He glanced at the photos, which seemed to be of someplace in the bayou. A lot of tropical foliage and that weird statue.
He flipped past it, and then stopped and looked at it again.
That statue. It looked a lot like one of the drawings from his own crime scene.
The photos were monochrome and starting to turn yellow with age. He picked up a magnifying glass—feeling a little silly, like Sherlock Holmes
—and peered intently at the statue. Damn, it was identical.
He walked the file over to the Captain.
“You see this?” he said, pointing to the old photo of the statue. “What about it?”
“Now look at this,” he said, showing him the digital photo of the diagram from the concrete temple.
“They’re the same, alright,” he affirmed, after studying both images for a few seconds. “What’s your point?”
“These were taken 107 years apart. Is there some kind of, I dunno, voodoo cult around here that would be using this stuff all this time?”
The Captain shook his head thoughtfully. He looked at the pictures again, then set them down on the desk and regarded Cuneo with a pitying eye. “This has nothing to do with voudon, cher. And it isn’t Santeria, Palo Mayombe, Candomble, or any of that other stuff, either. What you have here is maybe a resurgence, maybe a revival, of a group that used to operate in these parts around the time of Pierre Lafitte and the War of 1812. The Cajun people out in the bayous? They used to talk about this group. It wasn’t your usual Haitian crowd, either. It had members from Cuba, Haiti, the DR, even Chinese sailors who belonged to it over on the other side.”
“The other side?”
“Of the world, cher. Of the world. They were Chinese from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore … some damned place. Mongolia. That was it. Or
maybe Manchuria? Anyway the records are all in there, if they haven’t been lost by now.”
“Captain, you’re talking about a global … what, cult … that was operating here a hundred years ago?”
“Sure. Yes. Why?”
“Before the Internet. Before mass media, television, hell even telephones?”
“I see your point.”
“And they’re operating again, now? Killing people in the Lower Ninth?” “Well, we don’t know that just yet. The post-mortems haven’t come in
“Captain, they were shackled to that pole. With chains.” “Some kinda sex game gone wrong?”
Cuneo was silent a moment. He had seen that sort of thing before. It could be a sex game, he supposed. It would account for there being two corpses.
“But the symbol. Who would have known about that?” The Captain nodded. “You have a point there.”
Cuneo returned to his desk and read through the file. It was clear to him that the police had broken up some kind of murderous orgy out there in the bayou, mass murder or mass sacrifice however you wanted to call it, but what was weird was the involvement of so many people from so many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Usually, groups like this were homogenous: they were all from the same place with a shared cultural context. An Afro-Caribbean cult would not have Chinese members, for instance. But this one did. It was unusual, but hard to believe it would have lasted for any length of time with such a diverse membership. Yet it had. Or someone was trying to revive it.
It was the Faraday cage aspect of the whole thing that added a different wrinkle. Obviously the underground temple had been abandoned due to Katrina. You’d think the owner of that building would have returned in the months that followed in order to clean up the evidence, but maybe not. Maybe whoever it was had just taken off, gone as far away as possible from the scene.
That was when Ti Frêre stopped by and dropped off another file.
“This is the real estate record for the site that was bulldozed. It went through a coupla hands before the Chinese guy bought it.”
“Never mind. Thanks.” Cuneo looked at the paper on the lot and its dilapidated building. There were no utility bills, of course; no electric or phone, but it had indeed gone through three different owners since Katrina probably as investments that never panned out because the value of the property kept falling with each sale. It was the owner who had it at the time of the hurricane that interested him.
Ah, there it was. A name, something to work with finally. Legrasse.
Angell felt himself slipping away with each kilometer they traveled. They were in a mountainous region that might have been beautiful under other circumstances but which now was only sinister and foreboding. They were hugging a winding river, and were within a stone’s throw from Pakistan. He overheard the two agents discuss how raiders from Pakistani towns would come over the border and engage with Afghan troops from time to time. He also heard how everyone in the area considered the Nuristanis to be pagans and devil-worshippers, not real converts to Islam, and how they were driving into a part of the country that even the Afghan security forces avoided. Even the Russians had avoided during the Soviet occupation. No one wants to go to Nuristan. They go because, for one reason or another, they have to. And they leave as quickly as they can.
The road itself was a narrow, single lane dirt track that hugged the side of the mountain and threatened to pitch them into the river at every turn. Adnan’s head was sticking out the window on the left-hand side, watching the wheels to make sure that they didn’t stray over the edge. It was nerve- wracking and slow.
They had passed the town of Naray on the way up, and suffered the stares of villagers as they passed. Although they were dressed like local Afghans, the villagers did not recognize the van so they knew they were strangers. Angell felt like he was living in a scene from Dracula, and it was Walpurgisnacht.
The last ten kilometers would take at least an hour of very slow driving. The two agents in the front seats debated walking instead of driving into
the town, but came to the conclusion they would rather stay with the vehicle. They saw a pickup truck precede them into the town, driving as slowly as they were, but apparently unconcerned. A local farmer, probably, judging from the pile of corn in the bed of the truck.
And ahead of them, finally, after a very long day of driving, was Kamdesh.
It was a town built on the side of a mountain, from what Angell could see. Mud colored houses, made of something like adobe, crawled up the mountain like a peculiar form of organic life. Suddenly, for reasons he could not explain even to himself, Angell began trembling uncontrollably. This was something other than fear. Fear had a “fight or flight” component, and this reaction had neither. This was surrender in the face of an overwhelming force. Angell felt himself giving up, and he didn’t know why.
He tried to keep his condition hidden from the other men in the van, and ignored the shaking of his legs and arms and the weird sensation of trembling in his chest. It felt as if his mind were leaving his body, as if he had already been killed, and briefly wondered if that was so: if they had been blown up or shot at or been the target of an RPG. He actually wondered if he was already dead.
“Sir, we’re here. Welcome to beautiful downtown Kamdesh.
Now let’s get the living fuck out of here, shall we?” It was Magenta, and Angell watched him check to be sure a sidearm was locked and loaded. Brown was doing the same, and had passed a nine millimeter automatic to Adnan who checked the magazine and then tucked the weapon somewhere within the folds of his Afghan costume.
Brown and Magenta knew that Adnan spoke Farsi and Arabic, and that Angell had a working knowledge of Pashto as well. But there were a lot of dialects in this part of the world, including Dari and Urdu, so they would have to be careful. Brown and Magenta knew Dari and Pashto and spoke the languages like natives, which was the whole point. They had the thick beards and thicker attitudes they would need to pass as Afghans. They knew they couldn’t pass as Nuristanis and wouldn’t even try. They would say they had come from Jalalabad, but that their relatives were from Kabul. That should explain any perceived strangeness in their accents.
The two agents already knew who they were looking for. They had been briefed by Peachy by phone and again by Adnan and Angell themselves. They were going to find the headman of the village and make their request known to him first, as was customary. Adnan and Angell were told to keep quiet and be respectful.
And no sudden moves.
They exited the vehicle and began walking slowly in the direction of the center of the town. People came out from their houses to watch them, but said nothing. There was an Afghan National Police building—a small adobe hut by the side of the road—but no one was there. Brown and Magenta walked point, with Angell walking slack and Adnan at the rear. Finally, a young man with blonde hair and the bluest eyes Angell had ever seen walked up to them and started chatting with the two agents.
After a minute, Brown turned to Angell and Adnan and spoke to them in Pashto, saying they were going to see the headman.
They followed the young man down a dirt path as Angell noticed another man, older, talking on a cell phone. It was the weirdest thing Angell had seen in a long time. A cell phone in a region that seemed to have no indoor plumbing or even electricity. He was about to say something to Adnan who knew what Angell was thinking, and whispered to him, “The word is going out that we are here. Someone, somewhere, is being notified. Let’s just hope it isn’t the Taliban. Stay alert.”
There was another structure in front of them, looking pretty much like every other one in the village. They were asked to enter and as they did they saw several village elders already sitting in a half-circle on an old carpet. They looked up as the strangers walked in, and made some greetings first in Dari and then in Pashto. Brown answered for all of them. They were invited to sit down and join them for some chai.
The thick milky tea was poured and everyone settled down and tried to get comfortable. The two agents, Brown and Magenta, introduced themselves with Afghan names and talked pleasantries, as did their hosts. No one seemed to be in a hurry to discuss why there were there.
Angell for his part calmed himself down. He could not afford to look nervous in front of these men, and he had the mission objective firmly in mind. Well, maybe not firmly. What was firm was his determination to get out of all this alive. He sipped his chai, and looked around at the bare
walls, the reddish carpet, and the long beards of the elders all around him as he listened to the conversation and tried to understand as much of it as possible.
The Nuristanis did not like Pashtun people, whom they viewed as invaders and interlopers. They didn’t like the Pakistanis, the Taliban, or Al- Qaeda. They just wanted to be left alone. So Angell and his team were taking a chance by coming into Kamdesh in the first place. But the stakes were too high and, anyway, they had what seemed like the perfect excuse: the name of the man they were coming to see and a recommendation to see him from the Zoroastrian priest in Yazd. This was an acknowledgment that there was a network of brothers and that Angell and his crew were part of that network. That made Angell feel somewhat more secure.
Slowly, Brown and Magenta began to introduce this information into the conversation. Questions came in Dari, Pashtu and Urdu. Sometimes a mix of all three. Angell had a hard time following the dialogue between Brown and a man who seemed to be the village headman, but he heard references to the Katra more than once. The first time, there was silence among the elders as Angell could feel them appraising him and his colleagues in a new way.
Finally, the headman stood up and the others followed, including the four foreigners. He pointed up, straight up, and said something in Dari that Angell did not understand.
Then he pointed straight up again. This time his meaning was clear. The man they were seeking lived on top of one of the mountains outside the town.
Something about this didn’t seem right to Angell. This was all happening too fast. But before he could say anything to any of the others he felt woozy. His vision blurred and he started to lose his balance.
He was blacking out. His last thought before he lost consciousness was
I’ve been drugged.
All was darkness.
Angell could feel nothing, see nothing, hear nothing. Is this death? he asked himself. Has it finally happened?
Then, a sound. Distant. Terrifying. A plaintive chant, a base note thrum of anti-matter that threatened to overwhelm the material world. Sounds, ideas, memories all clashing in Angell’s mind, crashing on the individual,
sharpened rocks of his identity like waves of dystopian visions through the untranslated scriptures of the Original People.
Who the hell are the Original People? he asked, mentally. Where does that come from?
And why do none of my thoughts make any sense?
He vaguely remembered a room full of Nuristanis. A carpet. Chai. The sense of being drugged.
That sound again. A chant. An incantation. Male voices, he realized for some reason. All the voices were male. Or almost male. Almost human. As if humans were deliberately trying to sound non-human. To make sounds that humans could not make. Was that it? It sounded vaguely Tibetan, had none of the lilting quality of Gregorian chant. Could be Middle Eastern. Can’t make out the words.
A smell now. Sharp. Pungent. He knew it. Juniper. Someone was burning juniper. Maybe he wasn’t dead yet. Maybe he was being prepared for burial, though. An incense to cover the smell of decaying flesh. His flesh. His burial. Maybe he was dead, and his soul was lingering over his body. He tried to tell himself it wasn’t necessary. He didn’t have to stick around. What if they cut off his head? What if they cut it off and put it on a stake by the side of the road, a warning to Americans and foreigners and professors of religion that they had no fucking clue what they were doing and what they were talking about.