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Photo of the Eiffel Tower taken by Michal Osmenda on April 9, 2009 and posted on Wikimedia by contributor Flickr, downloaded at:
by the author on October 22, 2016 (CC BY 2.0)
Photo Photoshopped by the author.
Being firmly convinced that there is in fact such a thing as writer’s block, I fell into an extended period of inactivity after completing my seventh novel. Alas, even writer’s block could not curtail the all-pervasive urge, no – addiction – to once again put pen to paper. What was wanted was that fundamental necessity – a daunting yet all-consuming storyline – one that would ultimately tug me back to my pen and paper. And so it was that during a visit to my beloved part-time hometown of Paris, the idea for this, my eighth novel, took me by storm while gazing from my window overlooking the Place du Pantheon. Five of my previous novels are loosely linked into what I term The Sutherland Saga, and while they were quite facile compared to the previous two, their proximity to my heartstrings has endured and even grown with the passage of time.
And so it came to me that my eighth novel should continue to carry the torch lit within me by those five novels, each portraying a generation within the twentieth century. While the story that unfolds herein is connected to the Sutherland Saga, it is more properly a sequel to my last novel – My Father the God. As such, it bears an autobiographical streak within, though admittedly it is a far cry from the reality of my own existence. Nonetheless, I have drawn heavily on my own experiences, gained from a lifetime of travel to the four corners of the earth, to conceive of and develop this story, the first of mine to advance right up to present day. And so, dear reader, with this brief preamble, I wish you a joyous and enlightening perusal of Merging Destiny, the sixth and final episode in the Sutherland Saga.
The reader will notice that throughout the text I have delineated sections by the use of boldface titles. Each title normally describes the setting location and date for the section that immediately follows. However, when only a date is included, it is implied that the location for that section is identical to that of the previous section. Furthermore, each section begins with a few boldface words immediately after the section setting. The name of the first person included in boldface within the section is usually intended to be the person whose perspective is taken within that section of the text.
Vernacular Word Identifier
Behin’ – Scottish for ‘behind’
Blooter’d – Scottish for ‘drunk’
Brammer – Scottish for ‘lovely’
Burka – A traditional enveloping outergarment worn by Islamic women
Ça ne fait rien – French for ‘it doesn’t matter’
Coup de grace – French for ‘knockout’
Déshabillé – French for ‘undressed’
Fou – French for ‘crazy’
Haggis – a Scottish dish made from a pig’s bladder
Hijab – A traditional headscarf worn by a Muslim female
I dinna kin – Scottish for ‘I don’t know’
Mince – Scottish for ‘stuff’
Pish – Scottish for ‘nonsense’
Radge – Scottish for ‘insane’
Shemagh – A traditional headscarf worn by a Saudi male
Stoatin – Scottish for ‘great’
Tête à tête – French for ‘head-to-head’
1615 – Alan Sutherland is appointed the first Earl of Winston by King James I of England.
1883 – William Sutherland becomes the Twelfth Earl of Winston.
1893 – Robert Sutherland is born in Gloucestershire, England.
1894 – Alastair Stewart is born in Aberdeen, Scotland.
1897 – Edwina Turnberry is born in York, England.
July 28, 1914 – The Great War begins.
1917 – Trant Sutherland is born in London.
November 11, 1918 – The German Armistice is signed at Compiègne, thereby ending The Great War.
1919 – Alastair Stewart and Edwina Turnberry are married.
1919 – Felicité Delacroix is born in Italy, but moves to France when her mother dies shortly thereafter.
1920 – Robert Sutherland becomes the Thirteenth Earl of Winston on the death of his father, Lord William Sutherland.
1920 – James Moorehead is born in Concord, New Hampshire.
1921 – Sloan Stewart is born in Edinburgh, Scotland to Alastair and Edwina Stewart.
1922 – Isolde Channing is born in Cardiff, Wales.
1923 – Sabrina Dewhurst is born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
September 1, 1939 – World War II begins.
1942 – Robert Moorehead is born in Boston, Massachusetts to James and Isolde Moorehead.
September 2, 1945 – World War II ends.
1946 – Trant Sutherland and Felicité Delacroix are married.
1946 – Sloan Stewart and Sabrina Dewhurst are married.
1947 – Elise Stewart is born in Boston, Massachusetts to Sloan and Sabrina Stewart.
1947 – Trevor Sutherland is born in England to Trant and Felicité Sutherland.
1965 – Trant Sutherland becomes the fourteenth Earl of Winston on the death of his
father Robert Sutherland.
1965 – The U.S. becomes involved in the Vietnam War.
1968 – Elise Stewart marries Robert Moorehead in Boston, Massachusetts.
1969 – Alastair Stewart passes away.
1970 – Connor Stuart is born in Edinburgh, Scotland.
1971 – Brandt MacCauley is born in Scotland.
1971 – Anna Morton is born in Cairo, Egypt.
1971 – Farhan Rahman is born in Asyut, Egypt.
1972 – Edwina Turnberry passes away.
1973 – The Vietnam War ends.
1973 – Elspeth Moorehead is born in Boston, Massachusetts.
1977 – Patience Walker is born in Lincoln, Nebraska.
September 22, 1980 – Iraq invades Iran.
1986 – Trevor Sutherland becomes the fifteenth Earl of Winston upon the passing of his
father, Trant Sutherland.
August, 1988 – Al Qaeda is founded by Osama bin Laden and others.
August 20, 1988 – The war between Iraq and Iran ends.
December 22, 1988 – Pan American Flight 103 crashes in Lockerbie, Scotland.
August 2, 1990 – The First Gulf War begins.
February 28, 1991 – The First Gulf War ends.
February 26, 1993 – The first World Trade Center bombing occurs.
February 17, 1997 – The Lido Hotel in Las Vegas is bombed by terrorists.
August 7, 1998 – The U.S. Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania are bombed by terrorists.
2001 – Libyan National Abdelbaset al-Megrahi is convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the Lockerbie bombing.
September 11, 2001 – The World Trade Center is attacked by terrorist members of Al Qaeda. The Second Gulf War begins.
2003 – Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi agrees to pay $2B in reparations for the Lockerbie bombing.
March 20, 2003 – The U.S. led coalition invades Iraq.
December 13, 2003 – President of Iraq Saddam Hussein is captured by opposing forces.
December 30, 2006 – Saddam Hussein is executed for crimes against humanity.
May 2, 2011 – Osama bin Laden is shot and killed by U.S. Military and CIA in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
October 20, 2011 – Muammar Gaddafi is killed by Libyan NTC militants during the Libyan Civil War.
2012 – Brandt MacCauley and Patience Walker are married in Castiglion Fiorentino, Italy.
2014 – Brandt MacCauley becomes the sixteenth Earl of Winston upon the passing of the fifteenth Earl, Trevor Sutherland.
Fig. 1 Map Showing Gloucestershire
They were quite good parents, really they were, despite the horrendous secret they kept from me. My mother was inclined to scold me perhaps a bit too much, but I’m sure her intentions were well-founded. You see, she felt a deep-seated need to be better than even she could be and, as I now know, it was all because of the secret she was forced to harbor from me. Eventually it all was bound to unravel, as indeed it did, but I suppose that she pushed it away into the recesses of her consciousness in a desperate attempt to make out that it wasn’t reality. And, although I thought rather unkindly of the both of them when it all came out, in truth it wasn’t really their fault at all. So there it is and has remained all these years, and when you have been apprised of all the facts, you shall understand why it lay at the heart of all that subsequently transpired.
In reading back over what I’ve just written, I suddenly realize that it all must sound rather mysterious, and the truth is – I suppose it actually is – or at least – it was to me. So perhaps I should explain how it all came to pass. But please don’t ask me if it has a happy ending because, you see, I’ve no idea for the simple reason that it hasn’t yet come to an end. Alas, perhaps the best approach would be for me to simply start from the beginning and somehow muddle through the telling of it. Tis complicated, you know, but I shall do my best to keep it as simple and straightforward as possible.
Alas, where to begin…in the interest of brevity I shall dispense with all the details regarding the family roots, as they are after all a matter of public record. Suffice it to say that somewhere back a few hundred years ago we Stewarts were Scottish royalty, which isn’t saying much since the Scots were at that time a quite poor and oppressed lot. My forebears matriculated to the United States, and in due course I was born in Boston in 1973. My father was an academic, and with the advent of worldwide commercial aviation, his international acclaim sent him to far-flung destinations across the globe. I was on quite a few occasions the lucky beneficiary of his renown, meaning that my parents took me along with them on their travels.
There were in fact quite enough sojourns that by the age of ten I was a seasoned world traveler. And it was on one of our trips that very year that my mother took me on a day trip that, although I didn’t know it at the time, was to set the stage for the details I am about to reveal to you. You see, my father was invited to give a speech at a conference in Paris. And while the conference was underway, my mom and I were the fortunate beneficiaries of an unfettered access to the entire city. Thus it was that one languid afternoon she took me to the Eiffel Tower. We grabbed a couple of hotdogs, picnicked on the Champ de Mars and, as we gazed idly at the enormous tower before us, she held up one hand and traced an imaginary arc along one leg of the structure.
“See the arc that it makes?” she suggested.
Observing her motion, I blabbed in baffled confusion, “Yes, but what is the point in that?”
She smiled and responded sagely, “It’s a bit like life, I suppose – it all eventually comes to a single converging point.”
Peering at the enormous panorama before me, I suddenly realized what she meant – there were four separate structures, each on its own gigantic pillar, and somehow Monsieur Gustav Eiffel had made them come together in a single majestic colonnade at the pinnacle of the tower. “My goodness, I’ve never thought of it that way,” I blurted vacuously, “Why do you suppose it was built that way, Mom?”
“According to Monsieur Eiffel,” she replied perceptively, “It had to do with the Earth’s gravity.”
“Wow!” I exclaimed, “That’s amazing! It all came together in such a fantastically harmonious way!”
“Yes, didn’t it,” she agreed, “It’s sort of like our family.”
“Huh?” I uttered, “What do you mean?”
“Oh, nothing dear,” she continued, “It’s just that, it seems to be multiple structures at the base, but in reality, they all come together in a single interconnected structure, a single connected tower with common roots. They are in truth exactly like the roots of our own family tree.”
“Yeah, I see what you mean,” I responded, but I really didn’t. Still, for some reason that day – and that conversation in particular – remained tucked away in the dark recesses of my subconscious, awaiting just the right stimulus to re-emerge half a lifetime later.
So now, having described my preamble to its completion, I hope that I have sufficiently stimulated your interest for the story that follows – the story of my discovery of my own destiny, or in point of fact – of Merging Destiny.
Agony Sets the Stage
The Egyptian Desert – June, 1970
The sun scorched the parched terrain, beating relentlessly down from its seemingly motionless station high above the desert. As far as the eye could see, not a single identifiable feature sprang from the tormented wasteland. Here and there the sand dunes, blown about by the sporadic desert winds, formed into randomly shaped mounds, some small, others enormous in both breadth and stature.
Along the crest of the most prominent knoll two human forms came into focus, their prone figures unfathomable in the stifling heat of late afternoon. From the peak of the ridge Mustaffa peered at the seemingly inert tiny speck in the distance, heat waves dancing implacably before his field of view.
Gazing patiently at the object for quite some time, his traveling companion at length murmured in Arabic beneath his kaftan, “Do you think he’s still alive?”
His attention remaining intent on the distant object, Mustaffa responded distractedly, “Not sure…”
“Maybe we should leave him,” his companion retorted, “After all, he already paid us.”
“No, Eissa, we must go see if he is still alive.”
“Well, for one thing – although it’s doubtful – he may have more money. For another – if by some chance he is indeed still alive – he may actually be of further use to us.”
“Oh? In what way?” Eissa responded, “If he has no money, he is surely of no use whatsoever.”
“Perhaps, perhaps not. But if he somehow survives, we can at the very least sell him as a slave.”
“Oh, right – I see your point. Then we may as well go check him out,” and with that the pair arose and carefully made their way down the shifting embankment.
Minutes later they came up beside the naked man lying face down and motionless. But to their surprise, he suddenly rolled over and gazed bleakly upwards at them.
Whereas Eissa lurched backwards in astonishment, Mustaffa strode alongside his prone body and announced nonchalantly, “I can’t believe you’re still alive, after all that son-of-a-bitch put you through.”
“Water!” the sun-scorched body before him gasped, and then, “Please, water!”
Mustaffa reached within his kaftan and produced a goat skin. Leaning forward with it in his outstretched hand, he suggested, “Here, but go slow, you’re in really bad shape.”
The man raised himself to a sitting position with supreme effort and, reaching for the flagon, he took a long drag from within. He then drew his hand to his face and, glancing about in confusion, he inquired, “Where did he go? We have to go after him!”
“Not so fast,” Mustaffa responded. “Why did he leave, and how did you get him to leave you, anyway?”
“I slowed my breathing way down. I had to, I was done in, and he was still going strong. I figured if I could get him to think I was dead, he’d wander off so that the two of you could save me – in accordance with my backup plan. So now we go after him and kill him!”
“I don’t think so,” Mustaffa announced dryly.
“What! I paid you, you bastard. You must live up to the bargain!”
“What bargain? We agreed only to follow you and save you if you didn’t outlast him. And here we are. Having saved your worthless life, we’ve most assuredly met our part of the bargain.”
“Damn!” the prone man murmured in distraught acceptance, “Alright then, I’ll pay you more to go after him with me.”
“With what, anyone can see you have nothing of value.”
Attempting to stand up, he mumbled in denial, “I have more! Lots more…I swear it!”
“Where?” Mustaffa blurted disinterestedly.
“In the bank, in Switzerland!”
“Switzerland!” Mustaffa exclaimed in disgust, “Lot of good that will do you out here in the desert. Besides, we’re not interested in killing people, even way out here in the middle of nowhere.”
Tumbling back down upon his back, the prone man grimaced and asked in tortured misery, “Well then, what?”
“We’ll wait until dark, and then we’re going to Libya.”
“Libya!” he complained, “We’ll never make it that far!”
“Oh, yes we will,” Mustaffa observed serenely, “Because there is an oasis with camels not ten miles west of here. So rest up, my friend, because you’re going with us to Libya.”
Boston, Massachusetts – December 22, 1988
For Elspeth it was a day like any other at Christmas time, the approaching winter a harbinger of that time of year when thoughts turned inward, when physical activity tends to be replaced by mental creativity, at least until the chill wears off in the springtime. Elspeth wished she could have been with her parents on the trip to Munich, but on this occasion she’d had to stay behind, the importance of her schoolwork taking precedence.
At fifteen, she was well into that stressful phase of life when puberty has already intruded, and the threat of college lies but a scant few years in the future. On this particular day Elspeth was up early, hurriedly preparing for school.
“Elspeth, are you up?” she heard a voice call from downstairs.
“Yes, Gran,” she called in return, “I’m almost ready. I’ll be down in a minute.”
Moments later she bounded into the kitchen, her bright red tresses bouncily betraying her bubbly demeanor.
“My, don’t we look gorgeous today,” her grandmother observed from her station at the stove. “I swear, you’re going to break a lot of hearts someday, Elspeth.”
Blushing in embarrassment, Elspeth replied pleasantly, “I certainly hope so, Gran, but not yet. I’m really not ready for that, you know.”
“Right, all in good time, my dear. At this moment, the important issue is breakfast. How about a couple of eggs and some toast, my dear?”
“Alright, have a seat, El. I’ll be done in a minute…” but at that moment the telephone rang.
Grabbing the receiver from the wall, Gran blurted, “Hello?”
Although Elspeth discerned a voice on the other end, she couldn’t quite make out the gist of the conversation. But what she could observe was a perplexing look on Gran’s face as, responding to the initial intrusion, she replied, “Why yes, I’m her mother. They’re on travel, in Europe. So I’m afraid she’s not here at the moment.”
Then, the mystifying look fading from her grandmother’s face, Elspeth watched as it changed first to confusion, then what could only be described as denial, and then she suddenly spat into the phone, “But that’s impossible, they’re not in Frankfurt. They’re in Munich!”
And then the voice responded with more unintelligible gibberish, followed by Gran’s anguished retort, “You’re sure? Are you absolutely certain?” And then, before her eyes, Elspeth watched her sink slowly to the floor, an anguished cry escaping her lips as she did so.
Rushing to her side, Elspeth cried in confusion, “What is it, Gran? What’s happened?”
“Oh, God, hold me, Elspeth…hold me,” and reaching for Elspeth as she lunged to her side, she muttered, “Oh, God, Elspeth, they’re gone!”
“What? Who’s gone, Gran?”
“Your parents, El, they’ve been killed in a plane crash! Oh, my God, they’re dead!”
And as she heard the words crushing the spirit from her, Elspeth realized that her world would never be the same.
Boston – May, 1989
Elspeth had somehow survived the preceding months – indeed the entire winter – but it had been unending misery. Ever since that fateful day, the day of the Lockerbie bombing, her life had been like a nightmare from which she couldn’t seem to awaken. At first it had seemed that her parents had perished in an accidental crash of Pan Am flight 103 over the small Scottish town of Lockerbie in route from Frankurt to New York. But within days it had become apparent from the wreckage scattered over a fifty-mile area that the aircraft had been brought down by a bomb aboard the plane.
This revelation had been followed shortly thereafter by accusations from Washington that the plane had been bombed by terrorists, perhaps from Iraq or Iran, where a long war had recently come to an end. Still later, Libya had been accused of taking part in the bombing. And throughout the entire nightmare, no identifiable piece of Elspeth’s parents’ remains had ever been found. They had simply been blown to bits by the bomb that had torn through the aircraft, two of the passengers that had never even been identified.
The resulting funeral service had been extremely dismaying, with Elspeth’s grandmother Sabrina beyond despair throughout the terrible ordeal. Being herself entirely new to such events, Elspeth had only managed to survive by convincing herself that it was all somehow nothing more than a horrid movie, a fictional account of the life of someone other than herself.
But eventually, Elspeth had begun to allow herself to face reality, a somber awakening that she would never again have the pleasure of her father’s warm and encasing embrace – the memory of that uniquely reassuring scent of Robert Moorehead already slowly disappearing from her consciousness. And the stern look from her mother whenever she had done wrong – oh how she would have loved to see that frown just one more time. It was all too much for a girl of fifteen. Alas, time became her only ally. And with the passage of time, she became ever more introverted, social distance her sole weapon against the recurrence of such a numbing event ever again encroaching on her existence.
Elspeth eventually promised herself that she would survive, somehow she would put it all behind her in time, but she vowed also to in some way grow, perhaps even contribute, to a world in which such unimaginable events could occur. And in her darkest moments she pledged to herself that she would somehow, someday, gain retribution on behalf of her now deceased parents.
Edinburgh, Scotland – January, 1991
Connor bounded into the parlor of the tiny apartment in his inimitable way, always carefree, never at a loss for effervescence, in the process barging directly into his unwary mother.
“Connor!” she erupted, “Sure noow that’s noo way ta be carryin’ aboot fer a lad of nineteen. The time has coom fer yoo ta be actin’ yer age!”
“Och, aye, ma, boot it sech a brammer day fer winter, ya kin.”
“I dinna kin lad, boot Ah’ve some news fer ya. Soo be settin’ yerself doon and listen tae yer ma noow.”
“Och, awl reet,” and with that Connor flopped into a chair at the kitchen table.
Her face now beaming with pride, she tousled his hair in that way she adored so much and announced, “The news has coom taday, Connor, my son – ye’ve been admitted tae Hanford University in Boston, Massachusetts of the United States of America. Soo coom September, ye’ll be oof tae Boston, I reckon!”
“Och, whit’s this pish, ma! Ah’ve true ben admitted tae sech a fine school as Hanford?”
“Connor, me boy, ye’ve made the Stuart clan moost prood, fer tis all true tae me word, every bit ay it!”
“Stoatin’!” he exclaimed, and with that he burst from his chair and grabbed his mother in a mighty hug, their shared embrace evolving quite naturally into a gaudy reel of no design whatsoever.
Cairo, Egypt – February, 1991
Anna was, as usual, studying for an exam, her uncannily pale blue eyes affixed to the textbook, when her mother opened the door to her bedroom. Glancing up from her work in irritation, Anna murmured distractedly in Arabic, “What is it, mother? I’m studying.”
“I know, Anna, but this is important.”
“Yes, mother,” she responded impatiently as she placed her pencil on the desk, “What is it?”
“Your uncle Alexander – you know, the one I told you about – it seems that he has offered to pay for your college education.”
“What! Really? That’s wonderful!” Anna stammered in disbelief.
“Yes, well, there is a catch,” her mother responded.
“Oh? And what might that be?”
“It seems he wants you to go to the United States for your studies,” her mother responded in apparent dismay.
“Wow! That would be awesome!” Anna rejoined excitedly, “Where exactly does he want me to go?”
“To a place called Hanford University. I believe it is in Boston.”
“Really! I know all about Hanford, mother. Tis one of the most famous universities in the whole world! But isn’t it terribly expensive?”
“I’ve no idea, Anna, but your uncle insists. And as we are poor, and there are no other options, I am quite certain we have little choice in the matter.”
“Choice? Choice! Are you kidding me? I’m ready to go this very minute! But first I have to apply and be admitted.”
“Yes, well, it seems that he has already done that for you. And not only have you been admitted, he has already secured your student visa. So it appears that, barring some unforeseen circumstance, you shall be off to America in the fall, my dear.”
“Wow!” Anna squealed in obvious delight but, observing her mother’s reaction, she offered, “I’m sorry, mother. I know this will be hard on you, but I shall be back home with you before you know it.”
Hanford University Campus – September, 1991
Elspeth lounged on the outdoor bench, indifferently taking in the pandemonium erupting across the expansive quadrangle. Everywhere she glanced students were racing about, anxiety already apparent in every face, this despite the fact that classes had not yet even begun. If truth be told she too felt it, but after what she had suffered over the preceding three years, little was sufficiently terrifying to faze her in the slightest.
Fortunately for her, her grandmother had been a rock, somehow keeping her grounded through it all. How anyone could survive the death of one’s own issue, Elspeth hoped she would never have to know, but somehow Sabrina had accomplished it. And in the process she had done a masterful job of preparing Elspeth for college.
As Elspeth idly contemplated the absurdity of it all, a shadow passed within her field of view, and somewhat obtrusively, an all too handsome male student plunked himself down at the far end of the bench whereupon she herself was perched. Casting a furtive glance his way, she made it clear that she didn’t appreciate his intrusion within her personal space.
At length, ignoring the stony stare cast his way, her dastardly intruder draped his arms over the back of the bench, languidly crossed his outstretched legs, and observed sunnily to no one in particular, “Reminds me of sheep, going to the slaughter…”
Startled to detect a foreign accent emanating from her interloper’s lips, she suddenly felt an incongruous pang of interest and, glancing in his direction with a nevertheless stony demeanor, she inquired dully, “My, my…do I detect an English accent?”
“Indeed you do, but in truth tis Scottish, Miss, er…”
Eyeing him with an intentionally distant glance, Elspeth murmured suspiciously, “Moorehead, Elspeth Moorehead. And who might you be?”
“Name’s Connor, Connor Stuart,” he grinned, and there it was again, that irritatingly unflappable sunny disposition.
Her annoyance growing even more apparent, she spluttered, “Oh, good grief! You’re a Stewart, too? My grandfather was a Stewart!”
“That I am, Miss Elspeth, but tis sure we’re not related, for you’d most likely have eyes of blue like mine. And besides, mine’s spelled S-T-U-A-R-T. I’ll wager a spot of haggis your family spells it differently.”
Glancing away in feigned disinterest, she snarled, “Right you are, and that is indeed reassuring, since I intend to have nothing whatsoever to do with you, sir.”
Now grinning effusively at his mysterious but as yet indeterminate effect on her, he cajoled, “Oh, come now, Miss Moorehead – sittin’ here all alone – I’ll wager you’re new to campus just as am I. And if so, I’ll be wagerin’ still more you’re in need of a friend, just as am I.”
Turning to face him directly at this entirely unanticipated line of attack, she found herself caught off guard, prompting her to inquire with newfound interest, “Perhaps so, but what gives you the right to invade my privacy, Mr. Connor Stuart?”
Apparently buoyed by her change of demeanor, he shrugged his shoulders and responded indifferently, “Tis a free country. I can sit where I please.”
Irritation welling up due to his sudden coolness, she glanced askance and murmured under her breath to herself, “Well, there’s plenty of empty benches about, so why don’t you take yourself away from here and choose one of them?”
Having somehow overheard her, he suggested, “Well, there’s an idea but, truth be told, not a single one of them has the likes of a brammer lass such as you seated oon them,” and this time he awarded her with an absolutely stunning smile.
At this rather presumptive announcement she turned full towards him and gazed quizzically for a moment, then opined, “I assure you, Mr. Stuart, you shall find nothing of interest oon this bench.”
At her use of the Scottish term oon he burst into infectious laughter and offered, “Noow, why doon’t ye let me be joodge o’ thit, Miss ooh tae brammer Elspeth Moorehead. After all, there moost be more’n two hoondred students within mae field of view, and yoo’re the oonly one seated quietly, and seemingly doin’ naethin’ more’n observing the erupting calamity before the two ay oos.”
At this rather pugnacious and nearly unintelligible rejoinder her defenses suddenly gave way completely, prompting Elspeth to both giggle and simultaneously parry ineffectually, “My, my…you really are a Scot, aren’t you? And where did that Scottish brogue suddenly erupt from, if I may ask?”
“I dinna kin,” he retorted gleefully, “Och, weel, in truth it saemed the thing tae doo, if ye get mae meanin’, lass,” and then changing back to normality, he revealed, “I only speak the brogue at home with my ma. I was just funnin’ you. In truth, I believe we two may have the makings of a sort of friendship betwixt us.”
At this Elspeth actually grinned, and for the first time in months she suddenly felt a sense of elation. Eyeing this strange but nonetheless pleasing black-as-night maned and pale blue-eyed young man before her, she made a split-second decision, murmuring, “Promise not to fun me again, Mister Connor Stuart, and perhaps I shall ponder upon the possibility of becoming your friend.”
His smile growing impossibly infectious at her entirely unanticipated offer, he blurted, “Why, Ay’ll do noo sech thing, fer Ay’ll wager Ah’ve already captoored yer friendship, and were Ay tae stoop funnin’ ye, the faery tael would caertain coom tae a noon tae happy and quite abroopt endin!”
By now giggling uncontrollably at his somehow endearing demolition of the English language, she responded, “Tell you what, you crazy Scot – meet me at Nob Hill Coffee Shop tomorrow at three, at which time we shall discuss the necessary terms.”
“Terms? What terms?”
“The terms necessary for you to be rewarded with my friendship, ay coorse,” she blabbed, and with that she arose, turned to leave, and over her shoulder she rewarded him with a positively heart-stopping smile.
Her glance crushing him speechless for a moment, on regaining his senses he could only find the strength to croak to her retreating figure, “Ye kin coont oon it, Miss brammer Elspeth Moorehead!”
Later That Same Day
Connor bounded into the apartment building, his mood buoyed by such an impressive encounter with the inimitable Miss Elspeth Moorehead on only his second day in Boston. Halting at the mail drop, he checked to see if there were any messages for him.
Seeing that there were none, he turned about to depart, and as he did so, he nearly tripped over a young man who had come up behind him, a tall and handsome one at that, and one distinguished by his olive-toned skin.
“Oh, sorry,” Connor blurted, “I was distracted. Didn’t mean to plow into you like that,” and as the offended party turned to face him he was struck by the nearly identical look of those eyes to his own pale blue eyes.
A grin erupting across his face, the young man responded politely, “Oh, no harm done. Everyone seems to be in an extraordinary rush today, thus you are indeed not the first to inadvertently intersect my path, sir.”
Impressed by his proper use of English, Connor replied, “Thanks. I say, you’re not from the United States, I’ll wager.”
“Actually, no, I’m not,” the young man responded affably, “In truth, I am from Egypt. I’ve just arrived in Boston this very day.”
Eyes wide in surprise, Connor shot back, “What? You mean all the way from Egypt?”
“Correct,” the man replied pleasantly, “Tis all quite new to me, I’m afraid.”
“I understand,” Connor responded, “I myself arrived only yesterday – from Scotland.”
“Really! Then you are perhaps as disoriented as am I,” and with that, he pushed his open hand forward and offered, “I am Farhan Rahman, from Asyut.”
Taking the outstretched hand in his own, Connor replied, “Connor Stuart, from Edinburgh. Pleased to meet you, Farhan. Do you also live in this apartment building?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I do. I have been assigned to apartment 312.”
“Excellent! I’m right down the hall from you, in 306. And what, if I may ask, are you studying?”
“My course of study is chemistry,” Farhan responded.
“Wow! Too tough for me,” Connor replied, “I’m just hoping to survive political science.”
“I should think that chemistry is quite simple compared to the vagaries of politics,” Farhan shot back with an impish grin.
A giggle escaping his lips, Connor posited, “Well, perhaps, but you nonetheless have my admiration.”
At this, Farhan offered, “Say, what about a cup of coffee? We seem to have a bit of time on our collective hands, and who knows when that will happen again once classes start.”
“What an excellent idea!” Connor responded, and off the pair went in search of a cup of Joe.
Once ensconced in the student center coffee shop, the pair struck up their conversation anew, Connor inquiring, “So, how long have you been here, Farhan? Have you met anyone yet?”
“I’ve been here a couple of days, and yes, as a matter of fact I have met someone already. Her name is Anna Morton.”
“Oh, and what pray tell is she like?”
“Actually, she’s quite lovely. We met on the plane, on the way over from Egypt.”
At this Connor arched one eyebrow in surprise and queried, “What? You mean she’s Egyptian? Isn’t that a rather unusual name for a person from the Middle East?”
“Yes, you are quite correct, but as it turns out, she is half English. Her father’s family name is Morton, but she has never been to England, having been raised entirely within Cairo.”
“Ah, I see, and you say she’s quite lovely?”
“Well, she most certainly is to me,” Farhan observed, “But mind you, she was dressed in a traditional burka on the plane, so my initial impression is subject to more detailed observation.”
“What, you mean she was in one of those encasing black body sheets?” Connor blurted inappropriately.
At this Farhan arched one eyebrow, shook his head, and responded, “Well, that perhaps provides a rather crude description of a burka, sir, but it is in fact considered the proper attire for a Muslim woman.”
“I apologize,” Connor responded diffidently, “I meant no disrespect. Tis just that, I’ve actually never even seen a woman in a burka. Such things are indeed rare where I come from.”
“I see,” Farhan responded, “Well, no harm done, I’m quite sure. However, I did have a moment to converse with her on arrival at the airport. She was of course friendly due to our common nationality, and she informed me that she intends to forego the burka in the United States, although she will continue to wear a hijab.”
“Huh? What the heck is a hijab?” Connor blurted in obvious confusion.
“It is a traditional scarf worn by Muslim women, worn wrapped about the head and draping down so as to cover the hair and neck,” Farhan responded matter-of-factly.
“I see,” Connor murmured to himself, and then, his eyes lighting up, he inquired, “So can we say that there is a good deal more to be revealed when next the pair of you meet?”
“Precisely,” Farhan responded with a wink of the eye, thenceforth adding his own query, “And you, have you met anyone yet?”
“Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I have,” Connor observed pleasantly, “Her name is Elspeth, Elspeth Moorehead, and she is quite lovely if I do say so myself.”
At this, Farhan seemed to suck in his breath in surprise and, arching one eyebrow, he inquired pointedly, “Interesting. And is she as appealing as is the sparkle in your eye when you say her name?”
“Yes, well actually – no.”
“How so?” Farhan interrogated.
“Well, she is quite lovely in appearance, but there is a bit of a barrier there, I’m afraid.”
“What makes you say that?”
“I should think that she is quite introverted for some unknown reason,” Connor observed thoughtfully, but then, his demeanor brightening noticeably, he added, “But leave it to me, I shall break down her defenses. She is of Scottish descent, after all.”
“Oh, how do you know that?”
“She has bright red hair, and her eyes are green. Those are the indelible marks of a Scot. I simply couldn’t pass her by when I spotted her sitting on that campus bench.”
“Ah, I see,” Farhan responded and, suddenly changing the subject he inquired, “So I take it you already noticed that we two share the same blue eyes?”
“Yes, in fact I did. Tis quite unusual, being a recessive trait, but there it is nonetheless.”
Now changing the subject yet again, Farhan suggested, “Sooo, it appears that the two of us have something in common.”
“Oh, and what might that be?” Connor queried.
“Well, I should think it obvious,” Farhan responded, “First off, we have similar eyes. Also, we live in the same apartment building, on the same floor in fact. And then there is the reality that the both of us are foreigners who have already met young ladies of similar cultural backgrounds to our own.”
“Oh, my, I see your point,” Connor posited and, shrugging in concurrence, he suggested, “Well then, suppose we do something about it?”
“Sounds good to me,” Farhan responded, “What did you have in mind?”
“Well, er, suppose we both attempt to line up our newfound friends for a spot of pizza this weekend, before our studies become too challenging. How does that sound to you?”
“Excellent,” Farhan replied, “I shall get on it straightaway. Shall we try for Saturday night?”
“Perfect,” Connor put in, adding, “Now, suppose we both get down to the challenge ahead – school!” And with that the pair rose and departed the shop on quite comparably daunting quests.
The Following Day
Connor rushed into the coffee shop, an inexplicable knot throbbing within the base of his throat. Still breathless from his harried race to avoid being late to his appointment, he searched about the crowded space for his intended rendezvous, but to no avail. Checking his watch, he realized that he’d only arrived a couple of minutes late, despite the fact that that arrogant prig of a professor had kept the class ten minutes too long. By the time class had ended, he had become so frantic to leave that he’d tuned out the lecture altogether.
Regaining his senses, he thought to himself, “What was he blabbing on and on about, anyway?” Well, no matter. Better things to concern himself with at the moment, such as whether the winsome Miss Elspeth Moorehead had in fact stood him up.
There was nothing for it but to anxiously await her anticipated arrival, thus he positioned himself at the trailing end of the line and decided that he would exercise patience, something that he had somehow never managed to master. Still, advising himself to be patient, whether successful or not, somehow seemed a step in the right direction. As if on cue, the line pressed forward at a snail’s pace and, his patience quickly abandoning him, he scrutinized his watch at least a half dozen times.
But then the door suddenly popped open, and there she was, her entrancing green eyes meeting his own for just a fraction of a second. She seemed to tug self-consciously at her gorgeous red hair, and then she was at his side, blurting abruptly, “I’m so sorry Connor, am I terribly late?” And there it was again, that breathtaking smile of hers.
Under the circumstances, all attempt at severity disappeared immediately, prompting Connor to respond completely out of character, “No problem, Miss Moorehead – I mean – Elspeth; I just arrived myself. My class ran long, you know.”
“Yes, mine too! What is that about – I ask you?”
“Priggish profs, I should think,” he responded, this time futilely attempting to match her entirely matchless grin.
For her part, she copped a perplexed look, tilted her head sideways, and murmured, “What does that mean?”
“Oh, nothing,” he blurted defensively, “They’re just caught up in their own world, I suppose. Imagine what you’d discuss in class if you’d been reading books in some musty old library for two-thirds of your life!”
“Ah, I see,” she responded pensively, “You have the gift of putting yourself in other’s places. I must say I’m quite impressed!”
At this unexpected compliment he actually blushed but, covering it with a swipe at his own locks, he rebutted, “Oh, I don’t know about that, but I will say this – I’m here to learn. For it seems that without knowledge one is destined for failure in life.”
“Well said,” she complimented yet again, “And what do you plan to learn?”
“No idea,” he blurted far too quickly and, covering his gaff, he continued with, “That’s why I’m here – to discover my place in life.”
“My, my…” she murmured, “The self-assured Scot admits he’s clueless…” and then, turning towards the counter, she blurted, “I can see this is going to be quite an interesting friendship. Suppose we get a cup of coffee and encourage this magic moment to unfold.”
Staring at her in wonder, he stammered, “Well…er…that sounds…uhm…I mean – yes, of course!”
Grinning at her own uncanny ability to wrest the upper hand, she tugged yet again at her hair and observed, “I must say, that was exceedingly eloquent, even for a Scot!”
Another uncontrollable giggle escaping his nervous lips, he countered, “Given the opportunity, I have every intention of dazzling you with my brilliance, Miss Elspeth Moorehead.”
Smiling in her own turn, she actually winked at him, following it with, “All in good time, my newfound friend, all in good time!”
And from that moment the two were in fact friends, their friendship destined to go to whatever lengths allowed by unfolding events. But that would surely all be in good time.
Antonio’s Pizza Parlor – Friday Night
Elspeth and Connor meandered into the restaurant and, spotting their dining companions in the far corner, they waved simultaneously and made their collective way to the table in question.
On arriving tableside, Connor chirped breathlessly, “Hi, Farhan!”
Arising from his seat, Farhan responded pleasantly, “Hello, Connor. How are you?” and, not waiting for a response, he added to Connor’s companion, “And you must be Elspeth. Connor has told me all about you.” Thenceforth, turning towards his own companion, he announced, “This is my friend, Anna. Anna, meet Elspeth and Connor.”
The introductions having been completed, the four got down to the extremely difficult but all-important challenge of forgetting for the moment how they were in fact going to survive the rigors of the coming semester. Although things were a bit awkward at first, perhaps in no small part due to the widely disparate cultural backgrounds of the four, by the completion of a large pizza supplemented with an abundance of draft beer, the four were well on their way to conviviality, not to mention blissfully distracting inebriation.
Setting her mug down after a long drag, Elspeth suggested inquisitively, “I’m from Boston, which explains why I am at Hanford. But what brought the pair of you all the way to Boston from Egypt?”
At this Farhan proffered proudly, “I received a grant from the Egyptian government. They are quite difficult to obtain, but I graduated at the top of my class in Asyut.”
“I see, and what must Asyut be like?” she asked presumptuously.
“Hot, dusty, but a wonderful place to live. Tis far up the Nile, you know. And as such, it is completely dependent on the river for everything.”
“So it’s surrounded by desert?” Elspeth asked inanely.
“Yes, it is. Three kilometers from the river on either side there is nothing. That is, nothing but the beating sun and sand dunes,” he responded knowingly.
“Do you miss it terribly?” she inquired.
“Not so much, although when winter arrives in Boston, I expect that I shall,” and with that he awarded her with his most impressive smile.
Squirming in obvious embarrassment at the ruggedly handsome face before her, she turned to Anna and asked, “And what brings you here, Anna?”
At this Anna responded shyly, “My family isn’t wealthy, you see, but I did well in school, so my uncle volunteered to send me to Hanford. He is British, as was my father.”
Then why did he not send you to Oxford or Cambridge?” Connor inquired.
“I’m not sure,” Anna replied, “My mother seems to think that they were both too expensive.”
“Ah, I see,” Connor agreed, “They are indeed quite expensive, but I assure you, Hanford is not only less costly, tis also a better university.”
“So they tell me,” Anna responded pleasantly, “But the truth is, I’m just happy to be away from Egypt.”
At this Farhan turned towards her, frowned, and queried, “Why ever for, Anna?”
Glancing briefly at him, Anna subsequently stared morosely at her plate and murmured, “Oh, you wouldn’t understand, Farhan. After all, you are a man.”
His eyes flashing ominously at her, Farhan responded, “Perhaps this subject is better taken up at another time, Anna.”
“Yes, of course,” Anna blurted, but it was clear that she was quite embarrassed for some unknown reason.
After that the conversation got onto lighter subjects, with the four of them eventually discussing topics ranging from The American Revolution to the Boston Red Sox. And although the discussion was lively and engaging, by the end of the evening it was apparent to Elspeth that her newfound friends had a lot to learn about their newly adopted home.
Friendship Torn Asunder
Two Weeks Later
Connor met her at the coffee shop, Elspeth arriving a bit late as usual. Approaching his table, she announced, “Sorry, Connor. There never seems to be enough time in the day! One of these days I’m going to get organized. For the moment, I’m doing all I can to keep up with my studies.”
“Oh, you’ll do just fine, I’m sure, Elspeth,” Connor put in affably.
“Easy for you to say – you’re not majoring in math!”
“Well, there is that,” he responded, “Seriously, I’ve no idea how you do it. Math is completely beyond me. I can barely balance my checkbook.”
“Why don’t you get a computer, Connor?”
“Too expensive! Besides, I’m old school,” he replied pensively.
Eyeing him doubtfully, Elspeth suggested, “Well, better late than never. Computers are going to take over the world, you know.”
“So they tell me,” he blurted in resignation, “In the meantime, I’m doing my best to understand political science. There’s so much reading to do, and none of it makes any sense to me!”
“Now you’re talking, Connor. Why do you think I’m studying math? It may be difficult, but at least it makes sense!” And at this the pair laughed companionably. Their friendship was clearly on the upswing.
Changing the subject, he suggested, “Hey, there’s a party this Saturday night. The Political Science Club is throwing it at the Student Center. Want to go with me?”
“What – you mean – like a date?”
“Well, er, we can go just as friends if you want.”
“I don’t know, Connor, I’m not very good in large groups…”
“Oh, come on, Elspeth. You can’t study ALL the time! One has to blow off steam ever so often.”
“You’re right, of course you are. Alright, I will go with you, but only on one condition.”
Eyeing her doubtfully, he responded, “And what might that be?”
“You must promise to allow me to leave the party should I ask it of you.”
“That seems fair enough, Elspeth. Then, shall I pick you up at your apartment at 7?”
“Yes, of course. Here is the address,” and so saying, she handed him a scrap of paper. “Now, I must be off. Thanks for the coffee!” And with that she made her departure.
At the ring of the doorbell, Elspeth took her time making her way to the door. Tugging it open, she said, “Oh, hi, Connor.” But it was apparent that she was not in the best of spirits.
“Hi, Elspeth, what seems to be the problem?” he inquired empathetically.
“Oh, nothing,” she replied evasively, “It’s just that, well, I made a B on my first math test.”
“You made a B? Wow! That’s a good grade in my book!” he responded supportively.
“Yeah, well…” she murmured, “Perhaps it is in your field, but not in mine.”
“You’ll do better, Elspeth, I’m sure of it. In the meantime, we should do something to take your mind off it!”
“I suppose you’re right,” she agreed and, grabbing her coat, she added, “So, shall we go check out this party?”
“Excellent, I knew you’d give in!” he responded, and off the pair went in search of distraction.
Two hours later Connor was having a wonderful time at the party but, glancing across the room, he could tell that Elspeth was not. Wandering over to her, he posited, “Elspeth, tis clear to me that this simply won’t do. Shall we make a hasty retreat?”
Eyeing him gratefully, she responded sheepishly, “Oh, I’d be ever so thankful, Connor! How’d you know?”
“Are you kidding?” he blurted, “Elspeth, tis apparent to anyone who is attentive that you are not up for it tonight.”
“Ooh, is it that obvious?” she queried. “I’m so sorry. I was trying my best.”
“Tis no problem, really, no problem at all, Elspeth. I didn’t ask you out so that I could go to a party. I asked you out so that I could be with you.”
Arching one eye in surprise, she prevaricated, “Well, be that as it may, suppose we go to our favorite spot – the coffee shop.”
“Perfect,” he replied empathetically, “Shall we?” And with that the pair made a hasty retreat.
An hour later, her spirits returning, Elspeth said over the rim of her cup, “Thanks, Connor. I needed this.”
“Needed what exactly?” he replied in confusion.
“I don’t know – companionship, I suppose,” she responded serenely. “I really don’t have any friends, you know, except for you, Farhan and Anna.”
“Spoken like a true math major,” he observed bluntly.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right…”
“So, where does this introverted nature come from, Elspeth?”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” she replied, but then, seeing his obvious pain at being so casually dismissed, she added, “Well, alright, if truth be told, I lost my parents when I was fifteen. It’s been hard for me ever since.”
“Oh! I had no idea. What happened?”
“They were killed in the Lockerbie bombing.”
“What! You mean they were onboard the plane that day?”
Reaching forward to grasp her hand within his own, he whispered, “I’m so sorry, Elspeth! It must have been quite difficult for you…”
Clinging to his outstretched hand, she responded, “Yeah, it’s been tough. There is only my Gran, but she’s older, you know. And Anna is nice, but she’s not from our culture. So, it seems you are my only escape. I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this, Connor. I’m so sorry for burdening you with my problems.’
“Dear Elspeth, tis no burden at all. Over the past couple of months you have become quite dear to me. If you will let me, I shall endeavor to be here for you.”
Eyeing him intrepidly, she mumbled, “It’s very kind of you, Connor. You have become dear to me as well. But I need time. This is all very hard for me. Before, I had a very protected existence. What with Gran and high school, I was able to hide myself from the realities of the world quite successfully. But here at Hanford, it’s all quite overwhelming. I’ve come to the realization that one cannot hide from reality forever. It would have been nice, but I suppose that I shall be forced to grow up sooner than later.”
“Yes, life does have a way of forcing itself on one, doesn’t it,” he replied earnestly.
“Well said,” she replied, “And now, take me home. I may be progressing, but I fear I nonetheless need my solitude.”
“Yes, of course, Elspeth,” and with that he escorted her to her apartment. And when they arrived at her door he kissed her lightly on the cheek.
Her eyes flashing at him in surprise, she tugged him to her and kissed him passionately on the mouth and, pulling back, she posited, “Don’t get any ideas, Connor Stuart. That was in thanks for your understanding tonight. You’ve really been a true friend.” But after she’d closed the door behind her, she leaned back against it and readily admitted to herself that she in fact hoped that he did indeed get ideas.
A Month Later
Elspeth had by now admitted to herself that she was distracted from her studies. Why did life have to be so complicated? Just when she was starting to get over the tragedies in her life, along comes this tall handsome Scotsman and turns her life upside down. Mathematics was not an academic discipline to be trifled with, and her grade in calculus was definitely suffering. She wrestled with the complexity of it all nearly every waking hour. Indeed, she was so transfixed by the guy that she decided that something had to be done. She was not so ignorant as to think that she should divulge her feelings, so she decided on a slightly different course of action.
They met at the coffee shop one Friday, she for her part playing it decidedly cool, despite his obviously amorous comportment. And when he suggested that the pair of them take a drive up to Martha’s Vineyard the following day, she begged off, saying that she had too much homework. This was in fact true, but it in no way diminished her misery at having said no to him.
Instead, she proposed an alternative – why not take a trip down to New York after the semester had ended? She reasoned that there would be no pressures from coursework between semesters, thereby allowing the two of them to see the sites without distraction. Grinning his own relief at her invitation, Connor readily accepted.
Boston – Halloween, 1991
Elspeth knocked on Anna’s apartment door and, discerning a voice within, she pushed the door open. Momentarily stunned by the apparition before her, she yanked one hand to her mouth and uttered, “Oh, my goodness…please tell me it’s you, Anna!”
From beneath her costume Anna’s muffled voice responded, “Of course it’s me, Elspeth! What do you think?”
Eyeing her up and down, Elspeth opined, “Well, it’s certainly different, I mean, Halloween is about gremlins and ghouls, but you’ve struck a particularly macabre note, if you ask me.”
“It’s just my burka,” Anna replied, “I simply added a bit here and there to make it look like a ghost costume. Is it terribly bad?”
“No!” Elspeth blurted in denial, “It’s perfect, Anna, absolutely perfect!”
At this Anna tugged her head dress off and blurted, “Oh, I’m so glad you like it, Elspeth! I was afraid it wouldn’t look quite right. After all, I’ve never experienced Halloween before.”
Observing the woman before her, Elspeth stood frozen for a moment, but then, emerging from her shocked state, she proffered, “My, goodness, Anna, I’ve never seen you without your hijab. You are altogether quite lovely!”
Now blushing noticeably, Anna murmured, “Thank you, dear Elspeth. You’ve no idea how much that means to me. Such things are never mentioned where I come from, you know.”
Elspeth eyed her momentarily and then added, “Actually, I had no idea. Do you mean that no one has ever told you how lovely you are?”
“Yes, I’m afraid you are correct,” Anna blurted in apparent despair.
At this Elspeth reached forward and, grabbing Anna in a sisterly embrace, she whispered, “Anna, my dear friend, I’m so sorry. Trust me – you are indeed quite lovely.”
Wiping a telltale tear from her cheek, Anna responded, “I’m sorry, Elspeth, I didn’t mean to burden you with my troubles.”
Elspeth frowned and, her frown suddenly changing to a smile, she replied, “Troubles? What troubles? Tonight we are two lovely young ladies who will simply knock them dead!”
Observing the tuxedo that Elspeth was garbed within, Anna inquired, “If you don’t mind, what sort of costume are you wearing, Elspeth?”
Elspeth grinned in response and announced, “I know this will sound silly, but I am dressed as James Bond.”
Now smiling herself, Anna responded, “My, that is truly bizarre!”
“Yes, isn’t it?” Elspeth observed slyly, “And, I have a trick up my sleeve!”
“A trick? What sort of trick?”
“All in good time, Anna, all in good time. After all, Halloween is about ‘trick or treat’.”
Her confusion apparent, Anna murmured, “Well then, shall we?” at which they made their way from the apartment.
By the time the pair arrived the party was well underway, the ballroom absolutely packed to the rafters with goblins of every sort. The pair attempted to make their way through the crowd unobserved, but that was not to be. It seemed that, unbeknownst to them, the party was not just a costume party, but it was also a costume contest. And tonight’s winners would receive some mysterious prizes. As a result, everywhere they turned their potential rivals scrutinized their newest competition carefully.
Elspeth whispered in Anna’s ear, “Your costume is drawing quite a lot of stares, Anna. I told you so – you’re a definite hit tonight!”
Anna whispered back, “I was so worried that it wouldn’t do, and now I’m not so sure I wouldn’t have preferred it that way!”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous, Anna, this is going to be a blast…you’ll see!”
At that moment two tall men in masks appeared before them, the taller one announcing, “My, my, I believe we’ve accidentally bumped into the two most amazing creatures of all, Connor!”
The second of the two drawing up alongside, he placed one hand on his chin and chimed in with, “Oh, my! Could this charming villain before me actually be Miss Elspeth Moorehead? Hmmm, let me see,” and surveying her carefully, he observed, “No, I’m afraid I was mistaken. It appears that she is none other than James Bond – 007!”
At this a loud snort popped uncontrollably from Elspeth mouth, followed by, “Connor Stuart! You cad!” And, tugging him into her arms, she commanded, “Come here, you scoundrel – give James Bond a kiss!”
Blushing at such a suggestion, he nevertheless did as instructed, following it with, “Never kissed a man before,” and, grinning from ear to ear, he observed, “In fact, it were rather nice. I believe I shall try it again.”
At this Elspeth playfully shoved him away, accompanying it with, “Not on your life, you little monster. James Bond always has the upper hand.”
Now giggling uncontrollably, Connor replied, “Why am I not surprised?”
Farhan now jumped in, observing, “Anna, I must say, you have hit the spot with that ghost costume. I’d not have recognized you had I not seen you in your burka on the flight over in August.”
Completely enshrouded, Anna was only seen to respond via a nod of her masked head, but a muffled sound from within replied, “Thanks, Farhan. You appear to be wearing something akin to the ornamental dress of an Arabian Sheikh, am I correct?”
“Yes, entirely so,” Farhan responded proudly, “And Connor is my personal servant.”
“Ha!” Elspeth exclaimed, “What a pair the two of you make!”
At this Connor bowed gracefully and suggested, “Your wish is my command, Mr. Bond.”
The party was clearly off to a grand beginning, and over the course of the evening the four remained in close contact, although the two young ladies were in continuous demand for dances. The music having a decidedly chilling bent, Anna’s Middle Eastern dance moves drew the majority of the attention. On the other hand, quite a few of the attendees, both male and female, were consumed with the possibility of dancing with James Bond, and who was Elspeth to play favorites?
The prize winners having been scheduled to be announced at midnight, shortly beforehand Elspeth decided it was time for her to play the trick up her sleeve. Selecting Connor as her partner, she danced close to him to the number ‘Monster Mash’ but, midway through the number, she doffed her tuxedo jacket, thereby displaying a rather racy costume beneath. It seems that, rather than a tuxedo shirt, she had worn a tuxedo vest halter top that was entirely backless. Twirling her jacket over her head, she stared intently at Connor and, suddenly tossing it aside, she pranced up to him, sidled behind him and, standing back to back, she traced a suggestive line up and down his spine.
Having observed this rather shocking development, the crowd went wild in anticipation. Unfortunately for them, Elspeth had no further tricks up her sleeve, but the crowd nonetheless tendered quite an ovation at the conclusion of her performance.
Dragging her away from the dance floor at the end of the number, Connor whispered playfully in her ear, “You naughty girl!”
At this she gazed up into his eyes and, moving in close as if to kiss him, she bit him enticingly on the lip and whispered, “You’ve no idea…”
He leaned forward hopefully but, her instincts much too fast for him, she skillfully evaded his advance with a shove to his nose, accompanied by, “Back off, Connor. If your desire is this lady, you must learn the art of infinite patience.”
His pride bruised, he nonetheless responded hopefully, “It is, and I shall, dear Elspeth.”
She grinned her approval at this last, but just at that moment a voice came over the loudspeaker, announcing, “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to announce the winners of tonight’s awards for best costumes. So, if you will, please gather in front of the stage.”
As everyone moved forward, a young man on the stage announced, “Now, there are four prizes, two each for the men and women. The categories are creepiest costume and most outrageous costume. And without further delay, the winner of the creepiest costume worn by a woman is Ms. Anna Morton!”
At this Anna jumped up and down in delight. To her surprise the announcer gestured for her to come up onstage and, obviously embarrassed to stand before such a huge throng, Anna somehow managed to make her way to his side.
The announcer now said, “Excellent costume, Miss Morton! What do you say, ladies and gentlemen, isn’t this just a fabulous Halloween costume?” at which the crowd roared their collective approval. He now added surreptitiously, “Ms. Morton, I am quite certain that the males among the crowd would be oh so appreciative were you to remove your mask!” And this announcement was followed by still greater raucous applause.
At this Anna hesitated momentarily, but then, shrugging her reluctant acceptance, she removed her headdress, thereby displaying her gorgeous face to one and all. Once again the crowd screamed their approval, at which Anna smiled graciously and made for the stairs. But, grabbing her by one arm, the announcer exclaimed, “Not so fast, Ms. Morton,” and reaching forward with an envelope, he announced, “Here is your prize!” at which Anna accepted the envelope and made her way from the stage.
An identical scene was played out for the women’s most outrageous costume, with Elspeth proudly taking the award. As a result, the two ladies were quite a hit among the male populace for the remainder of the evening, thereby forestalling any attempts by Farhan and Connor to dominate their attentions. And while this clearly disappointed both young men, Anna and Elspeth were equally delighted by the unexpected attention.
Somewhat later, the victors having by then arrived back at Anna’s apartment, Elspeth chirped in obvious glee, “Boy, we made those two guys jealous as all hell tonight, Anna!” But Anna was for some reason not happy at all.
Observing her friend’s malaise, Elspeth queried in obvious concern, “What’s the matter, Anna? Surely you will have plenty of guys asking you out after tonight. Wouldn’t you like that?”
Anna gazed forlornly at Elspeth and responded, “Of course I would like that!”
“Then why so glum?”
“I shouldn’t have removed my head dress.”
“Then why did you, Anna?”
“I had to! After you took off your tuxedo jacket, I just couldn’t help myself!”
Eyeing her in confusion, Elspeth offered, “It’s okay, Anna – we’re not in the Middle East now.”
At this Anna moaned, “You wouldn’t say that if you knew the power that men have over women from the Middle East.”
“What on earth are you talking about, Anna?”
“I’m talking about Farhan, Elspeth.”
“So? What about Farhan?”
“You didn’t see the look on his face when I took off my head dress!”
“Oh, my…” was all Elspeth could think of to say, but then she suddenly added, “I’m sure it will be fine. Farhan is simply taken with you, as are quite a few other young men as a result of your performance tonight!”
Anna nonetheless appeared distraught, causing Elspeth to seek some sort of distraction. Suddenly she realized they’d both forgotten to open their prize envelopes and, exclaiming as much, Elspeth tore into hers in anticipation. A frown swiftly creasing her features, she looked up and caught Anna’s eye.
“What is it?” Anna asked in obvious confusion. “Just tell me – is it good or bad?”
Elspeth stared yet again at the sheet of paper in her hand and responded, “I…I’m not really sure, to tell you the truth.”
At this Anna tore into her envelope and, observing the sheet of paper within, her eyes suddenly began to glow. Glancing up, she announced, “But this it too wonderful! We’ve been invited to join a sorority!”
“Yes, well…” Elspeth replied, “I don’t think I’m interested, Anna.”
But Anna caught her arm and responded, “Please, Elspeth! You yourself said that we are both far too introverted. Perhaps this is our chance to meet more people, especially more guys!”
“Well, I don’t know,” Elspeth mumbled, “Let me sleep on it,” to which the pair agreed.
Two Days Later
Anna and Elspeth met at the student center coffee shop. Anna immediately inquired, “So, what do you think, Elspeth? Please say yes – I don’t think I have the nerve to join the sorority without you.”
Eyeing Anna intently, Elspeth reached forward and tugged Anna’s hijab, which had fallen out of place but, noticing that Anna winced when she did so, Elspeth inquired, “What’s wrong, Anna? You appear to be in pain.”
Anna tugged self-consciously on her hijab and, a bruise now plainly visible to Elspeth, she rejoined, “It’s nothing, Elspeth. I fell down the stairs in my apartment building.”
“What!” Elspeth exclaimed, “Did you go to the hospital?”
“No, it wasn’t that bad. I cracked my knee, and I hit my shoulder on the bottom stair. It’s just a couple of bruises. I’ll be fine in a couple of days.”
“Well, next time something like this happens to you, call me right away, Okay?”
“Sure,” Anna posited, “I appreciate that, Elspeth. I have a hard time making friends, you know. Which reminds me, we were discussing the sorority…”
Elspeth eyed her momentarily and, seeing no means of escape, she relented, “Alright, Anna, I’ll join the sorority with you. But if I don’t like it, I’ll get out at the end of the spring semester.”
“Super!” Anna cried, “This is going to be such fun!”
December 18, 1991
They met at the train station, Elspeth bundled up in her best traveling attire. Since she had never been on an overnight trip with a young man, she was understandably nervous. For his part, Connor was determined to be the perfect gentleman.
Once they were aboard, Elspeth inquired, “So, how did your semester turn out, Connor?”
“Quite well, I should think,” he replied, “At least, I lived up to my own expectations, if you know what I mean.”
“Actually, I don’t,” she responded, “Can you be more specific?”
“Well, I suppose I must admit, I made one C, but the rest were A’s and B’s.”
“That sounds respectable. What did you make a C in?”
“Oh, well, I made a C in economics.”
“Economics! Connor Stuart! You must do better – that’s a quite important subject!”
At this he peered at her in embarrassment and replied, “Yes, I suppose you’re right, Elspeth, but anything related to math comes hard for me.”
She frowned at him but said nothing, prompting him to continue with, “How did you do?”
“I did quite well, thank you,” she replied.
“Just exactly how well?” he spluttered in abject fear.
“If you must know,” she frowned, “I made straight A’s.”
“Damn!” he groused, “I knew you were a genius!”
At this she shook her head in denial and replied, “I’m no genius, Connor. I just work hard, and I really enjoy learning.”
“As do I,” he responded, “But it doesn’t come quite as easily as it does for you, I’m afraid.”
She shot back, “I’m sure you’ll do much better next semester.”
“What makes you say that?”
“The fact that I have commanded you to do better, that’s what!”
And at this, he could only nod his understanding.
The remainder of the trip to New York was spent in near silence, but when the city skyline began to rise up in the distance, Connor offered, “I’ve never been anywhere in the U.S. other than Boston, you know. Have you been to New York before, Elspeth?”
“Of course,” she replied sanctimoniously, “Not to worry, Connor, I will be your guide.”
Smirking at her smug sense of superiority, he replied, “Of course you shall. And what shall we do on arrival?”
“Good question,” she responded evasively, “Suppose we take it a step at a time. First we’ll check into the hotel, and then grab a bite to eat, okay?”
“Sounds good to me,” he replied.
But when they had finally arrived within their room, she pushed the door closed and grabbed him in a searing kiss that positively curled his toes. Eventually pulling back, she inquired impishly, “Still hungry?”
His eyes growing wide, he blurted absently, “Whaaat?”
Winking at him, she responded quizzically, “Dessert now, dinner later?” And, tugging on his coat sleeve, she slowly drew him onto the bed, whereupon she dragged him into a passionate embrace. For his part, he was only too happy to put off dinner for the time being.
[* But eventually, as is man’s nature, he pulled impulsively on an article of her clothing, causing her to murmur in his ear, “Ah- ah-, remember what I told you at the Halloween party?” *]
“Er, no…” he mumbled in confusion, and then, “Oh, right – I remember now. It was something about learning patience.”
“Precisely!” she exclaimed triumphantly.
Raising himself up on one elbow, he blurted, “Gee, this is going to be tougher than I thought…”
“Right,” she whispered, “But, as you shall learn – I am worth it! Now, shut up and kiss me again, you gorgeous hunk.”
The remainder of the trip to New York went off well, with Elspeth delighting in leading on her very first boyfriend, and Connor completely hornswoggled by the complexities inherent within the female of the species.
February 14, 1992
Entering the sorority house, Connor tugged off his coat and handed it to the scantily clad young coed, in the process murmuring in embarrassment, “I say, that is quite an outfit, if I may say so.”
“Why, thank you,” she responded proudly and, thrusting her chest outwards, she added, “My mom says that I have gravity-defying attributes.”
Momentarily eyeing the attributes she was apparently referring to, he replied sheepishly, “Yes, I can see that. I suppose your mother is quite correct,” And with that he made a hasty retreat to the interior of the sorority house.
Within, he observed an entire room full of scantily clad young ladies, not the least of which was Ms. Elspeth Moorehead, who caught his eye from the far corner of the room. Wading betwixt the raptly attentive males and females, he made his way to her, and on arriving at her side, he posited, “I must have missed something, Elspeth. What the heck is going on here?”
“Hi, Connor,” she prevaricated, “What’s the problem?”
“Uhm,” he stammered, “Is this indeed a sorority house, or have I wandered into something decidedly more sinister?”
“Connor!” she exclaimed, “What on earth are you babbling about?”
Scanning about the room in confusion, he suggested, “It appears that every girl in the house is missing some clothing.”
Frowning at him, Elspeth said, “I told you when I invited you – it’s a slumber party – A Valentine’s Day slumber party!”
“So?” he shot back in confusion.
“Connor, this is a normal party for young ladies within the U.S. We all come together and, dressed for bedtime, we instead stay up all night.”
“Really?” he countered, “And you invite a bunch of guys to ogle you in your somewhat déshabillé state?”
“Of course not, you fool!” she exclaimed, “At least not until we young ladies get to college. By then it is considered acceptable behavior for young men to, let’s say, participate. This particular slumber party happens to be a tradition of the sorority. We hold it every year on Valentine’s Day, and everyone knows about it!”
Still perplexed, all he could think of to say was, “Ok-kay…”
Observing his sustained irritation, she announced, “Connor Stuart. Catch up! You saw me in my underwear in New York. Tonight I am wearing my shorty nightgown, and I’ve worn significantly less in public when I had on a bathing suit. Now, shape up! Or go home!”
Shaken by her remonstrance, he responded in embarrassment, “Sorry, Elspeth. It’s just that – well, I’ve never encountered such behavior before…”
She eyed him for a moment and then muttered, “I am a woman, damn it! And I have a right to express myself as I see fit!”
At this he broke into a tiny hint of a grin and, smirking momentarily, he whispered, “I know! Yes, of course, I know that!” Then, attempting to divert the subject to something less awkward, he surveyed the room further and inquired, “Where’s Anna? Isn’t she in this sorority?”
“Yes, she is, but she’s sick tonight,” Elspeth responded.
“Oh,” Connor replied, “Sorry to hear that. Isn’t Farhan coming tonight?”
“Yes, of course he is. He’s in the other room there, but you may as well not go looking for him.”
“Because he appears to be otherwise engaged,” she shot back in obvious irritation.
“Engaged? Engaged with what?”
“Engaged with a bevy of young, er – ladies – I should think,” she observed.
Doubting her veracity, Connor poked his head into the adjacent room and, sure enough, there was Farhan, and he did indeed seem to be surrounded by quite a few females, some of whom appeared to have misplaced an article or two of their bedtime wear.
Perplexed by the scene unfolding within, Connor hurriedly returned to Elspeth’s side and whispered, “I say, is it possible that things might get out of hand, Elspeth?”
“Perhaps,” she countered enigmatically.
“Well, then…” he murmured.
Her eyes blazing, she shot back, “Well, then, what?”
“Uhm, I’m not sure…” he blurted, “Perhaps I could convince you to come away with me for a drink or something?”
Her face suddenly lighting up, she responded, “I thought you’d never ask, Connor Stuart. Let me just pop upstairs and change into something more appropriate, and we shall be off.”
As usual, the pair ended up at the Nob Hill Coffee Shop. Once there, Connor inquired, “I don’t understand, Elspeth…why did you join that darn sorority anyway?”
Her eyes flashing in irritation, she responded, “It’s none of your damn business!”
“Sorry,” he responded, but then he added unadvisedly, “Surely you didn’t join to meet guys!”
At this she blurted in obvious annoyance, “What on earth are you talking about?”
“Well, it’s just that, I’m told that’s why girls join sororities – to meet guys.”
“What of it?” she glared at him.
“Nothing,” he responded and, digging himself a deeper hole, he suggested, “You don’t need to find a guy, Elspeth. You already have me.”
She carefully placed her coffee cup on the table and, staring him down, she replied between clenched teeth, “Listen, Connor Stuart, you have absolutely no hold over me. I’m in charge of me, and don’t you forget it!”
Eyeing here disconsolately, he observed, “Of course you are. I’m sorry, I spoke out of turn. Please excuse me, Elspeth.”
She stared momentarily at him, then posited, “Apology accepted. Now, can we get back to being friends?”
At this he grinned sheepishly and, changing the subject, he queried, “Was Anna really sick tonight?”
She eyed him a moment and then she admitted, “No, she was afraid.”
“Afraid?” he blurted, “Afraid of what?”
“Farhan, damn it!”
“Farhan! Why should she be afraid of Farhan?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Connor,” she responded, “She’s somehow got it into her head that Farhan has the wherewithal to make things difficult for her if she does anything at all considered to be unladylike.”
“Oh,” he murmured as if to himself, “Well, when you put it that way…”
“What way?” she asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he mumbled, “Tis just that, he does seem to have some sort of double standard, if you ask me.”
“What are you getting at?”
“Not sure, Elspeth, but I’ve never seen him behave like he did tonight. I mean, he was ogling your fellow sorority girls pretty overtly.”
“What, and you weren’t?” she accused.
“Er, well…” he prevaricated, “Look, I’m just as attracted to women as the next guy, but I draw the line at some things.”
“I don’t know…” he murmured and, contemplating a moment, he replied, “Well, for one thing, I can only focus on one woman at a time.”
“What on earth does that mean?” she replied in exasperation.
“Tis just that Farhan was pawing those girls, I mean, several of them at one time, and in public!”
“Ah, I see what you mean,” she replied, “And of course – I agree with you. He was rather a cad tonight.”
“You knew that all along, Elspeth.”
“Of course I did.”
“Then why didn’t you say so?”
“I wanted to hear what you thought about it.”
“Oh,” he exclaimed, and then, “Damn, you were testing me again, weren’t you!”
“Supposing I was…”
“Well, stop it!”
She eyed him for a moment and then she said, “I can’t! Besides, I have not only a right to do so, but an obligation as well.”
“What! I have no clue what you’re talking about, Elspeth!”
“Alright,” she posited, “I see I’m going to have to spell it out for you, Connor Stuart. It’s like this, I care about you. No, that’s not right. What I mean is, I care for you.”
Peering at her in confusion, he blurted, “Excuse me, but what the hell does that mean?”
“Just hear me out, damn it! What I’m trying to say is – this is all new to me.”
“Exactly what is new to you, Elspeth?”
“Caring! That’s what’s new, Connor. After my parents died, I built an invisible wall around myself, a wall that I convinced myself was impenetrable. And for several years, it was. But then you came along and you plopped down on that bench beside me last fall. And ever since then you’ve been dismantling that wall that I went to such lengths to build.”
At this he stared at her but said nothing, apparently willing her to go on.
“Damn you!” she blurted, “I was so safe within. And now, I’m terrified all the time.”
“Terrified? Why ever on earth for?”
“Connor!” she exclaimed, “I can’t afford to ever feel that way again!”
“I don’t understand – what way?”
“The way I felt when my parents died.”
“Oh…” he murmured in confusion.
“I need to know that I can trust someone. No, that’s not right – I need to know that I can trust you, Connor Stuart. So I’m testing you. I know it hurts you when I do, but I can’t help it. I can’t risk ever feeling that way again. If I ever give my trust to anyone again, I need to know that they will be there for me, that I can trust them unconditionally.”
At this he stared at her, his eyes glistening, and whispered, “I cannot possibly know what you have suffered, Elspeth, but I assure you, I am worthy of your trust.”
“Yeah, well,” she blurted, “You’d better be, because my wall is in danger of coming down.”
He reached across the table and grasped her hand within his and, holding her within his gaze for several moments, he then whispered, “Then test away, Elspeth. Whatever it takes, I can take it. And I shan’t tear down your wall. I rather hope that it will crumble of its own accord.”
She returned his gaze momentarily, then posited, “You may as well know – I’m quitting the sorority at the end of the semester.”
After that night, the two were practically inseparable, at least on those rare occasions when time permitted them to stray from their studies.
Boston – April, 1992
Nestled comfortably within her apartment, Elspeth was deep into her study of the history of the Middle East. Suddenly distracted by the clang of her phone, she picked up the receiver and blurted in obvious exasperation, “Hello?”
A voice responded, “Elspeth, tis Connor. How are you?”
“I’m fine,” she responded pleasantly, “And you?”
“Great! Listen, some of us are meeting at my new apartment on Friday night. Tis a small party. Can you come? I mean, would you like to?”
“I don’t know, Connor. You know I adore being with you, but as you also know only too well, I’m not comfortable in large groups. What’s the occasion?”
“Actually, tis Anna’s birthday. Her birthday is on Saturday, but some of us can’t make it then. Anyway, tis quite a small group. I should think you’ll be fine.”
“Oh, alright, I’ll come, but only because you’re the one doing the asking.”
“Thanks so much. Farhan will be delighted to hear that you are coming. He wants to surprise Anna. I say, would it be too much of an imposition to ask you to bring her along…without letting on, of course.”
“Ah, now I see! You really just need me to make sure she comes to the party.”
“Elspeth, you should know me better than that. I don’t think I’d want to be there if you didn’t come.”
“Well now, that’s much better, Connor. Why didn’t you say that to begin with?”
“Er, uhm…I suppose I was intimidated…”
“Intimidated? By what?”
“By YOU, Elspeth! Sometimes you scare the hell out of me!”
At this unexpected admission, Elspeth giggled and responded, “Excellent! I’d say things are simply smashing, Connor. See you Friday night then,” and with that she hung up.
It was a cold and blustery night, but absolutely nothing could dampen Elspeth’s good humor. Arriving at Connor’s apartment, she shrugged her way out of her coat and hugged Connor, purring self-assuredly, “Hello, you scaredy-cat, you.”
“Hi, Elspeth,” he murmured abashedly, “You look smashing tonight. And Anna, how are you?”
“I’m fine,” Anna replied introspectively, “Where are the others?”
“Oh, they’ll be along shortly. Farhan is bringing the girls, and the guys you already know. They’re Billy, Ryan, James, and William. They all live here in the building, so I expect them any minute.” At that moment the doorbell rang, and Connor murmured, “Ah, that will be them now.” And so saying, he tugged the door open, allowing the four guys to sort of tumble into the room.
“Hey, ladies!” William proffered, “What’s doin’?”
“Hi, William,” Elspeth put in, “This is my friend, Anna.” And turning to Anna, she continued, “Anna, this is William, and that’s Ryan, there’s Billy over there, and that’s James by the fireplace.”
“Hi there,” Anna posited shyly.
Billy wandered nearer and muttered, “My, my, she has the same pale blue eyes as do Farhan and Connor. What’s that about?” and then, turning to Anna, he inquired, “Aren’t you going to take off the scarf, Anna? It’s plenty warm in here.”
“It’s called a hijab, Billy,” she responded distantly, “I follow the Muslim faith, and women of Islam never remove their hijab in public.”
“Oh…” was all Billy could think of to say, but then he blurted vacuously, “You don’t look like you’re from the Middle East.”
Following up, James blabbered condescendingly, “Where’ve you been hiding, Billy, under a rock? Everybody knows that!”
“What a hijab is, you idiot!”
At that moment the doorbell rang yet again, and Connor ushered in Farhan, who was accompanied by four young ladies. “Good evening, everyone,” Farhan exclaimed beneath an enormous grin. “These are my friends, Lorna, Susie, Bobbie, and Theresa.”
At this Connor put in, “Ladies, please make yourselves at home. There are drinks in the kitchen, and I’m just about to put out the hors d’oeuvres. Let’s party!”
It was quickly apparent that things were off to a great start. Everyone mixed pleasantly, and eventually they got around to singing Happy Birthday to Anna. Over the course of the evening they all became pleasantly tipsy, during which it developed that the girls were apparently students at Boston College.
Elspeth had no idea what the group had to do with Anna’s birthday, but she had reached a state of inebriation wherein she didn’t really care. That is, until she noticed Billy and Farhan having a private conversation in the kitchen.
Shortly thereafter Billy suggested that they play a game.
“A game? What sort of game?” Elspeth inquired.
“I was thinkin’ we should play poker, boys against the girls,” Billy said.
“I say, great idea!” Connor put in, adding, “I’ll play!”
“Me, too,” the other guys echoed.
Lorna then agreed, “I’m in. What about the rest of you, ladies?”
“Me, too,” Susie, Bobbie and Theresa spewed simultaneously.
At this Elspeth spluttered, “What are the rules?”
Billy propounded, “Five card stud, boys against the girls.”
“Okay, but how do we keep score?” Elspeth queried suspiciously.
“I don’t know,” Billy murmured pensively, but then his face lit up, much too quickly in Elspeth’s opinion, and he suggested, “I know! Let’s make it simple! Let’s play strip poker! Whenever a guy wins a hand, the girls take something off, and vice versa when one of the girls win a hand! After all, it is a birthday party, and surely someone is bound to end up just like the day they were born! It’s all the rage around campus, you know!”
At this rather absurd suggestion Anna blurted, “Sorry, I have to beg off. It’s against my faith.”
“Oh, come on, Anna,” Farhan interrupted, “Islam is five thousand miles from here. Come on, this’ll be fun! Besides, tis your birthday party!”
Obviously irritated by this irksome development, Anna stared at him vehemently and muttered, “Listen, I’ll just watch, and we’ll see how it goes, okay?”
Connor now spoke up, saying, “Well, I don’t know…”
Elspeth had drunk just one drink too many, prompting her to respond decisively, “Count me in!”
“Are you quite certain you want to do this, Elspeth?” Connor queried in apparent bewilderment.
Elspeth narrowed her eyes at him for a moment, then exclaimed, “Listen, buddy boy, I’m not your personal property. If I want to strip and walk down the street buck naked, it’s none of your damn business. I’m playing strip poker whether you like it or not!”
At this rejoinder, Connor blushed and responded, “Okay, okay. Sorry I spoke. I suppose I’ll play as well.”
Seeing as how there were so many cards to be dealt, they scared up two decks of cards and mixed them together, after which the game got underway. The girls lost the first hand, prompting the removal of some insignificant articles. Meanwhile, Anna cowered in the corner, silently considering leaving her own birthday party.
Unfortunately for the boys, the girls won the next three hands in a row, prompting all of the boys to remove shoes, socks, and shirts. Things were suddenly getting interesting.
The boys won the next hand with a straight flush, and the girls doffed another insignificant item.
The next hand went to the girls, and the boys were suddenly down to undershorts.
But then the boys won three hands in a row, and all of the girls were down to bras and panties. The next hand would surely unveil heretofore hidden treasures on one side or the other.
But the girls won the hand, and the boys were obliged to remove their undershorts. Unwilling to accept defeat, Bobbie suggested one more hand with the promise that the boys would line dance if they lost, to which the girls unanimously agreed.
Elspeth won the hand with two pair, at which point the boys all stood up to dance for the girls. Within seconds the four girls from Boston College doffed their remaining clothing, and suddenly everyone was naked – that is – everyone except Elspeth and Anna.
Horrified by the sudden turn of events, Elspeth quickly gathered up her clothes and, together with Anna, she raced for the door.
As she tugged the door open Connor called to her, “Where are you going, Elspeth and Anna? We haven’t even cut the birthday cake yet!”
Without so much as glancing over her shoulder, Elspeth replied, “I thought you knew me better than that, Connor. Don’t bother calling me to apologize.” And with that she slammed the door behind her.
“Come on, Anna,” she blurted, “Let’s get out of here. There was something really fishy about that party.”
“Yeah, I think the whole thing was a setup,” Anna suggested, “Connor must’ve used my birthday as an excuse to set up the whole scam in an attempt to get you naked. And I’ll bet they paid the other girls to strip in hopes you’d join in. Frankly, they didn’t look like very virtuous types, if you get my meaning.”
At this Elspeth raised one eyebrow in shock and responded, “My goodness, I believe you’re right, Anna. Thanks for sitting out. I’m not sure I would’ve had the guts to go it alone.”
“Oh, it’s nothing, but I’d like to know just what it felt like to you.”
“Like what felt like?” Elspeth murmured vacantly.
“What it felt like to take your clothes off in front of a bunch of guys,” Anna retorted.
“Weird! Weird is all I can say,” Elspeth mumbled, “Anyway, I didn’t really show that much. I’ve worn less at the beach.”
“Yeah, but you were only one hand from compromising yourself, Elspeth. And if you’d lost two more hands, the boys would’ve won, and you’d have been naked as a jaybird!”
“Oh, that was never a possibility.”
“What? How so?”
“You forget, Anna – I’m a math major – I counted cards.”
“No, counting cards is not cheating, Anna.”
“But how in heaven’s name did you count cards with two full decks?”
“I don’t know, it’s just really easy for me. So you see – there was no chance the girls would lose.”
“Then why did you play?”
“Good question. I thought about it, and I realized that if I didn’t play, those poor girls were bound to lose. In my misplaced wisdom, I thought I was simply looking out for them.”
“Oh, I see…”
“Anyway, as it turned out, it didn’t make any difference. They ended up naked anyway, perhaps even on purpose, as you suggested.”
“I never want to see Connor or Farhan again, Elspeth.”
“Me either, but there is one saving grace, Anna.”
“We now know that both Connor and Farhan are not to be trusted.”
Elspeth picked up the ringing phone and inquired, “This is Elspeth. Who is calling?”
“Elspeth, tis Connor,” the voice responded.
“I told you not to call me!” she screamed into the phone, and with that she reached forward to slam it down on the table.
But she heard him say, “Elspeth! Please don’t hang up on me! Tis important!”
Dragging the receiver back to her ear, she inquired, “What? What’s so important?”
“I’m going home, Elspeth. I’m going home for the summer,” he replied morosely. “Please, can I see you before I go?”
“Are you coming back in the fall?”
“Yes, of course,” he responded.
“Well, then, I shall consider speaking to you then. At this moment, I’m afraid it would serve no purpose for us to see one another.”
“Please, Elspeth, I must speak with you,” he replied.
“Well then, do so!” she spat into the phone.
“No, not like this,” he moaned, “In person!”
“Out of the question,” she posited.
“Elspeth, I’m so sorry. I messed up. Can’t you see your way to give me another chance?”
“Doubtful, highly doubtful, but at the moment there is no chance whatsoever. You may telephone me on your return in September, and perhaps by then I will have had a change of heart. As I said – it’s unlikely – but there it is nonetheless.”
“I understand,” he murmured disconsolately and, heaving a discernible sigh, he added, “I shall telephone you in the fall, Elspeth. Goodbye.”
Boston – Late Summer 1992
Elspeth took a job for the summer at a lodge in upstate Vermont. It was hard work, but she welcomed both the distraction and the time away from the stress of going to college. By the end of the summer she was well beyond ready to get back to school.
On her return to Boston she headed directly for the post office, where she was handed an entire box full of junk mail. Lugging it back to her apartment, she tugged the door open, only to be hit by that musty smell that signifies stale air due to a lengthy absence.
Once she had opened the windows, put away her things, and grabbed a cup of tea, she set to thumbing her way through the box of mail. Near the bottom of the box she found a small envelope postmarked Edinburgh, Scotland. The return addressee read C. Stuart.
Perplexed to have received a letter from Connor, Elspeth placed it on the table and settled into her easy chair. Why on earth would he have sent her a letter on the eve of his return? Still, a letter might be nice. It seemed like forever since she had seen him, long enough for her to not only forgive him, but more, for her to realize just how much she’d missed him.
Opening the letter, she read as follows:
August 27, 1992
I imagine that you may not want to hear from me, but I simply could not let things remain as they stood at the end of the spring semester. You see, I have been expelled from Hanford, and as a result I shall not be returning to Boston in the fall. I hope that this news does not disturb you terribly so, but in all honesty, I cannot say the same for myself. I am, to say the least, devastated. Being expelled from college is certainly awful for me but, to be quite honest with you, tis nothing compared to the realization that I may never see your lovely face again. I don’t mind telling you – I am quite disconsolate at this possibility.
I have been accepted into the University of Edinburgh, where I shall continue my studies. Should you find it within your heart to ever forgive me, I would welcome a letter from you. In the meantime, I wish you well, and I hope that yours is a fruitful and happy life.
Frozen within her chair, Elspeth stared incredulously at the letter. Suddenly tearing up uncontrollably, she dropped the letter to the floor and curled up in a tiny ball. For the second time in her life she had been torn to pieces by loss.
A Month Later
Elspeth was, as usual, camped out within the Nob Hill Coffee Shop. Ever since school had begun, she’d found it impossible to concentrate on her studies. As a result, she had increasingly escaped to the coffee shop, memories of happier times somehow providing just enough sedation for her to concentrate on schoolwork. And although the shop was often crowded with students, she had by her aloof demeanor managed to keep to herself. Having managed on this particular day to engross herself within the mathematical beauty of a uniquely challenging theorem, she failed to notice the tall young man as he entered and strode deliberately to her table.
Arriving at her side, he announced hesitantly, “Hello, Elspeth. How are you?”
Struck by the unexpected intrusion, she glanced upward and, recognizing her visitor, she exclaimed distantly, “Oh, hello, Farhan. I’m fine, and how are you?”
At this he replied hopefully, “I’m quite well,” following it with, “May I?”
“Of course,” she responded pleasantly, and as he did so, she added, “So, what have you been up to since last we met?”
“I went home to Egypt for the summer. It was great, but I’m glad to be back in Boston, if you must know.”
“I can understand that,” she responded, “I do so love Boston,” and flipping her hair self-consciously, she added, “Anna is back as well. She too seems to be glad to be back in Boston.”
“Yes, I know,” he replied, “I’ve already seen her.”
“Oh? I hadn’t realized,” she responded, “I assumed you wanted to meet me to talk about her.”
“No, in point of fact, I wanted to talk to you about Connor.”
“Connor? You mean, Connor Stuart?”
“Yes, of course,” he responded in surprise, “Where is he?”
“What, you haven’t heard?” she blurted in amazement.
“Heard what, Elspeth?”
“He’s not coming back, Farhan.”
“What! How can that be, Elspeth? The last thing he said to me before we parted in May was that he would see me in the fall!”
“Yes, well, the vermin seems to have gotten himself expelled from Hanford. So, you see, he’s not coming back.”
“What! Expelled!” he exclaimed in apparent shock, “What on earth are you talking about, Elspeth? Why was he expelled?”
“I’ve no idea,” she responded, “Actually, I was hoping that you might be able to shed some light for me.”
He eyed her momentarily and the queried, “How should I know? After all, we weren’t even majoring in the same subject. I rarely saw him except on weekends and in the one class we took together in the fall.”
“So I take it then that you have no idea either?”
“No, none whatsoever, Elspeth.”
“Damn!” she blurted dismally.
“You miss him, don’t you?” he inquired.
“Supposing I do,” she mumbled, “What of it?”
“I don’t know, perhaps I could write to him and intercede on your behalf.”
“To what purpose, Farhan? We were already done before he left. Really, there is no point. Just let it lay.”
“Alright, if that is what you want, Elspeth,” he responded and, covering her hand with his own, he offered, “What say we try to move on.”
She stared incongruously at his hand for a moment and then, slowly withdrawing her own, she murmured, “Good idea. Any suggestions?”
“Well, er, why don’t the three of us have pizza together on Friday night, just for old time’s sake?”
She glanced up at him and queried, “You mean, with Anna?”
“Of course,” he responded politely, “Perhaps that will help.”
At this suggestion Elspeth relented.
Elspeth barged her way into the pizza parlor and, seeing the pair seated in her favorite corner, she strolled over and observed, “Just like old times, eh?”
“But for one thing, yes,” Anna posited.
“Seems like ages ago, the four of us sat right here at this very table,” Elspeth exclaimed morosely.
“You miss him terribly, don’t you,” Anna suggested.
“Aw, hell, I suppose I do,” Elspeth blurted, “But I have to grow up sometime, and there’s no time like the present. Life is full of surprises, I suppose, and I admit that I was rather looking forward to dressing down that son-of-a-bitch on his return to Boston. I had it all planned out. I was going to make him squirm, and then I was going to kiss and forgive…”
“Yeah, well, you’ll have to fly to Scotland if you still want to see him squirm,” Anna put in serendipitously.
“Not going to happen,” Elspeth responded matter-of-factly, “So, we three, let’s get on with it. There are more fish in the sea, and with a bit of luck, I shall land another.”
“Right,” Farhan agreed, “That’s the spirit, Elspeth. Now, let’s have some of that famous pizza. I confess, I’ve been dreaming of that pizza ever since I went home in May!”
“Me, too,” Anna exclaimed, at which the three twittered in unison.
Perhaps time would indeed heal the wounds.
Three Months Later
Elspeth met him at the coffee shop. On seeing him, their eyes met and she asked nonchalantly, “How are you, Farhan?”
“Fine, and you?” he responded.
“Okay, I guess,” she murmured lackadaisically, “My studies are keeping me busy, you know.”
“Mine, too,” he responded, and then he added, “I know you’re wondering why I asked you here for coffee.”
“Yes, of course,” she replied.
“Well, to the point then – it seems I’ve heard from Connor, Elspeth.”
Arching one eyebrow in surprise, she responded, “Oh?”
“Yes, he wrote to me, you see.”
“And what did he say?”
“Oh, nothing specific…”
“Really? Did he ask about me?”
“Well, er, not exactly, although he did ask me if I’d seen you.”
“Well, if you must know, he asked me to look after you, Elspeth,” he murmured.
“You’re kidding!” she exclaimed.
“Actually, he suggested that I should ask you out on a date, if you must know.”
“Really!” she blurted incredulously, “That asshole! I always knew he was a jerk!”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Farhan responded defensively, “Perhaps he just wants me to look out for you, Elspeth.”
“I seriously doubt that, Farhan.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Just this, Farhan. Did he mention any part of my anatomy?”
“What! Of course not!”
“Oh, come now, Farhan – boys will be boys. Fess up – he figures if he can’t have my ass, why not you, right?”
“I’ve no idea what you’re talking about, Elspeth!”
“I doubt that, Farhan. I saw how you were playing those girls at the Valentine’s Party last February. Don’t toy with me – I can tell you’ve been around the block.”
At this he blushed and objected, “I’m just trying to be a go-between here, Elspeth. That’s all.”
She eyed him viciously and responded, “I ask you – to what possible end?”
“You’ll have to ask Connor, I’m afraid.”
She stared out the window but, suddenly turning back towards him, she blurted, “Alright, I’ll do it.”
“Go out with you, damn you!”
At this revelation he peered pensively at her for a moment and then he responded contritely, “Alright, but just as friends, Elspeth, just to sort of put this all behind us.”
She grimaced and, rising from her seat, she commanded, “Friday night, 7PM, my place.”
“Yes, of course,” he responded, but she was by then already out of earshot.
Elspeth met him at the door and, upon seeing her dressed in a gorgeous black dress, he sucked in audibly. Having accomplished her opening move, she purred, “Good evening, Farhan. How are you tonight?”
“Great!” he replied, and his nervousness obvious to her, he appended, “Never better.”
They strolled arm-in-arm to a nearby restaurant, where they shared an absolutely scrumptious meal. The conversation was both polite and convivial, and throughout it all, the name ‘Connor’ never came up even once. Finally, over dessert, he inquired, “Connor once told me your parents were killed in the Lockerbie bombing.”
Eyeing him suspiciously, she responded, “That’s correct.”
“It must have been horrible for you,” he replied compassionately.
Seeing his obvious concern, she responded nonchalantly, “It was a long time ago. I’m over it now.”
“I would have thought one never gets over something of that nature,” he observed.
“Well, that may be, but I’m doing just fine, Farhan. On that note, suppose we go back to my apartment for a nightcap.”
“Sure,” he responded, and he even paid the check.
Once back at the apartment, she poured them each a shot of scotch and inquired, “Straight, or on the rocks?”
“Straight,” he posited.
“Ooh, too strong for me,” she replied and, dropping ice within her own glass, she handed him a rather large shot.
They then retired to the sofa, where their respective drinks disappeared effortlessly in the midst of an incongruous conversation regarding the merits of, among other things, horseback riding. Eventually, his glass drained, she inquired as to whether he would like another.
“Depends,” he responded diffidently, “Are you having another?”
“But of course,” she replied woozily.
“Alright, then I shall as well,” he replied confidently.
Midway through the second glass, she crossed her legs enticingly and, taking it as an invitation, he inched his way closer to her.
At his gesture she smiled alluringly and suggested, “Do you yourself prefer to ride bareback, or in the saddle, Farhan?”
His eyes widening in surprise, he replied carelessly, “Why, bareback, of course. Every man who is worth his own weight prefers to ride bareback.”
“I’ll just bet, Farhan – I’ll bet you could ride bareback all night long.”
At this rather beguiling suggestion, Farhan leaned forward and, kissing her lightly on the lips, he posited self-assuredly, “I can assure you, you would win that bet.”
As she did not resist, he pressed his advantage, in the process kissing her ever more deeply. At length, he pulled back, searched within her eyes, and suggested, “Shall we go into the bedroom?”
“I thought you’d never ask,” she replied inscrutably and, taking his hand within hers, she drew him through the bedroom doorway.
Once there, she said, “I must make myself presentable, Farhan. I shan’t be but a moment,” and so saying, she darted into the bathroom.
Within seconds she reemerged, a pistol held within her hands, and commanded, “Farhan, you son-of-a-bitch, get your ass out of my apartment, and don’t you EVER come back here, do you hear me?”
Seeing the firearm aimed directly at him, he rose cautiously from her bed and responded, “You will regret this, you bitch!”
“Not a chance!” she exclaimed and, waving her pistol at him, she added, “Get the hell out of here, and tell your buddy Connor Stuart that nobody gets into my pants!”
By this point in time, Farhan had reached the apartment door and, peering back over his shoulder, he scowled at her and spat, “This isn’t the end of this, Elspeth Moorehead, not by a long shot!”
“Fuck you!” she screamed, but by then he had already slammed the door behind him.
Boston – January, 1993
A light snow was falling as Anna boarded the train for Baltimore. Although she was quite nervous, something inside of her refused to back down. She reasoned that she was on her way now, and nothing could stop her.
Upon her arrival in Baltimore she quickly removed her hijab and took a taxi to the club in Little Italy. As it was a Saturday night, there was a sizable crowd wandering the streets despite the inclement weather. Fear welled up within her as she stood outside the club but, throwing caution to the wind, she rushed inside. She hastily introduced herself to the bouncer, informing him that she was here for the amateur competition. Inspecting her up and down for what seemed an eternity, he at length pointed silently to the dressing room door.
Anna’s turn came shortly before midnight. Fortunately, she kept the mask on throughout her performance, otherwise she doubted she’d have had the nerve to complete her routine. Still, by the time she had shed her entire costume, she felt a tremendous sense of euphoria. For the first time in her life, she felt in control. Wearing exactly the opposite of what she had been forced to wear her entire life, she felt empowered to express her womanhood for the very first time. And although she’d had no idea what she was doing, the crowd had seemed to enjoy her every move. Each time she’d shed an article of clothing they had screamed in unison, thereby encouraging her to continue her performance right down to the very end.
Once she had achieved complete nudity, she had danced sinuously for what seemed an eternity, the crowd continuing to enjoy her every move. She had always suspected, whenever she’d had the nerve to observe herself in the mirror, that she was beautiful. Now she could rest assured that her suspicions had indeed been correct. Hours later, when she stepped off the overnight return train to Boston, she was still basking in the glow of her triumph.
The following day Anna awoke feeling guilty and ashamed. Hardly speaking to anyone for days, she repeatedly prayed to Allah for forgiveness. Having no idea what had induced such depression, even Elspeth couldn’t drag her from her malaise.
A Month Later
As the days passed into weeks, Anna slowly began to recover. Six weeks after her initial sojourn to Boston, Anna suddenly felt the urge to perform yet again. And so she did. Returning to Baltimore, she put on a spectacular performance that won her second prize. By the time she had returned to Boston, she had already vowed that the next time she went to Baltimore she would win first prize.
Scouring shops in her spare time for just the right implements, Anna put together a stunning outfit within the secrecy of her apartment. Two weeks later she returned to Baltimore, and this time she fulfilled her vow to take the grand prize. But the money she collected was nothing compared to the self-esteem she gained. She was hooked, and from then on she made the trip to Baltimore whenever possible.
Early April, 1993
One Saturday evening Anna was feeling particularly lonely. With nothing better to do, she went for a walk by herself. Seeing crowds of effervescent students pouring into and out of bars, her feelings of loneliness grew accordingly. Having no sense of how to behave in public when she was ensconced within her hijab, she wandered into a particularly crowded bar, where she was jostled about until she found herself at the bar. Afraid of making a public spectacle of herself, she ordered a glass of scotch. One glass turned into two, and by then she was engaged in conversation with a complete stranger.
His name was Willis, and he seemed to be a nice sort. They chatted idly for a few moments, and then he suddenly inquired where she was from. She told him, and one thing led to another, until he bought her yet another drink, this time a double. Shortly thereafter he had the temerity to ask her to remove her hijab, but by then she was too far gone to maintain civility. Grabbing his drink, she tossed it in his face and, abruptly turning on her heel, she raced out onto the street, whereupon she burst into tears.
Reassuring herself that he hadn’t followed her, she subsequently headed in the general direction of her apartment, whereupon she realized that in her current state of inebriation she was too disoriented to determine which way she should go to return home. Standing on the street in a state of confusion, she suddenly noticed a sign that read “Tantalizing Tattoos”. Somehow assuming that this might offer temporary refuge at least until she could regain her senses, she pushed open the door and stumbled within, only to find herself within some sort of den of inequity.
Turning immediately to exit the shop, she was stopped short by a pleasant sounding female voice that drawled, “May I help you, miss?”
To make a long story short, that was the night that Anna got a tattoo, something that was strictly forbidden in her culture. When she realized what she had done the following morning she was horrified. Still, reality slowly inching its way over her, by afternoon she had recovered from her fear, especially since the tiny butterfly was well hidden at the base of her spine, a spot that would surely never be seen by anyone who could do her harm.
Early May, 1993
Anna’s sense of dejection grew with each passing day and, fueled by her extreme state of misery, her trips to Baltimore continued with predictable regularity. Her brief spans onstage had become the only joy she felt, an elixir partaken whenever her misery exceeded her sense of propriety. Things finally came to a head near the end of the semester, when the pressure of final exams caused her anxiety to peak to such a state that she felt in need of release in the middle of the week. Searching frantically through the newspapers for someplace, any place both secure and closer to home, she finally located a bar that was advertising a Wednesday night amateur contest that was in Worcester, far enough from Boston to be safe. So off she went, and sure enough, the events of the evening served to mitigate her extremely agitated state.
Unfortunately, when her time came to perform, she was unaware that an acquaintance was ensconced within the crowd. At the completion of her act she flinched when her pale blue eyes met a pair of equally pale blue eyes through the smoky haze. Still, she did her best to continue as if naught had transpired, consoling herself that surely the mask would protect her identity. But just to be certain, on completing her act, she raced to the dressing room and quickly donned her normal attire, thereby making her way home entirely unobserved.
A Week Later
Elspeth and Anna met at the Nob Hill Coffee Shop. Anna was still distraught for some reason or another, which didn’t help Elspeth’s mood at all. Eyeing her over the rim of her coffee cup, Elspeth posited, “Damn it, snap out of it, Anna! With Connor gone, you’re my only close friend here at Hanford. And believe me, I need all the friends I can get!”
“I’m sorry, Elspeth,” Anna retorted, “I’m trying, I really am.”
“What the heck is wrong, Anna?”
“Oh, nothing. Perhaps I just miss home,” Anna blurted.
“How are you getting along with Farhan?”
“Farhan!” Anna exclaimed, “I thought you’d heard!”
“Heard what?” Elspeth inquired blankly.
“Farhan left Hanford a week ago, Elspeth.”
“What! Why ever for?”
“No idea. Perhaps it had something to do with that run-in the two of you had last fall.”
Elspeth eyed her a moment and responded, “I doubt that very seriously, Anna.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Anna! There was really nothing to it! I’ve told you before – we only went out on the one date together, and we just didn’t hit it off. Besides, I was never interested in Farhan, if you must know.”
“Well,” Anna murmured, “He sure was interested in you!”
“That’s ridiculous!” Elspeth blurted in disgust.
“Perhaps, perhaps not,” Anna responded, “But I suppose it really doesn’t matter anyway. He’s not coming back, of that I am quite certain.”
At this Elspeth stared off into space for a moment and then mumbled, “Weird. It seems like only yesterday, the four of us sat right here in this coffee shop together, so filled with life, and so fulfilled by our mutual friendship.”
“Yeah, it is weird,” Anna agreed.
“Well, now it’s just the two of us, Anna. So you’d better get your act together. I for one can’t make it through the next two years without your friendship!”
At this revelation Anna studied her for a moment and volunteered, “I’ll be alright, Elspeth. As long as I have you, I’ll be fine.”
“Ditto, Anna, ditto,” Elspeth posited grimly.
Two Weeks Later
Elspeth and Anna were by now on their third glass of whiskey, their mutual misery having driven them a bit beyond acceptable behavior. Still, they had survived the spring semester and they were within the safety of Elspeth’s apartment, giving them ample reason to celebrate.
“Why do you suppose Farhan left school?” Elspeth inquired blearily.
“No idea,” Anna replied, “But you cannot imagine how glad I am to find out that bastard has left Hanford.”
“Why? What did he do to you, Anna?”
“Now that he’s gone, I suppose I can tell you, Elspeth,” she responded. “You see, Farhan was watching my every move.”
“What exactly do you mean, Anna?”
“Well, for instance, remember that first semester, when we went to the Halloween party?”
“Of course,” Elspeth replied with a grin, “Who could forget that night?”
“Yes, well, I’d certainly like to,” Anna posited.
“Because that bastard beat me up, that’s why!”
“What! What the hell are you talking about, Anna?”
“Surely you remember, I showed up a couple of days later with bruises on my shoulder and leg.”
“Oh, my…” Elspeth murmured, “My God, Anna, I swear, I had no idea!”
“Of course you didn’t, because I didn’t want you to, Elspeth! Why do you think I skipped the Valentine’s Day slumber party? He would have had my hide that night for sure!”
“But…” Elspeth shook her head in confusion, “I’m afraid I don’t understand. Why did Farhan beat you up?”
“Elspeth, I can see you’ve quite a lot to learn,” Anna retorted, “A Muslim woman is never supposed to show her hair in public. And that night, I removed my headdress for all to see.”
“But…” Elspeth blurted, “But we’re in the United States, for God’s sake! We’re not in the Middle East!”
“Matters not in the slightest to a Muslim man,” Anna responded, “The fact is, under Islamic law Farhan had the legal right to beat me.”
“But the United States does not observe Islamic law,” Elspeth exclaimed.
“Ha!” Anna yelped, “Elspeth, had I known that Farhan was going to attempt to seduce you, I’d have told you what he did to me. But, as it develops, you were perfectly capable of defending yourself against that asshole.”
“Yes, well, that may be true, but from what you tell me, my animosity may have been misdirected that night.”
“What do you mean, Elspeth?”
“What I mean is this – I actually thought that Connor had put Farhan up to it.”
“Elspeth, my dear friend,” Anna posited, “You have it all wrong – Connor is your knight in shining armor. He was simply the perfect match for you.”
“Yes, well, that may be, but it’s water under the bridge, Anna.”
“Perhaps, perhaps not.”
“Elspeth, there may be a great body of water between the two of you, but where I come from, that is nothing compared to the tiniest sliver of love.”
“Love! Who said anything about love!”
“Well, since you asked – he did!”
“Connor did, you imbecile!”
“I don’t understand,” Elspeth murmured in obvious despair.
At this Anna arched one eyebrow and posited, “Before he left last summer, Connor confessed to me that he was in love with you.”
Elspeth had now been at Hanford for nearly four years. After Connor’s abrupt departure from Boston three years earlier, she had essentially kept to herself. The pair of them being both profoundly introverted, she and Anna had maintained a close friendship, one that had been sufficient to sustain her scant need for human companionship. Having always found it difficult to strike up conversations with strangers, Elspeth had instead spent the majority of her time focused on her studies. And, just as Connor had predicted so long ago, her grades had shown it, eventually placing her at the top of her class in the Mathematics Department at Hanford University.
Accordingly, Elspeth had sought advice and, having been told that she would be readily accepted into graduate studies, she had contemplated long and hard on her future. In the end, she had decided that she needed a change, and not just something small. Mind you, she wasn’t of a mind to go into the workforce just yet. Instead, she felt the need to see something of the world.
After consulting with her grandmother, she settled on going somewhere abroad to further her studies. She had taken French at Hanford, but the possibility of studying in France was somehow a bit too daunting. That left an English speaking country and, surveying her options, she determined that her best opportunities lay in England or Scotland.
Ruling out Scotland for obvious reasons, she concentrated on England, eventually coming to the conclusion that the most attractive location therein was clearly London. From there it was an easy choice, Imperial College offering by far the best program in mathematics within the capital city. Accordingly, she had made application three months earlier, but for some reason she had heard nothing since.
Her concerns by now mounting daily, Elspeth hovered at her mailbox every day, impatiently awaiting the arrival of the daily mail. Finally, one unusually cold day in late January, her patience having by then completely escaped her, she sat scrunched upon the front steps of her apartment building, her arms wrapped tightly about her in a futile attempt to ward off the frigid weather, the daily mail her singular concern.
Spotting the mailwoman coming along the walk, she hopped to her feet and inquired in obvious anticipation, “Good morning, Janey, any mail for me today?”
At this the mailwoman smiled knowingly at her and, approaching directly to her side, she announced playfully, “Now, what was it you said you were waiting for, Elspeth? Let me see…”
Grinning at her, Elspeth posited, “You know perfectly well what it is – a letter from England!” And, her visage changing instantaneously to one of anxiety, she queried, “Is there anything, anything at all today, Janey?”
A twinkle in her eye, Janey checked the small stack of mail in her hand and observed, “Hmmm…I don’t see anything – bill, bill, bill…nope,” and then her face breaking into a broad smile, she appended, “Oh, I almost forgot,” and, tugging a large envelope from her pack, she announced, “There seems to be one more small item for you today, Elspeth.”
Her eyes suddenly lighting up in anticipation, Elspeth exclaimed, “Janey! You huckster…I should have known!” And, reaching for the outstretched envelope, she immediately tore into it. Voraciously reading the enclosed materials, her frown suddenly changed to a most enchanting smile as she proudly announced, “Oh, Janey, I’m in!”
Grasping Elspeth in a matronly hug, Janey responded, “Oh, Elspeth, I’m so proud of you! We’ve all been pulling for you!”
“Thanks, Janey,” Elspeth responded and, surreptitiously rereading the letter, she suddenly giggled and screamed with delight, “Oh, yay! I must call Gran and tell her the news – I’ve been admitted to graduate studies at Imperial College for the fall term!”
Elspeth surveyed the cacophony within the enormous backstage area and approached Anna, in the process noting that she looked absolutely smashing in her graduation gown. “I can’t believe it,” Elspeth gushed as she came closer, “The day has finally arrived! We’re about to be graduates of one of the most highly regarded universities in the world, Anna!”
“Yes, I’m all too aware of that,” Anna responded morosely.
Frowning at Anna’s attitude, Elspeth queried, “What’s wrong, Anna? You don’t sound excited at all!”
“Well, it is quite an honor I suppose, but unlike you, I’ve nothing to look forward to. I’m going home to Egypt in two weeks.”
“Yes, but you’re going home, Anna – home to your family!” Elspeth offered, then added sadly, “I wish I had a family to go home to.”
“Yes, well, I do miss them, but the thought of returning to Egypt really makes me sick,” Anna retorted.
“Why? Is it truly that bad?”
“You’ve no idea. Not only is it a different world physically, the culture is stifling, especially for a woman.”
“Oh, well then, why not come to London and study at Imperial College with me?”
“I would love to do that, Elspeth, but the admission process is quite difficult, especially for a Muslim woman, and to make matters worse, Imperial College is quite expensive. Perhaps even too expensive for my family to afford.”
“I thought your family was well off, Anna.”
“Not at all. I seem to have an uncle who is well set, but my mother and I have lived a rather Spartan existence. So, unless my uncle volunteers, I doubt that there are sufficient resources for me to afford Imperial College.”
“Ah, well then, why not come to London and visit me, Anna? Perhaps we can find something else for you to do there.”
“Thanks for offering, Elspeth, but it will be up to my family to decide such important matters.”
“I understand, Anna, but you must promise me you will at least try.”
“Yes, of course. Now, let us get to our proper place in line. We wouldn’t want to miss our own graduation now, would we?”
“Ha! I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
As anticipated, though lengthy, the graduation ceremony went off quite smoothly. After all, Hanford University had been awarding diplomas for more than three hundred and fifty years. Surely someone during that span of time had figured out the process down to the smallest detail. At any rate, there was an enormous celebration developing on the lawn as Elspeth and Anna exited the auditorium. Everywhere Elspeth glanced, graduates were being congratulated by family members. As she and Anna had no relatives present, they decided to depart thereafter and head directly for their favorite coffee shop. Once there, well aware that a chapter of their young lives had just come to a close, the pair of them settled in for a farewell party of sorts.
Al Kufra Oasis, Libya – Late July, 1970
From his perch beneath the palm tree, Wassim was as comfortable as could possibly be in the mid-afternoon searing heat. In his more than half a century of life, he had learned how to survive in such an inhospitable environment, his small flock of sheep providing just enough income to support his wife and children. All things considered, he’d much rather be here than in some city like Tripoli. True, in Tripoli the winds from the Mediterranean cooled the daylight hours somewhat, but cities were to be avoided at all costs.
He had been to Tripoli once, many years ago. Having had the wanderlust of youth, he had made the long and arduous trek across the desert when he was twenty, the possibility of flying far too expensive for one so poor. On arrival in the enormous city, his dreams had been quickly dashed, as his miniscule stash of money had been stolen by a street urchin on his very first day in so-called “civilization”. He had managed to hang on for a few days further, but only long enough to be certain that he never wanted to be in such a disgusting place ever again.
On his return to Al Kufra shortly thereafter, he had embraced the desert lifestyle, and never again had he ever pondered the thought of leaving his beloved birthplace. And though Libya had changed dramatically over the succeeding thirty years and more, that nutcase Muammar Gaddafi had never shown any interest whatsoever in the far-flung village of Al Kufra.
As his mind wandered on that stifling afternoon, his eyes strayed reflexively to the distant eastern horizon. Al Kufra being on the trail that led from the Western Desert of Egypt, he’d spotted many caravans over the course of a lifetime. But these sightings were nonetheless rare enough to always draw his attention, at least in part because of the threat they might pose to the people of the small oasis.
Suddenly, his eyes focusing intently, he spotted a nearly indiscernible object. It was perhaps fifteen miles distant, but there it was again, a miniscule reflection in the late afternoon sun. There was something moving out there, of that he was certain. Calculating to himself, he reasoned that if it was a caravan, it would take at least two hours for them to arrive if they were moving rapidly, but that time might be doubled if their progress was somewhat slower. Checking the sun, he determined that the travelers would most likely arrive near sunset, time enough for him to make the necessary preparations.
Two hours later, having forewarned the members of the local militia, he was back at his perch beneath the palm tree, his sheep safely put away in the small fenced enclosure. Searching yet again in the selfsame direction, he raised his hand to shield the sunlight, and what he saw through his binoculars astonished him. Not four miles distant he observed a single camel, it’s rider coming on at a rapid pace. Wassim could not recall the last time a lone traveler had arrived from the East, and this one would arrive in less than an hour at Al Kufra.
Shortly before sunset, Wassim awaiting dutifully together with three other men, the obviously weary traveler drew near. To make it clear that they were not to be toyed with, the four of them displayed their rifles prominently, though the rider was still several hundred yards distant. Minutes later, the camel trudging directly towards them, they were unsurprised to see that he was indeed in dire condition. Tumbling in a surprisingly unskilled manner from the camel’s back some distance away, he halted and called to them, “Good day, sirs. I say, I mean you no harm. By the grace of Allah, may I then be allowed to come forward?”
His accent was strange, but his command of Arabic was perfect. And his polite demeanor somehow ensured Wassim that he indeed meant them no harm. Besides, he appeared to be in no condition to cause trouble, thereby leading Wassim to respond officiously, “Please, come forward, sir. We welcome you to Al Kufra. How may we be of assistance to you?”
“Praise Allah! You are most kind,” the traveler responded in apparent exhaustion and, trudging forward, he explained, “I am in need of medical assistance, as I am sure you can tell. Might there be someone here who can provide that? I haven’t eaten for days, and my water supply ran out two days ago.”
“Certainly, sir, we shall provide whatever you may need,” Wassim responded but, his curiosity getting the better of him, he inquired, “If I may be so bold, whatever are you doing traveling across the desert by yourself?”
Arriving at their side, the traveler glanced directly at Wassim. His pale blue eyes now piercing Wassim to the core, he replied cautiously, “Sir, I was indeed not alone. My traveling companions and I set out from Al Uwaynat two weeks ago. Along the way, both of them became ill, from what mysterious malady I do not know, but within three days both of them were dead. In the ensuing confusion, their camels escaped, leaving me alone and lost in the desert.”
“My, that is terrible news, sir,” Wassim observed and, pressing forward a goat skin filled with water, he inquired, “I take it then that you are not from these parts?”
The traveler accepted the proffered container and, after taking a long drink, he swiped one hand across his mouth and responded, “No, sir not at all. I am from Saudi Arabia. This is my first time to come this far west. But with the good grace of Allah, it seems that I shall survive to see another day.”
“Ah, just so, just so…” Wassim observed wistfully, and then he announced officiously, “I, sir, am Wassim Al-Jawf. Whom may I have the pleasure of speaking to?”
“I am Abdullah Al-Khoury, at your service, sir.”
London – September, 1995
For Elspeth, London was absolutely surreal. Tis said that one either absolutely loves London or hates it, and Elspeth definitely fell into the former group. Her studies began smashingly, but the city itself was the main attraction for her. She absolutely couldn’t get enough of it. The first few weeks she spent every waking moment doing her best to learn all she could about the city. Despite seemingly starting all over, she was in a subliminal state. In what little spare time she could afford, she toured The Tower of London, the National Gallery, Whitehall, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Her studies notwithstanding, Elspeth set out on a journey one warm Saturday morning, her intended destination beyond any distant place she had chanced to visit thus far. She’d always had a fancy for historical applications of mathematics, so it seemed right to set out for Greenwich, where modern timekeeping had been more or less put in place. She could have taken the tube, but it was such a lovely day that she decided to take a river launch from Tower Bridge. The boat was nearly deserted, making the voyage even more appealing, so that by the time it docked downriver, she was in quite the perfect mood.
She then made straight for the observatory, wherein she was absolutely entranced by John Harrison’s clocks. Perhaps they weren’t so much about mathematics, but they certainly had a great deal to do with the accurate application of both mathematics and physics, thus explaining her joy at seeing something of such profound historical significance. In truth, Harrison’s invention had made the deployment of Newton’s Laws all the more auspicious.
Having satisfied herself regarding all of the items at the observatory, she departed and made for her return to London. Still, she was wont to return so quickly, so that she found a quite lovely pub near the docks that seemed just right for a luncheon of fish and chips. Once inside she felt a bit overwhelmed by the overwrought gayety of the locals but, camping out at a somewhat remote corner table, she began to feel an upwelling of joy that so often is borne by simply observing others enjoying themselves.
And then, from the corner of her eye, she spotted him. Apparently he had seen her first, for he was headed directly towards her. As he approached, she offered matter-of-factly, “Hello, Connor. What brings you to Greenwich on such a lovely day?”
“Hello, Elspeth! I say, this is quite the surprise. What on earth are you doing in London?”
“I’m in graduate school at Imperial College. And if my suspicions are correct, you already knew that.”
“I suppose I did. I shall not attempt to lie to you, Elspeth.”
“Right. Well, seeing as how you’ve managed to track me down, you may as well have a seat.”
“Thank you, Elspeth. It would mean quite a lot to me to have lunch with you.”
“I didn’t offer to dine with you, Connor.”
“Oh, sorry. Then what did you have in mind?”
“Just answer a few questions for me, if you will.”
“Certainly, how can I be of service to you?”
“What happened at Hanford three years ago, Connor? You wrote that you were expelled from school.”
“Yes, I was…”
“Why ever on earth for, Connor?”
“They claimed that I altered a grade in one of my courses.”
“My, my, shame on you, Connor!”
“I said claimed, Elspeth. On my honor as a Scotsman, I did no such thing!”
At this she eyed him suspiciously and blurted, “From what I know of you, you are every bit capable of such deplorable behavior.”
“I thought you’d say that,” he responded and, glaring at her, he began to rise from his seat, in the process adding, “I’m sorry, I see I’ve wasted my time. I shall bid you good day.”
“SIT!” she commanded, and then, “Sit back down, you asshole! You’ve obviously gone to great lengths to locate me, perhaps even following me to school here in London, so speak your piece, Connor Stuart. For my part, I promise to withhold judgment until I’ve heard your side of the story.”
Halting in mid-rise, he frowned and then, sliding slowly back into his seat, he murmured doubtfully, “Thanks ever so much, at least, I think!”
Matching his own stony glare, she responded, “Please – proceed. I am all ears.”
“Alright. Let me see…where to begin. Right, as I recall, it was the Monday after that appalling party – you know – the night we played strip poker.”
“What does that mean?” she eyed him dubiously.
“Why, surely you recall the night we all played strip poker all those years ago. I had no idea what Farhan was up to. But you had him cornered from the very start. I was certain you’d never even start to play strip poker, but I detected that impish smile of yours right from the start – you had a trick up your sleeve that night – I’m sure of it, and I’ve been wondering what it was ever since. So give it up, Elspeth – what the hell happened that night? Surely you didn’t play on the offhand chance that you might get to see me naked!”
At this she actually giggled, the absurdity of it taking her back to that strange night when her adoration for him had first begun to wane. Her visage now changing noticeably, she rejoined, “So you weren’t the source of the ploy?”
“Ploy, what ploy, Elspeth? Please stop messing around with me and just tell me what happened that night.”
“So you really don’t know?”
“Are you kidding? I was totally blasted – drunk as a skunk, as they say.”
“Okay, I’ll settle for that for the moment. So this is how I remember it – I thought that you and Farhan were trying to get me naked, for what reason I had no idea at the time. For my part, I feared that if I didn’t play the girls would lose, and then where would that leave Anna and me? So I decided to play so that we would win.”
“But how could you know that you’d win?”
“You forget, I’m a mathematician, Connor.”
“Connor, Connor…ever since I was a child I could remember all the cards in one, two, even three decks of cards. Why do you think I became a math nerd? I have a gift for digital memory.”
“Ah, so you cheated. I figured you’d cheated…I just didn’t know quite how you did it!”
“I beg to differ! I did NOT cheat! Counting cards is perfectly legal.”
“Well, er…not in Vegas…”
“But we were not in Las Vegas, you fool!”
“Okay, okay – so you didn’t cheat – I stand corrected. You were just a bit shady, or perhaps you forgot…””
“How could I ever forget? You showed off your family jewels to God and country that night, you bastard.”
“Just so, Elspeth. Just so,” he replied in obvious embarrassment. “I can only say this – had you not decided to play, I wouldn’t have done so either. But I was indeed quite inebriated, or I would have removed myself from the game before it got out of hand. Still, I have no excuse for my behavior that night. I assure you, I have never behaved thusly before or since.”
“A likely story,” she responded doubtfully, “But I digress. We were discussing your expulsion from Hanford.”
Seeing no escaping her line of questioning, he admitted, “At any rate, at the end of the term I was called to the Dean’s Office, whereupon evidence was presented to me indicating that I had stolen a change of grade slip, forged a change of grade, and submitted it to the registrar’s office.’
“My, my, why am I not surprised?”
“Elspeth, please – you must believe me – I never did any such thing. In all honesty, I am entirely incapable of such dishonorable behavior.”
Shaking her head derisively, she replied, “It seems entirely in character to me.”
“What! Surely you can’t mean that!”
“I can and I most certainly do!” she shot back in obvious disgust.
“Why ever for?”
“Are you asking me to believe that you don’t know why?” and seeing his apparent confusion, she blurted, “Alright then, I’ll tell you why. First, you dragged me off to New York and attempted to seduce me. Then, having failed to do so, you dreamt up a party for the purpose of getting me to strip in front of a whole group of strangers. I ask you, Connor, is that the behavior of a person of good character?”
“What! Surely you can’t believe that, Elspeth!” At her stony glare, he realized that she in fact did, thereby prompting him to exclaim, “First off, I didn’t drag you to New York for the purpose of seducing you! As I recall, it was you yourself who suggested the trip, and if my guess is correct, you were also in love with me!”
“What! I was also in love with you? What are you saying, Connor Stuart?”
Realizing his gaff, he stared silently at her a moment, then admitted, “I was in love with you, Elspeth. Surely you knew that.” And at this, he turned his eyes downwards and stared at the table in embarrassment.
“Oh, hell,” she blurted in exasperation, “Then why on earth did you try to seduce me?”
“I thought you wanted me to!”
“Oh, good grief! Supposing for a moment that I did, that’s no reason to organize that heinous strip poker party, Connor!”
“I did no such thing, Elspeth! I tried to stop it! Surely you remember that I did so.”
“If as you claim you attempted to stop it, then why didn’t you?”
“Because you were still mad at me for my mistake on the trip to New York, that’s why. I tried to stop you at the party, but you were furious with me. So I decided to go along, but I at no time had any expectations of seeing you naked that night.”
“And you never could!”
“So if I understand correctly, you knew all along that you couldn’t possibly lose. Instead, you let me lose! My God…” he blurted in confusion.
“Right. But I never actually thought you’d go through with it. Anyway, serves you right for trying to seduce me in New York, you pervert!”
“Pervert! You’ve got this all wrong, Elspeth, can’t you see that?”
“If I’m wrong, then who altered your grade, Connor? Just answer me that!”
“I’ve thought about it ever since, Elspeth, and the truth is, I can only think of one possibility – Farhan.”
“Farhan! Why ever would he do such a thing?”
“I can only think of one reason.”
“Ah, and what might that be?”
“Tell me this, Elspeth – after I left Boston, did he ever ask you out?”
“Well, er, not really, although he did ask me out for coffee once.”
“Surely you can’t be serious, Connor! He was interested in Anna!”
“That may be, but he always acted a bit strangely around you, like he wanted something.”
“No idea, but it’s the only alternative I’ve been able to conjure up.”
“That’s really weak, Connor.”
“Tell me this, Elspeth – did he get anywhere with you?”
“Of course not! Wait a minute – he said that he had corresponded with you, and that you wanted him to go out with me!”
“That’s ridiculous. I’ve neither seen nor heard from Farhan since I left Hanford in 1992.”
“I assure you, I am not!”
“This can’t be true,” she pondered to herself.
“So what happened to him, Elspeth?”
“No idea. He simply left school at the end of his sophomore year at Hanford. Why?”
“Well, I have an idea – I think I may know what happened to him.”
“I think that he stole an entire pad of change of grade slips. I think that he not only altered my grade, but he also altered several of his own grades, and he eventually got caught.”
“What on earth are you blabbing about – stolen grade slips, altering grades – such things simply do not happen!”
“Perhaps not, but I do know one thing for certain.”
“I took a class with Farhan, and he failed it.”
“What! I thought he was a really good student. Didn’t he say he graduated at the top of his class in Asyut?”
“Yeah, that’s what he wanted everyone to believe, but the truth is he rarely went to class, and his exam scores in the class I had with him were at the bottom of the class.”
“Are you telling me that Farhan Rahman is dishonest?”
“Yes. And not only that, I’m quite certain that he arranged the strip poker party that night, Elspeth.”
“What makes you say that?”
“The day after the party, I caught Billy in the dorm hallway. I asked him why he proposed the game of strip poker. You know what he said? He said it was Farhan’s idea, and that he paid Billy to propose the game!”
“Nope! And not only that, he said that the four girls Farhan brought along that night were planted – that they’d all been paid by Farhan to strip off.”
“Good grief!” Elspeth exclaimed. “This is all really too much, Connor!”
All he could think of to say was, “Yeah, I know…”
She stared at him in disbelief for a few moments, but then she exclaimed, “And you’ve been waiting all this time to tell me this, haven’t you?”
“Well, er, no…I mean…yes, I suppose I have. Look, Elspeth, I admit that I knew you were accepted for studies at Imperial College. I also admit that I applied to the London School of Economics in the hope that I might see you again, but you must believe me when I say that my intentions were at no time dishonorable. I simply hoped that I might see you again one day, that I might have the opportunity to make amends.”
At this admission, she stared at him in disbelief and suggested, “And you followed me here today, didn’t you.”
Lowering his head in supplication, he admitted, “Yes, I am embarrassed to say – of that I am guilty as charged.”
The pair glared at one another a few moments longer and then, rising slowly from her seat, she murmured carefully, “Connor, you’ll have to excuse me. This is all too much for me. I must have time to reflect. I hope that you shall understand.”
“Yes, of course,” he responded miserably, but she had already begun to make her way to the door.
Two Months Later
A cold and grey dankness had descended upon London, but Elspeth was in dire need of a distraction. Her studies were at times overwhelming, and her unanticipated reunion with Connor two months earlier continued to weigh heavily on her thoughts. At first she had refused to believe his story, choosing instead to believe that he had conjured it all up as a means of regaining her affections. But as time had progressed, more and more of his explanation had seemed to make sense. She really would have liked to have been able to verify some part of it, but transcripts at Hanford were not public records. Furthermore, she had no idea what Billy’s last name was, so there was no way to obtain confirmation of any of it. Finally, there was the undeniable fact that Farhan was guilty of both making advances toward her and of beating Anna. She eventually came to the realization that whether it was true or not there was scant opportunity for her to ever prove it one way or the other. She was going to have to choose to either believe or disbelieve Connor.
Elspeth set out on a long walk on a foggy Saturday morning in hopes that the misty cold weather would somehow help her to clear her mind. Taking the tube to Waterloo Station, she stopped for a spot of coffee, and then she set off walking toward the city center, in the process crossing Waterloo Bridge. And, just as that time before, she saw him crossing the bridge in her direction. But this time she seemed to spot him first, so that she might have had the chance to escape unnoticed under cover of the fog. But she decided on the spur of the moment to see it through, and when he came close enough, she called to him matter-of-factly, “I thought I might see you here, Connor Stuart.”
Jerking his downturned head up in surprise, he blurted, “Elspeth! Elspeth Moorehead. I expected to never see you again, and here, after little more than two months, I chance upon you in this God-awful London fog. I ask you, what are the chances of that?”
Emitting a nearly unnoticeable giggle, she responded, “Small, perhaps, but certainly not nil, for we would not at this moment be speaking to one another, would we now?”
Chancing to move a bit closer, he responded doubtfully, “I suppose not, but what on earth are you doing out in this abominable London weather, Elspeth? Tis such a dismal day.”
“Oh, I was in desperate need of distraction. I suppose a walk seemed like a good idea, at least it did when I started out. And you, what brings you out on such a dreadful morning, Connor?”
“Who, me? I was just out for a lark. Needed some time away from the books, you know. LSE is quite the difficult school, if you must know. I was just on the point of going out of my mind, and there being no other reasonable alternative, I went for playing hooky from the books for a day.”
“How’s that working for you, Connor?”
“Lovely, I must say. And now that I’ve run into you, I would perhaps hope even better. And you? How’ve you been since last we met?”
“Fabulous!” she lied unconvincingly, “Absolutely fabulous – London is such a wonderful city, and Imperial College is just the perfect place for me to continue my studies.”
He eyed her carefully for a moment, but then, throwing caution to the wind, he suggested, “Elspeth – this may be a bit presumptuous of me, but might I persuade you to allow me to join you for lunch, just for old time’s sake?” And, not waiting for a reply, he added nervously, “It would be my honor to buy for the both of us.”
Peering suspiciously at him, she contemplated for a moment, but then she responded airily, “Why not – after all, tis such a beautiful day!”
Catching the irony in her response, he nonetheless blurted gaily, “Oh, thank you! Thank you, dear Elspeth. I shall endeavor to not try your patience.”
In the end, it turned out to be a small reunion of sorts, and when they parted Elspeth let slip that they should perhaps do it again sometime. His eyes lighting up in excitement, Connor pled, “Certainly! Could I get your phone number?” to which Elspeth relented.
Two Weeks Later
Answering the clanging phone within her tiny apartment, Elspeth blurted, “Yes, who is speaking?”
“Elspeth,” the voice on the other end responded, “Tis I, Connor.”
“Oh, uh…hello, Connor,” she responded and, after a lengthy silence, she inquired, “What’s up?”
“Er, I just thought…well, when we met two weeks ago you said that we should do it again sometime,” he posited, but then, his hesitation apparent, he continued, “Oh, perhaps you were just being polite – perhaps I shouldn’t have called. I’m sorry, Elspeth, I shall wish you a pleasant day. Goodbye…”
“Not so fast, Connor!” she cried into the phone in sudden desperation, “What’s on your mind. Spit it out!”
“Oh, nothing,” he stammered, “I was just hoping we might get together again. You know, for coffee or something…”
“Or something…” she repeated curtly, “Well, I’m afraid I’m all coffeed out for the moment. Tell you what though, I’ve been wanting to see the Rosetta Stone ever since I arrived in London. But, you know how it is, I’d rather not go there alone…”
“Oh, I say, I’d love to accompany you to the British Museum, Elspeth! That would be grand!”
“Well, then how about this coming Saturday?”
“Yes, of course. Shall we meet at the entrance at, say, eleven o’clock?”
“Perfect,” she responded noncommittally, but then she suggested, “And perhaps you can treat me to lunch thereafter?”
“Oh, could I?” he blurted in stupefied anticipation.
“Of course you may,” she said, somehow transmitting her smile right through the phone line.
“Excellent. Then I shall see you on Saturday. Bye, Elspeth!”
The Following Saturday
Tugging the door open to the pub, Connor gushed, “Well, I should say that was quite a tour, wouldn’t you, Elspeth?”
“Yes, of course,” she exclaimed, “The Rosetta Stone was marvelous, and the Elgin marbles were marbelous!”
“Ooh, that was a really bad one,” he grinned but, his eyebrow arched in derision, he blabbed, “Just like old times, eh?”
Tugging him by the arm, she dragged him closer to her, then whispered, “We’re just getting started, you know…”
Astonishment readily apparent in his visage, he responded with false bravado, “I can live with that.”
But then she did something that signaled to him that the past was perhaps really behind them – she kissed him lightly on the cheek. Pulling back in surprise, he inquired dimly, “My…what was that for, Elspeth?”
“Connor, I’m actually not quite certain why I did it. It just felt like the thing to do. Oh, damn nation, I suppose I’ve missed you. I’ve missed the way we were, the two of us. I don’t know that I’ve ever been happier than those times we had together.”
At this Connor stared wretchedly at her and murmured, “You’ve no idea, Elspeth. I’m so ashamed, and so unhappy. Ever since that night I’ve wanted to turn back time, but I suppose it isn’t possible, is it?”
“I don’t know…” she stammered but, turning her face to his, she offered, “I doubt it, to be honest.”
“Right,” he responded knowingly.
“But,” she posited, “I do so want to – to turn back time. And I am ever so grateful to you for trying, Connor.”
“Really?” he inquired hopefully.
“Yes, but let’s not make more of it than it is. Let’s just give it time. Can you do that?”
At this he peered at her and responded gratefully, “Yes, of course, dear Elspeth. You are worth any amount of time, I assure you.”
Two Weeks Later
Elspeth contemplated a moment further, then grasped the phone in her hand. Dialing the number, she decided it was time for her to take a chance. Hearing a voice on the other end, she said, “Connor, tis Elspeth. Are you free this weekend?” And after a pause, she added, “Really?” That’s wonderful! I was thinking of taking the train to Bath on Saturday. Want to come along?” Hearing the response, she said, “Right then, see you at the train station at 9 A.M. Oh, and bring an overnight bag. See you soon! Bye.”
Bath – The Following Saturday
The pair sat at a corner table within the Pump Room, obviously deep in convivial conversation.
“I thought the Roman baths were spectacular, Connor. What did you think?”
For his part, Connor responded, “I don’t know, Elspeth, I rather enjoyed the view of the river.”
“Yes, there is that,” she replied, and then, touching his hand with hers, she whispered suggestively, “Tis all rather romantic; somehow reminiscent of a Jane Austen novel, don’t you think?”
“Being as I am from Scotland, I am rather more of a Walter Scott fan,” he offered garrulously, “But I confess I do see what you mean.”
Observing that her subtle pass had been far too oblique for her traveling companion, she replied, “Walter Scott! Oh, pshaw! Rob Roy, and all that balderdash. Why don’t we have a quiet dinner and then we can debate the merits of nineteenth century British authors afterwards at the inn.”
“Sounds perfect to me,” Connor responded vacuously.
Two hours later, the pair pushed their collective way into their flat for the night, and it was apparent that the both of them had imbibed perhaps one too many glasses of wine.
Tugging the door closed behind her, Elspeth drew Connor to her and applied an absolutely searing kiss to his all-too-appealing lips. Then, drawing back, she whispered, “I’ve been wanting to do that for days, no weeks, no years, dear Connor Stuart.”
“My goodness, where did that come from?” he queried inanely.
Sensing hesitation, she drew back and stared at him. At length she commanded, “Don’t tell me you haven’t been thinking the selfsame thing, and for the longest time!”
“Right,” he responded inimitably, “I suppose there is that.”
“What else could there be?” she inquired.
Eyeing her wistfully, he put in, “Well, I should say…well…perhaps that is for another day, dear Elspeth.”
“What? What is for another day?”
“Oh, nothing. Suppose we address the issue at hand.”
“And what might that be?”
“What to do about the fact that there is only a single bed for the two of us.”
“Oh, that,” she observed distractedly, but then she whispered, “Sssh, don’t tell anyone, but I requested a single bed. And I brought along my most revealing nightgown.”
“Ah, I see! Why, you naughty girl. I believe I’ve been had!”
“Actually, no, you gorgeous boy, but you are most certainly about to be. Just give me a moment within the bathroom, and you shall both have and be had.”
And he most certainly was.
The Following Morning – In Route to London
Elspeth stared from the train window, a vain attempt to cover her sense of embarrassment.
Observing her apparent misery, Connor at length offered, “Sorry, Elspeth. I’m afraid I took advantage of you last night.”
Turning to face him, she exclaimed, “Ha! What a crock. Tis I who took advantage of you last night! I wanted your ass, and I sure as heck got it. And now, for some reason I wish I hadn’t!”
“I’m truly sorry, Elspeth. Was it that awfully disappointing for you?”
Turning to stare at him yet again, she posited, “Are you kidding me? Surely you could tell…”
“Tell how much I enjoyed it, damn your gorgeous hide! How am I going to concentrate on my studies after what we two did to one another last night! You nasty little boy, you. I just may be addicted to you. And now, in the cold light of day, I have to return to my mundane existence deriving god-awful mathematical equations.”
“Er, sorry…” he blurted, but it was obvious from his grin that he was anything but.
Observing his triumphant visage, she stared from the train window and murmured distantly, “Don’t talk to me. Don’t you dare say another word. I’m going home to my flat in London, and I don’t want to hear a peep from you. Do you hear me, you smug son-of-a-bitch?”
Eyeing her in mystification, he simply nodded his submission.
A Month Later
Connor’s phone rang and, dragging the receiver to his ear, he mumbled, “Connor Stuart.”
“Get your ass over here,” a voice on the other end exclaimed, “I need you, and I mean now, you son-of-a-bitch!”
Immediately recognizing the voice on the other end, he responded contritely, “I’d begun to think you’d forgotten me, Elspeth.”
“Forgotten you! You bastard. I can’t seem to think of anything else. My math skills have completely escaped me. I can think of nothing else but you. Now get over here and take me out of my misery.
“Yes, Elspeth, I shall be there within the hour.”
The Following Morning
Elspeth rolled over and, observing the sun glinting on his naked torso, the breath rushed audibly from her lips.
The sound awakening him, he rolled over to discern her sunny smile taking him in. Smiling to himself, he whispered groggily, “Good morning, Elspeth. Did I miss anything?”
“No, but had you not awakened this moment, you might have,” she emitted from beneath her penetrating kiss. And then she raised up before him and, her naked body eliciting exactly the reaction that she had intended, she whispered softly, “Again, please.”
Boston – Christmas, 1995
Elspeth’s grandmother met her at the airport, a welcome site after such a long flight. The fall term had ended at Imperial College, and Gran had made it clear that she was in desperate need of Elspeth’s company for the holiday. Happy to simply be away from the educational grind for a few days, Elspeth was in an unusually festive mood on arrival back in her hometown.
The pair kicked off the holiday by doing some Christmas shopping in downtown but, the shopping crowds quickly exhausting the pair of them, they retired in short order to Gran’s apartment near the Charles River. By her second day in Boston, Gran could no longer contain herself; it was time for Elspeth to fill her in on her adventures in London.
The pair spent the entire day on Christmas eve just being together, the discussion destined to get around to Elspeth’s romantic escapade, if indeed it could be called that.
In the course of their tête à tête, Gran eventually asked the all-important question, “So, is he the one, El?”
Eyeing her over the rim of her cup of tea, Elspeth rolled hers eyes and confessed, “Not sure…aw, heck, why’d you have to go and ask that, Gran?”
Sabrina took stock of the situation, then suggested sagely, “These things are complicated, my dear. I should know, your grandfather and I married one another twice!”
“I didn’t know that!” Elspeth blurted in wide-eyed astonishment, “How could such a thing happen?”
“Well, perhaps it isn’t relevant, but since you asked, Sloan was quite a complex challenge for me.”
“I don’t know, dear. Let me see…alright, I’m thinking back to that time in New York, when he located me just after the war. He was the hottest thing…”
“Right, I digress. Anyway, he got me pregnant within a month. In those days we had little means of avoiding pregnancy, you know, so I got pregnant, and there seemed no alternative but to marry him. After all, he was quite a good looking man. Shortly thereafter we moved back here, to Boston, where he recommenced his studies at Hanford. And of course, we eventually reconnected with James and Isolde, who were by that time married as well. Your father had been born to them in 1943, and a few months later your mother was born to Sloan and me. Things went along quite well for a while after that, but I eventually got off track.”
“What do you mean, Gran?”
“That’s a story for another time, Elspeth. I shall fill you in someday, but for now, let me just say that Sloan and James developed some sort of animosity for one another, and it somehow caused my affection for Sloan to wane. Eventually, it got so bad that I left Sloan and moved back to Pittsburgh with your mother, who was by then about ten years old. I’m skipping over quite a bit, dear, because this all occurred over a period of many years. Anyway, your mother and father, who had spent a fair portion of their childhood seeing each other quite often, eventually grew to adulthood and, their mutual affection having survived their forced separation, they eventually reunited and were married. It was around that time that James was dismissed from Hanford, and his departure from Boston led to my reconciliation with Sloan. We were married for a second time in 1970.”
“Yay! It has a happy ending!” Elspeth blurted innocently.
A tiny smile creasing her features, Sabrina responded, “Well, yes, I suppose it did, at least it did for Sloan and me.”
“What about James and Isolde?”
“Oh, it was very sad, dear. Isolde died of cancer sometime around, let me see…it must’ve been 1968, shortly before James left Boston.”
“What happened to James. Where’d he go?”
“That’s a mystery, El.”
“Tell me about him, Gran. What was my other grandfather like? I never met him, you know.”
“Right, well, he was quite a complicated character, if you ask me. Good looking, too. I remember one summer, the four of us worked at an inn in New Hampshire. It was called The Orchard Inn. My, you’re taking me back, Elspeth,” and, her thoughts obviously drifting back in time, she eventually regained the train of thought, adding, “Well, anyway…Oh, I know! I have a picture of the four of us! Let me see, where is it? Oh, I know!” And at this Sabrina jumped up from her chair and rummaged around within the credenza. After a few moments she erupted, “Aha! Here it is!” and, holding up a handful of pictures, she said, “Right, take a look at this photo.”
She handed a picture to Elspeth, who in her turn inspected the ancient and faded picture. Though it was black and white, she could easily make out Sabrina and Sloan. The other pair were obviously her other two grandparents, James and Isolde.
Studying the picture a few moments, Elspeth glanced up and said, “Wow! You were all so young!”
“Yes, of course, my dear,” Sabrina ruminated patiently, “Even we old people were once young.”
At this Elspeth responded, “Sorry, Gran, it’s just all so new to me.”
“Yes, of course,” Sabrina replied and, glancing down at the additional photos, she handed one to Elspeth and said, “Here’s one of James taken shortly before his disappearance in 1968.”
Peering at the picture, Elspeth gasped in shock, “It’s in color!”
“Yes, of course, my dear,” Sabrina replied condescendingly, “By then we had joined the twentieth century.”
“Gran! That’s not what I meant at all! What I meant was – my grandfather had pale blue eyes!”
Sabrina gazed inquisitively at her for a moment and responded, “Yes, James was quite a striking looking man, my dear.”
Elspeth studied the photo a further moment, then suggested, “Tell me more, Gran!”
Sabrina eyed her patiently, then prevaricated, “All in good time, my dear. You somehow seem to have diverted me from my question to you…”
“Oh, I forgot,” Elspeth blurted, “What was your question, anyway?”
Now grinning knowingly, Sabrina prodded, “What’s up between you and that young man, Connor?”
“Oh, right,” Elspeth responded and, glancing away in thought, she replied, “I just don’t know, Gran. I do so adore him, but something is holding me back. I mean, we get along quite well together. We’ve gotten past all of the messy parts from our time in Boston, but I just don’t know…”
“Yes, my dear, finding a life partner is no easy task,” Sabrina volunteered, “I hope you work things out. You deserve to be happy.”
“I hope so, too, Gran. We’re getting together in Edinburgh as soon as I get back to London.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful, my dear. You must keep me informed as to – shall we say – progress.”
“Yes, of course, Gran,” Elspeth agreed, “In the meantime, may I keep this photo of my grandfather?”
“Of, course, my dear.”
Four Days Later
Elspeth bit her lip apprehensively as the train pulled into Edinburgh station. Although she had agreed to meet Connor for the holiday, she had lied to him about her arrival date. Now, arriving a full day earlier than expected, she had twenty-four hours to sort out her dilemma. Stashing her bag in the terminal storage unit, she made directly for the city records building, just a few blocks from the station. Once there, she requested the documents she needed. Something strange was going on, and she knew she had to get to the bottom of it, and quickly.
Two hours later, she had what she needed, and thereafter she returned to the station. From there she took the train to Glasgow, whereupon she booked into a hotel for the night. Once ensconced within her room, she drew the copies from her purse and surveyed them carefully.
The birth certificate indicated that Connor Stuart had been born on October 29, 1971, the son of Margaret Stuart and Albert James Morgan. Strange…very strange…the name on the birth certificate was his mother’s last name rather than his father’s. To make matters even more mysterious, there was no record of a marriage certificate between the two parents. In fact, there was no record that Margaret Stuart had ever married in her entire life. Furthermore, Elspeth had been unable to find any record that a person named Albert James Morgan had been born in Scotland.
Thinking back on her own childhood, Elspeth now confronted the suspicion that had been forming in her mind over the past few days. When Elspeth had been growing up, there had always been something mysterious about her grandfather, the one who had been the President of Hanford College for a time. As a result of her trip to Boston to see her grandmother, a strange scenario had begun to develop within her labyrinthine mind. Now, protected within the solitude of her hotel room in Glasgow, she pulled the lone photo that she had of James Moorehead from her suitcase and, staring at the pale blue eyes in the photo, she compared them to those of Connor in her mind’s eye. A shiver coursing through her, she took up the yellowed copy of the newspaper clipping. It read as follows:
World Press International
December 2, 1968
Boston, Massachusetts – This report just in: Sir James Moorehead, Chancellor of Hanford University, has been placed on paid administrative leave, pending an investigation into charges of impropriety made against him. Dr. Moorehead has to this point in time been unavailable for comment regarding the charges against him. Readers will recall that Dr. Moorehead’s wife, Isolde, passed away recently of cancer. Stay tuned for more information regarding this story that has mounting implications for the academic community.
So there it was in black and white: her grandfather, James Moorehead, had either been dismissed or forced to resign from Hanford University for reasons of impropriety. No wonder he had disappeared, but exactly what had this so-called impropriety consisted of? Staring wistfully into space, she supposed she would never know the answer to that question, the principle characters having departed this earth.
Her senses returning to the present, she took up the birth certificate yet again and perused Connor’s father’s name – Albert James Morgan!
James Moorehead had disappeared from Boston in 1968, and Connor Stuart had been born in 1970, the son of Albert James Morgan. James Moorehead had had pale blue eyes, and Connor Stuart, the son of one Albert James Morgan, also had pale blue eyes. And now for the coup de grace – pale blue eyes are a recessive trait, making the probability that the similarities are coincidental unlikely. The inescapable conclusion was that James Moorehead and Albert James Morgan could quite possibly be one and the same person! And if that were indeed the case, then Connor Stuart was in fact Elspeth’s own uncle!
The Following Morning – Edinburgh Train Station
Elspeth stepped from the train onto the platform and, seeing Connor advancing toward her, she waved half-heartedly.
Racing up to her side, he made to kiss her, but she turned one cheek to accept his kiss. Retreating in surprise, he stared at her and then, assuming she must simply be fatigued from the long ride, he inquired, “Are you alright, Elspeth?”
“Yes, I’m just tired,” she responded evasively.
“Why did you arrive from Glasgow?” he inquired.
“Oh, that,” she replied. “I waited too late to get a ticket, and the direct train to Edinburgh was fully booked. So I took the train to Glasgow and changed an hour ago.”
“Ah, I see. Smart thinking,” he replied, then added, “Well, shall we?” at which he grasped her bag and led her forward.
Two hours later, her bag having been deposited at his flat, they were ensconced within a pub on High Street. By then she could tell that Connor was all too aware that something was indeed wrong.
Her nerve built upon the strength of her second glass of ale, she eventually asked, “So, I’m wondering, Connor, why do you never speak of your father?”
“Oh, he died years ago,” he answered unawares.
“And your mother?”
“I told you, she died two years ago,” he exclaimed, his irritation now becoming apparent. “Say, what’s this all about, Elspeth?”
“Oh, nothing,” she prevaricated, “It’s just that – well, I never thought about it before. It must be something to do with coming here, where you were born and raised.”
Seeing she would not be put off, he suggested, “Alright, Elspeth, what else do you want to know?”
“I’m just curious – what did your father die of?”
“What! What difference does it make?” he exclaimed defensively.
Taken aback, she replied, “I don’t know, I was just wondering, that’s all.”
“He died of tuberculosis,” he responded matter-of-factly.
“Oh,” she replied doubtfully, “What was he like?”
“What do you mean – what was he like?” he complained.
“What sort of a father was he?”
His irritation growing palpably, he blurted, “Since you must know, I have no idea. He died when I was very young. I actually don’t remember him.”
“Oh, I see…” she responded knowingly.
“Look, Elspeth, I’ve no idea what you’re getting at, but your acting quite strangely, if you ask me.”
“I’m sorry,” she stammered, “I really don’t mean to be.”
“Well, then, shall we get on with our holiday. One can only guess when we’ll have another one quite so free and easy.”
“Yes, you’re right,” she replied, but it was nonetheless apparent that something was troubling her.
Arriving at his flat a short time later, he drew her into his arms, announcing, “Elspeth, you know how much this means to me, having you here in the home where I grew up. I only wish my mother could have been here to meet you. As it is, I’m certain her spirit is looking down on the two of us, at this happy moment when I am compelled to ask for your hand in marriage. Elspeth, I love you so much. Will you marry me?”
Shoving him away in alarm, she asked blankly, “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
Astonishment apparent in his reaction, he blurted, “You heard me – I love you!”
Glancing away in despair, she inquired, “How is it you came to the decision to attend university at Hanford, Connor?”
“What? What does that have to do with anything? Please, Elspeth, just answer the question!”
“Connor, why did your mother give you her maiden name?”
“What? What on earth are you babbling about, Elspeth? I’m asking you to marry me, and you’re talking about lineage, or family trees, or something. In truth, I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about!”
Her eyes flashing, she exclaimed, “Okay, this is what I’m talking about – your mother and father never married, and you were given your mother’s maiden name at birth. Much later, your mother and you conspired together to send you to university at Hanford, for what reason I can only guess. But of this I am quite certain – I was your target all along!”
“What! What on earth are you talking about, Elspeth?”
“Don’t play with me, Connor Stuart. I am quite certain that you are well aware that your father was James Moorehead, the selfsame person who was my own grandfather!”
“What! My God, ye mane be radge! I’ve positively no idea what you are talking about, Elspeth!”
“Radge, is it? Insane!” she shouted, adding, “Do you have a photograph of your father?”
Arching one eyebrow at her in surprise, he rejoined, “Of course, look there on the mantel. That’s him, with my mother.”
She stepped over to the mantel, examined the photo he had pointed towards and, turning to face him, she pulled a photo from her purse and shoved it towards him. As she did so she commanded, “Take a look at this one, Connor.”
Taking the picture in his hand, he inquired, “Where did you get this photo of him? I’ve only ever seen the one of my father.”
“That, Connor Stuart, is a picture of my grandfather, James Moorehead!”
Staring at her in utter disbelief, he blurted, “What? I don’t understand! What the…”
Tugging the documents from her purse, she flung them on the table and exclaimed, “Don’t make out like you’re innocent, Connor. There’s the proof, for all the world to see. I may never know what your ulterior motives were, but whatever they were, you and I are from this moment finished!”
She turned, grabbed her suitcase and raced out the door, leaving him to wonder exactly what had just transpired. Once out on the street, Elspeth broke into uncontrolled sobs. The train back to London was the longest ride of her life.
Pakistan – Fall 1996
Osama bin Laden stared from the open window, his thoughts far away, to that time when life had been simple, when Allah had blessed him with endless days of childhood pleasure. Now, the reality of adulthood having blunted those memories forever, his mind shifted back to his immediate problems, many of which were related to money. Suddenly, a quiet knock came at the door, followed by a muffled voice announcing, “Sir, our distinguished visitor has arrived. Shall I show him in?”
“Yes, of course,” bin Laden responded affably and, rising to greet his guest, he awaited his arrival.
Momentarily, a tall gaunt-looking elderly gentleman appeared, garbed in elegant traditional Arabic attire, his red and white shemagh flowing over his kaftan. Reaching forward, he said in perfect Arabic, “It is a great honor to meet you, Sheikh bin Laden!”
Taking the man in the traditional Arab greeting, bin Laden responded, “The honor is mine. They tell me you are also from Saudi, Mr. Al-Khoury.”
“Yes, of course.,” Al-Khoury responded.
At this bin Laden squinted and suggested, “But do I detect an ever so slight accent?”
“Ah, there is no fooling you, sir!” the visitor replied, “I was actually raised in Egypt, far down the Nile, in Aswan.”
“Ah, Aswan! I’ve actually been there once – a lovely city, if I may say.”
“Yes, I do miss it. I actually left there when I was fourteen, when my family moved to Addis Abbaba. That of course explains the accent, but more – it will explain why my family is not known to you, sir.”
“Ah, I see now. I confess that the mystery did concern me, Mr. Al-Khoury. But now that I meet you, I can see that we are brothers, brothers in the fight for freedom of our people against the repression of the West.”
“Well said, Sheikh bin Laden, well said,” the visitor responded, his words accentuated by a graceful bow.
“And how may I be of help to you, dear brother?” bin Laden inquired piously.
“Ah, yes! Perhaps you can help, and perhaps in turn I can be of service to you, sir.”
“Would that it could be,” bin Laden responded.
“Oh, I assure you, sir, it can, as I am in fact here to offer support to you. And by support, I assume that you know what I mean.”
“Yes, of course. Exactly how much are we talking about?”
“I am prepared to invest up to one billion U.S. dollars over the next five years, subject of course to my approval.”
At this bin Laden’s face lit up, prompting him to respond politely, “That sounds acceptable. I am quite sure that we can come to an equable arrangement, Mr. Al-Khoury.”
Washington, D.C. – December, 1996
Elspeth picked up the telephone and dialed the number. Detecting a voice on the other end, she said, “Gran? It’s me – Elspeth.” Hearing a question from the other end, she responded, “No, there’s still nothing to report. It seems that, despite completing my studies at Imperial College with high honors, employment opportunities in the U.S. are few and far between. But listen – I’ve been thinking – I may have a solution.” After a short response from the other end, she replied, “No, I’d rather not say at the moment. But I’ll let you know within the week.” After a further pause, she said, “Okay, Gran. I’ll talk to you soon. I love you. Bye.”
Placing the phone receiver back in its cradle, she took a long drag on her coffee. It was time to play her ace in the hole. Accordingly, she headed for the shower, her preparations already underway in her mind’s eye.
Two hours later she pushed her way into the Enlistment Center in downtown Washington. Spotting a single Army Sergeant seated behind a desk, she wandered over and offered, “Good morning, sir, I’m interested in the possibility of enlisting.”
Eyeing her carefully, he responded, “It’s Sergeant, not sir, miss…Sergeant Jackson, if you will. And who might I be speaking to?”
“My name is Elspeth, Elspeth Moorehead,” she blurted and, shoving one hand forward, she suggested, “Pleased to meet you.”
Taking her hand in return, he rose from his seat and motioned for her to have a seat opposite. He then reseated himself and inquired, “Sooo, what brings you to the doorstep of the United States Army, Miss Moorehead?”
“I’m interested in defending the United States of America, Sergeant Jackson.”
“Ha, I can see you’ve rehearsed, Miss Moorehead,” he observed pleasantly, but his visage turning to one of doubt, he suggested, “But let’s cut to the chase – the army is a hard life. Do you think you’re up to such a challenge?”
“I certainly think so,” she responded, but it was clear that she didn’t.
“Well then, could you be more specific?”
“Okay, sure. I have a degree in Mathematics from Hanford University, and I also obtained a Master’s degree at Imperial College in London. Oh, and I speak Arabic – fluently.”
“Hmmm, impressive to say the least, Miss Moorehead. However, that doesn’t quite answer my question, so let me rephrase it – what is it about the Army that makes you want to be a soldier?”
“Uhm, okay – fair question. Well, let me see…I may as well tell you – my parents were both killed in the Lockerbie bombing, and I’ve felt the need to be somehow involved in the fight for freedom ever since.”
“My, I’m sorry to hear that, Miss Moorehead. So let me get this straight – are you saying that you want retribution for their murders?”
“No, that’s not it. I just want to be involved in helping to ensure that others in this country don’t suffer the same fate.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere, Miss Moorehead. You’d be surprised how few people walk into this office with a good reason for joining the U.S. Army. However, in your case, despite your laudable intentions, I’m not certain it would be the best thing for you to do.”
“Why do you say that, Sergeant?”
“Well, truth is – with your education, you’re grossly over-qualified to be a soldier in the Army.”
“Yeah, truth is – it’s a whole lot of grunt work. Believe me, I know.”
“Listen, I have another idea, Miss Moorehead.”
“And what might that be?”
“Well, I did a hitch at the DIA, and they’re always looking for folks with your qualifications.”
“The DIA…what the heck is that?”
“The Defense Intelligence Agency.”
“Oh. Is that anything like the CIA? Because if it is, I already tried that, and they weren’t interested.”
“Naw, it’s not like the CIA at all. They’re looking mostly for spies. The DIA takes all sorts. And believe me – they are desperately in need of people with mathematical skills.”
“Alright, it sounds like something I might be interested in. So can you suggest how I might proceed in order to pursue such a possibility?”
“It just so happens I can. As I said, I did a hitch at the DIA a few years back, and I know a couple of people working there.”
“Are they here in Washington?”
“Of course. The headquarters of the DIA are in Washington. Look, why don’t you give me your phone number and I’ll do a bit of checking for you. I’ll phone you when I have something concrete.”
“Wow! That would be great!”
So that is how it all started for Elspeth. Sergeant Jackson apparently knew the right people, because he telephoned her that very afternoon, and the following afternoon she interviewed at Bolling Air Force Base. A week later she was offered a position with the DIA, and she began work three days later.
Bolling AFB, Washington – February 18, 1997
Elspeth entered the conference room just as her boss, Roger Preston, arrived. The others in the room all remained silent, a general sense of what was about to occur well understood by all.
Roger tossed a stack of papers on the table and announced bluntly, “Well, here is what we know at the moment, ladies and gentlemen. The bomb was set off in the basement of the Lido Hotel in Las Vegas at approximately 2:38 Mountain Time yesterday afternoon. Although the resulting explosion was apparently quite massive, there were only three casualties, one of whom was killed by the blast. Although the explosion was indeed enormous, it was set off well away from the populated portion of the hotel, which doubtless minimized the damage and loss of life. At this moment in time no terrorist organization has taken responsibility for the bombing, and until they do we have no way of knowing who is responsible.
“What we do know is that a woman wearing a full burka walked into the lobby of the building less than five minutes before the bomb exploded and made her way to the stairs, thereby suggesting that it may have been Al Qaeda or Hezbollah behind the bombing. Any questions thus far?”
At this point Elspeth immediately raised her hand and inquired, “Any idea what happened to the woman, sir?”
“Yes and no. She was not among those injured, and surveillance cameras show her departing the building just after the bomb was detonated, but we have no idea where she is at this moment. Any other questions? None?
“Ladies and gentlemen, because of military activities at Yucca Mountain, we’ve been activated by the FBI to participate in the investigation. Alright, Thompson, you concentrate on locating the missing bomber. Elspeth, look into the attendees at the Lido. We need to know what sort of connection the bombing may have with the specific site of the bombing. The rest of you check on your sources and see what’s hot. Specifically, look for a connection to the military. Now everyone – get to work!” And with that the room emptied rapidly, as workers hurried to carry out their assigned tasks.
Elspeth worked late that night, and by midnight she had made a strange discovery. Picking up the phone, she dialed a number and said, “I would like to speak with Mrs. Stewart. She is in room 1412.”
She waited a few moments, and then she heard a voice say, “Hello?”
“Gran, it’s Elspeth. Are you alright?”
“Yes, I’m fine, but it’s been a hell of a mess here the last two days.”
“I’ll just bet it has. What are you doing in Las Vegas, anyway?”
“It’s a long story, Elspeth…”
“Humor me, Gran!”
“I really don’t think I’m up to it, El.”
“Listen, Gran, this is not a social call, understand?”
“Oh, my…oh, I believe I do understand – you’re investigating the bombing, right?”
“You got it. Now, what the heck are you doing staying in a hotel in Vegas that was just bombed by terrorists?”
“Well, as I said, it’s a long story. You see, once upon a time I was a chorus girl…”
“What – you were stripper in Las Vegas?”
“No, it’s nothing like that, Elspeth. I never worked in Vegas, and I wasn’t a stripper. However, I was a Radio City Rockette during the war, dear.”
“Wow! I never knew that! You must have been quite the catch, Gran!”
“I seriously doubt that, El, but anyway, I had a friend when I was in New York. Her name was Faye – Faye Williams. Faye couldn’t make it as a Rockette, so after the war she decided to hoof it out to Vegas. That was just when things were starting up in Vegas, and she hit pay dirt. She’s been here ever since.”
“Okay, that’s all very interesting, but I fail to see what that has to do with anything…”
“Right. Well, Faye is retired now, but she invited me to a showgirls’ reunion in Vegas, and it’s being held here at the Lido. I came, not really for old time’s sake, but in reality to see Faye. I hadn’t seen her for many years, you know. So that’s why I’m here in Vegas – for a showgirls’ reunion.”
“Interesting,” Elspeth responded, “Hmmm, how many showgirls showed up?”
“Oh, quite a few, something like three hundred.”
“Wow! They must fill up half the hotel. They only have five hundred rooms at the Lido.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty packed with old broads like me at the moment. And the bombing didn’t make things easy, but they’re all having quite a good time anyway. As a matter of fact, I’m about to go out with Faye and some other girls to see one of those modern strip shows.”
“Oh, God, Gran, I could have done without being told that!”
“Yeah, well, someday you’ll understand, Elspeth. Life is short, you know…”
“Right. Thanks for the info, Gran. Have a rip-roaring good time. Bye…”
“Bye, Elspeth,” and with that the line went dead, leaving Elspeth to ponder what in heaven’s name a terrorist bombing had to with a reunion in Las Vegas for former showgirls.
Bolling AFB – Two Months Later
Elspeth knocked on the office door and, hearing a sound emanate from within, she pushed it open, saying, “You asked for me, Roger?”
“Yes, indeed I did, Elspeth. Please come in, and have a seat,” and as she complied, he offered, “Well, it looks like we’re done with the Lido case.”
“I figured as much,” she responded.
“Well, if it’s any consolation, neither the FBI nor the CIA could make heads or tails of it either. The whole episode smells of something quite nasty, if you ask me.”
“I couldn’t agree more, sir,” Elspeth responded, “First, we find out that this smarmy character Kareem Al-Wadi accidentally gets his eye knocked out the very night of the Lido bombing, and not three miles from the site of the bombing. Then we find out that Al-Wadi is searching all over the country for some woman, a woman we believe to be the selfsame one that walked into the Lido and planted the bomb. We trace her to Dallas, Texas, but from there the trail grows cold, very cold indeed. Meantime, it develops that Al-Wadi, who is from Kuwait, has business connections with some character from Saudi Arabia named Abdullah Al-Khoury. And now for the coup de grace, it seems that Al-Khoury is absolutely filthy stinking rich!”
“Yeah, I can’t make any sense of it whatsoever, Elspeth.”
“Nor can anyone else, sir.”
“Do you suppose Al-Wadi just wanted to kill off a bunch of has-been strippers?”
“Ha,” Elspeth responded nervously, “I did think about that, sir. But my Grandmother swears she never even heard of the guy. And when she asked around, none of the other ladies had heard of him either.”
“It’s just plain bizarre…” Roger opined and, peering at one fingernail, he suggested, “Well shut it down, Elspeth. We have to move on to other more important issues. But – tell you what – keep it in the back of your mind. These things have a way of eventually sorting themselves out, you know.”
“Yes, sir, will do,” Elspeth responded and, sensing that she had been dismissed, she rose and made her exit from his office.
Bolling AFB – Summer, 1998
Elspeth had by now been working for months on a chain of circumstantial evidence that seemed to lead to nowhere. Of course, due to the large volume of other duties, she was only able to spend a small portion of her time on the Las Vegas bombing. The woman who had bombed the Lido Hotel was still at large, but she had turned out not to be Middle Eastern at all. Instead, she had been a student at Nebraska State University who had apparently been kidnapped by Al-Wadi’s henchmen explicitly for the purpose of carrying out the bombing.
It was all just too bizarre. Terrorist attacks on U.S. soil were rare but, as in the case of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the terrorists’ motives seemed to always emerge sooner or later. In the case of the Lido bombing, none whatsoever had been determined to date. And although Elspeth had questioned her grandmother further on her arrival back home, there seemed to be no connection whatsoever between the bombing and the strippers’ reunion.
A hotel camera had caught the Lido bomber on film, and though she had been garbed within a full burka, her eyes had been visible in the film footage. Her eyes had been green, which is how they were able to ascertain her identity – Patience Walker. She had apparently escaped and found her way to Dallas, Texas, where she had disappeared completely from the face of the earth. Elspeth was by now certain that this woman was on the run, from whom or what remained to be seen.
For some reason, Elspeth kept returning to that film, obsessively viewing the footage, and each time she was captivated by those green eyes. Then one day it came to her – the reason why she’d kept returning to those eyes was simple – she’d had three friends at Hanford, all with pale blue eyes that were identical to one another.
She’d never actually thought about it before, it having somehow escaped her recognition, but Connor, Anna and Farhan had all three shared identical sets of eyes. Was this a coincidence? She did a bit of research, and it turned out that pale blue eyes are quite unusual in certain parts of the world. They are in fact a genetic mutation, all humans apparently having had brown eyes at one point in time. Although the mutation appears to have occurred sometime in the distant past somewhere near the Black Sea, most of the pale blue-eyed people in the world are from Northern Europe. The further one is born from that region, the less likely are pale blue eyes.
Elspeth thought about this for a few moments. It was apparent that Connor’s blue eyes were not particularly unusual, but pale blue eyes are quite unusual in the Middle East. In Egypt, less than one in ten thousand people have pale blue eyes. So what is the probability of two people from Egypt with pale blue eyes randomly showing up in Boston, Massachusetts? Elspeth suspected the odds were extremely low, and the probability that they would befriend a Scotsman with the same blue eyes was even lower. Something about her college years, especially the friendship the four of them had formed, had always seemed a strange coincidence to her. Now she began to wonder whether there had been something she hadn’t known about. As a result, she resolved to explore the subject further when time permitted.
Washington – Fall 1998
Elspeth experienced one of those rare weekends when her workload had slacked off, and that, combined with the gorgeous fall weather, gave her the opportunity to meet up with her grandmother. She met her at Reagan Airport, and that night they decided to have dinner together in a nice restaurant. They chose a place called Morton’s.
Arriving at the restaurant, Sabrina observed, “This is quite a nice restaurant, Elspeth. What made you choose it?”
“Oh, nothing special. I checked around, and when someone recommended Morton’s I bit immediately.”
“I’m not sure I understand. Exactly what made you choose this restaurant?”
“Oh, well…you’ve probably forgotten – I had a friend in college named Anna Morton. So I picked it for spurious reasons – call it nostalgia.”
“Oh, yes, now I recall. She was the one with the strange name, the one from Egypt, right?”
“Right, but what do you mean by strange name, Gran?”
“Oh, I suppose the name Anna Morton isn’t unusual, but it certainly is for someone from Egypt, my dear.”
Staring at her grandmother in amazement, she suddenly realized, “Oh, my goodness, it somehow escaped me. I never thought about it before. I do recall that she told me her father was English, but I’d never attempted to piece it all together before, at least – not till now.”
“Goodness, what on earth you are blabbing about, El?”
“Oh, it’s nothing. It’s just that, well, I had three close friends in college, and all three of them had pale blue eyes.”
“So? What’s so odd about that?”
“First of all, two of them were from Egypt. And, to make it even stranger, their eyes were all exactly the same pale blue hue. I mean, it was somehow creepy to look at the three of them, Gran. It was like looking at triplets.”
“Hmmm…what are the odds of that?”
“I don’t know exactly, but I did a bit of research on it, and if you must know, the odds are extremely low.”
“Really? Are you telling me it wasn’t a coincidence – that your three friends came together at Hanford for some ulterior reason?”
“No! I wasn’t suggesting that at all, Gran. It’s just that, well…I suppose this is all ridiculous,” and, tugging at her hair self-consciously, she observed, “I’m afraid my sleuthing job has got the better of me.”
“Boy, I’ll say!” her grandmother blurted, “You can’t fool me, Elspeth. I know exactly what this is all about.”
“Oh? And what might that be?”
“It’s about that guy – Connor!”
“Oh, come on, Gran, Connor Stuart and I are ancient history!”
“My dear, I can personally attest to this – there is no fixed expiration date on love.”
“Love! Who said anything about that?”
“Ha! I myself denied it for half a lifetime. And had your grandfather, bless his memory, not persisted – my life would have been a complete loss.”
“Really? I didn’t know that!”
“There is quite a lot you don’t know, my dear.”
“Oh, that’s all in the past. As for the future, I say get on with it.”
“Get on with what?”
“With Connor! Gran, there is nothing to get on with – nothing whatsoever.”
“Why do you say that, Elspeth? Is there something you haven’t told me?”
Elspeth eyed her grandmother for a moment and, deciding it was time to fill in some of the blanks, she inquired, “Gran, tell me more about my grandfather, James Moorehead.”
“What!” she exclaimed irritably, “Don’t change the subject, Elspeth!”
“Actually, I’m not changing the subject at all, Gran,” she responded matter-of-factly.
Her visage turning stormy, Gran responded, “What has your grandfather got to do with Connor Stuart?”
“Just answer the question, Gran.”
“Alright, if you must know, James Moorehead and my dear departed husband Sloan were colleagues at Hanford.”
“You already told me that,” Elspeth replied impatiently, “Tell me about the part that happened later.”
“Later, what do you mean, my dear?”
“When Dr. Moorehead was dismissed as president of Hanford.”
“Oh, that. I had hoped I’d never have to relive that. Can’t we just let bygones be bygones?”
“You forget, Gran – I’m a spy – and a damn good one at that.”
“Yes, I’m quite sure you are, Elspeth, but what has that got to do with James Moorehead being dismissed from Hanford thirty years ago?”
“He was dismissed in 1968. What happened to him after that?”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow you, my dear.”
“Oh, cut it out, Gran! Just tell me.”
“Alright, if you must know – he disappeared – never to be heard from again.”
“Right, but before that he and your husband had some sort of falling out, didn’t they!”
“I suppose I may as well admit it – yes, they did.”
“What was it about, Gran?”
“It doesn’t matter, it’s all over and done with, my dear.”
“Well, that may be, but there is more to the story, more than even you know, Gran.”
Sabrina stared at her a moment in disbelief, and then she suggested, “Alright, you think you know so much, I’ll bite.”
“I have been able to determine beyond a shadow of a doubt that James Moorehead lived for a time in Edinburgh, Scotland sometime around 1970. I need not tell you, Gran, that was two years after he was dismissed from Hanford.”
“So? I am aware that he was still alive for a period of time. What of it?”
“Gran, brace yourself – James Moorehead fathered Connor Stuart!”
Grabbing her throat in horror, Sabrina exclaimed, “What! That’s impossible!”
“Nope. Not impossible, Gran. I have proof of it. Connor Stuart is in fact my own uncle, sired by my grandfather, a man that you once knew only too well.”
“My God, this cannot be true!” Sabrina gasped, “That bastard! Dead in his grave all these years, and damn if he doesn’t rise up and strike me from the grave! God, I despised that man, and it seems that I still do!”
Elspeth eyed her suspiciously for a moment, then opined, “So I take it there is more to this story, eh Gran?”
“My dear, there are always details that parents do not pass on to their offspring, memories better left dead.”
“Yes, well, it seems there are a few skeletons in our family closet, if I may be so bold.”
“Yes, perhaps, but take it from me, dear – you’ve uncovered the only one, one that is better left dead, and for all time.”
“Do you mean that he is dead then?”
“You mean James Moorehead?”
“Yes of course he is, my dear.”
“And how do you know that, Gran?”
“Because your grandfather Sloan Stewart killed him, that’s how I know.”
Her eyes growing wide in utter shock, Elspeth gasped, “What, you mean one of my grandfathers murdered the other?”
Her face turning pale, Sabrina responded, “I didn’t say that…although Sloan did tell me that he killed James. I’m quite certain it was self-defense, and it must’ve occurred sometime in 1971, while Sloan was in Egypt.”
Frowning in confusion, Elspeth glanced downward and, shaking her head in total confusion, she muttered, “Will someone please tell me what the heck is going on?”
Glaring at her in disgruntlement, Sabrina responded, “I’m afraid I can’t help you, dear. You’ve already uncovered more than I knew.”
“Well, that may be, Gran, but I’ll just bet you’re still holding back on me.”
“Ha! We shall see about that, my dear, all in good time.”
The Following Month
It continued to gnaw at Elspeth. At first she’d been just plain mad at her grandmother, but after a while she began to wonder what it was that made Gran think that she had a thing for Connor. Thinking back over her time with him, she admitted to herself that she’d been taken with him, but in love! Besides, she might not have the experience Gran had, but it was nonetheless against the law to marry one’s own uncle.
Still, she just couldn’t stop thinking about it. Damn Gran for dredging it all back up in her mind. She was so distracted by it all that she was having trouble concentrating at work. She finally admitted to herself that she was going to have to do something about it. But exactly what to do – that was the question.
Two additional months dragged by, by which time she was starting to form a plan in her mind. She needed to talk to someone, and the only person she could think of was Anna. So she decided to go to Egypt, but she thought it better to surprise Anna than to forewarn her. After all, her plans included checking up on Farhan, and she couldn’t risk telling Anna she was coming since she and Farhan might have remained on speaking terms.
Going on Vacation
Cairo, Egypt – Spring, 1998
Elspeth had been trained as to what she might expect, but she was nonetheless surprised on her arrival at the airport in Cairo. From the moment she landed it was a struggle. Not only was the airport rather shabby, customs was a disaster. It took three hours for her to clear customs, not because the line was long, but more so due to the fact that those in traditional Islamic attire simply cut in line. And of course, they were nearly all males, but where they were not, they were followed by one or more ghostly beings dressed in flowing black burkas that Elspeth assumed must have been their female family members.
To make matters worse, everyone ignored unaccompanied women, especially those in western garb. Elspeth was thus obliged to wait until there came a break in arrivals sufficient for the lines to disappear altogether. When the opportunity finally arose she approached one of the windows, and although she was treated condescendingly by the border agent, her visa was in perfect order and she was finally admitted to Egypt.
Fortunately for her, she had reserved a limousine to the Mena House Hotel. Otherwise, she might not have been able to get a taxi. Such was the treatment of women. Furthermore, although she was fluent in Arabic, she could locate no one that would speak with her due to the fact that she was clearly foreign. She had been forewarned, but she was nonetheless surprised to discover that this was a world that would require significant adjustment.
Once she had settled into the hotel, she slept straight through for eighteen hours. Awakened refreshed, she was now ready to tackle the challenge at hand. The hotel arranged for a local advocate, their version of a lawyer, to accompany her everywhere and speak on her behalf. She assumed that he was spying on her, but under the circumstances there was little alternative. Besides, she was really only there on personal business.
The first place that she went was to the American Embassy where, due to her position with the DIA, she was able to gain entry to the records section. Shortly thereafter she was able to verify that Farhan Rahman had entered the U.S. legally in 1991, and that there were no suspicions regarding him at the Cairo office. Unfortunately, there was little else of use to be gleaned at the embassy.
Later that day she visited the Cairo City Records Bureau, where she hoped to find any official records regarding Farhan. Her guide was able to help her somewhat in this regard. There were no records regarding Farhan, other than that he had attended parochial school in Asyut. On a whim, Elspeth decided to check records for Anna Morton, and her guide was able to determine that Anna had been born the daughter of Sefira Yemeni and one Alexander James Morton, a citizen of England, in January, 1971. Subsequently searching for marriage records, her guide was unable to locate records that Anna’s parents had ever wed, at least not in Cairo. Interestingly, her guide could also find no records whatsoever regarding one Alexander James Morton.
After that Elspeth hit a dead end. It was time to fly to Asyut, so Elspeth booked a flight the following morning. Arriving in Asyut, she found it to be much less hostile to western women, and she was able to go directly to the Asyut City Records Bureau, where she was able to determine that Farhan was born in February, 1971, the son of Alfred James Wharton, a citizen of England, and Tarraza Rahman of Asyut. Once again, she could find no record that Farhan’s parents had ever married, at least not in Asyut.
That afternoon Elspeth caught the return flight to Cairo, whereupon she returned to the Mena House. Since she still had two days before her scheduled return flight to the U.S., she decided to go over everything she had discovered and see if any ideas struck her.
She realized almost immediately that there were some suspicious similarities between Anna’s and Farhan’s parentage. First of all, they were born only a month apart, with Farhan’s home being in Asyut, further up the Nile than Cairo. Secondly, both were sired by an Englishman, and in each case the father had seemingly failed to marry their mother, but had imparted to both children pale blue eyes. Now came the really strange part – both fathers seemed to have startlingly similar names, as if the same person had chosen one or both names as aliases. Elspeth was now uncomfortably concerned that Farhan and Anna might in fact be half-siblings. Given this possibility, the trail now pointed towards England, where Elspeth hoped to discover more about the father or fathers listed on the two birth certificates. She didn’t want to think about the possibility if he turned out to not be from England. Still, given these revelations she decided it best to forego contacting Anna.
The following day produced no further evidence of significance, so that with yet another day to go before her return flight, Elspeth was inclined to see the sites. Accordingly, the hotel booked a private tour for her to visit the Great Pyramids, as well as Dashur and Saqqara. And just to reassure her, they booked the selfsame advocate to be her guide for the day.
Elspeth locked her passport in the hotel safe and set off to visit the sites, with Saqqara being the final stop. In Saqqara she was treated to the Step Pyramid, the very first pyramid ever built, having been constructed by Imhotep for the Pharaoh Djoser. Afterwards, her guide took her through several smaller pyramids, ending with one that was separated from the others by quite some distance. Unlike the others, this one was not lighted, so that they were obliged to carry a torch within. Once inside, her guide began speaking, when his torch suddenly blinked off, and Elspeth felt her heart jump into her throat as she heard an ominous sound from quite close by, and then she felt a hand grabbing her by the throat as another covered her mouth with what she could only assume was chloroform. Her attempted scream was muffled, and a moment later she lost consciousness.
Mountainous Desert – Days Later
Elspeth had been dreaming. It was a very dark dream, one that she had not had for many years. She had been running along a dark alley, a small light in the distance her only avenue of escape. And then suddenly, her eyelids fluttered and, a light shining into her eyes, she was dragged into consciousness.
“Ow!” she complained in half-conscious irritation, “Get that light out of my eyes. It hurts, damn it!”
“She is awake, Muhamed!” the man called over his shoulder. “Better come quick, she is coming around.”
Elspeth understood what he was saying, but she realized that he was speaking Arabic.
Now replying in Arabic herself, she queried, “What the…where am I? Who are you?”
“Shut up, Western woman!” the man replied, and to make his point, he raised his hand as if to strike her.
At that moment a second man appeared before her, saying, “Do not hit her, Assan. You know what Sheikh bin Laden ordered – we may use her as we wish, but we may not hurt her physically in any way.”
“I wasn’t going to hit her,” Assan responded in apparent frustration, “I was just attempting to show her my superiority over her.”
“Good, Assan. That is excellent thinking. These Western women are very cunning. We must be on our toes at all times. She shall never escape us out here in the desert, but we must make her bend to our will. And if we are successful, she will make a fine slave, one that will serve our every need until such time as Sheikh bin Laden orders her return to headquarters,” and at this he turned and spat forcefully on Elspeth.
Silently standing back for a moment, he gaged her state of awareness and, seeing that she was by now fully conscious, he ordered, “We know not who you are infidel woman, therefore in this camp you will be known as Kichik It, which is Uzbeki for Little Dog. You will do our every wish, and I mean every wish, and you will never EVER speak unless spoken to. Am I clear?”
Fear welling up within her, Elspeth silently nodded her understanding.
“Excellent. Now, there is no point in attempting escape. You have no idea where you are, and you shall never know. But suffice it to say that you are deep within the Islamic world, and from this world there is no escape. We shall feed you and keep you alive, but you must always remain completely enshrouded within your burka. In the world you now live in, showing any portion of your body other than your eyes is severely punishable. Do you understand?”
Elspeth nodded yet a second time.
“Excellent. Now, Muslim men are like western men in that they from time to time need the intimacy of a woman’s body. You will provide that intimacy for all of us in this camp. However, you are to take no proactive action of any kind during this intimacy. The man who approaches you will be responsible for such actions, and he will undertake to maintain your personal privacy and comfort throughout such intimacy. Do you understand?”
Elspeth could do naught but nod forlornly yet a third time.
“Excellent. Now, get some sleep. Tomorrow we will give you your work assignment. We will begin at sunrise.”
Elspeth closed her eyes to block out the reality that she had just been apprised of, but for her there would not be, indeed could not be, any sleep that long and horrifying night.
The Following Morning
Elspeth was nudged shortly before sunrise and, feigning sleep, she sought to put off the impending day. But to no avail, the second signal was quite beyond a nudge, forcing an unintended yelp from her lips. Seeing she was awake, Muhamed ordered, “Up, Kichik It! Time for you to become a follower of Allah. Up, woman!”
At this, Elspeth rolled over and tugged herself upright. Standing uncertainly before him, she realized that he was nearly twice her size. And his beard gave him a particularly sinister appearance in the grey morning light. She started to say something but, recalling the lesson of the previous night, she staunched her response to a tiny grunt.
Observing her self-effacing demeanor, Muhamed muttered briskly, “Good, you are a fast learner. I believe that you will serve us well, Kichik It. Now, follow me,” and with that Elspeth’s enslavement began in earnest.
By noon she was exhausted from performing whatever chore she was commanded to do, but that was as nothing compared to the searing afternoon heat. Immediately regretting having chosen to visit Egypt in summer, Elspeth suddenly realized that she was in mortal danger just from the elements. Fortunately, it was clear from the mountainous terrain surrounding her that she was no longer in Egypt, there being no mountains of this type in that country.
Recalling the events of the previous evening, she reasoned that she was most likely in Afghanistan, this due to the fact that one of the men had mentioned the name bin Laden. Assuming that it was indeed Osama bin Laden that he had referred to, it was nearly certain that they were in Afghanistan, since Bin Laden’s last known location had been there. Furthermore, bin Laden’s assumed current location, together with Elspeth’s knowledge of the geography of Afghanistan, led her to believe that she was somewhere north of Kabul. If an opportunity ever presented itself for her escape, she knew that this knowledge would prove to be invaluable.
She somehow managed to survive the searing heat, and as day progressed into evening, the heat relented rapidly. By nightfall her chores had abated, and she was allowed to rest. Food was now presented to her and, having eaten nothing since the previous night, she wolfed down as much of something she could only describe as stew as she possibly could. An hour later she was fast asleep.
Awakened in the middle of the night, she felt a hand over her mouth. As she had anticipated it would be, it was Muhamed. Apparently there was some sort of pecking order in the camp, but that made no difference to her, as she was aware that, sooner or later they would all have at her. He was in fact surprisingly gentle, but it in no way lessened her feelings of violation. Reasoning to herself that this was what she would have to live with in order to survive, she did her best to get through it. Afterwards, ignoring the reality of her circumstances no longer a possibility, she sniffled silently to herself until, far into the night, she fell into a tormented sleep.
Boston – The Following Day
Sabrina tugged the phone from its receiver and dialed the number. On hearing the voice on the other end, she inquired, “Is this Roger Preston?” Hearing an affirmative response, she blurted, “Sir, I am Sabrina Stewart. I am the grandmother of Elspeth Moorehead. She appears to be missing. As near as I can tell, she did not come home from vacation.”
The voice responded, “Where exactly did she go, Ms. Stewart?”
“Why, she went to Egypt.”
“Egypt! She isn’t supposed to go to the Middle East without permission!” he replied in obvious concern.
“Yes, I know that,” Sabrina responded, “She just went to visit a friend from college. Her name is Anna Morton. I tried to stop her, but she said it was important.”
“Did she say why it was important, Ms. Stewart?”
“No, she never tells me anything, if you must know.”
“Alright. I will look into it, Ms. Stewart, and I will get back to you shortly. In the meantime, tell no one about this, understood?”
“I understand, but why?”
“Ms. Stewart, it should be apparent to you that if your granddaughter did not return from Egypt she may in fact have been kidnapped, in which case she may be somewhere in captivity within the Middle East.”
“Yes, I know that! Why aren’t we notifying the authorities?”
“Madam, we are the authorities! Your granddaughter is a federal agent. If she is in the hands of insurgents it is best if they do not know that she is an agent until we determine otherwise.”
“Oh, I see. Well, then, please do call me when you know more, Mr. Preston.”
“Certainly,” he responded, “I promise you, Ms. Stewart, you will be the first to know,” and with that he hung up.
Bolling AFB – The Following Day
Roger paced about within his office, eventually inquiring, “Alright gentlemen, have we covered everything? We’ve notified the CIA, and they have been able to ascertain that Elspeth was kidnapped while visiting some damn pyramid out in the desert. A search of her hotel room turned up her passport, so we can presume that the kidnappers may not know Elspeth’s true identity. The CIA is therefore planting false information, that Elspeth is little more than a secretary working for a beltway bandit company here in Washington. Hopefully, that will protect her from being exposed as a U.S. agent for the time being.”
At this, agent Wilson chimed in, asking, “Sir, what did you say was the false name that the CIA planted for her?”
Roger glared at the agent and responded, “I didn’t say, and that’s the way it will remain. We’re trying to keep this unfortunate incident from reaching the press, because if it does, all hell could break loose.”
“How so, sir?” Wilson queried.
“The terrorists are surely attempting to discover whether the false identity that we planted is a fake, and if they discover it is, not only will Elspeth be in mortal danger, she will likely make headlines across the entire world. I don’t need to tell you, Wilson, that could result in an international scandal, not only for the CIA and the DIA, but also for the entire U.S. government. So let’s leave it to the CIA to keep this thing contained. After all, they’re the pros at this stuff. Got it?”
“Yes, sir,” Wilson responded nervously.
With that admonition, Roger commanded, “Alright then, if there are no further questions, let’s get on with it. You each have your assignments. Now get back to work, and may God be with Elspeth Moorehead.”
Afghanistan – Late Summer
Elspeth awoke in the middle of the night, something she had become accustomed to doing of late. Night after night she lay in terror, attempting to find a way through the maze that was her predicament. By now she had been had by the nine men within the camp so many times that she was constantly sore. How she had managed to avoid becoming pregnant, she could only attribute to the fact that she had been on the pill up until her capture. But she had no idea how much longer it would be before she became pregnant, and God help her when that occurred.
To make matters worse, she was losing weight rapidly, the food being at times insufficiently nutritious, at other times inducing painful physical discomfort or worse. She was beginning to believe that her true identity had somehow escaped her captors, something that was in the short term probably a good thing. But in the long run, she just might be another nearly forgotten captive, thereby leading to the possibility that she might never be rescued.
The thought that she might live whatever there remained of her life in such circumstances haunted her more and more each day. She was rapidly coming to the conclusion that she would rather die attempting to escape than to become a permanent ‘little dog’ for her captors.
It was no wonder that she remained awake much of each and every night. When they weren’t using her body for their personal pleasure, her waking horrors were exceeded only by her nightmares. She had held on now for three months in hopes that something positive would happen, but her options were rapidly diminishing. If something didn’t happen soon, she was afraid that the possibility of suicide would begin to consume her thoughts.
The scribe knocked on the door and, hearing a summons from within, he entered, announcing in Arabic, “Sir, we have received a message from one of our agents in the U.S. I believe it may be of interest to you.”
The elderly man reached toward the scribe and took the paper from his outstretched hand, saying, “What’s so important, Razza?”
“Sir, I believe I heard you mention the name Elspeth Moorehead on more than one occasion.”
At this the elderly man cocked his head and, peering at the sheet of paper, he inquired, “I don’t understand…what does this mean?”
“Sir, it appears that a woman by the name of Elspeth Moorehead was kidnapped by Al Qaeda some months ago in Cairo.”
“What! Why wasn’t I informed of this?”
“Apparently, the CIA gave us false information, thereby leading us to believe that she was someone else, someone of little importance to Al Qaeda. We have just been told today that the woman we captured is in fact named Elspeth Moorehead, perhaps being the selfsame person that I heard you mention.”
At this the elderly man jumped up from his desk and paced about, then inquired, “Where is she now, Razza? Do we still have her in captivity?”
“Yes, sir, I am told that we do.”
“Where is she then?”
“Our agents transported her to Afghanistan shortly after she was captured. She was taken to the main camp, and from there she was placed within a small detachment north of Kabul as a means of ensuring she could not escape. I am informed that she is still within that encampment at this moment.”
At this the elderly man scratched his chin, then commanded abruptly, “Alright, contact Sheikh bin Laden immediately. Tell him to send out a team to bring her back to his camp. Tell him it is extremely important! And tell him that I am boarding my private jet within the hour. I should be at his camp by nightfall.”
That Same Night
It had now been more than five months since Elspeth’s capture. She was exhausted and distraught, the only piece of information of use she had managed being that she was surely somewhere north of Kabul. She knew that sooner or later she would either become pregnant or ill, and when that occurred she would not live for long. She was by now aware that no help was coming, her only means of survival therefore being escape. Unfortunately, the only possible means of doing so was the small pocket knife she had braided into her hair beneath her hijab. The problem was that there were too many of her captors to even consider the possibility of fighting them off with such a pitiful weapon. But she kept hoping that an opportunity would come when there were not so many of them present at one time.
An opportunity arose unexpectedly one night when three of her captors were sent out on patrol. That left only six, a number still far too numerous for her to defeat, but on that night an idea that had been forming in her mind for several months seemed to crystallize. Waiting until well into the evening, she finally saw her chance. The men had been drinking a bit, and she decided to risk it all in a desperate bid for freedom.
Timidly approaching the group as they sat around the fire, she suddenly grabbed a bottle from one of them and danced into the center of the group, whereupon she swallowed a long drag from the bottle. Then, as if suddenly drunk, she drew one hand to her mouth and stared directly into each man’s eyes, something that Muslim women were forbidden to do.
And then she blurted inanely, “I can do things you’ve never seen before!”
Bemused by her sudden forwardness, Muhamed blurted, “Like what, infidel woman?”
“I can show you things you’ve never seen before,” she purred and, extending one leg from her burka, she followed with, “perhaps more like this.”
Flapping one arm towards her, he murmured, “Go away, woman, we’ve already seen enough of you, every one of us.”
Having prepared for this comment, she tugged her burka upwards to her waist and writhed seductively as she offered, “Perhaps so, but not like this!” And so saying, she continued to show her attributes to their best advantage. Within seconds she had every man’s full attention, thus allowing her to continue unabated.
“You like this?” she purred as she continued her ministrations and, seeing their unanimous nods of approval, she added, “You see, only an American woman knows these moves. We are highly skilled at using such means to pleasure our men.”
“Infidels! You’re all wicked,” Muhamed muttered, but it was clear that he nonetheless wanted to learn more.
Seeing that her chance had finally arrived, Elspeth slowly removed her burka entirely and, taking another drag from the bottle, she tossed it back with the challenge, “Drink! Drink, you naughty men. Let us party into the night, like you’ve never partied before!” And, just as she had hoped, the bottle was passed and each man took a deep swig from it. Fortunately for her, after one more passing of the bottle one of the men was by now too far gone to be effective, thus reducing her odds to five men.
At this she thought to herself, “This just might be doable.”
She danced about for a few further moments, in the process allowing the alcohol to perform its intended purpose on her captors. Then she slowly removed her hijab, and in the process she secretly withdrew the pocket knife from its long-hidden place within her hair. She was now quite naked and, somehow feeling totally empowered, she writhed slowly about, each man’s eyes following her every bodily move.
Sensing that it was now or never, she moved nervously to the outside of the ring of men and, the firelight by now sufficiently diminished, she writhed very close to Muhamed and, leaning forward from behind with her face to his, she kissed him full on the lips, and as she did so she carefully drew the knife to his throat and, pressing hard and deep, she slashed him discreetly from ear to ear.
Having severed his vocal chords, he was unable to speak, so that she was able to stifle his gurgling as she held him up with one arm such that the others could not see exactly what had transpired, while with the other hand she grabbed his rifle. Then, in one swift motion, she shoved him forward directly into the fire and shouldered the weapon. Firing off three quick rounds, she managed to shoot three of them before they realized what she was about.
Unfortunately, the fourth man got to her before she could get off another shot. He was onto her like a wolf and, being undernourished and small of frame to boot, she was no match for him. Still, she fought him off as best she could, the two of them rolling about in the sand. Then, just as he was about to knock her senseless, she bit him viciously on the ear, and it was just enough to cause him to loosen his grip. Grasping about for any means of escape with her free hand, she suddenly felt the knife, laying directly within her grasp and, gripping it for dear life, she thrust directly upward into his throat, severing his carotid artery in the process and spilling his lifeblood over her in a gushing stream of hot liquid.
Exhausted, Elspeth fell to the ground beneath him momentarily but, suddenly realizing that she was still in mortal danger, she squirmed free and quickly checked the surrounding bodies to ensure that they posed no threat. Then, though he was still passed out, she stabbed the lone remaining uninjured man.
She then stood passively surveying the carnage for several moments, in the process considering her next move. With three men still at large out there somewhere in the dark, she realized she needed to escape immediately, the gunshots quite possibly having alerted them to return to camp. She therefore moved as quickly as possible to obtain whatever she could from the campsite that would be of use to her for her impending trek across the desert. Having no earthly idea how long it might take, she gathered food and water to last her for at least three days, more than that being too much for her to carry. Then she cleaned the blood from her body as best she could and garbed herself in a particularly dirty kaftan.
After that, without so much as a backward glance, Elspeth set off into the desert night. Guided by the North Star, she headed south in hopes that she was heading towards Kabul. Traveling at night and hiding in the daytime, she spotted distant lights two nights later. Since it would clearly take an additional day of travel to go that far, she bedded down and prepared for the coming challenge.
The following day she cut her hair short, dyed it black with charcoal, and did her best to make herself look like a grimy teenaged boy. Because she was already drawn from months of near starvation, it wasn’t too difficult a task. Although she spoke Arabic fluently, she knew all too well that as soon as she spoke she would be identified as a female. She therefore determined that her best course of action was to pretend to be mute. That evening she set out, and two hours before daybreak she entered the city. She quickly sought out a hiding place where she would be safe. Locating a rooftop enclave, she remained there throughout the following day.
That night she emerged from hiding and made her way to the town marketplace, where she camped out in hopes of finding food. Within minutes she became aware of several waifs in the crowd who seemed to be orphans like herself. She began scrutinizing their movements, and sure enough, several were well-practiced thieves, some skilled at picking pockets, and others at simply stealing small bits of food from street vendors. She decided to watch carefully and learn. She had enough food to last perhaps one more day, and by then she would need to have acquired the skill of deception.
The following night she made her first attempt, and sure enough, she was able to steal a small fruit without difficulty. She had now found a means of survival, and thereafter she settled in to contemplate her next move. The following day she discovered that she was in the town of Parvan, which she knew to be perhaps twenty miles north of Kabul. She now knew what she needed to do, and the following night she made her way south to Kabul. Given that the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan was located in Kabul, with luck her ordeal was nearly at an end.
As it turned out, her ordeal was nowhere near its end. Making herself as inconspicuous as possible, she watched the marketplace from a rooftop for two solid days before even attempting to enter it in search of food. Within hours she was concerned that her cover had been blown. Unlike Parvan, there were authorities everywhere, and to make matters worse, they appeared to be focused on people of slight build just like herself. This presumption was heightened when they swept through the market and carried off several females, all of them resembling Elspeth to one degree or another.
Elspeth understood now that she was in serious trouble. It was time for her to seek out the U.S. Embassy. It being located on the far side of the city, she made her way there on the third night under cover of darkness. Once there she decided to hold off entering until she could be certain it was safe. Within hours she noticed a young woman approaching the embassy, but before the woman could make her way to the gate, Afghani authorities arrested her and carried her away.
Elspeth now had evidence that the Kabul police force might indeed be searching for her. To make matters worse, she was by now out of food. Accordingly, she put as much distance between herself and the embassy as she could that night, and the following day she managed to steal a single piece of fruit from the market.
Elspeth now realized that there was no hope of escape for her as long as she remained in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the nearest U.S. installation was the embassy in Islamabad, some 250 miles away in Pakistan. Reconsidering her situation, she set about the task of locating sufficient foodstuffs for her to make the arduous trek through the Khyber Pass.
Unfortunately, Kabul turned out to be a much more difficult place to survive within than Parvan had been. Elspeth was nearly captured the next time she attempted to steal food. Thereafter, she became much more adept at practicing her newfound profession. Still, she remained on the edge of starvation for several days before she had learned sufficient skills to manage a small store of food. This, she knew, would be the first requirement before even considering a trek to Pakistan. Furthermore, the nights could be painfully cold, and she had little to protect herself from the elements. Fortunately, it was not quite winter yet, and the rainy season had passed. But she would need to make her move very soon, or the winter weather would prevent all possibility of escape.
One night the police swept through the city in an apparent attempt to capture homeless persons. But on that night Elspeth overheard a group of policemen conversing from her rooftop hideout. They were discussing a particular woman who was the object of their search, and the description she overheard sounded like herself. Creeping closer to the voices, she suddenly heard her own name! It was pronounced rather badly, but there was no mistaking it – Elspeth had definitely been identified, and she was now the object of a country-wide manhunt – or more precisely in her case – a womanhunt.
After nearly a month in Kabul, Elspeth decided that she could not wait a moment longer. On a cold November night she passed through the city gates, just another orphaned child of no interest to anyone, and shortly thereafter she disappeared into the night. Walking steadily night after night, she made it through the mountain pass, and on the sixth night she arrived in Peshawar. By then she was exhausted and out of food and water, thereby forcing her to revisit her former profession.
Her stay in Peshawar was prolonged by the first snowstorm of the winter, thereby amplifying her necessity to continue her trek as soon as possible. Accordingly, her physical state restored within the week, she set off at night with a new cache of food and water. Her intended destination was Islamabad.
By now winter was closing in rapidly, forcing Elspeth to travel by day. She also traveled for part of the night, halting only when she was completely exhausted. In this way she reached Islamabad in three days. On her arrival she knew exactly where to go, as she was well prepared by her studies of the Middle East. Still, it took her an entire afternoon to locate it, and when she did she discovered that there was absolutely no impediment stopping her from entering the embassy. Accordingly, around an hour before sunset on the 24th of December she trotted up to the embassy security gate and, raising her hands overhead, she announced that she was an American citizen seeking refuge.
Immediately ordered to lie face down on the ground, she was ignominiously searched by the military guards. Finding no weapons of any sort, one guard yanked her to her feet and demanded, “What is your name, boy?”
“My name is Elspeth Moorehead, and I’m not a boy!” she spewed in utter exhaustion.
At this absurd admission he glanced over his shoulder at the other guard and inquired, “Elspeth Moorehead! Isn’t she supposed to be dead?”
“Yeah,” the other guard agreed, but then he added, “Wait a minute, if you’re Elspeth Moorehead, how in hell did you get here? Weren’t you kidnapped in Egypt?”
“That’s right,” she responded, “And in answer to your question – I walked.”
“Walked! From Egypt to Pakistan? That must be three thousand miles!”
“Right, but I didn’t walk all that way. I only walked perhaps four hundred miles. I was kidnapped in Egypt, transported to Afghanistan, and held prisoner in the desert.”
“Damn!” the first guard spluttered, “I think this here waif may be the genuine article, Sergeant. We’d better take her inside and check out her story.”
And that is how, after nearly eight months in captivity or on the run, Elspeth escaped her captors.
Three days later Elspeth was back in Washington, and to her relief there were no headlines or public disclosures of her escape. It seems that, given her sensitive position with the DIA, her capture had never been publicly revealed, so that her escape was necessarily treated in the same way. The debriefing was lengthy and tortuous but, given what she had been through, Elspeth felt little discomfort. After all, she was put up in a four-star hotel near the White House, and the food was to die for.
Fig. 2 Elspeth’s Escape Route
Washington – December 22, 1998
Elspeth awoke from a nightmarish sleep, her head pounding in turmoil. Once fully awake, she knew exactly what the problem was – it was the tenth anniversary of the Lockerbie bombing, the day her life had changed forever. She dragged herself from bed and headed to the kitchen, a strong cup of coffee her first line of defense against her malaise.
A half hour later, her emotions finally beginning to even out, she decided to call in sick. Having accomplished that, she settled down for the purpose of continuing her recovery, the television offering a welcome distraction. She turned to CNN, and there it was, the Lockerbie bombing redux. Unable to summon the strength to resist, she watched as the details of that horrid day so long ago were rehashed on national TV. Mesmerized by it all, she realized that she had previously overlooked many of the details surrounding the bombing, perhaps due to the fact that she had been so young, but also not in small measure due to the fact that she had been in mourning, her natural defenses protecting her from the reality that her parents had perished so horrifically.
Her coffee cupped within her hands, she studied the entire CNN segment, and when it was over she turned to another channel and watched more of the review of the events surrounding the bombing. Amazingly, despite years of investigation by various governmental agencies both in the U.S. and abroad, no one had ever been convicted of the bombing.
“How,” she asked herself, “Could such a heinous crime have gone completely unpunished?”
She became so engrossed in the coverage that she actually sprang out of her seat when her phone rang unexpectedly. “Hello,” she spat grumpily into the receiver, “Who is it?”
“Miss Moorehead? Elspeth Moorehead?” the voice croaked in apparent confusion.
“Yes, I am she,” she spat, this time even more viciously.
“Sorry to bother you at home, Miss Moorehead. They told me at your office that you had called in sick.”
“Right. So what is so important that it couldn’t wait until tomorrow?”
“Good question,” the voice responded. “My name if Brian Spencer. I’m with the CIA. It is very important that I speak with you immediately, that is, if you are not too ill today.”
Her head suddenly clearing perceptibly, Elspeth mumbled, “Well, er…okay, I do feel a bit better than I did two hours ago. What exactly did you have in mind, Mr. Spencer?”
“Excellent!” he crowed. “There is a Starbuck’s just down the street from where you live, on K Street. I assume you know the one?”
“Yes, I do, but how do you know where I live, sir?”
“Oh, that. We always do background checks first, Miss Moorehead.”
“First? Before what?” she responded suspiciously.
“Oh, all in good time, Miss Moorehead. Shall we say – eleven o’clock at Starbuck’s?”
Glancing at the clock, she responded, “Uhm, can we make it eleven-thirty?”
“Sure,” he replied, “See you then.” And with that he rang off.
Starbuck’s – Two Hours Later
Elspeth pushed the door open and, seeing only one potential candidate, she strode directly to him and expounded flatly, “Mr. Spencer, I presume.”
Rising from his seat, he replied, “Correct, and why am I not surprised,” and reaching forward with his outstretched hand, he added, “Please to meet you, Miss Moorehead.”
“Pleasure’s mine,” she responded noncommittally, “So what’s up, Mr. Spencer? What makes it so imperative that you had to drag me from my sick bed?”
“Well, er…” he mumbled.
“Please, sir, just get on with it!” she exclaimed in obvious irritation.
Arching an eyebrow in surprise, he posited, “I assume you know what day it is.”
Her eyes flashing in annoyance, she responded, “Of course I know what day it is! It’s the tenth anniversary of the day my parents died!”
“Right, and may I offer my condolences, Miss Moorehead.”
“Condolences accepted, Mr. Spencer. Shall we move on to the purpose of our meeting?”
“Of course,” he replied and, tugging one hand through his hair, he suggested, “First, may I congratulate you on your magnificent escape from Al Qaeda in Pakistan.”
“Afghanistan, Mr. Spencer. I escaped in Afghanistan.”
“Right, pardon me,” he prevaricated, and after hesitating a moment, he continued, “The CIA has been quite closely involved in your case both before and since your return to the U.S., as I am sure you are well aware.”
“Yes, of course, I was interrogated on at least three different occasions by CIA agents after I returned home. And your point is?”
“Well, let us say that the CIA has been very impressed with you, Miss Moorehead, so much so that I have in fact been empowered to offer you employment.”
“Employment! With the CIA?” she responded in obvious horror, “Why would I want to do that?”
“Good question,” he responded, “Let us say – you have demonstrated skills that are quite rare in our world today, Miss Moorehead.”
“Skills? What skills?”
“Surely you must know that no one escapes Al Qaeda, Miss Moorehead. You are to date the only American to do so.”
“Really, I didn’t know that,” she replied with little apparent interest.
“But there is more, Miss Moorehead, much much more…” he offered.
“And what might that be, sir?”
“There is your educational background, your language skills, your service with the DIA, and your considerable experience abroad.”
“None of that is unusual, Mr. Spencer.”
“Right, but there are two more qualifications that we all agree make you uniquely qualified for the CIA. First, you have repeatedly demonstrated a deep and abiding desire to get to the bottom of things, Miss Moorehead.”
“So? What of it?”
“Second, you lost your parents in the Lockerbie bombing!”
“What! You bastard!” she exclaimed, but she knew he had her.
He stared at her for a long moment, and then he murmured softly, “To be honest, I expected you to react that way, but hear me out. We’ve been trying to solve this crime for a decade, and the pieces of the puzzle just don’t seem to fit together. No matter where we turn, it just leads to a dead end. Of course, we suspected Iraq was at the bottom of it at first, and then we suspected the Saudis for a time. But the most likely candidate seems to Gaddafi and his henchmen. Still, we’ve no proof to speak of.”
“But what makes you think I can do any better than the whole of the CIA?”
“Let us say – a desire for revenge, Miss Moorehead.”
Eyeing him carefully, she eventually murmured, “Well, there is that…but tell me – what’s in it for me?”
“Just that, Miss Moorehead – revenge.”
“I’m really not out for revenge, Mr. Spencer,” she lied.
“But I will say this – I’d really like to make sure that the same thing doesn’t happen to some young lady, perhaps a girl of fifteen, just like I was when my parents were blown to smithereens.”
“Just so, Miss Moorehead, just so,” he responded and, hearing no response, he continued, “May I take it then that you will consider it?”
Peering at him silently over her coffee cup, she finally replied, “I’ll think about it. Now, if we’re finished, I think that I shall be off, Mr. Spencer.”
“Of course, sorry to have dragged you from your sick bed, Miss Moorehead,” he responded, “Oh, and here is my card. Please, feel free to call me at any hour of the day.”
A week later Elspeth began her new job working for the CIA.
CIA Headquarters – Summer 1999
Elspeth had now been working for the CIA for more than six months. At first it had been extremely dissatisfying. It seemed to her that, unlike the DIA, the CIA was saddled with a sort of paranoid obsession with secrecy. She herself was not a field agent. In fact, she was in her own mind doing exactly the same thing she’d been doing at the DIA – searching for mysteries, oftentimes mysteries without answers.
For several months she had been delving into the doings of Al Qaeda. Founded in 1988 by Osama bin Laden and co-conspirators, it seemed to be an organization bent on the destruction of anything and everything related to Western culture. To date Al Qaeda had been connected via both circumstantial evidence and their own claims to both the February 26, 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa on August 7, 1998. However, given that Al Qaeda had not even been founded at the time of the Lockerbie bombing there was no evidence whatsoever that they had been involved in that bombing.
Working with others in the Middle East Terrorist section of the CIA, Elspeth had been assigned to follow the trail of money that was providing funding to Al Qaeda. This she had readily agreed to do, her suspicion already strong that many of the terrorist activities in the Middle East were connected by the money trail. Accordingly, she had concentrated on banking transactions at several banks in Saudi Arabia and Switzerland, the primary locations where many of the wealthy Saudis kept their vast fortunes. Of course, the Swiss were well known to be highly secretive, but occasionally it was possible to hack into their financial records, thereby discovering bits and pieces of information along the way.
It was at a group meeting in April that one of Elspeth’s colleagues mentioned that he had recently found a transaction record for a Saudi named Abdullah Al-Khoury that he considered to be somewhat suspicious. Checking into it, Elspeth was able to confirm that he was the selfsame Al-Khoury who had funded Al-Wadi for the purpose of bombing the Lido Hotel in Las Vegas. Accordingly, Elspeth was assigned to follow up on this rather flimsy lead.
Following the financial trail, Elspeth was able to determine that Al-Khoury had purchased a yacht in Beirut for the sum of one hundred million USD, a ridiculously high price for a private yacht, and this purchase had taken place shortly before the bombing of the Lido.
Over the course of the succeeding months, Elspeth was able to determine that the name Abdullah Al-Khoury was quite possibly an alias, there having been no one born by that name in Saudi Arabia during the span of time that he was supposed to have been born. Additional pieces of information floated in from time to time, such as the rather disconcerting fact that whereas he had paid an enormous amount of money for a yacht, there was no evidence that he actually possessed a yacht at all. So what exactly had the transaction paid for? Elspeth was convinced that whatever it was, it must have been a real whopper.
Accordingly, Elspeth now renewed her study of the bombing that had taken place at the Lido Hotel in Las Vegas. She had nothing more to go on than the fact that Al-Wadi and Al-Khoury shared hyphenated last names. For some as yet unknown reason, the bomb had been placed in a rather out-of-the-way spot underneath a stairwell within the basement of the building, so that only one person had been killed when the bomb had gone off. Still, the circumstances surrounding the bombing remained a mystery, the woman who had planted the bomb remained at large, and neither the CIA nor the FBI had yet succeeded in making any sense of the entire episode.
CIA Headquarters – Fall 1999
One day Elspeth made a discovery, something that changed the entire complexion of her search. In the course of studying the flow of money to Al Qaeda, she discovered that the Commerce Bank of Switzerland had been the receiver of the invoice for Abdullah Al-Khoury’s mythical yacht. Not only that, within days of that transaction, sixty million dollars had been transferred to a Lebanese Company named Medi-Products Limited. A month later a sum of twenty million dollars had been transferred to a Libyan Company named Agri-Exports. She had not yet traced the entire one hundred million dollars, but she was certain that in time it would all add up to the amount Al-Khoury had supposedly paid for the missing yacht.
Working backward in time from the Lido bombing she was able to determine that three weeks before the Lido bombing a sum of two million dollars had been paid to Kareem Al-Wadi by Agri-Exports for “farm products”. There was now more than circumstantial evidence that the bombing of the Lido had been financed by Al-Khoury. Based on this information Brian Spencer gave her free rein to delve further into the business dealings of the mysterious Saudi Abdullah Al-Khoury.
September 11, 2001
Elspeth, along with the rest of the world, watched in horror as events at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon unfolded on television. The world had changed overnight, and little did she know, but for the next decade her attentions would necessarily be drawn away from the Lockerbie Bombing. Al Qaeda had overnight become the chief threat to the United States. As a result, Elspeth necessarily turned her attentions to Osama bin Laden and his henchmen.
A Glimmer Awakens
Boston – December 20, 2010
A decade had passed since Elspeth had joined the CIA and, more than twenty years having passed since the Lockerbie bombing, she had by now come to understand what Gran had meant all those years ago when she’d claimed that life was short.
During her time with the CIA she had worked on so many different projects that it sometimes made her head spin. She hadn’t really contributed to the capture and conviction of Libyan National Abdelbaset al-Megrahi for the Lockerbie bombing, but then she had never really believed that he had been the sole person behind such an audacious attack.
Her first major role within the CIA had erupted quite unexpectedly with the attacks on September 11. Thereafter, she had been busy night and day helping to put together the pieces of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Writing intricate mathematical search algorithms, she had begun to crack some of the most clandestine operations within Al Qaeda.
The flow of money to support the September 11 attacks had been both intricate and ingenious, thereby heightening her suspicions that there must be some brilliant business minds behind Al Qaeda. Elspeth’s sleuthing abilities during this period had rapidly elevated her to a position of high repute within the CIA.
Then came the invasion of Iraq by the U.S. led coalition, followed by Saddam Hussein’s capture and subsequent execution in 2006. But both Osama bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi had somehow managed to evade capture, and Elspeth was by now the lead financial investigator on both bin Laden’s and Gaddafi’s terrorist activities.
Through it all a part of Elspeth continued to focus on anything and everything that led her back to the Lockerbie bombing, but in reality she felt herself no closer to solving the bombing than she had been during her days at the DIA. Nevertheless, over the course of the preceding decade Elspeth had begun to put together a series of seemingly disjoint clues that eventually began to converge into something truly terrifying.
Her first clue came when Elspeth decided to follow up on the information she had uncovered in Cairo before she’d been kidnapped way back in 1998. Checking records in both England and Scotland, she confirmed that no one by the names of Alexander James Morton or Alfred James Wharton had been born in the U.K. around 1920. Clearly, the person who had sired both Anna Morton and Farhan Rahman had been traveling under an alias, but who was this person in reality?
On a whim, Elspeth decided one day to search James Moorhead. Bingo! Customs records indicated that her grandfather had entered the U.K. in late 1968, and that he had departed from Heathrow on January 21, 1970. Thus, she began checking customs records of the destination countries for British Airways aircraft on that date. Unfortunately, that proved to be a dead end, as she was not able to access customs records for many of the destinations listed for that date.
But it gnawed at her – had her grandfather indeed gone to the Middle East in 1970, as her grandmother had implied? Until she knew the answer to that question, her evidence was little more than circumstantial. Realizing that there was only one way to find out the answer to this question, Elspeth set to writing a new algorithm and, hacking into British Airways’ flight records, she was eventually able to locate a flight record for January 21, 1970. Using his own passport, James Moorehead had flown direct from Heathrow to Cairo on that date!
There was now a clear chain of evidence linking her grandfather not only to Connor Stuart, but also to Anna Morton and Farhan Rahman. Their identical pale blue eyes seemed to confirm her suspicions, but exactly how and why he might have sired both of them was still unclear to her.
Given this astounding revelation, Elspeth now asked herself a question – how and why had the three apparent half-siblings all come together in Boston? Surely it wasn’t a coincidence, and if not, then to what end? When Elspeth thought about it, chills ran up and down her spine, for she understood that she herself was the fourth person in this as yet inexplicable charade.
Elspeth now turned her attention to Farhan Rahman, and within a short period of time she uncovered sufficient evidence to be relatively certain that he had become a terrorist working for Al Qaeda. When and how had he been turned? Was it even a possibility that Farhan had already been working for Al Qaeda way back in 1991, when he had arrived in Boston? And if so, was it possible that one or both of his half-siblings might also be in some way involved? She shuddered at the thought.
Serendipitously, although she’d had no direct contact with him in more than a decade, she discovered within days that Connor Stuart had matriculated to MI6 in London around the same time she had joined the CIA. If Connor was indeed Farhan’s half-sibling, then he might also be in some way involved with Al Qaeda, in which case MI6 had surely been compromised. The entire situation shouted terrorism within her every pore, but she had no solid evidence to support it.
Under the circumstances, her only choice was to keep digging. She had to find something significant before she could report anything up the line at the CIA. Day after day she searched through any and all clandestine files she could locate. Focusing first on Farhan, then on Anna, and finally on Connor, she sifted and sifted, but to no avail.
Eventually she was called in by her boss, Tom Hardaway. “What in heaven’s name are you working on, Elspeth?” he inquired. “Our IT people are picking up all sorts of weird searches emanating from your computer.”
“I can’t say, Tom,” she responded forlornly, “I’m sorry. I just don’t have enough to go on yet. But trust me when I say this – If it’s true, it’s really big.”
“Humor me, Elspeth. Give me something…anything. A hint will do for the moment.”
“Alright, Tom, but it’s sketchy. It involves Farhan Rahman, the fellow I told you about.”
“Right, isn’t he the guy you mentioned that you went to school with at Hanford”
“That’s the one, Tom. I’ve been able to determine that he is almost certainly working for Al Qaeda.”
At this revelation Tom arched one eyebrow in surprise and exclaimed, “Alright, Elspeth, I’ll take your word for it. But frankly, had you not turned up so much already, I’d have to cut off this line you’re taking. I’ll give you two weeks, but you’ll have to move on if nothing substantial turns up by then.”
“Yes, sir. Will do. And thank you for your confidence in me.”
“Sure,” he nodded, “Now get out of here and figure out where the heck this leads you.”
Once back at her desk, Elspeth suddenly realized that Tom might just be right – this whole mish mash of confusing information might in fact be leading her somewhere, and perhaps it was not accidental! The sudden realization knocked the wind out of her.
“Oh, my God,” she thought to herself, “Surely all of this is not merely a coincidence!” Staring at her computer screen, she realized for the first time that she might be more than involved – she just might be the target! Her mind now racing forward and, the pieces falling into place, she suddenly realized that she might indeed have most of the pieces of the puzzle already within her grasp. And if indeed she was correct, there were just two pieces remaining: why on earth was she the target; and how, when and where would Al Qaeda make their next move?
Two days later Elspeth happened onto something quite suspicious. Searching through the British Airways data base, she discovered that Farhan Rahman had flown to London Heathrow Airport three times within the last three months. She now checked for names of other potential terrorists that might have flown to Heathrow in recent months from the Middle East. Since there were far too many for her to make any sense of it, she decided to narrow it down. But, she asked herself, how to do that? On what basis could she possibly narrow down her search?
But then she noticed that in all three cases when Farhan had flown to London, he had not flown on to another destination. In fact, in each instance he had returned to Cairo within 48 hours. Why had he flown to London so often if all he was doing was returning to Cairo?
Elspeth now suspected that she was finally onto something, something that might just be important. Accordingly, she searched for potential terrorists who had flown from Cairo to London on British Airways, only to return to Cairo a day or two later. As it turned out, there were quite a few occurrences, but six passengers had made the trip more than once, and five of them had made the flight three times within the last three months, only to return to Cairo within 48 hours. That totaled twenty flights in three months. She was now suspicious that something very untoward was going on.
Elspeth therefore widened her search to include nonstop flights from Israel, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Suddenly the list grew to fifteen suspicious travelers who had flown to Heathrow at least twice, and all had remained in London no more than 48 hours. There was now a total of 44 flights into London Heathrow by potential terrorists within the last three months, all of whom had returned straightaway to their points of departure. Elspeth now checked flights into Gatwick Airport from the same originating airports, but there were no passengers at all that fit her criteria.
Still perplexed, she next attempted to correlate the arrival dates of the passengers flying to London. There seemed to be no correlation between their arrival dates, so that it was unlikely they were flying to London for the purpose of meeting one another. That left only one horrifying possibility: they were all flying to London for the purpose of depositing something at Heathrow Airport!
The time had come to report her findings to Tom. Hastening to his office, Elspeth made her case as pointedly as possible and, sticking strictly to facts, she zeroed in on Heathrow as a possible target. Tom bought it, immediately authorizing Elspeth to catch the afternoon flight direct to London from Dulles.
On arrival the following morning, Connor Stuart was waiting for her at Heathrow. Seeing her clear passport control, Connor called, “Elspeth, over here! Tis Connor, Connor Stuart!”
Hearing his voice, she recognized him before she even saw him and, turning in his direction, she responded as she approached him, “Connor! I’d have recognized that voice anywhere. So, long time no see.”
Grinning incongruously at her serious demeanor, he posited, “Tis good to see you, too, Elspeth!”
Ignoring his good-natured humor, she responded distantly, “Sooo, why did they send you to meet me?”
“I should think that would be obvious, Elspeth. Everyone knows that I once had a thing with the star agent for the CIA. So here I am, a genuine MI6 agent at your service.”
At this she smiled half-heartedly at him and responded, “Well, I must say, I’m not certain that was a good idea, Connor.”
Cocking his head in confusion, he inquired, “Why ever for, if I may say?”
Getting to the point, she proffered, “Because I don’t trust you, Connor Stuart!”
Eyeing her disconsolately, he barked, “Why am I not surprised, Elspeth.”
At this she simply peered silently at him, expectation planted upon her features, thereby willing him to continue with, “What’s this all about, Elspeth? You always were a step ahead of everyone else.”
“Whatever are you talking about, Connor?”
“Why, the night we played strip poker, of course.”
“Whatever,” she blurted dismissively, but then, recalling past events, she added, “Anyway, I made sure the girls won, but not so as to check out your attributes. I was simply attempting to foil Farhan’s ploy, whatever it was.”
“Yeah, yeah, I was drunk as a skunk that night, Elspeth. And if truth be told, in my inebriated state, a part of me hoped to see beneath your clothes. And had the circumstances been different I just might have.”
“Not a chance, dear boy. It’s not in my nature, as you well know.”
“Yes, of course I do. And to tell you the truth, I was and still am relieved to know that you are not that sort. I’m so sorry to have destroyed your good impressions of me. I apologize.”
“Goodness, what brought that on? It was years ago. Let’s just move on – apology accepted! Phew!”
“Ah, thanks, Elspeth. Now, shall we get down to business?”
“Right. But I’m afraid we’re going to have to wait for a more secure location. You understand I’m sure.”
“Yes, of course. We should arrive at MI6 within the hour. And Elspeth, a sizable crowd shall be awaiting your arrival, so this had better be good!”
“Trust me, Connor it will be.”
MI6 Headquarters – December 23
Elspeth entered the conference room and, glancing about, she was reassured that the necessary individuals were all present. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she proffered and, taking a seat, she said, “Shall we begin?” She then presented her case, including documented evidence, all of which took no more than ten minutes. At the end, she posited, “These are the facts I’ve uncovered to date. Questions?”
Director Wilson immediately piped in with, “I take it you think something is going down at Heathrow Terminal 5 in the near future, Miss Moorehead?”
“That is correct, Director.”
At this the director responded derisively, “You make an excellent case, Miss Moorehead. However, given that Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport is undoubtedly the single most secure airport terminal on Earth, I should think that we shall need more confirmation in order to move forward on your hypothesis.”
“Up to now, tis not a hypothesis, sir,” Elspeth responded defensively.
“I understand, Miss Moorehead, and we in this room are quite aware of your recent exploits within the CIA. But surely you must know that we at MI6 are not croppers. Much of what you have intimated, we have already surmised.”
“And?” she shot back pointedly.
“And…well, we deem these flights to be unrelated, and as such, no cause for alarm.”
“And on what do you base that conclusion, may I ask?”
“Miss Moorehead, I am not at liberty to disclose that information to you at this time.”
“Then I’m afraid I’ve wasted your time and mine,” she blurted and, rising from her seat, she made for the door.
“Please, not so fast, Miss Moorehead,” he pled. “Please, will you just hold on for a few more moments?”
At this, Elspeth calmed down a bit and responded condescendingly, “Yes, of course, assuming you have something constructive to offer.”
“On the contrary,” the director chided, “It is you who should provide something constructive.
“Alright,” she muttered introspectively, “However farfetched, I have a theory, a theory that can be validated.”
“Proceed,” he challenged.
“Director Wilson, I’ve done my homework on this, so bear with me. As you have just heard, I have confirmed the arrival of at least 44 passengers of dubious character from the Middle East at Heathrow within the past three months, all of whom returned to the Middle East more or less straightaway.”
“Yes, Miss Moorehead,” he responded patronizingly, “We already know that.”
“So tell me, Director, what is the legal limit on liquids in carry-ons at Heathrow?”
“Why, two ounces, of course. Why?”
“That is for outbound flights, is it not, sir?”
“Yes, of course, but no one gets through Heathrow without first passing through security.”
“But what about before they pass through security, sir?”
“Uhm…I’m not quite sure I understand, Miss Moorehead.”
“Alright, then let me be clear. When a passenger arrives at Terminal 5, what transpires before the passenger goes through security?”
“Why, the passenger first exits their inbound aircraft, and then they are passed directly through security.”
“Director Wilson, have you in fact ever flown into Heathrow Terminal 5, and thereafter directly out of the selfsame terminal?’
“Why no, of course not. I live in London, Miss Moorehead!”
“Precisely, sir. Now, has anyone within this room ever flown into Heathrow Terminal 5, and then directly out from the selfsame terminal?” Observing no confirming responses, Elspeth responded smugly, “I thought not. Well, gentlemen, I have! Not four months ago I did precisely that. Having flown in from Stockholm, I went directly through customs in Terminal 5 and caught a plane to New York from the same terminal.” At the stunned silence, Elspeth knew she had them in the palm of her hand.
Thus reassured, she continued, “Gentlemen, when passengers arrive at Terminal 5 they are routed from their flight along a secure corridor, oftentimes requiring them to go up a floor or two, and in the process allowing them access to toilets along the way. On arrival at the customs area on the third floor they are routed through one of several lines including ticket exchanges, ticket issuances, Fast Track, and the regular line. Once they have passed through customs, they are routed a further floor up, where they pass through security. As I have been subjected to this process, I can tell you – there are multiple opportunities for passengers to secrete items within Terminal 5 before they reach security.”
At this last revelation there was stunned silence. At length, Director Wilson inquired, “Just exactly what are you getting at, Miss Moorehead?”
She eyed him for a moment, then thrust home her final point, “Director, as I said, I’ve done my homework. It takes approximately 150 ounces of high energy plastic explosives to create a bomb sufficient to wreak havoc at Heathrow Terminal 5. To date there have been 44 confirmed entries to Terminal 5 by suspicious foreign nationals, each of whom could easily have transported two ounces or more of plastic explosives within their carry-on bags. Were those small amounts to be consolidated into a single charge, the consequences could be quite profound.
“Sir, I needn’t tell you that Terminal 5 is separated from the exterior by enormous panes of glass, not to mention additional sheets of glass used as room dividers within the terminal. Suppose for the moment that a rather large bomb went off in Terminal 5. I suspect that much of the glass within the terminal would be exploded, thereby creating millions of glass shards capable of ripping apart anyone nearby, and as you well know, there are literally thousands of passengers within Terminal 5 at any point in time.”
The entire room was now totally silent, every person in attendance by now understanding the enormity of Elspeth’s contention. If there was even the slightest possibility that she was correct, immediate precautions must be taken.
At this revelation, Director Wilson now replied solemnly, “Miss Moorehead, I apologize. I believe that we are entirely in your debt. This is indeed quite a serious matter. We shall undertake precautions immediately to ensure that your hypothesis is avoided.”
“Hold on,” Elspeth murmured, at which the room became silent yet again. “Hold on, sir,” she now repeated more forcefully, “I would like to be involved in these ‘precautions’, as you so aptly put them.”
“Why ever for?” he queried.
“There are two reasons. First of all, I know Mr. Rahman quite well. In fact, I would go so far as to say – I know him well enough that I might just be able to discern where the explosives might have been deposited within the terminal, perhaps better than someone who has never met him. Secondly, I believe that I know the exact date that the bomb is planned to be detonated within the Terminal.”
“Oh?” the director responded with arched eyebrow, “And when might that be?”
“Three weeks from tomorrow,” she responded.
“Now, this is just too much!” he blurted incredulously, “How do you come to that conclusion, Miss Moorehead?”
Seeing her chance to get even, Elspeth announced, “I’m not at liberty to tell you at this time, Director Wilson!”
A sudden frown creasing his features, he responded resentfully, “Oh, come now, Miss Moorehead. Surely you can do better than that!”
Eyeing him unflappably, she shot back, “Well then, call it a hunch, sir,” at which, the tension broken, the crowd launched into titters.
Director Wilson eyed her in frustration for a moment longer, then posited, “Well, who am I to doubt the ‘hunch’, as it were, of one so profoundly clairvoyant? I shall allow your participation in the process, but you shall be accompanied by Agent Stuart at all times, am I understood?”
At this Elspeth flashed her eyes at Connor momentarily and responded, “Yes, sir, I understand.”
The director now blurted in finality, “And frankly, I hope that you are quite in error about this entire situation, Miss Moorehead. And in the case that you are, I fear the consequences for you shall be dire in the least.”
“I am prepared to take that chance, sir,” she responded diffidently.
And with that the meeting was at an end.
Once out in the hallway, Connor sidled up to her and whispered, “My, my, Elspeth, you are a whirlwind if I ever saw one. On this day, a sprite of a woman from the colonies succeeded in turning MI6 directly on its ear!”
At his unexpected compliment Elspeth turned and glared at him, then spat between gritted teeth, “Listen, you little worm, I can’t stand the sight of you! I can handle this whole situation by myself, – so stay out of my way – you hear?”
Taken aback, Connor could only think to say, “Of course, Elspeth. I am at your service.”
At this she flashed her eyes at him and exclaimed, “Well, then, let’s get on with it.”
Heathrow Airport – After Midnight That Night
Elspeth and Connor observed as the security team searched throughout the area between Terminal 5 flight arrivals and security. After a six-hour search by nearly twenty security personnel, nothing even remotely suspicious had been uncovered. Connor was stumped, but Elspeth was furious.
When informed, Director Wilson was shrewd enough to be unfazed. “Try again tomorrow night,” he instructed.
Meanwhile, Elspeth, who was by then severely jet-lagged, caught whatever sleep she could in the morning hours and returned to MI6 after lunchtime, whereupon she found Connor awaiting her arrival.
Surprised at his attentiveness, she remarked nonchalantly, “What’s up, little worm? Any new developments?”
“Not really,” he replied defensively, “But I’ve made some inquiries – I’ve managed to get copies of the blueprints for Terminal 5. Perhaps we could take a gander at them. Maybe something will catch our eye.”
“Excellent!” she responded noncommittally, “This is exactly what we needed – a new perspective. Otherwise, tonight we shall repeat the same worthless process as last night. Shall we?” at which he led her to a small room where the papers were laid out.
“Sooo,” he mumbled in passing, “I’ve been thinking about what you said yesterday morning…”
“Yes?” she shot back, “What exactly did I say?”
“You implied that you might have a better shot at locating the supposed bomb materials because of your intimate knowledge of Farhan.”
“Well, then, what?” she queried impatiently.
“What did you mean by that, Elspeth?” he replied suspiciously.
“Actually, I didn’t mean a thing at all. I was simply attempting to bring MI6 around to my perspective. Besides, one more person searching can’t possibly hurt.”
“Oh…” he mumbled, “Well then…oh, my,” but then his eyes lit up, and he suggested, “But think about it, Elspeth – you may just be onto something. Farhan was and is quite the character, you know.”
“Right, I couldn’t agree more, Connor,” she posited and, deciding to test his allegiance, she suggested, “And since you mention it, I may as well tell you my other reason…”
“Oh…right,” he eyed her, “And what might that be?”
She now played her hole card, “I think that I may in fact be the target, Connor.”
“What!” he blurted incredulously, “Why, that’s ridiculous, Elspeth! These guys are international criminals. Why ever would you even consider the possibility that they are after you?”
Judging his response to be genuine, she softened a bit and responded, “I know, it sounds ridiculous on the surface, but every time I think over everything that’s happened, the trail leads directly back to me.”
“I don’t agree,” he reflected pensively, “For instance, the night we played strip poker, I thought Farhan was after you, to see if you’d strip. But for the longest time, I’ve thought it more likely that he was actually after Anna that night.”
“I know, I’ve thought the same thing,” she murmured cautiously, “But hear me out, Connor. Look at it this way, suppose Farhan was trying to get something on Anna. Suppose for the moment that he was really after me, but seeing that there was no way to get at me directly, he figured that, Anna being my close friend, she just might be the avenue he needed to get at me.”
“Hmmm, I think I see what you mean, Elspeth. So Farhan tried to get the girls to strip in the hope that Anna would follow suit. And if she did, he’d have something he could use against her.”
“Exactly. Think about this, Connor. Suppose an Islamic woman goes far away from her home and, thinking it safe to do otherwise acceptable things, she participates in some activity that is considered to be religious blasphemy in their culture. If someone who knew her family observed this activity firsthand, he or she could then use it to force the offending woman into perpetrating actions that she would feel powerless to refuse for fear of her life.”
“My goodness, this is awful, Elspeth! Do you really think Farhan capable of such things?”
“Oh, come on, Connor – wake up – there is a holy war going on across this planet. Anyone is capable of anything whatsoever!”
“I understand, and I suppose you’re right. So what does all of this imply for the current circumstances?”
“Nothing, except that we may have evidence that Farhan has acted suspiciously in the past, so that he should be considered a prime suspect in the current situation.”
“Okay, I see your point,” he responded, “So let’s get back to my point, or maybe it was originally yours – we may know something about Farhan that others don’t, something that could help in the investigation at Terminal 5.”
“I agree, so let’s get out of here,” she suggested.
“I need a coffee shop, you idiot! My internal clock is all haywire from jetlag. I need caffeine, and I need a spot where we can talk unobserved about old times.”
Fifteen minutes later the pair were ensconced in a coffee shop just off Trafalgar Square, the obligatory coffees in hand.
“So,” Elspeth began, “what precisely do you know about Farhan, Connor?”
Eyeing her vacuously, he replied, “I don’t understand. What exactly do you mean, Elspeth?”
Eyeing him momentarily, she posited, “Haven’t you ever wondered about his eyes, the exact same eyes that are staring me down at this very moment?”
Frowning in confusion, he replied, “Of course I have! If you must know, Farhan and I mentioned it to one another the very first time we ever met.”
“Strange coincidence, eh?” she inquired pointedly.
Still frowning in confusion, he exclaimed, “Okay, I’ll bite, Elspeth. I’ve known you long enough to be certain that this is going somewhere, so please, just get on with it!”
Now satisfied that he had no clue whatsoever, she revealed, “Farhan is your half-brother, you idiot!”
“What!” he yelped, “You’re kidding!”
“Nope! I’ve been able to confirm it beyond a shadow of a doubt.”
He stared at her for a moment, then blurted, “But how? How could such a thing have happened?”
“Your father, who as we know was also my grandfather, flew from Heathrow to Cairo in January of 1970, shortly before you were born. While there he met up under the assumed name of Alexander James Morton with a woman named Sefira Yemeni, and within the year Anna Morton was born to the two of them. A few months later, he moved to Asyut where, under the assumed name of Alfred James Morgan he met up with one Tarraza Rahman, to whom Farhan Rahman was born nine months later.”
His eyes growing wide, Connor could only mutter in stupefaction, “My, my…so we’re all related!”
At this response Elspeth was by now certain that Connor was completely innocent of any complicity in this whole sordid affair, prompting her to say, “Alright, Connor, I think I’ll let you out of perdition.”
“What!” he exclaimed in shock, and then, comprehension suddenly flooding his features, he added, “Oh, I get it…you’ve been testing me again, haven’t you!”
“Yes, of course,” she posited, “But not to worry, you passed with flying colors,” and observing his hurt expression, she commanded, “Oh, grow up, Connor! Surely you understand that, under present circumstances, I had to make sure I could trust you!”
Still frowning at her, he mumbled doubtfully, “I suppose so…”
“Don’t look so hurt! It’s nothing personal!”
At this he responded defensively, “Right, well, you’ll forgive me if I take it that way, Elspeth.”
Shaking her head in disgust, she posited, “Whatever. Now, can we get on with it?”
“Yes, of course,” he replied, “And your point is?”
“Well,” she recommenced, “We know that Farhan was heterosexual…”
“Trust me, Connor, a woman knows when a man is heterosexual, okay?”
“Right. Okay, we also know that he had a thing for Anna.”
“Perhaps. No you’re right, he most likely did have a thing for her.”
“What else, Elspeth?”
“What are you looking at me for? He was your friend, for God’s sake!”
“Okay, okay…the pressure, the pressure…,” he mumbled, “Let me see…Okay, I know one thing – he liked to go to the movies!”
“He did? I didn’t know that…why ever for?”
“He told me that, unlike us, he didn’t grow up with old movies on TV. So, according to him, he had a lot of catching up to do.”
“Okay,” she murmured to herself and then, glancing back at him, she blurted, “I fail to see how that has anything to do with anything, but it’s a start. What else?”
“Hmmm…he liked to drink. That’s for sure. He got drunk nearly every Friday night.”
At this she glanced doubtfully his way and said, “Really! Would you say he was an alcoholic?”
“Naw…no, not at all. He only drank one or two nights a week, and he always knew when to stop.”
“Well then, maybe he was simply drowning his sorrows.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps so.”
“Did he ever go to strip joints?”
“Hmmm…not that I’m aware of. Why?”
“I dunno, it’s just that, he put on that strip poker game that night.”
“So what? You yourself said he was after Anna that night.”
“Yeah, but where did he locate those four girls, Connor? They didn’t look like debutantes to me.”
“So? He himself said he found them at Boston College.”
Arching one eyebrow, she queried, “What – you think he just walked up to one of the girls’ dorms and said – Say, I’m looking for four girls of low virtue who would like to party naked?”
“Ha! I see your point,” he reflected, “He must’ve charmed them into it. After all, the guy clearly has a way with women, Elspeth.”
At this she suddenly yelped, “That’s it! I could kiss you, Connor Stuart! That’s the answer!”
“Please do,” he retorted in confusion.
“Alright, I think I shall,” she responded and, taking his face in her hands, she pecked him lightly on the lips, adding, “We’ve got it, Connor. Tonight we’re off to Terminal 5, and this time we’re going to locate what was right in front of us all the time.”
Staring at her in abject puzzlement, he blubbered, “What on earth are you getting on about, Elspeth?”
“It’s simple – If I am right, Farhan has been arranging to fly adjacent to some unsuspecting woman on his trips to Heathrow, and during the flight he has been charming his prey into depositing something within the women’s restrooms on arrival at Terminal 5 each time he flew in.”
“Surely not! What if it didn’t work?”
“I’m sure he could afford to toss his plastic explosives on occasion rather than to risk arriving at security with them. But even if he couldn’t find a mark on the plane, the airport is sufficiently cacophonous that he could find a mark after arriving.”
“What about the other carriers?”
“Surely he picked carriers with similar abilities, and then he simply gave them a shortcourse on what to do.”
“Alright, that part seems doable to me, but where within the women’s toilet could he persuade an unsuspecting female passenger to place a small object that could not be detected by the cleaning crew?”
“That’s a very good question, Connor. Hopefully, tonight we shall find out the answer to that question!”
Unable to contain himself any longer, Connor now queried, “By the way, why did you say to Director Wilson that you knew the planned date for the bombing?”
“Because I do.”
“Well, are you going to tell me or not, Elspeth?”
“I’m flying into Heathrow on that date, that’s why,” she blurted gravely.
“What!” he exclaimed, “What on earth are you talking about, Elspeth? Are you saying that the bomb is being planted for the purpose of killing you?”
“Exactly,” she revealed flatly, “I told you – I believe that I am the target.”
An enormous frown darkening his face, he inquired, “But why? Why, Elspeth?”
“All in good time, my friend,” was all that she replied and, rising from her seat, she commanded, “Come on. We’ve got work to do.”
Terminal 5 – That Night
Unfortunately, a thorough search of the women’s toilets turned up nothing whatsoever. By now Director Wilson was getting antsy – perhaps Miss Moorehead was way off base, or worse, there was no base at all.
The following morning Elspeth called Connor and instructed him to meet her at the coffee shop again, so off he went. By now even he was beginning to have doubts.
On arriving, he bought himself a cup and slid in across from her, saying, “Good morning!”
“Oh, shut up, damn it!” she retorted glumly, “Just shut the fuck up!”
Eyeing her in dismay, he decided her advice was sound, at least for the moment.
The seconds stretched out, but after a few sips he could no longer contain himself. With obvious concern, he inquired, “Are you alright, Elspeth?”
“No!” she blurted.
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“Damn it, my job is on the line, Connor! And even if you aren’t, I’m beginning to doubt my own self.”
“Aw crap, Elspeth, your reasoning was sound even if it wasn’t correct.”
At this she nearly shouted, “Screw you! I’m going to the toilet. I didn’t sleep a wink last night, and I’m O.D.’d on coffee this morning. I’ll be right back.”
Connor waited for what seemed far too long, but she finally came back, at which point the transformation was both instantaneous and incomprehensible. She fairly bounced into her seat and announced absurdly, “It’s such a lovely day outside, why don’t we go for a walk, just the two of us!”
“You’re kidding,” he mumbled doubtfully.
“No, I assure you, I’m absolutely serious. Come on, get your scrawny ass up, Connor. We’re going for a walk!”
Sensing something profound was in the offing, he could do naught but follow. Once out on the street, she immediately hailed a cab and hopped in, ordering, “Get in, you idiot!”
Following her command, he crawled within, but all he could think of to say was, “What the…”
But that was just before she blurted to the driver, “Heathrow Airport, on the double!”
“Certainly, madam, but it will cost you a hundred quid,” the driver shot back pleasantly.
“No problem, my friend is rich,” she replied jovially.
“Which terminal?” the driver inquired.
“Terminal 5, I assume,” Connor interrupted.
Her mood suddenly beyond manic, she agreed, “Just so, just so.”
On arrival at Terminal 5 an hour later, Elspeth made straight for the interior but, halted by the security guards, she was forced to wait for Connor to catch up.
“She’s with me,” he announced as he flashed his identity card, whereupon the guards ushered them through security, at which point she raced off yet again.
Doing his very best to keep up, he inquired from a few steps behind, “I assume you know what you’re about?”
“Of course,” she blabbed over her shoulder, but then she suddenly halted and announced bluntly, “Okay, I suppose I should let you in on it.”
“That would be nice.”
“Okay, okay, I know I should’ve said something sooner, but I was in a hurry. Didn’t want to let it slip away, you know.”
“Just tell me what’s going on, Elspeth.”
“Right. Well, when I went to the restroom in the coffee shop, the toilet seat was up. In women’s public restrooms that almost never happens, you know, but it’s a small coffee shop, so there’s only one toilet, for both men and women. So the person who was in there before me must’ve been a man.”
“Brilliant!” he blurted in obvious ridicule, “I’d never have known had you not informed me.”
Her face clouding into a thunderous expression, she spat, “Hold on, damn it! I’m coming to it, I’m coming to it! So I looked down at the toilet seat, and I thought, I wonder what those little supports on the bottom of the seat are made of, and it suddenly came to me – plastic!”
Halting dead in his tracks, all he could think of to respond was, “Oh…my…God…”
Her sunny expression suddenly returning, she posited, “Right, so then I started counting in my head. There are three women’s restrooms in Terminal 5 before you get to security. Each one has eight toilets within. That’s twenty-four toilets!”
“But surely that isn’t enough,” he interrupted.
“Of course it is – there are four supports under each seat, and four times twenty-four makes 96. Each support is at least two ounces in weight, bringing the total to 192 ounces.”
Struck momentarily motionless in thought, a knowing look suddenly creased his features, prompting him to blurt, “Damn, that is ridiculously simple!” But then, a puzzled look coming over his face, he stammered, “But I don’t understand, Elspeth. There’s no way Farhan could have talked anyone into replacing the toilet seat supports!”
“Right,” she exclaimed sunnily, “That was a bit of a problem, which is why it took so long for me to return from the restroom in the coffee shop. You see, I was mistaken – I in fact threw us off the track. Farhan didn’t talk women into replacing the supports, he did it himself.”
“Huh? How’d he do that?”
“Bear with me here, Connor. I suspect he simply put on a badge of some sort and walked into the restroom, whereupon he announced ‘Excuse me ladies, toilet number three has a busted support. It’ll just be a few moments, and I’ll have it repaired’.”
Unbounded admiration suddenly coming over him, he posited, “Elspeth, that is outrageously brilliant, especially if tis true.”
“I know, I know,” she responded arrogantly, “But I’m pretty sure it is, Connor.”
“Because it sounds to me like exactly what Farhan would do.” And with that she disappeared into the awaiting women’s toilet. Within seconds she had returned, and she was carrying two handfuls of toilet supports.
Shaken at the potential danger arrayed before him, he queried in wide-eyed dismay, “Are those the real thing?”
“Dunno,” she responded nonchalantly, “We’ll have to check.”
But of course – they were the real thing – and within minutes Terminal 5 was completely locked down and evacuated. The bomb squad went to work shortly thereafter, managing to clear the building from danger within a few hours. Heathrow was back in business by late afternoon.
MI6 – The Following Day
Director Wilson rose from his seat and announced as the hero of the moment strode into the room, “Ladies and gentlemen, here she is now – Miss Elspeth Moorehead!”
At this the crowd rose as one and awarded her with a warm round of applause. Turning to her, the director said, “Well done, Miss Moorehead. I must say, you are the genuine article. Admittedly, I doubted your premise at first, but should a similar occasion arise, I assure you that I shall never ever make that mistake again!” at which the crowd broke into twitters of agreement.
“Thank you, Director Wilson,” Elspeth replied, “I’m glad to have been of service. And now, I believe that I am needed back home in Washington.”
“Not so fast, Miss Moorehead,” he responded, “I’m afraid I’ve put my foot in it, as it were. This morning I contacted the Director of the CIA and informed him that you are needed here until we can clear this whole mess up.”
Arching one eyebrow, she said, “Oh? And what was his reply, sir?”
“Oh, he was more than happy to place you on loan to MI6, Miss Moorehead.”
“My, my…” she responded, “And for how long is this to be?”
“Oh, indefinitely! For as long as we need your help to resolve this matter.”
“I thought we solved it,” she suggested doubtfully.
“Certainly not, Miss Moorehead. Consider for a moment – had our adversaries succeeded in setting off that charge, the damage would certainly have been catastrophic to Terminal 5, and the loss of life would surely have been in the hundreds, perhaps even thousands. Tis unfortunate that your accomplishment cannot be made public, but such is the nature of the business we are in.”
“Understood,” Elspeth responded matter-of-factly, “So how may I be of further service to the British Government, sir?”
“We still have quite a problem, Miss Moorehead. Not only is Mr. Farhan Rahman still at large, so too are his accomplices. Furthermore, we have yet to look into the possibility that similar ploys may have been undertaken at other airports across Britain, Europe, and the world. I should think that there is plenty to keep you busy for quite some time here in London. I am therefore straightaway assigning you to continue this effort, with MI6 agent Connor Stuart as your partner.”
Eyeing him suspiciously, Elspeth turned and frowned knowingly at Connor, who could only turn his eyes skyward in sheepish disavowal. Returning her gaze to Director Wilson, Elspeth proffered, “Well then, sir, I expect that we should get right to it.” And at this the crowd broke into applause yet again.
Crossing the Channel
London – A Week Later
Elspeth had been loaned an office down the hall from Connor’s. She suspected that Connor had been assigned to keep an eye on her, but she really didn’t care. Other than this irksome intrusion, she had more freedom to pursue whatever she deemed important than she’d ever had within the CIA, or even the DIA, for that matter. Accordingly, she quickly dispensed with the main purpose of her field deployment within the U.K. and, driven by a new hunch, she diverted her attentions to that mysterious character Abdullah Al-Khoury. Reasoning that he might in fact be the monetary source behind Farhan’s recent activities, she sought to trace Al-Khoury’s recent financial transactions, thereby shedding light on Al Qaeda’s next move.
Within days she hit pay dirt, a string of transactions more or less proving that Al-Khoury had financed every terrorist activity that Farhan Rahman had ever participated in. At this point, her suspicions growing exponentially, she decided to check records all the way back to the time when she had attended Hanford. To her amazement, she was able to verify that Al-Khoury had even paid for Farhan’s tuition during his time in Boston. What the heck was going on? It was a long shot, but could there actually be a link between James Moorehead and Abdullah Al-Khoury?
Sabrina had indicated that her husband Sloan had killed James sometime in 1971. Had James met Al-Khoury somewhere in Egypt shortly before his death? Following up on this possibility, Elspeth checked further records at Hanford, and to her surprise, not only had Farhan’s education been paid for by Al-Khoury, both Anna’s and Connor’s fees had also been paid by Al-Khoury! She was now certain that Abdullah Al-Khoury and James Moorehead were somehow linked to one another. But from there the trail grew cold, very cold indeed.
The Following Day
Surprised to hear the phone ring so early in the morning, Elspeth set down her morning coffee, tugged it to her ear and croaked, “Hello?”
“Elspeth, is that you?” the voice responded.
“Anna! Is it really you?”
“Yes, Elspeth, it really is me. I’ve managed to get out, and it’s all because of you.”
“What exactly do you mean, Anna?”
“It’s very simple – as long as Farhan was in control, I was forced to do his bidding. And although I was never forced to do anything illegal, I was his wife for all these years. And let me tell you – I was a prisoner. There is no other way to describe it. He had a hold over me, and there was nothing I could do about it. But after you uncovered the plot in London, Farhan was barred from traveling to the West. Due to your efforts I managed to escape Egypt across the Gaza Strip a week ago, and two days later I caught a flight to Istanbul from Tel Aviv.”
“So where are you now?”
“I’m in Paris! I traveled here by train from Istanbul.”
“Wow! Why don’t you come to London for a visit, just for old time’s sake?”
“I can’t, Elspeth. Because I am married to Farhan, I’m on the terrorist list. Frankly, I was fortunate to be able to get this far.”
“Oh, right, I knew that.”
“Elspeth, I am still in danger. You must come to Paris immediately. It is a matter of life and death. Please, you must come!”
At this Elspeth rubbed her forehead for a moment, then agreed, “Alright, Anna. I will catch the afternoon chunnel train. I should be there before nightfall.”
“Perfect! You can reach me at this number. I’ll talk to you soon, Elspeth. Bye!”
Paris – Late Afternoon That Same Day
Standing within the cover of the building alcove, Elspeth adjusted the wire, and just to be sure, she checked the pistol to make sure it was loaded and ready. Satisfied, she turned to Connor and announced, “I think I’m as ready as I shall ever be.”
“Good,” Connor replied, “We shall have sharpshooters on the top of The Gendarmes Headquarters just in case you need backup.”
“I know, but I do so hope that none of this will be necessary. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Anna, and even though this precaution is necessary, I’ve always believed that she wasn’t involved in all of this.”
“Right. We’re about to find out. I suppose it will close the loop on it, all those years ago in Boston.”
“Yes, indeed. So I’m off. She should be in the square by the time I arrive.” And with that, Elspeth set off for Notre Dame, the assigned place for her reunion with Anna. Fifteen years had passed, and along with it the entire world she had known. Now, the final piece of the puzzle was coming into focus, and in a few minutes Elspeth would surely have some of the answers.
Rounding the corner from the direction of the Pont Neuf, Elspeth could see Notre Dame Cathedral rising above the square directly in front of her. And there, within the square stood perhaps a thousand people, many of them standing in line to enter the cathedral. It was a bright and sunny day, one that Elspeth prayed would not end in sadness.
She made her way toward the appointed place directly in front of the cathedral, but as she neared the spot she noticed a woman standing alone in a full-bodied black burka. Unfortunately, because the woman was facing away from her, it was not possible to make out if it was Anna.
Fear suddenly welling up within her, Elspeth opted for a circuitous route and, circling round from the right, she passed by the statue of Charlemagne. As she did so, she moved closer, but just when she had reached within earshot of the woman in black, the woman turned and their eyes met – those pale blue eyes.
The woman immediately screamed at the top of her lungs, “RUN! Elspeth! RUN!”
Elspeth immediately turned on her heel and raced for the cover of the base of the statue of Charlemagne, and just as she reached it she was struck by an enormous explosion.
An Hour Later
From her perch on the tail end of the ambulance, Elspeth surveyed the carnage strewn about the roped-off square. By now the emergency medical crews had triaged all of the badly injured, and here and there the lightly injured were still being treated. But Elspeth couldn’t help returning her gaze repeatedly to the white sheets, here and there covering bodies in a tight pattern near where she had last seen Anna.
Connor momentarily trotted up to her for the third time since the explosion, exclaiming in overwrought concern, “Elspeth! How are you feeling? Any better?”
“I still have a splitting headache, but they tell me it’s not serious,” she stammered dejectedly.
“That’s certainly good news,” he responded in obvious relief, and then, surveying the horrific scene before them, he murmured, “It was bad, really bad.”
In response she exclaimed irritably, “Damn! I really screwed up. We should have cornered her before she got to the square. Are there any traces of her?”
“No, nothing more than a few scraps of black cloth. She was blown to bits, I’m afraid.”
At this she gazed upwards at him and blurted, “I wish we’d closed the square, Connor.”
“We discussed that, Elspeth,” he responded, “Had we closed the square she wouldn’t have shown up, and then where would we have been?”
“I suppose you’re right,” she responded, “If we’d just had more time to react. How many killed?”
“Surprisingly, only nineteen at the moment. Quite a few wounded, though. One or two may yet die, but all in all, it could have been worse.”
Surveying the damage for the umpteenth time, she replied, “I doubt it very seriously. Damn, we could have avoided all this.”
“She’d never have shown up. You know that.”
“Yes, of course I do. Damn – I was so sure she wasn’t in on it.”
At this Connor arched an eyebrow and, changing the subject, he announced, “Elspeth, you were dead right – We’ve just been informed that Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the bombing.”
“But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t involved, Connor.”
“Perhaps, but the vermin who is claiming responsibility is none other than Farhan Rahman.”
Gazing at him in hopeless acceptance, she blurted, “Why am I not surprised?”
“It gets better,” he responded, “It appears that Farhan is the local operative in charge.”
“Oh, my God! Anna said he’d been barred from leaving Egypt.”
“Right,” he mumbled, but at that moment his cellphone rang. Raising it to his ear, he blurted, “Stuart here,” and after a pause, he continued with, “Right, we shall be there as quickly as possible.” With that he replaced the phone in his pocket and, turning to her, he inquired, “Are you good to go, Elspeth?”
Newfound concern apparent on her face, she responded, “Yes, of course.”
“Well then, we’d best be off. They’ve heard from Farhan, and they believe that he is still in Paris, so we’d best get to Police Headquarters. They are demanding that we two report in, as we seem to be the only two people in Paris who actually know Farhan.”
Peering in the direction he was pointing, she exclaimed, “Right then, let’s get going.”
DGSI Headquarters – An Hour Later
Elspeth seated herself within the conference room, an assemblage of additional persons rapidly filling the seats arranged around the conference table. Shortly thereafter, Director Mirabeau entered the room.
Making his way briskly to the head of the table, he announced in a French accent, “Ladies and Gentlemen, please be seated. Under normal circumstances we would be speaking in French, but in deference to our colleagues from MI6, I shall speak in English. Anyone who does not speak English may listen to a translation on the headphones supplied throughout the room.” At this he paused a moment and then recommenced with, “Here is what we know. Two hours ago a bomb was set off directly in front of Notre Dame cathedral. At this moment there are nineteen dead, and an additional fifty-six wounded, six of whom are in critical condition. Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the bombing, thereby confirming that it was an act of terrorism.
“We were forewarned of the possibility of the bombing by Miss Elspeth Moorehead, seated on my left,” and so saying, he pointed to Elspeth, then continued with, “Ms. Moorehead is a CIA agent currently detached to MI6 in London, and it just so happens that she is a personal acquaintance of one Anna Morton Rahman. She is accompanied by MI6 Agent Connor Stuart, also an acquaintance of Ms. Rahman. Ms. Moorehead was telephoned in London earlier today by Ms. Rahman, who was the spouse of Farhan Rahman, a known high-ranking member of Al Qaeda. We have thus far been able to determine that Ms. Rahman, who was killed by the explosion, was the person who carried the bomb. An hour ago we received confirmation that Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the bombing.” He then paused for a moment and, allowing this information to sink in, he took a sip from a glass of water and then recommenced.
“Ladies and gentlemen, now comes the critical part – Ms. Rahman’s husband Farhan Rahman is apparently leading this terrorist operation, and we believe him to be at this moment within Paris proper. We also believe that Al Qaeda may be planning additional terrorist acts within Paris, and these actions may in fact be imminent.” At this he paused to let the import of his words sink in yet again. The initial shock having sunk in, several hands immediately went up in the air.
Holding his hands up to mitigate the impending pandemonium, the director exclaimed, “There is no time for questions at this moment. We must act in accordance with our terrorist defense plan. Accordingly, we have cordoned off Paris. No one is allowed in or out by train, automobile, or air, and these security measures will remain in effect until the immediate threat has been neutralized. Furthermore, all tourist sites have been closed, and all citizens and visitors to Paris are being told to move indoors to a place of safety.”
At that moment a person rushed into the room and whispered something in the director’s ear. A look of shock coming over his face, he exclaimed, “Ladies and gentlemen, it appears that the next attack has already begun. Paris Security Police report that terrorists have attacked the Eiffel Tower. I’m afraid I must curtail this meeting immediately. Miss Moorehead, Mr. Stuart, please accompany me,” and with this rather curt dismissal he hastily departed the room, trailed by the two agents.
Once in the corridor, he instructed the pair, “Please, follow me – quickly, please!”
Chasing after him, Elspeth inquired breathlessly, “Where to, sir?”
Glancing over his shoulder, he barked, “Why, to the Eiffel Tower, of course. I shall fill you in on the way.”
Moments later the three of them raced outside, jumped into an awaiting vehicle, and off they sped in the general direction of the Eiffel Tower. As they did so, the director explained, “There were apparently six of them. They sky-dived onto the first level of the tower shortly after dark. Given the darkness, they were able to land unnoticed, and unfortunately, they managed to kill all of the security personnel on that deck within minutes, along with an untold number of tourists. The terrorists subsequently knocked out all power to the tower, thereby shutting down the elevators so that no one is able get in our out other than by stairway. The remaining survivors on the first level have been forced by the terrorists to descend the corner staircases, thereby temporarily impeding any attempt by security personnel to mount a counteroffensive from the ground. Unfortunately, there were only two security personnel on the second level, and four of the six terrorists subsequently managed to climb all the way to that level, in the process killing both security personnel on that level as well.”
“Oh, my God,” Elspeth exclaimed, “So there is no communication with either the first or second level of the tower?”
“Not exactly. It seems that our people on the ground have managed to make contact with several of the tourists on the second level via cellphone. And of course, we have direct contact with the four security personnel on the top level.”
“How long before we get there?” Connor put in.
“We’re almost there now,” the director observed. “And we should arrive before the terrorists get too far above the second level. And with any luck, our security personnel will be able to neutralize them when they reach the top level.”
“How many people are still within the tower, director?” Elspeth queried.
“I’m not sure. Apparently, they have managed to send a fair number down the stairways from the lowest deck. Unfortunately, the two upper levels are cut off, the terrorists denying any possibility of either ascent or descent above the first level.”
“Any idea what the capacity of the two upper levels is, sir?” Connor asked.
“Yes, about three hundred on the second deck, and two hundred on the top level. Our security people are currently attempting to get an estimate, but we need to be prepared for the possibility that both levels are filled with tourists who are now hostages.”
“If my guess is correct, the reason there were six of them was so that two of them could control level one of the tower, and two could control level two, thus leaving two to bomb the upper portion of the tower,” Connor advised.
“Perhaps, but I doubt that a bombing is their primary objective,” Elspeth volunteered.
“Oh?” the director blurted in apparent astonishment, “What makes you say that, Ms. Moorehead?”
“This will sound absurd, but I believe that they are actually after me, sir.”
His confusion at such a preposterous assumption readily apparent, he exclaimed, “What! Surely you’re joking, Ms. Moorehead!”
“No, sir. I’ve never been more serious in my life.”
“Sir, I believe that Farhan is being directed by Abdullah Al-Khoury, one of the most heinous characters that ever walked the face of the Earth.”
“Yes, I am aware of that,” he responded, “But what has that got to do with you?”
“Ah, there is the riddle to end all riddles, sir. It appears that Al-Khoury is in some way connected to my late grandfather, James Moorehead, who also appears to have sired Anna Morton Rahman, the woman who blew herself to bits in front of Notre Dame today, as well as Farhan Rahman himself.”
“Oh, my God!” the director babbled, “Are you telling me this is nothing more than a family squabble?”
“No, sir, far from it. However, it appears that it started out that way. You see, my grandfather on my mother’s side, Sloan Stewart, and James Moorehead were classmates at Hanford University quite a long time ago, and for some reason that I am not aware, they had a falling out. I believe that Al-Khoury is acting on behalf of James Moorehead in an attempt to get even with Sloan Stewart.”
“Wait a minute,” the director interrupted, “That must have been many years ago!”
“Yes, sir, you are quite correct. In fact, both Sloan and James are now deceased, but Al-Khoury was somehow convinced by James to carry out his vendetta even after his passing.”
His eyes growing wide in shock, the director posited, “Incredible! And you think that Farhan Rahman is at this moment in Paris to carry out Al-Khoury’s bidding?”
“Yes, sir, that is exactly what I believe. Al-Khoury has sent both James Moorehead’s son and his now deceased daughter to do his bidding.”
“And what might that bidding be, Ms. Moorehead?”
“Why, to kill me, of course. Al-Khoury already had my parents killed.”
“Really! How did he accomplish that?”
At this Elspeth frowned and posited, “They were killed in the Lockerbie bombing in 1988.”
And now the director in turned frowned, suggesting, “But I thought they caught the man who did that. Wasn’t he from Libya?”
Nodding her agreement, Elspeth responded, “Yes, but he was a scapegoat. I have sufficient evidence to prove that Al-Khoury was behind it all, sir.”
At this revelation, the director scratched his chin for a moment and subsequently inquired, “So where does all this leave us, Ms. Moorehead?”
“Good question. My best guess is that Farhan Rahman is at this very moment scaling the Eiffel Tower for the purpose of killing me.”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow, Ms. Moorehead. Please explain.”
“Sir, Farhan is clearly under the complete control of Al-Khoury. As Farhan is now trapped within the confines of Paris proper, he has chosen to go public in an attempt to draw me within his reach, and what better location than the Eiffel Tower? After all, if he can lure me onto the tower, he has the opportunity to, let’s say, kill two birds with one stone.”
At this the director stared incredulously at her for a moment, then blurted, “Point well taken…”
Elspeth now added, “I suspect that he is most likely planning to hold everyone on the top level hostage as a means of demanding me in exchange for some or all of them.”
“Preposterous!” the director exclaimed, “Surely you can’t be serious!”
“I’m afraid she is,” Connor put in woefully.
At that moment the phone rang, and the director answered it, saying, “Yes, go ahead.” He listened silently for a moment, then added, “Alright. I shall arrive momentarily. Don’t do anything further until I arrive.” He then turned to the pair of them and announced, “Snipers in the military helicopters have managed to shoot two of the terrorists on the second level, but they in turn managed to shoot down one of our choppers. At this moment one of the terrorists is on his way up the stairs to the top level.”
“I am certain it is Farhan,” Elspeth proffered, “He won’t go all the way to the top.”
Stupefied at this assertion, the director inquired, “What? Why?”
Elspeth gazed in the general direction of the tower and observed, “My guess is he has sufficient explosives on him to blow off the top portion of the tower. Were he to go all the way to the top, he might either get shot by the security personnel on the top level or, even if he does explode the bomb on the top level, it might not be sufficient to take down that portion of the tower, there being considerably more structural integrity at that level. Besides, he can negotiate better from a position of safety midway between the top two levels.”
“Ah, I see…” the director said, but then he added, “Alright, we have arrived at the command post. Let’s get out and see where things stand.”
With that the three of them jumped from the vehicle, whereupon they were immediately ushered into the command post, a trailer to one side of the south tower leg.
Once inside they received a short briefing in French, after which the room became silent. The director then turned to Connor and Elspeth and inquired, “It seems you are correct – Mr. Rahman is on his way up the stairs to the top level.”
“Mais oui, monsieur, on comprend,” Elspeth volunteered.
“Ah, you speak French then,” he observed, “Given that the pair of you know him, what actions might you suggest?”
At this, Elspeth immediately exclaimed, “Sir, we have one and only one chance to save both the Eiffel Tower and all of the people trapped up there.”
“And what might that be, Ms. Moorehead?”
“Sir, we must somehow get Farhan off the tower. Accordingly, I propose that you put Connor and me aboard that helicopter, together with a sharpshooter, and we just may be able to save the day.”
“How so, Ms. Moorehead? Were you to shoot him, he would likely blow up the bomb the moment he was shot.”
“Of course, you are entirely correct, sir,” she responded matter-of-factly, “However, as I explained to you, Farhan is in reality after me. Therefore, if we can get to him and he realizes that I am aboard the chopper, we may be able to coax him into voluntarily removing himself from the tower.”
At this pronouncement the director pursed his lips and responded, “But I don’t understand, Ms. Moorehead. If by some means you actually are able to coax him onto the helicopter, he will most assuredly immediately explode the bomb, in the process killing everyone aboard the helicopter and possibly even taking out some or all of the tower simultaneously!”
Eyeing him for a moment, Elspeth then responded knowingly, “Of course, that has in fact been his fallback plan all along, sir.”
“I still don’t understand,” the director exclaimed, “Are you telling me that you are willing to die to save the Eiffel Tower?”
“Yes, sir, that is exactly what I’m telling you. But more importantly, all the people trapped up there would be saved as well. Surely that would be more than a fair trade.”
You gazed at her in horror for a moment but, his scrutiny suddenly changing to one of admiration, he turned to Connor and inquired, “And I suppose that you, sir, are just as fou as she is?”
“Yes, sir, as a matter of fact I am,” Connor responded despondently.
The director stared in utter disbelief at the pair a moment longer, but then he abruptly exclaimed, “Done! Sergeant, escort these two to the helicopter immediately, and get your very best sharpshooter aboard with them! Now, off with the pair of you, and best of luck – you’re going to need it!”
With that the pair rushed from the command post and followed the sergeant, at which point Elspeth instructed, “Not so fast, sergeant! I’m going to need some special gear.”
“And what might that be?” the sergeant inquired.
“I shall tell you on the way. We have very little time, so we must hurry,” and with that the three of them raced for the helicopter, Elspeth giving him orders as they raced full speed onward.
Moments later the helicopter lifted off from its spot on the Champ de Mars, and as it did so, Elspeth gave instructions to the sharpshooter as to what she had in mind to do. Meanwhile, the helicopter rose to the height where they anticipated their quarry to be and began slowly circling the tower. Focusing a spotlight on the tower, they spotted him after a few moments, three fourths of the way up, hurriedly mounting the stairs.
Elspeth instructed the pilot to hover a hundred feet from the tower, then grabbed the megaphone and pressed it to her mouth, shouting, “Farhan, it’s Elspeth. After all these years, we finally meet again.”
At this the terrorist halted, turned and waved incongruously toward the chopper.
Elspeth continued, “Farhan, we know you are here for me. The why and wherefore matters not, but given that I am your target, why not give up this silly charade and join us aboard the helicopter? After all, you really don’t expect me to believe that you intend to take down the Eiffel Tower!”
At this Farhan shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, “Seemed like a good idea at the time, but I’m willing to negotiate.”
Seeing his apparent willingness to listen, she suggested, “Suppose we shoot a cable over to you, you then tie it off to yourself and then we can simply airlift you away from the tower? After all, at that point you shall have direct access to me.”
Farhan seemed to consider for a moment, but then he shook his head in refusal.
“I knew he wouldn’t go for that,” she exclaimed to Connor, “He knows that if we were to snag him, all we’d have to do is cut loose the cable and he’d be done. Still, it was worth a try.”
At this Connor droned above the roar of the chopper, “What now, Elspeth?”
She thought for a moment and then shouted, “So – on to plan number two,” and so saying, she hoisted the megaphone to her lips and exclaimed, “Surely you don’t think that I will come to you, Farhan. Then you will have both the hostages and me, and that being the case, you will hold all of the chips!”
At this she could make out his grin even from the distance of a hundred feet. He had always been a smug bastard, she thought to herself, and then she exclaimed to no one in particular, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to go to him.”
At this Connor screamed at the top of his lungs, “You can’t be serious! You’ll get yourself killed! And after that he’ll blow up the tower as well!”
She turned toward him and inquired, “Do you have a better idea? Because, if you do, I’d sure like to hear it!”
“Why don’t I go to him?” he suggested.
“Don’t be ridiculous! He’d kill you before you even made it to the tower!”
“Well then,” he responded, “Why don’t we allow him to go to the top, and then we could negotiate,” Connor suggested.
“Not a chance! Then he’d be in a position to kill everyone in the tower, not to mention destroying the tower itself.”
“He’s probably already in a position to do both,” he observed.
“Yes, that may be, Connor, but he doesn’t have me yet, does he?”
“Alright, Elspeth, I see your point, but I still don’t understand what you can accomplish by going to him. After all, he’s likely to blow the bomb up the second you are within range.”
“He won’t do that,” Elspeth responded self-assuredly.
“What makes you say that?”
“The absolute certainty that he wants to see me squirm!”
“What! You’re kidding, Elspeth! Surely you don’t expect me to go along with this on such a flimsy assumption.”
“It’s not flimsy, Connor. Tis certain – I’m absolutely sure of it!”
“What makes you so certain?”
“The night of the strip poker game, that’s what!”
“Oh, that! That was a long time ago, Elspeth. I doubt he’s the same person now.”
“Yeah, I know, but there was one other time. I won’t go into details with you, but Farhan attempted to seduce me. Initially I played along just to see what he would try, but when he got too close, I pulled a pistol on him and told him to get out. He was really pissed, and that night he told me that it wasn’t over by a long shot. So you see, Connor, it’s not over yet, and if you’d seen the look of disappointment on his face that night you’d know I’m right. He looked at me as if the world had come to an end. He’d had me in his sights, and he failed. He’s been waiting ever since for another chance, and this is the last one he’ll ever have. Not only can he go out in a blaze of glory, he will have made me succumb to his will.”
At this Connor scratched his chin for moment and then inquired, “Alright, supposing you are correct, what good would it do for you to go to him?”
“I’ve got the better of him, Connor. I know what he doesn’t know that I know, and that is just how badly he wants to see me squirm before he dies. And while he’s making me squirm, I’m going to kick that son-of-a-bitch’s ass!”
Connor could do nothing but stare at her in disbelief, but then he suddenly said, “Well, this sounds preposterous, but I suppose you’re right – we have no other options”
At this Elspeth added, “And besides, if he does kill me, he may just give up at that point. After all, he will have accomplished his mission, and he may even think that he could be extradited if he doesn’t blow up the bomb. So we have two chances at saving both the tourists and the tower.”
“Alright, I give up, Elspeth. Go! Go on!” and at this he waved a dismissive hand at her. But then, thinking better of it, he shouted, “I’m going to kill that bastard if he lays a hand on you!”
“Whatever,” she replied nonchalantly, and then she turned on the megaphone and blasted to Farhan, “Alright, Farhan, I’m coming to you. First we’re going to shoot a cable to you. Please connect it to the tower, and then I’ll rappel over. Okay?”
Seeing his nod of approval, Elspeth instructed the sharpshooter to shoot the cable across to the tower. This was accomplished in short order, and Elspeth subsequently prepared to rappel to the tower, but before she did so she whispered something to the helicopter pilot. For his part, he nodded in agreement, and then she set off.
Connor observed as she rappelled across, but on her arrival he was horrified as Farhan immediately grabbed her and, taking her in a lusty embrace, he tugged her to himself and bestowed her with a deep and penetrating kiss.
Elspeth seemingly responded, thereby allowing the kiss to linger. His face reddening in disgust, Connor was frozen in fear as the two put on quite the show. But then Elspeth suddenly held up her hand behind Farhan’s back and signaled thumbs up, at which the helicopter pilot jerked the throttle back and tugged mightily on the cable.
Unbeknownst to Farhan, Elspeth had connected the cable to his backpack, thereby causing him to be torn bodily from the tower, she for her part managing to extricate herself from his grasp just at the right instant.
Elspeth immediately pulled a pistol and fired at Farhan, but she missed. He simultaneously managed to get off a pistol shot at Elspeth, but he was tugged so sharply that he subsequently dropped the pistol, and he was unable to immediately grab the detonator for the bomb. Elspeth went down, and a moment later an enormous explosion ripped through the Paris sky beneath the hovering chopper.
Now the chopper began to lurch violently, the pilot screaming to Connor above the roar, “The shrapnel from the explosion caught one of the rotor blades. I can’t hold her! Hang on – we’re going down!”
The helicopter began a slow circling descent, the pilot doing everything in his power to maintain control of the wavering aircraft. Seconds later he yelled, “I’m going to try to work the chopper over the Seine. When we’re down to less than a hundred feet above the river, jump!”
“What!” Connor blurted in shock, but the sharpshooter was already positioning himself at the chopper door. Seconds later he tugged Connor out the door with him. The pair plummeted downward, and moments later they struck the water. Connor came up first, gagging and coughing, and the sharpshooter popped above the surface a second later. By then the chopper had exploded in a fireball as it struck the Pont des Invalides.
Spluttering water, Connor gagged and searched skyward. Seeing that the tower was intact, he could think only of Elspeth.
Far above, though apparently wounded, Elspeth took up Farhan’s semi-automatic weapon and immediately shot two of the other terrorists. The remaining two were taken out by the other circling chopper. The attack was abruptly at an end.
January 3, 2011 – Washington
Elspeth stepped from the cab into the late night air, her thoughts still far away in London. Having paid the driver, she picked up her bag and, wincing from the still tender massive bruise on her chest, she thought to herself how fortunate she’d been to be wearing a bullet-proof vest that night in Paris. She then caught the elevator to her apartment and once there, she checked her phone messages. The first four were from reporters seeking interviews with the now-famous CIA agent who had singlehandedly foiled a terrorist attack on the Eiffel Tower, but the fifth one caught her attention immediately – it was the voice of Anna!
The voice in the message said, “Elspeth, it’s Anna. I’m sorry I missed you, but as I am most likely dead by now, it really doesn’t matter. But there is one thing, Elspeth – check your mail!”
At this revelation Elspeth slammed the phone down and immediately raced downstairs to her mail box. Grabbing the unwieldy heap of letters stuffed within, she raced back up the stairs, too impatient to await the elevator. Once back within her apartment, she tore through the stack. Finally, near the bottom, there it was – an otherwise inconspicuous letter post-marked from Egypt. Tearing it open, she read the following:
December 23, 2010
I hope this letter finds you well. First, let me say how much I’ve missed you all these years. You see, you were and still are the best friend I’ve ever had. I assume you know – I’m not like you. I’m not vivacious and outgoing. Instead, I’m shy and extremely introverted, and for that reason (among others), I’ve not formed any friendships of significance since I left Boston all those years ago. But I digress.
The reason I’m writing to you is to explain certain events that I suspect are related to the both of us. If my suspicions are correct, these events may put the both of us in mortal danger. So please take this letter seriously.
You are perhaps wondering why I have chosen to write to you rather than actually visiting, or calling, or even e-mailing you. The fact is that every move I make is monitored. My e-mails are screened, and my phone is tapped. So you see – this is my only means of contacting you directly.
So, to launch into things straightaway – it all started on that night when we played strip poker all those years ago. As I said – I’m not like you. You’ve always seemed so self-assured of your own sexuality. I, on the other hand, being trapped within both Muslim culture and traditional attire for women, never had the opportunity to obtain assurance of my own attractiveness to the opposite sex. In that sense – I believe that women everywhere are the same. In my case, the events of that night, when the other girls stripped off, and you showed the self-assurance to refrain, all of it served to sorely confuse me about my own sexuality.
It gnawed at me, so much so that I eventually found myself forced to do something about it. One Saturday I took the train to Baltimore, and I performed in an amateur strip show. And yes, dear Elspeth, I did indeed go all the way that night. And that wasn’t the only time I did it. Eventually, I was stripping regularly, but I always wore a mask, thereby protecting my identity.
I reasoned that no one would ever know that it was me, but eventually I slipped up. One night I got drunk and I got a tiny tattoo of a butterfly at the base of my spine. A few weeks later my obsession became so powerful that I entered a strip contest in Worcester, only a few miles from Boston. At first it seemed alright, but then to my horror I noticed Farhan in the audience. I figured it was a coincidence – that he hadn’t recognized me, but of course he had.
Nothing happened at first, but when I got back home to Cairo, he showed up. I’m now certain that he had been following me that night in Worcester, for what purpose I knew not at that time, but when he did show up, he produced a film – a film that he had secretly made of me that night in Worcester. Had it not been for the tattoo, I might not have been recognizable in the film, but there it was, frame after frame for all the world to see.
I don’t think I need tell you of the consequences for a Muslim woman should such a film ever become public, so it would be an understatement to say that I was terrified by his revelation. And under the circumstances I was powerless to resist his advances, including my forced marriage to him a short time later.
I was naïve enough to hope that Farhan’s successful blackmailing of me would end with my capitulation to his marriage proposal, and I therefore determined to do my best as a good Muslim spouse to support my husband in my newfound circumstances. I also decided to give Farhan the benefit of the doubt, but unfortunately, my doubts began to resurface a short time later. I was treated as a prisoner from that time onwards, never being allowed to go off on my own. And so I have remained all these years.
I had no idea at the time where Farhan came by it, but he appeared to have come into quite a great deal of money. He purchased an enormous apartment in downtown Cairo and surrounded himself with a vast array of security guards, shady business associates, and even women of ill repute. I was summarily pushed aside, left to ponder for what possible reason I had been blackmailed into marrying him, much less putting up with his ever more sordid lifestyle.
The years passed, my confusion, and may I say – depression – growing with the excruciatingly turgid passage of time. And while I repeatedly sought ways to obtain your help, I never found sufficient reason to take such an enormous risk for the both of us.
And now we come to the reason for this letter. That time has come – the time when circumstances have forced my hand. Recent events have convinced me that Farhan did indeed have an ulterior motive when he married me. I am saddened to say that his motive was in some way connected to you. Apparently, Farhan attempted during his time in Boston to take advantage of you, dear Elspeth but, having failed miserably, he turned his attentions to me in the forlorn hope that I might provide a means for him to get at you. Accordingly, I believe that Farhan is now planning to use me to either capture you or worse.
You will find this difficult to believe, but I have been able to determine that both Farhan and I were sired by a man named Abdullah Al-Khoury. Although I have never met him, I am quite certain that he is the person behind all of this, for what reason I do not know. Beware, dear Elspeth, Al-Khoury is the very worst sort. There is no hope for me. You must guard yourself against the possibility that the same may happen to you.
I wish you well, and I hope that someday we shall meet again under happier circumstances, circumstances such as those we experienced in Boston, the happiest period of my life.
At this revelation Elspeth curled into a tiny ball within her chair. The pieces of the puzzle were finally complete. Abdullah Al-Khoury and James Moorehead were in fact one-in-the-same person!
Washington – January, 2012
Hearing the ringing of the phone, Elspeth answered with, “Hello?”
“Elspeth, Tis I, Connor,” the distant voice responded.
“Oh, Hello, Connor, it’s been what – a year? So what’s up?”
“I have some news, I’d even say – good news for you!”
“Oh, and what might that be?”
“We got him, Elspeth, we got that son-of-a-bitch!”
“We got Abdullah Al-Khoury, killed by a drone last night.”
“My goodness, I had no idea he was even still alive. Gee that’s great, Connor!”
“Yep. So they’re all gone now, Hussein, Gaddafi, Bin Laden, and now, Al-Khoury.”
“Where was he?”
“He was hiding out in Yemen.”
At this revelation Elspeth inquired, “How’d you find him?”
“In the end, it was easy. He just couldn’t resist drawing on his hidden bank accounts, and of course, we eventually located all of them with the help of the Swiss government. We traced his latest withdrawal to a laptop computer in a small village.”
“Is it confirmed then?”
“Oh, yes, his body was blown to pieces, but his DNA matches both Farhan’s and Anna’s.”
“So it’s all true then,” Elspeth responded, “Al-Khoury was really my grandfather, James Moorehead, who was fired from Hanford University in 1968, and he subsequently somehow ended up being one of the worst terrorists in modern history.”
“That’s pretty much it, and God knows why, his vendetta was neither religious nor political, it was entirely personal. He managed to kill off quite a few people in his quest to get even with the Stewart family. He got his first daughter and her husband killed in the Lockerbie bombing. Then, Sloan having already passed away, he went after Sabrina in Las Vegas, but the bombing was botched when Patience Walker misplaced it, as we now know, on purpose. After that he went after Patience in an effort to shut her up, and instead of killing her he wiped out the Twin Towers, along with nearly three thousand innocent people. Then he went after you, and in the process he managed to nearly blow up Notre Dame Cathedral and The Eiffel Tower, not to mention getting two more of his children killed. I’d say he ranks right up there with Osama bin Laden as one of the most heinous criminals of our time.”
Elspeth thought for a moment, but then she suddenly realized, “Looks like our job is at an end, Connor, or at least our association.”
“Perhaps, but I do hope to see you again sometime, Elspeth.”
“Me, too Connor. In the meantime, take care.”
“You, too, Elspeth. Bye.”
Boston – December, 2013
Elspeth’s grandmother finally passed away, a victim of heart disease at the advanced age of eighty-nine. The realization now struck Elspeth that she was entirely alone in this world. After all she had been through, her life had degenerated into a drab everyday existence of total boredom. Steeling herself, she told herself that it was just what she needed, but it was nonetheless difficult to experience the mundane.
Elspeth summoned the energy to assemble her grandmother’s personal effects, the objective being to sell what she could and store the remainder. And so it was that, while sifting through Sabrina’s acquisitions of a lifetime, she made a small discovery – a key to a deposit box with a note attached to it saying ‘Warning: To be used upon my death solely by Elspeth Moorehead to open safe deposit box number 231986 at the Security Bank of Boston’.
Elspeth fretted for a week but eventually realized that, given her inquisitive nature, she couldn’t let sleeping dogs lie. Accordingly, on a cold December morning she approached the bank with trepidation, a slow but ever mounting dread of what might lay within her grandmother’s safe deposit box. After all that she had survived over the years, all the trials she had been through over the course of her lifetime – how, she asked herself, could she be so terrified of a little box? The answer of course was that it was the unknown – her grandmother’s note had made it clear that the contents of the box presented some sort of danger – but what on earth could it be?
Once inside she was ushered to the secured area, wherein she summarily located the box and inserted the key. A moment’s hesitation, and then she mounted the courage to turn the key, thereby inducing the anticipated sound of the tumblers falling into place. She tugged the box from its supports and placed it on the table. Taking a deep breath, she switched the latch and opened the box. Within she found two items, the first being a scrap of paper with a note written on it.
The handwritten note read as follows:
My Dear Elspeth-
I always knew this day would come. I hope that my passing has not distressed you terribly. As you doubtless know, this moment is the essence of humankind, when a woman gives her offspring her final farewell. Let me say that, while my life has been filled with turmoil, I am greatly satisfied with the outcome. My first marriage to your grandfather Sloan was quite stormy, but in the end our first marriage produced your mother who in her turn produced you, and our second marriage resulted in the happiest time of my life. And of course, there was the ever so lovely denouement – the closing years of my life with you, my dear.
I shall not belabor my own story further, for you shall find it all described in the attached manuscript, aptly entitled My Father the God. I have kept it all these years for the simple reason that I could not bring myself to divulge the horrible secret hidden within. However, as you are now a grown woman, it seems appropriate for you to be informed of all the details. I hope that their disclosure does not alarm you unnecessarily.
Now, there is one last detail – the matter of your inheritance. It will perhaps come as a surprise to you to discover that you are in fact wealthy. While it surely did not appear to you that I was wealthy, the fact is that your grandfather was quite successful during his lifetime. You will be apprised of the details regarding your inheritance by our solicitor, Mr. Royce Delaney, of Squires, Simpson and Delaney in downtown Boston. Rest assured, he is awaiting your visit.
I have now come to the end of my soliloquy, so that it remains only for me to say this – make the most of what you learn from the contents of this box – may you live a long and happy life.
The tears now welling up within her, Elspeth could do naught but burst into uncontrollable sobs and, her knees giving way, she sank to the floor in the depth of misery. She had lost her last relative, her rock for all these years, and now she must go it all alone. How would she live on without her grandmother?
Three Days Later
Elspeth dragged herself from bed, the reality of recent days sweeping over her yet again at the dawning of another day. The funeral had been small and sad, but she had suffered through it all, her grandmother’s plea to ‘live a long and happy life’ echoing in her mind throughout the eulogy.
Though she had not had the nerve to visit her mother’s lawyer, she now understood that if she was to succeed in accomplishing her mother’s charge, she must find a way to move forward. The first step in that process obviously being to read the manuscript, she showered, put on her favorite robe, and began her mission with the support of a strong cup of coffee.
Slumping down on the living room sofa, she placed the document before her. Unable to bring herself to start straightaway, she stared out the window for several minutes, the events of her life slowly passing before her eyes. Then, her thoughts finally arriving at the present, she opened the manuscript to the first page and began to read My Father the God.
Hours later, now nearly halfway through it, she realized that there was clearly a mystery therein, but somehow she hadn’t been quite ready to read it all the way through. Suddenly realizing she’d become so engrossed that she’d not eaten a thing, she retreated to the kitchen, poured herself a cup of coffee and, crunching on a handful of cornflakes, she pondered her next move.
The attraction of this strange account – the story of the intertwined lives of all four of her grandparents – was certainly compelling. But there was too much yet to resolve within her own evolving life. Accordingly, she placed the manuscript aside, in the process promising herself she would get back to it when circumstances permitted.
Downtown Boston – Two Days Later
Elspeth approached the receptionist and announced, “Good morning, I’m Elspeth Moorehead. I have an appointment with Mr. Delaney.”
“Yes, of course,” the receptionist responded, and rising from her seat she added, “If you will, please follow me. Mr. Delaney is expecting you.”
Entering his office, Elspeth was introduced to a large but garrulous sixtyish-looking man, identified by the receptionist as the object of Elspeth’s visit.
He arose and, extending his hand in a friendly gesture, he offered, “Pleased to meet you, Miss Moorehead. I heard so much about you from your grandmother over the years. She was such a lovely lady. May I offer you my condolences for your loss.”
“Thank you, Mr. Delaney,” she replied, “I do so miss her.”
There was a moment of somehow appropriate silence, and then Elspeth broke it, suggesting, “Well, Gran seems to have forced this visit on the both of us, so shall we launch directly into our assigned task?”
“Well said,” he responded, “As I’m sure you know, your grandmother was never one for idle chit chat.”
Smiling her accord, Elspeth agreed, “Just so, Mr. Delaney, just so.”
“Please, Miss Moorehead, call me Royce, if you will.”
“Yes, of course,” she responded, “And please call me Elspeth.”
“Thank you, Elspeth. Perhaps in time we shall become friends, brought together at such an untimely moment by your grandmother’s dying wish.”
“That would be nice, Royce. But as you were clearly a friend of hers, it will not surprise me if the same can at some future time be said of we two.”
“Excellent,” he replied sheepishly, “And now, down to business. You have read the manuscript, I trust?”
“Yes,” she lied, “But how did you know about it?”
“Oh, I was instructed to read it years ago.”
“Oh, by whom?”
“Actually, your father gave a copy to me shortly before the Lockerbie bombing.”
“My, my…” she murmured thoughtfully, “Why ever for?”
“Oh, he wanted to be certain that you were apprised of the truth should something befall your mother and himself.”
“My goodness, that certainly sounds prophetic…”
“Well, perhaps. After all, something did come to pass, something terrible in fact. But if you are suggesting that your father anticipated his own demise, I doubt that very seriously. He was simply a man who was wont to leave things incomplete.”
“Yes, well, there is that,” she mumbled thoughtfully, “I was quite young when they perished, but I was old enough to know that much about him. So you knew him…”
“Yes, I did. Not well, mind you, but well enough to consider him a fine young man of the utmost character.”
“Thank you for that, Royce. It means a great deal to me.”
“You’re welcome,” at which point he paused for a moment, scratched his chin distractedly, and then he suggested, “Well, then…down to the business at hand. Your grandmother, being your only living relative upon your parents’ passing, was entrusted with executorship of your inheritance, which consisted of the entire estate of your parents. Accordingly, we two, your grandmother and I, worked together to ensure that your parents’ wishes were adhered to. And their wishes were that your estate be utilized in a way deemed best for you by your executor, in this case that person being your grandmother. We two worked together to appropriate whatever funds were necessary to ensure your wellbeing, and to invest the remainder wisely so as to grow the corpus over time.”
“Yes, of course. I understand.”
“Well, then it remains only to assure you that your inheritance is invested wisely, and it is now at your disposal as you see fit.”
“And where is it invested, Royce?”
“Why, it is invested with Boston Financial, and of course, the actual investments themselves are determined by my firm’s financial advisors, with appropriate redistributions made from time to time based on market fluctuations.”
“I see, and just exactly how much is there at this point in time, Royce?”
“Uhm, I’m not exactly certain, as the corpus fluctuates daily according to the Stock Market.”
At this, Elspeth frowned in apparent frustration and spluttered, “Just give me a wild guess!”
“Yes, of course,” Royce responded doubtfully and, hesitating a moment, he responded nearly inaudibly, “I should say between a hundred twenty and a hundred twenty-five million.”
Her eyes widening in surprise, Elspeth blurted forcefully, “Dollars? You mean dollars?”
“Why, yes – of course. You have something in excess of one hundred twenty million dollars inheritance, Miss Moorehead.”
“But how can that be?” she queried in utter shock.
“Your grandfather was a successful author, as you well know. He invested his earnings wisely, and on his passing your grandmother worked closely with us to ensure that his wealth was not squandered.”
“Squandered? Squandered!” she exclaimed, “I should say it’s been anything BUT squandered. You’ve made me a VERY wealthy woman!”
At this accusation all he could think of to say was, “Yes, just so…”
“Oh, my…” she murmured to herself and, glancing back towards him, she added, “I’m afraid I must think this over a bit, Royce.”
“Of course. I thought you might say that. Rest assured, your inheritance is absolutely safe. Take as long as you need, Elspeth. In the meantime, I shall continue as before, and at such time as you would desire to discuss it further with me, I am at your service. In the meantime, I have taken steps to draw the sum of $500,000 from your investment account and place it within your personal bank account. Will that do for now?”
Glancing sideways at him, she smirked tongue-in-cheek, “Why, yes, I believe that should keep me going for a week or two…”
At this he smiled pleasantly and, rising from his seat, he thrust his hand forward yet again and offered, “Then I shall look forward with anticipation to our next meeting, Elspeth.”
Rising herself, she reached forward, accepted his hand, and responded delightedly, “It’s been a gas, Royce. I think I’m going to rather enjoy doing business with you.” And with that she turned and departed the room.
More Than Meets the Eye
Aberdeen, Scotland – Late January, 2014
The customs agent studied the woman as she approached his booth and, despite her encasing attire, it was readily apparent that she was quite elderly.
Arriving at his station, the woman pushed her passport through the opening in the bullet-proof glass window, in the process whispering, “Good morning, kind sir.”
Because she was completely covered by the burka except for her eyes, he studied them carefully and was surprised to find them to be pale blue in color. Squinting obtrusively at her, he inquired brusquely, “What brings an Egyptian woman to Scotland, pray tell.”
Appearing to misunderstand, she responded softly, “Please, could you speak more slowly? My English is not so good.”
His visage softening a bit, he responded, “Sorry, let me rephrase that, why have you come to Scotland?”
At this she whispered, “My son is getting married. He lives in Edinburgh.”
“Ah, I see,” he responded, “And why then have you arrived by ship in Aberdeen, and from Amsterdam?”
“I am not wealthy, kind sir, and the airfare from Cairo to Amsterdam was by far the lowest.”
“I understand,” he replied, “And how long do you plan to stay in Scotland?”
“A week,” she responded.
“May I see your return ticket?”
“Yes, kind sir,” she replied, and so saying, she produced the requisite item.
“He studied it a moment and, surveying her eyes one last time, he pounded her passport with his stamp and, handing back to her, he announced, “Have a nice stay in Scotland, Ms. Rahman.”
MI6, London – February, 2014
Elspeth held out her hand to Director Wilson and offered, “Good to see you again, sir.”
“And you,” he responded candidly, “What brings you back to MI6, Ms. Moorehead? Please tell me tis nothing untoward.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, sir,” she responded matter-of-factly, “I assume you know why I am here.”
“Yes, well, I gather you have another theory, but please feel free to fill me in.”
“Yes, sir,” she responded, adding, “Is Agent Stuart about? I’d like for him to be in on this.”
“Need to know, and all that, Ms. Moorehead,” he replied sagely, “Does he indeed need to know?”
“When you hear what I have to say, I’m quite certain you shall agree that he does indeed have the need to know, sir.”
“Alright then, I shall get him for you.”
Moments later Connor entered the room and, surprise creasing his face, he exclaimed, “Elspeth! What brings you here?”
Taking his hand in hers, she smiled and responded, “Tis good to see you, too, Connor Stuart!”
“Oh, sorry,” he blurted in apparent embarrassment, “I meant to say – as am I, Elspeth. As am I…most certainly glad to see you.”
The discomforting pleasantries born by past history having been completed, Director Wilson instructed, “Please, have a seat Agent Stuart. Ms. Moorehead was just beginning to tell me about some new theory of hers.”
Connor sat as instructed, thereby giving Elspeth leave to commence with, “Gentlemen, I’m afraid our long and sordid interactions with Abdullah Al-Khoury have not yet reached their conclusion,” at which Director Wilson half-rose from his chair in obvious concern.
For his part, Connor simply leaned back in his chair, nonplussed by her unlikely assertion.
Eyeing her doubtfully, the director inquired, “What makes you say that?”
“Sir, I have evidence to suggest that Al-Khoury is still alive.”
“What! That simply cannot be!” the director exclaimed. “We are quite certain we killed him in Yemen.”
“Unfortunately, your conclusion appears to be incorrect, sir,” Elspeth countered.
At this Connor put in doubtfully, “So, Elspeth, how is it that my DNA matched that of the body found at the site of the drone kill?”
For her part, Elspeth turned towards Connor and exclaimed, “That son-of-a-bitch Al-Khoury had another son, Connor. I found a birth certificate – he was born in Libya in 1978, and his name was Suhinam Al-Khoury.”
“Wait a minute,” Connor blurted, “Are you telling me that this son of Al-Khoury’s was the person killed in Yemen?”
“That’s exactly what I’m telling you, Connor.”
“But…” Connor murmured, “But, if that is true, then Al-Khoury had his own son killed.”
At this Elspeth eyed him a moment and responded matter-of-factly, “It wouldn’t be the first time, Connor.”
“Alright,” the director interrupted, “Supposing this fantasy of yours is even possible, what proof do you have that it was indeed Al-Khoury’s son who was blown up in Yemen, Ms. Moorehead?”
“It is admittedly circumstantial, sir,” Elspeth observed, “But suppose we view it this way. In order for the DNA to match, it would have had to have been a close relative of Al-Khoury’s, or Al-Khoury himself, right?”
“I suppose so,” Director Wilson replied thoughtfully.
“Well then, in that case it had to be a relative of Al-Khoury’s rather than himself and, other than Connor here and myself, Suhiman Al-Khoury is Abdullah Al-Khoury’s only living blood relative.”
“Wait – why did you say rather than himself, Elspeth?” Connor interrupted.
At this Elspeth leaned back in her chair and observed serenely, “Because Abdullah Al-Khoury is at this very moment somewhere within the United Kingdom, gentlemen.”
At this revelation Director Wilson rose slowly from his seat and uttered a single word, “No!”
Eyeing the pair of them momentarily, Elspeth responded, “Yes, I’m afraid tis true, sir. You see, Mr. Al-Khoury seems to have slipped up a tiny bit. Perhaps he was in some sort of hurry, but he used the passport of his now former paramour, one Tarraza Rahman, the mother of Farhan Rahman, to enter Scotland via a ferry from Amsterdam two weeks ago. It was a simple matter for me to search recent entries to the U.K. compared to names that seemed he might be likely to have used. I reasoned that, being quite aged, Al-Khoury might just possibly have disguised himself as an elderly Muslim woman wearing a full burka. I have been able to confirm that to be the case, gentlemen – Al-Khoury is now somewhere within this country, quite possibly disguised as an elderly woman wearing a burka.”
Regaining his composure, the director retook his seat and inquired incredulously, “Please, go on, Ms. Moorehead. I am, as they, all ears.”
“Yes, sir, tis like this – I couldn’t believe that Al-Khoury, after all of the disparate ways that he managed to avoid capture or death, was so imprudent as to access his Swiss bank account electronically. Assuming that I was correct in my thinking, it was a short leap to the possibility that he might yet have another living relative, and sure enough – he did. Once I was able to confirm that fact, I determined that Suhiman Al-Khoury had entered Yemen prior to the drone attack, and that his whereabouts since are unknown. Given the likelihood that Suhiman was indeed the person killed by the drone, I began to wonder what possible purpose Al-Khoury could have had for allowing his own son to be so ignominiously assassinated. The only logical conclusion that came to mind was that Al-Khoury wanted to return to the West, something that he has not been able to do since 1970.
“And if Al-Khoury wanted to return to the West, two additional questions immediately came to mind. First, why would Al-Khoury want to do such a thing? Second, how could Al-Khoury achieve such a thing? Other than the obvious answer to the first question – to kill me – nothing came to mind. I therefore found it necessary to delve more deeply into Al-Khoury’s past. By the end of two weeks, nothing at all had turned up. I don’t mind telling you – by then my head hurt terribly from the effort.
“But then I had an idea – I realized that Connor Stuart is of course also part of Al-Khoury’s past! So I began researching Connor Stuart, and I found something – something remarkable – to say the least.”
“And what might that be?” Connor inquired doubtfully.
“It seems that you, Connor, have just recently become the heir to the Earldom of Winston,” Elspeth countered placidly.
“What!” Connor exclaimed, and now it was his turn to pop from his chair.
Director Wilson now put in, “Ah, I know something about that Earldom. Wasn’t it in the paper recently – some Scotsman succeeded the 14th Earl of Winston, Trevor Sutherland, who passed away last month.”
“Correct,” Elspeth observed, “His name is Brandt MacCauley and, being the newly appointed 15th Earl of Winston, he is now ensconced at Wharton Manor in Gloucestershire.”
At this Connor responded incredulously, “But this is ridiculous! I’m quite certain that I am not related to any British royalty!”
“Well, yes and no,” Elspeth responded, “Brandt MacCauley was a quite distant relative of the former earl and, as it develops, you are indeed a distant relative of the current earl. In fact, you are the only living male heir of Brandt MacCauley, making you, Connor Stuart, the heir to an earldom.”
Stunned silence now pervading the room, the director eventually posited, “My, my, that is quite incredible. Tis so incredible that I’ve completely lost my train of thought, Ms. Moorehead. Please – enlighten me – how does this have anything whatsoever to do with Mr. Al-Khoury?”
Elspeth replied succinctly, “I should think it would be obvious, sir. Abdullah Al-Khoury has only one remaining living relative – Connor Stuart – other than myself. And, being quite elderly, Al-Khoury wants to ensure that both his legacy and his lineage are intact upon his death. Now, what better way to ensure such a lineage than to see his only remaining relative appointed the Earl of Winston?”
“Oh…my…God…” Connor murmured to no one in particular, “He means to assassinate the newly appointed Earl!”
At this Elspeth put in, “Touché!”
Catching up rapidly, the director now inquired, “I see. So, Ms. Moorehead, what exactly do you think Al-Khoury has in mind to do?”
“Not sure, sir, but if my guess is correct, he plans to do just what Connor has suggested. And if that is indeed the case, he means to blow up Wharton Manor as a way of accomplishing his objective.”
“What makes you say that, Ms. Moorehead?”
“Just this, sir, Al-Khoury is a megalomaniac, a narcissist of the highest order, if you will. He is all too aware that this will be his final act on this Earth. What better way than to go out with a bang!”
At this revelation the director eyed her inquisitively and suggested, “A bang! I should say that is an understatement!” But then realizing the implications, he added, “But surely the British government would withhold the title from Connor should it be passed down by such a heinous act!”
At this suggestion Elspeth countered, “Tell me why, sir! Connor is entirely guiltless in all of this!”
Observing the veracity of her position, the director responded in exasperation, “I suppose you are correct. Damn!” And then, his mind moving at lightning speed, he queried, “So I assume you have further information regarding Al-Khoury, Ms. Moorehead?”
“Yes, sir. The CIA has been able to verify that two Apache helicopters shot down in the Iraqi War fell into the hands of Al Qaeda. Apparently, neither chopper was damaged beyond repair, thereby leading to the possibility that Al Qaeda now has two functioning Apache helicopters. I needn’t tell you that these are very dangerous weapons, sir.”
“Of, course,” the director responded, “And your point is?”
“Sir, evidence suggests that Al-Khoury will use the two choppers in an attack on the manor.”
“What! You must be kidding! Surely it isn’t possible for two such obvious weapons to penetrate the U.K.,” the director spat in denial.
“I believe they already have,” Elspeth replied, “We have some pretty damning evidence to support my contention, sir.”
Tugging a photograph from her briefcase, Elspeth shoved it forward and inquired, “What do you make of that, sir?”
Examining the picture, the director allowed, “I don’t understand, it looks like nothing but a night photo of an expanse of ocean to me.”
“Correct, sir. Now, do you see the two tiny sets of red lights in the lower left hand corner?”
Squinting at the photo carefully, the director replied, “Yes, now that you mention it, I see them. What do you suppose they are?”
“Sir, that is a satellite photo. Because it is our satellite, we know the exact dimensions separating those lights, and there is only one aircraft in the world with that visual signature – an Apache helicopter.”
“I see…” the director murmured, adding, “And where was this photo taken, Ms. Moorehead?”
“It was taken less than a kilometer off the coast of the Isle of Islay, sir, and the line of travel is directly onshore.”
“Where did they come from?”
“Sir, we believe that they took off from a passing Russian tanker in the North Sea.”
“The Russians! Why am I not surprised,” the director responded and, examining the photos further, he suddenly sighed in signaled acceptance and agreed, “So it appears that two Apache helicopters have penetrated U.K. airspace. We must therefore assume that they are now in hiding somewhere within the U.K.”
“So, it seems that Mr. Al-Khoury has the means at his disposal to carry out this attack at any moment.”
“Yes sir, but he won’t, at least not just yet,” Elspeth replied matter-of-factly.
Arching one eyebrow in surprise, the director inquired, “What makes you say that?”
“There is one final detail that he must resolve.”
“And what exactly is that, Miss Moorehead?”
At this, Connor interrupted, “Elspeth!”
Grinning in satisfaction at Connor’s quickness, Elspeth posited, “Exactly! Al-Khoury remains desperate to wipe out the Stewart line. As I am the last of the Stewarts, his plan must necessarily include me, sir.”
“But…” the director responded in confusion, “How do you suppose he means to accomplish that?”
“Sir, he means to dupe me into visiting Wharton Manor.”
“What! That’s preposterous! How do you suppose he could get you to do such a thing?”
“By luring me there, sir.”
“Luring you! But you know of his intentions. Why ever would you submit to such cajoling?”
“Tis the only way to flush him out, sir.”
“Alright, supposing you are correct – how do you suppose he means to lure you in?”
“I should think that would be obvious. After all, he has already lured me all the way across the Atlantic.”
“What! You think he is leading you on, Ms. Moorehead?”
“There is no question in my mind, sir. Remember, I said that he seemed to have slipped up when he used Ms. Rahman’s passport to enter the U.K.? That was the act of an amateur, and Al-Khoury is certainly no amateur! He’s dropping a trail of breadcrumbs, sir, a trail meant to lure me to Wharton Manor. And until I do so, he shall refrain from attacking the manor.”
Dragging one hand to his forehead, the director murmured wearily, “I can see this is going to get far worse before it gets better.”
Wharton Manor, Gloucestershire – Two Days Later
The car pulled up to the manor and, a look of utter dismay clouding her features, Elspeth stepped from within. The front door of the manor opened immediately thereafter, in the process disgorging a tall handsome man from within. Approaching her, he exclaimed, “You must be Elspeth Moorehead. I am Brandt MacCauley, at your service.”
Having no earthly idea how one should greet an earl, Elspeth sort of bent from the waist and responded, “A pleasure, sir.”
Smiling impishly at her, he replied, “Please, Ms. Moorehead, we do not stand on ceremony here at Wharton Manor. Call me Brandt, if you will.”
“Certainly,” she replied hesitantly, “And by all means – call me Elspeth.”
“Thank you, Elspeth,” he chirped, “And now, if you will follow me.”
Once ensconced within the library, he initiated the discussion with, “So, Director Wilson tells me that you are CIA, and that you have been assigned to protect us.”
“That is correct,” she replied noncommittally.
At that moment a lovely woman about Elspeth’s age entered the room, at which Brandt announced, “Ah, here she is, my lovely wife, Patience.”
Rising from her seat, Elspeth responded, “Yes, we’ve already met,” and, seeing the confusion on Patience’s face, she added, “Er, at least I feel like we’ve already met.”
At this Patience cocked one eyebrow and inquired, “How so?”
Elspeth grinned and responded, “Patience Walker, world famous for bringing down that vermin Kareem Al-Wadi. You are a true legend within the annals of the CIA. It is a great honor to meet you, Ms. MacCauley.”
At this Patience simply grinned and replied, “Please, call me Patience, as I shall call you Elspeth.”
“Done,” Elspeth observed, “Now, shall we get down to business?”
“Yes, of course,” Brandt responded, “Please begin, Elspeth.”
At this, Elspeth eyed the pair of them for a moment, and then she launched into the plan, “Well, as you both know, Connor Stuart is the heir to the Earldom of Winston. I don’t mind telling you, this revelation came as a great shock to him.”
“To us as well,” Brandt responded, “But I digress. Please, continue.”
“Yes, well, this has little bearing, but Connor and I were friends in college at Hanford years ago. I believe that Director Wilson filled you in on some of the details, so I will skip over them and get straight to the point. Connor is not only the heir to the Earldom, he is also the son of one Abdullah Al-Khoury, one of the most horrific terrorists alive today. But Mr. Al-Khoury, being ninety-three years old, is nearing the end of his reign of terror. Given this fact, we have been able to determine that he desperately wants to see his son appointed to the Earldom before his own passing. This of course would require that you, the current earl, have departed this world. Thus, Al-Khoury has undertaken to hasten that departure.
“Yes, I understand,” Brandt responded thoughtfully, “And you surmise that the attack will come here at the manor?”
“Yes, we do,” Elspeth replied matter-of-factly.
“Why not attempt to assassinate me while I am on some trip or other, Elspeth? That way, if and when Connor inherits the Earldom, he also gets Wharton Manor.”
“Good question,” Elspeth posited, “With a somewhat convoluted answer. First of all, previous terrorist activities attributed to Mr. Al-Khoury have demonstrated conclusively that he is a narcissist – a man who is desperate to prove his stature as one of the great villains of our time. Ergo, Mr. Al-Khoury wishes to accomplish his final mission with great flair. To put it succinctly, he wishes to go out ‘in style’.”
“I see,” Brandt put in, “And what is the second reason, if I may be so bold?”
Elspeth pondered a moment, then suggested, “This is a bit strange, to say the least, I’m afraid. You see, Mr. Al-Khoury is perhaps even more desperate to do away with me.”
“What! You mean kill you?” Patience interrupted.
“Yes, of course,” Elspeth exclaimed and, seeing their mutual doubt, she continued with, “Tis a long story, you see. Mr. Al-Khoury was at one time named James Moorehead, a citizen of the Unites States. He was a respected academic who rose to the presidency of Hanford University. And along the way he sired a son, Robert Moorehead, who was my own father. Mr. Al-Khoury is therefore my grandfather.”
At this Brandt stared at her in disbelief and blurted, “As well as Connor Stuart’s father!”
“Correct,” she responded blandly, “So it developed that James Moorehead had a mortal enemy on the faculty at Hanford. His name was Sloan Stewart, and he was my grandfather on my mother’s side. For whatever reasons, President Moorehead was dismissed from Hanford in 1968.
“He then disappeared for many years, only to resurface in 1988 as Abdullah Al-Khoury, at which time he was the principle planner behind the Lockerbie bombing.”
At this Brandt responded introspectively, “I remember that plane crash, I was still living in Edinburgh at the time. It was horrible!”
“Precisely,” Elspeth put in, “And my parents were onboard the aircraft.”
Reaching for her throat, Patience blurted in apparent horror, “My goodness!”
Elspeth now recommenced with, “I was fifteen at the time, but the memory stuck with me, so that eventually I began to question what had really happened that day. Once I went to work for the DIA, I had access to technology that allowed me to research the circumstances surrounding the bombing. Of course, this all evolved over the course of many years, but I eventually began to suspect that Al-Khoury was indeed my grandfather, and as such, he continued to carry a grudge against my other grandfather, despite the fact he had already passed away. Accordingly, Al-Khoury went after Sloan Stewart’s widow, my grandmother Sabrina.
“And now we come to you, Patience. You were supposed to be collateral damage in the bombing of the Lido Hotel in Las Vegas in 1997. We have confirmed that Abdullah Al-Khoury contracted with Kareem Al-Wadi to bomb the Lido in an attempt to kill my grandmother, who was attending a showgirls’ reunion within the hotel at the time. Because of your heroics, that attempt failed. Unfortunately for you, Al-Khoury tracked you to New York City, and in 2001 he affected the attack on the World Trade Center, perhaps the most successful terrorist attack of all time.
“But I don’t understand,” Brandt interrupted, “Are you telling me that Patience was subjected to years of misery due to a family feud?”
Elspeth arched one eyebrow and observed, “That is exactly what I am telling you, Brandt.”
“Incredible,” he blurted, “Please, continue.”
“My mother eventually passed away last year, thereby leaving only me, the last of the Stewart line, alive. In his zeal to go out “in style”, Al-Khoury means to kill two birds with one stone, meaning you and me, Brandt. Taking out both Patience and Wharton Manor in the process will simply be frosting on the cake.”
At this there was a momentary silence in the room, followed by Patience’s inquiry, “So, when is all of this going down, Elspeth?”
“We believe that he will not strike during the daytime. So it most likely will be tonight, or sometime with the next two or three days. Now that I have arrived at the manor, Al-Khoury will surely make his move sooner than later.”
At this Brandt responded, “So I take it that the reason that there is no armed force already guarding the manor is that we are being watched at this very moment by Al-Khoury’s associates?”
“That is correct, Brandt. However, we have already taken the necessary precautions, which is why it has taken me two days to arrive at the manor since you were notified by Director Wilson. We could not risk having me arrive at the manor until the defenses were prepared for the impending attack.”
At this, Brandt eyed her suspiciously and inquired, “I don’t understand how you know all of this, Elspeth…”
“Oh, tis simple, Brandt – Al-Khoury is playing me. He’s been feeding me misleading information from the very start. What he doesn’t know is that I’ve been on his trail for long enough to have uncovered every one of his means of deception. He is quite intelligent, but I am more so.”
“Well, I certainly hope you are correct, Elspeth,” he murmured.
“Trust me – I am,” she posited self-assuredly, “And now, shall we survey the manor for the purpose of determining where might be the safest place for us to set up our defenses?”
“Defenses? What defenses?” Brandt responded in surprise.
“A flower truck will arrive this afternoon at precisely three o’clock,” Elspeth replied, “And it will be carrying armaments disguised within flower boxes. We shall be well prepared to defend ourselves, I assure you.”
“What about reinforcements, Elspeth,” Patience inquired.
“We can’t risk having them directly on site,” Elspeth explained, “Otherwise, Al-Khoury might smell a rat and back out of the attack.”
“Wouldn’t that be a good thing?” Patience suggested.
“Which would you rather have, a bombing way out here in the countryside where the loss of life would be minimal, or somewhere like London, where the damage and loss of life would be catastrophic?”
“I see,” she responded, “So, we are to be guinea pigs, is it?”
“Correct,” Elspeth replied matter-of-factly, “But you do not have to be here, Patience. You may leave at any time.”
“Are you kidding me?” she blurted, “I wouldn’t miss this for the world!”
“You may change your mind when you hear what I have to say next,” Elspeth volunteered.
“And what is that?”
“We believe that two Apache helicopters will be used in the attack.”
At this Patience clutched her throat yet again and murmured, “Oh, my…”
“Well?” Elspeth inquired.
“Are you staying or going, Patience?”
“I’m staying, of course,” she replied serenely, “My place is with my husband,” and so saying, she patted him lovingly on the leg.
Brandt now grinned and suggested, “Well, we’d best get on with it, Elspeth.”
“Right, let’s look at the manor,” Elspeth responded, and off the three went in search of exactly what they knew not.
Elspeth touched his shoulder lightly and commanded, “Brandt, wake up!”
Lurching from a deep sleep, he blurted, “Huh? What?”
Seeing that he was now completely awake, she reported, “It’s started. Wake up Patience and Smithers. The attack will reach us within minutes.”
“Yes, of course,” he responded and, awakening the other two, he responded shortly thereafter, “We’re ready, Elspeth.”
“Right, now take your places as I instructed. And remember, no shooting unless the perimeter of the manor is breached. We don’t want to take down any of our own agents.”
Elspeth then grabbed her radio and exclaimed, “We’re ready, General Hastings.”
Shortly thereafter, an explosion was heard, followed by scattered gunfire, some of it clearly coming from semi-automatic weapons. This was followed by an enormous explosion that could be felt even from their secure position within the manor basement.
More gunfire ensued, followed by additional explosions, all of which lasted no more than a few minutes.
Elspeth then received a call on her radio, to which she responded, “Yes, sir, we are all safe. So far as we can tell, no one has breached the manor perimeter,” and after a further pause, “Yes, sir, we understand. We are to remain here until daybreak. Yes, sir,” and with that she broke off. She then turned to the others and posited, “We believe that the attack has been successfully repelled. However, as there may be additional insurgents, we are instructed to remain in place until the battlefield is cleared.”
The Following Morning
Elspeth received an additional call. Answering, she responded, “Yes sir, I understand – all clear. Yes, sir,” and at this she hung up. She then turned to her three charges and said, “It’s all over. We can exit and see what the heck happened during the night.”
The four them made their way to the manor entrance, whereupon they hurried outside, only to discover the grounds littered with both medical personnel and soldiers, all of whom seemed to be engaged in triaging the wounded. Here and there they observed sheets marking those killed in the attack.
At this point Brandt surveyed the melee and, still in complete shock, he observed, “This is just too incredible! There must have been an entire battalion attacking the manor last night!”
At this Elspeth grunted and responded, “Actually, no, Brandt. We were able to estimate from known terrorist records that there would no more than than twenty-five insurgents, and that turned out to be an accurate estimate. We therefore placed a company of soldiers on the field of battle under the command of General Hastings.”
“How big is a company?”
“Just under a hundred,” Elspeth responded, “Why?”
“Where were they located?” Brandt inquired, “I never saw anyone yesterday.”
“Right,” Elspeth replied, “They were moved in last night under cover of darkness. They quickly built foxholes at a perimeter of three hundred meters from the manor. Obviously, the defensive plan was well designed.”
“You got that right!” Brandt responded, “But what happened to the helicopters?”
“Oh, that,” Elspeth replied, “I had Al-Khoury by the balls. You see, he was feeding me information, but he figured we didn’t know about the choppers. I figured that out all by myself, so we had a squadron of Harriers waiting. Al-Khoury figured the choppers would fly under the radar, but we placed mobile ground radar units in a circle twenty miles out from the manor. Sure enough, we got both choppers before they ever even fired a shot.”
“Wow! You people know what you’re doing!” Brandt blurted but, suddenly changing his demeanor, he inquired, “What about Al-Khoury? Did they get him?”
“No, no chance of that,” Elspeth replied morosely, “He’s much too cagey to be caught in the act. He will at this moment be attempting to escape the U.K. In the meantime, Wharton Manor is safe, as are you and I.”
At this, Patience chimed in with, “Thanks ever so much, Elspeth. We are indeed indebted to you.”
“Right,” Elspeth observed, “Tis all in the line of duty. Now, I’m afraid I must be off. One more fish to fry, if you get my meaning.”
Douglas Harbor, The Isle of Man – Three Days Later
Elspeth and Connor hopped from the car and, observing the cacophony of activity within the harbor, they approached the shack directly in front of them. As they did so, a burly man pushed his way from within and announced, “You must be Stuart and Moorehead. They told me you were on your way.”
“Correct,” Connor responded.
“Right, the man responded, “I’m the harbor master.”
Shaking his outstretched hand, Connor inquired, “Which one is it, then?”
“Tis that one over there,” the harbor master responded and, pointing in the distance, he indicated a freighter that seemed to be loading cargo.
“Perfect,” Connor responded, “Alright if we simply drive over on our own?”
“Yes, but let me go with you. I can help you with locating the cargo.”
“Perfect,” Connor replied, and with that the three of them piled into the vehicle.
Once they arrived on the wharf beside the ship, the harbor master advised, “Let me check with the loading crew. They will doubtless remember the cargo. We don’t get caskets too often, and they will know exactly where it is located onboard the ship.”
“Alright,” Connor replied, “But tell them to keep a wide berth, the contents may be quite dangerous. In fact, there may be high energy explosives within the container.”
“Right,” the harbor master responded, “I’ll be right back.”
Elspeth and Connor watched as he strolled over to a crew of workers and conversed with them.
As he did so, Connor inquired, “You really think it’s Al-Khoury?”
At this Elspeth replied, “Has to be, Connor. He’s still dropping breadcrumbs. I’m the only person who could follow his tracks, and he knows it. This is his final trap, and he means to capture me in it. I’m his final chance for immortality, and he’s expecting me to show up.”
“Just exactly how’d you locate him, anyway?”
She eyed him momentarily , and then she explained, “Think about it, Connor. How do you get a ninety-three year old man out of the U.K. without him being spotted? All vehicles are subject to search, and because our border agents are on the lookout, disguises of any sort don’t work on someone that age. The only way is for him to be dead – or at least – dead to all appearances. So I checked records of all bodies being shipped out of the U.K., and this is the only one that fits our profile.”
“Profile! What profile?” he blurted.
“Tis like this, Connor. All the other caskets either contained bodies that had been autopsied or they were being flown out, which would have subjected them to temperatures within the cargo hold sufficient to kill anyone alive within. Only this one fits the profile. And to make it even more likely, that ship is headed for the Suez Canal.”
“Okay, I get it,” he replied, “You always were a step ahead of everyone else. But tell me again – why do you think he won’t blow up a bomb if we catch him?”
At this Elspeth condescended, “I already told you, Connor, Al-Khoury isn’t going to blow up a bomb. He’s after me. He wants to see me squirm, just like Farhan did.”
“Supposing you’re right,” Connor responded, “And we open the casket. He’s surely going to shoot you or something like that as soon as we open the casket.”
“He won’t,” she said flatly.
“What makes you so certain?”
“He’s a narcissist, damn it! He wants to gloat before he dies. We may capture him, but as long as I’m dead first, in his mind he wins.”
“Alright, I can see that I can’t dissuade you from this insanity, but let’s be careful!”
“Of course!” she shot back, “Now, the harbor master is coming this way. Let’s go get this scumbag.”
As the harbor master approached he indicated that he knew where to go. At this point Elspeth called the backup squad and the group followed in the harbor master’s wake. Moments later they boarded and, following him into the bowels of the ship, they eventually came to a large and dimly lit holding area three levels below decks. The harbor master now scanned about with his torch and, eventually spotting what he was searching for, he pointed and said, “There it is, over there.”
Searching in the direction he was pointing, Connor said, “Alright, sir, if you wouldn’t mind, please clear the area. My agents will take over from here.”
“Roger that,” the harbor master chimed, and with that he made a hasty retreat.
Connor then turned to the four agents and commanded, “Alright, men, you know the drill. Take your respective places at a safe distance, and shine your torches on the casket.” The four nodded their understanding and immediately dispersed to appropriate cover.
Connor now addressed Elspeth, “I’m just going to ask this one more time, Elspeth. Please, let’s just shoot the hell out of the damn thing and be done with it. After all, it’s either Al-Khoury, or it’s someone who is already dead.”
“No can do,” she smirked.
“Just give me one good reason why, Elspeth!”
“Because he killed my parents, you jackass. As bad as he wants to see me squirm, I want to see him squirm even more!”
Eyeing the hardened look on her face, he understood that there was no dissuading her, thereby prompting him to say, “Well then, wear this bullet-proof vest. It’s the least I can do for you.”
“Certainly,” she replied, and with that she donned the vest. She then turned toward the casket and announced, “I’m going in, I hope you’ve got my back, Connor.”
At this he responded, “I’ll be close. Now, go get him!”
Elspeth approached the casket tenuously, but then, throwing caution to the wind, she traipsed forward and grabbed the latches. Carefully undoing each one in turn, she tested the lid and, seeing that it was free, she lifted it slowly on its hinges. Within she observed a body clothed within a black burka. But the headdress had been removed, and the face was clearly that of a quite elderly man. She reached forward and, touching the pallid face, she realized that it was still warm.
Then suddenly the pale blue eyes popped open and, lurching backward in shock, she heard him whisper, “Thank God you’re here, Elspeth! I thought I might die before you arrived. But here you are, and all is well.”
She gazed downward at her prey, but it was somehow difficult to summon hatred. She could only say, “Hello, grandfather.”
He peered carefully at her and observed softly, “I’m so glad to finally meet you, Elspeth. You have your grandmother’s eyes, you know. She was such a lovely lady. I was saddened to hear of her passing.”
At this, Elspeth suddenly regained her senses, blurting, “You bastard! You tried to kill her!”
He simply gazed upwards at her and replied, “It was nothing personal. I’m sure you understand. It was all to do with Sloan, you see. I simply couldn’t allow him to win.”
“And now you’re here to kill me!” she blurted.
“Yes, well, there is that, Elspeth. But not yet. We must talk for a moment first. Surely you understand,” and, his soothing whisper mesmerizing her into docility, he suggested, “Now, if you will, please give me your hand. We must surely touch one another one time before I make my exit from this world.”
He raised his hand for hers, and Elspeth reached forward to enact his bidding, but just as she did so, a blur came from behind her and, grasping Al-Khoury’s outstretched hand, he plunged one finger deep into Al-Khoury’s pale blue eye.
At this surprising turn of events, Elspeth cringed and gasped, “Connor! Why did you do that?”
Connor grasped her by the shoulders and screamed, “Elspeth, he has a metallic blade attached to his index finger! He was going to poison you!”
Turning back towards the prone figure within the casket, she watched as his life blood slipped away, a look of horror frozen on his dying features. With his remaining eye, he stared forlornly at her, realization apparently sinking in that he’d played his final move.
Glaring at him, Elspeth leaned forward and screamed in triumph, “I got you, you son-of-a-bitch! Now, hurry up and GO TO HELL, where you surely belong!”
At this, his dying gasp escaping his lips, they actually curled into a tiny consenting smile.
Realizing that her quarry had finally and for all time ceased to breathe, Elspeth turned away in horror and, collapsing into Connor’s outstretched arms, she whispered, “Thank you, Connor. Damn, he nearly got me!”
Abdullah Al-Khoury, nee James Moorehead, had at long last departed this earth.
Boston – Early March, 2014
Elspeth decided to take a leave of absence from the CIA. After all, she could now certainly afford it, and she reasoned to herself that she had earned it. Besides, she had accomplished something – no, more than that – she had actually fulfilled the accomplishment of a lifetime. Recalling all those years ago, she still felt the pang of misery deep within her soul, when she had heard the news that her parents had perished. She had sworn she would never rest until they were avenged. And now, as impossible as it seemed, they were. Elspeth needed time to let the realization sink in.
And so it was that she decided one morning to revisit the manuscript, My Father the God, her grandmother’s last testament to her. They were all gone now, all except for Connor, her lone remaining relative. A vast feeling of loneliness creeping into her very soul, she hoped that somehow the manuscript would restore her sense of purpose.
Clutching a cup of coffee, she scrunched down within her favorite chair beside the fireplace. It was now or never, and so, turning to the first page, she began rereading from the very start.
Much later, nearing both midnight and the end, Elspeth was in a state of torment and desperation. Suddenly lurching forward from the sofa, she spat, “My God! If this is all true, then…Oh…My…God!” And then, pacing the floor in agitation, she blurted, “Oh my God! It’s all starting to make sense! Oh, my…” Shortly thereafter, having completed the manuscript, Elspeth lurched exhausted into bed and fell into a deep and fitful sleep.
It took several days, but Elspeth eventually realized that, having accomplished far more than she’d ever dreamed, she would need a new challenge, something equally difficult. Two days later Elspeth mailed a Fed Ex package to London.
Four Days Later
Elspeth sat alone within the Nob Hill Coffee Shop, distractedly contemplating all those years ago, back when it had all started. It was a cold winter day outside, thereby frosting up the windows so that one couldn’t make out the passing traffic. Such a day, she thought to herself, was the very perfect day to wrap one’s hands around a steaming cup of coffee.
Her mind far away, focusing intently on some distant memory, she failed to spot the most recent entry within the crowd so that, when he approached her table, her green eyes met his pale blue eyes in a singular moment of entirely unanticipated astonishment.
Uncertain as to the meaning behind her reaction, he began somewhat tentatively, “Hello, Elspeth. I thought I’d find you here.”
“Connor! You surprised me,” she blurted in annoyance.
“Oh, come now Elspeth,” he rejoined, “You knew I’d come.”
“Perhaps,” she murmured, “Perhaps you are right, but not so hastily. And besides, I figured you’d call, or at least e-mail me first.”
“Well, truth be told, I considered both, but neither seemed good enough under the circumstances…” and, gesturing to the seat opposite her, he inquired, “May I?”
“Of course,” she responded noncommittally over the rim of her cup, but then she asked inanely, “So what brings you all the way across the water, Connor?”
“Oh, nothing much,” he responded, “Only you, Elspeth.”
“Me? Why ever for?”
“Don’t play with me, Elspeth. I’ve come a long way to see you. Surely you know why!”
“Well, supposing I do, it would nonetheless be nice for you to spell it out.”
At this he leaned forward and murmured, “Tis not for me to say, I’m afraid…”
“Oh?” she responded vacuously.
He eyed her for a moment and then suggested, “Suppose I get a cup of coffee, and while I am at it, we can both undertake to gather our thoughts.”
“Okay,” she responded, at which he arose and wandered over to the barista bar.
On his return, he queried pointedly, “Well?”
“Well, what?” she prevaricated.
“Well, have you thought over what you have to say?” he proffered bluntly.
“Yes,” she murmured evasively, “I have something for you.”
Eyeing her doubtfully, he responded, “And what might that be?”
Handing him a piece of paper, she blurted, “See for yourself.”
Staring at the piece of paper, he glanced guardedly at her and stammered, “What the…I don’t understand, Elspeth. What the heck is this?”
“It’s a letter of apology,” She responded, “You’ve been given a full pardon, and you have been readmitted to Hanford.”
“Why ever for?”
“I just couldn’t let things lie, Connor. When I realized how wrong I had been about you, I interceded with the Registrar’s Office at Hanford. They were able to confirm that Farhan had forged changes of grades for himself, thereby leading to his dismissal from the university in 1993. Unfortunately, they never made the connection between his dismissal and yours, so that when I showed up, it was a simple matter to compare the handwriting on the change of grade slips in your two files. Your change of grade was forged by Farhan, just as you had suspected. You see, Farhan had to get you out of the way in order to get at me.”
“And did he, Elspeth?”
“You know he didn’t! Although he did try. I shudder to think what might have happened had he not been expelled.”
At this revelation Connor glared at her a moment and then suggested, “Thank you for restoring my good name, Elspeth, but this is not why I came all this way. Surely you know that!”
“Oh, come now, Elspeth, you sent me the manuscript. And yes, I read it, straight through from cover to cover within twelve hours of its arrival. And within an hour of completing it I was on my way to Heathrow.”
“Ok-kay…” she mumbled, “Yes, I see…”
“But do you? Do you really see, Elspeth? If so, then tell me.”
“Alright, since you put it so bluntly – James Moorehead was a terrorist, a terrorist of the worst sort. He in fact conspired to destroy Western Civilization.”
“Oh, come now, Elspeth, we both already knew that my father did all these things. And also, that Anna and Farhan were my half-siblings, both of whom he enlisted to partake in his heinous crimes.”
“Yes…” she whispered hesitantly.
“Yes! And?” he queried bluntly.
“Uhm…and you were never a part of his crimes, in any way.”
“Right!” he spat with palpable indignity, “I can’t believe that you ever even considered me a willing participant in my father’s insane schemes.”
“I’m so sorry, Connor.”
At this she gazed studiously at one fingernail, fear suddenly overtaking her but, seeing no alternative, she spluttered, “Uhm…and he wasn’t my father!”
Arching one eyebrow in victory, he exclaimed, “That’s right, Elspeth. I should think that the manuscript makes that entirely clear.”
“You’re right, Connor,” she whispered miserably, “You’re absolutely right. I was wrong. I was wrong about everything. Although it remains incomprehensible to me, Sloan Stewart fathered Robert Moorehead by James Moorehead’s future wife Isolde Channing, and later he fathered Elise Stewart by his own wife Sabrina, my recently departed grandmother. Robert Moorehead and Elise Stewart married one another in 1968, and I, their sole offspring, was born in 1973. It is thus true that my parents, Robert and Elise Moorehead, unbeknownst to them, were half-siblings. They were parented on both sides by my sole grandfather Sloan Stewart, unbeknownst even to himself until many years had passed.
“ All these years I was actually hurt by the knowledge that my own grandfather wanted to kill me. As the years passed, I asked myself over and over again -what form of disagreement between my two grandfathers could have been so profound as to make one of them want to murder his own granddaughter? I confess – it never occurred to me that James Moorehead might not even BE my grandfather! But of course – he always knew that he wasn’t my grandfather, that my other grandfather had actually impregnated his future wife Isolde. Now, knowing what really transpired between the two of them, it all makes sense. James Moorhead wasn’t set on murdering his own granddaughter – his quarry was his worst nightmare – his adversary’s granddaughter!”
At this revelation Connor raised one eyebrow and queried succinctly, “And?”
Elspeth eyed him momentarily and then added, “And so, to all appearances that vile creature Abdullah Al-Khoury, nee James Moorehead, was my grandfather. However, as he was in fact NOT my grandfather, you and I are not related in any way.”
Staring at the man before her, her eyes now glistening in an indescribable mixture of shock, remorse, and somehow even sympathy, Elspeth blurted morosely, “I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have turned you down all those years ago, Connor. I’m so terribly sorry…can you ever forgive me?”
Frowning sternly at her, he expounded matter-of-factly, “No, I cannot forgive you, Elspeth.”
His words piercing her like daggers, she responded miserably, “I understand. I hurt you terribly. You can’t forgive me for doing that to you. I understand completely, Connor,” and rising from her chair, she muttered, “I think I should go now. Thank you for giving me the opportunity, after all these years, to apologize.”
“Please sit down, Elspeth,” he commanded patiently, “That’s not why I came at all.”
Sliding slowly back into her seat, she queried hopefully, “Oh, well then, exactly why DID you come.”
“I came to give you the opportunity to answer a question.”
“Oh,” she responded in confusion, “Uhm…what might that be.”
“Think, dear Elspeth, think hard, for the rest of your life depends on it. I shall forgive you, but only if you say now what you should have said all those years ago. A single word will do it…”
Staring at him through tears welling up, she suddenly understood, the all-consuming love she felt deep within her soul he might indeed still feel as well, and if so, there just might still be hope…and then she whispered the word, “Yes!”
Returning her look of long repressed affection, he announced, “I forgive you, Elspeth.”
Wharton Manor – April, 2015
The car inching slowly along the driveway, Connor was rendered completely speechless by the enormity of it all. “I can’t believe I’m really the heir to the title and this entire estate.”
Staunching an impish grin, Elspeth responded wistfully, “All in good time, my dear. Let’s us simply enjoy the visit and see what transpires.”
“Sounds good to me…” was his almost distracted reply, but then he blurted, “My, my, would you look at that, Elspeth – they actually have a butler! Look, he’s coming out to greet us! Well, I’ll be…”
As the car came to a stop before the great entrance, the butler stepped forward and, tugging his door open, he announced, “Greetings, Master Stuart I presume.”
“Yes, of course,” he replied as he climbed from his seat.
“I am Smithers. Hello, madam. It is quite nice to see you again.”
Elspeth nodded and replied, “Ditto, Smithers, ditto.”
At this Smithers grinned and suggested, “Lord and Lady MacCauley are awaiting your arrival in the library. May I help with your luggage?”
“Yes, thank you Smithers,” Connor responded politely, “After all, we have quite a bit, what with the baby and all.”
Smithers now announced, “Now, if you will be so kind as to follow me, I shall endeavor to show you to the library.”
Clearly out of his element, Connor could do nothing but follow in silent acceptance.
As they entered the library, a pleasant-looking couple arose and came forward, sunny smiles betraying their anticipated joy at seeing their guests. “Hello, Elspeth! And you must be Connor! I am Brandt MacCauley,” And, approaching the blanketed baby in Connor’s arms, he blurted happily, “And this must be little Michael, the future Earl of Winston.”
Connor held the baby forward for Brandt to observe and offered, “He’s sleeping at the moment. That may just be a good thing!” At which everyone tittered pleasantly.
Elspeth now approached Brandt and, sweeping her into his arms, he expounded, “And here is my knight in shining armor, Mrs. Elspeth Stuart, she who saved both Wharton Manor and its Earl, not to mention his family. And here, little more than a year thereafter, she returns triumphantly as the wife of the heir to the Earldom. Will wonders never cease!”
He then turned to his wife and announced, “Of course, you know my lovely wife, Patience. And you, Connor, this is Patience.” Observing Connor’s reticence, Brandt now added somewhat surreptitiously, “Connor, please give over! You see, we two, Patience and myself, are mutts in our own rights. In point of fact, as you well know, we ourselves have only recently come to be occupiers of Wharton Manor.”
“Occupiers?” Connor blurted in shock.
“Well, let us all be honest with one another – Wharton Manor, and the titles that are attendant to it, shall outlive us all. We in this room are little more than passersby in a long line of successions made legal by the whims of royalty centuries ago. And, in the end, we are simply subjects of the Commonwealth, all of us attempting to do our duty within the societal rules lain down by our forebears.”
“Well, when you put it that way, I think I follow…” Connor mumbled in confusion.
At this Patience giggled audibly and reached forward to take Connor in a gentle hug and then, smiling pleasantly, she cajoled, “There, there, Connor, you’re speaking to a small-town girl from Nebraska. If one so unlikely as I can absorb it all, surely you can adapt to such an improbable chain of events!”
Now grinning uncontrollably, Connor blurted, “You’re right, of course you are. Tis just that, well, I somehow expected the two of you to have evolved into snobbish British royalty.”
Patience responded sagely, “Well said, sir, but as you can see for yourself, the British system of accession has played an enormous trick upon all of us here in this room. But I believe that you shall find that it is a sound system, one that – though it carries great honor, is not without responsibility. It is that responsibility that my husband and I take very seriously, and if I may be so bold, one that we are confident that the pair of you will learn to share with us, thereby carrying forward the Earldom of Winston within the Commonwealth.”
Eyeing Patience and Brandt carefully, Connor replied for the two of them, “And are you not somewhat distraught at the realization that the title may pass from yourselves to our family one day?”
At this, Brandt replied ruefully, “Not in the slightest! The fact is, there are days when I wish you could have the title straightaway, Connor. But as we only have the one daughter, we shall all adapt.”
Patience, showing the opposite behavior to her given name, now inquired pointedly, “I simply cannot wait a second longer. If you will, please fill the both of us in on how this inconceivable chain of events came to pass.”
“I thought you’d never ask,” Elspeth responded with an impish grin and, clearing her throat as if presenting a preamble to a lengthy expose, she commenced with, “So, after the attempted bombing we sent you the manuscript entitled My Father the God, which I presume you both already read,” and, seeing their collective nods, she continued with, “Excellent, so you are well aware that my grandfather, Sloan Stewart, and Connor’s father, James Moorehead, were both in the Chemistry Department at Hanford University. James harbored a hidden jealousy of Sloan for over a quarter of a century due to Sloan’s obviously superior intellect. Unable to quench this jealousy, James secretly perpetrated heinous acts upon Sloan, all the while moving upward within the university. Eventually, James became president of Hanford, but his misdeeds caught up with him, ultimately leading to his dismissal from Hanford in 1968.”
She paused for a moment and, observing their mutual attentiveness, she resumed her exposition with, “Now, this part is not in the manuscript – over the course of many years, James both embezzled from Hanford, and ran several less than reputable business operations in Boston, in the process amassing a sizable fortune. Thus, upon his dismissal from Hanford, he was in no way in a state of financial hardship. However, his grudge against Sloan was entirely unabated. Quite the opposite appears to have been the case – his grudge was amplified exponentially, thereby inducing him to set out to get even with Sloan, at least in his own mind.
“He seems to have first gone to Edinburgh in search of evidence that he could use against Sloan. Once there he snooped about and eventually wormed his way into the good graces of one Annabeth Stuart. Annabeth was of course unaware of James’ true identity and, being by then a confirmed spinster, she fell in with him and eventually became his mistress. That led to her pregnancy and the birth of Connor Stuart. Why she chose to use her maiden name for Connor remains a mystery, but we do know that by the time Connor was born James had moved on. So there may have been a falling out of some sort.
“James was by then somewhere in Egypt, most likely in Cairo. Sloan had of course determined quite correctly that James would at some point come after him. For his part Sloan had spent several summers in Egypt with his father, the world famous archeologist, Alastair Stewart, who as we know was the lifelong friend of Robert Sutherland, the thirteenth Earl of Winston. Thus, it was natural that Sloan would choose Egypt as the setting for his anticipated confrontation with James. He had therefore set out for that distant land in late 1968, and by the time James arrived there sometime in late 1970, Sloan was well ensconced at Abu Simbel, where the great monolithic monument to Rameses II was nearing its reassembly.
“For his part, James apparently did not know that Sloan was way up the Nile, so that he began his search for Sloan in Cairo. During his somewhat lengthy sojourn there he apparently took on the false name of Alexander James Morton and fell in with Anna Morton’s mother, seducing her and in the process siring Anna Morton, whose mother apparently lied about her betrothal to James, thereby explaining Anna’s surname.
“Shortly after Anna was conceived, James apparently moved on yet again, this time to Asyut. Once again he took on a false identity, this time that of Alfred James Wharton. He apparently wasn’t in Asyut terribly long, but it was nevertheless somehow a lengthy enough period of time for him to sire Farhan Rahman.
“By then James seems to have discovered Sloan’s whereabouts, because he showed up at Abu Simbel a short time later. Having read the manuscript, you are both aware of what transpired at Abu Simbel. Having been well prepared for James’ eventual arrival, Sloan had previously deposited hidden canteens of water in the Western Desert. Sure enough, James forced Sloan on a death march into the desert but, unbeknownst to him, Sloan had secretly identified him on his arrival at Abu Simbel. Accordingly, on the night that James confronted him, Sloan had imbibed an extra ration of water.
“So off the pair went into the Western Desert, and as you both know, Sloan won the death march, James eventually expiring in the broiling heat, or so Sloan thought. Sloan then trudged away, found his hidden canteen, and survived the ordeal to return home to Boston a short time later. Much later, he penned the manuscript that the both of you have so recently read.” Elspeth now paused and inquired, “Any questions so far?”
Observing only shaking heads, she continued with, “So now we come to the part that Sloan did not know about. Apparently, James had also taken precautions before forcing Sloan out into the desert. Aware that there was a distinct possibility that he would not outlast Sloan, James had paid two Bedouins to follow the pair in case Sloan was somehow victorious. This of course turned out to be the case, so that James found it necessary to fake his own death. This he did sufficiently well that Sloan was taken in. Sloan thus left him for dead and headed to locate one of his concealed canteens, he himself suffering so badly by that point in time that he was apparently somewhat careless in his examination of James.
“Shortly thereafter, James’ paid followers rescued him, but to his chagrin, they turned on him, forcing him to follow them further into the desert, apparently towards Libya. Now this part of the story is a bit sketchy, but I have been able to piece together enough circumstantial evidence to be relatively certain of its authenticity.
“Records show that a lone man wandered into the oasis town of Al Kufra, Libya in July of 1970, exactly one month after Sloan departed Abu Simbel. The striking thing about the recorded information is that the city official who reported it had not ever observed a lone person emerge from the desert. According to the records, the man had pale blue eyes, claimed to have been from Saudi Arabia, and his name was Abdullah Al-Khoury. He reported that he had been traveling with two companions, both of whom had become ill and perished in the desert. Their bodies were never found, and although I have no proof of it, we can assume that the person who arrived in Al Kufra in July of 1970 was in fact James Moorehead, and his two traveling companions were the two Bedouins he had hired in Egypt. Most likely James did away with the pair of them, although this can never be determined for certain.
“From there James, now using the name Abdullah Al-Khoury, seems to have made his way to Tripoli, and over the course of the succeeding decade, he appears to have lived a fairly quiet life, in the process both siring a son and investing his secret fortune so wisely that he became a billionaire. Armed with such incredible wealth, he was able to infiltrate the Libyan political hierarchy, so that by 1980 he had penetrated Muammar Gaddafi’s inner circle. Due to his amassed wealth, Gaddafi induced him to become active in supporting terrorist activities. And of course, he never lost his hatred of Sloan Stewart. Although Sloan passed away in 1983, that in no way abated James’ grudge against him.
“Working behind the scenes in Libya, Al-Khoury was able to keep track of Sloan’s family. He proposed the idea to Gaddafi of the bombing of a U.S. bound aircraft, who was by then out of sorts with the U.S. government. Gaddafi therefore agreed, and his secret service police were assigned to handle the bombing. Al-Khoury, who cared nothing whatsoever about terrorism, was somehow able to control what plane was to be bombed. Of course, he knew that my parents would be aboard Pan Am flight 103 that day, and it was he who maneuvered to have the bomb-laden suitcase loaded onboard the aircraft from a connecting flight out of Malta. So you see, he wasn’t even a terrorist – he was just a common garden variety murderer.”
At this point Elspeth paused to catch her breath and, observing the still rapt audience, she continued with, “Shortly thereafter Al-Khoury moved to Saudi Arabia. Apparently Gaddafi’s antics got the better of him, so that he felt it better to find somewhere safer to perpetrate his crimes. Once in Saudi, Al-Khoury was able to conceal himself somewhat better, extreme wealth being much more common in that country. He now set out to kill the lone remaining members of the Stewart family – my grandmother Sabrina and yours truly. As a cover for his activities he chose to join the newly formed terrorist organization – Al Qaeda. In order to prove himself to Osama bin Laden, he found it necessary to be patient, in the process supporting activities that were unrelated to me. Accordingly, he financed the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. That act was of course less than successful from Al Qaeda’s perspective, but it paved the way for what was to come.
“Subsequently setting out to murder my grandmother Sabrina Stewart, Al-Khoury financed the 1999 bombing of the Lido Hotel in Las Vegas during the strippers’ reunion, the bomb having been planted by you, Patience. We still do not know what led Al Qaeda to allow Al-Khoury to pursue that particular terrorist activity. Perhaps they were simply testing their newly implanted terrorist cell in Lincoln, Nebraska. But it seems that you, Patience, were intended to be – as they say – collateral damage. But that was not to be. You somehow outsmarted them, both by planting the bomb in a harmless location and by subsequently escaping your captors.
“Now we come to the most incredible part of all – the second bombing of the World Trade Center. Patience had now become Al-Khoury’s temporary target, having escaped and in the process become a potential lead connecting it all back to him. Al-Khoury therefore put all of his resources into locating you, and eventually he did so, discovering that you were working as a barista at Starbuck’s in the Twin Towers. Recalling the previous failed effort to bring down the Twin Towers, Al-Khoury proposed to bin Laden to fund a second bombing of the World Trade Center. Of course, by now convinced that Al-Khoury was a true believer, bin Laden bit.
“You all know what transpired – the September 11 attacks – killing nearly three thousand innocent people, and all because James Moorehead, alias Abdullah Al-Khoury, wanted Patience Walker and myself dead. Fortunately for you, dear Patience, Brandt hacked your credit card account two days previously, thereby inducing you to escape to Europe, where you remained successfully incognito for many years.
“Now we come to the final chapter in this whole sad story. Post 9/11 events suddenly deflecting attention away from Al-Khoury, he eventually found himself in a position to pursue his primary target once again – meaning me. As you are all well aware, Al-Khoury had previously implanted his three children at Hanford, using two of them to keep an eye on me. Of the three, only Farhan had an inkling that they were his offspring. Both Connor and Anna believed that they were the recipients of scholarships, whereas they had both been funded secretly by Al-Khoury. Farhan, on the other hand, had been recruited into Al Qaeda at an early age. Unfortunately, Al-Khoury’s attentions had been directed elsewhere during that period of time, so that he had been unable to put together anything sufficient to affect an attack on me.
“So Al-Khoury sent Farhan to Boston to get at me, and his two other children, Connor and Anna were to be used by Farhan as a means of somehow spiriting me away to the Middle East. There was the incident with the strip poker party, and that had been successful in a way, having serendipitously given Farhan control over Anna. But Connor and Farhan were subsequently kicked out of Hanford, and I was still at large by the time Anna and I graduated from Hanford in 1995.
“After that I became difficult to get at, as I became an employee of the DIA a year later, and eventually the CIA. Oh, and when I was captured by Al Qaeda, they didn’t realize who I was due to the fact that the CIA planted a false identity for me after my disappearance. Otherwise, Al-Khoury would have dealt with me then and there. Al Qaeda eventually found out who I was, but they were too late. So I was indeed quite fortunate to escape.
“I am quite certain you are all aware of the events of last year. Al-Khoury, having grown quite elderly and more or less infirm, realized that his chances of exterminating the Stewart line were growing short, so that he decided to risk it all in an end game, one which would require him to dispose of two and perhaps even three of his own offspring. No matter, he apparently felt so much hatred for his long dead opponent that he initiated the terrorist attack in Paris as a means of killing me, the results of which you are all aware.
“The denouement seemed to have occurred shortly thereafter, when a drone apparently blew Al-Khoury to smithereens in Yemen, thereby disposing of one of the most heinous criminals who ever walked the face of the Earth. DNA evidence seemed to confirm that Al-Khoury had died in the bombing, but Al-Khoury had yet another trick up his sleeve. Unbeknownst to any of us, he had actually sired a fourth offspring sometime after he showed up in Libya in 1970. I discovered that fact after the drone bombing, thereby throwing doubts on the DNA results.
“I was subsequently able to determine that the evidence was entirely equivocal, thereby leading to the possibility that Al-Khoury may have actually used his own son as a decoy so as to mislead the authorities into believing that he had perished. I was eventually able to verify that supposition, so that his plan worked, at least well enough for him to enter the U.K. illegally a short time later.
“As we now know, Al-Khoury had been able to determine by then that Connor was heir to the Earldom of Winston. He therefore set out to kill two birds with one stone by assassinating the current Earl, Brandt MacCauley, and serendipitously murdering his wife, the elusive Patience Walker, whom he had been attempting to catch up with for more than twenty years. Being the narcissist that he was, he imagined himself capable of also killing me at the same time, in the process both wiping out the last of the Stewarts and simultaneously ensuring that his lone remaining relative, Connor, inherited the Earldom of Winston. It was a truly audacious plot in scope, and had he succeeded, his final act in this world would have ensured his dubious place among the most heinous criminals of our time. Fortunately for all of us, his ploy failed.”
“How exactly did you get onto Al-Khoury’s final attempt?” Brandt inquired.
At this Elspeth arched on eyebrow knowingly and explained, “It kept gnawing at me, you see. Once I realized that Al-Khoury had willfully had his own son assassinated by the drone as a means of misleading the CIA, I began to wonder why Connor had never been one of his targets. After all, by then Al-Khoury had managed to get three of his four offspring killed as collateral damage in his attempts to snuff out the Stewart family. And I suppose it helped that I was desperately in love with Connor…” and at this revelation she glanced in embarrassment towards Connor, who for his part simply shrugged his shoulders in acceptance of his own serendipitous complicity.
At Connor’s enigmatic reaction, Elspeth grinned and continued with, “So, I decided that there must be some unknown reason why Connor had, through no fault of his own, managed to avoid the same fate as his half-siblings. Wherever I turned I hit a dead end, but eventually I hit on the idea of studying Connor’s family tree. As I’m sure you all know, family trees are easily researched on the internet these days, so that it wasn’t all that difficult for me to discover that Connor’s great grandfather Tavish Stuart had a cousin named Belinda Stuart who married one Murdoch MacCauley in 1917. To make a long story short, two generations later Brandt MacCauley was born the grandson of Murdoch and Belinda MacCauley and, there being no other living males within the MacCauley clan today, Connor is the heir to Brandt’s estate. Accordingly, should Connor outlive Brandt, he will become the 17th Earl of Winston. Otherwise, our son Michael is the next in line to inherit the Earldom, assuming of course that Brandt and Patience do not sire a son.”
At this rather ridiculous suggestion Patience injected happily, “Unlikely, as I’ve had my tubes tied!” causing twitters to erupt within the group.
The laughter having at length abated, Elspeth continued yet again, announcing, “Once I discovered that Connor was in line to inherit the Earldom, it was a quite logical jump to the realization that Al-Khoury would have surely made the self-same discovery and, his life by then drawing to a close, such a vile creature as he would most assuredly have decided that his crowning achievement could be to remove any obstacles to Connor’s ascension to the Earldom. As you are all aware, that is indeed exactly what transpired,” and at this revelation Elspeth surveyed her audience momentarily, finally concluding with, “And that, dear friends, is the end of the story. Oh, and there is one other small detail – Connor was named in Abdullah Al-Khoury’s will, nee James Moorehead, as the sole heir of his immense fortune.”
There was now a lengthy silence, but then, the finality of it sinking in, Patience offered, “My dear Elspeth, you are to be congratulated. You are my hero!”
Eyeing Patience doubtfully, Elspeth responded, “But surely you must know, you are my hero as well!” And at this, the room erupted in relieved laughter, the suspense of four lives in peril now finally abated.
After a yet further silence, Brandt offered, “Now, there is a small task that we four must undertake together. In point of fact, there is no time to spare, I fear.”
“Oh, and what might that be?” Elspeth inquired.
“I’m afraid that the Dowager Lady Felicité Sutherland has demanded your presence in her bedchamber right away, and I assure you – she is not one to be kept waiting. So if you will, please follow me.”
“Oh, and how is she faring?” Connor responded.
“As well as can be expected for a matron of ninety-four, but I must inform you, the doctor has warned us that she does not have long to live.”
And so saying, Brandt silently led the others up the staircase. When they came to her bed chamber, he whispered, “Now, she is frail, but her mind is clear. She is a brilliant lady, and quite a good one if I may say so myself. Oh, and one other thing, there is no need to put on airs with her, as she is in fact a mutt who, like us, came to title quite by accident,” and so saying, he led the three through the doorway.
On entering, Elspeth observed an expansive chamber with an enormous bed, occupied by the aforementioned Lady Sutherland. On seeing the five of them, she raised slightly up in bed and exclaimed, “Ah, at long last, so there you are! I’ve been so worried!”
“Worried? About what?” Elspeth blurted.
“My dear, come to me,” she commanded, “Oh, my, just as I had hoped – you are so lovely, Elspeth,” and, turning to Connor, she added, “And you, Connor, such a fine looking young man! I’m so delighted to meet the both of you! I feared that I might not live long enough to see you.”
“There, there,” Patience put in, “You shall probably outlive us all, Lady Sutherland!”
“Sorry, but that’s not going to happen,” she replied matter-of-factly.
“What? Why ever not?” Elspeth posed.
“Because I’m ready,” she replied softly, “Because you are all here now, I am quite ready,” and then she paused and, gazing from the window she continued, “They’re all dead, you know. All of them – the memories of my life – all of them gone. God bless them, I want to go and join them all, I miss them so.” And then a single tear trickling down her cheek, she said, “Tis your world now. I’ve had my turn, and what a glorious one it has been…”
At this Elspeth, sadness overtaking her for a woman she had only just met, sniffled and murmured, “I know, Lady Sutherland, I know. You see, I went searching, for what I knew not, and in the course of my search, I uncovered it all. And what did I discover? I discovered that you, Felicité, were not only witness to, but much more so, a participant – perhaps even the most important participant of all the members of the Sutherland family – in great events of the twentieth century. You have much to be proud of!”
Staring at Patience pensively, Felicité responded, “Thank you, my dear. It is good to know that we are held in high esteem by you, our progeny. However, your kind comments notwithstanding, I confess that I have undertaken on my own to ensure that the legacy of the Sutherlands shall not be forgotten.”
“Oh? How so?” Elspeth replied in confusion.
“Why, I wrote it all down, my dear,” she answered in smug satisfaction.
“Wrote what down?” Elspeth blurted.
“My dear, I’ve written the entire story of the Sutherlands – four generations spanning the entirety of the twentieth century.”
“Oh, my…” was all that Elspeth could think of to say.
At this point Patience put in, “It was at least in part my doing. Shortly after I met Lady Sutherland two years ago, I began asking questions, questions about the Sutherland lineage. It didn’t take me long to realize that, not only have the Sutherlands lived a profound existence over the past century, but also that this lady right here before you is the last living person who could share that history with the world. So I volunteered to be her personal scribe.”
“Oh, my…” was yet again all that Elspeth could think of to say.
“And now,” Felicité interjected, “Patience has polished my memories into a four volume set detailing the four generations of Sutherlands that it has been my good fortune to know. That, together with a fifth volume written by your grandfather, Sloan Stewart, comprises five-sixths of the entire story.”
“Five-sixths?” Elspeth put in, “But what is the last volume?”
“Why, your portion, of course,” Lady Sutherland volunteered knowingly.
“What! What on earth are you talking about, Lady Sutherland?”
“Oh, come now, my dear, I’ve read the newspaper accounts of your heroics. Surely you at some point realized that you had a story to tell. All you need do is polish it a bit, and the final piece of the saga shall be complete.”
“I don’t think I can do that,” Elspeth responded in desperation.
“I’m afraid that you must, my dear,” Lady Sutherland commanded.
“I don’t understand. Why must I?”
“Because the story is not complete without your finale. I am quite certain you shall see that when you’ve finished reading the first four volumes.”
Realization coming over her, Elspeth blurted, “Surely you don’t mean to publish it all!”
“On the contrary, that is precisely what must be done,” Lady Sutherland said in an authoritative tone.
“But why?” Elspeth whispered.
“Because it is the dying wish of an old woman,” Felicité murmured. “And now, my dear, you must take my hand,” and reaching forward, she beckoned Elspeth to take it.
Seeing no means of escape, Elspeth advanced shyly and took the outstretched hand. Felicité then announced, “Now promise me, before these people who comprise the future of the Sutherland clan, promise me, Elspeth Moorehead, that you shall publish the entire Sutherland Saga, including the sixth and final volume, upon my passing.”
Held within her persistent grasp, Elspeth glanced at each pair of eyes in succession in search of escape, and perceiving none, she returned her gaze to Felicité, teared up uncontrollably, and then whispered a single phrase, “I promise.”
Boston – 2015
I, Elspeth Stuart, after anguished and thoughtful consideration, have acceded to the dying wish of Lady Felicité Sutherland by publishing The Sutherland Saga. In point of fact, I am the representative of the fictional author D. Allen Henry, who is in reality three different members of the Sutherland-Stewart clan. Lady Sutherland herself having written four of the six books, the fifth, My Father the God, was written by my grandfather, Sloan Stewart, sometime before his death in 1986, and the final volume, Merging Destiny, was written by yours truly.
I often think of that day in Paris, all those years ago, when my mother and I visited the Eiffel Tower together. It is perhaps my most vivid memory of my mother, and it is perhaps for that reason most of all that it all came to pass. My enduring love and adoration for my parents, persisting – no deepening – over the course of my life, ultimately drove my quest for the meaning behind my mother’s words that day, that the roots of the Eiffel Tower were exactly like the roots of our own family tree. And though it took me half a lifetime to uncover all of the disparate roots, my mother was indeed correct, perhaps more so than even she knew.
Two young men met in Edinburgh shortly before the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, and their friendship, no – their deep and abiding love for one another – lived on beyond their lifetimes. Indeed, the course of destiny, stretching back perhaps even hundreds of years, has now finally come to its rightful conclusion, with the Merging Destiny of our two clans via my marriage to Connor Stuart.
Fig. 3 The Sutherland Saga Family Tree
D. Allen Henry is a freelance writer who is also the author of Hawk Banks, Those Who Fought for Us, Of War and Women, Enlisting Redemption, Finding Patience, My Father the God and Galileo’s Lost Message. The author welcomes comments regarding any of his novels. His website is located at , and his Facebook address is . Should you so desire, you may provide feedback to the following e-mail address: [email protected] If you enjoyed Merging Destiny, please be so kind as to provide a review of it on the website from which you acquired this book.
D. Allen Henry
Hawk Banks – Founding Texas (revised edition) – © 2014
Pairing up with Texas frontiersman Hank MacElrae, the inimitable Bostonian Hawk Banks sets off in quest of adventure on the Plains of Texas. A distinctly incompatible pair, the two manage to make their unlikely friendship work and, enduring all manner of unlikely events, they succeed in finding their way into the heart of Texas, becoming founding fathers of a new nation.
The Sutherland Saga
Part I: Those Who Fought for Us – © 2015
On the eve of World War I, Elizabeth Turnberry and her friend Margaret MacCreedy meet fellow students Robert Sutherland and Alastair Stewart in a pub in Edinburgh. And, although the future seems bright, the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914 will destroy all their hopes and dreams. Is there hope at all for those who fought for us?
Part II: Of War and Women – © 2015
On the eve of the Battle of Britain a farewell party is held for the 93rd Squadron at Wharton Manor, and though World War II will subsequently intervene, events of that night will echo down through history, changing the lives of those present forever. Unfairly maligned, one woman will persevere, but for all her accomplishments, will Felicité succeed?
Part III: Enlisting Redemption – © 2015
When twenty-one year old college student Trevor Sutherland enlists Rebecca Carey in a birthday party performance, it leads to a heinous crime. Her subsequent disappearance will ultimately send Trevor on a decade long quest for redemption, one fraught with intrigue, deception, and ultimately murder.
Part IV: Finding Patience – © 2015
When Patience Walker is kidnapped on a cold winter’s night, her life is changed forever. Having met her on that very day, Brandt MacCauley takes on the challenge of finding her. Spanning fifteen years, his quest will not only change both of their lives, it will ultimately alter the course of history.
Part V: My Father the God – © 2015 (sequel to Those Who Fought for Us)
Having completed his first year at Hanford University, Scotsman Sloan Stewart begins the summer of 1941 working at The Orchard Inn with his friends James, Isolde and Sabrina. But entanglements inevitably lead to a shocking event, one that will transform each of them irrevocably through war, peace, and ultimately, the remainder of their lives. Can they ever surmount the errors of their youth?
Galileo’s Lost Message – © 2016
An intricate mystery for those interested in the history of science. When Contessa Antonietta Floridiana telephones Professor Paul Woodbridge, she asks, “Suppose Galileo wrote a secret encoded message at the end of his life. Would the professor perhaps be able to decode it?” The quest for the solution to Galileo’s Lost Message will lead the pair on a search that will alter the course of history.
Hawk Banks – Founding Texas
D. Allen Henry
As far back as anyone can remember, there have always been disparate groups of people living in Western Europe. For a period of time around two thousand years ago the Romans seem to have united many of these into a single Republic, and ultimately, an Empire. But the old underlying tensions, related to culture, language, and even physical appearance came back. After the Roman Empire fell in 476, the lack of a central government caused the written word to disappear rapidly, thereby leading to the reescalation of the old cultural barriers. By the time of the Renaissance in the 14th century, deep seated mistrust pervaded national and ideological boundaries throughout Western Europe.
By the dawn of the 16th century a new wave of world exploration was underway, fueled by the expeditions of Columbus, Cabral, and others. In 1522-24 members of Magellan’s crew circled the globe under the Spanish flag. The Portuguese were their chief competitors in these endeavors but, thirsty for new sources of wealth, practically every country of any significance had joined the competition by the end of the century.
The Spanish were the leaders of exploration in the Central part of the Americas. Cortez crossed the Isthmus of Panama and subdued the Aztecs. And to the north, Coronado and De Vaca were the first explorers from Europe to pass through the area we now call Texas. The Spanish missions were later built throughout the southern area of the United States. In 1793, the mission San Antonio de Valero was built along the San Antonio River. Today we call that mission the Alamo.
Further east, in the colonies, events were unfolding around the same time that would eventually lead to conflict in the area known today as Texas. The American Revolution, as it is called today, was really a colonial revolt rather than a revolution, albeit a successful one in that its outcome was the creation of the United States of America. This new country became a magnet for the poor, the dispossessed, the outlawed, and the gold diggers of Europe. Having no other opportunities to improve their lives, migrants pushed westward across the Atlantic in increasing numbers, resulting in an ever expanding pressure for settlers to move inland in the early part of the nineteenth century in a quest for the one thing that was most revered for sustaining human life – land.
Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, understood this fact intimately, having himself become a significant land owner in Virginia. With a bold stroke, he purchased Louisiana from Napoleon in 1803 for fifteen million dollars, thereby doubling the size of the fledgling country. And while his expenditure was questioned at the time, no one has since been so naive.
While the Louisiana Purchase temporarily quenched the quest for land by the settlers in North America, it was inevitable that the unchecked migration of Europeans would eventually mean that even more land was needed. At the southwestern boundary of the Louisiana Purchase lay a vast territory claimed by the Spanish since the times of the great explorations of the early sixteenth century. This territory included Texas, and by the 1820’s it was well within the sites of the settlers pressing westward.
It was at this point that Moses Austin sought and received approval from the Spanish government to colonize a largely unpopulated portion of southeast Texas that stretched roughly eastward from the San Antonio River to the Trinity River. Having secured this dispensation, he was in route back to Missouri to fetch his family in 1821 when he contracted pneumonia, from which he ultimately died.
His son Stephen was destined to take up his father’s quest and colonize Texas with a group of settlers that would come to be known as “the old three hundred”. In 1822 Stephen Austin arrived in southeast Texas with his hand-picked families. They were essentially the first non-Hispanic settlers of any significance to settle in Texas. As such, their allegiance was supposed to be to the country of Spain, which ruled Texas through their colony of Mexico. But by the time the colonists arrived in Texas in 1822 Mexico had gained independence from Spain, and the colonies thenceforth fell under the rule of the Republic of Mexico.
At the time Mexico had an estimated population of eight million people. The northern portion of Mexico, called Coahuila y Tejas to the citizens of Mexico, was considered to be a wild and largely uninhabited territory of little value. Perhaps ten thousand Mexican citizens lived in the entire area north of the Rio Grande (called the Rio Bravo in Mexico).
The military hero of the Mexican war for independence from Spain was the mercurial Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. He led the Mexican army to a great victory at Veracruz in 1821, thereby securing independence from Spain for Mexico.
Thus, shortly after arriving in Texas, the old three hundred found themselves without a treaty, as their colony had been established by Stephen Austin’s father with the government of Spain. Not to be deterred, Austin travelled to Mexico City and secured a new treaty for the colony in Texas. The three hundred became citizens of the newly formed country of Mexico, and would remain so until they found it necessary themselves to revolt more than a decade later.
Within this patchwork of Americans, Europeans, and Mexicans north of the Rio Grande a sort of camaraderie was to develop during the decade of the 1820’s that was respectful and even friendly despite the barriers imposed by differences in language and culture. Although Hispanics were more common west of the San Antonio River, east of the San Antonio River Mexican villas and haciendas were to become neighbors to English speaking settlers who were for the most part farmers. This sparsely populated region composed almost entirely of immigrants flourished because the populace shared a single common desire – to build a new life on the Texas plains.
Unfortunately, the peaceful coexistence among the settlers was to be repeatedly assailed by the government of Mexico to the south. And occasionally the intrusions came in the form of incursions by military forces. It would not be a stretch to say that the settlers who lived in Texas at the time, no matter where they came from, were coexisting for the most part contentedly, but as is so often the case, distant governments are prone to misunderstand the local populace. Such was the case on multiple occasions in Texas.
By the early 1830’s the government of Mexico had become more and more incursive. Whether this was intrinsic or was caused by the repeated waffling of Lopez de Santa Anna is immaterial, the reality is that Santa Anna seized power and formed a new government with himself as president of Mexico in 1832. Over the succeeding months he enacted laws that seemed capricious to the Texians, they having been used to the democratic ways of England and the United States. Eventually, Santa Anna repealed the Mexican constitution of 1824, thereby essentially setting himself up as de facto dictator of Mexico. Unfortunately, this did not sit well at all with the Texians.
The result was the so-called Anahuac disturbance in the summer of 1835. A Mexican army was sent by sea northward from Veracruz to quell a perceived uprising by a band of Texians, and although the outcome was peaceful, the seeds had been laid for a coming revolution.
I have given England a maritime rival who will sooner or later humble her pride.
-Napoleon Bonaparte, describing the impact of the Louisiana Purchase
Boston, Massachusetts-July 5, 1803
Perched upon Nob Hill, the brownstone was ample evidence of the family’s affluence. Inside, a middle-aged man sat within his opulent study, assimilating an article within a locally distributed pamphlet.
A boy appearing to be about the age of twelve suddenly chased into the room. Bounding to the man’s side, he exclaimed, “Father! What’s news have we today? Surely there’s something exciting on this, the day after Independence Day!”
Eyeing his son with irritation, the man responded, “Not much, nothing good, at least,” and, accepting the intrusion, he added, “Well, there is one thing here, on page three.”
“What is it, father? Let me see,” the boy inquired, somehow managing to squirm betwixt his father and the pages of the pamphlet.
Now fully distracted by his entirely too rambunctious child, the man sighed and suggested, “See this drawing here? See that, son?”
“Yes, sir. Looks to me like a map of North America.”
“Precisely,” his father supplied, “Notice anything unusual about it?”
“Of course – there’s a big grey smoke plume right in the middle.”
“Smoke plume? What on earth are you talking about, son?”
Pointing at the map, the boy announced proudly, “There, father! See down there? Looks like the mouth of the Mississippi spouting off a smoke plume, if you ask me!”
His father peered at the image and, his eyes suddenly lighting up, he exclaimed in recognition, “Why, darned if your aren’t correct, Hiram, it does in fact give the sensation of a smoke plume. But it’s more than that, son.”
“What is it?”
“It’s called the Louisiana Purchase. It seems that darned fool President Jefferson announced yesterday that he had purchased it from France on behalf of The United States of America for fifteen million dollars.”
“Dad! Don’t say bad things about Thomas Jefferson – he’s our president!”
“Precisely, son, he’s the president, not the emperor, and in this country, that means every citizen has the right to question anything, including hair-brained actions by our president.”
“But, sir, why did you call President Jefferson a fool?”
“I should think it would be clear to anyone – tis an enormous amount of money to pay for what amounts to a barren and useless wilderness.”
“What makes you say that,” the boy queried insistently.
“Well, son, just look at the map – look at where the land is – it must be a thousand miles from here.”
Studying the map, the child now inquired pugnaciously, “What’s that there?”
“Where?” his father queried in return and, observing where the boy was pointing, he responded, “Oh, that! That’s a territory that belongs to Mexico. It’s called Texas.”
“Texas,” the boy repeated wistfully, “What a strange name.”
“Right, son. Might as well be a million miles away. Frankly, I doubt that anyone from this country will ever lay eyes on it, at least, not in your lifetime.”
“Oh, yes they will!” the boy exclaimed with self-assurance.
“Oh, and what makes you think that, son?”
“Because I’m going to go there someday,” he responded proudly.
A Place Worth Fighting For
All over the land are vast and handsome pastures, with good grass for cattle, and it strikes me the soil would be very fertile were the country inhabited and improved by reasonable people.
-Alvar Cabeza de Vaca
Near Bastrop, Texas – Early September, 1835
The sun peeked languorously over the crest of the ridge, signaling the arrival of yet another sweltering day on the Texas plain. Near the log cabin, two chickens seemed to be wrestling over the right to peck at a pebble, the remaining ones wandering about clucking aimlessly, as if already resigned to the soon to be numbing heat.
Over by the fence, a lone piglet was engaged in diligently swathing himself with mud in hopes of staving off the soon-to-arrive scorching heat. The barn, such as it was, appeared to avoid collapse via a single rope that tugged mercilessly on a nearby tree. Under each of three towering oaks, a cow had already staked out the shade for the day, living out the daily drama of survival on the open plain. Otherwise, the silence was universal, stillness its willing companion.
The door to the house, the boards faded by time, momentarily creaked into motion. A lone fair-haired child tumbled haphazardly from within, simultaneously tugging on his overalls. Barefoot and grimy as a tree stump in a dust storm, the boy gazed about for a few moments in bewilderment. Eventually he called out to some as yet unseen companion, “Jackson? Here Jackson! Where are you, boy?”
A skinny lop-eared dog came scampering from behind the barn, trotted up and launched himself directly into the boy’s face, and in so doing it nearly knocked the boy down. Giggling as he tumbled mirthfully with the overly affectionate dog, the boy thereby elucidated the source of his monochromatic state of dusty grey.
A man now emerged from the house and observed the two erstwhile combatants disinterestedly. Though he had dark hair, his skin was incongruously fair. Possessed of a neatly clipped beard, he appeared to be in his early thirties and, though tall and muscular, he was nonetheless a bit on the side of lean.
Tugging the boy to his feet, the man swatted him mildly on the rump, commanding surreptitiously, “Now, Auggey, no time for that. You get on down to the creek. And wash yourself up, you hear? You and your maw got to get to town with me before it gets too darn hot to breathe. We got lots to do today,” and though a Scottish accent was faintly detectable within his voice, it was nearly lost within the more obvious Texas dialect.
“Yes, sir,” the boy replied respectfully and, simultaneously pushing the dog away, headed off toward the barn to clean himself up, though God only knows how that was even possible.
A woman now emerged from the house and, walking slowly towards the man, merged seamlessly into his awaiting embrace. She was a pleasant looking blonde, to appearance perhaps thirty years of age and, though the climate had clearly worked hard on her, she would have caught any man’s eye.
The two stood silently, neither apparently intent on accomplishing anything whatsoever. Instead, each seemed to peer about, wistfully taking it all in. Despite the impression of destitution emanating from the scene, the surrounding countryside somehow exuded an attractive aura of natural beauty. A pasture, perhaps forty acres in breadth stood before them, ringed by tall oak trees, a stately pine tree interspersed here and there.
“By God, Julie,” the man volunteered, “It’s unbearably hot already this mornin’! But I still love this place. I’ve never had anything, much less my own place, in my whole life. There’ll be no mistaking this place for heaven, but I’ll take it. I’ll take Texas over any other place on earth.”
“I know, Hank. It don’t feel like heaven to me neither. Feels more like hell, and summer nearly over,” Julie responded, her distinctly southern accent all too apparent. And when she spoke, the edges of her mouth turned up in a naturally appealing smile.
Hank dearly loved this place. It had been hard work getting it started. It didn’t look like much, but he was proud of what they had accomplished in the two years since they had arrived in Texas. The house was small – only fourteen by fourteen feet. That was the longest logs he could get on the wagon, and the horses could only pull ten at a time for the three miles he had to carry them overland from the lost pines. But that was the best part about the logs – they were pine, straight and true. They chinked well because of that, and they kept out the bugs and the winter cold. And they were also a lot easier to cut down than oak.
It had taken Hank six wagon loads to bring enough logs for the barn and the house, that in itself having spanned a full month’s hard labor. Chopping down trees and hauling them was back-breaking work for a man in his mid-thirties. Recalling the effort, he reached instinctively for his back, the memory of it reminding him that he hoped he’d never have to do that again.
Hank had put the first course of logs up on rocks to keep the termites out, but the house nonetheless had a dirt floor. He aimed to take care of that next fall, as soon as the crop was in. And he would put in windows, too. For now, they had holes covered by boards where the windows would be when they could afford them. He surveyed his handiwork, surmising that in time they would even build a porch, assuming his back held up that long.
The barn wasn’t much either. It was even smaller than the house, and for now it only had a sod roof on it. Hank had dug a dirt berm after a few days of heavy rains, and this had served as two walls of the barn. He had used one load of pine trees to build a structure for the barn, and then he had covered the other two walls with planks purchased from the local mill. He liked planks, but they wouldn’t keep the weather out and the heat in, so he had used logs for the walls of the house. Planks were good enough to keep the cows warm even in the worst weather in this part of Texas. Folks who’d lived here for a long time said it only snowed once or twice in a decade, thereby allowing the cows to feed from the fields nearly year round.
The barn had a secondary purpose that Hank and Julie kept to themselves. That first summer in Texas it had been necessary to resort to extreme measures to fulfill their romantic instincts. Auggey was getting older now, and it wasn’t seemly to be making noises of passion in the night in their small cabin. One night Hank had made sufficient noise that he feared that Auggey might be awakened, thereby wondering what in God’s name his parents were up to.
After that Hank and Julie had resorted to sneaking down to the creek at night on occasion and partaking of a midnight swim in the darkness, followed by passion in the moonlight. This approach, while it was both romantic and satisfying, had left Julie and Hank concerned.
First, there was always the possibility of stepping into something deadly in the dark. Texas was filled with all manner of dangerous critters, such as poisonous snakes and spiders, any one of which was capable of killing unsuspecting folks in the night. But more importantly, they were both concerned about leaving Auggey alone in the cabin at night, even for a half hour. The Indians had largely moved further inland after the coastal region was settled, but they could always come back on a raiding party. And while this seemed a bit far-fetched to Hank, he’d heard all sorts of wild tails from the old timers. If the claims were true, the Indians had come riding out of nowhere every few years raping and killing indiscriminately. So there was another reason to build the barn, and Hank had gotten it done in the spring of their second year in Texas.
There hadn’t been enough money to do everything. They had arrived in Texas with almost five hundred dollars, most of it a parting gift from Hank’s family back in Scotland. Seems it was cheaper to pay boys grown to men to leave home than it was to keep them on if no land was to be had.
Hank had managed to get an imperial grant within the Austin Colony. Most of the land had been taken by now, which was why they had to go all the way northwest to Bastrop. There was less open land for farming there, but it was possessed of several imposing trees. It had been a hard trek over land to get there, but all in all Hank was happy with the plot they’d been granted. Still, it had taken almost all of their savings to get it started, and now they were scraping the bottom of the barrel, just barely making a living.
Hank had felt like they were rich when they had arrived in Texas. They’d had more money than most folks. Only the two families nearby from the old three hundred were better off. Those folks had been there now for almost fifteen years. Hank figured it must have been really hard for them at first, too, but look what the old three hundred had been able to do. Observing their success, Hank was sure that with hard work, in time he and Julie would have all the things that the old three hundred had.
Losing his train of thought, Hank abruptly nuzzled Julie and gave her a nice wet kiss on the mouth. Julie responded warmly but, pulling away, scolded, “Not in broad daylight, Hank MacElrae!”
Hank smiled sheepishly. Julie was right – there was always time for that after dark. “Let’s get to town, Julie. We need to get supplies for planting the garden.”
The ride into town was uneventful, except for the bone-jarring bumpiness of it over the entire five miles. Bastrop, they called it – nice little town, nestled in among numerous towering oak trees along the Colorado River. Hank and Julie hadn’t gotten trees all that impressive. Would have been nice, but they got the slim pickings, having arrived in Texas too late for the best land.
On this day the town was bustling even more so than usual. As they pulled alongside the walkway, a middle-aged woman chortled to Hank, “Mornin’ Mr. MacElrae.”
“Mornin’ Mrs. Walker,” Hank responded cheerfully, adding inquisitively, “Lots of folks ‘round today.”
“Yep, mighty busy here at the store. Folks is stockin’ up, sayin’ war is comin’. Hear tell a bunch of Texians led by William B. Travis took on the Mexican army at Anahuac six weeks ago.”
“Oh, is that right? I hadn’t heard, but it don’t surprise me none,” Hank volunteered innocuously in a half-hearted attempt to be neighborly. “After what that fella President Lopez Santa Anna done, convertin’ us all to Catholics, I can’t say as I blame them. Wasn’t that what my family left Scotland to get away from – religion controlled by the state?” Hank paused a moment, pulled off his hat to scratch an invisible bug and, having seemingly succeeded, now added, “Expect it don’t concern us. After all, we’re just tryin’ to scratch out a livin’, Mrs. Walker.”
“Know what you mean, Mr. MacElrae, know what you mean,” she replied gingerly. “But listen here, sir, you mind yourself and that young ‘un, you hear? Things are gonna get worse before they get better. I feel it deep down inside, and I ain’t often wrong about that.”
Hank swung down from the buck board, stepped lightly onto the walk and, turning to hold out a helping hand for his wife, he simultaneously hauled down his son, all in one motion. Anyone happening by could have seen that he had done it often, that same sweeping motion, all in one. “Into the store with you, Auggey,” he ordered, “And don’t you be touchin’ nothin’, mind.”
At this, the boy charged ahead, his skinny dog maintaining perfect step with him. Turning back to his wife, Hank inquired, “Julie, can you see to the supplies? I got business up the street.”
At her nod of consent, Hank turned and wandered off. It was one thing to say that war was none of his business, but Hank was now certain big things were brewing. The unexpected bustle in town was unmistakable evidence. He’d seen nothing like this crowd since they’d left New Orleans for Galveston two years earlier. In fact, the population of Bastrop seemed to have tripled overnight, and he meant to find out exactly what the excitement was about. Off he went, his long-sleeved shirt already soaked with sweat from the blistering noonday heat, his boots caked with countless layers of dirt.
Hank had been proud of those boots when he’d bought them in New Orleans. Not many men in Texas owned boots. They were hard to come by and expensive, too, but here were days when he hated them. In rainy weather they caused blisters. In hot weather they made you sweat, thereby causing more blisters. When you had to go walking long distances, they caused even more blisters. The only time they seemed to work well in Texas was during the short winter, when they helped to keep his feet warm.
Hank supposed to himself that he was too proud, or he would have bought some more comfortable shoes. By now his boots were just plain ugly, but at least they were broke in. As he struggled against their injurious nature, he reasoned that he couldn’t afford anything else right now anyway.
“Mornin’, sheriff,” Hank called jovially as he stepped onto the opposite side of the street. Sheriff Green was a good sort. Hank couldn’t figure out how a man like him had come to be sheriff of Bastrop. In Hank’s opinion, he’d have made a better preacher man. First of all, he seemed a bit old, and, truth be told, he wasn’t half mean enough to be an effective sheriff. He wasn’t big enough neither, being only middle sized in height, and prone to the lean side except for his protruding belly. But then again, maybe that’s just what the town needed. Sheriff Green was always there to lend a helping hand, and there had been no semblance of a disturbance in town since Hank and Julie had moved there.
“Mornin’, Hank. How’s the family?” Sheriff Green responded affably. Without waiting to hear the answer, he continued pointedly, “The word is Stephen Austin’s coming back from Mexico.” Having imparted this last, he stopped short, measuring its effect on Hank.
“Well, guess that should be good,” Hank answered back, not knowing quite how to answer. Pulling off his hat, he began scratching his head, this time in contemplation, eventually thinking to inquire, “Have you met him, sheriff, Mr. Austin?”
“Why of course, man, everyone in these parts knows Stephen Austin!”
“Well, I guess I don’t. I expect he was already down in Mexico when we came here two years ago,” Hank replied dejectedly.
“Why, yes, I believe you’re right, Hank. He has been gone awhile, though I confess I didn’t realize till this moment just how long it had been,” Sheriff Green responded and, pausing momentarily in thought, subsequently kicked a nonexistent rock, then added, “The men are talking ‘bout war…it might be a comin’ I ‘spect, Hank.” He paused again, this time for effect, and then, as Hank did not reply, added surreptitiously, “What’re you thinkin’?”
“Thinkin’ ‘bout what,” Hank replied, beginning to wonder how to extract himself from this conversation due to the uncomfortable nature of this turn of subject matter.
“War, son – war!” replied the sheriff boisterously.
Hank paused and, shoving his hands into his back pockets, attempted to make himself as small as possible, eventually replying with apparent detachment, “Hadn’t thought about it. This is all coming real fast for me. I got the wife and boy there to think of. Got to feed them. I got to think on it some,” and at this he sauntered off down the street, hoping that further such discussions would keep their distance.
Despite his conviction to stay out of it, Hank felt a powerful feeling in the pit of his stomach. Somewhere, deep inside, there was an uneasy feeling, one he couldn’t quite explain. Still contemplating, he wandered over to the stable. Stepping inside, he observed perhaps a dozen men talking, not too loud, just sort of pleasant-like. He considered the possibility that they might be feeling confused, like he was, so he sauntered on over their way.
“Hello there, Hank,” said one pleasantly.
“Hello Bill,” Hank replied cautiously. Bill Walker, husband of Mrs. Walker, was a hulking, fiftyish, mean looking fella, but he was always smilin’, kind of like a big soft bear that you just want to hug. “What’s the latest?”
Bill responded jovially, “Well, they’re puttin’ an army together, shore’nuf. Word has it that Mexico ain’t havin’ any part of us breakin’ away from them. Seems some other parts of Mexico have declared independence as well. There was a big battle down in Zacatecas in May. The government whooped them rebels bad, hear tell. Rumors are that there’s gonna be an army comin’ this way before too long as well. I don’t know how big, but it’s sure to be a lot bigger than we can manage. There’s got to be more’n a hunderd times as many people south of the Rio Grande as there are in Texas.”
Another man, this one somewhat short but extraordinarily massive in girth, poked into the conversation with, “Word has it that men are pouring into Texas from all over. Some are arriving by ship in Galveston or Port Aransas. Others are coming overland across the Sabine from New Orleans and points south. And there are quite a few riding in on horseback from Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, and the Oklahoma territory via Nacogdoches,” and he seemed to be quite sure of himself. His enunciation was incongruously elegant, so much so that Hank couldn’t quite make out his accent.
Hank didn’t share his certainty by any means, but somehow impressed nonetheless, he thrust his hand forward and said brusquely, “Name’s Hank, Hank MacElrae.”
Bill jumped in and exclaimed excitedly to Hank, “This here is Hawk Banks. He’s a bona fide Texas Ranger!”
The man grabbed Hank’s hand pleasantly and shook it hard and tight. Hank almost lost his breath his hand was squeezed so hard.
Having noticed Hank’s accent, Hawk announced sonorously, “A Scotsman! Well, I’ll be, they’re arriving from everywhere. I am most pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Hank MacElrae!” and, still grinning, he added to the surrounding crowd, “Gentlemen, I can tell you from first-hand experience – Scots are fine fighting men. They’ll do in a scrape.”
Hank couldn’t tell whether the man was talking up to him or down, which was a curious circumstance since Hank was near a head taller than him. Flummoxed, he just changed the subject, offering, “Heard about them Rangers. Stephen Austin formed them up to tame the Indians. So what brings you here to Bastrop, Ranger Banks?”
At this Hawk opined sagely, “Well, sir, funny you should ask. Mr. Austin has decided the Indians aren’t so important at this very moment. Under the circumstances, I’ve been charged with recruiting reinforcements to aid him down in Gonzales. Seems there’s a war coming.”
Pointing to no one in particular, Hank asked pointedly, “Anyone know who’s in charge of this here war, if’n that’s what it is?”
“Well, they done met at San Felipe,” Bill interjected, “Elected a fellow named Richard Royall as president. That’s what we hear.”
“Royall,” Hank responded vacantly, “Never heard of him.”
“Me neither,” Bill agreed.
“Why didn’t they pick Austin, or better yet, that new comer Sam Houston? Hear tell he’s a friend to Andrew Jackson,” asked Hank.
Bill responded, “Don’t rightly know. Maybe they wasn’t nobody there could be trusted to run things,” and at this he spat and, peering down at the spot where it had landed, he seemed to be contemplating the import of his own conjecture.
Somehow hoping this would end it, Hank volunteered, “Well, ‘spect we got leaders, and we got to leave them to it,”
“We’ve got too damn many leaders, if you ask me,” another man chimed in. “That fella Houston don’t sit right with me. Just because he knows Andrew Jackson, he wants to be emperor of Texas.”
Hawk squinted at the man and, intent on making his own point, he put in his two cents, “Listen here, we have quite a few Texians who should be qualified to lead this rebellion. Let us leave the politicking to our leaders in San Felipe, while we here on the front lines concentrate on the matter at hand – fighting and winning a revolution!” There was unanimous agreement with this last sentiment.
A momentary silence ensued and, Hank discomforted by it, he queried to no one in particular, “What’s next?”
At this point Hawk did something that Hank would later consider to be profoundly important. Biting on a piece of chewing tobacco, he hawked loudly and spat, but on this occasion it made no significant impression on Hank. Hawk then propounded, “Well, I’ve come to Bastrop to recruit fighting men, and I am of the distinct impression that I chose rightly.”
Hank felt a natural attraction to this tough looking fellow. He couldn’t put his hand on it, but there was something about him that made Hank want to trust him. Accordingly, he asked with particular interest, “So what are you thinking on doing, Hawk?”
“Well, the Indians seem to be quite passive at the moment. So I had nothing in particular to keep me busy. Fact is, I needed some excitement. When Austin called on the Rangers to join in at Gonzales, I immediately packed my horse and rode west. I expect I’ll hang around here in Bastrop for the next few days, till we see where this insurrection is headed. Good central location right here, what with Washington-on-the Brazos off to the east, seat of government for the moment. Off to the south, we have Gonzales and Goliad, the closest places to Mexico with significant Texian inhabitants. And finally, there is San Antonio de Bexar off to the southwest, where the majority of the Tejano population lives. I expect that tensions will erupt at one or the other of those three places quite soon. When that happens, that’s where I’ll be heading, and I’ll be taking along anyone that is of a mind to join me. Meantime I’ll be partaking of some local whoring, assuming the price is right.”
Hank didn’t cater much to this type of thing, himself being a God-fearing religious man, but he supposed that every man was entitled to his own perversions and pleasures. “Well, Hawk, I wish you well in your quest for fulfillment here in Texas,” he said sarcastically. “Me, I got chores to do, so I’ll be sayin’ good day to you,” and at this he turned to make his exit.
Hawk called to him good-naturedly, “Good to meet you, Mr. Hank MacElrae. I’ll be seeing you wherever the fighting takes us. And if you’re pondering the prospect of joining me, as I suspect you are, don’t wait too long to decide. I’ll be out of here within the week.”
Hank waved over his shoulder and, ignoring this last remark, he made for the general store.
Nacogdoches, Texas-Late September
Nate Tucker kept telling himself that he wasn’t really afraid, but he did have to admit that it had been quite a while since he had attended Sunday service. Surely that little critter on that rock before him could not be a devil, but Nate was not certain, as he confessed to himself that he was lacking in the religious knowledge necessary to insure his immunity to persuasion from the lower reaches, even coming from so unlikely a source as this.
Peering down at the squatting man before him, Ben Sawyer queried brusquely, “What the hell you doin’ there, Nate?”
Nate was so surprised he jumped a foot. He prided himself on always being cunning and wary, but this little critter here had somehow undone him. Scratching his head to lend emphasis to his conundrum, he responded defensively, “Aw, hell Saw, I wasn’t loafing. I was examining this here devilish-looking little creature. Truth is, I was considerin’ just how many Hail Mary’s I was down for just for the fact that I been visited by such an ungodly being.”
Ben Sawyer stared down for a moment and, suddenly making out the tiny lizard before him, he let emitted an enormous roiling laugh, “Ha haaaa, ha hee haa,” and so saying, he slapped his knee for emphasis.
Ben Sawyer was a huge man, and it was entirely appropriate, seeing as how he ran the local saw mill. Saw, as everyone was fond of calling him, proffered amiably, “Heck, Nate! That little critter there, that ain’t nothin’ but a useless little horny toad!”
Leaning on his axe and cupping his chin in contemplation, Nate eventually summoned up the gumption to suppose, “Well, if’n I was a female, which I shorely am not, I wouldn’t want that critter rubbing up against me no matter how horny he was.”
Somehow failing to perceive the off-color in Nate’s retort, Ben continued unabashedly, “They’re all over these parts. “Don’t pay no attention to ‘em. They’re completely harmless. Now, get back to work!”
Gazing upwards at Ben towering over him, Nate inquired suspiciously, “You sure?”
“Non-poisonous, harmless, and entirely useless, I promise,” Ben replied bluntly.
“Well, I wasn’t thinkin’ in that direction precisely,” Nate responded. “Truth is, the little bastard bears a distinct resemblance to the chief enemy of God to me.”
As Ben was none too perceptive at times, he simply stared vacuously at Nate’s submission.
Seeing Ben’s confusion, Nate offered pointedly, “You know, Saw – Beelzebub – the Devil!”
Breaking into a broad smile at this, Ben observed, “Aw, hell, Nate. It ain’t no devil. I’ll show you,” and so saying, he pulled out a big knife and reached forward, intent on stabbing the toad right through. Seeing Ben’s intent, Nate leaped between the two entirely mismatched combatants, somehow managing to prevent the intended immolation.
“No!” Nate screamed, “I believe you!”
Observing Nate’s terrified look, Ben halted and sheathed his knife.
At this Nate suggested in obvious relief, “If he ain’t no devil, then he deserves to serve out his allotted time on this here earth, I reckon.”
At this pronouncement, Ben rubbed his chin in thought and, nodding his concurrence, he mumbled, “Well, I expect you’re right on that point, Nate. You’re a good man. But you’re costin’ me money. Now let the little beast alone and get on with your work.”
“Yes, Saw,” was all Nate could think of to say. He waited for Ben to turn away, and as soon as he did, Nate reached down, swept the horny toad up and, dropping it into his pocket, he set back to work.
Nate thought on it long and hard the remainder of the day. He decided to name his new friend Mephistopheles. He didn’t know anything about Mephistopheles, but he did know it was a name for the devil. That was because when he was a little boy his maw had always told him when he did wrong that he would be kidnapped by Mephistopheles if he didn’t watch it. Now he had Mephistopheles right there in his pocket, where he could keep an eye on him at all times. And since his maw was long dead, he figured he had good control of the situation.
Nate had come down from Kentucky in July, and since he had done this type of work before, he had found work at the saw mill in Nacogdoches right away. And since things were really hopping in Texas at the moment, Ben Sawyer was paying him a whopping five dollars a week.
Nate had also cut a few cords of firewood, and that had made him some extra money. He figured between what he was making at the mill and the extra pocket money for the firewood, he might be able to get himself some land by next year. He hadn’t yet thought on what he would do with it when he got it, but he figured he had time to think that part through.
Nate liked Texas. He didn’t put much significance in the rumors he heard about the fight with Mexico. He figured he was situated in just the right part of Texas to be safe from it all one way or the other. First off, Nacogdoches was a long long way from Mexico City, and there didn’t seem to be hardly any Tejanos around these parts anyway. And second, Nacogdoches was well situated for anyone to simply vanish into the woods. To the west of Nacogdoches the forest petered out, but to the east, it was all pretty much solid thicket. Nate figured a man could disappear into there and never be found by anyone. He’d heard that there were even Indians still living there, but he hadn’t seen a single one since his arrival in Texas.
Pondering his good fortune, Nate picked up his axe and headed out to cut down another big tree for Ben. He figured he’d be staying in Nacogdoches for some time to come. Heck, maybe he would even meet a woman and start a family. Life looked real good from where he stood, especially now that he had cornered the devil right there in his own pocket.
Near Zacatecas, Mexico-Late September
Francisco Ernesto de la Garza was considerably outraged by the conditions he and his fellow soldiers were being forced to endure. For one thing, he still did not consider himself a bona fide soldier, despite the fact that he was garbed in a magnificent grey uniform that was far better than any clothing he had ever owned in his eighteen years on earth. Still, it left something to be desired. Having been made of wool, it was too hot in the daytime, and it scratched his skin at night. Be that as it may, he had become accustomed to his uniform far more quickly than he had adjusted to the life of a soldier.
Thinking back, it seemed to him as if it had only been a few days since General Santa Anna’s army had swept through his village near Zacatecas. That was before the battle, and since his village was far too small and ill-equipped to have been a part of the Zacatecan uprising, he had been drafted. General Santa Anna had simply conscripted every man over the age of fifteen into the army. It had all happened so quickly that Francisco had not even had the opportunity to say goodbye to his parents and siblings. He dearly missed them, especially his younger sister Consuela.
Francisco had not really done much in the battle of Zacatecas. He had been too young and new, so he had only helped with feeding soldiers. And after the battle, he had cared for the wounded. This was a side of mankind that he had not been prepared for. Compared to the uneventful life in a small village in Mexico, his life since joining the army had undergone a dramatic change.
Now he was marching north to La Bahia with the army of General Cos. He had been told that they would eventually march to a place called San Antonio de Bexar. Francisco did not know much about the man San Antonio. He thought that he must have been from Italy. Lots of saints were from Italy. He hoped to go to Italy someday, but he understood that this was unlikely.
In his village they did not have books, so he only learned from his religious studies. His parents had only one book, a splendid copy of the Bible that was kept in the most honored place in their house, next to the statue of the Virgin Mary. A crucifix with a small likeness of Jesus hung on the wall. Every evening Francisco’s father would read scriptures to them before bedtime.
Francisco felt a strong connection to God. He prayed every morning and evening. But he simply could not understand how war fit into the plans of God. He contemplated this question on occasion, but when he attempted to discuss it with the other soldiers, they showed little interest. In the end, he decided to keep it to himself. He resolved to figure it out one day, but for now, he pondered on the mysterious San Antonio. Most of the saints were not in the Bible. Since they had come later, long after it had been written, most of what he knew about them he had learned from his religious studies.
San Antonio had been a member of the Franciscan order. Francisco admired San Francisco greatly. His parents had told him that he himself was named after San Francisco. They had made it clear to Francisco that this carried great significance for him, that his sacred responsibility was to live up to the name he had been given.
San Francisco had established an entire order of the Christian religion that practiced humility, servitude, destitution, and above all, devotion to God. Accordingly, Francisco wore a necklace with a small medallion of San Francisco around his neck at all times. His parents had given it to him when he had turned twelve years old. It was his proudest possession. Each day when he prayed, he promised San Francisco that he would always try in every way to live according to the ideals of the religious order he had established.
Hawk Banks had come to Texas from Kentucky in early 1835. Unlike most folks these days, he had travelled overland via Nacogdoches. “Nice town, Nacogdoches,” he thought to himself. If he squinted just right he could imagine that those tall pine trees of the big thicket in eastern Texas were in Kentucky. Since the countryside hadn’t been so much different all the way down from Lexington, he hadn’t thought much about it at the time. He had simply assumed that sort of countryside would stretch all the way to the west coast, which he’d heard was way out there somewhere. So he hadn’t dallied much in Nacogdoches, focused instead on the part of Texas where the colonies were.
Hawk had been in for a surprise after he had left Nacogdoches. The countryside had gradually changed over from heavily wooded to less and less so. Sure, there was still plenty of undergrowth, but more and more oak trees, less and less pine trees, and plenty of ordinary scrub brush. There were Indians, too, although none seemed to be in sight anywhere. Hawk had had some doings with Indians, but they were for the most part not too much trouble back east these days.
Hawk had come to Texas to find a new challenge. He’d heard about the troubles over the last couple of years with the government of Mexico, but he didn’t pay it much heed. He was more interested in being on the tip of the arrow, out there on the edge, where the excitement was, and the edge had worn off back east in Kentucky and Tennessee. Texas was now on the edge. He had felt the excitement even before he’d crossed the Sabine River. Now it seemed he’d arrived just in the nick of time. The Indians had presented an interesting challenge at first. Hawk had therefore managed to get himself appointed to the newly formed Texas Rangers.
But now there was war coming to Texas. He’d seen this kind of situation before. Wars didn’t just happen, they were made by people – people getting all riled up over something, or sometimes absolutely nothing at all. But once they got riled up, it didn’t seem it could be stopped until they ran out of energy, along with everything else.
On this day he sat pondering his next move. He could sit here in Bastrop and have himself a good ol’ time drinking corn whiskey, just watching the world go by, and, to tell the truth, that held considerable appeal for him. But frankly, the whiskey was none too good in these parts, and it was becoming clear that there were few if any men locally that were interested in joining the volunteer army. So he reckoned he’d better be getting on down the road to Gonzales where the volunteer army was assembling. Surely there would be some excitement there.
Set against the backdrop of world-changing events of the twentieth century, the Sutherland Saga consists of a sequence of six novels chronicling four generations of the Earldom of Winston. Spanning from the late twentieth century to present day, Merging Destiny may be viewed either as a sequel to My Father the God, Part 5 of the Sutherland Saga, or as the final volume of the saga. Shortly after the death of her parents in the Lockerbie bombing, Elspeth Moorehead enters Hanford University in Boston. While there she makes friends with Connor Stuart, from Edinburgh, Scotland. Spanning a quarter of a century, their friendship will lead to mayhem, destruction, and murder. The scope of events growing with each encounter, the stakes are enormous. In the end, it all leads back to the Lockerbie bombing. Can Elspeth and Connor unravel the complexities surrounding this tragic event? For if they fail, the consequences will be life threatening indeed.