hree sharp raps at the door yanked young Zalmay Siddiqi from uneasy dreams, and the adrenaline hit him like a kick in the face. He froze with the primitive instinct of a rabbit cornered by a fox, hoping against hope that whatever predator had come knocking would go away of its own volition. He listened. The knocks came in a familiar pattern of three shorts and three longs: Cougar’s signal. As his blazing panic subsided, he realized that he had been holding his breath. He exhaled, but the smoldering dread remained. Even friendly knocks were unwelcome in the middle of the night.
He rolled nimbly out of bed and pulled the lanyard on the light fixture above him, spilling the bulb’s dim yellow glow onto the sparsely furnished room: a lone mattress on the floor, a plastic chair draped with his clothes, his few possessions huddled in a corner where cracked plaster walls exposed the concrete underneath.
Tugging on a plain Afghan
trousers made of rough cloth, he hurried out of the bedroom to the hallway door. The knocks were still coming intermittently in their steady pattern. Zalmay gingerly turned the lock, and no sooner was the dead bolt released than the door was flung open, nearly knocking Zalmay back into the wall. A tall, wiry American, a man he knew as Cougar, rushed into the apartment, also wearing Afghan garb and carrying a black duffel bag. His movements were jerky, his voice breathless.
“Grab your things. You’ve got thirty seconds.”
Zalmay’s thoughts were forming a protest at Cougar’s abruptness, but the urgency in the American’s speech stayed his tongue. With a sudden clarity, he asked only, “Am I coming back?”
“No,” Cougar responded, and he looked over his shoulder. “Pack only what you can’t live without.”
Cougar stood at the door, his head cocked like that of a prey animal listening for stalking predators. Zalmay threw his single other outfit and his prayer mat into a canvas knapsack. From under his mattress, he took out a slim roll of cash tied with a rubber band. He reached in again, pulled out a creased old photograph, and hid it, along with the money, in the folds of his shirt. Then he turned to face Cougar, doing his best to look brave.
“I have been expecting this,” he said. “I am ready.”
Fear and anxiety had marked Zalmay’s life since he’d met the American and agreed to help him. Zalmay was well aware of the consequences of being caught. The thought usually kept him awake and tossing on his mattress at night. And on this particular night, his nightmare had finally come calling. He could only feel glad that it was his friend and not an enemy assassin at his door.
“Good,” said Cougar, “Now let’s . . .” Cougar trailed off and turned his head as if listening for something. Then Zalmay heard it, too, and it stopped him cold. It was the rumbling motor of an approaching car, which came to a halt down below the open window. Zalmay walked to the window to see who it was. Looking down, he saw a black sedan with two men climbing out of it, Americans in Western suits, each with a submachine gun in his hand.
“No, get away from there!” said Cougar.
Too late—one of the men below looked up, called to the other, and pointed right at Zalmay. Both black-suited men dashed for the door of the building. Zalmay’s apartment was on the corner, all the way down the hall; the men would have no trouble at all finding them.
“Come on!” said Cougar, motioning for him to go out the door. Zalmay dashed out and was halfway down the hall, past a row of silent, closed doors on his right, when he noticed that Cougar had stayed behind to shut the door to the apartment. He waited, nervously, as Cougar caught up, and they hurried to the stairs. From there, he could already hear the footsteps of the two men scrambling up, closing the distance with each footfall. Zalmay’s apartment was only three floors up, so it wouldn’t take them long to get there. And there was no other way out.
Cougar drew his weapon from its shoulder holster. “Upstairs,” he whispered. “Quietly.” He took the lead, and they tiptoed up a flight of stairs, keeping their footsteps as light as possible. Cougar crouched behind the bend of the fourth-floor corridor, and Zalmay ducked behind him, breathing heavily, his mind blank with panic, the way a rabbit must feel when confronting a tiger. The American kept his Glock pointed toward the stairwell as the sound of the men’s shoes on the steps grew louder and louder, and then they heard the footsteps receding down the hallway toward Zalmay’s apartment.
“Zalmay,” whispered Cougar, pulling a set of keys from his pocket, holding them tightly in his palm so they would not jangle. “Take these. I’m going to hold them off. While they’re searching your apartment, you run down as fast as you can and start the car. If I’m not the first one down, you take off without me, understand?”
“But . . .”
“Don’t argue, just go. Now, after me!”
Cougar walked back down the flight of stairs, quickly and silently, leading with his shoulder, arm extended and gun pointing down, at the ready. They heard a crack as the men kicked in Zalmay’s door. Before reaching the landing on the third floor, Cougar motioned for Zalmay to jump over the rusting railing onto the next flight down, so he wouldn’t be seen from the hallway. Zalmay clambered over and vaulted down, but his foot slipped on the metal, and his arm smacked painfully on the railing below. A hollow, metallic sound echoed up the stairwell. They heard voices and then the sound of the two men running out of the apartment.
“Go!” said Cougar. “I’ll hold them off!”
Zalmay nodded and started down. He leapt down the stairs two steps at a time, one hand clutching the keys and the other the strap of his knapsack, which was slung over his shoulder and slammed against him with every step.
Gunshots, three sets of them, blasted through the hallway upstairs; the single reports from Cougar’s Glock were answered by volleys of fire from the two men’s semiautomatics. He slowed down and for a split second considered going back to help his friend. Honor demanded it. But no; Cougar had told him to go on ahead, so that is what he would do. He had learned that the honorable thing to do was not always the right thing. He pressed on, and an inchoate, wordless prayer for his friend’s survival formed in his mind.
Zalmay raced into the dusty night air, easily spotting Cougar’s beat-up jeep, parked at a hasty angle to the building, the headlights left on like the still-open eyes of a dead ox. He pulled the door open and swung into the driver’s seat, tossing the knapsack onto the seat beside him. He fumbled to slide the key into the ignition and then turned it; the engine rumbled to life. Gunshots reverberated from inside, but now they came from much closer. Cougar had made his way down the stairs. Zalmay leaned over to unlatch the passenger door and then kicked it wide.
Cougar burst out of the building. He stopped just long enough to shoot out one of the front tires of the men’s sedan. Then he ran over and hurtled into the jeep’s passenger seat, pulling the door shut as he did in one fluid motion, yelling, “Go, go, go!” Zalmay saw the two men appear at the door as he hit the gas. They sped off under a barrage of bullets. Several slammed into the back of the jeep, making dull, metallic
, and one shattered the rear window. Zalmay mashed the pedal to the floor. The sound of gunfire slowly faded in the distance and then stopped altogether.
“Are you okay?” Zalmay asked, his eyes on the dark dirt road. “Were you hit?”
“Still in one piece,” Cougar said, with ragged breath and looking back. “You?”
“I am fine. Are they behind us?”
“They won’t be getting far. Not in that car.”
Zalmay exhaled. “Where are we going?”
“Turn here.” Zalmay turned the jeep into a narrow side street. “We’ll take the inner roads, just to be safe,” Cougar added. “It’s best to make sure we’re not easy to follow.”
Zalmay breathed deeply, trying to calm his frantically beating heart. “Where are we going?” he asked again.
“Highway One, toward Kabul,” said Cougar, shuffling through his duffel bag.
“We are going to Kabul?”
“You’re going to Kabul,” Cougar replied pointedly. “And then out of the country.”
“You are not coming, then?” Zalmay said, trying his best to hide his anxiety and disappointment. Cougar did not respond, and Zalmay didn’t press it. He knew the answer already.
“I need you to bring something with you when you go,” said Cougar.
He reached into a pocket and produced a small black plastic chip, no bigger than his fingernail: a camera’s memory card. “You know what’s in there?” Cougar said.
“Is that what those men were after? The photographs?”
Cougar nodded. “This, and you.”
“How did they know?”
“I tried to transfer them electronically, and the files were intercepted. That’s how they knew to look for us. Now I can’t get them through from here—they’re watching every single connection. It needs to be carried out of here. And you’re going to be responsible for getting it to the US and into the right hands.”
“America . . .” he said in a whisper barely audible over the engine’s growl. Through everything that had happened, the dream of going to that Promised Land had never left his mind. But he had never allowed himself to fully believe it was possible. To hear Cougar say it now suddenly made it a reality.
“We’ll travel together as far as possible, but it’s better if you don’t take the jeep. If nothing else, these fresh bullet holes are going to be a tad suspicious. We’ll stop where you can find alternate transportation—something less conspicuous.”
“But, Cougar . . .”
“We don’t have much time, so let me finish. While you’re on the road, tell no one your real name. Call as little attention to yourself as possible. If you have any identification, get rid of it now. Burn it, or toss it into a storm drain or down a well. Do what you can to change your appearance. You have some money; here’s more.” Cougar handed him a wad of bills—American currency. “If anyone asks, you’re visiting family in Kabul. Come up with a story, and practice it. And always keep an eye out for tails, just like I taught you. I can’t promise you’ll make it there safely, between the Taliban and our American friends. But I’ve done all I can to give you a fighting chance.”
Zalmay sat in silence as the morning twilight rose upon the city, making it appear ghostly and unreal. Even now, while they drove alongside light traffic on an arterial road, the scene already felt like a distant memory.
“Why will you not come with me to Kabul?” he asked.
Cougar hesitated, as if gathering his thoughts. “This is the safest way for both of us. I can’t get us a flight out of here, not anymore, and I would attract too much attention on the highway, from soldiers and the Taliban.”
“The Taliban!” Zalmay bristled. “They would have no love for me, either, if they knew I have been helping you.”
“Plus,” Cougar added, ignoring Zalmay’s interruption, “I have some unfinished business here.” He gave a wry smile.
“I will stay and help you,” Zalmay declared. “I am not afraid.”
“I want to stay,” he protested, and anger welled up in him. “I want to stay and fight!”
Cougar sighed and took on a stern but fatherly tone. “I need this memory card delivered. I can’t do it myself, and there’s no one else I can count on to do it. This is your mission, Zalmay.”
Zalmay looked away. “It is a coward’s mission.”
Cougar frowned, and his tone became distinctly one of rebuke. “This isn’t about you proving yourself, Zalmay. Delivering those photos is our top priority. People’s lives might depend on those pictures getting into the right hands. If you want to do something meaningful, this is it.”
Zalmay assented wordlessly. Then he scowled and looked out the window as Cougar proceeded to give him specific instructions for what to do in Kabul. Being sent away like this filled him with shame, because he would be unable to help his friend right there in Kandahar. At the same time, his heart ached with thoughts of America, which had always seemed so impossibly far but was now so tantalizingly close—and that filled him with even more guilt, the guilt of choosing a comfortable life while others like him would remain no better off. Ultimately, he knew that Cougar was right. For now, however, he needed to brood.
With daylight approaching, the city was beginning to show signs of life. They were on the outskirts now, where the streets gave way to Highway 1. This highway was one of the Coalition’s most ambitious projects in Afghanistan, cooperatively built by troops from among twenty-six NATO partner countries. Once called the Ring Road, the highway stretched to the capital and beyond, going around the entire country before coming full circle back to Kandahar from the west.
Cougar had Zalmay pull over to the side of the road a short distance from a small bazaar where many drivers stopped for food and tea and to trade information about the conditions of the road before the haul to Kabul.
As Zalmay and Cougar popped open the doors and climbed out of the jeep, the muezzins’ voices began to drone over the minaret loudspeakers, calling all Muslims to their morning prayer. Zalmay’s hand instinctively went for his prayer mat.