Dinner In Baghdad

Ali hated Saddam Hussein. He especially hated the man’s face, not just because it was the face of evil, or because it stared at you from nearly every street corner in Baghdad. No, he hated the face because on the day a bullet had been discharged into the skull of Ali’s uncle, Saddam’s face had shown no flicker of emotion or regret. It had merely watched impassively, while smoking a cigar. How strange that in just a few minutes, that very same face would be peering into the menu in Ali’s hands.

In the distance, automatic weapons sputtered in the evening air. Although officially denied, Ali knew that it was the Americans. Soon, Baghdad would be liberated and Iraq’s henchmen would be hunted down and killed. It was a good time to be an inconsequential nobody.

The maître d’ suddenly snatched the menu from his hands.

“Get to the table. Make sure nothing is wrong.”

Ali moved toward the table prepared for Saddam and his party. Off to the side, a separate table for his food taster had been arranged. Although loved by his people, Saddam had witnessed the agonizing death of nine different food tasters throughout the years. If the man died, the entire restaurant staff was executed. If the food taster merely got sick, then just the chefs were beaten to death. Ali smiled at the thought, as the head chef was a Baathist party member who, despite his loyalty to Saddam, was praying that their illustrious leader would not show.

Ali again carefully checked the arrangement of the silverware. One mistake could result in Saddam’s displeasure, and displeasure was not something Saddam liked feeling. If at all possible, it was best to avoid contact with Saddam or members of his family. But for Ali, tonight, that would not be so. Tonight, Ali would not only meet Iraq’s glorious leader, he would sink a knife into his throat before anyone could stop him.

Sensing eyes upon him, Ali looked up to find the other waiter, Kasim, watching suspiciously. Did Ali’s face betray his intent? He had gone to great lengths to conceal his family affiliation and his hatred of Saddam. To the best of his knowledge, no one knew about his uncle.

Kasim’s true motivation was betrayed by a petty sneer. It wasn’t suspicion that made him watch Ali, but envy. Kasim had wanted the prestige of serving Saddam’s party. In Kasim’s small world, a brush with greatness would bring hours of bragging rights. Ironically, he had been trumped out of the honor by a man soon to be shot by the President’s bodyguards. Kasim was not happy.

From the kitchen came a loud noise and some shouting. The maître d’ jumped and ran to discover the cause. Ali and Kasim were suddenly left alone, the other patrons having been pushed out the door over an hour before.

“I know what you are thinking,” spat Kasim.

A twitch below Ali’s eye accompanied his response. “I am thinking that you should go help Hamid wash dishes…”

Kasim glowered, but said nothing. More than once, Ali had found him flirting with the young dishwasher. In Iraqi society, men who liked other men were not tolerated, and often severely persecuted. Unless, of course, they were men of power.

The maître d’ returned from the kitchen. “It is a blessing Saddam is late.” He squinted at Kasim. “Be useful. Help clean up the mess in the kitchen.”

He scowled at Ali. “I trust nothing is out of place?”

“Everything is exactly as it should be,” Ali replied.

“Make sure all of the silverware is accounted for. We had to give an exact count.”

He handed Ali a scrap of paper. “Here is the inventory. Re-count it all very carefully. If we are over, throw it away out back. If we are under, Allah help us.”

Ali stared at the inventory list, and thought about the knife taped under the nearby table. Did they really count all of the silverware, or was it just another one of the infamous myths that Saddam liked to propagate as a way of keeping the populace cowed?

A car slowly passed the restaurant. Both men’s eyes snapped in the direction of the sound. Perhaps it was one of the grey Mercedes sedans carrying Saddam’s thugs. Sweeping through the streets in advance of Saddam’s main party, they would assure that passers-bye and errant pedestrians were properly searched and beaten. As of late, with the Americans approaching, they were even more ruthless, lest anyone give away Saddam’s position and claim the millions of American dollars the US military was offering in reward.

Little did Ali know that on an apartment rooftop a block away, a silhouette was whispering coordinates into a satellite cell phone. One way or the other, Saddam Hussein would not see another day.

Ali began to worry about the knife under the table. How could he have been so stupid? He would have to remove it, return it to its rightful place, and then quickly improvise another method of killing Saddam.

The maître d’ paced by the front door. In the kitchen, a chef was yelling at Kasim. Ali slid his hand under the table and began removing the knife.

Outside, a car sped past, and then another.

Then, a strange noise. Like the sound a barrel makes rolling across a concrete floor. And then, nothing.

The restaurant was leveled in an instant and a crater left in its place. A small portion of Ali’s leg was discovered in the debris. After careful testing, US Army forensics determined it wasn’t Saddam Hussein. The evil leader of Iraq had apparently changed his dinner plans. Back in the United States, the nightly news showed the huge bomb crater, and spoke of the restaurant where Saddam was thought to have been dining.

There was no mention of Ali.

*Inspired by actual events

The singing armadillo and the rat child were nowhere to be found, and Bernie was in a rage. How could two of the most profitable freaks in his sideshow just walk away, especially since he locked them in their cages at night? No, it wasn’t humane, but Bernie was anything but humane. He was a foul feeble man with no heart and an appetite for fried chickpeas. And now, as he drove around the streets of Hobbs, New Mexico in his beat up old pickup cradling a sawed-off shotgun in his lap, he was nursing a mean streak bent on violence and vengeance. After all, it was he who had saved the rat child from the orphanage in Tijuana (well, maybe abducted was more appropriate) but still, the strange little being would never have been adopted and likely had lived a horrible life until a premature death caused by the advancing symptoms of its disease. And that damned armadillo. No, it didn’t actually sing, but the noise it emitted when a faint electrical current passed through its body was somewhat melodious and people would pay to hear it, as stupid as that might seem. Up ahead, Bernie saw the flashing lights of a police car, and using his criminal instincts to their fullest, slipped his shotgun under the seat of the pickup. As he rolled by the scene, he saw the rat child’s body crumpled in an insignificant heap and the armadillo crouched on top, it’s teeth bared to prevent anyone, including the patrolman with the drawn pistol, from bringing further harm to his dear and loyal friend. Bernie started to roll down the window to offer his help when the sound of the patrolman’s pistol rang out. With no hope of recovering any of his investment, Bernie swore and pressed the accelerator down, heading back to his Traveling Circus of Curiosities and Monstrosities, Featuring the Remarkable Rat Child. Of course, the sign would need to be revised.