From Enemy of the Good, by Matthew Palmer, published on May 23, 2017, by Putnam, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Matthew Palmer.
November 9, 2004
The basement was cool and damp and smelled of mildew and sour milk. There were only about twenty of them, hardly an army. The group included a few greybeards, but most were young, one or two of the boys barely old enough to shave. Zamira’s heart ached for the youngsters. She was almost fifty and if the secret police put a bullet through her skull tomorrow it would have been a rich and full life. The younger ones were risking so much more, even if they did not yet have the perspective needed to understand that, to recognize their own mortality.
The agents of the State Committee for National Security–the GKNB–were both ruthless and efficient. And they were getting closer. There were only a few places left in Bishkek where the Steering Group could meet. Temir, the owner of the restaurant, was a sympathizer and despite the dangers he let them use the basement. There was something about meeting literally underground that was deeply satisfying. It was something primal from hunter-gatherer days, she suspected, the association of the cave with safety and security. But this was their third time in the same place in as many months. And the meeting had already gone on too long.
They called themselves Azattyk, the Kyrgyz word for freedom, and their ultimate goal was nothing less than the overthrow of the corrupt and despotic regime of Nurlan Eraliev. The one-time Soviet apparatchik had given himself the title President for Life. Some in the movement hoped that Eraliev would read the writing on the wall and flee to Moscow or Beijing to live out his final days in exile. Others in Azattyk were perfectly willing to accept Eraliev’s title at face value. As far as they were concerned, he was welcome to reach the end of his reign at the end of a rope, just as long as that day came soon. No one doubted, however, that they would succeed. No one but Zamira.
Zamira cast an appraising glance around the room. These were her comrades, her brothers and sisters in the struggle for a democratic Kyrgyzstan. But for most of them it was a game. Even now, after almost six months of planning, organizing, and skulking in the shadows they had no idea what they were up against. What the thugs and enforcers of the GKNB would do to them if they were caught. They would learn, and hopefully not before it was too late.
A young man with pale skin, a neatly trimmed beard, and an old army jacket stood up, signaling for attention. His name was Fyodor. He was an ethnic Russian and the informal leader of their radical wing, Azattyk’s equivalent of the Young Turks. Hot-tempered and impatient, soaked in testosterone, and stupid.
“Enough of this shit!” Fyodor said loudly. He drained his glass and slammed it upside down on the table. The Uzbeks and the Russians, Fyodor among them, were drinking arak, a kind of local vodka. Zamira was Kyrgyz and most of her ethnic kin with their Asiatic features were drinking kumys, fermented mare’s milk. Zamira didn’t much like the taste, but there were those in the movement who still considered her foreign. She had lived most of her life in London, the daughter of dissidents who had fled Bishkek in the 1970s under suspicion–accurate as it would so happen–of being Kyrgyz nationalists before nationalism in Central Asia was fashionable. Moreover, her sister, Cholpon, was married to an American diplomat. Azattyk’s lefty student leaders had no more time for the CIA than they did for the GKNB. So, Zamira drank kumys more to establish her ethnic bona fides than because she appreciated the salty, buttery flavor.
“Enough of this shit,” Fyodor repeated. “It is time to stop hiding in the shadows. We are ready to meet our enemy face to face on the streets of the city. It is time to stop organizing and start acting.”
There was a murmur of assent from the assembled. Fyodor’s was a popular sentiment. Azattyk was an underground movement that, so far, had done little more than spray paint furtive pro-democracy and anti-regime graffiti on buildings and bridges. The entire membership numbered no more than several hundred and they had so little money that the Steering Group had not even bothered to appoint a treasurer.
They were far from formidable, but the regime seemed to be afraid of them, or at least afraid of what they represented. And some of Azyattky’s less experienced members, which was to say almost all of them, had begun to believe their own PR.
“It is too soon. The security services would break us like a dry twig.” The voice of reason belonged to one of Zamira’s contemporaries, a chemical engineer named Chorobek Rustamov who worked at the state-run fertilizer plant. Rustamov was smart and pragmatic, but he was blunt to a fault and the younger members of the movement considered him hopelessly bourgeois, which for them was often a synonym for cowardly.
“Chorobek is right,” Zamira said, not giving Fyodor a chance to respond. “This is exactly what Eraliev hopes we will do; show ourselves before we are ready. We must build our strength before we come out of hiding. There will be only one chance at this. Fail and we will all be spending the rest of our short, miserable lives in Prison Number One.” This was where Eraliev kept his political opponents and those the regime considered enemies of the state.
Fyodor was not rolling over, however. He was clearly ready to fight his corner.
He would not get his chance.
There was a loud crack from upstairs. A gunshot. The room froze into silence. This was a rough part of town. On a typical Saturday night, gunfire would not have been especially noteworthy. But tonight, the restaurant was closed and empty. There was supposed to be no one upstairs except Temir. And Temir, Zamira suspected, was now dead. Reflexively, they all looked up as though they would be able to see through the concrete ceiling.
A series of dull thuds followed, moving across the floor above. Footsteps. Heavy and unconcerned with stealth. That could only mean on thing. There were many of them, enough that it did not matter especially if those below knew they were coming.
The twenty or so conspirators in the basement reached that same conclusion at almost the same moment, their thought process supercharged by adrenaline, nicotine and fear. The basement had a back door, a narrow set of crumbling cement stairs that opened up onto the alley behind the restaurant. The would-be revolutionaries dashed for the exit, tripping each other in their haste to reach the illusionary safety of Bishkek’s back streets. All thoughts of comradeship were forgotten in the mad rush for the night air and the cloak of darkness. Zamira saw Mukhamed, a gigantic twenty-year old ethnic Kyrgyz prone to bragging about his cat-and-mouse games with the secret police, shove a diminutive Russian girl named Ludmila to the ground driven by an instinct for self-preservation inscribed in his DNA by millions of years of natural selection.
People were animals, Zamira thought. Herd animals mostly, but with a select few predators. People were both sheep and wolves. And civilization was a thin veneer that concealed nature red in tooth and claw. It was easier to slip the bonds of social norms than most people could imagine, and there was perhaps no society on earth that was more than two missed meals away from anarchy.
Zamira did not join the others in fighting for the stairs. The security services were professional and their agents were anything but dumb. The alley would be a trap.
Instead, she went the other way. There was a small storeroom in the basement where Temir kept supplies for the restaurant, Café Manas. A few weeks earlier, Zamira had stopped by the cafe for a drink. Temir, a friend of long-standing, had hurt his back and he had asked her to help him bring some potatoes and parsnips up from the basement. In the corner of the storeroom there was a small pile of burlap bags. Under the bags was a trapdoor that concealed a storage bin for root vegetables. Down here, the fall harvest would keep more or less fresh through the long winter until spring. It was March and the bin would be almost empty. There should be enough room for one.
Zamira slipped as quickly and quietly as she could into the storage bin, doing her best to slide the burlap bags back into place as she closed the trapdoor. The potatoes she was lying on were soft and mushy and they stank of rot. She hoped that there were no rats in the bin, not because she was afraid but because their scuttling might betray her hiding place.
The thumping of boots on the stairs told her that the police had found the door to the basement. There was a scream, followed by a wet smack that sounded to Zamira like a truncheon hitting flesh. The noise was muffled by the burlap bags that covered the cramped root cellar.
She concentrated on her breathing, in through the nose and out through the mouth. Slow and regular and, most importantly, quiet. There was a story she had read once by an American writer about a murderer who thought he could hear the heart of his victim beating under the floorboards of his house. Her own jackhammering heartbeat felt loud enough to be a tell-tale, and she willed it to slow. It obeyed reluctantly.
There was a creak as the door to the storeroom opened, followed by footsteps.
“Get the lights,” she heard a male voice say with the casual authority of someone used to giving orders. Zamira recognized the voice and a pulse of fear ran like acid through her veins. The language was Russian, but the accent was heavy and plodding as though the liquid Russian phrases had congealed into something thick and greasy. It was Georgian, the accent of gangsters and Stalin. And there was only one man it could be. His name was Anton Chalibashvili. But Kyrgyzstan’s democrats and members of Bishkek’s intelligentsia had another name for him. Torquemada. The Inquisitor.
There was a room in the sub-basement of Prison Number One where the Georgian, a former KGB major who learned his trade at Moscow’s infamous Lubjanka prison, practiced his dark arts in the service of the Eraliev regime. It was called the Pit.
The Inquisitor’s job was to secure confessions by whatever means necessary. Everyone confessed in the end.
Zamir shuddered as her mind conjured up medieval fantasies of the Pit and its elaborate methods of torture. And as awful as the visions were, Zamira suspected that her imagination had fallen short of the realities.
A small part of the outline of the trapdoor lit up and Zamira knew that there was no more than a single layer of burlap covering that corner of her hiding place.
“Are you sure you saw her come in here?” the inquisitor asked.
“I’m sure. There is nowhere else down here where she could be.”
Zamira recognized that voice as well. It belonged to a student named Aibek who had joined the group only a few months earlier. Aibek had demonstrated considerable promise as a future leader in the movement. He was smart, articulate, and passionate. He was also, it would seem, a traitor. It was the age old problem of cabals, conspiracies, and underground movements. Who could you trust? Ultimately, yourself alone, and sometimes not even that.
Temir, she remembered kept a tool in the storage bin, a steel poker with a fork at the end that could be used to help scoop out the beets, potatoes and carrots. In the dark, with her enemies standing over her body, Zamira felt frantically around the sides of the bin until her fingers closed around the wooden handle of the tool. With her other hand, she tested the tips of the tines at the business end. They were sharp and the metal was strong. They would find her here, but she would drive the tool into Aibek’s reptilian brain before they put her down.
There was a scraping sound as someone–likely Aibek–dragged the burlap sacks off the trapdoor.
“Look what we have here,” she heard the traitor say.
The light was bright, and the silhouette of Aibek’s head loomed over Zamira in sharp relief. She thrust the long fork up with all of her strength and had the satisfaction of feeling one of the tines pierce an eyeball as though it were a boiled egg. Warm, wet drops sprayed onto her hand and arm. Blood and ocular fluid.
“My eye! Goddam bitch blinded me.”
The traitor pulled his head back and Zamira’s second thrust hit nothing but air.
She crouched on the mash of rotten vegetables on the floor of the bin and raised her modest weapon to eye level. If she could take the inquisitor in the throat or the groin, she could make a run for the stairs.
Aibek rolled helplessly on the floor, both hands pressed up against his left eye. He was whimpering like a dog and Zamira enjoyed a brief moment of satisfaction.
It was a fleeting sensation.
Chalibashvili would not be as carless as Aibek had been. He was not a young man, Zamira would have guessed that he was in his late fifties. But he carried himself with a military bearing and he exuded both confidence and competence. He was tall and broad and his grey hair was cut close to his scalp. He wore a dark suit under a knee-length leather coat that was open at the front. There was a black truncheon in one hand and Zamira could see the butt of a pistol in a holster on his hip.
Chalibashvili just watched as Zamira crawled out of the pit, an amused smirk on his lips.
It was as easy for him to take the weapon from her as it would have been to take a toy from an ill-behaved child.
The handcuffs he used to bind her hands behind her back were heavy and cold.
Chalibashvili led her up the stairs and out the front door, leaving his mole in their group writhing on the basement floor in pain and humiliation, his utility to the security services used up.
There was a black truck parked in front of the restaurant and Zamira’s colleagues were being loaded in the back.
Zamira looked up at the night sky. It was late and there were few lights to hide the stars. Her breath formed wispy clouds of vapor in the cold air.
“Yes.” Standing behind her, the Georgian whispered in her ear. “Look up. Drink in the sky. It will be a long, long time until next you see the stars.”
Matthew Palmer ’88 is director of the Office of South Central Europe in the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. He is a lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a distinguished graduate of the National War College who counts positions on the Policy Planning staff and at the National Security Council, in Washington, D.C., as well as diplomatic assignments around the world, among his previous assignments. A 25-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service, he is the best-selling author of four diplomatic thrillers, including his latest, Enemy of the Good.