At the end of the second semester Zaid prepared to escort a batch of exchange students to Vanderbilt University in consultation with university administration and those who’d been student escorts in the past. He’d made copious notes as this was to be a venture, he had no prior experience with. The past months had been discouraging with no communications from his love Galisha but he was determined to make contact with her in Houston when he travelled there to explore their university approach to teaching information technology. He was hopeful of reviving the relationship he’d enjoyed with Galisha.
Air travel he found to be interesting for the first two hours but the routine of checking on student needs soon became boring and he spent the rest of his time dozing and occasionally watching a movie with an occasional check on his students. Some struggled with English, and he was glad he’d learned the language during his undergraduate years in Cairo, so he was able to help them on the trip. Representatives from Vanderbilt would meet them and steer them through immigration and customs then take over so after seeing the students settled in for the period of exchange, he was free to head for Houston. He was nervous about that as the whole environment in this country was so different to what he was used to travelling in the Middle East.
The Vanderbilt agent caring for the exchange program helped Zaid with greyhound bus booking and gave advise for the trip. Zaid was happy to watch through the window as they sped on freeways to his destination. He found his seat companion from Brazil interesting to talk to and was informed of any historical significance to the country they were travelling through so his companion had obviously been in the US for many years to have all that knowledge.
But there was something in his sixth sense telling him to be aware. There were some stopovers on the way, and he alighted from the bus to get exercise at the first stop. He became aware of someone following him and turned to face him. He recognized this stranger as someone from his part of the world so spoke.
“I guess we come from the same part of the world friend, are you touring the US or on business?”
“I have business interests here Zaid,” The smile on this man’s face was forced and once again that sixth sense issued a warning.
Zaid recoiled in shock hearing this stranger use his name.
“I don’t recall us meeting before sir how do you know my name?”
“Not only do I know your name Zaid Gamal, but I knew of your trip long before you arrived in this country and the purpose of your visit to Houston. It would be wise of you to confine your visit to a study of the university information technology program and not endanger the Haddad family. I’ve been a business associate of your father and uncles since my own father turned his business operations over to me and I work closely with your extended family. Your father was humiliated by treatment he received visiting you at Jordon University. However, as you are the heir apparent of that branch of the family, he will forgive you if you keep family interests and respect in mind. You will be returning to Cairo as soon as your contract with Jordon University has been completed to take up family responsibilities there. Fortunately, I had business appointments in this country, so your father asked me to contact you while I was here to talk some sense into you. We will be meeting each other regularly while you are in Houston.”
Zaid was furious. “I’m a Jordanian citizen now and have asked the Egyptian Embassy to record this and turned in my Egyptian passport. I’ll not be returning to Cairo and will never forgive my family for humiliating me in front of faculty and students when they attacked me in Aman. You can pass that message on and tell my family I do not consider myself a part of their society anymore.”
The stranger laughed unpleasantly. “You are considered still a citizen of Egypt regardless of what you did at the embassy so you can be seized as a citizen and returned to your country of origin and there will be a passport issued in Cairo to place on you if that becomes necessary wherever you may be in the world. Do not be foolish enough to endanger the Haddad’s. We know they have made a complaint to the FBI, but that agency will never be able to trace where those warnings are originating from. You as a specialist teacher in IT will recognize how that’s possible. Enjoy the rest of your trip. I guarantee we will meet again in Houston.”
Zaid was angry as he returned to the bus and took his seat. He was happy for the company of the one next to him for the rest of the journey but did not alight from the bus the next time it stopped briefly. The stranger smiled and nodded as he left the bus to join those exercising. The trip eventually ended, and Zaid took a taxi to the hotel booked for him for the duration of time he’d be in Houston.
As soon as he’d settled at the hotel, he messaged Galisha to inform her he was in Houston and then contacted the university to confirm his appointment with them next day. He rechecked his phone and there was a message from Galisha.
“Zaid it is unsafe for me or my family to be in contact with you. Please don’t attempt to visit with any of us as we are getting more warnings now after a few months of quiet. It’s in the hands of the FBI but so far, they’ve been unable to penetrate the web and solve where messages are coming from. We did change our phone numbers but obviously there must be people here who are feeding information to these people giving warnings and it’s not hard to get contact information about anyone despite so called legal privacy protections.”
Zaid thought for a while before responding. “OK. I don’t want to put you or your family in harm’s way, but can you do one thing for me to see if we can resolve this. I know you’ve been in touch with the FBI about this harassment and I’m being watched while here so obviously I can’t be seen with you. With your contacts in the FBI would it be possible for them to meet me while I’m researching at the university but not at the hotel as its probably under surveillance? I’d like to find a way to stop this harassment you’re suffering and meeting them at the hotel would just alert the mischief makers.”
There was a long pause before Galisha replied. “Give me more details about which department of the university you’ll be visiting, and I need time to see if that’s possible. I know the FBI is frustrated they haven’t made a breakthrough so they may be interested in meeting you.”
Next day at the university Zaid was welcomed and had a profitable tour and exposure to teaching methods curricula and research being conducted. They were very helpful and willing to establish a connection with him in Aman to share information when he returned to Jordon. As he was about to leave for the hotel his contact at the university called him to his office. There were two men waiting there and his guide excused himself.
The two men produced identities indicating they were FBI. They asked him to report on the history of the case affecting the Haddad’s and Zaid gave them a comprehensive report. They asked if he could identify the man who’d approached him on the bus and inquired if he’d seen him since arrival in Houston. Zaid said there hadn’t been another contact, but he expected there would be as the man had said he’d be watching and would make contact again to reinforce the fact Zaid would be watched while in Houston. The men nodded.
“Zaid we’d like you to wear a microphone from now on even in your room to deal with the possibility this man might contact you anywhere on the street or at your room at the hotel. We will be monitoring your phone calls from today and listening in on everything the microphone picks up. Are you comfortable with that? If so, we’d like to have your signature. Of course, we’ll also get permission from a judge to tap in, but it will be evening before we can get that sorted out. We need to proceed with caution. Don’t want some hot shot lawyer spoiling this by not having all the legalities sorted out when we nail our man. Make sure the mike is always turned on and if you take it off in your hotel room make sure it’s in a place not visible but still able to pick up conversations. When the man contacts you ask him questions as to why he’s doing this to you and the Haddad’s and try and have him identify who is doing the threats and how.”
Zaid returned to his hotel that evening wearing a microphone and feeling much more secure knowing his movements were being shadowed not only by this mischief maker but also by the FBI anxious to bring the mischief makers down. He was down at the hotel dining room selecting from the smorgasbord when he became conscious of someone following him to the table. He turned and acknowledged the mischief maker from his bus trip.
“So, you really are monitoring my movement in Houston. What do you think you’ll gain from harassing me here?”
The stranger sat at the table opposite him. “I’d like to reinforce our conversation on the bus trip. Do we need to go over that conversation again so I can report back to your family you’ve come to your senses.”
“Well, I was in shock when you approached me on the bus and am trying to understand what is going on and why my family are so interested in having me back in Cairo so why don’t you get down to business and tell me why you are strong arming me when I have no intention of going back to live in Cairo.”
The man laughed. “You have a lot to learn about this world Zaid and because of your family double dealing as respected members of the ruling class in Egypt and their secret business with my father and now me we have a lucrative trade and it’s become more complex and dangerous in recent years.”
“The Egyptian government has no idea what your family and I are engaged in, but your father has sufficient clout to use unsuspecting government agencies to have you brought back to Cairo as a favour due to your father’s political connections. The government has no idea what our underground business is and only has knowledge of legitimate import and export businesses and other investments they have full knowledge of. Our families are major contributors to the ruling political party, so they are appreciative and return favours.”
“However, if the government were to find out that influence would dry up quickly and they would disassociate quickly and possibly some of our managers would have to be sacrificed if it all became public to protect the rest of us at the top. So even by association as a son you would be considered a possible one to sacrifice unless you become cooperative. The marriage arrangement would simply be to compromise the family of this woman, so we have a defender at political level if things go wrong. But the main interest in you is because of your expertise in information technology. Most of our trade is done on the dark web and we know governments around the world are very interested in the dark web and we need someone like you there to help us stay ahead of the game.”
Zaid sat with his mouth open at this revelation. His family were criminals and he’d never suspected it as he grew up. He was so glad he had no connection with them now and it was all on tape somewhere. Meanwhile in a van outside the hotel a group of men sat shaking their heads and wondering how Zaid would approach dragging the nature of the business out of this stranger. Was it drug running, illegal currency exchange, transporting and enslavement of women across borders?
The stranger continued. “Now you know just how powerful we are and how it would be impossible for you to resist us I can tell you I could have you spirited away from this hotel this evening, but it would be less risky if you just came to your senses and returned to Cairo. Yes, you have obligations to the university but that could be paid out to their satisfaction and there is no way you’d be permitted to marry into the Haddad family for many reasons. One of the main reasons being the possibility you may be drawn to the US eventually and that would be too risky to run the operation from here. We do have contacts to facilitate our needs here and that’s why I’m here now but not wise to make a base here.”
Zaid thought quickly. He knew this was being recorded somewhere so felt safe they wouldn’t be able to spirit him away while he was in the US. But he was curious about the nature of this underground business.
“Supposing I’d consider cooperating with you and the family then seeing as I’m supposedly exposed by family connections, what is the nature of this business that requires my expertise.”
The man did a quick appraisal of the tables around them and then turned back with a smile on his face.
“We buy and sell prohibited weapons using the dark web. Of course, your role would simply be to see this was handled on the dark web with the highest safety considering governments around the world are taking an interest in breaking into these trades specially when a government is anxious to see weapons of mass destruction do not end up in the wrong hands to be used against them. Now I’ve shared that with you I can tell you I’ve recorded this conversation and you’ve indicated an interest. You have no way out now! And because you are now in you are going to be a very rich young man indeed and the woman you marry is very beautiful. Now let’s retire to your room and we will work on the modalities of your exit from Jordon and return to Cairo.”
Two men dressed in a hurry in borrowed hotel attendant dress followed the two into the elevator clutching fake baggage and a master key and alighted on the same level as Zaid and the stranger. They made to go past as the two entered the room but paused and phoned for backup. Within five minutes they were joined by another two FBI agents. One quickly inserted a master key and the four burst into the room guns drawn.
The stranger was patted down and a gun and knife retrieved along with the recording microphone and portable voice recorder along with two phones. He looked on in anger as he saw the microphone being retrieved from Zaid’s body and snarled.
“You’ll not be safe in any part of the world you travel now you fool. I’m expendable but others will survive to get you for what you’ve done. You’re dealing with forces bigger than anyone here in this room.”
To be continued.
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