“Nice way to receive a battlefield promotion.”
“And that’s exactly what happened,” Butler continued. “Apparently this Taliban commander was a bit dim. The al Qaeda leadership was looking for an excuse to get rid of him and without their lifting a finger Karim took care of their problem. The Taliban didn’t make a stink, because this particular commander had made a habit of burning through fresh conscripts.”
“Anything after this incident?” Rapp asked.
“We’re working on compiling and checking the stories, but he was known to be a tough and disciplined commander with a wicked temper.”
Cheval said, “And apparently wasn’t afraid to engage in a little self-promotion.”
“How so?” Rapp asked.
“He gave himself a nickname.”
Butler asked, “Care to hazard a guess?”
Rapp was used to connecting the dots, and this was something he should have picked up on several minutes ago. With a shake of the head he said, “The Lion of al Qaeda.”
“Exactly,” Cheval answered.
Rapp looked at Butler’s file and then Cheval’s. “Please tell me you have one more photo to show me. We’ve been after the Saudis but they haven’t given us shit. They’re denying that he’s even one of them.”
“That does not surprise me,” Butler said. “Sorry to disappoint, but we have no photo at the moment. I promise you, though, we are throwing a lot of resources at the problem.”
HAKIM came to, and the first thing he noticed was a lack of movement. There was no gentle swaying back and forth and the occasional bounce. They were either on a very smooth road or they had stopped. His head moved to the right and then the left. He felt fluid sloshing around inside somewhere and then a stabbing sensation in his ear. He knew instantly his left eardrum had been burst. After clenching his jaw for a long moment he opened his eyes and looked around the bedroom in the back of the RV. The shades were still drawn on the two windows, but a bit of light still managed to make it through.
Something felt oddly different this time. To say that he had been a bit out of it would be a huge understatement. Hakim had no real sense of time, but it felt as if he had slept on and off for most of the day. Occasionally something would hurt so badly he’d come to for a moment, and then things would get hazy again. His memory was foggy, but at one point he seemed to remember Ahmed sticking something in his arm. That image jogged a few things loose and he suddenly realized he was really thirsty. He tried to sit up, but it was too painful. A few ribs were surely broken.
Reaching out, he managed to get hold of the curtain that separated the bedroom from the kitchen area. He moved it a few inches and saw Karim sitting in the booth talking to Ahmed. Maps were spread out on the table and they were talking in hushed tones. Karim sensed he was being watched. He lifted his dark eyes and looked through the gap at the man he had pummeled earlier in the day.
Hakim did not look away. He stared back at his friend with his sliver of a left eye, the right one still puffy and closed. He wanted Karim to have to look at his battered face. He wanted Karim to know exactly what he had done to his supposed friend.
Ahmed realized Hakim was awake and quickly slid out of the booth. He yanked open the door to the half-sized refrigerator and grabbed a bottle of water. He quickly brought it over to Hakim and after gently cradling his head, he pressed the bottle to his swollen lips.
Hakim took several sips and after a long pause a few more. When he felt he could speak without his voice cracking he asked, “Where are we?”
Ahmed looked over his shoulder and Karim reluctantly nodded for him to go ahead. He looked back at Hakim and said, “We are not sure.”
“Not sure. You mean we are lost?”
Hakim didn’t know if he should laugh or cry. “How could you be lost? Where is the GPS device?”
Ahmed did not answer. From behind, Karim announced in a quiet but noticeably angry voice, “It was left in the house.”
Hakim looked up at the ceiling and laughed silently. He had taken so many precautions. How could they have screwed it up? He wasn’t worried for a second that they would remain lost. He had driven all over this part of America. He had spent more nights than he could ever recall sitting in lonely roadside motels poring over maps, so many that he imagined he could win nearly any geography competition in the country. “What time is it?”
Ahmed looked at his watch. “Almost five in the evening.”
“When did we leave the farm?”
“Around nine.” Ahmed added, “I think.”
“It was eight-forty-seven,” Karim announced with confidence.