Smitten Gate (Chapter 29)
Copyright © Stan Goff 2022, All Rights Reserved
Rot in hell
Foothills near Kabul, Afghanistan
July 14, 2010
0705 — Local
The wind stirred as the sun warmed the air along the thin gully snaking between the boulders, the morning light throwing off brilliant contrasts. A fawn and mahogany alligator lizard perched on a slab of red sandstone, soaking up rays. It cocked its head at the movement below, where Dale picked his way through the trench. Stripped down to just a chest rig, side arm, and rifle, his face smudged with leftover camo paint, he was sweating like a horse even in the cool morning air. He stopped to catch his breath. Resting on one of the stones for a few moments, he felt his age and the utter lack of sleep. He had less than a quart of water left in one canteen.
He dug his last protein bar out of one of the pockets. Search and rescue birds with gunship escorts were popping up in the distance, near Charikar, looking for him.
Polypeptides, he thought. Poly: many. Poly-morphous. Poly-amory. Poly-saccharide. Polly Molly.
On a ridge above him, three Afghans armed with Kalashnikovs whispered tensely. The amrekayan was out of range, perhaps 500 meters. They debated how best to close the distance for an attack.
July 14, 2010
0719 — Local
Benham and three other AMF’s breakfasted together in the Afghan section of the DFAC. The conversation was furtive. Benham remained when the other three rose to leave, carrying their trays to the bus tubs.
July 14, 2010
0805 — Local
Gaston and Emal looked up the street before they left the parking garage. The rising sun lit the mountain behind the hotel, the narrow street outside still at rest in a cool shadow. A breeze agitated the spindly pines. Some idiot had left his Volvo beater parked in the driveway past the entrance and between two high block walls. Gaston cursed under his breath, seeing that there was barely enough space to get out.
Emal opened the Borrego’s front passenger door, folded his Kalashnikov, and climbed in. Gaston opened the back door, tossed in his battered briefcase, slammed the door, and climbed into the driver’s seat, sucking his teeth. He offered Emal a cigarette, then took one for himself, pushed in the panel lighter and started the engine. As they backed out, Emal grabbed the lighter when it popped, lit his own cigarette and held the lighter up for Gaston, who leaned into it after shifting into drive. Gaston drove out and angled the Borrego wide to the left as he approached the driveway onto the road, angling to squeeze past the rusty gray Volvo, muttering “Merde!” again. There were hardly six inches on either side as he crawled through, and he was about to curse again when the Volvo exploded.
Afghan patrolmen, wearing olive green de Gaulle caps, hung around aimlessly with their hands in their pockets. Three militiamen had shown up, apparently to run things, and they were talking to the two Afghan medics who wrestled the shredded bodies out of the Borrego.
Journalists stood in the parking garage in a gaggle with several hotel employees at some distance from the scene of the explosion. Connie Mason was dabbing at her eyes. George Yowell had his arm around her. A collective gasp escaped from the cluster of onlookers when the first body was pulled through the shattered windshield, missing the head and the left arm.
Joint Special Operations Command — Forward Operating Base
July 14, 2010
0809 — Local
The Prick-150 radio lit up, and Brigadier General “Dickie” Baker waited and listened.
“Plaster quest,” came the disembodied voice. Mission complete.
“Roger, out,” Baker replied. A perfect tactical communication. In and out.
Foothills near Kabul, Afghanistan
July 14, 2010
0905 — Local
Mehtar, Shamal, and Syal crouched in the gully, weapons hanging across their shoulders on improvised slings, hands on the pistol grips, fingers on the triggers. Mehtar had spotted the enemy minutes earlier, a bareheaded amrekayan, alone with just a rifle, picking his way through the khowarh for cover. They could take him from the high ground. Mehtar motioned Shamal to go first. Without hesitation, Shamal clambered over the lip of a furrow and squatted on top, waiting for the others. Syal climbed out, then Mehtar. Bent forward at their waists, they crept toward the edge of the ravine, flinching when a covey of quail exploded from a screen of olinoq shrubs in front of them.
Syal, the jumpiest of the three, almost fired at the birds, and Mehtar was rebuking him when the first two shots — pop-pop, in rapid succession — hit Syal in the chest, dropping him like his strings were cut. The second set of two shots killed Mehtar as he looked for the origin of the shots. Shamal stood erect, looking puzzled, when the final two shots went through his heart and thoracic spine. It was over in less than four seconds, and Dale climbed out of the ditch where he’d circled behind them. He thumbed the M-4’s selector switch to safe. Then he stopped and stared at the bodies.
Blood pooled quickly under each of them. Center-of-mass chest shots with open wound tracts. The flies arrived in less than a minute. He wondered who would mourn these men.
“Sorry,” he said, taking bits of their clothing.
0920 — Local
The filthy and exhausted ODA 649 filed out of the Task Force Operations complex and back toward their tent. No one spoke as they tramped down Main Street, their gear heavy as dead flesh. Gene’s death and a ponderous sense of failure followed them like a malevolent ghost.
Baby Doc was laden with the memory of the old couple left dead in their home. An unbearable hollowness filled him like a poison, his occupancy of space and time — of the here and now — seeming somehow eidolic and gratuitous. He knew that even going home would bestow no refuge from this abandonment, this desolate dread.
Minutes later in the tent, while some headed for showers, some for their bunks, he took his rosary out of his pocket and in desperation began to pray with a newfound sense that whoever heard these prayers had turned away. He looked down as he worked through the rosary. On the floor before him were his spare boots, alongside his MICH, a ragged bit of 550 cord, a used plastic spoon from who knows where. Then he stopped. A tiny seed of fury broke open in him, barely discernible, but something that might at least break his fall. Not hope exactly, just a handhold.
0949 — Local
Bobby, just out of the shower, sat on his cot, hair still wet, a towel wrapped around his waist. He took an Asus notebook out of his foot locker and plugged it into the power strip. The team had its own VSAT modem. He booted it up, leaned back onto a poncho liner draped over a duffel bag, kicked off his shower shoes, and pulled his feet up onto the cot. When the notebook booted, he opened his email. There, among the spam for fake Viagra, thicker dicks, and get-rich scams was the subject line, “Sayonara, Motherfucker!”
Sender: email@example.com. Bobby’s heart leapt. Something was really wrong at home. He opened the message.
“All I can take from you, Bobby. Here’s a little going away attachment. YOU PIECE OF SHIT MOTHERFUCKER! ROT IN HELL!”
There was a video attachment. Bobby looked around, angling the screen away from the interior of the tent, and killed the sound before opening the attachment. The picture was dark and grainy, the camera obviously set down at a distance, and the room poorly lit. It took him a moment before he recognized his own bedroom in Fayetteville. Carolina was in the bed, hands lashed to the headboard somehow, wearing a blindfold. Her legs were up, though, wrapped around the man who was thrusting into her while she moaned. Bobby turned it off, gazing into the empty monitor.
1035 — Local
Staff Sergeant Howe, aka “Chlamydia,” was draped in a disposable blue paper gown, her head enveloped in a matching hood with a plastic eye shield. A Mortuary Affairs Specialist, she prepared to wash Gene’s body. The first one she’d done since transferring here from Bagram.
The body was stripped naked, facing up on a stainless-steel table, the eyes now a flat milky blue. He had a post-mortem semi-erection with a drop of dry blood plugging the meatus. His mouth was open as if he were about to speak.
The morgue was draped with flags on one wall, one for each nation belonging to ISAF. Two high lockers for clothing changes. Wall hangers for various implements, from forceps to plain scissors. Rolls of paper towel at each end near the hand-washing sinks. Plastic tape and packing tape, stainless cabinets. An X-ray machine that checked bodies for debris and booby traps. Big black plastic totes were for the clothing and equipment of the deceased. One of the totes was open, Gene’s uniform and gear inside. In another corner was a break area with a snack table and a mini-fridge. A dartboard hung on the wall with six darts in it — three red and three blue.
Howe dipped a large sponge into a bucket of soapy water and started with the feet. When she was done, and Gene was dried and packaged and shifted onto a gurney for storage and shipment, SSG Howe hosed down the table. The drain in the center of the concrete floor sucked the dirty water down and out of sight, a true memory hole.
The secure phone lit up with a simple ringtone. Colonel Thomas picked it up.
“Thomas.” A long beat. “Roger, I’ll turn it on now.”
Red-eyed and unshaven, uniform blouse hanging on the back of his chair, he got up, crossed the room, and picked up his cable television remote. He clicked it at the wall-mounted screen and sank back into the chair, thumbing the keys to pick up TCN International. There was a loop running with the remains of two smoking, heavily damaged automobiles with Afghan cops milling around. The speaker was female, voiced-over.
“ . . . three people were killed, including a French journalist, and at least eight wounded. The bomb, which is suspected to be the work of the Taliban, detonated in the morning just after dawn. On the scene is George Yowell.”
George wore body armor and a Kevlar helmet to face the camera. He was very serious. There was a satellite delay of about two seconds.
“Thank you, Marina. Yes, we’re withholding the name of our colleague from France until his next-of-kin have been notified. But this appeared to be a case of wrong place, wrong time. This is normally a very busy street. It’s actually right outside our hotel. Speculation is that the bomb was on a timer and detonated early . . .”
Lenny Ford was on the main gate again, baked on hash already. He hardly looked up when the three AMFs approached the gate from inside the compound in their ratty Cherokee, holding up their security passes. Lenny waved them out and popped the top on a Red Bull.