A determined young woman and a psychopath living out his favorite video games clash in the apocalyptic aftermath of a nationwide terror attack.
Grace's dad taught her survival, self-defense, and shooting, then sent her away to college hoping she'd never need those skills. All he wanted was to give her a fighting chance if the world fell apart.
Then it did.
Near the end of Grace’s freshmen year, coordinated terror attacks take place at dozens of locations around the country – including on the campus of Grace’s university.
Grace and her father barely have time for a single rushed phone call before they lose signal. Robert reminds Grace of the key he gave her when she left for school – the key that she never takes from around her neck.
She doesn’t know what it opens. She doesn’t know where the engraved numbers will lead her. All she knows is that her dad once told her this key could save her life.
With her roommate in tow, Grace embarks on a treacherous journey home and ends up in the crosshairs of another desperate traveler -- a seriously disturbed gamer who sees nothing but opportunity in a world that now resembles that of his favorite video games.
Release date: August 10, 2016
Publisher: Horsemen of the Apocalypse LLC
Print pages: 226
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When Firas Kabbani left the city of Mobile, Alabama, he wanted his trip north to be off-the-radar. Like his cousins in Iraq and Syria who shunned the use of electronic devices, Firas went as dark as one could when travelling by vehicle in the United States. He left his mobile phone sitting on the kitchen counter at his home. He also traveled in a 1995 Toyota Celica he’d bought off Craigslist. It was legally registered to him but it had no Bluetooth, no OnStar, and no other factory-installed means of tracking the vehicle. He did not speed or drive in any manner that would draw attention to him. He paid cash for his fuel and other purchases. He didn’t even carry a firearm. They didn’t make one nearly as dangerous as the plan he carried in his head.
When he’d gone as far as he could for the day, he spent the night in a budget hotel outside of Louisville, Kentucky, operated by cousins of a friend. He paid cash and was not required to present identification. They had not even asked for his name. He noted with amusement that they didn’t fail to ask for the money though.
He hit Detroit around two in the afternoon the next day. Although he had been to the city several times, he did not know it well. The city’s best days were behind it. All who remained were those too poor to move and the opportunistic few who still saw money on the table and had a plan to skim it off. Its bleakness reminded him of bombed-out and crumbling Middle Eastern cities, of which he’d seen many.
He headed for Dearborn, where a man of local importance was expecting him. When he arrived, he was ushered into the dark recesses of an old stone building that had once been the offices of an attorney. The attorney was long-dead and his building sold for a sum that likely made him roll over in his grave.
Firas descended several flights of gritty stone steps, feeling as though each took him back a century into the past. They were below the levels that had been wired for electricity and they used flashlights to navigate. Eventually, he stepped from the last smooth stone to the compacted dirt of a basement dug several stories beneath street level. A man in a black robe sat at a table in the center of a cavernous chamber, writing by the light of a candle.
When Firas approached, he greeted the man in the traditional manner and the man slid the handwritten list across to him. He picked the list up and glanced at it.
“These are the restaurants?” Firas asked.
The cleric nodded. “And their owners.”
“They are good men?” Firas asked. “Faithful men?”
The cleric nodded again. “They will do as we expect.” He was a severe old man, his beard gray and wild, his face the texture of a crude leather pouch drawn from a beggar’s pocket.
The addresses meant nothing to Firas. “You can find me a driver? I will need help locating these places.”
“A young man from the community. I trust him. He is called Nizar. He is waiting outside.”
Firas nodded. “I thank you. As-salamu alaykum.”
Firas left and walked out into a gloomy overcast day. A thin Arab in a tan leather jacket leaned against a newer model Lexus, smoking a cigarette. Firas addressed the man in Arabic. He tossed his cigarette into the gutter and climbed into the vehicle. Firas joined him and they drove without conversation to the first address on the list.
The restaurant, Masaa El-Khair, was in a 1970s-era shopping center in Dearborn that had seen better days. Everything from the pavement, to the roof, to the parking lot lighting was in need of repair or bulldozing. Besides the restaurant, the only tenants were a store that rented home electronics, a check cashing business, and a nail salon. With what constituted their lunch rush over, Firas found the gloomy interior of the restaurant to only have a few occupants. The place smelled of mildew and spices.
Two older rotund men in expensive casual clothing and wearing lots of gold jewelry were the only remaining patrons. They spoke in low tones over a meal. They eyeballed Firas briefly then returned to their conversation. They may have been the patriarchs of organized crime families having an important meeting, or they may simply have been friends having a meal after a morning of golf. In this city, one never knew.
A pretty young girl came from the back, sweeping through a burgundy curtain, and smiled at Firas. She greeted him in Arabic, asking how many were in his party.
“I am here to see Tarek,” he replied. Unlike a westerner, he felt no need to explain himself to the woman. He’d stated what he needed and she knew her role.
The girl nodded. “My father,” she said. “I will get him.”
In a moment she returned with a bulky man with bushy white hair and thick glasses with black frames. He wore a stained white apron and was drying his hands on it. The man studied Firas but did not recognize him.
“You don’t know me, but we have common friends,” Firas said. “They gave me your name. May we speak in private?”
Tarek consented and led the stranger to a private dining room in the back. In the past, it had hosted important business meetings and wedding dinners. Now, no one had those kind of dinners here anymore and the room was where the owners stored the extra Styrofoam takeout containers. Tarek had his daughter bring them a pot of black tea. When she left, she closed the carved mahogany doors behind her and left them alone.
Firas took a sip of the sweet tea that reminded him of home. “How is the restaurant business?” he asked in Arabic, already knowing the answer.
Tarek waved a hand. “It’s been better,” he said. “I am an old man in a dying city. What am I to do?”
“You could sell and move. The warmth of the south is easier on the bones of the white-haired.”
Tarek shook his head bitterly. “I did that once. I left Tehran after the Iranian Revolution, moved here, and started over. I’m too old to do it again. All my money is tied up here and who would buy? Only a fool.”
Firas looked at the older man intently. It was time to get to the point. “That’s why I’m here.”
Tarek looked at him strangely. “You are the fool come to buy my restaurant?” he asked, smiling. “I am glad we meet, then.”
The younger man shook his head. “No, but what if I had something to offer your sons besides a future in a dying city? I mean no disrespect to you. I appreciate what you have done here but it as you say, this city is dying around you. What if I could offer a new start to your sons in a new city?”
Firas felt the old man’s stare burning into him. He knew the man was too wise and too experienced to expect that anything came free in this world. He was trying to figure out whether this was a trick of some sort. Perhaps Firas was one of the new generation of scammers here to feed off those who remained in the city.
“I apologize for my bluntness,” Firas said. “I have a lot of places to go today and not much time. It makes me speak too quickly and perhaps without the respect you deserve. I have recently taken a position in my father’s company in Mobile, Alabama. We operate a welding and fabrication company, mostly doing business with the shipping industry. I want to diversify. I want to expand into the food service industry.”
Tarek chuckled and sipped his own tea. “Perhaps you are a fool after all. Why would anyone want to go into this business? You invest your entire life and will still die poor. You work your children so hard they have no lives and hate you for it. They welcome your death because it’s the only way they escape.”
“Perhaps, however, the business model is changing, my friend. Every day, I see my father’s employees go out and buy disgusting American or Mexican food from food trucks. The thousands of men who work the docks all eat from these trucks. My father employees a lot of our Muslim brothers. He gives jobs to many of the Syrian refugees. I would like them to be able to eat the food of their homeland. I would like to see Halal offerings for the devout.”
Tarek was nodding, staring at his tea cup and tracing the lip with his finger, lost in thought.
“I want to bring men from this city to my city,” Firas continued. “I want men with experience in operating restaurants to run my trucks. I will employee more of our refugee brothers and those with experience will train them in food service. It will provide a business opportunity to the experienced and a trade to the inexperienced.”
Tarek cleared his throat and spoke thoughtfully. “Why would men leave a restaurant they will one day own to work in another man’s food truck? Why is this not trading a horse for a goat?”
“If those who come give me a year to show me what they can do, I will sell them their truck on payments and we will become partners,” Firas said. “It’s no risk to them. If they don’t like it, they can leave at any point and come home.”
Tarek sighed. “So you are here to wave money and steal my sons from me, knowing I have none to wave,” he said. It was not a question. It was an accusation.
“With your permission, I am here to offer your sons a new future and new opportunity,” Firas said.
A spark of anger rose in Tarek’s eyes. “Why did you choose to bless me and my sons with your offer?” he asked. “Is our business regarded so poorly you thought we would be easily swayed? Are we the low fruit on the tree?”
“Not at all. You are not the only visits I have to make today,” Firas replied. “There are others.”
“Who?” Tarek demanded.
“With respect,” Firas replied, “I will not say nor will your name ever be given if others ask me the same question.”
“I will not decide for my sons,” Tarek said. “They are men and must decide for themselves. How long do they have?”
“If they accept my offer, I will need them in Mobile in two weeks,” Firas replied. “They must provide their own travel, but I will provide a place for them to stay.”
“Do you have a phone number they can call?” Tarek asked.
Firas stood and pulled a card from his pocket. “No phone. Only an address. Two weeks from today.”
Tarek said nothing, staring into the emptiness of the room. He remembered choosing this wallpaper and carpet like it was yesterday. He and his wife had been so proud. Thousands had dined in this room since. Tens of thousands, even. He found the young man to be impudent and disrespectful, despite his attempts at the contrary.
Firas pulled a twenty dollar bill from his pocket and tossed it onto the table. “For the tea. As-salamu alaykum.”
Tarek did not reply to the young man who to tossed money at him. He removed his glasses and wiped his eyes with the back of a meaty hand. Firas knew they were not tears of gratitude. He nodded gently at the elder, then departed.
When he stepped from the restaurant, Nizar pulled up to the curb and picked him up. Firas consulted his list and read the address out loud. The driver flipped another cigarette butt out the window and pulled out onto the street, weaving through potholes that were, ironically, as deep as impact craters.
Two weeks after that trip to Detroit, Firas hosted a meeting at a facility he rented for the occasion. It was a hall commonly rented for office Christmas parties, birthdays, and wedding receptions. The event was catered by some of the finest traditional Middle Eastern restaurants and bakeries in Mobile. No alcohol was served and a strict Halal menu was observed.
From his visit to Detroit, Firas potentially had twenty-three men who might show up to accept his offer. Nine fathers were giving up their sons. In the end, seventeen had come, including Tarek’s three sons. The offer was not extended to daughters, so at least the old man had someone to wipe his chin in his old age.
The men were all staying in houses on the outskirts of the city owned by Firas and his father. Over the years, they’d found that men who were just getting on their feet in a strange country were more reliable workers when they had stable housing. Once the men began receiving wages, they charged a fair rent in order to teach the men about budgeting, but they did not take advantage of them. This extra effort fostered a strong loyalty in their employees and now Firas and his father owned dozens of such houses.
As the men milled about the entry foyer of the reception hall, Firas counted and made sure everyone was there. He’d met all of them by this point so the men had no doubt who was responsible for them being there and who was in charge. When he started to speak, they all deferred to him and were silent.
“Gentlemen, I am pleased so many of you have come. When we go inside this room, there is a wonderful meal awaiting us. I want you to fill your stomachs and enjoy yourselves, eating food cooked by others for a change. I want you to get to know each other. There’s a lot of experience represented in this room and we can all benefit from sharing knowledge. After we’ve eaten, we will have coffee and dessert, and I will speak to you about what I have in store for us.”
With that, Firas opened the door to the dining area and ushered the men inside. The room was elegantly set and the smell was intoxicating. There were elaborate place settings and candle light. As restauranteurs, the men may have set many tables like this but they did not often have the opportunity to be seated at them. Despite any reservations about the major decision they’d made, the men descended on the buffet without hesitation. Firas smiled. He had won their stomachs. As the saying went, their hearts and minds would follow.
After a tremendous dinner, the men sipped coffee and sampled baklava, date cookies, caramelized dates, rice pudding, and a delicious semolina cake served with yogurt and syrup. Firas moved to the front of the room and smiled at the assemblage.
“I hope you’ve enjoyed your dinner,” he said.
There were nods and hearty assents.
“By this point, you should all know why you’re here. Tomorrow, the hard work starts. Outside this building, your new trucks are waiting. In a few minutes we’ll go outside and you can see them for yourselves. In the morning, I need you all to return here where you’ll begin a short training program on how our business will work.” He allowed the word “our” to settle in. It was not just his business, they would be invested also.
“We want our menus to be consistent from truck-to-truck at this point so we’ve come up with a basic menu we’ll all start with. Later, we can look at adding your own specialty dishes but we had to come up with a starting point so we could lock in our food prices with the suppliers. We’ll also discuss how you’ll handle the money and the business end of operations. You will also meet your employees. Does that sound okay?”
One of the men raised a hand. Firas recognized him as Hayyan, although he couldn’t remember the last name. “Yes, Hayyan?”
The man cleared his throat. “Can we not work together with our brothers?” he asked. “I had thought my brother and I might share a truck. We are used to working together. We know what the other needs even before he asks for it.”
Firas smiled. “I understand your concern,” he said. “In a strange city, one wishes for the comfort of family. However, our business model is based on each of you experienced men being the leaders. Each of you could run a restaurant on your own. I am partnering you with men who cannot run restaurants. Many of them have recently arrived in the country and cannot even speak English. That’s part of why I selected the men in this room. Each of you can speak English as well as the language of your fathers and grandfathers. The answer to your question is no. To put two experienced men together would be a waste of valuable resources. Is that acceptable to you?”
Hayyan nodded. “I only wanted to ask.”
“No harm,” Firas said, rubbing his hands together. “Now, if there are no more questions, let’s see your trucks.”
Firas felt the excitement as he pushed through the door and led the men into the otherwise empty back parking lot. Parked in neat formation were seventeen food trucks. Each was fully wrapped in colorful graphics with images of Middle Eastern street foods.
In bold letters, all sides of each vehicle displayed the name of their venture: The Kibbeh Kart. It was named for the popular dish made of wheat, onion, spices, and ground meat which was often fried into easily eaten balls. To every man’s delight, each truck was personalized. There was Hayyan’s Kibbeh Kart, Akram’s Kibbeh Kart, Bassel’s Kibbeh Kart, Marwan’s Kibbeh Kart, and on and on through the remainder of the seventeen names. Each man’s name was written in elegant script right beside the name of the business.
The men in this group had worked for so long under the shadow of his father that seeing his name upon a business inspired awe. Any reservations, any misgivings, any homesickness and doubt was allayed at the sight of their very own name written upon trucks each would one day own.
Firas smiled proudly, watching the men touch the trucks with reverence. Including their names had been a stroke of genius. They were his now. Not just the trucks, but the men themselves. He owned them.
The next morning, while Firas’ Kibbeh Kart recruits began their training, he went to the massive Kabbani and Son facility on the Mobile docks. While his father appeared outwardly to be a traditional man, he was very westernized in his business dealings. He had trouble relinquishing any control. It had taken forever for Firas to convince his father that he should be allowed to move from employee to partner. It was only at his mother’s intervention that his father conceded. Even that remained a sore spot for Firas; it had taken a woman for him to obtain what should have rightfully been his.
Still, his father would not allow him to operate as a completely equal partner. His father retained the more lucrative and prestigious fabrication division for himself. Firas managed the welding and repair division, which was significantly smaller. He operated it himself though, with full decision-making autonomy. He could hire and fire, purchase equipment, and bid jobs. If the division lost money, he would have to answer to his father.
Firas’ father, Victor, had come to this country as an immigrant and been helped along by an old Syrian machinist who took the young Victor under his wing. He’d taught Victor a trade and eventually pushed the young man out of the nest, helping him to start his own business. Victor Kabbani felt a need to return that favor and he was currently doing so by employing as many refugees and immigrants as he could.
Firas was a different man than his father. Firas did not approve of the Western manner his father had adopted. Firas prayed facing Mecca five times daily, as did many of the men at Kabbani and Son, but his father no longer did. His father thought it looked unprofessional and was bad for business. He had come to this country a devout Muslim but could not even explain to Firas what his religious beliefs were anymore. Even worse, he allowed Firas’ mother and sisters to drive and shop the city uncovered in the manner of Western women. It was disgraceful.
As an apprentice who started working in his father’s company as a child, Firas might have turned out exactly like his father if not for the influence of the Muslims he met on the docks. Many had no love for this country that now sheltered them. While they accepted its sanctuary, they only felt disgust at its lack of morality and its efforts to spill its filth upon the rest of the world. In their eyes, its primary exports were Godlessness, immorality, and greed.
Firas came to believe all that and more. He also realized over time that he was in a position to be part of the remedy. He was not like those men the media referred to as radicalized. He had not learned about Islam from internet videos. He had no interest in returning to the land of his grandfather to get blown up for nothing. He knew early on that if there were ever anything he could do from America to further the cause, he would help. He felt it was his duty as a Muslim.
As Firas earned his spot in the family business, he developed a core of loyal men in his welding and repair division. They were all men of faith and shared an interest in teachings they did not discuss openly among other employees. The only place they did discuss those interests was at a mosque they attended in the city. There, among others who felt the same way they did, they were free to share their thoughts openly. Among those thoughts was the consensus that the attacks on America of September 11, 2001, were an historic moment in jihad, but that it was shameful the holy warriors of Islam had failed to provide another such moment in the past fifteen years.
A few months before his trip to Detroit, Firas was attending mosque when the Imam had asked to speak with him after the service. In private, he had asked if Firas might be able to find work at his father’s company for perhaps two-dozen Syrian men who would be coming over in a refugee group.
“Are these able-bodied men?” Firas asked. “I have my own division of the company now and can hire my own employees, though not if they are incapable of doing the work.”
“They are able-bodied men,” the Imam replied. “They are skilled, capable, and very strong.”
Firas looked at the Imam skeptically. “Why would such capable men be leaving the country when it is at war?” he asked. “You would think they would be part of the jihad.”
The Imam stared thoughtfully at Firas for a long time before responding. “Why are you so certain them coming to America is not part of the jihad? How can a war against America not eventually come to America?”
Firas thought this over. This was perhaps the most profound and important conversation of his twenty-six years. Would he be loyal to his father and growing his business or would he honor what he felt to be the teachings of the Koran? He made a decision.
“I will have work for them.”
The Imam nodded gravely.
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