The Fine Line

Gerdi, Afganistan

The sun began its slow and inevitable slip behind the foothills of the Hindu Kush Mountains. The sky’s angry orange hue fought against the growing cool as the long shadows of twilight began to slink out of hiding. It wouldn’t be long now before it would be completely dark. Subconsciously, his hand rested on his HK MP5, stroking it lovingly as if a pet and his mind wandered to Alex. He wished he could be here with him, but it was way to risky.

The small town of Gerdi, Afghanistan sat near the Pakistan border. The bustle had settled and the Adhan would soon call for ‘Isha, the final prayer of the evening. He pulled his black bisht around his massive frame as the temperature dropped and he shifted his position to allow the blood to flow to his left leg again. Five hours of sitting on this roof during the hottest part of the day had taken its toll on his disposition. Although they had fashioned a rough shelter to conceal themselves, it was only partially successful in dissipating the heat. The frustration of no activity gnawed at him and was exacerbated by stinging nettles that erupted from his foot as the fresh flow of blood awoke his sleeping nerves.

A short way down the narrow street, two foreboding men in black Bedouin robes escorted a young boy of fourteen or fifteen. He pulled out the Nikon and hefted the long telephoto lens in their direction. He was taken aback at what he saw and quickly snapped off a reel of images. He had seen the boy before. There had been several boys brought to the warehouse, but this is the first one to make a second visit. A new pattern was forming. The two men he had come to know well in the telephoto lens, Tom and Jerry, he had named them. They were just two of the six that surrounded the Cleric and did his bidding.

Tom, Jerry and the boy proceeded to a tall metal shod door and fiddled with the lock. The boy looked around furtively and Jerry placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Alright, let’s see what’s behind that door today guys,” he murmured and aimed the lens toward the top of the door hoping to see further into the room. The door creaked and squealed loudly announcing its displeasure to the quiet evening as Tom slid it open. The camera’s shutter fluttered rapidly as the focusing mechanism’s staccato shifting made the camera feel alive in his hands. He suppressed a quick shiver that tried to race down his spine at the thought of the camera having a life of its own. From what he had experienced in the last few years, a living camera would not be the worst thing he had come across… far from it.

He refocused his attention to what he was seeing in the viewfinder. One of the last rays of the day’s sun sliced into room, its gash widening as the door yawned open. Symbols inscribed on the floor revealed themselves in the unrelenting rush of the desperate sun. “That’s a damn big tub” he breathed. He pulled his eye from the viewfinder to see it for himself and quickly resumed taking photos as Jerry ushered the boy inside and Tom slid the protesting door closed behind them. He lowered the camera wishing it wasn’t getting so dark. He wanted to see the images he just captured on a larger screen, but the light of the screen on the laptop or the back of the camera could give away his position.

He fished a date out his bag and bit into it. I’m getting sick of these damn things, he thought to himself as the mushy pulp coated his dry tongue. He began to daydream about a big, sloppy burger.

A couple of minutes later the familiar figure of the Cleric flanked by his protectors sauntered down the street from the opposite direction of the boy. “Fred, you really should rotate you and your boys so they don’t get complacent about threat awareness,” he whispered. He’d had plenty of experience with watching peoples back. Fred bothered him, because Fred seemed to let social hierarchy interfere with sound protection detail protocols. Fred was always at the Clerics right hand side. He didn’t appreciate it when his adversaries made it easier for him.

Larry, Moe, and Curly were the other three members of the Cleric’s protection detail. They were less capable than Jerry and Tom who were already inside. At least Fred was smart enough to keep them close to him so he could direct them. The metal clad door scraped shut again. A minute later the Adhan’s voice rang out across the city. The evening prayer had begun.

The tall lanky man looked down at his vintage Gruen Precision watch, the one he happened on in a Cairo market. With it’s worn leather band and subtle scratches that were almost worn away by time, it spoke to him. He imagined the story behind each of those scars on the watch. He didn’t remember how much he spent on it, hell he hadn’t even haggled. He just paid the old man and put it on. He imagined it was the kind of watch Indy would have when he bought it. The second hand ticked resolutely across the face, eleven forty-seven the other hands told him. It was time to head out.

He grabbed the heavy black bisht and donned it. “I’m heading out Lemon,” he called out quietly as he reached for the worn latch. Lemon sat on the rug relaxing in the pillows reading by the dim light of the single bulb in the room. Alex joined her on the rug. Alex lifted his eyes toward the man and forgot him.

Lemon glanced at him over the top of her glasses. “See you in the morning,” she said and went back to her book.

He entered the dark alley and secured the wooden door. Which way tonight? He looked up into the sky. Millions of shimmering diamonds floated above. The buildings framing his view of the heavens stood quiet and inky black in contrast. “Caph,” he said under his breath as he spotted the constellation and the star known as Shedir, which translated to “breast” in Arabic. He smiled and walked toward Shedir.

Quietly, he made his way through the unfamiliar streets winding his way through the them by instinct in the general direction of the nest. He chose a different route every night as he was instructed by Jasper. He had learned to listen to Jasper’s advice when it came to this sort of thing. Jasper’s advice had saved his life a couple of times and he had also seen people who disregarded it die too. Jasper was a serious guy, perhaps a bit cold, but he liked how Jasper never flinched when it came to action.

Turning the corner the nest came into view. It wasn’t a nest really but rather a building. Perhaps a building would give it too much credit. An organized pile of rubble that in another life had been a building. The locals didn’t think too much of it either as it was uninhabited. It was the latter that made it appeal to Jasper. He carefully scanned the streets and buildings before crossing toward it. He clicked his tongue twice before entering the heap to let Jasper know he was on the way up.

“Anything new?” he asked Jasper.

“Yes, they have one of the boys in there. They arrived just before prayers.” Jasper grunted as he stood and grabbed his kit. “I think it is number four.”

“Well, that’s a development. Anything else?”

Jasper stretched a bit before answering, while the lanky man arranged things and assumed the spot that Jasper just vacated. “I got some shots inside. Looks like a casting circle and they got this big fucking pot in the middle of it.”

“Pot? Like a cauldron?” the surprise was evident in the man’s voice.

“More like a tub. If they’re brewing something in that, they must have a contract with Costco.”

The lanky man laughed quietly. Jasper was stoic as if he didn’t know he just made a joke.

“I’ve got some pics I’ll take back and have Lemon look at them.” Jasper’s massive frame turned toward the mess of wood, stone and mud that functioned as stairs.

“Good. Maybe something is about to break.” the man said as Jasper headed down.

“Stay alert Grim,” Jasper’s words floated up from below.

Alex looked up at her lazily. She gave him a slow smile and closed her book while reaching out and scratching behind his ears. She gathered her feet under her and stood. “OK Alex we better hide the evidence of our affair,” she said and patted him. Alex seemed reluctant but sauntered off into the corner near Jasper’s gear and resumed his slumber on the floor.

Lemon’s auburn hair unfurled as she pulled out the pins that were maintaining the bun. She liked to keep it up off her neck during the heat of the day. She pulled off the t-shirt and shorts she was wearing and walked naked to her bag. The last 8 months had been hard and had carved away at her body to the point where there wasn’t an ounce of fat to be found. Lemon avoided mirrors and thus hadn’t taken a good look at her body in years. But she knew that she was probably getting a little too thin. The fact that she no longer filled her bra the same way gave it away.

She pulled out a black nylon stuff sack and put the clothes she had worn with Alex in it. She rummaged around a moment more before finding a pair of comfortable yoga pants and black hoody and shimmied into them. She still hadn’t gotten use to the dramatic shifts in the night and day temperatures. She crossed the room twisting the ancient light switch allowing the room to fill with the black pitch of night. She navigated her way to her sleeping bag, Lemon wanted to be in bed before Jasper made it home.

Jasper rounded the corner expecting the light to be on in the room where they were staying. He was somewhat puzzled. That’s every night since we got here, he thought. She must not want me to know. Jasper smiled. The weathered canvas of his face splintered into the new configuration reluctantly.

The worn latch was still warm from the day’s heat even though the outside temperature had dipped precipitously. He knocked twice quietly and turned the key letting himself in. Alex was at the door waiting, his tail a bit lethargic in it’s wagging. Must be tired, Jasper thought, he’s usually more excited to see me.

Jasper considered waking up Lemon to have her take a look at the images but decided to let her sleep. He turned to Alex, “You ready to go for a little run?” Alex’s lethargic character was instantly sloughed off and a frenetic tension entered his movements.

Lemon kept her eyes closed, trying to be careful not to squeeze them shut unnaturally as Jasper set the flash card down by the laptop on the rickety table by the door. She slowed her breathing to complete the illusion as he readied Alex. When Jasper and Alex walked back out the door and she heard the key turn she exhaled and turned over to try and get some real sleep.

Jasper and Alex made their way through the quiet streets toward the muddy river that meandered it’s way on the West edge of town. Alex stayed close and seemed to sense that decorum was needed while in town. But, once they reached the banks of the river he ran exuberantly enjoying being free of the confines of the room. Jasper reached down and picked up a small branch and teased Alex with it before hurling it further down the bank. Halfway to the branch Alex abruptly stopped and his ears swiveled toward town, growling.

Immediately Jasper grasped the handle of the HK under his robe and dropped to one knee scanning the area around him. Alex’s tail sagged and curled between his legs as he crouched and crawled backward toward Jasper. His growl was now a whimper. Jasper turned to look across the river when all the air around him seemed to displace. The mirror-like surface of the water scattered into a trillion ripples. “Shit” he heard Grim say through his earpiece. This can’t be good, Jasper thought. Alex skittered nervously at Jasper’s feet and they both moved swiftly back toward the room and Lemon. He un-muted his throat mike and spoke quietly, “You all right?”

The night passed quietly for Grim. He glanced down at the watch who’s hands and numbers gave off an eerie green glow. Two fifty-six it read. Grim wondered if the illumination was caused by radium or if it was from a more innocuous compound. He guessed the watch was from the 30’s or 40’s but he didn’t really know. He remembered seeing a TV documentary about girls that painted the dials of watches. Many of them were befallen with cancers and other ailments that where radium was the suspected culprit. Some of the girls would even paint their teeth and lips before going out on the town for a little fun. Grim pondered how many things we have done before fully realizing the long term consequences. He imagined in his minds eye the excited particles launching themselves from the watch and into his skin, where they exploded his cells and twisted his DNA into mutated versions.

The silence of the night was broken with the sound of low voices, which shook him out of his thoughts of radiation. Adrenaline began to leak into his system and his ears seemed to buzz with the hum of nerves being overdriven to pick up every detail. He noticed that the light that escaped from below the door to the warehouse across the street danced and flickered faintly on the packed earth below the door. Something was happening. His heart began to ratchet up the tempo.

Grim moved and the rustle of cloth seemed so loud that it might give his position away. Leaning out of the nest to survey the dark streets around it, he could see no movement. He reached under his robe resting his hand on the Glock and snicked the safety off with his thumb. He began to move down the rubble stairs to the street. At ground level he again peered up and down the street, his gaze lingering in each direction straining to pick up any hint of movement. Unsure, he clamped his eyes shut hoping that it might gain him a lux or two in sensitivity to make out something he missed, but there was nothing but the dance of light under the metal door across the street. Cautiously, Grim crossed.

As he edged neared the door he could now make out the voices more clearly. There was an obvious rhythm, a disconcerting cadence. It took him a moment to make out the language as ancient Aramaic. It was the Cleric’s voice. Grim cringed as he thought he heard the cleric mispronounce a word slightly. The professor in him perhaps being to critical at a time like this. It sounded to him like the Cleric had said something about “one hundred sacrifices.”

Other voices joined in the chant. The combined voices raised to a crescendo along with the hair on Grim’s neck. Suddenly there was a compression in the air that ruffled his robes and scarves and seemed to bend the little ambient light that there was. Clouds of dust seemed to float about a half foot above the ground up and down the street. He couldn’t tell if there was a sound associated with the movement of the air, it was more like a feeling of sound. “Shit!” Grim hissed as he stepped away from the door slowly.

The light under the door was gone, replaced by a blackness that seemed to eat the small amount of light there was. Grim wasn’t sure if the blackness was spreading or moving or if it was just the dust settling, but instinct told him that he was not safe in the street. What the hell is going to come out of that door? The question repeated in his head.

“You all right?” Jaspers voice rasped in his ear. Grim jumped and nearly stumbled. He retreated to the relative safety of the nest.

“Fuck man! You scared the shit out of me” he whispered as he reached the rubble pile. “What’s your sit rep?”

“I’m fine… I think they just conjured something in there.” Grim said as he climbed up into the nest and sat down.

“We felt it out here by the river.”

Grim’s eyebrows arched, “You and Lemon are at the river?”

“No.” Jasper said flatly, “I took Alex out for a walk.”

Breath rushed out of his lungs. Grim didn’t realize he was holding his breath. “Oh… right.” His mind refocused on his situation. “Well, its pretty quiet in there so far. No crazy ass screams from the abyss.”

“I’m sure he doesn’t want to wake the neighbors.” Jasper said dully.

Grim chuckled nervously, but didn’t hear it reciprocated in his ear, and swallowed it. “Uh… yeah, probably not.” Grim wondered if he ever heard Jasper laugh. Hell, had he even seen Jasper smile?

“Alright, stay alert, keep your head down and don’t engage. Call me if you need anything. Out.” Grim prepped the Nikon and set his Glock in his lap trying to busy himself to settle his nerves. As he ran out of things to do he looked down at his watch. Its minute and second hands pointed perfectly at twelve and the hour hand at three. Something was odd. The second hand wasn’t moving. In all his years owning the watch, it had never stopped. He tapped on its face, but it didn’t resume its relentless march. Concerned, he unbuckled the leather strap and manipulated the dial. After a couple of turns the watch resumed. Somewhat relieved he strapped the it back on his wrist and wondered how much time had past.

As the night wore on without event, Grim’s nervous system settled back to its baseline. He still had the Glock in his lap, and his mind was starting to tire of imagining what sort of magick would be created by a ritual with one-hundred sacrifices. Everything he new about sacrifice magick told him it couldn’t be good. They certainly hadn’t seen any evidence of mass sacrifice, just the boy. The thought seemed to drop into the pit of his stomach uncomfortably as the metallic clunk of the door latch across the street disturbed the air.

Grim’s hand groped for his gun as the door began to slide open. He squinted to see in the darkness. In truth he wasn’t sure if he wanted to. The things he had seen in the last few years were certainly nothing that he wished to share with others. He didn’t think he could hate anyone that much. Well, maybe the bastards that brought those things from the other side of the veil. However, they seemed to enjoy that sort of nastiness. He couldn’t make out anything as the lights from inside the warehouse were out. Hesitantly, he dropped the weapon and picked up the camera, flipping it on. Grim preferred to set the camera at a higher ISO in dark settings, but with the lack of ambient light he was forced to endure the green monotones of night mode.

Through the viewfinder the door way was a dark green hole on a plane of pale green static. The familiar figure of Tom emerge from the darkness of the doorway. He scanned both ways down the street before stepping out and heading west. Directly behind him was the boy Grim knew as “number four.” A small spark of relief grew inside Grim. The boy was alive. He trained the telephoto lens on Four and zoomed in.

The boy looked fine, nothing out of the ordinary as far as Grim could tell. His curiosity was now running rampant. What had happened in there? He had believed that the boy had been sacrificed, but that didn’t seem to be the case now. Contingencies began to form in his head. He racked his brain for any reference about what ritual might have been performed as Tom, Jerry and Four continued down the street. Perhaps, the images that Jasper took would shed some light. A moment later Fred and the Cleric stepped from the doorway. Larry, Moe and Curly followed and sealed up the door. The pack of five turned east and headed up the street.

With the warehouse empty, Grim contemplated going inside to see, but immediately threw out that idea. There is no telling what might be lurking inside there now. Going in alone would be an act worthy of a Darwin Award. He looked down the street to the West. He could no longer see Tom, Jerry and the boy, but they wouldn’t be far. Finding out where they were taking him would be important.

Grim pondered if Jasper would approve of him leaving the warehouse unobserved. A nervous twisting began in his gut. It was the same feeling he always had when he was about to do something that some would consider dangerous or stupid. It was settled, he was going to follow the boy. He had already started climbing the rubble up to the edge of the roof and over the parapet to the adjoining structure before his conscious mind had agreed to the plan.

“I’m heading home.” Grim’s voice crackled out of Jasper’s earpiece.

Jasper reached up to secure the earpiece as he sat up. He hadn’t slept well, and he had just dozed off again. The situation was changing and he wasn’t quite sure what was happening. He never liked operating blind. That was a very certain way to wind up dead. It took him a moment to clear his head and repeat what was said. I’m heading home. I’m heading home. The mist in his mind began to dissolve and he found the word he was looking for. “Why? Why are you leaving the warehouse?”

“I followed the boy back to his home.”

“What? When?” Jasper was getting frustrated. He’d never been one to like to have to ask questions. He preferred making statements.

“They all left the warehouse, so I followed Tom, Jerry and the boy. I figured he was the sacrifice, but he wasn’t. He must be important in someway so I figured we had to know.”

Grim was making sense. “Ok.” Jasper felt better. He didn’t have to ask another question. Jasper stood and moved over to a sleeping Lemon. “Lemon.” He said softly. He repeated her name a little louder. “Lemon.” The lump in the slick black nylon cocoon stirred. He bent down and put his hand gently on what might be a shoulder. “Lemon. Time to get up.” He said softly. The lump seemed to burrow further down and Jasper stood up stiffly. What the hell was he doing babying her? She’s a fucking professional. “Get the hell up Lemon! We’ve got shit to do!” He said forcefully. The chrysalis burst open with flailing arms and a shock of red hair. Lemon was sitting up stiffly, her eyes saucers, and she mouthed something that sounded almost like a word.

“Fuck Jasper.” She said through staticy orange medusas.

“Grim’s coming in. The Cleric performed a ritual.”

“Is he OK?”

“The boy seems to be OK?” Jasper said as he grabbed the flash card and walked over to the laptop.

“The boy?” Lemon was confused. “What are you talking about?”

“The Cleric brought number Four back to the warehouse and performed some kind of ritual. Grim thought Four was sacrificed, but he wasn’t. So he followed Four and is now coming in.”

Lemon slouched, her indignation ebbing as what was said began to sink in. She began to unzip the sleeping bag, but struggled as the material got stuck in the zipper.


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