The black locomotive was steaming beneath its wheels at Bukhara’s Rostov Station at the northern end under a deep dark part of the platform. It was thundering like an angry bull waiting for the whistle to run. The Uzbek workmen and vendors were moving their stuff in the luggage compartment. Rostov a small railway station had only this last train after midnight bound to the border of Turkmenistan for its onward journey to Ashgabat.
Razmak Bilal had much time to board. He stood on the damp concrete platform and watched other passengers hurling but did not have the desire to board early. He went to a vendor and bought a roll and Pepsi for his appetite. A big clock hanging with the iron chain on his head banged for 00.30. It’s time to go he thought and moved toward the entrance of the compartment. A white uniformed staff extended his hand for the ticket. He tossed him up a card already in his left hand and looked back around. The platform was almost emptied. Only vendors and staff were winding up their work. Nothing suspicious he noted and climbed up the compartment.
He kept his pace to the next compartment in the corridor. He was heading toward the tail. He knew his destination. He slowly made his way along the entire length of the train and glanced over the passengers fixing their bags and readjusting their seats. He kept on moving until he reached in the end at a first-class private compartment.
No one stood in the narrow carpeted aisle in the middle of the car. He marched quickly to the last compartment, checked the number on the door and without knocking he jerked back on the handle and slid it open.
Major Boris Yaakov of the External Services sat alone on the far side of grandeur velvet couch near the window just relaxed as he had already accomplished his mission. He had broad shoulders and a face unlike Russians but more close to the Uzbeks. His fair complexion and dark brown hair made him comfortable in civilian posture. He had long ago been transferred to External Services from the regular army and now he had earned repute among intelligence services.
Razmak nearly laughed. Yaakov was wearing a loose fitting tweed coat with a tie. At the moment he had an open collar by pulling his tie below the neck and his clothes were sweaty disarray.
Yaakov looked at Razmak and he tossed his copy of Pravda Vostoka leading newspaper of Uzbekistan in Russian onto the sofa and extended his hands in thanks.
“Ah, the weather is terrible.”
Razmak did not smile. He put a finger to his lips and pushed the door behind him. He put his suitcase down and looked around. There was one large window at the far wall and outside the distant countryside lights danced as the train came into motion with the rhythmic vibration of its wheels. Above the secured bed was a luggage rack with a guardrail. There was a small mirror across from the bed alongside a door. Razmak put one hand in his coat pocket and then snapped open the door near to the entrance. Empty. He kicked the foot of the sofa and then he moved his free hand along the walls not so much a perceptible inspection as a way of focusing his thoughts on all eventualities. Then he returned to leave.
“What’s wrong?” Yaakov asked with a hint of annoyance.
“To get acquainted with our neighbours.”
“We have no neighbours,” said Yaakov. “We are the last compartment and I booked the adjoining one as well. And it cost me another 300 dollars in cash to do it.” He waved for Razmak to sit.
Razmak stood for a moment, thinking. Then he locked the door and moved to the sofa. He sat at the opposite end from Yaakov back to the wooden corner wall. He removed his hand from his coat and placed his pistol on the sofa next to his left thigh.
Yaakov glanced at the pistol and shifted in his seat. “You seem to have lost some faith, Hashim.”
“I had a professor in foreign land who taught me that faith is only for the fools.”
Yaakov nodded, recognising his own words. “Perhaps he omitted some exceptions.”
“Well, let’s see,” said Razmak.
Yaakov reached into the pocket of his tweed coat, keeping his movement slow and deliberate. He removed a small box of Brazilian cigar and lit one blowing a cloud of smoke, fragrant smoke.
“Yes major,” Razmak smiled. “How’s Peterov.”
Yaakov shrugged. “Perhaps Peterov may be annoying, but it’s not dangerous. You were supposed to board in Turkmenabat.”
“Yes but I thought to better here to face…”
“Death,” Yaakov said. “Yes, yes we may go on.” If he heard his own words thrown up to Razmak, he feared he might scream. He wanted to conduct the briefing and then get rid of this Afghan. Razmak was decidedly different out here than he had been in past. The difference was not a welcome guest.
Razmak was also anxious to continue. He had waited a very long time for this moment and he had done so patiently knowing that his new masters had something in store for him which they would reveal at their discretion. His feeling for Yaakov was resentful and thankful at the same time. After all, it had been too clear in Kabul that the Western intelligence services were snapping at his heels. Then suddenly, like some grand support from Heavens, Major Boris Yaakov had appeared to rescue him from the fire, effectively wiping Razmak Bilal from the face of the earth and to be reborn as someone else.
Razmak had no misunderstanding as to the motives. It was clear that his training was focused on enabling him to carry out some elimination on Pakistan soil. However as with all such operations of ES, his target would not be revealed to him until the last possible moment. He assumed that it would be some important, perhaps some Pakistani, most probably a top diplomat of his own country who had strayed from their agenda. This would be a double edge dagger attack effects on international scene to keep Pakistan government under pressure or may be someone else. He accepted that. He would simply add a few more individuals from his own private list.
Yaakov despite the scary feeling that he was sharing a cage with a deceitful creature, leaned closer to Razmak; he leaned his elbows on his knees and wiped his wide jaw with his meaty fingers.
“Let’s start with your face.”
“My face?” Razmak looked puzzled.
“Yes, your face. Did you think that we simply allowed our surgeons morale license. Feel the scar.”
Razmak touched the short curved fissure below his left eye. Yes, he had always wondered how the ES would tolerate such a careless mark on the face. But then he had grown to like this slight piratical look. He tilted his head and saw his own reflection in the big window on the far wall. Rain was striking the glass outside driving back in horizontal streams with the wind. Razmak loved trains. They were incredibly romantic.
“On a weekly basis,” Yaakov continued, the Pakistani President with his close aides is briefed by NSS staff officers. Unless there is an urgent military crisis, most of these officers are from Planning, Logistics and Intelligence. Do you follow me so far Razmak.”
“Yes,” Razmak nodded quietly. Already he had sensed that his guesses had been way off the mark. He could feel growing curiosity in his mind, such as an officer might feel upon while searching a bag of a tipped passenger on the custom’s counter at the airport to find contra-banned item.
“Now, Yaakov went on, posing a pleasure of the certain shock he was about to administer. “One of these strategic advisors is quite a talented young man, though I must say that in typical Pakistani fashion, he has attained his rank at too young age. His name is Major Azeem Khalidi. Would you like to see a picture of him?”
Razmak kept silent, but he could feel his heart pounding inside against his silky shirt.
Yaakov reached into his breast pocket and came with a small leather folder. It looked like a single sheet of glossy paper. The major held it out in front of Razmak.
Razmak swallowed his gasp. The face that looked out at him was his own. The hair was slightly shorter but curly, the skin was little fair, but the scar was plainly there. It was obviously a surveillance photo with a background of cafe umbrellas and roadside guardrail in front of an old high school type building. Part of the shabby uniform with silver parachute wings on the chest could be seen below the face. Yet most important glimpse was his broad carefree smile. Razmak thought instantly that he would have to produce that smile.
Razmak reached out and slowly took the picture from Yaakov. Even as he did so it began to darken, as he watched it turned coal black until nothing was left but a flat black piece of glossy paper.
“Magic,” Yaakov smiled and picked it up back and pocketed it.
The Major picked up his cigar box from the couch and offered to Razmak. Razmak waved it away and Yaakov snorted a short laugh.
“No, I knew these are not your brand. At the bottom of the box you would find Khalidi’s profile. All you need, you see?” He pushed the pile of cigars aside and lifted one corner of the foil to reveal a white paper folder cover with unreadable Cyrillic print. “You will need a magnifying glass to read it. Buy one.”
Razmak was only half hearing Yaakov’s deliberation. He felt a chilled tremble in his chest. So that was why Captain Rafi Ahmad had stared at him so intently on the Tehran bus, obviously thinking that the face is somehow familiar but he was forgetting on the moment where he has seen him and on the other side he had also knew ‘Hayat Gul,’ ‘Razmak Bilal’ or ‘Hashim Badin’ were one and the same person. In fact Captain Rafi Ahmad had probably seen his face somewhere, maybe even served with Azeem Khalidi at some point. How he had come very, very close to being blown right then and there. He looked at Yaakov, who was enjoying the surprise. Until this moment major had told Razmak nothing. On the other hand Yaakov was simply following the procedure. He could not possibly have known that Razmak’s own private efforts would again bring him so soon into contact with Pakistani intelligence operatives.
Razmak fought with his anger and calmed his racing heart. He had to hear the rest of it.
“Nice-looking fellow,” Razmak managed a brief smile as he took the paper and put it into his inside pocket. “Yes, carry on.”
“Yes, Hashim,” said Yaakov. Somehow he was disappointed that Razmak had not had a more emotional reaction to his surprise. “So yours Target.” The Major once again reached into his inside pocket of the coat reminding Razmak of a comic circus magician. He took out a small note book wrote something on the leaf, tore it off and handed it to Razmak.
Razmak took the paper and looked at it. He blinked. He held it closer and looked at it again. The name of the President of Pakistan jumped up at him from the white scrap. He held it out for Yaakov to take back. It trembled into his fingers.
“Are you mad?” Razmak switched to Russian. His voice was harsh. Images of hateful Pakistani politicians popped up into his brain, but the idea that they wanted to kill him had to be a joke, a ruse, and a test of Razmak’s sincerity.
“No, I am not a madman,” Yaakov calmly replied in Russian as he recovered the paper. He went to the washbasin, lifted the cover, took out his cigarette lighter and incinerated the evidence.
He walked back to Razmak and stood beside him barely whispering now. “First, I will describe how it will go. Then we will discuss politics of it.”
Razmak stared up at the mad Russian.
On the 6th of September, this man will address a group of senior military and civilian elites on the Defence Day of Pakistan ceremony at some place; I would let you know later.
Razmak listened, yet he felt as his brain was splitting into many distinct parts. One belonged to Razmak Bilal, a hero of Afghan cause who could bring salvation to his people through Muslim philosophy. The other belonged to Hayat Gul, the intellectual, the planner who always escaped the labyrinth and the third one Hashim Badin who in ravage of his personal belonging murdering a series in vengeance. Yet it would be like entering a bee’s nest in an attempt to crush the queen.
“Now, Major Khalidi sees this man every single day, the security people are so used to his presence that he has a free access to the President. He can even approach your target and freely speak without schedule. So he is most suitable person. Are you following Hashim?”
Razmak just starred at the major’s face eyes to eyes contact. He kept quiet.
“On the morning of the 6th Major Khalidi will not show up for work. He will be abducted by some people and disposed of. The security people bound for this man would be handled directly by the ES people themselves. We know CIA has provided Pakistanis some of the latest digital gadgets for the security of this man, yet we will handle those all.”
Yaakov stopped to light another cigar from a pack. Then unthinkingly, he mumbled, “These people cannot be trusted to do anything right by themselves.”
Razmak raised his eyes. Yaakov went slightly pale, yet there was no use in trying to apologise. He cleared his throat.
“That evening, just before the ceremony, you will surface in Khalidi’s place. Quite simply, you will execute the Target with your pistol and promptly surrender.”
The major paused, waiting for a signal to continue on. However, Razmak began to laugh. It started at a low pitch and then he threw himself back against the sofa letting the waves roll over him at a peak level from his nostrils and throat as he slapped his leg and tears came to his eyes. Finally when he was settled, he loosened his tie and opened his eyes. The ES major once again readjusted himself on the seat studying him like a concerned psychiatrist.
“I am so pleased that you are amused.”
“I am sorry, Comrade Major, Razmak managed as he recovered. “But just imagine that I will order you to jump under this train and expect you to take it seriously.”
“You will not be killed Hashim.”
“Oh, yes not of course. They will give me flowers and make me Mr. Pakistan.”
“They will not kill you instantly; they would try their level best to get something out of you about the conspiracy. Razmak rose to his feet and began to pace, growing furious with the realization that these were dead serious and he was expected to play the pawn in a game on a highest level.
“You will not be killed, you will pretend as a Pakistani officer gone mad, you will not even speak and in the meantime, we would manage to get you out safely. It’s our duty and we are paid for it. Do you think this is a simple dream we have wished. No my dear, we have been working for a long time, lot of research and mobilization of resources has made this plan actionable and then have concluded this assassination.”
Razmak stopped pacing and stood before the window. He watched tall grey telephone poles as they flashed by. The clatter of the wheels was like a headache that would not diminish.
“They would hospitalise you as a psychosis patient, it’s simple. You must retain your discipline and silence for a couple of weeks. At that time, a team posing as terrorists will hijack a foreign passenger’s aeroplane at Pakistani soil and will land at some place in Central Asia or elsewhere suitable at that moment. They will demand release of only ten people kept in Pakistani prisons. They will include in their demand the release of Major Khalidi. In less than twelve weeks you will be back in Moscow relaxing whatever you wanted to do.”
Razmak said nothing. He realised that he was gripping something very hard and he looked down to see the pistol clutched in his hand. He actually wished he were back there now. He thought of Lina. He had never expected to see her again. As for Shirin he knew that she was gone from his life forever. He had been given the face of a top advisor in the government of Pakistan. Now no place left for him to go where he could not be tracked. He would have to remain in Central Asia or Moscow all his life.
“It’s a politically disastrous idea,” he whispered.
“Look Hashim,” Yaakov said in a gentle tone. “I will explain to you whole politics of it all.”
Razmak moved to the sofa again and sat down. He stared at Yaakov, debating whether to hear him or shoot him in his burly face.
“Hashim, what’s your greatest dream?” Yaakov waited. “No, you don’t remember, now I refresh your memory. I will tell you as you have said to me. You wish to return someday back to Afghanistan, a motherland in the hands of righteous sons, correct?”
True, Razmak’s dream perhaps the fantasy that fuelled him was to return his hometown as a hero. It would again be a city of honour and respect and all the sins of his father would be wiped away.
“Well, if this man lives, your dream is dead.” Yaakov said simply. “You can’t think that how much he is close to America and how his covert plans to crush the Afghanistan through Americans and Taliban of his own.” He is playing double game. If he remains alive, neither could Taliban be succeeded nor the Americans. He is pushing NATO forces fight in the Afghanistan the longer the better so that he could remain stable on his seat. He was never a friend to the Muslims. He would never be and you know he is now about to wed with India.”
Suddenly Razmak was alert again, listening, not indulging with his own pity thoughts.
“Yes,” Yaakov continued. “We have a copy of the secret plan, code name “Flush-out” courtesy of a European Diplomat in Vienna. The plan calls for South Asian Strategic Peace Conference, Afghanistan Elections, rapid autonomy and then relinquishing certain area to Americans and some for Pakistan proxies and Kabul under Indian and Americans both on the face of it to the Afghans. Northern area I mean your homeland is going to the Americans. So this man is going to sell out a part of your country to the Americans forever in exchange for eventually returning home safe with East and West borders under his own control.”
Seeing Razmak’s look in sheer disbelieve, Yaakov finished of his story.
“Yes, it is true. Now I will not insult you by pretending a selfish heart for the Afghan cause. Your act will deal these holier-than-thou Pakistanis a crushing blow. Our own disinformation will spread word of an attempted coup by hard-liners. This will, of course, cause a total collapse of their government and destroy the plan for his rogue state. We will then move quickly to have the Syrians and Iraqis initiate one final military push, which they can only do with our support and mediation and we will be back in the great game.”
Yaakov waited for some verbal reaction, but Razmak kept quiet and starred at Yaakov without a word.
“Would you like to go home, Hashim?”
“I would like to kill you.”
Yaakov swallowed hard. “You may shoot the messenger,” he said but the message would remain there.” He realized how dangerous this encounter was? He had seen Razmak performance in hand-to-hand combat classes. This Afghan did not even need the pistol. Yaakov had no idea that Razmak was buying this lie. The major had to believe that their past relationship would carry him through it. The plan, of course, was much simpler than ever. There was no pending agreement between Pakistan and India, no South Asian Strategic Peace Conference for covert disintegration of Afghanistan. This was a just a story to enhance Razmak’s rage and distorted sense of afghan nationalism.
Razmak would kill the President and Razmak himself would die immediately. The dead Razmak would be revealed as an foreign agent penetrated by the Americans and Pakistan would withdraw the support for NATO and Americans instantly which would result Americans to cross Pakistani borders in hot pursuit of Taliban from the Western borders tipping Indians to enter into Pakistan from the eastern borders. Russians might also come from other side and will manoeuvre to take Baluchistan, her old dream to reach to the hot waters. How warm she would be welcomed when they stepped into save Baluchistan. Wild Iran and Syrians are already watching her interest in the Middle East. The Politburo was becoming increasingly pathetic, but at least the External Services understood them and had to get back into the South Asia after losing Afghanistan to strengthen their scope both in Middle East and South Asia.
Even if Razmak’s attempt failed, ES would still blow him for the NSB as an American operative. Hopefully, with the same results, conspirator really would not lose anything with this plan, no matter what happened to Razmak.
And yet seeing Razmak’s eyes ablaze, Yaakov was not sure that he would survive this briefing at all. He was getting old for a field officer, nearly fifty. After this, he swore that he would retire for a modest work and spend the rest of his life fishing on the Black Sea.
“Hashim,” Yaakov resumed in a careful and soothing tone.
“Shut up please, Major.” Razmak exploded. “I have to think.”
Yaakov sat dead still as Razmak rose and began to pace. Razmak knew a trap when he saw one. Yaakov and his masters manipulated him. They with their chess mind always playing chess! It surpassed in their national psyche, and they layered their political moves with plots and counterplots so you never saw the true objective until your king lay bleeding on its side. Razmak was smart too, yet in an instinctive animal way. He could not beat Yaakov at great game. Yet he could refuse to play the ES rules.
With this involving and detestable face of his, there was nowhere to hide, hundreds of photos of him could have faxed and flying to the capitals of Europe, Middle East and Asia within minutes by the order of Yaakov. Moreover, it did not escape him as Lina and Sabeen were at their mercy. Oh, they have run that well, giving him a woman who has a selfish love and then instructing him to conceive a child with her. And did they know how he felt about his lovely family? Of course they knew, they had listened to their every word, every whisper. Most probably they have recorded their lovemaking with pornographic excitement.
The question was could he do it? All of it? Could he fulfil his personal pledge to avenge Zahir, then carry out their order and get out of it alive? Had the world called him Devil of Terror for nothing? He was stronger now than he had even been, faster, armed with more languages and combat skills.
Razmak had resources, safe deposits and old networks. He had telephone numbers in his head and the names of men who would bow to him and obey his orders.
The final objective, even without any benefit to them, did sound sweet. He could strike a massive blow for Afghan nationalism and to take devastating revenge from Pakistan. He could slash at the heart of the enemy and derail its prosperity.
He also knew that his chances of survival could be very remote indeed. He was no amateur and certainly no fool. The ES would not allow me certainly to live a moment after my shooting and that would be my skill to survive. He thought with some irony.
He also knew that their sponsored terrorists can hijack the plane.
He made his decision. He would do it. However he would carry it out in his own way, using his own methods without aid from their network. And Razmak pledged to himself, since he knew that his own death was highly probable. I shall take Sher Ali and rest of his commandos along with me.
“The sixth of September?” Razmak asked in a confirmatory tone.
“Yes, my Comrade, the Sixth.” Yaakov voice was bright with pleasure.
He reached into his pocket and took out a big brown leather wallet of the type issued by international banks when selling travellers cheques. He handed the fat wallet like a game-show host giving away prizes. “Fifty thousand US dollars,” he did not want Razmak to think that this was some sort of cheap payoff. “It’s just for additional expenses.”
“I shall be there.” Razmak took the cheques.
“That’s a good boy,” Major Yaakov was rather amazed at himself. He has done it much to his own surprise. Unfortunately he was ordered to discuss one additional sensitive subject which so far he had not talked. Damn Boss!
“Hashim, there is one more thing I want to ask you.” Yaakov lit up another cigar. He coughed briefly and glanced at Razmak, who suddenly looked extremely impatient as he leaned against the door. He was staring out the window. The train was moving considerably slow as they neared the outskirts of the Turkmenabat, a border city of the Turkmenistan. They had already crossed the border and left behind Uzbekistan’s last small city Karakul an hour ago. For Razmak, route had always played a strategic role once he had in action. “I must ask why you killed Pakistani NSS man in Tehran.”
It was only a guess as they were not positive about it. The signals pointed to Razmak and ES instructed Major Yaakov to probe into it. He hoped that Razmak would deny it completely but Afghan’s eyes flashed for moment and that gave an answer to Yaakov.
Razmak said nothing.
“We are very upset about this, my friend,” Yaakov said.
“It’s none of your business and concern,” Razmak barely whispered.
“You must stop this, whatever it may be, no more killing.”
“I told you, it’s none of your business and concern, didn’t you hear me,” Razmak yelled at Yaakov and turned on him, his fist clenching.
“Listen, listen, Hashim, you must hear me, my comrade,” Yaakov put his hands up in the air trying to make him calm in a pacifying gesture. Shit, why did he have to do this? But he had orders and he could not decide which would be worse, Razmak rage or Colonel Mikhail’s bull-shit. “Now I know why you are doing this, my friend. But you must cease it; it will endanger the whole plan.”
“It will not,” said Razmak almost thundering.
“Yes, Hashim, it will be.”
“No, Major you are not always correct. They do not have all the answers.” Razmak harshly said. “As I said, I shall be there on the sixth; however, I shall also conduct this secondary operation as I see necessary. If you are not a fool you will see that this will also alter the character of Pakistani’s inability and inefficiency in the eyes of the western agencies. In addition, it will draw the focus on one of the already encircled terrorists in their list to find the killer. They could never think of totally unrelated target.”
Razmak’s eyes glowed with rage frightening Yaakov further. The major tried to appease.
“Yes, I agree with you personally, however I have been instructed to inform you and if there is some sort of help from us. I can personally escort you to UAE and witness you boarding an aircraft bound for Islamabad.
Razmak raised his eye brows and laughed.
“Yes,” Yaakov swallowed.
“Lahol-e walla quwate.”
Razmak leaned down, grabbed Yaakov from his tie and pulled him up to his feet and starred in his eyes.
“Give me your belt.” Razmak ordered.
“Your belt, now.”
Image of his swollen body hanging in the compartment doorway made him nearly dead but he managed to unbuckle his belt and pull it through the loops.
“Thank you, Major.” Razmak took the belt and released Yaakov who fell back on the sofa holding his throat where the tie had nearly choked him.
Razmak walked over to his briefcase and lifted it by the handle. He looped the belt around the leather and buckled it as tightly as he could. He lifted the case and walked to the door.
“What… what are you doing?” Yaakov managed.
“I prefer that my underwear not be scattered over the entire countryside of Turkmenabat. Goodbye, Major. Perhaps we shall meet again but let’s not count on it.” Razmak went out of the compartment and banged the door behind that made Yaakov jump.
Then the major understood. He quickly rose to his feet and almost run behind Razmak who had already opened the exit door and standing there letting chilled scream of wind inside corridor with the whistle of the train merging into the rain clatter. Razmak was standing at the footrest grabbing the sill and pushed his head outside and looked back at the Yaakov. And before Yaakov could say a word, Razmak threw his case into the air and like some horrible ghost launched himself from the train and floated for a while in the mid-air, his feet together, and his arms clamped against his head, he disappeared below the embankment like an end of a nightmare.
Couple of Days Later
The wheels of the Boeing 737 banged down onto the runway with a screeching sound and unlike Pakistani pilots, the former Brit Royal Air force pilot apologised generously on the intercom. He joked that there must have been an earthquake occurring in Kabul, for the ground had suddenly jumped up and struck his airplane. Some of the passengers laughed and applauded. They were the ones who had been frightened the most.
Sahel arrived on the early morning Ariana Airlines flight from Abu Dhabi. The airplane crawled towards the terminal building and in typical native fashion the passengers did not follow the instructions and while the aircraft was taxiing everyone stood up at their seats. A quick announcement in Persian and English came over the intercom for the passengers to be seated until taxiing is finished and engines are switched off. In the last hour, Sahel had gone to the restroom, refreshed himself, looked on his face, and combed his small beard which he had intentionally let grow in the last week before he planned to reach Kabul. He changed into a sky blue casual shirt with a khaki tone trouser and a slim black tweed coat to beat the Kabul weather. However, the clothes were already sticking to his skin as he sat in the aisle seat near the forward exit, gripping the metal armrests and hoping that he would not bolt like a rabbit when the steward just passed by him preparing for arrival.
He glanced out of the window; A BA 747 was parked at some distance from the terminal like a lonely orphan forbidden to join the play at a street. It was surrounded by armoured cars and grey uniformed guards with machine guns waiting for the passengers to show themselves out.
Sahel’s choice of an Afghan air carrier was apparently outrageous, for if alerted, the cabin crew would have had two hours in which to examine their passengers and pinpoint him for the authorities. Yet if the Colonel Zawri was already aware of Sahel’s unauthorised trip, the Colonel would assume that Sahel was not crazy enough to be flying around on the national carrier of a country in which he was still wanted for alleged-murder, which was precisely why Sahel had made the selection. Albeit he is refused to enter, he could have opportunity to go back on the same flight to Abu Dhabi. It was operationally correct in his opinion.
In any case, it was highly unlikely that anyone had yet realised that he had left Pakistan. He had returned to work and pretended utter emotional sobriety for full three days. With his plans boiling in his mind, he was even able to affect a mood of calm resignation as he worked up his report for NSB. It was quite a work and he handed it over to Anita for typing then informed Major Shahzad and Major Dilshad that he was taking Amber to Northern Areas for a few days. He said he had to salvage the remains of his ruined birthday party.
To Amber, he played the apologetic husband. He brought her flowers, kissed her often and apologised for having to attend a professional activity in HQ.
At Captain Rafi Ahmad’s funeral, which took all of half an hour and was held at their ancestral graveyard in Gojar Khan, Sahel held Shaista’s hand and played as commanding officer. He suppressed the powerful urge to scream out at the top of his lungs and he was only able to do so because he knew what he had in mind.
Someone had to stop Razmak Bilal from killing the rest of his team.
“I swear, I swear,” he uttered in his mind.
The stewardesses lined up at the exit to say goodbye with their professional smiles to the departing passengers. Sahel’s small bag had just fit in the overhead. He jumped up and dragged it out and joined the ordered line of the passengers toward the exit.
He started quickly down the stairs shaking out his knee as the tune popped up in his mind. “Walk and don’t run.” He welcomed it like old school mate one cannot shake, then he joined the rhythm and slowed his pace, letting the cool fresh air relieve his feverish skin.
This was the most dangerous stage of his air journey. If he survived passport control he would have a chance. The most effective weapon of his trade had never been his pistol, explosives or ammunition. Rather they were his papers— forged passports, driver’s license and bank cards. But he had none of those now, for they were weapons by the Armoury. Everything ever issued to him had been recovered while he was still in hospital.
He was travelling on a simple, legal national passport of Pakistan. He had not set foot on Afghanistan soil as Sahel Farhaj and he realised that travelling without a cover was as unnatural to him as to jump in the air from ten thousand feet free fall without a parachute.
A line of proud-postured patient passengers led back from the control desk that had Afghans boldly displayed above it. Sahel joined the shorter line before a sign that said Foreigners.
“Khosh Amadeed, Agha Sahel,” The girl was pretty, petite, fair complexion with dark hair, a perfect Afghan girl as Sahel placed his passport on the desk for her.
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak Persian.” Sahel said as he smiled and tried not to look on the stern faced immigration officials on the other side of the desk. He put his bag up on the edge of the marble top and reached for a folded business invitation letter inside of his coat pocket and handed it over to the girl.
“It’s never mind,” the girl smiled as she pecked at a keyboard.
The girl opened the folded paper and glanced over it. It had bold printed name of the company as ‘SEIMENS’, and Sahel was invited for the meeting by its German Director in Kabul.
“Are you Engineer?”
“Yes,” Sahel suppressed his pounding heart inside and smiled.
“Where are you coming from, please?”
“For how long please?”
“A week maybe.”
“And where will you stay?”
“I think my host must be holding a good room in a hotel, yet I don’t know exactly.”
“Anything to declare?” The girl just continued her litany.
“Nothing, just myself.”
She smacked his passport with a metal stamp and grinned broadly.
He was in. He took his bag and walked. He played the tune again in his head and tried very hard not to think about the last time he had been at Kabul International Airport. He was ready to bet his life that Galaxy Air had lost its operating license for Kabul Airspace.
There was a small window for rapid currency exchanges just next to a row of rental car desk waiting for customers. Sahel changes two hundred US dollars for Afghanis and went straight to Kabul Cars, and rented a blue Toyota GLI on cash payment.
The car was delivered to him outside of the terminal. He threw his bag into the rear seat and drove almost to the last parking sign at the airport outskirts. Then he cut back and parked it in a long-term lot. He took the bag, locked the car and dropped the keys to the pavement toeing them behind a wheel. He had no intention of using this Corolla again. He had created his first dead lead. He took the bus into the town.
Kabul was not then same city, although only a year and half had passed. The images frozen in Sahel’s memory were of snow slickened streets under a purple-grey sky, the sidewalk cafes not yet empty of tourists and Kabulis were still using summer clothing, although it was beginning of the autumn, still the city was bright flowery and festive. However the incoming winter had started to display on the shops where new arrivals are hung with its new prices.
Sahel’s first feeling was nearly disappointed for he wished to be greeted with a proper gloom to match his mood of frustration, yet he passed over the City Centre sidewalks and saw the hundreds of Afghanis and foreigners busy in the shopping and usual summer morning hustle bustle. He knew that he would be schizophrenic when he came to the land of his first ever failed mission. He hated Kabul.
When he had worked as a team leader here, there had been occasional lulls in operations. Sometimes you simply had to wait for the next event, a move by the opposition and you could visit the endless museums, tombs and historical places and even indulge your lust if you did so with care and anonymity. But this time Kabul was an old battlefield upon which some very bad things had transpired. It was a place you never wanted to visit again until you were too old to feel the pain, yet you suddenly realise you had dropped a precious professional collapse on the bloody earth and you had to go back to find the truth. And that’s why he was here now.
Kabul was the only place for him to begin again. If Razmak Bilal was operational, there was one man in Kabul who might know about it. This time it would be all business. No time to enjoy the city, the weather or the people. Sahel had planned every step in his head, and he would move so quickly that he would arrive and be gone like the falcon.
He got off the bus outside the National Museum and walked into the massive National park entrance making one quick weaving pass through the hundreds tourists and local inhabitants wandering to enjoy the on-going sunny but cold air around. As he pushed through the crowd, never looking behind him, he began to do something which he had not done in a long, long time. He began to pray.
“Let it be there God, please. Just let it be still there.”
When you began training with NSB, you were in awe of your instructors expecting them to know everything and teach you every trick of the trade. But as you went along, you realised that your bosses were just humans. They learned from their mistakes and rarely made them twice, yet someone was always inventing new, potentially fatal error.
Once in Middle East, a nervous young NSB agent had forgotten his cover name because it was not adamantly linked to his subconscious. It never happened again, as all the services revamped their cover policies making sure that agents name were organic and unforgettable. These things were basic, yet the additional precautions were picked up along the way.
Khanzada Syad had been an encyclopaedia of such survival tips, sort of a professional private source like an angel to Sahel’s team. Faizi Jaffar had always warned Sahel about the unreliability of the Headquarters. They could make mistakes, and you had to have your own secrets, your own reserves in case everything came apart on you. You have to have an insurance policy. Sahel thought of his own policy and hoped it’s still in effect.
He walked through almost the whole park to reach the other end of it. Crowds of visitors and vendors swarmed around him chattering like anything. At the western corner of the park Eat & Drink was still there. “God, Let it still be there. He once again prayed. Now, if only they had not renovated it.
He walked straight for the cafe and pushed inside, past the crowded tables, his guts constricting as his bag banged to his knee. He went into the men’s room and waited for a customer to finish his business and leave the corner stall.
Sahel stepped in, locked the door and held his breath. The window looked the same. Maybe the frame was freshly painted, but the walls were still cracked and crumbly. He put his hand under the sill and felt the slight separation between the wood and the lower wall.
His fingers stopped. He gripped and then pulled a laminated bank card along with the small key taped to it popped out. He looked at it and then held it to his chest raising his eyes to the ceiling and saying a silent thanks to God.
The Kabul Bank branch was just opposite the National Park. Sahel ignored the clusters of pretty girls perched around the huge fountain in the centre of the roundabout in front of the park and he did not hear the afghan music that encouraged the people to sit around. He marched straight into the bank and went inside back to the officer’s desk, holding out customer’s card as he greeted a small fair Afghan young man in a grey summer suit.
“Morning,” Sahel said in a business like tone as he showed his bank card to him. “Can I operate my safe deposit locker?”
“One moment please Mister Sher Ali,” the officer took the card. He checked with the computer and then raised his head with a painted expression. “I am afraid the payments of your safe deposit locker are in arrear, sir.”
“Yes, but my locker is still intact, I expect.”
“Naturally,” the young officer snapped even more erect, as if offended by the suggestion that Kabul Bank might violate its own regulation.
“How much payments?” Sahel pulled out his wallet.
“Eight hundred Afghanis.”
Sahel paid the sum without any hesitation and he was led down a curved stairwell to a guarded vault. The young officer applied his master key in a medium size locker and waved Sahel to open it by his own key and left the room.
It was there, all of it, five thousand dollars in a sealed envelope, which Sahel divided and placed in four of his pockets. The brown paper package was untouched as well. He felt the familiar L shape of his pistol in the packet yet he did not open it. He put the packet inside the pocket of his coat. The final pack was most important, for he could not go on stalking around Kabul as a Pakistani citizen. In his last mission trip he had all the forged documents got prepared by an Afghan artist— the afghan passport, driving license, military ID card at the cost of 1000 US dollars. The artist could not, of course, create infrared marking in the passport but for everyday use and for leaving Kabul, this document would suffice.
He tore the packet, putting the smaller documents into his wallet and the Afghan passport in the inside breast pocket of his coat. He reached into his wallet again and pulled out a handful of Afghan currency bills of small denomination with some coins and dropped them into the locker and closed it.
He pushed the call button to recall the young bank officer.
Back in the sunshine, Sahel felt considerably re-freshened and optimistic. He knew where he was going with a limp in his walk, he strode back the way he had come through the pressing crowd. He exited the roundabout and turned left towards the Shahrah e Qutab. He knew one medium-size inexpensive hotel called the Western Inn. At this time there was hardly a room to be had in Kabul, but the hotel had not earned its repute for nothing. Kabul businessmen frequently rented this hotel for one purpose only and as their liaisons with their secretaries or girlfriends only lasted for an hour or so at lunchtime, yet a room could be had anyway.
Sahel strolled in with his bag through the front door into a cool darkened lobby. The reception desk was to the right; a few padded chairs sat out on the dark maroon carpet around low glass table. There was a small newsstand across the lobby, two stairs leading up to a coffee shop, elevators further on and finally another exit at the far end.
A couple of Asian and European businessmen sat close their heads at one another around one of the tables. Behind the main desk a very large, bald Afghan looked uncomfortable in a light blue uniform coat that had not fit him for years. That was good. Sahel could be bold with this man. He walked up to the desk and grinned.
“One single room, please.”
“One single room,” the clerk expression was almost apologetic. Sorry, sir, there is no room at all, no single, no double.”
“You please, check it, said Sahel without a hint of annoyance. He opened his wallet, looked around conspiratorially, and stuffed a 100 Afghani note into the clerk’s hand. “You know I just need it for a night,” he whispered. “I’ll be out by morning.” He pointed to an empty chair in the lobby. “I will just be over there. Let me know if someone vacates it.”
He winked and walked away, leaving the fat man to manage staring after him. He carried his bag to the newsstand, bought a pack of Rothmans and a copy of Kabul Times took up his position. Within a quarter of an hour he had a room on the third floor.
He stayed in the room for less than ten minutes, hardly noticing the decor as he showered, washed his hair and scrubbed off the travel sweat. He realised that he had to get some fuel soon, for he had been too edgy to eat on the flight. He dressed again in the same cloths, left his suitcase on the bed and went shopping.
He walked back to the City Centre bazaar area. The pedestrian way was packed with the visitors laughing, some arm into arm and most just keeping pace in hurry to catch their targets. Sahel was not in hurry so he walked slowly looking into the shops. He already had a list of shopping in his mind. He first bought a sewing kit. In a camping store, he acquired a short stainless steel knife with a clip on holster. He found an American franchise Gap, and he nearly had to wrestle a couple of college students to get a pair of black Levi’s. Finally he found his most wanted article a black leather Alpine jacket. It had a metal cross buckles and rich green lining, a stiff standing collar and it closed on the chest like a suit of armour. He suppressed the realisation that it would only be usable on perhaps a few winter evenings in Pakistan and he would probably be too uncomfortable to wear it there anyway.
At last carrying a massive shopping bag, he bought a brown cotton hat. He stopped, sweating like a passenger in the minibus at Islamabad in hot summer, at a small fabricated, umbrella on its head, eating cabin where a couple of people having chicken sandwiches, rolls and fries. With the hat flopped on the back of his head, he stood and ate a large chicken roll with a 500ml Pepsi and he swore that he could hear his stomach acids devouring it as quickly as possible.
Now there was still something left, which Sahel needed and he had no idea where to get it and no time for research. He was just looking for big departmental store where probably he could get it and he found one instantly on the other side of the street. He crossed the road and went straight into it, handing over his bag to the store custody and looked for cosmetic section. A pretty sales girl appeared on the counter and smiled.
“Can I help you?”
“I suppose,” Sahel smiled back. “I am looking for a hair wig in black with a ponytail.”
“Sure, you will get it.” Girl went inside the back counter and came up with different types of ponytail wigs in her hands. Sahel selected one most resembled to his hair colour, yet he did not tried to keep it on his head in front of the girl. He correctly visualised it’s fitting to his head and thanked the girl to pack it in a gift-wrap. He intended to give her impression that he was buying it for her girlfriend.
He walked back into the Western Inn with his hat pulled low over his head and he went straight into the elevator and up to his room. He locked and bolted the door, checked the closets and bathroom out of his habit. Then he stripped out of his clothes and emptied all of his pockets, arranging his documents on the blue coverlet of the bed.
He opened the contents of his shopping bag and pulled new Alpine jacket, laying it on the other side of the bed like freshly hunted body for the skinning. With the short steel knife, he slit open the green inside lining near the zip at the bottom left flap of the jacket. He took his Pakistani passport, identity card, driving license and his own rupee notes, sealed them in a hotel envelop and slipped them into the lining. He double stitched the wound with green thread from the sewing kit. He pulled a grey T-shirt from his suitcase and cut three gashes in it across the chest. He put on a pair of Adidas black sneakers and a metal frame zero number photo-sun glasses. Five minutes later he stood before the tall mirror on the bathroom inside wall.
His reflection was gloomy, black from sneaker to jeans to jacket. With his semi-spiked black hair by the courtesy of wig, the photo-sun glasses on, he reminded himself of a character from some Hollywood movies. His Afghanis and Afghan passport and papers found homes in the various pockets of the new costume.
Finally he tore open the packet from his locker deposit box. The paper was stained as he pulled out his pistol wrapped in sock dampened with gun oil, then stuffed into a black waistband holster. One full magazine was in the pistol and another was nestled alongside the holster.
Sahel checked the action, stripped the weapon, wiped everything down with a dry washcloth and clipped the full holster inside his jean on the right hip. Now he felt fully dressed.
Sahel emptied his suitcase with his casual wardrobe and bagged in the shopper alongside rest of the junk he had just discarded to throw it out. He placed the empty suitcase in the lonely corner of the cupboard. He had created his second dead lead.
He lit up a Rothman and sat down on the bed. He dialled an outside number that had never left his head. A woman answered.
“Subhu Bukharin.” Would you please take a message?”
“Who is this?”
“Ask Khanzada call me at this number.” He recited the digit from the phone. “Room 377. I‘ll wait only five minutes. Do you have it?”
“Yes, who is this?”
“Do it now.” He hung up.
He had not finished the cigarette when the phone rang. Sahel answered quickly with Alaka Sa hall de. ”
“Who is this?” The voice was so familiar to Sahel yet full of veiled suspicion.
“Look, Khanzada. This is an old friend from the East. Can you meet me today?”
“I don’t know anyone from the East. Who is this?”
“Sardar Jagat Singh sends his regards.” Sahel said. Now there was dead silence on the line.” Can you meet me today, it’s urgent.”
“I… I am rather busy.”
“Five pm at outer gate Pamir Cinema. I’ll find you.”
“I don’t know.”
Sahel hung up. He finished his cigarette and stubbed it out. He had just exposed himself. The clock was running. He shouldered the backpack and looked around the room. ‘Faizi Jaffar’ would not have been pleased with such a cursory inspection. But then Faizi was dead and then ‘Barat Khan” would have said that speed was more important now.
Sahel left the hotel by the side exit off the elevators. If anyone saw him, they certainly made no connection between the professor’s looking casual and the businessman who had checked in. He caught a taxi to the Wazir Akbar Khan. At the west end of the market there was a rundown alley filled with motor repair shops and used cars and Sahel preferred to halt there. Sahel quit the taxi and walked along until he saw what he wanted, an old black Scion XD 3.0 with Kabul registration number. Sahel walked around the car and inspected critically. Tyres were in best condition and rest of the body had a faded paint spots noticeably on the bonnet only. Sahel made up his mind instantly. A mechanic was under a grey SUV. Sahel toed his work shoe and bent down.
“Not much, lot of work to do.” Mechanic said still under the SUV.
“I am asking about this Scion black.” Sahel was still looking on the Scion.
“Yes, it’s a roaring lion,” said the mechanic without looking out from his repair job.
“How much for it?”
“Not for sale.” And he pulled himself out from the SUV cleaning his hands with a cloth piece.
“Is it yours?”
“Eighty thousand Afghanis in US dollars,” Said Sahel.
“It’s too late today,” said the Afghani. “All the paper work.”
“Are you insured?”
“I’ll rent it,” said Sahel.
The man rubbed his jaw, thinking he understood now. “For how long?”
The Afghani thought for a moment. He looked around. “How much did you say?”
“Eighty thousand Afghanis cash in US dollars.”
“How much would US dollar?” The man was slightly suspicious.
“You know much better than me, two thousand.” Sahel pulled out the cash from his inside pocket of the jacket.
The man produced the keys and some papers, which Sahel kept in the dashboard box.
Sahel looked on his watch. He wanted to be at Pamir Cinema a bit early to five o clock. He looked on the fuel gauge needle which sat at the end. He asked the Afghani for a nearby gas station. He waved towards left of the street and Sahel put the gear into motion and turned left for the gas station.
He almost had an accident in the Stoor Bazaar. He had not been in a sports car in years and besides the unfamiliarity, a strange pressure on his leg produced a new kind of pain in his knee. But his aggression made his progress and he roared onward enjoying the slight cool wind on his face from the window. But before reaching to the Pamir Cinema he wanted to do one last thing at his list.
He found the row of the low apartments on Masjid Shah Do Shamshera without difficulty. You memorised potential safe houses like important phone numbers. He paid an old woman five hundred US dollars for a second floor flat facing the street. The building was always a home to bachelor students from across periphery. The woman alarmed slightly by his appearance however his money looked quite safe.
At 3.45, with the keys to the flat in his pocket, he drove off for his meeting with Khanzada Syad.
Khanzada Syad did not remotely resemble his namesake, neither in appearance not in character.
Scarface Khanzada once had been a top most activist in Northern Alliance notoriously known as first-commando against the Taliban and Allies in Russian War. At the end of the War, Khanzada Syad has been captured by the Taliban, then escaped and recaptured and was near to execution when some of his connection inside the NSB bailed him out. He was now a freelance yet obliged to work whenever needed by the NSB
Khanzada was an orphan who had been raised by his aunty whose family was eliminated in the Russian War. When the poor widow passed on, Khanzada was left with a single possession— the right to adopt any history and identity that pleased him. His childhood having been filled with glorified stories of the Russian War. NSB was then a perfect breeding ground for such lonely, unfocussed youth, and although he had no political convictions, he joined his own small group named SarwatUllah meaning thereby Resources of Allah. It was soon discovered that he is not really man of action, but he did have a certain appetite for facts and figures besides his linguistic skills that was how he came on the NSB payroll. It was Dilshad’s brainstorm and it resulted from freak of happenstance. He knew Khanzada could speak Persian, Pashtu, Uzbek, Russian and Urdu with native accent yet English to work with. Khanzada was never trusted but he was often used in certain areas.
Sahel parked the Scion on a side street off Pamir Cinema. He did not bother to obscure himself, as his costume would make him unrecognisable to anyone who had known him previously. He watched the sidewalk movements in front of the shops and road cafes. The scene was like a giant gala, with literally hundreds of locals occupied cafe tables, the benches across street, shopping and hustling soaking up the late sun. Khanzada arrived in a taxi. He was wearing his ever present short waist jacket, but it looked silly over the stripped green shirt and dark clip on tie that were apparently the uniform of a postal official. As Sahel watched, Khanzada put the tie off and stuffed into his pocket. He had not changed much. He still had that heavy brown hair and moustache duet with his posture and the tired blue eyes darted nervously over the tables in front of the cafes.
Khanzada did not recognise anyone, so he took an empty seat and turned it to face the street, drumming his fingers on the plastic table top and craning his head for the waiter.
Sahel took a minute and scanned for Khanzada’s watchers. He vectored his eyes from the Afghan’s position across the boulevard into the compartments of the parked cars along the side cafes and storefronts. There was no obvious tail; at least no one invited to attend by Khanzada himself. Sahel pushed through the crowd approaching from the rear. He pulled out a chair and sat down at the small round table as Khanzada turned to stare at him. The Afghan squinted showing no sign of recognition.
“Kia hal hey mairy dost.” Sahel grinned and lifted the photo-sun glasses from his eyes for a brief moment. Then he dropped them down again.
Khanzada’s cheeks turned pale, the ever present complexion suddenly turning into a Siberian grey. His mouth opened and his eyes widened and he started to stand.
Sahel’s right hand shot out and grabbed his leather sleeve. “Bakhair,” he said soothingly, though his grip implied a warning. “I just got here.”
Khanzada slowly sat back into his chair. His mouth was still agape and his eyes discontented. Sahel quickly extracted his Rothmans and offered him. He himself pulled one to light. The Afghan looked at the pack, rolled his eyes at the sky and took one of the filters with trembling hand. Sahel lit up for both of them. Khanzada chewed his filter and continued to stare.
“You told me about Sardar Jagat Singh?” Khanzada inquired hesitantly.
“Yes, he is okay”, Sahel smiled and shrugged. It was okay to have the opposition think you were fool. Insanity suggested danger, and danger demanded caution.
“You know, Sher Ali, you are still a wanted man in this country.” Khanzada said if Sahel might have forgotten.
“Please,” Sahel smiled.” Let’s not announce it.”
A man wearing white apron appeared into view. He smiled and asked for their orders.
“Coffee please,” Sahel ordered without asking Khanzada. He knew Cappuccino was his favourite. “Two hot cappuccino.”
The waiter left.
Khanzada’s eyes looked around, scanning the other tables.
“I have given up Coffee; this is not healthy for me now.” Khanzada said in the leaned voice. I have been sick since last year. I got bad ulcer.”
“Oh,” Sahel felt some sympathy for him.
“You can order whatever you like,” Sahel insisted.
“No, no it’s okay for now.” Khanzada smiled as he felt relaxed somehow.
Sahel reached into his jacket inside pocket and took out a prepared wad of one thousand US dollars. “Allow me to contribute to your health and well-being.” He slid the cash wrapped in a small white paper over to the edge of the table and then held it down near Khanzada’s leg. Khanzada had taken so many payoffs that just by glancing at the roll; he could guess its value. He took it and then he groaned realising that if Sher Ali had a photographer working he had just opened himself to another ten years of blackmail.
The coffee arrived. Sahel picked up his mug and took a long swallow. He wiped his mouth and smiled again.
“So what is this Ali? Khanzada asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, please, Khanzada seemed annoyed. “No games okay? Let’s just do it and I’ll go. You are not here for the weather. What do you want to know?”
“Whatever you know,” said Sahel carefully.
“Okay, said Khanzada with resigned annoyance. He leaned in closer and smoked hard, already a little more relaxed with coffee. “He’s here or he was, yesterday.”
“He is?” Sahel felt his blood quicken. This could not be the he that he wanted it to be, so he tried to remain smooth and calm.
“Yes. He is. He contacted Obaidullah straight away, just like he used to. He said he was active again, but he refused a meet. He’s never done before.”
“What did Obaidullah do?
“He assumed your old friend didn’t want to show his face a reason. But CTI owes the man some favours, and he called them in.
“Foreign passport and airline tickets.” Khanzada detailed with some disdain. “Obaidullah and some his associates had a party last night, without guest of honour. They celebrated as if Dostam himself had risen from the grave.
“Um,” Sahel did not speak for a while. His heart was racing and blood pounding in his ears. He could not believe that he might be so lucky, yet there was absolutely no way that Khanzada could have improvised all of this. He just was not that tactically brilliant. “Tell me, Khanzada, Sahel said matter-of-factly “Just for record, to whom we are referring?
“Oh for God’s sake,” Khanzada reacted liked a spoil child, then he assumed an expression of supreme impatience. “Okay, we are speaking of Tiger-3, all right? Is that clear enough?
“Quite clear,” said Sahel as his foot began to tap the pavement. Tiger-3 was the code name for Razmak Bilal.
CTI, phrased as Central Tehreeke Islami, was in fact a new group formed a couple of years ago by the like-minded dissidents turned into terrorists across both sides of the border in Pakistan and Afghanistan fighting against the aliens, what they reportedly considered, NATO and Americans and all their allies including Pakistan. In the recent past, they had gained much strength and wealth to run their show on the both side against forces and civilians. And NSB is one of the most bigly their targets in Pakistan besides civilian installations and people at mosques and they claimed Islamic themselves.
“And I suppose, you are in town for the second round.” Khanzada grinned.
“All of us,” Sahel lied.
“Wonderful, I did miss him so.” Khanzada sarcasm oozed as he finished his coffee. He put the cup down and looked at Sahel. “I heard you were all shot up, Sher Ali.”
“I got better.”
“Hum, Khanzada began to worry. He stubbed out his cigarette and held his hand out for another. Sahel lit one for him. “What else do you want?”
“Is there more?” Sahel raised a brow.
“Yes ‘Wallah,’ but you know how this is for me! I could be finished by this. Tears actually welled up in the Afghan’s eyes. He looked up at the sun as if taking one last gaze at the heaven.
Sahel slipped him an additional five hundred dollars. Khanzada pocketed the money and then began to speak quickly. It was a low, mournful tone like the confession of a doomed man. I was at the party last night. Obaidullah was almost bragging. He has a contact at Kabul Police Headquarters. They got a copy of the latest files on the Zahir’s case. You do remember Zahir, don’t you?
“I remember Zahir.” Sahel suppressed his anger and listened.
“They dropped the file to Tiger-3. I don’t know where. It had updates on the whereabouts of all the murder suspects, including you. Tiger-3 re-contacted Obaidullah and asked for some more details. He refers to all of your comrades by code names. Orange is someone named Barat, Queen is someone named Bano. I think you might be Bravo.”
Sahel felt an icy stickiness under his arms. Hearing Bano’s and Barat’s cover names on a hit list made his spine stiffen. “Is that all?” he managed.
“That’s all I heard.”
“Are you sure?”
“I am sure, Wallah,” Khanzada rapidly draining of courage. Talking in a public restaurant with a wanted murderer was clearly making him tensed.
“Okay, okay,” Sahel tried to soothe the nervous Afghan. “Just one more question. Tell me about the plane ticket.”
“Tickets, Sher Ali,” said Khanzada. “One for London and other one to Colombo, and I don’t think he’s picked them up.
“Then he still here.”
Sahel took out some cash and paid the bill leaving it under the coffee cup. While he pretended himself that all he is unworried, he posed his final question. “So tell me, Khanzada,” he asked. Why the revenge?”
For the first time Khanzada Syad seemed to forget his own predicament and he actually looked at Sahel with some pity.
“I don’t know, Sher Ali. I don’t know. But I suggest, you just go home and pay up your insurance.”
Sahel took off his glasses and starred at Khanzada, who finally broke eye contact and began to examine his fingernails. Sahel took out a pen and wrote something on piece of cigarette pack he picked it from the floor. He pushed it to Khanzada.
“That’s where, I’ll be. You contact me with anything further.” He rose from the table and waited for an answer.
Khanzada looked up with a weak smile. “As you wish.”
Sahel returned the smile, for he did not want to leave Khanzada with sour taste from their encounter. Then he walked away.
Sahel did not go far. He walked through the crowd and stepped behind a van shelter. He looked back through the smoked glass and watch Khanzada drain his last sip of the coffee and get up. The Afghan walked along the sidewalk, then he performed as expected, entering the first available telephone booth and Sahel knowing he could never get close enough to overhear, went back to his Scion.
Khanzada really did not want to turn Sher Ali over to Razmak, but he valued his own life more than a clear conscience. No matter what he did, Sher Ali would not kill him. You had to have committed serious acts of murder to get yourself on a Pakistani execution list. Razmak, however, would have no such moral hesitation. That was why the Afghans probably win this war in the end, and Khanzada preferred to side with the winners.
He called a contact number in Shahr-e-Nau and the deep flat voice that answered set his knees to quaking. He gave the location of Bravo’s flat and hung up. Then he threw the paper making into a small wad. He caught a cab back to the Central Post Office, claimed he was feeling quite ill and walked to the car park for his Lancer. He started driving immediately to Ghazni. With the wad of cash from Sher Ali and twice as much from Razmak, he would be able to take a long, quiet and prudent vacation.
Sahel drove the Scion for half an hour. The skies began to darken, but he did not really care that it might rain. He headed for his flat and chose quiet streets and small alleyways. He did not want to focus on traffic. He had to concentrate. His strategic thinking was coming back, yet too slowly. His head pounded with the variations. It certainly was likely that Khanzada was tripling on him, working on him and reporting back to Razmak. On the other hand, Khanzada must not be relaying all of it Razmak, just enough to save his own neck. Or he might be too frightened to counter the terrorist at all, but that was unlikely. Such fear would work in reverse.
Then there was the possibility that Khanzada had bluffed the entire Tiger-3 story, knowing what ‘Sahel’ would want to hear and giving it to him. Yet he had never demonstrated a talent for tradecraft, and the facts themselves, especially the parts about Barat Khan Bano Abagull were too accurate. That led Sahel to the option that Khanzada had been turned by CTI or the Kabul Police. He could well be setting Sahel up for the authorities. But then why had they waited and not grabbed Sahel at the Pamir Cinema Cafe?
Sahel turned into a small street and abruptly stopped the car. He got off and watched the entrance of the street. No vehicle slowed at the turn, and in fact no car entered into little alley for a good five minutes. And then it was a just a very old lady squeezed down behind the wheel of a blue small Suzuki.
He smoked another cigarette and gathered his mental reflexes once more. He decided that he was trying to evade the obvious. He had to follow his instincts and pursue the simplistic. To the best of his knowledge, Khanzada had, through Obaidullah or otherwise made contact with Razmak. Khanzada would, being essentially a coward, re-contact Razmak if possible and give over the address of Sahel’s safe house. That was what Sahel wanted. He had to act with that as truth.
Now he had to move quickly. He suddenly felt a surge of panic like a starving fisherman eager to catch fish at his first attempt. Khanzada was unwittingly setting Razmak up for him and yet he had a few operational options. He could contact NSB; call the duty officer at embassy. But if Razmak did not show, then his operation was blown before it got started. Razmak had to lay the ambush first, yet he harboured no illusions that he could take Razmak without backup. His professionalism was still the master of his ego.
He finished the cigarette, reached into his pocket and counted his remaining cash.
Suddenly he yanked and smile spread over his lips. He rushed back into the Scion, took a sharp turn into the highway and drove straight towards Kabul River. He had an operational option yet alive. Shah Wali, an Afghan private security officer working in a security company in Kabul since long. Once in Pakistan, Barat had been helping him to procure some equipment for his company Afghan Securities from the Scientific Equipment Corporation. He had referred Shah Wali to Sahel for the details and then they became friends. He knew his office at Andarabi. And with a little effort he could find his office before he left. He had no time. Speed was the essence of the task.
Sahel crossed the River Kabul and took right towards Andarabi. Afghan Securities had an office in the basement of Plaza Hotel. It took him hardly fifteen minutes to reach in the parking of the Plaza Hotel. He parked his Scion and went upstairs from the parking basement. On the reception, a petite fair complexion Afghan girl was busy on the telephone. Sahel waited for a while drumming his right hand fingers on the marble counter. The girl begged him through her eyes expression still talking. Sahel responded her and kept waited. Then she hung up and moved to Sahel.
“What can I do for you?”
“I am looking for Afghan Securities Office,” said Sahel.
“I am afraid they might have closed the office,” Girl was polite. “It’s almost seven o clock.”
Sahel kept quiet for a while and before he spoke, the girl said. “Okay, let me check them.”
She pushed four digit numbers quickly on the intercom and waited for response. Someone picked up the call. She listened, nodded and hung up. She turned to Sahel and smiled. “You are lucky enough, office is still open.”
“I appreciate your efforts,” Sahel applauded her. “Would you guide me where office is located?”
“You go straight in the lobby and then turn right and you would see the sign board of the company.”
“Many thanks.” Sahel left the reception and walked toward the direction.
He would certainly have a chance if Shah Wali set him with his security men, as things were going smooth so far as he planned. Maybe this time he was not going back with a failed mission?
He crossed the corridor and turned right. A small blue Flexi board was hanging up on the door with Afghan Securities Ltd gleaming on it. Sahel knocked the door and waited for a moment. Nobody showed up. He slightly slid it open and poked his head inside. On the far side of the corner in a glass room a man was standing holding a cellular phone. He looked tired yet his bright eyes caught Sahel’s entrance quickly and waved him to come in. He was alone. Sahel crossed the crush area and reached into the cabin. By the time the man had finished his conversation and put the phone on the table. He saw Sahel quizzically for a while unable to recognise him as perhaps he had not seen him with this get-up.
“What can I do for you?” he asked in a pleasant tone.
“You can’t do me a favour unless you recognise me, so try it first,” Sahel smiled leaving the man with enigma and slid up his photo-sun glasses on his forehead.
“Ah, I am sorry I don’t recognise you.” Shah Wali accepted defeat. That’s what Sahel wanted. He was badly in need of assistance yet with a dead lead of him. He introduced himself with his fake Afghani name and as his brain would suggest him, he didn’t take much time to explain him a false story that how he had become victim of life threat by someone unknown and he was in need of two or three professional guards for his security for the upcoming night at his place.
Shah Wali although looked loath but agreed once he saw a wad of eight hundred dollars in Sahel’s hand. He collected the money and said smilingly. “Friend, I am doing this all for your safety, not for the money.”
“Do me another favour,” Sahel said. “I don’t want your men in uniforms and if you deem fit, the deal may not be registered. I need this assistance in personal capacity from you that might not jeopardise your own company’s image.”
He called someone instantly, chatted in Persian for a while and settled back in a relief. Within half an hour, a back-up team showed up in the office with their heavy muscles. They had their instructions from Shah Wali. They looked Sahel critically, shook hands with firm grip showing their enthusiasm towards his security and he had no doubt that they would perform for he had guaranteed them a bonus too from his own pocket.
Sahel thanked Shah Wali with this pledge to see him tomorrow and waved all the three guards to follow him.
They reached Shah Do Shamshera. Sahel stopped the car short of the apartments. They had let themselves up with Sahel’s keys, hauling a shopping bag full of food and drinks supplied by their ‘client.’ Their orders: Disarm and disable anyone who knocks at the door to the flat.
At 9.30, a dark charcoal Ford came cruising down the street. It passed Sahel and stop just in front of the apartments building. Sahel watched, holding his breath, as two men got off of the car. He slid open the door silently, got off the car and inched his way up the wall behind the car like a cat as he unzipped his jacket.
His instinct kept him from moving further. The two men were tall, wore long, black coloured jackets and they were bare headed. Something in their determined gaits began to register in Sahel’s subconscious as they pushed open the front door of the building and went inside. Then the grill of a green-and red flickering lights on a Lexus appeared at the far end of the street, slowly nosing its way like a hound sniffing for game.
Police. And the two men were Kabul CID.
As Sahel’s conclusion registered a series of loud crashes echoed from inside the second storey flat. Shadows jumped across the lighted room as if gorilla were left in a furniture shop free to act upon and then the front window splintered and one of the CID officer flew through the glass, back first with his arms and legs. He crashed down on the row of hedges. A flurry of shouts echoed into the street as Sahel jumped into his Scion. He quickly pushed the ignition and put the car into motion. By nearly skidding it over the sidewalk but he banged down on the street back taking U-turn. He looked at the rear-view mirror a siren buzzing somewhere behind.
Razmak had tricked him. He was sure for certain. Sahel had used a security agency as back-up. Razmak had simply called the Kabul Police.
And where was the Razmak going now? He had two tickets, one to London and other to Colombo, but if Sahel was right, Tanveer Ahmad was in Sri Lanka.
Sahel hammered the wheel with his fist and yelled into the rain that pounded on the wind screen of the Scion. He slammed the brakes and skidded again into a U-turn that sent cars honking out on other side of the River Kabul. He leaned his head on the wheel and pushed the gas pedal. He headed back towards the airport, racing against his own stupidity.