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Veiled Freedom: A Novel

  • Jeanette Windle Author
  • 2009 6 Jun
  • COMMENTS
Veiled Freedom: A Novel

EDITOR'S NOTE
: The following is an excerpt from Veiled Freedom 
by Jeanette Windle (Tyndale House).

Chapter One
Baghlan Province, Afghanistan
Present Day

A day from the past.

No, a day for the future.

The farmer stood proud, tall, as he shuffled down the crowd-lined drive. A switch in his hand urged forward the mule pulling a cart piled high with huge, swollen tubers. They looked like nothing edible, but their tough, brown hide held sweetness beyond the sucrose to be squeezed from their pulp. The firstfruits of Baghlan’s revitalized sugar beet industry.

In a long-forgotten past, when the irrigated fields stretching to high, snow-capped mountains were not known best for land mines and opium, the farmer had worked his family’s sugar beet crop. He’d earned his bride price stirring huge vats of syrup in the sugar factory, Afghanistan’s only refinery and pride of the Baghlan community. Until the Soviets came and Baghlan became a war zone. For a generation of fighting, the sugar factory had been an abandoned shell.

But now past had become future.

The massive concrete structure gleamed with fresh paint, the conveyor belt shiny and unrusted, smokestacks once more breathing life. By the throngs packing both sides of the drive, the entire province had turned out to celebrate the factory’s reopening. In front of the main entrance was a dais, destination of farmer and cart.

The token harvest followed on the stately tread of regional dignitaries making their way toward the dais. Students, neat in blue tunics, offered pink and white and red roses to the distinguished arrivals. Among them the farmer spotted his grandson. No smile, only the flicker of a glance, a further straightening of posture, conveyed his pride. Too many sons and brothers and kinsmen had died in the war years. But for his remaining grandson, this day presaged a very different future.

On the dais, the factory manager stood at a microphone. Behind him, chairs held the mayor, regional governor, officials arrived from Kabul for the inauguration ceremony. “The government has pledged purchase of all sugar beet. Our foreign partners pledge equipment to any farmer who will replace current crops. So why plant seed that produces harvests only of violence? On this day, I entreat you to choose the seed of peace, of a future for our community and our children.”

The procession had now reached the dais. But it wasn’t the dignitaries’ arrival that broke off the factory manager’s speech. The roar of a helicopter passing low overhead drew every eye upward. Circling around, the Soviet-made Mi-8 Hip descended until skids touched pavement. Crowds scattered back, first from the wind of its landing, then as the rotors shut down, to open passage.

The government minister who stepped out was followed by foreigners, the allies who’d funded the refinery project designed to entice Baghlan farmers from opium poppies to sugar beet. The newcomers leisurely moved through the parted crowd. The minister paused to speak to his foreign associates, then turned back toward the helicopter.

The explosion blasted through the factory, blowing out every window and door. A fireball erupting from the open entrance enveloped the dais. A panicked swerve of the mule placed the heavy cart between farmer and blast, saving his life but burying him in splinters of wood and beet. He could not breathe nor see nor hear. Only when the screams began did he realize he was still alive.

Pushing through the debris, he staggered to his feet. Shrapnel had ripped through the crowd where the fireball had not reached, and what lay between dais and shattered cart was a broken, bleeding chaos. Those uninjured enough to rise were scattering in panic. The farmer ran too but in the opposite direction. Ignoring moans and beseeching hands, he scrabbled through the rubble. Then with a cry of anguish he dropped to his knees.

The school uniform was still blue and clean, a single white rose fallen from an outflung hand. The farmer cradled the limp form, his wails rising to join the communal lament. For his grandson, for so many others, the future this day had promised would never come.

***

Kabul International Airport

“Oh, excuse me. I am so sorry.”

Steve Wilson barely avoided treading on heels as the file of deplaned passengers ground to a sudden halt. A glance down the line identified the obstruction. In pausing to look around, a female passenger had knocked a briefcase flying.

The young woman was tall enough—five foot seven by Steve’s calculation—to look down on her victim and attractive enough that the balding, overweight Western businessman waved away her apology. Platinum blonde hair spilled in a fine, straight curtain across her face as she scrambled for the briefcase. A T-shirt and jeans did nothing to disguise the tautly muscled, if definitely female, physique of a Scandinavian Olympic skier. Though that accent was 100 percent American.

Steve had already noted the woman several rows ahead of him on the plane. With only a handful of female passengers, all discreetly draped in head shawl or full-body chador, her bright head had been hard to miss, face glued to the window as the Ariana Airlines 727 descended through rugged brown foothills into the arid mountain basin that was Kabul.

Now as she handed the briefcase back, Steve caught his first clear glimpse of her features. It was a transparently open face, hazel eyes wide and interested under startlingly dark lashes and eyebrows. The candid interplay of eagerness, apprehension, and dismay as she turned again to take in her surroundings roused in Steve nothing but irritation. Wipe that look off your face or Afghanistan will do it for you.

As the line moved forward, Steve stepped out of it to make his own survey. Next to a small, dingy terminal, only one runway was in service. Down the runway, a red and white-striped concrete barrier cordoned off hangars and prefabricated buildings housing ISAF, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. Dust gusted across the runway, filling Steve’s nostrils, narrowing his gaze even behind wraparound sunglasses. He’d forgotten the choking, muddy taste of that dust.

The taste of Afghanistan.

Beyond the 727, a guard detail was loading passengers into a white and blue UN prop plane. Steve recognized the bear paw and rifle scope logo on their gear. Private security contractors. He’d done contracts for that company, and if he dug binoculars from his backpack, he’d likely spot guys he knew. But the wind was picking up, the other passengers disappearing inside the terminal, so instead Steve lengthened his stride.

He needn’t have hurried. The immigration line was excruciatingly slow, the Afghan official scrutinizing each passport as though he’d never seen one before. The single baggage conveyor was broken, its handlers dumping suitcases onto the concrete floor with complete disregard for their contents. Air-conditioning was broken as well, the lighting dim enough Steve pushed sunglasses to his forehead.

But Steve had endured far worse. Besides, he was already on the company clock, so it wasn’t his loss if he wasted half the morning in here. With a shrug, he peeled a trail mix bar from his pack and settled himself to wait.

“Worse than Nairobi, isn’t it?”

Steve swung around on his heel. “Maybe. But it sure beats Sierra Leone.”

The man offering a handshake sported the same safari-style clothing Steve was wearing. The resemblance ended there. Half a foot shorter and twice the circumference of Steve’s own lean frame, he was bald, by razor rather than nature from the luxuriance of that graying red beard, a powerful build sagging to fat.

Though there was nothing soft in his grip. Nor in the small, shrewd eyes summing up Steve in turn. Cop’s eyes. Steve could read their assessment. Caucasian male. Six foot one. Dark hair. Gray eyes. Tanned. Physically fit.

“Craig Laube, logistics manager, Condor Security. Call me Cougar. And you’re Steve Wilson, security chief for our new PSD contract.” The file with attached photo in his hand explained why his statement included no question mark. “If you’ll come with me, our fixer’s made arrangements to fast-track your team. The rest came in on the New Delhi flight. They’ve already left for the team house.”

The fixer evidently referred to the Afghan in suit and tie who plucked Steve’s passport from his hand, tucking a local currency note inside before moving to the front of the line. On the nearest wall, a sign advised passengers to report any requests for bribes to airport security. Not that Steve suffered any qualms of conscience at following on the fixer’s heels. In his book, a bribe involved paying someone to break the law. Tipping local bureaucracy to speed up what they should be doing anyway was a survival tactic in every Third World country he’d known.

At least fast-track was no exaggeration. The line had barely inched forward when they left the security area, entry stamp in hand. The scene was repeated at customs, where Steve’s two action packers and duffel bag were waved through without a glance. A grin tugged at Steve’s mouth as he took in a bright head still far back in the first line. The woman from the plane looked frustrated, one small boot tapping impatiently, and only too conscious of the stares her wardrobe choices were attracting.

Dismissing the hapless blonde from thought, Steve followed Cougar across a parking area to a black armored Suburban. The Afghan driver already had the engine running. Though an unnecessary swarm of porters had accompanied the baggage trolley, Steve counted out a bill into each outstretched hand. “Tashakor.”

Steve’s thank you engendered beard-splitting grins as the porters scattered.

Pulling his head from inside the Suburban, Cougar raised bushy red eyebrows. “So you speak Dari. I’d understood this was your first contract in Afghanistan.”

“It is.” Steve sliced into one of the action packers. The tactical vest he strapped on was not the screaming obvious black of a private security detail, where you wanted unfriendlies to know you were on alert, but a discreet utility vest style. “But I was in Kabul during liberation. And after. Picked up a fair amount of Dari and Pashto along the way. I assumed you knew that’s why I pulled this contract.”

“Sure, your bio says Special Forces. So you were Task Force Dagger, first boots on the ground, all that. That must have been a trip.” Cougar studied his taller companion’s clipped dark hair and deep tan. “Your coloring, I’ll bet you pass as a native if you grow a beard. Gotta be useful in these parts. When did you make the jump to the private sector?”

“I was in Afghanistan about eighteen months. Got tired of being shot at and switched to a Blackwater private security detail. Then ArmorGroup embassy detail. Back to PSDs. Most recently Basra in southern Iraq. That was Condor Security, and when this came up, they gave me a call.”

Steve could have added, “And you?” But his contact info had included a bio. Craig “Cougar” Laube had done an Army stint a lifetime ago, then put in twenty years with NYPD, more of them behind a desk than on the street. A second career as a security guard hadn’t proved lucrative enough to support an ex-wife and three kids because he’d jumped at the post–9/11 boom in the private security industry.

Strapping on his own tactical vest, Cougar retrieved M4s and Glock 19 pistols for both from the back of the Suburban before handing Steve a manila envelope. So the guy had his priorities right.

The SUV’s air-conditioned interior was a far more comfortable ride into Kabul than the dust and jolting of an Army convoy. As the Afghan driver eased past a mounted Soviet MiG fighter jet that marked the airport entrance, Steve rifled through the manila envelope. Mini Bradt Kabul guide. Dari-English phrase book. List of embassy-cleared restaurants and lodging. An invite to an open house Thursday evening at the UN guesthouse. It was a welcome packet! Underneath were some blueprints and a city map.

“The diagrams are your two primary security zones.” Cougar carried his M4 unslung, looking out the double-paned windows as he spoke. “How much did they fill you in?”

Steve stuffed the material back into its envelope, retaining the blueprints and a personnel data printout. “Just that CS picked up a private security detail for some Afghan cabinet minister, and they want me to pull together a team ASAP. So who is this guy, and what’s the big rush?”

“Our principal’s the new minister of interior. He figures he’s got a bull’s-eye painted on his back. Which isn’t such a stretch when you consider what happened to his predecessor.”

“You’re talking the sugar factory bombing.” Steve straightened up with sudden alertness. Bombings had become a dime a dozen lately in Afghanistan, but that incident had been significant enough to make international news. Reopening a sugar factory in the northeastern province of Baghlan was the crown jewel in an alternative development program intended to soften the impact of the U.S. counternarcotics campaign against Afghanistan’s proliferation of opium poppy. A number of dignitaries had been on hand when a bomb went off inside the factory. With more than fifty killed and hundreds wounded, it had been the largest single-incident civilian death toll since liberation.

“Sure, I saw the minister of interior on the list of VIP casualties. And weren’t there Americans involved too? But that was more than two weeks ago.”

“It’s taken this long to get all the ducks in a row. There weren’t any American casualties, but a helicopter load that included embassy and DEA reps had just touched down for the ribbon cutting when the bomb went off, one reason the incident got so much international press. In fact, the chopper belongs to the current minister. If he hadn’t forgotten his briefcase in the chopper and just happened to turn back, there’d be two dead ministers instead of one.

“What makes this more interesting is that the late MOI had just been in office a couple of months himself, appointed when his predecessor was removed for gross corruption and incompetence. Only after plenty of pressure from the West, I might add. The MOI’s by far the most powerful cabinet seat, just short of the president himself. It oversees the Afghan National Police, counternarcotics, the country’s internal security, and provincial administration. Which includes appointing the governors and regional law enforcement officials.”

Steve let out a low whistle. “So what’s left for the president?”

“There’s a reason they call our friend in the Presidential Palace the mayor of Kabul. Not that anyone really runs the provinces except the provinces themselves. A lot of people point to MOI for Afghanistan’s current security failings. Not that there isn’t plenty of blame to go around, but the Afghan National Police are a joke, and too many provincial officials are former warlords up to their own ears in drug trafficking. Our late MOI had made it his mission to clean house and rein in the regional warlords.”

That drew Steve’s sharp glance from the data sheets. “You don’t think—”

“The sugar factory bombing could be payback—or just the local opium cartels trying to stamp out competition. But the new MOI’s taking it personally. He asked for a personal security detail as soon as he nailed the promotion. No local bodyguards, either. They might be infiltrated. Western. And since Khalid’s a former muj commander—”

“Khalid!” Steve interrupted. “Khalid Sayef?”

“That’s right.” Cougar looked at Steve. “Hey, come to think of it, Khalid was part of the coalition that took Kabul. Any chance you ran across him?”

“Yes,” Steve responded. “Though when I left Afghanistan, Khalid was up to his neck in local politics, nothing like this.”

“Sure, as a matter of fact, Khalid’s still governor of his home territory up in Baghlan. But like most of the muj commanders, he picked up a cabinet seat when the new government was signed in. Minister of commerce, originally. But he’s played his cards right, and when the minister of counternarcotics threw in the towel a couple years back, Khalid was in the right place and time to take over there. In fact, since counternarcotics is also the biggest department within the MOI itself, most locals figured Khalid would move up to minister of interior when his predecessor got the boot. But with the West screaming for a housecleaning, they brought in a complete outsider.”

Cougar’s shoulders hunched under his tactical vest. “Well, Khalid’s got the job now, and it’s our responsibility to keep the guy alive. The contract’s a level one three-month renewable personal security detail. We should have on hand most equipment you’ll need. Ditto, transport. Scrambling a team wasn’t as easy on such short notice. But the bunch that flew in this morning are pretty decent. Their bios are in that packet. All Special Ops, all with security detail experience. Navy SEAL. Ranger. Delta. SAS.”

Steve’s attention shifted from data sheets to the windshield as the militarized airport zone gave way outside to bustling streets. Kabul had changed since he’d last passed this way—and it hadn’t. Steve wasn’t sure which was worse.

The biggest change was congestion. Vehicle traffic must have multiplied ten times over without a corresponding expansion of the street system. If there were traffic lanes or even sidewalks, no one was taking them seriously. Toyota Corollas, wood-framed trucks, motorcycles, and mule carts oozed through swarming pedestrians and street vendors. Late-model SUVs, mostly white, bore acronyms on doors and roofs. Agency vehicles of the numerous Western government and aid organizations now making Kabul their home.

“The two security zones are Khalid’s personal residence and the Ministry of Interior,” Cougar continued. “The residence’s already in a high security district, but the MOI building’s smack downtown.”

City limits too now crawled much farther up the mountain flanks. Construction was still largely mud brick, but the glitter of Kabul’s new business skyline thrust itself like misplaced jewels above a haze of dust and smog. The Mashal Business Center, all futuristic blue glass and chrome. The five-star Serena Hotel rising like a sultan’s palace on a busy intersection. The Safi Landmark shopping mall where, according the welcome packet, any number of trendy restaurants offered foreign cuisine and forbidden alcohol.

Who in this dirt pile has disposable income to support this kind of infrastructure?

Cougar pointed at another new glass and brick department store. “Kabul isn’t the hardship post you all rolled into. Anything you want, some Afghan will have started an import outlet. The expat social scene’s pretty decent too. Mostly in what we call the green zone—Wazir Akbar Khan, Shahr-e Nau, and Sherpur districts—where security’s tight enough you don’t have to worry about locals crashing the party. Or some mullah screaming over Jack Daniels or bikinis. Stay here awhile with all those burqas, and you won’t believe how good any woman in a bikini starts to look.”

Steve grunted. Astonishingly, the burqas hadn’t changed. He spotted numerous headscarves, many of them expatriates by their features, as well as the more enveloping black chador. But the burqa remained the female norm, flitting like silent white or pale blue ghosts through an overwhelmingly male pedestrian mob, the face panels thrown triumphantly back when he’d last been in these streets now firmly in place.

The commercial district wasn’t the only construction boom. Steve counted the third rounded dome and tall minaret the SUV had passed in the space of five minutes. This one was a massive complex, gleaming with sparkling new mosaic tile. Behind it rose a series of five-story buildings Steve had assumed to be a housing development until he saw that the mosque’s perimeter wall enclosed them.

Cougar caught his stare. “Really something, isn’t it? That’s a new Shiite madrassa built by Iran. Bigger than the university. New mosques have been going up all over Kabul, mostly donations from other Muslim governments.”

“Useful outlay of aid funds,” Steve commented sardonically.

Cougar shrugged. “We build malls; they build mosques.”

For all the city’s new infrastructure, the acute poverty Steve remembered seemed little diminished either. They’d passed miles of hovels clinging to hillsides like human-size termite cells. How did people live without running water, sewage, or electricity? As for that apartment complex mujahedeen rockets had ripped open, Steve could swear it hadn’t been touched in all these years. Then he spotted plywood and plastic tacked down across a concrete cubicle, a burqa hauling a bucket up a shattered staircase. People were living in that ruin!

Beggars remained everywhere. Men missing limbs squatted on sidewalks or negotiated traffic on wheelchairs crafted from bicycle tires. Women in burqas exposed a cupped palm at intersections, small, ragged children at their skirts. Nor in the glut of automatic weapons and armed vehicles did Steve see any indication of a country at rest from war. It wasn’t just the ISAF convoys with their armored Humvees and turret guns. A dozen different uniforms belonging to the Afghan police, army, or hired security firms roamed sidewalks, stood guard at intersections and outside buildings, and crouched behind sandbags on the tops of walls.

And I thought we’d freed this place.

Just what did those war victims in their wheelchairs and burqas scrabbling for a daily food ration, the shopkeepers and street vendors with their watchful eyes think of the new Afghanistan he’d helped create? or of the Westerners flooding their city with new cars and shining towers and shopping malls and restaurants few Afghans could ever afford to enter? for that matter, of those equally ostentatious new domes and minarets that did nothing to put food on their tables?

Steve felt a sudden weariness that was not from jet lag. Why did I come back here?

Because it’s safer than Iraq, and the money’s even better. I was tired of being shot at, remember? After all, who was Steve to sneer when his own latest contract would net him five times what he’d ever earned as a proud member of his nation’s Special Operations Command?

From Veiled Freedom. Copyright © 2009 by Jeanette Windle.  Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188.