Prayers for the Assassin
Twenty-five years later
The second half of the Super Bowl began right after midday prayers. The fans in Khomeini Stadium had performed their ablutions by rote, awkwardly prostrating themselves, heels splayed, foreheads not even touching the ground. Only the security guard in the upper walkway had made his devotions with the proper respect. An older man, his face a mass of scar tissue, he had moved smoothly and precisely, fingers together, toes forward, pointing toward Mecca. The guard noticed Rakkim Epps watching him, stiffened, then spotted the Fedayeen ring on his finger and bowed, offered him a blessing, and Rakkim, who had not prayed in over three years, returned the blessing with the same sincerity. Not one in a thousand would have recognized the plain titanium band, but the guard was one of the early converts, the hard core who had risked everything and expected nothing other than Paradise in return. He wondered if the guard still thought the war had been worth it.
Rakkim looked past the guard as the faithful hurried back to their seats. Still no sign of Sarah. A few aisles over, he spotted Anthony Jr. making his way up the steps. The new orange Bedouins jacket he was wearing must have cost his father a week’s salary. Anthony Sr. was too easy on him. It was always the way; the toughest cops were soft at the center.
From his vantage point, Rakkim could see domes and minarets dotting the surrounding hills, and the Space Needle lying crumpled in the distance, a military museum now. Downtown was a cluster of glass skyscrapers and residential high-rises topped with satellite dishes. To the south loomed the new Capitol, twice as large as the old one in Washington, D.C., and beside it the Grand Caliph Mosque, its blue-green mosaics gleaming. In the stands below, he saw the faithful stowing their disposable prayer rugs into the seat backs, and the Catholics pretending not to notice. He could see everything but Sarah. Another broken promise. The last chance she would get to play him for a fool. Which was just what he had told himself the last time she’d stood him up.
Thirty years old, average height, a little heavier than when he’d left the Fedayeen, but still lean and wiry. Rakkim’s dark hair was cropped, his mustache and goatee trimmed, his features angular, almost Moorish, an advantage since the transition. Black skullcap. He turned up his collar against the Seattle damp, the wind off the Sound carrying the smell of dead fish from the oil spill last week. He felt the knife in his pocket, a carbon-polymer blade that wouldn’t set off a metal detector, the same hard plastic in the toes of his boots.
Music blared as the cheerleaders strutted down the sidelines—all men, of course—knees high, swords flashing overhead. The Bedouins and the Warlords surged onto the field, and the crowd leaped up, cheering. Rakkim took one more look around for Sarah. He saw the security guard. Something had caught his attention. Rakkim followed the man’s line of sight and started moving,hurrying now, taking the steps two at a time. He timed it perfectly, caught Anthony Jr. as he reached the deserted top level. There was an emergency exit here, a surveillance blind spot not on any of the public schematics—the kid was a lousy thief, but knowing about the exit said something for his planning.
“What are youdoing, Rakkim?” Anthony Jr. squirmed, a muscular teenager in a hooded sweatshirt, all elbows and wounded pride. “Don’t touch me.”
“Bad boy.” Rakkim rapped him on the nose with the wallet the kid had lifted. Anthony Jr. hadn’t even felt Rakkim take it, patting his shirt to make sure it was gone. Rakkim rapped him again, harder. “If the cops arrest you, it’s your father who’s disgraced. The Black Robes snatch you, you’ll lose a hand.”
Anthony Jr. had his father’s pugnacious jaw. “I want my money.”
Rakkim grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and threw him toward the exit. When Rakkim turned around, the security guard with the ruined face was already there. Rakkim held out the wallet. “The young brother found this and didn’t know where to return it. Perhaps you could turn it in for him.”
“I saw him find the wallet. It had fallen into a merchant’s pocket.”
“The young brother must have good eyes to have seen it there,” said Rakkim.
The security guard’s face creased with amusement, and for that instant he was handsome again. He took the wallet. “Go with God, Fedayeen.”
“What other choice do we have?” Rakkim started back to his VIP box.
Anthony ColarussoSr. didn’t look up as Rakkim sat beside him. “I wondered if you were coming back.” He guided yet another hot dog with everything on it into his mouth, relish and chopped onions falling into his lap.
“Somebody has to be here to Heimlich you.”
Colarusso took another bite of his hot dog. He was a stocky, middle-aged detective with droopy eyes and a thunderous gut, piccalilli dripping from his hairy knuckles. The VIP sections in the stadium were reserved for local politicos, corporate sponsors, and upper-echelon military officers, with Fedayeen given preferential seating. A mere local cop, and a Catholic besides, Colarusso would never have gotten into restricted seating if he hadn’t been Rakkim’s guest.
The Bedouins’ quarterback took the snap, backpedaling, the football cocked against his ear. He double-pumped, then let fly to his favorite receiver, a blur with hands the size of palm fronds. The pass floated against the clouds, and the receiver ran flat out, leaving his coverage behind. The ball grazed his outstretched fingertips, but he hung on, just as one of his cleats caught the turf and sent him face-first into grass. The ball dribbled free.
Boos echoed across the stadium. Rakkim looked back toward the mezzanine again. Still no sign of Sarah. He sat down. She wasn’t coming. Not today, or any other day. He punched the empty seat in front of him, almost snapped it off its moorings.
“Didn’t know you were such a Bedouins’ fan, troop,” said Colarusso.
“Yeah…they’re breaking my heart.”
The receiver lay crumpled on the grass as the groans of the Bedouins’ fans echoed across the stadium. Rakkim even heard a few curses. A scrawny Black Robe in a nearby fundamentalist section glanced around, a deputy of the religious police with a tight black turban, his untrimmed beard a coarse bramble. The deputy shifted in his seat, robe rippling, trying to locate the offender. He reminded Rakkim of an enraged squid. The deputy’s eyes narrowed at Colarusso and his mustard-stained gray suit.
“I think that eunuch’s in love with you, Anthony.”
Colarusso swiped at his mouth with a napkin. “Keep your voice down.”
“It’s a free country…isn’t it, Officer?”
It still was. Most of the population was Muslim, but most of them were moderates and the even more secular moderns, counted among the faithful, but without the fervor of the fundamentalists. Though the hard-liners were a minority, their ruthless energy assured them political power far out of proportion to their numbers. Congress tried to placate them through increased budgets for mosques and religious schools, but the ayatollahs and their enforcers of public virtue, the Black Robes, were not satisfied.
The receiver slowly got up, blood pouring down his face. The stadium screen showed him coughing out a pink mist to thunderous applause.
“I remember when football helmets came with face guards,” said Colarusso.
“Where’s the honor in that?” said Rakkim. “A hard hit wouldn’t even draw blood.”
“Yeah, well…blood wasn’t the point in the old days.”
The deputy glared now at the moderates in the bleachers, young professionals in skirts and jeans, women and men seated together. The Black Robes had authority only over fundamentalists, but lately they had begun hectoring Catholics on the street, hurling stones at moderns for public displays of affection. Fundamentalists who left the fold were considered apostates—they risked disfigurement or death in the rural areas, and even in the more cosmopolitan cities their families ostracized them.
The Super Bowl blimp drifted above the stadium. Emblazoned on the airship was the flag of the Islamic States of America, identical to the banner of the old regime, except for the gold crescent replacing the stars. Rakkim followed the progress of the blimp as it slowly banked in the afternoon sun. In spite of the Black Robes, the sight of the flag still brought a lump to his throat.
“Look who’s here,” said Colarusso, pointing to a lavish VIP box filled with national politicians and movie stars and ayatollahs. “That’s your old CO, isn’t it?”
General Kidd, the Fedayeen commander, saluted the network camera and the home audience. An immigrant from Somalia, he was resplendent in his plain blue dress uniform, his expression stoic. Beside him was Mullah Oxley, the head of the Black Robes, his fingers bejeweled, his robe silk, his beard a nest of oily curls. A total swank motherfucker. They made an incongruous and unsettling couple. When Rakkim had retired three years ago, General Kidd would never have sat next to Oxley, or any politician save the president. The Fedayeen were independent, answerable only to their own leadership and the needs of the nation. Three years ago anyway.
“The general looks like a real whip-cracker to me.” Colarusso put down the hot dog. “On my best day, young and hung, I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in your old outfit.”
The Fedayeen were the elite troops of the Islamic Republic, used mostly on small unit, covert operations against the Bible Belt. The breakaway states of the old Confederacy had a sizable arsenal of nukes, and only the balance of terror kept the two nations from all-out war. Instead there was a constant, low-level conflict of probes and feints, deadly combat without quarter or complaint.
“Best of the best,” continued Colarusso. “Heck, they wouldn’t even let me in the door.”
“What do you want, Anthony?”
Colarusso fidgeted. “Anthony Jr. wants to apply to the Fedayeen. He’s nineteen, and all he talks about is the Fedayeen, and that killer-elite strut. He’s at the gym now, working on his skills, instead of watching the game with his buddies. The boy is committed.”
Rakkim stared at Colarusso. “Tell him to join the army. Even better, tell him to learn a trade. The country needs ironworkers more than it needs Fedayeen.”
Colarusso flicked crumbs off his necktie. “My wife wanted me to ask you to put in a word for him. He’s planning to convert, but a recommendation from you…”
“The standard enlistment is eight years. Thirty percent of those who make it through basic training don’t survive long enough to re-up. Does Marie know that?”
“She knows what having a son in the Fedayeen will do for us,” said Colarusso. “You’ve seen our daughters. They’re not raving beauties, but if Anthony Jr. gets accepted, the girls won’t have to settle for Catholic suitors, they’ll have their pick of the litter.”
General Kidd’s face on the stadium screen loomed over the end zones. “Do your boy a favor. Tell Marie I don’t have that kind of clout anymore.”
“Decorated Fedayeen officer, retired with full honors…no way she buys that story.”
“Then tell her the truth. Say that you asked and I refused.”
Colarusso looked relieved. “Thanks. I had to try, but thanks.”
“You should keep an eye on Anthony Jr. Make sure he doesn’t have too much free time.”
“He’s a good kid, he’s just got big dreams.” Colarusso sipped his Jihad Cola, winced. “Just ain’t the Super Bowl without a cold beer.Real beer.”
“Gentlemen?” A doughy software entrepreneur seated in an adjacent corporate box leaned over. “If I may, I have a flask of vodka-infused fruit juice.”
Colarusso belched, ignored him.
“Sir?” The entrepreneur showed Rakkim the neck of the flask, half pulling it from the inside pocket of his bright green jersey.
Rakkim waved him away. The entrepreneur was one of those moderns who wanted it both ways, wearing a sports jersey and khakis, but sporting an Arafat kaffiyeh to please the fundamentalists. Probably bought an instructional video to show him how to drape the checked head scarf, and still couldn’t get it right.
The Warlords had lined up on the Bedouins’ eighteen-yard line, players pawing at the turf, when the Bedouins called a time-out.
Rakkim stood up, stretched, took another look toward the mezzanine for Sarah. Alast look. She wasn’t there. Maybe her uncle had requested her presence at the last minute. Maybe her car had broken down on the way to the game, and she didn’t want to call him, afraid her calls were monitored. Hey, maybe shehad called him, but there were sunspots and the call didn’t go through. Why not? It could happen. In an idiot’s universe.
The Warlords quarterback went into his count. Rakkim looked away from the field, saw a couple of the deputy’s morality police barging into one of the segregated sections. The Black Robes whipped their long, flexible canes across the backs of three women seated there, sending them sprawling, herding them up the aisles, the women covering themselves even as they tried to avoid the blows.
Rakkim was on his feet, shouting at the Black Robes, but the sound of his rage was lost in the crowd noise as the Warlords quarterback drove through the line for a touchdown. Rakkim was too far away to help the women, and even if he were closer, there was nothing he could do. An arrest for interfering with the religious authority was a serious offense. The women themselves would testify against him, would do it eagerly.
“Ugly business,” said Colarusso, standing beside him.
No telling what the women’s crime had been. They could have shown too much ankle, or their head scarves might have slipped. Perhaps they were laughing too loudly. Rakkim sat down, still shaking with anger as the Black Robes swung their canes. This was the first time he had been at an internationally televised event where the Black Robes had so freely used their flails. Usually they were more concerned about appearances, but today they didn’t seem to care. They were almost inviting the cameras.
The deputy a few rows ahead of Rakkim had also noticed the actions of his fellow Black Robes, the cleric’s fingers wriggling with delight, keeping time to the lash. Rakkim stared at him so intently that the man must have felt the weight of his gaze and looked over at Rakkim. He inclined his head in acknowledgment, but Rakkim didn’t respond, and the deputy turned away, touched his turban as if for protection.
“Risky behavior, troop.” Colarusso rooted in his ear. “No sense making an enemy.”
“Too late now.”
Colarusso examined his finger. “Always a choice.”
Rakkim watched the Black Robe. “Yeah, and I already made it.”