The blindfold sharpened Ali’s senses.
He could make out the distant sounds of traffic and the hum of a flickering street lamp. Salt hung in the air; the sea was close. The night was cooling rapidly and he tried not to shiver. A bead of sweat clung to his forehead but he didn’t touch it. No sudden moves. He felt the presence of the two men that brought him there. They were close, and probably watching.
He assumed they would take him east, out into the vast wilderness of the Arabian Desert where no one would see them. He expected sand, but stood on concrete. Where are we? The drive had been long enough for them to reach the port, one the fishing villages along the coast, or even Mecca. No, not Mecca. That would be suicide.
The drive had been disorienting, then the blind walk, and now the waiting. Fear gnawed at him. He reminded himself that he had chosen to be there.
Ali heard three taps on a wooden door, then the whine of hinges. Men spoke in hushed voices. Someone pushed him forward and the door closed without a sound. It was dark inside, darker than the street.
“Were you followed?”
He knew that voice.
“Laa,” another man said.
A pair of strong hands pulled off his blindfold. In the shadows, Ali recognized the foreigner. Michael Givens.
“Salaam, welcome,” Givens said.
Givens cracked the door again and scanned the alley. Satisfied the streets were safe, he shut it and bolted both locks. “Almost there.”
Ali followed the men through a narrow passage to a courtyard surrounded by stucco walls. The waning moon illumined the contours of the square and the small reflection pool at its center. Ali realized they were in someone’s home. The four men passed ghost-like across the manicured courtyard. Quietly, carefully.
An amplified voice rang out from a nearby minaret, shattering the silence. The call to prayer suddenly sounded like a battle cry. Ali’s heart jumped. He glanced back, expecting to see mutaween religious police crash through the door with swords and assault rifles. Terrified, he willed himself forward.
A door was hidden in the shadows, barely three feet high and partially covered by crates. Ali didn’t notice it until he was standing right in front of it.
“This way,” Givens said.
Working quickly, the men moved the crates, unlatched the doors, and motioned for Ali to enter. The yawning space was pitch-black, and Ali gave the foreigner a dubious look.
Michael said, “Do you trust me?”
Ali stepped into the dark.
A board groaned under his feet. He froze. His eyes followed the steps down a steep stairwell into to a cellar, where he saw men gathered around candles, their shadows flickering on the walls.
“It’s time,” Michael said.
Cautiously finding his first step, he descended into the room.
The space was tight with a low ceiling and a dirt floor, not meant to be a gathering place. Still, the stone walls were thick, soundproof, and Ali was sure even the family in the home above couldn’t hear what was happening. There were very few locations in the Kingdom where this meeting could go unnoticed. In fact, this might be the only place.
As Ali entered the cellar, the men acknowledged him and made room in the circle. He took a seat on the end. Candles burned at the center of the circle next to a bowl of dark liquid, a loaf of bread, and the Injil—illegal in their country. Ali shuddered. He had only read about this part of the ritual.
Discreetly, he studied the faces of the men around him. Their heads were covered and most had beards. Candlelight flickered in their dark eyes. And each one of them was a conspirator, a traitor to the faith. Ali knew what they risked to be there. If discovered, their lives and families would be brutally taken from them. That was the cost to sit in this circle.
Anticipation lit their faces as they waited for it to begin. Ali breathed deep. This was the moment he had worked toward for so long. After twelve long months of waiting, he was finally in.