A STRANGER NAMED JOE
By Gavin McCabe, 12/14/16
The desert rose, and with it came a furious sandstorm. The wind whipped and smacked the sides of houses, making the shutters bang open, no matter how tight you bolted them shut. The storm raged for three days and three nights. When it stopped, the city of Kabul had at least a foot of sand in all directions. As the sand ceased to fall, a man appeared out of the mountainous, desert wasteland that lay outside the city.
He stepped into the city gates, searching for signs of life. If one had been out on the streets that day, they would have described him as a silent watchman. He walked the first block, and found what he had come for. The bar itself was old, but only a few generations. The owner had inherited it from his father, who had inherited it from his father. It was still a popular place for Afghan men to sit, drink and talk without being disturbed by the burdens of life.
The mysterious stranger opened the door, and stepped inside. He removed his turban and shook the sand out, all onto the floor. Normally, the bartender would have told this man, who had disrespected his establishment, to leave and go find another bar to trash. However, the stranger looked to be in need of a drink, and it was just too hot outside for anyone that day. So instead, the bartender beckoned the man forward.
The bartender greeted the unknown man. “Salaam, stranger. What can I get you? We’ve got milk, ice cold water, and --” The stranger leaned in close, and hoarsely whispered a single syllable in the bartender’s ear.
“Ah. Well, just between you and me, I’ve been keeping some American beer in the back. Don’t tell anyone about this, alright?” The bartender laughed, and went to the back room. He appeared about a minute later, with a can of Bud Lite. He poured it into a glass, and the stranger nodded his approval.
Another man at the bar got up from his seat, and sat down next to the mysterious stranger. He was bearded, and had a rough face to look at. Taking a sip of his glass of milk, he looked at the bartender, and then back to the stranger.
“Salaam. People call me Amir. So, you got a name, stranger?” The man receiving the question just sipped his beer and said nothing.
“Oh, a silent one, eh? No matter. Just as long as you stay away from the Taliban, you should be fine here in Kabul.”
As soon as he mentioned the Taliban, Amir knew he had struck a nerve. The stranger paused his action, and slowly set down his glass. Without turning, he spoke.
“Do not talk to me about the Taliban. I know the dangers firsthand, my friend.” Amir didn’t dare say a word. He knew he was talking to a man who could kill him just as look at him. The stranger then took something out of his left coat pocket and lay it on the table. He slid it over to Amir.
Amir looked down at what was in front of him. It was a postcard. He looked quizzically at the stranger. The unknown man pointed his right index finger at the name of the town on the postcard, and Amir understood. The village on the postcard, Paghman, had been burned down by the Taliban forces. Amir gulped, and timidly spoke.
“Legend has it any man who survives a Taliban attack is a true hero. So, uh, you know how to deal with them, yeah?” The man took a coin out of his pocket and slammed it on the table with his right hand. He got up from his chair and faced Amir for the first time.
“I do not deal with those rats. Leave me out of their business, friend. Too many men have died by my hand trying to protect them, I cannot fight anymore.” The man started towards the door.
“Ah, so you fought them as a soldier! You know weapons, yes. No don’t go, old man. We need a hero! Hey! Old man!” Amir pleaded to the man, but to no avail. As the man put his turban on, he turned back around.
“My name isn’t old man, boy. Now, leave me alone.” The stranger turned and left the bar, and continued walking down the dusty, sandy street.
As the stranger walked the hot, dusty streets of Kabul, he noticed that there were no signs of life among the houses that clung to the sidewalk. He almost did not see the roadblock up ahead until it was right in front of him. He stopped in his tracks. The Taliban up ahead were not the same men who has destroyed his hometown, but they sure looked similar. He turned around, but just as he started walked, the men behind him called him over.
“Hey you!” The stranger turned and briskly walked over to the men, who were haphazardly scattered around a jeep and the roadblocks. They wore black turbans around their faces, and only the eyes of the men were showing.
The man who had called him over had sharp, piercing blue eyes. He was standing in front of the jeep with an Kalashnikov in his hands. He beckoned for the unknown stranger to come forward.
“You look like a tough guy. You want to earn some money?” Unsure of what to do, the man with no name stepped forward and nodded. He did not want to be involved with these people, but he feared them enough to follow their direction.
“We are gonna do this heist soon, y’know? And we need a guy on the inside. If you do this job, we can give you, say, $20,000. What do you think, man. Hey, you know what? I think I'll call you Joe. That's a good American name, eh? What do you say?”
That man, who accepted the nickname, ‘Joe,’ thought for a minute.
“Let me sleep over it, okay?” said Joe, mimicking their style and tone of speech. They let him pass, and told him they'd be waiting for when he returned.
Joe kept walking the streets, coughing when he breathed in too much dusty air. He found a hotel that looked respectable, and looked in the window. He had to wipe it with his right sleeve, as he found it too dirty look look through. A staircase hugged the walls, and a large, darkened chandelier loomed over the scene. A bar was presented right in the front, with teapots in the shelves behind. There were rugs hanging from the walls, and candles lit the scene entirely.
Joe went to open the door. It was locked. He heard shouting from inside, and put his ear up to the door.
“YOU HAVE TO KICK THE DOOR! KICK IT OPEN!” came a shout from inside.
Joe stepped back, and kicked the door open with a bang. A wall of sand fell and cascaded onto the welcome mat. Inside, two men sat at a card table in front of the bar. The bartender was watching them play a game that looked to be similar to Baccarat.
Joe turned around and wedged the door back into its closed position with his right hand. He faced the trio of men, watching him in silence. Slowly, he walked over to the bar.
The bartender studied his face intensely. As he had worked at the hotel for more years than he could remember, he could read a face as soon as he saw one. This was a face not to be trifled with.
“I assume you want to know about rooms, yes?” the bartender asked quietly. The two men resumed playing cards, uninterested by the scene at the bar.
“You guess right, friend.”
“Then you’ll have to meet Nico. He’s in the back, I’ll get him. Ay, Nico!” shouted the bartender. He turned back to face Joe. They waited in silence for a minute before the bartender spoke again.
“He’s a bit of a dimwit, you’ll have to excuse him. You like to be called something?”
“My friends call me Joe.” He put his right hand on the table. A man entered the room through a door behind the bar. Joe assumed this was Nico.
Nico was obviously Afghani, and his face was lined with years of stress. His graying hair just peeked out from under his fedora. It was an old, worn and battered thing, and it looked burnt on one side of the brim. Nico wore a mexican-style poncho, and had an american M1912 holstered on his belt. From this, Joe guessed he was from America.
“Hello, stranger. My name’s Nico, and I own this here hotel. I assume you want a room, fella?” Nico’s voice was hoarse and rough, signifying his old age.
“He’s not from around here, is he?” Joe asked the bartender. Nico shook his grizzled head.
“I was born and raised in America, and moved here after my time in Vietnam. I thought I would start a new life here. You want a room, eh?”
Joe nodded once.
“I’ll give you the room right above the entrance, okay?”
Joe followed the man up the stairs and into a dimly lit hallway. The first room on the right was numbered with a large one. Nico unlocked it and gestured for Joe to enter. The room had a large, two-person bed on the far side. Next to the bed, here was a wooden side table and a lamp, which Nico turned on. Across the room from the side table was a wooden armoire. There was nothing else in the room. Nico turned around and faced Joe, who was standing in the doorway.
“You like, eh? I modeled it after my home in Paghman. Terrible, just terrible.”
“I was there.” Joe spoke to the man for the first time.
“You must be a true hero, eh? A master of the gun, then?” Joe nodded, and waited for the man to leave. The man turned, but just as he was at the doorway, he stopped and spoke without looking back.
“I killed a lot of men in that town. On both sides. It was a terrible time for us, and I had to move to Kabul and work here to support my dying children. I haven't heard from them for about eight months now, and I don’t know what to do with myself.”
“I try to help people when I can.” replied Joe.
“You want to help a stranger? I’ll help you drive the Taliban out of Kabul.” said Nico.
“Alright. I’ll do it.” said Joe. Nico beckoned Joe to follow him. They exited the room and walked back down the stairs into the foyer of the hotel. The two men who were playing Baccarat were arguing, and the bartender was still watching them. Nico and Joe went through the door behind the bar. Down a flight of stairs, Joe discovered an indoor shooting range underneath the hotel.
“It’s my private range. I practice here from time to time. Don’t worry about noise, it’s inaudible under all that sand. You can train here. First off, show me your shooting skills. Step up here.” Nico positioned a target on the far side of the range.
Joe pulled out a revolver with his left hand, and shot six bullets straight into the heart of the dummy. Nico whipped out his own Magnum .45 and shot six bullets at the target. No bullet holes appeared. Joe chuckled.
“Heh, you missed. You are out of touch, old man.”
Nico smiled, and holstered his firearm. “If I missed, then why aren't there any bullet holes in the wall?” Joe pondered for a second, then realized the truth. Nico hadn't missed at all. In fact, he had shot his bullets in the same holes Joe had made.
“Teach me,” pleaded Joe. Throughout the next two weeks, Joe worked hard. He eventually became so accurate, he could shoot the hat off of Nico’s head. One day, as Joe was in the streets running errands for Nico, he ran into the same Taliban roadblock as he had a fortnight earlier.
“Hey! Salaam, friend! Long time, no see, eh!” The blue-eyed soldier laughed to Joe. As Joe was training, he decided he would accept the Taliban’s offer to rob the museum. After all, twenty grand is twenty grand.
“I accept your offer. I’ll help rob this museum. “ said Joe.
“Well, friend, it’s not as easy as that. You have to prove–” he stopped short as Joe drew his weapon and fired six shots. Suddenly, all of the men’s turbans were off their heads and on the ground, untied by the eagle precision of Nico’s training.
“Eh, maybe you get in. We’ll do it tonight, at six. Meet here, okay?” Joe nodded and went on his way.
When Joe arrived back at the hotel, Nico was sitting at the card table, waiting for him.
“What took you so long, Joe?” Nico practically spit the last word at him. “I saw you with those Taliban, amigo. You lied to me!” Joe stood, speechless. His left hand was ready in case this turned south.
“I thought I could trust you! I refuse to teach you any more! Good day, friend!” Nico shoved past Joe and walked out onto the streets. Joe went up to his room, and closed his eyes.
He woke up to the bartender hovering over his bed.
“Hey, Joe. I’ve got some bad news.”
They found Nico’s body, riddled with bullets near the Taliban’s roadblock. He died only minutes after leaving the hotel earlier that day. Joe was filled with regret. He sat up and noticed on the bartender’s watch that it was almost six. The sky was dark outside.
When he exited the hotel, he saw a crying family on the street opposite the hotel. A mother, father, and a loud baby were holding each other earnestly.
“What’s wrong?” Joe asked, walking up to the family in concern.
“It’s the Taliban!” said the woman, “They cast us out of their home and shot the dog!” The man shook his head, looking down at the sand.
“Don’t worry, I’ll help. There’s a hotel across the street, they’ll take you in. Just tell them Joe sent you.” Joe pressed a coin into the mother’s hand. “I’m going to make the Taliban leave, don’t worry.”
“Oh! Thank you, mamnoon! How can I ever repay you!” cried the wife! The husband looked up at Joe and spoke.
“I own a museum not far from here, friend. How about I give you my month’s pay?” asked the man.
“Nevermind that now, just go.” said Joe, pointing to the hotel. Joe became saddened by the news of the owners of the museum. He knew that he needed to help these people, but he would become very rich should he help the Taliban.
As Joe neared the roadblock, he saw a blood stain on the sand. As he walked over, he saw only Nico’s hat. Joe removed his turban, and donned the hat instead.
“Hey, manco! I see you have a new fashion statement!” The blue-eyed soldier laughed alone. Joe strutted over, and leaned on the metal jeep with his right arm. He noticed the side of the jeep bared a star and the letters, ‘U.S.A.’
“Alright men, here’s the plan.” Joe listened with mild interest. They were going to infiltrate the museum and shoot up at the ceiling. They were to leave no survivors, and Joe was to go to the back vault of artifacts and remove a valuable golden statue. They all agreed at the end, and wished each other good luck. Joe smiled, but was repulsed by the mild behavior the Taliban were exhibiting.
They all piled into the jeep, and the blue-eyed man got behind the wheel. Within minutes, they had arrived at the museum. The blue-eyed man turned to Joe and pulled out a wad of cash.
“Here’s your cut. I trust you, so I’m giving it to you now if you survive.” Joe thanked him, and the blue-eyed man turned back around.
Joe got out first, and entered the place. The entrance had a tiled floor, and a side hallway led into a large room. Paintings lined the walls, and artifacts in glass cases were arranged around the room in a grid-like pattern. Few people populated the place. Joe noticed a set of doors on the other side of the room.
As Joe was three-quarters of the way across, he heard shouting and yelling behind him. He didn’t need to turn to know that it was the Taliban. He picked up the pace and got to the set of double doors. Taking out his revolver, he shot the lock and kicked the door open.
On the other side of the room, the Taliban took this as a sign to start shooting. Whooping and hollering, they raised their Kalashnikovs to the sky and fired off many rounds. The people in the place screamed and dove to the ground.
Joe found the golden statue he had come for and quickly pocketed it. It was very small but very heavy. He motioned for the Taliban to leave, but they were having too much fun. Each soldier would walk up to a person on the ground, push his gun against their head, and fire off an entire magazine. Soon the floor was soaked red. Joe had to stop himself from gagging.
He ran out of the place as fast as he could. Sprinting through the sand, he made his way over to the hotel. Kicking the door open, he noticed the family was sitting at the card table, faces wet from crying.
“We need to leave, now,” said Joe. The family stood.
“Why? What’s going on?” asked the mother. She looked worried sick.
“Never you mind, I’ve got to go.” Joe pulled the small family outside and the three of them start briskly walking toward the city gates. The man stopped, and looked at Joe.
“I must stay. My hotel, remember?” As he was speaking, the Taliban turned onto the street Joe and the family were on.
“Quick! Hide in the alley!” Joe whispered, pushing them into the nearest breezeway.
“Hey manco, where have you been?” laughed the blue-eyed man. “Don’t tell me you tried to abscond with the artifact!”
“Ah, no. I’ve actually got it right here.” said Joe, faking a smile. He pulled out the golden statue and handed it to the Taliban.
“Good. Now we part ways, yes?”
Joe nodded nervously and started towards the city gates again, but was stopped by the blue-eyed man’s next words.
“I know you’re hiding the owners of that museum, manco. You cannot fool the Taliban.”
Joe gulped. He felt adrenaline flood his system. Time seemed to slow down. He quickly turned and raced into the breezeway behind him. He shouldered a side door open, and found the family waiting inside. Just as he forced their heads down, glass showed down on them as the Taliban shot through the windows. Joe drew out his revolver.
Two men appeared in the doorway, and Joe shot them both in the heart with his gun. Every time the hail of bullets stopped, Joe would peek out and kill another Taliban. He would duck back down just quickly enough so that he wouldn’t end up like the the corpses in the museum. After he had done this around four times, the bullets stopped.
“Manco! Your time is up! I count six shots!” yelled the blue-eyed man.
“That’s too bad, friend. I count two guns!” Joe grabbed one of the dead Taliban’s guns and pumped the blue-eyed man full of led. The blue-eyed man was thrown back with the amount of bullets, and died before he hit the ground.
He turned to the family hovering in fear. The baby was crying. He motioned for them to stay put, and he walked outside to check on the dead Taliban. As he was leaning over the blue-eyed man, something fell out of his pocket.
The money he had been given dropped into a thick pool of blood in the sand. The green bills turned red, and Joe realized that they were too damaged to be used as currency ever again. With no money and no enemies left, he turned and faced the family, who were standing in the breezeway.
“We can’t offer you much, maybe a thousand dollars. How can we ever repay our debt to you?”
Joe sighed. He walked over the bodies toward the family.
“A thousand dollars is good for me. Now, you best be getting back to your hotel room.” The father thanked him over and over again, and handed him the cash. Joe watched them flee back to the hotel.
When they were out of sight, he jumped into the jeep and drove away into the desert wasteland. No one has seen him since. But sometimes, if you listen to the elders playing cards late at night, there are rumors of such a man. A man who employs his gun with extraordinary precision. A man who wore an old cowboy hat instead of the traditional turban. A man who doesn’t call himself a hero. But then again, those are just rumors.