The most important business of the day was scheduled for late afternoon, when Najeeb would meet yet another foreign journalist who wanted to hire him for guiding and interpreting. A fixer, the job was called, and today's client was American.
With most of the journalists so far the routine had been pretty standard. They spent their first few days doing interviews in the streets, liking the lilt of the word "bazaar" in their copy and enjoying the way every merchant invited them inside for tea. Najeeb translated while fending off hordes of curious barefoot boys and legless beggars.
If there happened to be a demonstration that day, they covered it, taking care to stay upwind from the tear gas. Then came the obligatory visit to a madrassah, one of the religious schools that supplied the Taliban with so many foot soldiers. Black-haired boys kneeling in straight lines on scrubbed marble floors, heads bobbing as they recited the Koran. Then perhaps a chant or two of "Death to America," before collecting quotes from the resident Holy Scholar.
Najeeb and his clients always shared an awkward laugh in the taxi afterward, the reporter never quite sure where Najeeb stood on these matters, and Najeeb never eager to say, not when every cabbie was a potential informant.
Then, unless there was some new wave of refugees to badger, Najeeb would escort his client east, three hours down the bouncing highway to the calm green sterility of Islamabad, to seek out bureaucrats and diplomats who might grant travel papers for the Afghan border--because Afghanistan was the ultimate goal of every client, even if the border had been closed for weeks and would likely stay that way awhile longer.
If it ever opened, Najeeb would probably cross it as well. Not that he enjoyed gunfire. But at a pay rate of a hundred fifty dollars a day he couldn't afford to say no, because the one thing that might yet get him out of this place was cash.
Yet even as his supply of cash reached three thousand dollars and counting, the American embassy grew ever more remote. A hasty security cordon that had gone into place after September 11 had crept ever farther down the surrounding boulevards. Now, a mere five weeks later, you couldn't get within blocks of the place, and for the moment a visa was out of the question. Not only had most of the embassy staff left the country, but there was now a waiting list, a clerk told him by telephone. It might take weeks, even months. Meanwhile, reports filtered back from the United States of young Pakistani men disappearing into jails by the hundreds, gone without a word of explanation. So Najeeb bided his time and stacked his crisp fifties and hundreds, stockpiling ammunition for a battle that might never come.
Such was the drift of Najeeb's thinking that morning when, still on his knees, he was startled by a whisking sound from over by the door. Had he completed his prayers? He wasn't sure. The loudspeakers of the mosques were silent. A rickshaw whined past outside, scouting for the day's first fare. He checked his watch--still time for another cup of tea--but his eyes were drawn to a spinning white object on the floor tiles. It was an envelope, just coming to rest. Someone had shoved it beneath the door. He listened for departing footsteps, but there was only the clopping of another horse, so he rose stiffly and crossed the room, throwing open the door in expectation of discovering the crouching messenger, caught in the act.
But there was no one. Nothing. And the stairwell was silent. It was as if the envelope had fallen from the sky with the first shaft of sunlight. Shutting the door, he picked it up. Whoever had sealed the cream-colored envelope had done so without a single smudge, meaning he was either clean or careful.
Najeeb tore it open at the top and pulled out a folded sheet of paper of the same creamy complexion. There was no letterhead or official markings, only a handwritten message in black ink, neat and cramped, giving the impression of someone not accustomed to writing. At the top were the numbers "24:30," and the writing below was in Arabic. It was a passage from the Koran. With no one there to watch, Najeeb allowed himself an irreverent smile. No doubt he was about to receive a scolding from a neighbor, some lesson in morals from a well-meaning meddler.
Excerpted from The Warlord's Son by Dan Fesperman Copyright © 2004 by Dan Fesperman. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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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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