Chandler lay back in the rickshaw, gasping as he melted into the green plastic cushion. He had run through a half-dozen exotic intestinal parasites in the past week, and every time the bike-drawn cart jolted over yet another pot hole or crack in the pavement, he was pretty sure his insides were going to empty onto his outsides in a wet and pungent flood. All around him, squat concrete block buildings, palm fronds and lurid Kit Kat billboards shimmered in the pre-monsoon heat haze, and every breath felt like inhaling a glass of hot water. It was like India, but more so. Only much, much quieter; and while the streets were full of animals, bicycles and pedestrians, the only cars to be seen were parked in a long rows along the shoulder.
“Tell me again, why can’t we get a cab?” Chandler moaned plaintively. “Something with air conditioning, preferably, or at least something which moves at more than three miles an hour.”
Fowler lit a cigarette, his eyes squinting in the blazing sun as he looked backwards and forwards, scrutinizing the shop fronts. “No petrol,” he said in a clipped voice, clearly distracted by looking for whatever he was looking for.
“What do you mean, no petrol? We rode down here in a bus.”
“That was probably the last of it. There was about three days supply on hand when the strike hit on Thursday. When that happens, they just use it up until it’s all gone, and then…well…here we are.”
“So there’s no petrol anywhere?”
“Not anywhere in Nepal there’s not.”
“The Indians stopped shipping it.”
“Because the Nepalis didn’t pay for it.”
“Because the government is broke. Well, partly because of that. The government’s always broke, actually, but the fuel usually comes anyway.”
“So why did it stop now?”
“The Maoist Interior Minister directed the police to move all the border posts exactly two meters south. Not sure why precisely. Probably just to make a point, so the Indians are making a point right back.”
“Jesus, dude!” Fowler shouted in exasperation. “You’re worse than my seven year old nephew. I don’t know why. Check that weird watch of yours. Why does India set their standard time zone 30 minutes off the global standard increment, just to be different? Why does Nepal set their time 15 minutes off of Indian time, just to be different? It’s just what they fucking do, all right?”
Fowler suddenly sat up straight in his seat, casting aside his cigarette and almost pointing like a bird dog catching the scent of prey. A really remarkably, indescribably awful scent. Like a sewer and a slaughterhouse combined, but worse. “Mut bal…nai kare…fuck, I can’t remember, just stop!”
Fowler grabbed the driver by the shoulder and jumped down, dashing into a shadow enshrouded shop from which emerged the horrible smell and an irregular cacophony of shrieks. Chandler just lay there, eyes closed and wondered whether it would be better to try and find a latrine somewhere, squat in an alley, or just soil himself and die now. Before he could decide, Fowler reappeared, carrying a sack of shrieking cacophony with him.
“What the hell is that?” Chandler asked, the noise already launching a piercing headache on type of everything else. Oh good, he thought.
“It’s a goose,” Fowler answered.
“One hesitates to be overly curious, but why did you get a goose?”
“OK, you know I think we might be starting to fall into a pattern here. Maybe we could avoid that if you would explain before I have to…”
“Ask why I have a goose for snakes? It’s because snakes fucking fear geese like the wrath of god. You know that Riki Tiki Tavi shit? Well, a mongoose has nothing on an actual goose when it comes to kicking cobra ass. Even better, geese rarely have to actually do any cobra ass kicking because they have superior psyop. One honking goose, and every snake within ear shot will be slithering away as fast as their scaly bellies will take them. I wouldn’t take one step into the jungle without a goose.”
“Fair enough, but why would we want to take one step into the jungle in the first place? I mean, this road is pretty crappy, but it is a road. And you can see the border from here, it’s less than half a mile away.”
“Well, we have to get out of Nepal sharpish, but we can’t go through the border crossing, so we’ll have to trek around through the jungle. The police will certainly be on the lookout for me; and unless we’re very lucky, someone else might already be on the lookout for you as well. Frankly, they’re the ones that worry me, even more so than snakes.”
“Why would anyone be looking for me?”
“Have you read that paper you picked up in Kathmandu? The one you almost got rolled for?”
“Yeah, but it reads like nonsense to me. I almost threw it away.”
Fowler sat up straight, his voice almost panicked, “Oh god, please tell me you’re fucking with me. Where is it?”
Chandler pulled it from his satchel, the paper wet and soggy with sweat. “Alright all ready. Calm down. Hear it is, if you’re so worried.”
18. DELIBERATE EXECUTION OF SUCH A PROGRAM OF ACTION, WHILE PERHAPS ULTIMATELY DESIREABLE FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF STRATEGIC EFFECT, WOULD CLEARLY EXCEED THE BOUNDS OF CURRENT LAW AND POLICY, IF NOT THE FUNDAMENTAL CONSTRAINTS OF HUMAN MORALITY. THE STUDY GROUP ASSESSES THE POSSIBILITY OF ACHIEVING CHANGES TO THOSE LAWS AND POLICIES – NOT TO MENTION FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN MORALITY – THROUGH LEGISLATIVE OR OTHER REMEDIES IS PRACTICALLY NIL.
19. THE STUDY GROUP HAS CONSEQUENTLY CHOSEN TO ABJURE FORMAL RECOMMENDATIONS, AND INSTEAD PURSUE NON-INSTITUTIONAL ALTERNATIVE MECHANISMS TO PURSUE THE AFOREMENTIONED COURSES OF ACTION. WHILE COGNIZANT OF THE ASSOCIATED RISKS, STRUCTURAL WEAKNESS AND MORAL HAZARD, THE STUDY GROUP ASSESSES THIS AS THE ONLY FEASIBLE APPROACH.
“See,” Chandler said. “It’s gibberish.”
“It’s all about context, brother,” Fowler folded the paper and tucked it into his pocket. “With the right context, that piece of paper is more valuable than you and the price of all your organs on the open market. Here, you carry the goose.”
“Why do I have to carry the goose?”
“Because you’re the side-kick. Remember? That’s what side-kicks do, they carry the geese.”
Khyber Pass, Afghanistan
“Jesus Christ, DQ,” Chuck complained. “Did something die inside you?”
“Don’t look at me, brother. A fox smells his own hole.”
“Seriously, that is some rancid shit. I can’t believe I can smell anything at all over your ass stink and the B.O.”
Neither man had washed in over a week, and crowded into the back of a white Toyota Corolla – the preferred vehicle of suicide bombers throughout South Asia – they had begun to drown in their mutual miasma. Opening the windows wasn’t much of an option either, since it just flooded the cab with choking Nangarhar dust.
“Why don’t we just get out?” Quigley asked. “We’ve been sitting here for more than two hours, and we’re probably not getting through today anyway. We could just walk.”
Chuck cast a despairing eye out over the motionless, endless stream of white Toyota Corollas – a veritable fleet of potential suicide bombers – punctuated by the teetering towers of gaudily painted jingle trucks. Quigley was right, they would never reach the Torkham Gate by nightfall. Besides, it would probably be easier to disappear into the teeming crowd back here among the scrap shops and sweet stalls.
“All right,” Chuck sighed. “Let’s go. Driver, chakosh!”
They didn’t really need to tell the driver to stop, since the car wasn’t moving anyway, but Chuck and Quigley piled out the back door and popped the trunk. They dragged their duffle bags out, dropping them in the dust as Quigley arranged his sword in the sling across his back, and the folding crossbow in the holster at his hip. It felt good to be out in the freedom of the Frontier. He had to be more discreet back in Kandahar and Kabul – in the U.S. embassy, you couldn’t even carry a regulation side-arm, and U.S. officers had to conceal their 9mm Berettas by shoving them in a bellows pocket to avoid offending the more delicate sensibilities of their State Department brethren, who were apparently uncomfortable with the fact that they were, in fact, in the middle of a war. But out here, you could pretty much do what you wanted, and Quigley’s sword was as likely to elicit approving nods as it was to provoke stares or action from the never-present authorities.
“Here you go,” Chuck tossed a thick wad of grimy notes onto the passenger seat.
“No!” The driver picked them up and threw them back. “No Afghanis! Dollars!”
“No dollars, only Afghanis!” Chuck shouted back. The exchange went on like this for several rounds, till Quigley noticed they were starting to attract attention from the scores of other drivers lounging about, idle and ready to generate a scene – to pass the time, if nothing else.
Rabble, rabble, rabble.
“Hey, man,” Quigley suggested quietly. “Maybe not the best time for us to draw a crowd.”
Chuck cast a quick glance around, then turned back to the driver. “No dollars, no Afghanis. Pakistani rupees ok?”
The driver paused, considering and then shrugged his shoulders.
“Give me five minutes,” Chuck told Quigley, before darting off into the line of petty merchants that thronged the shoulders of the border road. He was back in ten, shaking his head. “Motherfuckers, no one will take Afghanis for Rupees – only dollars.”
Reaching deeper into a pocket hidden inside his shirt, Chuck pulled out a sheaf of green notes, tossing them through the window and turning away in defeat.
“Come on,” Chuck said, leading them out of the traffic and behind a corrugated tin shed, stuffed with tires and inner tubes and smelling of glue. “Let’s get changed back here.”
Out of sight of too many prying eyes, Chuck opened one of the duffles and pulled out a bundle of cloth. He was already wearing a Miskatonic U. athletic department T-shirt, along with plastic flip-flops, and billowy Pathan trousers. He now slipped on a long, dirty salwar top, a wool pakhol hat and a camouflage cotton photographer’s vest.
“Wallah! Call me ‘Chuck of Pashtunistan,’” he said, pleased with the effect, then handed another bottle-blue bundle to Quigley. “Here, this one’s for you.”
Quigley shook open the bundle and scowled. “A burqa?”
“It’s an enormously effective disguise. Do you know how many times Osama Bin Laden has slipped out of a safe house wearing a burqa, just before we or the Paks could close in on him? Five. And I can swear to that, ‘cause I was there for three of them. If it’s good enough for the most wanted man in the world, it’s good enough for you.”
“But why do I have to be the woman?”
“Because you’re the most recognizable. You know, they had your picture all over the Frontier Post after that incident in Chitral last year. And you’re the one carrying all the shiny weapons. The locals might not care, but those will likely get a bit of attention from the border police, especially if any of the American advisors are hanging around.”
“But I’m more than two feet taller than you. It’ll look ridiculous.”
“It worked for Boris and Natasha.”
“I feel like Rocky the Flying Squirrel.”
“Did you know that monkeys are terrified by flying squirrels? Some monkey annoyance experts did a study on it.”
“Oh, never mind, just something a friend of mine told me once. Though I always wondered, where does that come up? Is there some ecosystem where monkeys and flying squirrels regularly interact?”
“Dude, either the sun is getting to you, or you’ve been breathing your own farts for too long.”
“Laugh it up, fuzzball. But wait till you crack the first one inside your lady bag – Karma’s a bitch. Now come on, let’s get going.”
Resigned to ignominy, Quigley pulled the blue shroud over his head, and Chuck manfully resisted the urge to fall to the ground laughing at the spectacle presented when the hem barely reached to DQ’s blue jean knees. Returning to the roadside, they rejoined the eastbound stream of pedestrians, shuffling slowly along until they approached the first crossing point which marked the “end” of Afghanistan. The line of cars remained completely stalled, but alongside that, another line of foot traffic moved haltingly forward to the guard shack where documents were checked. And alongside that, another line moved even more quickly toward the point where cash – rather than documents – changed hands. Chuck and Quigley joined this third line, and soon found themselves in the middle of “nowhere,” just as the crossing closed for the evening. “Out” of Afghanistan, but not quite “in” Pakistan, which was still a bit further on. Taking advantage of the confusion, Chuck pulled his blue ghost aside and down into a narrow, rock strewn wadi.
“Ow! Fuck! Crap!” Quigley shouted as he tripped and stumbled amongst the rocks, virtually blind behind his blue mesh screen. “I can’t see!”
“Shut up, and follow me. We just need to get over this ledge where we can’t be seen.” Chuck jumped down into a shallow depression, pulling Quigley with him in a smelly crash of torn fabric and twisted limbs. “There, you can relax and take off your hoodie.”
Quigley tore off the burqa with a snarl and began to massage a twisted ankle. “Thanks a lot, asshole. Now what?”
“Now we wait.”
“Wait for what.”
“Till the moon comes up and the guards get distracted.”
“What’s the distraction?”
“They’re Afghan guards, dude. Hash and little boys.”
“Oh. Okay. And then?”
“See that brick wall, the one with all the trucks behind it?”
“Ok, see that clump of small trees on the ridge? Follow that down the spur until you see the white house. Right below that.”
“Ok. Got it. So then, we’re going to steal one of those trucks?”
“No, but one of them has the answer you’re looking for.”
“How do you know?”
“Because it’s Tuesday.”
“And that tells us what?”
“On Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, our commo installation is in the Afghan customs impound yard.”
“And on Saturday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday?”
“Then it’s in the Pakistan customs impound yard, of course.”
“Of course. You know, I may be off my meds, but I’m not actually crazy.”
“Yes, you are. But that’s why I love you. See, the problem with really sensitive intelligence and communications gear is that you always have to put it ‘someplace.’ And unless ‘someplace’ is an American Embassy, or the belly of an aircraft flying around – both of which can be pretty constraining – ‘someplace’ is almost always going to be on someone else’s sovereign territory, subject to their physical interdiction and a variety of legal caveats. Right?”
“Fair enough. So?”
“Sooo…the trick is to find a “no place” to put stuff like that.”
“But this is someplace.”
“No, it’s not. Right now, we’re not in Pakistan, and we’re not in Afghanistan. We’re ‘no place,’ and so is our commo van.”
“How is that parking lot ‘no place?’”
Chuck smiled, “That’s the real genius of our plan. We actually used the fucked up bureaucracy here to our advantage. You see, that truck – which was originally hauling outbound ISAF equipment – was driving from Pakistan into Afghanistan. It had cleared the border late in the afternoon, so they put it in the Customs Holding lot – ‘no place.’ The next day, when it tried to cross into Pakistan, the Paks decided to screw with it because they were mad at the Americans for something. I don’t know if it was some yokel burning a Koran or South Park putting Mohammed in a bear suit. Whatever. Anyway, the Paks denied entry because they said the forms had changed overnight, and the driver didn’t have the new ones. They imposed a fine, which the driver couldn’t pay, and sent him back to Afghanistan. But now, rather than an export license, which was required when he left Afghanistan, he was supposed to have an import license to come back in. So the Afghans imposed a fine, and sent him back.
“It went on like that for weeks, back and forth without the right documents and racking up fees that would never be paid. One of our guys happened to overhear the truck owner complaining – in vain, I’ll note – at the Ministry of Borders and Customs, and he offered to buy the truck outright, on the spot, in cash. Over time, we replaced the tents and cots and whatnot with elements of our technical infrastructure. Now we have an extraordinarily sophisticated communications and intelligence system aside a vital strategic chokepoint, but not under any legal jurisdiction as it goes back and forth between the two Customs Holding Yards. We’ve kept this up for over three months now, and the fines are probably astronomical. But who cares, since we never plan to pay them?”
“Now that’s the kind of lunacy I can sign up for. So we just wait till no one’s paying attention, then just slip in and turn on the lights?”
“That’s the plan.”
Both men startled at this new voice, scrambling to bring weapons to bear as they turned around.
“Who’s there?” Chuck hissed. Quigley brandished his sword.
“Nain, nain,” answered a figure emerging from the shadows, grizzled in dirty salwar kameez and ratty turban. “You soldier?” He asked, glancing at their weapons.
“No, we’re tourists,” Chuck answered.
“Do we kill him?” Quigley whispered out of the side of his mouth.
“Not yet, he looks pretty harmless,” Chuck whispered, then turned back to their visitor. “What do you want?”
“I want…” the man began, coming closer. Suddenly, his eyes opened wide as the moonlight washed across Quigley’s face, and gnarled hands clapped in recognition and delight. “Don! Bahadur!”
“You know me?” Quigley asked.
“I told you, brother,” Chuck said. “Fucking everybody knows the great Don. You can’t be a six foot five white guy running around the Frontier with a sword and not get something of a rep.”
“Come, come, bharra Sahaab,” the man gestured with a “follow me” wave.
Chuck and Quigley shrugged at one another, then began to follow the bent figure deeper into the wadi until they came across a small, smoldering brush fire tucked into a cleft in the rock. The man crouched down, poking at the brush with a stick till bright, new flames sprang up, and he gestured for them to take a seat beside the fire. Then he pulled from another cleft a large canvas sack, and held it opened towards them.
“Bharra Sahaab want smoke?” he asked.
Chuck whispered, “He probably means hash. I would pass.”
“No, thank you,” Quigley answered.
“Want statue? Very old, much money.”
“You’ve got a girl in there?” Quigley asked, suddenly interested.
“DQ….” Chuck warned.
“OK,” DQ acknowledged. “No, no girl, thanks.”
Quigley was about to answer, when Chuck interrupted. “He’s trying to be hospitable. You might offend him if you don’t take something.”
“Sure,” Quigley finally said. “Drink OK, thank you.”
Grinning, the old man reached into the bag and pulled out an old plastic Pepsi liter bottle, the label worn and faded, and filled with clear liquid.
Forcing a smile, Quigley took the bottle and unscrewed the cap.
“Holy, motherfucking….” The rest of the expletive was lost in a fit of coughing. “I think it’s poison,” Quigley finally wheezed.
“Well, I guess we have two options,” Chuck said. “Either we hope you’re new admirer is a friend, and take our chances with this little Tea Party in the Hindu Kush. Or we have to take care of him before we’re discovered.”
Quigley stared at the little old man for a long moment, gripping the pommel of his sword as he looked into smiling, wizened features, eyes bright with delight. Then he relaxed and took a deep draw from the bottle. Another bout of coughing ensued as he handed it to Chuck.
“It is poison,” DQ gasped.
Chuck shrugged as he raised the bottle to his lips and tried not to breathe in. “You realize, we’ll probably pass out and then he’ll rob us blind. Or kill us and rob us blind.”
Quigley wiped away the tears now flooding from his stinging eyes. “Probably. At least I won’t have to smell your farts anymore.”
“Another swallow of this, and I won’t smell anything ever again, anyway.”
Ulan Bator, Mongolia
Lover moaned and buried his face in the pillow. The case was threadbare and smelled of bleach, and the cushion felt like it had been stuffed with socks. But it had been a long time since he had slept in a real bed with a real pillow, and he was reluctant to leave it.
Still refusing to open his eyes, he rolled over, reaching blindly to find the phone. Fumbling, he managed to get the handset to his ear.
“Hello?” His voice was thick and cracked with the aftertaste of too many cigarettes.
Wah, wah, wah, wah. The broken English made almost no sense, grinding painfully at the edges of an emerging headache.
“Yes, this is Chris Lover, room 312. What do you want?”
Wah, wah, wah, wah. Still gibberish, though the voice was beginning to recall to him events of the night before. Well, the night before, and this morning. He had stumbled in around five, just as dawn was breaking.
“No. No, wait, just tell them to go home.” He paused, squinting back against the pain throbbing in his temples as he listened to the voice that had begun to shriek at him from the other end of the line. “Fine, fine, OK. You don’t need to call the police. Just tell them to come up to my room and I’ll talk to them.”
The handset clattered back into its cradle, and Lover pulled the pillow over his head. Maybe if he hid under the blankets, the whole world would just go away.
“Who’s coming up?”
The voice made Lover start, rolling over till he fell out of the bed, tangled in sheets damp with drunk sweat. “What are you doing here?”
GT was sitting on the window bench, gazing out over the blank horizon, legs folded in the lotus position, her spine extraordinarily straight. Her hair was pulled up in a pony-tail, revealing a graceful neck that just cried out for a kiss. Too bad she was just so weird, Lover thought.
“I was meditating,” GT said.
“I can see that. But why are you meditating in my room? You’ve got your own.”
“I thought if you came back drunk, you might reconsider my proposition, but you just passed out.”
“We already had this discussion.”
“I know, I know. Actually, I came over because you have a better view, and my window just looks down into an alley behind the nightclub. It’s hard to sleep when the whole night is nothing but thumping bass music and the sound of drunk men beating their girlfriends. Plus, given our situation, I figured it was best if we stick together as much as possible.”
“What is our situation?”
“The usual. Serious trouble. So you should probably get dressed.”
Cursing, Lover quickly brushed his teeth – careful not to drink the tap water – and pulled on his clothes. “What time is it, anyway?”
“Christ. Maybe I was better off not knowing. Which isn’t hard, seeing as I don’t have a watch anymore. That is to say, seeing as you lost mine.”
“You know, when someone rescues you from torture and certain death, gratitude is the usual response. And when that person rescues you while you’re naked, and still manages to grab some of your clothes on the way out, gratitude might even expand to astonishment. Bitching because they missed your digital watch in all the excitement really just isn’t done.”
“But it wasn’t just any digital watch.”
“What was so special about it?”
“It was the early model Casio Illuminator Tom Cruise wore in the original Mission Impossible.”
“Spare me,” GT unfolded herself from the window bench, bare feet padding across the carpet to the dresser. She opened her bag and dumped a small cube of plastic onto the counter. “Besides, while you were out drunk and whoring, I picked you up another watch at the shop, just so I wouldn’t have to listen to you whine.”
“I wasn’t drunk and…..”
His protest was interrupted by a thumping on the hotel room door and the sounds of giggling in the hallway. GT arched an eyebrow at him, “You were saying?”
Lover just growled and then walked to the door, opening it barely a crack. “Hi, Olga. Hi, Svetlana,” GT could hear him speaking. The broken fragments of Russian response were lost amid the sustained giggles. “Listen, I thought you girls went home after you dropped me off. You see, I need to…no…wait…ok fine.”
Lover fell back before an irresistible tide of cheekbones and cleavage and miniskirts, and a tangible cloud of vodka fumes. Trying to sound as if he had taken some control of the situation, Lover turned to follow them into the room. “So, great, awesome! This is so cool that you still want to hang out. Listen, I need to run a few errands this morning, but why don’t you just chill here. Watch some TV, enjoy the mini-bar, whatever.”
“Chris,” GT began, “I don’t think this is such a good…”
“Hey,” Lover cut her off. “This is my room, and I can invite whoever I want. And I’ll point out that I didn’t actually invite you, so you’re not in much of a position to protest.” He then stepped closer and dropped his voice, “You’re right, this is a bad idea. But leaving two drunk strippers in the lobby of our hotel, yelling at the receptionist that they want see me until she calls the police is a really, really bad idea. If we’re lucky, they’ll pass out sooner or later.”
GT scrunched her flawless forehead and pursed her perfect lips for a moment, pondering, then nodded her head. “OK, lesser of two evils it is then. Well actually, it’s the lesser two evils of three. Anyway, I’ll see you downstairs in 10, and we’ll head out.”
A cool breeze was blowing in off the steppe, fluttering the ends of deep blue scarves tied everywhere to fence posts and lamp poles, and sending prayers to the sky gods who still roamed the land of Genghis Khan. Lover shivered, pulled his windbreaker tight, and lit a cigarette before he could inadvertently breathe too much fresh air.
“I feel like shit,” he said.
“You look like shit,” GT replied.
“At least I know what time it is.”
“I didn’t say thank you. This thing is so small, it looks like it belongs on the wrist of a 13 year old math nerd.”
“I already said, I’m not interested. Listen, my hangover is killing me. Is there somewhere I could get a bit of the hair-of-the-dog before the mystery, and the running, and the silliness? Like that Genghis Khan Irish Pub you mentioned.”
“You mean before our rendezvous?”
“No, we can’t go to the Genghis Khan Irish pub. What time is it, now that you have a watch?”
“OK, even in Mongolia, the bar is not open at eight AM. We could probably stop and get you one of those pudding cups of vodka, if you’re desperate.”
“Don’t I look desperate?”
It didn’t take long to find the shop. Within one block they passed two karaoke bars, three pubs, a pool hall, a dance bar (the one with the giant statue of Stalin lit by lasers), and two convenience shops which sold vodka cups. Maybe the bars weren’t open yet, but in Ulan Bator, you could always get a drink. Fortified by a 90 proof sharpener and another cigarette, they continued on past the brutal facades of Soviet era civic architecture until they approached a green hedge, running around a square patch of lawn. Rising from within the square, appearing to float atop the bushes, stood a statue of Lenin. Like the blue scarves scattered across the city, a lonely totem blown by history and carrying prayers to the lost gods of Communism. Though I guess Communists were atheists, so that doesn’t really work.
Lover shivered in the wind. “Why did we have to come so early in the morning?”
“Because later in the day, the Lenin statue is the place where all the whores hang out. Of course, you’d probably like that; but for our purposes we need a little more privacy.”
“And what are our purposes?”
“Come on, I’ll show you.”
They stepped through a gap in the bushes, behind the hedge and into the shadow of Lenin.
Lover didn’t even see the taser, before he found himself twitching on the lawn. Not again, was the last thing he thought.
* * * * INTERLUDE * * * *
We will now divert from our story again, for six months this time, to pay attention to a story different from and unrelated to this one of a war that isn’t. During this interval, I would suggest lighter alternative fare, like Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead series of zombie graphic novels. I swear to god, sooner or later we’re going to pay attention to this war – I mean story – long enough to finish it. Squirrel!
* * * * INTERLUDE * * * *
Kabul,Harzon Qimat (present day)
Admiral pulled his Toyota Hilux into the graveled drive, which led past a row of new poplar trees up to a vast multi-layered confection of a mansion, equal parts luxurious, imposing and unspeakably tacky. He idled at the striped wooden barrier for a full ten minutes until a platoon of flashily uniformed men came tumbling out of the guardhouse, followed by a cowed and limping teenage boy. Surrounding the vehicle, they did perfunctory mirror checks below the wheel wells, while one man gestured for the smoked window to come down.
“Captain Jim Admiral.”
“You captain? Fuck you. Boss won’t see captain.”
“Navy captain – like colonel.”
“Ok, so, no problem.”
Apparently, this clarification sufficed and Admiral was waved through without being required to show any identification. His arrival had been spotted from the house, and by the time he pulled up to the portico entry way, Mink was slouching down the marble steps to greet him. Maybe a little heavier than when they had first met years ago in Bagram, but unquestionably more resplendent in silk pajamas and dressing gown, a walking personification of decadence with martini glass and cigarette holder in hand.
“Mark, fabulous to see you again,” Mink said. “Martini?”
“It’s ten in the morning, Mink.”
“Oh, right. Gin and tonic then? Or maybe just beer?”
“I didn’t come all the way out here for a debauch.”
“Oh dear,” Mink’s expression was crestfallen. “I guess it’s going to be one of those meetings. Well, we should probably go inside. The security crew are reasonably good shots, but I wouldn’t bet much on their discretion.”
“New, aren’t they?” Admiral asked as they climbed the steps and passed into a dazzling entry hall, three stories high and glittering with chandeliers. “I know you’re one for glamour, but even for you – those ostrich feather turbans are a bit much.”
“Quite, but they’re a gift from Fahim, so I can’t send them away. While ISAF heads for the exits, everyone and their brother is putting together their own militias again and it’s getting expensive, so I couldn’t really say no to free manpower.”
“Hmmm. Fahim’s famous for many things, but generosity isn’t one of them. You’re sure they’re not here to keep watch on you, rather than watch out for you?”
“Probably a little of both. But it’s gratitude more than generosity. His nephew was getting married in Mazar, and I diverted a bunch of ISAF refrigerator trucks full of ice cream and cake to cater the event. Made the spooks think AQ did it.”
“Funny you should mention that. I actually had someone looking into that, but I had to divert them. That’s why I came to see you.”
“Don’t blame me if you’re foolish enough to chase after one of my red herrings. You’re supposed to be smarter than that.”
“That’s not what I meant, and I am smarter than that. No, it’s the reason for the diversion. One of Salutations Templeton’s assholes kidnapped and tortured one of my guys. Probably would have killed him, too, if my diverted agent hadn’t arrived just in time.”
“Tut, tut. It’s a rough business you’re in. But again, I don’t see how this is my problem.”
“I know you still do business with them. I need you to tell them to back off, or at least give me some insight into what they’re up to. What I’m working shouldn’t concern them.”
“They’re your archenemies, Jim. Anything you’re working concerns them. That’s what archenemies do. As for me, while I’m not your enemy, I don’t know that I’m necessarily your friend. I mean that, of course, in a completely business-like way as someone who would provide you services for free, as opposed to being a personal friend, who would give you booze and girls for free, which I most certainly am. Hmmm. I think I may be getting a little convoluted, or perhaps it’s the martinis. Too much gin before lunch is always problematic.”
“You’re losing it, you know. You’ll be a complete basket case before this war is over.”
“I certainly intend to be, but that’s why I’m working so hard at it. I’m afraid we’re going to quit before I can get to full on Milo Minderbender/COL Kurtz level. Anyway, what we were talking about?”
“About how you’re going to help me.”
“I’m not that drunk. I think we were actually talking about how I’m probably not going to help you, unless you have some astonishing line of reasoning which has not occurred to my gin soaked – but still very self-interested – mind.”
“Do you know what happens next week on the first of July?”
“Um. It’s my birthday? It’s also Eric Cartman and Indiana Jones’ birthday, as well; but I don’t see how any of that is relevant.”
“It’s not. What is relevant is that the first of July is Jack Dieppe’s Detainee Review Board. I’ve kept him boxed up tight for you for three years, but there’s a full court press to get the facility population down, and I’m disinclined to waste much political capital on your behalf. Besides, Pi is starting to exert some serious pressure with their K-Street gang.”
“They’re not called ‘Pi’ anymore, you know. They had to change the name for PR and legal reasons after that unfortunate incident in Cairo. I think they’re called ‘Cake’ now.”
“The ‘Cake’ is a lie. But I’m telling you gospel truth, Mink. If you don’t pitch in on this one, Dieppe walks next week. By all accounts he’s an unhappy guy, and since your new guard force seems primarily interested in raping teenage boys, I wouldn’t count much on them for defense.”
“Well, you do have a point about the raping,” Mink downed the last of his drink in a single swallow. “Give me three days, and I’ll see what I can do.”