Viking bay, p.10

Viking Bay, page 10

 

Viking Bay
 



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  Dolan was everything in bed that he was out of bed: attentive, unselfish, and adroit. She loved his slim body, and she hadn’t had sex in so long, she was ravenous. Before they left for Afghanistan, Kay and Dolan managed to find time for a dozen encounters. Kay kept track of the number. Was she in love with Eli Dolan? She wasn’t sure. All she knew was she felt more attracted to him than any man she’d met in a long time. She also wasn’t sure what the future would bring.

  She didn’t know if she was going to stay with the Callahan Group—she wasn’t enamored at all with her current assignment—and if she stayed, she knew having an affair with a coworker could really complicate things. She also didn’t like that Eli preferred to live in New York, and although he claimed he was okay with her having a teenage daughter and was looking forward to meeting Jessica, Kay knew there was a big difference between being a lover and being a stepfather.

  She finally decided she’d worry about the future later, and for now just enjoy having sex with him.

  One thing she certainly didn’t foresee was Eli Dolan trying to kill her.

  16 | Almost a month after Kay met with Ara Khan in New York, she, Eli Dolan, and two engineers from Glardon Mining flew to Kabul. They spent their first night at the Kabul Serena Hotel. Kay had been expecting a dump, but the place was more than adequate, except for a two-hour power outage, which the staff treated as normal. Dolan didn’t come to her room that night; it had been an exhausting trip and they were leaving at dawn for Ghazni Province.

  The following morning, Kay dressed in a loose-fitting black cotton abaya—a modest, long dress that buttoned up the front and covered her from chin to ankles. On her head was a black scarf to cover her blond hair, and she could wrap it around to hide her face. She didn’t like wearing the scarf, but Eli insisted.

  The security team from C&S Logistics was waiting in front of the hotel. They had arrived in Afghanistan six days earlier to reconnoiter the meeting place, arrange for transportation, and get whatever supplies they couldn’t bring from the States.

  The team consisted of ten men, including Steven Cannon and Nathan Sterling, the founders and managing partners of C&S Logistics. Callahan had said that both men were retired army colonels, and Kay learned from Eli that they’d spent their combat time in Iraq and were not as familiar with Afghanistan, which was why both partners had come along on this trip. Sterling and six men would accompany Kay and Eli to the meeting, provide protection during the meeting, and remain with them until they left the country. Cannon would take two of his men and one of the mining engineers to the dry salt lakes; he wanted to examine the area near the lakes and begin developing a strategy for protecting the mining operation once the work started.

  To Kay, Sterling and Cannon looked like bookends. Both men were over six feet tall, about sixty years old, and had close-cropped gray hair. They also appeared to be in excellent physical shape, flat-bellied and muscular. Kay could imagine them training with their men, refusing to give in to the fact that they were half their age, and bragging that they could still fit into the uniforms they wore as butter-bar lieutenants. Sterling had a big nose and a thin-lipped mouth. Cannon’s features were rounder than Sterling’s, and his hair was thinner, but the main thing that distinguished Cannon from Sterling was that Cannon wore glasses and Sterling didn’t. Both men seemed on edge, their eyes constantly moving, looking for potential threats.

  All the C&S men were dressed as working-class Muslim men would dress. They had on long shirts—gray, white, and brown in color—that reached their knees and loose, pajama-like pants. Kay learned that this style of dress was called perahan tunban and was worn by most Afghan men. Some of the men wore vests or jackets over the shirts, but Cannon and Sterling, maybe wanting to look like bosses, had rough woolen sport coats over their shirts. All the men were unshaven, and several had beards. A few wore brimless hats that looked like beanies, and others a floppy cloth hat called a pakol. The security team wanted to blend in with the locals as much as possible and not stand out as Americans. To stand out was to invite attention, which could mean trouble.

  The group would travel as a convoy in four vehicles: two SUVs with tinted windows, a full-sized Ford sedan, and a Mazda pickup with a tarp covering whatever was in the bed of the truck. All the vehicles were a bit battered and several years old, but Cannon assured Eli that the vehicles were in excellent condition. A local man, hired as an interpreter, would ride in the lead vehicle.

  Kay noticed that C&S’s mercenaries were well armed, having a collection of M-16 and AK-47 assault rifles. She didn’t know if the men had brought the rifles with them or obtained them when they arrived in Afghanistan. In a country that had been at war for half a century, weapons weren’t hard to get. A number of the men had semiautomatic pistols in holsters covered by their jackets, and Kay was betting that hidden beneath the tarp covering the pickup’s bed, in addition to sleeping bags and rations, were a few more lethal items, such as sniper rifles and maybe rocket-propelled grenades.

  Kay disliked both Cannon and Sterling the moment she met them. When Eli introduced her, they treated her dismissively, like she was Eli’s secretary—or maybe his punchboard. Cannon, in a distracted manner, said, “Yeah, nice to meet you,” immediately followed by “You’ll have to excuse me. I need to ask the interpreter something,” and turned and walked away.

  Sterling nodded to her, and without looking directly at her—he was focused on cars passing by on the street in front of the hotel—he said, “You need to stay in your vehicle during the trip and keep your face covered with that scarf.”

  Instead of responding to his curt command, Kay said, “I want a weapon.” She figured that if everyone else considered it necessary to be armed to the teeth, she wanted to be armed, too.

  Now Sterling looked at her. “You don’t need one,” he said. “My people will protect you, and I don’t like civilians being armed.” Then he said to Eli, “We need to get moving before the traffic gets heavy.” As far as he was concerned, the discussion about her wanting a gun was over.

  Had he been more polite, Kay might have been nice about the whole thing. She still would have gotten her way, but she would have been nice. Since he was an asshole, however, she said, “Hey! Let’s get something straight. I’m not a civilian and I work for your employer—meaning you basically work for me. Second, I don’t really give a shit about what you like or don’t like. Now, I want a gun, because I have a lot more confidence in my ability to protect myself than I do in a bunch of guys I don’t know.”

  Sterling’s face reddened, but before he could respond and the situation could escalate, Eli said, “Nathan, give her a weapon.”

  Kay didn’t really appreciate Eli coming to her defense, either. And the way he said Give her a weapon, it was like Humor her.

  Sterling glared at her a moment longer, his jaw clenched, obviously controlling his anger. He wasn’t used to women—or maybe anybody—talking to him the way she’d just done. He turned to one of his men and said, “Give her your sidearm.” Sterling’s guy said, “Yes, sir,” and handed Kay a matte-black .45 with a crosshatched grip. She checked the magazine and dry-fired the weapon a couple of times, then said, “I’d prefer a .40 Glock, but I guess this’ll do.” Sterling walked away.

  Kay lifted up the abaya she was wearing—she had jeans and a T-shirt on underneath the long dress—put the weapon in the front waistband of the jeans, and unbuttoned a couple of buttons on the abaya to make sure she could reach it in a hurry.

  “I really don’t think you’re going to need that,” Eli said.

  She restrained herself from snapping at him and said, “It’s better to have it and not need it than to not have it and need it.”

  “That sounds like an NRA bumper sticker. The next thing you’ll tell me is gun control is using both hands.” Then he smiled—and she forgave him.

  —

  THE DISTANCE FROM KABUL to Ghazni is about ninety
miles, and if they’d been on a highway in Kansas, the trip would have taken less than two hours. They weren’t in Kansas. It took them four and a half hours thanks to traffic jams leaving Kabul, slow-moving construction workers repairing what looked to Kay like bomb craters in a couple of places, and two checkpoints manned by either policemen or soldiers. They negotiated the checkpoints without a problem by paying the expected bribes.

  They made their way to Ghazni via the famed Kabul–Kandahar Highway—famed because the Taliban treated it like a shooting gallery and were constantly blowing up vehicles that used the road. The asphalt highway surface was like a patchwork quilt from repaired bomb craters. The road heading north to Kabul was filled with a seemingly endless line of trucks, tankers, buses, and overloaded cars moving at a glacial pace. Kay didn’t know if the amount of traffic heading toward Kabul was normal or an anomaly. The road heading south, the direction they were headed, was busy, but traffic moved at a reasonable speed when it wasn’t being stopped for one reason or another.

  Young men stood in clumps at various places along the way, smoking, giving hostile looks to the passing traffic. Or maybe it was Kay’s imagination that they seemed hostile. She noticed many of the young men—the teenagers—were dressed in jeans and sweatshirts emblazoned with the names of soccer teams as opposed to traditional Afghan menswear. She also noticed that some of the young men were armed—making no attempt to conceal their weapons—and she assumed they were all hanging around doing nothing but smoking because they were unemployed. She couldn’t think of anything worse for the stability of a country than thousands of young, unemployed men with guns.

  They seemed to pass a broken-down car or truck every couple of miles. The vehicle would have a flat tire or the hood would be up with steam billowing out of the radiator, and the driver would be gesturing wildly as he talked on his cell phone. The buildings they passed were surrounded by concrete walls and security fences, and were boxy and ugly; few bore signs in English that gave Kay any indication as to their function. The only thing worth looking at on the road to Ghazni was a mountain range in the distance with snow-covered peaks.

  The landscape in some ways reminded her of a trip she’d once taken through New Mexico, passing through arid desert country with a view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. That is, the geography in this part of Afghanistan was similar to the part of New Mexico she’d been in, but the country just seemed . . . tired. It was as if the decades of constant warfare had exhausted not just the people but the land itself. Whatever the case, she found it depressing.

  Before they reached the city of Ghazni, capital of Ghazni Province, the SUV containing Cannon, his two men, and one of the Glardon engineers peeled off from the rest of the convoy and headed in the direction of the dry salt lakes. The rest of the convoy drove another couple of miles, then took a right and proceeded down a dusty unpaved road. Half an hour later, at about ten in the morning, they stopped in front of a large white stucco house surrounded by an eight-foot concrete wall.

  The interpreter went up to the gates, pressed a button, and spoke into a box. A moment later, the double gates opened electronically, the convoy pulled inside, and the gates shut automatically behind them. There was no grass or trees in front of the house—just hard-packed dirt—but the owner had planted spiky plants in a few places in a feeble attempt at landscaping.

  Kay asked Eli, “Who owns this place? Ara’s father?”

  “No. It’s owned by a local businessman who owes Ara’s father. I imagine Ara wanted to hold the meeting here because it’s outside Ghazni and enclosed, and hopefully a large group of Westerners won’t be noticed. Ara and her father will arrive after dark, and hopefully they won’t be noticed, either.”

  “Why are you worried if they’re noticed? The guy’s the governor, and all we’re doing is having a meeting.”

  “I’m worried because it’s Afghanistan,” Eli said. “I’ve told Ara to limit the number of people who know about this meeting, but people always talk too much. This means that anybody who opposes what we’re proposing—Sahid Khan’s local rivals, politicians in Kabul, and, of course, the Taliban—might desire to disrupt what we’re trying to do. And in this country, disrupting something often means blowing it up.”

  A short old man in his seventies, maybe his eighties, came out to greet the Americans. He was dressed in a loose-fitting white shirt, baggy white pants, and a white kufi—a brimless, round cap. He smiled uncertainly, probably a tad uncomfortable with all the armed men standing in his front yard. He said something in Pashto, and Kay heard the word “Allah” a couple of times. Some sort of God-bless-you-welcome-to-my-home greeting, she assumed.

  “Ask him if there’s anyone else here, anyone inside the house,” Sterling said to his interpreter.

  The old man, in halting English, said he was the only one there, but Sterling wasn’t the trusting sort. He sent four of his men into the house to make sure it was empty, and Kay could hear them shouting “Clear” as they went from room to room holding assault rifles. She thought that was a bit over the top. After Sterling’s men concluded their sweep of the house, Kay and Eli went into the house while Nathan Sterling remained outside to deploy his men.

  Kay was surprised by the interior of the house. In contrast to the concrete wall surrounding the place and the packed-dirt front yard, the interior had warm hardwood floors, Oriental rugs, leather furniture, and modern artwork on the walls. There was also a media room with six theater-type seats, an enormous flat-screen television set, and shelves packed with DVDs. She had no idea what a traditional Afghanistan home looked like, but she was pretty sure that most of them didn’t look like this. Kay also couldn’t help but wonder if the homeowner—and Sahid Khan—were connected to Afghanistan’s best-known industry: opium production. From what Kay had seen, Ghazni was an impoverished area and she figured being its governor wouldn’t pay that well—which made her curious about how Sahid had paid for his daughter’s expensive education abroad.

  The old man who had welcomed them to his employer’s home introduced himself to Eli, saying his name was Yasir. He told Eli that if it pleased him, he would prepare lunch and provide them anything else they needed. While Yasir spoke to Eli, he made a point of not looking at Kay, who had removed her head covering the minute she stepped into the house. She’d always felt that if Muslim women ever wanted to be treated as equals, the first thing they should do was burn all the scarves and veils.

  Yasir then showed Eli and Kay to their rooms; only Kay, Eli, the Glardon mining engineer, and Nathan Sterling would sleep inside the house that night after the meeting was concluded. Sterling’s men would remain outside, hopefully awake, doing whatever security people were supposed to do.

  17 | The rest of the day passed slowly. Kay took a nap after lunch and, when she woke up, went looking for Eli.

  As she was coming down the stairs, Nathan Sterling came into view. He seemed surprised to see her. “I was just checking on the old man,” Sterling said. “He’s in the kitchen making dinner.”

  “Okay,” Kay said, but she was thinking the old man looked pretty harmless. On the other hand, being paranoid was a good quality for the guy in charge of her safety to have.

  She found Eli in the media room, sitting in the dark.

  “What are you doing?” she asked.

  “Just sitting here. I was trying to find a movie to watch, but mostly all this guy has is porn.”

  “Maybe we can learn a few things,” Kay said.

  Eli barely smiled at her comment.

  “Something bothering you?” Kay asked.

  “I was just thinking about what we’re trying to do with the Khans. It’s going to be hard, and I wonder how many times I’m going to have to come back to this damn country to keep things on track.”

  Kay was surprised he was so tense. He’d seemed completely relaxed and confident in the meetings they’d held prior to coming here. But maybe he was l
ike an athlete, putting on his game face before the game started. Kay sat down next to him and took his hand in hers.

  “Maybe when we get back we can take a couple days off,” she said. “You know, go to some place with a beach and where we don’t have to bring our own bodyguards. And I think it’s time for you to meet my daughter.”

  “Yeah, maybe,” he said noncommittally. Then he rose from his seat and said, “I did find a copy of The Godfather here between Debbie Does Dallas and Deep Throat. I haven’t seen the movie in years. Let’s watch that.”

  It annoyed Kay, the way he’d changed the subject—particularly not responding to her comment about meeting Jessica—but again she chalked up his brusqueness to pregame jitters.

  Eli relaxed once the movie started. When Clemenza said, Leave the gun. Take the cannoli, Eli laughed and said, “That’s my favorite line in the movie.”

  “I thought your favorite line would be ‘I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse,’” Kay said.

  “Nah, the guys I worked with at Goldman were saying that long before Vito Corleone came along.”

  —

  HALF AN HOUR before it got dark, Kay heard vehicles pulling into the compound and looked outside. Two cars. The man driving the lead car stepped out; he was dressed in dark green military fatigues, a red beret on his head, a sidearm on his belt. Three identically dressed men stepped from the second car, and two of them were holding assault rifles. Kay assumed these were Khan’s security people.

  Khan’s driver glared for a moment at Sterling’s men, probably not liking the fact that there were so many of them, all holding weapons, then said something to the passengers in the car. Ara Khan emerged from the front passenger seat. Like Kay, she was wearing an abaya—a beautiful cerulean blue one—and a matching scarf that covered the top of her head but not her face. Sahid Khan and a bearded man in his sixties who was at least six inches taller than Khan exited the car next. Khan and the tall man were both wearing black business suits and white shirts, but no ties. Khan’s head was bare, but the tall man was wearing a black kufi.

 

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M. A. LAWSON SERIES:

  • Agent Kay Hamilton
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