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Author Biography: Ralph Peters is a bestselling novelist, an acclaimed strategist, and a commentator, author of Beyond Terror (0811700240) and Beyond Baghdad (0811700844) and published in dozens of newspapers and journals, including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and Newsweek. A former career officer, he also writes prizewinning historical fiction under the pen name Owen Parry. His other novels include Flames of Heaven (0811726843) and Twilight of Heroes (0811726908).
HER DARK HAIR HUNG HEAVY WITH FILTH. SORES RIPENED over her skin, red welts on larval white. After mastering the shock of the daylight, her eyes stared as if sightless, although sudden movements made tier pupils track. She was young, not twenty, with good bones sharpened by her decay. Layers of clothing clung to her as she squatted, and her smell spread more harshly than that of any animal. As Kelly watched, the madwoman jerked once. then clawed at the life in her scalp. Exposure to fresh air meant nothing to her. A cone of sunlight thrust down and made another cell for her in the middle of the grove, suspending her in the summer's deep, hot beauty. The other women, those whom the war had touched only on the outside, retreated back into the shade, their children driven out of sight. Kelly stood between the keepers and the kept. The young woman cawed once, a motor reflex and not an attempt at communication.
"How long," Kelly asked through her interpreter, "has she been like this?"
The clean-shaven young man, a thoroughly citified being, spoke nervously to the refugee women. They flocked together in the half cool under the trees, their thick bodies and burned faces shrouded in worn floral cloth and headscarves. The women would not look, directly at the interpreter, or at Kelly, but they chewed the air with speech.
"They say," the interpreter told the American, "you must take her away right now. Before the men are returning." The interpreter's name was Yussuf. Sweat glassed his forehead. He had tried to feel his employer's breasts early in their partnership, when she had dozed off during one of their long rides in the fumingRussian-built jeep, but she struck him hard on the side of the face with her fist and he never bothered her that way again.
Two shots pocked in the distance, followed by a third. But that was someone else's confrontation.
"Tell them," Kelly said, "that I need more information. Her name. How long she's been in this condition. And they need to tell me what happened to her."
Kelly believed she already knew what had happened to the young woman. She had been in the country five months and had seen enough for five lifetimes, none of it in the textbooks. But she wanted to hear the words. She wanted to crack these people out of their medieval idiocy. She had been to this refugee settlement several times before, inventorying needs that led to endless arguments back at the WorldAid office in Baku. Aid was ninety percent politics and ten percent real effort. And that was before it collided with the local genius for corruption. At times, Kelly suspected that the only reason she did not quit was because she would have been embarrassed to go home a failure.
The settlement, one of hundreds in a country with over a million displaced persons, was a roadside cluster of worn tarpaulins and sod huts, with burrows dug into the earth for the animals and the winter. These refugees had camped within artillery range of the front, expecting a swift return to their homes in the mountains, but each time Kelly came back, the settlement betrayed further signs of permanence. The front had gone stagnant and the soldiers sauntered dull-eyed through the towns, alert only to the passage of females. Dysentery haunted the children.
The male refugees, who made all of the decisions, had been unwilling to deal with a woman on any matters they conside d significant, until they learned that Kelly from the United States. Then they complained feverishly that America was against them because they were Muslims and did not help them in their just war. Kelly did not have the heart to tell them her country did not even know they existed. As they developed a sense of her, the men alternately closed themselves off in silence or made wildly unrealistic demands. The women decorated the background or smiled, gold-toothed and wary, when Kelly surprised them at their chores.
They had kept the madwoman hidden during Kelly's earlier visits. But today was different. None of the men were about. They were off at another rally full of lies that would end in meager handouts. The women literally pulled Kelly from her jeep, dragging her toward a bump in the ground that resembled the pithead of a poor mine, while other women hurried a rigid human shape up out of the darkness.
The settlement was one of the worst, pitched under a ravaged copse of trees, its water drawn from a roadside ditch that gathered waste and the chemical fertilizers from the neighboring fields. The luckier refugees in the camps up the road lived in boxcars or old military tents, and some even had intermittent electricity to power the television sets they had rescued before saving the family photographs. The boxcars were infernal in summer but preferable in the winter, when the wind swept down from the mountains. The latrines were always too close to the living areas. The Turkish-run camps were clean enough and not bad, with basic medical care and even schools, but the others, those run by the Iranians or the incompetent Saudis or the Baku government, resembled balls of human yam. The best that could be said of them was that they had kept the cholera to a minimum this year, but the summer was not over.
Kelly looked into the cluster of women with anger and disgust. She was stubborn and she wanted the admission to come from their lips, Why did you bury one of your daughters alive?
After a few opaque exchanges, Yussuf gave up again. Yussuf was forever giving up, a man for whom sustained effort was impossible. Especially on behalf of a woman. Kelly hated to rely on him. She hated relying on anyone.But she had not learned enough of the language...