A Strange Normalcy
“They want you back in school.” It was the first thing his father said to him when he got back home. But it was different.
The school board, like so many around the country, had declared school attendance too dangerous, at least for the foreseeable future, and issued all students a new computer, webcam, and a fast connection to the Internet. Classes had gone virtual. Teachers became itinerant. Making impromptu visits to students in their classes.
Ali could have easily rigged something to make it look like he was participating when he wasn’t--but he didn’t. He was glad not having to return to campus and face the question, “Where’s Rob.” He did face it among those on his buddy list. All he told them was that Mrs. Johnson had told him that Rob was missing.
When asked where he had been, he replied, “… A little R and R in the Sierras.” It hurt him to lie like that. He got back into his classes. He laughed at some of his classmate’s lame attempts at deception. He could have helped them, but didn’t. He felt it to be a time to get serious, not play hooky. Still, he developed a couple of ruses to employ in case something broke or he thought of a way to rescue Rob. It didn’t matter much because Rob was probably dead anyway. Still, it helped him to keep hope.
Ali’s Dad was worse. He was now helping a friend run his convenience store, but almost daily he talked of returning to Pakistan and the fond remembrances of his youth. Life in America was good when he had a good job and his wife was alive. But now he longed for the simpler life of Islam and his extended family back home. He talked almost daily of it. Ali was patient with him, but did not share his view. To keep the peace, Ali agreed, “Yes Father,” to almost everything Rashid said.
One afternoon the kitchen phone rang. Caught off-guard, Ali made the mistake of answering it. “Hello.”
“Hello? Is that you, honey? I was so worried. First, my Robbie, and then you. Did you find him? Ohhh ….”
Damn, Ali thought to himself. He had instinctively answered the phone and she’d recognized his voice. He lied. “I just got back. I was planning to call you. I am pretty upset because that information I had was no good. I searched all over Arkansas and couldn’t find him. The only good news is the police hadn’t heard of him. He’s probably leading a good country life and not missing school. My Dad tells me that I have to start back to school.”
“Oh, Ali dear, it’s been hell here waiting for you. After Robbie’s Dad left he became my little man. But you were always so much more mature. I could never count on him. When you were gone so long, I found myself thinking of you instead of him. You must come over right away and tell me everything.”
“School’s going to occupy all my time. It will be awhile before I can break free. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing that I can tell that will bring Rob back sooner.” He was getting in deeper, hoping that she’d stop pressing him.”
“Please, please, … Ali! I’ll die if I don’t see you. I’ll fix a nice dinner for you tonight. And you can tell me everything, okay?”
“I’m sorry, but like I said, I just got back. My Dad needs me here ….” He was in trouble now. “I’ll call you back when I get free, okay?”
“I miss you, Hon. Please don’t take long. Please.”
“Bye, I’ll call.” Ali hung up before she could respond. The phone rang later several times. He didn’t answer. He went upstairs and turned his music up. He cursed himself for answering.
John Forsythe was a career officer. He followed orders. The strategy had been set. The details were up to him. He had commanded huge forces in prior commands. This time it was d4ifferent. After the briefing he’d read the plan. It was short—less than thirty pages—yet it changed the way the war on terrorism would be fought. The funny part was he liked it. It was brilliant. He wished that he had thought of it. In wars going back to the Revolution, the United States had relied on superior arms and numbers, backed by strong supply and technology to win the day. Except for Vietnam and the debacles in Iran and Somalia, military force had won the day. From first-hand experience, Forsythe knew what would work and what would not. Terrorists were like the girls who delivered baskets with grenades in them in the villages of his youth. One minute you were making love to them, the next they were blowing you up. The high profile wars on drugs, poverty, oppression, and terrorism hadn’t worked. It was time to assume a lower profile. He liked it—the invisible soldier.
It had worked before. Organized crime, the bastion of closed society, had unraveled when insiders, in the form of informers and plants, had used the mob’s own code to bring it down. The imitators, rising from oppressed groups for their own protection, could not claim the power and control of La Cosa Nostra. They were still dangerous, but it was religious cults that posed the greatest threat now. Spread across the world in cadres large and small, they encompassed ideologies both extreme and benign. Often led by a charismatic leader, they dreamed of overthrowing the status quo, and thus supplanting their whole ideologies on nation states.
Such was the cult of Al Qaeda. Led by the enigmatic charm of Osama bin Laden, who twisted the tenets of Islam into a holy war against Western ideology, specifically the United States. bin Laden’s masterstroke was to use the openness of Western society to slip invisibly into schools, businesses, and institutions, and to use this freedom as a way to maim society. After that fateful day in September, Al Qaeda was hounded in every country that harbored it. Heartened by the success of their comrades, and hardened by world reaction, like rats they hid quietly in their cells and awaited their day to venture forth again.
While the Taliban in Afghanistan clearly allowed Al Qaeda to thrive with impunity, the role of other Islamic regimes, perhaps more damaging, was less clear. Military strikes against countries like Saudi Arabia or Egypt, sources of funding and ideological support for Al Qaeda, would only serve to exacerbate the fanatical hatred against all things Western and Christian harbored by many young educated Moslems. As Northern Ireland and Israel had proved, external pressure and negotiation didn’t work. Only when the hearts and minds of the combatants changed would the terror end. The fall of the Berlin Wall illustrated that.
In a secret ceremony that included the heads of the agencies, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the President, herself, John Forsythe, war hero of the yet-to-be-named war, was promoted to Brigadier General and given command of the Underground Army. The UA would be housed it Homeland Security, but have access to, and use of the Armed Forces through the President and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The UA would have complete use of and access to, the agencies. John was sure that he could get complete military cooperation. He wasn’t so sure about the NSA, CIA, FBI, IRS, NASA, and INS. Phyllis Knox assured him that he would.
The plan called for initially recruiting ten thousand “unknown” soldiers, codenamed, Freedom’s Eagles, “the Eagles” for short. If the Eagles succeeded, their ranks would grow to twenty, thirty, … one hundred thousand or more. Barring an unfavorable Congress, Knox saw no limit to the amount appropriated that could, ultimately, create the most effective fighting force ever devised. And, all calculations, given every known scenario, showed the Eagles to be far more fiscally feasible than conventional armed defense.
Each Eagle would be given a graduated regimen of training, beginning with basic military training, followed by a combination of Green Beret and Navy Seal training, and then followed by CIA agent training with enrichment from all the other agencies. They would be taught how to kill, survive, infiltrate, communicate, and influence. They would be taught to stay invisible. This would be an elite corps, unlike any seen before. It would draw the best and brightest and engage them in a fight to save freedom, itself.
As an incentive to enter the Eagles, all those who would get through basic training without washing out would receive a free college education, even if they washed out just after that. The free education was a bribe to prevent washouts from cashing in on their knowledge of the Eagles. For the immediate future, the President’s Security Council declared that all agencies, while cooperating freely, should deny the existence of the Eagles. After basic training, each Eagle candidate would “disappear” to successively Destinations 5, 42, and 17. At these Destinations, the agencies would create a first-rate college to educate Eagles in the best education that the military academies and Ivy League could provide. If an Eagle candidate would wash out at this stage, he or she would have a transcript from one of these elite institutions to take to transfer to a University of choice. There would be no failure in Freedom’s Eagles, only graduated levels of reward. Those who passed the final hurdle—and they would be few—would be rewarded with the most horrendous duty known to man: to be cast among the enemy with no assistance and no hope of an easy return. Tours of duty could last twenty years, or more. Their pay would go to a trust fund, released to them when and if they returned. The trust funds for those who lost their lives would go to their families.
Forsythe was glad that he didn’t have to help set up the Freedom Eagle Academy at the three destinations. Most of the old guard top Green Beret trainers were lost in the Pentagon. Some of the agencies’ best, like those of the FBI at Quantico, were lost, too. They would be hard to replace. At least the Seals’ training cadre was intact. The invisible campus would recruit some of the nation’s best faculty. They would be given leaves of absence for “research” in distant places and whisked off to the destinations. Everything was accelerated. The best candidates could be expected to complete all requirements in three years.
Recruitment started by having the religious sect, cult, and gang databases from the NSA, CIA, and NSA combined. Through efforts of Knox’s Secretary of State, Interpol was brought in, and shared their database as well. As much intelligence as possible on every aberrant cult or sect was compared: their location(s), population, language, affiliations, activities, and potential threat. When Forsythe ranked these by threat, size and dispersion, he began to get an idea of the scope and size of his Eagle Corps. They would be mostly Moslem, followed closely by Roman Catholic, and include all of the major religions and many splinter, quasi-, and non-religions groups known. Threats were in 58 countries, and spoke 83 languages and dialects. All wars before had drafted red-blooded Americans from the young, male population, including those from recently arrived immigrants. This one was no different, except that the recruits would mostly come from recently arrived immigrants and include a greater percentage of women. Forsythe remembered the effectiveness of women in the KGB during the Cold War. “It’s a wonder we didn’t lose,” John thought to himself. Where the threat to them would not be too great, yes, there to, women would serve.
Jaheed House: 1:58am
Ali couldn’t sleep. He’d done his homework. It was easy. Watched the news for anything new. Played a few games. And then, gone to bed early. That call kept bothering him. The more he put it out of his mind, the more he thought about it. He’d tossed, sleepless, too long. He slipped on his jeans and a sweater to ward of the cool, foggy air, and sneaked out. He doubted if his father heard the Honda start or him, driving away.
In ten minutes, Ali was at the Johnson house. It was dark. He parked a block away so no one would suspect that he was there, and then walked back. He went to the front door first and was about to push the doorbell when he thought better of it. He sneaked around back, where he and Rob had entered many times without a key. He was glad they didn’t have a dog. Like always, an earthquake had made the door slightly ajar. It didn’t close fully. Rob’s Mom had never had it fixed. He pushed hard, and it popped open. He closed it firmly with both hands behind him. The kitchen was deathly quiet, eerily outlined in the light that came through the windows. He had been here many times before, but never in the dark. Ali felt like a thief, but he didn’t turn on a light. His eyes were accustomed to the dark now. He started slowly creeping down the hall. He could feel his heart beating in his chest, but he didn’t bolt. Something was pushing him forward.
There was soft light streaming from her half-open bedroom door. It drew him like a moth. Before he knew it, Ali was looking down at Mrs. Johnson’s sleeping form, her back turned toward him and her book open on the bed where she had fallen asleep, reading. He took his clothes off and piled them next to him on the floor near the door. In the boldest move he’d ever attempted, he gently lifted the covers and slipped into bed behind her. She was wearing that same sheer blue nightie he remembered and smelled wonderful from her bath. Her warmth was intoxicating. He gently rolled into her back and slid his arm over her breasts. He hugged her back and felt her full heat as she stirred. He was hard.
“Uhh, …. Ohhh, …. Is that you, Robbie? My sweet Robbie.” Half asleep, Rob’s mother turned toward him and greeted him with an open mouth and eager tongue. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t Rob. What mattered was that she had a handsome young man in her arms again and she wasn’t letting go. Tears streamed down her face as she began calling him by his right name and leading him into acts that paled his first encounter with her. They didn’t sleep for three hours. When they did, it was from exhaustion.
Ali woke before first light. He kissed his sleeping mistress on the cheek and quickly dressed. He hoped no one saw him on the way to his car. He saw no one except two early commuters getting a head start on the day’s traffic.
In the days that followed Ali fell into an addiction he never thought he’d have. Keeping up appearances with his father and others, he stole off every night to be with is love, such as it was. He didn’t like sneaking around like that, but sex was an addiction he couldn’t control, no more than he could control the events of terrorism or Rob’s demise. For now he had to ease Rob’s Mom’s sorrow, and it wasn’t bad. He only hoped that she’d eventually come out of it.
A registered letter from the United State Department of State came one day addressed to Rashid Jaheed. He signed for it, but the letter lay unopened for days until Ali found it. “Dad, what’s this? A letter from the Department of State. Looks important. Registered. Why didn’t you open it?”
“I don’t know, Son. You know they are looking for us. There’s a lot of talk at the Mosque about arrests and deportations. I don’t want to get deported and I don’t want to answer their questions. They know I came on a student visa and didn’t go back.”
“Oh Dad, … you are a naturalized citizen! Your certificate hangs on the wall of your office upstairs.”
“Okay, you open it. I’m just a shopkeeper now. They can do what they want with me!”
Ali opened the letter and began to read it out loud.
“Dear Mr. Jaheed:
Ali rubbed the embossed Great Seal of the United with his fingers. “It’s real, Dad. Why didn’t you tell me? The 24th is tomorrow afternoon! I know you are scheduled to be at the shop, but you’d better get Mohammed to fill in. This is too important. I’ll get your best suit and tie cleaned so you’ll be presentable. Hell, I’ll even shine your shoes.” Ali hadn’t shined his father’s shoes since he was ten.
He hugged his father and began his preparations. The fact that he had no suit that fit him any more never entered his mind. After all, they were coming to see his father. He’d wear his usual t-shirt and jeans, and his almost new fake Nikes. He was excited. He didn’t know why, but more excited than he’d been in a long time. Maybe it was time for them to leave the depression of the attack behind.