This story is by Eleanor Hartley and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Nine men stood in a half circle, their expressions unreadable in the fading light; Jonas didn’t need to be told he had no friends here. A tenth stood by his side, pistol in hand, the eleventh trained a rifle on his back. Only one man mattered. Malik Khalil.
If he failed to impress Khalil in this moment, the mission would be blown and he’d die. He could try and convince himself he had volunteered for the greater good, but the truth was he accepted it for the challenge. Taking Khalil and his operation out would save civilian lives and that was a bonus, but for Jonas it was always the challenge of the seemingly impossible that drew him.
His eyes rested on Khalil, who had placed himself in the middle of the group. A man of small stature with a lean, yet muscular, body. The lines of a hard life written deep into his face gave him the air of being much older than his thirty-one years. A scar travelled from his left eye to the tip of his chin, the disfigurement an illustration of his commitment to the cause he led.
Jonas thought back to the beginning of the assignment, a clear cut directive. His mission was to infiltrate the Brotherhood of Ashkahas, gain their trust, get close to their leader, Malik Khalil. Neutralise.
“To kill a snake, you cut off its head,” the Commander had said. “Cut off this snake’s head and the rest of them will slither away; without him they are a lost cause.”
Jonas was not sure that he agreed, his research had uncovered this group was a tight team. He wasn’t paid to voice his opinion, just carry out the job. He was expendable, deniable; they both knew the score. He had nodded and picked up his new identity papers lying on the desk between them.
Jonas decided rather than fly directly, he would travel by ferries and buses and come in as a local traveler. It was a long journey to Algiers, and an opportunity to become word perfect on his past.
Jonas’s own mixed heritage and fluent language skills helped him to fit in without query. He had taken lodging in the city’s old quarter, tucked away below the ancient ruins of the Kasbah. The white buildings, with blue painted balconies, gave an image of coolness that belied the ferocious heat of the sun. Jonas bought a flowing robe to wear over lightweight trousers, appreciating the slight coolness it afforded as he wandered among the market stalls and coffee shops. Rich spices, displayed openly on tables, mixed entincingly with the aroma of bitter coffee in the still air, as shoppers browsed and traders called out the day’s bargains.
The old town was made up of narrow thoroughfares where groups of young men gathered, seemingly aimlessly, but having picked up a tail on the second morning Jonas knew some of these groups were likely to be observing him. Those coffee shop workers and market traders had loyally passed information that a stranger was asking questions.
In line with his identity, Joshua answered the call to prayer at the mosque. As he came out at sunset they picked him up, efficiently and silently. Blindfolded on the floor of a jeep he tried, and failed, to keep a mental map of the route.
Brutal questioning took place over five long days and nights. He was stripped, beaten, deprived of sleep, starved, left in his own excrement and cold water hosed. To begin with he tried to guess what was coming next, but they varied the torture and played with his mind. Sometimes the questions were in English, looking for a slip, sometimes in French or German but he held fast to his story throughout. He was Hanzala Rashid, a young man in his middle twenties that life had spat out and spat on. Surviving alone, relying on his wits and his fists, no family, no allegiance and looking for both.
On the sixth day a boot in the ribs brought Jonas round and he was dragged to his feet, held upright by a guard on each side. He squinted through swollen slits at a man a head shorter than him, although power and control exuded from his dark-eyed gaze. Malik Khalil himself.
In response to Khalil’s questions Jonas mumbled his answers through swollen lips.
“You say your father is Talal Doumaz. I know this family,” Khalil said “two sons only. You are neither.”
“True; I am the dirty secret.”
Khalil gestured for him to continue.
“My mother taught the two boys English, and slept with their father on the side.”
“Your mother is English?”
“Was, she’s dead; Doumaz had her killed.”
“But not you? Not the dirty secret?”
“He tried. The day my mother was taken in the market place, she’d left me with a friend, when my mother did not come back the friend dumped me at the orphanage. Within twenty-four hours they shipped me to the Kissani Centre.”
“Kissani? And you survived to adulthood? Interesting.”
“I don’t die easily.”
“All men die easily; you are a fool to think otherwise. Why do you seek me?”
“I want to join you.”
“I have no one, just an empty life. I believe you are offering a different future for our people; one that I want to fight for.”
“Our people? You think you are the same as me? As my brothers?”
“Am I not one of the people you say you protect from Western influence? Or is it not for all? You decide those you save and those you do not?”
Khalil gave a dismissive gesture, “What do you offer me?”
“I can fight.”
Khalil barked a short laugh, “You can fight.” He repeated shaking his head. “We will check your story, and I will decide if you are of my people, or not.”
Jonas was left alone in his cell. There were no more beatings; he was fed and clothed then two days later dropped off at his lodging with the instruction to stay there and wait until he was contacted.
Jonas had almost given up hope of hearing from Khalil, when two of his men came to Jonas’s lodging rooms shortly before sunset. They drove him, in silence, through the city, out on the west road. He estimated that they travelled a dozen kilometers before turning off and cutting across wasteland. When they stopped his escort pulled him from the jeep, one leading, the other following behind with a rifle levelled at Jonas’s back.
Khalil stood with his men, smoking and chatting. As they drew level Jonas saw a man kneeling in the dirt at their feet, hands tied behind his back, a dirty rag binding his eyes. Jonas recognized him from one of the coffee shops he had visited.
“What did he do?” he asked.
“He sold information to our enemies. He is a traitor.”
Khalil’s dark eyes bored into Jonas’s own.
Jonas flicked a look to the kneeling man, head hung low as he sobbed quietly.
“I know that you talked to him,” Khalid said, “Can I trust you Hanzala Rashid? My brothers say no, that I should not. But I see something in you I can use. So, we will see. If you wish to follow me, execute this traitor; shoot him or die with him. You decide.”
A click of a rifle being cocked brought Jonas back to the immediate moment. He looked into Khalil’s eyes and saw no compassion there, no negotiation. Jonas was the only person with something to prove.
Jonas glanced down at the man kneeling between them; he had stopped sobbing and was feverishly praying. Did he think that would save him? Khalil was right, he was an informer; for Jonas’s team. He knew little of him other than he was a husband and father to five boys; he was a patriot, not a traitor. Jonas could refuse the command but the outcome would be the same; the informer was already dead.
Jonas held out his hand to the man beside him, who looked to Khalil. A nod of permission given, the cold metal of a pistol was laid in Jonas’s hand and he walked forward to stand behind the kneeling coffee shop owner.
“Choose,” Khalil repeated, “decide who you are.”
Jonas placed the barrel to the kneeling man’s temple; one sacrificial life for the good of the many? Perhaps. He could not save this life, but if he was taken into Khalil’s circle there would be others he could. Telling himself it was for the good of the mission, he pulled the trigger. Blood and brains flew out as the body toppled over. Jonas still gripped the pistol as he looked once more to Khalil.
Khalil’s dark eyes met his own, a mocking smile at his lips.
“Very well, today is your turn to live. Brother.”
He turned and walked away, his men flanking him.