Quigley and Chuck mounted the steps to the Boardwalk at Kandahar Air Field, entering welcome shade at the corner near the French Café and the TGIF.
“Christ!” Chuck sputtered, choking on his iced chai latte as he ducked a misdirected sword thrust.
The inadvertent attacker spun on one Asics shorn heel, and took another swing at his proper opponent with a grunt and the clash of steel. The swords weren’t terribly sharp; but, fashioned from the legs of a cargo platform, they were heavy enough to do real damage. The first sergeants were always trying to cut this crap out, but the legs from folding chairs were always getting bent during a duel and so weren’t much fun. The rest of the costumes were a bit of ad hockery cobbled together from ponchos, dining hall trays, and some of the more exotic pieces of unauthorized tactical gear for sale at the German shop. The Society for Creative Anachronism, Kandahar Guild, was not perhaps the most macho hobby, but it seemed as good a way as any other to pass a slow Friday afternoon in the middle of the war.
At least they were getting exercise, which is more than you could say for those fighting in other campaigns of the faux war further down the Boardwalk, generally clustered in the areas where you could best poach on the Canadian forces’ MWR wireless signal. The officers, of course, were generally playing strategy games like Civilization IV , while the junior enlisted were engrossed with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. The console versions in the MWR hanger were more fun, but the lines were interminable. But both provided respite from the actual modern war a stone’s throw away.
Even closer than that, at the moment. The siren wailed to call the alert for incoming rocket or mortar fire. Other than one or two new arrivals, who complied with their in-processing instructions and dropped to the ground, no one else seemed to react (making the newcomers especially sheepish as they stood and dusted themselves off).
“Let’s stop at Tim Horton’s,” Chuck said. “I want a donut.”
“The line is always too long.”
“It’ll just be a minute.”
Quigley scowled and slumped against the railing. A young soldier sat on the bench next to him, head bent intently over his laptop as his fingers clacked away at the keyboard. A dwarf-elf thingy seemed to glide forward across the screen, spewing fire from its hands.
“What are you playing, son?” Quigley asked out of idle curiosity.
“Huh?” The solder did not look up.
“What’s that game?”
“World of War…fuck!”
“World of Warfuck? Strange name for a game.”
“No, World of Warcraft,” the soldier slammed a frustrated fist down on the bench. “But fuck! As in fuck, I can’t believe this. Two hundred and fifty dollars for a creeping hand?! I’m never going to be able to afford an iPod.”
“You’re trying to by a creeping hand iPod?”
“No.” With a sigh the soldier hit the pause button and looked up, shaking his shoulders as if to loosen muscle cramps. “Listen, in this game, more experienced players can collect cool stuff, like a creeping hand, but you have to play all the time to rank that high. So guys like me have to buy them from someone else in the game, but it costs real money. And so I can’t afford an iPod.”
“You just paid two-hundred and fifty dollars, real dollars, for a creeping hand in a video game?”
Shaking his head in resignation the shoulder turned back to the screen and hit the play button. “Yeah. Thank god I’m getting combat pay.”
“Okay, I’m ready to go,” Chuck announced, offering Quigley a greasy tube of sugar and dough. “Your pal’s in the Quonset hut, just the other side of the DFAC right?’
“Yeah, come on. I’m feeling a little crazier than usual.”
A few hundred yards further on, they swung open a plywood door, marked ‘MRC Contracting,’ and stepped from the blazing sun into merciful gloom and the hiss of air conditioning. As their eyes adjusted, they could see dozens of tables arranged in rows beneath the arc of corrugated steel which made up both walls and ceiling in a single rippled wave. Several score young men, of vaguely South Asian appearance and all wearing red baseball caps, sat tapping away at computer consoles. Quigley stepped forward and squinted to see make out the flickering images on the screens.
“Are they all playing World of Warcraft?” He asked in astonishment.
“They are , indeed,” a voice announced from the shadows. “Well, not playing really. They’re gold farming.”
“Gold farming?” Chuck asked.
“Yes, they grind away for hours at menial tasks in the video world to earn experience points and gather up items, which we then sell to other players at a very handsome profit. It’s almost better than opium farming, and far less hazardous.” A small, fit man in jeans and a t-shirt with a shock of jet black hair. “Anyway, you must be the famous Don. Ahmad spoke very highly of you and told me to offer any assistance you require. I’m Anup Thapa.”
Quigley accepted a handshake, and then turned back to the cavernous hall, shaking his head in confusion. “Why on earth do you have a battalion of guys playing video games in the middle of Kandahar? What is this?”
“This is serendipity, my friend. And a sharp eye for opportunity, if I do say so myself. You see, I came over as a security contractor, as many Nepalis do. But when my contract expired, I started doing odd jobs for Ahmad, who is a very creative entrepreneur, as you well know. I had noticed that many third party nationals here never departed after their contracts expired, either because they were forgotten about or they didn’t want to go. Given our backgrounds, you can see why. Here we have decent accommodations and steady meals at the dining facility, much better than some village life in Nepal or Bangladesh, especially when there’s fighting going on.”
“But how can you stay if you have no contracts?” Chuck asked.
“That’s the beautiful part,” Anup chuckled. “No one really keeps count, and once you have the necessary barracks and ration card, you basically disappear. By my calculation there are over 5,000 ghosts wandering around KAF. Now they can’t leave the wire, or someone will check their papers and catch on. But otherwise they’re quite unmolested, and I detected an underutilized resource. It took me a while to figure out a workable scheme, but once I heard how much those GIs were spending in video games, it didn’t take me long to put two and two together.”
“And the computers?”
“As you may have noticed, Ahmad has a complex, though profitable relationship with the ISAF shipping business. I think most of these fell off a truck on the way to Lashkar Gah. Anyway, I believe it is regarding a similar piece of misplaced property that you’ve come to see me. Why don’t we go into the office?”
Following Anup into a plywood pen, walled off from the wider chamber, Quigley produced a pink Hello Kitty envelope from his pack. Inside was a single piece of curling FAX paper, which he handed over to Thapa.
“You can read it, if you want,” Quigley said. “But what I’m really interested in is where it came from. Ahmad said you have bootleg access into the Kandahar network, and from there can get into SIPR-net or whatever. I need to run a database check of every Embassy and station code, every UIC signifier. I need to know who wrote this cable.”
11. EFFECTS ON THE AL QAEDA NETWORK. ASIDE FROM SEVERAL SAFEHOUSES IN KARACHI, MOST AQSL DO NOT CURRENTLY RESIDE IN LIKELY TARGET AREAS, AND SO WOULD NOT SUFFER THE IMMEDIATE IMPACTS OF ANY ACTUAL STRIKE. HOWEVER, MANY OF THEIR FINANCIAL FACILITATION OPERATIONS AND OTHER SUPPORT ACTIVITIES ARE CONDUCTED IN THE POPULATION CENTERS AND WOULD BE DESTROYED.
12. CUT OFF FROM THEIR SUPPORT STRUCTURES, AND EVEN THE MOST BASIC LIFE SUPPORT STRUCTURES WHICH SUSTAIN THE POPULATION IN THE FATA GENERALLY, AQSL WOULD BE ISOLATED BEYOND ANY REASONABLE REMEDIATION. FURTHER, THEIR ACCESS TO INGRESS/EGRESS ROUTES FROM THE CURRENT SANCTUARIES WOULD BE ALMOST ENTIRELY UNAVAILABLE FOR DECADES, DUE EITHER TO THE STRUCTURAL DAMAGE IMPOSED BY BLAST AND FIRE, OR THE ENDURING EFFECTS OF RADIATION. SIMPLY PUT, THEY WOULD WITHER AND DIE IN PLACE.
As the robin’s egg blue train car rattled into the siding, Lover held tight to the door rail and leaned halfway out into the already thick humidity of a Lucknow morning. The cabin stank of sweat, urine and cigarettes; and he had spent a restless night gasping for breath, rolling every few minutes to shift the damp spot where his skin stuck to the 2nd class sleeper’s plastic bunk mat. The train finally stopped, and he stepped off with a sigh of relief, feeling vaguely sea sick.
Dragging his black Pelican travel case behind him, Lover carefully stepped around and over the human excrement lining the railroad tracks and climbed up to the platform. From the chai-wallah cart by the exit, he bought a pack of Wills’ Navy Cut. Gleefully enjoying one of the developing world’s distinct pleasures, he lit up while still inside, and walked out into the parking lot, where colored plastic shopping bags fluttered from the fence like cheap Tibetan prayers flags, sending forlorn devotions to the gods of petty commerce.
Lover stared balefully at the screen of his iPhone, waiting in vain for bars to appear. The device was slightly smaller than the usual version, and held two different sim cards, so he could switch easily between two different “phones.” A Chinese knock-off, it was a UO special. His initial guidance had been simple: travel to Lucknow, and report in. The first part had been accomplished, but the second was now proving a challenge.
Just down the block, he noted a yellow hand painted sign for a public switch call office between a sweet shop and a tailor. Once ubiquitous and almost uniformly swarmed, these outfits had fallen on hard times as India went increasingly wireless. Inside, Lover found only a clerk asleep on a metal folding chair; and a cracked green phone with a knotted handset cord, looking like an antique from the last millennium. Which, in fact, it was.
After twelve rings, a disconnect, and seven more rings, the call finally went through to the number Lover had been given in Kabul. The voice on the far end cracked and sputtered through the static on the line, but he thought it sounded familiar.
“What? Hello? Um, I think I may have a wrong number. I’m trying to reach a Captain Jim Admiral.”
“This is him. You don’t think we answer the phone saying, ‘Hello, you’ve reached the super-secret organization that doesn’t exist.’ Where are you?”
“Just got off the train in Lucknow. So what’s next?”
“You get to work.”
“Okay, but I’m a little fuzzy on the details. How, exactly, am I supposed to catch a jinn?”
“How do you what?”
“Catch a jinn.”
“Why would you want to do that?”
“Ummm, because that’s why you sent me here?”
“That’s ridiculous. There’s no such thing as jinn’s. What, do you think we’re stupid?”
“That was a rhetorical question, Not-Major. Of course that wasn’t true. That was just a cover story.”
“A cover for what?”
“Your real mission.”
“I can’t tell you.”
“It’s a SAP.”
“But I’m read into the SAP.”
“It’s a different SAP.”
“So how am I supposed to know what I’m supposed to do?”
“Right now, you don’t actually have to do anything. We have an operation on going, and we need you to assess its’ impact.”
“What’s the operation?”
“You don’t have a need to know.”
“Than how am I…..”
“Listen, Lover, enough whining. We’re an effects based operation, and you need to get on with it.”
“I thought we were affect based.”
“That, too.” And the line went dead.
Flummoxed, Lover paid the clerk and collected his receipt. Crossing the street, he sat down at a dingy café, ordered a coke and lit another cigarette while he reflected on his next steps. The first, at least, was to find a decent hotel and wash away the railway grime. Reaching into his bag he pulled out a dog-eared Frommer’s guide which Admiral had given him, and flipped through to the Lucknow chapter. He hadn’t noticed before, but a soiled Kleenex was pressed between the pages there, and the entry on the British Residency had been highlighted in yellow ink, with the initials UO neatly printed in the margins. Not something which could be read as actual guidance, but it was the closest thing he had, and he began to plan his movements accordingly.
Freshly washed in his room at the Taj Residency hotel, and fortified by two large pegs of Johnny Walker, Lover took a cab across town to the site of the old British Residency. The original buildings had been well preserved, and loomed in incongruous gothic splendor against the Lucknow skyline. A sort of imperial version of the Alamo, the residency had been an isolated British bastion during the Sepoy Revolt of 1857. Surrounded by thousands of rebels, the residency staff had manned the barricades for months, slowly surrendering to starvation and constant bombardment before finally being rescued by General Campbell’s relief column. The British had preserved the site as an icon of their victory in what they termed the Indian Mutiny. Since independence, the meaning of those events was re-imagined as the First War of Independence, and the Residency was preserved for completely different iconic purposes. It was now a pleasant city park, quiet, green and peaceful amid the chaos of the streets outside, populated by couples strolling side-by-side and children running across the grass. Lover could not quite embrace the serenity, however. Aside from the general air of weirdness associated with his “mission,” such as it was, his spidey-sense had been tingling all day. While he couldn’t swear he was being followed, his peripheral vision seemed to flutter with half-glimpsed silhouettes, in a pattern which increased in frequency as the evening shadows spread. He literally almost jumped when he suddenly heard a voice behind him.
“A pleasing afternoon to you, good sir. You are coming to Lucknow for tourism?
Lover turned sharply, his stomach suddenly feeling loose and fluid. Though perhaps that was the curry lunch. He definitely had to remember that while traveling in India, it was much wiser to smoke more and eat less. “Who are you?”
“I am sorry. Sir is startled I think?” The man was short and slightly built, wearing plastic flip-flops and an open collared blue dress shirt, un-tucked over polyester slacks. Deep set Punjabi eyes, jaundiced with a steady diet of Royal Stag whiskey, stared out above a curled mustache, outrageously too large for the narrow face.
“No. I’m just..I’m…”
“You should not be worried. This park is very safe place. See, even the little children are playing.”
“No, no, I’m fine. I’m just trying to concentrate on my book.” He brandished the travel guide to the Residency he had picked up, and very pointedly began to read as he turned away from his new associate.
“Good sir. There is no needing for a book. I am best guide and am coming here every day. I can tell sir all.”
“Sorry. Thanks very much, but I can’t afford a guide.” Lover picked up his pace, trying to walk away, but his shadow followed closely.
“No, no, no. I am guiding for free. I am practicing English. You will do favor to me.”
“Seriously, I appreciate it. But I’m just kind of trying to relax and be alone for a while. Besides, your English is very good.”
“Sir is making some fun at me.” The man seemed to stiffen and his face turned hard. “You Britishers and Americans are always coming to my country and thinking they are so great and important. You do not talk to Indians. You stay in five star hotel and take pictures and say you see India, but…”
“Okay, okay, fine. You can walk along with me, if you like.”
“Thik hain. One thousand rupees, ok?”
“I thought you said it was free.”
“My auntie is very sick, and her medicine is very expensive. And you are American, and Americans are rich.”
“I might seem rich to you, but I’m not at home. America is very expensive. Five hundred rupees.”
“Seven hundred rupees. How much salary are you receiving?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“You have car?”
“How much is it costing?
“Listen, I thought you were going to tell me about this place.”
They were now approaching the main building complex, and Lover tried to follow along on his map as they traced the maze of interlocking walls.
“Yes, yes. This is most important place. Most brave Indian independence war. Many Britishers were killed here by bahadur Nana Sahib. You see window there? Through that window came cannonball that cuts Britisher woman clean in two. You are married?”
“Huh? No. I was, once, but we got divorced.”
“That is sad. You need woman for the sex. But in America you can sex all the time, even if not married. Do you sex often?”
“That’s a very personal question.”
“How many women you sex? You sex Indian women? This park is good place for sex. Look.”
Lover’s eyes followed the pointing finger, and then he suddenly blushed and turned away. Apparently, the leafy quiet was good for purposes beyond a friendly stroll. Only partly concealed by the shadows, a young couple were frantically coupling in the corner of a stone shed where, according to Lover’s guidebook, a platoon of Sikh infantry, loyal to their British officers, had been butchered to the last man.
“Do you work at Embassy?”
“What? No, I work…someplace else.”
“But maybe you can write letter for me? Say I am very good and knowledgeable and polite guide. I am trying three times for American visa. I think your letter helps.”
“It doesn’t work like that. Besides, a letter from me wouldn’t help. I’m nobody, just here as a tourist.”
“I think sir is fibbing. I am knowing sir is not a tourist. But maybe sir is friendly after sexing. I know a place and very pretty girls are soon coming. My wehicle is nearby.”
“What’s a wehicle? Are you Chekov or something?
“Very best wehicle. Tata SUV.”
Lover’s spidey-sense was suddenly on full alert. “Listen, cut the Gunga Din crap. Who are you, really?”
“All right, let us cut the Gunga Din crap.” The voice suddenly altered to precise pronunciation, with the slightest British lilt. “My name is Vikram Singh, Major Lover, and you are coming with me. But I will waive the seven hundred rupee fee.”
Lover didn’t even see the taser, before he found himself twitching in the dust.
What came next was a blur of plastic twist-tie cuffs, and the inside of a Tata’s trunk, choking on diesel exhaust for what seemed like hours. When the car came to a stop, Lover’s head was spinning, and in the darkness he thought he saw the façade of a baroque Italian country mansion, before he was dragged down a set of stairs. Then a blow to the head, and mercifully, oblivion.
When his senses finally fully returned, he wished they hadn’t. The knot on the back of his head probably hurt terribly, but he couldn’t tell since it was completely overpowered by the agonizing pain in his shoulders and arms, which were raised above him and lashed with a rope that, presumably, hung from the ceiling. The height had been carefully managed so that his tip toes could barely reach the floor, and he was forced to choose between arching his feet till they spasmed with cramps, or sagging to take the weight on his arms till they threatened to pop from their sockets. Being stark naked didn’t help matters much.
“Oh, good. You’re awake. I have so been looking forward to speaking with you properly, Major Lover.” Vikram Singh’s appearance had changed, along with his voice. He stood straighter now, in slim cut dark jeans and a black t-shirt, poised and athletic in carriage as he paced around the room, cradling a striped gray kitten in his arms.
“I’m not a major,” Lover croaked.
“Oh, don’t be coy. I’m afraid we know everything about you.”
“Then you would know I’m not a major anymore.”
“It’s a long story.” Lover coughed, wincing as the motion put even greater tension on an already overstretched rib cage. “Where am I?”
“Oh, this place? We are in a classroom of Le Martiniere, a famous boys’ college from the days of the Raj. Some of the pupils even fought in the defense of the Residency, where I met you. Sadly, enrollment has declined over the years, and they have excess space. So I’ve made an arrangement with the headmaster, as I occasionally have need for someplace discreet. Besides, it has emotional resonance for me, as the school attended by Rudyard Kipling’s Kim to whip the native out of him and make him more British. As a boy, growing up in Lahore, I often climbed on the Zam Zama gun where Kim was supposed to play, and the story has always found a soft spot in my heart.”
“Lahore, huh? So you’re ISI.”
“Oh, no, no, no. Quite the opposite in fact,” Singh smiled and stroked the kitten till it began to purr and burrow deeper into the crook of his elbow. “I am actually a double agent working for both the Indian Research and Analysis Wing and the Israeli Mossad.”
“Well, what do you do in a position like that?”
“Before I was diverted to go after you, I provided training and assistance to the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan.”
“Seriously? The TTP, as in the Sunni extremists who want to overthrow the government of Pakistan and establish a caliphate?”
“Just so. The Jewish – Hindu – radical Islamist Jihadi nexus is poorly understood, but I assure you it is quite powerful. Ninety percent of Pakistanis believe this to be true anyway.”
“Sounds like important work. So why were you diverted?”
“We have to stop what you’re trying to do.”
“You know what I’m trying to do?”
“Of course. We have excellent sources.”
“Would you mind telling me, then? I’m actually a bit perplexed, myself.”
“Very clever, and charmingly modest. But no, your program is compartmentalized enough that if I revealed what I know, you would instantly identify my source.”
Lover began to laugh, an ugly, gurgling sound that hurt even more than coughing. “Wait a minute, you don’t really know anything, do you?”
“Well, neither do you.”
“Oh. Right. Fair enough, so.”
“As pleasant as this conversation has been, though, we really do not have all night. Back to work, then.” Vikram stopped pacing, raised the kitten from his arms, and began to shake it till it started to mew and hiss.
“What are you doing to that cat? I mean, it’s a great sinister Dr. No fashion accessory, but still.”
“This kitten is not a fashion accessory, but a tool. And it is meant not for me but for you.” Grabbing the now very riled up kitten by the scruff of the neck, Vikram took an underhanded swing and tossed the animal at Lover’s head.
Spiraling and flailing, the bundle of fur landed on his shoulders and promptly dug its’ tiny claws into his flesh. Gaining traction, it scratched and scurried its way down his naked body back to the stability of the floor.
“Fuck! Oww…god….why are you doing that?”
“What is Jabberwocky?” Vikram shouted.
Confused and wincing with pain. “What is what? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Vikram picked up the kitten and repeated the process twice more, the animal growing more agitated with each repetition, till Lover’s skin was crisscrossed with a grid of shallow, but razor sharp cuts. “What is Jabberwocky?!”
“Stop goddamit! I don’t know what Jabberwocky is! A poem? Motherfucker! A Monty Python movie?”
The kitten had grown wise to the course of events, and now dodged and weaved across the floor and beneath the desk to escape Vikram’s clutches. He had to chase it on his hands and knees before he could manage one last desultory toss. As the kitten scampered away to cower by the door, Vikram unzipped a child’s floral patterned lunchbox on the desk and drew out a single green vegetable.
“Do you know what this is?” Vikram asked, his voice dropping to a menacing hiss.
“Umm, a green bean?”
“This, my friend, is pain. Pain the likes of which you have never known.” Vikram clutched the chili pepper in his fist and began to squeeze. “I will ask you for the last time. What is Jabberwocky? What are your people planning to do?”
“Honestly, I swear to god I don’t know. I don’t even know who these people are, let alone what they’re doing.” His eyes were wide with fright, but they suddenly opened wider with unspeakable pain, as if the orbs were struggling to escape a body wracked with horrifying agony, while Vikram allowed the crushed chili juice to drip from between his fingers and into the lattice of kitten wounds.
Lover was suddenly blinded by a flash of brilliant light, and an ear shattering explosion. He thought he recognized the smell of gunpowder just before his world went entirely black.
The last patrons were walking down the steps from Tom and Jerry’s bar, as Chandler finished his fourth Carlsberg forty-ouncer just before closing time. Between the beer and the plate of momos he had downed, his nerves – deeply shaken by the day’s events – had finally begun to settle. As Fowler had suggested, Chandler had checked in to the Radisson and promptly departed by the door next to the casino. And none too soon, as he had seen three police cars and half a dozen uniformed men swarming into the lobby, while he darted out the side. Duly cautioned, he kept to side streets and alleys as he made his way south to Thamel. He repeatedly got lost within the narrow rabbit warren of twisting lanes and random dead ends, probably covering two miles or more in his effort to traverse a distance one quarter of that. The Kathmandu Guest House had been full, but he had found a suitably seedy hotel nearby. So seedy, in fact, that he couldn’t bear hiding inside. Steeling himself to the risk of detection, he had gone out and mixed with the thronging tourists before finding refuge in this second story bar. Tom and Jerry’s was also pretty seedy, nearly as seedy as his hotel, but they had booze, and that compensated for a lot.
But Tom and Jerry’s was closing, and Chandler needed to get moving to make his rendezvous. Though TV broadcasts and chatter in the bar had been consumed with the shooting in Maharajgunj, aside from the incident at the Radisson, he had noticed no signs that he had been associated with that event, and so he judged he could brave the late night streets with little danger of police interference. Not that police interference was his biggest worry right now. He was embarked upon a course to rendezvous with a stranger in the middle of the night in a strange city for purposes he little understood. And for reasons he understood even less. Has life had always been a bit directionless, swinging from point to point in more or less random goat leaps. But even for him, accepting Quigley’s request to make this trip had been rather more random than usual.
And for what? To exchange a slightly wonky pocket watch for a piece of paper? At least, he presumed he was carrying Quigley’s watch. The wild eyed man had simply given him a sealed box, and made him swear not to open it for fear of the consequences. For all Chandler knew, it could be crack cocaine or uranium 235. He was just glad airport security and customs hadn’t pressed him on it. Adding to the uncertainty, Quigley had refused to explain what was contained in the document which he was intended to procure, insisting the contents were too earth shattering to bear. Finding himself accidentally caught up in a broad daylight shoot-out just as he got to town wasn’t much helping his sense of unease. Someone had been trying to kill Fowler. Would they believe Chandler was his accomplice and be looking for him now?
He had to stop thinking like this. Chandler waved over the bartender, and for an extra one hundred rupee tip secured a double shot of whiskey just before they chained the doors shut. Properly medicated now, he descended the steps, just the tiniest bit wobbly, and out into the street. He had to weave along for a few blocks to the intersection where the Thamel lanes opened up into the streets of Kathmandu proper. Despite the late hour, there were plenty of taxis parked here outside a series of girlie bars, which still throbbed with music and light. Briefly intrigued by what the widely advertised “shower dances” might constitute, Chandler slipped into a cab and asked for Pathan Durbar Square. The meter was broken, of course, and he knew he was going to get robbed on the fare; but at this point he just didn’t care.
The streets at this hour were almost free of traffic, and they made good time speeding south. Between the booze, the quiet, and the cool breeze which blew through the window, Chandler was actually feeling comparatively relaxed. Better than he had all day. That sensation quickly fled, the moment he stepped out of the cab and confronted the square before him. Pathan Durbar Square was a historic district, a little over a block on each side, and populated by medieval shrines and temples, scattered like chess pieces across a board of cobblestone. The pool of dim street lights faltered just at the line of chains which blocked wheeled vehicles from the pedestrian-only square, and beyond was deep, almost tangible darkness. Chandler could only navigate forward by looking up at where the black spires of ancient buildings thrust against the dim backlight of the sky, looming like living things, their surfaces squirming with the undulating forms of the Hindu pantheon. Groping forward like a blind man, his hands finally latched onto the pedestal of a shrine, and he leaned against it, breathing deeply and trying to slow his racing heartbeat. Random footsteps in the distance. The brief flutter of a pigeon or bat winging through the night. Silence again.
Quigley’s instructions for making the rendezvous had been quite precise. Once inside Pathan Square, at exactly 11:30PM, Chandler was to light a cigarette; smoke it for one minute; and extinguish it. He would repeat this procedure every five minutes until contact was made. Checking his Casio G-shock, he noted there were three minutes remaining till kick-off, so he reached into his bag to make sure the box was ready to hand, and pulled out a pack of Camel Lights. He didn’t actually smoke, but hoped a “light” brand would make the experiment more palatable.
11:30. The plastic lighter flared, and Chandler drew in a breath of smoke, choking as his throat burned. For one minute, he tried to keep it lit by alternately blowing into the cigarette and taking the tiniest gasps he could manage. He extinguished the cigarette, grinding it out under his heel, and waited.
More footsteps approaching, but then they faded away again. The trickle and splash of water somewhere nearby.
11:35. Chandler went through the process again.
Then three more times. Still nothing, and he was beginning to feel sick and light-headed as midnight approached. He thought he could hear the scrape of metal being dragged along the cobblestones like Freddy Krueger’s nails, but in the echo chamber of the square, he couldn’t tell whether the source was near or far. Chandler was getting seriously creeped out, and was just on the edge of abandoning the entire enterprise, when he heard a rush of running feet, and then felt an explosion of his own breath forced out as something long, narrow and hard smashed across his abdomen. He tried to yell, but nothing came out as he doubled over in pain, just as another blow rained down across his back. Staggering, Chandler fell to the ground, and tried to curl into the fetal position to avoid the boots kicking into his head and sides over and over and over again.
Finally, the assault came to an end, with Chandler bleeding and gasping on the ground. He could hear a clang, as what sounded like a steel bar clattered to the broken pavement, and then the rustle of strange hands pawing through his bag.
“Where’s the fucking watch?” A voice growled.
Chandler could only groan in response, then blink and squint as a flashlight suddenly switched on, seeming to blaze in the otherwise absolute night. He could not see the face behind the lamp, but watched as a pair of gloved hands picked up his passport and flipped through the pages.
“Wait a minute,” the voice said. “Goddamit! You’re not Jack Tierney!”
“No,” Chandler coughed, tasting blood. “But I get that a lot.”
The gloves tossed the passport to the ground and returned to the pockets of his satchel. Another rush of feet emerged from the distance, and then suddenly the flashlight was rolling randomly across the uneven cobblestones. Chandler couldn’t see what was happening, aside from a few surreal images as the light randomly passed over two struggling figures. But he could hear. Thick, sickening blows hammering into flesh, over and over. It was a stomach turning sound, but far less so, at least, when it was happening to someone else. Then, again, silence, broken only by the sound of three men breathing heavily in the darkness.
“How do you like that, comrade?” A familiar voice spat in the darkness. “Fucking Maoists.”
The flashlight stopped rolling, and with a quick jerk, flipped upwards to reveal a face.
“Holy shit,” Chandler gasped weakly. “Fowler!”
Fowler grinned quickly, then dropped the light as he reached down to help Chandler to his feet. “Figured you would be happy to see me.”
“But what are you doing here?”
“I might ask you the same thing. I’m working, actually. The Pathan Palace is one of my research sites. It was completely rebuilt after being destroyed by an earthquake in 1934, and there are some fascinating resonances left over. Lucky for you I happen to prefer working at night to avoid interference. I just hope I didn’t break my resonator while I was taking care of your friend over there.”
“My resonator. It’s critical for affective mapping.” Fowler turned the light down to illuminate his left forearm, where he wore two small metal devices attached with a strip of duct tape. A tangle of wires ran from one box down to three black bands wrapped around his fingertips. “It pairs a portable GPS with a device based on lie-detecting equipment to measure emotional states based on perspiration and pulse rate. With this data, I can have a precise record of my emotional state matched to a ten digit grid coordinate. Looks a little scuffed up, but it’ll probably be okay. What about you?”
“Pretty much the same. Scuffed up, but I’ll live.”
“Lucky, I’d say. That guy could have really done a number on you. But this scene doesn’t really scream ‘random mugging.’ What was going on?”
“It’s a long story, that frankly doesn’t make much sense, but I was supposed to trade a watch for a piece of paper from this guy. Guess he decided just to take the watch and keep the piece of paper.”
“What kind of watch?”
“A special watch.”
“Special, like a secret agent watch?”
“Something like that.”
“Ooohh. Was it a Rolex Submariner? I always preferred the classic James Bond, but people are always getting the wrong one with the bubble date. Sean Connery’s was the plan-faced one. I know because I freeze-framed Thunderball to make sure.”
“No, it wasn’t a Rolex.”
“Omega then? Not the faggy one that Pierce Brosnan wore, I hope. But the Daniel Craig Seamaster is cool. I got one, but I picked the one with the orange bezel, rather than black, so I wouldn’t seem like a desperate fanboy.”
“No, it wasn’t an Omega. Look, it’s really complicated. Could we talk about this later? I’ve had a really, really long day.”
“Too right, brother. Anything else you want to with this shithead before we take off?” Fowler walked over and gave the groaning bundle another fierce kick.
“No, no. That’s alright. I think you’ve taught him a lesson.”
“Yeah, but you were supposed to make an exchange right? If he was going to rob you instead, I think it’s karmically cool to return the favor.”
“That’s not a bad idea.” Chandler bent over, and batting away protesting hands, rifled through his attacker’s pockets until he produced a long, thin envelope and tucked it into his satchel. “I’ll read it later. But right now, I just want to get the hell out of dodge.”
“You and me both. They’re out for my blood here. That guy I capped this morning?”
“Yeah, about that, I was meaning to ask…”
“That’s not important right now,” Fowler waved away the question. “What is important is that the guy’s family already has a website up with my picture on it as the killer, and they’re tacking up fliers all over town. You need to be careful, in case someone got your picture, too. They figure a cowboy like that must be American, so they’ve already started a protest vigil outside the U.S. Embassy. They’re even fasting unto death.”
“Fasting unto death?”
“Well, they take the ‘fasting’ part in rotating shifts, so nobody really gets much more than slight bit peckish. But still. Say, you know what? Maybe we should team up.”
“Well, everyone needs a sidekick, and I haven’t had one in a while.”
“Why do I have to be the sidekick? Couldn’t you be mine?”
“Well, first off, you’re the one who just got his ass kicked. Second off, I’m the one who saved your ass. And third off, I’m the one with a gun.”
“You make a compelling case.”