How’d you know it was a trap?"
"I saw the guard grinning."
"It saved our lives." Isaac leaned back against the cave wall.
"Maybe, but it was too late to save our men."
"We’re not beat yet." Newcomb sounded heroic.
"That’s only because you were thinking. I’d have charged in and gotten everybody killed." Adams bowed his head in shame. He was torn between prudence and gallantry.
"You don’t think they’re dead, do you?" The Mossad Major grimaced.
"No, they’re alive. If they wanted ’em dead, they would’ve shot ’em like fish in a barrel." Adams put his helmet on and punched up the amplified listening mode. There was only silence. He peeked outside, trying every function. Nothing.
The sun’s early rays were making their first tenuous efforts to brighten the sky, much of which was obscured by an ominous buildup of towering clouds. They were perfectly white on their eastern edge and black as night on the west. The winds were warmer now, but blustery. If these clouds were to let loose, the snow would be heavy and wet. As Thor looked up with foreboding, he knew they were in trouble. There would be no flights, no rescue, not in these conditions.
Hiding from an enemy that seemed to have disappeared, the warriors agonized. Their retreat had cost them nearly ten minutes, they had spent at least that long in the cave, and it would be another ten minutes before they reached the pit. Thor leaned back in, "We need to go."
"Right behind you, pal," Isaac said as they began their descent.
Although their helmet cameras were now fully functional in the light of a new day, they were not eager to have their signal broadcast back home. Despite the encouraging words, despite all their renewed courage, Team Uniform had failed. If they’d had their druthers, they would have preferred to be as invisible to the folks in Washington as they hoped they were to those here in hell. If anyone was watching back home, Thor knew, they would feel the same way.
Step by careful step, the Captain and the Major inched their way down the steep incline. If they stumbled, loose rocks and debris would bounce and crash noisily until everyone knew they were here.
With being cloaked more critical than being combat ready, the men moved forward with their guns sheathed. The hunted were now hunters. Their SFGs included rifle and pistol holsters made of the same material as the suits. Each component plugged into the symbol generator. As long as their weapons were in their cases, they too faded into their surroundings.
Safely on the valley floor, Isaac and Thor marched to the place where they had seen their comrades disappear. The bogus sentry posts were unmanned. There was no one in sight, no sound, nothing. The terrorist mob had vanished into the hills from which they had come.
"Look," Isaac said into his mike.
Up to a point, the footprints swirled in all directions, but those going south stopped just after they had passed the sentry posts. Having found no retreating prints, they had turned and joined the rest of the celebrants.
"Good call. I owe you one." Had they turned and run, the villains would have pursued and captured them.
Nearing the depression, Thor moved right and Isaac left. As they reached its southern edge, the first snowflakes began to fall.
The pit was crude, just a hole in the ground eight or nine feet deep. It had a dirty, uneven floor made of wood, and earthen walls. It was empty. Team Uniform was gone. There wasn’t even any blood.
"Look at the craters," Isaac said. He pointed to the indentations, forgetting that Adams couldn’t see his hand. "Al-Qaeda set their explosives a foot or so below ground." There were eight impact craters, not four, as they had expected. The longer stretches of the wall, running parallel to the trail, had been divided into three sections.
"The floor panels are the same length as the distance between the impact craters," Thor pointed out.
"Yeah. I’m sure that’s not a coincidence."
Shattered and splintered wood was strewn all about. In the middle of each of the four earthen walls, gas canisters, six of them all together, had been strategically placed at about knee level, along with some rough ductwork. While the setup gave the appearance of crude HVAC equipment, it clearly wasn’t intended to heat or cool the pit.
"What do you suppose the canisters and ducts are for, Isaac?"
Newcomb had no answers, only questions. Looking up, he spotted a pair of crude ladders at the far end of the depression. "I’m going down."
As Thor walked toward the second ladder, he noticed a glistening reflection. Moving closer and dropping to one knee, he examined the source. "What do you make of this?" he asked, lifting a wire with his gloved hand.
"It’s a tiger trap! Remember the last thing Kyle said? ‘The ground gave way.’"
Adams could feel the wind rush out of him. He’d been played for a fool.
"It’s like the Trojan Horse in reverse." Isaac descended the ladder.
"Then this must have been the trigger."
"Yeah. That’s why Seraph yelled ‘mine’ just before the explosions. He snagged it with his boot."
The Captain yanked the broken strand. The business end pulled the remnants of makeshift explosive devices out of the cratered walls. They clattered innocently on the floor.
"The explosions blew out the floor supports." Isaac tossed one of them off to the side, out of his way. "The deck used to be up at ground level. It was covered with dirt so it looked like part of the trail."
"Yeah, and the timbers are heavy. That would have kept them from bouncing, especially since I’d just ordered the men to walk quietly, heel-toe. Our guys never knew what hit ’em."
"Wearing these ‘coffins’ didn’t help." The Major adjusted his. The suit was chafing. The places that had been rubbed raw during the ascent were oozing, gluing his skin to the fabric.
"The blasts we saw were under the support posts." Now the Captain caught himself pointing. He sheepishly lowered his arm.
Newcomb traversed the length of the crude bunker amid an ever-increasing flurry of large snowflakes. "When the beams let go, the platform fell into the pit with our men on it."
"They were trapped."
"But they weren’t killed, Captain. There’s no blood or shrapnel." Isaac was relieved and apprehensive, all at the same time. Down on his knees, his partner stood behind him on the undulating wooden deck. "Whatever happened has something to do with these canisters. The valves," the Major said, "must have been attached to the trigger." Isaac reached in to pull one out. He was careful, as if he thought it might spring to life and bite him.
Adams pushed the ductwork aside and grabbed a tank, reopening the gash on his left hand. Ignoring the pain, he read the label, finding their first clue, their first real indication that their men were alive.
The canisters were marked in English. The labels proudly boasted their maker’s logos and the industry trade name for a nauseous mixture of gases. There was no mistaking the recipe. "N2, Nighty-Night," Thor said into his mike. "Those disgusting thieves."
"How’d they get it?" Isaac asked. "It’s supposed to be secret. Doesn’t your government keep stuff like this locked up, like it was...?" Like it was a biochemical weapon was what he was thinking, but he didn’t want to insult Thor - or contemplate what else the terrorists might have stolen.
"They used the same thing on us that we planned to use on them." Their knees buckled. Who was this enemy, anyway?
"They put our guys to sleep, Cap. Why would they do that?"
With Osama bin Laden’s promotion from exalted leader to worshiped martyr, the ranks of terrorist militias like al-Qaeda had swelled. And working together they had confounded the infidels once again.
So it was with extreme pride that al-Qaeda’s newly minted leadership began to celebrate their latest achievement. And they were not alone. They were joined this day by Aymen Halaweh, a handsome young Palestinian engineer, who was also relishing the moment. This is what he had dreamed of doing ever since his tormented boyhood in Gaza.
Aymen was barely twenty-five. His dark olive skin was as smooth as his new beard. Al-Qaeda’s latest prize was a smallish man, just five foot nine and a scant one hundred and fifty pounds. Today was to be his initiation, his "swearing in" ceremony.
Ironically, Halaweh had been educated by the infidels, at America’s most prestigious engineering school, MIT. The nation had a long history of equipping her enemies. Aymen was but the latest example of this myopia. But America was not alone. Islamic terrorist excursions into colleges in Germany, France, and Great Britain were commonplace.
A technology maven himself, Halam Ghumani was delighted to have an engineer at his side. And the timing couldn’t have been better. They had just captured nine infidel soldiers wearing the latest in high-tech uniforms. Who better than Aymen Halaweh to evaluate their fortuitous catch?
Besides, the leadership wanted to test young Aymen’s mettle. He was not yet a "made" man. They needed to be sure he was properly devoted, sufficiently enraged. If he became squeamish, they would be worried.
Lying on the dirt floor inside the faux barracks, the four men from Great Britain and two from America were joined in their imposed slumber by three from the "occupied Palestinian territories" - Jews. In less than ten minutes’ time, the terrorists had lifted them out of the bunker that had ensnared them and carried them to this, the largest of the crude enclosures in their "rebuilt training camp."
With thirty-six men and boys under their control, the three al-Qaeda leaders and their neophyte prodigy were having the time of their lives. The ratio was perfect, precisely one militant Muslim available to grab every infidel arm and leg, four to a man.
Under the direction of Aymen Halaweh, the unconscious men were stripped down to their skivvies. The watchful eyes of Halam, Omen, and Kahn followed the proceedings. They were as interested in the high-tech gear as was their protégé.
The labor had been divided among the leaders. Kahn was responsible for the party they had planned for their guests. Omen had raised the money that had made this and other celebrations possible. He had also arranged for the team’s imminent departure. If all continued according to plan, they would be bound for Baghdad in less than an hour.
Aymen gathered the SFGs, helmets, and weapons and began evaluating them. He was enthralled by their complexity. An impish grin crept across his face as he beheld the technology that had been intended to thwart him and his new friends. It had obviously cost millions, and yet they had defeated it with a simple snare, like you’d use to catch a dumb animal.
Halam was in charge of gloating. For this he was perfectly suited. "What are the fishhooks for, Kahn?" He was hoping for a ghoulish answer.
"A bit of history. Thousands of years ago, the Jews were conquered by the Assyrians, from what is now Iraq. When they led them off into captivity, they fish-hooked their noses, as we are doing." He inserted one, twisting it.
"Besides the pain and humiliation, why go to the trouble?"
"To make a point. The elitist infidels think we’re barbarians. They joke that we’re wearing our turbans too tight, wearing ‘diapers on our heads.’" Kahn adjusted his. "I want to confound them with a historic twist." Then he stooped down and savagely yanked another large barbed hook into one of the Jewish men’s noses. He winked, looking up at Halam.
"Boys, grab ’em before they wake up. Let’s carry them out to our ‘obstacle course’." Kahn was having entirely too much fun.
"What did Muhammad say we are to do with Jews and Christians who fall under our control?" Halam Ghumani knew the answer, but he wanted to hear it again. It was one of his favorite sayings.
"Allah’s Messenger, peace be unto him, told us to kill them."
"And what else did he say?"
"That we are to lay in wait for the infidels and inflict such pain upon them as will be a lesson for others," Aymen recited appropriate admonitions from the Qur’an.
With Halam joyfully leading the procession, the entourage carried Team Uniform outside. Four to a man, white-robed Afghanis tugged at each combatant’s arm or leg. Across the open clearing they shuffled, their victims swinging helplessly between them.
Just a few yards from the massive, rough wooden structures that had been arranged to confuse the Americans, the Afghanis dropped their sleeping cargo. The convoluted maze of timbers were all set at right angles. It didn’t make much sense as an obstacle course. But in reality, mastering an obstacle course had little value in preparing suicide bombers or anthrax mailers anyway. It was merely part of the show.
Kahn Haqqani turned to face the assembled. Blowing snow now danced at his feet. The speed at which it accumulated reminded him of how swiftly his team had capitalized on their successes.
The visual contrast was beginning to suggest foreboding echoes of past evils, if only one were there to notice. The ten-inch-square rough-hewn beams were a deep darkish brown, nearly black. As the ground turned white, the image was reminiscent of the early black-and-white Nazi propaganda film, The Triumph of the Will. There, as here, was order, an overwhelming sense of purpose, and zealous pride - all emanating out of a demented doctrine. And like the Nazi films of old, outside of the leadership, no one knew what was coming.
"Stop," Kahn hollered. "We need Omen to finish setting up the satellite cam. Boy, you over there," Haqqani pointed. "Get the flags. There should be twenty-three of them - one for each of the Islamic nations supporting our cause."
Jihad had consumed the Muslim world. It had spread from a series of isolated brushfires, burning only within the most unbalanced of Islamic minds, to a raging inferno, threatening to sweep the globe.
As the flags were hoisted, Aymen Halaweh darted out of the barracks carrying one of the infidel helmets and a backpack. He was excited, waving them in the air. "Mr. Haqqani, look what I’ve found."
"What?" Kahn didn’t like being interrupted.
"They were wearing satellite cameras. Look at this," he said thrusting the confiscated gear toward his new boss.
Kahn looked directly into the camera. "Is it on?" he asked, vainly stroking a long beard that masked the angularity of his face. Haqqani was a short, skinny man in his late forties. A touch of gray dusted his hair.
"Yes. The battery is built into the pack. It powers the camera and the satellite PC. There is a display inside each visor, an H.U.D."
"A what?" Haqqani queried.
"A Heads Up Display. State-of-the-art stuff."
"If this is a satellite cam, where’s the antenna?" Kahn was more familiar with the type Omen had just erected, the kind the media used.
"Built into the soldiers’ packs, sir," the new recruit answered. He turned the unit over so the boss could get a better look.
"How do you know it’s on?"
"When you talk into one, you can hear it in another. You can also switch camera views." Halaweh turned around and shouted, "Brother, bring me another helmet and pack." One of the young Afghanis, standing guard just outside an open doorway, did as he was instructed. With two sets of SFGs, Aymen demonstrated what he had learned. "Here, see for yourself, sir."
Kahn and Halam each grabbed a helmet and tried to put it on. But they were not designed to be worn over turbans. They considered unwrapping them but thought better of it. If they were being filmed, they didn’t want to look foolish. Uncovering their heads, revealing their long, matted hair, wouldn’t impress anyone.
"As far as I can tell, these are broadcasting what we’re doing right now. They came to life the moment I reconnected them to the backpacks."
With that, Halam readjusted his turban. Kahn smiled. And the pudgy, clean-shaven Omen ducked for cover. Scurrying away, Quagmer glanced at the sky’s low, dark, and foreboding clouds. He relaxed a little. The forty-year-old terrorist knew there would be no men coming to the infidels’ rescue, not in these conditions. And yes, with the fate of their commandos still uncertain, there would be no cowardly cruise missiles either. They were safe, at least for now. Refocused, Omen hastened to his duties, completing the preparations for their departure to Iraq.
"They want a show, do they?" Haqqani said, still fixated on the helmet cams. He arched his back and shouted, "Then let’s give them a show!" The charismatic Kahn Haqqani raised his arms above his head. Swinging them wildly, he incited the men around him into a frenzied dance. "Let the show begin!" The ringmaster was ready.
"You two, over there," Halam Ghumani pointed. "Pick up two large rocks from the ridge." There was a sharp boulder-encrusted rise on each side of the clearing. "Bring them here."
As the men stumbled back, Haqqani ordered the grunting would-be terrorists to drop their heavy loads beside Omen’s satellite cam. Without complaint, they complied.
Kahn turned to his young Palestinian engineer. "Place the helmet cams on the rocks and face them this way. They want a performance. They shall have one."
With the SFG cameras in position and reconnected to their packs, Kahn focused on his job. There was much to be done before the anesthesia wore off and his guests awoke. Having choreographed the entire affair, he now found himself slightly behind schedule. Fifteen minutes had passed since the trap had been sprung.
"The four of you," he bellowed to a group of white-robed men standing next to Yacob Seraph. "Bring him to me. Yes. Bring my favorite Jew boy over here. Isn’t he the ugly one!" Kahn added, revealing his inbred animosity. Actually, apart from being a bit on the short side at five feet eight, the same height as Kahn, Yacob was a magnificent specimen. Barrel chested and strong as an ox, his upper arms were the circumference of the average man’s legs. Conscious, he would have been capable of breaking Haqqani’s pencil neck with one hand.
"Set him face up on this beam." Haqqani patted the crude wooden structure in front of him. "Everyone needs to pay attention. I’m going to show you what I want done. Aymen and Halam, you too."
As they moved in closer, surrounding him, Kahn reached beneath his elegant robe and into a pocket of the rumpled trousers beneath. Haqqani pulled out three long plastic ties, holding them up. "These were confiscated from the infidels. They were going to use them to bind us." Haqqani loved the irony. He had plenty of rope available, but he relished the idea of turning the tables on his tormentors.
"Position each man so his legs rest on the long beam like I have done," he said, making sure the alignment was perfect. "Spread his arms out on the shorter one like this," he said, as he moved them. "It’s called the patibulum." Kahn loved words. They were the tools of his trade.
"Hold the Jew in place," he sneered. "We wouldn’t want our guest to fall and hurt himself." The beams were set on pilings, about three feet above the ground. Kahn held his audience in the palm of his hand. "Now, take a plastic tie and secure each arm. When you thread the lock tie correctly, and yank on the end, it tightens and can’t be loosened." Kahn pulled the strap so hard it dug into Yacob’s wrist.
"It doesn’t look like any of our guests have knives on them," he joked, looking over their nearly naked bodies, "so I guess they won’t be going anywhere." Kahn humored the crowd, but he was playing to the camera.
"In a moment," he continued, gazing out over the assembled robes and turbans, "you will repeat what I have done." Kahn turned his attention back to Yacob, though, of course, he didn’t know his name. Embroidered fabric labels bearing the wearer’s identity, common on most uniforms, were omitted from these. They were designed for stealthiness, not recognition.
Haqqani handed a lock tie to Halam, who secured the other arm. "We must also tie the infidel’s legs. Place the straps above his ankles."
Ghumani looked disappointed. This didn’t look as painful as he had imagined. He loved watching others suffer. "You led me to believe...."
"Yes, I haven’t forgotten." Kahn motioned for one of the boys to bring him a short-handled sledge. He reached into his pocket, extracting a spike, a rather large, crude nail. He held it up for all to see. It was enormous, a quarter inch across near the tip and better part of a half an inch thick at the head. The wrought-iron spike was rectangular, not round. A deep brownish black, it nearly matched the dark wood beams. The menacing implement was over eight inches long.
The nails, like so much in the Muslim world, had been scavenged. Just as their Prophet’s clan had risen to power on the wealth they had plundered from caravans, these spikes had come courtesy of the British. They were intended for a railroad they had planned to build across Afghanistan nearly a century ago. Now they would be used to inflict revenge on the very nation that had brought them here - the nation that had brought the detested Jews back to Palestine, their former oppressor, and now staunch ally of their sworn enemy, the Great Satan. Revenge was a dish best served cold. And so it would be on this frosty Friday.
A crooked grin swept across Kahn’s sadistic face as he placed the first nail near Yacob’s left hand. He lifted the sledge into the snow-laden air. Then he stopped. Melodramatically, he brought the heavy tool back down to his side.
"No, my brothers, I want the Jew to feel the full impact of the treatment I have in store for him. I’ll demonstrate the proper technique on one of our fine English lads. It’s only fair."
Kahn had a flair for historical irony, although it was totally lost on his audience, both here and at the other end of the satellite link. He mulled it over in his mind. It had been the English, along with the French, who had volunteered so readily, and in such great numbers, to attack the holy city of Jerusalem, to slaughter the innocent children of Muhammad during their bloodthirsty Crusades. It had been the English who had colonized their revered lands, defiling Mecca and Medina with their arrogance and unbelief, subjecting the Islamic people to their suffocating imperialism. Yes. It was only fair that a British soldier should go first.
Haqqani gazed over to his right. "That one there," he said. "Lay that one, with the reddish hair, on the far set of wood beams just as I have done with his Jew friend. Secure his unbelieving body with the ties."
Kahn joined them at the far side of the clearing. He supervised every detail, correcting their mistakes, condemning the Afghanis openly and arrogantly for their errors, real and imagined. He had a low regard for those who had harbored him. Afghans, he knew, occupied a much lower branch of the family tree than Arabs like himself, Quagmer, and Halaweh. In fact, he, like Omen and Aymen, were Palestinians - the most elite of Arabs. His kin had founded al-Qaeda, and now they were back in charge, doing what came naturally.
Kahn asked Halam to step closer. "I’ll do this one. You do the next." With that he placed the nail in the recess between the two bones in Ryan Sullivan’s right wrist. "I have been careful to avoid the large veins that flow through this area. If you hit one, the infidel will bleed to death, and that’s not what we want." He pressed the long spike into the destot, checking the position to ensure he would inflict the most pain.
"I thought we were going to nail their hands, like in the pictures." Halam was surprised by the placement of the nail.
"No. I have studied this. They didn’t do it that way. The infidels drew their paintings wrong. They weren’t smart enough to know that when this was the execution mode of choice, the wrist was considered part of the hand. If we nail the palm, it will rip. The flesh will support only forty kilos. Trust me on this."
Kahn double-checked the position of the crude spike. He raised his hammer. But once again he stopped, glaring at the crowd he had gathered around him. "Move back, you imbeciles. You’re blocking the cameras!"
They scrambled to get out of the way. Kahn Haqqani turned his head ever so slightly toward the helmet cams. On stage, it’s called "cheating out." Satisfied with the image he was projecting, he raised the sledge slowly, dramatically, as giant snowflakes swirled around him. Then he brought it down, driving the spike through Sullivan’s wrist. But he wasn’t done. He raised the heavy mallet twice more, pounding the spike deep into the heavy wooden beam.
Ryan’s hand contracted. His thumb shot inward. The nail, as planned, had pierced Sullivan’s median nerve. But he was as yet unable to feel the full effect. He was just beginning to awake.
The black head of the hammer driving down through the snow created a dramatic contrast for the cameras. Haqqani was always aware that it was a show. He was pleased by the shocking visual effect he had created, and thrilled with his role. He was now a player on the world’s stage, larger than life. He was a man to be reckoned with.
Sullivan’s hand contorted into a knot. "See that?" Kahn boasted. "That’s exactly how it’s supposed to work. When he wakes up, the pain will be excruciating." The anesthesia would last less than thirty minutes.
Now Kahn moved quickly, nailing the Brit’s other hand. He improved with practice, achieving minimal blood loss and maximum nerve contraction. With no wasted motion, Haqqani, the great performer, acted out his part in the drama he himself had choreographed.
"Ever bang your elbow hard on the funny bone?" Kahn asked Halam. "Multiply that pain a hundred times; then imagine taking a pair of pliers and squeezing that nerve, twisting it side to side," he said in a sadistic tone, as he mimicked the deed. "Pulling and pushing it. That’s what these boys are going to feel."
Moving to the bottom of the longer beam, near Sullivan’s feet, he said, "Here you have a choice. You can affix both to the beam with a single nail just above the heel. Or, if you like carpentry, you can do them separately, with two nails. I prefer two, myself." It was as if he did this sort of thing every day.
Actually, he was no neophyte to brutality. During the good old days of the Taliban, Kahn Haqqani had tortured noncompliant Muslims, along with their wives and children. When he had grown bored with tormenting them, he took his victims to Kabul’s soccer stadium where he’d had them flogged and hanged. He considered himself a professional.
Setting an example for the others, the great Kahn forced Sullivan’s bare feet apart and positioned them against a wedge of wood that had been tacked to the beam. They were perfectly aligned. If he erred, the elaborate reenactment he was directing would fail, killing the infidel before he had suffered sufficiently.
Upon placing the spike, he raised his hammer and pounded the long nail through Ryan’s right foot. He put another through the left. Each sliced between the metatarsal bones before boring into the wood block. With two more blows, the job was done, the tip of the spike coming to rest deep within the weathered wooden beam.
The sharp riveting sound of hammer striking nail drowned out the softer sounds of scraped bones, ripping cartilage, tearing tendons, and skewered flesh. But the semiconscious Sullivan was no longer silent. As the nails were driven into his feet, they agitated raw nerves, causing him to let out a haunting, inhuman scream. Even under the lingering effects of the anesthesia, the horrid spikes were having their desired effect.
"Boys. You and you," he said, pointing at two young Afghanis standing near Sullivan’s hands. "Grab the beam below his arms."
They did as he commanded.
"Now, lift it up." Kahn instructed others to guide the bottom of the angular wooden structure into the concrete recess that had been designed to hold it. "Now that our first guest has been nailed, take your knives and cut the ties before he is raised any farther."
Lieutenant Sullivan was awake. Pain permeated his body. "If you want, you can rip the infidel’s underwear off, too. Humiliation is part of the treatment."
The beam onto which Ryan was affixed was raised. Higher and higher it went into the snow-laden air. When it was nearly upright, Kahn’s excitement grew beyond reason. Higher, higher still, until the long beam was vertical. Sullivan cried out. The agony became unbearable as the upright slammed down into the hole. Haqqani’s first victim screamed as the nails ripped his flesh.
Ryan Sullivan was being crucified.
He was the first to relive the most brutal form of execution ever conceived, a form of death so inhuman it had been banished for nearly two thousand years. Yet it was one advocated by Allah and preached by his Messenger, Muhammad. This was their legacy.
Haqqani turned to face the cameras. "‘The retribution for those who fight Allah and His Messenger, for those who commit such horrendous crimes, is to be killed or crucified, or to have their hands and feet cut off on alternate sides.’" Kahn had memorized his favorite verse, Qur’an 5:33.
Ryan’s mind told him to scream, told him that it would somehow release him from the agony. But as he tried, no sound emerged. The air had rushed out of his lungs as his arms bore the full weight of his fall.
Thus began the terror of crucifixion. Ryan Sullivan would suffocate within minutes, drown in his own bodily fluids, if he just hung from his nailed wrists. It was only by pushing up against his spiked feet, a torturous exercise, that he could breathe. The only thing more painful than putting weight on his pierced feet was starving for air. Over and over again he repeated the drill, three times every minute. It was excruciating, but that was the idea. The Romans had seen their victims endure for days, refusing to yield to the mercy of death.
While Sullivan’s bones held, his sockets did not. His shoulders ripped out, first one, then the other. As they did, his arms began to stretch, inch by inch, adding to the anguish.
From his perch above the snow-covered earth, Ryan gazed upon his comrades. They were freezing and nearly naked. He watched helplessly as they too were carried and tied to crosses identical to his. Mental anguish compounded the physical torment as these animals in flowing robes lashed their victims and drove their spikes.
A shrill voice pierced the air. "I want more cameras!" Kahn bellowed. "Bring them all to me."
Their job done, the men responsible for Sullivan scurried inside the ramshackle hut and retrieved the seven remaining helmets and backpacks. Stumbling to a halt in the newly fallen snow, they looked quizzically at Kahn as if to say, "Now what?"
"You, the ones who carried the Jew, get more stones for the new cameras." Soon the scene was captured from every conceivable angle.
With Ryan nailed and Yacob secured, seven four-man teams gathered the remaining plastic lock ties and affixed the squirming solders, rendering their extremities immobile. It had all taken less than ten minutes.
All nine members of Team Uniform were coming out of their chemically induced comas. Thirty minutes had passed since they had been captured. As they lay bare, spread-eagled on the beams, they shivered. The wet snow blanketed their bodies, covered their faces, and blurred their vision. Unable to look behind them, they didn’t know what was coming. Although they could hear their comrade moaning, they did not know why.
Unable to suck enough air into his lungs, Ryan was nearly mute. As badly as he had wanted to shout out a warning, he couldn’t, not that it would have done any good.
Kahn had arranged for four mallets, but he would use only three. Preparations had been made for twelve crosses, laid out in four groups of three. With just nine guests, one section would be abandoned. Kahn had expected twelve infidel soldiers, knowing that a dozen was considered the optimal number to conduct a raid of this nature. Yet in this, his moment of glory, he was hardly disappointed.
The great Kahn gave one mallet to Halam and one to Aymen. He held the third. Had there been a fourth group, the hammer would have been swung, reluctantly, by Omen. Quagmer was devoted to the cause, but the sight of blood made him squeamish.
With time of the essence, Omen was content to finish loading one of their two Russian personnel carriers. An aircraft was waiting at a makeshift airstrip just thirty minutes’ drive from the north end of the valley. The relative affluence of Baghdad was calling. He glanced up at the glowering sky, thanking Allah the plane had flown in the day before.
Kahn ordered the Afghanis to take up their positions. Scrambling into place, they stood at attention behind each cross, in nine groups of four. All ten cameras, the one al-Qaeda had brought and the nine that had been provided courtesy of the Allied Forces, captured the moment.
Halam pulled rank, choosing to nail the Jews. He decided to torment Yacob Seraph first. "It is said you led this expedition into battle, so you shall lead them into death." With that he struck the first blow. The nail pierced Yacob’s left wrist. Seraph tried in vain to suppress a scream.
"How does it feel, Jew?" Ghumani sneered, staring into his immobile victim’s eyes. He smiled as he showed Yacob the second nail. He tapped it on Seraph’s forehead, dragged it over his nose, across his upper lip, and then forced it down his throat, gagging him. Halam laughed as he swirled it around. Pulling the spike out, he drew a line on Yacob Seraph’s neck, pressing so hard it sliced through his skin, drawing blood, separating his flesh. Then he ripped it across Yacob’s chest and along his outstretched arm. Moving so that he was facing the cameras, Halam placed the spike in the recess of Yacob’s right wrist. Lifting the sledge high into the frosty air, he drove the second nail. As Seraph let out an ungodly cry, Ghumani howled, like a wolf to the moon.
For Ryan Sullivan, the pain of watching what was happening was nearly as excruciating as his own physical torment. He struggled to release himself from his ordeal, to pull his feet and hands free of the nails. But the heads were far too large. He twisted his extremities, convulsing in spasms of torment, desperate to save his comrades. All the while, the Afghanis pointed, cackled, and danced - shouting praises to Allah.
Incredibly, the intolerable scourge of mass crucifixion unfolding before Ryan was being reprised for the first time in nearly two millennia. Not since the days of pagan Rome had mankind felt the need to satiate their hopeless spirits like this, to assuage their vengeful souls with this most demented means of execution. But thanks to Muhammad, cruelty was making a comeback.
Enjoying himself, terrorist chief Halam Ghumani elected to nail Yacob’s feet one by one. Less schooled in the procedure than his sadistic partner, he caused considerably more blood loss than had Khan.
As his feet were being pierced, Yacob’s thoughts raced back to the city of his birth, the world’s holiest place. It seemed a million miles away, although it’s God, his God, was not. Seraph had rediscovered Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Moses, David, and the prophets. He had been on a spiritual journey that had led him right up to the cross of another Jew, a long time ago - and to his haunting question, as yet unanswered: "Who do you say that I am?"
Being crucified himself, the question no longer seemed academic. As these thoughts, these questions, raced through Yacob’s mind, his body convulsed. Almost uncontrollably, he swung himself side to side. It did no good. The combination of lock ties and nails held fast. Ghumani was able to torment him at will, and he did so with glee, mocking his every move. Yacob’s blood-curdling scream pierced the mountain air, but no one came to his aid. His God, like his homeland, now seemed so very far away.
The victim’s inability to fight back is an essential ingredient in the terrorist recipe. Therefore, it was with great pleasure that Halam Ghumani sauntered up to his next prize, Moshe Keceph. He sized up his enemy. This was all going too quickly.
Just by looking at his face, Halam Ghumani could tell that the Mossad Captain hated him as much as he hated Jews. The four thousand-year-old family feud between the sons of Isaac and Ishmael was still burning within both men. Had the hammer been in the other’s hand, Moshe would not have hesitated.
No matter how much pain he inflicted, Halam Ghumani would get no pleasure from nailing this Jew. The Israeli warrior would see to that. With each blow Keceph gritted his teeth, tightening his stomach so as not to utter a sound. This simply enraged Halam, whose ego fed on the suffering of others. He was furious. No Jew would deprive him of this treat.
Incensed, the terrorist leader did what came naturally. He lifted the heavy mallet and slammed it into Moshe’s clinched fingers, not once, but twice. It brought him as much pleasure as it brought his prey pain. With each blow, Moshe Keceph vowed revenge.
Halam would have continued pulverizing his hand had it not been for Kahn’s bloody schedule. "It’s his turn, my leader." Haqqani gently escorted his enraged comrade to the cross bearing the third and final Jew.
Halam let his heavy hammer drop onto Joshua Abrams’ bare chest, knocking the wind out of him. He liked the sound it made as it forced the air out of Abrams’ lungs. He did it again, and again, until his victim had nothing left to give.
Joshua, like his namesake Yeshua two thousand years before, knew what was coming. He was about to be sacrificed. And Joshua, like Moshe, did all he could to remain stoic, accepting his fate. He thought of his wife, his two young boys. He remembered his bar mitzvah and the great celebration that had followed his wedding, then the joy they had shared when their sons were born. He reflected on his nation. While it did nothing to dull the pain, it gave him a sense of pride, of purpose, a reason for suffering. He was proud of his heritage, his people. He managed to hold his response to a muffled moan. Ghumani was disgusted, but he was too tired to pummel Joshua Abrams’ bones as he had done to Moshe Keceph’s.
Halam had punished the Jews: gagging one, smashing the hand of another, and pounding the chest of the third. His brutality had been symbolic. The words, deeds, and spirit, the essence of Israeli pride, had all been wounded.
Kahn had a thing for Brits. After demonstrating the proper technique on Ryan Sullivan, he focused his devilish attention on Blake Huston, their leader. The Major was as tough as the nails piercing his flesh. He was a tribute to all who are called Royal Marines. While he was unclear on the exact nature of the torture that awaited him, he knew his men were being nailed to wooden beams like the one upon which he had been sprawled.
Haqqani would have preferred a more vocal victim, but smashing fingers was beneath him. Kahn was not a barbarian, at least not in his own mind. He was simply a player, committed to acting out his role. If all continued to go according to plan, the whole world would soon know his name. He was about to be famous, a celebrity of sorts, the next bin Laden.
The sadistic Kahn Haqqani was a student of history. He had studied torture, the most effective and humiliating techniques from the Assyrians and Babylonians to the Chinese and Japanese - including the Catholic Church in the Dark Ages. Their methods had been particularly gruesome. He had even visited with Saddam Hussein, the king of present-day terrorists.
But for his money, nothing beat crucifixion. If the recipient was strong, and not beaten in advance, he could extend his life by torturing himself, prolonging the pain. In a way, it’s a participatory form of death. Once affixed, the victim gets to choose how and when he dies.
White men on black crosses set against a carpet of silvery snowflakes - for dramatic effect, it was near perfection. Only the color of the united Arab flags waving triumphantly in the background, and a trickle of blood here and there, betrayed Kahn’s hideously colorful imagination.
Lad Childress lay silently, face up, shivering under a two-inch blanket of snow. He would have given anything to be buried, out of sight, but it wasn’t to be. The coarse plastic lock ties tore into his skin. As he struggled to break free, the Afghanis taunted him, spitting in his face. Then they took turns hitting him before jumping away, as if it were a children’s game. When they were ordered to stand guard behind him, one grabbed his briefs, ripping them off. Another pounded his groin with the butt of a rifle. Childress did his best to ignore the assault. His fate was sealed.
They called him "infidel," "idolater," "unbeliever." "Taste Allah’s punishment," they cried. "You are the ally of the Great Satan." Muhammad may have died, but his legacy lived on.
Lad Childress’ mental anguish had been punctuated by the sounds of hammering, haunting screams, and demonic celebration. It soon got worse. The Great Kahn began driving the rusty spikes into his body.
His imminent death caused him to reflect on his life and relationships. He thought of his little girls, giggling and squirming in his lap as his wife looked on. They were dependent on one another. She wouldn’t be able to go on without him. He feared for her. He prayed to a God he hardly knew, pleading with him to protect and comfort her.
Haqqani moved to Lad’s feet, using the point of the ten-inch spike to probe for the right depression, the best spot between the bones. Childress grimaced, knowing what was to come. He dreamed of his childhood in the lush rolling hills of Ireland, the rock walls, the green grass, the indomitable spirit of his people. These images were so vivid, he hardly noticed as Kahn pounded the last nail. Or perhaps it was just that the pain from the other intrusions violating his body had overwhelmed his senses.
Kahn continued to improve with practice. The nailing of Cliff Powers was nearly perfect: minimum blood and maximum pain. Haqqani was pleased with his performance. He turned and bowed to the camera.
Aymen Halaweh was the most deliberate. The engineer in him demanded perfection: the perfect position, the perfect strike, the ideal result. Deeply religious, he was here to serve Allah. His Messenger had called him to Jihad - to fight a Holy War against the Christians and Jews. He had been told the same thing by Allah in His Holy Book, the Qur’an. Aymen had read Muhammad’s speeches and knew he was performing exactly as he had been instructed. Halaweh had submitted to the will of Allah, or at least to that of his Prophet.
Aymen was happy to have been assigned the Americans. He resented them, even though they had treated him to the best they had to offer. It only embittered him. Americans had what he coveted: prosperity, self-confidence, a sense of purpose. They flaunted their wealth. Their extravagance and wastefulness angered him. Their decadence was, in his eyes, unforgivable. America was the Great Satan. The Jews used their guns to kill his fellow Palestinians. This day he would avenge their deaths.
Captain Bentley McCaile, the Ranger from sunny California, was his first victim. Bentley had it all: Hollywood good looks, wavy blonde hair, twinkling blue eyes. He had gone to college on a baseball scholarship, graduating magna cum laude from the University of Southern California. A patriot, he had enlisted in the Army. He’d wanted to become a Ranger, to serve God and country, to make his parents proud.
In McCaile’s presence Aymen Halaweh was timid. Even with his victim shackled, the disparity in their relative stature was extreme. As Aymen nervously struck the first nail, he failed, not generating enough force. It bounced away, tumbling into the snow. Embarrassed, the MIT engineer squatted, probing the fresh powder around his feet.
The snow reminded him of Boston, of fat, happy, brainwashed Americans. It rekindled his rage. On his hands and knees, Aymen found the elusive spike. He grasped both it and his hammer with renewed vigor. This time he managed to drive the crude blackened wedge through McCaile’s muscular wrist. The diminutive Palestinian was becoming a man. This was his rite of passage.
He drove the second nail with more force than he could control. The heavy mallet glanced off the nail’s head and broke McCaile’s left wrist. Miffed at his blunder, he sheepishly glanced toward Haqqani, relieved that he hadn’t seen his mistake. With his wrist shattered, Bentley’s torment would be more intense, although it would not last as long.
Halaweh wanted above all else to avoid Kahn’s wrath. Haqqani intimidated him. For that matter, almost everyone intimidated him. Shy and bookish, Aymen had never been able to form a meaningful relationship with anyone, not even in his own family. His dad had beaten him while his mother cowered. He had been forced to hold his sisters down as his father mercilessly circumcised - mutilated - them. The experience still haunted his soul. His oldest brother had died a martyr killing a busload of Jews. With nineteen dead and forty-two injured, he was a hero. Aymen had never measured up.
Aymen, thankful that his leader was focused on other things, quickly scurried to Bentley’s feet. Shaking, he managed to drive both spikes with relative precision. His confidence returned.
Only one man remained unpierced. Kyle Stanley lay silent and still. He knew exactly what to expect. He expected that his faith would grow - in direct proportion to the pain. It had been one thing to read about what Christ had endured; it would be another to experience it first hand.
Kyle was willing, though not particularly eager, to lay down his life. He would have preferred that the terrorists were laying down theirs, but Stanley had no qualms about suffering for his comrades, for God and country. He was every bit a hero.
As Muhammad’s followers ruthlessly performed their ghastly spectacle, Stanley prayed for strength, for deliverance from the pain. He wasn’t afraid of death, but he wasn’t in a hurry. He would soon be in a better place.
His mind drifted back to his intended mission. Had he not come here to do the same as was being done to him? No torture or gloating, of course, no pleasure in killing. But he was trained to kill; he was here to kill. Killing murderers saved lives, he knew. Kyle shook his head, trying to banish the thought. Unable, he felt the burning pain of the first nail skewering him under the force of Aymen’s hammer.
No, he thought. That’s not right. I was here to bring terrorists to justice, to trial. I had no quarrel with the Afghanis. They would only die if they protected the terrorists, if they harbored the scourge of humanity.
With their men nailed, Kahn and Halam made their way over to Stanley’s cross. "Hey, n*gger boy," Halam said as he grasped Kyle’s chin, forcing him to look in his direction. "Did you know that Muhammad’s first convert was a black boy, just like you?"
It wasn’t true, but Kyle didn’t know that. The Prophet’s first wife, a rich businesswoman nearly twice his age, had been his first "believer." Or, Muhammad was her first convert, depending on your point of view.
"Confess that Allah is God and Muhammad is his Messenger, and I will spare your life. Our war isn’t with your kind." The racist Kahn had offered Kyle the Devil’s own bargain.
Lieutenant Stanley gritted his teeth and quoted the same scripture that Jesus had recited when tempted by the Devil: "You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve." If we all worshiped the same God, as Muhammad and the Islamic clergy had claimed, that should have been sufficient. It wasn’t.
"Sorry, wrong answer, nigger," Kahn said in his most condescending voice. Bored, the al-Qaeda leaders turned away. Halaweh grabbed another spike and prepared to pound it into Kyle’s left wrist.
I must not hate these men, Stanley thought. As his mind turned from revenge, the pain seemed to ease. His Lord’s words comforted him.
The serene expression on Kyle’s face distracted Halaweh. Aymen scratched his head. Muhammad’s message evoked rage. This man’s God brought him peace. It unnerved him. Something was wrong.
Shaking, Halaweh struggled to raise his hammer. At this moment he was more afraid of Kahn’s wrath than he was of Kyle’s spirit. Focusing on steadying himself, Aymen conceived a solution to his sudden case of jitters. He carefully tapped the nail he was holding into Stanley’s wrist, just enough that it stood erect on its own. This allowed him to use both hands to raise his sledge. Lifting it, the Palestinian engineer let go, bringing the mallet down with considerable force, sufficient to affix Stanley’s dark brown arm to the matching wood beam.
Halaweh moved to Kyle’s left foot. Overwhelmed with all manner of questions, he was still nervous. Why is he acting this way? Aymen tried not to look, turning his back to his tormentor’s face. He held his second-to-last spike firmly in his left hand, the heavy mallet in his right. Now squeamish, he did his best to serve Allah as he had been instructed. None too quickly or well, nail, foot, and beam became inseparable.
Unable to resist, Aymen glanced back up at Kyle Stanley. He was sure that his last act, as ghoulish as it was, would have wiped the tranquil expression from his victim’s face. But what he witnessed instead was serenity. Halaweh stumbled, falling into the snow.
Reminding himself of the Prophet’s promises of booty and paradise for service such as this, Aymen slowly regained his composure. Standing, he looked sideways at the American soldier’s almost-radiant face.
His victim spoke. "Forgive him, Lord, for he knows not what he does."
Panic set in. Aymen Halaweh dropped his hammer. It vanished in the white powder. The last nail fell from his hand as he ran away.
Once Halam Ghumani had tired of tormenting his Jewish guests, he accepted the job of removing the plastic restraints. He was eager, wanting the final ceremony to begin. Nails were fine, a good start, but nothing says terror like a good old-fashioned hanging. That, for him, was familiar territory.
He had nearly completed his rounds when he turned to Stanley. He took a careless whack at the tie that bound his foot, slicing deeply into Kyle’s ankle. It began to bleed profusely. Halam swore under his breath. Just because he was a terrorist, living in a cave in Nowhere-istan, unshaven, unbathed, and wearing a robe that hadn’t been washed in months, it didn’t mean he was sloppy.
Ghumani placed his left hand on Kyle’s other ankle, holding it securely while he cut the plastic restraint. With blood everywhere, he didn’t notice the young engineer’s carelessness. As he turned to cut Stanley’s arms free of the ties, he also was taken aback by his victim’s countenance. But while surprised, Halam was too hardened to be bothered. His conscience, unlike Aymen’s, had died decades ago.
"I want every man to go back to his guest," Kahn announced. "The men that carried the legs shall position the base of the cross. Those who were assigned arms shall lift the patibulum. When I raise my hands to Allah, you shall raise the crosses."
His stooges shuffled into position. The great Kahn stood in front of them, his back to the camera. His hands were at his sides, palms forward. He looked to his right and then to his left. Every eye was glued to his hands. Melodramatically, he began to shake them as if stirring an orchestra. Staring ahead, a smile beamed from his face. His eyes danced. He began to lift his arms.
The Afghanis were mesmerized. Hypnotically, they followed his lead. Emulating their leader, they raised the crosses. They were angled at forty-five degrees by the time Haqqani’s arms were in the same position. His flowing robe billowed in the gusting wind as snow flurries caressed his angular face, flakes sticking in his beard. As the Muslim militants lifted the crucified men heavenward, their own souls descended one step closer to hell.
Haqqani raised his arms, hands still open, palms facing the clouded sky. They received a dusting of virgin snow as he held them there, quivering for effect. He was the conductor, the Afghanis were his orchestra, and the suffocating men were his instruments.
Every inch the crucified men were lifted stretched their flesh. The spikes tore at their feet and hands. The higher they rose, the more they began to cry out. It was an ungodly chorus. Then there was silence. The air was forced out of their lungs, and they began to die. Kahn Haqqani was stirred to passion.
"Higher," he shouted as he raised his hands, as if to touch the heavens. "Higher." This was his moment of glory, the moment he had dreamt about for three long years. "Higher!" Retribution, revenge. Blood for blood. It had been worth the wait. "Higher!"
As he raised his face, he felt the chill of the fresh, falling snow. He yelled, "O, great Allah. I have brought you these infidels. May they witness your wrath. Let those we hate burn!" His tirade reached a crescendo. "Cast them into the Hell Fire!"
He lowered his arms, clenched his fists, and heard the sound he had lusted for - the heavy thud of the last eight crosses falling in quick succession into the depressions he had crafted. The shock ripped the men’s extremities and jerked violently at their bones. Their arms stretched in excruciating pain; then one by one their shoulders dislocated.
Kahn fell to his knees in the swirling snow, his arms outstretched, pretending to pray. This, like everything in his life, was an act, a charade. But the performance, he knew, endeared him to his followers.
The deed done, he stood, turned, and smiled, facing the cameras. He bowed, like an actor, at the waist, as if he were accepting applause at the end of a play.
The whole performance had taken only forty minutes - right on schedule. As Haqqani bowed, the men’s shouts became thunderous. They pounded their hands together in jubilation. "Allahu-Akbar! - Allah is the Greatest," they screamed. Then, seeing their leader’s pleasure, they began to dance in the snow.