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National Security

National Security

Marc Cameron National Security


    Deliver me from workers of iniquity, save me from bloody men.
— Psalms 59:2

    Sunday, 30 August Nimble Rock, Colorado

    Mahir Halibi saw blood as filth. But in war, such filth was plentiful-and an absolute necessity.
    The young Saudi wiped his hands on a shop towel, leaving a fresh crimson streak on the grimy cloth. The night guard-a Hispanic man about his age with a large belly and new running shoes, lay facedown, eyes slammed wide as they had been when Halibi’s blade caught him by surprise. A dark pool blossomed on the concrete next to the obscene wound that opened his neck. White cords from an iPod trailed from his ears, one cord cut neatly in two and partially embedded in the gore. Glistening flies from three stinking garbage trucks buzzed around the dead man, crowding his sightless eyes for a spot to lay their eggs.
    It had taken Halibi and his two cousins over two hours of constant, backbreaking labor to unload three hundred and sixty bags of fertilizer from two moving vans and distribute them-not nearly as long as the year it had taken to collect them in small purchases across the Rocky Mountain west.
    The overpowering smell of ammonium nitrate stung the back of Halibi’s throat and caused him to gag. Setting the thick, sausagelike tubes of Tovex booster explosive in the hold of the trucks sent tears streaming from his burning eyes. He felt as if his nose had been stuffed with tiny razor blades.
    Roughly four hours after they had arrived at the Public Works garage, Halibi felt they were finally ready. Drenched in sweat, his gaunt body was filled with a sudden calm. For some inexplicable reason, he thought of apricots and dates and roasted lamb. He quickly shook away the notion. His next meal would be in the splendors of Paradise.
    The trucks were wired as he’d been taught at the sheikh’s training camp, deep in Pakistan’s lawless Northwest Frontier. A handheld detonator in each cab led through the broken back window and into the cavernous metal garbage box. These wires connected to blasting caps he’d inserted into the tubes of Tovex. The strong metal holds, emptied of their wasteful American refuse, were each crammed full of over six thousand pounds of diesel-soaked ammonium nitrate fertilizer and nitro methane, an industrial solvent. Together the components made what was known as ANNM-an explosive one point six times more powerful than an equivalent amount of TNT. Timothy McVeigh had used a single Ryder Truck with roughly four thousand pounds of the stuff to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City.
    Halibi had three, each half again as large-and the time had come to put them to use.
    Contact with the night guard’s blood made Wudu — ritual ablution-essential before an offer of prayer. And what was martyrdom but the ultimate form of prayer?
    Halibi removed the lid to a new bottle of Aquafina. Beginning with his hands, he washed three times to his elbows, then moved cool water back and forth in his mouth, spitting away from his two cousins. He drew water into each nostril three times, touched his face, then moved to symbolically cleanse the remainder of his body, ending with his feet. His cousins repeated the same motions under the shadowed metal eaves of the Public Works garage. Devoted men of great piety, they were no doubt thinking as he was of the wondrous rewards that awaited them all in Paradise. All were freshly shaven, and now cleansed from the filth of the world. Halibi, the eldest, was not yet twenty-four.
    “ Allahu akbar,” Halibi whispered, as he grabbed a handrail and pulled himself up and into the first truck in line, squinting, curling his nose against the harsh odor of ammonia that shrouded the vehicles in an invisible cloud. Eighteen months of preparation had at last come to fruition.

    Molly Roberson brushed a curl of sandy hair out of her eyes and took a long, critical look in the bathroom mirror. This mothering thing was turning out to be more than she’d bargained for. Twin eight-year-old boys took a lot out of a girl and she was beginning to show it. She patted the five pounds of extra fat that had remained on her once-flat stomach after the boys were born-Jared jokingly called it her peter belly and took full credit for causing it.
    She ran a thumb across her eyebrows, in desperate need of a little wax and TLC. “I don’t even have time to shave my legs,” she whispered to no one in particular. “Guess my plans of becoming CEO of Microsoft will have to wait awhile…”
    She’d woken early to read the paper and see her husband off to work. The weatherman said it was going to be hot and Jared sometimes skipped wearing his bulletproof vest if she didn’t get up with him and force the issue.
    Now, resting both hands on the counter, she sighed, blowing at the curl that kept falling across her eyes. She needed a haircut and a long bath and a visit to the chiropractor…
    “Mom!” It was Sam, the older of the twins by fifty-eight minutes. She could picture him on the other side of the bathroom door, already dressed, blond hair moussed as only an eight-year-old could mousse it. “Trent says he’s not coming with us, but I told him he had to because we’re buying school clothes.”
    Molly smiled, taming the errant curl with a plastic clippie from her stash in a cup beside the toothpaste. She felt much too haggard for thirty-four. A stupid clippie in her hair and bags under her eyes-that’s the way mothers of twin dynamos were expected to look, like they’d been on a ten-day drunk. She was lucky Jared was the sort of husband who could overlook a little leg stubble.
    She wriggled into a pair of clean but tattered black capris and a pink T-shirt before opening the door. “What’s this about your brother, little dude?” She looked down at a freshly scrubbed Sam, his hair swept up in an earnest-looking pompadour.
    “Playing Mario Kart on the Wii,” Sam said, rolling his wide, blue eyes like an adult.
    Molly looked at her watch. It was almost noon. They’d be lucky to find a place to park a mile from the mall. She leaned over the banister leading down to the basement. The smell of pizza and dirty socks rose up from the darkness to meet her. Jared called it the twins’ man-cave-no place for a woman.
    “Mister, you better march up here ready to go in three minutes!”
    Trent, who was so slow it had taken him an hour longer than his brother just to wallow his way through the birthing process, plodded up the stairs dragging a blanket. He was slow, but he had a good-hearted glow about him that made it difficult to stay mad for long.
    “I don’t feel so good, Mama,” he said, leaning his head against his mother’s chest. She couldn’t help herself and mussed his tangled bedhead of blond hair. “Seriously,” he mumbled against her shirt, nuzzling her between the boobs in the naive way he was sure to lose all too soon. “I know I’ve been playing games all morning, but I really feel sick to my stomach.”
    “The back-to-school sales are today, dude,” Molly chided. “We’ve got to get your clothes and supplies.” She tilted his chin up with her finger so she could look him in the eye. “I was planning to go by Cold Stone for some ice cream…” With Trent, ice cream was a tried-and-true tactic.
    To her surprise he shook his head, puffing out his cheeks to show the thought made him nauseous. She put the back of her hand on his forehead. Maybe he was a little feverish.
    “Sam’s the same size as me. Can’t you just get the same stuff for both of us?” he mumbled. “I’ll barf all over everything if I have to go out.”
    Molly folded her arms and looked at both her sons. If Trent was sick, she couldn’t make him go. That would be way too unmotherly of her. She pursed her lips in thought. He was only eight. Even eight-year-olds needed a little TLC when they were sick… But there were the sales to consider and Trent was mature for his age. Maybe going out at all would be too unmotherly… She was just not cut out for this.

    Jared Roberson spit the frayed remains of a wooden toothpick out the window of his patrol car and tried to shrug off the unidentifiable nagging in his gut. A half mile below the rocky bluff where he sat overlooking the Denver suburb that was his domain, a parade of three garbage trucks rumbled single-file toward the Fashion Center Mall. Bits of cottonwood fluff floated up on the lazy summer air.
    Roberson took a swig of Maalox, hoping the chalky stuff might drown whatever desert viper had slithered down his throat and coiled in his guts during his last tour in Afghanistan. It struck at him every other day or so, just to keep things interesting. Molly said he should see a therapist, but cops didn’t visit shrinks-not if they wanted to keep their jobs.
    The three trucks, blinding white under a noon sun, bore left on Spruce Avenue from the Interstate 25 access road. Something about the precise, almost choreographed way they moved reminded Roberson of a military convoy.
    Glancing up, he caught a glimpse of his scar in the rearview mirror. Courtesy of a roadside bomb near some poppy fields outside Kabul, the grizzly war memento covered the left side of his face in tight, translucent flesh-and got a lot of second looks when he was writing tickets. It still ached-more than he confessed to Molly-and served as a constant reminder that he had survived when so many better soldiers had not. His twin boys seemed unbothered by the gruesome new look and reasoned that since their dad fought bad guys and had funny-looking skin, he must be a superhero. They called him Plastic Man.
    On the streets below, the garbage trucks rolled to a stop at North Mall Drive, waiting for the light. They were perfectly spaced with a truck’s length between them.
    The serpent in Roberson’s gut writhed impatiently. Plastic Man’s instincts told him something was wrong.

    Halibi’s eyes flashed to the side mirror. Ismail was lagging behind. “Keep up, my cousin,” he said, speaking into the prepaid cell phone. “We are very close. You do not want to waste our opportunity.”
    “Do you truly believe, Mahir? No doubts?” Ismail’s voice quavered like a small child.
    “I am here, am I not?” Halibi whispered as much to himself as his cousin. Beads of sweat ran down his forehead, stinging his already burning eyes. An infidel woman in a pair of short pants that revealed much of her jiggling buttocks crossed the street in front of his truck, licking an ice cream cone like a mindless cow. “The Americans call this the Sabbath, yet they spend their holy day shopping and stuffing gluttonous faces.” He took his foot off the brake. “Follow me, my cousin. We have come too far to falter now…”

    Roberson hadn’t checked out for lunch, but dispatch knew where he was. He came here every day. This was his spot. It was where he’d proposed to Molly, where she’d told him she was pregnant with the boys, and where he’d broken the news to her that he’d reenlisted with his old Ranger unit after September 11.
    The muffled squeals and honks of traffic rose on waves of heat from acres of concrete and asphalt. The pungent smell of cedar mingled with the fragrance of freshly mown grass from the spacious Rocky Mountain estates that overlooked the city on the granite ridge behind him.
    On the streets below, the light turned green and the trucks began to roll.
    Fashion Center Mall was set up in a rough clover shape with its three anchor stores comprising the point of each leaf. Sun sparkled on an endless sea of windshields in the mall’s three expansive parking lots. A steady stream of cars and SUVs poured in from I-25 like ants to a picnic. The big-box stores had advertised huge back-to-school blowouts for the weekend.
    Molly would be there by now, buying the boys new jeans at the Sunday sales… the Super Sunday Sales…
    Roberson snatched up the radio mike from where it hung on the dashboard.
    The dispatcher answered immediately. “Go Three-twenty.”
    “Gina, I got three garbage trucks rolling up on Fashion Center. Any idea why the city would have trucks out today?” His stomach ached as if he’d gone three rounds with Rocky Balboa.
    There was a long silence. “Uhhh… to pick up garbage?”
    “On Sunday?” He slammed back another shot of Maalox.
    “Ahhh.” Now she got his point. “Public Works should be closed. I’ll check with the fire department to see if they’ve heard-”
    “Three-eighteen.” The new voice on the radio was Brian Long, the officer working the northern sector. He was from Connecticut and his strong accent made it sound as if he was trying to eat the radio mike.
    “Go ahead, Three-eighteen.” Gina’s voice bristled with this-better-be-good snippiness at having been interrupted.
    “I’m out behind Public Works now. They’re definitely closed, but somebody’s gone and cut a big hole in the fence. You could drive a school bus through this thing. I got two empty box vans that don’t look like they belong here and… holy shit!”
    The radio went dead for what seemed like an eternity.
    “Three-eighteen,” Gina snapped. “Your status?”
    Brian came back frazzled. “I… I got me a dead guy here. Looks like his throat’s been cut…”
    “Ten-four, Three-eighteen,” Gina came back, icy calm again. “I have two CSP units heading your way for backup.”
    Roberson watched as the garbage trucks picked up speed. The first two in line kept right at the entrance to the lower mall parking lot while the straggler hesitated, then veered left toward Sears.
    “Three-twenty,” Gina’s voice broke squelch. “Three-fourteen and Three-twenty-two are leaving the station, heading your direction at this time. Looks like whoever took your garbage trucks is good for a homicide.”
    Roberson keyed his mike as the second truck peeled away, moving toward the packed lot in front of Nordstrom. “Ten-four,” he whispered. Memories of Afghanistan and cordite and screaming pressed in around him. The viper in his belly struck with renewed vigor.
    He dropped the mike in the passenger seat and jumped from his patrol car, punching his wife’s speed dial on his cell phone with his thumb. His eyes locked on the mall.
    “Molly!” he yelled as if he could shout his wife a warning from the ridge top. She was down there with the boys. Dread flooded his system like a debilitating drug, making it difficult to stand. Her cell rang twice before she answered
    “Hey, Super Dude,” she said. “What’s up?”
    Roberson kept his eyes glued to the scene below.
    “Molly, where are you?” Bile seared the back of his throat. He knew it was foolish, but he searched the rows and rows of parked cars for her Impala. Of course he couldn’t locate it from where he was. He wanted to run to her, but if he moved he’d lose sight of the trucks.
    “Trent was sick so-”
    “Thank the Lord,” Roberson sighed. “So you’re not at the mall?”
    “Of course I’m at the mall. Trent stayed home. Sam and I are looking at boys’ underwear in Sears,” she said. “Why?”
    “It’s incredible, Jared. You wouldn’t believe the price-”
    “Molly, shut up and listen to me!” he snapped. His wife could be stubborn and he needed her to be scared enough she’d do what he asked without question. “Take Sam and run toward the Home Depot-”
    “Jared, that’s on the other side of the parking lot-”
    Roberson looked on in horror as the garbage truck bearing down on Sears jumped the curb. Throngs of shoppers fled as it crashed through the main doors and barreled into the mall, crushing anyone who couldn’t get out of the way. He was too far away to hear their screams, but he knew they were there. It was like watching a tragic silent movie.
    “Molly!” Roberson screamed into his phone. “Run. Now!” His voice caught hard in his chest. “Please…”
    “Okay, Jared. All right, we’re going,” she said, still unconvinced. “I’ll call you whe-”
    The truck in front of Nordstrom broke through the red brick facade, sending a blinding orange fireball in all directions. It took a full second for the roaring boom to reach Roberson’s ears. In an instant, four stories of steel, mortar, and glass vanished behind a mushroom of greasy black smoke. The initial blast tossed row after row of cars across the parking lot like so many pitiful toys. The screaming pulse and honk of car alarms followed the superheated wave of hurricane-force wind.
    “Jared, tell me what’s going on…” Amazingly, Molly was still on the line, her voice hushed, fragile.
    Roberson clutched the corner of his patrol car to keep his feet, leaning into the hot wind. “I love you, Molly-” he whispered as the two remaining trucks detonated.
    Tornadoes of fire and flaming debris shot skyward. Curling dragons of black smoke completely obscured the mall. A searing pressure wave slammed into Roberson’s chest, driving him to his knees and burning the scar on his face. Bits of shattered glass, shot skyward by the blasts, fell now to rattle off the hood of his patrol car in a constant rain. Three columns of inky smoke twisted upward from what had been Fashion Center Mall, blotting out the sun.
    Roberson pressed the phone to his blistered ear, heard nothing but static, and began to weep.

    Ash and debris were still falling like dirty snow when Nimble Rock Fire and Rescue screamed onto the scene eight and a half minutes after detonation.
    Spot fires hissed among the twisted piles of steel and brick, looking more like war-torn Beirut than a Colorado suburb. An entire section of escalator rested in the middle of one parking lot, perfectly intact, along with a charred baby stroller and assorted empty shoes strewn up and down the metal steps. The explosions that had reduced three huge department stores to smoking pits tore away half the center portion of the mall leaving all four levels crumbling, naked and open to the outside air.
    Through the acrid smoke, arriving rescuers were treated to the grizzly sight of the mangled bodies of mall patrons thrown in pieces on top of counters and upturned clothing racks. Computers and cash registers dangled by sparking electrical cords. On the top floor, along what was left of the food court, a bewildered teenage girl, still wearing her bright red and yellow Corn-Dog-on-a-Stick uniform hat, staggered to the jagged edge of concrete and support steel in front of her store and collapsed, clutching a bleeding stub where her left arm should have been.
    Children, blown from their clothing, stood blinking in wide-eyed shock, waiting for parents who had simply vanished. The pitiful screams and cries of the wounded and dying drowned out the wailing sirens of approaching rescue units from Denver. Panic-stricken mothers and fathers stumbled through the rubble and smoke on each sagging floor, their frantic searching exposed to the rest of the world as if they were inside a giant ant farm. Some, deafened by the explosions and unable to hear the shouts of arriving rescue personnel were driven by desperation in areas still on fire and jumped to their deaths on the jagged concrete three and four levels below.
    Two of the first firefighters to arrive, both hardened professionals, well accustomed to sights of human misery and gory auto accidents, turned away to vomit.

    FBI Deputy Director Paul Sanchez stood ankle-deep in a pool of greasy water and gray ash, wondering if he’d ever get the smell of cooked human flesh out of his head. Midnight had come and gone hours before, and his eyes felt as if he’d rubbed them with a handful of sand. The caffeine from five cups of coffee and the sea of strobing emergency lights combined in the predawn darkness to drive a spike through his aching head.
    More than fifteen hours after the three vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices-VBIEDs in the parlance of the Global War on Terror-had flattened a Colorado shopping mall larger than four city blocks, Sanchez still had no firm body count-at least not one firm enough to give to the President. Someone from FEMA had come up with the bright idea of counting the cars in the parking lots and doubling that number for an estimate. Mall shopping, they reasoned, was rarely a solitary pastime.
    Sanchez looked at a tiny green cube of shatterproof glass smaller than a dime in the palm of his hand. It came from a literal ocean of the stuff, inches deep, in what had only a day before been a busy American parking lot. It would take days to sort through the twisted bits of plastic, metal, and broken glass to figure out the number of cars. It was like trying to guess the number of rocks it took to create the sand in a desert.
    Initial estimates of the dead were coming in between twenty-three and twenty-seven hundred. Surveying the slabs of shattered concrete and steaming support steel under the harsh lights, Sanchez was sure those numbers were far too low.
    Concussive shock waves from the three blasts had broken the windows in virtually every building within a one-mile radius around the mall. A frantic elderly woman who lived almost two miles away called 911 an hour after the explosions to report that her pet dachshund had found a human foot in the backyard and refused to give it up.
    Colorado National Guardsmen had secured the perimeter of the bombing site with sandbagged roadblocks. The state of Colorado and the nation as a whole now teetered on the nervous edge of dismay and twitchy terror, ever concerned with the possibility of delayed or secondary attacks. The President, as well as the VP and key members of the Cabinet, had bunkered up in secure and “undisclosed” locations. Sixty miles to the south, the four thousand cadets at the United States Air Force Academy were buttoned up tight with F-15s from nearby Peterson Air Force Base providing overhead security patrols. A half dozen AH-64 Longbow helicopters from Fort Carson flew close air support, lights out to guard against possible assault from the ground. All aircraft was cleared hot, ready to fire on any enemy they found.
    Sanchez had called in a hundred and sixty agents from as far away as New York and Miami to assist. By order of the attorney general, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and the U.S. Marshals Service had also responded, along with FEMA and Public Health.
    The Pit, as they were now calling the place, was a hive of activity. Three FBI HRT-Hostage Rescue Team-helicopters hovered overhead, spotlights cutting white beams through the night as they played back and forth around the gnarled, smoking mess. Emergency rescue crews crawled in and out of the rubble, working under the blinding glare of portable flood lamps, borrowed from a Denver road construction company.
    Five Labrador retrievers, highly trained as cadaver dogs, scrambled up and down in areas their handlers considered safe enough to send them. Teams of forensic scientists used ground-penetrating radar to look for anomalies that might be human under tons of debris. They’d found a few survivors at first, huddling near the center of the mall, miraculously shielded by the twisted remnants of an escalator. All were badly burned and at least two had died later at the hospital.
    Since 9 P.M. the Pit had yielded nothing living-or even intact.
    Sanchez took a sip of his coffee, then spit it out, sickened by the thought of anything on his stomach. His nerves were frayed and he jumped at a sudden female voice to his right. The speaker was backlit by the glaring headlights of a waiting ambulance. He couldn’t make out her face until she stepped closer, sloshing into his muddy pool to be heard above the pounding clatter of jackhammers and agonized whine of cable winches pulling up slabs of concrete.
    “I think we might have an ID on one of the drivers,” the woman said, almost screaming to be heard. She was Carol Victors, the Denver Anti-Terrorism Task Force supervisor. In the past ten hours, she’d become Sanchez’s go-to agent in Colorado. No stereotypical Betty Bureau Blue Suit, Victors was tall, only an inch shorter than Sanchez at five eleven, and could hold her own in a battle of wit or muscle. Her dark hair was piled up under a navy-blue baseball cap with FBI emblazoned on the front in white letters.
    “An ID?” Sanchez shook his head in disbelief. “No way. We don’t even have a solid lead on the type of explosives yet. Somebody claiming credit for this?”
    “We got lucky,” Victors said, setting her otherwise full lips in a tight line. It was good news, but circumstances were too heavy for a smile. “There was a security camera at the Public Works garage. One of the drivers turned and looked directly at it after he killed the night watchman.”
    “So we got a face or an ID?”
    “I ran the video stills through the facial recognition programs at State, Homeland Security, as well as ours at Quantico.” She shrugged. “Again, we got lucky. State had a hit. Our driver was one Mahir Halibi, a Saudi student majoring in soil and crop sciences at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. He was using the name of Samir Mohammed and was here under a Jordanian passport.”
    “Soil and crops?” Sanchez reasoned. “If this turns out to be ammonium nitrate-which it probably will-that would make sense.”
    Agent Victors bounced from one foot to the other as if she had information that was to hot to hold inside.
    “You’ve got more?”
    “I do, boss,” she said. “Halibi was already on our watch list. He’s got ties to some serious people…”
    “How serious?”
    Now Victors allowed herself the hint of a smile. “Does the name Farooq ring a bell?”
    “Sheikh Husseini al Farooq?” Sanchez chewed on the swizzle stick from his coffee. “We’re sure about this?”
    “Our friends at the Agency say Halibi’s father and Farooq attended the same madrassa in Damascus in the late seventies.”
    Sanchez pulled the BlackBerry from his pocket. “Like father like son, then,” he said as he punched the speed dial. When the other party answered, he took a deep breath. “This is Paul. Connect me with the Director.”

    Four hours later Saudi Arabia

    Sheikh Husseini al Farooq leaned over the marble chessboard like a lion considering his kill. A slender hand poised over his knight, fingers tapping lightly. Islam’s prohibitions against graven images of living things required the game piece to look like a squat painted mushroom instead of the more customary horse.
    Farooq’s opponent, a boy in his late teens, watched in rapt fascination. “Is it not glorious?” the boy said. “The Americans are broken, shattered as glass before a stone!”
    A murmur of agreement rippled through the dozen men in the room. Each sat on a soft pillow watching the contest. With the setting sun, plates of food had been set after a day of fasting in observance of the holy month of Ramadan. The entire palace had been abuzz with congratulatory fervor as scenes of the Colorado mall bombing streamed on a plasma big screen tuned to Al Jazeera television.
    “Do not underestimate the Americans,” Farooq said, smiling as he maneuvered the knight in concert with his bishop, to put the boy in checkmate. “Underestimating one’s opponent is the surest way to fail-”
    “Forgive me, my sheikh.” A man wearing a red Saudi ghutra on his head and a white, ankle-length robe burst into the room. Had it been anyone else but Dr. Suleiman, such an intrusion would have been met with quick and decisive violence.
    Suleiman was in his mid thirties and clean shaven because of his need to wear protective masks during his experiments. His pink face beamed as if reflecting a great light.
    “I suppose you have heard of the events in Colorado?” Farooq nodded toward the television in the corner.
    “I… we have had a breakthrough in the lab.” The doctor smiled, ignoring the others in the room. “I believe this will make the mere bombing of a shopping mall pale in comparison.”
    Farooq raised a brow. “Is that so?”
    Suleiman stammered on. “Our Algerian friends have solved one piece of the puzzle. They are testing it as we speak. I believe I now know the answer to the problem that has always eluded us… Of course… it will require another, more particular test…”
    Farooq clapped his hands. A brooding man with dark eyes and long, windswept hair rose from his seat in the corner, hand on a curved dagger at his belt. “Yes, my sheikh.”
    Holding up an open hand, palm out, Farooq turned back to Suleiman. His slender wrist protruded from the long sleeve of his white robe, identical to the doctor’s. “You’ve actually done it then?” he said.
    “I believe I have.” Suleiman’s eyes shifted uneasily back and forth from the sheikh to the brooding bodyguard.
    A sneering grin spread across Farooq’s angular face as he turned back to the man with the dagger. “We shall need a few more subjects on which to test the doctor’s theories. Inform Ghazan at once.”


    2 September, 2100 hours Fallujah, Iraq

    Jericho Quinn gunned the throttle, willing more power from the screaming motorcycle.
    “Which one is Ghazan?” He threw the words over his shoulder, into the wind as he rode.
    Blowing sand scoured his chapped face. He peered through the dusk, squinting, wishing he had a pair of goggles. Something pinched his nose in the gathering darkness-the telltale odor of wet wool seasoned with the sulfur that oozed up from the desert floor.
    The smell of a sheep roasting in the flames of hell.
    The scent of Iraq.
    “There!” Quinn felt his passenger shudder behind him, his words ripped away by the wind.
    “Which one?” Quinn scanned a knot of a half dozen FAMs-fighting-age men-loitering at the corner beneath the crumbling walls of a bombed mosque. In the three days following the horrific bombing of a Colorado shopping mall, any semblance of trust between cultures had evaporated from the streets of Iraq. Natives flinched and dropped their eyes when American patrols rolled past. Few in number from cyclical troop drawdown, U.S. forces stood on the edge of a full-blown assault at every encounter. Soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen boiled with righteous anger that over three thousand Americans-most of them women and children-had lost their lives in the blasts.
    The worst act of terrorism on American soil since 9/11, the media had dubbed it the Fifth Sunday Bombing-but it was impossible to put a title on something so horrible. Most just spoke in whispered reverence about Colorado. Hunting down those responsible was priority one for men like Jericho Quinn.
    Ghazan al Ghazi was the HVT-the high-value target-of the moment. Quinn felt a familiar sensation in the back of his neck-the tingle that told him violence was close at hand-and wondered if he was enjoying this too much. He had no idea what he’d do if peace suddenly broke out in the world. Not much chance of that.
    “Which one?” he asked again, leaning back to be certain Sadiq heard him.
    “The large one… he wears aviator sunglasses. He is tall… there on the end with the neck of a bull.” Sadiq groaned, hiding his head against Quinn’s back as he spoke. “A blue shirt… open down the front. Please… you should drive on…”
    In the street, horns honked and beeped, churning up whirling clouds of yellow dust. Thick, angry voices rose into the dusk on ribbons of heat as the snarl of evening traffic came to a standstill. Stopped almost directly in front of their target, Sadiq began to twitch, so much so Quinn was sure it looked as though he was having some kind of fit.
    “Hold on,” Quinn yelled in colloquial Arabic as he tried to go around the jam. He nearly spilled avoiding the twisted hulk of a bombed Nissan pickup planted squarely in the road. Giving the bike enough throttle to keep it upright, he ducked down a side street away from the din of cars and military and NGO convoys. Slowing, he made a left turn on a quieter side street.
    The motorcycle was a Kaweseki, a Chinese knockoff. Little more than a scooter, it had the look of a Japanese sport bike and the suspension of a skateboard. It was sure to rust or fall to pieces just when he needed it most, but it was what the locals rode. It was all they could afford. As an agent with Air Force Office of Special Investigations or OSI, Quinn had an impressive array of weapons and technology at his disposal. But for the moment he rode a piece-of-junk motorcycle and wore an ankle-length cotton dishdasha, called a man dress by American soldiers. His life, and more importantly his mission, depended on the ability to blend in with the locals.
    He leaned over the handlebars, twisting the last ounce of horsepower from the protesting Chinese motor. The back tire shimmied, throwing up a shower of gravel as he ducked behind an abandoned cafe. Behind him, Sadiq clawed at his waist in an effort to hang on.
    Despite the fact that he was surrounded by men who would be happy to saw off his head with a dull pocketknife if they discovered who he was, Quinn found the orange-blue dusk oddly soothing. Above the rubble of bombed buildings and rusted vehicle hulks, a neat row of Medjool date palms lined the road, their straight trunks silhouetted against the evening sky. They were reminders of another Iraq, untouched by decades of war.
    “Get off at the next corner.” Quinn leaned back as he shouted to the lanky Sunni. The boy spoke passable English, but Quinn kept their conversations in Arabic to pacify any listening ears. “I must hurry and get back to Ghazan before he slips away.”
    “You will please pay me- before you go.” The sallow university student’s voice wobbled with a mixture of terror and the disorienting effects of the bumpy ride.
    “Get off,” Quinn snapped. “I don’t have time to stop. I’ll pay you later tonight.” Sadiq was a good informant, but he liked to make things more difficult than they needed to be.
    “I insist you pay me now.”
    Jericho let off the throttle, then gunned it suddenly to spite his rider.
    “Must you Americans drive so fast?” Sadiq’s voice was a curdled scream against the wind. “Ghazan is a dangerous man. He may kill you when you speak to him. Where would that leave me?”
    One of the countless emaciated stray dogs that roamed the country darted in front of them, eyeing the men like a piece of meat. Quinn horsed the little bike to the right, fearing the flimsy handlebars might snap off in his hands. He took a quick moment to wish for his own motorcycle, a massive BMW 1200 GS Adventure. It was impossible to find a good motorcycle in the desert-at least one that allowed him to look like an Iraqi.
    Sadiq yanked to the left to keep his seat, spewing an Arabic oath about Jericho’s family history. Quinn popped the clutch, downshifting to coax just enough power to avoid a spill. The transmission squealed as if it was about to burst into flames.
    They shuddered to a stop. Quinn shot a wary glance over his shoulder and ordered Sadiq off the bike in a voice that left no room for argument. He gunned the motor again. Unencumbered by a passenger, the little bike shot forward, back toward the men who would be all too happy to put a bullet in Quinn’s head-or worse. Leaning forward, with the wind in his face, he considered his next move. His Arabic was flawless. Dark skin and a heavy beard helped him blend in with the population.
    Very soon, none of that would matter. If all went according to plan, the Iraqi thug in the aviator sunglasses would find out more than he ever wanted to know about Jericho Quinn.

    Ghazan split away from the others a half hour later, walking lazily in front of closed shops, their metal doors rolled to the ground and padlocked to discourage thieves. Quinn followed him a short way on the bike. He had smashed out the headlamp with a shard of brick from the side of the road. A broken headlight in a war-torn country wouldn’t cause a second look and made him more difficult to spot cruising down dark side alleys.
    Quinn watched from the shadows as the bull-necked man disappeared into a shabby, three-story concrete apartment building surrounded by heaps of garbage and rubble. He waited until a light on the second-level window flicked on, then took note of its position before stashing the Kaweseki across the street, behind a trash pile almost as high as his head. For a short moment, he considered calling in backup, but in the end settled back on what he’d known from the beginning-some jobs were better done without witnesses. It protected the innocent from having to report his behavior.
    Men like Ghazan didn’t worry much about heavy locks on their doors, relying instead on fearsome reputations to keep them safe. It would have been easy to assume the brute was alone, since the light had been off until he arrived. But Quinn knew relying on the probable had gotten a lot of men killed.
    So, he would wait alone-and listen.
    He crouched in the stifling heat of the concrete stairwell staring at the peeling white paint of Ghazan’s door for what seemed like an eternity. The odor of urine and rotting lemons hung in the stuffy alcove. Feral dogs barked from distant shadows. A tiny hedgehog, no larger than an orange, shuffled by in the darkness. The wail of an ambulance siren cut the night. Here and there, the flat crack of an M4 rifle peppered the air. Quinn’s knees began to ache. It was during just such moments, with sweat soaking the back of his dishdasha, staining the concrete wall behind him, that he took the time to wonder what he was doing. He had a little girl-a five-year-old-whom he hadn’t seen for months. She was with his now ex-wife, back in the cool mountains of Alaska, so far from the grit and gore of this desert and the never-ending war. Missing her, he consoled himself with a quote from Thomas Paine. It was a favorite of his father’s. “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace.”
    The telltale hiss of a running shower came through the flimsy wood door and drew Quinn back to reality. He tapped the Sig Sauer pistol beneath his robe taking a breath of solace in the fact it was there, then drew another item from the folds of his robe. This wasn’t the time for pistol work. Quinn put a hand on the door, and took a deep breath, thinking one last time of his daughter before pressing her from his mind while he worked. He knew he should feel guilty about his absence, about the fact that he put his work even above those he loved the most-but he’d save the guilt for later. That’s what made him so good.

    Quinn surprised Ghazan with a snap kick to the groin as he stepped from the shower. Water dripped from the mat of black hair that thatched the Iraqi’s body like a thick rug. The big man roared in alarm, attempting a kick of his own. The wet tile and newfound pain proved too much for his brain to handle and he hit the ground like a hairy sack of bricks.
    Wasting no time, Quinn brought up the Taser X26, aiming the red laser dot at the center of Ghazan’s chest. There was a static crackle as twin darts, barbed like straightened fish hooks, unspooled on hairlike wires to strike their target just below the right nipple and above the left knee. The Iraqi’s body went taut and the muscles of his face pulled back in a grimace as fifty thousand volts of electricity arced between the two probes. He tried to cry out from the searing pain, but the best he could muster was a gurgle.
    Traditional Tasers carried by law enforcement emitted a five-second burst of energy for each pull of the trigger. Quinn had taken the ride himself, along with his entire class of basic OSI agents. He found it to be like having a five-second full-body cramp, while completely engulfed in molten lava and stabbed in the back with an ice pick. It was something he hoped he’d never have to endure again.
    The Taser he carried now had been modified to deliver four times that, completely immobilizing the target with pain and loss of neuromuscular control.
    Ghazan’s first twenty-second ride complete, Quinn pulled the trigger a second time. The muscles in the side of the Iraqi’s neck tensed like thick cables, his glistening body arched up, bridging on shoulders and heels. Quinn took the opportunity to stick a small adhesive pad under each of Ghazan’s ears. It was remarkably easy to find a vein and inject the contents of a plastic syringe, then secure his wrists and ankles with heavy plastic zip cuffs. The shock took the path of least resistance, which happened to be between the darts in the Iraqi’s body, so Quinn felt nothing but a mild tingle as he completed his job.
    Ghazan fell slack. He gave a pitiful groan and his head lolled to one side. Quinn slapped the man’s cheeks, gaining his attention. He’d be no good if he passed out. The high-dosage scopolamine patches under his ears were already beginning to have the desired effect. His eyes fluttered, but he remained conscious.
    “What… What do… you want?” The big man’s words were a slurred mess, as if he had a mouth full of marbles. “You… you will suffer… greatly for this…”
    “The American soldiers you kidnapped,” Quinn spat in Arabic as he hauled the slippery body upright, propping him against the rough tile wall.
    Ghazan gave a rattling chuckle, blinked in an effort to clear his vision. The drugs and fatigue from the two bouts of electric-shock muscle cramping had exhausted him as surely as if he’d run a marathon. “You will die… for this insult…” Ghazan swallowed. He smiled dopily. “I am thirsty, my friend…”
    Quinn grabbed a bit of the man’s skin on the back of his upper arm, giving it a pinching twist.
    Startled as if from another sudden shock, Ghazan yowled. “They will die tonight…” he gasped.
    “Where are they?” Quinn leaned forward.
    The scopolamine began to combine with the drug Quinn had injected-a derivative of sodium pentathol developed by the Soviets called SP17. Together they induced a state of relaxed euphoria and, if all went well, would turn Ghazan into an Arab version of Chatty Cathy.
    “What do you want with the American dogs? Fool! Farooq will kill you.”
    “You know of the sheikh, yes?” Ghazan stammered. “He is a powerful man… with many friends. Get me some water… and perhaps I will let you live…”
    Another pinch brought a scream and a renewed sense of focus. Quinn kept his voice low, a menacing whisper, slipping seamlessly into English. “I need you to tell me about the Americans. They are my friends.”
    “Your friends…” Sick realization crept over the big Iraqi’s face. “ You are American?”
    Quinn nodded slowly. “I am.”
    “Impossible,” Ghazan sneered, momentarily coherent. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
    Quinn drew a long, slender blade from the back of his belt and held it before the Arab’s face.
    Ghazan blinked sagging eyes. He gave a tight chuckle, trying to convince himself. “Put that thing away. It does not frighten me. You Americans… you have told the world. You are disgusted by the mere idea of torture.”
    “We are disgusted by it,” Quinn said, nodding slightly. “I am sickened by the act.” He pressed the point of his blade up Ghazan’s flared nostril until a trickle of blood flowed down his twitching lip. “And yet, I find myself needing the information inside your head.” Quinn shrugged, drawing a fresh trickle of blood. “I am disgusted not for what it does to scum like you, but for what it does to the one inflicting the pain. Such violence does irreparable emotional harm to the torturer…” The tip of his knife remained motionless, now more than an inch inside the big Iraqi’s nose. “Some say it damages them beyond repair.”
    Quinn leaned in, almost touching the sweating man’s face with his forehead, close enough to smell the odor of spiced chickpeas he’d eaten for supper. “The bad news for you,” he whispered, “is that I’m already damaged…”
    Ghazan wept like a baby, but in the end, the drugs and the threat of a man even more cruel than himself loosened his mind and his tongue. He gave up an address in a bombed-over suburb outside Fallujah where American hostages were supposedly being kept. In his panic he offered information that some of the hostages were to be killed that very night as a show of insurgent solidarity.
    The contents of a second syringe sent the Iraqi’s head lolling against the wet concrete, snoring. Quinn stared at him for a long moment, thinking of the innocent people the terrorist was responsible for killing. He held the knife in his clenched fist and considered all the events that had brought him up to this point. He was not yet thirty-five, a government agent, Fulbright scholar, father, PTA volunteer… and an extremely talented killer. The world was a very strange place.
    It seemed such a simple thing to slide the razor-sharp blade between Ghazan’s hairy ribs and scramble his black heart like an egg…
    Instead, Quinn wiped the knife clean and reached inside the folds of his dishdasha for his secure radio, wondering just how damaged he was.
    “This is Copper Three-Zero,” he said. “I have high value target Juliet for immediate pickup…”

    Quinn dialed his encrypted cell phone on the way back to his stashed motorcycle.
    Sadiq answered, “ Assalaamu alaikum, Jericho. I am so pleased that you have remained alive to pay me.”
    Quinn returned the greeting and repeated the address Ghazan had provided.
    “Mean anything to you?” he said.
    “Nothing,” Sadiq said. “But that neighborhood is a Sunni stronghold, very dangerous.”
    Quinn laughed to himself. All of Fallujah was a Sunni stronghold. “Ghazan mentioned a man named Farooq. Have you heard of him?”
    The line was silent.
    “I know of this man. Most simply call him the sheikh.” “It is said that this man was behind the bombing of your Colorado shopping mall. He has vowed to bring the Great Satan to her knees. Your Fifth Sunday Bombing, it is said, is just the beginning. He plans something far worse…”
    “In the United States?” Quinn held the phone against his ear with his shoulder as he pushed the motorcycle from the shadows behind the stinking pile of cans, rotting fruit, and pungent diapers.
    “Most definitely in the United States,” Sadiq said, preoccupied. “He wants to punish the Great Satan on American soil… Jericho, these hostages, they are to be killed?”
    “So says Ghazan al Ghazi.”
    “In that case,” Sadiq said. “Be very careful you do not get killed yourself. Remember, I have yet to receive payment.”
    “Thanks for your concern.” Quinn couldn’t help but shake his head at his informant’s abrupt manner. The kid was right though, lives ended in the blink of an eye in this part of the world. “I’ll see that you are rewarded, no matter what happens to me.” He ended the call and sped into the darkness as fast at the rattling little Kaweseki would carry him.
    Intelligence was a perishable substance and if he intended to save the American prisoners, he had to move fast. Worse, he’d have to enlist the help of a man he despised.


    3 September, 2035 hours Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport

    Hamzah Abdul Haq ran-not for his life, but, Allah willing, to choose a less agonizing manner in which to die.
    The hulking Algerian bolted down the long, arched hallway, heart pounding, lungs rasping for breath. Cheap, rubber-soled shoes squeaked on the cracked tile as he dodged startled pockets of tourists. A stinking vagrant-the airport was full of filthy people-sprawled across the floor directly in his path, but fear made Hamzah agile as well as fast and he darted around the derelict without losing any of his precious lead.
    If the men chasing the Algerian had known what he had tucked in his huge fist they would have ignored the crowd and shot him on the spot.
    Since 9/11 when people saw Hamzah with his sullen eyes and wild, black goatee they naturally assumed he was a terrorist-a man on a sacred quest to destroy everything Western democracy represented. The American mall bombings had set nerves on edge. Commercial planes were only now beginning to be allowed back into U.S. airspace. Terrorists, they reasoned, lurked behind every shrub.
    In Hamzah’s particular case, these suspicions were correct.
    Standing six feet four inches with the broad shoulders of a professional wrestler, the Algerian cut an imposing figure. The French girls with whom he spent his time called him armoire a glace — the mirrored wardrobe. His great bulk proved useful for bending others to his will or hurting them if the opportunity arose. At the moment, he would have traded size for more speed. This was his last run, but, Allah willing, it was the most important of his life.
    Two officers of the French Police Nationale dogged his heals. Dark jumpsuits and shoulder patches identified them as Black Panthers-members of Recherche Assistance Intervention Dissuasion or RAID. As members of an elite antiterrorism unit they had their choice of weapons. These carried Glock semiautomatic pistols and the stubby, but deadly H amp;K MP5 submachine gun. RAID operators were said to shoot more than three hundred rounds each day and were all expert marksmen. The crowded terminal and their misguided desire to keep him alive for questioning were indeed the only things saving him from a bullet in the back of the head.
    In desperation, Hamzah cut in front of a yellow kiosk selling computerized foreign language courses. Unawares, a petite woman with blond braids pushed a baby stroller directly across his path. Her ribs crunched as he drove the point of his shoulder into her chest. The impact sent her crashing against a billboard with a sickening whoof. Hamzah yanked at the stroller as he bolted past, spilling a tangle of infant and blankets across the floor.
    He held a feeble hope the officers would stop and check on the baby’s safety, but a glance tossed over his shoulder confirmed what he already knew. RAID men were too professional for such a trick. They sailed over the dazed woman and her screaming child like Olympic hurdlers with automatic weapons.
    A stately, graying gentleman dressed in the tweed sport coat of a university professor stepped from a bank of phones in an attempt to block the fleeing Algerian. He got a flat hand to the face for his trouble. His glasses shattered and he dropped to his knees.
    Hamzah’s heart sank as boots closed in behind him. Was it Allah’s will that he should fail when he was now so close? Something had gone terribly wrong for RAID to be on him so fast. Someone must have informed.
    Panting for breath, the Algerian rounded a bend at the great hall, near the main ticketing plaza. He felt a rush of wind as a RAID man swept at his neck.
    Then, he saw his target, right where Rashid said he would be. Five more seconds, Allah willing, and nothing else would matter.
    Ian Grant readjusted his tattered yellow backpack and took a look at his ticket. At nineteen he was already a seasoned world traveler, visiting places his friends back in Iowa had only seen in National Geographic. Charles de Gaulle Airport had fast become his least favorite spot on earth. Notoriously difficult to negotiate, even in September it was as muggy as a West African jungle and stunk like an overflowing toilet. Now it was packed with stranded travelers trying to get back to the States after a three-day flight embargo because of some stupid terrorists bombing a mall. He missed Africa already.
    The flight from Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, the night before had been grueling. Before the cramped plane had lumbered down the tarmac, two haughty flight attendants had hustled down the center aisle, liberally applying the contents of two aerosol insecticide bombs into the already dank air over the passengers’ heads. The smug women wore masks, but assured everyone else that the stuff was perfectly safe. Ian could plainly see a skull and crossbones on the orange cans. Twenty-four hours later, his T-shirt still reeked. It was a reminder of the many idiosyncrasies of the Dark Continent.
    A year of sleeping on a reed mat and eating meals small enough to hold in the palm of his hand made civilization overwhelming. Small luxuries at the cheap hostel in Roissy the night before had been startling-light with the flick of a switch, a hot shower, and more food in one sitting than he’d been used to eating in a week. It gave him a melancholy pang at how he’d taken his entire life for granted.
    Clarissa had warned him about that the night before he left. She was twenty-five and freckled. A Protestant missionary, she was severely British and said whatever popped into her head.
    Ian would never understand why a girl like Clarissa had taken up with someone like him. Six years her junior, he was all knees and elbows, with a perpetual bedhead of muddy brown hair. He was blind as an African fruit bat without his glasses, and his front teeth were on the big side.
    With thoughts of Clarissa’s herbal shampoo swirling in his head like a hot African wind, he didn’t see the huge Arab until it was too late.

    The tiny device in Hamzah’s fist was called a cat’s whisker. Roughly two inches long, it was nothing more than a hollow cellulose needle, sealed at both ends and housed inside a slightly larger cardboard tube with a plunger at the base. Once inserted into the body via the plunger, the inner needle would dissolve rapidly, releasing its contents into the bloodstream. It held little more liquid than a single drop of dew.
    In this case, a drop was more than enough.

    Ian’s iced coffee spewed like a geyser as the massive Algerian ploughed into him from out of nowhere. Both men went down hard, the Algerian on top, driving the air from Ian’s lungs.
    The giant regained his feet in an instant, running again. Ian watched the soles of two black boots as a uniformed policeman leaped over him, only to slip in a puddle of spilled coffee. Another officer yanked his partner to his feet and the two tore down the hall cursing in French.
    Ian shook his head as the trio disappeared around a corner beyond ticketing. He felt as if he’d been run over by a train. When he lifted the front of his coffee-soaked T-shirt he found the beginnings of an ugly bruise on his right side. He touched the spot with the tip of his finger. It was raw, like a bad carpet burn. The big guy must have led with his fist.
    Ian grabbed a fistful of paper napkins from a nearby cafe stand and dabbed his shirt while he ordered another iced coffee. A veteran of West Africa, he’d endured far worse than a little bruise.


    0126 hours Iraq

    The sounds of an American M4 assault rifle were distinctive-a friendly series of flat, supersonic whacks splitting the air-and hopefully the hearts and minds of more than a few Iraqi insurgents.
    Sizzling arcs from falling Star Cluster flares illuminated the night sky to Jericho’s left, past the motorcycle he’d stashed under a scraggly tamarisk tree. Male voices barked commands in English and guttural Iraqi Arabic. Moments before, a U.S. Army Cavalry “Peacekeeping Unit” had blazed through the streets in hot pursuit of two rusty Toyota Land Cruisers and an Opal sedan that supposedly carried several high-ranking insurgent leaders. The sounds of shouts and shooting moved four blocks away, then five, then six as American soldiers, many no older than twenty-one, ducked and dodged through dark, narrow streets and bombed-out buildings in this the City of Mosques.
    So far, their quarry had eluded them.
    Thirty feet above Quinn’s head, a brisk desert wind caused the fronds of a lone date palm to hiss and rattle in the darkness as if shaken by an angry dog. There was no moon and as the Star Clusters burned away, the night closed back around him.
    Dressed in the ankle-length dishdasha and a checked Arab head scarf known as a shemagh, Quinn lay prone. The rubble and broken pavement of the street gave up the heat gained from a long day, warming his belly. Though he wore his own M4 carbine and assorted other weapons, Quinn’s robe made him look too much like an insurgent to take part in the present action without getting shot to pieces.
    As a fluent Arabic speaker, Quinn was a rarity in the Air Force. With the copper skin of his Apache grandmother, he’d been able to blend in with the local populace, living “outside the wire” or beyond the protection of the base, for the past six days. A rash of kidnappings over recent weeks saw seven contractors, an Air Force TACP, and three soldiers from the U.S. Army Task Force out of Camp Fallujah go missing. Four of the civilian contractors and one soldier had shown up in various butchered body parts around the city. As other areas in Iraq appeared to be becoming more peaceful with the steady withdrawal of U.S. troops, minority Sunni insurgents in Fallujah had become even more violent. With the Colorado bombings, some now believed the Americans might just decide to stay for a while and were pulling all stops to make sure that didn’t happen.
    Though he ate everything he could get his hands on when he was able to eat in the chow hall, Quinn had the gaunt look of a half-starved jackal that helped him fit in with the war-torn Iraqis. His Apache skin coloring, perpetual five o’clock shadow from his Irish father, and uncanny ability with the Arabic language allowed him to blend with the population outside the wire. His aggressive brand of fighting skill and elite fitness made him an obvious choice to spearhead the joint-service investigation tasked with finding the kidnapped personnel.
    Since the Army had the most missing men, a lieutenant colonel named Fargo from Task Force 605 was put in charge of the operation. He was a blustering man with a red face and enough frustrated energy to start a grass fire if he stood in one spot too long. A logistics and supply officer by training, Fargo was rumored to have a relative in Congress who had helped move him into a more active role in the fighting before he rotated back to the States.
    Quinn had been in Iraq for almost a year-double the term of deployment for an OSI agent. In that time, he’d developed a trusted stable of informants who had led him to Ghazan al Ghazi, an insurgent thug who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Iraqi civilians. Now, he’d finally developed a solid lead and the boneheaded Lt. Colonel Fargo had just blown right past with his men.
    A nineteen-year-old Marine had been kidnapped the previous night during a protracted firefight in the far north end of the city. Since they had no personnel missing prior to that point, the Marine Corps had seen to its other duties and chosen not to take part in the task force.
    For reasons known only to himself, Lt. Colonel Fargo had taken Quinn’s intel and launched this rescue attempt without notifying the Marine Corps brass in Fallujah. Fargo was known as a “seagull colonel”-an officer who flew in, raised a riot with his infernal squawking, and then shit all over everything before he flapped off to annoy someone else.
    At thirty-four, with the rank of Air Force captain, Quinn had no stomach for such leaders or the rancid politics they dragged around with them like a bad smell. If Fargo didn’t see fit to call the Marines, that was his business. But the idiot ran right past Quinn and the target building, hot on the trail of a convoy of bad guys who were surely meant to do exactly what they were doing-drawing the Americans away.
    Despite his best efforts, Fargo hadn’t been able to keep the rescue a secret from the Marines for long. The radio net buzzed with activity as angry bulldog brass from Camp Baharia demanded to know what was going on. They were sending troops and advised all others on scene to “stay the hell out of their way.”
    Two minutes earlier, Quinn had seen a bright flash to the north and heard the shriek of an enemy RPG-rocket-propelled grenade-followed closely by the unmistakable groan and sickening thud of a chopper going down. Helicopters-likely Marine Super Cobras, dubbed “Snakes” by their crews-that had been on their way to save a missing hostage, now roared toward the crash scene to provide close air support with their mini-guns.
    Quinn activated the high-intensity, infrared LEDs he kept in the pocket of the tactical khakis he wore under his dishdasha. Invisible to the naked eye, the tiny Firefly snapped to the end of a nine-volt battery could stay nestled in his pocket and still show up as an exploding fountain of light to patrolling aircraft. Quinn had witnessed firsthand the unholy mess American pilots and their magical weapons could make of unsuspecting insurgents. He didn’t mind blending in on the ground, but he wanted the good guys in the sky to know he was a friendly.
    Quinn raised his head just high enough to peer through a night vision scope at a clay building that slumped like a child’s mud creation across the deserted street. Rusted oil drums, filled with sand and stacked two high, flanked the sides and much of the front of the rough two-story structure, giving it a bunkered, junkyard appearance. A hand-painted sign in Arabic swung from one broken hook above a dark, double-garage doorway. The faintest shaft of light peeked from the edges of shuttered windows on the second floor.
    Quinn touched the tiny throat-mike that lead to the portable radio clipped beneath his dishdasha. “Tiger Four, Tiger Four, this is Copper Three-Zero…”
    Fargo’s aide de camp, Major Tidwell, answered. Despite his tendency to brown nose, Tidwell was a decent and capable soldier. “Go for Tiger Four.”
    “Tiger Four, Copper Three-Zero,” Quinn hissed. “You went past me…” He consulted a wrist-mounted GPS and gave his coordinates. “My guy says the missing Marine and at least one other friendly are in the two-story building twenty meters west of my location. The sign out front says it’s some kind of tire store.”
    Fargo came back, his voice crackling with energy. The pop of gunfire, likely his own whether he had anything to shoot at or not, caused the radio to cut in and out. “Stay put, Copper Three-Zero. Do not move. We’re meeting resistance, but will work our way back to you.” Fargo kept the button pressed on the radio while he shouted strained, nonsensical orders to his men. Quinn was forced to listen to an enormous amount of yelling and staccato gunfire before the officer finally came back to him. “I say again, do not take action! We’ll rally at your location!”
    Quinn tapped the Sig Sauer nine millimeter under his robe, to make certain it was where it was supposed to be. It was a habit he’d developed over his years of carrying a gun. He wore the pistol low on his thigh, in a tactical holster, so the ballistic vest he normally wore wouldn’t interfere with his draw. The handgun was only for emergencies. The job of hunting men required something larger. Quinn’s primary weapon was a Colt M4, the pug version of the venerable M16.
    Rifle in hand, he rose up to peer at the shop but froze at a sudden hiss from his right.
    “Copper Three-Zero? United States Marine Corps. I got your Firefly in my sights.”
    Quinn held his breath. “I’m a friendly.”
    “No shit,” the voice chided. It was rock steady and rolled onto the night air on a heavy Southern drawl. “I’d have smoked your ass thirty seconds ago ’twere that not the case.”
    “How many men you got?” Quinn whispered at the dark shape, his brain already hard at work on a plan. It was a relief to have someone around besides Fargo.
    “Two, but we’re Marines so that’s a dozen mortal men,” the voice said. “We augered in hard on that Huey three blocks north. Damned hajji got us with an RPG. Crew chief and three of my men had to stay behind to move the pilots. Both of ’em got banged up on impact. Rat bastard Iraqis’ll be swarming the place like maggots in no time flat. Me and Diaz broke away to come see about this missin’ Marine y’all been squawkin’ about on the radio.”
    Two forms scuttled up next to Quinn in the darkness under the lone palm tree.
    “Gunnery Sergeant Jacques Thibodaux and Lance Corporal Diaz.” Even in the inky black, Quinn could tell the gunny was built like a professional body builder. Biceps the size of grapefruit bulged from the rolled sleeves of his uniform blouse. Massive shoulders heaved with each deliberate breath. Corporal Diaz, who lay somewhere on the far side, was eclipsed by his giant sergeant.
    Thibodaux gave Quinn a once-over, raising an eye at his Iraqi clothing. “You a civilian?”
    “Air Force, OSI.”
    “Figured as much,” Thibodaux grunted, his voice gumbo-thick with a Louisiana drawl. A square-jawed Marine Corps poster child, he put up with pilots from other service branches because they offered close air support when he needed it. Everyone else was a wing waxer… or worse. “So, Chair Force, where exactly is our Marine?”
    Quinn rolled half on his side to look through his night vision scope at the shimmering green hulk of the Cajun. Thibodaux could have easily been an NFL lineman if he hadn’t listened to the recruiter back in Baton Rouge.
    “My information puts your Marine and at least one other American up there.” Quinn nodded toward the dilapidated tire shop. “They’re supposed to be executed tonight.”
    The muscles in the big Marine’s jaw tensed at the news. “And your shitbird colonel wants you to wait ’til he gets here?”
    “Those are his orders,” Quinn said.
    The men hugged the sand as an Opal sedan, covered in a layer of dust thick enough to obscure the color, sputtered up the road. Feeble headlights barely dented the night. The car ground to a creaking stop across the street, blocking the front door of the building from view.
    A heavily bearded Iraqi got out and looked up and down the empty street, craning his neck as if stretching would help him see in the dark. When he was apparently satisfied that he hadn’t been followed, he opened the trunk to retrieve a video camera and a large wad of clear plastic he stuffed under his arm. He gave the street another furtive look in either direction, then pulled an AK-47 from the back seat and disappeared into the building.
    The giant Cajun took a knee. His voice was grim. “That dude just took in a camera and tarps. We all know what these rags like to get on video…” The M4 looked like a toy in his shovel-sized hands.
    Quinn slipped out of his dishdasha and tossed it under the palm tree. “We can’t wait,” he said. “That a problem for you?”
    He could see from the look on the Cajun’s face that it wasn’t.
    “You kiddin’ me, Chair Force?” Thibodaux snorted. “I ain’t responsible to orders some sand crab didn’t even give me.” He nudged Quinn in the side with his elbow. “Fact is, I was never gonna wait anyhow.”
    “Outstanding.” Quinn pushed into a standing crouch. He tapped the CRKT Hissatsu fighting knife tucked in his belt before taking up the M4 from where it hung on the single-point sling around his neck. He paused to look at both Marines through the sullen darkness. To trust him, they had to hear this from his mouth: “No time for diplomacy here. We shoot anyone who isn’t a hostage.”
    “Roger that,” the Marines said in unison, stone-faced. That had always been their plan.
    Quinn sensed the same torrent of white heat he felt before any life-threatening action-a fire, low in his belly.
    Thibodaux turned and gave Quinn’s shoulder a nudge as they began to move. “Time we got to know each other a bit, Chair Force. Let’s me and you play a little game. Apart from the spending time in the company of a good woman-what are the top two things you wish you were doin’ right now?”
    Quinn broke into a fast trot, speaking as he went. His first wish was a no-brainer. “First, I’d be riding my BMW motorcycle up the Alaska Highway to see my little girl.”
    “Good choice,” the Marine said, jogging beside him. “And if you couldn’t do that?”
    Quinn focused on the darkened building ahead, full of people who wanted nothing more than to see him and every other American dead.
    “I’m doing it.”


    Running alongside the two Marines dressed in their full battle rattle, Jericho Quinn felt naked in his mesh gear vest, OSI-issue dark blue polo shirt, and 5.11 Tactical khakis. The desert night was cold without his dishdasha, but the fact that he had no body armor sent the chill all the way to his bones.
    “Take a look around back,” Thibodaux whispered to Corporal Diaz as they drew even with the first row of oil drums at the left end of the building.
    The plucky little Puerto Rican was dwarfed by the towering gunnery sergeant. He trotted off without a word with his bulky M240G machine gun. The Golf was heavier than an M4 but chambered for a 7.62 NATO round that packed a bigger wallop in return for the extra weight. He kept the weapon tucked in a high-ready position as he disappeared into the night.
    Quinn and Thibodaux crouched alongside a grimy showroom window, adjacent to the main entry. When the shop had been up and running, the window would have revealed a small lobby full of tires and a few chairs for men to sit and drink strong Iraqi coffee while they waited. Now there was only a vacant concrete floor, some scattered rat droppings, and a darkened set of stairs in the far right corner leading to the second floor.
    Diaz appeared from the opposite corner of the building in a tiptoeing sprint, having made a complete circle in just over a minute.
    “There’s a man-door up some rickety-ass stairs in back,” he whispered, not even panting. “But it’s sandbagged. Two sets of windows-one at the west end.” He tipped his head toward the garage bay. “And another around back, ten feet west of the upstairs door. Windows are sandbagged too, but there’s enough of a crack that I could make out two hajjis just inside the corner window.”
    “How about hostages?” Thibodaux asked.
    “No sign of ’em, Gunny,” Diaz said. “But I only had a half inch to peek through. The bastards already got on black masks. They’re gettin’ ready to make a video…”
    Quinn bit his bottom lip, understanding the urgency. “Any way to get a flash bang through one of the upstairs windows?”
    “No way, sir.” Diaz shook his head. “They got sandbags stacked up inside. I could blow the bags, but by the time we dug our way in, our guys’d be DRT.”
    DRT was dead right there-the worst kind of dead, absolutely, unrevivably dead.
    The Puerto Rican jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “The only way in is up those inside stairs.”
    Quinn turned toward Thibodaux, caught up in the moment of the chase.
    “Marines are big on charging the hill…”
    “Damn straight,” Thibodaux said. “If I told you what I really want to do, it’d melt your little Chair Force ears.”
    “Roger that, Gunny.” Diaz nodded in agreement.
    Quinn shot another glance through the film of dust and grime on the showroom window. Suddenly struck with a plan, he took a step backward, looking up at the second story, then through the window again at the stairs.
    “Gunny,” he whispered. “You’ve been through this drill before, I’ll bet… Cleared building packed with insurgents.”
    “Chock-full of the rat bastards,” Thibodaux said.
    “They’ve learned from us to block all the entries but one-”
    “Then fortify the hell out of the only way in,” Thibodaux completed his thought. “I’ll lay odds the hajjis Diaz saw got a fifty cal pointed straight at our only entry point.”
    “Okay, listen,” Quinn said, thumb on the safety of his M4. “Fargo could be another half hour for all we know. If we wait for reinforcements-the guys upstairs are dead. If we charge the door and get ourselves killed-the guys upstairs are dead.”
    “Roger that.” Thibodaux nodded, one eyebrow crawling under the front edge of his Kevlar helmet as he wrinkled his forehead in thought. “You look like a man with a plan.”
    “Here’s the deal.” Quinn hoped the idea didn’t sound as crazy out loud as it did in his head. “We go in fast and quiet. Diaz will cut left to take a position in the back corner while you and I hustle up the stairs… keeping an eye out for trip wires.” He added the last to show he’d cleared a building or two as well.
    “The way those ceilings sag they’re not much but plywood and rotten timber. Diaz, you give us a twenty-count, then spray the ceiling directly over that back corner with a good thirty-round burst. That’s where they’ll have their machine gun. After that, you better come running, because me and the gunny will be bootin’ the door when we hear you shoot. If you don’t get there quick, every bad guy in the place will be DRT before you get a chance to help.”
    “You’re a scary man, Chair Force,” Thibodaux grunted. “Death from below… remind me not to ever let you talk to my Delta-Whiskey.”
    “Your what?”
    “Dependent wife… she’s mean enough as it is. I don’t want her to learn any of your sneaky-ass ways.” The doorknob disappeared under Thibodaux’s huge left hand. “It’s open,” he whispered. “We go in on three.”
    Safeties snicked off in the darkness. Thibodaux slid the door open an inch at a time, searching for wires and other telltale signs of alarms.
    “What if the hostages are above the back corner?” Diaz said.
    “Then they’re dead anyway,” Thibodaux winked, pushing open the door. “ Laissez les bon temps rouler.”
    Let the good times roll.
    They made it up the stairs in three seconds without meeting any resistance.
    “Since I got on my flak vest,” the big Cajun whispered, “and you came to our little fais do-do unprepared, I’ll take the lead.”
    “I’ll let you,” Quinn said.
    Though the two men had known each other all often minutes, they were professional operators-and good tactics were good tactics. Each moved with a fluid surety that made the other man trust him as though they’d trained together for months. War, like no other catalyst, could forge an instantaneous and lasting friendship between men-if they survived.
    Quinn held up his left hand, knifelike, pointing at the middle of the door. “Down the middle?”
    The Marine gave a curt nod. He pulled the pin on a flash bang-to blind and deafen anyone in the room. “You take hajjis on the right, I’ll take hajjis on the le-”
    A clattering rattle broke loose below as Diaz tore up the floor with a barrage of 7.62.
    Thibodaux reacted instantly, slamming a size-thirteen desert combat boot to the door. The flimsy, wooden jamb shattered with a loud crack. The door leapt from its hinges as if torn away by an explosion. A half second later, the Marine’s stun grenade shook the building. Dust, smoke, and panicked Iraqi voices filled the air.
    Quinn focused on threats in order of scale: guns first, blades second. He was aware of two bound men, kneeling in the center of the room. Both wore blindfolds, hands tied behind their backs. A dazed Iraqi stood behind each prisoner. Would-be executioners, they held short blades, no bigger than pocket knives-executions were supposed to bring agony as well as death.
    The cameraman spun toward the door, his rifle dangling on a sling over his shoulder. He was less than three feet away, close enough Quinn could smell his sweat. Thibodaux moved fast, already behind the cameraman, busy with another target on his side of the room. It was too dangerous for Quinn to chance a shot with the M4.
    Quinn’s right hand stayed on his rifle while his left dropped to the Hissatsu killing blade in his belt. There were too many threats to devote inordinate time to any single one. Quinn strode forward, engaging the nine-inch blade point-first to shove the stunned cameraman out of his way. The razor-sharp weapon entered the soft flesh just above the V on the Iraqi’s collarbone. The man’s eyes slammed open in stark realization that the only beheading he would witness tonight would be his own.
    Quinn was vaguely aware of warmth and moisture spraying his arm, and the sucking gurgle as the Hissatsu slipped though muscle and cartilage.
    The knife slid back to its Kydex sheath with a positive click as Quinn advanced, a red palm print on his khakis where he’d wiped his left hand. The M4 back at eye level, he scanned the room for his next target.
    The cameraman twitched on the floor behind him, no longer a threat.
    Five feet away, a masked Iraqi who’d been in the process of reading a statement for the camera staggered backward in surprise. He tripped over a startled hostage to fall toward the left side of the room.
    “ Allahu akbar! ” he shouted, before two rounds from Thibodaux’s M4 tore his throat away.
    Quinn’s rifle spat and a tall Iraqi behind the two kneeling hostages stumbled forward, dropping his AK-47. The teenager who’d been posted with the 50-caliber machine gun, badly wounded by Diaz’s withering fire from below, poked his head over a row of sandbags in the far corner. He made a feeble attempt to fire a pistol.
    Thibodaux bounced a grenade off the back wall into the makeshift bunker and turned the kid to jelly. The sandbags directed the blast upward, away from everyone else, but the noise was deafening.
    Flanking each blade-wielding executioner, two more insurgents brought long guns to bear as they shook off the effects of the concussion.
    Quinn breathed in the smell of cordite and blood, swinging his rifle methodically, resting the glowing red circle on the M4’s EOTech holographic sight on the chest of one target, squeezing the trigger twice, then moving to the next a half a heartbeat later. He had no doubt Thibodaux was doing the same. If Marines were anything, they were expert riflemen.
    All the gun-wielding insurgents in his area of responsibility DRT, Quinn rushed forward to get a better angle on the one with the blade, who’d now grabbed the nearest hostage by the collar and used him as a shield.
    The young prisoner was difficult to identify through the filth that caked his face and grimy brown T-shirt, but his high-and-tight haircut above the duct tape blindfold made Quinn guess he was the missing Marine.
    He fought like a Marine.
    The hostage gave a muffled yell beneath his gag and pushed himself backward, rolling over the top of his assailant. Spinning as he rolled, he kicked out with bare feet, connecting with a satisfying thud to the masked Iraqi’s ribs. Enraged and still screaming under his duct tape, the young Marine lashed out blindly, legs pumping as if he were riding a bicycle. The Iraqi shifted away to avoid another blow, giving Jericho enough room to put two rounds below his left ear.
    “Clear!” Thibodaux shouted through gray curls of gun smoke and settling dust. His weapon still pressed close to his shoulder, tree-trunk arms tucked tight as he scanned the room.
    Jericho did the same.
    “I’m a friendly!” Corporal Diaz warned as he came through the door behind them. He blinked in dismay at the nine dead Iraqi’s that littered the room. “Holy shit, Gunny! You guys done already?”
    “Roger that,” Thibodaux said. He’d let the M4 fall against the sling on his chest and now knelt above the bound Marine. He cut the young man free and offered him a badly needed sip of water from the CamelBak attached to his ballistic vest. “What’s your name, son?”
    The young Marine stretched his jaw muscles, unaccustomed to being free of the duct tape. “Corporal Lark, Gunnery Sergeant. I got separated from my platoon two days ago. My buddy got shot and I woke up half beat to death with my hands tied.” His entire body shook from relief and adrenaline.
    Quinn tugged the tape away from the other hostage’s mouth and eyes. This one was older than the Marine by at least fifteen years, with thinning blond hair and a scraggly goatee-one of the missing contractors.
    “I thought I’d never see Americans again,” the man said, his voice shaking. He blinked in dismay as his tearful eyes adjusted to the light. “You killed them all.” He swallowed hard when, for the first time, he looked to the floor and saw the tiny knife that had been meant to cut his head off.
    The contractor hung his head between his knees and vomited.
    Diaz looked impatiently at his watch and tapped the toe of his boot against the wooden floor, which was now awash with pools of blood and bits of Iraqi insurgent.
    “We should haul ass, Gunny,” he said. “Been here too long alre-”
    As if to punctuate the urgency of the corporal’s plea, a mortar round screamed in from the darkness smashing into the side of the building. The sandbag bunker in the corner exploded in a flash of light and yellow smoke. Wood and sand flew through the room as if sprayed from a hose. A shard of metal from the demolished fifty cal whirred into Diaz like an airborne saw blade. He dropped to his knees, screaming in pain.
    “ Cochons! ” The big Cajun’s head jerked up from tending a blood-caked Lark. His eyes bored holes through Quinn. “Rat bastards are givin’ me the red ass! Chair Force, get on the horn and call us some close air support, pronto!”
    The gunny rushed to Diaz’s side. The huge piece of shrapnel had hit him below his calf, severing the Achilles tendon and both bones in the lower leg. His foot was attached by only a thin strip of skin.
    Thibodaux applied a tourniquet from a pouch on his vest. He shot a worried look at Quinn. “How about that air, beb?”
    Another mortar exploded outside. Twisted oilcans flew by the gaping hole in the wall. Like dogs to a dinner bell, insurgents were drawn to the sound of American presence.

    As soon as Quinn tried the radio, Lt. Colonel Fargo launched into a fulminating volcanic eruption, screaming as if Quinn had single-handedly started the whole Iraqi war. Quinn ignored him. If Fargo wasn’t going to help when they were under direct fire, it was hardly worth the trouble to mount a defense over the radio.
    After two calls for help on the open radio net, a patrolling pilot answered. “Copper Three-Zero, this is Psycho bringing my Warthog in from the north. Is that you, G-Man?”
    A third mortar whoomped in front of the tire shop, destroying the dead Iraqi cameraman’s rusty Opal. Whirring metal reduced the palm tree across the street to a three-foot stump.
    Thibodaux arched massive shoulders over Diaz, shielding him from falling debris. “The sons of bitches got us dialed in for sure now. Tell your flyboys to light a shuck!”
    Quinn gave him a grim nod, then turned back to the radio. Psycho was Major Troy Bates, an Academy classmate who’d gone on to fly A-10 Warthogs. “Psycho, this is Copper. That’s affirmative. It’s me all right.” Jericho was careful not to give out much information. Too many bad guys had stolen U.S. communications gear. He already had a price on his head-no point in jacking up the pot.
    A hidden fifty-caliber machine gun opened fire from the dark tumble of clay buildings less than half a block away and began to chew up the tire shop.
    “Psycho…” Quinn keyed his radio, his voice a taut wire. “We could use that support sooner rather than later. Lt. Colonel Fargo has Echo Company coming back from the northeast and we’re taking fire from our west.” He checked the GPS on his wrist and gave his coordinates.
    “I’m cleared hot and I got good eyes on your bad guys,” Psycho said, a half moment later. “Hold your ears, G-Man.”
    The Warthog’s GE turbofan engines roared overhead a moment before the GAU 8 nose gun burped with a throaty growl, like a smoker’s cough on steroids. Seventy rounds per second, each roughly the size of a fat carrot, shredded the rooftop insurgents like coleslaw.
    Quinn sighed, relaxing for the first time in a week. With an A-10 spitting death from the sky, other bad actors would lay low for a time. “I owe you, Psycho.”
    “Yes, you do,” the Warthog pilot came back. “But it’ll have to wait. I’m getting another call. The bad guys must be smokin’ crack tonight…”

    A Marine Corps Huey landed two minutes later to medevac the wounded. The pilot offered to take the American contractor as well, but Lt. Colonel Fargo would not permit it. He had to have something to show for his efforts. He treated the contractor little better than a prisoner, forcing him to ride in the command Humvee instead of taking the relatively quick chopper ride back to a hospital and hot food.
    Insurgents or no insurgents, before Fargo left the scene, he wanted a piece of Quinn. Spittle flew in all directions as he ranted and fumed. A desert camo helmet perched on an ostrichlike neck; veins throbbed and tendons tensed. His words were little more than seething, apoplectic grunts, but his meaning was clear. He had “important” connections-all the way to Congress-and he intended to see that Quinn was drummed out of the service for his disobedience.
    Through the dust at the landing zone beyond the splintered palm tree, Quinn caught sight of Thibodaux loading his brother Marines into the Huey amid flashing lights and rotor wash. Two Apache gunships circled overhead, patrolling for any bad guys who might want to crash the evacuation party. Thankfully, their engine noise drowned out most of Fargo’s tirade.
    As two Navy corpsmen took custody of Diaz’s stretcher, the corporal pushed himself up on one elbow. Quinn watched as he tugged on Thibodaux’s arm, then pointed back across the street, directly at him.
    “… putting you on report, mister!” Fargo’s threats jerked Quinn’s attention back. “Captain, are you hearing me?”
    Quinn decided he’d had a gut full. “I am, sir, loud and clear. Your wife’s sister is the President’s dishwasher’s nephew’s nanny, and you plan to use these connections to get me kicked out of the Air Force.”
    Fargo snorted. “Laugh it up now, bucko. You think you’re some kind of hero, but that kid got his foot blown off because of your stupidity. The Marines will want your hide- if, and that’s a big if, bucko-there’s anything left after I’m through with you. I had tactical command on this operation and you disobeyed my direct order. You are done!” Fargo started to poke him in the chest with a finger, but luckily for both of them, had enough brains to decide against it at the last moment.
    Quinn turned away, shrugging off the encounter before he did something that would really get him in trouble. It was impossible to take seriously anyone who used bucko twice in the same breath.
    As Fargo stomped off, Gunny Thibodaux rattled Quinn’s fillings with a smack between the shoulder blades. The two men stood together, shielding their faces from flying sand as the Huey spooled up and leapt into the black night. It disappeared quickly, flying lights-out to confuse RPG shooters among the rooftops and mosques.
    “Chin up, Captain.” Thibodaux grinned. It was no small thing that he’d elected not to call Quinn “Chair Force.” “Forget about that sand-crab son of a bitch. We saved two American lives today. That’s gotta count for somethin’. How you gettin’ back to your base?”
    Quinn nodded toward the wispy boughs of a haggard tamarisk bush across the street. “My bike’s stashed over there where you snuck up on me. It’s a piece of crap, but I’ll ride it back. I think more clearly when I’m in the wind.” He glanced up at the giant Marine. “How’s Diaz?”
    “He’ll make it.”
    “And his foot?”
    “The foot’s DRT, beb.” Thibodaux gave a somber grin. “That dumb-ass Puerto Rican, he’s worried ’bout you. He asked me to pass you a message.”
    “Hell yes, he did.” Thibodaux shook his head in disbelief. “‘Gunny,’ he says to me, ‘you tell Chair Force not to worry none. I’d give my left nut to save another Marine. A foot-well, that ain’t nothin’.”



    By the time Ian Grant cleared security and reached his gate an hour later, his neck was incredibly stiff. He shrugged off the pain as a side effect to the collision with the big Algerian and made a mental note to go see a chiropractor once he made it home to Iowa City.
    Northwest Flight 2 began to board forty-five minutes later, just before 10:00 P.M.
    Ian’s seat was 61E, near the back, so he was called early in the process. His passport was checked for the sixth time by a sneering gate attendant who seemed eager to add one last layer of bureaucracy before his victims got out of France.
    Finally on board, Ian found the loud behavior of the American crew disconcerting after so many months among the quieter people of West Africa. A smiling flight attendant with blond hair piled high and a gold tag that said her name was Samantha, helped him find his seat-which happened to be crammed between two gray-haired women from New Jersey.
    “Are you all right, young man?” the woman on the aisle said, as she gathered up her knitting to let Ian slip into his seat. “You look green at the gills.” The lines on her smiling face said sixty was a distant memory.
    “I’m fine,” Ian lied through a halfhearted smile. He kept his neck locked in place as he lowered himself into his seat.
    The old woman reminded him of his Aunt Ellen back in Iowa City. If the resemblance went any further than physical this was going to be a long eight hours to New York.
    Aunt Ellen leaned forward to talk to her traveling companion, who turned out to be her sister, Theresa. “He look a little peaked to you?”
    Theresa lowered her paperback bodice-ripper and put the back of a veiny hand on Ian’s forehead. “Feverish, indeed.” She peered across gold-rimmed granny glasses that were chained to her neck. “I trust you’re not contagious.” She looked and sounded very much like Ian’s seventh-grade English teacher. A more humorless woman, he’d never met.
    He tried to shake his head, but had to make do with shifting his eyes. He was beginning to worry that he’d broken something. “Touch of malaria.” He swallowed. Razor blades suddenly appeared in the back of his throat.
    “Malaria’s not catchy,” Aunt Ellen said, settling back in with her knitting for a moment, and then suddenly leaned to look across Ian. “It’s not, is it, Theresa?”
    “Not unless we happen to share mosquitoes,” Theresa mumbled, engrossed again in her pulp romance. “But he’ll likely get sweat all over us.”

    Roughly three hours after Ian’s collision with the Algerian, Samantha and a flight attendant named Liz brought the beverage cart to a rattling stop beside row sixty-one.
    Samantha leaned across Aunt Ellen to give Ian a napkin. “Can I offer you a turkey sandwich and something to drink?” She put a wrist to his forehead. “Are you okay? You look feverish.”
    “Malaria.” Aunt Ellen looked up, a twist of sky-blue yarn wrapped around her boney index finger. “It’s not catchy.”
    “Just water,” Ian croaked, surprised at how raspy his voice had become.
    He sucked a piece of ice, hoping it would soothe his throat, but it only made the pain worse. He spit the cube back in his glass and sank against his seat, exhausted. His entire body was on fire.
    Aunt Ellen raised an eyebrow and clucked like a mother hen. “You poor thing.” She dabbed at Ian’s forehead with her napkin, between bites of her turkey sandwich.
    The boy in row sixty popped up and down like a redheaded Whac-A-Mole target, gawking at Ian and his two elderly seatmates. His name was Drew and he found it extremely entertaining to throw his pretzels one at a time, backward over the seat while his mother was in the restroom.
    Theresa scolded the boy, going so far as to smack him over the head with her paperback. Drew retaliated by tossing more pretzels, one of which landed in Ian’s water. Theresa fished it out with a wink and threw it back at the boy. The boy poked his freckled face above the headrest with the soggy pretzel between his teeth. He swallowed it with a devilish giggle just as his mother returned to her seat.
    Fifteen minutes later, Theresa and Drew began to cough.
    Two hours into the flight Ian awoke with his stomach on the verge of eruption. He had just enough time to grab an airsick bag from the seat pocket.
    Theresa rolled her eyes behind her book. Aunt Ellen rubbed her belly. “I’ve always been a sympathetic vomiter.” She dropped her knitting on the floor and waddled up the aisle toward the restrooms.

    Samantha Rogers heard the boy in 61E retch as if he was about to lose his entire stomach. Airline policy dictated she put on latex gloves immediately, but she usually just carried them until she checked out the situation. People upchucked all the time on these long flights, but they usually made it to the airsick bag or the restroom. She’d gotten a new manicure at the Hotel Meurice during her layover and wasn’t about to wreck her nails if she didn’t have to.
    The kid’s upper lip was beaded with perspiration. His T-shirt was soaked. Though slender, his belly was bloated as if ready to burst. A ring of what looked to be chocolate cookie crumbs encircled grimacing lips.
    No need for gloves here-just an overindulgent sweet tooth. Thankfully, he’d used the airsick bag. Samantha held out a plastic sack to take the smaller bag. She gave him an empty one in return.
    “Too many Oreos for you, mister,” she scolded, touching the corners of his mouth with a moist towel she kept in the pocket of her apron.
    “He hasn’t been eating cookies.” Theresa leaned across to scowl at the flight attendant.
    “Then what…?”
    Samantha’s face went pale as the boy’s eyes flicked open. Tears of blood trickled from a web of swollen vessels. A muffled croak escaped cracked lips. To her horror, she realized the flecks of what she’d thought were dried bits of cookie was dead flesh sloughed from the boy’s raw tongue.
    A moment later, Liz ran up the aisle. Her mousy brown hair had escaped its bun and hung beside a flushed cheek as if she’d just been in a scuffle.
    “She’s dead!” Liz gasped in Samantha’s ear. Her voice shook with abject terror. “I went in to check on her and she’s dead-”
    Samantha grabbed her by both arms. “Who?”
    “She was sitting right here.” Liz’s eyes were wild. Her voice quavered as she pointed to the empty seat beside Ian Grant. “I heard an awful groan in the bathroom, and when I checked on her… she was slumped over the toilet…” Liz dropped her voice to a grating whisper. “Sammie, she was bleeding out of her mouth…”
    On the other side of Ian, Theresa stared mutely as a single drop of blood fell from her nose to land on the pages of her novel with a sickening plop.
    Samantha took a step toward the restroom, seized by a sudden wave of nausea. “Get it together,” she told herself through clenched teeth.
    From behind her, came the unmistakable sound of a child vomiting.
    “Drew!” The terror in a mother’s voice was unmistakable.
    Samantha swallowed, trying to regain some semblance of composure. Her throat was on fire.


    “Are you hearing this, Karen?” Northwest Captain Steve Holiday stared in dismay at his first officer as they listened to the flight attendants over the intercom. One passenger dead and four more were unconscious.
    “Food poisoning?” Karen Banning said as she unfastened her seat belt. If it had been a terrorist incident, both pilots would have barricaded themselves behind the armored door of the flight deck. In a medical scare, it went without saying that she would check things out.
    Captain Holiday reached behind his head and grabbed the oxygen mask. When alone at the controls, he was supposed to wear supplemental oxygen. His voice took on a detached, Darth Vader quality as he spoke through the mask.
    “Be careful out there. Scoot back here to let me in on what’s going on. Follow protocol.” If Steve Holiday believed in anything, it was protocol. It drove his wife crazy.
    The 747 was a spacious aircraft. It took the first officer three minutes to make her way through the upper-deck business class, negotiate the stairwell down to the main passenger compartment, size up the situation, and call back up to flight deck. To Holiday, each minute was an eternity.
    Normally almost giddy, Karen’s voice was deadly somber as it crackled across the intercom. “You’re not going to like this, Steve….”
    Her vivid description of the pandemonium in the rear of the aircraft hit Holiday like a straight jab to the nose. He ordered her back to the cockpit, where hours of training and well-established emergency procedures kicked into gear.
    Holiday noted their position on the GPS-still five and a half hours from JFK-and called in a medical emergency via the satellite phone. He was told to stand by while a doctor was summoned.
    When the doctor came on the line ten minutes later, Karen described what she’d seen like a child recounting a nightmare-coughing, fever, vomiting, bleeding from the nose and eyes. She looked across at Holiday, slight shoulders trembling as she spoke.
    “It’s not isolated among a particular group of passengers?” the doctor mused, almost to himself.
    “It is not,” Holiday snapped. He hated it when people talked to themselves when they should be talking to him. “This thing’s moving through my airplane like the plague. We haven’t been in the air four hours and already have five dead and…” Karen mouthed a number that surprised even him. “… and at least forty-two showing advanced symptoms.”
    The doctor advised the pilots to use continued oxygen and have no more interaction with the passengers. With hardly a good-bye, he promised to make contact again in fifteen minutes and cut the connection.
    Holiday gave a tight grin to his copilot. Blond, pert and almost elfin in appearance, Karen had always reminded him of his daughter. The sight of her trembling beside him broke his heart. She had to know she could still depend on him. “Chin up, kiddo. They’re probably trying to figure out what leper colony to divert us to.”


    Thirty-four minutes after Captain Steve Holiday placed his initial call to FAA Flight Following, Dr. Megan Mahoney of the Centers for Disease Control found herself pulled from the a plush corner booth at The Dining Room in Buckhead, on the outskirts of downtown Atlanta, and escorted to an armored limousine that smelled faintly of cigar smoke. She had been on her first date in months, with a cardiologist from Emory University Hospital. He was a handsome enough man, but loved to hear himself talk. Megan had to admit she wasn’t disappointed at the interruption.
    “I have to go,” she’d said as the two young, athletic-looking men wearing dark suits and dour expressions invited her to “please come along” with them. She’d shrugged and dropped her napkin on top of her lamb shank osso buco, which she was much sorrier to leave behind than the gabby cardiologist. “Duty calls.”
    “They send secret agents to fetch you from dinner?” Her date had smirked. “Who are you, Batgirl?”
    “Batgirl…” Megan had nodded at that, thinking of the hundred of bats she’d dissected under lantern light in dank forests around the world. “I suppose I am…”
    Mahoney was a compact woman, barely five-three, but when she wasn’t peering through a microscope at deadly pathogens, she was at the gym or in the pool. She demanded the two agents show her their credentials-though they both gave the impression she would get in the tinted limo one way or another.
    Inside, Megan found herself alone. A built-in webcam in a plasma screen on the teak table broadcast her image to representatives from Homeland Security, NORAD, and the White House. James Willis, the director of the CDC leaned across his deceptively uncluttered desk, making eye contact with her over the computer screen. He’d spent the last four days and nights working nonstop in Colorado. His face was drawn with fatigue and worry.
    Megan straightened her shoulder-length hair-her father called the color claybank — in an effort to look more professional and tried to settle into the overly soft leather seat.
    Each of the conference participants got their own portion of the split screen so all were visible to one another, even when they weren’t speaking. She recognized several of the Joint Chiefs and other high-level bureaucrats from too much time watching C-SPAN.
    “She’s four hours and twenty-one minutes off the Eastern seaboard at her present speed and course,” General Brian Randall, United States Air Force, advised the group, as if Northwest Flight 2 was an enemy missile. LEDs blinked and flashed on a wall map behind him in USNORTHCOM’s version of a Larry King backdrop.
    “Is that enough time to put a plan in order?” a frumpy woman from Homeland Security asked. “I’m not sure that’s enough time…” She wrung her hands on the oak table in front of her, as if squeezing out a washcloth.
    “Depends on the plan,” said Army Lt. General Adam Norton. “French sources tell us their antiterror-ist units took down a lab a little over an hour ago near Roissy, an area adjacent to the Paris airport. They discovered the makings of what looks like an attempt at some kind of biological weapon.”
    In the back seat of the limousine, Dr. Mahoney ran a hand down the front of her black cocktail dress and took in the information. Of course the government had plans in place for the quarantine of incoming aircraft, but every incident was different and required a slightly different protocol. She’d scanned the contents of a powder-blue folder from the seat beside her. As she spoke, she leaned into the microphone beside the plasma screen.
    “Megan Mahoney with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” She possessed the well-coifed classiness of a CNN news anchor and, having grown up in Fulton County, the magnolia-soft drawl of a bona fide southern belle. “Forgive me, but I’m assuming you’ve put the DEOC on alert?” The CDC director’s Emergency Operations Center stood fully staffed and ready 24-7 to help support national health emergencies.
    “For the time being, you are the DEOC.” Willis shook his head. “The White House wants this close hold-the fewer people made aware of it, the better. With everyone spooled up over the Colorado bombings, nerves are on edge, as you can imagine. Something like this could shut down the country.”
    “Very well,” Mahoney sighed, knowing better than to argue with all the egos at the meeting. “The symptoms the pilot describes indicate a hemorrhagic virus-something like Marburg or Ebola-but we’ve never come across anything that acts this fast. Has anyone looked at the passenger manifest? This would make a lot more sense if a large group traveling together began to develop symptoms at the same-”
    General Randall held up a sheaf of computer paper. “We’ve been over the passenger list, Dr. Mahoney. No large groups. According to the pilot in command, it looks like an American kid named Ian Grant seated at the back of the airplane was the first to get sick. We’ve run this kid’s passport history. He was on a flight to Paris from the Ivory Coast day before yesterday.”
    Megan made some notes in a small notepad she carried with her everywhere. “And he isn’t traveling with anyone?”
    “No, ma’am.” Randall shook his head. “But he and the old ladies who were sitting next to him are dead.”
    “And farther forward?” Megan felt her chest go tight as she thought through the possible ramifications of a hemorrhagic virus trapped in the tight confines of a commercial airliner.
    General Norton leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. “The pilot says there are five dead and over forty showing symptoms.”
    Megan nodded. It was exactly what she’d feared. “If an agent this fast is also airborne… that entire airplane is doomed-”
    General Randall harrumphed, rolling his eyes. “Doomed is a strong word.”
    Megan Mahoney chewed softly on her bottom lip. She was all too used to dealing with know-it-all managers who, in truth, knew less than the guys who vacuumed their spacious offices. She leaned against the teak table, both hands clasped at her chest. A string of Mikimoto pearls was draped across her fingers.
    “You are right. We do have plans in place for this sort of thing, General. Northwest 2 should proceed to the quarantine isolation gate at JFK. If those passengers aren’t quarantined the moment they step off that airplane, this illness would almost certainly infect any unprotected people who get within breathing distance. I suppose I don’t have to point out that Marburg kills one in four of those it infects…”
    “Maybe it’s not Marburg,” Randall said.
    “You’re right. It could be worse,” Mahoney said. “Ebola Zaire kills nine out of ten. Once those passengers get cell coverage they’ll be on the phone with their families. If they describe even the smallest fraction of what they’re going through, mass panic will ensue on the…” Her voice trailed off as she scribbled some figures on a legal pad in front of her.
    “What?” Randall asked, appointing himself as CDC’s unofficial interrogator. “You’re the disease expert. What are you thinking?”
    “The air onboard a commercial jet is recirculated throughout the plane…” Megan blew a strand of copper gold hair out of her face as she tapped her pencil on the pad. “A 747 carries roughly four hundred passengers. So far, they’ve eaten up fifty percent of their flight time and a little over ten percent of the passengers are infected. If this is anything like the hemorrhagic fevers we’ve seen, as soon as they show symptoms, each of those passengers will become a fountain of leaking virus and, from the look of things, be spewing it into the air with each breath.” She threw her pencil on the table. “I’m tellin’ y’all, Ebola does things to the human body you don’t want to see in the guy scrunched up next to you in coach.”
    Director Willis leaned forward. “Dr. Mahoney,” he said, giving her a knowing nod. “Why don’t you explain to the rest of the group what a hemorrhagic virus does?”
    “If it hasn’t happened already, very soon, the inside of that airplane will be awash in every bodily fluid imaginable. Connective tissue breaks down so skin looks like it’s falling off the bone. Cells rupture, men’s testicles swell, then die and turn black. Skin becomes hypersensitive to touch, making even the brush of clothing unbearable. There’ll be lots of bleeding-even from the pores-loss of bladder and bowel control…”
    Mahoney saw all eyes on the plasma screen were focused heavily on her. “Look, I apologize for being so blunt, but it’s important y’all understand just how dangerous this is. Ebola… digests you, for lack of a better description, from the inside out. By the time it’s finished, it’s replicated itself in exponential proportions. Each drop of blood in an infected body can contain over one hundred million viruses… and every single one of those little guys wants to find a way out, because you’re dead, and he’s gonna need another host…”
    “Thank you, Doctor.” A towering man in a crisp blue uniform and a full head of gray hair rubbed tired eyes. “Admiral Tobias Scott,” he said, though the chairman of the Joint Chiefs needed no introduction. “Whatever our decision, we owe it to Captain Holiday to get back to him quickly. He’s got be awfully lonely.”
    “I have two F-15s on alert at Lajes Field. With your permission-”
    “I appreciate that, General Randall, but our 747 is well beyond the Azores by now.” The admiral leaned sideways and spoke for a moment to an aide before turning back to the group. “Ladies and gentlemen, it looks as though the U.S. carrier Theodore Roosevelt is almost directly under Northwest 2’s present position. I’ll have her skipper send an F-18 Hornet up as an escort. He can jam the radio and satellite phone traffic so Captain Holiday or anyone else on board will be unable to get a signal out without coming through us. That should solve our mass-panic problem for the time being.” Scott looked directly into the camera. “Forrester?” he said, almost barking.
    Guy Forrester, a balding civil servant who’d risen inexplicably through the ranks of government to land high in the newly formed Department of Homeland Security, had jowls that were puffed and green, as though he might be sick. “Yes, Admiral Scott?”
    “Have someone pick up that FAA controller and the doctor who spoke to Captain Holiday. We’re going to have to bring them in to… protective custody, shall we say.”
    Forrester blinked bleary eyes and took a deep, shuddering breath. He did not move.
    “Right away, man,” Scott barked. “I can not emphasize containment enough here. You’re dismissed to go make your calls.”
    The admiral leaned back and steepled his fingers in front of closed eyes. “I need to brief the President in five minutes. Let’s hear some options, people.”


    4 September

    Captain Steve Holiday drew a breath from his oxygen mask through clenched teeth. Samantha, the lead flight attendant, was dead. Perky Liz, who’d just been showing off photos of her little boy’s first birthday, was dead. Four of the remaining nine crew members were having trouble standing, and from all accounts, two of those would be gone in a matter of minutes. He’d deployed emergency oxygen masks for the passengers but lied when he announced that doctors had advised this would help staunch any further spread of the mysterious illness. No one was telling him a damn thing.
    Beside him, slouched in the right seat, Karen Banning had figured out she was dying. A pile of tissues at her feet was stained with the steady flow of blood that dripped from her nose and came up with every raw, spasmodic cough. He’d tried to comfort her with a pat on the shoulder, but she jerked away, shrieking in pain at his touch. Any pressure against her skin threw her into agony.
    Once-smooth skin hung loose and lifeless off her cheekbones. Dull eyes bounced oddly in all directions as if hung on the end of cartoon springs. It was the stuff bad dreams were made of.
    The few unaffected passengers had barricaded themselves in the upper deck, outside the cockpit, and threatened to roll a beverage cart down the stairs at anyone who tried to come up the stairs from below. A look at the video monitor that viewed the back galley showed a surreal scene of dangling yellow oxygen masks, slumped bodies, and exhausted passengers shuffling zombielike to and from overflowing restrooms.
    Holiday switched off the monitor, surprised by a sudden squawk on the radio.
    “Northwest Flight 2, this is United States Marine Corps F-18, Nickel Five-Five hailing on one three one point one”
    Holiday bounced a fist off his knee and nearly howled in delight. “Hot damn, Nickel Five-Five, it is good to hear a friendly voice.”
    “Northwest 2 switch to Tango Niner-Niner.”
    Holiday complied. It was an encrypted frequency, used during hijackings.
    “You there, Nickel Five-Five?”
    “Roger that, Northwest 2.”
    “Outstanding,” Holiday said. “I’ve got an airplane full of dying people, and to top that off, we’re having radio trouble. Think you could relay for me?”
    “Happy to, sir,” the F-18 pilot answered back. “I’m a half mile off your starboard wing.”
    Holiday passed on details about the crew’s medical condition, the rapid spread of the illness, and the latest update on the number of dead.
    “I’m switching to a military frequency,” the fighter said after he’d repeated the information coolly. “Be right back, sir.”
    “You know where to find us,” Holiday chuckled.
    He shook his head at the luck of it all-running into an F-18 pilot at thirty-four thousand feet over the Atlantic. But as the quiet thrum and muted green glow of the cockpit closed in around him, he thought of his friend and first officer sitting only inches away with her eyes wobbling around in their sockets like loose marbles. Holiday realized luck was pretty damned scarce.

    The Marine fighter pilot from the Roosevelt gave the group a curt radio briefing on what he’d learned from Captain Holiday. Megan had worked with the military many times and was used to their deadpan delivery. She supposed it was trained into them, but they always sounded bored when talking to civilians.
    The news was grim. Everyone on the video link sat in stunned silence as the F-18 pilot recounted the way the virus had burned through half the passengers in the last hour.
    With nothing more to tell, the fighter pilot signed off to resume contact with Northwest 2.
    Lt. General Norton leaned forward, clutching what was left of his thinning gray forelock. He looked like a young boy stumped by an unanswerable test question. “We thought 9/11 was bad…”
    “General,” Megan said. “Don’t misunderstand what I’ m-”
    Randall cut her off. “We talked about a worst-case scenario like this well before 9/11. There is only one alternative here.” The general slapped the flat of his hand on the table for effect. “And we all know what it is.”
    Mahoney took a deliberate breath, mentally kicking herself. In her haste to point out how bad a hemorrhagic virus could be, she’d made this sound like the end of the world. “Gentleman, plea-”
    “I have to agree with General Randall.” It was Norton’s turn to cut her off. His voice was hollow and he spoke without looking up.
    Admiral Scott nodded slowly, as if passing judgment. Everyone on the video con went quiet. At length, he turned to his aide.
    “Get our F-18 pilot on the horn again, please.” That order given, he turned to face the monitor again. “Dr. Mahoney, you were saying?” Even on the plasma screen, the man’s blue eyes locked on to her, missing nothing.
    “It’s vital that we all understand something, Admiral.” She cleared her throat. “Though this incident is bad, it is not the worst possible scenario.”
    Scott’s aide turned to call the F-18 pilot, but the admiral flicked his hand, motioning for him to hold.
    “And exactly what would the worst be?” the admiral asked.
    All eyes on her again, Megan smoothed a hand down the front of her dress, nodding. As a scientist she’d always been more comfortable surrounded by deadly germs than politicians and bureaucrats; she found them more predictable. Her Georgia accent came on thicker when she was nervous and it was honey sweet at the moment. “For one thing, hemorrhagic fevers-like Ebola-tend to burn themselves out, in many cases killing their victims before they have a chance to spread to anyone else. Faster is not necessarily better for a virus’s longevity. If the illness aboard Northwest 2 was implemented by a terrorist cell, then they succeeded in something remarkable only by making it airborne.”
    “Still pretty damned terrifying,” Randall said.
    “There’s no doubt,” Megan continued. “This scares the hell out of me… and it would cause a tremendous amount of panic. But we could more than likely isolate something like this almost as quickly as it began-especially now that we know what to look for.”
    “So?” Randall threw up his hands. “That’s supposed to make us feel better-that we are ‘likely’ to be able to contain it?”
    Megan clenched both fists beneath the table, out of the camera’s view. Randall was getting under her skin, so she focused on Admiral Scott. “First, viral pandemics aren’t something to screw around with. In the early nineteen hundreds Spanish flu killed more Americans than Vietnam, Korea, and both World Wars combined.” Megan spoke slowly so imbeciles like Randall could understand. “AIDS is able to infect so many because it is insidious. It kills slowly. In fact, a carrier can infect hundreds of others without showing any signs they are contagious. If an airborne virus such as the one on Northwest 2 were to shift, or be caused to shift into something that killed a little more slowly… it wouldn’t even show up on our radar until it’s gone too far to stop. In the deadly disease business we even have the name for such a bug-Pandora.” She paused to let her words sink in. “Once she’s out of the box… there would be no stopping her. That is the worst case.”
    Admiral Scott sat motionless for a long moment. “Thank you for your assistance, Dr. Mahoney. Dr. Willis, I know you’re busy with your duties in Colorado. I’d like Dr. Mahoney to get herself to Washington on the next available flight. We should discuss this face-to-face. Now, if you all will excuse me, I need to have some words with our F-18 pilot.”
    The plasma screen in front of Megan switched off and the limousine went dark.


    “You out there, Nickel Five-Five?” The 747 pilot’s voice crackled over the Super Hornet’s radio.
    “Go ahead, sir.” The young Marine turned his head to the left and watched the heavy airliner glide against the lumpy backdrop of white clouds. They traveled at the same speed and the big bird appeared to hang motionless in the air.
    He’d allowed his fighter to inch closer and was now less than two hundred yards off the 747’s wing, flying behind and slightly above. It was a position he called owning — though in a weapons platform as sophisticated as the F-18 Super Hornet, he owned all he could see and then some.
    “Call sign Nickel… one twenty-second Crusaders, right?”
    “Aye, sir,” the fighter pilot said, snorting. He was genuinely impressed. “If you don’t mind me asking, are you a Marine?”
    “Negative, son,” the 747 pilot came back. “United States Navy.”
    “I’m sorry, sir,” the fighter jock chuckled. “Didn’t mean to bring up a sore subject.” He wished the brass would come back and tell him what was going on. This chatting with a bus driver was going to get old fast.
    “Good one, Marine. I’ll let that slide since you happen to outgun me. Not to mention the fact that I’m partial to the airframe you’re flying.”
    “Got a little time in an F-18, sir?”
    “A little,” the 747 pilot said. There was something faraway in his voice. “Mind if I ask your name, son?”
    He really hated when these old geezers called him son. “Stoner, sir, Captain Brad Stoner.”
    “They got the Crusaders flying off Rough Rider now?”
    Stoner snorted again. This guy knew a lot more than an ordinary bus driver. Rough Rider wasn’t the ship’s real name-the President had co-opted that one-but the folks lucky enough to serve aboard the Roosevelt still called her that from time to time. “Aye, sir, we’re on our way home from the Persian Gulf. You spend time aboard the TR?”
    “Fair amount.”
    Man, this dude was cagey. “May I ask your name, sir?”
    “Holiday,” the 747 pilot replied. “Steve Holiday. I was likely retired before you graduated high school.”
    Why did that name ring a bell?
    “What squadron were you with before you retired, sir?”
    “Flight Demonstration,” Holiday said.
    “Captain Steven Holiday of the Blue Angels? That’s you, sir?”
    “My friends call me Doc,” Holiday said.
    “It’s an honor to fly the same patch of sky with you, Captain Holiday,” Stoner gushed in unabashed hero worship. “I had a model of your F-18 hanging from my ceiling when I was a kid. I still got a poster you signed at the Oshkosh air show. Wait until I tell the guys in my squadron.”
    Stoner had dreamed of being a Blue Angel from the time he was in the seventh grade. He wanted to say more, but the radio squawked.
    “I’ll be right back, sir. I’ve got HQ on the other freq.”
    “Roger that, son,” Holiday’s voice crackled. It was breathless, as if he’d just finished a long run. “Glad you’re here, Marine.”

    The USS Theodore Roosevelt relayed an encrypted patch from the Pentagon to the F-18 Hornet. Only five people were privy to the ninety-second conversation. By the time it was over, Brad Stoner thought he might cry.

    “You… hangin’ in there, Captain Holiday?” Stoner’s throat convulsed.
    “Roger that.”
    “Listen…” Stoner shook his head, trying to focus on the instruments in front of him. “Sir…”
    Holiday, ever the warrior-gentleman, saved the distraught younger pilot from having to explain himself. “Say, Brad… I did some thinking while you were gone…” His voice flickered like a failing light. “You might want to know that my good friend and first officer just passed away…” He coughed. “The way she went wasn’t pretty.”
    Holiday cut in. “They still strap a Slammer on those birds?” A Slammer was the AIM 120-the big sister to the Sidewinder Air Interceptor Missiles the Super Hornet carried at the end of each wing.
    “They do indeed,” Stoner said in a reverent whisper. Holiday gave a ragged cough. “I gotta tell you, Brad, I never considered myself a coward, but I don’t relish the thought of dying like my friend just did… You hear what I’m saying?”
    “Aye, sir.”
    “Captain Holiday, would you do me the courtesy of looking out your starboard window?”
    Stoner maneuvered his F-18 twenty yards off the jumbo jet’s right wing. He turned on the cockpit light, flipped up his helmet visor, and snapped a crisp salute. He held it for a long moment as tears welled in his eyes.
    Across the dark void of sky between the two men, in the cockpit bubble of the 747, Navy Captain Steven “Doc” Holiday returned the gesture.
    “A small favor, Brad?”
    “Name it, sir.”
    “This is gonna be awful hard on my wife…” His cough was more ragged now. “If you ever get a chance… her name’s Carol. Tell her you met me once-and that all I ever talked about was her.”
    “Aye…” Stoner couldn’t finish.
    “Tallyho, Marine-” Holiday broke into a coughing fit and cut radio contact.
    Stoner pulled back on the stick, gaining the altitude and distance he’d need to carry out the admiral’s order. On his console, a small light reading A/A-air to air-blinked red.
    He’d never be able to tell anyone what he was about to do-nor would he want to.


    7 September, 1100 hours Al-Hofuf, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

    Sheikh Husseini al Farooq never traveled unless accompanied by at least two of his three most trusted men-and Zafir knew he was favored above all. Ratib and Jabolah had grown up with the sheik, and indeed these two men were considered family. But Zafir had proved his loyalty when he lost three fingers of his left hand saving the sheikh from an assassin’s sword. For the lowly Bedouin, Farooq reserved a trust beyond that given even to his closest brother.
    At forty-one, Zafir was ten years the sheikh’s junior. Where the master was short and neat with finely chiseled, almost feminine features, the Bedouin was tall and unkempt. His black hair swept from a high forehead in a wild mane, revealing dark eyes that pinched into a permanent scowl. He looked as if he’d just ridden a fine horse to death only to walk the remainder of a long journey-every step in service of his master.
    Today, he was dressed, as were Farooq and the other seven men at the meeting, in the dazzling white cotton dishdasha of a Saudi businessman. Unlike the others, Zafir’s face twitched and his body ached for the rougher robes of the Bedouin. He took a sip of strong coffee, letting the bitterness and familiar bite of cardamom soothe his nerves. As always, he kept a wary eye on all those near the sheikh.
    Dictated by long tradition, Farooq, as the host, had ground the beans in front of his guest and served the coffee himself.
    “The Americans are reeling,” the sheikh said as he served a tiny cup to Malik, a fat man from Baghdad. “They are full of self-righteous indignation over our little bombing at their shopping mall. But they believe bombing is all we know how to do. They believe us to be weak and ignorant.”
    The men sat on quilted cushions around a low mahogany table piled high with fruit, flat bread, and al-kabsa-a dish of rice and spiced lamb. Malik had hogged nearly all the dates, though no one but Zafir appeared to notice.
    “They think us inferior because we choose to live in a desert and keep control of our women where they cannot.”
    Each man at the table nodded in somber agreement. Nassif, the dapper first deputy to the Saudi foreign minister sipped his coffee, but all there knew he agreed. A man of his standing would have never met with the sheikh unless they had already come to some accord. The fat Iraqi snorted over the last two dates he’d shoved in his mouth, highly offended that anyone would think him inferior.
    Farooq continued, “The Americans are bad players of chess. They have failed to see the mall bombing for what it was, the push of a pawn. They believe their ultimate win is inevitable merely because they have the greater number of pieces on the board. And that is exactly what I want them to think. For now, we will play their game-”
    “I have heard,” Malik, the Iraqi, interrupted, wiping thick hands on a linen napkin as his spoke, “that the Prophet-may Allah be pleased with him-forbade the playing of chess.”
    Several of the men at the table, all adherents to the strict Wahabi sect of Islam, nodded in agreement. Nassif, the deputy minister, kept his thoughts, if he had any, to himself.
    Haziz al Duri, a wealthy hotel owner from Riyadh, put a hand to his goatee. “Indeed Ali-may Allah be pleased with him-said chess was gambling-worse even than backgammon.”
    “Oh, I beg to differ,” the Iraqi shook his jowly face. “It was Ibn Umar-may Allah be pleased with him-who said it was worse than backgammon.”
    “Gentlemen, please.” Farooq raised his hand and smiled meekly. Only Zafir saw the twitch in his left eye that revealed his true displeasure with the Iraqi. “Though I am certain chess has value to the mind and is indeed halal if it does not cause us to miss prayers or gamble, I speak here only of a figurative game. Perhaps we might save our discussion of such merits for a later time.”
    “I have pledged my assets to the effort,” Malik said. “I wish to see the Americans crumble as much as anyone.”
    “And your generosity is appreciated,” Farooq said. “Our latest operation in France was only a test, but it was far more successful than we’d imagined it would be.”
    “But we have heard nothing of consequence in the news,” the merchant from Riyadh said. “Only that an American airliner crashed into the ocean. I fail to see how that is a success.”
    Farooq took a deep breath, then held it for a moment before exhaling through thin nostrils. “Again, if I might compare our work to the strategy of chess without beginning a debate. The American news reports the plane crashed, but I believe the Americans shot it from the sky. The U.S. is frightened because they believe they know what we are up to. At the same time, they believe they have won, because the French killed our Algerian brothers and took the contents of their lab. They are certain to think us incapable of anything more intelligent than infecting an airliner.
    “Of course there will be those among the Americans who suspect more, but they will be disbelieved. It is their defense mechanism. And even if some do choose to believe, while they stand mesmerized by one battle raging on the board, we will strike from a completely different angle, ending the game while the haughty devils still believe they have beaten us.”
    “Would you care to enlighten us with the remainder of your plan?” The fat Iraqi scooped a pile of al-kabsa onto his saucer with a piece of flatbread.
    A smile blossomed on Farooq’s face, turning his lips into a pale gash beneath a sparse goatee. “My friend, I would be delighted to do just that. If you would all be so gracious…” The sheikh raised a hand. Ratib slid back the woolen curtain that covered a heavy glass partition separating them from a dimly lit room.
    The men around the table grew pale. The hotel owner’s hand shot to his mouth and he turned away in horror. Nassif, the government man, tried to take another sip of coffee, but his hand shook too badly to get the cup to his lips.
    Sheikh Husseini al Farooq reclined against his cushion and yawned. He considered the back of his manicured hand as he spoke. “We are fortunate, I think, to have the laboratories and veterinary scientists so near at King Faisal University. Of course, to do this to animals would be strictly haram. I would take no part in such a thing. Americans are worse than devils to be sure, and Allah, may it please him, will surely sanction our plan. What you see, Allah willing, is but a small taste of what the infidels have in store.”
    Zafir stared at the glass, transfixed at the scene on the other side. Tonight was the night he would ask of his master the greatest of all favors-to play a more central part in the game. That’s what the sheikh called it- the Game. And with a man as supremely wise as Farooq pushing the pieces on the board, it was a game they were certain to win.
    A rumbling gurgle drew the Bedouin’s attention away from the window. Malik, the fat Iraqi, had vomited in his plate.


    10 September, 1520 hours Andrews Air Force Base Maryland

    Jericho Quinn’s BMW GS Adventure mirrored his personality. It was a powerful bike-tall, gunmetal gray, fast, and intensely aggressive. As a boy, he’d tacked Molly Hatchet’s debut album to the wall above his bed. The cover art was a Frank Frazetta painting of a horn-helmeted fantasy warlord, clothed in dark robes atop a muscular black warhorse- The Death Dealer. Sullen red eyes glowed under the knight’s helmet. Blood dripped from a battle axe in a brandished fist. Vultures circled overhead and steam blew from the beast’s nose. Jericho’s mother hated the painting, complaining that such a dark image was bound to inspire her son toward horrible things. His father, on the other hand, had only smiled and told his mother to be glad that was the only Frank Frazetta art Jericho had decided to hang on his wall.
    The album cover did turn out to be an inspiration. Quinn had ridden motorcycles virtually all his life, from the first Honda 125 he used to scoot up and down the beach on while the family dug for razor clams, to the broken-down Harley Panhead he’d bought to tinker with during high school-and a dozen other bikes since. He loved them all for differing reasons. Some were fast, others were nimble, still others were hell on wheels off road. But he was never able to choose a single favorite bike-until he saw his first 1150 GS shortly after he’d graduated from the Air Force Academy. The first time he set eyes on one of the big black BMWs stopped at a light in downtown Anchorage on a drizzly gray afternoon, his mind had immediately flashed to the Death Dealer’s muscular warhorse. He’d sold his Firebird, a Honda CBR sport bike, and a Harley Davidson Road King to buy his first one. Though he’d eventually moved up to the 1200cc model, he hadn’t once been disappointed.
    GS stood for Gelande Strasse, German for trail and street. Though the Beemer handled tamely enough on the manicured, vegetarian pavement of Andrews Air Force Base, the 1,200cc was a predator. A two-wheeled raptor, a hundred and five warhorses of beaked meat-eater, built to chew up rougher terrain.
    The crossed war axes on his metallic gray visored Arai motocross helmet, complete with blood dripping from the blades, were a custom-painted tribute to the Frazetta painting of his youth.
    Helmet in hand, Quinn stood beside the bike in the sunny parking lot outside AFOSI Detachment 331 Headquarters. A cell phone was pressed against his ear. A black leather Vanson motorcycle jacket covered his light blue uniform shirt. His darker dress tunic was folded neatly in the Touratech aluminum-top case on the back of the bike. The air was heavy with humidity and the scent of newly mown grass.
    As an OSI agent, he normally worked in civilian clothes. It made interviewing people who outranked him much easier when he identified himself as special agent rather than a lowly captain. A Court of Inquiry, however, required service dress blues. He didn’t know if it was the gravity of his present situation or his starched collar, but Quinn felt as if someone were sawing off his head. He found it oddly entertaining that he considered himself in more danger now than he ever had in Iraq.
    His ex-wife’s attitude didn’t help.
    “So…” Her voice was distant, both in tone and geography. “How did it turn out?”
    “What?” He put a finger to his free ear to block the roar of a passing lawnmower.
    “That little court thingie.”
    It was mind-numbing that Kim would minimize a proceeding that might very well cost him his military career by calling it a “little court thingie.” She did it with anything that frightened her. It was her way of coping, her way of not going crazy in an insane situation. She didn’t mean anything by it.
    “Hasn’t started yet,” he said, rubbing his eyes with a thumb and forefinger. He almost told her how the worry was eating a hole in his guts. Luckily, she cut him off.
    “We had a cow moose eating my apples along the driveway this morning,” she said. “Mattie couldn’t get to the bus stop so I had to drive her to school.”
    It was better this way. Keep things light. “Was she scared?” As if Mattie Quinn was scared of anything. Jericho knew his little girl took after him in the bravado department. He wondered if that fact would serve or damn her.
    “She’s fine,” Kim said. “This morning she asked when you were coming home.” She had to slip that in. “You think you’ll get leave anytime soon? I mean, they did keep you over there nearly a whole year.”
    “I may get more time off than I want if they boot me out of the Air Force.” He couldn’t help himself. His stomach was in knots and he needed someone to talk to. It turned out to be a mistake.
    “Would that really be so bad, Jericho?” You could come back home and spend some time with Mattie-”
    “What about Mattie’s mom?”