By now the whole world knew of the utter and complete destruction that visited with such vengeance and force 24 hours prior on the carved-out bowl and beyond of the area dubbed the Field of Abraham in New Nasiriyah, Iraq. It would forever be known as the Field of Death, the Day of Doom. That was the tone the media had conveyed in confirming that all were dead. No survivors! Reports were trickling in around the globe about funeral arrangements for various world leaders who had perished. There was still no official word on the pope's funeral or funeral for the Vatican entourage and accompanying cardinals who had died in the holocaust.
One thing all realized without a doubt, there would be no open caskets for anyone. The consummate annihilation of the high-tech plastic explosives had seen to that. In fact, few there were who could be identified at all. Only ashes would be carted away in caskets that represented those who had been on or near the massive stage. Few would correlate identities with those believed to be the remains of each casket. Such were the frustrations and utter futility of the forensics experts combing the scorched scoriae.
Dateline: Fasif Khadid's Oasis Villa Estate, November 2, 9:05 a.m.
"Pat, come. I want you to meet a dear and old friend of mine," Andriopoulos said expansively, gesturing graciously as if they were at an elite affair.
The table was set for a king Pat felt, a potpourri of pastries, an Epicurean delight spread from one end to the other. Crystal goblets and plates. He moved slightly to the side and the man at the head of the table stood, hand extended toward Pat. Fasif was smiling, but tightly, as if he found the exercise of facial muscles too much too soon for a total, unproven stranger. Gallagher wondered what it was he would have to prove. Yet he liked what he saw. The man's eyes were shrewd but wise. Pat felt them plumbing the depts of his character, his soul. No, not a rash man by any means; merely a cautious one.
Andriopoulos introduced them, "This is Fasif Khadid, our host. Fasif, my new friend from America, Patrick Gallagher."
Their handshake was firm and challenging, and then they separated. Finally, Fasif himself broke the moment of uneasiness, gesturing for Elias to begin the breakfast ritual. "Welcome, Mr. Gallagher," he said, "It's a pleasure to meet you. Other than old Niki here, I don't get many friendly visitors to my home. Have a seat."
Gallagher took the indicated chair which gave him a clear view of his host, as well as beyond to the wide expanse of sky and a fountain outside that cascaded six feet into the air and then gently plummeted
to the lush, verdant manicured lawn that absorbed the liquid sunshine with warmth and gratitude.
"Ah, you enjoy the view," Fasif noticed, gesturing toward the open patio door. "It is one I cherish. A last refuge, so to speak, against the troubles of the day."
"Yeah, ah, it's beautiful. Man it's unbelievable after where we came from."
"Niki was telling me, " Fasif intoned. "I daresay I can appreciate both the squalor you were exposed to and your long flight. You are more than welcome to my home throughout your stay here."
"Wow. Thanks. Boy this is good food." Pat was animated in his praise of Elias' cuisine as he wolfed down the Eggs Florentine and the ham patties.
"I am certain you are famished, my son." Fasif lifted another cover revealing some tempting stuffed mushrooms. "I also assure you Elias is one of the best cooks in the world. There's more."
"Ya don't have ta convince me. I can see and taste that." Pat was still speaking with food in his mouth as Fasif glanced toward Niki who was chuckling at the manner Pat was consuming so much so fast. For the next several minutes the three men concentrated on the matter at hand - food. Elias served with practiced grace, and, once satisfied that everyone was happy with the repast, he departed through a swinging door which led to the kitchen.
"Niki has told you nothing of me." Fasif didn't question. He knew.
"Naw. He's been tightlipped. But I figure you must be in the oil business."
"Ah, because I have wealth and am near the gulf." Fasif was toying with Pat's psyche.
"Well, yeah, I mean-" Pat had been put in the defensive mode.
"Is this the keen eye of an objective reporter, Mr. Gallagher, or your assumptions?" Fasif had him reeling.
"Uhmm, well I guess I..." Pat mumbled.
"Ah, you guess, my American friend? Is that astute? Is that the way you reach conclusions?" Fasif was grilling him now and even Niki was concerned that the combination of lack of sleep and his host's inquisitive manner might push Pat away. Yet Fasif continued this trend. "Even though this area has not been a desirable place for some time, it is my home now. These are my people now. And I have a job which allows me to help them in more ways than you or they can imagine."
Pat tried to be patronizing. "Really? Very gratifying. I'm sure."
"You're possibly thinking that whatever this 'job' might be, it has kept me safe from the destruction of civil war and repeated terrorist attacks. Perhaps you wonder, Mr. Gallagher, if I am 'on the take,' as you Americans might express it?"
"It had crossed my mind," Gallagher tried to gain the upper hand. "After all, it's highly unusual to find anyone living so luxuriously in a country that's barely surviving."
"So you believe me to be corrupt, young man?" Fasif was cornering him.
"I - I didn't say that, sir. You're putting words in my mouth now," Pat reeled from the accusation.
"Certain interests in the quest for good have protected my investments," Fasif continued. "However that, my friend, is only a testimony to wise money-planning. Nothing else. That the home still remains untouched and I am allowed to continue on here with Elias, virtually hidden until recently, is a testimony to God's protection and my commitment to be as guileless as a dove, as shrewd as a serpent."
"I can understand that," Pat concurred.
"I have learned over the long years how to play the 'game' of politics. It has served me and the cause well until now." Fasif was referring to the recent surge in the Legion's activities.
"Obviously," Pat agreed looking around at the rich furnishings. "Just what do you do, Mr. Khadid, that allows you to 'play' this 'game'?"
"I am a doctor, Mr. Gallagher. More precisely, I am the Chief Medical Examiner for my country, and, as such, have more than a passing acquaintance with the various powers that at times pull this region apart. Naturally, in my position, there are times when it has been expedient for me to judge the wisdom of my findings and to report to the public, and the government, what is allowable. Because I have done my work well and thoroughly, because I have cooperated when necessary, I have established a certain air of trust and 'indispensability' about myself. The government cannot afford to replace me with someone who does not or will not play the 'game.'"
"Medical Examiner?" Pat's mind was racing. "Then you've been to the Field of Death?"
"But of course." Fasif responded. It was terse, a momentary frown wrinkling the olive skin between the magnificent eyebrows. But he managed another of his tight smiles and gave a knowing look across to Niki who was just about to take a sip from his cup. "Within hours after it occurred I was there. I arrived home only a short time ago. And after a brief rest, I will return to oversee the clean-up operations, because my government expects me to be present during the ordeal."
"So you had access to the main stage area?" Pat questioned.
Before Fasif could answer Niki, his usual exuberance slightly curtailed in Fasif's presence, interrupted. "Gallagher, eat. You're neglecting the rest of this wonderful bounty."
"He's right, you know?" Khadid said. "While you are in my country you can never be sure where your next meal will come from, and of what quality it will be. As I said, I am blessed to have access to the produce and bounty of the land that still exists. And I use it, Mr. Gallagher, not to deprive my fellow man of food, but to give me the necessary strength to continue the job at hand and ultimately help my fellow man.
Pat didn't know whether to applaud or throw down his utensils and stalk from the room. He wasn't much in the mood to hear a man justify his own safety when a million or so had just died.
"You look puzzled, my friend," Fasif was still testing him. "Do not be too hasty to judge the heart. Appearances are often deceiving. No?"
"You sound like Andriopoulos now?" Pat quizzically responded.
Niki chimed in, "Yes. We are kindred spirits. Survivors, if you will, of a time that has seen too many weaker men die."
"Sorry, I don't see it as a laughing matter," Pat reprimanded Niki.
Fasif's tone turned serious. "Neither do we. We are not ghouls, nor the hardened hypocrites you might believe us to be."
"Hey, now wait a minute. I never said -" Pat shot back.
"You didn't have to, Mr. Gallagher, it is written on your face as clearly as lines in a book. But you have a right to judge from what you see, for you do not as yet know the full truth," Fasif asserted.
"Do you?" Pat parlayed.
"Does anyone?" countered Niki slightly anxious. He wanted Pat to listen and learn. To do that one must be recollected.
"No, I suppose not." Gallagher was trying to be as truthful as possible. "But it'd be damn nice if I could get an inkling of it."
"Then please listen, my friend of Andriopoulos. Before you can judge, you must be dedicated, committed to the cause."
"The cause of what?" Pat looked puzzled.
"The forces of good, my friend," assured Fasif as he pushed the unfinished expresso aside and taking a heavy cigar from his pocket, cut off the tip.
"I'm listening," said Pat impatiently.
"Good," Fasif responded offering him the peace pipe of another cigar he had extracted. Pat declined as Fasif continued. "You'll pardon the obnoxious odor of my indulgence of these cigars. It's the one passion and vice I allow myself. Sometimes I do believe it keeps me sane."
"I can relate to that. Okay by me. After all, it's your house. Mind if I light up, too?"
Fasif nodded and reached toward his pocket to offer Pat the before rejected cigar, but the Texan pulled out his pack of Pall Malls and Fasif offered his lighter instead. Pat took a deep draw and exhaled.
"Oh, God, that tastes good. Go on. I'm all ears. It's the very least I can do to repay your hospitality."
"Good. I would suggest we allow Elias the opportunity to clear the table and we will retire to the living room where we can relax and fill you in more on 'the cause'," Fasif said as Elias, almost by mental telepathy appeared in the doorway anticipating their leave.
What Pat would learn this morning would send shivers up and down any respectable citizen's spine. It surely would Pat's for little did he know he would be thrust even further into the lair of the Legion's nest in his quest for the truth at all costs.
Next issue: Fifth Chapter - Episode Four
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WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE!