11 12 / 2013
After Schuler left Ali Masjid, Javed Khan wrapped up with a hasty thanks and requested everyone to return to the barracks building fifteen minutes before noon. He retired to a back room, while most of the other parties filtered out the front or one of the side halls to the fort yard. The Baron waited with the Zombie and the Generous Man, planning to leave last. Several of the men gave him a brief nod and a greeting as they left, including Don Piero and Major Callum.
To each he said, “I hope we can find time to speak soon.”
The barracks hall nearly emptied out. A single Chinese guard seated himself on a stool beside the “Jade Emperor,” while another two stood around the body of the dead guard and discussed in Mandarin how they’d dispose of him.
The Baron quietly said, “I think I’ve figured out what made Javed Khan upset.”
“It smells like a burned ham in here,” the Zombie said, “That why?”
“The long pig roast is why he’s having a nervous breakdown in another room,” the Baron said, “but no, not that. Before he even began, he was looking around the room nervously.”
The Generous Man folded his hands behind his back. “He was intimidated.”
“No,” the Baron said, “The Muslim attendees weren’t in the room. He was looking for them, but they didn’t come. Remember the Indonesians? The Moroccan? The Turk?”
“You’re right,” Gen said, “the room was full. I wasn’t looking for anyone missing.”
“Nor was I,” the Baron said, “but they deliberately didn’t show. Why?”
“Can we ask them?” the Zombie said.
“I think we can,” said Gen, “but Baron, before we go anywhere, a question.”
“Do you have a plan to get the Rites?”
“Not a complete one, not yet.”
“We need to come up with something concrete soon. Your speech was thoughtful, but nobody is listening. The Communists are greedy and stupid. The Americans are all madmen.”
“Well, step one is gather information, because a lot happened before we got here. The Londoners brought an Artemisian. The Muslims are avoiding the auction. Why?”
“You think the answers will give you allies?” Gen asked, “Or a plan?”
“I think they’ll give us motives. Once we know those, we can make the right moves. Maybe we can form a power bloc out of the observers. Maybe not. I don’t know yet.”
“Okay,” said the Generous man, reassuring himself, “Okay.”
“I know it’s nerve-wracking, but we can’t go in blind, and there’s still time on the clock. Unless the Soviets and Langley start killing each other before lunch, we have at least until noon before the auction breaks down. If things work out, we might be able to extend that to midnight.”
“We need the time,” Gen agreed.
“We can still be efficient though. Let’s go meet the Indonesians.”
“I think all the Muslims are staying together. Come with me.”
10 12 / 2013
Because this excerpt was 3000+ words, I’ve decided to put it behind a Read More prompt for the sake of Tumblr dashes everywhere. I think it’s probably one of the best sections in the story so far and worth the investment if you’ve been following this draft.
09 12 / 2013
“I’m honored to meet you,” the Baron said.
Javed Khan stroked the tip of his straight black beard. “Baron, I’m honored you came under such short notice. Occult history should be witnessed by its legends, and I was afraid you wouldn’t arrive before the bids were placed.”
“How long until the first bids?”
“Three and a half hours!” Schuler shouted.
Javed Khan closed his eyes to calm himself. “At noon, Baron.”
So it was 8:30 in the morning. The Baron could work with that.
“Ethiopia cut it close,” the Zombie said.
The Generous Man whispered, “When the decision was approved, they moved as fast as possible. There weren’t any intentional delays.”
The Baron turned to him, eyes on his wristwatch, fingers on the knob. “Exact time?”
The Generous Man checked his watch. “8:22.”
The Baron set his watch on local time. “Good.”
“The room is nearly full,” said Javed Khan, “Where would you like to stand?”
The Baron glanced around. The smaller groups were spread out around the perimeter of the hall, but everyone gave the Russians and the Chinese a wide berth. Despite being together at the back of the room, the Communist factions had each taken over an entire corner, filling them with more than a dozen men. In terms of secular strength, they dominated the hall.
“I’ll stand near the door,” the Baron said. He backed up two steps and leaned against the narrow wall blocking the view into the anteroom. His company joined him on either side; Gen to the left, the Zombie to the right. He didn’t care that it appeared to be a coward’s position. If it came to conflict, the Zombie could easily turn this spot into an unpassable gate.
Schuler remained in the center but towards the back, leaning against the sloppily painted statue. Javed Khan stood to the fore, glancing back only occasionally at the two Roamers he’d brought into the hall—presumably his personal bodyguard. He forced a friendly glance around the room, meeting his would be guests eye to eye. There was a tension there the Baron couldn’t quite identify. Something had already happened before he arrived. It might only be Schuler’s presence that bothered Javed Khan. It might mean something more.
Javed Khan said, “I believe all parties have arrived this morning. It is time to begin. First, I must thank you. You have placed your trust in myself and in the White Mountain Roamers. You have come from the furthest countries of the world, representing the peoples most favored in the eyes of the gods. You have taken a few scraps of paper, words scratched out by my pen, and you have judged that I am sincere. You have flown, swam, and walked, and you have convened in peace before those you call your enemy. This is noble. This is holy. It is the fate of better men to hear the requests of the gods and judge them through our will, to participate in the divine order. Now a guide has come out of the ancient world. It has come to us at a place where history will once again be made. From Darius the Great to Hari Singh Nalwa, the Khyber has borne witness to the greatest empires of the Earth, and these generals and emperors understood that where we stand, the summit over the narrowest gap through which history was channeled, was key to unlocking Asia before flight. Thus, I say with great pride, the Auction of the Rites of the Ark of the Covenant is convened at Ali Masjid, the point through which history must pass!”
He paused for effect. Nobody responded, but nobody mocked him.
Javed Khan grinned. He must’ve felt in control for once. The silence was like order to him. He didn’t sniff out the same foreboding quality that the Baron sensed. These were powerful men who hid their predatory motivations until the last moment, like a cat waiting to pounce.
“Thank you,” the Baron said, “We’re honored to be here.”
Prompted so, Javed Khan continued on. “It is my duty to ensure a fair and orderly auction. To this end, we will have two rounds of bidding. The first is at noon. The second is at midnight. We will not have blind bids, and every party shall be made aware of the bids made. If any cults wish to pool resources and combine bids, they may. Once the second bids are in, we will accept the largest offer as final. We will not continue bidding past that point, as it might encourage someone to lie in order to confuse arrangements with another cult. Payments shall be taken immediately, and we will discuss details for delivering the Rites to the winner. Anyone who cannot pay their bid will be passed over for the next highest bidder and so forth.”
“How can we trust you to pay?” Schuler muttered.
“We are at the mercy of the people,” Javed Khan replied, “We fear losing their trust.”
“I would pick a chunk of cracked earth and skip it over the dry lakebed,” Schuler said quietly. “Maybe that would count for the task by the ancient shore.”
Javed Khan looked at the Baron directly. “At such a momentous occasion, I ask that we complete a round of introductions and taste the possible bids. First, I call upon the honorable Baron d’Holbach, representative of the most favored nation of Ethiopia. What is your bid?”
“I offer no artifact,” the Baron said, “no money, and no prestige. I offer something far more valuable. I offer peace. This is the Ark of the Covenant, and I won’t dance around the subject. It’s the nuclear bomb of the ancient world, and the manual has been rediscovered. The genie has been let out of the bottle, but I can do the impossible. I can put it back. I can reverse the mistake. I can trap the genie. I have the Zombie, the Enemy of the Ark. If we hand him the Rites, he can guarantee their safe passage, unread and useless, all the way to Ethiopia, where he alone will seal the manual inside the Ark. There, no power on Earth would know how to reach them.”
07 12 / 2013
Gen parked his jeep just outside the building. The Baron could hear voices from within the opened double doors, a mixture of accented English and native Urdu. He got out of the jeep. “Leave the luggage for now,” he told the Zombie. He didn’t know where they would stay yet, but it didn’t matter. Regardless of where they went, there was likely to be spying.
The Zombie hopped down behind him. “Langley will sneak a bug.”
“This isn’t home turf for the CIA. There won’t be any listening stations in range.”
“They’ll sneak a recorder and steal it back later.”
“Good, we’ll chat about how ugly their mothers are before I go to sleep.”
The Zombie laughed and waited in the Baron’s shadow. This wasn’t his show, not yet.
“Gen, are we free to go inside?” the Baron asked.
“There are two rules which were outlined in the invitation,” Gen said.
“We never saw a copy. Is this important?”
“I’ll be brief. You can’t bring any weapons to the auction.”
“The Zombie’s presence is non-negotiable.”
“It won’t be a problem,” Gen said, “nobody can stop him, and nobody will try.”
“We’re on the same page then. What else?”
“The second rule is that no artifacts and no money are to be brought to the auction site. Payment arrangements will be made between the winner and White Mountain Roamers.”
“Artifacts?” the Baron asked.
“Yes, they’re taking offers in occult items and prestige.”
That put a new twist on things. The expectation was likely that artifacts would be offered alongside cash, preferably tools which benefited the power of the White Mountain Roamers. “They’re looking to protect themselves against retaliation,” he said to Gen, “they want a weapon from the auction to scare off anyone unhappy with the outcome.”
“That sounds right,” Gen said, “but I think the goals here are money and prestige. The Roamers can’t guarantee the afterlife to all members—they can’t afford the wishes. Wealth and eternity, Baron, are more important than a weapon to them. Otherwise, they’d keep the Rites and try to take the Ark themselves, don’t you think?” He turned to the door. “Let’s go inside.”
The Generous Men stepped in first. In a small anteroom, an Afridi man seated on a stool smiled and nodded at them, then asked a question in Urdu. Gen replied, “Baron. Zombie.”
The Baron bowed very slightly behind Gen. The Zombie looked around at the bare walls, ignoring him. The man smiled, tilted his head towards the back and shouted, “Baron! Zombie!”
The Generous Man started forward.
“Devils!” shouted a familiar voice. “Mythic monsters!”
The Baron rushed around the inset wall, into the primary hall of the barracks, to sight the man. There! In front of a seven foot tall green statue, their interlocutor stood awkwardly, twitching gently, arms out of balance as if hung from invisible strings. He wore entirely black clothes—suit, shoes and shirt—all of them perfectly cleaned, pressed and shined. He laughed and said, “A-theist! A Theist meets atheist!” Then he laughed again harder. His head bore a thick mop of unruly dirty blonde hair, visibly greasy with locks tangled and sticking together, a sharp departure from the perfection of his clothes, suggesting the mad logic that he’d been repeatedly wishing his outfit clean without wishing to scrub his weeks-filthy body of grime. He tilted his head to stare through a pair of small, Franklin-style bifocals with lustrous copper frames.
The Baron knew he had to be all business. Given enough time, the man might talk himself into an excited state, and he was easily the most dangerous person in the building after the Zombie. “Meister Schuler, we have come on behalf of Ethiopia.”
This era’s only current Theist leaned back against the stone blade of the statue behind him. A young Chinese man with a severe haircut shouted at him in Mandarin, but Schuler didn’t even ignore him. That would’ve required even the briefest moment of acknowledgement, the tiniest pause to make a decision—but Schuler gave none, because the voice of one man outside of his focus was barely a whisper in a hurricane. “I heard you at the mouth of the pass,” he said to the Baron. The world was moving forward, tasks were being assigned every second or so, and the Baron and the Zombie must’ve sounded to Schuler like two jerky automatons made from rattling steel. The wishes that maintained them were never outside the attention of the gods, and when near to Schuler, the gods’ attention was his awareness. “Someone shot the Zombie.”
The Zombie stood beside the Baron. “They did.”
Schuler was too coherent for his normal attitude. This was already an alarmed state for the Theist. The Baron said, “You’re focused in, Schuler, but you can relax. We’re not a threat.”
Schuler made a tut-tut noise. “It’s not you. It’s everybody!” He spread his arms overhead and spun around, glancing briefly at everyone in the room. They were all staring back, waiting for Schuler to say his piece. He stopped spinning suddenly, winced and shouted, “You’re all my enemy today!” Then he ground his forehead into a calloused palm and hummed miserably.
A tall Pashtun man in the middle of the hall raised one hand and said in fair English, “Guests, do not worry. Meister Schuler has promised me that he will remain peaceful.”
Schuler began rolling his head back and forth in his palms, then ran his hands suddenly over his greasy hair. “Only if the peace is kept by all!” He closed his eyes. “I hear you.”
Everyone waited for Schuler to finish.
“I can smell the wastewater where the body lies,” he said grimly.
The Baron’s working theory was that Schuler’s mind connected his current thoughts to the closest associated task in recent memory. He was talking about killing people.
The Pashtun man smiled congenially. “I believe we are all here for business, and that is a peaceful pursuit.” He stepped forward. He wore thick leather sandals and loose fitting, pale blue clothes—a single shirt and a pair of pants cut from the same cloth. He wore a short grey turban wound in a tight circular pattern. “Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach?” He smiled at the Baron.
“Call me Baron,” he said. “My bodyguard is the Zombie. He’s the invincible man.”
The Pashtun man nodded eagerly. “We all know your pact Baron. Nobody here is interested in taking any life, let alone yours. Please, relax.”
“Thank you,” the Baron said, though he believed that half the people in here were probably sociopaths or at least numb to the experience of killing. Most of them had a vested interest in murdering someone else in the room, even excluding their desire for the Rites.
“I am Javed Khan Atif, the leader of the White Mountain Roamers,” said Javed Khan. “I’ll be conducting the auction, and I will accept the highest bid on behalf of my people.”
06 12 / 2013
Above them on the edge of the slope, they could see the western face of the fortifications. This road was the only viable path up the hill, especially under fire, and the majority of Ali Masjid’s defenses were dedicated to protecting this flank. Every meter of open road rested beneath a meter of stone bunker and several tight gun slits. It wasn’t just a stone wall—it was a building which could warm soldiers, keep their room and board and store their ammunition all without leaving the safety of their post. In shifts, a 19th century British battalion could have staved off an attack to the fullest extent of their supplies. The long building was connected to the other major buildings of the fort by thick walls, each wide enough to be walked upon. The only weakness on the western flank was an arch over the road, with a mere steel gate barring entry to the yard. The Baron supposed the bunker was considered enough defense in that era. It wouldn’t be today.
The gate appeared permanently opened regardless. The bars were rusted and the corners of each gate sunk into the gravel and sand. Gen drove the vehicle up through the arch and into the yard. Ahead, the Baron could see three more buildings in a central position. One was very short and likely served as storage, while the second was taller and suggested a centralized position for a commanding officer and staff to safely plan and order a defense. Neither appeared to be in use today. The last one was much larger but built with thinner walls, and it probably served as either a hall for infantry or even a full barracks.
“Is that the building?” the Baron asked.
“That’s the building,” Gen replied.
Across the yard, the eastern edge of the fort could be seen. It consisted of a waist high wall bordering the edge of the cliff, forming a sharp sheer end to an already impossible climb. Every so often, masoned ledges jutted forward over the Ali Masjid gap, each deeply connected to the rock beneath, almost placing the defenders directly over anyone coming through the defile. There were empty circles of stone where watchtowers might’ve once raised high, but they’d been disassembled. The only remaining buildings were shorter, more complex buildings at the north and south ends of the yard. They formed long distance firing positions over the barren valley to the south and the widening of the defile to the north. It wasn’t likely that they could deal much damage from those positions, but nearly unanswerable harassment would discourage the approach by any army of real size, and attempts to scale those faces would end in blood.
The Zombie gave his two cents, “This is so fucking British it hurts.”
Gen looked up at him. “Why’s that?”
“It’s designed to make it a huge fucking hassle to get around or capture, but there’s really no way for anyone here to fucking sally forth. The only way to win from this fort is to outspend your enemy before the battle starts. Either you outlast his wallet, destroy his morale, or the cavalry comes riding in from the Raj while you’re snacking on hard tack.”
There were clusters of parked vehicles surrounding army tents of various designs and quality. A couple of Gaz-51s and a covered heavy transport truck made a protective triangle around the Soviet camp, consisting of two large tents connected by a breezeway roofed with thick tarps. The Langley group had a single tent behind a wall of three bumper to bumper Willys MBs. The Chinese had multiple light pickups with diplomatic license plates, but there appeared to be no Chinese tents thrown up in the yard. The other tents were probably housing for Londoners, Parisians, and others who didn’t have deep pockets.
05 12 / 2013
“Do you know which cults are attending the auction?” the Baron asked.
“I do. I’ve had people assisting most of them since their arrival in Pakistan.”
“Who are they? And I want to know all of them.”
“The White Mountain Roamers are running the auction. I’m sure you’ve heard of them?”
“The Ethiopians knew the name.”
“They’re a cult from the plains north of Torkham, in Afghanistan.”
“I know that much. What are they like?”
“They used to be a London vassal, but after the Fall of Truth and the end of the Great Game, they switched to the secular business of making opium. Truthfully, they pay to keep the locals farming it, and Afridi traders do most of the real work on this side of the Khyber.”
“Do they run criminal enforcement?”
“In name alone. They’re small time and spend most of their muscle and money keeping Oracles east of Jalalabad and completing tasks from there to the mountains.”
“Who else is there?”
“The Soviets and the Chinese. Officially, they’ve come as a single bloc.”
The Zombie laughed. “That’s bullshit. They’re two different cults.”
“I agree,” Gen said, “but they’ve put up a united front since they met at Landi Kotal.”
“We’ll figure out why later,” the Baron said.
“Most major American cults have sent someone,” Gen said. “Langley sent many agents, three of which are staying at Ali Masjid. Brazil has two men. Everyone else declined to attend or didn’t respond. Those that did cited New York’s orders.”
“So New York claims to represent all of them? The Mormons, the Navajo?”
“Yes. They sent only one man though.” Gen frowned. “Meister Schuler has been wandering up and down the pass for over a week now. I’ve been telling the tribespeople to feed him and lend him a place to sleep, but they’re aggravated. He stays up all night singing.”
“I’m not surprised,” the Baron said. “Do they know how dangerous he is?”
“Not really. The cultists among them are afraid. Nobody else.”
“I wish I could strangle that man,” the Zombie said.
Gen glanced back nervously. “Don’t try.”
“I won’t,” the Zombie said, “He hears me coming every time.”
“Any of the African powers besides Ethiopia?” the Baron asked.
“No. The White Mountain Roamers don’t know many cults in that region of the world, and those that they invited have declined. Rumor was that the Coptics sent money to Ethiopia.”
“Hiring us, you mean?”
“The Christians of North Africa believe they don’t have the secular strength to fight with the Soviets or the Americans. They wanted the Zombie’s invincibility.”
The Zombie laughed and stomped his feet on the bed of the jeep. “Yes!”
“What about Muslim cults?”
“The Roamers invited almost none, and not for a lack of forethought. There are simply too many small, ideologically divided cults, Baron. Wherever a Muslim cult resisted the London advance, they remained independent and unorganized.”
“What about the larger scale cults? Persia?”
“Declined by letter. They called the Rites the curse of Kaiser Abbas.”
“Any of the larger Indonesian cults?”
“Only one. They sent two men without an artifact.”
“This is the Rites. Surely an Abrahamic weapon of this value—”
Gen raised a hand. “I understand, Baron, but they aren’t invested. The Shadhiliyya branch of Morocco sent an observer in the company of an Ash’arite from Turkey. When I spoke with them, they seemed only interested in seeing where the Rites would go. I honestly believe they aren’t interested in fighting with any of the global powers for a manual.”
“Because it isn’t the Ark itself?”
“There is nothing holy about the text, and they can’t use it.”
The Baron considered these facts while Gen navigated the jeep around the unguarded hairpin turn of a switchback. It seemed that most of the possible power players had declined to seriously contend for the Rites, at best sending observers.
The Zombie said, “This isn’t about the Ark, not really.”
The Baron glanced back at him. “We’re thinking along similar lines.”
“This is about winning the Cold War.”
“Agreed,” Gen said.
The Baron looked up at the crest of the hill. Up there, they weren’t representatives seeking the Ark alone—up there were people who wanted to win World War III with occult superweapons or witness the conqueror grasping the keys. Nothing else. He said, “The Muslims aren’t attending in force because they want no part in this.”
Gen sighed. “They believe, wrongly, that they can avoid the conflict.”
“Is this even going to be an auction?” the Baron asked.
“I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t.”
“Only if enough people want it to be,” the Zombie said.
“Anyone else of note?” the Baron asked. “Any other major cults?”
“London, Berlin, Paris and the Vatican have all sent observers. Beyond that, I personally represent a coalition of interests out of the sub-continent.”
“Anyone in India aiming to own the Rites?”
“Gods no,” said the Generous Man, “I think they’re all quietly banking on you and the Zombie keeping the peace.”
“Is that what you’re banking on?” the Baron asked.
“Honestly Baron, no. I don’t believe you can win here.”
The Zombie huffed, audible over the grumbling engine and whining gears. “A realist,” he said. “Always a fucking pessimist.”
“I thought you would appreciate my cynicism,” Gen said.
“I won’t lose here,” the Zombie said. “Not this one.”
“That… is good to hear,” the Generous Man said. He didn’t commit to much else.
The Baron tallied up the threats. “So the major players are the Chinese, the Soviets, Langley, and Meister Schuler. Everyone else is here mostly to observe.”
“I would call you a major player,” said the Generous Man.
“Damn straight!” the Zombie shouted.
“Fair enough. Five serious contenders for the Rites.” They were coming around the last switchback, and the fort grounds were coming into view. “This might be a disaster.”
04 12 / 2013
“Where’d you hear that?” the Baron asked the Zombie.
“The accuracy of human knowledge, eh?”
The Generous Man said, “We just tell stories, and we hope we tell true stories.”
“Most of the time we think we know,” the Baron said, “That’s the problem.”
The Khyber Pass railway disappeared along a valley behind a ridge, then circled around maybe half a mile later to cross over the Grand Trunk at an angle very slightly backwards. It sank down into the hills out in the middle of the pass, far from the northern side, and beelined for the southwest end of a high broad hill visible ahead. There was a tremendous five sided fort there, clearly in use and surrounded by military jeeps and bikes. Its high stone walls were clean and painted with red trimming—it’d been built this century and renovated within the last decade.
“What’s that?” the Baron asked.
“Shagai Fort,” the Generous Man said. “It houses one wing of the Khyber Rifles.”
“Any cultic influence?”
“The commandant in Landi Kotal, I believe, runs a cult of a few men. I don’t know him well though. Most of the tasks out here are handled by the Afridi tribespeople.”
“The Afridi—do they do all of the tasks?” The Baron was asking the question, do they complete the arguably immoral ones? Or do they fulfill only what they consider good tasks?
“They’re like many Muslim cults,” the Generous Man said, “they believe free will is central. They believe they are descendants of the lost Jewish tribes—inheritors to the legacy of the Ark. This leaves them with an intensely personal view on evil and tasks.”
“So they do them all?” the Baron asked, “the murders, the fires, everything?”
“They believe it is up to each man to reflect on the task assigned to him, and to decide if he will bring evil or good into the world through the completion of the task. If he refuses it, he isn’t punished. The act of refusal itself is considered the exercise of our divine gift, our free will.”
“But they do most of them?” the Baron asked.
Gen nodded sadly. “They do, so long as it doesn’t violate their Pashtunwali.”
That was a fairly standard and naive cultic view on the nature of the system of prestige, though the Baron wasn’t going to be a fool and dismiss the Afridi belief system as simplistic. Just on the surface, they appeared more likely to commit a crime for the gods than say a Vatican cultist would be. Even today, the cult of Rome shied away from the threat of mortal sins. The locals likely had theological justifications to help them manage the guilt and fear that walked hand in hand with crime and the apparent amorality of the gods’ tasks.
They passed Fort Shagai and curved up close to the northern face of the Khyber. To their left, to the south, they could see the Khyber Khwar, the dry river or stream that ran down the middle of the pass. Over hundreds of thousands of years, it’d cut the thin defile that Ali Masjid defended. Up on the hills by the ridge and down in the valley by the riverbed, they could see the low poles of electric lines and telephone wires snaking their way towards several prominent buildings. These were the various central locations of Ali Masjid village, which meant they were close to the fort proper. Most of the homes here seemed to be fairly isolated from the utilities however; it was likely that they were largely unchanged since Ali Masjid was the site of a battle in the second Anglo-Afghan War. None of the fenced tracts contained many vehicles, and the side roads to their gates were simple and almost never paved. No wonder Gen had suggested staying in Landi Kotal or Jamrud. There was nothing resembling a hotel here.
After slowly driving across a few raised hairpin curves cut into hillsides, they descended down to the valley floor by the riverbed. This was the final barren stretch that Gen had described. Ahead there was a dark crumbling hill, sudden and steep, upon which a single white fortification stood visible at this angle. A thin road went to the south, crawling up the back of this western hill in a vanishing zig-zag, presumably reaching up to the fort. The Grand Trunk continued to the north, collapsing down towards the defile of Ali Masjid, a gap between two cliffs into which two lanes fit neatly and no more. Gen drove just a hundred meters short of the gap, then took a low bridge over the riverbed and turned left sharply, tracing back along the base of the hill and merging up with the southern road. “We’re almost there,” he said to the Baron.
03 12 / 2013
They rolled through the gap, into the morning shadow of the southeast ridge hiding the summer sun. There were low mud and stone walls laid out to the south, dividing up the valley behind the ridge into large tracts of land. Huts with narrow windows sat low, casting thin dark lines of smoke into the mountain air. Despite the stony earth, men farmed here. There was probably a source of water somewhere in the clustered evergreens to the south, a stream or spring that burst out of the mountains and flowed down to their clustered homes.
The Baron reminded himself that this hadn’t been a true wilderness since the time of Cyrus the Great, if not earlier. This was the North-West Frontier Province, home to self-governed Pashtun tribes, many of them with old reputations for martial skill and aggression. They were mostly Muslim peoples, though a few would be Hindu or Sikh. When the British had imagined the struggle to keep the Khyber, they’d imagined big-bearded, dark-skinned men swaddled in heavy furs, crouching up in old stone forts and firing down at the vulnerable British military while they kept the road between Central Asia and the wealth of India. The native’s reasoning was never explained because the British were crafting demons, not imagining men with minds and motives.
What a bunch of rubbish, the Baron thought. It took only a little imagination to see the other side. The Pashtun natives had been invaded by colonialists who didn’t want to pay tribute or toll but wanted to hunt and camp on their lands, and when the price wasn’t paid, they were forced to lift arms and demand respect or risk being stripped bare and displaced by the much wealthier European invaders. And had they even succeeded? Hardly. They’d found themselves effectively conquered and ruled by the British Raj, forced to the margins in a marginal land.
The Grand Trunk traced along the banks of a dry river bed, pulling away from this village and into a much bleaker stretch of the pass. Here the road rose up, and there were few visible structures except for the occasional fort peeking over a ridge or a thin dirt road cutting along a narrow gap towards some other valley in the mountains. The walls of the pass soon widened away, but in the kilometers, there were nothing but barren hills out there dotted with a handful of wind-scarred trees—krummholz was the word.
“How far to Ali Masjid?” he asked the Generous Man.
“Do you see that grey mountain to the north?”
There was no missing it. It formed the northern wall of the pass, water-scarred and buried in scree but maddeningly steep. Nobody could hope to build a trail over it, not permanently. Within a season, any road would corrode away, and worse, one barely had to glance upwards to see a greater mountain rising behind it, darker and steeper and doubled in height. There was nothing out that way but the pitiless mountains.
Gen continued, “There’s a ridge coming off the west end, where the road turns north and passes through a defile. It’s the narrowest part of the pass. Ali Masjid is the name of two places there. The first is a village to the south of the gap. The second is an old fort, which is the Ali Masjid auction site. It’s about two kilometers north of the village, across a barren valley floor and up a very steep hill on the west side of the pass. The fort is perched over the defile, like a shooting gallery. They used to say that if you hold the fort, you hold the pass.”
“Two camels side to side,” the Zombie said, “no wider?”
“The British widened it to about three meters,” Gen said.
02 12 / 2013
The road block was cleared. Gen waved to Saba, then pulled around and away onto the road. Once they were out of earshot, the Zombie said, “He didn’t ask you about the shot?”
“Saba knows I would tell him his business.”
The Baron looked carefully at Gen. He was employed by someone mad enough to shoot at the Zombie, yet he had enough effective authority to command the local police force without giving his secular name or divulging any information. This was a contradiction in demand of an explanation, but Gen was clearly going to hide his secular identity. A criminal of some kind? Hard to say. The Baron guessed that the Generous Man was probably an incidental figure in the opium business out of Afghanistan, but he wasn’t a dealer or distributor. Maybe he handled shipping? Money laundering? No, no, he needed some kind of legitimate power. Factories, probably.
They rode west, across the valley floor. Ahead, two grand ridges declined gracefully, one north, one south, like arms coming out of the Spin Ghar range to cover but not touch a tender wound. Between their tips was a flat gap, no more than half a mile in width, which formed the eastern mouth of the Pass. Someone had built an arch of stone over the road and mortared it with concrete. It was the most recent construction on what appeared to be an ancient site; just up the southern ridge, the waist-high ruins of fort walls were crumbling onto the slope. Much further to the north, high on the ridge, the corroded stones of an ancient watchtower had fallen down and mixed with the scree. A line had been cut through them for the Khyber Pass railway—a central part of the British Raj’s defense against Afghan and Russian invaders before WWII.
It was an old story repeated in the modern age. Generals and conquerors always sweated over the gateway to the subcontinent. They stared over the vast works of the mighty, and they refused to despair. At great cost they built their own fortifications on the heaping ruins of the old, convinced that theirs would be the monuments and the gateways that stood the test of time. Without fail, they soon abandoned them to the tribesmen and the ravages of history.
The Baron could see a taste of the Raj’s final efforts. Concrete dragon’s teeth littered the valley floor beyond the gap. The British had imagined they’d needed to defend India from a mechanized force out of Europe. Nazis? Italians? Maybe Soviets after the war? He didn’t know, but he suspected it didn’t really matter. There’d never been a real threat of a timely invasion. There’d only been the fear of losing the Pass, and the pyramids of concrete were designed to funnel the fictitious enemy onto the road, into killboxes pretargeted with mortar and shell. No enemy had come, and the shells had corroded in their greasy tins.
01 12 / 2013
Here the mountain range was often called a spur of the Hindu Kush. In the valleys and the plains south of Jalalabad, they were the Spin Ghar Mountains. In the USSR, they were the Indian Caucasus. What they truly were was the icy wall dividing Central Asia from the Indian subcontinent, and the Khyber Pass was the age-old corridor through which conquerors and traders had passed since the dawn of recorded history and long, long before.
The Generous Man pulled away from the fort and down the hill.
“I walked here,” the Zombie said, “before this place had a name.”
He didn’t know this, the Baron thought, but he didn’t have to know it. In his millenia wandering the Earth, he would’ve walked this path repeatedly, haunting armies and explorers on their marches through the inhospitable wilderness. They entered a long, shallow valley—what might’ve been a glacial moraine washed over by monsoons—and followed the direction of its flow towards the mouth of the pass. Then they zig-zagged up the next hill—more of a ridge—crested it and came down on a long ramp towards the valley floor.
“Police?” the Zombie asked first.
“Looks like it,” the Baron said.
At the bottom of the ridge, two olive green police motorcycles had been parked in the middle of the road. Officers were seated in their sidecars, holding British Stens over their chassis. Two more men in white Pakistani military uniforms were waiting patiently behind a sawhorse painted over with bright orange stripes. They waved at the Generous Man from afar, gesturing to one side. Stop, pull over, stop. A dark blue police wagon waited to the right with open rear doors. Three men were crowded behind it, looking into its dark interior without pause.
The Generous man said, “Don’t worry. I’ll handle this.”
“Are these stops common?” the Baron asked.
“No,” the Generous Man said.
The uniformed men stepped in front of their sawhorse. Their hands were empty, but they seemed to believe that their presence was enough to persuade strangers coming along this road. The Generous Man slowed their jeep as he reached the bottom of the hill, pulling towards the right side of the lane but not actually going off onto the shoulder.
One of the men called out in Pashto. The jeep stopped short of his position.
The Generous Man replied in Pashto, then said, “My guests speak English.”
The officer called to his partner, who stepped forward and said in halting English, “Right side of road. Or leave jeep.”
“I refuse,” the Generous Man said flatly, “I’m too busy to speak with you. They’re too important to speak with you. Let us pass. We have business at Ali Masjid.”
The men exchanged a short, brief burst of Pashto. “We hear rifle,” the officer said. “Near fort of Jamrud. Rifle shot. Rifle?” He was clearly growing frustrated with English and reverted to Pashto, shouting suddenly at the Generous Man.
“Is everything alright?” the Zombie asked idly. He was staring at his unchanging, perfectly neat fingernails. There was dirt under a couple of them. Without looking up, he put one finger in his mouth and sucked to clean the nail.
The Baron rolled his eyes. “This isn’t the time to offend.”
The Zombie ignored him and cleaned another finger noisily.
“Everything is fine,” the Generous Man said calmly. He switched to Urdu and spoke loudly so that the rest of the police would hear him. They looked up from the back of the wagon and took notice. Then two of them broke away to investigate the ruckus at the roadblock.
“What was rifle shot?” the officer asked Gen.
“Someone took a shot from the fort,” said the Generous Man.
“Where?” He strained to remember the right phrase. “At where?”
“The ground, I imagine.” Despite the language barrier—or maybe because Gen insisted on speaking in English—the officer was clearly insulted by this dismissal.
“Out!” the officer shouted.
“No!” Gen shouted back, “Let us pass!”
The policemen with the Stens sat up straight in their sidecars. They’d been unhappily waiting in the morning sun. Now they were squinting towards the southeast and aiming submachine guns at strangers who wouldn’t submit to a roadside interrogation.
The men who’d been at the police wagon weren’t wearing military uniforms or olive green police gear. They both wore dark blue suits, the kind once common to British officials in the Raj administration. The Baron guessed they were investigators or leadership within Jamrud’s police force, doubling as commanding officers for Jamrud’s militia. The elder of the two called out in Urdu, then said for the Baron’s benefit, “Guests, officers, be at ease.”
“Good morning to you,” Gen said.
“Sir,” said the man in clean English, “I am Senior Investigator Saba of Jamrud. I apologize for my subordinates’ inexperience with your persons, and I extend an offer of assistance on your journey into the Khyber Pass.”
“All is forgiven,” said Gen. “We request passage only.”
“There are foreigners at Ali Masjid. We might escort you?”
“Investigator Saba, your understanding is enough. I will remember you.”
The investigator smiled broadly. “You’re a generous man.”
The Baron watched the exchange closely. It was difficult to tell if the Generous Man’s influence over the investigator was secular or cultic. His best guess was that it was both—likely at least one person in the local police force was a cultist. Surely, they’d recognize Gen on sight.
“Are we free to pass?” asked Gen.
“Of course, sir, but may I ask a question first?”
“What is the purpose of taking these men to Ali Masjid?”
“Business. Even I’m not privy to the details.”
“Sirs,” the investigator said, “can either of you tell us?”
The Baron shrugged. This was one of the easiest setups he’d ever been given for a white lie. “I’ve been told to represent a foreign investor in a shipment coming out of Afghanistan.” It was clear that the Generous Man was powerful, practically above the local law. It seemed likely that a little implied opium smuggling would be an acceptable cover story.
The investigator smiled. “Wheat or cotton?”
“Agriculture,” the Baron said, “but I don’t know what I’ll buy until I hear the prices.” This was like saying, I might buy unrefined stock from a poppy farmer, but I won’t admit a word of it to you. “Our mutual friend believes we won’t find a better deal in all of Pakistan.”
“He is a clever businessman,” the investigator said kindly. He turned and waved for the uniformed officers to clear the road. “Please, you may pass. And sir, may I send my regards?”
Gen nodded subtly. “Of course. I will pass them along.”
The investigator turned and shouted in Urdu. They sped up clearing the block, moving one bike out of the left lane to let the Generous Man pass.
“What are you doing out at the edges of Jamrud at this hour?” Gen asked the police.
The investigator smiled congenially. “We’re combing for evidence. We only set up the block when we heard the shot from the fort a few minutes ago.”
“What happened?” Gen asked. “What evidence?”
“A young Pashtun man was shot dead here.” The investigator pointed just off the road, where there was a bloody mark smeared over the stones. “One bullet pierced a lung. Another burst a kidney. A driver found him after sunrise, face down, with entry wounds on his back.”
“What was he shot with?”
“Something automatic. We found brass all over the road.”
The Baron spoke up. “Do you recognize the dead man?”
“He has not been seen in Jamrud, but we might be mistaken. His face was shredded when he fell.” The investigator touched his chin. “One cheek was mashed and full of gravel, but still whole. The rest of his face was ruined, as if he’d been dragged after he was shot.”
“Were they trying to hide his identity?” Gen asked.
The Zombie looked up. “They may have just been cruel.”
“We hope not, sir,” the investigator said.