Excerpt from Flame
by Barry Fulton
Thomas Sebastian Scott had boarded an overcrowded bus in Quetta, destination Lahore. He would make contact there with an official at the American Consulate General. Scott was battered and bruised, but undeterred from his mission. He reflected on the past forty-eight hours, his capture and narrow escape. He had recognized the two men as amateurs. Professionals would never attempt to transport a kidnapped victim on a motorcycle. The shiny new 750 cc Hondas told him they were novice bikers as well. Their argument—which the two believed he could not understand—confirmed that they had not planned ahead, were undoubtedly surprised by actually capturing the American.
The big guy with the pistol instructed his younger companion to ride ahead with Scott on the back of the bike. Any funny business from Scott, and the bara mujrim, as Scott came to think of him, would kill him dead. That would require the skill of a sharpshooter and the luck of a Powerball winner. Kandahar was little more than an hour away. Scott had planned to escape well before crossing the Pak-Afghan border. Dusk would soon turn to darkness.
He had decided to wait for a sharp curve, and then lean far to the right to throw the bike off balance. He would risk a concussion or worse, but better to die on his terms than face torture.
His scheme had worked, as he appreciated when he finally awoke in a wooded area. He must have crawled from the roadside when the bike skidded out of control. The two kidnappers had not found him. He was sure the driver had been seriously injured, perhaps lying dead on the roadside. Rough justice, he thought.
Scott was bloody, confused, and shoeless. He recalled the conversation before the kidnappers began their ill-fated journey toward Afghanistan.
“Mister Thomas, my brother says he likes your shoes. Says they are Nike brand which rich American have. Here, only Bata shoes. Give them, he says.”
“It is too dangerous to ride on your motorcycle without shoes.”
“It is dangerous for dumb American to come to Quetta, so is making no difference.”
Scott had complied. Shoeless he had climbed on the back of the bike. And shoeless he was as he lay in the woods somewhere between the Hazarganji Chiltan National Park and Quetta.
He recalled looking at his watch and concluding he had been unconscious for nearly four hours. He learned later he was wrong. It was closer to twenty-eight hours. His cell phone still carried a charge. He thought of calling the cab driver Gulam to take him back to the hotel. But, no, maybe it was he who had given his name to the kidnappers. He would make his way to the road and try to hitch a ride. He came to understand that it takes a special person to stop for a bloodied, unshaven, barefoot stranger.
But, there are special people, and a young lorry driver slowed down, stopped, and motioned him to come along. As he climbed into the cab, he grimaced as all of the pains he had already experienced were elevated. He explained to the driver, in English, that he had taken a fall while rock climbing. The driver didn’t understand a word he said, but offered to share a chapati. Scott thanked him repeatedly, as he nibbled on the kind offering. Quetta has more than its share of terrorists, but most of the inhabitants, like the driver, were generous, God-fearing people who did honest work and raised a loving family.
Scott was received cautiously at the American Consulate General in Lahore. He waited hours until his identity was validated. A young political officer, probably on his first tour, ushered him to his office where his shook his hand repeatedly.
“My God,” he said, “you are T. S. Scott! I can’t believe it. The station in Islamabad confirmed you were in the country. Sit down. May I get you some tea or a Coke or something? My God, you look terrible. What happened?”
For the first time in a week, Scott felt safe. “Tea,” he said, “would be nice. It might be just what the doctor ordered.”
“What happened? And how have you been treated?”
“Took a nasty fall from a motorcycle in Quetta. Found a doctor there who stitched me up pretty well. Not as bad as it looks. I was shocked too when I looked in the mirror. The last time I saw a face with that many stitches was on a dummy in West Virginia.”
“In West Virginia?”
“Sorry, afraid that wouldn’t mean anything to you. Anyway, I’m assured I’ll be as good as new when the stitches are removed and the bruises disappear.”
The young official explained that he had been alerted by the Embassy to offer Scott the full assistance of the Consulate. As a relatively junior vice consul, however, he had been instructed to refer all substantive issues to Islamabad. Scott requested an appointment the following day with the station chief in Islamabad and immediate access to a secure computer to send a brief report to Washington. Scott was known as a man of few words as the classified cable revealed.
Quetta contact positive. Need assistance tracing secure archive of weekly live video monitored by contact. Video features two captive Russian women. Received in Lahore by helpful vice consul. Arrive tomorrow in Islamabad.
When Scott completed the cable, the consulate nurse was waiting to offer her assistance. She confirmed that he looked like he had taken a severe beating. She checked the stitches, added fresh bandages, and offered some pain medicine. When she inquired about his limp, he explained that it was a result of the last fall he had taken in this region.
Islamabad was experiencing growing pains when he had last seen it, not yet a real city, more like a sterile suburb of Rawalpindi, a real city less than ten miles away. The train ride from Lahore to Rawalpindi was pleasant compared to the bus from Quetta. He may have overdone the pain medicine, as he felt downright giddy. Pakistani nurses, he thought, seem to offer mood elevation. Why not try to locate Sharmien as soon as he arrived in town? “Because,” he answered himself, “duty before pleasure.”
He had reservations at the Shalimar Hotel in Rawalpindi, close to Gordon College where he had grown up. Memories filled his thoughts. He closed his eyes, wondering if he would dream in English or Urdu. He dozed off. His father was explaining the American Civil War in English. His neighbor was crying, speaking to his father in Urdu, about the loss of her husband in the Indian-Pak war. He was eight years old, and partition remained an unforgettable calamity.
He was received promptly and graciously at the American Embassy in Islamabad. He met briefly in the office of the station chief before being ushered to a SCIF where the two were joined by three staffers for a debriefing. None were surprised by his bruises or bandages, having been forewarned by the Vice Consul in Lahore. They were nonetheless curious about what he was doing on a motorcycle. He described his capture and escape.
“Thomas,” the station chief began, “headquarters describes you as intrepid. After your ordeal in Quetta, I will add indestructible. Fort Meade is working on your request and is confident that by tomorrow they will have penetrated Colonel Siddiqui’s computer files including any streaming video that he may have archived. We understand you are looking for videos of two Russian women. Headquarters asks if you can be more specific.”
“Afraid not much, except I understand that one is thin, the other fat, both young. They are living in what seems to be a villa, so there may be both interior and exterior shots. I would be interested in seeing anything they can find.”
“And the men who kidnapped you—can you describe them?”
“Brothers, I think. One tall and one short.”
“Thomas, I trust my three colleagues would agree. With those exhaustive descriptions we should be able to locate both the sisters and the brothers, fat and thin, tall and short. Piece of cake for our crack team.”
Scott appreciated the humor, as the others joined him in laughter. There is no work so serious that is not enhanced by an appreciation of the impossible. He explained that the two young men in Quetta were rank amateurs, not worth pursuing. The location of the two Russian women, on the other hand, was critical to completing his mission. The chief explained that they hadn’t the slightest idea what he was up to, but had been instructed to provide full support including logistics, manpower, and intelligence.
Scott hesitated to reveal more than they needed to know, but disclosed that he had to locate the two Russian women. Then, he said, “I will need your help in rescuing them if they are here in Pakistan as I suspect.”
“So, you’re not even sure they’re here?”
“No, but Colonel Siddiqui did disclose, inadvertently I suspect, that their compound was guarded by a chokidar. Sounds like Pakistan to me. We can only hope that the footage from the video will give us a clue to the exact location.”
The three staffers were taking notes, although the station chief was the only one who had spoken. He replied, “If you were new to Pakistan, I would guess that your mission would take forever. As I understand you are an expert, it should take only half that time. May I ask why these two are so important?”
“Yes, you have every reason to know,” said Scott. “They are being held hostage to ensure their grandfather, a renowned Russian nuclear scientist and computer expert, continues to work with a team of Iranians on their nuclear weapons project. You would not be surprised to hear the team is working under the guidance of A.Q. Khan here in Pakistan.”
“And you, Mr. Scott, would not be surprised to hear that Dr. Khan continues to be protected by a rogue unit of Pakistan’s Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence. As necessary, we can provide additional information that may be of use. In the meantime, what else can we do for you?”
“Thank you. I’ll catch a cab back to the Shalimar Hotel for dinner and a good rest. If I recall, it is the season for mangoes, which they serve as appetizers, entrees, and dessert. Nothing would be better to soothe this aching body and perhaps rekindle some long lost memories. Also, I have a few calls to make before I return here tomorrow to screen the videos.”
Before dinner, Scott settled in his room and checked his email. His friends were relieved that he was safe. His former wife Elisabetta expressed her joy and wished for an early and safe return. Father Sean McManus expressed his delight and reported on a recent event at Shepherd University with his characteristic wry commentary.
Scott, I am so pleased. Our prayers have been answered. Even Kierkegaard is sleeping more peacefully. Afraid you missed an event that I can only hope the Bishop has missed as well. I was called as a witness to confirm that the first book of the Holy Bible is the word of God. That I did, after which the infamous West Virginia attorney Spencer Cobb convincingly developed the thesis that God approves of women baring their bodies as well as their souls. If God were asked directly, I’m not sure what he would say.
Scott smiled. Long before he had left the seminary, he and Sean had agreed that God surely had a sense of humor. There was no other way to account for the foibles and fragilities of mankind. Father Sean, more consistent in his belief than the Pope himself, had never strayed from this view.
He was exhausted but surprisingly alert. This was the time to call Sharmien. He had thought about this moment for months. Dial the hospital and ask if she is on duty. He couldn’t begin by telling her he had returned from the dead. It would be better to represent himself as the brother of the man she had known as Franklin Lambert. “Hello,” he would begin, “I am the brother of an American you cared for more than a decade ago. After his death, your letter to the Embassy was passed to me. I am calling to thank you for your kindness.” He had repeated this introduction many times before he called the military hospital.
The operator asked who was calling and for which Sharmien. “It is a very popular name,” she said. Scott didn’t want to admit that he didn’t know her last name, so disconnected the call as he was speaking to give the impression of a dropped line.
He lay down, confident that he would have his wits about him after a full night’s sleep. But the adrenalin rush continued, and after an hour he turned on the lights, reached for his iPhone, and turned again to Ulysses. One good odyssey deserves another, he thought, as he continued to follow a day in the life of Leopold Bloom. He returned to a passage he had read several times before.
Touch me. Soft eyes. Soft soft soft hand. I am lonely here. O, touch me soon, now. What is that word known to all men? I am quiet here alone. Sad too. Touch, touch me.
Eventually, Scott fell asleep, determined to locate Sharmien the next day.
As he ordered breakfast after a restless night’s sleep, Scott received a call from an Embassy receptionist postponing his appointment by twenty-four hours. That must mean they’re on to something, or alternatively, they’ve found nothing, he thought. He could stroll around the city, locate the house where he grew up, or visit the college. But his highest priority was locating Sharmien. The waiter appeared with his order. In his starched uniforms and fawning manner, he would have been a perfect fit in a British Club in Delhi a century before. Likewise for the food. It would be hard to find a better English breakfast in London.
Scott made several calls to the Military Hospital, this time speaking in Urdu, trying to locate Sharmien. After a few dead ends, he determined that she must be the Head Nurse in the trauma unit and managed to speak to one of her co-workers.
“Yes,” her colleague said, she’s been here for ten or twelve years, but is not available now. You see, she has had a very difficult time, particularly with her marriage, and is now visiting friends in Florida.”
Scott was silent. At that instant, he knew it was too late. He had been deceiving himself for years. Of course she wouldn’t wait, couldn’t wait. Wait for a man she barely knew? Remain single in a Muslim culture? Slowly but silently, he said to himself, “You have been a bloody fool.”
“Hello, hello, are you still there,” Sharmien’s colleague said in Urdu.
“Sorry, yes, I was taken back for a moment.” He paused again, and then said, “Is there any chance we could meet briefly. It is terribly important, as it concerns my best friend who died in her presence many years ago.”
“Of course. I know the story. I’ve heard it many times. That’s when her troubles began. My shift ends at 3:00 p.m. Perhaps you could meet me at small restaurant just outside the front gate of the hospital. It is called Tandoori Murghi.”
“You’ll easily recognize me, as I’ll be wearing Western clothes including a baseball cap, and sporting a few bruises. Just returned from many years in America.”
“I have only a few minutes,” she said, as the two ordered hot tea. “I had no trouble recognizing you, as you look thoroughly American, yet sound like a Pakistani.”
“That’s a long story. I apologize for my taking your time, but it is terribly important to the family of Mr. Lambert that they reach her.”
“That’s the name—Franklin Lambert. She barely knew him, but I can tell you she fell in love. After his death, she experienced a terrible depression. She couldn’t function. Wouldn’t eat. Blamed herself for his death. Her mother was of little help, said she was crazy to go to America to study in the first place, even more crazy to be going on about some dead American. ‘What you need,’ her mother said, ‘is a good husband.’”
Scott nodded, sipped his tea. He wanted to know everything, but sensed it would be better to know nothing. He imagined her relatives insisting on a marriage, choosing a good man to make her happy. He thought of the wedding, her loss of freedom. And wondered about the difficult time her colleague had mentioned on the phone.
She began to stand up. “I’m so sorry, but I must go to catch a bus.”
“Wait, just a few more minutes. What happened to her marriage? How is she now?”
“That’s a long story, but let me assure you she’s much better now. Everything seems to have turned out for the best. And if I know her, she’s probably relaxing in Miami as we speak. Here’s a card with my extension at the hospital. Take good care of yourself and change those bandages every day.”
She rushed away, looking at her watch and running toward the bus. If he had not been so self-absorbed, he would have pleaded with her to complete the story and send her onward by taxi. He sat in the restaurant for hours, listening to the whirring of an ancient overhead fan, punctuated by an irritating periodic clicking.
He realized that he was in a near-hypnotic trance, as he began to walk back to the hotel. It was several miles, enough to clear his head, to refocus on the reason he was in Pakistan. The temperature was in the high nineties, the humidity in the same range. As cars passed him on the streets of Rawalpindi, dust collected on his sweating face and arms to compound the image of a limping, bruised, and bandaged itinerant vagrant. Strangers looked at him with pity. An inner voice kept saying, “Admit it, you fool: she was the reason you returned.” He wondered if he had been equally foolhardy in trying to track down the source of the sophisticated computer code that was designed to neutralize the Stuxnet worm.
Arriving at the American Embassy the following day, Scott was escorted into a sub-basement technical facility. Racks of servers and scores of monitors greeted him, signaling that this was a facility equipped for the twenty-first century. Nothing like this existed before 9/11, but now there was no innovative technology that wouldn’t be funded by the government. And he knew the men and women sitting behind the computer screens were selected for their analytic skills from among the nation’s most sophisticated computer programmers. Most were young, with a few appearing to be barely out of their teens.
“Mr. Scott, you look a bit surprised.”
“Yes, I suppose, but more pleased than surprised. I wonder if you’ve found anything else that might please me.”
“Everything you could hope for. I like to credit our team for burrowing into Siddiqui’s computer files, although I can’t deny that he may have intentionally failed to put it all behind a firewall. Can’t tell whether he was helping you out or was just careless. Come over here and sit down. We have hours of videos for you to review.”
Scott smiled as he saw what had been retrieved—videos, emails, images, documents, recorded discussions. Stuxnet wasn’t the only arrow in the community’s quiver. It wouldn’t be long until someone discovered the Flame virus. Working quietly in the West Virginia woods had its benefits. His confidence restored, Scott began to review the videos. He looked first at the earliest transmission and saw two young women, presumably the sisters described by Colonel Siddiqui. They were sitting together on a sofa, explaining that they were in good health and good spirits. He then looked at a recent video. Neither looked well, one grossly overweight and the other little more than a starving waif. Their claim of continuing good health was betrayed by their appearance. Guards were present in each video. Scott then began systematically sampling the videos, looking for clues that might disclose their location.
Week after week, they were in the same position, same sofa, same room. Then, something different—the two of them on a bench in what appeared to be a sumptuous garden. This was no ordinary villa. After twelve hours, Scott had reviewed some twenty weeks of transmissions. He would return the next day to continue his research. Before departing the Embassy, he sent an email to his Washington contact with copies to Father McManus, John Klosowski, and Elisabetta.
Enjoying my first visit to Rawalpindi including a side trip to Islamabad where I hiked to the top of the Margalla Hills. The flora and fauna are bountiful. Delighted to get a glimpse of two rare birds native to these parts. Everything is satisfactual.
Another day in front of a computer terminal with many more hours viewing the two women, in deteriorating health, insisting they were fine. He failed to see a single clue. Scott wondered if his brooding distraction concerning Sharmien might have dulled his senses. Then, at what was approximately midway through the two years of videos, the two women were permitted to walk through the garden, smiling, enjoying endless beds of flowers. He recognized a flowering plant he knew as adosa, common to this part of Pakistan. He remembered it growing wild in the Murree hills where it was so bitter that even the goats wouldn’t touch it.
The camera followed the sisters as they walked across the driveway to the other side of the garden. He stopped the video, backed it up, and magnified the car in the driveway. It was a white convertible Ford Thunderbird. It was either a 1955 or 1956 model, among the first made. Back home it would be a collector’s item. Undoubtedly here as well. It was a toy only for the very rich.
Following lunch in the Embassy cafeteria with one of the analysts he had met, Scott returned to his research. Over and over, he watched the two sisters gain and lose weight, respectively. He guessed that their combined weight was a constant. There was no art on the walls, little to distinguish one week from the next. Then he spotted a flower, a stem from the adosa shrub, in a bottle on an end table next to the sofa.
Stop the video, zoom the camera to the bottle. Closer. Freeze. It was an empty liquor bottle with a curious label—Murree’s Millennium Reserve 12 Year Single Malt Whisky. He wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t grown up here. There was indeed a distillery in Murree, begun during British rule and still functioning. There was an awfully good chance that the bottle didn’t travel far from home.
Siddiqui had told him that the Russian scientist, Dmitri, was being held at a university annex in Murree. It made sense that the granddaughters would be close by. Next stop—Murree. Scott would call a Realtor and express an interest in buying a villa in Murree. Looking at properties would reacquaint him and help locate the area in which the two women might be held captive.
However, he knew he couldn’t focus until he spoke again to Sharmien’s colleague at the hospital. He called from the cab as he was returning to the hotel from Islamabad.
“Thank you so much for sharing the information about Sharmien,” he began.
“She would want me to tell you, as even today she is grieving over the death of your friend Lambert.”
“I just need to know one thing. Is she now happy with her marriage?”
“Oh, yes, she is very happy indeed—because her marriage is kaput. After tortured and lengthy court proceedings, unusual in Pakistan, she was granted a divorce on the grounds of cruelty. I hope you would understand that an educated woman who has lived in the United States cannot spend her life behind a purdah curtain. Sherry, as she is known there, has shed her burqa and is probably sunning herself on a Miami beach in a two-piece bathing suit.”
This book is available on Amazon in a paperback or Kindle edition by searching for FLAME: Hackers, Artists, Lovers, and Spies.
Barry Fulton is a management consultant at the U.S. Department of State, Vice Chair of InterMedia Board of Directors, and a board member of the Salzburg Global Seminar. A former Associate Director of the United States Information Agency, during his 30-year career as a Foreign Service Officer with the Agency, he served in Brussels, Rome, Tokyo, Karachi, and Islamabad. Fulton holds a PhD in communications from the University of Illinois, an MA in broadcasting and BS in electrical engineering from Penn State. He has taught at George Washington University, American University, the Foreign Service Institute, and the Pakistani Information Academy. He is the author of State Gets Smart; Leveraging Technology in the Service of Diplomacy: Innovation in the Department of State; and project director and author of the CSIS study, Reinventing Diplomacy in the Information Age.