London, United Kingdom
Where did this come from? Nisha’s fingers, sealed in surgical sensitive gloves, flipped back the cover of the cardboard file, bound with faded blue ribbon, and scowled at the jacket title. Records of the Thugee and Dacoity Committee, June-November 1839. All in order there, but it didn’t make sense for a packet that included the very modern typed page she held in her hand – flimsy, curling, and smeared with cheap FAX ink. If she had been in Delhi, she would have ignored it as simply sloppy record keeping; but the British Library was rarely sloppy, and the inconsistency nagged at her. For no reason she could clearly articulate to herself, Nisha jotted down the strange text in her notebook.
7. ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS. WHILE THE SIZE AND IMPACT OF THE DOWNWIND HAZARD CLOUD, AND ITS CONSEQUENT ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT, WOULD NATURALLY DEPEND ON THE SCALE OF THE ACTUAL NUCLEAR EXCHANGE, FOR PLANNING PURPOSES WE CAN EXTRAPOLATE FROM THE MID-RANGE PROJECTIONS PROVIDED BY — REDACTED – IN MAY 2008. BASED ON THIS MODEL OF AN EXCHANGE INVOLVING – REDACTED – WARHEADS, WE WOULD EXPECT DRAMATIC SUSTAINED IMPACTS TO THE AGRICULTURAL SECTORS IN – REDACTED – AND – REDACTED – SUCH THAT THEY WOULD REQUIRE EXTENSIVE EXTERNAL FOOD ASSISTANCE FOR 5 TO 7 YEARS. AGRICULTURAL ACTIVITY IN – REDACTED – WOULD BE SERIOUSLY IMPACTED, AND WOULD BE CHALLENGED TO MEET DOMESTIC CONSUMPTION REQUIREMENTS FOR 3 TO 5 YEARS. THE GLOBAL AGRICULTURAL SECTOR WOULD EXPERIENCE CLIMATE RELATED ATTENUATION FOR A MINIMUM OF THREE YEARS, AND POTENTIALLY MUCH LONGER BASED ON ARCTIC AN UPPER ATMOSPHERIC FEEDBACK EFFECTS.
8. IN A MORE POSITIVE CONSEQUENCE, THE MILD NUCLEAR WINTER EXPECTED IN THE AFTERMATH OF SUCH AN EVENT WOULD LIKELY RETARD THE PROGRESS OF DELETERIOUS PHENOMENON ASSOCIATED WITH GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE BY UP TO A DECADE, SUBJECT TO THE ARCTIC AND UPPER ATMOSPHERIC FEEDBACK INPUTS NOTED ABOVE.
9. ADDITIONALLY, THE PROFOUND ECONOMIC EFFECTS FOR – REDACTED – AND –REDACTED – WOULD LIKELY DELAY INDEFINITELY THE PROFOUND RISE IN THOSE NATIONS’ FOSSIL FUEL CONSUMPTION ENVISIONED IN CURRENT FORECASTS. AS THIS INCREASE IN FUEL CONSUMPTION IS CURRENTLY IDENTIFIED AS AN ACCELERANT TO CLIMATE CHANGE AND RISING STRESS ON GLOBAL FUEL MARKETS, REMOVAL OF THIS ACCELERANT WILL LIKELY HAVE A SALUTORY EFFECT ON THESE ASSOCIATED PHENOMENON. HOWEVER, FURTHER MODELING AND ANALYSIS IN THIS REGARD IS STILL REQUIRED.
Curiouser and curiouser. Nisha briefly considered raising the anomaly with the curator, but as she closed her notebook she saw her Lurker still there, pointedly not staring at her from two polished tables over. So named because she had detected him now in over half a dozen shop windows and sharp corner turnings since her arrival in London a week ago. Originally slightly annoying, it had now become disturbingly creepy, and she wanted to be well away before nightfall.
Why here? Why now? A young, attractive woman who spent much of her time traveling the world alone was naturally the subject of frequent unwanted attention. But this was unusually persistent. This had an edge.
Aside from her native charms, there was little in Nisha’s obscure line of research to invite much trouble. There wasn’t much money in 19th Century British judicial record keeping. Her article in the Atlantic Advocate last year, comparing unfavorably the Patriot Act and the Indian Dacoity legislation had generated some ugly e-mails; but generally speaking, the audience likely to be upset by such arguments were unlikely to spend much time reading long, erudite articles on the history of jurisprudence. Maybe the Kushan material? A recent inquiry into the personal journal of Edmund Rowe, KCB, one time magistrate of Faisalabad, revealed that he had come home with a notable collection of Kushan antiquities – a collection that went missing after passage of the 1962 legislation outlawing traffic in such materials. An almost idle note to Miskatonic’s Illicit Antiquities Research Center suggested the collection may have ended up in Detroit’s Gallerie LaCroix – a very boutique outfit infamous for its lax policies regarding the provenance of its acquisitions. The Lurker had appeared shortly after that note. But really? That seemed a bit Lara Croft for a woman who’s most exciting life task was managing her Netflix queue
“My god, it looks like Mordor.”
“You know, like Mordor. From Lord of the Rings.”
“Jesus, Chuck. You’ve got to watch your gay-meter. You can think stuff like that without saying it out loud.” Quigley looked out the window of the Mi-17 at the blasted, barren landscape unfolding below. Charred and broken fangs of rock near to hand gave way to blood red dunes undulating away to infinity. It did, indeed, look much like a Tolkien landscape. “Couldn’t you at least say it looks like Tatooine? That’s just geeky. Or better still, something manly, like the backdrop to Lawrence of Arabia.”
“Manly?” Chuck laughed, incredulous. “Seriously, DQ, are you kidding? I don’t think you could get gayer than Lawrence of Arabia without descending into Liza Minnelli territory.”
“Hey, we are in Afghanistan. Man love is different than gayness, and it is Thursday night. Are you gonna hold Ahmad’s hand at dinner tonight?”
“Well, he did get us the bird, saving us a couple hours on the road and an IED or two. That’s worth a little hand holding.”
“You’ll get your chance shortly, we’re almost there.”
The Mi-17 canted to the side, circling a long, jagged spine of rock that jolted up from the desert like the back of a fossilized dinosaur buried in the sand. Ruins that might have been from Alexander’s time – or Genghis Khan’s, or the British Raj, or three weeks ago – tumbled down the ridge; a picturesque counter-point to the white-washed walls and blue corrugated tin roofs of the DNR contracted police-training facility at the base of the ridge. Pointing out the window, DQ gave his travelling companion a quick visual tour of the local landmarks as they turned.
“Out there in the desert is FOB Spin Boldak, the one with the French Foreign Legion towers at one end.”
“I thought that was FOB Costell.”
“It was, but then the maneuver unit changed it to ‘FOB Blackhawk.’ And then someone at ISAF found out and told them they couldn’t because that wasn’t in accord with the naming convention. So everyone just settled on FOB SB as a compromise. And down here, around Ahmad’s headquarters, you can see Spin Boldak proper sprawling down towards the border.”
“What’s that weird splotch of color in all the gray?”
“That’s the new car lot. They’re waiting to be exported to Pakistan.”
“Afghanistan exports cars to Pakistan?”
“No. Japan exports cars to Pakistan, but they have to pay a huge tariff there. But there’s no transit fee from Karachi if they’re being exported to Afghanistan; and no tariff fee if they’re being exported from Afghanistan.”
“So they ship cars from Karachi, in Pakistan, to Afghanistan. They sit here inside the border for a while, and then they’re shipped back into Pakistan for sale.”
“Yep, now you’re getting it. And everyone involved makes a bundle.”
“And where’s the actual border.”
“It’s kind of hard to see in the glare, but if you squint and follow the straight line of Highway 4, you can just make out where Chaman Gate sits.”
“Is that the crossing point?”
“No, it’s got a metal gate across the arches, so you have to drive around it.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Because the Pakistanis built it, but the Afghans say it’s on their side of the border by a few yards, so they won’t let anyone use it out of sheer spite. Of course, that’s why it was originally called the ‘Friendship Gate.’”
“Of course, makes perfect sense.”
“You can ask Ahmad all about it when you see him. Despite all his adventures in Panjwai, these are his real stomping grounds, and the source of his very healthy income. But don’t ask him about that.”
Their eyes stinging with blowing dust, Doug and Chuck grabbed their bags and walked across the gravel landing zone towards Ahmad’s headquarters. The sun was setting quickly, and the compound was already deep in shadow below the ridge. Blaring techno music echoed through the pooling twilight.
“I guess it really is man love Thursday,” DQ said. “Sounds like quite a party.”
“Indeed it is. You are welcome to attend, though perhaps it is not to your taste.” Emerging from the gloom, in a tan windbreaker over jeans and U.S. Army desert boots, Ahmad Mazoor bore an eerie resemblance to Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmedinijad (and after his frankly terrifying, if powerful performance in the province’s interior, some of the U.S. planners in Kandahar had begun referring to him as Ahmad-ijad East). The appearance was off-set by an American accent gained while working at his father’s restaurant in Maryland, and graduate school at Johns Hopkins. “I’m afraid my DNR contractors have rather scandalous tastes, and my own men are a bit uncomfortable with all that Johnny Walker on the compound, not to mention the Filipino whores. The dancing boys are no problem, though. But they just finished a rough mission in Shorabak, so I’m inclined to turn a blind eye.”
They passed into a whitewashed concrete building, brushing aside the floral shower curtain that served as a door. A single bare fluorescent tube tacked on the wall flickered to life, and Ahmad waved the men into eye-wateringly garish, overstuffed chairs. He passed around a glass dish of grapes and candied nuts before lighting a Marlboro Red.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he exhaled in a cloud. “We may have war, beheadings, IEDs and crushing poverty, but thank Allah, we can still smoke in civilized company here. And that alone almost makes it worth leaving America to return to my homeland. I’m just glad they didn’t have cigarettes in ancient Arabia or Mohammad, peace be upon him, would probably have banned them, too. In any event, my friends, you have travelled a long way to see me. How can I help you?”
“I’m looking for something of the utmost importance.” DQ’s eyes shone with fanatic intensity.
“Aren’t we all? Love, perhaps? Or salvation? Maybe the meaning of life?”
“A secret document?”
“This is, perhaps, something associated with Chuck’s organization, which I will not name.”
“Don’t play coy, Ahmad,” Chuck objected. “You can’t name it, because you don’t know what it’s named. Even your sources aren’t that good. Anyways, it’s not for my gang. DQ’s playing freelance on this one. I’m just along for the ride, as my group may have certain interests in how this all plays out.”
“Fair enough. In any event, though, Spin Boldak is not a particularly literate place. Why do you think it would be here?”
“It’s in a shipping container, and I believe that container crossed the border yesterday and is still parked in the customs holding yard. It was supposed to cross the border at Torkham a few days ago, and I tried to intercept it at Peshawar. But the Paks were pissed at the Americans after their cricket hero got stopped at LAX, and they shut the border for a few days just to be dicks. My truck got diverted south and it’s here, right under your thumb.”
“I can have the customs agents ‘inspect’ the cargo, if you like. They work for me.”
“Would prefer this not be official. Let’s just say I’d like to avoid any ‘imperial’ entanglements.”
“Then I can have some of the local miscreants break in and steal it. They work for me, too. They haven’t burgled anything recently, and it’s causing some trouble in justifying the fees charged by the local security escorts. They work for me, as well. I don’t suppose you would object if they set the container on fire after retrieving your document? Better visuals for my other purposes.”
“You can blow up the entire holding area if you like, so long as I get what I came for.”
“Just so. Larkha!”
A young boy came dashing into the room in plastic-flip flops, obsequiously stooped, as Ahmad picked up a paper notepad and pencil. “Description?” He asked.
“It’s a blue shipping container with SDF markings and a red stripe. Serial number TJK85552719TDR-62. The document should be in a pink plastic Hello Kitty folder, like kids use for school, inside a black Tough-Box.”
Ahmad finished scribbling, tore off the page and handed it to the boy, who promptly scurried off into the night.
“You will have it by breakfast,” Ahmad said. “And now perhaps you would care for a rest?”
“I have to hit the toilet, first. Don’t worry, I remember where it is,” DQ said, before heading back out through the shower curtain.
Chuck watched the older man depart, chuckling softly and shaking his head. “He’s probably off his meds, again, you know.”
“Most assuredly,” Ahmad said, stubbing out his cigarette and stretching his legs. “And as mad as the proverbial hatter. But fortune protects drunks, fools, and lunatics. I feel it is an obligation to do so as well. And besides, he’s very rarely boring, which is a far worse fault.”
“Most assuredly, indeed.”
“Welcome to Umbratile Ouroboros!” Captain Admiral said, as he slammed the door behind them.
“That’s a weird name for a hotel,” Major Lover said.
“It’s not the name of the hotel. It’s the name of the SAP. For practical purposes, it’s also the name of our organization, since we don’t really have one.”
“Uh-huh. And who does umbrella, udder, umbilical…”
“Umbratile Ouroboros. But you can use ‘UO’ for short.”
“And who does UO work for, sir?”
“At the end of the day, we answer to the highest authority. But for various legal and technical reasons, we are established as a Joint Task Force-like organization, funded through Title 37 and executing operations under Title 49. We wanted Title 42, but it was already taken. We’re TACON to UO-X, and OPCON to South Asia Command.”
“There’s no such thing as South Asia Command.”
“Not that you know about, anyway, but you’ve been looking at the wrong map. Come on upstairs and I’ll show you a better one.”
Admiral continued talking as they walked up a broad flight of curving marble steps, bounded by gleaming mahogany banisters. “Everyone knows we need a South Asia Command, it’s too hard to work the regional seams without one. But again, for various legal and technical reasons, it’s considered politically impossible to establish such an institution, so we’ve created a virtual one. We work out of a hotel here, shipping containers elsewhere, and in some places from an airstream trailer parked in the hold of an old cargo plane or fishing trawler. But for my money, we’ve got the best digs. This is our OPCENTER, and you can see the entire Area of Responsibility on the map.”
They had entered what must have once been the hotel’s formal dining room, now cluttered with folding tables, computers and a rat’s nest of cables. Across one wall stretched a map long familiar to anyone working in the region, but somehow slightly off. The landforms generally recognizable, but some of the international boundaries were slightly off kilter, the rivers misdirected, and the mountain ranges oddly askew. And the names were completely foreign. Foreign as in unfamiliar and strange, not foreign as in foreign, because of course they would be. Kushanistan, Jihadistan, Barra Desh, Bhuristan, Himal Raj (the ‘Raj’ was scratched out with blue ink).
“This is gibberish!” Major Lover said, at last. “Excuse me. This doesn’t make any sense, sir.”
“Listen, Major, how long have you been in the Army?”
“Eleven years, sir.”
“You know that old headquarters saying, that we only really practice military deception on ourselves? Well, in this case it’s literally true.”
“Your military deception plan is to employ nonsense?”
“Not nonsense. Irrelevance. And it works. We have stations all over the world and no one even knows we exist. Our Congressional liaison office makes sure our funding legislation gets buried right at the bottom of the authorizing bills, so people never get through to it. And if they do, it seems too stupid to bother with. You know how people in a room will pay attention to the most important or attractive person, and ignore everyone else? Kind of like cheerleaders and jocks versus nerds and Goths in High School?”
“Sure, there’s a couple of Special Task Force guys who work in our SCIF, and I swear I could walk right through them without their noticing.”
“Those guys, the Agency guys, all the secret little sexy outfits. That very aura of importance and secrecy draws people to look at them. I’ve been in plenty of dog-sniffing contests where people will namedrop various more secret-than-secret organizations to show how ‘inside’ they are. Sometimes they’ll get pretty far down the list, but they never, ever make it to UO. Because nobody cares.”
“But what do you actually do?”
“I told you, we beat the tiger.”
“Right, got that, sir. But I mean, besides tiger beating.”
“Well, there’s tiger catching.”
“Uh-huh. Like, for zoos?”
“Not exactly. I’ve got an officer and an NCO in the field right now, camped out between Bagram and Kabul with a big net. Well, not exactly, but you get the point. Catching equipment.”
“Tiger catching equipment? In Afghanistan?
“That’s right. I’m sure you’ve heard of the pisho palang, the infamous and savage Tiger Cat of the Shomali Plain.”
“Coalition forces drop the Tiger Cats out of helicopters to terrorize the villagers. Functionally achieves the effect of imposing a curfew without having to dedicate forces to police the area. It’s killed three or four people, and mauled half a dozen more.”
“We drop tigers out of….”
“Tiger Cats, it’s different.”
“We drop Tiger Cats out of helicopters? Really? I suspect the drop would be hazardous to their health.”
“The helicopters fly really low and slow, so the Tiger Cats can just jump out and pounce on the unsuspecting.”
“Sir, this is just silly.”
“I’m serious as a heart attack. People all over the area believe it’s absolutely true.”
“People all over that neighborhood also believe the U.S. is supporting the Taliban in order to prolong the war.”
“To say I’m confused would be an understatement. But exactly, how?”
“Listen, why do you think we’re the only ones who can beat the tiger? I mean the other tiger, from the tiger-cat analogy, rather than the Tiger Cat.”
“At this point, I couldn’t even hazard a guess.”
“It’s because we’re the only ones who can see the tiger. No one else believes in it, so they can’t see it and ignore it. Kind of like UO. When you dismiss a thing, you can no longer act on that thing. The world that many Afghans live in, is as different from ours as the map on my wall is different from the one at ISAF headquarters. And if you don’t have the right map, you can’t navigate. You and I know that Mossad, RAW and the CIA aren’t conspiring to send suicide bombers into Pakistani bazaars. But that’s irrelevant. What’s relevant is that most Pakistanis believe it to be true. I’ve got a couple of agents in Miram Shah right now trying to hunt down a few of those guys.”
“Even though they’re not there.”
“Doesn’t matter, people believe them to be there. Just like they believe in Jihadi Monkeys.”
“Yeah, Taliban train them to attack American soldiers. We’re trying to see if we can get our hands on some Indian Counter Terrorist Police Monkeys – those are really real, by the way – to hunt them down. That, or find some flying squirrels. Did you know monkeys are terrified by flying squirrels? Some monkey annoyance experts did a study on it.”
“Hmmm. Would I be out of bounds to guess that you have a so called ‘monkey annoyance expert’ on your staff?”
“No, but we do have a zoologist who handles all this stuff,” Admiral pointed to a stunningly beautiful woman in a charcoal grey turtleneck, bent over an electron microscope with a wave of jet black hair swept over her shoulder. “Her name is Glaum Traubt. It’s Finnish. She’s also a particle physicist, speaks seven languages fluently, and holds a third degree Black Belt in Krav Maga. But I don’t recommend you try and hit on her. She’s slightly asperger-ish.”
“Seriously? How old is she?”
“Twenty-four. She actually starred in a series of thriller novels and we thought it was really cool, so we recruited her for the team.”
“But she’s really real?”
“No, but who is? We’re all characters in a story, but fortunately our author is a bit schizophrenic – or maybe high functioning sociopath would be more appropriate – so none of us have to be him. Not a Dan Brown or Jack Ryan in the bunch.”
“And where am I supposed to fit in to all this?”
“Well, I’m not quite sure you do yet. But the lucky chance of finding out about your situation made it too good not to try.”
“The fact that you’re not really here.”
“That’s rude, sir. Are you being ‘different’ now? Anyway, I thought that was a good thing.”
“No, I mean Major Chris Lover, United States Army is not deployed to Afghanistan.”
“I find that statement, given the context, a little surprising.”
“Listen, for legal and technical reasons, I can’t hire people, recruit, publish orders, etc. so personnel management is kind of a challenge. I need to find people in a legal twilight zone.”
“I don’t see how that relates to me.”
“Tell me how you got this assignment.”
“Well, I got out of the Army after my first tour in Iraq, so my wife wouldn’t leave me. Then she left me, and I found myself just hanging around at loose ends for a few years. Then one of my old bosses, the current J2, sent me a note saying he was heading to Kabul and asked if I’d like to tag along. I trotted down to the local National Guard office, had my Reserve commission converted to the Guard, and wangled myself some deployment orders.”
“Ah yes, the Guard. Marvels of administrative efficiency. Have you checked your Leave and Earnings Statement lately?”
“Not really. I don’t have any dependents or bills back home, so haven’t worried about. Figure it’s just quietly piling up in my account, and I’ll have a spree when I get home. Besides the firewalls in Army Knowledge Online and DFAS MyPay make it practically impossible to access them for guys down range.”
“Bad news, then, I’m afraid. You stopped getting paid one month after you deployed.”
“Turns out someone in Human Resources didn’t process your paperwork properly, so it turns out you’re not, actually, in the Army after all. As soon as they found out, they terminated your pay – you’ll probably get a bill for what you did erroneously receive at the beginning. But bureaucracy being bureaucracy, no one bothered telling you. Until I did, because you’re just the sort of person I’m looking for.”
“But how did you find out? Why would you have been reviewing my LES history?”
“Random inquiry is one of our Tactics, Techniques and Procedures. You never know what you’ll stumble upon.”
“So what now, sir?”
“You don’t actually have to call me that anymore, Not-Major Lover. Anyway, an audition, if you want one. Sounds like you don’t have much waiting for you back home anyway. And while our pay system, for certain legal and technical reasons, is a bit arcane, we are well compensated. If the first mission works out, maybe we can offer something more permanent.”
“Is this related to that disc you had me buy in the bazaar? It wasn’t really porn, was it?”
“No, it wasn’t. But neither was it related to you. That disc has the technical specifications for a very special kind of watch that was stolen in Peshawar.”
“Like, a watch that tells time?”
“Sort of, how?”
“I don’t really have time to explain it right now. We barely have time to get you changed and on the road.”
“I don’t actually recall saying ‘Yes.’ Do I get to ask where or why before I go?”
“You may, but you may also be sorry you asked. You’re going to India. To catch a jinn. Did you know 90% of Pakistanis believe in djinns? I want one in our kit bag.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry I asked. Actually, I think I would like to go home now.”
“Actually, I think you can’t.”
“It’s kind of a threat, see?” Admiral tried to scowl, but ended up just looking confused. “I’ve never been particularly good at generating an air of subtle menace.”
“This is all very exotic sounding, but I’m just not interested.”
“You don’t understand. I am in particular need of people like you, and I can’t afford to let you go. Failure in our mission could lead to the end of the world as we know it.”
“Isn’t that always the case? What is it this time? Terrorist with a backpack nuclear device? Evil genius on a volcanic island with a sun-killing laser?”
“I’m not a big fan of TPS cover sheets and TQM either, but the end of the world?”
“It’s a very special kind of paperwork, and we have to find it before it becomes something more.”
“And if I refuse?”
“Well, a group that doesn’t exist is pretty well positioned to make people disappear. Especially people who don’t technically exist, either. Come on, we’re wasting time.”
Chandler walked out of Tribhuvan International Airport, squinting into the sunset haze of pollution hovering above the city sprawled below. His Nepal Airways flight had been delayed three days by repeated engine failures, despite the chief engineer’s dedicated efforts in sacrificing two goats to the gods of airplanes. Unfamiliar with the city, he had hoped to have a few days to reconnoiter and prepare before the meeting scheduled for 11:30 PM this evening; but now he would essentially have to drop his bags at a hotel and proceed directly to the rendezvous. And aside from the Footprints guide to Nepal in his satchel and a scribbled note from Quigley in his pocket, he had little idea how best to proceed.
Both the Nepal Airlines flight from Delhi and Thai Air from Bangkok had landed almost simultaneously, and the pavement outside the gate was swarming with exiting passengers loading large, bulky passages wrapped in newspaper and bound with twine into every conceivable transport available. Chandler was just about to slip into one of the few remaining taxis, a low slung sedan plastered with Batman and Che Guevera stickers, when another Westerner slung his backpack through the window on the opposite side.
“Heading into town? Come on, we’ll split the fare.”
With little appetite for argument, Chandler shrugged and slid inside, wedged against the stranger on the narrow seats, covered in towels.
“Sorry about that, but it wasn’t getting any easier, and the Indians aren’t even out yet. I’m Chet Fowler.” He offered a handshake.
“No problem, just glad to be out of the crowd. There’s something distinctively South Asian about the smell of sweat, spice, and soot that makes me a little nauseous. Paul Chandler, by the way.”
The taxi turned down the hill and past the Royal Nepal Army golf course, well, actually, just the Nepal Army golf course, since the king was deposed. But at least they still had a golf course. While not quite yet the People’s Democratic Republic of Nepal, the newly redeemed Maoists were a very visible presence throughout the city, vaguely menacing young thugs congregating beneath tattered red banners at many of the street corners.
“Have you been to Nepal before?” Fowler asked.
Chandler shook his head, “First time for me.”
“That’s too bad, you should have seen it before. Or maybe that’s good, so you don’t realize what it once was like. Kind of like Kabul. I’m actually glad I never saw it during the days when it was a highpoint of the hippie trail. Would make the current wreck even more depressing. Last time I was there, I was reading a guidebook from the early ‘70s, and it had these heartbreaking passages about picnic spots and scenic walks along the surrounding ridgelines. Couldn’t imagine that now, in full battle rattle.”
“Used to be. Was actually here in Nepal last year for training, but the Maoist Defense Minister wasn’t too impressed when I wanted to offer counter-terrorist training to the Army. Especially because in days gone by, that training was intended to help the Army kill Maoists. And especially, especially because the Maoists generally, and so the Defense Minister himself, were still listed as terrorists under U.S. law.”
“You must have got out fairly recently.”
“Why do you say that? I’m quite proud of the shaggy mane I’ve grown since.”
“Well, the green covered notebook sticking out of your pocket, labeled ‘Memoranda’ came from a GSA supply room somewhere, not a Barnes and Noble. And your foliage green Camelbak is a bit niche.”
“Ouch, though well done, Sherlock. I guess I’ll have to be more careful. Shocking mis-step on my part for someone who is supposed to observe things. Well, not observe, as such, but take note.”
“And what is it you do?”
“I’m an affective cartographer.”
“Well, I should hope so. It would be a bit pointless to be an in-effective cartographer. No end of getting lost.”
“Not effective. Affective. It’s different. I don’t go to where things are, to measure height and distance and whatever. I go to where places are imagined, to measure dreams and images and stories.”
“That sounds like an affectation.”
“You have no idea. My organization actually has an Affect Based Operations officer, and my work is supposed to support his. We create no end of problems for our Epistemology Manager.”
“It’s like a Knowledge Manager in a regular organization, but different.”
Chandler squinted at Fowler. “You remind me remarkably of someone I met very recently in Pakistan.”
“In appearance or affect?”
“Definitely affect. So what is this ‘different’ organization you work for?”
“Actually, I’m not working for them right now. I’m doing some contract piecework for the Center of Extraordinariness in Miami. They’ve gotten some pretty significant additional government grants after their work on the Terrorist Typology.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Really? It’s quite the rage in some circles for its out-of-the-box approach. I think I have the executive summary somewhere in my bag. It’s kind of a calling card, and fun at parties.”
Fowler unzipped one of the long pockets and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. Chandler struggled to read it, despite the bone rattling shudders of the car rolling over potholes, and the dust seeping through the windows.
Boria’s Terrorist Typology
The principle types of Terrorists are:
- Terrorists that have black hair.
- Terrorists that are shorter than average.
- Swimming terrorists.
- Those that drink coffee.
- Those that have broken a bone.
- The Irish
- Those that drive too slow in the left lane.
- Terrorists that have children.
- Those that cannot be photographed.
“It makes more sense when you read all the background detail. But at least the summary gives you a general sense of the thing.” Fowler placed the document back in its pocket.
“Quite. And is that what you’re working on now?”
“No, this project is a map.”
“An affective map?”
“Kind of. The COE is interested in all kinds of alternative mapping strategies. I got this job when I showed them a map I made of Calcutta, organized by where you could find tolerable toilets, if you found yourself in sudden desperate need. Now we’re working on a map of the War on Terror.”
“That doesn’t sound terribly alternative.”
“It’s being drawn at one-to-one scale.”
“I imagine it’s a bitch to fold.”
The taxi turned south off the Ring Road and down Maharajgunj. To the left, the new American Embassy loomed in ochre granite, like a post-modern Crusader fortress glowering over the cityscape behind.
“Charming bit of strategic messaging there,” Fowler observed.
“How do you mean?”
“Well, nothing says ‘evil empire’ like a blood red castle. I mean, Darth Vader could live in that thing. And it’s the standard model we’re now building all around the world. Nice. Though, actually, that’s precisely the sort of thing I’m supposed to be mapping.”
“Could be worse. That silly embassy down in Delhi looks like it came out of a 1970s sitcom. I’d rather be thought of as Darth Vader than Greg Brady.”
The car slowed to a stop in the grinding traffic which choked the narrow road, and the driver climbed out of the car to shout curses at a cart which had overturned ahead.
Fowler appeared to be stretching a kink out of his neck, turning to look to the side and then back. Very quickly his body seemed to stiffen, and he leaned quickly forward and began pulling at the zippers on his pack.
“Speaking of Darth Vader, I have a very bad feeling about this,” Fowler said.
“Listen to me,” Fowler’s voice had changed as dramatically as his composure. Tight now, low and full of urgency. “Listen very closely. Your life most likely depends upon it. You need to get out of this car and start walking south. Now. Don’t run, but don’t fuck around. About a mile down the road on the right, you’ll find a Radisson. Very standard McBox hotel. Check in, take the elevator to your room and then come back down the stairs and leave. About a mile further down, you’ll find Thamel – kind of a tourist slum. Check in to the Kathmandu Guest house if you can, though any crappy little dive will do, if no one’s looking for you there.”
“Why would they be looking for me?”
“Because you were with me. Sorry about that, I’m not actually the best guy to share a cab with. But at least you won’t have to split the fare. Anyway, here’s a map showing you where to go.”
Chandler squinted at the sweat stained piece of crumpled paper. “Dude, this is a map of the places where you like to buy shoes.”
“Fuck, sorry. Take this one.” Both hands plunged into the back pack, one hand came out with a folded tourist map, the other was gripped tightly around a dull black pommel.
“Umm, is that what I think it is?”
“Seriously. Go. Now!”
Too confused to argue further, Chandler hauled himself up out of the sagging back seat and into the blaring, belching clamor of traffic. Winding his way across to the sidewalk, he risked a quick glance back up the road to see what had so fundamentally altered his companion. Nothing but smoking buses, and a long snake of motorcycles and scooters, racing erratically around the larger and less agile vehicles. As he stepped up into the shade of a small convenience store, its window shelves littered with Kit Kats and the salacious covers of the Indian version of Maxim, a screaming came across the street. Then a crash. Then two small popping sounds, almost lost in the more general cacophony.
Chandler looked back, the scene captured in a that-just-happened still life. The rear door of the taxi hung loosely from a single hinge, a blue motor scooter twisted up against the frame. A glittering trail of broken glass led forward from that point to the trunk of the next car forward, across which sprawled a body wrapped in an Adidas track suit, a shotgun hanging from a makeshift sling around its’ neck. Fowler stood to the side, his backpack over his shoulders and the pistol clutched in his right hand. Moving smoothly and steadily, he stepped forward and emptied three more rounds into the Adidas track suit. He stuffed the pistol into his pocket and produced a palm sized camera, snapped a few images of the scene, and then turned and walked away into an adjoining alley. Not running, but moving quickly, as if he were possibly late for a lunch appointment. Chandler, on the other hand, ran.