Makhmat Bisvov crawls through the hole in the wall, bending his head to avoid the jagged edges of the brick. The hole has been hammered so recently that plaster dust still hangs in the air, and he holds his breath in an effort not to sneeze.
The room beyond is large and bare, the windows blocked off with sandbags. Through the high ventilator, a single shaft of dusty afternoon sunlight penetrates the gloom. One of Bisvov’s soldiers is sitting on a stool near the sandbags, peering through a chink. He turns his head quickly as the rebel commander clambers through the aperture.
“Salam,” he says. His face is thin and young under its straggling beard. He looks exhausted. “Are you going further?”
“Salam,” Bisvov acknowledges, and glances towards the sandbags. “How is it out there?”
“Bad, sir. There’s a sniper opposite covering the road, and there are machine guns further along.” A brief volley of firing punctuates his words. Something cracks against the wall hard enough to knock flakes of plaster loose. “See?”
Bisvov nods. If the street had been open, he wouldn’t have been forced to crawl through holes knocked in building walls. The district is lost anyway – they’ll have to withdraw by the weekend at the latest. But he can’t tell this exhausted boy that his vigil is futile. “Keep watch,” he says. “What’s your name?”
“Islambek, sir.” The boy is even younger than Bisvov had thought, his limbs stick thin under the old green jacket he wears. But when the commander speaks to him, he straightens his shoulders and throws back his head proudly. “Islambek Magomadov.”
Bisvov forces a smile, touches him on the shoulder and moves on. The hole on the other side of the room is larger and older, with the rubble shifted to the side. Beyond that, a rickety wooden ladder leads down to the back alley. Bisvov hesitates a long moment before starting down it, conscious of how exposed he will be. But there’s no shooting, and he makes it down to the street without incident.
From here, he could have seen all the way down to the old railway station, which is already in the army’s hands, but a thick pall of smoke from burning buildings obscures the view. Somewhere in the maze of alleys ahead, the squad is waiting, and he has to get there as fast as he can.
The situation, as he told Zelim at the headquarters, is bad enough already, with the army on the counteroffensive. It will probably rapidly get worse.
That was before he got the news of the shooting, of course. Now things are on the way to becoming a full-blown disaster.
He has to salvage what he can from the situation before it falls entirely to pieces.
By the time Bisvov makes his way down to the crossing where it happened, the sun is setting, and the air is chill with the gathering night. The fire has burned itself out, but the smoke still hangs over the streets, reluctant to disperse in the windless air, like a malevolent spirit glaring down at the town.
The squad is waiting in a narrow alley between two lines of houses. Up ahead are the crossroads, where the shooting had taken place. They’ve managed to retrieve the corpse, and it lies next to the wall, like a drunk sleeping off too much alcohol. The dark green jacket the dead man is wearing is black with drying blood.
They’ve brought in a prisoner, and he’s already been badly beaten by the time Bisvov arrives – smashed with rifle butts, fists and boots. He lies curled up in a foetal position next to the body, his arms wrapped round his head, moaning. The squad leader hovers above him, hefting a hammer. Bisvov is just in time to grab his hand as it begins hurtling down.
“What the hell are you doing?” the squad leader demands, rounding on Bisvov, before recognising him. “Oh – it’s you.”
“Yes,” Bisvov replies. “And it’s for you to tell me what you are doing. Why were you about to kill him?”
“He’s a sniper, sir.” The squad leader’s face is flushed under his beard, his eyes glittering. “He’s the bastard sniper who killed the reporter.”
“Is he?” Bisvov glances down at the prisoner. His green and brown uniform is muddy and torn at the elbow, displaying pale skin. “How do you know?”
“We found that on him.” The squad leader beckons to one of the men, who steps forward, holding out a gun. It’s a Dragunov sniper rifle with the butt pad wrapped in black masking tape, but otherwise immaculate. The reporter’s cameraman, who had been pointedly ignoring the prisoner’s beating all the while, moves in quickly to film the rifle. Bisvov waves him off and turns his back to him. “The bastard’s been blocking the crossing all day,” the squad leader adds. “Another unit has had several wounded due to him.”
“I see.” Bisvov turns the gun over in his hands. “How did you capture him?”
“We saw where the shooting was coming from, so we sent a team out to neutralise him. They got lucky with an RPG. Didn’t kill him, but stunned him, so they brought him in alive.” The squad leader hefts the hammer in his hand. “Can I kill him now and get it over with?”
“I’m afraid not, Shamil.” Bisvov steps deftly between the squad leader and the prisoner. “I don’t hold with killing prisoners, but there’s something else. We have to take him in alive.”
“Why? What’s so damned important?” The squad leader, Shamil, pushes his face forward belligerently. He’s half a head taller than Bisvov and broader, too. “Just how many of us has this little shit killed so far that we should spare his life?”
“The reporter’s uncle...” Everyone glances at the corpse at Bisvov’s words, except the prisoner, who’s still lying curled in a foetal position. “His uncle,” Bisvov continues, “is one of the sheiks who’s financing our group. He called me as soon as he got the news. He isn’t happy, at all.”
“So? I don’t see what that has to do with us.”
“He’s coming, Shamil,” Bisvov says wearily. “He’s on his way to personally put a bullet into the killer of his nephew. That’s why we have to take this prisoner in. Because if you kill him, we’re screwed even more than we already are.”
They glare at each other, and, slowly, the squad leader’s hand falls to his side.
“The reporter was one of us,” he says. “We deserve the chance to take revenge.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Bisvov orders. “We’ll pull back and talk.”
They withdraw through a part of town which is startlingly normal. Shops and restaurants are open, and people are walking down the street, just as though there is no battle going on less than a kilometre away. But everyone has a nervous air, and they move aside when they see Bisvov and the squad coming. There’s not a smile to be seen anywhere.
“I hate them,” Shamil mutters. “Remember how they cheered when we were advancing? Now they couldn’t be happier to be rid of us.”
Bisvov glances over his shoulder. Four of his men carry the reporter’s corpse on a bed they have taken from one of the houses. The prisoner stumbles behind them, his hands tied by a rope, his head hanging. The cameraman runs past the corpse and bends quickly for a picture.
“They’re just trying to survive,” Bisvov says. “Civilians don’t react too well to dead bodies and roped captives being dragged through the street.” He watches a woman turn away quickly, covering her eyes. “You can’t really blame them for that.”
Shamil grunts. “If we have to withdraw, I hope you’ll let us shoot the place up before we leave. These people need a lesson, sir.”
“And then what?” Bisvov asks sharply. “Will they ever welcome us back if we return?”
They trudge down the street in silence, until they come to a building the unit is using as a temporary base. It had been a civilian house before the squad had commandeered it. Bisvov doesn’t know what happened to the owners. He watches as the men carrying the corpse put it in a vacant room under the stairs.
“Should we go and look for a mullah and a place to bury him?” one of the men asks.
“We’ll bury him when the uncle gets here,” Bisvov says firmly. “Until then, keep him there.”
“All right, sir. What about him – the prisoner?”
Bisvov looks at the prisoner, and sighs. “Feed him,” he says. “I’ll think about what to do with him later.”
The prisoner is a very young man, no older than seventeen or eighteen, probably a fresh conscript right out of training. He sits on the floor, hugging his knees, staring up at Bisvov with mingled fear and defiance. So far he hasn’t spoken a word, or touched the plate of flat bread and a small piece of roast chicken by his side.
“Look,” Bisvov says for the third time, “I’m not going to poison you or something. Eat, and then I want to ask you some questions.”
The prisoner’s lips, puffy from the beating he’s received, open reluctantly. “What questions?”
Bisvov crouches so he’s face to face with the prisoner. “Eat first,” he says. “We’ll talk later.”
“I don’t want to eat.” The prisoner’s accent is strong, the vowels as flat as his dusty northern plains.
Bisvov shrugs. “Suit yourself, but this is the only food you might get in a while. We’ve almost nothing for ourselves.” He’s had to use his authority to force Shamil and the others to give the prisoner even this much. “If you go hungry later, too bad.”
The prisoner’s eyes flick towards the plate, and he stretches out his hands tentatively. Bisvov watches as he tears off a piece of the bread and lifts it to his mouth, awkwardly because the wrists are still tied together. He rises to his feet slowly. “When you’re finished,” he adds, “clean yourself up from the bucket of water over there. I’ll be back.”
Leaving the boy to his lonely meal, Bisvov walks to the main room, where most of the men are eating and talking. He’s glad that they’ve caught the sniper – the sheik would have his prisoner. But he’s obscurely troubled by something, which he can’t put words to. It’s like an itch which he can’t find to scratch.
Shamil, the squad leader, leans over a plate, alternating between gnawing on a chicken leg and talking earnestly to a couple of other men. He’s drawing on the table top with a finger, probably discussing the next day’s deployment. He glances casually up at Bisvov and back, his attention on what he’s doing.
Bisvov sees the cameraman on the far side of the room, sitting alone over the remnants of his dinner, and walks over. “Salam.”
“Salam.” The cameraman is an Arab in his forties, his Semitic features covered by heavy stubble. He’s wearing a dark jacket over camouflage pattern trousers, like the dead reporter. Except for a small blue and white patch with the Al Qahirah logo over his left breast, there’s nothing to distinguish him from anyone else in the room. The cameraman looks up at Bisvov, chewing calmly, waiting.
“How are you, brother?” Bisvov sits down uninvited opposite. “I’m sorry about your colleague.”
The cameraman shrugs slightly. “It happens,” he says. “It isn’t the first time I’ve seen people die.”
“But you two were colleagues, working together, and so...”
The cameraman looks away. “We weren’t working together that long, Abdallah and I. He and I joined up just before coming to this city. Before that I was with another reporter.”
“I see.” Bisvov watches the cameraman curiously. “How long have you been in the country? You speak our language well.”
The cameraman shrugs. “About a year. Abdallah, now, he was here the same time, but he spoke your language much better. Though that’s not really surprising, is it?”
“It isn’t?” Bisvov frowns. “Why not?”
“Didn’t you know? He volunteered to come here. Unlike the rest of us, who were sent. He told me many times that it was a dream of his, to take part in your liberation struggle.”
“Oh, No, I didn’t know that. And did he like it here?”
The cameraman doesn’t answer for a while. Eventually, he looks past Bisvov at the table where Shamil is still talking to his men. “He liked it here,” he says with a slight emphasis.
“He wanted to come here, I told you. It was his dream. Besides...” the cameraman hesitates. “He was a good-looking man, you know, young and smart. And your girls are pretty.”
“Did he have a special girl?”
The cameraman’s face loses all expression. “How should I know?”
“Um.” Bisvov listens to a series of explosions in the distance. They’re far away, and disturb nobody in the room. “Do you think his death will make an impact? Your network, after all, is the only one who’s really on our side. Will it hurt your coverage?”
“No. Why should it? Someone else will come out soon enough. And the world will get to know how the government kills reporters.”
“Are you going to go back now, or will you wait for Al Qahirah to send out another reporter?”
“I’ll go back, of course. The film of his killing has to go back, doesn’t it?”
“The film of his killing?” Bisvov leans forward, surprised. “What are you talking about? You mean you got his shooting on film?”
The cameraman looks at him. “Of course. Didn’t you know that?”
“No,” Bisvov says. “Can I see it?”
“Naturally.” The cameraman rummages in a bag at his feet and brings out his camera. It’s smaller than Bisvov had expected, its pebbled plastic smeared with plaster dust from the day’s fighting. The cameraman fiddles with it a moment and passes it across the table. “Look.”
Bisvov squints at the small screen. He sees the crossroads again, the squad milling beside the wall in the foreground. They’re talking loudly among themselves, pointing fingers. The sound of firing comes, intermittently. The houses are silent, windows and doors shut tight, the occupants probably hunkering down under their beds to stay out of the way of stray bullets. He can see Abdallah, the reporter, with his microphone in his hand, back to the camera; and, in front of him, Shamil and another man arguing. The man – Bisvov recognises him as one of the four who carried the body back – makes a gesture of exasperation, steps to the edge of the wall, and suddenly takes off running across the way. There’s a brief pause, and Shalim nods at Abdallah. He’s already flexing his legs, poised to run, and then he, too, begins racing across. There’s an immediate shot from the street to the right, and then another, and Abdallah falls over, rolling, his arms wrapped around his midsection.
Bisvov blinks, and pauses the video, thinking. After a few moments he starts it again. The squad is yelling confused orders, some of the men leaning around the corner and shooting at random. On the far side of the crossing, the man who had run across first has pressed himself against a wall, and looks back helplessly.
“That’s all,” the cameraman says. “The next bit of filming I did was just when you turned up.”
Bisvov nods, thinking. “When you leave,” he says, rising, “don’t forget to turn in your blue helmet and bulletproof jacket. We’ll need them for your replacement.”
The cameraman blinks. “What’s that? What helmet and jacket?”
“Didn’t you get a helmet and jacket with Press markings?”
“No. Were we supposed to?”
“Never mind.” The room is very close, and Bisvov needs a little fresh air. “Just come and see me before you leave, all right? I’d like to talk to you again.”
“Yes, all right.” The cameraman goes back to staring at the remains of his dinner. He’s still looking down at it when Bisvov glances back at the door, and there’s no visible expression in his eyes.
Outside, the street is silent and dark. The shops have closed and the civilians have all locked themselves in for the night. Bisvov looks breathes deeply, looking up at the sky. Far away, near the railway station, flares are burning. He wonders if there will be an attack tonight, and if he ought to get back to the headquarters. But if he leaves right now, the squad might kill the prisoner out of hand – probably will. And there’s the other thing, which is bothering him more and more.
Something isn’t adding up.
The dark shape of the sentry catches his attention. The man is standing deep in the shadow, watching him. A cigarette makes a dot of red in the darkness.
“Salam.” Bisvov walks over. “You know, smoking at night can draw the attention of an enemy sniper.”
“Salam, sir.” The guard hurriedly extinguishes his cigarette. “Sorry. I’m just nervous.”
“Aren’t we all?” In the little light of the cigarette, Bisvov has recognised the sentry. It’s the man who’d run across the crossroads first. “I’m glad you made it back safely.”
“What – oh, you mean earlier today. I only got back after we’d knocked out the sniper.”
“Yes, well. You were lucky that he didn’t shoot you first.”
The sentry snorts. “I told Shamil, we should all go across together, then we’d not have a problem. But, no, he insisted I go first. I wasn’t too worried about myself, but about whoever came next. You don’t, you know, cross under fire like that, one by one. Nobody dares argue with Shamil when he gets like that, though.”
Bisvov says nothing for a while. The flares are still arcing into the sky over the railway station, making him uneasy. Machine gun fire rattles in the distance.
“Maybe they’ll try something tonight,” the sentry says.
Bisvov can smell his fear, a familiar sour stench.
“Keep alert,” he says, and turns to go back inside.
The prisoner has finished eating when Bisvov finally returns, and has made a passable attempt to wipe the crusted dirt and blood from his face and arms. He’s sitting back against the wall, legs crossed at the ankle. The guard lounging against the door, who has moved aside to let Bisvov past, snorts.
“Look at the little bastard. He was squealing like a pig all right when we were beating the shit out of him. We should’ve killed him right there.”
Bisvov glances at the guard. “Leave us.”
“My orders are to stay here, sir.”
“And my orders to you are to leave us. Go stand outside the door. You can come back when I’m done.”
With an audible sniff, the guard leaves the room. Bisvov squats opposite the prisoner, whose eyes are now beginning to fill with apprehension.
“Don’t worry,” Bisvov tells him. “I’m not going to do anything to you.” That’s only half the truth – Bisvov won’t do anything, but the sheik will be arriving in a couple of days to put a bullet through this boy’s head. But he doesn’t need to know that now. “I just want to ask you a few questions.”
The prisoner’s cracked, swollen lips part. “What questions?”
Bisvov glances at the name tag on the boy’s chest. There’s no light in the room, just what comes in through the open door, and he has to peer close. “Denilbek, is it? You haven’t been in the army long, Denilbek. Is this your first fight?”
Denilbek looks back at him blankly. Then, “It was only my second day. I was told to cover the crossroads, that’s all.”
“And you did your job. Don’t worry, you didn’t fail in your duty.”
Denilbek’s thin shoulders straighten. “If the rocket hadn’t hit so close, you’d never have got me. It made me blind and deaf.”
“I understand.” Bisvov sits back on his heels. “Were you trained as a sniper?”
Denilbek nods, proudly. “I was the best marksman in my group. They picked me right out of basic training. I’m good – if the rocket hadn’t hit so close,” he repeated, “I’d have got every one of you.”
“I wasn’t in the group, but I’m sure you could have.” Bisvov remembers what had happened three days before, when he’d been out at a sniper post looking out on the city. The sniper, Nursultan, had been an older man, a defector from the army, who had turned on his former comrades.
They had lain side by side on the roof of one of the buildings, looking down on the streets. The building itself was burned out, the interior a charred shell, but the stairs and walls still held. Also, from here they had a great view.
Nursultan had pointed at a building far away, across several streets. “There, see?”
“What?” With difficulty, Bisvov had managed to make out a tiny dot, moving slowly along a balcony just above a ledge with patches of colour which were probably flower pots. Strange, to see flowers in the middle of a vicious civil war. “Is that a soldier?”
“See for yourself.” Nursultan had handed over the rifle. It was a long smooth matt-black weapon with a bipod and a huge scope, much larger than Denilbek’s Dragunov. Bisvov had handled it awkwardly, aware of Nursultan’s slightly amused contempt.
Through the scope, the image had suddenly jumped into definition, a head and shoulders, moving, carrying something long in its arms. The tiny figure had stopped, turned around, and leaned over the balcony edge, looking down.
“I can’t make out if he’s a soldier.” Bisvov had handed the rifle back to Nursultan. “Can you?”
Nursultan had put his eye to the scope. “Well,” he’d said quietly, “we’ll see soon enough. The way he’s leaning...” He’d fallen silent, his breathing slowing, and, as Bisvov had watched in fascination, his finger had slowly squeezed the trigger. The shot had almost been an anticlimax from such a large gun, with almost no recoil.
“Got him.” Nursultan had pulled the bolt back, reloading, and handed the rifle back to Bisvov. “Take a look.”
The figure through the scope was no longer upright. It was slumped over the side of the balcony, one arm hanging down, and the long object it had been carrying was lying on the ledge below. Most of it was obscured by the flower pots, but Bisvov could make out the curved end of wood, glinting in the sun.
It had been a hockey stick.
And, tracking with the scope slowly, Bisvov had seen the ruined head, hanging. It hadn’t been clear before, in the shadow of the balcony, but now, in the sunlight, he could make out the features of an adolescent boy.
Raising his eyes from the scope, Bisvov had glanced at Nursultan. He had been watching the city, his face showing no happiness, just the satisfaction of a workman at a job well done.
Remembering, Bisvov wills himself to be calm. Little by little, he brings himself back under control. Denilbek is staring at him, his eyes wide.
“Tell me,” Bisvov says at last, “about what happened earlier today.”
“Earlier?” The young prisoner is puzzled. “You mean when your men captured me? I already told –“
“No, no,” Bisvov snaps impatiently. “I mean before that. What about the man you shot?”
“Oh, him. What about him? He ran across the street and I shot him, that’s all.”
“Just...tell me from the beginning, all you can remember.”
Denilbek is staring at him, frowning slightly. “Well...I told you I’d been told to cover the street up to the crossroads. I wasn’t that far off, just over a couple of hundred metres.”
“What was your position like?”
“I was inside an abandoned house. I’d knocked a hole in the wall of a bedroom, about half as large as a football. Sitting on the bed, I could see the street pretty well, but not all of it at the same time, obviously.”
“I knew your people were around, and –“
“How did you know our people were around?”
“They’d made several attempts to cross during the day, hadn’t they? And they weren’t exactly silent. They were talking so loudly I could hear them.” Bisvov winces at the contempt in this young conscript’s voice. “I couldn’t tell just where they were, but I knew they were there, right enough.” He pauses, thinking. “I was looking down the street, away from the crossroads, because there had been some firing from that direction. Then, suddenly, from the corner of my eye, I saw someone run across the crossroads. I was completely caught by surprise – I was aiming in the wrong direction, you understand – and I had to turn right round in a hurry. But there was plenty of time to aim, because the second man didn’t start to cross until a great deal later.”
Bisvov remembers the video, the reporter bobbing on his legs, preparing to run. “You didn’t wait to see whether he was a soldier or a civilian?”
Denilbek looks at him as if he were crazy. “Are you serious? I just saw a guy in green uniform running. Do you think I had time to, you know, look him up and down and check him out?” He shrugs. “And so I shot him, and that’s about it. And then your men leaned around the corner and began shooting blind. Their bullets were going everywhere. You know what happened afterwards.”
Bisvov nods. “All right, Denilbek. Thanks.”
“What will happen to me?” Denilbek seems suddenly even younger, and, plainly, scared. “Can you tell me that?”
“We’ll see,” Bisvov temporises. If he’d wondered earlier if the boy can be won over to their side, he’s given up the idea now. The contempt in Denilbek’s voice while talking about Shamil and his men is too stark. “I can assure you that you won’t be tortured again, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“I’m scared,” Denilbek says. “The guard there, he was saying they’ll kill me the first chance they get. If I had a gun –“
“Nobody will harm you,” Bisvov says firmly. “Just try and relax as much as you can.”
“You asked me to meet you before I leave.” The cameraman is nervous, fidgeting from foot to foot.
“You’re leaving already?” Bisvov is surprised. “I’d thought you’d stay till tomorrow at the least.”
“No. In case the other side attacks...” the cameraman falls silent for a moment, and they can both clearly hear the rattle of heavy machine gun fire punctuated by the flat sound of mortars. “If they cut us off, the stuff I have won’t get out. It’s got to get out.”
“Yes, of course. Do you have a little while to talk?”
The room is deserted. Shamil and his men have left, to check what’s going on. The only troops remaining are the sentries – the guard watching the prisoner, and the other one in the street.
“All right.” The cameraman wipes sweat from his face. “What do you want to know?”
“Just a couple of little points that have been bugging me. It’s nothing to do with you, just about your dead colleague.” Involuntarily, both of them glance towards the door to the room under the stairs. “You said he liked being here. I don’t know...it sounded like you weren’t quite telling everything about that. Did he still like it by the time he was killed?”
“Actually...no.” The cameraman sighs, softly. “Can I speak frankly?”
“Of course. You can say anything you like.”
“Well then – Abdallah wasn’t at all happy. He wasn’t like me, you know. Me, I’ve been around, I’ve seen things, and nothing shocks me much anymore. But he, he was young and idealistic. When he came here, he thought it would be a classic battle, good versus evil. And lately he’s been discovering it isn’t.”
“You mean like civilians being killed by our side?”
“Civilians, prisoners – we’ve seen things we couldn’t report even if we’d wanted to. The network would never run it. Abdallah even protested, to Shamil, a few days ago, after an old woman was...well. Naturally it didn’t do any good.”
“Shamil can’t have liked it much.”
“Of course he didn’t.” The cameraman snorts. “He liked it even less that Abdallah was fucking his sister.”
“Oh, you didn’t know that? I told you that Abdallah was one for the ladies, right? And the lady in question was Shamil’s sister. They’ve had a thing going for over a month now. I can tell you he didn’t like that at all.”
There’s a long silence which ends in a terrific explosion not far away. Bisvov and the cameraman look at each other.
“You think...” Bisvov begins.
“Doesn’t matter what I think,” the cameraman says, rising and reaching for his bag. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to get out of here. Things are about to get hot.”
“You have your pass all right?”
“Of course. I wasn’t born yesterday.” The cameraman hesitates. “Well, I can only say I hope to see you again...under happier circumstances.”
“Just one last question.” Bisvov touches the cameraman on the shoulder. “That video you showed me. Did you...were you in the habit of taking videos of every street crossing, or something, on the off chance that something might happen?”
“No, of course not. But I was asked to video this one.”
“By Shamil?” Bisvov asks, already knowing the answer.
“By Shamil, of course.” The cameraman raises a hand. “Salam, then.”
“Stay close.” Bisvov touches the back of Denilbek’s neck with the muzzle of his pistol. “If you try to run, I’ll shoot you.”
They’re moving quickly through the street, heads down. Tracer flashes through the darkness, ricocheting off walls and flying away in new directions. The government attack has developed much faster than Bisvov expected, and from the sounds they’ve broken through. He needs to get back to the headquarters, with Zelim.
But he can’t leave Denilbek behind, either. If nothing else, the young man’s finger wasn’t the only one on the trigger when the reporter was killed.
Nobody has seen them leave. When the attack started, he’d ordered the two sentries to go and contact Shamil and find out where he is. The moment they’d left, he’d taken the prisoner and set out.
There isn’t any time to lose. Bisvov cuts through an alley, pushing the young sniper ahead of him. Up ahead is the building where he’d been earlier in the day, and in the light of an exploding shell he sees the ladder is still down.
“Go up,” he orders Denilbek, pushing.
“I...” Denilbek holds up his bound wrists. “With these, I can’t.”
Bisvov fumbles in his pocket for his penknife. It takes a long time to cut through the ropes. He can almost feel the government assault approaching. Finally the ropes drop away. “Go up!”
Wincing at the returning sensation in his wrists, Denilbek starts up the ladder, Bisvov just behind. They clamber to the top and drop into the big room almost together. A flashlight beam cuts through the darkness, illuminating them.
“Who’s there?” A familiar voice, frightened. “Stop or I’ll shoot.”
“It’s me, Islambek,” Bisvov calls. He holds up his hand, displaying the pistol. “It’s all right. I have a prisoner.”
“All right, sir. I’m all alone here, and...”
The next moment the wall next to Islambek seems to erupt. Bisvov has a confused impression of sandbags cartwheeling across the room, and the young man being flung aside like a rag doll. He hurls himself forward, knocking down Denilbek, and the two of them press themselves flat on the floor as the shells continues smashing through the room.
At last it’s over.
“What was that?” Denilbek whispers in the sudden silence.
“Anti-aircraft artillery, I’ll bet.” Bisvov struggles to his knees. “They’re using anti-aircraft artillery against buildings. I mean,” he says, “you are using anti-aircraft artillery against buildings, of course.”
“I didn’t know it would be like that.”
“Nobody ever knows what it’s like at the receiving end. Except those at the receiving end. Get up, now.”
“I don’t think I can.” Denilbek’s voice is small. “I’m hurt.”
“Where?” Incredibly, Islambek’s torch is still burning, and Bisvov stumbles over and picks it up. He glances at Islambek, who’s clearly beyond help, and turns back to Denilbek. Blood is pooling near the young sniper’s right leg.
“It’s a flesh wound,” Bisvov says after examining it. “It isn’t as bad as it looks. But you can’t go on, that’s clear.”
“But...” Denilbek’s eyes are wide with fear. “What will you do with me, then?”
Bisvov ignores the question. “Raise your leg.” Taking the field dressing from his jacket pocket, he wraps it quickly round the young man’s thigh. “Lie still and don’t move around – let the blood clot. Your side will soon be here. They’ll rescue you.”
“You aren’t going to kill me?” Denilbek sounds incredulous.
“Why the hell should I? What good would that do anybody?”
Suddenly, Denilbek begins to sob. Rolling on his side, he clasps his arms around his torso and cries as though he will never stop.
Bisvov watches helplessly. “What’s wrong?”
Still crying, Denilbek shakes his head. “I...don’t know. Please, thank you. Go. Go quickly.”
Bisvov hesitates. “Salam,” he says at last. “I’m leaving.”
Muffled sobs are his only answer.
“I wonder if I’ll ever meet him again,” Bisvov says, “and under what circumstances.”
Zelim looks at him over a cup of tea. It’s the first time in days that they’ve managed to find the time to talk over what had happened. The small mountain village seems incredibly tranquil after the bloodstained retreat from the city. “What about the sheik?”
“What about him? He wouldn’t have got his revenge anyway. By the time he’d have got there, the government had captured the town.”
“I mean, would you have given this boy to the sheik if he’d been able to make it?”
“I...” Bisvov thinks. “I could make it easy on myself and say, of course not. But I really don’t know. What I do know is that the reporter was set up to be killed, pure and simple, and the murderer was Shamil.”
“Who can’t answer for the crime either, since he’s dead.” Zelim grimaces. “Some people would say everything worked out most conveniently, don’t you think?”
Bisvov nods unhappily. “Al Qahirah gets its propaganda about the government killing journalists. The sheik thinks the boy was killed along with Shamil and his squad, so there’s no threat to our funding. And Shamil got blown away in the end. So, I suppose, in a way justice was done.”
There’s a long silence, and finally Zelim puts his cup down. “What do you feel about it?” he asks gently.
Bisvov looks down at his hands. “I don’t know. But I can tell you this – Denilbek didn’t deserve whatever the sheik was planning to do to him any more than he deserved being lynched by Shamil’s men.”
“Does anybody in a war deserve what happens to them?” Zelim asks.
Still looking down at his hands, Bisvov shakes his head silently.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013