Tariq’s surma-rimmed eyes gleamed cold and hollow. He had known Tariq for ten years, enough to know that he was serious. Dead serious. ISI handlers of high value assets usually are. And Tariq, Tariq was one of the best. He had to be. After all he was Tariq’s asset.
On hindsight, he felt he should have seen this coming. It had been a horrible weekend from the very start. On Friday, there was that horrible royal wedding which he had to endure sitting with his youngest wife. She had kept sobbing and ooh-oohing “so cute” throughout, an experience worse than having a camel bite your balls. And he knew what was like, having experienced it many years ago. He had reminded her that she too was married to a prince. But somehow she didn’t seem to be too pleased by that observation. Saturday, the weather had been horrible and the kababs had been over-cooked. But nothing could have prepared him for this shocker on Sunday morning.
‘I am sorry. We have to lay you off. Or in your case, lay you out.’
He tried to sweep away the rising tide of panic. “I thought we had an arrangement Tariq. You guys pretend to hunt me. The US pays you millions for that. You use it to buy candy, perhaps a few guns. Some of it goes to the Kashmiris and some of it goes into protecting me so that you can get the next installment. From time to time, you guys kill some shepherd and pass him off as Al Qaeda’s No 3 man. I thought this was all going well. Why do you want to get rid of the golden egg now, of all times?
Tariq adjusted his military cap, impatiently. ‘See that’s the problem. You have become so isolated from the world. Forgive me for saying this but that you are now a fossil, Like Simi the White. That arrangement you talked of that was with the old boss, the Mushy General. The new boss wants to do things different. And he has to. The world has changed sir. The US wants to withdraw from Afghanistan steadily and they cannot do it without answering to one question to their people “So what have we achieved?”
If you are killed, then they have that answer. Perfectly concise. And simple enough so that the dumbest can get it. You know the ones who enjoy Justin Bieber.
And this provides their president an “achievement” before the next elections, and trust me sir he needs a few if he wants to win. For us too, in the ISI, getting the US to leave would be good. We are sick and tired of this war, sick and tired of the problems in transporting opium past those predator drones. The Yanks laying off a bit is exactly what we want. To be honest sir, the US has cottoned onto our little game of jihadi blackmail for a long time. It just couldn’t have gone on. When we give you to them, we will get a bagful of chips which we can then cash in for more diplomatic pressure on the Indians on Kashmir and Afghanistan and more arms and ammunition for us.
Plus we need the Taliban back on our side—this good and bad distinction shit no longer works. Remember why the US went after Taliban in the first place? They were fine with those people when they acted as agents for that Indian plane we hijacked. Nothing really terrorist about that, in the eyes of the Americans. It was when they put their ass on the line for you that the US went after them and “Taliban” became a dirty word. With you gone, the Taliban will once again be rehabilitated by the US (perhaps under different names), past sins will be forgotten, and we can get back to doing what we brought them up for—controlling Afghanistan and later on Kashmir.’
He was angry now, spluttering with rage. ‘ You think you guys are going to get away by hanging me out to dry. Does your boss have any idea of my value, what I mean to the Islamic world?Do you think your countrymen are going to let you get away with handing their biggest hero over like that? And even forgetting that, who will be your jihadi master-mind?’
Tariq kept his cool. ‘With due respect sir, you were a jihadi master-mind, around the time when people thought Christina Aguilera would be the future of music and that Parthiv Patel would be India’s wicketkeeping-batsman superstar. Perhaps it’s because you cannot show your nose to the sun. But the fact is you have lost a lot of your operational influence. We have better brains now, people whose names the Yanks don’t know, who manage the business well. No one much watches your videos too any more—- why there were more downloads of the Asmit Patel-Ria Sen sex video than your latest missive. Your significance, if anything, is merely that of a symbol—and a symbol becomes more powerful when the man behind it is dead..’
‘So what you are saying is that you have found your Sachin, Pollard, Rayadu, Harbhajan and Malinga and that I have become a Shikhar Dhawan who you can comfortably let go.’
‘Couldn’t have put it better myself. Just because Ronald McDonald’s dies doesnt mean McDonald’s closes down ! Just because Heffner dies doesnt mean boys will stop playing….’
Tariq coughed, somewhat apologetically.. ‘You see, sir, you were always a foreigner. You have always had Palestine and the US as your focus. We here care just about Kashmir and the destruction of India. In all these years, you never did much about Kashmir did you except one or two words in your speeches? We had to do 26/11 all-by-ourselves with no input from you or your near foreigner friends. And it went off bloody well too if I may say so.
So just put yourself in our shoes, what value do you have for us in this the new world order? The stage has been set for your demise already. Mr 10% has already taken 2.5 million, the 10 per-cent off your booty. The Taliban are on the path to rehabilitation. Within some time, Al-Qaeda with their Palestine focus shall wane in Pakistan to be replaced by more India-facing Jihadi groups, baksheesh from the US will come in ting-a-ling and we will resume our activities in Afghanistan and then in Kashmir with Taliban friends freed up from having to fight the US.’
‘You have made a mistake. The good Muslims of this country won’t forget your treachery.’ He was hyper-ventilating now, the warm spit drooling down the side of his mouth.
‘We have that managed. This will be spun as an entirely Yankee operation—-we Pakistanis had no idea you were here. And so of course telling the Americans and cooperating them does not arise. There might be some anguish on the streets but don’t worry it will be directed at the Yanks and at the moron President. If he gets bumped off as a result, all the better.’
His head slumped onto his chest. They had figured this out pretty well. ‘So what happens now?’
‘ They will come soon. They will run about like they do in the movies, no American will be injured, bullets will fly and that will be that. Some people may ask how come the Americans faced so little resistance inside the mansion, considering how strong your security perimeter has always been. They might say that this shows that we gave you away. But those won’t be too many people.’ Tariq said, smiling for the first time.
He felt sick, sick to the base of his stomach. And scared.
‘Can’t you get me off, for old times sake? I mean at least let me know who wins DID Champs—Team Jalwa or Team Josh and whether KKR makes the play-offs? Please.’
‘Sorry no can do big-man. The deal has been made. It has to be on a Sunday to make the Monday morning headlines. Bad news on Friday night, good news on Sunday night—-remember? So today and now it has to be.’
Tariq turned towards the door and stopped. With his back towards him, he said, in a hushed whisper, ”Good-bye sir.’ Then he walked away briskly, before breaking into a half-run.
He sat silent, hearing and not hearing, counting now the seconds till they would burst in. Images of two buildings floated in his mind, of people, their faces twisted in fear, running about or calling their loved ones one last time, of metal melting, of flames, of men and women waiting for their inevitable death, terrified and alone. He had seen these images before. Every time he had told himself—they had deserved it, those infidels. They had deserved the wrath of God. But then why was he today, just like them, waiting helplessly..waiting for the end?
No answer came. The deafening sound of a hovering helicopter blotted out his final thoughts.