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Private Wars Excerpt


The day was clear and cold and bright, and Chace pulled off her sunglasses to get a better look at the boy at the side of the road.

She put him around thirteen, maybe a little older, thin, wearing the odd combination of traditional-meets-West clothing she’d seen so much of before leaving Tashkent that morning. The boy wore tan trousers, his pant legs tucked into the tops of his calf-high black boots, coated with dust, scuffed and scratched, with a pair of slippers on over them that could be easily removed upon entering a private home or a mosque. His t-shirt was red, just visible beneath the striped wrap-around cloak he wore, belted with a sash at his waist. His black hair was mostly hidden beneath the fleeced tilpak atop his head, its flaps dangling loosely at his cheeks. Unlike what she’d seen in Tashkent, though, this boy’s clothing showed obvious wear, and she could see where both the cloak and the trousers had been repeatedly repaired.

There’d been a mining town some twelve kilometers back, built around an enormous plant constructed to heat-leach gold from the low-grade ore brought up by miners. The plant, and Chace supposed, the mines as well, were foreign-operated, most likely by some concern out of the E.U.. She’d wondered idly in passing what the kick-back to the Uzbek Government had been. She’d imagined it to be substantial, and wondered if the return in gold was worth the cost.

The boy was likely from that community, though what he was doing out here alone she had no idea, and saw no sign of a ready explanation. He had no herd of goat or other livestock requiring attention, and carried nothing but a, ratty fabric bag slung over his shoulder. The bag, like his T-shirt, was red, but faded almost pink. He stood and stared as she slowed the car to a stop, then rolled down her window. The car was a Range Rover, left-hand drive, and at least twenty years old. Chace had purchased it from a middle-aged man she’d met at the Art Center in Tashkent early that morning. She’d paid him five thousand dollars for it, in cash, and he’d been so delighted he’d offered to sell her his brother’s motorcycle as well. Chace had, for a moment, entertained the idea; a second vehicle, stashed in Tashkent, might come in useful. But her plan ultimately required moving not just her, but two others, and a motorcycle would be inadequate to that task.

“Assalom aleikum,” Chace said.

The boy grinned at her accent. “Waleikum assalom.”

“Siz Ingliz tilida gapirasizmi?”

He shook his head. “Yoq, Uzbekcha. Uzbekcha, ha?”

Chace shook her head, bringing up a grin to match the boy’s own.

“Men Ingliz bilmayman,” the boy said. “Russki?”

Chace switched to Russian, answering, “A little.”

“I have a little Russian, too,” the boy said, answering in the same. “You are American?”

“English.”

“You are lost?”

“A little, I think. I’m looking for the market.”

He reappraised her, his look clearly questioning her sanity. “No market.”

“Across the border. For guns.”

“Oh, yes, there is that market.”

“How far?”

“It moves. Not know where now.”

“You help me find it?”

The look that doubted Chace’s sanity returned, more amused.

“Why you go there?”

“I need guns,” Chace answered, simply.

The boy considered that, then, seeing no flaw in the logic, nodded.

“They have guns. More than guns, also. Drugs. Girls.”

“I will pay. You be my guide, I will pay.” She reached into her coat, freeing one of the bills from the bundle in the inner pocket, showing him an American twenty-dollar bill. “For you.” The boy stuck out his hand, and Chace extended the bill, letting him take it. He examined it with deep suspicion, drawing the paper taut between both hands, holding it up to the sunlight. Chace doubted he could tell a forgery from the real thing, and the whole affectation struck her as vaguely charming. She fought back a smile. Once the boy was satisfied, he tucked the bill into his trousers, beneath the folds of his cloak, then walked around the Range Rover, coming from behind it. Chace tracked him in the mirrors, and this time she did smile as she watched the boy rise on tiptoe at the rear of the vehicle, to peer into the back. Seeing nothing that alarmed him, he continued around to the right-hand side. Chace leaned across the seat and unlocked the door, shoving it open, and the boy climbed in, looking around at the interior of the vehicle. Then he closed the door, sighed, stretched, and leaned back in the front passenger’s seat. Chace fought the urge to laugh. The boy straightened again, then indicated himself with his right thumb. “Javlon.”

Chace indicated herself. “Tracy.”

“Tracy,” the boy echoed, then pointed out the windscreen, down the narrow dirt road. “Tracy, that way.”

At some point early on they must have crossed the border into Kazakhstan, but there was nothing to mark it, and Chace knew that, at least in this part of the country, such designations were meaningless. Calling the border porous was generous. To the south, of course, the situation was different, the border into Afghanistan was watched, if not by Uzbekistan’s forces, then by the United States.

They stopped three times, in three separate villages, the first shortly after Javlon had climbed aboard, which he explained to her was his home. There were a handful of houses, and a small mosque, serving as the community center as much as the heart of worship. Javlon sprang from the car upon their arrival, without explanation, and for several minutes Chace waited, wondering if he was going to come back. No one emerged from any of the buildings, not even the mosque.

After five minutes, though, Javlon returned, climbing in, and after him came a handful of others, children and women, all silently watching his departure. Chace saw no men in the community.

Javlon pointed her north again, then, shortly thereafter, west, until they hit a second village. He again leaped from the car, all but accosting an older man drawing water from a well that had been dropped in the center of the square. She heard a hasty conversation in what she supposed was Uzbek, but could just have easily been one of the other half-dozen regional dialects. Returning, Javlon gave her new directions, still heading west, and at the third village, he repeated the process once more.

“Close,” he informed her upon returning this time. “Very close.

They move always.”

“How close?”

The boy thought, then held up his left hand, splaying his fingers. “Five kilometers?”

“Five, yes.”

She watched the odometer then, and after three and a half came to a stop. Javlon looked at her in confusion, and then, when she killed the engine, in something approaching alarm.

“I want you to do something,” Chace told him.

He looked at her with open suspicion, his right hand moving with almost comical stillness to the handle of the door.

“Nothing bad,” she assured him, and then, very deliberately, still smiling at him, reached again into her coat and freed two more bills from her roll. She was drawing blind, mostly because she didn’t want to reveal exactly how much cash she was carrying, and was therefore relieved to see that she had pulled another two twenties, and not any of the larger denominations. She handed the bills to Javlon.

He took them, but the suspicion remained on his face.

Chace pointed out the windshield, over the front of the car. “It’s that way?”

“Yes, that way.”

“I want you to go first,” Chace said carefully. “You understand? You go first, with the money. You buy—”

“Buy?”

Chace gestured, miming the exchange of money. “Buy, yes?”

Javlon nodded.

“You buy a gun, please.” Chace raised her right hand, turning it sideways, extending her index finger, making the shape of a pistol, careful to not point at the boy. “A gun. And bullets. You bring them back to me, here.”

Javlon’s face scrunched in confusion, and Chace was unsure if he was trying to fathom her directions or the logic behind them.

“Gun for you?” he asked.

“Yes, but you get it for me first, yes?”

“Then you go buy more guns?”

Chace nodded.

He thought about that for several more seconds, then suddenly let loose with a long “Ohh!” and began nodding.

“You have no gun,” he deduced.

“That’s right.”

“Oh!” He touched his forehead, grinning. “Smart.”

Chace gestured out the windshield once more. “You go. I wait here.”

She watched as he walked up the road, over a rise, then down and out of sight. She checked her watch, and wished, passionately, that she had bought cigarettes before leaving Tashkent. After ten minutes, she opened her door and got out of the vehicle. This part of the country—countries, Chace corrected herself— was desert, hard dusty earth and a paucity of greenery. Chilly during the day, it would become freezing at night. But if she was still out here after sunset, the weather would be the least of her problems. She had no desire to walk into an open air gun show in the middle of nowhere at sundown; it seemed like a very good way to make sure she wouldn’t walk out again, even if she was armed when she did it.

It was why she’d sent Javlon ahead, after all. A Western woman with a lot of cash on a shopping trip was going to be seen as an easy mark, and she knew it. Before any actual business could take place, she’d have to prove to the vendors that she wasn’t a valid target.

A wind came up, swirling dust off the ground, providing the only noise. She resisted the urge to check her watch again, then surrendered.

Twenty-one minutes.

Then thirty.

And then, coming back over the rise, Javlon, grinning from ear to ear, holding a pistol in one hand, and a box of ammunition in the other. When he saw her, he began jogging toward her.

“Tracy! Look!”

Alarmingly, he pointed the pistol at her, and for an awful second, Chace wondered if she would have to kill him, if he didn’t kill her first. But the triumphant grin remained on his thin face as he closed the distance, the pride of a job well done, and when he reached her, she took the pistol from his grip quickly, and without any resistance.

“Good, yes?” he asked her, breathless. “Good gun?”

Chace examined the pistol, releasing the magazine, checking to see that it was, in fact, unloaded, before sliding back the breech and holding up the weapon, to cast sunlight into the chamber. She checked the barrel, saw nothing obstructing it, then turned the pistol and examined the firing pin. She’d expected the boy to bring her a Russian gun—given the proximity to Russia and the former Soviet involvement in the region—but instead he’d brought her a Turkish clone of a Czech pistol, the Sarsilmaz M2000.

It wasn’t the pistol she’d have chosen for herself, but Javlon could have done worse, and satisfied that the gun would function, she set it down on the hood of the Range Rover. The box of ammunition was unlabeled, the cardboard cracked and peeling.

When she opened it, she found it held only sixteen rounds. She checked each bullet one by one, discovering that only half were the required 9 mm. Of those eight, she trusted five of them enough to load them into the magazine. The rest she left in the box.

“Good, yes?” Javlon asked.

“Good,” Chace agreed, slapping the magazine into place. She racked the slide, cocking the pistol, then checked the safety. Then she untucked her shirt, and slid the gun into her pants, at the front. Javlon watched, his eyes growing wider.

“Okay,” Chace told him after she had smoothed her shirt back into place. “All done now.”

“All done?”

“You can go.”

Javlon shook his head. “I come with.”

Chace shook her head. “No.”

“But I come.”

“No. Dangerous.”

The boy shrugged.

Chace pointed at the ground. “Wait here.”

“I come.”

“No, you wait here,” Chace said, growing frustrated. She pointed at the ground beneath her feet again, more insistently. “Wait here. I come back.”

Javlon folded his arms across his chest, giving her a look that seemed to say she was both stupid and unreasonable.

“Wait here,” Chace said a last time, and climbed back into the Rover.

She left him at the side of the road.

* * *

It was closer to three kilometers than one and a half, and she ended up off the road entirely, finally parking at the edge of a gulley. She could see smoke from cooking fires rising from below, and as soon as she stopped the engine, heard the din of livestock and voices and music. She got out of the car, locked it, pocketing the keys, then removing her sunglasses. She counted six other vehicles, all of them dusty, rusted, and at least as old as her own, parked around the edges of the market. The scent of roasting meat, fuel, and manure mixed in the dry, cold air.

She approached the edge of the gulley, hopped down into the dry creek bed, and made her way toward the noise. The livestock came first, goats tethered in groups of three or four to stakes driven into the ground, chickens in too-small metal cages lined up around them, dropping feathers every time they tried to flap their wings. A couple of dogs were similarly tied.

Past the livestock, the market, such as it was, began in earnest, where the gulley grew wider and more shallow. Chace experienced a painful deja vu, because she had been here before, not here, but almost here, in Saudi Arabia, a place called the Wadi-as-Sirhan. It had been night, then, and Tom had died there, and for a moment the memory assailed her, and she had to stop, to fight it off.

A large tent anchored the center of the bazaar, Soviet Army surplus, and framing the approach to its entrance, along both sides, stood pitted and bent metal folding tables, with companion benches. Three separate cooking fires burned nearby, meat sizzling over the flames, fat spitting on the grills. A ragged mutt prowled between the tables, looking for scraps. Music from three separate boom boxes competed with each other, crackling from burst speakers, country-and-western and Europop.

Spreading out, filling the rest of the gulley around the tent, were the vendors, most of them with their wares displayed on dirty blankets or rugs, a few having gone so far as to raise canopies of one sort or another on sticks, to provide shelter and an illusion of privacy. Chace saw bootleg cassettes and CDs, old magazines, bits and pieces of machinery salvaged from who knew what, and piles upon piles of army surplus equipment. There were flashlights and entrenching tools and MREs and radios that she suspected would never be made to transmit or receive again. Most of the surplus was Soviet-era, but among them she spied bits and pieces of more modern equipment, materiel either bought or stolen from Coalition forces, even what appeared to be a set of NVGs. Three separate vendors were selling drugs, pot and hash and opium and their big brother, heroin.

And there were weapons, so many weapons. Not counting the ones being carried by the vendors and the shoppers, stacked precariously in makeshift displays, arrayed on their blankets, piled one upon the other. The collections spanned the ages, it seemed, weapons that had migrated throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia over the last sixty-plus years. From the Second World War through Korea and Vietnam, the tools of war that had survived and been passed on from one set of hands to another, with varying degrees of care. There were pistols from Vietnam and rifles from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, revolvers from Korea and knives from the Second World War. There were swords and spears and axes of indeterminate origin and provenance, and a wide selection of knives that, at first glance, seemed to be of local manufacture, and fairly high-quality. Ammunition boxes formed makeshift barriers between stalls, labeled in Cyrillic and Mandarin and Uzbek and English. She saw grenades, she saw flak jackets, she saw collapsible batons, she saw submachine guns.

She stopped again, this time to orient herself, aware that she was drawing eyes. It didn’t alarm her; it was expected. There were perhaps some thirty to forty people around, either selling or buying. Almost all of them looked to be ethnic Uzbeks, though there were no doubt Kazakhs and Kyrgyzs among them.

And all were men, to the last of them, with the exception of the only other woman Chace could discern, standing at the closed flap of the tent. The men ranged in age from late teens to perhaps mid-fifties, most dressed in the traditional mix of cloaks and boots, a few in the post-Soviet work fashion, the majority with their heads covered. The woman—or girl—looked to be fifteen at the oldest, wearing a filthy robe. Her legs were bare, and Chace suspected that, beneath the robe, she wore nothing else. If she was cold, she did a good job of hiding it.

While Chace watched, the tent flap parted, and a squat man emerged, bearded, pulling up his trousers. Past him, inside, Chace could see two other girls, each naked, moving to cover themselves. The squat man exchanged words with another, seated at the table near the entrance, then stopped, looking her way. Another man, seated at one of the tables, rose and headed into the tent. Chace heard movement behind her, ignored it for the moment. They still didn’t know what to make of her. No one would try anything, not yet.

She tried to put a cap on what she was feeling, forced herself to look away from the tent and back to the vendors, began walking around the circle, looking at the items on each blanket as she passed. She stopped briefly at a display of knives, seeing a bonehandled blade that caught her fancy, thinking that she would need a knife. In her periphery, she counted three men following her as a group, staying perhaps fifteen feet back. Two of them carried Kalashnikovs on straps at the shoulders. The third, the eldest of the three, wore a pistol in a holster around his waist. Chace continued working her way around the market, finally completing her counterclockwise circuit at the largest collection of weapons for sale, to the left of the tent entrance. A grumpy-looking Uzbek in overalls and a work shirt watched over the wares, eyeing her with an expression that seemed caught between suspicion and amusement, yet undecided. Chace passed his wares, which seemed to be grouped without rhyme or reason, then stopped and doubled back, her eye snagging on a pistol half-buried in a stack near the back of the makeshift stall. It was a semiauto, what looked to be a Smith & Wesson Mk 39, but at this distance, she couldn’t be sure. The men following her stopped when she did.

Chace pointed. “Can I see that?” she asked in Russian.

“You’re not Russian,” the vendor said. It wasn’t quite accusatory, but it came close.

“That one,” Chace said, indicating the pistol again. “The Smith and Wesson.”

“You have money?”

She smiled.

“You come here alone?”

She let her smile grow a fraction.

The man smiled in return, revealing the fact that he was missing his upper two front teeth. “You should not come alone.”

“That one,” Chace repeated.

The man hesitated, and Chace saw his eyes flick past her, to her left, to the three men who had been following, and she knew what was coming, and she knew what the cue would be.

The vendor nodded, shrugged, and started to turn away from her, toward the indicated stack of weapons. As he did, she heard the movement, caught the motion in her periphery, the Kalashnikovs coming off of the shoulders of both men. There was no haste in their movement, and it gave her all the time she needed. Chace swept her right hand up, over her belly, and brought out the pistol Javlon had bought for her. She struck down the safety with her thumb as she freed the weapon, had her finger settled well on the trigger by the time she put her sights on the vendor’s back. Everyone stopped, the men with the rifles and the ones shuffling at their blankets and the ones eating their meals.

“Alone,” Chace said. “Not stupid.”

The vendor turned around to face her, slowly, and when he saw the pistol pointed at him, raised his hands, showing her his palms. “They lower the guns,” Chace told him. “Or I shoot.” The vendor nodded and spoke in Uzbek. Chace risked turning her head enough to see the three, and to confirm that they had complied.

“Have to try,” the vendor said, by way of explanation, still showing her his hands, and working in a shrug for added effect.

She looked back at him. “I understand.”

“If you want, we can do business now.” He smiled hopefully, again revealing his missing teeth.

“Yes, please,” Chace agreed, and with her free hand, she pointed to the stack once more, and added, “It’s the one sticking out at the bottom.”

The vendor nodded, turning to retrieve the gun in question, and as he did, Chace threw the safety back into place on the pistol, and slid it once more into the front of her trousers. She felt as much as heard the tension lift from the market, then, and by the time the vendor was showing her the Smith & Wesson, conversations were resuming.

* * *

It took the better part of two hours to buy everything she thought she would need, or at least, to buy everything that they had that she thought she would need. When she was finished, the three men who had stalked her helped to carry her purchases back to the Range Rover, where she loaded them into the back. She’d bought three blankets off one of the vendors, and used them to cover the weapons, ammunition, and other equipment. Once everything was squared away, Chace walked back to the vendor with the missing teeth, and paid, in cash. No one bothered her, no one followed her, as she returned to the car, poorer, but certainly better armed.

* * *

When she returned to the spot where she’d left Javlon, he was gone, and the sun was dipping below the horizon.

Chace waited by the side of the road until darkness came.

The boy never came back.