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Catsear

p.

CATSEAR

[a novel by Mark Abel]

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Abel

Blackthorn Press

www.blackthornwinter.com

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be

reproduced in any form by any electronic or

mechanical

means

including

photocopying,

recording or information storage and retrieval

without permission in writing from the author.

ISBN-13: 978-1517162702

ISBN-10: 1517162270X

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.

Give

feedback

on

the

book

at:

[email protected]

For Orson

PART I.

Catsear

[legend]

  • *

7

*1. *

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

CATSEAR

8

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

MARK ABEL

9

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

movements.

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

anymore.

Another war was coming, and he‟d been the

fool for thinking their families would be unaffected.

CATSEAR

10

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

short.

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.

Then,

the

children

were

screaming,

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

MARK ABEL

11

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

holy man.

His breathing became short and fast,

restricted.

_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.

CATSEAR

12

And just like that, the hillside cleft with its

hidden cache of poppies disappeared into the

unforgiving Afghan mountains.

MARK ABEL

13

*2. *

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

Islam.

####

The girls were taken to separate orphanages

in Kabul.

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

CATSEAR

14

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?)

she‘d asked.

― [_An nazdike injast, _]‖ (it‘s near here) he‘d

replied, frustrated.

― [_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

student.)

― [_Saket baash! _]‖ (be quiet!)

Shogle man daneshjoo [_ast! _]‖ (I‘m a

[_student! _])

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

MARK ABEL

15

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

CATSEAR

16

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

them.

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

favorite page.

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,

Ara. …Years.‖

MARK ABEL

17

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

and shame.

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

CATSEAR

18

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

inside.

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

MARK ABEL

19

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

boss‘s contact.

They

exchanged

a

few

words

and

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

himself in.

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:

CATSEAR

20

―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

2:83!‖

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.

MARK ABEL

21

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

becoming legend.

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

the sky.

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

chains.

CATSEAR

22

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

neck.

― [_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

American English.

―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‘

cards.‖

―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

been better.‖

―How do you know? What makes you so

special?‖

―Because I‘m holding the page with the

rules.‖

―It all sounds childish to me.‖

MARK ABEL

23

Greenstone face brightened and he laughed

again. ―That‘s exactly what it is, my dear.

[_Exactly. _]‖

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,

waking.

―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

for

Dubai. Now,

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.

Outside, Greenstone

followed

in

her

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.‖

CATSEAR

24

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

behind.

Ara grinned.

He was.

MARK ABEL

25

*3. *

inoo

and

the

Coven

left

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

Priestess Táhirih.

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. _]‖

####

CATSEAR

26

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

panel.

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.

MARK ABEL

27

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

Afghan people.

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

CATSEAR

28

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.

They rioted.

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

pious convictions.

That was why the Priestess Táhirih was

called upon.

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.

Outrage.

And now it was impossible to leave.

#### MARK ABEL
p.

29

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

was overlooked.

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

multiple languages.

The Priestess Táhirih approached a Skyline

officer and said, plainly, ―I‘ve come here to see Ms.

Greenstone.‖

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.

CATSEAR

30

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

MARK ABEL

31

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

parade majorette.

But the board members received special

treatment. By then,

most of them

were

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.

Several did.

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

CATSEAR

32

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

structure.‖

―Go with them. I‘ll distract the people,‖

Minoo said.

―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

loading dock.

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

MARK ABEL

33

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

legendary

Priestess—the first of her kind—this child of Islam,

this living celebration of Saints among Saints!

Fatimah!

Rabia Basri!

Táhirih!

Minoo reached up and took the niqab away

from her face.

Silence.

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

acquisitions.

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

CATSEAR

34

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

assault began.

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.

Suddenly,

a

rocket-propelled

grenade

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! _]

MARK ABEL

35

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

together.

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

skyline.

CATSEAR

PART I .

Sleepwalk

[doctrine]

  • *

  • *

39

*4. *

utside

the

theater,

snowflakes

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.

#### CATSEAR
p.

40

― [_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

MARK ABEL

41

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

four days.

####

Mira Khatol‘s bus ride home that day was

abnormally

long. An accident on

Rustica

Boulevard redirected traffic and forced the driver to

reverse his route. Therefore, instead of being the

CATSEAR

42

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

guard.

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.

MARK ABEL

43

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

eyes shut.

―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.

CATSEAR

44

[_. . . “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:

DETOUR

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.

MARK ABEL

45

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-

distillants

distillants,

fractional

distillation,

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,

opalescent wings.

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.

####

CATSEAR

46

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

MARK ABEL

47

tires useless in the rainwater and free- flowing

slurry.

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

undercarriage.

CATSEAR

48

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

because—

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.

MARK ABEL

49

*5. *

[_. . . 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

was

_. . . 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:

―Dispatch.‖

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

Oasis

location

designate: ‗Hammer Down.‘

Emergency medical services required.‖

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50

Ara switched off the com- link. The

Priestess Táhirih still appeared unconscious, almost

peacefully so.

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

her retaliation.

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

for all.

MARK ABEL

51

But it was at that exact moment someone

else arrived instead.

Guardian Three.

####

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

Greenstone.

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

CATSEAR

52

fragments from her collarbone, shoulder blade and

spine.

―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

MARK ABEL

53

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.‖

―Copy.‖

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

CATSEAR

54

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! _]‖

####

The

White

Dragon‘s

instantaneous

recognition of Mira from other times, places and

possibilities;

other

lineages,

dreams

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

exploding fuel.

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.

MARK ABEL

55

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

dream-state

_. . . 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

out

_. . . as if from a manhole opening . . . _

from the helicopter, then extended her hands

down to assist the Priestess.

Minoo reached

up

and

grasped an

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 . . . _

CATSEAR

56

Ara touched her fingertip to the earpiece.

―Guardian Three?‖

―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, _

[_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

MARK ABEL

57

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

few feet.

Whataboutthenightmaremanwhatabouttheni

_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

answered.

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

CATSEAR

58

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

more.

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.

_. . . 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. _

_ _

MARK ABEL

59

*6. *

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

to.

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

CATSEAR

60

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

tragedies,

secrets

and

scandals,

lies

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

how:

MARK ABEL

61

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?‖

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62

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

collapsed.

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

[_madness. _]‖

―With that?‖ Grier gestured toward the

fallen binder.

MARK ABEL

63

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

daughter, Ben.‖

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

Parkhill

Aqueduct,

a

rapidly

tightening

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.

CATSEAR

64

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,

everyone

ignored

her

small

silhouette—the

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

the uprising.

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

MARK ABEL

65

loose outside, the cushion of protection they

afforded was little comfort against the armed and

outraged citizenry.

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

CATSEAR

66

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:

MARK ABEL

67

―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

howling.

An oxygen mask covered her nose and

mouth.

####

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

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68

her, a reminder that he was bound to protect her

innocence.

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?‖

MARK ABEL

69

She gave no acknowledgement or ind ication

of understanding.

[_. . . 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

these questions.

[_. . . 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

hawkish nose.

####

Ms. Wakil, a high-strung woman with a

hawkish nose.

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,

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70

international

business

magnate,

Benjamin

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.

MARK ABEL

71

Frightened, Mira closed her eyes. The

machines beeped and whooshed. Then she opened

them and, looking at the empty room beyond her

feet, said:

―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

movies.‘‖

_Beep. Whoosh. _

CATSEAR

PART I I.

Rookery

[terminus]

75

―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

Eagleman

―As the many-winter‘d crow that leads the clanging

rookery home.‖

—an excerpt from _Locksley Hall _ by Alfred

Lord Tennyson

*7. *

Expiration

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

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76

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

broken country.

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

behold.

Táhirih relished this moment alone.

But she was not alone.

MARK ABEL

77

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:

_Qatel. _

(murder.)

####

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

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78

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

coupled

metal

beasts

wailed

in

pain.

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

functioning headlight.

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

MARK ABEL

79

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

condition,

and

whose

transgressions

finally

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

nothing.

Three minutes.

####

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.

The Nile.

And as the truck headed northward, toward

the Egyptian border where Garang intended to meet

Arabian merchants to complete the transaction, the

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80

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

becomes

the

unforgiving Sahara—the

truck

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

MARK ABEL

81

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

trigger.

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.‖

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82

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?‖

―No.‖

―Do you take medicine for anything?‖

―No.‖

―Are you allergic to anything?‖

―Bees when they sting.‖

―What day is today?‖

―Monday.‖

―And the month?‖

―April.‖

―Right. What state do you live in, Mira?‖

―Pennsylvania.‖

―And do you know where you are right

now?‖

―It‘s a hospital?‖

―Yes. A hospital in what town?‖

―Rustica Falls.‖

―Correct. You‘re doing great. Mira, have

you ever been in a hospital before?‖

―No,‖ she replied.

―Are you sure?‖

―Yes.‖

―Have you been in this hospital before?‖

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83

―No.‖

―Are you sure?‖

―Yes, ma‘am.‖

―Are you sure.‖

―Yes.‖

―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?‖

―Bigger.‖

―Do you like it?‖

―Yes.‖

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?‖

―Uh-huh.‖

―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

anyone. Promise?‖

Mira nodded.

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

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84

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?‖

―A little.‖

―What do you remember?‖

―I remember . . . spinning.‖

―Yes. Yes, the bus rolled multiple times.

What was the last thing you remember from before

the accident?‖

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,

Mira.‖

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,

too.‖

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

MARK ABEL

85

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?‖

―Yes, ma‘am.‖

―All the time?‖

―Yes.‖

―Do you remember your dreams?‖

―Yes.‖

―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

lips:

―Scary.‖

####

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.

CATSEAR

86

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

shot anyway.

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

distance,

the

movement

was

practically

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

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87

register Garang‘s Jeep as it converged on the two of

them.

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

you,

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

my dog.)

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.

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88

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

off, Dad.‖

―Right! Hahahaaa . . . I‘m dripping your

balls off.‖

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

her,

demanding

recognition.

Instead,

she

instinctively returned fire. ―You know, most people

go someplace warm when they‘re trying to die.‖

MARK ABEL

89

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

and—‖

―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

reason.

Suddenly,

her

father

was

weeping

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

ever wanted—‖

―Was to tell me about kilt-wearing,

whiskey-slamming Scotsmen?‖

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

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90

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

to leave.

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

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91

was?‖ asked Ara, of the woman depicted in the

carving.

―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.

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92

Several

rocks—granite,

onyx,

quartz,

limestone,

obsidian,

shale,

dolomite

and

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

lumbered past.

MARK ABEL

93

The

initiates

held

strong—dutiful

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

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94

attempted to lift her, Táhirih suddenly convulsed

back into consciousness, choking and gasping for

air.

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

presenting doom.

The former slave gathered Minoo Shinogai

into his arms and carried her back to the blanched

shoreline.

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

encounter.

MARK ABEL

95

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. _]‖

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96

*8. *

Consignment

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

arrived.

####

―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,

motherfucker.‖

####

―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.

MARK ABEL

97

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

families.

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

for cowardice.

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.‖

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98

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

breaths.

―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:

Three minutes.

####

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

MARK ABEL

99

been enough to locate the orphanage. However,

doing so only brought him closer to an obstacle in

the

adoption

process

without

room

for

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

found her.

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

guardianship.

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

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100

juvenile: he moved his desk, complete with the

administrator behind it . . . eighty-seven miles into

the desert.

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

reason.‖

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

inconceivable.

They supposedly left for Dubai that day

unaware that what had transpired hadn‘t gone

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101

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

him.

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

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102

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,

Minoo. …Years.‖

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

another matter.

Perhaps the adrenaline had not yet fully

subsided, but for the first time, and with perfect

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103

clarity, she saw a paradox that had been apparent all

throughout

the

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

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104

candle, but solidify before reaching the clear

paraffin moats at their bases, their trails interrupted,

permanently unresolved.

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.

MARK ABEL

105

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

sent to.

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

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106

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

actions.

Minoo

was only just beginning

to

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

forever.‖

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

MARK ABEL

107

minute before the intense heat started fusing his

clothes to his skin and the semi- cauterized bullet

wound accelerated his breathing into short, rapid

spasms.

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

own life.

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

shuddering

overhead,

the

corpses

jostling.

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

vehicle.

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108

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

him.

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

MARK ABEL

109

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

itself.

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

bones.

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.

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110

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

situation.

―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

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111

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

point:

_Sharmuta. _

####

In

Oslo,

Benjamin

Greenstone

was

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

substantially less.

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

intravenous station.

―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

lead

attending

physician,

nothing

may

be

administered without my express approval.‖ As if

cued by the doctor‘s insolence, Greenstone‘s lawyer

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112

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

levels.‖

― [_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

about?‖

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!

[_Mayday! _]‖

####

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

MARK ABEL

113

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

hospital gown.

―Mira?‖

She gave no acknowledgement or indication

of understanding.

―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

déjà vu.

―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

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114

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

spear.

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.

MARK ABEL

115

*9. *

Eulogy

ny

last

words?‖

asked

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

below.

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

seconds—

Ara suddenly reopened the door, slow-

pitched a grenade down the stairwell and closed it

again.

—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

CATSEAR

116

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

distance away.

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

behind her.

―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

toward them.

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.

MARK ABEL

117

####

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

Carlisle,‖

Dr.

Charon

interrupted,

finally

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. _]‖

―I‘m sorry?‖

―There isn‘t even a bloody duck in the

engine!

Look.

I‘m

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

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118

erupted from the loudspeaker overhead and the

enormous bay doors on the nearby hanger started to

retract.

―—or stay here and assist me while I

oversee monsieur‘s safe and expeditious transfer.‖

―Transfer

[_where? _]‖

Carlisle

asked,

incredulous.

― [_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?‖

It could.

It was.

####

Over time, Mayar Garang‘s vendetta

changed.

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.‖

MARK ABEL

119

―On the other hand, it does have

sprinkles…‖

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

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120

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.

MARK ABEL

121

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

ended:

―I don‘t understand. She‘s just a girl,‖ the

foreman blubbered.

―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

was:

―Because the life of the girl who freed you

does not also belong to the woman who loves you.‖

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122

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

complete.

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

MARK ABEL

123

Pikai when the nervous aide delivered his message

and three words stood out: ― [_. . . Kandahar . . . it‟s _]

[_falling. _]‖

####

The Skyline Model 274 ―Carrion Comfort‖

was

a

suborbital,

air- launched

spaceplane

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-

dollar fare.

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

destiny.

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

go.

―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

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124

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,

it‘s—it‘s uncivilized!‖

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

waning

daytime

sky.

―OWWOOOO!

AH-

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

MARK ABEL

125

get away with this because you failed to do your

job.‖

―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,

Docteur.‖

―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

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126

direction and headed upward, effectively trapping

them.

And once they found their own way inside,

the women could see, hear and feel the reality of

their situation.

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

Guardian Three.

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!‖

Nothing.

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

MARK ABEL

127

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

said:

― [_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

stage.

Not another fraction of a second passed

before Benjamin was there, on top of her, shielding

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128

his daughter from further attack as he cried out in

unimaginable pain.

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

distance.

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

MARK ABEL

129

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

night.

It was about the boy dying in the next room.

It was about David Ezra.

####

During

the six

years

following the

Embarcadero

incident,

Benjamin

Greenstone

rigorously went after Garang‘s operations. It hadn‘t

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130

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

ascertain why.

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

Sudan.

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

living relative.

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

MARK ABEL

131

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

English correct.

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,

forgotten.

####

―I‘ll bet you thought I‘d never find you.

Well, I did. I found you, motherfucker. Any last

words?‖

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

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132

within an inch of his life in the abandoned

warehouse.

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

savory activities.

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

him.

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

him around.

MARK ABEL

133

―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.

Thank you.‖

####

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

releasing

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

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134

existence, provided a temporary reprieve from his

numerous fatal ailments—one final burst of life,

vitality and peace before the onset of the end.

Violently

gasping

to

hyper-charged

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

time.

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.

Benjamin

never

forgot

a

story

his

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

MARK ABEL

135

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.

00:00:03.

00:00:02.

00:00:01.

00:00:00.

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.

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136

####

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 _

[_page! _]‖

MARK ABEL

Guardian IV.

[communion]

  • *

  • *

  • *

  • *

139

*10. *

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

monitors

organizing them—an unfair but typical occurrence

for her, being one of only two hundred girls at the

orphanage.

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

members.

Despite the abundance of administrators,

monitors and personnel, conditions at the

government-run Afghan orphanage had been

rapidly deteriorating. Schoolbooks were in short

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140

supply, basic sanitation was atrocious, access to

good nutrition was unreliable at best and with

winter fast-approaching, blankets in the still-

heatless

dormitories

were

filthy,

few

and

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

one.

Distracted, Ara couldn‘t hear what the

monitors were telling the children—it was

something about sharing and not having enough this

time.

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

on

mostly- finished plates. As the

hungry,

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.

MARK ABEL

141

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

continuation.

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

inside.

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

peeked outside.

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.

####

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142

―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

rainy afternoon.

―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

your own.‖

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

MARK ABEL

143

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

ankles.

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

better.

####

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144

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

complete.

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

fire.

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

chest.

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

remaining poppies.

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 _

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145

_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

the country.

But that was during the day.

He went into his private washroom,

showered

and

dressed

in

street

clothes.

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

warehouse stairwell.

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

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146

into orbit without its full payload of twenty- foot

tungsten rods.

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

crossfire.

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

into oblivion.

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

perimeter?

―Yes.‖

Range?

―Eighty meters.‖

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.‖

―Deploy!‖

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147

―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

them.

####

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

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148

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

English?‖

―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

like sisters.‖

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149

―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,

the imam.

―If you find Minoo at the end of your search,

you must reunite us.‖

―I will.‖

―Do you promise?‖

―I do.‖

Ara

Tor

Pikai‘s

demeanor

turned

unexpectedly solemn, her voice faint. ―There‘s

something else.‖

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

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150

the cloud cover, whitewashing the hospital corridor,

luminous, sterile.

―Ooh, it looks like heaven all up in here,‖

said Mira.

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,

startling her.

―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

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151

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

night.

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.‖

―Yes.‖

―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

aside.

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

hospital.‖

―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

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152

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

excitement.

Coincidentally, she was thinking precisely

the same thing Dr. Heller had when she‘d read it a

moment before: [_I wonder what this means? _]

RUSTICA

FALLS

MEMORIAL

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 _

_example of contemporary medicine and biomedical _

_research at its finest. Today, Greenstone, LLC. and _

_its affiliates are planning a similar expansion right _

_here in Rustica Falls and we are thrilled to become _

[_a part of the Greenstone family! _]

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.

MARK ABEL

153

####

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

Tooth Fairy.

Lady Luck.

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

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154

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

buzzer.

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

MARK ABEL

155

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

before him.

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.

―Shòuxìn?‖ (credit?)

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

data;

with operators,

functions,

frequencies,

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.

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156

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

your night.‖

The player‘s cup came off the table,

showing the dice in order: 1-2-3.

― [_Mò lung! _]‖ (dancing dragon!) the dealer

announced.

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

others.

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

flowers!)

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

as well.

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

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157

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

players.

―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

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158

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

die.

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

everything.‖

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

America?‖

MARK ABEL

159

####

A split second before impact, the tailfins on

the seven-foot- long tungsten projectile supinated,

redirecting its course slightly away from the

warehouse.

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

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160

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.

Ordinance scheduled.‖

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.

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Her streaking mortal fear brought the

Interrupter‘s response into full, devastating clarity:

―System failure . . . Unable to deploy . . . Directive

aborted.‖

They tore off Ara‘s scarf and Minoo‘s

niqab.

They tightened the coarse nooses around

their throats.

― [_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.

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162

*11. *

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

evergreens.

―Oi,

Duncan,‖

said

its

marginally

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

then, eh?‖

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

glasses

with

a

broad

smile,

his

closest

approximation to an audible laugh. ―‘S-roight,

Gus.‖

Augustus Martin downshifted the World

Food Programme‘s aid truck and lit a cigarette.

―Bugger!‖ Duncan exclaimed.

His partner rolled his eyes. ―Open a

window, then.‖

―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

rushing past.

Augustus punched his elbow.

―Wot?‖

― [_Cam on, _]‖ Gus urged, ―. . . and the workers

says . . .‖

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163

―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

to know.

―Me thinks ye should stick to the classics,

mate.‖

And he did. ―Oi, Duncan. Why duz

orphans always go ta church?‖

―Why?‖

―It‘s the only place they can call someone,

‗Father.‘‖

Laughter. Smile.

―Oi, Duncan. How many orphans duz it

take ta screw in a lightbulb?‖

―How many?‖

―Ten. One to screw it in and nine ta cry cuz

they ain‘t got no parents.‖

Laughter. Smile. Shift.

―Oi, Duncan. Knock, knock.‖

―Who‘s there?‖

―Not your parents!‖

Laughter. Smile. Shift. Exhale.

―Oi, Duncan. What‘s the difference

between the dog-pound and an orphanage?‖

―Wot?‖

―People actually

want dogs! Bwa-

[_hahahaaa! _]‖

Laughter. Smile. Shift. Exhale. Cough.

More coughing and choking and laughing.

―Oi, Duncan—‖

Just as the WFP truck rounded the next bend,

a swarm of bullets from an AK-47 punched through

the

windshield

like

indestructible

hornets,

ventilating both the cab and Augustus Martin. His

body shuddered from the rounds as they shredded

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164

his parka, ejecting blood spatter and synthetic fiber

stuffing.

Avery, cowering as he shielded himself

from the gunshots and broken glass, could do

nothing as the driverless truck crashed head-on into

a tree.

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,

Englishman?‖

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

with snowflakes.

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?‖

MARK ABEL

165

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

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166

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

find out.

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

me?‖

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.

MARK ABEL

167

―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

Park position.

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.

Perhaps.

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

possibilities,

functioning—or

even

hyper-

functioning by some estimations—seamlessly;

exploring

ideas,

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

bus stop.

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168

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

of snow.

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

just didn‘t.

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

bring sleep.

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

MARK ABEL

169

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.

For

a

moment,

the

two

remained

deadlocked.

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.

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170

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 _

_answered. _

_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 _

_more. _

_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. _

MARK ABEL

171

_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 . . .

Jin

Gao

awoke

in

Rustica

Falls,

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

circumstances.

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,

fiery death.

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

―Supermoon.‖

Or, he could have just looked at how huge it

was.

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

him.

The address he was supposed to go to was

on the other side of town, but at eight pm traffic was

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172

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

neighborhood.

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

calls.

The name emblazoned on the doormat was,

KHATOL.

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173

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

others?‖

―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

told.‖

―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

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174

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

bag.

A split-second later, a side door leading to

the garage opened and someone stepped into the

living room.

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

collapsed.

The instant Ben Khatol could draw breath,

he screamed.

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

MARK ABEL

175

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

home.

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

with.

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.

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176

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

him again.

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,

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177

―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

dynamite.

It was what he would have wanted.

Twelve minutes.

####

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

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178

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,

accusatory point.

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

aid truck—‖

― [_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

frail state.

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

before.

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179

―I know about some things, too,‖ she said to

the director. ―I know that Zemar wasn‘t adopted

last week.‖

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

provisions.

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,

sometimes—‖

― [_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,

leaning in.

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

everything inside.

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―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.

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181

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

longer.‖

―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

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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

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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

after all.

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

have been.

####

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

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184

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

stone.

Mira did excel, however, when her science

classes

focused on botany, particularly

in

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

inspecting.

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

asleep.

[_. . . “Wake up, Mira,” came a woman‟s _]

_voice, gentle and friendly. _

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_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, _

[_okay?” _]

_She nodded enthusiastically. _

[_“Mira, are you in any pain right now?” _]

[_“No.” _]

[_“Do you take medicine for anything?” _]

[_“No.” _]

[_“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

always did.

Jin Gao, the atomic man, the White Dragon.

Mira flinched when she noticed him and,

without warning, the bee plunged its stinger into her

hand.

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

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186

drew to scream became her last as her throat locked,

swollen shut.

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

skyline.

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.

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187

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

at hand.

―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

detonation areas.

By

now,

the

snarling

throng

was

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

up,

a

spectacle

of

unparalleled

enormity

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.

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188

*12. *

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

stiffening corpse.

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.

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189

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

deviate.

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

running board.

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

warm.

But the director didn‘t drive straight back to

Nahid Maskan.

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

engine percolating.

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.

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190

―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

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191

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

drink.

―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

Minoo‘s father?‖

―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

cheeks flushing.

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192

―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

Mozambique.

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

forever.

Inside Nahid Maskan, all of the children

were cheering.

####

―Wake up, Mira,‖ said Dr. Susan Heller in a

soft voice.

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193

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

face.

―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

point.‖

―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

frightened.

―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

feel familiar.

Sensing her discomfort, Susan decided not

to tell her anything they‘d found truly amazing: that

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194

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

seeds

around

them

even

more

stationary,

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.‖

―‗Him‘?‖

―David.‖

―David Ezra? From the accident last

Spring?‖

Mira nodded.

―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,

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195

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

welling over.

―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

Duds, though.‖

―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,

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196

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.

Meanwhile,

Mira

was

channel-surfing

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

volume, riveted:

― _. . . 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 _

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_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

came from?‖

―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

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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

absolutely right.

―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

did.‖

―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

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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

moment ago.

―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.

…Years.‖

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

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200

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

perfectly still.

####

_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 _

_together. _

_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 _

_skyline. _

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####

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,

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and I bear witness that Muhammad is His Servant

and Messenger.)

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

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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.

Apart from several buildings rumbling down

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

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bowed before them in both disgrace and humility,

begging because their savage retaliation had

incurred a vengeance the likes of which they‘d not

yet known.

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

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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

deaths.

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

warehouse again.

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

took refuge.

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.

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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.

MARK ABEL


Catsear

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 Khatol’s sleepwalking. Ever since an early trauma made her an orphan, recurring nightmares have plagued Mira’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.

  • Author: Mark Abel
  • Published: 2016-05-14 23:20:15
  • Words: 51236
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