IX. The Ultimate Sacrifice
I was at my desk reading the news online. My mood was a mix of high and low. Low, because I felt I had nothing to live for; and high, because I’d hit the bottom, and I’d convinced myself the only direction I could go is up. It’s BS, of course. Bottoming out doesn’t mean you’ve landed in a teacup. When one bottoms out in the desert, there are still 360 degrees of flat terrain in every direction.
When I was depressed, as I was that day (my agent, Tom Speck, had stopped returning my emails), I read the op-ed section. It was a cheap way to feel superior, by looking down on the opinions of others. One article in particular had caught my attention. It was a view that could only come from the States. The author decided the war in Iraq had taken a turn for the worse. Someone in Washington D.C., he surmised, had flushed the giant toilet and the war was over half-way down the bowl, swirling clockwise so quickly that the rest of America assumed time was standing still. In a few months or years, though, the war would be sucked out of sight into the monstrous, clammy coil of pipes called history. For a period of time Iraq would remain a piece of crap—there was no helping that (an assessment for which the author sounded almost apologetic). But given enough time and ingenuity and money, the great technicians of statecraft would reprocess the war, dehydrate it, filter it, and discard the waste. The remainder, a nutrient-rich compost, would be planted with a red rose, a flower with such a full blossom and divine scent and deep red hue that everyone will agree that its splendor could only emanate from one thing: victory.
What a dick! I thought, slapping the laptop shut. He might as well have written his op-ed about World War II, the Spanish-American War, or the Crusades. Of course they’ll come out smelling like roses; that was the only sure thing going into this war! And this guy will be able to say I told you so because it’s right there in the paper. How perfectly smug he must feel sitting in his kitchen in the Virginia countryside, drinking coffee and reading the opinion aloud to his family, sounding so definitive, so authoritative while he nibbles on a warm pain au raisins. He’s no doubt getting nice and jacked up on caffeine in anticipation of the hundreds of congratulatory emails he’d reply to that day for his wonderful prescience, for his regurgitation of the obvious.
Meanwhile, back in Iraq, a hundred thousand Americans sat in their respective hooches, preparing to go about their day, having mistakenly assumed they were performing an original piece of work.
Putting down the author made me feel incrementally better, enough at least to take a walk around the perimeter. I pulled on my jacket, taking notice of my room as I walked to the door. The flimsy mattress, the faux wood paneling, the reams of pilfered printer paper stacked beside my desk like pirate booty. A sudden pang of affection for my quarters hit me. It’s amazing what you can get used to. An aluminum box with heat and a place to sit and sleep can become home, when your options run out. My room in N.Y.C., which I was still renting from Stanley, was less vivid these days. I remembered the old books that lined three of the walls, a single window on the fourth wall opening into the air shaft between buildings, a futon resting on pallets, mounds of pillows in blue and green plaid flannel covers, clothes hanging from hooks and draped over chairs and stuffed like bookends into shelves. What was slipping my mind was the sweet, musty scent of the old Persian rug underfoot, or the moist heat of the radiator in winter, or the sounds and smells meandering through the air shaft like winsome spirits, pots and pans at dinner time, a child practicing violin, a domestic quarrel, a roast chicken, a Dominican cigar.
I was nearly out the door when I noticed Bertrand standing down the hall in his room, looking at me apologetically. He was speaking on the phone. “Yes, he’s right here. I’ll tell him. When is it? No problem, no problem. He’ll be ready.” Bertrand hung up. “Well, laddie. That was the Company. They want you to be part of an escort. You’ll pick up a pair of kilowatt generators in Safwan and deliver them to Area Q.”
Safwan was a stone-age town straddling the Iraq/Kuwait border, some 300 miles to the south.
My mouth went dry. I felt a little dizzy and sat back down again. “Who’s in charge?” I managed to ask. I took a sip of my coffee, but it was no good. My throat had turned to tissue paper.
“The Aussie. You know the one. Ex-SAS guy.”
I nodded. It was the blond guy with a beard. Looked 20 years older than he was, thanks to the sun.
“Could be worse. Who else?”
My shoulders slumped. “I knew it,” I said. These particular Fijians had a reputation. Shoot first, don’t ask questions later. The Fijians had no discretion, that was their problem. They’d shoot up a school bus if it strayed too close to the convoy. I doubted even the Aussie could manage them if we took a hit. The question was whether one could move 20-foot long generators weighing 10 tons and painted fire engine red through tiny, twisting, impoverished villages at a snail’s pace and not take a hit. It would be a miracle.
“Sorry mate I don’t have the clout to argue with the boss,” Bertrand said. He clearly was sorry. He put a hand on my shoulder to share the pain. At the moment, though, I was more ticked off than nervous.
“Out of curiosity, how much is a death mission worth to the company?”
“Twelve thousand dollars,” Bertrand said. He looked away when he said it.
For a moment, I was too stunned to respond. “Twelve grand?” I gasped when I found my voice. “It’s an insult! Those knuckleheads in the I.Z. are charging only 10 grand for a three-day trip through Shitville? “
At the time it was 6,000 dollars for just a 10-minute sprint from our location to the I.Z.! And that was with Q.R.F. [Quick Reaction Force] on standby, ready to save us. Yet the Company wanted us to drive 600 miles through every Fuck-You-America village in southern Iraq…for 12 grand?
“It’s worth at least 75!” I said.
I was angry out of principle. If the Company had charged 75 grand for the trip, I might have been cowed into going, which was a ridiculous point of view. I wouldn’t see a nickel of it, whether it was 75 grand or 12 grand or gratis—it was all Company money. My fee was fixed: 650 per day, every day, whether I got out of bed or not. I supposed they thought I should be grateful and make the trip and pray I didn’t get my head shot off but somehow I couldn’t get in the mood to risk my ass. If they’d asked me right when I’d arrived two months ago, I’d have gone, no questions asked. I’d been dead broke then and ready to do anything. But now two months of wages had filled my account.
Even so, I was curious, and asked what vehicles we’d be taking.
“Well, Matty, that’s the thing. It seems the only transport they have right now are the minivans. The little Iraq contraptions.” The minivans were purchased so Americans could move around Baghdad incognito. Which was a terrific irony: two incognito vans escorting giant red generators, the very symbol of the American occupation of Iraq, at a snail’s pace, no less. Bertrand tried to console me. “The roads have calmed down quite a bit. Uncle Sam got smart and is paying the locals to police things. It’s a bribe, but things have gotten much better I hear. Very few people are dying anymore. It’s mostly stolen equipment and the occasional kidnapping.”
I saw myself tied up on the floor of a mud hut in the desert with six jihadis kicking my ribs in.
How much did they pay you for this, you stupid American? Kick!
For me personally, sir? 650 a day.
Was it worth it?Kick!
Well the Company did charge 12,000…
“Would you go?” I asked Bertrand, petulantly.
He shrugged. It was an empty question. Whether he’d go or not wasn’t relevant. His job was to stay put on Area Q. To coax, mollify, cajole the Gurkhas. To keep the jittery Iraqi laborers from mutinying over a lack of food and water and the occasional mortar round that landed amidst their sleeping tents (the mortar was fired at the laborers for collaborating with us infidels. The laborers were the poorest and most wretched creatures on earth, which in religious terms meant they were those closest to God, which was an irony lost on the jihadis, though not the Almighty, I’m sure).
“When does the convoy leave?” I asked.
“They aren’t sure yet. A week maybe. There are still issues to work out logistically. I told them you’d be ready.”
I didn’t say yes or no. Either answer would have put Bertrand in a bind. If I said yes and then changed my mind, he’d be on the hook to deliver me. If I said no this early on, he’d be in the uncomfortable position of firing me. Either way, Bertrand looked depressed. Area Q, our private little retreat, the day spa of war-work, where one fought a gentlemen’s war of coffee and buns in the morning and steaks and Bordeaux at night, had now been officially inducted into the real war.
To lighten the mood, we walked outside to watch the arrival of the goats. Bertrand bought three goats for the Gurkhas, to bury the hatchet. Malik had negotiated an astronomical price for the animals, which Victoria paid without complaint. Malik arrived a moment later with the goats in the bed of the pick-up. Each animal had a rope around the neck. The ends of the ropes were pulled through the driver-side window. Malik held the ropes in the same hand he used for steering, to free the other hand for his cigarette.
The off-duty Gurkhas gathered around, checking over the dusty goats, prodding them, inspecting their teeth, discussing the quality of the hooves. It was generally agreed that the animals were skinny, but that Iraqi goat meat was gastronomically superior to other goats thanks to the species of shrub they grazed in the desert. So everyone was happy.
Kepi barked an order to Cook, the skinny older Gurkha who cleaned the mess tent. Cook hurried off and returned lugging a five-gallon cast-iron cooking pot. One man from each village was responsible for carrying the cooking pot wherever the Gurkhas go to fight.
“Cook no good at fighting. Just cooking,” Kepi said, to explain why Cook was in charge of the pot. I didn’t believe it was possible for a Gurkha to be bad at fighting. Cook nodded vigorously in agreement. To prove the point, he quickly started a little fire, sat down cross-legged in front of it, and scoured the pot with chunks of pink rock salt and a sooty leather rag. Pretty soon he was sweating. The wired muscles on his forearms bulged with the effort.
While two Gurkhas distracted the brown goats, Chundra led the white goat, the fattest, tastiest looking of the three, through the front gate and around the corner, out of eyesight of the other animals. Chundra took a knee next to the goat, talking quietly to it, rubbing its head while holding the Kukri behind his back. The goat stopped bleating and nibbled at the offering of sliced Wonder Bread. Chundra reached under the goat with his knife and swiftly drew the Kukri across its neck. The goat slumped to the ground as if it had been drugged. Not a sound. No struggle at all. A steady stream of blood stained the desert floor a deep ochre.
With a few deft cuts, Chundra removed the head, hooves, and tail. He cut an incision from the neck to the anus and out to each leg and stripped off the skin in one piece. Then Chundra handed over the operation to Cook, who pulled out the bladder and tossed it into the dirt. “No good,” Cook said.
The rest of the goat, testicles, intestines, stomach—everything—was chopped up and thrown in the pot. It took three men to lift the pot over the fire, where it hung from a tripod lashed together from eight-foot lengths of rusted rebar. Cook alternated pouring beer in the pot and adding curry spices from a battered quart-size Tupperware container.
We gathered around the pot and watched as the rich brown sauce bubbled lazily, luxuriously, and the mouthwatering scent of curried meats filled the compound. The meal was hours from being ready, so I walked back over to have a closer look at the remaining goats. As soon as I did, Dolan’s SUV pulled into the dirt parking lot. He hopped out and immediately started talking.
“I only had time to read half your manuscript so I’ll keep my comments to myself, for now. All I’m going to say is this: read All Quiet on the Western Front. It’ll solve half the problems in your narrative.” His eyes landed on the goats. “Are those yours?”
I explained the goats were a gift to mollify the Gurkhas.
“So you’re babying them, is that it? Bad move. They’ll mutiny if you take the pressure off them. But it’s your neck, not mine. Those goats, though … why not put them to good use? We could do our own Goat Lab, right here. It’s good training. This is a war after all, not a banquet hall. When’s the last time you intubated anyone, or put in a chest tube?”
“Back in Goat Lab,” I said.
“Me too. That’s my point. We need the training more than they need a home cooked meal.” Dolan became excited over the idea. “You grab these two goats and don’t let the Gurkhas see where you hide them. I’ll take care of the rest and meet you back here in the morning.”
I couldn’t believe my eyes. Here we are in Iraq and Dolan wants to operate on the goats the same way we did thirteen years ago in Green Beret school. Shooting and operating on goats is good training in case one of our guys got hit. But in the middle of the war, it sure felt like Dolan was going back to fight an old battle.
I looked at Dolan’s face carefully, to see if he was kidding or not. Dolan never had the chance to operate on his goat in Green Beret school 13 years ago, because he’d gone AWOL. Right about the time he was due to operate, he was racing south to the Mexican border with cops from five different states on his trail. The charge: assault and battery. Back then, all he’d wanted to do was be a warrior. Now he was in the war, and all he could talk about was training! I was more amused by the idea of a Goat Lab than alarmed by it.
“What about Rompun and Ketamine?” I asked, referring to the drugs we used to anesthetize the animals. “We can’t just cut into the goats like Nazis. We’ll need to knock them out first.” I was interested in seeing how far Dolan would go. “And we’ll need an O.R., of course.”
“Leave the drugs to me,” Dolan said. “You scout out an O.R. over here. There’s plenty of abandoned buildings. Try to pick one away from populated areas.”
We agreed to meet at nine the following morning. I constructed a small pen for the two remaining goats out of coils of razor wire and left them a pot of water and a dozen loaves of Wonder Bread. They bleated in a desultory fashion but tore into the bread anyway. Kepi agreed to give me the goats on the condition that I’d buy him new ones.
Bertrand washed his hands of our idea.
“If it goes bad, I didn’t know anything about it,” he said.
This was the moment, I realized, that I became a liability to him. It didn’t stop me, of course. I loved Bertrand like a brother, but I was either going to die on the convoy or get kicked out of the country for declining the job. My obsession with Dolan had taken front seat.
That afternoon the little white and black dog (named Dog, like half the strays in Iraq) tagged along as I drove around Area Q, inspecting various buildings. Dog sniffed around a half-dozen sites before finally pissing on the wall of an old Army latrine used by Saddam’s troops. There were two rooms. One was for washing but all the sinks were ripped from the walls by looters; the other room was lined with six stalls, each with a hole in the ground that was filled in with discarded juice boxes from Americans who’d slept there during the invasion. A fine layer of desert sand covered everything.
There were no foul scents. The facility had been abandoned for years now. Arabic and American graffiti and bullet holes lined the walls like modern art. I cleared out the larger debris from both rooms and scraped the floor with cardboard. Two of the windows looked out into the wasteland. The three other windows faced a construction site over two hundred yards away. I set up a plywood table by resting it on stacks of cinderblocks.
Dolan arrived exactly at nine the next morning. He brought the Texan, Hal, who was also a medic. Hal was a sweet guy and built like Hercules. He had muscles on top of muscles, which he kept bulging by a healthy regime of black market “supplements” and lifting weights at Camp Striker. Hal picked up the goat and plopped him on the bed of the pickup truck as if handling a puppy. Dolan and Hal sat with the goats while I slowly drove to the makeshift O.R.
As we pulled up, I saw that I’d made a critical error in selecting the building: I hadn’t checked the construction work plan. We arrived to find two dozen Iraqi laborers working on a foundation just a hundred feet from our building as four Gurkhas stood guard over them. The Gurkhas waved, their eyes hidden behind cheap black wraparound sunglasses. We were far enough away that Iraqis couldn’t see exactly what we were up to, but close enough to guess something fishy was going on. Why, they asked themselves, were the infidels leading goats into an abandoned latrine? Were they some kind of perverts? Devil worshippers?
I apologized for the location. Hal and Dolan were unfazed.
“Who cares what they think?” Dolan asked. “They can’t be surprised by anything we do, at this point.”
Hal, who was impressed by the very idea of holding a Goat Lab in Area Q, was doubly rapt when he saw my set-up. “It looks like a back alley abortion clinic!” he said by way of a compliment, snapping a few photos. It did have a punishing look to it. The cinderblock building stood ominously in an open stretch of desert, with nothing but piles of rubble around (buildings demolished by J.D.A.M.s [Joint Direct Attack Munition] or rolled over by tanks). Sage-colored weeds grew inside and outside of the old latrine. The muddy desert floor had dried out, hardened like rock, and split into fissures.
The interior walls were a mosaic of cracked white and blue tiles with Islamic inscriptions. Rubble littered the floor. “Hey, what do you think this is?” Hal asked, snapping a picture of suspicious brown grime, hardened like shellac, which was splattered on the wall near the latrines.
Dolan looked closely. “Someone slung crap against the wall. Or maybe an execution. It’s just the right height if the person was on his knees.” To demonstrate, Dolan got on his knees. The splattering was head height.
The goats pressed themselves against the far edge of the truck bed as we unloaded our gear and carried it inside. Dolan pulled a bottle of clear liquid from his trauma bag. It was Rompun. The Ketamine had been unavailable.
“One knocks them out and the other dulls their pain receptors. I can’t remember which,” I said, reading the label of the Rompun bottle. It wasn’t any help.
“We’ll load them up with Rompun and see what happens,” Dolan said. He dropped his duffel bag on the operating table, unzipped it, and pulled out the most derelict looking weapon I’d yet to see in Iraq. It was an honest-to-goodness grease gun. Three steel boxes welded together with a 30 round magazine jutting out one end. It had a fancy trigger assembly and no obvious safety mechanism.
“What the hell is that?” I asked.
“A Sterling with a homemade silencer. I had a dozen of them, but I sold the rest.” Dolan patted the gun affectionately. “There’s probably 50 in all of Iraq. I could sell this one for five grand tomorrow, but as soon as I did there’d be a fight and I’d kick myself for letting it go.” He slung the Sterling over his shoulder.
My contribution to the Goat Lab came from a nearby aid station. I’d told the nurse on duty we were practicing trauma treatment on each other (as I’d slipped him two bottles of the Bordeaux and four rib steaks). The nurse turned a blind eye as I pilfered his supply room, bagging IV’s, chest tubes, syringes, needles, tape, gauze, even scalpels and forceps. Everything but the drugs. How Dolan had come by the Rompun, I didn’t ask.
While we worked, I told Dolan about the convoy to Safwan. For some reason, probably to impress him, I blurted out, “I think I’ll do it. A couple of days on the road would break the monotony of this place.”
The instant the words left my mouth I felt like a fool. Neither Dolan nor Hal answered. Idiot! I thought. “Break the monotony”… by getting your ass shot at? There were thousands of troops who’d kill for my safe, cushy gig. Still, that was how I felt. There was a part of me warming to the idea of Iraq. The thaw seemed to grow in relation to my acceptance that my novel was a failure. My agent was not returning my calls. The prospects of supporting myself by writing had dimmed considerably. There was a thread or two of the warrior still in me, not much, to be sure, but enough to survive a few more months in Area Q. Maybe a year, if need be. A year. I stopped in my tracks, thinking of all the money I’d have. A year meant a hundred grand in the bank, at least. The numbers made me swoon. A life of leisure, if I could just last a year. That kind of money would buy me two years in New York. Surely that was enough time to fix the book. Maybe even three years, if I could cut back on my excesses. I shook my head. Don’t kid yourself, Matty boy. Would a gambler in Vegas cut back with a hundred grand in his pocket? Or a debutante in Barney’s? A glutton in New Orleans? It’s too much to ask. And the truth is, I’d never be able to write with that much money in the bank. It would hang over me like a guillotine. There would be no sense of urgency, with a hundred grand in the bank. No, I’d have to blow threw it as fast as possible. It was the only option.
“For expensive equipment like those generators, you should be tucked inside a major convoy,” Dolan said, breaking the silence. “You’d have M.P.s and probably air support. Uncle Sam doesn’t give a shit about you, but he does want those generators to survive. However, I happen to know your convoy is a rush order, which means you’ll be on your own.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “You just said M.P.s and air support…”
“Usually. The Company couldn’t wait for a slot with M.P.s. They needed the generators yesterday. You’ll probably get to Safwan fine and then have to fight your way back.”
By the tone of his voice, Dolan clearly thought I couldn’t do it.
That stuck-up of son of bitch!
“Would you go?” I asked, throwing it back in his face.
“I’d go,” he said. Then, after letting it sink in, “But that’s what I do.”
And it’s not what I do. Dolan’s meaning was clear. He ran the roads, took the risks. I stayed in my room and wrote novels. I blushed. I was so pissed. What a fucker! I’d been a Green Beret as well, hadn’t I? I knew the business end of an assault rifle. And of the two of us, it was me who lasted the longest in the Army. That counted for something. Live or die, I made up my mind to go on that convoy.
Hal hung the IV bags from a nail in the ceiling. Dolan laid out the surgical tools. I’d forgotten latex gloves but we all agreed that whatever diseases the goats had were probably not communicable to humans. When all was set up, we stopped to admire our little operating room. Not sterile, of course, but our patients wouldn’t need post-surgery rehabilitation.
The goats protested stridently as we led them off the back of the truck, bleating and standing stiff-legged. The ruckus attracted the attention of the Iraqi laborers. They stopped digging and leaned on their shovels, the punchy wind billowing their loose linen tunics and trousers as they watched us with a mix of alarm and curiosity.
“Maybe we are too close to them,” Dolan said, eyeing the laborers. “We don’t want any rumors getting around.” He stopped pulling on the goats, looking between the truck and the latrine.
“There aren’t any other buildings around here. I spent yesterday afternoon scouting out the prospects. This is it.” It was my turn to get excited. I had too much invested to back out now. Even the goats had quieted, their long wooly faces were sullen and pathetic, as if to say, Okay, let’s get this over with quick. Hal would do whatever Dolan wanted, so I pressed my case. “We’ll never have another opportunity like this. It’s all set up. All we have to do is shoot the goats. If you want a Goat Lab, this is the last chance.”
“Well…” Dolan wavered, glancing down at the goats.
I don’t know if I really wanted a Goat Lab, but Dolan backing out at the last second felt like a failure on my part. “I put my neck on the line for this event. Bribes to get the medical kit, lying to Bertrand so I could sneak away. We’re doing this.”
I grabbed one of the goats and tied him up just outside the latrine door. Dolan nodded but didn’t move. Hal, light on his feet as a ballet dancer despite the anabolic muscle mass, picked up the other goat and whisked it inside. “Where do you want it?” he asked nonchalantly, as if holding a kitten under his arm.
I directed him to the second, smaller room. He put the goat down on the tile and held its head in place. Dolan followed us in with his kit bag. Using a pair of shears, I removed a six-inch swath of natty brown wool from along the goat’s neck, revealing its jugular vein. Then I lathered the trimmed patch with shaving cream and shaved the remaining hair down to the skin with disposable razors. By the third razor, the vein was reasonably well exposed.
“Get it nice and smooth,” Dolan said. “I don’t want any trouble with the IV.”
“I only brought six razors,” I said, inspecting the shave. “This will have to do, if we’re going to shave the other one, too.” The second goat, as if hearing us refer to it, bleating forlornly from its place outside. Dolan drew up a full syringe of Rompun and jabbed the needle into the goat’s ropey jugular, drawing back until a red cloud punched into clear liquid, and then he plunged the drug into the vein. We watched attentively for some sign it was working. Five seconds, ten seconds, fifteen….the goat dropped to its front knees. A moment later, the back knees hit the ground. Within a minute, the animal was flat on its side on the dirty floor of the Iraqi latrine, its chest heaving shakily.
Hal pulled open the goat’s eyelid and flicked the cornea. No reaction. “Better hurry on this one,” he said. “You might have overdosed it.”
I walked to the other room to make a last minute inspection of the O.R. “Everything’s ready here. Time to shoot it.”
“Who is going first?” Hal asked. “We never talked about it.”
“I’ll go first,” Dolan said, unslinging the Sterling and chambering around. Hal and I stood back against the wall. I put my fingers in my ears. “It’s silenced, Igoe,” Dolan said absently. So I put my hands in my pockets. Dolan moved the barrel to the goat’s chest, wavered, then moved it to the hind leg, and then back to the chest again. He walked around to the other side and tried out a few other spots. Nothing satisfied him.
“I wish the goat was upright,” Dolan lamented. “That’s how it was at Goat Lab. The animal was upright and you could get a nice clean shot. With the floor underneath it here, the bullet’s going to ricochet. It might hit another organ. What we need is a clean shot…”
“Shoot the damn thing!” Hal said. “I’m not missing lunch for this experiment.” He looked at us contritely. “It’s lasagna day in the mess hall. It only happens once a month.”
Dolan brought the Sterling up, paused a moment, and then shot the goat, once in the shoulder and again in the leg. The only sound the weapon made was a quiet spit and the mechanical cycling of a new round into the chamber; other than that, silence. I was temporarily stunned at the sudden appearance of two red blotches on the goat’s light brown fur. Hal leapt into action, grabbing the goat and running into the next room, plopping it down on the table. Dolan was right next to him, pale as a wraith, running his hands over the goat’s body to assess the damage. “Entry and exit wound, shoulder. Entry and exit wound, leg. Frothing at the mouth. Possible sucking chest wound. I’ll need…” Dolan rattled off everything he needed: bandages, cravats, IV, tape. Hal and I worked as his surgical assistants, handing him items as he needed them. Forty-five seconds into the surgery, just as Dolan was preparing to put in the IV, the goat groaned and stiffened. Its chest stopped heaving and eyes fell open and its tongue rolled out of its mouth.
“What the fuck!” Dolan cried, shaking the goat. “I just started! I just started!”
I pushed my way past Dolan and looked at the goat. The entry and exit wounds were clean. Nothing too serious. I stuck my finger in all four holes. “Wait a second…” The hole near the shoulder had a thick clot in it. When I poked through, a river of blood streamed out. “Looks like the bullet shredded heart. Bled out internally.”
Hal shrugged as if I’d just given him the weather report. I imagined it would be reassuring to have Hal around in a fight. Bullets flying in every direction and people getting blown up and old Hal calmly going about his business.
“Get the other goat,” Dolan ordered. His face was savage and his clothes were sagging in goat blood. The psychosis in his eyes, which he’d kept to a bare simmer, was frothing now, ready to boil over at any minute. “Get it in here now.”
Hal opened a trash bag and I dumped the corpse in. Hal dragged it outside and returned with the second goat. Dolan plunged the needle into the Rompun bottle and drew up another dose and stood by impatiently, the hypodermic pointing skyward like an accusation. Hal held down the goat, tossing his chin toward the window. “We got company,” he grunted. Dolan and I looked out the window. Standing a respectful distance from the window was a gaggle of Iraqis, shovels in hand, watching us wide-eyed. They smiled encouragingly, as if to reassure us they weren’t passing judgment.
“Fuck them,” Dolan muttered, hauling the goat into the shooting room. I trimmed and shaved the animal’s neck. Dolan dosed it with the Rompun. Dolan and I checked the goat for signs the drug was working. Hal stood by the window making faces at the Iraqis.
The second goat was a big surly bastard. It shook off the effects of the drug, stamping its feet and bleating defiantly. Dolan waited 15 minutes and hit it again with a bigger dose. Another 15 minutes dragged by. The goat acted drunk and insubordinate. “Why not just shoot it?” Hal suggested, with a hint of urgency. “Shoot it in the head. The blood will stay in the body long enough to put in an IV.” He was right to be anxious. The crowd might attract the M.P.s and then we’d have some explaining to do. The Iraqis inched closer to the window.
“I’m not shooting this one,” Dolan said. “I can’t take the risk of the blood draining out.” He drew up the last of the Rompun, a huge dose, and shot it into the goat. “I’ll knock it out good, do the IV work, and then kill it.”
The goat stumbled about like a heroin addict in Union Square, drooping but never falling down.
“This goat is true beast,” Hal said admiringly. “We gave it three times the other one, and it’s still standing. Give it another shot or grant it clemency!”
“That was the last of the Rompun,” Dolan said. “This damn goat took the whole bottle.”
I stood slightly back as they fretted over the uncooperative animal. There was only one way to kill the goat and not spill any blood, I decided. So I pulled a thick black trash bag out of the box, grabbed both ends of the opening and fluffed the bag open. With Dolan and Hal watching on, I knelt next to the goat, who stared at me cross-eyed and rebellious. “Baaahhhhh,” the goat said. I pushed the animal onto its knees so its head was in my lap, and scratched its neck to calm it down. With a jerk, I pulled the plastic bag over its head and down around its neck. With the bag snug, I looped duct tape around and around, working my way down the neck until the bag was secure, then I wrapped it all over again.
A minute passed before the drugged-out goat realized the oxygen was cut off. It started thrashing in my grasp as the black plastic around the goat’s head sucked in and out of its mouth, crinkling with each inhale and exhale…shrrreeet…pfffflump…shrrreeet…pffflump...
The violence of the goat’s reaction startled me. I’d assumed it would quietly doze off in a death-sleep. Instead it scraped its legs on the dirty tiles like a dog running in its sleep.
I couldn’t back off now, that much I knew. The goat had to die. So I wrapped my hands around its throat and squeezed.
The gasping continued, even quickening… shrrreeet… pfffflump… shrrreeet… pfffflump… and the suffocating goat thrashed its head left and right in my hands. The harder it thrashed, the tighter I squeezed, digging my fingers into its windpipe. Still it squirmed and I dug further and squeezed tighter and the animal’s stiff hooves scraped the floor, like a man being choked might claw at the tiles with his nails, grasping for…life. What else? Images flashed in my mind. TV shows. A pillow over the head of a sleeping lover. A hanging by the neck at high noon, from an oak tree on a hill in an open prairie. A woman choking herself to death with her own hands. Meaningless! Deceptions! What a shirking of the public trust! Choking doesn’t last ten seconds! A real choking, especially a botched one, takes minutes at best! Ten seconds came and went before I really had a good grip. At thirty seconds my knuckles had just turned white from the effort. A minute passed and the goat lunged to its knees and tried to make a run for it. I threw it to the ground and stuck a knee in its gut and choked harder, my entire 230 pounds upon its throat, my fists buried in its trachea. Two minutes and still we fought. Three minutes. Four minutes and I began to cry out with the effort, squeezing with all my might, as if I was fighting for my life, not the goat.
And just as I thought I’d pass out, when my hands were leaden and aching and shouting to release their grip, the goat stopped thrashing. The hooves slowed their scraping run on the filthy tile floor and stopped. The head, which had unceasingly slapped my thigh, stopped. Everything stopped.
Everything but the wheezing, which had quieted somewhat… shrrreeet… pfffflump… shrrreeet… pffflump…A final gasp. And then another. And then another. Now the crinkling plastic was barely audible. The breaths stopped on an inhale and the goat died in my lap.
I let go of my grip. I was soaked in sweat and panting. Hal, Dolan, the Iraqis, everyone was staring silently down at the wooly dead goat with the black garbage bag duct-taped around its neck, lying in a burnt out shit hole of a latrine in an abandoned Iraqi barracks at the furthest edge of a war without meaning, one big worn-out asshole of a war.
I stood up and the dozen dirt covered Iraqi men and boys standing outside the latrine’s window jumped back, as if they might be next.
“Well, let’s get it on the table,” I said, grabbing the goat’s head. “We didn’t come out here for nothing.”
Hal shook his head and walked out of the room. Dolan put a boot on the goat’s neck until the head slipped from my grip and smacked down on the tiles. He reached out his hand and ran it over the black plastic bag that covered the goat’s head, down along the silver duct-taped neck until he reached the sunken, motionless belly of the goat, which he patted gently.
“That’s the sickest thing I’ve ever seen,” Dolan said, the old smirk clinging to his face.
The sickest thing…?I thought wildly,the thoughts racing. But you’re Dolan! You’re the killer! It’s just a goat, a stupid goat. But you’ve killed…everyone!
Dolan couldn’t look me in the eye. He was truly, deeply disturbed by the sight of me, and embarrassed, too. That was the worst part. I’d committed some kind of sin, and he was embarrassed for me.
Dolan patted the goat’s belly again.
“That’s by far the sickest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Two days before the convoy left for Safwan, I called the Company office in the I.Z. It was a quick conversation. I informed the Company I wouldn’t be going on the convoy. The Company boss in Iraq screamed at me and threatened me and cajoled me but I refused. When he was certain he couldn’t change my mind, he became quite pleasant, informing me I’d be on the next day’s flight to Dubai and then onto New York.
“You’ll never work a day in Iraq again, but I’m sure you thought of that before you turned down the orders.”
As it turned out, I hadn’t thought of that. I assumed the ferris wheel of security jobs would eventually stop at my door and if I were desperate enough for money, I’d hop on again until I got motion-sickness or fear of heights. Then I’d ask the conductor to drop me off back at the platform, safe and sound. That was the kind of war I’d grown used to. Out of every 10 contractors I’d known in Iraq, four were slackers, three were crooks, two were average, and just one was a warrior. That I wasn’t the “one” didn’t make me feel one way or the other. The Company and I had a business arrangement. They can’t hire a security consultant with a 20 page contract detailing all the ways the Company isn’t responsible for life and limb and then turn around and demand the same lives and limbs be laid on the line.
To their credit, the Company understood that point exactly. By the end of the conversation, I’d been booked on a flight out of Baghdad International the next day. That evening Bertrand threw a BBQ in my honor. The word had been sent to Dolan, but he never showed up. The next day I packed my duffle bag, left a large tip for Mohammed to clean the room for my replacement, and said goodbye to Dog. Bertrand dropped me off outside the departures area in the rain. We shook hands and Bertrand was kind and remorseful. I closed the truck door and waved but he’d already turned his head toward the road. It must feel the same way when you die. Everyone gathered around, attentive and loving and sad, and the instant your lights turn off, everyone shrugs and gets on with living. I was good as dead to Bertrand, and he was getting on with the war.
I was sad for just an instant and then I saw it. Jesus, there it is, just like Dolan said! I ran to the sidewalk to admire an escalator lying on its side, brand new, bubbled-wrapped, and covered in rust and dust from lying outside unused since the invasion in 2003. Impressive for the pure scale of wasted money.
Inside I stood patiently in line for my turn at the customs booth. I handed over my passport and smiled at the agent as pleasantly as possible. In one hour and fifteen minutes,sir, I’ll be out of your rotten country for the last time. I kept my face neutral in case my thoughts bubbled to the surface. The agent sniffed and passed the passport back to me.
“No visa,” he said, looking me in the eye.
“Right right,” I said. I was ready for this part. I pulled out two 50s and handed them to the agent. “For my visa,” I said, with the barest wink. He pushed the money back to me.
“Visa at the I.Z. Get the stamp and come back.”
I looked across the room to the departure gates. Other Westerners were sitting at the bar, drinking virgin cocktails and leafing through magazines. I lost my confidence immediately.
“Please,” I begged. “That’s my flight right there. Going to Dubai. Then New York.”
The agent looked beyond me to the next traveler, an Iraqi businessman. The businessman made a remark and the two had a laugh at my expense. I worked my way to the back of the line but an Iraqi policeman barred my way.
“No back,” he said.
“I can’t go back, I can’t go forward!” I gasped. My heart crawled into my throat. My euphoria had sunk into desperation. “What can I do?”
The Iraqis smelled my fear and it made them rabid, like feral dogs. The customs agent began yelling at me from one side and the policeman from the other side. A crowd gathered to watch. The Westerners in the lounge to up position and started lobbying on my behalf. “Let ‘im through! Let ’im through,” they yelled, waving their drinks. “Don’t be a shit head, let ‘im through.”
The only two American soldiers left in the airport—the entire complex had been turned over to the Iraqis—tried to diffuse the situation. The customs agent wasn’t budging. The Iraqi policeman sensed an opportunity to stick one to an American. He grabbed me by the arm and pointed me through the crowd toward a door off to the side. “Don’t let him go in there!” a Brit yelled at the American soldiers. “You’ll never see him again.”
It was at that very moment, as my escape from Iraq fell apart and I was powerless, that four scrappy security contractors in body armor, with various weapons strapped across their bodies, walked into the airport terminal. I immediately recognized them as Dolan’s crew; they knew me as well, and walked right up to me. Hollander, a tall wiry guy with a tick in his left eye, waived my manuscript in my face. “Dolan said to give this to you. He’s busy, since he volunteered to take your spot on a convoy. Hey, what’s this?” he asked, all of the sudden aware of my situation.
“They’ve got me!” I cried.
“What do you mean, got you?” Hollander and the other three pushed their way around the booth, all four deliberately moving their hands within an inch of their triggers. Hollander stuck his nose in the policeman’s face. “They got you, huh? I doubt it.”
“I don’t have a visa,” I said. “They want me to go with them. In there.” I pointed to the room. Hollander grabbed me by the arm and walked me back to the customs desk. The policeman followed behind obediently, trying to act official, as though he was leading from the rear. The other three with Hollander stood around the customs man, leaning in on him. Hollander grabbed my passport and handed it to the agent.
“No visa,” the agent squeaked.
“Let the man fly today and I promise I’ll go down to the consulate tomorrow and sort out his visa.” The agent hesitated, and Hollander continued. “If you don’t let him fly, pal, I’ll have to take you with us to the consulate. So you can sort it out.”
The crowd was growing larger, the Westerners shouting at the customs agent, the Iraqis shouting at the Westerners. The two American soldiers looked at each other and split, one of them shouting into his radio. It appeared an international incident was about to go down. The customs agent’s boss showed up and whispered in his ear. The agent hurriedly stamped my passport but before handing it back, he made a slight nod toward my jacket pocket.
I pretended not to understand. We’d won after all, hadn’t we? Why should I pay his bribe anyway? The agent pulled the passport back and I broke. “One sec,” I said. I pulled out my wallet and forked over the two 50s and snatched my passport. The agent smiled like a mannequin.
“Thank you for visiting Iraq. Next!”
Hollander shoved the copy of the manuscript into my shoulder bag. When I got through the line I rushed back to the glass divider and waved. The four were already out the door as if nothing had happened. “You!” someone yelled. A group of Westerners waved me over. The one with the British accent, Greene, bought me a Coke at the bar.
“That was a close one,” Greene said. “Lucky your friends showed up when they did.” He eyed me closely. “And lucky for the Iraqis they left when they did. I know your bunch. Used to work with one over at Bilgewater. You guys have a reputation.”
I didn’t bother to explain my relationship to Hollander and the others. I drank my non-alcoholic beer and tried to calm my nerves. Greene invited me to stay at the same hotel and have dinner with the rest. I agreed.
The flight to Dubai was uneventful, as if I were flying from San Francisco to Las Vegas, though I had the old fear of being shot down, as I always did, flying to and from Baghdad. As always, no missiles came, just a fruit juice from a pleasant middle-aged flight attendant in long skirt and head scarf. Halfway through the flight I remembered the manuscript. I pulled it out and flipped through the pages. Dolan made copious notes on the first dozen pages and then nothing. On the last page, he’d scribbled, “Igoe, this book is a pack of damn lies. But don’t let that stop you. Your friend, Dolan.”
We shared three taxis to the Hotel Sofitel, at Jumeirah Beach, a swank strip reserved for infidels where drinking and cavorting were implicitly encouraged. I showered and went to the lobby for a drink, stopping by the ATM on the way. My account balance was $30,526. I took out the 526, which was muddling the waters. An even 30 grand, it seemed, was a good strong number to start over with -in New York.
The rest of the group arrived in the lobby, freshly scrubbed and in good spirits. I bought a round of whiskeys, which took care of nearly a hundred dollars. The whisky relaxed me. I settled into the plush armchairs in the lobby and sipped my drink slowly. It didn’t take long for the recent memories to fade. The stiff radiance of Kentucky bourbon filled my belly as if I swallowed the North Star. In every direction I saw nothing but possibility. Thirty grand, that’s a good spot to be in. And it was an easy 30 grand, by my recollection. A few months in a shit hole, and then off to Dubai for dinner and drinks.
The group drank to my health. Baxley, a Washingtonian, retold the story of my run-in with the customs agent. Everyone laughed, none harder than me. When the drinks were finished, we strolled four abreast down the wide glittering sidewalk under the bright Arabian night, our hands in our pockets, smiling at the list of the things we said we’d do when we got home: put the stones to the wife, that was the number one, followed by screw the girlfriend, buy the kid a new Xbox was also popular, go golfing, take a vacation in Florida, sleep in a proper bed…
Greene poked his head in a few restaurants along the strip. He settled on a steakhouse with outside seating that overlooked the Persian Gulf. Greene ordered for the entire table. An $80 filet mignon and a bottle of Barolo each. “No sense keeping all that money in your pocket,” he joked.
We drank the wine while the steaks cooked. I was buzzed, listening to the conversation as an outsider, an observer, until the subject turned to the end of the war. “The Iraq gig will end sooner or later,” one man observed, looking wistfully into his wine. “I’m not looking forward to Afghanistan.” Everyone nodded. If and when Iraq ended, Afghanistan was the last big gig for security work.
“Yes, but what else is there?” Greene mused. “Something has to pop up.”
“Colombia,” I blurted out. The table stopped talking and looked at me. With the booze in me and all that war talk, ideas were fermenting, words popping into my head. I couldn’t stop myself.
“It’s the gateway to the U.S. You see, with all those socialist governments in power in South America, something’s bound to happen. I mean if Colombia falls, the door is wide open. They could march right up Central America. They could take the Panama Canal.” Idiot! I scolded myself. Shut your mouth. But I had to keep going. “I bet we have 100,000 troops down there within 10 years.”
Most faces were incredulous, but some were intrigued. Greene nodded his head. “Colombia, huh? The gateway to America. I never thought of it that way.”
“I had a pal who worked down there for an oil company,” another guy chimed in. “The pay was good. Not as good as Iraq, but good. The threat was lower. And great food.”
Greene mulled it over. “Good pay? And good food?” He tapped his fingers on the table. Without warning, he lurched to his feet, swallowed his glass of wine, and signaled to the waiter for another bottle. Greene remained standing, staring out into the sea, his body resting against the warm Arabian salt air and his loose white linen shirt billowing like a spinnaker. In his mind he was already in Bogota, eating steaks, drinking Chilean wine, and dating Colombian girls half his age, his bank account filled to the brim.
“Colombia, huh?” Greene said again, in a faraway voice. “I could get used to that.”