Late night 5th of September
The hammering of the brass lion’s-head knocker was violent and nonstop, yet it didn’t cause Major Dilshad Hussain to go crouching through the darkened rooms of his house in Askari Villas. He was not ready to play commando in his own house. But he had to answer the door with a pistol.
He threw on the lights and came swinging drowsily through the TV lounge, his leather slippers crashing on the cold tiles, one hand holding his cotton pyjama’s strings over his hairy belly, the other hand holding a Colt .45 automatic in a flimsy manner. He called Nazir his batman through the Kitchen’s window but got no response. Dilshad knew he had been so bad in his sleep so he gave up calling him. He cursed as he reached the big wooden door. He was not worried about disturbing the neighbours. Dilshad had owned this big villa and it stood distinguished in a row of Askari Villas because of birds and animals his wife used to pet. Since they had no child, Sughra having a background of village life had developed her interest in birds and animals and the added benefit was that Dilshad enjoyed fresh eggs and milk from his home dairy.
Sughra had already been awakened by the noise. The banging had stopped. “Who the hell is it?” Dilshad growled and yelled again for Nazir.
“Sir, this is Sahel.”
Dilshad turned the knob and half opened the door. Sahel entered the room hurriedly by pushing back the door with his shoulder. The breathless captain quickly recovered as he stopped short and turned to Dilshad.
“Dilshad,” Sahel rasped as if he had just run a kilometre. “It worked.”
“Take it easy, Sahel.”
“Where is Falkshair?”
“He is back.” Sahel waved the question off with his hand. His face was flushed and he reached down to rub his knee “in his cell.”
“You took him yourself,” asked Dilshad.
“For God’s sake, yes I took him myself.”
“Good,” Dilshad pointed Sahel toward a large couch unconsciously using the barrel of his .45. “Now sit and calm down, and tell me.”
Sahel walked over to the couch but he could not sit. He was about to explode.
“Kon Aya hey?” Sughra came into the room, rubbing her eyes to the light and smoothing her hair with a hand. She was wearing a craggy blue printed Shalwar Qameez. She looked like a villager yet her features proclaimed once she was pretty enough to be Dilshad’s wife.
“Sahel needs a cup of coffee, Sughra.” Dilshad’s tone was apologetic, sometime his co-workers never heard. “Would you mind please?”
“Yes, of course,” she said and as she walked past the two men she reached up and patted Sahel on his head. “Poor boy.”
“Now,” Dilshad lumbered over to Sahel and pushed him down onto the couch. “Sit.” He placed the .45 on the glass top of coffee table carefully not to make a scratch. “Tell me, now,” he fell into a large armchair.
Two coffee mugs appeared in front of them in a tray. Both took the mugs gulped big sips and put the mugs on the coffee table.
“Thank you,” Dilshad looked up at Sughra.
“No mention. I’m going back to bed.” She waved and disappeared. She was no stranger to midnight callers.
“I took him all the way home,” Sahel said. “He was already talking, he started before we got there, but I think his mother was the last straw.”
“Good,” said Dilshad.
“Dilshad,” Sahel looked at him carefully. He did not want to miss his reaction to compare it with his own. “The man killed at City Centre was his brother.”
Dilshad’s eyebrows mounted. “Falkshair’s brother?”
“Razmak’s brother. The Uzbeks killed Razmak Bilal’s brother.”
It took a moment and then Dilshad’s expression changed, the realization turned his face white. He lifted his face and leaned back into the chair yet he did not shout just whispered, “Oh, my God.”
Sahel kept quiet. He just waited and watched Dilshad’s brain working.
“Muhammad Zahir?” Dilshad was barely audible as he looked Sahel.
“Yes, but not Muhammad Zahir. It was Zahir Bilal with the nick name of Gulo.”
Dilshad stood up out of the chair. He paced holding his Pyjama with one hand, his face with the other. “Is that true?” he asked himself, scoring records in his memory, trying to put it together. “Was there a Zahir Bilal or Gulo in his file.”
“Just a dead one,” said Sahel. “But he was not dead until Uzbeks killed him. And unfortunately Razmak and his cell think we did it.”
“Yes, Dilshad,” said Sahel. “In fact this is the point where from the antagonism turns against us. They think we killed Gulo, whereas Uzbeks played a double edge sword. They killed Gulo at that point when we tried to arrest him mistakenly instead of Razmak and on the other hand they made believe Razmak by supporting him in that fiasco that we had killed Gulo and achieved their objective.
Dilshad paced some more still reviewing history, comparing events and reaching for conclusions. Finally he faced Sahel from across the table.
“Yes,” he said. It makes sense. It explains everything.
“Yes, said Sahel.
“But it could be a bluff?”
Dilshad moved back to the chair and sat down. He looked at Sahel anxiously like a puzzle master waiting for the answer.
“What else, did he tell you?”
Now Sahel got up from the chair and began to pace, He drained the remaining coffee. “Forget about the brother now and consider the rest. Razmak had been in Russia. They probably had his face changed, set him for the penetration.”
“Yes, the penetration? Its big question?” said Dilshad.
“Yes,” said Sahel and kept on paced. He lit a cigarette and concentrated. He was very tired and just functioning on his reserves. “Falkshair does not know everything. They had good compartmentalization. But he can guess Razmak had something in his mind and might be using his old mules or sleepers for Ace of Spade, a piece of Razmak’s old network.
“And what are they doing?” Dilshad asked.
“He was not sure, exactly but that could be some parts of weapon.”
“A bomb?” Dilshad voice dropped into a whisper.
“I don’t know.”
Sahel stopped and frowned at the Major. “You have been reading too much fiction I suppose.”
“I never read fiction.” Dilshad snapped.
“Not a bomb necessarily,” said Sahel. “Probably some personal weapon or a launcher of some sort.”
“So then what’s the target?” Dilshad got up from the chair again. He turned his face and tried to knot the drawstrings of his trouser. He began to utter, “What’s the target? What’s the target? May be a vehicle, aeroplane, or some facility,” he was talking to himself. “What the hell’s the target?” he began to massage his bald head.
“You have already said something.” Sahel interrupted.
“What have I said?”
“A vehicle or an aeroplane.”
“That means nothing.”
“Unless someone is inside.”
“Who is inside?”
“Dilshad,” Sahel said. “Falkshair thinks that someone big? Assassination of someone Big?”
Dilshad stopped moving. So Ace of Spade may be a mission for assassination of someone big? He looked at Sahel. Then he shouted. “Sughra!
From somewhere above a pair of heavy feet hit the floor and a voice sounded “Kia Hey?”
“Get me my clothes!” Dilshad yelled again as he marched toward a telephone that sat on a corner wooden table.
The instrument was strangely modern for Dilshad’s taste. Tadiran scrambler. He quickly dialed the number to the night desk of the National Security Services.
“Get me Major Farhat,” he snapped. Dilshad listened for a moment and again said “Ok, then find him and patch me in. This is Major Dilshad Hussain from NSB. Be quick.”
Dilshad hung up the phone. He turned to Sahel and waved for a cigarette. Sahel lit a cigarette for him and handed over to Dilshad who puffed it deeply. “Are you sure Sahel about this?”
“Of course, not,” said Sahel “but this is what Falkshair said and I told you.”
“He could be bluffing you.”
“Very possible, but I don’t think so.”
The telephone banged. Dilshad picked it up quickly as someone came on the line. The voice was very clear unlike normal scramblers.
“Farhat, said Dilshad. “ Sahel has broken the prisoner… yes, yes I said you Sahel. No, he has not damaged him.” Dilshad rolled his eyes. “Now listen, we have an emergency over here.”
Dilshad quickly explained the operation about Ace of Spade and what else Sahel had told him about the unknown weapon and target. After a brief conversation both agreed that Razmak target is not less than a top man. Farhat told Dilshad Foreign Minister is in London for meeting with English Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is in a conference somewhere in Europe with World Economic Forum. Only the President is over here and tomorrow is 6th September. He is going to inaugurate the ceremony at Jinnah Avenue at 10 AM. They talked for another minute and finally agreed to go to full alert. He terminated the conversation so he could begin issuing orders and Dilshad hung up.
Farhat says we have to assume that the target is President,” said Dilshad. Sughra came down holding two hangers in one hand, his trouser and shirt and pair of shoes and socks. All perfectly ironed, Dilshad smiled at her briefly and then began to dress. As he spoke, his wife stood there with a flat expression on her face. “He is pretty sure that he can get the man to postpone all his activities for next full week except for one, tomorrow morning.
“Why not this one?” Sahel demanded. He felt an overwhelming surge of panic with anger. They have done everything they could, solved the puzzle, broken the codes proved their points and got every bit of information he could from Falkshair personally. What else they want from us? It was as if he was tied to the responsibility for Razmak Bilal’s actions and no one would allow him to rest. He wanted desperately to sit back now and watch while the big boys took over. Yet even the president did not allow it. “The crazy might doesn’t have to be there,” he exploded. “He can send anybody there, Chairman JSC or his wife or someone other. For God’s sake, He can just stay at home for once.”
Dilshad forcefully tightened the belt of his trouser on his waist and then bent to tie the laces of his shoes and straightened up with a sigh. He smiled at Sughra and said to Sahel “No he can’t. This time he has invited several top diplomats to witness the Defense Day Parade.
“Oh my God,” Sahel slapped himself on the forehead.
The secure line banged. Dilshad picked it up. “Yes… speak.”
He listened for a while. “It’s Tariq,” he looked at Sahel. “Ok I’ll be there in fifteen minutes” and hung up.
“What now?” Sahel asked.
“I don’t know,” said Dilshad. “But he was very excited and when Tariq gets excited, you never know what comes out.” He smiled and lifted his pistol from the glass table and stuffed the holster into his hip. “Let’s go.”
“No wait, I can’t go.” Sahel suddenly had on a look of indecision. “Amber, she must be going crazy.”
Dilshad stopped at the door. “Call her,” he said.
“Call her?” Sahel snapped. There is total maniac outburst over here in the town and I call her.”
Dilshad thought for a moment. Then he went back to the secure line and called in to Headquarter. He got into security details and ordered two armed gunner over to Sahel’s residence immediately.
“She has my gun.” Sahel said.
“And make sure that someone she knows tell her about security guards. Ask Anita to call her about guards.” He issued the instructions on the phone and hung up. He made to leave, but Sahel seemed frozen to the floor. His face was drawn and suddenly sad.
“Now what?” Dilshad asked.
“I have to talk to her.”
Dilshad looked at him and then he turned to Sughra and said “I’ll wait in the car.”
Sughra touched Sahel on his arm and took him into her bed room to private phone while Dilshad went out from the front door.
Sahel looked at the phone. He reached for it hesitated for a moment and then picked it up and dialled the number.
“Honey, it me,” he whispered in the phone as she picked up the line. She was crying and worried about him. He tried his best to soothe her with guilt as he was feeling. He promised her soon this would be over and they would together take their vacations and rest.
She said nothing.
He told her about the two security men and she would be safe there and they would watch and take care of you.
“And who would be taking care of you?” she asked.
There was no answer to this question, at least none that would share her fears.
The midnight security shift was on duty at SpecOp Jacob compound. Dilshad parked the car carefully in a corner. The day time guards had been replaced by some new stiff backed recruits who examined every detail of their ID cards and checked in a swap machine and it took Sahel and Dilshad too long to get through the main entrance. As they reached the second floor Sahel was surprised to see Sajid manning the post. The young man was sullen, hands folded on the desktop, eyes dark with fatigue.
“What happened?” Sahel asked as he flushed his ID. “I thought you were promoted?”
“I was,” said Sajid with disgust, “until you lost those two idiots last time.”
“But you were even there.”
“That’s what the commander said. I should have been there.”
“But he didn’t send you.”
Sajid smiled weakly. “Are you talking about logic, Sahel? Or about Colonel Zawri?
Sahel patted the poor young man on his shoulder. “Sorry Sajid.”
It seems like as long as you’re here. I’m buried.”
“Believe me I am trying to quit,” Sahel said as if talking about his cigarette habit.
“I suppose the commander wants to see us,” Dilshad asked.
“He is not here, neither is Qadri or anyone else at this moment.”
A motion from down the darkened hallway caught Sahel’s eye and he looked up. Tariq was standing outside of Communications waving them on madly.
Sahel and Dilshad passed through the post hurrying along to see Tariq. Except for the clacking of the telex and printers the floor was empty and silent. They reached Tariq and he motioned them to follow disappearing into the empty personnel office like some playful animated character in a fairy tale.
“What the hell’s going on Tariq?” Dilshad demanded as soon as he entered in the empty room.
“We have him,” Tariq whispered it out quickly unable to stand to it.
Sahel stood dead still, just looking at the analyst as the young man shifted excitedly from one foot to the other.
“What’s that? Dilshad said as if he had not heard anything.
“We have him! We have picked up Razmak Bilal!”
“Where?” Sahel said in a gasp. He did not believe it. “How?” he wanted to hear more “Where is he?” He grabbed the Tariq’s arm even realizing it.
“They got him in Islamabad tonight on the street.” Tariq was talking very quickly now, afraid that Sahel might force him if he didn’t get it out fast enough. Zawri set it out with Qadri. They used Roshna Saleem as bait and they got him.
“Where?” Dilshad grabbed Tariq’s arm.
“Now at PC they have started the interrogation.” Tariq squeezed his eyes and said.
All at once he stopped babbling. He opened his eyes, his arm hurt and he was alone. The door swung on its hinges while Dilshad and Sahel ran pounding their footfalls down the hallway. Tariq backed up and throw himself in a chair. “I’ve got to find another job now.” He sighed.
Pak Complex was never dark. It was Central Headquarters of the NSB yet among forces and agencies it was called as PC. It had several offices including NSB and NSS central offices. There were always vehicles and personnel passing through the main concrete entrance with huge Iron Gate. It had always reminded Sahel lot of a big Film Studio of decades earlier as the atmosphere changed radically from block to block. There were buildings of every size shape and period, stone, concrete, mosque tombs, British style barracks, wooden huts and towering steel and glass communication towers. Military vehicles from every service clotted the narrow streets inside and civilian cars with the green plates nestled up on the sidewalks. Men and women hurried to and fro, wearing army, air force and navel uniforms. There were bustling canteens on every other corner. All the high officials had their camp-offices here, including the Prime Minister, Defence Minister, Chairman JSCs and COAS. All the major intelligence agencies had acquired various buildings for their committee meetings, action planning, and security screening and high profile investigations in the various basements.
It took Dilshad and Sahel less than twenty minutes to speed down from Jacob Compound. Once through PC, they drove directly down the hill taking a right at the end that held the NSB facility. They parked the car next to a small mosque and a low building that NSB usually used for interviewing and polygraph tests of new recruits and the occasional suspect spies.
“Major Dilshad Hussain,” Dilshad said and flashed his ID at an armed sergeant blocking entrance to a pair of double doors.
“Captain Sahel Farhaj,” Sahel flashed his own ID across Dilshad’s shoulder. The sergeant swapped the IDs one after one in a small machine held at the table that buzzed a beep sound and opened one of the doors. He nodded his head in a salute manner and pulled himself back and allowed them to enter. They entered a big briefing room. It was lit like an evening in clouds as a small bulb was hanging over in the middle. No one sat in the chairs, as all of those present were crowded together near the two-way panel erected through the interrogation chamber.
Colonel AK Zawri stood in the middle of the group towering above the rest of the men. He had one foot above a chair, but his excitement was obvious from the gestures of his body. The other men about six in all were field rank officers from his department. They were all wearing civilian clothes except for one who was a short muscular general who was DCS of NSB. Qadri was also there pacing back and forth coming to tiptoes to see over everyone’s head and then back at his boots smiling to himself in utter self confidence.
As Sahel and Dilshad walked forward, Sahel griped Dilshad’s arm. He squeezed hard to steady him. Sahel felt his heart rising into his throat. He did not care who had captured Razmak and his fury over the Roshna Saleem’s safety was all but gone now for none of it would matter if what he was about to see were real. At last it would be over. Over forever.
The small interrogation chamber was lit like a bright day. At its centre a steel chair was welded to the floor. Two young men stood well back from the chair, with their arms folded on the chests. In the chair sat a man with cuffed his arms to the armrests and his ankles shackled with the steel legs, the T-shirt was torn open from his chest. The prisoner was silent. He was tall even though he was sitting. His posture was erect. He was well dressed in a jean and shirt with an overall which was torn at his shoulder. Sahel squinted. Yes, there was a scar a curved red beneath his left eye. Yet the actual eye colour it was hard to make out.
There was a small speaker on the wall of the briefing room and suddenly Zawri’s voice came into it.
“I ask you finally, what’s your name? But the prisoner remained silent. He did not even move. Then something clicked in Sahel’s mind. Yes the prisoner had all the obvious physical marks, the correct colour and face and his hair, but he had a single glaring expression on his face that Razmak would never ever had displayed. This man looked frightened. And those eyes.
“No, he is not. He started out of the room knocking over a chair.
“Sahel,” Dilshad called out behind him.
“He is not.” He turned left and found the recessed door to the interrogation chamber. He flipped the handle down and walked in, ignoring Zawri’s startled reaction as he paced forward straight for the prisoner’s chair. Before anyone could react, he reached to the back of prisoner and grabbed his hair with his right hand and pulled his face back upward as if prisoner was staring on the ceiling. The grip was so hard that prisoner once screamed out. One of the guards and Zawri yelled simultaneously.
“What the hell you are doing.” Sahel didn’t heed to them. He looked directly into prisoner’s eyes for a while. He then suddenly left the prisoner’s hair, motioned his both hands in a clapped manner and hit his palms at prisoner’s fringes with full strength. Prisoner screamed again and pair of lenses came out of his eyes and fell onto the floor in front of the Zawri’s footsteps.
“It’s not him.” Sahel straightened up waving his arms to break free. “Look now.” Sahel stared directly into Zawri’s eyes.
“Zawri took the pair of lenses from the floor silently. Everybody was stunned in the chamber.
“And the scar is plastic spirit-gum,” Sahel said and paced back from prisoner’s chair.
Dilshad reached into the pileup and grabbed Sahel’s arm. Sahel immediately charged over to the prisoner’s again and this time no one stopped him. The man was slumped in the chair now and breathing hard, his eyes had turned into blood. Sahel reached for his face again. The prisoner pulled his face back. He was really scared like a grabbed mouse in a cage.
“Now tell me, who are you?” Sahel asked him in low voice.
“I’m not Razmak Bilal,” prisoner gasped his breath and gained some confidence.
Sahel turned his head to the crowd and asked. “Where is Roshna?”
No one in the room spoke. They all stood there staring at Sahel like dumbfounded schoolboys caught at the mischief by their teacher. No one answered him.
Qadri turned away. The prisoner looked up at him and smile.
A sound like a keening father sprang from Sahel’s throat. He launched himself toward the door splitting the crowd racing from the building with Dilshad and an entire entourage of agents finding for their car keys in their pockets as they shouted worthless orders to each other.
Roshna Saleem was dead.
By the time Sahel reached her place where HQ was keeping her in Islamabad, Zawri had already radioed his orders to National Security Services to investigate. The NSS men were waiting in a small bunch on the landing in front of the open door and he could tell by their faces.
Dilshad stopped tried to stop Sahel from going in, but he could not obstruct him looking his red face.
The apartment was a mess. Turned centre table legs up, broken glasses. The cushions were thrown from the sofas. One of door to the bedroom was off at its hinges; a mirror was broken through by face or fist. She had not been an easy kill. A corpse was covered on the bed leaving her only naked small feet pointed at the ceiling. He felt two hands on his shoulders. He felt weakness halted him.
“Let me do it,” Dilshad whispered. He walked past him into the bedroom. Sahel struggled to hold him together, his body quivering from head to foot as he watched Dilshad to see her face.
Among the gathered mourners, only Sahel knew that she always kept a short commando blade tucked between her mattresses. At least she had wounded her murderer.
They were almost in the hallway when Sahel suddenly stopped. He rushed back in the apartment. Dilshad followed, concerned about him. But Sahel did not go the bedroom. He looked around and found the telephone set fallen in a corner with its cradle apart. He picked up the cradle and tried to hear, yet it was silent.
He rested the cradle onto the set and then again picked it up, there came a dial tone. With his shaking hands he hardly tried to remember his own number.
It rang and rang again. He waited for Amber to pick up. He dialled again and waited for complete eight ringing tone to come.
There was no answer.
Defence Day 6th September
Jinnah Avenue was certainly a grand Avenue of Islamabad. It started from F-10 southern part as per Islamabad’s city plan and ended at National Assembly building another grand house of representatives from across the country. Plenty of governmental buildings were scattered around its end. From a view vision of a photographer it might have an excellent scene once someone stopped ahead of its last intersection at Blue Area. Many high rise buildings signify corporate sector and banking and commercial shopping plazas.
The 6th September. The day has its own significance when a ceremony of Defence day is celebrated and exhibited at Jinnah venue to boost the morale of the forces and citizens. There were representations from all over the country, forces arms display, provincial cultural floats, and student’s activities and so on. Music and Milli Naghme from the top most pop singers and March past of forces always had an eye catching phenomenon. Thousands of people used to witness the celebrations in person and millions on TV relay while President and other top most military officials take salute from the forces. A stage had been set on the north-eastern part at the tail of the road where hundreds of chairs set for the foreign delegates and diplomats as well.
There were similar celebrations set in every major city of Pakistan. It was run and subsidized by the Pakistani Soldiers, their Units and Civilian authorities together to make it dignified gala of the day in remembrance of the Defence day of 1965.
Colonel AK Zawri could well have held his briefing at PC. However, he argued well that none of these facilities and open ceremonial activities was completely secure. His mission was ultra secret and there would be no way to prohibit the curious observer. He needed a complete faultless plan to watch the crowd of high rise buildings around the festive area.
Throughout the late night, staff cars had been entering the long drive off the Jinnah Avenue quietly discharging their passengers then parking in the lot next to the large stone pyramid behind the stage set for the President to address the nation. At each entrance and exit NSS men in civilian dress barred access for the unwanted personnel. From eight in the morning the invited guest including men and women of various services were supposed to have their seats carefully selected to witness the National Salute and Presidential Address at around 10 pm in the morning. Most of the agencies men arrived in civilian clothes and took their carefully allocated seats among the families and diplomats.
Sahel had managed to snatch a few hours’ sleep in one of the vacated suites at Pak Complex. With his brain racing as it was he certainly had no desire for drowse but his body had finally rebelled and Dilshad had practically taken him into the building for a few hours sleep. Now two full mugs of coffee and an egg sandwich he stood with Dilshad just behind the presidential stage set.
Dilshad and Sahel smoked their cigarettes, watching the officers, diplomats, families as they entered the sitting place on the both sides of the stage like extended wings of the aeroplane.
Now on the other end, for Sahel it was the first public appearance for the sake of the country especially on the defence day if something went wrong that would have been a disaster for NSB and other fellow agencies who sacrifice their every bit of strength to uphold the dignity of the forces and the country.
Zawri, though wrong at every turn about Razmak Bilal and his objectives, had now altered his mind. He had now dropped the entire operation on Sahel’s lap. Numbed as he was by recent events, Sahel felt the weight of the responsibility, yet he was unscathed by the cruelty of Zawri’s imposition of the assignment. They were all of them either dead or under round-the-clock protective custody.
“Do you think she is really safe?” said Sahel as he squinted down the long decorated lawns just opposite the stage across the road where citizens had already occupied their places to witness the show. He watched Major Shahzad coming through the security gate installed at the far end of the stage followed by Tariq who hurried after him like a reluctant pet.
“Of course, she is safe,” Dilshad replied. “Zawri is too sensitive now, he probably cannot afford anything else than to capture Razmak dead or alive.
“That’s comforting.” Sahel said.
Crazed with worry, Sahel and Dilshad had raced from PC back to Sahel’s apartment. Upon their arrival, they nearly had to fight with the NSS people who did not allow them to enter the apartment. Some quick explanations revealed that Zawri upon realizing his terrible mistake regarding Roshna and Razmak decoy, had dispatched a team directly from NSS to pick up Amber from Sahel’s apartment to a far flung discreet safe house. They had also succeeded Dilshad’s wife to pick up. However the agents assigned to this risky mission had refused to disclose the place where they were keeping the women, much to Dilshad’s delight.
Nevertheless, Sahel was not crazy about the arrangement; Zawri too had refused to reveal Amber’s whereabouts, but at least that retention of professional ethics gave some comforts that she was truly out of danger now.
Major Shahzad walked up to Sahel and Dilshad. He took his dry pipe from his mouth and placed a hand on Sahel’s shoulder.
“I’m very sorry, Sahel,” he said.
Sahel waited a moment until he was sure that he could speak. “I should have made her home in, Shahzad.”
“No one ever made Roshna do anything she didn’t want to do,” said Dilshad.
“You are not a fortune teller, Sahel,” said Shahzad.
“Some educated guesses and some harmful mistakes,” said Tariq. Sahel looked up the tall man.
“Where is Shaista?” asked Dilshad.
“Working with some intercepts,” said Shahzad. “How about Farhat?”
“He is already here?”
Shahzad looked around, back at the entrance. “I think we are the last ones. We waited outside. I didn’t see Qadri?”
“And you won’t see him Insha’Allah anymore,” said Dilshad. “He is probably on his way to Middle East.
Sahel did not join in the satisfaction over Qadri’s demise. He doubted that Zawri had been so kind as to just ship the captain to a field assignment in ME. It was much too pathetic to induce any joy. Qadri had simply echoed the Kabul Fiasco almost step by step believing he was strident at Razmak. He had inherited the curse for nothing.
Dilshad looked at the watch and said. “Let’s go up on the stage.”
“Just one thing, Dilshad,” Sahel looked at him. “Did Shaista do something on Ace of Spade?”
“I didn’t ask her yet. She is still in the Hut and working on it,” said Dilshad.
“Okay when we go inside then I’ll see to it.” Sahel said.
There were about twenty officers inside the stage area. Rather than gathering down front, they were scattered across the rows of seats on both sides of the stage down a few steps. At the back of the head table two air force lieutenants were up on chairs pinning a large flexi billboard cloths bearing three photos of a young army officer, a female air force GD pilot and stout naval officer in full dress uniforms in salute posture. In the left side of the front row chairs on the head table, General Qasim, the Chief of NSB was bending over a long table and examining some materials as he spoke to Zawri. Both of them were wearing their dress uniforms. In any other time the presence of the General would have caused the junior officers to sit bolt upright on their hands, stiff-back and silent. Here taking the advantage of Defence Day every man and woman chattered on.
Shahzad and Tariq had found their chairs on the end of the row. Sahel and Dilshad walked down the rows. Sahel was scanning each and every face carefully. He recognised the chief of the Islamabad Police, then Farhat and a senior ISI officer known only as ‘Paragon.’ Many of the men and women also looked familiar within the agencies.
So this is where we are now, Sahel was relieved to be able to escape from the horrors of history, to lose himself once more in the game at hand.
Dilshad waved to Sahel for the short briefing to the agency men. Sahel stopped at a small group of fellow agencies men standing around the stage and who were chatting carelessly yet their hawked eyes were never ignorant of visitor’s even small gesture and were waiting for Sahel’s short briefing.
“Hey, Sahel,” one of the group thumbed up on him as Sahel reached them. “Do you really think, Razmak is really going to go for the President?”
Sahel looked at him, smiled and waited for a moment. “He probably wants me and Dilshad as well, but we think that’s secondary now.”
“And what type of weapon Razmak carrying?” Another asked.
“I don’t know yet this unidentified weapon we guess may be larger than a small arm and smaller than a tank.” Sahel thoughtfully said.
“How are you sure that he is specifically going to come over here for the President?” Another asked in a frantic manner.
“Because we have come to the conclusion that Razmak will have only one opportunity left during the next two weeks to reach to the President.” Farhat replied who had just entered the circle.
“And that’s today.”
“Yes,” said Sahel gesturing at the bug-eyes Airborne Colonel. “That’s why we are here. The President will arrive by helicopter directly from his residence. He has agreed to wear a ballistic vest.”
“Good, that’ll help,” someone commented.
“Get him to cancel for God’s sake!” someone yelled.
“You get him cancel,” Farhat retorted loudly. “Now listen all of you. Our job is to provide security for whoever needs it, not to send the government into bunkers.”
“All right,” Sahel continued. “Let me tell you one thing more. Before we go on for search, let’s have a look at Razmak’s face. He nodded at Farhat who picked up a small walkie-talkie from someone standing near to him and issued an order.
They waited for a minute or so when three men appeared from behind the stage and all heads turned as Major Azeem Khalidi came in, escorted by two NSS guards. He had spent the last few days locked up in a Safe House under the security of Dilshad’s loyal guards. He looked tired, his uniform rumpled, yet he was clean-shaven and exhibited no annoyance. After all upon his ‘kidnapping’ Dilshad and Sahel had fully briefed him and he had quickly realized the importance of being kept underground.
Colonel AK Zawri on the other hand was shocked to his groin and instantly furious. However he quickly realized that he could not reveal publically his having been duped. He turned straight in his chair when he saw Major Azeem Khalidi came in and stared at Dilshad and Sahel.
Sahel waved Khalidi to join them. The Major walked to them letting Sahel take his elbow.
“So, my friends,” said Sahel. “This is the face that Razmak has now.”
“But he knows that we know.” Someone’s mind worked quickly.
“That’s right,” said Sahel.
“So he will try to change it again,” someone else called it out.
Oh, not,” another said.
“Why don’t we just shoot Khalidi,” one of the Farhat’s NSS man suggested, “Just to avoid confusion.”
“Khalidi smiled and shot him the finger.
“Okay,” Sahel waved his hands. “You are beginning to think like Razmak and that’s what we all have to. Let’s go to the work, but let’s try to do it with some structure, all right, any more question?
“Well, he knows there is a massive manhunt for him,” someone said.
“So he has to try and standoff, using a long shot of some kind.” Another spoke.
“He had not used such type of weapon on the past operations.” Sahel said.
“There is always a first time.”
“Could be a Rocket?” The suggestion was idealistic but seemed practical. Sahel thought for a moment and then turned to Dilshad and looked up on his face to see his expression on this suggestion. Dilshad didn’t show any interest.
“Thank you gentlemen, that’s all from us,” said Sahel to all of them around and picked the elbow of Dilshad and paced toward the security hut behind the stage in the far flung corner of the parking.
Parking was restricted to the VIPs only as on the other end of the grassy plain, a makeshift Helipad was drawn, big H on the grass with white paint. It was the idea of Dilshad to erect a small operational room close to the stage and temporary Helipad in order to keep liaison within the agencies including NSB and NSS. All necessary communication was provided on the instructions of Zawri. General Qasim was also present there just to oversee the operational activities. The security hut was coded as Base-I.
Sahel and Dilshad sat down at the end of the long wooden table. They were joined by Tariq, Farhat, Shahzad and the Airborne Colonel. A navel captain also participated as Company Commander of Navel Commandos. There was going a last minutes meeting to finalize the action plan before the arrival of the President. The nine men pored over maps and photographs made check list and deleted most of the items then began again. In the far corner Shaista sat on a small table with a laptop on it and was working something on the cipher and decode. Sahel directly went to her and whispered in her ears something. She showed several notepads writings and translations so far she had managed to reach on the conclusion about Ace of Spade.
Finally General Qasim mounted at the table. He clapped his hands together until everyone resumed their seats. Sahel hurriedly came back and resumed his seat. Zawri made to join his commander, but Qasim waved him back in his seat.
“All right gentlemen,” said the tall grey haired General. “I have listened to most of yours arguments and suggestions. I believe we have distilled this operation as best we can. The security plan in detail has already briefed to you all. We have to move now quickly so we will assume the following with certainly room for brilliant improvisation, I should hope. I’ll summarise.”
One: most of us agree that this will be a ground-to-ground attempt. Two: Given the security cordon, the most likely attempt may appear the front during President’s address or hoisting of National Flag or National Salute. It is here that most of our forces should be concentrated. Three: We all concur that Razmak Bilal now realizes that his Khalidi gambit is blown, so he must attempt to penetrate us disguised at the exact opposite of our security. The General paused, yet no one raised an objection. This was not out of respect. They simply agreed with him. “And the finally, four:” He turned to Sahel. “Unfortunately for you, Captain, it appears that you have become the world’s best expert on Razmak Bilal. I announce you to command the moment. Take a minute, if you must issue the Order of the Day.” The General stepped back and sat on the chair.
Sahel didn’t need a minute. He had already decided.
“All Right Officers,” he commanded. “These are my orders with a new development made on the Ace of Spade…”
From the dark mountain sky above Islamabad the morning came on slowly. To most Islamabadians, the morning brought a cool welcome relief from the harsh suffocated nights of summer.
High above the peak of the seventeen storeys Scion Hotel the tower of cellular phone antenna mounted on a slab of concrete base was covered with the colourful buntings for the defence day celebrations. All the parapets almost three feet high from the roof were decorated too with posters of different colours displaying soldier’s pictures and flags of Pakistan.
A Garret watch room was locked early that night for the security purposes. There was a soldier working on the roof with his big steel trunk full of posters, flags and bounties and he would finish his work before the presidential address as he had planned to finish it as soon as possible. He brushed sweat from the face by his arm and looked down.
At this eastern edge of the roof the wall dropped fifty meters straight down to the still darkened compound of the Hotel. The wall was all made of green tinted glass and from the opposite side of the road, beautiful high rise Scion Hotel was reflecting as an insignia of the European class.
At the foot of the hotel wall, soldiers and policemen in full battle gear had been placed at ten meters intervals. Most of the lonesome security men were fairly alert, yet they all looked bored.
Two Policemen appeared in the Hotel’s service elevator. One of them was a senior officer and other was a sub-inspector. The officer was listening something on the walkie talkie. They were bound for the roof to take up their positions. They stepped on the roof and looked around. A uniformed soldier was working and fixing flags on the small part of the garret facing the stage set for the celebration on the ground just opposite across the road.
The soldier turned his face and looked on the security men yet his hands kept working with the small iron wire he is fastening with the nail.
“Hey, comrade,” one of the policeman yelled on him. “You need to vacate this roof by now.”
“Yes sir,” said the man. “I’ve already finished. Just a final touch left to the big flag.”
“Okay, do it and disappear,” The officer commanded as always in Pakistani fashion police used to say when they are supposed to exert their authority.
The soldier walked holding the steel wire in his hand towards the other side. He paced past the policemen and suddenly grabbed the neck of one of the policeman and quickly rolled the steel wire around his neck. The other policeman not expecting such an attack pulled back his gun from the shoulder quickly yet the man didn’t give him ample time. Holding the neck with steel wire around it jumped on his feet and kicked the other on his chest to kiss the floor. Under a quick action of Krav-Maga, the soldier cut the carotid artery in one jerk leaving the body on the floor with blood spread all around and reached for the other who was still in shock of the attack and lifting him from the floor. The man passed another full kick on his face and the policeman went in a snooze.
Razmak Bilal took a deep sigh and straightened up on his feet. He dragged both the bodies toward the garret and laid one’s head on the lap of the other policeman like he was resting on the lap. He hung one of the mini-automatic guns at his shoulder and then went back to the trunk.
Razmak really had no time now. He opened the trunk and emptied it from the tools he was carrying as soldier and then pulled a large cloth and there was a complete rocket launcher lying in its bottom. He saw it and smiled.
He took out the launcher from the trunk and looked around for a suitable place to set it on the stand he was carrying in another bag at his shoulder. He pulled the iron stand and fixed it. Finally he removed the two halves of the RPG, screwed them together and laid the weapon back inside the bag. Inserting and arming the rocket would take now only a few minutes.
He poked his head above from the parapet of the roof. To his left down across the road the stage was magnificent. Ahead the wide brick parking was almost filled with official cars. At the far side on the sixth lane road marching band was ready to proceed the moment the President would be seated at the stage. Behind the marching band the glittering long floats of all the provinces were ready to follow the march past.
Sahel tried to think, his brain aching with the strain. All around him there was chaos. Engines at parking hammed, people applauded, rifle butts slammed the salutes and boots hammered off the floor. Yet nothing was happening.
He spun around, his eyes searching the high parapets of the surrounding buildings, straining to see beyond the shapes and shadows. It could not be that he was wrong that it would happen here at all. If his concept was deadly stupidity and Razmak surprised him again accomplished his mission, Sahel could not live with it. He began to squeeze his fingers in his hair praying for glimpse of anything suspected and he then suddenly a thought flashed across his mind and he jerked on his feet.
He had to think, at every turn he had been one step behind Razmak Bilal. Now he had to think like Razmak. If ever he had to become Razmak. He had to out-think himself.
And then he got it. He was wrong. The idea that the president was safe as long as he lived was wrong. No, Razmak wanted Sahel to witness to this final coup, just as he had suffered through the deaths of his comrades. This would be Razmak’s most vengeful blow. The simple killing of his brother’s murderer could wait, maybe until tomorrow, maybe for five more years.
He waved Tariq standing idle at the far corner of the stage. Tariq looked at him and paced toward him.
“Anything?” Tariq asked as he reached close to Sahel.
“Who are looking at those buildings?” Sahel pointed his finger on the Scion Hotel and adjacent buildings across the road.
“Tiger Company, I mean NSS,” said Tariq.
Sahel thought for a moment and paced quickly to the exit. He heard a voice, the crackle of a radio from inside the Base-I. A piece of sentence by General Qasim.
“This is Base-I, Post forty four is not responding. Lion one to check this, over.”
“Roger,” someone replied.
Sahel spun back to Dilshad, his mouth open to shout. Dilshad was not there.
Sahel ran, pulling the walkie-talkie from his waist belt. “Tiger Five, Tiger Five,” he hissed. “This is dagger, come in.” The policeman on the Scion Hotel did not answer.
Sahel was running blind, breathless before he even started, unable to call to NSS men as he passed them, his knee blazing as he crossed the empty road and sprinted up towards the Scion Hotel’s main entrance.
A voice came in his radio “Dagger, I see you at the entrance of post forty four, what’s wrong.” This was Dilshad.
“Post forty four not responding. I’m going up. Make sure post forty four is safely surrounded by Tigers, over.”
“I’m already at post forty four, just entering.”
“Ok, stay there, I’m coming.” Sahel replied and hung up the radio to his belt.
Sahel crossed the grand lobby of the hotel where guests and some of the European couples were enjoying their morning coffee and orange juices. He looked around quickly and saw two NSS men standing at the far end of the lobby. He waved to them and turned to the service elevator. The NSS men came hurriedly to him as he jumped into the elevator holding the door to pause for a moment.
“Now onward, don’t let anybody inside the elevator, I’m Dagger.”
“We know you sir,” one of them replied. “Should we accompany you?”
“No thanks,” ask Lion to catch me on radio.” Sahel pointed the finger to his walkie- talkie and pushed the top floor button.
At the top, the slim door to the roof was open. He poked his head outside. There was nothing at the roof. He looked for Dilshad, hiding his body inside. No sign. He whistled the coded tune that only knew Dilshad. He heard the sharp cough to his left and came out of the elevator corridor. He was standing on the roof. He looked at his left. Dilshad sat there breathing slowly his head back against the wall one hand over his belly. A river of blood ran over his fingers and into his crotch. It was already seeping out from under his trouser across the floor. His suntanned face was as white as a white rose.
He lifted his left hand from beside the leg, slowly as Sahel neared. Dilshad gripped his captain’s arm with his last vestige of power. He opened his mouth and Sahel bent his face to him.
“He is much faster than you Sahel,” Dilshad whispered. “He is here up on the garret roof but you must beat him. You must.”
Sahel tried to speak. He could not. There was no time for it. He pulled his arm away and looked around. He looked down at Dilshad again and dragged him across the wall of garret and made him sit alongside two corpses of the policemen. Sahel then lifted his right foot and placed it on the Dilshad’s shoulder. Dilshad quickly raised his hand and wrapped his fingers around Sahel’s ankle to steady him.
In one swift moment, Sahel launched himself upward slamming his stomach down onto the top of the garret roof. He held on to his pistol, scrabbling with his free hand as he swung his legs rolled over and came to his feet.
Razmak Bilal was waiting. He stood only two meters away; his back to the low edge of the roof at far end of it, the sun crafted his shadow on the floor. He was wearing the dress uniform of paratrooper. The triple bronze bars and silver parachute wing shimmered on his breast. A Khaki cap cocked over his head as if he had been borne to wear it.
Next to Razmak feet lay the wrinkled form of an empty gym bag. Next to that resting on the edge of the parapet a small steel target view adjustable stand with silent black tube of a rocket-propelled launcher gleamed. The ugly warhead was loaded, the cap of the charge removed, the hammer pulled down, ready for the strike down directly at the stage.
Even so it was hard for Sahel to make the mental leap. Razmak looked so much like a Pakistani, his costume perfect, his black army boots placed easily apart so hard to imagine that this was the man who had starred in all of Sahel’s nightmares, so calm, so relaxed, except that he was pointing that snatched automatic gun from the policeman directly at Sahel’s chest.
Sahel was frozen in his half bow, his mouth suddenly dry as sand, his breath like waves of sea, and the pulse pounding in his throat. He stared at the shadowed face, immobile, his eyes blazing like a furnace. Sahel moved slowly up. His eyes on the Razmak’s face, he lowered his pistol toward the roof, wanting to try it anyway, knowing that he’d be blown off the lower roof into Dilshad’s lap if his hand even trembled.
He straightened up now without the weapon turning a bit, facing full to the front, his limbs shivering cursing with blood. From somewhere far below he heard the band playing its favourite tune. He visualized the arrival of the President on the stage. They would never make it. He heard another sound the drone of a distant voice, slightly metallic the speech echoing in the great show.
Unbelievingly, he felt his body moving forward, rebelling against a mind that tried to compel him to stop. Yet Razmak watched him quietly.
“Do not worry, Captain Sahel Farhaj,” the voice said in perfect controlled Urdu. “You will only have to witness the assassination of your President. And then I will end it for you, as you ended it for my brother. Now you drop your gun on the floor.”
Sahel had no way except to comply the orders. He lowered his hand and sat his pistol slowly on the floor.
The automatic gun began to move slowly, its line changing just slightly, he was going to shoot Sahel, not kill him yet, just enough to immobilize him. While then he would step to the stand and use the RPG, blowing them all back into a terrible pledge of tribal revenge. He was going to shoot Sahel in the legs. Yes, in the legs.
“You killed Gulo,” Sahel was amazed that he could find his own voice, harsh and hoarse as it was with terror. “You killed your own brother.” He moved his right foot forward almost dragging it. “You used him like a tethered goat and I was merely an instrument to bring you to the law and you know it very well, Mr Hayat Gul.
He hit the mark. Razmak lifted his head, his eyes narrowing and the rage crawling over his face. For that crucial millisecond, he raised the gun to fire at Sahel’s chest, and Sahel made the only move he could, the only technique he had ever managed to do half-well in Krav-Maga.
He lunged with his left foot, snapped his right hand forward up over catching the gun and side stepping as it exploded next to his face. He yelled as he struck out with his right fist, but Razmak snapped his head over and the punch went wild. He felt a sharp blow to his knee but still he held on to the gun, yet in that split second he knew that he would never complete the move, could never turn the weapon on Razmak and use it. An open hand chopped down into his face as he twisted to the left with all his might, swinging his right hand over toward the automatic, slamming into it, wrenching it from Razmak’s grip as he followed through and hurled it high and away into the air.
For the friction of second pause, they stood empty handed eyes into eyes. But it was no match. Sahel did the unthinkable.
As Razmak’s eyes blinked in disbelief, Sahel yelled Amber’s name, launched himself forward in the air, and gripped his archenemy in a bear hug of hatred that took them both over the edge of the parapet to fall the length of a long hollow scream the seventeen storeys down onto the Scion Hotel forecourt far below…