Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes!
This week, you’re getting another excerpt from Kris’s novel…. as well as the title! Kris’s novel will be called Whisper.
I’m playing this one close to the vest, keeping most excerpts and details under wraps. I am crossing all of my fingers and toes for a late March/Early April release!
Enjoy this excerpt of Kris’s forthcoming novel, Whisper…
March 29th, 2002
The web stretched across an entire wall in the CIA station. Spindly lines crisscrossed each other, tracing points back to the dead center.
Someone had drawn a reticle around the photo in the center. A black marker sniper’s scope circled the black and white passport photo of a thin, young Saudi with a close-cropped beard and mustache and his hair hidden under a neat keffiyeh.
CIA headquarters said he was Al Qaeda’s third highest officer, third in command after Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. He’d been the external emir, the high commander, of the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan, before the invasion. The Khaldan camp was where the hijackers were trained, where Bin Laden regularly visited. Where all high ranking Al Qaeda operatives transited.
They needed Zahawi.
And they would have him. Tonight.
In January, Kris, George, and the rest of their combined CIA-Special Forces team stepped out of a helicopter in Islamabad and started fighting the CIA’s next war.
“We have a new position at the CIA,” Bill, Islamabad’s Chief of Station, had told them all during their first briefing. “Targeteer. These guys are going to be the most important people in the agency. They’re hunters. Anything and everything we get on a high value target gets routed straight to their desk. The targeteers package all of that intel together. Make sense of it. And then they find our targets.” Bill thought fast and spoke fast, and his eyes peered around the room, dancing over each person on the team. “It’s part forensic psychology, part jigsaw puzzle, part sifting through haystacks, and part voodoo. You’ve got to be a cultural anthropologist, a translator, a psychologist, and a psychic. So. Who is going to be the targeteer on this team?”
George hadn’t hesitated. “Kris Caldera. That’s made for him.”
Bill’s stare had pierced Kris, a laser burning right through him. He had a thick stack of folders on the table in front of him stuffed with CDs and DVDs, papers and photos. Bill pushed it all toward Kris. “Here’s your first target. Abu Zahawi. He’s in Pakistan. And we have to find him.”
“He’s in Pakistan” turned out to be the agency’s most popular line. Everyone was in Pakistan, from Bin Laden to the most minor Al Qaeda recruit, and they were supposed to find every last one of them. Pakistan was the size of Texas but had the population of the United States. Karachi was the fourth largest city in the entire world. Finding anyone in the crushing mass of humanity, much less someone purposefully hiding, was a near impossible task.
Zahawi’s name, and about a dozen phone numbers associated with him, kept coming up in documents and debris and pocket recovered in Afghanistan, from destroyed Al Qaeda camps, captured fighters, and picked off the dead. From Marines and soldiers, combing through the remains of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, to Islamabad, hordes and hordes of information flowed.
Not all of it was intelligent. There was just too much of it, too many bits and pieces and names and addresses scattered across thousands of leads.
Kris nearly buckled.
Palmer’s men hit the streets, going to Lahore, Peshawar, and Karachi, trying to scour the cities with a small passport photo, searching for Zahawi like they could pick him from the millions and millions of people crowding the streets. David came back from each trip frustrated and filthy, and always exhausted.
“I need more resources,” Kris said, at the end of January. “I can’t make a man appear with nothing but luck.”
“What do you need?”
“Give me an entire electronic net over Pakistan. Zero in on the numbers we have of known Al Qaeda agents. The phone numbers connected to Zahawi. If anyone calls those, who do they call after that, and then after that, and then after that. We need to build a web.”
The invisible electronic net dropped. Calls were vacuumed up, scrubbed and searched for names and keywords. When calls to Zahawi’s known numbers didn’t connect, America’s digital eyes tracked the calls they made next, asking for instruction, and then again, and again. Everything went on the wall, a giant web of connections, of unrelated people trying to live in hiding, exposed by the pattern of their phone calls.
Finally, they found Zahawi’s new numbers.
Zahawi had fourteen new numbers tied to fourteen locations. Thirteen in Faisalabad, the third most populous city in Pakistan, and situated far from the Afghanistan border, south of Islamabad. One in Lahore, a city almost on the Indian border.
They hit the streets again, winding through the tangled, twisted alley and dirt roads of Faisalabad. Faisalabad was a rough, dangerous, and hopelessly poor city. A never-ending sprawl of mudbrick homes and open sewage, neighborhood dump lots, and precarious slums. Children played in raw sewage. The stench of rot slipped under their clothes, into their nose, down their throat, gagging them all. Cars and rickshaws and bicycles and donkeys and camels crowded every inch of the roadways. Walkers glided in and out of traffic lanes and passed angry cabbies shouting in thirteen different languages.
Most people living in Faisalabad lived on less than five dollars a day. And most were fierce adherents to a firebrand fundamentalist Islam, married to a violent rage. Life in Faisalabad was epically shitty. Why not desperately wish to turn to the past, to the golden days of Islam, when life was vibrant, peaceful, and Muslims were regarded as the enlightened intellectuals of the world? Why not crave that historical power again? Everything to blame in Faisalabad was the West’s fault, anyway. For putting them at the bottom of the world order.
Going into Faisalabad meant working undercover. David and his team dressed in salwar kameezzes, breezy tunics and linen pants. They’d kept their thick beards from Afghanistan. David blended in the best, with his bronze skin and his native Arabic, and he played the part of a foreign fighter working the streets. He was the point man for all of Kris’s operations.
Kris watched David take to the mission like a fish to water, seamlessly blending into the passion Islamic fundamentalism. Even there, even in Faisalabad. David moved like he knew how to live in a city on the edge, under the thumb of oppression and desperate poverty. There was something there, something Kris wanted to ask about, but couldn’t. Not yet.
Kris, slender, even with his added muscles from the war in Afghanistan, played the part of the wife. He donned the head to toe black hijab. He tied the niqab around his face, peered out of the narrow eye slit, and kept his body hidden from view under the sweep of black. His hijab collected filth from the streets as he swept over puddles of sewage, walked up and own dusty alleys. To add to the disguise, Kris lined his eyes with kohl, like the local women did.
David couldn’t tear his eyes away.
Kris and David walked the streets as if they were married, scoping out all thirteen properties. They found squat mudbrick homes, small one-room huts with corrugated tin roofs, and shacks on the edge of slums. Hatred seethed from the slum, like a physical pulse.
“We can’t take the entire slum. But there are Al Qaeda fighters in there, for sure.”
“Zahawi is the target. We have to find him.”
The last location was a large house, almost a villa, built of concrete cinderblocks instead of mud bricks. Three stories and surrounded by an eight-foot-tall privacy fence. Every window was closed and shuttered. In the sweltering one-hundred-degree heat and humidity, that stood out. That stood out like an electric sign in the sky, pointing straight down. All of Faisalabad had thrown open their doors and windows, trying to cool down with the limp, rotten breeze.
All of Faisalabad, save for them.
“Bad news in there.” David leaned into Kris’s hijab.
Sweat poured down Kris’s back. He was roasting, nearly passing out under the hijab. “No one keeps their windows closed. Not in this heat.”
“Let’s get back to the safehouse.”
George had rented a safehouse in Faisalabad, paying cash for a villa in the wealthy sector of town. The mansion had fourteen bedrooms, twelve sitting rooms, and a huge plot of land, surrounded by a giant fence that kept all curious onlookers far away. From the roof, they had satellite connections with fourteen different communications relays, from the CIA to the military. The team lived in the safehouse and rotated surveillance on each of Zahawi’s locations.
A backup team from Langley was sent in, too, to help share the load. They arrived while David and Kris were scoping out the villa.
“Kris!” Richard Wright, Kris’s mentor at Langley, jogged to him when they returned to the safehouse and wrapped Kris up in a hug, holding on for longer than Kris had expected. “God, it’s good to see you again.”
They caught up that night, on the roof. Richard had brought three bottles of wine, and he and Kris downed a bottle of shitty chardonnay as they sat in lawn chairs and tried to breathe through their mouths, tried to not smell the fetid stench of Faisalabad.
“You blew the door open, Kris.” Richard held out his plastic cup of white wine for a toast. “You blew the door for all us gays open. Going to Afghanistan… and kicking ass.”
Kris’s jaw had dropped. “Us gays? Richard?”
“I entered the CIA before you. When it was still not allowed.”
It was only 1996 that the law had been changed, allowing homosexuals to legally possesses security clearances. Prior to 1996, any gay man or woman was considered a liability, someone who could be blackmailed, someone untrustworthy. Someone not allowed into the hallowed halls of the national security establishment.
“I loved that you never played the bullshit games.” Richard smiled at him, his eyes bright. Glowing. “You never tried to hide. I wanted to help you. Wanted to see you succeed. And, God damn. Did you ever.”
“I just did my job.”
“You did a hell of a job. You’re a fantastic officer, Kris. And you’re paving the way for everyone after you. No one thinks twice anymore about us.”
“You going to come out?”
Richard had smiled at him, over the rim of his cup. “If there was someone to come out for.”
“I always wanted to ask you to dinner, Kris. Back in DC. I always want to get to know you better.” He leaned forward, fiddling with his wine. “Maybe, after this is over, we could try? The Marriott in Islamabad isn’t the Capitol Grille in DC, but…” Richard had smiled, hope tumbling from him. “I just really want to spend some time with you.”
“Richard…” Kris had squeezed his eyes closed, had leaned forward. His head hung between his slumped shoulders. “Richard, I’m sorry. I’m seeing someone.”
Shock pushed Richard back. “Oh. I didn’t know. I thought you were single, in DC—”
“I was.” Kris cringed. “It’s… new.”
“In Afghanistan?” Richard’s jaw dropped.
“It’s secret. We’re not out. We’re—” Kris fumbled for words, stumbling over his exhaustion and the wine.
“He’s military.” Richard nodded slowly, exhaling. He stared into his cup of wine like he was divining tea leaves. “I understand. I do.” He sighed. “Whoever he is, he’s a lucky guy.” Richard smiled. “I hope we can still be friends.”
“I’d like that.”
The night before the raid, he and David lounged in a tepid bath surrounded by stubby candles. The safehouse had sunken mosaic tubs in most bedrooms, playthings for the wealthy who lived stratospheres above the rest of the city’s inhabitants. David rubbed his feet, massaged his legs, kissed his way up and down Kris’s body. They made love silently, Kris riding David as his hands traced David’s chest, his body, mapped the terrain of his lover. Candlelight flickered over their skin, threw shadows against the walls. Kris came with a muffled cry, his head thrown back, David’s hands clinging to him, his arms wrapped around his back. David’s lips kissed every inch of his chest.
Their teammates were on either side of the paper-thin walls. Kris could hear their laughter, their conversations, between his gasps, his muffled cries.
Who knew about them? George, for sure. Had he told Ryan? Ryan was still his deputy. Jim and Philip were oblivious, wrapped up in their own projects. Derek had stayed in Afghanistan. Jackson? He was David’s roommate, and David spent all his time in Kris’s. What did Jackson think about his vacant partner? And Palmer? He’d seen them kissing, back in Tora Bora. But David had become distant from his team since moving to Pakistan, moving with Kris and on the ground instead of holding surveillance and going on night raids, like the others.
They weren’t supposed to be doing this. David’s entire career could come apart, shatter under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell rules of the military.
Sleeping with a partner on an overseas mission happened, but it was generally filed under “ill advised” by the CIA and “disastrous” when it went all wrong.
It was illegal to be gay in Pakistan. Illegal to love another man. They were in Pakistan on diplomatic cover, but the bond between Pakistan and the United States was tenuous, a daily negotiation of threats and bluster. A scandal like this, that Pakistan could use to claim the US disrespected their culture, their laws, and flagrantly violated their beliefs, could tear their alliance apart.
And, for the first time, Kris had some measure of respect. Richard’s words haunted him, repeating in his mind on an echoing loop. His name was said with praise. People believed in him. Thought he could do something. That he wasn’t just a fag or a puff, a limp-wristed gay that people put up with. His whole life, he’d been treated like half a man.
But for how long? Should they stop? Should they just put it aside, focus on their mission? They were risking too much, with this.
But he couldn’t. He couldn’t set David aside, couldn’t put him out of his mind. David had become linked to him, inextricably linked, like two stars orbiting each other. Words like “combat stress” and “adrenaline bonds” tried to nip at him from the darkness, but he pushed them back.
David was in his bones, in his blood. In his soul. He lived the rhythms of their days, set his heart by the moments he stole with David. He’d never let that go, not unless David was ripped from him. And even then—
David held him after they finished, cradling Kris close with his forehead pressed to Kris’s temple as they caught their breath. Sticky Pakistani heat clung to their sweaty skin. A limp ceiling fan circled overhead, lazy circles that moved stale air and the stench of sex. Could their teammates smell what they did? Could they smell David on Kris, like Kris always could?
Much later, Kris pulled the curtains back and stared out their bedroom window. He’d wrapped up in a silk robe, a gift David had bought for him during one of his undercover trips into Pakistan’s twisting cities. He’d bought Kris a small mountain of gifts since they’d arrived in country. Silk shirts and linen suits, long robes, and the finest salwar kameezzes in all of Pakistan. A gold necklace, a filigree of the Hand of Fatima, that he wore under everything, every day. Now that they weren’t in Afghanistan and weren’t in combat any longer, they got to change their clothes every day, actually look decent again. David, it seemed, had taken it upon himself to make Kris’s wardrobe the finest in all of Pakistan. Kris reveled in David’s gifts, in the luxury. In the knowledge that every day, no matter where David was, Kris was on his mind.
David stood behind him, kissing his bare shoulder where the robe slipped down. The call to prayer sounded, the wail of a hundred muezzins across the city rising as one. There were no stars above Faisalabad, no moon in the sky. The stars were spread below, a blanket of lanterns and fires that turned the air to wood smoke and musk.
Across Faisalabad, somewhere in the darkness and the smoke, Abu Zahawi prayed. His last prayers as a free man.
“In three hours, we leave the safe house in our breach teams. At zero one thirty, each breach team will stage outside their target location.” Kris pointed to the giant map on the wall, with each of the fourteen targets marked and surrounded by surveillance photos. “Pakistani police will meet you at each target.”
An FBI agent, from a team that had been flown in from DC overnight, interrupted. “Is Pakistani ISI involved?”
“No. ISI has not been briefed.” Pakistan’s military intelligence, ISI, had been caught leaking information to Al Qaeda, both during the Afghan invasion and after. Kris kept them iced out of his entire operation. The FBI agent, jet lagged and clinging to a mug of coffee after sunset, nodded.
“At exactly zero one fifty, each breach team will stage at the outer breach marker for each site. Your team leads have your specific coordinates for your site in their packet. At precisely zero two hundred, at all fourteen sites, we breach simultaneously. The order of entry is as follows: The Pakistani police enter first and subdue any resistance. They separate the women and children form the men. The FBI enters second and preserves the scene for evidence collection. The CIA enters last.”
The FBI, appraised of Kris’s operation to catch Zahawi, had insisted on inserting into the takedown team. The September 11th attacks were considered an active criminal investigation in addition to being an intelligence failure and the new target of an independent Congressional oversight investigation. Jurisdiction was overlapping, and messy.
“I and my team—” Kris nodded to Richard, David, Ryan, Jackson, and Palmer. “—will accompany the breach team at Target X-Ray.” The last target on the list, the villa he and David had found with the windows closed and locked.
“You think Zahawi is at that location?”
“We think there’s something bad going on there, yes. It could be Zahawi. It could be another cell of Al Qaeda fighters. Whatever is going on, it’s bad news.” Kris, standing on a coffee table in the middle of the safe house’s living room, met everyone’s gaze. Nearly sixty people stared back at him. Listened to him give orders. “Any questions?”
Zero one fifty-five.
They were well into zero dark hundred, the dead of night when Special Forces loved to operate, when the CIA always made their moves. Kris breathed through his mouth, huddled against the privacy fence around Target X-Ray, behind David and in front of Richard. Ryan and Jackson brought up the rear of their breach team.
His body armor tried to pull his shoulders off. The thick ceramic plates weighed at least forty pounds each. He felt tugged toward the ground, like he should just lower tip forward, let gravity do its thing.
Zero one fifty-six. At thirteen other sites, breach teams were waiting, following Kris’s plan to the letter. There was no room for error in this. No room for one team to strike early, give a target time to make a phone call, or start screaming, or worse, shooting. In Faisalabad in the middle of the night, only the dogs were out. The city was silent, five million people locked in their houses. Unless something went wrong.
Zero one fifty-eight. The check came down the line. All good? David reached behind him, tapped the side of Kris’s leg. All good. He sent the signal back, tapping Richard. Heard Richard reach for Ryan. Then it came back, two taps from Richard on his thigh. All good. He reached forward for David. David intercepted his hand. Squeezed. Kris squeezed back.
Zero one fifty-nine. They’d synchronized their watches to the second. He watched them count down.
Three. Two. One.
Pakistani police at the head of the breach team blew open the lock on the privacy fence and wrenched the heavy metal gate open. Boots slapped concrete and dirt, thundering toward the front door. Kris heard echoes of booms across Faisalabad, bouncing through the warren of mudbrick and concrete homes. He followed behind, running with David and stacking at the fence line as the Pakistani’s prepared to break down the front door. Shouts rose inside the villa. Lights flicked on in the third floor.
Clang. The Pakistan police officer who’d swung the battering ram stumbled backward. Another rushed forward, grabbing the battering ram and trying again. Clang. “It’s reinforced!” he shouted. “They reinforced the door with steel!”
Slap slap slap. Dirt shot up from the ground, geysers from bullets slamming into the dust at their feet. Glass shattered, rained down on their heads. Dark muzzles, the bores of AK-47s, poked out of the upstairs windows.
“Take cover!” David grabbed Kris and hauled him around the side of the house, away from the windows and the shooters above. Ryan and Richard retreated behind the privacy fence.
“Grenade!” One of the Pakistani police officers shouted. A thud bounced and rolled, inside the house. Frantic Arabic, shouts that rose in pitch, until—
Scrambling, David poked around the house’s corner, looking down the barrel of his rifle. The shooters in the upper windows were gone. Pakistani police officers were going through a ground level window into a smoke-filled hallway.
“Open this door! Open this fucking door!” Two FBI agents banged on the front door, their backs flat to the wall. They’d been trapped on the other side of the gunfire from above, totally exposed.
The front door burst out of its frame, kicked open by the largest Pakistani police officer on the team. Cursing, the FBI agents ran inside. “Hands up! Hands up!”
“They have to say it in Arabic,” Kris growled. “Did they forget?”
“We gotta get in there.” David nodded to the front door. “I’ll cover you.”
Kris ran, David following in his footsteps, his rifle trained on the empty third floor windows. Whoever had been shooting at them was gone. For now.
Richard, Ryan, and Jackson met them at the door. Shouts barreled through the house. Flashlight beams crisscrossed the smoke. The FBI agents were stuck in the front room, hollering at someone to put their hands up.
Shouting, again, in Arabic. This time, from outside. Kris turned, back to the outside. “The roof. They’re on the roof!”
David and Jackson flattened themselves to the villa’s wall, looking up their rifle scopes at the roofline.
Scuffling, above. Frantic Arabic flew back and forth. Two, no three, voices.
Kris followed David, holding his weapon up, keeping it steady on the roofline.
Richard covered him, moving close.
Ryan slipped away from the villa’s walls, sliding into the courtyard.
“Hnak hu alan! Ha hu! Ha hu!” There he is now! There he is! There he is!
“Shit!” Bullets peppered the courtyard, the dirt at Ryan’s feet. He ran for the shadows, ducked behind a concrete pillar for cover. The shooter on the roof chased him to the edge.
David slid out of the shadows and squeezed his trigger. Three bullets spat into the night, catching the first man on the roof in the shoulder and jaw. He tumbled forward, limp, spilling over the edge. He hit the ground like a broken doll, head first. Kris looked away, flinching.
He’d remember that sound as long as he lived.
“Qafz! Qafz!” Jump! Jump!
Two men scurried across the roof, heading for the edge. David, Jackson, and Kris stepped over the broken body in the courtyard and followed the sounds. Behind the house, the closest neighbors were nine feet away, across a sewage-filled alley. An improbable jump, but not impossible. Not with adrenaline coursing through the men’s’ veins.
The first man on the roof started to run. They heard his feet slapping against the concrete. Heard him approach the edge. Saw him leap.
David and Jackson fired together, two shots. Both tore through the jumper. Shrieking, he fell to the ground, bones in his legs cracking on impact. He wailed, screams loud enough to wake the dead, knives that sliced through Kris’s eardrums.
The third man had jumped right after his friend, using the distraction to cover his attempt.
Kris saw him. He raised his weapon. Fired.
His shots caught the jumper in his hip and his stomach. He lurched, tumbled, and fell, slamming into the top of the privacy fence before sliding to the ground.
Inside the house, the frantic shouts from the FBI had subsided. They heard boots running up and down the stairs, heard calls of “clear” from within. Heard more boots on the roof, and shouts of “police!”
“Friendlies!” David bellowed. “Friendlies, down below!”
“We heard gunshots. What do have?” One of the FBI agents poked his head over the roof’s edge. He blanched when he saw the first man from the roof spread in a wet mess across the courtyard.
“Three jumpers. All down.” David and Jackson had formed a loose perimeter, keeping all three bodies in sight.
Kris called up, “Zahawi in there?”
“No. Is he one of them?”
“We’re checking.” Kris and Richard ignored the first body. There wasn’t anything left to ID. He didn’t have the right coloring for Abu Zahawi, either. The man who’d tumbled was Pakistani. Zahawi was Palestinian, fair skinned and slender according to the passport photo they were working with.
The second jumper was still shrieking. Blood pooled beneath one of his broken legs. White bone stuck out of his torn pants. Strips of skin clung to the jagged ends of his shattered femur. Richard shined a light into his face.
“Not him.” Kris waved to David. “This one needs a medic. He’s going to bleed out.”
They moved on to the third jumper as David knelt next to the broken-legged man. The third jumper was heavy set with a round belly, thick legs, and wild, springy hair, almost to his shoulders. He was clean shaven, almost as smooth as Kris. Blood smeared across him, from the shots in his belly and his impact with the fence, and his slide to the ground. Pools of ruby liquid formed beneath him, soaking the dirt. His eyes were closed and he didn’t move. Still, they kept their distance.
“This can’t be him.” Richard frowned.
“His jawline looks similar…” Kris reached for the man, turned his head left and right. The man groaned. “I think it’s him. I think it’s Zahawi.”
“How do we know?”
Kris turned the man’s head to the side again and held it still. “Take a picture of his ear. Everyone’s ear is unique. Just like a fingerprint.”
Richard arched an eyebrow at him, but snapped the photo. Kris pulled out his field laptop from his backpack and plugged in the camera. Downloaded the image, and sent it via satellite link to Islamabad. “We’ll know in a minute.”
Sirens blasted across Faisalabad, the Pakistani police coming out in force. Rickshaw ambulances followed behind the police. David, through with putting a tourniquet on the broken legged man, jogged over to Kris. “I thought this one was dead.”
“Not yet.” Kris grabbed his medical kit from his backpack and pulled out a wad of field dressings and gauze bandages. He pressed them into the man’s bullet wounds, over his stomach and his thigh. Blood saturated the dressings, soaking through almost instantly. “We need to keep him alive. This is Zahawi. I’m certain of it.”
His sat phone rang. Richard reached for it. David grabbed it first. “Hello?”
“Holding pressure on a wounded Al Qaeda man.”
“If it’s the same man who’s ear he just sent, then he’d better do everything he can to keep him breathing. That is Abu Zahawi. And we need him. Alive.”
Timestamp: Chapter 13, Whisper. After the Afghanistan War led by the CIA.