[a novel by Mark Abel]
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Abel
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be
reproduced in any form by any electronic or
recording or information storage and retrieval
without permission in writing from the author.
Library of Congress Control Number: 2015915021
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform,
North Charleston, SC
First edition—October 2015
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places,
and incidents either are the products of the author‘s
imagination or are used fictitiously, and any
resemblance to actual persons, living or dead,
events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
idden, deep within a remote Afghan
archive, there is a scroll that tells of
H a time when two would rise: one of
prosperity and one of toil. It warned the people
they would not know which was which, but that
their arrival meant great change in the region. For
generations, it was assumed the two would be
religious clerics or tyrants.
But they were not men at all.
They were girls.
Their fathers knew one another, were at one
time friends. But something had transpired between
the families that neither Ara nor Minoo understood,
and it resulted in their mothers being forbidden
from speaking. The girls had been given similar
restrictions; but at that time, nothing could keep
them apart. Neither threat nor reprimand would
prevent one from sneaking to the other‘s bedside at
the neighboring farm in the middle of the night.
During the daytime, the stakes were higher,
the risks greater. They chased one another through
the gardens—their loamy soils bursting with
melons, turnips and saffron—then through the
almond and peach trees until they came out on the
other side. There, a cleft in the hillside skyline hid
the largest crop in their fields from view.
Ara and Minoo danced along the rows of
bright purple and blue flowers. And because just
being near the flower beds was an even greater
crime than anything for which their mothers now
suffered, they played in the overgrowth at the end of
the garden—rolling in the catsear and watching the
weightless seeds drift away in the wind.
That day, Minoo, the veil of her black
chador hiding everything but her remarkable jade
eyes, saw it first. One of the flowers‘ blue petals
flickered, but behind it, a flash of orange. She
alerted Ara to the aberration. A man in a heavy
fire-suit ambled through the flowers behind the
hissing blue-orange flash, his boots crushing the
fragile stems. The air, now acrid with fuel, rippled
and stung. Suddenly, the strange flower blossomed
into a wave of fire that knocked Ara and Minoo
down where they watched at the end of the rows.
The fire-stream incinerated all of the flowers
beneath it and, when the atomic- looking man with
fuel tanks on his back swept the wand left, all the
rest around him.
Home alone while her husband attended
temple, Minoo‘s mother, her ordinarily formless
burqa now a whirlwind around her, ran through her
own garden toward the atomic man, toward the
burning flowers, screaming in Dari about how
would she be able to care for her children now?
At the neighboring farm, Ara‘s mother
stared at the kitchen clock with dumb amazement,
catatonic. Black smoke danced in the wall slats.
And her father wept uncontrollably into his hands
for what he‘d done to his friend.
But Minoo‘s father wasn‘t at temple
teaching or leading the prayer service. He was
watching in horror from a nearby hilltop as his
crops were destroyed. He saw his wife run at the
atomic man, pleading for mercy with her scorched
voice. But, even as her husband came down the
hillside, the man simply shoved her to the ground
and did nothing when her burqa caught fire. By the
time her husband was near enough to have done
something about it, she was engulfed, the pain on
her face hidden under fiery cloth. So instead, he
used his momentum to drive the giant man sideways
onto the ground.
― [_Who are you?! _]‖ Minoo‘s father demanded,
speaking Pashto as he tore at the suit‘s square
headpiece. When it came free, an angry,
unexpectedly large Asian man was glaring back.
He drew a Glock handgun and pointed it at his
attacker‘s face. Unwilling to let the intruder kill
him on his own farm, he grasped the gun by the
barrel and fought back, attempting to wrest it free.
That the intruder was substantially stronger was
equalized by the cumbersome suit restricting his
Suddenly, the farmer saw two familiar sets
of eyes staring back in the distance, through the
remaining stems. And it was at the same moment
he was going to call out to them that a bullet tore
through his lungs. As they filled up and he began to
suffocate, he saw a hand reach down. Thinking
someone was trying to aid him, the farmer took his
hand away from his bloody chest and reached back.
But before their hands touched, the intruder
relinquished his gun to the reacher, to his employer.
Ara‘s father looked down at his neighbor,
then knelt beside him as the atomic man went to
finish his work. He wanted nothing more
desperately than to accuse him of being a fool; to
insist that the crops growing on their land were
nothing compared to the ocean of oil beneath it, or
to its crown of mineral-rich mountains—and that
this, all of this, everything had been planned and
done for their future and for that of their children.
But he couldn‘t.
Because it wasn‘t true. Not now. Not
Another war was coming, and he‟d been the
fool for thinking their families would be unaffected.
Instead, all that mattered now was what should have
mattered throughout their astoundingly brief time
here—from their childhood and coming of age
together here, to their education, worship and
raising families together here.
Here, on the surface of the sun, it came to an
end in the same place it began.
Here, the days were long but the time was
Here, it was perfect.
―But not without you, brother. Not without
you,‖ said the merchant, placing his hand over his
friend‘s eyes as he pressed the gun‘s barrel against
his own temple and began to pray.
interrupting the conclusion of his redress. The
atomic man, the nightmare- man, was still raining
hell over everything and fast approaching the girls.
Ara‘s father saw this, rose and ran toward them.
Shouting at the girls to run away, he leveled the
weapon at their attacker, fired. The first shot
glanced off the wand and extinguished the pilot
flame. In both self-defense and retaliation, he
turned the flamethrower on his employer, but only
sprayed him with fuel. The second and third shots
spun the nightmare man around, and the fourth
detonated the fuel tanks on his back, killing him
instantly. The girls scrambled to get away, unable
to breathe because the explosion had depleted the
air of its oxygen.
Ara‘s father dropped the firearm and was
staggering about, furiously wiping the gasoline in
his eyes and nostrils, dangerously high now from
choking on smoke heavy with opiates and crying
out for the girls to get back, to run, to go home.
Minoo‘s father had dragged himself to
where his wife lay smoldering and died beside her.
His neighbor and lifelong friend stood just a few
meters away, clutching roasted flowers in each of
his blackened hands. He dropped to his knees in the
middle of the decimated acres and then lay flat
against the earth, facing away from his friend, the
His breathing became short and fast,
_I am a disgrace, _ he thought. But just as a
gulf of despair began to open, he was suddenly
struck by the sight before him. The falling ash
resembled the mountain snow, peaceful in its
decent, the flakes edged with spun gold—brilliant,
shining gold riding twisting ribbons of light.
When each waltzing ember‘s dance came to
a conclusion, it disappeared.
Every time but once.
Then he too was consumed.
The girls made it safely back to Ara‘s farm,
where her mother was still staring at the kitchen
clock. By then, her presence of mind had unraveled
so much that she could comprehend little and
understand nothing. So when the girls went to her,
she did not embrace them in return. Within three
weeks she would finally live her dream of one day
seeing the Western world, but only inso much as
spending her few remaining years at a sanitarium in
a California suburb.
Less than two days after the incident,
contractors arrived at the neighboring farms with
heavy equipment belching angry clouds from their
exhausts. The houses, outbuildings and trees were
all leveled. The gardens and fields were plowed
over, including those in the hillside cleft where four
secrets were indifferently buried, the soil then
tamped down by wheels of styrene-butadiene
synthetic rubber derived from local oil. In less than
a day, the entire landscape changed exponentially
more than it had in the past five hundred years.
And just like that, the hillside cleft with its
hidden cache of poppies disappeared into the
unforgiving Afghan mountains.
here is a second scroll, lost to the
reaches of the same archive. It tells
T of two farmers: the first, a holy man,
whose child safely crosses a burning field and her
face becomes a symbol of peace, goodwill and
humanitarian aid; the second, a merchant‘s child,
also crosses safely, but hides her face and whose
dark, self-capitulating deeds stab at the heart of
The girls were taken to separate orphanages
Minoo‘s foster home burned to the ground
one night not long after her arrival. It was the result
of an aerial assault on a nearby compound. In the
end, it didn‘t matter which country used the bombs
in the attack, or which country built them. That
night they fell with pinpoint precision on abandoned
warehouses, empty buildings and vacant lots. The
fires, however, quickly spread through the
neighborhood—devastating homes and displacing
many. But with the panic and chaos of manifest
war, little was done to relocate the orphans.
Left no choice, she took to the streets,
begging for scraps and stealing to stay alive. At
night, when the streets were finally dark, she would
hide in the shadows, wrapping herself in her tunic
and stifling her tears, convinced the orphanage had
burned because the fire had followed her.
On one occasion, the shadows she chose
were across the street from a mosque. Not only had
Minoo seen this stout, strong building with its broad
dome and dual minarets before, she‘d also been
inside. A few years earlier, she had accompanied
her father, an imam, on a trip to one of the many
cities where he was a guest prayer leader.
Minoo rose and started toward the mosque.
Suddenly, a Jeep sped past, loaded with Taliban
insurgents, nearly running her down. She collected
herself and continued on. Although it was night,
she pictured the mosque differently when she
looked at it. To her, it was daytime, the sun just
breaking over the colossal mountains that dwarfed
the city at their center.
The holy man had held his daughter‘s hand,
pulling her through the streets.
― _Cheghadr tool mikeshad ta be anja _
[_beresam? _]‖ (how long does it take to get there?)
― [_An nazdike injast, _]‖ (it‘s near here) he‘d
― [_Man s ay mikonam ke vad begiram, _]‖ (I will
do my best to learn) Minoo had said, almost entirely
to herself. ― _Aya mi tavanam ba shoma tamrin _
[_konam, Pedar? _]‖ (can I practice with you, Father?)
― [_Ne. _]‖ (no)
― [_Shogle man daneshjoo ast. _]‖ (I‘m a
― [_Saket baash! _]‖ (be quiet!)
― Shogle man daneshjoo [_ast! _]‖ (I‘m a
Suddenly, she was ripped back into the
present by an explosion inside the mosque that
dismantled its critical structure first. Terrified,
Minoo ran away as multiple explosions followed,
sending shrapnel- infused fireballs into the street.
And just as she was about to be overrun, a man
tackled her near a wall, used his body to shield the
child from the hurling concrete and flaming boards.
Once it was over and they were safe, the
man noticed the small form of the girl pressed up
against him. He smiled through bad teeth. Her jaw
in his hand, he tilted her head at an angle and
wondered how much he could get for her on market.
Minoo stared back in fear, in much the same
way her mother had at the end, her green irises
trembling. But when he reached down to touch her,
he was struck from behind by a heavy object. Two
Muslim women in red burqas towered over the
man, beating him down with splintered lumber and
rusty steel rebar.
They backed off when Minoo cried out, ― _He _
[_saved me! _]‖ in Dari. The man got to his feet and ran
away. Ultimately, it was the women who took her.
They wouldn‘t say where they were going, and it
wouldn‘t be until later in life that Minoo understood
there hadn‘t been an explanation that would have
made sense to a little girl. Everything she‘d
known—Ara, Pedar, Maadar, her home—was gone
now and all that remained was her destination, an
unknowable place that was calling for her.
As they walked, Minoo could hear the
women weep behind their coverings over the
devastated, centuries-old Mosque.
Ara‘s experience in the city‘s frail social
system was different. After more than five years at
her orphanage, her hope of once again having a
family was nearly gone.
Then, on a seemingly random day, a large
white man with broad shoulders and an expensive
suit came to the orphanage asking for Ara by name.
She watched him intently from the staircase. What
sort of man was this? He looked so obviously out
of place, yet in such command and control of
everything that he could rip the walls apart with his
bare hands if he felt so inclined. He introduced
himself as Benjamin Greenstone and the assistants
seemed to have been expecting him. They handed
him a clipboard with several dog-eared pages
clamped to it, which he signed and returned to
The foster director noticed Ara on the stairs
and went to her, his hand outstretched. ―Gather
your things, Ara,‖ he smiled, ―this man is taking
you to Dubai.‖ He spoke as though he‘d done
something unethical, wrong perhaps, and was trying
to hide it.
Ara knew that. In fact, she was counting on
it. It was how whatever lapse in the director‘s
integrity became her first weapon in her arsenal
against anything Greenstone might have in mind.
Still, she brought with her all that she had: a
toothbrush, half of a change of clothes, and her
copy of Norman Mailer‘s Ancient Evenings—a
small, dried poppy flower book-marking her
Outside, a motorcade awaited them. At both
ends of the line, the vehicles resembled those from
around the neighborhood: busted, dented and
percolating wildly. Toward the middle, they were
better maintained, more official, outfitted with
lightbars and reinforced with bullet-proofing.
Finally, at the center, was a stretched Humvee
whose tires were practically taller than she was.
Greenstone‘s driver assisted her as she climbed into
the cool inner compartment. Greenstone himself
got in next and settled into the seat across from her.
The caravan of vehicles surged forth, moving
cautiously at first, then gaining speed.
―You may clean up and dress at the hotel,‖
said Mr. Greenstone. ―We have an hour before our
flight.‖ For most of the trip they rode in silence.
Then, ―I‘ve been looking for you for a long time,
She let him get away with lying because she
could capitalize on his willingness to grossly
underestimate her. Who was this Greenstone
anyway? He‘d said nothing about what was
happening, what was going to happen, or even so
much as introduced himself. Ara was still thinking
it over at the hotel as the shower warmed up and she
disrobed. She reached out to the rushing water, felt
it tickle her palm. Then she stepped into the tepid,
refreshing spray and closed her eyes.
After, her black hair in a single twist, she
stood before the mirror, gazing at her naked, still-
changing body, in a twilight between excitement
There was a knock at the door. It was
Greenstone‘s assistant, a high-strung Arab woman
with a hawkish nose demanding they leave at once.
Ara finished drying her hair and got dressed. The
clothes were her size and in style for girls her age.
They walked briskly across the hotel-airport
atrium, Greenstone‘s assistant a step or two ahead at
all times. After the escalator, they boarded a tram
that took them to the mogul‘s private plane,
standing by for its flight across the Persian Gulf.
Once boarded, their plane exited the hangar,
but instead of taxiing toward the runway, it merely
rolled into a different hangar and came to a stop
near another plane and a small car.
Again, they sat opposite one another. ―I had
dealings with your father,‖ he told Ara. ―It was
back when I was the acting CEO of Skyline
International.‖ That was one of two corporations of
which Greenstone was the founder. The other was
simply called ―Greenstone LLC.,‖ but he only sat on
its Board of Directors as an advisor. He told Ara
this and more: the negotiations with her father and
how he‘d only wanted the best for both families,
how everything was supposed to have happened and
didn‘t—a story of lies populated by real people and
real devastation that occurred not because of the
contract, but because of the farmers‘ argument over
it. Ara‘s father had forged his neighbor‘s signature
and hired someone to torch his poppy field.
Only, the story wasn‘t entirely a fabrication.
Deep down she knew her father had been
responsible. Her throat began to clench because she
suddenly realized that the one person‘s lies she
couldn‘t detect were her own father‘s.
Actually, Ara‘s father had fought Skyline‘s
advances as long as he could. The contracts
included the sale of both farms at market value
several times over. Royalties would be paid on
successful extractions that would make both
families wealthy beyond their wildest dreams and,
should they so desire, even be able to remain in
their homes. All it took were signatures and a sign
of good faith; in this case, a fire, a bright burning
field against a desolate sky. The poppies would
regrow taller, better now in the enriched soil, he
was told. _Just think of all the fat bulbs exuding _
_white opium . . . our drills at a safe distance, almost _
[_non-existent . . . your girls continuing their _]
[_childhood lives uninterrupted, in the way you‟ve _]
_always imagined . . . _
Now that both farmers were dead, however,
a clause in Skyline‘s contract enabled them to do
with the property as they wished, and they went to
work immediately—drilling for oil, hydrofracking
for natural gas, and blowing the tops off nearby
mountains to get at the rich stores of minerals
Several thuggish-looking men in the hangar
restrained a hooded, obviously beaten man to a
chair with duct tape, then looked over in the
direction of Greenstone‘s plane. ―I‘ll be right
back,‖ said Greenstone, getting out of the leather
recliner and maneuvering his large frame through
the narrow hatch. He disembarked and went to
meet the only other man in the hangar not hiding his
face, a handsome Arab man in traditional clothes
and robes. Ara could see Greenstone‘s assistant in
the next row, glued to the window, panting after her
Greenstone turned back toward his own plane.
Having little time, Ara moved quickly,
found what she needed and returned to her seat as
the turbines began to whir.
Greenstone boarded the plane and buckled
The plane began to move.
―That man,‖ asked Ara of the captive tied to
the hangar chair, ―is that man going to live?‖
Greenstone noticed the seatbelt sign still
glowing above his now foster daughter. ―He‘s
going to be fine,‖ he answered and gestured toward
the overhead light.
Ara suddenly sprang to life and attacked
Greenstone like a wild animal. On top of him, she
held back his head with her left hand and pressed
the tip of an ice pick against his throbbing jugular
vein. ― [_Don‟t. You. LIE TO ME! _]‖
By this time, Minoo would be living as a
missionary in Mozambique. As with Ara, years had
passed. During that time, Minoo had studied her
faith‘s religious texts and learned everything
contained therein. And because she was still
sometimes in the streets, Minoo‘s first illegal
interpretation and reading of the Qur‘an was also
her daily solicitation for bread and coins:
―Worship none but Allah!‖ she would belt,
kneeling on the top of a broken crate. ―Treat with
kindness your parents and kindred and orp hans and
those in need; speak fair to the people; be steadfast
in prayer; and practice regular charity! Al-Qur‘an
Then, she would hold out her filth-smeared
hand. When she was lucky, something would be
placed in it. But more often than not, it was slapped
away. Once, a man spat upon her, calling her a
wretched girl-child and damned her for interpreting
the holy book.
Later, along with a small group of refugees,
mainly dislocated Muslim women—some mothers,
some chaste—as well as the two women from the
alley, now intrinsically mothers to her, Minoo left
Kabul and began a journey toward Africa as part of
a Da„Wah community, delivering aid and education
to a string of impoverished settlements down
through the continent along the Nile river.
They trekked deep into the Heart of Africa,
into the very Cradle of Life from which we all
came. The trip was long and arduous. Country
after country and province after province, this was a
place fraught with pain, hunger, strife, torture, death
and disease—an unequivocal womb still contracting
with birth-pain. Here, the animals harmonized with
its wet jungles and vast plains. But people came
here to pillage and be made sinister, corrupted by
the womb‘s myriad contradictions. For as many
isolated, untouched civilian outposts they brought
relief to, there were twice as many drug lords,
militias, traffickers, smugglers, dictators and
despots. There were compounds and impromptu
airstrips in the middle of nowhere. Coups were
happening and changing governmental occupancy
so frequently it was difficult for the people to know
who their oppressors even were.
Nevertheless, Minoo and the others forged
their own path. Often, their presence was welcome
by even the cruelest dictators because talk of revolts
would quiet down and the people would, at least for
a while, be at rest. In addition, their Da„Wah
practices were more accessible and effective
because of the people‘s desire to see Minoo; to see
the Afghan girl, this Afghan girl with jade eyes
who‘d single-handedly freed an entire slave market
in Sudan. The rumors had been growing for some
time as she traversed the N ile and were quickly
But they weren‘t exactly true.
Minoo and the Coven (the affectionate name
she‘d give the women, the English word for a group
of witches) had been traveling in the Sudanese
desert when she suddenly tripped and fell face down
in the sand. ― […oof ! _]‖ Her dark hair and _hijab
arranged like a hood about her face, she looked
back at the chain twisted around her foot and iron
spike lying loosely nearby. Beside her was a young
man in rags who seemed to have appeared out of
nowhere. He saw Minoo watching him with her
magnificent green eyes, then down at the open
shackle on his toes.
― [_Allahu Akbar! _]‖ he cried, raising his arms to
Then he kissed Minoo and ran away.
Amazed, and more than a little confused,
she climbed the dune he‘d disappeared over and laid
on her belly at its top. Below, the man was
unshackling the feet of another man. And then the
next. And another. And another. And another.
The slave market was almost a mile long.
As each slave freed the next, they grew
stronger in number.
In the end, the guards and traders wore the
Minoo and her Coven moved on, listening to
laughter and gunshots as the liberated men fired
their captor‘s weapons at the sky.
Benjamin Greenstone fumbled around in his
jacket‘s inner breast pocket and withdrew a cell
phone. The only icon on the touchscreen looked
like a polished black stone.
He seemed to hesitate.
Ara pressed the icepick‘s point against his
― [_All right, _]‖ he managed. When he touched
the image, it became a white stone and the device
turned itself off. Ara settled into her seat as
Greenstone adjusted his necktie. ―Now was that
really necessary?‖ Apparently, he only spoke
―Was it really necessary for him to die?‖
―Listen, Ara,‖ he rubbed his tear ducts and
chuckled when he sighed. Ara did not join in.
―Imagine this is all just a game: everyone wants the
big stack of Monopoly money and everyone wants
to play. What‘s more is, they lie, manipulate, cheat
and steal for a peek or chance at the other players‘
―What about him?‖ asked Ara, nodding
toward the hangar as the plane raced down the
runway. ―What did he do?‖
―He didn‘t ask anyone if he could play,‖
Greenstone replied. ―Believe me, death would have
―How do you know? What makes you so
―Because I‘m holding the page with the
―It all sounds childish to me.‖
Greenstone face brightened and he laughed
again. ―That‘s exactly what it is, my dear.
Further into the flight, the attendant noticed
her passenger was asleep and took a blanket from
the overhead compartment, draped it over Ara.
After a few cocktails, Benjamin Greenstone nodded
off as well. A couple of hours later, the plane
banked and began its descent.
―What‘s happening?‖ Ara wanted to know,
―We‘re trying to land on a good space,‖ her
legal guardian replied.
―And where is that?‖
―It‘s called, [_Black Market Arms Bazaar. _]‖
Ara had known almost since takeoff that the
plane wasn‘t destined
topographically, she knew they were in Africa, but
wasn‘t sure which country. Below them, a
makeshift airstrip overgrown with brush and weeds
extended from a jungle clearing.
When they landed, the attendant helped the
three of them disembark. Like a viper on the scent
of its prey, Greenstone‘s assistant, Ms. Wakil,
disappeared into the jungle in the direction of the
bazaar located in a clearing on the other side, tablet
and organizer in hand.
direction, but stopped when he noticed Ara wasn‘t
beside him. She stood motionless next to the
propeller and watched him turn around, his silvery
hair whipped out of place by the breeze, his glasses
darkened to a deep violet in the equatorial light.
―I don‘t want to be your daughter,‖ said Ara.
Greenstone retraced his steps toward the
plane. However, he did not kneel down to her level.
Instead, he looked sheepishly at his shoes and said,
―I‘m dying, Ara.‖
She could tell his words had been rehearsed,
so when they were finally spoken, the statement
sounded insincere, stale. But his voice caught at the
end because something unexpected seized the great
man and suddenly he couldn‘t say anything at all.
Indeed something was at work inside
Benjamin Greenstone then, something unstoppable
despite all of his infinite resources. He‘d known for
three weeks and it was no coincidence that his
efforts to find Ara had escalated into a frenzy
during that time. Greenstone‘s mind raced, thinking
to tell the young girl all this and more.
But in the end, nothing else was said
between them. Ara simply walked ahead and
stepped into the jungle on her own. A short while
later, Ben Greenstone followed. She turned back
only once, to make sure he was close enough
Mozambique after a half-dozen
M years of missionary work and
spent the next decade working their way toward the
African Great Lakes and the source of the White
Nile. By then, an important change had taken place.
Most of the local tribes now called her ―Táhirih‖—
after the nineteenth-century poet and theologian.
Táhirih, the Islamic Prophet of our Time. The
It was unprecedented. Certainly it was
disregarded by many and entirely rejected by others.
To think, a living prophet had risen for the Nation
of Islam. That it had taken the form of a woman
was agony to the conservatives. But the world was
enduring too much pain for her gender to be
anything but trivial. Even Christian, Judaic and
Buddhist leaders were taking note.
The people, however, were doing more. She
was known across an entire continent and now the
Middle Eastern and Central Muslim nations were
beginning to herald her arrival, proud that the
country of her nativity was in their part of the
world. In fact, she was perhaps at the height of her
influence while meeting with Egyptian ambassadors
to discuss peaceful solutions to Libyan affairs.
The session was interrupted when a
diplomat‘s multi-lingual aide went to Táhirih‘s side
and spoke briefly in her ear. His words caused her
to excuse herself from the meeting.
The ambassador seated beside the Priestess
overheard only three words from the nervous aide‘s
message: ― [_. . . Kandahar . . . it‟s falling. _]‖
After the arms bazaar, Ara went to Dubai
with Benjamin Greenstone and spent that time
living in the United Arab Emirates. Eventually, his
condition worsened and he was taken out of the
region bed-ridden, his body withering away, eating
itself until it was nothing more than a delicate frame
that had once moved a giant man.
He died on Ara‘s twenty-fourth birthday. It
was the day she took his last name as her own and
breathed new life into his legacy. It had been a
moment just for them—a moment that had been
waiting to arrive since she last played in the poppy
fields, sixteen years before. In the end, Ara placed
a beautifully polished black stone, an onyx, in
Benjamin‘s palm and moved his hand until it rested
against his chest.
Months before his passing, Greenstone had
given Ara a controlling interest in Skyline and it
was officially dismantled. The ―no-bid‖ contracts
expired and almost everything was sold off to
activist shareholders. Greenstone, LLC. continued to
operate, but Ara decided her inconceivable salary
was best justified by her absence.
It was only by doing both of these that Ara
began to grow her own empire, from within. Then,
Benjamin‘s illness became critical. Struggling to
get his affairs in order, she found a safe in his
office, recessed into the wall, hidden by a false
The combination was the same as his
favorite radio station, which only Ara knew. Inside
was a filing system of Greenstone‘s own invention,
brilliant in its design. Compiled within were
hundreds upon thousands of names and contacts,
information on corporations, government officials,
geographical vantage points, national borders,
dictators, black ops CIA maneuvers, redacted
memos, and market trends to only name a few.
Ben Greenstone had been right: he _did _ hold
the book of rules.
And there, lost in the nucleus of an
extremely elaborate global network—itself a vast
archive—was an illegible receipt, worn with age
and signed by her real father.
The historians would later identify this as
the moment everything began to come to an end.
The last remaining offices of Skyline
International were located in downtown Kandahar,
Afghanistan. Technically, the company owned all
three buildings at Skyline Plaza, but only the top
three floors of the center tower were still occupied.
In a few days, the entire property would be vacant,
signifying the end of Skyline‘s presence in the
region and condemning the Afghans to the same
fate as their neighbors: the smaller contractors
would follow Skyline‘s lead and maximize their
profits by other means; the international aid would
dry up or be redistributed elsewhere; half-built
schools that were never used for anything but target
practice would remain unopened; an entire
infrastructure would be abandoned and impossible
to complete or establish independently.
The press release clearly stated that Skyline
was not forgetting its promises and tremendous debt
to the Mid-Eastern countrymen, but was instead
dissolving as a corporate entity with the hope that
doing so served the long-term vision of the proud
The brief statement came directly from Ara
Greenstone herself. It pained her to know how
terribly glossed-over it sounded, but at least it was
the truth. She could tell because it angered the
sharks circling for their Skyline share. The truth
also angered the Afghan people. But instead of
backing out of deals, leases, purchases, negotiations
and contracts, they made their sentiments known in
a different way.
The streets filled as the Skyline Plaza offices
emptied. Fists were raised, windows were smashed,
cars and flags were burned and countless injustices
went unprosecuted. So much destruction was rising
out of the unknown, out of an unclear future, one
that was preceded not by a time that was better, but
one of equal uncertainty, disoriented by its own
That was why the Priestess Táhirih was
She was a symbol of bounty, a salve for
worldwide pain, a bringer of peace and resolution, a
stewardess in the house of Allah.
They brought and carried her in a covered
sedan chair, its four poles borne on the shoulders of
the men beneath it. She rode in silence, rocking on
the surface of the crowd as it moved her closer to
Skyline Plaza, her face always and forever covered
by a niqab.
The Skyline security department, replete
with Western- financed weaponry, fortified all
entrances and exits, secured every floor and
positioned snipers on the neighboring rooftops.
Ara Greenstone was supposed to have left
earlier that day, when it would have been far easier
for a security detail to sneak her into a waiting
armored car. Consumed with apprehension and
growing regret for what she was doing, she waited
instead for the response to the press statement.
And now it was impossible to leave.
As her carriage moved through the crowd,
the Priestess Táhirih had no less than four rifles and
two dozen firearms trained on her at any given time.
If the head of security had been given his way, he‘d
have ordered his men to open fire on any
trespassers, however pure and holy. Any casualties
could be easily passed off as victims of errant
gunfire. Because the guards couldn‘t be held
responsible under either local or Western law, it
wouldn‘t be the first time something reprehensible
The Afghan men were fully armed as well,
also Western-financed, prepared to both kill and die
for their nation, for their Priestess.
The carriage came to rest in the plaza
rotunda and non-uniformed soldiers held back the
curtains surrounding her compartment. By now,
most of the security team focused on those carrying
machine guns, though some watched as the
Priestess Táhirih rose and stepped forth from the
carriage, her wonderful robes flowing with and
behind her. A band of armed, weapons-ready
Afghan nationals escorted her into the plaza‘s open-
air entryway where they were met by a line of
corporate guards in full riot gear, barking orders in
The Priestess Táhirih approached a Skyline
officer and said, plainly, ―I‘ve come here to see Ms.
Following orders, he led her to the elevator.
The Afghans attempted to accompany her, but she
signaled for them to stay behind. Once in the glass
elevator, the guard depressed the button marked,
―Express.‖ They raced to the top, overlooking the
unruly crowd. The violence level had markedly
increased and the boiling point was near.
The door opened and the Priestess Táhirih
walked into the penthouse offices alone as the guard
and the elevator car began to descend.
Ara Greenstone, standing beside a large
floral arrangement at the center of the room,
watched as the Priestess entered. She started
toward her, speaking strict English as she went—
her first measure of controlling the conversation and
a holdover from knowing Benjamin.
―Your holiness,‖ she began, somewhat
unsure of the proper address. ―Thank you for
coming to see me today. I know how dangerous it
must . . . have been . . .‖ Her voice trailed off and
her visitor‘s eyes widened.
At once, they threw their arms around one
another and collapsed to the floor, their embrace
solid and complete, unrelenting. They looked into
each other‘s eyes for the first time since their
childhood, a veritable lifetime before. Minoo took
her niqab away and showed her face to the only
person apart from her parents to have seen it since
then. Initially, Ara only lightly touched it,
marveling at the way she could still see the child in
her face, even after all of those years.
Then she did what she‘d always done when
Minoo‘s face was uncovered: she honked her nose.
They laughed together and that hadn‘t changed
either. But knowing time was short, Ara explained
that the papers she‘d found in her foster father‘s
safe were proof that the rift between their families
was indeed related to disagreements over the two
farms. Surprisingly, it‘d had almost nothing to do
with Skyline. The international community had
formed councils in an attempt to license Afghan
farmers‘ raw opium production and refine it into
heroin and its derivatives legally, for distribution in
the world pharmaceutical market. Naturally, the
smugglers and cartels fought the effort by trying to
undermine it, usually by personally visiting each
farmer in their network. Minoo‘s father wanted
compliance with the government, believing they
would protect them. But Ara‘s father dealt with
being in the crossfire differently, and hired someone
to torch the poppies, thus ending the debate.
Similarly, Ara found herself in much the same
predicament after taking over at Skyline years later.
Most of the board members wanted to maintain a
presence in Afghanistan, at least until all of the
fossil fuels were secured or extracted. Others
wanted to leave the region entirely, moving on to
more lucrative aspirations. All wanted to hear
feedback from the CEO.
That day, Ara Greenstone fired everyone.
She went around from office to office, disbanding
departments and passing out termination slips like a
But the board members received special
treatment. By then,
most of them
conveniently forgetting their misdeeds and mentally
spending their golden parachutes. Ara met with
them individually, one-by-one, on the roof, where
they were informed that indictments were coming
and that there would be no parachutes, but were
welcome to jump anyway.
Strangely, Ara began to ask Minoo if she
remembered playing in the catsear, but was
interrupted for the second time.
A shoulder-fired rocket disintegrated the
floor beneath the penthouse, blowing out the
windows and showering the women with glass
where they lay on the floor, their lives spared by the
debilitating joy of their reunion. But now, the
relative calm that existed when the Priestess arrived
was over almost as soon as it had begun. It was as
though all the worst carnival games were
converging on one target. Next, an explosives-
saddled Jeep slammed into the center column of the
subterranean parking garage. The driver was
shouting prayers to an accompaniment of wailing
car alarms as the blast kicked the column, the sheer
force shaking the structure to its upper levels. Ara
and Minoo felt the top floor shudder again, then
drop into freefall for a full story before the
pancaked floor beneath theirs halted its descent.
Minoo replaced her niqab as Ara collected herself
and retrieved a satchel with a long shoulder strap
from the nearby closet before bolting toward the
winding staircase together. When they approached
the street- level entryway, she asked, ―Can your
security detail get you out of here?‖
―Maybe,‖ Ara replied. ―They‘ll have to
fight their way up through the lower parking
―Go with them. I‘ll distract the people,‖
―There‘re thousands of people out there!
[_Wait ! _]‖
But Minoo had already rushed off. A
captain from the security department noticed Ara,
went to her. ―Please, Ms. Greenstone. Follow me.‖
Nearby, several other agents paying close attention
to the radio chatter joined them. Soon, a small team
was negotiating the parking garage. The place was
twisted, about to collapse, loose electric lines
spitting and whipping around, crushed cars
everywhere. However, the utility entrance was
relatively intact and a black Suburban, retrofitted
for use in hostile zones, was parked by the interior
Shielded by agents, Ara was escorted into
the back of the SUV and it was on the move before
all of the passengers were situated. The vehicle
burst through the ticketing kiosk at the exit, then
cleaved its own path through the crowded street, the
effort aided by a sudden calm that fell over the
masses, saturating it.
The Priestess Táhirih appeared on the
elevated rotunda. She was small, nearly lost in her
own endless robes as they swirled around her. The
very sight of her gripped a nation, brought the city
to its knees.
And what a sight! This
Priestess—the first of her kind—this child of Islam,
this living celebration of Saints among Saints!
Minoo reached up and took the niqab away
from her face.
The first rock thrown fractured her jaw. The
second connected with her temple and brought
blood, staining her clothes. Then she was hit in the
torso while another dislocated her shoulder. After
that, the jagged rocks and broken concrete
pummeling her were too many to count.
As she began to fall and the people closed
in, Ara ripped the radio away from the agent beside
her and shouted into it: ― [_Attention all personnel! _]
[_This is Ara Greenstone! Protect the Priestess! _]
[_Protect and extract the Priestess! _]‖ Then, to the
driver, ―Take me to Building Two.‖ He looked
back, uncertain. ―Take me to the helipad!‖
The destination was easy enough to reach
quickly. Once on the helipad, Ara Greenstone and
several agents boarded one of Ben‘s favorite
Minoo was taking punishment and receiving
injuries from every direction, from men, women
and children alike. However barbaric, though, it
had little to do with oppression and even less with
clothing. What began as fury over Western
abandonment became something more with this
prominent Muslim lowering a metaphorical barrier
on their doorstep. In another moment‘s time, the
public stoning execution would be fully prosecuted.
She used her hands to cover her face.
Two men approached from behind with a
large, public bench and raised it above their heads
to drop it on her. Just before they could, Benjamin
Greenstone‘s Apache Longbow helicopter banked
along the main thoroughfare and descended on the
attackers as the pilot activated the chain gun.
Those in the surrounding area were
immediately rendered unrecognizable. The Skyline
guards used the opportunity to secure and assist the
Priestess. Using the loudspeaker, Ara ordered those
in the throng to stand back. As the chopper
lowered, machine- gun fire harmlessly peppered the
armored cockpit and a second, more aggressive
Two agents collected Minoo and carried her
to where the Apache hovered just a few feet above
the ground. They took her inside and departed just
as the rabid crowd overtook the rotunda.
As they flew away, one of the operators
relocated the Priestess‘ shoulder and applied
rudimentary medical aid to her extensive injuries.
Ara assured her they would be at a hospital soon,
held her close. Minoo could barely see through her
swollen eyes, but when she touched Ara‘s face and
knew it was her, she reversed the tradition and
tweaked her nose instead.
exploded on the main rotor. The blast knocked the
Apache sharply off its horizon and into a flat spin,
hurling toward the urban cityscape. The alarms
squawked and the altimeter danced. The pilot
yelled into the radio, ― [_Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! _]
This is Skyline ‗Oasis‘ Apache Longbow AH-64D,
Mayday! Rudder pedals and collective pitch
unresponsive! Gauges indicate catastrophic engine
failure! [_Mayday! _]‖
The helicopter‘s rotor wailed in pain as it
labored to rescue its cargo. The destruction both
inside and outside the aircraft were just as loud and
terrifying—the grinding turboshaft engines, the
bombardment of bullet strikes o n the fuselage and
hellfire missiles whooshing away as the gunner
attempted to rid the vehicle of its ordinance.
In the end, however, there was no sound
greater or more pervasive than that of the
triumphant people over the infidel wretch and her
accomplice, the heretic.
There is a final scroll. In it, neither of the
farmers‘ daughters survive the burning field.
Instead, the merchant‘s child and the holy man‘s
child meet in the middle of the fire and perish
One day, though, made stronger by their
destruction, they are to rise again as forbidden
flowers, hidden from view by a cleft in the hillside
PART I .
brightened the gaslamps‘ coronas
O and dusted the quiet London streets.
It was equally dark inside the concert hall except for
the warm, amber light surrounding the orchestra as
they performed the final movement of _Winter, _ from
Vivaldi‘s The Four Seasons violin concertos.
Ara Tor Pikai Greenstone and Minoo
Shinogai sat together in mezzanine box seats, their
beautiful, form- fitting gowns the colors of burgundy
and smoke. Minoo still wore a niqab, but it was
made from beaded black lace, translucent. When
Ara took Minoo‘s hand into her own, she looked
over and they smiled before closing their eyes and
continuing to listen.
When it was over, the lights were repeatedly
dimmed and raised to indicate intermission.
Electing not to stay for the Telemann cantata, the
pair rose and went out into the cold night, pulling
their shawls tight around their shoulders. Their
heels slipping along the frozen walkway, they
giggled and relied on each other to maintain balance
on the slick surface.
They hadn‘t gone far before noticing a
handsome man in a perfectly-cut tuxedo alone on
the embankment, gazing at the jagged ice floes
drifting past on the River Thames, single breaths of
steam coming from his mouth and nostrils. They
went to him, needing to do little more than thread
their arms through his and whisper in his ear.
A moment later, they all walked away
together, the exhalations no longer one but three
now, and when the girls brought him home and took
him inside, they turned off all the lights.
― [_Mira! _]‖ a woman‘s voice shouted just as the
whiteboard eraser connected with her forehead.
―Wake up, Mira. There‘s no sleeping, napping,
daydreaming or stargazing in my classroom.‖ The
voice belonged to her teacher, Mrs. Wilson, a high-
strung woman with a hawkish nose. Disoriented,
Mira rubbed at the airborne marker dust stinging her
eyes and unleashed a rapid- fire succession of
sneezes that made the other kids laugh. Her wits
now grounded in reality, Mira sniffled, determined
not to cry—she was twelve years old now, the
closest number to thirteen. Mrs. Wilson tick-
marked something on her clipboard and Mira knew
the number of demerits beside her name warranted
another detention. But the teacher wasn‘t interested
in issuing another detention. Because it wouldn‘t
change anything. Not even the humiliation she
could see in Mira‘s eyes would. Tomorrow would
be just another day, just another opportunity for
Mira Khatol to interrupt her class by snoring, or
knocking all of her books on the floor, or talking in
her sleep in whatever godforsaken heathen language
her people speak.
Mrs. Wilson bent down and whispered in
her ear, ― [_Give me your vouchers. _]‖
Mira could see the seriousness on her face,
hear it in her voice. She took the lunch voucher out
of her backpack and gave it to her teacher. Mrs.
Wilson snatched it from her, adding, ― [_All of them. _]‖
Mira handed her the entire envelope, the
coupons good for all of her school breakfast and
lunch meals for the remainder of the week.
Frightened and dejected, she began to sink into the
yellow down outdoor vest she always wore, the
high collar covering her nose and mouth.
Mrs. Wilson crumpled the envelope in her
long fingers. ―There,‖ she said. ―Let‘s see how
well you sleep when you‘re hungry.‖ And just
before storming away, she grabbed the metal flap
on Mira‘s vest and ran the zipper all the way down.
Worst of all, Mira didn‘t know how she
would explain the lost vouchers to Foster Mother.
The White Dragon resituated himself in the
rocking chair, cleared his throat, scratched behind
his ear, sat back in the rocking chair, leaned
forward, cleared his throat again, scratched behind
his other ear and then his right shoulder blade,
adjusted himself in the rocking chair again while
clearing his throat, all the while blasting through the
rain and sleet in a fully- loaded, double tank tractor
trailer, its shit- house cab littered with drained
energy drink cans and crushed cigarette packs;
aluminum foil scraps and broken light bulbs used
for smoking methamphetamine; countless, countless
empty boxes of Milk Duds; and a dashboard bobble
head Jesus grooving with open arms to the techno
sounds and quaking bass hitting above the diesel
roar of the engine, at the helm of which sat its
driver, a strung-out wheelman in a stationary seat
who used a sophomoric CB handle that didn‘t match
his ethnicity and whose dysrhythmic heart
hammered inside his chest as the giant rig streaked
the dark Pennsylvania afternoon.
The White Dragon hadn‘t slept in almost
Mira Khatol‘s bus ride home that day was
long. An accident on
Boulevard redirected traffic and forced the driver to
reverse his route. Therefore, instead of being the
first stop, hers was the last—a cruel twist on an
already bad day that left her to mull over the lost
meal vouchers. But Mira knew that more than just
the envelope was missing. It was as though she had
somehow turned two pages in a book instead of one.
The bus doors swung open and the students
began to board. When Mira edged past the driver, a
black man, he did not look up at her, only continued
to scroll through the song files stored on his music
device as everyone filtered in. Mira thought he
looked just like the Sudanese militant pictured in
the school library‘s copy of National Geographic.
Something about him was exotic and strange to her,
as if the cigarettes the older kids bribed him with so
they could sit in the very back and smoke somehow
exemplified his secret corruptibility—like a prison
Or a slave trader.
As usual, Mira did not select a seat. O ne
was chosen for her when she was shoved aside as
the seventh and eighth graders pushed toward the
back. No matter. It was the same seat she was
almost always assigned, just behind the rear wheel
wells where the engineers had decided to substitute
a fan heater for legroom. Another minor
inconvenience because her feet were just small
enough to fit between the radiator housing and the
seatback. But also because, a moment later, she
was unable to move or even breathe.
He had gotten on the bus.
He was shuffling toward Mira, glancing
occasionally in her direction, just a seventh grader
but already well-known and liked by his peers, both
older and younger. She could see the happiness and
warm strength awarded by his smile, one that made
all the pretty girls talk.
The boy stepped closer to her, his hands on
the back of his friend‘s shoulders as they negotiated
the crowded aisle.
To Mira, it was almost enough knowing his
lightened mood had not come at her expense.
Because it never did. He was simply not that kind
of person, even despite being surrounded by those
who were. And Mira was bright enough not to
confuse his better nature with her own secret
fantasies, but it had to mean something.
He was beside her now, checking his phone
for messages. Mira‘s stomach dropped like a stone,
cavitation bubbles rushing upward and out with
effervescent energy, all of the natural elements
coming together within her.
Suddenly, he looked away from the call
screen and caught Mira gazing at him. ―Hey,‖ he
said to her. She instantly spun around in her seat,
buried her face in her vest collar and squeezed her
―Hey,‖ he repeated, smiling. Mira knew his
name was David but little else. She half-opened
one eye, terrified that he had said something to her.
―You know, you shouldn‘t hide your face like that.
. . . Here,‖ David said, reaching down, ―may I?‖
When Mira didn‘t answer, he touched the little flap
on her vest as Mrs. Wilson had, but gently, nicely,
and only unzipped the jacket to just below her chin.
Both of her eyes were open now, and when they
met with his she was helpless to keep a giant, goofy
smile from forming on her face. She reflexively
clapped her hands over her mouth. David grinned.
―See ya tomorrow, Mia.‖
Then he joined his friends near the back of
the bus as it departed, leaving an ecstatic Mira to
loop his few words over in her head, and believing
that her name was whatever he wanted it to be.
[_. . . “Allahu Akbar!” he cried, raising his arms to _]
_the sky. Then he kissed Minoo and ran away . . . _
The White Dragon dropped down a couple
gears, mashed the accelerator and the rig surged
forward. The wiper blades worked furiously to
repel the slanting rain. Fans of water and slush
sprayed out from either side of the chrome grille as
if before an ocean liner, the tarmac water- logged
and meaningless in its wake. Ahead, though, there
was hope; there was light, amber and brilliant,
punching through the wrought- iron world in two
places along the Interstate. The first sign
unmistakably flashed CAUTION and warned of the
poor road conditions. But the second sign angered
the White Dragon:
The beast began to stir. He knew he could
pick up the Interstate on the opposite side of the
river from town. But by the time he reached the
next filling station he would be so far behind
schedule he‘d be unable to complete his contract.
―Motherfuckin [_shit! _]‖ he snarled, his teeth
crooked from Bruxism.
He felt terrible, ill. Bathed in foul sweat
despite the AC blasting from the vents, his hands
shook uncontrollably as he downshifted again,
cornering the double tanker around the exit ramp
and merging onto Route 314 without regard to
speed, traffic or even blind spots. All that mattered
now was the destination and the delivery. But it
wasn‘t the high-octane, -43° Celsius flash point,
class 3 hazard gasoline in the tanks he was
concerned about delivering—it was the four
hundred pounds of meth in vacuum-sealed freezer
bags hidden in the fifth wheel.
Not all of it, of course. Certainly no one
would miss a single sliver of crystal worked out
through the seam of one plump bag . . . just a taste,
enough to take the edge off and keep him awake
until the filling station. His body ached for want of
it, and the endless screaming of past withdrawals
echoed in his mind.
Suddenly noticing his teeth were clenched,
the White Dragon grasped the hinge of his jaw and
worked the muscle until he was able to open his
mouth again. To distract himself, he incorrectly
used mental arithmetic to incorrectly determine how
much money he was about to make—at least, as
long as they didn‘t happen to notice that a few ―just-
a-taste‖s were missing—smiled horribly, and
dumped a half dozen of Milk Duds into his mouth:
51.3 grams of sugar per 33-piece serving, cocoa
butter and saaafflower oil-distillated, diss…dis-
petroleum dextrose and hexanes—zzzz . . .
Then all of the dials and gauges began
laughing at him, their pointed needles like
accusatory fingers. A confused look pinched his
face and the trucker reached into his mouth.
The Tooth Fairy was riding shotgun. It
wasn‘t strange in the least that she hadn‘t been there
a moment before. A star-topped scepter lay across
her lap. She smiled and fluttered her white,
With his fingertips, the White Dragon
extracted his own upper incisor and examined the
slippery caramel Milk Dud still fused to the tooth.
― [_You know, _]‖ said the Tooth Fairy, ― [_it‟s not _]
[_supposed to do that . . . _]‖
Then the collision began.
Mira was too excited to sleep on the bus.
Also, she was pressed into a tiny space by the last
students filling in the empty seats. Standing was
not allowed, even if it meant the students had to sit
on top of one another or get off at the next stop and
wait for the city bus to come by.
None of this was inconvenient to Mira,
though. Nor did she mind the 45- minute bus ride in
lieu of her ten- minute walk, not with the weather
being what it was. No, she was warm and
comfortable in the plush yellow vest, its zipper
having been immediately run back to the top once
David was past.
For most of the route, the school bus
splashed through the icy, gray afternoon with
relative ease, its handling and footing made solid by
its weight and the chains on its wheels of styrene-
butadiene synthetic rubber derived from Mid-
Eastern oil. As it neared the end of Rustica
Boulevard, where it crosses Route 314 at the
Parkhill Aqueduct, the driver kept it in the lowest
gear while negotiating a steep forward grade.
Mira‘s breath emanated through collar‘s
zipper, crystallized on the Saf-T-Glas. Seeing it,
she began thinking about Intermission and the
London Symphony again, an appropriate segue
from the thoughts of David, thoughts that had come
to life in her secret heart. Just before her breath
fogged the window again, she caught her own, half-
hidden reflection looking back, smiling back with
her eyes the way they always did when she was
happy, as though inextricably attached to her hidden
lips and cheeks. Another tuft of breath. She liked
her eyes. She wondered if David liked her eyes.
Breathe. Then, something incredibly strange
happened, and Mira Khatol could have sworn—
Suddenly, two of the links on the front tire
chains snapped and pulled apart, the nearly smooth
tires useless in the rainwater and free- flowing
The weight of the engine began dragging the
bus down the mountain.
Unable to grasp the severity of the situation,
the Sudanese driver stood on the brakes, which
locked in the swift runoff and accelerated the slide.
By now, the students were aware that something
was wrong, but looked on in stunned silence.
When the bus stormed across the last
Rustica Boulevard intersection, the White Dragon‘s
madhouse double tanker charged headlong into it
and initiated a roll that brought the two giant
machines together, like a harvester and its combine
thresher. But whereas the rig slowed upon impact,
the tankers accelerated and came around to create a
double jackknife. Rocks, Colonial bricks and
practically ancient mortar exploded out from the top
of the aqueduct as the collision stripped off its top
and moved out to the steel-reinforced center of the
bridge where the Broadhead River raged below.
Stricken with shock himself, the White
Dragon did nothing but watch as the slow- motion
nightmare unfolded before him. The Tooth Fairy
was gone and his Milk Dud supply was exhausted
but for the one in his right palm, still glued to his
rotten, abraded tooth.
As the bus tumbled side over side, some
students were kept in their seats by centrifugal
force, but others were thrown about like drum
bearings. Both drivers were awake when the
vehicles came to a halt—the bus on its left side with
the tractor trailer‘s grille twisted into its
The Sudanese bus driver was conscious but
pinned behind the wheel.
The White Dragon, an Asian man, reached
for the pistol holstered beside the airhorn and
tucked it into his belt as he disembarked from the
cab. Outside in the sleet, his black hair hung in
short, wet spikes. Nothing mattered anymore—not
the schedule or the meth load, not the contract or
the money; and everything else, even the numbers,
formulae, and compounds constantly swarming in
his head had stopped.
Through the acrid smoke, he could make out
the silhouettes of the broken machines surrounding
him. Ice-drops pelted the gritty, fallen steel. Bus
occupants moaned and cried, turned around and lost
in the darkness of the wreck. It was a nightmare in
reverse: instead of waking to the safety of home, he
stood on the shorefront of a horrific disaster.
A young girl in a down yellow vest emerged
from a bus window, pushing herself up and out as if
from a manhole opening. The giant Asian trucker
called out her, but she didn‘t answer. He ran closer,
shielding his eyes from the sleet and yelled again,
but still she did not reply. And she didn‘t reply
When the trucker recognized her, the
muscles in his jaw slackened.
This was no accident.
The tanks were dripping fuel and hissing.
Somewhere in the mangled engines, the fire began.
—Mira was asleep.
[_. . . Ice-drops pelted the gritty, fallen steel . . . _]
ounds of ammunition, intermittent
and weakened by distance, tapped
R the metal frame of the downed
Apache helicopter, Oasis. In moments, their sound
increased in frequency, urgency. Ara Greenstone
_. . . turned around and lost in the darkness of the _
_wreck . . . _
laying on her side, her hands covering her
nose and mouth against the smoke and fumes. The
gunner and pilot were dead. One of the agents was
missing, likely thrown well clear of the vehicle
during the crash. The slight form of the
unconscious Priestess, unharmed beyond the
injuries she‘d received during the riot, pressed
against her. Lying crooked against the rear-facing
jump seat was the other agent, also unconscious and
reflexively choking on the pollution. Ara took the
scarf from his neck, wrapped it around her own
head and face. She noticed the auxiliary sidearm
strapped to his thigh as she thumbed her earpiece
back in place and heard a monotone voice say:
Outside, Afghan nationals converged on the
crash site, firing at the helicopter with wild
abandon. Ara spoke quickly. ―Release four
operators and Guardian Three to my location
immediately. Directives: defend the crash site and
provide cover for two civilians and one Skyline
agent, all three injured. Repeat: all three with
serious injuries. Over.‖
―Confirmed. Aircraft immobilized. Four
operators and Guardian Three en route to Skyline
designate: ‗Hammer Down.‘
Emergency medical services required.‖
Ara switched off the com- link. The
Priestess Táhirih still appeared unconscious, almost
Suddenly, the bullets riddling the hull, cabin
and tail all but stopped.
It was a bad sign. It meant the attackers
were in position and watching, waiting for
something to move. Then, an awkward, delicate
hand emerged from the bay door blindly waving a
pistol. Unexpectedly, the gun slipped free from her
grip and discharged, sending its shot high and wide.
A murmur not unlike laughter rippled across the
crowd. What followed, as Ara retreated back into
the Oasis, was a barrage of gunfire, much of it
armor-piercing rounds. Rods of dusty light
crisscrossed the cabin interior as the militants
exhausted their magazines. When enough of them
needed to reload, Greenstone emerged a second
time, her eyes dark with anger, and emptied the
agent‘s SAR 21 into the crowd. Her face against the
Kevlar cheek plate, she selected her targets using
the optical scope and fired with extreme prejudice
until the chamber locked open, awaiting the next
magazine. Ara dropped back down into the Apache
and the assault continued, doubled in strength by
The last Skyline agent was dead.
Ara threw her body over the Priestess,
shielding Minoo as she dreamed that they were girls
once more, playing in the catsear.
The attackers closed in on the crash in a
tight semi-circle—so much so that they were barely
avoiding the ricochets. But their proximity would
be enough to kill the two remaining survivors.
Fractions of seconds stretched into forever
as she waited for Death to come for them once and
But it was at that exact moment someone
else arrived instead.
Neither the operators, Guardian Three, nor
the dispatcher worked for Skyline International.
They were part of a different system. With careful,
exacting patience, Benjamin had managed to
conceal himself within a network of protection so
elaborate that not even the CIA knew his net worth,
had access to his holdings, or could pinpoint his
physical location with even a modicum of accuracy.
He was an absolute enigma to them because his
companies and global influence seemed to provide a
degree of stability without engaging in illegal
activity. So the same thing that made him a high-
value target also made it necessary for him to
remain in play. Oddly, Ben Greenstone had that
exact sentiment about the CIA, except that their
operations _did _ constitute illegal activity.
In any case, safety precautions had become
necessary. Shortly after Ara graduated high school,
an assassination attempt had been made on
Benjamin and Ara was nearly collateral damage. It
was a move that confounded the authorities because
the mercenary had no apparent connection to
He was a Sudanese slave trader.
―Are you feeling better today, sweetheart?‖
Benjamin had asked from the foot of her hospital
bed. He didn‘t want Ara to know he‘d been crying
just outside the door as he recalled the way she‘d
been carried away—an oxygen mask covering her
nose and mouth.
―Yeah,‖ she‘d managed with a wry smile.
The surgeons had just finished removing bullet
fragments from her collarbone, shoulder blade and
―I brought something to show you.‖ He
went to her side with a black binder, began to
explain how to access and use the Guardians.
Inside, the book was filled with tactical information,
stats, specs, photographs and codes.
He turned one sleeved page and said, ―This
is Guardian Two: an Apache Longbow Attack
Helicopter. It‘s currently stationed at Skyline
Kandahar, but can be moved throughout the region
as needed. After it was decommissioned, I had it
customized to transport more personnel and
outfitted for urban warfare.‖
In spite of her bandages, or perhaps because
of them, Ara said, ―Why would I ever need
something like this?‖
―Hopefully you won‘t. I‘ve avoided it as
long as I could because I don‘t want you to think
the planet is crawling with people who are, as some
would have you believe, _evil. _ Because they‘re not.
They‘re good and they‘re worth saving. But the
world they live in is complicated, oftentimes elicits
bad decisions, and is very, _very _ dangerous. There‘s
a tremendous amount of responsibility coming to
you, Ara, and it will be far greater than is
reasonable for any one person to bear. That‘s where
this book comes in. Because when these magnified
dangers come your way, and they will more than
once, you‘ll have this to even the odds.‖
He turned the page.
―Are you kidding me?‖ said Ara, shocked by
the next picture. ―This is [_ours? _]‖
―It‘s ours to use. And it can be anywhere
you need it. But Guardian Three and the others
come with an even larger responsibility than any
board of directors you‘ll advise or document you‘ll
sign. Because when you call in a Guardian, many
people will die, including the Guardian himself if
the mission is unsuccessful. Remember, if you ever
have to call down the thunder, make sure you‘re
prepared to live with the consequences.‖
Ara Tor Pikai turned to the next page. It
was black, heavy stock construction paper with
silver lettering stenciled across the center.
Guardian Four, it read.
Ben snapped the book closed. ―That one is
only for when everything‘s totally fucked,‖ he
admonished and apologized for swearing.
―I didn‘t see a Guardian One in there. I
guess that‘s supposed to be you, right?‖
―No, Ara. You are Guardian One.‖
Almost on cue, as if it had angered the
heavens, Guardian Three arrived on a sonic scream
just as Ara Greenstone was shot. The bullet grazed
her right arm and an uplink with the pilot of the
McDonnell Douglas F/A – 18 Hornet was
established once it was within range. Ara could
barely hear him on the com-device in her ear.
―Emerald Two! Emerald Two! Guardian
Three—Delta Tango Echo Echo Foxtrot—is Mach
One and weapons hot on location designate:
Hammer Down. . . . Targets acquired . . .
requesting permission to fire.‖
―Negative!‖ Ara shouted back. ―Deploy
countermeasures on next pass, Three.‖
The F-18 fighter jet banked, barrel-rolled
above the rooftops and returned to the mass,
rupturing eardrums while dispensing sparkling
aluminum chaff and exploding magnesium flares.
The flashes interrupted the attack long enough for
the operators and redirected security personnel to
form a perimeter on Hammer Down.
With everyone in position, Ara dropped
back down into the main compartment where she
made an alarming discovery.
_. . . the fire began . . . _
An electrical fire was reacting with airborne
chemicals to create strange colored flames and
noxious smoke. Far worse, it made any metal
surface a potential danger for electrocution. Ara
wanted to touch nothing. Leaning over her friend,
she said, ―Wake up, Minoo, wake up right now, we
have to go. Wake up . . . [_please! _]‖
recognition of Mira from other times, places and
dimensions; was beyond even his genius, hyper-
functioning but convoluted mind. She was like an
intangible memory made suddenly incarnate, made
fantastically real before him. And the extreme awe
he felt by the scope and significance of their
connection to one another occurred during the
fraction of a second between seeing the first light of
the engine fire and hearing the first few pops of
He reversed his momentum, scrambled back
in the direction of the double tanker. When he
turned away from her, the maelstrom of equations,
patterns and theorems surged in his sobered mind
once more, some managing to command his
attention for a fraction of a second before
disappearing back into the toxic mental swill. Not
the least of which was the possibility of using the
pistol to shoot them both. But what made sense in
his mind one moment became nonsense in the next.
And vice versa. All of his thoughts were cycling
around and around, dancing like the gauges in his
truck, judging him the way the Tooth Fairy often
judged, taking as she often took.
Which was precisely how the White Dragon
knew what had to be done.
Minoo was dragged from her peaceful
_. . . a nightmare in reverse . . . _
of girlhood, watching the dandelion- like
catsear seeds drift away in the wind. She came
around but remained disoriented and entrusted Ara
with leading them to safety.
Guardian Three made another ground-
scorching pass sideways between the dilapidated
structures, afterburners on. At the same time on the
ground, the operators took out those combatants still
unloading on Hammer Down while everyone else
scattered for cover.
Once it was clear, Ara pushed herself up and
_. . . as if from a manhole opening . . . _
from the helicopter, then extended her hands
down to assist the Priestess.
outstretched hand, and together they freed her from
the Oasis, shouting as her injuries flared in savage
pain. Then, as the security personnel laid down
covering fire, the four operators escorted them to
the relative safety of an empty warehouse nearby—
the Priestess with her arm around her lifelong
friend, the Merchant‘s daughter.
_. . . they giggled and relied on each other to _
_maintain balance on the slick surface . . . _
Ara touched her fingertip to the earpiece.
―Guardian Three coming back . . . four miles
out, Emerald Two. Over.‖
―Expedite directive, ‗Class Dismissed.‘‖
―Affirmative . . . Fox 2 selected . . .
Centering the T . . .‖ When the missiles growled he
said, ―AIM-9 Sidewinders locked on . . . closing . . .
[_Fox 2, Fox 2! _]‖ The missiles rushed away and
slammed into the two buildings opposite Hammer
Down, where enemy snipers and gunmen had taken
positions. ―Targets destroyed. ‗Class Dismissed‘
successful,‖ announced the officer.
―Copy that, Guardian Three,‖ Ara replied as
they ambled into the next building. ―Thank you.‖
―Roger. Three returning to base.‖
―But what about the nightmare man?‖ said
the Asian trucker hauling his giant frame back into
the driver‘s seat. _What about the nightmare man, _
_whataboutthenightmareman . . . _ He continued the
mantra in a whisper so that the greatest number of
calculations could be made in his mind. Using
every ounce and estimate at his disposal, he
considered acceleration, braking, torque, relative
distance, fractional time, tire pressure, trajectory
estimates, precipitation, ground conditions, air,
water and fuel ratios, compressive strength,
destruction radii and collateral damage.
The second hand on the dashboard clock
ticked once. The formula, robust with countless,
myriad equations, was complete enough to be
implemented and somehow he also knew that
around the world exactly sixty-seven lightning bolts
touched the planet Earth at the same time he
dropped the tanker into reverse and
_. . . Hammer Down . . . _
hit the accelerator. The tractor trailer and
bus wailed in agony, as if impaled upon one
another, two beasts having fought to a draw.
Surprisingly, the rig separated from the bus as the
tires barked on a patch of dry road and the truck
shot backward. _Whataboutthenightmareman . . . _
Despite the protest of the second jackknifed tanker,
with its wheels facing the opposite direction, the
powerful diesel engine pushed its defiant cargo
back toward the part of the bridge with the most
damage, where it collided with the guardrail. He
pushed the clutch in, let the tractor roll forward a
_ghtmareman . . . _ Looking up, he noticed that with a
series of adjustments to the equation, there could be
enough room to maneuver past the bus and perhaps
he too could survive—
―No, Jin Gao,‖ said the Tooth Fairy from the
passenger side seat. ― [_The atomic man. _]‖
The White Dragon briefly looked down and
away before continuing to process the equations.
Then he smashed the pedal into the
floorboard and let the clutch all the way out. When
the vehicle crashed again, it popped the rivets and
bent the rail out over the broken and missing parts
of the bridge. The truck easily ripped through the
unprotected seam on impact and began the short
descent toward the thrashing waters below, the
tanks and chassis licked by fire now as the final
equations agreed, resolved and were finally
The truck driver felt the cold rain on his
face, noticed the way the wind rushed through the
windows differently in the wrong direction. The
mantra was gone now and all that remained was the
Tooth Fairy, with her opalescent wings and star-
topped scepter, waiting to take him away once
And then, it hit. The force of the initial
explosion was great enough to destroy a key
structural portion of the aqueduct that would close it
for the better part of the following two years. When
the tanks detonated, the blast was great enough to
render the fuel truck unrecognizable. And although
all of the children were spared from the fires and
shrapnel—his mental models having proved
correct—it was certainly great enough to kill its
_. . . The second and third shots spun the nightmare _
_man around, and the fourth detonated the fuel tanks _
_on his back, killing him instantly . . . _
Jin Gao, the uncharacteristically large Asian
man, the White Dragon, had one final thought when
it happened: _Sad there was no time to have told the _
_little girl who her parents were. _
he custodian‘s wide broom moved
silently, effortlessly on the slate-
T lined, hardwood mahogany floor. A
stereotypical, oversized ring of keys jangled on his
hip, keeping time with his deliberate pace. Of
course, the hospital had long since been outfitted
with automated entryways and an instant keycard
recognition system. But this was a place of many
doors, some difficult to see much less gain access
One such door opened to the hospital
director‘s executive suite on the top floor of the
Embarcadero Towers Medical Plaza, a sprawling
campus in downtown San Diego that was itself
almost large enough to be considered its own harbor
district. But its towers were its most notable
attribute. Beyond the hotels, bank buildings and
convention centers, they stood tall and true at the
water‘s edge, a perfect mirror-design of one another
not unlike the tip of a fountain pen, yet a beacon of
care by both reputation and stature on the
_. . . Skyline . . . _
California horizon. The top floors of each
tower were connected by a hallway atrium,
thoroughly swept every morning by its dutiful
janitor, a man of retirement age who‘d learned in
recent years that his hands were better suited
pushing a broom rather than the perfectly
constructed cocktails in immaculately polished
stemware of his former profession as a bartender.
Indeed, his was a dying art, all but lost to a
generation of undiscriminating heathens willing to
pay top dollar for sour mix flavored water in
chewed up plastic tumblers. But his decision to
move on had more to do with a need for atonement
than a lack of respect. All throughout his years of
service as a barman, he‘d thought his greatest
influence on his guests came from his ability to do
nothing more than truly listen to them. But in
hindsight, he wished he‘d interceded more often.
He wished he‘d delivered more hard truths and told
them what they needed when everyone else only
told them what they wanted. Hell, he hadn‘t even
cut them off when he knew they‘d had too much to
drink. But there was no single, cataclysmic event
that finally turned him off to his chosen line of
work—the decades were littered with disasters and
exaggerations, adventures and misadventures, pure
loves and illicit affairs, new beginnings and sudden
endings, twists and turns and story upon story upon
story, populated with characters like in a book, only
with real people instead.
As time passed, though, he began to watch
them die. And that he was slowly, albeit lawfully,
poisoning them was not lost on the bartender. In
fact, it resonated with a maddening culpability until
he closed the doors forever on a long line of bars
including the Outer Rim, the Cassowary Pub and
even that dangerous roadhouse in the Texas
panhandle; and with them his many identities:
Leonardo Montalvo, Jake Keiper, Mathis Grier—
keeping them only for the remaining few who
remembered him by those names.
Today, the name patch stitched above the
breast pocket of his navy coveralls read, ―Frank.‖
But he was no more Frank the custodian
than Dr. Joseph Horsefield was the real hospital
director at Embarcadero Medical. Atonement
didn‘t just mean closing the doors on his past, it
meant opening new ones. Doors that lead to
salvation, not self-destruction. Doors with help on
the other side. And he did so the only way he knew
With a giant ring of keys.
At the moment, he had proxy directors
operating clinics and hospitals in Uzbekistan,
Cyprus, Sudan, Bolivia, China, New Zealand and,
of course, California. The man responsible for
helping him open them was waiting in Dr.
Horsefield‘s office at the end of the hall. The good
doctor wouldn‘t be joining them—partly because
there was no need for his services that day and
partly because he was in Los Angeles where he
lived, teaching a community college acting class.
The janitor leaned his broom handle against
the threshold and opened the door to Horsefield‘s
office. Closing the door behind him, he crossed the
room to the leather couch where he unzipped his
uniform, sat and began removing his boots. His
guest, seated in a wingchair opposite a gargantuan
oak desk, spoke first.
―Do you think it‘ll ever stop repeating,
Mathis? History?‖ Ben Greenstone asked.
Mathis Grier, former proprietor of the
Cassowary Pub, approached the desk having
relinquished his apron for the designer suit he‘d
been wearing beneath his coveralls. He sat in the
desk chair, reclined slightly, steepled his fingers
beneath his chin. ―Are you familiar with the
Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence, Ben?‖
―I don‘t believe so,‖ he replied, glancing
over at the temporarily discarded work clothes.
―. . . [_Frank. _]‖
The custodian smiled at his benefactor. ―It‘s
an ancient philosophy which posits that the universe
has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a
self-similar form an infinite number of times across
infinite time and infinite space, thereby becoming
inherently cyclical rather than linear.‖
Greenstone looked absurdly thoughtful
before saying, ―And that means exactly what now?‖
Then he rose and crossed to the window
overlooking the calm harbor and vast Pacific
beyond. A black, leather-bound binder was tucked
under his arm like schoolbooks.
―It means you‘re wondering if you‘re
making the same mistakes with Ara that you made
with your biological daughter because they‘re still
operating on her downstairs.‖
Hearing his internal living hell suddenly
forged into reality by the words of his friend, Ben
appeared to look at the city below, but was in fact
already crumbling from the top down, from the
inside out. The binder slipped away, landed upside-
down and open on the floor. For an instant, he
caught himself on the corner of the desk, but his
arms failed just as his legs had, and the great man
The custodian rushed over, helped him sit
up. Kneeling there, he placed a hand on his
shoulder. ―Ara‘s going to be fine, Ben.‖ Leaning
in close, as though divulging a secret, he said, ―It‘s
going around again, that‘s all. It‘s gone around
many countless times before you, it‘s going around
now, and it will go around many more countless
times after you‘re gone. Because no matter how far
anything goes in any one direction, it ends up back
where it started, the stage reset to tell the same or
similar story with the same or similar characters,
everything inextricably connected to everything
else. The cosmos is in a constant state of flux and
self-education, Ben—much like this hospital.‖
―Perhaps,‖ began Greenstone, ―but I‘m
going to break the cycle. Whatever it takes. I‘m
going to tear the world apart until I find the man
who did this to her and put an end to this, this
―With that?‖ Grier gestured toward the
Greenstone hesitated. ―I won‘t always be
around to protect her, Mathis. It‘s different.‖
―No. It isn‘t.‖ The former bartender
thought to remind him that all of this wasn‘t an
interruption in the cycle but rather in lockstep with
it, just as it had been with his biological child.
Instead, he said, ―You‘re talking about simple
vengeance, not the mechanics of the unive rse—and
nothing stops that machine, nothing. Heal your
It wasn‘t what Greenstone wanted to hear.
Rising, he quickly gathered his papers, clutched
them close against his chest as he hurried toward
the door. ―Still, if there‘s a way, I will find it.
Because there‘s also the possibility you‘re wrong,
Mr. Grier. Mark Twain once said, ‗History does not
repeat itself, but it does rhyme.‘‖
Noticing his giant ring of keys perfectly
splayed out on Horsefield‘s desk while thinking of
his old bars and his new hospitals, the custodian
added, ―It certainly does.‖
Police, ambulance and fire converged on the
concentration of warbling sirens with white, yellow,
red and blue flashing lights in brilliant contrast
against the coming darkness.
The response time was minimal, but to the
students and those working to rescue them, it was
an eternity. Despite all of their well- intentioned
efforts, however, the danger had passed with Jin
Gao. It was only through his unique ability to
process a massive amount of equations and stack all
the probabilities in his favor that the children were
spared injuries beyond minor cuts and scrapes.
Especially Mira Khatol.
Even though she‘d been closest to the blast,
she remained completely unscathed. It was almost
as if not even the rain fell on her. She slowly paced
away from the wreckage, eyelids half open, an
almost inebriated look on her face as her small
hands blindly reached out before her. A wall of
emergency vehicles and their bright spotlights
closed off the bridge just ahead, where Jin Gao had
driven the double tanker over the side. But for now,
Samaritans, the rescue workers, even the cowardly
rubberneckers that had stopped to witness the panic
and carnage. And nor could Mira see them. With
the overturned bus having become the nucleus of
activity, she wandered off unabated, deeper into a
world beyond her physical self, where nothing was
cold and wet but instead hot and dry. A giant place
of dark, empty rooms, but surrounded by a
cacophony outside: frightened people shouting in a
familiar tongue, rapid pops like fireworks and an
overhead roar like thunder or a jet engine.
Forced into the warehouse stairwell by
mortared-out walls and resurgent gunfire, Ara
pulled the semi-conscious Priestess‘s robed arm
tighter around her shoulders as the operators
secured the flights above and beneath them. They
moved quickly in the muffled dark with ruptured
eardrums, barely registering the bullet reports or the
radio chatter between them, the dispatchers and the
Skyline security personnel still drawing fire from
Their situation had improved, though not by
much and only temporarily. The operators worked
with tactile precision and efficiency to provide
cover for their charges, but with all hell breaking
loose outside, the cushion of protection they
afforded was little comfort against the armed and
Emerging from the stairwell at the next
available level for fear of stranding themselves on
the roof, the group secured the corridor of rooms
ahead. At the end of the hall, they burst into a room
and encountered an insurgent firing a mounted gun
turret from the storeroom window. Blindly
shooting down into the empty wreckage, he was
laughing hysterically as he blasted round after
round of ammunition, depleting the entire metal box
before the firing pin rattled impatiently in the
chamber. O nly when he went to reload did he
realize there were six other people in the room, two
of which, he‘d been told, were his targets. The men
began barking orders in multiple dialects that all
present were too deafened to quite perceive.
But there was one who understood perfectly,
even in the silence. It was simply a matter of
_. . . instantaneous recognition . . . from other times, _
[_places and possibilities; other lineages, dreams and _]
_dimensions . . . like an intangible memory made _
_suddenly incarnate, made fantastically real . . . _
having never forgotten the strange light his
eyes, rapacious and perverse. Or perhaps it had
been that bolt of fear when he‘d reached down to
touch her. Minoo had been very young then, but the
streets had made her a quick study and she was
acutely aware of his intentions after saving her from
the mosque explosion. The Muslim women in red
burqas who would become the du‟at initiates of her
―Coven‖ had also known and promptly beat those
silly notions out of him with plywood and rebar.
They likely would have killed him had Minoo not
come to his defense—which had been, more than
anything, reflexive. The Armenian would-be sex
trafficker had considered her value on market, and
was granted a reprieve. Now, he was after her head,
albeit completely unaware that the child and the
Priestess Táhirih were one and the same.
She took her arm down from around her
friend‘s shoulders, from the place on Ara‘s back
where she‘d had metal slivers removed from her
spine seven years earlier, found her own
equilibrium and stepped directly into the line of fire.
The Armenian sex trafficker stood with his
hands up, quaking with shock and terror, pleading
unintelligibly, his eardrums shattered. She went to
him, took his trembling face in her hands. When
she was certain he could see her mouth when she
spoke, she said:
― [_Vazel! _]‖
( [_run! _])
Needing no further invitation, he rushed
passed Ara and the operators, out of the room and
out of the building. Then, directionless, he darted
through random alleys, ramshackle tenements and
dilapidated passages, running and running with no
intention of stopping, just as he had in Kabul almost
twenty years before.
A woman assisting the students to safety
noticed Mira from the corner of her eye. The girl,
alone, was standing dangerously close to the place
where Jin Gao had driven the flaming truck off the
aqueduct and into the Broadhead River. Sleet
stinging her face, the woman ran to her,
_. . . with no intention of stopping . . . _
weaving through cars and emergency
services vehicles. She splashed down on her knees
in the water in front of Mira, positioning her body
between the girl and the twisted guardrail. Placing
her palms on her shoulders, she spoke gently:
―Little girl? Are you all right?‖ but she was distant,
unresponsive. The woman took her
_. . . trembling face in her hands . . . _
time attempting to get a reaction from her.
―Can you hear me?‖ she asked. ―Were you on the
bus with the others?‖
Mira only maintained her silence and half-
lidded, dreamy stare. Certain the girl had gone into
shock, the woman scooped her up in a fireman‘s
carry and brought her to the EMTs, who placed her
under blankets on a gurney in the back of an
ambulance where they checked her vitals as it sped
away, the engine racing, the sirens blatting and
An oxygen mask covered her nose and
Suddenly aware that something was terribly
wrong, Ben Greenstone bolted down the hallway
atrium of the Embarcadero Towers Medical Plaza.
Ara, his daughter, was having shrapnel from a
gunshot wound removed from her spine in the
operating room on the fourteenth floor. As he
descended the stairs and navigated the halls, he
struggled to picture Ara in his mind‘s eye, as he had
last seen her, as he had last been allowed to see her:
asleep and resting in her semi- inclined hospital bed.
When he tried to envision her face, however, he saw
someone else instead—a different girl, also Mid-
Eastern, but younger than Ara, perhaps by seven or
eight years. At first, he thought he thought it was a
trick of his imagination, borne of the stress, guilt
and personal pain from his daughter‘s injuries and
hospitalization. Or perhaps he was picturing her as
a child, younger than she‘d been when he adopted
her, a reminder that he was bound to protect her
Yet, the truth was neither stress-related nor
endearing. Because the harder he tried, the easier it
became to forget Ara and become more concerned
about this other girl forming in his mind.
In a panic thinking his daughter was
becoming a memory in the operating room and that
he was surely going mad, Benjamin Greenstone
stormed down the corridor on the fourteenth floor
with every intention of seeing Ara, even if it meant
interrupting the surgery.
The next room inside the Kandahar
warehouse was dark and expansive. The four
operators spread out in the direction of each corner,
SAR 21s at the ready.
Ara Greenstone and Minoo Shinogai stayed
close, relying on one another for balance and
support. Suddenly, Minoo and Ara bumped into
something at the same time, something small that
moved slightly when they walked into it. Minoo
knelt down for a better look and came face to face
with a young girl in a puffy yellow vest. She
appeared to be lost and drugged or in some kind of
stupor. And not only had the operators somehow
missed her, but she was also somehow soaking wet,
a puddle of water forming around her sneakers.
Minoo looked up at Ara and they spoke in
Dari. ―It‘s a child.‖
― [_What? _]‖ Ara responded, unable to believe
her still ringing ears.
―Something is . . . not right with her,‖ said
Minoo. ―Little girl?‖
[_. . . Little girl . . . are you all right? . . . _]
―Are you all right?‖
She gave no acknowledgement or ind ication
[_. . . Can you hear me? . . . _]
Ara was having trouble hearing Minoo and
the others. Thinking about their ringing eardrums,
she looked down at the dazed girl and asked, ―Can
you hear me?‖
The drenched child in the middle of the
empty Kandahar warehouse had answers to none of
[_. . . Were you on the bus with the others? . . . _]
And she certainly couldn‘t answer the two
questions that haunted Ara and Minoo when she
took a step back into the shadows and simply
disappeared: who was the girl in the yellow down
vest and where had she come from?—because she
_was never in Kandahar. _ In fact, Mrs. Wilson had
just made an example of her the other day for not
being able to point out Afghanistan on the globe.
Mrs. Wilson, who had just taken away all her lunch
vouchers for the week—something she still had to
explain to Foster Mother. Mrs. Wilson, who always
roused and scolded her for sleeping in class
whenever the restless orphans had kept her up the
entire night before. Mrs. Wilson, who sometimes
used her clipboard the way a man sometimes uses
the back of his hand except only on the back of your
head so if there‘s a mark, the hair covers it.
Mrs. Wilson, a high-strung woman with a
Ms. Wakil, a high-strung woman with a
Ms. Wakil, who was never without her
clipboard, held it close to her breast as she held
open the hospital room door for her boss,
Greenstone who, like a running back, had two
orderlies and two security guards hanging off him
as he barged in, still unable to see anyone but a
stranger imprinted in his mind.
Much to his relief, though, he found Ara
resting in her hospital bed, safe and comfortable.
She was even sitting up—half-awake and totally
shit-housed on painkillers, but his beloved daughter
and best friend nevertheless.
It was really her.
And he was really there.
Ben went to Ara‘s bedside where he would
wait until she was well enough to hear about the
Guardians. In the meantime, she needed rest and he
would watch her sleep, vigilant.
When their eyes met, he knew that she
recognized him just as she drifted off.
Mira K hatol awoke in Rustica Falls
Memorial Hospital the same night as the bus
accident. Her body was warm under a mountain of
blankets and a breathing tube lay across her upper
lip, just under her nose.
A beeping sound like someone‘s cell phone
alert followed by a whoosh like someone inflating a
balloon came from beside her. She craned her neck
to see who was there only to find the heart monitor
and oxygen regulator. The television overhead was
off, and there didn‘t seem to be a remote control.
Nor did there seem to be a button to signal the nurse
for help. Her hand hurt where the intravenous dock
had been inserted. She knew she was in the hospital
but didn‘t fully understand why. Nor was anyone
there to explain it to her.
The rest of the room was empty.
Frightened, Mira closed her eyes. The
machines beeped and whooshed. Then she opened
them and, looking at the empty room beyond her
―A man was driving down the road with
twenty penguins in the back seat of his car. When a
police officer saw him drive past with the penguins,
he pulled him over right away. ‗What seems to be
the problem, officer?‘ asked the man. ‗You can‘t
drive around with twenty penguins in the back of
your car!‘ said the policeman. ‗Now take them to
the zoo right away!‘ ‗Yes, sir!‘ said the man, and
he drove off in his car. The next day, the same cop
saw the same car driving down and the same road
with twenty penguins in it again and pulled him
over. ‗What are you doing!? I thought I told you to
take those penguins to the zoo!‘ ‗I did,‘ the man
explained. ‗Today, I‘m taking them to the
_Beep. Whoosh. _
PART I I.
―There are three deaths: the first is when the body
ceases to function. The second is when the body is
consigned to the grave. The third is that moment,
sometime in the future, when your name is spoken
for the last time.‖
—an excerpt from _Metamorphosis _ in [_Sum: _]
Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David
―As the many-winter‘d crow that leads the clanging
—an excerpt from _Locksley Hall _ by Alfred
he bottom hem of Minoo Shinogai‘s
black abaya, or cloak, became wet as
T she waded, ankle-deep, in the warm
turquoise waters on the Island of Mozambique,
Nampula Province, the coast of Madagascar off in
the distance, just across the channel. The island,
only two miles long and less than half a mile wide
at its broadest, was populous at its southern end, but
almost entirely unoccupied at its opposite, where
the Fort of São Sebastião still stood.
The Priestess Táhirih was approaching her
mid-twenties now, and earlier that day, she‘d led
prayer services at both mosques and escorted a
group of children on a tour through the historic fort
and the neighboring Chapel of Nossa Senhora de
Baluarte, the oldest European building in the
southern hemisphere, situated at the northeastern-
most tip of the island. Once the responsibilities had
been fulfilled and the schoolchildren sent on their
way, she‘d walked out to the waterline on the lone
shore and stepped in, alone with her thoughts.
She had only been about Mira Khatol‘s age
when she clumsily freed the slave market in Sudan,
had seen atrocities along the Nile that brought an
abrupt end to her adolescence, and had become the
leader of her Da„Wah community for nearly ten
years as they worked throughout Mozambique and
along the White Nile.
Soon, she‘d be a quarter of a century old,
her homeland now calling to her, just as her faith
once had. A company called, ―Skyline,‖ a Western
contractor with its tentacles in everything from oil
to opium, was about to leave the region. Minoo
believed this was going to serve an ultimate good,
but would never be perceived that way by a people
marginalized by tradition and contemptuous of their
Minoo was a solitary, perfect black speck on
the border between land and sea, her eyes lit in
emerald brilliance against the shallow waters. She
closed them and felt the breeze blowing the abaya
lavishly about her.
It was time to return to Afghanistan.
Of course, the trip back would be nothing
like the incredible journey into the Heart of Africa.
It would have none of the triumphs or failures and
would require none of the sacrifice or suffering.
And there would be no vast ocean to wash her feet.
The road ahead would be brief, used only for travel,
and at the end of it there would be people—scores
and scores of people, more than the eye could
Táhirih relished this moment alone.
But she was not alone.
Abeedah and Nasirah, the du‟at initiates of
her Coven, who had once rescued her as a child
from an Armenian sex trafficker, stood side-by-side
in red burqas not far away, watching her, sharing
the same thought:
Mayar Garang, a Sudanese national living in
the United States on an expired visa, awoke in the
sidelong- lying school bus, still partway in the
driver‘s seat with a mouthful of tempered glass
broken into gluey little rectangular segments. Much
of it fell away from his face as he stirred, one white
earbud crammed too far into his ear canal but still
playing Santo and Johnny.
Having just regained consciousness, he was
momentarily disoriented, then recalled the accident:
sliding down Route 314 before being T-boned by a
semi on the Parkhill Aqueduct. Checking himself
for injuries, he found that he wasn‘t too badly hurt,
but his hips were immobilized between the steering
wheel and the dislodged seat. His legs, now turned
almost completely around, had become pinned by
the steering column when the tractor trailer‘s grille
fused with the bus‘s undercarriage.
Several crumpled cigarettes the seventh
graders had bribed him with so they could sit in the
back and smoke were in his front shirt pocket. He
took one out, lit it. When he exhaled, the smoke
blended with the acrid, sulfuric smoke coming from
the engine. A fire had begun on the exterior of the
vehicle just beyond his feet. He drew deep again,
another satisfying inhalation. The rescue workers
would need to use the Jaws of Life to free him from
the wreck and a rivulet of blood ran from his
temple, but he was otherwise unharmed.
Behind him, the children were groaning and
crying. He smirked. They were probably okay.
Suddenly, the reverse beacon activated—
which made no sense of course, because the bus
was on its side and incapable of backing up.
But the tractor trailer wasn‘t.
Jin Gao romped on the accelerator and the
Simultaneously, the movement of the semi trying to
pull away from the undercarriage caused the
steering column to turn further out of place, thereby
turning Mayar Garang‘s legs further in the wrong
direction, wringing him like a dishrag.
Everything moved together at first. As
Garang screamed, the rig pulled the bus askew on
the aqueduct until it was facing the place where Jin
Gao would drive the double tanker over the side.
What remained of the windshield fell away in one
battered piece and he could see a little girl in a
puffy yellow vest standing nearby in the driving
rain, in the white beam of one smashed but
There was no one else, though—just a sixth
grader observing the scene in some manner of
bizarre, catatonic trance. There was no Karmic
arbiter, no executor of ultimate justice, no
impending eternal damnation—no comeuppance, in
fact, of any kind in this life as some had hoped, or
in the next as had others.
But when the rig finally pulled free,
crushing his hip and breaking his legs as they
wrenched completely around, severing both femoral
arteries and twisting his entrails, a clocktower began
to toll in his mind, counting down as he relived
decades of memories that proved his ability to
thrive had only ever been made possible by putting
innocent people in chains. This small measure of
time and brutal pain was the only consequence for
someone who had once sold a man into bondage for
less than fifty dollars, whose assassination attempt
on a young girl‘s life had left her in critical
provided an opportunity to outrun his guilt until the
only trace of his sins were his accepting smokes in
return for favors and, of course, that he still drove
children away from their homes every day.
An international criminal making a little
over minimum wage, the devil incarnate hiding in
plain sight while some were still scouring the planet
in search of him— this was what his life, his whole
life, had become—not one of remorse, but of
function, and beyond what remained of it, there was
A dervish of sand caressed the cobalt sky,
lifted by a gentle Nubian Desert thermal, before
settling upon the dunes of auburn and rust once
more. Mayar Garang‘s two-bed, double-trailer
transport truck blasted through the top of the newly-
formed dune, jostling the slaves, most of them
young boys, under heavily-armed guard in the back.
Somehow, there were almost eighty of them
crammed into the truck beds, and only some were
Sudanese. The rest had come from Uganda,
Rwanda and tribes located deep in the Congo. But
they all had one thing in common.
And as the truck headed northward, toward
the Egyptian border where Garang intended to meet
Arabian merchants to complete the transaction, the
captives felt themselves being taken away from it,
even while it ran parallel to the truck all along.
However, just as it crossed the Sahel—the
transition zone where the Sudanian Savanna
overheated and broke down twenty-four miles from
the place where it started.
Mayar Garang slammed his fists against the
steering wheel and swore in Arabic.
The man riding shotgun, who was also
carrying a shotgun, believed in a more diplomatic
approach. ―I say we shoot them.‖
― [_They are no good to us dead! _]‖ Garang
hissed. He got out of the truck, flung open the hood
and backed away from the billowing steam as he
was joined by the guard, who was prepared to
amend his proposal.
―Then we take the Jeep to Khartoum, call
the buyers and tell them where to find their truck.‖
Garang slapped the back of his colleague‘s
head with his faded, military-style cap. ―It‘s a
hundred and twenty- five degrees with no shade
anywhere!‖ The guard with the shotgun looked
puzzled, which he was since Mayar was using
Fahrenheit instead of centigrade. By then, he was
already preparing to flee to America, but it would
be another dozen years before he would do so
permanently. Instead of altering his statement,
Mayar swore in Arabic again, exclaimed, ―They‘ll
be dead before supper, roasted like skewered
locusts!‖ followed by more swearing.
The guard rested the barrel of the shotgun
against his shoulder and went to bum a smoke from
the men posted on the tailgates.
Garang looked back at the packed trailers
like a ferryboat captain whose ship had run
aground. But it was more than that. They were like
two great colonies of silent black birds, mobile
nests with Mayar as their keeper. Of course, this
belief came from having once been a prisoner
himself, fighting to breathe because the truck had
been overfilled so. His journey had been painful
and exhausting, but he‘d survived it. When the
trader was completing his dealings with the buyer,
however, a violent sand storm blew in without
warning, scattering the would-be slaves, including
Mayar. The last thing he saw had been both men on
the ground, the buyer breaking the trader‘s teeth as
he forced a pistol into his mouth and pulled the
Oftentimes, those who learn from history
repeat it as well.
That was why Mayar Garang went to the
storage compartments on the sides of the truck and
took what he found there, old and menacing though
they were, out to the guards. He said, ―We walk
them back across the savanna and make other
arrangements, new arrangements,‖ and threw down
the long lengths of heavy- gauge chain link with
plenty of shackles for all.
―Wake up, Mira,‖ came a woman‘s voice,
gentle and friendly.
Mira opened her eyes, looked up from the
hospital bed without apprehension. She‘d only been
resting anyway—the nurse having checked her
vitals just a moment before. Making eye contact
with the lady with the nice voice, she grinned,
blinking sleepily. ―Wow, you‘re pretty,‖ she said.
The psychologist, a woman just in her late
twenties holding a large stack of paperwork and
notebooks close to her chest, was surprised by the
sudden compliment. ―My goodness, thank you so
much—you‘re one hot mama yourself, you know.‖
Mira smiled huge, immediately covering her
nose and mouth with the blankets.
The doctor pulled a chair close to her
bedside and sat down, placing the books and files
on her lap. She opened the planner on top of the
stack, clicked the pen in her right hand. ―Hi there,
Mira. My name‘s Susan, I work here at the hospital
and,‖ she said over her shuffling papers, ―. . . it‘s
my job to go around talking to everyone so we can
see how they‘re doing and make sure they‘re feeling
better. So I just need to ask you a bunch of quick
questions—most of them are super easy and there
are no wrong answers, but please think carefully
and try to remember as much as you can, okay?‖
She nodded enthusiastically.
―Mira, are you in any pain right now?‖
―Do you take medicine for anything?‖
―Are you allergic to anything?‖
―Bees when they sting.‖
―What day is today?‖
―And the month?‖
―Right. What state do you live in, Mira?‖
―And do you know where you are right
―It‘s a hospital?‖
―Yes. A hospital in what town?‖
―Correct. You‘re doing great. Mira, have
you ever been in a hospital before?‖
―No,‖ she replied.
―Are you sure?‖
―Have you been in this hospital before?‖
―Are you sure?‖
―Are you sure.‖
―Have you ever known someone who was
staying in a hospital?‖
The answer to that question was no. But
Mira didn‘t say no.
Dr. Susan Heller let the moment of silence
transpire before continuing. ―Is this bed bigger or
smaller than your bed at the foster home, Mira?‖
―Do you like it?‖
Susan showed her how to operate the
reclining controls, signal the on-call nurse and
change channels on the television. ―Was it easy to
fall asleep in this bed today?‖
―Yeah, comfy, right? There‘s one of these
on the fourth floor that no one ever uses . . .,‖ she
leaned closer, lowering her voice. ―I take naps
there on my lunchbreak sometimes. But don‘t tell
By now, the medical doctors knew the
answers to most of Dr. Heller‘s questions in
addition to what had confounded the medics on
scene: that Mira‘s state after or even during the
crash had not been shock, but rather a sort of
narcoleptic episode. And because narcolepsy is a
neurological sleep disorder not brought on by
psychological problems, Dr. Heller‘s questions
were instead to ensure there was no lasting mental
trauma. She concurred of course, but her primary
concern for Mira‘s welfare had more to do with her
somnambulism and the foster mother‘s claim of
being ―unavailable‖ to come to the hospital and
have Mira released into her care.
―We‘re almost done, Mira. You‘re doing
great.‖ Susan turned the page in her planner, began
a new entry. ―Do you remember the accident?‖
―What do you remember?‖
―I remember . . . spinning.‖
―Yes. Yes, the bus rolled multiple times.
What was the last thing you remember from before
Mira pictured David right away, the seventh
grader who had smiled at her as he walked past,
saying he would see her tomorrow. She quickly
squeezed her eyes closed and hid her face behind
the blankets, unaware that it had been exposed.
Dr. Heller smiled and put her pen down. ―A
boy?‖ Mira shrank away just a bit more. ―Yep.
That‘s a boy, all right. Would you like to tell me
his name? . . . No? That‘s okay. Maybe another
time. You know, everyone‘s talking about you,
The girl looked back at her, perplexed.
―You were the first one to make it out of the
wreckage. Another student, a young man named
David Ezra, who helped pull more than half the kids
out to safety, said he thought he was trapped in the
bus until he saw you and realized he could get out,
Mira was stunned. She had gathered some
information from the shift nurse about the crash, but
now it seemed as though a full consignment of
events had taken place during the time between her
daydreams on the way back to the foster home after
school and her waking up in Rustica Falls Memorial
Hospital. Nodding politely, she desperately hoped
the pretty hospital lady wasn‘t going to ask about
sleepwalking. For one agonizing moment, she
looked like she was about to, then finally clicked
the pen and closed her book instead.
―Not only that, but the EMTs said you were
the perfect patient on the ambulance ride over. It‘s
funny, though. They said you were completely still
and resting comfortably, but your foot was
twitching like crazy. Like puppies do when they
dream of chasing bunnies—wait no, like a rabbit
with its foot caught in a snare. Were you having a
dream like that, Mira?‖
―No,‖ she answered, and it was enough of a
lie to make her feel terrible.
―You do dream sometimes, though?‖
―All the time?‖
―Do you remember your dreams?‖
―And if you had to pick one word to
describe your dreams, what would it be?‖
Mira turned her head away. She looked at
her puffy yellow vest on the chair beside the
hospital bed and wished she was wearing it. A
long, awkward silence passed, but the doctor sat at
her bedside quietly, letting her come to it on her
own. Eventually, the word escaped across the girl‘s
Mayar Garang dropped the Jeep into second
gear and spun the tires, recklessly firing rocks and
debris at the chain- gang of slaves as he raced down
the line of them. Something was happening—
something that was going to have to be dealt with in
the most severe possible way.
As Garang had been hooking them up, he
soon realized that the leg irons were so old that
losing some of them was an inevitability—if their
shackles broke, or they were able to free themselves
of them, many would be far enough away from the
guards that they‘d likely make it to safety before the
trader would even know they were gone. Still, it
was far less risky than leaving them in the middle of
the Sudanese desert and returning from K hartoum
to find the few remaining survivors alive long
enough to drink all his water before needing to be
A few moments ago, he‘d been shackling
the last of them to the chain—now let out at nearly
a mile—when he felt a sudden jerk followed by an
unusual shift in the tension of it. At that great
imperceptible. Yet he was as sure one of them had
already gotten off the line as a veteran fisherman
who knows he‘s lost his catch. Worse, though, was
that instead of bolting for the nearest tree line, the
slave had begun freeing the others.
Peering through the filth on the windshield,
he growled, ― [_Bin‟nt himaar! _]( _daughter of a _
[_donkey! _])‖ upon seeing Minoo, an adolescent girl
who had come from seemingly nowhere and fallen
on the sand beside his property. Garang made sure
his gun was loaded.
The coalition of slaves freeing themselves
was growing rapidly, had already overtaken two of
the guards. Cheering and shouting, bound or
unbound by chains, the throng raced toward the
remaining transport truck guards with the savage
conviction of a lynch mob. The young slave Minoo
accidentally liberated split himself off from the
group and headed back in her direction. So much
was happening so fast, however, that he failed to
register Garang‘s Jeep as it converged on the two of
He was close enough now to call o ut to her,
but the Sudanese slave trader arrived first, drawing
his gun and jumping out before the vehicle had even
come to a full stop. Scrambling backward on her
hands and knees, Minoo looked desperately around
for the Coven, but they were nowhere.
― [_Sharmuta! _]‖ ( [_whore! _]) ―I kill
Sharmuta!‖ his snarled. As he pointed the gun at
her, the young slave attacked from the side, making
an attempt for the weapon. When he tried to wrest
it free, the larger man smashed him in the temple
with the butt of it. He went down, blood and sand
inhibiting his vision.
Minoo looked on, helpless.
Mayar felt a warm sense of anticipation as
he knelt down beside his prisoner, pressed the gun
barrel into his right eye socket.
Exhaling, he said, ― [_Anta kalbee. _]‖ (you‘re
And at just that moment, several slaves
ambushed him from behind, wrapping lengths of
heavy- gauge chain link around Garang‘s throat and
dragging him away.
By the time the young slave was able to
clear his eyesight, Minoo was gone. There was
very little breath remaining in Mayar Garang‘s
lungs. But with it, he managed to utter: ― _Wherever _
[_you go, Sharmuta, I will find you. _]‖
In the distance, the uprising was complete
and gunshots echoed across the savanna.
It had just begun to snow outside the small
lodge compound, situated atop the Nordic coast‘s
most expansive fjord.
Even though she‘d known this was coming
one day this week, and even though Benjamin had
been preparing his daughter for it since the day they
met, Ara Tor Pikai still dropped the entire Sterling
silver serving tray in shock as she carried her
father‘s breakfast into the master bedroom. The
sound of it crashing to the floor alerted Ben to her
presence. He was seated, childlike almost, in his
pajamas at the end of the bed. Apart from swilling
hundred- year-old scotch straight out of the last
bottle of its kind, he was smashed on whatever
cocktail the doctors had running through the four
intravenous docks in his arms.
―Hey, Ara!‖ he said through a giant open-
mouthed grin, ―I‘m tripping over my balls!‖
Ara stepped over the disaster at her feet,
stepped toward the familial disaster at the other side
of the room. ―I think you mean tripping your balls
―Right! Hahahaaa . . . I‘m dripping your
She smiled, but her blood felt like icy
molasses. The significance of seeing him like this
was tremendous. Fatally ill, he hadn‘t been able to
sit up, drink, or eat on his own in months and hadn‘t
spoken in weeks. Yet here he was, suddenly and
miraculously restored to his former charismatic
brilliance thanks to a pharmacopia of narcotics
either blacklisted or unheard of by the FDA. Sitting
beside him on the edge of the bed, Ara was
reminded of her own time in the hospital, when
she‘d had glass and bullet fragments removed from
her spine. Paralyzing grief nearly overwhelmed
instinctively returned fire. ―You know, most people
go someplace warm when they‘re trying to die.‖
Ben put his arm around his daughter, passed
her the scotch. ―That, dear girl, is why I‘m flying to
southern California today.‖
She took a second swig and passed the bottle
back. ―No, I mean, you never told me the real
reason we came to the fjord.‖
He seemed not to hear. ―Okay, so back in
Scotland, a hundred-n-something years ago, there
was a feud going on between these two clans
―Daddy, why did you bring me here?‖
―You know the reason,‖ he said and drank,
then looked down at the floor. ―You know the
reason.‖ And Ara supposed he was right. She did
know the reason. But she didn‘t want to admit it to
herself. She never had. All of the groundwork, all
of the carefully guarded secrets, all of the rookery
and ruse—everything that had been done to prepare
for his passing would falter in time, and historians
would later identify this as the place where
everything began coming to an end.
Benjamin Greenstone‘s end. That was the
uncontrollably. ―I‘m so sorry, Ara. What happened
to your family was my fault—I never should have
let Skyline expand into Kandahar. It was my
selfishness, my own _goddamned selfishness. _ All I
―Was to tell me about kilt-wearing,
Ben Greenstone laughed heartily, his mood
swinging immediately back out in the other
direction. He wiped his face on his sleeve,
something she‘d never seen him do. ―Oh, yeah.
You see, it was these two Scottish families in
Scotland an‘ it started with a property dispute over
the stream that ran along their fields because they
needed water for their stills . . .‖
While Ara sat listening intently to the
incredible tale—as she had all the others over the
years, forever amazed by the life he‘d led and the
stories it generated—the nurses helped him dress.
Once they were through, it was almost time for him
Ara thought to demand more time from the
doctors, but she knew it was impossible. Despite
his miraculous reanimation, Benjamin Greenstone
was really aboard an out-of-control, runaway train.
And it was gaining speed.
The last of his hold on reality beginning to
slip, Ben reached into his pocket and withdrew what
looked like an old-fashioned, silver cigarette case,
something else Ara had never seen before. He said,
―Of our entire family, my grandmother and I were
the only ones that survived the war. And this,‖ he
said, opening the case to reveal the antique Italian
ivory cameo inside, ―belonged to her great, great
grandmother. But I never married and she never
had any girls, so one day, as she was cleaning out
the closet, she flung it at me and said: ‗Do
something with this. Just don‘t give it to nobody
outside the family. And try not to take it to the
grave, Nancy.‘ She always called me Nancy.
Especially if others were around. At four- foot- nine,
she liked people thinking I was afraid of her.‖
―It‘s beautiful,‖ said Ara.
―And it‘s for you. Look just here.‖ He
motioned to take the cameo from the case, then
hesitated. ―I can‘t . . . I, I can‘t . . .‖
More tears were forming. Ara, knowing it
was because his hands had become about as useful
as boxing gloves, interrupted him, and pinned it
easily to her own lapel. ―Do you know who she
was?‖ asked Ara, of the woman depicted in the
―Now that is a good story. Young lady, if
you ever find out the answer to that question, I‘m
sure others will wanna know, too.‖
―Mr. Greenstone? Ara?‖ his assistant called
from the doorway. ―I‘m afraid we have to go now.‖
On the helipad outside, the chopper‘s engine
fired and whined as the blades began to turn. The
helicopter would take him to Oslo, where he would
depart for LAX by private jet. And he would be
doing so without his daughter.
Having not known what the future held in
store for them, or how Benjamin would react to the
dangerous levels of drugs necessary to carry out his
final wishes, Ara and her father had said their
goodbyes a long time before that day, before Ben‘s
illness had taken such a dire turn.
She helped him into the wheelchair now,
hugged him gently and turned away.
As the personnel loaded Greenstone, the
equipment and bags into the waiting helicopter, Ara
stepped out onto the front porch of the mountain
lodge, where a few feral cats and carrion crows had
ceased fire long enough to be mutually a fraid of the
aircraft‘s pulsating rhythm hammering around in the
fjord. Her anger began to deepen—much like the
vast gulf before her—a feeling that hadn‘t been
there a moment before. Initially, she believed it
was her proximity to the impending death of her
father—and she would have been right, except the
more her rage intertwined with denial, the less logic
seemed to apply.
Then, just as the helicopter lifted off, she
was struck by the revelation that Benjamin‘s illness
and eventual death were never the real reasons
they‘d left Dubai for the lodge in Norway.
sandstone—were aligned, positioned and stacked
neatly along the railing. Remembering the day they
met when she realized Benjamin‘s live-or-die cell
phone was the first thing she had to do something
about, Ara grabbed the onyx and ran toward the
chopper just as it moved at an angle up and away
from the lodge grounds, over the edge of the fjord.
― [_Screw it, _]‖ she growled, doubling her speed.
Running as fast as she could, she jumped
over the edge, holding fast in her mind to the real
reason her father had brought them here: _To give me _
_a home. _
But the helicopter was moving away faster
than she thought, and as she extended her arms in a
horizontal dive, the landing skids moved just out of
reach, leaving nothing beneath Ara but the glacial
waters more than four thousand feet below.
Minoo turned around to wade back to shore
and ran directly into Abeedah and Nasirah, who‘d
been standing just behind her, their burqas red and
sharp against the clear, azure sky. Minoo giggled at
her clumsiness, but when she took another step
toward shore, the women remained silent,
unyielding. Standing a full foot taller than the
Priestess, she looked up at them, puzzled.
Suddenly, they lashed out, flanking her, dragging
her toward deeper water.
In an attempt to break free, Minoo lost her
footing and her assailants took the opportunity to
plunge her head beneath the waves. The Priestess
thrashed about in the surf as they held her under,
her lungs hot and oxygen-starved as the seconds
executioners ordained to a macabre assignment.
Similarly, Táhirih‘s abaya did her no favors:
it was an inky phantom, serene yet lethal around
her, anchoring her under, smothering her, strangling
Minoo, as were her own mothers, and only the need
to know why superseded her desperation for air.
When she opened her mouth to scream, her
last breath rushed out into the turquoise maelstrom
and saltwater washed in, causing her larynx to
spasm in her already locked throat. For a long
while, her legs and bare feet thrashed in the
shallows as she fought, instinctively, to save her
own life. But in the end, not even her most frantic
attempts were enough to stop the Coven from what
they believed needed to be done.
And just as Minoo Shinogai, the Priestess
Táhirih, succumbed to the darkness and her body
fell still, she remembered dancing alo ng the rows of
bright purple and blue flowers with her dearest
childhood friend a lifetime ago.
Standing in the shallows over her, Nasirah
and Abeedah saw one another through their scarlet
veils, a solemn acknowledgement that their deed
had spared the Priestess from the procession of
unspeakable horrors that would‘ve been visited
upon her had she returned to Afghanistan.
Islam—their most revered, their most
beloved—however glorious for choosing Minoo as
a vessel for giving Táhirih to the world, could not
account for all the many failings of man. And the
Coven knew very well that sparing the Priestess
from those insufficiencies was more than just
humane, it had been necessary.
They bent down again, collecting her small
form before the tide could pull her body out to sea.
The wind whipped up the ocean waters, sending in
more forceful waves and raising spray. When they
attempted to lift her, Táhirih suddenly convulsed
back into consciousness, choking and gasping for
Simultaneously, all of the ambient sounds
conspired to disguise the passage of a harpoon as it
pierced the air, razor-sharp and true. Its flight
ended in Nasirah‘s cerebellum, killing her
immediately. Resolute, Abeedah submerged Minoo
again, cursing her. Somewhere nearby, a man was
racing toward the scene, screaming. But it was
neither command nor expletive—simply pure,
defiant rage. A second harpoon sliced the onshore
breeze and impaled Abeedah from her left kidney to
her right hamstring where the barb severed her
femoral artery and the lodged spear disabled her
from doing anything about it.
The man collided with Abeedah, knocking
her off the younger woman, and then wrapped the
shooting line from the speargun around her throat,
just as he and his brothers had done to Mayar
Garang with his own chains more than a dozen
years before. He yanked the cord taut and left her
to writhe in the shallows, blood indiscernible from
burqa as seawater assaulted her airways, Abeedah‘s
own heinous act reversed back on her and
The former slave gathered Minoo Shinogai
into his arms and carried her back to the blanched
And as she returned from the clutches of
death and reopened her eyes, she looked up at the
face of the man who‘d saved her and knew him
instantly—the man who‘d been a boy when she‘d
seen him last; a boy who had praised Allah, kissed
her and begun freeing his brothers; a boy who had
inadvertently elevated her from common street
urchin to legendary figurehead simply by chance
Trudging through the warm surf as he
carried her to safety, the young man was repeating
in Swahili: ― [_I found you. Finally, I found you. _]‖
finally found you,‖ the woman said
to herself, taking her purse out of
―I the locker and closing it. She
paused there a moment, overcome with joy. From
seemingly nowhere, an end to a search had finally
―I‘ll bet you thought I‘d never find you,‖
said Benjamin Greenstone, tall and menacing,
dressed in black fatigues and pointing the business
end of a nine millimeter handgun inches from his
prisoner‘s battered face. ―Well, I did. I found you,
―Yep,‖ Mira Khatol said, ―that‘s right, ladies
and gentlemen. I found her.‖ The empty hospital
room‘s imaginary studio audience exploded with
ebullient laughter and enthusiastic applause.
―Thank you, thank you. That‘s right, whoop,
whoop! Found her! Thank you.‖
― _I found you, Sharmuta . . . _,‖ said Mayar
Garang as he located his target through the scope.
She was at the other end of the sun-splashed
hospital campus quad, speaking to the crowd of
seated staff, alumni, undergraduates and faculty
about the merits of restructuring traditional learning
resources into progressive education systems.
Garang adjusted the reticle for ballistic
elevation and parallax compensation.
It had taken more than eight years, but the
flesh beneath his scars still burned as if forever
enveloped in flame. Hands firmly grasping the
rifle, his breathing became measured, stable.
The end to his search had finally arrived.
And as he prepared to take the shot, he
recalled the day it began.
Not all of the reports echoing on the
Sudanian Savanna that day were in celebration of
freedom. Many were instead reserved for the
guards. Those executed on their knees were
fortunate. Those guilty of murder, rape and
dismemberment were less so: they were returned to
their victims‘ country, province or village to face
their accusers—the fathers and sons, the mothers
and daughters, those who had been left to stand on
the ashes of their burned homes, their ravaged
Once they arrived, their misfortune was
slow. And extensive.
But Mayar Garang wasn‘t sent anywhere.
His accusers, his executioners were before him,
chaining him onto the truck bed among his cohorts‘
remains and dousing him in fuel.
The young slave originally freed by Minoo
pointed a gun at his stomach and pulled the trigger.
Moaning and awash with petroleum, Garang
doubled over in spite of his shackles and cursed him
The former slave, a post-adolescent boy
really, moved in close to him, saying, ―I watched
you kill my sister in front of me yesterday. You
were the last thing she saw with her beautiful eyes.‖
He removed a crumpled cigarette from the
warlord‘s shirt pocket, lit it and took a drag. ―After
our father was taken by the militia last year, we
became the last of our family. Are you . . . the last
of your family, Mister Garang?‖
Mayar swore at him between huge, panicked
―Ah! You are.‖ The boy regarded the cargo
bed of dead guardsmen. ―An entire family of
mongrels and one. Filthy. Dog. . . . _My _ dog.‖ He
dropped the cigarette, setting the truck bed and its
contents alight before jumping down to avoid
becoming engulfed himself. Running off across the
savanna in search of Minoo, he listened as the slave
merchant‘s final cries became an awful retribution
to his loss.
And even though it was just the first time in
his life Mayar Garang believed with total certainty
that he was going to die, somehow he k new exactly
how long he had left:
When Benjamin Greenstone first followed
his guilt out of Afghanistan in search of Ara, it led
him to Minoo by mistake, who was then living in
Mozambique years later. He felt an obligation to
her as well, but she had escaped the dangers of her
homeland, found a family with the women of her
faith and was developing a profound reputation
among her people.
After a subsequent, exhaustive search that
spanned the globe, Greenstone returned to Kabul
having learned that Ara‘s mother had reverted to
using her own father‘s family name, Barakzai,
before their final separation, which created
confusion in the paperwork. Sorting through it had
been enough to locate the orphanage. However,
doing so only brought him closer to an obstacle in
misinterpretation. Because the judicial system in
Afghanistan is based on a strict interpretation of
Shari‘a Law, non-Muslims can never adopt or be
appointed guardians of Muslim children.
Of course, Ben Greenstone wasn‘t deterred
at all. Skyline‘s attorneys could have manipulated
the courts into issuing a guardianship decree for the
Green Lantern, if they so desired. But Benjamin
was unwilling to involve Skyline because it had
been the source of the problem. Operating in the
region under U.S. defense contracts, it was
disrupting, not relieving, the activities of local
tribes. It played a major role in Ara‘s biological
father hiring Jin Gao to torch the poppy fields—
which had resulted in the deaths of almost every
member of the Tor Pikai and Shinogai families.
Indeed, Skyline had done enough damage.
The CEO knew his company was involved in a
resource-based conflict. He knew it was usurping
the responsibilities of foreign militaries. He knew
that the company‘s end in the region wasn‘t going
to be a happy one. And because all of the warning
signs were not just endemic of the region, or even
of war, there was little doubt Skyline would ruin his
years- long search for Ara just when he‘d finally
Then, acting entirely alone, Benjamin
embarked upon the process—the formal way,
through the proper channels; only to be regrettably
informed he was an ineligible candidate for
Without the restraint of his advisors, his
initial response—to the bureaucrat who‘d promptly
deposited his carefully prepared documents into the
circular file—was naturally excessive, if a bit
juvenile: he moved his desk, complete with the
administrator behind it . . . eighty-seven miles into
The following attempts were no more
productive. In fact, they ultimately brought him
back to the beginning: welling over with remorse
and frustration, filling out the same tired forms and
petitions with the same blank spaces where there
needed to be signatures and approvals.
Eventually, he simply forged the documents,
barged into the orphanage and demanded her.
―There is a problem,‖ the exhausted social
worker had said, in English. Despite the Goliath
before her, she wasn‘t intimidated in the least.
Benjamin Greenstone‘s heart sank. The deception
was painfully obvious and Ara would never
become— ―Tor Pikai is her last name, the name of
her biological father. You wrote ‗Barakzai‘ here
and here, and your own name here, for some
Bent over the clipboard, Benjamin scribbled
the corrections in, masquerading his relief and
excitement as simple foolishness.
―It is essential in Islam,‖ she added with a
strong tone, ―that her ancestry on the side of her real
father remains intact.‖
He knew what the social worker was
emphasizing, but it didn‘t matter. For Ara to take
his surname was inconceivable—how could he
possibly account for what he‘d done to her family
by becoming part of it, even if only in name? No,
there had been ample time to discover where all the
lines were, and they were clearly drawn. This was
the burden of his penance. Besides, that she would
even want to take his name was equally
They supposedly left for Dubai that day
unaware that what had transpired hadn‘t gone
unnoticed. It wasn‘t talked about extensively, but it
was mentioned enough: a Western infidel had
kidnapped a Muslim orphan.
Alone, it was an insult to the Afghans who
knew of it. But coupled with Greenstone‘s
involvement with Skyline as it became further
unhinged and problematic in the interim years, it
was easily painted as an assault on both the people
and the culture, and the infraction was not forgotten.
Almost as if he knew what the young
woman had done, as if somehow they shared the
same mind, the pilot of Benjamin Greenstone‘s
transport helicopter—the Apache Longbow he‘d
had custom-built for additional personnel (in this
case himself)—eased the cyclic control stick back
toward the middle, momentarily leveling the rotor‘s
swashplate long enough for Ara‘s flailing arms to
wrap around the right-side landing skid before the
aircraft took off at speed.
Using her legs, Tor Pikai flung herself into
the cabin and on top of Ben‘s stretcher to the slack-
jawed amazement of the other passengers. She
pressed the glossy black stone into his palm, closed
his hand around it. He was incoherent now; the
doctors having increased the dosages just before
departure. In just those few moments, his daughter
had vanished from cognition and, in all likelihood,
he was unaware she was even in the helicopter with
One doctor attempted to intervene as she
moved her father‘s hand until it came to rest over
his heart. ―Miz Toripikai—‖
―It‘s Greenstone,‖ the young Afghan woman
corrected. ―Ara Greenstone.‖ She looked back at
her father, at the big, goofy grin that had reappeared
on his face.
He‘d definitely heard that. Somewhere in
the pharma-enhanced darkness of illness and death,
and despite everything he‘d come to know about
their relationship, she had turned the tables on him
one last time.
―Go make history, Dad,‖ she said,
disembarking from Guardian Two, the Apache
Longbow. As it headed off toward Oslo, she looked
on from the edge of the fjord with both deep pride
and absolute heartbreak, knowing what she‘d
always known, that the man inside was her father.
Her real father.
Indeed, her heritage was intact.
The Priestess Táhirih awoke in an old
holding cell in the Fort of São Sebastião. The
chamber was completely dark but for two candles
flickering on the granite slab beside her. Minoo
was instantly aware someone was in the cell with
her, but she feigned sleep until she was certain of
what to do next.
―I‘ve been looking for you for a long time,
The ruse exposed, Táhirih stirred, brushing
the sand away from her nose and mouth behind her
niqab and trying to locate the source of the voice.
The acoustics in the stone cell gave her the sense
that he was close. Uncomfortably close, almost
dangerously so. But that was inaccurate—no, he
wasn‘t the danger, the danger had passed and she
had survived. What she had survived, however, was
Perhaps the adrenaline had not yet fully
subsided, but for the first time, and with perfect
clarity, she saw a paradox that had been apparent all
Priestess Táhirih‘s rise to
prominence. Partly by mere proximity, but more so
by necessity, she‘d retreated into the shadows as her
public persona‘s legend grew, just as she had years
before, as a child hiding in the streets of Kabul.
Now Minoo did so in a different way, keeping her
personal thoughts, feelings and ideas as her own
while Táhirih cobbled away at healing the world.
She understood what her importance was coming to
mean, not just to suffering Muslims, the sick and
helpless, but to the global community and,
ultimately, Islam itself.
This last was at the crux of the paradox, for
as the Priestess Táhirih‘s influence widened, the
more concentrated Minoo Shinogai became. But
that powerful center beheld everything beyond piety
and service: room for independence, room for love,
room for passion, even room for doubt. Her faith
defined so much about her, yet it contained nothing
of the real Minoo she‘d discovered while calling
others to it.
The Coven had been acutely aware of this.
Over the years, it was easy to see the structures of
leadership expanding from her in response to the
people‘s desperate need for her interpretation of the
Qur‘an. However, this was only further proof that
Táhirih could never return to Afghanistan and a
dark deed had become necessary.
Minoo doubled over, stricken with grief.
She could neither accept nor fully understand why
Abeedah and Nasirah, the guardians who had saved
her life and raised her as their own, could have
visited such an act upon her.
Sobbing uncontrollably with her face in her
hands, the former slave sat beside her, his arm
resting along the length of Minoo‘s spine as he
watched the jaundiced drops of wax roll down each
candle, but solidify before reaching the clear
paraffin moats at their bases, their trails interrupted,
He spoke once the episode began to wane.
The words and their translation were simple, yet
made almost inexpressible in the wake of the
ordeal. ―I am . . . so sorry. I could see them but—
you were under for so long before I was even close
. . .‖
Eventually, the tide of Minoo‘s pain receded
far enough for her breathing to even out.
Nevertheless, a scimitar of betrayal had run her
through and she remained still, the slightest
movement only further ravaging her heart.
―My name is Daud. Do you remember me?‖
―Sudan,‖ she finally managed. ―The slave
market. I was just a girl then, but no girl forgets the
first time she is kissed.‖
A bashful smile appeared across his face and
just like that, he succumbed to Minoo in precisely
the same way the world was pacified by Táhirih, by
her ability to make nightmares truly go away, if
only for a while.
Without lifting her jade eyes, she went on.
―You don‘t look Sudanese. Or Mozambican.‖
―I‘m Iraqi. My sister and I were taken in
Karbala, but the Saudi buyers in Egypt refused the
transaction because they wanted more Africans.
We had no choice. We were forced to return with
the trader to the Congo, where he kept us like dogs
until he could broker a new deal.‖
As he continued, he purposefully left out
what Garang had done to his sister and what he had
done to Garang. He also didn‘t ask where Minoo
and the Coven had gone when he went back to look
for her, choosing instead to continue the tale of his
own journey, following Táhirih‘s trail backward, all
the way to Kabul.
Fearing he‘d run into a dead end when he
arrived at the burned-out structure that had once
been the foster care center, Daud had spoken to a
local who remembered the bombing and told him
which orphanage the displaced children had been
Minoo wasn‘t there, of course.
But Ara was. She‘d nearly jumped through
the ceiling at the sound of Minoo‘s name, wasted no
time before interrogating him.
Similarly now, Táhirih was bolt upright in
the cell, asking after Ara, wanting to know
everything. It was going around again, history
repeating, only with some variation—because it had
then been his best lead, he remembered the
encounter well, could recall noticing Ara was
struggling with hunger; a likely result of the
disrepair, overcrowding and overall squalor of the
orphanage. There was more but, like the
unpleasantness with Garang, Daud omitted it, told
her instead how Ara had already heard of the
Muslim girl some had nicknamed, ―Táhirih.‖
Evidently, news of her run- in with the Sudanese
slave trader had traveled faster than Daud‘s ability
to reconstruct her journey. Much like a historian,
he was attempting to discover where she was going
by learning where she‘d been. And he wasn‘t the
only one. He found others who believed this
unlikely heroine and the blasphemous street child
who used to recite text from the Qur‘an on top of a
broken crate were one and the same. It was how he
learned Minoo Shinogai‘s name.
Ara had made him promise to bring Minoo
back to Afghanistan if he found her alive. He‘d
agreed, even though he‘d just arrived at the first of
several dead ends. Eventually, he found a record
that detailed the travels of Minoo‘s father, the
imam, to mosques throughout the Middle East. O ne
trip led Daud to his own native Baghdad and
subsequent recruitment into the Republican Guard.
Years passed, and after it was disbanded, Daud
picked up the trail once more, only now the entire
Muslim world was speaking Táhirih‘s name: the
Muslim girl who had formed a Da„Wah, welcomed
people into Islam all along the N ile and with her
first footsteps on Sudanese sand, once freed an
entire slave market!
―By then,‖ said Daud, ―I knew exactly who
they were talking about and where I could find
you.‖ What he didn‘t know, however, was why the
Coven had attempted to murder her, and his
conscience was demanding a justification for his
was only just beginning
understand the answer herself, but her reply could
not have been more complete. ―They weren‘t trying
to kill me, they were trying to make me live
They never spoke of it again.
Daud followed her out of the Fort of São
Sebastião and they took a small skiff back across
the channel to one of the many villages that
welcomed Minoo as their own, where they called
her sister, mother, daughter; and together there they
stayed, for a time.
A band of seven Lappet-faced vultures with
nine-and-a-half- foot wingspans circled overhead.
By now, death would have been easy.
Mayar Garang, gutshot, was chained to the transport
truck as it released noxious black smoke sweetened
by the roasting flesh of his cohorts, enticing the
patient scavengers above. With the flames burning
off the fuel first, Garang was on fire for nearly a full
minute before the intense heat started fusing his
clothes to his skin and the semi- cauterized bullet
wound accelerated his breathing into short, rapid
Death would have been easy; because even
though he was already gnashing his teeth at the idea
of seeing the slave-boy and that little sharmuta
eviscerated for destroying his trafficking operation,
revenge wasn‘t a great enough reason to save his
Indeed, death would have been easy.
Because in the end, not even his base survival
instincts initiated his furious attempts to snuff out
the searing blue flames—it was the lack of fairness.
Garang used his free arm to protect his
abdomen as he slammed his body against the
skeletal old truck frame, the naked metal ribs
Throwing his body against the inside of the truck
bed again, the shackles remained secure.
It wasn‘t just that he‘d always had to deal
with everything alone—having almost no childhood
apart from his own enslavement had abolished the
need. No, this overwhelming sense of frustration
came from believing his destiny was impossible to
submit to, as if it had been specifically
manufactured to mirror his youth and nothing more.
To Mayar, though, it was less complicated: he
simply wanted to be useful.
But there lies a vast chasm between being
useful and using others, or being used.
And that was the source of his defiance.
He repeated the act again and again, with
increasing ferocity. Then, as if cued by Garang‘s
desperation, the vultures broke off from their
concentric flight paths, descended on the two-trailer
Swooping in, they crash- landed into one
another almost comically on top of the remains, in
an instant frenzy, ripping voraciously at the bloody
and charred human carrion. The gristliest among
them approached Garang as he hopelessly collided
against the steel frame then fell back on his rear, the
chains clanging all around him. Unwilling to wait
for his inevitable death, the buzzard hissed and
cawed, wings spread, razor-sharp beak making a
tentative strike at his blood-soaked middle. To little
avail, Garang kicked at the raptor with his feet as it
came closer, hissing and cawing, seemingly
oblivious that its wings had caught fire as it went
for Mayar‘s eye and missed but cut him open from
forehead to cheek, exposing most of the cartilage in
his nose along the tear. Reflexively clapping his
left forearm over his eyes, the movement easily
stripped the bolt out from the truck frame, freeing
Blood pooled in his vision, but once he was
certain he still had both eyes, he grabbed the
vulture, snapped its bare neck and threw the carcass
aside as he crawled toward the back of the truck.
The remaining Nubian buzzards retreated
until Garang was clear of the vehicle before
returning to feed on his associates.
With little else not covered in second or
third degree burns, Mayar attempted to stand on his
feet just before collapsing onto the arid ground. It
felt as though his middle had been blown
completely open, not the small puncture wound left
by the low caliber bullet. Regardless, he was going
into shock as he began dragging himself over the
sand and rocks, sweat pouring from his skin.
The Jeep was still back where Garang had
stopped and gotten out to shoot Minoo, over four
hundred meters away. Unable to focus on it
through the blood and foul haze of carbon and burnt
feathers, Garang followed the stationary chain—a
discarded, slaveless stringer unencumbered from his
hard-collected transactions. He crawled along it
now as one would follow a lifeline, determined not
just to reach the Jeep and drive it to Khartoum, but
also to interrupt an awful tradition. Suddenly, he
understood that becoming a slave master hadn‘t
been a triumph over his youth.
It was the ultimate submission to it.
The injustice culminated in a firestorm of
rage spearheaded by the boy depositing a souvenir
bullet in his gut just before burning down the last of
his operation, and the _sharmuta _ who had set him
free. But for the purposes of Garang‘s co ndition,
four hundred meters was the equivalent of four
hundred miles, a distance too great to cover before
he would be consumed by shock and perish from
either the bullet wound, the burns, exposure, or
most likely some combination of the three. And
just when Garang steeled himself against each of
these potential fatalities, something worse presented
Collectively perturbed to see a portion of
their dinner inconveniently leaving, the buzzards
abandoned the truck for Mayar instead, two of them
settling right on his back and immediately sparring
to establish their claim. They didn‘t stop when the
slave runner screamed in pain. Nor did they stop
when he flipped over, taking out his gun. Their
squabble was only settled when he emptied the
magazine into their emaciated bodies and avian
There were more, of course. But as Garang
focused on his own survival, they continued to pick
at him, redlining the pain just enough to keep the
threat of losing consciousness at bay.
By the time he reached the Jeep, he was in a
delirious fever, fighting off squawking buzzards
with fiery wings that existed only in his mind.
He lost consciousness multiple times on the
drive across and out of the desert savanna—only
with nothing to collide with, the vehicle maintained
an almost perfect path to Khartoum. In one
instance, he was clinically dead for eleven seconds
before a violent jolt brought him back around.
He did eventually make it, and the Saudi
buyers found him there several days later, burned
and broken but still clinging to life. Outside his
room, they had a conversation in Arabic about the
―I say we shoot him.‖
―He‘s no good to us dead . . . no matter. We
can‘t kill him anyway.‖
―Why not? He‘s just a driver. I could have
a dozen more operating tomorrow.‖
―Because only he knows—forget it. Get this
piece of shit to Dubai to have someone fix his face
and remove the bullet. Then, we send him back out
so he can start moving them again, this time with
everything he needs.‖
Languishing in the next room, Garang was
thrilled to overhear that last part. Because
everything he needed was precisely what he
intended to take. However, he had no intention of
using it to restart the trade machine.
What his employer didn‘t care to explain to
his partner was that the only person capable of
replacing Mayar Garang was Mayar Garang. He
knew all the routes, had all the connections, spoke
all the tribal dialects and paid off all the officials.
But that was just the beginning. Being fearsome to
people who are already afraid wasn‘t an
accomplishment, nor was it what he was known for.
Apart from handling his dealings—however
dastardly—in a professional manner, he was
amicable and inquisitive, even well- liked by many.
Yet he was so often denied the incredible
amount of respect he was due. Because not even
the Saudis knew the full scope of his operation and
what it was capable of. But with their considerable
contribution to it in place, Mayar Garang was going
to redirect all of its resources to one, singular focal
transferred to his private jet, the same he‘d first
flown in with Ara to Dubai and points throughout
Africa later on. The flight time to Los Angeles was
thirteen hours, but Ben‘s plane could make it in
Notwithstanding the palpable chagrin of the
doctors and flight crew, Greenstone was belting out
a drinking song that hadn‘t crossed his lips in over
three dozen years.
One of the Parisian doctors inserted a small
glass vial containing fifty milliliters of clear liquid
into the timed-release compartment on the
―Excuse me, doctor,‖ interrupted the head
physician. The two had not met before that day.
―What is that?‖
― [_C‟est une ampoule. _]‖
―Yes, I realize it‘s an ampoule. Would you
mind telling me what is _in _ the ampoule?‖
―Monsieur Greenstone‘s final wishes.‖
―Then I‘m certain you‘re aware that as the
administered without my express approval.‖ As if
cued by the doctor‘s insolence, Greenstone‘s lawyer
stepped to the back of the plane and handed him a
document that said otherwise. A moment later, the
French physician handed him a copy of Benjamin
Greenstone‘s medication schedule.
The real one.
―What is this, a joke? There isn‘t a human
being on the planet that could survive these dosage
― [_Precisement. _]‖
As the doctor prepared to launch a full-on
verbal assault against the mutiny surrounding him,
he began by first asking: ―Fantastic, is there
anything else going on that I don‘t yet know
Suddenly, the pilot in the cockpit yelled
desperately into his radio. ― [_Mayday! Mayday! _]
[_Mayday! _] This is _Skyline Atlantis _ G360SA, mayday!
We have a bird strike in engine two, requesting
emergency redirect to Mojave Air and Space Port!
At Rustica Falls Memorial Hospital in
northeastern Pennsylvania, Dr. Susan Heller,
exhausted, made it to within five feet of her car
before realizing her keys weren‘t in her hand
because they weren‘t in her purse because she
hadn‘t taken them off the hook in her locker
because she hadn‘t left them in there when she
started her shift because she‘d needed them to
access the file cabinet on the sixth floor, which
meant she had them with her when she met Mira but
not after she stopped at the nurse‘s station for a cup
of coffee and began working long into the night.
Liquid shadows quietly folded into the
darkened hallway corners, vanished. Seeing the
cold, wind-swept rain shower the windows, she
decided to refill her cup and leave the night RNs
with a fresh pot on the way out.
Checking her phone as she turned the corner
into the next hall, Dr. Heller stopped suddenly when
she bumped into something—something small that
moved slightly when she walked into it. She knelt
down for a better look and came face to face with
the young girl wearing a puffy yellow vest over her
She gave no acknowledgement or indication
―Are you all right? Can you hear me?‖
Mira only maintained her silence and half-
lidded, dreamy stare. For Susan, her concern was
interrupted only by an almost crippling sense of
―Wait here, Mira. I‘ll get the nurse,‖ Dr.
Heller said. She briefly headed back to the
intersecting hallway, calling out to the shift
supervisor. When she returned, Mira was gone, the
faintest hint of yellow at the far end of the hospital
corridor disappearing into the darkness.
Two floors below, David Ezra was being
treated for complications from smoke inhalation
with oxygen therapy. Apart from all the tubes and
nebulizers rushing medicine into his lungs, he
appeared to be resting comfortably.
But he wasn‘t comfortable. Several of the
chemical asphyxiants he‘d been breathing as he had
carried the smaller children to safety on the Parkhill
Aqueduct were still traumatizing his lungs and
causing strange, frightening dreams—namely one in
which everyone was speaking a language he didn‘t
know yet somehow understood, where he had to
save a masked princess in long sable robes from
two great red dragons whose fires burned him inside
and out but all he had to fight back with was a
When they laid waste to David, his heart
monitor flat- lined.
Immediately alerted, the doctors and nurses
hustled the crash cart down the hall to his room.
Benjamin Greenstone as he
―A pressed the barrel of his gun to
the back of Mayar Garang‘s head.
Garang‘s twisted countenance abruptly
softened. He even grinned a little. Evidently, he
had something to say after all.
A storm of RPGs hammered the remaining
storehouse windows, killing all four operators. The
blast forced Ara and Minoo back into the stairway
where their attackers were no longer voices outside
or phantoms in the dark—they were rushing up the
steps on a tide of misguided outrage just one flight
Left no choice, the young women fled
upward ahead of them, their bullets droning past in
a series of near-hits. Ara attempted to return fire,
but Minoo pulled her away, knowing their chances
were better on the roof.
At the top of the building, they burst into the
daylight, slammed the door behind them and
dropped the crossbar, which bought them just a few
Ara suddenly reopened the door, slow-
pitched a grenade down the stairwell and closed it
—a couple of minutes. With Guardian
Three‘s engines still echoing in the distance, the
girls ran to the furthest corner of the roof, checked
around to weigh their options. Someone in the
street noticed Táhirih‘s abaya and a hail of rounds
stitched across the building‘s uppermost ledge.
This time, it was Ara who pulled Minoo back, held
her hand firm. ―This way,‖ she said.
Minoo hesitated. ―We‘ll never make it,‖ she
protested, realizing that Ara expected them to jump
to the neighboring rooftop, an unreasonable
The rioters were hitting the door from the
other side with something heavy, a fire axe likely.
Greenstone only dug herself in deeper,
steeled herself further, held her friend tighter.
―We‘ll fall,‖ argued Minoo.
―It‘s still a better option than them,‖ Ara
suggested, nodding toward the half-broken doorway
―We _are _ them,‖ Minoo countered. ―They‘ll
forgive me. In time—‖
Ara threw her arms around her oldest friend
and said, ―—in time, yes. Of course they will.
You‘re their greatest teacher. Our greatest teacher.
But this is about more than your niqab; it‘s about
me and my father and Skyline and right now we
have to go, okay? Right now. We‘re not gonna
fall; it‘s close enough. Besides,‖ she smiled, ―I‘ve
done this recently.‖
The security door swung wide open and a
flood of angry nationals spilled out across the roof
Ara squeezed Minoo‘s hand one last time
before letting go to make the jump and, apart from
the rotunda distraction, it was the first moment
since their reunion earlier that they broke contact
with one another.
They bolted to the far side of the building
with a roiling fury clipping their heels and leapt
from the edge with nothing beneath them but the
alley, a neck-breaking seven stories below.
Safely on the tarmac at Mojave Air and
Space Port, Dr. Carlisle descended the rolling
staircase beside the _Skyline Atlantis. _ Despite the
nearly eighty-degree increase in temperature since
Oslo, his blood ran cold the moment he could see
the wing‘s second jet engine.
―What‘s going on here?‖ he demanded of
Dr. Charon, the French physician who had usurped
his authority on the aircraft. He questioned the
doctor about the lack of blood, feathers and
miscellaneous bird carnage that had supposedly
disabled one of the engines in transit, but Charon
maintained a brisk, determined pace while
orchestrating the tasks of his personnel as they
prepared to move Greenstone. Still, Carlisle
couldn‘t be dissuaded. ―This is an outrage. Why
didn‘t we land at LAX? When we get to San Diego,
Doctor Horsefield and I—‖
―There is no Joseph Horsefield, Doctor
acknowledging him. ―There is no ground-breaking
procedure. There is no flight plan to San Diego. _Il _
[_n‟y a pas de canard en purée dans le moteur. _]‖
―There isn‘t even a bloody duck in the
very sorry Monsieur
Greenstone chose not to tell you everything, I‘m
sure ee had iz reasons. I don‘t know, maybe this iz
one of them. But very soon the distress call will
bring attention to ziss place and when others find
out what iz really going on here, ze whole world
will be watching. That is why, _mon compagnon, _
you must decide if you want, maybe, to stick out
your thumb and hope to get a ride home—‖
Orange dome lights appeared to contort the
twilight into rotating beacons as a warning buzzer
erupted from the loudspeaker overhead and the
enormous bay doors on the nearby hanger started to
―—or stay here and assist me while I
oversee monsieur‘s safe and expeditious transfer.‖
― [_Voilá, _]‖ Charon replied, when the doors
revealed what had been behind them.
―Is that—? You‘ve got to be kidding me.
That can‘t possibly be what I think it is. Can it?‖
Over time, Mayar Garang‘s vendetta
In Dubai, the doctors removed the bullet and
sutured his abdomen, but not even their best efforts
could fully conceal the vulture‘s laceration across
the bridge of his nose. And as he began to look for
Daud and Minoo, the weeks turned to months, and
months to years; the wound became a scar, and the
scar became his face, fueling his infamy while
marking his path.
He left the United Arab Emirates from
Dubai International Airport fully financed, his
operations firing on all cylinders throughout the
region and deep into Africa.
Making his way through the crowded food
court, Garang bumped into a large executive who
appeared to be berating his assistant outside of a
Baskin Robbins. All he heard in the exchange
between them was: ―—fat free frozen yogurt and ice
cream aren‘t even from the same families.‖
―I‘m sorry, Mr. Greenstone.‖
―On the other hand, it does have
Garang pushed past the strangers, rolling his
eyes. Of course, it would be almost a dozen years
before they would meet again, and neither one
would make the connection when they did.
Now that he was enough recovered from the
incident on the Sahel, Garang went to Afghanistan
in an attempt to pick up Minoo‘s trail once more. It
wasn‘t difficult to track down—two Muslim women
traveling with a child who fancied herself as some
kind of junior prayer leader—and soon led to the
travels of her father, the imam, and ultimately, back
to their farms.
Or more accurately, the location where the
farms had once been.
In their place was a minimally performing
well and skeleton crew to keep the drill site
operational. None of the personnel had information
that would have been useful—that much was
readily apparent. But the foreman knew something,
was hiding something, so Garang took him into his
air-conditioned trailer to find out what he was
reluctant to share.
Unfortunately, what the foreman was
withholding was that everyone in the Shinogai
family was dead—or at least, so he thought.
However, Mayar Garang‘s determination to
find the girl was absolute. And without another
word, his knifepoint did to his captive‘s face what
the vulture had done to his own.
As the foreman fought through the sudden
panic and pain, Garang calmly took a seat on the
folding chair opposite. ―Yeahs a-go,‖ he began,
―we were looking for diamonds in the shallows of
the Blue Nile. It was a good time then. All of my
workers, the best, the best workers. I no have to
maim them, I no have to beat them, I no even have
to yell. They just work and pan and bring me what
they find. Every days. But come one day, I see
this, this cockroach is no looking for diamonds. He
is only pretending to look. Do you know why?
Because he has already found them. ‗Come here!‘
I say, and he does. ‗Where are the diamonds you
found today?‘ I ask. ‗I didn‘t find any diamonds
today,‘ he says and shows me his hands and turns
out his pockets. He is happy to do this because he
thinks I am stupid and I don‘t know where to look.
But I did know where to look, and yet I began at the
end of him the furthest away . . . In the end, I found
what he was hiding from me. And what you are
hiding from me is more valuable than diamonds.
So. Will you tell me what it is you are hiding? Or
shall I go back to looking?‖
Eyes squeezed shut, the foreman nodded
slowly and began to talk. ―One of the farmers hired
a mercenary, some drug mule, to torch his fields so
they couldn‘t be used for opium production, but it
went bad and everyone but the girl and her mother
died in the fires. The woman had some kind of
nervous breakdown after the accident and
Greenstone had her sent back to the States
somewhere, hoping the distance and her condition
would facilitate the adoption process. But there was
a mix- up in the paperwork and the girl was
transferred to an orphanage—no one knows where,
not even Greenstone.‖
―What‘s her name?‖
―I told you. I don‘t know.‖
―Not the girl‘s name. The mother‘s.‖
―Farrukh Tor Pikai.‖
―Thank you,‖ said Mayar, putting a bullet
just below the foreman‘s solar plexus. He left a
moment later, certain that the Skyline employee
would survive his wounds, just as the trader himself
had on the Sahel.
Garang went to the United States to look for
the girl‘s mother. Unfortunately, the search yielded
nothing and took far more time and money than
he‘d anticipated. Worse, his operations fell apart
without his constant attention. When they could no
longer be ignored, Garang returned, having to spend
years repairing the connections and making
adjustments in the tumultuous region.
In addition, he was unknowingly looking for
the wrong girl. Instead of telling his tormentor she
was dead, the foreman had told him about the other
girl, the one Ben Greenstone was desperate to find,
just so he could avoid Mayar‘s psychotic knife.
And when the day came that Garang found
himself in the same position as the foreman, except
with a hostile Benjamin Greenstone glaring down at
him, he would recall the way their conversation had
―I don‘t understand. She‘s just a girl,‖ the
―No,‖ Garang corrected. ―She is not.‖
And regardless of whether he‘d been
referring to Ara or Minoo, he was right.
When the time came, the Priestess Táhirih
made a hasty northward journey back to the N ile
with the remaining women of the Coven. Although
doing so meant leaving a heartbroken Daud behind,
she was also leaving a part of herself behind,
leaving Minoo in her past. She didn‘t expect him to
understand, largely because when he asked why it
had to be this way, the only response she could find
―Because the life of the girl who freed you
does not also belong to the woman who loves you.‖
But Daud did understand. He also knew the
Priestess Táhirih would soon discover that the
world‘s perception of her had changed during her
years in Africa, so he reluctantly accepted her
decision partly out of love and respect, and partly
because his obsession had been fulfilled, his quest
Meanwhile, Ara Greenstone was dividing
her time between Norway and Dubai, determined to
finalize everything in accordance with her father‘s
wishes. For an adopted daughter, she was
surprisingly like Benjamin: her unpopular decisions
deemed overarching and reactionary. Then, like a
queen bee dismantling her own corrupt hive, she
fired everyone and, just as Ben had wanted, began
to dissolve Skyline once and for all.
The same morning doctors Charon and
Carlisle departed with her father for California, Ara
left Oslo for Afghanistan not at all expecting the
reunion that would take place there or the savage
events that would follow.
By then, however, Minoo was less
oblivious. All throughout her return journey along
the N ile, she was heralded as a saint and a prophet,
with many desperately seeking her counsel. She
was unsure whether her notoriety had blossomed in
the wake of the attack by Abeeda and Nasirah—
their overall intention having succeeded where their
plan had failed—but she saw in the people a desire
for peace and prosperity greater than her
interpretation of the Qur‘an; greater even, perhaps,
than Islam itself. Ever humble and gracious, the
Priestess Táhirih comforted the sick, taught the
illiterate and led many, many prayer services.
In Egypt, the sense that something of
tremendous significance was coming grew when the
ambassadors included her in the Libyan talks, but
she was only sure of its connection with Ara Tor
Pikai when the nervous aide delivered his message
and three words stood out: ― [_. . . Kandahar . . . it‟s _]
The Skyline Model 274 ―Carrion Comfort‖
comprised of a central fuselage flanked on either
side by its jet-powered mothership, almost giving it
the appearance of three jets rather than one. O nce
the vehicle would reach launch altitude, the central
fuselage is released and the Carrion Comfort blasts
into the upper atmosphere, climbing to the apex of
its flight before gliding sixty-eight miles back to
earth and executing a conventional runway landing
where its passengers receive their astronaut wings
and a film of the flight for their quarter- million-
At least, that was the original intention
behind Benjamin Greenstone‘s ―space tourism‖
initiatives before making the decision to dismantle
Skyline International. He‘d been hoping to reboot
the program when the subsidiary was absorbed by
Greenstone, LLC., but it fell by the wayside until the
founder‘s diagnosis revealed its true purpose, its
Until today, it had been silent and still in its
hangar, waiting for the day Ben would draw back
the giant doors and take it where it had been built to
―Outer space? Spaceflight?‖ Dr. Carlisle
exclaimed as Charon walked him across the hangar.
―Not quite that far, mais oui he‘ll cross the
Kármán line and break multiple powered flight
records before reaching iz destination.‖ Sensing his
colleague‘s confusion, the French pathologist
opened the door to the cockpit and interior of the
Carrion Comfort. Inside was a small but fairly
luxurious cabin that had been modified to
accommodate Greenstone‘s bed and medical
equipment. A row of flickering blue lights along
the ceiling indicated another addition and suddenly
Carlisle knew what the ampoule was for.
―Destination . . .,‖ he repeated, gazing in
mortal astonishment at the bricks of Semtex lining
the cabin ceiling all the way back to the tail section,
where its twenty-seven-foot wingspan was neatly
folded beneath the mothership.
― Plastique, oui. Realistically, one brick
would have been enough, but ee wanted to make
sure nothing iz left to indicate there wasn‘t a
malfunction in the hybrid rocket motor.‖
―An accident? So he‘s faking his own death
. . . but for real? This is madness,‖ said Dr. Carlisle,
backing away from the aircraft and out of the
hangar. ―This is a perversion, an [_abomination. _]‖
―Monsieur Greenstone believes otherwise.‖
―And you approve of this? Your definition
of sound medical advice, of responsible care, is
blowing himself up in the outer atmosphere? It‘s
beyond euthanasia, beyond suicide, it‘s going to
change the course of everything, it‘s irresponsible,
At that exact moment, the staff rolled
Greenstone past, his enormous body half-spilling
off the gurney, still clutching the Scotch bottle and
howling at the moon, which was visible in the
HAHAHAAAA!! Hey Carlisle! Ya wanna go up?
Wanna go up, Carlisle? It‘s gonna—when it
explodes it‘s gonna be all huge!‖ Greenstone
laughed, demonstrating the projected size of the
blast with his arms.
The lead physician shook his head and
continued after Charon. ―I think you‘re helping him
get away with this because you failed to do your
―Get away with what? His own death?‖
Charon was indignant. ―MY job was to maintain
monsieur‘s condition and oversee iz delivery to ze
spaceport from Norway. You were never supposed
to be on ze plane. YOUR job ended in Oslo,
―It doesn‘t matter. There‘s a bigger picture
here that neither one of you are seeing: the impact
of Greenstone‘s death this way is going to be
extremely significant—and the more I think about
it, the more selfish it seems.‖
―And who would you be?‖ countered the
other doctor. ―To tell Benjamin Greenstone, this
modern giant, this titan of industry, how he may or
may not take iz last breath?‖
―DRUGS!‖ Greenstone bellowed from the
Carrion Comfort as they strapped him in. ― [_I‟M _]
[_GONNA NEED MORE DRUGS! _]‖
Had the adjacent rooftop not been a half-
story lower, neither of them would have made it and
nothing below would have broken their fall. But
Ara landed safely first, with Minoo collapsing onto
her, unable to get her feet under her in time.
Just as they recovered, the vicious mob
hunting them rushed up against the edge, some
unwilling or unable to cross the gulf separating the
buildings. Others tried and fell. A few did make it
across, but they were of little concern to Ara and
Minoo as they scrambled away from the rapid spray
of bullet strikes chasing them. Of much greater
concern was the horde of outraged Afghans that had
seen them jump between buildings from the ground
level, immediately charged inside from every
direction and headed upward, effectively trapping
And once they found their own way inside,
the women could see, hear and feel the reality of
Finding a dark place to hide, they huddled
together as Ara pulled the operator‘s scarf away
from her nose and mouth, unburdened her shoulder
from the satchel‘s leather strap. Then she used the
earpiece to contact dispatch in an effort to hail
After a few seconds of static, dead silence.
She tried the pilot directly. ―Guardian
Three, Guardian Three, this is Ara Greenstone,
come back. Over.‖
But the result was the same.
―Guardian Three, do you copy? Over!‖
Maddeningly, the seconds ticked away as
the roar of those who hated Skyline CEO Ara
Greenstone and were offended by the Priestess
Táhirih intensified in anger and by proximity as
they closed in.
Embarcadero Medical‘s PR administrators
organized a post- matriculation ceremony to signify
its cooperation with the University of California‘s
San Diego School of Medicine. Several hundred
were in attendance on the sun-splashed waterfront
quad between the towers; including hospital patrons
and staff, the university students, alumni, faculty
and chancellor, local benefactors, city, county and
state politicians, not to mention several news crews.
Proudly listening to his daughter speak, Ben
Greenstone was seated on stage between his
assistant Ms. Wakil and surrogate hospital director
Dr. Joseph Horsefield. His long-time friend—and
evidently, part-time janitor—Mathis Grier, who
wouldn‘t have been in attendance otherwise due to
the high risk level, was seated in the audience
directly opposite them.
It was also a high- risk operation for Mayar
Garang, who was posted in the back of a white van
labeled ―SD Bird: Seed & Supply‖ with a long-
range rifle on the second level of the parking garage
still being built just beyond the rear of the quad. By
now, he was well aware of the dangers associated
with his plan: killing an American citizen on United
States soil in a military to wn at a location where
security didn‘t have to contact the police—they
were already there. In addition, that the target was
the daughter of international business magnate
Benjamin Greenstone made his chances of even
getting out of the harbor district highly uncertain.
Still, the risks were not enough to dissuade
Mayar from his path, especially once he‘d
discovered that the opportunities to reach the end of
it were rare.
With the scar across his face burning with
the heat and pain of an eight- years-long pursuit as
Ara Tor Pikai was finishing her remarks, Garang
― [_I finally found you, Sharmuta . . . _]‖
And then he pulled the trigger.
The first shot was through-and-through,
entering just below Ara‘s collarbone and spinning
her around as the exit wound ravaged her back. It
was so sudden and unexpected that no one knew
what was happening until the second shot shattered
the glass podium, embedding bullet shrapnel and
glass shards in her spine as she fell to the small
Not another fraction of a second passed
before Benjamin was there, on top of her, shielding
his daughter from further attack as he cried out in
Garang‘s crosshairs attempted to find her
again, knowing he‘d have to empty the clip into
Greenstone to get at her. But his scope stopped
moving when it fell on a man in the audience, a
stranger to Mayar, who was turned around and
looking directly at him, as if he could somehow see
right through the scope and into his eye at that great
That individual was Mathis Grier.
Garang tossed the rifle into the back of the
van, slammed the doors. In the driver‘s seat, he
closed his eyes, counted backwards from three and
hit the ignition. The van rolled out of the service
entrance at five miles an hour and, after a few quick
turns, disappeared into the labyrinth of shipyards
where a container, outfitted to accommodate human
transport, was waiting to take him back overseas.
Meanwhile, Ara Tor Pikai was admitted into
the ER, but not before it took three orderlies and
two police officers to pry her father off of her.
―Mira, wait!‖ Dr. Susan Heller exclaimed as
she chased the elusive girl. She‘d gone into the
stairwell just as the storm knocked out the power.
Somewhere on the roof above, the generators
grumbled to life and the emergency spotlights
illuminated Mira‘s descent, the unrelenting
thunderclaps punctuating her steps.
Dr. Heller rushed in after her, just in time to
hear a door slam shut two flights below. She
bounded down the stairs and followed her into the
intensive care wing, finally catching up to Mira in
the hallway where she‘d stopped outside of a closed
door, her palms and face pressed against the wire-
reinforced glass, eyes shut.
Only once she was close enough to see what
was happening in the room on the other side did
Susan understand why Mira was there—awake,
asleep or otherwise.
She‘d spoken with the girl throughout the
evening; listening to her dreams, nightmares and
fantasies as they waited for the foster care
supervisor to arrive. But Susan hadn‘t noticed the
hours extend into the night—she was fascinated.
Not by the sleep disorder itself or by the elaborate
complexity of her dreams or even by her
relationship with them. Despite her timidity and
being aged beyond her years, she was merely a
sweet kid who didn‘t deserve her circumstances.
Eventually, when Mira had drifted off to
sleep under her mountain of blankets—pulled up
almost all the way over her nose and mouth—it
became apparent that Foster Mother wasn‘t just
unavailable, she wasn‘t coming that night at all.
So later, when the doctor had returned for
her car keys and ran into an unresponsive Mira,
she‘d shuddered to consider what dangerous brew
of dreams might be leading her through the empty
hospital corridors. Standing beside her and looking
into the room now, however, Susan discovered that
what brought Mira here wasn‘t about her past, the
accident or having no one to take her home that
It was about the boy dying in the next room.
It was about David Ezra.
rigorously went after Garang‘s operations. It hadn‘t
taken long to find out who was responsible, but
because the gunman had mistakenly settled his
vendetta with the wrong girl, Ben wasn‘t able to
Eventually, Mayar Garang returned to the
U.S. in search of a potential ancestor who had been
sold into slavery when Georgia was still a Province
and Savannah its capital in colonial America. A
vacuum had appeared almost immediately after he‘d
shot Ara: somehow, after years of searching then
waiting for the opportunity, it didn‘t even matter
whether or not she survived. Perhaps it never had,
just as Garang himself had been left to live or die in
After disembarking from the shipping
container in China, it had become necessary for him
to disappear, handling his operations remotely and
using decoys to protect himself. In doing so, he fell
into a purposeless existence, sleepwalking through
the years as his fiftieth birthday approached. And
with nothing but unspeakable atrocities to show for
the last half century, Garang traveled to the U.S. for
a third and final time, finding a modicum of hope at
Savannah‘s Research Library and Municipal
Archives: a photocopied receipt that could lead to a
As he patiently waited for the city bus to
take him back to his motel outside of town, a yellow
school bus that shared the same stop pulled up.
Then, like a warm revelation, Mayar Garang had the
greatest idea of his life.
_What if I could . . . _
Not even his own highest-ranking contacts
knew he was there. And even though his operations
were finally running with a fair degree of
autonomy, he suddenly couldn‘t think of a reason to
go back to them. Certainly not the reasons he‘d
begun them in the first place—they had been forged
out of a necessity that no longer applied.
Mayar Garang stood, took a step toward the
bus, his mind teeming with ideas. Suddenly, there
were possibilities; promises of a new life, an actual
American dream that had simply rolled right up in
front of him. It didn‘t even have to be in
Savannah—it was a job he could do just about
anywhere, perhaps in the northeastern part of the
U.S., where it was colder, a welcome possibility
after a lifetime in the desert.
As the children boarded, he thought to ask
the driver a couple of questions about his job, even
repeated them in his mind to make sure he had the
But before Mayar could get the first word
out, a black bag was thrust over his head and he was
manhandled into a black van that had its own
destination set for him.
The receipt fluttered down to the curb where
it landed beside an empty box of Milk Duds,
―I‘ll bet you thought I‘d never find you.
Well, I did. I found you, motherfucker. Any last
Ben Greenstone‘s knuckles were white
almost the entire time he‘d had his gun to the back
of his captive‘s head, listening intently. The only
exception was a confused sense of relief when he
realized that Garang had been after Minoo Shinogai,
not his adopted daughter. Even so, Greenstone
followed his gut reaction after listening to Mayar‘s
account of the past fifteen years of events, including
the mutilation of his foreman‘s face. He took a step
back and let his agents continue beating him to
within an inch of his life in the abandoned
Then, Benjamin Greenstone stepped forward
to provide the final inch.
He fully intended to tell him that he‘d shot
the wrong girl, to ensure that he would know the
supreme futility of his life just before it ended. But
as he cocked the hammer and drew breath to speak,
Ara interrupted him. Not the Ara he knew now, but
the Ara in his memory—the Afghan farmgirl he‘d
tracked down for adoption, then prevented him from
disappearing a reporter who‘d been threatening to
blow the whistle on some of Skyline‘s less than
Somehow, he could feel her phantom hand
reach out from the past and come to rest on his own,
gently reminding him of the first lesson she‘d taught
Greenstone holstered his weapon, took out a
serrated jackknife and cut Mayar free. ―Stand up,‖
he said, and Garang did. ―You might walk out of
here alive, more or less, but as far as I‘m concerned,
Mayar Garang is dead. Do you understand?‖
He nodded carefully, his eyes at the floor.
Greenstone knew this was a mistake in the
same way he knew letting the reporter leave the
airplane hangar had been a mistake—which was
why he knew he was doing the right thing. ―And if
whatever you do from here on out even remotely
resembles something Garang would have done,
you‘ll have hours, not days.‖
When his eyes met Benjamin‘s, Mayar
could see sickness blossoming there, he could see
death there and he could see a very angry father
held back only by something just a little stronger.
Garang slowly paced across the filthy warehouse
floor until the operators blocked his way and turned
―Oh, and one more thing,‖ Benjamin said
casually as he tucked a roll of pennies into his fist.
―My daughter sends her regards.‖
Then he hit the slave driver as hard he could,
breaking his jaw.
A steady glow from the bus‘s broken yellow
flashers overlapped the blue lights from the police
cruiser on the rain-splashed doorway windows to
create an easy shade of green that reminded him of
his only boyhood home in southern Sudan.
As his final three minutes in the wreckage
on top of the Parkhill Aqueduct came to a close, he
reflected on the many peaceful years spent ferrying
children to and from school in Rustica Falls, the
place where he‘d found his home and finally
interrupted the strain of nightmares first inflicted
upon him, then committed by him.
But because the Sudanese bus driver could
never have achieved so much as his own salvation,
with his last breath he said, ―Thank you, Benjamin.
Now at launch altitude, the Carrion Comfort
disengaged from the mothership, extended its wings
and went supersonic in seven seconds, burning its
main rocket until the pilotless, experimental aircraft
crossed the Kármán line in the thermosphere. At a
delirious 2,600 miles an hour, the Carrion Comfort
sprinted toward the apogee of its flight while
the contents of the ampoule to
Greenstone‘s intravenous dock.
The serum, which would have been
prohibited by the FDA had they been aware of its
existence, provided a temporary reprieve from his
numerous fatal ailments—one final burst of life,
vitality and peace before the onset of the end.
wakefulness, Ben Greenstone opened his eyes. Half
a dozen overhead clocks were all counting down
from three minutes. He took a moment to collect
his thoughts, but all he could remember of the
transition from Norway were the bickering doctors
and saying goodbye to his daughter. That last was
vital, because he‘d always known what it would
mean if he awoke inside the Carrion Comfort sixty-
eight miles above the earth.
It meant that a cure could not be found in
It meant that the world was turning its
attention to the Mojave Spaceport.
It meant that there would be no return trip.
A synthetic voice, soothing and female,
resounded in the cabin. ―Skyline Carrion Comfort.
Welcome . . . Benjamin Greenstone.‖
The polished onyx slipped free from the
industrialist‘s breast pocket, floated up before him.
He snatched it out of the air, unbuckled his safety
harness and drifted off the sickbed, weightless.
Gazing through the portal in the hull at the
vibrant blue planet below, Greenstone felt like a
shooting star in reverse, the sensation reminding
him of Ara, a welcome distraction from his
imminent demise and the vast, unwitting multitudes
about to watch it.
grandmother told him as a boy about Native
Americans. In it, there was a tribesman who found
that his body was no longer of use to him. So he
settled his affairs, said goodbye to his friends and
family and went on a great journey, far into the
woods, from which he never returned. As a young
man, he always marveled to think of the adventures
the tribesman must have had once he was free from
his family and responsibilities, and the tale served
to inspire pursuits of Ben‘s own. But as a man, he
realized that the traveler‘s real adventures had been
everything that led up to the day he left his tribe.
And finally, as a dying man, the time had come take
a journey of his own.
Fully cognizant now, Greenstone reminisced
about the wild ride his life had been, how it had
been refreshingly tempered by his first daughter,
then entirely devastated by her loss. Next, as he
recalled his conversation with Mathis Grier about
the Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence and history
repeating itself, he thought of Ara Tor Pikai.
Indeed, the necessary interruption in the
cycle was about more than her adoption and their
relationship, it was about the lesson she‘d taught
him on the day they met: forgiveness.
Clutching the black stone in his massive
hands—pressed to his lips as he wept, absolved—he
thanked her and said, ―I love you, Ara,‖ as his
journey and bloodline came to an end.
Very few saw the elliptical explosion
firsthand, but those who did spoke of it using the
same word they used to describe the man: Giant.
Indeed, the name of Greenstone would live on
throughout the ages.
When the doctors announced David Ezra‘s
time of death, Mira Khatol was screaming.
The entire concrete structure rumbled and
complained under the assault of infuriated footsteps.
In the dark corner near the stairwell, Ara
Greenstone reached into her satchel and brought out
the black binder. She flipped past the sections
pertaining to the Apache Longbow, then through the
extensive specs pages for the F-18 Hornet.
―Hurry, Ara,‖ Minoo pleaded in Dari. Ara
worked through the spectacular amount of technical
information contained in the binder, struggling to
find the next section. ―There it is—no, after . . .
turn the page. What does it say, Ara? _Turn the _
ra Tor Pikai, age twelve, stood in
the middle of two parallel, single-
A file lines outside of her dormitory at
the Nahid Maskan Orphanage in Kabul. Each child,
most of them boys, had their hands on the shoulders
of those in front of them to maintain order, spacing
and keep them occupied. There were several breaks
in this chain, however, where some were missing
limbs. After the Soviets departed and before the
rise of the Taliban, the orphanage had seen a rise in
adoptions. However, many adoptive parents used
the orphans as beggars and dismembered some to
increase their donations. A fate her dear friend
Minoo Shinogai may have encountered had it not
been for Abeedah and Nasirah.
Such was not the case with the boy standing
behind Ara, though. He squeezed her shoulders too
hard, kept pulling her hair and singing her name in a
mean taunt. She tried to shrug him off but was
sternly reprimanded by the staff
organizing them—an unfair but typical occurrence
for her, being one of only two hundred girls at the
A moment later, the line moved over,
pushing in closer to the cold, bare wall and to each
other so that the next line of children could also
enter the vestibule outside the common area. This
was due to the massive overcrowding at Nahid
Maskan. But even the two thousand additional
orphans admitted there that year alone weren‘t
enough justification for its almost five hundred staff
Despite the abundance of administrators,
monitors and personnel, conditions at the
government-run Afghan orphanage had been
rapidly deteriorating. Schoolbooks were in short
supply, basic sanitation was atrocious, access to
good nutrition was unreliable at best and with
winter fast-approaching, blankets in the still-
threadbare. Regardless, desperate parents were
leaving children outside the compound every day.
As the monitors returned to their duties, Ara
attempted to ignore their callous remarks, as well as
the boy‘s teasing. Today there was something
worth being excited about. That morning—from
the frosty, south- facing window she always slept
pressed against—Ara had seen the aid truck arrive.
It wouldn‘t bring much in the way of materials and
supplies, but at least it would relieve the food
shortage she‘d been enduring. The last truck had
delivered two cases of cocoa mix and she wondered
what bountiful surprises might emerge from this
Distracted, Ara couldn‘t hear what the
monitors were telling the children—it was
something about sharing and not having enough this
Something wasn‘t right.
When they finally let the children into the
common area that also served as a cafeteria and
prayer room, the tables were only littered with dirty
dishes, inedible scraps and half-eaten food remnants
mostly- finished plates. As the
incautious children pushed and shoved one another
for the best spots, Ara realized that the majority of
the monitors were already inside the cafeteria while
the orphans had been lining up in the vestibule.
The next day, there was plenty of food, but
it was spoiled. Most of the children had stomach
aches, some became very ill.
Lunch the day after followed the monitors
again, but now there was even less.
And the day after that, lunchtime was
skipped, even though they still waited outside,
crammed into the vestibule.
None of this made any sense to Ara. She
saw the aid truck arrive every morning that week
and knew it would only come for another week at
most before the resupply would be complete. Her
hunger had been kept somewhat at bay by her
disgust, but now it was becoming critical—the aid
truck was supposed to herald the end of their
famine, not become a maddening symbol of its
So on the last day of the week, as they
stayed packed together outside the cafeteria while
their lunchtime minutes ticked away, Ara Tor Pikai
grabbed the wrists of the boy behind her and placed
his hands on the shoulders of the boy ahead of
them. She slipped through the lines doubled over,
ducking to avoid their arms. Then she snuck past
the staff member watching the entrance and rushed
Suddenly stopping in her tracks, Ara was
surprised to find the room empty, the tables bare.
Looking around, she crossed the room into the
small galley where there was a kitchen table, an old
stove and an open- flame fire in the hearth. At the
far end of the room, Ara opened the door and
What she saw made her breath catch in her
throat and stoked a new kind of fire in her gut.
The employees were taking all the supplies
from the aid truck out of the galley and loading
them into their cars.
This went on.
―Wake up, Mira,‖ came a woman‘s voice,
monotone but taut. Foster Mother came around the
edge of the hospital bed, sat beside the young girl.
Mira Khatol blinked her eyes open and
attempted to slide a little further beneath the
mountain of blankets.
―Where are the vouchers, Mira? The lunch
vouchers. I just checked your clothes pockets then
looked all through your backpack and I didn‘t see
them. Where are they?‖
―Um,‖ she began.
―Out with it, Mira.‖
―Mrs. Wilson took them away.‖
―There. Was it so difficult to give me a
direct answer for once? Now what do you mean
she: ‗took them away‘?‖
Mira turned her head, looked outside at the
―Unbelievable. She took them because you
were sleeping in class again. And by now, she
probably threw them away or something and I am
not going all the way down there just to have to go
all the way back to the social services office and get
them reprinted. In fact, you know what, Mira?
You‘re gonna do it. You‘ll just have to go over
there tomorrow and tell them they got lost in the
accident or something, I don‘t care. You‘re old
enough now to start taking care of these things on
Quiet tears trickled across the bridge of
Mira‘s nose and down her cheek, mirroring the
droplets on the bleary window pane.
Foster Mother noticed and tried to place a
comforting hand on the girl‘s small shoulder—
barely discernible beneath the layers of blankets—
as she scolded herself internally. ―Listen—it‘s
okay. The big secret is: everyone is alone. Most
don‘t figure it out until they‘re much older, or at
least their parents are, but at some point everyone
has to stand on their own two feet. I was never
adopted either. That‘s just how it goes sometimes,
Mira. I‘m sorry.‖
She gave no response.
―Maybe you‘ll feel better if I give you extra
chores and responsibilities at the home to keep you
occupied for a while?‖
Mira shook her head to clarify, not disagree.
She swallowed hard and, once she was finally able,
said, ― [_There was a boy . . . _]‖
―Oh, Mira!‖ Foster Mother exclaimed, ―We
don‘t have time for your silly daydreams and wild
fancy. Now get [_up. _]‖
―I can‘t,‖ Mira whined.
Foster Mother‘s frustration reached its limit.
Her voice flattened again as she stood, adamant.
―Ha! Nice try, young lady, now let‘s go,‖ she said
and flung back the covers.
But Mira hadn‘t been completely lying. She
was bound to the bed by restraints at her wrists and
Appalled, Foster Mother grabbed the multi-
function remote control to alert so meone at the
nurse‘s station. The RN barely responded before the
foster director began shouting into the device for
her to come to the room immediately. But her fury
couldn‘t be contained even that long. So while she
stormed out of the room, Mira slipped easily out of
the oversized cuffs, slid off the bed and donned her
puffy yellow vest.
And only once it was zipped all the way up
over her nose and mouth did she feel just a little
Jin Gao could hear little more than the sound
of his own breathing from inside the fire suit. With
most of the fields destroyed, the job was almost
His employer would be pleased.
He swept the fire-stream to the left,
incinerating one of the remaining rows of flowers.
Suddenly, a woman was upon him, her black
clothing becoming entangled in the equipment.
Confused, Jin Gao backed away sharply, causing
the woman to fall down, where her burqa caught
Jin Gao froze, unsure of the woman‘s
identity. His vision limited to the rectangular strip
on the headpiece, he was unable to see her husband
coming before he was tackled to the ground. Jin
Gao brought out the gun just as the headgear pulled
free, but it discharged when his attacker fought him
for it and a burgundy stain spread across the man‘s
As his attacker lay dying, another man
approached them. Jin Gao handed the Glock over
to his employer before rising to finish off the last
Jin Gao never knew the girls were there
however, kneeling in the catsear at the end of the
field, behind the flowers. At least, not until—
_. . . the children were screaming. The _
[_atomic man, the nightmare-man, was still raining _]
_hell over everything and fast approaching the girls. _
[_ Ara‟s father saw this, rose and ran at them. _]
_ Shouting at the girls to run away, he leveled the _
_weapon at their attacker, fired. The first shot _
_glanced off the wand and extinguished the pilot _
_flame. In both self defense and retaliation, he _
_turned the flamethrower on his employer, but only _
_sprayed him with fuel. The second and third shots _
_spun the nightmare man around, and the fourth _
_detonated the fuel tanks on his back, killing him _
_instantly . . . _
Jin Gao awoke alone in his sky rise
executive office after hours. Flat on his back on the
leather couch, his exquisite designer suit was still
neatly pressed, his tie straight. Sitting up, he put his
feet on the floor and threaded his fingers into his
hair, his head throbbing.
Once he‘d collected himself, he crossed the
office to gaze out at the surrounding Hong Kong
skyline, a nighttime view he never tired of. And it
was one he deserved, as one of the top engineers in
But that was during the day.
He went into his private washroom,
Anticipating the night‘s coming events, he gazed at
his distorted reflection in the steamy mirror, caught
in a twilight between excitement and shame.
Just as he left, he took one last look back at
the fantastic view and was later glad he did because
it had been for the last time.
―Skyline Interrupter. Welcome, . . .
Operator,‖ came the synthetic voice, soothing and
female, into Ara‘s earpiece as it paired with the
device in the black binder. The sound was barely
audible above the roar of their pursuers in the
The Wolfram Repeater 153-X Sat-9 Skyline
Interrupter was a weaponized satellite launched
during the Cold War. Its kinetic bombardment
system had been in compliance with the SALT II
treaty at the time; however, Benjamin Greenstone
―accidentally forgot‖ to have his engineers send it
into orbit without its full payload of twenty- foot
Of course, launching unlawful ordinance
against an international arms agreement while the
United States was reconsidering missile defense
strategies was exponentially more complicated, not
to mention less than intelligent. But because
Skyline International was steeped in Afghanistan by
then, the impetus to get it done came when the
Soviet deployment put Greenstone‘s company in the
But as the years rolled into decades, the
mechanism remained in place—though the need for
it came and went—revolving around the Earth,
recording the same views over and over, precisely
comparable only with subtle variation, a patient
beacon—much like the Carrion Comfort as it
waited for Benjamin Greenstone to come and fly it
The touchscreen display incorporated into
the binder page brought up a series of prompts for
Ara to respond to verbally.
Use default coordinates?
―Affirmative,‖ she replied, setting the
coordinates to the binder‘s location.
Adjust trajectory to accommodate safe
Designate ordinance: Light? Heavy?
Ara really had no idea what her father might
have had installed on the satellite. It was likely
excessive. ―Light,‖ she said.
The confirmation came through the earpiece.
―Tungsten Light selected, safe perimeter set to
eighty meters. Ordinance scheduled.‖
―Inbound tungsten crowbar. Impact with
target site in twelve minutes, seven seconds.‖
Perhaps the young women could have
waited seven seconds, but certainly no longer, for in
the next instant the outraged citizenry finally had
Daud placed his hands on the shoulders of
the emaciated girl in line ahead of him in the packed
vestibule at Nahid Maskan. Although he could feel
her cold bones just beneath her sallow skin and the
linens she wore, he was taken by her obstinate
frame, like that of a withers yoke in the early
morning. O f the girls he‘d checked so far, she bore
the strongest resemblance. Time was short,
though—perhaps only a moment or two before the
monitors would be coming back his way.
The fastest method, he‘d discovered, was to
get her attention and check the color of her eyes.
Daud gave her shoulders a playful squeeze—too
playful, in fact, because instead of turning back to
look, she tensed up and stared straight ahead.
Undaunted, he whispered to her in Urdu. ― [_Psst ! _] Is
your name Minoo? . . . The one being called,
‗Táhirih, a Priestess in Islam‘?‖
Ara suddenly perked up, dropping her
shoulders and no longer unwittingly using the next
girl in line for support. A moment before, she‘d
thought it was the same boy again, the one who
always teased her. But when she turned back, the
boy she saw was a few years her senior—too old,
perhaps, to be in line, yet too young to be one of the
supervisors. He was good- looking, taller. And at
the mention of Minoo‘s name, the weakness that
had overcome her during the last few days—that
had made even the smallest tasks seem laborious
and draining—was gone.
When their eyes met and Daud could see
they weren‘t jade green, he took his hands away and
attempted to move into the next row.
―Wait!‖ Ara gasped, concurrently aware that
the monitors were returning. ―Can you speak
―So they won‘t understand us?‖ he asked,
ducking back into Ara‘s line.
―Yes,‖ she whispered. ―Now who is this
girl? The one you are trying to find?‖
―Many are calling her Táhirih, but her real
name is Minoo Shinogai. She freed me from a
slave market in Sudan. Do you know her?‖
Ara had heard about the Priestess Táhirih.
At the time, she was amused to think of the story as
something Minoo would have done; but because she
also knew the other Kabul orphanage had been
decimated, the two existed in her mind separately.
And until just that moment, it was her worst thought
that Minoo, like many of the orphans, had perished
in the fires.
When the girl said nothing, he assumed she
hadn‘t heard him and leaned closer. Her muscles
suddenly went rigid again and then began
convulsing, until he couldn‘t tell whether she was
laughing or crying. And at that moment, he realized
it was both.
Fat tears rolled down her happy cheeks.
Barely able to contain her excitement, she was like
a shaken bottle of soda pop.
Daud was unsure of how to react.
Ara collected herself, said, ―You must leave
before they discover you. Come at midnight to the
last window outside the south wing. I‘ll let you in
and tell you everything. I know Minoo—we are
―Okay,‖ he replied, assuring her with one
last shoulder-squeeze, more gently this time.
Ara felt a smaller pair of hands touch her
shoulder blades just as a monitor strode past. She
looked back again, but the boy who had been
searching for her dearest friend was gone.
When Daud brushed the snow away from
her window that night, she was waiting, and let him
in right away. A few curious orphans noticed, but
quickly lost interest when they realized nothing
spectacular was really going on.
Such was not the case for Ara, however.
She had lost none of her enthusiasm since the
vestibule and began his interrogation immediately.
For his part, Daud regaled her with stories,
telling her all that had happened, all that he knew.
He concluded by saying that Nahid Maskan was his
last, only lead. Ara suggested looking for records
concerning the work of Minoo‘s deceased father,
―If you find Minoo at the end of your search,
you must reunite us.‖
―Do you promise?‖
unexpectedly solemn, her voice faint. ―There‘s
And after what she said next, a second
promise was made.
With the shift nurse thoroughly berated,
Foster Mother rolled Mira Khatol down the glass-
enclosed hallway atrium in a wheelchair. Sometime
during the night, the driving rain had turned to snow
and the morning Pennsylvania sunshine broke up
the cloud cover, whitewashing the hospital corridor,
―Ooh, it looks like heaven all up in here,‖
Foster Mother cracked a smile, genuinely
but briefly amused. It was all that punctuated the
rhythmic march of her patent- leather footsteps on
the hard tile floor.
Overhead, a nasal voice strangled the
intercom: ―Will Doctors Charon and Carlisle please
report to radiology? . . . Your assistance is required
in radiology, Doctor Charon and Doctor Carlisle.‖
The reception area was darker, shaded by
the great pines surrounding the entryway. But the
interior lighting was warm and several sections of
the floor were integrated with an elaborate koi pond
system, lending it more of a hotel lobby ambiance.
As they headed toward the exit, Mira gazed
over the side of her chair at the fish. When she
went to check out the other side, she noticed Dr.
Susan Heller standing nearby, reading a signboard
situated on an elegant, wrought- iron stand.
―Hi Doctor Susan!‖ Mira exclaimed,
―Oh . . . why hello, Mira,‖ she answered,
beaming. Instantly knowing the woman pushing the
chair was the foster care director, she politely
acknowledged her but turned her attention back to
Mira, certain the contempt she felt for the woman‘s
indifference would manifest on her face. ―Y‘know,
I said you could just call me Susie, if you like.‖
Mira‘s smile widened, but she slouched
down into her vest collar to hide it.
Susan was relieved. The last time she‘d
seen Mira was the night before. After suddenly
waking in the fourth floor corridor at the same
moment her school friend passed away—finally
asphyxiated by the airborne intoxicants from the
wreck site—Dr. Heller and the shift nurse had
carried her back up to her room. Even though she‘d
fallen back asleep almost right away, exhausted,
they‘d put on the ill-fitting restraints to ensure she
wouldn‘t be doing any more sleepwalking that
The seconds retired from the wall clock as
Foster Mother‘s false grin dissipated. She palmed
her car keys. ―You must be the child therapist who
was with Mira during her . . . episode last night.‖
―Thank you for looking after her,‖ she
replied and pushed the chair abruptly forward,
nearly colliding with the psychologist.
―It was my pleasure. Um, may I have a
word with you in private?‖ said Dr. Heller, stepping
The director released her grip on the chair
handles, joined her beside the fountain.
Susan continued. ―Yes, I was wondering if I
might have a couple of follow- up appointments
with Mira? Based on some of the things she told
me last night, I‘d like to see if treatment is a
possibility and perhaps we could get to the bottom
of her sleepwalking issue.‖
―No,‖ Foster Mother said flatly. ―Thank
you for your concern, but the last thing I need is to
be constantly ferrying anyone to and from the
―But I‘m sure we can arrange—‖
―I said, ‗no, thank you,‘ Doctor,‖ the
director countered, her voice swiveling upward at
the end to hide her hostility. ―Thank you, but no.
Mira‘s at an age now where she needs to be
assisting in running the home, not contributing to
the circus it turns into at night. Not only that, but
when I give all my attention to her, it detracts from
my ability to manage the others, and that‘s hardly
fair, now is it?‖
Susan‘s hesitation was just the opening the
director was looking for.
Flashing another manufactured smile, Foster
Mother moved past her, saying, ―Good day, Ms.
Heller. And again, thank you.‖
But Susan knew she meant another word in
lieu of ―thank‖ as she went to collect her charge.
Mira was staring at the same signboard Dr.
Susan had been reading when they approached, her
eyes and mouth wide open now, her vest collar
pulled down, her mind racing with both fear and
Coincidentally, she was thinking precisely
the same thing Dr. Heller had when she‘d read it a
moment before: [_I wonder what this means? _]
HOSPITAL IS EXCITED TO ANNOUNCE ITS
PARTNERSHIP WITH GREENSTONE, LLC.!
_Greenstone Enterprises has a proud history of _
_expanding the quality of and access to the most _
[_cutting-edge healthcare on a global scale. Its most _]
_recent success, the Embarcadero Towers Medical _
_Plaza in San Diego, began as a simple waterfront _
_restoration project. But with the assistance of _
_Greenstone, LLC., has since become a shining _
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As Foster Mother pushed her out into the
cold, all Mira could think about was the morning so
long ago that she found a moss-covered rock at the
bus stop and picked it up thinking the stone itself
was colored green.
Before Jin Gao began chasing the White
Dragon—slang for smoking meth—there were other
times, places and possibilities; other lineages,
dreams and dimensions. There was the place of his
origin and indeed, there was a predecessor to the
Using the Aberdeen Terminus, Jin Gao went
by rail from his office in the skyrise to his car,
discreetly parked near the tunnel entrance on Hong
Kong Island, far from the city lights. He
maneuvered his large frame into the freshly-
detailed, mid-size sports car and closed the door,
hermetically sealing himself in. Then, he unlocked
the glove compartment and tucked its contents into
his left and right jacket pockets: a gun and forty
thousand dollars in Chinese currency.
Wasting no time, he hit the ignition, peeled
the tires and shot forward, rocketing through the
Aberdeen Tunnel toward the shipyards. He may
have been doing so without Milk Duds or the
blessing of a bobble-head Jesus, but he cranked the
big beat techno to just one decibel below
earsplitting and flattened the accelerator.
Lady Luck was already in the passenger side
seat—hot red dress, raven black hair.
He parked near a vacant warehouse and
walked the last quarter mile through the shipyards
to the water‘s edge alone. The occasional glow of
an office lamp notwithstanding, the docks were
largely deserted at this hour. The engineer‘s breath
streamed through his nose from the dampness, the
plumes like ephemeral waypoints along the dark
passage. He welcomed the quiet—in a few
moments his head would be pulsating with
numbers, probabilities and statistics. Nor did it
bother him to leave Lady Luck behind—she‘d
certainly be waiting for him in the room ahead, just
as she‘d always waited for him in Macau.
That was the advantage: wherever he went,
she went with him.
Unfortunately, the two were no longer
welcome in Macau.
Using a key, Jin Gao let himself into a
closed shipping office, triple-locked himself in.
From there, he passed through a series of doors,
storage spaces and cramped corridors until he came
to a windowless office in the middle of the building.
The workspace was a congestion of cluttered desks,
but two ladies smoking cigarettes in holders had
cleared some space on theirs to play mahjong.
They ignored the exceptionally large man as
he stepped past them and placed his hands firmly on
the filing cabinet. After several attempts, he finally
managed to move it aside a few feet. Finally, he
turned back to the women, but they were deep in the
throes of gossip.
He cleared his throat, turning out his palms.
One of them rolled her eyes, reached under
the desktop and pressed a button that sounded a
Jin Gao opened a door that had been
concealed by the filing cabinet and left them to their
smoky game so that he could begin games of his
own in the next, far smokier room. Those would be
games, of course, of sz‟„ng luk (four- five-six)—his
favorite and one of the few they were still willing to
stake him on.
Making his way through the crowded room,
Jin Gao found his table and approached it despite
the scowling dealer, a cousin of the proprietor.
Right away, he took out thirty thousand and
dropped it on the table in front of him. He half-
expected doing so would take a little air out of the
room, but it didn‘t. After all, he was in like
company here: a reject flush with cash among other
rejects flush with cash.
Pulling up a stool, the dealer placed Jin
Gao‘s chips and a cup containing three bone dice
Five other rejects joined him at the table to
get in on the action. After the initial roll designated
the player to the dealer‘s left as the banker, he
grabbed the dice cup, shook it and slammed it
upside-down on the table.
― [_Wai! _]‖ the dealer shouted when the player
revealed three sixes beneath the cup. And just like
that, two-thirds of Jin Gao‘s money vanished and
left him without enough to buy in to the next hand.
The dealer nodded through the dark haze at
one of his associates near the corner of the room to
the right. A moment later, he supplied Jin Gao with
two paper tickets, which he traded in for another
twenty thousand in chips. Combined with his last
ten, it was enough to remain in the game. His mind
blossomed with massive amounts of quantitative
conditional and statistical probabilities, variables,
negations and deductions—all of it spearheaded by
a great imaginary abacus wrought from years and
years of study, practice and mental calculation
world championships; stacking the odds as much in
his favor by processing maximum information all
while mentally cracking his knuckles.
But then, as the player took his dice cup a
second time, a moment of utter panic when Jin Gao
realized the obvious: he‘d lost the first hand because
Lady Luck wasn‘t beside him. Frantically looking
about the room, she was nowhere to be seen.
The player overturned his palm, started the
cup‘s descent toward the jade felt tabletop.
Jin Gao‘s throat locked, his guts sinking.
―Fear not, my darling,‖ Lady Luck
whispered in his ear as she threw her delicate arms
around his massive neck and shoulders. ―Tonight is
The player‘s cup came off the table,
showing the dice in order: 1-2-3.
― [_Mò lung! _]‖ (dancing dragon!) the dealer
Everyone but the player celebrated and the
dealer pushed $180,000 in chips toward Jin Gao.
Lady luck kissed him on the cheek and he
immediately wiped it away, needlessly fearing the
lipstick stamp could somehow be seen by the
Next, the dealer took the dice cup and
slammed it down with zero fanfare. He then took it
off the table, revealing 4-5-6. ― [_Ch„un fa! _]‖ (strung
Jin Gao had been blushing. Now his face
was chalk white. Wallowing in the glory of victory
just a moment before, he‘d gone all-in on that hand
The dealer raked the monumental pile of
chips back to his position at the head of the table.
The engineer shot a glance at Lady Luck,
who was still looking at the dice, astonished. He
turned back to the dealer. ―Shòuxìn.‖ (credit.)
The dealer lit a fresh cigarette off of his
current one, nodded at the man in the shadows to
the right. When he came back, brusquely edging
Lady Luck out of the way, he had twenty- four
tickets and Jin Gao took them all.
This time, the dice were his.
His brain went into overdrive, firing and
resolving myriad equations with the speed and force
of a particle collider. He was momentarily
distracted by Tessellation concepts, but instantly
brought everything back into even tighter focus and
more rigid concentration—so much so that his nose
began to bleed. Lady Luck wished all the fortunes
of the Universe upon him, speaking English so the
others wouldn‘t understand and suddenly every
equation glowed with harmony, with solution.
Eyes locked with the dealer, Jin Gao
slammed the cup down and retracted it empty.
― [_Yat fat! _]‖ (ace negative!)
The engineer‘s gaze widened in disbelief.
He looked down at his roll: 2-2-1.
The dealer was already dividing up Jin
Gao‘s chips between the house and the other
―Shòuxìn,‖ (credit,) he asked the dealer.
―Bú shòuxìn.‖ (no credit.)
―Shòuxìn!‖ (credit!) he demanded.
― [_Bú shòuxìn! _]‖ ( [_no credit! _]) This time, the
dealer looked to his left and nodded.
― [_You know, _]‖ said the Lady Luck, still
regarding the dice, ― [_it‟s not supposed to do that . . . _]‖
And she was right. Unbeknownst to him,
the reason Jin Gao‘s roll didn‘t come up even close
to what he‘d expected was because the dice simply
_looked _ like they were old and made of only bone; it
was because the dealer had stepped on a switch
beside his foot that turned on the magnetic base
beneath the jade felt surface just before the last roll.
Meaning, the most pivotal calculation he failed to
consider was the house‘s motivation to stack the
odds in their own favor—by cheating.
Just as Jin Gao raised his voice in protest, a
cloth bag was pulled down over his head and
cinched closed as six thugs dragged him out to the
docks, now a quarter of a million dollars in the hole.
Lady Luck was long gone.
Coincidentally, the first punch connected
with Jin Gao‘s jaw on the same spot she‘d kissed
him. He held his arms up around his face before
another punch could be thrown. Three of them
slammed him up against a shipping container, the
impact racking his spine as a senseless barrage of
wild fists and stomping kicks beat him to the
ground. And when he realized one of them had
gone to work on him with a crowbar and another
with the butt of his own pistol, the last of the
equations in his head fell silent and his mind only
raced with the terror of a man thinking he‘s about to
The savage beating finally ended when they
grew tired of hitting him. Whipping off the hood to
reveal the engineer‘s destroyed face, the man with
the crowbar menaced him with it, saying that he had
until the end of the week to come up with the
money, then left with the others.
Jin Gao laid there in agony, fading in and
out of consciousness.
Suddenly, the crossbars on the shipping
container banged as they were unhinged from the
inside and then moved together on its exterior,
unlocking the door.
When the gate swung open, a man stepped
out from the vessel he‘d been hiding in for the past
twenty-one days as it crossed the sea from the San
Diego shipyards near the Embarcadero Medical
Towers to China.
A moment later, he dropped a contact lens
case containing a small amount of black tar heroin
beside the engineer‘s ruined face. ―It will take care
of the pain,‖ he said. ―It will take care of
Mayar Garang knelt down beside the
immense yet broken Jin Gao. Encouraged by his
disgust of him, Garang said, ―Looks like you could
use some work . . . have you ever been to
A split second before impact, the tailfins on
the seven-foot- long tungsten projectile supinated,
redirecting its course slightly away from the
Inside the stairwell, Ara Greenstone passed
the binder to the Priestess Táhirih, who hid it in the
folds of her abaya. Then the two young women
held one another close as the volatile onslaught of
Afghan renegades dogpiled them. Once they were
ripped from one another‘s embrace, the girls kicked
and fought to fend them off as best they could. But
in another moment‘s time, they were being
manhandled down the stairs.
Suddenly, a punishing, thunderous boom
erupted all around them as the destructive force of
the tungsten bar almost ripped through the very
fabric of reality. And in a way, it had—the fourth
surrounding wall was now entirely gone, leaving in
full view the vast empty space where the adjacent
building had been a moment before. Men close to
the edge went sprawling into the void as the
structure fell away. When the rubble began to settle
and the din of the blast dissipated, both Ara and
Minoo could see down into the subterranean
parking garage precisely eighty meters away, where
a solitary individual stared up in full disbelief at his
sudden exposure and spared life.
In that brief silence, there was peace.
Just as rapid as its departure, however, the
mob‘s blood-thirst returned as they shoved and
jostled the women the rest of the way down the
stairs and out into the brutal afternoon sun. The
ordeal was excruciating for the Priestess—each
subtle movement igniting the white-hot pain from
what she was certain were cracked or even broken
ribs. Inside her clothes, she opened the book and
positioned it around her torso for protection.
Like corked bottles swept away on a raging
torrent, they were shoved past the Hammer Down
crash site where the helicopter Skyline Oasis they‘d
gone down in mere minutes ago was still on fire.
Once they were out in the street, Minoo lost her
footing and fell down hard—Ara wasn‘t sure if she
tripped or was pushed, but the binder came out and
landed already open to the Interrupter‘s
touchscreen. She hit the ground beside her friend,
both to stay close and to order a second strike.
Somehow, in all the confusion, she managed to
synchronize the target parameters with the binder‘s
GPS and expand the safety zone just before the book
was stripped from her and its contents torn out.
The page with Guardian Four stenciled on it
fell into the dirt beside Ara and was stepped on.
The area around them cleared a little and
Minoo feared more rocks were coming. Several
sets of hands pushed down on their necks, pressing
their faces into the sand and street filth.
The transmission was riddled with static,
though Ara could make out the faint confirmation
vibrating in her earpiece. ―Tungsten Heavy
selected, safe perimeter set to eight kilometers.
Then, Ara and the Priestess learned the real
reason they were brought out to the street when two
ropes tied into nooses dangled against the ground
before them like cobras.
―Deploy!‖ Ara shouted. As they were stood
up, she could hear the synthetic voice in her ear, but
it wasn‘t confirming the release with an ETA.
― [_Deploy! _]‖ she repeated as the rioters successfully
threw the ropes over the horizontal crossarm of a
nearby utility pole.
Her streaking mortal fear brought the
Interrupter‘s response into full, devastating clarity:
―System failure . . . Unable to deploy . . . Directive
They tore off Ara‘s scarf and Minoo‘s
They tightened the coarse nooses around
― [_DEPLOY! _]‖ Ara screamed it one last time
before they were hauled up the pole, desperately
clawing at the ropes, their legs flailing for purchase
as the voices of those in the overrun streets rose
with them, matching their ascent.
t had just begun to snow outside of the
Nahid Maskan compound, situated in the
I mountains beyond the Qargha Reservoir.
Several miles away, a pair of black rooks took wing
from a signpost as an old but sturdy box truck
followed the jarring road through a dense stand of
overweight WFP driver, ―this ain‘t wot I had in mind
when I signed up for missionary work.‖ He
bellowed the kind of sickly, guttural laughter that
comes from decades of chain smoking. ―Roight
Somewhat buried in his coat, hat and gloves
in the passenger side seat, Duncan Avery looked
back at his friend from behind his thick-rimmed
approximation to an audible laugh. ―‘S-roight,
Augustus Martin downshifted the World
Food Programme‘s aid truck and lit a cigarette.
―Bugger!‖ Duncan exclaimed.
His partner rolled his eyes. ―Open a
―Bloody freezing out there, it is.‖
Gus went on in spite of him. ―Oi, Duncan,
how ‘bout this one, eh? Two WFP workers walk into
an orphanage with a news crew. The hungry
children says to ‘em: ‗iz we gonna be on the telly?‘
And the workers says, . . .‖
Avery only looked out at the big snowflakes
Augustus punched his elbow.
― [_Cam on, _]‖ Gus urged, ―. . . and the workers
says . . .‖
―Fuckall if I know, Gus.‖
―They says, ‗Nah! We‘s juzt settin up a live
feed!‘ A-hahahahahaaa!‖ His laugh rolled through
the cab front to back, back to front and side to side.
Duncan smiled his perpetual substitute smile and
looked back out at the snow. ―Well?‖ Gus wanted
―Me thinks ye should stick to the classics,
And he did. ―Oi, Duncan. Why duz
orphans always go ta church?‖
―It‘s the only place they can call someone,
―Oi, Duncan. How many orphans duz it
take ta screw in a lightbulb?‖
―Ten. One to screw it in and nine ta cry cuz
they ain‘t got no parents.‖
Laughter. Smile. Shift.
―Oi, Duncan. Knock, knock.‖
―Not your parents!‖
Laughter. Smile. Shift. Exhale.
―Oi, Duncan. What‘s the difference
between the dog-pound and an orphanage?‖
want dogs! Bwa-
Laughter. Smile. Shift. Exhale. Cough.
More coughing and choking and laughing.
Just as the WFP truck rounded the next bend,
a swarm of bullets from an AK-47 punched through
ventilating both the cab and Augustus Martin. His
body shuddered from the rounds as they shredded
his parka, ejecting blood spatter and synthetic fiber
Avery, cowering as he shielded himself
from the gunshots and broken glass, could do
nothing as the driverless truck crashed head-on into
The gunman climbed down from his
position in the strong pine boughs—his comrades
already securing the truck, chalking the tires and
watching the road. He approached the vehicle from
the passenger side where Duncan Avery‘s gloved
hands were held up in surrender beside the smashed
window as cigarette and engine smoke billowed out
from the cab.
Opening the door, the hijacker pulled Avery
down from the truck, pushed him to the ground and
leveled the AK-47 at him. ―You‘re Englishmen?‖
―Yes,‖ Duncan replied.
The gunman signaled his cohorts—men
closer in age to boys, really—who grabbed the WFP
worker and held him down on his back. He
straddled Duncan and forced the business end of the
AK into his mouth, the sight lightly scraping the
back of his front teeth. ―You look like you started
your day with a good breakfast, didn‘t you,
Avery carefully nodded.
―That‘s really excellent for you, my man!
So you can make it the rest of the way to Nahid
Maskan on foot?‖
He nodded again, his glasses nearly opaque
Daud took the assault rifle out of his mouth
as the others backed off, handed him a folded slip of
paper. ―Go there as fast as you can. Take this to
the director. If the instructions are not followed
exactly, what happened to the driver is just the
beginning, you understand?‖
Avery nodded a final time, zipped the note
into his parka as the two stood.
―Good. Go now. Hurry.‖
Unsmiling, the aid worker ran off in the
direction of the orphanage. Daud watched until he
was out of sight, then went to congratulate his
friends on successfully taking the truck and thank
them for their help.
Beside the home‘s extended white van on
the far side of the parking lot from the hospital,
Mira jumped up from the wheelchair yelling, ―It‘s a
miracle! It‘s a miracle!‖
―That‘s _enough, _ Mira,‖ Foster Mother
scolded and reminded her that there are far less
fortunate children in the world and she should be
thankful she has legs for heaven‘s sake.
When she went for the passenger side door,
Foster Mother stopped her, saying, ―You‘ll sit in the
back seat directly behind mine like always when it‘s
just the two of us.‖
Instead of rolling her eyes and slumping her
shoulders the way a child would prior to doing what
she was told, Foster Mother was surprised to see her
posture turn defiant, questioning—a flash of
maturity that proved the point she‘d made to Dr.
Heller, even if it countered her own logic.
Mira got in the van. She took the far back
seat, not on the driver side, put her headphones on
and sank into her vest.
Apart from the sunlight bursting through the
cloud cover and snow flurries, the drive was not
dissimilar from the bus ride a mere twenty- four
hours before. Initially, Mira tried to ward off
thoughts of David Ezra, the handsome boy who‘d
said her name, more or less, for both the first and
last time yesterday. But as she listened to her
songs, she thought of the high school dances they
would never go to, the football games she‘d never
see him win, the moonlit drives they would never
go on when he was old enough to get his learner‘s
permit—all of the secret fantasies she‘d concocted
while stealing glances at him during their one study
hall period together had been extinguished. Worst
of all, she felt somehow responsible for what had
happened to him, certain that her lost time during
the incident was the reason the classroom seat he
always occupied would be empty tomorrow.
After all, wasn‘t that what Dr. Susan had
said? That it was because he‘d seen Mira outside
that he decided to get out and help the others?
Maybe if she‘d stayed awake and remained inside
the bus . . .
Mira wept quietly for the rest of the trip. As
Foster Mother turned into the lot at the municipal
building and parked the van, she dried her eyes and
moderated her breathing so the director wouldn‘t
Foster Mother turned around in her seat. ―I
changed my mind, Mira. Let‘s get this taken care of
today. Do you remember where in the building the
county office is? From that time you went with
Mira nodded without lifting her gaze.
―Good. Remember: you‘re representing the
home when you‘re there, so be polite to everyone
and try not to embarrass yourself. After they issue
the vouchers, come straight back to the home, no
stopping, no side trips, no strangers, got it?‖
She nodded again as she unbuckled her
safety belt and got up from the seat.
―What‘s wrong, are you crying again?‖
―No,‖ Mira answered, startled by how
breathless and small her voice sounded.
―Here, take these with you just in case.
They‘re from your vouchers for this week.‖
Mira nodded a final time, took the stubs and
zipped them into her vest when she got out.
Immediately after the door slid closed, the van
drove off, as if the shifter had never been in the
No one from the social services office
seemed all that surprised to see Mira there alone,
particularly not the young expatriate man who
reissued the vouchers. He was always especially
nice to Mira but looked at her in a strange way she
didn‘t fully understand. Perhaps Foster Mother was
right and she was getting old enough now to wait in
the long lines at the county offices, walk almost
three miles back in the cold and start helping out
more at the home.
But Mira wasn‘t thinking much about that
on the walk back. She was still thinking about
David, of course. The biting sadness she felt for
him could not be salved by some quaint notion of
Heaven because she didn‘t really believe in it
anymore—she was at least old enough for that.
Nevertheless, she did believe in a transcendent
notion of love, one that provides for those fated to
be together no matter what.
Her mind began running through countless
functioning by some estimations—seamlessly;
fabricating places, creating
scenarios, all based on real people, places and
stories that blur the lines between reality and
fantasy; considering alternate, parallel and multiple
universes, so much of it not just beyond her grasp,
but outside of human comprehension. And at just
that moment, she walked past the rain shelter at her
A copy of the same sign from the elegant
wrought- iron stand in the hospital vestibule had
been in enlarged and placed in the billboard case of
the partial shelter.
At the bottom of the wastebasket were
several empty boxes of Milk Duds under a dusting
If Mira were still a child, she would have
accepted these sights with wonder. If she were an
adult, she‘d have thought herself insane. But as a
tween, she dismissed them as coincidence and
walked the rest of the way back to the orphanage
contemplating the afterlife, whether or not there was
still a David Ezra to search for and if that hope
could somehow become real.
Foster Mother was preparing dinner in the
kitchen when she finally got back. She demanded
the vouchers at once and sent Mira to bed without
supper for having lost them in the first place.
A part of Mira really wanted to call her a
bitch, and she wasn‘t afraid to, but in the end she
Upstairs, she climbed into bed with her
headphones, her vest on over her nightclothes,
zipped all the way up. But the dwindling hopes she
had were quickly smothered by a blanket of
depression that only served to quell her hunger and
The other kids, tweens, and teenagers
filtered in at their scheduled bedtimes, but Mira
remained undisturbed. In fact, it wasn‘t until the
entire room finally fell silent that she began to stir.
Mira‘s headphones slipped away from her ears as
her legs moved slowly over the edge of the bed.
Her feet sought out the hardwood floor, her
ordinarily olive skin made iridescent by the
moonlight. As she stood and walked across the
room, the few children who were still awake
ignored her, assuming she was either up to use the
restroom or sleepwalking as she so frequently did,
navigating the realm of her imagination as her body
acted out her movements in the real world.
Eventually, she made her way downstairs,
through the dining hall and rec room to what Foster
Mother called the ―meeting room,‖ an elegantly
furnished front parlor where she would meet with
donors and prospective foster parents. Ironically,
the children were not allowed.
When Mira stepped into the room, a giant
man spun around to face her, pointed a handgun
directly at her. Oblivious, she only stopped moving
toward him when the gun barrel met her forehead.
His busted face glaring down at her, Jin
Gao‘s finger tightened on the trigger.
Finally, he tucked the pistol into the
waistband at the small of his back behind his leather
jacket, snatched the girl up in his gargantuan arms
and ran out into the night.
―But what about the nightmare man?‖ the
White Dragon asked aloud to seemingly no one as
he hauled his giant frame into the driver‘s seat of
his wrecked tractor trailer on the Parkhill Aqueduct.
[_“What about the nightmare man?” _] he whispered
repeatedly. His veins were slamming with
adrenaline and methamphetamine at precisely the
same tempo as the dance music still pounding the
cab in spite of all the damage. Multiple strains of
calculations were zooming through his head in
tandem with the knowledge that his efforts to save
the children were inextricable from the manufacture
of his own demise.
He slammed the back end of the double-
tanker into the guardrail.
Bobble- head Jesus gave his blessing.
For a sheer instant there seemed to be a way
to save himself, a way that involved changing the
equations, yet increasing the risk to the bus.
[_. . . “No, Jin Gao,” said the Tooth Fairy _]
from the passenger side seat. “ The atomic man. [_” _]
_The White Dragon briefly looked down and _
_away before continuing to process the equations. _
_Then he smashed the pedal into the _
_floorboard and let the clutch all the way out. When _
_the vehicle crashed again, it popped the rivets and _
_bent the rail out over the broken and missing parts _
_of the bridge. The truck easily ripped through the _
_unprotected seam on impact and began the short _
_descent toward the thrashing waters below, the _
_tanks and chassis licked by fire now as the final _
_equations agreed, resolved and were finally _
_The truck driver felt the cold rain on his _
_face, noticed the way the wind rushed through the _
_windows differently in the wrong direction. The _
_mantra was gone now and all that remained was the _
Tooth Fairy, with her opalescent wings and star-
_topped scepter, waiting to take him away once _
_And then, it hit. The force of the initial _
_explosion was great enough to destroy a key _
_structural portion of the aqueduct that would close _
_it for the better part of the following two years. _
_When the tanks detonated, the blast was great _
_enough to render the fuel truck unrecognizable. _
_And although all of the children were spared from _
[_the fires and shrapnel—his mental models having _]
[_proved correct—it was certainly great enough to _]
_kill its driver immediately. _
_Jin Gao, the uncharacteristically large _
_Asian man, the White Dragon, had one final thought _
when it happened: Sad there was no time to have
told the little girl who her parents were . . .
Pennsylvania, Room 221 of the Stoneridge Inn, a
colossal step down from his office suite in Hong
Kong, but in line with his current financial
Extremely disoriented, he sat on the edge of
the bed for a few minutes, collecting his thoughts
and reflecting on his dreams. They were always
intense, highly- vivid and confusing—each one like
being trapped in someone else‘s bad dream about
him, the only escape from which was a sudden,
He showered, dressed and left with his
overnight bag so he could check out and leave town
immediately following his meeting. The agent at
the front desk seemed to have no difficulty looking
Jin Gao in the face, likely because broken faces
weren‘t uncommon in that part of town.
Outside, the night was balmy and clear. As
Jin Gao approached his rental car, a well-traveled
sedan, he noticed the substantial moon and all of the
orbital data, mathematical formulae and laws of
planetary motion in his head suggested a perigee-
syzygy alignment—a full moon during its closest
approach to the Earth, creating the effect of a
Or, he could have just looked at how huge it
He laughed a little in spite of himself and
the sudden pain from doing so was a sharp reminder
of the shame and dishonor that had been beaten into
The address he was supposed to go to was
on the other side of town, but at eight pm traffic was
light and the drive was fairly brief. Jin Gao double-
checked the GPS when he arrived, thinking Garang
had made a mistake. He‘d been expecting a more
remote locale, or at least something less
conspicuous than the middle of a suburban
neighborhood. Additionally, all the lights in the
one-story residence were off, leaving him to wonder
if his contact was even home. Checking his watch,
he found he was precisely on time.
He got out, went to the front door. There
was no bell, so he rapped soundly on the door and
took a step back. When none of the lights came on
and no one answered, he tried the knob.
Unconcerned that it wasn‘t locked, he went into the
house and waited by the front bay window without
turning on any of the lights, as were his instructions.
As soon as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he did
a quick survey of his surroundings: a clean and
presentable space with modest, dated furnishings
consistent with the home and lower middle-class
Jin Gao looked through the blinds at the
quiet street. His car was around the corner, just out
of view. Adjusting the gun in his belt behind him,
he again wondered why this location had been
chosen. He wasn‘t sure if it was a safe house or a
somewhat respectable drug den.
Either way, a car suddenly came barreling
down the street so fast that when the driver hit the
brakes, the vehicle skidded for almost fifteen yards
before finally coming to a stop. A thin ethnic man
in a collared shirt and slacks got out of the car, ran
to the front door and went inside, carrying a satchel
that looked like an old doctor‘s bag used for house
The name emblazoned on the doormat was,
Without noticing Jin Gao standing in the
shadows, the man crossed the living room, dropped
the satchel on the adjoining kitchen counter
partition. Right away, he took out his phone and
was urgently scrolling through the information it
contained when Jin Gao said: ―It wasn‘t locked . . .‖
Alarmed, the man dropped his phone and
collided with a teak credenza when he jumped back.
Jin Gao stepped into a blade of moonlight.
Benjamin Khatol barely had the breath in his
lungs to speak. He kept his back close to the wall.
―Who are you? How did you get here before the
―What others? I‘m the courier—I‘m here
for the . . . harvest.‖
―Y-you‘re not the courier,‖ the man
countered, shaking his head, ―you‘re not the fucking
courier, [_I‟m _] the courier. Okay? I‘m the courier,
who the fuck are you?‖
―Look,‖ Jin Gao said, holding up his hands
slightly. ―I was hired to meet someone at this
address to pick up the harvest and drive it upstate to
Garang‘s man in Niagara Falls. That‘s all I was
―Who the hell is ‗Garang‘?‖ Outside, two
black SUVs raced up and armed men in dark
clothing got out. When the doors slammed, Ben
Khatol momentarily lost interest in Jin Gao, rushed
to the front window. ―Oh shit,‖ he said, peering
out. ―They did follow me, shit. Shit, shit, [_shit! _]‖
The Asian man caught a glimpse of their
approach from beside the entryway, saw the heavy
artillery they were readying. That alone was
harrowing enough, but then Jin Gao got a look at
one of them. They were the same men from the
docks in Hong Kong, who had beaten and
threatened him beside the shipping container. That
was when he realized why the situation was rapidly
deteriorating: Mayar Garang either had nothing to
do with the deal and set him up to interfere with it,
or had sent the dockhands after him in order to
eliminate the middleman. The truth was actually
neither and closer to both, but certainly an essential
mechanism in a cycle that would conclude on the
Parkhill Aqueduct years later.
Khatol moved away from the window,
receding toward the kitchen, toward the doctor‘s
A split-second later, a side door leading to
the garage opened and someone stepped into the
Jin Gao took the gun out of his belt, pointed
it at the intruder and fired a shot directly into the
person‘s solar plexus.
But first it went through the sack of
groceries Marla K hatol was holding in her arms
when she entered the house through the garage.
Apart from the bullet that had just pierced her
middle, she was only aware of her husband, frozen
in mortal terror, in the room with her. ―Benji?‖ she
said, ―Benji—‖ Then, her eyes rolled back as she
The instant Ben Khatol could draw breath,
His daughter Mira was crying nearby in the
entryway—she‘d been sleepwalking until the
gunshot woke her up.
Reacting to Mira‘s presence in the periphery
of his vision, Jin Gao turned the gun on her.
Ben rushed at the gunman with a butcher
knife he‘d retrieved from the wooden block on the
partition behind the satchel.
Jin Gao lowered his gun when he realized
the person was a small child of only four or five
years and turned back just as Ben K hatol pounced
on him with the knife, stabbing with wild abandon
in protection of his home, daughter and dying wife.
He was cut several times in the struggle, but
the blade didn‘t penetrate well against Jin Gao‘s
leather jacket. In the entanglement, the gun went
off again and Benjamin Khatol was dead before his
body hit the floor.
All of this occurred in the moment it took
the men outside to take aim and open fire.
Letting go of his attacker, Jin Gao leapt in
the little girl‘s direction and jumped on top of her as
a hail of bullets began shattering the glass,
splintering the wood and ripping deep into the
Mira Khatol, at this much earlier age in her
childhood, cowered beneath the Asian man as his
mammoth body shielded her, the nightmare man of
this horrific dream and all others to come asleep,
awake, wandering or still, throughout the years
leading to her adolescence. Her face pinned
between the carpet and the small box of Milk Duds
protruding from his inner jacket pocket, all she
could hear between gunshots was the soft iteration
of mathematical equations escaping his lips as he
calculated, timed and adjusted. When the hit squad
stopped to reload, Jin Gao rose and went to meet
them with the weapons Garang had supplied him
From the window, he threw two concussion
grenades followed by the doctor‘s bag, then stepped
through the broken doorjamb and began cutting
them down, firing with surgical precision. As he
took them one by one, it was as though his rabid
intellect was duty-bound by a dark pairing of
remorse and personal vengeance.
He saved the one who had threatened him in
Ap Lei Chau for last.
His murderous rampage drawing to a close,
Jin Gao dropped the guns, grabbed the man who‘d
wielded the crowbar by the throat and slammed him
against the SUV with enough force to break the glass
the rest of the way out. He tried to speak when Jin
Gao released his stranglehold, but it wasn‘t loud
enough over the sound of every car alarm on the
block going off.
Jin Gao wasn‘t listening anyway. He
grabbed the seventy-pound bag of opium, shoved it
at the thug. Speaking Mandarin, he told him that
whatever was left of his life depended on him
delivering it to the proprietor and his cousin. At
more than double what he owed, he expected them
to be squared for the debt and they would never see
They never did.
Partly because, after Jin Gao got in his car
and sped away that night, guilt-ridden and reeling
from the shock of his own actions, the
disappearance of China‘s most brilliant engineer
soon mattered to no one; he existed to no one.
No one except Mira, of course, who was still
in the house when the shooting stopped. Shivering
with fright, she managed to crawl over to her
mother, who lay half on her side in a stained blouse
and wool skirt beside the dining table, her groceries
strewn about, her home desecrated, her husband
gone—unspeakable atrocities answered only with
confusion. Her head lolled to the right as her
daughter crawled into her arms.
―Mira,‖ she said, her voice was barely above
a whisper, but that she could say her name provided
an answer to the only question that mattered now.
Unable to form words or project her voice,
her mother began humming the tune to an old Santo
and Johnny tune from the nineteen- fifties called,
―Sleepwalk,‖ and it was how she sang to her
daughter for the last time.
When the last note disappeared on her last
breath, Marla Khatol slipped away and her daughter
Mira became an orphan.
The part number SL342-703, a pneumatic
actuator from the combustion chamber of the
Carrion Comfort, became the size of a grapefruit
when it broke apart from the turbine coupling and
continued shooting through the thermosphere in
excess of seventeen thousand miles an hour.
Once a key component in Benjamin
Greenstone‘s spaceplane, the orbital debris punched
a hole through the delivery system of his
weaponized satellite, causing the Skyline Interrupter
to eject four, twenty-one- foot tungsten pillars that
began twisting their way toward Earth at Mach 10
with the destructive energy of 28.8 tons of
It was what he would have wanted.
To the same extent that Foster Mother‘s
footsteps were loud and deliberate in the hospital
corridor, the monitor‘s sandaled steps were hushed
and anxious in the Afghan orphanage vestibule.
―Ara!‖ she called out over the lines. A
significant bite had been lifted from her bark. ―Ara
Tor Pikai!‖ she exclaimed again and a small, pallid
face turned toward her. She ordered the girl to her
side at once.
Ara made her way through the lines of
unruly orphans to the monitor, who took her hand
and escorted her to the director‘s office. She was
too weak to notice that the monitor had chosen her
hand rather than her ear or a clump of her hair—it
was all she could do to keep her feet under her.
Once inside the foster care director‘s
disheveled office, she was marshaled into the seat
opposite him, across a large, timeworn desk.
Radiating contempt at the girl, his round face, hard
stare and thinning comb-over were a fixed,
A distraught Duncan Avery occupied a
nearby chair, his big teeth and broad smile absent.
The monitor was asked to leave.
The director pushed the file folder on his
desktop away from him, as if it were a meal he no
longer cared to finish. ―Clever girl,‖ the director
began, smoothing his thick moustache. ―Very
clever. You think you‘re the only one who speaks
English, don‘t you?‖
Ara lowered her eyes.
―Speaking English, sneaking around, letting
in those who don‘t belong here . . . did you think I
would not find out? And now this business with my
― [_No! _]‖ Ara snapped, petulant and abrasive.
―It‘s _my _ aid truck.‖ She was out of her chair, up
against the front of his desk. The director stood to
match her defiance, then loomed over her. Ara
noticed the letter opener on his desk beside an old
CB radio base station, reflexively thought to protect
herself with it or even use it to hurt him despite her
Thinking better of it, she said: ―Mr. Avery
knows what I mean. Don‘t you, Duncan?‖
Duncan Avery appeared startled by the
sound of his own name, as if he‘d never heard it
―I know about some things, too,‖ she said to
the director. ―I know that Zemar wasn‘t adopted
The director‘s scowl went slack upon
hearing the young boy‘s name.
―And I won‘t . . . allow this. Not to us, not
ever again,‖ she vowed. Zemar was a friend of the
boy who kept teasing her in line. The children were
told he‘d been adopted by a local family, but in
truth he‘d expired from malnourishment. Ara found
out about it while she was learning the aid truck‘s
delivery schedule, had watched as Augustus Martin
loaded his slight, bedsheet-wrapped form into the
back of it along with his own share of the
Sensing the very real threat in her words, the
director attempted to redirect the conversation in his
favor. ―You don‘t understand, child. Sometimes
the food is spoiled, sometimes there isn‘t enough,
― [_I WON‟T! _]‖ Ara shrieked. ―I don‘t care
what you have to say—this isn‘t a . . . discussion.
From now on the children will eat first. O n this
day, and every day.‖
―Now you listen to me, you wicked little
creature. I‘ve had enough of you,‖ he growled,
At that, she reached out her hand and the
director backed off, thinking she was going for the
letter opener. Instead, she grabbed the CB base mic
by its neck, pressed the transmit button. ―Daud,‖
she said into it and released the switch.
―Na-am,‖ the young man came back, his
voice even and responsive above the static.
In his native Arabic, she instructed him to
burn the World Food Programme truck and
―Stop!‖ the director interjected. Ara told
Daud to wait and kept the transmit button held
down. ―Okay. It is okay. I will work with you to
make sure the orphans get the nutrition they need,
okay? Together. Let‘s end this, this madness now.‖
Although Ara didn‘t trust the director, she
saw the merit in his words. Overthrowing the
orphanage had never been her intention—even
though she‘d inadvertently done just that by cutting
off its only food source—because the incident with
Zemar was just the final straw in a long tradition of
lies first established by her own parents. That the
pain and death they‘d visited upon the family had
been of their own devising was of little comfort—
especially not considering her somewhat baseless
suspicion that her mother was still alive. But if she
could give this man a chance, and if the outcome
was positive, then perhaps she‘d finally understand
what her earliest friend had known all along: that
forgiveness is superior to vengeance.
Her resolute gaze trained on the director, she
told Daud that he‘d be coming down to get the truck
alone, and to shoot him if he lowers his hands. She
released the switch, planted the base mic on the
desk. ―Yalla,‖ she said and motioned for them to
get moving, Duncan included.
After the corridor and common area, they
continued through the empty kitchen quietly, as if
Ara herself was the one holding the gun.
Snow was falling on the lot outside. Ara
told the director where he would find the truck, to
interlace his hands behind his head and not to lower
them, even for a moment, lest he be shot.
Next, she asked Duncan Avery to follow the
final instructions on his list. He appeared reluctant
as he stepped in front of the director, undid the
man‘s belt and pulled down his pants, revealing a
rather colorful pair of boxer briefs.
Shocked, the other man immediately
attempted to yank them back up until Ara reminded
him that her contacts might already be in range.
She shot a glance back at Duncan.
―Duz we really hafta?‖
Ara cocked her head impatiently, which
snapped Duncan into action and he gave the
orphanage director a sound kick in the rear to start
him on his way.
As they watched him descend the hill in
little half-steps, Duncan said: ―It‘s gunna take a lot
―I know,‖ Ara responded with a quick shrug.
She turned toward the orphanage with the kitchen
hearth in mind. ―I‘m gonna stand by the fire . . .
you could come, too.‖
―Uh, sure,‖ said Avery as he stopped
watching the director, who looked ridiculous as he
tried to keep his footing with his hands behind his
head as if relaxing.
Still in shock from Gus Martin‘s death, the
WFP worker was terrified of what Ara might have in
store for him when he caught up to her, but she
simply laughed and recited a line from the only
movie she‘d ever seen. ―Duncan, I think this is the
beginning of a beautiful friendship.‖
At the same time two miles away, Daud was
positioned in the pine boughs with the assault rifle,
waiting for the foster director‘s nose to align with
the notch at the end of it.
Mira Khatol‘s rest was suddenly interrupted
by a warm rain, the first of that year. The solid,
cold press of the cemetery headstone against her
cheek, though familiar, reminded her of the
previous days‘ loss. She turned away from her
parents‘ names, as if she‘d seen David Ezra‘s
engraved there with them.
Still in her nightgown, Mira stood up in the
mud and sneezed. It was the first sign of the cold
that would keep her in bed for the next two weeks.
As she started on her way back to the orphanage,
she was careful about her mildly frostbitten toes, a
painful but acceptable consequence considering the
alternative: had it not been for this second dramatic
overnight shift in temperature, she‘d have certainly
died from exposure. It was for exactly this reason
she usually wore oven mitts on her hands as Foster
Mother zipped her into a sleeping bag each night—a
preventative measure not dissimilar from the
hospital‘s outrageous bed restraints.
Mira thought differently of that place now,
particularly of the wonderful lady who‘d stayed up
late last night talking with her—and all at once the
recurring dreams, nightmares and fantasies flooded
to the front of her mind, fluttering for wing-space
like a rookery of birds, the memories and visions
colliding with one another over and over as they
drew to a close, nearly completing yet another full
revolution, precisely comparable to its last only
with subtle variation, history repeating itself, her
own personal Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence.
Indeed, Mira had only shared a fraction of
this world with Dr. Heller, a place fraught with
constant tension and infiltrated by monsters based
on real people dragged into a dual existence—like
transforming her high-strung substitute teacher into
a fastidious executive assistant with secret
obsessions, or the quiet but exotic bus driver she
saw every day becoming an international menace
shackled by the chains of his past. These were
connections that ran deep, and had greater
implications than she could know or would ever
admit. Yet, she‘d lionized David Ezra in much the
same way. She‘d envisioned him as a young
warrior of boundless loyalty and, of course, as the
hero he really was, selflessly saving the children on
the Parkhill Aqueduct.
Still, Mira could also admit to herself that he
was just a boy she hardly knew, just as she had
never developed attachments or become close with
anyone throughout the years following the death of
her parents. But it wasn‘t as easy to accept that this
same entanglement of dreams and reality—certainly
her childhood‘s only source of solace and
understanding—would also be the reason the
tragedy had crushed her so; and why, despite the
many strange and unsettling places she‘d awoken
from sleepwalking, she‘d returned to the graveyard.
Mira K hatol was done with it, she decided.
As her perception that the entire world seemed like
a stupid, unfair place grappled with her adolescent
understanding of her blossoming desires, she
suddenly wished the cold had taken her in the night
She thought about that constantly while she
was sick, and more as she began making weekly
visits to the cemetery—only during the daytime,
and under her own conscious will, of course. Going
there now felt therapeutic, but an obsession was
growing in the bittersweet darkness of what might
Soon enough, the torrential spring rains
relented to the radiant blue skies of summer.
Several months had gone by, but little had changed
apart from school letting out. On the last day, Mira
stopped by Ms. Wilson‘s desk to retrieve the items
she was told she could have back at the end of the
year. She asked for them politely, but from behind
the collar of her puffy yellow vest, which garnered
an eye-roll from the teacher.
Happy with herself, she collected her
belongings and left for the year, her only plans to
stop by the cemetery on her way back to the
orphanage. When she got there, she was pleased to
see the pocket-sized piece of onyx she‘d once left
still placed atop the grave marker. It was actually a
chunk of river-polished coal, but she was no more
able tell the difference than the time she mistook a
moss-covered rock she found at the bus stop for a
piece of jade and ultimately dismissed it as a green
Mira did excel, however, when her science
focused on botany, particularly
identifying plant life. That was one reason she
knew the flowers with little yellow pompoms on top
growing around her parents‘ headstone that day
were not dandelions, but catsears.
Kneeling down in the lush grass, Mira began
pulling up the weeds, saving the tallest catsear with
the biggest pompom for last. It snapped off at the
stem when she finally grabbed it, smudging her
hand with sticky white latex.
Mira K hatol smiled, unzipped her collar
down to the neckline.
Suddenly, a honeybee appeared from behind
the bright yellow floret, its legs tickling the soft
flesh of her hand as it crawled onto her, busily
She froze, her eyes wide.
She tried not to move or breathe.
Among the rows not far away, a familiar,
extremely large man of Asian descent was watching
her—which was impossible because she wasn‘t
[_. . . “Wake up, Mira,” came a woman‟s _]
_voice, gentle and friendly. _
_Mira opened her eyes . . . Making eye contact with _
_the lady with the nice voice, she grinned, blinking _
[_sleepily. “Wow, you‟re pretty,” she said. _]
. . . “My goodness, thank you so much—
[_you‟re one hot mama yourself, you know.” _]
_Mira smiled huge, immediately covering her _
_nose and mouth with the blankets. _
[_. . . “Hi there, Mira. My name‟s Susan, I _]
[_work here at the hospital and,” she said, shuffling _]
[_papers around, “. . . I just need to ask you a bunch _]
[_of quick questions—most of them are super easy _]
and there are no wrong answers, but [_please think _]
_carefully and try to remember as much as you can, _
_She nodded enthusiastically. _
[_“Mira, are you in any pain right now?” _]
[_“Do you take medicine for anything?” _]
[_“Are you allergic to anything?” _]
[_“Bees when they sting.” . . . _]
The engineer and source of her nightmares
was running toward her, coming after her just as he
Jin Gao, the atomic man, the White Dragon.
Mira flinched when she noticed him and,
without warning, the bee plunged its stinger into her
The flower fell from her grasp as the bee
flew off, leaving its stinger and abdomen behind
following the mortal act.
The sun was instantly too bright, blaring
down on her. The world began to spin as her pulse
accelerated. Her hand felt like a blowtorch was
being held over it. She couldn‘t hear the birds
singing. She pulled her collar further back from her
neck as she started to panic. And the breath she
drew to scream became her last as her throat locked,
The nightmare man closed the distance.
Mira could see his face clearly now. After
killing Mira‘s parents, an imaginary incarnation of
Jin Gao had haunted her childhood throughout the
years no matter how many times she conceived of
his destruction, of his fiery demise. But the
accident on the Parkhill Aqueduct had not been a
dream, and nor was this.
Mirage, phantom or otherwise, he was the
last sight the young girl beheld before she collapsed
into the cemetery grass, a place that had been
specifically selected because it was both beautiful
and hidden from view by a cleft in the hillside
And that was where Mira Khatol spent her
final moments alone.
The sun was a blast furnace scorching the
overrun streets of Kandahar.
Twenty feet above the roiling insurrection,
Ara Greenstone and the Priestess Táhirih fought the
ropes throttling them using both hands, attempted to
brace themselves against the utility pole with their
feet. With their bulging eyes squeezed shut on their
strained faces, their necks were only unbroken
because they‘d been raised rather than dropped.
Their tracheae were nearly closed off, however, and
the blood flowing through their jugular veins and
carotid arteries was barely sluicing to their brains.
Just faintly, Ara‘s earpiece vibrated with
broken sound. Because the majority of the
transmission was incoherent, the device merely
wriggled in her ear canal like a frustrated insect.
But just when she needed it most, a few
fragments made it through: ―—ound tung— pillars.
Impact with targ— site in twelve—‖
Another twelve minutes? They‘d already
been hanging for more than ten and using the last of
their strength to ward off the encroaching
unconsciousness. Once that set in, Death would be
―Eleven . . . Ten . . . Nine . . .‖ Marking
seconds instead, the transmission was clear now, as
if revitalized somehow. The countdown resumed.
―. . . Six . . . Five . . .‖
There, in the broad Central Asian sky, the
tungsten pillars wove descending condensation
trails in a quadruple helical braid, creating a biaxial
pattern that burst apart at the last moment when
their tailfins supinated—just as the crowbar had—to
provide a safe perimeter from the surrounding
emasculated by the incoming projectiles as they
slammed into the outskirts of the city at all four
compass points, displaying the reason Benjamin
Greenstone named them as he did: four giant
columns of earth, stone and sand erupted straight
surrounding a lethal shockwave that became the
epicenter of a punishing series of earthquakes.
Those not drawn to their knees by the
awesome sight were brought down by the force of
the blasts near the perimeter, including those
holding the lines keeping Ara and Minoo in place.
Once released, the ropes whirred over the
crossarm as the young women took huge, deep
breaths despite their twenty- foot plummet from the
top of the pole with nothing beneath them but the
clawing masses, now fearing for their lives.
hile Ara Tor Pikai waited with
Duncan Avery in the kitchen at
W Nahid Maskan, Daud watched
from his frosty post in the pine boughs, his exposed
finger lightly bonded to the trigger.
The steady snowfall made visibility difficult,
but could do nothing to hide the sight of the foster
director when he appeared, hobbled by his own
pants. Daud stifled the laughter bubbling up
through him considering the seriousness of the
situation. Regardless, translated into English, he
thought: _She will do great things in her life, this _
[_girl. As will my beloved. Once this is through, I‟ll _]
_find her. More than ever now, I will find her. _
Daud squeezed off a triplet of rounds that
tore up the ground near the director‘s feet, stopping
him in his tracks. While the man stood there
trembling, Daud came down from the pine boughs
and approached his captive.
But when he stood before him, he couldn‘t
contain the laughter any longer, and gestured for
him pull up his pants. Once his cold legs were
covered, Daud led him to the driver‘s side of the
truck and ordered him to remove Augustus Martin‘s
Constantly retching and struggling with
Martin‘s cumbersome bulk, the director only
managed to get him onto the ground beside the
truck before Daud figured he‘d had enough and
directed his comrades to help him hide the body in
the woods nearby. Eventually, the WFP and the UN
would return in search of the aid worker, but Daud
would be long gone by then, as would Ara before it
was finally all sorted out.
The boys hammered out the perforated
windshield with the butt ends of their rifles and
ordered the director into the driver‘s seat while
Daud disabled the CB radio. When he made him try
the ignition, the truck sputtered at first, then turned
over. With the front end having sustained most of
the damage on impact, the grill separated from the
engine manifold when it backed away from the tree,
but the motor remained intact and running.
Daud instructed the administrator to return
directly to the orphanage, warned him not to
Without looking up from his hands gripping
the steering wheel, he nodded and drove off as the
young man stepped down from the vehicle‘s
Satisfied that their part in the operation was
a success, the young men watched the truck as it
lumbered up the unpaved road through the pines
and began looking forward to getting somewhere
But the director didn‘t drive straight back to
Halfway there, he came to a fork in the road.
The truck stopped at the intersection and, for a
moment, the director seemed to not know which
way to go. Suddenly, the tires spun, kicking up dirt
and debris with the wheels cranked in the wrong
direction. Just as the vehicle pitched in favor of the
road leading toward the capital, another burst of
rounds disintegrated the side view mirror.
The box truck sat motionless, its exposed
Daud got down from the tailgate he‘d been
hitching a ride on, slowly edged toward the cab
prepared to shoot out the tires if the director
attempted to take off again. Eventually, he came
around to the cab on the passenger side and got in.
―We must come to an understanding, you
and I,‖ Daud began. ―I cannot force you to do the
right thing. If others were here from the orphanage
or the city, they would listen to nothing I could say.
All I can do is shoot you now or send someone local
to check with Ara every single day after this. But,
at some point it is you who must decide what kind
of man you are, or at least remember who you were
when you came to the orphanage.‖
It was a long while before the director
finally spoke. ―I was . . . just a boy.‖
―And what are you now?‖
The director kept silent, but his sagging
shoulders and averted eyes revealed the answer.
Evidently, the long walk from the compound—not
to mention Daud‘s assault rifle—had afforded some
perspective. However, shame and dishonor were
never the real objectives. And because Daud
couldn‘t actually check in on the orphanage after
this day, he had to be sure.
―These children there,‖ he persisted,
―they‘re no one. Ara and the others have no one.
Again, I ask you, ‗ [_what are you now? _]‘‖
― [_Amant dar, _]‖ he muttered in Pashto.
―Eh?‖ Daud cupped his ear for clarification
while pointing the gun down, at the footwells.
―Guardian,‖ he repeated.
―That‘s very excellent for you, my man!
Now let‘s go!‖
The foster father put the aid truck in gear,
turned the tires toward Nahid Maskan. Daud, who
had been far more apprehensive than he let on, was
relieved to see a glimmer of enthusiasm thawing the
years of hardship wrought on the older man‘s face.
By the time the aid truck returned to Nahid
Maskan, Ara had assembled all of the monitors in
the lot behind the galley. The director engaged the
emergency brake, turned to Daud and managed a
gruff thank you before helping the others unload.
It was hectic after that. Daud wished he
could have had more time with his friends under
better circumstances. He had every confidence he‘d
find them again one day soon, but for now he had
promises to keep to both Ara and himself.
She was difficult to find with all the
unloading, cooking and organizing, so he pitched in
wherever he was needed, having left the rifle
unloaded under the truck seat. Finally, Ara found
him in the lot instead, emerging from the bustling
galley with a steaming cup of cocoa.
―Want some?‖ she asked, proffering the hot
―I‘m okay, thanks,‖ he smiled.
Suddenly aware that she wasn‘t speaking
Arabic or any of the Afghan languages he was
familiar with, she said: ―Sorry—it‘s not often I get
to practice English.‖
―I don‘t mind. It‘s practice for me, too.‖
―So do you remember what I said about
―The imam, yes. I will follow signs of his
leadership and teachings.‖
Ara hesitated a moment, then, ―I don‘t know
how to thank you . . . you saved us, all of us.‖
Daud shrugged off her gratitude with a
lighthearted tap on the arm. ―You would have
figured something out. That I am sure.‖
Were it not for her eyes, Daud would have
been unaware of her large grin—the tip of her nose
and her lips hidden just behind the rim of the mug.
―I already know why you like Minoo,‖ she said
finally. ―And now I know why she likes you.‖
―You can‘t know that,‖ he countered, his
―What, that she likes you? Oh yes. Yes, I
can. I know her. I always know her. Have you
ever felt that way about someone? Even if you
don‘t see them? As if . . . you‘re always together
and it doesn‘t matter how far away or for how long
. . . you just, always know.‖
―I used to have a sister.‖ Daud lifted his
face, felt the flurries tickle his skin, and the memory
of his sister entered his thoughts in a beautiful way
for the first time. ―From this day on, that is how I‘ll
always remember her: in a way that not even Life
and Death can interrupt.‖
―Good,‖ she finished. Then, in her fake
bossiest voice, she said. ―Now go find Minoo before
she upsets any more warlords. She is not as sweet
and innocent as you may think.‖
―Goodbye, Ara,‖ he said over his shoulder
as he turned to leave. On the path of the holy man,
following evidence rather than myth, Daud headed
toward Kabul on foot, the first leg of a journey that
would end at the Fort of São Sebastião on the Isle of
Like any other host with departing
houseguests, Ara Tor Pikai waited until he was
entirely gone from view. She took a satisfying gulp
of cocoa and went back inside the orphanage
changed somehow, secure in her charge yet
unknowingly awaiting the day, not far off, when a
westerner named Benjamin Greenstone would come
to the end of his own search and change her life
Inside Nahid Maskan, all of the children
―Wake up, Mira,‖ said Dr. Susan Heller in a
Mira could make out her words above the
beep-whoosh of the respirator, followed them
toward consciousness. She blinked a few times as
the therapist brushed her black hair away from her
―It‘s good to see you again. You gave us
quite a scare, young lady,‖ she said, leaning back in
the bedside chair. Several doctors and a whole host
of interns surrounded them in an eager congregation
of lab coats, notebooks and stethoscopes. While the
RN checked her vitals and drew blood, the lead
physician turned to address his group. With his
back to her, Mira could discern little and understand
less. She heard: ―anaphylaxis,‖ ―REM sleep
behavior disorder,‖ and ―only speculate at this
―How did I get here? What are they
saying?‖ Mira wanted to know. The swelling had
gone down in her face, but Susan could see she was
―It‘s all right, Mira. Try thinking of it as a
giant jigsaw puzzle—they‘re just trying to figure
out how all the pieces fit together,‖ she said, though
Dr. Heller herself was unsure of the explanation.
―You were found . . . sleepwalking by the loading
docks behind the kitchen where the deliveries come
in. We‘re amazed you weren‘t run over by a food
truck or something.‖
Mira looked away as the nurse lifted her arm
and slipped the self- inflating cuff around it to check
her blood pressure. Fearing the painful squeeze of
it toward the end, she checked out her surroundings
as a distraction. It was a different room than last
time, but there were enough similarities to make it
Sensing her discomfort, Susan decided not
to tell her anything they‘d found truly amazing: that
she‘d gone into cardiac arrest or that she‘d been
walking at all.
Perhaps another time.
The psychologist waited until all of the
doctors, nurses and interns had left the room before
continuing. ―Can you tell me what the last thing
you remember is?‖ she asked, almost offhandedly.
Mira pictured Jin Gao running toward her
through the cemetery rows in nightmarish slow
motion, the sun too bright, the wind-borne catsear
weightless. He couldn‘t have really been there, yet
she was clutching her stomach in fear. Looking
over, she was struck that the doctor‘s notebook
wasn‘t open on her lap, but Mira was cautious
nonetheless. Instead, she told her about the bee.
―I didn‘t think he was gonna sting me at
first. Then I got scared and he probably got scared
because I was and then he got me. Then,‖ Mira
swallowed, her throat tightening as before, but for a
different reason now. ―And then . . .‖ Dr. Heller
leaned forward in her chair. ―All I could think
about was him.‖
―David Ezra? From the accident last
―You miss him a lot, don‘t you?‖
She nodded again and before she could stop
herself, she revealed a far more personal secret, one
that had been plaguing her since the day of the
accident. ―I kinda thought that if I died, we could
finally be together.‖
―Oh, Mira,‖ Susan breathed as she put her
notes aside and moved in close to the girl. Slipping
an arm behind Mira‘s pillow, she gave her response
careful consideration before speaking. ―Sweetheart,
sometimes it‘s not really the person we get hung up
thinking about, it‘s that we never got a chance to
see where things went, and that‘s what keeps
hurting you, that you‘ve been denied your chance.
But the good news is: you‘ll have many, many more
chances in the future. As long as you stop playing
with bees, of course.‖
Mira laughed suddenly, her eyes bright and
―So listen,‖ said the therapist. ―I know the
food here leaves something to be desired. Would
you like something from the vending machine?‖
Mira nodded emphatically, exaggerating her
enthusiasm to match the doctor‘s.
―It‘s pretty good, I mean, considering it‘s a
hospital. They have chips, cookies, every candy bar
you can think of, and even those boxes of movie
candy: Sno-Caps, Milk Duds, Junior Mints, or I
could just surprise you . . .‖
―Maybe surprise me? Anything but Milk
―Okay.‖ They giggled as Susan brushed her
hair back again. Thrusting the multi- function
remote into her small hands, Dr. Heller said, ―I‘ll be
back in just a moment, Mira. See if there‘s
anything good on.‖
Once she was in the corridor, the therapist
pulled her dark, auburn hair into a clip at the nape
of her neck and took several deep breaths while her
arms were raised. For the most part, she was
perfectly fine going down to her locker for her
purse and retrieving a box of candy from the
vending machine, but once she was headed back
toward Mira‘s room, her jitters returned in full
force, accompanied by a lush swarm of butterflies.
There was little about her profession she found
unusual anymore. With enough experience, she
knew what reactions to expect from people,
regardless of their circumstances. But somehow she
couldn‘t find that same insight into her own, at least
not then, not when it mattered most. It was a
wonderful sort of anxiety though, borne of a
wonderful surprise that had nothing to do with the
cellophane-wrapped package of Sno-Caps between
her warm, damp palms.
through the local stations, most of which were only
showing daily news broadcasts at this hour. Bored
and disinterested, she stopped on one, ignoring the
droning anchor. Now that Dr. Heller was out of the
room, Mira noticed her puffy yellow vest draped
over the back of the chair she‘d been sitting in.
As she gazed at it, something the newscaster
said caught her attention. Mira turned up the
― _. . . in breaking news, authorities have _
_learned that the bus driver involved in the tragic _
_accident on the Parkhill Aqueduct last April had _
_been living in the United States under an assumed _
_name and was in fact this man, Mayar Garang, a _
_Sudanese national being pursued under charges of _
_drug and human trafficking, kidnapping, assault _
_and murder. Although no children were harmed or _
_involved in his activities before or during his tenure _
_with the Rustica Falls School District, the _
_international agencies conducting the investigation _
_are not disclosing any further information at this _
_time as some of his former operations still continue _
_overseas. Meanwhile, as construction resumes on _
_the Parkhill Aqueduct following the holiday _
_weekend, motorists will be able to access the _
_Interstate directly from Route 340 without having to _
[_take the Rustica Boulevard detour until the bridge‟s _]
_completion, slated for a year from this summer. _
_Before its reopening for public use, the new _
_aqueduct will be dedicated to the sacrifice made by _
_this man, Jin Gao, who managed to drive his _
[_flaming double-tanker semi over the side of the _]
[_bridge following its T-bone collision with the school _]
_bus. Damage to the aqueduct was caused when the _
_tractor trailer exploded over the Broadhead, _
_sparing the lives of the kids and teenagers on their _
[_way home from school . . . _]‖
Seeing the still images of both men on the
screen above her, Mira shrieked in mortal terror,
repeatedly punching the call button on the remote
for the nurse.
Susan Heller was at the end of the hallway
when she heard her patient, abandoned everything
to rush to her aid. When she burst into the room,
Mira was in hysterics. ― [_It‟s all my fault, _]‖ she cried
as the therapist embraced her, ― _They come out of my _
[_imagination! All of them . . . From my dreams! _]
[_ And now, they‟re—they‟re coming after me! _]‖
Susan gave her a moment to let it run its
course, get it out of her system. Once her breathing
finally calmed, she relaxed her arms and asked,
―What about me, Mira? Do you think that‘s where I
―I don‘t know,‖ the young girl sniffled, no
longer really sure of anything. Mira‘s fears were
not entirely baseless. After so many years of
converting real people from her everyday life into
the avatars of her imagination and creating their
elaborate stories, Mira had forgotten where many of
the lines between reality and fantasy were drawn.
Certainly the young Armenian man from the county
social services office who sometimes looked at her
in an odd way couldn‘t really be a maniacal sex
trafficker, just as Lady Luck was no such person.
Or the Tooth Fairy. Or Santa Claus, the Easter
Bunny or any other relic of her childhood. Yet, it
was impossible to ignore or reconcile what had
actually transpired between Jin Gao and her parents
when she was little; or that by incorporating the
mysterious school bus driver into her dreams to
account for what she hadn‘t been told or had been
too young to fully grasp, she‘d inadvertently
discovered Mayar Garang‘s true identity. And
because neither of which began to approach the
astronomical coincidence of their accident on the
Parkhill Aqueduct and David Ezra‘s passing, all she
had left was the hope that the woman beside Mira
could somehow lead her toward reason and clarity.
About that much, Mira Khatol was
―Well for the record, I didn‘t come from
your imagination. I came from Connecticut.‖
Susan smiled at her, gently pried the remote control
out of Mira‘s death-grip and replaced it with the
box of Sno-Caps. With the intercom button no
longer being held down, the floor nurse responded.
The psychologist assured her that everything was
under control, then asked if she would send her
guest to the room. In the background, the anchor
segued into a more positive piece and Susan
attempted do to the same. ―Mira, I know you‘ve
been through a lot, more than anyone your age
should be . . . and I‘m constantly amazed by this
bottomless reservoir of courage that you seem to
have. That‘s why I believe you when you say your
dreams are scary: it‘s because I know you don‘t
scare easy. You wouldn‘t be much of a hero if you
―You think I‘m a hero,‖ Mira questioned
flatly as the door opened and a woman with curly
hair wearing a modest print dress stepped in.
―Absolutely yes. Even if you don‘t. In fact,
I know someone that would very much want to
meet my new hero, Mira K hatol. But don‘t worry,
we won‘t expect you to sign autographs,‖ she teased
before turning to introduce the young lady. ―This is
my very close friend Caroline. She and I have been
friends for a long time, haven‘t we Caroline?‖
Susan‘s friend nodded and Mira waved to her with a
friendly hello. When she waved back, Mira
expected her to come over and sit down, but she
waited beside the door instead. ―You don‘t know
this, Mira, but after you left the hospital in April, I
continued meeting with your foster mother, usually
at the county social services office. We were going
to tell you sooner, but in the wake of the accident
and everything, we thought the end of the school
year would be best.‖
Mira was confused for just that moment, but
as she realized what was happening, her jaw
dropped lower than it had when she saw Jin Gao
and Mayar Garang‘s pictures on the television just a
―Anyway, Caroline and I have this big house
up in Evergreen Summit and we were wondering
what you‘d think about maybe staying with us
instead of at the center.‖ There was no other
scenario Mira Khatol had envisioned more
frequently over the years—a moment that had
played out countless times in her mind, with many
characters, real, imaginary and, of course, those
somewhere in between—a secondary Doctrine built
entirely of her greatest hopes. And even though
she‘d always known just what she‘d say and exactly
how she‘d react, in the end, she simply nodded, her
gaze in perfect union with Susan‘s, until she hugged
her, crossing her arms behind the doctor‘s neck.
―I‘ve been looking for you for a long time, Mira.
Later, Dr. Heller explained to Mira that she
would need to remain at the hospital under
observation for another twenty- four hours. She‘d
wanted her to use that time to give the proposal
careful thought before reaching a decision, but Mira
assured her that the decision had alread y been
made. With all of the formalities in order, Susan
promised to come to the center to begin the
transition that weekend.
The next day, as Mira was being checked
out of the hospital, Foster Mother asked if she
wanted to put on her vest before going outside—
shocked that she hadn‘t already done so. She
refused, saying that it was too warm out now, that
the season had passed.
Somewhere between the excitement and
medication, Mira went to bed early that evening and
dreamt of the vest—her first new dream in many,
many years. In it, her puffy yellow vest is floating
in the air against the bright blue afternoon sky when
it suddenly bursts apart, disintegrating, its explosive
contents not goose down, but catsear seeds,
suspended by their tiny white parasols, and Mira
Khatol is one of them, floating, separate,
weightless, moving alone in her own direction until
finally acted upon, an interruption that leads to a
new beginning, an opportunity to flourish, an arrival
home first preceded by a great journey.
And all throughout the night, she lay
_There is a final scroll. In it, neither of the _
[_farmers‟ daughters survive the burning field. _]
[_Instead, the merchant‟s child and the holy man‟s _]
_child meet in the middle of the fire and perish _
_One day, though, made stronger by their _
_destruction, they are to rise again as forbidden _
_flowers, hidden from view by a cleft in the hillside _
High above the crowd, her body battered
and broken, the Priestess Táhirih defied the ligature
on survival instinct alone, just as she had with her
mothers in the Mozambican shallows, and even
before that when she and Ara had run from the
nightmare man‘s fire-stream in the poppy fields—a
sinister tradition that had cost her everything: first
her parents, then her guardians, and now her long
lost friend with whom she‘d just been reunited.
More, each had come at the expense of something
greater than themselves: her childhood, the Da„Wah
and finally an entire city of her people in turmoil.
However, the Priestess despaired for none of
it. Instead, she was thinking of Daud at the end,
acknowledging how simple it could have been and
wasn‘t. How she‘d sealed her fate by leaving
Africa and breaking both of their hearts. How the
life she‘d formed in service of her faith would be
marred by the circumstances of her death. But
because she took comfort knowing that not even
Death can overshadow the reach of kindness,
determination and sacrifice, her only regret was that
the ligature prevented her from reciting the Kalima
Shahada aloud. Alternatively, she repeated the
testimony in her mind, seeing her last words come
alive in her imagination as they glorified and
reinforced the memory of her boat ride back across
the Mozambique Channel with Daud, the sea-breeze
caressing her exposed face and the great, young
teacher was herself taught a lesson: that true
paradise is without boundaries.
― Ašhadu an lā ilāha illā-llāh waḥ [_dahu lā _]
šarīka lahu, wa ašhadu anna muḥ _ammadan _
[_„abduhu wa rasūluhu. _]‖ (I bear witness that (there is)
no god except Allah; One is He, no partner hath He,
and I bear witness that Muhammad is His Servant
The moment was punctuated by the
percussive quadruplet of the tungsten projectiles as
they struck. With the rope running free over the
crossarm during the subsequent descent, Minoo
loosened the ligature from her neck, gasped for air.
The tumult below broke her fall somewhat, but
hitting the ground knocked the wind back out of her
as she was trampled by those trying to run or simply
keep their feet beneath them. Starving for oxygen
somewhere within the kicking feet and stampeding
legs, Minoo could see Ara on the ground as well,
reached out to her. Thinking she was under attack
when she saw this, Ara grabbed one of several guns
that had been dropped in the chaos and discharged a
few skyward rounds. Their proximity and volume
created a small clearing around the Priestess long
enough for Ara to collect her once more.
They crawled to one another on the coarse
ground through the dirt and sand. Ara, blind with
anger, removed the rope from her friend‘s neck as
Minoo did the same for her. Once Minoo‘s arm
was around her shoulders, Ara used the last of her
strength to get them standing and Minoo used her
good leg to give them better support. They were
exasperated, drawing deep, rapid breaths, as if for
the first time. Unable to speak—and even if they
could, their hearing was still ruined from the gunfire
and explosions—each woman checked to see if the
other could keep moving, however impossible their
escape now seemed.
Turning away, they made it but a single step
before coming face to face with their executioner.
He was older, though not elderly, with wild gray
hair, gaunt and unshaven—a thin man with wide,
frightened eyes holding his hands up in surrender.
They knew he‘d been grasping the ropes because
his palms were red-raw, the place where manifest
guilt is always found.
Ara Greenstone pointed the gun directly
between his wide, frightened eyes, her finger
tightening on the trigger, eager.
Then, in her hesitation, she remembered
Nahid Maskan. She remembered the director. She
remembered wanting to use the letter opener on his
desk to make him pay for what he‘d done to the
orphans, but had then seen a better way to get what
she wanted. At the time, that was all it had been
about. Later on, though, from the last time she saw
Daud until Benjamin Greenstone arrived, there were
more reasons to believe it had been the right
decision. Yet when precisely similar circumstances,
only with subtle variation, came around again, she‘d
nearly killed the man who would become her father
with an icepick.
Suddenly, Ben‘s invisible hand was upon
hers, guiding, the lesson fully realized.
Ara ejected the magazine, shucked the
chambered round and dropped the firearm.
Neither of them knew what to expect would
happen next, least of all what actually did.
The hangman dropped to his knees, doubled
over, pressed his forehead and red hands against the
street. He remained in that position, unmoving.
in the distance, a heavy silence descended upon the
city, as if suddenly draped in an expansive, invisible
cloak. Seeing what was going on around them first,
Ara tugged at Minoo‘s abaya. The Priestess looked
up from the kneeling man to see all of the people in
the streets doing exactly the same.
― [_Táhirih, _]‖ Ara said with wonder, her voice
stricken, hushed. Those who had survived—that is,
those who had been within the ―safe‖ radius set by
Ara when she‘d ordered the satellite strike—now
bowed before them in both disgrace and humility,
begging because their savage retaliation had
incurred a vengeance the likes of which they‘d not
All around them, the city streets were
carpeted with the backs of their countrymen. Not
one single person stirred or looked up as the two
moved through them, through the smoke and
silence. The Priestess was absolutely confounded
by all that her jade eyes beheld, her thoughts racing
to understand its significance. Could those
moments of fear have led them away from the most
central tenet of their faith that quickly? Ara
believed that it had, largely because she was already
moving them closer to the edge of the safety
perimeter, the place where the citizens had fallen
not in fear of their lives, but in loss of them.
Perhaps the same mechanism that made Ara
Greenstone capable of killing someone also steeled
her against the unspeakable nightmare they had to
negotiate beyond the perimeter, but for Minoo, it
was an entirely different experience. She wept,
quietly but forcibly; her exhaustion irrelevant, the
pain from her injuries distant and negligible.
Yet, in her overwhelming grief, her friend
was there, carrying her through it, side by side as
they ambled beyond the cataclysm. And with that
boundary finally surpassed, they disappeared from
the city of their reunion, venturing deep into the
wilderness and mountains, until they were far
enough away from danger that they could stop and
tend to their injuries.
Nightfall was clear and cold. A brilliant,
unspoiled starfield unfolded above them as Ara
built a fire to drive back to dark. Still unable to
speak, Ara removed a pen and her favorite book
from her inner breast pocket, turned to the last few
pages, which had been left blank. There, she asked
for Minoo‘s forgiveness, explaining that the satellite
had done more than save them—that she believed
the uprising wouldn‘t have stopped with their
The Priestess took the book in her hands,
wrote that the justification was unnecessary; that
although it was another of the many atrocities she‘d
seen in her lifetime, her heartbreak came from its
cyclical, perpetual nature beyond all else.
Ara read her words, nodded. Then, with a
curious grin, she scribbled down a question.
Minoo playfully snatched it back from her
and when she saw it, had to think carefully about
her response. Ara wanted to know if she thought
they‘d ever see the lost little girl from the
However consumed by the tragedies they‘d
encountered, Minoo had been thinking of her as
well, was hopeful that she‘d survived the blasts and
found her way. But because she was also aware of
what would come next, Minoo wrote: ―Only if it is
in her dreams.‖
Ara nodded her agreement. Exile would
come next—a long period of isolation from which
they would only resurface for the London
Symphony Orchestra. She was already thinking of
her father‘s lodge compound in Norway. For now,
though, all that existed was the glorious cosmos
above, the fire between and a book in which to
share their thoughts and new dreams while they
Ara Greenstone turned the page to write
down her next thought and found the frail, dried
poppy that she‘d stuck in there a lifetime ago.
Afraid it would disintegrate if even touched, she
passed the entire book over to her dearest friend
Minoo Shinogai, creating a covenant between them,
one without distance.
Warm beside the fire, they took one
another‘s hand. And although their surroundings
didn‘t amount to much, it was a place of love, it was
a place of healing, and together there they stayed,
for a time.
An uprising in Afghanistan. A slave market on the Sudanian Savanna. An illegal, high-stakes dice game in China. One girl facing middle school in Pennsylvania. History repeats itself when it comes to the harrowing dreams behind Mira Khatolâ€™s sleepwalking. Ever since an early trauma made her an orphan, recurring nightmares have plagued Miraâ€™s childhood. Now, she can no longer pretend their relationship to her real life doesn't run much, much deeper and they aren't bursting through her imagination. Hospitalized following a devastating collision between her school bus and a tractor trailer that revealed two dangerous villains with secret, long-buried ties to Mira, child psychologist Dr. Susan Heller must help unravel the young girl's shocking connection to a bitter assassination attempt, a lost love finally found on the Isle of Mozambique and many others. Only then will they discover the separation between her dreams and reality to prevent history from repeating once more. Fully charged with riveting suspense throughout, this international coming-of-age tale is about loss, growth and interrupting cycles; of orphans struggling with their traumatic pasts and impossible circumstances to find family, if only in one another.