Cobalt was at a threshold – the first major one his life had presented him: he had just become engaged to marry the woman he loved. But his dreams of happiness turn abruptly to nightmares when, on his return home from a secret Afghanistan mission, he finds that dream, and his future, gone up in smoke.
His recovery – including the adventure he stumbles upon in the process – and his unlikely emergence from that darkness, are the meat of this book.
From Chapter 26, set at the Elko County Fair in northern Nevada, where a squad of 4 Hashashins has been sent to perpetrate mayhem and murder. After squandering 2 days and nights gambling in Las Vegas, they rush to Elko where, with the body of their first victim in the trunk of their car, they encounter another roadside ritual. . . .
The driver of their car, Mamoun – the only one who spoke even passable English – had grown to enjoy tearing up Nevada’s speed-limitless highways with their rented late-model New Yorker over the past couple days. It was a treat he would never have had the chance to sample back home in Yemen, where he had spent most of his life. But the laws of physics are universal ones: the faster a body travels the longer it takes to stop, as he found out to his great distress about three miles outside of Elko, when an unsuspecting mule deer buck sauntered gamely out of the sage grass scrub and strutted across the road in front of him.
Not even the near-dark of a dismal dusk could hide the horror in the buck’s eyes, as half-a-ton of chrome and Chrysler came barreling down on him at a hundred and ten, its horn screaming, brakes squealing, and four crazed fools inside flapping their arms like they thought they could fly.
The buck did not survive the consequent collision. The ‘shins however did, but their vehicle looked no more like a vehicle now than the mule deer looked like a mule. Or a deer.
They had been instructed to learn one new word of English each day to prepare for this excursion; today’s word was “pickle.” They were in one now.
THE DARKSIDE of ENLIGHTENMENT
An Enlightenment Dilemma:
. . .Almost immediately, Brant faced a dilemma. He had to tell someone of his . . . awakening. He wanted to scream it from every mountaintop. But, how to do that without without being run to the nearest loony bin? He knew telling anyone would arouse immediate immediate suspicions about the state of his mental health ― and this at the sasanest sanest moment of his life. That paradox haunted him for months.
He had to be careful about his choice of words if he were to tell anyone. He lived in a a a world where anything not worth a dollar wasn’t worth a damn. But whom to tell? Of course he would tell Jack, but that was like telling himself.
He imagined trying to describe what he had experienced, and saying, “I was lying alone in bed last night and discovered the secrets of the universe.” Or, “…the meaning of of life.” Or, “I was lying alone . . . when I had the most incredible experience I’ve ever had.”
No matter how he rearranged the words, the only response he could imagine was one of ... one of either fear, of imminent physical harm, or of profound sympathy for a pathetic pathetic existence. He wished to encourage neither. The best of all possible reactions would leave leave him regarded suspiciously in any event, and that left him tightlipped jandndndk and speechless after all.
HIGH ABOVE THE TEAR-CLEAR AEGEAN
At a Santorini Villa, MASDAR'S Top Brass Convene... to Discuss Strategy for Tarnishing Cobalt
FROM A QUAYSIDE TAVERNA, with the tear-clear Aegean lapping blue, still, and tepid at at its jagged shores, the Greek island of Thira shot straight into the sky for a quarter-mile, to the tiny town of Fira. The cliffhanging hamlet looked out across a picturesque lagoon toward a cluster of smoldering volcanic islets brooding quaintly in the the distance, and clung to the rim like an obstreperous atheist being flung toward Heaven.KGGG
A broad stone stairway, each step’s number whitewashed on its riser, zigzagged the 1,483 treads up the nearly vertical slope to the town in a series of switchbacks. The ascent was negotiable on foot, from bottom to top, in under half an hour, or longer if one stopped to sample fruits of the prickly-pear cacti that curtained the crag, or half that time for the descent, and less still for the fall. . . .
At Sea, Aboard the Diamond-Laden Tyrrhenian Voyager, en route to Naples . . .
. . . Neither Jack nor Brant had ever experienced seasickness in the thousands of days and and nights they had spent collectively on the ocean, although each had endured his share of of nausea. Jack was hard pressed to recall any overt display of cheerfulness ― a Smiley Face, for example ― that was not greeted by him with some degree of revulsion. He’d had years go by of secretly greeting every new day with the same loathing. He did seem to be mellowing with age. Somewhat.…
There was something though, about being the only well person on a boat full of seasick ones, that drew out extraordinary qualities in one disinclined toward nursing. Jack amused himself briefly by offering anyone who passed him by looking pallid and gaunt . . . a nice, thick slice of lemon meringue pie. He did not display the actual portion ― its mere suggestion at once sent them running for the rail, retching.
That behavior notwithstanding, they had more reasons than the sounds of seasick- ness to lose sleep at night. They were unaware that a squad of Hashashins had already boarded the ship, with the sole expressed intent of eliminating Brant in particular and Jack by association. Cobalt expected Masdar to provide extensive security in addition to the truck’s well-armed drivers to chaperone the stones. And he he expected to have some fine fishing.
CHAPTER 1 , The Nefta Complexity
CHAPTER 1: (In Entirety)
Cobalt eased into the shotgun seat of the Mercedes sedan, the final of four to board, greeted the others with a congenial salute and congenital sneer, and slapped a fresh clip into a 9mm Ruger. The chauffeur, Sayed, checked the time, revved the engine, rolled down the slope of the tidy U.S. Embassy grounds, and into the chaos of downtown Kabul’s evening rush.
Recently named Special Operations Liaison to the President by the CIA, Agent Brant Cobalt just left a meeting with Afghani warlords – his notes would be on the C.E.’s Oval Office desk that morning – and was on his way to Jalalabad and a flight home. The others en route to the J-bad consulate were a local translator and two more Americans, both U.S. State Department aides carrying diplomatic pouches.
Beyond the city limits, the road opened up through a checkered patchwork of farmland and desert to the distant mountains. Driving by fields of vibrant white poppies abloom in the countryside, an occasional oxcart mingled with the now sparser vehicular traffic. Overtaking one of the sluggish buggies piled high with loose hay, it swerved abruptly blocking their path.
Sayed prepared to investigate unruffled by the delay. Brant did not openly second-guess his decision not to ram the obstruction and continue on. As driver, he was liable like a sea captain for the safety of his vessel and its passengers. The agent had been assured by all he was trustworthy. Reputation meant a great deal in this unstable corner of the globe. It meant little now to Cobalt.
“Wait here, please,” Sayed grumbled and hopped out tugging at his collar. He approached the wagon cautiously and engaged its driver in conversation. As temperatures climbed in the hushed Mercedes, Cobalt watched all this coolly – one hand warming his gun. Sayed soon spun about, beamed back a triumphant smile, and returned to the car.
To audible sighs of relief, he explained the cart had lost a spoke from a broken wheel felloe. It was a simple fix; they would be on their way in no time.
Buoyed by the reassurance, all eyes faced frontward to the oxcart’s driver, who bounded from his seat and walked ahead, pointed the muzzle of a magnum at a spot between the ox’s brown eyes, and blew its pink brains all over the road.
Suddenly, the haystack in front of them burst open. Three black-hooded assassins blazed up screaming in a spray of bullets and raked the Mercedes with machine gunfire.
Inside the car bedlam was spattered with blood. Screams of panicked envoys ignited the tight space in terror, like sparks in a grain-dusty silo. Brave fists and fingers fought private pantomimes, but were no match for bullets paying no heed to an aging car’s armor.
One fear-frozen aide looked plaintively to Cobalt, as if he was a Zen master holding the key to calm and the secrets of the ages. He would soon gain greater expertise in those regards, but was trying to save her life at the moment.
…Oddly informative dreams had lately added kick to his morning gait that lasted all day. They told him things he never expected of dreams. One told of treachery today. Others, about his ancient origins. Real details. He never bought the tales churches told but did believe in the everlasting soul, and was getting his own evidence free of charge from the ether – in his sleep. He had a connection there of some kind that he was determined to figure out, and would. …But other issues pressed.
The ringleader stood knee-deep in hay blasting an Uzi, wildfire in his eyes, turning his aim on the agent before his gun barrel warmed. Cobalt was waiting… ready with his Ruger. His vantage point gave him an excellent view. He gently squeezed the trigger once and put a stop to the nonsense with a headshot from his widow seat.
Their leader led – falling first, and hard to the ground. The instant he did his group’s sense of purpose died with him, and the stragglers knew it. Sensing pain and pending demise, they fled to the opium fields hightailing to a steaming hiss geysered from the car’s radiator.
Immediately, Cobalt faced a grim choice: swallow his suicide stash and die here and now with the shot-up vehicle, or evaporate to J-bad and remain among the living. Being captured alive was not an option. That cyanide was and would remain with him – a potent motivator. His own death, however, was not on today’s agenda.
Sayed urged him to leave the others and save himself. He would call for the medical attention the State aides required, both bleeding unselfishly. He made clear enemy insurgents rife in the area would kill the Yank spy on sight and likely be the first responders.
Sweat rained from his brow as he grabbed his rucksack and made for the hills on foot and alive. His plan: stay out of sight by trekking the 18 miles (30 km) to Jalalabad via the high road – a goat path through the mountains. After only a few steps the landscape absorbed him.
That was last night. By midnight, he had climbed high above the Panjshir Valley floor when the sudden birr of lethal steel speeding in the dark told him he was hunted. He traced the flash of muzzle blasts 1,000 meters opposite to a facing canyon wall. There, his prey had nested. He knew what they wanted: to send him home the hard way. He wanted hard information about them. His plan – his job – was to find out who they were… before he closed their case.
He had played this deadly game of tag all night and day against a dozen Haqqani insurgents. He kept out of sight by evading the many eyes of the dark. Reliant for cover on boulders and their crannies, and constantly moving on to the next, he had made his way along the cliff unharmed all night, one ridge to the next, a 3,000’ dead drop at his feet.
His ancestors, he would soon discover, made similar stop-and-go journeys of necessity – from dune to desert dune… well to water well – and he now felt déjà vu not knowing why; the answer taunted from his dreams.
Reaching the sanctuary of an overhang he reviewed his assets. His greatest, more powerful than the sum of the others and one he at last had mastered, was safe. It was in his blood.
Another was the Fly-bot: a MAV (Micro Air Vehicle) not to be confused with the bot fly, it was a tiny airplane with eyes – a micro video cam. With a wingspan of only 1½” (4 cm), it gave him closeup remote observation of his target area from 10 feet (3 meters) away, its controls on his lap.
Two points on the distant horizon suddenly grew large and loud, as a ground-hugging brace of F-15 Eagles screamed overhead. They vanished just as quickly with a boom that shook the earth. One side of the mountain disappeared with them exploding away in a spray of debris.
“Cobalt! Cobalt! Alpha two foxtrot niner, over! …I hope that did the job. We’re outta here! …Did you see us? How copy?” Cobalt scrambled to answer the crisp demand garbled from his headset. It was the pilot who led the strike. He answered with awe and heartfelt thanks. It had rid him of his tormentors. Some of them. He would not be sure until he flew the Fly-bot for a visual.
“See you? I didn’t see a thing! Every bone in my body saw you, Alpha two! Pretty work. I thank you, my fiancée thanks you… my future kids thank you! Over and out!”
That morning, he had been contacted by the pilot – on his way back to base after a mission – with an offer of surplus unexploded ordnance he did not refuse. He stashed his headset and readied the Fly-bot. …And waited.
He had done a lot of waiting lately. It taught him patience he could not have learned otherwise; he had plenty work yet to do. It would help him survive the unendurable. The enemy that occupied him now had kept him busy, but their numbers were dwindling. Hushed by the screaming Eagles, they had dug in. Two still seemed determined to keep him alert dancing for his life dodging bullets… and butterscotch.
In this high stakes head game, he caught himself daydreaming: a butterscotch sundae. His inner Drill Sergeant raised holy hell. Those slipups find you dead at your next heartbeat he reminded, and did an exercise saved for such a parapraxis.
It replayed step-by-step – in his mind – the procedure he employed to remove two deeply-imbedded treble hook barbs from the white of his architect brother’s eye one recent remote fishing trip. This was a time for sobering thoughts, and that put him where he needed to mentally be.
It was the same vicinity visited performing an emergency auto-appendectomy stranded in a remote Antarctic research outpost, or penknife auto-amputation of forearm at elbow, or darning 8 stitches to close your own split forehead on a boat pitching in 30-foot seas, for example, that required rare strength. It seemed butterscotch was bad for body and mind – unsafe to chew up or on.
Butterscotch, though a favorite, was only a common substitute for a rarer flavor – carob – that lately had haunted him and drove him up walls to figure out why. He only once had tasted it and was outright unimpressed. Along with his recent spate of edifying dreams had come strange flavor cravings that, in rarest of moments, had him concerned.
Brant had no business here, really. For eight years he was a SEAL, the U.S. Navy’s Special Operations force known by the anagram for SEa, Air, and Land, and would not trade that time for gold, but change beckoned.
He could not let go all its excitement, so kept a toe in the door via the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Products Agency).
With that toe and others he found himself here. Brant liked the job; it gave him a monthly meeting with the President, access to newsmaking people and circumstances, and it paid… well, he was good at it.
A sharp chink and stones jumping near his feet got his attention and his senses on hyper.
The distraction was an opportunity to deploy the Fly-bot, his first since the F-15 raid. It fluttered off his fingers like a twisted Tinkerbelle, disappearing as it spanned the canyon and hovered over the target. He could no longer see it; he saw its video feed on his laptop just fine.
Dying to see what they were up to and how many they were, his heart pounding every unrepentant thief, he guided the bot closer… into their cave. No crowd. Rocks galore. He had expected a knot of men teeming over backgammon or dominoes and a pot of tea. There was no one. Not even a dog or a donkey.
He stood away to stretch then back to see a lone male figure. He looked familiar and was soon joined by another. They argued. Brant wished he had audio but did not need it. Actions spoke louder, and unambiguously. This discussion was heated; tempers flared.
It soon got animated. Violently. Arms swinging, fists flying; then hats… and teeth. Zooming closer he noticed incongruities that did not fit the picture in his mind. Out-of-place objects; familiar things but from a different setting: a glint of gold; ballistic vests; thick wads of new Franklins; a security badge he had recently seen… on a diplomatic pouch in the car. His preconceived notion was all wrong.
Sensing other anomalies he soared nearer still, past the gleam of precious metal, to face-slap-rude reality: these men shooting at him had been his travelling companions hours earlier – the interpreter and driver, Sayed.
When he looked again, amid a crisp blizzard of hundred-dollar bills, the fight intensified. As a shouting Sayed spat in the polyglot’s face then point-blanked a pistol at his head and fired… twice, Brant witnessed the murder on live video, when he point-blank refused to surrender the demand.
Immediately, Cobalt sent the Fly-bot back downstream to the wrecked car. The two State Department aides’ bodies remained in the back seat as before, their clothing crudely disheveled; throats neatly slit. At that instant, the boarding pass was issued for one express ticket to Paradise.
Cobalt had nothing personal against the man trying to end his life. He was probably an affable guy, just trying to get by, who had made some poor decisions. Brant was known for his patience, but Sayed had exceeded his allotment. The world was full of nice guys getting by. Sometimes, one bad decision is all you get.
But Sayed had also abused a timeless human covenant, that Cobalt sensed in his bones and by which all who breathe were bound.
A major life-changer loomed in his near future. His fiancée planned a welcome party for him – as soon as he got to J-bad and a flight out of here. It would also celebrate their engagement; on the eve of his last departure, he proposed. She accepted. He sat languid looking forward to happiness to come – and a butterscotch sundae – when a rumble alerted.
Booming artillery dinned the valley, quaking that reverie and putting his sweet tooth on ice. He had no yen to spend another night at this place, and planned to work his way to a gentler altitude, but had business up here to finish.
Slinking boulder to boulder and using mental muscle he was glad to possess, he crept to within 80 meters of the adversary by nightfall. His goal within reach now, his blood began a steady simmer.
Mumbling about renal implants, he burst forth in a silent surge of testosterone and adrenaline oblivious to the barrage, with feline stealth, stole his way to the ledge above the sniper’s nest still undetected, and in one fluid movement pulled the pin from a mini flash-bang, swung himself down to confront his staggered target eye-to-eye, fist-bladed his solar plexus to take his breath away, then tucked the grenade into his yawning maw just in time to spin clear out of range as the flash-bang took his head away in a muffled puff of pink.
The puff was a signal. It sent Sayed’s torso rolling down the slope of scree, and into the chaos of downtown oblivion’s evening rush.
Cobalt wondered if there was a Dairy Queen in Jalalabad.
Cobalt’s Engagement Homecoming Surprise
Brant tabled his butterscotch ambitions in Jalalabad. His schedule left little time for luxury. It was just as well. He suspected it would have tasted like sesame seeds. He enjoyed their flavor, but not expecting butterscotch. Operating in Western mode now, to ease transition, he was in the mood for the real thing. That would just have to wait until he got back to the land of the red, white, and DQ.
Nevertheless, in the weeks before his departure he managed to leave a favorable American impression on at least one Kabul local. A girl of thirteen or so had befriended him while he surveiled an insurgent cell, pinching moments on her way to and from school to apply newly-acquired language skills to events in the news.
Born with a cleft palate to penniless parents unable to afford corrective surgery, and too young for a veil, the girl bore her deformity if not entirely proudly for all to see. He noticed she was of a higher than the prevalent plane, and went out of his way to ease hers. Her courage and blushing dignity moved him.
But a local thug and avid Taliban supporter had another idea for her complexion. He heard she was studying English, compounding her alliance with the Yank, and determined that she required humiliation. He proceeded to make over her face – with a coating of bright yellow housepaint.
The savagery steamed Cobalt, who spent parts of the next three days hunting for the perp – one of a gang of toughguys who preyed on schoolgirls. Brant met a policeman who had witnessed him stealing radios from an electronics shop, and put that news and the 'lifter to work.
When the colorless guy finally showed his face, after securing a public pledge to cease harassing the young woman, Brant persuaded him to paint the storefront of every shop on the block in a shade of each shopkeeper’s choosing. To level the painting field, he was made to do the job with his own face dripping yellow enamel. His only alternative entailed the swift loss of one of his hands as a thief, in keeping with the Sharia justice he had previously endorsed.
Payback was a bitch – for him, but a big hit with the local merchants, who watched his graceless efforts with catcalls and bellylaughs, and the odd overripe egg lobbed his way. Word spread quickly: the boy’s rehab was an event; it drew a sizeable crowd, that seemed to grow by the brush stroke, to watch what had become the best free public show in town all week.
Brant picked up the tab for the paints, and brushes only; no rollers permitted. He assured the thug, if his work was not up to scratch he would be obliged to repaint it entirely, by toothbrush – paint brushes were too pricey for improvidential use – and, that if he suffered any future impulse to make girls cry, it was better done from happiness.
Cobalt contacted a Kabul medical charity that ran a mobile cleft palate correction clinic-on-wheels. There was such demand for the service they could accept only a tiny percentage of applicants, but he covered her procedure with a transfer of anonymous funds to the clinic in case she did not otherwise qualify, to remain as a donation if she did.
He did manage to get safely into and out of Jalalabad. No more insurgent incidents. He ate up the 18 miles to town by dawn with minutes to spare for a nap, and dashed through BWI Airport, butterscotch banished from mind in the rush home. It was just getting dark; he was on party time.
Practically giddy driving up the dark lane to the house, he couldn’t wait to see the crowd of friends and family. He even looked forward to the pranks some of the smartasses among them no doubt had connived all week. And, the food. He had for months nearly drowned dreaming and drooling simultaneously, of delicacies he ached to catch up with. After butterscotch, a rare burger topped the list.
Long, and hungry, months had lapsed since his last visit, and he was engaged now, to a woman whose touch would soon make time, and his demons, stand still. With her help, he had lately learned that out of no particular weakness people need pillars, at times, and she was his. She was about to become a sturdy addition to the first rebuild of his life.
Marriage was a sizeable step for anyone, but a huge departure from his singular course. He had developed an aversion to marriage and family – his own – only recently reconciled, that was rooted in his upbringing, and gave him a unique perspective.
His pet definition, apt for him, of the family: “an institution that provides for the systematic production of mental illness among each of its members,” coined in the '70s by British anthropologist Dr. Ashley Montague.
His most telling childhood memory: returning home one day from kindergarten, greeted in the street by neighborhood children shouting him news his alcoholic father had just been taken handcuffed away by three dozen police and FBI Agents, guns drawn. He grew up abruptly in the subsequent seconds, aging thirty years in fewer minutes. …Only to later learn his public humiliation was his own doing!
His father’s glib spin pinned blame on the boy – it was love for his son that compelled him to punch the tax man’s nose. Too young to decipher adult logic, he quietly accepted his new role as patsy and his abrupt fall from grace. It was a lot for a 5-year-old to bear; he barely did. The old man did: 30 days in Federal Prison; the boy, life, convinced he was emotionally damaged goods unfit for marriage and the children he couldn’t abide anyway. But all was long forgiven and, now, forgotten.
It was perfect weather for an engaging evening – not too hot; not too humid; a hint of breeze. He had the car top down; its stereo blaring tunes into the honeysuckle-heavy haze of twilight, …loving life.
Nearing the house, above the headlights’ beam he noticed an array of red, white, and blue beacons reaching high above treetops to scratch a crepuscular itch. Amused that his loved ones had gone to such lengths, a shiver ran through him and he let a grin crease his face rounding the final curve to find the charred remains of his home, and hungry little flames drooling sparks of Hell onto his party and busy first responders, emergency vehicles, and curly black pillars of sorrow-in-smoke.
Time, but not demons, jolted to a halt.
CHAPTER 3: After Cobalt learns his days may be numbered and hits the Golf Club with friend Desmond, his ancient connections are introduced and described….
“Possibly, …grim,” he answered with melodramatic bluntness, from which he gleaned a curious glee. His timing, not unlike Jimmy Stewart’s, was perfect, though. …Wanna play golf?” . . .
Desmond was a member of Congressional Country Club, in Potomac, Md., where Cobalt’s first golf outings were committed….
. . . They stopped at the Pro Shop to confirm their tee time, then went upstairs to the putting green, beside the main entrance to the grand hacienda-style clubhouse. Cobalt plucked a putter from his bag and stared down its shaft at a ball resting on the close-cropped bent grass. He drew the head back and struck it, then spoke as it dropped with a clatter that comforted him.
“I was close to refining a new approach to my life: focusing on the moment, rather than the whole shebang. Now… this hiccup, but what a moment. Unlike life, it’s hard to hide from death. …Ha-ha, I can run away with the best of them. I wish I had the option. …But, if you are in it, you might as well be in all the way.”
“Brant, I wouldn’t expect any less… from a guy named for a goose, ha-ha! …You now have a well-defined goal: the fight of your life! You cannot ask for any more than that. There’s no fear like catastrophe to get the blood flowing. You’re a survivor! And people think those are the lucky ones. Imagine your friends in Japan, after the Fukushima tsunami; …those survivors had to face life like few must. That is the stuff that spurs Bible-writing. …You just have to take one day at a time, or risk overwhelmedom. …They can always find a cure, …who knows? It happens every day. You may be dead, but you’re a long way from buried!”
“Well, …I’d be happy with a cure for my slice.”
They made their tee time and played a round of 18 holes… one slice at a time.