Altar of Eden

Page 1

PROLOGUE

APRIL 2003

BAGHDAD, IRAQ

The two boys stood outside the lion’s cage.

“I don’t want to go inside,” the smaller one said. He kept close to his older brother and clasped tightly to his hand.

The two were bundled in jackets too large for their small forms, faces swathed in scarves, heads warmed by woolen caps. At this early hour, with the sun not yet up, the predawn chill had crept down to their bones.

They had to keep moving.

“ Bari, the cage is empty. Stop being a shakheef. Look.” Makeen, the older of the two, pushed the black iron gate wider and revealed the bare concrete walls inside. A few old gnawed bones lay piled in a dark corner. They would make a nice soup.

Makeen stared out at the ruins of the zoo. He remembered how it had once looked. Half a year ago, for his twelfth birthday, they had come here to picnic at the Al-Zawraa Gardens with its amusement-park rides and zoo. The family had spent a long warm afternoon wandering among the cages of monkeys, parrots, camels, wolves, bears. Makeen had even fed one of the camels an apple. He still remembered the rubbery lips on his palm.

Standing here now, he stared across the same park with older eyes, far older than half a year ago. The park sprawled outward in a ruin of rubble and refuse. It was a haunted wasteland of fire-blackened walls, fetid pools of oily water, and blasted buildings.

A month ago, Makeen had watched from their apartment near the park as a firefight blazed across the lush gardens, waged by American forces and the Republican Guard. The fierce battle had begun at dusk, with the rattle of gunfire and the shriek of rockets continuing throughout the night.

But by the next morning, all had gone quiet. Smoke hung thickly and hid the sun for the entire day. From the balcony of their small apartment, Makeen had spotted a lion as it loped out of the park and into the city. It moved like a dusky shadow, then vanished into the streets. Other animals also escaped, but over the next two days, hordes of people had swarmed back into the park.

Looters, his father had named them, and spat on the floor, cursing them in more foul language.

Cages were ripped open. Animals were stolen, some for food, some to be sold at the black market across the river. Makeen’s father had gone with a few other men to get help to protect their section of the city from the roving bands.

He had never returned. None of them had.

Over the next weeks, the burden had fallen upon Makeen to keep his family fed. His mother had taken to her bed, her forehead burning with fever, lost somewhere between terror and grief. All Makeen could get her to do was drink a few sips of water.

If he could make a nice soup for her, get her to eat something more…

He eyed the bones in the cage again. Each morning, he and his brother spent the hour before dawn searching the bombed-out park and zoo for anything they could scrounge to eat. He carried a burlap sack over his shoulder. All it held was a moldy orange and a handful of cracked seed swept up off the floor of a birdcage. Little Bari had also found a dented can of beans in a rubbish bin. The discovery had brought tears to Makeen’s eyes. He kept the treasure rolled up inside his little brother’s thick sweater.

Yesterday, a larger boy with a long knife had stolen his sack, leaving Makeen empty-handed when he returned. They’d had nothing to eat that day.

But today they would eat well.

Even Mother, inshallah, he prayed.

Makeen entered the cage and dragged Bari with him. Distant gunfire crackled in short spurts, like the scolding claps of angry hands trying to warn them off.

Makeen took heed. He knew they had to hurry. He didn’t want to be out when the sun was up. It would grow too dangerous. He hurried to the pile of bones, dropped his sack, and began shoving the gnawed knuckles and broken shafts inside.

Once finished, he tugged the sack closed and stood. Before he could take a step, a voice called in Arabic from nearby

“Yalla! This way! Over here!”

Makeen ducked and pulled Bari down with him. They hid behind the knee-high cinderblock wall that fronted the lion’s cage. He hugged his brother, urging him to remain silent, as two large shadows passed in front of the lion’s cage.

Risking a peek, Makeen caught a glimpse of two men. One was tall in a khaki military uniform. The other was squat with a round belly, dressed in a dark suit.

“The entrance is hidden behind the zoo clinic,” the fat man said as he passed the cage. He huffed and wheezed to keep up with the longer strides of the man in military fatigues. “I can only pray we are not too late.”

Makeen spotted the holstered pistol on the taller man’s belt and knew it would be death to be found eavesdropping.

Bari shivered in his embrace, sensing the danger, too.

Unfortunately the men did not go far. The clinic was directly across from their hiding spot. The fat man ignored the twisted main door. Days ago, crowbars had forced the way open. The facility had been cleaned out of drugs and medical supplies.

Instead, the heavy figure stepped to a blank wall framed by two columns. Makeen could not make out what the man did as he slipped his hand behind one of the columns, but a moment later, a section of the wall swung open. It was a secret door.

Makeen shifted closer to the bars. Father had read them stories of Ali Baba, tales of secret caverns and vast stolen treasures hidden in the desert. All he and his brother had found at the zoo were bones and beans. Makeen’s stomach churned as he imagined a feast fit for the Prince of Thieves that might wait below.

“Stay here,” the fat man said, ducking through the entrance and down a dark set of stairs.

The military man took up a post by the doorway. His palm rested on his pistol. His gaze swung toward their hiding spot. Makeen ducked out of sight and held his breath. His heart pounded against his ribs.

Had he been spotted?

Footsteps approached the cage. Makeen clung tightly to his brother. But a moment later, he heard a match strike and smelled cigarette smoke. The man paced the front of the cage as if he were the one behind the bars, stalking back and forth like a bored tiger.

Bari shook within Makeen’s embrace. His brother’s fingers were clamped hard in his. What if the man should wander into the cage and find them huddled there?

It seemed an eternity when a familiar wheezing voice echoed out of the doorway. “I have them!”

The cigarette was dropped and ground out onto the cement just outside the cage door. The military man crossed back to join his companion.

The fat man gasped as he spoke. He must have run all the way back up. “The incubators were off-line,” he said. “I don’t know how long the generators lasted after the power went out.”

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