Anthony whispered hoarsely, "Don't hold me down."
Ibrahim regarded his prisoner, then nodded at the two warriors pinning his arms. Very slowly, very carefully, they loosened their grip. Anthony filled his lungs with air. Tears brimmed in his eyes as he turned away and bit hard on his sleeve. When it was over Ibrahim himself pressed a cloth to the open wound to stop the bleeding. "El-hamdou lillah," he said. "You could be Muslim."
Five days later, with Anthony hobbling on a makeshift crutch next to Maria during one of their morning walks, Ibrahim's prisoners witnessed the arrival of the gun merchant. A swarthy-skinned man with a long pointed beard, he wore opaque aviator's sunglasses and a Brooklyn Dodgers baseball cap with a handkerchief hanging off the back to protect his neck from the sun. He and two black Bedouins drove a line of mules charged with long wooden crates through the main gate and began unpacking their cargo onto woven mats. In short order they had set out rows of Chinese AK-47 assault rifles, American World War II bazookas, German Schmeisser MP-40s, as well as piles of green anti-tank mines with American designations stenciled on them. As the morning wore on, mujaheddin drifted up to the compound from the hamlets spread out below it and began to inspect the weapons. Some of the younger fighters looked as if they had stumbled into a candy store. Calling to his friends, a teenager wearing camouflage fatigues rammed a clip into an AK-47 and test fired a burst at some tin cans atop the back wall, causing the mules to bray in fright. Ibrahim, followed by his everpresent bodyguard, appeared from one of the stone houses set against the cliff to talk with the gun merchant. Tea was brought and they settled onto a mat to haggle over the prices, and the currency in which they would be paid. The two men came to an agreement and shook hands on it. Rising to his feet, the gun merchant noticed the two prisoners watching from a distance and apparently asked his host about them. Ibrahim looked across the compound, then said something that caused the gun merchant to turn his head in Anthony's direction and spit in the dirt.
"I don't think Ibrahim's visitor likes us," Anthony told Maria.
"He's a Falasha, judging from the look of him," Maria said. "I wonder what an Ethiopian Jew is doing so far from home."
The delicate woman who spoke English with a thick Eastern European accent kept Eugene on the phone as long as she dared. He had to understand, she said, that his calls were moments of grace in an otherwise bleak existence. Aside from her friend, Silvester, she was utterly alone in the world. When the phone rang and Eugene's voice came over the line, well, it was as if the sun had appeared for a fraction of a second in a densely overcast sky and you had to squint to keep the light from hurting your eyes. Oh, dear, no, she didn't mind having to find another furnished apartment after every phone call. Over the years she had more or less become used to the routine. And she understood that, to protect Eugene, it was important for him never to reach her at the same number twice. Thank you for asking, yes, she was well enough, all things considered...What she meant by that was: considering her age and the dizzy spells and nausea that followed the radiation treatments and her miserable digestion and of course the tumor eating away at her colon, though the doctors swore to her that cancers progressed very slowly in old people...Oh, she remembered back to some hazy past when men would say she was exceptionally attractive, but she no longer recognized herself when she looked at the curling sepia photographs in the albumher hair had turned the color of cement, her eyes had receded into her skull, she had actually grown shorter. She didn't at all mind his asking; quite the contrary, Eugene was the only one to take a personal interest in her...Please don't misunderstand, she didn't expect medals but it would not have been out of place, considering the decades of loyal service, for someone to drop a tiny word of appreciation from time to time...Alas, yes, she supposed they must get down to business...She had been instructed to inform Eugene that his mentor required him to organize a face-to-face meeting with SASHA...the sooner, the better...He would discover why when he retrieved the material left in SILKWORM one seven...Oh, how she hoped against hope that he would take care of himself...Please don't hang down yet, there was one more thing. She knew it was out of the realm of possibility but she would have liked to meet him once, just once, only once; would have liked to kiss him on the forehead the way she had kissed her son before the Nazi swines hauled him off to the death camp...Eugene would have to excuse her, she certainly hadn't intended to cry...He would! Why, they could meet in a drug store late at night and take tea together at the counter...Oh, dear child, if such a thing could be organized she would be eternally grateful...It could be a week or so before she found a suitable furnished apartment so he could ring back at this number...She would sit next to the phone waiting for him to call...Yes, yes, goodbye, my dear.
Excerpted From The Company: A Novel of the CIA, starting at page 716 (hardback) by Robert Littell by permission of The Overlook Press, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © April 2002, Robert Littell. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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