Authors: Andrew Kaplan
For Anne and Justin,
Who made it happen and made it better
e looks up from his coffee, careful not to make a move that would cause them to kill him. He has sensed a change, a faint electrical hum in the background sounds in the street, and at that moment the streetlights come on.
Normally, it is his favorite time of day. The evening hour after the Maghrib prayer, when the crowds spill out of the mosques and traffic on the al Kornish Road is a river of lights and all Cairo seems to catch its breath after the heat of the day. He is not alone. Sitting next to him at the outdoor table of the cafÃ© is the Placeholder, a mustached Egyptian Secret Serviceman watching him, hand on his unbuttoned gun holster, though they had already frisked him twice for weapons. Three hard-faced Secret Servicemen watch from other tables. By their locations close to the street, he knows that within minutes they will be dead.
He sips the cardamom coffee, the Placeholder watching his every move. This is what he has lived for all these months. Everything magnified, almost too real: the electric blues and reds of scarves in the open-air shops of the Khan al Khalili, the smell of apple-tobacco smoke from the
hubble-bubbles of the older cafÃ© patrons, the breathing of the Placeholder next to him. He looks away as a club-footed street vendor with a wicker tray hobbles around the corner and makes his way toward the cafÃ©. The vendor squats on the cobblestones near the cafÃ©, club foot twisted beneath him, and spreads his
batteries, toothpaste, rubber shower shoes, the odds and ends of everyday life sold on every street corner in Cairo. He calculates the distance from the street vendor to the outer cafÃ© tables with his eyes. It will be close, he thinks. Very close.
The Placeholder tenses beside him as a black Mercedes sedan approaches the cafÃ©. He notices the Placeholder's mustache is trimmed more neatly on the left side of his face than the right. Left-handed;
bad luck for him, he thinks, as the Mercedes pulls up. An aide jumps out of the Mercedes and opens the door for a compact man in a dark suit.
There is a gasp as someone in the cafÃ© recognizes General Budawi, head of the Mabahith Amn al-Dawla al Ulya, State Internal Security Intelligence, said to be the most feared man in Egypt. Whoever gasped had heard the rumors, the whispers at parties or in mosques frequented by government officials, of men and women screaming for months in underground cells. It was said that an imam of the Muslim Brotherhood clawed out his own eyes in madness after only a month in the cells of the Mabahith. He watches as Budawi makes his way between the tables and sits in the chair vacated by the Placeholder, who stands at his elbow. As soon as he sits, a waiter in a striped shirt appears as if out of thin air.
the general orders, not bothering to look at the waiter. He takes in the man next to him. Slender, smooth-skinned, expensive white shirt and tan slacks, a gold Rolex on his wrist. Attractive to women, Budawi thinks, the type you run into at the pool at the Four Seasons on the West Bank of the Nile, surrounded by international models in bikinis while he does business on his cell phone.
“I know this cafÃ©,” Budawi says.
“They say it was a favorite of Mahfouz, the writer.”
“They say that about every cafÃ© in Cairo. If Mahfouz drank coffee in every cafÃ© that claims him, his bladder would have exploded. You have something for me,” Budawi says. It is not a question.
“A demonstration,” he says, keeping his voice neutral, knowing it is being recorded somewhere, to make it more difficult to get a clean voiceprint over the noise of the cafÃ© and the street. “Multiple demonstrations. Something they will not forget,” he adds, starting the sequence he has practiced for weeks. He removes his left loafer and sock with the toes of his right foot, then with the toes of his left foot removes the right loafer and sockâand the scalpel taped with flesh-colored tape to the sole of his right foot.
“Where?” Budawi asks.
Please. “We haven't discussed terms,” he says. He has the scalpel between his toes and raises it to his right hand that he drops casually below the table.
“Three weeks. Perhaps less.” He has the scalpel in his hand, his heart racing.
“I'll need more than that.”
“So will I,” he says, his body tensing for the shock wave, ready to dive to the ground, thinking,
“The two Brothers.”
“Indeed?” The general puts an American cigarette to his lips, which the Placeholder leans over to light. “Those particular Muslim Brothers are assassins. Why should I release them?”
“The Americans and their allies will owe you a debt,” he says, his hand tight on the scalpel.
Inshallah! Inshallah! God willing! Do it!
With a kind of relief, he sees the club-footed vendor turn to look at them, mouthing
The general sees it too and starts to get up, the Placeholder reaching for his holster, but it is too late, the explosion deafening in the narrow street.
The shock wave, scorching hot and far more powerful than he had imagined, smashes them with incredible force, flinging them aside. Chairs, debris, fragments of metal and bits of human flesh and body parts fly past as he dives to the ground, burying the scalpel in the general's groin. The general screams once as he slices diagonally, cutting the femoral artery, bright spurts of blood instantly soaking the general's trousers.
Stunned, the general struggles to get up, but his strength is draining too quickly and he falls back, legs twitching feebly on the pavement. For an instant everything is silent, except for the thudding of dust and debris still raining down, and then the screams begin, though he can barely hear them, his ears ringing from the explosion.
He whirls to face the Placeholder, who is dazed and struggling to get his gun out of the holster. He kicks hard at the inside of the Placeholder's knee, and as the man starts to go down, slashes the scalpel across his throat in a single swipe. The Placeholder tries to speak, but only a bloody gurgle comes out as he topples over, his eyes not believing what has happened in just seconds as he falls to the ground.
Bending down beside the overturned table to retrieve his socks and shoes, he hears screams and the sound of people running. Straightening, he sees an elderly
smoker, face covered with soot and blood, staring at him with wide, stunned eyes. He nods at the smoker, gesturing,
everything is okay. He wipes his bloody hand on the general's jacket and stoops to put on his socks and shoes, slippery with blood. He knows he has only seconds before the police arrive as he wipes his hands again with the general's jacket and retrieves the Placeholder's gun from the ground.
he tells himself, not looking at the
smoker as he makes his way to the street through the debris, the overturned tables and body parts. In the distance he hears the horns of police sirens and fire trucks blaring as they approach. He glances down at the
seller, but there is little left, only parts of his legs, scorched beyond recognition. He catches a glimpse of the first police sedan coming into the street as he ducks into the souk and turns down a narrow passageway he reconnoitered three days earlier. Inside the passageway, vendors and passersby have turned to stare in the direction of the blast and the sounds of the police sirens. He stops by a water vendor under an awning. The vendor looks at him wide-eyed, and he realizes there must be blood on his face and clothes.
“What has happened,
?” the vendor asks.
“A terrorist attack. My hands,
he says, holding his hands out. The vendor pours water over them and hands him a towel, which he uses to wipe some of the blood and dirt from his hands and face.
“You are hurt,
He shakes his head and washes again.
the vendor says. Thanks to God. “Is it the Brotherhood?”
“Who can say?” he replies, handing the vendor twenty Egyptian pounds and keeping the towel.
May Allah be with you,” the vendor says.
“And you,” he replies, already moving. He turns the corner into a narrow lane and enters a small men's clothing shop, light from the shop spilling into the street. The owner is of the Brotherhood and immediately motions him to the back, drawing a curtain to shield them from the street. He strips off his shirt and shoes, and the owner brings him a