Sheila was flying to Chicago to attend a friend’s wedding, and I was taking her to the airport. I had half-fantasized about a tender, Casablanca-type farewell, a la Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, and at least a part of that fantasy had come true: Major Strasse had gotten the drop on me.
That would be Mrs. O’Doherty, of course, Sheila’s mother and self-appointed body guard. She had insisted on coming along, and all the way to the airport she kept poking me through the front seat with her cane.
“Ma’am, fifty-five is the speed limit . . . no, ma’am, this is not the exit . . . yes, ma’am, I have had my eyes checked recently . . .” We finally wheeled into the parking garage, walked to the main terminal and made our way through the gauntlet of baggage checking, ticket taking and security, emerging at the end of the process at Sheila’s departure gate.
We chatted for awhile, Mrs. O’ taking advantage of the wedding to lament Sheila’s unmarried state, and rhapsodizing about young Dr. Davis (their dentist), and the fact that he, too, was single and presumably in search of a mate. Sheila was at some pains to point out that Dr. Davis did not appeal to her, not least because of his ostensible but seemingly calculated clumsiness, which caused him to “accidentally” drop dental instruments in her lap with annoying frequency, as well as a lopsided and very mobile toupee which once fell off and hit her squarely in the face, creating the sensation of being smothered with a dead cat. At long last, the first boarding call was made.
Sheila leaned in slightly and presented her classic profile. I gave her a peck on the cheek, and was immediately rewarded with a stertorous snort; it sounded like an aging plow-horse with hay fever that had stumbled into a field of dandelions. Sheila rolled her eyes. “Mom!”
“I didn’t say a word.”
I turned slowly to look at Mrs. O’Doherty. I started to say, “to look down at” Mrs. O’Doherty, but even though she was only 5’2”, she always managed to make me feel like I was in third grade again, looking up at the implacable face of the gargantuan and evil-tempered Mrs. Adams, trying futilely to explain my missing homework. No, nobody “looked down” at – and certainly not “on” – Mrs. O’Doherty.
“I think, ma’am, Sheila is referring to that sonic boom that you always emit when I show your daughter a little brotherly affection.”
“Don’t hand me that line of jive, flatfoot!” She punctuated each syllable with a thump of her cane on my chest. “Private detectives don’t have sisters; that’s why they think all women are fair game.”
I had stopped listening to Sheila’s mother. Not because I didn’t find her theories fascinating; I was distracted by the sight of someone who looked vaguely familiar. I couldn’t immediately place the face, and wasn’t sure I had ever known his name, but there was something about him, something that my tenuous recollection was telling me was strictly bad news. He was walking slowly, in some apparent confusion, heading from one of the international flights in the general direction of the main lobby. A short, wiry fellow, he was wearing a cheap suit, two sizes too big, a floppy little hat of the kind that fishermen and elderly Ft. Lauderdale condominium dwellers seem to favor, and he had a long, curly beard that would have looked right at home on the mug of one of Nebuchadnezzar’s astrologers. Sticking out of his coat pocket was a large, rolled up booklet: The Koran Koloring Book. But the most striking thing about his appearance was his eyes: ferocious little beads of shiny black agate. That’s when I twigged him. Islamic Rage Boy!
I bid Sheila a hasty good-bye, as the announcement came over the speaker that her plane was ready for final boarding. “Sorry, baby, but I’ve got to see a man on business. Come on, Mrs. O' Doherty.” I squeezed Sheila’s hand, and somehow she figured out that the game was on, so she said, “Be careful, Paco. And don’t drop Mom off in another county; she’ll find her way home, just like last time.”
I turned and began following Rage Boy at an inconspicuous distance, Mrs. O' Doherty shuffling along and clucking like an indignant hen. “Why are you tailing that Amish farmer? Is this one of your cases? I’ll have you know I have some yeast rolls rising at home and . . .”
I came to an abrupt halt; if I didn’t shut her up, she was liable to attract attention. “Listen, Mrs. O’Doherty. That guy isn’t an Amish farmer. He’s the notorious Shakeel Bhat, a/k/a/ ‘Islamic Rage Boy’. He’s known the world over for being the face of angry, radical Islam, and if he’s in this country, it’s probably because he’s decided that mere scowling isn’t going to put him on the fast track to Paradise. Now, here’s thirty-five cents, and the card for Agent Smedley at the FBI. Do me a favor: go find a pay phone, call Smedley, and have him drop round with a paddywagon, pronto.”
She looked at me contemptuously. “Lace your boots up, buddy; get hep to the jive! This is the twenty-first century; I’ve got a cell phone.” I noticed that she pocketed the thirty-five cents, though.
While Sheila’s mother made the telephone call, I followed Bhat outside of the main terminal. He was making his way over to the new “Pray and Go” lane, which the airport had built to accommodate Muslims. As he stood on the median, a black limousine swept down the lane and screeched to a stop beside him. The back door opened, and a familiar figure jumped out.
It was Saleh. I had last encountered her in a little game of terrorist hide-and-seek in Miami last year, when she tried to provide cover for her cousins, Farouk and Ali, as they made their (ultimately futile) dash for freedom from Haroun’s House of Hummus. Despite the danger of the situation, I couldn’t help but ogle her for a moment. Her raven hair fell in cascades down to her waist, and her eyes gleamed like black onyx. Her body was wrapped in a black silk evening gown; she looked like a statue of Aphrodite waiting to be unveiled, but already revealing the sensuous curvature that left little (but what a sublime, maddening little!) to the imagination .
I ducked behind a dolly piled high with luggage, and watched an odd scene unfold. Rage Boy was startled out of his wits. When Saleh leaped out of the car, he bounded a full three feet backwards, and the look on his face was not one of rage, or even recognition, but absolute horror. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but she was smiling and trying to explain something to him, and was reaching out to grab him by his coat sleeve. Rage Boy, open-mouthed, was backpedaling and moving his hands and forearms like the blades on a combine, attempting to fend her off. Saleh was rapidly running out of patience, and signaled to the chauffeur, a hulking fellow with a handlebar mustache, who got out of the car and closed on Rage Boy from the rear. The scenario wasn’t playing out as I had figured, at all.
It was time to make my move. I jogged over to the limo and announced myself. “Well, if it isn’t long, tall Saleh! You and your boyfriend headed for the prom?”
All three of them stared at me. Saleh gave me a murderous smile. “Long time, no see, Paco. You keep turning up at the most inopportune moments. We’ll have to do something about that.” She barked something in Arabic to the chauffeur, who came around, faced me squarely, and pulled a .45 from his shoulder holster.
“Thanks, Hercules”, I said, removing my fedora and hanging it on his pistol-filled fist. In the split second of the chauffeur’s confusion, I launched a powerful jab at his chin. He went down like a pole-axed steer.
I turned and immediately found myself covered by Saleh, who had retrieved a smaller caliber, but still deadly, pistol from her elegant little purse. Suddenly, there was a blur of something flying through the air. It caught Saleh on the wrist, knocking the gun out of her hand. I moved in quickly, grabbed her by an elbow, whipped her around, and got her in a half-nelson. Looking down on the ground, I saw Mrs. O’Doherty’s cane. “Taking a big chance, weren’t you?” I growled through clenched teeth.
Mrs. O’ toddled up, collected her cane, and sniffed. “I didn’t see any downside. Besides, I wasn’t likely to miss. I was a champion javelin thrower on the girls’ track team in high school.” At that moment, the air was filled with the sound of sirens, as the FBI closed in. Plus the local police, the state police a fire truck and an ambulance. Mrs. O’ gave me a smug look. “I figured you could use all the help you could get.”
An hour later, after Smedley had packed Saleh and the chauffeur into the paddywagon, I saw him shake hands with Bhat and see him off in another limousine that had arrived in the interim. Then Smedley came over to have a chat. I was a little peeved.
“Smedley, I know a prisoner manages to escape every once in awhile, but that’s the first time I’ve ever seen you set one at liberty, like you were releasing a pet raccoon into the wild.”
Smedley smiled and lit a cigarette. “Well, it took us awhile to sort it all out. Don’t get me wrong: that was ‘Islamic Rage Boy’, all right. But it turns out he’s in the country legally. Seems like he wasn’t originally a Muslim at all; he converted because he heard it was a good way to get girls. When he found out that he had to be a martyr to get his 72 virgins, and that, according to some theological interpretations, they aren’t women at all, but white raisins, he soured on the whole idea. By then, though, his face was plastered all over the internet, and he had become such a figure of comedy, that Jay Leno decided to invite him onto the Tonight Show. Leno told him that he couldn’t vouch for there being any genuine virgins in Hollywood, but that he could have his pick of as many slightly used virgins as he wanted. That sealed the deal, as far as Bhat was concerned. He’s got a two-day layover before going to Hollywood; hopes to get work as a stand-up comic out there.”
“How did Saleh get mixed up in this?”
“Bhat’s pals weren’t thrilled about his apostasy. They got word to Saleh’s group of terrorists stateside; they were going to try and turn him back to the path of righteousness, maybe get him up to some mischief over here, and if that didn’t work, they were going to kill him. She was attempting to pass herself off as one of Leno’s assistants when she drove up tonight. No female besides his mother had ever talked to him before, so when Saleh jumped out at him, he froze. You may have saved his life. And you definitely did us all a favor by putting the grab on Saleh, again. Meanwhile, Bhat just got picked up by the real NBC limo, and he’s off to California in a couple of days.”
In the car, driving Mrs. O’Doherty home, I did the gracious thing and thanked her for the timely cane-hurling. “It was nothing. Incidentally, Paco, how much money do you collect on a case like that?”
“That wasn’t a case, exactly. I was just doing my patriotic duty.”
“You know, pro bono work doesn’t put groceries on the table or a roof over your head. Now, take Dr. Davis . . .”
I turned the radio on. And put it up loud.