December 6, 2020

Twelve Midnight

(c) J. Singh

Dural, the warlord, scratched his chin impatiently as he waited. All around him, his subordinates scurried this way and that, clearing space on the tables, whispering to each other in petrified, hushed voices, as they hurriedly brought in the suitcases and staged the merchandise on the tables.

Dural held a loaded pistol in his right hand. Everyone around him knew what that meant. Whoever had the misfortune of earning his displeasure would be rewarded with a bullet in his body. If they died, it would be merciful. Too many of his employees were unfortunate enough to be walking around permanently and horribly disfigured, in most cases having to endure daily pain and suffering as a result of their injuries. Dural took a special interest in devising sadistic new punishments to impart to his chosen recipients. He enjoyed watching people writhe in agony. The suffering of others gave him a unique pleasure that he could not derive anywhere else. He went so far as to consider it his little hobby.

The tables were duly cleared, suitcases hoisted on top and opened, ready for inspection. Dural stepped forward and looked at the all the plastic packets containing the fine white powder. This was quality merchandise. It would fetch a handsome price on the open market. Dural was pleased. He smiled his crooked smile, shoved his pistol into his waistband, and walked out of the room. Everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief. Nobody was going to die today.

Dural’s right-hand man, Kwonge, walked alongside him, breathlessly giving him urgent updates.

“The prime minister has made a televised statement. He assured the people that he would not rest until the girls have been rescued and returned to their homes.”

Dural sneered. Ineffectual government, impotent military. They couldn’t accomplish anything. He had achieved more with his militia in six months than the government had in over a decade. And now, they had the audacity to threaten him?

“The prime minister has petitioned for help from foreign powers,” Kwonge continued.

“Oh?” Dural raised an eyebrow, curious at this strange new development.

“A foreign military force has landed in the capital. They are here to complete the operation.”

“Let them come,” he snarled, baring his teeth.

Kwonge was diffident, unsure how to respond. He debated whether he should give more details or stop talking. Dural seemed to be unsettled, and so Kwonge decided that the best course of action would be to keep his mouth shut. That way, he would stay alive — at least for today.

They made their way to the courtyard, where several of Dural’s armed guards were lazily strolling around. It was midday, and the hot sun beat down mercilessly. Dural sat down on the plush couch in the center of the courtyard, threw his head back and put his legs up on the coffee table. A servant promptly produced an ice old drink. Dural sipped it absent-mindedly, staring up at the clear blue sky above. Something was nagging at him, in the back of his mind. Something about the news that Kwonge had just delivered. He pondered it for a few moments, and then decided that he was not happy with the situation.

“Let’s go,” he said, rising abruptly and immediately heading for the main gate. His men scrambled after him. Outside, they piled into three jeeps and headed off into the jungle. They knew the route well, they had taken it several times before. A short ride later, they reached a dark, forbidding place, devoid of sunshine or fresh air. Even the animals appeared to steer clear of this particular location. It was eerily quiet, with the stench of something sinister that hung in the stale air. It was stifling. Dural’s men waited in the jeeps while he alone jumped down and walked towards the entrance of the ominous looking cave.

The witch-doctor was expecting him, as usual. Hunched over a pile of leaves, dry animal excrement and bones, and various other plants and herbs, she was chanting an old spell of sorts. She continued as she was when he walked in and sat down, cross-legged, in the corner. She took her time, completed her spell, and waved a small whisk made of horsetail over her collage of items, and then shuffled around to face him. Her haggard, aged old face was filled with wrinkles and her skin was dry and leathery.

“You have come to know something,” she whispered in her raspy, rough voice.

“I would see the future,” Dural demanded.

She hobbled to a corner of the small, dark cave and gathered up small bones and teeth which had probably belonged to a variety of small animals. These, she held carefully in one hand, making a fist around them, while she rummaged around for the little ceremonial knife that she always used for such occasions. Once found, she turned around and cast the bones onto the ground before Dural. They neatly landed in a perfect symmetry. She glanced at them and snorted. Now it was time for the reading. She momentarily stepped out of the cave to procure the ritual sacrifice.

She would usually use rabbits. But today, unable to catch any, she resorted to the use of chickens. While not as expensive, she had always assured Dural that they were equally valid in rendering accurate readings. She brought the fowl in, wings flapping wildly in protest, and held it above the bones while she slit it’s throat in a well practiced slice and twist. She held the poor animal upside down while it’s blood dripped onto the bones and mingled with the dirt on the ground. Dural watched the bizarre proceedings with a mixture of disgust and awe.

Finally, she discarded the lifeless carcass of the chicken and knelt down on the ground, eyeing the bones carefully. She produced a fine, dust-like powder from a pouch that hung from her waist, and sprinkled this over the bones, blowing gently. Dural had long suspected that this powder was made from the ground bones of human victims that he had delivered to her. But, he had never asked to confirm. All things considered, he felt it better that he did not know.

The witch-doctor spoke in her raspy voice.

“They come,” she said, her tone foreboding.

“Who?” Dural leaned forward, eager to learn the answers to his questions. “Who is it? Who comes to challenge me?”

“I see them!” she gasped.

“Tell me!” Dural implored her. “What do they look like? What kind of warrior comes?”

“They are not from this land, they come clad in clothing of blue!”

Dural saw the old witch-doctor’s eyes widen in fear. He had never seen her afraid of anything. A feeling of dread came over him.

“I will pay them double!” he offered.

“They do not do this for money,” she shook her head rapidly.

“Then I will destroy them! I will cut off their heads and hang them at the gates of the capital as a warning to any who would oppose me!”

“They will come like a storm. They cannot be stopped, they cannot be fought, they are a power … ”

She looked up, making a deep, guttural sound, and then dropped to the ground, convulsing. Dural rose, stood watching her for a few minutes, and then left the cave. She would either survive her episode, or not. He would find out on his next visit. Right now, he had preparations to make.

As he approached the parked jeeps with his men waiting, he began barking out orders. They were going to war.

Once back in his compound, he ordered Kwonge to send out a communication to all his henchmen scattered throughout the territory that he roughly claimed as under his control. They were to fortify their positions and get ready for the attack. The compound was flurry of activity with men running, weapons being primed and loaded, and merchandise being moved.

In the evening, Dural paid a visit to the two hundred captive girls, ranging in age from six to twenty-two years of age. They huddled together on the floor, half-naked in their torn clothes, terrified of him and his men. Hungry, cold, and frightened, they stared at him wide-eyed. He scratched his chin as he silently gazed upon them. He realized that his pleasure would have to wait. Even as he turned to leave, he wondered who it was that was coming from foreign lands to fight against him, for the sake of these girls, whom they didn’t even know.

Darkness fell, and all around Dural’s stronghold, the power of his militia was evident. Floodlights surrounded the areas outside the compound walls. His men was armed with automatic rifles, uzis, bazookas, grenade launchers and mortars. He himself sat in the courtyard, with Kwonge and a handful of others.

“When they come,” he laughed, “I will annihilate them!”

The hours passed slowly. There was no activity. As the night wore on, the rush of adrenaline subsided, and the tension eventually ebbed away. The men got bored. The urgency of their situation appeared to be unwarranted. Some of the men outside the main gate shared a cigarette as they walked their patrol. Dural dozed off on his couch, pistol in hand, safety off.

He awoke to the sounds of crickets. The stars were twinkling brightly in the night sky high above him. He took a deep breath. It had been a false alarm, after all. Yawning, he stretched and rose. He made his way to the outhouse in the far corner of the courtyard. Mere moments from now, it would be twelve midnight … tick, tock, tick, tock.

He held the pistol in one hand as he unzipped his trousers. It was dark, and he was still groggy from sleep. He wavered unsteadily, staring down. Tomorrow, he decided, he was going to go to the capital, and there were be some government officials who would answer to him. And then he would kill them, painfully and mercilessly. And then he would kill their families as well, saving the girls for last. It would serve as a lesson to others in the government who opposed him. He chuckled in the dark as he began to urinate, still holding the pistol.

When the attack came, it was swift, sudden, and overwhelming. Without warning, one moment there was complete silence and peace, and the next, mayhem.

The flash of light came before the sound, disorienting him. For a brief moment, everything was brightly illuminated. He could see the toilet with all the dark stains on it, the walls with the faded green paint peeling off, and the wet floor where his urine was splattering. His sleep-addled mind struggled to comprehend the meaning of what he was seeing. His response was slow. He stood, confused, for a few moments.

And then the sounds came. Blasts. Explosions. And then, gunfire. Now he knew that he was under attack. He immediately zipped up his trousers and crashed through the door, his pistol at the ready.

The sight that met his eyes was nothing that he could have imagined. The perimeter of the compound had been breached. The enemy was inside, and so many of his men were on the ground, bleeding or already dead. And the enemy, just as the witch-doctor had foretold, wore blue. They were ferocious in their attack, mowing down anyone who stood in their way, as they advanced further into the compound. Dural had never seen anyone like them before. They spun and turned and twisted as if they were Nature herself, seemingly blending in at times with the wind, and at others with the night. Each one wore a blue turban and a beard. Who were these strange foes that had come out of nowhere?

Dural began firing his pistol with abandon. Even as he did so, he could tell that the battle was not going in his favor. He would have to escape. He crouched behind a low wall, considering his options. Most of his men had succumbed to the onslaught. There was not much left to do now. They would surely rescue the girls, thereby completing their objective. And he had no intention of losing his life, or being taken captive. He began to devise his means of departure.

Running away into the night, his back to the fight that was still raging, he heard a loud cry raised, and followed by a multitude of victorious, thundering voices. It was the sound that would haunt him for the rest of his days.

“Bole So Nihaaaaaal! Sat Sri Akaaaaaal!”

\\