He pulled the ladder away from the entrance hole and dragged it over to one of the corners of the room, propping it up and testing that it wouldn’t
slide across the floor when he went up. Satisfied, he climbed the ladder to the point where he saw the steel rods go into the corners.
Chipping away at a little of the concrete with his fingers and then with a pocket knife, he saw that the steel did not run straight across to the rest of the house as he had initially surmised, but that it hung a ninety-degree angle and went straight down the wall.
That didn’t make any sense.
Poking a little more, he saw that the steel beams or rods were welded to steel rods of the same dimension that came up from the floor. Why?
Stiffly, he got down from the ladder and dropped to his knees on the floor, looking for a place that was weaker than the rest, a place where some of the concrete might have chipped away, but he could find nothing. He called up for a hammer and a large nail. He had to move the ladder back to its original position to allow the officer to give them to him.
“What do you have, Detective?” “Damned if I know.”
He went back down to the floor and crept along where the wall and the floor met, scraping the nail along and looking for a weak spot. Still finding none, he sighed and stuck the nail in one likely place at the join and started hammering, using the nail as a chisel. After a few minutes the concrete began to give way. He put the hammer down and started removing the concrete chips by hand, gingerly.
There. Just as he suspected. The metal rods came straight down from the ceiling where they were welded to other rods that went underneath the floor.
The entire structure was a kind of metal cage encased in concrete.
He stood up, knees creaking, and looked at the confused officer with wonder in his eyes.
“It’s a Faraday cage,” he said. “A fucking Faraday cage.”
The New Orleans Homicide Division has only about twenty detectives. The police department has gone through a tremendous drain of active officers and detectives since Hurricane Katrina. Detective Anthony Cuneo was originally from New York City before he was picked up by NOPD a few years earlier. Cuneo, an American of Italian and African-American
ancestry, had relatives in the New Orleans area and one day during a visit fell in love with the city. Well, with the Quarter, anyway.
One thing led to another, and he found himself a position as a homicide detective in the Big Easy.
One thing he couldn’t get used to, though, was the voodoo. He knew it was an Afro-Caribbean religion and that Hollywood versions of it were nothing short of slander, but coming across the shops that sold herbs and talismans to the tourist trade was one thing; the occasional crime scene replete with arcane statues and dead chickens was another. Cuneo, as a good Catholic from Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, could never get used to the altars and candles and emblems of death that he came across from time to time. And never the idols.
This case, though, was something else. Like a mad scientist got together with a priest of the Petro cult (see, he knew his Petro from his Rada) and decided to make a science-fiction hounfort. At his desk, he started going through the digital photos of the temple that were taken earlier, paying special attention to what he thought were veves and what he now thought were nothing like traditional Haitian religious symbolism. In fact, they didn’t look Afro-Caribbean at all to him.
One image in particular was unsettling. It was a kind of weird half- anthropoid, half-cephalopod thing. It would be comical if it wasn’t executed with a grim precision, including what appeared to be letters on certain areas of the creature and lines connecting some of the letters to other letters or other features of the image. It was like a map, or maybe an electrical diagram, which is why Cuneo’s mind went right to “Faraday Cage.”
“What is that, Detective?”
“Hmm?” He looked up from the laptop that had the images he was flipping through.
“Faraday cage. What’s that?”
“It’s a way of isolating something from electrical waves, or something.
Like a SCIF.”
A SCIF—Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility—is a room that has been electronically sealed against eavesdropping. They can be found at FBI offices and various other secure locations to prevent enemy agents from listening in to conversations.
“Oh. Who would do that underneath a house in the Lower Ninth?” “Beats the shit outta me.”
He kept going through the images and symbols, but something else was nagging at the corner of his mind.
“This wasn’t used as a SCIF, so what was it for?” He knew he was talking to himself, but that was okay. Intelligent conversation and no arguments, as his mother used to say. “It wasn’t used to keep something out, but to keep something in. But what?”
His mind went back to that iron door. Who would put an iron door in the middle of the wire grid that was the Faraday cage?
Unless it was there to complete a circuit.
He swept through the digital files again, looking for the photo of the ceiling of the concrete temple. There it was: the edges of the iron door made contact with the wire frame surrounding the opening. If you lifted the door, you broke the circuit.
The bulldozer, in smashing the locks on the door, probably shifted it enough that the circuit was broken before the cops arrived. The central pillar of the temple, the by now infamous poteau mitan, was made of metal, which itself was strange since they’re usually made of wood or are actual trees.
“Do we have a prelim on the bodies yet?” he asked the room in general. No one responded. It was probably too early. It could take days before that mess was analyzed.
What if the bodies were in good shape until the circuit was broken? What if, when Katrina passed through, they were still alive?
Cuneo’s captain passed by his desk and looked down at the photo on his laptop, the one of the strange creature with all the letters and connecting lines on it.
“Looks like that thing they pulled out of the bayous back a hundred years ago,” he said to Cuneo.
“What’s that, Captain?”
“You don’t know the story? It was before your time. Hell, it was before my time and my daddy’s time. But it was famous around here for awhile. Crazy-assed cult in the middle of nowhere, carrying on, having orgies and whatnot, around this statue of some kind of octopus god or some damned thing. Got written up. A lot of arrests, but few convictions. Nothing much
came of it, but it made a lot of papers at the time. I’ll ask Ti Frêre to pull the file.”
Ti Frêre was their pet name for an unpaid reserve officer who just liked to hang out around cops. They used him for the grunt work that no cop likes to do. The Captain found him next to the coffee machine and had a word. In a moment, the young man was out the door and heading for the archives.
The Captain winked at Cuneo.
“Hey, when you have a minute, you can ask him to get the file on Lee Harvey Oswald, too!” And with a loud guffaw and exaggerated wink, the Captain walked away leaving Cuneo speechless.
Adnan and Angell began by helping some of the Afghan troops move debris as if they had lived in Zaranj all their lives. No one bothered to ask for papers. The checkpoint was in chaos, and no one was in charge. Slowly, the two men walked past and made for the town itself.
As they walked along the hot and dusty road, a man approached riding a donkey. He was dressed in typical Afghan attire, the long tunic over the baggy trousers, a vest, and a turban. His beard was thick and black, and the donkey looked like it had seen better days.
“Asalaamu aleikhoum,” he greeted them. “Wa aleikhoum salaam,” Adnan responded.
The man passed them, but as he did so they could hear him softly singing.
“The Son of God goes forth to war, a kingly crown to gain; his blood red banner streams afar: who follows in his train?”
Adnan turned to him and sang:“Who best can drink his cup of woe, triumphant over pain, who patient bears his cross below, he follows in his train.”
The donkey rider stopped and rode back to them with some difficulty.
“I understand you’re headed north. To become kings. Of Kafiristan, as I remember.” A broad smile split his face in two.
“My God, is it Peachey?” Adnan’s smile was the equal of the other man’s.
“The same. But we best not hang about here. Follow me back to Zaranj.
No one pays attention to a man on a donkey.” “Or the two fools who walk beside him.”
Peachey was a British SAS officer who had served with Coalition forces back in the day. He knew Adnan from a clandestine operation at the southern Iraq-Iran border, near the Gulf. They had bonded over the film The Man Who Would Be King, based on the Rudyard Kipling story of the same name. They were also probably the only two men in all of Central Asia who knew the lyrics to the Kipling version of the song better known as “The Minstrel Boy.” Peachey—his moniker also came from the Kipling tale—used it to identify himself to Adnan who didn’t recognize him in his Afghan getup.
Or his beard.
Peachey would be their contact in Afghanistan and the man who would arrange for the two to get to Kamdesh.
Zaranj was a small, flat town with small squat, whitewashed buildings. There were shops and cafes, but the overall impression the two visitors had was of a Wild West town moments before the shoot-out at the OK Corral. Peachey led them to a nondescript structure with slits for windows. Adnan wondered if they were rifle ports, or were just small to keep out the heat, the punishing sunlight, and the dust.
Inside there was virtually no furniture. Carpets on the floor, a small wooden table holding tea cups and plates, and a slow-moving fan completed the decor.
He bade the two men enter and make themselves at home. He produced a bottle of boiled water from an old but ornate wooden armoire and some glasses.
“You’ll need this,” he said, pouring the water. “Have to stay hydrated out here, you know.”
They took the glasses gratefully and drank. It had been a long walk from the checkpoint and they had brought nothing with them that would arouse suspicion or interest, not even bottled water.
“It will be nightfall soon. We can’t go anywhere until then. I got a signal from your uncle,” he said, addressing Adnan directly. “Uncle” was the generally-accepted spook term for the US government, as in “Uncle Sam.”
“That’s comforting,” he replied.
“He says you’re really going up north. You do realize that between here and there you have to cross Taliban country. They control huge swaths of the country in the south. The Northern Alliance has a lot of friends in the north, but they are not to be trusted, either.”
“What do you suggest?”
“Your best bet is to find a way to cross over the area between here and there.”
“They’re each problematic, of course. We can get you on a military transport as far as it’s safe to go, but that means announcing your arrival to every informant and undercover operative in the region.
“How long do you need in Kamdesh?”
They both looked at Angell, who until now had been ignored. “A few hours, if we find the man I was sent to find.”
“Kamdesh is not very big, but it will still take awhile if you don’t have any more information than that.”
“I need to find someone called the Katra,” he replied, remembering the old man and his crazy insistence.
Peachey looked at Angell strangely. “The Katra? Are you sure?”
“It’s what the old priest told me, just before he died.” Peachey made a face and looked over at Adnan.
“Katra is the Nuristani word for dagger, a kind of ceremonial dagger like the Indonesian kriss. But I’ve also heard the word used to refer to a kind of priest or shaman of the Kalasha people. They’re the ones who gave Kafiristan its name. It was a pagan country until the Muslims arrived.” He winked at Adnan. “You know, Imra and all that.”
Adnan remembered the giant idol of the Kafiris from the movie with Sean Connery and Michael Caine.
“What did the old priest say, exactly?” “He said, find the Katra of Kamdesh.”
“The Katra of Kamdesh,” Peachey repeated. “Terrific. It’s an old title, obviously. An honorific. Pre-Islamic. But that doesn’t mean he’s not either
Taliban or Northern Alliance anyway. If it’s the Katra of Kamdesh, and it means what I think it means, then I know who it is.”
In the end, they decided that taking a military transport plane as far as Kabul was going to be the way to go. They would have to find a way to minimize the presence of Adnan and Angell on the way up, and to do that Peachey arranged for them to look like real Afghans. He organized some clothes and warned the two not to shave. They were already pretty scruffy, but beards were a necessary accessory in that part of the world. They didn’t have time to grow long ones, so whatever they had would have to do. Peachey even went so far as to search for fake beards, but was coming up empty.
They would leave the following morning from the Delaram airbase. It was a ride of some miles north of Zaranj but it was the safest alternative and would attract the least attention from the locals. It was relatively secure, and the idea was to have Adnan and Angell look like they were working on the base. They would get aboard the transport at the last possible moment.
Once in Kabul, Peachey had his people ready to pick them up and take them as far as Kamdesh. Ordinarily they would go as a full-on military escort, replete with Humvees and heavily-armed Marines. But the idea was to keep everything low key. Had they arrived in force, their contact would be scared off and there would be no way to find him if he didn’t want to be found. They had precious little time, so they had to employ the tactic of surprise.