When the Second Battle of Fallujah was over the civilians trickled back in from the desert country and found their homes like beehives from the bullet holes. Our unit went back to the Rear, which is a base the Marine Corps built in the desert like 40 mikes from the city with showers and an epic chow hall and even email. Our squad stayed at the Forward, because the city needed an American presence there. After many weeks of fighting the falafel vendors and the hookah bars and tea shops finally started opening back up in the city, and the muezzin in the mosques started chanting God is Great. The convoys from the Rear came regular without fear of being attacked and brought us food and mail, and care packages from home with contraband like whisky and vodka in Listerine bottles, and thin weed joints hidden in boxes of cue tips, and cuban coffee to mask the weed smell. Also porn magazines and the first ever iPods filled with music, and sets of dominos and chess and backgammon (we were all avid gamers, prone to gambling, and highly competitive). Also books like The Prince and The Art of War and shit by Jack London and Hemingway, and this book called The Game which is about picking up girls by giving them negative compliments (called negs) to lower their self esteem.

The Forward was a square block and its perimeter was businesses that had been abandoned during the fighting. The inside of the square block was mostly empty. In the middle there was a massive crater an artillery round had made during the fighting. We used the crater to burn garbage and it was always smoldering. We raised T-barriers in front of the buildings and ran concertina wire over the barriers and filled in all the gaps between buildings with sandbags and more wire and turned the place into our little Alamo. One of the empty businesses (a former dry cleaners) we turned into our cueva nganga, where we kept the cauldron and performed all kinds of rites and rituals and divination and cleansing. On the rooftops we raised bunkers with many layers of sandbags that served as observation posts. We set traps to catch pigeons which we kept in a coop on our tallest rooftop. We often fed the pigeons to the nganga. We also got live chickens, which some of them we ate and some we used to get fresh eggs and then some others we fed to the nganga. We also got sage and rosemary and mint and all kinds of fragrant ewé which we planted and used for cooking and for religious work.

We got the chickens and the herbs from Fat Bob the Pob, a shiite from Baghdad who ran a unit of shiite police whose job was to patrol sunni Fallujah and help us out with stuff. These pobs lived in the Forward too and they loved Americans because Saddam had been a real dickhead to the shiites. Fat Bob and Jones played backgammon constantly and Bob learned English by leaps and bounds while playing. This was useful to us because Bob was good at getting stuff. When he played Jones for money and lost he would often pay in favors and hookups.

(Jones is what we call a pristine gamer, btw. He more or less grew up in Union Square and Bryant Park, steeped in backgammon and chess. He was grinding in Bryant Park when the planes hit and the towers fell and Manhattan was engulfed in dust. He dipped to his auntie’s in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and watched the gray skies and the clouds of dust from the rooftop for days. The backgammon action dried up in the parks and the only people still playing were either cheats or better than him. 9/11 fucked with his mental game/tilt a lot as well and all this osobbo was compounded with a run of bad dice. His humble bankroll of seven luka dwindled and then one day a certain hasid named Abe took his last caña. He joined the Marine Corps two days later.)

[9/11, btw, was true osobbo, a pristine black swan. It reset our whole Kismet. Palo siguaraya no se pue’ tumbar.]

We worked tirelessly for weeks beefing up the Forward so it was secure and homey. All the brass was still in the Rear and we got to feeling like the Forward was our own personal real estate, and we were happy. Yeah it was a wasteland of dust and bullet holes, but for whatever reason the sand of the Middle East and the Levant has some quality that makes men want to rule it and kill and die over it.

When the Forward was ready a few officers came from the Rear and settled in. Finch was among them. Their job was to give money to civilians whose homes were destroyed in the fighting. Civilians could come to the Forward and make claims. Part of our duties was to regulate the crowds coming in. Finch and the other officers mostly kept to themselves, tho. They stayed at an old abandoned hotel in the other end of the compound. It was all smooth sailing until the summer ended and all kinds of passions started to bubble up again.