The tramp freighter decisively pointed its bow northward towards home. Alone at the stern railing, a small figure gazed back to a home being left behind, perhaps forever. Gaza City still burned from the day's explosions, the rising smoke of which could be seen amidst the normal night lighting of the city.
The boy stood in man's fatigues, his body gangly from recent growth which he had yet to complete. An adult in height, a child in form. The grey-steel eyes were ancient, however, having seen too much to ever reclaim childhood. Deep anger burned within those eyes.
Looking back at the fires, oaths are taken, to remaining family and friends, but especially to his many enemies. Someday, he promises, the oaths will be kept.
Late in the Evening of November 3, 2020
The man stood still in a dark hotel penthouse, overlooking the Potomac River and the city beyond, as his call was being put through.
"As-Salaam-Alaikum. This is Hammer. I need to speak with him." His voice was modified by a small device before being transmitted to the handset's bluetooth connection.
There was a flurry of activity on the other end of the planet as 'He' was located and the telephone delivered.
"Speak," a noncommittal voice said.
"Have you monitored the results of the American election? I think there is a rare opportunity here for us. I would like to discuss it with you in person."
"I will be in Riyadh for the next three weeks, contact the usual channels for an appointment. How big and how much?"
"Very cost effective with a huge ROI. Perhaps the biggest ever," The Hammer said.
"I'm intrigued. Don't disappoint me."
"Disappointing you could prove fatal."
"As long as you understand that. As-Salaam-Alaikum"
"Wa-Alaikum-Salaam," The Hammer said as the connection ceased.
Stripping the battery from the prepaid phone which would have to be disposed of after leaving the hotel, the terrorist known to western powers as "The Hammer of Allah" buttoned his dress shirt as he paced the bedroom suite. Now it was time to meet with his contact downstairs.
Leaving the room, he took an elevator with three other guests who were giddy with excitement and in the mood to celebrate. He smiled for their benefit, nodding when hearing disparaging comments about the incumbent president as if he fully agreed. The elevator doors opened, and the newly-bonded Brown supporters went their separate ways.
Picking up a glass of wine, he stood against a wall in plain sight, along with other celebrants. Soon, the most beautiful woman in the room came over to stand next to him.
"Were you able to make contact with our target?" The Hammer asked as though he was talking about the election.
"Yes, it was much easier than I thought it would be," Nayla said seriously.
"How is his protection detail?"
"As expected. Two on and others in the building. He also had a pair of babysitters from his wife's team."
"Nothing he can't slip if he wants to, it sounds like."
"That's right," Nayla said. "He seemed motivated, rubbing himself all over me in our slow dance."
"That dress does show your body's perfection quite well," The Hammer sniffed at the air, enjoying the amalgam of scents that was Nayla and her expensive perfume.
"I always feel unclean after we run one of these operations. This guy is a typical American pig, and it takes time to wash the smell of pig off of you," Nayla complained.
"Then I won't keep you from your bath. Continue and keep me informed, as usual."
"Yes, I will," Nayla said as she formally extended her hand for a professional parting. The Hammer shook her hand with a smile, and went back to the bar for a refill before leaving the ballroom.
Earlier that Evening
Democratic Party presidential candidate Lucinda Brown sat watching the election returns in a private suite atop the Gaylord National Resort, with her campaign manager, Sidney Rosenbloom, and running mate Michael Rodriquez. The mood in the room was tense, but upbeat: the electoral college appeared to be swinging their way.
It had been a brutal campaign for the record books, as the Republican incumbent president was a billionaire reality show star whose demagoguery had been honed over twenty years of live television.
In the prior 2016 election, he had upset a Democratic candidate everyone, including the candidate herself, was confident would win. The loss devastated party leadership and the next four years saw widespread denial, protests, and active resistance; all to no avail. Republicans closed ranks around a man they could barely stand to acknowledge. The President seemed to go out of his way to offend those opposed to his efforts, taunting them daily on social media, and changing positions on a dime.
While his first two years in office were anarchic, the economy improved and intransigent foreign relation issues had some breakthroughs, in spite of the backdrop of take-no-prisoners partisan warfare. Poll after poll suggested constant street agitation was working against Democrats; and Republicans were making unearned gains because of it.
Finally, a core strategic group coalesced within the party, who offered a less confrontational style for their many objections. Senator Lucinda Brown of Missouri was chosen as the reasonable face of Democrat opposition, and America responded.
The final two years didn't go as well for the incumbent President. Midterm elections had resulted in a House of Representatives majority for the Democrats. The Senate was still held by Republicans, but their majority was diminished significantly.
The President responded after the midterm election rebuke with a flurry of almost daily invective and provocative statements transmitted through social media. The difference now, was a lack of animus in the Democrat response. Americans, generally, are a polite people who eschew bullying, so gains were made by projecting a dignified demeanor without emotional outbursts during formal Democratic Party response statements. Nonetheless, the election had always promised to be difficult running against a sitting president.
"Lucy, it looks like things are going our way." Sidney Rosenbloom said as the television analysis showed more state poll results showing blue. You never knew exactly how the votes would come in, and there had been some notable pre-vote polling failures in recent years, which meant, even while polls were predicting a Brown win, no one was going to celebrate just yet.
Michael Rodriguez, her running mate, was very excited by all of the state results coming through. The pundits were already talking about what the Brown Presidency could accomplish during its first 100 days, but fully recognizing the Republicans would continue to hold the Senate. Lucy's coat-tails appeared to have improved their dominant position in the House, and eroded the Senate majority for Republicans, confirming the country's rejection of the serving President's policies.
"Lucy, or should I say Madame President? Do you mind if I check in on my wife for a few minutes?” Michael asked. “It looks like we still have some time before the Big Man formally concedes."
"Lucy is fine for a few more minutes, and always in private." She smiled at Michael. "Certainly, go check on Celia, she'll be tired at this point I expect. Stay close to your phone, though, Sid will call when we have the word."
Michael's wife Celia was pregnant with their third child, and busy keeping the other two in line. Michael and Celia had taken a room in the hotel so the children could see their father's victory speech, but knew it would be very late before it finally happened. Michael nodded at Lucy and Sidney then walked out of the room briskly.
"Did we ever have that much energy?" Lucy asked Sidney.
Sidney snorts, "He needs it with the work and his kids. I took them for an hour earlier to give Celia a break and they about wore this grandfather out touring the resort. What about you, Lucy? Did you ever want to have children?"
"I did. But every time I was ready to, something always came up which took precedence. But can you imagine children growing up with Jonny Ray as their daddy and principle caregiver?" she smiled tightly. "We'd have to keep a close watch on young nannies and the like, given his proclivities."
Sidney chuckled appreciatively.
Lucy had a very pragmatic view of Jonny Ray's strengths and weaknesses, and was always frank with Sid. It was one of the things that made them such a powerful team. Early on, Sid had said that the more he knew, the more he could be useful. It took a while for Lucy to fully trust anyone with her thinking, but, once she had, life became that much easier.
Sid made sure that Jonny Ray's continued propensity to stray did not impact Lucy. Sid handled things. Sid's staff also ensured that Jonny Ray arrived sober, presentable and on-message for his many political engagements. Sidney had the harried look of any political Chief-of-Staff: the prematurely grey hair, substantial belly, multiple phones, and badly-worn very expensive suits. Only two inches taller than Lucy, they appeared to be the same height whenever she was in heels.
The phone rang. Sid quickly determined it was the phone they were wanting to ring and signaled Lucy. She muted the TV.
"Sidney Rosenbloom," he said.
Sid listened to the voice on the other end of the call for a few seconds. "Thank you, sir. Those are very kind words. Yes, I'll put her on now."
Handing the phone to Lucy, he signed a thumbs-up.
"Hello, this is Lucinda Brown." She listened for a few seconds in silence. "Thank you! Yes, I agree it was a difficult campaign. I want to also thank you for calling the race early, a lot of children can get to bed now. I like to think I would have done the same in your position."
They exchanged a few more pleasantries before terminating the call.
"Sid, he is about to do his concession speech. Please go round up Jonny Ray, Michael, Celia and his kids. I want them all up on the stage with me for the victory speech. Did Meryl come? If so, I'd like her to join us as well," Lucy directed.
"Yes, Madame President-Elect."
"God, that sounds awful. Maybe it should stay Lucy or Senator until I'm sworn in," Lucy said.
"That, Madame President, is a topic for tomorrow," Sidney said with a wicked grin.
Lucy waved him out and went to a large mirror to prepare for her speech. A quick knock at the door, heralded the arrival of the hair and cosmetics team. She smiled mockingly at her reflection. Sid always seemed to know her needs before she did.
In the ballroom of the Gaylord National Resort, Farid Amir Monsour Royce al Haj stood talking with his sister, Lindsey Royce Hamilton, and Nayla Kaldah. Lindsey and Nayla had been classmates at Harvard Law School, now both worked beltway politics in their own ways. Lindsey had set Nayla up with Farid on a blind date once, and the two remained more than good friends in spite of it.
Farid leaned in close to Lindsey, "Lindsey, have you met the Browns yet?" Farid Royce was recognized wherever he went as television's smooth-speaking expert on all matters Muslim. He spoke American English without an accent, moved with the world's elite, and had high-level personal contacts in the US, Europe and the Middle-East.
Lindsey was a DC socialite and heiress to most of the Royce fortune, as well as Farid's younger sister. Heavily involved in beltway progressive politics, she knew everyone who mattered in the Democratic Party and was happily married to a banking executive. She smiled back up at him.
"Of course I have, both of them! She is so nice, and he is such a character. Would you like to meet them? I see Jonny Ray over there next to the blonde at the bar. Since our lovely Nayla is here," she said with a smirk, "I should have little trouble getting him to come over."
"Why would we need Nayla to lure him over? You're still packing heat, Sis," Farid teased. Nayla was used to the nonstop banter and made a show of rolling her eyes.
"Oh, no!" Lindsey exclaimed. "Jonny Ray doesn't trouble himself with old married women with young children and stretch marks. No, Nayla is our bait! Look mysterious and exotic, Nayla."
Nayla struck a pose, which made Lindsey laugh and Farid smile.
Lindsey headed over to where Jonny Ray was holding court.
Nayla was indeed a very attractive Palestinian-American woman. Appearing Italian or Castilian Spanish in features, she spoke four languages fluently and worked as a lawyer for a prominent lobbyist firm on K-Street in Washington, DC. Like Lindsey, she worked the progressive DC social world like a maestro, in spite of the barely concealed bias against Muslims. Lindsey was able to call upon old family connections, whereas Nayla's access was down to her hard work and beauty.
"Nayla, would you like a refill on your wine?" Farid asked.
"Yes, please. I may need some reinforcement before talking to Jonny Ray," Nayla said.
"I hear he can be quite charming. But I doubt his handlers will allow him to get too far off message tonight," Farid said while indicating two of Sidney Rosenbloom's assistants following Jonny Ray.
"That man - you have no idea! I've heard stories of him ditching his minders and working his magic in the nearest broom closet. His paramours definitely need to bring their own cab fare."
Farid smiled and headed for the cash bar. In the meantime, Lindsey had worked her way to the head of the pack surrounding Jonny Ray and was talking with him. Jonny Ray looked over to where Nayla was standing, and nodded to Lindsey after pointing at his watch.
Farid came back with two wine glasses and handed one to Nayla along with a fresh napkin.
"Thanks. It's amazing how fast you get served!" Nayla said.
"It had everything to do with what I tipped on the first round," Farid said, with a self-deprecating smirk.
Lindsey came back, claiming Farid's wine glass as her own, "Is that for me? Thank you! Jonny Ray will be over in a few minutes, he is working his way through a few donors."
"Of course, it is yours. A brother's work is never done," Farid sighed in mock martyrdom as he headed back for another glass of Cabernet.
"Nayla, look at you! If I didn't know better, I would think you were hunting big game tonight in that smashing outfit. Believe me, no one here is worth your time!" Lindsey said.
"Maybe I am just taking another run at Farid," Nayla smiled into her glass.
"I wish somebody would! I would die for some nieces and nephews for the kids to grow up with. Seriously, I always thought you two were perfect for each other. And good God! The kids you two would have: beautiful and brilliant! It would almost be unfair. You're already like a sister, having it formalized would be wonderful."
A look of pain quickly passed through Nayla's eyes before she looked down, "Please don't badger him about it. We're fine as things stand, really."
Farid came back to rejoin the group, "So what are we talking about?" he asked.
"Oh, Jonny Ray will be over in a few minutes," Lindsey said, ignoring the question. "Can you believe Lucy Brown's comeback? I thought the President had her down and out. I'm glad that he seems to be losing. He was a real throwback to the 1980's, without the personal character. Lucy will have her work cut out for her with a split Congress, though, but she has never been about making enemies - so it might work."
Just then, the solar system of planets surrounding Jonny Ray's sun started to move in their direction. Jonny Ray seemed to be annoyed with Sid's team and obviously told them to stay where they were.
"I swear to sweet Jesus, Lindsey, those hound dogs stick to me like glue!" Jonny Ray said as he joined the group.
"Thanks for coming over, Jonny Ray. I wanted to introduce you to a couple of people. First, my brother Farid Royce al Haj. Farid, Jonny Ray Brown," Lindsey said.
Jonny Ray shook Farid's hand, "My God, I know you! You're the television news expert on Muslim affairs! Must say, I am a big fan of yours. I didn't make the connection with your name, but should have known. Plus, I do recall you being on our list of generous donors! Thank you, we couldn't have made it without you!"
"I'm flattered that you would remember," Farid said. "Normally, those of us in the media donate equivalent amounts to both candidates to ensure access to the winner, but this time it was different. Besides the Reality King, as Lindsey so aptly put it, didn't need my contribution."
"No, but I imagine tonight he is feeling a big sucking sound where his cash used to be. Couldn't happen to a nicer fella! By the way, I really appreciate the way you explain issues on the Middle East in your broadcasts. It almost feels like I have a shot at understanding both sides of the issues," Jonny Ray's easy-going personal charm was on full display.
"My pleasure, sir. Since Lindsey has forgotten to do so, please allow me to formally introduce our dear friend, Nayla Kaldah. Nayla works K Street as a lawyer and is a supporter as well," Farid said.
"Nayla Kaldah, yes I remember your name from the donor list, too. Talk about combining work with pleasure! I'm very pleased to meet such a beautiful and accomplished supporter of our future president," Jonny Ray shook her hand by enveloping it with both of his. "I hope you will be sticking around for the announcement and after party. I hear there might be some dancing and, if there is, you need to save one for me."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, as well. I'll definitely save a dance. I'm planning to stay unless the bar closes early."
"Well, Darlin', that's going to be open all night if I have anything to say about it, and I do," Jonny Ray said with a wink. "Say, Farid. You're drinking wine? Don't Muslims normally have an issue over that?"
"Yes, a lot of us do, but many do not. Think Christian branches like Catholic versus Southern Baptists; Catholics are able to drink, whereas Southern Baptists still long for prohibition," Farid explained.
"I'll say they do! See, you explain things so well that I just learned something new. That, sir, is a gift," Jonny Ray said as he glanced back towards his entourage.
"Well, it looks like I have to check in with Frick and Frack, they just got off the phone and are motioning me over. It was a pleasure to meet you both, I look forward to speaking more with you more later on tonight." Jonny Ray waved and headed back to the Brown campaign team.
"See, he mostly behaved himself," Farid said. "It looks like we might be getting to an announcement soon. Wait, look! The Reality King is on the tube."
The room erupted with cheers and applause as it became clear the Republican President had conceded. Farid raised his glass to both Nayla and Lindsey. "Four years! Congratulations, Linds!"
They reveled in the moment, as Lucy Brown took the stage. Lucy surrounded herself with her team and their families. Jonny Ray stood directly behind her, Sid and Meryl Rosenbloom on her left, Michael and Celia Rodriguez on her right. The President-elect made a passionate speech about unifying the country and thanked all of the supporters who enabled their come-from-behind victory. Then she handed off to Michael so that he could say a few words as well. All told, it was short, but very, very, sweet for Lucy's supporters.
After the initial quick walking tour of the ballroom Sid got Lucy's attention, "Madame President-Elect, we have a few more celebrations to pop in on. Shall we go?"
Jonny Ray hugged Lucy, "I knew you would do it, Lu! Congratulations, I'm very proud of you!"
"Thanks, Jonny. Are you coming along for the victory tour?" Lucy asked.
"No, I'm pretty sure the best venue is this one. Plus, this way I just have to make it upstairs when things wind down," Jonny said.
"Alright, you behave yourself, there are about a thousand phone cameras here tonight. We don't want a social media thing to talk down tomorrow."
"Naw, I'll be good. Most of the big money donors are here, so I can start twisting arms for the Congressional races in two years." He chuckled in anticipation.
Lucy and Sid headed for the security cavalcade which was waiting to take them on the tour.
"Is he going to be alright staying here?" Sid asked, referring to Jonny Ray as they climbed in the armored SUV.
"I'm inclined to let him have some fun, and it is a bit of a relief to not have him to worry about. His Secret Service detail will be all over him so he’s unlikely to get into any trouble tonight," Lucy said.
Sid kept his thoughts to himself. He knew how much trouble Jonny Ray could get into and how quickly it could develop, since it was his team that cleaned up the messes. Perhaps it would be a good idea to have a junior cabinet position whose sole role was keeping Jonny Ray out of trouble, Sid mused to himself. Another problem to consider tomorrow.
Back inside the resort, the party was just getting started. Farid nursed his glass of wine as Nayla and Lindsey headed off to refresh their war paint. Jonny Ray came up beside Farid and raised his highball in a silent toast.
"Now the madness will truly begin," Jonny said. "We worked very hard to get here, but now that it's real the consequences are starting to sink in. No more privacy at all! I was known when Lucy became a Senator, but occasionally people would still serve me a drink without knowing exactly who I was. Now, I'm the first-fella."
"Cheer up, I think the drinks will all be free now!" Farid said with a smile.
"Well, there is that. You have this issue also, don't you?"
"Not as much as you might think. People often say I look familiar, but most don't recognize me on the street. Of course, I don't have a bevy of Secret Service agents clearing my way either."
"You're God-damned right! Shit, those guys are going to be a major pain in my ass," Jonny Ray lamented.
"I expect you'll do what others have done in your position. There are ways to lose your detail when needed, but it is a lot harder these days. I always heard stories of Presidents slipping away for a few hours to do various things, but again it isn't widely advertised. Call it the Secret History of the White House," Farid laughed.
Jonny Ray nodded and pulled at his drink. "Say, how well do you know Nayla? Are you two an item?"
"No, we're just good friends. Nayla and my sister were roommates at Harvard, so we're all very close. We're both from the same part of the world. I was born in Lebanon and adopted by the Royces when I was five. Nayla grew up in Gaza City, believe it or not, went to college in France, then did her law degree at Harvard."
"Wow! That is a story I would like to hear sometime. Both of them," Jonny Ray said.
"I hope we have the opportunity someday. Nayla has some bad memories from her time there, though, her brother was killed during an incident between Fatah and Hamas," Farid confided.
"I can never keep those two separate in my mind," Jonny Ray said while shaking his head.
"Well, think of them as the Palestinian Republicans versus Democrats, but everyone is armed. The metaphor holds," Farid said. "Looks like the band is starting to tune up for the dancing. I expect you will have a lot of commitments."
"A bunch of fat donor's wives or widow donors that are 105 years old. I'd better dance with Lindsey and Nayla first while I am reasonably unfatigued. Ah, here they come. Ladies, you look marvelous!"
Lindsey and Nayla joined Farid and Jonny Ray. Hovering nearby, two Secret Service agents kept a close eye on things, periodically talking into their radios.
"Ladies, can I refresh your drinks?" Farid asked. "Jonny Ray wants to dance with you two before he gets overwhelmed by the room's demands."
"Thanks, Farid. Please do," Lindsey said and Nayla nodded in assent. "I have to wrap things up here in a bit anyway and that will be a nice end to the evening. You are saving a dance for your sister?"
"Of course, Nayla too. I'll be right back."
"Lindsey, shall we show them how it is done?" Jonny Ray asked holding out his hand.
"Certainly, let's go!" Lindsey and Jonny Ray headed out onto the dance floor. The Secret Service talked into their radios again and moved to a better vantage point to watch over Jonny Ray.
Farid came back with the drinks, handing one to Nayla with a slight bow. She smiled and raised the glass in salute prior to taking a sip.
"Jonny Ray asked about you earlier. I told him a little bit about your background, I hope that was appropriate?" Farid asked.
"Thanks for letting me know. It's alright, he could know everything about all of us by this time tomorrow if he asked his Secret Service detail," Nayla said with an elegant shrug. "He might want to reconsider our dance."
"It's true: the Secret Service will be all over this by tomorrow. I hope your papers are in order?" Farid teased in a fake German accent. "But I think he was looking forward to your dance even more."
"I've heard he is an equal opportunity hound: not just the young ones anymore. Will you be jealous watching us dance?" Nayla asked.
"No, because I will be dancing with you first," Farid said smoothly as he set his drink down. He took her hand and headed for the dance floor.
At the next break, Farid said his goodbyes to Lindsey and Nayla after finishing off his glass. Jonny Ray, as promised, whisked Nayla away for what turned out to be a slow number.
"So, Nayla. How is it that someone as sexy as you came alone to what turned into the biggest party of the year?" Jonny Ray said.
"Who says I came alone? Perhaps you were misinformed," Nayla said with a shake of her head. Nayla was beautiful with her face in a neutral state, but when she smiled, or moved, it took her into beauty pageant territory.
Some men would be intimidated by the combination of beauty and intelligence, but Jonny Ray was not some men.
"Alright, I'll play. Why are you alone now?"
"I'm not alone, I'm dancing with you. By the way, you seem much taller in person, and are quite a good dancer. But soon our dance will be finished and then, perhaps, I'll be alone. Maybe some of the old widows' boy toys will want a dance and I'll be able to console myself."
"Ah, Honey. You are killing me! I've got to go work them after, as well," Jonny Ray said.
"Yes, our jobs are somewhat similar. I provide non-specific support to progressive causes nationwide, while you have more of a focus on the President-Elect. It isn't any wonder we end up talking to the same people. I am hoping winning this election will make it easier to raise funding," Nayla said.
"I'm thinking it won't. Some of these folks can't be convinced to part with a nickel unless there is an emergency or crisis," Jonny Ray drily commented. "Even with a split congress, they'll see tonight as a triumph with all threats banished."
"Well, then people like you and I will have to convince them otherwise," Nayla said.
"I wouldn't mind working closer with you, both personally and professionally," Jonny Ray said as he held the small of Nayla's trim back snugly with one large hand, dancing a little closer than was strictly proper at his wife's party.
After a few seconds of increased sexual tension, Nayla moved back a little as she eyed the room. "I do look forward to our professional collaboration. Anything else would seem to be impossible given all of your entourage," Nayla said with an ironic smile as she indicated the Secret Service detail and Sidney's two assistants who were still on the job watching him.
Jonny Ray took in his virtual jailers with an annoyed glance, "Yes, these guys are going to be a real pain to deal with after tonight. I know it is doable, though, I just have to see how things shake out. How can I reach you?"
The music ended and they broke off again into their own separate spaces. "I'll give you my card, you can call or text my mobile. Of course, you could have obtained this from any of your team, but discretion is probably better. Text is best, simply because I don't answer calls unless I recognize the ID," Nayla said as she reached into her purse for a card. "Oh my, I don't have any that are pristine. I'm sorry. Will you take one with an old grocery list on it?"
"Whatever it takes, my dear. Now, I need to gird my considerable loins and see to the needs of our biggest donors. Wish me luck!" Jonny Ray said as he took her card and placed it in his wallet. Nayla nodded as he headed off to work through his list of patrons.
Lindsey came over. "You're playing with fire there - that was a pretty steamy dance you had going," Lindsey said.
"Sometimes the best dancing is with those who are not real possibilities. The drama is so much greater, don't you agree?" Nayla said.
"Girl, if you get a knock at your door and find a tall, naked, and disgraced former politician holding his prick and looking hopeful, don't say I didn't warn you!"
"I don't think it will come to that, but if it does I'll just call his Secret Service detail and tell them where he is," Nayla laughed. "Speaking of pricks, supposedly his has a kink in it? Did you hear that one?"
"I heard it and Jonny Ray isn't shy about telling it. I think the story goes that he told the woman in question it naturally kinks to the left due to his politics," Lindsey tittered.
"Allah save him from one that kinks to the right! He'd have to change his party affiliations. He did mention his considerable loins," Nayla joked as they both laughed.
"I think I am done for the evening, are you alright here by yourself?" Lindsey asked.
"Absolutely, I was planning a few more work-related dances, then I will leave as well. Where is Gerald tonight?"
"He's watching Benny and Claire, and all too glad to skip these festivities. I'm sure they were watching the broadcast before heading off to bed. Maybe they got to see Mommy on television!"
"Give them their Aunt Nayla's love, and say I will see them soon," Nayla said.
"I will. Don't stay too late. Let's do something this weekend at the house, okay?"
"I won't stay much later. I think this weekend is open, but I'll call later to confirm," Nayla kissed Lindsey's cheek in farewell.
Deep in the warren of an electronic listening post, the lead technician alerted the Interagency Terrorism Task Force team about some interesting voice traffic. "Sir, you'll want to listen to this one. It was a call from the DC area to ZBag5 in Riyadh tonight after the election announcement. We're narrowing down an exact origin location but it will take a few more minutes."
Justin Simons, lead FBI Special Agent on the task force headed for the secure listening room, picking up the Code Name binder as he went. His counterparts from NSA and CIA came along as well. All of them sat down around a small conference room table after closing the door. The walls were covered with computer monitors, and there was one control station at the end of the table where the technician readied the digital file for playback.
"Sirs, we picked this up about an hour ago. I'll play it back for you now." As it played back the Arabic language audio a print translation transcript came up on the main video monitor.
"As-Salaam-Alaikum. This is Hammer. I need to speak with him." (effects modified voice - DC)
"Have you monitored the results of the American election? I think there is a rare opportunity here for us. I would like to discuss it with you in person." (DC)
"I will be in Riyadh for the next three weeks, contact the usual channels for an appointment. How big and how much?" (Riyadh)
"Very cost effective with a huge ROI. Perhaps the biggest ever." (DC)
"I'm intrigued. Don't disappoint me." (Riyadh)
"Disappointing you could prove fatal." (DC)
"As long as you understand that. As-Salaam-Alaikum" (Riyadh)
The team was fully awake now. Justin flipped open the Code Name binder and looked up "ZBag5" on the list of names.
"Shit, we're talking Zufar Azzizi al-Saud. He is a Saudi prince suspected of bankrolling a number of extreme terrorist actions," Justin said. "Has he done anything here in the past or has it been mostly in other jurisdictions?"
"We haven't had any objective proof of his involvement in any action. NSA identified a number of terrorist groups which have contacted him, but we've never been able to link him to anything other than a conversation. He is so well-connected in Saudi Arabia our friends there are very cautious dealing with him. He is also relatively famous in Western financial markets as a large investor. You'll even occasionally see televised interviews with him on cable financial networks," Tom Franklin of the CIA said.
"He is flagged for coverage at all times, but rarely do we have a caller masking his own voice. It always gets our attention," Thang Duy of the NSA added seriously.
"Who is 'The Hammer'?" Justin asked.
"He's considered a myth, from all I have heard. Some of the things he is reported to have done seem impossible for one man. The Hammer may not even be an actual person, but rather a group. I think the stories reflect a Muslim tendency to exaggerate. He's reputed to be Palestinian, or Jordanian, or Lebanese, or Egyptian depending on who is telling the story. You get the picture," Tom said.
"What kind of things has The Hammer done?" Justin asked.
"Political assassination of rivals, attacks against Israeli tour groups in far-flung places, assassinations of Western tourists, and cybercrime," Tom said, ticking them off on his fingers.
"I can see why people would think this is more than one person. Why haven't I heard of him?" Justin asked.
"He avoids notoriety and, of course, the associated cruise missiles which come with it," Tom said.
"Where did this call come from, do we know yet?" Justin asked.
A map overlay of the Washington, DC metro area came up on one of the screens. There was a pie-shaped graphic corresponding to the mobile phone tower and sector used during the call.
Justin looked at the map and had an instant feeling of panic, "Where was the President-Elect's announcement hotel? Gaylord National, right? It's inside this coverage map. Whoever made that call might have been within a few feet of our next president. SHIT! Get Secret Service on the line immediately and notify them to be on alert. This incident has to be upgraded across the board. Is there any way to isolate and repair the voice print?"
"We've been trying. We're having trouble, though. It wasn't a simple digital filter overlay, the signal went through several analog-digital conversions before final transmission. Without knowing the hardware involved, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to get to a voice fingerprint. It also looks as though some pronunciation games were played as well, so we can't even hang our hat on repeating speech patterns," Thang finished with a groan.
"Why would the election results prove to be an opportunity for a terrorist? He's talking ROI, Return on Investment, are we sure this wasn't just a call about an investment opportunity?" Justin asked.
"It could be. Normally, those types of calls are longer and include more details about the opportunity, but now even investment deals are kept highly secret. Companies assume there are industrial spies listening at all times. So it could be that or it could be a terrorist cloaking his request in financial terms to throw us off the trail. We won't know until we follow the lead all the way," Thang said.
"OK, first order of business is to find where the phone was used. I suppose it is unlikely the GPS coordinates were transmitted by the handset. Get the RF crew out there right away. Do we have the back-office logs with signal strengths from multiple towers? We can possibly triangulate from those," Justin said. "Did we have anything else of similar value to work?"
"No, it was pretty quiet tonight. This was the hottest one."
"Alright, we're going mobile. Let's get over there and start seeing what we can find out," Justin instructed. "You're with me," he said to Thang.
The drive over was going to take an hour and a half due to traffic on the beltway. Justin wished, once again, he had a helicopter to get over the herd animals which always clogged DC traffic. He knew whatever The Hammer had planned for tonight, it would be over long before they got there. The Secret Service had been notified and were taking additional precautions.
Somehow, the task force was going to have to get visibility into the movements of Zufar for the next three weeks on the off-chance it would lead them to The Hammer.
He was also going to have to put together a detailed workup on The Hammer, with a full accounting of all the rumors and legends, to yield a better picture of what the task force needed to look for. Right now, there were too many unknowns. The only concrete lead was the upcoming meeting arranged with Zufar. Writing down notes in his ever-present Moleskine, he made a reminder to check into whoever made appointments for Zufar. They might prove an easier target.
As the team pulled into the resort entry area, there was an unusual amount of activity for as late as it was on a weeknight.
"How much do you want to bet this is where the after-parties were held, or at least one of them?" Justin said. The passersby seemed to be in good spirits and a number were openly intoxicated. "Let's chat with the hotel security manager."
Justin walked into the lobby followed by the team, he looked around until he identified a hotel security staff member. He was standing next to what had to be a Secret Service agent looking directly at Justin and his investigative team. Justin turned back to his pack of followers, "Folks, stay here for a few seconds while I speak to these guys."
He walked over and held out his credentials for inspection, "Simons, FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force. I need to speak with the detail leads, can you point me to them?"
"Adam Rungate, facility security services," the guard introduced himself. "Dinesh here can help you, I expect."
"Dinesh Patel," the Secret Service Agent said, shaking Justin's hand. "Yes, I can take you to our lead agent. He's working close to the Ballroom Party. Adam, thanks for helping. I'll come back with any information which would impact your interests as soon as possible," Adam nodded curtly. "Follow me, Agent Simons," Dinesh said.
Justin motioned for the team to settle in the lobby area and followed Agent Patel through the labyrinth of resort hallways.
"Are you the one who called in the alert earlier?" Dinesh asked.
"Yes. We were on an international surveillance detail and we heard someone, presumably in the hotel area, make a call to one of our monitored overseas baddies. We couldn't get out here in time to check it out, and knew you were on the scene," Justin explained.
"I'm sure Agent Jones appreciated it, I know I do. A lot better than being kept in the dark until it is too late, even if it does raise our blood pressures for a bit. One sec," Agent Patel keyed his communicator informing Agent Jones that he was en route with FBI.
The sound of a live band still in service began to filter into the hallways as they headed for the command center which had been prepared for the Secret Service. Passing by the agent stationed at the door, Justin's eyes adjusted to the dark room lit by live computer screens tracking video and agent telemetry. Agent Jones grunted and rose to his feet, stretching to his full 6'4" height. Agent Patel waved and headed back towards the lobby.
"Are you Agent Simons? Hello, I'm Alex Jones, detail lead. We're tasked with the President Elect's husband's safety. The President Elect, and her team, left prior to your alert. What are we supposed to be watching for exactly?"
"We don't know, I'm afraid. We intercepted a call made from this area to a monitored overseas person of interest. Putting two and two together, we realized that this was also where the President Elect was waiting for the poll results. We might have erred on the side of caution alerting you, but the caller referred to the name of an internationally-known terrorist operative. I can't brief you in on full details tonight - we don't have much to go on when it comes to the operative. No one knows what he looks like, or even if it is really a group of people. We do know they are of Middle East extraction," Justin explained.
"Well, that narrows it down, but not by much. I don't like the idea the President Elect was so close to a terror suspect. I don't like it at all," Agent Jones tugged at his neck in thought before abruptly deciding. "We're going to make alternate arrangements for both of them tonight. She is making a victory tour of the poll-watching parties, and should just about be done with it by now. Jonny Ray is still here, dancing with the faithful in the ballroom. We have eyes on him. We were expecting he would stay here tonight, but plans change."
"If you decide to take him offsite, could you do it in a stealthy way? I mean, we could set up surveillance on where he is supposed to be staying and see if anyone shows up. It's a long shot, but that's all we have at the moment," Justin said.
"Yes, we can easily do that and set your team up. What else can I do for you? I need to get onto alternate arrangements for Jonny Ray," Agent Jones said in clipped tones, eager to set plans in motion.
"You knew there would be something else," Justin said with a smile. "Yes, we're going to need a full list of names for the party, guests, workers, etc. We'll do the same with the hotel itself. Then start the sifting of data."
"I do not envy your job on this one. There are close to 2,000 rooms in this hotel, mostly full tonight. There's over 500K square feet of conference space and about 10 restaurants. You're going to want logs for the docks on the river, too. There are a lot of ways to leave this place, and most of them aren't monitored. Shoot, you could kayak across the Potomac to Jones Point and you're in Virginia. One thing to keep in mind: politics. A good portion of the worthies that were here tonight are far above our pay grades, a word to the wise."
"Thanks for those kind words of encouragement," Justin said.
"I do what I can," Agent Jones smiled in shared suffering.
Justin could feel this turning into an all-night affair, so he got out his phone and texted his wife, Janice, that he was into extra innings. She and the kids were probably already in bed, but the message would be there if she got worried.
His team straggled into the command center and started to set up equipment.
Who is The Hammer and what was he doing around the next President? Justin thought to himself as he started working through the immediate tasks before them.