The Last Man
Author:Vince Flynn



Chapter 2
ABDUL Siraj Zahir admired himself in the mirror. At forty-eight he was an old man in his country. Even among the common people it was difficult to make it to manhood. In Zahir's line of work the challenge was much greater. He was a warrior, like his father and his father before him. His father and all three of his older brothers were dead. His father and the two oldest brothers had been killed by the Soviets and the third one had died at the hands of the Northern Alliance. Zahir had learned from their mistakes. Afghanistan was a brutal country where the only person you could really trust was someone from your own village. Beyond that, loyalties were an ever-shifting, complicated game.

Zahir had learned that to stay alive he had to be brutal and vigilant. He knew that some described him as sadistic and paranoid, and he wore that as a badge of honor - the more people who feared him the better. In Afghanistan, fear ruled. If you couldn't get men to fear you, you became a target. Zahir didn't want his life to end the way it had for his father and brothers, so he stoked the fear. It wasn't always easy, but had found that he was good at it.

Zahir pulled down on his gray uniform blouse, snapped his fingers, and then held out his arms. His aide rushed forward with Zahir's shiny black leather service belt. He buckled it around his boss's ample waist, made sure it was straight, and then stepped out of the way so Zahir could admire himself in the mirror. Zahir smiled at his reflection. His weapon was a still-unfired .40 caliber Smith & Wesson. The fact that Americans had given it to him for free made ownership all that much more delicious. He'd spent most of the last decade killing Americans, and now he was on their payroll.

Zahir noticed something wrong with his beard and moved closer to the mirror. His irritation was directed at a patch of gray that he had missed. He grabbed a bottle of black dye from his desk and inserted a small brush. After a few applications the gray was gone. Zahir smiled at his fine-looking beard and placed his hands on his hips. He looked good in his uniform. It was a little tight around the waist, but in Afghanistan his expanding middle section was a sign that he was a prosperous man.

Afghanistan was a unique place. It was like a petri dish for the survival of the fittest. Historically it had always been a harsh country; hot summers, cold winters, and rugged geography had shaped a breed of extremely tough people. For the last three decades a state of near-constant war had only heightened the selection process. Being physically strong was no longer enough. One had to be adept at reading the ever-shifting alliances that had shaped and reshaped the power structure of the isolated country. The Soviets had to be appeased and then the Americans and their Pakistani partners, who sponsored the crazed Wahhabi fighters from across the Persian Gulf, who in turn led to the Taliban and their enemies the Northern Alliance and a long civil war. Then the Americans and their coalition showed up and swept the Taliban from power in a matter of months.

Abdul Siraj Zahir had been able to look into the future on that day more than a decade ago and understand that the Taliban would be back. American airpower and their advanced weaponry had given him doubts along the way, but Zahir knew the Afghan people, and more important, the devout Muslims who represented the base of the Taliban. They would die to the last man before they let these godless people beat them. Zahir also knew that the Americans were too self-conscious to hunt the Taliban down like the dogs that they were and exterminate them.

So Zahir played them all against each other and never forgot the fates of his father and brothers. He held on to his little enclave southeast of Jalalabad and changed sides as many times as he needed to to survive. Zahir neither loved nor hated his country. He didn't think in those terms. He lived in this particular part of the world, like most of its people, because he had been born here. He considered himself to be an above-average intelligent person with a very good understanding of what motivated people and, more important, what they feared.

Despite his ability to sense the shift, winds of power, the most recent gigantic twist was something that even he had been unable to predict. After he had killed countless Americans, and taken their money, the fools had come to him with a job offer - a legitimate job offer. Not simply a bag of cash as they had done in the past for certain information. They wanted him to become commander of the local police force. He thought it was a trap, of course, but then he learned that other lions like himself had been offered and taken similar positions in the Afghan Police. It was a new push the Americans were calling the reintegration program.

He had been on the job for just six weeks, and he was already lining his pockets with bribes from local businessmen. The Taliban was a concern, of course. They would after all eventually work their way back into power, but not for a few more years, and in the meantime, Zahir would play both sides against each other. He would work for the Americans, take their money, and keep the Taliban informed of what they needed to know.

As always, the most important thing was to stay one step ahead of seen and unseen enemies. Zahir had long ago surrounded himself with fiercely loyal people. There wasn't a man in his inner circle whom he had known for fewer than ten years, and they were all from his village. They were of his tribe, and in return for their loyalty he protected their families. Zahir never spent more than two nights in the same place, and even with his newfound legitimacy he continued his old ways. Part of the reason was that he had four wives. They all needed his attention, but it was beyond that. The axiom was extremely simple: They couldn't kill him if they couldn't find him. Nights were always the most dangerous. That was when the American killers hunted. They used their optics advantage to harass and assassinate his countrymen.

For many years now Zahir had avoided sleeping at night. He always made sure he was awake from midnight until one hour before sunrise. That was the preferred time that the American dogs liked to attack, so he stayed awake and on the move. He would then sleep in the mornings and conduct business in the afternoons and evenings. This morning, however, was different. After only a few hours of sleep, Pamir, one of his most trusted men, had awoken him with a startling piece of news. There was a rumor sweeping through the back alleys of Jalalabad that a notorious American had been snatched from his fortress. Mr. Rickman was a very important man who had made many of Zahir's countrymen extremely wealthy. Unfortunately, Mr. Rickman had also spent a great deal of his time and money trying to kill Zahir. There had been many close calls, but Zahir had always managed to stay one step ahead of him. Now that Zahir was in a position to finally receive some of the cash that the American was so famous for handing out, someone had grabbed him.

Zahir had been silently berating himself all morning for not coming up with the plan first. With his newfound influence it was just the type of operation he could have pulled off. Having been beaten to the prize, however, he would now be forced to adapt. If the last thirty years had taught him anything, it was that out of chaos came great opportunity, especially to those who were bold and ruthless.

In the reflection in the mirror, Zahir saw Pamir enter. The man did not wear the uniform of the Afghan Local Police. He had always been more suited to lurking in the shadows. "What have you learned?"

Pamir inclined his head slightly and said, "More Americans are at the house. I was told they flew in from Kandahar this morning and were driven to the house by the tall American."

"Hubbard?"

"Yes."

Zahir snorted. The CIA's local man was no match for him. It would be easy to manipulate him. "Was Mr. Sickles with them?"

"No."

This surprised Zahir. He had found it very pleasant to work with Sickles. It had been easy to pick up on the fact that Rickman and Sickles did not get along. Sickles had told him to stay well clear of Rickman. Had told him that the man was someone he had no control over, but still Sickles was the CIA's top man in Kandahar. "These new Americans . . . any idea who they are?"

"No." Pamir shook his head. "Only that there were six of them."

"Security?"

"Three Humvees . . . one normal, one with a 50-caliber turret, and another with a grenade turret."

"And men?"

"Eight total. They control each end of the street."

Zahir snorted again. They would never stop his police vehicles. He would push right past them. Turning to Raashid, his lieutenant, he asked, "Are the men ready?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. Have everyone get in the vehicles. I want to make a show of force."

Pamir asked, "And what would you like me to do?"

"Keep looking for him and report to me the second you learn anything useful."

Pamir gave a slight bow and left. In his outer office, Zahir was happy to see more than a dozen men strapping on their new bulletproof vests and checking their weapons - all courtesy of the United States of America. What a bunch of fools, he thought to himself. The Americans were going to learn a very hard lesson over the next few months.