By S. J. Hinton
The jeep was an old one; not a Hummer or even one of the leftover
Russian vehicles, nearly all of which were going on at least twenty
years old. This one chugged and huffed along the dirt track of the
ancient Silk Road in Tajikistan as the two men traveled southeast
toward the Panj River from the capital at Dushanbe.
The driver was an ex-KGB officer, and he looked to neither the left
nor right as they drove between looming arid mountains. The odd boulder
or truck-sized pothole defaced the badly paved road. Occasional boys
led donkeys loaded with firewood along the same path, sometimes
blocking the way. The Colonel rarely hesitated using his horn or
shouted curses to clear the road.
The American didn't want to hold a conversation with the Colonel, but
his job required he gather information from all sources. "I hadn't even
heard of Tajikistan before last week," he said.
The Colonel glanced his way and grunted. The man's three-day beard was
already scraggly and matted with dirt, compared to his passenger's. The
American had kept his beard relatively clean and it sprouted in fine
fuzz across his cheeks.
"This is the world's largest supply of heroin," said the Colonel in
surprisingly good English. "At least seventy percent of the world's
traffic begins along the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border."
The American thought back to the words of a Drug Control Agency
commander spoken in private in Tajikistan before they left: "There are
only two options here. You smuggle opium, or you die of starvation," he
shrugged. "There is nothing else."
Colonel Mikhail Khrushvatof was former KGB, in charge of patrolling
the border during the Soviet occupation. He was now a member of the
elite new DCA.
"No war or sanctions against the Taliban will stop the heroin from
bleeding through the border," continued the Colonel. "In spite of a ban
on poppy growing by the Taliban this year, there are always warlords in
need of the money the drugs bring."
"Because there is nothing else," the American added the litany he'd
heard all day.
"Yes, just so," agreed the Colonel. "Peasants will push animal skins
packed with heroin on top of inner tubes across freezing rivers in
their bare feet. Last year Afghanistan produced over five thousand tons
of opium. The poppy crop was worth more than one hundred million
dollars to the Taliban, much of the packages of opium gum or heroin
were stamped with the brand of its producers. Sometimes with the mark
of radical Islamic groups."
The American checked over his camera bag once more. This was his
lifeline with the cover story that he was a magazine reporter and
photographer here to record the effects of the Taliban's new sanctions
against the opium traffic and how it might eventually affect America's
drug war. He was knocked off balance as the vehicle lurched.
"What?" he mumbled. The Colonel's arm held him against his seat as he
tried to look around them.
"These may be men hired by a warlord," he whispered to the American.
"I'll try to find out. Do not to make any sudden moves."
"Bet on it," gritted his passenger.
The Colonel turned off the engine and raised his hands as he got out
of the truck. He spoke at length in low tones to one of the men,
gesturing toward the truck now and again. Meanwhile, several serious
looking men kept guns pointed generally in the American's direction.
Eventually, they seemed to come to some sort of an agreement, and the
Colonel walked back to the truck, watched carefully by at least three
"I think they believed me," said the Colonel. "But they are on their
way to a camp nearby. They say they will let you talk to their leader
and take pictures. It's what you wanted, yes?"
"But what's the catch?" nodded the American.
The Colonel shrugged. "They haven't told me. They may plan to hold you
hostage," he smiled. "Either way, they want to separate us. I'll be
going with half the men, who want our truck. You'll be going with
them." He nodded toward the man to whom he'd spoken.
"I'm going to guess we don't have a choice?"
"They could always shoot us," said the Colonel.
After the Colonel had seemingly cheerfully driven off with half the
men, the apparent leader to who the Colonel had spoken walked up to the
"So how are you, Gerry?"
Gerald Fallow nodded right back. "I'm well. What's this all
"Change in plans," responded van Mees. "The cover is an American
photojournalist kidnapped by a local warlord. We've got some new
friends, and they'll get you in to Omar's camp. What you can do with it
after that is up to you. If you go with it, then Khrushvatof goes off
tomorrow and reports what happened. If not," he shrugged. "He gets a
bullet and nobody's the wiser. Is he clean?"
Fallow considered. "He seems to be."
"Would be a shame for him to die," said van Mees. "The DCA's got so
few of them. He thinks you're CIA."
"I wish," replied Fallow. He saw the other man's sour expression.
Van Mees frowned. "I don't have the information," he replied. "It
looks like we got one of the warlords in our pocket, and in exchange
for some financing he'll get you into a camp across the border and
introduce you to Omar." He shrugged. "I just don't know if I trust
Fallow nodded and lit a cigarette. "Don't kill the Colonel."
Van Mees bobbed his head once. "He doesn't play hero, he's got a
ticket out of here."
Fallow enjoyed a bath in a makeshift tub that night, scrubbing the
dirt and stink off his body. His brown hair, a bit grizzled above the
ears now and early for his thirty-eight years, was usually kept shaved
close. Lately he'd let it grow a little over his ears. It was better
for his cover, but it made him always conscious of the tickle of fine
He climbed out of the bath - little more than a waterproof tarp pulled
over an old shipping crate - and dried off with a less than clean
towel. Then he picked up a sheaf of papers.
The sheets spilled out of a brown envelope. There were clippings and a
couple of typed sheets of instructions. The signature at the bottom of
the last sheet was that of Fallow's superior.
With all the secrecy, and McClure still used paper, thought Fallow. He
lit a cigarette and sat down to read.
The bath was mostly wasted. The next morning Fallow climbed into a
thirty-year old Soviet truck and traveled with a man introduced only as
Musharraf, whose gap-toothed smile did nothing to reassure him. The
truck started up and began to bounce along the rutted, dusty road
toward the border.
Musharraf didn't have much to say. When he spoke, it was occasionally
in fractured English but mostly in Urdu. Fallow spoke Russian and
Japanese fluently and enough Urdu to make conversation, but he didn't
let his guide know that. It seemed prudent.
"We reach the river in four hours," called Musharraf over the roar of
the engine. In addition to lacking a muffler, it seemed to be running
on perhaps five cylinders at the most. "We meet my people there."
Fallow nodded. "What river?" He was at a disadvantage from having too
few hours to prepare for these changes in plans, and had only a
rudimentary knowledge of the topography of the surrounding land. "Where
will we cross?"
"No cross," corrected the other man. "We meet at camp."
"Ah," replied Fallow.
As good as his word, in about four hours Fallow caught the scents of
water and untreated sewage on the dry breeze. He surmised they were
approaching the camp Musharraf had spoken of, and he was correct.
What he - or Musharraf - was incorrect in was the name river for what
they drove along. It was a trickle of dirty water flowing sluggishly
through a ditch worn in the dusty earth. It looked more like an
overflow from a septic tank, and smelled like it too. The camp was a
collection of surplus tents and ramshackle huts of the kind the locals
could disassemble and make completely disappear in a matter of an hour
or so if need be.
Musharraf parked the truck and jumped out. "Come," he said, making
fluttery motions with his hands. "Come!"
Fallow looked around at largely disinterested faces, and followed the
"You must not tell who you are," warned Musharraf in a hushed voice.
Anyone standing less than ten feet away could probably still hear his
words. "I will be fine, thank you, but you must act your part."
His part was that of someone looking to make a deal for shipments of
opium to the states. Fallow and his superiors hoped that if he flashed
enough money and was introduced well enough by someone trusted by these
people, he would get a chance to meet with Omar. Omar was the target of
choice in allied circles in the Mideast, and Fallow had orders to
eliminate the man.
"I'll be good," Fallow assured the other man. "Will I meet
Musharraf shrugged. "Who can say? I will pass on the message."
Fallow shook his head and continued to follow Musharraf. He was
tempted to switch to Urdu and perhaps get a more clear answer from his
guide, but he still didn't trust the other man and he was hesitant to
reveal his ability to any of the others in camp.
Several times his guide was halted and spoke quickly to those who
seemed to be acting as guards. Most of the time it was in rapid Urdu,
and Fallow could follow the gist of the conversation. A few other times
it was in a language he didn't know, and he was left completely in the
dark. Musharraf seemed disinclined to share the contents of such
Eventually they found themselves in front of a large tent near the
center of the camp. Not far away, Fallow could see a number of guards
and a very large semi-permanent building.
"That is Omar's home," said Musharraf. "I will go there and speak. You
will make yourself comfortable here." And he left.
Fallow stood for several moments staring in the direction in which
Musharraf had disappeared, then realized he seemed to be the center of
some kind of attention. He smiled companionably and went into the
It was as large as it seemed to be from the outside. There were
several cots and chairs arranged about, and he was immediately aware
that some attempt had been made to provide for comfort here. He had
just begun to walk toward the wood stove in the center of the tent when
a voice came from close to one side.
"Please, lie down and rest," it said.
Fallow turned and found himself looking into the face of a man who
seemed very familiar to him. "Do I know you?" he asked.
"I think you should," came the reply. It was punctuated by a painful
thump to the back of Fallow's head.
He came to in a dark place which swayed disconcertingly and made him
want to be violently sick. After he threw up, he decided the apparent
motion was due to a slight concussion.
He smelled smoke from a wood fire and heard voices raised in loud
discussion. It was difficult to tell what was being said, or even to
get some idea of whether the voices might be raised in reasonable
discussion or hate-filled argument, but Fallow couldn't help but be
grateful he was still alive. The big question was whether that state of
affairs would continue or not.
The voices outside fell silent, and there was quiet for several
minutes. Then a scuffling sound came from just outside the tent or hut
Fallow was in, followed by a scraping sound as the rough wooden door
was pulled aside. A single man came inside, bent over to accommodate
the low ceiling, but several other men stood just outside the
He came to within a few feet of Fallow and sat cross-legged on the
dirt floor. He was a young man, perhaps no more than thirty-five or so,
and he seemed very serious. "I am Omar," he said without
And Fallow knew immediately the man was lying. Omar had been involved
with financing terrorist activities for over twenty years. Before that,
he had attended university in Great Britain and had traveled
extensively. This man was definitely not Omar, but that didn't matter
in the least. It was this man, whoever he might be, with whom Fallow
would have to now deal.
He inclined his head. "Why do you treat me like a prisoner?"
The other man looked at Fallow sidewise. "Because you are," he said.
There was the faintest trace of an accent, but Fallow couldn't place
it. "You are from the United States government, although I don't know
which agency, and you are probably here to try to kill me."
"I don't suppose it would do any good to deny any of that."
"Probably not," replied the other man. "I don't think there's anything
you could do to convince anyone here otherwise." He sat back. "I don't
necessarily approve of cruelty, not even to one who came here to do me
harm, but my associates are not always so disposed. They already killed
your guide outright."
"Musharraf wasn't a friend of mine. I didn't trust him, either."
The man smiled. "That's good. He told the others you were probably
"Is that why you've locked me up?" Fallow had some hope this might be
true. If so, he might still convince them he was more use as a
"No," said the man. "But another man in camp saw you in Dushanbe
several days ago. He said you went by another name then."
It clicked. The man he'd seen in the tent just before he'd been hit.
"Well, what do you intend to do?"
The man shrugged. "My associates want answers. I doubt they'll think
you'd tell the truth without persuasion, so I don't imagine it'll be
pleasant. Afterwards, I would think they'll kill you, unless you have
other value." He got up. "It might not help, but I'd say you should
give them the information they want immediately. They might not
entertain themselves quite so long, then."
The rack was a crude table with a long board nailed to it crossways.
Fallow was tied to it, his arms bound at the elbows and wrists to the
board in a rude cross. Several men were sitting in a semicircle around
him, while a single very large man stood just off to the side. The man
who had introduced himself as Omar sat in the center, and seemed to
have appointed himself or been appointed as translator.
"I'm sure you know our language well enough," said the man. "But we
want there to be no misunderstandings about our questions."
He nodded to the large man, who began to do something at the fire off
to one side. Fallow preferred not to turn his head to look.
"First we will make sure you know how we intend to punctuate our
questions," said Omar. "And how we will punish lies."
The man near the fire came back to my side, and I caught sight of a
flaming torch in his hand. At some signal from the watchers, he held it
under Fallow's right hand. Instantly, searing pain lit his brain up
like a pinball machine. He bit back a scream, but would have been
unable to prevent it escaping had the torch remained longer than those
few brief seconds. His hand crawled with pain.
"We want to know who you work for, and what your mission here
Fallow cleared his thoughts and began to breathe deeply. He could
stall them with some information while he used his training and put
himself in a deep trance. The problem was that he wouldn't be able to
block all the pain, and eventually it would bring him back. If he could
convince them he was telling the truth, and tell them as much as
possible what they wanted to hear, perhaps this wouldn't last too
"I work for the CIA," replied Fallow. Not the truth, but close as
they'd understand. "My mission was to find Omar."
There was some muttering, but this had to be what they expected. When
it quieted, Omar's voice came again: "And what were your orders?"
"To identify him," responded Fallow. "To try to get close to him. And,
if I was able, to kill him."
There was renewed muttering at this. There was a guttural command, and
the flame returned to Fallow's hand. This time he was ready, but the
pain was much worse than it had been before. When the flame retreated,
he was sure he smelled burnt hair and cooking pork.
"I will ask again, so be certain," came Omar's voice. "What were your
orders upon finding Omar?"
He said it as if he wasn't Omar, as he'd claimed. But of course he
"Make sure I identified him, since we have no photographs on file,"
replied Fallow a little breathlessly. "Use my cover story to make him
trust me. And then to kill him, if I got the opportunity, or escape if
I did not."
More low voices, but the flame did not return. "How would you have
killed Omar, if you had no weapons?"
Fallow swallowed. "I'm an opportunist. I would steal a weapon I found
here, or use my hands if I had to." Put like that, sent to kill a man
and provided with no weapons, it seemed silly. "But I think I would
have died in doing so."
And so it went on.
In the end, he was actually questioned for about an hour. There was
really nothing he could give of any real use to them, and they were
largely interested to convincing themselves this had only been a poor
assassination attempt. They used torture for only a relatively small
portion of the questioning, seeming to accept his words as truth. It
was a good thing, since he doubted he could have stood up to the fire
for very long. As it was, his right hand was badly blackened and nearly
useless, and his left was blistered all along the outside edge. If he
was allowed to live, he thought he might lose that right hand.
In shock, and barely conscious from the pain, Fallow was cut loose
from the table. He was almost carried away to the tent he'd earlier
awoken in, and left bound in the darkness.
He awoke to pain, blood and darkness.
It sickened him to try to move. Almost any shift in his weight caused
an agony in his hands, and now the stiff pain made it nearly impossible
to even bend his right elbow. His was feverish, barely sensate, and it
appeared as though he'd bitten his lower lip rather deeply in his
sleep. The blood drizzled down his chin and filled his mouth with its
bitter coppery tang.
I'm going to die here, he thought bleakly.
He heard a sound and listened, attempting to tune his ears over what
sounded like a constant ringing. He eventually was able to identify as
the sound as sobbing. He was the one who was making the sound.
They came for him just before nightfall. He knew because he got a good
look at the sky as they opened the door and dragged him out of the
tent. No one said a word to him, and no one would respond or meet his
eyes as he tried to speak to them. He noticed the camp was being broken
as he was carried through.
They walked for about half an hour, eventually coming to a house. It
appeared incongruous in the territory, seeming to be a modest modern
ranch house, although one of the walls was in disrepair and almost all
the glass was missing from the windows. They took him around the back
of the house, past what had once been a garden, and out near a metal
shed. From within came the faint smell of gear oil.
They dropped him to the ground and stood whispering in low voices for
a moment, then one of the men bent down to do something. There was the
rattle of a chain and the sounds of a lock being opened, and then he
pulled what looked like a wooden trap open. He stood at the lip of a
well or pit of some kind. More whispered words, then a strange mewling
sound crept up from the hole. There was a shuffling sound and one of
the men drew back from the hole, attracting sharp words from the man
who had opened the trap. They spoke what sounded like Urdu, but Fallow
was beyond deciphering their meaning.
Two of the men picked him up while a third began cutting his bonds
with a knife, drawing a hissed intake of breath from Fallow. The man on
his right side punched him in the ribs hard enough to knock the wind
out of him, then they half-walked him to the hole. Fallow noticed the
ground was covered in creaking boards, and he realized dazedly that
this was an enclosed room and not a covered pit.
It was the last thing he thought on before they tumbled him into the
He came to suddenly with the feeling that something bad was about to
happen. It wasn't a feeling he had often in the past, but it had saved
his life once or twice.
He was in darkness again, although he could dimly see cracks of light
over his head if he looked up. He surmised that was light from the
setting sun through the boards covering this room. At best guess, there
were only minutes until complete dark. In the dim light, the reaches of
the room vanished in all directions. He couldn't get any idea how large
the room might be.
He couldn't see much of the room, but there were other things about it
he knew. Most of them raised the hair at the nape of his neck. There
was a dry, dusty smell that was immediately both stale and had the
sharpness of ammonia. There was an undertone to the air that reminded
Fallow of things dead and left long in an enclosed space. And there was
a constant noise just below the threshold of actually hearing, like a
murmuring or humming. It wasn't regular enough to be artificial, and it
had the flavor of human speech.
"Is anyone there?" he called. He hitched up against a beam or support,
wincing at a stitch in his side. Aside from everything else, he might
have bruised some ribs. "Hello?"
There was no response, but something seemed to move just out of sight
in the shadows. He kept his back against the beam, facing the direction
of the sound, and tried to use the support to help him stand. The beam
had a rough texture, like wood, and shifted slightly under his
Then it snapped. Something fell from above, barely missing him, and
something else flashed out of the shadows.
Fallow held up his hands and almost screamed as whatever it was
slammed into him, clawing at him and raking sharp claws against his
abused hands. He fended it off, backing up from its onslaught. Then it
They'd put him in a pit with some kind of crazed animal, it seemed.
His hands were throbbing where the claws had raked off burnt skin, and
he was sure they were bleeding. He cast around to find some
And the thing was on him again. This time, it just flashed past him,
but there was a snap and pain flared instantly in his right forearm.
Whatever this thing was, it was intent on disabling him. It had broken
his arm as neatly as snipping a rose off a bush.
He stood, doubled over his arm, as shuffling sounds came from the
dark. He tried to back up again, but in a flash whatever it was had
circled around behind him. It was intelligent, strong, and damned
Reaching around him in the dark, Fallow felt what seemed to be a
length of wood, probably what had fallen from the beam when he'd stood
with his back against it. I wasn't much, but it was the best he
And out of the darkness came a screaming thing. Fallow swung but
missed, and the creature swiped the club out of Fallow's hand as if he
were a child. The thing stood on its hind legs, like a man or ape, and
seemed not to be more than four feet tall. But it was wickedly strong,
latching onto Fallow's chest and crushing his arms to his side. It
struck with its head like a snake, and Fallow caught a bare glimpse of
shining eyes in a pale face above a wide, fang-filled mouth.
Then the creature clamped its jaws on Fallow's neck, just above the
collarbone. It began to chew, burying its fangs deep in his flesh.
Fallow screamed as he thought he felt a bone snap in his left shoulder
and something warm and wet began to run freely from his throat.
And all the while, there was this disgusting slurping noise as the
creature tried to nurse at Fallow's bleeding wound.
He awoke sluggishly to blurred vision and a pounding headache. There
was a wet stickiness on the front of his shirt, and his neck felt like
it had been wrenched. He tried to move, but every part of his body
hurt, and he was so weak he could barely lift his arm. He gingerly
touched his throat and his hand came back wet.
The too-bright light seeping through the slats above the pit indicated
dawn, which meant he'd been out at least ten hours. With a start, he
began to remember what had happened last night. He looked around a bit
wildly, searching for that thing that had attacked him.
That was when he saw the body against the wall.
Apparently, at some point in time, something had been placed in this
pit and had either attempted to dig its way out, or had made something
of a shallow cave in one dirt wall. He could barely see in the dark,
but something that looked like a human body was curled in on itself and
tucked closely in that hollow.
Fallow rolled over with difficulty and tried to rise up to crawl on
his hands and knees, but the pain was just too great and his strength
too insufficient. He ended up using his elbows to drag himself
The body, on close inspection, seemed to be that of a child. It was
dressed in rags or the filthy remains of clothing, and was scrawny and
underfed looking. Fallow cleared his throat, then prodded the form
trying to get some response. There was none.
He put his head down, too tired and sick to do more. That was when he
heard the regular, but shallow, breathing.
"You're alive," he whispered grimly. He reached out and rolled the
His first warning should have been the chilled feel of that shoulder.
Perhaps his addled mind should also have grasped the image of a pale
human face above the grinning fangs. When he rolled the body over he
saw the blood-soaked shreds of a shirt and a face clotted with more of
the stuff. His blood, all over the child's face and mouth.
The child - he had to think of it as a creature - moaned in his sleep,
his eyes fluttering. He tried to roll back into a fetal position, his
lips drawing back in a snarl showing glistening needle-sharp fangs,
more like slender translucent thorns, beneath those pale lips.
This was the monster that had tried to kill him last night. This was
his executioner, a vampire like it or not, who was intended to be his
killer. And it would, too, just as soon as night fell.
Fallow knew what he would have to do. He turned and sought the wooden
length he'd found last night.
No one knows how the man survived to stumble into a forward camp.
They'd been looking for Fallow for three days, since he'd been reported
lost by van Mees, but they never thought they'd find him alive.
His hands had been badly burned, although the corpsman said a hospital
would be able to save them both. His right arm had been broken just
below the elbow, and his left collarbone had been snapped in two - the
medic said it looked like it had been bitten through, if that were
possible. There were gashes on his face and neck; those on the left
side deep enough to almost sever the jugular. There were several
unexplainable bites as well, but the gashes and the bites all appeared
to have clotted quickly and begun healing already. Aside from a
concussion, fever, blood loss and some bruised ribs he was fine.
Nobody argued with him when he told a tale of being tortured and
thrown in a pit to be killed by a vampire. He said he'd caved in the
skull of the monster with a club, scattering the fragments across the
pit, then had eventually climbed to the wooden slatted roof and broken
a hole he could crawl through. They never found either the ranch house
or the pit, but they never told him they hadn't, either. Some things
are best left unsaid.
There wasn't a night afterward that Fallow didn't wake up, feeling a
small body battening onto his chest to rip at his throat. He didn't
tell that to the doctors stateside, when they sent him back. Like I
mentioned, some things are best left unsaid.
When they retired him early, he only remarked that would free him to
take care of personal business. He didn't really have friends, so there
was no one to tell about his plans in detail.
For the time, his plans for a hunting trip would remain his own little