Today's Reading

"How can I help you, Abu Issa?" She figured a rotten tooth was best pulled fast. "Is there anything in particular that you would like to know?"

"How is your relationship with Deputy Ambassador Wilson progressing?" He sipped his tea daintily, little finger splayed in the air. "Does he trust you?"

"I do my best to be reliable and professional."

"But does he trust you? Confide in you?"

Huda returned the istikan to her lap. Once again, liquid splashed into the saucer and stared at her like a baleful amber eye. "He hasn't told me anything unusual." She forced a smile, even as her pulse throbbed at her neck. "I do routine typing and filing, as you know. I translate his letters when he has matters to convey to our beloved government."

"And what of his wife?" Huda blinked.

"His wife?"

"How well do you know her? Are you friends?"

"Ally seems nice enough." Huda shrugged. "Once in a while, she comes to the office to break her boredom, that's all."

Abu Issa raised the tea glass to his lips. He wore a sharp-edged ring with the president's eagle crest. If he slapped her cheek, it would draw blood.

"No doubt your boss tells his wife all manner of things," said Abu Issa. "The foreigners call it pillow talk."

Huda stiffened. Her istikan rattled in its saucer.

"These Western men are reliant on their wives' advice. They call them partners." Abu Issa shook his head. "Is it a business or a marriage?"

The two men snickered, disgust audible amid their amusement. Abruptly, the Bolt Cutter sat forward and ladled sugar into his tea. The small glass looked ridiculous in his meaty hand. He would need no ring to bloody her cheek.

"These Western women, they like to talk." The humor drained from Abu Issa's laugh. "Every day they go on television and bare their shameful secrets to the cameras, for anyone to see. They confess their sins to some Negro woman called Oprah. It should not be a difficult task then, to win her confidence."

The men eyed her intently. Huda stared at the floor.

"We want you to befriend the diplomat's wife. If the West acts to destabilize our beloved nation, or God forbid, strike us again with their unholy missiles, your boss will certainly receive warning. He may let it slip to his wife. And, surely, he would make plans to send her out of the country."

"I don't think—"

"Stay close to the diplomat's wife." Abu Issa sat forward. "Watch and listen. She may give us early warning, like a dog that howls before the sharqi blows in from the desert."

The front door rattled. The knob thumped against the foyer wall. Khalid's sneakers squelched over the tiles in the hallway.

"Mom? Dad?"

Huda's heart constricted. She put down her tea and dashed out to the hall. Khalid loped toward her, clutching a fragment of the padlock in his fist.

"Somebody cut the—"

"I am busy with guests, my son." She blocked his path. "Go to your room and wait for me."

"But the lock..." He peered past her shoulder. "Who's that? Where's Dad?"

Huda grabbed both of Khalid's shoulders. She wanted to hug him tight, to crush him to her chest and never let go. Instead, she steered him toward his room.

"Do your homework. Now."

"Ouch!" Khalid twisted out of her grip. "Your nails hurt."

She fixed him with her most evil eye. It was the type of glare usually reserved for his most heinous crimes, like the time he cursed in front of his grandmother or when he and Bakr climbed the orange tree and bared their backsides at the teenage girls next door.

"Go!" she hissed.

Khalid shot a final glance past her shoulder, then slouched toward his bedroom. Huda crept back to the sitting room. The mukhabarat had finished their tea.

"We will leave you now, sister. It is late and no doubt you want to take care of your son." Abu Issa rose to his feet. "He is your most precious possession, is he not?"

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