Saturday, October 19, 2013

Back from a short break

The radio silence was me out in the Northwest enjoying some time away from the city (and amazed at how every town had at least a drive thru espresso shack...). Readers will have to be patient as the next novel is being edited, though I'm extremely proud with what I have here, and I'm sure that readers will find it exciting as well.

To tide you over, I have pasted the start of the novel (nope, not the final edited one). Enjoy it:

The man walked to the street and looked down at the cafe, rustling awake in the morning sun. He could feel his muscles wrapped tight around his bones. And he could smell coffee in the air. But this was no time to think of his one addiction. He nodded at the young man beside him. The young man, Abdul, was sweating, his eyes darting back and forth.
“Don’t worry. I’m going to be here with you the whole way,” said the man. He stroked a scar on his jawline. It went deep. Old wounds from a war on the other side of these desert sands. In the mornings his jaw bone would hurt like nothing else.
He walked first, to scout the cafe, which was now filled with Western tourists. No one seemed alert. All had that vapid look the man had come to associate with the hated Westerners. He scowled at a handful of women with skirts on.
As he walked past, he pulled his cellphone out. “Abdul, it’s clear. Get a coffee and do it.”
He didn’t look over his back. When he turned a corner he jumped into the passenger seat of the car. The street here was busier. That gave them more cover. Horns honked, and the pollution wafted into his head. He waited. A few minutes later Abdul came around the corner. He smiled. Abdul jumped into the back.
The man pulled out a remote control. He had done this hundreds of times, and it never got any easier. He handed it to Abdul.
“Your turn,” said the man. “When I say so, press the button.”
The young man nodded and grabbed the remote, a little too easily for the man’s tastes.
The car drove forward and the cafe came into view. The man saw some kids playing soccer in front of the cafe.
“Not yet,” he said. He placed a hand on the driver’s forearm. “When he presses the button you move away slowly, like there’s nothing wrong. Got it? No driving fast.”
The man watched as the cafe owner drove away the kids with a broom. He noticed the red skin of a tourist who seemed to see him.
The flash and corresponding shock wave traveled through the man, and he felt the warmth of the explosion. Then the car alarms and screams. Smoke and mangled debris was all that remained of the cafe. They drove slowly around the corner. A few streets over people were going about their business. None of them seemed to know what was going on only a few blocks away. Near a pile of garbage Abdul threw the remote.
Soon they were on a highway out of the city. They stopped when they finally came to a mountain side house. It was their safe house. The government didn’t have much control out here.
But the man knew that his day wasn’t over. There was a meeting with some of the local tribal leaders in the evening. But first he was gong to have to talk to his bosses.
He told Abdul to relax and drink some water.
He walked into his office and saw his two bosses. The head of Al Qaeda in Magreb, and the liaison from Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The man didn’t much like either of them. They were too grand, and never liked to hear about the minutiae of the local political movement. But they brought in recruits and money, so the man didn’t have a choice.
“Please to sit down,” said the man. “Drinks?”
The two men shook their heads. The liaison was a tall and lanky man. He claimed to have fought the infidels in Afghanistan. But the man didn’t believe that since the lanky man, Mohammad looked too good, with skin too smooth to have seen a battle. The man in charge of the Maghreb, Laith, was a short and stout man. He had blue eyes and red hair, though he was born in the sands of Algeria.
“How can I help you?” the man said, sitting back in his chair.
“How did the operation go, Ali?” Laith asked, his eyes gleaming.
“Let’s see,” Ali said, massaging his jaw bone again. It was always aggravated when these two came here. He switched on the TV and turned to the news channel. There was the cafe, with emergency services pulling people out of the rubble.
Laith and Mohammad giggled with glee. Ali forced a smile, though he didn’t like the way these two men seemed to love the sight of destruction. It only served to highlight how much they hadn’t done anything on the ground. How they hadn’t had actual blood on their hands and clothes and how that blood hadn’t infiltrated their dreams.
“It says ten dead, twenty injured, good job,” Mohammad said.
“Thank Abdul,” Ali said. “He was the one who carried it out. His first.”
“He’s a soldier,” Laith said.
Ali didn’t say anything. It was also the desk men who would dismiss a soldier’s job. “What do you two want?”
“Just wanted a discussion of where your team was going. The next few missions,” Laith said.
Ali let out some air and filled them in on the next few attacks planned, and the local political situation. The two men’s eyes glazed over. Ali dived further into the situation. Finally, Laith raised his hand.
“We also wanted your opinion on something.”
“Please,” Ali said, suppressing a smirk and preparing himself for a grandiose idea that he’d have to shoot down.
“You know the great Dr. Khan?” Mohammad asked.
“Of course, who doesn’t?”
“Well we have been in correspondence with him,” said Mohammad.
“Really?” Ali said and leaned forward. He never imagined these two to be that competent.
“Yes. We may have convinced him to finally come out and help us.”
“Come out?” Ali said. “The ISI watches him like a hawk. How can he come out? And even if he did, the Americans and the Israelis would have him killed in a heartbeat.”
“You think too small,” Mohammad said. “To risk-averse. We have good word that he’ll soon be with us, and that when he is, we’ll finally have what we always wanted.”
“Is that so?” Ali said. This still seemed ludicrous to him. “And what amazing nuclear facility will he be working at?” He leaned back. He did not like these two, and he especially hated their foreign accents. It only proved that they didn’t care for the local situation and would forever be grasping at magical solutions to mundane problems.
His comment shut the two of them up, but after a few glances they seemed to regain their composure.
“You think too small,” Laith said, shaking his head. “The doctor will soon be helping us. And then we shall be unstoppable.”
“Well, I must,” Ali said. “What did you say to him that brought him on board?”
“We explained how he could help the cause.”
“And what did he say?” Ali asked.
“At first he claimed we had no cause. But we think our last letter convinced him.”
“Why?” Ali asked.
“We told him to think of the bigger picture.”
“Ah, ingenious,” Ali said, wondering how long before he could kick them out of his office. He wanted to drink some chai. Then he wanted to talk to the local leaders about money for some water.
“It is,” said Laith. “We want to draft one more letter, though.”
“And you want me to?” Ali said, not hiding his annoyance.
“Yes. We need you. You can tell him some stories of the ground and help convince him about our cause.”
“All right. I will,” Ali said.
When the two men left he shook his head and wondered what letter he could possibly write to someone as smart as the good Dr. Khan. He would finish it later.
And as he walked out of the building, he felt a prickle on his skin. He looked up at the sky. The distant sound of an jet engine hummed. Just like any other day. As he watched the motorcade with Laith and Mohammad leave, he suddenly knew what was going on.
A few other men were milling about, and Ali yelled: “Missile!”
Most of the men stared at him like they thought he was mad. But Ali knew what the drill was and ran to the rocks a few hundred meters from the building. He dove into them as the sky was filled with a horrid swooshing sound. And in the middle of his dive Ali felt himself twisted in the air, a warm shocking push, as his world went black.

Dr. Khan leaned back on his window ledge when a loud series of horns, odd even for Karachi, forced his eyes over to the street. He was on the outskirts of the city, and the tree lined streets here were filled with hawkers of all wares. Outside his house, in two black cars, were a handful of men in aviator glasses and gray suits. They occasionally glanced up at him and nodded.
They were there, according to the Pakistani government, for his protection. But he also knew that they were there in place of his prison bars. Protection, in Dr. Khan’s life, had always meant less freedom. He sighed as he lit up a cigarette. He had started ever since stooges in his government and the American government collaborated to make his life a living hell.
In his other hand he held a crumpled piece of paper. He knew its contents by heart. And he knew no one else could ever read it. Using his matches, he set it on fire, opened the window and watched as the paper turned to ashes and smoke.
The men in suits glanced at him, but they didn’t seem to react. The air outside was cool and refreshing, and Dr. Khan admonished himself for picking up the disgusting habit of tobacco. But he couldn’t stop from inhaling another hit of nicotine.
And what was he going to do about the request in the letter? He could feel his intestines crawl up to his heart, and his heart pushed blood to his brain, and he felt overwhelmed. He took in another drag. The sun was setting fast, and swallows came out in the relief to pick at the insects rising in turn for relief. He didn’t know what he was going to do. He stared at the men. They would see him the moment he left. Or was there another way?
Dr. Khan threw out his cigarette and pondered his choices.
Soon dinner would be ready and he would go downstairs and eat with his wife and her relatives. He didn’t mind them, really, their deferential respect towards him always allowed him some room to breathe. But none of them would be willing to help him with this. In fact, it would be better if they didn’t know about this at all.
But the boy who brought him the letter. He would be able to help, wouldn’t he? How to reach out to him, though?
His wife’s voice sounded off the marble floors and Dr. Khan slowly made his way down the stairs and to the dinner table where everyone stared at him. He raised his hand and everyone dived in to eat. He chewed his food, not tasting the lamb, though the clove curry spices that hit his nose made him wonder why not. No, his thoughts were with the letter he’d just burned. The more he dwelt on it the more it seemed that these people in front of him were strangers.
His wife placed her hand on his wrist, a concerned look on her face. He forced a smile to tell her that he was all right. But inside he was annoyed. He just wanted to lay with his thoughts, the letter, and the emotions it stirred up inside him.
This thought made him immediately feel bad and he placed his other hand in his wife’s and smiled again, staring into her big brown eyes. She had, after all, been the one to stand behind him. Especially when he had been arrested, forced to live in a house, never to see the light of day. He tilted his head at her. She nodded and went back to eating. He returned his eyes to his own plate, feeling that if he concentrated on the food in front of him no one else would notice his cogitation, and perhaps he could even forget the damn letter.
It didn’t work. He focused on each grain of rice embedded in the pilaf. A piece of clove. And still the letter’s contents wouldn’t leave his mind be. He pushed his food aside, half-finished and left the table. He could feel everyone’s eyes piercing his back. He walked around the corner and opened the bathroom door, shutting it loudly. He could hear a few murmurs from the dinner table. It didn’t matter. The sweat on his forehead, and the feeling of a vice on his heart. He had to leave. There was no other choice. He headed to the servants’ room. There was still one who stayed after dinner.
The servant, Karim, looked at him like he didn’t care for the intrusion.
“Can I help you?”
Dr. Khan stopped to take in this servant. The newest of the lot, and the most rebellious. Normally the doctor’s wife would have said something, but even she seemed to know better. There was something about Karim that didn’t seem to brook authority, and whatever had led him to become a servant, it didn’t seem strong enough to make him a loyal dog.
“I know this is your dinner time, but I wanted to talk to you,” Dr. Khan said. He tried to keep his eyes on Karim’s almost black eyes. He failed and his eyes darted to the scar that ran across Karim’s dark forehead, denting the nose, then across the lower jaw and touching off his neck.
Karim put down his plate of food and pointed at his bed. It was a small room, with a jail-like window, a three-legged stool that Karim was sitting on, and an army cot with a blanket on it. The whole room stunk of dirty feet and a hint of perfume. Dr. Khan knew the house rules didn’t allow the servants to have any guests of their own, but Karim seemed impervious to such rules. That it was s woman Karim was violating the rules for, made the doctor like him.
Dr. Khan sat down, the cot creaking to greet him. He stared at his hands because staring at Karim’s eyes, those incisive things, would make his inner turmoil worse.
“Well?” Karim said, casting a glance at his unfinished plate.
“You know the young boy who came by the front door today?” Dr. Khan said. He could smell the perfume rises off the sheets. He suppressed a smile. And for the first time in hours he truly relaxed.
“Abdullah? The one with the message for you?” Karim said.
“Yes,” Dr. Khan replied. He took a second to hold Karim’s stare, but those vacant-yet-sharp black eyes forced him to look elsewhere. He settled for the wall behind Karim. Paint peeling, and a cockroach running into a crack. What was it about Karim’s eyes that seemed so scary? After all he, Dr. Khan, had dined with plenty of military men with time in and around Kashmir. Men who had fought battles at twenty thousand feet. What was it about Karim’s eyes that seemed harder?
“What about him?” asked Karim.
The doctor wasn’t certain what to ask. Instead, happy to not think about the message, he was thinking that Karim, even with the suited men outside, was the kind of person to take a slight and murder an entire family. The doctor had heard stories like that and thought it possible. Not with the kind of servants he’d had before. But with Karim… “He’s a street child, isn’t he?”
Karim stood up a little taller. “So am I.”
“You’re no longer a child.”
Karim half-grinned, showcasing his browned teeth.
Dr. Khan let out a sigh of relief. For a second he thought his last sentence went too far. “Do you know him well?”
“I knew him before I had this job. He’s smart…” Karim trailed off. Something about his demeanor suddenly seemed unconfident.
“I know he is.” The doctor had only talked to the boy a handful of times, but it was easy to see his intelligence. Dr. Khan had seen that in a smart remark that had all the suited men laughing at him. That was a few weeks ago. Little by little he had let the young boy buy things for him. Abdullah always knew how to evade the men in suits, and that was also something Dr. Khan liked.
“And you want to talk about Abdullah, why?” Karim asked. His face had contorted into a snarl.
The doctor was confused for a second before he realized what Karim was insinuating.
“No. No,” Dr. Khan said. “I am not like that.”
Karim nodded, but his face remained hard.
“Do you know how he got the message he gave me?”
Karim shook his head. “I can ask him, if you want.”
The doctor paused to think. Would including Karim in his scheme be foolish? Perhaps the hard man only saw him as a way to get money. Perhaps the first chance he got he would stick his master and take his wallet. But the doctor knew he was going to have to risk it. He picked up the blanket and smelled it. “A woman of yours?”
Karim clenched his jaw.
“I don’t mean anything. I also think having a woman is important. The greatest thing in the world.”
“What I do is my business,” Karim said.
“Of course it is. And if you don’t want to talk, fine. But I just want to make sure I understand a little about you.”
“Why? You pay me to wait and serve you. What do you care what I do?” Karim said.
The doctor glanced at the door. He got up, checked the hallway, and shut it. He stood in front of Karim. He could see the young man’s fists balling up.
“I too have a secret,” Dr. Khan said. “That’s what the message was about.”
Karim’s forehead furrowed, his head tilted like he was confused, then his face lit up and he grinned. “Oh?”
“Can you help me keep them?”
Karim leaned back and smiled. A waft of an unbrushed tongue hit the doctor and made him hold his breath. Dr. Khan had not thought it possible to see the young man’s face and eyes go soft, but they did.
“I will tell no one,” Karim said and pointed at his blankets. “The servant girl from across the street comes in at night. I leave my window open and she comes in almost every night.”
Dr. Khan smiled. “It’s good to have a woman,” he repeated.
“Yes. And secrets,” Karim said, holding up his finger. “Nothing is more important than being able to share secrets with someone.”
Dr. Khan nodded his head, though he was in no mood to share what was in the message. “I need to leave. And I need to do it without any one else knowing. Abdullah seems to know how to avoid them. I think he can help.”
“That boy has the magic touch. He can sneak in and out of anyplace without a problem.”
“Will he be able to get me out without someone noticing?” the doctor asked.
“You will be hard. But we can manage.”
The doctor wasn’t certain how the poor young man in front of him was so confident, but he liked it and didn’t want to burst the elated feeling that gave him.
“And where do you want to go?” Karim asked.
“I want to get out of the country.”
Karim chuckled, then looked at the doctor with narrowed eyes. “Out of the country? This will not be easy. You know this?”
“I’ll pay,” said the doctor. “But it must be done right away and no one—“
“I know. No one must know.”
“Right,” Dr. Khan said. Now that doubt had crept across Karim’s face he felt like his hopes were crashing. “This can be done, right?”
“It can.”
“You ever done something like this?” the doctor asked.
Karim’s eyes glanced around the room. “Yes. On the border to Afghanistan. But that’s easy if you want to be in Afghanistan.”
So the young man was fighter on top of being a street kid. Dr. Khan could feel his throat tightening. “And further than that?”
“It can be done. I will talk to Abdullah tomorrow about getting you out of the house. Then—“
“No. Tonight. Get him tonight. I want to be gone as soon as possible.”
“Okay, okay,” Karim said, smiling. “It will happen.”
The doctor stared at Karim for another half second before he turned to the door. “Let me know if you need anything from me.”
“I will,” Karim said, his smile almost too nice now.
As Dr. Khan made it up the stairs to his room, he saw that his hands were shaking. How foolish could he have been to place his trust in someone like Karim? The young man was a street kid. He would turn the doctor in, or kill him for his money the moment he had a chance. But the doctor knew he had to take the risk. His stomach rumbled and he pulled out a bottle of whiskey. It was a gift from decades ago during his time in Germany. He had barely touched it, but tonight he needed something. He made sure his door was locked before he took a sip.

The doctor awoke, lurching up and staring at darkness. His heart was beating fast and he wasn’t certain why. After a few seconds he made out a from beside his bed.
“You’re awake,” Karim said.
It took a few seconds for Dr. Khan to remember what he had talked about with the young man only a few hours ago. He rubbed his eyes, picked them with his fingers and rubbed the crust between them. That helped to calm him down. He was Dr. Khan. The great doctor, and he knew what he had to do. And even though his bed called him, made him want to sleep and forget this ever happened, he pulled his feet out of bed and waited for Karim to say something.
When nothing was said. When in fact all he could hear was Karim breathing, he wondered if Karim had in fact woken him up. Or was he just sitting here watching the doctor sleep? If so, with such a tough young man, the doctor felt that perhaps he had made a mistake. But as the young man’s chai-infused breath infiltrated the doctor’s olfactory senses and made him feel warm, he decided that the young man was here to help.
“Did you find Abdullah?” asked the doctor.
“I did,” said Karim.
“I’ll be meeting with him now?”
“We leave now. Pack what you need and let’s go.”
That jolted the doctor hard. He instinctively looked to see if his wife was in bed, but they had stopped sleeping in the same room ever since she claimed that he snored ten years ago.
“Wait,” the doctor said. He had, in fact, packed. But that had been when this wasn’t a reality. He walked to his dresser in the dark and pulled out the bag. He tried to remember what was in it. He put on a fresh change of clothes, then his shoes. He made sure his wallet was full and in his pocket.
Karim grabbed his hand. “We have to go now.”
Before he could protest, the young man had pulled him out to the hallway. They went down the steps so fast that the doctor felt sure that they would fall and be found out. But the young man was sure footed, and even though the doctor tripped twice, and pushed on the young man’s back, he didn’t fall.
Dr. Khan found himself in Karim’s room. The window was open, and Dr. Khan felt certain that there was someone on the bed. The smell of saffron was strong. He didn’t say anything when that form stirred. Karim pushed him to the window.
The doctor pulled himself up and over the window and into a small section of the garden he’d never seen before. There was a high wall with glass scattered in the cement on top. Karim, now beside him pointed at the wall. “I hope you can climb,” whispered the young man.
Karim looked around. There were no windows facing this part of the house. He wondered how big of a security threat that was. He walked over to the wall and looked at Karim. Now that he had to climb it, it seemed impossible.
Karim grinned, a garlic smell now spewed from his mouth. Dr. Khan wondered how it changed so quickly. But before he could think of that, Karim got down on all fours and indicated that the doctor should climb on his back. At the same time Karim handed him a piece of cloth. He indicated to the doctor to wrap his hands in it. The doctor did so and stood up on Karim’s back. It was less stable than he thought and he fell down. The second time he secured his balance with the wall and reached up over the wall. Even with the cloth to protect his hands, he could feel the glass pushing into his skin.
And he used all his might to pull himself up. But his muscles weren’t used to this sort of exertion. He pulled himself high enough that his chin rested on the top, and he could see the small street that greeted him. For some reason it didn’t seem familiar.
He felt a push on his ass and he used it to pull himself over. He could hear his pants ripping on the glass shards. Some screeched past his skin. But when he fell, feet then ass, on the other side, there was a momentary pang of relief. That was soon replaced when Karim didn’t come over.
Lying there on his back, he stared at the cloud cover and wondered why he was doing this now. He could sense the freedom that leaving the house afforded him. The air was almost lighter. It was as if he knew the men in suits could no longer touch him.
But the longer it took for Karim to come over—where was he?—the lighter the air felt until the doctor couldn’t breath any more. And then the warnings the ISI and their men in suits gave him tickled his brain and increased in volume until they were yells in the silence of the night. He thought about the warnings they had given him. That in fact there were trained American and Israeli assassins in the streets who were after him. And now he had given up protection, for what? To trust a street kid who may well have still been a terrorist?
He could feel his chest tighten.
The doctor opened his eyes. “Where were you?” he asked. He felt helpless. He knew that trusting Karim with his life was foolish. But what else could he do?
“Sorry, I heard some noise inside the house and I had to make sure no one suspected you were gone. Not until later.”
“Where to now?” the doctor asked as he got up and brushed himself. There was a white korean van near them on the street that Karim pointed at.
 “In there,” Karim said and handed him a passport.”
The doctor looked inside. There was a picture of him. Again his mind started to run, and his chest tightened. How could a street child get such good forgeries? In so short a notice? It could very well be that Karim was working for the Americans or someone else…
“I’m not a normal street kid, but I work for no one but myself… and you,” Karim said, patting the doctor on the back.
The doctor decided to believe that. They drove in the van for a few minutes, pulling further and further away from the city. Dr. Khan wanted to ask Karim what the plan was, but with his thoughts in such a jumble, he didn’t.
Arriving in at a corrugated tin shack by the side of the highway, Karim hid the van in plastic siding then pointed to a car. The air out here was clean, crisp, and crickets chirped in the distance. Dr. Khan felt better about trusting Karim.
Then the young man opened the trunk.
“No,” said the doctor, he hated closed spaces.
“You have to,” Karim said. “There will be checkpoints up. You have to get inside.”
The doctor felt like peeing, but in the end he decided that there was no choice and climbed in. The trunk shut tight, inches from his face. He looked for an air hole, or a crack, but couldn’t find anything. The car started up and started to toss and turn through a bumpy road. What bumpy road? They were next to a highway.
Dr. Khan’s heart started to race. The darkness of the trunk seeped into his mind. He never wanted to be back at home as badly as he did now. He pushed at the trunk and yelled. The trunk wouldn’t budge. This was a mistake, and he could feel it through his bones. He yelled again.
In response loud music was turned on. Dr. Khan knew that Karim wasn’t what he pretended to be. How he wished he was with the men in suits. He could smell something sweet in the trunk, and realized that it was blood. He kicked again and his whole world, nothing but black, fell in on him.

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