A novel by
Michel David Lowe
Two men stood on the dusty mountain ridge scanning the distance with high-powered binoculars. No bird sang; the stillness was broken only by insect droning. And by the wind.
Both men wore beards, the custom of the region, and loose fitting shirts and trousers. They had dark eyes and dirty hands. But the pakul caps they wore – just like the Sheik wore on Al-Jazeera – and the Kalashnikovs they carried, told everyone they met that the two men were mujaheddin.
They spoke to one another rarely and then only a word or two in Russian or broken English. Their rough peasant clothing spoke of hardship and toil. Yet these mujaheddin carried expensive German binoculars and American GPS receivers.
One of them stooped and rummaged in a backpack, the kind students carry their books in. He retrieved a map and spread it on the ground weighing down the corners with rocks.
Both men turned their attention to the map and compared its lines and descriptions to the physical landscape around them. The first man stood and pointed toward a distant ridge. The second man trained his binoculars on it and methodically walked the hillside with his eyes. The glint of metal flashed in his field of vision. “There,” he said in Russian, “start at the top of the ridge and follow the wash on the left.”
The first man followed the instructions and said, “Yes, I see it. Crash debris?”
The two men hiked down the hill, into the shallow valley, then up the other side. The debris field was more than two kilometers from their previous position, but the thin air made the climb a lung scorching endurance march. Despite months in Afghanistan’s mountains, moderate exertion left the two men laboring for breath.
When they reached the wash, a wet weather creek near the crash site, they paused to sip warm water from plastic bottles. They sat on a flat rock and surveyed their surroundings.
The hillside was littered with boulders, some no bigger than stepping stones and others the size of compact cars. Here and there wild flowers challenged the harsh landscape. And among the boulders and the flowers they found the debris they had been looking for these past two weeks.
No piece was bigger than a dinner plate; many were scorched and blackened with soot. One man kicked at a twisted bolt. The other bent to examine one of the fragments.
It was lightweight and brittle, probably aluminum. “Seems like aircraft aluminum,” he said. “Could it be a missile?” He handed the metal to his partner.
The other man nodded as he hefted it in his hand. Then he passed it back again. “I need to make a phone call,” he said.
He searched the backpack until he found the sat phone. He swung its antenna out and pressed buttons on its face. Idly glancing over his surroundings, he spoke into the phone.
“This is Nitro,” he said in English. “We found the Titanic. That’s right, map coordinates to follow.” He spoke the letters and numbers from his map that corresponded to their location and listened as the operator on the other end of the phone repeated them back to him. “Correct. We will leave a light in the window.”
He replaced the phone in the backpack and removed a green smoke grenade. His companion dropped the metal piece he had been examining and walked a few feet to pick up another.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” the phone caller said. In answer to the puzzled look he got from the other man he reverted to Russian and said, “Contamination. We do not know what payload might have been in the warhead. It could have been chemical or biological. If traces remain…”
The other man dropped the fragment as if it were hot to the touch and wiped his hands on his baggy trousers. The first shrugged and patted his shirt pocket for a smoke. They shared Gauloise cigarettes in the warm sunshine and made small talk. One of them told about his daughter back home so far away, just starting school. The other man had no children so he offered a story about a whore that he fucked in Islamabad.
After thirty minutes they heard the whump-whump-whump of a heavy helicopter approaching from the direction they had come. One of them stood and waved his arms. The other man pulled the pin on the smoke grenade and tossed it down the hill.
Plumes of thick green smoke gushed from the grenade and the other man stopped waving. He shielded his eyes with one hand as he watched the chopper clear the far ridge. He didn’t notice the other man level a pistol at his head and thumb back the hammer. He was still watching the helicopter when the other man blew his brains out.
The man with the daughter in Tashkent fell between the boulders. As the Huey passed overhead the shooter lit another cigarette. The pilot found a mostly level spot at the top of the ridge and set down there. More mujaheddin, four in all, tumbled down the hillside to greet Nitro, weapons at the ready.
“What happened?” one of them asked in slightly drawling English.
Nitro said, “Curiosity killed the cat.”
“There’ll be questions.” He gave the hand signal to stand down and the other mujaheddin took defensive positions atop the hill.
The man handed a pair of heavy rubber gloves to Nitro. More men emerged from the Huey, men in civilian garb, rubber gloves, and respirators. They picked up all the crash debris they could find. The pieces were double sacked in black plastic trash bags, taped tightly sealed, labeled and then stowed in the chopper. When all the pieces were bagged and tagged they tossed the gloves and masks into bags then climbed into the helicopter. Nitro and the other mujaheddin followed.
The unmarked Huey lumbered into the air and beat its blades against the thin air of the Hindu Kush. To the west lay Kabul and Bagrahm and home. The copter flew into the setting sun.