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NOTE: This is part of a continuing online novel. Here is the Table of Contents.
No one who had been in that room would ever speak of what they saw. The Chinese, of course, were shocked. The idea of a foreign leader bringing a pistol into an official meeting. Only later, when they learned where the pistol came from, would any understanding dawn on them.
Mostly, however, they were scared. Hu Xintao cared nothing for Osama Bin Laden. The man was deranged, a religious mass murderer, something out of another time, even another universe. But the life of Jiang Zemin, the Wise Leader, had been exchanged for this man. Try to present a corpse in the lawless region where Kashmir, China, and the former Soviet Union meet, and Jiang would be dead within moments, perhaps with his throat slashed. They did this now, as though murder were like bullfighting.
As the American President and his party were hustled out of the room, the door behind Bin Laden was opened, the door before him shut. Hu Xintao’s personal physician attended to the terrorist mastermind. “Good thing that idiot can’t shoot any better than he can talk,” he man said in Mandarin, on examining the body. “Through some intestine, and the left-side kidney. He’s losing blood fast, but I think we can save him.” The physician looked up into the eyes of his President. “We will do all we can,” he promised.
So they did. As President Bush rode home on Air Force I in private triumph, unable to speak of what he considered his proudest accomplishment, doctors in Beijing worked feverishly over the body of Osama Bin Laden. The kidney was gone, but both were already badly damaged. A donor was found, a young sergeant in the Peoples’ Liberation Army. The old kidney was replaced with a new one. Bush’s monster, like Frankenstein, would be better than ever.
All Hu cared about was putting him back, maintaining enough of a relationship to get the hostage home.
It takes several days to make even a modest recovery from such an operation. Messages were exchanged with the hostage takers, stating that talks had been extended, and that the government was showing its appreciation to their leader by helping him with his illness. The men in the cave understood.
When he first came to the cave Jiang Zemin was silent. Over the next few days a long line of carts had come up through the pass, at irregular intervals, each one more innocuous than the last, but carrying inside the needs of an old, old man. There was a generator and gasoline to run both it and the trucks Bin Laden’s men had hidden. There were more warm clothes, a small portable shower, some books, more rugs. With each delivery Jiang relaxed just a little more.
There was a CD player in one cart, along with a course on conversational Arabic. Jiang listened, and gradually picked up the words he was hearing around him. The men were obsessed by the politics of their region, the continuing dispute between Pakistan and India over Kashmir, the threat posed by Afghan government troops to their west, the prospects of possible escape through Tajikistan, then through Uzbekistan. What bribes might be necessary? One man pointed toward Jiang and speculated about hiding in China.
“Xinjiang?” asked Jiang finally, but in Arabic.
The men looked toward their hostage, surprised.
“You wish to hide in Xinjiang, where my men patrol everywhere, and where you would find nothing but desert in which just rats and snakes can hide,” he said, again in Arabic, smiling a bit more as his sentence went on.
“Much could be gained, if I am returned safely,” he said. “Peace might even come, between your people and the Han, when I am returned safely. All can be discussed when your leader returns,” but he would not give them their leader’s name.
“In’shallah,” one Al Qaeda said. In Arabic, God willing.
“In’shallah,” said Jiang, but with a thick, Han accent that made one of his captors laugh.
Over the next several days, the tension in the cave lifted. The hostage was comfortable, he was learning, he was talking, he was even making sense. Sense had seldom been a visitor to this part of the world. It cut like a warm breeze across the mouth of the cave, bringing with it smells of life.
Jiang Zemin kept learning. He learned more Arabic, the colloquial speech of his captors, the more formal speech of the Qu’ran. He had some bits of it read to him, the way a Christian child hears Bible verses, but he processed them through an old atheist’s mind. He and Minister Li would have much to talk about, he thought, writing his private thoughts, in tiny ideographs, in a small red notebook he’d kept in a pocket.
When the cart returned with the man his captors had sought, Jiang was able to stand up, to bow, and to address him plainly, in his own native tongue, with kind thoughts of his “hospitality” and inquiries into his health.
It wasn’t an alliance. Jiang had finally warned Osama’s men there would be no mercy for them across the Chinese border. Nor would there be formal contact, let alone relations.
But there could be, if Al Qaeda met words with actions in Xinjiang, something much like tolerance. And peace.