I missed my appointment with Dr. Kassem because I arrived in Mosul three days late.
The first hold-up occurred in Frankfurt where I was questioned by a domineering, blonde giantess over the purpose of my visit to the warzone. A mole on her upper lip. Bosom exerting pressure on her gaudy security uniform. Something out of a horrible picaresque, to tell you the truth.
I explained that I was a civilian contractor working for the U.S. Federal Government, like, I assumed, many thousands of others who must come and go through that airport on similar flights day in and day out. She did not believe me, and asked for my documentation. I was held in the airport for 24 hours in one room, which I did not know was legal in that country.
I was visited twice in that time. Once more by the giantess, who asked for a bit of documentation which I did not have. Some sort of letter of marque issued to security contractors. I assured her, vehemently, that I was not a security contractor. I told her I would likely not have even come through Frankfurt if I was. I reaffirmed that I was contracted by the U.S. government through the university where I worked, as a researcher. I would carry no weapons, had none with me, and had no affinity with those who did. It was a prestigious project, and I was lucky to have gotten it with my experience (I had not yet achieved tenure). She stared at me blankly and I asked if she truly could understand English, and why this hold-up seemed to be directed at me in particular, but she answered neither question and I did not see her again when she left.
The second visit was brief. A swarthy, sort of stout-looking Arab in business casual came into the white holding room and sat at the table across from me. He folded his hands and sighed.
“What is the purpose for your visit to Iraq?”
“I have been sent by George Mason University, under contract by the U.S. Government’s liaison to UNESCO to make a report on the archaeological findings of Dr. Abdul Kassem of Mosul University.”
“Iraq is at war.”
“That was my impression as well.”
“You cannot fly into Mosul airport.”
“The airport has been reopened.”
“It has not reopened for international flights.”
“Explain my ticket.”
“We cannot explain your ticket. That is why you are here.”
A surprise to me. My ticket had been arranged by the university.
“Lufthansa sold me a ticket for a route they could not fly?”
The Arab sniffed and shrugged. “We will try and get you into Kuwait. We will communicate with the relevant issuing authorities.”
“Kuwait? I need to go to Mosul.”
The Arab left the room.
About sixteen hours later I was moved to another terminal and put on a flight from Frankfurt to Kuwait.
I did not fly into a commercial airport in Kuwait. Nor did I fly on a commercial aircraft. I flew into Camp Arifjan on a Boeing C-17 loaded with ten tons of medical equipment and Copenhagen chewing tobacco. I was the sole human occupant of that cold, rattling cargo bay.
When the doors opened in Kuwait a blast of desert heat flooded inside. I felt my lips wither. The air outside shimmered. I was thankfully unloaded before the provisions.
An assortment of bland, air-conditioned and bumbling bureaucratic formalities ensued. I was told to check in at the contracting center to arrange my travel to Mosul. A Sergeant Mosquito, short, balding though he couldn’t have been more than 22, confused me with another contractor and gave me the wrong directions.
I walked to a billowing tent parked near rows and rows of immobile desert-tan materiel, a billion dollars of wheeled, up-armored equipment baking in the heat, parked there by hundreds of enlisted men at the behest of adjutants, carefully ordered and organized like lethal confectionery.
Outside the tent, just above the sound of the screaming AC unit feeding directly inside, I heard growling and grunts, scuffling. A sign outside the thick plastic entry flap read “If You Don’t Like Big Red Chewing Gum, FUCK OFF!”
I chuckled and cast aside the flap and to my surprise I found two burly men engaged in a sweaty, shirtless wrestling match. Spats of blood on the floor. Six other men, their muscles tight underneath their small shirts, gathered around watching, drinking, smoking.
The moment I entered, all activity in the tent ceased. The two wrestlers, one black and one white, stopped and turned. The spectators all pivoted to face me, their faces confused, angry.
“By God they’re sending us catamites,” said one of the men. He had an Australian accent and wore a trucker cap low to his eyebrows. He chomped mechanically on a piece of gum.
The black wrestler beckoned to one of his mates for a water, which he drank from greedily, eyeing me as he gulped.
I cleared my throat. “I’m Jonathan Eichin,” I said. “PhD.”
“Jonny don’t have no doctrate,” the black wrestler said, spraying water from his lips. “Only thing Jonny can read is ‘front toward enemy.’”
The other wrestler turned around.
“You look like a fucking twizzler, dawg,” he said, his platinum hair matted to his forehead.
Laughs from the crowd.
“Shit,” said another, a stocky man with a T-shirt that read “SHHH… Nobody cares” in large Arial font. “You look like a 6 oz tallboy can of Busch buddy.”
“Do you people work for George Mason University?”
Mutterings. Expletives. Incredulous head shakes.
The man with the trucker hat spoke again, his hands resting on his hips. A blocky black glock holster protruding from his side like a mechanical tumor. I saw my sweating forehead in his Oakleys.
“Do you like Big red chewing gum, Pilgrim?”
“I’ve never tried it.”
Each man in the tent pointed their index finger at the door.
“FUCK OFF!” came the unanimous roar.
Back at the contracting center office the incompetent Sergeant Mosquito found the other entry under my name. There were two of us: one worked for Triple Canopy. One worked for George Mason University.
I reported to the correct staging area, another large tent, which was not quite a barracks and certainly not a hotel, and found myself among a panoply of various civilian contractors awaiting conveyance to the warzone. Truckers, mechanics for proprietary weapons platforms, translators, chefs, cultural sensitivity instructors, lawyers. Some, like me, were to leave the next day. Some, I assume, lived here, in these sweltering environs which reeked of fuel, nylon and vinyl. I slept that night, on a cot assigned to me among a hundred other cots with snoring, fumbling inhabitants.
The next morning, I was in the cargo bay of another C-17, hurtling toward my query. I had four company crates of ammunition, more medical supplies, a pallet of TVs and Xboxes and a few other contractors.
“HOW DO YOU LIKE THESE SEATS?” the contractor seated next to me shouted. He wore aviator glasses and grinned wildly. His teeth seemed to sparkle in the austere light of the bay.
I looked down at the hard plastic “seat” I was harnessed to.
“THEY FEEL MILITARY.”
“IF SOMEONE DELIVERED THIS SHIT TO OGA, WE’D KILL THE SHIPPING CONTRACTOR.”
“IS THAT RIGHT.”
“THAT’S GOD’S HONEST TRUTH. I’VE GOT BETTER SEATS FOR HAJJ IN A SHIPPING CONTAINER PARKED OUTSIDE KIRKUK!”
My second flight on a C-17 landed me in a place somehow more desolate and scorching than the first; in Kuwait, I had an inkling of my proximity to the Persian Gulf. At FOB Q-West outside of Mosul, I had reached the end of the world. Yes there were trees, but only to shield the activities of the base from prying eyes. Thick lines of palms, artificial, planted with a planner’s care for utility, and nothing else. No, Q-West was not beautiful, and neither was it charming.
I took a shuttle with the other contractors from the airfield to the contracting center. Not a man about on the tarmac, nor in the sands between the barracks and dining halls. A row of porta-johns the length of a football field. The only soul a poor, slouched man who I saw from a distance wearing a wife beater, goggles and a bit of cloth over his nose, poking a burning pit of unidentifiable sludge dug into the sand.
Mr. OGA stood and tapped the driver on the back when we came near a tent with a scrap piece of plywood staked outside of it, which bore the spray-paint stencil of a red Indian head.
I sweat through my shirt in the five-minute ride and it evaporated when I stepped off of the shuttle with the remaining contractors to enter the tan concrete building. Moo-Lah Contracting Center Ninawa Province. The white paint adorning the letters had flaked off in the sun and I read the sign in brick-red relief.
This time the contracting coordinator was competent and by the end of the hour I had been assigned to travel to the city with a trucking convoy due to leave that night under escort by two platoons from the North Dakota Army National Guard. I thanked the coordinator, Master Sergeant Plasticine, and walked to the contractor motorpool.
The heat was evil. There’s no other way to put it; nothing here could live without tremendous effort.The contractor motor-pool appeared to me as a mirage some 500 meters away from the contracting center.
My brain pooled in my skull. I began to hobble. The fluid in my eyes dried and I could barely see for all my blinking. Soon I began to shuffle. I watched a scorpion the size of a beer can scuttling across the sand stop to flare its claws at me. I attempted to spit but only managed a weak hiss. I had no fluids to sweat after a couple of minutes.
“Son? Where the hell are you going?”
An apparition: a pot-bellied man with a red bearded face and a ball cap appeared before me, hanging from the door of a blinding white semi-truck. It thrummed. He wore a graphic all-over print shirt bearing the image of a white wolf whose blue eyes seemed to bore into mine.
“Is this the contractor motor-pool?” My mouth lolled open.
“Get inside,” the man said.
He grabbed me by the arm and practically hauled me into his vehicle and shut the door. The AC in the truck’s cabin shocked me into the opposite extreme. My skin flared with goose-pimples and I shivered. Outside the windshield I saw many other semi-trucks, some with trailers, many without, parked and shimmering in the heat.
“I never seen a case like you. It’s hot, but shit. You can’t act like this,” the driver said.
“I can’t help it.”
The driver grunted. He took a sip of an energy drink sitting in a cup holder.
“You want some?” He asked, brandishing it toward me.
“What is it?”
“It’s a Hajj drink. Got nicotine and Ritalin in it.”
I examined the label. A poorly drawn pouncing tiger and the words TOTAL ACTIVATION.
“Do you have water?”
He stood and squeezed into the sleeper cabin behind the driver’s seat and opened a mini-fridge. I turned and examined the environs. A Dixie flag above a small cot with the indent of his weight permanently impressed into it. A tiny television, off, and a small shelf of VHS tapes and DvDs beneath. The only titles I recognized were 300 and Veggie Tales.
He handed me a plastic water bottle and shuffled back to the driver’s seat.
“Where you from?” he asked.
“I’m a professor at George Mason University,” I said.
He smiled and sipped his drink.
“What’s that — Virginia? You’ve really got no reason to act this way, it’s muggier than hell in Virginia. And hot too.”
“Not like this,” I said.
“Not quite, I guess. I’m the one cooped up in the truck wasting gas to keep the AC on.”
He leaned across the console and stuck out his hand.
“I’m Brady Beauregard.”
“Thanks for taking me out of the heat.”
Brady nodded. “Well I can’t guess what the hell you do.”
“I’m a professor.”
“Why are you in Iraq?”
I told him about Dr. Kassem, the UN liaison.
Brady laughed. “They’re still digging for shit out here?”
“I’m not sure. His petition to UNESCO is a few years old. Now that the city is somewhat pacified, they’ve responded, and I was chosen from my university to do the job.”
“It ain’t pacified.”
“I’m not fully apprised of the situation on the ground.”
“But you’re a professor.”
“I’m a Hittite specialist.”
“Hittites.” I waved my hand. “Not that important. I have no real expertise in Assyriology, but I have some experience with Bronze age digs, so they sent me. I do wonder if maybe the other professors were not willing to travel to the warzone. Some of them have better qualifications than me.”
Brady laughed. “Not many of your type out here.”
I shrugged. “Well.”
“What’s the artifact?”
“It’s an Assyrian stele. A tablet with some pictographs and text.”
Brady’s eyes twinkled and his mouth hung open agape.
“They tried to take Jerusalem.”
“The Assyrians?” I nodded. “The kingdoms were contemporaries.”
“And God sent a destroying angel to the host of Seniggerath-”
“Well they were dispersed.”
“Yeah. They never took Jerusalem.”
“I didn’t know those bastards came from Mosul.”
“This is the land of Nineveh.”
“As in Jonah?”
“The very same.”
Brady scratched his beard and raised his eyebrows. “Well Good God. I saw Ninawa everywhere and I wondered.”
I nodded. “It’s a storied place.”
“What do you think it means?”
“What does what mean?”
“The war. In the land of the Assyrians. God knows these fuckers still hate Israel.”
“Oh. Well this war certainly has nothing to do with Israel-”
“Iraqis hate Jews. You ever read what Saddam said?”
“The Iraqis today have been Arabized through conquest. The Assyrians were Semitic. And they didn’t have anything against the Jews more than they did Babylonians or Egyptians -”
“You really should read what Bin Laden says about Jews too. That man is more anti-semitic than Hitler.”
“You understand it’s not the same, though.”
“I guess. But interesting that history sort of rhymes.”
Good Lord, I thought, where does the common man pick up this drivel?
“War is like a hurricane or a drought,” I said. “It happens. This area has been strategic to empires for thousands of years.”
“Nah. That’s too – I don’t know the word. Al-Qaeda would not agree.”
“They wouldn’t but their timescale is too narrow. They fail to see themselves from thirty-thousand feet.”
“Damn right. We do though. You should check out some pred porn while you’re in country if you get the chance.”
“I’m sorry. What porn?”
“Predator porn.” Brady pointed at the roof of the cabin and made a circling motion with his finger. “The UAVs. Kill footage. It is something. A little more direct and intentional than a hurricane.”
“Hm. If I get the chance.”
Brady smiled widely.
“So you off to Mosul tonight then?”
“Trying my best,” I said. “The UN liaison is at COP Blickenstaff.”
“Good deal. I’ll be driving through it. This is the mail truck. I got other shit in there too, but it’s mail mostly.”
“Can I ride with you? The coordinator told me I probably could hitch with anyone.”
“I don’t mind having you along. Mail truck’s a solemn duty though. So if you want to ride with somebody else I wouldn’t blame you.”
I laughed. “It’s just a ride.”
He pursed his lips and shook his head. “No, no.” He pointed at the glovebox. “Open that up.”
I opened it, and found, among some miscellaneous registration documents and a family photo depicting Brady at a much younger age, a pistol of foreign make, aged and scratched.
“Pass it here,” he said.
I obeyed, careful not to touch the trigger. Its weight was surprising to me.
He held the gun in his hand, checked that it was loaded by pulling back the slide slightly, and then brandished it in profile before me.
“This is a Tokarev. I got it for $10 in Mosul. I’m not allowed to carry it under my contract.”
I nodded slowly.
“I ain’t trying to act the tough guy. But I’m the mail driver. And that mail’s gonna get where it’s going to, by any means. That’s my duty as an American under contract.”
“I assume you don’t have a weapon.”
“I am also forbidden under contract to carry.”
“Well you’re stupid not to. Everybody does. It’s unspoken. Once you’ve got your shit squared away at Blickenstaff, take a trip to the market and get yourself a piece. You’ll want it. For tonight, I got an extra under my pillow back there you can use if it gets hairy.”
“Does it usually get hairy?”
“There’s always something. But we can mitigate most of it by traveling at night.” He took a long sip of the energy drink until he had drained its dregs. “I saw a VBIED explode early 100 yards in front of me once and send a goat five hundred feet in the air. Blinding flash, white sparking streamers, and the dust cloud which barfed up that cartwheeling animal. God knows where the poor bastard landed. That blast put him as high as they run some CAS missions, shit you not. Had my face glued to the windshield trying to follow the trajectory.”
“Was anyone hurt?”
“Just the hajj in the car and the goat. We rode on past.”
“You think that might happen tonight?”
“Who knows. I wonder about the bomber though. What a pathetic way out. You kill yourself too early and send a goat with you to hell. Imagine what his parents must have thought. His buddies? Jesus, I guess some people just die like that. Something like the war equivalent of a junkie dying on the shitter.”
The convoy left after dark and passed through the city mostly without incident. We never stopped in the time it took us to get from Q-West to the COP in Mosul, but we did take fire on one occasion. A few rounds. I heard them impact the MRAP in front of us without any result. A few panicked reports over the radio from the enlisted National Guard Platoon Sergeant Knutsen in the lead truck. And then the same Sergeant Knutsen’s truck hit some living thing slinking across the road which we quickly rolled over as well with a horrifying thump. We waited to hear from Sergeant Camrud in the rear truck.
KNUTSEN: AARDVARK 3 we’ve all thumped some creature running in the road. Do you have eyes on? Over.
CAMRUD: AARDVARK 1 this is AARDVARK 3, confirm eyes on. It’s a toddler, over.
KNUTSEN: Shit. AARDVARK 3, stop to confirm the civilian casualty.
CAMRUD: AARDVARK 1 we’re just kidding over here; it was just some dog. Over.
KNUTSEN: Fuck you, Camrud.
CAMRUD: I’m okay AARDVARK 1, I’ve got your mother in here tugging me in the passenger seat and it feels pretty good. AARDVARK 3 out.
In the truck my eyes were wide open, scanning the highways and streets for anything suspicious. But I saw little and could not make sense of Mosul when we were in it. It did not seem such a storied place at night, illumined by two cones of light which only revealed roads littered with garbage and the nondescript walls of concrete dwellings. Less wracked with bullet holes than I had expected, but I was still taken aback when we came upon any structures with blasted concrete and rent rebar. I feared the sight of a corpse, but I did not see one that night.
If any phenomenon stuck out, it was the signage. A striking thing to any traveler in a foreign land… It reveals much and little… abstract and alien advertising conventions, calligraphy stark in the white of the headlights, that script invented by Muhammad passed down to a people as foreign to this land as I was but settled by them and jealously kept… I nodded off when we came to Blickenstaff… I remember a sign, this time in English that read Polite. Professional. Prepared to Kill. Blickenstaff.
I lived in a plywood shack at Blickenstaff. As bare as could be. Exposed studs and the checkered, mulchy pattern of OSB sheeting for walls. No effort at interior finishing or design. But I was alone. A small cot and a metal nightstand. I don’t remember coming to the shack, only that at around 4 A.M. I was there, staring at the cot, and I let my small duffel bag slough off my shoulders.
Then I was awake, sweating completely through my clothing. Blistering light and heat streamed through a 24×24 window. I felt feverish. I could hear activity outside. A few loud thumps which sounded like car doors slamming with tremendous force and concussion, followed by far-off blasts from within the city. Distant gunfire. I rolled over onto my side and a spider the size of my fist sat utterly still in the middle of the concrete floor. My heart raced. I felt it staring at me. Ugly as death, like a mutant cricket with fangs and extra limbs.
Then the door opened, slowly, and more light streamed in. I covered my eyes and heard steps, multiple persons.
“Is he awake yet?” A South African accent.
“Dr. Eichin?” Definitely French.
I sat up and held my arm before my face. Three silhouetted figures in the doorway.
“Dr. Eichin. It’s me, Etienne. Etienne Du Part-Monte. We had correspondence?”
“The UN liaison.”
“Yes. That is me.”
“Good to meet you.”
“You as well, finally.” A nervous laugh.
“Mr. Eichin, we’ve let you sleep awhile, but we need to get a move on before it starts cooling off and AQ decides to come out and play.”
“Okay,” I said. I removed my elbow from my eyes.
Etienne was balding, just as he had been in the photo I’d seen of him on the UNESCO website, only now he had a five o’clock shadow. His nose was sharp and his head was shaped like a teardrop. Tall and lanky and wearing a stained, cream-colored button-down shirt. Behind him and on either side were two men wearing black plate carriers and carrying AKs. The one with the South African accent was white and wore a black hat on his head that read HALBERD SYSTEMS. The other was an Arab, or maybe a Mexican, I wasn’t sure. He didn’t wear a hat, but heavily tinted sunglasses with rectangular lenses.
“Hello,” I said.
“Alright,” replied the South African. “Up and attem.”
I moved my feet to the side of the bed, making ready to stand, and then I remembered the spider. I froze, and looked to the center of the room, where the shadows of the three men were cast long against the concrete, but the spider had vanished.
We left Blickenstaff in a GMC Yukon with two more men. An Iraqi the Halberd Systems contractors called Kong, and a short soft-spoken American named Josh, who all the guys called Gut, because he apparently could swallow a tremendous amount of smokeless tobacco juice without throwing up. I can attest that I never saw him spit.
The car was stacked like so: the South African, named Rafe, drove, his left hand on the wheel, his right hand on an AK with a folding stock jammed between the driver’s seat and the center console. Josh sat next to him in the passenger seat, his black company hat backwards which forced him to lean forward in a hunch which looked uncomfortable. His AK was held low, the barrel between his legs and the stock against his left shoulder, and his head never turned from the 5% tinted window.
The Mexican, or Arab, nicknamed Litz, was only visible from the waist down, because he stood on top of a jerry-rigged steel stool welded to the gutted frame of what had formerly been the middle seat. It allowed him to stand up through the sunroof and keep vigil up top. Etienne sat next to him.
I sat in the third row next to Kong. They called him Kong because he was huge. His biceps nearly burst through his company issued black t-shirt and his plate carrier seemed to choke him. On the ride, he sweat profusely from his face, and he kept rubbing his forehead. To tell you the truth the man seemed to be half-sweat. I watched him put down two water bottles in two minutes when we first set out, and I can only assume the water immediately sublimated to sweat, because before long he had sweat completely through whatever cologne he had generously applied to himself and the panoply of odors in the backseat was stultifying. I avoided looking at him and stayed as far to my side as I was able.
I learned through Etienne, who faced backwards in his seat to speak with me, his elbow curled around the armrest, that Halberd Systems had been contracted by UNESCO to offer us protection, and that the mission of that morning was to rendezvous with Dr. Kassem at a safe location.
“East of the Tigris, we should be mostly okay. Heavy Kurdish population, not as much fighting. We talked about a tea house.”
“Okay,” I replied, speaking a little louder than I would have liked because of Rafe’s blaring metal music. “Why haven’t you met with him yet? Just curious. You couldn’t have needed me to collect data.”
Etienne smiled. “Of course not. No offense.”
“– go drill your deserts, go dig your graves –”
“– and the rain will kill us all, throw ourselves against the wall –”
Etienne nodded and turned around. “Rafe,” he said. “Could you lower the volume of the music?”
“- but no one else can see, the preservation of the martyr in me -”
“War’s loud. Learn to talk.”
Etienne shook his head and turned back to me, but I noticed that the volume did decrease, though Rafe seemed like the type of guy who would never acknowledge acquiescence. Not because he was a particularly prideful man, but maybe just because a good deed done for recognition is not a good deed. He was, however, a mercenary. It is a mistake to characterize these people, one way or another.
“Dr. Kassem was out of contact with us for approximately four days, actually. You would not have been able to meet him even if you had showed up on time. We were quite worried about him and the state of the project, and we were worried we would have to cancel it. But then he finally got in contact again, and you arrived.”
“Did he say why he was out of contact?”
Kong suddenly descended into a prolonged coughing fit, his red cheeks ballooning, and for a moment I thought he was going to vomit.
Etienne looked at him, his brow furrowed and his lip twinging slightly, betraying the tiniest feeling of disgust.
“Are you alright?”
Kong gave a thumbs up and coughed once more. He turned left and looked out the window. He muttered something to himself and he continued to sweat.
Etienne looked concerned for a moment, staring askance at Kong before turning back to me.
“He did not say why, but it could be for any reason. Iraqis -” Etienne shrugged. “They do anything. A people at war is not reasonable, and Iraqis are – what can you say? They are the bastard children of Muhammad and Ashurburnipal. Kassem petitions a few years, disappears when his moment arrives, when the city is safe enough to verify his artifact. Who makes this decision? We cannot know.”
“Did you talk to him on the phone?”
“No. Email. He lives in a neighborhood on the eastern side of the city, and they cannot use phones.”
“Signal jammers,” said Litz, who had clambered down from the sun roof to grab a water bottle. “Because hajj don’t use phones to talk to people, homie.”
“Watch this,” Litz said. He crouched in the cabin and pointed. “Green sedan.”
The car sat on the opposite side of the street from us parked in front of a two-story concrete apartment building adorned with laundry hanging from wires outside of the windows. It was difficult to see among the thronging pedestrians and the other vehicles. A neighborhood. Small garages, fruit stalls. Knick-knack stands. Arabic signage.
“Rafe, you see the car?”
“Yep.” I could see Rafe’s smile slowly spread from stubbly jowl to jowl in the rear-view mirror. “He’s home.”
Litz clambered back up top, and the Yukon slowed. Etienne watched as we rolled alongside. Gut smiled and pulled his sunglasses down his nose.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
Etienne looked at me briefly, and then back at the green sedan. He shook his head, indicating that I should just be quiet.
Then the Yukon came to a stop.
“Is he in the car?” Rafe asked. “I don’t see him.”
“No,” Litz called out. “I just watched his ass peep through the curtain.”
And then a teenage boy, somewhere between 14 and 18 years old, came swaggering out the front door, wearing a Star Wars Phantom Menace T-shirt and Adidas track pants with flip flops, throwing up his hands and shouting at the car.
Kong groaned. A car behind us started honking, and another passed us in the road, narrowly missing a street vendor. I noticed some civilians stopping to watch the scene.
“Hit him,” Rafe said.
Litz hurled the water bottle, and hit the kid in the face with it. He yelped, then grabbed the water bottle off of the ground and made like he was going to throw it as Rafe started to pull the Yukon forward.
“Don’t you dare,” Litz said. “Don’t throw that shit back, homie.”
I turned in my seat and watched out the rear window. Sure enough, the kid threw the water bottle. It was a pitiful toss, some ten yards short.
Litz fired his rifle, and a speck of dust kicked up in front of the kid. He jumped and ran back inside his apartment. The crowd of civilians dispersed with him.
Rafe cackled. Gut whistled and turned back around in his seat, grinning, his bottom lip protruding with a visible chaw tucked inside against his teeth. Even Etienne smiled. Kong gave a belabored exhale and wiped his brow.
“I don’t even know why that kid bothers coming out,” Gut said.
“He hates us, but we’re his only friends,” Rafe replied.
Litz climbed back down and brandished me his fist.
I tapped his fist with mine and laughed nervously.
“Who was that kid?”
“That fucker’s a bomb builder. We caught him in the act about three months ago on a protective detail for an Iraqi construction company. Subsidiary of an American contractor. Funny name. What was it, Rafe? Cock-something?”
“It was Hugh-Cox Contracting.”
“Yeah, well, the little homie had staked out a vacant office building to use as a shop, which Hugh-Cox was tearing down, and we were securing the site ahead of them. Found his ass. Found out who he was building bombs for. Told him we’d hand him over if he didn’t keep us up to speed on activity in the area. He folded like a towel. And we like to remind him of it when we pass through.”
“This was much before we started the contract with Halberd,” said Etienne.
“Yeah. It worked out. We got a good reputation. We’ve got a good relationship with JSOC because of the intel we handed them. Big names. I met Petraeus. Now our principal is the United Nations. We did good. Didn’t we Rafe?”
“We have a good reputation.”
“Remember,” said Litz. “It’s not about pleasing everyone, homie. It’s about pleasing the right people.”
“True enough,” I said.
“Did you like that shit, Kong?” Litz asked, grinning.
Kong waved his hand and leaned his head against the window.
“Ah, come on. Wasn’t anything personal, buddy. You know it’s Corleone rules out here. That little nigga’s probably Shia anyway.” Litz thumped Kong on the shoulder.
Kong avoided eye contact and Litz lowered his sunglasses.
Litz said something in Arabic and Kong responded flippantly, waving his hand for the third time. Litz looked at me.
“Has he been acting like this the whole time? Sweating and shit?”
“More or less,” I said.
Litz said something in Arabic again, and this time he was loud and stern. Kong reacted poorly. He shouted back and his hands were aflurry with wild gesturing, and his face was redder than ever.
Then Litz pointed his gun at Kong.
“Pull over!” he yelled. “Kong’s hot!”
The GMC immediately swerved to the side of the road. Gut and Rafe were out of the vehicle with their weapons in seconds. Etienne jumped out and folded the seat down so I could exit, and I clambered out, following him to a concrete roadblock which had been pulled off the road some hundred yards away.
Rafe took cover behind a fruit stand after he waved the civilians off, shouting “Qunbula! Qunbula!” and Gut took up the same chant in the road, waving his arms wildly. Everywhere I looked civilians scrambled, and the cars behind us started pulling four point turns in the middle of the road. All was screaming and honking, and I felt a roaring in my ears.
“What’s happening?” I said.
“Kong is a new hire. I suspect Litz thinks we are a target for insider attack.”
Etienne shrugged and covered his ears, lowering himself to the ground next to the roadblock and I followed suit.
I prepared myself for the blast the best I could, every muscle clenched to the point that I found myself quivering, but the blast never came. Instead I heard:
Etienne and I stood back up, and walked back toward the black Yukon, its bulky profile shimmering in the middle of the road.
Rafe stormed toward us.
“What the fuck were you two thinking? You’re the principals. Don’t run off away from us. You could’ve been killed.”
Etienne shrugged. “There was a bomb.”
Rafe shook his head. “Next time, stay close to one of us. We’ve got the weapons.”
Etienne nodded. “As you say.”
We followed Rafe back to the car, and I saw Kong giving Litz a hug in the middle of the road and the latter slapped him on the back a couple of times. Gut was doubled over laughing.
When Kong pulled away from the hug, he wiped tears from his eyes and smiled. Litz said something to him in Arabic, and ruffled the hair on his head, which I found funny because Litz was at least four inches shorter and maybe eighty pounds lighter.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Fucking abject buggery,” said Rafe. He spat.
Gut straightened up.
“Kong took an extra scoop of pre-workout this morning. Went fuckin’ bananas.”
“Hey,” Litz said. “He’s trying to get huge in a harsh climate. Cut the big boy some slack.”
Kong turned to the two of us and touched his forehead, bowing.
Then we loaded back into the Yukon and continued to the cafe where we were to meet Dr. Kassem.
The Halberd men took no great effort to conceal themselves at the café. Rafe and Gut stood near the entry, their rifles carried openly across their chests, index fingers hovering over the trigger guards, but it did not seem that the patrons of the café cared all that much. The many Iraqis coming and going might cast them glances, even dirty looks, but it was clear to me that such a sight was common. I understood I was escorted by a gang, and these people knew gangs. They were used to gangs like Halberd, and other gangs, which did not wear plate carriers and spoke Arabic and blended with them. Perhaps they were there in the cafe with us. I cast my own glances.
The cafe itself was not exactly what I expected. I knew it would be somewhat decrepit: it was a cramped space, maybe sixteen by thirty, on the first floor of a multi-use building, and it reeked of tobacco and hash. A pall hung in the air from several smokers in various corners, and old wallpaper depicting a repeating floral pattern hung torn in narrow strips from one wall. There were visible bullet holes scattered in it, though the cafe’s glass was intact, so I could only guess that they’d lodged there during a much earlier conflict.
Despite this austerity, the employees or owners (how could I tell what the arrangements were in this country?) were friendly, and I felt no enmity from them. We were all served tea, without questions. Kong ordered for us and we overpaid in USD. Their eyes gleamed when they glimpsed the greenbacks, and then they retired to some nook behind the counter where something like a large samovar sat and steamed and a small TV broadcast a soccer game.
Etienne, Kong, Litz, and I took our seats at a small wood table covered in a transparent plastic sheet. Crumbs and dirtied utensils were spread on its surface.
The appointed time to meet came and went. Etienne looked compulsively at his watch. Kong nodded off. Litz disassembled and reassembled his sidearm. I watched him.
“How did you get your nickname?” I asked, after he racked the slide on his pistol and put it back in its holster.
“Because I go Austerlitz on these niggas.” He grinned, and then shrugged. “It’s not hard out here though, most of these guys are JV. Unless you tangle with Chechens. Doesn’t happen so much anymore. But I traded lead with them in Fallujah when I was in the Marines.” He shook his head. “Those are some dastardly fucking white boys.”
I nodded. “Are you from the West Coast? You’ve got an accent.”
He made some sort of gang sign with his fingers. “Burbank, homie. AP.”
“I’m joking, I wasn’t a banger. Armenian neighborhood though.”
“Ah. Here I was thinking you were Mexican.”
Litz raised his eyebrows. “You don’t want to be on my shitlist, homie.”
“Never call me Mexican again.”
“I didn’t – ”
He raised a finger. “Now you know.”
I put my hands up.
And then Etienne stood up. He was seated across from Kong and I, facing the door. I turned in my seat, and finally saw the object of my venture, Dr. Kassem, standing at the door in a white polo shirt and chinos, and I was relieved. I stood as well and nodded to him. He looked at me through a pair of glasses and smiled. His eyes were a brilliant green, like a black cat’s.
The Iraqi professor shuffled toward us, nodding and smiling at the contractors watching the door. Etienne pulled a seat from an adjacent table and shoved it with a loud creak to the head of ours.
“Please, take a seat,” Etienne said.
Dr. Kassem sat, and Litz turned around to the shop owner and called something out in Arabic.
I put out my hand across the table.
“Dr. Jonathan Eichin,” I said. “I’m impressed by your ability to work in this sort of climate.”
Dr. Kassem nodded slowly and shook my hand. I was struck by the clamminess I felt in his touch, despite the heat, and retracted my own hand after a moment. He smiled.
“Do you mean the heat, or the war?”
I shrugged. “Both.”
“Believe it or not, Mosul is temperate compared to the south.”
“True,” said Litz. He put out his hand. “I’m Litz,” he said. “Myself and the other boys in black will be your security for the day.”
“I thank you.”
Litz nodded and Kassem turned back to me. I couldn’t help but notice how much leaner he looked in person than in the photograph attached to his petition to the UN. He seemed almost a different man, but I could not be sure.
“As for the war,” Kassem said. “History is all we have to live for. And fight for. And possibly die for.”
Litz nodded solemnly. “I think the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae would agree with that statement.”
Before long the shop owner brought a pot of tea to the table. He set it with a clatter and Kong jolted awake next to me. Kong looked at Dr. Kassem and blinked, then bowed his head slightly and said, “Alsalam ealaykum.”
“Alsalam ealaykum,” Dr. Kassem replied.
“Dr. Kassem,” I said. “We can get to business anytime you like, but I do want to say you have a perfect American accent. I wasn’t expecting that. I saw on your CV you went to school in Oxford, but-”
Kassem chuckled, folded one arm under the other and took a sip of his hot tea. When he was finished he looked at me: “I watch a lot of movies. The accent is utterly inescapable.”
I smiled. “Full spectrum dominance, as they say.”
“As they say.”
After we finished exchanging pleasantries we discussed the artifact and its current whereabouts. Minor problems arose in this discussion, but for the time being it is perhaps necessary to discuss the artifact itself.
It is a 13×24 inch tablet, clearly broken, with a short textual fragment written upon it. Originally it likely belonged to a larger, complete stele which contained some sort of relief carving of the king Essarhadon. The subject of the complete stele is inferred from the text, and this is not all that surprising because stele depicting Essarhadon have been found before. The Senjirli stele recounting his victory over the Egyptian king Taharqa is far and away the most well known. We had no disputes over the famous subject. Essarhadon reigned during the waning Assyrian golden age, in the time of Jonah.
The job required of Etienne and myself was to determine the validity of the artifact, and to assess whether it was worth committing resources to its preservation. In practical terms this meant whether it would be shipped out of Iraq on a C-17 to, I assume, a museum in England, or left to be forgotten in country. But there were confounding factors, the principle one being the content of the text on the stele.
Assyrian rulers wrote glowingly in the first person on nearly every surviving stele we have, despite their probable illiteracy. Most ancient empires had an entire class of courtiers whose sole job was to read and write, and to recount the victories of their rulers. Assyria was no different. From the Senjirli stele:
“Daily, without cessation I slew multitudes of his men, and him I smote five times with the point of my javelin and gave him wounds from which there can be no recovery… his queen, his harem, his heir, the rest of his sons and daughters, his property and goods, his horses, his cattle, his sheep in countless numbers I carried off to Assyria.”
Ashurbanipal is the only King for which there is concrete evidence of literacy. He built the largest library in the world for its time in Nineveh and curated most of its content himself.
There is no evidence for Essarhadon’s literacy, on the other hand, unless I am mistaken (it’s possible I am; my specialty is Bronze Age Anatolia). Normally this is not a consideration at all. But the purported text of Essarhadon’s stele fragment, as recorded by Dr. Kassem, leaves little alternative.
It is a lament. Lamentations of this kind are rare, if they exist at all, in the canon of typically bombastic and violent Assyrian writings. And the specific lament, against Ishtar herself, a Goddess revered as frequently and piously as Ashur, the patriarch of Assyria’s pantheon, is unprecedented. Kassem claims the stele curses Ishtar for her unfaithfulness, for her deliverance of Essarhadon unto political enemies and usurpers within, for the disease which has afflicted his skin, and for the faithlessness of the occupants of Nineveh in those days. He even questions her existence! He roundly condemns the Goddess in no uncertain terms, and it is difficult to imagine the stele being composed by a court scribe, let alone the King of the Assyrians. Nineveh was her city.
This complicates matters. It is one thing to assess the worthiness of preserving a historical artifact. It is another to make educated guesses at its validity. The petition had not mentioned anything this sensational. Only that it may be significant as an artifact belonging to the corpus of Esarhaddon. But this was the job I was contracted to do, and the more I heard, the more I doubted. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach, and when I looked around the teahouse’s environs the more ill at ease and alien in this land I felt.
We encountered our next problem shortly after leaving the tea-house to the “secure location” in which Kassem had stashed his artifact.
After our tea and belabored discussion, we loaded back into the now extremely cramped and smelly Yukon and took off a few blocks north on a road that skirted the muddy waters of the Tigris. I heard scattered gunshots across the river as we drove and I saw a dog sniffing around a lump of unidentifiable blackened flesh on the littered bank of the river. I looked away.
Then we drove through a couple of roundabouts, tense affairs in which Litz screamed obscenities from above at other drivers and threw countless water bottles at windshields and bumpers. Then we turned into a dense residential area, crowded with single and two story buildings, with streets that thronged with children and dogs. Kassem directed Rafe who grew increasingly tense and frustrated. And finally: we arrived at a squat tan building with a small chain-link fence around it and disembarked.
Rafe and Gut again established a perimeter and kept watch. Kong and Litz followed Etienne, myself and Kassem through the chain-link gate, but before we reached the door, Kassem turned around.
“Gentlemen,” he said. He looked at Kong and Litz. “What I am about to say is almost certainly a breach of your company policy.”
The two stood in front of him, silently, weapons in hand.
“My wife has been rendered completely hysterical by the war. She cannot stand the sight of firearms. Both of her brothers joined Al-Qaeda, and they are both now dead. I cannot permit you to enter with us.”
Litz frowned. “Are you joking?”
Litz looked at Kong, who raised his eyebrows behind his sunglasses. Litz said a few words in Arabic and Kong nodded slowly. He shrugged and pulled out a pack of cigarettes from his plate carrier. He took a seat on a white plastic chair in the concrete “yard,” laid his rifle across his lap, and began to smoke.
Litz looked at the two of us and back to Kassem. He shrugged.
“If Kong trusts you, I trust you.”
Litz looked at the two of us. “I’m gonna go around back and keep watch. You need anything, yell.”
Litz walked off around the house, and after Kassem saw that he was gone, he led Etienne and I to the door. I am not sure what Etienne thought. His face was expressionless. For my part, I wanted to be out of the heat, more than I was suspicious of Kassem.
When Kassem opened the door, he allowed us to enter first. Then he came behind us, shut the door and locked it. Inside were two masked men with AKs standing around the remains of a living area, books and chairs and rugs crumpled in the corner along with digging implements and power tools. In the center of it all, a giant hole in the ground. A tunnel.
“Get in,” Kassem said. “Silently.”
“Yala,” grunted one of the masked Arabs.
Etienne and I obeyed.
We meandered in the tunnel for what seemed like an hour. Complete darkness, with only the sharp prods of AK barrels in the back for guides. It was no straight shot either; on several occasions the tunnel forked and we were forced to turn at junctions and I knew even if the Halberd guys got wise to the kidnapping they wouldn’t be able to follow.
My breath shuddered but I felt strangely calm. Strange things had not generally happened to me until the last week, and so I felt ambiguous about the situation. I wondered what the men could possibly want from an adjunct professor and a UN-employed Assyriologist. The dark calmed me, and the coolness was a genuine salve. It was only when we turned down one stretch of tunnel, the end of which bore a sliver of light, that my heart began to race.
We surfaced in a house similar to the last, though this one had more signs of permanent habitation. For one thing the tunnel was concealed by a trap-door, rather than a giant hole in the floor: this was the source of the sliver of light.
We entered a living area. Ornate cushions on the floor, and a small rug which was folded and tossed off to one side. A small TV with crumpled antennae on top of it. A box full of cellphones. Our captors prodded us down a hallway. I noticed with curiosity a picture of Saddam Hussein on the wall.
We were led by the masked men and Kassem to a bedroom. There were no beds. Instead, there were three metal chairs chained to the floor. One chair was occupied by a man, who looked up when we entered. I looked into his eyes, the same green as Kassem’s, but the man was heavier set –
I whirled around and was slapped open hand by one of the armed men. My face stung, and I blinked, trying to catch another glimpse of the Kassem who had led us here, but I was slapped again.
Etienne and I took our chairs, and while our captors fastened us with zipties I gazed back and forth between the Iraqi standing in the doorway and the man chained to the chair. They were related.
Kassem, the one who had detained us, approached.
“He is my twin,” he said, pointing at the heavier, more familiar looking sweat-stained stranger in the other chair.
He dropped a single sheet of paper on each of our laps.
“Study these. You have two hours. I expect flawless delivery.”
“Who are you?” Etienne asked.
“I am Dr. Kassem. Dr. Mohammad Kassem. Abdul is a do-gooder. I was a Ba’athist. Do you understand?”
I glanced at the sheet of paper.
‘My name is Jonathan Eichin. I am an idiot liberal progressive Zionist…’
“How could you people believe that an 8th century Assyrian king would have any pretensions toward atheism? You deserve what you’re going to get. You idiots. You abject ignorant retards. You pay taxes to the governments that put you here. Can you believe it? The indignity. Two hours. Do not piss yourselves or I will film you naked.”
And then Mohammad Kassem and his masked henchmen left the three of us in the room alone. After a few moments we heard a door slam outside the room.
Then Etienne spoke.
The man turned and looked at us. He looked pathetic upon closer examination. Bloodshot eyes, bruising on his face. He nodded.
“Did you submit the petition?”
He nodded again.
“Do you have the artifact?”
“No,” he said, with British-accented English. “Not anymore. Abdul destroyed it. He ran it over with his car, several times.”
Etienne sighed and his head fell forward.
I leaned to look at Abdul, careful not to let my script fall from my lap.
“Was it as sensational as he claimed?”
“I thought it may date from the time of Essarhadon,” Dr. Abdul said. “But it was no sensational document, not like my brother claimed. I transcribed the fragment. It dealt with a successful trade agreement. Diplomacy was the subject. Perhaps the rest of the stele was beautiful. Lost to time.”
“How long had he planned this?” Etienne asked.
Abdul shrugged. “No longer than three months, to be sure. He found out about my petition a long time before that, but the most it did was cause a rift between us.”
“All of the Ba’athists were fired from the university. Something like one hundred. My brother was one. So naturally, because I am allowed to keep my job he sees me as a stooge for the Zionist Crusaders – ”
“Mohammad was a professor at Mosul university too?”
“An Assyriologist as well if you can believe it.”
“Very strange,” Etienne replied.
“We have always been very competitive. I keep my job, he loses it, he tries to join the Fedayeen, they think he is a spy, he is tortured, loses his faith in Saddam, in Arab Nationalism, in Ba’athism, and so he joins Al-Qaeda, and they took him.”
“He’s in Al-Qaeda?” I asked.
“No, no, not anymore. Listen, he is not a faithful Muslim. I visited him once in New York, when he studied at Columbia University. I am no faithful servant either, but by God he was a whoremonger and a drinker. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Frankly I’m surprised he returned to Iraq. But a few months of perfunctory readings and faithful attendance of Jum’ah, and the cleric trusts him and introduces him to the wrong people. He comes to my house in the middle of the night three months ago in a blind rage, drunk. Al-Qaeda are drooling suicidal fools, he says, and I say, well, I could have told you that, and he says they’re going to lose the way they’re going but I can fix everything, I can expel the Zionists myself and I say, go to bed you stupid drunkard, and he says, no, listen to me, I thought Al-Qaeda were channeling Ishtar through Allah but I was wrong, but with their tactics and aesthetics we could revive Iraqi nationalism, and I say again, you fool, I’m trying to sleep, you may stay in the living room, and he says they’ve kicked me out but I pulled some men with me and we will start our own cell, I know a bomb maker and we will call ourselves the Ishtar Brigade. This was three months ago. I didn’t see him until about two weeks ago, when he abducted me and arranged for this pathetic sting operation involving the two of you.”
“What does he want with us?” Etienne asked.
“Ransom? Video execution? How could I know? I am too tired to guess.”
“Would he kill you?” I asked.
“He believes in Ishtar. He might.” Abdul said. He sighed, and then he looked at us with anger in his eyes. “I hope neither of you have children.”
“What?” said Etienne.
“You are idiots for believing a king of Assyria would curse the Goddess of this city. Imagine the offspring. You call yourself Assyriologists?”
“Actually, my specialty are the Hittites,” I said.
We said little to one another after this exchange. I was bewildered by the hostility. So I read my script, over and over, my mind twisting at the abject absurdness of the document, which to any observer must seem like a joke.
‘My name is Jonathan Eichin. I am an idiot liberal progressive Zionist and I have been detained by the Ishtar Brigade. As it is written: ‘May Ishtar, lady of combat and battle, destroy his virility, so that he shall be like a woman, may she cause him to sit in bonds at the feet of his foes.’ I am a professor at George Mason University. Some of my colleagues may be watching this. To them I say: forgive me for my ineptitude. I am a sorry excuse for a teacher, an evil stooge, and offensive to the Gods of Greater Iraq under Ishtar, Ashur, and Allah. It is for this reason my noble captors have taken me and demanded this ransom from the United Nations, the Coalition Forces, and Israel. Three million each, and then the Ishtar Brigade may attempt to rebuild this country. To General Petraeus, the ugly miscreant, incompetent son of inbred corn-eaters and servant of Jews: restore the tenure of Mohammad Kassem, Viceroy of Ishtar, at Mosul University, immediately. From here he may resume relations, but no sooner. As it is written: ‘I am all powerful, I am a hero, I am gigantic, I am colossal, I am honored, I am magnified, I am without equal, the beloved of Ishtar, Queen of Nineveh, the unsparing weapon which utterly destroys the land of the enemy.’ Indeed, the Ishtar Brigade will make Al-Qaeda look like the Coca-Cola Company. It has been said by the king of my degenerate nation, George Bush, that there may be no negotiation with terrorists. Neither will the Ishtar Brigade negotiate if pushed. Like Sennacherib, they will push to Jerusalem, they will push to Cairo, they will push to the Hellespont and beyond. They accept no compromise, and I will be castrated and then beheaded if their demands aren’t met. Jonathan Eichin, stooge of the Jews, international finance, Hollywood, international communism, the City of London, the Bank of International Settlements, the Coalition forces, General Petraeus, and liberal academia, out.’
I scoffed. “I am certainly no supporter of international communism, and I don’t watch movies.”
Etienne shook his head. “And I am not a homosexual.”
“Abdul,” I said, “will he really go through with this? It feels like performance art.”
Abdul took a deep breath. “It perhaps is performance art. But he also may go through with it.”
And so we waited in that bare concrete bedroom for two hours. Time in such a situation passes quickly. The constant noises from the street outside and our slow and steady breathing; the reek of sweat; the irritation of the zip-ties on my wrists. What is an hour? A door.
And soon enough, the bedroom door opened. After the sun set and the dark of evening had blanketed our room, our captors returned with a tripod, a construction light (one of those tall things with the cage over the bulb), a camera, and three long serrated knives. I could no longer doubt Mohammad Kassem. He was dressed differently now; olive green military fatigues and an officer’s cap. He looked like a cheap Douglas MacArthur character in some Arabized Broadway show.
His two masked goons set up the camera behind him and he approached us.
“Have you memorized your lines?”
We said nothing. He smiled. Then he left the room and came back with a hammer, nails, and a folded strip of black cloth. The two men stood silently with their weapons to the side and stared at us. Mohammad unfolded the black cloth and let it billow down to his knees. A flag with Arabic script and Roman script. ISHTAR BRIGADE. And a nude, olive skinned woman with an AK in one hand and what looked to be either a pair of shallots or testicles in the other. Giant golden wings unfurled behind her. He hammered the flag over the single window in the room. Pounding, pounding.
Then he returned to the small, handheld camera attached to the tripod. He checked the viewfinder, once, twice, and then he stood and addressed us:
“We’ve had some fine tea, we have a fine camera, and a fine set of lights. You would not believe the things this lens has seen. We are going to film you now. Just like the movies. Stick to the script, in this order: Mr. Eichin, Mr. Du Part-Monte, and my brother. If you take any creative license, we will just behead you. It will serve our propaganda just fine. But I encourage you to stay calm, be yourself. Remember: just like the movies. As you said, Mr. Eichin. Full spectrum dominance.”
Subsequent events require a lay out of the room. It was maybe 24×16. Not large. Our chairs were assembled at the far end of the room, in front of the wall that had the window. Mohammad Kassem and his men stood at the other side nearest to the door. There was an outlet on their side of the room, and they plugged a surge protector into the wall and then plugged in the camera and the light. A blast of bright LED. I blinked and looked away.
When I turned back, Kassem was adjusting the camera, squinting, peering through the viewfinder, twisting the small zoom lens back and forth. He gestured to his men, and they walked across the room and stood behind us, on either side of the flag, proudly holding their weapons across their torsos. The serrated knives were strapped to cheap chest carriers.
Mohammad Kassem smiled. “Alright, gentlemen.” He hit a button on the camcorder. A small red light flicked on. He pantomimed a clapping motion with two hands. “Action.”
I looked at the camera and began:
“My name is Jonathan Eichin. I am- ”
And then there came several loud thumps from outside the door. The hallway. They were loud enough that we all froze, our captors included. We looked to the door. Footsteps. Whispers. The two masked goons stepped from behind us warily, their AKs low, and then the door opened just a smidge.
A small cylinder landed in the middle of the room. I looked at it, my captors looked at it, and Mohammad Kassem unsheathed a small pistol from inside his fatigues and then –
The single loudest noise I’ve heard in my entire life. An opaque wall of white. I felt something in my left ear tear. I screamed and fell over, taking my chair with me. I was dimly aware of reports at a lower but still deafening register, but I could hear nothing specifically, and saw only white.
Eventually the image faded, and I could discern a man crouching above me. Aviator sunglasses, short bangs and a cowlick. He lightly tapped me on the cheek with an open hand.
“Hey buddy,” he said. “You remember me?”
I looked at him. I looked at his dangling M4 and shook my head.
I noticed figures behind him, bulky personages with M4s and plate carriers, stalking around the room. I saw one draw a pistol from a holster strapped to his thigh, crouch, point it at the forehead of Mohammad Kassem, who convulsed on the floor, and pull the trigger.
“We sat next to each other on the C-17.”
I shuddered. Behind my interlocutor, another man walked over to Kassem’s corpse and gave a fist bump to the man who killed him.
“A fine canoe, brother.” The flash of a photograph. Kassem’s crumpled body.
“A fine canoe.”
The man standing above me slapped my face a few more times.
“Remember?” He asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “The seats. You didn’t like the seats. Mr. OGA.”
“No, I did not.” He smiled a wide, toothy grin, and I could see myself in his sunglasses. “I did not expect to see you again here.”
“Why would I be here? It’s ludicrous.”
I propped myself on my elbow and pointed with one hand past the OGA man.
“Tell your boys that they just desecrated the body of Ishtar’s viceroy on earth. If they’re not careful she might pass on to them. She likes that kind of thing.”
Mr. OGA looked over his shoulder and then shrugged.
“They’re not my boys. They’re Redmen. They behave how they like on target, and they kill bad guys. They’ll take all the help they can get.”
Back at Blickenstaff I learned that Halberd used their JSOC connection through Litz to get them notified of our predicament. The Redmen were a SEAL platoon operating in the area, and Mr. OGA was their attached intelligence officer. Litz handed them the name Kassem, and apparently the dots were connected quickly. Mohammad Kassem was wanted in connection with a mass-shooting on the other side of the Tigris. His name had come up several times in interrogations, and he was apparently feared even within the local Al-Qaeda cells, if only for his unpredictable violence. Abdul Kassem, on the other hand, was known to be missing. His wife had lodged a complaint with local Mosul police that she suspected it had been the work of her Al-Qaeda affiliated brother-in-law. This complaint made it upstream to JSOC who had been running kill or capture missions on any Al-Qaeda insurgents they could find, whether they belonged to some splinter sect or if they pledged allegiance to Zarqawi. Mohammad was on a kill mission. He was a spoke in a large wheel and his particular violent ideology obviously stopped with him.
The house in which we were held was owned by Kassem’s uncle, deceased a few months prior in a suicide attack in a different city by a Shia insurgent organization. The uncle sold tires.
Etienne and I made a full recovery, though we never saw each other again after our time in that strange bedroom. Abdul took a ricochet to the lumbar spine and was paralyzed from the waist down, but I hear he still teaches at Mosul university, to the best of his ability, and with the resources such a university in such a city can administer.
Litz came and found me shortly before I left the modest medical facility at Blickenstaff. He apologized to me for letting his guard down, and that he was putting away the “sword” forever. Halberd was probably going to fold, he said. I advised him against quitting, said he was good at his job despite the strange contract with the UN. How could he know what was going to happen? He changed his mind without much convincing on my part. Seemed as his principal he just wanted my approval. Something ancient in this kind of martial bearing. Before he left, he punched me in the shoulder and told me if I was ever in Burbank and met a man named “Avakian,” to ‘flat-out rob him.’ I told him I’d try my best.
Another visit to the doctor to check on my healing eardrum at Camp Arifjan, a few more flights and I was back in Frankfurt on a long layover. No prolonged interrogations this time. Just aisles of vacant seats and long walks through alternating empty and bustling terminals. Grey. Tremendous windows. And when I saw people, I looked closely at them. Every life a story. Every man a stalk of wheat. I myself one of the nearly-threshed.
I stopped for coffee at a German Starbucks; no problem, the cashier spoke English. I ordered an Americano. A few minutes later I heard my name called. “Jonny, Americano!”
That’s funny, I remember thinking, I don’t think I said Jonny.
I approached the counter, but another man beat me there. He wore a large bulky multicam backpack and trail-running shoes. A tight-fitting gray t-shirt. He nodded to the barista, the Americano in his hand.
I almost said something, until he turned around.
He wore a baseball cap that read Triple Canopy.
A minute or two later the barista called “Jonathan.”
— John Jay Stancliff is a carpenter from Montana