Three years ago…
“Hey, Lieutenant, Tahir’s at the gate to see you. Says it’s important.”
I look up from my desk to my platoon sergeant. “That’s what he said last time when he wanted fuel for his truck. And before that when he wanted plywood for his checkpoints that he ended up selling for a profit. It’s always important with that a*****e. Take Lucas down there and get the details.”
“Nah, I don’t need the ‘terp. Get this: Tahir’s speaking English. But he says he’ll only talk to you.”
This was a new development. My platoon and I had been in Iraq for just over six months. Manning a tiny outpost on our own, the slice of hell we were responsible for was a small shitheel of a town called Al Siniyah up Route Tampa north of Tikrit. Officially Tahir al-Qassim was the leader of that town’s Sahwat, basically a neighborhood watch with guns. Unofficially he ran the place. Before the war he worked as an intelligence officer in Saddam’s army. He was smart, cunning, and extremely dangerous. He was also a necessary evil, keeping order in his kingdom through guile when possible and force when required. I’d suspected for months that he understood English better than he would admit, but this was the first outward proof of it. For him to wantonly play a card that big, maybe this time what he needed actually was important.
“Well, Sergeant Troy, I guess you’d better bring him in then.”
I hardly recognize the man escorted into my office. The brash, confident thug I’d grown used to dealing with is gone and in his place is a furtive wreck. Tahir takes a seat across from me and accepts the soda Troy offers him. I notice there are deep circles under his eyes like he hasn’t slept in days. His hands are shaking visibly and he has trouble working the tab on the can. Tahir is terrified. I can’t begin to say how much that scares me.
“Thank you for agreeing to see me, Mulazim Michael. You will of course be realizing that I only come to you this way out of grave necessity.” His accent is noticeable, but doesn’t impede his speech in the least. The man is fluent.
“Well, past experiences aside, it does strike me as pretty odd that you’d suddenly reveal you spoke English, Tahir. Especially after all those awkward conversations we had through Lucas about how you didn’t speak English. So I figured there was at least a chance it might be worth my interest. Let me guess: your boys need more plywood at their checkpoints?”
“Would that it was. I suppose I deserve that. I admit I have certainly taken advantage of certain…situational realities in the past,” his eyes grow hard, “But I would ask that you not make jokes at the expense of the dead.”
I sit up straighter. “Are you telling me…”
“All of them, save myself and three others. Two nights ago.”
“Tahir, you had more than fifty men. What the hell happened?”
The broken man continues to face me, but his gaze is far away.
“Why just that, Mulazim Michael. Hell happened.”
It’s four hours after my conversation with Tahir and I’m riding shotgun in my mine resistant vehicle. There are three more of my trucks in the convoy following the Sahwat leader in his beaten up pickup. All told I only have twenty of my men with the other ten needed back on guard at the outpost. I didn’t want to lie to my commander, but I didn’t want to get committed either. Telling him I needed reinforcements to go monster hunting just wasn’t going to fly. I can only hope this will be enough.
Some of the townspeople had come to Tahir earlier in the week. Kids had started going missing. The only signs were strange marks leading off into the desert, like something huge and heavy was dragging itself among the dunes. They pleaded with him to send his men after the kids and he complied. Maybe he isn’t quite the b*****d I thought he was. Tahir managed to follow the marks to a natural cave dug into the side of a hill out in the wastes, several miles from even rudimentary civilization. I’m still unsure exactly what to believe of the rest of Tahir’s story. I’ve known the man for long enough to be sure that something happened but…God, I hope he’s lying to me. Or crazy. Bandits and Baathist factions are one thing. Living nightmares that slaughter and eat your men in front of you? That’s something else.
It’s twilight, the moon just starting to peek up over the horizon. Unfortunately there’s some nasty weather heading in, not uncommon as winter is the only time it rains here, and the clouds are going to block any illumination. Damn, but I wish we could have done this mission during the daylight. My gut tells me this could go sideways really fast. If I knew exactly what we were going after, a terrorist cell say, doctrine supports a night strike since our tech is better than theirs. But going in on half blind intelligence, and with the insane stories Tahir’s spouting, I’m not too keen facing monsters in the dark. My conscience won’t let me wait though; if kids are missing, and I’m sure Tahir’s telling the truth about that, it has to be now.
I briefed my men exactly what Tahir told me. It took me a little while to decide whether or not I was going to but, ultimately, I’d rather they have an idea of what we might be up against. Worst case scenario I end up looking like a jackass. Best case, maybe it eliminates hesitation and saves lives. I can only hope we’re so lucky.
For anyone who’s only ever lived in a city, it’s almost impossible to appreciate how absolutely empty and dark the desert can be. Night has truly fallen now and, with the clouds totally blanketing the sky, only Tahir’s headlights ahead offer a faint reminder of day. I’ve ordered my men to drive blacked out; convoys at night are prey for even the merely human monsters.
We left the road behind thirty minutes ago. Bouncing along, the dunes rise up on either side of us, too high for anyone but my gunner to see over. It’s like traveling down a narrow hallway walled with sand; it’s anyone’s guess what’s at the other end. I glance over at Robinson my driver. His face is set, eyes straight ahead, hands tightly gripping the wheel. The banter that would normally accompany one of our missions is nowhere to be found.
Abruptly the way opens into a large clear area about fifty yards across and ringed by dunes. Ahead the far end of the clearing is capped by a large hillock about thirty feet high. Tahir’s headlights are fixed on a yawning hole at its base that seems to bore into the mound. He stops the pickup.
I call over the radio. “All right, boys, I guess this is the place. Establish a perimeter with the trucks around this clearing, then dismount. Drivers and gunners stay with the vehicles. Everyone else meet me in the center.”
Checking to make sure my rifle is loaded and my grenades are accessible in their pouches I shove open the heavy door of the vehicle and step down to the ground. Since we were driving without lights, I’m already wearing my night vision goggles and the entire world shows up in my monocular sight as alternating shades of black and green. I move to the middle of the perimeter and wait for my men to join me.
Sergeant Troy is the first one there.
“Sir,” he says, “I am again going to reiterate that you should not be going in on this mission. We don’t know whats down there and you’re too important to risk.”
“I appreciate the concern, Sergeant, but you know my philosophy is lead from the front. I can’t very well ask you to go down the scary dark monster hole if I’m not willing to and besides,” I grimace, “leaving two men per truck out here means we only have twelve trigger-pullers including me. Whatever is down there killed almost fifty of Tahir’s guys; you’re going to need all the help you can get.”
He grabs my vest and pulls me in closer.“Dammit, sir, then swap out with one of the drivers!”
“No, Troy. I’m going and that’s it. Now let go and shut up before the rest of the men get here.”
“Fine, but I’ve got two conditions, sir. Number one, lead from the front or not, you let second squad go first.”
“Fair enough. What’s number two?”
“If s**t starts going south in there, we are pulling your a*s out of the fire.”
“Sergeant, if things go south, I don’t think you’ll have the chance.”
Letting go, my platoon sergeant reluctantly backs off. The men have begun to trickle in so he makes himself busy doing final checks of weapons and gear. I appreciate his concern, but there’s no way I’m sending my men into this situation on their own. If something happens, I need to know about it.
The strike team is fully assembled. A light rain has begun to fall as I turn to find Tahir standing next to me.
“You see the hole there, Mulasim Michael? It is the mouth of hell itself. I wish you the very best of luck, my friend, and for your safe return. As-Salaam Alaikum.” As he turns to go I grab his arm.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Tahir, I think you have the wrong idea of what’s happening here. You’re coming with us.” If it weren’t impossible I’d swear I could see him blanch through my goggles.
“Ah, but surely you jest? For it is very dark in the cave and the last thing I would want to do would be to draw attention to your party with a light,” he smiles nervously, “and I do not have access to the wonderful equipment you do.”
“Well lookie here,” I hold up a pair of goggles, “I seem to have found a spare set!”
Tahir flies into a rage, arms wide, spit spraying from his mouth. “No! I will not go down there again! You cannot make me you damned American…” he tapers off when he feels the barrel of Sergeant Troy’s rifle in the small of his back. “Please,” he pleads, “Please, my friend. Do not make me throw my life away.”
I lean in close, talking low into the big man’s ear. “Now you listen to me, Tahir. If what you’re telling me is really down there then I’m an even bigger b*****d than you for making you go in there again. But here’s the thing,” I continue, “what you’re telling me is f*****g crazy. For all I know you sold your a*s out to someone and I’m walking my men into a real nice ambush. So I’ll give you a choice. You can go with us where I can promise you at least a chance of surviving, or you can die out here right now.” I step back, holding the goggles toward him. “What’s it gonna be?”
A look of pure despair passes across the man’s face. Shoulders slumped, he takes the goggles from my outstretched hand, completely defeated. Putting them on he turns away and begins walking toward the looming hole.
“You’re wrong, Mulasim Michael,” he calls back to me, “I am a dead man either way.”
The rain has picked up steadily, thunder rolls ominously in the distance.
“God help me, but I hope your wrong,” I say under my breath. “All right, boys, let’s go. Make sure you have positive I.D. on any targets; remember, there might be kids in there. Second squad, lead out.”
With that my men and I slowly move forward, the sinister entryway beckoning us onward to face what horrors I can only imagine.