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The Qaleh, Iran
The three men gathered in the dining room.
Hosseini and Darazi were buoyant, explaining that the Caliphate was rising, oil prices were soaring—up another nine dollars a barrel overnight—and the annihilation of the Zionist entity was imminent. It wasn’t the first time they had said such things, of course, but Birjandi privately noted the way they said them. They spoke with such conviction, such certainty, that the hair on Birjandi’s neck stood on end and his entire body felt chilled.
“As we speak, Imam al-Mahdi is headed to Cairo,” Hosseini said. “He should land at any moment. He’s going to meet with the vice president and the supreme council of military leaders. By this time tomorrow, Egypt will be part of the Caliphate.”
“That means we will have the Zionists almost completely surrounded,” Darazi added. “We already have Lebanon and Syria, the Saudis, and several of the Gulf states. We have Sudan, Libya, and Algeria. With Egypt, the encirclement is almost complete. We still need Jordan, and we’ll get it. The king is digging in his heels, siding with the Americans. Director Allen of the CIA will undoubtedly head to Amman at some point. But Jordan will soon be ours. If the king opposes the Mahdi, he will regret it.”
Birjandi hadn’t heard anything about the Cairo trip. He wondered if David Shirazi knew, though he had no way to contact him. “Is the Mahdi going to Amman?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Darazi said. “Once the king sees what happens to the Jews, I think he will come begging us for mercy.”
“How I will love that day,” Hosseini said.
“How soon will the attack on the Zionists begin?” Birjandi asked.
“Any day now,” Hosseini said. “It’s up to him, of course, but I suspect everything will be ready by Monday at the latest.”
“That is so soon. Is there anything I can do while we wait?”
“Imam al-Mahdi wants to meet you when he gets back from Cairo. Ahmed and I have been telling him about you and how helpful you have been, how devoted you are.”
Inside, Birjandi cringed. He had no interest in being in the same country with the Twelfth Imam, much less the same room. He did not feel at liberty to say as much, though, so he nodded graciously and said he served “at the pleasure of my Lord.” He meant the Lord Jesus, but he could accept, for the moment, being misunderstood. “There is much talk that the Israelis will launch a massive air strike before you can launch your attacks,” he said.
“It’s just talk,” Darazi said. “The Americans won’t let them do it. The Mahdi has sent the president a private message within the last few days. It requests a phone call with Jackson next Tuesday.”
“And the president has accepted?”
“Not yet, but we believe it is just a matter of time. He has sent the director of the CIA to Jerusalem to meet with Naphtali. From what we can gather, the president is making the prime minister an offer he can’t refuse.”
Birjandi wasn’t convinced. He turned to Hosseini, wishing he could make eye contact but hoping at least to make him pause. “Hamid, my friend, do not underestimate Asher Naphtali. He may be a friend of the president, but he is not his lackey. He saw your test. He hears your rhetoric. He hears what the Mahdi is saying. He is not stupid. He knows he’s running out of time. He’s going to strike soon, and millions of our people will suffer.”
“That’s why we confuse them, delay them, until we can strike first with the warheads we’ve just built,” Hosseini replied.
“But what if the Israelis do launch first?” Birjandi pressed. “What if they destroy all our warheads before we can use a single one of them?”
“There is no need to worry, Alireza. Really. We are fine. The Mahdi has everything under control. All is going according to his plan.”
“What does that mean?” Birjandi asked. “We dare not underestimate the reach of the Zionists. They have spies everywhere. They killed Saddaji. They kidnapped Malik, for all we know. They nearly killed the Mahdi. How do you know they’re not coming after you?”
“Ali, my friend, we have taken care of everything,” Hosseini said. “First of all, we are safe up here. No one even knows we are here. Second of all, the warheads are all spread out. Not even Ahmed or I know exactly where all of them are. We know generally, but frankly we don’t want the scientists who built them or the generals who control them to share every detail with us, for the very reason you cite. We don’t want the Zionists—or the Americans, Allah forbid—to learn what we learn. But this I can tell you. You know that five of our warships will be passing through the Suez Canal later today, just about the time the Mahdi lands in Cairo?”
“Yes, I’ve heard this on the news,” Birjandi said.
“I have not even told my closest advisors such things, but I will tell you, my friend—two of our eight warheads are aboard those ships as they head to the Mediterranean. They are attached to missiles, aimed at Tel Aviv and Haifa.”
Birjandi prayed his face did not express his horror. “I thought we did not have the capacity to attach the warheads to missiles,” he said. “That’s what you told me last month.”
“Last month we didn’t,” Hosseini replied. “Today we do.”
David reached the airport and paid his cab driver in cash.
Inside the main terminal, he withdrew the maximum daily amount allowed from his Eurocard account and exchanged it for Iranian rials. Then he picked one of the rental car agencies and filled out the paperwork for a maroon, four-door Peugeot 407 sedan.
* * *
Zalinsky’s cell phone rang.
Disoriented, he sat up in bed, checked his watch, and groaned. It was only four thirty Wednesday morning, Washington time. Three decades of experience told him this couldn’t be good. He groped for the phone on his nightstand and answered on the sixth ring.
“Jack, it’s Eva. Sorry to call you so early.”
“Then what’s wrong?”
“I just got a call from my guy at NSA.”
“Where are you?”
“At my desk.”
“Didn’t you ever go home?”
“You’re sleeping on your floor?”
“I’m not doing much sleeping. But, Jack, listen. The NSA just sent me the transcript of a very interesting call.”
“They intercepted a call from Javad to Firouz. It happened about an hour ago.”
“That’s fast. What happened?”
“Javad described a safe-deposit box at a Citibank branch in Queens. He said it contained two fake passports, one with a false identity for Firouz and another for Jamshad. He said there were passports for the other two terrorists, too. It had all been pre-positioned, just in case. He said there were also credit cards, cash, forged birth certificates, and whatnot. There’s also four automatic pistols and plenty of ammunition. He gave Firouz the address of the bank and told him to be there precisely at ten o’clock, when the branch opens. They’re supposed to retrieve everything, use the documents to get out of New York, then get to Toronto and back to Tehran as soon as possible. He suggested they route through Venezuela, if necessary, and that Firouz would know why. We’ve got them, Jack. I really think we’ve got them. I’m about to call the guys at the Bureau so they can set up a stakeout on the bank, but I wanted you to be the first to know—or rather, the third.”
“You and the translator?”
“You haven’t told Murray?”
“No. I figured you’d want to.”
“No,” Zalinsky said. “We don’t tell anybody. Not a one.”
“What are you talking about, Jack? We can nail them. Right now. We can bag two terrorists. It’ll be a huge coup for the Agency—well, for the Bureau, for the president.”
“No, no, that’s precisely what we don’t want. This can’t go beyond the three of us right now—and definitely not to Tom.”
“Why not? That’s crazy.”
“Stop, Eva. Think. We can’t arrest them. Not now. It’s too obvious. If we take these guys down, Javad Nouri is going to know we can listen in on his calls. Then they’re going to consider all the satellite phones suspect, and then everything we’ve tried to put in place will be for naught. No, we need to follow the trail and see where it leads.”
Eva protested for another few minutes but finally backed down when Zalinsky reminded her of how much danger David would be in if the US government’s ability to intercept the satphones were discovered by the Iranian regime.
“They already suspect him,” Zalinsky said. “We can’t take the risk that they’ll bring him in again. Next time they won’t waterboard him. They’ll kill him.”
“So what do we do?” Eva asked.
“Don’t tell the FBI. Put one of our teams on the bank. Have them shadow Firouz and Jamshad for the next several days and await further orders.”
* * *
The Qaleh, Iran
“Ali, you don’t look happy,” Hosseini said after a while.
They had finished their salads and their salmon entrees and were being served steaming-hot cups of chai. Their conversation had been wide ranging, covering potential US and Israeli responses to an Iranian first strike, Darazi’s belief that the American president did not have the will to launch another war in the Middle East—least of all to save Israel—and Hosseini’s belief that Jackson might order air strikes but wouldn’t let himself be drawn into a ground war like Operation Iraqi Freedom. The key, Hosseini said, was not specifically provoking the Americans by shutting down the Strait of Hormuz or attacking the Iraqi oil fields or directly confronting the US Navy.
Birjandi couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He thought they were insane. He didn’t disagree that this particular American president at this particular time didn’t likely have the fortitude to take on the Islamic Republic militarily. But he was stunned by what he regarded as Hosseini’s and Darazi’s utter and foolish dismissal of Israel’s capacities both to absorb a first strike and to launch an absolutely devastating second strike.
Nevertheless, Birjandi knew better than to try to debate them on geopolitics. They weren’t going to listen to him. That wasn’t why he was there, and they didn’t consider him an expert on such matters. His value, in their eyes, was his knowledge about Islamic prophecy, the Shia perspective on the End Times, and how all of the events they were witnessing and leading would come together to reestablish the Caliphate. He had been listening to both of them for nearly ninety minutes now, only asking an occasional question for c
larification. Now he sensed it was time to begin that for which the Lord had sent him. It was clear that Hosseini and Darazi did not have ears to hear nor eyes to see nor hearts to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ or a direct presentation of scriptural truths, as much as he had prayed that they would. But he sensed the Lord telling him to sow seeds of doubt in their minds about their own eschatology, doubts perhaps that the Spirit would reinforce in the hours and days ahead.
“I sincerely apologize for my countenance. I do not mean to burden you.”
“It is no burden,” Hosseini said.
“Still, I am hesitant to bother two important men such as yourselves with my own problems, as trivial as they may be.” Birjandi spoke with great discretion and discernment, playing to the egos he sat with.
“Nonsense,” Hosseini said. “We consider you our friend. What is troubling you?”
“It is probably nothing,” Birjandi replied. “It’s just that I am finding myself wrestling with a few questions in private to which I cannot seem to find answers.”
“Like what?” Darazi asked.
“Really, I needn’t bother you. You both have so much on your minds.”
“Don’t be silly, Ali. Tell us plainly.”
“Well—and please take this in the spirit in which it is intended—merely a question, though a vexing one at that . . .”
“Of course, of course,” they said.
“I just find myself wondering, where is Jesus, peace be upon him?”
There was dead silence. It wasn’t a name that often got mentioned in the presence of the Grand Ayatollah and the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
“What do you mean?” Hosseini finally asked, audibly sipping his chai.
“I just mean, wasn’t Jesus supposed to come back before the Mahdi? Isn’t that what the prophecies said? Wasn’t that supposed to be one of the signs?”
“Then where is he?”
Neither Hosseini nor Darazi had an answer.
“You have both given sermons that Jesus would come back as the lieutenant to Imam al-Mahdi, right?”
“Then as I said, I find myself wondering, where is he?”
Darazi shifted uncomfortably in his seat and asked, “What exactly are you implying, Ali?”
“I am not implying anything,” Birjandi replied calmly. “I am simply asking where I went wrong. Please don’t misunderstand me. You preached that one of the signs preceding the Mahdi’s return would be the coming of Jesus to require all infidels to convert to Islam or die by the sword. You did that because I taught you that. I taught you that because of a lifetime of studying the ancient texts and so many commentaries on the same. Yet Jesus is nowhere to be found. The infidels have not been warned. It’s bothering me. Because that’s not all. There are other prophecies that I have not seen fulfilled, and I am wondering why.”
“Other prophecies?” Darazi pressed. “Which ones?”
“I hesitate to continue,” Birjandi said. “I don’t want to be misinterpreted. I’m just trying to be honest with the ancient texts.”
“No, go on,” Hosseini said. “Ahmed and I have always valued your insights. Now we value your questions as well.”
“You are certain, my friend?”
“Most certain,” Hosseini replied.
“Very well,” Birjandi said. “If you insist.” He paused a moment, then began again. “In my work done through the Bright Future Institute, I identified and outlined five distinct signs that would precede the arrival or the appearance of the Hidden Imam. The first sign was supposed to be the rise of a fighter from Yemen called the Yamani, who attacks the enemies of Islam. This actually does seem to have been fulfilled. There have been a whole series of violent attacks against Christians in Yemen in recent years and even in the weeks leading up to the appearance of the Mahdi.”
His listeners said nothing, but Birjandi sensed them nodding, silently encouraging him to continue.
“The second sign is the rise of an anti-Mahdi militant leader named Osman Ben Anbase, who will also be known as Sofiani. This figure is supposed to be joined by another anti-Mahdi militant called Dajal. Many Muslim clerics liken this figure to the Christian notion of the Antichrist. The uprising of Sofiani was supposed to precede the reappearance of the Mahdi in Mecca by exactly six months,” Birjandi observed. “These two forces were supposed to occupy Syria and Jordan and advance from there. Did this happen? When? Where? I never saw it. When were the forces of good led in battle by the man from Khorasan? When was the epic battle that was prophesied to happen near the city of Kufa, in the Shia heartland of southern Iraq? Did I miss it? Did you?”
Neither Hosseini nor Darazi replied.
“The third distinct sign,” Birjandi continued, “is to be voices from the sky, the most prominent of which is supposed to be that of the angel Gabriel, gathering the faithful around the Mahdi. That seems to have just happened in Beirut. It was only one angelic voice, to be sure, not multiple voices or a host of angels, but still, I think it’s fair to say that this prophecy was fulfilled, or at least partially so. But that should have led to the fourth sign, the destruction of Sofiani’s army. However, since Sofiani never seems to have come, never seems to have raised an army, and certainly hasn’t seized control of Syria or Jordan, I do not believe this prophecy has been—or can be—fulfilled. And the question I keep asking myself is why.”
Still no response. Birjandi continued anyway.
“The fifth sign is supposed to be the death of a holy man by the name of Muhammad bin Hassan, called Nafse Zakiye, or the pure soul. The Mahdi is supposed to appear in Mecca fifteen days after this figure is killed. I have been pondering this for days, but I can’t see how this prophecy was fulfilled. Granted, the Mahdi’s army is supposed to begin with 313 faithful Muslims and grow into ten thousand, fifty of whom will be women. This is in the process of happening, so that’s noteworthy. But some of the other minor details of the Mahdi’s coming haven’t come to pass either. He doesn’t appear to be wearing a ring that belonged to King Solomon. Nor is he holding the wooden stick that Moses held when he parted the Red Sea. Does it matter? Maybe not. But I feel a great sense of responsibility. I have been studying the Last Things most of my adult life. I have been preaching and teaching these things for as long as you have been gracious enough to give me the freedom to do so. But something isn’t adding up. Something’s wrong. And I keep asking: what?”
Najjar was awakened by the cell phone ringing.
He had slept in the Toyota in an underground parking garage all night because he had nowhere else to go and had been too embarrassed to ask the staff at the TV station for help. Now his neck and back ached and he scrambled to find the phone and check the caller ID. He was afraid it might be the neighbors or, worse, the police but was startled to see it was a call from London.
“Hello?” he asked cautiously.
“Is this Dr. Najjar Malik?”
“My name is Nigel Moore. I’m the senior producer for BBC Persian. Do you have a moment?”
Najjar sat up, rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and checked his watch. It was just after seven on Wednesday morning, Washington time, half past three back in Iran. He suddenly realized he was famished.