Have you killed?”
“Were you scared?”
“It’s not hard to take a life when a life has been taken from you. It is not about embracing revenge or nurturing hatred. And forget about taking an eye for an eye. Equality is for the weak and stupid. It’s about pulling the trigger… simple as that. One finger, one movement…”
“Who was the first?”
“I can’t remember, but I’ve never forgotten the warmth of the day, the blinding glare, the dust on the leaves of the apricot trees. It was apricot season. In that final instant everything slows down—the cars, the buses, voices on the street. Everything goes quiet and all you hear is your own heartbeat, the blood squeezing through smaller and smaller channels. There is no other moment like it.”
“Why do they call you the Courier?”
“I deliver messages.”
“You kill people?”
“People kill every day. Nurses push needles. Surgeons stop hearts. Butchers slay beasts. You’re doing something good here. You and the others are going to be famous. You are going to create a day that will live forever, a date that doesn’t need an explanation. History made. History changed. These things begin somewhere. They begin with an idea. They begin with faith.”
“The others will also be tested.”
“Are you going to film it?”
“Yes. Here is the gun. It won’t bite you. This is the safety. Pull back the slide and the bullet enters the chamber.”
“Nobody will see my face?”
“No. Now walk through the door. He’s waiting. Seated. He will hear you coming. He will beg. Don’t listen to his words. Press the barrel to the back of his head and pull off the hood. Make him look at the camera’s red light: the drop of electrified blood.”
“Should I say something? A prayer.”
“It’s not what you say—it’s what you do.”
The most important lesson Luca Terracini ever learned about being a foreign correspondent was to tell a story through the eyes of someone else. The second most important lesson was how to make spaghetti marinara with a can of tuna and a packet of ramen noodles.
There were others, of course, most of them to do with staying alive in a war zone: Do not make an appointment to see anyone you do not trust absolutely. Do not go out before checking whether any suspicious vehicles are loitering outside. Do not assume that a place that was safe yesterday will be safe today.
These security measures were followed by all western reporters in Baghdad, but Luca had added a few of his own over the years—advice that came down to possessing three vital tools for survival: a natural cowardice; several US hundred-dollar bills sewn into his trouser cuffs; and a well-developed sense of the absurd.
The first call to prayer is sounding. Sunrise. Luca had been woken by the racket of washing machines, TV sets and air conditioners coming to life simultaneously. The government can only provide electricity during certain hours, which means the appliances trigger at random times, day or night, creating a strange symphony of music and metal.
Stripping off his T-shirt, he scoops water from a bucket with a ladle, pouring it over his head. Droplets pour from his short dark beard and down his chest over his genitals. It’s already nearly ninety degrees outside and not even the shutters can keep the heat out once the sun hits the side of the building.
Drying his hair, he chooses a thin cotton shirt, something plain, cheap. He dresses like an Iraqi and tries to sound like an Iraqi. His shoes are not western. His sunglasses are not too foreign looking.
Sliding his hand beneath the mattress, he pulls out a compact semi-automatic 9mm pistol and tucks it into a holster in the small of his back. In his office, he unplugs his mobile, grabs his camera gear and opens the front door of his apartment, checking the corridor and then taking the rear stairs.
A security guard dozes behind a desk in the foyer.
“Sabah al-khair, Ahmed.”
The guard jerks awake, reaching for his rifle. Luca holds up his hands in mock fear and the guard grins at him.
“Have you made the city safe, Ahmed?”
“I have defused two dozen bombs.”
“Excellent. Just don’t recycle them.”
The guard laughs and gets to his feet. His belt is undone, his stomach bulging freely.
Luca opens his mobile and calls Jamal.
“Where are you?”
“Two minutes away.”
Glancing through the taped windows, the street view is shielded by concrete blast walls that are fifteen feet high. There are checkpoints at the two nearest intersections, giving the illusion of safety. Just like his rules for survival, Luca has developed his own conflict metabolism, attuned to the violence. His heart no longer punches through his chest when a mortar explodes and he doesn’t duck when a round zings overhead.
Most of his colleagues reside in secure hotel compounds or in the International Zone (formerly the Green Zone), seeking safety in numbers, which is another illusion. Clean sheets, cold beer, wireless broadband and satellite TV—modern tools for the modern reporter.
The bombings a month ago had provided a salutatory lesson. The first explosion targeted the Sheraton Ishtar, toppling the concrete blast walls and leaving a crater fifteen feet deep and thirty feet wide. Cars were torn apart by the spray of metal and glass, which littered the lawns and courtyards of the fish restaurants along the river.
Three minutes later, a bomb went off near the Babylon Hotel; and six minutes later at the al-Hamra, tearing off the façade. Fourteen people died at the Sheraton, seven at the Babylon and sixteen at the al-Hamra, including a policeman who once helped Luca find a new battery for his mobile.
Luca had arrived at the hotel when the plume of dust and smoke still drifted across the skyline and the scent of shorn eucalyptus trees mixed with the ugly, sweet stench of burning flesh. Two women were found beneath the rubble, one of them covered in dust with long streaks of blood running down her face. “May God kill the government,” she shouted as they pulled her free.
Another ordinary day in Baghdad.
A text message on Luca’s mobile:
Thirty seconds. Out front.
Moments later a battered Skoda 130 pulls up outside the apartment block, a young man behind the wheel. A second vehicle is immediately behind—a Toyota HiLux—the “chase car.”
Luca stays low as he runs. The moment the car door closes, Jamal jams down on the accelerator, swerving around the flat-faced concrete barricades. The HiLux is close behind, ready to intervene in case of an ambush.
The Skoda is a classic Baghdadi car with a windshield crisscrossed with cracks and a dash covered in an old strip of carpet and faded pictures of Shia martyrs. Beneath the bonnet is a V8 engine from a Chrysler 340 and slabs of iron welded inside the doors, bullet-proofing Iraqi style.
Jamal drives like he’s at Le Mans and dresses like he’s a gay cowboy in plaid shirts and western-style jeans. He was studying to be a doctor before the invasion. In the chaos that followed, the university’s computers were stolen and the files destroyed by fire. Now he can’t prove he has a science degree or three years of medical training.
Jamal’s cousin Abu is driving the HiLux. He’s older and built like a battering ram, with a semi-automatic pistol beneath his shirt and a sawn-off shotgun on his lap. In the four years they have worked together, Luca has exchanged little more than a dozen words with Abu. Jamal does the talking. On a busy thoroughfare, the vehicles travel bumper to bumper, weaving between groaning trucks, vans, mopeds and cyclists.
“There was another robbery,” says Jamal.
“Overnight. They set the bank on fire.”
“I want to go there.”
“What about the media conference?”
“They still won’t have formed a government.” Luca mimics the voice of the former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
“Today we are a step closer to agreement. Old hatreds are being put aside and we are talking in good faith. I am committed to the constitution and believe Iraq will get the government it deserves.”
Jamal laughs. “One day they’re going to kick you out of Iraq.”
He calls Abu in the HiLux. “We’re going to Karrada.”
“Follow the smoke.”
The two vehicles circumnavigate Firdos Square and head south along the dusty dual carriageway past mud buildings and footpaths lined in places with drums and razor wire.
Baghdad used to feel foreign to Luca but he’s no longer spooked by the strangeness of the place—the jangle of tongues, the confusion of smells and the thick honey-colored light. A bus has broken down. Passengers are standing on the pavement, arguing with the driver. The men draw on cigarettes, forming wraiths of smoke that are whisked away on the breeze. The women are delicate, unknown creatures swathed in black, with non-descript bodies and dancing eyes.
Jamal takes a stick of chewing gum from his pocket and turns on the radio, beating out a rhythm on the steering wheel as he listens to a local pop song. He and Luca have become friends over the years, but that friendship has boundaries. Luca has never been to Jamal’s house, or met his wife or his two young sons. There are people who cannot know that Jamal and Abu are working for an American journalist. Sunnis. Shiites. Insurgents. That’s where death lurks. Grudges are a national sport in Iraq.
A black plume of smoke rises into the white sky ahead of them. Normally Karrada is one of the havens, thrumming with street traders and gaudy shouts of greenery. Now police and fire engines have sealed off an intersection and hoses like black pythons twist across the asphalt, bulging and squirming. Some are so perished and worn they are spraying the concrete instead of the smoldering building.
The Zewiya branch of the al-Rafidain Bank has been gutted and the windows are ringed with dark shadows of soot that leak like a beauty queen’s tears down the pale walls.
Jamal parks the Skoda and Luca takes his camera from his rucksack. He signals Abu, who waits with the cars, keeping watch from a distance.
“How many is that?”
“Six in the past two months.”
“And this year?”
“Soon there will be no banks left to rob.”
Across the street, a group of teenage boys are laughing and shoving each other, frantic to be noticed. They are admonished by older men and told to show some respect.
A siren. A convoy. Four military vehicles weave between the fire engines, escorting a white police car with blue doors. The car pulls on to the curb, scraping metal beneath the chassis. Luca recognizes the man in the passenger seat: General Khalid al-Uzri, Commander of the National Police. Two uniformed officers wrestle each other to reach his door.
Al-Uzri stands and stretches, cracking his vertebrae and rolling his head from side to side. Cigarette smoke hangs over him like a personal cloud. Dressed in black-and-blue camouflage with a beret and epaulettes of a crossed wreath and star, he waves dismissively at the offer of an umbrella and walks through the spray, pausing to appraise the bank building as though considering making an offer.
A senior fireman emerges from within. His uniform looks too large for him, like he’s wearing his father’s clothes. He shakes al-Uzri by the hand and kisses each cheek.
“What has been lost?” asks the general.
The general brushes water from his jacket sleeve and glances at Luca.
“You’re a photographer?”
“Yes, General,” he answers in Arabic.
“Today you work for the police.”
Luca exchanges a glance with Jamal, who shakes his head. Luca ignores him. He follows the general and the fireman down the ramp, stepping through oily black puddles and around piles of smoldering debris.
The large roller door has buckled and twisted in the heat. Two bodies lie inside. Security guards. They look like discarded mannequins with melted and blackened flesh. The smell pries open Luca’s senses. Vomit rises. He swallows hard, coffee chewing at his stomach.
Al-Uzri crouches beside the corpses. “It’s the protein,” he explains. “When it burns it sticks to your clothes and the inside of your lungs.”
Holding a skull, he turns it as if he’s testing the firmness of melons at a market stall.
One of his aides speaks. “There were six guards rostered on last night.”
“Where are the others?”
“We’re looking for them.”
“These men were shot. Take photographs of this.”
The general stands and walks onwards, wiping his hands on the coat of the nearest fireman.
The concrete vault has a heavy metal door that has barely been singed by the blaze. It opens easily. Nothing remains inside except a single aluminum case, smashed open. A handful of US banknotes are floating in a grimy puddle.
The general leaves the vault, moving towards the internal stairs. Firefighters have erected ladders to the upper floors.
“Is that going to take my weight?” asks al-Uzri.
He points at Luca. “You go first.”
The journalist climbs the ladder and steps over a collapsed section of the floor. A toilet has come through the ceiling and landed vertically across a doorway. Glancing past it, he can see a long corridor with offices on either side. The desktop computers have melted into modern sculptures.
The senior fireman stops at one of the offices. It takes a moment for Luca to realize what he’s supposed to photograph. A blackened corpse is seated at a metal desk with stiffened half limbs reaching towards the blown-out window. Charred beyond recognition, the skin of the face is shrunken and leathery, gripping the skull, and the mouth is wide open in a scream. A swollen tongue protrudes from between teeth that seem unnaturally white.
Al-Uzri circles the body, examining it from all sides, his wet brown eyes full of wonder but not horror. Luca is taking short breaths through his mouth.
“This is one of the ignition points,” says the fireman. “Someone doused the body with petrol and poured a trail along the hallway to the door.”
Al-Uzri has moved behind the carbonized body. He pulls a small Swiss army knife from his coat, unsheathing the blade. His hand steady, he holds the sharp edge against the corpse’s neck and pulls something away, a wire thread embedded in the skin. A garrote.
He nods to Luca. More pictures are taken.
Closing the knife, he lights a cigarette, blowing smoke towards the ceiling.
Nothing shows in his eyes. Not surprise or sadness. Luca has seen that look before in soldiers who have witnessed such horrors that nothing is new under the sun or moon.
“A bad business,” says the fireman. “Have you seen enough?”
The general nods. He addresses Luca. “Deliver the photographs to my office. They are the property of the Iraqi police.”
Descending the ladders, he retraces his steps through the puddles and up the ramp, pausing only to blow cotton wool from his nostrils. Luca follows him outside where drivers scramble into cars, preparing to depart.
“Excuse me, General, I have a question about the robbery.”
The commander turns.
“Luca Terracini—I’m an American journalist.”
“Your Arabic is very proficient, Mr. Terracini.”
“My mother was Iraqi.”
Al-Uzri lights another cigarette, shielding it from the spray. He takes a moment to study the journalist.
“Most of your colleagues wear Kevlar vests and travel in numbers. Do you think having an Iraqi mother will protect you?”
“Perhaps you are very brave?”
Water trickles down Luca’s back. It might be sweat. “The bank manager was tortured.”
“It appears so.”
“Do you know how much money was taken?”
“What happened to the other security guards?”
“Perhaps they chased after the robbers.”
“Perhaps they ran off with the money.”
The leaking hoses have doused the general’s cigarette. He stares at the soggy offering. “It is not a good idea to make accusations like that.”
“This is the eighteenth bank robbery in Baghdad this year. Does that concern you?”
The general smiles, but the corners of his mouth barely move. “I find it reassuring that somebody is keeping count.”
His car door is being held open, the engine running. He slides into the passenger seat and waves the driver onwards with a flick of his hand. The convoy moves off, weaving between fire engines, adding one more siren to a city that sings with them.
© 2011 by Michael Robotham