Smitten Gate (Chapter 30)
Copyright © Stan Goff 2022, All Rights Reserved
Adventures in Kabul
July 14, 2010
1118 — Local
Colorful sun-umbrellas punctuated the general bustle of the street. The sky was clear, and traffic ground its way through thoroughfares swimming in automobile exhaust. One could almost taste the diesel smoke. White-and-yellow taxis stood out as specimens of uniformity in the chaos. A battered Corolla with a packed interior carried four children in an open trunk. A cart laden with tires was wedged into the traffic, towed by a donkey and led by a man in a blue shalwar kameez with a black cap. Men walked their Chinese bicycles, stopping to talk. An old woman sat on one corner waving flies off the biscuits she sold out of a tub to other women enshrouded in burqas. Pigeons and sparrows foraged between people’s feet. Children laughed and squealed. A gaggle of girls passed by wearing blue school uniforms with white headscarves.
There was one particularly dusty man in country garb wearing a filthy keffiyeh over his head and face. He carried a large bundle on his back, which he plopped down in front of the Chinese Restaurant. He pounded on the black steel security door.
July 14, 2010
“Cocksucker, motherfucker!” Virden muttered as he changed the cables on a faulty SATCOM. He controlled one corner of the commo hooch, a minimalist designation for what was one of the biggest structures on the compound, filled with the technology that supported the Task Force’s electronic semiosphere. If electromagnetic waves were visible, this place would glow in the dark. When Virden had been on active duty, he’d learned that the detachment’s communicators were always under the spotlight. The higher powers wanted communication more than they wanted mission completion. Often enough, just making the communications work was mission completion.
When they’d cross-trained on the detachments, the other specialties always enjoyed doing IVs with the medics, playing with guns with the weapons men, blowing shit up with the engineers, but commo? Bored the shit out of them. Nothing sexy about radios, until they fucking needed one. When the after-action reviews were done, the commanders’ main metric was whether or not you’d established and maintained commo. If not, guess whose ass was on the line? The same motherfucker who humped eighty pounds of radios, batteries and antennas, that’s who! It was all taken for granted, until you were taken to task. Everyone yanked their handles off about how smart the medics were, but no one cared that you had mastered wave propagation theory, that you could copy code, or memorize twenty call signs and frequencies before each mission. Radios don’t bleed or make a big noise. So, fuck it, he was sick of it, and when he found he could do the same shit for $140,000 a year, plus his per diem, it was “gone baby gone.”
He was running late when the SATCOM went down, and he had to meet Peanut like five minutes ago. Check in with Nanji, get a few things in town. They wanted to get in early and get out. Shit was blowing up all over the country. Eight motherfuckers killed in Helmand alone — stay the fuck out of Helmand, and Paktia, too — militias catching hell, car bombs, you name it. Talk was they were going to ratchet down Camp Virtue for a few days; and Nanji owed him an advance on next week’s shipment — two girls from Tajikistan.
Peanut pulled up in the Batmobile. Virden popped out of the door slinging a day pack over his shoulder. He circled the front of the vehicle, opened the door, tossed in the pack, pulled his weapon out of the seat and got in. They drove away, flushing a black-headed jay feeding on a dusty chunk of cantaloupe discarded in the middle of Main Street. Peanut swerved to mash the fruit with a tire. Virden stared up through the tinted ballistic glass, ignoring Peanut’s little fucking games.
Post Chapel — Camp Virtue
July 14, 2010
1226 — Local
Pro Deo et Patria. So read the sign on the gable above the chapel door, the words curving down and around a shield, gold-over-blue, like a scrotum on a vaguely phallic coat of arms, the shield itself topped by a glans-like knob composed of two wheat spikes arched over a shepherd’s staff. Below the stubby phallus was a simple sign, again gold over blue.
Camp Virtue Chapel.
The chapel was a simple wood-framed quadrangle with a pitched roof, painted tan to blend with the post’s desert camouflage motif. A four-chain glider sat on the short wooden porch, a place for chaplains to put visitors at ease. The door swung open just as Baby Doc was about to knock, and Captain Nelson, or Father Nelson, stepped out, offering Baby Doc his hand.
Father Nelson was in his t-shirt — chaplains were allowed these little deviations — and so freshly shaved that his cheeks were an angry pink, an unnatural contrast with his pale eyebrows and lashes. Nelson’s hair was buzzed almost to the skin, his scalp girded by a line of eczema.
“Have a seat,” Nelson aimed his upturned palm at the glider, taken a bit aback by how badly Sergeant Fermin stank, still filthy and unshaven. Disconcerting, because Hector Fermin was the only man left on the Detachment who still abided by stateside garrison grooming standards. As for the rest, with those beards and costumes . . . well.
Twenty minutes later, Father Nelson asked, “How much of this are you sure of?”
“All of it. Pretty sure. The mission, I was there. The other, I’m pretty sure.”
Nelson sighed and leaned forward, placing his elbows on his knees and his hands over his face. He rubbed his cheeks, licked his lips, and then rubbed his hands together.
“You know that you and I are both prohibited by law from discussing mission details with the public. I’m in the Army just like you. On this other, you need to be perfectly sure. This is very a very sensitive matter, Hector.”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
July 14, 2010
1310 — Local
Virden left his assault rifle in the seat. Peanut stayed behind the wheel, as Virden banged on the security screen with the side of his fist, making a sound like someone shaking a chain link fence.
“Nanji!” he yelled, impatient with the looming threat that they would lock down Camp Virtue and disrupt their cash flow.
The door cracked open and a hand shot out and in to unlatch the security screen. Like a lizard tasting the air. Virden just caught sight of a back disappearing into Nanji’s office. Nanji’s lights were out, and Virden was still sun-struck and half blind. He looked back at the bar of sunlight through the open door, alive with illuminated dust.
“You just gettin’ up, you lazy fuck?”
He entered the dark office, and heard . . . flies? Nanji was sitting at his desk looking at the ceiling. Virden blinked twice as if that would restore his dusk vision. Then a surge of adrenaline washed through him and his scrotum contracted. Nanji’s throat was cut. Virden looked down. He was standing in a sticky map of blood. He went for his sidearm and started to yell for Peanut, turning around, only to see a dirty Afghan man, his face veiled by a keffiyeh. The room jumped to the side, then a star blossomed on the side of his head, and then he was asleep.
Peanut was sitting in the truck watching a skinny dog quiver to shit when the radio squelched.
“Get in here right now!”
Not even a callsign. What the fuck?
Peanut grabbed his rifle and ran, then hesitated halfway to the door with the realization he’d left a vehicle and weapon unattended. He ran back, jumped in and pulled the keys, hit the door locks, then ran back into the building.
Two shots in rapid succession took off most of his head. The girls upstairs began screaming. Dale stepped back into the office, looked down at Virden where the rifle butt had felled him, and shot Virden once in his upturned nose, making his eyes bulge. Then he ran upstairs to reassure the girls. There were eight of them, wet-eyed, huddling together in a corner.
He dug his dirty uniform out and left the Afghan clothing scattered on the floor upstairs, where the other girls convinced him to tie and gag Sugarpussy, whereupon they all started spitting on her.
Outside, he was frustrated by the locked door on the truck, but then thought to check Virden’s driver. He went through Peanut’s pockets and found them.
Once the Batmobile was open, the back door agape, he shouted in Farsi at the gaggle of girls waiting just inside the door.
The grizzled garage guard leaned his weapon against the wall and averted his gaze, wondering if he still had a job, grateful to still have his life.
July 14, 2010
1340 — Local
Hamayoon dozed a bit in his old shisham rocker. Hangers full of blue burqas lined both sides of his shop. It made him feel safe, like he was inside a den. His black trousers and blouse made him feel invisible. The breeze cooled his sandaled feet. He was dozing blissfully when he was awakened by the shop bell.
His merchant’s enthusiasm liquefied into fear at the apparition. Aquamarine eyes rimmed in red, there was a begrimed American in a filthy uniform with an assault rifle. The apparition spoke, in Farsi. Yes, he understood a little.
There was blood on the American’s hands, as he pulled out an enormous wad of cash — dollars, euros, rupees, afghans. Leaves of currency fell on the floor as the crazy man demanded eight burqas, small.
Highway A-77, West of Kabul
July 14, 2010
1419 — Local
Seven burqa-clad girls walked together down the shoulder of the road. They’d beaten Sugarpussy nearly to death when he’d returned. Somewhere ahead was Iran, he told them. He’d been singing when he drove away.
None was sure what to do except walk. Only two were Iranian, after all. The mountainous terrain ahead looked infinitely open and dangerous. Freed into this uncertainty, dishonored, they knew nothing but an abyss of fear, praying together as they walked. A vehicle approached at the bend in the highway. A truck of some kind, maybe military, maybe not, color green or gray or something in between. The glare off the windshield pierced them like a spear. The truck slowed as it approached.