Captain Eugene Kim sat in street clothes in a private booth in the lounge at the Divan Hotel in Erbil, which was located in the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq. He was waiting for his meeting with Malachi Brandt, who had been posted as a CIA case officer for the last five years at the Haji Omaran base on the Hamilton Road that crossed through the resort town into the Iranian Plateau. Captain Kim had been Brandt’s superior officer in the SEALs and a trusted friend over the years. He had given Malachi the impression that he happened to be in the area to see his old friend and brother-in-arms, , while that was true, it was not the purpose of his visit.
The Divan was among the nicest hotels in Erbil; a world-class, five-star resort. Its rich, multicolored marble floors covered the entrance and lobby. Modern chandeliers hung from the vaulted ceilings, and the richly upholstered lounge almost made one forget that this region in Iraq had been affected by war one way or the other for decades. The first Gulf War and the Invasion of Iraq are only part of the story, as the Kurds had been fighting for their right to exist for decades prior to this, as they tried to scrape out a homeland in the mountainous regions stretching from Turkey and Syria into Iraq and Iran. Ironically, while the world was at war, this region had enjoyed relative peace, but this, too, was tenuous. EAC ally Iran stood to the north, and was occupied at that moment by NATO forces, as they fought along their western border with Turkey, but finding entry into Iraq had always been one of Iran’s main objectives during the war, and that would mean crossing into Kurdish lands.
Captain Kim rose to greet Malachi. As he approached, the two men exchanged a firm handshake before pulling it in for a brief hug.
“Jeez, Gene, I could have had us meet in a dozen places better than this. Why didn’t you have me pick the spot?” asked Malachi.
“I saw that they served actual booze here in the lounge,” said Captain Kim. “Figured we could have a couple while we caught up.”
“How long has it been since you served in a Muslim country? You should know that liquor isn’t impossible to find, if you know where to look.”
Captain Kim answered, “And I’m sure you know where to sniff it out.”
“Yeah, well, I definitely know how to keep some of my fellow staffers happy. Most of them aren’t out in the field and they don’t know where to find it, which makes my services invaluable. There are certain kinds of reconnaissance that they just don’t teach on the Farm,” said Malachi.
“Why are you still rocking the beard and that long hair, Brandt?” asked Captain Kim.
Malachi ran his fingers through the brown and gray hair that fell almost to his shoulders “You mean besides the fact that the ladies dig it?”
“I suppose; if they are into dirty-looking hippies.”
Malachi laughed, “I think you’re just jealous because your sweet Korean face could never sprout a majestic beard like mine. It’s pretty functional. We get quite a bit of snow on the base, and I am outside all the time. It keeps my face warm. And, it also helps me blend in with the locals when I am not on the base.”
The lone bartender came out from behind the bar to take their order. There was no need for additional wait staff since the lounge was empty that afternoon.
“What can I bring for you, gentlemen?”
Captain Kim answered, “Do you have Johnnie Walker Gold?”
“No, sir, we only have Black Label and Blue Label.”
“Aww, what the hell? How about we go with the Blue Label, on the rocks and a glass of water,” said Kim.
“So, Gene’s paying the tab, not the government, I assume,” surmised Malachi.
“Yeah, buddy,” Kim answered, “This round’s on me, so go big.”
“I’ll have the same, neat, with a water back,” said Malachi.
“Very well, gentlemen,” said the bartender, “Can I bring you anything else?”
“Yes, how about some hummus and khubz,” said Malachi.
Malachi and Captain Kim spent the better part of an hour catching up. They had served together for nearly fifteen years on SEAL Team 3 as they worked their way up the ranks. Kim had last served as a Commander for Team 3, and Malachi was one of his Lt. Commanders. They served together on multiple deployments in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, as well as the other global missions that the Team conducted. Malachi had retired from the SEALs and taken a post as a case officer with the CIA, but Kim was tapped for a role with the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, commonly known as SEAL Team 6, and had risen to the rank of Captain there. Kim had spent a good amount of time in the war against the EAC working out of the Joint Special Operations Command coordinating special forces missions in both the European and Pacific theaters of war, but he was given additional responsibilities over the Eurasian front that wound down from the Baltic Sea, all the way to the Iranian border as it broke apart with minor fronts in Syria. Malachi had spent the entire war to that point stationed at Haji Omaran gathering intelligence and developing contacts along the Iraq-Iran border.
Kim asked, “So, what’s been going on with you? Are you still straddling the fence between heaven and hell trying to find a way to love God, wine, women, and song all at once?”
Malachi looked down into the bowl of hummus as he dipped his bread in it, “Nah, at some point I realized that I wasn’t twenty-three anymore, and the rebel act gets .”
“You’re saying the mercurial Malachi Brandt is finally showing signs of slowing down?”
“Hell, no,” said Malachi, laughing, “I’m more scared of stopping than I am of dying. Let’s just say I have grown up some, at least as much as it is possible for me. Let’s just say I redirected my energies.”
“Redirected them to what?” asked Kim.
“Besides getting my shit together?” asked Malachi. “I’ve been searching. Maybe it’s the loneliness of the mountains out here, but something’s been gnawing at me for the past few years and I can’t figure out for the life of me what it is. God’s got a funny way of hiding things, because I feel no closer to it than I did when he first started pulling at me. Without knowing exactly what’s got a hold of me, it’s become more about the search than what I’ll discover.”
“So, you’ve added mystic to your resume?”
“Yep,” said Malachi, “Warrior, spy, mystic, knucklehead, armchair theologian; give me a few years and I’ll really have it all figured out.”
Malachi’s years in Kurdistan had been pivotal. He had managed to wend his way through life unscathed, unaffected. He was as comfortable in the chaos of battle as he was sitting on his surfboard out in the ocean on a warm summer evening. He had come to the realization that even with all his adventures, something was missing in his life. He lived with an open-handed abandon, only to find how empty it was to hold onto nothing. His faith and convictions had always remained strong, Malachi knew what he believed and why, but his life had become cumbersome as contradiction after contradiction piled high upon him. The relative isolation of Haji Omaran over the past five years had helped Malachi set aside some of his contradictory behavior. Aging might have been a factor in Malachi’s maturation, but there was an emptiness in him when he began to let go of the wilder days of his youth. As the war persisted, Malachi took on a sternness he had never known before, but, beneath that, was a desperation that, even if he had had many great experiences, he had missed out on a meaningful life. The lonely ridges of the Zagros Mountains kept him connected to his Maker, and had stoked in him a longing to find out what his purpose was in this world.
“I’m sure you will,” said Kim.
Captain Kim had always been certain of this. There was something magnetic about this man that was shrouded in both nonsense and mystery, something that sometimes gave him pause – Malachi didn’t seem aware of the power that resided in him. Malachi moved through life with a frenetic energy that would exhaust most men, even a SEAL, but what motivated him was locked away in the vaults of his own heart, even those who knew him best could not discover the fire that made him move. Malachi was not enticed by rank or achievement, like so many of the other officers around him. It was almost as if he approached the life of a soldier like an artist would approach a canvas; there was a certain self-expression that rose up from Malachi in his devotion to his men, and in his monomaniacal focus on accomplishing his missions. As Kim got to know Malachi more, he realized that this was not a conscious process; it was just Malachi. He always got the impression that Brandt walked through life like a seasoned tourist, soaking up every experience, knowing he was only passing through. Malachi had always carried himself in a way Gene knew he never could. He found himself admiring his friend, even if there were times he felt jealous of him.
“Hey,” asked Malachi, “have you heard any news about Jacob? I know he’s been caught up in the Poland retreat.”
“Yes,” Kim replied grimly, “he’s back in Chicago. Got knocked out of the fight in Gdynia. His medical discharge was processed and he’s a civilian now.”
“Well, I am just glad to hear that he’s still alive.”
“I talked with Sophie just last week. He’s still in bad shape. Hasn’t crawled out of the bottle since he’s been back, and she’s ready to leave him.”
“Damn,” said Malachi, “damn this war. Is there any way I can talk with him? We aren’t allowed to have any unsecured communication from the base.”
“That’s part of why I asked to meet with you.” Signaling to the bartender that they were ready for another round of drinks, his voice took on an even more serious tone, “I didn’t just ask to meet so that we could catch up, Malachi, I have a mission for you, if you are willing to take it on.”
The bartender brought the next round and quickly departed. As soon as he was out of sight, Malachi straightened up in his chair, “What is it that you want me to do?”
“It’s dangerous, and if we fail, you would get hung as a traitor along with all of us involved.”
Malachi inhaled deeply, “Okay, why are you coming to me with this?”
“Because I know you and I would still gladly trust you with my life. And, you’re one of the few people with the military and intelligence experience qualified for the job, if you’ll take it.”
Malachi said, “I am assuming this is off the books.”
Kim answered, “Strictly. If you refuse, which I’d understand, this conversation never happened.”
Malachi felt uncomfortable around Kim for the first time since he had begun working with him almost twenty years ago. His years in the CIA had made him far more skeptical and less trusting than he had once been, especially as he saw how muddy the waters were in the current war. He never knew Gene to be an unscrupulous man, even with all of his ambition to advance in his career. As a friend, he had trusted him implicitly for many years. But, he also knew that the higher someone climbed the chain of command, the harder it was to stay principled.
Kim continued, “All I can tell you now is that the people I am working with are trying to end this war. There’s no way to win it, and everyone knows this, but there hasn’t been any meaningful effort through official channels to make that happen. What we are trying to do is to work through back channels to make it happen. Our group has both NATO and EAC representatives, and many of us are putting everything on the line to force our countries to make peace. Are you interested?”
Malachi hadn’t expected that Kim would be approaching him for a mission, and he certainly hadn’t expected this. He answered, “Yeah, I’m interested. How does this relate to Jacob?”
“We want to pull him in, as well. I can’t go into it now. Meet back here tomorrow morning; we are staying in suite 815, and we will discuss the operation with you at that time. Obviously, be careful until then, and we’ll see you in the morning.”
“All right,” said Malachi, as he shook Kim’s hand again and left the lounge.
A restlessness stirred in him as he left the Divan. Malachi knew enough about the US Joint Special Operations Command and their work with the CIA’s Special Activities Division that this sort of operation had to have quite a few people involved. His imagination ran wild, as he pondered how ending the war could be construed as treasonous. But, if this war had taught him anything, it was that bringing it to an end without ending the world in the process would entail engaging a great game where the stakes were high. He had made a career gambling with his life, so that prospect didn’t bother him as much as the prospect of treason. Knowing Captain Kim as he did, he knew that Kim wouldn’t take that kind of risk lightly. Neither would he, but he would have to know more before he could agree to anything. However, through all of this was the thought of being reunited with his brother. It had been years since they spent any time together, and treason might be a small price to pay to see him again.