The Road to Afghanistan
The three days it took Harrison to flee the black desert of western Pakistan, he barely slept. When the saw the dusk lights of Rawalpindi he felt relief; street lights meant normalcy and a safe place to rest.
When Peel drove into the city’s heart he was forcibly slowed, melded with the busy evening traffic. Despite the late hour, he passed busy bazaars and crowded alleys. Hindu temples and Muslim shrines were clean and complete compared to cheaply constructed apartment blocks and government offices, with their rusting reo jutting from upper unfinished levels. Mounds of stinking garbage piled against chipped walls. Woman’s faces on billboards were ‘veiled’ with black paint while men were left untouched.
Peel reached the Hoodbhoy Orphanage as it was closing. Identified by his National Security Agency employers three days earlier, he had been assured the institution’s reputation was sound. Foreign and local journalists’ accounts spoke highly of their director, a Muslim who accepted all wards, regardless of their religion, gender or ethnicity.
Peel parked in the courtyard. His aching muscles protested as he clambered from the old Soviet Army truck. As he unlatched the rear door, two dozen red and blinking eyes stared back. It took the first child several minutes to shuffle forward and step into their new home, and into a new life.
“Yes Sir?” he snapped in a moment of disorientation. Embarrassed, he scratched at the dirt caked to his millimeter thick hair. He felt drunk. He wasn’t. He was dead tired.
“Thank you for saving these children, Mr. Peel.” Rashid Hoodbhoy spoke softly, with a formal and precise command of the English language. He watched, with a gentle smile, his volunteers aid the children as they clambered from the stolen truck. Many had to be carried. All needed water. A few with infected wounds were attended to with bandages and disinfectant.
Hoodbhoy welcomed every child with a handshake and a few words in Urdu or Pushto. He spoke with respect and love. Each child looked a little happier, a little less terrified, after they had met with Hoodbhoy.
Before he fainted, Peel found a bench, sat and waited quietly.
A volunteer who didn’t speak any language that Peel could understand offered to clean Peel’s wounds. Peel remembered what he must look like, with the bloodied facial bruises, rope burns raw on his wrists, cigarette burns across his skin, and his tattered and torn clothes. He thanked the volunteer and said he would be fine, explained that the children needed attention before he did. The man seemed to understand, and left Peel alone.
When all children were inside where they would be assigned a place to sleep, Peel rejoined Hoodbhoy.
“They were kidnapped by the Taliban,” he explained, certain that he must absolve himself by speaking out aloud his actions of the last week. “I don’t know how long they were their prisoners, or what tortures they’ve been subjected to. I don’t speak Urdu or Pushto very well. I can’t hope for much.”
Hoodbhoy smiled with the same warmth and affection given to the orphans. Peel wondered why. He was a foreign spy who lived in a world of deceit and death served daily. It was his people that created orphans.
“I’d look after them all myself,” Peel almost choked, “if I knew how.”
“It is enough that you brought them to me. Be thankful that you achieved as much.”
“But don’t dwell upon what you might have done to save them, or it will consume you.”
Peel rubbed his eyes. One of the girls he had to leave behind, crumpled and bloody, on the roadside. “An orphan died,” he confessed. “She couldn’t have been more than ten. An unlucky shot from a sniper.”
Hoodbhoy patted Peel on the shoulder. “I know, my son, her brother told me. But you must learn to forgive yourself. The brother forgives you. You saved his life, remember.”
A lorry sped by outside, rattled the orphanage’s windows and the kerosene-lamps, which were the only illumination, before it disappeared into Rawalpindi’s humid night. For a moment, Peel feared that the Taliban had tracked him even here.
“I have to leave. I could bring my enemies if I stay.”
“Do what you must, my friend.”
“Thank you,” he almost choked again, “...my friend.”
He gave Hoodbhoy most of the US dollars he had scavenged from the Taliban then departed. He drove the old Soviet Army truck five blocks from the orphanage before he abandoned it. His fingerprints would be everywhere inside the cabin, but he had no time to apply tradecraft and clean it. He was too tired to do a proper job anyway and burning was not an option. Rawalpindi was a busy city even at night.
With the remaining money he bought himself a fare on an auto-rickshaw. The hotel the NSA had directed him to was cheap and inconspicuous, exactly what he required.
The Sikh behind the reception desk barely gave Peel a second glance, as if he encountered Peel’s kind every day. He would be a Pentagon shared asset used by the CIA, NSA and a whole host of other US agencies operating in Pakistan. Peel’s kind would be known to him.
“You have a parcel waiting for me.”
The tall, thick set man nodded then disappeared.
Several local men loitered in the foyer. All watched Peel with unembarrassed stares. The skin on Peel’s neck prickled when he turned his back on them.
Within minutes the Sikh returned and handed the parcel to Peel, an armored briefcase. It was locked, a good sign that it hadn’t been compromised.
Taking the stairs three flights up to his darkened room, Peel entered quickly then locked the door behind him. He left the lights off except for the bed lamp, which was already on. Although the double bed was the most inviting sight of the last week, he still checked all the cupboards and the spaces behind doors, then behind the curtains before he closed them.
After peeing then guzzling the entire contents of two bottled waters from the bar fridge, he opened the case using the combination that had been provided to him three days earlier.
He didn’t find the pistol he’d asked for. Everything else he had requested was in place: three passports, each under different names and nationalities; matching vaccination papers; ten thousand US dollars in traveler’s checks; one hundred thousand rupees; VISA and American Express cards; and detailed maps of northern Pakistan and neighboring eastern Afghanistan.
A pistol’s hammer cocked. The weapon’s barrel was pressed into the back of Peel’s head. Two simple actions told Peel in the worst possible way that he hadn’t covered his tracks thoroughly enough.
“Looking for this, Peel?” asked the silhouetted stranger.
Peel raised his hands. “You mean the handgun?”
“Yes. No surprise, then, that I’ve already been through your briefcase?”
“You left the money?”
“I’m being paid well enough.”
Peel identified the accent as Eastern United States, and this troubled him. The assassin had to have connections within the NSA. Perhaps he even worked for them. Otherwise there was no possibility he could have broken into the briefcase without damaging it. Peel would have noticed.
When he turned to examine the stranger, a fist punched him hard in the kidney. Pain needled through his right side and he went down.
“I didn’t say you could look at me.”
On his knees, Peel was thankful that he had not fallen further. The closer he was to the floor, the hardier it would be to overcome his foe.
“I don’t think I need to,” Peel winched. “I know who you are. You’re Dirk Kinsella.”
The shadowy figure lifted Peel by his shirt collar, manhandled him expertly onto the bed’s lumpy mattress. He stood back just as quickly, weapon trained on Peel’s chest.
“Empty your pockets.”
Despite his pain, Peel did so. He had nothing of value except some loose rupees. His satellite telephone, stolen from the Taliban, was his only other possession. It already rested on the bedside table.
“Sit on your hands.”
The assassin found a chair and sat. His 9mm automatic remained leveled at Peel’s heart. His face, now visible in the dim light, wore a sardonic grin. “You guessed right, Mr. Peel, the name is Dirk Kinsella. At least that’s one name I’m commonly known by.”
“So, you’re here to kill me?” Peel asked, not sure if he was ready for the answer to this question. He tried to ignore the swimming feeling in his head, of tiredness and exhaustion, even though he was again in mortal danger and adrenalin should have kept him alert.
“Most certainly. These days not many people get to know me who don’t die shortly afterwards.”
He nodded. “Nothing personal, if that is what you mean.”
“A killing is always personal to someone. Can you tell me who?”
Finally a laugh, as if Kinsella had been waiting to gloat from the onset. “I’m too much the professional to tell you that kind of information.”
Despite the assassin’s western clothes, they had a cheap, local cut. His hair was dyed black and his skin tanned. His resemblance to a Pakistani middleclass businessman was near perfect. Peel remembered where he had seen Kinsella before; downstairs in the reception not less than fifteen minutes earlier.
“However, Peel, I first have to make a telephone call. This client was very specific. He insisted that when I found you, I had to call him to confirm the termination order.”
“Is that so?”
“If he’s in a good mood, he might change his mind and you might even live through this night. But I don’t think so.”
During their exchange Peel had wasted no time assessing the room. Unfortunately there was nothing that he might use as a weapon or a means of escape. Kinsella had been thorough.
“Is that why I’m still alive, because your client in indecisive?”
“Yes... and...” Kinsella hesitated, uncertain for the first time.
“And because I wanted to ask you something.”
“Ask me something?” said Peel, confused. “You’re the one holding the gun. What do you want to know?”
“I want to know what exactly happened to you, on the road to Afghanistan, three days ago.”
Peel snorted. “You sure? I don’t think you’ll believe me if I told you.”
“Oh, I think I will.”
Peel stared at Kinsella for a very long time, searched for any clues that the man was insincere in his request. He found none.
“So you know what it was in that other truck?”
“Okay then. I’ll tell you. For two days...”
Two days without sight left Peel unprepared for the searing desert sunlight. When the back door of the truck was unlatched and the canvas bag was torn from his head, he couldn’t see at first, because it was too bright.
Men argued in what sounded to be Urdu. A cool breeze blew on his face. Distances felt vast.
He stilled himself when he heard the unmistakable sound of bullets being chambered into assault rifles. Instinctively he tugged again the thick rope about his wrists, but there was no give.
When his eyes adjusted to the light, he saw he was outside upon a desolate road. The horizon was a flat empty landscape broken only by black mountain crags brushed white with snow. He guessed this was either Afghanistan or somewhere near or in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, one of the most dangerous places on the planet for a Western spy to find himself.
He turned towards the arguing men. Three decrepit trucks decorated with faded Soviet Army insignia idled on the road. A dozen Taliban soldiers lingered, passengers of the trucks. They were walking to stretch their legs. Each slung an AK-47 or M16.
Two of the Taliban pushed Peel forward, held him immobile as he was presented before their leader. That man’s eyes darkened as he squinted at the sight of Peel.
“Khaled Zakaria,” Peel groaned, before he spat blood from his battered mouth. “I should have guessed it was you. So, not a friend of Uncle Sam’s then?”
“You wanted me to show you the Taliban’s plan, Peel, well I keep my promises.” He laughed through rotten teeth. “I’m their plan.” His soldiers who understood English well enough laughed with him.
“The US Government doesn’t take kindly to being betrayed. You still have time to show me those WMD strongholds, and we can forget that this, misunderstanding, ever happened.”
“You’re not even an American, Peel. How does an Australian think he has any influence over the deceits and lies of the infidels from America?”
“My nationality doesn’t change who employees me, or why I’m here.”
The third truck shook violently, causing Peel to shudder. A squeal that sounded to have been screamed from a thousand mouths followed. The truck rocked, rattled violently, as if a gigantic and invisible hand had just reached down from the sky and shook it.
The Taliban chambered rounds, stepped away from the vehicle. As the wailing lessened, Zakaria smiled. “As you say, a WMD is why we are here. I take it that you still wish to get out of this alive?”
Peel flinched. The soldiers’ grip on his limbs tightened in response, threatened to dislocate a socket if he resisted further. Peel expected further torment, a weapon stock in the gut or another punch to the kidney, but the soldiers did not hit him. Earlier, while he had been blindfolded and bound, bored soldiers had burnt him with their cigarettes, savored his shudders and whimpers at unexpected, random inflictions of pain. They had only burnt his arms and chest, never his hands or face. That had to mean something too.
“I’m waiting, Peel.”
“Of course I want to live.”
“That’s the problem with you western infidels. No concept of the nobility of self-sacrifice in the name of God.”
Peel forced a laugh. “You want me to be a suicide bomber? You’re insane.”
Zakaria didn’t laugh, and Peel became afraid this was exactly what he wanted.
The wails from the third truck fell silent, so Zakaria thumped the side of the truck hard. Then the wails and the rocking started again. This time the sounds were different, a mixture of roaring, whistling and squelching noises resembling burps and farts.
Zakaria gave a new order in Urdu.
Two soldiers opened the rear of the second truck, the silent truck that no one had paid any attention to until now. From the darkness within stared a dozen or more tiny faces; dirty, confused, innocent and meek. Many children squinted at the sun as Peel had.
“Do you want me to kill one, Peel, so you know how serious I am?”
“No,” Peel cast his eyes downwards. “I believe you.”
“Good. So I can trust you’ll do this for me?”
“It seems I have no choice.”
“That’s the idea.”
Just as quickly the door to the second truck was slammed shut, trapping the children within. A few moaned. More whimpered knowing that they were again subjected to the unending darkness that Peel had also endured.
Zakaria’s jagged fingers gripped Peel’s jaw, pulled their faces together so there would be no misunderstanding. “They are orphans, son and daughters of infidels. They are nothing better than animals. I can either convert them to our righteous path, or execute them, but in the end that choice is left to you. You understand what I’m saying?”
“U-ha,” Peel grunted through his contorted face.
“Good.” Zakaria released his grip. “I’ll kill them all like goats in a slaughterhouse, if you don’t do exactly what I tell you to do.”
More orders were given in Urdu. Peel was frog-marched by the two Taliban soldiers back to the third truck. It still rocked and shuddered to its own accord, as if the truck itself was the living organism. Whatever hid behind its reinforced metal doors now sensed Peel and his captors. In an effort to get closer, it battered its gargantuan weight against the containing metal. Thick translucent liquid exploded from tiny cracks in the rear doors.
Peel struggled, fought against the soldiers who held him immobile. He didn’t want to see what was inside.
“What is it?”
“You’ll see soon enough.”
Two nervous soldiers sprung the doors.
The doors flung open with such force one Taliban soldier was knocked to the ground, where he lay sprawled and unconscious. No one looked to the fallen man. All eyes were fixed on the maggoty-creature squashed into the truck, bound by a thousand chains as it thrashed and moaned to be free. Across its porridge-like surface, short stubby tentacles whipped like a plate of worms, each tapered with circles of snapping teeth, hungry for something, anything to eat.
“What the hell is it?”
Zakaria grinned. “A suicide bomb.”
The Taliban general commandeered a grenade from an underling, pulled the pin and held it high so Peel would not miss its significance. He threw the grenade at the monster. It snatched it easily, its many tentacles fighting for it, before one salivating mouth swallowed it whole.
Peel ducked, for they were too close to the blast radius. He couldn’t flee, so he tensed every muscle against the explosion that would rip them into many strips of bruised meat.
No one was running. They were all going to die.
After the seconds passed, Peel realized he was the only one concerned that the grenade should have already detonated.
The Taliban leader cackled. “This ‘thing’ that you see before you, it’s already swallowed a thousand live grenades, and many more rockets, nails, ball-bearings, plastic explosives, ignited cans of petrol, and tons of noxious chemicals.”
“Thousands?” the words dribbled from Peel’s mouth.
“Yes, Peel, it’s a bomb, waiting to go off.”
The soldiers forced Peel onto his knees, then further until his face pressed against the gravel road so he could see beneath the truck. Several sticks of dynamite were wired to the rear axle, enough explosives to tear the truck, and presumable the thing, asunder.
“When we rupture the monsters skin, all the explosives inside are no longer held in stasis, or that’s how the American General explains it.”
Peel tried to imagine the ensuing fireball that would mark the creature and his passage from the world. He couldn’t.
“We are near the Afghan border, not far from a US military base. With your NSA connections, you can drive this truck into the middle of their lunchtime baseball match.”
“And if I don’t comply, you kill the children?”
“As you say in America, you catch on—”
Khaled Zakaria had no time to complete his sentence. Half his head shattered in a showery brilliance of crimson wetness. A second passed before Peel heard the gunshot that had taken Zakaria’s life. Three further shots and three more Taliban soldiers fell into equal stillness.
Peel wasted not a moment more. He elbowed the soldier whose grip on Peel’s right shoulder was not so tight anymore, breaking the man’s sternum. To his left the second soldier was raising his M16, but not before Peel looped his bound hands about the assailant’s neck, and snapped it.
Meanwhile, four further soldiers had fallen to the unseen sniper’s bullets. Peel could only presume that the assassin was a friendly to him, or more likely, leaving him until last because he was bound.
The first soldier Peel had sent to the ground was not yet incapacitated. That man raised his AK-47, so Peel dropped a knee into his throat, crushing it. Then Peel pulled the .45 revolver he spied in the foe’s cummerbund and put three bullets each into the chests of the two remaining standing soldiers.
It was all over within seconds.
Not forgetting the assassin, Peel rolled under the children’s truck, used the bloody mound of dead Taliban as cover. When he spied a fallen knife, he cut his bonds, not caring that he bloodied himself in the process.
The satellite phone hanging off Zakaria’s belt rang loudly. Peel ignored it. The phone rang again, and again. It continued for several minutes.
Eventually Peel accepted the call. “Yes?” he snapped.
Another bullet buried itself into Zakaria’s dead thigh, no less than ten centimeters from Peel’s head.
“That’s an understanding, Peel,” an American spoke to him, “that I can kill you whenever I choose.”
“Who are you?” Peel yelled into the mouthpiece.
“You have five minutes to drive those children out of here.”
The line went dead.
Peel didn’t hesitate when he reached for an assault rifle, but another sniper bullet warned this was a bad idea. So he clambered into the driver’s compartment of the children’s truck, flooded the ignition five times before it started. With the engine running, he turned in a tight circle until he faced towards Pakistan, and sped like a madman to freedom.
The assassin didn’t lie. Five minutes was all the time he gave before a volley of new bullets found the explosives under the monster’s truck.
An inferno the size of a football field lit the black desert like a miniature sun, and Peel no longer needed to imagine what that kind of death might be like.
“That was you,” Peel spoke softly to the darkness, when he finished his story, “the sniper?”
Kinsella was as much the professional tonight as he had been that day in the FATA desolation, not once wavering with the gun that pointed between Peel’s eyeballs. “It’s not hard to work that one out.”
“It was you in Lagos too, wasn’t it? You assassinated your own man, Carter?”
Kinsella shrugged, “Maybe.”
“Why did you save my life, when you are going to kill me now?”
For the slightest moment the assassin’s eyes cast downwards, as if an unwanted emotion had forced itself to the surface of his consciousness. If it had, he smothered again, held it deep inside were it could not touch him. “Only for the children, Peel, for the orphans whose lives you saved today.”
Outside, a tune with Arabic inflections, with rattles and drums, drifted from some distant apartment. Cars sped by. Abusive language was exchanged between night commuters. The scent of diesel found its way inside Peel’s nostrils. He felt heightened as if on drugs. He was noticing all external stimuli, because, he realized, these moments might soon be his last.
He looked into the unwavering stare of his foe. “I’ve been looking for you, Kinsella.”
The killer raised an eyebrow. “Is that right?”
“You’re a hard man to find. Extremely well hidden.”
The dark eyes wouldn’t look from Peel, and yet there was hesitancy behind their coldness. “In my line of work, if you can’t disappear completely when you need to, then you don’t stay in the game very long.”
“You knew what it was inside the truck, knew all about that monster torn from an alien dimension. You came after it, didn’t you? Not me or the Taliban, just it?”
“Is this twenty questions, Peel?”
Peel took a deep breath. “You haven’t killed me yet, so why not?”
“I told you, I have to make a phone call before we get to your death.”
Peel shifted his weight upon the bed. An action that caused Kinsella to stiffen, lengthen his gun arm menacingly. “Do that again, and I pop you anyway.”
Peel focused on stilling himself. “Kinsella, I bet you know how Khaled Zakaria came to be in possession of that monster. I’m thinking it was a mistake that he got hold of it, right? And it was your job to fix that mistake?”
“You really want to know, Peel?”
He dared a nod. “I wouldn’t keep asking if I didn’t.”
“Well, I guess it is only fair that I tell you, since you told me your tale. It started with a meeting in a slaughterhouse...”
The meeting in the slaughterhouse would never be documented on any official record; Kinsella knew that long before he arrived. If anything went wrong, there was no one back at Command HQ to come in and clean up the mess.
He felt that the floor set the mood, a mixture of various animals’ blood, some dried and crusty, others still wet. The Pashtun militants they were here to see, although seasoned soldiers aligned with the US Forces against the Taliban and al Qaeda, appeared nervous. They were eyeing off the Army Rangers on the opposite half of the killing floor on Kinsella’s side. Everyone present was armed in one fashion or another, with knives, handguns, assault rifles, and a few with rocket launchers.
Kinsella observed from a shadow toward the back where few could see him. Unlike the Rangers, he was dressed in inconspicuous civilian clothes, light pants and shirt beneath a cotton jacket. A high-caliber handgun bulged under his jacket and a fighting knife itched against his skin in its leg sheath.
Four Army Rangers lowered a heavy crate onto the floor between the two parties. Before they could release it, the crate jumped in their grips, as if it contained a frightened, yet powerful, animal.
“Is this the promised weapon, General?” asked the FATA militant leader, Khaled Zakaria.
“Yes,” said the Pentagon official, “a new weapon, Mr. Zakaria, for use against our common enemies.”
A Ranger corporal took a crowbar to pry apart the nails in the crate. Immediately tiny white tendrils leapt free like a pit of snakes, snapped and snatched at the air with their tiny, circular mouths. The wooden panels removed, a body like a fat pulse wriggled, immobilized by several loops of thick metal chain.
Zakaria and his men recoiled from the thing.
One cried his faith to Allah.
Several of the Rangers, similar to the militants, betrayed their discomfort by stepping backwards.
Kinsella had seen similar alien anomalies before, and so didn’t flinch.
“In God’s name, what is that?”
“Something rather insignificant in the scheme of things, Mr. Zakaria.” The General laughed throatily. “But nonetheless, worthy of our needs.”
“You said it was a weapon.”
“Yes, you feed it explosives.”
“Very humorous. How do you detonate it?”
“I’m serious. The stomach of the creature exists outside the dimensions of space and time, outside of the universe we know and understand, in hyperspace. It could swallow a whole city of explosives, if we had the time and resources to feed it that much.”
“This is not what I expected.”
The General grinned. “We have a little facility back in the US that contains a hyperspacial wormhole leading to a breeding nest of these things, hundreds and thousands of the little fuckers. At this size they’ll give you a nasty bite, take a finger or two perhaps — if you get too close. Otherwise, until they grow, they’re harmless.”
From the webbing about his military fatigues, the General pulled a grenade and then its pin.
Suddenly there were guns raised everywhere.
Kinsella’s hand went to his pistol, ready to shoot FATA militants if they fired first, which they would. Then he noticed the General’s Army Rangers. They were obviously uncomfortable, but they did not move, or even appear to want to defuse the situation. They must know something he did not.
“Wait!” the General bellowed. “I can assure you no one will come to harm with my next demonstration.” He threw the grenade at the monster. It swallowed it quickly with a greedy, rapturous mouth that grew in size to accommodate the explosive device.
Rounds were chambered. Knives were drawn. Men squealed.
“I told you to wait!” the General shouted, raised a cautioning finger. “As I said, the stomach doesn’t exist in this universe.” He counted down the seconds with his fingers. “Five... four... three... two... See the grenade’s not going to go off.”
Eventually, realizing that no harm had been done, the militants lowered their weapons.
Kinsella reluctantly returned his weapon to its holster. The General had been reckless. Kinsella would never have provoked such a volatile response with a demonstration like that.
“What’s its purpose then? Why feed it explosives when its stomach is not even on God’s earth?”
“My dear Mr. Zakaria, when you rupture the creature’s flesh, that’s when all the explosives you’ve fed it become ‘uncontained.’ And believe me its stomach is huge, bigger even than the Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium.”
It took a moment before Zakaria was grinning too.
“General, I’m impressed. What do you want us to do with it?” He rubbed his sweaty palms together, gritted his teeth tightly. Kinsella couldn’t tell if he was anxious or excited, or both.
“This will be simple for you,” said the General. “You have knowledge of where the Taliban and al Qaeda strongholds are in the FATA region.” The General licked his lips. “I want you to deliver this WMD maggot, and many more like it to come, to our enemy’s strongholds. I want you to decimate every last one of these terrorists, blow all the fuckers off the face of the earth.”
Zakaria’s grin became a large, crooked smile. “It will be our pleasure, General.”
Peel felt defeated when Kinsella finished his story. He’d exhausted six months in Pakistan attempting to discover how the Taliban were sourcing an outer-world WMD. He hadn’t speculated for a moment that his US employers were behind the supply chain, or had begun to imagine there was more than one uncontained weapon in their possession.
“Who is this General?”
Kinsella smiled. “He works for the Pentagon, that’s all you need to know.”
“Does he have a name?”
Kinsella shook his head. “I’m not going to tell you that.”
“He made a mistake.”
“Of course. He didn’t realize Zakaria was Taliban, with strong links to al Qaeda, or didn’t bother to research him deeply enough to uncover the truth.”
“Or didn’t care?”
Kinsella shrugged as if to say he agreed. “Were you told stories about the boogeyman, Peel, when you were a child?”
“Of course?” Peel frowned, not sure why there had been a sudden change in topics of discussion. “Why is that relevant?”
“My dad used to terrify me with such stories, of the boogeyman coming to get me in the night if I didn’t behave, to keep me in line, I think. My dad was a real bastard.”
“You want sympathy? I’m not your man, especially when you plan on murdering me.”
“I’m telling you a story, Peel, and since I hold the gun, shut up and listen. I used to wonder what scared the boogeyman? I wanted to know what that scary thing was, so I could befriend it, and scare away the boogeyman that scared me.”
“You’re taking about your father, I take it, scaring him away?”
Kinsella growled. “My point is: the Taliban and al Queda are like boogeyman. They scare me. They scare you too, or should do after what you’ve been subjected to this last week. By demonstrating that the US has WMD maggots, we hoped to scare them, make them think twice about warring with us if they understood how terrifyingly we could retaliate.”
“They were never scared. They are monsters who only saw a mirror.”
“You’re the side bringing these creatures into our world. By doing so, you’re no better than them.”
“You said Zakaria had more than one. How many WMD maggots are we talking about?”
“You don’t want to know.”
Feeling the need to stand up and move, Peel shifted his weight, only to have the 9mm pressed against his temple.
“I warned you. Move and I shoot you.”
“You’re going to shoot me anyway.”
Peel licked his lips, tasted the salt of his own sweat that wet his face. “You know I’ve been trying to find you for months, Kinsella. Ever since I learnt about you in Nigeria.”
“Ever wonder why?”
“To kill me?” he laughed. Both men appreciated that although Peel was a former soldier, he was not even remotely the same class of killer that Kinsella was, not as young and as agile as the assassin.
“No. I was looking for you because I wanted your help.”
Although the rest of Kinsella remained very still, the assassin’s eyes blinked three times rapidly. “My help?”
“Yes, your help.”
“Why would you need my help? Why would you even think I’d even give it?”
Peel forced a smile. “Kinsella, you helped me save those orphans. That means that you care about people other than just yourself. That’s a hell of a lot more than I can say about your masters.”
The assassin snorted. “You’ve over-estimated me, Peel.”
“I disagree. I work for a secret department within the NSA,” he blurted quickly when he detected that Kinsella too had become agitated. “We scour the earth daily, putting down dimensional horrors like the WMD maggot, anywhere that they claw through and into our world hell-bent on destroying it. You know this secret world that I speak of. You live in its shadows every day, like I do.”
“So, by what you’ve just told me, you know many of the bigger shadowy players by name. You can confirm a lot of what our department can only guess at. I implore you, terrify us with secrets we haven’t even begun to imagine.”
“You’re not serious?”
“I am. I’m here to recruit you as a member of our team.”
The man called Kinsella laughed again. “Don’t you get it, Peel? The so-called department you work for only exists as a lip service to the real powers in our government. Players who want to feel that through your group, they’re still doing something noble. Don’t you know that my boss is the boss of your boss?”
“What?” Peel shuddered.
“The General is with the Pentagon, Peel. I told you that.”
“Yes, but I thought he was operating on his own agenda out here, in secret.”
“Maybe he is and maybe he isn’t. But either way, whatever he does is sanctioned directly from the National Security Council. The one the President is on.”
Peel felt as if ice had just chilled his heart. “Do you know which boogeyman you’re working for? I’d say it’s the scariest one of all.”
“Peel, as nice as our chat has been, it’s time to roll the dice.” Kinsella withdrew a cellular phone with his free hand, dialed a number. “Let’s see what my client has decided, now that I have you in my sight.”
Peel fell silent, waited expectantly until his own satellite phone rang, as he hoped it would. “You want me to get that?” he asked with a hint of smugness.
Kinsella frowned, then nodded. “Don’t try anything funny, Peel.”
When Peel answered, it was obvious who was on the end of each other’s line.
“So, you hired me to come after you?”
Feeling the first moment of relief since their encounter tonight, Peel nodded. “Like a said, finding you proved impossible. Getting you to come to me was the only way I knew we would ever meet.”
“But that satellite phone isn’t yours?”
“No. Since my escape, my boss back at the NSA’s Puzzle Palace arranged for my calls to be redirected here.”
Kinsella stood, moved silently to the window to check the streets, the whole time his pistol pointed directly at Peel. “It’s a dangerous game you’re playing, hiring me to come after you. What if I decided to kill you anyway?”
Peel shrugged. “I’d be disappointed, naturally. My offer still stands, though, if you want a job with a bit more soul satisfaction.” Peel’s stomach churned. It had been a gamble that he had played; his last chance. Perhaps he had overestimated Kinsella’s sense of nobility. “Are you going to kill me?”
The killer moved towards the room’s only exit, his body soon swallowed by the shadows. “My side pays better. My side has much, much better funding. Certainly has more clout, and they know a hell of a lot more than you and your people could ever know.”
“What about an answer to my second question?” Peel could no longer see Kinsella in the darkness.
“Am I going to kill you?” Kinsella’s voice sounded from the next room. “No, I won’t. But not because of the trick you played to find me. And not because I may or may not have come to respect you and what you stand for, however pointless you’re ideologies are. No, I’m only letting you live because of those children you saved. You deserve a life for that.”
Peel heard the main door unlatch, lock again, and then nothing.
He could have chased Kinsella, but he was dead tired. Besides, in that last shared moment, he’d felt certain that the two of them would meet again.
Alone at last, Peel fell upon his bed. The bed still looked incredibly inviting.
Sleep was only moments away.
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