One of the men helped him back into the truck, and said, “We have a long drive ahead of us. The Book has had a head start. We have to cross to Kashmir.”
Kashmir? That was in a disputed no-man’s land between India and Pakistan.
“Not to worry,” said the Afghan. “We will not make it in this vehicle. We will have some help.” His smile, missing a few teeth and an eye that had been shattered during a rocket attack in Chitral, was not reassuring.
The Taliban raise most of their funding through taxes imposed on criminal gangs in the region—basically protection money—and funds derived from kidnapping and ransom, as well as through the extremely lucrative drug trade. For them, Nuristan is a good place to hold kidnapped victims due to its isolation and the difficulty of getting armed troops into the region. The local villagers will be forced into either supporting them, or tolerating their presence.
Once inside Pakistan, however, a different set of parameters is encountered. To a certain extent there is cooperation with ISI, Pakistan’s security services, who can use the Taliban as pawns in their byzantine machinations concerning Afghanistan. They also derive some income from the drug trade that flourishes, virtually unopposed, in the border regions from Waziristan to Nuristan. The fact that Osama bin Laden lived quite freely in Abbottabad—not far from Nuristan—in an area dominated by the
Pakistan military, is evidence of this realpolitik. America and the West may be fighting a global war on terror, but in Central Asia the dimensions of this conflict are quite different, and involve the sentiments and cultures of local people who see what the West calls terrorism through a local lens. Angell has fallen into the midst of this environment, and has no idea about the proliferation of terror groups and their relationships with criminal gangs in that part of the world. As a religious studies professor he has been blessedly unaware of this complex collection of competing groups, all of whom claim some identification with Islam but whose very idiosyncratic interpretation of that religion—combined with local tribal and pagan elements—has contributed to an environment that seems more like a bad LSD trip than the neat theological arguments of a Thomas Aquinas or an Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari.
The reality on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan has more to do with tribal conflicts, criminal activity, and political maneuvering than it does with religion. Religion provides the moral justification for activities that would take place anyway and which are based on centuries of historical context. People, however, are still people and are still motivated by the same needs and desires as everyone else on the planet. Angell was gradually coming to realize that this intense focus on a book that had a blasphemous reputation wherever it was discussed represented a desire for power that was basic to all human endeavors. This need was more powerful than theological differences or even ethnic or tribal differences, for it was a lens for understanding the world and gaining control over the invisible machinery that hummed beneath its surface. Some groups claimed they wanted to obtain the Book in order to destroy it, but Angell didn’t believe that for a second. Others claimed they wanted it to use it, and Angell appreciated their honesty. No one, however, claimed they knew what was in it, or who wrote it, or what its message may be.
No one, of course, except the group he heard mentioned in whispers among the Afghans: the Keepers of the Book. Who they were, and how they were organized, remained a mystery to him.
And now they were headed for Kashmir, an area of the world that was as heavily contested as Israel and Palestine. Both India and Pakistan claimed the region, and there was intense conflict between Muslim and Hindu factions that often resulted in violence. In fact, there is a strong local tradition that Jesus Christ himself had traveled to Kashmir after the
Crucifixion and was buried in Srinagar, its capital. That meant that two locations associated with the founder of Christianity—Jerusalem and Srinagar—are centers of religious violence and political struggles. The irony of this was not lost on Angell.
A heavy truck appeared about an hour later. They were proceeding east, across northern Pakistan, on another dirt road to nowhere when the truck’s engine could be heard above their own. When it finally came into view, it was an incredible sight.
The so-called “jingle truck” was an enormous affair when compared to their own Toyota Hilux pickup truck. It was painted in elaborate colors and designs and had a bed that was reinforced to carry as many logs of firewood—or bags of opium—as possible. The walls of the bed rose up far above the cab and even extended over the roof of the cab to permit more freight to be carried. It was a vehicle whose appearance would have made Ken Kesey proud, as psychedelic as a Peter Max poster.
Both vehicles stopped, and Angell was dragged out and brought to the rear of the jingle truck. From the rear bumper hung dozens, if not hundreds, of chains which was the reason for these vehicles being called “jingle” trucks. The entire vehicle was covered in meticulously-executed and extremely colorful artwork. Many of the designs were familiar to Angell from his study of Sufism and other mystical schools. But there were others—not quite as conspicuous—that had a different pedigree.
There were symbols from the occult workbooks of the European Renaissance, so out of place here except for how they were drawn and painted which made them look like the rest of the art. He recognized seals from the Keys of Solomon and magic squares from the Book of Abramelin. There were demon sigils from the Goetia tucked in between geometric figures that would have been at home in Istanbul or the Alhambra. And, to top it all, at the top of the rear of the truck like an enormous tail light was a heavily ornamented Eye in a Triangle. If the Illuminati had a party bus, this was it. Angell marveled at the decor but was so wired he thought no more about it, except for odd moments here and there when he wondered at the artist and his source material.
There were bags of what appeared to be opium on the truck but it was a light load, more for appearance than for trade, and they formed a kind of surface on top of which Angell and his guards arranged themselves for the journey to Kashmir. No one would stop a truck carrying opium, since
Afghan opium accounted for more than ninety percent of the world’s supply. Even Army generals use military trucks to transport Afghan opium to augment their income, so one interferes with opium transport at one’s peril.
The engines started up again, and the Taliban’s modest pickup drove back in the direction of the border while Angell’s jingle truck shifted gears and made its way to the other side of the country.
It would leave the dirt road in another few kilometers and join the highway going east. Angell and the guards became drowsy with the movement of the truck and the relative comfort of sitting on the bags. Angell watched them, and saw that he had an opportunity to grab a gun from the nearest man whose eyes had closed but knew if he did he would not get very far. He could shoot the guards and maybe force the driver to take him to a town or a city somewhere, but where? And how would he be received? His mission was to get the Book under any circumstances and, oddly enough, his captors provided the best chance he had to accomplish that goal, even as every instinct in his body told him to run, run into the forest, head for the mountains, and get as far away from these murderers as possible. Just run! But that would be suicidal. He knew that, even if the adrenalin coursing through his body didn’t.
So, he decided to take advantage of the lull in activity and get some sleep himself. He didn’t know when he would get such a chance again.
Adnan and the two CIA agents had made it as far as Jalalabad Airfield where they were welcomed by US Army personnel and offered hot showers and food. Their Nuristani driver did not hang around, but instead sped off as soon as his charges were at the airfield gate. He had fulfilled his duty and did not want to appear to be any friendlier with the American authorities than he had to be.
Adnan welcomed the comparative luxury of the facilities with relief, and when rumors began to spread as to where he had been and the fact that he had escaped there were many intelligence officers who wanted to talk to all three of them, but that had to wait. First, Adnan had to get on the blower and talk to Aubrey who by now was fairly frantic in Baghdad.
Once the preliminaries were over and the appropriate codes exchanged, Adnan got right into it.
“They’re taking him to Kashmir. At least, that’s what we’ve heard. He left Kamdesh with a contingent of Taliban about the same time we did. They must be halfway across Swat by now.”
“Are they holding him for ransom, then?” That was a common practice among the Taliban when it came to foreign captives.
“That’s a negative, sir. They know about the Book and they are doing everything they can to be the first to get hold of it. They need your man for that, so they won’t harm him until they have the Book in their possession.”
“So they know where the Book is?”
“They have a pretty good idea. Another group passed through Kamdesh several days earlier. They talked to the local shaman there. We don’t know what was said, but we do know that the Taliban were very interested. And then they took off for Kashmir.”
“Where’s the shaman now? Can we talk to him?”
“Negative, sir. The shaman is down. They interrogated him. Harshly. They would have done the same to us, but some villagers released us and killed our guards. We don’t really know why. They told the Taliban leader, guy name of Omar, that mountain vampires did it. They didn’t buy it, of course, but they pretty much had no choice but to accept the explanation. For now. I have the feeling Omar will be back one day soon to execute some vengeance on the town.”
“Omar? That would be Omar Mansour?” “Not sure, sir. They called him Emir, though.”
“Yes. That’s him. He’s the leader of the entire Pakistani Taliban. If he’s in Kamdesh over this affair, then he’s taking it very seriously indeed. He can field hundreds of fighters on an hour’s notice.”
“What are your orders, sir?”
Aubrey was in a bind. He needed eyes on Angell. He had GPS data and knew that the professor was nearing another dangerous locale. He also knew the man’s days were numbered as long as he was in Taliban captivity. But he also needed the Book. He needed the Book more than he needed Angell alive or anyone else, for that matter. Monroe had made him understand the disaster that would take place if a religious fanatic—any kind of religious fanatic, from Islamic jihadist to Christian fundamentalist to any other kind—got his or her hands on the text. It was a lit match to the
gasoline soaked rags of religious fanaticism and once the conflagration started there would be no way to stop it.
Aubrey didn’t believe that the legends told about the Book were true, despite Monroe’s paranoia and his weird collection of old newspaper clippings and ancient star charts. He didn’t believe using the incantations in the Book would open some kind of weird interstellar Gate that would allow space monsters unfettered access to the planet. I mean, who came up with that arrangement? he thought. Who says we would have to let them in? If they existed, why couldn’t they simply break open the door and have their way? But that wasn’t important. What was important was that these people believed in the Book and its power and they knew that the reputation of the Book was more than enough to guarantee at least some of their followers would believe in its power, too. And for most political and religious leaders a shared fantasy was enough. If it didn’t seem logical, its proponents could always claim that elements of the argument remained a “mystery.”
“How fast can you get to Srinagar?”
Adnan looked over at the base commander, who gave him a thumbs up. “They’ll get us helo to the site once we know where it is, but the base
commander says it’ll be hairy. We’ll be pissing off both the Indians and the
Pakistanis at the same time. Quite a diplomatic accomplishment.”
“Based on your own take, what do you think the chances are of getting our man out alive?”
“There’s no margin in their killing him. That would be their last option. But they would take him out if they thought we were getting to the package first. We’d need a SEAL team to do this right, and days of planning, like Neptune Spear. We don’t have that luxury.” Operation Neptune Spear was the one that killed Osama bin Laden.
Aubrey consulted a file in front of him. Adnan could hear the anachronistic rustle of paper.
“We’ve got JSOC standing by, in Karachi. I’ve already tasked UAV to monitor the border region, using his GPS as tracker.”
UAV meant Unmanned Aerial Vehicle: a drone. JSOC—or Joint Special Operations Command—had a team embedded with the Pakistani military in Karachi. They reported directly to the White House, which meant the mission had approvals at the highest level.
Adnan thought furiously. They could do no better than have JSOC involved in a rescue attempt, but Adnan was worried about a leak that would jeopardize Angell’s life. He knew JSOC was tight as a drum, but if they operated out of Karachi there was always a chance that—with a mission as high-profile as this one, with crazed cults all over the world scouring the countryside looking for the Book—someone would talk. Even a rumor at this point could get Angell killed.
“Sir, could we run the op out of here?”
There was silence a moment on the other end. “We don’t have a team in J-bad,” he answered.
“You have me, sir. And the two CTPT assets. This would be right up their alley. And we both know the players by sight. A helo could get us into Srinagar before a team is brought up to speed in Karachi.”
“That’s just the three of you.”
“And the helo crew, but they wouldn’t have to leave the ship. Sir.” Aubrey checked his computer.