and The Pirates of the Mystic Caravan.
Chapter 15 - It's Not Rocket Science
'If the way in above has been blocked, how could that have been done without us bumping into the blockers?' wondered Monique as the four girls hurried along as best they could upon entering the narrow, twisting tunnel down which Surban had vanished.
'Must be lots of other tunnels honeycombing the place,' puffed Priscilla, 'but more importantly... Oh-oh! Here comes company just as I thought. It only takes one shot to kill yourself. Three is a bit over the top. These guys know something went wrong. Get out of their way.'
Eight grimy-looking fighters probed forward cautiously, their automatic weapons at the ready, passing the invisible girls who stepped aside like matadors with wary bulls.
'There will be hell to pay when they find their dead pals, or even if Kaddar has pushed them into the deep,' said Belinda. 'That won't fool them for long without a dead Mister Kaddar.'
'And then there will be fireworks, no thank-you,' said Narenda.
'Too right,' Priscilla replied. 'That's why we need to hassle. Gammal Kaddar is now red-hot. Maybe, just maybe that might help us to find Surban in all the confusion!'
Fifteen minutes later found the four girls gazing at a large area of shabby tents fitfully illuminated by smoking oil lamps. Amongst these temporary dwellings toiled a restless knot of unruly-looking men: some breaking out rations and handing them around, some rolling up mats that passed for bedding, a small working party filling in and digging out fresh latrines, whilst some simply lounged about smoking and muttering together. Nearer, several were speaking urgently into cell phones and others were cleaning and re-assembling weapons. A distance from the main body, guards were stationed at various points in the gloom.
'Where is Surban?' Monique wondered, scanning the dark recesses.
'And where is The Man?' said Priscilla, peering around at the moving shadows.
'I should guess that wherever he is, we will find Surban.' Belinda observed. 'I vote we begin searching over there where those men are using mobiles, surely their commander cannot be far away and perhaps too we might overhear something of this terrorist mission. After all they are not here gathering nuts in May.'
'Jolly good show,' Priscilla replied, putting on a posh English accent, 'you've got a point there Belinda old girl, come on everybody.'
Stepping carefully around the perimeter of the main group the girls managed to get within hearing of the men on the phones.
'Yes, yes, is all in place? Have your people organised the diversions?' one was saying while another was alternately cursing and pausing to listen to the reply.
The third, who sat cross-legged on a rough mat, gestured with his free hand as if bargaining with his unseen caller. 'I know, I know, but you can still get it at that price you fool! And don't let them confound you with their cunning and guile! Missiles and launchers are not so complicated. Yes, yes! Even in Karbala they can still be found! It is not rocket science!'
The first continued: 'We have five operatives with us, holy warriors each of them and ready to give their lives when the time comes. One is... that is correct. She will do what must be done. Her life shall be remembered for her great sacrifice. Correct... Here in this place we have all the explosives needed to complete the mission... Oh of course... And soon tonight, the caravan arrives, some distance away, to carry them and their cargo to Baghdad where they will be met by our agents and smuggled into the city. By morning we will already be long gone from this place... No. None know our exact location. Not even our comrades of the caravan. It is secret to all, exception of guide who came to us by chance. She is of Zoroaster and will be left behind to enjoy these doomed places. Yes, we will make sure all is destroyed. There is also an uninvited guest... Some fool who has blundered into this place... A thief! Tomb-robber! That is it! No, not for certain, our men will make sure of that any minute now. And also, he brought with him a young girl... Yes, we have her. She is to be kept untouched.' He waved his free hand languidly in the direction of a dark outline at a distance behind him.
'That looks like a big tent! Almost invisible in the gloom.' said Priscilla. 'That's where Surban is bound to be!'
'And where Bin Laden is,' added Monique as the four girls made their way carefully around the squatting men and between those rambling aimlessly beyond.
Reaching the annex of the tent Narenda almost stepped on a guard sprawled against a pile of sacks and boxes.
'Whoa!' Priscilla exclaimed grabbing Narenda's arm. 'Let's not disturb them even a teensy bit. Like I know they can't see or hear us, but I get antsy about body contact...'
'Then move aside quickly!' said Monique, gripping both Priscilla's and Narenda's arms. 'Someone is coming out.'
The lounging terrorist suddenly snapped upright as the tent flaps opened and the tall man emerged, to briefly turn within saying, 'I shall leave you womenfolk together for this time. Perhaps you might seek comfort from each other. Although your destinies differ vastly, and you shall not be re-united in Paradise.' He strode away toward the cell-phone men, several gun-toting body-guards materialising out of nowhere.
'He's so calm he's crazy-scary,' said Priscilla. 'And yet somehow he's also kind of comforting, like an uncle who just happens to be a mass murderer.'
'Mesmerizing I would call him,' said Belinda.
'He is still the figure-head of a vast terrorist organisation, and utterly ruthless. He will not hesitate to kill any, men, women, children, old, young, sick, innocent, even his own followers if that will aid his cause.' Monique said, her voice contemptuous of the man who had just passed them by. 'But now we have our chance to hear what is happening between those within and maybe get Surban out and away.'
'Narenda, move the flap aside gently so that we can sort-of ease in without them noticing the movement,' said Priscilla, already listening to the voices muttering beyond.
'... and this is all of your story? You are here only to bring ritual coals to Zoroaster fire?' questioned a large woman in a drab, floor-length gown, her back to the girls. 'Does no one outside know of where you are?'
'No, yes!' answered Surban who was standing at the far end of the tent, her back to its dirty grey canvas. 'The Americans in Baghdad, they know I am here. I left a letter at the... the... place where they live...'
'That is not true and you know it,' said the woman with a sigh. 'Your religion brought you here in secrecy as did it bring this poor wretch.' The speaker indicated a veiled figure huddled on a camp stretcher. 'She is also of your kind and she it was who led us here. The Americans and their allies and the Iraqi authorities know nothing of this place. Now you bring men posing as priests with you who have fallen out, slaughtering each other because of greed...'
'That was nothing to do with me! I believed them! I thought they really were priests!'
'Enough child! You have food and water on the table. You are a complication. Your time here will be short.' The woman speaking turned aside and began rummaging in a wicker basket slung around her waist.
Surban whimpered and slowly slid into a crouching position opposite the figure on the bed. 'Does that mean we will all be leaving here soon?' she asked.
'We are to die here,' rasped the hooded woman on the bed. 'These people are going to kill us and as many more as they can in all this country. If only I could remember my past beyond the wonder of Zoroaster. Yet now Zoroaster is everything and I am nothing. I shrink and shrivel like a dark creature of the night. I am only a victim and a sacrifice. The sea gave me up with others. I lost my husband and daughter... husband... slowly over days where he lay dying... no one to help us... open water... thirst... hunger... people becoming maddened... our little girl lost to pirates...'
'Pirates?' said Surban tremulously. 'You were on a ship? What was its name?'
'Oh, I do not know... I cannot remember... I have thoughts that come and go... perhaps they are only dreams... perhaps I have lost my mind without knowing... '
'Do you know the name Han Maru?' asked Surban, a tremor in her voice.
'That name means something... is it a country or... a flower?'
'Can you remember your daughter's name?' Surban persisted.
'I cannot even recall her face,' said the hooded woman. 'My head has been torn apart. All that I remember is how to come here. It seemed the only place to come to after all that happened. And the people I first spoke with betrayed me. They were agents of the terrorists. It was those agents who pretended to be of my religion and convinced me to show them the way. And too, I needed them in order to bring me here. I could not have done so alone. But of course I did not know who they were or who were their masters.' She sighed, and it was a sound that ended in a drawn-out wail. 'I have lost everything I held precious in my life, my family, my home... and now this Holy Sanctuary will be defiled by believers of another religion who cannot tolerate...'
'Allow me to raise your veil,' Surban whispered, her shaking fingers reaching out to the woman's hood and lifting it. 'Oh!' was all she said before lowering it and biting her finger as if to stop herself from crying out in joy and fear.
Priscilla and Narenda edged closer, avoiding the other woman who was still fumbling for something in her basket. Then with a grunt, she suddenly located it. 'This will be for the greater good,' she said, holding up a tiny object about the size of a small coin.
'What is that?' asked Surban.
'It is nothing for you to be concerned with girl,' said the woman, compressing the thing between her fingers so that it began to pulse with a faint green light. 'It will be best for you to drink some water now. If The Almighty is with us I will take you out of here. We go almost at once! Do you understand? Do you understand!'
'Only if I can bring this woman with me!' Surban spat defiantly.
'If she willingly will come and not be a hindrance. You must convince her of that!'
'She is my mother. I will make her come!'
'Be ready in a few minutes,' was all the woman would say as she turned and barged out of the tent.
'What's all that about?' asked Priscilla.
'You've got an anti-terrorist agent there posing as a prospective suicide martyr,' said Harry's voice from their Hand-Activators. 'That thing she just fired up is an A.S.P. Locater, high priority American issue. It's a homing device and I'm getting very uneasy about this. It's sending a Call In And Destroy message to all available forces. I don't know how long it will take for Baghdad and any other regional areas to activate! Get out of there now! Tag along with Big Bertha and Surban.'
'That would take ages Monsieur Harry,' said Monique. 'We are far below where we entered and that was at the end of Wadi Al Ubayyid. We cannot climb back to the surface which is already blocked by stones and men with guns.'
'This woman said, "If The Almighty is with us," she didn't specify which Almighty, so you're going to have to trust in her and Zarathushtra. She must know another way. Probably the way Surban's mother brought them all in,' said Harry before adding, 'Like, oh durr! It's called the Front Door! She knows already where to get out, but she is also capable of sacrificing her life and yours. You guys ain't going to be with her if that looks like happening.'
'Can we not just grab Surban and her mother?' Narenda offered.
'We could, but will her mother be in any shape to guide us out?' Belinda asked.
'She seems too distraught,' said Monique. 'We are probably...' She was interrupted by the distant rattle of gunfire.
'Sounds like Kaddar and the terrorists are at it!' Priscilla called, turning for the tent entrance only to find it blocked by the entering bulk of the big woman, now clutching a hand-gun. 'Quick! Get out of her way!'
The girls managed to dodge around her as she hastened down the centre of the tent. 'You, girl! Bring the woman now! We may survive or not. Whatever, my task is ended! Follow!' The big woman swung about like some vast battleship in the ocean and ploughed her way toward the tent entrance.
Meanwhile many things were happening beyond as Priscilla and the others, emerging, observed. Sporadic sounds of gunfire reverberated in the distance, men were running in all directions, and in the midst of them strode the tall figure of their leader, calmly gesturing and indicating to some whilst issuing verbal directives to others.
'This is time,' hissed the large woman, gathering herself into what appeared to the girls a futile attempt at swift departure. Yet before Surban and her mind-vacant mother had a moment to think, the Anti-Terrorist Agent had whisked them free of the tent and down between a row of stacked boxes, with the BlackEagle Girls hurrying behind.
'Do you know what I think these boxes contain,' said Monique as they scurried along.
'Explosives and ammunitions, I am thinking,' returned Narenda. 'These are letterings mentioning Saddam Hussein and the army of Iraq.'
'My gosh! Not weapons of mass destruction?' panted Belinda.
'Who knows what is here,' Narenda answered, slowing to a jog, 'but it seems a repository of some kind, see the dates stencilled, 1999, 2000, that one 2002!'
'Bloody hell!' exclaimed Priscilla, 'For a secret, hidden place known only by a few oppressed people of a banned religion, it seems more like our local shopping centre! K.F.C or Red Rooster anyone?'
'More to the point, this place is a death-trap!' managed Belinda, picking up momentum. 'It's loaded with old weapons, stoked with terrorist explosives and about to be bombed senseless anytime by our own forces! We have to get out of here!'
Chapter 16 next