At midnight a private Gulfstream biz jet that had just arrived from Paris touched down at the newly opened Gandhara International Airport near Pakistan’s capital city, Islamabad. David Haaris, the only passenger, made a telephone call.
He was a slightly built thirty-eight-year-old man wearing khaki trousers, an open-necked white shirt and a dark blue blazer. He had the long, delicate fingers of a concert pianist and a round, pleasant face, slightly dark, as if he’d been spending his weekends in the sun. His eyes were wide and jet black, and held intelligence and power that were immediately obvious to anyone meeting him for the first time. His voice was soft, cultured, with a hint of an upper-class British accent, and his vocabulary and grammar were almost always perfect. At the Pakistan Desk in the CIA his was the last word on proper usage.
His call was answered on the first ring by a man speaking Punjabi, Haaris’s first language. “Yes.”
“I’ll expect you in my office the moment you’re clear. Good luck.”
“Are you looking for trouble?”
“These are difficult times, my friend, as you well know. The Aiwan-e-Sadr came under attack just three hours ago. There is no telling what will happen next. So it is good that you are here, but take care.” The Aiwan was the residence and office of Pakistan’s president. It served the same purpose as the White House in Washington.
“Have you sent a car?”
“Yes. But keep a very low profile. Short of sending a military escort—which would just make matters worse—you will be on your own until you reach me.”
“Perhaps I could order a screen of drones.”
“As you wish,” Haaris said, and he broke the connection, a slight smile playing at the corners of his mouth. His cell phone conversation with Lieutenant General Hasan Rajput, who was the director of the Covert Action Division for Pakistan’s intelligence agency, was primarily for the benefit of the U.S. National Security Agency and the Technical Services Section in the CIA directorate where he worked. They were listening in.
The pretty flight attendant, who’d been aboard since Andrews, came aft as he took the SIM card out of his phone and put it in his pocket. Her name was Gwen, and like Haaris she worked for the CIA.
“The captain would like to know how long you expect to be on the ground, sir,” she said.
“Probably no more than a few hours, luv. You might have him refuel in case we have to make a hasty retreat.”
The young woman didn’t smile. “Should we be expecting trouble?”
“Not out here at the airport. At least not for the short term.”
Haaris glanced out the window as they taxied to a hangar used by the government for unofficial flights. The night was quiet, and he could almost smell the place even over the faint stink of jet fuel. A host of memories passed behind his eyes at the speed of light. Good times, some of them when he was a child in Lahore, but then horrible times after his parents died and his uncle brought him first to London to study in public school, then on to Eton and finally Sandhurst. He was a “rag head,” an “Islamic whore,” and in prep school the older boys used him in just that way.
And so his hate had begun to build, centimeter by centimeter, like a slowly developing volcano rising out of the sea.
He unbuckled and got up as the aircraft came to a complete halt, and he gave the attendant a smile. “I’m here to do a little back-burner diplomacy, see if I can’t point the right way for them to extract themselves from the mess they’re in.”
Gwen nodded. She was a field officer and had been under fire in the hills of Afghanistan. “Good luck, then, sir.”
Pakistan was a powder keg ready to explode at any moment. Nearly every embassy in Islamabad had been stripped to skeleton staffs, the ambassadors recalled. Attacks by the insurgents had been happening throughout the country for the past week. Haaris’s recommendation to the president’s security council three days earlier was to have its nuclear readiness teams put on high alert. It had been accomplished within twenty-four hours.
Gwen went forward, opened the door and lowered the stairs as a black Mercedes S500 pulled up and parked ten meters away, just forward of the port wingtip. She said something to Ed Lamont, the pilot, then stepped aside as Haaris came up the aisle.
“I thought they’d send an armed escort,” Lamont said. He was a craggy ex–air force fighter pilot who’d flown missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. A steady man.
“We didn’t want to attract any attention,” Haaris said. “But I want you to refuel and stand by in case we have to get out in a hurry.”
“What if the Pakis deny our flight plan?”
“They won’t,” Haaris said, careful not to bridle at the derogatory term for a Pakistani.
He stepped down onto the apron, the summer evening warm, the sky overcast, the air close. This far out from Islamabad the country could have been at peace, but the KH-14 satellite real-time images he he’d seen yesterday in the Dome at Langley showed a starkly different picture. Pakistan was on the verge of an all-out war, and the conflict promised to be much worse than any that had ever happened here. It’s why he’d been sent: to try to make the ISI, Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency, come to its senses and to work with the fundamentalists so that civil war could be avoided.
But it was not the real reason he’d come.
An old man wearing the traditional Pakistani long loose shirt over baggy trousers held open the Mercedes’ rear door.
“Allah’s blessing be upon you, sir,” he said in Punjabi.
Haaris answered in kind, and as soon he got in the car, the driver closed the door and went around to the front.
They headed past several large maintenance hangars, the service doors closed. This side of the airport seemed to be deserted.
“What’s the situation?” Haaris asked.
“The highway has been closed, no one is allowed to pass.”
“Does the government hold it?”
“No, sir. It’s the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and they are murdering people trying to get out.”
The group, once funded by the ISI, was allied with the Taliban. Their main purpose was to get their hands on at least one working nuke. The CIA considered them the main threat to Pakistan’s arsenal, which was for the most part spread around the country at air force and navy bases. So far security at the nuclear sites was holding. But it had long been rumored that some of the weapons had been moved to other locations, most often in unmarked vans or panel trucks, without armed escorts. And it was these weapons that had the Pentagon most worried.
At this hour the KH-14 was twenty degrees below overhead to the east and so could not pick up images, even in the infrared from straight down. As well, no surveillance drones were scheduled for flybys out here until later the next morning, and then only if the trouble from inside the city spread to the airport.
The driver made a leisurely turn to the right, along the west side of one of the hangars, and pulled up next to a battered old Fiat, its blue paint mostly faded or rusted away. Two men stood beside it, one of them about the same general build as Haaris and similarly dressed in khakis, a white open-necked shirt and a dark blue blazer. The other man was dressed much like the Mercedes’ driver. He held a pistol.
Haaris got out, and the man with the pistol prodded the other man to get in the front seat next to the driver.
“With God’s blessing,” Haaris said.
“Fuck you,” the man in the blazer said. His voice was slurred.
As soon as the door was closed the Mercedes took off toward the main highway into the city.
“I’m Lieutenant Jura,” the man said, putting away the gun. “Welcome to the Taliban. Your clothes and beard are in the backseat.”
Copyright © 2016 by David Hagberg