The Deliveryman

A short story

by

Roger Pressman

 

By day we live in genteel world where we speak deferentially of other cultures; listen politely to Amnesty International; pretend we believe in the United Nations; are aghast at the suggestion of asking a prisoner for more than his name, rank and serial number. But by night we sleep in a decaying jungle of creeping horrors, one in which a suitcase nuclear weapon is simply another grotesque, a nightmare which intrudes upon the waking world …

Wretchard, The Belmont Club

15 September 2006

 

Big cities always bothered the Deliveryman. Millions of people, too many vehicles, tall, ugly buildings, too much of … everything. He picked up his pace imperceptibly, recognizing that he had been daydreaming as he walked. Well, maybe not day dreaming, exactly, more like reliving a nightmare. You’d never know it by looking at him, unless you focused on the eyes, brown-black, cold, unreadable. His eyes never smiled, even when his face did.

            The Deliveryman had seen much and suffered more in his 26 years. That’s what he was thinking about as he walked. The prison in Pakistan—three and a half years of hell. Beatings, interrogations, rotting food, and then, Musharref releases him, along with over 800 other Mujahadim. Western newspaper headlines screamed "US Outraged as Pakistan Frees Taliban Fighters," but no matter. The West needed General Musharref, and Musharref needed the internal security that this release would buy him.

            In prison, he had been reeducated. Not by the jailers, but by those who shared his dungeon-like cell, a group of six with whom he shared putrid food and those few moments of peace that the jailers allowed. He had learned much during his reeducation -- who was friend and who was foe, who should live and who needed to die. 

            He saw the hotel as he rounded the corner. It was sufficiently seedy, but not the kind that would attract the attention of the police. He walked to the counter and was greeted half-heartedly by a clerk.

            “I’d like a room,” said the Deliveryman without the usual niceties. He tried to smile, but he always felt that his facial muscles didn’t quite work properly when he made the attempt.

            “Reservation?” asked the clerk without any particular interest. It was as if the Deliveryman was listening to a telephone prompt.

            “No, but …”

            “Not a problem,” said the clerk, “I’ll need some form of identification.”

            The Deliveryman slid his passport across the counter. It identified him as a Jordanian.

            The clerk examined the passport, addressing the Deliveryman by the name printed in the document. “You’re from Jordan? We don’t get too many people here from Jordan.”

            Was this clerk trying to make conversation? Or, was he an informant, or an undercover cop, or an intelligence agent. These thoughts raced through the Deliveryman’s mind in a millisecond.

            “I’m here on business.” he said, looking directly into the clerk’s eyes, trying to read him.

            The clerk seemed disinterested. “Is the third floor okay? For your room?”

            The Deliveryman nodded. He felt the buzz of his mobile phone and reflexively placed his hand on the outside of his pocket. The call was important, but it would have to wait. He thought for just a second about the caller and the likely message.

            “Sir, how many days?”

            The Deliveryman refocused on the clerk. “What?”

            “How many days will you be staying with us.”

            “Oh. Just three. I’ll pay in advance, in cash, if that’s alright.” The Deliveryman counted out five $100 bills. “Keep the change.”

            The clerk, now smiling broadly, asked about luggage.

            “Just this small bag, responded the Deliveryman, already turning toward the single, ramshackle  elevator.”

             “I hope your business goes well,” the clerk called after him.

            “It will, I have no doubt of it.”  The Deliveryman never looked back.

 

++++++

 

The President looked up from a three-ring binder that contained the day’s intelligence briefing, stared across the table and addressed his advisors, “And this declaration this morning from – what are they called? The Sunni Brotherhood for Jihad? Is this something we should be worried about?”

The declaration was no different than dozens of others. A Jihadist group, The Sunni Brotherhood for Jihad (SBJ), had declared war, threatening death and destruction in the service of Allah. SBJ was unknown to intelligence services, until they posted their declaration on six different Islamist Web sites. Few in the main stream media even bothered to report it. The declaration was vintage Jihadist:

The day of reckoning is coming soon -- fire and death to those who challenge our beliefs, who attack us without mercy, who humiliate us without reason, who subjugate us with their actions. We are SBJ – the Sunni Brotherhood for Jihad and we are Allah’s sword and his shield. To all infidels we say submit now or suffer eternally. To all Shia, we say, embrace the true word of Allah and accept the Sunni as the true interpreters of Allah’s word.

Our threats are not empty. Fire and death are coming. We will celebrate as you descend into the pits of Hell. We are the SBJ. You are at death’s door.

A senior military officer shifted in his seat and looked down at his three-ring. It wasn’t appropriate for someone of his grade to answer the President’s question.

  The President’s top security advisor met the President’s gaze. “Sir, we’ve never heard of this group. It’s most likely just bluster, but we’re following up on it. You should know that there are some troubling indicators that are coincidental with this declaration. On page 1 there’s that report of a suitcase nuke unaccounted for in the Georgian Republic. The Russians are doing an audit to see if it’s a bookkeeping error or if it’s something more … more serious.”

The President looked pensive. He had aged significantly over the past few years – the stress was taking its toll. “We’ve already discussed the missing nuke, are you saying there may be a connection between it and the SBJ?”

“No sir, we have no such information. But none of us likes a coincidence.”

The President flipped back to page 1, glanced at the text, and then looked up. “Let’s get back to the SBJ then. How do we proceed?”

The security advisor nodded toward the military officer. “Colonel?”

The Colonel straightened his back. “Sir, if the SBJ is real and if they’re Sunni, they may have some connection to Al Qaida.”

“So,” said the President, his voice testy, “you’re going to do what, exactly?”

“First, we’ll press prisoners we already have, see if anyone knows anything. We'll also use our Shia contacts in Iraq to target AQ and AQ sympathizers, bring them in and interrogate them.”

Another advisor, the head of intelligence, interrupted. “We’re using intelligence assets we have in place -- human and signal intelligence. We’ll find out who these guys are. It’ll just take some time.”

The President leaned back in his chair. “All right, get it done.”

A number of other men, dressed in black, observed without saying a word.

++++++

The Deliveryman threw his small bag on the bed and made the call. His mobile phone was disposable, purchased earlier in the week and given to him by a anonymous teenage boy as he entered the airport in route to the big city. There had been no other calls, except for the one in the hotel lobby.

            The phone rang six times and a voice answered in an even tone, “Allah Aqbar.”

            The Deliveryman paused for a second before responding “Allah Aqbar.”

            Then, he listened. “The package has arrived. You know where to find it.”

            The Deliveryman was well trained, every detail of this delivery burned into his memory. “Yes, I do.”

            “It is the will of Allah.” The call disconnected without another word.

            The Deliveryman powered down the phone. He would receive no other calls. It was time for prayers.

Afterward, stretched out on the bed, he staring absently at the blank screen of a small, broken TV.  He was back in the Pakistani prison, one of six Jihadis who were undergoing a reeducation at the hands of a seventh man. Their teacher—they called him the Sheikh because they never learned his name—was a tall man with dark skin and black eyes. He had a full beard speckled with grey, pockmarks on his high cheekbones, and a deep scar that ran from his left ear, just above his eye to the right center of his forehead. He once remarked that it was gift from the Russians in Afghanistan.

There was something about the Sheikh’s accent. Perfect Arabic, but there was something. The Deliveryman knew better than to ask. The Sheikh oozed authority, and besides, he  had once saved the Deliveryman’s life, calling off the guards before they beat him to death. The guards had listened, and the deliveryman never understood why.

The Sheikh was revered by all six of his acolytes. His words were Allah’s truth. His logic was unassailable. His authority became absolute.

            “The West will fall,” he said with complete assurance. “Of that, have no doubt. The Americans and the British fight only when they must, and they fight weakly. They do not have the will to win, to do what they must. Their own moral code will defeat them. Of that, I am certain.”

            The Deliveryman rarely spoke during these reeducation sessions. The Sheikh spoke, and the group of six listened. Questions, when they were asked, were met with direct, but extraordinarily concise answers. Discussion was rare.

            “But remember, the Sheikh said on many occasions, “we have enemies within the Ummah, not only on the outside.  These are enemies who are dangerous, who have the will to win, who will do what they must. You know who these enemies are, do you not?”

            All six nodded like schoolboys. All six were Sunni, and they knew—the enemies were the Shia. The nameless man called them “apostates” and often referred to their leaders as “the enemies of every Arab and of the Koran itself.”

            The Deliveryman got up to relieve himself in a hotel bathroom that was predictably shabby. He looked at his watch again as he lay back in the bed.

            The day the Pakistanis released them, the group of six and the Sheikh left together. “There is something I want of each of you,” the Sheikh said matter-of-factly as they traveled by bus toward Waziristan, the lawless tribal area north of Afghanistan, and freedom.

            “”Tell us,” one of the group responded.

            The Sheikh did just that, and over the next year, their reeducation continued. Now, their plan was almost complete.

+++++++

The President hated economic policy meetings, and this one was boring him to death. Sure, unemployment was on the rise and too many poor, young people needed work, but his economic advisors would have a strategy in place before too long.  I’ve got more important things to worry about, he thought.

            He was relieved when his senior aide entered the room – any excuse to leave would be a good one. He read the note his aide passed to him and frowned. “Gentleman, I apologize, but something has come up. I’m afraid I must leave you.”

            They all stood as he left.

            “You’re sure about this?” He asked as they walked toward another part of the building.

            “I’m afraid we are. The Russians confirmed it.”

            They were waiting when he arrived—members of the military, intelligence gurus, diplomatic representatives, and political advisors, and other men dressed in black. They stood as he entered.

             “It appears we have a serious situation developing,” he said as he moved to the head of the table. “You’ve been briefed?”

            Heads nodded around the room.

            “Talk to me.”

            The intelligence chief cleared his throat. “The Russians have the guy who allowed this to happen and have already run down the buyer.”

            “Let me guess,” the President interrupted. “The buyer is Chechen.”

            “The buyer is Moslem and the country does appear to be Chechnia. The Russians tell us, unofficially of course, that he has moved the nuke along heroin smuggling routes to the south, and it’s no longer in his control.”

            “They’re absolutely sure.”

            “Mr. President, no one can be absolutely sure about anything, but they’re reasonably certain this guy is telling the truth. Their interrogation methods are … effective.”

            For the next hour, the group discussed possible threat scenarios and countermeasures. It was possible that the threat was internal – that Chechen rebels would threaten or attack Russian assets. It was also possible that the attack would target the West. But when, where, and how? And what were the consequences?

As the meeting concluded, the President made a request. “I trust we’ll use every asset we have to address this. I want a report in 24 hours.”

++++++

Children played in the street of a working class neighborhood on the outskirts of the big city as the Deliverman walked toward a small,  grey panel truck, parked at the curb with other beat-up vehicles. He reached under the wheel-well and retrieved a key from the top of the truck’s rear right tire. The motor started on the first try.

            Could it really be this easy, he thought, as he navigated out of the neighborhood and toward the city’s central core. The truck has been positioned by the Smuggler, another member of the group of six. The Smuggler’s methods weren’t known to the Deliveryman, but the best way to smuggle anything into any country was to use the proven methods of big-time drug smugglers. Entry routes were well established, corrupt officials were known and accommodated, and a network of “facilitators” could easily be established – as long as the money was right.

Traffic was heavy as the city loomed ahead, and progress was slow. He though about the others—how long had it been since they were all together? The Shiekh, their teacher, told them that they were more than simple martyrs, who die along with those who must be killed.

“Each of you was chosen,” the nameless man used to say. “You will be rewarded one hundred fold by Allah when your days are over. You will not die the death of a simple martyr. You will instead carry out the will of Allah, unknown to the Ummah, unknown to the infidels, known only to your God and to me.”

Toward the end of their reeducation, their first mission became known. On that day, one of the six expressed some concern about what they had to do. “But you ask us to kill other Moslems,” he protested.

The nameless man smiled cruelly and shook his head.  “You have learned nothing?” he asked. “Is it not the Hadith, Vol. 9, Book 84, Number 57 that tells us: ‘I would have killed them according to the statement of Allah’s Apostle, ‘Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.’ 

The Shiekh had paused to allow the words to sink in. “They are apostates and they must die. Allah wills it!”

After that day, They never saw the Shiekh again, but the group of six remembered his words and would follow them without remorse or compromise.

++++++

“The nuke is still missing.” The national security advisor sat on a couch across from the President and frowned. ”We have agents checking with every known drug dealer and smuggler in the region, and we’re offering a $10 million reward, quietly, for information that leads us to the weapon.”

            The President bounced the eraser end of a pencil on the surface of his desk, his brow knitted in thought. He looked up. “What are we doing internally, do we have any reliable intelligence that this thing is coming across our borders or, God forbid, is in-country as we speak.”

            The security advisor shook his head. “Nothing. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a real threat.”

            “The security services are on ‘code red’ alert, yes?”

            “They are.”

            “I want them to drop everything else and focus on this for the next 72 hours. Is that understood?”

            “It is, Mr. President. That’s pretty much what we’re doing already.”

            “All right. I want to have a full status meeting, all principles, at 7:00am tomorrow morning.”

            The security advisor rose. “We’ll have better visibility on this by then. I’m sure of it.”

++++++

As he turned off the ignition for the panel truck, the Deliveryman closed his eyes and exhaled. His destination—an alleyway, just south of a main street that crossed the center of the city—was understandably quiet. It was 8:15 in the evening and no one would need or use the alley for another twelve hours.

            He had never looked in the cargo area of the panel truck. The package was there, prepared by others. He was just the deliveryman, and now his job was complete.

            He locked the truck and threw the key into a dumpster, grabbed his small bag from the front seat, and walked slowly to the main street where he hailed a cab. “The airport,” he said matter-of factly.

++++++

The President was not the clown that many portrayed him to be. Yes, he often said dumb things and sometimes took extreme positions, but he had good political instincts and the courage of his convictions. As he prepared for bed, the President had a vague sense of unease. Was it the stray nuke? He wasn’t sure, but getting a good night’s sleep would be difficult. It always was.

++++++

The Deliveryman sat in London’s Heathrow airport transit lounge, waiting to board a connecting flight to his final destination. He stared at the overhead television monitor—CNN international. Just another news day.  The Deliveryman looked at his watch. It was almost time.

++++++

Rush hour was well underway in the big city. Men and women hurried on their way to work in storefronts and large office buildings, government agencies and small shops. In the central city, cabs and buses jockeyed for position as the traffic built to a morning crescendo. Children walked to neighborhood schools, dawdling as children do to catch just a few more minutes of sunshine on this beautiful late September day.

The yield of the weapon was 3.6 kilotons, small by modern standards. The mechanics are relatively simple, a sophisticated digital timer connected to an arming switch that initiates a explosive charge that forces two pieces of highly enriched Uranium to be rammed together at very high velocity. The result is a nuclear detonation.

            This sequence of events occurred at 8:14:00 am in the central city. The blast produced a white light that was visible for hundreds of miles and set off alarm bells as spy satellites reported the detonation back to their agency control centers. The initial pressure and heat of the blast vaporized virtually every building within a quarter-mile radius and killed 250,000 people instantly. Another 50,000 would die before evening and over 1 million would suffer life-changing injuries or radiation-induced illness.

++++++

The President  and his advisors were still in their meeting at 8:14:00 am. Located over a half-mile from the blast, there was a spilt-second before the pressure wave and heat arrived. A slit second before they would all die.

During that tiny interval of time, one wonders whether they had an inkling of impending disaster. One wonders whether they realized that their city was going to be on a very short list – Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and now,

Tehran, Iran.

One wonders whether the President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—a rabid Holocaust denier—could foresee the holocaust that was about to envelop his city.

One wonders whether his advisors, the Mullahs, considered the irony of their quest for nuclear weapons and their stated goal of annihilating all enemies, only to be annihilated themselves in a nuclear blast.

One wonders whether those who sanctioned wars-by-proxy in Iraq and Lebanon would finally understand that war-by-proxy is not theirs alone to use.

One wonders.

++++++