Two big, scary-looking white men in black suits. But when they sat down with Dareen in the same empty office where the FBI men had questioned her, they turned out to be less stiff and formal than the FBI men. "Ms. Alkaras, let me be honest. There’s much we want to know about your powers." Of course they had shown her their badges, if only for a second, but Dareen was a quick reader: The National Security Agency, whose very existence was at one time a secret.
"You have recently been the subject of much publicity," one of them said. "Not all of it good."
Dareen just had to quell any suspicion that she was not a loyal American. "On Sunday afternoon I stopped a pulse bomb over Washington D.C." Sounded like boasting, but it was the truth.
"Yes, we know what you did," the NSA agent said, much to Dareen's relief. "We consider you a hero. It can't be overestimated what you saved this country from. We owe you a great deal. Yet we must ask you to keep what you did a secret."
"Why is that?"
"We think we know who is responsible and we want to string him along. Probably he doesn't know what happened. We found out only from video surveillance." Dareen's face burned at the thought of her naked body now on film, from a government camera. She was glad that the film was a secret. "Perhaps he thought the device went off course, or failed to ignite."
"Who is this man?"
The agent smiled. "Governments like to keep secrets. I'm afraid we can't divulge that to you, Miss Alkaras."
Dareen felt presumptuous at asking this question. She didn't want to pry, and regretted having been a little resistant when the FBI men came to question her and she had asked if she wasn't entitled to an attorney. She felt inadequately dressed too next to their business suits, sitting here in flip-flops and a burka, which she had pulled back the top of so that her head was free. She didn't want them looking at her bare toes and felt the urge to fold her legs under the burka.
"I've told Ms. Hom about the pulse bomb."
"We've spoken to her, she can keep a secret."
"I also... told my roommate."
"Would that be Ms. Randhawa?"
"Yes." Dareen now remembered, she had given the FBI men Elly's full name.
"You should tell her immediately to not tell anyone."
"I... I think she can keep a secret." Actually, Elly was the Voice of America when it came to secrets. Maybe she could shut up about this one. Dareen didn't want Elly to be subject to questioning too.
The agent gave her a card. "Your country needs you, Ms. Alkaras. We want to know about your powers."
Dareen sat up straight. "I will do anything to help my country."
"Please come by this office tomorrow at 10 a.m." He gave her a card.
"I can't talk about it."
This seemed O.K. with Billy but it was driving Jamal nuts. "Dar, I have a bad feeling about this."
"They just want to know about NakedGirl," Billy said, with a self-conscious glance in Dareen's direction before he emptied his Coors. "What makes her tick, that's all. Probably just a regular physical. Then seeing her do some of her supergirl tricks."
Dareen, in her burka, sitting between them at the kitchen table in Sherry's very crowded apartment, was getting a little peeved. "Look guys, it's up to me, and I'd appreciate it if you don't go on about it. It's my body, you know."
"Guys, she ain't naked now, but you still want to look," Sherry said, turning from her frying pan. Then, to Dareen, "They care about you. All of us do. Do your country proud." Again, the big smile with lots of teeth.
"Sorry Dar," Jamal said. He was obsessing on behavior modification, truth serums, being poked and prodded, the gamut of bad movie ideas of what oppressive governments can do to a person's body. Not all of it fictional. He confined himself to saying, "Don't let them poke you with any needles." And immediately felt sorry for saying it.
Fortunately Dareen took it as a joke. She smiled as she sipped her juice. With the drawn-back floppy cowl from the burka she wiped sweat off her forehead. It was hot in the kitchen, but of course Dareen didn't want to take anything off if she didn't have to.
Elly arrived with Lourdes in tow, Elly with the scent of a recently-snuffed cigarette. "She's got quite a fan club at the mall," she said. This seemed to embarrass Lourdes a bit, a feeling that was overcome by hunger. "Rice with pollo," she said, plowing into the plate Sherry set before her. "Gracias."
"De nada," Sherry said, proud at knowing this much Spanish.
Dareen noticed that Lourdes's bikini top and shorts had undergone some modification, by Elly no doubt. The advance of the poor girl's clothing allergy had required yet more cutting away of covering. The bikini top had tinier strings now. They were now hardly thicker than a single thread. And the micro-shorts, already so low-rise that Lourdes's butt crack almost showed even when standing, had been cut on the sides, some fabric removed so that one could see the bare sides of the teenager's hips, interrupted only by a sturdy cord of denim across the top and the bottom. The shorts were so tiny anyway that the cords were only about six inches apart. Looking down, she saw Lourdes's flip-flops had changed; they were now a little dressier, with thong straps even more slender than the basic Old Navy ones she had been wearing. Dareen wondered how long this could go on, how long the girl's outfit would stay legal.
A couple of days ago Elly had told Dareen that after picking Lourdes up from the store a policeman had stopped them and made a comment about Lourdes's minimal clothing. "You shouldn't go around like that, Miss, it's almost against the law. I have to warn you. Don't take this the wrong way." Elly took it very much the wrong way, though was smart enough not to get into a fight with a cop. It got Dareen thinking. She did an internet search and found the city ordinance regarding indecent exposure. The nipples had to be covered, and the "genitals", which when she did a further search, turned out to be the vagina plus the anus. She printed the ordinance out and gave it to Lourdes, much to the girl's embarrassment, but Dareen explained that it was necessary in case another cop gave her a hard time. "Just show them this and they'll know you're totally legal. And proper," she added. Lourdes reluctantly folded it up into one of the tiny pockets in her shorts.
Indecent exposure wasn't Lourdes's only problem. School would start in only a couple of weeks. The weather would get cold. The bikini store in the outdoor mall would close. And then what? Dareen knew it was on the girl's mind, as well as the mind of everyone else. It was an unspoken problem that everyone was working on in their heads.
After finishing up, Dareen said, "I'm going to mosque."
"What?" Elly exclaimed. "NakedGirl goes to mosque? Dar, you've got courage but this is crazy."
"In disguise," Dareen said, folding the burka over her head. "There's one nearby."
She had looked it up. A few blocks away was a neighborhood where women in burkas were common. She hadn't gone to that mosque yet. No one would know her, and it would be just her eyes showing anyway.
Elly begged off but Dareen went. It was a mistake. A real conservative place, which shouldn't have surprised her. She didn't like being stuck up in the balcony with all the other burka-ed women while the men got to sit down in front of the Imam. This one was younger than Imam Tahir, and quite a bit more fiery. Not a moderate at all. And he was very expansive on the topic of NakedGirl. "She is an abomination, an insult to Islam. 'The believing woman must lower her gaze and guard her modesty.' Not so with this harlot who claims to be one of us. If she really wanted to be of service to mankind she would be modest and clothed. She would let men do her works." At this Dareen suppressed a mordant giggle. "Yet she flaunts her sinfulness for all to see. And," his voice lowered, "she has insulted this country's flag."
It was hard for Dareen to stand up there as one of the beaten-down, cloistered, covered-up women, listening to this man speaking to the other men who with their male privilege could sit down, clothed normally, and sip coffee. Not that these men were privileged in any real sense. Dareen was smart enough to realize that this was a poor neighborhood and these men were not wealthy. Probably they worked at minimum wage jobs, or close to it, and sitting in front of the Imam at mosque was their only chance to feel important. But shy as she was, she chafed at being so put down. And she wanted to yell out that SHE was NakedGirl, stronger than any man, and she had saved the nation from another pulse bomb. But she was sworn to secrecy now.
The Imam said something else. "She has also insulted the Jewish Friends Committee. Disrupted their meeting with her nakedness. In this we are united with the Jews. She is an affront to us both."
Dareen closed her eyes and exhaled. Great! Jews and Muslims finally had a common cause -- against her! She stood through the rest of the service listlessly, trying to think of nice things, and then wondering how she was going to manage going to work every day in disguise, in her burka.
When she got back she called her parents to say where she was. Her mother sounded anxious. Then she called her brother Mikky at West Point to say she was okay. Mikky said their father told him that someone had thrown a rock through their parents' window; which was why her mother was anxious.
Later she and Elly ventured going back to the apartment. The "Go Away" sign was still up on the window. "It was meant mostly for you," Elly admitted.
"Thanks," Dareen said. Now there was a spray-painted graffiti next to their window. The message could be fairly described as racist and obscene.
Still, they felt brave enough to go up. Thank goodness for the foyer door and its key-lock. Actually, thank goodness for Pedro. The lock was often broken but it looked like it had just been repaired. He was protecting her. Good old Pedro. Though Dareen still cringed at remembering facing him in the mortification of her full frontal nudity that time she was holding up that door.
They got as much of their things and clothes out as they could. So it was, the next morning, in her best outfit, her white blouse and red cardigan and her long gray skirt with the hose and the sensible shoes that Dareen went up the steps to the anonymous-looking office building at 10 a.m. for her examination by the NSA people.