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Promised Land

Promised Land

by Robert Whitlow

Learn More | Meet Robert Whitlow

Chapter 1

It was 3:33 a.m., and the Lord gently nudged Hana Abboud Hasan awake for a night watch. Daud, her husband of six months, was out of the country on business. A sound sleeper, Daud rarely woke up when she slipped out of bed. When Hana asked him about it, he smiled and replied, “The sleep of the righteous is sweet.” Hana rolled her eyes but didn’t argue. Daud was a good man, the husband she’d prayed for, and the soul mate chosen for her by God himself.

Hana went into the living room of the one-bedroom house where she’d lived since moving from Israel to the US. Turning on a lamp, she opened her Bible. A low moan came from the kitchen, followed by a series of short snorts. The source of the noises was Leon, a furry, eighty-five-pound black-and-white dog who had trotted out of the woods and into Hana’s life a year earlier. A random mix of big dog breeds, Leon looked like a small Saint Bernard. His thick coat forced Hana and Daud to set the thermostat on the air-conditioning unit a few degrees cooler to keep their pet comfortable in the humid heat of the Georgia summer. Otherwise the dog’s long red tongue would hang out of his mouth and drip saliva all over the house.

After reading a psalm, Hana placed earbuds in her ears and listened to worship music performed in Aramaic, the ancient language spoken by Jesus and his disciples. Hana spoke Arabic, Hebrew, English, and French. She wasn’t fluent in Aramaic but knew enough to understand familiar songs. She closed her eyes and listened to melodies that might sound discordant to a Westerner but captured the expanse of the star-filled skies that had beckoned her ancestors to gaze heavenward and worship the one who created all things. Hana quietly sang along in a clear alto voice. She transitioned to songs in Arabic.

As the final song came to an end, a spontaneous lyric rose up in Hana’s heart. Turning off the music, she continued to sing a cappella. The new song was part prayer, part declaration. When a phrase formed in her mind, she repeated it over and over until sensing a release to continue. Phrase followed phrase, then doubled back in repetition that built on what came before. Few things nurtured Hana’s confidence in the Lord’s love and faithfulness more than the songs he gave her. But tonight she didn’t sing in personal worship. Instead, she offered up a song of intercession—for her new husband.

• • •

Daud sat alone in a hotel room in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. A US government–issued cell phone lay on the bed beside him. Through the window he had a clear view of Na’ama Bay and its glistening beach. It was late afternoon, and as the sun sank lower in the sky only a handful of people strolled along on the white sand.

It was a two-hour boat ride from the local marina to the beautiful coral reefs that made Sharm el-Sheikh a choice destination for scuba divers. Close by were places where anyone could snorkel and swim with the colorful, exotic fish. Daud was a certified diver who’d explored the reefs of Tiran Island and Ras Muhammad in the past, but on this trip he wouldn’t rent scuba gear and schedule a pleasure-boat ride.

Daud glanced at his phone and waited for the text message that would send him into action. Four days had passed since his arrival at the southern tip of the Sinai. Twice, orders came through directing him to begin his phase of the mission. Both times his CIA contact rescinded the order within thirty minutes. His phone vibrated and lit up.

    Stand down until tomorrow at 0900 hours.

It wasn’t the message Daud wanted to receive. He resisted the urge to fire back a response questioning the competency of his American superiors who seemed fixated on everything being perfect before authorizing him to move forward. Exact preparation was impossible when people were involved. Daud’s years of experience working as a covert agent for the Shin Bet, the Israeli equivalent of the FBI, had taught him it was better to act when the chance of success was ninety percent than delay and see the odds rapidly diminish due to unforeseen changes in circumstances. He paced back and forth across the room in an effort to release his pent-up tension. Confined by the walls, he decided to go out for a walk and an early dinner. Putting on dark sunglasses, he left the hotel room.

Just over six feet tall with a muscular physique, Daud had celebrated his thirty-second birthday while on honeymoon with Hana in southern Spain. They spent two weeks in Seville, Grenada, and Cordoba, places where Arab culture continued to exert its influence hundreds of years after the final defeat of the Moors by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

Daud and Hana’s wedding in Reineh was the culmination of a weeklong celebration involving his small family and her much larger one. Because of security concerns arising from Daud’s previous undercover work and ongoing threats against his life, the wedding was a private affair without any public announcements or posts on social media.

One of Daud’s favorite moments was the time they spent with Anwar Abboud, Hana’s aged great-uncle. The ninety-nine-year-old man welcomed the couple into a small room where he sat in a comfortable chair with a glass of freshly squeezed lemonade on the table beside him. Anwar’s memory was unreliable, and Daud wasn’t sure the family patriarch remembered him from a single previous meeting, so he introduced himself in a respectful tone of voice.

“I’m not like Isaac, who didn’t know the difference between Esau and Jacob,” the old man replied with a gap-toothed grin. “The Lord is faithful. He often brings Hana’s face before my spirit. Recently, you’ve joined her there. That means the Holy Spirit brought you together.”

Daud felt chills involuntarily run across his shoulders and down his arms. He glanced at Hana, whose face beamed at the confirmation of what they both believed.

“Has the Lord told you anything about Daud?” she asked.

Anwar nodded. “Child, you always ask the right question. Does Daud want to know the answer?”

Daud swallowed. He’d survived multiple life-or-death situations, but never had his heart beat faster. Hana nudged him and vigorously nodded her head.

“Yes, sir,” Daud answered and then held his breath.

Anwar locked eyes with Daud before he spoke. “Like your namesake, King David, you are destined to occupy the gates of your enemies.”

Daud waited for an explanation, but none came. Anwar’s eyes closed, and his head dropped to his chest. Within seconds his breathing indicated that he was asleep.

“Should we leave?” Daud whispered to Hana.

“I’m not sure,” she answered. “I was hoping he would pray a blessing over us.”

They sat quietly and waited. Anwar snorted. He squinted and looked at Hana. “And what about you?” he asked. “Do you want to hear from the Lord?”

“Yes, Uncle,” Hana replied respectfully. “I want to be like Mary when the angel Gabriel came to her and she said, ‘Be it unto me according to thy word.’”

Anwar smiled. “I’m not an angel, just an old man who loves you.”

He then stared directly at Hana with a fiery intensity that startled Daud. He heard Hana’s sharp intake of breath.

“Did you feel that?” Anwar asked her.

“Yes, sir,” she answered.

“Some promises come only through pain and sacrifice. And so it will be for you.” Anwar extended his hand outward in a broad motion and ended by pointing his index finger at his chest. “There is a promised land without and a land of promises within. Both realms are yours to possess if you pass the tests.”

Hana bowed her head for a moment. “Daud and I are getting married tomorrow,” she said. “It would be an honor if you would bless us as husband and wife.”

Anwar paused as if listening. “Be fruitful in every way,” he said in a lighter tone of voice. “It is the first commandment.”

The old man became silent and in a few moments fell back asleep. Daud and Hana slipped from the room. Daud reached for Hana’s hand as they walked down the hallway onto a small balcony that overlooked a spacious enclosed garden at the rear of the property. People were setting up tables and decorations for a party in their honor later in the evening. Hana leaned against Daud, who looked down at her.

“What do you think about your uncle’s words?” he asked.

“I’m not sure. Uncle Anwar’s words are like seeds that have to lie in the ground until they germinate and sprout. And what comes up isn’t always what you expect.”

• • •

As he waited for the hotel elevator, Daud felt his wedding ring in the left front pocket of his pants. He slipped it on and off his finger and thought about Hana. His heart ached at the longest separation of their young marriage.

Daud’s boss for this project was a man who communicated via a secure computer network and sent texts to the designated cell phone. He used the name Charlie, but Daud had never met him in person and suspected it wasn’t his real name, a common practice in the intelligence world to limit the knowledge of each person about the chain of command. That way if an agent like Daud was arrested or captured, he couldn’t divulge damaging information.

A Shin Bet supervisor named Aaron Levy who’d worked with Daud in Israel recommended him to Charlie. When Daud learned the purpose of the mission, he accepted the offer to be part of a team. The interests of the United States and Israel to limit the spread of sophisticated missile technology and nuclear proliferation in the Middle East were parallel, and in this instance, the US had the better logistical capability to accomplish the mission.

Their target was a Ukrainian scientist named Artem Kolisnyk who was fleeing from his homeland after being charged with selling classified information to the highest bidder. The Egyptians were one of his clients. Kolisnyk’s area of expertise wasn’t designing the heavy-payload rockets capable of striking any city in the Middle East, but something smaller and in some ways more dangerous—the development of short-range missiles capable of evading the Iron Dome defense system that had proved so effective in knocking short-range rockets and conventional artillery fire from the skies over Israel. Daud wasn’t briefed in detail about the underlying science of the Ukrainian’s work beyond the fact that the compact weapons he designed could mimic the million-dollar cruise missiles in the American arsenal by flying extremely close to the ground, thus making it difficult for the radar component of an Iron Dome battery to detect the missile and intercept it. The Egyptians had arranged to buy the exclusive rights to Kolisnyk’s services. The Americans and the Israelis didn’t want that to happen.

As an Arab who spoke fluent Russian, Daud was tasked with convincing the scientist to accompany him to a meeting with American officials who would offer Kolisnyk a better deal than the Egyptians, a proposal that included political asylum in the US and guaranteed financial security through a nonmilitary job. The mission would require subtlety and finesse. Kolisnyk was in Sharm el-Sheikh on his way to Cairo, so this was the last chance to intervene. A complicating factor was the presence of the Ukrainian’s fiancée, a young Egyptian woman. It was assumed the couple would travel under fictitious names.

Daud stepped out of the air-conditioned hotel into the dry heat and tossed a lightweight sport coat over his shoulder. It was a five-block walk to the central shopping district of Na’ama Bay where he could have a good meal. Finding a seafood restaurant, Daud slipped the maître d’ a twenty-dollar bill and was seated at a table with a view of the entire room.

Fifteen minutes later four succulent prawns arrived resting on a bed of delicately seasoned rice. Glancing up, Daud saw a man and a woman approach the maître d’ and instantly recognized them from the briefing material for the mission. It was Kolisnyk and his fiancée. Encountering the Ukrainian at the restaurant gave Daud a prime opportunity to initiate contact in a public environment without interference. He took out his secure cell phone and quickly sent Charlie a text message.

    A and B are in the restaurant where I am eating. No security present. Permission requested to approach and engage.

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