“Qhadhulu shay altheemon,” he whispered to himself. “Qhadhulu is great.” Then, growing bolder, he added “Qhadhuluhu akbar,” his voice a little higher, almost a shout, the blasphemous, artificial construction instantly condemning him to a Muslim hell.
And pulled the trigger.
Jason Miller stood on the roof of a building over a thousand yards from the epicenter of the firefight. He watched the proceedings through his binoculars, and then reached down for his sniper rifle, a customized version of the MK 21. Laying the rifle on a sandbag rest, he chambered a
.338 Lapua Magnum round and took aim through the telescopic sight at the head of the drugged-out teenage shooter pointing his piece-of-shit gopher gun in the direction of the professor.
Miller took a breath, and let it out slowly. There was no wind.
The teenager did not know he was dead. He thought he was just stoned. He saw … well, nothing. Something was wrong. He had no eyes, no sight, but he … saw … something. He felt it, too. Felt its fingers probe his brain and then make a grab for his heart muscle. It squeezed. His heart exploded like a water balloon.
But it wasn’t his heart. He was already dead.
Angell started at the sound. A shot had been fired from the teenager’s rifle but it went up into the air. Did the youth think he was shooting at God?
At Angell’s feet lay the wounded Imam, a sucking chest wound, blood pooling all around his waist and groin and chest. The man’s eyes were glazing over. There was almost no time.
“Talk to him!” shouted Aubrey, above the sound of small arms fire and the cries of the wounded.
Angell was looking into the eyes of the aged Imam who was breathing his last. He wasn’t sure the man could see him, even though his eyes were open. He was looking, but what he saw wasn’t in this world or even this dimension.
He spoke to him first in Arabic, then in Kurmanji. The old man answered in Farsi. He was Iranian. And delirious.
“I came here for the Ayatollahs,” he whispered, with a wistful stare as if he was recounting his autobiography. Or entertaining his grandchildren. “I was sent to infiltrate the Shiite resistance against Saddam. Then the invasion. Then I saw … impossible things.”
He seemed to be drifting. Once he did, the oceanic tide would carry him away forever.
Angell shook him gently by the shoulder. Around them, the sound of gunfire was diminishing as the darkness deepened.
“The book? Who has it? Where is it?” he asked in Farsi. The old man smiled, then coughed.
“They call him the First Priest, the King of this World. The one who speaks to the Old Ones. They were waiting for him. Calling him. They don’t know anything about a book.”
Angell nodded. “But you do.”
“In Arabic, the Kitab al-Azif. Yes. It means the sound of the jinn. You understand? Jinn?”
Angell was growing impatient, but he was moved by the fact that this old man was dying in his arms. The old Iranian’s mind was wandering, and he was mixing Arabic with Farsi and even some Urdu. He was obviously educated and had lived for years underground, a spy in Saddam’s camp, living one step ahead of the Mukhabarat.
It suddenly dawned on Angell that this man had known Fahim. They were both strangers in a strange land, each with their own reason to be afraid of Saddam’s secret police.
On a hunch, he spoke the name.
“Fahim? Yes. My friend. Fahim. And the beautiful Jamila.”
He raised his head, with a great deal of effort, and his eyes cleared for a moment as he looked around at the carnage that surrounded them. He grasped Angell’s hand.
“Where is she? Where is Jamila?” “She was here?”
“Yezd,” he said. For a second, Angell thought he said “yes” in English, but then realized he meant a city in his native Iran.
“They will go … yes, Yezd. They will go to Yezd. To Arad. The book must be taken to the People. The People of the Book.” At that he started to laugh, but his body went rigid.
Angell closed the old man’s eyes with the palm of his hand, and looked up at Aubrey who had been watching intently the entire exchange.
“He says the group here didn’t know anything about a book. But they did know about the … that thing on the column. They were trying to wake it up, or something. But he said that Jamila was here, but left to go to Iran.”
“To the city of Yezd. It’s in the middle of the country. They have a large Zoroastrian temple there. Eternal flame. The whole thing.”
“How the hell …?” Aubrey started thinking aloud.
“Zoroastrians. Iran. Shiites. Yezidis. Yezd. I suppose there is some logic to it. I just wish I had more proof that what the Imam was saying was true.”
Angell gently pried the dead man’s hand from his own and realized that there was writing on the old man’s palm in ink. “Will this do?”
Someone had drawn a map, using the hand’s own contours and lines in the palm as if they were hills and roads, with a small dot and a word in Farsi: Dakhmeh.
“What is that?”
“It’s a map. Of Yezd. Well, of one place in Yezd. Dakhmeh.” “Dakhmeh?”
“The Towers of Silence.”
THE TOWERS OF SATAN
Of the cult, he said that he thought the centre lay amid the pathless deserts of Arabia, where Irem, the City of Pillars, dreams hidden and untouched.
—H.P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”
Baghdad Airport Iraq
Incredibly, to Angell, they had managed to leave Tell Ibrahim without encountering any more militants. After a hurried conversation with their escort and an encrypted call to Monroe, arrangements were made to ferry Aubrey and his charge to the Iranian border. This was a hazardous affair, for Iraq was falling and the Iranians were sending troops in a constant stream across their mutual frontier to prop up the Shiite faction in its struggle with the official Iraqi (i.e. Sunni) government as well as the new force in the area, the Islamic State. They had good intelligence on where the safest place to cross would be, but then they would be on their own in getting to Yezd.
Angell was not even sure they should be going there. This whole thing was getting out of hand. If it wasn’t for the totally bizarre experience of the ritual that took place at the site of ancient Kutha and the old Iranian Imam with the map on his palm, Angell would not even credit this mission’s purpose at all. But he had seen the conviction and the fear in the man’s eyes as he lay dying, and it was that dying declaration that convinced Angell to give it another try.
He could not get the image of that sickening idol out of his mind, either.
Aubrey had the foresight to photograph the entire site with his phone, and to take close-ups of the idol as well as of the Imam. He was scrolling through the images on the ride back to the Baghdad Airport. As he did so, he came across another photo: one that he did not remember taking. It was of the teenage sniper having his head blown off.
“Incredible,” he muttered, mostly to himself. “Not many could have pulled off a shot like that.”
Angell stirred from his reverie in the relative peace and quiet of the back of the old Mercedes and asked Aubrey what he meant.
“The kid who was going to shoot you was shot instead, from behind it looks like. That means someone was in one of the buildings across the road from the park. Another sniper. A guardian angel, or a guardian for an Angell.” He smirked to himself. “You have friends in ‘high’ places,” he added.
“Very funny. So what does it mean? Who would it have been?”
“Not one of ours, actually. I know all our assets in theater, and this wasn’t one of them. You know the expression, the ‘god spot’?”
“No. What does that mean?” He absentmindedly looked at the road outside the window. Their driver was quiet, intent on watching the lead car and following in its tracks precisely.
“It’s the sniper’s nest. It’s the highest terrain around. He sits up there—in a tree, on a rooftop, somewhere like that—and gazes down at humanity. He picks out his target from there, and then fires a single round and ends a life. Like God, in almost every respect. If he’s lucky he has a spotter with him, but that is not always the case.”
“So this … this sniper. He was sitting in the god spot?” “Sure. And he saved your life from there. Also like God.” “Why?”
“Well,” Aubrey thought for a moment. “I guess ‘God’ has other plans for you.”
In the back of his mind, Aubrey was entertaining another scenario entirely. One that involved Jason Miller, the AWOL remote viewer. He knew that Miller was after the same thing he was, and suspected that Miller was dogging their every move, as Monroe had suggested. This last incident
only served to reinforce that idea. Jason Miller would protect them just as long as they served his purpose. After that, they were on their own.
Angell appreciated the irony. He had stopped believing in God; or, at least, had stopped loving God, which amounted to the same thing as far as he was concerned. Like when you stop believing in a lover and stopped loving them at the same time, the betrayal poisoning love like a drop of a nasty bacillus in an otherwise limpid pool of clean water. He had devoted his life to studying religion, to traveling to distant lands and learning new and ancient—living and dead—languages just in order to understand God better. And now he figured he did understand God, all too well.
Yet … the belief that burned in the old Iranian’s eyes as he lay dying in Angell’s arms. That Imam had loved God. Some kind of God, anyway. And he had seen far more death and destruction in a single month than Angell had experienced in his entire life. Maybe God was a sociopath, a sophisticated charmer who could make anyone believe anything. And then, when it suited him, would leave you high and dry. Would … would abandon you.
Al-Qhadhulu. The one who abandons, who leaves. Who disappears. Shit, he thought. Was that what Lovecraft was trying to tell everyone?
They arrived at Baghdad Airport in the dead of night. They passed checkpoints and drove to a hangar in the military section where a modified (for stealth) MH60-M Black Hawk helicopter was waiting for them. Its rotors were still, and Aubrey told him that they would get something to eat first and refresh their supplies for what might be a long trek inland from the border. They would leave in an hour or so, after he had a chance to talk over the mission with the team leader.
As before, their mercenary escort simply disappeared into the background, anonymous and sober in their black uniforms and blank expressions. As before, Angell never learned their names.
Angell was desperate for a shower and a nap. He could get the shower, and one of the members of the new team showed him where everything was. He was told not to shave, however, as the growth of beard would help disguise him and allow him to blend into his surroundings. Angell had a change of clothes with him but not much else. He had not expected to be out of the country as long as he had been, and now he wasn’t sure when he would be allowed to return. He thought of himself as almost a prisoner, of
Aubrey and the mysterious Monroe and the ever-shifting cast of military experts who accompanied them everywhere.
The shower was surprisingly modern and efficient, a modular affair at the officers’ quarters at the base. He switched from hot water to cold and back to hot again, just to open his pores and massage his tired muscles. As he stood in the steady pour of clean water he noticed that there was a pool of pink water forming around the drain. Startled, he looked at himself to see if he had been hurt, but there was no wound, no scratch that he could see. The blood had to be someone else’s.
Gregory Angell, Professor of Religious Studies at Columbia University, New York City and resident of Brooklyn, New York was suddenly very alone and very, very far from home.
He rejoined the group at a conference table in an office just off the large aircraft hangar. Arrayed around the table was a bizarre sight: Starbucks coffee cups and McDonald’s cheeseburgers, along with packages of French fries and bottles of Coke.
The man in charge of the team gestured at the spread.
“Help yourself. If you want KFC or Pizza Hut, we have that, too.” He was serious.
Noticing Angell’s confusion, he clarified as best he could.
“We had one of the largest fast food installations in the world here, before the rollback. Right now, there’s just us and whatever mercenary group is the flavor of the month. Blackwater, of course, in all its iterations. Halliburton. All sorts of corporate security teams. And us.
“Welcome to the temporary home of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, or SOAR. We will be your tour guides this evening. I understand that Iran is lovely this time of year. Or not.”
“You’re the ones who flew Seal Team Six into Abbottabad a few years ago.” Angell was stunned. This had been all over the news in 2011. In fact, this was the third anniversary of the attack on the Osama bin Laden compound and the execution of the mad leader of Al-Qaeda.
Another “Mad Arab.” Something about the phrase nagged at Angell’s mind. He knew that it was the creation of his nemesis, H.P. Lovecraft, but there was something else, too.
Aubrey reached over and snagged a single French fry, dipping it daintily into a pool of Heinz ketchup in a small paper cup, before inserting it in his mouth.
“The team doesn’t use proper names here,” he explained to Angell. “That’s for security reasons. And they do not carry identification, or show their rank in any way. It’s all by the numbers, or the colors as the case may be.”
“That is correct,” added the officer from SOAR. “You can refer to me as ‘Black.’ Yeah, I know, quite a stretch, right?” The man was indeed African-American.
“You will meet the others, and they will have colors for names as well. You will probably not have to engage with them very much, anyway. We are taking you in that helo out there to a location across the Iranian border. We will be flying low to the ground, in stealth mode. We will drop you off, and then return to base. You will have forty-eight hours to make it back to the drop off location to be extracted. It’s a tight schedule, I know, and I can’t discuss with you the reasons since you’re not cleared for classified, compartmented details. Nothing personal. It’s just our orders.”