Gabriel Cohen drove northeast from Atlanta toward Rabun County, Georgia, the terrain rising from piedmont flat to rolling hills. Behind him weather was building in darkening clouds. He did not believe in life after death, but he imagined his wife Leah sitting at his side.
During this last week of October, leaves of hardwood trees had begun to turn, igniting a cold flame of russets and gold and every shade of crimson and tan. “Brushstrokes from God’s palette,” Leah had described it. For the next several weeks, days would become shorter and nights colder. Leah had cherished the changing of seasons in the foothills of lower Appalachia, and because she loved it Gabriel had always condescended to come in autumn, whereas spring was his first choice. Although he knew she wasn’t really at his side, he spoke to her. “The sweet gum and maples are especially nice this year,” he said aloud. “Summer was so dry, I think the trees are giving up foliage earlier than usual.”
“How long will you go on killing people, Gabriel?”
“As long as it takes,” he said.
“But it isn’t working.”
“Not so far,” he admitted.
“In the meantime, what makes you a better man than the men you’ve slain? It isn’t working, Gabriel.”
“Then I will continue until it does work,” he said.
In the rear of his Toyota Cruiser he sensed a shift of weight, a bump of knees and elbows. It didn’t matter; there was no one to hear.
The threat of rain depressed him, the setting sun obscured by thickening clouds. He was still an hour away from the cottage he and Leah had built on a high bank of Chattooga River near Burrell’s Ford, deep in the eastern part of Chattahoochee National Forest. The nearest town was Pine Mountain, the closest paved road five miles west.
Looking for solitude, Leah had discovered nine acres of land within and yet without the national forest. They quietly built the cabin, and when rangers protested, Leah said they would sue for the right to live there. She pulled political strings through friends at the Pentagon and the rangers finally relented.
“Ma’am, you’ll never be able to sell the place,” they warned. “You can’t get clear title.”
Nor could they get insurance, but Leah didn’t care. Isolation was what she got and that’s what she wanted. She had researched the history of the area with the affinity of one who loves a place. Leah often quoted James Mooney, an ethnographer, who had studied the Cherokee people at the end of the 19th century: “They believed that the streams and springs of these mountains sheltered an underworld of spirit beings. They spoke of water cougars and spear-fingered ogres who haunted obscure mountain passes.” Leah wanted to believe in Long Man, the river god, who spoke a language that spiritual people understood. One of their most important rituals was going to water, immersion in Tugaloo Lake to purify and cleanse the living soul.
Long before the arrival of the white man, Native Americans had followed creeks and game trails into these hills. Near where the Chattooga and Tallulah rivers merged the Cherokee set up a village. Discovery of gold brought more white settlers, followed by illness, war, misuse of alcohol, and especially, greed. Even though in 1832 the Cherokee people were declared, in court, an official nation holding distinct sovereign powers meant to protect them from the Indian Removal Act, they were forced to relocate. Thousands of Indians, Cherokee and other tribes from the Southeast, followed the “trail where they cried” to what would become Oklahoma. Many died in that winter of 1838-1839.
That’s what happened to civilizations overrun by outsiders. Gabriel thought of those doomed tribes as he turned off Highway 28 at Pine Mountain. He shifted into four-wheel drive and lurched over a rutted and overgrown trail. The rough passage brought a groan from his captive.
In 1974, the Chattooga was included in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and management of its resources was placed under the authority of the Sumter National Forest, Stumphouse Ranger Station.
Other than an occasional visit from one of the rangers, nobody came here except Gabriel. The homestead was completely self-contained. Rushing river water through a culvert turned a screw that generated electricity and pumped water up to the cabin. Waste was held for later removal down the mountain. Ecologically, Gabriel lived in his own small world, taking nothing from the land, and leaving nothing behind but the cabin itself.
The vehicle tossed and jolted, all four wheels clawing for traction as he climbed the last few hundred yards to an area he called Leah’s Domain. She said the term domain was too broad for a sanctuary so idyllic, but she ruled it like a fiefdom. To Gabriel it would always be her domain.
After dark, under rumbling thunderheads, he pulled into a cove of evergreens. He set the brake and climbed out. A cool breeze swept up from the river far below and chilled his face. He opened the rear door of the SUV and spoke to the locked box.
“We’re here,” Gabriel said. “The nearest neighbor is miles away, so yelling will do you no good. Therefore, be smart and stay quiet. I’ll set up the house, put on water for coffee, and be back to get you in a few minutes. We’ll eat and then we’ll talk.”
The only response was a muffled groan.
Gabriel connected a bottle of propane to the kitchen stove and wiped dead bugs out of the sink.
“I hope you’re not bringing a guest into this messy place, Sergeant.”
“He’s hardly a guest, and the place looks all right, Leah.”
Nevertheless, he dusted here and there as the percolator warbled a promise of coffee to come. The aroma of fresh brew warmed the cabin. “Are you satisfied now?” he asked.
He imagined his wife’s disapproval. “Are you going to kill him here, Gabriel?”
He swiped at the bookshelves and Leah’s collection of elephants: brass, ceramic, wood, and pewter, pachyderms of every description. On special occasions, and sometimes for no reason at all, he gave her a new figurine to join the growing menagerie. He’d bought elephant earrings carved from jade, with a matching brooch. He thought she must have been wearing those the day of her death. He’d searched everywhere and couldn’t find them.
Another elephant was missing, too. A gold pachyderm with a ruby set in the forehead and ivory tusks. “It’s far too expensive for everyday wear,” Leah had protested. But she carried it in her purse for good luck.
He caught himself standing stock-still, Swiffer in hand, staring at the bookshelves of bric-a-brac. Since Leah was killed he had not added one item to her collection. He’d been too preoccupied. Besides, bills, vouchers, and cash receipts left paper trails, and he was careful to avoid those.
“Your plan isn’t working,” Leah chided.
“I know that, Leah.”
“Then stop, before they catch you.”
He might accept capture if it furthered his goals. But it was obvious the government would never allow a public trial. After each murder the names of victims were withheld. Gabriel wrote letters to newspapers. He sent evidence to television networks. In every case, reports were squelched.
He had taken care to follow a precise modus operandi. In letters to editors he linked the most recent murder to all the others. There was no doubt about it—he was what Robert Ressler of the FBI had called a serial killer.
Still, the crimes remained a local item without national exposure. That’s what America had come to: suppression of news for the sake of political expediency, censorship to keep the truth from unsuspecting citizens. Don’t tell people of the looming danger, they might rise up in righteous indignation and fight back.
He set out two coffee mugs, with artificial sweeteners and granulated sugar in case that was the pleasure of his unwilling guest.
Gabriel looked around the room. It was neat, clean, and pleasant. Just the way Leah liked it.
Outside, lightning pulsed and thunder grumbled. A gust of wind rose from the river and conifers bent low.
Gabriel unlocked the box and let down the lid. He dragged out his prisoner and let him fall to the ground. He shut the SUV door. He lifted the whimpering man and dragged him into the cabin. He placed him in a sturdy straight-backed chair and cut the duct tape that bound his ankles, and then he used fresh tape to tie the man’s legs to the chair. Mucus had drained from the man’s nose down his chin and onto his garments.
Gabriel ripped away tape covering his mouth and the prisoner gasped as if he’d been underwater. Gabriel severed restraints binding the man’s wrists and handed him a wad of paper towels. “You have snot on your face,” he said.
“I thought I’d suffocate.”
“Well, you didn’t. Wipe your chin.”
He closed the cabin door. “How do you take coffee?” he asked.
“Sugar. Milk, please.”
His name was Ali Al-Salafi. He was a teacher at Dar Un Noor Academy on Fourteenth Street in Atlanta. He flexed his arms and massaged his wrists to regain circulation, opening and closing his mouth to ease taut flesh.
Standing behind him, Gabriel used a knee to bump Al-Salafi’s chair nearer the table. He poured coffee, delivered sugar.
“Why are you doing this to me?” Al-Salafi asked.
Gabriel sat at the table and sipped his steaming beverage.
“Are you going to hurt me?”
“Do you know Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?”
“But you know the name.”
“I have heard the name. I never knew him.”
“Wipe your chin. You missed some snot.”
His prisoner was a lean young man with a thin beard and dark brown eyes.
“Whatever harm Khalid Mohammed has done to you,” Al-Salafi said with a tremor, “I had nothing to do with it.”
“Tell me about the imam at the Atlanta mosque.”
“Imam? There are two of them.”
“Who is in charge?”
“The Al-Farooq Masjid is managed by committee. Please, sir, I have a wife and daughter. They need me.”
His face was tan, framed by ebony hair. His teeth were even and white.
“Where are you from?” Gabriel inquired.
“Why did you come to Atlanta?”
“To continue studies.”
“To become an imam?”
“Insha’Allah—God willing. Sir, I have to relieve myself.”
“When I opened the box, it smelled like you already had.”
“I tried to let you know, kicking the walls. I have soiled my clothes. Please accept my apology.”
Under Gabriel’s steady gaze, the man sobbed dryly. “My baby is a beautiful child. She will be four years old next month. She only now begins to know me.”
“What does Al-Salafi mean?”
“The word Salaf means ‘predecessor or forefather.’ The Salaf as-Saaleh were the pious predecessors of the first three Muslim generations. I’m afraid I will soil my clothes again if you don’t let me relieve myself.”
Gabriel grabbed the chair and dragged Al-Salafi backward across the floor and out into the night. He pulled him around to the side of the cabin and stood him up. “Piss here,” he said.
Awkwardly, Al-Salafi stood with feet apart, his ankles taped to the legs of the chair. He lifted the bisht, an outer garment that covered the long, shirt-like thobe beneath it. It was the finery of the bisht that had caught Gabriel’s eye this morning. Usually worn by important people, it was what made Gabriel assume Al-Salafi was such a man.
When Al-Salafi finished, Gabriel yanked him back to a sitting position and hauled him inside to the table again.
“I swear to you,” Al-Salafi quavered, “I will not report this to anyone. Not even to my beloved wife will I mention it.”
Gabriel went to a cabinet, reciting the contents. “I have peanut butter, sardines, and canned peaches. Pick one.”
“No, thank you.”
Gabriel opened the can and put it before the man with a spoon and a paper towel for a napkin.
“Eat, Al-Salafi. We have a long drive back to Atlanta.”
“Are you going to let me go?”
“There’s more coffee, but you’ll be in the box again,” Gabriel said. “Maybe you shouldn’t have liquid.”
“Please, I’m begging. For the sake of my wife and daughter, I plead with you.”
“Eat. There won’t be another chance for food.”
“If I vow before Allah that I will not run, may I sit outside the box going home?”
Gabriel ate sardines and saltines. He sipped coffee. “Where do the Al-Farooq imams live, Al-Salafi?”
The man’s eyes darted here, there, and came back frightened.
“I want to know about both of them,” Gabriel said.
“To hurt them? Is that your plan?”
“Do they have bodyguards?”
“Could you betray a loved one? Allah would not forgive me.”
“Tell me their daily routines.”
“I am not intimate with the imams. I see them during daily salah, but never socially.”
“You know their names. Tell me.”
“Where is the person who is with you?” Al-Salafi asked.
It took a moment to realize what he meant, and then Gabriel said, “My wife.”
“May I speak to her? She will understand the importance of a husband and father to his wife and child.”
He watched his captive stare at shelves of elephants. “I grieve for your loss,” Al-Salafi said softly. “For pain you have suffered. I understand your passion.”
“She was in the World Trade Center,” Gabriel said. “When the plane hit, we were talking on the telephone.”
“I had nothing to do with that, sir. Nor did the sheiks at Al-Farooq Masjid. Those bad men were from Saudi Arabia.”
“They were Muslims.”
“Islam is not to blame for what they did. Islam is a religion of peace. We do not condone the killing of innocents. I am sorry for what you have suffered.”
“And I am sorry for your wife and daughter,” Gabriel said. “But it won’t change a thing.”
Gabriel had planned to return to Atlanta in the early hours of the next morning, but he didn’t. First of all, he hadn’t gotten information he needed to track the imams of Al-Farooq mosque. Also, shortly after midnight, rain came in torrential sheets hurled by sweeps of wind that made nighttime travel in the mountains a hazardous venture. More than once in the past he had slipped off a narrow road down a muddy incline. It wouldn’t do to get caught with a hysterical prisoner in a locked box.
The storm lasted all night. Lightning flashed. Thunder shook the cabin and rain pelted the windows like pebbles.
He bound Al-Salafi’s hands behind him again and covered his head with a plastic bag, tied at the neck. He watched inhalations grow panicked, his captive sucking the sack into opened mouth, gasping for oxygen. When the man fainted, Gabriel removed the bag.
“Tell me the names of the imams, Al-Salafi. Where do they live?”
A lack of response brought more suffocation. Al-Salafi passed out again. Gabriel pulled away the bag.
“Do they have bodyguards? Are there security cameras?”
Again, he covered the sweating man’s head.
“There’s no reason to suffer like this, Al-Salafi. Talk to me.”
His answer was fervent prayers.
Gabriel selected the largest knife in the house and stroked a whetstone with the blade. He methodically honed it to a razor-sharp edge.
“I truly do not know where they live,” Al-Salafi cried. “They come and go in chauffeured cars. I have never been to their homes.”
Gabriel went behind his prisoner, pulled back his head to expose the throat, and Al-Salafi shrieked in terror.
With the blade on the man’s jugular, he said, “When do they arrive at the mosque, Al-Salafi?”
“I will talk. I’ll tell you all I know. Please. Please.”
Gabriel returned to sit across the table.
“Sometimes one of them, another time the other,” Al-Salafi croaked. “Whoever teaches that day, he arrives before dawn for the first prayer. The largest attendance is for Salat-ul-Jum’ah the Friday prayer. Each week Muslim men are required to bathe, dress in our best clean clothes, and assemble in the mosque for Friday prayer. That is where I had been when you grabbed me. The Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah speak highly of the Jum’ah prayer. If a Muslim spends Friday in the remembrance of God Almighty, supplicating before his Lord, he is abundantly rewarded by Allah.”
“That’s why you were dressed up?”
“Yes. For Jum’ah.”
“Where was your wife?” Gabriel asked.
“Friday prayer is obligatory for every adult male Muslim. However, any who are sick, blind, or disabled, those on a journey, and women are exempt from the obligation of attending Jum’ah at the mosque. My daughter was—was—was afflicted with a slight fever, so my wife planned to leave her with me while she offered Dhur, the noon prayer, instead. I was on my way home to do that.”
Rain struck the windowpanes and wind moaned in the eaves. Gabriel made another pot of coffee.
“Tell me what you know about the imams,” Gabriel said.
“I do not know much.”
“Tell me what you do know.”
“Sheik Akbar Houraini is usually there for Friday prayers. Hamid Shariati comes on Saturdays and other days, but not always.”
“Where do they live?”
“I truly do not know.”
Gabriel reached for the plastic bag and Al-Salafi shrilled. “I told all I know, Allah forgive me. I am a lowly teacher in the madrasah. Please, please—”
Gabriel couldn’t drive back to Atlanta until the storm passed. He sat at the table across from the bound man, memories of Leah a knot of pain in his chest. Leah, humming as she worked in the kitchen, her hair covered by a bandana, an apron tied at her waist—a tranquil domestic image that she often ruined by carping about one thing or another.
“You sully this place bringing a man here to torment him.”
“Has it ever occurred to you that I do what I do for you, Leah?”
“At ease, Sergeant!” She shucked her pretense of being an ordinary housewife. “What you’re doing is for you, not me. I don’t need it. I’m dead, remember.”
Sustained tension had sapped Al-Salafi of strength, and despite his fear and his strictures he dozed, head lolling, hands tied behind his back, legs tethered to the chair.
“He is suffering, Gabriel.”
“Don’t you think I have suffered, Leah?”
“Take him to a town and let him go. Have you no pity?”
“There is no place for pity in this.”
Hearing Gabriel’s voice, Al-Salafi roused with a shout. “Help me! Help me!”
Seeing Gabriel across the table, Al-Salafi subsided and muttered. Then he was asleep again.
Leah could be irritating, taking a contrarian stand against him. When he was mustered out of the Navy, she sided with the court-martial, showing no sympathy for Gabriel’s position. “There is no excuse for torturing a prisoner, Sergeant. That is not American protocol.”
“If you’ve never been in battle, you cannot judge me, Leah.”
By afternoon of the next day the food was gone and the sun shone in a cooling, rain-cleansed sky. Gabriel put on coveralls. He dragged his prisoner to the SUV and put him in the box. Al-Salafi remained trussed as he had been coming up, hands behind his back, bound at the ankles and knees with tape. He promised not to yell, but Gabriel gagged him anyway.
No fingerprints would be found on the duct tape. Gabriel wore latex gloves when handling things. He locked the cabin and stood at the precipice looking down at the river, which had freshened from heavy rainfall. He could hear the distant voice of Long Man tumbling over boulders, rushing to waterfalls. Mockingbirds mimed their feathered friends and bluejays fussed with crows. Vultures rode thermal currents in the chasm below.
The first time he’d stood here, before the cabin was built, Leah had clung to his waist and he put his arms around her. He had just flown in from New York, and Leah fetched him in a rented Jeep. “What do you think, Sergeant?” she’d asked.
He had to admit it was a breathtaking vista.
“We can buy it from the mountain family that claims it,” she’d said. “They want three thousand dollars an acre, and there are nine acres. But there’ll be no survey or deed. All they know is that they’ve always owned it.”
Reminiscences were pushed aside by the reality of the moment.
“Let him go, Gabriel,” Leah carped. “He has a wife and child.”
“I had a wife, too.”
He got into the Toyota FJ Cruiser and started the motor.
“No thrashing back there,” he warned.
Easing down the uneven descent to a ranger’s trail, Gabriel shut out Leah. He had not slept last night, nor had he bathed or shaved this morning. He didn’t want to be irritable with the spirit of his spouse, but she had a tendency to grab hold of things and shake them like a small dog with a rag.
Their life together was not always perfect. In the way of women, Leah was contentious and unyielding. He as a professional soldier had been twice busted back to the rank of sergeant, and she worked with military intelligence at the Pentagon. Their duties sent them in opposite directions for extended periods. Leah traveled the world to investigate terror attacks on Americans. A full colonel, she was decorated and lauded for her service in the United States Army.
He’d never accused her of infidelity, and she rarely questioned him on similar subjects. Away from home, often in a war zone, sex was a physical release as essential to good health as proper diet and exercise. It had nothing to do with love.
Overall Leah was a good woman, and in retrospect Gabriel suffered pangs of guilt for transgressions of the past. If she had lived and they’d retired, he was certain any problems would have been worked out.
At a small country store on the outskirts of Clayton, Georgia, he paid cash to fill the Toyota with gas. He discarded trash from the cabin. He heard Al-Salafi shift restlessly, but there was no kicking or loud groan.
Gabriel timed his arrival in metropolitan Atlanta for just before dark.
“Don’t do it, Gabriel.”
“Shut up, Leah.”
He drove to a secluded field in DeKalb County where once there’d been a dairy farm. When he was in high school he worked here in summers, and it was the hardest job for the least pay he’d ever had. Twice a day he helped milk eighty Holstein cows. There were barns to clean, manure to ted, and heavy sacks of sorghum to pour into troughs.
The site was a sewage disposal plant now. The lowing of cattle had been replaced with a hum of rotating paddles over settling ponds.
Gabriel drove down a lane along a chainlink fence. At a gully where he’d once hunted wild turkey, he pulled off the road, backed to a ditch, and opened the box. In the dim afterglow of the setting sun, he saw horror in the eyes of his captive.
Gabriel pulled him away from the vehicle and pushed him facedown on the ground. Al-Salafi saw the knife and screamed behind the duct tape, begging and weeping. He bucked and kicked as Gabriel sliced through the larynx, arteries, and muscle. Blood spurted over Gabriel’s gloved hands. He sawed between vertebrae until the head fell away.
Returning to Atlanta through Decatur, he discarded his gloves and coveralls in various dumpsters. Stalled by Saturday night traffic, he mentally composed a letter to the editors of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other media in the area. He would tell them what he had done to Ali Al-Salafi and where to find the body. To prove his claim he would include Al-Salafi’s string of prayer beads, his wallet, and pictures of the wife and child.
“Have you no shame, Gabriel?”
“None whatsoever, Leah.”