A Midnight Trade
December 2001, Tennessee
Looking out the kitchen window, he saw foggy mist hovering, a ghostly blanket over the frost-covered ground just visible in the predawn light. Curling his shoulders forward, then in a backward roll, he stretched tender muscles.
Will Howling pulled on a fleece, and taking his steaming mug of coffee, stepped outside onto the planking that spanned the cliff side of the cabin. Leaning against the railing, he savored the hot liquid, its aroma mixing with the pungent scent of pine, cedar, and damp ground covered with rain-soaked leaves. The cabin set etched into the side of a ravine down from the Cumberland Plateau, which at its highest, rose more than 1,000 feet above the Tennessee River Valley. The Obed Wild and Scenic River System was a labyrinth of rocky ridges and verdant ravines dropping steeply into gorges laced with waterfalls, caves, ferns, forests, and rhododendrons, their blooms absent this time of year.
Watching the morning mists as they rose from the deep, Will had a primordial sense of the history these rocky walls had seen; he pondered what words William Butler Yeats or Walt Whitman might have used to describe the ancients who had dwelled in those caves. Would they put into prose the feeling that lingering spirits watched over the garden valley still… that they drifted from those dark crevices and rode the swirling clouds? The week of winter rock climbing and white water canoeing had cleared his head and his spirit, reminding how good it felt to live out of doors—to pit muscle and skill to scaling those rocky cliffs and riding the rapids.
The door opened. Paul Maxwell, aka Max, joined him. “For a desk jockey pushing forty you managed to keep up all right.”
Will’s ancient spirits retreated into the mists. A grin tugged, but he didn’t bite. “Only a couple of fools would freeze their butts off to have all this fun.”
“Ah… but we’ve had it all to ourselves, and the river is wilder after the autumn rains.”
“Like I said, only a couple of fools… as far as having the place to ourselves, there’s probably a reason for that.” Will paused for another sip of coffee. “What time you heading out?”
“About an hour.” Nodding toward the front side of the cabin where their canoes were parked, “Soon as I pack up and tighten the bungees on the ole’ girl there. You?”
“Same.” Because his drive back to Memphis was two hours shorter than Max’s return to Fayetteville in North Carolina, Will said, “Thanks again, Buddy, for coming up here this time. Your pick in the Smokies in May.” The Smokey Mountain National Park would be the destination of their next alpha-male ritual.
When they’d first begun these biannual rites ten years in the past, Max had dubbed their sojourns into the wilds as two little boys playing Lewis and Clark. “I’ll be Clark,” he’d said, telling Will he had to be Lewis, since Lewis died mysteriously at the age of thirty-five.
“No way,” Will had retorted. “I’m not ending up as a syphilitic drunk named Meriwether. You be Lewis, I’ll be Clark. Besides, my name is William, so naturally I should be Clark.” They’d drawn straws: Will was Lewis.
“Not a problem, Meriwether. You were right about this place. The river here was a great ride. Instead of the Obed, I rechristened her Oh Betty, for how she does buck and roll! Speaking of which, think over what I said. If you’ve seriously severed your ties and banished all thoughts of pending matrimony—well, with all the terrorism shit that’s broken loose this fall, there’s a lot of opportunity back in the Force. Hell, your fancy education, you could re-up at a higher rank. Get reinstated for a short path to retirement. JSOC could use you,” Max said, referring to the Joint Special Operations Command that presided over Delta Force, the Army’s elite Special Operations Force and primary counter-terrorism unit in which Max served, and up until eight years ago, Will had as well. “There’s also a whole new privatized military industry popping up. The pay is fantastic.” He hesitated, and then said, “I can see why being a homicide detective in Memphis and staying in one place looked good to you, if you were going to try again at tying the knot. But if you’re not, well, it’s got to be, uh—”
“Hey, what do I know? But then again, how many different ways does some pimp or john whack a drugged-out street-mama?”
“Yeah, well, being on the side that’s putting them away somehow feels better than arming Contras, and stumbling into villages and seeing what they were doing with the fire-power—what we were helping them do. You know why I got out, Max. Afghanistan won’t be any different than Nicaragua or El Salvador.”
Max was silent for a moment. “Just think about it. JSOC could use someone like you. Former Delta Force, reconnaissance, now a forensics BA and Masters in Criminal Justice, your homicide experience,” he said. “This new bunch of creeps is producing a lot of business.”
“You have some kind of sadomasochistic streak? You really want me to come back and win all your pay? Two weeks out of the year isn’t enough for you?” Will said, referring to their nightly marathons at poker.
“You know I just let you do that to compensate for me being taller and better looking.”
Will chuckled. He was three quarters of an inch over six feet tall, never able to stretch the tape to six-one, and weighed in at 190. Max was six-three, and tipped the scales at 215. “All brawn and no speed, and my mother thinks I’m better looking than you.”
“My mother probably thinks so too,” Max said with a grin. “She probably even likes you better than me, and why I take such good care of you. She’d be pissed if I let you fall off a cliff face and bump your head. Come on, let’s load those canoes.”
Later that Sunday afternoon, Detective Will Howling reversed onto his garage ramp, pressed the door opener, and guided the small boat trailer inside. He unhitched it, pulled his SUV into the other side of the double-wide, and unpacked the rest of his gear. It had been a great week, and he was just stiff and sore enough to be pleasantly reminded of how he got that way. A daily run and three to four hours a week at the gym with the weights kept him in shape, but there was nothing like a week in the wilds with Max to find those weak spots.
The drive back to Memphis had given him plenty of time to reflect on Max’s pestering about returning to the Force. It wasn’t that he was bored with his job. Yet after all he’d worked for, he sometimes wondered if being a homicide detective in Memphis was a satisfying end of the road. Then he’d met Cindy. She was an assistant to the DA: smart, funny, a nice face, and an even nicer body.
It had been twelve years since Will had divorced his first wife, to whom he’d been married at the young age of twenty-one. The marriage had ended in disaster when he was twenty-seven. While he liked having a woman in his life, and preferred monogamy, his first failure at making it legal—that he partially blamed on his being in the military and gone a lot—had left a scar in his psyche that made him shy away from trying it again. He was happy enough on his own, he counseled himself, and most of the time, could honestly say that he preferred it on a day-to-day basis. But Cindy had other plans and had pressed for something permanent. At thirty-two her clock was ticking. For awhile, he’d actually thought about trying the whole marriage thing again. But his brain—the one that wasn’t located between his legs—had held off. Because when he wasn’t thinking with the one between his legs, he just couldn’t picture it. Having a family, living happily ever after, and growing old with Cindy, wasn’t an image he could hang on to. True, his lower brain got excited about her in the sack, but his upper forgot about her when his erratic work life called. Cindy had gotten tired of that arrangement, not that he blamed her. That was three months ago.
He’d asked her once how she knew that she loved him. She’d said, “Because my heart beats faster when you’re in the room and I have trouble breathing.” They’d laughed. But, though he didn’t tell her, he’d realized his heart didn’t. The symphonic crescendos just weren’t there for him—not a robust full orchestra to accompany them for a lifetime.
But about Max’s pressure that he come back to the Force, Will knew that wasn’t it for him. That would be going backward to something he had left for reasons that for him were still valid. At the same time, his friend had a point. There were a lot of career tracks opening up, thanks to the attack on the World Trade Center. He wouldn’t mind putting some of those perps away. Plus there were times when his world seemed a little small.
“Hey, Sal,” he said in greeting to the fluffy feline who glowered at him as he came through the kitchen door. “Did Mrs. Bemis take good care of you?” Her unfriendly meow that sounded more like a growl told him he was going to be in the doghouse, or more appropriately, the cathouse, for awhile. Ms. Bemis provided for Sal’s food, water, and kitty-litter needs when Will was gone. When he finally dared reenter her domain, the cat sulked, showing, in Will’s estimation, how much she’d missed him. Like Cindy, he thought.
“Just so you didn’t piss in my shoes, darling.” He reached to give her a stroke, to which she responded by turning and stalking away, reminding him with regal dignity who was queen in this household. He was going to have to grovel for awhile.
His answering machine blinked six messages. Will ignored it until he’d unpacked and returned to the kitchen and retrieved a cold Bud from the refrigerator. Only after he’d popped the top for a draught did he punch “play.”
The first two were from earlier in the week from his mother up in Tiptonville wanting to know about his plans for Christmas and reminding him that his thirty-ninth birthday fell three days before the holiday. She suggested he come up in time to celebrate both—little more than two weeks away, he realized. Her mention of it brought back Max’s jibe about his friend pushing forty. Forty was to be a time of taking stock of one’s life and making course corrections, as in having a mid-life crisis. Will didn’t feel in crisis, but smiled to himself, thinking he still had a year to go. Maybe he could create one before then. The next message was from his sister asking about gift exchanging.
The following two were calls from the Chief himself. At 12:20: “Howling, Chief here. I know you’re not due back on duty until tomorrow morning, but we’ve got a situation here I’d like you to take a look at. Give me a call as soon as you get in.”
At 13:45: “Howling. This is the Chief again. We’ve got a missing person on our hands— an important doc from the East. Set up to look like a jumper off Hernando, but it doesn’t hang right. I want you on this. It can’t wait until 08:00 tomorrow.” Hernando translated as the Hernando de Soto Bridge which spanned the Mississippi River.
The last message at 14:15 was from Detective Ted Lawson, who worked in missing persons, asking that he call just as soon as he got in.
It was now 14:45. Will gave a silent groan and dialed the Chief’s number.
“So what we’ve got here is one of the country’s top biogenetics scientists—maybe one of the top in the world—doing a disappearing act on our turf. His rental car was found a mile in on Hernando, facing the wrong way, no damage indicating an accident. Time pinpointed between 03:45 and 04:00 this morning. Patrol checks showed the bridge clear at 03:45, with vehicle found at 04:00. Dr. Daniel Wyeth was last seen at the Children’s Hospital fundraiser at the Peabody at 24:00 Saturday—an obvious gap in time between midnight and four a.m. Turns out he serves on the board, and he was the keynote at this black-tie dinner and auction affair. Wyeth flew into Memphis alone, arriving Saturday around noon from Baltimore, staying at his wife’s parents’ house over on the east side. Wife and two young children had stayed behind in Baltimore. Wyeth was scheduled to return to Baltimore, departing at eleven this morning.”
Will sat at the small conference table along with Chief Hank Hawkins; Detective Lawson; Sam Peck, the department forensics team leader; and Detective Susan Hendricks, Lawson’s junior partner. Both Lawson and Hendricks were with missing persons. Will was the only one with homicide, and technically the one person who was out of place at this meeting. The Peabody Museum was located downtown and not far, as the crow flies, from the river, as everyone in the room was aware.
“Forensics is going through the rental, we’ve ordered DNA and dental, with the wife’s permission,” the Chief continued. “We’re dredging the river.”
“Other family?” Will asked.
“Scientist has a set of twins, twenty-eight years of age—fraternal—a brother and sister,” the Chief replied. “Mother died of cancer quite young. No brothers or sisters of his own, his parents deceased. So Wyeth’s on his second family: wife number two about eighteen years younger, kids aged four and one. Parents and wife say Wyeth is—or was—happy as a clam with his new set-up, and at the peak of his career.”
“Biogenetics, as in what?” Will asked. “What was he working on, and where?”
“Well, that’s something for you to dig into, Detective. But from what the family tells us, he was top in his field in studying immunity to anthrax, smallpox, and other types of influenza. He was tied to Johns Hopkins Research Center in Baltimore, as well as Howard Hughes Research in Chevy Chase.”
“Anthrax?” Will asked.
“Yeah,” the Chief grunted. “Sort of broadens the scope of speculation.”
“What do we know about the twins?” Will asked.
“Both went to top ivy-league schools. Son’s a law graduate from Harvard and works for a big beltway corporate law firm in D.C. Daughter went to med school at Johns Hopkins—also studied biogenetics, kind of following in her father’s footsteps. But her whereabouts is something of a mystery. Out of the country, but no one could, or would, say where exactly.”
“Given Wyeth’s profile and his being a missing person, are we expecting the Feds on our doorstep?” Will asked.
“Without a doubt, they’ll be ringing our doorbell by 08:00 tomorrow.”
Will and the Chief exchanged a look, but nothing further was said. Everyone at the table knew that the first forty-eight hours were the most critical in solving a crime. After that, the evidence went cold and witnesses dried up or disappeared. But this case, so far, had no witnesses, other than those who had seen Wyeth at the fundraiser. And there was no body, so they didn’t even know if a crime had been committed. The people who’d attended the Peabody affair would all be interviewed, and there would also be a more thorough discussion with the wife’s parents and the wife—plus the son, and the daughter, if she could be located.
Will would be burning the midnight oil on-line researching Dr. Wyeth’s field of research, and exactly what the missing doc had been up to. As well, he would be talking to his employers and research colleagues back east. He underlined “daughter.” Close relatives whose whereabouts were mysteriously unknown always made one curious when someone in the family got whacked, assuming the doc hadn’t been practicing his swan dive off the Hernando.
The conversation with Max, and his reflections about Memphis being a little backwater when it came to homicide work, came ironically back into Will’s thoughts. Thinking of Max brought back the physical and spiritual lift provided to his psyche from their week in the wilds of the Obed River Valley. Though grounded once again in his real world, the residual from that lift still hovered in the margins of his mind.
A time would come in the future when Will would remember his reverie prompted by the mists over the valley below, recall a line from Lord Byron, and recognize it as a metaphor of caution to himself:
The mists begin to rise from up the valley;
I’ll warn him to descend, or he may chance
To lose at once his way and life together.
December 2001, Afghanistan
The room was cold. Had there been any light, Khaled Afaq might have seen the fog of gray mist with each exhalation. Sara Wyeth’s soft, even breathing tempted him to slip in close to her silky, slender warmth. She would murmur something and snuggle next to him, welcoming even in sleep. But this morning he didn’t want to wake her. The late night before at the hospital had been rugged. A bomb in a market had killed seven. The other fifteen injured were women and children. They had lain in hollowed-out shock, moaning, or waiting their turn in silence, their minds elsewhere, gone in the aftermath of pain and horror. As a small team of physicians, they’d done what they could in the poorly-equipped, makeshift hospital, neglected during Afghanistan’s quarter century of war.
Burrowing under the blankets for those last few moments, a far-away memory drifted through of awakening in his father’s house, the room almost as cold as this. That fine, big house of plaster over brick had thick, sturdy walls interrupted with tall windows draped in tapestries. Afghan kilims and intricately woven tribal rugs were scattered on those marble and tile floors, the chill moderated by a wood-fueled iron heater. Yet it was the cheery, spacious kitchen, with the warmth from the gigantic cooking stove radiating the smells of Zohra’s early morning labors that had drawn the young boy from under his blankets. Knowing there would be hot porridge seasoned with dates, cinnamon, and almonds, topped with her freshly made yogurt, prompted courage to suffer those first moments of cold: to pull trousers over thick leggings and don sweater and vest. This morning, no enticing smells wafted from a warm kitchen below. Zohra, his nana and family cook, was long lost to him, as was that happy, peaceful ninth year of life.
He’d been fourteen in 1981 when the third year of war, wreaking death and violence, had prompted his parents’ flight from their homeland, taking their only child and what belongings they could carry. At thirty-four, the Afghan-British orthopedic surgeon, rapidly rising in his specialty at a leading London hospital, had put that career on hold and come back to his former homeland. Khaled and Sara had arrived with the first wave of Medicines Worldwide doctors in early December. Kabul had been declared “taken:” the U.S. and UK bombing ceased, and the Northern Alliance ground troops were no longer shelling. Even so, the country was a war zone, and the occupied city still erupted in Taliban and warlord violence.
No streetlights reflected through the dust film on the window of their room in the small hotel used by aid organizations. Kabul, the ravaged capital city of Afghanistan—worn bare, ground to the nubs—lay in darkness, the power out, the grinding whir of the hotel’s generator ominously silent. Seeing the devastation and poverty after all these years had shocked, reinforcing the knowing of just how lucky he had been. That luck had been of his parents’ making; luck often required accomplices.
Khaled quietly rolled over, sat up on the edge of the bed, felt for the matches and candle on the nightstand, struck one and lit it. As the wick caught and blazed, its halo of light danced shimmering reflections in Sara’s hair and cast a golden glow on her pale skin, leaving the rest of the room in darkness.
Sara stirred, murmuring with eyes still closed, “What time is it?”
“It’s early—five. Go back to sleep,” he said softly, tucking the blankets around her shoulders and giving a gentle squeeze.
“You going back?”
“I need to check that amputation. You get some sleep. I’ll send the car around for you at eight.”
“Mm,” she breathed. “Love you… ”
He leaned over and kissed the tousled, flaxen hair, savoring this face he loved: her luminescent and intelligent green eyes expressively alive when awake, the classic features softly beautiful when asleep. He felt the gratitude for the millionth time of how lucky he was that this woman, who could choose any, had chosen him.
Moments later, his tall, lean frame was dressed in jeans and boots, a shirt over broad shoulders, and his blue hospital coveralls and a jacket over the lot. He’d not bothered to shave the stubble that shadowed his chiseled cheekbones accenting a slightly aquiline nose, a telling characteristic of Tajik tribal ancestry. It was too early to get a cup of tea at the hotel. As well, he didn’t want to take the time. He’d have one later at the hospital. Right now, the urgency was to get there.
The small hotel lobby was empty. The guard, who slept in the lobby at night on a folding cot, providing at least an illusion of security, was missing. That it was unusual, registered. But Khaled’s thoughts were preoccupied with the woman whose leg had been so badly mangled that he’d had to remove it; she would need another dose of morphine. He turned the deadbolt on the front door which was kept locked after the nine p.m. curfew.
The Wazir Akbar Khan district had somehow escaped the heavy damage during the war with the Soviets, then the Mujahedeen Jihadists, followed by the Taliban. It had also survived the recent U.S. and UK bombing with most walls and roofs intact; enough to make one wonder if each of the invaders planned ahead in anticipating their housing needs. Much of the bustling, picturesque Kabul of his childhood was a decimated pile of rubble and dust—the impact sharp, crushing the wind from his chest. This would be their fourteenth day and he still hadn’t adjusted to the destruction of the city and its people.
His lungs took in air crisp and cold, yet heavy. The odor of raw sewage from the open trenches lining the streets—juis they were called—was strong, tamped down by an inversion over the high plateau surrounded by the majestic Hindu Kush. For a brief moment, his mind flashed on the breathtaking wonder of seeing those ridges after so many years, the stark beauty of arid and barren, snow-capped mountains formed by carved glacial melts like rhythmic wrinkles of age.
Clicking on the flashlight, he scoped the blackness still too dark to reveal any hints of sweeping landscape, wondering where the hotel security guards were. Also absent were his driver and security guard who’d been scheduled to pick him up. Khaled mentally debated whether to wait for them, or drive himself, cursing the absence of cell phones. The project vehicle was left in the hotel lot at night per Medicines security regulations. And while Khaled was an expert driver, conditions in Kabul made a driver and guard required protocol. After several anxious minutes and no sign of them, he opted for the latter. Regulations would have to make way for the amputee.
He crossed the small parking lot, punching the power-lock when nearing the Toyota SUV. Nothing happened. He punched it again, gave it up, and was fishing for the keyhole when he saw it—a quick movement, but too late. What-the bloody hell! Something hard cracked against his head with a force that sent his muscular frame weightless, until he hit the ground, heavy. There were two of them, and as quick as lightening he was struck again across the side of the head. He grunted at the pain as lights flashed in his skull. Stunned, but semiconscious, Khaled was aware of duct-tape being wrapped around his mouth and a hood slipped over his head. Though groggy, he tried to resist, and was clubbed on his shoulders, arms, thighs, and shins, sharp pain shooting everywhere. His hands bound behind him, he was hoisted into the rear of a vehicle, ruptured blood-vessels emptying into tissue, muscles and joints silently screaming their violation.
“This is one rag-head who’s gonna’ wish he’d never been born with a prick,” a voice said. “Let’s get the hell out’a here.”
The engine started and Khaled felt himself bouncing over the potholed streets. Through the fog of his disoriented state was a startled realization that the accent had been American. Not a kidnapping for ransom—
After a time, Khaled knew they had left the city. There were fewer turns; they bumped along at a steadier speed. An anxious period had passed, of what he assessed to be close to an hour, when the vehicle stopped, and windows were rolled down. There were voices; then they were moving again, more minutes before they stopped, this time for good. Hauled roughly out of the back, he was dragged forward. They were outside and then inside. Sounds of thuds, muffled grunts, and occasional screams reverberated in what must be a large space—cavernous by the echoes. Khaled’s captors shoved him forward, the force sending him to the floor: hard, cold, abrasive, the musty odor of old concrete.
“Okay, you know the drill,” the American voice said. “Let’s soften him up and see what he’s made of.”
The rods crashed. He grunted, cries muffled under the duct-tape, but no escape; his hands still bound behind him prevented the automatic reflex of raising arms to protect his head. There was no position to shield from the assault; lights flashed in his skull and all went blank. When consciousness returned, he was naked save for the hood. Hanging from his wrists like raw meat in a locker, some type of apparatus shackled his ankles holding them stationary. It was cold. He was cold, stiff, ached from the brutal beating, new pain tormenting from the stress position.
He couldn’t see the voice that snarled, “You like t’fuck, do ya? When I’m done, you won’t ever get it up again.”
The rod struck his thigh, in the back above the knee, then again, two rods on both sides. Through the searing jabs of pain rippling down his leg, the doctor’s brain registered that they were going after his peroneal nerves. If this kept up, he’d never walk again. Something cold clamped onto his testicles. When the current jolted, he gagged his shriek of convulsing pain under the duct-tape. Electro-shocked again, and then again, only terror and pain remained. They left him hanging, his shoulder-joints stressed beyond endurance.
While his torturers worked, Khaled Afaq heard the sound of helicopters. Somewhere near Bagram Air Field flitted across fractured synapses, interrupted by another strike of the rod. The voice continued to accuse, threaten, and insult. Pain wracked everywhere, shot through neurons, its talons projecting poison searing hot and vile.
Sara woke with a start, night demons vanishing, leaving haunting foreboding, before the mind came fully awake. She reached for Khaled, for his warmth, before remembering he’d gone early to the hospital. For a moment, she huddled under the blankets. Then taking a deep breath to brace against the chill, she threw them off and wrapped in robe and slippers. At three minutes until eight, she was out front to be collected by the project SUV.
At eight-ten she grew uncomfortable, wondering where the driver was, and by eight-twenty, grim and agitated. The lack of telephone communication was maddening. She would have to go back up to the room and attempt to use the satellite radio, otherwise known as a SAT phone. But first she walked around the building to check for any vehicles in the lot. There weren’t many aid organizations back in the country yet after the invasion, but if she was lucky, maybe she could track someone down for a lift to the hospital. Her surprise at seeing the Toyota where they’d left it the night before morphed into dread. She crossed the narrow lot in trepidation, looked inside, and tried the door. It was locked and empty. Bewildered, but with true fright now roiling and pitching, she looked for signs of a scuffle. At five in the morning, in blacked-out Kabul, Khal couldn’t have gone anywhere without taking this vehicle. It was when she saw the dark stain on the ground. Although she couldn’t be certain, it looked suspiciously like blood. And while crouched to inspect it, she saw something else almost hidden by the front wheel—the keys. Sara used them to open the rear door for the emergency medical bag, retrieved a sample jar, and without touching, scooped up some of the stained, loose dirt. Then, against their organization’s security policy, drove solo to the hospital.
“We’ll get him back, Sara,” said Rodolfo Martinez. Rodolfo—Rudy for short—was their team leader. “They will want a ransom. I’m sure we’ll hear from the kidnappers before the day is out. They are not likely to hurt him.”
Medicines, being an international organization, had doctors from all over the world. In his early fifties, with black hair graying at the temples, Rudy was Honduran. An international refugee of sorts, he’d fled his native country in the late eighties, and was now an international aid doctor. Rudy was a small man compared to Khaled, and about Sara’s height at five feet eight inches. His manner practical, he was as efficient an administrator as he was kindly as a physician. Having lived a life interrupted by tumultuous calamity, Rudy had been bestowed with the gift of calm steadiness in the face of adversity, making him the ideal person to set up a hospital in a war zone. Sara sensed he was trying to put an inflection of certainty in his voice, but it rang eerily unconvincing. “They already did,” she said grimly, referring to the sample jar.
It had been her dream to use her medical training in the field of international aid. Khaled, on the other hand, was a teaching surgeon at a major London hospital. He’d put his career on hold to accompany her, to be with her in his native Afghanistan. He hadn’t wanted to be parted from her for the year of her commitment. And he’d feared for her safety. Remembering his arguments about how dangerous it would be, how it was too soon to enter the country, no matter how dire the need for medical assistance, now flooded her with remorse. He’d tried to convince her to wait until the fighting had at least stopped and there was some form of government in place, saying, “You’ve never been in a place like Afghanistan before. You don’t know how dangerous it is—how savage people can be when there’s no law.”
Head-strong, she’d willfully and selfishly made her decision. Worse, she’d let him sacrifice his career and follow. Happily let him follow, because in truth, she really didn’t want to do this by herself.
Rudy contacted the Medicines Worldwide London headquarters, informing the organization of Khaled’s disappearance, and asking it to begin preparing for the potential ransom demand. He’d sent another Medicine’s driver to the homes of the driver and the security guard who’d been scheduled to pick Khaled up. The report back was ominous. Both had disappeared the night before; their families nervously claimed to not know where. Rudy then put in a SAT call to the Coalition Force headquarters at Bagram Air Base. The Sergeant had barely listened, just told him they didn’t have the man-power or the mandate to provide security for an aid organization.
“I wasn’t asking for security, you son-of-a-dog,” Rudy muttered as he hung up. He exhaled heavily, and looking first at Sara then at Rahim Tehrani, their local hire office administrator, said, “Well, a new occupation, but no mission authority yet in place.” Turning to Rahim, Rudy asked, “What do you think about contacting Farid Khan?”
Sara’s eyes widened; she looked from Rudy to Rahim, then back at Rudy. “Isn’t he a… Khal said he’s a warlord—a dangerous man.”
There was a hesitation before Rahim said, “He is a warlord. Dr. Afaq was right. But that is all the more reason to go to him, Dr. Sara-jan. He is probably most knowledgeable about kidnappings and disappearances. Although—” Rahim paused, a shadow crossing his dark bronze eyes before he cast them nervously downward. A Tajik of about thirty, Rahim had been born and raised in Kabul, and studied at Kabul University, where he had learned English. He had commenced studying medicine before the brutality of poverty that war enforced on hapless families interrupted his education. The hard edges, from how life had treated him, were worn as an outer layer of toughness, but couldn’t conceal the gentleness inside. With the dire economic conditions for civilians in Afghanistan, he was only too happy to have this job; he was also an indispensable link for the organization to the local environment and community.
“Although what, Rahim?” This came from Rudy.
The shadow remained, but his response was clear. “People are disappearing. And it is said that it is General Farid Khan pulling them out of their homes to give to the Americans—to Bagram. They are paying bounties for them.”
“You mean he’s rounding up suspected terrorists—subversives,” Rudy said.
“They are calling them that. But others say these new Yankee friends are settling old family grudges—tribal conflicts. People are hungry and the rewards offered are tempting them. Nothing to do with Al Qaeda or Taliban alliances,” Rahim said. “General Khan would know this. He is doing it for the money.” Though his gaze continued to meet Rudy’s, obvious distress reflected in Rahim’s expression in telling these Westerners that his own people were feeding this shame.
Silence descended as the two doctors absorbed Rahim’s words. Sara didn’t know it then—those simple truths about war. She had been busy studying the broader elements of the jigsaw puzzle, looking at the colors and shapes to help fit the missing details. She was absorbing all the unknowns about this country that was being invaded, misled into believing those were the truths that needed to be sorted and understood.