A small town near Bukhara
Hayat Gul awoke as he did always, with the sun in his eyes. It was calculated reception of the disturbing morning light with Hayat’s lifelonhg practice of selecting bedrooms which would foil his poor night-time habits. All his life Hayat battled his urge to sleep late, to linger in bed a bit long past an acceptable hour. Forced to outwit his own metabolism, he would remove the curtains from the windows and arrange angle of his bed just so. Neither the banging of alarm clocks nor the persistent music of radio could penetrate his sleep. The only effective weapon was blinding message from God.
Hayat’s wife Shirin was not terribly disturbed of her husband’s morning tattoo, but she had managed to adjust. After a year of marriage, the dawn’s emerging light and bird whistles careening off the bedroom walls no longer affected her. While her husband struggled with his eyelids, she went right on sleeping, unless of course baby’s cry called her off to wake up.
However on this particular morning, Hayat hardly required nature’s assistance. He had barely slept, yet he got up in bed as if he had had a full eight hours sleep. At long last he would be breaking the pleasant monotony of his existence, leaving for an extended business trip. He felt some pains of guilt leaving Shirin and the baby behind, but he had not set foot outside of Kogon since their wedding day. It was a welcome change and he was suffered with anticipation.
The air in the room was cold, unusually so far late spring in Uzbekistan. Shirin had kicked the brown woollen blanket drown around her waist and Hayat gently pulled it back up over her shoulders, where it covered her long brown hair. She did not stir but her eyes were shut fiercely tight, as if she were already wake yet unprepared to face the day.
The bedroom door was halfway opened with a rubber stopper so that they could hear the baby. Hayat slipped through half naked hugging himself as he walked across the cold tile floor of the saloon towards the kitchen. The far end of the long living room had floor to ceiling window. The sun streamed in through the collapsible fibre blinds and threw wavy shadows on the floor as he passed the large plant vase in the lounge.
Hayat opened the kitchen tap, poured some water in the kettle and ignited the stove with a matchstick. His hand shook a bit, but he set the water to boil and went back to the bathroom.
He turned on the small transistor next to the sink keeping the volume low. The Uzbek music channel was running its early morning wakeup programme. It was a pleasant old classical song. He rinsed leaving swatches of leather on his face and he begun to mutter along the song as he stepped into the shower.
He dressed unusually for him in a charcoal-grey suit. The new white shirt came fresh from its package and it was stiff against his damp skin. He had some trouble with the dark blue stripped tie; for it had been so long time to wear one. He briefly combed his hair and stood to look in the mirror. Satisfied, if not completely comfortable, he reached into the breast pocket for his glasses and set on his face. He squinted and then he smiled. He looked like a business professional or a stockbroker.
At the end of the hallway, the door to the baby’s room was closed. Hayat was about to enter, then he hesitated, turned and made straight for the kitchen fairly tiptoeing on the floor. From the refrigerator he extracted a bottle of orange juice. He took out a stick of margarine and a jar of apple jam and picked up a fresh cucumber sized roll of bread from a basket on the kitchen table.
He made himself a dark cup of instant coffee, added some milk and sugar and sat down to eat his breakfast.
He was really too excited to eat, but he forced himself to dress the roll. He did not know when he would find the next opportunity for a meal. It was strange for the first time in so many work days not to going to the office. The people of the Bank de finance were pleasant and the conditions were more than accommodating, yet he would not miss any of it. And although he took his studying seriously, spending his evenings in pursuit of master’s degree in Business Administration, the work and learning took their toll on his family life. It was difficult to be a young father, so much responsibility. In fact it would be good to get away, and he could justify his pleasure with the knowledge that the baby and Shirin would want for nothing.
She came of the hallway with her hair in disarray, wild around her face and over her shoulders. She was wearing her light pinkish robe and she was pushing a small stroller, Sophie was wrapped in a white cotton shawl against the morning chill. She looked as she had been crying and she reached her tiny hands towards the face of Shirin. She looked too, as she had been crying. Her cheeks were flushed and she had lost her ever present smile.
On this morning Shirin was not certainly sharing her husband’s optimism, and if he was actually indulging a certain joy, betrayed by his unusual morning, she was having none of it. The business trip was not a surprise, and Shirin had been experiencing a growing edginess with the recent passage of time. Now the panic of imminent abandonment was welling within her. She would taste no excitement, no thrill of adventure. She and Sophie would be left at home alone.
However, Shirin was mustering all her strength to suppress her emotions, check her tears. She still firmly believed that her role was that of Hayat Gul’s loving wife, mother to his child, a supportive partner. She was his only family, his roots, his moral support and she would continue that role with a straight martyrdom that seemed almost politically zealous.
Hayat looked up from his coffee, his eyes like those of a man caught in his guilt.
“Subohen Bakhairish.” Shirin whispered.
“No mornings are good mornings, unless you make it good,” Hayat repeated their private joke, but it fell flat.
“You look so strange,” said Shirin. Her mouth twisting as she pulled Sophie from the stroller to her arms.
Hayat looked down at his suit. He swept some crumbs from his tie. “I feel strange.”
Suddenly baby began to cry. She stood up and reached to the air and her face went red, until she finally let out her first long wail.
“O, no, Sophie,” Hayat stood up and walked quickly to his family. He reached for the baby, but Shirin said, “Don’t, you’ll mess the suit.” Then she bounced the baby a few times, though it did not seem to help.
“She knows us,” Shirin said, “She can feel it, that’s all.”
“Give her to me,” said Hayat, “To hell with the suit.”
Shirin handed the baby over, and Hayat cooed her, but he did hold away at some length, keeping her tears from the wool.
“I’ll get your things.”
She came back with the suitcase and the business brief. They switched, Shirin recovering the baby and Hayat reluctantly hefting his bags.
He looked at Shirin for a long time, wordless, completely at a loss.
“Love,” she finally said freeing him.
“Take care,” Hayat managed.
“I’ll miss you,” Shirin tears were coming now, joining Sophie’s, soaking into her terrycloth.
Hayat kissed on her trembling lips, and then he kissed the baby on her pink skull, feeling the light fuzz of her new hair.
He walked quickly to the door and was gone.
By the time Hayat reached the ground floor, he had managed his emotional gears, recovering optimism of the morning. The shock of the cold air, fresh and damped with the night rain, felt like a breath of pure oxygen after an evening in smoky cafe. He pulled his raincoat closed and buttoned it, briefly wishing that he had something heavier that his light suit. He turned and looked at his shabby white Renault, parked in the open, hoping that Shirin would finally learn to master the strange dashboard gear lever. He smiled at the little car and began to walk.
With a few long steps, he reached the street. Baite Ameer was not much more than alleyway, a one way road barely wide enough for the passage of a single car. It was a quiet place lined with small apartment buildings and Hayat had always felt affection for its name dedicated to the bravery of Ameer Tamour.
Although it was very early, even by Uzbek standards, this part of Baite Ameer was already coming awake. Hayat could hear the dew-choked carburettors of small cars out on the roads, the voices of children on their way to school. Hayat turned left and began to walk west on Baite Ameer.
He was tempted to look back at Number-24, thinking that Shirin would be watching him from the small terrace window, but he ignored the idea and kept on pace. An old man driving a vegetable cart passed him coming from the other way, the shaggy driver and his donkey returned Hayat’s nod with their own.
Halfway down the block on the left was a low single storey cement building. The house had a wide front window, its green slat-blinds just rolling up into the casing as Mrs. Abranov appeared on the window like a ghostly sailor. Mrs. Abranov owned this cafe and was running a small children nursery too. Seemingly it was a strange combination, though her endeavours brought convenience and relief to neighbourhood mothers.
Mrs. Abranov bugged her eyes and smoothed her thinning white hair as she saw Hayat approaching in his suit.
“Subohen Bakhairish, Hayat Gul” Her cheerful voice filled with year’s estimation. “You look great.”
Hayat bowed accepting the compliments.
“Thank you and good morning to you, Mrs Abranov.”
As she did every morning, the old woman handed over him the first edition of morning “Daily Bukhara” and two packs of Rothman. Hayat opened his briefcase and dropped the cigarette inside. Then he took up the paper and scanned the headlines. As Always the edition was one day behind, but he was used to that by now. Events always reached Kogon after the rest of the world had consumed it, as if the small town opinion was unimportant vis-à-vis its impact on the international scene.
“Anything else,” Mrs. Abranov asked, although Hayat’s response was always negative.
“Just a smile, please.”
And of course the old woman complied, adding a slight blush as she smoothed her hair again.
”Salam” as Hayat moved.
“Salam,” he called over his shoulders.
“Going away,” She could not help asking the receding figure, and then she quickly put up her fingertips to her naughty lips.
He just waved in the air.
Hayat reached Shah Street near the Kogon Palace Children Park, and turned left again, walking more briskly, hoping to warm him with the exercise. He passed some people on the road and arrived at the intersection, where on chilly days such as this, he would normally have boarded Number 11 bus for the short ride down to Mokhal to his branch of Bank de Finance.
Hayat crossed the road and waited at a far corner. He lit up a cigarette and looked at his watch. It was not a designated stop, but soon a Black Mercedes van showed up. Hayat Boarded, the driver greeted him with a nod. He took a seat in the front. There was only one other passenger, who appeared to be sleeping on the rear seat.
The van quickly moved north from the centre of the town making no stops. It took hardly ten minutes, as the clusters of the apartments grew sparser and the traffic on the roads receded to the occasional car or jeep. The van stopped at a junction, north-eastern intersection of the town line.
“Good luck.” The driver wished him success as he opened the door and stepped out.
“You too,” said Hayat as he carried his cases in his hands.
He began to walk again towards east along the narrow highway towards the countryside. Hence the grassy fields quickly fell off to unformed plots of flat mud. The trees were bare excepting the occasional clusters of pines and the spotty distant scabs of melting snow made the warmer memories of Kogon.
After half a kilometre, Hayat reached a large mesh fence that blocked the highway. It had covered lengths and drifted away from both sides of the road, disappearing over the distant hills. At its centre was a gate in the roadway. A man with fatigue capped in a green woollen uniform stood there shifting from his boot to boot to keep him warm. The man watched Hayat’s approach and then wordlessly slid the gate back without raising his eyes as the Hayat passed him.
He walked for another half kilometre, warm now with the exertion. Then, finally at the crest of the hill where the highway ran between pairs of withered trees, he saw the car.
It was a long black, boxy van painted on both sides with a company’s insignia, parked across the highway on a service road, not yet metalled with black top. Hayat’s excitement rose, his heart faster now. He could not see inside the car for its smoked windows, but it grew larger, as rear trunk door suddenly opened like a genie cave hissing up on hydraulic hinges.
The engine was running, smoothly barely audible and Hayat stepped through the cloud of exhaust and put his cases into the deep trunk. He closed it, rubbed his chilled hands together and walked towards the rear door and got inside. Immediately the big van began to move.
It took a minute for Hayat eyes to adjust as the sun had been so bright, and the car was gloomy with its black tinted windows. He was alone on the huge rear seat; a thick tempered glass divider separated him from the driver’s compartment. In the front right seat was a large figure, a husky man in a dark suit appeared reading some papers. His head was wide and short brown hair going grey with age. To the left, driver’s peaked cap stayed dead straight on the wheel wearing a pair of black leather gloves.
The van was moving very fast now, fairly flying over the narrow highway. Suddenly Hayat was smacked with the reality that, despite his assurance to Shirin, he was leaving. If all went well, he would not return. He turned in his seat to make himself more comfortable and gazed out the rear window.
On the flat horizon, he could still see his small town Kogon, its low plaster buildings receding quickly in the distance.
He relaxed and sat back against the high leather seat, releasing a sigh of wonder. He looked ahead to the future, to pinpoint the ends of the road that wavered at the next barren crest, and despite being edgy, he felt a growing excitement. Though he would not be there for another ten hours, including four and half flying hours from the city of Balkan, he could almost smell Moscow.
The glass partition suddenly slid down into its leather case, and the large man seemed to awaken to the presence of his charge. He turned quickly throwing his beefy arm over the glass partition smiling through a gap-toothed mouth.
“Good morning, Hashim,” said the man.
Hayat was momentarily shocked. It was the sound of Russian, which he had not heard in over a year. It would take more than moment to make the adjustment, and his eyes must have registered surprise, making Major Boris Yaakov think that he was admonishing the open use of his code name.
“Oh, don’t worry about him,” said the officer, pointing a gloved finger at the motionless driver. “He’s deaf.” The External Services man laughed loudly, a sound strangely accompanied by the gravelly singing of Boris Yaakov as it boomed from a tape player. Many Russians had been imprisoned for listening to the dissident poet, but the RES enjoyed whatever music it pleased. “It does not make for the safest driving,” said the officer, still referring to his driver’s handicap. “But it’s perfect for security.”
He was still laughing, but then it faded quickly, receding to a warm and sympathetic smile. He did not realize that his passenger’s expression resulted from insecurity, a fear that his first utterance would gush forth in Persian.
The Russian External Services man jutted his jaw towards rear window.
“I hope you will not be too homesick,” he said empathetically. “Real Uzbekistan waits you,” he smiled once more. “She is longing for you.”
Razmak Bilal smiled in return.
After couple of weeks
On Wednesday morning Colonel A.K.Zawri was in a fine mood. Unfortunate for the Special Operations personnel, the colonel’s frame of mind was always directly connected to the degree of his successes or failures. When operations proceeded with only a small amount of results, the commander was fuming, sombre somewhat like a burbling volcanic pit. However on days such as this when his success was no less than smashing. Zawri’s arrogance rushed to the surface like summer seas and he was profoundly happy. And when Abdul Karim Zawri is happy, he was also supremely foul.
Sahel knew that it was coming, like a hunter smells rain on the wind, like a race driver knows that on this day there will be smack of steel against steel, yet his insight was not exactly telepathic.
He had taken Tuesday off calling sick leave and spent much of his morning time resting and relaxing in bed. He had accepted Amber’s advice most of the day to “cool off.” He sat most of the time out in terrace at their white round umbrella table, sipping iced coffee and catching up the papers and magazines. In the afternoon he met Amber at G-7 Markaz, where hand in hand they shopped meat, vegetables and fruits at the huge bins tended by the friendly stall keepers.
In the evening after Sahel cancelled the dinner at the Dilshad, they finally had their delayed barbeque and with the aid of old songs Farhaj achieved an uneven approaching relaxed euphoria that he had not known for many months. Amber went back to the hospital, having switched a shift with a co-worker. Sahel popped the pretty woman into the DVD player and laugh aloud watching Julia Robert’s innocent acting and Richard Gere as a sober rich businessman.
At midnight, with the final TV news wrap-up, Sahel’s state abruptly turned cold-stone sober. There was a brief early report about killing of an Al-Qaeda operative in Peshawar in a cross shootout early this evening. The terrorists were hiding in a house tipped by agency sources, the details and perpetrators of the operation as yet unknown.
But Sahel had no doubt as to the identity of the executioners. He sat before the television for a good long hour, motionless staring at the screen. He filled that screen with the thousand images from his own history hoping at once that there were no errors that a mission was a total success, then guiltily wishing that it had somehow failed.
It seemed that a day could not pass without bringing some persistent reminder of Kabul. His team members though now scattered around the globe, made their regular appearances. Roshna Saleem, whose image he fought hardest to suppress infiltrated in his mind.
Tehran. He was glad that he had not been there, then felt instantly depressed, somewhat like an injured goalkeeper who has watched his team in the World Hockey Champions Trophy.
In the morning after a night of broken sleep, he was sorely tempted to take an additional sick leave. Yet his pride finally propelled him out of bed. He was certain that his absence following Zawri’s sour reprimand had already fed the Department’s rumour mill, and he wanted to crush any impression that he might have finally succumbed to the Colonel’s abuses.
Sahel was in Personnel by eight o clock sharp. Saleem, the driver-cum-runner, was already out on his trip, and Sahel sat at the boy’s desk correcting Anita’s typescript of his recent interviews. Anita was not in yet and Sahel borrowed the Walkman from her drawer and listened to the hourly news as he sipped a cup of coffee and smoked a cigarette.
The morning reports were already quite full of details. An Al-Qaeda operative later identified as Abdullah a Libyan in his mid-thirties. The hideout was located somewhere close to Hayatabad locality in Peshawar. He was one of the surviving architects of several terrorist activities in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Security agencies and police had launched hunt for another operative named Abu Saleh accomplice of Abdullah who slipped away in smoke towards the tribal areas. A senior police officer was saying that Abu Saleh, an Egyptian national, was wanted by the CIA and was carrying a reward money of $ 500,000.
The operation was almost lauded for its surgical professionalism. Abdullah was killed with his bodyguards, but his wife remained unharmed. The professional team had arrived at the scene to assist the security agencies and police and departed within ten minutes leaving no causalities of forces and security agencies.
Almost without exception, “foreign sources” pointed to a NSB’s operation. As Sahel removed the earphone, he needed no further proof of this assessment. He looked up at the ceiling, where the vibration of moving feet caused the light bulbs to shiver on their hanging wires. The top floor had been up all night long, and it was certainly not because they were playing cards game. There was going to be a lot of unsubtle merrymaking on the floors today, and he really did not want to hear it.
He was snapped from his brooding by Anita’s greeting as she entered the room and closed the door. She was cheerful this morning, fairly bouncing on the balls of her feet and Sahel could not help smiling at her.
“Morning,” he said and extended his hand to return his Walkman. “I borrowed it, hope you won’t mind.”
Anita tossed her black purse onto her desk and retrieved the radio. “And if I did?”
“Then you wouldn’t be Anita,” said Sahel.
The girl almost blushed, but she managed to suppress it. She worked hard not to reveal the crush on her elder co-worker, but she was not fooling anyone. She examined the cassette-radio without really seeing it.
“So you have heard, then.”
“What’s that?” He posed ignorance.
She knitted her brows. Everyone knew by this hour, everyone who had a radio or television, from the top cabinet ministers to the small shopkeeper in village. “You know, Peshawar.”
“O, yes.” Sahel sat back in the chair and blew out some smoke. “Used to be a lovely city, I know, I have been there many times.”
“Come on Sahel.”
“Yes, I heard.” Sahel gave up the game. Anita was still very young, not bruised with the experience. He straightened the papers before him, as if bored by the whole affair. “Quite an operation,” he said. “Must have been security people.”
“Of course.” Anita was smiling at him again, and suddenly Sahel realized that her look also harboured sympathetic indulgence. He always thought of this girl as a teenager, so much younger than himself, yet here she was already well-armed with the sophisticated psychological tongs with which women handled fragile male egos. It struck Sahel that Anita was certainly no child, probably long past virginity. She was a very pretty girl, and with her long black curls and brown eyes she resembled Amber.
“Anita, you are wearing uniform, for God’s sake. You would be sacked right now!”
It was Zawri’s strictest regulation; no one, no matter their military status was ever to appear at Headquarters in anything but civilian clothes. And here she was in sergeant’s uniform with strips on the shoulders.
“I know, don’t worry so,” she said, pleased with his concern. “Have not you heard?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“New rules, all support staff once a day in a month, now can have uniform. I heard it was Major Dilshad Hussain’s idea.”
“Dilshad said it was not normal, every building in Islamabad has routine uniform people wandering about even on their personal business.”
“Yea, it sounds Dilshad’s reasoning.” He has a chess master mentality. He could always determine what the opposition would be thinking and then provide an appropriate bit of strategic doublethink.
Anita stood up to make some coffee, “Want some more?”
“Sure, Sahel watched her. The uniform was thick green cloth trousers with a matching light coloured blouse of Lenin fabric with grey lining inside veiling almost all smart curves of a woman. The supply corps had recently replaced the uniforms, which had been light grey cotton previously smartly fitted on curves.
“I liked the old uniform.” Sahel smiled.
“Yes, that’s what all the men say.” She smiled too.
“Morning,” Major Shahzad came bouncing in, his empty pipe clutched between his teeth. “Ah, coffee is what I need.”
“Coming up,” said Anita.
“Morning,” said Sahel.
Shahzad dropped his briefcase on the rack by the window. “Feeling better, Sahel.”
“I don’t see the cane.”
“And you won’t again.”
“Did you hear Shazi?” Anita asked Shahzad as she handed him small glass of steaming black coffee. He took it by the top edges with thumb and forefingers, but it burned him anyway and he hurried to set it down.
“Yea, damn it.” He cursed the Slavic tradition of agencies, where hot liquids were put in small glasses instead of cups or mugs.
Suddenly the door was pushed open and Captain Qadri appeared. The captain’s hair was wild, unwashed and hardly finger-combed giving him more than usual crazed look. Qadri was often referred to as Zawri’s stiletto, for he carried out the Colonel’s most morale-depleting directives, such as transfers, reprimands and rank busting, with cruel delight. He had been up all night and was functioning on caffeine.
“Department heads upstairs in exactly fifteen minutes,” Qadri snapped, and he looked at his watch like a platoon commander who wished to frighten his green troops into punctuality. Then he glanced over at Sahel and returned his gaze to Shahzad. “Just you, Major,” he said pointedly. “And bring a clean glass.” He closed the door and left.
There was a moment of discomfit silence in the room, and then Sahel took a pencil cup from the desk and threw it at the door where it made a resounding crack and bounced onto the floor. “To hell, you asshole,” Sahel shouted. He looked over to Anita, who sat stiffly in her chair like a frightened cat. “Sorry,” he said. He hated Qadri primarily because the man had no mind of his own. He was an empty vessel, a pure reflection of his boss’s moods and desires.
If Zawri had liked Sahel, then Qadri would have spent plenty of time kissing Sahel’s shoes. “And bring a clean glass,” Sahel muttered imitating Qadri’s self-important tone. He picked up a pencil and tried to resume his work. Things had been changed too much in the department, and he prayed that it was a merely passing influence of an ambitious commander rather than an indication growing national coldness. He remembered with melancholy clarity how, long ago after a successful mission in north Waziristan during which a pair of terrorists had been blown up in their car, his team split up and reassembled a week later in Islamabad. There after a lengthy debriefing they had immediately gone down together to the Bari Imam to pray together. Now in contrast, when Zawri’s people got some victory, the cold commander gathered his department heads together and poured coffee and drinks like a winning corporate business head.
Frustrated, Sahel dropped his pencil and sat back rubbing his forehead. Anita retreated behind her computer. Sahel pushed his chair back and stood up. “I am going to the canteen, anybody wants something to eat?”
Anita shook her head.
“Sahel,” Shahzad looked up from beneath his bushy eyebrows. “Be relaxed, okay.”
“You know something, Shahzad? He began to raise his voice, and then realized that Shahzad was no target for his anger. He smoothed his tone low. “I don’t mind being out of action. I really don’t, but I am sick to death of having my nose rubbed in it.”
He went out into the hallway and turned towards the cafeteria. Zawri was coming briskly along the hallway, followed by a young man carrying a large wooden crate. Zawri nearly tripped over a telex cable that snaked across the floor like a black asp waiting in ambush. He immediately stopped short and slapped his palm on the first nearby door. It happened to be Cover, whose personnel certainly had nothing to do with the communication. But that did not matter to the Colonel. Victims were plentiful where his anger would find them hidden in the corners of his kingdom.
He ducked his large head into the doorway.
“I want those fucking cables off the floor today. This is not a goddamn movie studio!” He let the door slam.
“Could have fooled me,” Sahel muttered to himself, “what with all the melodrama?”
Zawri continued his march, walking right past Sahel as if his once unsurpassable team leader was merely a duck.
Sahel stopped, lit a cigarette and plugged it between his teeth. He put his hands into his pant and concentrated on keeping his pace.
Down the hall a small crowd was gathered around the long table that held unclassified reports and copies of the morning papers. They were passing sections of news to each other, reading headlines aloud from daily Jang, Nation and Dawn. Sahel started forward feeling click in his knee vibrate up to his brain.
He braced himself mentally as he passed the table, where no less than seven people sat chattering excitedly about the Peshawar operation.
Seema from Cover looked up at Sahel and smiled broadly.
She held up a front page of Dawn “Have you seen this?” She asked excitedly.
Sahel waved a hand. “Read them all, page to page,” Sahel lied. As a young paratrooper in 90’s he had once enjoyed reading the after-action news paper coverage of his own unit operations in exercises in open seas of Arabian Gulf. But he quickly came to realize how distant journalism from reality was? Especially that journalism which had by now become unregulated by the department for some time’s assumed actions. He smiled to himself.
He arrived at the cafeteria and settled into a seat. The room was filled with the morning coffee crowd, many of them had newspaper spread out and were happily discussing the evening event. There was not a field agent among them, they were all support staff and were proud of any successful Department’s endeavour. Since long, Sahel felt completely out of place, precisely because he knew that this was his peer group.
“Coffee peeni ey?
Dilshad appeared from out of the crowd, his solid breadth imposing like a rising planet.
“Morning Sir.” Sahel smiled at him, “No more coffee, already enough, thanks. Sit.”
Dilshad took a place at the table. He sipped from a glass and took a drag from cigarette. “How are you feeling?”
“Sorry about last night, Dilshad. Truth is I just did not want to socialize.”
“No apologies, just answer the question.”
Sahel looked at his former field commander. There was no lying to Dilshad. When you did, he immediately called you on it anyway and then sucked out the truth.
“I feel like shit.” Especially since Zawri is upstairs right now rejoicing like an idiot.”
“That’s honest.” Dilshad wiped some sweat from his bald head with his palm, Selfish, but honest.”
“I am glad the operation came off,” Sahel hastened to say. “But I don’t know how long I can take it, being half in and half out like this. Days like today are hard for me. That’s all.”
“Who wanted the chicken rolls?” A girl behind the coffee bar called out to the room. “It’s getting cold.”
Dilshad waited for her to stop shouting, and then he leaned closed to Sahel.
“Look, I told you, we’d try to get your situation improved. You have to be patient.”
“So Amber tells me too. I know we want to be parents and I have to last until partial pension, at least. But I would be rather some idiot driver at this point. Limping around here like a ghost. Sahel lit his cigarette while Dilshad shook his head. I have decided, Dilshad, I am going to demand my rights. Today.”
Dilshad’s eyes widened. “Today?”
“Are you crazy?”
“No, I am not. It’s right time. Zawri will be horrible right now, but it would be the only window of generosity of spirit I will find.”
“Department Heads.” Someone in the room yelled. “Duty calls.” A number of men began to leave the room.
Dilshad looked at his watch. “Sahel,” he said. “You are a stubborn young bastard and I like you.” He pulled himself up and out of the chair. “But it is my duty to say, as your friend and superior officer that I strongly recommend against your action.”
“I am doing it, Dilshad, today and right now.”
“I’ll back you up.” Dilshad said instantly.
“I thought you might.” Sahel smiled up at the major.
“But wait for at least half an hour.”
Sahel looked at his watch and said, “Ok, half an hour your allowance.” As he walked towards the door, Dilshad put his beefy hand on his shoulder. “If my sons turned out like you, that would be all right.”
“Dilshad,” Sahel called after him, “you forgot to take a clean glass.”
“I don’t drink at graveside,” said Dilshad and left for the meeting with Colonel AK Zawri.
The conference room on the top floor of the Headquarters was not comparable to that of a major banking institution, but it was luxurious by Pakistani governmental standards. The windows were curtained with long grey silk with a fancy net hanging inside and dark blue border over it. There were two small crystal chandeliers, as opposed to the weary tube lights, hanging over the either side of long table. The floor was carpeted wall to wall and the long teak table at which twenty officers could be seated comfortably was shiny and freshly oiled. There were expensive office meeting chairs with adequately cushioned. There was a TV monitor at one end and pull-down white screen for slide show or film projection. There was huge art-easel-board standing with some coloured markers in its attached small basket. There were number of mini-speakers fixed over the chairs on the walls and one microphone each was stood at the front of the each chair.
The room was filled with smoke— pipes, cigarettes and cigars and most of the table top was covered by copies of the morning papers, empty coffee glasses and reams of telex, decodes and computer printouts. Someone’s pistol had apparently been laid next to the half-empty glass of coffee. This single shiny black object was altering the character of the room from that of policy-makers to action-oriented saga.
There were two women and eleven men in the room, all of them were departmental heads or second-in-command. None of the field agents or team leaders was present, since anyone who had actually been on the ground in Peshawar was now being debriefed at some distant safe house. The meeting, rather the celebration as Zawri would have it was drawing to a close. The department heads mostly standing from their chairs, were gathering their notes and printouts, many of them slightly excited from a night of intense work topped off from a glass of coffee at meeting room. It was prestigious to been in the meeting.
Except for Zawri’s secretary, no one in the room was younger than thirty and there was no rank below captain. Under normal circumstances, the exhausted officers would have been anxious to get back to their offices, where they might be able to steal an hour’s nap. However, blatantly successful days such as these were rare, so they lingered. Three men in a far corner were loudly expressing their sympathies for the commanders of some other agencies. The Agencies had been asked for a favour in Peshawar operation, and a special satellite arrangement had jammed every communication around operational area for long six hours, but much to be pitied agencies services were constantly taking a beating in the press, so when they did participate successfully in an-anti terror operation, they were not allowed to admit it.
In another part of the room, Dilshad was chatting with a homely woman named Shaista who headed encrypted and telex traffic. He was sitting on the conference table and waving his arm and woman laughed and suggested that he get down before the cost of the new table was to be deducted from his monthly salary.
At the front of the room next to the white projection screen, Zawri stood talking to a uniformed major general. The officer was as tall as Zawri, grey haired and handsome in a rather regal manner. The man was Qasim Ali, chief of National Security Bureau. If Sahel Farhaj had been forewarned of General Qasim’s presence, he might not have chosen that moment to enter the conference room.
The wooden door swung open and an exchange could be heard from outside. The guard from the second floor desk had been posted to keep unauthorised personnel out of the meeting.
“Its department heads only, Bravo,” said a pleading voice.
“So shoot me, Sajid.” Sahel stepped into the room and closed the door. All heads turned to look at him, and he assumed an optimistic expression, if not actually a smile. He raised his hand as if clutching invisible toast-glass.
“Cheers to everyone.”
“Thanks, Sahel.” A couple of voices came in chorus.
Sahel headed for Zawri, who looked over him briefly and resumed his conversation with General Qasim. Qadri was standing by Zawri like a ball boy at a tennis match, glared at Sahel with undisguised disdain.
Sahel stopped close to Zawri. Dilshad eased himself off the table and edged closer to Sahel.
“Excuse me, Sir,” Sahel said.
Zawri sighed and turned slowly to the captain.
“We are in conference, Sahel.”
“Just wanted to say best wishes,” Sahel smiled. “It was quite an operation.”
Zawri’s ego was his soft underbelly. A twist of lips indicated his minor pleasure at the compliment.
“Thank you, Sahel.”
Sahel extended a congratulatory hand, which the colonel was forced to take. The captain gripped hard and held on.
“This seems a good time to bring up a small problem,” said Sahel.
AK Zawri immediately darkened. “It’s hardly the place or the time.”
The Colonel’s meaning was clear, but Sahel purposely did not look up at General Qasim. The informality of ranks in NSB could work to anyone’s advantage, if played carefully.
“I’ll make it quick, Sir,” he said. “I need a change. I have to begin moving forward again.”
“We’ll discuss it later; Zawri snapped pulling his hand away.
“For once in your life, be generous, Colonel. Dilshad pleaded at Zawri from over the Sahel’s shoulder.
The Colonel gripped his upper lip under teeth. He could not be made to look petty before his senior officer. “What is it?” he fairly snarled.
“Good” Sahel thought.” He is now trapped.”
“I need some activity. The desk is choking me. I have to get my mind and body moving again.”
The rest of the room had fallen dead silent. Sahel’s past reputation was well known to everyone in the department and despite Kabul fiasco all who knew him still harboured a good deal of respect for the wonderful field agent.
The head of the Training Department spoke courageously from the other end of the table. “We could use him in the indoctrination course.”
“The recruits don’t need advice from a failure, Sheri,” Zawri snapped.
“Now wait for one minute, sir,” Dilshad’s colour was rising rapidly.
“Excuse me,” General Qasim interrupted speaking decently to Sahel. “Are not you Sahel Farhaj?”
“Yes sir, I am.”
“The Afghanistan problem, correct?”
Qasim turned to Zawri. “This man was talented commander, Zawri. Dilshad here has a point for generosity, and it is certainly the day for it.”
Colonel AK Zawri was concerned and furious, but he had no choice other than to take a softer line.
“Okay, Sahel, there is no assignment presently available, and I need you in Personnel. But you can begin some physical training.” He snapped his finger at Qadri, who still stood glaring at Sahel and Dilshad. “Qadri, Call Shimla House. Send Sahel over there. He can start this afternoon.”
It was not precisely what Sahel had in mind, but it was a small victory.
“Thank you, sir,” he said and then he pointedly looked at up General Qasim. “And thank you General.” That’s now sealed. Witnesses, the C.O’s backing. Zawri now could not easily retract the order. Sahel turned to leave and Dilshad patted him on his shoulder.
The door opened and a communications officer entered. He was one of General Qasim’s personal staff and he spoke to the general.
“Sir, the phones are ringing off the wall. Journalists, Radio, TV, what the hell do I say?
“Well, Kiyani.” The general lifted his head and looked at the ceiling. “We want everyone to know, that it was us, correct?”
“So what’s the official NSB response?
“You played it perfectly, it worked and that’s fine.” Dilshad was happy. “Now you have to back off.”
Sahel and Dilshad were going back down the staircase to the second floor. “It worked thanks to you, Dilshad,” said Sahel.
“Nonsense, I just growled on the right time. Did you hear what I just said?” Dilshad imitated fury.
“Yes, sir!” and looked smilingly at Dilshad.
“I am serious, Sahel. You got your feet in the door and now you have to be a good boy. Just stay out of his way and maybe we’ll keep you from being bored to death for the next one year.” Dilshad was using his hands for emphasis, pumping his palms as if performing push-ups in the air.
“Yes, Dilshad, It’s fine,” Sahel assured him. “I don’t have to get out in the field again.”
“And while Zawri here, you never will.”
“Good, I don’t want to.”
They reached the landing. Sajid was back at his desk. When he saw Sahel, he shook his head in disgust.
“Thanks a lot, Bravo.”
Sahel smiled at the young security officer. “You shouldn’t have let me through, Sajid?”
“As if I could have stopped you, you were like a bull in the fight.”
“Sorry.” Sahel passed by him.
“I probably won’t get leave for a month now,” Sajid called after him.
“Don’t worry, I will tell your girlfriend, you are on a secret mission,” Sahel said over his shoulder.
“Your moods are dangerous, just like Boss.”
“Don’t insult me; I am entitled to one good mood per full moon.
The hallway had emptied. The morning excitement had dissolved into a normal day’s work, and personnel were back in their seats. A couple of electrical men were down on the floor rerouting cables to avoid further Zawri’s displeasure over the obstructions.
As Sahel and Dilshad approached Personnel, they saw Major Shahzad waiting in the open doorway. His usual optimistic expression has been replaced by a serious look.
“Sahel, Dilshad. Come in for a moment.”
He went into the office and held the door open for them. Dilshad and Sahel exchanged a puzzled look and followed him. Anita was on her feet, gathering her purse. She glanced up at Sahel and touched him on his shoulder and she went out.
“Take your time, Anita,” Shahzad called after her. “At least half an hour.”
“What’s going on?” Sahel asked curiously.
Shahzad went to his desk. He turned and sat back on the edge of it. He studied his pipe for a moment. When he looked up, he saw Dilshad and Sahel were looking on him expectantly. Their victorious smiles from the morning briefing were quickly fading.
“Abb bollo bi ” Dilshad barked. “I have got work to do, Shahzad.”
“Traffic just received a coded cable from the consulate in Dubai. No one knows but me. Shaista told me so I could tell both of you first.”
Sahel and Dilshad both were staring Shahzad blankly. Shahzad went on with the hard part.
“John Victor is dead.”
Sahel expelled a sharp sound, as if he had been punched at his kidneys. He turned away and started to move towards a chair. Then he stopped. A rod of fire was coursing up in his leg and he could not bend it. He twisted it back like a roast on a grill and faced Shahzad once more. “What did you say?”
“John Victor. He was killed in Dubai.”
Dilshad still stood shocked, expressing nothing. He slowly reached into his pocket and got two cigarettes, lit them both and handed one to Sahel without looking at him. Then he folded his hands together, as if in a prayer and placed them over his belly.
“More,” asked Dilshad.
Shahzad started to chew his pipe stem.
“There is not much, apparently it was a traffic accident, until the security people are positive they wanted us to have it in code.
Sahel head was beating. He leaned back stiffly against a desk and braced himself with his hands.
“Does Katherine know, Shahzad,” he whispered.
“She was in Dubai with him serving in a polyclinic. The kids were there too. He was completely retired, you know.
“Yes,” said Dilshad. “We know it.”
Sahel dragged a puff from the cigarette and then blew the smoke with a rasping cough. He pulled the butt from his lips and dropped it on the floor.
Faizi Jaffar. He had know the man by that name for so many years that Major John Victor seemed like someone else altogether. Yet they were the same man. Faizi Jaffar. John Victor.
Sahel had lost comrades before, but mostly in uniform, where they were all paratroopers who stood up in fire fight and charged with the fury of impetuous youth. Yet in NSB death was infrequent and impacting event. In particular, Major John Victor had seemed to be blessed with a special kind of light, a joyful, optimistic flexibility.
He recalled John Victor; a Karachi born in a middle class family, he frequently amused the younger members of NSB with his tortured dialect in twisted “Punjabi”. He was close to forty, tall, bony, stooped and mostly bald. His sharp eyes were creased with smile lines, his side burn going grey. His hawkish clever nose with quick smile completed the character of some sort of comic master, constantly on the verge of tossing off one-liner which served to force someone to smile even in the gravest situation.
Faizi Jaffar. They had been together for a long time. Sahel had first met him in the initial stages of training. John was recruited rather late in life. As a green soldier in the regular infantry, he had survived a horrible fire, having been surrounded in a bunker on the Cholestan exercises in 1990s. Perhaps the fact that John still smiled easily after that trauma was the quality that had initially attracted his recruiters.
And it was this Faizi Jaffar with whom Sahel and Dilshad shared many complex missions. It was this John who had always functioned with a smile, ready with a joke under most pressing situations, performing his tasks without fail, improvising and pulling a last trick from his hat with delight and every team member had loved him without reservation.
John truck gambit at Kabul had been his final professional act. He had slipped away from Kabul with assurance and in the after-action dissections he had escaped blame. But the Kabul debacle had acted as a reason for John and he gracefully retired. His retirement benefits kept survived his living a year abroad from country to country and finally he took his wife Katherine and two young girls and headed out for settlement in Dubai, where his wife started her medical practice in a polyclinic and he devoted his time at home after a long spell as field agent in NSB nearly seven years.
Sahel wanted to ask Shahzad more details, but when he thought of Katherine and kids he could not find his voice.
Dilshad spoke for both of them.
“An accident?” he said. “They are sure?”
“Almost one hundred percent,” said Shahzad. “He was loading the trunk of his car for a pleasure trip. A taxi smashed into him. Dubai police say the driver’s in the hospital in shock. He is from some Central Asian country and barely speaks English.”
Sahel pushed himself upright. He felt himself very unsteady and kept one hand on the table. He turned to Dilshad with a sad gaze. Both men needed to say something, perhaps a profound word, or a prayer. But it was far behind that.
“Dilshad,” Sahel whispered. “I need… I have to get some fresh air.”
“I’m not your boss, Sahel,” said Dilshad. “Go.”
Sahel and Dilshad continued looking at each other with blank eyes.
“I can reach Baba Feroz,” said Dilshad. “And Barat Khan, and Shabana Mir.”
“I’ll tell Bano,” said Sahel.
“You still have to go to Shimla House today, Sahel.” Dilshad warned him. “Remember, check the time with Training.”
“I’ll be there in time.”
They looked at each other for another moment.
“John Victor,” Dilshad finally said. “God bless him.”
“Faizi Jaffar,” said Sahel. “Allah Bless him and he limped out of the room.
Bano Abagull lived in the heart of Lahore, That is to say whenever she was in the country that was where she resided. Her apartment was a second floor walk-up, located on a shady side street in the western Gulberg only four blocks from the Centre Point intersection. 42 Street was probably one of the most expensive and socially bright avenues in Lahore, where lined up cafes, Malls and flower shops were an added attraction besides Liberty Market’s own shopping allure was just half a kilometre walk. But it was neither the swinging nightlife not the lure of the Lahore that had attracted Bano. Quite simply it was the only city in Pakistan other than Karachi where she felt comfortably anonymous, safe harbour within the emerging communities around and she at the same time remained reachable to Headquarters within a couple of hours. Secondly her only married sister resided here. Bano unfortunately had lost her parents in an accident while she was studying in Lahore Convent and after that both the sisters had only an uncle who looked after them until both settled.
Bano’s apartment did not appear to be inhabited on only a part-time basis. It had a large well-furnished lounge that extended into a lace-curtained bedroom, which could be closed off by a pair of delicately paned white sliding doors. The close end of the lounge led to an eat-in kitchen. The Refrigerator and gas oven were slightly old but functioned perfectly. The single bath was well built with imported tiles and provided the necessities and the European style bathtub fixed securely for a stand-up shower.
To a careful eye, perhaps one unusually familiar with the local industry, it would be quickly clear that most of Bano’s paraphernalia were not of Pakistan origin. Pillows, bed sheets, blanket, tablecloths and even much of the dishware came from European countries. The books and magazines were mostly in English yet local Urdu magazines and dailies still attracted the interest of the inhabitant.
The only real clue to the nature of the Bano’s profession was her collection of artwork. There were no photographs or posters on the walls only original framed pieces in oil, watercolour or charcoal. The subjects were Asian and European cities and landscapes, some really photorealistic. Here a shiny Lakeview of Shontar in Northern Area. There a snowy park in London. A busy road in Lahore walled city and an unfinished Kabul Bazaar Street view. They were all unsigned and they were all original Bano’s.
The final evidence of Bano’s profession was a small beautifully crafted wooden table on slim legs with a mirror top. It displayed lots of her exhibition awards winning statues and certificates.
Bano sat in a large cushioned armchair, a small glass of iced coffee in one hand, her bare feet curled up beneath her. She had been back in Pakistan for over a month now. The days were warm and even after a few long walks her legs beneath the short blue cut-offs were smoothly sweatened. She wore large pink T-shirt with the sleeves rolled over to her elbow. Her black hair lay curled in a long tail around her neck and she stared blankly at the far wall with wide shiny brown eyes that looked as though they might have seen too much.
Sahel’s call had shocked her. She had quit smoking, but his voice and the sad news had nearly driven her into the street to buy a pack, but it was not having much of an effect.
Bano had wanted to forget Kabul and up until now she had done an admirable job of it.
Her assignment in Operation Darkroom had included remaining in place after the hit. She was to maintain her cover, observe the repercussions, and even gather intelligence, if possible, regarding the local investigation. With the catastrophic death of innocent Muhammad Zahir, she maintained her cool and carried out her assignment. When she was finally called to Islamabad, it was probably the exhibition of pure professionalism which had protected her from the otherwise indiscriminate fury of Colonel AK Zawri.
Unlike most of the other team members, Bano did not find her career snatched or spoiled by Kabul fiasco. Even more so than successful men in the field within the Pakistan’s intelligence community talented female agents were treated like princess, accorded more loyalty and respect than they might find in any other walk of life. As women, they could gain access to places which no man might approach, put most suspicious individuals off their guards, could utilize instincts and institutions which remained out of reach to their male colleagues. Even at the top level of NSB their identities were jealously guarded. For the past two years, Bano had not had set her foot in Headquarters. She was briefed and debriefed in private.
She had managed to place Kabul City Centre somewhere far in her mind. She had been on three long deep cover operations since then, and the distance helped. Yet it did not take much to forget the sad winter in Kabul. ‘Faizi Jaffar’ was dead. She wanted to forget Kabul but she could never forget John Victor nor any of her other comrades in arms. Most of all she could never forget Sahel Farhaj.
Sahel would be arriving soon. Bano Abagull’s real name was Roshna Saleem and she had been trying to reacquaint herself with that sound, the way people said it, the occasional surprise as an old schoolmate addressed her in the street. Now that Sahel would come and he would call her Bano and the whole cycle of suppressed emotions would begin all over again.
In any other line of work, had they been co-workers in almost any other government or private institution, Roshna and Sahel would most certainly have ended up as husband and wife. While it is certainly true that opposites often attract, there are millions of couples whose union support the reverse case, and Sahel and Roshna were much alike. Their colouring was same, their temperament, and their central Punjab’s background. They had a cynical sense of humour and the ability to remain functional under immense pressure. The magnetism had been immediately apparent to both of them, but in the Pakistan intelligence community there exist a super-strict regulation whose premise could not be breached. Field agents no matter the circumstances were forbidden to have relations with each other. Agents were encouraged to socialize with support staff, even marry into the family as it was supposed to relieve much of the pressures of secrecy at homes. But field agent together, never. It invited operational strain, even dangerous vulnerability to hostage-taking and the like.
Sahel and Roshna knew the rules and worked very hard to keep their distance. They only had one option to get retired from NSB and free to marry but at the time neither of them was prepared for that leap. Not long ago, during one of Roshna’s routine polygraph exams, her needle had jumped at the questioner’s mention of Sahel Farhaj. However Roshna told Dilshad, if they pressed it, they might have to fire her. So the question was reworked and the test administered again without mention of her team leader.
While Sahel lay in hospital, more than once Roshna tempted to quit her current mission, return to Pakistan and join him forever, no matter the professionalism repercussions. But she stalled and by the time she made preliminary inquiries Amber was firmly well-established and it was too late.
The sharp doorbell awoke her from her thoughts, she listened for it again. It must be Sahel. She corrected her shirt and remained in her chair and said, “Come in, it is open.”
Sahel opened the door slightly and entered the apartment. He looked much unlike. Sher Ali without his long leather jacket and baggy trouser in Afghan style and pale winter skin, he was dressed in casual local style, light mustered T-shirt with dark blue jeans, his face tanned and his hair already going silkier with the springtime sun. More than that his eyes had lost some of the hardened look which field agents usually would have acquire after so many months of constant strategic calculations.
He closed the door with his back and looked at her.
There it was, his voice, her cover name, just as she had expected.
“Hello Ali.” The name seemed strange to her as it left her lips here in Lahore. But those were the two people who had worked together, shared secrets, had a private world that even their superiors were unaware of. Ali and Bano.
Sahel had decided that he would never touch her again, no kisses on the cheeks and perhaps no handshakes. But John’s death made the degree of that extreme seem disrespectful for the man’s memory. If nothing else the death of the comrade should be observed by the coming together of his survivors.
Sahel started forward. Bano immediately saw the limp; she could not help but notice. She drove herself to her feet and walked to him and they embraced for a long time, rocking slowly together without speaking like a pair of climbing stems together in the wind.
Finally they sat down at the opposite ends of the sofa. Bano wiped her eyes with a tissue paper and pointed at the Juice-tray. Sahel said, “Yes anything, but not too much chilled,” and she rose to get him a glass.
“So was it an accident?” Bano asked the correct question as she rejoined Sahel in the lounge.
“Yes,” he took the glass and gulped. The Taxi-ride from Islamabad had seemed endless; the stretch through the valley of Kalar Kahar was quite hot.
“What does Zawri say?” asked Bano.
“I don’t know I left immediately after Shahzad told me and Dilshad.”
“Major Shahzad Ahmad. But you know Zawri. If he likes you and you die of cancer within ten years after retirement, he will still swear the Indians did it. But if he doesn’t like you, he would say you smoke too much and you deserve to die.”
Bano showed a small smile, but she could not laugh. Sahel’s tone revealed a deeper bitterness and pain that she had ever seen him express.
“How are you?”
“I am as you see me.” He smiled. “Rushing to retirement, yet somehow unretirable.” He pointed to his head, indicating an adjustment problem. “But forget about me. How are you? You look wonderful.”
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence. Bano got up and turned on the TV not bothering to select a desired channel. It was just a field agents habit, which somehow pleased Sahel to witness and he smiled at her.
“Faizi was one of my most favourite people on this earth.” Bano sighed as she poured a bit more orange juice.”
“Lots of us will say in the next couple of days.”
“And mean it.”
“Can we go to mourn?” Bano asked.
“I can go, but I don’t know about you, Bano”
She thought for a moment and said. “I guess I’ll visit later.”
Being successful in the Game had many small but cruel prices. At times, you could not even mourn properly.
“Oh, Faizi.” Sahel sighed and let his head fall back on the couch. “John.”
At 12.15 Sahel rose stiffly to his feet.
“I actually have something to do today, Zawri is sending me for some retraining, and that would start at 4 sharp,” said Sahel.
“That’s good,” said Bano. “How did you come here, I mean by road or plane.”
“I took an official lift, but now I would go by plane.” Sahel said smilingly.
“What time your flight is?
“At 13.45, I’ll catch it.” Sahel smiled.
Bano stopped him before he reached the door. She held his sleeve and reached up, kissing him lightly on the cheek. Sahel looked at her.
“Will you come to visit us?” he asked.
“I’d like to meet Amber.”
“She knows about us, though,” Sahel warned.
Bano looked at the floor and kept quiet for a long moment.
They both realized in that long moment, that it did not matter if they touched or did not, if they came together or kept their distance, Bano Abagull and Sher Ali, Roshna Saleem or Sahel Farhaj were as tangled as memory and regret. Sahel reached out and touched her cheek.
“See you again.” He smiled and left.
Roshna closed the door and for a very long time she stood alone in her lounge touching the cool door wood.