This is the revised, hypothetical, maybe first chapter of my next novel in the “Bob Burke Action Thriller Series,” but it will likely go through a lot of changes before the book is finished later this year. It may not even end up as Chapter 1. Professor Henry Shaw may make an unusual “bad guy,” but anyone who has taken an undergraduate “Soc” or History course in the past twenty years will recognize him. Let me know what you think.
Fayetteville, North Carolina
With only four gates and a handful of flights going in and out each night, the Fayetteville Regional Airport isn’t very large, but it is there and it is quick and easy if Fayetteville is where you want to go. Ten minutes after his flight landed, Bob Burke was out the TSA exit, down the escalator to the ground floor, and out the front doors, where he found himself standing in a warm, soft, late-summer, Carolina evening. Try doing that at O’Hare, he smiled to himself. It was 9:30 p.m. and the sun had already set. Without giving it any thought, he came to a dead stop in the middle of the sidewalk and paused to look up. Even through the bright airport lights, he could see a quarter moon and a few bright stars in the sky; causing him to take a deep breath, happy to be back home after four days in Chicago. Most of the other passengers who came in on his flight had peeled off toward Baggage Claim, so the sidewalk was empty, as was the parking lot and the entry road beyond. Well, Bob thought, at least they hadn’t rolled up the runways for the night.
Being a second-generation Army brat, Fayetteville was the closest thing to home for him. However, having spent the past few years working in Chicago and dealing with O’Hare and the ugly Chicago winters, he still found this small city on the Piedmont of North Carolina amazing. Unfortunately, he still had a business to run up north. Teleconferences and the internet were great, but he still had to show his smiling face in the office every few weeks. To maximize his time up there, he always booked the latest flight that would get him back to Fayetteville that night. That inevitably meant changing planes in Charlotte and taking a tiny Dash-8 commuter jet for the last leg over the mountains. He hated them, especially when those God-awful early-evening thunderstorms blew up. Still, a Dash-8 beat a three-hour drive. As they say, “You can’t get there from here.”
As usual, most of the passengers on his flight were Army, dressed in the latest camouflage Army Combat Uniform, beige combat boots, and maroon, tan, or green berets. They were headed up the road to Fort Bragg. Funny, Bob thought; he had been taking this flight once or twice each month for the past six months, and he had yet to run into a familiar face from “back in the day.” True, it had been almost three years since he quit the Army and took the job in Chicago, but he had been a fixture in Special Ops here at Bragg and in Iraq and Afghanistan for almost a decade. He knew almost everyone back then, and everyone knew him, or so he thought. Now, however, other than his own “guys” from the Rangers and Delta Force, it seemed that “the Ghost” really had vanished. Then again, he shouldn’t be surprised. There were 55,000 soldiers stationed at Bragg now, and three years was a lifetime in the Special Ops. Oh, well, he thought, time marches to its own beat, and so did he.
The Fayetteville airport was easy to get in and out of, but it was definitely “no frills,” — no food and no drink at night, and no shuttle buses to the parking lots. He stepped off the curb and began to hoof it across the Short Term Lot, crossing several treed medians, and on into the Long Term Lot, where he had parked his new Ford 150 pickup truck. He was dressed in his usual “gone-to-the-office-and-don’t-give-a-damn,” casual business attire — L.L. Bean chinos, a button-down blue Oxford cloth shirt, no tie, a wrinkle-free blue blazer, and his newest country affectation: a pair of lightweight cowboy boots. He carried no luggage, only two carry-ons. Over his left shoulder hung a small, black computer bag, and in right hand was a Halliburton high-security aluminum briefcase, which had a week’s worth of homework jammed inside. The Army taught him to pack light, and preferably to pack nothing at all; so he left his business suits, dress shoes, ties, and all the rest of that crap in the closet of his Chicago office. With Global Entry, that let him avoid the whole TSA hassle to begin with.
Midway across the dark parking lot, he stopped and looked around. He had only been gone for five days; but it had been “O-Dark-30” when he left, and he had been in and out of way too many parking lots since then. Apparently, “no frills” also extended to the parking lot lights. Half of them were out, while the other half were spaced too far apart to accomplish much of anything, leaving large, dark patches all through the large lot. Fortunately, the quarter moon gave off enough light for an old infantryman like him, so he set off walking through the rows and the median strips to his right, where he was pretty sure he had left the pickup.
He pulled the set of keys from his pocket and looked at the “keyless entry” key fob. It had one of those little red horn buttons for dummies like him who couldn’t remember where they parked. It also had a remote starter button designed for “Susie housewife,” so she wouldn’t need to plant her warm butt on a cold car seat on one of those nasty Chicago winter mornings. Unfortunately, the remote starter could also set off a car bomb, if the Gumbahs he crossed in Chicago and New York finally figured out where he was. So, all things considered, Bob usually opted for the third and somewhat safer button, which would only open the door locks and make the headlights flash.
Before he did, however, he took one more look around. Sure enough, he saw his white, Ford 150 three vehicles down in the next row, parked in the shadow of a humongous, midnight blue, Chevy Tahoe SUV. When he got within fifty feet, he pressed the button to open the electric door locks, which also triggered a quick, bright flash from the truck’s headlights, revealing a cluster of men huddled between his Ford and the SUV. First impressions are usually right 99% of the time, he knew, and what flashed in front of him was for men with long hair, blue jeans, beer guts, leather biker jackets, and some serious tattoos. In the row beyond them, the headlight beams had reflected off four chromed-up Harley-Davidson motorcycles, where the bikers must have had left them standing. They were so focused on breaking into the two trucks that the bright flash of the headlights took him by surprise.
“Turn off them goddamned lights, and get yer ass out ‘a here!” the closest biker turned and growled at Bob. He looked to be the biggest of the bunch, perhaps ‘6 “3 tall and 225 pounds, probably the dumbest of the bunch too, which was why they left him standing guard. Behind him, one of the others held a “Slim Jim” in both hands, working its thin metal strip on the driver’s side door of the Tahoe, pushing it up and down and trying to pop open the door lock. Another biker leaned over his shoulder, watching and waiting, while the fourth held a ball peen hammer at the ready, in the event the more sophisticated entry methods failed.
“Sorry, Gomer,” Bob answered back, “but that’s my pickup truck and I’m not leaving here without it.”
“Wuddju call me?” the first biker’s eyes flashed as he straightened up and turned angrily toward smaller man approaching them.
The biker behind him with the ball-peen hammer, wasn’t nearly as shy. “Is this here yer truck, boy? This piece ‘a crap 150?” he asked, as he swung the hammer into Bob’s passenger side window, smashing it into a thousand little pieces of glass.
Even a freshly-minted country boy like Bob Burke, knew you don’t mess with a man’s woman, his hunting dog, or his pickup truck down here, probably not in that order, and the goober with the hammer had just made a really big mistake. At only ‘5 “9 tall and 165 pounds, Bob Burke was easy to underestimate, but people rarely did that twice. When he left active duty as a Major with twelve years and six combat tours in the Rangers and Delta Force, he walked out the door with most of the top medals the Army hands out for doing what he did — a Distinguished Service Cross, a couple of Silver Stars, and five Purple Hearts — plus three bullet wounds and enough shrapnel in various body parts to require “hand wanding” at TSA checkpoints. He also walked out as an expert with most things that fired bullets, from a 9-millimeter Beretta semiautomatic pistol to the M4 Assault Rifle, a 105-millimeter howitzer when needed, and his personal favorite, the 50-caliber Barrett sniper rifle. He was even more skilled in most of the Asian martial arts.
“You know, Jethro,” Bob told the biker with the ball-peen hammer, as he lowered his computer bag to the pavement, “you should think twice before you pull stuff this around Fort Bragg. There’s no telling who you might piss off.”
“Yeah?” Ball peen eyed him up and downlooked. “What are you, another army puke?”
“Used to be,” Bob answered as he continued walking straight at them, his steel briefcase in his right hand and his eyes scanning every angle and opportunity he saw. “Now, I’m just ‘the telephone guy.’ ”
“The telephone guy?” the biker frowned, not understanding.
“What?” Bob asked as he closed on them. “Are you stupid and deaf? That’ll be $200 for the window, you dumb grit.”
“Dumb grit?” the biker seethed. “Why you little…”
“What the hell you doin’?” the biker using the Slim Jim on the Tahoe’s front door turned and snapped at Gomer. “Go shut that guy up!”
“Yeah, come shut me up, Lem,” Bob smiled. There might be four of them, each at least three inches and thirty pounds bigger than him, but four-out-of-shape bikers trapped in the narrow space between the two trucks didn’t concern him at all, especially not after they broke his truck window.
“Once Special Ops, always Special Ops,” Bob remembered someone saying, and that the best offense is always a good offense. Of the martial arts styles he knew, his current favorite was Krav Maga, the radical fighting discipline developed by the Israeli Defense Forces. There was nothing defensive about it, however, and it was no art. Krav Maga was “street fighting with an attitude,” where you got in the first punch, the last, and everything in between, with the intent to maim or kill.
Despite his extreme daily workouts and peak physical condition, Bob Burke had no bulging Gold’s Gym muscles, and looked anything but intimidating. However, he was a man with a lot of “sharp edges,” as Ace Randall once put it. Whether he was using his hands, feet, a knife, a rock, or a steel-clad briefcase, he was incredibly fast, precise, and well-practiced. The four bikers had already made several large tactical mistakes. In addition to having larger mouths than brains, they had bunched themselves together in the narrow, three-foot-wide gap between the Ford 150 and the big Tahoe. They’d have flunked tactics at West Point, he quickly concluded; but speed usually tops stupid, anyway.
Time to force the first biker to do something, Bob thought, as he closed in. What Gomer did, was to telegraph a looping, round-house right at Bob’s head. Too little, too late, and about what he expected, Bob told himself as he shifted his weight far enough back for the biker’s big fist to miss. As it flashed past his nose, Bob turned and snapped a quick kick into the guy’s crotch with his right cowboy boot. They were light and surprisingly flexible, but the “pointy toe” was sharp and hard.
The biker never saw it coming. “Oooph!” was all he managed to get out, accompanied by a painful grunt and a burst of air. His eyes went round as hockey pucks as his hands went to his crotch and he doubled up in serious pain. Never one to risk breaking bones in his hands by hitting a Neanderthal in the head, Bob, let the briefcase finish him off. He swung it up and its hard, reinforced steel edge caught the biker in his forehead, snapped him upright. As his eyes rolled back in his head, Bob saw he was out on his feet, so he shoved him backward into the next two bikers behind him before they could react. As he waded into them, he remembered Napoleon’s old maxim, “Audacity, audacity, always audacity!”
The next one in line was Jethro, the one holding the ball peen hammer. He found himself struggling to shove Gomer aside and stay on his feet at the same time. Still, a hammer could be an extremely nasty weapon, as Bob well knew, and he had no intention of letting him use it again.
“You’re the moron who broke my window, aren’t you?” Bob asked. “Like I said, that’ll be $200.”
With an angry snarl, Jethro drew the ball-peen back, intending to bring it down on the top of Bob’s head. Like his pal, however, he was way too slow to pull that off. He was still turned, with his arm at the end of a long back swing and his neck fully exposed, when Bob sprang into the air and executed a perfect “Mae Tobi Geri” karate flying kick. The hard edge of his leather boot sole caught the biker flush in the throat and shattered his larynx, ending his night. Gasping for air, the biker’s hands went to his neck and the hammer went flying as he stumbled backward into the next clown in line behind him.
So far, Bob had used a simple street fighting move followed by a high-level karate kick to disable the first two, but things were still a bit crowded between the trucks. The next in line was the big mouth who told Jethro to “shut him up.” He was the smallest of the bunch, and Bob figured that made him the “Leader of the Pack.” At least he was smart enough to quit playing with the Tahoe’s door, rip the Slim Jim out with both hands, and turn to face Bob. As he did, Jethro’s ball peen hammer hit him flush on the shin bone. “Ah! Ah!” he screamed, wide-eyed, grabbed his leg, and began hopping around. However, with two of his men already lying at his feet, that wasn’t a good idea either.
“You bastard, you bastard!” Slim Jim screamed at Burke as it finally dawned on him that this night’s hijinks weren’t quite going according to plan.
“Be careful you don’t let your mouth get your ass in more trouble,” Bob warned.
The long, thin, blade of a Slim Jim wasn’t designed to cut, but in the right hands and with enough angry malice behind it, it probably could. Still, grimacing, the biker managed to get it in a two-handed baseball grip, regain his balance, and swing it at Burke like a scythe. Bob had continued moving forward, intending to finish this guy off, but he was quicker than Bob expected. He managed to pull back at the last second as the blade whistled past, missing him, but slicing through his shirt. Bob felt a sharp stinging across his chest, but that wasn’t enough to stop him. The biker’s follow-through left him over-extended and fully exposed, so Bob stepped in, dropped his left elbow on the biker’s clavicle, and snapped his collar bone. Without pausing, he smashed the elbow into the guy’s face, flattening his nose like a ripe banana and driving him backward.
Three down and one to go, Bob thought as he turned on the last biker at the end of the queue. “You’re next, Lem,” he told him. This one appeared to be no more intelligent than the other three, but he had more time to see what was headed his way. The biker reached behind for the rear waistband of his blue jeans, where he had a blue-steel Desert Eagle .357-magnum semi-automatic hidden under his vest. The Desert Eagle was a huge and very heavy handgun. It was the perfect choice, if you want to clear-out a bar-full of Hell’s Angels, stop a charging rhino, or intimidate some little guy in dark, airport parking lot. However, given what the biker was actually facing, something smaller and lighter would have been a wiser choice. The night air was warm, his hands were sweaty from trying to break into the trucks, and he snagged the tall front sight of the Desert Eagle in his underwear. Boxers or briefs? That didn’t “make no never mind.” His confidence vanished as he frantically pushed and pulled on the big handgun, finally managing to rip it free. Unfortunately, by the time he did, Bob had picked up Jethro’s Slim Jim from the pavement and brought it around in a short, compact swing, like Derek Jeter punching a hard line drive into the hole between third and short. Speed translates into power. The thin blade slashed Lem across his chest, arm, and shoulder, slicing through his pectoral, deltoid, and bicep muscles, and cutting them to the bone.
The biker screamed and the muscles in his arm, hand, and fingers must have involuntarily contracted, because the.357-Magnum went off with a thundering Blam! The barrel must have still been pointing down after he ripped loose from his pants, because the bullet ricocheted off the concrete and caught him in his own thigh. His grip on the heavy automatic failed, and he dropped it on the pavement, where he soon joined it and his other three pals, screaming and moaning.
It’s never a good idea to leave temptation lying around, Bob thought as he picked up the big automatic, bent down, and pressed it against the biker’s forehead. Through the pain, the guy’s eyes went wide cross-eyed as he found himself looking up the wrong end of the barrel of the Desert Eagle.
“You know, Lem,” Bob spoke to him in a calm voice. “This is a pretty nasty handgun to go pulling on strangers. Nobody’d blame me very much if I put a few more holes and you, just for spite, but I’m not gonna do that. I figure the one in your leg is going to keep you limping around rehab for a good long while. When you get out, though, you might consider finding another line of work, ‘cause you ain’t very damned good at this one.”
Looking around at the others, two of them were clearly headed for the hospital, but big Gomer, the first one he put down, was already shaking his head and trying to get back up on his hands and knees. Other than a broken nose, a badly dented forehead, and no doubt some very painful testicles, he was becoming ambulatory and a viable threat again. “Can’t have that, now can we?” Bob asked as he took the .357 by the barrel, swung it around and cracked Gomer on the side of the head. He went back down again like a sack of potatoes.
Not one to leave a job finished, and still pissed about the window of his truck, he turned back to the fourth biker and asked, “Okay, Lem, who are you punks? Outlaws? Pagans? Maybe the Warlocks? I sure hope your local chapter has some good health insurance, ‘cause you guys are gonna need it.” Looking up, he saw their four Harleys, mostly old, heavily-chromed, chopped down, street hogs standing in the next aisle. Two were 750s, one was a 500, and one was a big old monster with so many modifications that Bob couldn’t tell what it started out as. The Desert Eagle held a nine-round magazine, which meant he had eight shots left; so he stepped closer and fired two quick ones into the round, chrome plates, which covered the carburetors on the four bikes. That should do it, he thought. Those hogs were now dead pigs. They weren’t going anywhere, except to the shop for an engine rebuild.
As he turned and headed back to his truck, he realized the loud cannon shots were certain to draw some unwanted official company. Using his shirt tail, he wiped his fingerprints off the grip and trigger of the now empty Desert Eagle and tossed it under the Tahoe, well out of the biker’s reach. As he passed, he tapped Lem in his bad leg with the toe of his boot. The biker groaned again as Bob told him, “Next time, try Chapel Hill, or give the Dookies a try over in Durham, because you’re way out of your league down here. If I ever see you again in Fayetteville, you won’t even limp away. You got that?”
He turned away, retrieved his computer case, and opened the driver side door of the Ford 150, knowing it was time to vanish. He brushed the broken glass off his seat, started the engine and quickly backed out of the parking space, not particularly caring if any arms, legs, or random biker body parts were in the way. The parking lot’s lone exit was at the far end. As he got closer, he could see the gate was down and the shed was manned. He pulled up to the window, reached up for his parking ticket, which he always tucked behind the visor, and handed it to the attendant with two $20s. As the old guy in the booth ran the ticket, he kept looking back to his left, staring nervously into the dark parking lot.
“Say,” the attendant finally asked, “You didn’t hear no gunshots back there, did you?”
Bob turned, followed the attendant’s eyes, and shrugged. “You know; I suppose that’s what it could have been. There’s a bunch of bikers back there on Harleys, so I gave them a wide berth.”
“Yeah, I wish I could,” the attendant replied nervously as he handed Bob his credit card and the receipt, still not sure.
“If I were you, I’d if I were you, call the cops and let them handle it,” Bob advised as he drove away into the night with a thin smile on his lips.
Never one to go looking for a fight, every now and then, it’s nice to know you’ve still got it, he thought. Still, what he wanted more than anything else right now was a life of dull, boring, peace and quiet. After all, that’s why he moved back down to North Carolina in the first place.
On the Turkish-Syrian Border
The only times in his life when Professor Henry Stimson Shaw felt this hot, filthy, and utterly exhausted was during those two miserable years he spent in the goddamned Marine Corps. The first year was at Parris Island, South Carolina, and the second was when he trudged around An Bar Province in western Iraq with a seventy-pound pack on his back. Somehow, he managed to survive both, before the Marines threw him out, but he was only nineteen then. He was thirty-five now, and he should have known not to try a long trip in the desert in the brutal heat of summer. Been there, done that. The next time he decided to turn traitor, he’d wait until winter. This time, he had no choice.
Shaw was his usual rude, brash self when he snuck out of his hotel in Sanliafa at 4:30 a.m. that morning. And why not? The air seemed almost cool and pleasant. By noon, the temperature had risen to well-over 120 degrees out on the desert floor, broiling the last of the snarky arrogance out of him. And the worst of the day was still to come. What did they call it? A dry heat? That was a joke, Shaw cursed. It wasn’t that he hadn’t made previous academic research trips to Turkey, but they were to the high plains and mountains of eastern Turkey, not in the southern desert where the summer sun could fry a man’s brain. Shaw was daring desert heat in a dangerous attempt to sneak into northern Syria and join the ranks of ISIS. His goal was to find the Caliph and fight at his side in the battle around Raqqah. Insane? No doubt about it, he laughed to himself.
When he landed at the Ankara airport in central Turkey four days before, he was met in the International Arrivals terminal by his Turkish guide, Galip Terzi, his driver on previous trips. Terzi had an old Fiat, which was just large enough for Shaw’s suitcase, a box of research books, and his papers. As soon as his things were stowed in the trunk, they drove away, heading for a string of Azari and Kurdish villages in southeast Turkey. Those displaced minorities were Shaw’s area of study, and he had made precisely this same trip three times before. That should have satisfied the Turkish immigration and customs clerks. After all, his passport, visa, and government permits were all legitimate and in proper order. This time, however, there seem to be double the usual number of uniformed officials in the arrivals hall, who spent an inordinate amount of time grilling him and every other foreigner passing through, scrutinizing their documents and searching their luggage. Worse still, it was being performed under the watchful eyes of a dozen or more stout, scowling, secret police agents, easy to spot in their cheap, baggy suits and ugly ties.
Obviously, the Turks had ramped-up their security with the war against ISIS going on across the border in Syria. Too little, too late, Shaw concluded with a self-satisfied smile as they let him pass through. In his blue jeans, top-of-the-line Vasque hiking boots, open-collared polo shirt, Carolina Panthers baseball hat, and Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses, the Turkish secret police would figure him for another stupid American, not some adventurer trying to sneak south into Syria and join ISIS.
As Galip sped away from the airport, Shaw glanced in the rear window and saw a, boxy, Turkish-made sedan following them, trying to catch up. The two men in the front seat had almost identical black hair, thick black mustaches, and cheap suits. Obviously, they were agents of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization, the Millî İstihbarat Teşkilatı, or MİT, because no one else would buy a hideous car like that except the government. But Shaw figured they hadn’t singled him out. If they had, there would be more than just one car following him. With the ongoing battles with ISIS to the south, border spats with the Russians in the north, and the decades-old war with the Kurds in the east, any foreigner heading anywhere but west, toward the Roman and Christian ruins and tourist enclaves along the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts, would immediately draw their attention, as he had, because the Turks were nailing the doors shut all along the border.
As the sun set on the fourth day, they finally reached the town of Sanliurfa in south-central Turkey, where his traveling costume and plans were about to take a radical shift to the left. At 4:30 the next morning he left his suitcase, his books and papers, and $1,000 in cash with Terzi in the hotel, tossed a small rucksack over his shoulder, and slipped out the rear door. In the dark alley behind the hotel, a grizzled old Turkmeni driver and his Toyota pickup truck were waiting, as arranged. The two MIT agents had been forced to split up when he checked in. One was now asleep on a couch in the lobby, while the other was doing the same in the driver’s seat of their car parked out front. Watching or not, the old man shoved Shaw and his backpack in a smuggler’s compartment under a pile of vegetables in the rear bed of the truck, and quickly drove out of town.
Raqqah lay far to the south in Syria on the Euphrates River. Rather than take Highway 6 straight down, the old man set off on a series of ancient smuggler trails that snaked through the hills and rocky desert. By the time the sun came up, they were twenty miles away from Sanliurfa and the two sleeping MIT agents, so the old man pulled off the road and dug Shaw out from under the veggies. The American was fluent in Arabic, which worked almost anywhere in the Middle East, but not on this guy. He was an ancient Turkmen with wrinkled, tobacco-brown skin, a hawk nose, and a full, white beard, who only spoke an antiquated form of Anatolian Turkish found in the remote mountain villages much further east and south. Shaw also knew bits and pieces of Kurmanji, Armenian, Azari, and even some Bedawi. When he tried them on the driver, all he got in return was another blank stare.
The driver stepped in front of Shaw, hands on hips, and studied the young American from head to foot. From his expression, he wasn’t pleased with what he saw. Shaw still wore his blue jeans, but he had left his American shirt and hiking boots in the hotel and put on a flowing, peasant-style dishdasha coverall, sandals, and dark Ray-Ban sunglasses. Apparently, that wasn’t good enough. There was a pile of rags in the back of the truck. The old man reached inside and pulled out a long, filthy strip of cloth, which he shook up and down, producing an appalling cloud of dirt and dust. Shaw realized it was a shemagh or keffiyeh, the traditional three-and-a-half-long Arab scarf, and the old man intended to wrap it around the American’s head, which pleased him to no end. Once upon a time, the scarf may have been white, but now it was a splotchy-brown. Before Shaw could stop him, he began wrapping the long, filthy piece of cloth around Shaw’s head.
“Peachy, just peachy,” Shaw muttered to himself as the old Turkman finished. He tried in vain to tuck Shaw’s shoulder-length blonde hair up under the scarf, but for every strand of hair he managed to push under the keffiyeh, another fell out. Finally, he gave up and wrapped the scarf around one more time, covering Shaw’s forehead down to the eyebrows. No doubt the old bastard would have covered his nose and mouth too, completely smothering him, if Shaw let him, which he didn’t. Instead, he finally pushed him away. The old man pointed at him, cursing and threatening, but Shaw was adamant. He was already dying of the heat, and covering the rest of his face would completely do him in.
Scarf or no scarf, the old man then pointed to the filthy, rough-wool kaftan lying on the car seat. It was the standard peasant outer garment, and he must have thought it would let Shaw blend with the locals. Him? Blend in with them? If that was the plan, it was hopeless from the start. Shaw relented and put the kaftan on, but the old man wasn’t finished. He cornered Shaw against the truck and began rubbing a greasy, brown cocoa stain into the pale skin on his face, neck, and hands. Like the shemagh and the kaftan, this skin dye was a joke, Shaw thought. His eyes were a bright, riveting blue. If he took off the dark Ray-Bans, he’d be marked as a foreigner for sure, so the best he could hope was that the border guards wouldn’t look too closely. If they did, he hoped there wouldn’t be too many of them.
Before the old man came up with any other big ideas, Shaw jumped into the passenger seat and closed the door. The old man gave up, started the truck, and resumed the trek down the rutted cart path. They hadn’t gone a hundred yards before a sharp upholstery spring started jabbing him in the ass every time they hit a rock or pothole, and choking clouds of dust blew in the window. Shaw pulled out his handkerchief and tried to find the last clean spot. As he did, the old man chuckled and turned his face away. He pressed a finger against the side of his nose and with a hacking snort, he cleared his nose by blowing snot through the open window. He then wiped his nose on the sleeve of the kaftan and turned back toward the American with a toothy, mocking grin, which Shaw interpreted to mean, “Handkerchief? I don’t need no stinking handkerchief!” Shaw looked back at him, nodded, turned towards his own open window, and did the same, turning back to the old goat and flipping him the bird. The old man’s face broke into a toothy grin and the two men laughed at each other.
When Professor Henry Shaw decided to make this trip, he hadn’t been hit with a stupid stick. He had a plan. First, he converted to a virulent brand of Wahhabi Islam six months before. Of course, anyone who really knew him knew the only thing Henry Shaw believed in was Henry Shaw; but it was a carefully calculated means to an end — reaching Raqqah and getting in to speak to the Caliph, the leader of ISIS. Once he pushed through that door, he had contrived the perfect angle to get the Caliph’s attention and let him join their frontline fighters. That was how he would build his own radical resume. Maybe they’d even let him cut off some heads? That wasn’t likely, but when he got back home, maybe he’d put a long knife to the Head of the Sociology Department. Then they wouldn’t ignore him, not at Blue Ridge College and not at Chicago. He would be the poster boy for radical causes, and no one would ever ignore him again. No one!
As the old man settled in and concentrated on the road, Shaw pretended to do the same. He slipped his hand inside the rucksack. Shielding it with his other arm, he pulled out a Walther PPK 7.65 semi-automatic and hid it in the abundant folds of keffiyeh. A few minutes later, he reached into the pack again and found the handle of an old Marine Corps K-bar knife. Galip Terzi, who drove him from the airport had brought him the Walther and the “8 knife, which quickly disappeared up his left sleeve. He might be a PhD sociology professor, Shaw thought with a thin smile, but some old Marine Corps habits died harder than others.
His PhD was in the people and cultures of the Arab Middle East, a subject he got interested in while he served in Iraq in ’06. Nothing much stuck back then, other than too many beers and bar fights that led to a Bad Conduct Discharge. What the hell; he thought the Marines had a better sense of humor than that. After all, the guy he decked was Army, albeit a Captain. After working construction for six months, he decided college might be easier and enrolled at UCLA. He gravitated to sociology, because it was easy and because there were twice as many girls as guys, and focused on the Middle East, because he could fake it. Sociology professors were so left-wing ideological that it was child’s play to tell them what they wanted. In graduate school it was even easier because he was one of them. He focused on “the troubled national minorities in eastern and southern Turkey,” which meant the Armenians and Kurds, because no one else was even remotely interested in them. He quickly discovered that there were hundreds of wealthy emigres from those two nationalities living in Los Angeles, which gave him access to a wide variety of private loans and grants, to some great parties in Brentwood, and to all the coke he could snort. Scamming the system and telling people what they wanted to hear had become second nature to him by then, so after an equally soft Master’s Degree at Harvard, he was ready to take on the most dominant paragon in the field, the University of Chicago, where he ran into a politically incorrect wall.
Shaw had made a half-dozen research trips to this region over the past eight years. He knew all the angles, the jargon, the politically correct phrases, and had the cold academic conscience of hitman. Still, his papers were dismissed by the “Gods of East 59th Street” as “simplistic in their approach,” “inadequate in their treatment,” “tied to an unfortunate Western cultural bias,” and “sadly lacking in groundbreaking insights.” Shaw on the other hand thought his work was brilliant. After all, he had parroted back to them every buzz word, invented statistic, and bit of useless data he could make up. Who were those old phonies to say it was ‘inadequate?’
Unfortunately, within the rarefied atmosphere of American academia, sociology had drifted further and further to the left, from merely liberal and “progressive” to the unabashedly radical. Reality meant nothing, and he knew the comments from the Chicago faculty on his work had nothing to do with his research, his findings, or anything he could put on paper. What they meant was that his hair was too blonde, his eyes too blue, and his skin too white. He could never be politically correct enough, anti-Western enough, or anti-American enough to appease the dominant clique now running the department with an iron philosophical fist. Nonetheless, their labels and whispers completely derailed his well-planned academic career. He was blacklisted from faculty openings at even mid-rank universities, stuck on a treadmill of non-tenured positions at backwater start-ups.
His most recent position was at Blue Ridge College in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he attempted to teach wealthy prep-school kids whose daddies couldn’t get them admitted anywhere else. Most thought those exotic-sounding countries in the Middle East were imaginary, and Hogwarts was real. Most of his night students, on the other hand, were soldiers from nearby Fort Bragg. At least had seen the Third World “up close and personal,” and knew firsthand the damage the American military machine was doing around the world. Finally, he had to put up with young, angry Arab students, who would stretch their American student visas into the next century and never return home if they could. They read nothing, studied nothing, and spent their time in the basement of the student union arguing Arab politics and resenting his attempts to teach them anything about the Middle East. They took one look at his courses and flocked to them, expecting effortless A’s. When he actually made them to work, they ran to the department head, screaming discrimination. Inadequate results? Simplistic? Tied to an unfortunate Western perspective? Not quite radical enough? They would soon see what radical was!
This trip was being funded by a three-year UNESCO research grant titled, “Disruptions in the Patriarchal Ethnocentric Cultures of the Azari, Armenian, and Kurdish Cultures in Eastern Anatolia and the Armenian Highlands of East-Central Turkey.” The subject was pure bullshit of course, but sufficiently obscure that only a handful of other academics who were “gaming” the system like he was would understand. However, that wasn’t why he came. The arrogant, culturally ignorant UNESCO bureaucrats in Paris who doled out their lucrative research grants couldn’t possibly understand. The time had come for him to step up, join ISIS, and take his place on the front lines outside Raqqah, Syria, its political capital and wartime headquarters, and UNESCO was footing the bill.
Raqqah was located sixty miles south of the Turkish border on the Euphrates River in Syria, at the crosshairs of every fighter bomber and cruise missile the Crusaders could throw at it. Shaw knew full well that trying to get there was exceedingly dangerous if not suicidal. He had to pass through an open war zone contested by ISIS, the Syrian Army, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Russian tanks and their elite Speznaz troops, Kurds, Turks, a dozen different opposition militias, not to mention gangs of roving bandits. If he hadn’t received help from “friends of friends” in Raqqah, he would never have tried at this time.
Looking around the rocky, utterly barren countryside, it was hard to imagine why anyone would fight over it. Central and northern Turkey and the Euphrates River valley in Syria and Iraq were reasonably hospitable, but the flat, arid, landscape in between resembled the far side of the moon. Not even a chicken, a goat, or a cactus could live here. Like the rugged Zagros Mountain chain in western Iran, maybe God put them there as buffers between people who just flat hated each other. There was no other explanation he could think of.
It was only 2:00 p.m., and already sweltering inside the cab. High in the sky to the south he saw the white contrails of jet fighters. One of ISIS’s many enemies, no doubt, which told him they’d finally crossed into Syria. Excellent! As the road turned left, the old driver reached into the door-well and pulled out an old pottery water bottle. He pulled out the cork, took a drink, and passed the bottle to Shaw. By then, he was so thirsty he’d accept almost anything, and took several deep swallows of the bitter, foul tasting water. Dysentery or a Russian bullet? Some choice, he thought, as he handed the bottle back and watched as the old man had the nerve to wipe the mouth of the bottle on his filthy sleeve before he put it up to his mouth for another drink. If he had a gun, he’d have shot the old bastard right then and there.
The rough track turned again, before it suddenly ran down a steep hill that disappeared into a rocky ravine. At the bottom, it snaked left around a hill, where they came face-to-face with a battered Russian Ural-375 flatbed army truck and a squad of Syrian soldiers. Their uniforms were badly worn and none of them appeared to have shaved or washed in days. They didn’t look like much, nor did they appear to be very enthusiastic about being here. Half of them were sleeping up in the truck bed, while the others sat on the rocks or leaned on their rifles, all except their burly sergeant, who stood in the middle of the road, legs spread, with his AK-47 pointed at the Toyota truck as it came around the bend.
The old man quickly stopped in front of the Sergeant and motioned for Shaw to sit back and relax, as he sat the water jug on the seat between them. Fat, mustachioed, and arrogant, the Syrian sergeant pulled back the bolt on his automatic rifle and sauntered around to the driver’s side door, and motioned for two of his men to back him up near the driver’s side door. He poked his AK-47 in the window, as several other men ran around back and began to rummage through the vegetables in the rear truck bed. The old man smiled, pulled a wrinkled set of papers from his pocket, and handed them to the sergeant. It was unlikely either man could read, but they both went through the motions, pointing at the papers, and using as many hand gestures as words. Meanwhile, the men in back began tossing melons and fruit to the others in the truck, who also came running over, unarmed, pulling out their shirts, and make baskets to carry away an assortment of cucumbers, cabbages, and dates, probably the first fresh food they’d seen in days.
After more bargaining, the old truck driver shrugged, took his papers back, and reached inside his kaftan. He pulled out a small roll of Turkish money, counted out several bills, and handed them to the sergeant, which appeared to conclude matters. The big Syrian shoved the money in his shirt pocket; but rather than walk away, he glanced across at Shaw, and it soon became clear he wasn’t quite finished with them yet. There was no telling what he had seen or suspected, but he walked around to the passenger side and stuck his head in the window, his face only inches from the American’s.
Shaw flinched. He doubted the big Syrian had bathed, washed his clothes, or brushed his teeth in a week or more, and the mix of odors were enough to make him gag. With a suspicious grunt, the sergeant reached inside and touched Shaw’s nose with his index finger, wiping off some of the skin dye, then pulled the Ray-Ban sunglasses down, revealing Shaw’s bright-blue eyes. He then shouted something to the others and shoved the barrel of his AK-47 through the open window. Shaw didn’t wait. He grabbed the water bottle off the seat with his left hand and smashed it into the sergeant’s head, while grabbing the rifle barrel with his right. The sergeant stumbled backward and released his grip on the AK-47, as Shaw reached inside his kaftan for the Walther PPK. In one smooth movement, he extended it in front of the old man’s nose and out the driver’s side window, firing twice at the two armed Syrians the sergeant had posted there. They were still fumbling with their rifles as they each went down with a bullet in the center the chest. Before they hit the ground, Shaw had dropped the Walther on the seat and was out the door with the sergeant’s AK-47. With both hands now free, he fired a quick series of three-shot bursts at the four Syrians who had remained up in the bed of their own truck. Shaw fired from the hip, just as they taught him to do at Parris Island all those years before, and he didn’t miss. Nice to know he hadn’t lost the touch, he thought.
Those four Syrians went down hard, falling over the side or dropping in the truck bed before they could get to their own rifles. As they did, Shaw turned around toward the three who had been picking through the veggies in the back of the Toyota. The AK-47’s magazine had a capacity of 30 rounds, but he wasn’t the one who loaded it and the last thing he wanted to do was rely on the fat sergeant. The three remaining Syrians were already jumping off the back of the Toyota and running, so Shaw brought the Russian rifle up to his shoulder for a series of single shots. It took him five rounds to drop the three soldiers, but he continued to advance to the back of the truck and shot each of them in the head with another round to make sure they didn’t get back up. The fourth time he pulled the trigger, it clicked empty.
Figures, Shaw thought as he tossed the empty AK-47 aside. Still, not too shabby, old man, not too shabby, he smiled to himself. As he turned around, he saw that the Syrian sergeant had already gotten to his feet behind him. Wobbling back and forth, the man was bleeding from a bad cut on his forehead, where Shaw hit him with the water bottle. Wiping the blood from his eyes, he saw the rest of his squad lying dead around the two trucks and the skinny, blue-eyed bastard who did it walking towards him. The sergeant growled, lowered his head, and charged, intending to tear him apart with his bare hands.
Shaw was surprised at how fast the fat Syrian could move. Shaw took a step back, but the man was on him in seconds. He had Shaw by at least six inches and a hundred pounds, and his size and momentum quickly drove Shaw backward. As the Syrian grabbed for Shaw’s throat, he reached inside his kaftan for the Walther, only to remember he had dropped it on the front seat of the truck. As he was falling backward, Shaw managed to get his hand on the hilt of the K-bar knife he had the hidden up his left sleeve. As the Syrian got his hands around his throat, Shaw pulled the 8-inchknife out far enough to get it upright between himself and the big Syrian as he crashed down on top of him. The impact knocked the wind out of Shaw, but with their faces only inches apart, he saw the effect was much worse on the sergeant.
The Syrian’s eyes went wide as a loud, painful groan escaped his lips and he rolled off Shaw. The American lay there for a moment, gasping for breath, before he turned his head to the side and saw the Syrian lying next to him, dead, with the leather-wrapped handle of the K-bar knife sticking out under his ribs. Slowly, Shaw managed to roll over, get to his knees, and get to his feet. He stepped on the Syrian’s chest with one foot, grabbed the handle of the knife, and use all his strength to yank it back out. With the bloody knife dangling from his right hand, he reached back down with his left and pulled the Turkish money out of the Syrian’s shirt pocket. He wasn’t going to leave any clues behind that could tell who had passed through here this morning. Finally, he turned and looked around at the small, body-laden battleground. He had no idea whether the Syrians had a radio in the truck, or whether they were expecting relief or a chow truck anytime soon, but he wasn’t going to wait and find out.
Shaw quickly strode back to the passenger side door of the Toyota, reached inside, and picked up the Walther PPK pistol off the seat. As he did, he glanced across at the old man. He was sitting wide-eyed, staring out the front windshield with both hands on the steering wheel in a white-knuckled death grip, clearly in shock from having the pistol go off twice right in front of his nose. There was no sense wasting any time trying to talk to him, Shaw thought, as he stepped around the front of the Toyota, checking the magazine in the Walther. It held seven .380 ACP rounds and five were left. He still had the knife, and intended to leave no witnesses to tell the tale as to who or what happened here. He walked over to the two he had shot through the truck window. Neither were moving, but he shot them both in the head to make sure. Of the four men lying around the Russian truck, two were clearly dead, and he used the K-bar knife to slit the throats of the other two, ending that risk as well. Finally, he looked at the Sergeant and the three men lying behind the Toyota, but they were also dead.
Satisfied, Shaw walked back to the driver’s side door of the Toyota and saw the old Turkman was still in no condition to drive. Shaw nudged him and finally got him to move over to the passenger seat. As he did, Shaw pulled off the heavy kaftan. Enough was enough, he decided, as he wiped the blood off his knife blade on its rough material and tossed it in the back of the truck as he got behind the wheel. He ground the reluctant transmission into low gear, pressed the gas pedal to the floor, and bounced away from the Syrian checkpoint into the flat, featureless desert beyond. The rutted dirt road began flatten out, enough to let him pick up speed. Two hours later, Shaw saw a hazy, brown cloud of dust on the far horizon, crisscrossed by white contrails in the sky, and what looked like dim flashes of light.
“Bombs,” the old man said as he pointed a brown, wrinkled finger toward the horizon.
Raqqah, Shaw thought. They had at least thirty more miles to go before they reached the city, and he was physically and mentally exhausted. That was far too dangerous to continue on in daylight, so he turned off the rutted track and parked the small truck in the shade of a large rock in a dry streambed. “Here,” he muttered to the old man. “Until night… until night.” Shaw stared at him and thought the old man finally understood.
This was one hell of a day, he thought; but for the first time in years, he knew precisely where he was and what he was doing. This wasn’t like that bullshit war in Iraq he never understood, nor was it some phony research trip. In the morning, he would meet with Abu Bakr al-Zaeim, the Caliph, the Guide, and the Leader of ISIS, and join the other “True Believers” on the battle lines of Islam. He had the perfect story to tell them about why he came, one even they would believe. And now, with the old man as a witness, he could add some legitimate fighting credentials. After all, he had just wiped out a Syrian squad single-handedly, hadn’t he? He closed his eye, imagining the “selfie” he would take once he got there, with his arm around the Caliph and an AK-47 held high over his head. Then he could return to the University of Chicago triumphant, look their faculty members in the eye, and sneer at them for a change.