Tuesday 10 January 2023

 Honour Among Thieves by Robin Wrigley, black coffee

 The first sense that came in to play when I awoke from what felt like a drug-induced coma was that of smell. The dreadful odour that immediately signifies the presence of unwashed, human flesh. It has an unmistakable stench. I leaned over and blindly retched. It was that dry retch that produces nothing beyond bringing the taste that belonged in my stomach into my mouth.

As my eyes became accustomed to the light and a state of semi-consciousness it was clear that the space next to me was, fortunately, free of anybody. However, I was not alone in this fetid cell – and the smell was not just me. I counted seven other figures at random intervals around the walls as my eyes adjusted to the light.

Now, I started to recollect to my best ability just how I became to be in this shit-state. It wasn’t easy or quick. First, I looked at my watch. That wasn’t helpful as all that was there was a band of pale skin. This meant I was unable to calculate how much of my life was currently missing.

‘Anyone speak English in here? Please,’ I announced to the room. It took several moments for a reply to answer back in what I took to be a Dutch accent.

‘Yes, I do. What’s your problem?’ It wasn’t obvious which of the seven owned the voice.

‘Any idea what day it is?’

‘Yep,’ he replied.

‘Do you mind telling me?’ It was essential to contain my anger that the guy could be such a smart-arse but no point in falling out over something so trivial.

‘Sure, it’s Sunday.’

‘Any idea of the date?’

‘Jesus, you’re more fucked-up than me man. It’s the 24th, June that is, 1976 to be precise.’

‘Thanks.’ With this important information I was able to get the cogs in my brain to turn and endeavour to calculate and understand just how I managed to be in this current situation. Friday, I had caught the first bus leaving from Peshawar bus station for the Afghanistan border on my way to Kabul and eventually England.

Rummaging through my pockets for scraps of evidence my worst fears were realised. My watch wasn’t all I had been stripped of. My pockets were bare, not even my bus ticket but most importantly, my passport. But, from wiggling my toes inside my boots I was pretty sure my money was intact, so I wasn’t exactly destitute and possibly able to buy my way out of the next sticky situation and perhaps even this one.

‘Do you know where we are?’

‘Jalalabad, or close to it,’ the Dutchman replied. ‘Did you take one of those pick-up taxis at the border that stopped at that big truck-stop?’

That was it, ’Yes – or at least I think so.’

‘Well, Englishman, join the club. You’re up the Khyber but not very far!’

‘Thanks. How long have you been in here?’

‘Since yesterday, so less than you.’

‘That’s some slight relief for me, I suppose.’

Just at that moment my attention turned to the door, it was obviously the sound of it being unlocked with crude and unoiled mechanisms resisting the turning of a, presumably, large key. As the lock eventually gave and the door swung open, light flooded into the room making it impossible to see the jailer clearly. However, I was able to feel him as he kicked me rather hard in my right upper thigh and ordered me to get up in broken English, barely understandable, then turned and more clearly growled, ‘Come’.

Holding the wall, I managed to get to my feet and stagger after him as best as I was able. My head started into another spinning action and my hand on the door frame saved me but only just as I had to quickly remove it before I nearly lost my fingers as he slammed the door shut and relocked it. The corridor we entered was constructed of rough-hewn stone, filthy and upswept and lit with skeleton electric light bulbs.

‘Can I get a drink of water please?’ I asked at his back following him up the cobbled passageway, but he ignored my request. Probably he either didn’t understand me or more likely chose to ignore the request so I went without. It was all I could do to keep up with him even though he was shuffling quite slowly. At the end of the passage, he unlocked another heavy wooden door studded with rough wrought-iron bolts, stood aside to allow me in and locked it again. A few paces after that he opened another door to the right, made of heavy metal and ushered me in and walked away closing the door behind him.

The whole scene seemed extremely ominous, and I started to shiver with fear and general alarm. The room was sparsely equipped with a large plain, empty wooden desk and a single chair behind it. It was lit with a single, bare electric light. On the wall was what I took to be a Koranic quotation. Apart from this the room was both empty and intimidating. I leaned back against the rough stone wall and willed myself not to faint. It was all I could do not to slide down the wall and sit on the floor.

After what seemed and eternity when in fact it was probably only a few minutes the door opened again and tall bearded man in a badly creased uniform, presumably a police officer of sorts, of no distinguishing rank. He handed me a glass of water and sat down behind the table.

I attempted to sip it slowly but gave up and gulped it down in one.

‘So, Mr Gregory or would you like me to address you as Michael, or David as your passport describes you? Eh? Which do you prefer as I’m not familiar to your customs. Here in Afghanistan, we always use our father’s name before all others. A matter of respect, something your people would not understand.’

His command of English startled me and for a moment my initial fears subsided slightly, ‘As you like sir, Michael would be fine. But as you like.’

You are the luckiest traveller to pass through this town although I doubt you realise that fact. You see, I have been following a gang of infidels who operate in the rest-stop you chose to seek food in on the road from Pakistan for several weeks now. Unlike the rest of the prisoners in the cell you have been lying in for the past few days.  You didn’t knowingly take the drugs that caused your unconsciousness. The bandits arranged for it to be put in your tea. My men stepped in and arrested them before they had a chance to strip you of your possessions and throw you into the road as they normally would. I was only interested in what they did to you to give me good reason to grab them, as they have kidnapped my brother. Now I have them I will exchange them for his return. If I’m honest I have no interest in the likes of you. So many young people come here looking for drugs, and disappear, but you did not and appear to be a genuine traveller. A rare beast I can tell you.’

This was all too much to take in, in one go. That and the state my head was in. ‘Whatever it was that caused you to be looking over my shoulder I am very appreciative. Can I ask one more thing of you please?’ I did my best to look as humbly grateful as I could.

‘Certainly. I imagine if I have your passport and am I’m going to let you go? Correct?

‘Yes, sir on both those accounts a positive answer would be good as well another glass of water please?’

‘The answer is yes. You never asked about your watch? It will be returned to you. Timex is not a very desirable make, and my sergeant has a better one anyway. I assume your money is still on you. We didn’t search you and the bandits who drugged you didn’t get a chance, luckily for you. The man outside will give you your possessions and another glass of water. You’re free to go Michael.’ He stood, shook my hand, then placed his large powerful hand over his heart, and allowed me to stagger out, still as if in a dream. A bad dream.

It took some considerable time and the cold clean Afghanistan air for my befuddled mind to fully appreciate just how lucky I had been that my capture just happened to coincide with this policeman’s search for his brother. My guardian angel had certainly been working overtime.

About the author

Robin short stories have appeared in CafeLit both on line and in print on a regular basis. He has also entered various writing competitions but has yet to get past being short listed.

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