Friday, January 26, 2007

Happy Hour in Moktada Town

The Bunker of the Tikriti

Neon lights crackled, popped and glowed in the vice quarter of Baghdad’s Red Zone, where the 21st century mercenaries partied toward dawn. The seediest stretch of the old Christian district, public sin indulged by a more forgiving God. Vintage Arabic turbopop blared from the war-worn jukeboxes of the open air bars that populated two small blocks, competing with a bit of Nazareth cowbell booming from some roughneck’s anachronistic ghetto blaster. KBR truckers, private military contractors, power company engineers, third-string tabloid reporters and a few AWOL grunts played grabass with gypsy whores in the dimly flickering fluorescence, beyond the distracted purview of the military police. The thousand year-old street smelled of a toxic brew of steel, sweat, spilled homebrew, tobacco, public urination, cordite and semen. A zone of timeless medievalism, one of the shadowed spots where men of war and world-weary rogues capture the diminishing day in a milieu of imminent death. On one crumbling wall a fellow had spray-painted “Carpe Diem,” by which he meant “hold it down, tie it up, torture it, and fuck its brains out.”

The most raucous of those dens was called “Vice City” among the PlayStation-trained Army teens that patrolled the streets, though you wouldn’t find that name or any other marring the entrance. Within, the dense crowd roared in a dozen dialects — a multicultural muezzin chorus heralding the apocalypse to a South London drum & bass backbeat that shook the ancient pillars holding up the roof. The customers came in every color. Iraqis dominated, dark eyes ringed with darker circles and thick black moustaches wet with the bar’s backroom Bourbon, but there were plenty of ugly mother white guys ranging from pasty to pink to the battered brown of saddle leather.

A huge Russian stood with his back against the wall, silently sipping grain alcohol straight up, Bizon submachine gun strapped tight. A middle-aged counterfeiter from Karachi displayed his latest Benjamin Franklins to a natty Turk stroking the comely Kurd on his lap. A posse of Red State Blackwater boys hogged the tables near the door, trading insults over tandem games of Texas Hold ‘Em. Behind them, the otherworldly vocal tremors of Tuvan blues emanated from a trio of plastered Mongolian soldiers out of uniform, and a lonely Australian airman trying to teach them a rugby anthem.

On a television over the bar, a young Chuck Norris tried to use his Oklahoma kung fu to restore the vertical hold.

A small crowd gathered around another table, listening to a professional kidnapper from Damascus drunkenly brag his planned abduction and ransom of a famous blonde American news anchor spending the week at the Sheraton.

“This so-called journalist,” the Syrian shouted in lubricated English, “looks more like a character from some ridiculous American shampoo advertisement.” He stopped for a big swig from his sixth Shiner Bock, lifted from the cooler one of the Americans had pulled from the back of his armored Tahoe. “They think she’s safe behind the concertina?” he said, spewing foam. “I own every housekeeper in that place. I’ve been scoping out the plan for weeks. We’ll take her straight out of her bed, down the back stairs, out with the trash, and have her reporting live from a cage in Khatuniyah by morning.”

He pursed his lips in a wet kiss.

“Those kaffirs in New York will have their lawyers sending me more money than Uday has stashed in his secret bunker!”

The Syrian turned in annoyance at a hard tap on his shoulder. To his surprise, a tall white teenager devoid of any semblance of military demeanor stood over him. A weathered black T-shirt revealed a sinewy physique that had never darkened the doors of a school gymnasium. His massive hands disguised the size of the serrated folding knife he absent-mindedly fiddled with. He brushed untamed locks of long hair the color of raven feathers from his eyes, revealing a puzzled expression.

“I thought they captured Uday and his brother,” said the youth in an oddly rounded American accent. “Put more holes in them than an East Texas anthill. What are you talking about?”

“You believe that Pentagon propaganda?” said the Syrian, playing the gathering crowd. “Any fool knows that the corpse they showed on TV was a body double, a trick to flush out the father. Psychological warfare — Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid by way of CNN. I tell you Uday sits right now, comfortable in his safehouse beyond Falluja, with all his favorite playthings and a stolen fortune worthy of the Prince of Wales!”

“If everybody knows it,” said the youth, “why hasn’t somebody ratted him out and delivered him to V Corps? Take his money and the million dollar bounty while they’re at it.”

The Syrian’s eyes popped with astonishment, before his mouth opened with a roar of joyous laughter and his companions joined in.

“Listen to this young Boogshie!” he bellowed. “He’s going to capture the Crazy One. You watch too many Hollywood movies, you stupid fucking American.”

“I’m from Minnesota,” the youth said, indignantly. “Arrowhead country. Almost Canada.”

“Listen to me, Minnesota,” said the Syrian. “In this new Iraq, there are more adventurous scoundrels gathered than anywhere else in the world, and armies that can conquer whole continents. If Uday could be extracted from his hideaway, or his treasure pilfered, it would have long ago happened. Uday’s lair is a secret house, buried inside a mountain in the western desert, territory beyond the control of your Army, beyond even their bombs. If you could find it, and penetrate just the outer perimeter, you would face a small army of ex-Revolutionary Guards and fresh Saudi mujahideen, who would cut off your girlish head and fuck your eyes out before feeding it to Uday’s elephant man pet.”

The Minnesotan scowled at the insult. “They are watching for soldiers in groups, with air cover and armor. One lone tracker could sneak right past them.”

“Listen to Rambo!” shouted the Syrian, gesticulating at the heavens with ten fingers splayed. “Maybe they will beam him from his computer-generated spaceship straight into the house at the heart of the mountain.”

The Minnesotan flinched at the thunder of mocking laughter that filled his ears. Sarcasm was an art rarely practiced on the Iron Range, where a bad enough insult might lead to a drowning in the rapids or an unexplained mining accident. He resolved to leave, but the Syrian egged him on.

“Come on, big boy!” he shouted, slapping his overfed gut. “Tell these men, who have only been fighting and stealing since before your American whore mother wet the barn floor with your milky flesh — tell them how you will steal the head of the secret police from the inner chambers of his private fortress!”

The lights dimmed for a moment then tried to come back up, one of the frequent brownouts endemic to the city.

“There’s always a path to track,” said the Minnesotan. “All you need is five senses, a lot of patience, and bigger balls than they must grow in Baghdad.”

“Fool!” shouted the Syrian, knocking his chair to the floor as he stood. “You dare to question our courage?”
The Minnesotan turned to leave.

“That’s right,” cursed the rogue, pushing the strapping youth from behind and brandishing a small pistol. “Get out of my bar!”

The lights flickered again, then disappeared completely. The shadows shuddered with the sounds of breaking glass, screaming men, grunting women, colliding furniture, two gunshots, and curses in a dozen tongues. When the lights came back on, the center of the room was cleared except for the body of the Syrian, a broken bottle of Shiner jammed into his neck, blood pooling on the floor underneath him. The Minnesotan was nowhere to be seen.

-- From "The Bunker of the Tikriti," in Cross Plains Universe: Texans Celebrate Robert E. Howard (2006)

Baghdad graffitti by Arofish.

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