Colonel Imtiaz Afridi, India's legendary spymaster, has zeroed in on a new threat emanating from the borderlands over which he keeps watch from his surveillance center in the Himalayan foothills. An elusive warlordfaceless, nameless, and known only by his nom de guerre Guldaar, meaning "leopard" in Urduhas built an illicit empire throughout the lands that Alexander the Great once conquered, based on extortion, money laundering, corruption, and murder. His reach extends across national boundaries, and with support from elements in the CIA and Pakistan's ISI, he plays tribal factions and sovereign nations off each other and threatens to destabilize the entire, nuclear-armed region.
Seizing on Guldaar's one vulnerability, his ex-lover living with their son under CIA control in the United States, Afridi calls on agent Annapurna "Anna" Tagore to spring her loose and return her to India, where he needs her help to lay a trap. Meanwhile, when an American journalist reporting from Pakistan comes too close to the inner workings of Guldaar's empire, he is kidnapped by the Taliban and traded to the warlord as a hostage. As Afridi closes in, the American will become a critical bargaining chip in Guldaar's ruthless battle for survival.
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The carpet seller drove an ancient Honda CD 175 cc motorcycle, loaded down with Afghan rugs. Eight of them were folded across the petrol tank in front; ten more were draped over the pillion seat and another dozen tied up in a huge bundle on a carrier at the back. With difficulty, he maneuvered around the potholes in the road, nearly tipping over several times, as the bike whined and fumed, its engine complaining of neglect. When he reached the diplomatic enclave, the surface of the road improved and he picked up speed, though the motorcycle remained unstable under its precarious load. With his wind-tangled beard and unruly turban, the driver could easily have been a Tartar horseman from five hundred years ago, arriving in the city after crossing over the Hindu Kush. He took a corner slowly, one foot stretched out in case he skidded. Twenty meters on ahead, he stopped at a police checkpoint, where two armed constables lifted the carpets cautiously to see if any bombs or weapons were hidden underneath. After a cursory inspection, they waved him through.
Five minutes later, he pulled up at a high steel gate, where another set of guards examined him with greater scrutiny. He produced a wrinkled ID card issued by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The card had been laminated, but the plastic was peeling away at the corners. After speaking on their walkie-talkies, the guards frisked the carpet seller, then showed him where to park his motorcycle. He shouldered a load of rugs and carried them through the gate, dropping these on the verandah of the house inside. It was a modern two-story residence, rented out to the US embassy by a senior judge in the Punjab High Court.
Fetching the heaviest bundle of carpets last, the Afghan untied the cloth in which they were wrapped. He spoke to himself, mumbling into his beard ... perhaps a prayer, or a curse, or a final calculation of the price.
The diplomat emerged from his house, accompanied by a cook, who would serve as interpreter, though the carpet seller knew enough English to handle any transaction. Greetings were exchanged. Salaam Alaykum. Wa Alaykum Salaam. The diplomat had been posted in other Muslim countries and spoke halting Arabic and Farsi, as well as a smattering of Urdu. Tea was offered, and the cook went off to brew it in the kitchen.
"Very old. Three hundred years." The Afghan tossed a rug on the terrazzo floor.
Knowing nothing of carpets, the diplomat pretended to inspect the texture, his fingers brushing the tasseled border, then feeling the weight of the knotted wool. The first few carpets were traditional Bokhara patterns, with medallions in red and black with hints of indigo. The diplomat had been warned about the wiles of Afghan carpet dealers, but this man came recommended by a Pakistani acquaintance who claimed to know the value of a carpet. He examined several prayer rugs with mihrab designs. They appeared to be well used, with spots where the knees and foreheads of the faithful had worn away the pile.
"This one ... beautiful. Two hundred knots per square inch," said the merchant.
"How old is it?"
"One hundred twenty years. It belonged to my grandfather. I carried it with me when I escaped from Mazar-e-Sharif."
The cook arrived with cups of tea and remained silent. The American seemed to like this carpet. It had a floral pattern and more colors than the others, mustard and green, against a background of purples and reds, not a conventional Afghan motif.
"What kind of flower is this?" the diplomat asked.
The carpet seller traced the pattern with his fingers. "Anaarkali," he said. "Pomegranate."
The Afghan slurped his tea before answering.
"Dollars," the Afghan said with a dismissive laugh. "Only dollars."
He drew the carpet aside and removed another from the pile and threw it on the floor.
"Six thousand. This one is two hundred years old, from the time of Shah Shuja."
The carpet appeared more geometric with hexagonal shapes, a mosaic made of dyed yarns — ochre, red, and yellow, as well as an intricate latticework of patterns along the edges. The American lifted a corner and examined it carefully.
"What's this?" he said.
Knotted into the border was a curious design, repeated every six inches. At first, it looked like a lizard or some kind of locust, until the diplomat recognized what he was looking at: an AK-47. It was unmistakable, a tapered stock and magazine protruding beneath the barrel.
"Two hundred years old? You're kidding me. That's bullshit." The diplomat shook his head at the carpet seller's deceit. The pattern was like an optical illusion. Each hexagon resolved itself into the fuselage of a helicopter gunship, and the floral motifs above them were rotor blades. Either an American Apache or a Russian Mi-24 Hind — the diplomat couldn't make out which. The Afghan remained impassive, as if the provenance of his carpets were immaterial.
The next rug he threw out was the largest in his bundle, six feet wide by nine feet long. It was mostly rust and gold, with a diamond border of blue and red. In the center was the stylized shape of an animal, a large cat with a tail that curled up in a crooked S. The wool had been dyed a pale amber hue. Covering this were the leopard's spots, an irregular pattern of rosettes, like five daubs of ink, or the smudged petals of a rose.
"Tiger," said the cook with a grin.
"Guldaar," the carpet seller corrected him, knowing that the diplomat would choose this one. Minutes later, the haggling began. When the Afghan demanded $4,000, the cook intervened, speaking in Urdu and trying to bring down the price by half. After twenty minutes of negotiation, during which the seller extolled the workmanship of the carpet and the rarity of its design, they settled on $2,400.
Telling the cook to bring another cup of tea to seal their transaction, the diplomat counted a wad of hundred dollar bills into the carpet seller's hands. Both men remained silent as the money was handed over, along with a clear plastic case, the size of a thin matchbox, discreetly tucked in amongst the currency notes. After counting the dollars, the carpet seller stuffed them into the pocket of his vest, then examined the plastic case. A memory card lay inside, no bigger than a fingernail. The carpet seller weighed the tiny object in his callused palm before slipping it into an inner pocket of his vest.
Neither man spoke, though their eyes met in the shared knowledge that this transaction was far more valuable than the sale of a carpet. Looking down at the leopard's rampant profile, each of them considered the wild savagery of the beast knotted into the rough fabric of the rug, a cunning predator whose only enemy was man.
Just then, the cook emerged again carrying two cups of tea on a wooden tray. He offered it first to the carpet seller, who took his cup by the rim instead of the handle.
A moment later, when the cook turned away, he found an arm around his throat and one hand firmly wedged beneath his jaw. The teacups fell to the verandah floor with a sudden crash. Within seconds the cook's neck had been snapped. The carpet seller performed this fatal maneuver with ease, as if he had done it many times before. Loosening his grip, he let the body slump to the floor and fall across the just-sold carpet. There was no sound beyond a choked whisper and a swift grappling of arms followed by the decisive crack of vertebrae. Immediately, the diplomat reached for a SIG-Sauer P224 that he carried in a shoulder holster under his jacket.
The Afghan seemed unperturbed and looked down at the shattered cups of tea.
"What the fuck is going on?"
"Informer," the Afghan said in English, looking down at the crumpled figure on the floor.
"How do you know?" the diplomat asked, still holding the handgun ready.
The Afghan shrugged and leaned down to pick up an armful of carpets, before hoisting them onto his shoulder. He showed no fear, and the diplomat slowly lowered his gun.
"Next time, you should be more careful who you hire," said the rug merchant.
"ISI?" the diplomat asked.
"No, RAW," the Afghan replied. "Indian intelligence."CHAPTER 2
A Winnebago Sightseer drove steadily over the rolling hills of central Ohio, between freshly planted fields of soybean and corn. Farmhouses with barns and silos were set back from the narrow two-lane road. A yellow Mustang was parked beside a mailbox with a FOR SALE sign taped to its windshield. One of the farmers had erected a billboard advertising pedigreed collies and grooming services. Another had a roadside vegetable stand, which was empty this time of year, too early in spring for anything to ripen. The new leaves on the maples were a bright, translucent green. A dead raccoon lay on the gravel margins of the road, paws reaching toward the sky.
The driver of the mobile home was a ruddy-faced, silver-haired man wearing dark glasses against the glare of the morning sun. Next to him sat a woman with her hair permed and colored, staring out at the passing landscape with a look of boredom in her blue eyes. They could have been anyone, a retired couple driving their RV across the country, along back roads, through the heartland of America. The Winnebago had Maryland plates and a bumper sticker that read ROAD TRIPPERSFOR ROMNEY!.
Ahead of them, half a mile farther on, lay a crossroads. Approaching from the right was an Amish carriage, a black buggy drawn by a pair of gray horses. As the two vehicles drove toward the junction, it looked as if they were headed for a collision. Neither showed any indication of stopping. The couple in the buggy rode in silence, the man in his thirties with a black beard and broad-brimmed hat, his young wife beside him in her drab blue dress, blond hair pinned up beneath a starched white bonnet. As they approached the crossing, it was like a choreographed moment of anachronism, when springs in clocks explode, calendars fly backward, and the sun reverses direction in the sky.
But none of this happened. Instead, the RV accelerated, and the Amishman drew back on his reins. The women waved at each other politely as they drove on. Time and history continued uninterrupted like the ribbon of asphalt stretching across the land.
Another mile on ahead was a sign: Welcome to Eggleston, Ohio. Population 16,438. The RV passed a couple of churches surrounded by empty parking lots and a strip mall with a J. C. Penney, and a Home Depot. A golf course skirted the north side of town. Beyond it stood a large corporate facility, some kind of factory or warehouse, with a private airfield. A small jet was taking off. By now the road was lined with homes, each on its own parcel of land. The speed limit decreased to thirty miles an hour. Children were playing soccer outside a school. The RV turned left, its red indicator blinking.
Bromfield College. A large stone plaque set in concrete marked the edge of the campus. The architecture changed from clapboard and aluminum sidings to yellow bricks. Students were passing between classes. Tennis practice was in full swing on the courts beside a horseshoe of dorms. After passing the library with its Corinthian columns, the RV took a left turn. Fraternity housing lay across the street, a beer keg upended on an uncut apron of grass.
Another right and then a sharp left onto College Lane. The RV was almost too large to negotiate the side street. The driver swung wide to take the turn before coming to a halt beside a split-level home, the kind of place assistant professors own before gaining tenure. It was a tidy, modest house, with clipped yews and a sloping lawn.
The side windows of the RV were small and tinted, like portholes on a yacht. Neither the driver nor the woman beside him made any move to get out. A squirrel was foraging in the rain gutter along one side of the house, but that was the only movement. Seconds later, the rear doors of the Winnebago opened and six uniformed men leaped out, each of them padded with body armor, helmets strapped to their chins. They cradled lightweight HK416C assault rifles in gloved hands. Fanning out across the yard in silence, the team moved with rehearsed efficiency. One of them tested the basement door as a second stealthily entered the screened porch. A third crouched next to the garage. Another two approached the front door. At a signal from the team leader, one of them rang the doorbell. Nobody answered. He rang it again, making the melodic chimes echo inside the house.
After the second try, the two men put their shoulders to the door and broke the lock. At the same instant, the man on the porch entered through the kitchen. A saucepan sat on the stove, half full of oatmeal. There was the smell of burnt toast. In the living room, a television was on with the volume muted, a morning talk show. The assault team moved cautiously, signaling with their hands. Boots were silent on the carpeted floors. A vacuum cleaner sat next to the coffee table, its hose coiled like a python. Two bedrooms lay at the rear, a bathroom in between. One of the pictures in the hall was a photograph of the Gateway of India in Mumbai with a woman standing in the foreground, holding a bouquet of tuberoses in her hands.
The room on the right was empty and looked as if it had never been slept in, with a floral bedcover that matched the drapes. With their rifles covering their teammate, two men watched intently as the third approached a closed door. Instead of kicking it open, the armed man gently twisted the knob and pushed, then flattened himself against the wall.
As the door swung open, they could see a quilt folded loosely at the foot of the bed. A pair of high-heeled shoes lay to one side, along with a blue sweater discarded carelessly on the carpet. The room smelled of cigarettes. As they entered, the assault team saw a woman standing by the window, which was open. She was smoking and staring out across the lawn, toward a bed of crocuses and daffodils. When she turned to face them, the woman exhaled a thin stream of smoke that coiled upward like a question mark from her lips. Though the armed men were trained to disable or kill without hesitation, she froze them with her pale green eyes. Her hair was gray, with wisps of gold. Her fingers held the cigarette in an attitude of unflinching surety, as if she had been expecting their arrival.CHAPTER 3
Taking off from Leh, sixty seconds after daybreak, the Aerospatiale Lama headed north, leaving the Indus Valley and setting course for the Eastern Karakoram. Nothing else moved. Not even a shadow. Beneath the helicopter everything seemed lifeless. The percussive murmur of its rotors was almost musical.
Colonel Imtiaz Afridi watched the first rays of sunlight tinting the ridges, reflecting off the snow with brassy radiance, spilling over rocks and sand, illuminating the harsh terrain. Afridi was bundled up in a flight suit, over which he wore a down parka. An insulated helmet protected his head and glacier goggles shielded his eyes, yet he felt exposed. The pilot kept low to the ground, no more than a hundred feet above the rocks. At this hour of the morning, the air was perfectly still. Two lakes appeared in the distance, pools of ice that observed their progress with unblinking omniscience.
At first the mountains seemed distant, scattered along the ruffled hem of the horizon, but as they entered the Nubra Valley, ridgelines began to converge and one summit led on to the next, folding and unfolding like an elaborate origami of peaks and passes. Afridi recognized the shape of the land, and the winding course of the river below. He had flown here dozens of times and had studied the topography, from early British survey maps to recent satellite images.
They kept to the eastern slope of the valley, never climbing above the silhouette of the ridge, though the helicopter was equipped with instruments that made it invisible to those who might try to track its flight. Afridi spotted a road below them, an army fuel dump, and farther on, an encampment of fiberglass huts surrounded by disheveled tents.
As they came around a bend in the river, he caught sight of a sheer ice wall, rising almost eight hundred feet and stretching from one side of the valley to the other. Though he had witnessed this scene more times than he could count, the sight of the glacier always pinched a nerve inside Afridi's chest.
Siachen. The highest battlefield in the world. On either side, unyielding mountains were armored in ice and rock. The frozen carapace of the glacier, littered with debris, was an impervious shield, a barren wasteland. Yet men sacrificed their lives to protect this desolate frontier. Hostile armies of India and Pakistan faced off across the shifting surface of Siachen. For every soldier killed by enemy fire, nine others died from altitude and exposure. Here the fault lines of history converged with the tectonic fissures of Asia, an apex of collision and partition. Less than a hundred kilometers farther west lay the northern frontiers of Afghanistan.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Dalliance of Leopards"
Copyright © 2017 Stephen Alter.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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