© Dante O'Donnell
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These SF guys sure knew how to break a man.
They were well trained in interrogation and torture.
They had the tools: threats/intimidation/sensory deprivation/sexual humiliation/starvation/violence. All techniques honed to perfection in the last few weeks on these Iraqi prisoners.
This one, the squat, vigorous Ali Mansur Nasad, was one tough son of a bitch. Two days full bore--still no breakthrough.
They had him bare-ass naked. Zip-cuffed to a wooden chair.
Mansur’s CV: a mid-ranked soldier—former Republican Guard. Old school tough. Lowball, but linked to General Shalah, the Jack of Hearts. Most of these rag heads gave off tough guy vibes, full of the pretence of protecting the mother country, but when the SF boys got out the black rubber gloves they caved in quick smart.
This fellah was a little different.
He had the hero’s eye gleam—the defiant way of not speaking but saying it all with those dark, hooded eyes. Those eyes were bloodshot and tired, but they still glinted with a big fuck you to the troops.
Still-after two days SF guy sensed Mansur was on the brink.
“You need to start talking soon, son.” The American said. “Or this is gonna go real bad for you.”
The translator rattled off in Arabic—hands doing as much of the talking as his lips.
Mansur closed his eyes and smiled. Head bowed.
The SF guy got close enough to smell this chump’s goat shit breath, “You will tell us where the WMD are situated. We know you’re running safe houses for General Shalah, we know you’re holding Intel on those goddamn chemical sites. You will start talking, son, or there is an almighty shit storm on its way directly to your door. Are you hearing me, soldier?”
The SF guy twisted Mansur’s ear—TIGHT.
“I still can’t hear you, boy.”
Mansur grimaced, “Want information?”
“Shit fire and save the match, son, that’s what we’ve been jawing about these last two days.”
“I give site.” Mansur said. “I tell you.”
“That so?” The SF guy’s tongue tucked in his cheek, “Five seconds ago, you didn’t speakee no English. So what you gotta say now, boy?”
“I will not speak name.”
The SF guy rolled his eyes-here we fucking go again.
“Untie hand, I will write it.”
The SF guy snorted.
He looked at the Translator—is this guy for real?
The Translator nodded.
“Tell your boy this, just so it don’t get lost in translation,” The SF guy eyeballed Mansur, “You even think about coming at me or Abdul here with a pen I will tear you a new asshole, get me?”
Mansur held his gaze. The SF guy looked away first.
"Okay," The SF guy said, “Tell him, Abdul.”
The SF guy nodded to the gawky SPF guarding the door. Paper and pen—go fetch. The gopher came back and dropped the stationery on the scarred table top.
The guard yanked the prisoner upright. He snipped Mansur’s wrist locks. Mansur shook blood back into his fingers, then took up the pen.
He wrote quickly in a sloping hand.
Mansur pushed the paper back across the desk and smiled.
“I gotta ask, Sir: how good is this Intel?”
“Rock solid--as of 0600 today, Chief” The radio crackled.
Warrant Chief McGill sniffed, “Sir, I’ve spent the last week chasing a rolling donut out here, is all. Every site we’ve seen has been a blow out.”
“It’s human Intel, Chief. It’s a real breakthrough, they’re saying. You got the grid references?”
“We’re good to go, Sir.”
“I want some smiling faces on CNN, Mac.”
“If they’re there, we’ll find them.”
“Then God speed, son. And do it to them before they do it to you.”
The radio crackled and died.
The morning dust storms left the air with an ochre hue. It was hot working on stifling.
McGill lifted his sun glasses reviewed the packet information. The grid references told him this hot WMD site was fifteen klicks outside the city walls—an Iraqi rush hour pending, they’d have to convoy through town to get there. The roads in the city were gridlocked and potential sniper hot spots—plus just after noon the water trucks arrived and the locals went stone fucking nuts once the well ran dry.
Chief McGill ran a specialist WMD crew in the 89th. The unit were split into several small ground command teams with a directive to seek and secure suspected biological, chemical or radiological weapons. Their abiding mission: find and secure WMD for show and tell on Fox News.
“We gotta run that gauntlet, Chief?” Scotty Appleton asked clutching the HumVee’s steering wheel and staring at the map.
“We got a choice?”
“Let’s do lunch on the Strip?”
“Let’s go, Scotty.”
“Sitting ducks—” And whatever else he had to say was drowned out by the roar of the engine.
A high noon fender bender on Baiji Main Street—a three way cross road blocked with argumentative locals. Chaos reigned. A three way shunt—an old, two tone corrosion Datsun with a displaced nearside wheel immobile at the centre of the melee.
“What’s the hold up?” McGill asked from the vehicle.
Their platoon sergeant Voigt was bringing up the rear. The point guys were isolated.
PFCs Conrad and Hosea ran point—sent to clear the way for the convoy. Both men had weapons ready. The entire crew were antsy. This junction was perfect sniper territory—full on triangulation.
This was Salahuddin Province, north of Baghdad. Plenty of counter insurgency activity in this 65 mile square area west of the Tigris. Read: enemy territory.
McGill leant out, “Conrad, gimme a Sit Rep.”
Conrad trotted back looking hot and flustered— “Jibber jabber, Chief. Looks like the guy in Datsun rear ended a school bus—”
“I don’t need an eye in the sky report, Conrad. We gotta get booking. Get ‘em moving, son.”
An raggedy old Iraqi hoved into view. He was hobbling, gabbling manically and radioactively pissed at something. He railed at the Chief, at anyone who would listen.
“Who’s this geek?” McGill asked.
From the top of the MRAP PFC Rooney yelled down, “Something about his kid—grandkid, maybe.” Rooney was semi-Arabic fluent and kept a phrase book handy for crazy situations like this.
Rooney rattled off some soothing words in Arabic.
The old Iraqi waved a fist—up yours, GI Joe.
McGill got out. The sun was blistering—dust choked him. The crowd was rabble working on pandemonium.
“Careful, Chief.” Scotty cautioned.
“Where’s the kid at?” McGill shouted up to Rooney, “Irish, tell him to show me.”
Rooney whirled the gun turret and shouted at the old Iraqi man—the old geezer eyed McGill and saw his rank, smiled toothlessly, and beckoned him to follow.
They pushed through the irate crowd. The crowd bayed and booed. Shoulder barges and surly looks. It was pure pantomime—with an under current of true menace. This crowd could blow. McGill saw the kid on the ground, small for his age but surely no more than ten, sporting a nasty gash on his forehead—the wound was still bleeding.
“Get him a medic.” McGill told Conrad.
“Do we got time for this, Chief?” Conrad surveyed the gathering crowd, clocked the surrounding buildings, watched for the flash of rifle glints- none yet.
“I said get a medic, soldier.”
Conrad waved and signed. The medic was on his way.
The crowd got a little braver—a one legged man hopped nose to nose with Hosea, shouting and pointing in his face.
“I got a bad feeling about this.” Rooney said to no-one in particular.
The medic hunkered down. He wiped the blood off the kid’s head and smeared on some Vaseline to stem the flow. The boy winced. Grandpas stood guard, beaming proudly—look what I’ve made them do.
“Patch him up and let’s get the fuck out of Dodge, Peters.” McGill said.
“’Sbad scrape, Chief. Two minutes, I’m done.”
The medic applied a big band aid to the boy’s forehead. The contrast was apparent, dark skin and eyes versus white bandage. Peters held up some fingers to check for concussion.
The crowd noise went up a notch. Something felt plain wrong. It all vibed ambush/trap/trick.
The het up crowd ambled like horror movie zombies.
“Check this dude out,” Hosea said, “Three O’clock—kid with the acne. Sweating like a rapist.”
McGill looked up. There he was—a sweaty teenager wearing an overcoat in hundred degree heat.
“Where’s Voigt at?” McGill asked.
“Gridlocked in the MRA-” Conrad said.
The kid reached right into his coat.
“Gun!” Hosea yelled.
The kid pulled out a grenade—left forefinger on the pin.
Hosea aimed and fired in one slick move—the back of the kid’s head splattered on the Datsun’s wind shield. The crowd cowered, screamed and ran—aimlessly, all directions, anywhere for explosion cover.
McGill crouched by the school bus wheel—Rooney pin-wheeled the gun turret ready to open fire on the crowd.
“Rooney—stay calm.” McGill shouted. “Hold your fire.”
“The body, Chief?” Conrad shouted. "The body?"
“Check it. Hosea, you’re cover.”
Conrad booked for the dead teenager. Hosea pin wheeled, eyes peeled for an onslaught, rifle locked and loaded—adrenalin flowing.
Conrad saw the grenade. The pin was out. The grenade was held tight in the punk’s right hand. The pin dangled from his left forefinger.
“Grenade’s live.” Hosea shouted back to the crew.
“Don’t you touch him, Conrad.” The Chief said. “He could be rigged.”
“Fuck.” Conrad said.
Decision time—what to do? How long before those fingers loosened?
Conrad looked around, scanned the perimeter. Civilians hunkered by cars—some were still dodging and running. Do something. He saw: an alleyway off shoot from the main drag—a pack of scrawny stray dogs watching the scene with feral eyes. Conrad prized the fingers loose, grabbed the grenade and tossed it toward the pack of mutts.
“Fire in the hole!”
The crew hit the deck. The dogs watched the grenade land and went to investigate—the grenade went off. LOUD.
Some people started screaming. The lead dog caught the full blast. He was spread all over one white washed wall.
Mayhem—a big man blocked out the sun.
Voigt said, “What the fuck happened here?”
The crowd grew some balls and started to move closer to the centre of the melee. Some geeks shouted in Arabic. The one legged man hopped back into the fray and gabbled at Hosea—face to face and too fucking close.
“Don’t touch my fucking weapon, man.” Hosea warned him.
Something was off kilter. Very out of sorts.
Dozens of dead eyes--watching/waiting/biding their time.
Up close crowd vibed hate mob. The noise level ratcheted up a level. One guy wept over the dead kid. One guy waved a shoe-at the kid, at the convoy, at anyone who’d listen. The crowd vibed lynch mob now.
A crying woman shrieked in Voigt’s face.
He blanked her, “We got to back on up and get the fuck outta here.” Voigt said to McGill.
“No way,” McGill told him, “We got live human Intel on WMD. I’m not passing that up.”
“These folks are getting awful fucking antsy, Chief. It takes one armed Hajji and we got a death cluster right here. I recommend we get out and we get out now.”
“Negative.” McGill said, “We go on, Sargeant."
“I strongly recommend we go back to HQ.” Voigt got up close, a ten year vet leaning on a green officer. “Chief, I’ve zipped up enough body bags to know shitsville when I see it. My primary mission is to get my guys out of here in one piece.” Voigt held up a finger. “One piece, Chief.”
“The hell it is. Our mission is to find and secure WMD—now I’m sick and tired of striking out, Voigt. We need to get on up the road and we need to do this now.”
“On the record, you can count me out.”
“Okay.” McGill looked around dismayed. “Fine. I’ll take Conrad, Hosea, and Peters. Gimme one MRAP and Scotty and Rooney for back-up. You run the rest of the crew back to the compound.”
“We can’t split-”
“We can and we will.”
“I’m not chickenshit—”
“I didn’t insinuate you were.”
“Goddamn you, McGill. You are one gung-ho sumbitch. Does this shit really matter that much, Chief?”
McGill waved the packet. “It’s why we’re here.”
Voigt shook his head—okay. “I’ll tell ‘em.”
“I’m done.” Medic Peters announced. The bandaged kid beamed at him. The grandfather eyed the crowd, bony hands on the boy’s shoulders.
Said crowd were getting much closer. The old man stood in front of the kid, protecting the boy from sight. The locals were approaching with real menace now—the Americans had helped the kid so he was fair game for a reprisal. What a fucking country.
Voigt told him straight, “You helped that kid—it just might’ve gotten him killed.”
“So take them back to HQ?”
Voigt shook his head.
“You’ll leave them to be killed by a fucking lynch mob?”
“Fuck you, Chief. It’s your bed.”
The old man looked at McGill with imploring need. Help us, American.
Voigt turned his back-all business. He briefed the WMD team. You/you/you: you’re with the Chief. Get this done quick—keep in radio contact—in and out.
A stone flew by McGill’s head and dinged off the bus. The crowd roared. The crowd swelled and corralled them in. It rained stones.
A window smashed in the bus. Then another.
Rooney fingered the trigger.
McGill waved at him-NO FIRING.
Hosea got boxed in. He shoved the one legged man to the ground. The locals went stone fucking nuts. Someone made a grab for him. Hosea lashed out with a rifle butt.
The old man grabbed McGill’s sleeve, pleading eyes. The boy stared at him nonplussed.
Decision time: save these two. Or let them die.
Easy choice: “Get ‘em in the vehicle. Now. Move it.”
The crew retreated back to the convoy—rifles ready.
Hosea helped the old man and the boy into the back of the HumVee. He squeezed in beside them.
“Sitting fucking ducks.” Scotty complained.
McGill’s boot kicked a rock as he pushed his way back to the vehicle. His hand held the butt of his Glock.
The stray rock was wet with the boy’s blood.
He didn’t see it.
Chief McGill swung into the HumVee. Two dark faces worried him from the rear, the smaller one with a white flash on his forehead.
“Get us outta here, Scotty.”
Ten miles due west of the city women wandered down the Tigris to fetch water. They were dressed in bhurkas. It could’ve been a frozen tableau, a moment seen any time in the last five centuries.
The convoy rolled by them oblivious. This was no jolly sightseeing tour.
“There’s a bridge two klicks ahead,” McGill told Scotty, “Then we’re swinging left—dirt road all the way.”
The old man jabbered in Arabic, his toothless mouth flapping. The boy said nothing, watching, drinking it all in.
“He keeps flapping them gums…” Scotty said.
“You’re the fucking Grinch, Scotty.” Hosea told him.
McGill laughed. He'd forgotten it was almost Christmas. Bouncing along the highway the old man, with no real comprehension of the joke, slapped McGill on the shoulder and laughed right along with them.
“This is the joint?” Scotty said and whistled.
“Check if the perimeter’s secure,” McGill told Hosea. “Take Conrad and Rooney.”
Scotty nodded toward the rear seat, “What about Rocky and Bullwinkle?”
“Dunno,” McGill set down the packet. “You will have stay here and wait. Do you understand? Stay here. And wait. Okay?”
The old man nodded. The silent boy stared at him.
He got out of the HumVee and looked up at the ruins and was awed.
It was a round, white three storey medieval tower--the kind founded as a bulwark against attacking forces and set every few hundred yard to protect the city from invaders. Now it was sand blasted nicotine yellow, but at one time it had been brilliant white.
McGill watched Rooney, Hosea, and Conrad secure the perimeter. Not a soul in sight, but they still went through the drill perfectly.
The tower stood unique and alone in the desert landscape— though the chances were it was the last remaining remnant of some old city walls destroyed by foreign armies. The two feet thick walls made McGill think of civilisations long vanished—a place that was a fortress, a prison, a site for execution, perhaps--a citadel to an empire long dead.
“What is this place?” Peters asked.
“According to this,” McGill read from the packet, “The Well of Souls.”
Peters shivered. “Sorry I fucking asked.”
“If they got what I think they got inside there, it’ll be worth the bullshit we went through today.”
Peters looked at fortress, surveyed the single huge, heavy wooden door, “Looks like they surely don’t want anyone getting in.”
“Or out.” PFC Hosea said.
“Say what?” Peters said.
“Take a peek,” Hosea told him, “I been right the way around this joint, man. Just one way in— and one way out. Them windows, they’re all fake, see. They’re bricked up on the inside.”
“He’s right,” Rooney said, “Plus, there’s something off fucking whack about that door, too.” He jerked a thumb at the iron bound wooden door.
“It’s the locks,” McGill said.
“What about the fucking locks…” Scotty said perplexed.
“They’re on the outside of the door.”