The Cat Came Back
By Larry Specht
*Published in Fifth Wednesday, Spring 2010
Adapted from Chap. X of my novel Now Appearing in Baghdad
Tom Ballard awakened to the intermittent pop of small arms fire. It was too early in the day for celebratory shooting. Baghdadis didnâ€™t usually start their wedding and birthday Kalashnikov salutes before sundown. Somewhere, not too far away, men were trying to kill each other. He struggled free of the tangled bedding and stumbled to the window. It opened onto an interior, cement-paved courtyard, surrounded by the high granite walls of the house. He leaned out, searching for the direction of the sound. Nothing. The shooting had stopped. He heard shouts from the guards out front. The men sounded in high spirits, and he was reassured. He felt comfortable in the safe house, confident in the toughness of the Iraqi guards and the British and South African mercenaries that defended the place.
The bright Baghdad sky was almost blue. The dust storm had subsided overnight. Then he noticed the cookâ€™s two teenage daughters, Miriam and Jameela, off in a far corner of the yard. They appeared to be playing with a cat. He had spied on them in that same courtyard on another morning. This time they saw him, and they returned his gaze. He waved. They continued staring at him for a few moments and then turned away. He let the curtain drop. He hoped that the events of last night would be forgotten. In truth, nothing much had happened. He had left the girl alone as soon as he realized she had only been flirting and had no intention of having sex with him.
As he dressed for breakfast, Tom remembered the cat out in the courtyard. It might have been the cat he had promised to watch for Jane. Janeâ€™s cat was yellow. The cat in the courtyard was yellow. Half the cats in Baghdad seemed to be yellow. When he had promised to take the thing in, the understanding had been that Jane would find another home for it soon. Now, that didnâ€™t seem very likely. Maybe he could pay one of the cookâ€™s daughters to take care of the thing. Maybe that would go some way towards making amends for his disastrous attempt on Miriamâ€™s honor last night. Or had it been Jameela? He wasnâ€™t totally sure now. He hoped it was Miriam. She was the older one, wasnâ€™t she? Someone had told him 18. He just wasnâ€™t sure. The cookâ€™s two daughters were almost as alike as Baghdadâ€™s cats.
He made his way down the spiral staircase, down into the enormous, white marble-clad hall that everyone called â€œthe Throne Roomâ€ for want of a better word. Rumor had it that the house had been owned by one of Saddamâ€™s daughters before the invasion. Shehab and Haider, two of the Iraqi guards, along with Steve Bell, the Brit who ran the safe house, were at the foot of the stairs.
â€œNoisy morning,â€ Tom said.
Shehab grinned. â€œMa Mushkila, No problem. Those Shia guys, the guys over on next street. They argue over something, I donâ€™t know. Argument settled.â€ He said something in Arabic and Bell and Haider laughed.
Tom attempted to side-step the group of men and continue on to breakfast, but Bell blocked his way.
â€œWe gotta talk,â€ he said in a low voice.
â€œWhy are you whispering?â€ Tom asked.
â€œCome on back to my office.â€
â€œSoon as I get some coffee and something to eat,â€ Tom said.
â€œNo,â€ Bell said.
More trouble. If only he could have eaten first. He followed the Brit to the back of the house, where the rooms were smaller and had a more Spartan, utilitarian look, plaster walls instead of marble and cheap, worn tiles on the floor. Bellâ€™s windowless office looked as if it had once been a store room. It was jammed with a welter of military equipment, ammunition, small arms, body armor. Surveillance monitors were set on shelves around the room. Three of them were blank. A cluster of photos was mounted on a large frame on the wall. One of the soldiers in the pictures looked like a younger version of Bell. The backdrop had a dreary, wet, European look to it, maybe northern Ireland.
Bell cleared file folders off a chair for Tom.
â€œWhy the mystery?â€ Tom said. He was forced to look up at the man who had remained standing.
â€œTom, my boyo, this is Iraq. Itâ€™s not safe to try and fuck the help.â€
â€œWhat has she told you?â€ Tom asked. â€œI never touched her.â€ He started to rise, as if to leave.
â€œI said â€˜try and fuckâ€™ â€˜cause if you had fucked that girl, I probably wouldnâ€™t be talking to you, because you would be dead. But chasing that girl around your room was still a big insult.â€
â€œI didnâ€™t chase her.â€ He sat back down. â€œThere was a misunderstanding.â€
â€œYes, and there still is. I reckon youâ€™re going to have to move out.â€
â€œMove out? Are you crazy? To where?â€
â€œHotel. We can find you a hotel,â€ Bell said.
â€œTheyâ€™re blowing up hotels. Please there must be a way.â€ Tom heard himself begging, but he didnâ€™t care.
The Brit shrugged. â€œI canâ€™t have one of our clients murdered by the help. And I canâ€™t afford to loose that cook. Do you know how hard it is to get a Christian cook? One whoâ€™ll cook pork?â€
â€œWhat if I give him some money?â€
Bell paused. â€œCould work. And if you can keep away from those girls.â€
â€œFuck yes. I was drunk or else I would have neverâ€¦Fuck yes.â€
â€œThousand, that might do it. You good for a thousand?â€
â€œYes, yesâ€¦no problem,â€ Tom said. His mouth was dry and the words came out in a half croak.
â€œWe can try.â€ The Brit sounded almost friendly now. â€œYou go on back upstairs. Iâ€™ll talk to Mustafa.â€
Bell walked him back through the giant main room to the foot of the stairs. Tom could hear the sounds of conversation and the clatter of plates coming from the dining room. â€œBreakfast. What about breakfast?â€
â€œYou worried about eating at a time like this?â€
â€œI get hungry when Iâ€™m nervous.â€
â€œI think you best take my advice,â€ Bell said, his voice getting a hard edge. â€œIâ€™ll have one of the guys bring something up to you.â€
Five minutes later, Haider came to Tomâ€™s room with coffee and fresh bread. The young guard grinned at him as if he knew the whole story and thought it very amusing. â€œChristian girls,â€ he said and gave the thumbs up sign.
â€œYes?â€ Tom said. â€œWhat about them?â€
Haider gave him the thumbs up again and left.
If the kid knew, then the whole house knew, which was embarrassing. Still, Haiderâ€™s admiration felt good. Behind the worry about repercussions, violent or otherwise, Tom felt a bit of pride, a sense that he was one of the guys now.
He ate quickly and went out front to wait for Zahra. It was fine for the Iraqi guards to think him a bold seducer, but not his lovely and sensitive interpreter. She would be showing up for work soon, and he needed to intercept her, get her away from the safe house before someone told her about his sordid behavior.
Like the interior rooms, the area in front of the house was paved with marble. It had been turned into a parking area for the collection of SUVs and lesser vehicles that served the house, and the slabs were now cracked and sunken, darkened with oil and dirt. Haider and another guard were over by the steel gate leading to the street. Shehab was cleaning the windshield of the dented green Opel, the least of the house vehicles. He was a head shorter than Tom. He had a thick Saddam mustache. A scar that ran across his brow and down one cheek stood out against a sun-darkened face.
â€œSaba al-khire, good morning, my brother,â€ Shehab said.
â€œSaba a-noor,â€ Tom replied. â€œDid I get it right?â€
Shehab clapped him on the shoulder. â€œMumtaz. Wonderful. Cigarette?â€
â€œThanks. Donâ€™t mind if I do. You driving me over to the Green Zone today?â€
â€œSure Mr. Tom. We use this one.â€ During Tomâ€™s first day in Iraq, Shehab had explained that the unobtrusive little Opel was safer than the showy SUVs that announced to the world that Americans were inside.
One of the cookâ€™s daughters, Miriam maybe, appeared at the front door. Was she the one? To be sure, he would need to see them side-by-side. The girl took a long look at Tom and disappeared back inside the house.
A taxi pulled up. The guards swung the gate open, and Tom saw Zahra paying off the cabby. He watched her walk up the drive and cursed the black abbaya that obscured her form and the blue hijab that hid her hair and most of her face. She smiled when she saw him, and her beauty warmed his heart. She was the reason he had vowed to learn Arabic. His tender feelings for her only deepened his regret at last nightâ€™s incident with the maid.
They struggled through the ritual greetings in Arabic. The misplaced lust and confusion of the night before was pushed to the back of his mind like a bad dream. She brushed at a strand of hair that had escaped the hijab.
â€œWe should head out now,â€ Tom told her, touching her lightly on the elbow to guide her towards the car. â€œThey want to see me over at the Green Zone. I want you to come with me.â€
â€œWhat about your Arabic lesson?â€
Tom was surprised to see that Haider was coming along as shooter. â€œWeâ€™re just going over to the Green Zone.â€
â€œMister Steve give new orders,â€ Shehab said to Tom. â€œSince that soldier girl, Jane, got shot other night, your friend.â€
â€œYour friend was hurt?â€ Zahra said.
â€œAcquaintance,â€ Tom said. â€œSheâ€™s going to be okay. She got stopped at a roadblock. There was some shooting.â€ He tried to keep his tone light, casual.
â€œDriver dead,â€ Shehab said.
Zahra gave a little gasp and brought her hand to her mouth.
â€œI guess you donâ€™t get used to it,â€ Tom said.
â€œNo, we donâ€™t.â€
In the car, Zahra was silent, withdrawn. Tom searched for some words that might comfort her. He noticed for the first time that she was wearing perfume, a faint but exciting scent of some flower he could not name. He thought of her applying it before coming to meet him, perhaps naked after bathing, touching the scent to her breasts, belly, and now the scent was coming from those secret places to him.
Within a few minutes of leaving the safe house, they were stuck in a sea of slowly churning traffic, an angry mix of cars, minivans, trucks, bicycles, livestock and pedestrians. The ending of the UN blockade the year before had unleashed a torrent of consumerism. Here, the sidewalks were nearly impassable, crowded with appliances, small ones – toasters, blenders, microwaves stacked in shaky pyramids – and big ones â€“ refrigerators, stoves, televisions. Customers swarmed around the merchandise and into the street. The congestion seemed to be worse each time Tom went out. More battered cars, more shops overflowing with appliances and satellite dishes. For awhile, Haider took his guard role seriously, his Kalashnikov held up against his chest, but the cornucopia of goods was too much of a distraction. Soon the gun was abandoned on the seat beside him. They were moving so slowly, that there was time enough for him to query the shop owners about prices and even to begin brief, shouted negotiations before they passed.
No one seemed to pay undue attention to the three Iraqis and the lone American in the shabby green Opel of indeterminate age. Occasionally, however, a manâ€™s gaze would linger on them, and Zahra, who had remained silent, would sink even farther in her seat, as if she wished to disappear entirely.
The gold domed Assassinsâ€™ Gate guarded the main approach to the Green Zone. Its marble portals lay across the road like some gigantic leftover from a Hollywood movie set. It was flanked by walls of sandbags from which soldiers manning 50 caliber machine guns looked down on the small green car. A lone tank and two soldiers stood in the middle of the road. Shehab stopped a dozen yards from the tank and approached on foot. After a brief conversation with the two soldiers, he returned to the car.
He said something in Arabic and Haider passed him the Kalashnikov and a hand gun from the glove compartment. â€œGot to unload guns, show soldiers,â€ he said to Tom.
â€œBut they let you take the guns in?â€
â€œYes,â€ Shehab said. â€œKeep in car boot.â€
â€œThatâ€™s dumb. How do they know you wonâ€™t just reload once youâ€™re inside?â€
Shehab shrugged. â€œDumb, you bet. Not my rule. American rule.
He returned to the soldiers, the weapons held loosely at his side. Haider trailed behind him. Now, the two Iraqis and the GIs appeared to be joking. Shehab held the handgun straight out from his body. A shell flipped out and sailed upward in a long arc, hesitated and then tumbled back down and into Shehabâ€™s open mouth. The GIs applauded.
“Cool,” Tom said. “I’ve got to get a better look at this.” He started to get out of the car.
“Donâ€™t, please,â€ Zahra said. Her hand was on Tomâ€™s arm.
â€œSure, okay,â€ he said. Zahra took her hand away, but Tom could still feel it.
Several soldiers who had been watching the show appeared from behind the sand-bagged machine gun emplacements. Shehab chambered a round, hesitated a moment for maximum effect. The shell flashed in the sun as it tumbled upwards in an arc. Again, a perfect catch. The group of awestruck GIs expanded as two of the tankers joined them.
â€œChildren with guns,â€ Zahra said, sounding disgusted.
Shehab handed one of the GIs his weapon. There was silence as the soldier prepared for the stunt. On his first attempt the shell flew off horizontally and there was no chance to catch it. His fellows hooted. Shehab showed him how to hold the gun. Another attempt and the shell flew upward. The soldier got his mouth under it, but the bullet clanged against his teeth and fell to the ground. The GI clutched his face. Shehab and Haider returned to the car with the guns, and the grinning soldiers waved them into the Green Zone.
Zahra sat up straighter now. She was intent on every detail as they passed down the mostly empty boulevards.
â€œThis must be strange for you,â€ Tom said.
â€œYes. In the Saddam days, you could drive near this area, but you would not unless you had to, and you would drive fast, not stop. When I was a kid, I would close my eyes. Nowâ€¦I am feeling many thingsâ€¦â€ She raised her arms in helplessness.
â€œI canâ€™t imagine what it must have been like,â€ he said.
â€œNo, I donâ€™t suppose you can.â€ She sat back. Her voice had a distracted air.
â€œRight. Okay,â€ Tom said enthusiastically, hoping to inject a bit of energy. â€œI gotta talk to this guy, Heffernan, over at the Republican Palace. I think he wants to give us more work. Youâ€™re gonna be on this project too, so you oughta know what weâ€™re doing. It should be interesting for you. See how theyâ€™re fixing up your country.â€
â€œThatâ€™s what they do here?â€ she said.
Shehab dropped them near a corner of the Palace. The entry checkpoint was a small sandbag fort manned by a mix of US soldiers and Ghurkas.
â€œThis is it,â€ Tom said, with a sweep of his arm. â€œHeadquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority.â€
Zahra stopped to survey the hulking ranks of pillars and arches that faced them. â€œThis is your CPA? This is where they fix Iraq?â€ she said with a sad smile.
The young soldier in charge did not want to let Zahra enter. He was apologetic but firm.
â€œShe has ID,â€ Tom said. â€œLook, hereâ€™s her passport.â€
â€œSir, Iraqis need special papers to get in the palace.â€
â€œWell, I guess weâ€™ll have to meet out here then,â€ Tom said. â€œSomeplace where my colleague can also be present. Sheâ€™s key to this project. She needs to know whatâ€™s going on.â€
â€œI can wait out here,â€ Zahra said, touching his arm. â€œPlease, Mr. Tom. I donâ€™t want to cause a problem.â€
â€œNonsense. Tell Heffernan weâ€™ll be waiting out here.â€ Tom felt good about standing up for Zahra. Just being with her made him feel braver and an all-round better man.
The kid shrugged. â€œSuit yourself. Iâ€™ll tell â€˜em youâ€™re waiting outside.â€
â€œThis kind of stuff must make you crazy,â€ Tom said to Zahra.
â€œThatâ€™s a good word for how it makes us, â€˜crazyâ€™.â€ Zahra had a thin, bitter smile on her face. â€œMajnoon, crazy. Thereâ€™s a new word for you. You get an Arabic lesson after all.â€
â€œMajnoon,â€ Tom repeated.
A few minutes later, one of Heffernanâ€™s assistants, Spaith, a short nervous guy in his twenties, showed up. â€œWhatâ€™s the matter? Why are you out here? Mr. Heffernan is waiting. This is not good.â€ Spaith was clearly agitated. Tom was pleased to be the cause of his discomfort.
â€œMy colleague isnâ€™t allowed in. I could hardly leave her out here while we meet.â€
Spaith looked stunned. â€œYouâ€™re really not coming in? What will I tell him?â€
Tom said, â€œLetâ€™s meet at the Green Zone Cafe. Have a cup of coffee, maybe something to eat.â€ He wished that Zahra would show some small sign of gratitude, instead of acting as if she were profoundly embarrassed by the confrontation.
â€œIâ€™ll inform, Mr. Heffernan,â€ Spaith said. â€œThis could be a big problem.â€ He produced a cell phone and moved away, out of earshot.
â€œSir, I feel I am making problems for you,â€ Zahra said.
â€œNonsense, Zahra, I canâ€™t let them tell me who can and who canâ€™t come to a meeting.â€
â€œSir, what if that man doesnâ€™t want to come out here and see you?â€
Tom started to respond, then paused, giving some thought for the first time to the possibly disastrous results of his rash words. He shrugged. â€œEasy come, easy go.â€ This time he got a little smile out of Zahra.
Spaith looked relieved when he got off the phone. â€œWeâ€™ll meet you at the CafÃ© in half an hour,â€ he said. â€œCrisis averted.â€
â€œSee,â€ Tom said. â€œYour boss isnâ€™t such an unreasonable guy, after all.â€
â€œI never said he was unreasonable,â€ Spaith said, looking alarmed.
The Green Zone CafÃ© was a converted gas station, and tables had been set up where the pumps had been. The customers were a mixed lot – GIs in fatigues, security contractors, civilian employees of the CPA. Tom found a table in the shade, away from the others. He brought Zahra sweet Iraqi tea.
â€œWe are here to discuss your companyâ€™s project, yes?â€ Zahra said. â€œShould I know what it is? I have only heard little bits.â€
â€œOf course, you need to know the whole deal,â€ Tom said. â€œItâ€™s to do with the food subsidies. And credit cards. And thereâ€™s this new idea, a web page where stuff can be auctioned.â€ He struggled to figure out a way tell her about Heffernanâ€™s schemes in a way that wouldnâ€™t make her angry. He was afraid she would be angry no matter how well he explained things.
â€œWhat about the food subsidies?â€ She looked at him expectantly.
â€œWell itâ€™s actually about getting credit cards to Iraqis.â€
â€œCredit cards?â€ she said and laughed.
â€œWell, I guess it does sound funny,â€ he said.
â€œYes, yes it does,â€ she said, trying to control her amusement. â€œSorry. Iâ€™m sure it is my ignorance that makes me laugh.â€
â€œThatâ€™s okay. Anything to make a beautiful woman smile.â€ His comment seemed to have a sobering effect on her, as if maybe saying she was beautiful was out of line.
â€œThis credit card thing is long term of course,â€ he said. â€œThatâ€™s why it seems strange to you. Right now, you canâ€™t even use a credit card in Iraq, except on a US military base.â€
â€œI know,â€ she said. â€œBut what will this card be used for, when it can be used?â€
â€œGroceries,â€ he said. â€œInstead of Iraqis getting free food theyâ€™ll get this card and use it to pay for food.â€
â€œIs this a good thing for the Iraqi people?â€ she asked.
â€œGood? Yeah, I guess so. Sure itâ€™s good for Iraqis. But thatâ€™s not my department. Iâ€™m a business guy. I need to worry about whatâ€™s good for my company. And I can tell you this is very good for Dynetrix. Zahra, Iâ€™ve got $250,000 in cash back at the house. We have an open-ended commitment from the US government to pay us what it costs to put this thing in.â€
â€œSir, you are right. It is not my place to have an opinion. I am your employee.â€
Tom was taken aback for a moment. â€œWell,â€ he said. â€œOf course you can have an opinion.â€
She started to speak. He held his hand up to stop her.Â â€œYou might not approve of this project, Zahra. I might not like every aspect of it either, but a lot of important people think it will help Iraq.â€
She nodded, her face expressionless.Â A cat appeared near their table, looking for handouts. It was black and white. Apparently all the cats in Baghdad werenâ€™t yellow.
â€œOh, sweet kitty,â€ Zahra said and put her hand down. The cat sniffed her hand cautiously then retreated.
â€œYou like cats?â€ he said, grateful for the change of subject.
â€œIraqis donâ€™t usually keep pets in houses. Except for those who do it to imitate Europeans.â€
They had been waiting for over half an hour when Spaith and his boss arrived. Heffernan was in the lead. He was wearing a gray suit and tie. With his gold-rimmed glasses and thin, disorderly gray hair, he looked like a professor, like someone who didnâ€™t belong there in the Green Zone cafÃ©. He had his hand outstretched before he reached the table.
â€œTom, good to see you. How is everything?â€
He turned to Zahra. â€œYou must be Zahra Al-Nouri, the lady for whom we changed our plans,â€ he said. He didnâ€™t offer to shake her hand, but gave a half-bow instead, hand on heart in Muslim fashion.
â€œOh, I shake hands with men,â€ Zahra said, offering hers. â€œIâ€™m one of those modern Iraqis youâ€™ve heard about.â€
â€œOf course you are,â€ Heffernan said, smiling and taking her hand. â€œYou are one of the Iraqis we are counting on.â€
â€œWhat do you mean?â€ she asked.
â€œTo help us build a democratic Iraq,â€ he said.
â€œThat is a big responsibility,â€ she said, unsmiling.
Heffernan and Spaith sat across the table from Zahra and Tom. After a moment, Spaith moved his chair closer to his boss and slightly behind him, as if he anticipated a possible need to communicate by whisper.
â€œSo, how is our project doing?â€ Heffernan said. â€œWhat have you got for me?â€
â€œWell, itâ€™s only been like a weekâ€¦but headquarters is working on an overall assessment. Of course, telecommunications is the big questionâ€¦cellular technology.â€ Tom hated technical discussions. Sales was his thing, not gadgets.
â€œAssessment. You got some technical guys coming out, right?â€ Heffernan said.
â€œYeah, right. Theyâ€™re working on that, too. Itâ€™s not so easy to find somebody willing to come over,â€ Tom said.
â€œCowards,â€ Heffernan said bitterly. â€œBaghdadâ€™s getting safer every day. Wouldnâ€™t you say so, my dear?â€
Zahra hesitated a moment before speaking. â€œNo, sir. Iâ€™m sorry. I donâ€™t find it becoming more safe. Criminals are taking over our neighborhoods. Everyone is afraid of kidnapping. My neighbor, her 16 year old son is kidnapped for ransom. Women have been attacked at the universities for not wearing the hijab.â€
Heffernan held up his hands. He was still smiling. â€œI surrender. You have a point. Sometimes we bureaucrats locked up inside this place forget that itâ€™s different on the outside. I know things arenâ€™t perfect yet in Iraq. Give us time. I think you will agree it is worth the sacrifice to bring freedom to your country.â€
Zahra looked as if she was still ready for an argument. Tom jumped into the conversation before she could respond. â€œYour guys were going to get back with some details we need. Stuff like how many stores are involved, the name of the bank thatâ€™s going to handle the credit card transactions.â€
Heffernanâ€™s attention was still on Zahra, waiting for her reply. She said nothing.
Finally, he turned to Tom. â€œDetails?â€ he said. â€œYou want details? Weâ€™re in Iraq, man. There arenâ€™t any details.â€
â€œBut you saidâ€¦â€
Heffernan brushed Tomâ€™s words aside with a flick of his hand. â€œHereâ€™s a detail for you. Five Hundred.â€
â€œFive Hundred?â€ Tom said.
â€œThatâ€™s how many shops will be using the Freedom Card at the end of 2004. Very important it happens before the Iraqi elections. The Freedom Card will be our Christmas present to the country.â€
Five Hundredâ€¦thatâ€™s a lot,â€ Tom said. â€œHow did you come up with it?â€
â€œThat number comes from in here,â€ Heffernan said, thumping his chest. â€œThe Freedom Card is key to weaning these people from the seductive tit of socialism.â€ He smiled apologetically at Zahra, â€œExcuse my French. Weâ€™ve got to get the Freedom Card into the hands of the Iraqi people, and theyâ€™ve got to bond with it. Therefore we need it to work in Iraqi shops. Thatâ€™s why this will happen. Failure is not an option. Do you have a problem with that?â€
â€œNo, sir,â€ Tom said.
â€œExcellent,â€ Heffernan said. â€œThat leaves us just enough time for lunch. Are we all eating? Yes? Good. If youâ€™ll take my advice, go with the burger. Peter, you take care of this.â€
When Spaith went off to get the food, Zahra started to follow him. Heffernan called her back. â€œPeter can handle it, Zahra. Thatâ€™s what we pay him for.â€ Heffernan turned his attention back to Tom. â€œDo you need some more up front cash?â€
â€œOf course,â€ Heffernan said with a smile.
By the time Spaith returned with their burgers, the business had been pretty much settled. More cash and a new contract would be delivered to the safe house within the week. Tom was in a fine mood. This soldier/salesman thing suited him.
Zahra remained mostly silent during the meal, only tendering brief responses to direct questions. After Heffernan and Spaith left, she opened up. â€œI am not quite sure I understand,â€ she said. This project, is it a real thing? You Americans plan to replace the food subsidy with this…this plastic card?â€
â€œI understand your confusion.â€
â€œHow will you make this credit card system? You Americans canâ€™t even get the water or electricity to work.â€
â€œI donâ€™t know that this Freedom Card, will work either,â€ he said. â€œI do know that Heffernan believes it will work. The guy is a fanatic.â€
â€œAnd why doesnâ€™t that make you afraid that this thing is impossible?â€
â€œIâ€™m not promising to build the system. Iâ€™m promising to try. A war is on. Nothing is certain. They need to say theyâ€™ve got projects starting up, and they need to spend their money before some other bureaucrat takes it back.â€
â€œIraqis will starve without the food subsidy,â€ she said.
â€œDonâ€™t worry,â€ Tom said. â€œIt could be just a crackpot idea. Maybe nothing will come of it, except Iâ€™ll earn a little money for my company and keep my job.â€
Tom could tell that Zahra was not impressed by his explanation, that she was more likely appalled.
â€œDoes everyone in this Green Zone function in this way?â€ she asked.
â€œWell I canâ€™t speak for everyone.â€
â€œThe greatest nation on earth. I always hear that,â€ she said. â€œFor what reason do you say that?â€
â€œIâ€™ve never used that particular phrase,â€ Tom said. â€œThatâ€™s politician stuff. Thatâ€™s something Bush would say.â€
â€œYour hero Bush,â€ she said.
â€œNot my hero.â€
â€œYou did not vote for him?â€ she asked.
â€œMy company gave the campaign a bunch of money. But I didnâ€™t vote for the guy.â€ He hesitated, wanting to be honest and open with this woman. â€œI didnâ€™t even vote. I was busy that day. Actually, I sort of forgot.â€
â€œSo you didnâ€™t really vote against Bush,â€ she said.
The woman was merciless. He needed her to focus on something besides credit cards or Bush. â€œLetâ€™s head over to the Convention Center. Shehabâ€™s waiting for us.â€
The Convention Center was on the other side of the Green Zone. They caught one of the free buses that circled the grounds endlessly. The driver was American, fat, and looked to be in his 60s. His t-shirt sported a confederate flag and the words â€œI dig Dixieâ€. He greeted Tom and Zahra warmly. They were the only passengers.
Zahra was mesmerized by the view out the window. â€œSo green here. So quiet. So many palaces. Saddam, such a madman,â€ she said. â€œPoor, poor Iraq.â€
â€œI donâ€™t get many Eye-raqi ladies on my bus,â€ the driver said.
â€œOh?â€ she said politely.
â€œNo. I heard Mohammedans donâ€™t like their women to go out.â€ The driver had stopped at an intersection, and he turned to hear Zahraâ€™s answer.
â€œIs that something you learned in America?â€ she asked.
â€œI guess so.â€
â€œWhy are you driving a bus in Baghdad,â€ she asked. â€œYou came all the way here from America to drive this bus, why?â€ Zahra sounded genuinely puzzled.
â€œWell, maâ€™am, itâ€™s the only way I could help. Too old to be a soldier anymore.â€
â€œI figure it was fight â€˜em here or fight â€˜em back home in a couple years,â€ he said.
â€œWell, the terrorists, maâ€™am. Why do you think weâ€™re all here?â€
On the drive back to the safe house, Zahra seemed glum, withdrawn. she remained sunk in her own world of misery and worry. Tom wanted to put an arm around her, purely a gesture of comfort, and tell her that his project wasnâ€™t as awful as it sounded. He refrained from touching her. She would be appalled at the intimacy, and it might get them all killed, he figured, if the wrong guy looked in the car and noticed the American with his arm around an Arab woman. When they reached the safe house, Shehab insisted on driving Zahra on to her home rather than let her take a taxi.
Tom found the safe house pretty much deserted. The dayâ€™s events had exhausted him, and he headed gratefully to his room for a nap. On the stairs he encountered one of the cookâ€™s daughters. He was pretty sure it was not the one he had tried to seduce.
â€œHave you seen that cat I had the other day?â€ he asked.
The girl shook her head no. But she was smiling, which Tom took as a very good sign, proof that the crisis was over. He would look for the cat later. He slept deeply, dreamlessly and woke up hungry.
There was only one place set at the dining room table. Feeling just a bit of trepidation, Tom went to the kitchen to locate Mustafa. The big cook seemed genuinely happy to see him.
â€œMister Tom, I hope you hungry. You only one for dinner tonight. You have to eat for 10 peoples.â€
â€œI will try,â€ he said. â€œWith a cook such as you, it is hard not to eat everything on the table.â€ Tom was grinning, Mustafa was grinning. Goodwill filled the kitchen. â€œMustafa, my friend,â€ Tom said. â€œI am happy that things of the past are forgottenâ€¦â€ He tried to find the words to apologize for his affront to the manâ€™s daughter.
Before he could launch into his apology, Mustafa hustled him out of the kitchen. â€œGo sit at table, Mister Tom. Girls bring wine. Special wine. Wine from Lebanon. I bring food. Tonight Arab specialty, Dohlma.â€
Both girls entered the dining room to serve the wine, one carried the bottle and her sister trailed behind carrying a glass. That was the one, Miriam, carrying the glass, he thought. She didnâ€™t seem nervous, standing right there beside him as her sister poured. Then the two of them left together, with big smiles. It was as if last night had never happened. The thousand dollars had worked. He admired the ways of the East, and he was pleased that he knew those ways.
The wine may have been special, but to Tom it tasted like it had turned.
Mustafa brought in a platter of stuffed vegetables – eggplant and zucchini. He put one of the eggplants on Tomâ€™s plate. â€œVery good,â€ he said, winking. The two sisters brought bread and salad, and then they stood down by the end of the table, poker-faced. He was afraid they intended to stay and watch him, but they left with Mustafa, who exited with a hearty order to â€œEat! Eat!â€
The stuffed eggplant wasnâ€™t that great either. Tom ate a few mouthfuls and then concentrated on the bread. He managed a couple swallows of the wine. He had to eat more. He didnâ€™t want to jeopardize the newly re-built friendship with Mustafa. He cut into the eggplant, figuring he would down it quickly in big bites without chewing much. The forkful of food was on its way to his mouth when he noticed something odd buried in the rice. The edge of something yellow, triangular. He put the forkful of food down. He picked at it with his finger. The object seemed almost hairy. He nearly gagged.
â€œFuck.â€ It couldnâ€™t be that. But it was. A catâ€™s tiny ear lay on his plate. He knew it was Janeâ€™s catâ€™s ear and no other. And back inside the eggplant surely was the rest of Janeâ€™s cat in tiny pieces. He wanted to run from the table, but his gaze remained fixed on the eggplant with the grisly stuffing. He poked at it and a paw tumbled out onto his plate. This time he did gag and nearly vomited. He managed to control the reflex. The cook, Mustafa, had reentered the room and was watching him. This time there was no smiling, just a dead level gaze.