TROPHY STATE is the working title of my fourth novel. Again, an artist is the protagonist. This time the artist is Rembrandt Giovanni Bugatti, who is known as Bugster, or Bugsy, and sometimes Lily calls him just plain Bug. Bug is investigating brutal private army activities in Africa to authenticate his next suite of political paintings. The proxy wars that Bug is investigating, as well as a company that has become a country, and a major religion soon stand in the way of his art, his life and his new love. Bug’s African investigation sheds light, peppered with ridicule, on the great catastrophe that the world’s nation states are engaged in. America is the biggest culprit: it is jobbing out to private armies illegal war-making missions in countries for which Congress has given no war approval and thus escaping oversight by Congress and backlash among voters. The private armies, essentially licensed to kill by the US State Department and Defense Department, are using weapons and munitions outlawed by the United Nations, assassinating scores of third world leaders, and engaging in rampant torture. No one, not even the United Nations, seems to have the authority or the will to stop private armies like Blackwater Global. It’s a dangerous mess, and Bug is caught in the middle of it all.
A chunk of Daniel Greenberg’s entrails still attached to a yellow and gray spinal segment, four ribs spinning like chopper blades, landed in the sand near my feet. Daniel’s severed head zoomed past, spraying a veil of pink mist on a desert sky already the color of burning coals.
The fly-by of Daniel’s head created backwash, which suctioned to its wake an airborne swarm of assorted war trash. Plastic bags, do-rags, cotton bandages, ripped-apart flags, shredded ponchos, bloodied desert camo, mangled photographs, disintegrated T-shirts, and empty candy wrappers instantly came under the centrifugal control of a ghoulish vortex. The collected litter then spiraled outward coalescing into a kaleidoscopic circular form, the pattern momentarily resembling a cutaway exhibit of some giant flower at a horticulture convention. And then—tchew-tchew-tchew—terrorist bullets ripped the bloom apart.
The gloating, grandstanding cackle of battle noise overwhelmed my senses, but I had heard the faint zzickuh-zzickuh-zzickuh sound of poor Daniel’s head as it flew by. It actually fizzed and chattered, his eyelids and lips fluttering from G-force, his beard on fire. Daniel’s cheeks distended backwards so that his teeth were completely exposed, as if he were having the time of his life at a drunken frat party.
I didn’t know Daniel well and had presumed I would not like him, because he reminded me of an irreverent John Belushi. And that may have influenced the impression I had just formed, but another memory, now awful, stabbed my consciousness. Daniel, just a few days ago, and only to make conversation, was telling me about the last time he saw his eight children. I could see him in my mind’s eye making nonsense sounds to amuse his kids on a Tel Aviv playground. I saw Daniel running, only his head visible above a wall of sandbags. I heard his children laughing. Mostly to show him that I was listening, I had said his kids probably thought he was some weird migrating bird, making all those sounds, gone from home ten months out of twelve. Daniel had laughed and then fell silent. A minute later, he burst into a riff of sounds, as bizarre, splendid, happy, and as sad as Robin Williams.
I dry-heaved and shook my skull brutally, as if self-inflicted violence could tear the talons of insanity loose from my mind. The ghastly sight of Daniel Greenberg’s fizzing head had impacted my consciousness like a stray cannonball from the Battle of Bunker Hill—this terrorist attack felt that unreal, a freaky, ghoulish distortion of place and time and purpose.
And that was it for me.
I knelt over Daniel’s entrails, a steady whine of bullets overhead. A small blister of sand caused the overshoot, but the bullets were chewing the top off the blister, and in a moment, the bullets would reach my head. I dropped into fetal position, curling my body around Daniel’s entrails. Remnants of his kidneys were still attached, two ureter tubes hanging loose, a ten-inch segment of an artery lying next to the spinal segment. I dug into a pocket for my multi-tool and used the scissor to clip off two tubes about eight inches long. I put the end of one tube in my mouth and blew hard. Orange bubbles came out the other end. I stuck that one in my shirt pocket and tossed the other tube in the direction of Captain Jubal, as far as I could tell the only other survivor.
Then, I dove to my left and commenced clawing my grave, my polyandrium, my ossuary, my sepulcher, into the simmering, smoking sand of the Sahara. I burrowed beneath the sand like a dung beetle digging for camel droppings. Realistically, I had no more hope of survival than a slow-roasting mbuzi in a Berber barbecue pit. But oddly enough, that grave saved my life. And maybe my sanity. Such as it is.
In kinetic battle, you can close your eyes but not your ears; escape the visual but not the aural. That’s the rule. But there beneath the sand, I not only beat death—O grave, where is thy sting—I beat the rule.
The kabooms of rockets and mortars and grenades, the pops and pings and whines of small arms fire, the screams and curses and strangles of our wounded, all the aural proctors and prompts of battlefield psychosis reached me in my sandy grave only as blunted percussion. No decibel, no amplitude of sound, was distinct from the other. The carnage raged; the Sahara shook, and each sand fragment passed the death-vibes on to its neighbor. From one silicone particle to the next, the death message relayed forward a little less complete, rounded off—its sharp sting dulled. In effect, when it reached my buried ears, the Battle of the Sahara was little more than a phantom of acoustic physics. At most, it was no more than a quantum epithet. But even the epithet said:
“Congratulations, infidel! You’ve been massacred.”
We had not been ready. The terrorists wiped us out. It should not have happened. Captain Jubal, “commander” of our reinforced, mostly criminal, company of French Legionnaires when the attack began, was adamant that we must stop for a freaking re-up sales pitch a mere 900 meters from the only decent cover within a 500-mile radius.
Translated, we were but seven football fields away from safety: thick walls to shield us, water, food, ammunition, shiny white teeth of the smiling instead of the dead. We were little more than half-a-mile to tactical cover, consolidation, resupply, ammunition, med-evac, and a well-earned celebration of victory. After all, we had liberated over 100 captive Timbuktu schoolgirls.
We? We were the 200 Legionnaires from twenty-four different countries. We were the attachment of twenty hired Mali Special Forces wannabes and a Spanish team of three contracted artillery forward observers. We were a lone steroid-stuffed, Whitewash, Inc., geardo-wierdo Major Flynn, who pretended to be CIA, and we were the squad of ten Kenyan mercenaries and the two Bulgarian drone pilots, whose drones had out-flown their electronic leash a week ago. We were our civilian getaway pilot, plus a gorgeous and courageous NGO lady, and I, an embedded political artist from Anderson, Indiana. And, though they had not shown up yet, we were supposed to be supported by a mystery sniper team on contract from Bulgaria. The snipers purportedly were outfitted with an M2010 Enhanced Sniper Rifle (ESR) modified to disable engine blocks in terrorist pickup trucks. Altogether, we were a total of at least 239 . . . targets.
Plus, trailing along behind us when this started were nearly a hundred villagers. Some carried with them stale beignets, Tiger Head batteries, woven hats, homemade lotions, and anything else they hoped to sell to the mundele. Some were tentative but curious children hoping for enough excitement to carry their weary boredom through another monotonous day. A few were old women trying to convince grandkids to come home, some hoping to be of use if the soldiers decided to bivouac in the desert. One woman kept up a steady shouting at Captain Jubal, thanking him over and over for saving her daughter from the terrorists. These camp followers turned into camp forerunners the moment the terrorists began their counteroffensive and quickly disappeared back to Timbuktu, a wise decision Captain Jubal should have adopted.
Jubal had enlisted in the Legion five years previously during its changeover from Opération Serval to Operation Barkhane, in 2014. Serval was a French military operation in Mali to oust Islamic militants who had turned terrorist and begun a brutal push south toward the center of Mali. United Nations Security Council Resolution 2085 of December 20, 2012 set Operation Serval into motion, which lasted until July 15, 2014. Operation Barkhane then launched forty-five days later. It would be credited with killing three of the five Islamic leaders in the Sahel region, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, Abdel Krim and Omar Ould Hamaha. Mokhtar Belmokhtar fled to Libya and Iyad ag Ghali fled to Algeria.
Before any of Operation Barkane’s successes, Captain Jubal fled to hospital to recover from meningitis. Just as he was to return to his unit, malaria sent him back to hospital again. By the time Jube was finally healthy, Operation Barkhane had ended.
Jubal spent the next three-and-a-half years back in France as a training officer, posturing as if he had single-handedly kicked Al-Qaeda out of the Sahel. Between 2014 and 2018, Al-Qaeda made occasional raids into the first line of sub-Saharan cities, like Timbuktu, in the Sahel region. Late in 2018, France re-committed the French Foreign Legion to the Sahel, and Captain Jubal was sent back to Mali. His mission was to organize and lead a small local militia and a number of hired private army assets into a quick-striking force to intercept Al-Qaeda raiders before they got up a head of steam in another push south.
And now, here we were—Captain Jubal’s Legion and all its freelance posse add-ons—at horizontal alert on the down side of a pillow-shaped, sleepy-looking sand dune.
This, Jube’s brilliant dally in the desert, suffered from dimwit-private-army-kill-for-profit reasoning. It seemed to him an excellent time for the troops to hear Whitewash, Inc.’s chief salesman, Major Freddie Flynn, enlighten them on the greatness of our little army’s just completed and, as it would turn out, premature rout of the terrorists. Ye old Mission Accomplished gloat. And attendant bullshit.
God forbid we do this dog and pony show within the cover of Timbuktu’s stone buildings. Some enterprising townie might overhear Flynn’s spiel and sell his B.S. to a competitor, like Blackwater Global and its Jesus-freak CEO, Erik Prince. In Africa, private army spies and counter spies are thick as sand flies, a plague that Antonio Prohías could have created in Spy vs Spy, if he had wanted to go Biblical in scope.
But from Flynn’s myopic point of view, and if you discount the terrorist’s practical mastery of tactical withdrawal, we had driven the terrorist brigands out of Timbuktu and scattered them in the desert, had we not? Why not sing a little praise? Proselytize while the mind is right? Major Flynn’s God, if you again discount the devilish counterattack of the terrorists, had just delivered us into a landform resembling an amphitheater.
That had to be a sign.
The only question remaining was whether Flynn should speak from the upper level, like Jesus at The Sermon on the Mount, or lecture from the bottom, like Professor Charles Kingsfield from the well in The Paper Chase. Major Flynn, showing a little humility or a lot of stupidity, chose the well. He could pose and preen and bluster down on the floor of the well while the men, their backs to every possible enemy approach, pretended to listen while lounging around the inside slope of a gigantic shell-shaped dune. Acoustics would be marvelous.
Never mind the shell-shaped dune was also a terrorist’s wet dream of a perfect killing field.
Major Flynn offered a seven-word prayer—”Praise Jesus, and God save Emmanuel King”—and leaped into his sales pitch to convince soldiers in each unit to rollover their contracts for another tour of duty in South Sahara. He never got to the part where he would tout the $25,000 bonus and $300-a day wages for soldiers who jumped ship from the Legion to sign on with his Whitewash, Inc. private army. The terrorists, fully locked and loaded and reorganized from our earlier assault, rolled over the top of our miracle amphitheater and immediately had Major Flynn speechless and the rest of us at bloody checkmate.
By the time I had quelled the panic among the command group and organized our defense, the terrorist’s advantage had already wiped out half our company. Flynn had been right about the acoustics—the screams of the dying were just beautiful . . . if you happened to be a terrorist.
Hoping to reach the cover of the buildings at the edge of town, a few of us managed a frenetic retro-movement behind billowy cover from our last three smoke grenades. We made it several meters out of the amphitheater and up the side of another dune, but a terrorist flanking tactic stopped the command group short of town. The first line of stone-walled, mud-plastered buildings of Timbuktu were a mere 100 meters away, and we were stopped. Without looking, I could feel the presence of those stone buildings. But that’s as close as 126 of us, then 80 of us, then 20 of us, then 4 of us, would get to salvation. Brilliant!
In Captain Jubal’s mind, there had been nothing dangerous about his lollygag order, because no self-respecting leader of soldiers—our side or their side—would launch his men on an attack under the scalding heat lamp of pyretic noon in the scorpion-boiling Sahara Desert. But ISIS, al-Shabaab and Ansar Dine—something like 3,600 of them still operational—proved to have gone black on respect…self or otherwise. So, they threw the mother of all bullshit flags on Flynn’s dissertation in the desert.
I’m recognizing an unaccustomed emotional attachment to my sarcasm and wonder if the brutal weirdness of these terrorist battles has gnawed away a bit of my sanity. Oh, well; it is what it is. Something of me has survived, so far. I will just have to get to know what there is left and remember I still have a job to do. There has always been a place in my hardest hitting political paintings for crazed sarcasm, but only on the condition it makes a necessary point, not that it become a compulsive tic.
Speaking of compulsive tics, the terrorists’ Dushka machineguns stopped firing. Finally. Then the finishers, the aljalaad, the goat-rodeo meninists with Chinese made Swiss Army Knives, Budapest bayonets and Baghdad butcher cleavers, completed their mission of executing our wounded.
But the aljalaad finishers left me alive in my grave, I could say in silence, except for the ringing in my ears, the sort of high-pitched silence that makes your spinal fluid quake.
It got better, though.
Maybe it was the therapeutic effect of hot sand, but after a few minutes, the screaming in my ears diminished to only a head-numbing drone. The relative quiet led me to wonder if Captain Jubal had survived. My last eyeball of him was of his flabby, apple-bottom booty plopped in the sand and his premature jowls jiggling as he commenced to dig. In the darkness of my sandy grave, before I stuck the tube in my mouth and pulled the last pile of sand over my face, I could still see Jubal’s duck-feet toeing outward like a dorky, double-jointed child squatting in a sand box. His minced-penis brain had been in total panic, and his trenching tool had flayed the desert sand. Jube had been following my lead—nothing new there—but I had pulled the sand on top of my face so quickly that I had not seen if he had had enough sense or time to cover up.
Our two graves beneath the Sahara were my idea…all mine. Though art history may only remember me as an irritating minor artist, I will go down in military annals as the humble artist who created a whole new takeoff on Genghis Khan’s concept of strategic withdrawal.
No, no, I’m aware. This vein of grandiosity is new, too, but maybe it will go away, or I will grow to deserve it. It is, though, a tragedy that Charlton Heston is forever unavailable to play me when they make the biographic. These cold, dead hands laying that gun aside and digging that grave in the sand—what a scene!
And no, I did not devise a way to cover my cold, dead arm of choice—the one I used to pull the sand over my body—but that apparent oversight was not a shortcoming in my plan. Before I buried myself, I observed there were at least three-dozen human limbs, or partial limbs, not counting fingers and toes, lying about our position. I quickly turned that unsettling agglomeration into an advantage. The ISIS, al-Shabaab and Ansar Dine barbarians assigned to finish off survivors would likely think my and Captain Jubal’s arms lying on the sand were nothing but an organic part of the aesthetics of common ordinary everyday massacres. Captain Jubal and I both were doused in enough blood and human waste that our arms lying on the sand should look no different than those arms blown off Jubal’s 200 or so Legionnaires. Except, our bones were not protruding and our ligaments and arteries were not splayed like the puke-and-wine-soaked cords of a New Orleans bar mop.
I gambled that the terrorist’s observation skills were only those of mere killers or master soldiers—lazier, more presumptive and less precise than my artist eyes. Hopefully, the dullard’s attention to detail would be insufficient to notice one critical difference in otherwise identical human fragments. For those who have never been on the receiving end of a massacre experience, that bit of observation and evaluation on my part illustrates the inner workings and cool control of a true command mind. Though technically not in command, I had taken the lead. Again. And I liked the odds in favor of my plan for saving our keisters. Fine. Unless some pathetic terrorist decided to take Jubal’s or my forearm back home as a bone-in treat for Elton, or whatever terrorists name their mongrels.
 NGO (Non-Governmental Organization: a nonprofit organization that operates independently of any government, typically one whose purpose is to address a social or political issue. The number of NGOs worldwide is estimated to be 10 million. The Red Cross, Care, Doctors Without Borders and Greenpeace are examples of an NGO.
 Remington Arms, the manufacturer of the M2010 Enhanced Sniper Rifle sponsored the sniper team just as it would sponsor a professional hunter. Remington was paying for the weapon to be tested in actual desert battlefield conditions and for the team to write glowing reports about it in international soldier of fortune publications.
 Emanuel King has been charismatic CEO of Whitewater, Inc. since 2016, and he has been an ordained minister of the David’s Harp sect since 1991. In 2001, Emanuel King was exonerated in the arson murder of his 13-year-old Saudi wife, Seeta bint Lassab King.