Read an Excerpt
The horses knew.
They shied and stumbled as the Syrian smuggler named Mahmoud led them out of the battered trailer. Four brown geldings, wide-eyed and frightened. Resigned to trouble ahead. Kareem Batta didn’t know how, but they knew.
The tallest of the four, a handsome youngster with a white blaze on his left flank, was bolder than the others, or more skittish. As his front hooves touched the crumbly Anatolian soil, he swished his head, pushed back up the ramp. But Mahmoud jerked his reins and muttered at him. After a moment he quit the protest.
The beasts feared the men around them even more than the trip they were about to take. They were gentle animals. Batta didn’t like using them this way. But he had no choice. They were the best way over the border into Syria, the only realistic way to avoid the Islamic State’s jihadis. Those modern-day trolls watched the roads from every angle, with checkpoints and rolling patrols and even drones. They needed no excuse but their black flags to snatch unlucky travelers.
Batta circled the geldings, examining them like a trainer at a yearling auction. He was hardly an expert on horses. He’d grown up in a two-bedroom apartment in Detroit. But he’d ridden enough in the last five years to spot trouble. These four looked strong, sturdier than the ones Mahmoud had brought before. They breathed easily despite the early afternoon heat. Their backs were straight, their eyes bright. Not like other nags smugglers had tried to foist on him. Batta had learned to check the hard way, after a mount dropped under him on a rocky trail in the Anti-Lebanon Range, two hundred miles and a dozen front lines southwest of here. He had left the four-legged corpse behind and staggered out of Syria on a broken foot.
“Think I bring losers?” Mahmoud said in English. “When my brother and I go, too?” He was a skinny twenty-something who wore black jeans and motorcycle boots. His brother Ajmad was even skinnier and even younger, with a wispy mustache and smooth cheeks. They had taken Batta to Syria twice before, first to meet a Kurdish commander, an easy run, then a riskier mission to scout a warehouse where hostages were supposedly being held. The warehouse had turned out to be an ammunition depot, but the brothers brought Batta back to Turkey with his head attached. A win. A tie, anyway.
Batta still didn’t entirely trust Mahmoud. But Batta didn’t entirely trust anyone over here except his brothers-in-arms from the Central Intelligence Agency’s Special Operations Group. Even the Turkish intelligence service played both sides. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the Free Syrian Army, the Martyrs of Syria Brigades, the Soldiers of Islam, the People’s Protection Unit, and a hundred others… In Syria and Kurdistan, outsiders couldn’t tell the players with a program. Sometimes even the combatants were confused. Batta had once seen a firefight sputter out after the commanders realized that their bosses had agreed to a cease-fire the week before. A cosmic joke, even if the guy who’d been shot in the head wasn’t laughing.
Mahmoud pulled a bag of sugar cubes, gave two to each gelding. “Good boys,” he said to Batta. “A little scared, but they’ll be fine once we move.”
“They’re not bad,” Batta said in Arabic. Though he’d been born in Michigan, he was fluent, thanks to his parents, immigrants from Jordan who spoke the language exclusively at home. “I’ve seen worse, anyway.” He ran his hand over the blaze on the tall gelding’s flank. Sorry, buddy. If it makes you feel any better, I’m nervous too. “What’s his name?”
“Buraq. Why, you want to buy him?”
“Only if he can grow wings.” In the Quran, Buraq was the name of the steed who had flown Muhammad to Heaven to meet Allah.
“Naturally. Money-back guarantee.”
On that note… Batta handed Mahmoud a backpack, cheap blue nylon with a faded Mickey Mouse logo.
“M-I-C-K-E-Y…” Mahmoud unzipped it, thumbed the stacks inside. “This is one hundred,” he said in English. “We said three fifty.” Three hundred fifty thousand dollars. A fair price for two days’ work, considering the risk of beheading or worse by the friendly folks south of the border.
The man they were bringing out was worth far more than that much to Batta’s bosses at Langley. Batta knew him as Abu Ibrahim, an Islamic State bureaucrat who had helped the CIA track the group’s oil-smuggling routes. He now promised information about its secret bank accounts in the United Arab Emirates, if the agency could just get him out alive.
“Three hundred fifty,” Mahmoud repeated, with the slight sulk that came so naturally in Arabic. “Wahid, ithnan, thalatha...” One, two, three…
“The rest, when I come back,” Batta said. They both knew the terms, and they both knew Batta wouldn’t stiff Mahmoud. The agency would never have another safe trip over the border.
“What if you don’t?”
Exactly. “I thought you planned to bring me home.”
“Insh’allah. But things happen.”
“In that case send an after-action report explaining the lessons learned with a self-addressed stamped envelope and request payment within sixty days.”
Batta saw that Mahmoud didn’t get the joke, but the smuggler smiled anyway. “All right, Kareem. I trust you.” He called to Ajmad, and together the brothers trotted to the Mitsubishi pickup pulling the trailer. A burly man in his fifties stepped from the truck and hugged them both.
“If they don’t come back, I’ll kill you,” the man yelled to Batta.
If they don’t come back, you won’t have to worry. I’ll be dead already. Batta just waved.
Mahmoud tossed the knapsack into the truck. The man stepped in, gunned the engine, pulled out with the trailer rattling behind him. Then the brothers were alone with Batta and his partner, Bill Girol.
Girol had joined the agency after nine years in the Marine infantry, mostly in Recon. He and Batta made a strange pair. Batta was huge, six-seven and two-forty, with fencepost arms, tight curly hair, and a beard that had faded from brown to reddish-blonde in the Turkish sun. Girol had prematurely grey hair and calm brown eyes. He was five-six and easy to underestimate. He weighed one-fifty, benched three-fifty, and seemed to need no sleep at all. After four years around Syria, he spoke decent Arabic, too. But he would never pass for a local, and he preferred to let Batta do the talking. Even back at the CIA base in Gazientep, Girol kept quiet. Batta had once made the mistake of asking him about his Navy Cross, which ranked second only to the Medal of Honor as an award for military valor.
For bravery in the course of my divorce, Girol said. Any more questions, genius? After that he always called Batta Genius. Batta called him Mighty, as in Mouse. Batta figured they’d each take a bullet for the other. He hoped not to find out.
“Ready?” Mahmoud said.
“Let’s go over it once more.” They’d talked over the plan three times already, but a final run-through never hurt.
Mahmoud pulled a battered map from his jeans, unfolded it against Baraq’s flank like a cowboy, then changed his mind and laid it on the ground as Girol and Batta squatted on either side. “Okay, we’re here, yes. Harran.” He pointed to a spot north of the border.
Harran was ancient enough to have earned a mention in Genesis for playing home to Abraham in his pre-Isaac days. As far as Batta could tell, the village hadn’t changed much since. It lay about twenty kilometers north of Akcakale, a dusty Turkish town so close to the border that the crossing split it in half, like El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. The Syrian side was called Tal Abad and had changed hands repeatedly during Syria’s war. Kurdish militias had recently retaken it from the Islamic State.
This region was something of an afterthought in the Syrian conflict. The serious fighting took place to the west, as the Islamic State battled Bashir al-Assad’s army and other militias for control of big cities like Homs. But despite its relative unimportance, Tal Abad was the border crossing closest to Raqqa, a city of two hundred thousand that was the de facto capital of the Islamic State. Abu Ibrahim lived and worked there.
The Islamic State could almost certainly have retaken Tal Abad from the Kurds by shifting a couple of thousand jihadis from the front lines. But its commanders had chosen not to try. For now, anyway. They were almost inviting an attack on Raqqa. They seemed to believe the city’s defenses were impenetrable. Or maybe they didn’t think they could spare fighters from the battles to the west. Whatever their logic, Batta wasn’t arguing. By backing off the border, the Islamic State had made this mission possible.
Mahmoud moved his finger to the border, left of the Akcakale/Tal Abad crossing.
“Nine kilometers west of Tal Abad, a new cut in the wire.” To defend itself against the Islamic State, Turkey had moved thousands of soldiers into Anatolia and extended fences around the border crossings to the west. But the border stretched almost a thousand kilometers. Monitoring it all was impossible. In the eastern half of the country, strings of razor wire were all that separated the two countries. “Big enough to ride through. Some Kurds put it there. Maybe three weeks ago. Daesh, they don’t know.”
Arabic-speaking enemies of the Islamic State called it Daesh. The nickname denied the group’s Muslim legitimacy by stripping the word “Islamic” from it. Jihadis hated the name and had been known to cut the tongue out of anyone they caught saying it.
“You sure they don’t know?”
“The Kurds control down to Ain Issa now. Daesh, they stick to the crossing.” In other words, Islamic State spies still watched the vehicles that passed through Tal Abad, probably putting every license plate into a database. But by giving up the border, they had lost their chance to patrol the fence. “We cross after dark, no one’s there, and if they are it’s only Kurds. Ride to Ain Issa, seventy-five kilometers from here in all.” Ain Issa was a speck of a town northwest of Raqqa. The Kurds had taken it from the Islamic State a few weeks after winning Tal Abad. In other words, it was friendly territory. “Rest tomorrow, a warehouse my friend owns, make sure the horses are fine, nobody bothers us.”
“Then tomorrow night – ”
“Yes.” Mahmoud stroked a finger across the map, following the east-west road, the M4. “Everything down here is Daesh, Daesh, Daesh.” He spoke the forbidden name with the relish of a child cursing. “All around Raqqa, checkpoints. What we do, tomorrow, after sunset, we ride south from Ain Issa. Different dirt paths we can take, quiet, no one out there, farmers, they won’t bother us. They don’t like Daesh either, they want everyone to leave them alone. We get close to the river – ” the Euphrates. “Good cover there, palm groves and canals. Close to fifty kilometers.”
He ran his finger down and hooked it to the right. “Now, I told you two weeks ago, Daesh knows this way. Of course. It’s Raqqa, they know every way in. But a friend of mine went through last week with cigarettes, and again three nights ago, he didn’t see anyone. Most of the time they don’t guard it. No cars come, only horses, so it doesn’t bother them much. Anyway they like cigarettes too. We have fifty cartons, in case we run across them.” As a cover story and also for bribes.
“And if they won’t take the cigarettes?”
“They’re men, they take bribes.”
Batta stared at Mahmoud. They both knew that plenty of Islamic State jihadis were true believers and couldn’t be bribed.
“Let me handle it,” Mahmoud said. “I know these men. If I see a problem, a real problem, I say, everyone likes Lucky Strikes. In English, so this one – ” Mahmoud nodded at Girol – “understands. That means we get out, no matter what.”
“Everyone likes Lucky Strikes.”
“Nam. But insh’allah, they watch somewhere else tomorrow night.”
Insh’allah, insh’allah, insh’allah. God willing. Like God paid any attention to this ugly little war. Like its endless barbarity and cruelty wouldn’t have made Him sick in the unlikely event he noticed it. Insh’allah. Batta heard the phrase a hundred times a week, a tic of language he couldn’t escape. He hated it more each time. Truly he had grown to hate everything about this place. He wasn’t sure why he stayed, except that he hated the Islamic State most of all. The week before, an aid worker who specialized in assisting female refugees had told him about three girls who’d clawed out their own eyes after months of being passed among the jihadis. Girls, not women. One was thirteen, the others eleven. They had independently decided to blind themselves rather than endure more rapes. I thought, they’ll kill me now, the oldest girl had told the aid worker. They’ll have to. Even they won’t want a girl with holes in her face. Instead the jihadis had dumped her at a border crossing, literally thrown her off the back of a pickup truck. It’s better now, though. This way I can’t look at myself.
“Remember, the cigarettes are last,” Mahmoud said. “If they stop us, first they want to see our cards – ” identity cards. Batta’s claimed he was from Lebanon, and Girol’s from Bosnia, a way to explain his less than perfect Arabic. “They ask us to pray, we pray.” Mahmoud looked at Girol. “You can pray?”
“Show me. The Fatiha – ” the Quran’s first surah, or verse – “and another.”
Girol turned south to face Mecca. “Bismillah al-Rahman ah-Raheem Al hamdu’lillahi rabbil’alameen –”
“Enough,” Mahmoud said. “They don’t really care, once they hear a few words they just want to make sure you’re a Sunni.” The two sects prayed in slightly different ways. The most obvious difference was that Shias kept their hands by their sides, while Sunnis held them together at the waist.
“Good,” Girol said. “I only know one more verse.”
“A prayer to be named later,” Batta said. He wished Girol had practiced more. But even if Girol memorized the Quran cover to cover, anyone who stopped them would know they didn’t belong near Raqqa. Their cover identities would withstand only brief questioning. They would depend on Mahmoud’s quick tongue, a well-timed bribe, and the laziness of whoever spotted them. Not great odds. If they were detained and brought to Islamic State commanders for a longer interrogation, they would have no chance at all.
Batta already knew he would die before letting that happen.
In Gazientap a month before, Batta’s SOG commander – an ex-Delta op named Oden Durette – had sounded almost embarrassed to be pitching this op. No one had ever tried an exfil from Raqqa. Not the agency, not the Deltas.
“I’m asking you and Bill because you’re the best. You say no, that’s it.”
“Dude can’t get to the border on his own? He needs a taxi?”
“Guys like him have to have permission to leave the city and he’s afraid to ask. I don’t know for sure, but my impression, he was working for the Syrian oil company when our friends came to town. He’s Sunni and good at the job, so they left him to do it, but they don’t really trust him. And he doesn’t have the stones to break for it without us holding his hand.”
“He’s worth the trouble?”
Batta meant, do we trust him? It was possible the Islamic State already knew about Abu Ibrahim and was dangling him to lure them into Syria. In that case, the mission was simple suicide.
“A seven-D. I wouldn’t have asked otherwise.”
The CIA scored its agents on many different scales. The simplest and most important was called the 10-A. The number measured the value of the information the source had provided, from 1 to 10, 10 being best. The letter measured the agency’s confidence that he was genuine and not a double agent secretly controlled by another country’s intelligence service, from A to G, A being most confident. In practice, tens were non-existent, nines reserved for presidents, eights for ministers and generals. As and Bs were similarly tough to find. Seven-D meant that the agency believed “the source had provided important information at serious personal risk and was probably uncompromised.”
“D as in Delta,” Batta said.
“He’s given us good stuff about pipelines, their smuggling routes. Stuff that’s actionable, cost them money. We don’t think they would have put it out as a dangle, especially since they couldn’t know we’d come over the border.”
Durette had a broad flat face and pale blue eyes that pressed gently yet remorselessly. He had lost a foot on a mine in Afghanistan. He never ordered any of his men into missions. He always asked, and he never downplayed the risks. Yet everyone always said yes.
“I’ll see what Mahmoud says,” Batta said. Hoping the Syrian would turn him down.
Mahmoud had said three hundred fifty thousand. More than double the price of the warehouse job. Still, the number gave Batta a certain confidence. If the Syrian thought the job was impossible he would have thrown out a ridiculous figure, a million or more.
Three hundred fifty meant he wanted to try.
So here they were, in Harran. And Batta was feeling more than the usual pre-mission jitters. Raqqa wasn’t a red zone, it was a black hole. No light emerged. Even if Abu Ibrahim hadn’t been doubled and Mahmoud didn’t plan to sell him and Girol to the Orange Jumpsuit Film Co., they didn’t know the place well enough to judge the on-the-ground risks. Did they face a ten percent chance of hitting a checkpoint? Fifty? Ninety?
Batta forced the fear from his mind. He had survived five years of this stupid war. He’d survive the next forty-eight hours. Before he knew it, he and Girol would be back in Gazientap, having a drink. Or ten. A few days after that, the murderers on the other side of the border would be wondering where their bank accounts had gone. Easy.
“So, through the canals, we find your friend here. Midnight.” Mahmoud pointed to a spot on the map, just off a dirt road that dead-ended in a tiny village northwest of Raqqa. “If he’s there.”
“He’s smart, he’ll have no problem finding it.” In truth Batta had no idea of Abu Ibrahim’s sense of direction. Batta had never met the man, didn’t even know his real name. Safer for everyone.
“He’s waiting, we pick him up, switch the horses.”
“Switch the horses?”
“Five of us, four horses. Did you want him to walk?”
Batta felt more than a little foolish. Despite all the preplanning, he hadn’t considered the issue.
“Ajmad comes with me, the two of us together weigh less than you,” Mahmoud said. “He rides Ajmad’s. He can ride?”
“Yes.” Batta didn’t know that either. But even if Abu Ibrahim had the world’s worst case of hippophobia, he would get over it tomorrow night, given the alternative.
“Back the way we came. Round-trip, one hundred kilometers total, but these are good horses. We have a crescent moon, not too much light, not too little. We do it all between sunset and sunrise, and once we get back to Ain Issa we’re safe.”
Maybe even if they couldn’t get all the way back. Batta hadn’t told Mahmoud, and wouldn’t, but he had a couple of aces tucked away. Tomorrow night, the agency would put a helicopter on standby just north of the border. The Islamic State had captured radar systems and anti-aircraft missiles from Syrian Air Force bases and moved them to Raqqa, so the copter couldn’t risk landing inside the city. But Durette had promised he would try an emergency exfiltration even twenty-five kilometers outside Raqqa, if Batta asked for one.
Better still, they would have a pair of guardian angels, two Reaper drones overhead. The drones would carry full payloads, four Hellfire missiles each, and operate under the loosest rules of engagement the agency allowed. The lawyers at Langley called it exigent circumstance/non-identification/one-call launch. In plain English, if the Reaper pilots spotted armed men closing on Batta’s team, they could fire without knowing exactly who their targets were. They wouldn’t even need to speak to Batta or Girol. They did have to call, but if the men on the ground didn’t answer, the pilots could assume that they were in trouble and fire anyway.
The rules made sense. No other Americans, soldier or civilian, were in the area. The risk of friendly fire was nil. The area was farmland, so the risk of civilian casualties was low too. The one advantage of operating alone in hostile territory was the chance for massive air support.
The pilots had also promised to give advance warning of jihadis in their way. Batta wasn’t counting on the help. Distinguishing a checkpoint from farmers hanging out, or a patrol from three guys in a pickup truck, would be almost impossible. And if they ran across a checkpoint, the drones wouldn’t be much use. The Hellfires had a kill radius of a hundred feet. They would vaporize Batta and his guys just as efficiently as the jihadis around them.
Still, if the mission was a trap and the Islamic State’s soldiers had set an ambush, the Reapers would give Batta’s team at least a chance to escape.
“So to Ain Issa with our new friend,” Batta said. “Then home sweet home.”
“And you pay. Three hundred fifty minus one, that’s two hundred fifty. Thousand.”
“Quarter million avec cheese. Nothing would make me happier.”
“Then we agree. Ready?”
“As I’ll ever be.”
Mahmoud tapped Baraq. “Lucky you, you get to ride this one. You’ll break the others.”
They followed Mahmoud south, through miles of pistachio groves. The trees looked like bushes on sticks, twenty or twenty-five feet high, with nuts that hung heavy in clusters. They were ugly and didn’t offer much shade, and Batta didn’t mind when they thinned out.
Mahmoud had made sure they had plenty of water for the horses, but otherwise they were traveling light. In his pack, Batta carried only a spare phone, a bag of stale pita bread, a single change of clothes, a bedroll, a Makarov, a GPS handheld, a cheap map and binoculars, and a basic first-aid kit, all plausible enough. Girol had the same gear, plus a beat-up short-stock AK.
Though Batta did have one other piece of equipment, one that the CIA had hardly used in fifty years. The scientists at Langley called it an “L-pill.” Despite the name, it was not a pill at all, but a pea-sized plastic ampule covered in rubber. The ampule held a concentrated solution of potassium cyanide. Biting through the rubber and plastic released the cyanide. Unconsciousness from oxygen deprivation occurred in seconds, death in minutes.
During the 1940s and 1950s, operatives had carried the ampules in their mouths as false teeth. As the Cold War settled down, they fell out of favor. Now they were back, at least around here. To eliminate the risk of accidental poisoning, surgeons attached the ampules behind the ear with skin-colored tape. They were invisible except to the closest inspection, but easy to reach and tug off.
Without knowing the cyanide would keep him from being taken alive, Batta wasn’t sure he would have gone ahead with this mission. Dying was bad enough. He couldn’t imagine spending his final moments on camera as a masked idiot behind him made an inane speech. Then the final shot, his head laid atop his body, eyes wide in disbelief. Death and dishonor in one neat package.
Batta knew Girol carried a pill, too. Of course they’d never discussed it. He imagined what the Marine would say if Batta asked: Yeah, genius, I got the Hershey-covered version, if it goes tits-up I want chocolate to be the last thing I remember. Delicious. What about you? Hummus, right? One thing all you sand crabs have in common, you all love hummus.
No. Girol would never give a speech that long.
After the pistachios they passed an olive grove, these trees more pleasing, thick-trunked and wavy-branched and reaching for the sky. Van Gogh had painted them, Batta remembered. Crazy Vinny van Gogh, who’d cut off his ear. But crazy as he might have been, van Gogh wasn’t the one riding into Syria with a poison pill stuck to his head.
They tracked south and east as the afternoon wore on. “No hurry,” Mahmoud said. For a while they could glimpse the two-lane road that stretched north from Ackakale, but it was mostly empty. Only smugglers, jihadis, and refugees traveled here now. Still, Batta found himself almost enjoying the ride. Baraq was a fine horse, the best he had ridden, with a long easy stride.
The sun dipped in the sky. They left the last cultivated fields behind and rode on a track that Batta could barely distinguish from the dusty plains around them. Batta didn’t need a map or a sign to know they were nearing the border. Boards covered the windows of the houses they passed. Instead of sheep, goats wandered the fields, poking sullenly at the dirt. Piles of trash appeared at random, burial mounds for zombies. Even before the war, no one had wanted to live near Syria.
The trail dipped. Mahmoud raised a hand to stop them. They followed him down from their mounts. The sun was setting, the sky above turning a somber blue. An easterly breeze quickened and cooled the air. Mahmoud poured water from a plastic jug into a flat metal bowl and offered it to his horse, and Batta poured his own bowl for Baraq. The horse ducked his head and lapped the water gratefully. Still his eyes were wary. Or maybe Batta was projecting.
He pulled on his jacket against the cold night to come, finished watering his horse, and saddled up. The sky was nearly dark, and Batta knew the stars overhead would be momentous out here, with so little light pollution. Satellites and constellations were already jostling for place in the sky.
The trail rose. Batta saw the border ahead, twin lines of razor wire split by a dirt no-man’s-land not even ten meters wide. No signs marked the end of Turkey or the beginning of Syria. No lights glinted down on the strands of wire. Certainly no guard posts. Just the wire, unspooling east and west, held by wooden posts every ten meters or so. Metal stitches, only they divided the world instead of pulling it together.
The smugglers had chosen the perfect place for their crossing. To the east the lights of Ackakale glowed faintly, but Batta saw no houses or lights on the other side of the border, and the nearest Turkish settlement was at least three kilometers north.
Batta couldn’t see a break in the fence, but Mahmoud led them toward a post marked by a trash heap topped with a full-size tire. As they closed on it, Batta saw that the smugglers had hidden their work by attaching the cut wires to handles they’d attached to a fencepost. A helicopter survey wouldn’t catch it.
“Hold on.” Batta reached for the phone in his jacket. It looked like an ordinary Samsung Galaxy but could run on both mobile and satellite networks. It didn’t have full worldwide coverage, but it could reach the satellites the Defense Department kept in fixed low-earth orbit over Syria and Iraq. The satellite antenna was hidden inside the phone, so it was safe to carry even here. But connecting to the satellite network drained the battery quickly. Batta reserved it for important calls or texts. Now he powered up the phone, sent three letters – SYR – to Durette, turned it off again.
Mahmoud snapped open the clips and gingerly held the razor wire. “Dismount. Here we walk.”
Batta stepped through the gap into the no-man’s-land. He didn’t feel like marking the occasion, and he saw the others didn’t either. They passed through the second set of fences, saddled up, rode south.
For three hours, they hardly spoke. The trail followed a dry wash, a stream that would run only during the winter rainy season. In every direction, the high plateau stretched empty. But they weren’t the first to come this way. The moonlight revealed tire tracks in the streambed, and they passed an old campsite, complete with cigarette wrappers and shards of glass.
Mahmoud led them confidently. Smugglers and opium runners had traveled this route long before the Islamic State showed up. Mahmoud was a fourth-generation border rat who had grown up twenty miles south of Raqqa, or so he’d told Kareem.
Lucky for my family, my father sees those cockroaches coming, makes us leave before they can stop us. My friends, now they’re stuck, if they want to get out they have to come to Turkey with nothing. His hatred of the jihadis seemed sincere. Most of them aren’t even Syrian. Iraqi and European. The Iraqis are thugs, they don’t care about religion, they like stealing and murdering. The Europeans are worse, they pretend to pray all the time, but what they really want is to screw little girls.
They stopped every hour to water the horses and stretch their legs. Still, Batta’s feet chafed inside his boots. He felt a blister rubbing against his left ankle, hurting a little more every mile. At their next stop he would have to cover the worn skin with a bandage, or it would pop and he’d risk infection. Baraq was slowing, too. Batta had to nudge the horse with his heel to get him moving. Seventy-five kilometers translated to about forty-five miles, a long day’s ride even for an experienced horseman. Tomorrow night they’d be riding even longer, more than sixty miles, at the limits of endurance for both rider and mount.
Finally, Mahmoud raised his hand. “Still fifteen kilometers to Ain Issa, but it’s time to give these boys some sugar and carrots to get them over. Maybe some bread for us.” He hopped off like he was made of rubber. Batta dismounted slowly, rubbing his calves and wondering how ugly the blister would look. For the first time in his life, he felt old. Thirty-one and old. Beside him, Girol came off his own ride, a short but well-muscled horse who for some reason was named World, in English.
“All right, Genius?” Girol seemed fine, adding to Batta’s embarrassment.
“Guess it pays to be a shrimp on these rides.”
But Girol wasn’t listening anymore. He had tipped his head to the side like a dog hearing a coyote’s howl. Soon Batta caught the sound, too, the rumble of an engine, coming at them from the south. Batta remounted and urged Baraq up an incline on the left side of the wash, the east side. At the top, he saw it. The vehicle looked to be three or four miles away, its headlights white specks in the night, bouncing over the black soil like a ship riding a gentle sea.
At this distance Batta couldn’t tell what kind of vehicle it was, much less if it had military insignia or flags. But its lights seemed high off the ground, like a pickup on big tires or possibly a five-ton truck. Or maybe it had spotlights mounted on the roof. It bounced hard, coming as fast as the soft earth would allow, forty or fifty miles an hour.
Batta turned, rode back down. The others had remounted. “A truck. Maybe a pickup.”
“Just one?” Mahmoud said.
“I think. Be here in four, five minutes. Kurds?”
“We split up. You and I go down the middle. You – ” he nodded to Girol – “and my brother get out of sight, you follow him there.” He pointed to a low hill on the right side of the wash, the west side, maybe a half-kilometer down.
Batta saw what Mahmoud wanted to do. The hill wasn’t much, but if Girol and Ajmad could reach it, they would be behind the truck and whoever was in it.
“If you hear me, whistle don’t wait.”
Ajmad looked doubtful.
“West thirty seconds, south thirty seconds, back. Go, brother.”
Ajmad kicked his horse into a gallop. Girol gave Batta a thumbs-up and a big sarcastic grin and followed. Marines. The best.
Mahmoud slapped his horse and trotted off. Batta shoved his Makarov into the back of his jeans, urged Baraq to follow. For three minutes, Batta couldn’t see the truck. But he could hear it, its engine rumbling towards them. Then it crested a low rise and he saw it, close now. It had a spotlight mounted over the roof, and its front headlights were parallelograms, the shape that marked the Toyota Hilux. Jihadis loved Hiluxes. It was using its high beams, and those combined with the spotlight mounted on the roof of the truck created a wall of white. Batta shielded his eyes and forced himself to keep Baraq trotting. The good news was that the lights were focused in a tight cone. The men inside the truck would have little chance to see outside it. Girol and Ajmad should have a chance to set up.
The Hilux was a hundred meters away, fifty, twenty. Mahmoud and Batta rode a few meters out of the streambed and waved it past. Instead, it stopped. A man standing in the pickup bed swung its spotlight on them. “Stay where you are.”
They stopped. Baraq was tense beneath Batta’s legs, taking mincing sideways steps to relieve his anxiety. Four men stood in back of the Hilux, all carrying AKs. The driver and a single passenger sat in front. Batta fought the spotlight to look at the men. They wore civilian clothes and were clean-shaven, no beards. They didn’t obviously belong to the Islamic State. But they weren’t Kurds either. As a rule, Kurdish men had medium-brown skin, jutting noses, strong chins. These six had the sandy skin and narrow eyes of desert Arabs.
Smugglers or jihadis.
The men in the pickup bed raised their rifles. The man in the passenger seat stepped out. He was short and squat. Batta couldn’t see whether he had a pistol on his hip. Though he might not need one, considering the four guys in the back of the truck.
“Raise your hands.”
Mahmoud lifted his arms. Batta followed.
“Who are you?” the fat man said.
“Who are you?”
Batta’s eyes adjusted enough for him to see a cylindrical tube attached to the outside of the truck’s body, behind the driver’s door. It was a foot long, three inches in diameter. A flag holder.
Only one group stuck flags on pickup trucks around here. Black flags with the Muslim creed, the shahada, in white Arabic script across the top, and the words “Muhammad is the messenger of Allah” in a circle in the center.
The Black Standard, the symbol of the Islamic State.
Batta couldn’t wait for Mahmoud to see the tube. They had no time. If they dismounted, they were as good as dead. If they argued any more, the man would tell the guys in the back to cut them down.
Batta whistled and kicked Baraq hard with his left leg, spurring the horse to the right. The men in the bed of the truck swung their AKs onto Batta and fired into the night. But the horse was moving wildly, an impossible target. Then Girol and Ajmad opened up with their own AKs from the hillside. The jihadis went down like puppets whose strings had been cut, three into the pickup’s bed, the fourth over the side, like he wanted a headstart on burying himself.
The driver accelerated forward, but Mahmoud opened up with his Makarov, popping holes in the windshield. The truck stuttered to a halt as the driver slumped over the steering wheel. The fat man looked around. He’d very obviously made the mistake of leaving his pistol in the pickup. He ran for it, but Mahmoud galloped at him, bowling him over a step from the door. He lay on the ground yelling in Arabic until Mahmoud stilled him with three more rounds.
Batta and Baraq were a hundred meters away by then. The horse thrashed like a mustang, trying to throw Batta so he could break for Turkey. Batta leaned low into his neck and hung on. Finally he calmed, and Batta nudged him to the pickup. Mahmoud was rooting in the truck as his brother and Girol watched.
“Daesh?” Ajmad said.
“Maybe not.” Mahmoud came out of the truck with a black hard-sided suitcase. He unlatched the case and flipped it open. Hundreds of pill bottles of all sizes were stuffed inside. Mahmoud opened one, poured tiny white pills onto his palm.
“Captagon,” he said.
Captagon sounded like it belonged in a dystophic sci-fi novel. But it was real, a type of amphetamine popular in the 1970s before the United States outlawed it as overly addicting. It was still widely used in the Middle East. Militias in Syria produced it in underground labs. Despite its supposedly anti-drug stance, the Islamic State profited from the trade. At wholesale, Captagon pills sold for three dollars each. This suitcase held tens of thousands of pills.
“Smugglers.” Mahmoud sounded irritated. “We didn’t need to shoot them.”
“Take a look.” Batta led him and the others around the pickup, to the flag holder attached on the driver’s side.
Mahmoud swirled a finger over the rim of the cylinder.
“You said they didn’t know about that cut.”
“The good routes, word spreads,” Mahmoud said. “If they were looking for us, they would have had ten trucks. Not one.”
Or maybe the Islamic State wouldn’t have risked sending ten trucks into Kurdish territory. Maybe they would have sent one, with guys who could have passed as smugglers. Or were smugglers. But of course if the jihadis had somehow learned the CIA was sending a team into Raqqa, why intercept them here? Why not wait?
Mahmoud was right. This encounter had been coincidence. Probably. Maybe. Batta wondered whether they should search the pickup, check for identification or phones, but he wanted to move before they bumped into anyone else.
“You want to go back, Kareem?” Mahmoud’s voice had an edge, like Batta was a coward even for considering the possibility.
Dumb question. Of course he wanted to go back. He looked at Girol. “How are you on ammo, Mighty?”
“Went through most of a mag, but no worries.” Girol nodded at the bodies in the truck bed. “They can spare theirs.”
“What do you think?”
Girol shrugged. He didn’t answer those questions.
Batta looked at Mahmoud, knew that right or wrong he couldn’t back down in the face of the smuggler’s certainty. “All right. We’ll talk about it in Ain Issa.” Knowing they wouldn’t, that he’d made his choice.
So they left the truck and the bodies and mounted up and rode south, every stride of their horses bringing them closer to the black hole.