It was the light that first caught Uday Hussein’s attention. There were no light fixtures to be seen and yet the illumination in the opulently appointed office was bright and steady. He shifted in his chair and focused his eyes on the wiry man with dark, slicked-back hair sitting behind the blonde oak desk. The stranger was gingerly tapping an index finger on the keys of a laptop, his eyeglasses having slipped down on his nose to give him an aura of total concentration. His skin was a bright pink, like someone who’d fallen asleep in the sun but, of course, there was no sun down here.
“Well, at least you two don’t seem surprised,” the stranger said, speaking a bit too loudly and startling his guests. “I hate it when people who end up here act as if they’re in shock about their destination. And after the lives they’ve led; boggles the mind. Don’t get me wrong: being in denial is great, it’s one of the ways I get so many souls, but leave it up in the world: I just don’t have time for it.”
Neither of the Husseins looked the least bit surprised. Qusay, in fact, had no expression at all on his face. Eyes wide, staring straight ahead, his breathing rapid and shallow, his brother knew he would be of no help in pleading their case. It didn’t matter, thought Uday, because he was a master at getting his way. Hadn’t he done that his whole life? Handling this gentleman, he expected, would be a lot like dealing with the old man.
“Excuse me, sir. Of course, it is fair to say we belong here. But.”
“Fair. Oh, it’s more than fair, young man,” interrupted the gentleman, “I mean, when I first accessed your updated file this morning, the damned computer crashed! It’s quite a record. To be honest, an overrated quality in my opinion, it would be patently unfair not to give you the credit you deserve. Feeding people into plastic shredders, the mass graves, stealing and using brides on their wedding days: it’s something very special you’ve done and you have my undying admiration.”
“Well, you see, the rules were different for the Husseins,” Uday continued, which drew a smile from the gentleman, who spread his hands in an expansive gesture to show that he understood. “But what they are saying now, how we were involved with terrorist organizations: it’s simply not true. So perhaps that should count towards a reduction of our time here, please.” He could feel the sweat begin to bead on his forehead from the exertion of speaking. Was it getting warmer?
The stranger, with an angry release of breath, rose from behind his desk and began to pace the room. “Now, boys, if you’re going to be here a while, you’d better learn right off the bat to be straight with me. Don’t think you can do things in the shadows and expect me not to know about it. Look, I was born in the shadows.
“I may not have the power of omniscience, as our competition does, but I can sure put two and two together.
“Everyone in this room knows that Iraqi intelligence was recruiting terrorists, ones who couldn’t be traced back to your father, to blow up Radio Free Europe in Prague a few years back. Your guy defected beforehand and spilled the beans. With your rich and varied pasts, don’t insult me by claiming you’re too pure to dirty your hands by working with terrorists.”
The gentleman began absentmindedly tapping a finger to his lips as his attention was drawn to the map of the world on his wall. Uday, focusing on it, realized that tiny red lights winked on and off across the surface of the map, all in the areas one would expect: Cuba, Myanmar, the Congo, North Korea, Iran. Qusay’s head began to loll slowly from side to side and he was muttering something.
“When you’ve been around for as long as I have,” the stranger intoned, staring at the map, “you develop an eye for this sort of thing. You see the reports of Salman Pak in Iraq where the training consisted of taking over airliners quickly and without weapons. Or the reports of Iraqi defectors who tell how your Daddy put aside his differences with Islamist groups in order to help those who share his hatred of America and you start to see a pattern. Are all these stories true? Maybe, maybe not. But when you see this stuff over and over, again and again, you can’t help but think there’s a lot more happening beneath the surface, which is my favorite place to be, by the way.
“Uday, you’re an ambitious kid but, let’s face it: you’ve got a big mouth. I think your Dad is top-notch but why he put you in charge of Iraq’s newspapers is beyond me. I mean, you actually named in print your agent who was the liaison between Iraq’s government and Osama bin Laden’s organization. I had a good laugh about that with Osama the other day. Well actually, I laughed, he just kept screaming. And to print that a ‘virus’ was about to attack the ‘raven,’ the Baath Party’s name for the United States, just before the anthrax attacks; it’s plain sloppy.”
Uday started to protest but then the door to the office opened. A creature with cloven hooves, a human head topped with ram horns and a mouth bursting with gnarled fangs looked in, tapping his wristwatch. “I’m just finishing up,” the gentleman acknowledged and the demon tugged the door shut behind him.
“And rest assured,” he continued, starting to put on his jacket, “that you’ll certainly get credit down here for the things you could have achieved if it hadn’t been for the recent unpleasantness. It’s sure as shooting, pardon the phase, that one day the international pressure would have lessened and Iraq would have put all those biological and chemical weapons experts back to work. And then maybe the stuff they cook up finds its way into the hands of terrorists and ends up in a major city in Europe or America. Yes, it never had a chance to happen but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t count against you. Come to think of it, that kind of thinking is pretty much the reason that Iraq fell and you two are here.”
The gentleman walked briskly across the office, opening the door to leave. The light and cacophony of agonized voices spilled in with staggering force and even Qusay was jolted enough to bury his head in his hands. “But what about us? What are you going to do to us?” Uday shouted.
Their now and future host turned and spoke over the din as he exited, “I’m not going to do anything, boy. But your father is expected here soon. With a little coaxing on my part, I think he’s more than capable of thinking up a wonderfully inventive way to deal with all three of you. And it’s sure to be a hell of a time.”