Authors: Steve Jason & Yohn Elam
It is to the real Jesus that I dedicate this book.
First and foremost for God—this is definitely a You thing. Also, for Nancy—a true Proverbs 31 woman. I am honored to be spending my life with you.
Lord, we start with You. This has been, and will always be, Your project.
Jason thanks Tamy, the kids, and his mother, Evelyn, for their love and encouragement.
Steve thanks Nancy and his daughter for sacrificing so many evenings to this project.
Both Jason and Steve owe a debt of gratitude to Pastor Rick Yohn for his constant support and for being the biggest fan of this book from day one. Thanks go to Linda Yohn, also, for her excellent tough-love proofing skills.
Matt Yates, this bird never would have flown without you. Thanks to you for your practical wisdom and guidance (and, most importantly, for the “research” trip to Del Frisco’s), and also to Jeana and the rest of the Yates & Yates gang.
We had so many go-to experts assisting us in making this a realistic book with a plausible scenario. Special appreciation goes to LTC Mark Elam for teaching us how to hurt people in really nasty ways. Also, huge thanks are owed to Troy Bisgard of the Denver Police Homicide Division, Kurt Peterson of the Denver Police Bomb Squad, and our friends at the Air Force Special Operations Command and the U.S. Secret Service.
Thanks go to Karen Watson and the rest of our new family at Tyndale House Publishers. We owe a huge debt to Jeremy Taylor for dealing with an editor’s worst nightmare—two first-time authors. Also, we greatly appreciate Beverly Rykerd of Beverly Rykerd Public Relations for getting the word out so effectively.
Finally, how can we thank our small group enough for all of your inspiration and prayer through this process? You are the wind beneath . . . well, you know the rest. Our gratitude goes out to the folks at Lemstone Christian Store in Parker for the couch and the coffee and to Fellowship Community Church.
Lastly, we have been blessed by so many others who have encouraged us and prayed for us along the way. Thank you, one and all.
Hakeem Qasim picked up the small, sharp rock from the dirt. Tossing it up and down a couple of times, he felt its weight as he gauged his target. He glanced at Ziad, his cousin and closest friend. They both knew the significance of what he was about to do. Wiping the sweat off his forehead and then onto his frayed cotton pants, he cocked his arm back, took aim, and let fly. The rock sailed from his hand, across fifteen meters of open space, in through the driver’s-side window of the burned-out Toyota, and out the other side—no metal, no glass, nothing but air.
“Yes!” the two ten-year-old boys shouted in unison as they clumsily danced together in triumph.
They had spent the better part of six days clearing this dirt patch, as attested by their cracked, blistered fingers and by the jagged gray piles in and around the old Corona. Hakeem took pride in the knowledge that his rocks were mostly of the “in” category, while Ziad’s were mostly of the “around.” But to have the final rock of the hundreds, if not thousands, that they had cleared from their newly created soccer field pass all the way through the car could mean only one thing—good luck.
Hakeem was the older of the two by seventeen days. Although he was small for his age, his wiry frame attested to his strength and speed. His uncle Shakir had told him, “You are like the cheetah, the pursuer.” He wasn’t exactly sure what his uncle meant by that, but he loved the picture it put in his mind. Often, when he closed his eyes at night, he dreamed of stalking prey out on the open plains. Hakeem the Cheetah—watch out, or I’ll run you down. His complexion was dark, and his black hair was thick and wild. His eyes were a deep brown and had a feline intensity to them that he knew could be unsettling, even to his mother. “Hakeem, you have the eyes of the Prophet,” she would say, sometimes with a shudder.
Ziad was the opposite of his cousin in build. Tall, square shoulders, large head—his father used to call him Asad Babil, the “Lion of Babylon,” named after the Iraqi version of the Soviet T-72 tank. Ziad wasn’t the brightest star in the sky, but he was a guy you wanted on your side in a fight.
As the boys scanned the dusty lot, Hakeem felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment, remembering what the field had looked like just a week ago. He glanced to his left, where he had tripped over a rock and badly cut his elbow—the impetus for their renovation. He unconsciously picked the edges of the scab; that rock had been the first to go.
A waft of lamb with garlic and cumin caught Hakeem’s attention, awakening another of his senses. Well, his hunger would be taken care of soon enough. It was Friday, and every Friday (except for the day after the bombs had begun to fall last week) Uncle Ali came over for dinner. It was always a special event, because Ali Qasim was an important man. All the neighbors would bow their heads in respect as he drove by. Father would bow too, in spite of the fact that Ali was the youngest of the three brothers and Hakeem’s father was the eldest.
Even now, Hakeem could see Uncle Ali’s black Land Rover parked next to his house across the field. Beside it was the matching Land Rover that carried the men Ali called his “friends,” although he never talked to them and all they ever seemed to do was stand outside the house looking around. There was a lot of mystery surrounding Uncle Ali.
Last month, in a day that Hakeem would not soon forget, Uncle Ali had invited the boy to take a ride with him. “Let’s see how good my friends are,” Ali cried as he hit the gas, burying the other Land Rover in a cloud of dust. They bounced down the dirt roads, laughing and yelling for people to get out of the way.
When they made it out to the main road, Ali had suddenly gotten serious. He reached into his dishdasha and handed Hakeem a small handkerchief that had been folded into a square. The boy’s excitement grew as he opened one corner after another, discovering inside a bullet with a hole drilled just under the case’s base. A thin chain had been threaded through the hole.
“Hakeem, this is a 7.62 mm round that I pulled out of an unexpended AK-47 clip that Saddam Hussein himself was firing outside of his palace.”
Hakeem was still too afraid to ask what—or whom—President Hussein had been firing at.
“Feel the weight of it, Nephew. Imagine what this could do to a person’s body. For centuries, the West and the Jews have tried to keep our people from worshiping Allah, the true God. You’ve learned about the Crusades in school, haven’t you?”
Hakeem quickly nodded as he slipped the chain over his head. The cartridge was still warm from being kept against his uncle’s chest.
“You know I’m not a very religious man, Hakeem, but I can read the times. Soon, because of their hatred of Allah, the Great Satan will come to try to destroy our country. But we don’t fear, because Saddam will defend us. The mighty Republican Guard will defend us. Allah will defend us. And someday, our great leader may call on you to pick up a gun for him and fight against the West and defend his honor. Could you do it? Will you be ready, little Hakeem?”
Even now, as he fingered the long, narrow brass bullet hanging around his neck, thinking about how Uncle Ali’s prophecy about the Great Satan coming to their land had been fulfilled only two weeks later, his own answer repeated itself in his mind. I will be ready, Uncle Ali. I will fight for our leader. I will fight for our honor. I will fight the Great Satan! Allahu akbar!
Suddenly, an ancient, peeling soccer ball bounced off the side of his head. “Nice reflexes, Cheetah,” Ziad laughed. “What are you daydreaming about?”
“I was just thinking about Uncle Ali.”
“I don’t like to think about him. He scares me. People say he’s friends with Uday. Could that be?”
“I don’t know, Ziad. I think it’s best not to ask too many questions.”
“Yeah . . . I hope he leaves my mom alone tonight. I don’t like the things he says to her or the way he looks at her.”
Ziad was the son of Uncle Shakir, the second of the three brothers. When Shakir was killed three years ago while fighting in Iran, Hakeem’s father had brought his brother’s family—Aunt Shatha, Ziad, and Ziad’s four-year-old sister, Zenab—into his own house.
The voice of Ziad’s mother rang out from across the dirt field, interrupting their thoughts. It was almost time for Maghrib, the sunset prayer time.
“You realize that this will be the site of your great humiliation,” Ziad taunted in the pompous language they used when teasing each other.
“Tomorrow, Ziad, your pride will be shown to be as empty as your mother’s purse!”
That struck a little too close to home for Ziad, and he pounced upon Hakeem, quickly taking him to the ground. The boys laughed and wrestled, until the voice of Aunt Shatha came a second time—this time with a little more force and the addition of the word Now!
“We better get going. The field will still be here tomorrow,” Ziad said. “I’ll race you. Last one home’s a goat kisser!”
“You got it! Ready . . . set . . .”
Ziad’s forearm swung up, catching Hakeem right under the chin.
I fall for that every time, Hakeem thought as he dropped to the ground.
“Go!” Ziad yelled, bolting off to take full advantage of the lead he had just given himself.
Hakeem sat in the dirt for a few seconds, counting his teeth with his tongue. He was in no rush. He knew that no matter how large a lead Ziad created for himself, his cousin had no chance of winning. Hakeem would run him down, and then tomorrow he would make him pay on the soccer field for the cheap shot.
As he got up, he spotted his nemesis. Ziad was about halfway home, puffing with all his might. Beyond his cousin, Hakeem could see his mother and Aunt Shatha laughing and cheering Ziad on. Reclining on the roof were his father and Uncle Ali, shaking their heads and grinning. Here’s my chance to show Uncle Ali what his “little” Hakeem is made of. Hakeem jumped up and began running at full speed.
Suddenly, the world became a ball of fire. The concussive wave knocked Hakeem off his feet. He lay flat on his back. Flames singed his entire body.
The first thing that entered his mind as he glanced around was Look at all these rocks we’ll have to clear off the field tomorrow. The high-pitched ringing in his head was making it hard to think. As he slowly got up, a pungent smell hit his nose—a mixture of smoke, dust, and . . . what was that last smell? . . . Burnt hair?
What happened? Where is everybody? Ziad was running home . . . Mother and Aunt Shatha were at the door . . . and Father and Uncle Ali were on the roof. Hakeem looked around, trying to make sense of things and attempting to get a bearing on which way was home, but the dirt and grit in his eyes were making them water. Everything was a blur.
When he finally figured out which direction was home, he saw no roof, no door, no house, no Father, no Mother, no Uncle Ali, no Aunt Shatha, no Ziad. He saw smoke and dirt, fire and rubble. Hakeem stumbled toward where his home had been. He could only think of one thing: Mama! Now he began to feel the burns on his face, starting with a tingling and quickly growing to a fire.
Panic began to well up inside of him. Mama, where are you? Hakeem tried to call out for her, but all the heat, dust, and smoke had reduced his voice to a congested croak.
The ringing in his head began to subside, only to be replaced by a more terrifying sound—screams. Screams coming from all around him. Screams coming from within him.
People were running on his left and on his right—some carrying buckets, some covering wounds. Hakeem stumbled past a smoldering heap of rags that deep inside he knew was his cousin, but he couldn’t stop—couldn’t deal with that now. He had to find his mother. Mama, I’m almost there!
As he crossed his father’s property line, he fell into a deep, wide hole. An exposed piece of rebar cut a long gash into his leg. Blood poured out, soaking his torn pants, but still he forced himself up.
Mama, I’ll find you! Oh, Allah, help me! Allahu akbar, you are great! Show me where she is! Don’t worry, Mama, I’ll save you!
He grasped for handholds to pull himself out of the hole and felt something solid. He grabbed it and began climbing up the side of the crater. As he reached the top, he finally saw what he was holding on to. It was an arm—visible to halfway up the bicep before it disappeared underneath a massive block of cement and metal.
Hakeem instantly let go, falling back to the bottom. He twisted and landed on his hands and knees and began to vomit. As he hovered over the newly formed puddle, he could hear the screams all around him. He dropped to his side and rolled onto his back, closing his eyes tightly, trying to will himself not to look at the arm. As long as he didn’t look up, didn’t see the very familiar ring around the third finger of the hand, then maybe it wouldn’t be true. Maybe he could just stay down here, and eventually his mother would find him. She would help him out of the pit, put ointment on his face, bandage his leg, hold him tight, and tell him everything was going to be okay.
But Hakeem knew that would never happen. He knew Mama would never hold him again. The distinctive ring he had glimpsed was one he had examined often as he listened to stories while lying in bed. It was a ring he had spun around his mother’s finger as he sat with the women and children in the mosque, listening to the mullah condemn America and the Jews.
This has to be a dream, he thought. Please, Allah, let me wake up! Tears began and quickly turned into torrents. I don’t like this anymore; please let me wake up! His heart felt like it would explode. He didn’t know what to do. Somebody help me! Anybody help me!! He didn’t want to look back up at the hand. He didn’t know how to get out of the hole. He didn’t know how he would stop the bleeding on his leg. He didn’t know if he would ever stop crying. Oh, Allah, please help me!
Now his screams began again, and they continued on and on until finally Hakeem’s world faded into an unsettled blackness.