This is one in a series of fictional short stories that I’ll be posting in the ensuing weeks. Like all good fiction there is enough truth in the stories to include pictures, which I believe is an interesting modification of the fictional short story genre.
The heavily armed American bumped along the Lashkary Canal road at the wheel of an old Toyota Hi Lux heading south into the vast Dasht-e Margo (Desert of Death). He watched the not-so-bright lights of Zaranj, the capitol of Afghanistan’s Nimroz province recede in the rearview mirror. His Afghan driver and constant companion, Haji jan, an old Taliban fighter who couldn’t see shit at night, was riding shotgun. Zaki, one of his construction project foremen was sitting in the center of the back seat staring pensively out of the windshield. All three of the men wore chest rigs with rifle magazines and smoke grenades, the American also carried a .45caliber Kimber holstered on his chest for easy access. Tor Spay (Black Dog in Pashto) sat behind the driver, the massive black beast was relaxed, panting slowly, as he rested contently. Tor Spay loved being out at night on the hunt.
Migrating sand dunes were a constant menace in this part of the desert. On some nights they moved at 10 miles per hour in gigantic piles of talc fine sand shaped like arrow heads. You could see dozens of them blasting across the flat desert floor when you flew in or out of Zaranj. One of those arrowheads could bury the Lashkary road under a 30 foot wall of sand in less than 15 minutes and they were hard to see when the sand was blowing. Hitting one was like hitting a concrete wall and the buses running between Zaranj and Ring Road at Delaram occasionally hit them at speed causing horrific injuries.
The autumn night was cool and clear, with bright ambient light provided by millions of stars stretched across the high desert sky. Normally beautiful, tonight the ambient light was magnifying the blowing sand making it that much more difficult to navigate. The American was a singleton, part of an off-the-book’s black operation called The Eclipse Group that was loved by ISAF and loathed by the CIA. His source code was Willie 4 which came from the “Free Willie” operation a few years back that involved rescuing a well-known reporter from even better-known kidnappers. He had not done much on that operation because the reporter self-rescued, but his participation landed him a meeting with The Old Man at his oceanfront home in La Jolla. His presidential pardon for the Iran Contra affair was the first thing you saw when entering the home and the six MG 34 German machineguns in various states of assembly littering his garage added to the ambiance.
The Old Man explained what a singleton was telling him that if he ever got pulled into some sort of agency ass covering operation he was on his own. He then added that if he directed him to participate in such an adventure it was because there were no other options. Wreathed in a halo of cigarette smoke the Old Man had stared hard into his eyes and said, “If you get yoked up, you are on your own; I don’t know you, Uncle Sam don’t know you, you’re fucked; do you understand this, and I want to hear you say it out loud”. He liked his code name; he liked the mission, and he liked the Old Man; he understood and said so.
The Spy was a retired 48 year old Marine who looked to be in his 30’s, he was fit and even with the long hair and two fist beard, penetrating blue eyes and perpetual pleasant smile he still looked like a solider. And now here he was, launching a rescue mission on blind faith that the Old Man wouldn’t send him into the unknown unless it was some sort of national level emergency. The Old Man had skyped him from his villa in La Jolla in a state of high excitement. Being old school, he was certain the NSA couldn’t hack into Skype calls, so he used Skype frequently which was how the NSA knew what Eclipse was up to. Speaking in a hushed tone, staring intently into his laptop which was perched next to his poolside lounge chair, the Old Man told the spy a disaster was unfolding just a few hundred miles from him in Iran.
Dewey explained that the current administration had bragged about a cyber attack conducted by the Israeli’s using the Sextent virus. Both President Obama and Vice President Biden had crowed about the op on national television while claiming credit for it despite having nothing to do with it. The Iranians had responded with a mole hunt that turned out to be child’s play when they discovered the internet-based platform the CIA used to communicate with their agents in the field was a post 9/11 temporary quick fix. Nobody at the CIA ever thought it important to go back and fix the quick fix so their now archaic platform was easily penetrated by the legions of professional grade Iranian and Chinese hackers.
The Iranians had already killed 15 CIA assets; the Chinese had cleared the board of every CIA asset in their country. The agency needed to get their one remaining agent out of Iran with an emergency extract but had nobody positioned to do it. The American was in the position to do something; he could get across the Iranian border with Nimroz province into the uninhabited desert. He had gone over the border before to gather a census of the scores of ancient abandoned walled cities that dot the Dasht-e Margo. The flourishing Persian civilization that once lived in those towns were forced the flee when Genghis Khan dammed the Helmand River turning the productive farmland into a desert. If the Old Man could get his agent and family into the Sistan basin portion of the desert of death then the American could get him over the border and on a plane to Kabul. Inshallah.
They forded the Helmand River easily; the intake dam the American had built the prior summer for the Charborjak district irrigation system took in most of the river upstream. That had caused the Iranians to bitch about not getting their mandated share of Helmand water, which amused the American, but not the USAID field representatives who had funded the project. Once they moved away from the river deeper into the desert the blowing sand abated, and they made good time across the hard-packed desert floor. An hour northeast of the river Zaki’s Icom radio sparked to life; Baloch tribal fighters from the Iranian side of the border were waiting to link up. A red star cluster shot up into the sky marking the stationary Baloch patrol, the American stopped and sent up two green star clusters to signal they were coming in clean.
The American pulled into a small cluster of Ford pickups that had once belonged to the Afghanistan National Police. They were now painted is desert camouflage and sported the markings of the Iranian Border Police. The men inside the trucks, like the American and his crew, wore local shalwar kameez pants and tunics; unlike the American their tunic bottom hems were squared in the Pakistani manner. The American took turns greeting the patrol leaders with a big hug, and three kisses on the cheek because they knew each other well. The American had repaired the irrigation systems the desert Baloch needed to re-occupy the land that the Soviets had driven them off some 30 years prior. The American had kept his word and delivered on every promise he made and that meant something to the desert tribes.
The American produced a claymore bag containing 50,000 US dollars: all of it in Benjamin’s which were immediately stashed in the patrol leaders’ truck without being counted. The men sat around a small campfire drinking chai and smoking cigarettes, the American was staring into the fire while visualizing the linkup in his mind, trying to anticipate how it should go down while inventorying in his head things he should not see like firearms or bulky clothing. The rule of opposites is a powerful subconscious observation tool that humans use instinctively. Thinking about what ‘opposite’ would look like in this context was critical, the American was not going to end up in an orange jump suit on Iranian national television.
At midnight they took off with the main body tucked in behind the point element and flankers dispatched by the Patrol leader to screen their movement to an abandoned walled city identified as EF 595 – C on the satellite imagery that had been provided him by the DARPA funded, burning man loving, humanitarian outfit at the Taj guesthouse in Jalalabad known as the Synergy Strike Force. The claimed they were “prosocial cyberizing in complex combat zones” by running a guesthouse with a bar and nice pool but that was just a cover, they were spooks.
The Baluch patrol leader looked at the imagery and said the target was known as Qala Fath which meant clear water, which also meant it was a frequent stop on the Taliban rat lines running out of both Pakistan and Iran. Clean, clear water was hard to find in the Dasht-e Margo; this was a popular spot and the American wondered how the Old Man had known to send his guy there. They were 45 minutes away and had to move fast, being on the Iranian side of the border when the sun came up was asking for trouble.
The fighting patrol pulled into the eastern entrance to Qala Fath and stopped. Baba D dismounted with his weapons and went alone to the center of the old complex with Tor Spay. He found some steps to sit on, broke a green chem light shaking it good to get the fluorescence going, and threw it on the ground in front of him. He then lit a cigarette and waited, Tor Spay sitting obediently by his side. An old man accompanied by three women stepped out of one of the buildings and approached him. The man asked in English if he knew Jack; the American replied “ Yep”, before adding “I’m from the American government and here to help” then laughed at his own joke. The old man looked confused, the women behind him were shaking, clearly terrified by Tor Spay who was up on his feet looking at the Iranians with interest.
The American stood walking over to the family while asking them to stand still so Tor Spay could meet and smell them which they did with trepidation. Once that was completed he took the massive black dog off his lead and gave him a one word command: “Hunt”. Tor Spay took off like a rocket back towards the area the family was just occupying. He moved like lightening and made no sound at all as he searched the ruins for any signs of uninvited Iranians. He returned ten minutes later looking at the American expectantly for some treats.
They arrived at the American’s safe house in Zaranj, with the dawn. The safe house was across the street from the Zaranj municipal airport which consisted of a runway, an abandoned building, and a resident pack of feral dogs. The house staff had hot chai and breakfast waiting. The American made a pot of coffee and headed outside to the porch to watch the sunrise. The Iranian walked out on the porch to ask for a cup of his coffee. The American smiled and said there was plenty. The Iranian stood there uncertain what to say or do so the American spoke first.
“Look I don’t want to know your name or who you are or how you got to that old walled city in the desert. I’m not from the CIA, they will meet you on the flight to Kabul which leaves in three hours. I would appreciate it if are vague in your description of me, the less the CIA knows about me the better and the less I know about you the better. Both you and the CIA know the Old Man sent me and that is all any of you need know”.
The Iranian relaxed and sat down taking in the spectacular sunrise with the American. “How do I thank you for what you have given my family and I”?
The Spy didn’t look at him saying quietly “You owe the Old Man, not me for your rescue, but when you see him next if you would please tell him Willi 4 deserves a serious cash bonus and a long vacation I’d be much obliged”. The two sat quietly watching the sunrise until Haji jan called them down for breakfast.
At 1100 they left the safe house and drove to the airport gate where they were met by Zaki’s uncle Mohammad, a local mullah who doubled as the airport manager. Mohammad had been the airport manager for 30 years and spoke fluent Russian, Persian, English, German as well as all the local languages of Afghanistan. At 1115 a Beechcraft Super King came screaming down the runway mere feet off the deck which sent a large pack of feral dogs fleeing towards holes in the fence line. Having rid the landing strip of dogs the plane gained altitude and kicked the rudder to starboard (going to its port side would put it into Iranian airspace), came back around and settled on the runway, taxing to an old abandoned administrative building.
The airport consisted of a chain link fence around a single runway with a single entrance gate on the western side. There were no other passengers for this flight just the Iranian and family so the Spy and the ten truckloads of Afghan Border Police sent by Governor Abdul Karim Brahui to secure the airport. The plane did not shut down its engines as Iranian and his family were hustled aboard. He was met by his CIA case officer who apologized profusely for his cover being blown and for failing to give him a burn notice. Interestingly the CIA man did not speak to or acknowledge the American who had rescued them from Iran. The Iranian thanked Allah, for the hundredth time, that the man who had recruited him had not forgotten him. That man had told him 30 years ago that he could never trust the CIA but could always trust him. He had been true to his word.
As the plane taxied down the runway towards freedom, he looked for the American, but he had disappeared. The man was a ghost; he would never see him again, never know his name, and never forget him.