Authors: Ben Coes
The horse likely belonged to someone at the neighboring station, Chasvur. Perhaps she’d run away or else taken off during a ride, and someone, somewhere was walking around without a horse.
He patted the pretty horse. It wasn’t a ranch hand’s ride, that was clear. The saddle alone told you that. So did the horse; she was expensive-looking. None of the typical scars, scuff marks, scratches, or wear and tear from working. This was a leisure horse; a woman’s horse.
Dewey took a pair of wire cutters from his belt and cut the wire near the post, then wrapped the loose wire around the post. Dewey pulled the mare through the cut in the fence line, over the low wire. Holding the mare’s reins, he climbed back on top of Deravelle.
Dewey glanced at his watch: 7:35
To the east, the sky was turning into a purplish shade of black. Night was coming. If someone had fallen off the mare, or had been left behind on a ride, there wouldn’t be enough time to ride back to Sembler and notify Chasvur. Whoever was out there would have to spend the night in the outdoors.
For Dewey, a night out in the middle of the Queensland nowhere wouldn’t be a big deal. For someone else, it might. Especially a woman, or, God forbid, a girl. Besides, what if she was hurt? What if the mare had pulled up and the rider had been thrown off the saddle?
Behind him, a low grumble vibrated somewhere in the sky; distant thunder. Turning his head, Dewey realized that what he had thought was the night sky was much more than that. A black shroud of storm clouds intermingled with the coming night.
He smiled, and casually shook his head back and forth.
“This could get interesting.” He looked at Deravelle, then the other horse, as if they could understand him. Dewey found his shirt in the saddlebag and pulled it over his head.
He gently kicked Deravelle’s side and the horse stepped across the low wire, followed by the mare. Soon, they were trotting toward the west, tracking the path of crushed wild grass left earlier by the mare, illuminated by the last remaining light of the setting sun, trying to find whoever was out there before the black storm clouds opened up around them.
When the first drop of rain fell from the sky onto Dewey’s left arm, he smiled the way only a former Delta—or an adventurous farmboy from Castine, Maine—could.
“You two don’t mind getting a little wet, do you?”
IMAM KHOMEINI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
The white Maybach Landaulet sped along the sun-beaten tarmac at Tehran’s Khomeini Airport, breezing behind a long line of parked commercial airliners.
In one respect, the sight of the luxury car was incongruous. A gleaming white million-dollar limousine in a place where the only other vehicles were catering trucks, airport operations vehicles, fuel trucks, baggage dollies, military vehicles, and the occasional police car. Yet there it was, moving along untouched, airport security having already received the orders that the limousine was not to be stopped or disturbed during the three days it was in Tehran.
The back compartment of the Maybach was open to the sky. Aswan Fortuna’s shoulder-length black and gray hair was tousled by the wind. Despite his seventy-five years of age, Fortuna seemed young. With chiseled features, he looked like an aging movie star, and his expensive clothing and dark Tom Ford sunglasses would be more appropriate in Cannes than Tehran. Seated next to him was a stunning beauty in a sleeveless baby blue sundress. Candela was only twenty-three years old and she looked like a model. Her jet-black hair framed a pair of expensive Prada sunglasses that were wrapped perfectly across her light brown skin.
The limo pulled into a long, private hangar across from the main terminal, separated by a half mile of tarmac, and stopped in front of a shining silver Gulfstream G500. Aswan and Candela climbed out of the Maybach and ascended the Gulfstream’s stairs.
Inside, the plane looked like a low-ceilinged suite at the Four Seasons; big white leather captain’s chairs, a large plasma screen on the back wall, a pair of long, red leather sofas, custom-built into the contours of the jet. In the back was a small mahogany doorway, behind it a well-appointed kitchen, then a stateroom with its own bathroom, including a shower.
“Hello, ladies and gentlemen.”
The words were spoken by a man sitting peacefully on one of the red leather sofas, dressed in a gray suit, mustached, a block of black hair cut like a bowl on his oversized head. He was overweight and his body pushed against the suit’s material, which was too small by at least two sizes. Khalid el-Jaqonda did not look like he belonged on the $75 million airplane.
“Aswan,” said el-Jaqonda, rising and stepping toward him with his hand outstretched.
“Thank you for coming,” said Fortuna, shaking el-Jaqonda’s hand.
“Of course,” said el-Jaqonda, laughing heartily. “When you say jump, Aswan, I say, ‘How high?’”
“I know the summit isn’t over,” said Fortuna, “but I need to talk to you about something before we return to Broumana.”
“Miss Candela,” said el-Jaqonda, “I trust you enjoyed your visit?”
Candela smiled. “If I never come back to Tehran, it will be too soon.”
“Give us a minute, will you?” Fortuna said to Candela.
“Of course,” she said. She opened the dark mahogany door at the back of the private jet, then disappeared.
Fortuna sat down on the leather sofa across from el-Jaqonda.
“Sit down, Khalid. Would you like something to drink?”
“No, thank you.”
“When will you return to Islamabad?”
“Tomorrow. President Iqbar is hosting a dinner tonight at Sa’dabad Palace for the entire Pakistani delegation.”
“Of the two leaders, I found President El-Khayab to be far sharper and more articulate than President Iqbar,” said Fortuna. “You were right to encourage El-Khayab’s candidacy.”
“He would not be president of Pakistan without your financial support,” said el-Jaqonda.
“I hope it was money well spent.”
? What do you mean?”
“That is what I want to talk to you about.”
“Were you not impressed by the meetings with the two leaders, Aswan? I worked very hard to set these up.”
“I found the president of Iran to be an idiot,” said Fortuna. “Always joking around. Does he not realize the historic opportunity that lies before us? For the first time, we have Islamists at the helm of two of the largest nations in the Middle East. One has oil, the other nuclear weapons. There should be nothing that stops us now. Yet both of them are doing nothing.”
“Iqbar is content to crack jokes,” said Fortuna. “At dinner last night he told joke after joke, none of them funny.”
“I know President Iqbar,” said el-Jaqonda. “I assure you he’s as serious about spreading Islam as Omar El-Khayab.”
“So what?” said Fortuna. “El-Khayab seems happy to do nothing. Since his election there has been nothing but talk. If there’s one lesson from the past two decades, it’s that Islam is borne on a river of jihad. Violence is a necessary means to the end. Yet not once in the two days of meetings did I hear any discussion of activities intended to destroy Israel and America. What about India, Khalid? Your hated neighbors, the Hindu? Not once did Omar El-Khayab or Mahmoud Iqbar, or any of their ministers, mention the importance of eliminating our enemies.
What was it all for?
“Iran and Pakistan pledged funding to send Lashkar-e-Taiba into India.”
“Blowing up some buildings in New Delhi?” asked Fortuna derisively. “Is that all we aspire to? We have two elected presidents of major countries! And yet all we aspire to is blowing up some buildings and maybe some trains in Mumbai? I feel as if I’ve wasted my money.”
“It wasn’t a waste, Aswan.”
“Why did I spend twenty-five million dollars helping elect Omar El-Khayab if all he’s going to do is sit there, living peacefully, not making waves? It’s time to attack, Khalid! It’s time to use some of the weapons we’ve earned the right to use!”
“All in good time,” said el-Jaqonda. “El-Khayab has only been president for a year. Besides, despite the precautions of the Iranian security people, we have to assume we were being listened to. We have to be careful what we say, even perhaps here.” El-Jaqonda glanced around the cabin of the jet.
“Not here,” said Fortuna, shaking his head. “State of the art. We can’t be heard inside this cabin.”
“Yes, of course.”
“I’m getting old, Khalid,” said Fortuna, reclining on the sofa. “Last week, I turned seventy-five. I’ve given a son’s life to jihad. The Fortuna family has invested literally hundreds of millions of dollars toward the downfall of the United States and the West. Why am I the only one who seems impatient to take this battle to the next level?”
“And what would you have us do?” asked el-Jaqonda.
” yelled Fortuna, slapping his fist on the arm of the sofa. “Drop one of the hundred-plus nuclear weapons in Pakistan’s arsenal on someone—on Israel or India—or at the very least give one to someone who
willing to make use of it.”
“I’m sorry you’re disappointed,” said el-Jaqonda. “It takes time. Trust me when I tell you that President El-Khayab is as committed as you are to the destruction of our enemies. Just this morning, Pakistan agreed to sell Tehran five thousand centrifuges.”
“Centrifuges, so what. Why not simply give Iran a dozen or two devices?”
“Omar El-Khayab is not a terrorist, and if that’s what you thought you were getting, you were mistaken. What he is, Aswan, is an Islamist willing to use violence to spread the word of Allah. That’s different than being a terrorist. I believe it’s a hundred times more powerful. He has the people of Pakistan behind him. He’s not some sort of maniac sending suicide bombers into pizza parlors in Jerusalem. El-Khayab is the real deal. I’ve heard him preach. I’ve never seen someone able to stir such emotion in people.”
“But is he a fighter?” asked Fortuna.
“El-Khayab believes in the Ummah. That someday the world will be divided between China and Islam, and that Islam will eventually triumph under a caliphate. Give us time. It’s a chess game. The opportunity will come.”
“You must create the opportunity,” said Fortuna. “You and Osama Khan must create the opportunity. Then, you must convince El-Khayab.”
El-Jaqonda smiled, then stood up.
“You have given me this opportunity,” said el-Jaqonda. “You pressured Khan to make me his deputy and I will not forget it. I will not disappoint you, Aswan. I thought that including you in the summit meetings would make you happy.”
Fortuna abandoned his anger, and a smile appeared on his face. He stood up.
happy.” He reached both of his hands out and took el-Jaqonda’s hands into his own. “To be included was an honor, Khalid. I know it would not have happened had it not been for you.”
Fortuna hugged el-Jaqonda.
“You’re a good friend,” said Fortuna.
“Thank you, but it was my pleasure to have you as my guest. Perhaps next time we can do it in a place more to Miss Candela’s appetite, yes?”
“To think that we have gone from secret meetings in basements,” said Fortuna, “to summits in presidential palaces is an amazing thing. I’m just … impatient, Khalid. That’s all. I don’t want to be a witness to Islam’s victory. I want to be a part of it.”
“You’re already a part of it. Be patient. The opportunity we’ve all been waiting for is just around the corner.”
INDIA-CONTROLLED KASHMIR TERRITORY
FOURTEEN MILES FROM THE LINE OF CONTROL
An old man sat quietly on the ground. His brown face was deeply creased by nearly a century of wind and sun. They had left its markings on him, and he almost appeared as part of the land, so still this morning. To his right, a brown dog lay sleeping. The old man’s right hand rested atop the skinny dog’s back. The pair was seated against a low windowless hut made of mortar and stone, similar to the other small huts that sat sporadically on the grassy incline.
It was just after lunchtime in the small village of Yagulung. Men and women were in the fields below the village, working in the walnut groves or taking care of the two-hundred-head herd of yak. Those women not in the fields were in their mountainside homes at this hour, some with young children, cleaning up after lunch.
The old man’s eyes appeared shut, so thin were the dark slits and so craggy the tan wrinkles surrounding the lids, but they weren’t. He’d long ago lost his interest in sleep. He looked now, as he always did at this hour, at the deserted dirt road that meandered through the small mountain village. Soon, he knew, she would come.
Yagulung had been carved onto the side of the small mountain in the Ladakh Range called Kyrzoh nearly a thousand years ago. It was not that unusual or exceptional a village, just another collection of families, generations upon generations now, farmers mostly, Buddhists all, who grew walnuts, wheat, and stub corn in pebbly flatland their ancestors had been able to carve in stepped shelves on the side of the mountain, just below a smattering of small huts that sat close by one another in the rocky, windswept recesses above.
If there was something special about Yagulung, it was the village’s location. For if its inhabitants were peaceful, farmers lost in time, their location was at the center of one of the most sensitive political territories on earth, a place where two wars had been fought in the past half-century. Yagulung was one of the northernmost villages in a part of Kashmir Territory controlled by India. It sat fourteen miles from the Line of Control that separated India from its bitter enemy Pakistan. The Line of Control, or LOC, as it was commonly referred to by everyone on both sides of the border, was a random line on a map, drawn by a British cartologist in 1947 when Britain decolonized and Pakistan and India were formally separated, the beautiful Jammu and Kashmir region split in two between the countries.
If the Line of Control ran just north of this small village, not a man or woman in Yagulung knew its exact location. The occasional visit by Indian soldiers was usually noted with taciturn indifference by the villagers of Yagulung. After so many years of watching different governments and warlords come through, it was almost as if a people becomes immunized. Learns to not care which color the uniforms are, or which language is spoken by the visitors. They would always be there in the small village; the others would come and go as they please.