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Short Story
4,637 words
SHJ Issue 14
Spring 2016

Never Been Tested

by Steven Roiphe

When Mora nudged Ali toward the flight gate he turned and glared again, and she thought how different he looked since they’d shaved his beard.

The team at Kuwait City had considered leaving the beard alone, or only trimming it, so the president could claim respect for the spiritual significance of masculine hair. But they’d decided it best to clean up Ali entirely. In the strictest sense, the administration had no intention of respecting his religious rights anyway—once he reached his cell he would not be allowed a Koran, nor would he be able to answer a muezzin’s call, or even tell if it were prayer time. Nor was the president concerned, at this late point in term two, about how this would look to the trembling Left. He’d declared an end to his campaigning days, and anyone with two eyes, an ear, or a sense of empathy could tell he meant it.

Yes, he was concerned how Ali’s reception might look to the Muslim world. This was the type of thing that weighed on him, because it bore upon what country he would leave in his wake. But this too was moot, since the secret apparatus of national security had been applied so that no uninvolved actor could learn about it. And if the apparatus failed in any way, the president had already decided he’d absorb the consequences in retirement.

No, not exactly, Mora thought, remembering the grainy videoconference back in Kuwait. Or not all of it. The president actually said, “Look. I’ve been suffering from day one, whatever I’ve done or not, and I imagine they’ll keep me suffering.”

They of course being the opposition, who’d long faulted the president’s credentials, though at this late date it could apply also to his own party, who’d begun entertaining the fear that behind the façade of superior competence might lurk embarrassing disarray. Mora wondered why supposed allies could not understand his key strength.

It was one of the things she still loved about the man, who in every other way had failed her: he knew his limits and accepted them, ornery about it or not. And it was why she remained calm amid the doubt the Agency aimed at her now. If she found herself believing the taunts about her own inexperience, she could hark back to the president’s rookie days—not their fault they’d never been tested.

Doubts aside, the team and the president had no trouble convincing the apparatus to participate, since Ali was as clear a threat to America as any radical Islamist since Bin Laden. They’d intercepted, happily in time to disappear the jihadist, audio of Ali ordering a bomber onto the National Mall—so abusing any rights, trust, or bureaucratic responsibility was justified, in its way. And the project was free of the stigmas of precedent, as no federal records would be kept. With the residual advantage that they needn’t worry how well they’d execute it.

Mora considered all this as she reacted, blank eyed, to the glare darkening Ali’s otherwise clean and clear face, then turned again to the college slacker-guy who’d been admiring her sky blues and cherry-blond hair, and the skirt that hinted at the firmness of her thighs. In all senses of the term but one, she was a youngish and better-than-ordinary MILF.

All this nudging and flirting, and even daydreaming about the president, Mora could bring off without fear, thanks to no fewer than ten armed covert agents monitoring, by the captive’s own knowledge, Ali’s every move. Six of whom would board the plane, with the promise of several more attached to its crew.


Onboard, Ali quietly respected an old woman who requested he trade her window for his aisle. Part of his staying power atop ISIL’s tectonic structure was this ability to charm anyone, independent, apparently, of facial hair, or in this case the lack of it helped. Mora considered refusing to allow the swap, on the basis that her husband had an unacknowledged tendency toward vertigo, but she decided it was one of those events she’d been told not to bother with: no worries about last-minute rescues, because so many drones would be following this plane, along with an army of agents piloting every other form of airborne armed vehicle. Rescue approximated the difficulty of al-Qaeda recruiting its next driver from behind the wheel of Limo One.

For the third time since leaving the hotel—where they’d again violated Ali’s professed religion by making him sleep in her room, she veiled in a silk nightgown—Mora considered how much this was costing the American public. Katrina, after the levees broke.

But it didn’t matter, because with everything Ali had done, all the evil that flowed from his person, it was worth all the Treasury’s gold to deliver him safely to his interrogators.

Whom, she’d been assured (she, an inveterate MoveOn petitioner), would employ simple persuasion—and the latest in psychological warfare—in questioning Ali. An assurance she accepted for the same reason she’d gone along with the shave and haircut: this president’s principles guaranteed it.

This president, for whom she’d done so much toward installing in the highest office. As much, that is, as any gal with an idealistic upbringing, an overlong stint in AmeriCorps, and a long-deferred philosophy master’s under her belt could do. This president whose call to service that first MLK Day had monumentally spurred her to join the Agency instead of enlisting, as her parents wished, with a temp service back home. (They still were suggesting it, knowing only her cover story, that she was a staffer to an as yet spotless blue-state senator.)

As often at times like this—transition times, moments of coming and leaving, the 737 coursing down a semislick runway—the smudge of memory shrouding her impressions of the past seven years dilated from one ear to her other: dispassionate entrance interview, endless brutal training, firing weapons (so many weapons!) the first time, and the three promotions she’d earned, each one deeper into the core of the secret apparatus, until here she was, arguably one of the ten most powerful women on the face of (or skimming above) the earth.


“And what is the littlest cherub’s name?”

These were the first words Mora recognized as Ali’s, and not of the gabby mom of a U.S. Embassy worker sitting beside her (she’d osmosed the old lady’s status), or one of the tousle-haired, thirty-something NGO studs who populated her favorite dreams. Prying herself from a nap made possible by the covert agents with concealed infrareds trained on Ali, she felt the old-lady-perfumed arm press against her breasts in that intimate way allowable among travelers. Ali was handing back to Charlotte (she’d learned Grammy’s name, too, during sleep) the photo of her adorable (all are, aren’t they?) grandkids.

“Rutherford, but we call him Fordy.”

“I do so adore America’s reverence for her history,” said Ali. “What a handsome, strong, presidential boy.” And as Charlotte turned and blushed, the crinkle-banked pools of Ali’s gaze hardened into the alabaster glare he’d trained on Mora ever since she’d broken cover and seized his gun. “Please, do you have any more photographs like this?”

To speak so gently, while keeping his purpose. It was the genre of multitasking—emotional multitasking—that Mora found irresistible in men and stubbornly absent in her usual prospects. If he were tousled and blond, she could fall for this monster.

“Oh, I wish I did, darlin’.” The woman, presumably from somewhere south of Mason-Dixon, was shaking her head now at her elephantine smartphone. “If I could only figure how to use this thing—other than texting. It’s pretty good for that.”

And Ali laughed in a way only militants and intelligence agents recognized as mockery. “Oh, these devices are not so very important—I so enjoy the old ways, the feel of the paper photograph you shared.” This as he assumed control of the generations-old iThing, and in finding her photos probably garnered Charlotte’s identity, which would matter if he weren’t to be buried at sea before he could hack with it.

Charlotte giggled, then grasped Mora’s shoulder in a way that would have made her jump before the training. “Your husband is the sweetest man.”

Mora yawned and answered in her noncommittal Kansan. (This she’d been allowed to keep.) “Thank you ma’am, I thought so.” And she and Ali exchanged the most ironic of looks, the one each manufactured for outsiders, but which shared between them seemed lethal.

“Don’t let this one go!” giggled Charlotte.

“Oh, I won’t, ma’am,” and she squeezed Ali’s deltoid a little harder than necessary.


From then until Germany, Mora tolerated all manner of chat between her seatmates. To be fair, Charlotte and Ali had urged her to swap places too, so she wouldn’t be stuck in the middle. But she’d insisted crosstalk didn’t bother her. Which it usually didn’t, not more anyway than the image of Ali managing to slash an adjacent passenger with a box cutter.

At Berlin Tegel, Mora sat in the predetermined café with Ali, who pretended to read the paper (she knew German wasn’t one of his languages), while she spoke in code to her eurozone manager. Face averted thanks to the agents who’d debarked with them, she explained to the man exactly what hadn’t occurred on the flight, and allowed him to quiz her on the plan from that instant onward: after leaving the café, she and Ali would move down the southeast corridor to a row of blue seats flush with a wall between a pair of restrooms, where they’d remain until called to their flight, two gates farther down.

She terminated the call five-and-a-half minutes before scheduled relocation. And Ali was looking at her in that way that announced him intent upon discourse. “What,” she said, checking that all nearby tables remained empty.

“You’re so certain,” he said, his gentle tone with Charlotte honed cutlass sharp now, “that I don’t have colleagues in Berlin.”

Mora shuddered. “We’ve secured the area.” Meaning: every undercover in Germany had for days been racially profiling between here and the national borders, courtesy of the American taxpayer.

“Yes.” His expression mingled mockery with concern. “Just as Paul Tompkins has secured your every thought.”

This time Mora feared she’d blinked; in the course of three days Ali had spoken the names of every Agency superior she’d had on this project, stressing those who were dead or disappeared. It almost made her doubt the president’s plan.

And this was not the first time he’d mentioned Paul.

But what she said was, “You will be brought to justice. Whether by me or by others.” And she tried not to feel the fool idealist in front of this outwardly reasonable, intelligent, and charming bigamist who, not thirty-six hours ago, had resembled central casting’s image of a hajji.

Ali smiled as if chatting up Grammy Charlotte. “This is what amazes me about you Christians.”

She felt like asserting her purposeful atheism (if not her part-Jewish heritage), but knew it wouldn’t dent his belief that every willing resident of a Christian nation was and would remain Christian. Instead she said, “And what, please enlighten me, could amaze a man like you?”

Ali leaned closer and she smelled the Axe cologne the guards had sprayed on him. “You buy into this righteousness, as if it were a childhood toy you can’t abandon.”

On the surface, more propaganda, the type they both had to employ. But his metaphor stung: the New Generation Cabbage Patch Kid she’d purchased for her youngest nephew before leaving for Saudi Arabia remained on her bed, tucked in with its own pillow.

So she lied. “I have no concern for righteousness, only—”

“Only for saving lives,” he said. He’d finished the same phrase for her their night together in Kuwait. But now he added, as if privileging her an extra scoop: “Because, as you Christians insist, only the elite may be martyrs.”

If this were anyone besides Ali Husseini, Mora would have relished the debate—her undergrad sociology training, the grad work in philosophy, not to mention her speech-club trophies, warranted it. “Jesus was a carpenter,” she heard herself saying; but then he’d likely challenge her on all the saints, and she had no idea about them. As it was she replied crudely, eye for eye: “And Muslims—Islamists—you insist the average life’s worth nothing.”

“Not at all,” and he smiled again. “Those of us Allah has called upon, simply hail each person’s right to martyrdom.”

She shot him an icy stare.

He nodded, and she looked for his anger, some maniacal hatred, but he wore a maddening, smug expression he assumed whenever they touched upon clerical matters.

She turned back to her magazine, he to the Dickens provided him. But she wondered. Why must she, a nonbeliever, keep challenging his cartoonish piety? She’d broken protocol again, allowed him too much.

Whenever she thought he might be right, she was to harness the strength to ignore him. Paul Tompkins—still alive now, hopefully—had taught her this, and warned her how convincing Ali could be. She made herself remember the words of another manager, way before Paul: “This is why we’re after them. Because, pretending to piety, they murder busloads of babies.”

In the time it took her to turn a page, Ali’s likely rebuttal came to her: And what of those babies’ right to martyrdom? She’d always thought that earlier manager’s rationale so strong. But now—It’s probably because, where are my babies?

She forced herself to keep reading, perspiring a bit and willing their flight to board.


They’d chosen Mora for this, she knew, primarily because of her gender. She’d agreed during planning that a woman would nicely begin Ali’s humbling, and certain colleagues’ taunts about callow youth only proved the point. But they’d selected her not least for her nuanced principals, which served to chafe dilettantes like Ali. Hers was what the Agency called ethical ardency, partly to deride how fervor was expressed in Middle Eastern as opposed to—well, to Christian culture.

An ethicist by schooling and by nature, Mora thought very much about all sides of belief—about the mechanics of it—and this is why another phrase from training stayed so strongly with her. Just before Tompkins, she’d had her only female supervisor, an insufferable Ivy grad whose name she never bothered remembering. But that woman’s words, on occasion, were apt: “That doubt. Harness it, leverage it.”

Doubt, she knew, was the Agency’s best weapon in this, and enhanced techniques be damned, the lever for almost all actionable intelligence. “Just keep it well aimed toward the bad guys,” Paul had added.

Now, as she settled into her row aboard the much larger plane to Chicago—she’d worried most about this flight, whether all the agents would find seats near enough—she tried to concoct a reasoned response to use next time this terrible man (she had long banished the word terrorist) proffered logic. To use without triggering her own doubt.

She thought back to elementary school. Ali was right that it all came from childhood. Everything after that, for her, carried the hopeless taint of Reagan-era cynicism. Yes, she must cleave to the years when there was nothing ironic about standing in class for the Pledge. Or in words such as these:

“The Pilgrims came to America for freedom. To worship however they chose.”

Mora neither remembered which teacher said this, nor could tell a casual inquirer (let alone a shrewd enemy) precisely why to believe it. In fact, she could sooner discuss the myriad inaccuracies—nay, evils—that lurked inside the statement. Pilgrims hardly intended to allow freedoms to anyone but themselves, least of all religious freedoms, and especially not to the savage idolaters they would never have hosted except to seal a profitable truce. Nor could they choose how they worshipped, because the fact of such freedom would’ve mortified them. But the aphorism held a kernel of accuracy which only a simple and pure child (or a spy seeking antidotes to lunatic beliefs) could fully appreciate. One had to feel those words, and trust in them.

Such had kept her going during her civic-wasteland years, from around fifth grade until college, when she began considering the range of human opinion and feeling. To be honest, she’d relied on similar, too-simple truths even through the bulk of the aughts—otherwise, if asked to expound on American rectitude, she would’ve called up a single vague image of Colin Powell, receding as tawdry others took his place.

She tried not to think about the aughts. Or about any but the last of them, when she’d discovered this president’s more refined brand of rectitude: How many other eras had allowed the honest American to declare that her country meant well?

No, she wasn’t immune to her party’s gnawing suspicions of disarray. But there was that well-meaning rectitude, and if she must, by Ali’s lights, shoulder the cross for all Christians, she’d allow herself relief in it. Cloaked in that conviction, the doubts needn’t bother her, neither hers nor, as she’d learned of later, the president’s.

That’s why she liked the rectitude argument: it had the potential to scatter skepticism both without and within, because consistency is the bane of all doubt. And, anyway—

Her thought stream evaporated. Next to her, Ali was standing.


While her training sessions had covered procedural deviation (it wasn’t in the script, Ali standing), she panicked for a moment. Cursed herself for having drawn inward instead of scanning the in-flight magazine, as Paul had suggested.

Now she scanned, instead, the heads of other travelers, in case she might warn her fellow agents, and not risk seeming drugged or dead or just incompetent. She took care to do this casually, so as to screen any residual panic from Ali’s notice. She cleared her throat lazily. “Honey, do you need to do your stretches?”

He answered without looking at her—“I must pee, my love.”—and her anxiety peaked again. Because she recognized the rare vulgarism as provocation.

“I thought you’d just gone, at the terminal,” she said.

“Will you please excuse me, sir?” And then he was off down the long row of knees, most of which grudgingly swiveled to ease his way.

She bit down on her lip. She’d passed the ball. Passed it competently, in a tactical sense, but still.


“Quash that. You’re overcontrolling.”

No one had accused her of this since college roommates, and she took pride in having beaten back Bitch Mora forever. (But then, she’d long lived alone.) If it hadn’t been Paul Tompkins telling her, she likely would’ve considered it just another paternalist reaction to her gender.

“Every one of your colleagues aboard will be just as competent to monitor him.” By his tone—lighter than his office voice, but crisper than their usual pillow talk—she’d known Paul was checking off an agenda item. He hadn’t seemed to mind her dominance a few minutes ago. “One of them—maybe more—will likely be better positioned to respond.”

That tone had convinced her, too, that the higher-ups knew about them. But career concerns hadn’t survived Paul’s soft brown gaze: she’d maintained her smile (because no, in the end she was actually submissive), and they’d fallen together back onto the hotel bed.

And now Ali’s cohorts have decapitated Paul. She tried to banish such thoughts and react as Paul had suggested. She turned to the man two seats to her right—the rather bolt-upright gentleman Ali had pardoned himself past first. “Are you visiting Chicago, or is it home for you?” “Proceed more casually than you think right,” Paul had said.

“Home,” he snapped in clipped British. And this would be harder to continue, since she was clearly disturbing him. Maybe she’d do better with the earbudded young hermitess to her left. But she had to avoid seeming desperate—by desperately maintaining this chitchat.

“So. Germany is work, then? Or Kuwait?” When he declined to respond or even turn toward her, she said, “I’m with the government—American—in Kuwait City.” (“Lie as little as necessary, love.” More of Paul’s good advice.)

Just then the Briton fixed the corners of his eyes on her, and the notion hit that he might be Agency. She willed herself to keep looking at him.

“Right,” he said. “Well. I fear I must finish this report.” She hadn’t noticed the book on his tray table, a string-bound blue volume. Eccentric. Little chance the Agency would come up with it—they’d more likely have placed Earbud Girl. Or some other passenger Ali had brushed past on his way to whatever he was doing.

The question became moot as Ali returned, the row of knees pinching sideways all over again. His hands smelled of airline soap, and there weren’t any conspicuous holes in him.

“Are you feeling okay, hon?” she said.

Ali nodded to the Brit, harrumphed his assent, and plopped—somehow gracefully—back into his too-narrow seat.


The real glitch came at O’Hare.

By the time they’d retrieved their luggage for the slog to the airport hotel—even the Agency couldn’t arrange flights to Wyoming without long layovers—she was reasonably certain Ali had resigned himself. So, she’d begun silently mulling the night’s hotel procedures, when her companion gasped, then spoke Arabic:

“I had wondered if we’d meet! Salaam!” Before she could recheck that they’d walked the correct, tripled-security corridor, Ali was rocking in the arms of a very hajji-looking man.

She peered around in vain for trained barrels.

It was always possible, they’d warned her, that Ali would manage to lead her astray.

She reached for her pocketbook, for the contingency that Paul had provided her.

But having felt the reassuring grip, she found her Discover and React window already closed; during the long embrace, the PA had spat fevered announcements, and now clots of travelers skimmed by in both directions. Even if the bullet lodged as it was supposed to, the intruder’s retaliation might strike anyone. So she imagined herself in a niqab—the two men facilitated this by ignoring her—and tried to observe the avuncular acquaintance’s intent. The crowd thinned and she listened, her Arabic just good enough to follow:

“And something drew you away—suddenly?” asked Uncle Hajj.

“Truly unexpected, correct,” Ali answered.

“Ah. And what of the children?”

“I fear they won’t remember their father.” Ali appeared, for once, nervous.

Mora, ready now, upped the stakes—in English: “Now gentlemen, let’s not playact. Ali, introduce me to your friend.”

They switched dialect: “Any reason to preserve this woman?” Uncle Hajj still hadn’t looked at her, nor had he reached for a weapon.

“I do not believe she is told much.” Ali shrugged too casually, especially after the withering glare he’d just shot her.

She decided to pretend she hadn’t understood. “Listen—let’s sit this reunion down.” There’d been another call for flights, and another rush approached.

They didn’t respond to her suggestion. But the too-happy grins had melted away like spring frost, and moving closer to them to continue hearing above the crowd noise didn’t seem safe.

The men spoke more animatedly as announcements continued and travel clots came and passed, and she resigned herself to using the pistol. Withdrawing it from the purse, she put a hand firmly on Ali’s arm, but he yanked himself free.

The crowd thinned again, but another was coming.

Now Uncle did look at her, was swearing rapidly, and she couldn’t see his hands. Ali, meanwhile, appeared to panic, his head shuttlecocking as if to find an escape route. And then the next wave, noisier even than the last, overtook them. Ali leaned in and began speaking into Uncle’s ear—if Hajji makes to respond I’ll kill him first, then Ali—though she doubted they’d share much with him until certain he was out of custody. Since she couldn’t hear, she had to assume the worst—she looked around for places to retreat until backup came, in case she shot less than true.

Ali was gesturing toward her, Uncle Hajj grinning nervously now, craning his head about as the bustling sound diminished, but there was no other crowd coming, and as the PA fell silent it seemed all three of them froze. Her peripheral vision registered only a few stragglers on each side of the terminal, and just as Uncle turned back toward his baggage and she was about to fire, a child—a small girl, likely Arab, moved as if coaxed from behind the closest bank of chairs and tugged at the back of Uncle’s shirt; He and Ali hadn’t mentioned Uncle having kids. Ali shrugged and while both men looked down another passenger approached—this one less short, a grown woman Mora profiled Hispanic through a strange side-gap in the burqa. The woman began moving Uncle away, the child following to one side as Mora clicked off her safety and at the same instant heard a sound like a parody-space-movie laser, and a tiny bleeding hole appeared at the side of Uncle’s left temple just as a tall Arab man strode over and hastened the ersatz family toward what she’d figured was a closet. The four disappeared into it with a slam as the next mass of travelers bore down, and Mora and Ali stood speechless, her gun’s muzzle shifted from the now-empty space where Uncle had stood, to the space at the small of Ali’s back.

In the thick of the crowd, Mora grasped Ali’s arm, and this time he didn’t resist. She gestured for him to roll their luggage while she prodded him safely toward the glassed-in corridor that led from the terminal to the airport hotel.


Not much happened the rest of that day, and after they’d eaten without talking in the loud hotel restaurant, Mora led Ali through a lobby where any random person—the woman in the green party dress, the old man tapping his cane along the hard carpet, and yes, two gray-suited official-looking men—could have been Agency ready to shoot.

Given Ali’s new reticence, she worried a little that he’d consigned himself to martyrdom via pistol fire, and so watched him for sudden moves. But maybe Base’s assertion that for now he was too valuable to both sides alive held true, because they were back in their little room by eight.

While she wasn’t surprised that he wouldn’t mention what had happened at the terminal, she was a little intrigued with Ali’s new mien, mostly because she’d never imagined him hopeless. Gone was the ramrod-straight posture—he stood and sat now in a curve, and when he did speak the voice was softer and duller.

She decided it quite possibly had been the only rescue ISIL had planned for him. And, secure in the knowledge that at least every second room on their floor harbored an Agency team, she slipped into her loose-fitting flannel pajamas and under the covers of one of the beds, then watched as he lay on the other in the same clothes he’d worn all day, arms folded as if to hide the chains she’d expertly locked to the underside of the bed. He watched Al Jazeera at the volume she’d specified.

Though exhausted, and much more comfortable than usual with sleeping under observation, she found it necessary to repeat the mantra Paul had so timely gifted her—If the team does it, I’m doing it—until her disappointment in her performance lessened and she allowed herself the credit she’d earned.

The last thing she saw printed on her inner eyelids was that Arab child, turning back toward her and smiling before trailing Uncle into the closet.

SHJ Issue 14
Spring 2016

Steven Roiphe

studied creative writing, literature, and history at Harvard University, and Summer Literary Seminars awarded him two tuition scholarships. His prose has appeared in Hot Metal Bridge, The Hamilton Stone Review, and Online Sundries (Arcadia Magazine’s blog). He lives in Downeast Maine, where he is working on a novel about George Washington’s greatest spy coming to terms with being gay at the end of the Revolution.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury