She feared she’d be seeing stars in a minute unless she got blood to the head. Oxygenated blood. But how? On the floor against the wall, bound hand and foot, 28-year-old Mary Farrell had been ordered to sit still. So far she’d followed orders. Cautiously, she tucked her chin down and leaned forward, smelling the warm, damp, nylon hose beneath her evening gown. She was perspiring. Who in her situation wouldn’t be? Eyes closed, she concentrated on the breathing, deeply in, slowly out, once more, and once again, visualizing crimsoned erythrocytes (red blood cells laden with O2) en route to the cerebrum. Sure enough, the nausea lifted. Perversely, though, this only sharpened the awareness that her feet were burning. How to relieve them?
She lowered her knees. As her feet were lashed together, her shoes looked like a pair of toy boats, prows pointed upward, sterns elevated on the stilts of her high heels, as she inched her feet forward. She began pumping the insteps up and down, as if on alternative pedals, inadvertently straining at the cords around her ankles. Reconsidering this remedy, she desisted instantly, but not soon enough: The man at the window had gotten up from the chair and was approaching.
“What is the matter?” he asked.
She kept her eyes low, fixed on the sandals beneath the hem of his dishdasha, the white, Arab garment that hung, drape-like, from shoulders to ankles. “My…my feet,” she stammered. “They’re hot.”
He must think she’d been testing her bonds. Would he issue a warning? A threat? Punish her in some way? His response hung pendent above her, like a thunderhead in the still air that precedes a deluge.
“Would you like me to remove the shoes?” he asked.
Stunned, Mary lifted her eyes. Was he serious? She let her gaze crawl up the folds of the white robe, as one might inch up a treacherously gullied mountainside. At the top, couched between the curtain-like sides of a white keffiyeh, dark but not unfriendly eyes were gazing down upon her.
“Would you like me to remove the shoes?” he asked again.
“If…if you would be so kind.”
He knelt down. The fingers of a manly hand cupped around one of her shoes, his palm to the sole, and, gently, as if it were a porcelain figurine, he slipped it off. As he took the other shoe in hand, she stole a glimpse of his face.
He was young, even younger than he looked at a distance—perhaps still a teenager. His high forehead, delicate cheek bones, and large, luminous, brown eyes suggested a sensitive, kind intelligence that comported with the gentleness of his voice. His diction, tinted with an Arab accent, had betrayed a facility with English, implying that he’d been abroad or at least had mingled with people from abroad, from America or Britain or…
“Is that better?” He lifted the shoes, their inner rims pinned between his thumb and forefinger.
“Much better,” she said. “Thank you.”
He set the shoes down on the floor beside her and, for a moment, lingered, hovering above her nyloned feet, one knee on the floor, the other cocked beneath the dishdasha. She kept her eyes low and waited. Would he say more? She wanted him to say more. Please, God, let him say more!
He rose. The moment expired. The dull ache in her shoulders returned, reminding her that her hands had been tied behind her back for some time now. Was it two hours? Three?
Where was she anyway?
She’d left Chicago with the church tour group in the last week of April, inspired by her pastor to visit the land where Christ was born. The trip had been going fabulously. They’d all loved Jerusalem with its fountains and stones and ancient walls, boutiques and bustling street markets, and the joyful crowdedness of Ben Yehuda Street. They’d touched on all the must-see spots, too, including the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Then, after they returned to Tel Aviv, she’d gone on a personal excursion.
She’d been wanting to see Diane in person, an Israeli pen-pal she’d met on the Internet. Hoping to attract some male attention, they’d gotten dressed up, Mary going so far as to don a knee-length black evening gown, smoky brown nylons, and four-inch high heels, before meeting at a popular night club. Around eleven, leaving Diane at the bar, she stepped out for a breath of fresh air.
What she remembered was two strangers converging on her. Professing to be undercover detectives working for the Israeli police, they lured her away from the lights of the club. Stupidly, she went. Only when they tried to “arrest” her did she resist but, by then, it was too late. She remembered the terror—being shoved backward into the seat of a parked car, her belated scream pocketed inside the vehicle as the door was slammed shut, and then her face pressed into the upholstery, arms wrenched behind her, and a cord wrapped around her wrists, binding them tightly together.
Remarkably, she never panicked. She was proud of that now. By training and experience, she’d learned to keep her head, ascertain the problem, identify a good outcome, and choose the best way there. Most of all, she’d learned to pay attention.
Inside the car, she was jerked upright and a cloth wrapped over her eyes. Someone snarled, “Open up!” A cloth was aligned with the length of her mouth. She parted her lips. The gag was yanked back, cutting in between her teeth, and knotted behind her neck.
Given the time that elapsed, the car might have covered sixty miles. Had it crossed a border, it would have had to stop at a military checkpoint, but nothing like that happened. She must still be in Israel.
When the car did stop, she was whisked out and away, stumbling in her high heels across a cobble-stone walkway into some kind of building, through a wave of cooking smells, the clatter of pots and pans, a baby squalling, and up two rickety flights of stairs. In the apartment, she was helped down to the floor, her ankles placed together, and rope wrapped quickly around them, six, seven, eight times, yanked up between her feet, cinching the bond tight. Thus she waited, bound, gagged and blindfolded, for what seemed like an eternity but was probably just a few minutes. Then the gag was removed and, a second later, the blindfold.
Kneeling in front of her was a man of about sixty, his gray-bearded cheeks framed in a white keffiyeh with a woven, black agal, the band Arab men wear around the crown of the head. He was looking at her eyes—not into them but at them—as an ophthalmologist might. His countenance darkened and he turned to the two men who were standing behind him. She recognized them. Arabs dressed like Western businessmen, probably between 30 and 40 years of age, they were the “undercover detectives” who had seized her. Her examiner growled at them in Arabic. Looking cowed, they turned. He followed them out of the room, like a dyspeptic lion bearing down on a pair of hyenas. Only one man remained, the young fellow at the window—the one who had just removed her shoes.
His youth aside, there was something different about him, something incongruent between his membership in a gang of kidnappers and the person he seemed to be. But how could she know? Even a monster could be charming. If only she could get him to talk again!
She cleared her throat. He went on gazing through a parting between the curtains. She cleared her throat again, a little louder this time. He seemed to have lost the faculty of hearing.
“My name’s Mary,” she said, instantly regretting her audacity. Would he snap at her? Tell her to shut up? Put the gag back on?
Wondrously, he turned, looking neither annoyed nor angry but perplexed, as if she had roused him from a hypnotic trance. “Mary?” he said. “The mother of Jesus?”
She nodded, her eyes brightening. That was a good start!
Yet he looked ambivalent, as if, in debating the pros and cons of talking, he’d decided that the argument against was as weighty as the one in favor.
“What’s your name?” she prodded. Of course he couldn’t answer that. It was absurd of her to ask. Yet he did answer.
“Abdul-Lateef,” she repeated. It might be a made-up name—no doubt, he’d want to conceal his identity—but at least he’d given her something to call him.
“Servant of the Kind,” he translated.
“Ah!” she exclaimed, as if a light had turned on. “You are kind.”
He ignored the compliment. She blushed, embarrassed to think that she may have appeared to be trying to flatter him, to coax a favor from him, to get him to betray his comrades. “I’m from Chicago,” she said, eager to change the subject.
“Chicago?” he murmured, looking blank.
“It’s between New York and California.”
“Oh,” he said, as if a light had turned. “Al Capone’s town?”
Mary laughed. He must have seen a Hollywood movie or two. “Yes,” she said, “but Al Capone’s dead now—no one’s afraid of him anymore.”
She glanced at the white cotton cords gripping her ankles. How strange to be declaring her hometown free of a notorious gangster while she herself sat, bound hand and foot, in the grip of gangsters!
“Are you more comfortable now?” he asked.
“Much more.” She rewarded him with a bright smile.
Actually, removing the shoes hadn’t made a vast difference. The air in the apartment was tomblike, warm and lifeless. The room itself, moreover, was a miserable little lair meagerly furnished. Besides the reed chair in which Abdul sat, there was only a single bed along the wall, a compact refrigerator in the corner, and a small electric lamp atop the refrigerator. In the sickly yellow glow of the lamp, the bed looked as if it had been salvaged from a bombed-out hospital. Perhaps it had been. Hideously, the walls seemed to bulge in places and cracks branched out across the bleak plaster. Suddenly, she felt hemmed in, suffocating, desperate.
“Abdul-Lateef, why have I been kidnapped?”
The question had a strong effect. He seemed to disengage, turning back to the window. She’d been too direct, she thought. He’d withdraw now and that would be that.
But it wasn’t.
Seconds later, he was stepping toward her with a magazine. On the page he held open was the photo of a man dressed in a suit and tie. Balding and portly, the man looked like a prosperous Israeli banker. His arm encircled the waist of a young woman in an electric blue evening gown. “His daughter,” Abdul said. “They wanted her.”
Mary looked at the photo, glanced at the caption, and then looked at the photo again.
Like her, Susan Strauss wore her hair in a ponytail, appeared between 25 and 35, and had a face with Germanic features, long, serious, with a chin that suggested fortitude or stubbornness or something like that. She had an attractive nose, prominent in a queenly way, and eyes like emeralds. (Mary’s own eyes were blue—a difference The Lion would have noticed.) Still, the resemblances were strong and they extended far below the neck. Both of them were on the tall side for women, with legs a lady could show off, pretty rumps and rounded hips, and bosoms like plump, ivory pillows pressed together beneath the collars of their evening gowns.
Abdul withdrew the picture.
The image, though, seemed to hang in the air, retaining its vividness for a long while. From outside came the sound of little waves lapping against a solid obstacle, a seawall or a dock perhaps, and, from farther off, the din of merrymakers wafting in on a languorous breeze. Mary moistened her lips.
“If she’s the…the one you want…” For some reason, her heart was slamming against her chest. “If she’s the one you want, then what do you plan to…to do with…”
Footsteps sounded on the stairs. Abdul raised a finger to his lips. “We have never spoken, do you understand?”
The door opened, admitting two men. One of the “businessmen” from earlier appeared, looking distressed. In fact, he looked ill, sweat glistening on his forehead. Behind him, waxing more leonine than ever, The Lion was upbraiding him in a manner that, to judge from the flux and tone of the Arabic, was unrelenting.
Abdul-Lateef was sitting in the chair again, looking out the window, hearing nothing, as it were. That was probably a policy of his, she thought—to appear to hear nothing, to see nothing, to think nothing.
Suddenly, The Businessman was pressing a hand to his heart, lowering himself to the floor. Abdul leapt to his feet. The stricken man was sitting on the floor, breathing normally but sweating harder than ever. The Lion looked on, cool, unmoved. Abdul glanced at the old man, confused at his indifference, and then dashed to the stricken man’s side. Falling to his knees, he loosened the other’s collar. “Rashid!” He shook him gently by the shoulders.
The stricken man was not getting better. He tried to wave Abdul away, as if to indicate he’d be fine, but all the signs suggested otherwise. Had he been merely faint, Mary reasoned, sitting down should have helped. It didn’t. And, apparently, it wasn’t going to.
“Rashid!” the young man cried.
Like a colossus carved in granite, unmoved and unmovable, The Lion, continued to look on, arms folded across his chest.
“Rashid!” Abdul’s eyes were glistening. He muttered something in Arabic.
Mary could stand it no longer. “Cut me loose!” she cried.
The young man spun around, his face contorted with fear.
“I’m a nurse.”
The Lion flinched.
“I can help. Untie me!”
“No!” thundered The Lion, but Abdul-Lateef was already at her side. Turning, she presented her bound hands. He quickly freed them. But when he fumbled with the knot between her ankles, she brushed him aside. Swiftly, she liberated her feet, flung the rope away, and dashed to the stricken man’s side.
She flew through the checks. Respirations normal. No fever. Pulse rapid. “Are you in pain?” she asked.
Rashid stared back, looking utterly bewildered.
The young man put the question in Arabic. Rashid mumbled something.
“What’s he saying?”
“He says he’s okay. He just needs a little rest.”
Mary shook her head. No way was this man okay. He was pale, faint, sweating hard, and his heart rate could win a horse race. “Does he take medications?”
“I don’t know.”
Rashid pointed to his abdomen. She pulled up the shirt. The Lion stepped forward, but only one step, and then froze. Rashid’s abdomen was dotted with needle marks, traces of subcutaneous injections. He pointed to the refrigerator. She dashed to it. Tucked on the inside shelf, each of four tiny bottles appeared, bearing the same label: Regular (R) Humulin.
“When was the last time you took this?” Kneeling back down beside Rashid, her legs spread against the fabric of her evening gown, she held up a bottle. His eyelids fluttered. He was struggling to keep his eyes open. Soon he’d be unconscious. “Abdul!”
The young man translated.
Rashid’s head wobbled.
“He’s taking insulin,” she turned to the young man. “He’s probably had some within the past hour. For some reason, he’s had no chance to eat.” She glanced at The Lion, who turned instantly away. “We’ve got to raise his blood sugar. Do you have orange juice?”
“OR-ANGE JUICE!” she raised her voice.
He dashed out, down the two rickety flights of stairs and into the wild, dark, fragrant warmth of the late-spring night. Meanwhile, The Lion went to the window and planted himself there, his forefinger holding back the curtain. He peered out into the night.
What was he thinking? His relationship to Rashid would almost certainly reveal something. But what was that relationship? He didn’t seem to be Rashid’s father. Was he an uncle? An older cousin perhaps? And what was Rashid’s relationship to Abdul? Six years of nursing had yielded more than a glimpse of how tangled kin ties could be, how ambiguous, and how fraught with detriments to health.
The door swung open. Abdul thrust a carton of orange juice into her hands. She unsealed the spout and pressed it to Rashid’s lips. The stricken man took a sip. She tipped the spout, dribbling juice on his chin. He took the life-saving nectar in his own hands and drank. She turned to Abdul.
The young man was still panting, still recovering his breath, but the adrenaline rush had done him good. In place of dread, relief had dawned, along with gratitude and…and something else. She couldn’t quite make it out at first. Was it reverence? Reverence for her? Embarrassed, Mary turned back to the patient.
“He was having a hypoglycemic reaction,” she explained. “I guessed it from his weakness, sweating, and the rapid heart rate.” Feeling the young man’s adoring eyes on her, she noticed her own heart rate picking up. “Hypoglycemia is a dangerous thing. The brain needs sugar, lots of it. If you hadn’t gotten the juice, he might have blacked out and…” She stopped.
“Died?” Abdul asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
Mary bit her lip. Died yes, almost certainly. But alarming the loved ones of patients was not what she’d been trained to do.
Like a screw boring into its socket, creaking as it embeds itself in the wood it penetrates, Abdul turned to The Lion. “You would have let him die?”
The old man continued gazing out the window, silent as the Sphinx.
“You’d have let your own brother die?” Abdul persisted.
Brother, Mary thought. So that was it: The Lion was Rashid’s elder brother.
On the floor, Rashid set the carton down. “Abdul-Lateef!” he called and wiped juice from his chin.
“What did you think you were doing?” Abdul went on, his eyes riveted on the old man.
At last, The Lion turned, presenting the broad front of his cloaked figure, his furrowed brow lowered as he impaled the young man with his eyes. “And what if he had died?” he asked. “Would that not have been the will of Allah?”
Abdul stared back, whether appalled or incredulous, Mary couldn’t tell.
Emitting a low, dark, hopeless sort of laugh, The Lion turned back to the window. “I have seen the devil. I have seen men who fought the devil. I saw them in Afghanistan stop the Russian tanks. I have seen them here blow themselves up against the Zionist outrage. Believe me: They would put you to shame.”
He went on, as if speaking to the window. “Who among the martyrs would have tolerated such an existence as…as this?” He glanced at the empty juice carton. “Instructed by women? Women dressed as trollops.” He sneered at Mary. “Sticking themselves with needles? No, I tell you, real men do not run from Death but rather into it, praising Allah for the honor.”
This was too much for Rashid. Horrified, the stricken man, now at least partially recovered, gripped the side of the bed and pulled himself to his feet. “Nazeeh!” he implored.
Speaking in Arabic, he hastened to placate the old man. He spoke for some time, his voice hushed, between himself and his brother. Finally, Nazeeh nodded. Rashid beckoned Abdul. Appearing reluctantly, the young man nonetheless came. All three conferred in Arabic, Abdul shaking his head more than once, Nazeeh scowling more than once, Rashid beseeching them, first one, then the other, keeping the talk going. Then, seeming to have reached an accord, he ended the parley, and he and Nazeeh departed. Abdul turned to Mary.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Your life has been spared.”
They stood in the center of the room, he a pillar of ivory in his white dishdasha, she in her black evening gown and nyloned feet, her face slightly upturned as she looked into his eyes.
“To get safely away from here, Nazeeh argued, we had to kill you, but he was lying. He wants to kill you because you have humiliated him.”
“I? Humiliated him? How?”
“By identifying his brother’s illness.”
Mary’s jaw dropped. She’d had diversity training in nursing school, but nothing had prepared her for this. “In my culture,” she began, “a family member would be grateful if—”
Abdul cut her off. “Nazeeh belongs to a holy lineage. He’d been hiding his brother’s affliction, of which members of his clan are supposed to be free. You blew the cover, and then you did something no woman should ever do.”
“What did I do?”
“You outperformed him.”
“You applied a remedy of which he knew nothing.”
“The orange juice?”
“I fear he did know about it,” Mary said.
“I fear the same. But if he did, he chose to neglect it, disguising neglect as the will of Allah. You tore off the disguise. So even if you didn’t know more than he did, you appeared to, and the effect is the same.”
So that was it: male chauvinism, the same thing that might rear its ugly head anywhere in the USA, only here it was publicly condoned, institutionalized, and raised to the power of a divine commandment.
“But my life has been spared?”
“Yes. I contended that killing you would serve no purpose and, on reflection, Nazeeh agreed. He said we should take you along as a hostage.”
“A hostage! I think I might rather be dead, Abdul-Lateef.”
“I objected to the hostage plan. Rashid supported me.”
“He’s a wily bargainer. He insisted we owed him a favor.”
“For nixing the hostage idea?”
“For sparing your life. So he made a new demand.”
Was she to convert to Islam? Denounce the “sins” of the United States? Condemn its Zionist “puppet”?
“What is it?” she asked. “Money? I’m not of a rich family, you know, and nurses aren’t millionaires.”
“No,” Abdul shook his head. “It’s not money.”
“He wants you bound.”
“You mean tied up? I figured I’d be tied up. But is that all?”
“It will be thorough,” he warned. “It must pass muster with Nazeeh.”
He looked down, distracted, as if something had knifed into his consciousness from a completely different angle and he were struggling to express it.
“What is it?” she prodded.
“Almost all my life,” he began, looking her in the eyes, his own eyes growing tender. “Rashid has been like a father to me, to both my siblings and me. He has taken care of us and my mother, ever since my eldest brother was killed in the Intifada. Thank you for…for saving his life.”
Mary gulped, the skin tightening like shrink wrap around her face. “Any nurse would have done the same.”
“No, please,” he frowned. “Not any nurse would have done what you did. I thank you, sincerely, from the bottom of my heart.”
Tears welled in her eyes. His face appeared to shimmer.
“Come,” he said, retrieving rope from the floor. “We haven’t much time.”
When Nazeeh returned, she was sitting on the side of the bed, her nyloned feet planted on the floorboards, ropes gripping her from neck to ankles in crisscrossing patterns of interwoven bonds.
“How do you feel?” Abdul asked.
“Like a mermaid wrapped up in a fisherman’s net—or maybe two or three nets.”
“It’s a mythological figure, half woman, half fish. Look it up on the Internet.”
“I shall. But are you comfortable?”
“I’ll be fine.”
“The night is long.”
“I’m used to eight-hour shifts.”
“This may be longer.”
“I do overtime.”
Nazeeh, who’d reassumed his post by the window, came over. With a clinical air, the old goat proceeded to inspect the rope work, rubbing his beard as he went along. Feeling like a piece of meat on display, Mary sat stock-still, her heart pounding as if her bust were a bass drum thrust out between the ropes.
“It is good,” he declared.
Abdul pressed a wadded cloth against her lips. Here we go again, she thought, parting her lips. In went the wad, filling the orifice, and then duct tape was wrapped around her jaws, the roll rounding her face three times, compressing her cheeks, making a firm seal.
Nazeeh nodded approvingly and produced a woman’s scarf. A muffler, she thought. Wrapped around her face, the lily-white fabric was pulled taut over the tape, flush with her nostrils, cupped under her chin, and knotted behind her neck, leaving only her nose and eyes visible.
“Very good,” he said. “That is how a woman’s face ought to be displayed. Only this,” he scowled at something behind her neck, “this thing is no good.”
She winced as he tore the hairclip off, his cruel hand wrecking her ponytail and, in the process, causing more pain than necessary. But then something wonderful happened. As if in retaliation, the chestnut-brown tresses, now liberated, came avalanching down around her shoulders in gorgeous waves of defiant womanhood. Nazeeh flinched at the sight, apparently stupefied.
“Tool of the devil!” he muttered, flinging the plastic clip away, sending it clattering across the floorboards. “Finish up,” he ordered Abdul. “We’ll meet you downstairs.”
With the old man gone—with just the two of them now—Abdul lifted her onto the bed and a certain tension in her loins that had arisen earlier, when he’d begun lacing her legs together, began to mount. Sinking into the mattress, she lay on her side facing the wall, her rump turned to the young man, as he tethered her feet to the bed frame and the tension rose higher. She knew what it was. Oh, God, she thought, why now? Determined to smother the budding orgasm, she squeezed her thighs more tightly together, but that only made things worse.
“Are you comfortable?” he asked.
Abdul-Lateef! She wanted to scream. She slid her knees up a few inches, trying to fight back the rising crescendo. Suddenly, desperate, she craned her neck around and presented her eyes—eyes which, at that moment, must have looked like the windows of a cathedral on fire. Be gone, young man! And thank you, THANK YOU for your kindness. Would that there were more men like you! Fare thee well, Abdul-Lateef!
It wouldn’t have been much of a speech under ordinary circumstances, but, as it was, it was a mouthful. She must have sounded ridiculous trying to get it past the gag. Yet try she did. And, maybe, just maybe, he understood. For even if the sounds emitted were unintelligible, her meaning must still have shone like the sun, throbbing in the breasts which heaved between the ropes, eloquent in the eyes that glistened above the gag.
MISSING CHICAGO WOMAN FOUND
The headlines stared Jack in the face as he unfolded Sunday’s Chicago Tribune on the table.
…Acting on an anonymous tip, police in the northern city of Acre searched an inn on the old waterfront. Ms. Farrell, a registered nurse, was found bound and gagged… Members of a radical group calling itself “Warriors of Allah”…
Jack clenched his jaws. Those pansies in the White House should drop an A-bomb on Tehran. That would send a message.
“Ready for church, honey?” his wife called from the vestibule.