“Thanks. I could use a silver lining. Anyway, I thought you guys were goners for sure.”
“The villagers helped us escape. They said something about a foreigner giving the money. I have no idea what that means. They even killed two Taliban in the process which took guts. Listen, we can’t wait around here. We gotta get back to base and you need to be debriefed by the Man. We got intel on the whereabouts of that thing you’re looking for but we can’t talk about it now.”
“Understood. How do we get out of here?”
“There’s a helo standing by. This whole mission has gone into overdrive.”
Angell got into the pickup with Adnan driving. There was still the original driver of the pickup under the tarp in the bed of the truck. They pulled out and headed back the way they came. The jingle truck soon followed with its complement of two CIA agents and four prisoners. The agents left the Taliban’s weapons in the dirt near the highway after smashing their firing mechanisms with rocks.
“Are we going back to Baghdad after this?”
Adnan kept his eyes on the road, alert to any sign of trouble. They were in Pakistan and nominally cooperating with the ISI and the Pakistani military, but the region was a hotbed of the new group that was forming up in Waziristan across the border. The Islamic State was attracting disaffected elements of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. They were scary players in a region already replete with sociopaths and utter raving psychos with more guns than brains. After a minute, he answered Angell’s question out of the side of his mouth.
“I understand that Nepal is beautiful this time of the year. You know, or not.”
“Ah, fuck me.”
They were silent the rest of the way to a clearing outside the town that has been designated their LZ. They dragged the prisoners out of the jingle truck and arranged them in a row on the ground. In a few moments, the sky was darkened by the approach of a Russian-made MI 17 helicopter that
had been standing by. It settled gently on the ground and the prisoners—all four of them—were bundled into the helo along with the other men.
“I thought we were gonna cut him loose,” said Angell above the noise of the rotors.
“In Karachi. We have to make sure he isn’t one of them.” “Who’s gonna look after his truck?”
“Not our problem.”
Angell just nodded, resigned to fate—his and everyone else’s—and remembered to be grateful that he had been rescued and now was in relatively safe hands. If Adnan was right about Nepal, that should be a piece of cake compared to what he had already been through. Nepal wasn’t at war with anyone, and even though they had some problems with Maoist guerrillas it was still a predominantly Buddhist country with a primitive infrastructure that was known more for hashish and mountain climbing than terrorism.
Piece of cake.
Instead of heading for the base at Karachi they made straight for PAF Shahbaz, a Pakistani Air Force base located at Jacobabad, about halfway to Karachi. Shahbaz also held a drone site run by the US Air Force, and was the location from which the drone was launched that kept an eye on Angell’s itinerary through Pakistan. CIA would take custody of the prisoners from there, and Adnan and Angell would get on the SAT phone and contact Aubrey who was still in Baghdad.
Angell watched as the prisoners were removed and led away with black hoods over their heads so they could not identify where they were or who their captors were. Angell felt bad about the jingle driver, but kept his thoughts to himself. When this was all over, he would try to find out what had happened to him.
He and Adnan went into the comm center and raised Aubrey.
“I am very glad to hear your voice, professor,” said Aubrey when contact had been made. “I’m sorry this has taken you so far from your original mission and subjected you to such harsh treatment. You must be terrified.”
“There is no need to play me, sir.” He had been warned not to use Aubrey’s name over the secure line because nothing was that secure. “I
survived. And now I understand my itinerary has been modified.”
There was a pained silence at the other end. Aubrey knew he deserved whatever animus Angell had for him and for the whole mission but he was willing to take that on in order for the mission goals to be fulfilled. If Angell wanted to kick him in the balls, that would be okay, too. As long as they got the Book.
“Yes, professor. The intermediate location is no longer viable,” he said, meaning Srinagar in Kashmir. “We have intel that the package is headed for Nepal. Information is being forwarded to you by secure link now. We estimate another twenty-four hours total and this will all be over. You’ll then be put in a first-class seat on the first available flight home.” What he didn’t tell Angell was that there probably would be another two or three days’ worth of debriefing in a safe house in the States somewhere. No need to bring that up now. He also didn’t mention that Angell’s basement apartment had been broken into by NYPD; his people had gone in and cleaned it up, bringing it back to the way it was before the break-in, so perhaps he wouldn’t notice anything amiss. Except for the broken spirit pot.
“Is your colleague there next to you? Let me speak with him, please.”
Angell handed the receiver to Adnan, and walked out of the comm center, looking for a place to sit down.
When Adnan came out of the center a few minutes later he found Angell sitting on a folding chair in the canteen, head on a table, fast asleep.
Thirty minutes later, Adnan and Angell are having coffee in the empty mess hall. Although they are alone in a secure facility, they are keeping their voices low so as not to be overheard. There is no SCIF at the base, and they need to discuss the upcoming mission to Nepal.
Angell is still exhausted, but is getting a second wind. There will be time enough to sleep once this is all over. He sips the bitter coffee, black, then decides he needs as much lactose and sucrose as possible and starts pouring in the cream and sugar.
“There’s this guy, name of Jason Miller. He used to work for us. Now he’s freelance. He’s after the same thing we are. They say he was behind that rocket attack in Syria. He may have been the one to arrange our escape in Kamdesh.”
“Jesus. So he’s been onto us from the start. Who is he working for?”
“Aubrey says they don’t know, only that we have to make sure he doesn’t succeed. Not knowing is worse than knowing in this business.”
“Okay. So what’s the plan?”
“We know Miller has been as far as Ladakh. We intercepted some email messages sent by one of his contacts and that got us on the right trail. Miller’s pretty cautious when it comes to leaving a trail—he has an operational background—but some of his network is composed of contract hires and they’re not always professional. Anyway, there’s an observatory on a mountaintop that’s run by the Indian government, and we have reason to believe he was there. Some astronomers reported that someone who said they were from our government visited the site about eight hours ago. No one from our side went there, and the visitor matches the physical description of Miller.”
“How does an observatory have anything to do with us?”
“I’ll get to that in a minute. I don’t know much, only what they tell me. And they told me he is heading to Khembalung. It’s in the Himalayas, some distance from Kathmandu.”
“What’s that all about?”
“Beats the shit outta me. All I know is that Miller is headed there as well as some other people Aubrey has been keeping an eye on. A real convention of book lovers, I guess.”
“Okay. Let me get this straight. An observatory in India, and Khembalung in Nepal. This is all a far cry from some Arab cultists in Iraq.” Angell sipped some of his coffee, made a face, and added more sugar. “We are all way out of our depth here.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know I’m a scholar of religion, right?” “Yeah.”
“I mean, that’s one of the reasons I’m here, right?” “Okay.” Adnan didn’t know where this was going.
“You tell me Khembalung, and to most people that’s just a bunch of sounds strung together. But it has some significance. And what you’re telling me is making me nervous, as if I wasn’t freaked out to begin with.”
Angell swallowed a long draught of the coffee, and put his cup down.
They were still all alone in the mess hall. Adnan was silent, just watching him.
Finally, Angell started to explain the reason why he thought they were going to Khembalung, a place Adnan had never heard of before that day.
“Khembalung is one of seven beyul. A beyul is a ‘hidden country.’ You’ve heard of Shangri-la, right?”
“Sure. A mysterious kingdom in the Himalayas. No one knows where it is.”
“Right. They made a movie about it. Lost Horizon. Anyway, there are seven of those places, according to Tibetan tradition. Except we know where Khembalung is. It’s not invisible. You can get there. But it’s tricky. It’s a cave complex beneath the Himalayas. And it’s sacred to the Tibetan Buddhists.”
“So, then, that’s cool, right? It’s all Dalai Lama stuff. No guns. No terror plots.”
“Yes, and no. There are different kinds of Tibetan Buddhists. Some, like the Dalai Lama and his crowd, are pretty much how we think of them. All sweetness and light. Except for some really strange rituals associated with Tantra, it’s Buddhism. But there are two other main groups, the Red Hats and the Black Hats.”
“Well, the Red Hats are more esoteric than the Dalai Lama’s Yellow Hat sect. And the Black Hats are closer to the indigenous religion of Tibet, the one from before Buddhism came to the region. More shamanistic, you might say. And then there is the real Bön tradition, which is whatever the Tibetans were before Buddhism. Now all of these groups have some practices that would be considered a little weird by many people, such as using skeletal remains as sacred instruments. Cups made of human skulls, drums made of human skulls, leg bones used for trumpets, and the like.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“I shit you not. This is pretty much SOP among the Tibetan Buddhists. And they also have a strong shamanic tradition. The State Oracle of Tibet is a guy who becomes possessed by a god and who utters prophecies in a strange language. It’s an official position, to this day. And he works for the Dalai Lama. Imagine the shamans who work with some of the other sects.”
Adnan sat back in his chair and just shook his head.
“I thought my people, the Ahl-e-Haqq, were strange. But this takes the cake.”
“What worries me is the fact that with Khembalung, there is even a more apocalyptic tone to this whole mission; putting a beyul into the mix only emphasizes that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Shangri-la, right? It’s called Shambhala in the Tibetan texts and according to Tibetan tradition the Kalki Avatar—a kind of warrior god— will come riding out of Shambhala at the Last Battle, destroying the unbelievers with fire and sword. It’s the Tibetan version of the Apocalypse. Shambhala is a ‘hidden country,’ a beyul. I think these guys—maybe this Miller, or the other ones we’ve been following all over the place—are going to Khembalung to awaken this force, by whatever name you want to call it.”
“You don’t really believe all this stuff, do you?”
“No. I don’t believe a word of it. But they do. I don’t believe in this secret Book or anything connected with it. But they do. So not believing in it is a luxury we can’t afford right now. A consolidation of the worst elements of all the world’s religions in one spot could have disastrous consequences. The kind of thing our Aubrey is most worried about. This sacred site, Khembalung, conjoined with the secret Book, along with a few dozen psychotic cult leaders … there’s only one thing missing.”
“A schedule. This stuff usually needs a sacred calendar of some sort. The Muslims have their own calendar, the Buddhists theirs, the other cults all have different systems for measuring time. What schedule would they all agree upon?”
Adnan swallowed heavily and took a deep breath before responding. “Well, see, I just might have the answer to that one.”
“According to the astronomers at Ladakh, Miller—or the guy we think is Miller—was asking them about supernovas. In particular, one that exploded in the year 1006 and then another that exploded in 2011. He seemed very interested in them and kept mumbling something about the word Therion and Lupus and the Bear. He thought there was some kind of connection between the supernovas and other events or effects on Earth.
“This might be your schedule, right?” “You said Therion, Lupus …?”
“Yeah, because the astronomers told him that the first one he asked about, the one in 1006, took place in the constellation that used to be known as Therion but which is known today as Lupus. I have it right here.” He took a tablet from his backpack and turned it so that Angell could see the screen. It was the data transmission from Aubrey.
Angell studied the contents quickly but carefully. It was as if the file was written specifically for him.
“It came in while you were … resting,” Adnan added. “Aubrey mentioned it to you, I think.”
“Right, I remember. This is … interesting. If your guy Miller has any kind of background in this stuff at all he would have been bouncing off walls when he saw this.”
“Can you explain? Because, man, I am totally at sea here …”
“It’s like this. It’s all symbol systems and icons and mysteries within mysteries. It’s a kind of language all its own. Therion is the Greek word for ‘Beast.’ Any kind of animal, really, but it has resonance for some modern cultists because one of their heroes, a man called Aleister Crowley, called himself ‘The Great Beast’ or in Greek To Mega Therion. It’s from the Bible, the Apocalypse: the Book of Revelation. Now the Beast in the Apocalypse is depicted being ridden by a woman, the Whore of Babylon. Now, I was just in Babylon—or what’s left of it—a few days ago, back in Iraq. Babylon was the center of a religious system that was based on the earlier, Sumerian, one.”