“Then you understand that all these factions you mention, and many more besides, are united in their desire to find this ‘scripture’ as you call it. None of us can afford to wait until the other has it. We cannot accept that
anyone other than ourselves own this book. We certainly cannot accept American ownership. They already have nuclear weapons. They cannot be permitted to have Kitab Al Azif as well.”
“Then … what do you propose?”
The interrogator took a sip of his tea.
“We could kill you and your friends, of course. That would ensure the Americans would not find the book. It would take them too long to find another expert to help them, and by now the book is probably out of reach of their best efforts.”
“If you kill me, then you won’t find the book either.”
“Yes, I have thought of that. Which is why I propose to release you and send you on your way.”
At this, Angell almost dropped his tea cup. He looked at the terrorist and wondered if he had heard him correctly.
Mansour continued, “The book had been with the Kalasha people—the same as the Nuristanis—until they were converted in 1895. Even the Kalasha do not know the true origins of the book, however, only that it refers to the hideous practices of the Nabataeans of Kutha who used it to contact alien forces.
“Two days before your arrival, another group of men passed through here on their way to Kashmir. Foreigners. They also asked to see the Katra. They were more successful. When we heard that they were here, we naturally left our base in Pakistan to intercept them. But we were too late. Too late to capture them, but just in time to capture you. And the Katra himself: an old shaman, a trafficker in spirits and dreams. He is revered among the people here, just as they revere all superstitious practices and those who perpetuate them.”
“Where … where is the Katra now?”
“I will take you to him. Perhaps you will have more success with him.
He was not so forthcoming with me.” “What do you want from me?”
“To do just what you were told to do. Find the book. Find it quickly, for we are running out of time. There is a schedule involved, and each day that passes brings us closer to annihilation.”
“And when I find it?”
“You will hand it over to me. Or to my people.”
“Then you must release my people. I need them to accompany me. I am a scholar, an academic. I am not a commando or a guerrilla fighter.”
“You’re really in no position to be making demands, Doctor Angell. No.
Your friends will remain with me until I have possession of the book.” “How do I know you will keep your word?”
“You don’t. So let’s stop bargaining like women and proceed to the next step.” He took a map from a shelf in his bookcase and spread it out on the floor between them.
“You will be accompanied by some of my men. They will be with you day and night. They will get you to Kashmir and if you leave at once you should be able to make good time. We know where the other men are headed and we can get you there ahead of them since we own the territory between here and Kashmir.” He pointed at their location—Angell noticing with some relief that they were still in Kamdesh—and then drawing a line from Nuristan across northern Pakistan into the disputed territory of Kashmir. “We will slow them down, but just enough to enable you to get into position. Then you will follow them to the book, and my men will seize it.”
“Do we know where in Kashmir they are going?”
“There are seven unholy sites across the world from Iraq to Mongolia. Seven towers, they are called, but they are not towers the way we understand the word. These seven towers are nodes in a network. Each of them is to be ‘switched on’ in turn. We do not know how this is done, and we do not know where these towers may be, except in very general terms. That is for you to discover. The book is an essential part of this blasphemous ritual; without it, the devil-worshippers cannot accomplish anything.
“And as I have said, there is a schedule. It depends on some kind of astronomical observation. When the stars are right, the contact between the dead gods and their followers will be at its peak. Keep that in mind. Now, let us see the Katra of Kamdesh.”
Omar rose and the others followed him, Angell in the center of the group even though there was no chance of him escaping on his own.
They went outside and passed a building and then another one. Finally they came to a large hall of some sort. It was dark inside, but the smell was almost overpowering.
There, tied to a wooden pillar in the middle of the hall was a man, naked, and covered in blood. It was the Katra of Kamdesh.
His head was placed neatly in his lap.
Their mode of speech was transmitted thought. … When, after infinities of chaos, the first men came, the Great Old Ones spoke to the sensitive among them by moulding their dreams; for only thus could Their language reach the fleshly minds of mammals.
—H.P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”
A sheep herder walked slowly along the road outside Mandagal, a town north of Kamdesh. He carried a long stick, and wore the typical flat- brimmed turban of the Pashtuns. Mandagal was a dangerous town, filled with Taliban operatives as well as a handful of ISI agents: members of Pakistan’s own security services who were not supposed to be in Afghanistan but who frequently crossed the border just outside Mandagal to keep their hand in.
The sheep herder was a little crazy, so people left him alone. He was a herder without sheep, a man without a home. He had walked to Mandagal from somewhere else, no one really knew. And he was walking out of Mandagal the same way.
He stepped aside to let a military vehicle pass him on the narrow single lane dirt road. He didn’t bother looking up. The vehicle was on its way from Kamdesh, and that is all he really needed to know.
He stepped off the road completely now, and found a quiet place in the trees to sit and think. Jason Miller wiped the sweat off his forehead with the end of his turban.
This was getting too dangerous, he thought. There were Americans in that town, in Taliban custody, and they were on the same mission he was. If he stopped to help them, the others might make it to the book before
him. But if he left them there, he would have to carry that guilt with him for the rest of his life. They would be killed, there was no doubt in his mind about that. They would be killed, probably beheaded, and even tortured first. Just for sport. He knew there was a bounty on dead Americans, something like a thousand dollars each. All you had to produce was a digital photo of yourself standing over the body. Easy money in that part of the world. Throw in a video of the beheadings and whoever did this would be a hero to the permanent underclass.
Miller knew there was no getting around it. He would have to see to it that the Americans were rescued. There were four of them, according to his informant at Naray (a town the four had passed on their way to Kamdesh). They had stopped to relieve themselves by the side of the road and that is when his informant snapped their picture with a smartphone from his vantage point behind a cliff overlooking the river.
Miller took out his own phone and looked at them again. They were good, he had to give them that. They looked like Afghans. All except one of them, who looked dirty and disheveled and scared shitless. That would be the academic type they brought along.
He figured they would behead him first.
He didn’t have the juice to call in an air strike. A drone would have a hard time getting in here, too, and anyway Kamdesh was a target full of civilians. They couldn’t risk a Tomahawk coming in and blasting a crater in the center of the town. If he was going to get anyone out, he would have to do it himself without backup or reinforcements. The three men with the academic looked like hard types, professional soldiers probably, so they would know how to handle themselves once they were free. They could look after the teacher or whatever the hell he was. He just hoped he wouldn’t waste too much time rescuing them. He was on a pretty tight schedule.
He checked the astronomy app on his smartphone.
Only a few more days to go before all Hell would break loose. Literally.
In Baghdad, Aubrey was fuming. He had not heard from his people in two days. He knew their location due to the GPS positioning chips and that is what worried him. Angell and his Kurdish contact were in Kamdesh. He
didn’t have GPS on the other two; they worked for CIA and their group— CTPT, or Counter Terrorism Pursuit Team—was deep undercover in Afghanistan. The problem was: the GPS for Angell and the one for Adnan were now in different places.
Adnan’s was still in Kamdesh, but Angell’s had started to move. Something went wrong in Nuristan and he couldn’t find out what. He tasked a drone to take a look, and got back the image of a truck going north out of Kamdesh, probably heading for Mandagal. It matched Angell’s GPS. This was not good. Mandagal was enemy territory. If they were taking Angell there, he was a prisoner and they were going to take him to Pakistan.
He dreaded the phone call he had to make. Monroe would want to know immediately if Angell was off the grid. If he was, the whole mission had failed and all they could do now was hunker down and prepare for the worst world war in the planet’s history.
Detective Cuneo sat in front of a sweet old lady in her living room in the comfortable Belle Chasse suburb of New Orleans, a long way from the Lower Ninth Ward in all senses of the term.
“Ma’am, I’m here inquiring about some property you owned in the city.” “That would have been my husband.”
“My husband owned property. He passed away some years ago. About the time of Katrina. Poor man. Worked all his life, fingers to the bone. Would you care for some coffee? Tea?”
“No, Ma’am. Thank you.”
The living room was suffocatingly floral and bright. It was a cheerful room, or might have been had it not been for the heavy, well-stocked bookcase standing in a corner. It reminded him of a brooding raven on a bust of Pallas. Or something.
“Oh, you’ve noticed my library,” the old lady gushed. She was dressed to the nines for early in the day. Tight, white hair that had been perm’ed to within an inch of its life. Floral print dress. Pumps. A little too much makeup. Jewelry that looked real, not costume. Pearl earrings and a giant
diamond brooch that caught the light from the sun and held it captive, demanding ransom.
He looked closely at some of the spines and was startled by the subject matter. Authors he had never heard of—Regardie, Crowley, Montague Summers, Grillot de Givry, Waite, Randolph, Mathers, Levi—and titles that made the blood run cold.
The Book of Black Magic and of Pacts. The Secret Lore of Magic.
Magick in Theory and Practice. Goetia.
Books on Freemasonry and witchcraft; alchemy and ritual; secret societies and pagan cults. And there: on the lower shelf, books on voodoo and Santeria.
Cuneo stood up and looked down at the sweet old lady on the upholstered love seat. “These your books, ma’am?”
“Oh, indeed they are, Detective.” “Interesting hobby.”
“Oh, it’s not a hobby.”
Cuneo really did not want to get into that discussion at this time. Instead he went back to the case at hand.
“I’m here to ask you some questions about the property in the Lower Ninth Ward, the one that presumably was abandoned after Katrina. What can you tell me about that?”
“Oh, dear. I was afraid of that.” “Sorry?”
“That property has been nothing but trouble since the day Frank—that’s my late husband, Frank was his name—since the day Frank got it from the Chinaman.”
“The … Chinaman? You mean someone of Asian descent?”
“I mean Chinaman! A person of Chinese origin. Not descent. He was a real Chinaman! From China!” She was clearly put out that Cuneo had tried to be politically sensitive. She was clearly too old to care about the social niceties.
“Okay. When did Frank buy it from the, uh, Chinaman?”
“Young man, I never said that Frank bought it from the Chinaman. I said he got it from the Chinaman.”
“It was a gift?”
“Not exactly. Frank was to take care of it for the man. Hold onto it. See to it.”
“Like a … a caretaker? Something like that?”
“Well … no, not really. It was Frank’s turn, you see.” “Mrs. Galvez, I am really quite confused.”
The lady sat back on the couch and regarded the detective from New York—he obviously wasn’t from New Orleans—with some irritation.
“Detective, the property in question has been in our tradition for generations. It’s not so difficult to understand.”
“Your tradition? And what tradition might that be, ma’am?”
She sighed, and fanned herself with an embroidered handkerchief.
“It was Frank, and before that it was the Chinaman, and before that it was that man from the islands, and so on, back to that unfortunate episode before the war.”
“Before the war? World War Two?” he said, venturing a guess.
“No, young man. Before World War One. The real war. World War Two was just the sequel.”
“So you’re saying the property has been in your … in the possession of your … tradition going back to 1907? The year the police raided the ritual in the bayou?”
“Of course. Now you’re starting to understand. You sure you don’t want some tea? It’s lapsang soochong. Imported directly.”
“Uh, no, thanks, ma’am. So you know all about that incident in 1907?
The ritual, the idol, the, uh, dead bodies?” “Detective …?”
“Detective Cuneo. Let’s start at the beginning. You know about the Freemasons? The Rosicrucians?”
“Some. Secret societies that have been around for centuries. Like that.” “Well, they’re Johnny-come-latelies when compared to the oldest secret