March 18, 2015
A bell at the door then, the Ghazaliya bell, they called it, the knock of rifle butts against splintered wood, the three second grace time before boots and flashlights, lasers and automatic rifle barrels. Better than the Mahdi Army, who didn’t bother to knock, and who had never heard of the three-second rule. Dagr surged towards the front of the house, already sweating, thrusting Kinza back. It was his job to face the American door to doors, because he still looked like a professor, soft jawed, harmless, by some chance the exact composite of the innocent Iraqi these farm boys from Minnesota had come to liberate. And Kinza…with his hollow eyed stare, Kinza would never survive these conversations.
He barely got there in time to save the door. Sweaty, palsied fear, as he jerked his head into the sunlight, facing down two of them, and three more in the Humvee behind. Theywere like big, idiot children in their heavy armor and helmets, capable of kindness or casual violence as the mood took them, unreadable, random, terrifying.
“Door to door, random check sir,” A Captain Fowler said.
“Good morning,” Dagr said. Panic made his voice a croak. Door to door searches…they would find Kinza, and then Hamid, and it would be a rifle butt to the mouth, burst teeth, no Guantanamo for them, just hands tied behind the waist and a bullet to the head, right here…
“Had some violence down here this morning,” Captain Fowler was saying. “Understand the Mahdi Army came down this road, had a tussle with the boys from the SGD. Know anything about that, sir?”
“I was hiding, lying on the floor here,” Dagr said. He looked desperately from face to face, sunglasses, helmets, flashlights, all hard edges. Where the hell was Hoffman? Kind, innocent Hoffman, who shared cigarettes and jokes and tipped off Kinza about door-to-door searches…
“You sweating, my man.” Fowler casually shifted his weight, his foot blocking the door open, his gun angled just so, changing everything.
“It’s hot, we have no water,” Dagr said. “No water, nothing in the tank, no flushes working, no electricity either. One fan, and the bastards shot it today…”
“Ok, sir, we’re rigging the electricity back, we’ve had reports of this problem.” Fowler stared at him for a little while. “Sir, who else lives in this house? Are you alone in there?”
“Alone.” Dagr felt his voice give way, “My house. I live here. Do you want it? Take it, take it, just shoot me and take it. No water for three days, toilets blocked up for two months, I have to shit in a bucket, bullet holes in every damn wall…”
“Calm down, sir.” Fowler tapped his gun on the door. “We are looking for one man known to be an arms dealer. We believe he has a safe house somewhere in this grid.”
Dagr sagged against the door, the sweat pouring out of him, his mind a panicky Babel of voices, eyes swiveling from helmet to helmet, trying to find some weakness, some glimmer of the folksy charm they used when they weren’t in the killing mood. Hoffman, where are you for God’s sake?
“You seem to be looking for someone, partner,” Fowler said. “Looking for Sergeant Hoffman, by any chance?”
“Hoffman? I don’t know him. Maybe. He gave me a cigarette once I think. Tall and white? Don’t know any Hoffman, there was a nice black man before…”
“Hoffman ran patrols here,” Fowler said, “He got busted for fooling around with a very bad man. An arms dealer called Kinza. Don’t happen to know him?”
“Kinza? Sounds Japanese. I don’t know, I hardly go out, Mahdi Army shooting up the streets every day, I’ve eaten bread and eggs for the last three days, can’t even get out to the store, its three blocks down on 14th, not that they have anything there anyway…”
“Please, so rude of me, please come in,” Dagr began to step back, “I have a nicecouch, no TV though, got robbed last week, I could hear them from my bedroom, but I just stayed in my blanket. I could make you a cup of tea, no milk or sugar, I’m afraid, but, well…”
Fowler stuck his upper body into the room, swiveling his head around. The flashlight on his helmet cut a tight swathe through the gloom, illuminating the pathetic attempts at normalcy; a faded couch, a table loaded with coffee cups, a radio, a pile of textbooks hugging the floor along one wall. The moment hung on a see saw, Dagr staring at Fowler’s foot, willing it to inch back, dreading the one step forward which would signal the end.
“Alright sir.” Fowler stepped back. “You be careful now. Give us a call if this Kinza is spotted anywhere. You can ask for Captain Fowler at the Thresher.”
“Yes Captain, yes, I will,” Dagr said. “Absolutely. I hope you catch him. He sounds like a bastard Sadr sympathizer. You’re doing a good job. Long live America!”
They left and he sagged against the door, aghast at how weak his legs felt. And then he stumbled back inside, remembering that he had left Kinza and Hamid alone for far too long, Kinza drunk and brooding, a man capable of anything. They were in the bathroom, the Captain fetal in the cracked bathtub, hands and legs bound, a filthy handkerchief choking his mouth, two inches of tepid water sloshing a pink tinge. Kinza had a screwdriver and pliers, and his bottle in the crook of his arm, humming.
“Kinza, they’re gone,” Dagr said, out of breath.
“I think he’s ready to tell me all sorts of things,” Kinza said. He removed the gag.
“Fuck you,” Hamid said. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Holding back are you?”
“Fuck you, you haven’t asked me anything yet.”
“Right.” Kinza laughed. “I don’t believe you. You’re lying.” He started again with thescrewdriver.
“Kinza, stop it,” Dagr said. “The Americans are looking for you. They know yourname.”
“Caught, reprimanded, I don’t know,” Dagr said. “Busted. We have to run, Kinza.They know about the guns.”
Hamid started laughing, a whistling sound because he had recently lost a tooth. “Youtwo are the stupidest fuckers alive.”
“No problem.” Kinza put away his tools. “I’ll shoot him and then we’ll go.”
“Where, Kinza?” Dagr asked.
“North, to Shulla.” Kinza shrugged. “I have a friend. Or maybe head over to Baqouba.Start again.”
“Idiots.” Hamid spat out blood. “I know where to go.”
“Where?” Dagr asked.
“Shut up,” said Kinza.
“Take me to Mosul,” Hamid said, “and I will show you the secret bunker of TareqAziz.”
“Like a sight seeing tour?” Dagr asked, momentarily puzzled.
“It’s full of gold, you fool! Bullion bars and coins. I am the only living man whoknows its location.”
“I once served on his personal staff. I’m the only survivor. Everyone else died in peculiar accidents.” Hamid seemed particularly proud of that.
“Do you believe this idiot?” Kinza looked at Dagr.
The insectile head of the American soldier haunted him. “Who cares?” Dagr said. “Let’s go to Mosul.”
Saad Z. Hossain writes in a niche genre of fantasy, science fiction and black comedy with an action-adventure twist. He’s a monthly columnist for the Daily Star literary page and Bangladesh’s only reviewer of science fiction. He lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and will be in Los Angeles in March 2015.
Adapted from Escape From Baghdad!, by Saad Z. Hossain, Copyright © 2015 by Saad Z. Hossain. With the permission of the publisher, Unnamed Press.