An excerpt from Afghan Silk
Crime Writers of Canada award finalist 2015 – Best Unpublished First Crime Novel
Herat, Western Afghanistan.
It was late afternoon when the little white and yellow taxi pulled up beside the sprawling Masjid-e Jami, an ancient blue-tiled mosque complex at the edge of the Old City’s chaotic public market.
In the taxi’s back seat, Colin McKenna’s cell phone buzzed, signalling an incoming text. It was from his sister, Ella.
“Chemo session moved up. Can you be back by Tuesday?”
Moved up? Why? He pushed the worrying thought away. He needed to stay focused. He keyed in a quick response. “No problem.”
He switched off the phone and leaned forward with a fistful of local currency. He carefully scanned the square. Everything looked normal. Heavily-bearded men in turbans talked quietly in the shadows of the mosque, young boys zoomed around on skateboards, shoppers haggled over the cost of pre-paid cell-phone cards at market stalls.
McKenna paid the fare, climbed out and slipped on his sunglasses. He was tall and solid, his dark hair shot with grey. He was wearing jeans and a nondescript sports jacket, his standard anonymous travelling clothes, and he moved easily.
A cool breeze blew gently from the west. Around him, women in pale blue burkhas shared the sidewalk with off-duty soldiers from Camp Arena, the nearby International Security Assistance Force base, and businessmen from China, India and the West.
McKenna slumped his shoulders to shorten his height and eased into the stream of people. Within seconds he was caught up in a whirlwind of buzzing motorbikes and three-wheeled jitneys. The spicy aroma of cardamom from snack stands competed with more pungent odours from donkey carts. Iranian and Bollywood pop music blared from crackling speakers over shop doorways. He’d always been a sucker for a good pop song. In fact, being able to recognize one when it was just a rough demo track had made him a lot of money.
As he allowed himself to be swept towards Bazaar i Kush, he scrutinized the crowd swirling around him, chatting on cell phones and arguing in doorways. It was the everyday tumult of the bazaar. No one seemed to be paying him the slightest bit of attention. Good.
But he could feel his senses sharpen, his chest tighten.
The project was the biggest in his life. He was risking everything. Not just millions of dollars, some of it his own money, but also the company he had built from the ground up. The jobs of everyone who was counting on him. Potentially his freedom. Possibly his life.
He took a deep breath.
What the hell, he said to himself. Go big or go home.
He slipped deeper into the Old City.
The Aria Trading Company occupied a rambling, two-story mud-brick building with arched windows and a heavy, cracked wooden door. Both the business and the building had survived British guns in the mid-nineteenth century and Soviet bombers in the 1980’s. Would it survive the 21st century? Insha’ Allah, if it is the will of Allah.
“Qadir, help me get this carpet down,” called out Jalil Khurman, the harried, sixth-generation owner of the Aria Trading Company. “It’s right at the top of the pile.”
Jalil was in his mid-thirties, with a receding hairline and growing paunch. He wore Armani slacks tailored in Istanbul and a loose linen shirt. Absently, he brushed off some carpet lint. Appearances were important and today, of all days, he had to look successful, even wealthy.
All negotiations were 80 percent psychology, 20 percent fact. The truth was, he needed this deal to work. He was broke – and scared.
Qadir, his tough, quick-thinking, young assistant, scrambled up and grabbed the base of the rolled carpet. He yanked it loose and slid it down the stack.
Jalil checked his watch. “Keep an eye out,” he told Qadir. “I have a few phone calls to make.”
Just then, from the corner of his eye, he spotted Nabi, his eleven year-old son, trying to slip out the door.
“Where are you going?”
The boy, short for his age with startling blue eyes under a mop of black hair, looked over his shoulder. “I’m meeting Akim beside the mosque.”
“It’s too late. Colin will be here soon.”
“But I have to give Akim his birthday present!” Nabi protested, tugging one strap of his ever-present backpack and holding up a brand new soccer ball bedecked with green ribbons.
“You should have gone earlier.”
“But you told me to sweep up!”
“Did you do a good job?”
“Yes, yes,” Nabi responded impatiently. “Look for yourself. It’s perfect.”
The boy’s tone sparked a flash of irritation. Jalil knew his son’s growing independence was natural and needed to be encouraged, but independence had to be tempered by responsibility. He sighed. That was a battle for another day. “Go on,” Jalil said then shouted to the boy’s retreating back. “Don’t be too long!”
McKenna approached the front door of the Aria Trading Company just as Nabi raced out.
Startled, McKenna planted his feet but the boy sprinted deftly around him. In that brief instant of passing, their eyes met. Nabi flashed a smile of recognition, and he was gone. McKenna watched the boy run down the cobblestoned street and disappear around the corner towards the mosque. He shook his head at how fast kids grew up, then stepped through the heavy old doors into the darkened shop.
Just inside, Qadir sat on a wooden bench, a pot of green tea at his side and, next to that, a battered AK-47. He reached for the weapon then relaxed as he recognized McKenna. Qadir stood and smiled. He put his right hand over his heart, bowed his head briefly and gestured towards the back of the shop.
McKenna smiled and returned the greeting then paused to let his eyes adjust to the dimness.
It was more a warehouse than Western-style shop, stretching back 200 feet or more with a high ceiling that soared up to ancient, smoke-stained roof rafters. The air smelled of wool, lanolin and centuries-old wood. He could see piles of carpets – deep reds, blues and shimmering golds, some laid flat, others rolled, the smaller kilims folded and stacked – receding into the distance where Jalil sat hunched behind a wooden desk, a cell phone in one hand, laptop open in front of him.
Jalil jumped up with a big welcoming grin. He snapped the phone closed and threw it on the desk.
“Salaam alaikum, Colin! It is so good to see you!” Jalil strode forward, opening his arms wide.
“Wa alaikum as-salaam,” Colin responded as they hugged.
McKenna, at six foot two inches and just under 200 pounds, towered over the younger Afghan. “Your flight was okay?” Jalil asked.
“With Ariana Air?” McKenna grinned. “We landed safely. Enough said. What about you? And Azia? And was that Nabi–?”
“Growing up faster than you would believe.” Jalil`s smile dimmed slightly.
McKenna noted the dark bags beneath Jalil’s eyes, the kind that came from carrying too much stress. A whisper of doubt touched the back of his mind. “You look like hell.”
“I’m fine,” Jalil insisted brightly. “Come, let`s have some tea and catch up.” He stepped back with a welcoming sweep of his arm toward some loose floor cushions surrounding a low table.
Suddenly, the ground shifted beneath their feet.
A deep rumbling roar rippled through the walls.
The front doors blew open and slammed against the inside wall. Colin grabbed Jalil`s arm and pulled him down into a crouch. Dust clouds fell from the ceiling.
They looked at each other. They locked eyes for a second and knew what had happened.
A bomb – a huge one – had exploded and it sounded like it came from the mosque.
Exactly where Nabi had gone.
As they raced to the door and outside, McKenna wondered what he had gotten himself into.
The bomb blast had funnelled down the street, ripping away canopies and blowing debris through windows. People began to emerge, everyone looking towards the mosque. A dense column of black smoke rose above the old city. In the distance, sirens began to wail.
Jalil began running towards the mosque, McKenna right behind him. Within moments, they turned a corner into the parking area and instantly stumbled to a halt.
They stood at the gates of hell. Heat, intense and nearly overwhelming, blasted from burning cars and trucks that were spewing towers of flames and oily black smoke. It was hard to breathe. The air was bitingly acrid, thick with dust. They buried their mouths and noses in the crook of their elbows and squinted to see what was going on.
The burning hulk of a big black Chevy Suburban rested nose down in a 12-foot-deep crater. In front and behind it, two bomb-blasted SUV’s lay tipped over on their sides, smoke pouring from the engine compartments, flames from leaked gasoline licking at the undercarriage. Nearby rested the burned-out shells of three compact cars, one with its frame twisted like a pretzel, another tossed upside down. Men, their tunics bloodied, their faces blackened, staggered like drunks. Women kneeled and wailed, clutching traumatized children. Screams of pain, both human and animal, filled the air. The ground was littered with shattered glass, melted plastic, charred bits of metal, chunks of blasted asphalt and misshapen lumps of sodden, near-unrecognizable human body parts.
McKenna was stunned. How could anyone have survived this? Let alone a little boy like Nabi?
A woman moaned. Colin turned. She was lying on her side, her back to him, her pale blue chador smouldering from flying sparks. One leg jerked spasmodically.
Colin knelt down and carefully smothered the embers with his bare hands then turned her on her back. She was in her mid-fifties, her lined face contorted with pain.
Jalil desperately scanned the square for any sign of Nabi.
“Go!” Colin shouted. “Find Nabi. I’ll take care of her.”
Jalil ran into the chaos, fighting back the panic, his heart in his throat.
Colin brushed soot from the woman’s face and slipped his jacket under her head. Suddenly, he was grabbed from behind. He twisted quickly, rolled to his feet and spun around to face his attacker.
“No! No!” shouted a wide-eyed, disheveled old man. “Do not touch her!”
“It’s okay,” Colin said calmly, backing off a step, his hands held palms out in the universal gesture of peace. Maybe he was the woman’s husband, outraged that another man was touching her. “She’s hurt. I can help her.”
“Get back!” The old man thrust himself in front of Colin.
Colin took a quick look around. No one was watching. He had no choice. For years, he had worked out in dojos and training gyms, picking up skills that came in handy from time to time. Like now.
Without warning, he drove a palm strike into the old man’s diaphragm, paralyzing him. Colin spun him then slipped a forearm around his neck and slammed on a sleeper hold. He held the squirming man tightly, his arms like steel bands squeezing inexorably on the carotid arteries and jugular veins.
Within seconds, the man went slack and slipped to the ground.
“Easy does it,” Colin said clearly and calmly as he knelt down by the woman. He knew that she probably didn’t understand the words but he hoped she would take comfort from his tone.
“You’re going to be okay.”
He straightened her chador to cover her legs. Immediately, a dark stain began to seep into the light blue cloth and spread rapidly.
He pulled back the cloth. A six-inch shard of plastic had impaled her thigh. He ripped open the pant leg. Blood spurted rhythmically from the wound. The artery had been punctured. He grabbed her leg just above the wound and pressed hard. He didn’t dare try to remove the shard. It might rip open the wound. He looked up, searching for someone who could help but there was no one.
In the distance, the first ambulances were arriving but they wouldn’t get to him soon enough. He reached over, ripped loose the old man’s shirt and tore it into pieces that he packed around the ugly plastic spear that jutted from the wound. He fumbled one-handed with his buckle and yanked off his belt. He slipped it around her leg above the wound and pulled it tight, applying pressure to slow the bleeding but not enough to cut-off circulation. The spurting slowed to a steady seep.
Momentarily reassured, he looked up and again scanned the devastated square. More ambulances had arrived. There! He spotted a couple of paramedics. He shouted, waved frantically and caught their attention.
They scrambled through the debris to reach him. Quickly, they took over. A small crowd began to gather around them.
Colin stood up, backed away and got his bearings.
He shook his head and refocused. He had to find Nabi and Jalil.
Nabi couldn’t get Akim’s blood off the soccer ball.
He spat on his finger and rubbed hard and it smeared but there was just too much blood. It had seeped into the stitching and wouldn’t come out, no matter how hard he tried.
Nabi’s best friend in the whole world was dead and it was his fault.
They had been practising in the courtyard beside the mosque. Akim had been over-the-moon with joy at getting a brand new soccer ball for his birthday.
They used their backpacks as goal posts. Akim was a little taller than Nabi and had longer legs. With a deft move of his right foot, he stole the ball. But Nabi was sturdy and sure-footed.
They were so caught up in the game that they didn’t notice the motorcade with the big black Chevy Suburban pulling up in front of the mosque just a few feet away. Nabi lunged forward and shoulder-checked Akim off the ball.
Akim fell back, almost into the path of the Suburban.
Then the world exploded.
Everything went white. There was a flash of heat as if a giant oven door had been flung open and a terrible roaring hurt his ears.
Nabi was thrown off his feet, cracked his head against a fountain and landed on his back. Instinctively, he curled into a ball. He closed his eyes tight. He wrapped his arms over his head. Debris and fire rained down.
When he looked up, there was gritty dust and heavy black smoke and a terrible smell and a strange, ghostly silence.
And there was Akim lying all twisted in the dirt. He looked into Nabi’s eyes with stunned confusion as blood burst from his belly.
Nabi froze in shock.
Akim reached out, then his hand fell limply by his side. His eyes closed as the blood pool spread across the cement. He was dead. Nabi knew it instantly.
Nabi struggled to his feet. He stared at Akim. This was his fault. He had pushed Akim. Now Akim was dead.
Somehow, as if by magic, the soccer ball was still near his feet. Nabi picked it up, grabbed his backpack and, stunned, began to slowly retreat from the burning cars and screaming people that filled the square.
Nabi’s mind was caught in a horrific tornado of shock and fear and guilt. Akim had been bleeding and he had done nothing to help. But he had been scared. He had frozen. Now, his best friend was dead, and he was a coward. Soon everyone would know. His mother would be shamed. His father would disown him.
Still clutching the soccer ball, Nabi reached the sanctuary of the smooth tiled wall of the mosque. He sank down and pulled his knees up tight so no part of him showed beyond the deep shadow cast by the setting sun. He was invisible, or so he thought.
Someone approached him, a woman wearing a Red Crescent vest. She reached out. No! Nobody was allowed to touch Akim’s soccer ball! Nabi stumbled to his feet and backed away. She followed. Fearfully, he looked over his shoulder. The corner of the mosque was only two metres away. Again she came forward, again reaching for him.
No! Nabi spun around and ran. As he rounded the corner, he looked back. She had given up and turned away, retreating towards the parking lot.
Then the ground fell out from under his feet.
Down, he tumbled, into a deep, deep hole. He was submerged in darkness.
He slammed down onto a rough cobblestone floor. His breath was knocked out, leaving him gasping for air. His nose filled with a damp musty smell. Far, far above him was a small piece of the sky. All the rest was darkness. He sat up.
He began to whimper softly. He was scared. Tears began then he caught himself. No! I will not cry like a baby! Angrily, he wiped his eyes. Gradually, his sight grew accustomed to the dim light. He was in an old hallway, the walls clad in huge sheets of pale marble, the ceiling tiled with intricate mosaics.
He must be in the basement of the mosque, Nabi thought, but this didn’t look like the mosque. It felt different. Older. Ancient, like the mountains. Or, he shivered, like the lair of djinn. He could feel the hairs lifting on the back of his neck.
Nabi clenched his fists as tightly as he could, digging his fingernails into the palms of his hands, the pain focusing his mind on the real world.
He stared up at the tiny patch of sky showing through the ceiling. There was no way he could climb up there. The walls were too smooth. He could cry out for help. But who would hear him? Even if they did, who would care? He was a coward. They would spit on him. They would laugh at him.
He surveyed the dim hallway. Ahead, a broad staircase curved down into the darkness.
He had no choice. He stood and took a deep breath to steady himself. He pulled his backpack over his shoulder and held the soccer ball tightly. He stepped forward.
Hesitantly, he started down the steps.
The stairway curved downward. Nabi was nervous, but when he pushed aside his fear, it gave room for curiosity to grow. Down, down he went.
It was deathly silent. He could hear the rasp of his ragged breath. Under his running shoes, fine bits of grit crunched on the stone stairs. Slowly, he became aware of a faint scent drifting up from below. It was slightly spicy. Cinnamon? No. Sandalwood? The fragrance grew stronger as he descended further.
Then there was an opening in the wall, a broad arch that soared up into the darkness. Beyond it, a room beckoned.
Suddenly, from the ceiling, he heard a terrifying scrape of rock against rock. Sand and small chunks of rock rained down. Nabi ducked and covered his head. The shower slowed to a trickle then stopped. He waited, more scared than he had ever been in his life. He looked up fearfully. The ceiling was holding fast – for now. He waved away the dust and brushed the dirt from his arms.
Nabi crept forward and peered through the archway. Far overhead, light filtered down through a jagged hole in the ceiling. At the center of the room was a pool filled with water, a trickling sound revealing it to be a fountain. Nabi licked his dry lips. The water looked cool, refreshing.
He stepped into the chamber. In the back wall he saw a large niche. Sheltered within it was a small statue. Nabi crept forward to get a closer look.
The statue was about 15 inches tall, a figure with a walking staff caught mid-stride. It was sculpted from a single, polished midnight-blue stone – an extraordinary lapis lazuli – wearing robes of gold inlaid in sparkling jewels. He saw rubies, emeralds and diamonds that glittered even in this dim light.
He edged even closer. The face drew him. The eyes were closed peacefully. The lips were parted in a slight smile. It had the longest earlobes he had ever seen.
Nabi reached out and gently touched it. It was both cool and warm. He picked it up.
He twisted around to see. Behind him, in the passage way, a chunk of the ceiling fell down.
He throat was dry. It hurt, but he swallowed anyway. He breathed deeply. Once. Twice. And again.
Maybe this was something that wanted to be found.
Maybe it was tired of being alone in the dark.
A sense of purpose filled him, bringing relief with it. Nabi hadn’t been able to save Akim but he could rescue the icon. He would bring it out from this underground tomb before the entire ceiling collapsed.
And, maybe, this would help make up for his shame.
Finding a clear space, Colin slumped back against a badly damaged wall. Someone handed him a can of Coke. His throat was raw. His head was aching. A pall of smoke clung to the ruined market square.
Firefighters, police and volunteer rescue workers were everywhere, clearing rubble, searching for more victims. Hundreds of people were wounded, overwhelming the available ambulances.
A section of the parking lot was cordoned off as a triage centre. Already, several rows of bodies lay waiting for transport. Most of them were little more than bloody bundles of rags.
A medevac helicopter from Camp Arena, the ISAF base near Herat airport, waited in the courtyard of the mosque, rotor blades turning slowly, its loading doors open to receive blast victims. A medical team from the military base worked side-by-side with the Afghani doctors and nurses. Other ISAF soldiers, Italian by their shoulder flashes, helped clear debris and smother stubborn fires. One officer, a woman in her late-thirties, walked carefully through the site while talking into a satellite phone.
A large black Toyota Land Cruiser roared in, the gold and green insignia of an Afghan private militia on its door, and slammed to a stop. It was followed by a pair of open-topped jeeps. Black-uniformed soldiers tumbled out of the jeeps and, before the dust had settled, formed a defense perimeter around the Toyota.
The passenger door opened slowly. From within uncoiled a thin, giant-sized man with a beard like closely trimmed steel wool. Wearing a dark business suit, his shirt collar open, he towered over the soldiers around him.
Colin recognized him from news reports. Rabb Malik. A war hero. At one time, a mujahedeen commander. Now, a minister in the Afghan government and an extremely wealthy businessman. He also operated the largest private militia force in western Afghanistan, which was reportedly funded in part by the CIA. Malik was quickly joined by a heavy-set Afghan National Police bodyguard and a whip-thin man in a black suit who moved like a cat.
“He’s here,” Major Oriana Collaredo said into her sat phone, watching the impact of Malik’s arrival. “Si.”
She broke the connection and, keeping one eye on the crowd around Malik, surveyed the smouldering remains of the market. As the top-ranked intelligence officer for the Italian forces at Camp Arena, it was her job to figure out how this attack would impact the ISAF strategy in Herat.
She spotted McKenna, picked her way over and took off her sunglasses. She pointed at his blood-stained shirt.
“Voi hanno bisogno dell’aiuto?” she asked. “Do you need help?”
Her face was creased and honed by the sun and wind. Her eyes had that haunted look that people get who deal with bad stuff day after day but there remained a sharpness in her steady gaze that Colin liked.
“Non è il mio sangue,” he responded. “It’s not my blood.”
Surprised at his fluent Italian, she paused to study him more closely then switched to English.
“Are you sure?” She checked his eyes for focus. “Do you need a doctor?”
Colin just shook his head. She believed him. He looked like the kind of guy who could take care of himself.
“Did you see what happened?” she asked, pulling out a notebook and pen.
He shook his head. “Have you seen a little boy? Eleven years old? He was carrying a soccer ball.”
Just then, an imperious voice broke in.
“Major? What do you think you are doing? Who is this?” Rabb Malik stood with his back to the sun, his face shadowed. He was flanked by his two assistants and four heavily armed soldiers.
Collaredo moved back slightly, wary but respectful. “He’s a potential witness—”
“My men are coordinating the investigation,” Malik stated. “Turn over everything you have to them.”
“Of course, as soon as—“
“Immediately, Major. Is that clear?”
“But we need to—“
“Herat is my jurisdiction, not ISAF’s.”
“Si,” she said. “I have my orders but I will report your request to my commander.”
Malik grunted. He swung his gaze. “So—who are you?”
Colin straightened up. He was tired and dirty and Malik’s arrogance got under his skin. “My name is McKenna, Colin McKenna. Canadian, staying at the Marco Polo Hotel.”
Colin reached for his passport. It wasn’t there. In a flash, he remembered. It was in the coat that he had used as a pillow to help the woman with the shrapnel wound. “I left it—“
Malik didn’t hesitate. “Take him.” The soldiers closed in.
“No! Wait!” a voice called out. “Wait!”
Looking past Malik, Colin saw Jalil approaching. He was holding up Colin’s battered, blood-stained sports jacket.
“What’s going on?” asked Jalil, handing it to Colin.
Colin silently mouthed the question, “Nabi?”
Jalil nodded and gave a discrete thumbs up.
“Jalil Khuram,” said Malik, his voice cold. “You can vouch for this man?”
“Yes, certainly,” Jalil replied with a nervous smile. Colin fished out his passport and handed it to Malik, who passed it to his assistant. “He is a business associate. In fact, he is here to discuss an investment. Possibly a substantial one.”
“Really.” Malik reappraised McKenna skeptically. “Of course, investors are always welcome.”
McKenna took a deep breath. Don’t piss this guy off, he told himself. Not now. The guy in the black suit handed his passport back. But he couldn’t resist. “This kind of welcome gives me second thoughts.”
“Do not be afraid for your investment,” Malik snapped. “Herat is the most secure region in the entire country. I know this is the work of outsiders sent to disrupt our business. We will deal with them and their paymasters.”
McKenna saw it in Malik’s eyes. This guy is serious. He nodded.
Collaredo watched the exchange closely. Why would Malik immediately say it was outsiders? Was this wishful thinking? Or did he know something?
Malik held McKenna’s eyes for a beat, making sure that his point had registered. This time, McKenna kept his mouth shut.
Malik shot a glance at Jalil. “I will see you tomorrow.” He turned to Collaredo. “Remember – everything.” Not waiting for a reply, he strode away, his soldiers forming a security bubble around him.
“Nabi’s okay?” Colin asked quickly.
“He’s waiting for us at the shop,” said Jalil with a weary smile of relief. He nodded to Collaredo.
“Have you met? No? Major Oriana Collaredo, this is my friend and business associate, Colin McKenna.”
Collaredo and McKenna shook hands. There was something about her that he thought was … interesting. She returned his gaze with an openly quizzical, measuring look.
“Signore Khuram? Mr. McKenna? May I have someone contact you later for your statements?
Any details might help.”
“Of course,” said Jalil. “You know where to reach me.”
“Signore McKenna? Could you give me your cell phone number? Just in case?”
He nodded, rattled it off and she keyed it into her phone.
“I must get back to work.”
“I thought you were told to stop your investigation,” McKenna ventured.
“I decide when I’m done, not Malik,” she said quietly. “I will speak to both of you later, non?”
“Stay safe,” Jalil responded.
“Grazie,” she nodded, then adjusted her earpiece and turned back to the devastated square.
“Let’s get out of here,” said Jalil.
As they worked their way through the debris back to Jalil’s shop, Colin asked, “I take it you know Rabb Malik. Who were those two with him?”
“The big one in the uniform is Ahmad Sabet, Malik’s liaison with the Afghan National Police.
The one in the suit is Mahoud Kemi. Secret police, the National Directorate of Security.”
“Wonderful,” said Colin. “Anything else?”
“Rabb Malik is also my cousin.”
“That’s good, right?”
“Not necessarily. Families don’t always get along.”
Colin buttoned his jacket and pulled out his cell phone. Twelve messages, all from his sister. News of the bombing must have popped up on the internet already. He quickly texted a reply:
“Am fine. Will call later.”
“It’s not safe for you to stay here tonight,” Jalil said as they hurried through the narrow streets.
“Come home with me. You could use some fresh country air.” He looked over. “Clean clothes and a bath, as well.”
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