Today's Reading

CHAPTER ONE
Baghdad, 2002

Huda paced her backyard, trying to brush off her spat with her husband. In the distance, above al-Dora refinery, columns of flames pierced the night. An easterly wind pushed the stench of the burning gas away from New Baghdad, so all Huda could smell were the orange and apricot trees by the fence. She knew the wind could turn at any time, but right then the gas flares were beautiful, like candles lined up on a giant's birthday cake.

The bell rang at the front gate. Huda paused mid-step and wondered, Had Abdul Amir forgotten his keys when he stormed off to the coffee shop? Or had her husband cooled down and decided to eat dinner with her after all? Huda hurried inside through the kitchen door. A nougat box lay spread-eagled on the counter, cellophane wrappers strewn like evidence of a hasty crime. Huda frowned and swept them into the bin. So much for her diet.

The bell sounded again. Something in its flat, insistent tone made her falter. She scurried down the hallway, heels slapping against the tile. In the foyer, she paused by a console table decorated with family portraits. The largest of the pewter frames faced the wall. Huda flipped it around. The president stared back at her, eyes dark as tar. Medals marched across his chest.

She quickly moved the president's portrait to a prominent position between a photo of her and Abdul Amir on their wedding day, and a snap of their son, Khalid, wearing a suit and tie at his thirteenth birthday party. Next, she set to work unlocking the front door: unlatching chains, turning keys, sliding dead bolts. She ran her hands over her hair and heaved open the door. Two secret police officers strode down the driveway.

Huda quivered. Lock the bolts; hide under the bed, she thought.

But she knew that wouldn't work. These men were like dogs: show fear and they bite. Behind them, the padlock from the gate lay in chunks on the concrete. The broken metal caught the glare of the floodlights over the carport. The larger of the two men shoved a pair of bolt cutters into the pocket of his leather jacket. Huda imagined his pockets contained all sorts of instruments: for breaking, slicing, and prizing apart.

"As-salaam alaikum." Her voice wobbled. "What brings you here tonight, my countrymen?"

"Sister, my apologies for a visit at the dinner hour," called Abu Issa, the older and slighter of the two men. He too was wearing a boxy leather jacket. Men like him were never without them, night or day, even when the sun scorched the blue from the sky and the bitumen on the roads melted into sticky pools.

Without waiting for an invitation, Abu Issa and his bolt-cutting partner barreled through the front door. Their bulk filled the foyer and pushed the oxygen out. Huda retreated down the hallway, careful not to turn her back. The men followed. Sand crunched beneath their boots—no amount of sweeping could keep the desert out. The fine grains went where they wanted, just like the officers of the mukhabarat.

"May I offer you tea?" Huda's voice came out high and tight.

"Yes, please, dear," said Abu Issa. "Three sugars."

"Two only for me," grunted the larger man. "I'm watching my weight."

Huda waved them into the sitting room and then ducked into the kitchen. In the window above the sink, her reflection stared back at her. Her large dark eyes were even wider than normal, and her plump cheeks were whittled into tight angles. The mouth that Abdul Amir once likened to a rosebud was a bloodless line. No matter how often Huda saw it, she was always surprised by how fear transformed the most familiar face into that of a stranger.

She asked herself, why were Abu Issa and his partner here? It had been only two weeks since their last visit. Please, Khalid, she prayed, forget your curfew. Stay at Bakr's and play computer games. Huda quickly warmed the tea in the kettle and poured it into three thimble-size istikan glasses. The liquid leaped over the hour-glass sides and pooled in the delicate saucers. She wiped them clean, balanced the tea, sugar bowl, and spoons on a tray, and carried them into the sitting room.

"Sit, sit." Abu Issa waved her toward a corner chair—as if he were the host and she were the visitor. His bolt-cutting partner stared at her, eyes flat as night. Huda's breath bunched in her throat.

"Let us chat," said Abu Issa, "about your work at the Australian embassy."

Huda nodded. This was not the first time the mukhabarat had come asking questions about events at the embassy: correspondence and meetings, comings and goings, the latest rumors. Everyone who worked with foreigners could expect such visits. Her lacquered nails carved half-moons into her palms. Think of your good salary, she reminded herself. Besides, if it wasn't her job, the secret police would find some other pretense to sit on her couch, to drink her tea, to gauge her fealty.
...

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