Atta's Fork

Mrs. Tailpipe flung open the front door and walked in with quick, short steps, as if she were carrying something heavy. Tailpipe turned to see her rumble into the kitchen, one hand pushed into the pocket of her jacket, clutching something through the material.

"This," she said, dropping the object on the counter, without letting it touch her skin, "is Mohamed Atta's fork."

There it lay, an ordinary metal table fork, its handle engraved with vines and curlicues — an unimpressive-looking utensil if Tail ever saw one. But the name gave it a special heft. Tailpipe looked at it warily, as reluctant to actually touch the thing as Mrs. T., half expecting it to start glowing red.

"Lynn gave it to me," Mrs. T. said.

Tailpipe had, of course, heard the stories about the World Trade Center terrorist's connection with South Florida: How Atta and two or three others had lived locally while taking lessons at a Venice flying school and a Miami-Dade computer simulation center, how Atta had posed as a prince from a royal Arab family with an interest in aeronautics, how three of the terrorists had gone to Shuckums Bar & Grill in Hollywood four nights before the hijacking and got into a spat with the manager.

But who knew there were remnants of al Qaeda's Broward County pass-through still floating around?

Tailpipe's neighbor, Lynn DeLano, it turns out, had been the terrorists' landlady when the diabolical Atta and one or two others lived at 1818 Jackson St. "She's got a bunch of stuff from Atta's apartment in Hollywood," Mrs. T. said.

This car part's grasping metal heart leaped. Judging by Internet sources, al Qaeda memorabilia is a growing international market: everything from tacky Osama bin Laden cigarette lighters (with a diode lighting up a bomb explosion on one of the embossed Twin Towers, as the al Qaeda mastermind's bearded, glowering face looks on) to bits of building rubble from Ground Zero to scorched Korans from Iraq to Osama sock puppets. The wave has apparently not yet reached our shores, except for a burgeoning kitsch market in things like Osama toilet paper ("Wipe out Osama") and tacky T-shirts. But the valuable stuff — that's still mostly in the hands of Third World street vendors.

This, though, is America, where most big flea markets have a stall or two with a pile of Lugers, flags, swastika armbands, and Nazi helmets. Tailpipe assumes that, when it comes to making money, old-fashioned capitalism always trumps distaste. Anything once handled by the 9/11 master terrorist, he figured, would eventually be worth beaucoup bucks.

DeLano, an intense, good-looking, 37-year-old businesswoman and single mother who's always in a hurry, told the 'Pipe that her dealings with Atta had been brief and businesslike, though she had developed an instant dislike for the man. The glancing contact with him, DeLano says, has brought her little more than a kettle full of trouble.

At the time, she had no inkling of Atta's connections, of course. The widely distributed mug shot of Atta shows a man so full of lemon-sucking sourness that his face looks like it's about to implode. But DeLano says that, though he looked foreign when she first set eyes on him, he wasn't nearly so "freaky," and he spoke unaccented English.

"He still reminds me of the Lebanese cabdriver in the television show Wings," she says. "You know, the guy who's the monk." Tony Shalhoub, star of Monk?

"Yeah," DeLano says. "I owned another building, on Dewey Street. He came to me and said he wanted to rent an apartment there. But he only wanted it for four months. He said he'd give me four months' rent up-front in cash. My greed started to kick in. But then he said he needed it furnished."

Something told DeLano that the guy was more trouble than he was worth, and she turned down the offer.

A few months later, she bought the building on Jackson, and who should be a tenant on the second floor of the run-down, 13-unit boarding house but Atta? After that, DeLano saw little of Atta and his roommate, Marwan al-Shehhi, supposedly his cousin, as she proceeded to renovate the building, apartment by apartment. By September 11, she says, "their apartment was next."

The night of September 11, she got a call from the Hollywood police asking her to come immediately to her building. It was after dark, and like the rest of America, DeLano was upset. She had been trying all day to reach her mother in Poughkeepsie (who, it turned out, had actually seen one of the attack planes flying low over her house).

"It was late, and I said, 'Look, whatever altercation my tenants have had, you're going to have to handle it,'" she recalls. "Then they put the FBI on the phone."

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