Against All Enemies
By JOHN GILSTRAP
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP. Copyright © 2015 John Gilstrap, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Behrang Hotaki smiled at everyone who made eye contact with him. He knew some of them but many more were strangers, and if he was friendly, the merchants at the bazaar were more likely to take pity on him and share a plum or a tomato. Maybe some rice or some bread. For lamb or chicken, he would have to do something in return, and all too often that meant doing things he did not want to do. These people, villagers and merchants alike, would show him pity, but they dared not show him kindness, dared not show him friendship.
They knew him as an orphan, a waif, a boy whose family name may never be spoken. With the Americans gone, the old ways had reemerged, and the Taliban knew everything. Behrang understood that anyone who wished to see old age needed to assume that the monsters' knowledge was perfect.
He smiled, and they mostly smiled in return. To smile was to be polite, and to be polite was to be invisible. If a boy were shy enough—invisible enough—he could be forgiven the sins of his family. By demonstrating that he knew his place, the gifts bestowed on him might be more generous. Even Satan and the others understood that a boy his age needed some tiny bit of pity.
Behrang intended to hurt them all, to kill them if he could. Not with a gun or with a suicide vest, but with a betrayal of his own. He dreamed of the day when he might see all of these animals dead, their brains blasted from their heads. The slower they died, the happier he'd be. He wished he could watch as they had watched, but without that false expression of concern. He would not pretend to mourn for them as they had pretended to mourn for his family. If he were able, he would spit on their corpses, piss on their faces.
But that would not be possible. When justice finally came, he could not afford to be nearby. After Charlie—the last remaining American, who was even more invisible than Behrang—killed Satan and his leaders, the rest of the Taliban monsters would murder everyone in the village. Behrang would be far, far away when that happened.
And it would happen soon.
Among Behrang's greatest blessings was the gift of patience. Six years had passed since people in this crowd had betrayed his father—six years since his sisters and mother were raped while Behrang was forced to watch. Six years since the Taliban slipped the thin rope around his father's neck and hoisted him into the air, his feet mere inches above the ground. The jackals had laughed as Father had kicked and stretched to reach the gravel street that remained barely out of reach.
It had been six endless years since Behrang himself had become a toy of the Taliban monsters. They thought they owned him, that they could do whatever they wanted without consequence.
So many people here in the bazaar knew everything. They knew what his father had tried to accomplish—the education he'd tried to provide for everyone, girls as well as boys—and they all knew who, among them, had once been vocal supporters of his efforts. But to a person, they were cowards, unwilling to risk one one-hundredth of what Father had risked. Every one of them valued profit and their own safety above any point of principle. In the end, none of them rose to help, and now that it was all over and his family was dead, they dared to show pity to Behrang. In their minds, they were better than him because they had been too smart to be honest.
They all thought so little of Behrang that they would say things in his presence that should never be said in front of anyone. Because he was invisible, they assumed he was harmless. Perhaps they assumed he was deaf and blind. Either way, they talked in ways they shouldn't.
As a result, Behrang knew the secret of secrets. He knew where Satan would be tomorrow afternoon.
Behrang wondered sometimes if the man who called himself Satan—a blasphemy in itself—had a given name that was something different. He had to, didn't he? What parents could think so little of their son at birth that they would name him after the ultimate evil? Perhaps they could foresee the future. Or perhaps by giving him such a name they had shaped the man he would become.
Behrang had seen much cruelty in his thirteen years, but he had never seen anyone else who so enjoyed inflicting it. Satan showed no more emotion when he set a man ablaze than a merchant would show in selling a pomegranate.
Satan and the Taliban killed innocents for sport, for the sole purpose of turning children into orphans. The terror they inflicted was their greatest weapon, far larger and more effective than any cannon or bomb. Fearful people would stand and watch as girls—and boys—were raped, and they would do nothing as their fathers were lifted off the ground to be strangled to death.
Father would have told Behrang that he should not feel anger toward people who felt such fear, but rather that he should feel pity for them. A man who lives in fear cannot live a full life, his father had told him. Fear is a slaveholder that turns good people into obedient pets. It is far better to live a shortened life in freedom than it is to die an old man as a slave to others.
Behrang knew that the anger in his soul was wrong, that it would disappoint his father, but Father had found his relief from slavery so long ago. He had seen the world as a professor sees the world, through the smeared and foggy windows of a classroom, where lofty philosophy stirred the intellect of men and women living in comfort. As an orphan on the street, living off the pity of your family's murderers, the realities of life were gritty and painful and foul-smelling. Behrang had no room for theories and philosophy in his life. He had room only for living or dying, and the space between those two options was so small as to be unmeasurable.
He scanned the flood of people at the bazaar for the single face he needed to see. Somewhere among the dozens of farmers' and craftsmen's stalls, Charlie would appear, and when he did, the American would wink at him, and then they would wander off to somewhere safe. That's when Behrang would pass along his news.
Few people knew that Americans remained in this part of the province, and of those who did remain, Charlie said that all of them were looking for Satan. "If you see him," Charlie had told him, "if you even hear of him, I need you to tell me."
From the very first day they'd met, Behrang had suspected that Charlie was a soldier, but the man had never told him that. In fact, Charlie avoided saying anything about himself. He asked all kinds of questions, from who knew whom to how things used to be back when life was normal. Charlie was nice. Behrang liked the fact that he never pretended to be something he was not. While he spoke Pashto very well, he needed to be careful of his accent. On good days, Charlie's dialect was good enough to pass as a native, but there were certain phrases, particularly when Charlie was amused or angry, where his American roots would show.
Charlie's other problem was his blue eyes. They weren't unheard of in Afghanistan, but they raised questions. Behrang had pointed that out on their first meeting, and the next time they saw each other the American's eyes were brown and red and watery. Charlie explained to him that he wasn't crying, but rather that his ... contract windows ... hurt his eyes. Behrang could only imagine. If contract windows could change the color of your eyes, how could they not hurt?
Charlie knew things—the kinds of things that he couldn't possibly know. On the very first day they'd met—what was that, two years ago?—after Charlie had bought him a beautiful plum from the vendor's cart, he'd said to him, "I'm very sorry to hear about your parents and your sisters." Behrang had heard the foreign accent in his words.
Behrang's head swiveled to see who might have overheard. "Are you American?" he'd whispered.
"I'd like to speak with you," Charlie had said. He kept his voice low. "Away from these other people."
Behrang considered running away. The Americans had ruined his country, after all. They had killed so many people. But they had saved many, too.
"I want to hurt the people who killed your family," the stranger said. "My name is Charlie and I am your friend. You can trust me."
Behrang remembered smiling at those words.
And Charlie had smiled back at him. "I guess everyone you cannot trust tells you that you can trust them," he said, speaking Behrang's thoughts exactly.
Charlie's massive beard separated to show a happy display of white teeth. "The day comes when you have to trust someone," he said. "Why not start with the man who wants to make people pay for killing your family?"
From that very first meeting—the first of dozens—Behrang had trusted the big man with the thick neck and blue eyes. Charlie told him to meet in the fig grove north of the village. He said that Behrang should show up at eleven o'clock the next morning and wait. "If I do not arrive by eleven-thirty, that means it's not safe, and you should go on about your day."
Behrang remembered feeling his cheeks go hot with embarrassment. "How will I know when it is eleven o'clock?" he'd asked.
Charlie's eyes softened at the question. "Do you know how to read a watch?" he asked.
"Of course." Behrang could read Shakespeare. Of course he could read a watch. There had been a time when he'd actually owned one. He'd had to trade it for a blanket last winter.
Glancing over his shoulder to make sure no one was watching, Charlie slid his own watch off his wrist and handed it to the boy. "Here," he said. "Take this one, courtesy of Uncle Sam."
Behrang also looked around for witnesses. "Your uncle will be upset that you gave away such a gift."
Something in those words made Charlie laugh. "Not this uncle," he said. "My Uncle Sam is a very generous man."
The way Charlie laughed made Behrang wonder if he was being mocked.
"It's fine," Charlie assured him. "I am not laughing at you. One day, you will realize why that is funny. Please take it."
"Then how will you know when it is eleven o'clock?"
"I will know. I have many watches."
Behrang nearly didn't go to that first meeting. All through the night before, he'd asked himself why he would want to expose himself to even the smallest risk in order to help one of the men who'd invaded his country. To be caught was to be killed in the most horrific way.
In the end, though, he remembered his father's impassioned speeches about principle. Principle and convenience are nearly always enemies, his father had told him. As are principle and safety. One cannot be without principle and call oneself a man.
Those words had so angered Behrang's mother. She'd called them arrogant. Could she possibly have known when she'd said, "Ideas like that will get us all killed one day," that she had foreseen the future? Father had insisted that Behrang's sisters, Afrooz and Taherah, go to the secret school in the basement of the old doctor's building so that they could learn and one day become doctors themselves. Such things were just not done. Not anymore, anyway.
Behrang had been only seven years old when Satan crashed through their door and tortured and killed his family, yet the sounds of the screams still echoed in his head every night. The image of the blood spray from their severed throats occupied the darkness when he closed his eyes.
If Charlie could avenge that—if there was even a tiny, remote chance that Charlie could kill the men who'd ravaged his family—then any risk was worth it.
Now, all these meetings later, as Behrang leaned against the Coca-Cola signpost among the sea of merchants and customers, he worried what might happen after this meeting with Charlie. Once they had their prize, what would become of his American friend? After Satan was dead, would they need Behrang anymore? Charlie had promised to make sure that Behrang would be sent to a safe place, but Americans were famous for making promises that they never kept. Father had been a lover of history, and he had told his family how the Americans had abandoned their friends in Korea and Vietnam and he had heard stories of the people they'd abandoned in Iraq and more recently in Kabul. They promised to be trustworthy, and then they just walked away.
Surely, Charlie was the exception. They'd shared too many laughs—too many meetings that had less to do with the information Behrang brought than with just sharing time together—for Charlie to turn his back.
Dylan Nasbe adjusted the shemagh at his neck and straightened his kameez so that he would look just so as he waded into the crowded bazaar. His heart raced as it always did when he mingled so close to the enemy. Because of the pressing crowd, he did his business without comm gear because even the smallest earbud could be seen in a crowd that was pressed this tightly.
He was also unarmed, at least by any reasonable measure of such things in a war zone. Again because of the tightness of the crowd and the resultant ease of casual notice, his only weapon was a hand-sized Smith & Wesson Bodyguard pistol, which he wore strapped tightly to his chest, virtually inaccessible through the shirt of his kameez. To draw it would require lifting his shirt and exposing his belly to expose the gun. Not a stealthy action in this part of the world.
Conscious that his accent was not always spot-on, and unable to tell the difference when he slipped out of dialect, he tried to say nothing, and as a rule, that was easy. In a crowd, a smile was usually enough. With his blue eyes camouflaged—he still blushed when he remembered the day Behrang had pointed out to him that he had forgotten his contact lenses—he felt most self-conscious about his size. This was a part of the world where people barely subsisted, where heavily muscled chests and necks were the kinds of anomalies that brought suspicion. Suspicion, in turn, brought death—preferably to the suspector rather that the suspectee, thus the S&W .380. As a hedge, he wore clothes that were too big, hoping that the extra fabric would make him look fat.
Afghanistan was a beautiful country when it wasn't on fire or cluttered with corpses. While the roads sucked beyond all comprehension, the landscape could be beautiful. On days like this—market day—the village became a stunning display of colors and aromas as vendors displayed their wares and hawked customers. The air seemed fat with the perfumes of fresh cardamom, cilantro, mint, and coriander, which combined with fresh flowers and cooking lamb and chicken to form a kind of atmospheric flavor that Dylan considered unique to this part of the world.
He prided himself in not understanding Afghan culture in too much depth—certainly not beyond the measure that was necessary for him to do his job. More than a few of his Unit buddies obsessed over the cultures into which they inserted themselves, but Dylan considered it a liability to become too deeply involved with anything that it was ultimately his job to destroy.
As far as Dylan was concerned, this entire mission was a waste of blood and treasure. The instant politicians declared their intent to surrender and walk away, every soldier left in harm's way became a pawn, and every drop of blood spilled became a crime. But he was a soldier, and his was not to reason why. His was but to accomplish the mission and get the hell out.
Fifty meters ahead, he saw the Coca-Cola sign that was his destination. Yesterday, a surveillance drone had picked up the image of the broken bicycle in the ditch on the eastern side of the roadway leading into the village—the sign from Behrang that he had new information—and thus here he was, a week earlier than their routine meeting. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Against All Enemies by JOHN GILSTRAP. Copyright © 2015 John Gilstrap, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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