“Who are you, a soldier or a damn civi?”
Colonel AK Zawri voice banged off the walls of his office like a bombshell.
Zawri pounded on his desk top and the pencils and the papers bounced as he marched around it like an attacking soldier, put his legs up to the knees, his chest full packed with air.
“You are not some goddamn corporate executive in an Italian cut suit, running around Asia and Africa whenever you damn well please. You are a soldier, and you will follow orders, and if you can’t follow orders then you will be subject to the same disciplines of any pathetic person in the army. Is that clear?”
Sahel sat in a wooden chair in the middle of the room like a murder suspect at a police interrogation. They had been at it for over an hour, or rather, Zawri had been at it, for most of the hearing consisted Colonel’s wild bullshit with Sahel’s attempts to explain himself.
Sahel was long past exhausted. His body felt like burning in hell and perhaps he had not yet felt the severe fever which had been dwelling in his bones, his stomach agitate and his legs made him wish they have opted for elimination.
Yet Abdul Karim Zawri dressing down, replete with exaggeration, insults and threats was far more painful than Sahel’s physical condition. And even more was the frustrating fact that the major Dilshad stood there the entire time, saying absolutely nothing.
“I asked you a question, Sahel.” Zawri was leaning over him now, arms folded across his chest and sticking his nose in Sahel’s face.
“What was the question?” Sahel asked quietly.
“Do you correctly understand your position in this unit?”
“Do you understand your duties and obligations as an army officer?”
“Do you realise that I could send you down to prison Zero for half a year for being AWOL?
“Good.” The Colonel backed away and stood against the desk. It was well past 8.00 AM and outside, Islamabadian had commenced their day with great passion as usual. However the SpecOp NSB building was in repose except for the remote clacking of the telex machines from Communication on Floor Two.
“Then, I assume you also understand my displeasure.”
“Not exactly,” Sahel said simply. “Actually it seemed out of proportion.”
“This is too much!” Zawri stamped up onto his foot and began to pace again, but this time he turned to Major Dilshad, who sat passively on another chair along the wall.
“Dilshad, this is all your fault.”
“Mine?” Dilshad placed a hand over his chest.
“Yes, yours” Zawri stared at Dilshad as he pointed a finger in Sahel’s direction. This man is insubordinate, devious and unapologetic.”
Dilshad almost suppressed his laugh. “I was his field commander, sir, not his father.”
“I’ll take the blame.” Major Shahzad stood over near the windows, one foot up on a chair’s lower part, clicking his teeth on his cold pipe stem. “If that’s what you are looking for.”
“Don’t get smart with me, Shahzad.” Zawri warned him. “You are all close to transfers.” He put a thumb and finger together to show how close they were.
“You can’t transfer me, Zawri,” Farhat said. The NSS Major was leaning against a corner wall, smoking. “I don’t work for you.”
The Colonel looked over at the NSS man as if he were seeing him at the first time.
“Remind me Farhat. What are you doing here?”
“You asked for NSS team to pick him up at the airport,” said Farhat and he shrugged. “If you don’t want to secure eggs, then don’t keep a live hen.” It had double meaning yet Zawri ignored it.
“He is going to penetrate now.” Sahel voice was soft, quite drained of.
“Don’t start this again, Sahel.” The Colonel snapped.
“Al right,” said Sahel, “but he is.”
“Uh,” Qadri moaned from where he sat near Zawri’s desk. He was so pleased to be wearing a uniform.
“Rabia,” Zawri turned to his secretary. She was a plain looking girl with dry black hair, and she looked like as she had woken from a pleasant post-coital sleep.
“You can type up the report and go home.”
The girl nodded and rose from her chair. She had been almost spent whole of the night in office, since they had got news of Sahel Farhaj. Sahel had repeated his story three times and she had enough notes for a novella. Shee left the room.
“Come on, sir,” Sahel sighed. “It’s only logical.”
“Logic? Zawri fumed again. “Logic? You go running off like a schoolboy and you are selling me logic.”
“Forget about me for a minute and look at the facts.”
“Believe me; I’d love to forget about you. However, the fact is, that Razmak, if this is Razmak, may be a fanatic, but he is certainly not suicidal.”
For a moment Sahel allowed himself the luxury of a small success. Al right, he had failed miserably in his attempts to ambush the terrorist. But at least Zawri was no longer putting down the claim that Razmak had resurfaced. If nothing else, Sahel’s venture had brought the truth to light and perhaps Zawri would finally take some action.
In fact Abdul Karim Zawri was much more firmly convinced now of enemy activity than he let on. He had listened to Sahel’s story, and then made him repeat it twice. The Colonel was an ambitious career-officer first which forced him to swallow some distasteful stories. At the very least events of the past three days surely indicated a vengeance play against Sahel’s old team. Most of Zawri’s present anger stemmed from the fact that the Captain might be right rather than from his unauthorised mission abroad.
On the other hand, Zawri truly did not believe that the killer or killers would attempt to penetrate Pakistan so easily now. Although in the recent past terrorists had tried that nonsense across the borders every day even within the country often they succeeded to kill the innocent civilians yet they were mostly drugged up, money packed and influenced under coercion kids who with a suicidal jackets succeeded for their targets. He had a plain soldier mind yet holding of this sensitive unit’s command, he had guts to find and analyse the truth somewhere beneath. He had to think over it. Razmak had already vended an irreparable loss to this country and Zawri, as a soldier, was bound to make him pay the cost.
Based on that history, Zawri had already begun to take action to protect his interests abroad. He had done so upon hearing of Captain Tanveer’s death in Sri Lanka the day before. He revealed his moves now just for the record.
“However, Mr. Sahel,” Zawri announced, “despite the fact that you may think me a bull headed incompetent, I did not attain this post through a Sifarish.” He used the slang for undue favour. Asma Farooqui is now under round the clock guard. Two of our people are already in Sri Lanka using covers as Pakistani detectives. Additional teams are in Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam working out with the embassy.
He watched Sahel’s reaction, which gave him some arrogant pleasure. “Does that meet with your approval?”
Sahel nodded. “Thank you, sir. I know you’re a true soldier.” Sahel somehow felt a deep strange empathy between hate and love about Zawri. At least Asma was safe for the time being.
“Don’t thank me; I am not doing it for you.”
There was a knock on the door. Qadri rose to see it, his combat boots slapping the tiles. A sergeant from Communication peeped in and handed the captain a telex sheet. The door closed.
Qadri took a while read the cable enjoying being the focus of everyone’s attention.
“Read,” Zawri demanded.
It’s from the Zanzibar Consulate,” said Qadri. He began to recite the formal decryption.
URGENT MESSAGE. QUOTE “LOCAL POLICE REPORT INDIVIDUAL USING PAKISTANI PASSPORT BOARDED KENYA AIRWAYS FLIGHT KQ 406 FOR NAIROBI AT 1000 HOURS (.) PASSENGER’S NAME AS HAYAT GUL (.) UNQUOTE END MESSAGE
For a moment there was silence in the room. Then Zawri rose from the edge of his desk.
“Well, Sahel? Isn’t that the correct name?
“Yes, but…” Sahel lifted his brows.
“Yes, so what’s the problem?”
“The destination,” said Sahel. He lifted his hand to scratch his head. He was thinking; no wonder he was sitting alone in the middle of the room.
“What about it?” Zawri demanded.
“Nairobi, Sahel.” Major Shahzad spoke, “come on, who is in Nairobi?”
“No one,” Sahel shrugged. It didn’t fit. None of his teammates, in fact, no one he knew at all was in Kenya.
“Oh shit,” Major Dilshad finally said something, “yes, Babul.”
“Who the hell is Babul?” Qadri asked imitating his boss impatient tone.
Dilshad got up from the chair and began to rub his hands. “It does make real sense though.”
He looked around at the eyes that were fixed on him. “He’s freelancer, one of my own, a Kabuli. He was just a watcher, works for me sometimes.” The image of Babul wearing his feathered hat constantly petting his German shepherd floated before Dilshad’s eyes.
“So?” Zawri looked at Major.
“He was with us in Kabul, but only for an hour. No one saw him, not even the team.”
“I have never met him,” said Sahel as if lauding the major’s professionalism.
“He has a daughter, I think,” said Dilshad as he pulled his lips. “I seem to remember, she lives in Kenya. Babul spends time with her occasionally, but it’s too farfetched.”
“Qadri!” Colonel clapped his hands together and his aide nearly clicked his heals. “Call Dar es Salaam on scrambler and get that team to Kenya right away. Dilshad will give you this Babul’s full name and description.”
“Wait, sir,” said Sahel.
But the Colonel was already on a roll. He was smelling blood and was going to snatch this ‘Hayat Gul’ fellow, whoever he was.
“Farhat,” forgetting the NSS man was not one of his troops. “Contact your people at Nairobi embassy and get someone to airport immediately.”
“Excuse me sir,” said the NSS man. “But I already have a boss.”
“Are you going to argue with me?” Zawri had risen to his full height and beginning to wave his hands.
“Sir,” Sahel was shaking his head. “Wait a minute please…”
The Colonel seemed not to hear. He strode to the door, opened it and caught Qadri with his voice as the captain stepping on the staircase. “And call the Civilians.” He meant the Civil Intelligence Agency. “They might have best contacts with the locals. Get me duty officer on phone.”
He slammed the door and turned back to the room. He was like a tank commander now exposed in the war headed for battle and glory.
“Sir Zawri, will you wait for a minute?” Major Shahzad said. “Something’s not right here.” He was gesturing on the faces of Sahel and Dilshad.
“What’s not right?” Zawri snapped.
“Stop racing,” Dilshad said.
“What’s not right? You want this man or not?”
“No.” Sahel said. He was shaking his hands trying to reason him. It’s a trick.”
“What?” The Colonel’s face folded into an ugly expression.
“It’s a trap move, would fire back,” said Sahel. “You are wasting your men,” forgetting his own position. He should simply allowed Zawri to run it and let him fall on his face but his problem was that he cared too much.
“You are telling me, Sahel?” “What are you telling me?” Colonel advanced on his shabby captain, critically.
“Dilshad, this man is now unbearable.” Zawri shouted.
“He is trying to express himself, Sir Zawri,” Said Dilshad.
“He is coming straight for Islamabad, Sir,” Sahel groaned. He shot a finger at the commander. “Straight on your face and you are playing right into his hands again, just like a fool.”
“I know this man, better than you and better than anyone in this room.” Sahel’s bloodshot eyes were burning. “And if you’d listened to me last week, Captain Tanveer would still be alive.”
As he had said it, an icy silence engulfed the office. No one moved. Finally Zawri walked behind his desk and sit down. He folded his hands together and placed them on the green leather top of the desk.
“Rabia,” he shouted. No one spoke while Zawri and Sahel stared at each other like two cats. The secretary came back into the room clutching a notepad in her hand, as she always did.
“Sit,” Colonel ordered.
“Take this for the record.” Zawri gestured to her note pad.
Qadri hearing the shouting match, had reappeared in the room.
“Captain Sahel Farhaj,” Zawri tone altogether had changed to one of imposed calm, though his anger had not left his face. “The word ‘fool ‘was invented for officers such as yourself. As of this moment, you face summery Court-Martial for unauthorised leave.”
“Two months suspension at half pay, forfeiture of all casual leaves until further notice and disallowance of all related expenses.”
The Colonel knew his men’s personal record. He knew how to hit them and where. He knew Sahel’s financial problems, his apartment and his wife’s longing for a holiday with her husband. He knew too much of him.
To be as a stony, he slammed his palm onto his desk top.
Sahel could not move. He was stunned. His hands opened and closed. He wanted them around Zawri’s throat.
“Get the hell out of my office! Zawri roared.
Sahel took a step forward, but Qadri was there quickly. He took Sahel’s arm and showed him out of the room.
Colonel Abdul Karim Zawri was alone. His officers had left and he had finally released his exhausted secretary too. He sat behind his desk and looked through the large window as Islamabad’s morning began to go cloudy, and the chatters of the starlings outside somewhere only aggravated his brooding mood.
He should have gone home as well, but it was a long drive off and a nap on the sticky vinyl of his office coach seemed more appealing than the image of his sad drowsy wife in her shabby Shalwar Qameez in this moment of morning. She had been so beautiful once, Sughra, yet now the light was gone from her baggy eyes and harsh voice had replaced her thin sterling chatter.
It was like that with so many career officers wives. The men were strapping, youthful, middle-aged warriors in crisp uniforms, and you were shocked to see their women, heavy with their days and nights of longing, filling their emptiness with food, all but widows except that their absent husbands still lived.
He reached down into the desk drawer and pulled a rarely touched golden wrapped cigar. He cut the cellophane with his teeth, crushed its mouth and lit it. Under a cloud of smoke he blew, he saw the soiled face of Captain Sahel Farhaj.
He did not like the way he felt about Sahel, for Zawri was not a stupid man and he knew that his anger was misplaced and unfair. He also knew where it came from, but he could not help himself.
The bloody past…
It returned to him every day now, and every night. He lived with it like a crippled member… or the loss of a child…
Kabul fiasco had really made his position, somehow, vulnerable before the eyes of seniors, especially General Qasim, who had been a great admirer of him in the past, still he owned him but in the ministry there had been analysis to fix the ultimate responsibility and yet it’s kept pending for want of circumstantial evidence. This haunted Zawri and he hadn’t managed to slip through the net at ministry.
Even as junior officer, Zawri had been damn sure of him and dislike admitting even the remote possibility of an error, unless it could be proved to him. He had not made a mistake. He had correctly identified Razmak Bilal, but then his team has allegedly been set to kill the wrong man. His professional judgement was sound, his instinct correct. There had been no error, only clever enemy action which caused it and he knew it there was no fault even at the team’s action.
There was only one question still deep in his heart though never surfaced officially, how and hadn’t Zawri warned his men time and again to be careful, to be absolute certain before action. Hadn’t he ordered them to withdraw, if there was even the slightest doubt? Perhaps, if Sahel had also been self-righteous, bull headed refusing to take the blame for the Kabul, but the Captain’s pathetic acceptance of the responsibility left the Colonel’s heart cold and pitiless. As commander of SpecOp, Zawri was ultimately responsible for Sahel’s screw-up, and the captain’s admission that the murder of Zahir was anything but an act of God. They could not help it and inquiry is still kept unresolved at ministry.
A burning smell suddenly made Zawri jump to his seat. He looked down realising that his cigar had slipped from his fingers over a pile of papers on his desk that had taken sparked, no flame but smoke and smell. He lifted the papers quickly shudder them over the bin besides his legs. He saw the specks of grey ash floating in the air like his own career set afloat in NSB. He felt threatened.
The National Security Service’s team were already out in at Islamabad International Airport, when the late morning EK 444 arrived from Dubai. Despite Zawri’s apparent disdain for Sahel’s ‘fantasies’ the Colonel had reminded Farhat before dismissing him from his office, that internal security was really the responsibility of the NSS. Farhat did not need to be instructed. With three Pakistan army officers now dead, and the theories of NSB captain, who seemed perfectly sane to him, ringing in his ears, Farhat had already ordered an upgraded security alerts at all ports of entry.
But Razmak Bilal barely attracted an eye.
He appeared quite fresh and charming in his grey business suit, blue silk tie with long-toe dress black shoes holding a dark-brown leather laptop bag in one hand, other in the trousers’ pocket, though he had been flying all night from Nairobi to Dubai. His posture was quietly confident as either an elite corporate persona or a bureaucrat arriving at home with success.
He not only looked the bright Pakistani, he sounded it too with so many English words on his tongue, responding through bright smile and armed with plenty of ‘thanks.’ He was quite secure in his cover. The choice of the passport was a good one, as Green Pakistani passport had taken care to specify his arrival back to home after a long trip abroad.
He breezed through passport control, unquestioned by even one of the steely eyes security agent who stared past him, examining the faces of those travellers who ‘fits in the profile.’ The NSS man seemed rather jumpy and the Afghan behind him in line was quite patient in the terminal.
A smart uniformed control officer took his passport, examined it briefly. He looked up and compared the photo with the passport, pointed the camera toward his face and clicked on the computer key board. He was satisfied and smiled as only the young can smile at that hour and stamped the passport with a metal plunger.
“Welcome Mr Kazmi, he said warmly.
“Thank you,” said Razmak. “It’s good to be home.”
Zoor Khan had never heard a word like ‘terrorist.’
He knew nothing of sabotage and had never fired a weapon. He had never fought with a commando knife. He was unable to differentiate F-16 from a MIG-23 and had never attended a seminar at Shah Madrissa in the village.
For a point of fact, even as a boy Zoor had not participated in any anti-communist demonstrations. He had never thrown so much as a glass marble at video shops, never climbed a telephone pole to hoist Islamic flag under the mob uproar. Even on the walls of distant well house, he had never dared to scribble wall chalking.
Zoor Khan was first, last and eternally a musician. As far as acts of terror, his only crimes along those lines would have been the occasional alarming of his neighbour’s sheep when he would forget himself and practice his flute past the midnight hours.
Zoor lived alone in a small mud house on far northern corner at the edge of the huge orchard of apple trees. He was short, slim, slightly hunched at shoulders fellow contrasting his name whose love for music had superseded all attractions to materialism, politics or money. Or perhaps Zoor’s own recognition of his physical detriments, he had found his beloved instrument an excuse for his social indolence.
Zoor, for the most part, played his flute in a local classical quarter. Given that the indigenous inhabitants of Dhok-Mahi, a village on the GT Road from Islamabad to Peshawar, had little appreciation for this kind of music, the audience were usually from the civil service or military personnel or often Europeans relaxing at the evening cafe, which soothed their minds by working in the refugee camps under the auspices of UN flag. He was not paid for these concerts, though he did manage to gather a few rupees teaching a couple of students from the adjoining villages. He taught the boys the harmonium and piccolo as well.
Apart from his flute, Zoor’s only apparent obsession was his radio. He had been fortunate enough to have friends or family, they might have noticed that his incongruous portable Panasonic radio-tape only received attention from the hours of seven to eight each morning. No matter what Zoor Khan never failed to hear the breakfast from Radio Kogon in Uzbekistan. The morning broadcast in Persian was one of the popular shows in Afghanistan and some part of Pakistan. On the very few occasions when he had known that he might miss the program, he had laboriously taped down the Panasonic record button and carefully fixed a light timer.
In those rare days Zoor was as nervous as a camel in snowstorm. Like an obsessive-compulsive worrying over a range on short-length wave, he would recheck his tape over and over before leaving his house. However, his fear was justified, as if he missed the program just once on the wrong day, his stipend, his livelihood and his music would be gone forever. Not to mention his life.
Zoor was a classic sleeper, although he would not have recognised the term. He did not know who paid him, nor the full scope of his mission, and for his Master he existed only to perform a single act.
He sat at a small table in the kitchen corner of his room. Unlike most of his neighbours’ homes, his modest two room mud house had better furniture, although the chairs, table and a shabby wooden bed were leftovers donated by his UN admirers. He rejected the notion that to be a true Pathan, you had to consume your meals while seated cross-legged on a carpet or some nylon-mat like a prisoner of war.
He sipped his tea and reread a program from a recent performance of the Pakhtoon female artist. He had not attended the concert himself but had obtained a copy in the same manner he had received his furniture. He would have loved to hear Pashto songs in the grand public forums but never got much chance to attend unless some concert was held at UN’s auditorium under a big canopy tent. He had many invitations from Islamabad but he always politely regretted. He didn’t want to miss his radio program.
He was trying to keep his cup on the table when he suddenly froze, his hot cup still in his hand, his wide eyes fixed on a spot of sun on the far wall. He had long trained his ears to relegate the annoying utterance with its background noise of Radio Kogon, while leaving one small part of his brain to that single sniper of music which set him free from his vigilance. Now, like an angel whose appearance he never really expected, it was there in the room, and he did not believe it. Slowly he lowered the cup of tea to the table, not even feeling his charred fingertips. He dropped the slice of bread to the plate and focused his hearing as he turned his head toward the Panasonic.
“Baby please come home, merry Christmas….Mariah Carey’s voice had true magical aspire with basses and baritones. Zoor blinked at the Panasonic and hardly realized that he was rising to his feet, reaching up to remove his steel rimmed glasses, cleaning the lenses with his skinny black shirt as if his eyes rather than his ears deceived him.
When the song ended, there was a long moment of silence. Zoor began to think that he had imagined it, that he was actually still in bed and dreaming, until the announcer opened his microphone.
“That was an early holiday greeting from Mr Dimitrov,” the voice said in Persian with some Russian prefix and accent. “Apparently he likes to begin his Christmas well in advance. Well done Dimitrov, we all are with you to enjoy your holidays.”
Immediately the announcer’s voice was cut by a Pepsi advertisement. The jingle incongruous in its Uzbek mixes with Russian accent yet in Persian. That was it. It was over, the song and a Christmas greeting.
It was late August.
Like a farmer walking through the marsh, Zoor walked slowly to the radio reached out and switched it off. Then he turned and walked across the room, feet nearly dragging on the worn carpet to his old green telephone, which had once been gifted by some of his Pakistani friend who used to work in Telecommunication Department installing telephone cables at UN office.
He looked somehow mesmerised, fallen into his thoughts, shocked by the wash of relief and the rising heat of fear that clashed in his brain. His hands appeared before his face like disembodied limbs as they reached for the telephone, and the number popped up from his brain as clearly as if it were blinking on there.
He dialled the number thinking that it would not work. After so many years, it was impossible. The line would be dead, or the number changed, or if it did actually ring through, the party would have long since departed.
“Hello,” a deep voice answered almost immediately.
Zoor Khan could barely get it out. He felt that he should chat first, maybe establish that he had the right person on the other end. But his instructions were very much clear, the phrases burned into him.
“This is Zoor Khan,” he croaked. Then he cleared his throat. He did not want to have to repeat himself. “I just want to wish you a Merry Christmas, In case I’ll be out of town.”
There was no response, just silence coursing down the wire. Zoor hung up.
He began to move more quickly now. He could almost taste his freedom and he started to fantasize as he hurried through the house. No longer would he be chained to his small breakfast table, no longer would he be afraid of fatigue, cold with dread, he might have overslept. Tonight when he returned, he would smash the hateful Panasonic. So he would miss a few evening FM Islamabad music concerts but he would buy another radio-tape, a clean, new, innocent, virgin one.
He walked toward the wash basin installed in one corner of the kitchen, and found a hammer and a stone chisel wrapped in shabby cloth. He took them to his bedroom and with his meagre muscles he hauled on his wooden closet until it came away from the wall. He pushed it aside with his shoulders then remembered the front door, ran to lock it and returned.
His hands were shaking as he bent to the task, chipping at the loose cement that held the jagged stone in place. It seemed like an hour until he was finally able to dislodge the stone in the wall and though the morning was cool; the sweat ran through his eyes and dripped at the end of the nose. His glasses were fogged into uselessness and he folded them into the front pocket of his shirt.
He lifted the long cloth package from the moist hole in the wall and he jumped back as a huge spider ran between his legs. The package fell clanging dully on the stone floor. He lifted it again and un-wrapped the dusty cloth.
Inside was a short, wide steel tube. One end was widened like the bell. The middle was encircled with polished wood like some musical instrument. However the other end was threaded two short turns, he had even seen. He did not know what it was and he did not care.
He replaced the stone and the closet and he brushed up the floor and the dust around, then from inside the closet he reached for his old big flute case and laid it on the bed.
There were many times that he wanted a new case for his old fashioned flute lay loosely inside the maroon velvet cover. But the case had been a gift from someone long ago with a note that he should not divest himself of it.
Then he reached for another velvet cloth into his closet. He pulled it out and spread it on the bed as if something was being rolled into it. He politely laid the iron tube onto the spread velvet sheet and rolled its corners to fix in it. The extra cloth he cut with the scissor and stitched it like a case of the pipe. Now apparently it became something like a musical instrument wrapped in velvet cloth.
He picked all his items and put them in a shoulder’s bag and left the home quickly, hurrying to catch the bus for Camp Tober Khan. He felt he was carrying a cobra and he wanted to get rid of it before it bit him.
Unlike Zoor Khan, Aminullah Jansher was not a stranger to the iron hardware.
His tiny workshop on Murree Road outside Islamabad looked like an aftermath of an explosion in a toilet factory. Everywhere you looked, there were piles of jagged steel and cement drain pipes, ceramic sink parts, broken bath tiles and sanitary wares. The smoke blackened cement walls were punctured by rows of nails, upon which hung across plastic pipes joint tapes, rubber drain stoppers and greasy black and grey plastic washers from wedding-ring to horse collar sizes.
The workshop had no real windows, just the vent holes made high on the walls. Above the steel workbench in the centre of the single room, a pair of electric bulb hung with the aluminium reflectors like the generator lights of a combat field surgery. The air smelled of burned acetylene.
When you were inside Jansher’s shop, you could hardly tell the day from night and that was just as well for Jansher. Being a highly demanded plumber, he was always in his shop by 7 O’clock in the morning and after his daily house calls, he returned to prepare the next day’s replacement parts, often working late at night. He did not keep a clock in the workshop; he needed no reminder that he had spent his three-quarters of his life in the work. His wife made certain to repeatedly apprise him of his absence. However, she never complained when he handed over his daily pay.
Jansher was bear of a man, his gleaming muscles were evidence of years of hammering and hauling. To his friends and neighbours, he could hardly have been regarded as a political animal. He wore heavy boots, work paint and T-shirts, not even bothering to wear Shalwar-Qameez that was the usual costume of the area. He often said to his friends that Shalwar Qameez was an outfit for those unwilling to work. A sign of Fainéant.
In public he never expressed his militant viewpoint. However, at home he made sure that his two young sons knew precisely where he stood as far as the militants were concerned. The efforts paid and he was supremely proud when they would come home battered and bruised from rallies against Americans or the government decisions against militants.
Jansher was his own man, an independent owner of a thriving business, answering to no employer and bound by no schedule. The only constraint in his life, the single inflexible rule, was that he has to be in the shop every morning at early hours until before Namaz e Maghreb. During that time he could listen to any radio program that pleased him but especially news hours were at his crest. However, he had to keep the telephone line clear all the time.
He happened to be standing next to it when it rang. He expected the call from a widow Janat Gul, for the old lady kept complaining about a drain that was perfectly functional, if she would just stopped mixing used black tea in bulk in the sink.
Unlike Zoor Khan, whose name he did not know and whose voice was not familiar, Jansher was not alarmed by the signal which activated him. As a boy, he had been a regular member of the village’s mosque for learning of Quran. Then he had begun to sit in the late night meetings of a few elders in the mosque after prayer who happened to discuss the Islamic ways of living and converting the society into pure Islamic version. Then one day he was asked to scarify his soul to the cause. By then Jansher was although grown up but he was a simple man, yet intelligent. He realized quickly that as a deep ‘cover,’ he could go about his business, bound to perform only one or two crucial, patriotic tasks.
The package had been delivered nearly six years ago. Except for the annoying morning schedule that he was forced to maintain and he would have forgotten about it completely.
He looked at the receiver in his grease stained hand, and then he hung it back on the wall cradle. “Christmas.” The voice had said, “Christmas.” Well that was it then. All he had to hear. He clapped his hands together. It was going to be a beautiful exciting day.
There was a large metal bin at the back of the shop, something like a garbage trolley. It was full to the brim with copper and plastic tubes/pipes, which made Jansher curse, yet he moved quickly to his task.
It took him almost half an hour to empty the bin. Finally he had to climb inside to get to the package.
The heavy black plastic wrap was covered with dripped stains, but when he peeled it away the object inside was still sealed in a length of half a meter in a tyre-tube. He pulled it off and examined the hidden treasure. It was length of black iron pipe about sixty millimetres at the mouth. Part of the back end was covered in the polished wood. Below the tube there were two handles, their grip of the same wood as the rear of the piece. One handle was smooth and without mechanical additions. The other grip was more like that of a pistol, complete with the trigger and a thumb catch for cocking. Jansher was not afraid of the obvious harmful device. He would have been much more alarmed had he found the body of a flute.
He rewrapped the device and climbed out of the bin. He went over to his work table and pulled his tool box from underneath. Then he lifted out the metal top tray, emptied the lower contents of the box into a dark brownish sack and laid the tire-tube package into the bottom of the box. The tray went back in and he locked the metal hooks and left the shop.
Janat’s sink would have to wait.
He fixed the box onto the back carrier of his Yamaha. As he began to ride south toward Islamabad, he realized that he had forgotten to make the prescribed telephone call. He cursed himself. Well, it was alright. The number was as clear as his own birth date.
He began to look for a public telephone.
In an old small village housed in the valley of green orchards, Haji Rehmatzai lowered himself slowly to the ground. He was wearing an off-white shabby Shalwar Qameez with a typical turban with black and blue strips, yet he did not lift it from his head despite the sharp stones of the valley had finally begun to discomfort his tired old flesh. With his sandaled feet beneath him, his aching coccyx settled over his heels. He was not praying. He had done already. Haji was checking his new seedlings in his watermelon patch.
He turned his face and peered along the arteries of fragile vines that wandered over the rough earth. Water, more water, there was never enough of it.
Muttering, he placed a hand on one folded knee and levered his body upright. He turned slowly around to the east and at last he managed a smile. On that side of his small property, the watermelons multiplied like mushrooms, growing into long, fat hard green balloons, which at this stage of his life he could barely lift.
The eastern grove flourished because the earth there was rich with the water from the small hills, yet on the other hand, the western grove might as well have been in Thar Desert. It had to be watered by hand. And it showed.
That was the difference between the Power of Allah and the pathetic trials of Man.
He was lucky to have been born in this part of valley, an oasis that had flourished since centuries, never subject to destructive droughts, always desirable green.
He lifted his face and squinted up, when the sun was high enough in the east every morning; Haji could begin his watermelon sales.
“Father!” A voice called from behind, the direction of his house. Sandaled feet padded over the uneven earth. “Father!”
“Careful, watch the seedlings,” said Haji without turning. Then he mentally shook his weary head.
It was one of his two sons Jamal Khan, by the sound of voice. When he had chosen the name for the infant, almost thirteen years ago, he could not have imagined that beautiful would become the only positive adjective of which his youngest would be worthy. Jamal was handsome alright, striking as a Kashmiri prince. He was also quite stupid, a realization which pained the old man more than his arthritic bones.
“What is it?” He spun on Jamal.
“The telephone rang!”
Haji took a step back. This was truly an event, as none of his friends or relatives had a telephone, and Haji only kept the telephone because he had been told to do so. Except for the occasional wrong number, it almost never quivered in its cradle. Someone else paid the meagre bills.
“Are you sure?”
Due to the range of Jamal’s IQ, which was somewhat below the level of Arabian Gulf, Haji was afraid to ask the next question. But he pressed on.
“Did you answer it Jamal?”
“Yes, I did Father!” The boy was now getting scared.
Haji reached out his hands and gripped his son’s shoulder to steady him.
“And…?” Haji encouraged the boy, afraid that he might soon forget what had been said.
“A man spoke to me Father.” Jamal said.
“What did he say, Jamal?”
“He said…” the boy knitted his brows, enjoying the rare parental attention. “He said; tell the man of the house that I send him good wishes for an early Christmas.”
Haji stared at the boy not quite believing him.
“Christmas, Jamal, the man said really Christmas?”
“Did he say anything else?”
“Are you sure?”
Then Haji did something he had not done since Jamal was a toddler. He reached up and kissed him on the cheek. Then he patted the soft skin.
“You are a good boy, Jamal.”
His son was shocked. Tears came to his eyes, almost as if he had been slapped. The blinding smile overcame his lips.
“Thank you, Father.”
“Good boy,” Haji smiled too. “Now, run and bring me my trowel.”
Jamal turned and ran toward the house. In a moment he returned with a short tool in one hand, his brother Jalal and sister Amina were following close behind.
Haji took the tool. He looked at his three children. Both his sons were handsome, but his daughter was too petite to be imagined in her age and also had a bit limp in her right leg and she was the youngest.
“Look children,” Haji said as kindly as he could manage. “There was no telephone call. Do you understand?”
The boys looked at him blankly, yet his daughter was not even listening. In fact she looked more interested in the small watermelons drooping on the vines placed on the mud hedges.
“You must pretend that there was no telephone call. Do you understand that?”
There was a bit more light in their eyes. Both the boys nodded.
“Now go back in the house, and don’t come out till I call for you.”
The boys just stood there.
The boys spun around and called Amina to join them and ran away.
Haji turned back toward the eastern grove. There were only three four trees on his property. He walked to the first. The other three trees were almost fifty meters away, ten meters apart on a line to the first. He counted twenty steps and quickly knelt to the earth, this time ignoring his knees and feeling no pain in his spine.
He started digging and kept on for a long time, perhaps an hour, and when he was done the top of the long meter crate lay exposed at the bottom of a hole half a meter deep. The surface of the grey strongbox had long been encrusted with mineral deposits and rust from years of exposure to the grove’s watery roots, but the integrity of the steel appeared intact.
Haji did not expect to be able to lift it from the hole; instead he preferred to open it. He used the blade of the tool and pried it open.
There were two long packages in the box. Each one was a many layered wrapping of the kind of thick clear plastic that is used in packing of the electronic goods for sale. Inside each wrapping there were two dull-green tubes. Of each pair, one of the tubes was simple, half an arm in length. The other tube was more meaningful, as at one end was an ugly steel head. Each head looked like two green cones joined at the mouths with one point melting with the tube, while the other exposed tip was covered with a protective cap.
Haji rose painfully from the whole. He began to search through his grove selecting two of the largest watermelons. With his curved tool, he freed them from their vines and rolled them over to the open crater.
He reached to his Shalwar’s inside pocket and came up with a sharp knife. He opened the knife. He cut a square piece around ten centimetres of each side in the watermelon and pulled out a red piece like normally customers in Pakistan use to cut before they buy it to check whether it was red and sweet. Then he pushed one of his hands inside watermelon and scooped with his fingers to pull out all fruit outside until the ground was littered with pulpy red entails and his arms were covered with black seeds.
A few more scooping, and some careful pushing and manoeuvring and both the plastic cocoons were hidden inside the melons. He put the cut pieces again on the mouth of the melons. Finally, Haji pushed all the littering into the metal box, closed it and refilled the hole with the fresh pile of earth. He stamped it all down and pulled on some vines until the scar was covered.
He sat down, he was almost sweating and soaked through and he took some time to catch his breath. At last he managed to cry out.
“Jamal, bring some water for me.”
The boy must have been watching from somewhere as he came sprinting from the house holding a copious jug of water in his one hand and a steel glass in other hand. He handed over the Jug and glass to his father. Haji took both and filled the glass and gulped it one swallow.
“Help me up.” Haji said to his waiting son.
He pulled him to his feet, and like a king’s tailor he brushed him off and smoothed his shirt, cleaned his soiled arms and washed his hands with the remaining water in the jug.
“Today, we will begin to sell in Islamabad. Haji announced as he straightened his back and lifted his head high.
“But Father, we always start it in the village.”
“Islamabad, I told you,” said Haji. And he begin to stride towards their Suzuki pickup, he turned and pointed at the hewed melons.
“Place those two melons at the bottom of the pile on the pickup.”
Jamal sprang to the melons, heavier now than any such prizes they had ever grown. He lifted up and strode after his father, who was striding as he had not done in twenty years, he set turban on his head.
He lifted his finger of caution.
“And if you sell them,” he warned. “I’ll sell you.”
An Evening of Late August.
Sahel was running in a deep trench clouded by the fire ablaze on his head.
Everything was going wrong. Sound of the mortar and heavy artillery deafening his ears. He had no strength even to hold his gun. He was shouting over to his soldiers who had already opened counter fire from their CP- Howitzer and Mortars. They had a sudden attack by the enemy on the last hour of the night. He wondered how he had been awake all the night thinking about his limp, perhaps his sixth sense ignited which took him to his soldiers in the bunker.
Suddenly one of his best soldier caught by a mortar shell and he fell down on the ground squeezing his legs to his belly without any scream. Sahel grabbed his face up and turned his legs straight and made lie on his back. He had a big cut in his left rib. Sahel tried to pull out the piece of the shell but it had already penetrated deep inside and the fainted soldier with heavy bleeding muttered something, which he could not hear in thunderous noise. He pushed his left arm beneath soldier’s neck and pulled it upward and lowered his own ear to his mouth trying to listen what the man wanted to say…
Guns noise was slamming into his ears as his eyes widened with the horror when the soldier took his last breath as his neck once stiffened and suddenly softened and face turned to one side. He abruptly forcefully pushed his chest with his right palm and without waiting further he hit him on his chest, but in vain. There was no sound of anymore breath. He was shocked and horrified. Amid gunfire and howitzer’s blowing noise, he pulled him to his chest as some father grabbed his son dying helplessly on the bed in front of so many doctors and attendants.
Dying of a soldier in his arms made him feeble inside and he screamed dreadfully.
Amber was sobbing in her sleep. In the soft blue light of the night bulb that slanted on them from the sidewall. Sahel could see her curled up at the edge of the bed, her arms covering her neck. He looked down. He was sitting upright on the soaked sheet, the only sound his wife’s sobbing breath. On his lap was a crumpled pillow. A piece of its cloth case was torn away. He looked at his left hand. A ball of the right cotton was clutched in his fist.
He put his hand to his clammy forehead and he squeezed the temples trying to emerge from the horrid tunnel of his subconscious. What day was this? He tried to remember. Yet it was not day it was night-time.
Fragments of his combat with the enemies still jabbed at him from that other world, so he accepted with some relief that his cold fear was merely the product of a dream. Then he began to wonder if, to hope even, that all of his discomfort might be unreal. Had he really been in war? Were his senses transmitting some warning signals? May be his confrontation with Col. Zawri and his court-martial and suspension were also merely lucid dream production?
He lay back on the sheet, cold with his own evaporating seat. He reached out to the bedside table and brought the luminous face of the watch close to his eyes, six o’ clock. It was almost dark outside. It was six o’ clock in the evening.
Then he remembered and groaned.
His soldier’s death was a dream. The rest of it was as real as the white ceiling above him. He realized with a degree of disgust that he had been sleeping since noon. He had arrived home in the morning, cursing Zawri, cursing the service and cursing Dilshad for failing to back him up in this hour of need. Major Dilshad, Sahel’s commander and idol, a legend of military brain and brawn, had shattered the army rule: “you never leave a wounded man in the field.” Sahel could not soon forgive him for that.
On the top of it all, Amber greeted him with an onslaught of her justifiable fury. Yet that did not materialize.
He had expected her asleep in the bed, but she emerged from the bathroom, pale and shaky and threw her arms around his neck and babbled with happiness. Immersed as he was in his own grief and fatigue, Sahel did not at first comprehend why she was expressing so much joy over an episode of nausea.
“I am vomiting, Sahel!” She said. “Do you know why I am vomiting?”
The news of Amber’s pregnancy flooded their reunion with joy, superseding Sahel’s exhaustion and relegating his professional troubles almost to the mundane. Sahel decided that he would not discolour their happiness by revealing details of the latest disaster.
Amber wanted to know what had happened, where he had been but he simply promised his wife that he was giving up Darkroom forever and planning a new, bold future for both of them. He had actually no idea of what the hell he was going to do, but he covered over his self-doubt with a broad smile. Inwardly he decided to just hope for the best and guard his home and his family until the whole Razmak thing had blown over.
His fatigue returned with full force within the next hour. He made Amber promise to take a day off, lock up the house and not leave for anyone or anything. Then he fell into a gulf of warrior’s sleep. Apparently during the afternoon Amber had joined him.
He back was warm beneath the sheet that covered her.
“You’re crying,” he said assuming that she was already subject to emotionalism of hormonal assault.
She sniffed and wiped her nose. “You hit me.”
“You hit me.” She looked at him as if he’d struck her for becoming pregnant.
Then he realized what had happened. He had actually been hitting Amber while he was trying to restore breathing of his soldier in the bunker. He reached out and cupped her face and whispered. “I am so sorry Ambi, I was dreaming.”
Amber blinked. Then she smiled and curled an arm around his neck and tenderly pressed her nose against his cheek.
A hard bang made Sahel jerk his head back. He sat straight up and Amber putting her hands up to her face in fright. “What is it?”
“Sshhh” Sahel heart was racing again. The ‘artillery’ from the landing zone in his dream. It was a violent pounding on their front door.
He rolled from the bed and landed on the cold tile floor, as he focussed his hearing. He squatted there for a moment on the balls of his bare feet; he reached out slowly and opened the drawer of his bed-table. He found the steel of his browning and lifted the pistol into his hand.
He quickly found his shorts and slipped into it for he knew he couldn’t do battle half naked wearing only the underwear. The rest happened instinctively, and he moved swiftly and quietly despite his still knee. He cocked the pistol and let the snout of the barrel emerge first, clearing the bedroom door, then the small corridor, then he curved into darkened lounge to the front door.
All right, he thought, so it’s going to end right here, right now. He’s here. No ambush, no stealth, no surprise. Goddamn the all, no one believed him. Razmak was at his front door, simple as that. But this Bastard would not get Amber or their baby.
Another hard bang and a big slam! The front door shook with a hammering fist from the hallway. Sahel had the advantage. It was fairly dark inside the house and the hallway was fiercely lit. He backed up next to the door, pistol in his right hand. He reached out with his left hand and turned the key hard, leaving only the flip handle between him and final encounter.
He stepped back and gripped the pistol two-handed. For a moment nothing happened. Then the door handle dropped and a man stepped into the lounge holding some files in his hands.
Sahel jumped into the opening and froze the pistol between Dilshad’s eyes. Neither of men moved. Sahel’s breath was coming in ragged gasps. Dilshad just stood still, looking calmly over the iron sights, until Sahel finally lowered the pistol toward the floor.
“I thought you might be sleeping.” Dilshad smiled.
Sahel could not yet speak the blood in his veins kept his arm locked and stiff. Dilshad removed the files under his armpit and reached out slowly to the pistol and slipped the cocked hammer and the firing pin back to its place.
“Did you really think that I would leave you in the field?” Dilshad asked with some hurt in his tone.
Sahel stared at the Major, feeling suddenly ashamed. Beyond Dilshad’s shoulder, up on the next door, he saw the alarmed face of a white haired lady peering from her door. Sahel forced a weak smile and found his voice.
“It’s all right, Mrs Bashir,” he said. “I thought it was some burglar.”
The old lady returned a sceptical nod, yet she retreated and closed the door.
Sahel backed into his apartment and Dilshad followed. His hand still kept the pistol as he closed the door with his foot.
“It’s okay,” said Sahel. And Dilshad released the magazine into his left hand and gave the pistol and magazine back to Sahel.
Dilshad found the light switch. He could see how frightened Sahel had been, as the captain’s skin was slick with sweat. He did not bother to apologise.
“I almost killed you.”
Dilshad shrugged. “Unintentionally, I would hope.”
Sahel did not respond to the humour. “So,” said Dilshad. “What’s the answer?”
“To what?” Sahel looked puzzled.
“Are you ready for battle?”
“Am I ready? His tone was somewhat different.
“I would think, after all these years,” said Dilshad, “that you realised that my silence in that fool’s office was not the result of some newly acquired shyness.”
“Then what was it?”
“Strategy of course.”
“I see,” said Sahel. He rose from the table. “Dilshad I am now tired.”
“So am I, you just slept too much.”
“I have other consideration, now.”
“Ah, Bhai Dilshad, we are expecting a baby.” Amber’s voice surprised Dilshad. She was standing in the bedroom door. She must have been quite frightened by the episode, but she could not help smiling as she released the news.
“What a pleasant surprise,” Dilshad slapped his palms together and danced a little with his shoulders twist and fingers up in a Pakistani fashion.
Sahel too could not help smiling. “Pretty presumptuous of you Dilshad.”
“I am an arrogant Bastard, Dilshad said. “It’s wonderful news, Bhabi, Kuch ho jaye.”
Amber obeyed gladly, bounding for the kitchen. Dilshad looked at Sahel. “It’s all the more reason,” he said.
“You can’t quit now.”
“I have pretty much been fired.”
“Not by me.”
Amber appeared with a jug of orange and carrot juice with three empty glasses.
“Bahena!” As he took the tray from her, “Sahel is involved in a crucial case. With your permission, he must carry it through. It cannot succeed without him.”
Dilshad did not wait for a response. He began to fill the glasses.
“You don’t need me.”
“That’s a lie.” Dilshad said to Amber, not even looking at Sahel. “This is so important, so vital that I need your approval to work here with Sahel, outside the office, in absolute security.”
Sahel did not know what Dilshad had in his mind, but he found himself unable to resist his own obsession. And Amber, knowing that Sahel needed to serve was the essence of this being, found herself compelled to give her assent.
She stared at the two men while she looked from one to another. She sighed.
“Well, as usual, I have no idea what it’s about. But if it is important, I have to say yes, Sahel. She turned to Dilshad. “The rest is up to my husband, Dilshad Bhai.”
“More than half way home now,” Dilshad turned to his captain. “If you can say no to this, then let’s see you do it.” He was actually poking at Sahel, like a devil making a pitch for a soul. Sahel smiled weakly in return.
“Okay, major, for the last time I volunteer.”
“Good.” Dilshad boomed. “But wait,” he put out a hand to stop Sahel from raising the glass to his lips. “We’ll need more glasses.”
He strode to the apartment door, pulled it open, put two fingers into his mouth and made a single shriek as loud as police whistle. While Amber and Sahel watched, Dilshad held the door like a butler at a big restaurant.
After a moment, footsteps began to quicken up in the staircase. First into the apartment was Khaki from the Research Wing. He was dressed up in blue T-shirt and white trousers and he carried a hard black plastic case in one hand and a heavy gym bag hanging on the other shoulder. He looked at Amber and shyly turned his gaze away, saying, “Hello” to Sahel as he sat the equipment on the floor.
“The windows,” Dilshad said to Khaki, and the young man moved quickly to lower the blinds throughout the large lounge. As he did so, he kept stealing glances on the mused haircut on Sahel’s head that had replaced his normal style.
Tariq appeared next breathing heavily as he grabbed two file cases holding to his chest that looked too weigh as much as he did. He sat down on one of the cases and wiped his semi bald head with a handkerchief not bothering to greet anyone in the room.
Shaista with a leather bag on her shoulder, from the Cipher Department, corrected her dupata, had to stop in the doorway and steady herself. She was holding a Pepsi can in her one hand and croaked. “We can build a nuclear bomb, but we can’t make a goddamn decent elevator.”
Major Shahzad pushed past her, grinning over his pipe stem. He was carrying only a light briefcase and he winked at Sahel as he stepped inside.
Sahel thought that his eyes could not open wider, yet they expanded at the appearance of Farhat the NSS man. The convening of NSB operation was risky enough, but involving other agencies seemed like borderline dangerous. Farhat saw Sahel’s look and just shrugged, jerking his thumb toward Dilshad, as if the major had somehow pushed him into participating.
A man whom Sahel did not know appeared in the doorway. He was tall and broad shouldered, somehow firm, yet powerful looking. He wore a white striped shirt and jeans. He was around forty with a curly brown hair, needed an instant haircut, that crawled over his collar. Despite the hour, he was wearing sunglasses, though they could have hardly concealed his features. He hesitated in the doorway, until Dilshad said in English, “Come in, Jahangir. Come in,” as he waved him inside.
Finally Shahzad’s secretary appeared. Anita looked somewhat nervous, probably more so at the idea of entering Sahel’s home than at participating in this questionable mission. She was dressed in a modest trouser and long blouse and she made a point of locating Amber and smiling broadly at her. When she realized that Sahel was standing there in his short and a sleeveless upper she blushed and looked away.
Dilshad pulled her inside and shut the door. He rubbed his hand together and walked to the middle of the room, and then he motioned with his arms for everyone to gather in close. They set their equipment, briefs, and files and crowded together so he would not have to raise his voice.
“Sunroom main Khush Amdeed,” Then he turned to the stranger of the group and said in English, “Excuse us for the Urdu, Jahangir. This is legal formality that should not worry the Unilateral Military Intelligence, I mean UMI.” Jahangir nodded, and the Dilshad continued in Urdu as the group eyed the UMI man with some surprise.
“I am commencing this operation under rule IX-2 clause Four of Pakistan Security Laws, permitting unilateral initiation of a secure mission now recode named as “Sunroom” under the command of a senior intelligence officer Major Dilshad Hussain and my second-in-command is Captain Sahel Farhaj.” He looked over at Sahel, who watched the performance with amazement. “I am ordering full compartmentalization as deemed necessary for the security of this operation. No details shall be revealed to fellow employees of any institute, nor shall any approval of any Sub-Committee be sought until I determine such necessity. Are we clear so far?”
Dilshad looked around. All heads were angled toward him to hear his low tones, and no one expressed surprise or dismay.
“I might remind you as volunteers,” he continued, that as the old saying goes, “Success has many fathers, while Failure is a lonely orphan. All those who wish to withdraw may do so within the next one minute.”
Then he looked down at his watch, following the sweep second hand raising his eyes, until full minute of silence had elapsed.
“Good.” He clapped his hands together. “Now speaking of fathers, I have just discovered that Sahel here will be joining us again after recovering from his deadly injuries and another ex-officio member to this project would be Amber, who has graciously granted full support to this mission in the name of her motherland, for which I personally owe her lot of gratitude.” He patted on the naked shoulder of Sahel. After lot of congratulatory whoops and shouts, Dilshad asked Anita to help Amber round up a sufficient number of glasses from the kitchen.
When the juice was poured and as mismatched glasses converged to clink together, Dilshad made his toast, “To the ‘new’ Sahel and to the success of operation “Sunroom.”
By the time Sahel emerged from the bathroom after taking his shower, his home has already been transformed into a bustling outpost of NSB’s SpecOp. Wearing black jeans and a white T-shirt, he walked bare footed along the lounge as he towelled off his hair. The bedroom telephone had been pulled into the lounge, its white wire taped down to the old carpet and its handset also secured to the cradle with metallic cyber Wi-Fi link. A second black wire continued from the telephone and along the floor to the Sahel’s study at the far corner of the flat. He followed it and poked his head into the office.
Khaki and Shaista did not bother to look up. The small man had cleared Sahel’s desk and set up a portable HP printer all-in-one on it, he was busy connecting different devices to the machine. A laptop’s screen alongside the HP was now flickering progress in green horizontal line as the computer letting the programs installed on it. Shaista has pulled a chair up to another small makeshift table where she was laying up the intercept files that came from Khaki’s ‘professional’ briefcase. The intercepts were all decodes and translations on thick stacks of folded computer paper. They were having different colours each according to its source such as foreign embassy, overseas intercept, emails, and landline telephone and satellite transmission.
Sahel wondered how Dilshad had managed to get all this top-secret material out of the NSB’s building. He stepped quietly over to the lounge. Dilshad was seated at the round common table, his great bald head looking like a science model. He had occupied round table as his workplace and had no paper work spread out beneath his meaty hands. He was keeping the table cleared for the landing of steaming coffee cups, cakes, cookies and whatever else Amber might conceive.
Sahel smiled; Dilshad was sticking his neck at the steaming coffee.
“Just listen to me, Sahel, because there is not much time,” Dilshad looked over to him and strode toward Sahel grabbing his hand and made him sit in front of him. “When John Victor had his accident in Dubai, I didn’t think much of it. But when Rafi died, I got on your ‘frequency.’ I started this thing together right there and then, but I didn’t tell you in case I couldn’t muster the support. Then I turned around and you were off to Kabul.” He scratched his head and laughed. “That was crazy move by you, Sahel, but it did the trick. I hope you understand that I couldn’t back you up in Zawri’s office. It would have tipped him off.”
“You not backing me might have tipped him off.”
“No chance. His ego is too enormous.”
“Who is Jahangir?”
“Jahangir, Jahangir Shah is an analytical expert in UMI, very intelligent.”
“So what the hell he is doing here?”
“He is a good man. I have known him for a long time, trustworthy and reliable and has his own independent sources. Presently he is on holidays. He has double motives. First he has worked a lot on Razmak at his HQ after the incident of European Diplomat in Islamabad case code named ISD-3355 and knew him more than us and he’s pissed off because of his own bureaucratic futile solutions against terrorists in the recent past.”
“Second, a close friend of his was a case officer in Kabul at that time and he is going back home probably. They both want Razmak too.”
“Now there is a motive, I can understand.”
“I am going to call every favour I can,” Dilshad spoke. “It’s about morning in America. We will have to work fast and we’ll work all night.”
“What do you expect to get?”
“Just enough to prove our case, before Razmak strikes us again, not a miracle, just a little hassle and one break-through, that’s all we need, then this time he can’t escape.”
“Now go and dry off your head and come down back.”
In the middle of the lounge, Shahzad and Jahangir were working over a powerful satellite cellular phone and a machine of interception. Shahzad as usual chewed enthusiastically his pipe stem while Jahangir screwed a large antenna into the base unit. They appeared to have hit it off, having discovered some mutual discovery. They were conversing in many common things about espionage.
Across the television set on the far wall unit, Farhat, the NSS man was busy unhooking the roof aerial and affecting a connection to a powerful field radio, a modified unit which he usually used in his car to contact security units around the country.
Sahel dropped the towel on the railing and joined back Dilshad at the round table and poured himself a cup of coffee. Already the room was beginning to go blue with cigarette smoke.
“Are you clean?” Dilshad abruptly asked him as Sahel sat down before him.
“As a virgin bride.”
“Now I have already taken the liberty of handing out assignments.”
“Basically we are putting out requests to personal contacts in different international intelligence agencies.”
“Updated information on all recent Razmak sightings or even speculations.”
“The sighting will come up negative.”
“Why do we need speculation?”
“To cover to our bare assess. We will keep the ones that match our theories and throw the rest out.”
“Very bureaucratic of you, Dilshad.”
“You know, this is how I work.”
From the dining room Anita’s electronic typewriter began to clatter.
“What’s she doing?”
“Keeping the record.”
Dilshad waged a finger at Sahel. “Extreme bravery should always be based on meticulous preparations.”
“Okay,” said Sahel impatiently. “What next.”
“Listen,” Dilshad instructed as he pointed at Shahzad and Jahangir. The UMI man was sitting on the couch, pressing the cellular handset to his ear.
“Robert? Hey buddy. It’s Nick. Got anything for me yet? Jahangir waited for a moment. The connection must have been weak, for he inserted a finger in his free ear. “Okay… buddy call me back soon as you can, at…, he leaned over the base module, yes seven, nine, nine, three, two, one, nine, zero. Roger out.”
“He is talking to UMI station. They are working on Razmak.”
At the moment Jahangir got up from the couch and walked over to the table, Sahel stood up to offer his hand.
“Nick Ferro,” said UMI man. His grip was powerful.
“Friendly cover name,” Sahel grinned as he switched to English. “Sahel Farhaj.”
“My pleasure,” said Nick. He examined Sahel streaked blonde hair, light eyes and European features. “You don’t look Pakistani,” he said.
“One shouldn’t look like a wraith,” Sahel responded smilingly.
Jahangir laughed and patted Sahel’s at the shoulder. He grew serious for a moment.
“I want this Bastard, too, Sahel.”
“I know you do,” said Sahel. “We all do.”
Jahangir turned to Dilshad. “It will be a while. What else can I do?”
Dilshad looked up at Jahangir and rubbed his jaw.
“Look Nick. I don’t want you to get burned. But we could use Langley’s latest pickups on anything related to Razmak or ISD-3355, even seemingly unconcerned intercepts. Can you do that?”
Jahangir smiled. “Can SpecOp offer someone coffee?
“Amber,” Sahel called his wife loudly and then instead waiting for her, went inside Kitchen and brought two more cups.
“Here goes,” he poured and handed one cup to Jahangir and pointed with the wink toward cake pieces at the table.
“Thanks,” Jahangir smiled, picked up the cup and filled his mouth with the cake and strode toward his Cellular set. He had always liked the hospitality of Pakistanis.
Tariq came out of the dining room, cleaning his glasses with his T-shirt. He was tall and bony; looking like that he didn’t eat enough. His hair was mussed and stuck all around his head like untrimmed grass.
“Okay, sir. I can talk to Kabul,” he said proudly.
“Fine, Tariq, but very careful now,” Dilshad continued, first ask for an Eyes only contact with Khanzada Syad. When you have him, call me.”
Tariq walked back into the dining room and sat down at his Grid.
“What he is using,” asked Sahel.
“IP phone Set through scrambler,” Dilshad smiled.
Amber came out of the kitchen. She had brushed her hair and changed into trousers and long shirt. Sahel smiled at her, wondering what she would look like after all becoming overweight.
“Can I do something other than cooking?” She asked.
“Apparently feeding fellow comrades is a big job,” said Dilshad as he gestured at his own stomach, but still you are free to participate.”
“As a matter of fact…” Sahel abruptly turned to Dilshad. “Is the phone working?”
“Yes of course.”
“Ambi,” said Sahel. “We don’t want any surprise visitors.”
“Oh,” she put up a hand to her mouth. “That’s a real possibility, especially with our recent news.”
“You just please call everyone around who might just pop up tonight. Raheela, Dr. Shazia and Irram and your folks too. Tell them everything is okay, yet you are feeling lousy and going to bed.”
“Good Idea,” Dilshad said.
“And not too far from the truth,” Amber looked at Sahel and smiled.
She pulled a chair over to the dining room pass-through, picked up the phone and began to dial.
“Shhh,” Dilshad hushed everyone in the room as he gestured toward Amber.
Sahel leaned toward Dilshad and whispered. “What’s on in office?”
“Shaista is connecting embassy in Zanzibar and Nairobi.”
Farhat walked over from his radio and sat down at the table. He poured a cup of coffee and lit a cigarette. “Well, we can’t do much more. Every border unit and team has been ordered to report to me with details of all male admittance in the country matching with the description of Razmak Bilal, I mean age, height, eyes, hair and everything.”
“Thanks Farhat,” said Dilshad.
“Anything to check with your commander?”
“We don’t need to check him,” said Dilshad. “We just want to go around him.”
“Then leave it to us, my dear,” said Farhat with a wicked grin.
Amber finished her last call and came slowly over to the table. She was holding her forehead.
“I didn’t have to do much acting,” she said. “I think I’ll go up to bed.”
Sahel began to rise but Anita came out of the dining room and took Amber’s elbow. “I’ll help her,” she said.
“You are a sweetheart,” Dilshad said. “When you are done, Anita, canvass everyone and update your files.”
Amber kissed Sahel on his head and the two women went into the bedroom.
The cellular phone rang with an electronic burbling; Jahangir answered, said a few superficial thanks and hung up.
“Most people in Dubai say John’s death was hundred-percent accident,” Jahangir said with some apology. And my office had checked out the driver as well. He still in custody but has not opened his mouth yet. He claimed it was purely an accident and did happen with brake failure.”
“Okay,” Sahel gave Jahangir a thump-up. Razmak may have had nothing to do with ‘John Victor,’ but the sequence afterward supports Sahel’s theory.
“I have got Khanzada,” said Tariq from the dining room.
“Tell him Sardar JS would like to discuss an old matter in private,” said Dilshad.
“Roger.” Tariq responded.
Khaki came bouncing on his steps from office, which amazed Sahel, as he had never seen this little man even walks quickly. He was rubbing his hands together.
“We are going to get a description,” he announced.
“What?” Sahel looked at him surprisingly.
“Tehran Police has ‘loaned’ a file on the murder of Rafi and the Indian store salesman. Apparently a bus driver gave a description of a man who accompanied Rafi into Fatemi Square. Three days ago, they took that sketch around every hotel in Tehran. A clerk recognised it and filled in the rest of the details. The sketch will be emailed to me within an hour.
“Ye Maara,” Dilshad pounded his meaty hand onto the table and stood up. “Wonderful, now get back and bring it.” Khaki turned back and went to his post.
The joy was temporary as Tariq reappeared wearing a sheepish look. “No go Sir, Khanzada says he can’t end-run any information around your commander.” Apparently his boss and Zawri party together in Kabul. “He says it’s too risky.”
“Damn,” Dilshad slammed the table.
Shahzad walked over to Dilshad. “Bastard, Greedy Kabuli,” he said as he chewed his pipe. “Want to let me have a go for some other.”
“No use,” said Sahel. “They look good but they are full of holes.”
“Yes, that I understand,” said Shahzad.
“Excuse me,” said Jahangir,” give it to me in English. Maybe I can help.”
“Jahangir,” said Dilshad. The Kabulis won’t cooperate with us.”
“What a surprise,” he said. “They are always for the money, bloody Frogs.”
Jahangir ran his fingers through his curly hair. “Why don’t you let me try it via UMI HQ? I’ll false-flag the request.”
Farhat looked at him with surprise. “Now you are thinking like a Pakistani,” he said.
“Too much confusion,” said the UMI man as he returned to his telephone.
Farhat field radio hissed. He had the speaker on very low volume, so he walked over to the set to receive the communication.
In less than half an hour, Khaki came hurriedly again holding a copy of email print in his hand as gently as a butterfly wing. He placed the sheet on the table and everyone gathered to examine it.
It was standard police sketch, well executed but still aesthetically wanting. The best remembered features were emphasized, the curly hair, strong jaw, slim nose and narrowed eyes. The image caused all the men to squeeze their brows, for something about the face struck somewhere in memory, yet gradually one after another they shook their heads.
“Looks familiar,” but not from any of the NSS files.
“Yes,” said Dilshad as he held his chin and studied the print.
Sahel released an exasperated sigh. “It’s no Razmak Bilal I’ve ever seen. Not that I’d expect it to be.”
“You have another page,” Shaista voice croaked from the office. Khaki ran back at the door and returned with second page. “It’s the description on colour and details,” he said. Then he read the English. “Hair: blackish brown, eyes: light brown, skin: fair, curved scar beneath left eye.
As Dilshad listened to Khaki, he picked up a pencil. The print of the sketch had come over somewhat smudged as it happens in poor scanning at the transmitting end. With the lead point he drew a circle just beneath the left eye.
“Oh my God,” Farhat whispered. “That can’t be.” He lifted his head took a step back.
“What is it? Dilshad straightened his head up and demanded.
“That’s Azeem Khalidi, Major Azeem Khalidi,” Farhat whispered.
“Who?” Everybody baffled.
“I swear, he is Azeem Khalidi, he’s major with Planning and Logistics.
“What? Shahzad’s usually cool behaviour was punctured by his own gasp.
“He is a PSO to an advisor to the President,” said Farhat. “I often see him in President House whenever I get into it for security check-ups.”
Sahel snatched the sketch from the table and stared at it. Years’ back, when he was an officer candidate, Khalidi had been a staffer at training base Five. “Yes, now I got it, he looks like Khalidi.”
Dilshad took the sketch. “I would say you are all out of your minds, if I did not also have a memory for faces. But what is Khalidi’s face doing on this transmission.”
“Shall I cite precedents?” Khaki had taken a seat and was eating a piece of Amber’s coffee cake. He sipped tea from the cup.
“What did you say, Khaki?” asked Dilshad.
“Do you want me to quote historical precedents for double-agents posing as other individuals? Plastic surgery is no longer just a science, you know it. In the west, it’s an art.”
“Then so what?” said Dilshad.
“Well,” said Khaki as he picked some crumbs from his shirt. “If I were inserting a man into your military environment, I’d double him as one of your officers Of course I’d have to eliminate the original one.”
“Anita,” Dilshad yelled. The girl came hurriedly out of the dining room. “Drop whatever you are doing. I need a photograph. Take my car and go to the office.”
“Wait,” said Sahel. “Change that, Anita. Stay away from HQ. Go to PID, the Press Information Department. Tell them, he is being promoted or something. Don’t use your ID unless you have to, and get it back here in half an hour.”
“Major Azeem Khalidi,” said Anita.
She quickly stepped out of the door.
“I’ll get a team to Khalidi,” said Farhat and he made for his radio.
“Yes,” said Dilshad.
“No, wait.” Sahel gripped Dilshad’s arm and shot him a look. “Farhat we can’t risk that yet. We might blow it. Let’s wait till we transmit Tehran our own picture for confirmation.”
“I can’t wait on this, Sahel,” said Farhat.
“Please just for a while. But in the meantime you can have your office check Khalidi’s recent movements, If he’s been anywhere outside the country, just in case.”
“Okay,” Farhat relented.
Dilshad gave Sahel a quizzical look. Sahel just put his right hand’s first finger on the mouth, a Pakistani gesture that demands patience.
During the next half hour, over a packet of cigarettes died and a litre of coffee was consumed, nothing of significance transpired.
Before Anita returned, Shaista made her first appearance since her linking with the intercept transcripts. She limped slowly for her arthritis was flaring and her lungs were as black as a coal miner’s. She was holding a single sheet of computer print.
“Well,” she croaked. “There is only one piece of any interest.” Then she looked at the round table, the cups and saucers. “What’s the matter? You can’t bring an old lady something to eat?”
“Yes, darling you can have anything you need to fill your tummy, but what do you have in your hand.” Dilshad said smilingly.
“It’s one item of some interest, a pickup from the Central Asia station. It was an intercept of a telephonic request to Radio Kogon, in Russian.
“What?” Sahel tried to be patient.
“A Mr Dimitrov requested that station to broadcast a Christmas song on three morning running. The song was ‘Baby, please come home, merry Christmas.’”
“So what’s so strange about that?” Farhat asked.
“It’s not even September yet, you policeman.” Shaista added as if she had spotted a cockroach.
On hearing the song title in English, Jahangir rose from his seat and came over to the table. “May I ask something?” he said.
“It’s a wild card, as you might call it,” Dilshad told him. “Possibly a coded message, a song called ‘Baby, please come home, merry Christmas.’”
“I could send someone to the American Cultural Centre to get a copy of the song,” said Shahzad.
“No need,” Khaki overheard and said. “I can just bring the whole song for you in five minutes. I’ve heard it on YouTube.”
“Put it on the CD and play, said Sahel. “And Jahangir, you please listen the whole song and put it in writing. See what you can do with it? You may take help of Khaki.”
“Yes, I’ll do it,” Jahangir responded.
There was a soft knock on the door. Dilshad rose and extinguished the lights while everyone else froze. Sahel checked the peep-hole and admitted Anita, then flipped the lights back on. She proudly handed over a coloured glossy of Major Azeem Khalidi. Dilshad glanced for a while and yelled at Khaki.
“Khaki just ran it to Tehran before it is too late.”
“Just the face,” Dilshad continued, “cover the uniform.”
Jahangir appeared with a hand written paper of lyrics ‘Baby, please come home, merry Christmas.’ “I got this and now will try to break the possible cipher.
Jahangir’s telephone rang. He answered it, listened for a while then covered the mouthpiece and spoke to Dilshad.
“It’s my man in Washington, we duped the Frogs, but they really don’t have anything. However, our Satellite station does have one item of possible interest, but they can’t give it to us on an open line.”
Dilshad thought for a moment. “Can he telex?”
“Hold on,” Jahangir turned back to the phone. “Can you telex it? Come on Danny, just give it to me in a simple One-Time. I don’t know; use your imagination for God’s sake.”
Dilshad waved his fingers and Tariq wrote his GRID modem number on a pad and handed it over to Jahangir.
“Yeah, now you’re cooking’!” Jahangir said into his phone; then he recited the number for his co-worker in Washington. “Encode it and send.”
Tariq switched back to his telex software and after fifteen long minutes a paragraph of garbage appeared on the screen. Jahangir was pacing next to Tariq’s computer.
“All right,” said the American. “It’s like this. My boy says, ‘Back up the value of the last digit of Twin Tower year’. That was 2001, so take each letter and back through the alphabet by a value of five.”
Tariq saved the strange phrase on the computer and loaded a word processing program. Then he pulled the enciphered message and began its processing as told by Jahangir.
After a few minutes, he came out with a printout. Jahangir smiled as he read the decoded transmission aloud.
“HI NICK, THIS IS FUCKING RECENT INTERCEPT OUR STATION A PHONE CALL TO MOTHER. Call Initiator, Major Boris Yaakov, Recipient Colonel I. Mikhail of ES. QUOTE ‘HE CAN’T LAST LONG WITH THAT FACE THEY WILL EITHER PROMOTE HIM OR KILL HIM’ END OF SHAREABLE INFO. GOOD DAY.”
Jahangir lowered his paper, Dilshad and Sahel stared at each other.
Farhat responded to the crackle of his radio and picked up the handset. He signed off and spoke to the room.
“Major Khalidi has not been out of country in last six months.”
Khaki appeared and put his right hand on the round table. He was holding a piece of paper.
“Tehran police responds to our communication. They have seen the photograph and confirm that’s him. That’s the killer.”
It wasn’t easy task convincing Farhat to leave Major Khalidi alone until something emerged to lead them for his pickup. The NSS agent didn’t believe that Khalidi was a double or a mole, but he wanted to pick him up for questioning, just the same.
Dilshad and Sahel delayed him for a break of ten minutes. Dilshad, Sahel and Shahzad gathered in Sahel’s study room where they conferred quietly in the silence of post-midnight Islamabad. Then they asked Farhat to join them.
Another round of coffee and cigarettes was taken up and after long debate they finally agreed that Farhat woulde do nothing about Khalidi until 0900 morning at which he would be free to act as he deemed fit. In the meantime they asked Farhat to accomplish another difficult task.
Dilshad explained that a prisoner in Shore-Eye might still hold the key to the Razmak case. He wanted Falkshair Khan transferred to Islamabad and only a NSS man of Farhat rank could affect such transfer and he would have to do so in person.
Farhat reluctantly agreed not bothering to cover his doubt. “This had better not be a wild-goose chase,” he said as he packed up his communication set.
“I promise, I would invite you when the goose is cooked,” said Dilshad.
As no more important task was left or forthcoming from any quarter, Dilshad ordered one and all to work on ‘Baby, please come home, happy Christmas.’
They did so until 0200 A.M and everyone was thoroughly drained. They produced a lot of phrases out of its lyrics but nothing of operational value.
Finally Dilshad gathered them all together in the lounge.
“Well,” he said. “Good work. Wrap it up and sweep it. Don’t leave a scrap. Go home, get some sleep and keep your mouths shut, ear open and mind working.”
One by one the analysts and agents left the apartment. Jahangir shook hands all around. He was promised a discreet post-operation debriefing by Dilshad.
Shahzad was the last to leave. In the doorway he turned and said to Dilshad and Sahel.
“What you guys are up to now?”
“A few hours rest, we hope,” Sahel answered.
“Sure,” Shahzad smiled over his pipe and left.
Alone now in the apartment, except for Amber, who had slept peacefully through the entire rumpus, Dilshad and Sahel put up a fresh pot of coffee.
Sleep was a luxury they would have to abandon.
It was just another late summer morning in Islamabad; the air was still cool and moist with the early morning brief rain shower. The sun was peeping behind the small clouds on the violet sky paling to blue. The branches of the trees were heavy with dew-dampened leaves and dancing starlings. However beginning of autumn could easily be witnessed with the fallen yellow leaves on the streets.
In the eastern hilltop suburb of Rawal dam, Major Azeem Khalidi stepped out of his small old-fashioned stone house, he was wearing a crisply iron dress uniform, his black combat boots highly polished and his Carrera perched on his nose to his straight brownish black hair. The Islamabad summer had brought out freckles on both sides of his jaws and the stretched tissue of the curved scar below his left eye was a souvenir of near fatal jeep accident.
Khalidi carried the usual pile of rolled-up maps under his left arm and with his right hand he cheerily swung the leather brief case that never left his side. He stopped as he often did to take in the fresh scent of Askari Villa’s red roses. Then once more thanking his lucky stars for his career growth opened his small wooden alleyway gate and strode toward his parked Suzuki Liana.
Khalidi stopped short as two men emerged from another parked car and blocked his way. They were both in civilian clothes. He could not see their eyes for their sunglasses, but they were polite as they showed him their ID cards designating them as NSS Field Security officers.
One of them asked him to confirm that he was Major Azeem Khalidi from Planning and Logistics. Khalidi produced his own ID and the two men asked him that they had been instructed to escort him immediately to NSS HQ. When Khalidi asked the reasons for the summons, the men replied in a typical fashion, “This is a matter of national security,” and they produced a typewritten order from the Commandant.
Khalidi wanted to take his own car. The officers politely declined his request and he reluctantly joined them in their vehicle which promptly sped off out of parking lot of the Askari Villas. Yet the car made left turn on the main Highway instead of right, which should have been evident enough…
The men were not simple Field Security officers and Azeem Khalidi was certainly not headed for Islamabad.
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