<h1>1</h1> <p><span class="dropcap">A</span>bdallah shuffled and squirmed a little deeper into the dark, dirty culvert. The day was hot, almost blisteringly so, though slightly more bearable in here. He drew a deep breath of air, cupped his ears, and listened hard for the noise of loud engines.</p> <p>Hadi, his best friend of twelve years, and currently his partner in crime, was holed up in a room on the third floor of a large building abandoned during the bombings, then gutted and neglected ever since. For generations, the building had belonged to the Fadithi clan, a private enclave surrounded by lush gardens nurtured and tended by half a dozen workers.</p> <p>The Fadithis were richer than anybody; they rarely slipped a chance to let you know it, either. Big, fancy imported cars, scholarly tutors for their tribe of rottenly spoiled kids, and they escaped every summer to long, luxurious vacations in the cool hills of Lebanon.</p> <p>The farthest Hadi had ever traveled was to the tiny village two miles to the south, a tiny lump of dirt-infested squalor that bore a disappointing resemblance to his own sad pile of dust and concrete.</p> <p>Local lore had it the Fadithis had fled out of their house during one of the American air raids and blindly dodged straight into an American bomb. Like that—boom—pulverized into mist, the richest family in town, nothing more than a revolting smear on the street.</p> <p>Inside two days, the big building hosted a raucous neighborhood bash—the furniture, the clothing, the wiring, the heaters from the backyard, even the windows torn out and hauled off by the laughing neighbors.</p> <p>Allah did indeed have a cruel but just side.</p> <p>Abdallah and Hadi had rehearsed this stunt the day before, a brief run-through before their attention shifted to a pickup soccer game three blocks down and they spent the remainder of the afternoon booting around a ball given to the neighborhood boys by one of the American invaders, a large man in dark glasses with a fierce sunburn and a bright smile loaded with phoniness. The ball had a queer shape. It quickly proved worthless, like somebody had grabbed it at both ends and tugged so hard that it never snapped back. With each kick, it flew off in weird directions, bouncing and bobbling and skittering in the dust. What a hoot.</p> <p>Americans! Whatever made them believe they could conquer and rule this country when they couldn’t even design a workable soccer ball?</p> <p>Abdallah gently fingered the device in his right hand—a trigger, the man who provided it had called it. Didn’t look like a gun trigger, though: Abdallah had seen plenty of those, he bragged to the man, and this, well, no, this definitely wasn’t a trigger. The man got mad, poked him with a mean finger in the stomach, and reminded him who was paying the money; it was whatever he decided to call it. Well, whatever it was, the funny device fit cleanly into the palm of Abdallah’s small fist. It was not in any way he could see connected to the big bomb stuffed inside the large garbage barrel beside the road. No wires, no fuse, nothing. But the man swore the slightest squeeze would produce a terrible explosion.</p> <p>And afterward, he warned with a deep scowl, Abdallah had better drop the trigger and scatter as fast as his chubby legs would carry him.</p> <p>The man doing all the talking, Mustafa, was a two-bit loser who had rolled in and out of Saddam’s prisons with disturbing frequency. He had tried his hand at forgery, bribery, holdups, a little drug dealing, and failed pathetically at all of them.</p> <p>Mustafa’s last incompetent attempt at crime was a harebrained holdup at a local shop that ended badly and was still the topic of great laughter among the old men at the local tea shop. The shopkeeper leaped over the counter, easily took the knife out of Mustafa’s hand, and stuffed it in Mustafa’s leg. Mustafa howled and bled, and tried his damnedest to crawl away. The shopkeeper sat on his back and slapped him on the head till the cops showed.</p> <p>In consideration of all his past illicit deeds, Mustafa got twenty long ones in Abu Ghraib, far and away the most appalling sewer in Saddam’s sprawling prison system. Few survived even ten years there, and Mustafa, being small and definitely unlikable, was deemed less likely than most to make it to the other end. The village breathed a sigh of relief and thought it had seen the last of him.</p> <p>Allah, though, in his infinite wisdom, had other paths for the small-time hood. Only six months later, in the hard, tense weeks leading up to the American invasion, Mustafa found himself dumped back onto the streets along with all the other crooks, pimps, and kidnappers—a gift from Saddam for the Americans.</p> <p>They might win, but they would regret it.</p> <p>Mustafa emerged a new man. A reformed man. Amazing what a few brief months could accomplish. He now sported a thick black beard and called himself an Islamic warrior, a patriot, a freedom fighter dedicated to ridding Iraq of its loathsome invaders. He took to carrying around the Koran though it was well-known that he couldn’t read a whit. Turned out Mustafa had met new friends in prison, generous sorts, men who weren’t picky and happily paid three thousand American bucks for every American he killed. Five thousand if the corpse happened to be an officer.</p> <p>Mustafa wasn’t into the killing game himself. Subcontracting was his preferred method—in truth, his only method—primarily using small kids to handle the dirty work. He was particularly partial to street orphans, like Abdallah and Hadi, who brought along a few big advantages. They were poor and indescribably desperate, for one thing. They came without baggage, for another—no pissed-off parents, no angry brothers, no vengeful uncles or clans to worry about when things went wrong.</p> <p>And in Mustafa’s case, things often went wrong.</p> <p>Abdallah glanced up. Hadi was furiously waving with one hand, pointing wildly to his left with the other. This wasn’t the signal they had agreed to, not even close. Hadi, though, was only twelve, small for his age, slightly daft, and tended to get carried away at moments like this. At thirteen, Abdallah was far the more seasoned, cooler, and ambitious of the pair. It was he who had talked Hadi into this little job. Hadi put on a good front, though it was obvious he was scared out of his wits and well over his head. Abdallah had to keep reminding him that Mustafa had promised five hundred dollars if they pulled this off, a fortune they would split fifty-fifty.</p> <p>The bounty for dead Americans was six hundred, Mustafa swore, and out of fairness—he was a religious man after all—he would limit his own share to a paltry one hundred. But five hundred, theirs to keep, all for squeezing the tiny device in his hand. Easy money.</p> <p>A few local boys warned them that Mustafa was a notorious cheat and was getting much more than that. Who cared? Five hundred was a fortune. They would eat well for a year.</p> <p class="spb">Captain Bill Forrest munched loudly from a bag of Lay’s barbecue potato chips. He washed them down with deep sips from a bottled water that, over the past twenty minutes, had gone from lukewarm to nearly a boil. The day was a scorcher, never dipping below 115 degrees. He was aching to get out of the body armor, aching to catch up on his sleep, aching for the tour to be over. He dreamed of air-conditioning, of cold ice cream, of long walks in cool woods without anybody shooting or trying their damnedest to blow him up.</p> <p>The idea of a week without sweat—or explosions—was almost more than he could imagine. He was trying his best, however.</p> <p>“Two more weeks of this crap,” his driver, Private Teddy Davis, loudly complained, banging a hand hard off the steering wheel. “Know what I’m gonna do the second I get back to the world?”</p> <p>“Pretty sure I do.” Forrest crunched loudly on another chip. Why ask? Same thing every single guy in the unit was swearing to do. Look for naked ladies. Fat, ugly, skinny, didn’t matter—female and disrobed in any shape or form would do the trick. “Keep your eyes on the roadsides, Davis.”</p> <p>The driver stared straight ahead, and so did his brain. “There’s this girly house, sir. Just three short blocks from the front gate. Gorgeous ladies. They strip down to nothin’, I hear.”</p> <p>“Sounds promising. Then what?”</p> <p>“Then, well, I dunno.” Good question, he realized. “What’re you gonna do?”</p> <p>“I’m married, right?”</p> <p>“Yeah, so?”</p> <p>“So first I’m gonna spend a few minutes playing with my two pretty little girls.”</p> <p>“Sounds fun,” Davis commented, not meaning a word of it.</p> <p>“Then, well, then I’m gonna take their pretty momma upstairs, lock the bedroom door, and play with her, too.” The captain smiled and Davis couldn’t resist joining him.</p> <p>Bill Forrest was twenty-nine, a big man with broad dark features and thick dark hair, who had played linebacker in college, at Notre Dame, a fact that thoroughly impressed his men. On a lark, between football and classes, he had dabbled a little in ROTC in college. And though his degree was in finance, with an ambition to get seriously rich, and despite no tradition of military service in his family, he had enjoyed the military camaraderie and decided to try his hand at infantry life for a few fast years. Brief years, he had promised himself.</p> <p>The last day of the third year, it was sayonara, boys, on to Wall Street.</p> <p>The money would come, later.</p> <p>Senior year he had married Janet, the hottest property in South Bend that year, or, for that matter, any other year anybody could remember. Janet was blonde, lovely, and quite pregnant by graduation, then almost immediately pregnant again, spitting out two pretty blonde-haired girls ten months apart, Irish twins, which seemed quite fitting for a pair of hard-knuckle Notre Dame grads.</p> <p>Year three, 9/11 and war intervened, and Bill found himself unable to run out on his friends and his country. Just two more years, only twenty-four months, then it was adios, baby, he promised Janet. Year five it became one brief tour in a war zone and Bill would never have to look back with regret.</p> <p>Janet weathered his military stint with good grace and well-managed patience. She liked the other Army wives and enjoyed the hardy sisterhood of military life. A hot dusty post in Texas, on the other hand, left much to be desired. Janet was a city girl, born and bred in downtown Chicago; she could put up with the cramped Army quarters, the dust storms, even the severe summer heat. The whole pickup-truck, country music scene, however, grated powerfully on her northern sensibilities. She preferred constant noise, traffic, inescapable human contact, and all the other questionable intrusions of urban life.</p> <p>Bill had a wonderfully attractive long-term offer from a big financial firm in New York City, a raucous, lively city she yearned to be part of. The partners in the firm, two of whom happened to be rabid Notre Dame fans, vowed to keep it open so long as Bill didn’t exhaust their patience. Bill was good at the Army, though. She didn’t press.</p> <p>Truthfully, she didn’t dare. The wives of the soldiers in his company would’ve hanged her from the front gate had she tried. His men adored him. The same quick wits that made him a terror on the gridiron translated nicely to the battlefield. Over eleven months in battle, so far. Eleven long, bloody months in some of the worst battle zones and festering sores in Iraq, and not one of his 150 soldiers had made the sad trip home in a body bag. The other companies in his battalion were wracked by casualties and funerals. Not Bill’s, though. A few were wounded, some quite horribly. But better a hospital ward than a lonely grave on a quiet hillside.</p> <p>And now, only two weeks to go and the perfect record appeared within reach. An entire year of exploding bombs, drive-by snipers, roadside ambushes, more close brushes than anybody cared to remember, and amazingly, everybody would make it home.</p> <p>The wives were knocking thrice on every piece of wood in sight, squeezing their rabbits’ feet, and planning a big bash for the day their men returned.</p> <p>The radio squawked, Captain Forrest picked up the handset, and a long, soothing discussion ensued. Had to be another futile attempt to calm the jangled nerves of that aggravating lieutenant four vehicles back in the convoy, Davis decided, fighting back a big smirk. The lieutenant was young, brand-new, so nervous his eyes trembled. A wet-nosed babyface sent down from headquarters to replace a battle-hardened platoon leader who had lost his legs to a grenade. Sad. With only three weeks to go, too.</p> <p>Now the poor guy would spend the rest of his life hobbling about on phony legs.</p> <p>Less than a mile ahead loomed a small village, another decrepit, cramped, run-down, sandblasted pisshole. What a sad, sorry excuse for a country, Davis, not for the first time, thought, swabbing the sweat rolling down his cheeks. A product of one of the poorest back hollows in Mississippi, he hoped he’d seen the last of poverty. The money in his house got snorted up his papa’s nose, or paying down his mama’s considerable bar bills. He had worked at a shoe factory after school, labored hard at the coloring booth, but the messy, cramped trailer he called home was so small his parents easily found his money and used it to their own ends. He enlisted at the first chance, fled to the Army and a new life. So long, Mama; bye-bye, Papa—go ahead, sniff and drink yourselves into the grave. Then he came to this place.</p> <p>Their Humvee struck a deep rut that caused a hard, jarring bounce. Their heads knocked solidly against the roof and the captain let loose a loud curse. “Sorry,” Davis mumbled, melting into his seat, trying to avoid the scowl he knew he was getting. “Worn-out springs,” he said, rather lamely.</p> <p>Of course the springs were worn out; hell, it was overloaded with so many sandbags and pasted-on iron plates, it was a wonder that the jerry-rigged heap could move at all. The Humvee was eight terrifying months overdue for a replacement by one of the newer, uparmored models. Every month opened with fresh promises that the company doing the upgrades would meet its contract. And every month closed with stale excuses about why the contractor was still behind.</p> <p>The replacement they had been praying for had a heavier suspension and reinforced armor that offered some hope of surviving a bomb blast. Now, after almost a year of rolling around Iraqi streets in this thin-skinned death trap they had finally given up hope.</p> <p>Now they were just trying to survive time.</p> <p class="spb">Hadi now was jumping up and down, flailing and gesticulating like an army of biting bugs was crawling around inside his drawers.</p> <p>Abdallah pushed forward and squirmed out a few feet. He looked up at Hadi and held out his arms. How many, he was asking.</p> <p>Hadi stuffed his tiny head out the window and peeked right. With his left hand he appeared to be counting. Eventually he flashed ten fingers, then waved his arms like windmills.</p> <p>Settle down, Abdallah wanted to scream at Hadi. Ease back from that window, take a long breath, relax. He now could hear their noisy engines without any help from his friend. Could almost picture the convoy of targets less than half a mile away. Any moment, the Americans would come rolling down the main street in their huge vehicles lined up like arrogant ducks straight into Abdallah’s sights.</p> <p>He reminded himself to bide his time and take his pick. No need to rush. Would it be one of those boxy, odd-looking things called Humvees? Maybe a Bradley Fighting Vehicle?</p> <p>But if Abdallah was really lucky, there’d be a fat fuel tanker he could really light up. The blast would be monstrously huge, a massive fireball that would be seen for miles. It would burn for hours and be the talk of the village for weeks. He swatted at a fly on his nose and dreamed about it.</p> <p>He had chosen his culvert with the pickiness of a master chef. The road to the village fed directly into the main street, a skinny thoroughfare without turns, bordered on both sides by buildings that channeled the convoy straight to Abdallah. After long and careful consideration, he had positioned himself twenty yards short of the first intersection, a four-way and the first opportunity for the Americans to change direction.</p> <p>They had no choice but to pass directly by Abdallah, no option but to drive by the lethal trash barrel ten feet back from the road.</p> <p>Abdallah couldn’t resist a smile. What a nasty surprise they were in for.</p> <p class="spb">The four men in robes peeked over the edge of the building. The street was clear and quiet, no traffic, no pedestrians wandering aimlessly. A perfect target zone, a perfect day to kill.</p> <p>They had, three hours before, patiently observed the big barrel being rolled into place, then later watched one tiny urchin enter the neglected building and reappear a few minutes later in an upstairs window. They laughed as the bigger, fatter one fought and squeezed his way into the narrow culvert.</p> <p>They watched and they waited.</p> <p>They had slipped up onto this rooftop in pitch-darkness the night before. For the past seven hours, between cigarettes and quiet sips of hot tea, between sweating and boredom and baking under the broiling Iraqi sun, they had watched and waited.</p> <p>They whispered among themselves, arguing quietly and sometimes heatedly about the quality of the bomb below. Would it work? How well would it work? This was a test, a vitally important one, though this news had been slyly withheld from Mustafa and the two street punks he had hired to do this job. That fired-up, true-believer patriot act he put on fooled nobody. Mustafa was a selfish, self-indulgent crook, plain and simple.</p> <p>A mercenary who killed for the cash, nothing more.</p> <p>He would’ve pressured for more money had he known. Probably a lot more.</p> <p>The bomb was the newest thing, smuggled in a week before from Iran with lots of loud promises about what it could destroy. Supposedly, the device was manufactured to be triggered through the open air, though the four men on the rooftop had no idea how that actually worked. Nor did they care. An Iranian bomb mechanic had babbled on about the particulars—something to do with penetrating rods, and secondary explosives, and sound waves, and signal receptors. All four men were yawning and nodding off long before he finished.</p> <p>Who cared? The long-winded blowhard was squandering his breath and their patience. They merely needed to know if it worked. Did it trigger a blast or no? Would it allow them to kill more Americans or not?</p> <p>One of the four men edged forward a little. He positioned his video camera against the ledge. He pushed zoom, narrowed the picture frame to the road space directly abutting the barrel, punched start, lit up a smoke, and waited for the fun to begin.</p> <p class="spb">Bill Forrest had his nose stuffed inside a map. Fifty yards out from the village, he pointed straight ahead at the narrow street. “Follow that until the first intersection, then turn left,” he told Davis, who pumped the brakes and slowed up a bit as was their usual custom anytime they drove through built-up areas.</p> <p>Roadside bombs could be hidden anywhere, in animal carcasses, in broken-down cars, or even dug into shallow holes in a road out in the middle of nowhere. Towns and villages, though, offered plenty of camouflage and were particularly dangerous.</p> <p>“What a dump,” Davis remarked. The streets weren’t even paved, just flattened-down dust.</p> <p>“Slow down a little more,” Forrest warned him, looking worried and tense.</p> <p>“Why?”</p> <p>“Do you see anybody on the streets? Locals always know when it’s too dangerous to come out and play.”</p> <p>Davis scanned the village and saw a few faces poking out of windows. “Well, it is the hottest part of the day. I’d hide inside, too.”</p> <p>Just then the radio barked, the same young lieutenant again, the same whiny, needy tone. The captain shook his head, rolled his eyes, and lifted the handset. “Listen,” he told the young officer, “take a deep breath and settle down. I’m trying to watch the road, and you keep interrupting me.”</p> <p>Davis stifled a laugh.</p> <p class="spb">Abdallah held his breath, kept his hand loose, and watched as the convoy approached the barrel. Mustafa had told him not to squeeze the trigger too soon. It had happened twice before, Mustafa warned, young idiots overcome with excitement or nerves who clumsily wasted a bomb and killed nobody. No corpses, no money, Mustafa had threatened with a mean grin that showed where his front teeth had been kicked out in one of his many failed attempts at crime.</p> <p>Abdallah glanced up at Hadi, who was leaning out the window, craning his neck and straining to watch the big boom.</p> <p>A moment later, the lead vehicle was directly beside the barrel. Abdallah could actually observe the men inside, one talking into a handset, the other, a bit younger-looking, chuckling to himself and steering the vehicle. He vowed that he would wait for a vehicle with more passengers, a much riper target, but in that instant his hand developed a mind of its own and squeezed hard on the device.</p> <p>The response was immediate and overwhelming. Abdallah felt the blast literally drive him back another two feet into the culvert, until he felt like a cork stuffed into a bottle. He squealed with pain and clenched his eyes shut to block the barrage of dust from the road. His ears hurt, and though he did not know it, the drums had burst.</p> <p>When he opened his eyes, he saw that the Humvee had been blown over, sideways, and now was teetering on its side, like some giant Tonka toy tossed by the wind. It was on fire and he could feel the surge of intense heat even from fifty feet away. He watched a man crawl out, a big man, pulling himself up through the side opening, trying desperately to escape the flames. After a moment the big man in an invader’s uniform ended up on the ground, flopping and pulling himself forward with his arms, which really was the only way he could since his legs were gone.</p> <p>The big American seemed to be staring straight into Abdallah’s eyes with a mixture of shock and recognition. Then he lay still for a moment, bleeding and suffering. Abdallah couldn’t hear, but could clearly picture his groans and his pitiful attempts to draw breath. He saw his hand move, go inside his shirt, and he pulled something out and stared at it hard.</p> <p>Abdallah used all his might to get out of the culvert and edge forward. The big American just stared at the thing in his hand, and Abdallah strained to see what it was. Clearly the man was dying, and Abdallah wondered, what was the last thing a man on the cusp of death wanted so desperately to see?</p> <p>He was out of the culvert now; to his surprise he discovered he could barely walk. Blood was trickling out his ears. He stumbled forward until he stood swaying above the American.</p> <p>In the man’s hand was a picture of an attractive blonde woman, hugging two little blonde girls who were laughing and giggling.</p> <BR><BR><i>Continues...</i> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>The Capitol Game</b> by <b>Haig, Brian</b> Copyright © 2010 by Haig, Brian. Excerpted by permission.<br> All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.