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Sample Chapter: Alea Jacta Est

Chapter 1

Three years ago…

ERIK LARSSON SAT behind the wheel of his car, waiting at a red light.  It was just another Thursday afternoon for the rest of the world, but for him, it was another day without landing a job.

It had been two months since he and his fiancée Brin Hideyo had moved to Florida’s “Sun Coast” and he’d so far been unsuccessful in finding a way to help pay the bills.  He knew it wasn’t for lack of trying, but it depressed him nonetheless.

Brin had been recruited the previous winter by a big pharmaceutical company and when the two had earned their degrees she had been ready to start work.  Erik planned to start school for a master’s in teaching come September.  Everyone back home told him he could find work as a substitute teacher in the meantime.

A small beep brought him out of his own self-pity.  The orange “Service Engine Soon” light had just come to life on the dashboard.  Again.  Erik sighed.   For the second time in as many weeks, the car begged to be taken to a service station.  The last trip had cost him $500 for a fuel injector cleaning.  He bit back the comment he was about to make about the car.

Oh well.  That’s what credit cards are for.

Erik sighed again.  The red light finally turned green and he could  continue on his way to the local Wal-Mart.   He had a list of things they needed for the new apartment and he and Brin simply could not deal without this stuff any longer.  The car was just going to have to wait its turn.

He thought once again how strange it was that she was out working while he stayed home to clean and tidy up the apartment, get the groceries and cook.  The role reversal seemed strange at times and:  it was a little unnerving, but at least they didn’t have any friends that would require explanations, yet.

I’m domesticated, Erik thought as he pulled into the parking lot.  When he found a space and pulled in, he reached to turn off the radio.  Erik had been listening—somewhat—to the local AM conservative talk show host, Andrew Hide.

Hide was lambasting someone in California about the pathetic state of political affairs.  The radio suddenly went silent.  Erik’s hand hadn’t touched the radio dial yet.  The car was still rumbling in idle, cool A/C blowing against his face.  He looked around the parking lot for a few seconds, waiting.  Nothing.  He looked at the time on the clock—4:17pm.

“Okaaay.”  He switched to another station, this one from Tampa.  Erik hadn’t heard this show before, but the guy was talking about liberals in California.  The host stopped mid-sentence and started talking about some sort of power outage reported in New York.  The man wondered why none of the TV superpowers—CNN, MSNBC, or FOX—were covering the breaking story yet.  He quickly wondered aloud if terrorism might be involved.

Erik held his breath and switched back to Hide’s show.  Still nothing.  Just as he was about to switch back to the other station, Hide came back on:

“—so we can see again.  I don’t know if you can tell me if we’re on the air or not?  I don’t know either…okay, well folks, if you can hear me, the lights here in Manhattan just went out and we’ve lost power, but thanks to a back-up generator, we do have emergency lights.  I don’t know if we’re still broadcasting or not—hey, Mike, do we still have the ex-governor on line four?  No?  Well, see if you can get him back…”  

Fascinated, Erik listened to the show while the host talked with producers.  They didn’t know they were still on the air.  Erik leaned in toward the radio to listen.  He ignored the curious looks of people as they walked toward the store.  Erik was raised in Upstate New York, so no matter where he was in the country, he still paid attention when the Big Apple was mentioned.  It was a habit.

Erik sat for a few more tense, speculation-filled minutes.  No one knew what had happened or why and the facts trickled in frustratingly slow. Lower Manhattan was out…there was a fire at a power plant somewhere near New York City.  No, it was in up-state New York.  Now all of Manhattan was out—reports were coming in that part of Greater New York was out…then parts of New Jersey as well.

The last time something like this had happened was back in 2003 and before that, September 11, 2001.  The same dark feeling in the pit of his stomach from those dangerous times returned on this sunny day in southern Florida.

His first thoughts now, like then, were about his family.  Where were they—were they safe?  Everyone had been well away from the City: mom and dad at their cabin on Lake Champlain, his sister in Virginia at grad school.   Today was much the same.  His parents were still deep Upstate.  His sister—now married—lived in Maryland.

Erik had an overwhelming urge to get home.  He wanted to see the news on TV.  He had to get inside and shut the doors, seal himself in some place secure.  I must have lived in a castle or something in a previous life.

He focused on what was being said over the radio.  Nothing was mentioned of smoke or fires or attacks or anything.  The rational part of his mind convinced Erik to just go do his shopping and head home.  By then, he figured, someone may know something useful and the news channels would have video of the unfolding drama.

Wow, am I that far gone that this is exciting to me?  I need to find a job.

Erik quickly went down his shopping list and picked up the cleaning supplies, food, and printer paper he needed, then almost ran to his car.  The news was pretty much the same, but just about every radio station was talking about it now, including the sports talk programs.  He drove home listening to updates, waiting for the other shoe to drop; waiting for someone to say it was a terrorist attack.  He couldn’t imagine what it must feel like to be in downtown New York at that moment.

Erik pulled into the parking lot of his apartment on the other side of town.  He passed workers installing a big brick pedestal sign that read ‘Colonial Gardens’.  The apartment complex was only a little over halfway built, so he drove slow.  There was always a chance the construction workers might leave a random nail or something on the ground, ready to puncture a tire.  Luckily the buildings around their apartment were complete.  Only the three big multi-story buildings on the south side of the complex and the one in the middle were still under construction.
He put the old Buick in park and listened to the news.  The power was out as far away as Detroit and Cincinnati—even parts of Canada were affected.  Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. were spared, as was Chicago, but just about everything in between and north was knocked off-line.

Erik whistled at the sheer magnitude of the power outage, then grabbed his stuff and went inside.  Erik felt guilty looking forward to this bit of morbid ‘entertainment’, but, it was too early for football and nobody cared about hockey this far south.

He had a stocked fridge, all the snacks and beer he needed, a comfortable couch, and an exciting news story.  Brin was out of town on her training trip, so job or no job, his evening was set.

***

THANKS BE TO Allah,” said Hakim Sharif Hassan as he smiled at the television.  He sat in his air conditioned apartment in one of the sections of Chicago which most decent people tried to avoid.  At this moment, he loved it.   The young man from Iran watched the incessant news reports about the Great Blackout with barely contained glee.

“Now you Imperialist dogs will know what it is to be hot,” he commented sourly, thinking of his family back home.  They had no air conditioner like the one that spewed arctic air into his room.  Hakim’s mother and sisters suffered through heat and cold on a daily basis, isolated as they were in the mountainous highlands of old Persia.

He had assured their survival when he’d joined the Fist of the Jihad—a splinter cell of Al Qaeda. The majority of its operatives lived as sleeper cells in the United States and other Satan-worshiping western nations.   When he completed his mission, his family would never want for anything, ever again.

The Fist took care of its own.  When a Brother of the Fist was killed or sacrificed himself in the name of Allah, the Brother’s family received generous donations from concerned benefactors.  The Fist had many connections and almost as many financial pipelines as Al Qaeda itself.
There were a lot of people out there besides Al Qaeda who would like to see America fall from its high horse.  Communists.  Anarchists.  Neo-Fascists.  The list was nearly endless.  They all contributed, then let the operatives of the Fist take the heat.

That was fine by Hakim.  He’d be happy to take the glory—the cash that went with it wasn’t bad, either.

When the Holy Osama had wrought destruction upon the Twin Evils in New York City, the Fist was there.  Five of the hijackers were sworn members of the Fist.  Hakim only lamented the fact that he himself was not chosen to fly one of the planes right down the Americans’ throats on that glorious day of vengeance.  His family could be living in a palace right now.

The current news channel put up a graphic of the affected areas, then began to criticize the government for allowing the U.S. power grid to be controlled by only three main power hubs.  One for the East, one for the West, and one in Texas.  If a hub failed, as evidently it had in New York, the potential for the entire grid it served to fail was enormous.  Hakim stared in wonder at the graphic for a second before grabbing a wrinkled, half-used pad of paper and a dull pencil.  He quickly scratched down notes.

Praise Allah!  The stupid Americans were actually telling him what had happened, how, and what might happen in the future if one or more grids went down.  The fools handed him all the information he needed.

Hakim was downright giddy by the time the news channel went to a commercial.  “Thank you, CNN,” he said reverently.

An idea formed in his head.  This revelation that America was divided into three large grids, with three main hubs to control everything…it was pure Divine intervention.

“Allah is great!”  He retrieved a cold beer from the beat up fridge.  He looked at the can for a second, a pang of guilt reverberating through his mind.  “What the Imam does not know, cannot insult him.  I am of the Fist…I am above rules, for my life is sacred to Allah,” he said in a mockery of his swearing in oath.  He convinced himself once again that what he was about to do was perfectly acceptable to his Islamic teachings.  He quickly drained the watery American beer and pitched the empty can to the corner of the kitchen.

Behind him, in the living room, CNN had gone back to New York, showing scenes of unlit buildings looming above millions of people crowding the streets in an effort to get out of the city.  Hakim ached to see a bomb go off—even just a small one—in the middle of all those people.  A single man with some C4 could slay hundreds, then thousands more in the subsequent stampede.  Hakim sat back in his chair and sighed over missed opportunities.   He hoped his brothers in arms were paying attention.

Night was falling in New York City, without power on one of the hottest days of the year.  In the post 9-11 world, the reporter was saying, people were more apt to panic and get out of town than wait for the lights to come back on.  Speculation mounted about when the looting and violence might start.

“You swine automatically assume the worst in your own people.  No wonder this country is so polluted that other nations choke on your fumes,” Hakim said, sipping his second beer.  Details mattered little to Hakim when it came to his religious belief and world view.  After all, Allah was with Islam, so Allah must be against everyone else, no?  People who refused to accept this Truth were fools and deserved no mercy.
Hakim finished his second beer and tossed the empty can over his shoulder to rattle on the floor.  He wiped the froth from his jet black mustache.  For a second, he considered shaving it, but no—his Imam demanded facial hair.  That was what he had always been taught Allah wanted as well.  But now…

Over the next few days, Hakim watched the news almost every minute he was awake.  He listened to the reports: which plant went down when and how that had caused the next line to shut down.  Before long, the whole interconnected monstrosity strangled itself and shut down.
He visited the local internet café rather than use his own computer and compared notes with his handler on a weekly basis.  He never spent too much time there because of a poster tacked to the wall by the exit.  It had four words on it in block letters:

See Something?  Say Something.

That was plenty enough warning to work fast.  He could not risk an investigation.  From the café, he conducted research as carefully as he could, using multiple accounts and a trick he learned in Iran on how to bounce his IP address off different servers to confuse anyone trying to trace him.

Power had by now been returned to most of the affected areas.    People were all too willing to go online and vent their frustrations at the public utilities over slow response times.  He sifted through complaints in New York City about how thinly spread the police forces had been.  He took note of the fact that most of the time, the police were driving around with their lights on to reassure the public and not hunting criminals.

Hakim wrote everything down on a yellow legal pad.  He didn’t chance printing materials from the café computer.  Handwritten notes could not be traced by anyone.

He was disappointed that there hadn’t been large-scale looting and rioting, but comforted by the fact that everyone feared that possibility and most commentators were even surprised when it did not occur.  Hakim had cursed often over the previous few days as the power was restored, bit by bit.

Fifty million Americans without power—all because one power plant, located in Canada, New York, or Ohio had overloaded.  That was the general consensus three days later.  No one was sure what started it, but those three regions were the prime suspects.  Terrorism was ruled out almost from the start, and rather smugly at that, Hakim thought.   He found it amusing that even now, so long after the attack, Americans were still jittery at the memories of 9-11.

A real nation would have learned an important lesson and made itself stronger and used the images of that day to redouble its resolve.  You people are weak.  Soft.  You try to forget what happened so you can sleep better at night.  Fools.   He flashed a contemptuous smirk at the screen and continued reading articles.

Even while officials confirmed it wasn’t terrorism, they admitted they didn’t know the cause of the blackout.  Hakim found that very amusing.  If they didn’t know the cause, how could they rule out terrorism so fast?  Everything was geared to keeping the populace calm and unworried.  It all went back to the fear or rioting and general unrest, he figured.

Terrorism, indeed.  Hakim smiled and looked at his stack of yellow legal pads.  His was a righteous cause, a crusade, a jihad—not mere terrorism.  But if the Americans wanted terrorism, he’d give it to them.  He picked up his pre-paid cell phone and made a short call.

“Hey, Bob!  How ya doin’?”  He asked cheerfully.  His mid-west accent was flawless.

“Great, John!  What’s up?”   The voice on the other end could easily have been found in any suburb in the nation.  Just a regular guy, relaxing in a hammock in the back yard with a glass of iced tea.

“Got some good news for you,” said Hakim, glancing at his notes.

“Great!  You going to the game tonight after all?”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” said Hakim before hanging up.  He laughed out loud at the ease of it all.  His plan was set in motion.

Now, to start a truce.  We will need allies.  It all balanced on whether or not he could get help in his fight.  He felt they were ripe for the picking, yet needed a little more convincing.  He got up and closed the browser, then walked out of the cafe with a smile for the girl behind the counter.  Outside the internet cafe, Hakim blinked in the sunlight and casually dropped his cell phone in the first trash can he found on the way home.

Hakim headed down the street toward his just-above-slum-level apartment.  With a three-day beard and half a cigarette in his mouth, ratty jeans, and a plain white tank top undershirt, he rounded the corner into the steamy Chicago summer sun.  He tucked the notepad as carelessly as he could under his arm and tried to affect the air of one who had no cares at all.  He looked just like anyone else in this depressing neighborhood of inequity and sin.  Just as he had expected, only a few blocks away, he found his dealer.

“Hakim, my man!” said the black youth by way of greeting.  Hakim figured him at no more than 16 or 17 years of age.  They slapped hands and shared cigarettes.

“What is happening, my friend?” asked Hakim, forcing his Middle Eastern accent for the amusement of the young drug dealer.  Americans always thought it sounded funny and innocent .   “You have the smack-down, yes?”

“No, man, it’s just smack,” laughed the teenager.  He casually reached into the paper bag next to him on the row house steps and handed over a dime bag.  “You goin’ to school?” he asked with a nod at Hakim’s notepad.

Hakim started to explain but Tahru pulled out a fancy cell phone and began to type a text.  Hakim frowned.

The rudeness of American youth was stunning.  In Iran, the boy would be beaten halfway to death for such an insult.  It was clear Tahru didn’t give a rat’s ass about the ignorant Arab immigrant before him.  Hakim babbled on about taking a class in English as a second language.   It made him sound harmless.  What is the word—rube?  Yes.  The boy thinks I am a rube.

Hakim finished speaking and took a long, slow drag on his cigarette.  He looked up the street and pretended he didn’t care that Tahru was reading a message and not paying attention him.  If he wanted to ignore the man who didn’t seem to notice that the poison Tahru sold him was only 50-50 and not worth a quarter what he charged, that was fine by Hakim.  He fantasized about showing the young thug Allah’s mercy at the point of a scimitar.  That would get his attention.

Patience—this has to be delicate.  Hakim took the boy’s drugs and handed over his cash.  Hakim despised drugs on principle and would toss what he purchased in the trash after getting what he wanted from Tahru.  He once again marveled that such a transaction occurred in broad daylight in America.

Truly this place deserves the name Great Satan.  And to be sold these filthy drugs by a child!

“My friend, Tahru…I am wondered…:” he paused as Tahru laughed.  “I see this man.  A black man…a great black man on the television.”  Tahru was gyrating gently to his own internal music.

No doubt he is high on something.

“Yeah?” asked the kid, eyeing the street.

“His name, I cannot say—Frakahan…Frankenhan…he say he hate the white man—”

“Oh, you mean Calypso fool.  Shit…” said Tahru.  “You ask Malcolm ‘bout that fool.  I don’t know shit ‘bout him.”

Hakim acted confused.  “But my friend, you only have a one-brother, Jamal?”

Tahru made a clicking sound of derision with his mouth and tongue.  “Tsst!  Man, why you be trippin’?  You know…Malcolm…oh—snap!”

Tahru laughed.  “He done converted before you came ‘round last time.  Say he all up in that Islam bulls—”

“Praise be to Allah!” Hakim said before the insolent fool in front of him could blaspheme the Faith, inadvertently or not.

Tahru grabbed his 40oz beer and swilled away.  “See?  That’s the same shit he sayin’ all the time!  Always Allah this and Allah that. Shoot…crazy motherf—”

“Ah, thank you my friend!  Thank you,” said Hakim, interrupting again.  The foul-mouthed American would face Allah’s wrath for speaking such.  “I did not know your brother was a true believer?”  He masked his face in surprise though he knew very well of the older brother’s recent conversion.  It was part of his plan to recruit new converts like Malcolm.

Tahru, pacified by the beer, leaned confidently against the rusty handrail and plucked at his own soiled ‘wife beater’.  His dark skin glistened with sweat in the summer heat.  He pulled his flashy sunglasses down a bit over his nose.  “Man, you got to meet Jamal—” he clucked his tongue.  Tahru put his hands together as if in prayer before saying, “I mean, his Holiness, Malcolm Abdul Rashid.”  Tahru laughed.  “Jamal done gone off an’ found Jesus,” he laughed again.

“May I meet Jam—I mean, Malcolm?  I wish to discuss the teachings of—”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever, man.  Just go on in—hey, watch the smack man, don’t step on that.”  Tahru hastily gathered his wares and shifted position on the step.  He waved a hand over his shoulder as a local girl came into view.  “Momma in the kitchen, she tell you where to go.”

Tahru absently waved Hakim past him, eyes on the girl.  Almost as an after-thought, he called over his shoulder, “Momma!  Man here to see Jamal!”  He smiled at the girl, drowning in gold chains, who blew him a kiss.

From inside the dark, stagnant row house, Hakim heard a deep female voice call out, “Tah-ruuu!  Don’t you be sendin’ no mo’ o’ yo’ crackheads in my house!  And yo’ brother name Malcolm!”

“How you doin’, baby?” asked Tahru.  He looked up at Hakim and hissed, “Man, go on in…you making’ me look bad!”

Hakim paused for a second, his hand on the rusty doorknob to the screen door.  Allah protect me from these barbarians!  Your will be done…
For his plan to succeed there had to be an expansion of the alliance.   Hakim entered the row house with a smile on his face.