Tip Of The Spear - 6

6.

They place the boy in the back room of the teacher’s hut. Samir kneels over his fallen brother, running his fingers over his limp hands, whispering soothing words into his ear: you will be strong, be strong, be strong…

The men sit around the stove—the teacher and the headsman on one side, and the engineer on the other, warming his hands.

“I cannot stay long,” the engineer tells them. “The lieutenant and scientist are watching the camp—they would like to move soon.”

The headsman cocks an eyebrow at the back room. “Your friend is not fit to travel.”

“They intend to leave them behind,” the engineer mutters. His words trail off, momentarily losing their deliberation, as if in its wake is the end of another sentence, unsaid.

The teacher exhales and steeples his fingers in his lap.

“I understand that you have found your man,” he says, carefully.

This last is enough to unsettle the engineer. A split-second, when the mask drops: eyes raised, defensive, darting.

“We have to move,” he says, finally. “We’ve finished what we came here for.”

“Your friend, he was attacked on the ridge,” says the headsman. “Tell us how.”

“Your teacher here has seen them,” shrugs the engineer. “I think it will be easier for him to tell you.”

The headsman does not let the jab go unchallenged. “We may live simple lives here, but we’re not blind. Tell us, with plain words, of your true work in these hills. Then you can pass the word to your friends—that we will take care of your boys.”

The teacher nods, letting the silence carry the headsman’s words.

The engineer loosens his shoulders—perhaps for the first time since they’ve met. Hunched over the coals, he appears smaller now, and far less prepared. “I’ll talk, but only with the rest present. There are some things I do not trust myself enough to share.”

The teacher smiles. “Loyalty among vultures?”

“Secrecy, more like,” the engineer says. “I believe the lieutenant will explain in simpler terms than I.”

The headsman remains firm. “We won’t make demands on your time. Speak plainly, leave quickly—this courtesy you deserve, as guests.” From his cloak, he retrieves a crumpled pack of cigarettes—lights two on the embers, hands one to the engineer.

“Of course,” the engineer exhales. He takes the cigarette in his hands, but does not smoke it. “Of course. What do I have to lose?”

Silence. The popping of a loose coal. Then he continues, in a slower voice:

“We haven’t come here blind—you understand. We have clear instructions from our commanders. They have beacons across the valley—empty vessels, as I told you—to measure the influence of the target through their motions. Once we’d tracked his footfalls, we were to relay his position back to our liaisons and await further instructions.”

“Tonight, we found one. They had been converging on the fakir’s location—we did not expect to encounter it so soon. Perhaps it was misaligned from its original parameters. It lashed out at our men. Ismael took the brunt of it—an outpouring of energy, as one encounters from such high-voltage equipment…”

The teacher passes the scrap to the headsman, who places it in on the rim of the stove. In the faint firelight, the rusted buttons glimmer.

“This is not equipment,” he says. “This came from a man.”

“A Soviet rifleman. Or he used to be,” says the engineer. “That much we deduced from the uniform.”

“There was an ambush—six day’s walk from here,” mutters the headsman. “Claymore in the loose rocks, I heard. Took out a whole column.”

The engineer nods. “Dead no more than a week. That would make sense, given my office’s technology.”

The headsman prods the fragment into the coals. “Considering the evidence, I think it would be safer for you and your office to leave us be.”

“We’ve almost finished. The lieutenant’s impatient, and he’s biting at the chance to start. My colleague and I will do what we can, and we’ll set out soon.”

Shape has returned to the engineer’s voice. A grimness spreads across his cheeks. He gets to his feet, dusting his palms on the front of his trousers.

“This might be the last time we meet,” he says, bowing briefly. “Take care of the boys for us—they’ll know what to do. I regret the others aren’t here to say this, but thank you for your hospitality.”

The headsman returns the nod. “May the road treat you well.”

The engineer leaves. The two men watch his figure depart up the trail, into the caves, his torchbeam preceding him. It cuts a path through the night with each step, until his shadow’s a dot in the rocks, moving to where a faint light wavers on the ridge.

The teacher continues to watch, unmoving.

“You’ve barely said a thing,” says the headsman. “There’s trouble, isn’t there?”

“He’s the clever one, by far,” says the teacher. “But it won’t save him from the storm.”

“I don’t quite follow.”

“If you want to keep a secret, split it into untruths. The man knows this, even if his colleague does not.”

The headsman pauses to consider this. “What does this mean for us?”

In the darkness of the back room, Samir has fallen asleep, head on his brother’s chest.

The teacher puts his lips to the headsman’s ear, and whispers a warning.

“That much you’ve intuited from his words,” says the headsman.

“Between his words and their meanings—I’m certain.”

The headsman dips his face into his hands. “Three days down the trail, at least. It’s a long way to ask of everyone.”

“It’s something they’ll have to trust in,” says the teacher.

His voice trails off, momentarily lost in thought. The headsman looks quizzical—has the man had another premonition?

But the teacher just smiles—as if he’s just seen something sensible on the edge of the ridge, or a parting of the moonlit clouds.

“And we’ll just have to trust too, if the engineer holds up his side of the bargain…”

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