Jay looked around the table at the other players. To his immediate left, Cop, sans his helmet, hunched over his cards with a frown on his face. Jay smiled. Next to Cop, Karl was leaning back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head, cards piled on the table. He had already folded. Ruben was next to Karl, grinning wildly. He never really had mastered the poker face. Finally, between Ruben and himself, Scott gazed intently at his cards, revealing nothing.
Jay turned back to Cop. "C'mon, are you going to bet, or what?"
Cop glared at him. "I'm thinking."
"You've been thinking for the past three and a half hours," Ruben pointed out.
Karl glanced at his watch. "It's only been three hours by my watch," he corrected with a grin.
"I get the hint," Cop grumbled. "All right. I open with one dollar."
His bet was matched by Ruben and Scott. Jay smiled. "I meet your dollar, and raise you three."
Cop looked at him through hooded eyes.
Jay, for his part, smiled slightly.
"I fold," Cop stated simply, resting his cards on the table.
Jay looked at Ruben. "Well, Rube? What'll it be?"
Ruben smiled at him. "I'll meet your four, and raise you four more."
Jay raised his eyebrows and looked at Scott.
"I'm out," he stated, tossing his cards on the table and leaning back in his chair.
Jay nodded and grabbed a ten-dollar bill. "Looks like it's between you and me, Rube. I'll meet that and raise you two more," he said, sliding the bill onto the pile.
Ruben only grinned at this. He took a ten of his own and put it on the growing pile. "I really hate to take your money, mi amigo. But if I must, I must." He then placed another five on the table.
Jay nodded and quickly met the fifteen-dollar bet. "I call."
Ruben grinned again and showed his cards. "Full house: kings and aces." He reached over and started pulling the bills toward him.
Jay looked at him. "Neat trick, Rube."
"I don't understand," Ruben said, his grin slowly slipping off of his face, hands still outstretched, lying on the money.
Jay laid his cards on the table. "Three of a kind. Aces. Ace of clubs, hearts, and diamonds."
Ruben took his hands off the money and slid his chair away from the table. "I really gotta be going." He started to stand until he felt Scott's large hand on his forearm, holding him down. Ruben looked at him. Scott shook his head. "On second thought," Ruben continued, almost without missing a beat, "I really don't have to, after all," he finished, relaxing back into his chair.
"You have three kings and two aces," Jay said, reasoning. "I have three aces, a ten, and a two. By my calculations, that adds up to five aces, and the last time I checked there were only four in the deck." Jay plucked a card from Ruben's hand. "And only one ace of hearts."
Ruben pointed a finger at him. "You added a card to the deck!" he accused triumphantly. As he pointed, another card fell out of his shirt and onto the table, another ace of spades. "Heh, heh," Ruben chuckled weakly, his face turning slightly red.
"If you're going to cheat," Jay said as he reached out and grabbed the money off of the table, "at least try doing a little better."
"Jay, Ruben," came Sean's voice over the PA. "Report to my office."
"Isn't Sean usually in bed right now?" Karl asked.
"I thought so," Scott affirmed. "Usually I am, too. In fact, I think I'll go now," he finished, standing and exiting the game room.
"Yeah, me, too," Karl said, stifling a yawn. "See you guys later."
Jay and Ruben both stood and walked out of the room, after a perfunctory wave to Cop. "Wonder what he wants us for," Ruben commented as they stepped into the elevator nearest the game room.
Jay shrugged. "Well, Tyler and Clayton skipped town earlier today. Ryan, too, I think."
"I assume that they went to contact those new recruits," Jay reasoned as the elevator doors opened for them. "Sean mentioned that he wanted to contact them in person."
"I suppose that would mean Tyler headed off to France."
Jay nodded. "Probably."
The elevator came to a stop and the doors slid open.
"And Clayton, or Ryan, or both, headed off to New York," Ruben commented.
"Since they've both been there," Jay said, agreeing with a nod. He reached out and knocked on the door to Sean's office.
"Come in," came Sean's voice from the interior of the room.
Jay opened the door and followed Ruben in.
"Have a seat," Sean offered, gesturing to the chairs on the other side of the desk.
They both sat down.
"Aren't you usually asleep now?" Jay asked.
Sean nodded while he yawned. He looked at them, his eyes bleary. "Usually. I've been up almost twenty hours now." He waved it off. "No big deal." He then reached into a desk drawer and withdrew a folder. Out of the folder, he extracted a sheet of paper and slid it across the desk to them.
Jay leaned over and grabbed it. He looked at it briefly and handed it to Ruben. "This is who you're sending us to get?" Jay asked.
"I should think it would be obvious," Sean said, somewhat surprised.
"Humor me." Jay had seen all the printouts beforehand and couldn't fathom why they were going there, of all places.
"She has a degree in communications technology. And you two work solely out of the communications room," Sean explained slowly. "See any connection there?"
"Yeah," Ruben said, sliding the paper back onto the desk. "But we don't speak Arabic."
Sean looked a little bit uncomfortable. "Well, that's a small obstacle that you'll just have to overcome."
"Yeah," Jay said. "Just a small obstacle."
"Tiny," Ruben said, holding his thumb and index finger close together.
"Miniscule," Jay continued, holding his thumb and index finger completely together.
Sean held up his hands. "All right! I get the idea. It's not a very small obstacle." He shrugged. "Deal with it anyway."
"All right," Jay and Ruben said simultaneously.
"Your objective, of course," Sean continued, "is to convince Miss Hassan to join our organization. Use any tactic you can think of to convince her."
"Even violence?" Ruben asked, his eyes lighting up. Jay made a gun out of his fingers and held the point to Ruben's temple. Ruben raised his hands.
"Short of violence," Sean said. "Jesse will give you all the details you need about this assignment. I'd like you to leave as soon as possible. Your first-class flight to Cairo has already been booked. All expenses will be covered by Checkwolf. I'm giving you complete discretion in this matter."
"This message will self-destruct in five seconds," Jay mumbled.
"What was that?" Sean asked. "You were mumbling."
"Nothing," Jay said with a cheery smile on his face.
"Have a good trip," Sean said, waving.
Jay and Ruben stood and exited the office with a perfunctory wave to Sean. They walked across the communications room to where Jesse was sitting at the main tracking console. He had just finished sending Alpha on an assignment when they arrived, standing next to him.
Two minutes later, Jesse looked up. "What can I help you guys with?"
"We'd like the information for our sojourn into Africa," Jay said.
"Right," Jesse replied as he picked up a sheaf of paper and handed it to Jay. "Have fun."
"We always do," Jay said, turning to leave.
Ruben placed his hand on Jay's chest, stopping him, and faced him. "Well," he said. "Not always. Remember that time back in '99?"
Jay closed his eyes in thought. "Oh, yeah!" he exclaimed, smiling. Then he frowned and shook his head. "You're right. That wasn't fun at all."
Jesse rolled his eyes and waved. Actually, it was more of a dismissive "shooing" gesture.
"I think that's a hint for us to leave," Ruben said, pointing at Jesse' waving hand.
Jay looked. "Yep. That would be my guess, too. See ya, Jesse. Sorry to bother you. You know we always get a bit punchy this late in the evening."
"Yeah, I'll show you a bit punchy," Jesse muttered.
"Right," Ruben said. Ruben and Jay exited the comm room and walked down the corridor to the elevator.
"We should probably pack and leave tonight," Jay commented as they stepped into the elevator.
"Why?" Ruben asked.
Jay looked at the tickets. "These are for the eleven o'clock flight out of Kewanee tonight, and seeing how it's eight-thirty now, we should probably make haste, not waste."
"Good point. I'll meet you at the back door in half an hour," Ruben said.
Jay nodded as he stepped out of the elevator. Ruben stepped across the corridor into his room, while Jay walked around the corner of the elevator to his door.
Ten minutes later, Jay was standing next to the back door with his two bags. Two minutes after that, Ruben showed up, with his two. "I guess half an hour was a bit of an overestimation."
"Apparently," Jay agreed. "Did you remember your toothbrush?"
"Yes, Mommy," Ruben replied.
"Good. 'Cause you sure ain't borrowin' mine."
"You got that right."
"Let's go," Jay said. They stepped outside and hailed a taxi. "Concorde Airport," Jay said after putting his luggage on top and entering the cab.
"What about it?" the cabdriver said, biting into a donut. His face was in the shadows.
Jay rolled his eyes.
"A comedian, huh?" Ruben asked.
The man turned. He had a mask over his eyes, a military haircut, and what looked to be body armor of some sort. Pinned to the front of his body armor was a round, yellow pin with a smiley face on it. "You could say that."
"Just take us to Concorde," Jay said, slightly exasperated.
The cabbie shrugged. "Whatever."
Within an hour, Jay and Ruben were sitting in the waiting room, waiting for the plane to arrive. They had a two-hour flight to Atlanta, followed by a three-hour layover there before having to catch the seven-hour red-eye flight to Madrid. After a two-hour layover there, they would take another four-hour flight to Cairo. All in all, an eighteen-hour journey. Adding in the eight-hour time differential meant they would arrive in Cairo at one o'clock two days later.
"You know, that's just wrong," Ruben said, shaking his head as Jay finished relating his computations. "Seriously. Jesse couldn't find us a nonstop flight?"
"Maybe he was worried about us developing blood clots and dying from sitting so long," Jay reasoned.
"Wouldn't that be all the more reason to put us on a nonstop flight?"
The plane taxied in and a few minutes after that, Jay and Ruben boarded. "I hope there are some cute stewardesses," Ruben muttered to Jay as they took their seats in the crowded first-class area.
"I hope there's an in-flight movie," Jay retorted.
"Yeah? Well, I hope there're some cute flight attendants!"
"Oh, yeah? Well, I hope there's an in-flight movie!"
"Excuse me, gentlemen," a female voice said from next to them.
Jay and Ruben stopped their argument to turn and look at her. It was a cute flight attendant.
"As soon as we lift off, we'll start showing our movie."
They settled back for the flight.
"It's about time!" Ruben exclaimed as the plane touched down.
Jay nodded in agreement. "It certainly was a long flight."
"Yeah," Ruben said as they entered the airport whose name they couldn't even pronounce, much less remember. "Those seats may have been comfortable, but after a few hours your butt really starts to hurt."
"How crass!" Jay declared.
Ruben shrugged. "Can't help it."
The airport was very busy.
Forty-five minutes later, Ruben turned to Jay in the customs line. "How much longer is this going to take, anyway?"
Jay shrugged. He craned his neck to try to see the front of the line and was unsuccessful. Sean and Jesse had managed to pick the single busiest airport in all of Cairo, it seemed. And at one in the morning, no less.
"I was planning on recovering from the flight as soon as we got to the hotel," Ruben stated. "Now it looks like I'm going to have to recover from this line."
Ruben unlocked the door to their hotel room. He heaved his luggage into the closet and then proceeded to collapse onto the bed. Three hours getting processed through the airport was totally unnecessary in his book. A couple of minutes later, he heard Jay come into the room, sling his suitcases into another closet, and collapse onto the other bed in the room. Jay groaned.
"Fun day," Ruben said. It was four-thirty in the morning.
"The day hasn't even started yet," Jay noted.
"Semantics," Ruben responded.
Jay nodded wearily.
"Do you think the desk clerk thought we were gay?" Ruben asked.
Jay nodded wearily.
"Ah, well. Good night. See you tomorrow," Ruben said.
Jay nodded wearily.
Ruben killed the dim lights in the room and felt consciousness quickly slip away.
"What a beautiful day!"
Ruben opened his eyes groggily. Jay was standing in front of the window with the shades open. Light flooded through the window. It assaulted Ruben's eyes and gave him an instant pounding headache, equivalent to a very bad hangover. Ruben shaded his eyes and let them adapt to the light. As they did so, he noticed that it was overcast outside. He didn't think that was normal in Egypt. But, what do I know, anyway? "It isn't even sunny outside," Ruben complained. He was not a morning person. He wasn't even a noon person.
"All the better," Jay claimed with a smile.
"Says you," Ruben muttered as he stumbled into the bathroom to take a shower.
When he got done and left the bathroom, he found Jay sitting in a chair with the television on. "You wouldn't believe how difficult it is to watch TV when you don't know the language."
"I believe it," Ruben said. He sat and watched the TV, as well, intrigued by the incomprehensible program. "By the way," he said to Jay after one particularly weird commercial, "I've been meaning to ask you something."
"Well, how exactly you're planning on finding this Hassan woman."
"Good question," Jay said. He shook his head. "I have no idea."
"Great. What do you propose we do, then? Wander around the streets shouting her name and hope that she responds?" Ruben said sarcastically.
Jay's eyes widened. "There's an idea!" he exclaimed.
"Guess we could have been thinking about this on the way here, huh?" Jay asked.
"Oh, I don't know," Ruben said. "We didn't have all that much time."
Jay grinned. "How about we ask around at the colleges and universities and places like that?" Jay asked. "I would think that someone like her would be easy enough to remember."
"Yeah," Ruben said, picking up on Jay's train of thought. "If she's not a professor, or something, then the professors at the school she went to would probably remember her. I seem to remember that she was an exceptional student."
"She was. And around here it still isn't, for college, all that common to see the women," Jay pointed out.
"Right." Ruben frowned. He looked up at Jay, his head cocked slightly to one side. "That last sentence . . . ?"
Jay shook his head and waved his hand. "Very bad construction. Forget it."
Ruben shrugged. Then his eyebrows rose. "Plus, we don't have to wander around looking for the right college." He took out the hard copy of the information. "We know where she went!"
Jay smiled. "Convenient."
"This should be really easy."
Jay nodded, smiling.
"We'll probably be out of this place in no time," Ruben said, leaning back and smiling.
"First things first," Jay said as he and Ruben ambled along the avenue.
"And what would that first thing be?" Ruben asked.
Jay stopped along the edge of the street and faced Ruben. Around them, literally hundreds of people were taking advantage of the daylight hours and doing their work. Dozens of animals pulling carts ricketed along the narrow, unpaved street. Their masters absently pushed them along, looking at the pale newcomers in this rundown part of Egypt's capital city. Nearly all of the people on the street around them were men; the few women there were obvious from their black robes and veiled faces.
"Well?" Ruben prompted.
Jay shook his head. "Sorry. I was just thinking in area descriptions."
"You mean, as if you were writing a story and describing the area around you?" Ruben asked.
"Exactly. But, the first thing. Think for a second." Jay gave Ruben time to think for a second before going on. Ruben continued to look at him blankly. "We are Americans. We speak English. They are Egyptians. Arabs. They speak . . . ."
Understanding dawned suddenly on Ruben. "Un intérprete."
"Sí. I mean, yes." Jay paused. "I knew that."
Ruben nodded. "Of course. You know, I mentioned that to you before we left." He took a deep breath and shrugged. "So, we find an interpreter."
"But of course."
"So, where do we find an interpreter?"
Jay shrugged. Then he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned around. A short, squat, swarthy man stood there. "Yes?"
"I was looking upon you and was thinking unto myself: 'They are looking like they are needing some help.' So I was coming over here to be helping you," the man said with a thick, stereotypical accent.
"What kind of help?" Ruben asked, his eyes narrowing in suspicion.
The man beamed. "I am being able to be speaking English and Arabic both."
"That's debatable," Ruben said.
"So?" Jay asked.
Ruben smacked him on the shoulder.
"We need an interpreter," Ruben muttered out of the corner of his mouth, keeping a smile fixed on his face.
"But don't show weakness."
"Why not?" Jay asked.
"We don't want to lose our air of American superiority. Americans are really admired in the Arab world, you know."
"I didn't know that. Are you sure?"
"Positive," Ruben assured Jay. "This guy obviously realizes that already. And besides-"
"We need an interpreter," Jay finished.
"I really wish you'd stop doing that," Ruben said.
"Sentences? Sorry." Jay turned to the small man. "We'd like to hire you as an interpreter."
"That is being terrific," the man said, smiling. "How much will you be paying me?"
Jay groaned. He couldn't exactly remember what the current exchange rate was between the American dollar and the Egyptian pound. "Is five hundred pounds a day all right?"
The man's foolish grin widened. "That is being just fine! What can I be doing for you?"
Jay inwardly groaned. Evidently the exchange rate wasn't quite what he had thought. Then he inwardly shrugged. They weren't paying for it anyway; Checkwolf was. He inwardly smiled. It was okay after all.
"Psst," Ruben said.
Jay looked at him. "What?"
"Doesn't this guy sound more like he's from India than Egypt?"
"What do you know about what people from India and Egypt are supposed to sound like?"
"I watch a lot of TV."
"First," Jay said, speaking to the man, and ignoring Ruben, "what's your name?"
"My name is Abdul Abdul al-Abdulla. But you can be calling me Ed."
"Ed?" Jay and Ruben asked simultaneously.
"Just kidding, of course. For short, I am Abdul."
"Okay, Abdul," Ruben said warily. "If that is your name. That's an awfully repetitive name you've got there."
"My parents were being awfully repetitive people," Abdul explained.
"Well," Jay said cheerily. "That clears that up. We're going to Cairo University, Abdul."
"Yes, well, that is being on opposite side of city."
"Do we have to walk the whole way?" Ruben asked Jay.
Abdul overheard. "No, no! Of course not! We are living in a civilized city. We are having taxicabs." He led them off of the meandering, narrow, people-packed, smelly, unpaved avenue. One block north was a major highway.
While Ruben and Jay inwardly groaned, Abdul hailed a cab. He found one instantly and they piled in. "Cairo University," Jay said as he shut the door. All three of them were crammed into the backseat of the tiny cab. "Good thing I'm collapsible," he muttered to Ruben.
Ruben tried to take a deep breath. "Good thing I'm claustrophobic."
The driver turned around and asked something in some totally unintelligible tongue. Abdul leaned forward and replied in the same language, evidently Arabic. The cabdriver nodded and pulled away from the curb. They drove through the thick traffic for two hours before even reaching the Nile. They crossed it on 6th October Street and continued parallel to the river down An-Nil Street to the University. After another half hour they finally pulled into Cairo University.
The driver stopped the cab in front of the visitors' center. He mumbled something incoherent.
Abdul turned to them. "He is wanting to be paid." Jay dug into his pockets for his Egyptian money and handed a sheaf of it to Abdul. Abdul took the appropriate amount and gave it to the driver. After the cab pulled away, Abdul handed the rest of it back to Jay. "Let it never be being said that Abdul is not being honest," Abdul said with a toothy grin.
"Come on," Ruben urged. "Let's move it. We're losing daylight."
Jay looked up. The sun was indeed dipping ever closer to the horizon. The late afternoon was beginning to cast ever-lengthening shadows across the campus of the university, while at the same time starting to reduce the heat that seemed oppressive to Jay, having come from the winter wonderland that was Kewanee. As Jay finished his slow three-hundred-sixty degree pan, he noted that Ruben and Abdul had already gone into the visitors' center. Jay sprinted to catch up.
Ruben started taking the lead. "C'mere, Abdul."
Abdul obediently walked over to Ruben.
"Ask where the computer lab is."
"Very well," Abdul said with a nod. He conversed in the Arabic tongue with the man behind the counter. The employee nodded and pulled out a map, showing it to Abdul. Abdul studied it intently and then nodded to himself. He spoke a few more words to the man before bowing his head slightly and turning back to Ruben and Jay.
Ruben tapped his foot impatiently. "Well?"
"Follow me," Abdul beckoned.
Ruben looked to Jay.
Ruben shrugged back and they both fell into step behind Abdul. They crossed the campus in silence. Abdul led them into a squat, one-story building, a building that bore more than a passing resemblance to Abdul himself. They passed several rooms with classes going on in them. Reminds me of my school days, Ruben thought. Lovely memories, those.
Eventually they came to a place that Ruben took to be the director's office. They entered. Abdul greeted the director heartily. Then, after speaking for a while in Arabic, they both turned expectantly to Ruben and Jay.
After the silence had drawn on long enough to become uncomfortable, Ruben spoke up. "Tell him we're looking for a former student."
Abdul relayed the message, received the response. "Who?"
Ruben directed his comments at the director. He glanced quickly at Jay. Jay nodded for him to go ahead. "We're looking for a woman by the name of Nai Hassan. She graduated four years ago. We thought you might know where she is."
The director listened to the translation, made a brief reply, and then retreated into his office.
"What's going on?" Jay asked.
"He is checking his records," Abdul stated. "We are to be waiting here."
Jay shrugged and leaned against the wall.
Ruben waited impatiently.
A few minutes later, the director returned with a paper in hand. He read a few lines from it, which Abdul translated. "She was being an exceptional student. He is not knowing where she is living now, but he is still having the address of the place where her parents used to be living."
"Good enough for me," Ruben said.
"Me, too," Jay concurred.
Abdul took down the address and made some closing statements to the director. Conspiratorially, he whispered another comment and both men burst out laughing. Ruben and Jay just glared at him. Eventually he stopped laughing, bowed quickly, and followed them out of the office. The director's laughter followed them down the corridor.
"What did you say to him?" Ruben asked.
"It is being nothing," Abdul said, smiling.
Abdul hailed another taxi when they returned to the street. They got in. "Where are we going now?" Abdul asked.
Jay considered that. He glanced down at the address on the slip of paper from the director. Taking the traffic in Cairo into consideration, by the time they hunted these people down, it would probably be evening. "At this point, it would probably be best to just return to our hotel," Jay told Abdul.
"And what is the name of your hotel being?"
"I can't pronounce it," Jay said, pulling out his wallet. He took a card out of it and handed it to Abdul. "There's where we're staying."
Abdul's eyebrows shot up and his eyes grew very large. "Maybe you should be paying me more than you are now, if you are being able to be staying in this hotel."
"I think you're being paid plenty," Ruben commented.
Abdul shrugged. He told the cabdriver where to go. The driver nodded and entered the steady flow of traffic. Ruben leaned back and closed his eyes.
"Ruben, wake up."
Ruben opened his eyes. "What is it? I just fell asleep."
Jay grinned. "Yeah, three hours ago."
"Hm. Well, come to think of it, it's a lot darker now than it was. Whatever. Are we here?"
Ruben opened the door and got out. He noticed that Abdul wasn't with them. He turned to Jay, who was busy trying to figure out how much to pay the cabdriver. "Where's Abdul?" Ruben asked.
Jay handed the driver the cash. He then straightened and turned to Ruben. "We dropped him off somewhere an hour or so ago. He's going to be here tomorrow morning to help us some more."
Ruben and Jay turned and entered the large hotel. It was eleven stories tall and had over seven hundred rooms. They were in one of the larger rooms, up on the top floor. They stood patiently waiting for the elevator. Eventually, after what seemed to Ruben like about three and a half eternities, it arrived.
They waited patiently as the elevator emptied its load of people. They got in and rode it to the top. After Ruben and Jay got into their room, Jay collapsed on his bed and fell asleep. Ruben, on the other hand, decided to go down to the pool for some laps.
He changed into his swim trunks, put on a T-shirt, grabbed a towel, stepped into some flip-flops, and headed for the downstairs. He waited for an interminable amount of time for the elevator to arrive. When it finally did, Ruben stepped in and then rode it down to the ground floor. He got out and checked the map of the hotel. Several people glanced curiously at him. He looked for someplace that a pool room might be, but couldn't find one.
After searching the map for five minutes or more, he went to the main desk. "Is there someone here that speaks English?" he asked slowly.
"Yeah, I can," the man that he was talking to told him.
"Oh. Okay. Where's the pool room?"
"You mean swimming pool?"
"Yes. Swimming pool."
"We don't have one."
"You don't have one?"
"We don't have one."
"You don't have one?"
"We don't have one!"
"All right. Why not?"
"Water is expensive in a desert."
"You practically live in the Nile," Ruben pointed out.
The clerk shrugged.
"Fine," Ruben said, trudging back to the elevator. Then, he thought better of it and took the stairs instead. He ran up the stairs and returned to the room. He entered the bathroom and filled the bathtub with lukewarm water. He then lowered himself into the water and leaned back, washing off the day's grime.
Jay was awakened by a light knock on the door. He stumbled out of bed and opened the door. "Yeah?"
Abdul was standing there. He had a sickly pallor about him.
"Oh, man. What is it?" Jay asked, even though he was pretty sure what it was.
"I am being very sickly," Abdul said. "I am not being able to help you anymore. I am being very sorry."
"I imagine so." Jay knew that only a very bad sickness would keep Abdul from interpreting for them; they were paying him a veritable fortune. Abdul would be a fool to pass that up. He'd have to be almost as much of a fool as the one that was paying it.
"I am saying goodbye now," Abdul said morosely with a sickly wave.
Jay returned the wave. He watched as Abdul stumbled off down the hall. He closed the door, aggravated. This isn't good at all. He checked his watch. Eleven past seven. He yawned and stepped into the bathroom to take a long, leisurely bath. As he sank down into the water, Jay started thinking. This might not be so bad. We can probably find Miss Hassan's family without an interpreter. We can get directions to their place from the desk downstairs, rent a car, drive there ourselves. Jay smiled. Plus, we don't have to deal with Abdul. The idea kept sounding better and better.
Jay and Ruben walked down the street. It was, surprisingly, not a quiet neighborhood.
The Hassan residence turned out to be just three blocks from the hotel. They'd decided to walk.
Suddenly, three youths appeared in front of them. They ordered them to do something. "What?" Jay asked.
"Tell them we're Americans," Ruben muttered.
"We're Americans," Jay said, smiling. "Don't hurt us."
"Americans!" one youth yelled loudly, sounding outraged. Suddenly, the youths' looks turned menacing. They took out knives and started advancing on Ruben and Jay.
"Uh, maybe that wasn't the right thing to say after all," Jay said, backing away. "Are there any vehicles in the area?" he asked, trying to keep a smile on his face.
Ruben turned his head and looked casually behind him. "Yeah, there's one unattended jeep about thirty or forty feet directly behind us."
Jay nodded. They continued backing away.
The hoodlums continued advancing.
"Now!" Jay exclaimed. Both he and Ruben turned tail and hightailed it to the jeep that Ruben had spotted. Ruben quickly slid into the driver's seat. Jay jumped up on the hood of the jeep. Ruben hotwired it, starting the engine. Jay jumped over the windshield and dropped into the passenger seat. "Go! Go!" he yelled. Ruben stomped on the accelerator and slammed Jay back in his seat.
Jay turned and looked behind them. The three kids had gotten into a rundown car and were in hot pursuit. As Jay watched them gaining, he kept swaying from side to side every couple seconds. After a little while, he started getting nauseated, so he turned and sat facing forward. Or, more accurately, he fell and sat facing forward. "Where did you learn to drive, anyway?" he asked as Ruben jerked the wheel back and forth to avoid hitting pedestrians, animals, and various carts.
Ruben did not deign to answer that question.
Jay looked backward again, trying to keep his balance. The other car wasn't gaining on them anymore, but they weren't losing ground, either. "Can you lose these guys?" Jay asked Ruben as he faced front again.
Ruben glanced in his rearview mirror, then shot a glance at Jay. He grinned. "What do you think?"
"I'd like to think 'yes'."
Ruben grinned wickedly. "Just watch me." He glanced around at the street ahead of them. "Hold on," he ordered.
Jay knew from riding with Ruben before that when he said to hold on, you held on. Sure enough, a few seconds later, Ruben yanked the steering wheel hard to the left and banked around a one hundred twenty degree corner, popping over the curb as he did so. He straightened the jeep and applied more speed.
Jay glanced backward again. "That gave us a little more of a lead. Good job."
"Thanks," Ruben said. They sped over the Nile on the southernmost bridge in the city. He glanced up at his mirror again. "They're gaining again."
"Impossible," Jay said, turning to look for himself. "All right. Not impossible. They must really be determined, to come after us that fast in that piece of crap."
Jay turned and looked at Ruben. "In other words, they must really not like us. Or, maybe, they just really don't like any Americans. Which, of course, would be completely contrary to what you thought."
Ruben shrugged as they passed out of the city limits. He accelerated to over one hundred kilometers per hour. "Sue me."
"I'll smack you upside the head, instead. How about that?"
"Not while I'm driving, please."
They rode in silence for a few moments. "They're gaining again," Ruben said quietly.
"So, why exactly do you keep telling me this? What am I supposed to do about it?" Jay asked.
"I'm just telling you so that you know why I keep going faster."
They rode in silence. Except, of course, for the roar of the jeep's engine as it strained to keep their speed at one-fifty. "So, what's the plan?" Jay asked, pulling a map of the area out from underneath his seat.
"I was going to pull off the road soon and try to double back."
"Well, you might want to wait for a few more miles."
"Why?" Ruben asked as he passed yet another car on the four-lane highway.
"Well, this al-Muhit Canal is coming up here pretty soon. I think this is the only road that crosses it. At least, the only road in the vicinity." Jay shrugged. "You might as well wait until we cross it."
Ruben nodded. "Then I'll have the entire Sahara to lose them in."
"I don't think it'll come to that."
"You hope it won't come to that."
"Right," Jay said. He looked to his left. "Look!" he exclaimed, pointing to three structures near the horizon, and coming ever nearer. "The pyramids!"
"Great," Ruben said. "Very nice." He concentrated on his driving and the slower-moving traffic around him.
"Still gaining?" Jay asked after a few more moments of silence.
"I thought you didn't want to know."
"No. They're staying pretty even with us." He pointed with one finger. "Here comes the canal." After crossing it, Ruben suddenly wrenched the steering wheel to the right and pulled off the road.
At one hundred fifty kilometers per hour.
Needless to say, the jeep rolled. In fact, it rolled seven times before it finally came to a stop on its wheels, bouncing slightly. "Ouch," Ruben said, stretching his neck muscles.
"Well, that was rather enjoyable," Jay said sarcastically. "You got some kind of death wish or something?" Jay tried to pop open the door on the jeep; it fell off instead. But that was no big deal. It had a new dent or two, or a hundred, anyway. "We lose our interpreter, we get chased across the city, we roll our, I mean, our stolen vehicle--what else could possibly go wrong?" Jay asked as he stepped out of the jeep. "Probably broke a rib," he muttered. Suddenly, he saw a glint of sun on metal and felt a blade against his throat. "I had to ask."
"Filthy stinking American pigs," the man with the knife muttered.
"You don't like us much, do you?" Jay asked.
"Filthy stinking American pigs," the man with the knife said again, pressing the blade more into the flesh of Jay's throat.
"Yeah, I caught that part," Jay joked, trying not to swallow lest he end up slicing himself.
"American pigs," Jay finished. "I get it already. But, do you get this?" he asked as he rammed his knee into the youth's gut and followed through with a hard left. The youth fell like a hundred seventy-seven pounds of bricks. His knife dropped from his hand. "I thought you would."
Jay then heard what sounded like a sharp exhalation of air, such as one would hear if one's breath were suddenly driven from one's lungs. Jay ran around the front of the jeep and saw the second youth drop to the ground. Ruben shook his hand slightly. "Hey, Jay! How're you doin'?" he asked.
"Terrific," Jay said distractedly. He thought he had heard a sound behind him. He then spun suddenly with his leg outstretched. He continued spinning, noticing with embarrassment that he missed the kid behind him by a good three feet. He landed face first in the sand. Ruben stepped forward and knocked aside the third youth's amateurish attack, then punched him in the face. The kid slammed into the hood of the jeep, then crumpled to the ground, pulling part of the fender down with him, out cold.
Ruben turned to Jay and helped him up. "Smooth, man. Very smooth."
"I guess the training room's good for something after all," Ruben said, looking at the kid. Then he glanced back at Jay, looking at the sand and dust all over Jay's front. "For some of us anyway."
"So what should we do with these guys?" Ruben asked, gesturing.
Jay shrugged. He hefted the nearest one, dragged him back to the piece of junk they had come in, and tossed him in. Gently, of course. Ruben shrugged and dragged the one he had sent into dreamland. He laid him in the backseat of the car. Jay then came over with the third one and set him in the car, as well. He then turned and headed back for the damaged jeep. "Think this thing still runs?" he called back over his shoulder.
Ruben glanced at the three unconscious would-be American killers. "What, are we just gonna leave these guys out here?" Ruben asked.
"They'll be okay."
"How do you know?" Ruben asked dubiously.
Jay stopped and looked back, as well. One was already starting to stir. "Look, one's already starting to stir."
"All right," Ruben said, shrugging.
Jay slid into the passenger seat of the jeep, not bothering to open the door, as it was no longer there. "So what do you think? Think it still runs?"
Ruben cautiously closed his own door, not wanting it to meet the same fate as Jay's door. "One way to find out." He reached down and tried to spark the engine again. It started right up. He grinned. "No problem."
Jay shook his head. "Lucky. This thing shouldn't have started again."
Ruben eased the jeep into drive and pulled close to the road, waiting for a break in traffic. "Actually, I think we're lucky that this thing didn't blow up."
Jay glanced at Ruben. "Look, maybe I should drive. Considering how well you did last time."
"I'm a much better driver than you could ever aspire to be, Jay," Ruben said.
"Maybe," Jay said. "But you weren't really convincing with that last stunt you pulled."
"Well," Ruben said, finding the break he was looking for and pulling into traffic, heading back to Cairo, "at least I didn't get us killed." He grinned. "That takes real skill."
Ruben pulled the speed of the jeep close to one hundred, worrying a little bit about the obscene sounds that came from numerous places on the vehicle. "So, what now?"
"I was thinking that we should take this, uh, borrowed vehicle back to its owner," Jay said. "After that, we still need to get over to the Hassans'."
"Sounds fine to me."
When Ruben pulled onto the street they had left just an hour before, they instantly saw an irate man standing in the approximate area that they had "uh, borrowed" the jeep. Ruben deduced that he was the owner of the jeep. He pulled into the driveway of the house that the man was standing in front of. He glanced over at Jay.
Jay was consulting a slip of paper. "You know . . . ," he started before trailing off.
"What," Ruben said, a note of dread entering his voice.
"You'd never believe this, but . . . ."
"This is where the Hassans live," Jay said, looking up at the irate man coming near them. He nodded his head.
Ruben smacked his forehead with the base of his palm. "I knew it!" he exclaimed. "Why would anything start working our way now, of all times?"
Jay continued nodding. He turned to Ruben. "Good job, there, Rube."
"Hey! Don't go pinning this on me!"
Jay raised an eyebrow. "Why not? It's your fault."
Ruben would have continued on a tirade had Mr. Hassan not approached the vehicle at that point on a tirade of his own. He was yelling at them in Arabic. Ruben held up his hands. Eventually, Hassan stopped yelling. "We're Amer . . . uh, we don't understand Arabic."
"Oh, you only speak English," Hassan said reasonably, in an unaccented voice.
"Well, we speak Spanish pretty well, too."
"By the wrath of Allah and the strength of his right hand!" Hassan screamed in English. "You stole my jeep and then destroyed it! My prized jeep!"
"Well, it does still run," Jay muttered.
"Uh, we can explain," Ruben tried to say.
"No, you cannot explain!" Hassan said over the top of him. Suddenly, he quieted down. Ruben saw that Hassan was looking past him. He followed his gaze and saw that he was looking at Jay. Jay was holding a large sheaf of money.
"Will this cover the damage?" Jay asked, offering the money.
Hassan took it and counted it.
While he did so, Ruben leaned over to Jay. "You sure are free with other people's money."
Jay grinned. "Yeah, I'm special that way."
"Yes, this should cover the cost of a new jeep just nicely," Hassan was saying. Ruben and Jay breathed a sigh of relief. "Would you like to come inside?" Hassan offered.
Ruben and Jay looked at each other and grinned. "Actually, yeah, we would," Jay said.
"Well, come in, then."
Jay shrugged at Ruben's glance. "I guess I must have given him more than enough money," Jay said as he reached for the handle.
"I guess so," Ruben agreed as he watched Jay lose his balance and fall out of the jeep. "Ouch. That looked like it hurt."
Upon entering the house, they were greeted by Hassan's wife. Interestingly, she was not veiled and wasn't even wearing a black robe. Or anything black, for that matter. She was dressed in a cotton T-shirt and blue jeans.
"Well, I can see that you are a very progressive family," Jay commented.
"Yes," Mrs. Hassan said. She smiled. "We appreciate all the money that you gave us."
Ruben glared at Jay. "You really need to get this exchange rate down."
"Now sit, sit," Mrs. Hassan said. "You've had a rough time of it, evidently."
"Yes," Mr. Hassan said, taking a seat himself. "Tell us all about it. How, exactly, did you destroy my jeep?"
Briefly, Jay outlined what had happened in the past hour.
"So, are you Americans?" Mr. Hassan asked innocently.
Jay and Ruben exchanged glances. Ruben cleared his throat and jerked his head in Mr. Hassan's direction. Jay elbowed him in the side. Ruben smiled widely. "Yes."
"Never identify yourselves as American in Arab countries," Mrs. Hassan suggested. "Arabs aren't too fond of Americans."
"You don't say," Jay said with a smile as he elbowed Ruben in the side again.
"So, why were you in the area, anyway?" Mr. Hassan asked, sipping at a steaming cup of . . . something or other.
"Oh!" Jay exclaimed. "I had almost forgotten. We're looking for your daughter, Nai," he said, smiling.
"For what reason?" Mrs. Hassan asked, her eyes narrowing with suspicion.
"We're from a police-type organization in America named Checkwolf," Ruben explained. "We were scouring the records of the world for possible new members and Nai headed the list. We came to see if she was interested in joining. Would you mind telling us where she is?"
"Do you have some identification?" Mr. Hassan asked.
"Sure," Jay said as he reached for his wallet, nudging Ruben to do the same. They both produced their Checkwolf badges. Jay handed his to Mrs. Hassan; Ruben handed his to Mr. Hassan. After looking them over, they exchanged them.
The Hassans exchanged glances. The husband shrugged. The wife looked back at Ruben. "Not at all," she said, smiling, handing Ruben his badge. "Istanbul."
"Excuse me?" Jay said. "Did you say 'Istanbul'? As in, Turkey?"
Mrs. Hassan nodded. "She moved there two years ago to be in a big communications firm there."
"So much for our up-to-date information," Ruben muttered.
"Well, could we possibly have her address in Istanbul, then?" Jay asked.
"Sure, I'll go get it for you," Mr. Hassan offered.
"That'd be great."
Mr. Hassan left the room briefly and returned less than a minute later with a slip of paper in his hand. He gave it to Ruben who, in turn, handed it to Jay.
"Thank you very much, sir," Jay said.
Mr. Hassan extended his hand and Jay grasped it. Ruben did the same. "No problem," Mr. Hassan said. "And thank you for the money for a new jeep. That one was a piece of junk."
Ruben looked at it again as they stepped through the threshold to the outdoors. "Yeah. If it was a piece of junk before, it's really trash now."
"Ah, Istanbul! A lovely city, if I do say so myself. And I do."
Ruben glared at Jay for his attempt at trying to get him out of his bad mood. "Leave me alone."
"Ooo, in a touchy mood today, are we?" Jay asked.
"Yeah, mostly because I know something's going to go wrong sometime soon," Ruben said.
"Well, I suppose a pessimist would look at it that way," Jay mused. "After the trouble of losing our interpreter, almost getting mugged, almost getting killed by those muggers, almost getting killed by your insane driving, trashing the, uh, borrowed vehicle of the very people we were trying to impress, and then finding out that the person we're looking for is now living hundreds of miles away, you could look at it that way." Jay smiled. "But, surely, things will turn around now," Jay said optimistically.
"Quit talking in plot summaries. I hate when people do that."
"Sorry. But it's been five days since we've had anything to do, and I'm ready and rarin' to go."
"You depress me," Ruben said sullenly.
Jay smiled back.
"Well, this is the address that her parents gave us," Jay said as he stood at the door of an apartment in a fifty-story high-rise. "I guess I should ring the bell." He pushed the doorbell.
Nobody came to the door.
He pushed it again.
Nobody came to the door.
"Does that thing even work?" Ruben asked.
"I heard it."
"Maybe you need to get your hearing checked."
"Just push it again."
"Just do it."
"She's not there."
"Maybe you didn't push it hard enough."
"I pushed it just fine."
"Just do it."
"Fine. I'll do it."
"You do that."
Ruben pushed the doorbell.
Nobody came to the door.
"How anticlimactic!" Jay exclaimed. "She's not even home!"
"Well, let's go back to our hotel and call next time we think she may be home," Ruben said. "Besides, they have a pool there and I'm dying to go swimming again."
"Well, by all means let's hurry, then."
"Does she ever come home?" Jay lamented.
"Calm down," Ruben suggested. He was lying on his double bed, wearing shorts, a short-sleeved shirt unbuttoned, sunglasses on, and was sipping a glass of good, old-fashioned lemonade.
Jay turned to him. "What's with the sunglasses and summer wear? Not only are we inside, but it's February! Even in the Middle East it's cold in February."
Ruben smiled enigmatically.
Jay shook his head. "We've been here for four days now! She hasn't come home once!"
"Maybe she's just home when you're not calling," Ruben suggested.
Ignoring him, Jay continued ranting. "If she just had an answering machine, we wouldn't have any problems. But, no-ooooo! She doesn't have an answering machine! Naturally. Why did I think she even would?"
"Maybe she's out drinking with friends."
"Shut up, Ruben."
"I warned you about this when we got here, but you wouldn't listen."
Jay cradled his face in his hands. "Have you ever heard of Murphy's Law?" he asked, his voice muffled through his hands. "And don't say, 'The show?'"
Ruben grinned and sipped his lemonade. "The show?"
Jay glared at Ruben. "I'm going to kill you in your sleep."
Ruben grinned. "By the way, the name of the show you're thinking of is 'Murphy Brown' not 'Murphy's Law'."
"No, there was a show called 'Murphy's Law'," Jay insisted. "I remember watching it."
Ruben contorted his face strangely in a mix of confusion and suspicion, then shrugged. "Eh, it was probably crap like most of the other stuff you watch."
"Whatever," Jay said. "Murphy's Law states that whatever can go wrong, will." He sighed. "If you took this little excursion of ours and made it into a story, that would probably be the most appropriate title for it."
"Either that or 'Terror in the Desert!'" Ruben said.
Jay ignored him.
"At least if you made it into a story, that would excuse the fact that you constantly think in area descriptions and plot summaries."
"Would you like me to feed you my elbow?"
"Well," Ruben pointed out, ignoring Jay's last comment. "Everything hasn't gone wrong."
Jay looked at him.
"For instance, our plane didn't crash and burn in the ocean and kill us."
"Don't give the universe any ideas."
"We haven't gotten ourselves killed."
"Fine. If you don't want to be consoled, at least quit your whining."
"I'm not whining."
"I'm complaining in a mature, adult way."
"Leave me alone."
"I'm going to the pool."
"Now you're sulking."
"Shut up," Jay said, shutting the door behind him as he left.
"Hello, my name is Jay Wayne and this in Ruben Dicéron. I assume you are Nai Hassan?"
The slight Arabic woman nodded. Nai Hassan was a slim, attractive woman approximately five feet two inches tall and no more than a hundred pounds. She had the traditional black Middle Eastern hair but her eyes were an uncommon sea blue in color.
"May we come in?" Ruben asked, following Jay's unnaturally long pause.
"Sure," Miss Hassan said, beckoning for them to enter.
"Area description?" Ruben asked Jay quietly.
"Shut your hole," Jay said, equally quietly.
"How can I help you two?" Hassan asked, shutting the door behind them.
"We're from Checkwolf, an organization based in America," Jay said. "We conducted a worldwide search for new members to help operate our large communications setup and your name headed up the list we came up with."
Hassan was startled. "Me?"
"For a variety of factors, Nai." Jay paused. "May I call you Nai?"
Hassan shrugged. "You may call me whatever you wish."
"All right, Whatever-You-Wish," Ruben said jokingly.
Nai glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, her expression clearly indicating that she wondered whether this man was crazy.
"Ignore my colleague," Jay said.
"For a variety of factors," he continued. "Foremost, though, is your degree in communications technology. Plus our records indicated that you have a high adaptability factor, something which would be essential to joining an organization such as ours."
"I guess I'm adaptable."
"Anyway," Ruben continued, "we're asking you if you'd like to join our organization."
"What do you people do, exactly?" Nai asked.
"Well, Checkwolf is an elite police force that patrols the area of Kewanee, Illinois," Ruben explained. "That wouldn't be your job, though. You, along with myself, Jay, and two other members, would comprise the home base crew. We work out of our communications room the vast majority of the time, working with varied communications equipment and other related things. You would join in that coordination work, along with us."
"Well put," Jay commented softly.
Nai was nodding as she considered. "You use current equipment?"
"Very," Ruben said. "We checked into your company and discovered that the equipment you're using is about three years behind what we've got. We're cutting edge."
Nai's eyes widened. "Really? Because the reason I moved here in the first place was to work with the newest equipment."
"You would have access to all of the newest equipment," Ruben said.
"The newest equipment," Jay added, because he felt he had to.
"What's the pay?" Nai asked.
"It ranges from twenty-five to thirty thousand dollars per year, which seems low, but we also have room and board, so all of the amenities are already covered, which jacks up the value of the offer another fifteen or twenty thousand. At least."
"What do you think?" Jay asked.
"Well, I will have to think about it," Nai said. "I'll check out your organization a little more in-depth through some other sources, if that would be all right?"
"That's perfectly fine."
"Would you like something to drink?" she asked.
"How about some brewskies?" Ruben asked.
"We'll take anything you have," Jay said.
Nai looked at him oddly.
"Whatever you would like to serve is fine," Ruben clarified.
Nai nodded. "I'll be right back."
Ruben glared at Jay. "We'll take anything you have? What was that?"
"It came out wrong."
A few moments later, Nai returned with a tray in hand. On it were two glasses of what looked like cola, along with the bottle it came from. "I brought this with me from Egypt," Nai explained.
Ruben and Jay grabbed the glasses and started drinking. It was quite tasty.
"This is uncommonly good!" Ruben exclaimed. "What's in it, Jay?" he asked.
Jay picked up the bottle while Ruben continued drinking. "Let's see. It's one hundred percent natural. No artificial colors or preservatives. The only cola flavored with . . . genuine . . . uh, essence of scarab beetle."
Ruben spit the liquid from his mouth. "What?" he exclaimed.
"Genuine essence of scarab beetle." Jay looked at Nai. "What, exactly, is genuine essence of scarab beetle?"
"I don't know," Nai admitted. "But it sure tastes good, doesn't it?"
"I guess so."
"By the way," Nai continued. "Ruben, is it? I would appreciate it if you'd clean up the mess you've made, please," Nai said nicely.
Ruben grumbled but nodded.
"We're finally on the way," Ruben said, smiling as he gazed out the window of the airplane.
Jay nodded. It had been nearly three weeks now since they had left Kewanee. It had taken Nai a long time to, first, make sure that Checkwolf was something she wanted to join, and then to wrap everything up. The Turkish communications outfit she had been with hadn't been too happy with losing such a brilliant mind. After that they had swung back by Cairo so she could say goodbye to her parents before continuing on to America.
"I say, 'We're finally on the way'," Ruben repeated.
Jay turned, brow furrowed, slightly confused. "Yeah?"
"Shut up." He turned to Nai. "You're absolutely positive that you're comfortable with all of this?" he asked her.
Nai turned to him. "For the millionth time, Jay, I love the idea."
"I was thinking," he said. "Considering how free you've been with Checkwolf's money this whole trip, do you think Sean's gonna be happy with you?"
Jay steepled his fingers. "No, I don't think so." He glanced at Ruben. "Will you protect me?"
Ruben chuckled. "Might as well ask me to commit suicide."
Jay, also chuckling, looked back to Nai. She was gripping the armrests, tense. "Are you all right, Nai?"
She nodded, a quick jerk of her head.
"Oh, it's nothing. I just don't like flying very much."
"Are you going to be sick?" Jay asked, reaching toward the back of the seat in front of her. "Cause they have little bags for that."
"No, I'll be fine," Nai said.
"You sure?" Jay asked, looking back to Nai.
Suddenly, a pained look came over Nai's face and she threw up all over Jay.
"Boy, you hate to see that happen," Ruben said, grinning.
"I'm so sorry," Nai said, wiping her mouth.
Jay tried his hardest not to be sick himself as he stood. "Not half as sorry as I am, I bet."
"I think they call that projectile vomiting," Ruben said.
Jay jumped up and ran toward the bathroom. When he passed the flight attendant, she practically dove out of his way. "Excuse me," he said.
Nai turned to Ruben. "Do you think he's mad at me?"
Ruben, though, was laughing harder than he'd laughed in weeks. "Who cares?" he gasped between convulsions of laughter. "That's the absolute funniest thing I've even seen!"
"Just wait until you see the size of this place," Jay said.
"Haven't I been waiting long enough as it is?" Nai asked.
"She's got a point, Jay."
"All right," Jay said, relenting with a smile. He opened the door to the cavernous comm room.
Nai dropped her bags and stared open-mouthed at all of the equipment. "Allah be praised," she said quietly. "This is simply amazing!"
"Yeah, it's pretty big," Sean said, shooting a brief grin at Ruben as he walked over to them.
"Sean Matts, Nai Hassan. And vice versa," Jay said, making the introductions.
"Mr. Matts," Nai said politely.
"Miss Hassan," Sean said, inclining his head. "Call me Sean; we're fairly informal around here. It's good to have another new member, especially one as brilliant and talented as you are, Nai." He turned to Ruben. "You want to show her to her room?"
"Sure," Ruben said.
Sean pointed to the large grid on the large monitor board. "Directly east of mine would be good."
"I'll help," Jay said.
"One second," Sean said, restraining Jay as Ruben and Nai turned to leave. "Why don't you come with me to my office? There's a little matter of funds that I need to discuss with you first."