A city master-planned by Greek Architect and Designer in the late fifties with its face towards Margalla Hills on the north-eastern fringe of the Potohar Plateau with plenty of rains and lush green landscape by rows of flame trees, jacaranda and hibiscus. Roses, Jasmine & bougainvillea fill the parks and scenic viewpoints which symbolises the aspirations of young and dynamic nation. It is an ideal city to culminate a career in government.
In fact, as Captain Sahel Farhaj was realizing on a morning scented with the beginning of autumn, this large parcel of subsidised, nonprime hardly historical real estate might well have been serving as an unkindly hint from the Idols of employments. This looked a place for termination rather than auspicious beginning.
For the rest of the Islamabad was nothing, if not majestic. Any human who had ever been there, for a single day or for a quarter century was forever captured by its beauty.
Connoisseurs of the architecture say that you could see the character of a city by the shadows it threw. So you could see the line of tanned legs and short skirts, suit coats with ties round the neck, as well as Shalwar Qameez outfit with leather sole sandals by most of the women and children in the shopping centres and super markets.
There are very few places in the city of Late Field Martial Ayub Khan former President of Islamic Republic of Pakistan who was the mastermind behind erecting of this capital which breaches the code of aesthetic pleasure, but certainly meeting the demands of the new era a few Industrial estates are among them, and that is why Sahel Farhaj hated it so.
Islamabad had an abundance of Holy men, Ministers, Civil and Military bureaucratic networks, Governmental and Corporate high-rise buildings, with acute shortage of popular residential lodgings, That’s why it failed to attract Educationists, Scholars, Philosophers’ and Artists which by any mean compromised the city’s face among most cultured and civilised cities around the globe.
However a few commercial areas do cater to all the basic necessities of the surrounding inhabitants. Such as Blue area located on the main street approaching the Parliament House between the Sector F-6 and G-6. Islamabad has been designed and segregated in square parts called sectors and each sector does possess its own commercial area. So while you lead someone needing to reach the destination just tell him the requisite sector. Among these one of the commercial areas is well known as Aabpara. This area has significant designer brand shops, banks, and store outlets on its south-eastern side including some good restaurants, traditional local food stalls and foreign fast food outlets like McDonalds and KFC etc. A few commercial plazas have had commercials shops on the ground floor like photo studios, small antiques shops and on the upper floors are meant for hotels and residential studios including some of the private offices.
Inexpensive was the descriptive element which had attracted the Department’s eye and certainly the Ministry of Defence could not be blamed for doing their duty. Anonymity was an equal important requisite; for when interviewing prospective Special Operations agents, you allowed them see nothing insignificant until they have been thoroughly vetted.
Intellectually Sahel Farhaj accepted all of this, yet emotionally he felt somehow excommunicated. But then he had been feeling that way for a very long time.
The leg was almost healed, a fair miracle considering that the doctors had done their job fairly well. Nearly fifteen months have passed since that rainy March night, when he had arrived at the Combined Military Hospital in Rawalpindi. Re-costumed in standard Military fatigues, one trouser leg dramatically ripped away, he had been admitted as a casualty of a cross-fire exercise somewhere around Murree Hills. The nerve, bone, cartilage and muscle damage was extensive oxygen starved tissues having resulted from clotting despite the attention of an aggressive field surgeon.
For a while it was touch and go with the leg; surgeons from the Orthopaedic and Micro Departments performed two five hours operations in quick succession. To their discretionary credit, the hard pressed doctors did not acknowledge or discuss the patient’s delirious ramblings in the pre-op or post-op medicated state. He had been admitted as Capt. Sahel Farhaj 245th GG Regiment, a company commander who has suffered his wounds near Murree Hills firing range. Yet he muttered on about Kabul and someone named Razmak who apparently frightened him.
One of the surgeons had a son serving in 245th GG Regiment, so he knew that they were presently on manoeuvres’ in the Northern Heights, nowhere near Murree Hills. Perhaps the presence of burly bald major, dark black eyes observing the progress from the one corner of the operation theatre prevented the doctor from mentioning this discrepancy.
Farhaj had spent over a half of a painful year at CMH. At first and for a long time, he was bedridden bored near to madness during the days, haunting by thundering, sweat-provoking nightmares after dark. He watched his plaster-encased for a near eternity as an ingenious brace pumped it, slowly, to and fro bending the knee, stretching the calf like some medieval torture device.
To the staff it was strange that no family appeared to visit the handsome GG Captain, and perhaps that accounted for his lonely brooding moods. For how could they know that his parents were still receiving postcards from him once a month?
The other wounded soldiers were fairly exhausted by the influx of visitors, dust riffle bearing friends in from the field, girl friends under family cover, food laden mothers and fathers. Sahel’s few visitors, though apparently young companions were usually out of uniform. Inside the wards their small talk was hallow. Some time they whispered to the patient briefly.
When Farhaj achieved his first breakthrough— wheelchair status—Others began to appear. Older men with the postures of officers in casual street clothing, briefcases in roughened hands normally showed up occasionally. The patient would disappear with them some time for hours having been wheeled outside into one of the hospital’s remote lush green lawns under the big trees.
For Sahel, the debriefings were much more painful than the mending wounds left by the bullets and scalpels. However, out of these sessions evolved clarity.
As a result of discussion with Sahel, the post mission investigations had cleared most of the team of responsibility for the City Centre Fiasco. Sahel himself could not be fully exonerated for he was Team Leader and had been accused in alleged shooting and killed an innocent Afghan called Mohammad Zahir as someone had posted a picture of Sahel aiming his pistol on corpse near the grocery shop, though it was side pose of Sahel and face was unrecognizable even by those who had seen him. However, at NSB much of the blame was placed at the feet of the photo recognition specialist. In public there was no record of real killers. Major Dilshad Hussain, as overall commander had asked for and received most of the lashings.
Of course, the long stay at CMH had had its benefits. Sahel Farhaj had imposed upon him a much needed rest. So long an animal of field instincts, he slowly acquired some of his humanity, as well as his identity. He began to respond naturally to the sound of his own name and the tight springs of conditioned reflex began to unwind. He knew that he would never be again a field agent in Special Operations and at long lost he began to accept this.
Finally, and certainly best of all, he had met Amber. She had never probed, never pushed, a young dedicated nurse, who had clearly been borne to give. It took Sahel some time, but eventually he became aware of her brown hair, her piercing brown eyes and wide quick smile. Their romance developed slowly, traditionally and over the course of half a year it was forged into a bonded love. They had been married soon after Sahel’s release.
And so he was back, though never again to be a real participant in the Great Game. Perhaps only a fringe player, a tired contestant forever an observer of the chess masters at work. He tried often to count his blessings, suppress his memory; in fact today was the day when he had decided to put away his cane. The doctors said he would always walk with a strange gait.
Unfortunately, as Sahel secretly knew, he would also forever limp in his mind.
The office was located in the Multi-storey Commercial Complex in the Aabpara. It was up on the second floor all the way at the end of the North-eastern prong having its long tinted glass windows open on the two-way roadsides along the corner of the complex. To get there, you have to walk up the marble-stone stairs which ends up in the lobby of the complex. Then you enter a commercial office dealing in scientific equipment. Once you enter this office you can deal with them at ease as usually happens in the commercial offices if you are a traditional customer. Personnel belonging to the SpecOp enter from one side of the office, cross the first security which leads them into another special security checks, and after verifying their identity, they would enter another small lobby which takes them to the relevant floor of the Department. Initial two security checks are invisible unless you as stranger trying to enter into first security check; you would be halted there for the purpose to go inside. In you are an ordinary customer then you would be ushered respectfully to the other side of the office where too many commercial liaison officers are sitting to deal with you. Scientific Equipment Corporation (Pvt) Ltd was a deliberate cover for the Special Operations.
There were no further set dressings in SEC Ltd, as it was purport to be a start-up business. The company, if asked, was looking for a few enterprising young men and women to work in its overseas office. The appearance of healthy youths would raise no eyebrows, for it was common in Pakistan as soldiers neared the end of their release began to job-hunt hoping for adventure and some travel abroad. The ads normally appeared in local papers classified section throughout the weeks to attract young soldiers’ commissioned and non-commissioned officers for SEC Ltd.
Sahel sat behind the large wooden desk looking every bit the young prospective executive. His office was on the second floor at SEC Ltd after crossing the main hall, a steel door lead to Sahel’s office. He wore blue jeans and a white long sleeved shirt rolled back to arms. His only visible extravagance might have been the black digital dive watch he had once purchased in Switzerland, yet only the initiated would realize its value. The tools of Sahel’s present trade were few, a pile of yellow legal pads, a cup full of pencils and a sharpener. Naturally there was an overflowing ashtray and ever-present pack of Gold Leaf. He had had to give up the Rothmans. They were no longer part of a cover and he would not be reimbursed for their expense.
Sahel was not really an interviewer. That task had already been accomplished at Ministry Headquarters. Having passed that initial stage, agent candidates had to go through an intensive vetting phase. Their minds and bodies would be poked and probed for months on by doctors and psychologists.
In the meantime, Sahel’s assignment was to record by hand every detail of the candidate’s life from birth to the present day. Subsequently with Sahel’s report in hand, team of Vetters would roam the country, often travelling abroad to confirm the veracity of the candidate’s claims.
Although it was certainly a crucial task, on the tall chain of Special Intelligence assignment this job was at the bottom of the pole. Though officially forgiven for his part in the Kabul City Centre fiasco, Sahel would probably never “come in front of the heat” meaning in Department’s eyes an agent who remains in professional limbo.
Sahel was ruminating over his career options when the steel door clang with the rap of knocks.
“Come in”, he called above the table.
The door swung back to reveal the tanned face of a young soldier. He poked his head inside.
“Is this Scientific Equipment Corporation?”
Sahel stared at him expressionless, “Isn’t the sign showed up.”
The soldier blushed and swung the door wide and entered the office.
The soldier closed the door and turned to Farhaj. He squinted trying to adjust from the harsh sunlight to the gloomy shadows of the room.
“Sit down” Sahel pointed to the chair.
The young soldier sat. He was a Naik in mid-twenties, wearing the Khaki dress uniform of some Infantry Regiment. His short black hair was sun streaked at the edges. His clear eyes still painted with certain innocence. A year with us and that look will be gone forever, Sahel wanted to warn him.
“Ehh,” the soldier cleared his throat. “Rehmat Ali Khan, Number-8314765220”
The boy’s nervousness was very obvious as his pleasing Punjabi accent. Sahel smiled.
“You are not a prisoner of war, Rehmat. You can relax.”
The Naik smiled. He looked down at his hands and crossed one leg. Sahel offered him a cigarette which he quickly accepted.
“Now we are just going to talk,” Sahel continued. “It will take a while, we will begin at the beginning, and you might even have to come back again, Understood.”
The soldier nodded, “Yes sir.”
Sahel picked up a legal pad and poised a pencil to write.
“Let’s start with your birth, and we do the first ten years. Don’t leave out a detail. I’ll select the items I wish to record, Right.”
The soldier began to speak.
“I was born in a village near Jhelum, in September, 1979….”
It always began the same way, as it had begun with Sahel himself nearly 10 years ago. Normally the initial selection is purely based on the performance and confidential record of the service where you have been serving. You had to be good to get in and even better to remain.
Even as Sahel began to record the details, he felt the familiar stab of envy. He remembered his own first month of vetting, the excitement of the unknown. He recalled the thrill of the first taste of intelligence work; the mysterious interviews, strange exams, clandestine meetings in obscure cafes with tough looking “civilians” who would examine your every twitch.
He recalled his fondest memory. It was the army’s test of soldier teamwork ability. It was there in the field, that he had first met John Victor, Capt. Tanveer and Capt. Rafi Ahmad, still not knowing that in time he would think of them as Faizi Jaffar, Barat Khan and Baba Feroz. For months they had studied together, trained together, and carried each other in mock stretcher drills, all the while watched carefully by their hawkeyed recruiters. And even then, when only the calm, the brave and the talented remained, the adventure had only just begun.
The romance of the birth of an army intelligence agent was incomparable. The secret training, the documentation and the covers besides the shedding of uniforms for the guise of civilian clothes, the tracking in the streets of Islamabad, the weapon instructions, Intel history, sabotage and communication. And the secret from friends and family that bound the compatriots together, even more than had the years in the field with fellow paratroopers.
And finally the first mission.
How Sahel wished that he could go back there again, could once more be admired officer, the hero. And now he wished to quit the game early, while every operation was still a smashing success. Long before, he had ever heard the name of Razmak Bilal.
Almost immediately after being spotted in Afghanistan, on the very afternoon when Sahel was supposed to arrest Razmak Bilal in Kabul— he had disappeared from the face of the earth. At first, no one “purchased the ruse” as the Brits like to say. For months afterwards, the western intelligence agencies searched for him. CIA, MI6, SDECE, they all sniffed around the alleyways of Europe, the cities of the Middle East. Ciphers & cables and internet emails were intercepted, informers and deep double scoured and nothing came up. Rumours poured in that Razmak had retired to Yemen. He had training in Yemen; He had gone underground in Central America. Eventually the most recurring piece of information came to be accepted by the managers of Western Intelligence. Where NSB has failed, Razmak’s own brother has succeeded. He had been killed by a rival, even more radical if that was conceivable faction. Al-Qaeda or Central Tehreek Taliban (CTT) had disagreed with, or been jealous of Razmak’s activities. Within the terrorist brotherhood internal problems were most often settled with gunfire.
When Sahel first heard the news of Razmak’s death mentioned casually by Maj. Dilshad as the major pushed the wheelchair along a sunny sidewalk at CMH, he experienced a flood of emotions. Razmak’s demise could not erase Sahel’s failed attempt to arrest of Hayat Gul but there was a sense of joyful retribution in hearing that an enemy’s career has also taken a “downward turn”. Then almost immediately Farhaj also felt a strange pang of commiseration. For what was Razmak Bilal if not a mirror of himself? Yes the terrorist had been ruthless, seemingly indiscriminate, a killer. But had the man being a Muslim instead of an Afghan, restrained by the shackles of government as opposed to freelance his own network, he might have been something else. He could have been Sahel’s partner.
The months of quiet recovery had certainly softened Farhaj’s professional acumen, but his ingrained training had made him sceptic, and he did not succumb to the sense of relief. Razmak Bilal disappeared? Dead? How much was disinformation?
Sahel knew the answers to those questions. The head of Department could swear on his precious words that Razmak Bilal was dead, but Sahel would have to see the cold corpse before he‘d believed that. He knew that his feeling of his “unsettled account” would probably stay with him until he died.
“I’ll believe it when the check clears,” was all he said to Dilshad.
In the meantime Farhaj was experiencing his own slow death in the Service. Sure the salary was good, plus disability payments; in less than two years he could get out with a partial pension. Yes, the humiliation was high, but thanks to enduring secretive nature of his work no one save his peers was privy to his failures. He was almost thirty two years old, and he has nearly half the credits towards a university degree. He and Amber were trying to have a baby. He could have some kind of future.
If he could just bite his lips and stick it out….
The mid-afternoon arrived quickly despite the mundane nature of Sahel’s task. He had to listen, concentrate and record questions and that made the clock move. By 3.30 pm he had interviewed six candidates, four men and two women, having taken a half hour to eat Amber’s chicken sandwich with garlic pickle salad.
He was sipping a cup of tea and waiting for the last candidate when the telephone rang.
“Scientific Equipment Corporation,” Sahel spoke in the mouthpiece.
“That’s it for the day.” A voice said.
“Where’s the last man.” Sahel asked.
“Cancelled, you can come on in.”
“Right”. Sahel said and hung up.
Sahel sat back against the steel office chair. He was glad to be done for the day, yet he felt the familiar crawling in his stomach. At one time butterflies had come only near the climax of a dangerous operation. Now they arrived whenever Sahel was about to head down to the Headquarters.
He stood up and felt the rough click in the right knee, ignored it and began to sweep. The legal pads were full of his scratching. He placed all of them in his briefcase. Then he checked all of his desk drawers and floor for every bit of paper. He pulled the plastic bag from the waste basket and tied it shut.
It might have seemed paranoid, but Sahel suspected that certainly one of these nights Col. A.K. Zawri would send over a pair of Department’s “Burglars” who could open anything from a child piggy bank to Prime Minister’s private safe. They would break-in quietly, scour SEC Ltd, and if they found even the smallest scrap of incriminating evidence there would be hell to pay. The Colonel did not like Sahel. The brooding Captain’s presence was a constant reminder of Kabul, and Zawri did not appreciate this limping personification of Failure stalking around the Department.
Colonel Abdul Karim Zawri was Sahel’s butterfly-maker. And the hostile feeling was mutual. Farhaj hoped that he could complete his business at HQ without even seeing the commander.
The scuffed wooden cane was leaning against the wall, waiting for its master. Sahel debated throwing it out with the garbage, but that seemed a crude demise for a loyal friend. He picked it up and gripped it horizontally along with the handle of his briefcase and walked out with the trash onto the sunlit catwalk.
His first few unaided steps were painful. His right hip seemed to be grinding at the ball and socket, but the strong afternoon sun helped and soon his muscles warmed and he was satisfied with his progress. The two flights of the stairs were the most difficult. He used the handrail, and when he reached the bottom he was sweating but was quite pleased with himself. A photographer who used the office next door passed him in a hurry.
“Kaisey hain” The man asked Sahel.
“Fine, Thanks”. Sahel smiled.
His shiny black Suzuki Margalla 1300 was baking in a lot on the back side of building. He was always pleased by the sight of this car, mostly because he had used this one in his college days as well. He had affixed a small “Sticker” in the rear windshield boldly written as “Don’t follow me, if you can’t catch me.” For so long he had been forbidden to display such signs. But he was never going back into the field, so he had said to hell with it and slapped on the bright sticker. What would Zawri do? Send him to the Ministry?
As he approached the Margalla, Sahel was barely aware of the fact that he was a creature of strange habits, and would probably be always so. When he was out on the street, his ears pricked up, bat-like, scanning for the incongruous sound, the click of weapon bolt, patter of a pursuing footstep. His eyes automatically swept the lot, recording faces and matching them to his memory for non-coincidental repetitions. He glanced instinctively at the under carriage of the Margalla, quickly running a checklist natural automotive protrusions verses any freshly affixed shapes. When he finally reached the door handle, his fingers briefly hesitated as his eyes swept the lock for scratch marks, the space beneath the dash for inconsistent wiring.
Had he realized he was doing it, he would have felt quite foolish. He was no longer in foreign country or on “enemy territory.” This was his hometown and the danger virtually non-existent. Yet it was not a conscious indulgence, no more so than a pilot’s instinctive pre-flight checks.
Still, on occasion, Sahel was made painfully aware of the insidiousness of his training. Since leaving the hospital, he had on three separate occasions, identified himself by a cover name while trying to cash checks. Naturally his Computerised National Identity Card had contradicted him, causing the suspicious bank tellers to angrily refuse his business. Blushing Sahel had been forced to excuse himself and quickly withdraw, whereupon he would find himself outside in the hot sun, breathing hard and crawling with chills. He had never, ever, made such a blunder while in the field. It was the cruel price of recovery.
It was not yet summer, but the inside of the Margalla was as hot as hell. Sahel folded up the cardboard windshield guard which didn’t do much except keep the steering wheel from melting. He rolled down the passenger window as well as his own, strapped in, lit a cigarette and put the car in gear.
It was almost four o’clock when he neared the Zero point. He could have taken Constitution Avenue, the most direct route, but at this hour Avenue would have been the busiest one, so instead of turning left, he swung through the cut and turned right. He made straight for the intersection and turned right again to the Main Faisal Avenue, sweeping breath of beautiful villas as they flowed past the Margalla windows. He checked the rear view mirror, somewhat more than was necessary. He didn’t bother to deny to himself that the detour also delayed his arrival, albeit for only a few minutes.
Too soon he found himself on the intersection of Khiaban-e-Iqbal passing Special Children School on his left side. He then turned right to Khiaban-e-Iqbal and soon reached the F-6 Markaz. He crossed it and took a sharp uphill left onto Jacob House, feeling the tension, hoping that Col. Zawri would be out of the office.
The Jacob Compound, with its myriad of religious archives and some Government offices was like a small city in and of itself. It sat on a large flat hill, just to the north of Islamabad, but seemingly on another planet altogether. While at a few meters away, Islamabad engaged in social activities at outdoor cafes and spends their overtaxed earnings on Afghan BBQ, ice creams and other shopping.
An unknown to all, but those who worked there, National Security Bureau, commonly known as NSB’s Special Operations had also taken up temporary residence.
Up until two months previously, all of the major Intelligence branches had operated somewhere else. Special Operations had had its own building, too small really for the Department’s rapid expansion. Col. Abdul Karim Zawri kept pushing for a larger space, but the Ministry kept protesting lack of funds. It was during a routine check of the building, and coincidently in the midst of heated budget debate, that the sweepers found a bug in the Cipher room. Zawri threw a fit, grabbing his second-in-command and rushed over to Ministry, where he stormed into the office of DC-2 NSB and pounded on his desk for half an hour. In Pakistan, the man who screams the loudest is often the one who gets what he wants and Zawri did his melodramatic best, ragging about the two foreign electronic intercepts trawlers just outside of Islamabad, how he couldn’t even take a shit without someone’s counting the splashes and it was no fucking wonder that his people couldn’t carry out a simple elimination when his own Cipher Room was as penetrable as lusty whore.
He needed a new, solid and secure facility. And he needed it now!
While the MoD real estate people sheepishly began to shop, Zawri was allowed to clear out of Main Building and set up temporarily in Jacob Compound. The people who knew the Colonel well smiled, for he had played it perfectly. Abdul Karim Zawri was an empire builder, and he had just laid his cornerstone. A couple of his agents wondered too indiscreetly about who had really planted the bug, and they quickly found themselves working an extended surveillance job in Middle East.
Sahel entered the long parking lot, now half full of civilians and government cars, yet he kept driving into the Compound itself. The British Orthodox Church was the centrepiece, its majesty incongruous amid the flat, bullet scarred governmental stone corridors.
Farhaj drove past the Education Department, where a group of male and female young teachers were being gathered for their new assignments in Election Commission. Just before the courtyard was a small dirty parking. Most of the vehicles having governmental number plates, mostly belonged to the civil services officers, Sahel joined them as one more civil service employee.
Special Operations had chosen an appropriate building for its temporary residence. The courtyard was dirty, the entrance doors peeling. The stained doors were singularly uninteresting, even discouraging. One said it was a part of Education Department for Universities Research Centres. Another said it was a Research Centre of Higher Education Commission Islamabad. The three floors ended in a flat-topped roof and the weather beaten walls barely minimum aesthetic standards set by Islamabad CDA.
There were no aerials on the roof, as all of the telex, scramblers, burst and satellite cables had been run under the Compound through communication tunnels and parasite off the massive Education, Police and Postal towers. The windows on the north side of the building faced the Central Courthouse. The western windows faced a street, but there the massive facade of Post Office served as ample screening from the purview. Even so, every window had curtains and each pane of glass was affixed with a suction cup containing an oscillating diaphragm operating at random frequencies set by a central transmitter. The vibration would foil attempts to “read” the internal sound waves off the glass, either by laser or parabolic devices. Granted the entire building hummed like a muffled bees nest but one soon would feel it more disturb when the air-conditioners were run only to keep cool the computers around inside.
Sahel got out of the car, a bit stiff in the knee, but he left the cane inside and took his briefcase and the small bag of garbage. He inhaled a breath of the cooler late afternoon breeze, straightened his shoulders and walked.
Security at the main entrance seemed casual. Almost all public buildings in Pakistan now use private security firms to guard their entrances, old man in rumpled uniform checked Sahel and his briefcase with metal detector for weapons or explosives.
There was a beep when crossed the detector by his hip. Uniform man smiled and asked for today’s code.
“Dhoop taiz hey”
Guard again smiled and let him go.
The man at the SpecOp desk inside the cool halfway seemed no different. He was in his mid-fifties and wore a blue uniform. Actually he was an ex-agent named Sahib Dad, once chief of security in three different embassies abroad. He was heavy with oncoming years and too much foreign food, but still there was lot of power hidden beneath the seemingly neglected uniform. He was an expert shooter.
Sahib Dad glanced up as Sahel approached the desk.
“Salam, Farhaj.” Big man smiled. “What’s going on?”
“Every day, an adventure,” Sahel produced an ID pass. It was the NSB’s top security clearance, allowing its bearer entry to any Military or Civilian facility in the country by the order of President of Pakistan. No questions asked.
Sahib Dad continued to smile. He didn’t even look at Sahel’s ID pass. He glanced up at a small television camera, pressed an intercom button and said, “It’s Sahel,” to an invisible employee. A buzzer vibrated and the lock of the steel entrance door clicked and Sahel had to grab it quickly before it’s closed again.
Sahel was somewhat offended. Sahib Dad should have examined his pass, no matter the familiarity. For a moment, he instinctively became the field commander again.
“I know you know me, Sahib Dad,” he said as he held the door. “But really should look at this thing.” He still held the pass in his fingers.
Sahib Dad looked up with the expression of an impatient parent. He extended his hand, grabbed the card, exaggerated his perusal of it, matching the picture twice with Farhaj’s face and handed it back.
“After all, I could have been fired last night,” Sahel continued. “Had my clearance taken away? Hell, I could be coming in here just to kill Zawri.”
“Smartest career move, you would ever make.” Said Sahib Dad and moved to his desk.
Sahel flushed speechless. “Ya Allah”, He called silently to God. Does everyone know my goddamn business?
He entered a “submarine” chamber, pulling the door closed behind him. It was a steel closet with a large two-way mirror inside. A hollow voice spoke to him.
“Salam, Sahel, what have you got?”
“Today’s interview and trash for the burn bag.”
There was a snort from the speaker and the secondary door lock buzzed.
The headquarters of NSB’s Special Operations Department looked surprisingly like any other suite of Pakistani Government offices. All the walls of plaster-covered cement, painted a dull light off-white. The floors were typically cheap marble-tiled. God helped the extravagant officers who dared to order carpeting. The lights were either industrial fluorescent or day tube-lights on the walls over the desks, so even the most fresh faced employees looked sallow at their workplace.
Because the occupation of the premises was fairly new, the Department was undergoing a period of disarray if not chaos. The halls were narrow leaving no room for the reception desk or comfortable waiting chairs. Rickety wooden tables covered with green surge fibre piled with unclassified daily reports and periodicals, made passage difficult. Cipher cables, telephone and computer lines snaked from room to room, giving the halfway floor the look of a frigate deck under repair. The inevitable glass, teacups and saucers found their resting places wherever employees had decided that they were over caffeinated. Nervous Sweepers went about their fussy business virtually ignored, so in addition to the flurry of intelligence officers bouncing from room to room, there was a strange presence of spectacled man crawling on hands and knees, inspecting the cables, wall joints and every electronic fitting as if the place also harboured a nursery for retarded kinder.
Sahel took the marble stairway to the second floor, one at a time, left foot first, and then resting on the right as he carried the briefcase and trash bag in his left hand and pushed off from the steel rail with his right. A young man was sitting at a steel desk on the second floor landing; He was muscular armed with a pistol, a telephone and small cup of steaming tea. He looked like a receptionist at a security prison.
“Hello Bravo”. He was extremely serious and called everyone by their Departmental code names, even though that was only required for the field operatives.
“Hi, Sajid”, said Sahel. He pointed out an object which looked like a net less basketball hoop, a grey steel frame standing next to the desk. “Where is the burn bag?”
“New rules,” Sajid raised a dark eyebrow. “Zawri wants everything cleared twice a day now. They are bringing fresh bags up.” He extended his hand towards Sahel’s bag, “I’ll take it.”
Sahel hugged his plastic bag to his chest, mocking Sajid’s solemnity. “That’s a break in regulations.”
“Break this.” Sajid laughed.
Sahel laughed too and dropped his bag on the desk. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You get out in the field you won’t have to put up with this shit.”
It was Sajid’s dream to work as National Commando, which was the coded title for the Special Operations teams. But he was never considered.
Sahel moved on down the hallway. He passed the “News Room”, where telex machines generate unclassified reports from the world’s major news agencies and the encoded machines of Pakistani Embassies in major capitals.
Next was the Cover Room, where a trio of bright attractive young women chose titles for missions and operatives. They were hard press to keep the humour out of their work, the only witness to their optimistic youths being a sign on the door in old English calligraphy that read “What’s in a name, a Rose…..” Shakespeare!
There was glass window in the door and it suddenly popped open. A girl with untidy hair stuck her head out and beamed at Sahel.
“Bravo, my dear.” Seema said smilingly.
Sahel stopped short. Seema’s smile always forced him to respond in kind. “Hi.”
“Wouldn’t you love a new name?” She offered mischievously. “It’s cycle time, you can have it.”
“Don’t think it’s necessary,” said Sahel betraying his self-effacing mood.
“Oh, come on, Bravo’s so, so….. Blue Moon.”
“Yes, well, I’ll think about it, Thanks.”
“Okay, Seema replied without taking any offense.” She closed the door.
Even back when he was a paratrooper non-com, the seriousness with which Sahel undertook his tasks had resulted in his acquiring the nickname “The Brooding Bravo.” Somehow he took as a compliment, and it had resulted in his choice of Bravo as departmental code. Might as well keep it like a Souvenir.
He continued on. So far no one had noticed that he was without his ever-present cane. Well, he decided, it was like smoking. Nobody realized it, once you finally quit.
He suddenly started when a captain called Qadri came storming out of the Cipher Room. Qadri was about Sahel’s age and had a few hair on his head, dead black eyes with his distinct look of a mad youth whose parents must have hated him.
“Well, get the goddamn thing down, now!” Qadri had one hand on his hip and was gesturing angrily at a large diagram which had been posted on a bare wall. It was obviously a practical joke, a layout of the floor in the black market on rough beige planner paper. All of the offices were delineated and bore caustic comments in the square blueprint spaces such as “Cipher Room—best coffee, worst conversation” and “Covers—three lovelies—two single—one married and all easy” and so forth.
“What the hell, do you think this is, the goddamn Tourist Bureau?!” Qadri stood there fuming while the Cipher Room’s pair of ever-present guards jumped to tear the poster down. A middle age woman from the room stood by blushing, yet clearly insulted at having been reprimanded by Qadri.
“Too much coffee?” Sahel smiled at Qadri as he passed the scene. The temperamental Captain ignored him.
He carried on and passed the small canteen, from which someone called him. “Sahel, you look great today!” He waived but kept on feeling a knee a bit more but ignoring it.
All three levels of the building were Security Floors, but perhaps it was the presence of the canteen on Floor Two that gave the area a more relaxed atmosphere. It was here in the small place with its tea, coffee and sandwich bar, scuffed Formica tables and white plastic chairs that personnel came to take a break and blow off steam, anger about their assignments and their bosses. You could have a good laugh in the canteen, which you could not certainly do on Floor Three, where Colonel A.K.Zawri had intricate, gruelling planning sessions until well into the midnight hours on most days. And below on Floor One and basement, there wasn’t a hell of a lot of levity either. The Wizards, Watchers and scouts worked down there sweating over tool benches, handling micro-electronic gear, weapons, and explosives. They didn’t joke much. An effective punch line could cost the Department’s fortune.
So Floor two was the People’s Floor, as the employees called it. And the canteen was a bustling hangout, its atmosphere spilling over times. It could have been any small cafeteria in any public building except for the fact that on an occasion when a stranger would enter, the multilingual shop talk would come to a dead halt. A few seconds delay and suddenly everybody switch subjects—cricket match and children’s progress.
As Sahel turned into Personnel, he caught the echoes of an argument as two men emerged from the canteen behind him.
“You can’t do that, you clever!”
“You would overload the relay. It’ll burn and jam open, and then you would have an irrevocable fuse. No safety.”
“So, we will put a converter on the circuit.”
“It is supposed to be light, you stupid, by the time you are done, we will need a goddamn truck to move it.”
The conversation faded down the hallway as the men receded to the lower floor. Sahel smiled. The sounds of operation.
Personnel was one midsized room, the walls lined with tall grey filing cabinets, shelves for computer disks and programme and roaster lists for assembling training teams. There were three desks. The one on the left was for personnel secretary, upon which sat a grey & black coloured LCD monitor. Anita, a bright-eyed, curly headed barely twenty five sat imputing Sahel’s previous interviews. The right desk was Saleem’s, a happy go-lucky sergeant whose function as Personnel runner, driver etc. which kept him out of the office all day long. The largest desk was at the far end, against the windows. That was for the Head of Personnel.
Sahel did not have a desk.
Anita looked up and smiled at Sahel. He smiled at her too and blinked an eye and she blushed as she did every day when he greeted her smilingly.
“Hey… where is the cane.” She asked.
“You noticed I admire you,” Sahel said solemnly and continued on to the windows. He dropped down on a chair in front of his boss’s desk, relieved to be off the leg again.
Major Shahzad Ahmad looked up from his work, and gestured for Sahel to wait a moment… Sahel sat patiently, looking at Shahzad, examining the papers. He was nearly forty with slick black hair, and wide forehead, always had an empty pipe clutched between his teeth. He had given up actually smoking, but he saw no reason to abandon the pacifier altogether. His nature was absurdly pleasant for a man who had been working under the pressures of intelligence for nearly 15 years. No one knew Shahzad’s real name, for he was occasionally send to Middle East on short role in certain Missions. Actually his cover was extremely vulnerable and he was rarely used in the field anymore.
Shahzad threw down his pencil, sat back, folded his fingers behind his head and smiled over his pipe stem.
“How’d it go today?”
“A thrill,” Sahel said. “As usual.”
Shahzad shook his head slowly, with some sympathy. “I keep telling you Farhaj,” he had gently probably the same tone as when explaining the cruelties of life to his own son. “You are lucky to be walking at all, breathing even. Accept it.”
“I know, I know my dear friend,” said Sahel.
“Zindgi ko relax karo,” Anita chirped from behind her LCD monitor, having heard the banter a few times before.
“Hey you!” Shahzad wagged a finger in her direction. “I told you no eavesdropping and no flirting with my married man.”
Anita giggled and continued to type.
“So?” Shahzad switched to business. “How did they look?”
Sahel opened his briefcase and passed the legal pads over the desk. “In my opinion, two OK and three never–make–it.”
“Why the three?” Shahzad frowned as he took the pads.
“One too cool, one too nervous and one too eager.”
“Ah, so you are a psychologist now.”
“Professional pessimist,” said Sahel, but his tone displayed some hurt. “You don’t want to hear it, so you don’t ask.”
“My dear,” said Shahzad smiling slightly yet dead sincere. “If I could, I’d have dispensed with the doctors, shrinks and polygraphs and just let you take them through from first interview to accept or reject. You know that.”
Farhaj bowed his head with the apologetic compliment. He stood up. Suddenly the knee was throbbing and he wished he’d brought the cane, if only for moral support.
“Well, I am off.”
“Hey,” said Shahzad staring at the legal pads. “You think, Anita can decipher this handwriting?”
“She reads my mind,” Sahel said without looking at the secretary. “Besides, she can always call me at home.”
“Oh, I am sure, Amber would love that,” Anita spoke behind her screen.
“She trusts me,” said Sahel as he made to leave.
Anita laughed again as Sahel opened the door.
“No interviews till Wednesday,” Shahzad called. But come in and help out with the bios.”
Sahel acknowledged with a thumb up, and then he went into the hallway, clearly taking a left instead of heading for the exit.
“Hey,” Shahzad called. “Where to?”
“To see Dilshad.”
“I wish you could stay out of trouble, Sahel.”
“Yes, I wish too.”
He should have gone straight home. Zawri had ordered Sahel to stop ruminating over the Razmak case, and that meant staying clear of Research. But Dilshad Hussain was a still a close friend, and you could not order a man to terminate his friendship. It was not Sahel’s fault that now Dilshad Hussain was heading Research, was it?
In comparison to Personnel, the Research Department at the end of the floor was a madhouse. Dilshad Hussain liked it that way, and his people joked that even if forced to retire to being a Headmaster of a kindergarten, he would run it similarly, snapping out orders planning activities and jumping from recess to finger paints like the field commander he would always be. Within the Pakistan Intelligence community, NSB’s Research Department was uncontested, as the brain trust of gathering, computation and analysis of the raw information. Dilshad Hussain’s department in SpecOp was just a smaller version of the same. He could call on resources at will –from other intelligence agencies or even the national Police. His private lair was bursting at the seams with files, computer printouts, cipher booklets, video and Audio tapes. There was room for possibly five desks and as many varied terminals, supporting maximum of seven analysts. Yet Dilshad Hussain had accounted for every centimetre of space. He had five different computers, two multi-head VCR and two monitors with sound recorder equipment and amplifier speakers and massive cross-indexing files in four ceiling high steel cabinets. Dilshad had no desk of his own, because he worked better on his feet. Besides, it allowed him to put two more people into the room which usually harboured no fewer than nine in addition to him. The atmosphere was always choked with smoke despite the anticigarette wave gripping the National scene. Dilshad encouraged the habit, contending that the puffing enhances the mental reflexes.
Thanks to colonel AK Zawri’s skewed concept of crime and punishment, Dilshad Hussain had been suspended from Operations after Kabul fiasco. But he had managed to twist things around. Now Operations could not function without him.
There was no lettered signed on the door to Dilshad’s department, instead Dilshad had somehow acquired a large black and yellow wooden sign from a road gang. It exhibited no words, but simply showed a muscular figure bending over a large black mound of earth, applying leverage to a shovel. For that was how Dilshad viewed his assignment, and also how he wanted to his staff to view it— sweat provoking, roll-up-your-sleeves, laborious, digging rather than a purely intellectual, chair bound endeavours that could make your ass flabby and starve your inspiration.
Sahel pushed on the road sign; the door swung open and he was immediately greeted by cloud of cigarette smoke, the smell of coffee, a noise of computer’s printers and Dilshad’s thundering voice.
“No, Sonia” Dilshad was nearly shouting. “I don’t want that now. Just give me what I asked you for.”
“But Sir,” a woman’s voice sounded obstinate, nearly insubordinate, “we have got a twenty percent increase in verbs and nouns. We should start from the beginning of the file fill in some blanks.”
“O… my God!” There was a crack of Dilshad’s palm against his own forehead. How many times do I have to say it Sonia? We have got over three thousand transmission, if you correct every page, you will have three, four children, by the time you are halfway done!”
“Okay, okay,” someone else said.
The voices of opposition died down and the clatter of computer keys increased. Sahel closed the door and Dilshad turned from where he has been posed like an orchestra conductor, waving his arms demanding productions from his various sections.
Dilshad Hussain was five-foot-ten, somewhat shorter than Sahel, but he had the wide body like a rugby player. He was forever battling a stomach which was addicted to his wife Kashmiri cooking, yet he believed that once he increased trouser size it would be akin to a wartime surrender. He was constantly hitching up his belt. He smoked incessantly, but he still played soccer every weekend with his two teenage sons, and it was said that he could victoriously arm-wrestle any field agent in the Department.
As Sardar JS Khan, he had been overall commander of operation “Darkroom” and ultimately responsible for the botched arrest. Yet unlike Sahel, Dilshad’s spirit had not been dulled by the Kabul fiasco. He viewed intelligence work as an open warfare, and in war you made mistakes, accept them, paid for them and carried on.
Dilshad was wearing a sky-blue half sleeved shirt with off-white cotton pant. His big bald head and jug ears were shiny with perspiration and the shirt was dark under the armpits. He extended a beefy hand.
“Sahel!” He boomed as if he hadn’t seen him for months, though they had had breakfast together only the day before. “Why won’t these people listen to me?”
Farhaj took the hand and squeezed hard to match Dilshad power. “Apparently because you don’t give them fair allowance,” Sahel poked him.
“We respect him.” Someone said from the hazy atmosphere. “We just don’t like his style.”
“Shut up and work,” Dilshad barked without turning around.
“How was it today?” He looked at Sahel with some sympathy.
“Be serious.” Sahel smiled.
“You be serious,” Dilshad said, and take it seriously, the only way you would get out of it.”
“Maybe I like this way.”
“And my father was queer.”
“That’s what in your file,” Sahel said and Dilshad patted his shoulder and suddenly turned back to the troops. “You Tariq, what’s taking so long?”
“You wanted hard-disk backup, so now you have to wait,” said a young man labouring over an hp compatible.
“Mukamal jahalat!” Dilshad roared.
“Ah, the Pakistani Koom, Sahel sighed.
“Our flexibility will also be our demise,” said Dilshad.
Sahel searched the room, something big was breaking; he could smell it in the atmosphere, he could by the frenetic concentration that gripped intelligence personnel whenever fresh information was coursing down the pipeline.
All five computer terminals were occupied, the young men and women, who each had advanced degrees in the science, bulked over their keyboards like crows pecking at corn. Two additional men were fanning through the paper files in the ceiling high cabinets, and more brooding figure sat in the far corner by the windows, flipping through a small notebook.
Everyone in the room knew Sahel and they were always friendly. Though fallen from grace, he was still viewed as a field agent, a figure from that other world of daring and danger which they would never experience. He was usually regarded with a degree of awe, yet today the computer troops were fairly ignoring him.
“What’s going on?” asked Sahel.
Dilshad raised a playful eyebrow at Sahel. Farhaj was out of his department and was expected to respect the rules of compartmentalization which restricted access of information to a need-to-know basis. With a few selected individuals such as Sahel, Dilshad occasionally broke the rules.
“Is he cleared for this, Dilshad?” The small figure asked him from the far corner without looking up from his notebook.
“I’m cleared for the rumours, Khaki,” Sahel said above the chatters of the computers.
Someone laughed. Dilshad lit a cigarette, kept it between his teeth, and put his hands on his hips.
“Rumour is,” Dilshad said, “ISI has broken a big chunk of Hyperion Codes.”
“ISI?” Sahel’s eyed bugged.
“That’s the rumour.”
There was a historical, healthy competitive spirit between ISI and NSB, but cooperation on most matter was high. Many officers made career moves from one organisation to the other, so the level of jealousies rarely got out of hand.
“Do you have it?” Sahel asked excitedly.
“By messenger an hour ago, in black and white. Dilshad grinned. He was clearly pleased, triumphant. He did not care what outfit made the gains, as long as the war was going well.
“Isn’t this a cipher jurisdiction?” Farhaj asked.
“Jurisdiction is just an excuse to do less work.” Dilshad growled.
“Take a chair,” Dilshad had noticed the missing cane. “Shouldn’t go too far the first day.”
“That’s okay, I will stand.”
“What I told you, Khaki?” Dilshad growled again.
“Sonia, the anticipation is killing me,” he continued.
Everyone in the room waited Khaki would not be rushed. He rubbed his chinless jaw and stared into space, finally he turned towards the terminal where Sonia sat.
“Dilshad is right, Sonia,” Khaki whispered. “You are not some poet and we are not trying to write or interpret some poetry. Just pull the Spells and End spells along with the five words preceding and following.” He went back to reading his booklet.
“You see,” Dilshad clapped his big hands together. “That’s why he gets the big bonuses.” It was joke of course, as the NSB salaries were hardly generous and there were no bonuses.
“Okay, I am getting a listing off a first three hundred pieces.” Tariq said from his terminal.
“Print it,” said Dilshad.
The machine chatter increased.
“What about Darkroom? Sahel suddenly asked.
Dilshad turned. He looked at Sahel sadly, with a touch of sympathy. “Now, Sahel…”
“Why not Dilshad, It can’t hurt me, let the machines do it.”
“You just give up the ghost, can you?”
“No, and neither can you, so don’t pretend otherwise.”
Dilshad bowed his bald head and ran a hand over it. He blew out a cloud of smoke. He straightened up.
“Okay Sonia.” He jabbed a finger to the right. Pull Kabul file and do an extraction for Darkroom.”
“No, you idiot!” That’s our code name for him. Try JAZAB, LASHKAR, and RIZWA BUKSHI, but just first pull all the five and six characters proper and create a separate file.
“Cancel that order.”
A voice boomed from the open doorway, and except for the printer chatter, the room went dead and the research staffers froze. The cloud of cigarette suddenly shifted towards the entrance and amid the haze stood the tall figure of Colonel AK Zawri.
The commander of NSB’s Special Operations stepped into the room. He was too tall for the door frame and had to bow his head, but his cold stare remained fixed on Dilshad and Sahel. Zawri had that unfair advantage of being an unusually large man, especially in the land of midsized Pakistanis; even without uttering a word he commanded power. In addition, his forty eight year old head still had every one of the coal-black hair with which he was born, greyed slightly at the curled fringes, but looking like raw steel wire. His eyes were nearly black, with curved eyebrows and beneath equally darkened cheeks and his sharp nose jutted over tight lips.
He slammed the door with one huge hand.
“Sahel, what are you doing here?”
Somehow, Sahel was not surprised at Zawri’s untimely arrival.
The Colonel ignored the disrespect. “I have told you before and I will not tell you again. You are not to wander from your own operational parameters, and you are certainly forbidden from interfering with the important work undertaken in this room.”
Sahel flushed. His knee was suddenly throbbing and he wanted very badly to sit down, but he just returned Zawri’s stare.
“I asked him here. Dilshad lied. Dilshad never gave quarter, not even to his boss, and he put his hands to his belt and hiked up his pants as if preparing for a fist fight. “As you may or may not remember, I have authority to call upon any agent, at any time for whatever needs required by my staff.
Zawri ignored the Major. He was not about to take on with Dilshad in a public forum. He continued deriding Sahel.
“Might I also remind you Mr Sahel that matters regarding “Darkroom” are no longer your concern? I will not have these people’s valuable time wasted by your pursuit of a cold dead body.” Zawri eyes were nearly glowing now; making Sahel feel as his hair might suddenly burst into flames. “We have pending operations requiring immediate updates. The salving of your ego is not on my priority list.”
Sahel had had enough. He was not going to stand there and be Zawri’s whipping boy, nor was he going to wait to be thrown out physically. He picked up his briefcase and made for the door.
“I am sure, you have plenty of paperwork.” Zawri called after him.
Sahel’s blood was pounding in his ears. He heard footsteps following him as he limped quickly, white lipped down the hall.
“Sahel,” Dilshad voice called. Tomorrow night at seven you and Amber. Bubbly is making haleem.”
Sahel kept walking, his vision half blurred with fury and humiliation. He barely registered the curious heads poked from office doors, wandering who might be the target of Zawri’s rage, as the thundering voice still echoed down the hall from Research.
From the doorway to cover, Seema’s concerned face suddenly emerged. “Bravo?”
“Good day”, as he hurried on, nearly staggering as he marched painfully down the cold dark stairwell.
When by seven o’ clock Sahel had still not arrived at home, Amber began to worry.
She of course had now known her husband during his tenure as a field agent, when he would be often be gone from his apartment for days or would disappear from the country altogether without a word to friends or family. His present job the one he fairly dragged himself to each morning had very regular hours. He rarely came home after five, still during her regular military service Amber knew intelligence people often lost track of the time. She hoped that Sahel was simply engaged in some important assignment. That would be good for him, for both of them. Naturally, all of the other darker reasons for his delay also coursed through her brain and she was tempted to call the office. But she would not do that. In Pakistan military wives did not call the office, unless they were in the advanced stage of labour or the house was ablaze. Everyone in the country knew that the real heroes of the Pakistan defence forces were the wives who waited silently and Amber was not about to shatter that image.
Amber had had a difficult day herself. She now worked in the children wing at CMH, and her face muscles had ached from her constant attempts to smile, her feet burned from the endless walk up and down the hallways on hard tile floor of the wards.
Yet she always looked forward to coming home, even climbing the two flights to their apartment if lift was out of order in G-11. Although it was only a rental, the flat was far beyond anything either Amber or Sahel had ever hoped for. By Islamabad standard it was huge with three bed rooms with attached bath rooms fully tiled with fancy sanitary fittings. A teak wood-worked lounge with a small portion for dinning and moderate kitchen and in addition, there was a fireplace which Amber liked very much.
Although it was a bit expensive within the budget ceiling allowed by NSB, but Sahel and Amber both decided to share the cost with NSB, as upon seeing the place, they immediately loved it.
Amber had put off her sweaty hospital’s nurse uniform. She had showered, washed her jet black hair and pulled on a soft jean and light cotton shirt. Barefoot now she stood on the terrace, her one hand on the guardrail and other holding a glass of iced orange juice, she watched out over the tall buildings and houses cross the street turning purple with the coming of night. She tried not to look at her watch, one ear waited for the ring of the telephone.
Farhaj arrived at 7.20. He was using the cane again and he was exhausted. He had stopped at the Gull’s Inn on the Margalla, where the UN had its headquartered. It was the most beautiful view of Islamabad from any vantage, and when troubled, Sahel often went there to sit on the hillside watching houses, trees changing colours with the trek of the sun. They were building a long public walkway on the hill, and soon every tourist in the country would be sharing over Sahel’s private purview, slurring ice creams and clicking camera chatters. But now there was only a tasteful restaurant dug into the hillside, barely visible from the road. Sahel had sat out on the grass, fairly gulped a series of Espresso trying to remind himself that he still had something for which to be thankful.
But by the time he managed three flights to the apartment, a hardship which had stubbornly ignored when he signed the lease and he was sweating and the knee was on fire. Much of the anger had returned before he entered the apartment.
Amber hurried in from the terrace, greeting him like a faithful wife.
“I was worried.” She smiled.
Sahel threw his briefcase and cane on the brown Victorian couch. He fell into a black sofa and banged his head back on the cushioned rest. He closed his eyes.
“No need, I am covered for death and disability.”
Amber ignored the stupid remarks and kissed him on his cheek.
“I am sorry, I said that.”
He reached under his shirttail and removed his holstered pistol, laying it at the glass coffee table.
“No apology necessary.” Amber was still smiling, but her wide brown eyes showed concern. “Taking too much coffee, is bad for health.” Amber smelled fragrance of espresso.
“Who bothers health, thanks to my bloody career?”
Amber sat down on the couch, holding her glass over her knees. Even in his cold dark mood, Sahel could not block the incursion of his wife’s warmth, her beauty, lines of her breasts beneath her shirt and the elegance of her long slim fingers.
“What happened today, Sahel?”
“God, I need a cigarette, Ambi.” He liked calling her that and she loved hearing it. It somehow looked her sexy and very close to a generic name of a young mango still on the tree.
Amber took the cigarette from the pocket of Sahel’s shirt, lit one for her husband and put it in his lips. Her thoughts went briefly to the cancer ward and she dispelled them.
“I am still listening.” She said.
“Colonel A.K. Zawri. That’s what happened. That’s what always happens.”
“Oh,” Amber sat back on the couch. She looked out through the windows to the dark night and the brightening buildings across the street. This was a recurring problem, and it would not go away. Sahel had been a combat officer and now he was ‘flying a desk’, as they said. She had seen the syndrome before. In addition, this idiot colonel would not let Sahel forget something that had wounded her husband physically and crippled him mentally, something that had turned him into a vulnerable man she loved. But at this rate, he was not going to make it, would not last at least until his partial pension. They were trying to get pregnant, they needed the housing subsidy, their parents were not wealthy, and they would have to buy many new baby items at their own. If Sahel could not persevere their fairy-tail nest would fall down.
“I am going to quit.” Sahel said suddenly. He listed slightly for a moment and then he went out to the terrace and leaned on the steel guardrail.
Amber followed her husband, though she stood back a bit and just listening.
“There is no reason to take it.” Sahel said. “Be this punching bag. I am young. I’ll get something else. We’ll manage.” He suddenly dropped the cigarette and crushed it under his heel.
They both knew what manage would mean, Amber let the idea hang for a while. Then she spoke.
“My husband always tells me, don’t shop grocery, when you are hungry and don’t make decisions, when you are mad.”
“He is an idiot.” Sahel snorted.
“May be he’s just hungry.” Amber offered. “I was going to BBQ tonight, may be Shashlik.”
“It sounds just nothing,” said Sahel. “But I am not hungry.” He turned around and Amber saw the depth of the hurt in his eyes. “I am just exhausted Ambi, just tired.”
She took his arms and put it over her shoulders and led him back inside as she squeezed his waist. “A nap then.” She said as she led him down the bedroom, “and then we’ll see.”
In the bedroom, Amber lowered the window curtains, putting most of the space into dark shadow. She lowered Sahel backward on to the bed, took off his sneakers, socks and jeans while he stared up at the ceiling.
She stood up and began to unbutton her blouse. Sahel was about to protest, but then he remembered the baby. Amber had warned him about four days in her cycle were always crucial with no matters the moods and problems around them. Sahel was also anxious to begin adding to the family. Yet he also knew, as he watched her, that he was captured, so he did not resist her. He suddenly sat up surprising Amber and kissed on her neck and switched off the lights.
He dreamed of many things fitfully. He dreamed of the army, of parachuting into darkened forests, climbing the mountain peaks, careening in brakeless cars through rain-slickened streets of anonymous cities, but most of all he dreamt of Razmak Bilal.
Continued….Chapter 3 in next issue please