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alharam الحرام

by F. Stone

Published by

Romance Under Fire


Leigh Carter

Jean Moses

Consultant and Translations

Dr. Sahar Albakkal

Book Cover by

Extended Imagery





Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39


The Guardian’s Wildchild



About the Author

"When the tyrant gods are overthrown, when individuals walk out from under the shadow of Saturn, when they reject collective expectations and seek their own path, then justice returns."

Under Saturn's Shadow: The Wounding and Healing Of Men,  Jungian psychologist, James Hollis


© 2016 by Judy Cropley Weir, aka F. Stone

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without permission of the publisher / author,

Judy Weir (F. Stone) of Alberta, Canada.

The characters are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author. The setting is the author’s vision of the Middle East’s future, year 2047.

Library and Archives Canada

Forbidden ISBN

Hardcover: 978-0-9951509-2-8

eBook: 978-0-9951509-1-1

Paperback: 978-0-9951509-0-4

PDF: 978-0-9951509-3-5

Cover Design:

Extended Imagery


iStock and Shutterstock

NOTE: The author does not claim to be an authority on Islam. Great effort was made to obtain advice from people in Canadian Muslim communities. The author followed the advice of imam Khattab - to portray an unbiased view of the culture of moderate Muslims, “the middle path.” Forbidden is her vision of a possible future – a stormy transition from war to peace in the Middle Eastern regions.

This book contains violence and some vulgar language. It is, therefore, not suitable for readers who are immature or under the age of eighteen.


Forbidden is dedicated to my dear husband, Ralph Weir. Throughout our nearly fifty years of marriage, he has been my most loyal friend. A fierce critic of art and prose, he has encouraged me to not settle for mediocrity.

Ralph grew up in a generation that believed women should be content with standing in the shadow of their men. Not Ralph. From the time when I decided to be a paramedic, he has nurtured that part of me that reaches for higher ambitions. When we bought our first snowmobiles, he invited me to be an equal with him on snowmobile trips climbing the mountain ranges in Canada and United States of America. He’s been the most incredible mate and companion.

I have been so blessed. I owe my success to my wild man of the mountains, to this man with a heart of a poet, and courage of a decorated soldier.


May 28, 2013, City of Rumi in war-torn Iraq

The woman glared at her husband. She clung to her son’s hand as if he was about to fall into an abyss. She straightened her back, shoring up her defenses. “Hashim is only five. He still needs his mother.”

“My dear wife, I told you the day he was born, I’d send him away if the war reached Rumi. Baghdad has fallen. It is time.” His gruff voice ensured she would know there was no room for debate. “Pack his bags now. His escorts will be here in half an hour.”

Hashim yanked his hand away from his mother’s grasp. “Papa, please. I want to stay. I have proven I’m a most worthy son. I do my chores without complaint.” He pointed to his mother’s vegetable garden in the back yard. “See, I’ve hoed and weeded all morning. And my bedroom is clean and tidy. And, if you wish, I’ll help in the clinic today.”

His father knew that was a desperate offer. Hashim hated needles. “Have you completed your English lessons?”

Hashim nodded, reluctantly. “Please don’t send me away, papa. You will be glad I’m here to help.” The boy’s smile wavered. “I’ll do anything you ask, papa.” Tears filled his eyes. “Please?”

“Give him more time,” his mother begged. “We are safe.”

“Enough!” roared Dr. Sharif. Standing in the kitchen of the family’s ancestral home, his gut twisted into a painful knot. The terrorist vermin were banging on Rumi’s gates. Suspicious strangers had been stopped at the mountain pass, the only road into Rumi. Extra police guarded the airport. They’d heard of the devastation beyond their borders.

“You are going, Hashim. That’s final. Go pack. Pack only warm clothes. Wear your work boots. Be ready for a rough hike. Understood?” He hid the trembling in his voice by shouting. Yes, his son was young to be travelling over the mountains. But if he fell into the hands of the terrorists, he’d be taught to kill. And hate.

He grabbed his son’s arm and dragged him into the boy’s bedroom. “Pack quickly.” Sharif grabbed the backpack from under the bed and threw it onto the quilt. “In ten minutes stand in front of me on the front steps.” Sharif turned away before his cherished son could see the pain on his face.

Hashim’s mother, devoted Muslim and wife, sat in their modern kitchen. Her husband sat down beside her. Tentatively, he placed his hand on her shoulder. She jerked away. “Who are the escorts?” she asked, looking out across the meadow to their orange orchard.

“Three climbers. I paid them well. They will get our son across the border and into France. From there, he will be handed over to people who will ensure he gets to England. Once he is with our daughter and her family, Hashim will be safe.”

“There’s no better way?” she whispered, unable to speak any louder.

Sharif watched as his wife fell apart. She doted on Hashim. The rest of their children, five daughters, had married and left by the time Hashim was born. Her surprise baby arrived when she turned forty, a gift from Allah.

Dr. Sharif and Hashim stood on the front steps as an SUV pulled up the driveway. No words were spoken. No glances or nudges.

One of the three men got out of the vehicle and strode up to Sharif. “This is the kid we’re taking to France?” The man had a short beard and crooked teeth. Sunglasses hid his eyes. His clothes, made for hard work, were ripped and repaired. He held a toothpick in his teeth, and waggled it about with his tongue. “Kind of scrawny.”

“Yes, this is my son, Hashim Sharif. How soon will he be handed over to the French connection?”

The Iraqi man chuckled. “Depends on how many times I have to carry the little goat. Maybe a week, maybe two. Should be in England by the end of the month.”

Sharif noted Hashim’s scowl. The boy was thin, but he was tough from climbing trees and working the garden. “Once I hear from his sister, you’ll get the rest of the payment.”

“Sure. Get your ass in the truck, kid.”

Dr. Sharif kneeled down to hug his boy and say goodbye. Before he could reach his son’s shoulders, Hashim darted past him, got into the SUV and slammed the door shut.

June 26, 2020: City of Samarra, Iraq, on the east bank of the Tigris in the Saladin Governorate, 78 miles north of Baghdad.

The bomb blast catapulted Abdul Zydan across the street. His mangled body fell among the rubble of The Guardian’s Mosque’s south wall. His adrenalin surged. Using the butt of his AK-74 as leverage, he crawled a few yards further, putting a mound of bricks between him and the rebel forces. He had not yet realized his legs were nothing more than shredded flesh and bone fragments below his knees.

Abdul gasped when he saw his bloody clothing. “My legs. Where the fuck are my legs?” Shock had dulled the pain. He called to Aamir, the soldier who had charged with him through the mosque’s doors. “Aamir, where are you? Answer me.” His heart thundered in his chest. His lungs burned for more air. “No, no. Allah, most merciful, please no.” He tried to sit up but he fell back, dazed. “Aamir, I’m hit.” His desperate cries became barely a whisper. He gasped for more air. The battle sounded distant, muffled as if he was under water

Sergeant Aamir and Captain Najeeb ran to his side, wild-eyed and out of breath. Rasheed rushed in, skidding to a halt beside Najeeb. Their eyes burned from the swirling smoke and gunfire. A spray of bullets smacked the wall beside them. They dove, creating a barrier between their fallen soldier and the terrorist’s attack. When there was a break in the gunfire, Rasheed and Aamir grabbed Abdul by his wrists and dragged him as if he was merely a bag of rice. More bullets chased their feet. Blasts from Najeeb’s weapon forced the enemy down. While they settled Abdul behind a wall, Najeeb reloaded his weapon. “Die, you bastards. Burn in hell!” he hollered.

Aamir knelt down beside Abdul. “My brother, you are most brave. You pushed them back when they stormed into the mosque.” Najeeb touched what was left of Abdul’s legs. A look of shock flickered in his eyes. “I’ll get you to the medic station. Hang on.”

When Najeeb turned to give orders to his men, Abdul clenched onto his arm.

“No. Too late.” The desperate soldier panted, grasping at the clothing of Aamir. “Those bastards have taken the north side of Samarra. My wife, my daughters - .” He wept grievously. “My dear wife, my family, they will have been taken prisoner.” He gasped for air. “Aamir, you know what they’ll do to them.” Abdul looked frantic. He grabbed Najeeb’s shirt and pulled him down low. “You know it’s true. It’s unthinkable. I cannot bear their suffering.” Abdul wailed. “Najeeb, Aamir, Rasheed, you must go there. Put an end to their suffering.” Even as Abdul’s energy bled, his face remained transfixed as if witnessing the horror. “Quickly, Najeeb. They must not suffer.”

Najeeb swallowed hard. A look of revulsion froze on his face. “No, no, no. Abdul, you cannot ask this of me.” The soldier pulled away from Abdul. “No, I cannot. Allah forbids killing of innocents.”

Abdul’s eyes glazed, starring into space. “You must, Najeeb. I already hear their screams.” His lips quivered. “Mercy. Najeeb, Allah will forgive. Allah …”

Najeeb wept. He embraced Abdul, shedding tears into the man’s hair. Angry that such a monstrous request had been made, angry that the truth was that the women would be savagely treated and die after suffering wicked humiliation. He gritted his teeth and swore, “I will end this brutality, the injustices, the insanity. I promise you, my dear friend, I will cleanse this land of the evil.”

Under the dark cloak of a starless sky, the three men found the camp where women prisoners suffered degradation and torture at the hands of their vile captors. Aamir wept as he readied his rifle and pulled the trigger. Rasheed shouldered his and cursed as he fired.

A curse fell onto one of them.

It would take another ten years before Najeeb could make good on his vow. When he did, world governments watched, suspicious, as he amalgamated all the region’s Arabic nations into one super nation – The Republic of Islamic Provinces and Territories (RIPT). All tribes, all Islamic sects, all peoples, now represented equally in a democratic authority.

Islam returned to its original foundation - focused on obedience to Allah’s word. Prayer, modesty, and compassion again became the hallmarks of a faithful Muslim. All variations of Islam joined into one mission. Peace.

Not all agreed to the vision of Najeeb and his cabinet ministers. One powerful businessman undertook a mission to destroy President Najeeb; and to murder a police captain by the name of Hashim Sharif.

Chapter 1

October 13, 2047

Eliza stepped up to the window overlooking the airport’s tarmac. The tower’s search beacon sliced through the ebony sky like a knife’s sharp blade. She shuddered. Her cold hands fidgeted with her head scarf. Deep in her solar plexus something twisted into a painful knot. It whispered,

Get out of RIPT

She turned to watch the last passenger hoist his carryon luggage strap over his shoulder and proceed to the boarding ramp. His aircraft, a massive 888, dwarfed the departing fuel trucks. She spotted the pilot inside his cockpit, gesturing with his hands in some kind of signal to the ground crew. He appeared eager to get the last flight out of Republic of Islamic Provinces & Territories (RIPT) airborne.

Get out of RIPT

Eliza Ramsay had felt excited this morning when the Habitat office called her. They apologized for the short notice, but requested she replace their paramedic for the RIPT mission. She had been chosen, having become fluent in Arabic. “No problem,” she had said doing her happy chicken dance, relieved they couldn’t see her child-like enthusiasm. “I’ll meet up with your team at Samarra’s International Airport tonight.”

She packed fast and light. Work clothes, some casual outfits in the required modest style, one down-filled parka, and one paramedic uniform. Her medical backpack contained supplies to treat everything from minor complaints to dealing with catastrophic injuries. She was thrilled to finally put her Arabic and Islamic studies to use. She picked up a flight in Dubai and landed in Samarra well in advance of the American team’s arrival.

Her bravado had all but evaporated while waiting at the crowded airport. The American’s flight is two hours late. They must have cancelled the mission. Impatience morphed into anger at having not been notified of the change. She checked her cellphone. No missed calls. Her gut repeatedly sent her a message. Get out of RIPT. Her intuition seldom misfired.

She called the Habitat office on her cellphone. No answer. She heard the beep inviting her to leave a message. She stammered, “Ah, no message. Um, call later.”

Get out of RIPT.

Airport staff was still tidying up the boarding kiosk. Perhaps there’s still time. Beg, no, never beg. Can’t appear desperate. Ask, yes, just ask if there’s room for a last minute passenger on the 888. Explain that your Habitat team failed to arrive. They’ll understand.

The foreboding eased. She liked taking action, having control over her destiny. As Eliza rushed to gather her luggage and backpack, she heard the unmistakable sound of a door slamming shut. She spun around.

Breathlessly, Eliza stood transfixed as Air Arabia 267 began to taxi away, and then pause before racing down the runway. She heard its jet engines roar as it reached takeoff speed. In seconds, the 888 disappeared into Samarra’s night sky like a homesick angel.

Get out of RIPT.

I can’t get out. I’m trapped. She trembled. The feeling of being ensnared pushed her mind to brink of a freefall. No, no, stay in control. Tapping the back of her hand the way her psychologist showed her, Eliza fought to maintain her sanity.

Exterior lights flashed onto her window. She saw flames. She jumped back. A shoulder harness pressed into her flesh. Blood splattered her steering wheel. Somewhere a child was crying. “Nathan? Noah?” she shrieked.

Eliza’s most terrifying adversary had surfaced - post-traumatic stress disorder, the punishment for having survived while her children and family members died.

Wide eyed and gasping for air, she darted through the crowd.

“Stop,” shouted a security guard. He grabbed her arm and yanked her aside. His painful grip and spicy cologne instantly cleared her mind. A second guard pushed her forward. “Move,” he commanded in Arabic.

The officers collected her luggage and escorted her through a maze of hallways. They shoved her into an office where a heavy-set man sat behind a desk. His tan-colored military uniform barely fit his broad shoulders. A sign on his desk read ‘Sergeant Muntazar’. He merely glanced in her direction while thrusting his sidearm into his shoulder holster.

Oh God. She swallowed the last of her saliva. No one knows I’m in Samarra. Eliza struggled to take a deep breath. What if – stop it. You’re a MacKay. My dad wouldn’t crumble like this. She wrestled her panic into submission.

“Sergeant, why have I been treated like a criminal?” Her Arabic was fluent, albeit with a Canadian accent.

“You’ve been here five hours. Nervous. Explain, please, miss...” His voice sounded casual, almost sultry. But his eyes said, ‘Don’t fuck with me.

“Ramsay, Eliza Ramsay.” She pulled out her Canadian passport from her purse and handed it to the sergeant. “I’ve been worried about a group I’m supposed to meet. Their plane is late.”

He gave the passport a cursory glance and tossed it back to her. Sergeant Muntazar sat back in his chair, casually observing her, perhaps to make her feel small and vulnerable. She recognized the ploy. As a supervisor in charge of a platoon of paramedics, she found a silent glower an effective tool in eliciting the truth from a cocky staff member who had ignored protocol.

Five hours ago, her loose-fitting, navy blue linen pants and top would have passed the cultural need for modesty. Now creased and coffee-stained, her credibility as an intelligent, professional woman might lay on shaky ground.

Her long blonde hair, tamed into a French braid, threatened to escape into a knotted mess. Eliza tucked a wayward strand of hair under her royal blue head scarf. Her heartbeat escalated. She resisted shifting her posture or fidgeting, all red flags in the world of security officers. I’ve done nothing to deserve this crap. Do something. Now.

She managed to present herself as a woman in control. Even dared to make eye contact. She pulled a chair up and sat down in front of the sergeant’s desk. She had worked with men for fifteen years and learned that once men got over the shock that she wasn’t going to play the role of the weaker sex, they appreciated her forthright manner.

“I arrived early from Dubai. Supposed to meet up with a group of Americans, a Habitat for Humanity group. United Air 719 should have arrived two hours ago.”

“Ah, you didn’t hear the announcement. A problem with the aircraft. They had to detour and attempt to land in Damascus.”

She gasped and reached for the edge of Muntazar’s desk. “They crashed?”

“No, the aircraft landed safely.” The sergeant checked information on his computer. “Ah, I see your friends have had good fortune. They are on another flight and should arrive in two hours, at ten-forty-five. I’ll ensure their progress through customs is quick. No unnecessary delays.”

“Wonderful. They will appreciate your thoughtfulness, sergeant. We are expecting a police escort. Should someone tell them of the delay?”

“Captain Sharif has arranged for your escort. I know him.” Muntazar released a sly grin. “Many of the criminals in Samarra have had the misfortune of knowing him.” With a wave of his hand, he said, “One hundred percent reliable.” Muntazar keyed in numbers on his desk phone and punched the hands-free button.

“Central Police Station. Captain Sharif here. Stand by.” He continued growling at someone. “Fine, but do not let that bastard out of your sight.” He paused a moment, then barked, “Hello. Who’s calling?”

“Captain Sharif, this is Sergeant Muntazar at the Samarra International Airport. I have an update about the Americans.”

“Yes, my men assigned to escort the Americans reported they are overdue. Problem in customs?”

“No. The pilot had to make an unscheduled landing at Damascus. The Americans have been fortunate in connecting with another aircraft. Should be here at ten-forty-five.”

“Fine. Get them processed through customs quickly. Sharif, out.”

Muntazar disconnected the call and dismissed his guards. “What is your role with Habitat?”

“I’m a paramedic. My role with Habitat is medical support and interpreter. But if there is no need for a medic, I do help out with the manual labor. We’ll be here for two weeks.”

“Your husband and children must miss you.”

Eliza’s body seized, instantly encased in ice. She had to say the words but her mouth refused to open. The sergeant’s eyes trapped her, waiting for an answer she must provide. Her mind, like a wild wind, scurried to avoid the memory. Dead, all dead. I survived, but they died. Horribly. It was my fault. I killed them. Tears threatened to spill down her cheeks.

She heard a ping, perhaps from his computer shutting down. No, my cell phone’s warning of a low battery. It needs charging. If Nathan or Noah call and I don’t answer, they’ll panic. I must recharge my phone, quickly. Where?

Sergeant Muntazar stood near. His voice, deep and gravelly. “Perhaps you should call them now?” A door opened. “You can use my phone, Mrs. Ramsay.”

A rush of cold air made Eliza shiver and eased her out of her prison. “Thank you, sergeant. She straightened her back, lifted her chin and managed to stand. She rehearsed the reply once in her mind before uttering the painful words. It should be easier by now, after four years. “I’m a widow, sergeant. No husband, no children.” She picked up her purse and backpack and slipped past him, still gathering elements of stability, of sanity. “No one to phone.” She swallowed hard, took a deep breath and headed to the door. “I’ve got time for a coffee. If you could point me in the right direction, sergeant?”

“Come with me Mrs. Ramsay,” he said, grabbing her luggage. “I will escort you to a café.”

On their route to the café, Eliza inquired about the best way to not cause further trouble.

The sergeant shrugged. “If you’re having a problem, ask for help. Otherwise you’ll look suspicious. Tell the truth. Absolutely, one hundred percent. If the guards or police think you’re hiding something, you could get roughed up.” As the sergeant relaxed, he showed his pride in his relatively new country, the Republic of Islamic Provinces and Territories. “We are beginning to see progress. President Najeeb is proving to be a wise and resourceful leader. We still have a high crime rate. The old ways die hard. Best you not go anywhere alone.”

By the time Muntazar had left Eliza, she had regained a marginal hold on her trademark tenacity. She hadn’t realized how much she needed a meal and coffee. Her confidence bolstered, she transferred her passport into her backpack’s hidden compartment. Risking the sting of regret, she retrieved the last photograph taken of her family.

She lovingly smoothed out the folds and tears. She smiled at the two little boys, suspended in an eternal moment of joy. She ignored her husband’s bored expression. Nathan and Noah sat grinning, posed on the lawn of their backyard - four years ago.

The highway of hell destroyed everything she had lived for –her entire family, killed by the sweep of an out-of-control tanker. Miraculously, she recovered, physically.

Eliza yearned to once again be the happy mother in the photograph. She ached for it. She pressed the photo to her chest, and tucked it back into the secret pocket. You had it once. Her chin trembled. Hell will freeze over before I let another cheating man touch me.

When she looked for the breath mints in her purse, she pulled out her travel brochure. Workmates had admonished her for trusting the propaganda. She had reminded them that fifteen years had passed since the dark terror in the Middle East with civil war, Iran’s nuclear ‘accident’, and terrorists’ insanity. “This is 2047,” she said, defending her plans. “Women don’t wear the burqa now. They even hold government positions.” Her colleagues continued to point out every news report of vicious government oppositions, high crime rate stemming from poverty, and many citizens’ distrust of the western influences.

Eliza admired the pamphlet’s colorful images depicting exotic hotels and exciting markets. City of Samarra, capital of RIPT, promised a delight for the senses. A photo of several shoes at the entrance to a mosque had a caption, “Experience reverence and sacred contemplation during prayer at The Guardian Mosque.

Music, excursions, shopping, quiet reflection – all guaranteed to be a memorable and unique cultural experience.

Much of RIPT’s technology remained in the early 2000’s. Civil war had prevented RIPT from keeping pace with modern advances in transportation and communication. Vehicles still relied upon fossil fuel. A visitor’s experience would be a time warp in reverse, going back 40 years.

Even so, Eliza knew there was risk. Consulates warned of zero tolerance to cultural insults, intoxication and immorality. A traveler needed to be aware of acceptable dress code - modest for men and women. Sharia law was now moderate, but the midnight curfew maintained strict order. Punishments were known to be final and harsh. She shivered. Perhaps I should have told someone that I would be here for a few weeks.

She shrugged. I’ll be fine. There hardly seemed time to let anyone know I was making the trip. My PTSD triggers have withered since working with Habitat. She smiled, recalling her work with Habitat leader, Charlie, in El Salvador.

She chastised herself for so easily falling under the PTSD’s grip earlier. You’re a paramedic superintendent. You got a friggin’ medal. Memories surfaced of responding to murder scenes, working with the police SWAT teams, ordering a biker to ‘Get the fuck out of my way’. The tough, slightly tomboy, farm girl was back in charge. At least until the next trigger.

At ten-thirty, she headed to the customs’ doors. A rush of relief washed over her as she saw the Habitat leader, Charlie, come through the doors. His wavering smile betrayed utter fatigue.

“Ah, Mrs. Ramsay, I got word you would be joining our group.”

Like a border collie corrals sheep, Charlie gathered the group around their luggage. He nodded at their police escort - three sour-looking men wearing black uniforms, flak jackets, and helmets. They each carried an automatic weapon slung over their shoulder. “We’re here at last.” His voice sounded hoarse.

He continued to address his fourteen American volunteers and Eliza. “Do you have all of your luggage?” Charlie fidgeted with his coat’s zipper, pulling it up and down, again and again.

Everyone nodded. Hunched shoulders and pale faces reflected their exhaustion. Their impatience to leave the airport showed. Their gaze focused on the exit doors. Red flashing lights of the parked police vehicles bled through the glass doors. Eliza shuddered.

Airport baggage handlers began transferring their luggage into a one-ton truck with a canvas canopy. The weary Americans piled into a small bus leading the convoy. Two police officers on motorcycles followed at the rear behind the supply truck.

They expected a two-hour drive from the airport to the farm work site. Less than a half hour into the trip, the convoy stopped at a gas station. The group took the opportunity to use the bathrooms, buy some water, and stretch their legs.

Eliza walked past the officers and on to the back of the supply truck. Out of the men’s view, she jumped up and through the canvas opening. She switched on her pocket size flashlight and located her suitcase. Quietly, she pulled out her dark blue down-filled parka and put it on.

The moon cast long shadows in front of the gas station. Eliza noticed the lights of RIPT’s capital city, Samarra, a few miles to the east. Murmurs of conversation drifted from a huddle of men. They argued. Apparently, this was an unscheduled stop.

She heard someone grunt, then sounds of men wrestling. Roughhousing like school boys. Probably bored with extra duty. As she sat on the luggage, her intuition begged her to remain silent. She should have felt safe, but her unease refused to be coerced into indifference.

Chapter 2

The Habitat group trudged back to the bus. Eliza caught the eye of a woman she had been sitting beside and told her she would be staying in the supply truck. The woman nodded and shuffled on. The police on their motorcycles took their positions behind the supply truck. Eliza decided to sit low and out of their visual range.

Within twenty minutes, she noted they were arriving in a city’s suburbs. It worried her. Their worksite was supposed to be on the perimeter of a distant rural town. She saw the outline of houses, a mosque, market stalls, then a hotel, then more service stations. She wondered if Habitat’s information package had been inaccurate. Places of business, banks, and coffee shops flashed by. The streets were almost empty, barren of traffic and pedestrians.

This is Samarra. We’re not supposed to be going through the city.

An armored truck with a mounted machine gun roared up behind the two police motorcyclists. Something is terribly wrong. She ducked deeper behind the luggage and stared into the darkness. She desperately searched for a rational explanation. A cold knife pierced her core.

After speeding through intersections and red traffic lights, the vehicles came to a sudden halt. Gate hinges squealed in protest. The impulse to leap from the back of the truck fought with her intense need to remain hidden. If it were not for the armed vehicle at the rear, she would have jumped and disappeared into the night. In another moment, the opportunity vanished.

The vehicles lurched forward. Through the flap’s opening, she saw a massive iron gate. High walls extended on either side. The vehicles stopped.

The motorcyclists drove to either side of the truck. The armored vehicle surged forward, nearly crashing into the back of the supply truck. Eliza scrambled to put more of the luggage between her and the mounted gun. It bore down on her as if it had spied her. She gasped.

Eliza strained to hear a pleasant greeting, an apology for the change of plans, anything that would tell her heart to stop its thundering in her chest.

Someone shouted, “Ikhrog men al Araba,” then in English, "Get out of the bus!"

“Stay together,” Charlie called out. At first the volunteers sounded merely annoyed, but their mood rapidly deteriorated.

“Charlie, there’s a mounted automatic weapon on that truck. Something’s not right here.” The man’s alarm ricocheted through his companions. Quick footsteps reminded Eliza of nervous horses in a corral – wild-eyed, snorting and circling as they searched for an escape.

Charlie attempted to calm his group. "I’m sure this will all make sense. I'll see why there’s been a change. Who’s in charge here?” he called.

Scattered thoughts fed her fear. The unmistakable sound of large guns being maneuvered sucked the air from Eliza’s lungs. Near the supply truck, she heard the ping, ping of a cell phone, then the trembling voice of a woman crying, "Ralph, pick up the phone. Please. Oh God ...." The woman screamed. With a blast of gunfire, her cries stopped. Bullets pierced the canvas and shattered a suitcase in front of Eliza.

Her body trembled violently. In minutes she would be killed. The luggage offered no protection. Terrified to make any sound, yet frantic to hide, she pressed her backpack to her chest. She gasped as if starved for oxygen. Tears ran down her cheeks as she heard the terrified people and Charlie beg for their lives.

This is only one of my nightmares. I’ll wake up and everything will be fine.

The truck with the mounted machine gun swerved around the supply truck. Deafening sounds of machine gun blasts and screams tore through her chest. She plunged down among the luggage.

A man came into her view as he lunged toward the gate. A police officer ran after him and fired several shots into the man’s back. The American dropped, bloody and lifeless.

Suddenly, an armed man dashed to the rear of the supply truck and saw her. She gasped. Oh my God, he's going to kill me. I've got once chance. Get his gun. Her martial arts training kicked in. She lunged forward. As they grappled, both fell.

Falling on top of him Eliza punched his groin. He cried out in agony. She crab-crawled on all fours toward his weapon several feet away. Too late she saw a boot aimed at her head.

She ducked for cover under the supply truck. Too late. The cop stomped on her head, ramming her forehead into the pavement hard. Her momentum pushed her under the truck’s back end.

Dazed, she checked to see if he followed her. He was struggling to free his boot, snared in her scarf. A gun’s muzzle appeared, aimed in her direction. Bullets ripped through her coat’s shoulder. Puffs of down feathers stuck to the sweat and blood on her face. I’m hit. Get out. Run. Eliza kicked and crawled out from under the truck on the far side of the killers. The deafening gunfire and screams surrounded her. Her mind froze. She pressed her body into the truck’s solid frame.

More bullets smacked the ground near her. More vehicles arrived. Bright headlights blinded her. She turned away to shield her eyes. Desperate, she ran an erratic, aimless course. Silhouettes of shapes, helmets, guns and bloody bodies flashed in front of her. Keep running. Dodge. Find cover. She ran like a wild animal, blind to the teeth that would tear her apart.

When the thunder from the machine gun stopped she glanced back. The man at the machine gun tumbled head first off the truck. His companions continued to fire their weapons, but now toward the gate. More shots came from behind the blinding lights. The men ran toward the front of the supply truck. Riddled with bullets, their bodies twisted and fell.


Eliza gazed in bewilderment at the tall form appearing in the light. He raced forward past the open gate, his weapon raised in her direction. More men followed behind him. She ran, searching for cover.

He shouted, “Tawakaf and am, la tatharak Kiff.” Then in English, “Stop where you are. Don’t move! Stop.”

A short burst of gunfire. Bullets struck the ground a few yards in front of her. She skidded to a stop. Breathless, she turned toward the gunman. She could not make out his face below the dark helmet. He wore a police uniform like the killers had - black from head to toe. If not for his vehicle’s headlights, he would have been invisible. He raced toward her, his weapon held steadfast in her direction.

Gasping for air, she looked around her. To her horror, all her companions appeared to be dead. Flesh ripped, vacant open eyes, clothes soaked in blood. She saw a person writhing in pain and ran to her.

Eliza knelt down beside her. The woman’s skin was cold and clammy, and her lips were blue. A chest wound bled freely. She struggled to breathe and grabbed Eliza’s arm.

“You’ll be okay,” Eliza reassured the woman. “Let me see where you’re hurt.”

Eliza believed the woman had a collapsed lung. She needed to set up a valve to release the air trapped in the pleural sac. “I’m a paramedic. I’ll get my kit and you’ll be okay.” Eliza’s hands were trembling as she struggled to release the woman’s grip. As she ran back to the supply truck, someone attempted to block her path.

“Stop!” demanded the officer who spoke English.

She noted the stripes on his coat’s sleeve. He held the rank of captain. Her adrenalin surged like an angry river. "That woman is still alive. Get out of my way!" She dodged him and jumped into the supply truck. She grabbed her backpack and ran to her patient.

The captain continued to follow but gave her enough space. In seconds she set up her equipment to start an intravenous line. Eliza managed to calm her shaking hands enough to insert a large-bore needle into the side of the woman’s chest. Trapped air escaped. She continued to stop the bleeding and to get an intravenous line running. The woman continued to gasp for air.

Eliza knew she required surgery. The injuries were far beyond her training. She held the woman’s hand and pleaded with her to not give up, but her pulse faded and then stopped.

The captain walked away with one of his officers. Sounds of men and machines surrounded her. She stumbled back and slumped down against a wall. She stared at the grisly scene. Numb with disbelief, her body felt weightless. A breeze lifted torn pieces of paper and carried them in a ghostly fashion toward her. The passage of time ceased, held frozen in the cold horror.

She let her head fall back against the wall. As she gazed up into the black void, a flash caught her attention. A distant falling star, a meteor hurtled through the Earth’s atmosphere – silent and fatal. An ominous sign.

One of the cops grabbed her arm and forced her to stand. She struggled to get her mind into gear. Someone forced her to move forward. A surge of hatred erupted with such velocity that she escaped the man’s grip as if he had the strength of a mere child. More hands grabbed her and bullied her forward to a building, down a hallway and into an office.

The men appeared still pumped by the battle. Their hands trembled and their voices were edged with urgency. They tried to force her into a chair near a desk. Her determination to survive blinded her to the fact that these men were different.

They cursed in Arabic. "Damn stupid woman. Where's Captain Sharif?"

She tried to fight off two short wiry men as they pulled off her bulky coat and tossed it into a corner. They twisted her arms behind her while another attempted a body search. She managed a sharp kick to his shin. He stepped back and threatened her with a fist aimed toward her jaw. With her hands held near the thigh of the man behind her, she clawed at his groin. He shifted his body but his grip never wavered.

Someone pushed a chair behind her knees. She fell hard onto the seat.

The men grunted and cursed as they fought to keep her in the chair. She could smell their strong odor. She gagged as beads of their sweat fell onto her face. Handcuffs came into her view. She became desperate and cried out, “Let me go!” in Arabic.

A large muscular man came into the room. “Stop. Leave her alone,” he ordered his men in Arabic.

Her wrists were released. She flew across the large wood desk.

“I’m Sergeant Abdul-Muqtadir. Sit in the chair.” Assuming she didn’t understand Arabic, he motioned with his hands toward the chair.

La,” she hollered in Arabic. “Daany athhab, No, let me out of here.” She glared at the four constables. “La talmasny, Don’t touch me.”

The men glanced at each other, surprised that the woman spoke in their language.

The captain bolted into the room. “Stop,” he said to her in clear English. “You will not be harmed.”

“Bullshit!” she replied in English. Eliza trembled, overwhelmed with rage and shock.

The captain turned to his sergeant and hollered, “Zabet I gal almokeh aamin. Set up for ID and disposal,” The sergeant gave a series of orders to his men. They rushed out though the sergeant remained at the door.

Unable to switch off her frantic efforts to escape, Eliza scanned the room for a way out.

“Sit down.” The captain’s voice sounded harsh.

Eliza noted his commanding posture. His eyes fixed on her, the expression on his face fierce and tense. He wouldn’t hesitate to put her down hard and without mercy. She glanced at the doorway. The big man stood there.

Sharif, Takalmet Arabia. Sharif, she spoke Arabic,” said the sergeant.

The captain’s eyebrows twitched. “Takalmet Arabia?”

Naam. Yes.”

The captain moved to stand behind his desk. It forced her to return to the front of the desk. “Please sit down, miss.”

She moved toward the chair. At the last second before reaching the chair, she lunged toward the door. The sergeant standing in her path hadn’t been prepared for her kick to the groin. He went down hard. She leaped to the exit door, jumped down the stairs, missing all six steps.

She ran to the gate and tugged on the bars. The gate held fast to the locks. The bars, spaced horizontally and vertically five inches apart, rose about fifteen feet high. At the top, the wire mesh spanned the length of the wall. Seeing no barbed wire Eliza figured it would be simple enough to climb over. She leaped up onto the gate, climbing up several feet at a time. The captain and his men gathered beneath her.

The captain shouted orders. “Ighlogh al Tayar. Ighlogh alaan” Shut off the current now!”

Eliza only heard her own racing heart.

As she got closer to the wire, she realized it surged with a deadly charge. She could feel the hum in her hair whipping around her face. Beyond the wall she viewed a dark empty street - no friend or place of refuge in that street or for thousands of miles. Below her stood men who, she believed, had killed her companions.

She heard someone yelling at her to not touch the wire. Oh, she wanted to. I could end it all right now, she thought. Maybe this time it would work. How many times have I failed? At least three, she remembered. She reached for the wire.

“Stop. Do not touch that wire,” someone hollered in clear English below her.

Eliza looked down. The captain stood beneath her. Eliza’s hand stopped in mid-motion, her fingers just an inch away from curling around the current that would stop her heart. Her limbs trembled. She gasped as she fell like a bird with a broken wing. Pain punctuated her joints from the jolt of shoulders and arms bracing to break her fall.

Chapter 3

She hit the ground hard. As the last dregs of energy burned, she struggled to sit up.

“Get up and stand still.” The captain enunciated each word in English. “You will remain here until after my investigation. Get up!”

Testing for injuries, she did a mental body scan. She hurt everywhere. Her head pounded. Her blood-saturated hair stuck to the back of her neck and side of her face. Tentatively she touched the gash on the back of her head. The swollen wound had stopped bleeding.

The dirt and blood stains on her simple clothes reminded her of the “bag women” in her home city. She tucked strands of hair behind her ears.

She looked up at the officer. There appeared to be no concern in his dark eyes. She was transfixed by his gaze. In an odd sort of way, she gained strength from his calm-but-in-command demeanor. Eliza stiffened as her emotions began to descend into self-pity. She believed tears would be viewed as weakness. Men hated weakness. And tears.

As she attempted to stand, he grabbed her arm and roughly guided her to lean against a vehicle. Her sweat-soaked clothes did nothing to protect her from the cold air. She crossed her arms across her chest. “I need my coat.”

“Later.” The captain removed his flak jacket and coat, and then handed his coat to her. Returning to the ugly business before them, he barked orders to his sergeant. “Sergeant, I want photos of the scene and each body. Make sure the men wear gloves. Get the ID from the victims and the killers. Fingerprint all the deceased. Get as much information off the killers as you can.”

The sergeant directed his squad to complete the tasks. “Bag all the bodies and load them into the half-ton trucks.” The sergeant called to another man. “Get all the information from that armored vehicle. I want everything from the tires to the engine to the gun.”

The captain watched as the men followed their sergeant’s orders. “Sergeant, how many are there?”

The large man that Eliza had kicked turned to the captain. “Fifteen victims – ten men and five women.” He handed a document to the captain. “This looks like a Habitat list.”

The captain read it. “Yes, this identifies the fifteen Americans. See if you can find their passports. Bag their valuables, rings and wallets, anything of value that we’ll need to send back to Habitat. How many killers?”

Six killers, sir. Definitely not our people. No ID, no documents, nothing.”

“We need to find out what happened to the four police officers assigned to escort these people. Find the bus. I’m hoping this woman can explain what happened after these people were picked up at the airport.” The captain lowered his voice. “Omar, be ready for the chief’s arrival. This is going to get ugly.”

“Agreed. Be careful, Hashim. The mayor has reason to get rid of you. This may be the opportunity he’s been waiting for. I’m sorry to say, but he will accuse you of criminal neglect, mishandling the protection of the Americans.”

“That would require an arrest and a trial.” Sharif shrugged. “For the past year I’ve accumulated dirt on that bastard. Not enough to satisfy his superiors, but enough that he won’t risk exposure.” Sharif grimaced. He wasn’t sure if President Najeeb was in league with the payoffs. “Don’t worry about the mayor. You’ve got enough to deal with here. Warn your men there is to be absolutely no discussion of this with anyone. Understood?”

“Yes, one hundred percent.” The sergeant nodded. “As usual.”

“I’ll collect the woman’s belongings and turn them over to you for inspection. Inshallah, by morning we’ll know who’s responsible for this. Normally, terrorists are eager to take credit.”

More lights illuminated the compound. Men scrambled about, moving bodies and vehicles. Eliza remembered her trauma kit still at the side of the woman. As she put her body into motion, every joint complained. Every muscle trembled with fatigue. Her energy had hit rock bottom. Gathering up some residual anger, she mustered the strength to walk through the bloody hell. The captain stepped in her path. “Stay here.”

“I must get my kit,” she said through clenched teeth.

He adjusted his assault rifle and kept pace with her. His men focused on collecting evidence and placing the bodies into bags. Others picked up spent bullet casings. Signs of the massacre disappeared. The foul odor of blood persisted.

When she tried to pick up her trauma backpack, her hand failed to grip and hold the thirty-five pound weight. The captain lifted it and asked, “Is there anything else you need tonight?”

She grabbed it away from him and shifted it onto her back. Her body swayed with the weight and she struggled to think coherently. Come on, she chastised herself. Don’t let them think you can’t handle this. She straightened her posture and took a deep breath. Center! Pull yourself together, woman. Get your stuff!

Eliza glanced at the captain. He appeared distracted, watching the activity of his men. He pulled out his cell phone, but hesitated to make a call. Thinking of calling his superiors, she figured. His boss would be in bed. Since she had been a paramedic superintendent with the ambulance service, she knew the repercussions of calling a boss at his home in the middle of the night. Trouble, big trouble. Investigations, confrontations, reprimands, accusations, protocol breach reviews, interviews, and the bothersome media.

He turned toward her. “Miss, there is something I must tell you right now. Are you listening?”

She noted his expression - so like the restrained rage and disbelief she’d seen on the faces of police officers she worked with. When they arrived at the scene of child abuse, or some other horror in progress, lips tight, voice harsh, hands trembled, breathing shallow, eyes narrowed, and they swallowed with every breath. She nodded. “Yes, I’m listening.”

“I am Hashim Sharif, the captain of the police in this section of Samarra. What happened here, the death of your companions was not, I repeat, was not by the police force. Is that clear?”

A buzz from his two-way radio interrupted him. “Dispatch to Captain Sharif.”

“Sharif here.”

“Sir, we’ve received a report that there are three bodies about thirty miles east of the airport. The army patrol found them.” The dispatcher paused. “Sir, they’re ….”

“Say again, dispatch.”

“I’m sorry, sir. They are three of the police officers you assigned to escort the Habitat people. Their throats were slashed.”

Eliza detected a trembling in the dispatcher’s voice.

“What are your orders, sir?”

Captain Sharif barely hesitated. If Eliza hadn’t been standing beside him, she would not have heard the groan he uttered or have seen the slight slouch of his shoulders. “Send Captain Ahmed’s crew out to investigate. Ask the army patrol to remain on scene and keep the public out. Who’s in charge on scene?”

Captain Sharif received the information he needed, and then called to his sergeant. “Sergeant, the three police officers who were escorting these people have been found murdered.”

The sergeant’s mouth hung open and he shook his head. “But there were four assigned as escorts.”

“I’ll need you to investigate that scene. Call the army base to get the coordinates. Take a man with you and meet up with Captain Ahmed’s crew and army patrol on scene. Report back to me when you arrive.” The sergeant spun around on his heels, grabbed an officer and ran to his sedan, still parked outside the gate.

Captain Sharif turned back to her. “Someone has executed a very daring attack on your people and mine. I need your full cooperation, miss.”

She hesitated, still eyeing him suspiciously. “I don’t mean any disrespect but I’m not ready to believe this is not the doing of your people.” Eliza glanced at officers placing a woman’s corpse into a body bag. “This is insanity.”

“Whether you believe me or not is immaterial. Right now, I need you to complete a witness report. Come back to my office. Do you have all you need for the night?” His tone had softened.

Eliza asked for her handbag, and suitcase in the supply truck. “The American government will need to be notified. Who will make those calls?” she asked as he led her to the supply truck.

“The police chief will handle that.”

At the back of the supply truck she identified her belongings. He grabbed them and led her back to his office. “You’ll be remaining here for the night.”

Eliza stood frozen in disbelief. “Captain, am I under arrest?”

“No. The police chief may want to talk to you.”

She had no strength left to put up an argument. He had said ‘for the night’ so perhaps, if she hung on to hope, she might be sent home tomorrow.

Chapter 4

In his office he motioned for her to sit. She removed his coat and went to retrieve her navy blue, down coat from where it had been thrown into a corner. Captain Sharif grabbed it, sending puffs of downy feathers into the air as they escaped from the bullet holes. He noted the holes and looked at her shoulder. The down continued to swirl about him like miniature angels.

“Do you need a doctor?”

“Not right now. Later, I’ll need stitches and some antibiotic.”

“Fine, after my superiors arrive.” He returned to check the contents of the coat pockets. He found a few coins and tossed them onto his desk.

He tossed the coat to her. “Sit down.” He checked the denomination of the money. “Canadian coins,” he remarked. “You’re not American?”

“No. I’m from Alberta, Canada.” She slumped into the chair and released a chuckle.

“Something amusing, miss?”

She looked down at her hands and sighed. Pulling her shoulders back, she looked into the captain’s face. “I wasn’t assigned to this group until this morning. Said they needed a relief paramedic, but, for my safety, I should meet the group at the airport. Lucky me, eh?” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “Sorry.”

Shock had begun to wear off. The full magnitude of what just happened became clearer. Massacre. Fifteen - no eighteen - innocent people just lost their lives. She tried to process the madness, the devastation and suffering of so many families. In the next few hours, governments around the world would be clamoring to blame, maybe incite revenge.

He picked up her luggage, purse and backpack. “Come with me to the evidence room.”

Eliza slipped into her coat and followed Sharif to a large room. Cabinets and shelves lined the walls behind a fenced barricade. He set her stuff on a long table and dumped out the contents of her purse.

She looked on, stunned with the overt invasion of her privacy. Her mind whirled, attempting to understand his actions. “I’m a victim, not a damn criminal! Captain, why ….”

He interrupted. “What’s your name, miss?” His attention remained on her personal items.

“Eliza MacKay.”

He glanced at her left hand and must have seen her gold wedding band. “Mrs. MacKay?”

She thrust her hands into the coat pockets. “No. Miss MacKay will do.” Her level of irritation increased. “Why are you going through my things?”

“Procedure.” He continued to paw through the contents of her purse - airline boarding stubs, baggage claim tickets, used Kleenex, breath mints, lip balm, and her sunglasses. He set aside her international cell phone, wallet and iPad. He unzipped the purse compartments and pulled out the remaining contents: small packet of Tylenol, lipstick, and a package of Kleenex. “Where’s your passport, Miss MacKay?”

She hesitated as if trying to recall where she had put it. “I moved it from my coat pocket at the airport into my suitcase, I think. Anyway, I went through all this at the airport’s customs department.” She resisted reaching for her backpack.

He glared at her. She managed to restrain the signals of her lies. Her self-discipline faded when she crossed her arms across her chest. Damn!

“Open your luggage, miss.”

Eliza decided to attempt a distraction. “Where’s the bathroom, captain?”

Again, he ignored her. He opened her wallet and studied the cards in each compartment. “This birth certificate confirms your name is Elizabeth Leigh MacKay. However, you’re not going anywhere until I see your passport.”

Eliza stepped to within arm’s reach of Sharif. “If you don’t want a puddle on your floor, direct me to the bathroom now.”

He appeared repulsed by her statement and stepped back. He motioned upward with his hand. “Only men’s bathrooms on this floor. The office staff locks up theirs at night. You’ll have to use the one in my apartment upstairs.” He motioned for her to head toward the hallway.

She grabbed her backpack and followed him up the wide metal steps. Open doors on either side of the hallway revealed discarded office furniture strewn about. He moved ahead of her and used a key to unlock the door. “The bathroom is here,” he said, indicating a door just inside.

Inside the tiny bathroom she breathed a sigh of relief. It had the standard western style toilet, shower and pedestal sink. It had been kept clean and tidy. A hint of a spicy cologne from his toiletries helped to calm her. Her dad’s Old Spice aftershave had had a similar fragrance.

She hoped the captain might get distracted with some other task and forget about the passport. She believed that once he got his hands on it, she wouldn’t get it back. Besides, he would also discover her true identity. Whenever people knew her legal name, they soon discovered reports of her madness. Her life became unbearable.

When she returned to the captain, he was pacing in his kitchen while making a phone call – that call he hadn’t made earlier to his superiors, she assumed. She could hear a loud angry voice coming from his phone. The captain held his tongue. She knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of a boss’s accusation of a screw-up, accused of negligence of security protocol, and responsibility for a national crisis.

It shook her a bit to realize she had some sympathy for Sharif. She had, in the past, experienced the wrath of a paramedic service manager on a rampage hoping to deflect his responsibility for an incident onto the alleged incompetence of those under his command.

The captain slammed the phone shut and shoved into it his coat’s inside pocket.

“Do you have some ice, captain? It’ll help the swelling go down and close the wound,” she said, gently patting the back of her head.”

He grimaced as if bothered by the inconvenience. He went to his refrigerator and pulled out a small tray of ice cubes. Eliza wrapped the ice into a tea towel. It appeared clean. She applied the cold compress to her head. “Feels better already. Thank you.”

He motioned for her to sit at a small kitchen table. Before he sat down he called on his radio to one of his officers. “Bring a pot of coffee to my apartment.”

He sat down across from her and brought out a pen and notepad. For a few minutes he made some notes in Arabic. His pen nearly cut through the page. He glanced at her. “If your passport has been lost, I’ll get the records from the airport. You can then notify your Canadian consulate in Dubai for a replacement.” A knock at the door made Eliza jump.

“Come in,” Sharif barked. The coffee arrived. He got two cups from his cupboard and poured the coffee. “It’s quite strong,” he said placing her cup on the table. “You take milk or sugar?”

“A little milk, please. Thank you, captain,” she said, wrapping her cold fingers around the chipped blue porcelain cup. He set a carton of milk on the table and sat down. She added some milk, took a sip and settled for a momentary truce. “It’s nice and hot.” She managed to fabricate a smile.

“Miss MacKay, the police chief and probably more officials will be here soon. I need to have a report ready. Tell me exactly what happened from the moment you arrived at the airport.”

Eliza told him everything.

“Did you hear anyone called by name or anything else that would identify the killers?”

She had to think. “They said very little. When we arrived here, one of the killers ordered everyone off the bus. He had a British accent, like yours.” But then she did recall something odd. “Captain, when we stopped at the gas station I went into the supply truck. The escorts didn’t notice as they stood at the front of the bus. A short while later, I overheard something, like men wrestling with each other. Then I saw a van racing back onto the road. It must have been there before we arrived.”

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