Chapter Three

Starbox Coffee

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 7:39 a.m.

I went into the Starbox and ordered my coffee.

The waitress, a slim gal with a blue headscarf, glanced at my hands, which were visibly shaking. “Decaf?” she asked.

I screwed a smile into place and tried to make a joke. It fell flat. I repeated my drink order in a low mumble, paid for it and a French edition of the Tehran Daily News, and took them with me to a table where I could watch the street. It was pretty early, so the place was empty. There were two leather chairs in a corner and I took one, aware that there was no place in the cafe where a shooter with a good scope couldn’t find me.

Last year I’d been in a coffee shop when a strike team tried to take me out. You’d think I’d have learned by now. My best friend and shrink, Dr. Rudy Sanchez, constantly tells me that I drink too much coffee. He says, “Caffeine will kill you,” all the time. He’ll be delighted to hear me admit that he was very nearly right.

I crossed my legs as if that would offer my groin any real protection from a high-velocity sniper bullet and tried to read the paper.

Apparently America is still the Great Satan. What a surprise.

The main headline was about last week’s assassination attempt on the nation’s Rahbare Mo’azzame Enghelab-the Supreme Leader. A man dressed as a Shia cleric had attended a prayer session at Mashhad, which is the second largest city in Iran and one of the holiest cities in the Shia Muslim world, over five hundred miles east of Tehran, near the borders of Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. It’s the resting place of the Imam Reza, seventh descendant of the prophet Muhammad and the eighth of the Twelve Imams. I’ve been there. It’s a gorgeous city, and home to the most extensive collection of Iranian cultural and artistic treasures. Millions of Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mashhad every year, as do scholars and tourists like me; and that’s been going on since medieval times. The saying is “The rich go to Mecca but the poor journey to Mashhad.”

So, after a few introductory speeches, the Supreme Leader stepped up to lead the people in prayer and discuss matters of faith. Problem was, the fake cleric whipped off his coat to reveal a vest packed with Semtex. A group of young men grabbed the bomber and tried to drag him outside before the bombs went off. They only partly succeeded, and though the mosque was not destroyed, it was damaged. The Supreme Leader received minor injuries, but sixty-four people died, and the effect was like cutting a scar into the flesh of Islam.

I’m not a Muslim, and I’m not deeply religious even with my Methodist upbringing-not like my father and brother whose butts have worn grooves in the pews in our church back in Baltimore-but there is something that disgusts me on a deep level when someone makes a deliberate attack on the faith of another person, or in this case on an entire people. I don’t like it when it happens to Americans; and I certainly don’t like it when Americans do it to each other. Can’t say I’m much in favor of it anywhere in the world.

Who was to blame for this particular hate crime?

Hard to tell.

Lately there’s been a weirdly sharp rise in hate crimes throughout the Middle East. Five times as many suicide bombers, a 300 percent increase in political assassinations, plus car bombs, pipe bombs, and even a rash of people found murdered with their throats completely torn out.

At the best of times the Mideast was never known for its easygoing tolerance; lately it’s like everyone has gone just a little bit crazier. My boss, Mr. Church, has been monitoring the escalation of violence, and although he hasn’t come out and said so, I’m certain that he’s suspicious of the rising body count. My friend Bug, who runs the computer resources for the Department of Military Sciences, told me on the sly that Church wanted him to run a thorough background search on the victims, even the ones who appeared to be innocent bystanders.

“Why?” I asked.

“’Cause the boss thinks there’s a hidden agenda,” answered Bug.

“He always thinks there’s a hidden agenda,” I remarked.

“He’s usually right, though, isn’t he?”

And I had no argument for that. Like the bumper stickers say, “You’re not paranoid if they really are out to get you.”

I’d been following this in the local and national news, and I scanned the paper to see if they had anything on the mosque bomber, but this rag was pretty heavily slanted toward the ultraconservative view, which pretty much concludes that if a bird shits on a statue in Iran it’s a U.S. plot. The reporter, probably quoting a government directive, claimed that this was the latest act in a series of escalating terrorist attacks by America. Completely ignoring the fact that half of the recent victims in the Middle East were Americans or allies. Go figure.

The rest of the paper was local stuff. No cartoons. No Doonesbury or Zits or Tank McNamara. No crossword puzzle.

Time crawled by. A few people came in for coffee.

I debated rolling sideways out of the chair and shimmying behind the counter, but if I did that and the snipers opened up I’d be the cause of civilian casualties.

Besides… after all this I kind of wanted to see who was going to walk in the door.

While I waited, I went over everything that had happened last night. This thing with the woman and the snipers didn’t seem to fit, but… how could it not? We did a lot of harm last night… Somebody must want some payback.

I sipped my coffee. It wasn’t Starbucks, but it was hot and black.

I could almost hear the echo of gunfire in my ears…