Camp Tober Khan
by Naeem Baig
The Next Morning
Razmak Bilal was almost home. Through the whirling dust of a NATO convoy he could see the arched mosques and minarets of Camp Tober Khan, a small roadside village on G.T. Road, on his way from Rawalpindi to Peshawar. The NATO convoy carried oil tankers, containers and over-covered Hino trucks with tarpaulins stretched for half a kilometre along the G.T. road dipping into a shallow bowl of scattered shops and houses before rising toward the village.
Razmak had no other choice but to wait his turn for the customary Pakistani road-blocks were out in force and there would be no skirting for overtake at all. For years he had trained himself to ignore emotions and disdain longing. Yet as he sat behind the wheel of the car and stared out into the bright morning, he could feel his heart began to swell within his breast.
Village Camp Tober Khan, a small haven where he had spent his youth with his family as a refugee, yet he never forgot the ambiance. The village was an insignia to Afghans as their long-lasting shelter in Pakistan. Once they were refugees in war against USSR, now they are Pakistanis yet Afghans in their heart.
It had been fifteen years.
The line of vehicles began to move more quickly now, for most of them were pickups and old cars beside the convoy’s heavy wheelers and they would be quickly waved through at the checkpoint. The traffic halted only whenever a suspected vehicle, identified by it registration number was stopped and searched by the police. Most of the villager’s vehicles were inspected, their drivers and passengers humiliated, no matter how polite and tactful the process.
Now that he was actually on the ground in Pakistan, wearing the face of a respectable army officer, Razmak had to take some further precautions. He maintained a large khaki casual, like army officers do at sport time on the unit ground wearing sunglasses of the type worn by helicopter pilots. The lenses wilted sufficiently to hide his scar. Upon arrival in Islamabad he had quickly destroyed his Pakistani Passport. Then he gambled out a bank ATM machine, selected a proper citizen closer to his age who carelessly dropped his wallet into an open shoulder bag and followed the man into a crowded shopping Markaz where he wickedly pick pocketed the precious ID cards like a professional thief.
He reached the checkpoint, four young armed policemen surrounded the car, an officer no older than a college freshman pointed at Razmak and motioned for him to stop on the left side. Razmak slowed expecting to be questioned and search, but then someone yelled, “Theek ey! Theek ey!” and by the added flurry of waving arms he realized that he could drive on. He touched his hand to his forehead in a thankful manner like a salute and pressed the accelerator.
For some reasons, Razmak decided not to penetrate immediately to the heart of the village. He felt the anticipation of someone being reunited with an old acquaintance, he turned right off the main school building in the outskirt of village and cut over to a small semi-metalled road to Jamia mosque of the village.
The traffic was thin there, just an occasional car or pickup common to all Afghan families. Razmak had to concentrate hard to keep from driving off the road for his gaze was fascinated to the old stone houses, shops and mosques that spilled up and over the small hills to his right.
Boys in dirty dress chased soccer balls through the open areas in between the shops. Razmak suddenly felt a stab of something in his heart, an emotion that took him by surprise. Though he had dreamed for years in exile for returning to the womb of his best days of youth, yet he thought he belonged to these people. He had spent his youth fighting for them, killing for them yet they seem to have done nothing to better them.
The image of himself as a returning hero brought on a renewed surge of love for his fellow Afghans. This was where he belonged, among his compatriots, side by side, liberating Afghans from the grip of foreigners. Alone in the car with no one to witness his weakness, he almost allowed the tears to well up and fall from his eyes.
He parked the car in front of a Musafar khana, for to drive an Islamabad registration car deeper into the town might draw undue attention. He walked out of the square carrying only a slung camera and headed east to the marketplace. Before he reached the small shops and stalls, he cut south down a long stone big stairs and he stepped out to the Kabuli street, he had to think for a minute, but then he remembered and walked east along the road until it merged with Gulanbagh.
Without even realizing it, Razmak was walking very quickly now, his heartbeat growing faster his throat contracting in anticipation. Would it still be there, the small stone house that had seemed like a castle to him? Would the green nylon strings where his mother had hung her wash still tied with the wooden electric poles in the front yard? Would the sheep cage still be in the left side, its tarpaulin roof still there, where Gulo had once jumped from the roof and broken his arm? But what about the smells, would the air around his house still be thick with the spiced lamb and yellow Kabuli Palau dishes his sisters concocted?
And what of love, could a memory of love for his little brother still permeate the atmosphere and then what of hatred? Was his bitterness toward his father burned like a sign from Allah above his doorpost?
There it was! He had found it! Yet he stopped short to just stand a moment and look, he realized that he was not alone. He turned to see a group of about eight Afghan boys, none of them older then twelve. They also drew to a halt as he did, but their feet continued to move in the dusty street. Some of them wore turbans. They all clutched stones and small bottles in their hands and their murmuring voices were unpleasant. The largest boy stepped forward.
“Ta sook ey?” He demanded to know him in Pashto.
Razmak instinctively looked down at himself. He almost had to laugh, for his disguise was working too well. In commando casual with a camera on his shoulder and sunglasses, of course they thought he was an intruder.
Suddenly the front door of Razmak’s house opened and young man in his early twenties stepped out. He was muscular beneath a white sport shirt and when he saw Razmak and the boys his expression revealed remote pleasure.
All at once misidentification was no longer humorous. What could Razmak do, address them in fluent Pashto. The territories were crawling with agents and informers. One could be observing him at this very moment. What could he say to the young man and the boys? “I am the great Razmak Bilal, come to liberate you and this was once my home and I only wish to touch it.”
“Alaka, chesh guadey, Kafir,” (Man, what do you want, you faithless?) the gang leader shouted at him in Pashto and assuming that Razmak lack of response was fear, he stepped forward and spat in Razmak’s face.
Razmak reacted instinctively. He lunged for the boy with a growl but he stopped himself in mid-action as he realized what he was doing. In another moment, he would have to defend himself, he would have to kill.
He turned and ran. The boys chased him throwing stones and empty bottles and cursing in Pashto. He slipped and fell as a rock bounced off his back, the camera strap broke and the Canon smashed against a rock.
Razmak got up and sprinted down to Kabuli street, stones rocketing off the walls around him, bottles smashing, a few on his back, across the street. He turned right and ran along a street that curved back to Musafar-khana. The boys began to fall back as they ran out of their ammunition for they had to stop to collect more stones yet they still followed him as he took the stairs to the marketplace.
The momentum of the chase carried the pack of boys to the lip of the square. But the Policemen on petrol had been serving in Camp Tober Khan for a long time. They saw Razmak, the pursuing boys, and acted quickly to quell the potential fight. Four of the young policemen immediately turned and charged for the northern entrance and the boys flipped around and ran away.
Razmak leaned back against a parked bus, chock-full he bent over and spat into the dust trying to catch his breath. When he straightened up, a young policeman was offering him an open canteen. He smiled at Razmak.
“You should be more careful,” the policeman said in Urdu. “You can’t just wander around here.” He shook his head and clucked his tongue. “Pakistani is not safe in his own country anymore.”
Razmak looked around quickly and spotted a taxi. A Pathan driver resting his elbow on the roof of the shabby taxi might be praying for a passenger. It was too dangerous for him to remain out in the streets. His broadcast from Kogon should have been running for three days now and he had to have faith it had produced the desired results.
This time he had the driver drop him only hundred meters from his destination. Carrying an empty gym bag from the trunk of his rental, he got out and began walking in the wrong direction, and as soon as the taxi was gone, he doubled back and hurried along the narrow street. Kirdi Shah was a small section of Camp Tober Khan that relied on the skills of small ironsmiths, carpenters and others skilled labourers. The air was filled with the craving smell of spin and toor rosht, a famous lamp meat dish and tandoori nans coming from the nearby restaurant still waiting for its customers. He found the little wood shop easily as he had spent the afternoon of his childhood at Jawar Khan’s lathe. He did not fully expect that the old man still lived but he was sure that Jawar would have passed on his skills and his commitments to whomever inherited his business.
He knocked on the old shabby wooden door. From inside, the slow crack of the mallet stopped and after a few moments the door creaked open.
The old face was lined with hundred deep wrinkles, and the beard and moustache white as goose feather and one eye half closed and clouded with cataracts, yet there was no mistaking Jawar Khan’s once fierce and regal visage.
The old man stared at his strange visitor, looking him up and down, eyeing his outfit and apparently deciding that he was a tourist or wholesale dealer.
“Asalamualiakum,” Jawar Khan’s voice was as harsh as he could make it. “What can I help you?”
“Can I come inside Khan Baba?” Razmak spoke in Pashto.
Jawar Khan pulled the door and let him inside.
Once inside, Razmak closed the door and leaned back against it.
“Saa haal de Khan Baba?” Razmak spoke again in Pashto.
The old man froze in his tracks. He did not move slightly, even his breathing stopped. No one greeted him in that way nearly fifteen years. Certainly no one had called him father using that particular endearment.
Slowly the old man turned to face the stranger. He squinted through his one good eye.
“How are you, Baba?” Razmak asked again. He reached up and removed his sunglasses.
The old man had never seen this man before, but there was something about his voice, and the words he choose. It was more than likely that this might be trick, an agent of the secret agency sent to entrap him. However, he would give nothing away. He edged a bit closer and stared up into the stranger’s eyes. The eyes were windows to the soul. You could peel a man from his face, but you could not change the truth in his eyes.
“Ta souk ey? Jawar asked furiously.
“If I say my name you will not believe me, said Razmak. “But I will tell you this that on the loop of your belt, you kept a silver watch. The watch stopped working many years before but inside the cover you had a picture of your daughter, Zara. Had I not left Camp Tober Khan, perhaps I might have married her.”
Razmak watched as the old man’s eyes widened slightly. “In the drawer of your lathe table you kept a simple key.” He pointed to a small standing lamp in the corner of the shop. “In the back of the frame hung on the wall behind lamp there is a hole and inside the hole you kept a box. In the box you saved wages for me.”
The old man breath began to quicken and he fought the blood that was draining from his cheeks. “These things can be learned,” Jawar Khan spoke in quivering voice.
“Yes, Razmak agreed. “They are only facts, secrets between father and son however can’t be learned.”
Razmak lifted his shirt, pointing to a scar near his bellybutton. “Even this could have been created by a surgeon; whereas we know that it happened when I did not heed your warnings and a pulled a drill through a crucifix and you carried me in your arms all the way to the Camp Hospital.”
Jawar Khan’s legs began to shake as he tried to battle the torrent of memories. “Even this…, Yes Baba, even this could be learned but can love is earned? Could anyone but you and I know how I loved my brother Gulo? Can hate be learned? Could anyone on earth but you know how I prayed each day for my father, though I hated his every breath?”
“Razmak, my son? The old man cried.
“Razmak?” Jawar Khan staggered forward.
“It is I, Khan Baba.”
They fell into each other’s arms, the old man’s muscles nearly crushing the breath from Razmak’s body and he cried and kissed his godson on his strange face.
“You are home,” Jawar Khan old eyes filled with water. “I knew you would come.” Joy softened old man face wrinkles and his eyes flooded.
“Baba…Shhh,” Razmak whispered and then laughed and joined Jawar in his pleasure and he was hard-pressed to keep the old man from running out into the streets with his news. In his own house, Razmak was a stranger but here at the feet of his godfather he was a conquering hero.
After a few bowl of hot Kehwa and an hour of recollection of good past, the old man was finally to calm himself. Razmak alluded to the many hours they would soon spend together for it would take a week of nights to relay all of the adventures of fifteen years, but that would have to wait. Razmak was working and he did not have much time.
Jawar proudly confirmed that he had recently been visited by ‘three wise men.’ Razmak was pleased and he politely asked Baba for the midday prayer at Jamia mosque. The mosque was in the village centre and it would take Jawar some time.
Jawar Khan complied with proud pleasure. “Your treasure is in the hole,” he said as he patted Razmak’s cheek and made to leave.
“Baba,” Razmak begged.
“You know it, you did not say it,” Jawar nodded and assured him. “I’ll tell no one, I know it and today I am a happy mute.
Razmak locked the door from inside. It was already growing warm in the shop. He stripped to his waist, carefully set Jawar’s current wood project aside and cleared the lathe bench until he had moved it two meters to one side.
There was a small trapdoor in the floor, he pulled it open and lowered himself into a black hole. He pulled small torch from his pocket and lit it to see what he needed. His hands emerged from the earthen foxhole placing a musician’s case, plumber’s tool box and three huge water melons on the shop floor.
He lifted himself out and carried the objects over to the lathe table and began his mastery hands into function. The mechanical efforts did not take very long. When a man was weapon-trained by professionals, his hands quickly become their own masters. His fingers worked from a motor memory unconnected to intellect, following a pattern that had been burned in their nerves by repetition.
When he was done, he held a fully assembled Russian Rocket-propelled Grenade- 7D in his outstretched hands. It was a collapsible antitank rocket launcher, a modification of the original RPG7, retailored for the use of paratrooper forces.
Major Yaakov had arranged for Razmak to recover a high calibre pistol from an agent in Peshawar. However Razmak was determined to steer well clear of any potential trap that might be sprung by his master. Though he had pretended to comply, he knew already on the train in Kogon that he would never attempt to get close in for a pistol shot. The RPG 7D would serve his purpose much better.
He checked the action as best he could. He unscrewed the two halves of the launcher and placed them along with the rockets into his gym bag. Still he was not a man to leave things to chance, and he knew that he would have to test fire the RPG at the earliest chance.
He replaced back the gutted melons, the musician empty case and plumber box into the hole, closed the cover and pulled the rug back into place. Then he pulled the lathe table back into its place.
He pulled on his shirt, put on the glasses and thought that he should not let the Ancient man live, yet he also knew that he couldn’t harm his godfather. He decided that he still needed the old man though he wanted to be gone before Jawar reappeared. He hauled the strap of his heavy bag on his shoulder. He realized that he could not return to his rental car, for the police at the square might choose to search him. Well, that was alright. The car made for the perfect dead lead.
He examined his watch, the time squinting at the date. He had less than 50 hours before the President would appear at the Parade for the ceremony. And he still had much unfinished business to conclude before that.
Sher Ali was still out there and Sardar Jagat Singh as well and the Abagull.
Gulo’s vengeance would be waiting for them.
Three days before
Sahel was now sure that he was going to the military prison.
Sajid the young security guard from the office sombrely led the way down the stairs from Sahel’s apartment. Zawri had been smart to send a familiar face; otherwise Sahel might have blown his head off right through the door. Two ‘gorillas ‘from internal security department covered the rear. The giants did not say anything and they did not have to. Sahel could feel their imminent power.
Yesterday he had been suspended almost a de facto dismissal from the service. Today he had been summoned to Headquarters and the appearance of an armed escort did not promise well. Given his participation in a renegade counterintelligence operation, he hardly expected to receive a commendation. The Pakistani intelligence system encouraged bold thoughts but implementation demanded blessing of the superiors, but if you were bucking your superiors you have to prove your action pure and brilliant and face the misconduct.
Colonel Zawri compromised on everything short of blind obedience.
Sahel was not shocked by the latest turn of events. He had half expected it and he told Amber not to worry too much about him. He then said goodbye, handed her his Browning and two full magazines and instructed her to shoot anyone who tried to enter the apartment.
“But Sahel you know I have to go back to work,” she had protested waving the pistol with carelessness that made Sahel wince.
“You are pregnant and you’re not feeling well,” he coached. “Your boss is a doctor, he’ll understand it.”
“Half the damn country is pregnant,” she continued to argue.
“Please, Ambi please.” Sahel voice somehow had a tone that caused her sadly acceptance.
The silent plainclothes guards walked out into the bright sunlight of Complex’s parking lot as they headed toward a row of cars, Sahel tried to break the mood.
“So he is giving you something interesting, Sajid?
“This is more like a punishment Sahel,” said the young security man. “Believe me.”
Sahel gave up the short discussion.
Colonel’s private car was waiting with the engine running. It was a long black old accord, driven by a war crony which was a sceptical selection. All of men easily fit into the car though Dilshad was taking up much of the backseat.
“Ah!” Dilshad clapped his hands as Sahel fell in beside him. “Prisoner Number Two.”
“You too Dilshad,” Sahel smiled surprisingly as he tried to adjust his stiff knee, “So you’re Number One, I suppose?”
“We are in the same leaky boat,” Dilshad slapped him on the leg. “Save the Shakespeare for Zawri.”
The car pulled out of the lot and headed up to the Headquarters.
“You’re in a bright mood today, Sahel grinned.
“Well, it’s a beautiful day,” Dilshad replied and then he squeezed Sahel’s thigh, signalling his captain to keep quiet.
They rode rest of the way in silence. Dilshad smoked a cigarette, the snuffed it out in a rear door ashtray. However, he then picked the butt again and crushed it in his fingers and dropped the debris on the floor of the car. One of the gorillas shot him a look. Dilshad just smiled at him.
They arrived at the door of the Zawri office. Qadri pulled it over wearing the expression of a firing squad commander. Two gorillas took up the posts in the hallway, while Sajid excused himself after giving Sahel a shy apologetic look.
Colonel AK Zawri was standing in front of his large window, his hands coupled behind his back, his head angled downward as if he were watching the side walk traffic on the road. His white shirt was wrinkled and sweat stained, and the hair at the back of his head was untidy and compacted to his skull. It looked that he had not taken shower since ages. He did not turn when Sahel and Dilshad entered the office.
His secretary was sitting at her dictation post next to his desk. She looked up at the summoned officers and said, “They are here sir,” as Qadri closed the door.
You may go now, Rabia,” said the Colonel.
The girl was happy to be dismissed from her boss’s high voltage environment and she gathered her note book quickly and left the room.
“You too Qadri,” the Colonel added.
The Aryan looking captain seemed not to have heard correctly, for he just stood there without moving.
“Yes Qadri,” Zawri reiterated. “That’s what I said.”
Qadri hurried out reluctantly after Rabia.
When the three men were alone, Zawri turned from the window. His usual tanned and handsome features looked tired. His eyes were bloodshot.
“Did you think, I wouldn’t find out?” the Colonel asked quietly. His voice had none of the blow of his frequent anger.
Sahel kept quiet waiting for a clue from Dilshad. But Dilshad just lit up another cigarette and Sahel put his hands in his pockets.
“There is no such thing as compartmentalizing from me,” Zawri said. “From each other, yes. But not from me.”
The Colonel walked over to his desk. With his fingers he touched some papers, yet he did not seem to be really reading anything. Sahel thought him somewhat sobered, drained of his usual bitter words. Despite his own motives, Sahel suddenly felt somewhat ashamed like an errant child standing before a disappointed father.
He was amazed at how quickly their effort had been blown. Who had leaked it? Khaki? Impossible. Shaista? No, she is hard too. Tariq? He is Dilshad’s man. The NSS man would more likely double with anyone than compromise to Zawri.
Jahangir was certainly an unknown person, yet Dilshad would not bring him in unless he was absolutely confident. Anita was most likely candidate. She could be easily frightened.
“Don’t bother looking for scapegoats.” The Colonel seemed to be reading Sahel’s mind. “You can’t run a ‘Pan ki Dukan’ right under my nose.” He used a mocking term for running own business. “It’s like your own son betraying you. You can smell it.” There was actually some hurt in his voice.
Sahel and Dilshad still said nothing. They were both somewhat shocked by Zawri’s tone of resignation and surrender. They had expected an explosion, a screaming match and they were ready to shout right back yet they were unprepared for this.
Zawri moved behind his desk and sat down. He poured himself orange juice. One of his telephones rang and he looked at it and it stopped. Rabia was smart enough to know when to interrupt.
“The Kenya team has nothing,” he said.
Sahel held his breath. Colonel Zawri was openly admitting an operational failure. He wished he was recording the event, for he hardly believed his ears.
“Neither does Dar es Salam.” Zawri finished the juice. He picked up a pencil and tapped it on his desk without looking up. The Colonel looked up at Sahel and he held its captain’s gaze for a long moment as he twisted the pencil. He could not come out and admit that perhaps Sahel’s Razmak theory had some merit.
Zawri then rose from his chair, he put his hands behind his back again and he spoke as he paced slowly before the window.
“I must ask you gentlemen about an additional matter and I expect a truthful answer.” He turned and faced his officers. “An officer posted at President House, Major Azeem Khalidi has been reported as missing by his wife and co-workers. He failed to show up to work today. I don’t suppose you two know anything about this.”
Sahel felt his heart began to race. He used every psychological trick he had ever learnt to focus all of his energies on keeping his blood pressure down and his skin cool. Getting Azeem Khalidi to a safe house had been no small effort for him and Dilshad. They had raced along the highway just to keep Khalidi from jumping from the car. They had ultimately convinced the major that he was not being hijacked by terrorists. Finally Sahel’s rapid references of places, names army exercises and fellow soldiers from their mutual badges served as proof to Khalidi that his escorts were bonafide in the interest of his life and State.
“What was that name?” Dilshad asked with blatant innocence.
“Azeem Khalidi.” Zawri stared at the pair suspiciously, but they had been trained to lie and he really did not expect to read anything in their faces.
“Does he has a girlfriend,” Sahel asked.
Zawri waved the question off. “So you know nothing about it,” he stated.
Sahel and Dilshad looked at each other and shrugged. They wanted Zawri to order all out search for Khalidi, but the idea had to be his own. Dilshad did want him to ask for search.
“There is a standard intelligence drill for these things, Sir,” he said.
Sahel took his cue. “He sounds like a sensitive asset. It could be CTT snatch operation or even some foreign element.”
Zawri seemed not to hear. He walked back to his desk, sat down and picked up an internal phone.
“Get me liaison,” he said. Then on hearing someone, “This is Zawri. That Azeem search I told you to set up? Now you have my go. Contact all the necessary quarters and police and NSS people. Make it country wide and get it moving quickly.” He hung up.
Sahel let out his breath. He was tired of standing. He had not slept much that morning and his knee ached. He limped over to the couch, sat down and lit a cigarette.
“I’ll make an arrangement with you two,” Zawri suddenly said. “As you well know, this is not the first time that I may have ordered an operation to be conducted ‘off premises.’”
Zawri was hinting that he might allow Sahel and Dilshad to continue their work. They listened, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“It will also not to be the first time in the history of intelligence work that an agent has been ‘suspended.’” He angled his head at Sahel. “Only to be asked to continue his task as a freelance.”
Sahel smoked in silence.
“I have the authority to bless your operation,” Zawri said in low voice.” Or stop it, if I wish. If you can show me now, that you are being productive, I will reconsider it.”
Dilshad turned and walked to the window. Sahel watched him wishing he could read the Major’s thoughts. Zawri’s challenge was really directed at Dilshad for the two ranking officers had equal experience and length of service, while Sahel was too junior whose career hung up in the air now. Dilshad would have to react carefully now as Zawri could well be bluffing, entrapping the men into revealing insubordination. Dilshad made a move that consigned Sahel to the role of messenger.
“Sahel,” Dilshad ordered. “Get NSS on the line and have them patch you in to Major Farhat.”
Sahel got up. Zawri gestured at a white telephone and Sahel asked NSB’s operator for NSS Headquarters. When he had Farhat on the line, he waited for Dilshad’s next instructions.
“Ask him to check all red-flagged foreign passports from the past three days.”
Sahel relayed the message, and then he told Farhat that they were in Zawri’s office. He asked for the return call as early as possible.
The airport’s immigration services in all the international departures and arrivals in the country had mainframe server online connected with the central directorate of immigration with daily work backup data of foreign and native travellers so that passports which had some alerts with the intelligence data available with the immigration were segregated as ‘Red-flagged’ and reported to another office which constantly made sure to check those passport’s originality and movements across countrywide.
After a few minutes, the phone rang. Zawri took the call himself, which made Sahel’s spine go stiff. The Colonel’s conversation with Farhat was all business. Mostly Zawri listened then he hung up and recited the information.
“Two passports are suspected, though cleared by machine at arrival counters yet previous departure of such travellers did not appear in the data.” Zawri thoughtfully looked at both of them. “And one of them has been reported lost a couple of weeks ago in London. I’ve asked Farhat to work on this passport and let me know the outcome.” Zawri leaned back on the seat.
“You gentlemen must have work to do,” he said as if Sahel and Dilshad were lagging about. “As you may be somewhat vulnerable, I will assign two baby sitters to you.”
Sahel thought that Colonel just wanted to keep tabs on them. He tried to wriggle out of it.
“Sir, I’d much, rather you put them on Bano Abagull.” As he said it, the words confirmed his nagging fear for Bano’s survival.
“Unlike you, Zawri mocked, “Bano can take care of herself.”
Dilshad grabbed Sahel’s arms and stopped him to frustrate the whole deal. And both walked to the door.
“And Gentlemen, Colonel said before they could exit. “If you find something, I’ll take the credit, he assured them. “And if you don’t, I’ll have the right to screw you up.
Sahel and Dilshad conversing in Punjabi dialect which deeply annoyed Sahel’s babysitters and one of the giants actually spoke Punjabi well, but the officers’ exchange was purely in Siraiki slang and encrypted references making it all about as incomprehensive as stones sound in the empty can. There was nothing the bodyguards could do about it.
They moved along the corridor on floor two and then down the stairwell to the main entrance. Dilshad squeezed Sahel’s shoulder.
“I’ll be here,” he said.
Sahel turned and bowed to his escorts. “Take me home, gentlemen.”
They rode back to Sahel’s apartment in a black Mitsubishi, the two young toughs in the front seats, identical sunglasses, and big arms hanging out the windows like college students in a carnival bumper car. Sahel sat at the back and lit a cigarette. He only asked one question.
“Haven’t seen you two before, you from Islamabad?”
“Jhelum,” said the driver.
Sahel did not go upstairs. He wanted to, but he was not going to pop in, see Amber for a minute, and then leave her again. He had the keys to his Margalla in his pocket.
“I’ll take my own car now.”
The babysitters jumped out of the Mitsubishi to join him. He turned on them.
“Now folks,” he said impatiently. “We are not going to travel as an entourage, like nervous internees.”
“But we are supposed to stay with you.”
He stepped a bit closer, shaking his head and lowering his voice. “I am an ambush. A Target.” He was improvising yet as he said it the truth.” He was exactly that, which was why Zawri wanted him operating again. “How do you expect me to function with you two holding my hands?”
“We are supposed to stay with you.”
“So stay with me,” Sahel got into the Margalla and started the engine.
“Just not too close.”
The toughs made to run to their car.
“Where to?” The driver called to Sahel.
“G-11,” Sahel pulled his car out of the lot and within a couple of minutes he vanished in the traffic leaving far behind the guards. There was no sign of follow up. He sped over the first intersection and turned to right to Cafe Almena.
The Cafe Almena was situated on the Murree Road in the east of Islamabad on the southern side of Islamabad Golf Club. The irony of the shady avenue’s name had never been registered before, because Sahel had not been in the cafe for many years. He had been recruited by NSB, while he was still a paratrooper. Young Sahel in uniform.
They had met there several times while he was being vetted. So he was back at the Almena. The cafe seemed much smaller now, though it had around twenty tables arranged in cool darkness near a long mirrored side bar, and there were twelve more tables on the sidewalk beneath shiny red and while umbrellas. In his memory as with all such things, it had grown into nostalgic good old days.
Roshna came in off the street. Her hair was open beneath a woollen cap. She was very tan wearing a bell dark jeans and maroon long shirt carrying a greyish leather shoulder bag.
Roshna pulled a chair close to Sahel and sat down. She looked around and smiled, lifting her right hand up to call the waiter.
“Two cappuccinos,” she ordered and looked on Sahel approvingly and Sahel smiled in return. She grabbed her bag close and pulled a pack of Rothman and showed it to Sahel. Sahel wondered when she had started smoking and looked on her quizzically.
“It’s for you Sahel,” she smiled while She opened it and pulled one and placed in her mouth. Sahel was watching her surprisingly while she lit and gave it to Sahel.
“Thank you very much, madam,” Sahel took the cigarette and smiled. “Aren’t you becoming somehow emotional?”
She reached out to touch his hand, then hesitated and put her fingers on the table. She looked at the white tape around two of his knuckles.
“What’s that?” she asked.
I’m still visiting Shimla House.
“So getting prepared again,” She laughed.
It was getting dark. She pulled her chair facing the door more close to Sahel. They both watched people passing on the sidewalk, old grey fringed men, young mothers with prams. Some kids running for just nothing. Natural exercise reserved in them.
“This nostalgic return is very sentimental, Sahel. Isn’t it? She said like a wife suddenly discovering a bouquet of flowers.
“I didn’t know after how long you have been here? Sahel said gazing in her eyes. “I thought I owned the place. Me alone.”
“That’s what we all thought about this place. Sahel smiled but he was thinking about Karachi. Her skin in the moonlight, her cheeks against his and her breath, all was another world now.
“Let’s walk,” he said. He put some money on the table, and they went out into the cool breezed evening, the fluffy breeze from the Rawal Lake was like music in the back ground. They began to walk southward on the sidewalk. The atmosphere was quiet and the highway was almost deserted by this time. Lake’s cool breeze was politely touching the nose and ears tips and whispering passed movements. Both Sahel and Roshna hands in hands were striding silently.
“I’m leaving soon.” Roshna’s voice came from a distant.
“Good,” he said. He knew it must be a mission. Hopefully it would take her very far away for a long time, safely into lesser danger.
“Bano, you know, Cobra is here.”
“What do you mean here?” she almost whispered. Cobra was a code name for Razmak Bilal within these two field agents. No one else had the idea of Cobra.
“Yes, here,” Sahel said.
Roshna said nothing for a few moments. They reached the end of the street. Bano seemed quite upset.
“Let’s go back,” she said and they both turned. Sahel told her everything, some of it in Urdu, Punjabi, and English. When he got to the part of Captain Tanveer Ahmad and Sri Lanka, she took his hand and squeezed it and she did not let go. The telling made his heart beat faster, bringing the truth up, looking at its danger in the passing lights of city night. Their coupled palms were slick with sweat. At last they were back at Almena.
“It is him,” she said finally having juggled all the pieces of Sahel’s story. “But I am not so sure he’s inside.”
“He is inside,” Sahel said.
“It is not hard evidence, Sahel. Penetrations happen every day. No one has a description to go with the passport.”
“It’s him, I’m telling you.”
“Why?” Her voice rose a bit. Anger or maybe panic. “Why does it have to be him?”
Sahel stopped walking and turned to her, left her hand and looked directly into her eyes. “We are all gone Bano. Everyone outside is dead now, Faizi, Barat Khan, and Baba Feroz. Shabana is under lockup wherever she is. Now it’s just you, me and Sardar. We are all here. Where else would he want to be?”
“But why, Sahel? The man is a professional. Why would he want it?”
He looked down at her, the eyes so wide and beautiful. He suddenly hated it all, his service, and his superiors. She should have been married, carefree and enjoying her life and youth. She should have been happy somewhere.
“I don’t know, Roshna.” Sahel was looking at the far end of the highway. He didn’t want to face Roshna. He had become sentimental. “How had you come over here? Are you staying night over here or would go back?
“I was dropped by one of the Dilshad’s man and still I don’t know my departure back to Lahore. They wanted me to have briefing before I proceed. So it may be tomorrow and after that I‘m free to go back.” Roshna sad voice echoed in his ears.
“Bano,” he tried to say something. “Bano,” but he could not find words to say goodbye her.
“Let’s go back. I’ll drop you.” Suddenly Sahel composed his emotions. He did not want to see Bano frightened anymore. And hands into hands they strode toward Sahel’s car. Sahel opened the front passenger door for her and she sat silently in the seat. Sahel banged the door and turned to the driver’s side. He ignited the engine. A roar and then smooth sound of the engine foiling the pin drop silence in the car. Sahel felt himself surrounded by his ghost passengers. He had gut feeling that meeting with Bano would not be lasting anymore.
He saw her then, as if she would look soon. He tried with all his might to remember her face. He was almost thankful that she came to see him. His one hand on the wheel and other on the gear lever when he felt a soft and trembled hand sat on his left hand on the lever. It was warm and sweaty.
“Sahel, are we going to die?” tears began to well up in her eyes.
“What difference does it make? What difference?
“Yes what difference?” she was almost sobbing.
Vibrator’s sibilant sound hissed in the Sahel’s trouser. Sahel quickly pulled his cellular phone out of his pocket and saw the identification. “Oh, not this time.” He let the bell rang. He looked at Bano and then hesitantly responded the phone. He held the instrument in the air so that Bano could also hear the voice.
“Boss,” Sahel answered.
“I’ve been trying you there for an hour,” it was Dilshad. “You’d better get back here now.”
“Right.” Sahel switched of the line.
Sahel had never seen her cry, her restraint a horrible curse cast by her dead parents. Yet now her tears welled, they ran over across her pink cheeks.
He wanted to come to her, to hold her again, to be lost. But it was past. He was thinking again. He had lied a thousand times, but perhaps the only good thing left to him to be true with Amber, the one good thing at least.
“I want you to go under,” he said. His voice was hoarse. He corrected himself in seat.
“I can’t.” She straightened her legs. “I’m leaving soon.”
“Go on in,” he said desperately, “Until this is over.”
She tilted close to Sahel. The wisps of her hair sticking to her cheeks, she moved more close and kissed him on the cheek and got out of the car.
“Hey, get in,” He yelled from the window. “Come on, I am going to drop you.”
She did not reply, just turned, stopped for a moment and waved her hand in goodbye gesture and vanished behind the flowers hedgerow.