Fiction September 2004

Florence of Arabia

How one woman (plus a disgraced Green Beret, a shameless PR lackey, and the wife of a sheikh) brought the Middle East to the brink of female emancipation. A short story
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The official residence of His Excellency Prince Bawad bin-Rumallah al-Hamooj, ambassador of the Royal Kingdom of Wasabia to the United States of America, perches expensively on $18 million worth of real estate overlooking a frothy rapid of the Potomac River a few miles upstream from Washington, D.C. The front gate of the compound displays in bright gold leaf the emblem of the Royal House of Hamooj: a date palm, a crescent moon, and a scimitar hovering over a head. The head does not bear a pleased expression, owing to its having been decapitated by the scimitar.

Historically speaking, the head belonged to one Rafiq "The Unwise" al-Sawah, who one night in 1740 or 1742 (historians differ on the precise date) attempted to usurp the authority of Sheikh Abdulabdullah "The Wise" Waffa al-Hamooj, founder of the Wasabi dynasty and a future king. According to legend (now taught as historical fact in the country's schools), Rafiq's severed head attempted to apologize to the sheikh for its perfidy, and begged to be reattached. Sheikh Abdulabdullah, however, was in no mood to hear these entreaties. Had he not treated Rafiq like his own brother? He ordered the still blubbering mouth to be stuffed with camel dung and the head tossed to the desert hyenas.

The event is commemorated every year on the anniversary of the Perfidy of Rafiq. Adult male citizens of the kingdom are required to place a token amount of camel dung on their tongues, as a symbol of the king's authority and a reminder of the bitter fate that befalls those who attempt to undermine it. Only Hamooji palace staff and the most conservative of Wasabis re-enact the ritual literally, however. A hundred years ago an enterprising confectioner in the capital city of Kaffa devised a nougat that gave off the aroma of the original articleenough to fool the mukfelleen, the religious police who enforce the precepts of the Book of Hamooj. Wasabis could pop one onto the tongue and walk about all day with a showy air of piety. Alas, the trickery was discovered, and the unfortunate candymaker forfeited not only his license to manufacture sweets but also his tongue, right hand, and left foot. On assuming the throne, in 1974, King Tallulah decreed that a "symbolic" piece of dung would suffice. This caused much grumbling among the mullahs and mukfelleen, but vast relief among the adult male population.

A few minutes past midnight on a crisp September night the gates on which the royal emblem was mounted swung open and let out a car driven by Nasrah al-Bawad, wife of Prince Bawad.

Nasrah's exit would doubtless have been smoother had she spent more time behind the wheel of an automobile, but Wasabi women are not permitted to drive. However, being enterprising and spirited, Nasrah had since adolescence been begging various males, starting with her brother Tamsa, to teach her the mysteries of steering, brake, and gas. Taking the wheel of their father's Cadillac in the open deserts of Wasabia was not so complicated. In Washington she would importune (that is, bribe) the reluctant Khalil, her chauffeur-bodyguard-minder, to let her drive on certain half-deserted streets and in the parking lots of such royal hangouts as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. She had progressed to the point of almost being able to parallel park without leaving most of the paint on the fenders of the cars in front and behind. Khalil had in the process earned a reputation within the household as a driver of less than perfect reliability.

Tonight Nasrah found herself maneuvering with difficulty. Exiting the gate, she sheared off the rearview mirror and left a scrape down the side of the $85,000 car that would cause the most stoic of insurance adjusters to weep. Her intention had been to turn left, toward Washington. But seeing the headlights of a car coming up the country lane from that direction, she panicked and turned right, deeper into the deciduous suburb of McLean.

In truth, Nasrah was not thinking clearly. In truth, she was drunk.

After many years in Washington her husband the prince had announced his intention of returning to Wasabia, along with Nasrah and his three other wives. His uncle, the king, had decided to reward his decades of service by anointing him Foreign Minister. This was a big promotion that came with an even bigger palace and a share of Wasabia's oil royalties.

The news was less than joyous to Nasrah, the youngest, prettiest, and most independent-minded of the prince's wives. She did not want to return to Wasabia. Her years of living in Americaeven under the watchful eye of Shazzik, Prince Bawad's stern, neutered (or so it was rumored) chamberlainhad left her with an appreciation of the role of women in Western society. She was in no hurry to return to a country where she would have to hide her lovely features under a veil, and in even less of a hurry to return to a country where women were still being publicly flogged, stoned to death, and having their heads cut off in a place in the capital city so accustomed to the spectacle that it had earned the nickname "Chop Chop Square."

Nasrah had been planning to inform the prince of her decision to remain in the United States that night, after he returned from his dinner with the Waldorf Groupa very influential group indeed, consisting of ex-U.S. Presidents, ex-Secretaries of State and Defense, ex-directors of the Central Intelligence Agencyexcellent folks all, and what contacts they had! Since its founding, ten years earlier, the Waldorf Group had invested more than $5 billion of Wasabi royal money in various projects. This made for close relationships all around. Many members of the Group's board also sat on the boards of the companies in which the royal money was invested.

Tonight's meeting concerned a desalination project. Desalination is always a hot topic in Wasabia, owing to the country's geographical peculiarity: it is entirely landlocked and even lacks access to rivers. This unhappy circumstance is a grating historical vestige, the result of a moment of bibulous pique on the part of Winston Churchill, who drew up Wasabia's modern borders on a cocktail napkin at his club in London. King Hamir had been uncooperative during the peace conference, and so, with a few strokes of his fountain pen, Churchill denied him fresh water and seaports. Thus do brief, brandy-saturated moments determine the fate of empires and the course of history.

Back at the residence, Nasrah took a nip from the prince's bottle of 150-year-old Napoleon. When at eleven o'clock he had still not returned, she took another nip. Then another. By the time the prince finally did arrive, at 11:40, she was feeling no pain.

The speech that she had so carefully rehearsed tumbled off her benumbed tongue without eloquence or coherence, and heavily redolent of brandy. The prince, moonfaced, goateed, and imperious, brusquely ordered Nasrah to her room.

A late-night argument between an indulged royal prince and a tipsy junior wife is not an occasion for ideal dialogue. It deteriorated quickly into shouts and terminated with the prince's dealing Nasrah a cuff across the chops with a meaty, cigar-smelling hand. With that he stormed off, loudly cursing Western corruption, to the bedroom of one of his less troublesome wives.

Furious, Nasrah went to her bedroom, but not to bed. She hurled a few things into an Hermès overnight bag and made her way to the garage, where she could choose from among eleven cars. (The prince loved to drive, and was known personally to most Virginia state troopers.) She decided not to take the Maserati, the Lamborghini, the Maybach, or the Ferrari, these having too many buttons of uncertain provenance on the dash, and settled instead on the Mercedes in which Khalil usually chauffeured her, and with whose controls she was quite familiar, including the special button on the walnut dash that overrode the guards' control of the front gate.

So it was that Nasrah found herself roaring out the gates past alarmed guards, with the grim Shazzik and two of his men, fierce Warga tribesmen in blue suits, in hot pursuit.

But where to go? She'd missed the turn to Washington.

After colliding with several trees and going through a succession of red lights, she found herself turning north on Route 123 at a speed triple the legal limit, a fact not lost on Virginia State Trooper Harmon G. Gillitts.

It was at this point, with Trooper Gillitts's red, white, and blue flashing lights and urgent siren behind her, that she saw the sign announcing george bush center for intelligence. Any port in a storm.

The sight of a car approaching at high speed, followed by a state policeman in apparent hot pursuit, is not a welcome one at U.S. government installations. By the time Nasrah had reached the front gate of CIA headquarters, a steel barrier had risen up from the cement. This abruptly and loudly terminated her forward progress, activating so many airbags that she disappeared from sight, concussed.

As Nasrah dreamed of turquoise antelopes flying over a boundless black desert, the United States government was waking to the reality of an incident of epic dimensions.

The CIA guards and Trooper Gillitts, weapons drawn, examined their catch through the car's windows. All they could see, amid the airbags, was two distinctly feminine hands, the one on the left bearing enough diamonds to put their children combined through Ivy League colleges and law school.

Another expensive German car drove up, this one bearing Shazzik, looking even grimmer than usual, and his two mukfelleen. The guards and Gillitts noted the diplomatic license plate but did not holster their weapons.

Shazzik emerged from the car and in his accustomed peremptory mannerHamooji retainers are not renowned for their courtesy to nonroyalsannounced that the smashed vehicle contained a member of the royal household. He asserted his rights of extraction.

This was too much for Trooper Gillitts. As a Marine Corps reservist he had spent time in Wasabia during one of America's periodic interventionist spasms in the region. As a result he could not stand Wasabis (a common sentiment among foreign visitors).

He dispensed with the "sir" with which he usually addressed even the most wretched of his highway detainees, thrust out his impressive reservist pectorals at the chamberlain while tightening his palm around the grip of his Glock 9 mm, and counterasserted jurisdiction on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Stonewall Jackson at First Bull Run, just down the road, had been no more immovable.

The CIA guards, meanwhile, had pressed buttons summoning backup in the form of an armored vehicle capableshould any gate situation deteriorate seriouslyof launching missiles, and also of passing impressive amounts of electrical current through the bodies of undesirables. A helicopter, with snipers, was put into play.

Amid this bruit of rotor blades, male barking, and bantam outthrusts of chest, Nasrah's hallucinations ended. She stirred inside her nylon cocoon. The airbags deflated sufficiently to allow her wiggle room. She peered with horror at the standoff taking place outside her car and did what anyone would in such circumstances. She reached for her cell phone.

Florence Farfaletti had been in the U.S. Foreign Service long enough to know that when a phone rings after midnight it is a) never a wrong number and b) never a call you want to get. But being a deputy to the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs (DDASNEA), she c) had to take the call.

"Farfaletti," she said, with as much professional crisp as she could muster in the middle of a ruined REM cycle.

"Flor-ents!"

Florence struggled against the glue of sleep. She recognized the Wasabian difficulty with soft cs. The voice was young, urgent, scared, familiar.

"Nasrah?"

"It's me, Florents! It's Nasrah!"

Florence flicked on the light and grimaced at the clock. What was this about?

She had met Nasrah years before, in Kaffa. Nasrah was the daughter of a lesser sheikh of the Azami tribe, lovely, intelligent, and self-educatedthe only way Wasabi women could acquire an education, since they were barred from schooling above age fifteen.

Florence had grown up fascinated by her grandfather's tales of the Middle East. She had majored in Arabic studies and was fluent by the time she graduated from Yale. There she had met Hamzi, a minor Wasabi princelingcharming, handsome, rakish, and rich. What American girl with a predilection for the Middle East wouldn't have fallen in love? They were married a week after graduation.

Following a honeymoon in the Mediterranean, Florence arrived in her new home of Kaffa to a succession of exponentially depressing discoveries. She found herself under virtual house arrest, required to wear the veil outside the home and to be accompanied by a male escort. With this much she resolved to cope. But within three months she discovered that her birth-control pills had been switched for sugar substitutesthe kind one puts in coffee. Confronted, Hamzi shrugged and announced that it was time, anyway, that she bore him a child. She retaliated in the Lysistrata fashion, by withholding sex, whereupon he went into a rage and announced the next evening over dinneras if remembering a dentist appointmentthat he was taking a second wife.

The following morning Florence drove herself (a flogging offense) to the U.S. embassy and said, Beam me up, Scotty. The response was, You got yourself into this, and now you expect us to get you out? She was handed a pamphlet titled "What American Women Should Understand When They Marry a Wasabi National." The State Department's reflexive response to any American in extremis abroad is to hand over a pamphlet, along with a list of incompetent local lawyers, and say, We told you so.

Florence was not one to be deterred. She announced that she would not leave the embassy except in a car driven by an embassy staffer to Prince Babullah Airport. An enterprising young foreign-service officer, of Italian extraction like herself, worked out a quick and dirty arrangement with the Italian embassy and got her out of the country on an Italian passport.

Back in Washington she went to work for a Middle Eastern foundation. One day, bored and thinking about the officer in Kaffa who had rescued her, she sat for the foreign-service exam. She passed. Being fluent in Arabic and an expert on Arab culture, she was posted to Chad. Following 9/11 it was thought that her skills might be more useful elsewhere at State, and she was moved to Near Eastern Affairs.

Florence and Nasrah had reconnected socially in Washington at an embassy reception, one of the few occasions when Wasabi wives were on public display. They had managed to get together for half a dozen lunches in French restaurants, where Nasrah ordered expensive wines in view of the frantic Khalil. Florence liked Nasrah, who laughed easily and was deliciously indiscreet. But why was Nasrah calling at this hour?

"Flor-ents. You must help meI need asylum! Please!"

Florence felt her chest go tight. Asylum. Within the State Department this was known as "the A-word," a nightmare term in a bureaucracy dedicated to stasis and inertia, a word that sent shudders down a thousand rubber spines.

Florence was now wide awake. The wife of the ambassador of the country that supplied America with most of its imported fossil fuel was asking her, a mid-level foreign-service officer, for asylum. Her crisis training kicked in. She heard a voice inside her head. It said Stall. This was instantly drowned out by a second voice, saying Help! The second voice was real, and coming through the phone.

Florence found herself saying, "Tell them you're injured. Insist they take you to a hospital. Fairfax Hospital. Insist. Nasrahdo you understand?"

She rose and dressed and, even though hurrying, put on her pearl earrings. Always wear your earrings, her mother had told her from an early age.

Outside the emergency-room entrance Florence recognized Shazzik and two mukfelleen. For the first time in her life she wished she were wearing a veil.

Shazzik was furious, making demands ofshe guessedseveral CIA security officers. But what worried her more was the amount of Virginia state trooperage outside: seven cruisers. Someone was bound to call the media, and once that happened, the options narrowed.

Two armed hospital security guards stood athwart the doors to the ER. Florence pulled her scarf up as a makeshift veil, lowered her head so as to look demure, and approached.

"I'm here to see Nasrah Hamooj. I am her family." Her dark hair and Mediterranean complexion made her look credibly Middle Eastern.

"Name?"

Neither "Florence" nor "Farfaletti" sounding terribly Wasabian, Florence said, "Malja." It meant "asylum" in Arabica fact that would in all likelihood be lost on a Virginia hospital security guard.

Word was sent in. It came back: Let her in.

"She's all right. Her cat scan and MRI were clean," a doctor told Florence. He was young and not quite as good-looking as the ones in television dramas, but, judging from the way he regarded Florence, an appreciator of beauty. Florence had grasped, as soon as boys had begun to bay outside her windows, that in addition to being a gift, beauty was a tool, like a Swiss army knife.

"Could you do another? Just in case?"

"She is your … ?"

"Sister."

"Well, we've established from a medical point of view that your sister is all right. Were you aware that she was drinking?"

"Dear, dear."

"She's lucky to be alive."

"Can you just keep her here? Under observation?"

"This isn't the Betty Ford Clinic."

"A few hours is all I'm asking."

"The insurance company"

Florence took the doctor by the arm and tugged him to a corner. He didn't resist. Men tend to yield to pretty women dragging them into corners. She dropped the Wasabi accent.

"I am asking you on behalf of the United States government"she flashed her State Department ID"to keep this woman in this hospital for a few hours. Surely there are some more tests you can give her."

"What's going on?"

"Do you know what an honor killing is?"

"This is a hospital, in case you hadn't"

"Where she comes from, it's what happens to a woman who dishonors her husband or relative. No trial, no jury, no appeal, no Supreme Court, no ACLU, no Barbara Walters, just death. By stoning or decapitation. You with me?"

"Who is she?"

"She's the wife of the Wasabi ambassador. One of his wives. She tried to run away. If you release her into their custody before I can figure something out, it's probably a death sentence."

"Jesus, lady."

"Sorry to lay that on you." Florence smiled at the doctor.

"How long am I supposed to keep her?"

"Thank you. Justa few hours. That would really be great. There's a tall man outside, Middle Eastern, very unpleasant-looking, thin, with a pencil moustache, a high forehead, and a goatee. Tell him you need to do more tests and she's in isolation."

"Oh, man."

"You're really, really great to do this. I won't forget it." She nudged him toward the swinging doors and then located Nasrah, drawing the curtain around her bed.

Nasrah had held it together until now, but seeing Florence, she burst. The Great Desert in Wasabia had not seen such moisture in an entire year. She had, in the manner of women of the region, applied copious mascara, which now ran sootily down her tawny cheeks. Florence listened and nodded and handed her a succession of tissues.

Eventually Nasrah's tear ducts gave up from exhaustion. Calm descended on her. She looked up at the hospital ceiling and said, "What will they do with me?"

The curtain parted with a fierce zip to reveal Prince Bawad and his retinue. He looks like Othello, Florence thought. And here's Shazzik in the role of Iago.

Accompanying them were State's chief security officer andoh, hellher boss, Charles Duckett. And McFall, the CIA's chief for the Near East.

Behind this scrum of officialdom Florence heard the doctor manfully explaining that there was some possibility of subdural something, but it was clear that he was being overruled. Bawad, whose finger snaps could summon a kingdom's resources, had brought his personal physician and orderlies to carry Nasrah off. She was, as far as the United States was concerned, Wasabi national soil.

The next morning Florence sought out George Phish. George was a desk limpet in the political/econ section who amused himself during his lunch hour by devising crossword puzzles in ancient Phoenician, one of twelve languages he spoke fluently. He claimed to dream in seven of them, and George was not the sort to boast. His model was Sir Richard Burton, the nineteenth-century polymath explorer who spoke thirty-five languages and dreamed in seventeen. One of the most daring adventurers of all time, Burton was a curious role model for the agoraphobic George, who had managed to wriggle out of every foreign posting he had ever been offered except one eighteen-month stint in Ottawa, during which he learned Micmac.

"I had the most vivid dream last night," he said. "In Turkish. I was on the Bosporus with Lord Byron and Shelley. We were each in one of those idiotic tourist pedal-boats, trying to get from one side to the other, only the continents started moving apart. What do you make of that? You look awful. Did we not sleep last night?"

"George, Nasrah Hamooj asked me for asylum last night."

"If you think that's more important than interpreting my dream, fine."

Florence told him what had happened.

"Hmm. I knew something must be cooking. Cables between here and Kaffa have been flying fast and furious. They scrambled a royal Wasabi transport out of Jacksonville to Dulles. Oh, the humanityoh, the paperwork."

George caught the look on Florence's face. "That was she on board? Oh, dear. I hear the sound of sharpening steel."

"I'll call Tony in Kaffa," Florence said. "Maybe he can …"

"What? Storm the palace? Forget it. Maybe they'll let her off with a hundred lashes."

For the next three days Florence stayed at the office until past midnight, writing. When she had finished, she printed three copies of her proposal, placed them in top secretfolders, and gave one to Duckett's secretary, another to George, and sent the third to the seventh floorstraight to the top.

Florence entered Charles Duckett's office without knocking and closed the door behind her. It shut with a portentous click.

Duckett was leaning back in his chair, as if trying physically to distance himself from the document in front of him. He was looking at it as though it were an animal, days dead and far gone in putrefaction, that had been malevolently dumped on a pristine altar consecrated to solemn rituals and tended to by votaries of an elite cult.

The cover sheet looked up insistently.

Female Emancipation as a Means
of Achieving Long-Term
Political Stability in the Near East:
an Operational Proposal


Submitted by Florence Farfaletti, ddasnea
Circulation: SecState, dasnea

"I know you've been under strain, Florence. I understand that"

"Charles, the reason I sent it to S before getting your approval was to relieve you of responsibility. And to be honest, I didn't think I'd get your approval. So what do you think?"

"What do I think?" Duckett said absently. "Of the fact that one of my deputies, whose actions reflect directly on me, has circulated a proposal calling for the fomenting of revolution in a country that supplies one third of America's energy needsa country to which we are formally allied, to which we are vitally and strategically linked. Circulated it and sent it to … the Secretary? What do I think?"

"I truly believe that"

"Do you see this phone on my desk, Florence?"

"Yes, Charles, I see the phone."

"Any moment now that phone is going to ring. It will be the seventh floor calling. 'The Secretary would like to see you. Right away.' That's what the voice will say."

"Charles"

"During my time here I've endeavored to make my infrequent visits to S occasions of light. Sometimes, given the region it falls to us to superintend, that is not possible. But at least when the Secretary sees me walk into his office, he does not say to himself, 'Why, here's Charlie Duckett! Say, isn't he the one whose staff sends me cockamamie proposals to undermine the social structure of America's most strategic partner in the Middle East? Why, come on in, Charlie boy! What's that skunk works of yours cooked up this time? Oh, and by the way, Charlie old bean, what's this about one of your people operating an underground railroad for runaway wives? Gosh, why didn't I think of that? What better way to promote harmony between our two countries! Let's give that girl of yours a promotion!' Are you out of your fucking mind, Farfaletti?"

"I made it clear to the Secretary in my cover letter that you hadn't signed off on it."

Duckett rubbed his forehead. "Now I'm beginning to think you're working for them."

"Them? Who are you talking about?"

"Them." Duckett did the Langley Hook.

"CIA? Charles, I work for the State Department. I work for you."

"No, no. This could only be an Agency operation. To destroy Statefrom within. It's happened before, you know."

"Charles, I'm on your side. I'm just trying to think outside the box."

"What box? Pandora's?"

"If we want to bring about change in the Middle East, this is the way to do it. I'm convinced of it. It might be the only way."

"How do I explain? Where do I begin? It is not our job to bring about change in the Middle East."

"It's not?"

"No, it is not. Our job is to manage reality."

His phone rang. The shadow of the angel of death passed over Charles Duckett's features.

"Yes," he said grimly, swallowing. "Yes. Right away."

The next morning Florence received notification that her "request for transfer" to the visa section of the U.S. consulate in the Cape Verde Islands had been approved, effective immediately.

"You might have told me you'd applied," George said. "I thought we had a relationship."

"I'm not going to Cape Verde, for God's sake," she said. "I'm out of here." She kissed George on the forehead and collected her things and left.

It was a stunning fall day. Feeling liberated after dropping off her letter of resignation, Florence zipped up her black leather jumpsuit (the sight of which caused cricks in many a male neck), tied her hair in a ponytail, donned her red helmet, flipped down the visor, pressed the starter button on her motorcycle, and screamed out of the city at a breakneck speed.

At the end of River Road she turned left and roared deeper into the country. She glanced down at the speedometer and saw that she was going almost 90 miles an hourtoo fast, but what bliss! The fall leaves went by in a lush slipstream blur of gold and red and orange.

Another color suddenly appeared in her rearview, a color not found in nature: electric blue, and flashing. For a moment she considered trying to outrun it, but then she let up on the throttle and rumbled over to the shoulder to await the inevitable: Do you have any idea how fast you were going, ma'am?

The man who got out of the unmarked car was not in uniform. The first discordant note that struck her was his age. He was in his mid-sixties, at least. He was trim, with the body of someone who had once been an athlete or in the military, gray about the temples, with wire-rimmed glasses perched on a sharp nose. His eyes were bright blue and twinkly. His lips were pursed, but pleasantly, in something like a smile. It didn't compute. Florence looked at the flashing blue light mounted on his dashboard. Some county supervisor or sheriff?

"Goodness gracious, young lady. Ninety miles an houron a road teeming with deer? You could have been killed." It was said in an avuncular way. "And what a waste that would be." He was grinning at her.

"Excuse me," she said. "Who are you?"

"Well, that's the question, isn't it?" he said, chuckling. "That's quite a machine you have there. Used to do a bit of motorcycling myself. Oh, yes, yes."

Still astride the bike, Florence moved her thumb over the starter button.

"Oh, now, don't be in such a rush. I should think you'd be interested to hear what I have to say. Very interested."

Something kept her from pressing the button.

"We read your proposal, Florence."

Florence stared.

"On achieving stability in the Middle East? Very interestingoriginal. And by gosh, out of the box. Not at all your usual State Department pap. No wonder they wanted to transfer you to Cape Verde! I had to look it up on a map. May I buy you a cup of coffee? This must seem very forward, I know."

"Are you with the State Department?" Florence asked.

"Hardly. Come on, I'll buy. There has to be a Starbucks around here."

"I don't"

"Do you remember the Starbucks in Kaffa?"

"What?"

"The one at the corner of Alkakazir and Bin Qatif? How the mukfelleen made them cover the mermaid's boobs on the logo? Now whenever I go to a Starbucks, I check for her boobs. Silly, I know. Do you want to follow me, or shall I follow you?"

"I …"

"I know. You came out here to feel the wind in your hair, the road rise up to greet you. But all I'm asking for is ten minutes of your time at a neutral, well-lit public place. If after that you want to walk away, no one's going to stop you, and I'll still pay for the latte. You like double-tall nonfat, yes? And sugar substitute, preferably not in lieu of birth-control pills?"

The only human being to whom she had confided that detail was a State Department polygraph operator, during her background check. She didn't know what to say, so she followed the man to a suburban Starbucks.

They sat outside, next to a parking lot full of expensive cars driven by people who looked like they had something to do with horses.

"Look," she said, "before we go any further, who are you?"

The man appeared to consider the question. He said thoughtfully, "Why don't you just call me 'Uncle Sam'?"

"I take it you're with the government. What is it you want?"

"Quite possibly the same thing you do. Long-term political stability in the Middle East. Now, there's a goal."

"You agree with my proposal?"

"Well, we've tried pretty much everything else, haven't we? And what a pig's breakfast we've made. Dear, dear, dear. The remarkable thing is how well we mean, America. And yet it always turns out sobadly. But I didn't come here to bore you to death, no, no. I came to welcome you aboard. If you'll come."

"Aboard what, exactly?"

"Don't ask, don't tell. All you need to know is that you could have the best job in the United States government. No Charlie Duckett looking over your shoulder, no endless reports and memos and all that razzmatazz. No inspector generals, no Senate committees. Anything you need to do the job, you just ask your uncle. Within reason, please. I don't want to be getting bills from Maserati or Chanel or Van Cleef & Arpels, thank you very much."

"What part of the government would I be working for?"

"The Department of Outside the Box."

"Come on. I want to know."

"Young lady, you've been handed the ultimate credit card. Why question it?"

"What if I'm caught?"

"Well," he said, chuckling again, "exactly my point. Not to make light of it."

"For a second there you sounded like Satan."

"Satan? That's a terrible thing to say. I'm one of the nicest people you'll ever meet."

"Why me?"

"It was your idea, wasn't it? You know the language. The region."

"So do a lot of people."

"It's a vendetta. You're Italian!"

"I'd file a discrimination complaint if I knew where to find you."

"Oh, all rightyou're passionate to emancipate women throughout the Arab world. As a means toward achieving lasting political stability in the region. Does that assuage your outraged ethnic pride?"

"It's a start."

"I'll pin ten dollars on the Virgin Mary at the next wop street fair I come across."

"That'll cost you twenty bucks."

"For someone whose grandfather helped Benito Mussolini try to conquer North Africa, you certainly pack plenty of attitude, young lady. Are you with me? Good. Let's talk about your team."

The offices of Renard Strategic Communications International are two blocks from Washington's Dupont Circle, far enough from K Street to be geographically distinct from that corridor of porcine influence-peddlers but close enough so that Rick Renard could have lunch with his many friends and soul mates who worked there.

Renard's handling of a steaming-hot religious tuber had riveted Florence's attention. A year before, the Reverend Roscoe G. Holybone ("the G stands for God," as his literature humbly put it), spiritual leader of several hundred thousand fanatically devoted southern Baptists, had declared from his televised pulpit in Loblolly, Georgia, that the Prophet Muhammad was a "degenerate." It was the consensus, even among the stiffer evangelical element, that the reverend had gone off his meds, but this was scant comfort to the prophet's 1.5 billion followers. Fatwas were issued from a hundred minarets, which seemed only to inflame Holybone and his minions, who, like mailed Crusaders on the parapets of Acre, responded with burning pitch and missiles, shouting defiance.

This hugger-mugger took place, inconveniently, in the middle of a presidential-primary race, requiring the various candidates to spend precious airtime denouncing the reverend instead of detailing their bold visions for America's future. Events reached a climax when the governor of Georgia was forced into the unenviable position of having to call out the National Guard in order to protect Holybone, then barricaded with a handful of loyal followers inside his church.

Into this radioactive swamp few PR men or women would have waded. Yet only hours after the reverend's helicopter was brought down by a shoulder-fired missile during his attempt to flee, there was Rick Renard on every TV channel, issuing statements on behalf of the reverend's heirs, calling for an end to hostilities and for the healing to begin, and, moreover, pledging $5 million to build a Baptist-Muslim Intercultural Center on the campus of Holybone University, featuring five basketball courts, each facing east for spontaneous midgame prayer. Today relations between Holyboners and Georgia's admittedly not very numerous Muslims are immeasurably better than during the Days of Rage. Credit for that belongs not only to whoever fired the SA-7 at the reverend's copter but also to Rick Renard and his deft spinnings. A man as fearless as that Florence wanted on her team.

Florence had made an appointment, stating only that she represented a "significant institutional client." To a strategic planner's ear, no sweeter syllables existed. Renard went through the motions of pretending that he was all booked up that day and then pretending to spot a cancellation. Why, he could see her that very afternoon.

Walking into Renard's office, Florence saw a row of clocks mounted on the wall, indicating the time in various capitals around the world. They were intended to proclaim Renard Strategic Communications International's global reach.

Rick rose, smiling, to greet her.

"Ms. Farfaletti," he said, as though it were the most important name in the world. He tried not to stare, but his eyes couldn't help lingering on the unexpected loveliness before him. She reminded him of whatshisname, the Italian portrait painter. He really must remember these namesit always impressed a certain type of client. Modig … Modig … the one who painted women with their heads cocked to one side, as if they were on the verge of asking the painter, "Would you please have sex with me?"

"Mr. Renard?"

"Sorry. It's just, you reminded me of someone. Have we met?"

"No. But I'm a great admirer of your work."

"Farfaletti. That would be …"

"Finnish."

Rick smiled. Always smile when a prospective client makes a joke.

"It means 'little butterfly.' More or less. In Italian."

"Is that a married name?"

"No."

"How can I be of service? You said over the phone it involved the Middle East." Rick gestured toward the wall of clocks. One gave the time in Dubai. "We have offices throughout the region."

"Mr. Renard, you have mail drops throughout the region. Post-office boxes. I'd hardly call them offices."

Rick blushed. "With modern communications these days, you don't really need offices. But I assure you, we're hard-wired in that part of the world."

"Are you still working for the government of North Korea?"

"No, no. That was just one project. And it was before the Japan thing."

"The launching-the-missile-at-Japan thing?"

Rick cleared his throat. "I am not currently in a relationship with the government of North Korea."

"'Field of Screams.' Wasn't that what the newspapers called it?"

"I'm glad you brought that up. For the record, I was unaware that the golf course in question had been built with so-called slave labor." Rick sighed. "Well, 'slavery' is a very subjective term, isn't it?"

"Not especially."

"They asked me to put on a celebrity pro-am golf tournament. To promote international peace. At the time, I thought, Why not? Would I do it again?" Rick shrugged. "Now, did you come here to talk about golf in North Korea?"

"No. I came because I want to bring about permanent stability in the Middle East."

"Hmm." Rick nodded thoughtfully, as if he had been asked for his ideas on promoting a new brand of toothpaste. "What sort of budget did you have in mind?"

"Money would not be a factor. Within reason, of course."

"In my experience, Ms. Farfaletti, 'within reason' is generally where money not only becomes a factor but is the factor."

Florence placed her briefcase on Rick's desk and snapped open the clasps. Inside were two bricks of stiff new thousand-dollar bills.

Renard tried not to drool. "You said you were with … ?"

"The United States government."

"Oh." Rick stared at the lumps of cash as if they might suddenly blow up.

"Do you always sound that disappointed when a client places two hundred thousand dollars in cash on your desk?"

"No, no. I assure you, my inner child is doing somersaults. What sort of permanent stability in the Middle East did you have in mind? And may I ask what … branch of our wonderful government, with whom I have always maintained excellentwell, goodrelations, you represent?"

"I'm with the State Department."

"Ah. CIA. I'm a huge fan. Your colleagues were very helpful to me over there in North Korea when the mine exploded on the golf course."

"I didn't say I was with the CIA, Mr. Renard."

"Gotcha. We're on the same page. So I would be working for the State Department. Well, I've always wanted to give something back to my country."

Florence and "Uncle Sam" had been sequestered in a small safe house in Alexandria, Virginia, for two days, going through personnel files. The house was normally used to debrief or entertain defectors. To judge from the reek of old cigarette smoke, the defectors must all have died of lung cancer.

They examined the files on Uncle Sam's laptop, which appeared to have intimate access to the files of U.S. government intelligence officers and covert operators. Whatever doubts Florence may have had about Uncle Sam, he was certainly wired.

Florence paused on a file. "I want someone with a grudge."

"They all hate Wasabia."

"No. Against us. Someone angry at the government, for the way it's gone about everything. Someone who's pissed off."

Finally he went upstairs to lie down, leaving Florence to scroll through the personnel records of America's armies of the night. They began to blur. Then she realized that she was now hunting according to looks. An hour into this phase of the search she suddenly stopped scrolling.

He was in his Army uniform, green beret drooping jauntily over his forehead. Florence recognized some of the ribbons on his chest. Bronze Star with V-Device. He was grinning at the camera like a high school senior who'd just nailed the homecoming queen in the back of his Ford pickup. The date at the bottom showed that the photograph had been taken twelve years earlier. She scrolled in search of a more recent photo and found it. The grin was gone. She read the file and saw why. No longer the eager young warrior. Yes, this one. She had read and reread his file by the time Uncle Sam returned.

"I've found him," she announced.

He scanned the bio. "Good lord, he's completely unsuitable."

"That's why I want him."

"Young lady, I'm not running a dating service here," Uncle Sam said, snorting. "Look at this file. I'm surprised he's even still in government employ. Did it escape your notice that he's the one who called in that cruise-missile strike in Dar es Salaam last yearthe one that destroyed the residence of the Indonesian ambassador?"

"I happened to note that," Florence replied. "It was a good target. The strike destroyed an al-Qaeda chem-weap plant. They put it right next to the ambassador's residencedisguised as a children's prosthetic-limb factory. Good for him for calling in the strike."

Uncle Sam sighed dramatically and scrolled. "What about this? When your Mr.what's his name?Bobby Thibodeaux was station chief in Matar, he had an affair with the wife of the U.S. ambassador. What does that tell us?"

"That he was horny. It's of less importance that he was doing the macarena with the ambassador's wife than that he was station chief in Matar. Look at his file. Station chief in the capital, Amo-Amas, three years. Deputy chief Kaffa, two years. Fluent in Arabic and French. Look at these terrorist captures. He's the one who got Adnan Bahesh, arguably the worst human being on the planet. Look at his chest. Three Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts. This isn't good enough for you?" Florence closed the laptop, slid it away from her, and crossed her arms over her bosom. "Search over. Fetch."

There was one last person to recruit, and he was going to be the hardest. He arrived at the safe house at the appointed time. He was always prompt.

"Florence? What is all this? Oh, my God, it's foul in here."

"Shut up, George. And shut the door."

George looked around the apartment, which had been furnished by a colorblind gnome who worked in a subdivision of a subdivision of a sub-bureaucracy, whose job was to decorate safe houses for U.S. intelligence agencies. The paintings had been bulk purchased at Wal-Mart and were one aesthetic level above black-velvet depictions of bulldogs in visors playing poker.

George winced. "I see you've been to Sotheby's."

"Do you want something to drink?"

"What are you pouring? Wine in a box?"

"George, you and I are going to accomplish something big. Something very big."

"Can I think it over? No."

"I haven't explained yet."

"You don't have to. I receive this flash-priority hush-hush ukase from S directing me to this pied-à-terre from the thirdno, secondcircle of hell. Isn't this where we put the North Korean defectors? So they'll feel at home?"

"Just listen." Florence explained about Uncle Sam and the plan. "George, will you please take your fingers out of your ears?"

"When I open my eyes, I'll be back in the office at my desk. All this will not have happened. One, two, three. You're still here," he said forlornly. "I'm still here."

"George, you're one of the most brilliant men I know. You're wasted behind that desk. Look at this opportunity we've been handed. It'll never come again."

"You don't know the first thing about this 'Uncle Sam.'"

"You sound like my mother. I don't know who he is, but he very definitely works for The Man. And he's handing us the chance to make history."

"I don't want to make history. I want my desk. Nine years to go before I get my pension. I'm going towell, never mind."

"What? Open an antique store in Provincetown?"

"As a matter of fact, no. And just who elected you Queen Mab? You are way over the line."

"I apologize. George, I couldn't care less what team you play for. But I want you on mine. I can't do this without you."

"I'll think about it. That's all."

"We leave in two weeks. You'll need shots."

"I'll kill myself. And you'll be responsible. I'll leave a note."

"You'll do nothing of the sort." She put her arm around his shoulder. "George, it's going to be fun."

"You've seen that damn movie too many times. It's not going to be fun. It's going to be a nightmare. And I'm going to be in it."

So. She had her team. On to Aqaba.

Part II of "Florence of Arabia" will appear next month.
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Christopher Buckley

Christoper Buckley is an author, satirist, and novelist. His books include Thank You for Smoking and Supreme Courtship. Buckley was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush.

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