Our Right Trusty and Right Well-Beloved Cousins
Dedicated in loving memory to Robert Martin Culp
(August 16, 1930 – March 24, 2010)
and John Spencer
(December 20, 1946 – December 16, 2005)
"For notable and lasting service to the throne and the people of Khadra, We are pleased to appoint as Knights Commander of the Most Noble Order of the Scimitar, Our right trusty and right well-beloved cousins Alexander Scott Pasha and Kelly Robinson Pasha."
-King Abd al-Salaam bin Al Yafeth of the Yaphetite Kingdom of Khadra, age 16,
November, 1965, Las Vegas, Nevada
Zahrat el-Saharaa, Khadra, 1967
“Honestly,” said the eighteen-year-old King, “other than at the ceremony, there is no need to wear the medals.”
Abd el-Salaam bin Al Yafeth, XIXth King of the Yaphetite Kingdom of Khadra, would not have seemed out of place at an aristocratic college’s senior prom: a handsome young man, black hair worn a little long, but neatly parted, wearing a tailored, cream-colored tropical-weight suit over a pale-blue turtleneck. His skin was the color of bread crust, and smooth as silk, and his dark eyes sparkled with humor and intelligence.
The man he was speaking to was tall, with a long, slender strength, standing easy, his white boat shoes slightly apart on the cobblestones, white jeans form-fitting on strong, athletic legs, shoulders strong and supple under a pale orange polo shirt. His brown eyes, naturally hooded, were also twinkling with good humor, and below a straight nose, his mouth was quirked into a wry smile.
“Well, but, your Highness,” Kelly Robinson said, brushing brown hair back off his forehead, “they’re so stylish, so dashing, and what dusky Scheherazade will be able to resist a Knight Commander of the Royal Order of the Scimitar?”
The man standing beside him was slightly taller, his skin the color of dark chocolate, intelligent eyes above strong cheekbones, full lips smiling without irony in a slender, elegant jawline. He was wearing a tan denim jacket and brown v-neck shirt, tan jeans, and good, solid walking shoes. “Quite aside from which,” he told the King, “our State Department rather likes the idea of your people here seeing two red-blooded Americans wearing these. Red-white-and-blue heroes in the name of Khadra.”
The King laughed delightedly. “Ah, Mr. Scott, you are a never-ending pleasure! Very well, if you can stand straight under the burden of such gaudy baubles, who is a mere King to gainsay you?”
“Glad you understand that, your Highestness,” said Scotty, smiling. “After all, in Philadelphia, I’d let you wear your medals!”
“And are you King of Philadelphia, Mr. Scott?”
“You know it, your Majesticness!” said Scotty with a grin.
Kelly laughed, supplying, “Just ask his Mom.”
The marketplace on the outskirts of Zahrat el-Saharaa, Khadra’s capital city, was like a collision between a 4H fair, an Istanbul ferry and an Arabian Nights movie. In the days before the British, there had been a strong Turkish presence here, and it showed in the turbans and robes worn by so many of the Khadrans, those from the northern tribes especially. But they had arrived, not in caravans of camels, but rusty old pick-up trucks from the backs of which they, like others from all over Khadra, with their trucks and small tents and stalls, sold dates and goat’s milk and Beatles and Monkees records and bread and cheese and blue jeans and various kinds of meat. There were pens of goats and tables spread with intricately-worked leather goods, and an ice cream truck that would have looked right at home in small-town USA.
Among them thronged a very mixed lot of citizens, some wearing denim, some khaki, some fine linens. There were more turbans and Turkish robes, there were Burkas and business suits, men in blue collar work-shirts and Kameez and Jalabiya, women in miniskirts and pantsuits and Abaya and Jilbab, and combinations thereof.
Here and there, slight forms were completely covered in robes and hoods and veils, only their eyes showing through thin, exposed slits. “Women,” King Bashik explained, “who observe the Salafi tradition. Very strict adherence to a particularly grim interpretation of 7th century Islamic law as practiced – as they claim was practiced – by the Prophet Mohammed.” He grinned sidewise. “It’s their menfolk who enforce the it. Salafis talk of purity and being closer to Allah, but personally, I think it’s just craven gynophobia run amuck. Fear of the power women can hold over men through pleasure.” He shook his head. “Insane. But, they are religious, and a growing faction here and elsewhere – I understand the Shah of Iran has been having the Devil’s own time with them – and I cannot deny them their rights, any more than you could outlaw the Mormons.”
Kelly grinned. “And those Mormon girls, they’re not always all that afraid of a little pleasure, no indeed!”
Scotty glanced over at him. “Are you allowed back in Utah yet?”
“Oh, now are you really gonna throw that in my face?” asked Kelly, aggrieved. “I mean, it was all a misunderstanding, you know.” He looked down at his feet. “Besides, it’s not the whole of Utah, just Salt Lake, man.”
They walked through the crowd, two upright bodyguards in immaculate suits leading the way: Al-Shurafaa, “The Honorable Ones,” the King’s personal protectors. It was a new department created by the King’s uncle, the Regent, after an assassination attempt against the King two years previously – one barely foiled by Kelly and Scotty, and in no small part by the young King’s own courage – planned and committed his own Chief of Security.
In the center of the busy marketplace, a fountain chuckled happily, coins shining silver and brass and copper and gold under the dancing surface. Around the edge of the fountain stood a half-dozen posts, about waist-height, atop which, attached by brass chains, were silvery dippers. “It is a charitable fountain,” said the King, “where passersby may drink freely, and pray for the soul of its founder. The founder of this fountain, though, is lost to history. Nobody knows whose soul receives their prayers.”
Scotty seemed bemused. “I thought charity fountains were drinking fountains,” he ventured. “A row of little faucets,” he gestured, “along an intricate, worked marble facade.”
“Ah,” said the King with a smile, “your briefers were lazy! They no doubt copied that section of the file for Egypt! No, Scotty, here in Khadra, they have always been based on decorative fountains. A leftover from the Romans, who brought in a system of aqueducts, to bring water-play to several Imperial palaces, vacation homes for Romans of high standing, not unlike the house I had rented in Las Vegas. Wealthy locals copied them.”
“You don’t usually see these with coins in them, though,” said Scotty. “Do you?”
“Quite true,” replied the King. “But when I visited your country, in New York, in Washington, in Las Vegas, everywhere I went, I saw fountains full of coins, coins that would be gathered and offered to worthy causes. Your ‘March of Dimes,’ which fought polio to a standstill, and now works to end birth defects and infant mortality. I thought it a lovely idea, so when I got back to Khadra, I toured the country, and in each charitable fountain, I dropped one hundred gold sovereigns, in a small ceremony.” He smiled, looking at once his age, and younger, and older, idealistic and wise. “I’m pleased to say it has caught on.”
The looked from the fountain across the marketplace to an ancient stone wall, its gate clearly leading to the burbling waters.
Kelly’s head angled slightly over, and he turned to the King. “Your Highness.... What is this place?”
The King’s face became solemn. “I see that you already know. You are quite right, Kelly.” He pointed as he spoke. “The Romans built that wall, millennia ago, and there is the Fountain Gate: Bab al-Sabeel.”
Stillness settled over Kelly and Scotty then, as well.
“How is he?” Kelly finally asked, if only to break the silence.
The King shrugged. “Well enough, I suppose. I visit him, you know. Not Halouf, he is but an ambitious traitor. But Bobby? Yes, him, I visit. Regularly.” He looked thoughtfully at the two Americans. “It’s very strange, really. I still like Bobby Seville. And he, well, the poor fellow hates me, of course, hates me and everything I stand for, but, well, I’m his only fan. So there he sits in his cell, trapped between bitterness and flattery, the blood of our fathers standing between us.” The dark eyes regarded the ground for a moment, then returned to Kelly. “It is very sad, of course, but what is there to do?”
“You’re a good man, your Highness,” said Scotty, softly.
“If I am,” he replied, evenly, “much of the credit is due you, and you, Mr. Robinson.” He gestured at the colorful jeep they had arrived in, white ones before and behind it. “Now, please, come, if you will – and if you feel you’ve shown off your medals enough to please your Mr. Rusk?”
Kelly laughed. “I think we’ve got that covered, Your Highness.”
“True, true,” said Scotty. “See how the eyes of all these women follow us.”
“Well, yeah,” said Kelly, “but that’s just because we’re so beautiful, man.”
“No, that’s just me. You, they’re all looking at your medal.”
“Now, is that any way to talk to your partner? And in front of a King, too, man, I mean, that’s just mean, you know?”
“Please, gentlemen,” chuckled King Bashik. “Not in front of the royalty!”
“You know, Jed,” said the fair-haired man, as he waved for one of the many taxicabs stationed in front of the airport, “I’m still not sure why we’re here, and not on Cape Cod.”
Jed looked up as the cab drew in front of them. “Well, Leo, first of all, Cape Cod is in Massachusetts, and therefore unworthy of us. If I wanted time on a New England beach, New Hampshire has lovely ones. Seabrook, Hampton Beach. But you know what they don’t have, even in New Hampshire?”
“Thousand-year-old Sanskrit parchments that you’re going to insist on translating to me at excruciating length?” said Leo McGarry, a wry smile on his genially craggy face.
“Well, yes, those, too, Leo,” said Jed Bartlet, at 24, four years his friend’s senior, a tall, serious-looking man with dark hair and deep-set eyes separated from a pursed mouth by a long, straight nose, “but I was talking about a King two years younger than you, ascending to the throne of one of the wealthiest, and most successfully modernized countries in the Middle East.”
“In the middle of the desert,” said Leo, smiling at the driver and helping him get their bags into the trunk. “Which is very, very hot.”
“But dry,” replied Jed, holding the door for Leo, who slid smoothly into the back seat. “Surely better than slogging through the mud in Viet Nam?”
“Actually,” replied Leo, following him in, “you do surprisingly little slogging when you’re flying an F105. Mainly, you just push a button, and stuff blows up.”
“Hotel Kraliyet,” Jed told the driver, and then turned to Leo. “I still say, that war is crap.”
“Me, too,” said Leo. “Now, you convince President Johnson of that, and we all get to go home.”
“Yeah,” said Jed, glumly. “There is that.” He looked out the window as Zahrat el-Saharaa went by, and his mood lightened. “Still, Leo, this is truly an extraordinary place. You know, back in ‘54, there was an attempted military coup, here. The Cadre, they called themselves, a general and some colonels, shot the King down in his palace. They say Qumar was behind it. The sultan hated old King Fouad, because he was very progressive. Did you know Khadra has the smallest gap between rich and poor of any country in the region?”
“That’s sort of like being the best ballet dancer in Cleveland, isn’t it?”
“You’re a snob, Leo.”
“Have you seen the Cleveland Ballet?” asked Leo.
“Okay, that’s a fair point.” Jed shrugged. “Anyway, after the old King died, his four-year-old son was next in line, but the King’s brother became Regent, and he’s kept right up with modernization, and even increased the old King’s social programs! What I’ve read of the young King is, he’s much of a piece. We’re really lucky to have a chance to see this, Leo. We’re going to watch a young man take the throne who could very well remake the entire region!”
“I’m not complaining about the King,” Kelly said again, as he and Scotty sat together in the main room of their suite in the palace. “He’s great. I mean, he’s great! It’s like, everything we saw in Vegas two years ago has been refined, and everything that made me want to smack him is gone, all right?”
Scotty poured himself a glass of “Mirinda,” which in this case was Orange Crush, over ice. “Well, then, what are you griping about, Hoby?”
“I’m not,” replied Kelly. “I’m just concerned about how good this is going to be for our cover. Bashik’s Ascension is a big deal. You get that, right?”
Scotty gave him a flat-faced look.
“So the press from the world over is going to be covering the ceremony, and lookie, lookie, look who’s there: international tennis bum Kelly Robinson, and his trainer, Alexander Scott. Wearing the highest medal Khadra offers. How’s that going to look wherever we go next?”
“We have a cover story, Kel,” said Scotty, mildly.
“Our cover story is the truth, except leaving out the part where we’re government agents, and we shot at people.”
“Right!” said Scotty. “See, it’s easy to remember and everything! Besides, man, I reject your fundamental premise!”
“Reject my–” Kelly blinked. “Stanley, what are you talking about?”
“Why is it always international tennis bum Kelly Robinson, and his trainer Alexander Scott? Why not international tennis trainer Alexander Scott, and his bum Kelly Robinson?”
Kelly laughed. “Because then people would expect you to sit on me, man!”
“You’re right, man, I see that now, you’re way too bony, you’d leave bruises.”
Kelly’s mouth was open for a riposte but a sharp, rapid knocking on the door interrupted him. He held one finger toward Scotty as he went to the door, saying “Hold that thought!”
The staccato rapping was repeated and Kelly opened the door to the suite.
The difference between fourteen and sixteen is two, a small enough number in the world of mathematics. But in the years of a dark-haired, liquid-eyed Queen, two is a huge number, a vast, towering barrier between an impressive child and a beautiful woman. She was, more than that, the most dangerous thing in Kelly’s universe, a beautiful woman in distress.
“Oh, Kelly!” Tears flowed down her cheeks as she threw herself upon him, arms around him, burying her face in his chest. He felt her tears soaking through the white tee-shirt he’d changed into after showering. “You must help us. Even if he refuses, you must!” Her face turned toward Scotty, and she cried, “Please, both of you, you must help!”
“You know we will,” Scotty said.
Kelly nodded, stroking her hair like the girl he remembered, not the young woman who held him. “Anything, Nejmet,” he said, “you know that.”
“There you are!” The King’s voice, outside the open door, was angry. “What are you doing here!? I forbade you–”
“Forbade!” spat Nejmet, scornfully.
Kelly took her shoulders in his hands, held her away from himself, telling the King, “Your highness, I promise you, this was–”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous!” the King snapped. “I know that!” He turned to his Queen. “But if you had been seen, alone in a room with two men, not your husband? That was your reaction to this? To this? Where is your brain?”
“Not beaten into submission by my pride, Biko!” the Queen shot back. “You must tell them. You must show them. You must ask their help. They are your friends, that is what friends do.”
The King seemed shocked. “With this, Nuna? With a matter like this?”
“Her Majesty is right about this much, your Highness,” said Kelly. “We are your friends. We’ll help in any way we can.”
“You do not understand,” the King said forbiddingly. “This is a matter of honor.”
“I may have had questions, your Highness, about your judgment and about your manners,” said Scotty, and the King looked up at him, sharply and with dawning memory, “but never about your honor.”
“And the unstated corollary,” replied the King softly, “is that I could never question yours.” He was silent a moment, and turned back to his young wife. “Have I told you, Nuna, that you are most of my wisdom, and all of my common sense?”
She stepped against him, fitting with visible comfort, and drew and gave equally visible strength from the embrace. “No, husband. But I have told you that I am, many times!”
The King smiled tenderly down at her, but his face was serious when he returned his gaze to Kelly and Scotty. “Come, gentlemen. This is a very private matter, we will discuss it in my private office.”
King Bashik’s private office was a serious, studious room, which in most mansions would be called “the library.” It was bigger than the briefing room in Washington where Kelly and Scotty had received their most complex briefings, with bookshelves rising to a vaulted ceiling, and one of those wheeled ladders found in public libraries, to allow access to shelves well above even a very tall man’s reach. In one corner was a simple wooden desk, such as might be found in the office of a mid-level bureaucrat, upon which were spread out papers and several books, William and Paul Paddock’s Famine and two different editions of Malthus’s Principles of Population among them, and a copy of a paper on Borlaug’s work in Mexico with dwarf wheat.
There were groupings of comfortable chairs and couches, with tables slightly higher than a coffee table, convenient height for writing or working, low enough not to interfere with conversation.
Bashik gestured to one of these groupings. “Please, sit,” he said, and walked over to the bookshelf beside his desk. He pulled three books partially out, and tipped a fourth back at an angle, and with an electronic hum, the section of bookshelf slid aside, revealing a wall-safe. The King looked a little embarrassed. “Please forgive the melodramatics. I went through a bit of a James Bond craze the year before I met you.”
“You and the rest of the world, your Highness,” said Scotty.
“I was a big fan of Thunderball, myself,” added Kelly.
“Yeah, but where was your jet-pack when we needed to escape from that heroin ring?” carped Scotty.
“The bad guy didn’t have an eye patch,” Kelly shot back. “How many times do I have to tell you, you can only use a jet-pack when the bad guy has an eye patch.”
Bashik essayed a weak smile, more in thanks for the effort than actual appreciation of the humor, and turned to the vault itself. It amused Kelly and Scotty to notice that, without any dramatic effort, Bashik had placed himself so that his body blocked any view of his hand turning the combination.
He returned in a moment, and joined them, sitting quietly in an elegant wing-backed chair that he made seem both regal and businesslike, and placed a large brown envelope on the table. He looked very severely at Kelly and Scotty. “What you are about to see, is, of course, entirely fabricated. I know this, even if it can’t be proven. If anyone were to suggest otherwise, I would be forced to strike them, quite hard, in the mouth.”
There was a coldness to his voice that brought Kelly’s and Scotty’s eyes up to him with a snap.
“It is, of course, most improper for Her Majesty, Queen Nejmet el-Sabah, to see these. This cannot be helped, as it plainly concerns her.” His manner was businesslike, but his voice was hard. Underneath the hardness, though, both Kelly and Scotty, and doubtless Nejmet as well, could detect the faintest undertone of roughness. The young King was holding it together with great effort.
He sat, quite still, for a very long moment, then took the envelope, his hand betraying a faint tremor, and opened it, unwinding a string from around two circular tabs, one on the flap, one on the body of the envelope. There was a broken wax seal still clinging to the edge.
“This envelope was delivered to me anonymously, shortly after we returned from the marketplace. It was sealed with wax, as you can see. The env– Pah! This is nonsense. I waste time. There is no need for investigation. I know whence this came. Here are the contents.”
He drew out a handful of eight-by-ten photographs, and handed them to Scotty.
He glanced down at them, and his body stiffened. He looked quickly over to Nejmet with wide eyes. “You–” He cleared his throat. “You’ve seen these?”
The Queen’s face was very blank. “Yes, Mr. Scott, I have.”
“I’m very sorry.”
Nejmet’s shoulders accepted and dismissed the condolence. “It is of little account, in the sweep of things.”
“Not to me,” said Scotty, handing the first picture to Kelly.
The pictures were a series. Only knowing her personally told the Americans they were fake. They showed Nejmet, naked, with a handsome, dark-skinned young man, perhaps Indian or Pakistani, also naked, who looked vaguely familiar. The photographs showed a sexual encounter, in graphic – pornographic – detail.
“Sajid Khan,” said the King, quietly. “An Indian actor. Something of a teen idol in America, apparently, on some television program with an elephant.”
“Maya,” supplied Nejmet, meekly.
The slightest note of teasing came into the King’s tone. “Her highness is rather a fan.”
She flushed, her cheeks darkening, but stammered, “He’ll have been faked as well. He is a devout Muslim. He would not appear in such pictures.”
“He was our guest in the palace a few weeks ago,” said the King. “Just for a weekend. A pleasant enough fellow, very serious about his acting. I quite agree that his likeness has been falsified as well.”
Kelly looked up at the King. “Your Highness, have you a magnifying glass?”
The King’s eyes widened. “I beg your pardon!”
Scotty was leaning in, speaking earnestly, even as the color filled Bashik’s face. “Your highness, the first thing we need is to be able to prove these are fakes. There’s nothing visible to the naked eye, so we’re going to need to be able to examine them more closely.”
The King was ill-at-ease with the idea, but relented, bringing two magnifying glasses from his desk.
“I assume there were threats delivered with the pictures?” asked Kelly, as he leaned low over a picture on the table, examining it closely through the glass.
“Yes.” Bashik’s voice was tight, and he didn’t elaborate, looking back and forth between the two Americans as they passed the pictures back and forth, examining them closely.
Nejmet stood and walked slowly through the room, making a large figure eight around the two seating areas, her lower lip pulled daintily between her teeth.
After fifteen minutes, Kelly looked up at Scotty. “Well, if that isn’t the goddamnedest thing,” he said.
Scotty shook his head. “Nothing. Not a single thing.”
“All right, then,” said Kelly, speaking quietly. “For all intents and purposes, these are real.”
“Enough!” cried the King, leaping to his feet, fists balled before him in a boxer’s stance. “Stand up, Kelly Robinson Pasha, stand up and defend yourself!”
Kelly blinked up at him. “What are you–”
“You have impugned the Queen’s honor! By law, I could have your tongue cut from your head! Stand up!”
Kelly did stand, angrily, and Scotty sat back to watch, gesturing to a distressed Nejmet to let the scene play out. “Your Highness,” said Kelly, his face red with anger, “who the hell do you think you’re talking to?”
The King straightened as if slapped, eyes wide with amazement. “I beg your pardon!”
“And well you should!” said Kelly. “We’ve known Nejmet since she was fourteen! Of course we both know full well that those pictures are fakes! And it’s damned insulting–”
“But you said they were real!”
“I said for all intents and purposes they’re real! We can’t prove they aren’t! It doesn’t matter what we know, it matters what we can prove! These pictures are flawless, faultless. There’s nothing in them – unless, Nejmet, do you have some sort of mark or blemish that should show in these pictures, but–”
“No,” she said, the word almost a sob.
The King stared at Kelly, still flushed with anger. “That it has come to this,” he murmured. “That a man asks my wife about her body, directly in front of me, and he is on our side!”
“Well, we are on your side, Bashik,” said Scotty, firmly. “I know this is tough stuff, but you have to remember that. We’re your friends, and we’re here to help you. However outrageous or offensive something may seem, if we talk about something, it’s because we’re trying to help you.”
It was Nejmet who answered, and her voice was very soft, and frighteningly calm. “It does not matter, Mr. Scott. Even if my body bore some mark, some mole, some blemish, that differentiated me from– That! – the fact would be no help to me. The mere exposure of it to disprove the fakery would do every bit as much damage as this filth.” She drew another breath. “But the fact is that, however these were achieved, they were done flawlessly. Had I been confronted with these while suffering amnesia, I would take them as proof myself that I had done these things.”
The King had dropped back into his chair. He stared sullenly at his feet, then looked back up at Kelly with bleak eyes. “I am... very sorry, Kelly. As you can imagine, this is very difficult for me. But in truth, you cannot imagine, because you are not an Arab. This is... catastrophic. This is... this ends the Yaphetite Dynasty more thoroughly than Halouf ever imagined.”
“You said you received a threat,” said Kelly, his voice all business, concerned and friendly.
“Yes.” Bashik sat back and closed his eyes. “I am to obey commands transmitted to me secretly, as these were–” He waved a tired hand at the pictures. “–from Al Qabda – that is Arabic for The Fist. It is short for Qabdat Sultan Allah El-Mokhtar, The Fist of Allah’s chosen Sultan. They are the Qumari secret police. All the charm of East Germany’s Stasi and none of the restraint. If I disobey, the photographs will be released.” He drew a breath, then opened his eyes. “And there is worse. Along with the photographs, there will be rumors, that Nejmet is pregnant with his child. If that were even publicly suspected I wouldn’t be able to so much as order the lowliest private in our army to close a door.”
“But, your Highness...” Kelly’s voice was gentle. “Surely it will become clear that the Queen isn’t pregnant.”
“She could very well be,” replied the King distractedly, then suddenly looked up, taking in the awkward postures and carefully too-blank faces. “Honestly, gentlemen,” he snapped, “she is my wife, surely such a thing is not unheard of!”
“And if I am not pregnant, added Nejmet, “then it will be said that Biko has forced me to abort. It would solve nothing, with these pictures at large.”
“Forced you– Surely–” Kelly stammered.
“Mr. Robinson, this is the Middle East,” said Nejmet. “Were the Sultan of Qumar in this position, he might be expected to put me to death, cleansing his honor in his errant wife’s blood. Were I thought pregnant by another man, even lopping my head off with the Royal Scimitar in the Palace Square would not be enough to rehabilitate the King, especially in the eyes of the military.”
“Nuna!” cried the King, his tone so tender that both Kelly and Scotty had to suppress smiles, “I would sooner fall upon it than lop off so much as a single hair of your dear head!”
“Wait,” said Scotty, after an awkward moment. “You mean you actually have a Scimitar? Man, I thought it was just a figure of speech, your Majesterialness!”
Kelly pouted. “Yeah, man,” he added, “we’re supposed to be Knights Commander of the Order, and we never even saw the thing, much less got knighted with it! What kind of deal is that?”
The King actually did smile then, widely and without complication. “It is a ridiculous ceremonial thing, that hangs on the wall over my throne. Jewels in the blade and colored ribbons with silken pompons dangling from the haft! Had I even approached your shoulder with it, you’d have fallen down laughing.”
The tension now broken, Scotty leaned forward, elbows on knees, and regarded the King seriously. “All right, your Highness,” he said quietly. “The pictures are a dead end. Let’s talk about how they were delivered. This envelope was given to you anonymously?”
“That’s right. A man from a messenger service brought it into my public office –” the King looked up. “– I have a public office as well, where I work two hours a day in my official capacity. After the Elevation, that will be increased to six. In any case, while there is much security from the Honorable Ones, that office is very much like that of a top executive in any business in New York, say, or Boston. The messenger was admitted, explained that he was required to hand-deliver the envelope directly to me, and that a receipt be signed acknowledging that it was delivered with the wax seal still intact. It was... Unusual, but not unreasonable. Since we last met, I have made great efforts not to... What is your American phrase? Not to throw my weight around. I look back on myself then as rather a spoiled little brat.”
“So do we, your Most Exaltedness, Sire,” said Scotty. Kelly’s face went quite still, and the King’s eyebrows rose. “But your heart was in the right place,” Scotty continued, “so we’re willing to let it go, you see, in the interests of international comity.”
Bashik threw back his head and laughed, not long but with genuine pleasure. “Oh, Scotty,” he said. “I have missed you, truly I have!” He settled back further into his seat, and resumed his narrative. “The messenger, his duty done, departed, and I opened the envelope privately. I was, of course, I was stunned! Obviously, these were false.” He glanced up at the two agents. “Oh, I had no doubts, my friends. I know my wife. But if it makes you easier, there was simply no time, no opportunity, during Mr. Khan’s visit. They were never alone.” He looked down again. “I had had perhaps ten minutes to absorb the contents of the envelope when my telephone rang. My private line. It is not public knowledge, but not a state secret. A telephone number nobody knows is of precious little use. It was a male voice, disguised. Very careful classical Arabic, with a fake Egyptian accent – sort of a comedian’s impression of Omar Sharif. It inquired whether I had examined the contents of my package, and then delivered the threat. Then the line was disconnected.
“Al-Shurafaa traced the messenger back to his service. The package was sent by a man who walked in off the street. A nondescript Arab in a dark suit. The telephone call could not be traced, but Wizarat el-Etisalat – the Telecommunications Ministry – tells us that there were no international calls into the country at the time I received it.”
“Can they pull records on the pay phones within sight of the front door of the Palace?” asked Scotty.
The King looked startled.
“The timing,” supplied Kelly. “Ten minutes after you opened the package? From a commercial messenger service? That’s much too precise. They were watching the palace. They saw him arrive and leave, and then they called you. Had to be one of those pay phones.”
“I...don’t recall street noises,” the King said, dubiously.
Scotty’s voice was gentle. “You had a lot on your mind. Why don’t you think about it?”
“Or, don’t,” said Kelly. “Just have the Ministry check for calls from those booths to your private number at the appropriate time. If there’s a hit, have your Honorable Ones check it for fingerprints.”
“A public phone?” asked King Bashik, his expression dubious.
“It’s a long shot, your Stateliness,” said Scotty, “but they’ve been known to pay off, and it doesn’t cost much to play it.”
“Very well,” said the King. “It will be done.”
“Now,” said Kelly, “We need to think through strategy a bit. You’re really no use to them until after your Elevation, when legal rule is transferred to you from your Uncle. That gives us, what, three days before they can make any kind of demand.”
Scotty nodded. “And there’s something else to think about. This isn’t the Atom Bomb.”
“I don’t know what that means,” said the King, but Kelly nodded, saying “Right!”
“The Japanese didn’t surrender when we dropped Fat Man on Hiroshima,” Kelly explained. “They didn’t surrender until we dropped Little Boy on Nagasaki. The A-Bomb only worked because we had more than one, and they thought we could just keep it up until we ran out of cities.”
Bashik’s voice was impatient. “And?”
Scotty spoke again. “This is a bomb they can only drop once. Once they do it, the damage is done, and they have no more power over you or Khadra.”
“They will still have destroyed us, Scotty,” said the King, darkly, “myself and the Queen along with me. I suppose my Uncle will be able to reclaim rule, and that may be as good for Ameri–”
“No, you idiot!” erupted Kelly with a smile. The King raised an imperious eyebrow at him.
“If they can only do it once,” explained Kelly, “they’ll be loath to do it at all. It’s a tough game, a tough middle-ground for them to walk. They can’t have you decide they don’t mean it and will never do it at all, but they also can’t use it the first time you balk, or for a trivial gain. You see what I mean. A weapon you can only use once has to be used very deliberately. That just might also give us an edge, give us room to maneuver.”
Scotty leaned toward the King again. “I think we’re going to need some help. One of your men, local, knows the ins and outs of Zahrat el-Saharaa. Somebody you can trust, but he won’t have to be privy to these.” Scotty gestured at the pictures. “Is there anyone you can think of?”
The King considered for a moment, then nodded. “There is a man in Al-Shurafaa. He is young, but very brave. He prevented an assassination this past winter, and had to be removed from the protective detail because of his arm.” He shook his head slowly, regret painted on his features. “He has a strong sense of duty, even though he chafes at desk work. Your need is for a guide, yes, and translator, with a decent brain?”
Kelly and Scotty exchanged an approving glance, and Kelly responded, “Yes, your Highness.”
“I shall assign Maher Sharif, then.” The King smiled. “You will like him. Shall I call for him now?”
Kelly shook his head. “The morning will do. Give your Ministry time to find that phone booth, figure out if any other calls were made to or from it immediately before or after the one to you, maybe point us in a direction for a start. Also gives us” –he gestured between himself and Scotty– “a chance to talk things through, see if there are any strategies we can come up with.”
The King smiled again, this time knowingly. “Contact your Government, get permission to help us.”
“Bashik,” said Scotty, very quietly, “you know that we’re going to help you no matter what, right? You’re not in any doubt about that.”
The King looked over at Scotty, his expression surprised, but then settled into a deep and warm stillness at being called by his name. “Yes, Alexander,” he responded, with solemnity. “Yes, Kelly. Yes, I do know that. You are more than agents of your government. You are our friends.”
“Yes, we are,” said Kelly.
Kelly hung up the phone on the table between the twin beds, and switched off the scrambler, laughing quietly.
“What’s he say, Duke?” asked Scotty.
“He said, and I quote, Can’t you two even go on a goddam vacation without getting into trouble?” said Kelly, still smiling. “Then he said it’s just as goddam well America likes Bashik as much as we do, since we’re going to work for him whether he authorizes it or not, and he supposes it’s just as well to have the new King of Khadra be even more beholden to the good ol’ U.S. of A., so we damned well better not screw this up.”
Scotty took a sip of his Mirinda. “You know, Hoby, we just may be putting dear old Russell Gabriel under just a bit too much pressure. Have you noticed what a potty-mouth he’s turning into?”
“Everybody’s a potty-mouth next to you, Augustine,” said Kelly. “Some of us just lack your goddamn couth, man, you make the rest of the department look bad!”
Scotty shrugged. “A clean body, a clean mind...:”
“Gets you nowhere with the chicks, man!” added Kelly.
“I seem to do all right, Elvis, all things considered,” replied Scotty. “You bring a clean mind, the girls think they need to fill you in, you see, on what you’re missing.”
“Nothing like being corrupted to bring the perfect night on the town to the perfect ending?”
“Now you’re talking, Hoby! You’re beginning to see the light.”
Kelly grinned. “Anyway, Gabe says we can make use of department resources as needed. And he’s going to have the whiz-kids in Photographic see if they can figure out how they made these.”
Scotty raised an eyebrow. “Without seeing a sample? Really?”
“Gabe knows what we look for, man, cutlines, shadow matching, graining problems. He’s giving them the problem, and seeing what they can come up with.”
The Hotel Kraliyet would have looked at home in the more glamorous sections of Paris or Berlin, large and modern and spacious and elegant, the lobby divided into pleasant spaces of classic proportions.
As they left the elevator, Jed held a hand out to stay Leo. “Do you know who that is?”
Leo followed his gaze to two parties of men in the traditional white robes worn by men of the Arabian Peninsula. The groups – a pair of men, and a group of four – were studiously avoiding one another. The pair were an elderly man, thin and frail, hands brown-spotted with thin, crinolined, crepe-like skin, eyes milky and unseeing. His long white hair and beard were thin enough for spotted pink skin to show through. A younger man, dark hair and thick, black beard distracting from the very similar lines of cheekbone and nose that marked him as his son, held the elder’s elbow, supporting and guiding him.
“I– Is that the Blind Imam? Whatsisname, El-Hassan bin Yazeed?”
“That’s him,” said Jed. “And that with him is his son, Imam Amr Hassan.”
Leo watched the groups working hard at not noticing one another. “Ambassador Shareef doesn’t seem too pleased to see them here.”
Jed smiled. “Can you blame them? Bin Yazeed has been giving the Sultan fits for years! I don’t think there’s been a more influential leader among Qumar’s Salafi community since old Abd el-Qawi died.”
The diplomats and holy men from the neighboring Sultanate of Qumar made their way to the elevators, the Ambassador’s bodyguards roughly shoving Jed and Leo aside to claim their car, all the while ostentatiously unaware of one another.
Leo chuckled. “It sure isn’t sitting well with the Ambassador! He’s pretty pissed off just to be here!”
Jed’s smile deepened. “Uncle Ambassador is the least the Sultan could get away with sending!” He glanced over at his friend. “Come on, Leo, how can you help but enjoy this? This is Middle Eastern Realpolitik 101, and you’re getting a front-row view!”
“You know,” said Leo, “normal people, they go on vacation, it’s beaches, it’s casinos, it’s stage plays. They don’t plan their vacations around political blockbusters.”
“I know!” said Jed, gleefully. “People just don’t know how to have a good time!”
“Not like we do, Jed,” Leo agreed with a wry half-smile. “We having breakfast here in the hotel, or finding something out in the–”
Jed Bartlet was already making for the front door.
“Yeah, I should have known,” Leo grumbled, but he was smiling as he followed his friend out into the street.