by Joseph Cusumano
Khalid held the vest out to her as the other four men watched, the room silent except for the sounds of traffic entering through a half-opened window. The vest felt lighter than she had expected, probably around five kilograms. Under the outer layer of hundreds of loose nails was an explosive mixture of sulfur and acetone which required only a single electrical switch and battery for detonation. She turned and carried the vest down a dimly lit hallway and entered a small storage room, where uncountable air-borne dust particles danced in the bright sunlight coming through the room’s small window. Removing the loose fitting dress she had chosen for this day, she slipped the vest on and pulled it snug with a Velcro fastener in front. The vest had been made specifically for her and it fit well enough. The heaviest part of the plastic vest, about five centimeters wide and two centimeters thick, encircled her waist and felt cold against her skin. When detonated, the explosion would reach over seven thousand degrees Celsius and would cut her torso in half.
When she dressed and returned to the room where the men awaited her, a strong male voice drifted through the open window, singing and calling the faithful to midday prayer. The long tones were marked by a vibrato, and there were prolonged pauses between breaths. A subtle echo reverberated between the buildings of this Parisian suburb as the amplified prayer found its way through the streets to them. She could now understand almost all the Arabic, calling her in a somber minor key. The musallahs, or prayer rugs, had been placed on the floor while she had donned the vest, and hers was in front of the others. All knelt facing southeast, toward Mecca, touched their foreheads to the musallahs, and began to pray. At their mosque, the women always prayed separately and behind the men, but this was a special day.
* * *
Alita arrived several minutes early at the Bistro Mirage, located in the 4th Parisian arrondissement on the right bank of the Seine. She had suggested this place to Jean-Pierre when she invited him to dine, knowing that it was convenient to his office at the Université Paris Panthéon-Sorbonne where he taught law. After requesting a table that allowed her to see the patrons entering the bistro, she ordered her favorite aperitif, Floc de Gascogne, a potent blend of wine and Armagnac liqueur from Gascony, convinced that she could taste the oak barrels in which it was aged. Alita knew it wasn’t polite to begin drinking before her company arrived, but that felt unimportant just now after a hectic day at the Reuters news agency. She sipped her drink and surveyed the brightly colored oil paintings decorating the bistro which were new since her last visit.
Catching sight of Jean-Pierre after finishing half her glass, she waved to him, then rose and gave him a prolonged aperitif-laden kiss. Four teenage girls at an adjacent table were captivated by this display of affection, but Alita wasn’t embarrassed or self-conscious.
“Ma Cherie. How are you?” he asked as he took a seat.
“Wonderful, now that we’re together,” Alita replied. “And that I have you all to myself for a while.” This drew the smile she loved. Within moments, the waiter arrived, bearing what he knew to be Jean-Pierre’s usual drink. Alita and Jean-Pierre toasted each other’s health and took long swallows. “Where to begin?” she wondered aloud.
“Well, how did you and Marianne meet?” he asked.
“In high school. We’ve been friends for about fifteen years. She was the long-legged, blonde, class beauty, and I was the short class clown.”
“Sounds like an odd couple.””
“It should have been, but she loved my antics and I craved the attention. We had some common interests…fashion, music, boys… We became close; so close that she eventually decided to attend journalism school with me because I made her feel so much at ease. Even before the tragedy, she had a nervous or phobic side. I suspect that the prospect of starting at a university without a close friend to count on would have been too intimidating for her, even though she was a superb student.” Alita downed the rest of her drink, then looked around the room and caught their waiter’s attention. She ordered another.
“So you both graduated from journalism school?”
“Yes, and I took a job with the Reuters news agency. Been there almost ten years now.”
“But Marianne didn’t follow you to Reuters?”
“No. She was engaged and pregnant by then, busy looking for an apartment to share with Christophe. The baby came about six months after they were married, a beautiful little girl they named Christiane, blonde and blue-eyed, just like her mom. I became Aunt Alita and took care of little Christiane when Christophe and Marianne needed a night out. God, I loved that child!”
“Didn’t you tell me that Christophe was driving Christianne to your place when they were gunned down?”
“Yes. I was going to take care of her that day. Marianne had to get to the studio early for the biggest photo-shoot of her career, so she took the subway at dawn. Those photos ended up on billboards all over the city. She was reclining on a white leather chaise, dressed in a tight-fitting black cocktail dress, showing a lot of leg and décolletage.”
“And there was a black cat on the chaise, walking toward her?”
“That’s the one. That black cat was featured in many of her advertisements. I think it became part of her personal trademark. Black dress, long blonde hair, black cat. It worked.”
“I saw that ad whenever I was in the car. Or walking, for that matter,” Jean-Pierre replied. “It was one of those ads that was so eye-catching you never noticed what product they were trying to sell.”
“Well, she doesn’t look anything like that now. And she would never be mistaken for a femme fatale with her traditional Islamic headscarf and clothing. And she’s not blonde Marianne anymore; she’s Fatima, a dark brunette.”
“This is bizarre! The articles in the papers said an Islamic terror cell put hundreds of bullets into their car. And then she converts to Islam?”
“Yes, the attack received wide press coverage because of Marianne’s celebrity. A terror cell took credit for the killing to warn the other higher-ups in Le Pen’s National Front to stop their anti-Islamic activities,” Alita confirmed.
“What did Christophe do for Le Pen?”
“He was Le Pen’s right-hand man in the organization, in charge of fund raising.”
“You’ve talked to Marianne, I mean Fatima, about why she converted?” Jean-Pierre asked.
“At length. I think it’s a combination of things. If you ask her, she’ll tell you that after a few weeks of mourning, she began to wonder what in Islam or in its followers compelled them to such violence and why they couldn’t be content with their peaceful street demonstrations,” Alita replied.
“Those demonstrations aren’t entirely benign and peaceful. When the demonstrators number in the thousands on major streets at rush hour, it creates a mess as bad as a labor strike on the buses and subways. Then they start chanting Na’al abouk la France–Fuck France!”
“You wonder why they don’t go back to the North African paradise they came from. Anyway, the more she learned about Islam, the more she wanted to know. She says she found a theological simplicity that appealed to her. Unlike Catholicism, there aren’t so many incomprehensible mysteries like the Holy Trinity. There is only one Allah; there is no Immaculate Conception or virgin birth. Also, I think that all the required daily rituals she began at the time of her religious instruction put some structure in her life that she desperately needed, given the enormous vacuum in her life. And taking a job at the Grand Mosque in the 5th arrondissement kept her busy and gave her a spiritual community that she hadn’t had since she was a teenager,” Alita said.
“What you’re describing is a mainly positive or healthy set of adaptations. I think you’re overlooking the unhealthy motivations.”
“I can think of two right away,” Jean-Pierre said. “She’s reacting like someone who’s been taken hostage and gradually begins to identify with and bond to her captors.”
“You mean something like the Stockholm syndrome?”
“Yes. It’s not a rare occurrence.”
“But she was never physically taken prisoner or hostage.”
“Considering that her husband and child were executed in a bloodbath, her own apartment could have become a prison experience. Every room is loaded with memory triggers. Did she stay in her apartment or move out?” Jean-Pierre asked.
“After a few months she found a new place.” Alita was silent for a few moments, and then asked, “What’s the second unhealthy adaptation?
“It’s somewhat related to the first. A victim can identify with his or her persecutors, even become one of them, for a sense of safety.”
“You mean, if she became one of them, they would have no reason to kill her too?”
“Exactly. Of course she wouldn’t be consciously aware of either of these processes.”
Alita looked skeptical and said, “I don’t want to believe this.”
“I don’t blame you. It would be a maladaptive set of responses. In other words, maybe she’s not healing at all.”
As the waiter approached to take their orders for dinner, Alita said, “She wants you to obtain the city’s recordings that were caught on closed circuit cameras. She’s tried to get them, but they’re dragging their feet.” Jean-Pierre assured her that he could do that for her. By now, the noise level in the uncarpeted bistro had risen to the point that it was easier to contemplate what they had discussed than to explore it further.
* * *
Men no longer stared longingly at her. Fatima barely noticed and cared not at all. The magic that some women could no more discard than their own shadow had been snuffed out. Gone too was a natural tendency to smile at a stranger with whom she made eye contact, and this was what made Khalid take notice of Fatima. When he first passed her in a dimly lit hallway in the Grand Mosque, her only recognition of him was a slight nod of the head when he had said sabahul khayr–good morning. For all of his life, women had smiled at him, first his mother and sisters, then his female classmates in grade school. By the time he approached his late teens and early adulthood, he had come to expect it, not really aware that he garnered more smiles than most men. Now in his late twenties, he was able to admit to himself that he preferred the company of women, and this was not due solely to the sexual attraction they held for him. This realization had come as an embarrassment, one that he shared with no one, partly because his culture relegated women to a lesser role and status. The fact that he garnered little respect from the men of his community was more than a matter of embarrassment. Khalid suspected that his unmanly facial features and small stature gave him a child-like attractiveness in the eyes of women but were also responsible for the way he was treated by men.
His second encounter with Fatima, at a wedding ceremony at the mosque, was marked by a paradox. Apparently an employee of the mosque, Fatima was making last minute checks of the beautifully decorated room and arranging flowers when she glanced over at him. Still no smile, yet there was a pleasant familiarity about this woman he hadn’t met or conversed with. Had he known her long ago, perhaps in grade school? Was she being coy, waiting to see if he remembered her, even if he couldn’t come up with her name? He suspected that women did that to him sometimes, putting him to a test in a situation where they had the upper hand. This possibility made him uncomfortable, but if he were patient with himself, his memory might rescue him. He welcomed a sudden aroma of lavender flowers which began to pervade his part of the room, enjoying a distraction from what perplexed him.
Fatima remained during the ceremony, and Khalid placed himself where he could glance at her from time to time. She gave no indication of interest in him, not once turning in his direction. I must be mistaken about knowing her, Khalid told himself, but he was unable to focus on the wedding ceremony for more than brief intervals.
At the reception, Khalid waited until the guests’ demands on Fatima and the other women serving food had eased, then approached her and said, “Salam alaikum.”
“And may peace be with you also,” Fatima replied. Again, that feeling of familiarity, although there was nothing reminiscent about her voice. In the course of their conversation, Khalid learned that she had become a member and then an employee at the Grand Mosque after praying and taking instruction at numerous other mosques in Paris.
“And how did you come to choose this one as your spiritual home?” Khalid asked.
“Everyone is so friendly and accepting here. As a convert to Islam, this was very reassuring to me. And it’s such a beautiful place. I love the traditional architecture with multiple domes and peaked arches. The colorful red and blue mosaics inside are hypnotic.”
“And have you learned the significance of the peaked arch we use?” Khalid inquired.
Fatima hesitated a moment before saying, “The oneness of Allah…the common origin…and the common end of all creation.” Fatima answered with an inflection that asked for confirmation.
“Perfect!” Khalid exclaimed. “Many of our young people would have gotten that wrong. You’re obviously taking your studies very seriously.” Fatima confirmed this and thanked him for this compliment.
As they continued to converse, Khalid thought he detected either an unusual strength or a rigidity in her faith. When he asked her opinion of their imam, she replied that he was a very learned and holy man, but that he was too eager to please and accommodate the surrounding Christian and Jewish communities. Their conversation that night ended with her request to hear about Khalid’s Hajj, his holy pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the five pillars of Islam. Khalid agreed to meet with her the next day to relate his experience of the Hajj, the journey required once during the lifetime of all able-bodied Muslims.
When Fatima returned to her apartment that night, she retrieved the set of DVDs that had been obtained by Jean-Pierre and relayed to her by Alita. She had previously marked the cover of one of these with a red checkmark, and now placed its disc into the player, still not bothering to remove her coat. After a few moments of searching on fast-forward, she came to the segment she was looking for. The recording had been obtained from a closed circuit TV camera at a busy intersection. The small white Puegot sedan in which Christophe and Christianne were riding had come to a stop at the intersection, second in line behind a truck. A second lane of cars, also waiting for the light to change, was parallel and to their right. The recording was from a recently installed camera and it included sound, allowing her to discern individual blasts of the horns of impatient drivers. She heard the engine of the motorcycle before it entered the scene, coming from behind the camera’s field of view and moving forward in the narrow space between the two lanes of vehicles. There were two individuals on the motorcycle, initially indistinct due to bluish exhaust smoke from the truck’s exhaust. Marianne felt concern about little Christianne having to breathe the exhaust, as if she didn’t know what was about to happen. The driver of the motorcycle was unremarkable, but behind him rode the much smaller figure of the gunman who appeared to be an adolescent. As the motorcycle pulled alongside of Christophe and Christianne, the smaller figure withdrew a short barreled assault gun from within his jacket and sprayed the Puegot at point-blank range, actually rocking the small car toward the driver’s side. The moving images held her attention so strongly that she didn’t consciously hear the two staccato bursts of the weapon. The camera, located above and behind the motorcycle, only showed an oblique view of the gunman’s face before the motorcycle sped out of the camera’s field of view.
* * *
“But you’ve only known her for six months,” Qasim said.
“Fatima’s faith is very strong. She’s never been married and has no ties to bind her. And she approached me. It was her idea,” Khalid replied with deference to the man who had been his devoted mentor since childhood.
“I think you would be putting us at risk, letting her know about our group.”
“Converts have a special type of faith, a very strong one. Islam is not something they were born into and take for granted as so many of our young people do. The convert chooses Islam.”
“Usually, that’s true. But sometimes we get an unstable person who is attracted to the structured life that Islam offers. Or someone desperate for a community that is welcoming. For a while, it works for them, but their underlying instability means that they eventually stray or become unpredictable.”
“If she fulfills her mission, we won’t have to worry about that,” Khalid countered. “She will become another martyr, placed on posters where she can inspire others to make the supreme sacrifice.” Qasim pondered this as he took another sip of tea in the courtyard of his home. He could see the Eiffel Tower in the distance, remembering a foiled plot to crash an explosive-laden plane into France’s most iconic landmark. Devout followers of Islam, the Armed Islamic Group or AIG, had hijacked an Air France passenger plane in Algeria. A mole within the AIG had been their undoing. The hijackers were tricked into landing the plane in Marseille for refueling where a French undercover team boarded the plane. A shootout resulted in the deaths of all the holy warriors. To honor these brave martyrs, Qasim and Khalid had named their small terrorist cell the Armed Islamic Martyrs.
“What if she’s a mole or a plant of the Police Nationale?” Qasim asked.
“I thought of that, and I expected you to bring it up,” Khalid answered. “I have a plan, a test that will not endanger our entire group. If she fails it, I’ll kill her myself.”
* * *
“I don’t think Father loves me or even likes me,” twelve year old Khalid told his mother. His mother stopped peeling the carrot she had been working on and placed it back on top of the orange pyramid of carrots she had set on the counter. She rinsed her hands, dried them on her apron and said,
“Khalid, come and sit with me.” His mother had dreaded this day, but she had prepared for it. She turned two chairs away from the circular wooden table in their kitchen. When they were seated facing each other, she took his two small hands in hers and, staring into his large brown eyes, said to him, “I love you and I always will. Allah loves you and has great plans for you. Someday, you will be a very important man in our community, respected by all. On the Day of Judgment, Allah will have a place in His shade for you. I am certain of this.”
“But I wish that Father…”
“Your father is fearful and suspicious of everyone, especially me. He thinks that you are the son of another man. I’m amazed he hasn’t divorced me. There is nothing I can do about that, but I have spoken with your father’s brother Qasim, who thinks the world of you. He wants to spend more time with you, going out and doing fun things with you. You like your Uncle Qasim, don’t you?” she asked this knowing what his answer would be.
“He’s wonderful,” Khalid answered. “And he can help me with soccer.”
“He’s already suggested that. With his help, you could become your team’s highest scoring player.”
“I scored a goal in our final game of the season and assisted on a second goal, but the other boys are growing taller than me now.”
“Uncle Qasim can help you with soccer and many other things, including your studies. You know that he is a hafiz, someone who has memorized the Holy Quran. If you wish, you can become a hafiz too. The Holy Quran is the only book you’ll ever really need. And Allah is the only father you’ll need.” She then prepared a bowl of yogurt with honey and toasted almonds, assuring him that it would help him grow tall and strong.
When he had finished eating, he did feel stronger. After thanking his mother, he walked to his bedroom. Propped up on a bookshelf was a recent photograph showing all the members of his soccer team with each player’s father standing behind his son. All except Khalid’s father, who hadn’t come to a single game. Taking the photograph, Khalid tore it into four pieces and threw these in the trash can.
* * *
Khalid was aware that during his lifetime of devotion to Allah, his bravery and cunning would be known and admired only by other members of his small, secretive group. Anonymity and secrecy were essential, but after his death, all the faithful would praise his memory, not just in Paris, but worldwide. The members of his mosque would wonder at their own blindness for not seeing him as a modern Saladin while he had walked among them, garnering no honors or recognition for his tireless devotion. At times he wondered if they even deserved to have one such as he fighting for them. They didn’t just ignore him; some seemed to take pleasure in slighting him. Inshallah—God willing—that would eventually change.
Khalid selected someone he considered to be a relatively expendable member of their group for a mission. Mir, a fifty year old émigré from Tunisia who showed insufficient respect for Khalid’s leadership, was to leave a backpack of explosives on a crowded subway in the third arrondissement. Khalid informed Fatima of the details of this mission and asked her for comments or suggestions, knowing that if Fatima were a mole or plant of the Police Nationale, she would be compelled to inform her handlers and save many lives. Khalid had expected to glean a little insight from Fatima’s initial reaction to this news, but she seemed rather impassive, simply wishing him success and praising his boldness.
A week later when the mission resulted in over twelve deaths of subway riders, Qasim agreed with Khalid that Fatima should be introduced to the rest of their group. More importantly, they would begin preparing for Fatima’s mission, one that had been her idea. President Sarkozy was soon to address an outdoor rally of the Union for a Popular Movement, the center-right political party he had directed until his successful bid for office in May of 2007. For her last day on earth, she would discard her Islamic clothing and attend the rally as the attractive and chic western woman that she had been. This would allow her to get as close to the infidel Sarkozy as possible.
* * *
When she heard Khalid, Qasim, Mir and the two other men finish the midday prayer and begin to rise from their prayer rugs, Fatima also rose. She neatly rolled up her own musallah and placed it with the others.
“It’s time for you to leave, but first show me the detonator,” Khalid said. Fatima was wearing a long, loose-fitting black dress into which she had sewn two pockets. Reaching into her right pocket, she carefully withdrew an object that resembled a thick Montblanc ballpoint pen. Two wires that were connected to the lowermost aspect of the detonator were now visible, extending from the pocket. Using only the thumb of her right hand, she showed Khalid how easily and quickly she could lift the small hinged cap to expose a red button. When activated, the explosive vest could change French history. Kahlid was satisfied, as were the other men.
“Here is money for a cab. No need to take the subway today,” Khalid said. “It starts in about two hours, but if you don’t get there early, the crowd will prevent you from getting close enough.”
Her right hand in her pocket, Marianne used her left hand to unwrap her head scarf, allowing long silky blonde hair to cascade to her shoulders. Having Khalid’s total attention, Marianne gave him his first smile, the same smile that had earned her fame and celebrity. She waited a moment, allowing him time to finally remember what he had struggled with for months, a billboard that showed an alluring blonde with a black cat on a white leather chaise. Satisfied with his sudden expression of wild-eyed terror, Marianne pushed the button.
* * *
(Reuters) At 12:15 pm today in Sarcelles, a suburb north of Paris, an explosion destroyed the rear portion of a small business at 4 Rue du Jean Perrin. Multiple badly mutilated bodies were discovered, embedded with nails, in what police are describing as an apparent accidental detonation in a terrorist safe house. One of the bodies is thought to be female, but this has not yet been confirmed with DNA analysis. Sarcelles has been plagued by increasing unrest in the past six months from pro-Palestinian groups, who have set cars ablaze, looted stores and attacked synagogues with Molotov cocktails.
Reported by Alita Albair
◊ ◊ ◊
Joseph Cusumano is a physician living in St. Louis. His major hobby, other than writing, is the design and construction of radio controlled airplanes. His piloting skills need a lot of work.