cargill.

A famous writer’s response to my novel REMAINS TO BE SEEN: “an intelligent superbly written mystery by a master craftsman.” –Jan Burke, author of the Irene Kelly series of mystery novels.

Another famous author called REMAINS TO BE SEEN “a terrific read.”—Jeremiah Healy, author of Turnabout and The Only Good Lawyer.

ARAB is the story of a young Palestinian aircraft mechanic, Bashir Yassin, whose life is threatened by the ambitions of the American CIA , the Egyptian secret police (
muccabarat
), and a subversive group called the Islamic Legion. He is believed to be involved in activities harmful to Egypt and the West. The story unfolds a year before the upheaval that drove President Mubarak from power.

An American marine, Lt. Colonel Nick Palermo, is sent to Cairo from Afghanistan by request of an FBI field officer who wants to capture the elusive Bashir and extract information from him. Nick is chosen for the job because he speaks Arabic, has lived in Cairo, and is a personal friend of Aziz al-Khalid, special assistant to the Egyptian Minister of Interior whose influence can allow Nick to prowl the city streets with impunity. To obtain Aziz’s help, Nick is not permitted to tell him the true nature of his mission.

 

This book is for Slim, Pete, and Stefanie

Publication by CascoBay Books

No character in ARAB is based upon a real person, living or dead.

Cover designed by S. R. Walker Designs

 

ARAB

 

by

 

Jim Ingraham

 
 

Chapter One

 

Dateline: Cairo, Egypt, a few months before the upheaval that drove President Mubarak from power.

Nick dropped American money on the bar and followed his friend Habib Rahal outside to the street. They drove south in Nick’s pickup to a filthy alley not far from the Citadel.

He fetched two Rami CZ75s —small subcompact pistols, easy to conceal—from beneath the driver’s seat of his rented truck and handed one to Habib and followed the former Saharawi soldier into a narrow opening between two crumbling buildings in this old section of Cairo. Light from an upstairs window dimly illuminated the alley ahead of them. In the distance young men were arguing outside a café. Nick studied the pebbled clay at his feet and wondered how many thousands of footsteps had hardened the soil like this, what relics of ancient life existed under these old buildings. He raised the lapel of his jacket in a hopeless effort to ward off the putrid odors of decay that filled the passageway.

Habib’s low voice came out of the darkness. “This way.”

Nick tapped the back of his hand along the gritty wall and stepped into the opening where thin lines of light outlined a doorway. When Habib yanked open the door into a flood of light, Nick rushed past him into the small room and waved his subcompact at five bearded men staring terrified from around a table.

“I want Shkaki,” he said, watching Habib grab a man’s hair, pull his head back and tap his Adam’s apple with the muzzle of his gun. Habib was a husky man in his early fifties wearing snug-fitting glasses with a blackened right lens. He had lost the eye in a street fight protecting the president’s wife. For that act of valor, he had been granted citizenship and given an appointment to the Cairo city police, from which he was now retired.

“Point to Mohammed Shkaki,” he said, “or you’ll never speak another word.”

He tapped the gun on the bottom lip of the man’s gaping mouth.

“Don’t hurt him,” the one nearest Nick said. “I’m Mohammed Shkaki,” drawing his legs under him, ready to leap but stopped by the gun Nick pressed into his cheekbone.

Habib let go of the man’s hair, leaned across him and picked a sharpened box cutter off the table. “Put your hands behind your heads!” None of them except the one called Shkaki looked older than twenty. Shkaki appeared to be in his fifties.

Nick yanked Shkaki half out of the chair, knocking the chair clattering to the floor, the man stumbling over it as Nick slammed him against the wall.

“Put your hands up!”

With smoldering hatred, Shkaki slowly raised his hands.
You have shamed me
in front of my men
burned in his eyes.

He had a length of beard and thick dark hair, possibly dyed, crowding a bulging forehead. According to Habib’s intelligence, he had come into Egypt with Arab men from Afghanistan and was part of a group organizing the
mujahideen
who were being sneaked into Egypt from Sudan, so-called holy warriors causing sabotage and street riots, all in an effort to embarrass and eventually unseat the president. It was believed they had a hand in the Sinai bombing in Sharm el-Sheik.

“Get on the floor, face down,” Habib told them.

Nick turned Shkaki to the wall, patted him down and found a knife taped to his thigh. Habib strode across the floor and, using the box cutter, slashed fabric down the man’s leg, ripped out the knife and Velcro scabbard and handed the knife and scabbard to Nick.

When one of the men rose off the floor, Habib back-handed him in the face, knocking him to his knees. He kicked him, kicked him again, and the man crawled whimpering back to the group crowded against the wall. Habib leaned over him and held the box cutter to his throat.

“Why did you have this?”

“We were learning,” the man said, cowering from the blade.

“Learning what, how to murder children? You believe what this coward tells you? You want to be a murderer?”

“Don’t cut me…please.”

Drawing the blade back from the man’s skin, Habib scratched a fingernail across the man’s throat. “Would you like to die like this?”

“I don’t want to die.”

“You just want to kill,” Habib said. “You think killing people will get you to paradise, you fool?”`

He glanced at Nick whose mouth was inches from Shkaki’s face. In near flawless Arabic, Nick asked, “You made a phone call to a man named Bashir.”

“What phone call? There’s no phone call.”

“You made the call this afternoon from a public phone on Shari al-Gamaliyyah. What was the reason for the call?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“He won’t talk in front of these men,” Habib said, sarcastically adding, “He’s their hero.” He turned to the men on the floor, “He’s no hero! He’s a coward! He fills you with lies! Do you think he would strap bombs around his belly and blow himself up? Never! He gets fools like you to do it. What does he promise you, virgins? You believe those lies?”

Nick had manacled Shkaki’s hands behind his back and was pushing him toward the open doorway while Habib was taking down names and addresses of the other men.

“You are now on our list,” Nick heard Habib say. “You are lucky we’re letting you go. You will never see this man again. What happens to him will happen to you if you’re caught doing what this foreigner wants you to do. You will go home and get a job and live a decent life. But stay in this room until we are gone.”

They chained Shkaki to the bed of the pickup, draped a canvas over him and drove south to a small army outpost at the edge of the desert in Helwan, an industrialized suburb south of Cairo. As they entered the headquarters building, the desk officer waved them through without comment, barely glancing at them, didn’t want to see their faces, didn’t want ever to testify that he recognized them.

They brought Shkaki into a conference room and closed the door. Habib told him to sit down. Nick sat across from him at a small table.

“We know who you are,” Nick said. “We know you’re in this country illegally. We know you’re with the Sudanese
mujahideen.

Shkaki stared at the wall, his mouth clamped shut. He had acquired that cold, dead-panned look Nick had seen on many faces in Afghanistan, a soldier-of-fortune affectation intended to convey deadly hatred.

“We know a lot about you, Mr. Shkaki,” Nick said. “You were born in Libya. You lived for a while in the north of Italy. You fought against the Serbs in Bosnia and made a big impression on a man named Hamzah who brought you and several others to Peshawar in Pakistan where you were trained in military tactics. You spent a year in a training camp with the so-called al-Quds forces in Saadabad in Iran. You were transferred to Kartoum and started smuggling soldiers into this country. We know all about you. So let’s not pretend. You’re going to prison. Maybe your life will be spared if you cooperate. If you refuse, you will be hanged.”

“I did none of those things,” Shkaki said. “You have the wrong man. I work at the cotton mill. I teach religion and pride.”

“With a box cutter,” Habib said.

It was the superintendent of the mill who had identified Shkaki to the police.

Getting a nod from Nick, Habib pushed his chair back, got up and went to the door. In a few minutes two uniformed military police came in and brought Shkaki to a holding cell at the back of the building. Nick and Habib walked down the long corridor to a windowless room where Shkaki sat behind bars on the edge of a cot, bent forward as though in prayer, his face in his hands. The room smelled of old men.

Shkaki raised his head.

“Your case will be brought before a very conservative judge, more than likely,” Nick said. “There are many conservative judges and the one you get might be sympathetic to a man devoted to the struggle. He won’t free you from imprisonment, but he might spare your life. Don’t fool yourself into thinking he would enter a conspiracy with you. He won’t ignore the severity of your crime even if he’s sympathetic to your cause.”

“What crime? What have I done?”

“We’ll get to that,” Nick said. The room was not air-conditioned. Nick could feel sweat running over his ribs from his armpits. “You would have to tell him the truth, tell him your real name and the names of your associates. You’d have to confess to your crimes and submit to the authority of the state, now, not when you’re in court, not as a sudden act of contrition. You lie to me and you’ll be branded a liar and receive no mercy from the court. They’ll hang you.”

“You accuse me of being a religious fanatic, but you ask me to cooperate with infidels,” Shkaki said, “knowing that my religion prohibits that.”

“I’ve never used the expression ‘religious fanatic.’ That you attribute your actions to religion is an abomination.”

“It is ordained by Allah!”

“And that is a vile apostasy.”

Years ago while a student at the American University here in Cairo, Nick had spent endless nights arguing with Islamist radicals and had learned that their heads were like granite. They had locked themselves into a prison of dogma, refusing to entertain any thoughts alien to what had been indelibly stamped on their brains. Beneath the rhetoric, the posturing, the self-righteous piety was a threshold of fear that signified an absence of faith in the mercy of the god they prayed to.

“Why did you call Uthman al-Ajami? What is your connection to him?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m a mill worker. That’s all I am.”

“And you entered this country illegally. Is Shkaki your real name?”

“It’s what I am called.”

“You were asking about Bashir Yassin. Why did you want with him?”

“I don’t know anyone by that name.”

Nick studied the stubborn defiance spread over the man’s face. “Bashir Yassin is a technician at Cairo airport. He is also a licensed pilot. He recently came back to this country from Brazil. You were overheard asking this Uthman al-Ajami how to find him. Why should Uthman know where Bashir might be?”

Shkaki regarded Nick with smoldering contempt. To him Nick was not only a foreigner; he was an unbeliever, an infidel. He would tell him nothing.

“We’re wasting time,” Habib said. “He didn’t locate Bashir. So let the police have him.”

Nick went with Habib to the front of the station and told the duty officer, “The prisoner is not to be fed or given anything to drink and no one is to visit him. The police will come and pick him up. You know that ‘no one’ means exactly that.”

“I know.”

“And you don’t know what I or my friend look like.”

“I’ve never seen either of you.”

“And your men have not seen us.”

“I will make sure of that,” the officer said.

Outside in the car, Nick said, “Do we notify Yousef Qantara?”

“Let me talk to Aziz first. Are there insurgents here in this camp?”

Habib gave that a grim smile. “Are there stars in the sky?”

Outside, driving north to Cairo, Habib asked “How well did His Excellency’s daughter know Bashir?”

“Only as a classmate at the university in Alexandria. I don’t think they were friends. Your friend, Captain Rashid Huzayfi … Is that right?”

“Yes. Special Forces, Cairo Police. He said the investigation of Bashir Yassin was only routine.”

“Not conducted by his group, is it?”

“No, the city police have no interest in Bashir Yassin. It’s the
muccabarat.

“And it’s just routine?”

“That’s what they say. Who knows?”

True. They were the Egyptian secret police. Who knows what they are up to?

“What can he tell us about this Uthman?” Nick asked.

“Only what I told you. He’s an informant. He relays street talk for members of the People’s Assembly. He has friends in high places. Questioning him would be risky.”

Nick smiled. “You’re getting to know me pretty well.”

“I’m a cop, and I know you want to keep what you’re doing off the front pages.”

“How much does Captain Huzayfi know about why I’m here?”

“Only that you’re looking for Bashir Yassin.”

“Is he himself looking for Bashir?”

“He was. Not now.”

“And what does he know about me?”

“He knows you’re a friend of His Excellency. He’s very loyal. He wouldn’t look beyond that. Maybe he thinks you’re here to protect his Excellency’s daughter.”

“He must wonder why I’m still here, since she’s gone to America.”

“I know only what he told me.”

As they drove into the Garden City district of Cairo, Nick said, “Is it too late, or do you want me to drop you off at that café?”

“The woman will be there,” Habib said.

“You’ll stay at her place?”

“If she’s in the mood.”

“Isn’t all that love-making tough on your heart?”

Habib extended a long questioning look. “You worried about my heart?”

“You were given an early retirement because of it.”

“I’m fine. Those doctors. What do they know?”

“More than you and I, that’s for sure.”

“I’ll live until I die,” Habib said, and switched to a different subject. “How do you remember all those details Rashid Huzayfi told us about Shkaki?”

“I don’t know,” Nick said. “It just sticks. Did you ever wonder how a concert pianist remembers every note of a concerto?”

“What’s a concerto?”

Nick laughed and slapped his friend’s knee. After dropping Habib off, Nick took the 15
th
of May bridge to Zamalek, showed ID to the guard at the gate and to the uniformed guard at the elevator of the high rise and went up to the Special Assistant’s apartment. A security guard let him in.

“I must hold the gun.”

Nick handed him the small pistol.

“This is like a toy,” the guard said.

“But it stings like an asp.”

*

 

Standing in the doorway to the library, Nick watched Aziz place a small card into the book he had been reading, patting the book as though thanking a friend. He admired the spine for a moment, then got up to replace the book on a shelf among thousands of volumes that hid the walls of his study. Although he had been back in government for more than three years, Aziz Al-Khalid was still at heart a college professor and scholar.

Other books

Anybody Shining by Frances O'Roark Dowell
Strip by Thomas Perry
Running on Empty by Roger Barry
Forget to Remember by Alan Cook
Lady Bess by Claudy Conn
Relic (The Books of Eva I) by Terrell, Heather
Playing Hooky (Teach Me Tonight) by Rede, Lily, Gaudet, Jane
Oodles of Poodles by Linda O. Johnston