but was working on the covert side for one of the many acronymic intelligence agencies. The driver didn’t ask, and Angell didn’t tell. They kept their eyes on the road and on the clattering bus ahead of them, Angell’s reverie broken by the sight of some freshly-painted graffiti on the side of a building they had just passed.
Suddenly, two automobiles swerved out of a side street and slammed to a stop in front of the bus. The driver hit the brakes and tried to back up but was blocked by another car at the rear that had wedged itself between the bus and Angell’s Humvee. The workers in the bus began standing up and shouting. To the driver. To their companions. To God.
“Stop! Stop the bus!” Armed men emerged from the cars and began screaming orders. The driver’s hands were frozen to his steering wheel.
“Oh, no,” he murmured to himself. A prayer, an imprecation, an invocation. There would be death today. The spilling of blood. Inshallah, it would not be his.
A few days earlier, a Yezidi woman had converted to Islam to marry her boyfriend who was a Muslim. Her parents found out, and dragged the unhappy woman back to their village, the same Bashika where the bus was now headed.
They then—her family and her neighbors—stoned her to death in the street.
As the video of the stoning circulated on the Internet, emotions and tensions ran high. Muslims vowed they would avenge the death of the woman who had converted to their faith.
The gunmen rushed into the bus. Automatic weapons are very convincing, especially at close range. It doesn’t take a sharpshooter to cause heavy damage to property and flesh with an AK-47 at a distance of five feet. And most of the men on the bus had seen what these weapons could do during the American invasion and occupation—when Mosul had been turned into a war zone between Sunnis and Shi’a, Muslims and Christians, Al-Qaeda and the Coalition forces, and more subsets of these than anyone could remember.
One of the men, who seemed to be the leader, demanded to see everyone’s identification cards.
And began splitting up the passengers into two groups.
As the groups began to form, the workers realized what was happening. All the members of one group were Christians. All the members of the other group, twenty-three in all, were Yezidis.
Angell shouted at his driver to do something, but the man merely shook his head.
“We have orders not to engage, and to fire only if fired upon. We are not getting into the middle of this, whatever it is. Your mission, Dr. Angell, takes priority. And, anyway, there are a lot more of them than there are of us.” But in the end he picked up the radio and notified his commander of the situation, while Angell sat there, helpless as any academic when faced with real bullets, real violence, and a real historical event unfolding before him.
He watched in horror as the Christians were allowed to leave the bus. The driver was allowed to leave the bus. But the Yezidis were told to remain.
The bus was driven into eastern Mosul, as Angell’s Humvee followed at a discrete distance. The bus stopped at a side street, as Angell and his driver watched from around the corner, helpless to intervene.
The twenty-three remaining passengers were taken off the bus. And lined up against a wall.
Gregory Angell sat on a bench on the Brooklyn Heights promenade, overlooking the East River and Lower Manhattan where the Twin Towers used to stand. He had watched the towers fall that day in September, not knowing that one of his relatives was in one of the planes. And then, years later, he had watched as twenty-three Yezidis were gunned down on a side street in Mosul.
That evening, as he sat in a building that was guarded entirely by Blackwater mercenaries, he came to the realization that the massacre of the Yezidis in Mosul and the September 11 attacks in the US were one and the same episode. The same force was working through both events, through both groups of crazed fanatics. The same innocent people were slaughtered. The same innocent blood was spilled. Even though the two events were removed in space and time, they were the same event. As an academic, he could parse through both scenes and come up with any dozen
ways in which they were not related, in which there was no similarity in cause, in motivation, in the character of the perpetrators, the location of the attacks, the nature of the innocent people who died. And it would be pointless.
As a human being, he knew that all that violence, all that misery, was evidence of the action of an unspeakable force in the world, one that no one dared name, and which had existed since time immemorial.
It was God.
For a moment—a moment of blinding clarity—he saw how the entire run of human history was the chronology of wars fought over gods. God was the justification for all of it, for all that spilled blood, for all those mutilated bodies and minds. God.
The Great Absence.
And in that moment, Gregory Angell knew that there really was no God. That was the point. The whole thing was a kind of sick joke, perpetrated by some mad genius a hundred thousand years ago or more. God was the Black Hole around which the religions of the world since ancient times swirled in a slowly decelerating orbit. God was an Event Horizon towards which all humanity was moving in an endless parade of destruction. God was … Not Here.
God was murdered, along with faith and reason and love, that February day on a side street in the Iraqi city of Mosul, only a few kilometers from Nineveh in an area where the world’s great religions were born. Fitting, then, that God should die there, confronted with his own perfidy. He thought of that famous aphorism of Nietzsche, “God is dead.” God was dead and he, Gregory Angell, had discovered the body. The crime scene was Mesopotamia. The murder weapon was a much-delayed moment of enlightenment.
He returned to the States in a mood of profound depression. He began to drink, but that did not begin to fill the emptiness in his soul. What does a religious studies professor do when he has lost his religion? Well, as they say, those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.
And teach he did. He got tenure, conducted seminars that were overflowing and the talk of the community, but resisted all attempts to have him go back to the Middle East, even for a talk or a conference. Even
to Egypt, or Turkey. As he became well-known for his innovative approach to the study of religion, he became increasingly reclusive. He had a hard time sleeping, for he would frequently awaken to the sound of gunfire in his dreams, to the sight of blood pooling in the dust of Mosul. To the sudden extermination of human life, life taken by other humans in some kind of sick fantasy of cosmic justice.
He moved to Red Hook, away from the conviviality of Upper West Side Manhattan intellectual society, and into a basement apartment where he moved his books and papers and what oddments of his life mattered to him
… or did not matter enough to jettison. He reduced his course load as much as he was able, and tried to find some meaning in his life, something to take the place of the giant Gorilla who had left the room. He became increasingly paranoid about his fellow human beings, and using his government connections managed to obtain a gun in New York City where the punishment for possessing an unlicensed firearm was a mandatory one- year prison sentence. He slept with it under his pillow at night, the oil staining his sheets. He carried it with him, illegally, through the streets of New York like a melancholy Charles Bronson or a slightly less-geeky Bernie Goetz. He ate in the Arab restaurants of Atlantic Avenue, where the cooks and the waiters took pity on this sad American scholar who spoke their language and read their newspapers, but who didn’t share their faith.
And as for women, he avoided them. One might say, “religiously.” As practical and realistic as most of them were in his experience, they accepted the existence of God quite naturally and without argument. The same way they accepted the existence of eternal love, or the fidelity of their husbands. They needed this unfounded belief in a fantasy world in order to survive everything from the rough advances of their lovers to the intense pain of childbirth and the bitterness of watching their infants turn into the sullen and angry children they eventually would become. Without God, and the promise of heaven, it would not be possible or even worth enduring. Mother’s milk would turn poisonous in the breast.
This was the state of Gregory Angell’s life in April of 2014, more than seven years after the Yezidi massacre at Mosul. A machine stuck in a neutral gear. A powerful engine with nowhere to go. A car with a disinterested driver. And a handgun he had never fired in anger, with ten rounds in the magazine and one in the pipe.
Which is when Dwight Monroe’s agent sat down next to him on the bench on the Brooklyn Heights promenade, and looked at him, and smiled a cobra’s smile.
A RICH UNCLE
… the sacred and the profane have always and everywhere been conceived by the human mind as a separate genera, as two worlds that have nothing in common. … This does not mean that a being can never pass from one world to the other, but when it happens, the way this passage occurs highlights the essential duality of the two realms. It implies a true metamorphosis. This is demonstrated particularly well in rites of initiation …
—Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life
When James Aubrey first set eyes on Gregory Angell, as the latter sat silently and still on his park bench on the Promenade like a gringo Buddha under a Bo tree, he had a hard time reconciling the man in front of him with the photograph in his file. While the dossier photo revealed a typical academic, albeit with a bit more physicality than one normally associates with the profession, the real Gregory Angell seemed to have withdrawn into himself to such an extent that his body appeared to have shrunk within its clothes. It was as if the scholar was trying slowly to disappear, and had begun by minimizing his affect. He would not have been surprised if Angell began speaking in a whisper, or with subtle twitches of his eye muscles.
He was of medium height, maybe five-ten or five-eleven, not quite six feet. About one hundred sixty pounds, or maybe less by now as he seemed to swim in his trousers and jacket. Dark hair, brown eyes. Regular features. He had a strong jaw, but it was usually obscured by a neatly-trimmed beard, also dark brown but with the beginning of some grey. His mouth was a little unusual, with the full lips one would expect of a woman rather
than a forty-year-old man, but his moustache compensated. His fingers were those of a pianist, long and slender. In short, he could pass for almost any ethnicity from Central Asia to Portugal. A Pashtun tribesman, maybe. Or an Italian gigolo.
He knew from the file that Angell carried a gun, and that he was right- handed. That meant the piece was probably on his left-hand side to enable easy access. Thus, Aubrey decided to bear down on Angell from the right. He didn’t believe the man was violent, but he wasn’t taking any chances. The loose jacket Angell was wearing was large enough to conceal a weapon, and although Angell appeared to be relaxed there was no telling how far his paranoia had already taken him.
He sat down next to him.
Angell continued to stare out at the Manhattan skyline, as if totally unaware of the agent’s presence. That was unusual for New York, and particularly so for a section of Brooklyn that had once been the gay cruising capital of the East Coast.
After a moment, Angell spoke.
“Who sent you?” he asked, still staring straight ahead. “A mutual friend.”
“A friend.” The sarcasm was palpable. “A rich uncle, then.”
“You’re not the first.” “I know.”
“Then you know it’s pointless to ask me. I’m not going back.”
Aubrey let that sit for awhile, as if waiting for a souffle to rise. His silence was a measured part of the conversation. He did not get up to leave, but he did not try to convince Angell to do anything, either. The pressure of the silence weighed on Angell, who tried to fill it with words that had little meaning for him but which he hoped would mean something to this man with the flat, burnt-umber aura of certain death about him.
“I’ve done all that anyone can ask of me. I’m not a spy, or a field agent. I’m a college professor. And I’ve seen all the action I ever want to see. There are other men just as capable as myself. Go ask them.”
“We have,” replied Aubrey. “And?”
“And they all recommended you.”
That was not entirely true. There were few other individuals Monroe’s people could safely approach outside of normal channels and, anyway, Angell’s value was something unique. It did not rest solely on his previous experience in the “region.” It also did not rely on his knowledge of its languages and religions. For that, there were others who could be tapped, such as the anthropologists who worked for the Pentagon’s Minerva Project, academics who were taking DOD money to create imaginative and sometimes wholly-invented profiles of terrorist groups and their celebrity leaders from Palestine to Papua. No, Monroe didn’t need any more of those. They had their place, and were of some value in the total scheme of things, but they were too eager to please for Monroe’s taste, and frequently exaggerated the importance of their data or just—in Aubrey’s particular turn of phrase—“made shit up.”
And then there were the lions of the field, men like Lawrence Schiffman, James Tabor, Tudor Parfitt … Dead Sea Scroll scholars and Biblical specialists who were rock stars in their profession, too well-known to send off into the wasteland on this particular venture. And in some cases they were not up to the physical demands that the mission required.
Angell wasn’t like that. He was a loner, and even though he was respected he did not have the cachet of a Schiffman or a Tabor. And he didn’t make shit up. He was too devoted to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and that meant he could not afford to embellish or invent. He lived alone, had no bad habits anyone could discover, and thus was immune to blackmail, both financial and emotional. He seemed to have no need for money or, if he did—beyond his salary as a tenured professor at Columbia—it wasn’t much. Angell wasn’t out to make a fast buck, wasn’t applying for grants or writing ambitious proposals, and that made him attractive to Monroe. At the same time, it also made him a loose cannon. Angell would do what Angell wanted to do, and to hell with the government. Ever since Mosul, Angell had become independent, and in the world of the Patriot Act, Camp X-Ray, and extraordinary rendition that translated as “eccentric.”