Something special for everyone this week! A sneak peek at Adam and Faisal’s first meeting, years ago. What brought the two into contact? How could two so very different men from very different worlds come together? Who reached out first? Who made the first move? Step back in time to Adam’s early days as a young Marine Corps officer…
Why hadn’t he gone the traditional route?
Everyone said, back at Officer Candidate School, that he shouldn’t talk to those creeps from the Defense Intelligence Agency. They talked a good game, but all they did was sell empty promises and broken careers. Anyone who knew what they were doing would tell the DIA recruiters to fuck off.
Well. First, it had been a simple conversation over coffee. Then lunch off base. Dinner in DC. Meeting the head of the Clandestine Program. He was smart enough to know when he was being wooed.
Going from being smoked at OCS, having to do pushups until his arms gave out, run until he puked, stay up for three days straight on a training exercise, to being told how valuable, intelligent, and unique he was by the DIA recruiter was an almost intoxicating pull. Like a seduction, he followed the recruiters exactly where they wanted him to go.
You speak Arabic? Multiple dialects? We have so much need for you. You’ll be perfect. Rocket through our agency. Make a real difference in the world.
Eighteen months later, he was sweating his balls off in divided Iraq, tired of smelling shit and chicken guts in the sewers, tired all the God damn time, and frustrated up to his eyeballs. All his days were spent chasing leads, chasing sources, chasing people who would rather see him fail than share the slightest bit of helpful intelligence. Iraq was a nation divided on fault lines. He could cross a street and go from a war zone to a suburb. Gangs of Caliphate members roamed, striking like fundamentalist ninjas. The people he needed to get intelligence from distrusted him on sight. One of the oppressors, a spy for pick-your-own-bogeyman, someone too dangerous to associate with for fear of reprisal by the Other.
The best information he got was from kids. The younger the better, but too young, and they thought it was a game.
His patience was not long enough to play ‘guess the intel’ with a five-year-old standing ankle-deep in shit and trash on the side of her mud-road.
What did you see? What men came by? Did they dress like this? Did you hear them talking about anything? Did the mention places? Buildings? Markets? Have you seen any weapons? How many?
A month ago, a seven-year-old contact of his bragged about hearing their neighbors talking about the market off of Falestin Street. Two days later, security forces stopped a car bomber heading for the center of the market.
He got an ‘atta boy back slap via text and a reminder that his expense justification report was due.
Two thousand dollars on sweets and candy, payment to his sources. A comic book or five. Crayons. Tools of liberation, surely.
He was a regular James Bond.
Fuck it all. He needed a break. His career was spiraling, sinking into the desert like a lost city, about to covered by endless piles of sand. Great wins did not come from the mouths of children. He wouldn’t be stopping the next big terrorist with lollipops. Wouldn’t be changing the world. He wanted to save lives, make a real difference. Change the course of everything. Put an end to the endless circle of death and slaughter. Lofty goals. The goals of a young man.
Two years in, and he was already turning dejected. A dead-end life and a dead-end career would do that, though.
Adam leaned his head back on the silk sofa and exhaled. Music wailed around him, drums and tambourines and a pounding rhythm that offset the scratchy minor chords the Arabs loved so much. At first, the music had been like nails scratching down his bones, or a rake scraping over concrete. Now, he thought in the minor key, and American rap seemed too slow.
Vibrant silk and cotton twirled in the breeze, strung between poles in loops and swirls. Torches as tall as a man leaned out of brass holders staked in the ground. Lanterns sat at angles on mounds of sand, their candles flickering within punched bronze cylinders and orbs of colored glass. Bonfires burned along the mile, the riverfront promenade where Ramadan Iftar celebrations abounded, lasting through the night.
Long tables stretched along the riverfront, low on the sand and scrub grass. Everyone sat on cushions, with piles and piles of food stacked on the table beside pitchers of juice in every color of the rainbow. Men and women had already broken their fast, taking bites of dates and sipping yogurt as they cheered and clapped. The more devout rose to pray after their first three dates.
Food and drinks flowed. Roasted chicken on red rice with a shaved boiled egg, slivered almonds, and raisins. Lamb stew and kubbat halab, rice dough stuffed with goat and chicken. Diamond flatbreads, sammoun, and sweet juice to drink: tamarind sherbert, apricot, mango, grape, and sweetened yogurt. Baklava and zlabya, desserts that made the molars ached.
As everyone broke their fast and celebrated, the din and rise of conversation flowed over the party. People came and went, rising from the tables to wander along the riverfront, or sit on the sofas and chaises spread outside. Ramadan was the biggest party of the Islamic year. Everyone wanted to be together, connected with joy, celebrating with fires lit in their hearts. You could feel it, the pulse in the air, the thrum of happiness, of gratitude, and, for the moment, peace. Simple pleasures—connection, family, friends, safety—and delight. Gratitude. Calls of praise to Allah rose, louder and more heartfelt as the celebrations wore on. Smiles grew. Laughter bloomed. Dancing began. Men and men and women and women dancing, simple movements that spun each other in circles at arms lengths.
Adam had never felt more alone.
Ramadan was a prickly time to work intelligence. Some fighters called a cease fire for the holy month. Others, struck like lightning by the intensity of their beliefs, lashed out with vicious force, devastating celebrations like this one.
Why was he even there? He wasn’t a Muslim. There was no intel that something was going to happen, that night or on the riverfront. There was absolutely zero reason for him to have joined in this celebration, plopping onto a couch someone dragged to the park and watching everyone else experience their joy.
Children ran by him, waving candles and singing loudly, off key. An Arabic rhythm, a Ramadan version of trick or treating. One little boy, maybe six, waved to him with sticky fingers.
He tried to smile. Waved a few fingers back. That kid could be a spy for him in another neighborhood. In a different part of the city, or the country. If he were wearing torn clothes and mismatched shoes, instead of pleated pants and a pressed sweater.
His thoughts turned on him, growing barbs and biting his soul.
He needed to leave. Now.
Taking a breath, Adam pulled himself up, moving like a doll with broken limbs. He was tired, so fucking tired. Tired of it all. He just—
A man, standing by the river, caught his gaze.
A circle of lanterns rested by his feet, tilted panes of red, yellow, and green glass throwing a rainbow glow over his burnished skin. Dark hair, cut neat. A slim figure, but tall. Designer jeans, the kind that came from Dubai or Damman or Bahrain. A button down, light and fitted to his frame. Honey eyes that stared right back at Adam. A gentle smile curved the man’s lips, and a flicker from one of the candles below spread blue light over his cheek. The angle of his jaw could cut diamonds. The sun could set beneath the arch of his cheek.
Adam’s breath faltered. His jaw dropped, just a bit, as he stared.
A couple twirled between them, a man holding a woman’s hands gently as he spun her toward the river. A tambourine rattled as the drums beat on. Adam blinked. He clamped his mouth shut.
The man was gone.
Good. He couldn’t do that here. Couldn’t do any of it. Couldn’t even look at men. Couldn’t think about what he wanted, what he yearned for. Not just because of where he was; strictly speaking, it wasn’t illegal in the Marines any longer, but openly parading your personal life—any personal life—was suicide. The Marines issued your life. It did not come with any desire for another person, male or female. Putting anything else before the Corps was the first death kneel.
But, lusting after an Arab, inside Iraq? He’d only be more stupid if he tried to pick up a Saudi. Religious police were unforgiving, and especially intolerant of his tastes.
Time to go. His thoughts were jumbled, mixed up as a curl of desire bloomed in his belly. Fuck, he hadn’t been turned on in months. Had it almost been a year, even? Porn had lost its charm long ago. His hands weren’t interested, and he wasn’t interested in his hands, either. Had it gotten so bad that one smile, one striking man by candlelight, was all it took?
He scrubbed his hands over his face. This had been a bad idea, the whole thing, and now he was paying for it. He stood—
Behind him, a gentle, warm voice chuckled and spoke again. “I hope I’m not interrupting. I saw you, just now, and I wanted to come over here and say hello.”
Adam turned, slowly, like a screw fighting its last spin. The man, the man in the candlelight, stood behind him. Torchlight and lamps from the tables, from the riverwalk, from the streetlights, lit him perfectly. God, he was even more breathtaking than before.
His brain spun on opposite tracks. One side, cataloging his accent, his diction. The man spoke carefully with a slight British accent. UK educated, which meant money. His jeans weren’t cheap. His coloring wasn’t quite Iraqi. Somewhere further south. Gulf countries. And, he had the confidence to seek Adam out, approach him. Why?
The other side of Adam’s brain dribbled out his ears. His jaw fell open again. Cardamom and coriander filled his nose, followed by cinnamon and orange, a hint of peach. Honey. He breathed in, trying to drag the scent closer. His heart hammered in time with the drums, a fast, crazed beat that never stopped.
“Hi,” he finally grunted. “Um—“
“Faisal.” Smiling again, Faisal held out his hand.
“Adam.” Shit. Greeting anyone in the Arab world was a trigonometry problem. Would this be a handshake, like America? His whiteness put others off, often excluded him from the cultural greetings that surrounded him. Would Faisal pull him close for a kiss on the cheek? How many kisses? They’d just met, surely it was going to be a hand hold.
Adam took Faisal’s hand, squeezing and starting to shake. Faisal drew him close, smiling. He pressed their cheeks together and kissed the air beside Adam’s ear twice, pulled back, and did the same to his other cheek.
Two kisses. Alright. Basic Arab greetings 101. Faisal was being polite.
Faisal pulled him back, pressing a third kiss to his cheek. This time, he turned in, ghosting his lips over Adam’s sideburn, his cheekbone. “Marhaban,” he breathed.
That was definitely not a normal hello. Adam’s breath quickened, and he tried to catch Faisal’s gaze as Faisal pulled back. Why—What— He swallowed hard.
Faisal smiled. “May I join you?”
Thoughts of leaving vanished. He sat back down. “Sure.”
What the hell was he doing? Run! Get away! You have no idea who he is or what he wants. It could be a trap!
Faisal leaned back, reclining on the couch with effortless ease and style. Adam rubbed his palms together. Sweat made them sticky.
“You don’t know anyone here, do you?” Faisal kept smiling at him, a soft curve of his lips that teased Adam’s blood.
He flushed and grinned, spreading his hands. “You caught me.”
Faisal captured one of his hands before he brought it back to his lap. He laced their fingers together and rested their joined hands between them on the couch. “Now you know me.”
Oh, shit, he shouldn’t be rocketing off from a simple touch. Faisal was only doing what was normal. Holding hands, a sign of friendship in the Middle East, especially among men. Nothing more. Don’t stroke the back of his hand with your thumb. Don’t!
He felt his palm slick with cold sweat. Faisal would feel that. God, what an idiot he was. “Shukraan.”
“What are you doing in Iraq?” Faisal seemed content to sit back and hold his hand, chat the night away. And why not? It was Ramadan, the time of connection.
“I’m a reporter.” His lie tumbled from his lips, his cover story. “Following the country’s continued civil war, the fight against the Caliphate.” He shrugged. “Same stuff, different decade.”
Faisal nodded. “Wouldn’t it be nice if this could be every night here?” He gestured to the celebrations. The people, the happiness, the peace.
“It would.” Adam bit his lip. “In shaa Allah, it will someday.”
Faisal’s eyes brightened. “You are Muslim?”
“Respectful, then.” Faisal’s smile turned, from polite to something else. Something that slithered down Adam’s belly and sent jolts through his legs. “Something unusual in western men.”
“You spend a lot of time with western men?” Jesus, someone should ban him from talking. He clamped his lips shut and looked away. “Sorry, that was rude.”
“I do not,” Faisal said, ignoring his apology. “Most want nothing to do with me. And thus, I want nothing to do with them.”
Faisal’s eyes locked onto his. Something simmered in the amber depths, something he didn’t want to stare too hard at.
Slowly, Faisal’s thumb stroked over the back of his hand. “Has anyone shown you around the city? The best place to have a coffee? Eat halawat sha’riyya? Watch the sunrise?”
He couldn’t speak. He shook his head.
“Would you like to watch the sunrise with me?” Faisal’s head tilted, a coy little grin on his lips.
“Would we stay here?” His voice had dropped, low and gravely. He squeezed Faisal’s hand. Was this for real? Was Faisal actually picking him up? Or was he reading too much into Arab friendliness and congeniality? Was he only seeing what he wanted to see?
Or, worse. Was this a trap? Iraq wasn’t Saudi, but there were still gangs of religious police. Caliphate infiltrators that loved to ‘expose’ hedonism and infidel corruption as proof that they were essential, a needed force for their firebrand, medieval Islam.
The smart thing to do would be to walk away. Politely thank him for the conversation and beg off, back to his apartment and go to sleep. He’d jerk off for sure to this tonight, and probably for the next month or four, remembering Faisal’s smile, his eyes, the warmth of his skin.
“We could stay, if you want.” Faisal’s thumb brushed his hand again. “I would prefer to show you something other than this river, though. But only if you would like.”
Jesus. He flushed all over, heat racing through him from head to toe. No mistaking what it was now. A blatant invitation. But was it honest? Was it true? Was he about to be the star of his very own YouTube video and end up a sad, tragic headline, the American who couldn’t control his lust? Couldn’t keep it in his pants?
He wanted it to be true. God, he did. What would Faisal be like? Would he smile that way throughout the night? Keep it light and fun, playful even? He seemed the type. But, there were depths there, in his eyes, in the way he held Adam’s hand. Pursued Adam. How long had it been since someone had wanted him, picked him out of a crowd and wanted to fuck him? Take him home?
He stared into Faisal’s eyes. His confusion, his lust, his uncertainty had to be plain as day. What he wanted, he shouldn’t, couldn’t have.
“Come with me, Adam,” Faisal breathed. His eyes burned, searing Adam’s skin as they raked over his body, from his feet to the tips of his hair and back to his lips, his eyes. “Keep me company all night long. Tell me stories about you. I will show you the sunrise in the morning.”
How the hell was he going to walk out of here with a half-hard cock? Don’t be an idiot, Adam! This could ruin the rest of your life!
He squirmed. Licked his lips. Looked away.
And then looked back, deep into Faisal’s eyes. He squeezed his hand. “Okay.”
Timestamp: Adam and Faisal’s first meeting, three years prior to Enemies of the State.