The Capitol Game

1

Abdallah shuffled and squirmed a little deeper into the dark, dirty culvert. The day was hot, almost blisteringly so, though slightly more bearable in here. He drew a deep breath of air, cupped his ears, and listened hard for the noise of loud engines.

Hadi, his best friend of twelve years, and currently his partner in crime, was holed up in a room on the third floor of a large building abandoned during the bombings, then gutted and neglected ever since. For generations, the building had belonged to the Fadithi clan, a private enclave surrounded by lush gardens nurtured and tended by half a dozen workers.

The Fadithis were richer than anybody; they rarely slipped a chance to let you know it, either. Big, fancy imported cars, scholarly tutors for their tribe of rottenly spoiled kids, and they escaped every summer to long, luxurious vacations in the cool hills of Lebanon.

The farthest Hadi had ever traveled was to the tiny village two miles to the south, a tiny lump of dirt-infested squalor that bore a disappointing resemblance to his own sad pile of dust and concrete.

Local lore had it the Fadithis had fled out of their house during one of the American air raids and blindly dodged straight into an American bomb. Like that—boom—pulverized into mist, the richest family in town, nothing more than a revolting smear on the street.

Inside two days, the big building hosted a raucous neighborhood bash—the furniture, the clothing, the wiring, the heaters from the backyard, even the windows torn out and hauled off by the laughing neighbors.

Allah did indeed have a cruel but just side.

Abdallah and Hadi had rehearsed this stunt the day before, a brief run-through before their attention shifted to a pickup soccer game three blocks down and they spent the remainder of the afternoon booting around a ball given to the neighborhood boys by one of the American invaders, a large man in dark glasses with a fierce sunburn and a bright smile loaded with phoniness. The ball had a queer shape. It quickly proved worthless, like somebody had grabbed it at both ends and tugged so hard that it never snapped back. With each kick, it flew off in weird directions, bouncing and bobbling and skittering in the dust. What a hoot.

Americans! Whatever made them believe they could conquer and rule this country when they couldn’t even design a workable soccer ball?

Abdallah gently fingered the device in his right hand—a trigger, the man who provided it had called it. Didn’t look like a gun trigger, though: Abdallah had seen plenty of those, he bragged to the man, and this, well, no, this definitely wasn’t a trigger. The man got mad, poked him with a mean finger in the stomach, and reminded him who was paying the money; it was whatever he decided to call it. Well, whatever it was, the funny device fit cleanly into the palm of Abdallah’s small fist. It was not in any way he could see connected to the big bomb stuffed inside the large garbage barrel beside the road. No wires, no fuse, nothing. But the man swore the slightest squeeze would produce a terrible explosion.

And afterward, he warned with a deep scowl, Abdallah had better drop the trigger and scatter as fast as his chubby legs would carry him.

The man doing all the talking, Mustafa, was a two-bit loser who had rolled in and out of Saddam’s prisons with disturbing frequency. He had tried his hand at forgery, bribery, holdups, a little drug dealing, and failed pathetically at all of them.

Mustafa’s last incompetent attempt at crime was a