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NANGARHAR PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN
Next to a stream of icy snowmelt from the Hindu Kush, a small caravan unloaded its contraband. Cases filled with weapons, money, communications equipment, and other gear were placed beneath a rocky overhang and covered with camouflage netting to keep them concealed from overhead surveillance.
A man in his late forties with deep Slavic features stood nearby and supervised. He had blue eyes, medium-length gray hair, and both the clothing and bearing of a local Afghan.
When his team of Pakistani smugglers was done, the man removed a stack of bills and paid them double what he normally did for bringing him into the country. It was a severance package. He wouldn’t be using them again. This was going to be his final operation.
He made himself comfortable near a stack of rams’ horns that marked a Taliban grave site and watched as the line of smugglers and pack animals disappeared back into the mountains toward Pakistan. Though he couldn’t spot them, he knew there were men in the rugged hills above, men with sophisticated weapons—weapons he had provided to them—who were keeping him in their sights.
Twenty minutes later, three muddy Toyota Hilux double-cab pickup trucks appeared from the other end of the valley. The convoy splashed across the fast-moving stream and drove up to the overhang. As the trucks rolled to a stop, young men with thick, dark beards and Kalashnikovs jumped out.
Like the man next to the rams’ horns, they were dressed in traditional Afghan clothing known as salwar kameez—baggy cotton trousers that stopped just above the ankle and loose-fitting tunics that ended just above the knee. They all wore winter coats that came to midthigh. Many slung warm wool blankets referred to locally as patoos over their shoulders to further ward off the cold. Upon their heads they wore pakols, the wide wool hat encircled by a thick, rolled brim made famous by the mujahideen during their war with the Soviets.
The men worked quickly and efficiently. Once the gear was loaded, the blue-eyed man climbed into the front passenger seat of the lead vehicle, the driver popped the clutch, and the truck lurched forward.
It was a painful, kidney-jarring ride along a rutted road that followed the snowmelt downstream into the valley. As the truck came down hard into yet another pothole, the men in the backseat erupted in a barrage of Pashtu curses.
The blue-eyed man tuned them out and stared through the spattered windshield. The landscape outside was windswept and barren. It was hard for him to believe that he had been fighting and running operations in this country for over twenty-five years. His blood had been spilled upon its soil on more occasions than he cared to remember and he had watched more men die than anyone ever should.
He loved and hated Afghanistan at the same time. It had taken far more from him than it had ever given. His body was in shambles, as was the small family he had managed to begin over the years during his short visits home. All he was left with in his life was a sweet, innocent boy who had been terribly disfigured.
The blue-eyed man blamed himself. He had known about his wife’s alcoholism. He also knew that it grew worse when he was away. Even though he’d been trained to listen to his intuition, he had ignored it when it told him that the woman could no longer properly see to their child. Had he made other arrangements for the boy, had he found a responsible caregiver to see to him while he was away, the fire might never have happened.
But it had happened, and the father wore the guilt of his son’s disfigurement across his shoulders much like the patoos across the shoulders of the Taliban fighters now riding alongside him.
He tried to forget his pain and to instead focus on his mission. It was one of the most audacious operations his intelligence service had ever considered. If it was successful, he could finally retire and would be so highly rewarded that he and his son would never want for anything else. That success, though, ultimately rested with the man he was about to meet. In the near distance, his destination finally came into sight.
The village, in Nangarhar’s rugged Khogyani district, was mostly mud houses, with some made of stone, which were set along either side of the road.
It was austere and colorless, as much of Afghanistan was. Window and door frames were unpainted. Rough-hewn beams jutted out from beneath rooftops, and none of the buildings were more than two stories tall. Dust and children and hard-looking men with guns were everywhere. No women were visible.
They were there, of course; hidden behind the thick mud walls of their houses by Taliban husbands and fathers who forbade them to work, to go to school, or even to go outside without being completely covered and with a male family member accompanying them.
The convoy ground to a halt before a high wall set with two massive double doors. The driver of the lead vehicle tapped his horn three times in quick succession. A small panel opened in the gate and a pair of angry, dark eyes peered out. Moments later the doors swung open and the convoy rolled into a typical Afghan compound known as a kwala.
When the blue-eyed man climbed out of the truck, he was greeted by one of the Taliban’s most notorious, battle-hardened commanders. Mullah Massoud Akhund stood about five-foot-eight, a good three inches shorter than the blue-eyed man, but he had a commanding presence.
Massoud’s eyes were the color of flint and possessed with the power to look right through a man. His heavy black beard was streaked with gray. He was only in his late forties, but a life of incessant combat had aged him beyond his years, giving him the appearance of a man twenty years older.
Placing his right hand over his heart in the traditional Afghan greeting, Mullah Massoud nodded slightly to his guest and said, “Salaam alaikum.”
The blue-eyed man performed the same gesture and replied, “Wa alaikum salaam.”
Massoud embraced his guest and held him tightly for many moments. The blue-eyed man had learned early in his career that a hug from an Afghan man was a sign of respect. The longer the embrace, the deeper the respect you were held in.
Finally, the commander broke off the hug. “It is good to see you again, Bakht Rawan.”
MONDAY (THREE WEEKS LATER)
Dr. Julia Gallo sat on a dusty carpet and eyed the cracked mud bricks and exposed timbers of the tiny room. She didn’t need to look at her interpreter to know that he was watching her. “Ask again,” she said.
Sayed cleared his throat, but the question wouldn’t come. They were in dangerous territory. It was bad enough that the young American doctor dragged him to the most godforsaken villages in the middle of nowhere, but now she was openly trying to get them killed. If the Taliban knew what she was doing, they’d both be dead.
The five-foot-six Afghan with deep brown eyes and black hair had a wife, three children, and a not-so-insignificant extended family that relied on him and the living he made as an interpreter.
For the first time in his twenty-two-year-old life, Sayed had something very few Afghans ever possessed—hope; hope for himself, hope for his family, and hope for the future of his country. And while what he did was dangerous, there was no need to make it any more so by taunting the specter of death. Dr. Gallo, on the other hand, seemed to have a remarkably different set of priorities.
At five-foot-ten, Julia was a tall woman by most standards, but by Afghan standards she was a giant. And although she kept her long red hair covered beneath an Afghan headscarf known as a hijab, she couldn’t hide her remarkable green eyes and the fact that she was a very attractive woman. She was a graduate of the obstetrics and gynecology program at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, and ten years her translator’s senior. And while she might have shared Sayed’s vision for the future of Afghanistan, she had her own opinions of how best to bring it about.
In a country where most parents didn’t name their children until their fifth birthday because infant mortality rates were so high, Dr. Gallo and others like her had made a huge difference. Infant mortality was down more than 18 percent since the Taliban had been ousted. That meant forty thousand to fifty thousand infants who would have died under the old regime were surviving. She should have been thrilled, but for some reason she wasn’t. She was unhappy, and that made her push harder to bring about change.
Gallo knew she wasn’t just rocking the cultural boat on these visits out into the countryside, she was shooting holes in the stern and reloading, but she didn’t care. The Taliban were a bunch of vile, misogynistic bastards who could rot in hell, as far as she was concerned.
“Ask her again,” she demanded.
Sayed knew the answer and was certain Dr. Gallo did too. It was embarrassing for the women to have to answer, yet she pressed her point anyway. It was the setup for a message she had taken to proselytizing on a regular basis. Gallo had become a zealot in her own right, no different from the Taliban, and as much as Sayed admired her, this was going to be their last trip out of Kabul together. He would respectfully ask their NGO, CARE International, not to assign him to her anymore. He wasn’t going to die because of her.
Dr. Gallo had always been complicated. She never spoke about her family or personal life, no matter how many hours they spent driving together or how many opportunities Sayed offered her. She either turned the conversation back to him, asking questions she already knew the answers to, or she simply sat in the passenger seat staring out the window. Sayed had given up trying to connect with her and now was done trying to understand her.
Two pairs of eyes lowered toward the floor as Sayed capitulated and asked the women Dr. Gallo’s question once more. A long silence followed. The translator was tempted to fill the uncomfortable void, but Gallo held up her hand to quiet him. Finally, the elder of the two women responded in Pashtu.
Julia listened, and when they were finished, Sayed translated.
“They traded the girl to pay off her father’s debt,” he said.
“Like some sort of farm animal,” Gallo replied. “Tell them they don’t have to live like this. I don’t care what kind of arrangement the men of this village have with the Taliban, women have rights, even in Afghanistan. But unless they know their rights, they can’t begin to exercise them. The first step is for them to get educated. There is a school less than five kilometers from here. Why aren’t they going to it?”
Sayed shook his head. “You know why.”
Julia fixed him with her intense green eyes. “Because it’s dangerous?”
The interpreter didn’t reply.
“More dangerous than being beaten by your husband or sold off because your father’s opium fields failed to produce?” Julia waited for an answer and when none was offered, she stated, “We need to explain to them that they have options.”
“You say this even though the Taliban ride by on motorbikes and spray children and teachers who dare go to school with acid. It is easy for you to demand that these women exercise their ‘rights,’ as you say. But I’m sorry, Dr. Gallo,” said Sayed as he stood. “I can’t do this anymore.”
“Can’t do what?”
The young man didn’t have the energy to explain. He had told Dr. Gallo repeatedly that what she was doing was dangerous for both of them.
“I’ll wait for you outside at the car.” Turning, he exited the room and closed the door quietly behind him.
Julia felt a stab of regret. Sayed was the best interpreter she had ever worked with. They had spent countless hours together in some of the wildest, most remote regions of the country. She had learned that she could trust him and he was invaluable to her. She had contributed money out of her own pocket to make sure he was paid better than any of the other translators CARE used, and she had also spearheaded the effort to get the organization to pay to send him to medical school. He couldn’t leave her. Not now. She wouldn’t let him. They had a long drive back to Kabul. She would talk to him. She’d promise to relax her rhetoric a bit.
Shifting her attention back to her patients, Julia employed her limited Pashtu medical vocabulary and completed the exam.
Twenty minutes later, with the sun beginning to sink low in the sky, Dr. Gallo exited the mud-walled kwala with her olive-drab medical bag slung over her shoulder and her hijab tightly wrapped around her head. Afghan men, many with AK-47s propped nearby, squatted in a circle chatting. They fell silent and stared at the American woman as she walked past.
Julia found Sayed leaning against the hood of their faded Nissan Patrol smoking a cigarette. “Ready to go?” she asked.
Sayed nodded as Julia opened the rear passenger door, tossed her bag onto the backseat, and climbed in front.
Taking one last drag, Sayed tamped out his cigarette on the bumper and slid the remainder into the pack for later.
It took several slams before the latch caught and his door would stay shut. After starting the engine, the interpreter ground the vehicle into first gear and pulled out.
Julia tried to read his face as he picked his way down the dusty road from the village. If Sayed felt any anger toward her, he didn’t show it.
As she tried to come up with the right words to say, he beat her to the punch. “I’m going to ask to be reassigned.”
Julia didn’t know how to reply. After everything she had done for him, she felt betrayed. But she knew she was being selfish. She had met his wife and his children. She understood. She had been putting him at greater and greater risk. In all fairness, it actually said a lot about their friendship that he had kept going into the countryside with her for as long as he had.
With no words that seemed to suit the moment, she said what was in her heart. “I understand.”
Sayed smiled again. “I will pray for you, Dr. Gallo, and for your work.”
The redheaded American was about to respond when they came around a bend and she noticed three green Afghan National Army pickup trucks blocking the road ahead.
“Roadblock,” said Sayed.
Julia retrieved her bag from the backseat with her ID. “Why would they have a roadblock out here? We’re in the middle of nowhere.”
“I don’t know,” he replied, eyeing the soldiers manning the 7.62mm machine guns mounted atop the vehicles’ roll bars. “We’ll have to stop.”
Julia nodded. Running the roadblock was out of the question. ANA soldiers were poorly disciplined and would open fire with the slightest provocation—stopping only when they had exhausted their ammo.
“Don’t worry,” he said as he rolled down his window. “I’m sure it’s just routine.”
Julia looked at the soldiers. They seemed keyed up, tense. “Keep the car running,” she said quietly.
The interpreter nodded and fished his ID out of his pocket. As their vehicle slowed to a stop, they were surrounded by the heavily armed soldiers.
Sayed placed his hand over his heart, nodded, and bade the men, “Salaam alaikum.”
No one returned the greeting.
A captain appeared at Sayed’s window and snapped his fingers for his ID. The young Afghan complied and handed over his papers.
Without even looking at the documents, the captain ordered him out of the SUV. Julia put her hand upon his arm. Something definitely wasn’t right.
Sayed smiled at her and gently pulled his arm away. When he had trouble opening his door, the captain got angry and wrenched it open from the outside.
Sayed tried to explain that the door was unreliable, but the captain wasn’t listening. He grabbed the young man by the back of the neck and threw him to the ground.
Inside the truck, Julia gasped and covered her mouth. What was going on?
Sayed tried to rise to his feet, but the captain kicked him in the ribs. Wheezing, the Afghan fell back to the ground.
Julia had seen enough. She began to open her door, but it was kicked shut by one of the soldiers, who then seated his rifle in his shoulder and pointed the muzzle right at her head.
Gallo turned her attention back to Sayed. She could see him through the open driver’s side door, lying on the ground with his arms wrapped around his sides.
He tried to speak, but the captain ignored him and brought his boot back for another kick. This one landed under the interpreter’s chin and snapped his head backward.
Julia screamed as Sayed fell unconscious and a stream of blood began to trickle from his mouth.
The captain barked orders at the soldiers, and Julia knew it was about to be her turn. With her elbow, she drove the door lock home and leaped for the driver’s seat.
One of the soldiers standing near the captain saw what she was doing and rushed to stop her. But instead of shooting her, he reached inside the vehicle and grabbed hold of her clothing.
Julia had removed a scalpel from her bag and slashed at him wildly. The man roared in pain and fell backward.
With his hold broken, Julia forced the car into gear, revved the engine, and released the brake.
Immediately, there was a deafening chorus of gunfire as the Nissan’s tires were flattened and the chassis dropped onto the rims. Now, Julia was in real trouble.
She let go of the scalpel and held up both of her hands. With two soldiers covering him, the captain extricated her from the vehicle and slammed her up against its side.
She saw a flash of skin as the back of his hand came forward and cracked into the bone of her cheek just beneath her left eye.
The force of the blow caused Julia’s vision to dim. Her knees shook and she felt she was about to lose consciousness.
The captain stepped away while his men kept her pinned against the SUV.
As Julia’s senses returned, she had the distinct impression that they were about to do something very bad. She felt certain that she was going to be raped. But these men had something much worse in mind.
The captain squatted and began slapping Sayed’s face to bring him around. It took several minutes to revive him, but when he finally came to, the captain called over additional men to pick him up. They held him until he could stand on his own and then they stepped away.
Without saying a word, the captain drew his pistol from his holster and Julia’s stomach dropped. She opened her mouth to plead for the interpreter’s life, but as she did, a soldier drove his fist into her midsection and knocked the wind from her body.
As she gasped for air, she saw the captain place his weapon against the side of Sayed’s head and watched in horror as he pulled the trigger.
WEDNESDAY (TWO DAYS LATER)
The bright spring day stood in sharp contrast to the new president’s mood. Robert Alden had suggested a walk outside as a way to allow things to cool down between himself and the woman he was with. So far, it wasn’t working.
“You and I both know,” said the president’s guest, “that the CIA is so risk-averse that even if you showed them where their asses were, they’d be afraid to grab on with both hands.”
Stephanie Gallo was perhaps one of the biggest reasons forty-eight-year-old Robert Alden now occupied the highest office in the world. Gallo had not only helped orchestrate the Alden campaign for president and been one of its biggest donors and best fund-raisers, she had delivered the mainstream media to him on a silver platter.
She was an entertainment titan who, upon the death of her husband in the early 1970s, had spun a “midmarket newspaper and two shitty AM radio stations” into a series of conglomerates that owned newspapers, movie studios, and television stations around the world. She was the person who had convinced Alden not only to run for president, but that he would win.
Would. It was an interesting choice of words. She had not said could win, but would win. She was that confident. And she was right. The election had been a blowout. Alden’s mild-mannered opponent never stood a chance.
To secure this incredible win, Gallo had insisted that her media strategy be at the very center of the campaign. It was the hub that everything else radiated out from. They had worked tirelessly and it had paid off with overwhelming dividends. Alden owed Gallo a tremendous debt, which made the discussion they were having that much more difficult.
“If we can’t remain calm about this, Stephanie, there’s no way we’ll be able to think clearly.”
“Remain calm?” Gallo shot back. “How calm would you be if it was your daughter those animals had kidnapped?”
If Robert Alden hadn’t already been married, he and Stephanie Gallo would have made a stunning couple. The new president was athletic and handsome. He stood six-foot-two with dark hair and hazel eyes and had a magnetic personality that drew people instantly to him.
At fifty-five, Stephanie Gallo was seven years his senior, but didn’t look a day over forty. She was an incredibly attractive woman with auburn hair, blue eyes, and a large, sumptuous mouth. She was tall, five-foot-ten when not in heels, and had a very alluring physique.
An international celebrity in her own right, Gallo competed successfully in a largely male world and made no apologies for doing it as a woman. Women around the world adored her not only for her sense of style, which retained just a hint of sex appeal, but also for her frank belief that God had blessed women with curves and that any woman who tried to exercise her body into a replica of a teen-aged boy’s was a fool.
But despite everything she had going for her, all of the notoriety, money, and power, right now she needed a man: this man. Only Robert Alden could effect her daughter’s release, and Stephanie Gallo was determined to make that happen—no matter what it took.
Alden put his hand on her shoulder. “I understand how you must feel.”
Gallo didn’t like being patronized. “Really? Then why aren’t you doing anything? We own that fucking country, for God’s sake. Agree to the terms!”
And here they were again, back at the beginning of the argument. Alden tried to explain his position once more. “Stephanie, I agree with the CIA’s assessment. These people kidnapped Julia for this very reason. They knew you would come to me and ask me to intervene.
“The terrorist imprisoned in Kabul, the one they want for Julia, is an al-Qaeda operative—a very bad one. Do you know how many high-level Afghan government officials he has helped kill? For the Afghan government, this is like capturing Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinkley, and John Wilkes Booth all at once. We can’t say that we want Afghanistan to obey the rule of law only when it serves our interests. Besides, I ran on a platform of being tough on terrorists and not repeating any of the mistakes of my predecessors.”
“Screw your platform and screw your predecessors,” snapped Gallo. “We’re talking about Julia’s life, for Christ’s sake.”
“I’m sorry, Stephanie. I—”
“What do you mean, you’re sorry? Are you telling me that we can’t convince the Afghans to give us this Mustafa Khan for twenty-four hours, forty-eight tops, so that we can get my daughter back?”
“And if we lose him?” asked Alden.
“Then flood the skies with Predators and retask all of our satellites over Afghanistan. I don’t care. I just want her back.”
“I know you do. I do too. I also care about what happens in Afghanistan. You’ve got to know that this is not easy for me.”
Gallo scowled at the president. “This is your first chance to really exercise your power, and you’re afraid to use it. That’s what I think.”
Alden could feel his blood pressure rising, and he fought to keep it under control. “I warned you both about this. Julia knew the risks when she took that job over there.”
“That doesn’t change anything.”
“Stephanie, I’ve explained to you how this works. The Afghans take the lead in kidnapping investigations within their own country—even those of American citizens. The CIA, everyone at our embassy in Kabul, and our entire military apparatus in theater are doing everything they can to get Julia back.”
“Except giving her kidnappers the one thing they’ve asked for.”
Alden shook his head sadly.
“You’re the president of the United States. You’re telling me you can’t tell the Afghans that Khan is part of a larger investigation we are running and that we need to interrogate him in our facility at Bagram? Once we trade him for Julia and get her back, we can hunt him down ourselves. If the Afghans caught Khan once, we should be able to catch him a second time with no problem.”
“First of all, the Afghans got lucky because someone tipped them off. Second, what you’re asking me to do is dishonest, and that’s not how I operate.”
Gallo stared at Alden and let the president’s statement hover between them like a lit stick of dynamite.
It didn’t take Alden long to get uncomfortable. His guest didn’t have to say a word. He knew what she was thinking. “Listen, Stephanie, we’re going to get Julia back. I promise.”
“I’m sorry, but your promise is not good enough. You need to start doing more. A lot more.”
Gallo’s eyes bore right into Alden’s. “Or your presidency is going to be one of the shortest in U.S. history.”
“Are you threatening me?” he asked.
“You’re damn right I’m threatening you. We’ve lost two days. It’s time for you to get her back.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Then,” said Gallo, choosing her next words carefully, “the world is going to quickly find out that the new American president was not only an accessory to the deaths of four innocent people, but actively conspired to cover it up.”
* * *
Fifteen yards away, in the thick blanket of trees that bordered Stephanie Gallo’s equestrian estate, a young Secret Service agent froze dead in her tracks.