—and boasted a thick, black beard. If there was an attack, it would most likely be directed towards the Humvee (symbol of foreign presence) rather than the old Mercedes following it.
The region was largely Shiite, and it hugged the contours of the Euphrates. The place they were going was about 23 miles northeast of the ancient city of Babylon, and Angell was aware that they were in the very thick of Mesopotamia. The town that was their target was Tell Ibrahim, formerly known as Kutha or Gudua. The Gate to the Mesopotamian Underworld.
It was an archaeological site that had been excavated in the nineteenth century and not much was found there. It had been turned into a kind of park, and its ancient associations were largely forgotten in a land that was in the middle of a war zone. But the modern modifications to the site were lost on Angell, who had the sinking feeling they were walking into a trap.
He was second-guessing himself on the way down to Kutha. Why did he agree to stay with the mission? How the hell did he get himself into this? The view outside the windshield was nightmarish. There was the veneer of normalcy over a deep terror that flowed like a subterranean river beneath the sand, the dust, and the cordite. The region had seen a lot of combat during the second Gulf War as the Marines fought their way up the Euphrates all the way to Baghdad. Route 8 itself was known as the “Highway of Death” during the first Gulf War. And now Iraq had splintered into Sunni and Shi’a factions, pro-government forces and rebel groups, and with the addition of the latest iteration of violent extremism— the Islamic State—the country was on the verge of collapse. The area to the west of Baghdad—including the infamous towns of Fallujah and Ramadi—were now in ISIL hands. Iraq was as divided as Syria, and there was no end in sight for anyone.
And they were all Muslims. They all spoke the same language. Shared the same customs. And they were slaughtering each other with a kind of manic joy mixed with desperation, like people trapped on a roller coaster with no way of getting off.
Angell knew that the key to this mystery was here, somewhere, in this ancient land that gave birth to the world’s three monotheist religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They all traced their origins to Abraham, and for whatever reason the old city of Kutha—Gate to the Underworld—
was now known as Tell Ibrahim. Ibrahim: the Arabic for Abraham. Abraham and the Underworld. Abraham and the Quraish, for this was their ancestral home.
They made it to Tell Ibrahim without incident. It was already dusk, and they inched their way as close as they were able to the site. It was a new moon, so the stars were visible. In the north, the Dipper and the Pole Star. There were streets on all sides, and there was some light foot traffic. Aubrey noticed that the pedestrians all seemed to be walking towards the park.
And they were all armed.
The mercs didn’t like what they saw. They muttered among themselves. An enclosed area, filled with armed men, in the gathering gloom of twilight passing to night. Their leader decided they should split up, with one team going to the far side of the park while the other would stay with the client.
The night was closing in on him. Tendrils of shadow were reaching around the armored Mercedes, slithering beneath and above the chassis, growing in size and daring in intention. Angell felt his heart pounding and he didn’t know why. It was peaceful here. There was no sound of gunfire, no roadblocks, nothing that would suggest this was anything other than a sleepy Iraqi town. But Angell was terrified.
He was having a panic attack, like he would have back in his apartment in Red Hook when exhaustion was not enough to put him to sleep. There were sounds out there, sounds he could not identify. Animal sounds. The sinister buzz of nocturnal insects. And something else.
“Do you hear that?” It was Aubrey who broke the silence in the car. “What?” Angell could hear the terror in his own voice, and he was
afraid everyone else could hear it for miles around.
“That sound. Like women singing. Or humming.”
The mercenary escort exited the two vehicles, the Humvee and their own Mercedes. They arranged themselves around the cars and sniffed the air like a pack of wolves. As they did so, the sound grew louder and Angell could identify it, even though the realization was like a knife to his heart. He stepped out of the car, his attention drawn to the source of the sound, his legs weak with fear.
“It’s ululation,” he explained. “It’s common in this part of the world.” “Why are they doing it?”
“That’s the question. It can be heard at weddings, but also at funerals.
Sometimes as a greeting. I think it’s safe to say it’s not a wedding.”
Of course it’s not a wedding, Angell thought to himself. He recognized the setting. The arrival of armed civilians from all over the town, converging on the site of Tell Ibrahim itself.
It was the same ululation that the Martians had made in that H.G. Wells novel, The War of the Worlds. There, it was the sound the aliens made as they went into battle.
To Angell, it was all of those things. But mostly it was a greeting. “They are welcoming … something,” he said aloud, without realizing it, the sound of his voice strange to him in the Mesopotamian darkness. “Calling it. They’re calling it.”
“That’s our signal,” Aubrey said to Angell and to the men.
As they approached the clearing in the middle of the darkening park the sight that greeted them was like something out of a horror movie or a snuff film. There were dozens of armed men: Shiite pilgrims with Kalashnikovs, stoned-looking teenagers sharing a joint and a rifle with a folding stock, heavily-painted transvestites with mascara and machine guns, and some kind of religious leader in their midst. An aged Imam.
Heavy weaponry was evident everywhere they looked, from home-made armored cars—old banged-up jalopies souped up with turbos and sheet metal patches—to rocket launchers, new-looking and shiny assault rifles, and at least seven curved scimitars that were older than Adam’s sin. It was like something out of Mad Max, Iraqi style.
One of the transvestites was dressed in a yellow halter top and orange hot pants, and she was holding an M-16 between her legs like a witch riding a broom. Her movements were both pious and obscene, like a naked priest celebrating Mass in a blasphemous frenzy.
And in a rough circle around the wacked-out warriors were the women.
They were all dressed in black burqas, their hands raised to their faces as they ululated in ebbs and flows of trilling, moaning wails like a chant they had learned as crack babies in their mother’s womb. Angell could see them everywhere, standing straight up like soldiers, all facing the center of
the park where, he noticed, the grass was smoldering with an odor like the sickening incense from a thousand massacres.
And the Imam, wandering among the players like a sheikh among the satanic semazen: whirling dervishes spinning like tops on an axis that plunged straight as an arrow to the deepest parts of Hell, the Devil—Iblis
—furiously shaking their stems and causing them to spin even more manically. The Imam was a tall, grey-bearded man in a long black robe and a black turban, his chest crossed with bandoliers like a Mexican Zapatista. He held a carved wooden staff in his hand that was in the shape of a serpent coiled around someone’s spinal column. He had a sleepy but dangerous look in his eyes as he maneuvered effortlessly among the crowd, mumbling some sort of prayer under his breath with saliva dripping out of the side of his mouth.
And the players—all of them, Shiite pilgrims and transvestite terrorists, teenage dopers and black-robed wailers—were spinning now in the ritual that was banned in Turkey under Ataturk, the mystical rite of contact with the Unspeakable, the Ineffable. But this was not Rumi’s dervish dance. This was not what the tourists came to see in Istanbul, high on Turkish coffee and black market kif. No; these were demonic dervishes, their dizzying spin designed to drag them down, to open the buried, rusted-over portal to Gehennna, Gudua, the Underworld.
And in the god-abandoned center of that accursed chapel or charnel house or whatever it pretended to be was a small statue on a tall wooden base. As Angell set his eyes on it, the alarm in his heart growing by the second, the ululations reached a frantic pitch and he could finally make out something more than just a sound. The light from a hundred tiny fires lit up the hideous features of the statue: a thing that was not a god, not a human, yet some kind of hybrid of the two; but only if it was a god wracked by disease and madness that had mated with a human teratoma if that teratoma had elongated fingers and teeth like rusted razor blades. It was the same figure as the one in Aubrey’s file; the one that polluted the desk of George Angell and the nightmares of Henry Wilcox.
And the ululation. It grew to a drumbeat, a chorus, a strangled shout. It was an imprecation, a curse, a prayer to the spirit and soul of all the filth that ever soiled the planet Earth. It was that one word, that entreaty from a
doomed prisoner to his torturer to end it all, to stop the pain, to just get it over with and kill him, and by so doing purge the entire planet of all life:
They were spotted. One of the stoned-out teenagers was not so stoned he didn’t see heavily-armed American mercenaries gazing down at them. Or maybe he thought he was hallucinating on some fucked-up hashish. No matter. He nudged his friend, who poked his other friend, and the three of them looked up.
The drooling Imam felt the change in the current and looked, first at the teenagers then in the direction they were staring. A deranged smile sharpened his features and he raised his serpent cane, pointing directly at Angell as he did so.
Those who were armed raised their weapons and began firing in disorganized but nonetheless lethal fashion at the spot where Aubrey and Angell now took cover as their escorts provided covering fire from two sides of the park. Bullets pinged and sparked off some ancient stonework behind Angell’s head. A second front opened up on the opposite side of the park as the other mercenaries started pouring disciplined fire into the crowd. They knew who they were looking for, and wanted to do as little damage as possible but in a firefight like this—with crazed cultists firing automatic weapons and rocket launchers—it would be difficult to get to their target and keep him alive.
This was the first time that Angell found himself in the middle of combat rather than simply a spectator, as he had been at Mosul, and he felt strangely calm. The threat of physical danger didn’t seem to bother him. Instead, his eyes were focused on the obscenity in the middle of the clearing and the efforts by some of the cultists to surround it and protect it.
Aubrey’s hand was on his head, keeping him down, while he spoke into the commset to the mercenary commander.
“Do not shoot the Imam! We need to talk to him!”
At that moment, one of the oddly-dressed transvestite guerrillas raised his rocket launcher and aimed it directly for the spot where Aubrey and Angell were hiding, as if sensing their presence and knowing that they were the real target. Just as his eyes—heavily ringed with kohl—met those of Angell his head exploded into a red mist as a round from one of the mercenaries met its mark. The cultist dropped his launcher and fell to the
ground, headless. Angell ducked behind his cover and started gasping in great heaves.
“Head shot,” said Aubrey, calmly and dispassionately.
Chaos had erupted with the first rounds fired. The cultists were scattering all over the park, some making for the streets that ringed the site. The mercenaries were not looking to stop them. They were not there to engage in a bloodbath, but to locate a man they had to interrogate as quickly as possible.
As they started to sweep the park and make their way to its center a fine mist grew up around them. It was gray, with what appeared to be fireflies or fairy lights sprinkled around it. It was surreal, almost pretty, until the men noticed the smell that accompanied the mist. It was an odor they knew all too well. The scent of burned flesh and rotting corpses. It was as if someone had opened the door to an abattoir, one that had been shut up for centuries.
Covering their noses as best they could, but with their focus still on their mission, they crept closer to the central area of the site where once ancient Kutha had flourished. There were weird, small fires burning everywhere. Strange that the mist did not ignite from all the open flames, the flying ordinance, and abject terror made flesh. They were about to stop a crowd of the burqa-clad women on the suspicion that one of them might be their quarry in drag—after all, the transvestite terrorists were the most lethal of the group anyway—when a shout from one of their comrades drew them to the center of site, next to the column with the evil-looking idol on top.
“That’s it,” Aubrey said, grabbing at Angell’s shoulder. “Let’s go down.” The professor looked at the spook as if he were insane.
“They’re still shooting down there! The place is in chaos!”
“Nonsense. They’re just mopping up now.” He turned to Angell and said, with a wink, “It’s safe to surf!”
With that, he practically picked Angell up off the ground and dragged him down the small rise they were on to the center of the action. This is where the professor would earn his salary.
Behind a small outcropping of ancient stones, an Iraqi teenager—mind clear now since he was so totally stoned out of it—raised his old Armalite with its multi-colored barrel and its stock adorned with cartoon stickers and pink graffiti and took aim at the academic. Angell was the one person
there who did not seem to belong at all, and therefore had to be the most important person in the place. If he killed him then the Imam would be pleased and their Grand Mahdi—the priest of all priests, the one the Imam said was lying underground at Kutha, the Lord of Kutha, Kutulu, just waiting for the right moment to call his people together—would rise and smell the incense.