Ten days later
Sahel’s black Margalla climbed a long stretch of highway towards Islamabad through Rawal Dam Lake road bypassing Bani Gala, its carburettor taking deep breaths of the chilled morning air, its engine seeming to buzz with pleasure for the proper atmosphere of Lake. As the inclinaton steepened, Sahel clutched and jammed the gearshift from forth to third, pushing the accelerator pedal hard to the floor as if a lapse of speed might threaten his joyful mood.
He reached over and rolled down the passenger window to fill the car with the fresh flower’s fragrance spread over both sides of the highway. Then he lit a cigarette, turned on the radio and tuned some FM channel for the morning music. A pop song of Hadiqa Kiyani fairly deafened him and he pounded on the steering wheel with his open palms. A blazing jolt shot through his hands and he quickly jerked them away from the wheel. He laughed and quickly recovered this time using only his fingertips to keep away his palms wounds from the wheel. His hands were bloody, his back ached and his leg throbbed but it did not matter. For after four exhausting and humiliating Krav-Maga lessons, this morning at Shimla House, Sahel had finally beaten Jami.
It was a perfect day to begin his twenty-ninth birthday.
For over two weeks now Jami had been teaching Sahel a single technique—unarmed defence against an armed opponent. Successful execution of the exercise required blinding speed and total psychological commitment. In most other martial art disciplines it would not even have been introduced to a student before his basic defensive moves were perfected. However, as with all Pakistani military techniques practicality overruled patience, formality and aesthetics. More important Jami was sure that if Sahel could successfully disarm him it would be a terrific confidence building.
The basic concept of Krav-Maga was simple—no two brains could act and react simultaneously. There was always a lapse of milliseconds between the offensive move and the defensive countermove. Therefore if you were being threatened with a loaded weapon, you could disarm your aggressor before his brain commanded an accurate pull of the trigger.
However, success demanded days of painful drill.
Sahel’s assignment was simply to strike Jami’s hands with one of his own before the instructor jerked the target out of range. At first Jami allowed his student to make contact a few times with the momentum of his failed attempts. Then Sahel started to learn the technique but still needed lot of perfection which Jami taught him with the painful exercises and repeated drills to smash him onto the sand floor. It took almost a week for Sahel to thwart him by grabbing Jami’s dummy pistol and overcome by smashing him back on the floor. Today he bested him twice and then the exercise was over.
Then they both went for swim and had a huge breakfast in the Shimla House mess.
An angry car horn woke Sahel from his victorious thoughts realising that he was smiling like an idiot and had driven the last ten kilometres without really seeing the road. He swung quickly to the left lane and allowed the white corolla to overtake. Then he shifted again in the right lane downshifted and floored the gas pedal. He had his reflexes back.
Things were going to be different now. Sahel could feel it, knew it in his heart. Nothing had really changed for him in NSB—he was still only an interviewer and might well be until the end of his tenure. But he was changing now. For two weeks he had been working with Jamshaid and returning to HQ battered, bruised and demoralised, yet saying only that it was going fine. He would rather die than admit defeat to Zawri and he had summoned reserves of stubborn determination that he had not needed since he was a paratrooper. Today when he reached HQ he would not declare his victory. But he knew Jami would file a bright report.
Things would be better now with Amber as well. Sahel’s black moods had begun to wear on even his wife’s patient and resilient personality. He would not wonder if their failure to conceive had been directly connected to his frayed nerves and depressive state. Now all that would change. He felt energy and shade of power that would extend into every corner of his world and whatsoever he imagined for himself would be within his reach. He burst forth into the zero point intersection. The sun made the buildings glow bone white behinds the roadside flowers plants in front of the buildings and houses. The birds in the trees were ecstatic with morning breeze and even the most impatient horn stabbing drivers could not break Sahel’s mood.
He was tempted to speed to Islamabad Hospital, find his wife, spin her around and crush a bouquet of roses between them. It was lovely fantasy, yet he was already running late and had to pick up his files and get over to the SEC, Aabpara. His celebration with Amber would have to wait till evening. It would be doubly joyous. He would have his birthday dinner and she would have a new husband. She had told him that she was panning something extra special and that he should not be late.
He drove straight down Khiaban-e-Iqbal, for once not giving damn about the traffic, singing along with the radio as proud as a king returning from conquests abroad.
He nearly bounded into the entrance hall of SpecOp. Sahib Dad looked up from the paper work on his desk and fixed Sahel a serious stare.
“ID please,” this time Sahib Dad was showing real security guts.
Sahel happily produced his card. Apparently his recent lecture about the access regulations had had an effect.
“Thank you, said Sahib Dad. “Password”
“What,” Sahel leaned forward thinking he had misheard.
“Password,” Sahib Dad repeated without changing expression.
Sahel laughed. “What are you kidding? No need to exaggerate.”
“There is a perimeter alert on today.”
Sahel laughed again sure that Sahib Dad was pulling his leg, “Aye, be serious, we are in Islamabad.
“Password please,” said Sahib Dad.
Sahel shrugged, refusing to allow his mood off. He had to think for a moment.
“Rising Sun,” He snapped his fingers as he came up with the answer.
Sahib Dad looked up at the camera and said, “It’s Sahel” and the door clicked.
Sahel entered and before anyone could speak to him he said, “Sahel Farhaj, I have got a briefcase, a sandwich for lunch and I am armed and dangerous.”
He expected the usual snappy retort from the intercom, yet the secondary just opened and he went in.
Sahel still could not exactly fly up the stairs, especially with Jami having abused his body as of late. Sajid was sitting at his desk, though he was not reading. His hands were folded on his desk top.
“Morning Bravo,” said the young man.
“To you too,” said Sahel and he made to walk by.
“ID please,” said Sajid putting up a hand.
Sahel sighed and showed him his card. “Want the password too?”
Sajid shook his head and waved Sahel through.
Zawri must have announced salary cuts, Sahel said to himself as he walked along the corridor. There seemed something strange around the building. Sahel tried to pinpoint the same, then hearing his own footsteps sound on the tiles, he knew. It was very quiet.
He stopped at the canteen and looked in. The counter girl was wiping a table, picking up empty table glasses. Only one table was occupied and the four young people conversing in low whispers were all of Dilshad’s Research Staff. They turned their heads and fell silent as Sahel appeared in the doorway.
“Morning,” Sahel maintained his bright tone. “What’s the occasion?” Dilshad rarely allowed his staff to take a break simultaneously.
Khaki the computer guy almost whispered with his spectacles. “Morning, Sahel. Dilshad left a message for you. Go right up to Zawri office.”
“Okay.” Sahel continued on down the hallway. It can only be good, he said to himself fighting to maintain his mood. Haven’t made a single mistake or opened my mouth in last two weeks. Haven’t even mentioned a closed file, not even to Dilshad? It can only be something good.
Yet all of the signals indicated the negative. He tried whistling as he walked, covering his limp very well now; still he felt like a man who has been summoned to explain his guilt.
No one was in Personnel. He dropped off his briefcase and began to walk faster. The climb to the third floor was painful; the guard waved him through quickly and Sahel stopped outside Zawri’s door and took a moment to collect himself. Deep muffled voices came from inside.
Sahel opened the door and went in. The conversation quickly cooled to a silence. He looked around.
It was his first time in Zawri’s office since they had move to Islamabad and the space was imposing. It was very large more than half the size of the conference room. Abdul Karim’s giant desk sat cater-corner at the northwest end near the windows. It was covered with green surge cloth delicately cut at corners under full table size 12mm glass and surface was filled with files and operation orders. Against the close wall was a long couch, a coffee table and some beautifully cushioned chairs with Victorian style legs. In one corner a glass table overflowed with the medals, shields and honours awarded from time to time personally to NSB and his Commandants. On the one side of the wall there was a polished wood board hanging with the names of the Commandants engraved on it with metallic filling. Zawri’s name was the last one. There were also some framed photographs of AK Zawri with every major politician since Benazir’s first regime. The rest of the wall was covered with huge maps, all mounted on cork and showered with coloured coded pins. There was also a small book shelf in the office with a few hard-bond books, though Colonel never interested in history. He made it.
Colonel himself was sitting on the edge of his desk, his long legs touching the floor. He sipped coffee and stared at Sahel. Dilshad was also in the room, along with Shahzad Ahmad, Major Jahanzaib from Cipher and Intercepts, Seema from Covers and a man named Farhatullah whom Sahel recognised as an officer from NSS. Qadri was also there and Sahel immediately expected him to jump from his seat and try to shoulder him out from the room. But the Captain just sat quietly in his chair. Islamabad was silent in the room.
The way they were looking at him made Sahel’s heart pounding inside. Alarms began to sound in his head; he felt his sore palms going slick and tremble. Dilshad walked to him quickly and put his arm over his shoulders leading him to the couch.
“Sit Sahel,” said Dilshad.
“Is it Amber?” Sahel whispered quickly bracing himself to absorb the horrible reply. He could not bear to have such news broken this way, but he had to know now and he squeezed his eyes shut and listened as Dilshad gripped his arm and said, No, no, it’s not your wife.”
Sahel sat down, instantly relieved, yet still massively fearful. Dilshad sat down next to him.
“Tell him for God’s sake,” said Qadri, snapping up from his chair.
“Shut up,” Shahzad spat at the intolerable officer.
“Farhat, Zawri’s serious voice rose as he addressed the NSS man. “Brief us again, please.”
The dark skinned, muscular NSS officer focused on Sahel, who stared at him like a prisoner waiting for his sentence.
“On Friday night,” Farhat began; Tehran police discovered the body of Captain Rafi Ahmad in a small grocery shop at Fatemi Square shopping market. He had been shot once in the head at point-blank range, along with the proprietor of the shop, who was shot in the heart. The cash register was empty. No witness and the lab report just expected.”
Sahel continued to stare at the NSS man. He did not even blink. He couldn’t move.
“I am sorry,” said Farhat as he dropped his official tone and looked down at his feet. “I understand he was your friend.”
Sahel’s mouth moved, barely releasing a sound.
“What did he say,” Qadri demanded.
“He said,” Dilshad repeated for Qadri “Practically my brother, and if you say one more word in this meeting, I am going to throw you right through this fucking window.”
“Cool down Dilshad,” Zawri’s first ever polite voice came. Then he pointed a finger at his mad-eyed aide, “Qadri,” he warned him as a master warns his guard dog.
Something as cold and as large and as indigestible as an iced bowling ball was sitting in Sahel’s throat. He struggled to control his breathing to quell the rising rage, but it all came rushing back to him as if he were expiring and viewing his entire life in those last moments before the fire dies; Rafi Ahmad racing across and open expanse of training ground, firing his pistol, diving behind cover, reloading, rolling coming up and running again, his hair swept back by the wind over his sunburned face, smiling always smiling, almost laughing with the exertion of the game. Rafi Ahmad plopping himself down on the sand at Hawks-bay beach at Karachi amid a trio of surprised girls, then quickly capturing one for a flirt which if succeeded become true romance otherwise forget smilingly and look for another one like mostly young Pakistani boys do.
He had almost forgotten Faizi Jaffar, not the man himself, no never— but the whys and wherefores of his death in Dubai. After all there was nature and fate and not every bad thing that happened to a soldier could be blamed on his profession. But now Baba Feroz, it all shattered again, the reasoning and the acceptance, it was exploding into his mind like a huge hit being hammered by a steel mallet that only a blind man cannot see and deaf man cannot hear.
“Razmak Bilal.” Sahel said.
No one reacted.
It was as if they were all iced figures. Sahel looked over and realized that Shaista was sitting in the far corner on a hard chair coughing intermittently in a grinding rasp. She was brilliant woman exceptionally a kind of face that would even make a person smile in any grave situation. Sahel wondered what she was doing in the meeting, and then he realized that Zawri might have invited her in case someone needed a motherly shoulder. That was Zawri’s idea of comfort.
“Razmak Bilal,” Sahel repeated the name again, a bit louder pronouncing it slowly and carefully. “Are you all deaf?”
We heard you Sahel, said Major Shahzad, who stood leaning against the windowsill, moving his pipe stem to alternate corners of his mouth.
Qadri groaned in disgust and Dilshad shot him a look. The young captain turned away folding his arms and muttering to himself.
“Ok, Sahel,” said Dilshad squeezing Sahel’s arm.”We are not ready for conclusions yet.”
“Sahel, Zawri tone warmed him. “I called you in here because of your relationship with Captain Rafi Ahmad. The investigation will be conducted by Farhat and his NSS people, with our records for support and that’s all now.
“It’s a mule,” Sahel yelled it so loudly that everyone in the room was shocked. He rose to his feet with a jerk of his body and clapped his hands together and shook them towards ceiling, raising his eyes and praying to God in a trembling voice. “Allah Help them all. It’s a mule! Can’t they see that it’s a mule?” Everyone starred at him as if he had gone mad. Farhat took a step forward in case he might have to restrain Sahel. “It’s big and it’s brown, it has four legs and long tail.” Sahel said wildly. “God help them see it’s a mule.” He smacked his forehead and laughed in an ugly voice. He, then, looked around more calmly, put his hands on his hips and dropped his voice to a controlled, yet still fiery tone.
“Friends, I am not crazy, but you are, if you can’t see this. Two of my men have been killed within one month of each other….”
“They are not your men,” said Zawri.
“Two of my former men,” Sahel contained without pause, “have died violently within short span, with the same histories, same enemies. God a poor policeman could figure it out.”
“You are not here to draw conclusions, Sahel,” said Zawri.
“Someone has to,” Sahel snapped and Zawri rose from his desk like a gathering hurricane.
“Let the man talk,” Farhat said holding out a hand like a traffic constable.
“Are you working with me or against me on this issue, Farhat,” Colonel Zawri demanded.
“I am working for my government,” the NSS man said, implying that Colonel’s self-serving reputation was well known even outside the NSB. “Let him talk.”
Zawri said nothing. Sahel got a cigarette from his pocket. His hands were shaking. Dilshad lit it for him.
“Two men,” Sahel blew out the smoke and began to pace slowly along the wall. “Faizi gets it, and okay, it’s a traffic accident. Fine we all bought that, me too, I swear I did. These things do happen in normal life. “But now Rafi,” his voice really cracked when he took his friend’s name. “But now Rafi becomes a robbery victim?” Unbelievable, are we completely out of our minds? He is so good that the rest of us were always jealous, so fast he would knock you down while you were still thinking about it. His gun had its own eyes, I swear.” Sahel caught himself speaking of his old partner in the present tense and he stopped.
“It’s very suspicious,” Seema croaked through a cloud of smoke.
“Thank you, Seema.” Sahel bowed to her gratefully, “a brave and intelligent woman.”
“And what the hell does this have to do with operation Darkroom?” Zawri demanded. One of the telephones on his desk began to ring. Instead of answering it, the Colonel simply yelled at the top of his lungs. “Rabia, I said no call.” It stopped ringing.
“Razmak Bilal is the prime suspect.” Sahel said simply.
“Nonsense, Razmak is dead issue.”
“Show me any evidence,” Sahel challenged.
“This is simply an obsession with you, Sahel,” Zawri flared. “And I will not tolerate emotionalism.”
“Ok, fine, I am emotional, but have you forgotten the case of Major Fahd, nobody listened to him and finally he became the victim of an unfortunate incident which later proved otherwise. And his whole family left Pakistan in disgust.
“They were insane,” said Qadri feeling safer now to join the challenge against Sahel.
“Oh… my God, am I in India?” said Sahel looking up once again at the ceiling. “God help me.”
“I thought the Razmak file was closed,” said Farhat quizzically “For all the branches.”
“Then, lets, open it,” said Sahel in calm voice. “And face the reality.”
“This meeting is over,” Zawri suddenly moved behind his desk, sat on his chair and began to shuffle some papers. Everyone stared at him but no one moved. He looked up. “I am sorry Captain; it’s a hard thing to take. I know but this is too silly.”
“Why ridiculous,” said Major Shahzad angering Zawri further, who pounded on his desk making his papers bounce and an empty tea glass topple.
“Because of the idea, a dead terrorist coming to life just to take revenge from our team members is considered ridiculous.” He suddenly got up again, which indicated to all that he was failing to convince himself. “And how the hell does this ghost have all of team member’s identities?” Zawri waited was the question and no one responded.
“Answer me,” he shot each one of them a stare. “Are you telling me that we have been penetrated?”
“That’s not impossible,” said Seema.
“It’s probably him,” said Sahel dryly as he jerked a thumb on Qadri. “He tries to veto every good idea, we ever have.”
Qadri flushed bright red under his quite fair complexion. He clinched his fists and stepped forward with a snarl, but Shahzad grabbed him by the sleeve.
“Wait, stop.” Dilshad stepped into the centre of the room holding up his hands like a referee in a match. “Let’s think for a minute, calmly.” Dilshad’s tone quickly suppressed dangerous ego fires that were sparking in the office. He was a master, knowing when to shut up and when to speak his piece. He and Sahel had discussed the Razmak problem before quietly like puzzle masters over an old crossword. He turned to Sahel.
“Okay, Sahel, it’s an excellent question. How would a supposedly resurfaced Razmak know who the individuals were?
They all waited, while Sahel took a deep sigh.
“Ok, listen,” he said as if addressing troops under his command. “Acquiring my team identities is not really that difficult.” He looked over at the NSS agent. “Farhat, you are probably not cleared for this.”
“He is not,” said Zawri without even knowing what Sahel was about to say.
“But you will be, I am sure,” said Sahel. “So just follow along.” He started to pace again. “Baba Feroz, I mean Rafi and I tried to get Razmak in Kabul, but we failed and a wrong man was shot dead before our eyes and presence. You know what that means? In prime facie case we shot him and that story was sold out in the market around the globe.” He had to stop for a moment and breathe. He had never ever said that so loud. “So in Kabul Police record we shot one named Zahir. Then Kabul Police conducted a six month investigations along with the Americans. Maybe someone had made a few snaps from the distance holding our guns on Mr. Zahir like they were watching waiting for our action. Six months of files, photos, reports and all everything I mean paper war that we all did. Since they actually had my man Barat Khan I mean Captain Tanveer —-“
“In prison,” Farhat asked innocently.
“Yes in prison, don’t you remember the scandal?”
“Oh, yeah,” Farhat put his hands in his pockets, feeling silly that he had probed a wound. “Sorry.”
“Since they had Captain Tanveer,” Sahel continued. “They also had got a pile of photos of him, left, right, full face. Now Bano Abagull stayed on, but let’s say because of her closeness in City Centre, her neighbours would have been investigated, so full witness description of her.”
He continued to pace. He could tell by the silence in the room that he was doing well. “Now Faizi Jaffar, I mean John victor had a brief but very significant encounter with the Kabul Police and an ambulance driver. Full description of him. Lieutenant Rati Asma Farooqui, I mean Shabana Mir was stopped at roadblock outside the city at a NATO check post. They let her go, but they were photographing everybody on exit that day.
Dilshad.” Sahel turned to Dilshad. “You rented an office at the Marhaba Complex for two weeks. Do you deny that you are a figure that can be forgotten?”
“No denial,” Dilshad smiled like a teacher watching his best student give lecture.
“And finally, Rafi and I also rented a flat for those weeks. And Kabul airport guards got a long hard look at both of us and our Brit passports at Galaxy Air.” He stopped talking and looked up. He was standing in front of Colonel Farhat from NSS.
“So,” NSS man asked.
“So, routine police work. A good artist, they have our faces. Standard rundown on our abandoned vehicles and flats, and they have got our phony names and a paper trail. They must have got a file as thick as my arm is long. Routine plodding surveillance and they pick us up again.
“Who? Qadri demanded. “The Kabul Police?”
“No, Qadri. Not the Kabul Police,” said Sahel.
“Run it out for us,” said Shahzad.
“Fine,” Sahel turned to the head of Ciphers. “Major Jahanzaib? Would you say that Afghans are penetrated by the Indians?”
“Like anything,” the Middle aged with grey fringes Jahanzaib spoke first time in the meeting.
“And if the Indians are puppets, then who is the puppet master?” Sahel said in leaning voice.
“Great Russia, God Bless her,” Jahanzaib added.
“And despite the persistent rumours of decency claimed by the Russians, they are still in the business.
“But I thought External Services was pulling back on terror support,” said Farhat.
“Directly, yes,” Sahel explained. “But they are still training, still aiding by proxy.”
“No one knows which way the hammer and sickle will fall,” Shahzad said thoughtfully.
“So again, Moscow writes the cheques,” said Seema.
Sahel lifted his hands. He was finished. He moved to the couch and sat, waiting.
“So, Sir,” Sahel addressed directly to Zawri. “If and I will grant you the if, Razmak is still alive, he could have been sitting on a beach somewhere for a year studying the goddamn file.
No one was speaking. Farhat was rubbing his chin which has become blacker. He was a handsome man and somehow had some with Arabic features. “It is possible,” he said. “It’s certainly somewhere to begin.”
“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” said Zawri resuming his annoyed vocal posture. “Some phoenix rising from the ashes to even the score, I can’t buy this”
Sahel colour began to rise again. “Tell me, sir, do we own the copyright on retaliation.”
“Its blatant suspicion,” Colonel Zawri stormed. “Why Razmak? Because you want it to be so? What about our other missions, Sahel?” He pointed at a large grey iron safe that sat in the corner behind his desk. “What about a hundred other operations that could just easily have enraged a hundred other men? Why couldn’t be it be one of their survivors out for Pakistani blood?”
“Because, Captain Rafi and Major John Victor only worked together on one project, one, operation named Darkroom.”
Nothing infuriated Zawri more than being successfully challenged in front of his subordinates. He looked at his watch.
“All right,” he snapped. “Enough, this is over, dismissed to all tasks.”
Shahzad and Seema glanced at each other, took their cues and left the room quietly. But Qadri stood by and waited. Being the Commandant’s aide, he loved the fact that no matter who got thrown out of the office, he always remained.
“Sahel,” Zawri ordered. “You will write up a full history on Rafi for Farhat and NSS. Rafi was theirs, and it’s now their jurisdiction. I want it quickly and I want it in minute to minute details, and then I want it run through the departmental censor and reworked. So you’d better get moving.”
The Colonel sat down and picked up a phone, but he stopped dialling when he saw that Sahel and Dilshad had not yet moved. He fixed them with an annoyed glare. They left the office.
“Sahel stop,” Dilshad was amazed to find himself, chasing Sahel down the stairwell from three to two. The crippled Captain was gripping the steel handrail, down with his bad leg and hurling himself along three steps at a time.
“We can’t get anywhere this way.” Dilshad almost begged.
“We,” Sahel spat without turning.
“I think you are reacting. You have to stop this. Think and plan.”
He stopped short from Cover and looked at Seema. She was waiting for him and she blocked his way, gripped both of his shoulders looked into his twisted angry face with her brown eyes.
“I am so sorry,” she said. “I am sorry about Baba Feroz.” Seema always used agents cover names.
Sahel calmed a bit. He could be furious at Zawri, Dilshad and everyone and everything but not Seema. She meant what she said.
“Thank you,” He put a hand to her scarfed head.
“Okay, Sahel, that’s enough,” Dilshad grabbed Sahel’s bicep. “We are going to talk.” He dragged him toward his office and pounded the door open. Dilshad’s staff members sat at their terminals. They looked up as the door banged against the wall.
“Everybody out,” Dilshad voice boomed. “Break time.”
The young researchers pushed to their feet and moved toward the door. “I am swimming in Coffee already.” One of the girls muttered.
“We just had a break,” Tariq protested.
“Have another,” Dilshad ordered.
As Khaki passed Sahel, he looked over the top of his spectacles and shook his head with sympathetic sadness.
“Look, Sahel, I agree something happening here very strange,” said Dilshad when were alone.
“Congratulations,” Sahel tone was still taunting.
“I don’t care how mad you are.”
Sahel stopped himself from retorting further. “Sorry.”
“I am not saying I agree with you,” Dilshad continued. “Yes, this may be Razmak, or one of his old aides. Also it may not be. Do you agree?”
Sahel said nothing.
“Sahel, do you agree it may not be?”
“Yes, all right,” Sahel sighed and looked outside the window.
“It may not be. I probably wouldn’t be so inflexible about it, if that … upstairs would give just a millimetre on this.”
“Zawri has his reasons.”
Sahel turned, hearing something in Dilshad’s voice. “What reasons?”
“Trust me. Zawri has a history in these kinds of things, layers upon layers that you are not even aware of. You have to lead him into this, not push him. He has to be manipulated. Every time you say Darkroom, it will be like a red flag to a bull.”
Sahel took a deep breath and lit another cigarette. He was almost out.
“It’s Razmak, Dilshad,” Sahel said quietly. “I know it.”
“How, what makes you so sure?”
“Dilshad, you know me, I am so sceptic, not one for astrology. But I know this like a twin knows when his brother’s in trouble. Like a mother knows when his son’s been killed in a war, I know this.”
“I want to see Falkshair Khan,” said Sahel.
“Ya Khudaya,” Dilshad smacked his forehead. Falkshair khan was the only member of Razmak Bilal’s cell ever to have been captured alive by the forces in Pakistan. He had been tried and convicted of terrorism and murder and had been sitting in a maximum security prison waiting for his black warrant for over a year. Falkshair was convicted a death penalty. He had been questioned by every intelligence expert in the country, offered plea bargains, threatened, subjected to psychological tricks and third degree methods. Yet he had never uttered a single helpful bit of information.
“You are crazy,” said Dilshad. “Everyone’s had their hands on him. He will never talk. You think he will like your face so he’ll pass-on any information to you? You are going to bring him flowers?”
Sahel would not be discouraged. “He knows the truth. He knows what really happened to Razmak after Kabul. He’s the only one who can support my theory.”
“You sound like your boss.”
Dilshad actually blushed. He would not have Sahel think that he was afraid for his job. On the other hand plotting against C.O.’s order was not a healthy way to run an intelligence branch.
“Dilshad, I will make a deal with you,” said Sahel, “a calm and rational agreement.”
Dilshad examined his former team leader. “Show me your cards.”
“We are going to call Bano Abagull. We are going to tell her what happened. Do you respect her opinion?”
Dilshad suspiciously nodded.
“If Bano agrees with my ‘gut feeling’ as you put it, you are going to contact Shore-Eye jail and arrange for me to see the prisoner. If she says I am way off the mark. I’ll drop the whole thing and sit down and write this stupid obituary.”
“What about your interviews today? Dilshad asked.
“You will tell Shahzad, I went home sick. He’ll understand.”
Dilshad waited thinking. Then he said, “Ok, let’s call her.” And he moved toward one of his telephones.
“Not here,” Sahel said. “The voice logger.”
Dilshad stopped. “Where then?”
“Let’s take a walk.” Sahel opened the door, motioning for Dilshad to leave first. Dilshad sighed and shook his great bald head.
“I must be nuts, too.”
They walked down the corridor. Sahel seemed calmer now, though he was barely covering his boiling emotions. As they passed the cafeteria, Dilshad stuck his head inside and yelled at his staff members. “Back to work, you’ve had enough coffee for a whole week.”
They found a Public Call Office across the compound near the Education Department. The booth was typical. Sahel hands were still shaking as he dropped a token into the slot and dialled Bano’s number in Lahore. Dilshad leaned against the booth and smoked, looking up at the SpecOp building wondering if Zawri was standing there starring at his insubordinate subordinates.
“Bano, it’s Sher Ali from Islamabad,” Sahel said. “Hope you are not busy.” The line was not secure one so it took Sahel a moment to relay the horrified news in coded hints that only Bano would comprehend. She groaned and even stopped speaking when she understood that Rafi Ahmad was dead. Sahel waited while she collected herself, then apologised for having to do it this way. The he tried to explain next part without unfairly tipping the scales in his own favour.
“Listen, Bano. We have a little dispute going on here, a slight disagreement. Sardar J S Khan is here with me. I contend that this event is the result of an old bank cheque that we thought had cleared, but apparently has bounced. I say this bad cheque is back now. Sardar disagrees with me, as does everyone else. Be objective. Just tell him what you think.”
Sahel handed over the phone to Dilshad, who took it the same way he took the phone from his wife whenever she made him chat with his mother-in-law. He listened for a while. Then he said good bye and hung up.
“What did she say,” asked Sahel.
“She said,” Dilshad frowned, “and I quote, ‘It sounds like dim red light in the room.’ ”
Sahel nodded, yet no hint of a triumphant expression crossed his lips. “It’s a Darkroom,” he said.
For maximum security reasons the facility at Shore-Eye was not very impressive. It could not be compared at least physically to an institution like other common jails around the country, with its stone-block tall walls, four guard towers on the corners and machine gun posts. Shore-eye was not a civilian prison so its name never appeared in the media. It was rather small and its around two hundred prisoners never rioted or demanded better conditions as it had become a practice in other civilian’s prisons. They did not bang their cups on the door-bars or clatter their chains or perform hunger strikes. Or if they did engage in any of these stereotypical methods, no one heard about it.
The facility was fairly new having been constructed just after the ‘war on terror’ broke over in the country. All the prisoners were high ranking terrorists. In fact the word maximum security was concerning to Shore-eye than to any other prison in Pakistan.
It consisted of a single square building with meter thick wall of stone-blocks over a steel skeleton and concealed steel floors. There were no windows. Surrounding of the walls on all sides were fifty meters of flat earth fully covered with antipersonnel mines. Surrounding the mine fields was a ten meter high electrified fence topped with razor concertina. You access the single entrance through a steel bridge over mine fields.
As a final touch, in case a prisoner dreamed too enthusiastically of freedom the location of the facility was in most discouraging area. For the ancient coastal port of Shore-eye, it had breath taking view of the Arabian Gulf, was also home to the secret training base of the Navel Commandos. They had a reputation as the toughest troops in the Pakistani order of battle. They had absolutely no connection with the facility but if by some miracle you managed to escape from it, you would be like a rabbit stepping into a pack of wolves.
It took Sahel a whole half day to reach the prison. Now it was already afternoon and he had waited another hour outside the prison while his clearance was processed and the prisoner was prepared. There was a small mobile tuck-shop at the gate and he finally bought an egg sandwich ate half and threw the rest away.
He was impatient with the waiting, yet not angered by it. He understood that you never allow a visitor instantly, no matter his rank or position. If an escape were afoot, few conspirators could wait coolly without breaking and running.
Someone finally called Sahel’s name and he climbed up the steel stairway and crossed the bridge surrendering his gun and stopping to have his ID examined and his photograph taken.
He descended into a submarine type chamber like the one at Headquarters, answered the usual questions and signed the official request cable from Dilshad allowing him to visit Falkshair Khan. The secondary door clicked and Sahel was met on the other side by a huge sergeant wearing pressed fatigues and a black moustache as wide as you can imagine.
“Come,” said the giant and Sahel followed him along a yellow-coloured corridor, so brightly lit it was almost painful to the eyes. Sahel realized that in Shore-eye they were no days or nights, storms or seasons. The warden was the lord and his nail pinned stick was his tool.
“Have you seen Falkshair before?” the sergeant asked in a thick voice.
“At a distance.”
“Do you know how many times he has been interrogated?”
“I’m not here to interrogate him.”
“Over a hundred times. Do you know how many officers have worked on him?”
“You’ll tell me, I think.”
“Twenty seven Colonels and majors besides civilian’s secret officers, Even a Brigadier have been working on him.” Clearly the sergeant did not have much faith in Sahel’s power of influence. He stopped outside a small steel door. “Want to look at him first?”
They entered a small space completely dark with raised wooden benches. Sahel did not sit. He stared at a smoky glass pane the size of an art poster. He could hear the giant’s breathing heavily beside him.
From the other side of the pane, Falkshair stared back at them.
Sahel had, of course, seen Falkshair many times before, but always under surveillance, but he was not prepared for this diminished version of him. Sahel had liked Falkshair, as his tone in intercepted conversation, his simple and elegant manner of dress; Falkshair evidenced an idealistic sense of purpose, certain professionalism tempered with irony.
Immediately after Kabul disaster, Razmak’s cell had scattered. Falkshair trail was quickly picked up. He was pressured with carefully planned exposed surveillance until he began to run. And when he finally reached in their cell’s safe house near D.I. Khan in almost panic, an informant was sent in, who persuaded him aboard a safe convey destined for Karachi, and there he was caught.
He looked so much smaller now, sitting on a hard wooden bench against the wall of the interrogation room wearing a light grey Shalwar Kameez. His beard scattered on the face, his moustaches thinned and his tan had faded. His black hairs gone much grey around the ears. There was no light left in the sharp eyes.
“Let me in,” said Sahel.
The sergeant led him out in the corridor again. Then he pulled a button from his belt, unlocked the interrogation room and waved Sahel inside.
Falkshair was looking down at the floor.
“Do you have to be here?” Sahel asked the sergeant.
“How about watching through there?” Sahel pointed at the two way glass.
The sergeant looked at Falkshair as if he were taking measures of the prisoner. He had already beaten him twice.
“Okay,” he left the two men alone.
Sahel stood in the centre of the room feeling awkward. After all a man’s dignity was a precious thing. It was hard to see it taken away from anyone. He had to remind himself of his purpose.
“Need a cigarette?” Sahel offered.
Falkshair did not respond. He did not even look up.
Sahel lit one for himself.
All at once, his heart felt so heavy, his hopes worthless. He knew exactly what he was going to get from this man. What could he offer him? Freedom? Some kind of deal? What had not been done that he, The Great Sahel could bring for him? He had driven all this way for nothing, fuelled by the rage.
He sat next to the Falkshair on the bench.
“Listen, Falkshair,” he tried to sound almost apologetic. “My name is Sahel Farhaj. I am no more important. I just want to ask a couple of questions. One question really. Okay?”
Falkshair said nothing, he looked on his knees.
“I’m just a low level staffer. Practically just a clerk, a Historian for the Ministry of Defence.” It sounded as ridiculous as it came out of his mouth that Sahel wanted to laugh at himself. He was grateful that Falkshair did not laugh too. He suddenly wondered if Falkshair understood him at all. Then he remembered that this man was from South Waziristan, he might know Urdu well.
“Maybe I can help you,” Sahel lied.” Maybe if you help me with this one thing, your cooperation would be something good for.”
Falkshair said nothing.
“Okay,” Sahel rose from his seat. He moved in front of Falkshair with his back to the two-way mirror in order to offer some privacy.
“It’s like this, I will tell you straight. You knew Razmak Bilal better than anyone else, everything about him. No one knows what really happened to him, no one but maybe you. Some of the people who worked on the Razmak arrest in Kabul have been killed recently. Just tell me this one thing, Falkshair, and we will leave you alone. Is Razmak dead or alive?”
For the first time Falkshair raised his head and looked at Sahel. His eyes narrowed ever so slightly, the deep lines at the corners, yet he did not smile. It was almost an empathetic expression, the look of a doctor regarding a terminally ill patient. And he did not speak.
Sahel allowed full minute to pass. Then he surrendered. He turned to walk from the room, but what he heard stopped him dead cold in his tracks and a shocking chill coursed up the length of his spine.
“Ina lillah ey wa inna ellahi rajaoon.”
Falkshair was quietly reciting Quran verses, the prayer for the dead.
Sahel sped the whole way back to Karachi to catch his flight back to Islamabad. He smoked one cigarette after another. He stopped only once to gas up and he did not play the radio. He kept all the windows open for he felt that he might not fall asleep at the wheel. He knew that he should stop and call Amber, but something told him that he would be able to get a piece of the day and it would not be too late as long as she was still awake when he got home. He would tell everything and she would understand. She always did.
The night was black as a moonless sky can be witnessed by hundreds of flickering tinny stars and the highway was deserted too to his astonishment. Sahel had emptied himself for memories. Everything that had ever done with or shared with or seen of Captain Rafi Ahmad had been played over and over until the film finally burned out and nothing was left but a void that left his face still and expressionless.
Around after midnight he climbed the long stairs to the apartment, his leg burning, the aches and sores of his body coming back full force. He let himself in quietly for a surprise but the house was dead still.
A single light lit in the saloon. The coffee table was covered with plates spread with chocolate residue and the ashtray was filled with cold butts. The TV power light was still on glowing like a tired red eye. One of the wooden small tables was piled with the soft-looking multi-coloured wrapped gifts. In the corner of the table he could see, was a dark hulk shinning in the dim light. His birthday cake!
There was a white piece of paper on the Sahel’s seat. He picked it up. It was Amber’s script.
“Happy birthday, we had your party without you. The surprise was that you never showed up.”
Sahel sat back on his couch with his fingers in his hair and elbows on his knees. He did not know when his wet eyes dropped pearls on his cheeks and then he laughed dreadfully.