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The Ragnarök Conspiracy (INTEL 1, Book 1)

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The Ragnarök Conspiracy

INTEL 1, Book 1

Erec Stebbins

Contents

Copyright

Dedication

Epigraph

Circular Title

Targets of Vengeance

1. Monsters

2. Special Ordnance

3. Hit Men

4. Death List

5. Modus Operandi

6. Valkyries

7. Lucifer’s Liturgy

8. Not of this Earth

9. Bait and Switch

10. No Disposal

11. Late for Work

12. Surgical Strikes

13. Quarry

14. Golden Raven

15. Prodigal Son

16. Runes

17. Thor’s Hammer

18. Caracas

19. Old Norse

20. Enemy Within

21. Proverbs from the Quran

22. The Convert

23. What God Writes

Merchants of Death

24. Algiers

25. Black Panthers

26. Crazy Ivan

27. The Martyrs Monument

28. Black Bag Job

29. God is Great

30. Desert Guns

31. Closer to God

32. Storms

33. Voices

34. Food and Oil

35. Gasoline

36. Prometheus

37. Means and Motive

38. Double Meanings

39. Completing the Map

40. Shabbat Candles

41. Morden

42. 9/11

43. Gunn Tower

44. The Black Stone

45. Hacked

46. Superstition

47. Dark Paths

48. Not Even the Gods

49. Not Vacationing

Pillars of Islam

50. Unwelcome Guests

51. Lost Souls

52. Serial Numbers

53. Massacre

54. Breaking and Entering

55. Taken

56. Ticket to Mexico

57. Broken Arrow

58. Blackmail

59. Raining Fire

60. Insurance Policy

61. Red Sky at Morning

62. Bird of Prey

63. Acceleration

64. Takeoff

65. Hammer Strike

66. First Pillar of Islam

67. Last Temptation

68. No Kind of Fair

Epilogue

End Quote

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Also by Erec Stebbins

INTEL 1 SERIES

SCIFI

Back Cover

Only one thing is impossible for God: to find any sense in any copyright law on the planet. —Mark Twain

This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s overactive imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

The Ragnarök Conspiracy. Copyright © 2012 Erec Stebbins

Second edition, The Ragnarök Conspiracy Copyright © 2016 Erec Stebbins

Published 2016 by Twice Pi Press

[email protected]

Unless otherwise indicated, all materials on these pages are copyrighted by Erec Stebbins. All rights reserved. No part of these pages, either text or image may be used for any purpose other than personal use. Therefore, reproduction, modification, storage in a retrieval system or retransmission, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical or otherwise, for reasons other than personal use, is strictly prohibited without prior written permission.

Cover designs by Erec Stebbins

Images licensed from Adobe Stock from authors Algol, pavellukashin, Artur Golbert, RVNW, and luzitanija.

2nd Edition copyedited by Kim McShane.

ePub: ISBN-13: 978-1-942360-30-8/ISBN-10: 1-942360-30-4

Kindle ebook: ISBN-13: 978-1-942360-29-2/ISBN-10: 1-942360-29-0

Paperback: ISBN-13: 978-1-942360-27-8/ISBN-10: 1-942360-27-4 

Hardback: ISBN-13: 978-1-942360-28-5/ISBN-10: 1-942360-28-2

For Anna Maria and Christina

In today’s wars, there are no morals. We do not have to differentiate between military or civilian. As far as we are concerned, they are all targets. If inciting people to do that is terrorism, and if killing those who kill our sons is terrorism, then let history be witness that we are terrorists.

Osama bin Laden

Choose your enemy with wisdom, for him do you become.

ancient proverb

Part I

Targets of Vengeance

The significance of myth is not to be pinned

on paper by analytical reasoning.

J.R.R. Tolkien, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”

1

Monsters

Near the back of a rank dive in the Bronx, in one of the deeper recesses and darkest corners, FBI agent John Savas hunched over a shot glass, a caramel-colored liquid halfway to the rim. His slumped posture and navy fisherman’s cap obscured most of his features. Dark hair flecked with gray spilled out from under the cap and melded with the rough layer of stubble on his face.

The smoke in the bar created a tangible fog, infiltrating every crevice, staining curtains and nearly obscuring the obligatory “No Smoking” sign. A jazz band played its heart out against a side wall.

A select group of patrons ignored the music. Huddled in black corners, their faces turned to the walls, obscured figures whispered into the shadows.

Savas clenched his jaw. He’d been waiting too long, and this was a dangerous game. His recent injuries tore at his concentration, and fatigue began to set in. He shouldn’t be here; he knew that. His choices hadn’t pleased the physicians.

But they don’t understand.

He glared at the whiskey in front of him- a prop, but once a poisonous balm. Beginning one rain-drenched night at the Church of the Holy Trinity in 2001, he’d nearly drowned in that sea, losing his job, his home, his wife. After his son’s death, John Savas had lost himself.

He hadn’t touched a drop for nearly a decade. Not since the day he’d made a life-changing visit to the FBI. God worked in mysterious ways. Or at least friends do. Friends in high places, who had connected him to a new and experimental division at the FBI seeking unusually motivated recruits. Friends who had brought his file to the attention of Larry Kanter, a new branch chief, a man determined to rewrite the rules of national security, beginning with unorthodox methods and staff. Kanter had seen something in Savas, his record at the NYPD, the spark in his eyes at the mention of counterterrorism. Kanter had taken a chance on John Savas and been amply rewarded. But Savas had won that exchange, grasping a new lease on life—and a mission.

A moaning door hinge snapped him to the present. He glanced up discreetly, his slovenly posture belying an inner intensity.

A large man stepped inside, his appearance clashing with the interior of the bar. A battered coat poorly disguised his tailored clothes. His skin was a sandy brown, his features Arabic but obscured by the fat deposited over many years of high living. His stance indicated a man of power, but his eyes flashed fear. As the door closed behind him, two hulking bodyguards took positions outside. The man nodded toward a lone drinker near the door, a clone of the two hulks outside. A scout.

Savas returned his gaze to the drink. His contact was anxious, and frightened men were far easier to manipulate. Now the trap will be set.

The Arab walked slowly toward Savas at the back of the room. His eyes darted in several directions, and he approached the booth like a hunted animal. He slid into the opposite seat, placing his hands on the table.

“This place is not safe.”

Savas squinted above the whiskey and nodded, his olive skin blending into the stained wood around him. He scratched the three-day growth of beard.

“What place is safe?” he replied, a false Greek accent, modeled on his immigrant grandfather’s, inflecting the words. He opened his palms upward. “You want safe, sell smartphones. You want to bring in your shipments, talk to me.”

Again, the Arab glanced around the room.

He’s very frightened.

“Dimitris,” said the Arab, “I have my connections. We must know who we deal with. Your name is not in any shipping records. Your prints match nothing in any database. You don’t seem to exist.”

Savas mulled this newfound paranoia. He glanced at the latex false-skin over his fingertips. Bless my own paranoia. He only hoped they didn’t have access to DNA analysis. “Ambassador Hamid,” he said with his most crooked smile, “I have been a disservice?”

The ambassador rumbled deeply over the music. “No. But we need to know more.”

Savas shook his head. Is my cover blown? He felt the bulge from his pistol and tried not to glance toward the bodyguards. “If you know more, it’s not so good for me, katalaves?” He held up his hands. “No one knows these hands, Ambassador. My business is better with shadows. Not you, not the Americans, no one knows Dimitris.”

“Is that your real name?”

Savas only smiled. “I have boats. Good boats, also shadows. Never traced. We pay good money and they stay shadows. If you change your mind, then find other boats.” He paused dramatically. “If you can.”

The ambassador squirmed. Savas didn’t envy the two-faced game Hamid played at the UN. That position gave him tremendous opportunities to exploit weaknesses in U.S. security. But he risked much to play the role of a terrorist pawn, whatever they paid him. Hamid wasn’t any kind of idealist. He was simply greedy scum that enabled the monsters.

The ambassador whispered tensely, “We would have been less uncertain if you hadn’t disappeared for a month!”

Savas had anticipated this. His injuries from the Indian Point insanity had pulled him off the street. Hamid had asked for meetings he could not honor. Dimitris the smuggler had simply disappeared. “It was, as the Americans say, too hot, Ambassador. Dimitris was in danger.”

The ambassador’s eyes widened. “Danger? From where? Who knows about you? Can they connect you to me?”

Savas waved his hand dismissively. “No danger, no discovery. After those bombs at Indian Point, the FBI was busy. Nuclear power plants make them very nervous, no? Everyone was quiet.”

FBI?” the frightened man asked, desperately.

“Yes, FBI. Who else?”

The man relaxed. Relaxed! Whatever had put the fear of God into Ambassador Hamid, it wasn’t U.S. law enforcement. His cover wasn’t blown. He still had a hook in this big fish. But the ambassador’s reaction disturbed him. What would frighten him so much that arrest seemed a relief in comparison?

“Who, indeed?” said the ambassador, an awkward smile across his wide face. He scanned the room again and checked his watch. “Then we are still good. If you do not disappear again! But we must meet in more protected locations.” Hamid seemed to have finished an internal argument of some kind. “Captain Dimitris, we will have our deal.”

Savas put on his greediest grin, but he was also smiling internally. Swallow the bait whole, Ambassador. Soon the FBI would have an unprecedented catch, one they’d exploit to uncover a web of underground contacts. Then they’d toss him in jail until he was too old to remember his lucrative moonlighting. Diplomatic immunity be damned.

The ambassador continued. “We will contact you soon. You will come to a place we designate.” Savas groaned inwardly; the ambassador was introducing complications.

“Of course, Ambassador. But, after Indian Point, business is much more difficult. More expensive. You understand?”

The ambassador hardly frowned. “Yes, of course. This was anticipated. What are your terms?”

Savas suppressed a laugh. Predictable. He would drive a hard bargain to cement his character. “Double, Mr. Ambassador, and a quarter in advance.”

“That’s outrageous!”

“So is whatever you want to put on my boats.”

The man nodded. “We will consider it and be in contact.”

Hamid rose, having never ordered a drink, and checked again with the bodyguard by the door. He walked to the exit, throwing nervous glances across the bar. The seated goon followed him outside. Savas watched them through the window as they waited for their driver.

He pushed the drink away. He’d return to the FBI and talk to Kanter. They’d need enormous resources to bring in Hamid. After two years of tedious work, slowly bringing to life the Greek smuggler, luring several interested parties into the net, Savas had hit the jackpot. The monsters needed gremlins to enable their crimes, and there were always greedy men like Hamid to play the part. Relying on them was a weakness, a trail back to the hive. And I will follow it.

A sharp sound tore through his consciousness—a slap from outside. Images of weapons danced through his mind, but he lurched away from the details and stood, staring forward.

The music stumbled to an awkward halt. People in the bar screamed and backed away from the window. Like the first stages of a Jackson Pollock commission, red paint was flung wildly across the glass—thick, languid drops tracing slow paths toward the sidewalk from a central bull’s-eye. Crumpled on the cement was a figure in a trench coat, three large forms dancing over it, screaming into cell phones. A fist-sized hole ruptured from the coat, crimson rivulets spilling to the ground.

Dumbfounded, Savas stared. Years of work collapsed along with that body. Openings into terrorist cells slammed shut in his face. As chaos erupted and patrons scrambled for the exits, Savas stood still, glaring at the downed shape outside, knowing too well that it wouldn’t rise. A perfect shot, through the heart, the bullet fired by a professional.

Ambassador Hamid had been assassinated.

2

Special Ordnance

Through the window of the bistro, Savas watched an elegant woman in a gray pantsuit step out of a cab. Her highlighted hair shone a rich gold in the May sunlight, and she darted with a confident stride across the sidewalk to the restaurant entrance. She spoke politely to the maître d’, who directed her toward a table at the back. He waited as she surveyed the establishment—tables well separated, sounds absorbed by the old woods and carpets—approving of his careful choice. They were ensured a private and comfortable conversation. Savas smiled when several heads turned as she made her way to his table.

“Dr. Wilson, your medical training’s paying off.”

She sat and rolled her eyes. “Okay, John, the punch line?”

“Well, three men looked your way. At forty-eight, that’s a serious anti-aging formula.”

She smiled. “Requisite flattery: check. Quotation of age: Uncheck. Decent digs for lunch: check. And the check?”

“Check,” nodded Savas.

“You owe me dinner for this one.”

“Lorrie, this case is three years, five agents, several hundred thousand dollars . . .”

“And one dead diplomat.”

Savas frowned. “He was plugged into terrorist networks I’d give my right arm for!”

“He was plugged, all right.”

“Somebody wanted him out of the way. I don’t know if it’s a competitor, another government, or what. But he was taken out for a reason. I want to know who and why.”

A waiter stopped by the table, and they ordered, resuming their conversation when he was out of earshot. Wilson pulled out a manila folder and slid it across the table. Savas put his hand on it.

“This is everything?” he asked.

“Jeez, you’re one greedy bastard. My husband’s alive because of you, but there have to be limits, John.”

Savas was already flipping through the pages. “How is Mike?” he asked.

“Fine. Look, John, everything you need is there. They recovered the bullet—high caliber—damn thing blew right through him. Traced the angle of fire to a rooftop a block away. A distance shot. The shooter was thorough—not a print, not a shell, not so much as a hair anywhere up there. The diplomatic turbulence on this pushed them to work overtime. Top forensics team. Several people flown in from other crime labs. I wouldn’t be surprised if they brought in a board-certified psychic. Nothing.

“Mmmmm,” said Savas, reading.

“But you are right about something.”

He glanced up from the papers. “Yes?”

“The ballistics report’s eyebrow raising.”

“Go on,” said Savas. He’d forgotten how she liked the stage.

“7.62 × 51 millimeter, .308-caliber hole and bullet.”

“Wait. Sniper rounds?”

“Standard issue U.S. Army and civilian law enforcement. With a twist,” she said, sipping her water, her attractive face angled slightly. Savas just stared at her. “Slight variant on the ammo. Ballistics had to call in help. Turns out it’s limited production used at the beginning of the Iraq War. Definitely not civilian ammo.”

Savas leaned back in his chair and squinted at the physician. “You’re telling me that my contact was gunned down by a limited-edition military bullet from a high-powered rifle?”

“Fired over a block away with enough accuracy to strike the man’s heart.” She flashed him a winning smile. “That’s it, Johnny-boy. It’s a weird one.”

“How the hell did that end up in New York?”

“I don’t know. That’s your job. This CSI shit isn’t what I went to med school for. Now, the rest is there for you to read at your considerable leisure.” She glanced purposefully around the restaurant. “I’m hungry—for food and a drastic change in the topic of conversation.”

Savas nodded, still fixated on this absurd piece of information. Sniper rifles with obscure military rounds. The assassination of a dirty diplomat in the pocket of international terrorists. Blown apart outside a Bronx dive by a mysterious and highly skilled sniper.

What the hell is going on?

3

Hit Men

CIA agent Brad Thompson squinted at the monitor, watching a large crowd gathered restlessly around the mosque on the outskirts of London. The onlookers strained to hear the words from loudspeakers drowned out by surrounding noise and distance. He didn’t know what worried him more—Imam Wahid’s rhetoric or the number of people the extremist could draw salivating to hear it.

He approved of the heavy presence of British military to keep the peace. The task was underscored by the boiling unease and anger simmering beneath the surface of the youthful and mostly male crowd.

Agent Thompson cursed the faint rain that misted over the people, the streets, and the rows of cars lining the curbs, making their surveillance that much harder. At least they were hidden. He imagined how it looked from outside: a few hundred feet from the edge of the crowd, a wet and rusted white van parked roughly between two cars. Everything about the vehicle said that it was in disrepair, neglected, and on its last legs. Only a thick black antenna on the side of the van might give any hint of the reality within.

Inside, it was a different story. Behind the deeply tinted glass, several computer monitors displayed video feeds from many angles around the mosque. Members of Thompson’s team sat in front of these monitors, earpieces relaying audio, microphones over their mouths.

He glanced back at the feed, shaking his head at Wahid’s angry words, his youthful charm. Your charity fronts don’t fool us, buddy. The man was a powder keg of Islamic radicalism. They’d stop him, but not before getting the bigger picture.

“The United States wants to control your world,” rang out a strong voice. One video feed showed the passionate gesticulations of the imam; another, the rapt attention of the young men in the crowd. “Yes, with the dollar and the sword, they subdue every nation, every people, every religion. But what chance does an empire, however grand, have next to the power of God? God will channel great power through each of you. Each of you is a soldier of Heaven against the armies of Satan. The world will be Islam!”

An agent in the van whistled softly. “The bastard’s really on. Goddamned towel-head revival.” Thompson leaned over one of the monitors, staring at a pan of the crowd near the speaker. “Keep an eye on those—the ones he acknowledges, singles out, greets, walks with. Let’s get face shots, front and side. We need to ID these people.”

A woman’s scream wailed over the speaker system, and everyone in the van stiffened. A man monitoring the speaker focused intently on his screen and shouted to the others present.

“Wahid’s down!”

“What?” Thompson gasped.

“Switching to stage views.”

All the monitors lit up with images at various angles of the platform. The podium was empty, the crumbled body of the imam near its base. Figures leapt onto the stage and raced to the body, turning it over as panicked screams rose from the crowd.

“Oh, shit,” whispered Thompson. The images made it clear that the imam would not return to the podium. Figures around him were tearing at their beards, several covered in Wahid’s blood. One cradled the man in his arms, the body limp, a large bloodstain over the left breast. The rain washed over their forms, diluting the red.

Thompson mobilized his team. “Move people! We’ve got a hit on Wahid! Long range, rifle shot, and from high ground, I’d put money. Sync with the Redcoats! Rooftops, exits—we need it all covered! I need agents moving now!”

The van erupted in an uproar of sound and activity, voices over the speakers in ears, commands shouted into microphones. The crowd outside seethed. Men began chanting angrily, fists raised in the air. Several pummeled the car next to the van, smashing its windows.

Holy hell. “Radio British police that we’ve got a riot brewing. Let our people know where the violence is and how to avoid it.”

The van began to shake, fists impacting loudly against its sides and the dark glass. Several shouts announced the arrival of the mob.

“Don’t panic! The glass is strong.” Thompson removed his gun, dark metal gleaming in the lights of the computers. Except in training, he had never used it. “Michelson, let’s try to get this piece of junk moving!”

He checked the cartridge, released the safety, and moved to the front seat of the van. Daylight spilled into the dark vehicle as several angry arms forced open the door. The CIA man aimed the weapon and fired.

4

Death List

An awkward man with a bearded grin turned away from a computer monitor, a blue glow painting one side of his face.

“John, I think I might have something.”

Savas leapt over to the console. The man’s face turned back to the screen and was partly obscured by the enormous beard and long, disheveled hair curled below his shoulders. The sounds of keys clacking burst from underneath the hair.

Savas suppressed a laugh. Manuel Hernandez. Our very own Jesus. Except for the porn. He tried to decipher the multiple open windows, filled with database output, open web pages, and photographs of crime scenes.

“I don’t see it, Manuel. We’re looking for known hit men with MOs that might match what we’ve got on the Hamid assassination.”

Hernandez nodded. “That’s how I started. But it’s a long shot, like you said. I’ve been in front of these databanks for three days cross-correlating materials and methods from every known killer against the forensics. Larry’s got us drawing from FBI and CIA records. If there’s a known assassin with any consistency in style, it’d show up. Three days and nothing. Gets boring, John. I always get in trouble when I’m bored.”

“That why they tossed you out of grad school?” Savas asked, still squinting at the screen, trying to see the pattern.

“No one believes I quit! Honestly, John, there were weirder people there than me.”

“Yeah, but not so much trouble.”

“Can’t a man just want to serve his nation in the war on terror?”

Savas waved his hand at the screen. “Explain.”

Hernandez indicated windows from online news organizations. All were dated reports, weeks to months old, from diverse locations across the globe. Each had an image of a dead body and police. The headlines in every case contained the word assassinated.

“Since I wasn’t getting anywhere looking for a who, I started looking for a what. What unsolved crimes in the last two years might have matched the MO? Honestly, after drawing a big zero in the database, my feeling’s that our killer, or killers, aren’t in there—that we’re looking for something new. Our fancy intel databases are useless. What’s left but the papers?”

Savas nodded. “And?”

“It’s thin, John, but there’s something. Remember the Al Jazeera reporter killed in Atlanta, right as he left the airport?”

“Mohammed Aref? Of course. Larry reassigned the case while I was in the hospital. Lighten my workload, he said. Aref was a real tap dancer. He’d been fingered by the Sheikh—money laundering through some of the East Coast mosques.”

“The Sheikh?”

Savas smiled. “My double-agent friend.”

“Right. The one whose real name not even Larry knows?”

“That one.”

“So, he ratted out Aref?”

“And several others, as he collected from them, too, no doubt. The Sheikh’s a real charmer. Second-generation Syrian street punk. Broke away from his conservative parents, but not before he picked up enough Arabic to make him very valuable to certain underground scum. Kid’s addicted to gold and adrenaline, thinks he’s smarter than everyone he’s conned.”

That’s what you call charming?”

“Anyway, the Al Jazeera job was a cover for Aref, for his real work. He had a good scheme going. Charity dollars from many uncharitable sources. We used Aref to trace an assassination plot against a diplomat from Pakistan. We’re still planning to move on the entire operation, as far as I know.” Savas glanced at the computer scientist. “The connection?”

Hernandez gestured toward the screen. “Aref was gunned down by a high-powered sniper rifle. Single shot. Right through the heart. Sound familiar?”

Savas furrowed his brows. “Coincidence?”

“And so’s this, I suppose,” said Hernandez as he enlarged another window. Savas read aloud from the web page.

“Raahil Hossain, a lawyer and lobbyist for a Saudi construction conglomerate, was gunned down today in Egypt on a business trip. Known for his outspoken stance on Arab rights of ownership of oil and gas sites developed by foreign powers, he had become a controversial figure in the international community. Condemned by many Western governments for alleged ties to jihadist movements in several countries, he had found his ability to travel outside the Middle East increasingly restricted.”

“Skip to the end.”

Savas paused and scrolled the text up on the monitor. “Reports claim that Mr. Hossain was struck by a bullet as he exited his hotel in Cairo and that he died instantly, suffering a direct hit to the chest. The gunman was never found. Police speculated that the killer had fired from a distance and escaped in the ensuing panic.”

Savas was quiet for a moment. Hernandez used the silence to bring up a list of names, dates, and locations. He rolled his chair backward and let Savas lean in closer.

“All killed by snipers,” mumbled Savas as he read through the list. “All taking direct hits that killed them instantly. Each a player in the underground terrorist network. There must be twenty names here, Manuel. You think they’re all linked?”

“Beats me. Some don’t exactly fit—head-shots, for example, even though the bullets were military grade. Not the special ordnance you discovered, but we don’t know how careful the ballistics teams were. Half these kills were in parts of the world where they likely don’t even do a full workup, let alone release the data.”

Savas put on his best Larry Kanter voice. “This is really thin, Manuel.”

Hernandez nodded dejectedly. “Yeah, I know. But it’s all I’ve got.”

“I didn’t say I thought it was wrong.” Savas sat in a chair beside the IT specialist and breathed out slowly, lost in thought. “Remember those Army studies on soldiers in Iraq, the ones who survived multiple IEDs?”

“Not really, John.”

“They all had strong emotional responses to environments, hunches and gut feelings about danger. The studies showed that these guys had hyperactive attention to detail, keen sight and other senses, noticing details others missed. They weren’t consciously aware of it.”

“Right, now I remember. The guy who thought ‘the concrete slab didn’t look right’ and inside was an IED waiting to blow them apart.”

“Exactly. He’d processed a lot of data subconsciously about the slab—imperfections, mismatches in colors, location—and without knowing why, his brain sent an alert. All he knew was it looked wrong.”

Hernandez shrugged his shoulders. “So what’s that got to do with this?”

Savas looked back at the list of names. “After that article, I started believing in intuition, that it’s more than flighty emotion. Sure, for some it is flighty, useless stuff, and that’s why we get nut-jobs paranoid about things that aren’t there, conspiracy theories, and people afraid of their own shadows. But for those with a history of survival, or solving mysteries, let’s say, I think it’s real. Represents a lot of neurological processing we aren’t aware of. Something like that.”

Hernandez simply stared at Savas.

“What I’m trying to say, Manuel, is that I know it’s thin,” he said, gesturing to the list. “I can’t justify it logically, but my gut tells me there’s something here. I think yours did, too. Like that cement block, something just doesn’t look right.

“But what?”

“I wish I knew. There are a lot of dead men on that list.”

5

Modus Operandi

Kanter stood and leaned over the table. “This is what makes sense?”

Standing was the first sign things weren’t going well for Savas. Once Kanter began running fingers through his graying hair, it was over, only a matter of time before the lecture began.

“A special meeting of Intel 1 you called me in for? You do realize that I manage other groups in this division?”

“It does make sense, Larry! They’re using guerilla-style methods. Removing those who are the key links in the international terrorist web! What else could unify all these attacks?”

Kanter threw up his hands. “John, that’s the point—I don’t see that they are unified. That’s your task, to prove it to me. This isn’t very persuasive.”

The rest of Intel 1 was silent. The group was fully assembled, torn from different tasks and assignments, interrupting their work of digging out international terrorists. Because I called this meeting with high priority. With their eyes on him and Kanter’s tone, he felt like an idiot.

They’d listened intently to Savas as he presented the information. A list of assassination-style killings, each connected to the international terrorist underground. Some were middlemen, some were spokesmen, and some were fundraisers. But all were significant players, and all had met untimely deaths in similar ways. The same MOs. It was so clear!

“Someone’s moving systematically and ruthlessly, crushing the pressure points. They’re crippling the ability of terrorist groups to function.” The silence he received was maddening.

He glanced around the room for support. Any hint of support. JP Rideout and Matt King had their eyes cast down. The dark-haired Rideout, trim and stylishly dressed, had been Kanter’s steal from Wall Street and Bloomberg monitors. Rideout retained a residual superiority passed down from his French forebears, his style sharply counterbalanced by the analytical bookworm named Matt King. King, a former energy lawyer for oil firms, had turned do-gooder after witnessing the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon from his hotel window. Both Rideout and King clearly thought he was nuts. Across from them at the round table frowned Frank Miller, a hulking ex-marine. Miller held his gaze with a thoughtful expression as he parsed what Savas said.

Last of all he looked to Rebecca Cohen. She sat on his right, dwarfed by the solid wall of marine next to her, brown eyes troubled and nearly lost in the thick mane of chestnut hair that swept down her shoulders. Cohen had risen through FBI counterterrorism for a number of years and was snagged by Kanter because she was so bright. She had come to the states as a small child, her father immigrating after several family members were killed in a bus bombing in Tel Aviv. Her motivation was keen, and her analytical skills had made her his “right hand” at Intel 1. And she wouldn’t meet his gaze.

“Mad John.” A voice from the back of the room.

Cue uncomfortable silence. Savas smiled as he glimpsed a young elfin woman in her mid-twenties, ironed orange hair to her waist framing a needle-thin body. She stood apart from the group seated at the table, staring absentmindedly out the window, caught in a trance of some kind. A plain dark-blue dress from an Amish catalog hung from her pale shoulders, complemented by bright orange sneakers with flashing lights built into the bottoms. Children’s shoes.

“Greetings, Kemo Sabe.” The young woman spoke, never taking her eyes from the window.

Angel Lightfoote. Damn mind-reader pulling out important connections in data no one else could see. Larry’s latest find.

“Don’t everyone act so shocked,” said Savas. “I’ve heard the name. Mad John Savas. Nice ring to it.”

“You’re out to earn it?” grumbled Kanter. “You might have gotten a call from POTUS for your recent heroics, John, but back here we need you to make sense.”

Miller interrupted. “A series of coordinated hits—what about organized crime?”

Savas shook his head. “Not mob. I saw my fair share of mob hits on the force, Frank. They’re brutal, but blunt. These hits were surgical. The methods all the same: single shot, high-powered rifle, military grade, professional work—beyond mob. Assassination style.”

“You’d be talking about an organization with enormous resources,” Cohen interjected. “These aren’t a series of isolated murders. If they’re linked, the killers would have international reach, skilled personnel, an ability to conduct intelligence and mission planning that would rival the best government agencies of the world.”

“How do we know it isn’t governmental?” asked JP Rideout.

“Not possible,” scoffed Matt King. “You’re talking about a series of coordinated assassinations. No reputable nation would dare.”

“Maybe one not so reputable,” grunted Miller, his broad frame tense.

“Which of the disreputable nations do you think cares enough to undertake an effort to stop terrorism?” quipped King.

Rideout turned toward him. “What makes any nation reputable? What about us? Didn’t we have a vice-presidential CIA hit squad trained for this very purpose?”

Another silence fell over the room. Kanter sat and looked sharply at the former Wall Streeter.

“Well, didn’t we?” Rideout echoed.

Kanter squeezed the bridge of his nose. “If you’re talking about Cheney’s death squads, that’s all documented. So is the fact that they were never activated. That entire idea was only a hypothetical.”

JP Rideout laughed. “Sure! For eight years of the Bush presidency, these guys were being prepped—that much is on the record, too. Larry, that’s a hell of a long training program. Eight years readying themselves to kill terrorist leaders and never once going on the job? Must have been a frustrated bunch of dudes.”

Kanter’s face was stern. “You can speculate all you want, JP, but at FBI, in my division, we deal in facts. And let me tell you, that kind of speculation is a serious matter.”

“It would surely make a good framework for hanging John’s linked assassinations, though, wouldn’t it?” added King.

Cohen shook her head. “Come on, guys, this doesn’t make sense. It would mean that the current administration put into motion the clandestine murder of numerous U.S. and foreign targets.”

“Bin Laden. That’s all I have to say,” broke in Rideout.

Cohen rolled her eyes. “Damn it, JP, that’s completely different! Bin Laden? These are kills on U.S. soil, some of them American citizens. The CIA killing Americans in America? That’s 1984 material, folks, really scary stuff.”

Rideout wasn’t fazed. “2011 Defense Appropriations Bill. Authorized the indefinite detainment of American citizens arrested on American soil for suspicion of terrorist activities. Next year Obama has his Attorney General justify killing Americans suspected of terrorist activities. And this is what’s fucking public.”

“That authority has never been used,” said Cohen animatedly. “Now you’re going from hypotheticals to documented murders?”

“With absolutely no evidence!” banged out Kanter. The others began to speak out of turn as the argument escalated.

Savas shouted over the bickering. “Enough!” He held his palms up, lowering his voice. “They’re right. Larry and Rebecca are right. It’s too outlandish. It doesn’t feel right.”

Feel right?” asked Rideout.

“Let’s just say these death squads were still around, activated. Hits on foreign soil, maybe, but not here. Even the craziest antiterrorist zealots wouldn’t dare. For God’s sake, we don’t have to shoot them here! Just pick them up, extraordinary rendition and all that. We’ve done it before: grab a suspected terrorist, take him someplace far away, interrogate. Maybe worse. But not like this. No way.”

Cohen picked up his thoughts. “And not with this frequency, this thoroughness. A hit here or there, take out a particularly important target. But the list of possible kills John is showing is too long. It’s absurdly long. It would begin to call attention to the murders. That’s the last thing some covert death squad would want. Bad for the US, bad for them, bad for their long-term goals.”

Savas refused to let go. “I still think these deaths are linked, but it’s not governmental. It’s something else; something else is driving it forward.”

“What the hell are you talking about? Something else what?” asked Kanter. “How do they magically appear in the span of half a year in ten or twenty different places around the world, bringing down the target—often a highly protected target, by the way—without leaving any trace? Are these ninja snipers? What’s the unifying motive for your imaginary marksmen with the special bullets?”

Savas was silent. He didn’t have the words, only thoughts and feelings linking his own experience and the pattern he was seeing in these murders. He wasn’t even sure it made sense to him. Then the word just came to his lips.

“Vengeance.”

“Vengeance, John? Who?” asked Kanter.

“I don’t know, Larry! But if I struck back for everything they’ve done to us, it might look something like this. Hell, it might be worse.”

As the words left his mouth, he knew it was over. He’d blown it, shot to hell any hope of objectivity, any chance of persuading a group of analysts that he was onto something. Their expressions confirmed his fears, the downward glances, avoiding eye contact. Kanter intervened.

“John, we all know how you feel, what you’ve lost. It’s true for many here and we use that every day to motivate us. But we can’t let it cloud our judgment. I don’t like to go over this in front of everyone, but too much has been said. We’re in a no man’s land of speculation. There’s a beginning of a coherent linkage between these murders, but only a beginning. I’m torn about how we proceed. Good detective work is shot to hell by emotion.”

Kanter seemed to mull something over in his mind. He stood. “John and Manuel will continue looking into this idea of a link between the murders, at least for the time being. But we’ll hear no more of international death squads and the like. I’ve got to fly to Washington for another one of our interagency summits this weekend, and the last thing I want on my mind is wondering if my agents are out trying to prove the CIA or whoever is involved in an international assassination program. Honestly, folks, I’m too young for forced retirement.”

There were nervous smiles around the room, but Savas merely stared forward, unable to focus on Kanter’s words. “Let’s call it a day. I’m late for a twelve o’clock. Get back to your posts and saving the country.”

The members of Intel 1 left their seats and headed for the door. Lightfoote brushed past Savas and whispered in his ear.

“It’s okay. I think you’re right.” She smiled blissfully at him and danced out of the meeting room. The irony was total—his main support came from the most eccentric member of this team.

He glanced up. The room was empty but for Kanter, who closed the door.

“Is there anything we should talk about?” Kanter began.

“No, Larry. Maybe I am biased, but you might consider that I also have an advantage.”

“Which is?”

“If I’m right, I’m the one who’d understand the motives best.”

“Vengeance?”

“More. A removal of the threat, cleansing of the world.” Hunting the monsters. Showing no mercy.

“John, you’re basically telling me that if you’re right, you’ll be very right. That sort of tautology doesn’t really give me much to go on.”

“I know that, Larry.”

“Besides, even if you are right, our hands are tied.”

Savas looked up, his brows furrowed. “Why?”

“Jurisdiction. If this has the scope you think it does, it’s way beyond FBI. Thirty plus agencies are involved in criminal activities outside the country. Then there are the international ones.”

“Well, we’d have our part to play.”

“But to break this case, you’ll need access to places and people we can’t go to.”

“Well, we pound the beat we know, Larry.”

Kanter nodded. “Okay, John. That’s all I’m saying. Stay in your boundaries on this case. If there’s something to this, you’ll dig it up.”

Savas watched his boss leave the room. The message was clear. He felt exhausted. In half a workday, he’d run a roller coaster from elated certainty to embarrassed rejection. He glared at the presentation on his computer, closed the laptop, and dropped it into his bag. As he left the table and walked to the door, Rebecca Cohen entered. Her eyes told him too clearly what was on her mind.

“Is this a therapy session?” he asked.

“John, please. It’s not like that.”

“Isn’t it? I saw all your faces: Mad John. Useful in a pinch, but a little too wacko at times.” He barked a laugh. “I’ve had five required agency therapists. I’ve read the assessments. Consumed with his own grief and anger. Unreliable when it comes to certain topics. Ready to see in others all the things churning inside himself.” He marveled that all this spilled out to her. “Doesn’t that about capture it?”

Her shoulders slumped. “Yes, John, it does. But I didn’t come here for that.”

“Then what?”

“I came to tell you that, whatever doubts we have, we’ve all gone too far with you not to back your play.”

Savas was moved. “And you’re speaking for the others?”

“I’m sure I am, but it wasn’t put to a vote or anything. I know I speak for me.”

Her earnest eyes burned into him, and, not for the first time, he felt them pierce through so many layers of armor and anger. It was a place that couldn’t be touched. Not now. Not anymore. Not after Thanos. He was shaken by it, by the goodness of that touch. It made him recoil all the more.

Her face tightened as she watched his eyes.

“Thanks, Rebecca. It’s good to know.” He turned and left the room.

6

Valkyries

Across the world in the mountains of Afghanistan, darkness had fallen, and the one called Kamir felt a chill descend. His group of mujahideen sat quietly around a small fire, several smoking, weapons at their sides. He was exhausted from a long day of drills, scrambling to keep ahead of American squads tracking them through the rough terrain. Their leader had posted guards at two positions around their camp, and three others at high and low points more distant. He grunted. They would see no Americans tonight.

He sneered. They lacked high-tech equipment—motion detectors, night vision, satellite surveillance—expensive toys used lethally by their spoiled and arrogant American hunters. Instead, they used an older set of tools: their eyes, ears, nose, and skin. Truer tools given from God, each a more finely tuned instrument than anything assembled to take their place. They learned the land and memorized its pulse: the night sounds, the scents that belonged, and those that did not. His troop remained several steps ahead of their pursuers, mocking the grand collection of technology arrayed against them.

Tonight, his senses were charged. No, they would not see the American army tonight. The last few days, a nervous tension had grown among them. Grown within him. Normal banter was replaced with sharp whispers. Movements were made with unusual caution. No one spoke of it. There was no evidence of danger. Yet all felt it, a sense of encroaching violence. Kamir felt like the prey when the predator was near.

Guerrilla cells had disappeared. Months ago, theirs was the most promising training center, praised by terrorist groups seeking their fighters. But everything had changed. Men stopped returning from missions. Fools explained it as American interceptions, until they became too numerous, too frequent, and often occurred in locations not patrolled by United States forces. Not once had they recovered the bodies of their slain brothers. The mystery fueled a growing superstition: of dark forces, demons, spirits sent out by the Evil One to undermine the jihad.

Today, they had slipped past a second American patrol just that morning, and the sense of threat had only grown. The American army was not the threat. His mujahideen brothers began to mutter old nonsense from grandmothers and pagan times to ward off the evil. Fools! They did not even understand the words.

Kamir signaled to a haggard man stirring the fire. “Jawad, see that there is little smoke.” Jawad grunted but showed no other sign of having heard him. Kamir stood and approached the fire, crouching low.

Jawad spoke. “I don’t like it. We haven’t heard from the outer scouts. We should wake the others. Something is wrong.”

Kamir nodded and muttered a curse. He glanced anxiously around the campsite. “Not even the insects speak.”

The men around him stirred restlessly, and several rose from their pallets and fingered their guns. Whatever it was, whatever had been following them like a wraith, it was here now. He felt it.

A harsh cry sounded out from one end of the camp. Kamir turned his weapon toward the sound. He jumped back as a mujahideen warrior staggered into the light of the fire, his hands covered in blood, his neck sliced open. He fell into the blaze, scattering the logs and tossing sparks into the air, his dry clothing bursting into flames.

Muffled shots erupted from all directions. One by one, the trained guerrilla fighters around him fell. Kamir spun in circles, unable to identify the attackers. Next to him, Jawad cried out, hit simultaneously in the chest and head, falling backward. Kamir dropped to a prone position and scanned the camp for a target. A blur to his right! A metallic gleam of a broad blade glinting. He aimed and fired wildly but was too late. He felt a fire in his chest, and several gunshots thumped against his shoulders and abdomen. He passed out.

Opening his eyes to a fog of sound and pain, he could not move. He watched helplessly as others fired wildly into the darkness at blurred shadows and motions. Each man fell, brought down by weapons unseen, controlled by hands unknown.

The camp fell silent. A body continued to burn, now in the center of a circle of corpses, the stink of charred flesh carried on the soft breeze. His vision receding, he heard shuffling from the darkness. Man-shapes darted into the camp. The fire was doused, all light extinguished. Only the stars remained, and the shadows that drifted above the bodies, dragging the dead forms away. They clamped his ankles tightly.

He knew no more.

7

Lucifer’s Liturgy

Savas struggled in a dream like a man drowning in water. The same nightmare, a part of him recognized, but his unconscious was in control and doomed him to walk through it again.

Late September 2001. A storm raging over New York City. From above, he watched a depression, born in the Gulf, clouds crouched over the Atlantic like an obscene octopus stretching over the eastern coast. Slowly rotating, its counter-clockwise motion drew in the airs of the north, devouring the cold winds, mixing them with the moist, warmer energy from the southern seas. Savas’s omniscient perspective plunged from the heavens to the streets, his stomach churning as he fell. Rain and thunder battered the concrete landscape as he came to rest near a small church in the Greek American enclave of Astoria.

A blue-and-white car was parked in front of the building. On the dash, he saw the metallic finish of a handgun reflecting the orange streetlights, facets blinking underneath the rain-swept window, pouring water blurring the lighted icon of Christ on the church door. Worshippers trailed in, crossing themselves, dropping coins or bills to pick up candles, lighting them with short prayers, kissing the icons before entering. Inside, incense and chanting filled the air. Warmth and the smell of wet bodies and clothes mingled. Outside, the rain drummed, swallowing all else, blurring all vision within the dark NYPD vehicle. He followed a figure as it stepped out of the car and entered the church.

The church doors opened beside an old woman, barely five feet tall, draped in widow’s weeds as she hunched over candles, harvesting them, pruning those that had burned too low in the supporting sand beside the icons. She turned arthritically toward the door and the blast of cold air. Savas followed the shadowy man, the soaked and disheveled outline of his police uniform hardly recognizable.

As the nightmare progressed, Savas approached the form, merged with it, until he was striding with a mad purpose, drenched and chilled in his ruined uniform. He marched past the icons and candles, stepping through the narthex onto the red carpet that ran alongside rows of parishioners. He focused on the iconostasis and the altar, gripping a slick gun in his hand.

A priest was bent over the altar, hands cupped before him. He chanted the prayers before the Eucharist in a soft drone.

Behold I approach for Divine Communion. O Creator, burn me not as I partake, for Thou art Fire which burns the unworthy. Wherefore purify me from every stain.

Savas walked past the Royal Doors into the nave of the church, leaving a wet trail behind him. He looked neither left nor right, focused on the altar and the figure of Father Timothy bent in prayer.

Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant; for I will not speak of thy Mystery to Thine enemies; I will not give Thee a kiss as did Judas; but like the Thief do I confess Thee. Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom.

Several heads turned in Savas’s direction as he moved toward the altar. Eyes glanced up from prayer books like the wake of a boat, a flowing distraction from the climax of the liturgical service.

Tremble, O man, when you see the divine Blood, For it is a fire that burns the unworthy. The Body of God both deifies and nourishes; It deifies the spirit and nourishes the mind.

Savas passed three-quarters of the pews, walking underneath the high dome painted with the icon of Christ Pantocrator, the Almighty. The low prayers of the priest were increasingly disturbed by a surge of murmurs from the faithful, a slowly cresting wave of chaos drowned by the thunder rumbling outside.

Into the splendor of Thy Saints, how shall I who am unworthy enter? For if I dare to enter the bridal chamber, my vesture betrays me; for it is not a wedding garment, and as an imposter I shall be cast out by the Angels. Cleanse my soul from pollution and save me, O Lord, in Thy love for men.

By the time shouts rose to warn the priest, John Savas had scaled the four steps to stand within the Sanctuary itself. Chanters and front-row worshippers who had moved forward to take action froze and backed away. A gun was raised, aimed at the back of Father Timothy. The priest paused in the sudden swell of sound. Hands still raised in supplication, he turned slowly, his eyes scanning the faces in the pews and coming to rest on the barrel of a gun not five feet in front of him.

The inside of the church was utterly still, silent, rocked softly by the receding thunder outside, lit brightly in slaps of lightning over the soft candle flames. Water dripped from the policeman’s cap and began to form small pools on the white marble in front of him. Savas spoke, the gun trembling in his outstretched hand.

“He can’t have my son.”

The priest stared down into the dark tunnel of the weapon, water beading around the slick metal. His eyes began to glow a deep red, and a demonic grin spread across his face. Savas screamed, pulling the trigger repeatedly as the robed figure laughed manically before him.

&Savas jerked upward&, shaken from sleep by a crack of lightning. A long roll of thunder followed.

Where am I?

The room was dark. Fists hammered something outside. His watch displayed 10 p.m. I’m in the office. He’d fallen asleep at his desk, the fatigue of nearly constant late evenings catching up with him. Someone’s pounding on the door.

He rubbed his temples as he stood, stepping to his office door. He’d barely turned the handle when Larry Kanter burst into the room and slumped into the chair beside the desk. He was dressed in his travel clothes—gray suit and briefcase, computer bag in hand. His thinning hair was in disarray. He sighed loudly, slightly out of breath.

“Sit down, John, please.”

Savas complied. “Not a social visit?”

“I’m off to DC a little earlier than I expected,” he said. “You want to know why, John?”

Savas merely waited for him to continue.

“Because I was foolish enough to take you seriously. Crazy enough to call up some friends at Langley and mention these assassinations.”

His pulse quickened. “Yes? And they said?”

Kanter laughed. “First, they said they’d get back to me. Then my friend called back and told me to get a good lawyer. The next thing I know, there’s the head of the CTD oversight committee telling me to get my ass up to DC on a special flight chartered out of LaGuardia. Before the JTTF meeting this weekend, I get a special one-on-one with the entire Counterterrorism Task Division overlords. All because I speculated on your cracked idea.”

“Did you mention anything about internal hit squads?”

Hell, no, John! I’m not suicidal. But I don’t really need to raise the issue, anymore, do I?” said Kanter.

“What do you mean?”

“Isn’t it obvious? A few minutes on the phone linking these attacks and I’m in the principal’s office. What on earth could have them that jumpy?”

“You can’t believe it’s possible, Larry,” said Savas, his smile fading before Kanter’s set jaw. “But it’s crazy!”

“I don’t know what to think. But if there were assassination teams behind these killings, this is exactly the kind of response I would expect. That, and my upcoming reassignment to the Alaska division office.”

“Calm down, Larry. We all know this doesn’t make sense. There has to be another explanation.”

“There sure as hell better be another explanation, John, or we’ve just opened a can of Texas-sized worms.”

8

Not of this Earth

The door closed behind Kanter, leaving him to face six stern expressions. They couldn’t wait until morning? Who has meetings at midnight?

He was tired from the last-minute sprint to the airport, flight, and rush to the meeting. Now he stood before a table of officials overseeing the antiterrorism activities of the United States, inquisition-style with a single, lonely seat surrounded by a semicircle of polished wood.

His knees buckled as he scanned the faces around the table. Not even the phone summons had prepared him. One next to the other, he saw high-ranking representatives from critical U.S. agencies, many exclusively counterterrorism. He ticked off the offices associated with the faces: the CIA Counterterrorist Center, the Office of National Security, Homeland Security, and his own superiors at the National Joint Terrorism Task Force. He was surprised to see a representative of the National Security Agency—he couldn’t imagine why they’d need a communications angle on this story. If he was perplexed to see an NSA representative, he was stunned at the final face present—the deputy secretary of state. Her presence raised the stakes to feverish levels.

“Please sit down, Mr. Kanter,” began his FBI superior.

Kanter noticed that he had been standing in front of the chair, nearly at attention. He smiled and sat. He was too damn old to be acting like a freshman.

The FBI representative continued. “We apologize for calling you out here on such short notice, but we understand that you’ll be attending the Task Force meeting this weekend anyway.”

“That’s correct.”

“You’re here to answer some questions about comments to CIA counterterrorism personnel and, if possible, to aid us in solving some frankly disturbing mysteries.”

Kanter suppressed a sigh. “I’ll help in any way I can.”

The NSA man cut in. “We have printouts and digital samples of your conversations earlier today. However, as I understand it, CIA wishes to proceed without an in-depth analysis.”

“Not necessary; there’s nothing complicated,” said the director of the CIA Counterterrorist Center, her voice strained. She turned from the NSA officer toward Kanter. “Your special-ops division has come to a startling conclusion, Agent Kanter.”

“No conclusions—nowhere near that level. Purely speculation. Some of my agents stumbled on a possible link between assassination-style murders of Islamic extremists in the U.S. and abroad.”

“Yes, we’ve seen the transcripts,” cut in the CIA woman. “Why did you feel it necessary to contact CIA agents if these links were purely at the speculative stage?”

Kanter frowned. “That seems the best time to me.”

“Wouldn’t you have preferred to obtain some real evidence before making such accusations?”

“Accusations?” asked Kanter.

The FBI man swooped in. “I don’t think Mr. Kanter’s making any accusations, Susan, only asking questions.”

Kanter had a bad feeling about where this was headed, and he wished they would just open up the black hole and get it over with. The deputy secretary of state obliged him.

“Before we go any further, Agent Kanter, these members of your staff—how would you characterize their relationship to this hypothesis?”

Kanter gave her a knowing look. “Extremely committed, perhaps emotionally so. That’s why I called this in. One of my best agents, John Savas, is convinced. Others aren’t. Frankly, I’ve been skeptical myself, but Agent Savas has a track record that’s anomalously productive. I felt I should follow up on his hunch.”

The deputy secretary smiled. “You say you’ve been skeptical. Has this changed?”

Kanter looked her in the eye. “The moment you all jerked me up here.”

Several faces at the table darkened, but the woman from the state department laughed. “After all the doublespeak I hear every day, it’s nice to hear someone speak his mind. John Savas has been well known to many over the years, and the recent events at Indian Point have refreshed any poor memories. Your division—as unorthodox as it’s been—is unmatched in counterterrorism. The White House has decided to make you aware of some highly classified information.”

Wonderful. “I don’t suppose I might have the opportunity to decline?”

The FBI man laughed. “Wise man.”

“You can, of course,” continued the deputy secretary of state. “But we’d have to make sure that in your ignorance, you didn’t make this classified information known—you or your group at FBI.”

Kanter felt his stomach drop. There was no misinterpreting those words. Either he was in, or he and his “unorthodox” group, including Intel 1, was toast.

“You can be persuasive.”

“I have to be; this is too important,” she said. “Susan, this belongs to you for the next few minutes. Your mess.”

Kanter turned his attention to the Counterterrorist Center director. She had the look of someone who had recently learned of a relative’s death. Her words sounded rehearsed.

“While it’s well-known that the CIA—along with numerous U.S. agencies—undertook extraordinary anti-terrorist measures in the years following 9/11, it was only recently appreciated that some of these efforts took on the form of targeted elimination teams.”

“Assassins,” corrected Kanter. Here it comes.

“Yes. I’m not here to examine the ethics or policy wisdom of such actions—they’ve been a part of covert operations for decades. And vetted by several agencies, congressional oversight, answerable to the American public.”

“Until Cheney,” whispered Kanter.

“Yes, I can see that you know where this is going. During his tenure as vice president, Dick Cheney instructed the CIA to form an elite core of assassins, specifically designed to go after high-level targets in al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. He took the unusual step of concealing this plan not only from Congress but also from nearly every other agency and governmental branch. These men and women were trained for years, awaiting orders that never came.”

“Never?” asked Kanter.

“The records have been made public, Agent Kanter. Not a single kill was ordered. The program was terminated.” She paused and removed her glasses. “Or so we believed.” She sighed and continued. “These killings of Islamic radicals have come to the attention of the CIA and other agencies. We’re particularly concerned because the methods used are right out of this assassin training program.”

“Certainly other assassins could employ similar methods?” asked Kanter.

“Yes, of course. But there’s more, beyond the killings you know about. The growing success in Pakistan and Afghanistan against terrorist training camps has been ascribed to many things—tactics, troop buildup, and most recently, improved design of drone robotic combat units—but these factors aren’t sufficient. We now know from Army Intelligence that there have been substantial, at times crippling, attacks on terrorist camps in these regions that aren’t due to any known military or covert activity. We’re talking about major strikes against groups that have eluded our capture for years and yet, in a matter of barely a year, have been erased.”

“I don’t understand,” said Kanter. “If not us . . .”

“Then who?” said the state department woman. “Haven’t you guessed?”

Kanter shook his head in disbelief. “I’m sorry, but you’re trying to tell me that you’ve got a group of rogue CIA hit squads that aren’t only bringing down Islamic radicals around the world but are also out-gunning our best marines in the mountains of Asia?”

The woman from the state department spoke. “Currently, we have no proof of this, but analysis from the CIA and other agencies places this scenario as the most probable.”

“Any other scenarios?” Kanter asked.

“Several, including foreign involvement and, of course, the null hypothesis that these are indeed not related events. But the potential geopolitical ramifications of our working hypothesis are dire; we must focus on this possibility.”

“Don’t you know where these people are? Haven’t you kept track of them?”

The CIA woman raised her voice. “There hasn’t been any clear need for constant surveillance of these trainees! You can rest assured that we’re ascertaining the whereabouts of as many of these personnel as we can.”

Kanter shook his head. “We’ll help any way we can, but let me be frank here—this is above our heads.”

“That’s exactly what I hoped to hear from you, Agent Kanter,” stated the deputy secretary of state. “I want you to make it clear to your people that this is a matter best left to other agencies. We do not want an obscure branch of FBI stirring things up accidentally and dumping this to the public. We’re assigning liaisons from CIA to coordinate any investigative work you perform in this area.”

“You’re not asking us to drop it?”

“No.”

Kanter nodded. “I’ll take the compliment.”

“Along those lines, we’ve got a request,” the NSA man spoke up. He pulled out a memory stick and tossed it across the table to Kanter. “That drive stores a series of audio files recorded by U.S. Marines in Afghanistan several weeks ago. They were tracking a terrorist training cell, not having too much luck, as it was. One night, their communications team picked up an encoded series of transmissions. Definitely not hostiles—they were using modifications of U.S. military codes.”

He let this sink in. To hammer the point home, the CIA woman spoke. “This only further convinced us that we had rogue U.S. forces involved.”

“The modifications were clever, but we’ve enough computer firepower to break down just about any code. We did that, with enormous confidence statistically, and generated the audio file I’ve given you. Drop it in your favorite audio player.”

“I don’t understand,” said Kanter. “How can we help?”

“This is a bit embarrassing. The audio file contains a series of sharp command-like phrases spoken by a male voice. The problem’s that we can’t make heads or tails of what’s being said. We’ve got a formidable army of linguists at our disposal, Agent Kanter. We’ve got translators covering hundreds of known tongues. And we’ve gotten nowhere. A brick wall. It’s definitely not a common Arabic, Semitic, European, or Asian language. Whatever’s being said over those coded transmissions is in a language no one speaks on this earth. Might as well be from Mars.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” said Kanter.

“Not one damn bit,” said the NSA man. “The linguists have failed. You’ve got a reputation for solving puzzles, Agent Kanter. There’s a puzzle here, something we aren’t seeing. Have your go at it.”

The meeting ended sharply on that note. Kanter was thanked, charged with maintaining confidentiality, and dismissed. He stumbled out of the building into the bright and warm moonlight of June, dizzy and exhausted from the last hour. More than anything, Kanter was deeply troubled. Rogue agents on the loose, assassinations, commando raids on terrorist centers, alien languages, and a political ball of radioactive waste. This was a mountain of a mess.

He was going to kill Savas.

9

Bait and Switch

Disturbed, Savas watched the uproar from the members of Intel 1. Only Angel Lightfoote sat apart from the heated discussion, staring out the window, seemingly oblivious to the turmoil.

Kanter threw up his arms in surrender and thundered over the rest. “That’s all I’ve got!”

Savas glanced around at the group, at the frustration evident in their faces. He couldn’t blame them. Kanter was holding back key information, and everyone knew it. He hadn’t said a word about the CIA death squads except to stonewall that all the information was classified. Classified! Of course it was classified. What were they, preschoolers? They had obtained classified information before. That Kanter was implying it was anything except an obstacle spoke volumes. After everything they had all been through, it felt a little like betrayal.

“Larry,” said Frank Miller after some moments, “this smells of cover-up. What is the threat level in this hunt?”

“Very high, so we take this seriously. We’ve made important connections. We need to start from there and work our way out.” Kanter sighed. “Then there are the audio recordings—the NSA believes they’re from some very bad guys. The language isn’t known to any translators in the agency. They’re likely farming this out to several places. One of those is Intel 1.”

Rideout just shook his head. “This is a weird one, Larry. I mean, what the hell?”

“Look, JP, it’s complicated, more than I can, am allowed to, explain. But it’s real. We need to put to the side everything else—however absurd the pieces handed to us appear to be.”

A harsh vibration sounded on the table. Savas reached over and grabbed his cell phone as it rotated on the smooth surface. He glanced at the display, and his eyes widened. He held up a hand and took the call. Kanter and the others waited.

“Rasheed? This better be an emergency.” Savas exclaimed into the phone, “What? Tonight? That was not part of the deal, Rasheed! You break that deal, and three felony counts will instantly reappear and net you half a lifetime in jail!” A voice yelled over the speaker, and Savas responded firmly. “You bet your ass I can! And it will be your ass. What? You don’t care? Rasheed, this is crazy!”

Savas swiveled his chair and bent over the phone. “Where are you?” The voice barked out words. “We’ll meet there. In an hour—I’ll be there! If you value your freedom, you’ll give me that hour to talk.”

Savas closed the phone and cursed.

“Mother-in-law?” asked Rideout.

“The Sheikh. I don’t believe this. He’s rabbiting. Spooked to high heaven. I’ve got to stop him. He’s crucial to several operations.”

Kanter studied Savas for a moment. “What’s gotten into him?”

“Seen a ghost,” said Lightfoote, staring seriously at the group.

Savas ignored her. “I don’t know. Even the threat of jail wasn’t touching him. I’ve got to get up to East Harlem before he changes his mind and decides to skip our little chat.”

Kanter nodded. “Go, John.”

Rain began to pellet the window of the conference room. Savas stood and rushed to the door. As he passed Lightfoote, she grabbed his arm, gazing into his eyes. Her words seemed to emanate from a halo of red.

“Seen his own ghost.”

&Water pounded& the New York streets as Savas slammed the door of the cab and sprinted into the park. Mothers with strollers dashed madly searching for shelter, and large puddles began to form on street corners with failing drainage. Savas dodged several strollers and unperturbed jogging fanatics as he aimed for the center of the park. He spotted the pedestrian bridge and danced down the steps along its side, finding himself in a circular garden, complete with vacated benches and a central flower bed morphed into a pond by the rain. To the side, a short tunnel ran under the bridge. He headed for it and the dark shape waiting inside.

The Sheikh had looked better. He normally sported a strange combination of tailored clothes that clashed with the reversed baseball cap and multiple earring studs. Today the hat and clothes were soaked, the heavy gold necklace and wrist chains spotted with water yet still bright in the dim light against his dark skin. The white shirt he wore was nearly transparent, soaked through, and Savas could see the blurred shape of a tattoo on his right forearm. What worried Savas the most was the disarray in his face. The Sheikh was always a cool customer, arrogant in his confidence, his ability to play all sides to his advantage. Today, he looked like a frightened punk.

“You’ll have me in my grave, G-man.”

“You’ve been watching too many old films, Rasheed.” Savas shook the water from his face. “You’re too important to be disappearing on me. What’s going on?”

“You need to know, yeah? You always need to know,” said the Sheikh. “What’s going on is that the network’s gone rabid, man. There’s a purge on.”

“It’s not us, Rasheed. You’re tagged as mine. No one will touch you as long as you’re working with us.”

The Sheikh laughed. “Damn, man, no one’s scared of you. You Feds are always three steps behind.”

“Caught you, didn’t I?”

The Sheikh smiled. “You got lucky. But I mean going down. They’re dead. No one’s fingered, everybody’s denying. Everybody’s getting hit. No one wants to talk about it. Like the fucking boogeyman.”

His heart raced. More killings? Purgings in the terrorist underground? This was potentially even bigger than he thought. He needed the Sheikh to stay where he was! “Rasheed, you don’t have to run. We’ve got protection teams. We can watch your back, undercover. If it gets too hot, we can take you into protective custody.”

The Sheikh shook his head. “This ain’t the usual. Boys aren’t scared for nothing. Someone’s coming after us, G-man, and they ain’t interested in business. They interested in dead men. Networks are wrecked. There ain’t no credit, no trail, nothing we can see.”

He looked around anxiously, water dripping from his cap. The rain continued its downpour, periodic flashes following rolls of thunder and echoing against the concrete and stone walls of the tunnel. A small river began to flow through the tunnel under the bridge, soaking through their shoes.

The Sheikh grinned diabolically. “Doing your job for you.”

“This is important, damn it!” Savas had to convince him to work from within. “We know this is happening. We’ve got to figure out who is behind it!”

“That ain’t no interest to me. I done well in this business. No one’s wise to me. But money ain’t no good if you’re six feet under.”

Savas used the only tool he had left: fear. “Do you really think you can hide from them, Rasheed?” The Sheikh’s eyes widened. “Whoever’s behind this, they’ve taken out imams in England and diplomats in New York. They’re all over the globe, invisible, professional. Like you said, they don’t seem to be familiar with the word mercy. They’re not interested in money or negotiation. You’re a player, Rasheed, who makes the network hum. You’re one of those important links. It’s not a question of whether you’ve got a price on your head—it’s how much, and when they’ll cash in.”

“Fuck you, man!” he shouted, backing away.

“You run, and you’ll be on your own, unprotected, no closer to knowing who’s after you. Work with us! We can come down hard on these people, and that’ll go a lot farther toward saving your ass than trying to hide in a hole. They’ll dig you out, Rasheed. Then they’ll pull the trigger.”

The Sheikh looked like he was near panic; the truth of Savas’s words burrowing inside him. He’d either run in alarm or see that the FBI was throwing him a lifeline—a tenuous one, perhaps, but without it, he was helpless in the water as the sharks circled.

The man inched back toward Savas. He grasped the line.

“What do you want? I don’t have much time. They’re on to me.”

Instinct. Savas exhaled softly. “Keep your eyes open. We’ll assign a team of undercover agents to shadow you. If what you say’s true, you’ll be the trap.”

“I’ll be the fucking bait, man.”

Savas leveled his gaze at the man. Honesty was essential. “Yes, Rasheed. You will be.”

10

No Disposal

Pants Henry lay in an alcohol-induced daze on a hard park bench.

A cool breeze stirred through the darkness surrounding him, rustling leaves and pieces of litter along the sidewalk. The boiling New York summer hadn’t set in, and the city had still to warm to its deep tissue of concrete and metal. A rare and soft stillness rested over Manhattan. A good time to sleep it off.

A beige orb hung over the East River, and a winking handful of stars forced their way through the moonlight and the orange haze of streetlamps. Pants snored. A brown paper bag rested on his bench in Dag Hammarskjold Park in Midtown, an overflowing pushcart of junk to the side. He was a fixture along with his one pants leg, tolerated by the locals, outlasting many careers in the city.

The moonlight darted through the metal grid of a park sculpture that rose from the middle of the plaza, alighting on Pants’s haggard face, beard, and the thin wire running from ear to mouth. Static bursts escaped from the device as he quietly responded.

“Eagle 7, this is Alpha center.” The language was guttural, vaguely Germanic, uninterpretable to anyone who might have overheard.

“Copy,” Pants whispered in the same tongue, his eyes cracked open.

“Report.”

“Plaza is clean.”

“Hold position. Delta team exiting the target zone. Surveillance redirected. The gardeners are planting. Less than ten minutes. Situation nominal but critical. Execute extreme caution. This is it, Eagle 7.”

“Roger, Alpha center.”

Ten minutes was more than enough. The city block at Second Avenue had been re-created in the deserts of the Southwest, the operation rehearsed more times than he wished to remember, with too many different scenarios, too many failures and unexpected events encountered. Nothing could go wrong tonight.

That was why, when he saw motion at the far end of the park, training took over, and the outcome was never in doubt.

Two young men stepped into the plaza. Their voices were loud for the hour, alcohol the likely culprit. They appeared to be fair-skinned blacks or Latinos, with loose-fitting jeans, sharply cut shirts revealing strong muscles, and not a few thin-edged scars. Unmoving on the park bench, Pants wasn’t surprised to see the black-and-gold tattoos. Latin Kings. Fallen from their heyday, their members were still feared. He’d need to be focused.

“Alpha center, two unidentifieds, moving toward the garden. Latin Kings. Moving to intercept.”

“Roger that, Eagle 7. Mission critical. Sanitize the plaza.”

“Roger, Alpha Center. In progress.”

He tottered from the bench, an old bum both drunk and hungover. He grabbed his paper bag and shuffled toward the middle of the plaza, beneath the iron dome, grasping bars to steady himself. The two Kings slowed, still laughing, but suspicious. There was nothing unusual about the wino in front of them—Pants had made sure of that—but still they slowed. Pants understood: that place of unreason that senses danger whispered deep within them.

He made himself appear oblivious to their motions, stumbling forward and talking to the brown stone-tiled walkway at his feet. Approaching within ten yards, he raised his head, babbling nonsense and quickening his gait. The young men slowed and stared at each other. They relaxed, an initial sense of caution replaced with a smirking mischief.

“Late for a walk, gramps.”

The youth’s smile faded. Can’t hide the eyes.

Pants spun. From underneath his shabby coat, he removed a handgun, a silencer protruding from the barrel. He aimed and squeezed the trigger twice. Two spits melted into the soft June wind blowing through the park, followed by the wet impact of a human form dropping to the ground. As the first figure began its descent to the pavement, Pants rotated and fired again. The head of the other man arched backward. Both bodies lay crumbled on the ground.

Pants paused, listening, the gun still and upright, his body tense, head cocked at an angle. From one of the bodies came a soft moaning. The first target placed his hands on the ground in front of him as he tried vainly to rise. Blood covered his chest and hands; his face looked pale. Posture erect, motions sure and controlled, Pants stepped toward the prone man and aimed the weapon.

“No . . .” the man whispered, seeing the barrel pointed at his head. He dropped heavily as a shot blew apart the upper right corner of his forehead, spraying blood and bone across the cobbled walkway. Pants knelt and checked the other body. Satisfied, he examined the plaza carefully, eyeing the windows of surrounding buildings. He spoke into his microphone.

“Alpha center, this is Eagle 7. Plaza is sanitized. Repeat, plaza is sanitized.”

“Roger that, Eagle 7. Gardeners have seeded the area. Exit plaza and proceed to rendezvous.”

“Any disposal, Alpha center?”

“Negative, Eagle 7. Unnecessary, and there’s no time. After tomorrow, your little mess will be the least of their worries.”

“Roger that. Eagle 7, out.” Pants resumed a stumbling gait down the plaza walkway toward First Avenue. There, he turned left, uptown, glancing back only momentarily at the dancing currents of the East River. Somewhere, he knew, those currents were carrying the body of the real Pants Henry, who was finally at rest.

More intently, he followed the lights alongside the river, staring up at the towering form of the United Nations building at the river’s edge.

11

Late for Work

Traffic rushed like swarms of locusts across Second Avenue. Swarms of large, cheap, ugly metallic locusts, thought Fahd Shobokshi, aide to the Saudi Counselor, as he stepped over a fresh pile of dog excrement left by some undoubtedly charming member of this filthy city of infidels. Fahd Shobokshi hated his job. He hated being away from his homeland. He hated having to fawn over the pompous and idiotic head of the Saudi Consulate in Manhattan. He hated the small and poorly furnished hole they called an apartment in this city. He hated living in this nation of sinners and in this chief city of Satan, where a righteous man could not walk two blocks without having to turn away from pornography. He hated the dinners overflowing with Western dishes, the long hours of tedious paperwork. Most of all, he hated the mornings when he knew he would be dressed down by the counselor for being late. Today, he was late again.

The street sign blinked to “walk,” and Fahd dodged a rushing cab as he stepped across the street. There was one thing he did like about the city, and that was the—what did they call it in Urdu? The kulfiwala. Yes, he liked the kulfiwala, he thought pleasantly, as a stinking and sweating American jogger bumped into him. If stopping by made him even later, then he would gain much and lose little. His dressing down was already assured. At the corner of the plaza, the cart was there, as it was every working summer day. The short little Pakistani would be there too, with his terrible but wonderful kulfi. Fahd had come to love the mornings and his kulfi—so superior to the dripping cream these Americans preferred. A day felt incomplete without it.

He stepped to the cart and smiled at the man. These Pakistanis were good people, but they were barely Muslims. An inferior race still tainted by their roots in paganism. But Allah is merciful, and he offers his mercy to all who follow his precepts. He paid and took his plastic bowl and spoon and began to eat, tasting the cool of the ice milk in the warming June sun, pausing long enough outside of 866 Second Avenue for a final moment of peace before the day began. He glanced over toward the plaza. Police. There were several, and they had begun to fence off a region of the park. More crime in this murderous city.

He glanced at the tall building, its black-glass windows filled with floor after floor of United Nations’ representatives. It was a rather imposing building, sucking the light out of the nice little corner between the tree-lined plaza and the small park across the street. He’d rather wait outside, especially on a nice day like today. But he could not. He took a deep breath. He was late already, and pausing outside would not avert what awaited.

And then the door to hell opened at his feet.

Turned inside-out in the middle of a fire, pummeled by stones and bathed in rushing air, he flew. Light, darkness, heat, smoke. His ears ached, sounds muffled as submerged in water. He reached to touch them, then pulled his hands down. With blurred vision, he saw that they were covered in blood. His back erupted in a spasm of pain, and his eyes focused. He was lying on the street surrounded by broken glass, nearly underneath a large truck parked on the west side of Second Avenue.

I am across the street? Through the wetness of the blood in his injured ears, he began to filter sounds. Alarms, many of them. Building alarms, car alarms; he could not tell. Voices screaming—commands, exclamations. Cries for help. His eyes could see only a brown haze, a thick cloud of dust like a choking fog surrounding the block. Cars were overturned or crushed by enormous slabs of concrete. Glass was everywhere, and flakes like confetti rained from above.

He tried to stand. The pain in his back was paralyzing. He tried again, groaning from the effort, and finally made it to his feet. His left arm was not working; it hung limply at his side. I cannot feel it. His body was covered in bloody ash. One shoe was missing. Merciful God, what has happened?

He limped forward over the once busy street. Nothing moved except the smoke and dust. A million shards of glass covered the roadway. He heard sirens, choruses of sirens blaring from all directions. Glancing forward, across the street, he gasped. The cloud of dust was still thick, a sharp rain descending like sand. But it had cleared enough to leave no doubt. A gaping hole was carved out of the earth. Fires ranged along the crater, in nearby vehicles, in the trees of Dag Hammarskjold Park. The corner of Second Avenue and 46th Street was a burning hole, a black pit of nothingness opening its maw to drink the dust above it. The building, his building, that tower of polished black glass and steel, filled with workers from twenty different nations, was gone. Blown and dispersed into the air of New York.

For several seconds, he could not move. Police cars and fire trucks arrived at the scene, and the sounds of chaos flowed over his shattered ears like water in a sea cave. A hulking fireman in a mask rushed toward Fahd, shouting at him and pointing across the road, telling him something he could not decipher. Fahd nodded dumbly, turning left to retreat back across the street. He glimpsed the pushcart he had visited this morning, in a place and time far away, in another world. Next to the overturned cart lay a body. A small dark form. His Pakistani friend.

Fahd stumbled over debris in the road. He looked down to right himself and noticed an irregular object. He stared in horror. He began to shake. Below him was the face of a woman. Not her head, dear Allah, not her head. Three-quarters of her face was removed from the rest of her body, an eye along with distorted and grotesque lips and cartilage from the nose, tattered bits of a forehead, all soaked in blood. Horror.

He heard it finally, crashing against his bleeding eardrums. Screams and screams and screams of terror. He looked around, turning in every direction, dancing madly away from the demonic mask of death near his feet. The screams grew louder and louder in his head, and he turned to look but could not find the voices. Only as he began to limp maniacally across the road, no longer caring what he stepped on, glass or flesh, did he realize that the screams were his own.

12

Surgical Strikes

Savas stepped up the curb onto the sidewalk in front of 26 Federal Plaza. He wore a dark suit and sunglasses, carrying a coffee in one hand, the New York Times and his briefcase in the other. The tension of the last few weeks had begun to extract a toll. His shoulders sagged, his gait was slower, and behind the sunglasses, his eyes were a sleepless bloodshot.

He swung into the main entrance of the FBI building, keeping his coffee level while dodging exiting and entering figures, rarely taking his eyes off the page he was reading. He glanced up at security, nodded toward the well-known faces, handed off his items, went through the required checks, grabbed his items, and found his place back in the article as he approached the elevators.

Several figures were waiting in line. He smiled, glimpsing a young woman with waist-length red hair. Today she wore a bright-green dress complemented by red sneakers, standing apart from the crowd waiting for the elevators. She stared straight up at the wall to her left, caught in a trance of some kind. Savas glanced back at his article and slowed to a stop behind her.

“Greetings, Kemo Sabe,” the young woman spoke.

“Someday I’m going to learn how to sneak up on you, Angel.”

“I doubt that, John.”

“Yeah, so do I.”

“You look like shit.”

Savas laughed. “Thanks. I’m looking forward to the weekend and a little rest.”

“Sorry to hear that,” said Lightfoote, moving toward the elevator. Savas shook his head. The bell rang and the doors opened.

As Savas stepped out of the elevator, he knew something was wrong. The normal rhythms of work were completely out-of-whack as agents darted from place to place among a din of rising voices. He could see Kanter in the back pointing and shouting commands like some mad orchestral conductor. He spotted Savas, summoning him with an imperious wave of his hand.

“See you soon, Captain Overlord, sir,” Lightfoote said sweetly.

“What?” he asked, staring ahead at the chaos, but by the time he turned to look, she was already flitting across the room. Savas spilled his coffee over his New York Times, cursed, and marched forward, dropping both in the trash.

Kanter was in prime form. Already his tie was askew and his receding gray hair hung in growing disarray. A fire burned in his eyes, and his jaw jutted forward, signaling that he was in the crazed problem-solving mode that made him so skilled as an administrator and such a pain in the ass. Kanter didn’t waste any time getting to the point.

“This is it, John!” he said, grabbing the ex-cop’s arm in a viselike grip and dragging him across the room. “No drill. We have a bona fide event right now in New York City.”

“What?” said Savas. “An attack? Today?”

“That’s right. Looks like it’s down by the UN—not the UN proper, thank goodness. We’ve some confirmation on that, at least. But in the immediate area. Set your team up now, John. I want everything you can get on this pouring in ASAP.” Kanter left his side and stormed off toward another team.

Savas headed toward the Operation Room for Intel 1. On his way he banged on the office doors of his group members. “Let’s go! We need to move right now to the OR!” Of his six team members, only the angular form of Matt King emerged.

“I supposed from all this chaos that we must—”

“Shut it, Matt. Mail me the essay. This is real. Let’s move.” Savas turned and nearly crashed into the hairy form of Hernandez.

“Manuel, please, to the Operation Room. This one looks real, and we might just burn through all the wires you duct-taped together. I need you in there making sure we fly straight; you got it?”

“I’m on it.”

“Please don’t tell me we’re running any beta versions of anything.”

“I live by a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy for software, John.”

Savas stared harshly at the ceiling for a moment. “The system better not crash.” He pushed past Hernandez and felt him following behind as they headed to the Operation Room. Along the way, they were joined by JP Rideout and Frank Miller. The four strode into the OR.

“Okay, where’s Rebecca?” asked Savas, glancing around the room with some anxiety. Over the last few years, he’d come to count more on Rebecca Cohen than on anyone in the group. Her sharp mind, grounded personality, and holistic way of thinking kept the team focused with the right perspective. She was also a whiz with the crisis system Hernandez had set up. Today would be a bad day for her to call in sick.

“I’m here, John,” she said, dashing into the OR. He breathed easier.

“All right, now if we can only get Angel in here, we can start to break this thing down.”

Hernandez tugged on his arm and pointed across the room. Savas followed his hand to the end of the half-moon desk. Lightfoote sat there; somehow she had entered before they had come in, or perhaps she had floated in like some ghost without anyone noticing. As he looked at her, she paused her furious typing to raise a hand, eyes still on the screen, giving Savas the thumbs-up.

Aside from Savas and Hernandez, the remaining members of Intel 1 were busy logging in and bringing up the system. Awaiting commands from Savas, some were already running the analysis software.

“All I’ve got for the present is that there was an attack Midtown East by the UN. Rebecca, let’s bring up the police and fire data. Angel, can you get a live satellite view up?”

An enormous projection screen was draped over the far wall, some ten feet in front of the table. It flashed to life, showing five smaller subdivisions superimposed over a larger background. One screen, corresponding to Lightfoote’s terminal, blinked and came to life, displaying a view from space. It zoomed into the island of Manhattan just south of the Queensboro Bridge. Smoke obscured a region of several blocks near the United Nations building. Other screens flashed and showed a stream of text—emergency bulletins from several New York City agencies.

“Excellent. Rebecca, why don’t you run the link to Larry’s office and dump the live feed. What do we have folks?”

In the time it took him to say these things, several of the other screens flashed on, revealing varied scenes. One was cutting between local and national coverage of the event on television. Another was funneling information from internet search engines through one of Manuel’s algorithms.

“Explosive device, John,” Cohen called out, processing the information and integrating it faster than anyone. Lightfoote cut in, “Second Avenue, near the plaza. Can’t see through the smoke.”

An altered image of the scene displayed in false color revealed no obscuring smoke but rather illuminating solid structures—buildings, cars, and rubble—in an eerie green.

“Filtering it through the IATIA satellite, looks like a hole . . . there!” King called out. Several intakes of breath were heard over the clacking of keyboards.

“Damn,” said Savas. “Something was blown to hell and back.”

Immediately, another image of the area occupied the screen controlled by Rideout. It showed the same region, in real color and without the hole.

“SAT photo before the bombing, sometime last week,” Rideout chimed in. “It’s the corner of Second and Forty-Sixth Street.”

“Okay, people, what is it? Let’s find out what was in that hole.”

Cohen leaned back. “John, fire department chatter confirms what we’re seeing. There was a massive explosion. There’s some severe damage, and there are reports of many injuries and secondary carnage from car fires and falling debris.”

“Well, they’ve come back to visit again, folks, that much is clear. Anyone know what the hell they hit yet?”

“Got it! It’s a UN office building. 866 Second Avenue,” said Rideout. An image flashed showing a tall, black-glass building. “Damn. I’m getting one international office located there after another: representatives from Ecuador, Greece, Guyana, Honduras, even the Saudi General Consulate. They’re spread out on different floors and offices.”

Miller muttered, “I don’t think it’s gonna matter what floor those poor bastards were on.”

“No,” echoed Savas. “Okay, so, we have an attack on UN personnel, a UN building for all practical purposes, with enough shit to take the entire building down.”

“Structural damage to neighboring buildings is minimal from both the SAT and chatter, John,” said Cohen.

“Okay. Point?”

“Well, they didn’t use airplanes this time, that’s for sure,” said Miller.

Cohen nodded. “This was a surgical strike, John. Whoever did this managed to obliterate an entire building in midtown Manhattan without much collateral damage. Unless they got supremely lucky, we’re looking at some very highly skilled munitions work.”

“I guess they’ve been busy in those caves all these years,” said Savas, turning toward the screen. “Manuel, what do we have in terms of munitions analysis?”

“Ah, John, beyond my pay grade. We’ll need to farm this out to forensics.”

“Yeah, figured. But that means we’re waiting as usual to shift through the aftermath. This is in real-time, folks. What else can we pull out of this?”

“CNN, Fearless Leader,” said Lightfoote.

Her terminal cut to a live broadcast from the news organization. A reporter stood before a mob of people kept at a distance by police and fire department personnel, who themselves were partially obscured by pouring smoke. The reporter’s words were barely audible over the sound of sirens and voices.

“ . . . about half an hour ago, Brian. This is as close as our crew was able to get. As you can see, there’s simply an incredible amount of smoke, and the building lies in complete ruins. Onlookers report an enormous explosion or series of explosions. One elderly woman said the ground shook and she nearly fell.”

“Doesn’t look like Second Avenue to me . . .” started King.

“It’s not,” said Savas. “It’s not New York. Go to full screen, Rebecca.”

The image grew to fill the entire projection screen. People were running in all directions while the reporter continued speaking. Savas grabbed a chair, flipped it around so that its back faced him, and sat as he listened to the footage. His hands gripped the chair back tightly.

“I’m sorry, Brian, it’s just chaos here; I can’t hear you. Let me repeat, there’s been a major explosion at the Saudi Arabian Embassy here in Washington, DC. None of us can get close enough to see what’s going on, but from what we can see, it seems that the embassy’s been severely damaged . . . of considerable power. . . . Police and fire crews . . . uncertain . . . injuries. . .” The transmission was breaking up slightly. King used this moment to speak.

“John, I’ve got this on the SAT.”

“Put it up.”

The green-colored image occluded a portion of the news feed. Next to it, King superimposed a photograph of the Saudi Embassy from space. In the false-color image that cut through the smoke and clouds, the results of the explosion were obvious to all.

“My God, the whole thing’s gone,” said Rideout. “Just like here. Is this some 9/11 replay? They’re hitting us in New York and Washington at the same time.”

Rideout’s words were like blows to the stomach. Savas felt himself become unhinged in time. Towers like sand crumbling in the wind. Falling, falling slowly, a million tons of concrete and metal . . . and flesh and bone. Police beneath, young officers, daughters . . . sons. Beneath a mountain falling . . .

Cohen’s voice became a lifeline.

“John, you’re not going to believe this.”

Savas’s eyes, unfocused and in another time, turned toward her and became completely alert. She was holding a cell phone.

“One of the agents guarding the Sheikh is on the phone. They lost him. Two of them are down. Somebody took them out, and the Sheikh bolted. Our man is wounded. He doesn’t know if the Sheikh is alive or dead.”

13

Quarry

The group sat still in the dim lighting and bright screens of the Intel 1 crisis center, listening silently to a cell phone message play over the speaker in the room. They heard a strained voice, winded, the man obviously hurt and struggling to speak.

“They knew we were there,” he panted. “Shots came—Jones and Richards went down. I think they’re dead.” He coughed, a harsh and grating sound. “I’m hit, but I can move. The rat ran. I tried to follow,” he paused, out of breath, requiring several seconds to speak again. “Couldn’t keep up. Trace my cell. I need help. Losing blood.”

Cohen stopped the playback. Her voice was soft and flat. “We have an ambulance on the way, but they’re closing down the bridges and tunnels.”

All eyes in Intel 1 turned to Savas. On the screens were the continuing images of the terror attacks: flashing lights of emergency vehicles, smoke, and statements to the press from U.S. and foreign government officials. A voice called out that Kanter was on his way down.

“All right, people, we literally have the world blowing up around us. Let’s think carefully but quickly.” Savas paced the room, talking as much toward the floor and ceiling as to the members of his team. “We have major attacks in New York and Washington, coordinated attacks, unlike anything since 9/11. FBI, the White House, the nation will demand that the majority of our resources be focused on these attacks—and they’re right. So, unless Larry countermands me on this, I want most of you busting your asses to get everything you can on these bombings. But this ambush on our protection squad convinces me that we are onto something. It may be too late—the Sheikh may be dead. But we don’t know that. I’ll work with Frank to try to locate him, intercept him, and bring him in if he’s not already flower food. Any objections?”

“Damn inconvenient timing!” barked Kanter, who was standing in the doorway listening. “Your contact surely excels in planning, orchestrating his near murder right as we scramble to cover this nightmare!”

“Someone has a sense of timing, Larry, but I don’t think it’s the Sheikh.”

Kanter waved off Savas’s anger. “You and Miller go, and try like hell not to get yourselves killed if you find him—some boys out there are not playing around. Meanwhile, Intel 1 will be a little short-staffed but will sacrifice increasing amounts of their lives, or at least sleep, to make up the difference.” Kanter turned toward the group, focusing on Rebecca. “Agent Cohen, I assume that you have no objections if I elevate you to temporary group leader in John’s absence?”

“No, Larry, of course—”

“Good. Because I’ve got more calls than I’ve got call-waiting circuits, and I don’t have time to babysit you people. Your job is to figure out what the hell happened, who’s responsible, and, if possible, have them in custody this evening.”

“We’ll do our best . . . sir,” said Cohen.

Kanter frowned and stormed out of the room.

Savas looked at the ex-marine and sighed. “You and I will carve out a little corner of the OR. The rest of you—Rebecca has the wheel.”

Cohen nodded but instead walked over toward Savas and pulled him aside. He blinked. Is she angry?

“John, you were unconscious after Indian Point for two days with radiation sickness and a broken rib. Do you think you need to be chasing this street punk and those assassins while all the rest of this is going on? Is this mission really that critical?”

“Yes, I think so. Something important is tied into this.” He tried to calm her. “Look, we’ll be careful, like Larry said. We know there are some nasties buzzing around.”

She just stared at him. “Sure, zero to sixty in 5.4 seconds, crashing explosives with a forklift in a radioactive death cell. Was your monster truck trick careful, too?”

Savas was taken aback. “Rebecca, I did what I had to there! Those explosives were rigged to blow. The cooling rods were completely exposed!”

Cohen nodded but with a frown on her face, her eyes distant. “John, it’s not the details. It’s the pattern. This is becoming a habit, don’t you think?”

“What is?”

“You nearly getting yourself killed on every case.”

Savas looked away. This was a direction he didn’t want any conversation to go. Not now, with buildings coming down and contacts on the run. Not with Rebecca.

Miller delivered him. The muscled agent strode up to the pair. “John, let’s move. Manuel let me have the keys to the car, and I’m bringing up the tracking system. Let’s see where he’s running.”

Savas avoided Cohen’s gaze and followed the ex-marine. Maybe the Sheikh isn’t the only one running.

&There was& a counterpoint of activity in the room as the majority of Intel 1 continued to focus on the unfolding terrorist attacks. Savas and Miller commandeered a terminal and went to work tracking down his contact.

“Manuel has transferred control of our communications software, John,” Miller announced, typing furiously on the keyboard. “I think I know what I’m doing with it. Look—here! His phone has a GPS, and we can track him. He’s in Queens, apparently not moving—assuming, of course, that it’s him alive with the phone.”

“Try the cell. If he’s stopped running, he might answer.”

“Punching it, using your number as the caller,” said Miller. “I’ll run a general scan on the phone as well.”

The digital tones of the dialed number played over the small computer speakers. There was a click, and a voice answered.

Fuck you, G-man!” came the welcome. “A lot of good your muscle did me.”

“Shut up, Rasheed!” yelled Savas into the computer microphone. “We’ve got agents dead who were covering your ass! We need to come in and get you.”

“You’d better!”

“We will!”

“They know; it all started after I talked to you.”

“What started? Who’s they, Rasheed?”

“Fuck that! No time! I need protection! Your men are down, useless. I need to come in!”

“Okay, Rasheed, we know where you are.”

Miller covered the microphone and whispered to Savas “John, so does someone else. His cell’s being tracked.”

Savas felt a surge of adrenaline. “Who?”

“Checking . . . no one legit!”

Christ! “Rasheed, you’ve got to hang up and call me from another cell, a new cell, prepaid, or a pay phone. Your cell is tagged. They’re tracking you.”

Fuck!” The phone went dead.

Savas turned to Miller. “He’ll move from there; he’s smart. He’ll call us when he’s got another phone.”

Miller nodded. “I hope so. Meanwhile, we know where he is, so let’s get there.”

“Yes,” said Savas, “before someone else does.”

14

Golden Raven

The drive to Queens became an exercise in patience in the face of panic. Law enforcement had locked down all of Manhattan—bridges, tunnels, airports. Getting on or off the island required long waits through the stalled traffic and repeated discussions with police and National Guard personnel to achieve clearance. Miller drove, and Savas could only boil inside as he played through multiple scenarios—most ending up with the Sheikh dead before they could get to him. He also did not forget that they were heading into a covert war zone, where unknown ciphers were playing a deadly game of cat and mouse. He had two dead agents, and a growing list of downed assassination targets, to remind him.

He removed his pistol, placing it on his lap. He lifted the weapon, pressed the magazine catch, and let the cartridge drop onto his legs. He pulled the slide back and inspected the chamber to ensure it was empty then allowed the slide to spring forward. He pointed the gun toward the right side of the car and pulled the trigger. The click was clear, smart, and drowned by the sound of tires over the Queensboro Bridge.

“You planning on breaking it down on the way over?” asked Miller wryly, his eyes on the road, the speedometer approaching sixty.

Savas shook his head. “Figured we may be reloading today, Frank. Wanted to have a peek at things inside.”

Miller nodded. “Shot placement is everything. I’ve seen guys unload and hit an assailant with more than ten rounds in the wrong places. The man just kept firing. Even without drugs, a determined man can take a lot of incidental damage and fight through the pain. Got to unplug the battery—heart, lungs, major organs.”

“I know, Frank,” said Savas, but the ex-marine continued.

“In the war, in Afghanistan, I saw shit you wouldn’t believe. I’ve seen a two-twenty-pound pile of Special Forces muscle drop dead from a piece of shrapnel no bigger than a needle. I’ve seen men drag themselves with half a leg blown off, still firing, screaming obscenities, until they dropped from blood loss. The worst are the religious nuts, the jihadists who believe every dead American is another virgin in paradise. I’ve seen those bastards filled with ammo, and they keep coming. Human, of course—just got to hit them in the right place.” He shook his head sharply. “Seen the opposite, of course—young Arab kids who take a shot in the leg and learn the hard way that their faith was bullshit. Those fall fast. Bunch of bawling kids on the side while you deal with the maniacs.”

“Sounds like hell, Frank.”

Miller frowned. “So they call it. When you’re there, it’s just what it is.”

Savas’s cell rang out, and he picked up.

“Rasheed? Where are you?” Beside him, Miller tried to make out the words spoken on the other end. Savas continued. “Okay, we’re almost there. We’re going to pull up near the Astoria line. You’ll see a black town car, FBI written all over it. Yes, I know! But it’s all we had access to! In case you didn’t realize, all hell’s broken out in the city today!”

Savas continued after the voice spoke for several seconds. “If you are being followed, we’ll have you covered. Come up Thirtieth Avenue toward the subway line. We’ll be hidden close to the station, near the car, but we’ll see down the street for a long way. Anything suspicious and we’ll move on it.”

Savas closed the phone.

“One of the subway stations, John? Kinda public for this.”

Savas paused a moment, deep in thought. “I know, but I needed a place he could identify and get to fast, without confusion. Also, it’ll be harder to pull anything off in a crowded place.”

Miller raised his eyebrows. “If they do, we could get some collateral damage.”

Savas nodded, his face troubled. He had accepted the risk but was burdened by it anyway. The location—so close to the church. Why did I choose to meet him there?

“He was clean?”

“Said he was using a pay phone.” He turned toward Miller. “I can’t believe his cell’s being tracked. Who’s got that kind of access, Frank?”

“Phone companies and select government agencies, John. You know that.”

“The CIA hit squads? Damn it, I don’t believe that, Frank.”

“Well, someone’s tapped into U.S. communication networks, all to track down this one guy. Either they really want him, or they’ve got a kind of casual access that’s frightening.”

“He’s not that important.”

“Then we ought to be worried about who we’re dealing with, John.”

They rode the rest of the way in silence.

&The Sheikh was& due to be on foot, moving up the street toward the station from the west. After checking the platform, Savas and Miller descended from the elevated tracks above Thirty-First Street. Miller sat at an outdoor café and was the perfect model of a relaxed two-hundred-and-thirty-pound marine enjoying the fine June weather. Savas took a more awkward position, slowly gazing over the newspaper stand in front of a deli. Soon, he had run out of papers to stare at and began to examine the produce on display when he noticed a movement from Miller’s direction.

The marine had spotted their quarry first and rose from his seat, heading toward the street crossing. Savas’s cell vibrated as Miller sent an alert to his phone. Across the street and halfway down the block, weaving erratically, was the harried figure of the Sheikh. Oh, Christ! Savas tensed instinctively as he realized that the man was nearly running. He and Miller locked eyes for a moment, the communication enough, then both began to cross the street in the direction of their informant. Savas felt for the gun in the side holster hidden by his jacket. He zeroed in on the Sheikh, scanning the sea of people behind him.

The hunter was hard to miss. A tall man rounded the corner at the far end of the block. Like the Sheikh, he moved too fast, counter to the normal flow of pedestrians. Savas heard Miller shout from the right. Both men pulled their guns and began sprinting toward the Sheikh, who had nearly reached the corner. Several people began to scream, and Savas waved them out of their way.

“FBI! Everyone clear the way! Clear the way!”

The pedestrian traffic parted like the Red Sea. Savas gestured to the ground.

“Drop! Drop down!”

The Sheikh dropped. His action, and the parting crowd, exposed the figure pursuing him. A gun was in the assassin’s hand. As the killer sprinted, he steadied the weapon, aiming it at the Sheikh.

Savas braced himself against a lamppost and fired. Gunshots exploded from his and Miller’s weapons. People screamed. Bullets whizzed past him, sending shards of shattered concrete into the air.

The battle was brief, the assassin caught in an unexpected crossfire. Savas watched him stumble and fall backward. His weapon arm struck the sidewalk, sending the gun rattling behind him.

“Frank, the Sheikh!” screamed Savas. Miller dashed forward to the prone figure of their contact. Savas approached the downed killer, gun steadied in his hands and aimed forward. Four shots had found their mark: two in the chest, one to the gun shoulder, and the last either a graze or partial-penetration head wound. Savas knew the wounds were life threatening. But the man was alive! Miller came up to his side with the Sheikh in tow, who spat out curses.

“Shut it!” yelled Savas, as he pulled out his cell, mashing several buttons. “Getting medical help here as soon as possible. We’re not losing this bastard! He’s our key, Frank. I promise you, one way or the other, he’ll lead us to the truth.”

The man mumbled, cracking his lids. For a moment his eyes swam, then he placed himself. Even seriously wounded, he attempted to attack. Savas was more than ready, and he forced the man back down with his foot. The killer collapsed, his energy spent. Savas grabbed him by the shirt collar.

“Nice try, asshole. While you’re awake, you should know that you’ve got the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to have an attorney present during questioning. If you can’t afford an attorney, one’ll be appointed for you. Do you understand these rights?” The man whispered something Savas couldn’t understand. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

Before he released his grip, an impact blew open the man’s forehead, showering the three of them with blood. Savas spun toward Miller.

“Get him down! Get him—” Miller grabbed for the Sheikh, but it was too late. A loud slap echoed. Their contact arched his neck, a shot blasting through his spine and brainstem. He dropped to the ground, dead.

“No, damn it!” shouted Savas. He drew his fists up sharply and pounded the concrete. They reversed the trap!

“Shot him first,” said Miller. The ex-marine looked up from the body of the dead assassin, scanning around them. “As much as they wanted your contact dead, they made sure we didn’t take that killer.”

Savas nodded, the implications dawning on him. He stood, his hands numb and clenched, one pricked and smarting. He turned his hand over and opened the palm. Gleaming in the sunlight was a golden necklace, torn unintentionally from the dead assassin’s neck. Fresh blood stained the links. At the bottom hung a pendant, shaped like an anchor, and unlike anything Savas had ever seen.

The harsh face of a bird was carved in its side.

15

Prodigal Son

In the fading light of the June evening, John Savas watched the old women file out of the church in Astoria. A sea of black with gray caps, some limping down the steps toward the streets. The nimble steps of the young danced in the black tide, small islands lit with brighter colors. Vespers was over, the last prayers of the day read. The cantor exited last. Gazing up at the gold-painted dome and the neon-white cross, he lit a cigarette, crossed himself, and stepped into the night. In seconds he was lost in the swirling currents of New Yorkers flowing across the busy streets.

When it was clear that the church had emptied, Savas stepped out of a black Crown Victoria. His polished shoes slapped the pavement as he made his way toward the steps. He wore a black suit, formal yet modest. Functional. His shoes clacked up the stairs to bring him before the entrance, where he crossed himself and pushed one of the doors open slowly, peering inside. Satisfied, he entered and let the door close softly behind him.

Inside the church, a palpable stillness hung in the air with the remaining incense. Savas remembered that stillness, that period after the service without chatter and bustle, yet full with what he once imagined as the essence of angels lingering. The space held a thoughtful, prayerful silence more pregnant than the chanting itself. He dropped several coins into the slot underneath beeswax candles beside the icons at the front of the narthex. He took two candles and lit them from those already placed in the sand, thinking first of his son, then of his ex-wife. He crossed himself again, kissed the icon of Christ, and stepped into the nave.

The lights were low, and the candles around the body of the church shone with halos through the fragrant smoke. Father Timothy folded his vestments and squinted at the visitor in the pews.

“John?” His voice echoed against the marble. “John Savas?”

“Hello, Father.”

The priest smiled. “John! It’s good to see you after all these years.”

“I wasn’t sure that it would be,” he replied.

The priest frowned. “Of course it is! Let’s not have any such nonsense from you about this.” The priest came forward. Savas took his hand, kissed it, and crossed himself. The priest tried to wave the traditional gesture away but finally submitted.

“Father Timothy, I’ve come for confession. That is, if you have the time tonight.”

The priest stood, still and serious. He gave Savas a long look. “All right, John, give me a second. I was just putting everything away. Please, wait for me in the corner, by the icon of St. Nicholas.”

Savas nodded and walked over to the left side of the nave. From just above the floor to more than fifteen feet up the side of the wall, the icon of the great ascetic from Anatolia, now western Turkey, glinted, his brown robes flowing from sandaled feet to the receding hairline at the top of his head. Savas always found it amusing how Western Christians had taken this harsh monk and dressed him up in a red suit, strapped him to a sleigh with reindeer out of the pagan Northern myths, and made him so fat it was hard to imagine him ever fasting. This was the man who had slapped a heretical bishop at the First Council of Nicea, after all. As a child, Savas never told his friends that underneath the icon in his church, in a golden case about the size of a breadbox, were the bones of Santa Claus himself. It was likely that any explanations of the veneration of relics would have failed to bridge this cultural divide.

Father Timothy bustled over and laid a prayer book on a marble handrail. He gestured to a chair, but Savas shook his head. He’d been sitting too much, analyzing too much, until his eyes were blurry. He’d stand for this.

“Behold, my child, Christ stands here invisibly receiving your confession. Do not be ashamed and do not fear, and do not withhold anything from me; but without doubt, tell all you have done and receive forgiveness from the Lord Jesus Christ. Lo, He is before us, and I am only a witness, bearing testimony before Him of all things which you say to me. But if you conceal anything from me, you shall have the greater sin. Take heed, therefore, lest having come to the physician, you depart unhealed.”

It was a routine Savas had known since his days as an altar boy. Yet now it was alien, because he was alien, because he had come and gone through a place that had changed him.

The priest sat in the chair. He had aged significantly since Savas was a boy, and it showed in his movements and in his stamina.

“I’ll make this short, Father. Not that I’m happy with myself or anything. But there are things that are real and important, and I need to say them. Most important, I suppose, is that I don’t know anymore if I believe in God.”

The priest showed no outward sign of surprise or dismay at this admission. He merely replied after Savas’s long pause, “Go on, John.”

John Savas looked up at the icon of Saint Nicholas. Who was he? Who am I?

“I don’t disbelieve, but I don’t know what it means anymore to believe. The idea of God I had in my mind couldn’t be real. I mean, the idea from my parents, priests, Sunday school teachers, friends, and family—the myth we were all accepting, I just can’t believe in that anymore. Whatever God is, it’s not this simple, orderly, Father Christmas idea. I really don’t know if there’s a God. I certainly don’t know the nature of God. And I don’t know how to trust any man to tell me what the truth is.”

Father Timothy gazed at him in silence, impassively. After a few more moments went by, during which time Savas had not spoken, the priest nodded slowly, as if to himself.

“John, I’m not going to tell you to make a pilgrimage to the island of Tinos and crawl up the hill on your knees to the Church of the Megalohari. I will say that you’re at a most dangerous, and yet promising place. Dangerous, because your soul stands on the edge of nothingness into which it might fall, forever to be lost. Promising because only there can you truly reach out to the Mystery that is God.”

“Father, I don’t feel like I’m reaching out to anything. I can’t see anything leading me anywhere. If there’s a cliff, I won’t know it.”

“John, you are reaching out, or you wouldn’t be here tonight. I would ask you not to turn away from prayer, if you can do that. That is your link to God.”

“Sure, Father. I’ll try. But I don’t know who or what I’m praying to.”

The old priest smiled. “None of us truly do. When we do, we are either entering sainthood or staring at a false idol.”

Father Timothy stood and opened the small leather-bound book. Savas was surprised. He hadn’t expected the priest to accept his confession. But old habit was in him, and he knelt before the priest, who placed the stole over his head.

“O God, our Savior, Who by Thy prophet Nathan granted unto repented David pardon of his transgressions, and has accepted the Manasses’ prayer of penitence, do Thou, in Thy love toward mankind, accept also Thy servant John who repents of his sins which he has committed, overlooking all that he has done, pardoning his offenses and passing by his iniquities. Unto Thee we ascribe glory, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.”

The priest finished reading the prayers. John Savas stood and crossed himself. Father Timothy walked him to the door of the church.

“This week’s events have brought you here, haven’t they?” he asked.

Savas stared up into the night sky, hearing the rushing sounds of the subway line behind them. “The trigger, I guess. But my life has brought me here. I just don’t know where it’s taking me.”

16

Runes

“Special Forces, served in Afghanistan and Iraq for a number of years,” said Rebecca Cohen, reading off the screen. “And get this: discharge code 28B/HKA— Discreditable Incidents — Civilian or Military. What does that mean?”

Savas turned to Miller. “Frank, any idea?”

Miller shook his head. “It’s not good, but it can cover a lot of ground. You could sweep almost anything under that. One thing is sure; he was out of control in some way.”

“So, we have an out-of-control former special-ops soldier functioning as an assassin who was chasing down a player in the underground terrorist network. Doesn’t sound like a trained CIA operative.”

“Not sure he was the assassin,” said Rideout. “Sure, he was muscle hired to kill the guy, but he was sloppy. Looks like they needed someone fast and had to settle for poor quality control. When the Sheikh caused them problems, they brought in a second, an expert, who got the job done seriously.”

Savas sighed. They were back to the death squad idea. The growing mystique behind these kills was becoming superstition. “Look, he was part of something. If these are CIA death squads running around the world murdering people, why hire a flaky ex-SEAL who could blow the entire thing? There aren’t enough super-assassins in the world to cover all the territory these guys are covering. It’s like a little army. Some soldiers perform better than others.”

“Army?” asked Matt King, his eyebrows raised.

“Honestly, people! These aren’t superheroes! For the kind of impact they’ve had—”

If you’re right that they are all linked,” interrupted King.

“Yes, if I’m right, that kind of impact on several continents has to be associated with a large personnel base. There’s no other way. When your operation gets too big, you always make recruitment mistakes. I think this is one of them. Besides, rogue CIA assassin teams don’t suddenly get all organized and vengeful! This is a group, a large group, with a purpose behind it.”

There was silence in the room. No one’s buying it. Drop it, John.

“What else do we have?” he asked.

Cohen swiveled away from the computer screen and sighed. “That’s it. Hardly any background. He was discharged four years ago, disappeared off the map, and showed up two thousand miles from home brandishing a weapon in Queens.”

“There’s got to be more. This is our only link!” he said in frustration. “Anything on that pendant?”

“No. Why?”

“Not many men wear jewelry. If they do, it’s usually a cross, Star of David, St. Christopher’s medal, dog tags. They tend to wear pendants that have specific meaning. That pendant is unusual. Anything unusual can potentially tell us something.”

“All we have is an anchor with a bird’s face,” said Rideout. “Not sure where we go with that.”

Savas was ready to call the meeting to an end when Hernandez burst into the room.

“John, you’re going to love this,” he said, dropping a printout on the countertop beside the computer.

The other members of the group drew closer and strained to see the paper. Savas picked it up. His brows furrowed as he stared at the strange collection of figures running across the page. After a few moments, he looked toward Hernandez expectantly.

“Okay, Manuel, I’m stumped. What is this?”

Hernandez shrugged. “No idea. It was encoded in the mysterious audiotapes you gave me.”

“They’re runes.” It was Lightfoote. She had wiggled her way in between several bodies, her head almost on Savas’s forearm, orange hair spilling everywhere, her gaze full on the page.

Runes?” asked Hernandez, perplexed.

Lightfoote cocked her head at him. “Yeah, roooones,” she dragged out the vowel, mocking his question. “Letters. Old. Magical.”

“Oh, brother,” said Rideout under his breath.

“She’s right,” said Cohen, staring closely at the paper. “Not sure of the writing system, but look—clearly letters of some kind, with broad strokes and simple forms. Designed for carving, not writing.”

Savas turned toward the former programmer. “Manuel, where did these letters come from?”

Runes,” piped Lightfoote. Savas ignored her.

“That’s the craziest part, John. The audio transmission, with the weird language no one understands, it was double-coded.”

“Meaning?”

“There was a second message overlaid at high frequencies. I found it by running the message through a Fourier analysis. In general, you would need to know to look for it, or you’d never extract it. The second message is coded, but it’s clearly bitmapped imaging. I had to try a few permutations, but once I got the encoding right, out popped this. It’s like a page worth of text and a diagram of what looks like a geographical region. These are instructions for the receiver.”

He handed Savas another printout, diagrams of a site.

“Looks like an assault plan,” said Miller.

“How can you be sure?” asked Savas.

“Style, points of entry, defense lines, observation points—here, and here. I’ve seen a lot of them. I’d wager this is a plan of attack.”

“This is crazy,” said Savas.

“Yeah, totally FUBAR,” said Hernandez. “Secret language, layered codes—commando hit teams?” He looked at Miller, who merely shrugged. “Really out there, man.”

“John,” Cohen began, “where did this audio come from?”

Savas frowned. “Larry’s mum on that. Super-spy material, I assume. We’re not going to find out.”

“Think again,” said Hernandez. “The map’s laid out down to the friggin’ coordinates. Convert to longitude and latitude, and bang, instant top-secret information.”

“So where is it?” asked Savas.

“Afghan-Paki border, dudes. Deep in the mountains. No-man’s-land of terrorists and drug lords. Nice spot for a military assault plan.”

“Oh, my God,” said Cohen, her eyes flashing toward Savas. “It’s all linked.”

“What’s linked?” asked King.

Savas whistled. “Larry, that bastard. He should have told us.”

King raised his palms up. “Told us what?”

Cohen tapped her finger on the runes. “The assassinations. These military-style missions. The brass tipped their hand.” She shook her head. “Somebody’s very serious about their pursuit of Islamic baddies.”

“Right,” said King as Hernandez nodded vigorously. “Why else would they have dropped this on Larry at that meeting? Holy shit.”

Savas checked his watch. “That’s great work, Manuel, even if I don’t know where the hell this is all leading.” He stepped back from the table, the printout in his hand. “Folks, this has been fun, but it’s been assigned to Miller and me, if you remember. In ten minutes, we’re all due in Larry’s office. Maybe these guys are purging their ranks, but we still have some serious terrorist activity right on our front lawn. Get me and Frank up to speed on the latest that you have.”

The members of Intel 1 scrambled. Savas stared at the screen, hardly seeing the ex-soldier’s file. In his right hand was a page of archaic runes with an attack map. Running through his mind—the face and pendant of a dead assassin. Did it all fit together? He was sure it did. Somewhere was the key to linking these strange pieces of evidence and the progression of killings across the globe. In the chaos surrounding them, he hoped they could find it.

17

Thor’s Hammer

The FBI vehicle crossed over the George Washington Bridge, en route to the New Jersey distribution offices of a military weapons manufacturer. The company representatives sounded shell-shocked. They were also in full denial mode. Their explosives? Impossible. Well, the analysis had shown it was all too possible. These guys had some serious explaining to do, and Savas was going to be there to hear it.

“John, are you listening?”

He refocused. “Yes, Rebecca, sorry. Thinking ahead to the meeting.”

“And?”

Savas sighed. “Hard to focus. We have two massive bombings targeting foreign embassies in separate cities. We’ve got the UN screaming their lungs out at us, and half of their reps booking flights out of the country. We’ve got the president on TV trying to calm the nation down, trying to calm the whole world down, offering our jobs to the meat grinder if we don’t find out what in the name of God is going on here. Still no group has claimed responsibility.”

The Hudson flowed two hundred feet below them. Savas could sense their driver trying to listen in on the conversation. He couldn’t blame the man. The world seemed to be burning down.

“It’s crazy,” said Cohen, shaking her head. “There was nothing, no terrorist chatter, which doesn’t add up. Since when do terrorists coordinate multi-city attacks of this magnitude, pull them off, and all without a sound? In 2001, we had NSA and even German intelligence intercepts of al-Qaeda chatter on the attacks. This time, it’s like the vacuum of space.”

“And they’re not a bunch of fanatics who learned how to fly planes into buildings or rig IEDs,” said Savas. “Surgical strikes, surgical bombings that were carried out under our noses, under security, and set up to take out single buildings and no more.”

Cohen nodded and completed his thought. “Professional expertise with munitions. We’ve got a group of terrorists with a talent base we’ve never seen before.”

The vehicle rattled roughly as they transitioned from the bridge to the New Jersey Turnpike. Savas felt his stomach lurch.

“You brought the forensics report?” he asked as the car entered the Palisades Parkway. The monotonous gray of turnpike transitioned to the greens of the New Jersey forests.

“Right here. FBI-CIA teams fast-tracked some results to us. It fits our preliminary assessment.”

“Mira got them to turn it over so fast?”

“Who else? She’s forwarding the files to our secure accounts.”

Mirjana Vujanac. Vujanac came from Serbian grandparents, Savas’s own Balkan ancestry provided a connection between them. Ironically, her job as head of the Joint Offices group was to help de-Balkanize the intelligence organizations in the U.S. government, serving as a focal point for interactions between FBI and CIA. It was a highly sensitive position, unpopular with both agencies, but Mira was the perfect person to balance the mutual paranoia and ego with her patient and winning personality. This case looked like it would require extended work with the CIA and other organizations. They were going to need Vujanac on this one.

“The initial analysis is solid?”

“Definitely.” Cohen had put on her angular, Euro-style eyeglasses. Her expression was serious as she looked over the report, giving her the appearance of a graduate student presenting a paper.

“Looks like a recent derivative of the explosive Semtex was used,” she said. “Mass spectroscopic analysis of numerous samples now confirms this. Same as the prelim report: judging from the molecular weight of the compounds, it’s almost certainly homegrown. Only two plants in the world make this stuff, both run by the Heward Corporation. Made in the USA all the way.”

Savas glanced out the window as the vehicle slowed and headed off the ramp. The green of the parkway surrendered to the landscaped parking lot that boxed in a six-floor office building.

“Well, we’re here. Let’s see what they have to say about that.”

It was a frustrating half-hour before they sat in the stale-smelling office. The two had run an obstacle course of security checkpoints for the vehicle and at the front door, temporary ID badges, full-body scanners, and finally a walk down a long corridor to the office of a local divisions manager. It was a tranquil space, softly lit and shadowed by tall trees covering the window at one end of a rectangular room. A quiet space for the distributors of the world’s most advanced explosives.

As they entered and shook hands, Savas noted the presence of two other men, open briefcases at their sides. The lawyers had arrived. Savas smiled. One lawyer meant denial. Two, limited accountability. The company must have gotten the new report from Vujanac this morning as well.

“Agent Savas, Fred Reynolds,” began the manager, the firmness of his handshake doing little to conceal the perspiration on his palm. “Welcome. Please, won’t you sit down?”

“This is my colleague, Rebecca Cohen, also from the NYC branch.”

The man shook Cohen’s hand as well. “Michael Ivy and Brian Colbert.” The two lawyers stood. “They’re here to help advise me in any legal ramifications of our discussions.”

Savas and Cohen exchanged greetings with the men.

“I’m sorry you two found it necessary to come all the way out here,” said Reynolds, as they all sat around the conference table. “As we said over the phone, we were happy to come into the city tomorrow.”

And give your legal eagles twenty-four more hours to coach you into admitting even less than you will today. “Couldn’t wait, Mr. Reynolds. This is as red alert as it gets. National security priority.”

The man’s face tightened. “Yes, of course.”

Savas nodded to Cohen. She opened her briefcase across from the lawyers and placed several documents on the table. “Mr. Reynolds, I assume you’ve had a chance to examine our forensics reports.”

“Yes,” he said. “Yes, we have.” He glanced at the other two men. “We’re prepared to acknowledge that the material used in the bombings came from our nearby factory.”

Cohen glanced briefly at Savas. At least they wouldn’t have to fight that battle. She made sure. “To confirm our results, this is your newest high-tech explosive, S-47, that matches the chemical analysis?”

“That’s correct.”

“And, to make sure I understand correctly, you consistently ID each batch of explosive?”

Reynolds nodded. “There are records for every gram we produce. Each lot’s infused with a chemical called DMDNB for identification. Variations in the ion ratios ID each lot—a molecular barcode. We’ve completed an emergency review of all S-47 produced in the last year. There’s nothing unaccounted for. Everything we’ve made is either onsite or shipped to reputable governmental sources.”

Savas interrupted. “Then how did S-47 residue end up dusting the New York landscape last month?”

Reynolds glanced at the lawyers again. “Agent Savas, we really can’t speculate.”

“What about material produced further back?” asked Cohen.

“We’re continuing to review our records,” said Reynolds. “However, I can assure you, we have exacting standards. We’ve never lost material, and our customers are limited to United States military and allied governments.”

“Could this be an inside job?” Savas pressed. “I mean, could we be looking at American terrorists?”

“Again, Agent Savas, I think it’s imprudent to speculate at this time.”

Savas felt his temper rising. “Imprudent? You fellows do realize that we’ve just had two terrorist bombings on U.S. soil, one of them right across the river from here? Your explosives were involved in both of those attacks. Your high-tech, military-only S-47 leveled one New York City building and the entire Saudi Embassy in DC.”

“Yes, Agent Savas, but, as I stated—”

“You don’t see navy mines being used to sink U.S. ships, or army surplus surface-to-air missiles shooting down aircraft in this nation.”

“If you will just—”

“If you don’t know how your explosives got there, then I think it’s high time you started speculating and testing some hypotheses! At the very least, you’re going to need some good cover stories for when the press gets hold of this.”

Reynolds’s face turned white. “If you’re trying to threaten me, Agent Savas, I can assure you, we’ll respond strongly to such harassment.”

Savas laughed. “Please, Mr. Reynolds. If you think the fact that an American company’s the supplier for the bombs that hit us last month is something FBI, CIA, or G.O.D. could keep secret for long, you’re more naive than I could have imagined.”

“We’ve supplied no terrorists!” Reynolds practically shrieked. “All our material is accounted for. All sales legitimate, to verified U.S. government sources!”

Savas leaned forward and locked eyes with the company man. “Then why don’t you go explain that to the families of the victims vaporized by your product, Mr. Reynolds.”

There was an icy silence as the man broke eye contact with Savas. The lawyer beside Reynolds leaned over and whispered into his ear. Reynolds made an effort to control himself, and his face drained of emotion. Screw this tap dance. He’d had enough. He apologized to Cohen, rose, and walked out of the room without another word.

Cohen’s voice echoed strangely as he stormed down the hallway. “As you can see, Mr. Reynolds, my role is good cop. We’ll need to set up some very open channels between your company and the FBI for the next few weeks as we work through this.”

The sounds inside the building faded as Savas stepped out into the bright sunlight. He exhaled slowly. He knew his fuse was too short. He knew he had to rein in his emotions, even as the events around him pushed every button. He knew these company men were just following orders.

And he knew he wanted to deck one of them.

&Arriving back at FBI offices&, Savas stepped into the Operations Room of Intel 1. He flung his briefcase onto a chair and removed his jacket. Perspiration stained his shirt. He exhaled and loosened his tie.

“Bad day at the office?” came the words of Hernandez, whose fingers clacked across a keyboard nearby. JP Rideout, Mark King, and Frank Miller stood around the computer geek in a semicircle, staring at the screen.

“I’m at the office now, Manuel.”

“Suits stiff you?”

“Of course. But they seem to sink to new levels of corporate cowardice on a yearly basis.” Savas stared at the small gathering across from him. “So, what’s the party about?”

“Well, we’ve got something interesting you might want to see.”

Savas walked over to the group. At that moment, Kanter stepped into the room as well.

“John, you’re back. I need—”

“Hang on, Larry,” said Savas. “Manuel’s reeling in some new fish.”

Kanter joined the group. Savas stared at the screen; numerous time-stamped video images of buildings flitted across his field of view.

“We’ve had a look at the security cams in a large radius around the site,” began Manuel.

“How did you get those?” asked Savas.

“We don’t have to go to the sites for the newer ones. Patriot Act II—we’re already plugged in, 24/7. We just need to access the relevant minutes from DTO . . .”

“Domestic Terrorism Operations,” Rideout whispered to Savas, who rolled his eyes. The acronyms never ended.

“. . . and in a few hours we’ve got the footage from thirty local cameras downloaded.”

Miller turned toward Savas and Kanter, a serious expression on his face. “Every camera with a clear shot at 866 Second Avenue showed static from the hours of three to four a.m. the night before the bombing.”

“What?” said Kanter incredulously.

“I want to make this clear, Larry,” said Miller. “Every camera that could possibly have had a shot at recording what happened around the building that early morning had a similar malfunction for the same duration. Every one of them.”

“Some serious hacking, dudes,” noted Hernandez.

“Wait, no security firm noticed this? No one looked into it?” asked Kanter.

Rideout shook his head. “Most of the cameras don’t have flesh and blood babysitting them. We get the feeds, but they’re automatically routed and stored. Our analysis probably wasn’t the first time they’d been viewed, but when each individual firm saw the static for their equipment, they just assumed their cameras were on the fritz. Happens all the time. But pool together all the local cameras, you see the pattern. No way that’s coincidence.”

Miller finished. “We’re talking about some real pros here, Larry, really careful ones, at that.”

“So, what do they want?” asked Matt King in frustration. “This doesn’t seem to be some 9/11 replay.”

“Exactly, and it’s these differences we need to focus more on,” cut in Savas. “In 2001, American targets, American symbols were attacked by mostly Saudi suicide bombers. This time, the cities may be the same, but it looks like foreign targets, and, as far as I can tell, primarily Saudi targets were hit. I don’t know about you, but this seems to put a different spin on the whole thing.”

Kanter cast a harsh look toward Savas. “Okay, we have, as usual, more questions than answers. Who are these people? How and where were they trained? What motivates them?”

Savas turned angrily to Kanter, his simmering frustrations from the day boiling over. “I’ll tell you what is motivating them, Larry. Hatred. Feelings that cross beyond Islamophobic into Islamopathic. You’re tap dancing around the real issue because of warnings from above, but we know about the mystery commando raids in Afghanistan.”

Kanter sat up stiffly. “How do you know?”

“Thanks for confirming it.” Savas wasn’t done. He looked around at the eyes focused on him. “Isn’t it obvious? We’re sitting here acting like we have two cases—a string of assassinations of Islamic radicals, and now a major terrorist attack on Islamic targets. It’s the same group, Larry! They’re just upping the ante!”

“Hold on a minute!” shouted Kanter. “John, you’re completely going wild here. These attacks are on American soil, terrorist attacks in New York, in the capital, for God’s sake! Your vengeful furies wouldn’t strike here, would they?”

“Why not? To them, the enemy’s as much here as there.”

Kanter stared coldly at Savas. “To them, John? Or to you?”

Savas felt anger surge through him, but he held his temper. They had to listen!

“Larry, I’ve done myself no favors over the last few years; I know that. But think! If you saw the Islamic nations as the enemy, as a threat, their presence here might be one of the first places to strike! Purge America of them. If they’re homegrown, well, hitting at home would be a hell of a lot easier than doing a job like this overseas, especially in Islamic nations where they’d stick out like sore thumbs.”

“We haven’t even established that there is a definite connection between the assassinations, John. It’s all circumstantial. Now you want to throw this into the mix? How big a conspiracy?” Kanter waved his hands back and forth. “This isn’t Dr. No. At least the murder conspiracy had a consistency in targets. These bombings aren’t of Islamic radicals. They’re the damn official government representatives.”

“To some, it might be hard to tell the difference.”

Jesus, John.” Kanter threw up his hands in frustration.

“Damn it, Larry, I’m not justifying this. I’m saying it’s a nasty but understandable motive.”

“Perhaps you understand this better than I do.”

Savas clenched his jaw. He was going to come off as some sort of fanatic no matter what he said. Kanter was right about one thing—they had absolutely no hard evidence to link any of this. His hypothesis was emotional, not fact based.

Miller glanced at Savas and cleared his throat. “I’d like to speak freely on something.”

Kanter barked a laugh. “Frank, you aren’t in the marines anymore. Shoot. Take a cue from John.”

“Well, as John notes, even if it’s not connected to the murders we’re investigating, evidence points toward a homegrown terrorist group, one that might be targeting Islamic sites.”

“Yes?” said Kanter.

“I mean, we’re mobilizing all the forces of the U.S. government to help protect a bunch of nations that have been quietly, under the table, supporting the bastards who bombed us in the first place.” He looked around the room. “I’ve had friends die at my side in Afghan caves looking for that son of a bitch who was financed by Saudi money, and whose organization was run by Saudi personnel. I’m not sure my heart’s in the right place.”

A silence fell across the room. Savas saw the fury in Miller’s eyes. He knew that anger. It was what had brought him to the FBI in the first place. He felt it every time he looked at a picture of his son.

“Frank,” said Kanter thoughtfully but firmly, “these attacks are going to test all of us in some way. I think we need to try to focus on what we’re about, and that’s law and order. We shouldn’t forget that Americans also died in these attacks. And I don’t think any of us believe that all the Saudis and other workers in those buildings are necessarily hostile to us, or were involved in anything that had to do with supporting terrorist causes. I’m not saying all of them are clean, but I’ve been around in this world long enough to know that good and evil are found in every corner. That’s my belief, and if I didn’t believe that, I don’t think I’d care much for law or order. On top of all that, we’ve got an international incident here, and the repercussions are international. This is serious stuff.” Kanter looked directly at Miller, but Savas knew he was speaking as much or more to him. “Frank, I hear where you’re coming from, but around here, we work to enforce the laws of this nation. You understand that, I hope?”

Miller pursed his lips and looked at his hands. “Yeah, Larry,” he said glancing back up, “I do. It’s just that things are a bit mixed up inside, is all.”

Kanter shook his head. “Ain’t that the truth of it.”

&Savas closed& his notebook as he walked down the hallway from the Operations Room. He and Kanter had stayed for another hour after dismissing the others. Savas was tired and at the stage of fatigue when he knew his thoughts were slow, his logic weak, and his emotions unstable. These last few weeks had drained him—and it was much more than just the work and long hours. Terror attacks on American soil were too raw, too personal.

Cohen was waiting for him outside his office. She sat at a desk next to a phone, a mischievous smile tugging on her lips. Her long hair was disheveled, and she leaned back in the chair, a fire burning in her eyes.

So attractive. Savas thrust the thought from his mind as he often had the last few years. I’m damaged goods. And he wasn’t ready to face anything so complicated as feelings.

“John, about damn time,” she said.

“Glad to see you too, Rebecca,” he responded.

“While you were undoubtedly figuring all this out with Larry, we got a call in about those symbols.”

“Runes,” corrected Savas.

“Runes. Yes, exactly. That’s exactly right.”

He raised his eyebrows at her tone. “What call?”

“A professor from the English Department at Columbia.”

“You cast a wide net.”

“Yes. I’m thorough, remember? The poor old man was very excited, and I had a heck of a time calming him down enough to understand what he was talking about.”

Savas dropped into a chair across from her. “So what was he talking about?”

“He knows what the runes are. Get ready for this, okay? He says they’re Norse.”

Norse? Like Valhalla and pretentious Wagnerian opera?”

“Precisely. I sent him everything we had, including images of that pendant you’re so interested in. And we hit the jackpot, John.” She smiled and tilted her head at a slight angle, triumphant.

“Go on.”

“It’s also Norse, an artifact central to those beliefs: the hammer of the god of thunder, Thor. The symbol and the runes match, John. You’ve been right all along—there is a connection! The bombings, the killings, the Afghan strikes. Everything!”

Savas blinked. “Thor’s hammer?”

“Yes. The professor sounds really anxious to talk to you.” Cohen smiled at his disbelief, her tongue touching the bottom edge of her front teeth. “I’ve arranged a meeting. I’m coming, too.”

18

Caracas

Fernando Martinez, just twelve years old, weaved and dodged his way through traffic on his small bicycle. The front and back of the bike sagged with large wire-caged baskets, loaded with bagged delivery items. The boy was well tanned from countless journeys through the streets of Caracas; the Venezuelan sun was strong enough even in the winter months to deeply brown anyone spending their hours under its rays. The skies were partly cloudy, the streets full of water and mud splashing against Fernando’s legs from recent rainstorms. He could hear the chatter of street vendors and haggling customers as he rode past. He smiled. It was hard work, but it was good to be out, away from a troubled home, feeling the wind on his face and glimpsing the sun through the clouds.

His mother would not approve, but he rode against traffic to cut his trip time, dodging cars and trucks with pitch-changing horns blaring behind him. Señor Moreno would not pay him if he was late. He might not even pay him if he was on time, Fernando reminded himself. His family needed the money; since his father had died, Fernando was the man of the house. So he pedaled fast and did not think about dangers.

He climbed a hill, panting, sweat glistening on his face, arms, and legs. The road leveled off as he crossed through a nice strip of Caracas. Fancier shops, cars, and people lined the sides of the street. Taller buildings, skyscrapers of glass and metal rose around him. This was a place of importance and power. A place of money and oil. Fernando did not know much about the world, but he knew his country was powerful. It had oil, and the Arab princes from across the seas visited often. His country could talk back to the United States like an equal. He was proud of this, proud of his country’s strength to look the bully in the eye.

Ahead were the embassies and banks of the foreign nations that did business with Venezuela and its oil. Fernando liked riding by their protected gates, seeing their guards and security cameras. It was like an American movie. There were embassies and banks from Europe and Asia and the Middle East. He had ridden past them countless times. China and India, and up ahead, the other oil countries, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Fernando screamed.

A blast of heated air picked him up along with his bike and sprawled them on the sidewalk next to an upscale clothing store. The store’s front window exploded inward. Screams and wailing car alarms filled the air around him. The boy laid for several moments on the sidewalk, stunned, his left arm and leg badly skinned and bleeding. He felt a small trickle of blood from his scalp. He shook his head, trying to focus and clear the blood from his eyes. Slowly, he raised himself to his feet. Swiping again at the blood, he stared down the road. Smoke and dust billowed toward him. Fires burned in several places. Ahead, he thought he could make out the remains of two buildings, now wreckages on either side of the road.

Sirens grew louder from all directions. Police. Frightened, he found his bike several feet from him. It was damaged—the handlebars bent awkwardly, the baskets with the food wrecked. He did not care. He was going home. Señor Moreno could keep his money today. As he turned and rode down the street toward the growing sounds of vehicles and sirens, he heard voices behind him. Screams and cries for help.

19

Old Norse

It was a long ride to Philosophy Hall at the corner of 116th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. Traffic was snarled along the West Side Highway from a seven-car pileup, and the driver was forced to cut through Midtown. Savas glanced outside his tinted windows at the shoppers crossing the streets at 57th and Madison. The crowds were thinner than normal this time of year, ruining summer tourism and sending more than one business under—one of many repercussions of an urban bombing.

The car lurched forward and shook him out of his reverie. It was challenging to keep his eyes focused outside the car, thanks to the mid-thigh-length skirt Rebecca Cohen was wearing. Glance for a moment, and he’d linger too long.

Her hair was pulled up and fastened Japanese style with two things that looked like chopsticks. Do women use chopsticks in their hair? She wore a white shirt that looked to be 1950s FBI standard issue, and, sure enough, as if to prevent him from getting any useful thinking done during the ride, she had left the first two buttons open. Well, it’s a hot day. One hundred and two degrees. She was writing in her characteristically broad script, large, flowing letters that would have taken him hours to form but that she spat out like a typewriter. Savas preferred typing.

He forced his mind back to the case. Rideout and King had compiled information on the professor at Columbia. Fred Styer, Ph.D. in Philology from Harvard, expert in proto-Germanic languages and Germanic literature, Alfred L. Hutchinson Chair of Anglo-Saxon Studies in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University—the titles ran on. A prolific scholar in the 1970s with more than two hundred journal articles and ten books, he was now “mostly” retired, serving as professor emeritus and haunting the hallways of Philosophy Hall at Columbia. He was once considered the greatest scholar on the East Coast in the ancient languages and literature of the Germanic family. Savas just hoped he had a key to unlock this mystery.

After an eternity slogging through traffic, the driver finally pulled them up to the building at Columbia University. The entrance to Philosophy Hall was shaded by the underbelly of a plaza built directly over Amsterdam Avenue. Above was a small green park; below, the street plunged into a short, dim tunnel after 116th Street, only to emerge into light again half a block later at 117th, right in front of the university’s Casa Italiana. Instead of pulling up to the entrance of the building, they followed the old professor’s instructions to avoid the construction at the main door and turned the corner in front of the Kent building. They were not sure how they would recognize the old man (photos they had on file were certainly outdated), but it became clear that both he and they were easy marks.

The professor did indeed resemble the photo they had in their files, only older and slightly wider in the waist. He still possessed an enormous beard that spilled over his chest, now much whiter than in the photograph, and, if Savas could bring himself to believe it, perhaps longer. His bald head and thick glasses were also the same, but today he sported a pipe that gave him the air of an awkward Oxford don. To prove the point, when they stepped out of the car, he waved to them like he was trying to flag down a 737 at Kennedy Airport. Savas waved back, and Cohen stifled a laugh, radiant in her amusement. At that point, Savas realized that they looked as ridiculous as the professor did. In the middle of this casual and unconstrained academic campus, their appearance had Feds written all over it.

“Hello, hello, Agent Savas. Welcome, welcome!” Styer repeated gleefully, shaking Savas’s hand in a hyper fashion. The old man looked over to Cohen, and his eyes grew large. He smiled and motioned toward her with his head. “Please, and you must be that lovely young woman I spoke with on the phone yesterday . . . Agent Cohen?”

Cohen smiled broadly. “Rebecca, please, Professor.” Savas suppressed an initial desire to not like the man.

“Please, both of you, we’ll go to my office. Not directly, mind you. They’re tearing up the Hall these days, and it’s easier to go through another building. Follow me.”

He led them into Kent, through that building and into a charming green garden abutting Kent and Philosophy Hall. Using a back entrance to the Hall, he took them up a flight of stairs and down a corridor to his office in the Department of English and Comparative Literature. By the time they had all sat down, the old professor was winded and coughing.

“Excuse me,” he apologized. “Age shows no mercy.”

Savas looked around the office. It was small, dusty, and filled with stacks of papers, journals, and books. Behind the stacks were either more stacks or, if one could make it that far, wall-to-wall bookshelves with yet more books. The professor’s desk was old and chipped from years of use. It also was littered with books and papers, a magnifying glass, and a computer that was likely the dustiest thing in the room. Professor Styer was clearly a man of another age. Among the papers, Savas noticed quite a few that showed runes like those decoded from the mysterious communications.

The professor held his thick glasses in one hand and a cloth to wipe them clean in the other. This close, Savas saw how old the man was—clearly in his seventies, perhaps late seventies. His skin was sagging and marked with age spots. His hands trembled as he wiped the lenses of his glasses. An ancient man to tell them about ancient runes. Let’s hope he lasts long enough to give us something.

Glasses back on, the professor stared at them, gravitated toward Cohen, smiled delightedly, and asked, “So, my Federal friends, how can I help you?”

Savas flashed a look of concern toward Cohen. Is he senile? “Professor Styer, we came here at your request to discuss some runes and symbols that were found in a criminal case, perhaps linked to a series of murders here and abroad.”

“I’m not that far gone, young man!” he barked. “I was merely opening conversation. I think society has forgotten how to be polite,” he said.

Savas chuckled. “Yes, Professor Styer. My apologies.” He pulled out a piece of paper and passed it to the professor. “This is a reproduction of the coded messages we obtained, and this,” he said, placing the necklace and pendant in front of him, “is what we found on one of the killers.”

Professor Styer glanced briefly at the paper and set it down. “Yes, yes. I’ve seen it. Agent Cohen sent me all this, you know.” He smiled impishly at Cohen. “I told your assistant here what I thought.” Cohen smiled.

Savas continued. “So, these symbols we have—you say they are pagan, about pagan gods?”

“Norse gods, to be precise.” He removed a pouch of tobacco from a desk drawer, dumping the ash from his pipe. He filled it while speaking. “The runes—they’re ancient, predating the Christianization of northern Europe, some of the earliest artifacts dating from a hundred years after the death of Christ. The writing systems are older than that, used by the Germanic tribes before the Latin alphabet replaced them. This printout, identical, I think, to the one faxed to me, is written in the runic alphabet called the Elder Futhark. This is the oldest version of this alphabet, used for early forms of the Norse language and other dialects from the second to the eighth centuries. It’s found on jewelry, amulets, tools, weapons, rune stones, you name it.”

Styer placed his pipe between his teeth and lit it, puffing several times to ignite the tobacco. “Horrible habit, I know,” he apologized. “But, to paraphrase George Burns, no one under seventy’s allowed to smoke in here.” He turned back toward Savas and continued.

“The pendant—one might say amulet in ancient times—is probably the most widespread and best-known symbol in all of Norse mythology. Curiously, it also appears in the writings you sent—see, here,” he noted, indicating a region of the page with several letters unintelligible to Savas. “It’d be pronounced ‘mee-YOLL-neer’, spelled m-j-o-l-n-i-r. This is the Norse name for the thunder god Thor’s hammer, the greatest weapon of all the gods in Asgard. It was made for Thor by the dwarves underground—one of their greatest creations. Its name means ‘crusher’, and Thor would use the hammer in all his battles against the enemies of the gods, the monsters and giants that sought to throw down the ordered reign of Thor’s father, Odin, and return the world to chaos.”

Savas looked over at Cohen. We’ve definitely come to the right place. The old man picked up the necklace Savas had handed him and pointed to the pendant with the bird face.

“Mjolnir, my friends. The hammer of Thor. Often rendered by the Norse artisans in a shape like this, decorated with the face of a raven.”

“Can you decipher the rest of the writing, or the audio?” asked Cohen.

“I’ve made partial transcripts,” Styer said, passing them a sheet of paper, “but I don’t know how much use it’ll be to you. The audio is Old Norse, a valiant attempt to speak it, I must say. One could quibble with the pronunciations and some of the grammar, but it’s quite impressive. College level, you might say, which, it would seem to me, is strange coming from the sources you mention. There’s much I couldn’t make out, vocabulary that’s modern in origin, I believe, adapted to Norse. There’s little doubt, however—these are military instructions of some kind.” The knowing look passed between the two FBI agents wasn’t lost on the professor. “I see that I’m not too far off the mark.”

Savas shifted the conversation. “So, what does this mean, Professor? We’ve some sort of cult of assassins like the Hashshashin?”

“The Islamic killers from the Middle Ages?”

Savas nodded in response.

“No, Agent Savas, I wouldn’t suspect that. These are, if anything you told me is true, anti-Muslim assassins.”

Savas continued to press the point. “But perhaps still some modern cult based on Norse religion? Fueled by a fanatical devotion?”

The professor shook his head. “Most modern pagans—unlike ancient pagans, by the way—are fairly Gaian, Mother Earth, peace-loving aftershocks of the nineteen sixties. This group you’re hypothesizing—well, they would be something else entirely. Something, in fact, perhaps much more loyal to the character of the Norse legends.”

“Could you explain that?” asked Savas.

The professor looked thoughtful. “The Northern peoples developed near the poles, Agent Savas, where for half the year, even light was scarce. The ground was often ice. Life was hard. Their mythology reflected that in many ways. This group you’re hunting seems an efficient and terrible organization. I will suggest that these killers are attracted to the Norse culture for two reasons. First, and most obvious, is the contrast to the Middle Eastern monotheistic religion of Islam. Their targets are Muslims. What better contrast to Islamic monotheists than Germanic pagans? The second reason, and perhaps the more significant one, might be the character of the Northern myths themselves.”

The professor leaned back in his chair and chewed on his pipe. His eyes closed momentarily. “The Norse myths share many common aspects with the Indo-European mythologies. There’s a pantheon of gods and goddesses, many representing similar themes—the sun and moon, of course, the underworld or death, beauty and fertility, strength, the sea, and so forth. They all share a common basis in the creation of order out of chaos, with the gods descending from more primitive elemental forces of nature, the monsters and giants, which were chaotic to societies bereft of the miracles of our modern scientific mythos.” He smiled mischievously, opening his eyes. “The gods seize power and bring order to the world, vanquishing the Titans, or giants, or whatever embodies the forces of chaos in a given mythology. But, of course, as every fragile human being knows, the forces of chaos still strike; our world is swept by powerful events beyond us. In such mythologies, this is explained as a constant battle between the gods and the elemental, chaotic forces. For the Northern myths, all this reaches a climax at Ragnarök, the Armageddon of the Norse legends, a final battle between good and evil to settle the stewardship of the world.”

Savas suppressed a sigh. “How does that help us stop them?”

“Honestly, Agent Savas, I’m not sure. But it’s telling you something about who these people are.”

“How?”

“Ragnarök, my friends, is the end of the world, as I told you. But it’s got a special Norse quality that makes it contrast sharply with your typical religious end-of-the-world event. In short, all the Norse gods, including Thor and his allies, the heroes waiting in Valhalla for the final battle, what we’d call the “good guys” in our Western lexicon—they lose. They all die. They are annihilated.” He took the pipe out of his mouth and leaned forward for emphasis. “In the Norse mythos, the gods lose, civilization’s destroyed, and chaos reigns supreme. From the broth of chaos, it’s prophesied that a new creation will arise. But to be enjoyed by others! This organization, whatever they’re planning, chose a most curious mythology as a symbol. If they take the mythology seriously, and everything you’ve shown me convinces me that they do, they don’t believe their side is necessarily going to triumph and be welcomed into Heaven. No virgins, no pearly gates and harps. Nothing.”

“I don’t understand,” said Savas. “Why do all this, go through all this, without a final expectation of victory?”

“Because it’s right,” said Cohen, looking thoughtful. “It’s like Frodo going into Mordor. There was little hope that he had the strength to finish the quest. But it was right that he tried.”

“Exactly, young lady. Top of the class,” Styer said and winked at her. He then leaned back and stared out the window, looking over the small garden they had recently passed. “They do this because they believe it’s the right thing to do. The gods and heroes of the Northern legends did not despair or, following a more modern sentiment, switch sides, even though through prophecy they knew they were going to be destroyed, that chaos would triumph. No, they fought anyway, not to win, but because fighting for good even in the face of defeat was the right thing.”

Cohen raised a question. “Even if that’s true, how can we be so sure it applies to this organization?”

The old man leaned back toward the desk and looked shrewdly at Cohen. “A good question, and, of course, the answer is that we can’t be sure. This level of sophistication, to organize in this way and then choose these symbols, correctly using the writing system and language of an ancient people—they are extremely invested in this symbolism. Anyone with that level of knowledge of Norse mythology would understand its curious nature. This theme of Northern courage, a hard courage, grounded not in any hope of victory but only in standing for what is right, has been a powerful force in Western culture, for good and evil. This character influenced generations who knew the Norse legends, from Tolkien’s archetypal Lord of the Rings heroes you just mentioned to Hitler’s perversion of those ideals during the Third Reich.” Professor Styer focused sharply on the FBI agents. “Courage to fight no matter what, requiring no hope of reward, only conviction. My friends, that makes them a group of a most dangerous kind.”

&Professor Styer insisted& on walking them back to their car. He moved with more difficulty than when he had first greeted them, the efforts of the day had clearly drained him. When they reached the vehicle, Cohen thanked him with a smile and got into the backseat. As Savas moved to follow, the old man grasped his arm.

“Agent Savas, I hope you know what you’ve got there,” he said in a low voice, motioning with his eyes toward the car. “Keep her close to you.”

Taken aback, Savas started stammering something unintelligible. The professor interrupted him. “Oh, I don’t mean that! Although, let me tell you, at seventy-eight, there are many more things I regret not doing in life than I regret doing. A lady like that doesn’t come around often. But that’s not what I meant. She’s smarter than you, in case you didn’t notice. Don’t take that personally. I’ve taught generations of students, and I know a good mind when I see it. She’s got one. You’ll need her in this. Keep her close.” The professor smiled, winked at Savas, then bent toward the car and waved once more at Cohen before turning back toward the building.

Savas gazed forward at the intersection for a moment. I knew I didn’t like that guy.

20

Enemy Within

“Rebecca, do you buy all that?” asked Savas, his gaze outside the car as the vehicle began its trek downtown, his mind wrapped in the words of the last half-hour. Cohen was thoughtful as well, but she answered confidently.

“I’m sure everything we heard about the language and writing was accurate. What you’re really asking me concerns the speculative portions, the extrapolation of the symbolism to the psychology of the group.”

“Yes.”

She exhaled. “It sounded very reasonable. You called it a cult at first, but that’s unlikely—who would believe in Norse gods in the twenty-first century? Especially a group as sophisticated and practical as the one you’re proposing—a group that has orchestrated the assassinations of more than ten radical Islamic leaders in the last six to nine months.”

“And the bombings.”

Cohen paused. “Maybe the bombings, too—I think it’s worth seriously considering. But let’s just limit it to the assassinations for the moment.”

Savas nodded. “Thanks.”

“For what?”

“Thanks for the benefit of the doubt. Everyone else is dismissing it.”

She frowned. “I’ve watched you struggle with this for many years now. Everyone knows your anger, Mad John. Some of us also see the struggle. And the pain.”

He looked outside the car again, not daring to meet her gaze.

“Anyway, what I was saying is that we have ruthless professionals, not religious fanatics. These guys way outclass al-Qaeda operatives. So, if they aren’t religiously invested in this Norse stuff, then they must be invested in another way. Who learns a dead language and appropriates its culture’s symbols? Someone who sees something in it, has extracted something from it, and needs that symbolism in their lives.”

He glanced back toward her. “Northern courage?”

“Who knows? Styer seemed to think so. But I think he’s spot-on with the other thing—the contrast to Islam. Whoever started this, there’s something driving them. I think you’re right. There’s a deep hatred of Islam.”

“Then who? People of Western European descent, almost certainly, or why all the Norse stuff? The killer we encountered was American, so I assume many others are as well. But not the crazy idea of death squads from the CIA.”

“Not crazy. They existed. But you’re right. This symbolism, this crusade nearly, doesn’t smell of a government plan that spun out of control.” She placed a hand on his arm. “But it does smell of money.”

“Sorry?”

“How on earth do you get the skilled personnel, equip them, train them, send them out all over the world for orchestrated assassination work, without enormous capital resources?”

Savas nodded. “You can’t.”

“No, you can’t. If you aren’t government, you’ve got to have access to amazing resources—financial, military.”

“Yes, the commando training, the coded messages—it’s military.”

Cohen turned to Savas. “Just imagine the logistics. I don’t think we’re looking for a cult leader, John, not in the normal sense, anyway. I just wish I knew what we were looking for.”

He understood her frustration. It was the sense when the puzzle had started to take on some kind of pattern, definition, and yet its overall shape still eluded the mind. As he processed these thoughts, his phone rang. He reached into his pocket and answered it. The adrenaline flowed back into his body. Cohen stared at him. The voice from the speaker was shouting.

“John, this is Larry! Where the hell have you been?”

“Larry, sorry, switched off for this interview. What wrong?”

“Get back here now! There’s been another attack.”

&Even with the sirens on&, it was more than half an hour before they reached the FBI offices. People and equipment filled the buzzing operation rooms. Images flowed across giant monitors. Low-level staff darted from office to office with urgent messages. By the time Savas reached the floor, the main story had been fleshed out. He called a meeting of his staff. They convened in a conference room adjacent to the OR.

“Fearless Leader, we have been lost without you,” chirped Lightfoote as he and Cohen filed into the room.

“Damn it, Angel.” This was all he needed.

“I am a celestial being, and I will forgive your profane words.”

I’m going to have to have a talk with that girl. Savas took off his jacket, his shirt soaked in sweat from both the heat and stress. Miller and Hernandez were the last to arrive. Rambo and Jesus, thought Savas, and a nutcase named Angel.

“All right, Larry’s called a meeting in an hour. Fill me in, people.”

Matt King donned his glasses and read from notes. After Rebecca, he was the de facto information center for the team. His legal training always showed in his attention to detail.

“At 2:35 p.m. today, two explosions occurred in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. The explosions occurred at the Saudi and Iranian Embassies, apparently completely destroying both buildings. Initial reports have the death toll in the high hundreds, and it is expected to go higher. Injuries are worse, and the hospitals are overflowing with wounded. Caracas fire and police responders have the secondary blazes under control. The Venezuelan president has already gone on television to calm the populace. The Islamic nations have not failed to notice that there’s a connection between the attacks here and in Caracas today.”

Miller clarified. “Basically, they’re screaming bloody murder about it.”

Savas looked around the concerned faces at the table. Only Lightfoote seemed unfazed, drawing odd sketches on her notepad. “So, in the span of less than a month, we’ve got a new terrorist group from nowhere blowing up buildings in three different cities, upsetting the global balance.”

Rideout chimed in. “Sure has, John. The UN Security Council’s called a special meeting. The Arab nations are blaming the U.S. and allies. Stocks are plunging. Good times.”

“We’ve got to keep our heads and not get sucked into this mind job they’re working. Terrorism’s most powerful when it creates fear. That’s the point. Fear is death to the thinking mind. So let’s take a deep breath and start looking at what we know.”

“Not much. That’s the problem,” said Miller.

“The bomb site is on foreign soil, so at best it’s going to be CIA, and that’ll be slow. The Venezuelans aren’t going to be too keen on letting us get our hands dirty down there. The explosives—those are our only lead, and we’ll need to make sure we get samples for analysis. You can bet I’ll take this up with Larry first thing. JP, I want you and Matt all-nighting this one and monitoring every channel for information from Caracas. Tomorrow morning you get to hand me a report and then find a cot. Angel, I want you . . . Angel?”

Lightfoote stared at the door behind him.

“Leaving on a jet plane, O Captain, my Captain,” she said.

“Christ, Angel, what . . .” he turned around and stopped. Just inside the door stood Larry Kanter, along with three other people. One was Mira Vujanac, and where Mira was, so usually was CIA. Standing next to her was a tall man, thin and bespectacled, stiff and awkward in his formality. He had spook-bureaucrat written all over him. Next to him stood a man Savas couldn’t believe he was seeing.

“John, I’m sorry to interrupt. Could you please step outside for a minute?” Kanter asked, motioning with his eyes that Savas should follow.

Rising slowly from his chair, Savas apologized to his team, who tracked him silently as he walked outside. Kanter closed the door, leading him halfway down the hall away from the conference room and out of earshot.

Kanter stood not five feet from a black man dressed in white robes with a long and thick beard trimmed Islamic style. On his head was a white kufi, the overall impression of some African imam touring the offices of the FBI. He had a stern face, scarred on one side from what could have been a knife wound, and yet a strange cheerfulness imbued his expression. He was stocky, and a thick musculature gave him the look of a boxer. He nodded toward Savas.

Savas looked between Kanter and Vujanac. “What the hell is this?”

21

Proverbs from the Quran

“These are Agents Husaam Jordan and Richard Michelson—CIA,” said Kanter. “Mira’s been in high-level coordination with Langley concerning the recent attacks. Our analysis of the bomb residue picked up an important connection. Agent Jordan’s been tracking a series of arms dealers. They play shell games with foreign governments and commercial U.S. military goods sold overseas. There’s an entire black market for military goods that we sell legitimately to other nations, which then turn around illegitimately and resell them for a substantial profit to centralized mafia, weapons dealers who themselves sell the goods to the highest bidder.”

Savas looked unimpressed. He could hardly take his eyes off Agent Jordan. “Yeah, Larry, I’ve read about all this. What does this have to do with our bombings?”

Kanter drew a breath. “Agent Jordan’s infiltrated one of the largest of these groups, formerly run by Viktor Bout—you’ve probably read about him, too.”

He had. Viktor Bout was a legendary arms dealer, former KGB agent, who had run one of the largest and most profitable organizations in the world. His arrest in 2008 had slowed the trade only momentarily, as others rushed into the void, including new leadership in the organization he founded.

Kanter continued. “They sell many items on the black market—weapons, body armor, vehicles, and several forms of plastic explosives. That includes some of the newer, and extremely expensive, derivatives. Explosives with several times the power of previous forms of Semtex or C-4, and with a very high velocity of detonation.”

“Perfect for demolitions work,” rumbled the deep baritone of Agent Jordan, speaking for the first time.

Kanter nodded. “These items are very hard to get, and it’s highly likely that our bombers went through these dealers to get it.”

This was a potentially critical link to the terrorists. If Kanter was right. If there was a way to discover the buyers for these materials.

“Agent Jordan and his superior, Agent Michelson, here from the CIA Crime and Narcotics Center, have agreed to work directly with the FBI on this. I’ve assigned him to your team. Agent Jordan will work independently of our chain of command, reporting directly to Agent Michelson, but day-to-day he’ll be an additional member of Intel 1.”

Just great, thought Savas. Kanter looked Savas in the eye and spoke gravely. “I don’t have to tell you how important it is that we make some headway on this, John. We’ll need all the help we can get from every agency. We all need to make this work.”

“Larry, can I speak to you privately?” asked Savas, needing an outlet soon lest he jettison all professionalism.

Kanter exhaled. “Of course. Why don’t you introduce Husaam to your group and then meet me in my office.”

Savas suppressed his rage. “Sure, Larry. Agent Jordan, come this way, please.”

He led the CIA man back to the conference room. As he grabbed the doorknob to open it, the baritone spoke. “When we are greeted with a salutation, one should offer a better welcome, or at least return the same, for God taketh an account of all things.” Jordan smiled and extended his hand.

Ah, hell. Savas grasped the offered hand and shook it very firmly.

“Nice words,” said Savas, turning back to the door.

“From the Holy Quran,” replied Jordan.

Savas, doorknob clasped tightly in his hand, stopped and turned slowly toward the Muslim. “Agent Jordan, let’s get something clear, so we both know where we stand. I don’t like CIA meddling with my group, and no disrespect, but I don’t know a damn thing about you. My group works well, and we’re one of the best in the business. We’ve been together a while, and we’re a well-oiled machine. You coming here, it’s grit thrown in the engine.” Savas let go of the doorknob a second time and pulled up to face Jordan. “You don’t know me either, but I don’t take it lightly when someone quotes from a book that inspired men to fly airplanes into buildings in my city. Finally, in case the intelligence is fading from CIA, you might also know that those bastards took the life of my son. So, do we understand each other, Agent Jordan?”

The joyful buoyancy had left the face of Husaam Jordan, but he did not flinch. “No, Agent Savas, not completely. Because you need to know two things about me. The first is that I will always do my best to respect every man I meet, but I will never hide or be ashamed of my religion. Second, I ask you not to judge how much I’m grit until you give me a little time to integrate into your team. One thing about me that you will learn—I’m a man of justice, as well as a Muslim. For me, they go together. Those who died in September of 2001 were victims of murder, led by extremists that I work every day to bring to justice. It’s also said in the Holy Quran, ‘Justice is an unassailable fortress, built on the brow of a mountain which cannot be overthrown by the violence of torrents, nor demolished by the force of armies.’ I believe that, John Savas. I will work to see that it is so.”

For several moments, they stood staring at each other, eye-to-eye, nearly toe-to-toe. Savas clenched his jaw, turned, and opened the door to the conference room.

22

The Convert

“Damn it, Larry, you can’t do this!”

I’m officially throwing a tantrum. He had felt it coming, building up, and had decided to just get out of its way. There were a lot of things you had to put up with in life. A lot of them you didn’t. And some you have to yell about.

“John, calm down. This isn’t going to help the situation,” said Kanter as calmly as he could. Standing next to Kanter behind his desk, Mira Vujanac appeared uneasy as she watched the emotional outburst.

“I’m not going to calm down! Do you know what this guy was doing? Quoting me proverbs from the Quran! Do you think I need to hear anything from that book? You told me when I came here, Larry, that you hired me because I’d be motivated for this job. You knew why I would be. That motivation makes it unacceptable that a damned Muslim is forced on me and my team! I’m not going to allow it!”

“That’s the last time I want to hear about what you will and won’t allow, or, I swear, you’ll be finding yourself another place to work!” The veins stood out on Kanter’s forehead, and he anchored his hands on his desk, standing and leaning forward. He brought one hand to his face and rubbed his temples. “John, please, sit down a moment.”

Savas looked between the two of them and reluctantly took the closest seat. Vujanac sighed softly and adjusted her blouse. She sat on the side of the desk farthest from Savas.

Kanter continued. “This guy comes with amazing recommendations. He’s single-handedly begun what has turned into an enormous operation against these international arms dealers. He’s used his religion as a screen to work the entire thing, to pose as a radicalized leader of a group seeking to purchase weapons for terrorist activity in the United States. He’s just a few steps from setting up a sting operation, and these events have compromised all his efforts. He’s willing to work for less than that original goal, to infiltrate the network, trace the path of the explosives. He’s willing to work with us to coordinate domestic and international efforts.”

“I don’t like it.” Savas knew he was being obstinate, but it didn’t matter.

“Damn it, John, I’m not asking you to like it. I’m asking you to make it work.”

“John,” said Vujanac softly, “Agent Jordan is an extraordinary man. He’s taken a hard route to come to where he is.”

“He sure as hell has,” fired back Kanter. He picked up a large folder filled with papers and tossed it on his desk in front of Savas. “His file. Read it if you want. The guy grew up on the streets of LA. His mother was a crack addict, his father was gone before he was potty-trained. He joined a gang before he could likely write, rose through the ranks to a high position as an adolescent. Got tossed in jail at one point, found an imam and religion in prison.”

Savas rolled his eyes. The last thing he wanted was a feel-good Disney story. “So CIA’s recruiting ex-cons now? They that desperate?”

“He was a juvenile.”

“Larry, CIA doesn’t hire convicts!”

“Somebody made an exception!”

“They sure did.” Savas shook his head. “He doesn’t sound like some ex-gang member to me. Speaks like he’s Ivy League.”

“He is,” Mira interjected. “Columbia. His spiritual father was highly educated and insisted Jordan be as well. He was bright enough to master that culture, too.”

“Great, now a Muslim elitist spook.”

Kanter pressed on. “Lots of these young black kids find religion in jail. They either get radicalized, or they join social movements for the poor or push civil rights agendas. Well, Jordan felt a call to serve justice, something you don’t see too many ex-gang members lean toward. Can you imagine how hard it must have been to get even a single serious look at a job like this? Can you imagine the interviews? He worked hard to erase his past. Some imam funded his college education. He prettied up his speech. He cut all ties with his old life. He knocked on every door until one opened. It looks like nothing stops this guy. He’s on a mission, and he’s made a serious mark at CIA.”

“John, please,” said Vujanac. “We need you to put aside your personal issues. It’s hard enough trying to get FBI and CIA to play nice. I know this is painful, but we need you to rise above this.”

Savas looked out the window at the city. Inside, he felt a war of emotions. Outside, through the glass in Kanter’s office, it was utterly still, row upon row of buildings stretching until he could not see beyond them. He closed his eyes and tried to think. He knew they were right. He knew he was being childish, unprofessional. But they did not understand how hard this was. It was something he had never expected. The son of a bitch even dressed like an Arab! He shook his head and laughed bitterly.

“Okay, you two. I can give you this. I have one goal, and that is to bring justice to murderers of innocents, those terrorists that kill our children and hope to see Heaven for it. I’ll work with anyone who shares that goal. If he does, I’ll make it work.”

“Thank you, John,” Kanter said with evident relief.

Savas rose from his chair and walked to the door. He stopped and turned around. “Just don’t expect me to be friends with the man. He does his job, I’ll do mine.” With that, he walked through the door and shut it behind him.

23

What God Writes

The next morning, Husaam Jordan briefed the team on his long-standing operation. The CIA man had integrated into the group as if he’d always belonged. Muslim or Tibetan monk, he was serious and knowledgeable, and held an intense focus for his work that reminded Savas of the pursuit of a predator of its prey. He also had a strangely winning side to his personality, which worked best with the women in his group. It was clear that the ex-marine Miller wasn’t going to warm easily to the man, and Matt King never warmed easily to anyone.

Cohen was a supporter early on and often came to his side when some of the more hostile members of the group were expressing that hostility. Savas had to admit he was one of those. Lightfoote was positively stuck to the man, showing specific and real interest in another human for the first time in her tenure at Intel 1. She hadn’t called Savas “Ruthless Overlord” once today.

Despite his mixed feelings, Savas was fascinated with what this man had done at the CIA. In the span of three years, he had built an undercover operation to infiltrate some of the most powerful and profitable arms dealerships in the world. For each of them, he used the front of an African American radical Muslim who was arming his organization for terrorist attacks in the United States. Whether or not the arms dealers knew or cared anything about this, or believed his intent, was likely irrelevant. They believed that the man wanted to buy, and did buy, and paid promptly in a way that established him and his false group with a strong reputation. It didn’t hurt that several major arrests, including that of Viktor Bout himself, had been made in the last few years, disrupting organizations and forcing them to lower standards in chaotic rushes to claim client bases when they restructured. Jordan had taken advantage of this and promised his clients much larger buys in the near future.

For more than two hours, he detailed the organization, its members, foreign bases of operation and contacts, and difficult-to-trace money transfers. It was impressive, Savas had to admit. Impressive and frightening. A black Muslim seeking to become a domestic terrorist through international arms acquisition. The ruse was too plausible for comfort.

The presentation finished, Jordan turned on the lights and sat. He appeared a bit drained and drank from a glass of water at his side. The room was quiet for a moment.

“Why do you think that this is the source of the explosives?” asked Cohen.

Jordan downed the remainder of the glass and spoke. “We can’t know for sure, but there aren’t many ways to obtain that grade of explosive. The U.S. government won’t sell this stuff to just anyone. It stays with the military or, in some cases, is sold to other nations. That’s where the real black market in these things starts, and how our weapons mafia gets its sources. So there may be other ways, but I’m willing to bet that our new terrorist organization used one of these groups as its supplier. Bout’s old organization is the biggest and still the best. It’s a good place to start poking around.”

He looked around the table, studying the faces of Intel 1. “I’m actually curious to know who these people are that went to all the trouble to go for such top-of-the-line materials—really overkill for what they wanted to do.”

Savas had known this would come. Jordan had shown his hand from CIA, down to the last PowerPoint slide. He expected a full briefing in return. Savas wanted to send him back to Langley with a thank you very much! and use this potential new lead. But they needed the international reach of the CIA and Jordan’s operation to have any hope of getting close to these dealers. Besides, it was the professional thing to do, and if he didn’t, Kanter would cart someone else in to do the job.

“Rebecca Cohen will give you a briefing on what we know.”

Cohen stood, dimmed the lights, and spent the next hour going over everything they had gleaned from the events to date. The forensics reports and details on the bombings were familiar to Jordan, likely from previous briefings given by Vujanac or Kanter. She concluded with the speculation that it might be an internal, American group but was careful to note that there was little solid evidence for that conjecture.

“There are also other, wilder theories,” said Savas. He felt the eyes of the group bore in on him. What the hell am I doing? Trying to rattle him?

“Yes? What other theories?” asked Jordan after several moments of silence.

“His rogue Valkyries,” said Lightfoote.

Savas stared at her. Did she talk to Rebecca? “It’s a possible connection between two cases we’ve been working on.”

He summarized the worldwide string of assassinations, the use of the Sheikh as bait in a plan gone horribly wrong, and the connection between the attacks in the Afghan mountains and the murders. When he came to the subject of Norse mythology, and the speculation about the group’s motivations, Jordan sat upright and still. The information on the more obscure point of the group’s unusual name and symbolism interested him deeply, and he asked a number of intense questions on this matter.

“This Columbia professor,” Jordan said, “I think he might be right. His analysis makes for a very dark view of what we’re up against.” Jordan nodded thoughtfully toward Savas. “Now I see where you’re headed, Agent Savas. You believe this group’s responsible for both the assassinations and these bombings, and that the motivation is the same—a desire to wage a war against Muslims the world over. By this symbolism, an unending war until Judgment Day.”

Rideout cut in. “Come on, people! Look, you’ve got a terrorist group that’s playing to fears in a very effective way. You’ve got a set of assassinations. The only thing connecting them? Scary mythology and some strange occult symbols.”

“Pagan,” interrupted Lightfoote.

Rideout flashed her an annoyed look.

“Well, trader-man, they’re pagan, not occult,” she countered. “There’s, like, a huge difference.”

“Fine. Pagan symbols,” said Rideout. “This is all Wizard of Oz, if you want my opinion. Some real bombs and guns, and a lot of some ivory tower magician’s hocus-pocus to rattle all the cages.”

“Rattling the cages is only scary when you’re in a cage,” said Lightfoote.

Rideout rolled his eyes, his fatigue showing through. “This is what I left seven figures for? What the hell does that mean?”

“Look, enough!” said Miller, steering things back to the topic at hand. “The question is, what do we do now?”

Matt King answered in his nasal twang. “We track down all the shipments of this material, try to ID the lot used. Mira told us that each lot gets a different ratio of the additives that tag the explosives; we just need to get this material more thoroughly analyzed and figure out where this stuff went.”

“Forensics is on it, Matt,” said Savas. “But we don’t have the equipment for that here. We need some really top-flight mass spectrometry to ID these batches, and that’s got to be farmed out. That takes time.”

Rideout sighed and threw his pen onto the notepad before him. “Look, what’s the pattern here? I know it’s embassies and Middle Eastern oil countries but specifically New York, Washington—I get that. That’s front-page material. But Venezuela? I mean, what’s that all about? Why not Europe, or China, or the Middle East itself? What’s the pattern in these attacks?”

“Well, with only these three bombings, that may be a hard thing to identify,” rumbled Jordan.

“Yeah, maybe,” said Rideout, “but I think we need to spend some time looking at this. The embassies, the people, do they share something that we are missing? They must have chosen these targets for a reason.”

Savas agreed. “JP, why don’t you work with Manuel on that? Let’s compile all the data we can on these places, cross-referencing everything.”

“We’re missing the point here, my friends,” boomed Jordan. He looked tired, frustrated, and deadly serious. “We have a good lead that could bring us to contacts that could be one or two steps away from the men we are looking for. This should be our priority.”

Savas suppressed an urge to tell the man that, as group leader, he would decide what Intel 1 should and shouldn’t be doing. “So, what would you do, Agent Jordan?”

“This is where my position in the CIA allows me freedoms you don’t have. I’ve reached a decision, Agent Savas. It’s a hard one and will ruin years of work, cost taxpayers millions of dollars, perhaps some agents their lives. I’m going back to Sharjah.”

“Sharjah?” asked Savas over the silence. “Why?”

Jordan stared forward, as if glimpsing something in the distance. “You can remember from my presentation—we’ve established inroads into two of Viktor Bout’s primary centers of operation: Belgium and the United Arab Emirates. Bout was pressured out of Belgium in the late 1990s as the press uncovered his shady dealings. His organization never closed up shop there, but the heart of it moved with him to Sharjah in the UAE. There he was coddled by many members of the royal family, developed deep connections to international companies playing with money laundering and terrorism, civil war, and murder. He left behind a powerful cartel.”

Cohen took her glasses off and stared at the CIA operative. “Husaam, what do you plan on doing there?”

Jordan paused a moment and took a deep breath. “I may be in the minority, but I take quite seriously the intentions of this terrorist organization and the hypothesis put forward by Agent Savas. Perhaps I have to—after all, it could be a declaration of war against my faith. I believe we must take whatever action we can in order to find out who these people are and how to get to them. I’m going to take my team undercover into Sharjah, as we have before, but this time to set up a major arms purchase. We’ll use that opportunity to break into their organization and seize any records they have on the sale and distribution of Semtex-like explosives.”

A heavy silence fell over the group. Rebecca’s eyes flashed upward toward Savas. Rideout whistled, adding, “You’re likely to end up buried in the sands out there. That’s either really damn brave or really damn stupid.”

Jordan smiled grimly. “It is written, ‘What God writes on your forehead, you will become.’”

Part II

Merchants of Death

May he lament forever who thinks now to turn from this war-play.

The Battle of Maldon, Old English poem

24

Algiers

A dusty American stared across a wooden table at the three Berbers. The day blistered, and the sands from the northern Sahara that invaded much of Algeria dug into every crevice of his body. His face was bronzed from the sun, from time spent coaxing, bribing, and leading these barbarians along the path required. It was one thing to work an act of public violence in a Western nation, or even in a South American nation like Venezuela, where freedom to travel and the mixed-race nature of the population made planning and executing a mission far simpler. But here, in Northern Africa, surrounded by Berber Arabs in a strongly Islamic nation, where custom and language differed far more markedly, he could not work alone.

What one could always count on with these people was that they were as murderous toward each other as toward the West. He had been patient and resourceful. The young Ibadi radicals they had primed were perfect for achieving the mission. Better yet, this splinter group was so ignorant and detached from the rest of the world that the events of the last two months were hardly known to them, and the plan he proposed had not aroused their suspicions.

A minority sect of Islam, the Ibadi were centered in Oman with pockets in Algeria, holding radically different interpretations of Heaven and Hell. They thought of themselves as the only true Muslims. All others were, as he had come to learn with amusement, kuffar, “unbelievers.” In the last ten years, increasingly radical groups had found inspiration from terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda, and now they desired to exert their violent influence over the world, to establish Ibadi rule. That this meant executing terrorist acts against other Muslims was exactly what he required.

“You’ll have the trucks ready on the night of the fifteenth,” said the American in his poor Arabic.

The older of the three men laughed and smiled broadly, revealing several missing teeth. “My friend, you must learn to speak the language. Without us, you would get not five steps. Yes, we will have them to transport your men. We will provide real clothes for you,” and he laughed again, “not these womanly things you have tried to wear and hide yourself under.”

“Then we are agreed, Aziri?” he pressed.

Another spoke. “We do not like that the Ibadi Peoples Army is to be kept so far from the attack. We are not to be considered children who cannot fight!”

“Aban, I’ve explained this as clearly as I can. My team works alone. You’ll bring us into the site. We’ll complete the mission. Then you’ll get us out. We’re providing the funds, the expertise, and risking our lives for this. We won’t do it another way. It’s our way or no way.”

The three men looked at each other. Aban was angry, but his older brother put his hand on his shoulder. He spoke softly in a local Berber dialect. A back-and-forth ensued, but the older brother held the day. Over a reproachful look, Aziri continued. “We will accept your offer. The materials you will provide for us. With these things, we will strike again and again into the heart of the kuffar abomination. It will begin with what you will do. You are ignorant, but you do the work of Allah, unbeliever.”

“Then make sure it’s settled,” he said standing, eyeing the three men. “Because we’ll inflict a lesson on anyone who tries to interfere with what we do.” The three men nodded, convinced by what they had seen of his team that he meant what he said.

The American walked out of the small building and into the blazing summer sun. The fools would comply. They were young and filled with fire to strike at the majority Sunni population. This was a chance to do so in a way they could never have imagined before: in the heart of Algeria, at their great mosque in Algiers, Jemaa Kebir, built more than one thousand years ago. They dreamed of establishing their Berber culture and small sect of Islam, and thereby opened their nation to a worse strike from within. He was happy indeed to hit the mosque, but his goal was greater, and the Ibadi People’s Army would soon find that they had exposed Algiers to an attack on another landmark, one dear to all Algerians as a symbol of the defeat of the West. As such a symbol, Mjolnir would hammer it and crush it to the ground. He’d see to that. He knew how much was being entrusted to him. He would not fail.

The winds blew, sand grains scratching his face. He looked across the desert into the distance, seeing beyond it to the greatest target ahead. Another step. Each step brings us closer. It was all coming together, despite setbacks and delays. He dropped sunglasses over his eyes, turned toward the main road, and began walking.

25

Black Panthers

The flight to Sharjah was rough, far more turbulent than usual, so much so that Jordan had passed on a recent offer of a meal. He wondered grimly whether it was a sign of things to come. The trip was long, more than twelve hours in the air from New York to Dubai City, then a car ride from Dubai to Sharjah, and that was assuming nothing went wrong in between.

Right now, his main concern was his men. It had taken him weeks to secure permission for this risky venture, putting his reputation on the line at the CIA. As July ended, he had finally gotten the needed approvals, and he prepared his team for what was to come. As much as they can be prepared.

They were men from every walk of life, from the streets to the Ivy League, each a trained CIA operative. All were black; all dressed in Arab garb, white robes, and a white African kufi with Muslim-style beards. They looked out of place alongside the Arabs on board, some of whom were in traditional clothing, many in Western-style business attire; all very different than the African American men clustered together. These were the men he had trained and honed for the last three years, who had traveled overseas countless times, risking their lives, leaving their families, to build piece by piece, deal by deal, a reputation as trusted customers in a black market world where there truly was no trust. But where trust could not be found, money and arms were found in their stead.

In the facade presented to the arms world, he was Yusuf Abdul-Rauf, leader of a new Muslim extremist group centered in the United States and composed solely of African American members. “A Muslim Black Panthers,” he had explained on several occasions, focused on the liberation of the black people from the oppression of the white Christian power structure “by any means necessary.” He sought arms and explosives through deals untraceable by investigative agencies in the United States. He planned to build an army, make a mark with terrorist attacks across the nation.

Of course, the dealers cared little why he wanted their merchandise, only that he paid in full and on time. Jordan doubted they believed his organization would do much anyway. They were impressed, however, with his cash and clearly wondered who was bankrolling his purchases. He only hoped none of them had begun to guess that it was the U.S. government behind him.

He traveled with six others. Four of them were muscle, necessary for the danger as well as for maintaining the facade. His bodyguards in both worlds, these were operatives expertly trained in combat and defense, and Jordan was always glad to have them around on these missions. All but one were former gang members he had personally recruited. Two others were his “Harvard Men,” operatives trained in finance who had studied the international arms market thoroughly. Jordan, or Yusuf, was the visionary, the leader who brought them, and the imaginary hundreds back in the States who followed him, together under a unifying purpose and will.

This team had patiently worked to build respectability as a client in the illegal arms markets, focusing on the one led by the now imprisoned ex-KGB agent Viktor Bout. His team had played a crucial role in the capture of the Merchant of Death, although he had not mentioned this to John Savas and others at the FBI. It was the greatest success of his young career and had earned him respect and capital at CIA. His infiltration of these networks promised to deliver much more than that over the coming years.

Now he was asking his team to travel again and risk destroying years of work, placing all their lives in danger on a hunch that this new terrorist organization was something so threatening that it required drastic action. For all that he was doing, he had better be right. The sura Maryam came unbidden to his mind: My Lord! Surely my bones are weakened and my head flares with hoariness, and, my Lord! I have never been unsuccessful in my prayer to Thee. He hoped Allah would hear his prayer now.

The final descent toward Dubai was always spectacular, as the golden-brown of the desert and the blue of the sea established a strong contrast, punctuated by the amazing sights of the Palm Islands. These enormous, man-made islands of filigreed projections of sand were visible from the cruising altitude of the plane, carving out a magnificent decoration in the Gulf nearly three miles in diameter. Close by were hundreds of small sandy islands comprising “The World,” an artificial archipelago that re-created the shape of the continents, and on which vacation homes, resorts, estates, and communal lands were still being built—a product of endless oil money, some imagination, and what Jordan considered entirely too much time on the hands of the populace.

Jordan and his team disembarked, jet-lagged, a strange troop of black Muslims walking like a pack through Dubai International Airport to grab a rental car for the drive to Sharjah. It amused him to see the familiar names and icons of Hertz, Avis, and Thrifty rentals amid all the flowing and ornate Arabic script. This last leg of the trip would be short, at least—Jordan knew that he and his team needed sleep soon. Tomorrow they would begin a most dangerous gambit.

They were mostly silent driving through Dubai City, each cocooned in his own thoughts and fatigued from the trip. Within half an hour, they had crossed into Sharjah proper and were approaching the Millennium Hotel on Corniche Road, its blue-glass face reflecting the bright Middle Eastern sun and the waves of the sea. Check-in was quick. Jordan’s Arabic was fluent and practiced on foreign soil.

In the hotel room, he dialed a number he kept security-locked in his smartphone. After three rings, he heard a tone and then entered a long eight-digit code. A second set of rings was heard, and another tone prompted a second code. A third set of rings was interrupted by a woman’s voice speaking Russian.

“Yusuf Abdul-Rauf calling for Mikhail Kharitonov,” he replied in the same language.

“A moment, Puzhalsta,” said the voice. Jordan glanced over at the clock on the wall. It was eleven in the morning. He had called ahead of schedule.

“My American friend,” said a strong male voice in heavily accented English. “Happy you to arrive very good.”

“Thank you, Mika. We’re glad to be here. I hope things are on schedule for our meeting tomorrow.”

“Yes, yes,” said the man, sounding amused. “We have all you request. Is very big order, my friend, means Mika work very hard to see all delivered.”

“We understand, Mika. This is important for us. Don’t worry.”

The voice on the other end of the line laughed. “Yusuf, Mika always worry. That why Mika still alive. Tomorrow, as planned, time and place. You bring and I bring. All then good, no?”

“Yes, Mika. All’s good.”

Jordan closed the connection and took a deep breath. The madness would soon begin.

26

Crazy Ivan

The ride down to the port was silent. Jordan and his team had prepared for this moment for several weeks—in truth, for several years, considering all that had brought them here. After sleeping off the journey, they were up in the early morning considering plans and backup plans, countermeasures and options. Now everything came down to execution, and, Jordan knew in his heart, a certain amount of randomness, what others called luck. But luck favors the prepared.

Part of their preparation was a visit last night from the CIA safe house in Dubai. Their visitors were kind enough to supply them with weapons smuggled into the country, as well as a set of disks, memory sticks, flash drives, and adaptors for the mission to come.

From Corniche Road, which ran through the sands by the Millennium Hotel in Sharjah, it had been a short hop on one of the area’s main thoroughfares, Al Ittihad Road, a sparkling modern highway. Then across a new fourteen-lane, sixteen-thousand-vehicle-capacity bridge, onto the Sheikh Zayed Road, which twisted its way southeast around the center of Dubai, soon to run parallel with the coastline southwest toward the harbor. They passed the World Archipelago on their right, which hardly made an impression at sea level. The second and much larger Palm Island loomed somewhere northwest of them as they approached the main port, Jebel Ali.

As they exited E11 and drove on 520th Street, Jordan was again struck by the scale of things in Dubai. With sixty-seven berths and a span of over fifty square miles, Jebel Ali was the world’s largest artificial harbor, built over many years in the 1970s. More than five thousand companies from over one hundred and twenty nations made use of this port. A frequent user was in fact the United States Navy. There was hardly a sailor who served in the region who had not visited the port sometime during his tour. The great depth of the harbor and overall width allowed American aircraft carriers to dock, and it wasn’t unusual to find a Nimitz Class carrier with several of its companion boats pier side. Jordan suppressed a laugh. How the arms dealers like Kharitonov loved to do business right under the noses of the United States military forces! How their pride blinded them to the fact that Uncle Sam was aware of what they were doing, and was using them for the purpose of catching bigger fish—the clients on the other ends of their deals.

Jordan and his men pulled up to the dock number they had been sent and stepped out into the desert furnace. Three vehicles were waiting, and Jordan could see the tall, lanky form of Mika Kharitonov standing beside an open car door, several bodyguards flanking him and positioned in the nearby vehicles. The cargo boat behind them was dotted with several shapes toting automatic weapons. He knew the other guards would also be carrying weapons, concealed, just as Kharitonov knew that Jordan’s men were packing. It was like a well-choreographed dance, only with less sexual tension and more potential for chaos and death. Jordan pretended to be blinded by the bright sunlight, taking that time to scope the scene. He spoke quietly out of the side of his mouth to several members of his team.

“Trouble perched high on the boats. We’ll need to contain those.”

The man next to him smiled tightly. “Looks like we got trouble everywhere we look. We’re going to get bloody on this one, Husaam.”

“Yeah, we might,” he said, feeling a sudden heaviness. The wind gusted and blew grains of sand across their faces. I’m responsible for these men.

“Mika, my friend!” Jordan boomed over the sounds of machinery, waves, and vehicles at the port, laughing in his deep bass as he jogged to greet the Russian. Kharitonov stepped slightly forward, enough to put his guards a few steps behind him—about the same distance that existed between Jordan and his men. They extended hands and shook.

“Good see you, Yusuf. I think you and your men bigger every year. Like Barry Bonds, no?”

“My brothers on the street don’t have an easy life. We work hard for what is ours. It shows. You will help us do that.”

“Mika happy to help. But Mika more happy when paid. You understand?” he said with a smile that would give a serial killer pause.

“Of course, my friend. Friendship doesn’t put food, or vodka, on the table. Kareem!” he shouted over his shoulder. A thin black man with a goatee stepped up beside Jordan. He carried a slim briefcase, much too slender to contain any significant amount of money. He unlocked the case, opened it, and held it up to show the Russian its contents. Inside was a small thumb drive.

“Codes and executable,” Kareem said flatly, an accountant presenting data. “You have your connection established?”

“Of course, of course,” said Kharitonov.

Jordan interjected. “Then why don’t we have a look at the merchandise, and as soon as that’s done, we’ll go digital, my friend.”

Kharitonov nodded and signaled to his bodyguards. Kareem closed the case and stepped behind the troop accompanying Jordan. The Russian led them toward the ramp to board the vessel. As they passed underneath, the men holding automatic weapons tracked their motion onto the ship.

The ship was enormous, a “box boat” that allowed for the highly efficient transfer of enormous amounts of cargo across the planet. Eighteen million containers journeyed over two hundred million trips a year—and this counted only the legal, registered material. This one flew the Greek flag, a “flag of convenience” that allowed for easier and cheaper passage. The Greeks sheltered numerous such vessels, but it could have come from anywhere, belonged to anyone, and only the arcane records of the companies using the ships could give any idea as to the source of the materials onboard. Those records were why Jordan stood now in Sharjah, and why today’s deal was headed for trouble.

While the boat looked big, Jordan knew that it was one of the smaller container vessels. Docked away from the enormous land-based cranes, it was able to load and off-load with its own machinery. Kharitonov had his trade down to a science. The forty-foot boxes were rigged with “quick-entry” latches that opened a specially designed section of the box, allowing rapid examination of contents. Kharitonov brought them to one such entry point, unlocked the container, and had his men pull out a large wooden crate. As they pried it open with crowbars, the submachine-gun-toting guards closed in behind Jordan’s men, sandwiching them between Mika’s gunmen and the large crate. The men pulled off the packing insulation, revealing rows of neatly stacked automatic weapons and magazine cartridges. Jordan approached the crate, reached in, and pulled out one of the guns. It was a sleek, black micro-Uzi submachine gun. He turned it over, played with the safety, gripped it in his hands to feel the weight and balance of the thing. Kharitonov and his subordinates watched in silence as their customer examined the product.

“The suppressors fit?” he asked himself out loud, removing a silencer from his robes and attaching it to the barrel of the gun. He again turned it around and examined it for several moments.

Jordan laughed and tossed the gun to one of his bodyguards, who caught it cleanly in the air and, as everyone watched, examined the gun himself, also breaking out into a smile. Boys and their toys, thought Jordan grimly, as he nimbly pocketed two ammo magazines and stashed them in his robes. One advantage of robes over pants—far easier to hide things in those inner pockets. Kharitonov glanced over at him as he turned away from the weapons container and motioned to Kareem. Kareem stepped forward and opened the case again. Kharitonov’s men had forged a satellite link to a bank account thousands of miles away.

“The executable runs automatically. You give it your routing numbers and account, and the money is transferred. As before, no strings and untraceable. You should be able to see it immediately. Half now, and half on delivery.”

Kharitonov nodded and handed the drive over to the man who set up his connection. He seemed relaxed. Jordan had groomed this man and his organization for four long years, and this wasn’t their first deal. Jordan had been an exemplary customer, never missing a payment or canceling a deal. Kharitonov had grown complacent with him, as much as an international arms dealer could, and Jordan was counting on this. That was why the Russian did not watch Jordan carefully at this moment as he moved slowly along the open crate of weapons, and why the Russian didn’t recognize his peril.

“Yusuf,” Kharitonov said, staring at the screen, “transfer not going through.” Jordan looked at him, unconcerned, his arms behind his back as he stood at attention. The Russian looked at the screen, and as he did so, Jordan made quick eye contact with his team. “Not understanding. Yusuf—there is problem?” he asked.

Jordan looked at the Russian grimly. “Yes, Mika, there is.”

Several things happened at the same time. Jordan whipped a loaded Uzi out from behind him. He opened fire at the bodyguards flanking Kharitonov. One dropped as red blisters erupted across this chest. The second dove to his right, pulling a weapon out from his belt and aiming at Jordan. Before he could pull the trigger, his neck snapped back as flesh and blood ripped apart, a barrage of bullets fired by one of Jordan’s bodyguards. Simultaneously, the other members of his team pulled out handguns and turned toward the guards behind them. Although the Russians held the advantage in firepower, they were too slow to realize what was happening, and Jordan’s combat-trained operatives pounced on them like tigers.

The rear members of his team, nearest the guards, had chosen hand-to-hand combat. One had dropped to a push-up position and swung his leg around like a helicopter blade, catching the guard behind the knees and dropping him to the ground. The operative behind him fired four quick shots into the prone man, who did not move again. The second guard found his weapon kicked from his arms as the CIA man drew his right leg in an arc like a mace. The guard stood there stunned as he watched the man pivot on the foot that had just disarmed him, spinning to bring his left leg like a battering ram straight into his face. A jawbone cracked loudly, and the man went down on his back, smacking his head against the boat deck. He did not get up.

Kareem had incapacitated the computer man with several blows, then had frozen Kharitonov by placing a gun to the base of his skull. Kharitonov, who had drawn a gun on Jordan, relaxed and dropped it. The four remaining bodyguards, poorly positioned in the crowded region around the boat box, had all been either overpowered or killed by Jordan’s team. It was over in a matter of seconds.

Jordan grabbed Kharitonov’s computer, placed it in the briefcase, and handed it to Kareem.

“You insane American!” Kharitonov spat as his hands were tied with wire behind him. “What is for? You get nothing from this!”

Jordan put the barrel of his Uzi under Kharitonov’s chin. The Russian pulled up his head in pain from the hot cylinder. That got his attention. “Mika, what I get is my problem. But if you don’t do exactly what I say, I can tell you exactly what you’re gonna get.” He stared at the Russian coldly. “You understand?” Kharitonov nodded, fear in his eyes. “Right now, that means you make a sound we don’t like, I fill you with holes. You try to escape, I, or one of my men, will fill you with holes. And if you don’t do as directed, right now, you get filled with holes. Got that?” Mika nodded again, sweat pouring over his face.

“Good.” Jordan turned to his men. “Take his cell phone. Get him to the car, grab several of these guns and mags. Load up. We’re likely going to need them.” Jordan strode through the piles of bodies on the ship deck, and his team led Kharitonov at gunpoint down the ramp and to their vehicles. The two drivers were prone beside the Russian’s cars, incapacitated by other members of Jordan’s team.

“We go in these three cars to lessen the suspicion.” Jordan designated his two Harvard Men to ditch the rentals. The rest of his team stepped into the dealer’s vehicles. Jordan sat in the back of one, his Uzi trained on the Russian as they pulled out.

“Let’s pay a visit to a little building in Sharjah,” said Jordan. The eyes of the Russian grew large as he understood.

“You have no place to hide. You never make deal again! We hunt you down, to America. You are dead man.”

Jordan looked through the window of the speeding car over the bright sands and sighed. “So aren’t we all, Mika.” He slapped a new cartridge into the Uzi. “What’s important is what you do while it lasts.”

27

The Martyrs Monument

Three thousand miles away, the August night was cool in Algiers. Despite its nearness to the desert, the Tell Atlas Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea dominated the coastal city, giving it a temperate climate that in the hottest months was still bearable. The day’s heat had abated by the predawn hours, and the wind that blew from the mountains dropped the temperature into the high sixties.

The temperature drop was a welcome relief to the American and his team, dressed in bulky Arab clothing over their combat attire. They had ridden into the city disguised as migrant workers, sheltered in several trucks provided and driven by their helpful friends of the Ibadi People’s Army. Of course, no one had ever heard of the IPA, and they likely never would. But the American humored its young and naive founders. They were a ticket through the Arab and Berber landscape in Algiers, a landscape that too easily could become problematic. But no one had paid any attention to yet another group of workers trucked into the city to do its heavy lifting.

They left the Ibadi drivers with the vehicles beside the foul-smelling piers. His team headed under cover of what darkness remained toward the Great Mosque of Algiers, Jemaa Kebir, a structure over one thousand years old. Two members of his team were posted to keep watch on their collaborators. The IPA members wanted credit for the destruction of this landmark of Sunni Islam. They had fought to be a part of tonight’s efforts on several occasions in his presence. He would not have them interfering with what he and his men had to do.

Five commandos from his team were dispatched to the mosque. Among them were two weapons specialists, a communications officer, and two demolition men. They carried enough S-47 to take down five buildings this size. The explosion would ensure a level of carnage that would make a statement the world would notice. The men checked off with their leader and sprinted toward the historical shrine.

The rest had another plan. The American turned and gathered together the remaining seven of his team. This small group would engineer an act of terrorism greater than that at the mosque, an act targeting an Algerian symbol of independence from Western powers that even the Ibadi held in high regard. They would never have allowed such an action. Had they known of his plans, they would have tried to kill him.

His team searched along the roadway hugging the coastline. Several blocks from the Great Mosque, they found what had been left for them: a van with keys inside, left by “tourists” that evening. They loaded into the van, each man with large packs of S-47, gripping automatic weapons. A driver started the engine and pulled out, heading nearly due south along the road. After a few minutes, they took a southeasterly turn through the nearly empty streets of the city and, within five minutes, pulled up several streets short of the monument.

At night the structure was an awesome sight. Bright lights bathed the curving concrete arches, inverted so they turned inward, giving the imposing structure a solid and yet otherworldly presence. Maquam E’chahid, the Martyrs Monument, was constructed in 1982 to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Algeria’s independence from France. It took the abstract interpretation of three standing palm leaves, forming in their center a shelter beneath which the “eternal flame” burned. Statues of soldiers adorned the front of each leaf that plunged into the ground.

He checked his watch. They were nearly late. In two minutes, team Beta would kill the power to the Algiers grid, darkening the lights across a portion of town for a short period of time. Before technicians had located the problem and dispatched crews, their job would be done and the power restored, leaving nothing to trigger suspicion at the site.

Right on cue, the powerful searchlights went dark, and the lights in buildings and streetlamps for many blocks around them went out. The site was nearly totally black but for the light leaking its way over from other portions of the city. The team strapped on their night-vision goggles and sprinted to the monument.

***

&With five minutes to& spare on their tight schedule, they piled into the van, backpacks empty, magazines full, the job a silent success. They drove north, back toward the site of the Great Mosque, where they parked the car and left the keys. Sprinting back up to the rendezvous point, they were met by the remaining members of team Alpha. The news was good from both groups, and they returned to find their Ibadi friends waiting impatiently for them.

“This took too long!” whispered Aziri, his eyes flashing. “You are lucky no police came!”

“Relax, Aziri. The job went well. It’s best to be sure about these things and take your time.”

The Berber grunted and started the truck as the rest of the team settled into the back of the flatbed. He pulled out along the road, taking the American and his men to the airport for the first flight of the morning. Dawn broke on the horizon.

“Yes,” he noted, “you are right. It is written: ‘Haste is of the Devil.’”

“Indeed, my friend,” replied the American, removing his robes and glancing over at the towering form of the monument silhouetted against the pale sky.

28

Black Bag Job

Three gray BMWs pulled into a parking lot behind a row of small sheds, which resembled the sort of structures that an army would throw up—cheap, easy to raise, easy to break down, and yet highly functional with amenities, electricity, heat, cooling, running water, and, in this case, thick bundles of internet cables. The small buildings were in a fairly undeveloped region of Sharjah, on-going construction surrounding the lot, the ground dirty and paved only with gravel. Little traffic came in or out. It was a perfect location to escape notice and yet to be as completely connected to the world as any high-rise in Dubai.

Jordan marveled at the arrogance, or ignorance, of these dealers. Did they really believe that Viktor Bout had been apprehended at random, through some stroke of luck by the international community? Did they never consider that their entire operation may have been compromised? Yet they maintained their same base of operations, known for years now to the CIA through Jordan’s efforts, and now also known to several international agencies when the CIA worked with them to apprehend their former boss.

He stepped out onto the gravel, hearing it crunch beneath his shoes. On the other side of the car, Kharitonov rose slowly, a pistol pointed at his head, and maneuvered awkwardly with his hands wired together behind his back. Two black men in white robes shepherded him toward the back entrance of one of the small structures. He glared at Jordan.

“I cannot feel my hands, you bastard!” he spat.

A gun tapped against his temple reminded him to speak more quietly, and more politely.

“Mika, let’s go over this to make sure you don’t make us have to kill you,” said Jordan, looking around the area. Thankfully, the building had few windows, and the back entrance wasn’t easily visible from within. He stared at the Russian coldly. “You will enter as if nothing whatsoever is out of the ordinary. You will speak to us as clients, making up whatever excuse you have to as to why we are here. You will then take us to where you keep your records.”

Kharitonov squinted and eyed him darkly as Jordan’s men untied the Russian’s wrists. “You are police?” he asked.

Jordan nodded his head to one side, and a large man next to the Russian punched him in his right kidney. Kharitonov groaned but kept quiet as Jordan put his finger to his lips. “Shhhhh. No, we’re much worse, my friend. And that’s the last I expect to hear from you except for what I’ve explained. If you alert anyone, if you take any action, or if the air in there doesn’t smell right to me, I’ll paint the walls with your brain. Understood?”

Kharitonov grunted between painful gasps of air. Jordan gave him a minute to regain his composure, then issued instructions for his team to conceal their weapons. The additional time allowed for the return of his Harvard Men, who had ditched the rentals, bringing Jordan’s team up to full strength.

They all made eye contact, and Jordan turned toward Kharitonov. “The guns are out of sight, but don’t let them be out of your mind. You saw what we did to your men. We’ll do it again. Remember, my Russian’s better than your English, so don’t get stupid.”

He nodded toward the door, and Kharitonov removed a security card and held it to a reader. It beeped with a metallic click as the lock opened. He stepped inside, followed closely by Jordan and the other men.

For his part, Mika Kharitonov acted well. No Oscar, but the show and threat, and action he’d witnessed, brought out his inner coward. He led them through ordinary-looking offices, filled with clerks, mostly female, typing into computers and taking calls. Guns were good business, and like any modern business, there was a lot of administration. Workers were surprised to see him, more so the entourage that followed to a room storing thousands of optical disks. Kharitonov put on a pleasant, professional, if somewhat strained face, and told the archivist to leave them alone.

Jordan’s team went to work. Within minutes, they isolated the records for all transactions within the last five years. These were no longer stored on the computer, so they pulled and pocketed the CDs from storage cabinets. A USB memory stick was used to copy all the records that were present on hard drives. Kharitonov was clearly as intrigued as he was frightened, but he was forced swallow his questions as the operatives worked in silence.

“Move it! The clock’s running, and we don’t know when time runs out,” Jordan said, pushing his team.

Within half an hour they had finished. Jordan rounded up his men, the precious data in his own backpack. They headed back the way they had entered, through what looked suspiciously like a call center, and out the back door. Kharitonov opened the door to the outside, stood straight as a plank of wood, and dove outside the door.

Ambush! Jordan lunged to the left, pulling the Uzi out as he slid to the floor. The thin walls of the building exploded as bullets tore through the siding and whizzed in through the open door. Two of his team fell with multiple bullet wounds, as did several operators near the door. Screams filled the room. Women dropped to the floor or dashed out toward the front of the building, sending papers flying through the office. Still the bullets blasted against the walls, one shattering the single window in the wall above Jordan, showering him with glass.

He knew things had been too easy.

29

God is Great

The day was going to be hot, and the tourists squirmed awkwardly under backpacks, cameras, and overloaded shopping bags along the streets of Algiers. Street vendors hocked their overpriced items as locals smirked at the naive Westerners spending more money than could possibly be justified for the goods. Business was particularly good around the Great Mosque. The combination of history and its nearness to the sea made the landmark a must-see on the tourist run.

Allahu Akbar!” A loud, static-filled call rose over the loudspeaker near the mosque. Heads of tourists turned toward the sound, despite having heard it several times in the day already, and five times every day of their stay; it was still an unusual sound to their ears. In contrast, the Algiers citizens gave a calm and familiar response, the pious slowly stopping their activities, pulling out prayer mats and laying them on the ground. A tight group of American tourists listened as their guide explained and translated.

“The muezzin is making the adhan, the call to prayer,” he said.

Allaahu Akbar!

“God is great!” he echoed in English to the wondering faces.

Ashhadu Allah ilaaha illa-Lah; Ash Hadu anna Muhamadar rasuulullah.

“I bear witness that there is no other god but Allah. I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God!”

Hayya’ alas Salaah; Hayya’ ala Falaah.

“Come to prayer! Come to Success.”

Allaahu Akbar! Laa ilaaha illa-Lah.

“God is great! There is no god but Allah.”

The echoes of the haunting Arabic chant rebounded over the streets and cement buildings, reaching the harbor and incoming ships, fading and absorbed into the waters of the Mediterranean.

After a moment of silence, as if in answer, the mosque exploded.

The sound was deafening, the shock wave injurious and stunning, citizens and tourists alike thrown to the ground as rock and metal hurled through the air at lethal velocity. The loudspeaker from the minaret arched high above the road as debris flew underneath it, then reached an apex and took its parabolic dive toward the street below, crushing a street vendor and his cart. The muezzin making the call to prayer, and all the worshippers within the mosque, were never identified in what remained.

Chaos landed along with the loudspeaker, as the able-bodied fled from the scene in panic, abandoning hundreds of injured and dying to their screams for aid. Time froze as a false evening fell from the smoke and dust, obscuring the sun. Wounded shadows limped through the choking fog of grit, like undead creatures risen from the grave, the horror real and more terrible than any film director’s vision.

Muffled sirens were heard as emergency vehicles and military personnel arrived on the scene and worked to impose order over the chaotic remains. Just as they had begun to attend to the wounded and put out the fires, staring with wide eyes toward what was minutes ago the Great Mosque, a strong breeze from the sea sliced the cloud of dust blocking the view, providing a tunnel of vision southward to reveal the majesty and brutal artistry of the Martyrs Monument.

Under the shadow of the monument, a group of French tourists was gathered for a final photograph before returning home from their vacation. What had been a tightly pressed form with twenty smiles facing the camera became a dissolving clump looking toward the northern part of town as a thunderous sound buffeted their ears and a pillar of smoke began to rise several miles away. The photographer turned to face the chaos, the sounds of her shutter clicking in the growing silence. All conversation ceased for several moments, then rose to a higher level as concerned voices sought the meaning of the events. Many were running toward the northern edges of the park that rose up on a small hill above the port, seeking a closer and clearer view of the source of the smoke and noise. Smartphones were pulled out, photos and video taken, and many left the monument site to head home or elsewhere.

The French tourists remained close to the monument. They were expecting their tour guide to return and meet them there, under the monument, and lead them to a bus for the airport. None of them would make the return trip.

Three massive explosions erupted around them, the blast ejecting building debris radially from the structure, flaying the tourists to death in milliseconds. Each explosion was centered on one of the three legs of the Martyr’s Monument, placed strategically like a giant’s scalpel to sever the supports of the tower from its body. Those watching at a distance stared transfixed as time crawled and the great tower appeared to shudder above the disk of debris beneath it, then plunge toward the ground like a spear. The concrete column crumbled as it smashed into the surface underneath, dissolving like dust and throwing a circular plume outward and upward. Within seconds, the great symbol of Algerian pride for independence from foreign rule was gone.

&“Anything from Husaam&?” Cohen asked as she poked her head into Savas’s office.

“No,” he replied, sipping his morning coffee. “CIA’s slow to update us, and they never released his precise schedule. He should have made contact with the Russian dealer by now. I guess we’ll hear soon how that went.”

Cohen stepped into his office, partially closing the door. “John, I think morale is beginning to slip. It’s two weeks into August, and we aren’t any closer to finding out who’s behind this. Frankly, we aren’t sure where to look anymore. Manuel’s down to ten percent confidence in his database associations—that’s all that’s left, and let me tell you, when you’re at ten percent, it’s pretty random. JP and Matt are bickering for the most part, and Angel’s completely withdrawn.”

“Well, we need to keep focused on what this is about. They need to see beyond their own frustrations.”

Cohen frowned. “John, it’s not that they don’t. It’s that they want this so badly. Larry picked us all because we’ve got a commitment, an emotional one, to fighting terrorism. In the last two months, it’s two horrific attacks, one right under our noses, in our own city! The strain’s coming because they want to bag these guys. But right now, that goal is out of reach.”

Savas winced. He understood. He felt the same frustration. Besides a few small leads, they had nothing to go on. Nothing at all. What few leads they did have were being pursued thousands of miles away by the CIA, leaving the FBI to await information, search databases, conduct late-night brainstorming sessions over stale coffee. Twiddling our thumbs! It was time for a mind clearing for all of them, a pep talk of some kind. Savas realized he needed a reboot as much as anyone.

A loud knock came at the door, and it swung open. Startled, Savas looked up. It was Rideout. His face was ashen and yet his eyes burned with fury. He spoke, slightly out of breath, clearly having raced over to the office.

“John, Rebecca—you’d better come. There’s been another one.”

30

Desert Guns

Cubicle dividers and desks continued to explode around him. Jordan crawled toward the side of the building and away from the doorway. He placed his back against the wall and brought his Uzi forward, gazing through the room. Women were still running to the far end of the building. Dust and sparks filled the air from the massive assault. He saw two of his men on the ground, riddled with bullet holes, likely dead. Others crouched, weapons drawn, looking over to him for guidance. His mind raced. To follow the women out the front seemed the easy solution and also provided the advantage of cover. He and his remaining team could race into that crowd and seek to escape during the chaos, perhaps commandeering one of their vehicles and heading straight for the safe house.

He rejected that strategy. He knew if he were leading the assault from outside, it would be the obvious response, and Jordan could expect welcoming gunfire should he take that route. Less obvious would be to face head-on the devastating firepower that had just wreaked havoc in the building. He motioned to the back door. His men did not hesitate, he was proud to see. They moved forward with bursts of speed and crouched on either side of the doorway. The firing had stopped. The targets were out of sight, and no doubt an ambush was being readied at the front of the building. Jordan prepared to give the signal to rush through the door.

A man toting a submachine gun darted through the doorway, weapon aimed over their heads, scanning the room. An operative to his left rolled to his back into the line of sight of the door, less than a foot in front of the man, and opened fire from the floor. Three shots struck the man in the chest; he staggered backward in retreat and fell onto the ground outside the building. Jordan and his team then leapt through the doorway, weapons firing.

Shots rained around them. Several gunmen had taken cover behind vehicles parked directly in front of the entrance. Another trap! And his men paid a high price. Skill was their only advantage. Jordan sprayed fire with his Uzi toward three gunmen behind one of the cars. Each fell back, one wounded and disoriented, spinning around and firing rounds into the air.

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a hostile movement and dove to the ground for cover, a sharp, searing pain ripping into his right leg. Crimson darkened his robes. Someone cackled behind him.

“You stupid man,” screamed Kharitonov, standing near the entrance with a pistol in his hand. “You think I can’t send message?” Jordan tried to spin around to aim the Uzi, but his right leg was badly wounded, and he knew he wouldn’t make it in time. The Russian raised his weapon and fired. Jordan’s shoulder exploded in pain as he twisted sideways. Still conscious, he turned in time to see Kharitonov arch his back with red bursting from his abdomen. The Russian dropped to his knees, cradling his stomach and rolling over. The CIA operative who had shot him was pinned by machine gunfire against the wall of the building, shaking violently as multiple bullets wracked his body. All Jordan’s men were down.

He grabbed the Uzi with his left arm and fired on the last of the men behind the cars. His aim was poor, but the Uzi compensated with spray for what he lacked in precision. The man fell backward, moaning, crawled several feet, then did not move.

Jordan guessed he had less than a minute. The noise must have alerted the team placed at the front of the building, and they would be racing back at this moment. The bullet-strewn car of the hitmen was twenty feet away. He raised himself to his feet using all his strength and willpower, the pain in his leg flaring like a nova, eclipsing that of his shoulder as he staggered toward the vehicle. It seemed to sway and tilt as he moved. Stay awake! He turned toward the other two cars and opened fire on them, rupturing the tires.

Reaching the open door, he dropped his weapon, stepped over a dead body, and clasped the frame with his hands, pulling himself around and into the driver’s seat. He grimaced, realizing that his right leg was useless. He grasped it with his left hand and screamed in pain as he awkwardly shoved his right foot over into the floorboard of the passenger side.

He was lucky it was an automatic. He turned the ignition and the car started. He closed the door and shifted into reverse, then gunned the car backward with his left foot, smashing closed the door of another car and, after about thirty feet, turning the wheel sharply to the left. The car spun around, and he shifted into gear and hammered the accelerator. Shots shattered the rear window, but he wasn’t hit, and within seconds, he was shielded by parked cars and other buildings on the left side.

With his left hand steering, he headed toward the highway. Blood covered his clothing, the steering wheel, the seats, and the gear shift. Too much. Where is the safe house? His mind blanked, his memory blurry and threatening to fail him.

The backpack. He stiffened, remembering nothing of taking it or what had become of it. He glanced around the front seat of the car and gasped in relief. Somehow he had looped it over his left shoulder, and it was wedged in the car against the door. He had the records. The records that would show them the trail to those who had purchased the S-47, their only lead, their only hope to discover the identity of this new terrorist group. He tried to focus. The data in the backpack. It was everything.

He had only to reach the safe house before he was run down or bled to death on the highways of Dubai.

31

Closer to God

In New York, a crowd circled a large flat-screen monitor hanging from a wall in Larry Kanter’s division. The news station played over and over the footage of the collapse of the Martyrs Monument, narrated by a panel of talking heads. All watched in silence, memories of the Twin Towers close in their thoughts. The video was grainy and shook in a jarring fashion, shot from a tourist’s smartphone, and yet all the more powerful for it. The footage cut from the tower collapse to the afternoon rescue efforts at the Great Mosque and around the monument. People who appeared to have been bathed in ash shuffled past the camera. Some fell to their knees with arms outstretched, crying up to the heavens. Bodies could be seen lining the roadway.

“Dear God,” said Kanter to the hushed room.

“It’s them,” said Cohen flatly, not taking her eyes off the scene. Tears welled in her eyes. “I don’t think there can be any doubt anymore.”

“Yes,” said Savas. “Same MO.”

“Yeah, I’d say,” said Miller. “Blow the shit out of some important Muslim building and leave bodies all over the place.”

“Someone’s got to stop this, Larry,” said Rideout. “These are major, major hits, one after the other in a span of months. There’s never been anything like this before. Al-Qaeda at their best needed years between each major terrorist attack. These guys are like the fucking Four Horseman or something.”

Kanter shook his head. “It’s unprecedented.” The screen showed the wounded being loaded on stretchers, or, more commonly, carried by hand. The footage turned to showing angry crowds filling the streets in Algiers, chanting “Death to the infidels.”

“If this keeps up, it will turn into World War III,” said Savas.

Kanter turned to face his division members. “All right, everyone. If we all needed any reminders about what we’re up against, or why we get up every morning, well,” he said, pointing back to the screen, “it’s right up there for you to see in full color. Now, I want to call . . .”

A woman shouted his name. Everyone turned to see Mira Vujanac dashing across the room, dodging personnel and desks in her black pumps. Breathless, she stopped near Kanter and Savas.

“Larry, I’m sorry,” she gasped. Remembering herself, she straightened her blouse and hair. “It’s Agent Jordan. CIA just phoned me. Their base in Dubai left a message. He’s critically injured, shot up pretty badly. They don’t know if he’ll survive. He’s being flown to an army hospital in Germany.” She paused and caught her breath. “They also said he got the records.”

“Mira, come with me to my office. Everyone, back to your groups and back to work. Intel teams, we’ll update you as soon as we can.” He took Mira’s arm and led her toward his office.

King looked over at Savas. “What the hell did he get into?”

Savas could only shake his head.

“I hope he’s all right,” said Cohen. Savas turned to her and saw the real anxiety in her eyes. He realized with some annoyance that he shared her concern.

“He’s being taken to some of the best military doctors around. He’ll be in good hands.”

Angel Lightfoote swept beside them and spoke in a distracted tone, “He’s closer to God now. Much closer.”

She walked off toward her desk.

32

Storms

Late that evening, Savas fought to stop the reeling of his mind. Rain poured against his office windows, the darkness outside impenetrable. As the night dragged by, a weight settled on him, one he could not simply dismiss as related to the cloud fronts rolling in, plunging the city into blackness hours before sunset. The offices had emptied, and a loneliness descended that he had not felt for some time. There were just too many reminders, too many conflicts stirring long-constrained emotions within him.

Jordan’s heroics, his very existence, was like a stone kicked off a ledge, leading to an avalanche below. It triggered so many clashing thoughts in Savas’ mind that it forced him inward, toward his own demons, monsters he had thrown into a pit and covered but that now stirred inside. My own private Tartarus.

He wanted to hate this man. He did hate this man in many ways. He could not wrap his mind around how an American citizen could embrace a religion whose practitioners around the world likened his nation to the Devil, burned American symbols, and supported and carried out murder against its citizens. Yet, here he was, this Muslim CIA agent, having risked his life on a lead. It was like an immovable object of prejudice was meeting the unstoppable force of a real man’s character. In the middle of it was Savas’ dead son and what had happened at the World Trade Center.

The rain worked in earnest like some maniacal typist. Savas pulled out a desk drawer, removing a fraying envelope. He opened its contents. Addressed to Thanos Savas from the NYPD—his son’s letter of acceptance to the force. Savas wasn’t sure who had been prouder the day that letter arrived. Not one year later, he was sitting next to his ashen-faced wife at the memorial service. He felt his eyes well up with tears.

A soft knock sounded on his door. His lights were off, the lightning like a strobe flashing through his room. He rose awkwardly, rubbed his eyes on his sleeve, and stepped over to the cracked door.

It was Cohen. In the darkness he couldn’t be sure whether she had seen his face, seen the pain etched across his features, but her expression told him that if she had not, she was clairvoyant. “John, are you okay?” she asked.

“Yes, Rebecca. Just tired is all,” he said with difficulty. Crazily, he felt his defenses dissolving, and his emotions, rather than demanding to be further suppressed, were raging all the more to be freed. “Not feeling well. I think I’ll head home.”

She placed her fingers to his mouth. Her soft skin brushed his lips, and a shudder ran through his body, a great wave rising from the sea. With her other hand, she took off her glasses and laid them on a shelf. Her eyes held an endless sea of compassion, and it took all his strength to hold back the tears that fought to pour out. He could smell her breath, the scent of her body, its warmth like fingers stroking his skin. Her hair curled over her shoulders, spilling across her chest as she cupped his cheek in her hand and brought his lips to hers. He felt a life force rush through him—overwhelming, other—a force that promised magic and miracles.

Savas jerked back, stumbling. Cohen looked into his eyes, her own wide and filled with longing. He yanked his coat off the door and brushed past her, rushing down the corridor. “John, please!” she called out behind him, but he didn’t turn or respond as he cut past the elevators to the stairway and sprinted recklessly down the steps. When he reached the ground floor, his chest heaving, out of breath, he opened the door and stepped into the alley behind the FBI building. Rain rushed over him, and he lifted his face to the sky to receive it.

&The icon& of Saint Nicholas glittered, reflecting the candle flames that lit it from below. A thousand shards of light from hand-placed mosaic pieces, each no bigger than the nails on Savas’s fingers, glinted in the smoky darkness. Each stone was a different color and had been collected by monks and shipped across the seas to churches during the Greek Diaspora: deep reds and blues, turquoise, magenta, gold-plated stones, white marble. Shaped and placed, up close resembling a pixilated image on a computer screen, merging from a distance into a unified whole. A window to the soul.

Father Timothy sat across from him, troubled yet purposeful. His eyes were like the mosaic stones reflecting the dancing candlelight, and his face was lit harshly by the flashes of lightning outside.

“John, I’m not going to quote you verses on loving your enemies or forgiving your brother seventy times seven. You’ve read them or heard them so many times that you can’t hear them anymore. But there’s one thing I know—that hatred eats from within. It burns mercilessly. You’ve carried a hatred within you for too long. Inside, you know this; you can feel it. You’re being asked now to make a choice, the most important in your life. Put down the sword! Face the pain. Let love be born.”

Savas lowered his head to stare at the floor between his feet. He couldn’t accept a sermon, but knew the priest was right about something—he did burn, and choices loomed. He wondered whether it wasn’t, after all, as simple as it sounded. Tonight, he’d turned his back on a woman who had opened herself to him, even for a short moment. It was the most beautiful moment he had known for many years, and yet the fire inside of him wouldn’t let him embrace it. The fire demanded something different, something harder, where tears did not flow, where vengeance ruled, where pain was given for pain.

He felt the church walls closing in on him, felt that God Himself was probing with a scalpel from the burning eyes of Saint Nicholas above. Savas stood, surprising the priest in mid-sentence, rushing through the church and into the rain.

The downpour only intensified. He walked through the pelting drops and slumped into his car. Ten minutes later, he stood at the entrance of his apartment building, the rain so thick he couldn’t see across the street. Water pooled in his shoes, seeping into every surface of his body. A car door closed, muffled in the storm. He removed his keys, fitting them into the lock, turning at the slap of rushing footsteps. The light above the door spilled directly over him, and he strained to see into the shadows. A dark form approached, and he tensed instinctively, expecting the worse.

She was soaked, her brown hair turned black by the pouring water and the darkness of the night. Her clothing was heavy, her white shirt transparent, revealing the pink of her skin, the swell of her breasts taut against the rain-washed fabric. She stood inches from him, a desperation cut into her face.

“Rebecca, please, you didn’t—” and again she placed her hand to his mouth.

“Let me talk, before I lose the courage. You’ve suffered. You’ve tried to find your way back. I’ve watched you. From the first day I came to the Bureau, I watched you try to turn it into something good. And I tried to give you time.” She swallowed, her eyes briefly closing. “But I can’t wait anymore. There’s too much madness. Too much horror. I’ve got to ask, make you choose and not run away.” She stood inches from his face, her eyelashes wet. “I love you, John Savas. Will you love me?”

Savas felt her warmth cut through him like a blade. In that instant, he understood. From deep within, he answered fully, without hesitation. He wrapped his arm around her waist, and with his other hand cupped the back of her head, pulling her to him.

They embraced. The water poured over and between them, and he held her so tightly he could feel her breath escape through her lips. For a short moment, every barrier that he had built around him collapsed, and his shoulders shook.

They kissed. With the thunder reverberating around them, they kissed deeply like two starved things, oblivious to the storm’s rage, feeling a shelter, a space protected from all that assailed them. Entwined, hands exploring, lips uncovering, breathing in gasps, in pain and in ecstasy, with joy and sorrow, swirling wildly in the evening gusts.

33

Voices

Savas awoke to sunlight and a cool breeze blowing through an open window. He lay on his back; Rebecca’s head nestled into his chest, her arm draped over his right shoulder. Her breathing was soft, a rising and falling cadence that stirred him deeply. He raised himself slowly, carefully, afraid to wake her. He wanted to see her face, see that haunting beauty that he now let himself admit he had desired and fought against for years, see it as she slept and in the morning’s fresh light.

“Finally awake?” she said, one eye half open like a cat, a playful smile on her face. She rolled off his chest and snuggled into the pillow behind her. He rolled onto his stomach toward her, gazing up into her brandy eyes.

“Yeah, getting old, I’m afraid.”

Savas looked at her face, beautiful and sad, a distant look in her eyes. He thought back over the years and realized that he had been blind to so much. Blinded, he corrected himself. Consumed.

Cohen turned and tried to laugh. “Now, if you were rich, my inner shadchan would be pleased, but I’ll have to quiet her, as things stand.”

“Shadchan?” he asked.

“Jewish matchmaker. Think Yente from Fiddler on the Roof.”

“Ah, okay.”

“But in the real world, it’s just my Dad now. I think he’d be happy that I’m interested in any biped with a Y chromosome. Even you.”

Savas smiled. “Thanks. Breakfast? I might have something you can stand.”

She smiled. “How about coffee?”

Savas grabbed a shirt and went into the kitchen. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Cohen climbing out of bed. He pushed the button, the clashing sound of beans on metal filled the apartment with the fresh smell of ground coffee. Always smells better than it tastes. He caught another glimpse of her in the bed. By that point, she had started combing out her hair. I could just watch her all day.

She left the comb on the dresser and stepped into the kitchen. The pot gurgled and filled with brew. She put her hands on his shoulders. Standing five-foot-five, she was nearly half a head shorter than he was, and as she kissed him, she rose up on her toes.

“Good morning,” she said. “I forgot to tell you.”

“It’s the best morning I’ve had in a long time, Rebecca. I mean that.”

She squeezed his hand, and he embraced her. For several moments he held her close to him. “So,” she said, her voice rough, “how’s that coffee?”

“Ready.” Savas grabbed two cups, scanned them to make sure they’d pass a minimal health inspection, and filled each about three-quarters.

“Black,” she said.

“I know.” He smiled back at her.

“Let me see what you have in this fridge.”

She might as well see that, too. He sipped his coffee and walked over to the window, gazing outside toward the rising sun. The light was warm, the air fresh on his face. Something inside of him stirred, an emotion long forgotten, crushed by years at NYPD, banished by the loss of his son. A feeling he associated with his childhood, nearly excitement, washed through him now as it had not for long decades.

But inside, another voice arose from a darker place, a buried place, and for a moment it seemed that the light outside faded and chilled. He knew this voice. It had spoken to him for many years. There was anger in its cry, a hatred that refused any solace or sense of peace.

Leave me alone. For today, let me be.

He placed the cup on the windowsill and turned to look at Cohen, bent over, head invisible behind the refrigerator door.

“Oh, wow, John. Looks like we need an intervention.”

He smiled, and for that moment, the angry voice was silenced. The older feeling swelled within him—hope. That was the feeling. Simple hope. Can it last? The thundercloud deep inside waited, and he knew it would not go easily. He ignored it. For one day at least, he would remember what it was to hope.

34

Food and Oil

ISLAMIC GROUPS THREATEN U.S. AND EUROPE OVER TERROR ATTACKS

By Thomas Fischetti, Associated Press

Arab nations and their organizations issued multiple statements today condemning the string of Muslim-targeted terrorist attacks and threatened Western nations with economic repercussions if these attacks did not end and the responsible parties were not apprehended.

The Arab League issued a terse statement accusing Western governments of “complicity” and a “willing inaction” in stopping the attacks and finding those responsible. Two hours later, OPEC followed suit, threatening economic hardship to any nation “supporting Western terrorism against Muslims.” One high-ranking official who spoke under conditions of anonymity said, “Muslims are furious. This has brought even sworn enemies together to fight their common foe. This will blow up in the faces of Western nations. This will make the oil crises of the last century seem like a celebration.”

An EU advisor sought to quell the controversy, indicating that investigative organizations were working diligently to address Muslim safety in Europe and apprehend the terrorists. A White House spokesperson stated that it was counter-productive to threaten the United States when it was involved in efforts to solve these crimes. “These attacks have occurred on our own soil, and we wish justice done as much as anyone,” said the press secretary.

The Saudi ambassador responded to these remarks. “Words are not enough. It is time for the Western nations to practice what they tell Muslim nations—to stop terrorists. Unless these murderers and destroyers of Muslim holy sites are caught and executed, the West will be held responsible.”

&Traffic& on the FDR northbound was unusually bad. It was a constant stop-and-go, intermittent motion turning quickly into what looked like a frozen river of vehicles. Tugboats on the East River pushing box-laden barges overtook them on the right. A cabbie darted directly in front of Savas, pushing his way into the middle lane and forcing him either to slow down or to plow into the taxi. He felt the symptoms of road rage surfacing, but with Cohen riding shotgun, he sighed and let the cab have its pointless lane change.

After nearly forty-five minutes, they reached the 62nd Street exit and pulled off under the FDR, past a gas station, and onto York Avenue. They found a parking garage, then walked five blocks to New York Hospital. Passing the small green oasis of Rockefeller University on the right, the pair turned down 68th Street toward the hospital. Ten minutes later, they were in a recovery room staring down at Husaam Jordan.

Savas’s first thought was that he looked well. He had clearly lost some weight from his hyper-muscular frame, and his right leg and shoulder were still bandaged, but he was alert. His eyes were bright, and he was reading a set of newspapers draped over his legs. As they walked in, he looked up and smiled. His basso profundo boomed throughout the small room.

“John. Rebecca,” he said, sitting up straighter. “Here to rescue me?”

Cohen smiled. Savas just shook his head. “Agent Jordan, from what I’ve heard, you do a good enough job of that sort of thing yourself.”

Good enough is a relative term.” His smile faded. “It wasn’t good enough for the men I took with me. Good men, who have served this nation well.” Jordan gestured to his arm and shoulder with his left hand. “More personally, it wasn’t enough from the point of view of my extremities. They’ve been reminding me frequently.”

“I’ve heard you’ll be released soon,” Cohen said.

“Yes, next week if I have anything to do with it. I’ve got a very aggressive rehabilitation program planned, and I can’t wait to start.”

A nurse dashed into the room and took the lunch tray he had cast to the side. “Well, you won’t be doing anything aggressive as long as you’re on my floor,” she scolded, giving him a disapproving glare. She looked over at the two visitors. “He’s been nothing but trouble since he got here.”

Savas suppressed a laugh. “Yes, well, ma’am, he’s been a load of trouble for a bunch of folks. But I think his heart is in the right place.”

Jordan stared at Savas, who returned his gaze. It was the closest he’d ever get to admitting that he had changed his mind about the man. The nurse grunted and took the tray out of the room.

Jordan changed the subject. “I hope you have brought me some news finally. After two surgeries, three hospitals, and a week under sedation, I’m trying to figure out where the world is again.” He held up a newspaper that showed schematics of the Martyrs’ Monument and an analysis of how it had collapsed. “I don’t suppose our friends from Valhalla have blown anything else up?”

Savas shook his head. “Thank goodness, no, but we’re all waiting for this month’s attack.”

“Yes, so am I,” said Jordan.

“So is the rest of the world,” said Cohen. “The president’ has called a special meeting with the Arab League at Camp David. The Muslim world is near riot, conspiracy theories running wild.”

“Has anyone warmed to your crazy theory?” Jordan asked.

Savas shook his head. “No. But the CIA death squad idea is slowly dying. They’ve rounded up most of those who participated. You can count on one hand those remaining.”

“Certainly they can begin to see the pattern? The similarities in the assassinations and the bombings?”

Cohen laughed. “Our bureaucracy might not, but the Muslim world sees the connection. They’re blaming us. The major oil countries are calling for an embargo unless this terrorist group is found and caught. OPEC’s likely on board. The world financial markets are in chaos.”

Jordan folded the papers. “I guess I’ll be trading in my Hummer for an electric.”

Cohen frowned. “It’s not just about gas. We’re completely dependent on oil. You know that four out of every five calories we eat comes from petroleum?”

Uh-oh, thought Savas, she’s in Berkeley mode.

Cohen did not disappoint and launched into a lecture about the fragility of the modern fossil fuel economy. It amused him to see her take on the airs of a college protest leader. But her passion was always real, and he had learned to never challenge her facts. He also had to admit, she often had a lot to teach him.

Savas was curious. “What’s food got to do with oil?”

Cohen sighed. “Food is oil, John. At least in this day and age. We have to plow the land to plant, water our crops, fertilize the ground, harvest the crops, process the food, package and distribute it all over the country. Oil’s the energy source for all of this. It’s the basis for the entire modern world. The U.S. and Europe won’t let that be threatened. China and Russia are turning paranoid fast about this.”

Savas nodded. “That’s for sure. I’ve already heard talk about using military force to secure our supplies. We’re still the biggest kid on the block, but things have changed.”

Cohen looked at Jordan. “This is quickly becoming one of the most dangerous situations in international relations in a long time.”

Jordan whistled. “So what are you two doing here visiting me? Don’t you have some important work or meetings to be getting to downtown?”

Savas nodded. “Well, we did, but Rebecca insisted we come.”

“I know your wife and sons were here,” she said, “but I thought that it was shameful that no one from the FBI had visited a hero after his return home.

Jordan bowed his head. “A noble woman, John. Don’t you forget that,” he said, and Savas wondered if it meant more than it seemed.

“We have a big meeting with the CIA tomorrow,” Savas spoke over his own thoughts. “They’ll present their analysis of the records you got in Dubai. I’m hoping something useful will come of that.”

Jordan gestured again to his wounded limbs. “You aren’t the only one.”

&Savas was& silent on the drive back from the hospital. As they crossed the Queensboro Bridge, the skyline of Manhattan offset the setting sun, intermittent flashes of light blinding him in the rearview mirror as the star danced between buildings. They were headed to a Greek seafood place he knew in Astoria, but he couldn’t relax for an evening out. Too many things were burning in his mind as he drove.

Who was Husaam Jordan, who practiced, even celebrated a religion that had spawned such hatred and monstrosities? How could they stop this diabolic force that was shattering lives and peace across the world? How far would these terrorists go in the end?

Not realizing what he was doing, he found himself taking the well-known streets in Queens, but not in the direction of the restaurant. Instead, his car weaved its way to park beside the dome of the Church of the Holy Trinity. He stopped the vehicle and shut off the engine.

“We’re walking from here?” Cohen asked.

“I thought we’d make a quick pit stop to see someone first, if it’s all right.”

She looked over at him quizzically. “Okay, who’s that?”

Savas sighed. “Thought I’d see that priest I told you about. Father Timothy. You know, the one I almost shot during church service,” he said.

Cohen stared at him. “I’d like to meet him. Anyone who can welcome you back after that is worth meeting.”

He laughed. “I guess. But he’s the only one from the congregation. I tend to make secretive visits to this place.”

She nodded. “Wise.”

They stepped out of the car, and Cohen followed him into the empty church. Candlelight barely dispelled the shadows. She held his hand, gazing at the large mosaics of saints and biblical stories spread across the walls. As they passed the icon of Saint Nicholas, Savas whispered, “Santa Claus.”

“What?”

“I’ll tell you another time.”

He walked up to the left side of the iconostasis and knocked on the door. After several tries without an answer, he turned to Cohen.

“He must not be here.”

“Home?” she asked.

“Maybe. But he might be around back, in the garden. Want to go check?” She took his arm and smiled up at him. “Sure.”

He led her out of the church and around the building. At the back, a fence ran around the church, nearly eight feet high and made of metal. Apartment buildings stood on the other side. Planted at the base of the fence all the way around the church were rows of different kinds of plants—flowering bushes, grasses, and vegetables. Directly behind the building lay a large stone slab with a stone cross at its tip. In front of the slab, on his knees with head bowed, was Father Timothy.

Savas stopped as soon as he saw him, hoping to turn around and not disturb the priest. But the old man noticed them and stood, slowly and painfully, brushing the dirt off his cassock. He looked up and smiled, walking toward them.

“Father Timothy, I didn’t mean to bother you . . . I can come back . . .” Savas began.

“Nonsense, John, good to see you,” the priest said, putting a hand on Savas’s shoulder. He looked at Cohen.

“Father Timothy, this is Rebecca Cohen. She’s part of my team at the FBI.”

“Pleased to meet you, Father,” she said, smiling.

“You two working so late?” he asked, a twinkle in his eye.

“Ah, well, actually, we are done for the day, and Rebecca’s heard me talk about this seafood place, Elijah’s Corner, and . . .” He stumbled over the words.

“Well, I insisted that we go tonight to see if it’s as good as he bragged about,” she finished for him confidently. Savas looked gratefully toward her.

“Yes, yes. The best Greek food is in Astoria,” said the priest.

“So, I don’t want to bother you . . .” Savas began again.

“No, no. Just praying at the grave of an old friend,” Father Timothy said. “Did you know Brother Elefterios?” Savas shook his head. “He was the priest of the church before I came here. He died nearly ten years ago. He was a monk, lived in that old shack there,” he said, pointing over his shoulder.

Savas had always wondered about that small shack as a child. It hardly seemed able to keep the garden tools dry, let alone house a human being.

Father Timothy sighed. “Even after he got too old to run the church and I was brought in, he asked to continue to care for the garden. I said yes, of course. Over the years, this small old man would come out here every day, into his late eighties, tending this garden. I got to know him well. I miss him. When there were problems in the world, or inside the church, I would come and speak to him. He had this stunning peacefulness about him, born out of prayer or temperament, I’ll never know.”

The old priest smiled sadly. “So, I still come here to speak with him. These attacks . . .” He shook his head. “The world’s ready for another terrible spiral of violence. I talk to my old friend. I just wish I could hear him now.”

Savas and Cohen traded glances, unsure what to say. “That was why I came, Father. All this is weighing on me too. I wanted to ask you to pray for us, for what we are doing.”

“John, if you’re trying to bring an end to this madness, you have my prayers, certainly. But more importantly, I can also hear the host of saints praying for all the souls of the world as well.”

35

Gasoline

On the highest floor of a tower of glass and steel, a man gazed through a large window. His partial reflection displayed a tall and lean form with smooth gray hair and sharp-rimmed glasses, peering over the sprawling city below.

Behind him a grand office contrasted with the open expanse through the glass pane. The size of a tennis court, decorated and trimmed with the best that money could buy, it anchored him above the heart of the city.

He pulled on the cuff of an expensive suit, glancing at a timepiece of Swiss manufacture. With mild annoyance, he returned his arms behind his back, clasping them tightly, military-style. The lights were off in his office; he required time for contemplation. Staring into the sky, he counted more than twenty planes in the air at once, small dots like yellow stars moving across the night sky over the three local airspaces. The city resembled a pharaoh’s tomb decorated with thousands of glowing jewels, the bridges like beaded necklaces across the waters.

His computer blinked and issued an alert tone. He turned around and stared at it. The screen displayed a security code algorithm, establishing an untraceable connection. Events were moving forward. He took several steps toward his desk and sat in his chair. He pressed ENTER and waited. The image of a chiseled face filled the screen, blond hair and crew cut etched like stone into the LCD.

“Connection is secure, sir,” said the blond man.

“You’re late, Rout,” snapped the older man.

“I was delayed.”

“You are ready to proceed, I assume?”

“Yes, sir. Phase One was maximally successful. All targets were destroyed without compromise of personnel or mission. World media and governments have panicked, with the intended effects. Training for the next several missions is nearly complete, and all resources and elements are in place. We await your word.”

“Investigations?”

“Too many to keep track of—CIA, FBI, MI6, SIS, European groups, China and Russia. Some others. Everyone is scared shitless, and it’s not clear if it’s the Arabs, or the Western governments that need them, who are more worried. This is threatening to blow up into a real international situation.”

“Then let’s pour gasoline on this small fire we’ve kindled. Proceed to Phase Two.”

“Yes, sir.”

“A final item: the broken arrow in our quiver. We need to make sure there are no connections to us, no way to surmise how we plan to end this. He has gone his own way for too long.”

Rout stared coldly into the screen, no movement betraying his inner thoughts. “He’ll be missed, sir. He was a real soldier.”

The gray-haired man nodded imperceptibly. “It’s a link that must be severed. We can’t afford to leave any bridges intact.”

“Understood, sir. I’ll see to it myself.”

“As you see fit. We have to make hard choices, Patrick. Good-bye.”

The man broke the secure connection, and the screen went dark. He pressed his fingertips together and spun his chair around to face the skyline once more. A thunderhead plowed in slowly from the west. The orange light pollution from the city seeped upward, giving the clouds the hideous pallor of poisoned flames descending.

It was appropriate, he thought. Ragnarök is coming.

36

Prometheus

The dawn broke with the night’s storm trailing out to sea. The sun rose with a multifaceted spray of red and orange rays across the sky and water. Philip Jeffrey rolled up the mooring rope and pulled on the halyard, raising the mainsail. The white sheet climbed slowly, and he trimmed the sail to catch the wind, driving the boat forward as the airfoil and dagger boards produced the force of motion.

Jeffrey smiled as the spray of water caught him unprepared. Thank God I bought this boat. The irony was that he thought he’d never have time to use it. That was before Liam had called him one fateful night in 2003. He shook his head. Liam’s nickname had come from his Irish mother, even though he resembled in appearance and character his father, a Swede; an immigrant family whose son had done more than well.

They had gone way back, to some of the early days of Liam’s rise in business, when he still controlled half of the defense contracts for the air force in one way or another. It was more than just a profitable business relationship—the money to Liam, the promotions to Jeffrey—but a friendship had developed, based on a mutual connection that was rare for men of their ambition. How many nights along the Sound had he entertained Liam and Judy on his older vessel? And the long cruises to the Virgin Islands—those had been special times.

Then a Tuesday in September 2001 had changed everything. Nineteen terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Towers and brought those buildings down. Everyone changed after that day, but some more than others. Liam became estranged. He stopped calling and had hardly spoken to him at the memorial service. Rumors circled that he was retiring or had suffered a nervous breakdown. Jeffrey could only guess. After nearly a year and a half of silence, he began to wonder if the pain of that loss had forever separated him from his friend.

But a phone call in late February changed all that. Liam asked to visit Jeffrey at his beach house on Long Island. Like old times. But the Liam who appeared the next weekend was a creature wholly different from the man he had known before. This was a man lit with a fire from within that made a faint light of his previous ambition to succeed. That evening, Liam spoke passionately about the world, the evils of nations, and the need to fight, of not using the outdated strategies of the past. He scoffed at conventional war and diplomacy, convinced that radical efforts were what the moment demanded.

And Philip Jeffrey had been converted.

Truth be told, he was never a good fit at the Pentagon. His hard-line beliefs about the changing nature of conflict, so in harmony with Liam’s own, did not buy him popularity within the changing power structure in Washington. The neocons had such a naïve faith in technology! Jeffrey knew that it was men’s hearts, as much as their weapons that dictated the course of battle. What he and Liam saw brewing in the world was a conflict of men more than machines.

“Patrick believes he can lead the final mission, Philip. I think he may be right.”

Jeffrey winced hearing that voice again. The man haunted him, the force of his personality like some apparition scarring his memory. But he knew better than to fight it. It would have its due. For all that Jeffrey knew, all that he had done, his mind needed to wrestle with the past. His soul could find little peace.

“This will take some doing.”

“Yes, it will, Philip,” Liam said, rising and lifting a small object from his desk. He passed it between his hands, the metal glinting in the soft light. “Are you ready to put this in motion?”

“This won’t be so easy, my friend. And in the end, my career, a long and honorable one, might I add, will be destroyed.”

Jeffrey closed his eyes, feeling the wind on his face, salt spray crusting his skin. He lost himself in time.

“Do you doubt our plans?”

Jeffrey laughed. “No, of course not. The top brass have all checked their minds at the door of the Pentagon. I don’t belong anymore. Any day now they’ll give that fool Texan his war.”

Liam straightened and hurled the metal object against the wall. It struck the paneling and entered, splintering the wood and lodging deep like an arrow.

“We have a cowboy for a president!” he spat. “A puppet advised by slow-minded and greedy fools. They can’t even focus on the abomination that orchestrated these acts of murder! They chase and they chase after dreams inspired by their politics. And miss the larger target! The heart of evil of which this diabetic coward is only one foul seed.” He walked over to the wall, grabbed the object, and pried it free with a single, swift tug. “No, my friend, we’ll not aim so low as that.”

Liam’s eyes burned into Jeffrey’s mind. His words reverberated. “It’s said one should beware the vengeance of a patient man. Philip, we will be very patient. Our organization will be hidden, slowly established in every major target nation on earth—no matter how difficult to penetrate. Only when we’re ready, when we’ve trained an elite force, acquired the weapons and tactics we require, and developed our plan thoroughly, will we strike. By then, it will be impossible to stop us. Then blood will be had for blood, and more. Then fire will rain from the skies.”

Jeffrey stared grimly forward. “Yes, and like Prometheus, I’ll bring you that fire. Hell, my liver’s shot anyway. I’m ready, Liam. You will need patience. This will take time. But it will be done. You know my beliefs.”

Liam nodded and returned to his desk, placing the metal object back on its stand. The light glittered off the glass bottom, serving to highlight the metallic arms on which the object rested. The arms came together at the top, forming a cup-like loop, from which the thinner end of the object hung. The metal of the tip thickened from the stem to a much wider girth near the end of the shape, flattening, forming a sharp point in an otherwise flat surface. Carved into the face of the metal was the head of a raven. Jeffrey looked at the object and felt vaguely troubled. From this angle, it did indeed resemble a hammer.

***

&A seagull’s& cry started him, and he broke out of his reverie.

“I’ll never be free of you, Liam,” he spoke to the depths of the sea.

Liam’s proposal was audacious, insane, and brilliant. Jeffrey was swept up by it and terrified at the same time. But when his friend left, he knew that he would help fulfill that plan. He had engineered his transfer to Ward County, North Dakota—North Dakota! Minot Air Force Base was the perfect seat of operations for what he needed to do. Over four years he worked to engineer one of the greatest betrayals in the history of the United States. A betrayal of the country he had fought for, would die for, because to save it from itself, from its foolish citizens and leaders, drastic action must be taken. And he had pulled it off, an act that had cost him his job and his honor in the military community. Now he was a disgrace, the truth buried from the public. Were Jeffrey in medieval Japan, he would cast himself on his sword.

Instead, he sailed. At sea, the land faded and the world of men became something that seemed almost small. When the waves rolled on and on to the edge of sight, it was possible to forget the shame, the guilt, for what was done, and what was to come. Great deeds came with great costs. On the waters of the Atlantic, Philip Jeffrey was sailing to find his soul.

The wind was a strong ten knots north by northwest. He tacked his course northward, seeking the middle of the Long Island Sound. The July sun was already beginning to warm the boat and his skin considerably. Damn the melanoma, he thought and steered his course.

He turned toward a noise disrupting the peace at sea—a boat at some distance, racing toward him. Strange. Powerboats didn’t usually come this far, and rarely had he seen one moving at such high speed. As the boat approached, he could see it wasn’t the coast guard but what looked like a dock-bound party boat, right down to the tinted windows. Whoever was piloting the thing was reckless as hell. While he couldn’t imagine that his good-sized catamaran wasn’t visible to the other boater, he wasn’t taking any chances.

He went into the spacious cabin and sat at the two-way radio, powering up to contact the other skipper. The radio was malfunctioning, issuing only static. Odd. He’d checked it only last night. After several minutes of fiddling with the knobs, he gave up. Electronics weren’t his strong suit.

The sound of the other engine rattled the windows. He exited the cabin and watched the boat approach portside of his own vessel, matching course and speed, much too close for comfort. A figure stood on the starboard deck, grasping something in his hands. What in the world is he up to?

Automatic fire erupted from the motorboat. Jeffrey arched, his face in shock, his chest and neck exploding in bursts of clothing and crimson. He fell backward, close to the cockpit, hitting the wheel and causing the boat to lurch. The powerboat pulled aside as the catamaran veered sharply into the wind and the sails began to luff. Jeffrey lay in a growing pool of his own blood, grasping at the railings. A searing pain across his midsection, chest, and neck clouded his vision, and he slipped and struck hard against the deck.

Time streamed at the surreal pace of a dream, sensations confused, as if he were cast into the sea itself, drowning and sinking, unable to stop falling. He opened his eyes, still clutching the railing, the open sea beneath him. The boat was still. Fighting a terrible nausea, he turned over on his back. Cyan light burned his eyes, the sun sweltering. A shape dimmed the light, broad shoulders blocking the sun. The figure raised his arm, pointing a dark object at Jeffrey’s head. A gunshot rang out over the open sea.

&The gray&-haired man tapped his keyboard, and the screen in front of him went dark. He swiveled around in his chair and faced the window and the city once more. There were choices to be made, and only some were able to make them. With those choices came sacrifices. In the end, that was how wars were won.

“Good-bye, my friend,” he whispered to the darkness.

37

Means and Motive

The rising sun cast a harsh and unforgiving light. The three agents were exhausted. Coffee mugs and scattered boxes of Chinese food and donuts littered the desktop. Hernandez brushed his long hair out of his face to better see the screen. Savas thought his computer whiz looked like a disheveled tumbleweed after a windstorm. Cohen rested her head on her hands, her mouth pursed.

The eyes he saw reflected in the screen told a different story. Dark circles and bags hung under them, yet each pair burned with the intensity of a hunter on the chase. Their bodies were slung at angles showing fatigue, but they willed their minds into focus after an elusive target that was for the first time coming into view.

“I’ll be damned,” said Savas.

Hernandez whistled. “Yeah, man, crazy shit. I thought it was too much that those records connected the dealers to GI, but this . . .” He chuckled. “Husaam hit the jackpot.”

Cohen nodded. “I’d say we now have motive with the means and opportunity.”

Savas agreed. “One hell of a motive. I didn’t think it would be like this. You two did some great work digging this out.”

“Now what?” asked Cohen.

Savas straightened up and sighed. “It’s time to bring this to Larry.”

“He’s got a big powwow with the CIA this morning, dude,” said Manuel.

“I know. All the better.” Savas stood, still staring at the photograph of a woman on the computer screen. “This changes everything.”

&“John&, what’s going on? I’m in the middle of a meeting!”

Kanter stood from his desk with a frown. At Kanter’s right was Mira Vujanac, startled and concerned. Richard Michelson, the lanky and pale head of the CIA’s Crime and Narcotics Center, sat across from her. Beside Michelson sat a thick black man in a white robe and kufi, Husaam Jordan. Jordan was fatigued, sporting a sling with a cane beside him.

“Larry, this can’t wait, and it’s for everyone present to hear,” said Savas, casting his gaze across those gathered. He ushered in Cohen and a nervous Hernandez.

Kanter sighed. “This better be important, John.”

Savas stared back. “It is. Manuel, pull up the data on Larry’s screen.”

The wall beside Kanter was essentially one large LCD monitor. Savas knew his boss was an information junkie, constantly monitoring the work of Intel 1, especially during a crisis. He hoped to fully engage him now. Hernandez activated the touch screen, and Kanter enabled access. Soon a list of cargo manifests and other shipping records were displayed, along with photographs: a man with silver hair and a stunning woman in her late forties.

“Let me just clarify this for you,” began Savas, as the others in the room strained to decipher the details on the screen. “As you know, both of our agencies have been poring over the records obtained from the Dubai arms dealers.”

Jordan rumbled, “CIA hasn’t made very much progress.” Savas saw Michelson’s face tighten. “I’m glad Mira’s efforts have helped distribute those files. I was beginning to think I’d taken metal in vain.”

“No, not in vain at all. It’s buried, but it’s there. A clear connection. The S-47 was sold in bulk three times over the last five years. In each case, a maze of shell businesses and offshore bank accounts. All essentially untraceable, bearing the mark of a highly organized operation, but they transferred money to our recently deceased arms dealers.”

Irritably, Michelson interrupted. “Yes, this is nothing new. CIA has identified these money-laundering fronts as well. They’ve buried their tracks in that labyrinth.”

Savas smiled. “Not well enough, Mr. Michelson. Guess they didn’t count on anyone turning Rebecca loose on the data.”

Cohen smiled a little shyly as Savas continued. “It took some doing, but together with Manuel, they found their way through the false accounts and companies. The sales are linked to something very real. Bottom line: these explosives were moved to cargo ships flying various flags, but each and every one of them was sailing under the management of Operon Shipping.”

Kanter frowned. “What’s Operon?”

Savas walked to the screen beside Manuel. “That’s where this case takes a big turn, Larry. Operon Shipping is a company wholly owned and managed as a subsidiary of GI, the single most powerful defense contracting corporation in the world.” For emphasis he tapped his index finger next to the photo of the man on the screen.

“Gunn International?” asked Kanter, his eyebrows arched.

Savas nodded. “I think everyone’s heard of GI. The company handles everything from weapons shipments to aircraft design. A multibillion-dollar enterprise headed by the reclusive William Gunn.” Savas gave it a moment to sink in. Linking GI and William Gunn to the terrorist attacks was like shaking a can of nitroglycerin. The stunned expressions from everyone in the room reflected this.

“GI?” said Kanter again, as much to himself as to Savas. “Wait a second. John, that’s a big jump from Operon to Gunn International.”

Michelson nodded. “Based on circumstantial evidence.”

“There’s more. Manuel, pull up the construction site images.”

The screen filled with satellite images of desert lands. Two photos, dated more than a year apart, were juxtaposed.

“These are images from the Nevada desert, taken of identical sites. Notice the buildup and subsequent erasure of structures?”

Kanter nodded. “Yes, and so? Why are you focusing on these? What led you to these images?”

“The phony shell companies. Once we had the link to Operon Shipping, we searched for any other activity from these entities. Turns out they outsourced several construction projects in the American Southwest, but the records are another wild goose chase. Nothing tied to anything concrete. Oh, to be sure, there’s work that was done. Up pop buildings and landscaping a year or so ago, but now it’s all gone. Erased. Like it never happened.”

“What the hell, then?” asked Kanter, perplexed.

“Military exercises,” said Jordan.

Savas smiled, exchanging a glance with Cohen. The man was quick!

Michelson stared at his employee. “Military exercises?”

Jordan shifted his weight to reposition his healing leg. “What do you do before you rig international monuments with S-47? To pull those missions off—complicated, secret missions of high precision—you have to be prepared. You have to run simulations. These people are military-level precise in what they do, and I’ll bet you that they train like Special Forces as well. For all we know, most of them are ex-Special Forces troops.”

“I’ll be damned,” Kanter whispered absentmindedly, staring at the images.

“What are you saying?” Michelson asked with poorly concealed irritation.

Savas turned to the CIA official. “That these ‘construction jobs’ are terrorist training sites. Like those in Afghanistan used by al-Qaeda, but right here at home, hidden in our own backyard, run by Americans, and at a far higher skill level.”

“That’s crazy,” began Michelson.

Jordan decided to up the ante. “And funded to the hilt by none other than Gunn International. I think you’d find, if there were any trace left, which there won’t be, that these construction companies were all assembled, equipped, and run by personnel from former GI subsidiaries.”

“You don’t have any evidence for this!” shouted Michelson, to everyone’s surprise. He paused to collect himself. “As you are all aware, Agent Jordan is an excellent field man, but one that I and many of his superiors feel is too often overzealous in his nation’s interests. We should all step back and realize that at present, there are no ties whatsoever with Gunn International or any illegality. There’s no reason to believe there’d be any motive for one.”

Mira cut in. “Exactly. What’s the motive here? Why on earth would one of our biggest military contractors be transporting illegal explosives and training terrorists to attack Muslims?”

Savas stepped back to the board. “It turns out that there might be a motive.” The image of the striking woman grew large on the screen. Savas swallowed. He felt vertigo descend on him again. Images of falling towers and the face of his son threatened to paralyze his thought processes. Focus, damn it!

“On 9/11, an accountant with J. P. Morgan traveled to the former World Trade Center,” he stammered, finding it difficult to get the words out in a professional manner. “She was in a meeting in 1 WTC on the 102nd floor when the plane hit. She made a series of calls to a cell phone number listed to an owner in New York City, and then to the police and fire departments. Due to volume, her calls were not answered at police or fire, and the private number she called did not pick up. At approximately 10:28 a.m., the time of the North Tower collapse, all calls from that number ceased. Her name was Judith Rosenberg. She was the wife of William Gunn.”

There was a long silence.

Kanter shook his head, his expression sympathetic. “John, there are a lot of people in this city, and I’d wager at many international corporations, who lost someone they loved that day. Do they all have motive? Do you? We can’t go all wild conspiracy theory here and tie rogue shipping companies to terrorist training camps for a vengeful CEO.”

Savas felt crestfallen. He’s not buying it.

“Well, I say we can,” boomed Jordan.

“Agent Jordan,” began Michelson, “we have already—”

“I say we can and should,” interrupted Jordan. “Something smells here. Whoever’s bankrolling this thing has the pockets of a bin Laden, and his fanaticism, too. I think GI has something important to do with this, and I think William Gunn needs to be examined more closely than he has been.”

“Nonsense!” shouted Michelson. “We’re professional organizations—both the FBI and the CIA. We don’t muscle powerful companies or individuals—companies and individuals, I should remind you, who have served their nation well and helped to protect us from these threats from abroad for years! Certainly not over some half-baked hunch!”

Mira tugged at her diamond pendant and glanced up. “John, I don’t want to be difficult, but, assuming you’re right about this, where’d we even start? And how? Gunn’s a Howard Hughes—cagey, paranoid, and retaliatory. His ruthlessness is legendary. And GI’s a giant octopus. It’s like saying this case has something to do with China. How do you find a needle in that haystack, the proof you need? This haystack is a powerful force that isn’t going to let itself be searched, especially if there’s a chance for legal action and embarrassment.”

Hernandez, quiet until now, fired back. “We have shipping records linking GI to an international arms dealership! That’s a place to start.”

“Not realistically,” said Kanter. “You have to see the legal angle, Manuel. So what if these gunrunners used an Operon ship? How much did Operon know? Was it a local smuggling problem or something broader? Nothing connects this in a way we can pursue right now, to GI or to anything else. Hell, I’m not convinced GI had anything to do with it. Do you know how many boats they run at any given time? It must be huge. If we move now, we’ll just make fools of ourselves.”

Savas felt the moment slipping away. “We can at least follow up on the shipping leads! We know where these boats docked; we can try to trace the shipments from there.”

Kanter nodded. “We can certainly do that, John. Our good friends at CIA can help us here, as this goes outside the country and our jurisdiction,” he gestured with his eyes toward Michelson and Jordan. “From that we can get names and locations, hopefully trace these things back to the buyers. This will get us closer, maybe provide us with harder evidence, evidence we’ll need to move on GI in a more serious manner. Whatever the circumstantial story you’ve put together,” he said, gesturing to the flat screen, “there’s nothing, no reason to think GI was involved beyond being duped, and it’d be impossible to take that company on without a powerful case to give us powerful warrants.”

Mira finished. “Besides, it’s not like there are many options at our disposal.”

Jordan smiled. “Sure there are. Walk up to the man and lay the cards on the table. Call him out. In that moment, you’ll know from the eyes.”

Michelson sneered and laughed. “A lot of good that’ll do. Your antics in Dubai wrecked a decade of CIA operations and left a trail of bodies that we’re still trying to smooth over with the UAE government.”

“He got the records, didn’t he?” Savas found himself speaking, to his own surprise. Jordan eyed Savas, more intrigued than grateful.

Richard Michelson flashed an angry glare at him. “Indeed he did, Agent Savas. So might have ten other plans he ignored in his rash pursuit of the mission. The CIA’s not in the habit of inciting international incidents for small gains. Nor will anyone authorize any such actions on American soil, I’d wager.”

Savas smiled. “But CIA doesn’t have authorization on U.S. soil, if I remember correctly.”

“No, it doesn’t,” said Kanter firmly, his tone imperial. “But I do. And I say this line of discussion has gone too far.”

38

Double Meanings

Savas paced silently in his office. They were moving through September without an incident, wondering when the next attack would hit. There were long hours poring over the shipping records, information on Operon and GI, William Gunn and several other executives, other CIA and FBI databases. Correlating, looking for patterns, finding curious hints but nothing solid.

Kanter had decided to take the conservative approach and continue to pursue the shipping leads. This was the rational move and would lead them eventually to the buyers and the source of the explosive orders. It was the “eventually” that had Savas worried. How much time and how many more attacks could the international community take before something cracked? Wars were often started for the stupidest reasons, when international tensions were high and mistakes in judgment were made. As Cohen had made clear, oil was the lifeblood of the modern world, and if its flow was impaired, nations would respond as they felt necessary to preserve it. If things did not resolve soon, Savas knew, there would be war.

Thinking about Cohen was the one comfort he had. She had left, keeping to their plan of schedule separation at work. Savas was pleased that no one had an inkling of their affair. While it rankled him to have to hide their relationship, the time wasn’t right, and it was the last thing they or the group needed.

There was a knock, and he half expected to see Cohen’s silhouette in the doorway. Instead, it was an exhausted Larry Kanter. “Mind if I come in?” he asked.

“Sure, Larry. Have a seat.”

Kanter dropped into a chair. “This has been a real pain in the ass working with CIA, John,” he began, tilting his head back and staring up at the ceiling. “It’s an expensive deal, in terms of how much information we get and how many years of my life are lost.”

Savas chuckled. “I’m glad it’s you and not me.”

“Pity Mira. She’s the diplomat with that zombie Michelson nine to five. Only through men like him can bureaucracy prevail.” Kanter grunted. “Although it’s a kick to watch him and Jordan have their little disagreements. I tell you, if I were in a tight spot, I know who I’d want next to me.”

Savas wondered what had really brought Kanter to his office. He didn’t pay social visits, and he didn’t need to talk to the crew to unwind.

“But a man like that,” continued Kanter, “a good man, it should be noted, whatever you think, John—he can undo himself. Especially in a job like this. If he breaks too many unspoken or, in his case, even spoken rules, he can find himself moved to the agency equivalent of Siberia, or out of a job.”

Kanter paused and leaned forward to look at Savas. “Take, for instance, that scandal a few years ago with that guy, what was his name? Herr. Dale Herr.”

Savas stiffened. Dale Herr? The man who scandalized the FBI with sex tapes with coworkers? Is this example a coincidence, or is he trying to tell me something?

“Wow, did that thing ever blow up in our faces! Taxpayer money not catching bad guys, that was for sure. Since then, it’s gotten worse than having the Bureau run by nuns as far as how forgiving they are of in-house romances.” Kanter looked him in the eye. “You know what I mean, John?”

This was no coincidence. Kanter was sending him a message, a very strong one. How did he know? Who else knew? If the Bureau knew, Kanter wouldn’t be here now: some random cog would be announcing to him a formal investigation of policy violations. He could take some comfort in that, at least. But for how long? He brushed that aside; Kanter needed a clear response.

“Yes, Larry, I know exactly what you mean,” he said, not taking his eyes off Kanter. “But a man like that, he’s a free man, not a wheel in the machine here, like Michelson. He won’t sacrifice who he is for the agency, for any agency, any government or any man. That can spell trouble sometimes. But, it’s also the reason he’s been so spectacularly successful. Like you said, he’s the kind you want with you when it’s bad.”

Kanter looked at him for several moments, nodded his head, and stood. “Yeah, that’s it, all right. I like the man, in all honesty. Reminds me of you a bit, if you don’t mind me saying. I don’t want him to change, either. The only thing I’d say to him, if I had the chance, is be careful, and don’t give the zombies any more reasons to take you down.”

Kanter walked to the door, opened it, and was halfway out when he stopped and turned back. “Oh, I’ve been meaning to ask—how’s Rebecca?”

“Rebecca?” said Savas. “She left some time ago, I think. She’s a workhorse, been a real asset in everything we do. Why?”

“Oh, it’s just I haven’t seen her for a while. She used to work late a lot more often. I could always count on you and Rebecca being here late into the night trying to crack a case.”

Savas smiled. “Well, she’s been turning in earlier. I think the stress of this case is getting to her some.”

“Well, I think that’s true for all of us, John. Good night.” Kanter stepped out into the hallway and walked down the corridor.

39

Completing the Map

Headlights and the growl of an engine cut through the peaceful sounds of a forest in upstate New York. A dark Hummer bounced along a gravel roadway that hugged the shore of an expansive lake, the water black and silver as it reflected the moonlight. The large vehicle stopped, small rocks falling from the tire treads. At the edge of the roadway was an old wooden bridge, supported in part by metal girders underneath, sagging before the weight of the vehicle.

Inside the truck, behind dark tinted windows, a blond man frowned. His harsh features and short-cropped hair added a stern frame to the scowl. Rout hated playing dice with that bridge. It should be modernized, brought up to specs. But the man he had come to visit refused to do anything about it for sentimental reasons. That was the problem with Gunn, his great weakness and strength. His heart gave him the power of vision and steadfastness to do great things, but it also clouded his mind and made him vulnerable. The scowl became a sneer. That’s why I exist. Patrick Rout suffered from no such vulnerability.

It was a spectacular property. The bridge led out over the water to a small island in the lake. Two houses, a main structure and guest lodge, had been built on the island over one hundred years ago. They sat surrounded by trees and well-manicured shrubbery. Several docks extended into the water for recreational activities, and the western end of the island had a small boathouse. This is where his commander had come with his wife on many occasions. It was her favorite retreat, and it was a special place for him still because of that. Isolated, unusual, pristine, and beautiful. Rout scoffed. That’s what you do when you’ve got more money than many nations. Buy your own damned island!

He shifted, accelerated, and drove across the bridge. Thirty seconds later, he entered the circular driveway, passed a spraying fountain with live fish, and pulled up to a porch that framed the front entrance. A trim man with gray hair and glasses was already waiting for him at the bottom of the steps.

The CEO greeted him. “Thank you for coming. I know this is an inconvenience right now. But things are accelerating. I wanted to speak to you personally to consider these new developments.” Rout nodded and let the man lead. “Why don’t we talk outside?”

Outside? Perhaps these new developments had spooked him more than he let on. Is he really worried about surveillance? Or is this part of his vacation home persona? It was better that his wife had died. The man needed the edge her death had given him to lead this battle.

They walked along the side of the small island, a path made for lazy excursions, the wooded regions stopping some twenty feet from the edge. The stars shone brightly this far from streetlights, the band of the Milky Way discernible. There were few sounds: a soft wind, the water lapping the rocks ringing the island, and the insects of the night.

The CEO continued. “Things were penetrated faster than I had expected. The probing of the Operon businesses—this was FBI?”

“As far as we can tell, but they’re not the only ones.”

“Meaning?”

“We aren’t sure. Someone, not FBI, and not easily marked. Perhaps an international group, but it’s not Interpol.”

“Then who?”

“Maybe the CIA,” he said. “Recent events point that way.”

“Explain.”

“The Russian dealers, the ones in Dubai, there was a major incident. We just learned of it. Many in the leadership are dead. Our contacts—and a lot of money between parties—uncovered evidence that their operation there was hit recently, very violently. If that’s true, records may have been retrieved, connections revealed.”

The CEO stopped near one of the rickety docks and turned to face Rout. “CIA?”

“There’s an active field house nearby. Some think it was involved with the arrest of Viktor Bout. There’s been a lot of chatter from sources about CIA involvement. But nothing solid. Even if they weren’t involved, if the records were stolen, they could simply have been sold.”

“Can they trace Operon back to us?” asked the CEO, staring out over the lake.

Rout frowned. “I don’t believe so. The bank trails are all but impossible to follow: no connections to anything illegal. Operon is a subsidiary. Even they can’t know all the smuggling that occurs inside their system.”

The CEO glowered. “What worries me isn’t the likelihood of exposure. We’ve controlled for that. What worries me are the people searching. We’re insulated from lumbering bureaucracies. But individuals, that’s a different story. Just one firebrand and they can unravel the best defenses. We need to find out who is looking and why. We need their names, their histories, where they live, and what shoe size their children wear. Do you understand what I mean?”

Rout kept his smile in check. “Yes, sir, I do.”

“Good. See to it. We need to contain this and not lose our focus on the next mission.”

“Regarding the mission, sir, the Brits have begun guarding the site.”

“How many?”

“Not sure yet, but it looks like a full Section—a small infantry unit of about eight soldiers.”

“Soldiers?” he asked with interest. “They are taking this seriously.”

“Yes. It complicates the mission significantly to have to neutralize that many trained men. We’re making plans to solve that problem and to do so without alerting their command structure, which, as you realize, is the complicated part of this.”

The CEO’s face hardened. “I don’t care what it takes. I want that target hit, and hit hard.”

“It will be, sir.”

“New York?” he asked.

“No, sir. Nothing. Since when did Homeland Security anticipate anything real? The other sites show no suspicions.”

He nodded curtly. “It would not do to lose even one. A harsh statement will be made. The map will continue to be drawn all the way to the desert sands.”

He paused, looking out over the water, the soft breeze ruffling the gray hair that shone in the light of the rising moon. His more kindly smile returned. “Now, come inside, and have something to eat.”

Rout suppressed a sigh. He’d rather get back to work.

40

Shabbat Candles

For Savas and Cohen, things had become far more difficult in Intel 1. Their everyday interactions had always been somewhat restrained, a tension constantly between them, but it was one they both controlled within their separate and private shells. Intimacy had unleashed emotion that was freely expressed outside the office, but that was caged again each morning. She passed by and he smelled her, heard the fabric of her clothes rustle as her body shifted positions, caught a glimpse of her eyes, or saw her smiling and laughing with others. Each time it was a struggle to remain detached and distant. He longed to put his arms around her, both to relieve his need for her touch and also to claim her as his in front of others. It was as primitive as it was sublime.

Savas didn’t know where this would lead. His life was complicated enough without a constant deception. They agreed to keep their affair secret until she could transfer to another department, and that would not be until this case had reached some kind of conclusion. For each of them, it was too important.

Staggering their departures from work, this night Savas had arrived an hour after Cohen. Her apartment was a mansion compared to his tiny studio in Queens. Breaking him out of his thoughts, she swooped out of the kitchen and into her bedroom. Savas heard the sound of her closet door opening, unmistakable rummaging noises, an object falling, a grunt, and the door closing once more.

She approached dining table, her hair somewhat disheveled, grasping an old bronze candlestick holder. It was unusual, a style Savas had never seen before. There were two holders for candles, spread apart by about a foot and a half, each supported by a curved and decorated arm that arched up like the beginning of a heart-shaped form from the base. The base itself was also highly decorated, with prominent symbols carved into the bronze. They looked like Hebrew letters.

Cohen looked at him expectantly. “So? Do you like it?”

“It’s pretty. Is it something special?”

“It’s a Maurice Ascalon, an original.” She took some candles she had shoved into her pocket and set them in place. She frowned at him. “Ascalon was one of Israel’s most beloved sculptors. This was my mother’s. She gave it to me a few years before she died.” Her voice trailed off, and she stared into the distance for a few moments. “Anyway, they were packed up in the closet, and I haven’t used them since. It’s not that I would have had a reason anyway. I don’t really hold to much tradition—something that always made her sad.”

Savas could see the pain in her face but did not understand. “What do you mean?”

“These are Shabbat candles.”

“Like Sabbath?”

She smiled. “Shabbat is the Sabbath, John. The Jews invented it, so we get dibs on the word,” she said in an amused voice. “It’s nearly sunset, so I got it about right, even if I forgot the flowers. She always had flowers. Friday evening meals, my mother lit the candles. We would have a special meal, and, when we were little anyway, we couldn’t do anything fun. All the electricity was off, no TV! My father, as man of the house, would say the prayers to welcome the day of rest after the candles were lit.”

Savas looked distinctly uncomfortable, and Cohen laughed. “Don’t worry! You have to get religion tonight, John.” She lit the candles and whispered something he couldn’t catch. She stood tall and recited.

Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.” She paused and closed her eyes.

“It means: Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to light the Shabbat candles.”

She turned to the kitchen, returning with a tray holding the food she had been preparing. “And now, we eat.”

Cohen placed the tray on the table and looked at him. He grasped her hand. There were tears rolling down her cheeks.

41

Morden

The September night was cool and misty in Morden, a southwestern suburb of London, home to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. A cloud sat on the earth, the air was prickling vapor that obscured vision. Streetlights stood at attention with ghostly haloes.

Situated on more than five acres of land, the Baitul Futuh Mosque displayed a proud and powerful facade. Holding over ten thousand worshippers in three prayer halls—its interior filled with a gymnasium, multiple offices, a library, and television studios—it held claim to being the largest mosque in Western Europe. It was a statement to the people of London, and the world, that this Muslim community was to be taken seriously. The Ahmadiyya faithful represented a splinter sect of Islam, condemned by orthodox Muslims as heretical, and also by Western groups as harboring fanaticism and anti-Western sentiment. The Baitul Futuh, or House of Victories, was a defiant answer to all the doubters.

The parking lot in front of the mosque was deserted save for a single military-standard personnel truck, its color faded to gray in the darkness and fog. A minaret thrust skyward, lost as it plunged into the gray. The top of a silver dome blurred. Several weary-looking soldiers stood at positions around the structure, weapons or cigarettes in hand, cursing their foul duty to guard the property of a group many considered enemies of the state.

One soldier cupped his hand over a lighter and puffed. He glanced toward the parking lot as streetlights went dark, plunging the area into blackness. As the flame went out, a small red circle the size of a pencil eraser danced over his forehead. For a moment, the laser light hit his eyes, blinding him. Before he could understand, a soft pop came from the darkness. His head arched back and he dropped to the ground with a thud. His mates turned toward the sound, but before they could complete the motion, a near simultaneous group of muffled reports sounded around the mosque. Each of the soldiers fell.

Dark shapes seeped over the steps like a polluted tide. Black fatigues concealed their shapes, only their eyes showing through masks. They grabbed the downed soldiers and dragged them off the concrete around the mosque, washing the ground of blood and remains. Riflemen rose from the fields and parking lot around the mosque, shouldered their weapons, and approached.

Two soldiers stepped out from inside the mosque and froze before the ghostly forms around them. One grabbed for his weapon, but a shadow responded from the side. The dark shape seized the soldier’s gun arm, extending it with the weapon grasped tightly, driving his palm into the back of the elbow and breaking the joint. The soldier screamed and dropped the weapon as the dark figure drew back his palm and struck the soldier in the neck, shattering his windpipe. The man dropped to the ground, choking and gasping for air, unable to scream further. Beside him lay the other soldier, an empty expression in his eyes, his neck twisted strangely to one side.

“Move these two out!” hissed one of the cloaked figures. Like the others, the two bodies were dragged away from the structure. A van pulled up next to the military vehicle, and the bodies were loaded into it. Black bags were taken off the van and distributed to several masked figures who busied themselves pulling out dark bundles and stripping off their clothes.

Others moved around the mosque, placing devices that they camouflaged in various ways—with mortar and tile that matched the surface of the mosque or as electronic devices, some resembling the cameras in place around the building.

Within thirty minutes, the scene had nearly returned to normal. The dark shapes were gone from the deep fog, like wraiths that crept back into the mists. A small group of false soldiers in uniform patrolled the site, glancing up only momentarily as streetlights winked back on, throwing a ghastly light over the building. Cameras mounted around the mosque turned on and began to transmit once again. At the end of the parking lot, a brown van turned out onto the road, its headlights off, only the red of its brake lights flashing momentarily like two grim eyes fading into the fog as the first light of dawn began to pale the evening sky.

&Across the Atlantic&, in Manhattan, the sidewalks were nearly empty after midnight, and the blocks around 97th Street contained only a handful of late-nighters. Few noticed that the streetlights along this side of the block up to Third Avenue had gone out. None noticed the darkly clad figures passing by a large structure, darting out of sight, one by one over a span of five minutes. Inside the high fences, a building at a twenty-degree angle from the Manhattan street grid loomed upward yet was still dwarfed by taller apartment buildings around it. The building was squat, broad at its base, with sheer walls and a modern style tapering to a large black dome. It had been said that the geometry of the structure, founded on a repeating pattern of square units, followed Islamic law, which forbade the representation of natural forms. Atop the dome, on a spire, rested a crescent moon. A minaret rose next to the building, nearly in the middle of the block of land but open and easily visible to 96th Street. A sign outside read “Islamic Cultural Center of New York,” but the place was better known to many as the Manhattan Mosque.

Within the fences, no one from the streets could see the dark figures traversing the traditional exterior court that led to the entrance of the mosque, or the shapes gathered around the minaret, placing objects along its sides. Shapes entered the mosque carrying loaded backpacks that appeared much lighter on the way out. Within forty-five minutes, all activity ceased; the dark figures were gone, and the corner displayed nothing out of the ordinary. The streetlights shone.

Sunrise lit lands across Europe and Africa. In a suburb of London, a tired-looking troop of soldiers drove off early, a little before the arrival of the morning shift, and disappeared, never to be seen by any regiment in England again. In Finland, Friday worshippers prepared to make the long trek to one of the handful of mosques in this northern country, grateful for asylum and a chance to worship in this new land. In Nigeria, the spires at the tops of the four minarets of the Abuja National Mosque lifted majestically toward the heavens in the orange light. Approaching from the main highway, the sun rose behind the stunning building, casting it in a dark shadow, a silhouette of a giant dome and four spears. Morning sounds played over the capital of Abuja and mixed in with the sounds of the adhan called out over the city by the muezzin.

42

9/11

Savas sat beside Cohen at the table and smiled. By the calendar, it was nearly a week since he had shared that special Sabbath meal with her, but in the growing madness around them, his sense of time had begun to blur.

However absurd, he knew she loved the way he looked in the mornings. His hair, flattened and disheveled from the night’s sleep, had always resisted order. Coupled with his unruly hair, she noted impishly that he had the shell-shocked look of being half-asleep. She said it gave him the expression of a little boy just slightly lost. She kissed him as he grumbled and drank his coffee and stretched over to turn on the television.

Savas’s face hardened. The boy and the lovable expression vanished, replaced by something hard and hurt.

The scenes on the television were horrific. The British police and military had carved out a zone beyond which the public and press were excluded. Inside this region, the remains of a large structure could be seen burning brightly and belching skyward a plume of black smoke. Emergency responders rushed back and forth, carrying body after body. The runoff water from the fire hoses was dyed black and red. Crumpled figures, blasted and burnt carcasses littered the site—men, women, children.

Children. Savas stared at the horror in front of his eyes as a reporter gasped out words in a British accent.

“Simply unimaginable carnage at the former site of the largest mosque in Western Europe. The mosque, the entire structure, is completely gone and burning as I speak to you. The death toll appears to easily be in the thousands. This attack happened on the holiest day of the week for Muslims, Friday, during the mosque’s busiest time at noon prayers. Men, women, and many, many children lie dead behind me at this horrific, horrific site of England’s, of Europe’s, most terrible terrorist attack in history.”

“Oh God . . . John?” Cohen took his hand. He held hers but didn’t take his eyes off the screen. Savas turned up the volume.

The reporter continued. “Sources have reported that a section of British soldiers has been in place for several weeks guarding the mosque. Like several other Islamic sites in and around London, the government has acted proactively to try and protect them from the new and terrifying terrorist organization that’s been targeting Muslims. Many are asking how anyone could have planted the enormous amount of explosives needed to destroy this building under the noses of the military.”

Savas looked at Cohen. “You know what today is?”

A dawning of understanding lit her eyes.

“September 11.” Savas looked back at the screen. “This isn’t going to be the only one. They’re going to make a statement.”

As if responding to his terrible intuition, the coverage cut from the scene of devastation in England back to the station’s main desk. A well-coiffed woman with blonde hair and a fashionable scarf spoke.

“Sorry to interrupt, Donald, but we have breaking news. Reports are pouring in that there have been two more bombings. I repeat, two more bombings of mosques in different parts of the world. Several reports are coming in from Nigeria, that there’s been a bombing there. We also have word of a bombing in Finland. A mosque there has been attacked. We have a report live from the capital of Nigeria . . .”

“John . . .” Cohen looked at him, pain in her eyes.

“I’m going to get showered and dressed. We’ve got to get in. I won’t be long.”

Savas stood from the table and headed down the hall and into the bathroom. He shaved quickly, numb to the nicks and blood. He showered and was dressing before ten minutes had passed. As he buttoned his shirt, sounds invaded his swirling thoughts of past and present, death and destruction. Sirens. It sounded like ten or twenty police cars. He darted to the window but could see nothing. However, it was unmistakable—the well-known Doppler shift of a siren approaching, then drawing away as it passed. One after another after another.

“John,” Cohen called. “You’d better get in here.”

By the time he reached the kitchen, he did not need to see the scenes of destruction at the edge of Harlem to know what had happened. The target he did not guess. He had forgotten about the Manhattan Mosque—the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, thought by some to be a potential incubator for radical Islamic elements. No terrorists would be stepping forth from 96th and Third anytime soon.

A reporter spoke hurriedly, shouting over the sounds of a helicopter. “This is the Traffic Cam in the Sky over the Upper East Side of New York City.” A camera sped over the geometric lines of Manhattan, stopping on a volcanic eruption of smoke pouring into the sky. Around the site like bugs circling honey, a flashing light show of emergency vehicles contrasted with the dark cloud climbing from the blaze below. A voice cut in over the reporter in the helicopter.

“We’re going back to footage in Nigeria . . .” On the screen appeared a split image; on one side, the giant mosque as it had appeared before the explosion, with its four minarets intact. The other side showed the same building, live, now with a single minaret standing and the rest of the structure reduced to rubble, fire, and ash. More scenes of carnage followed from the capital city of Nigeria. Savas stood nearly breathless watching the wild, panicked expressions and motions of emergency workers tending the wounded, many beyond help, scattered over the field of vision provided by the camera. The news reports darted back and forth, from Africa, to Finland, to England, and back to New York. It all began to blur in his mind, rubble and smoke, sirens, hysteria, blood, and fire. So much death. Men and women struck down. The old and the young. Mothers, fathers, daughters, sons.

Sons. The images before him began to merge with his own memory—two towers falling like sand to the earth, burying thousands, choking downtown Manhattan. The death of sons. The death of a young police officer who had made his father proud, giving the greatest sacrifice for his city and never knowing why.

His fists were balled tightly, and tears dropped from his eyes, yet held nothing soft in them. A wildness burned there, a primitive urge to strike at the creature attacking the young, stealing life from those who should never have been buried by their parents. A shout broke him out of his trance.

“John, please!” Cohen was standing next to him, shaking him. “John, stop this; come back!”

Savas fought through the nightmare in his mind. He turned to the counter and grabbed his wallet and keys. “I’m sorry, Rebecca, I’ve got to go.”

“To work?” she asked, hesitantly, afraid of the look in his eyes.

“No, not to work.” He looked forward, seeing something far off. “I’m going to Gunn International. I’m going to do what Jordan said we should do. I’m going to confront that bastard and look into his eyes. I have to know, Rebecca. I can’t wait for the wheels to turn.” He motioned toward the television. “I don’t know if the world can wait for the damn machine to do its job. These guys are ten steps ahead of us. If we play by the rules we’ve set for ourselves, it’ll stay that way.”

“John, please, think about this,” she said, grabbing his face in her hands, staring up toward those wild eyes. “You’ll have no authority; you’ll be potentially in violation of the law, vulnerable to charges of harassment. They might not even let you in. What are you going to do, break down the doors?”

“If I have to.”

“John, even if you find something, these actions might sabotage any legal recourse we have against this man and whatever organization he might be running. You know this, John. You can’t do this.”

Savas smiled bitterly. “Rebecca, what I know is that we’re losing badly, and while we lose, people are burning alive. I can do this. I have to do this. Someone has to.” He stared at her silently for a moment. “Every time these bastards would take out some jihadist, I was cheering them on. They were doing what we could never do. But I’ve been blind. It’s so obvious. I didn’t want to know what I should have known. I didn’t want to see it. I wanted blood.”

“Didn’t see what?”

He grabbed her shoulders firmly. “Jihadists took the lives of the innocent. Of my son. But God, Rebecca, look at this,” he said, gesturing toward the television. “The streets are lined with children. They’re not fighting the enemy. They are the enemy.” He let go of her shoulders. “Someone has to stop it.”

She stared for a moment into his eyes, shaking her head, but she knew what she saw. “Then I’m coming with you.”

Savas stared at her in disbelief. “Absolutely not! I’m Mad John, not you. You’ll endanger yourself, ruin your career. No.”

Cohen slipped on her shoes and grabbed her bag. “If you don’t let me come, I’ll call the FBI, NYPD, and Gunn International and warn them. They’ll wall you out before you get into the building. Take me or forget going, John.”

Savas blinked with his mouth half open. “Damn it, Rebecca! And they call me crazy!”

“Maybe. But I’m your crazy woman, you stupid son of a bitch. Don’t forget that.”

43

Gunn Tower

The ride through Midtown was eerily devoid of the usual traffic. Two terrorist attacks in four months in Manhattan had profoundly affected the city. Within ten minutes, Savas had parked his car in one of an unusual number of open spots along the side of the street, a block away from the fifty-five floors of steel and blue glass that was Gunn Tower.

He was curious to find himself putting money in the meter. The human mind was a mess of contradictions. He was about to enter without a warrant and confront one of the world’s most powerful CEOs. Rationally, he knew that he might walk out under arrest and would no longer need his car, perhaps for a long time. But he found himself unable to let go of the old habit of tending the vehicle. He looked over at Cohen, who gave him a quizzical look as he paused, staring at the meter.

“Well, we don’t want to get a ticket or anything,” he said. She put on her sunglasses.

They entered the enormous lobby of Gunn Tower, passing through a revolving door set in a solid wall of glass. Inside, the ceiling was at least fifty feet above their heads, with stairways and escalators leading to multiple overhanging layers that held general social functions, including restaurants and stores. The floor was of polished blue-green marble. Light poured into the lobby from outside, filtered into a bluish hue. Savas felt like he was in a giant aquarium. On the open second floor, a small museum dedicated to the Gunn family and their accomplishments was advertised by a sign. Modesty wasn’t on display.

One hundred feet in front of the entrance was a security checkpoint that screened those headed back toward the main elevators. Armed security guards flanked the metal detectors. Pleasant-looking women stood on each side, checking ID cards for personnel. Cohen looked over at Savas, her glasses hiding the anxiety he could feel emanating from her.

“Okay, now what?” she asked.

“We exploit the power of the federal government.”

Savas walked up to the long marble counter beside the security checkpoint and addressed a young woman who smiled and welcomed him to Gunn Tower. Savas opened the leather case for his badge and showed her its contents.

“Agent John Savas from the FBI,” he said curtly, pleased at the instant shift in demeanor from the woman behind the counter.

“Yes, sir, how can I help you?”

“I’ve been sent from the downtown division to follow up on a lead. It involves some international shipments by a company owned by Gunn International. This is a sensitive matter, and I’m instructed to speak only with Mr. Gunn himself. Could you please tell me how I can go about seeing him immediately?”

The woman stared dumbly, clearly out of her element. Her mouth hung open for a moment; then she closed it, shifting weight to one foot and pushing her hair back behind her head. She glanced at the unmoving, expressionless figure of Cohen in her sunglasses, then back at Savas.

“Sir, I really don’t know how to help you. I just work for general Lower Floor Management. I can’t connect you with Mr. Gunn or anyone on that floor. You’ll have to make an appointment with him yourself, sir,” she finished, her long nails playing with her buttons, her expression anxious.

“Ma’am,” began Savas, “I hope I’ve made myself clear. I’m from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, here to chase a lead on a very important international crime case. My superiors here and in Washington believe that Gunn International can shed light on a series of heinous crimes, including those of murder and terrorism. I’m expecting full cooperation from Mr. Gunn and his company. Why am I not receiving it, Ms. . . . ?” Savas nodded toward Cohen, who reached into her purse, pulled out a small voice recorder and clicked it on. “Of course, you have the option to call a lawyer before speaking with us,” Cohen added dramatically.

Whatever calm the woman had maintained shattered. Her job wasn’t worth this sort of trouble. “Please wait a minute, sir,” she said, staring at the voice recorder. “I’ll get my superior.”

Three minutes later, a harried-looking man stepped over with the young blonde and stared skeptically at the FBI agents. He took off a pair of glasses that then hung from his neck. “Marcia tells me that you’re FBI? How can I help you?”

Savas again held out his badge, which the man examined, and repeated his story. The man shook his head. “Agent . . . Savas? Yes, well, certainly there are more formal ways to establish a meeting with Mr. Gunn rather than traipsing into his building and demanding an audience. Why don’t you have your bureau chief call over and do this properly?”

Savas leaned forward and put on an irritated face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t get your name.” Cohen leaned forward slightly, pointing the voice recorder toward the man.

“Richard Carter, but I don’t see how—”

“Mr. Carter, we’re pursuing time-sensitive leads in an international arms smuggling and terrorist case, linked to two here in New York City. One of those attacks happened today not forty blocks north of this grand tower. We have reason to believe that other attacks are planned, that they can be prevented only if we act now. So don’t tell me that we need to waste the precious time we hardly have to follow a train of niceties to speak with your lofty CEO!”

The man paled. “Yes, yes, I apologize. Horrible, what’s been happening. Please, this is unusual. Let me contact Mr. Gunn’s department and convey your request.”

“Mr. Carter, that’s the right thing to do—what a true patriot would do.”

The man nodded awkwardly and hustled over to a set of phones. The woman apparently felt more comfortable with her supervisor and followed him closely, leaving Savas and Cohen alone.

Cohen stared at him through her dark-brown shades. “What a true patriot would do?” He waved her off as Carter returned.

“Agent Savas. I’ve spoken with the floor administrative assistant in charge of general issues for several offices, including Mr. Gunn’s, sir. She was most upset with this request, I must say,” he continued, sweat now beading on his forehead. “But, I managed to impress upon her the seriousness of this matter. She’s agreed to speak with you upstairs, although, regrettably, she can’t offer you a meeting with Mr. Gunn today.”

Savas smiled at the man. “Mr. Carter, you’ve done a service to your country. I’ll remember your help in this matter.” The man grinned anxiously, his smile fading under the relentless Cohen’s gaze.

“Please, right this way.” Carter stepped toward the security line. It was the express route through the line, up the elevators, and to the fiftieth floor of the building. The doors opened revealing a lower, standard-height ceiling, fluorescent lighting, and a large desk ten feet in front of the elevator doors. Behind the desk sat an older woman with a stern face, talking into a Bluetooth headset and typing on a computer. She motioned for them to wait.

Carter led them up to the large wraparound desk and waited quietly. Savas was in no mood to wait. He checked his watch and spoke to the woman.

“Ma’am, which way to Mr. Gunn’s office?”

She continued talking and typing but held up one finger. Savas walked around the desk toward the hallway on the right. “It’s all right, ma’am,” he said, as her eyes widened. “I’ll find it myself.”

The assistant at the desk called after him. “Sir! You can’t go back there! Sir! Stop! Mr. Gunn’s busy! He can’t see you now!” Carter stared with his mouth open.

Savas turned to Cohen. “Stall her.”

The hound at the desk wouldn’t be so easy to cow as Carter. She’d have security on him shortly. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Cohen moving to intervene as Carter spoke excitedly to the woman, waving his arms.

Savas strode purposefully down the hallway, passing offices and conference rooms. Always appear confident. A lesson he learned bluffing his way to buy booze as a teenager and as a cop in armed standoffs. The big man’s office would be easy to find, likely at the end of the hallway, most likely protected by another guard dog.

There. The hall opened to an open space with another large desk. Behind it sat a young woman. Behind her and to the left was a magnificent door, cherry wood by the look of it, built thick and carved with adornments. The woman was on the phone, a concerned expression on her face. Word’s come from the front lines.

She stood, the phone still to her ear. “Sir, I’m afraid I’ll have to—”

Savas flashed his badge. “FBI, ma’am,” he said pushing past her and her objections and opening the door.

It was a magnificent office. Larger by far than anything he had seen or imagined, decorated with luxurious furniture and paintings. The wall opposite the entrance wasn’t a wall, but a room-length window peering over the city. Behind an enormous and beautiful wooden desk sat a man Savas had only seen in FBI photos and on the internet. Tall, thin, silver hair framing a hard and handsome face. Set in the middle were two burning gray eyes.

“Mr. William Gunn?” asked Savas, bursting into the room.

Gunn glanced up from his computer screen with an angry look. He hit a key sharply and rose to face Savas.

“What’s the meaning of this?” he asked.

Savas heard a fluttering behind him, and the young woman from outside rushed in front of him and faced Gunn.

“Mr. Gunn, sir, I’m sorry!” she began breathlessly. “I tried to keep him out. He’s come through Jennifer and from below and won’t listen and . . .”

“Calm down, Marianne,” he said, turning toward Savas. “Who are you, and what’s going on here?”

“I’m Special Agent John Savas from the FBI,” he said, displaying his ID. Gunn registered no distress and appeared, if anything, intrigued.

His assistant chirped behind Savas. “Security is on its way. They already have the other one.”

“Marianne, please, a servant of the people is here. Call off security. Another agent?” The woman nodded. “Please go and bring him here as well. Something important must be on the minds of these agents to have gone through such trouble to speak to me.” He turned toward Savas. “I wish you had contacted me first and avoided all this bother. I’m a rather insulated man. It helps me maintain my focus.” He motioned toward the chairs in front of his desk. “Please, won’t you have a seat?”

This is one cool customer. Savas nodded and sat as Gunn moved back around his desk, entered a few keystrokes into his computer, and took his seat.

“Please tell me how I can help you today.”

Savas stared directly at him. “Today, in four locations around the world, terrorists struck mosques, blowing them to bits along with all the people in and around them. One of those attacks happened just uptown from here at the Manhattan Mosque.”

Gunn nodded slowly, eyeing Savas coldly. “Yes, I’ve seen the footage. Terrible. The second attack in our city in just a few months.”

“Yes, one of many since the first attack in June linked to a terrorist organization called Mjolnir.”

Gunn stared silently. “I’m not familiar with the name.”

“Few are.”

“How have you traced this Mjolnir to the bombings, Agent Savas?”

“Not only bombings but a series of assassinations of prominent Islamic radicals, as well. They’re a very busy organization. We have linked the bombings to a plastic explosive called S-47.”

Gunn shook his head and raised his eyebrows. “S-47? I’m sorry, Agent Savas, I don’t know much about explosives.”

“It’s a very new form of Semtex, more powerful, more versatile. The details aren’t important. Traces of this material were found at every bombing site associated with Mjolnir.”

At that moment, Savas heard sounds at the door behind him. Gunn rose and addressed his secretary, “Marianne—this is the other agent?” Savas turned to see Cohen standing in the doorway, her hair disheveled, her blouse untucked and wrinkled. He winced to think of the security guards manhandling her.

“Yes, Mr. Gunn. She was in the custody of our guards, and I brought her back up as soon as you requested.”

Gunn walked chivalrously toward Cohen and motioned to the seat beside Savas. Cohen, her glasses gone, straightened her clothes, and walked stiffly over and sat next to Savas, never glancing in his direction. He understood. She couldn’t look into his eyes and maintain her composure.

Gunn returned to his seat in front of the enormous window. Savas motioned toward Cohen. “This is my colleague at the FBI, Rebecca Cohen.”

“Pleased to meet you, Agent Cohen. I’m sorry about our security personnel. They’re often overzealous in keeping the peace in my building.”

Cohen scanned the room, settling on his desk. She focused momentarily on an object at his side, then looked into Gunn’s eyes. “No need to apologize,” she said. “We’ve been in a great hurry today, and our lack of standard protocol has created some problems.”

“Yes,” said Gunn, “Agent Savas here was explaining to me. Something about explosives?”

“This S-47 is easily traceable material in many ways because it’s so rare. It’s found only with U.S. military personnel or on the black market in the international arms arena.”

Savas stared intently at Gunn, but the businessman showed no reaction. Savas continued. “Agents with the CIA recently ran a sting operation in the Middle East and identified the source of much of the black market S-47. This source was sold repeatedly to a single buyer, of unknown origin and identity, but the goods were always shipped in the same way, by boat—ships owned and operated by the Operon Company.”

“Operon?” Gunn said, searching his memory. “That’s one of ours. I see. You have connected the supply of this explosive to one of my companies, and you now want to trace it further to attempt to identify the buyers, and thus, presumably, the terrorists themselves.” He glanced momentarily at each agent before continuing. “Of course, the FBI will have full cooperation from Gunn International on this. Unfortunately, I know little of the day-to-day operations of the many subsidiaries and contractors we have. But I’ll personally see to it that those who do, will work with you to apprehend these killers.”

Savas stared at the CEO. What the hell? They were supposed to confront him and force the truth out, or at least an obvious lie. Instead, they’d navigated an obstacle course on adrenaline and street smarts, and hit the man with the facts, only to find a calm and cooperative citizen. Was Husaam wrong? Am I wrong?

He looked into the eyes before him—cold, icy-gray, and unrevealing. Eyes of a predator. No, his intuition, his gut, whatever it was that had saved his life on many occasions told him otherwise. There was something profoundly unsettling about William Gunn, and Savas felt he was sitting only feet away from something calculating and murderous.

Cohen spoke up. “We’re concerned that this connection to your company, Mr. Gunn, might go further than the use of a shipping company.” The CEO turned slowly toward Cohen, and Savas felt his stomach tighten as the cold eyes fell on her.

“I’m sorry, Agent Cohen, could you be more specific?”

“Yes. Enormous financial transfers occurred in these arms purchases, machinations that made them difficult to trace, that could only have come from individuals with enormous capital and financial dexterity. We’re concerned that perhaps someone within your company, at a much higher level than that of a shipping organization, might be involved.”

My God, this is bold, Rebecca! She faulted him for being reckless today?

The CEO eyed her closely. “That’s a very serious concern you’ve raised, Agent Cohen. Rest assured that we’ll seek to root out any such person, should they exist, and work closely with you to do so.” He looked at his watch, then back at the two FBI agents.

“I’m sorry to be rushing you, but I’ve got a very important meeting with the visiting ambassador from China. China’s becoming an increasingly important business partner for much of the world, and Gunn International is no exception. I can’t keep the ambassador waiting. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“One other thing,” Cohen continued. “This terrorist organization is obsessed with Nordic myths. Do you know of any such people or organizations within your company who might be involved in neo-paganism?”

Savas stared at her in confusion. Rebecca, where are you going with this?

“I’d expect every sort of person from the wonderfully diverse city of New York to work under the umbrella of my organization. Their lifestyle choices don’t concern me as long the job gets done.”

“We understand that, Mr. Gunn,” she continued, “only in this case, such individuals would be highly suspect. You come from a Northern European background, Scandinavian, I believe?

The CEO focused on her impassively. “Yes. My father was an immigrant from Stockholm.”

“Do you know what the name of this organization, Mjolnir, means?”

Gunn shook his head. “No. I mainly studied the Greek myths in school.”

“It’s the name of the hammer used by the Norse god of thunder, Thor.”

“Yes, I’m sorry. I do remember reading that somewhere.”

“If you were to see or hear this name in any context, in the English translation, or as Mjolnir, or depicted in any symbolic form, please let us know.”

Savas wanted to jump over and shield Cohen, so hostile were the eyes that looked her over. “Yes, Agent Cohen, you can rest assured that I will.”

&As they walked& out of the skyscraper and into the bright midmorning sunlight, Savas felt the adrenaline drain from of him. It felt like waking from a dream. He sat in the car next to Cohen and exhaled, not starting the engine.

“I can’t believe we did that, and I can’t believe we did it for nothing!”

She turned toward him, her sunglasses back on, and her shaking hands withdrawing from her face. “What do you mean, ‘for nothing’?”

“We go there, risk our careers, potentially blowing the entire case if he’s the one behind this, and for nothing! He’s happy as a clam to work with us! So cooperative! He played us like fools. And, I swear, all the time I felt like I was sitting across from a serial killer.”

Cohen stared forward, her face still ashen from the encounter. “We didn’t fail, John. His cooperation saved our careers, for one thing. For another, he is the one behind all this. Trust your feelings.”

Savas shook his head in confusion. “Well, that’s something! How on earth do you conclude that? My feelings agree, but we came away empty-handed.”

“Did you look at his desk?”

“Sure. Hard to miss. Big giant thing, expensive wood. Cost more than my car.”

She shook her head, still gazing forward. “No, not the desk itself, but what was on it.”

“Papers, a computer . . . a few executive playthings?”

“Like the little toy on his left in front of you?”

He shook his head. “No, I didn’t see what it was.”

Cohen paused. “Well, I did. Small little metal thing, hanging from two metal rods that almost meet. The small little metal thing, John—it was a hammer.” She turned toward him. “It was Thor’s hammer.”

“Oh, my God.”

&William Gunn locked& the door to his office and returned to his desk. He entered several keystrokes. The black screen lit up, revealing the familiar face of Patrick Rout.

“Mr. Gunn? What the hell was that all about?”

Gunn gazed sideways, away from the screen. “Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? You were right about the hit on the Russians. They discovered that connection. They suspect. We have our firebrands. You didn’t see his eyes, but this John Savas is a driven man. And Cohen, well, she knows.”

“They don’t have proof! Nothing to go on!”

“No. Of course not, and they won’t get that, not in time to stop us.”

“We need to make sure.”

Gunn turned toward the monitor, his expression grim. “Yes, we do. We need to find out who these agents are. We’ll have to make some decisions about them very soon.”

44

The Black Stone

OPEC OIL EMBARGO CUTS SUPPLY TO EUROPE AND UNITED STATES

By Thomas Fischetti, Associated Press

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) announced today a partial embargo against the United States and the European Union. OPEC will reduce oil supply to these regions by 25%.

An OPEC spokesman was quoted by Al-Jazeera as saying that, “the recent bombings of Islamic Holy sites around the world have left us no choice” but to enact the embargo. In the statement issued, OPEC demanded that Western nations end the terrorist attacks and apprehend those responsible.

Last month, in an unprecedented attack on Muslim houses of worship, terrorist bombings destroyed four mosques in four nations—the U.K., the U.S., Finland, and Nigeria. These attacks led to more than four thousand deaths and followed on the heels of monthly attacks on Muslims, including attacks in Algiers, New York, and Venezuela.

The White House press secretary issued a stern warning to OPEC. “The president condemns both the terror attacks and the response of OPEC and cautions OPEC that the United States will not allow its supply of oil to be threatened.” Reports placed several U.S. warships en route to the Persian Gulf, and sources claim that the U.S. military has been placed on high alert. Analysts suggest that the president’s words indicate a full-scale embargo would lead to massive military intervention.

China and Russia have protested U.S. deployment in the Gulf, the Chinese representative to the UN calling the moves “reckless and destabilizing.” Russia has vowed to prevent foreign occupation of oil-producing nations and has placed its own military on heightened alert, according to sources in Moscow. The president has canceled his long-planned trip to India and is returning to Washington. He is expected to address the nation tomorrow evening.

&Savas stepped& out of his office and nearly crashed into the muscled figure of Husaam Jordan standing outside his door. Jordan had made a rapid recovery. He still limped and favored his shoulder, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to tell that he had been through the ordeal in the desert.

“So, how is the investigation going?” asked Jordan.

“Which one?”

Jordan nodded. “Indeed. But I’m more interested in one than the other.”

Savas could only agree, except that the FBI inquiry into his trip to Gunn Tower was occupying increasing amounts of his time. He had managed to convince all those involved that Cohen had been dragged along with him, and, for now at least, she had been spared the paperwork, meetings, and constant interruptions that an internal investigation entailed. He had also been spared any suspension of his duties or privileges—a rescue effort by Kanter. That was after Kanter had first threatened to kill him.

Savas nodded toward Jordan. “You were right.”

Jordan cocked his head to one side and half-smiled. “About which investigation is more important?”

“Yes,” said Savas, “but more than that—about following the trail of Operon and the shell companies.”

Jordan became serious. “That trail’s getting cold as we speak. The CIA isn’t going to listen to the ravings of two mad FBI agents who stormed the office of an American icon. Gunn practically ran a monopoly in the defense industry for two decades. He’s owed more favors in Washington than we can guess. They’ve tied my hands, John. And it’s been too long. Weeks and weeks have gone by. They aren’t going to leave anything standing, or anyone connected alive.”

“The FBI’s twisted itself into a tangle of internal investigation,” said Savas with obvious irritation. “Everyone is scared shitless now about moving on this guy. Larry’s frustrated as hell, but he’s protecting his division. Until this blows over, we’re left doing research reports on the internet. Meanwhile, we wait for the next fall of the hammer.”

“Don’t give up hope, John,” Jordan rumbled. “It is written in the Holy Quran, ‘When a man dies, they who survive him ask what property he has left behind. The angel who bends over the dying man asks what good deed he has sent before him.’ You have worked for justice.”

Savas stared at the Quran-thumping Muslim. He had come to respect Husaam Jordan, even to feel a tug of affection for a man who had disregarded career and safety in the service of justice. He just couldn’t reconcile the feelings inside.

“Husaam, I don’t want this to go the wrong way, but there are some things I don’t understand.” Jordan stared straight into Savas’s eyes, his expression unflinching yet knowing. Savas pressed forward anyway. “I like you. I didn’t at first, I have to be honest. Well, I couldn’t at first.”

“You couldn’t separate me from the Muslims who killed your son.”

Savas winced. “You’re a man who risks his life for what is right. You can’t find one out of a thousand men like that. How can you be part of this religion giving birth to all these crazed murderers killing in the name of this damn book you keep quoting? I just don’t understand it.”

Jordan smiled, his white teeth set in his strong jaw, bright against the darkness of his face. “The Abuja National Mosque was a gift from the heavens. If you had seen it, with open eyes, John, not eyes colored with anger, you would have seen its majesty rising into the African sky, its four minarets reaching toward God. Its beautiful dome was a bright star in the daytime sun or a powerful silhouette in the setting orange light at day’s end. Muslims have made some of the most beautiful religious houses in the world. For hundreds of years, they preserved knowledge while Europe sank into the Middle Ages and burned witches at the stake, tortured innocents with the Inquisition, and converted by the sword many of the pagans of central and northern Europe. Science, mathematics, and philosophy were preserved, developed, and passed on to an awakening Europe by Muslims.”

Jordan opened his hands in a questioning gesture. “When you listen to the great composers of Germany—Bach, Mozart, Beethoven—do you also see in their music the ashes of the Holocaust? When you gaze at the religious sculptures and paintings of Michelangelo, do you see in them the blood-soaked lands the Crusaders marched across? America was founded by people fleeing persecution at the hands of fellow Christians. For the centuries of Christians doing evil in the name of God, how can you be one?”

Savas shook his head. “You’re using this argument on the wrong man, Husaam. I’m not sure what I believe. I nearly shot the priest of the church where I was an altar boy, and this crazy man still hears my confessions. Confessions mostly about how much I don’t know, and how I can’t see God.”

Jordan nodded. “But my point is that if we are to judge a belief system by the actions of any group that claims to act in its name, every creed that exists or has existed will fall. Just as great beauty and selfless service to humanity have come from Christianity, so, too, from Islam.” He paused for a moment, considering his next words.

“Islam is very personal for me. I grew up in poverty, abandoned by my parents, rejected by society—both black and white. I joined a gang before I could shave. At least there I mattered, I had a family. There was a code of honor and loyalty. The gang gave me a sense of worth and purpose society had denied me. But it was a life of sin. In prison as an adolescent, an imam who had emigrated from Africa was making the rounds. I was ready to hear what he had to say. I was ready to open myself to something larger and to find my place with God.”

His eyes had a faraway look. He smiled softly.

“Do you know what the al-Hajar-ul-Aswad is?”

Savas shook his head.

“It’s more commonly known as the Black Stone.”

“Yes,” Savas dredged his memory. “The meteorite in Mecca. Where the pilgrims go every year.”

“Yes. It’s one of the Five Pillars of Islam to make at least one pilgrimage to Mecca in a Muslim’s lifetime. There the pilgrims congregate at the al-Masjid al-Haram Mosque in Saudi Arabia, and in the center of this mosque is the holiest site in all of Islam—the Kaaba. The Kaaba is a cube carved out of granite from the hillsides, covered with a black silk curtain decorated with gold-embroidered calligraphy, its four corners pointing in the four directions of the compass. It’s the site to which we Muslims pray five times a day.”

Jordan’s eyes appeared to gaze far off, as if trying to glimpse the site itself. “At the eastern-most corner of the Kaaba is the Black Stone. According to our tradition, it fell from Heaven during the time of Adam and Eve. After the Fall, it was hidden by the Angels until Abraham rebuilt the Kaaba, and then the Archangel Gabriel brought it to him from its keeping place.”

Jordan paused for emphasis, then turned toward Savas. “Muslims believe that when the Kaaba fell to the earth from the heavens, the stone was not black but a blinding white. It’s since absorbed, year after year, the crimes, the lies, the pain, the torture, the murder, poverty, and starvation—in short, the sins of mankind. The white stone from above turned a solid black as the evening sky from our sins. So you see, Muslims don’t turn away from this truth, that we’re all both light and dark. Someday, I’ll make the Pilgrimage, the Hajj, and I’ll walk around the Kaaba, find my way to the Black Stone, and kiss it as did the Prophet.”

He recited. “‘I believe that there is no god but Allah, and that Mohammed is his Prophet.’ Not despite any evils of Islam, but because of its beauties, and its call to submission to God in the face of the evils every nation, every creed, and every person has committed.”

Savas held his gaze. “How do we know evil isn’t built into these beliefs that claim to save us? All the talk of salvation—we keep repeating the same mistakes. If religion and faith are real, and change us, and heal us, and remake us, then why is this the case? I’ve called to God, and listened, but so far I haven’t heard a damn thing.”

Jordan smiled. “But you’re honest! How much closer to God you are than so many who deceive themselves. When people do evil in the name of God, they listen not to God but only to themselves, their fears, their inadequacies. At least you won’t create a false god to serve your own needs. I’ll hope for you yet!”

“That’s fine. Hope’s good,” said Savas with resignation. “But you and God haven’t convinced me yet.”

Before Jordan could reply, Manuel Hernandez came crashing down the hallway, his awkward gait nearly a full run. Too many long hours hunched over a computer screen had given him the doughboy physique of a programmer, and he panted, struggling for air as he leaned over to catch his breath, his long brown hair hanging over his face and covering it, his brushy beard the only part sticking out from under the hair. He gasped out anxious words.

“John, we’ve got a situation.”

45

Hacked

Savas rolled his eyes. He wasn’t sure he knew what that meant anymore. “What, another one? Get back to me after the other twenty-three clear, Manuel.”

“No, I mean a situation,” he wheezed out the last word, trying hard to place emphasis.

Savas opened his palms toward him. “Okay, shoot.”

“We’ve been hacked.”

Jordan glanced toward him, his eyebrows raised. Savas stood there stunned for a moment, trying to come to terms with the implications. “What? I thought you said your security setup was like Fort Knox.”

“No, not us directly. Someone hacked into Personnel, Accounting, perhaps a few other departments. I don’t know the extent of it yet. Hell, they don’t even know it happened yet.” Hernandez stood straight up now, hands off his knees, recovering from his sprint to John’s office. He saw the confusion on the other two faces in front of him.

“See, they did try to hack us, and then when they failed, they tried to go through other internal servers—hack into those, use FBI networks to find security holes, break into our stuff that way. Well, that didn’t work either, as I’ve walled us off even from the FBI.”

“You’re one paranoid geek, Manuel.”

“Yeah, thanks. So, we’re not compromised. But just about everyone I’ve checked in the building is.”

“How long have you known this?”

“Ten minutes. I ran over here as soon as I was sure and had some idea about the extent of it.”

“Well, that’s ten minutes too long. You get up to Larry’s office. Tell that bulldog guarding outside I sent you priority. Get Larry to write you a get-out-of-Intel-Free pass, and get up to those departments and try to figure out what the hell is going on.”

“Timing’s what’s worrying me,” interrupted Hernandez. Jordan looked over at Savas and nodded. “I mean, right when we start to get a lock on this guy, this Gunn-dude, we get hacked. They were aiming for us, John, following the tracks, I mean, of all the offices and groups. These were black hats on a mission. They wanted us.”

Savas nodded. “Get up to Larry and find out all you can. Track them through this if you can. Maybe we can find out who or where they are.”

“I’m on it. But I’m done running for the day.” Hernandez turned around and walked briskly back down the hallway.

“You think it’s Gunn?” asked Savas.

Jordan nodded. “This sounds like a pro job, and if there’s one thing we know about Mjolnir, it’s that they are professionals. Only the connection with Gunn would lead a bunch of skilled hackers to focus on you and your people—more evidence we’re on the right track.”

“Not some random cyber-attack?”

“Sure, could be. How many of those do you get a month, and how many get this close?”

Savas nodded, then looked up in exasperation. “I was supposed to meet Frank and Matt downstairs—our last hot dog stand lunch before the new security regs force the carts a few blocks up. At least the food’s fast and I can force march them back up here. Care to join me before I run back up into this insanity?”

“Sure,” said Jordan. “But I’ll go with the potato knish.”

Savas groaned inwardly. Pork and Muslims, oil and water. He smiled to cover for his gaffe.

“Let’s go. I’ve got to eat something before we go into red alert again.”

&It was a sunny&, early-October day, crisp and slightly warm under the sun. Savas stepped out of the FBI building, squinting in the bright light. If it weren’t for all the chaos, it would have been nice to be outside on such a beautiful fall afternoon. Jordan followed him down the stairs to the pavement, his eyes scanning the area, an old survival instinct that would never leave him, no matter how safe the neighborhood. Savas spotted Frank Miller first. That was always easy; the ex-marine was about as wide as a standard refrigerator. Matt King provided a striking contrast. His lanky form, slouched posture, and bookish demeanor set him apart. Both dug into their food, watching Savas with an air of feigned annoyance.

Miller waved them over, mouth half-full. “I thought you said you’d meet us here at noon, John,” he said. “We’ve been here twenty minutes waiting for you. The hot dogs were getting old, I’m afraid.”

“I thought they weren’t biodegradable,” mused King.

Savas smiled. “I’m sorry, guys, but we have a small situation upstairs.”

Both rolled their eyes and groaned. King shook his head. “I think making partner would have been easier than this job. What now?”

“FBI was hacked.” King nearly choked on his food as Savas continued. “From what Manuel says, half the building was compromised. We were spared thanks to Manuel’s ultra-paranoid, super firewall. “

“Hallelujah,” said King.

“But someone, according to him, someone good, got into several systems in the building, trying to use those to get to us.”

“To us?” said Miller.

“Apparently, yes, we were the target. Manuel’s running around up there trying to get a handle on it, and that’s what we all get to go do as soon as we insert those indigestion tubes,” he said, waving toward the hot dog stand. Jordan came toward them, holding a knish.

“Holy shit,” said King. “This, and all the Gunn stuff, you think it’s connected?”

“Yes,” said Savas. “So does Agent Jordan.”

“I don’t think too much of coincidences in this business,” Jordan said.

Miller nodded. “Well, that raises the stakes some. Cops chase robbers, but these guys are scary folk. They chase back.”

Savas was momentarily aware of a flash of light, a movement of red across his chest. Miller, closest to him, focused intently on the red circle. He lunged toward Savas like a lineman about to pummel a quarterback. Time seemed to grind to a stop. Stunned, Savas watched the former marine become airborne as he dove toward him, his coffee and hot dog suspended in midair.

There was a soft whizz through the air and a simultaneous explosion of fabric over Miller’s shoulder. A cloud of red mist burst into the air. Miller crashed into Savas’s chest, smashing the wind out of him and sending them both plummeting toward the hard pavement below. Miller landed on top of him and rolled to the side, clutching his right shoulder. It was soaked red with blood. Savas struggled to catch his breath.

“Ahhh, fuck!” screamed Miller, raising himself to a crouch and motioning with his good arm. “Keep low, John! Sniper! Get behind that van! Damn!

The pavement exploded as several more rifle shots were fired. People were screaming and running in various directions. Jordan had pulled out a pistol and was crouched beside the FedEx van, looking up toward a building across the street.

Miller screamed out, “Damn it, John! Move!”

Savas came to himself and crawled over to the van. Miller and Jordan shouted back and forth.

“I think it’s the roof of the corner building,” Miller gasped.

“Yes,” said Jordan, “I saw the gunman. Took two more shots, exposed him. He ran back from the roof after that. He’s either going through the building or to the fire escapes. I think the last—too easy to get caught inside.” Jordan looked over at King, who had also taken refuge behind the van and was shaking violently as he held out a weapon.

“Matt—stay with John, shoot anyone we don’t know who gets close to him. He’s the target. We don’t know if there are other assassins. Call an ambulance for Frank, then your offices. Get people down here if they aren’t already on the way. I’m going after this guy.”

King had only a second to respond with “Okay, but . . .” when Jordan, gun still in hand, sprinted off across the street with his limp, leaped onto and across the hood of a taxi barring his way, and was out of sight.

&Jordan crossed Broadway&—not so broad this far south on the island and down to a one-way street. He ran across the opposite sidewalk, crossing Duane Street and heading toward the corner of Broadway and Reade. People jumped away from him, a sprinting black man dressed in Islamic garb, gun held aloft and pointed toward the skies. Who knew what was going through their minds? I just hope the cops don’t shoot me, he thought.

He darted around the corner and sprinted up Reade Street, his mending leg stiff and throbbing. Dropping from the fire escape halfway up the block, a man landed on the pavement, hitting hard and catching himself with his hands. As he regained balance, he looked down the street and saw Jordan. Their eyes locked. The man turned, drawing something dark from his belt, and sprinted up the street. Lost the rifle, heading toward Church Street, armed with a handgun. Jordan sprinted after him.

The figure crossed Duane on the east side of Church, then disappeared, hidden by a building. Jordan sprinted harder. Every second out of sight meant the suspect could be lost. Jordan nearly crashed into a couple pushing a stroller. The woman screamed, but he pivoted out of their way and continued. The alley was in shadow from the buildings, and Church was lit brightly from the sun in comparison. Instinct took over as he approached the corner. He raised his gun, and as he stepped into the light, he crouched and scanned around him.

The crouch saved his life. A retort from a gun sounded as he heard the bullet whiz over his head, a store window next to him shattering, screams and an alarm filling the air. The assassin had not adjusted his aim properly, missing Jordan by inches. He rolled across the pavement, shielding himself behind a parked car. Fool! If the man had used his time getting away and not trying to kill him, he might have escaped easily. Jordan darted up, just in time to see a figure sprinting across the road and heading south. Chambers and Church subway stop! If he made it there, he’d be lost in the underground labyrinth.

Jordan was nearly out of breath when he reached the subway station. He leapt down the stairs, sending one man flying and cursing behind him. At the turnstiles, his heart sank. A figure had jumped them and was racing down the steps. If a train was waiting or came soon, he’d be lost. Jordan darted forward, screaming at people and waving his weapon. It was very effective. He moved through the dividing masses, jumped over the turnstile to several angry cries, and flew down the steps at a reckless rate. His leg was on fire, the pain distracting. Jordan pushed it away, focusing on the chase.

The subway stop was a flood of humanity, like sardines in a can. He scanned the area, back and forth. He knew he wouldn’t be able to see the man he was chasing, but if his quarry continued to panic, he would be doing the one thing he shouldn’t in a crowd like this—he would be moving. There! He saw first the ripples in the crowd as someone pushed his way forcefully through. The sniper was about halfway to the next stairway, but Jordan knew that this wasn’t his goal. The tunnel wind had begun, indicating an approaching train. In this density of people, Jordan realized that he would never reach the killer in time, and if he got on the train, the odds of continuing the chase successfully would drop precipitously. So he did the only thing he could think of in the moment.

“Allah be praised!” he yelled, springing on top of a bench and brandishing his firearm. “Everyone down, down or I’ll kill all infidels!” He fired his weapon at the ceiling. People screamed, and a great horde of them dropped straight to the ground. The hit man continued to panic, and instead of dropping as well, concealing himself in the crowd, he reached behind his back to pull out his weapon. Jordan crouched on the bench, steadied, and aimed. The man raised his weapon. Jordan pulled the trigger twice in succession.

Both shots were true. They struck the man solidly in the chest, and he shuddered, disoriented, discharging his weapon into the air and crying out as he fell. Several more people screamed, as did the train brakes as the lead car blasted out of the tunnel and into the stop, a rush of air flowing into the chamber. Jordan leapt from the bench and raced across as people crouched in terror. He kept his weapon trained on the man but drew it up as he came close.

The gunman had collapsed and was sprawled on his back, blood soaking his chest and sputtering out of his mouth as he coughed. One of the bullets had hit a major artery. No longer a threat, his gun lay beside his hand on the ground. Jordan felt his stomach turn. The man was near death. His shot had done more damage than he had intended.

He kneeled and grabbed the man’s denim jacket. “Who sent you?” he barked out.

The man looked up, his eyes swimming at first, then focusing for a brief moment. “You lose, Muslim,” he whispered, the word a curse in his mouth. “Ragnarök comes. Burn now. Burn again in hell.” His eyes rolled back, and he became heavy as his muscles completely relaxed. Jordan let go and clenched his fist. No! He’d done all he could. But it hadn’t been enough.

“NYPD—freeze!” The shout was from behind him, the sounds of shoes running toward him unmistakable. “Hands up in the air! Now! Now! Now!”

Jordan placed his gun down and raised his hands slowly over his head. As the officer threw him on his face and cuffed him, he had a brief flashback to the many arrests he had endured as a young gang member, the last leading to his imprisonment—and to his salvation at the hands of a Muslim cleric. It didn’t matter, he thought, as he felt blood leak from his nose. He had failed today. What will tomorrow bring?

“You terrorist bastard,” said the officer standing over him, with his knee in his back. “We’ll ship you somewhere nice, where I hope they electrocute your fucking balls off.”

&“I don’t believe this&! Right in our front yard!” said Larry Kanter, standing outside the FBI building, watching the ambulance pull out with a sedated Frank Miller inside. “Is he going to be okay?”

Savas followed the flashing lights. “Yeah, Larry. It ain’t pretty, but it’s only a shoulder injury. He’s lost some blood, but Matt’s the same type, and he insisted on riding with them just in case. The emergency responders gave Matt some flack, but took one look at him and his badge and eased up.”

Kanter nodded. “Good. Let’s get back up now and figure out what the hell is going on. We’ve got an assassination attempt at our front door, hackers breaking into FBI networks—this is going down as one of our really good days.”

“You believe me now?”

Kanter scowled and looked away. “I guess I don’t have much choice. These bastards pretty much made the argument for you. Damn! I should have listened to you earlier, but I just couldn’t swallow something that big, that impossible. I don’t think the powers-that-be will either, not even after this. But we’ll deal with it.”

Savas looked to the ground. “The bullet was meant for me, Larry. Frank stuck his shoulder in the way, threw himself in the way to get me out of the line of fire. He’s bleeding now instead of my heart being blown out of my chest.”

Kanter’s jaw tightened. “John, the job brings dangers. We might think as analysts we’re protected from the worst, but today you see differently. We’re fellow soldiers in this war, and there are two kinds of soldiers: those who will take a bullet for the platoon and those who won’t. You see which kind Frank is.”

Savas nodded. Kanter motioned for him to walk in. “Now, we’ve got some responding to do. First, we’ve got to put a security team on you right way. More than ever it looks like Gunn must be behind this. You were the one to confront him. He’s focusing on you.”

Savas’s stomach tightened. “Larry, I wasn’t the only one there that day.”

Kanter looked him in the eye. “I’ve got men heading over to her apartment as of fifteen minutes ago.”

46

Superstition

William Gunn switched off the television feed and glanced over a sea of clouds. The white ocean stretched to the edge of the horizon. Waves were embedded in the cloud blanket, giving it the appearance of some heavenly body of celestial water, frozen in the moment. He glanced above the plane, where the sky darkened, lost its blue, and one could make out the brightest stars.

A man approached Gunn’s private section of the aircraft and knocked on the wall next to the curtain separating the compartments.

“Come in,” said the CEO.

Rout spoke. “We’re arriving in half an hour. Different limos will leave simultaneously. We’ll switch vehicles three times, cars following behind to search for tails.”

“Good. Have you seen the footage from today’s missions?”

“I have, sir. Spectacular successes both in Sudan and on the airliner. The prelim is finished, every mission a success. The pattern is in place. We just have to add the final point.”

“It’s time we revealed ourselves, then. The press package?”

“Just give the signal.”

“Today. Send it to all the major news organizations. It’s time to prime the trap.”

“It will be done.”

Gunn nodded. “Have you been debriefed on the failure in New York last week?”

“Yes, sir. A poorly executed mission. The resource was apprehended, but he died of wounds before he could be brought into custody.”

“We’ll make another, more thorough effort soon.”

“Sir?”

“The information we obtained from the FBI—a break into their computer security—has proven very useful. We couldn’t penetrate his division, but we obtained extensive information from other computers about most personnel of relevance.”

“He’ll be a much harder target now, security on his person and place of residence, and he’ll scramble his schedule.”

The CEO nodded. “Yes, that’s to be expected. A harder target but not unreachable. They still can’t connect things to us, and our newfound friendliness with the FBI lets us steer the investigation. We’ll slow them down considerably. Besides, the list of targets has expanded dramatically. I think another strategy is in order.

“We’ll need more assets in New York,” Rout added.

Gunn sipped from a glass of brandy. “It’d be better to bring in our mission units.”

Rout nodded curtly. “Yes, but we can’t bring them back for this mission without jeopardizing the other.”

“I understand. We’ll run New York with what we’ve got there. The primary teams need to be fully briefed on the details of Ragnarök.”

“Yes, sir. You’ll oversee the transfer to Mexico?”

Gunn smiled. “Personally. I will be there, close enough to touch the thing.” He laughed. “Consider it the closest I get to superstition. A blessing, if you will.”

Rout responded with little more than a raised eyebrow. “Understood, sir.” He then spun around and walked through the curtains back to his seat.

47

Dark Paths

WORLD MARKETS PLUNGE AS OPEC DECLARES FULL OIL EMBARGO

By Brandon Lewis and Thomas Fischetti, Associated Press

Stock markets in Asia and Europe fell dramatically as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) announced today a full embargo of oil to Europe and the United States. These actions followed the latest in a series of brazen terrorist strikes on Muslim targets. These attacks, more than one a month across four continents, include the Great Mosque in Khartoum and the downing of an Iranian Boeing 747 that killed more than 400 people en route to South America.

In a dramatic turn of events, an organization calling itself Mjolnir claimed responsibility for these attacks against Islamic targets, releasing a statement and video announcing its intentions to escalate a war of terror against Islamic peoples and sites.

The recently formed joint U.S. and EU Task Force on Oil (USETFO) issued a warning that oil supplies would be maintained by any necessary action, and called upon the OPEC nations to remove the embargo by the end of the month. The secretary of state and several high-ranking officers of NATO attended the press conference, indicating to many analysts that the full force of the U.S. and European military was behind the official statements.

The Russian president, visiting China on an emergency trip many have speculated is related to the growing international crisis, issued a warning at a press conference in Beijing that foreign aggression in the oil-producing countries would not be tolerated and would be considered “an act of war” against all countries relying on oil supplies. Standing beside the Russian leader, the president of China noted that U.S. ships heading to the Persian Gulf were in violation of international law and posed a serious risk of “global destabilization.”

Mjolnir is being described as a Western terrorist organization due to its use of Nordic religious symbols and its stated purpose of attacking Islamic nations and cultural institutions. Muslim nations have demanded the apprehension of the terrorists and the cessation of attacks before they halt the embargo. European and American antiterrorist organizations have said that they are working diligently to stop the group, but so far have been powerless in the face of escalating violence.

&Savas finished cutting& the tomatoes and cucumbers, tossing them together into the large wooden bowl. He diced an onion and sprinkled the bits over the growing salad. From the fridge he removed a large white tub of feta cheese and cut a medium-sized hunk. With his fingers, he crumbled the cheese into small morsels over the salad. Washing his hands, he grabbed the olive oil and spread it luxuriously over the contents of the bowl—country Greek salad with make-do, store-bought produce. Nothing would come close to his grandfather’s garden in Thessaloniki, where the bright Greek sun, the earth, and the weathered hands of a man who cared would always yield crops far superior to the products of agribusiness. But it would have to do.

He gazed out the kitchen window, and, not for the first time, wondered when the coherent red light of a laser targeting scope would dart across his chest, the glass in the window exploding, and a bullet tearing through his flesh. But the night was silent except for the muffled roar of a motorcycle and the sounds of Cohen showering in the next room.

He placed the salad on the table and returned to the kitchen to check on the lamb. It had a bronzed texture, so he turned off the oven. The sound of the water faded, and he heard the shower curtain slide open. He resisted the urge to go see her. There was nothing sexier or more beautiful than a woman dripping wet from a shower. Or from a rainstorm, he reminded himself.

Following the attempt on his life, much had changed—seemingly for the better. The investigation of his conduct toward William Gunn had ended, as enough of the decision makers at FBI had decided that perhaps all this wasn’t so coincidental. The cyber attack on FBI had certainly helped his case. Once it was clear how much confidential information had been breached, an entirely new investigation into lax computer security had begun. By the time Jordan had obtained a governmental get-out-of-jail-free card, Savas was off the hook internally. But the relief was muted. He had a price on his head.

The FBI decided to keep a constant watch on both him and Cohen. This had at first panicked them both, as they thought it meant they would not be able to see each other for the duration. But it had turned out wonderfully once Kanter had suggested that it would conserve resources to keep them together at all times. This was something of a double-edged sword: they had a complete lack of freedom in their activities outside the apartment and the FBI, but a freedom from the constraints of hiding their relationship. Cohen had suggested that they hole up after work at her place. While the guards outside the room were a nuisance, they were finally afforded a strange sort of normalcy in their relationship. “Now we can finally go to work together, darling,” she had joked one morning. Yes, with the caveat that they go together with the hulking shapes of Agents Robertson and Smith.

Breaking him out of thought, Cohen walked into the kitchen. He held his breath, once again reduced to a small singularity in her presence. Her hair cascaded over her shoulders, chestnut turned dark with water. She sported the “monkey shirt”—a tight number with a brightly-colored monkey undulating across her chest. She had worn the shirt in late August at the park, and he had asked whether she had intended it to get his attention. She laughed at him. “John, not everything revolves around sex.” He tried to digest that one.

Cohen noticed his gaze and smiled. “All right, this time I did wear it for you.”

Savas smiled. “So, I’ve got permission?”

She laughed and kissed him. “Let’s try some of that salad.”

Cohen walked to the table as Savas brought out the salad and the lamb. “It’s too much for the two of us, but I’d rather save some for tomorrow and not invite in our well-armed shadows.”

They ate in silence, a mundane activity as deep as any world event. Cohen spoke through the stillness.

“Frank’s going to be okay?”

Savas put down his fork and exhaled. “It looks like he will. There was a lot of deep-tissue damage, so his racquetball game is never going to be the same. But he’ll get most of his range of motion back, or so the doctors tell me anyway. At least we got Husaam out of lockup without too much trouble. What a mess!”

“God, John, it still runs through my mind every day. If it weren’t for Frank . . .”

He cut her off. “But he was there. Don’t torture yourself. I’m here, and we just have to keep our wits about us now.”

“Nothing more from the sniper?”

Savas shook his head. “No. Same pattern as the other one. Ex-military, served in an antiterrorism unit. There were reports of behavior toward enemy combatants that led to formal disciplinary action. Seems that lots of these Mjolnir soldiers have some strong hatred for Muslims. Gunn must have recruited such men.”

“So we just play it cool with Gunn?”

“That’s how they want it. Filtering it through Larry’s evasions, it seems there’s still enough debate higher up about messing with Gunn that they’re moving slowly, which makes sense from another angle—he’s still working with the FBI. The hope’s to find enough about Operon, or get lucky and strike gold looking into Gunn International itself, that we’ll find what we need to take this thing down and stop whatever they’re planning next.”

“John, something’s troubling me about all these attacks.”

“You mean besides all the death and destruction?”

She gave him a sharp look. “Yes. They don’t make sense. Sure, they’re all Muslim targets and Mjolnir is out to destroy Islam—motive’s there. But why do you go out bombing random mosques across the world, or, come on, a civilian airliner? How’s that going to bring down a religion of over a billion souls?”

“I don’t know, but it’s sure shaking up the world. The Islamic nations have gone ape-shit, embargoed us, and we’ve sent a bunch of ships toward the Gulf threatening them and scaring everyone that World War III is on the horizon.”

“But why not hit more strategic targets? Government buildings? Leaders of nations? These targets are so random, so haphazard. Why not more professional-type targets for such a professional group? They began with assassinations that followed that kind of pattern. Then this.”

“Maybe we don’t know what their aims are.”

Cohen put her elbows on the table and clasped her hands under her chin. “That’s what I’m getting at, John. We’re missing something! These guys are too smart, too careful, too thoughtful to appear so scattershot.”

“Sometimes revenge isn’t logical, Rebecca. Sometimes it’s just mean and crazy.”

She shook her head. “I don’t think so. You said it best—Gunn’s like a serial killer. There’s something cold and calculating alongside all that hatred. Some pattern, however demented. We’re missing something that’s pointing somewhere.”

Savas heard the anxiety in her voice and took her hand. “Where then? What do you mean?”

Cohen stared out the window behind him. “I don’t know. Somewhere dark. To something bigger, much bigger.” She squeezed his hand so tightly it hurt. “John, I’m scared.”

48

Not Even the Gods

Michael Inherp watched the docked boats bob on the waves of the Gulf. Night fell on New Orleans. But not the old New Orleans, he reminded himself, full of swagger and slum, of music and magic, Mardi Gras and murder, artists, pimps, and queens. It was a wounded shadow of a once great city, left alone to rot after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Lights danced on the sea stretching out before the dock like those in a van Gogh painting, the rigging of sailboats like muffled bells playing to the rhythm of the waves. Calm before the storm. He closed his eyes, thinking about the tempest to come.

A small freighter waited hungrily at the dock. It was an unusual vessel, thoroughly modernized, down to tinted black windows and highly sophisticated and expensive radar and communications equipment visible from the outside. Inherp had seen the inside and knew the outside told only a superficial tale. For several days, he and other soldiers of Mjolnir had passed on and off the boat—men with purpose and haste and intensity foreign to the rhythms of the port.

Inherp continued to scan the port as part of his guard duty. He watched an old fisherman prepare his boat for the night’s expedition. This wasn’t the first time the old man had worked his boat during Inherp’s watch. Stooped, a gray beard visible from a distance, he had observed the unusual activity at the strange boat. Inherp doubted the fisherman thought long on the issue. This was New Orleans, after all. He displayed no real curiosity. He prepped his boat and cast out. Night after night. The old man moved to a different pace, a sense of the sea, its rhythm, its long heartbeat and toll of a lifetime. Inherp suppressed a bitter laugh. Not like us, are you, Gramps? With our machines and power, flaunting our disrespect for the great waters of the world.

This night, the activity was particularly brisk, and Inherp knew the man had seen much, even inadvertently. Seen too much. The fisherman had been working when the very large crate was pulled along the dock on an extended trolley, perking up when the crate rolled by, its mass flanked on each side by armed men. He had cast a glance or two as the men wheeled the crate to the freighter, which was equipped with a small crane. The men had secured the crate to a harness, and the crane had pulled the crate upward, out of sight. The old man had worked late one night too many.

It happened before the fisherman could understand. A shadow rose at the old boat, the broad end of a silencer glinted as muffled spits sounded over the splashing of waves. A body lay on the deck of the trawler, nets tangled around its limbs, a pool of blood seeping into the aged wood.

Inherp bowed his head for a moment. The rigging of the sailboats rang like church bells in the thickening night.

&Later&, onboard, he was ordered to sequester the large crate below deck. He and his fellow soldiers had secured it tightly. Now they stood at attention. A tall, thin man descended a narrow set of stairs above him, bowed to fit under the low clearance, and straightened to full height when he reached the last step and entered the room. He wore a dark-gray suit, his silver hair set tight on his head. Money, power, and influence radiated from him, as well as something more feral, something that Inherp could feel and that kept him tightly at attention. William Gunn. Inherp felt stunned to be in his presence. Following behind, a powerfully built figure with blond hair emerged and stood a few feet to Gunn’s left. This man had a sharp crew cut and the face of a tested warrior.

“Open it,” said Gunn.

Inherp jumped to obey, and within moments, he and the others had revealed what lay within. Gunn stared at the long, black object inside with a terrible fascination that sickened Inherp. It ran twenty feet in length with a diameter of nearly three feet. Wings jutted outward from its midsection, spanning over ten feet. The design reeked of death, a predator like the earth had never seen. The CEO passed his hands along its smooth contours.

“AGM-129 advanced cruise missile,” said the older soldier, matter-of-factly. “Average speed of a jet plane at five hundred miles per hour. Range—two thousand nautical miles. Payload—a W80-1 variable yield. She flies fast, she flies low and unseen, and delivers one hell of a punch at the end.”

Inherp noticed that Gunn did not take his eyes off the black missile. The men around him looked distinctly uncomfortable as the CEO stepped back and addressed the soldiers.

“When you’ve delivered the package and it’s secured, we’ll begin training for our most important mission, one that will spill fire on our enemies and forever change the world. You will be part of that mission, a strike at the heart of fanaticism in the world with a weapon the gods themselves didn’t possess.”

Gunn glared across the faces and marched up the stairs. Inherp felt a massive tension leave his body. He and the other soldiers reassembled the crate. As the wood covered the black monstrosity within, Inherp hung back from the others, using the crate’s sides to partially shield himself from their view. He held a small object, pointing it at the missile several times discreetly, ensuring that he remained hidden from the other soldiers. He pocketed the device and assisted in the final steps of securing the crate.

Ascending the narrow stairs, he looked across the bow. Dark waves lapped the hull below. Nauseated, he turned his face to the wind. Cool air swept over him as the ship motored out to sea. He touched the cell phone in his pocket. It held information that the world had to see—and had to see soon. He knew that somehow, he had to live long enough to make sure that they did.

49

Not Vacationing

Savas entered the Operations Room at Intel 1. As always, there was an assault of visual information from the many monitors mounted on the walls—a strange FBI version of Times Square. JP Rideout called to him from across the room.

“John, we’ve got the specs on that plane and the initial analysis of the explosion. This came from U.S. Navy. They were right on the scene and recorded most of the useful data we’ve got on this.” He called up several figures on one of the screens showing a large commercial jetliner, 747, and several incomprehensible schematics depicting the analysis of the blast.

“JP, can you give me the Cliffs Notes version?”

“Yeah, sorry. I don’t understand half this stuff myself. Bottom line—this was no accident—a high-yield explosive device, likely contained in the baggage compartment. How it got past security is anyone’s guess. S-47 isn’t easy to detect, but they wouldn’t have needed anything so sophisticated to bring that plane down.”

“Any wreckage recovered?”

“That’s still ongoing. There will be some, but that Boeing was blown to bits. There are some remains of the tail section, but it’s sunk deep now. It’ll take a few weeks before the Navy can get the equipment out there—that is, if they aren’t diverted to the Persian Gulf.”

Savas shook his head slowly. “Yeah. It’s a magnet right now for large ships with big guns. This whole thing is starting to reach critical mass.”

Rideout looked up from his terminal. “You think this is going to lead to war?” Several heads swiveled in their direction.

“I sure as hell hope not. If it does, it won’t be some little police action like Nam or Iraq—no offense to you guys who saw blood spilled there. This is going to be something big, something where we can’t even bring the bodies back. If Russia and China get involved, who knows where it’ll go. Mjolnir’s wet dream.”

Matt King piped up. “The mosque in Sudan—same MO. Same results from forensics. Your little visit didn’t dissuade them from using S-47, or from anything else, it seems. There were riots again in Khartoum, and the American Embassy was firebombed. Molotov cocktails and the like. Luckily, we evacuated our people last week. Definitely not a great time to travel with a U.S. passport.”

“Or to live near any Muslim holy site of any significance,” said Savas.

Frank Miller nodded, wincing from the pain in his shoulder, his arm in a sling. “That sure as hell is true. The question is: where will they strike next? We’ve been banging our heads against this for months, but there’s no rhyme or reason, no pattern.”

Savas and Cohen exchanged glances. “No,” Savas said. “Nothing. No structure, pattern, nothing we can get our hands on to predict and prepare.”

“There’s something . . .” Angel Lightfoote whispered as much to herself as to anyone in the room.

“Angel?” asked Savas. “You think you see something?”

Lightfoote stared forward, shaking her head. “There’s always something.”

He sighed. They remained in the dark, powerless, while a panther stalked the world—and stalked him and Cohen. They kept waiting for the hammer to fall.

Husaam Jordan stepped into the room and approached Savas. “John, we think that Gunn has left the country, probably for Mexico or somewhere in Central America.”

“What?” William Gunn leaving the country, and not flying to a big bank in China or Europe, made Savas very uneasy. “Field agents last had him in New Orleans!”

“He lost them quite effectively, it seems. He’s been using a number of decoys. Our contacts at the ports place a man who fits his description, as well as an unusual amount of activity, at a cargo ship several days ago. Right around that time, there was a shooting at the same port that occurred the night that ship left harbor. We’ve been able to track the numbers on the boat back to an old discarded model once used by Operon several years back.”

“We need a better team down there,” Savas said dejectedly. “You spooks are doing our job for us. Okay, assuming this isn’t a coincidence, why does that mean he’s out of the country?”

“CIA contacts in Mexico. This boat docked several days after departure, south of the border. We’ve sent a team, and they’ll check it out, but I bet all traces of Mjolnir will be gone.”

“Assuming he was on the boat, what the hell is he doing there?”

“Not vacationing,” the Muslim said flatly.

Part III

Pillars of Islam

An axe age, a sword age

Shields are riven

A wind age, a wolf age

before the world’s ruin

Prophecy of the Völva of the Poetic Edda

50

Unwelcome Guests

That night Savas lay next to Cohen, unable to sleep. He glanced over at the clock—it was three in the morning. His mind was obsessing over the scant data and unproven hypotheses that characterized the investigation. There had to be a pattern to the attacks, something that would help them understand their structure and purpose, and from that, to know where Mjolnir would strike again. Did any of this have to do with Gunn’s departure for Mexico? Why would he leave in such a clandestine fashion? How would they unearth the evidence required to link him to these crimes?

He rolled over on his side. If he stayed like that too long, his back, battered during his days on the force, would cramp, but he needed to look at her. She slept peacefully, her lips slightly parted, a slow and soft rhythm to her breath hardly disturbing the quiet of the night.

A noise broke the peace. His head darted toward the bedroom door. The sounds were muffled, shielded from the bedroom by a hallway and several thin walls, but unmistakable. Several harsh spits, an intake of breath, and the soft thud of a body falling against the wall. Outside.

He pulled off the blanket, jumped out of bed, and ran to the chest of drawers. He pulled out his handgun and checked the magazine. The moonlight shone through the windows, bathing his naked form in a silvery sheen. Every muscle was tensed, and he listened a moment without moving. Click. The bolt lock. Every nightmare he had had in the last month was coming alive before him.

He jumped back to the bed and shook Cohen. She stirred, opened her eyes, and was about to speak when he placed his hand over her mouth, holding his gun hand to his own with an outstretched finger over his lips. She snapped to an alert state, her eyes large, instinctively pulling the sheet closer. He motioned for her to get behind the bed. She shook her head.

“Rebecca, please,” he whispered. Cohen was an amazing analyst but hadn’t seen violence like Savas, especially during his early years at NYPD. These were the trained assassins of Mjolnir, not common criminals. I can’t lose her.

She squinted, but nodded, climbing down and concealing herself. Savas turned to the door. Behind him Cohen reached toward the drawer of the nightstand.

The front door crashed open, the drag chain snapping and flying across the living room. Savas darted through the bedroom door, steadying his firearm on the frame. He saw two dim shapes entering the apartment, weapons in their hands. Two! But he held the initiative.

He fired two shots at the closest form. The figure crumbled, let out a hoarse shout, and dropped to the ground shooting wildly, shattering a mirror on the wall over the couch. Instinctively, Savas spun across the hallway to the bathroom, the drywall exploding beside him. He nearly toppled over in his momentum, steadied himself, and prepared to move on the second assailant.

But his assailant found him first.

A dark shape appeared in the doorway. Savas swung his arm to divert the man’s weapon hand, and several shots exploded against the tile of the bathtub. He brought his own gun forward, but the killer was both fast and strong. Savas’s wrist was pinned and twisted backward. He cried out in pain and dropped his gun. The man swung his gun as a bludgeon and struck Savas in the jaw, crashing his head into the wall. Partially stunned, running on adrenaline, Savas brought his left arm down like a hammer, smashing the weapon out of the man’s hand. The gun clanked heavily as it hit the floor tiles.

Savas felt the impact and deep swelling pain as the man crashed his knee into his testicles, and a flurry of fists impacted his abdomen and face, sending him crashing backward through the shower curtain and into the bathtub. His back was nicked by several broken shards of tile lying in the bottom, and he crumpled into the fetal position, wracked with pain. He watched helplessly as the man picked up the weapon and aimed it at him. Rebecca, run . . . please, run. His vision blurred as he bordered on the edge of consciousness.

Two loud explosions brought him back. He felt a spray of blood as the head of his assailant burst open, a bullet tearing through his skull and striking tile above the bathtub. The assassin fell to his knees with a heavy thud, pitching forward onto his mangled face. The body began to spasm. Savas gazed forward and saw another shape in the frame of the doorway, short and slender, arms outstretched and ending in a pistol.

“John?” came Cohen’s voice. “Are you okay?”

&An hour later&, Savas put down the phone and placed the ice pack back on his jaw. Ice packs all over me, he thought ruefully. Cohen sat across from him, her eyes bloodshot with dark circles under them, her expression pained. He could guess what it was like to look at him right now.

“It’s okay. It’s just not going to be pretty for a while.”

“What did Larry say?” Her voice was nearly devoid of emotion. Shock. Savas knew that she had never killed anyone. And there was no time to handle the trauma properly.

Savas motioned to the door. “The agents outside—it’s the worst. Shot dead right next to the door.”

“The assassins—who were they?”

“The same,” said Savas. “Prints are in the Armed Forces’ database. Professionals. Mjolnir.”

Cohen nodded and pulled her robe around her more tightly. She looked cold, he thought. He felt too damn awful to get up and sit with her. Give me a minute, Rebecca.

“Larry says we’ll move to a safe house soon. You’ll need to pack up. Maybe we should’ve done this earlier, after the cyber attack. They knew everything about us, where we lived. Protecting the apartment wasn’t enough. These guys want us dead for real.”

“John, I barely made it in time.”

Savas rose, drawing a sharp breath. There were just places a man ought not to be hit. He took two steps and pivoted onto the couch next to Cohen. Glass shards from the mirror had been roughly cleared off, scattered across the Persian carpet she had bought only a month ago. He put his arm around her as her shoulders shook.

“You didn’t hesitate. It happened in an eye-blink. You saved my ass. I’m here because of you, Rebecca.” She looked over and nodded, and he brushed a tear from her eye. “But I think I’m going to have to remain celibate for at least a week.”

She smiled softly at this. Savas fought to maintain his mask of nonchalance and smiled back. Inside, he shook with fear, fear that mere seconds had separated Cohen from death. He shook with the shame of the truth that he had failed to protect her. Only her presence next to him gave him any calm. She’s safe and will be safer soon.

&William Gunn walked& outside a small airfield in Mexico. Overgrown grass danced chaotically in the wind. The runways were barely within the specifications he required, but safety wasn’t his primary concern. The looser regulations and minimal scrutiny from any regulatory bodies made this the perfect location. He spoke to the large man walking beside him.

“We were exposed with Operon. We’ve got to end our reliance on former elements of Gunn International.”

Patrick Rout nodded. “I understand, sir. It was convenient in the beginning, and we couldn’t anticipate the breach of the arms network, something we’ll continue to have to rely on.”

“I understand the rationale, but the CIA’s efforts showed the flaw in that reliance. Sever those ties.”

“Yes, sir.”

“The cargo plane?”

“We’ve recruited damn well. The engineers did a remarkable job. The stealth tech is integrated. I’ve seen it in flight. Works beautifully. Too bulky to be invisible on radar, but the signal will be low. If they don’t know precisely where to look, they won’t see us.”

Gunn paused and gazed out over the field of grass. They were so close! Everything had gone according to plan. The nations had reacted with more panic and fervor than he had anticipated, practically ensuring complete chaos and war after this mission. The final phase was in motion. Soon the Western armies would flow into the Middle East, and the hammer would strike the Arab nations soundly at their most sensitive point. A new era would begin. William Gunn needed to make sure nothing got in the way.

“Perhaps it’s time to take a new tack in New York.”

“Sir?”

“Our efforts have been unsuccessful.”

Rout stiffened. “Pulling out all the stops now, as planned. Changing the operation now would be a mistake.”

Gunn shook his head. “I refer to Savas. He’s proven very elusive. A more indirect course may be required.”

“Indirect, sir?”

“We’re fairly sure now that there’s a relationship between him and the Cohen woman. Our recon supports this conclusion strongly.”

“Yes, sir. She’ll be targeted for elimination.”

“A mistake. With her death, we risk motivating him even more. But if we take her alive, she becomes a powerful deterrent to his continued involvement in the investigation.”

“Perhaps.”

Gunn stared over the wild grasses. “I know something about the man. He’ll do anything to avoid losing someone else in his life. Bring her here.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Precautions, no more. Soon it won’t matter what anyone does. The world will be consumed trying to contain the fire.”

51

Lost Souls

Dr. Anthony Russell entered his office at 8:30 a.m. precisely. Not a single item in the room could have been described as dusty, out of place, or in need of repair. The blinds had been cleaned for the third time that month only yesterday. The air filter systems were regularly replaced. The carpet needed looking at—he would see to that later today. If asked, he would have said that he was a classic obsessive-compulsive personality, kept in check by therapy and occasional medication, and that such business was his own, thanks very much.

Whatever his idiosyncrasies, Dr. Russell was a highly respected figure in psychiatry at Fort Marshall, and, in fact, among all of Army medicine. His attention to detail was exactly what was required in observing patients, as well as in prescribing medications and monitoring their effects. But what made Dr. Russell stand out was that he just plain cared about U.S. soldiers more than anyone else did.

In the early 1990s, he had begun several unique studies to examine the psychological trauma and syndromes afflicting veterans of the first Persian Gulf War. What he learned there had been invaluable, if insufficient, for treatment of the far-more-terrible trauma soldiers faced after the Iraq War. A combination of multiple tours of duty, guerrilla warfare with terrorist tactics, and shoddy commitment to veteran care post-duty had left one of the most damaged generations of U.S. military personnel since—well, since as long as he could remember—and that included Vietnam.

These things made Anthony Russell angry, but he was far too composed—some might say uptight—to voice such anger in a conventional manner. As the third generation of men in the Russell family to serve proudly, his loyalty to the military was absolute. He addressed the problem through his work. This helped explain the mountain of effort, the numerous programs and studies for veterans that came from his initiatives. He hoped in the end, he might make a difference.

He placed his briefcase in its precise location on the desk, wiped the computer screen with a dust cloth, and switched it on. First task in the morning was email, and there was usually lots of it. He scrolled through the lists—invitations for speaking engagements, pharmaceutical company offers that he knew amounted to little more than bribes for their products, and the occasional penis enlargement advertisement that slipped through spam filters. How creative they could be with spelling.

Near the end of the list, an email caught his eye. It took him several seconds to place the name and account—Michael Inherp. He had not heard from the boy since he had left therapy several years ago, simply disappearing, never giving explanation or motive or plans for his future. This had disturbed Dr. Russell. It was certainly a rash thing to do. Inherp had served two tours in Iraq, during which he had seen an IED turn his best friend inside out, stood by as a group of crazed soldiers sodomized a young Iraqi teen, and hidden his sexuality from the men around him who constituted his closest family during those traumatic periods. He wasn’t accepted at home—gay men were still beaten in some parts of the country. All these things weighed heavily on a man who loved his country, who signed up to fight for it after 9/11. Where was the boy now?

He opened the email and scanned the contents. As he read, his face constricted, his eyes squinting behind his glasses. He pushed the lenses up and rubbed his eyes, the text of the message a ghostly afterimage on his lids.

Dear Dr. Russell,

I don’t have much time, and it is important that you believe me. Several years ago, I joined the organization known as Mjolnir. I know you have read about them. They promised me a chance to protect America in a way the Army could never do. They have been smart, not like what we’ve wasted our money and blood for in Iraq, sir. They want to destroy our enemies.

At first I believed along with them. But something happened to change that. It’s important that you believe me. They are planning something terrible. They plan to use a stolen weapon, not conventional, in their next attack. I’ve seen it. It’s real. I’ve attached photographs of the missile and the serial number.

Please, you have to believe me. Show this to Army Command. To someone. Anyone. I’ll do what I can, but I’m only one person. They are serious. They will do this. I don’t know where or when, but it’s a Muslim target, like all the others.

You helped me when things were dark, and I’ll always be thankful. I’m sorry to have let you down, but this is more important than me.

Yours, M. Inherp

The photographs showed what indeed looked like a missile inside a large crate, followed by several close-ups of the serial number. A nuclear weapon? Is he delusional? His mind raced. Certainly a lost nuclear weapon would have been front-page news! The military had exacting standards, and the press would eat this up as the country and world went into a panic. Could the U.S. government hide something like this? It was beyond credibility.

It could be a delusional episode, he told himself, perhaps born from the boy’s deep conflict in loving and hating the military. This could have generated a fantasy that he was correcting the mistakes of the military, his need to join the terrorists to “complete” his mission, and his human side taking over in warning him. Could he have faked the images? Of course he could. It was easy in this day and age of image-editing software. But not the serial numbers. There was a way to address the veracity of his story. Russell shook his head. Dare he bring this up in a serious fashion to the Army? Some dent it would make in his reputation if this turned out to be the hoax of a disturbed soldier.

“Michael, what in God’s name has happened to you?”

52

Serial Numbers

Dr. Russell fingered the handle of his briefcase nervously. The secretary had told him the general was on an important conference call. Russell had no doubt about it, but the waiting was agonizing. He had known Lieutenant General Fred Marshall for twenty years. The general had become nearly a father figure to him, part of the community that had watched his career develop from a committed therapist to a full-blown researcher and advocate for combat veterans. Marshall was also instrumental in the progression of Russell’s career, using his influence at various stages to secure funding and promotion through the ranks. Marshall had on more than one occasion referred patients who had failed all other treatments to Russell. He had gone so far as to solicit Russell’s opinions and reviews of many of the army’s pre-combat training procedures for soldiers, as well as for post-combat care. Russell drew a deep breath. The general had championed his causes, leading to many important changes in how the army handled the trauma of combat. There had been no way to repay him.

He didn’t know how to prepare for the scheduled meeting. In a few minutes, he’d walk into the office and try to make a case for a stray nuclear weapon, the existence of which had been provided by an admittedly mentally unsound former patient. Russell knew the general would hear him out, but he also knew that the general could only believe this was a hoax. The U.S. military lose a nuclear weapon? Unthinkable. And if the unthinkable had happened, it wouldn’t be a secret. They’d have mounted the largest search imaginable. Russell couldn’t defeat that logic either. All he had was his professional intuition developed over a span of several decades.

The door swung open, and the general ushered in the psychiatrist. Russell tried to put his emotions aside and focus on the issue at hand.

“General Marshall,” Russell began formally.

“Anthony, it’s good to see you again!” The general gave him a strong handshake and motioned him to sit.

Russell managed a smile. “I would agree, General. But, under the circumstances, I find myself mostly in an agitated state.”

Marshall nodded and took a seat behind his desk. “I understand. Then let’s get straight to business. Tell me what’s going on again. To be honest, your phone call was a bit unsettling.”

“I anticipated as much. But all I ask is that you hear me out—for my years of service. I dared not take this to anyone else. I needed someone I could trust.”

Marshall nodded again while Russell continued. “I’ve told you about the email. I’ve brought it on a CD-ROM.” Russell handed over a jewel case to the general. “I’d rather not spread it beyond my own email account—both for patient confidentiality and the sensitivity of the contents. I’ve removed any clear reference to the individual.”

General Marshall stuck the disk into the tray of his computer. “I understand. So tell me, Anthony, you see this kid as sound enough mentally to trust these amazing statements?”

“Honestly, General, no. I worry about his mental state. But, I must be clear. He has never shown any sign of delusional psychosis. Moderate depression, anxiety, but nothing beyond that. I can’t speak to what’s happened over the last year, however. I came to you because of our long relationship, so if this is a product of a troubled mind, no damage is done. I hope.” He smiled wanly. “But, if there’s some truth to this incredible story, well, I had to reach out.”

“Yes, of course” the general mumbled, somewhat distracted as he examined the images on the disk. “Well, if it’s a hoax, Anthony, the missile looks very convincing. Air Force cruise missile, aircraft mounted.” He squinted at the screen. “Oh, now that’s interesting. Like you said, we can read the serial numbers. Not too bright if he’s making this up. Easy to verify, although—that is very interesting,” he trailed off, staring at the screen. After a moment he glanced at Russell. “Remind me where he served.”

“Iraq. Infantry.”

“He’s never worked with weapons systems, missiles, conventional or nuclear?”

Russell shook his head. “Not that I know of. He wasn’t qualified. Why?”

The general looked back toward the screen and spoke. “For an untrained soldier, he knows a lot about serial number format. He’s nailed the digit structure perfectly.”

Russell felt his stomach tighten. As much as he would hate to ruin his reputation, the alternative—that he was right—was terrifying.

“He claims he’s a member of this terrorist group, Mjolnir.”

“Yes, so you mentioned.” The general glanced once more at the computer screen, took off his glasses, and placed them on his desk. He turned again to Russell, his expression serious. “I think I need to make some phone calls.”

Russell replied stiffly, a chill running through his body. “Yes, sir.”

53

Massacre

Blake Morrison walked to the mailbox and opened it. The usual, he thought: several bills, a pile of catalogs seeking to burst the box, and an assortment of random junk mail. The sun arced over the surrounding hills on its way downward, half-concealed in clouds to create a complicated pattern of beams in the dimming sky. Sunshine. Something he might be able to enjoy if he weren’t working so damn hard.

A gray VW Jetta pulled up the street and came to a stop in the driveway across from his house. The Agent. Everyone on the block knew The Agent. How anyone came to know he worked for the FBI had been forgotten, but everyone knew. The man didn’t deny it if asked, but he didn’t offer much either. Keeps to himself would be the nicer way to put things. Morrison preferred arrogant and aloof. The man never participated in block or neighborhood activities, rarely spoke with his neighbors. Always seemed to have important things to do, more important than the ordinary Joes he lived around. Morrison had spent a lot of time speculating on just what his neighbor did for a living. He had spent even more time speculating on what he did in his home. He never once had seen a woman go in or come out of that house. He had on occasion seen men. For Blake Morrison, that was enough. Damn pervert’s a homosexual, he told himself for the fiftieth time as he closed the mailbox. He watched The Agent step out of the Jetta, grab his briefcase, close the door, and try to avoid eye contact with him. What do you have to hide, Agent Man?

Morrison shook his head and turned back around. If there was one thing he couldn’t abide, it was those homosexuals. Invading all decent neighborhoods, television, schools, forcing their morals on the rest of America. He walked slowly back toward his house, looking over the Victoria’s Secret catalog addressed to his wife.

His next sensation was of flying and darkness. When he regained consciousness, it was with the taste of hard concrete in his mouth. He opened his eyes and saw that he was facedown on his sidewalk, perhaps ten feet from his porch. A strange crackling sound filled the air behind him, and the ringing of numerous car alarms invaded his consciousness. Or are those screams?

He stumbled to his feet, blood covering his face, the left side of his head numb and feeling swollen. His left arm hurt. Yes, those were definitely screams. He turned around slowly and had trouble interpreting what he saw. Across the street, where a small ranch-style home had once stood, there was a raging fire. Smoke billowed into the air, and debris littered the weed-covered lawn, apparently raining down as far as his own manicured front yard. The VW Jetta was a shell, as if it, too, had been blown apart by some incredible force. People were pouring out of their homes, some screaming, some speaking on cell phones, many looking bewildered and shocked.

“Blake, what the hell is going on?”

He turned around and saw his wife standing in the doorway, her initial expression of confusion replaced by one of shock. He simply stared at her.

“Blake? What happened to you? My God, is that Mr. Kanter’s house?”

Morrison said nothing, turning around slowly to look at the burning remains. The Agent. Fire. There was no way anyone was coming out of that alive.

&Mira Vujanac got& off the bus and walked briskly up the street toward a small brownstone. The light dimmed fast in the city once the sun had gotten behind the buildings, and Vujanac hated to be outside at night. Twenty years ago, when the city was much less safe, she had been mugged and raped at knifepoint near the park. Despite years of therapy and more money than it cost to send her children to college, she had never been freed from the fear of walking the streets after dark. She clutched her bag as every stranger passed by, focused maniacally on the small black gate that protected the tiny space in front of her door. Still plenty of light, she reminded herself and yet accelerated her pace.

A dark shape sprung from one of the stairways on her right. Mira reacted instinctively, her past attack having given her a heightened sense of threat, so that she identified the hostile intent in the movements before she was conscious of it. She reached into her bag and pulled out her mace spray, turned and aimed as she had been taught in her self-defense classes, and sprayed.

The man was too fast. He had anticipated her movement and, with his left arm, swatted away her right, knocking the can of mace to the street. With his right, he brought up a dark object, a gun with a long and large barrel. Oh, God, not again.

&Angel Lightfoote walked& along a bridge in Central Park, watching the slow passing of autumn leaves floating on the murky waters of the pond. She passed couples holding hands, wrapped in fall jackets, and shielding their faces from the wind. Many stopped to stare at her—a waterfall of orange hair, long white dress to her bare feet, and no jacket. She didn’t mind, even if she did notice. There were more important things.

Lightfoote sighed, staring at the trees of the park, leaves turning, soon to become silent skeletons. Winter was a dark time for her, and she dreaded the sleeping of the plants and the sense that life was frozen, stilled, and hidden from view. In that winter bleakness, the concrete of the city no longer felt so sterile. In fact, she might prefer it to living things that had been silenced by the cold.

She turned to leave, to head home before night fell, but halted. She cocked her head to one side and stared, listening intently. The animals are quiet.

Years ago, before, Lightfoote would not have noticed. Would not have heard. But she had changed. Been changed. Now she was only raw skin, feeling the slightest breeze, a minuscule temperature change, hearing things, seeing things, sensing things unavailable to others. After it happened, she struggled, pretending not to notice or risk alienating those around her. Joining the FBI, she found for the first time a purpose for her strange sensitivity. She didn’t fool herself—everyone still thought of her as different and kept a certain cautious distance. But for them, she was at least useful, when she was able to intuit or connect facts to answers that others could not.

Something’s wrong.

She felt it in the air flowing over her and in the strange silence from the living heartbeats hidden from view. They’re afraid. Lightfoote realized that she, too, was afraid and that she was beginning to feel the source of the fear. Something close, something hostile, something murderous approached. Looking for me.

She spun in several directions, but the bridge and surrounding park were empty, save the scattering leaves and the sound of wind.

Run, Angel. Run.

Her body felt the urge to flee, and in a single instant, she gave way and raced across the bridge toward the park exit. Gunshots cracked from behind. Lightfoote ran faster. The voice called out harshly, you cannot run away.

Her white dress billowed as she dashed, pieces of wood exploding inches behind her. No more running. She leapt onto the broad handrail of the bridge and dove through the air. She was weightless, a white leaf drifting on the wind. She plunged into the green mass of water below.

&The phone calls rolled& in mercilessly. Savas sat in his office, shocked and disbelieving. Across from him, Cohen sat in a chair overcome with grief. As he put down the receiver, he brought his hand to his forehead and squeezed, a headache pounding, crushing him like a vice. Unbidden, his mind scrolled through the names: Larry, Mira, Matt . . . Manuel. All confirmed killed, murdered, one call after another bringing in horrific news, inducing nauseous baths of emotion and shock. The FBI scrambled to locate the remaining agents of Kanter’s division and the parallel division chiefs. It was a nightmare of proportions he’d never imagined.

“That’s Morgan from Johnson’s division. Manuel’s dead. Burned alive inside his car on I-80.”

Oh, God!” Cohen shrieked, anger and despair haunting her face. “It has to stop. Please!

Savas didn’t care anymore who saw them together. He stepped across the room and held her.

“What are we going to do?” she asked, burying her head in his shoulder.

“I don’t know, Rebecca. I don’t know. Monsters—they’re ripping us open today.”

The door pushed open slowly, and they stared in shock at the stained and soaked white dress that draped the body of Angel Lightfoote. She smelled of a swamp, greens and browns polluting the once bright colors of the fabric. Her long hair was matted and snarled, hanging in tangled clumps from her head. Her hands were bloodied and bruised, suffering some blunt-force trauma. But she was alive.

Cohen leapt up, nearly knocking Savas over as she ran to embrace Lightfoote. “Angel, Angel, Angel!” she cried holding the battered woman in her arms. She pulled back and stared into her face, tears on her cheeks.

Lightfoote smiled faintly. “Hi, Rebecca.”

Savas stood and walked to the women. “Angel—my God, what happened?”

Lightfoote cocked her head to one side and stared into the distance. “Evil,” she said. “Something evil wanted to kill me. It shot at me. I jumped in the water and banged on a rock. I didn’t get up until I’d swum far away.”

Cohen stared mournfully at Lightfoote. “Angel, it’s been horrible. Everyone . . .”

“Is dead,” finished Lightfoote, her face expressionless.

“We don’t know that!” Savas interrupted. “We have confirmed deaths. Larry’s dead—killed by a bomb at his house. Several heads of other divisions that have been involved in the case. Matt and Manuel. My apartment and Rebecca’s were broken into. But Frank overcame his assailant, who fled. JP’s alive, but only because some drunk teen plowed into his car in the early morning, setting off the bomb underneath. We don’t have any word about other targets.”

“Two, at least, in CIA,” rolled the booming voice of Husaam Jordan as he entered the room. He had a bruised face and an ice pack on his right eye. A fire burned in his left.

Cohen put her arm on his shoulder. “Husaam—my God. You’re hurt.”

“You should’ve seen the other guy,” he said grimly. “Actually, I wouldn’t recommend that. They’re fishing him out of the Hudson as we speak.”

Savas stepped toward the CIA agent. “They’ve hit CIA? How did they know?”

“Unsecured information in the bowels of FBI computing connecting our groups. That’s my guess. Many at the CIA felt it was a mistake to work with you. I don’t think even the worst critics could’ve imagined this.” He stared intently at Savas. “John, the time has come to act and act quickly against Gunn. This should give us the ammunition we need.”

Savas shook his head. “Husaam, we can make a strong case that Mjolnir is behind this. But we’ve got nothing, nothing at all directly linking Gunn. Now he’s out of the country. We don’t know where he is!”

“A warrant to search his office, his house, anything.

“That takes time.”

Jordan scowled. “As you see, time’s running out.”

&“Yes&, sir. That’s affirmative, sir.” Air Force Colonel Jim Cranston nodded vigorously, staring at his computer screen. “Only those two—General Marshall and an army doctor named Russell. We’ve punted this up to State, and they’re going to bring those two in—to control this situation. All information flow outside of approved channels must be stemmed.”

A distorted voice barked from the speaker. Cranston responded. “I can’t answer that, sir. I know the consensus is to open this up to other agencies. With the possibility that it’s in the hands of a terrorist group—this terrorist group, in particular—I think that voice will become nearly unanimous.”

The colonel listened intently and nodded. “I believe that’s true, but it’ll be beyond our influence at that point. They’ll judge the possibility of leaks a necessary risk. I’m sure, but you know my long-standing position on this. It’s been a mistake from the beginning to keep this buried.”

The voice on the other end spoke again, and Cranston shook his head. “No, sir. It’s a perfect match. There are no doubts. Serial numbers, make, appearance. ‘Dial-a-yield,’ five to one hundred and fifty kilotons. A blast up to ten Hiroshimas. It’s our broken arrow, sir. In the hands of the devil’s minions.”

He spoke for several more minutes and hung up the phone, running his hand across his nearly bald head. He stared in front of him. His computer screen displayed the washed-out image taken from the cell phone of Michael Inherp, the long metallic tube of the missile dominating the screen, the numbers printed on its surface small, yet clear. The colonel rose and walked to his window, staring into the night.

God help us.

54

Breaking and Entering

Three dark shapes rested against the glass like spiders on a wall. Gunn Tower rose mercilessly into the Manhattan sky, the spider shapes dwarfed and vulnerable beside its might.

Jordan released his grip on a suction cup and removed a small disk-like object the size of a Frisbee from his belt. The suction cup remained firmly fastened to the glass, and he placed the device against the building to the right of him. A bright light shone as sparks flew, and within seconds, an ellipse could be seen in the once perfect glass surface. He leaned over, breathing heavily from the exertion, and pounded on the circle. After two strikes, the glass broke inward, leaving a hole in the building. This action was repeated several times as his men repositioned themselves around the growing hole in the glass surface. Jordan scaled with the suction cups to the metal above the hole and attached a much larger cup with a secured rope. The rope dangled beside the hole. He grasped it tightly and swung himself inside.

He landed in a dark office, followed by the others. He spoke in hushed tones. “We’re on the fourth floor, east side of the building. Stairway is around the corner.”

Around the corner they found the stairwell and began a long ascent, punctuated by intervals of deactivating security cams. Their labored breathing echoed as they passed more than forty floors. Jordan’s legs burned, and he limped as they progressed, the wounds from Sharjah not completely erased. After forty floors, they felt as if their hearts would explode in their chests. He halted at the fiftieth floor. They caught their breath, legs shaking, sweat pouring over their faces, saturating the ski masks.

“We’ll take a minute,” he said. “The office is down the hall.”

They walked stiffly but silently through the floor, stopping at an elaborate wooden door. The men spent several minutes closely examining the door and its frame.

“Look carefully,” said Jordan. “We don’t want to trigger any alarms.”

One of the men motioned toward the bottom of the door. Using tools from his belt, he dug around the frame and into the drywall, eventually freeing several wires.

“Good work,” said Jordan. “Let’s deactivate this.”

He examined the wires and cut one of them. Satisfied, he nodded to the others who picked the lock on the door. Inside was an enormous office. At the far end, along a wall of glass, was an oversized desk with a large flat-screen computer monitor. Jordan approached the monitor and knelt, removing a computer tower from underneath the desk.

He unplugged the machine from the power supply and removed the screws in the case, placing it to the side. The motherboard glinted in the moonlight streaming through the windows. He motioned to the other two.

“Search the room, photograph anything you can’t take, search the files. We need to be out of here in twenty.”

The others circulated through the room, examining desk drawers, closets, filing cabinets, and looking behind and under every object. Jordan meanwhile bent over the computer and got to work.

He grounded himself with a wrist strap to the chassis and disconnected the computer data ribbon from the hard drive. With a screwdriver, he slipped it off the metal rails and set it on the desk. He removed a device from his backpack. It had its own data ribbon connected to what looked like another hard drive. He connected the hard drive to the device, and the device to AC power. Immediately, a red light went on, and the sounds of drive access could be heard. He then joined the other two men in sweeping the room.

Fifteen minutes later, the device on the desk went from red to green, and he walked over and disconnected it. Reversing the previous procedure, he reinstalled the hard drive and closed the computer, placing it under the desk. He stuffed the items back inside the pack and shouldered it, stepping from behind the desk and toward the door. He motioned for the other two to follow him.

One of the men gestured to the door. “They’ll know we were here.”

Jordan smiled. “No avoiding that. But we got what we came for. Let’s hope it leads us somewhere.”

“We were never here, Husaam.”

“I’m a lone wolf. Besides, who’d be foolish enough to come?”

55

Taken

Cohen stared blankly at the rush hour traffic. The black limo carrying her was just one of thousands of cars trapped in a giant parking lot called Midtown Manhattan. The driver had discussed with her bodyguard whether to put on the flashing lights, but they had both laughed, realizing that in the current gridlock, they weren’t going anywhere no matter what they did. She glanced over at the man assigned to guard her life. Who was he? Did he take seriously the task and risk placed in front of him? Could he really understand the ruthlessness of the organization that sought her life?

The guard traded macho banter with the driver, also an armed bodyguard. These two men gave her no sense of security, overconfident in their prowess. It had only been a week since the horror had descended on her life. Mjolnir had brutally taken people she had known and worked with, had come to care for and support. She fought back the tears as she thought of each one, murdered cruelly and coldly, only because they dared to try to investigate these killers.

Larry Kanter had died in his home. Matt King by a bullet to the head. Mira was never to share another crazy story from her days as a child in a Serbian village. Or Manuel. Sweet, clumsy Manuel. If he had been securing all the FBI’s computers, they would never have found his name, his place of residence, or known where to place the bomb that incinerated him inside his car.

Kanter’s superiors had insisted on round-the-clock security now, and no one in the division could travel together in order to prevent multiple fatalities from a single attack. The coldness of the logic was unsettling. She hated being separated from John in this way. More than anything, she needed to be with him. FBI agents in the movies were like cardboard cutouts—always ready to rumble with the bad guys. The truth was, many were just like her—analysts, bookworms, and not expected to encounter violence, despite the general training they received at the academy. The last week had stunned her, shaken her life apart. Not even the power of the FBI could shield her from those hunters.

A front window exploded. Blood and glass shards sprayed across the seat as the driver’s head ruptured, snapping to one side, crashing on the steering wheel. The horn blared. The car lurched forward and plowed softly into a cab, eliciting a set of expletives screamed from outside.

The agent next to her yelled and drew his gun, opening the door in a quick motion. He stepped outside and raised the weapon. Cohen watched in horror as his gun arm was pinned against the roof while a foot kicked him across the face. Several shots were fired into his frame, his body convulsing and dropping to the ground.

She reached into her purse for her gun, pressing back against the door next to her, as far away from the driver’s side and open door as possible. As she raised the weapon and aimed, the door behind her opened. She fell backward, slamming her head against the asphalt. The world spun. Something struck her arm. Metal scraped against the road. My gun. People screamed and ran from the scene. A barrel was pressed against her temple as a firm hand raised her by the hair. She closed her eyes and prepared to die.

“Say nothing, do nothing but what we tell you. Do you understand?” an emotionless male voice hissed into her ear.

Cohen opened her eyes and nodded. It didn’t make sense. He hadn’t pulled the trigger. I’m still alive.

“That alley. Quickly!” Cohen saw the gun gesture toward a dim alleyway on the right side of the street. She stood and walked with the man at her side. She dared not look at him or the other men busy around the car. Her captor kept his gun in his hand but lowered it, keeping it as hidden from view as possible.

As she stepped on the pavement, a muscular man blocked their way and shoved the killer walking beside her to a stop. He’d come out of a shop, a bag in one hand, and noticed Cohen’s forced march. A knight in shining armor.

“You giving this lady trouble?”

Cohen closed her eyes. Shots blasted from behind her. She felt a push. Opening her eyes, she barely managed to avoid the prone figure on the sidewalk. More screams erupted from the streets. Please, God, help us.

As they entered the alley, the man pressed her hard until she was practically running to the other side. They passed by trash bins and refuse, discarded machinery, blurred shapes she had no chance to process. They exited into the sunlight again, and the man waved her over to a beat-up white van. A loud explosion rocked the block. Pedestrians turned toward the sound in shock. Many raced over to the alley or down parallel streets to find out what had happened.

The back doors of the van swung open as two men jumped out. They were dressed in utility workers’ uniforms and shoved her into the vehicle. Her kidnapper spoke into a mouthpiece, lost from view as the doors slammed shut, imprisoning Cohen. There would be no one to see her taken, no one to follow them from the scene that unfolded only moments ago. The men around the car had rigged it to blow, and the explosion, death, and chaos would make it simple for her abductors to make a clean escape.

The doors opened again, and the man entered, followed by others with weapons. She saw him clearly now, young, blond, with a military haircut, dressed in nondescript clothing. He carried rope and duct tape. The sounds of sirens and screams filled the air outside the van.

“Don’t make a sound and you’ll live,” he said as he bound her hands behind her and tied her feet together. Tears trailed down her cheeks as he taped her mouth and pushed her onto her back on the padded floor. The van lurched forward into the streets of New York.

56

Ticket to Mexico

Jordan was bleary-eyed from hunting through thousands of files—text files, emails, logs—trying to glean some hint of Gunn’s whereabouts from the rip of his hard drive. He’d probably ended his career last night by breaking into that office, but the time for niceties had passed.

He’d begun to wonder whether the man was so paranoid that he left nothing behind, no trace, even on a computer that he must have assumed was utterly safe from prying eyes. More than once last night, he wished he had Manuel Hernandez from the Savas group with him now—that man knew a thing or two about computers. But William Gunn had ended his life.

In the end, the sleepless night paid dividends. Gunn hadn’t been careful enough to delete all records. Jordan gazed at the failing afternoon light with a mixed feeling of dizziness and elation. I know where you are now, you bastard. What he was doing in Mexico was a mystery, but the secrecy of his trip and the ruthlessness with which he had sought to crush the investigation told Jordan that this wasn’t an idle excursion. It had terrible purpose written all over it. Where Mjolnir had a strong purpose, there was horror waiting.

He swirled the coffee around in his cup but decided he’d had enough caffeine and cold bitterness for one night. He glanced over toward the bedroom door. Vonessa was asleep, exhausted from several days of caring for two sick boys. His grip tightened around the mug. Some would say he was a negligent father for taking the risks he did. Part of him agreed with them. But another part could not back down from his responsibility to the world, to all families, to himself. There were times that demanded risk and sacrifice for the greater good. This was one of those times. He knew what he had to do.

There was little point in going through the motions. After what had happened, the conservatives in the organizations would descend, locking up any fruitful or bold action, giving Gunn too much time. No doubt this was part of the CEO’s plans. Well, my friend, you have a surprise coming. Jordan was tired of reacting. Time to bring the fight to Gunn.

He opened his laptop and typed the password. He called up a website and entered in the information. Soon he had a round-trip ticket to Mexico. He had some packing to do and arrangements to make once he was south of the border. Most of those plans involved acquiring weapons. He looked back toward the door. He’d call Vonessa’s mother to come over. He’d apologize. He’d make it up to them when he got back.

57

Broken Arrow

Savas winced at the people sitting around the table. It hurt to look. So many faces were not there. And Rebecca is late. Another recurring hassle from the new security protocols.

Andrew Bryant, the acting head of Kanter’s division, struggled to hold authority, but confusion reigned. Superiors from both FBI and CIA were present. Structure, especially at the FBI, had been disrupted, and the hierarchy was in flux, all parties uncomfortable and unsure how to proceed. But most significantly, the presence of high-ranking officers from the Air Force gave a certain gravity and sense of expectation to the meeting. Something was happening, beyond the mess of the last few weeks. Savas waited and observed.

Bryant cleared his throat and gazed around the room. “I won’t try to sugarcoat anything for you. We’ve been through fire since this entire investigation began. We’ve watched some damn good agents die, and we’ve worked our asses off to get to the core of this case, one that’s part of something so big it’s shaking up the world. What I’m here to tell you now, what these representatives from the Air Force are here to tell you, is that it’s all about to get a good bit worse.” He gestured toward the soldiers. “Gentlemen?”

The two officers sat together at one end of the table. They were in full uniform. Dress uniform, Savas noted. They had a set of folders in front of them but spoke without consulting the papers within them.

“Thank you, Agent Bryant. We haven’t had time to get to know all your staff, but what we have to say must be said quickly, and we’re needed back at headquarters to continue our end of the investigation. We’ll be available to any of you to work on this.” The man looked over his audience and continued. “In August of last year, a highly irregular event took place at an Air Force base in North Dakota. Cruise missiles were loaded on a plane scheduled to fly to Louisiana. That is a common event, transferring weapons between bases. On this day, however, several critical protocols were not followed, and airmen unintentionally loaded missiles with nuclear payloads.”

Murmurs erupted around the table. “Please,” interjected the Air Force man, “let me continue. I’ll answer questions afterward.” He exhaled slowly. “For a period of thirty-six hours, these missiles were not reported as missing and weren’t secured, as is customary for nuclear weapons. Some of you may remember a press conference last year about the incident.”

“Sure,” said Savas. “But they said that the weapons had been accounted for, never left the hands of U.S. airmen.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. The soldier continued tensely, “That statement was not factual.”

Miller sat forward. He had made a significant recovery since the shooting, but the damage to his shoulder had left him with residual pain. Miller in a gruff mood wasn’t a pleasant thing. “Not factual? You mean a lie? Don’t tell me that these missiles took a walk.”

The soldier looked Miller directly in the eye. “That’s exactly what I’m here to tell you.”

Miller exhaled. “Jesus.

“A decision was made to keep this information top secret, and, until recently, even our team investigating the incident was kept ignorant of this fact.” The soldier glared around the room, revealing a poorly concealed anger “The operative term is missile, in point of fact. Singular. One cruise missile was unaccounted for.”

Savas felt sick. “And let me guess, or you wouldn’t be here: those devils at Mjolnir have it?”

The military man glanced uncomfortably around the table. “Yes, it appears that is indeed the case. Major Rivers, would you like to take it from here?”

Miller practically exploded. “Hold on a minute! Let me get this straight. Whoever’s ghosting this scandal, it never occurred to them over the last six months since Mjolnir began blowing things up that maybe, just maybe, last year’s fuck-up was their snatch?”

Major Rivers pursed his lips. “There were months of chaos and confusion over those bombings. The organization did not reveal itself until very recently, perhaps for this purpose, to prevent such speculation.”

Miller continued. “Don’t make excuses for them! Come on—even if these guys aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed, somebody must have thought about the unthinkable.”

“I don’t know,” said Rivers. “Honestly. I simply don’t know what was going on above.”

Bryant waved his hands and spoke over a growing din. “Look, let’s stay focused. We need this information, people. Major Rivers, please, the connection to Mjolnir?”

Rivers nodded. “Recently, we received a tip from a former U.S. Army soldier. He contacted an Army psychiatrist claiming to have photographs of the missile. He forwarded these images to him.”

Savas couldn’t help himself. “How in the hell did he get those?”

Major Rivers continued. “This soldier had joined Mjolnir and recently has had second thoughts.”

“An attack of conscience?” said Miller.

“Apparently so,” said Rivers. “The serial numbers were verified with the Air Force, and we know that it’s our weapon. That’s where we stand right now.”

Miller leaned forward. “Surely you’ve tracked this man, know where the weapon is?”

The major shook his head. “There’s been no further contact with the source. We have sent email messages, but he hasn’t replied.”

Email?” asked Rideout incredulously.

“Back off, Rideout,” said Bryant.

Rideout ignored him. “We’ve got a loose nuke in the hands of the most vicious terrorist group in history, and these chumps are trying to find it by emailing someone? In case these fine gentlemen from the Air Force haven’t been briefed, Mjolnir slaughtered half our division! A nuclear cruise missile? We’re going to have a goddamned catastrophe!”

Major Rivers shot back. “That’s all the information we’ve got! We have top men working on this problem as we speak. We’ll find this man, and he’ll lead us to Mjolnir and the bomb. You can help us. His name is Inherp, Michael R. Inherp. In these folders, we have his bio and contact information.” He looked over at Rideout, who just shook his head. “These are serious times. We all need to work together.”

Top men? Savas hung his head. He’d been ready for something bad, but this was worse than his worst nightmare. The horror of the possibilities shook him. He missed Cohen more than ever at that moment and cursed the new security protocols that FBI had forced on them. Randomized schedules for arrivals and departures. Restrictions on traveling together. To prevent multiple hits. If the worst happened, he’d rather be with her and share her fate. Savas blocked such thoughts from his mind. He couldn’t wait to see her again.

58

Blackmail

Savas returned to the Operations Room and sat alone in front of a computer screen. He wasn’t sure where to go now with this investigation, one that had grown so large, so deadly, so insane that he wondered how it could ever move forward. At least the Air Force had provided them with fairly detailed information. Or so it seemed. Savas had to check himself and remember that they had kept a missing nuke a secret from the entire country. He stared at the email from Michael Inherp, looking over the images again. What am I missing?

Nothing in the photo gave any indication where the missile might be located. No hint in the email. Why would this kid send this information and not explain how to get there and stop these madmen? Was he taking them on a false lead? The serial numbers checked out. The missile was real. He wouldn’t have revealed that unless he was serious. Maybe he isn’t sending any messages because he’s dead. That last thought worried Savas the most. If Inherp were discovered, he would be gone, and so would be their only link to Mjolnir.

Savas rubbed his eyes and stretched. He turned absentmindedly toward a sound behind him, the approaching form of Frank Miller entering the room. The former marine looked unusually haggard.

“Hell of a day, Frank,” he said.

“John—Rebecca never showed at the safe house. Her car was found on Madison and 68th.”

Savas felt a numbing cold creep over his body. His stomach tightened.

“A bomb. The blast was enormous—killed forty people in the blast radius. We don’t believe that there could be any survivors in the car.”

Savas felt a blade slice through him as he gasped for breath. His vision clouded.

“John!” Miller caught him as he sank to his knees. “John, God, I’m sorry. I understand. We all knew, John. About Rebecca. We all were happy for you two. I’m so sorry.”

The large marine held him in a bear hug, then sat him on the desk. Savas began to feel himself dissociate from his body. This is not real. Nothing is real. At that moment, he knew only that he wished to be no more.

The phone on the desk rang. Miller looked from the phone to Savas. He didn’t know what to do with his boss, so he grabbed the receiver. “FBI. Agent Miller speaking.”

Miller’s face turned white. “John, it’s for you. They say they have Rebecca.”

Savas felt his stomach lurch as emotions flipped. A surge of adrenaline rushed through him, and he grabbed the phone from Miller.

“John Savas,” he spoke hoarsely into the line.

“Agent Savas, Rebecca Cohen’s life rests in our hands. You will not trace this call. You will stop pursuing your investigation of Mjolnir. If you wish to spare her a most horrible and degrading death, you will walk out of your office tonight and not return. Do these things, Agent Savas, and you will see her intact once again. She will be under the eye of one who is bringing a new order to the world, and you have his promise. We are watching.”

The phone line went dead.

You bastards!” He hurled the phone across the room. First they let him think he had lost her. Now they forced him to choose between his commitment to his son, to every life stolen by terrorism, and the life of the woman he loved.

A phone rang on a nearby desk. Miller stared at it and at Savas, who leapt forward and grabbed the receiver off the handset. “Don’t you hurt her! Or I swear I’ll spend the rest of my life hunting you down until I drive you into the flames of hell!”

There was a long silence on the other end of the line. A deep voice spoke.

John? This is Husaam. Please, you must listen to me.”

59

Raining Fire

Savas’s face morphed from fury to confusion. Slowly he sat and stared forward blankly. “Husaam?”

Miller raced over to another desk and got on the line. “Agent Jordan? This is Frank Miller with the FBI. John Savas is also on the line.”

“Is John okay?”

“We’ve had a shock. Rebecca Cohen’s been kidnapped, her car incinerated by a bomb. There’s been no contact with her or her bodyguards.”

Savas interrupted, his mind raw but focusing. Hearing the Muslim’s voice had brought him back. “It’s Mjolnir—they’ve got Rebecca. I haven’t spoken to her to . . . confirm, but I believe them. They have her, and they want to shut me and my investigation down. If I don’t, they’ll kill her.”

Jordan rumbled on the other end. “You can’t do that.”

“I’m in a pretty tough spot, Husaam. I can’t let them hurt her.”

“John, I have to tell you something,” Jordan began.

“Wait,” interrupted Savas. “You need to hear this. Things are far worse than we ever feared.” He sat up straight in the chair. There was no way to explain the insanity. He’d just say it. “Air Force representatives told us tonight that Mjolnir has a nuclear weapon.” The silence lasted nearly ten seconds. “Husaam?”

“How’d they get this? How does the Air Force know?”

Savas nearly laughed at the absurdity of it all. “It’s one of ours. One of our own damned weapons. Somehow the Air Force screwed up, didn’t secure some cruise missiles.”

“Cruise missiles?”

“Yes, only one was lost in the end but with a helluva payload,” Savas continued. “They’ve buried this from everyone, if you can believe it.

Jordan practically growled. “I can. How did they find it?”

“They didn’t. Some kid, former soldier, sent photos with the serial numbers. He joined Mjolnir several years ago, but I guess this caper was more than he could stomach. He hasn’t returned any attempts at contact. We know the missile’s out there, that it’s ours, that it’s real. We know Mjolnir has it. But we have no idea where or what they are planning.”

Jordan grunted. “Well, I can’t answer the last, but I know where they are, John. That’s why I’m calling. Check your email. You’ll find the location. Bit south of the border.”

Savas glanced at his cell phone. “Tampico, Mexico? What the hell’s there?”

“Humid summers, petroleum, and General Francisco Javier Mina International Airport, or, more relevantly, some of the subsidiary airfields for cargo planes. Most importantly, that’s where William Gunn is right now.”

Savas looked over at Miller and shook his head. “How do you know this?”

“I broke into Gunn’s office. Ripped his hard drive. From what you’ve told me, something terrible is unfolding there. We’ve got to act, and act now.”

“I can sound the alarm and bring in the Feds. Now we know where they are. They wouldn’t act on Gunn before, but with the lost nuke, you can be sure as hell they will now.”

“Not fast enough. If I had waited for the bureaucracy to function, I wouldn’t have this info. And I’m not waiting anymore. I board a flight to Tampico tonight. I’m heading to that airfield.”

Miller cut in. “Husaam, if you’re right and Mjolnir’s there, that’s suicide. And you’re going to be thrown in jail even if you survive.”

“Too much is riding on this, my friends. I can’t stay put, waiting until the signal is given. Besides, as you tell me, the call you got said Rebecca is on her way to Gunn.”

“That’s what I understood,” said Savas, the pain returning in full force.

“What do you think’s going to happen once the location of that nuke is made known to the military?”

Savas was silent a moment. “What do you mean?”

Jordan sighed. “Once they finally get the machine moving, it’s a potent one. They won’t risk that bird getting loose. They’re going to rain fire. Massively. No one will survive that assault, John. No one.”

60

Insurance Policy

The private plane taxied from the runway. Cohen sat in the back, her hands no longer tied, her face and lips still raw from the removal of the duct tape. Two men had been assigned to her, meeting her captors at the airport in New York, loading her onto the private plane, and flying with her over the last five hours. They said nothing to her, and she kept to herself. Her thoughts raced between panic and despair. She had never felt so helpless. She was being used against John and the FBI, that much was obvious—her life in exchange for an end to the investigation. It was the only possible explanation for the fact that she was still alive. Her lease on life was good for as long as she was useful in this way.

We’ve rattled them. She took some comfort in the thought that they’d succeeded in driving them to this. But it had also driven these terrorists to murder—horrible murders of people she cared deeply for. That was something that destroyed any satisfaction, and an anger and hatred for these killers, like she had never known, began to boil inside. She had been horrified by the deaths around the world perpetrated by Mjolnir, but most had been far away, images on television, abstract in a way that Matt, Larry, Manuel, and Mira were not. Her colleagues were forces of personality, links in the web of her life. Now they were gone, and the men responsible were holding her captive.

The plane taxied to a stop, and the two brutes onboard stood, bending sharply from the low ceiling. They nodded to her. She understood and rose from her seat, moving to the front of the plane as the door opened. She stepped down several short steps to the tarmac. A moist breeze blew across her, and she squinted in the bright sunlight. The air smelled like a disorienting mixture of kerosene and jungle, and she wondered where on earth they had taken her. Somewhere south, warmer, and wet. As if reading her thoughts, a voice proclaimed the answer.

“Welcome to Mexico, Agent Cohen.”

She turned to her right, shielding her eyes from the sun. But she didn’t need to see the well-dressed, lithe, and gray-topped form of the panther. She’d never forget his voice, full of intelligence, nuance, and ice.

William Gunn walked forward and motioned her toward a set of black town cars parked beside the airplane. He wore expensively crafted aviator sunglasses with mirrored lenses, the cold gray eyes hidden behind them. He acted friendly, almost charming. Like a snake before the strike.

“Please, won’t you step into the vehicle? We’ve only a short journey yet to go, but you must be tired from your trip.” The two men stood on either side of them. Of course the invitation was a farce. She knew she had no choice in the matter. She wondered why he maintained this pretense.

A man she presumed to be the chauffeur held a car door open for her. She stepped forward and ducked into the backseat, sliding to the far end against the door. The interior was cream leather, detailed wood panels trimming the sides. To her dismay, Gunn entered as well and sat beside her. The door was shut from the outside, and the driver got in and started the engine.

“We’ve prepared a place for you,” Gunn said over the sound of the car as it pulled away from the plane. “It’s comfortable, unusually so, for this area.”

“Interior decoration for prisons? Seems a bit off your normal enterprise.”

Gunn sighed and took off his glasses, folding them into a leather case. He stared forward.

“Agent Cohen, there are always unpleasantries. We do what we must because we believe in our cause. It’s your misfortune that we needed this means to end the FBI investigation. To do that, we’ve had to neutralize several of its members. Your relationship with John Savas makes you a valuable asset to us in this regard.”

Neutralize? You murdered good people who gave their lives to serving others! You sit on your gold throne self-righteously, but you’re just another gangster ordering his henchmen around.”

Gunn turned slowly toward her, the gray eyes sharp as knives. He smiled. “Your emotion doesn’t disturb me, Agent Cohen. I don’t expect you or anyone at the FBI to understand, or rather, to accept the logic and necessity of what we’re trying to accomplish. I won’t debate it with you. I’ve seen to your needs and will make your stay here as decent as I am able.”

“Nobel of you.”

He looked forward again as the car was jostled by several bumps on the road. “I don’t seek harm for harm’s sake. I don’t enjoy the deaths I’ve caused, Ms. Cohen. But I understand something you don’t seem to. I understand that we’re fighting for our very survival as a culture, as a people, as a history. Lives must be lost in this fight. As in any war.”

The car stopped, and the doors on both sides opened. More armed men waited outside. Gunn stepped out of the car, pressed his suit flat again, and leaned back in to speak.

“We’ll be calling Agent Savas soon to convince him that you’re still alive. Please don’t do anything stupid that will prevent us from proving that to him.”

He turned and walked off. Cohen looked at the hulking forms waiting for her. She closed her eyes, trying to keep herself together. After a few seconds, she gripped the door handle and stood, opening her eyes to a small aluminum shack. Around her were several warehouses and storage yards for equipment and parts, all associated with the airport. The sound of planes lifting off and landing could be heard from behind her. Several men were carting crates from place to place. She stared at them. In another context, they could be young soldiers on a tour of duty. One stared across at her, and she looked into his eyes. They seemed decent; one would never suspect that he was a man working to murder the innocent.

Cohen scanned the area around her. Barbed-wire fences encircled them. Between the razor blades and the weapons at the sides of the guards, she knew escape was suicide. With that thought, she walked forward to the shack that would be her own personal jailhouse.

For as long as I remain useful.

61

Red Sky at Morning

The Van Wyck Expressway was deserted. Savas had made the journey more times than he could remember to John F. Kennedy Airport, but it had always been in daylight when the Van Wyck was packed and slow. At one-thirty in the morning, it looked like some scene from an apocalyptic film, orange streetlights casting a ghastly hue over the road, the occasional red taillights of another vehicle staring back like demonic eyes waiting for them ahead. They veered right onto the roadway circling the airport, dashing to the far right side to hit the exit they needed. Miller took the ramp, and the dark van pulled up to the JFK Cargo Facilities. The white “FBI” lettering was painted boldly on the blue of the vehicle and shone brightly in the security lights at the entrance gate. Miller drove with Savas riding shotgun, and in the back were Lightfoote and Rideout. A crazy day, becoming a crazier night, would soon get crazier still.

Savas had called in what was left of his team and brought them up to speed on the situation. They had devised a plan as insane as the world was at the moment. Lightfoote had found that the fastest way to get to Tampico was to hop aboard a cargo flight leaving at three in the morning. The next best path was taking a passenger plane in the morning to the Mexico City airport, then to the General Francisco Javier Mina International Airport near Tampico, or to throw in a third stop in Texas. None of these paths would get them to Cohen before the evening of the next day. Besides, there would have to be a lot of explaining for all these agents and their firearms to make that journey. Calls were likely to be made to FBI headquarters. It could end before it began.

It was Miller who cut through to the simplest, if illegal, solution—stow away on the cargo flight. It was direct, from JFK to Tampico, leaving at 3 a.m. and arriving a little after eight in the morning. Jordan had left already and would likely be at the Tampico airfield around that time. They had agreed to meet up and figure out what to do when they got there. Simple plan.

First, they had to get on the plane. Lightfoote and Rideout would lead an “inspection” of the cargo flight. Miller and Savas would stow away during this examination, and Lightfoote and Rideout would somehow convince the crew and guards that the other two FBI agents had already finished and returned to the van. The two would stay hidden in the cargo section for the duration of the flight, jump out secretly after landing, figure out where Cohen was being held, and stop Gunn and his plan. A perfectly simple plan.

Lightfoote and Rideout would return to their office and sound the alarms. Around that time, the guards assigned to them might be waking up from their drug-induced sleep. Savas had hated slipping them loaded drinks, but for one hell of a headache, and the wrath of their superiors, they would be fine. At that point, Lightfoote would “discover” an email from Savas that let his FBI coworkers know what he was up to. He said nothing about Jordan. It wasn’t his place to nanny him for the CIA. By the time the FBI and CIA had notified the military and the president and his advisers had confirmed a course of action, they would have had their chance to end it themselves. He just hoped to God they could pull it off.

You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into, Johnny-boy, the voice in his head chided him. Whatever it is, Rebecca’s in it already, he answered back. The voice shut up.

The van stopped at the gate, and a tired-looking guard approached. He held a clipboard in his hand and sluggishly scanned the side of the van as he approached, then looked through sheets of paper on his clipboard.

“You figure he’s looking under ‘F’ for ‘FBI’?” quipped Rideout as Miller cast him a sharp look. Indeed, it did seem to them that this was exactly what he was doing. A look of dawning understanding crept over his features, and he glanced up with a furrowed brow at Miller in the driver’s seat.

“FBI?” the young man said, with no attempt to hide his confusion.

“That’s right,” said the former marine in a tone sure to command the most reluctant soldiers. “These are Agents Savas, Rideout, and Lightfoote with me,” he said, gesturing vaguely toward the back. He flipped open his badge case and continued speaking as the bewildered gate guard stared at the ID. “Son, we have some inside information that the terrorists who hit the city last month are transporting munitions using cargo carriers. We’ve traced them to these JFK terminals. We need to get inside and see your superiors immediately. We’ve got to stop these guys while we still can.”

The guard stood there thunderstruck. “Terrorists?”

“Clearly this isn’t something you’re used to dealing with, but we need your most efficient cooperation on this. Please, take my badge back to your station and phone this in. Wake them up if they fell asleep. We need to get in and inspect these planes an hour ago!”

The man stepped back at Miller’s tone but looked subdued. “Ah, okay, let me call this in. Hell, I’m not even sure who’s on call right now.” He stumbled over to the small station. Within ten minutes, the van was rolling into the main section of the JFK cargo terminal.

Savas was amazed at what he saw. He knew JFK was big, but he had never seen a cargo-dedicated area of an airport before. Enormous warehouses extended one after the other, lit dimly by streetlights in the evening darkness. Aircraft after aircraft, narrow and wide-body, upper-deck and belly. Inspection sites and rows of eighteen-wheelers from long-haul trucking companies lined up to unload. As they sped by, he noted massive refrigeration units for shipping perishables. There was even a fairly good-sized animal shelter designed for creatures far beyond house pets, facilities that could easily handle many large zoo animals.

At one of the main complexes, a man was standing outside waving them over. Miller parked the van.

Savas spoke. “File out with me. Look professional. There’s strength in numbers. At least intimidation. Give him your most dour looks.”

He exited and strode confidently up to the man, and the rest followed. Miller and Rideout stood beside him, serious and silent. They tried to ignore Lightfoote, who glanced around the terminal in her space-cadet fashion. We should have left her in the van, he thought.

The man introduced himself. “Hey—I’m Robert Coon, night manager for the facility. Gerry called in. What the hell—you’re FBI? This for real?”

Savas paused a moment, staring at the man, then looked back to the van and its bright-white ‘FBI’ letters that stood out in the light.

“Yes, sir, this is absolutely for real. I don’t know what your guard at the gate told you, but we’re on a high-priority mission. We’ve received information that the same terrorist group that’s bombed this city twice and hit places all around the world is using your cargo terminal to ship explosives across the country and to Mexico, planning new attacks in several major cities.”

“Holy shit!” gasped Coon.

“There’s nothing holy about it,” said Savas. “We’ve got word that one of these planes bound for Mexico tonight is loaded with such cargo. We need to search that plane.”

The manager pulled out his clipboard and searched through it. Do they all carry clipboards here? Savas thought with impatience. The manager flipped through several pages and stopped. “Yeah, there’s the flight to Tampico, Mexico, hangar 12A. That the one you’re looking for?”

“The very one,” he said. “I can’t impress upon you how important this is, Mr. Coon. We need immediate access to that plane. And we need your complete silence about the matter.”

The manager looked worried. “Sir, I don’t know. You need to have a warrant or something, don’t you?”

Savas stared impatiently as he might at a confused child. “Son, you’ve heard of the Patriot Act, haven’t you?”

“Uh, yes, sir.”

“Do you know what it says?”

“I dunno—something about tapping phones to find terrorists and the like?”

“The Patriot Act gives law enforcement new powers to stop terrorists from attacking this country. Phone tapping’s just one part of it. Section 3.4 of the act specifically states that federal agents can, upon immediate threat to the nation, perform search and seizure without warrant.”

“It says that?” the man asked.

“Yes, son, it does. It also states that interference with antiterrorist activities can be prosecuted as criminal aiding and abetting. I know that’s nothing you would have to worry about, Mr. Coon, but it’s important that no wrong impressions are given.”

The young manager looked positively terrified. He licked his lips and nodded. “No, sir, there’s no reason to worry. I’ll take you over to the plane myself.”

“Thank you, Mr. Coon. Your aid in this matter is greatly appreciated.”

The manager walked briskly ahead of them, and the FBI agents followed. Miller leaned forward and spoke in a whisper to Savas. “Section 3.4 of the Patriot Act, John?” Savas looked fleetingly over toward Miller. “Effective section, isn’t it?”

They approached a wide-body aircraft. It had an image of an American and Mexican flag, crossed, with the words “TransMexico” emblazoned in fiery red underneath. Robert Coon stopped in front of the plane.

“This is it,” said the manager. “It was loaded half an hour ago, or should’ve been, anyway. Scheduled to depart in an hour. If you look, the bay is open, and the lift’s still there. You just need to get up in there and you’ll see all the cargo.”

Savas nodded. “We’ll get right to it. We’ll be done in half an hour or less, I’m sure. If it’s clean, we won’t hold things up, I promise.” He turned to the others. “All right, let’s move in.”

One by one, they ascended the lift into the belly of the cargo plane. Inside were rows of stacked crates with hardly the width for a person to walk through. All were labeled in English and in Spanish, housing items from foods to equipment.

“He’s not checking up on us,” said Miller.

“Good,” said Savas. “Let’s find us a place to hide out. Once we’re in place, the rest of you hang out a few more minutes, then head back and try to convince the man that we’ve already left the aircraft.”

Rideout looked over at Savas. “And if he isn’t buying it?”

“We’ll just have to play it on the fly.”

“Nice,” grimaced Rideout.

Twenty minutes later, Robert Coon walked back out toward the plane. He was uneasy about this whole thing. Patriot Act or not, he wasn’t in the habit of letting people wander onto the planes at night, FBI, CIA, or NYPD. He had gone back into this office to look through the manuals, but he couldn’t find anything to help him figure out what to do in this situation. But he wasn’t about to wake up Sammy for this. He’d tell him in the morning. I’d better not get into any trouble.

As he approached the plane, he saw two of the agents, the girl and the thin one, walking back from the aircraft. The man waved him down.

“Mr. Coon,” said Rideout, “we’ve finished our search, and I’m happy to report that there are no items out of the ordinary that we can identify. It looks like our lead was wrong. I want to thank you for your help in this investigation. It’s a dangerous world now, and we’ve all got to work together to protect our nation.” He extended his hand toward the man.

The manager nodded, shaking hands with the FBI man. “Okay, no problem. I do what I can. Where are the other agents?”

Rideout gestured toward the van. “They already headed back. Now, Mr. Coon, I just need a little information from you before we leave, for our investigation. Agent Lightfoote, would you join the others in the van and wait for me?”

Lightfoote smiled and nodded, and practically skipped back to the van. Rideout wanted to scream but turned the attention of the manager away from her.

“Mr. Coon?” he began, removing a notepad. “Let’s start with your full name.” The two walked toward the office door. Rideout glanced briefly back toward the plane.

Fifteen minutes later, Rideout opened the door to the van. Lightfoote was in the front passenger side. He closed the door and exhaled.

“I don’t know how, but we did it. Hopefully John and Frank will go undiscovered until they land in Mexico. Meanwhile, you and I need to head straight back and sound the alarms. If you think this was a hard act, convincing FBI and CIA and who knows who else that we weren’t involved with this is going to be a wake-up call.”

Lightfoote smiled and squeezed his arm. “Oh, I don’t worry, JP. This is easy.”

“Easy?” he said, staring at her incredulously. Sure, he thought. Skipping easy.

At 3:15 a.m., a wide-bodied cargo airliner, owned by TransMexico, lifted off the runway at JFK Airport. Inside, it carried an assortment of perishables, canned goods, liquor, farm equipment, and two stowaway FBI agents headed to confront the terrorist organization Mjolnir.

&Several thousand miles away&, three hours after the cargo plane had departed Kennedy Airport, a black SUV sped down a highway in eastern Mexico. The driver didn’t care to read the speedometer, now pushing past one hundred. The large vehicle trembled at that velocity, and the heavy metallic objects on the passenger seat bounced continuously. Jordan glanced over and pushed the weapons toward the seat back, then refocused on the road. The paling sky began to turn a purple-red and slowly, a brighter and brighter orange. A great flaming orb erupted in front of him on the horizon, and he slipped on a pair of sunglasses. His vehicle aimed straight for the orb, and he followed its mark, like some demonic inversion of the shepherds being led to the Christ Child. Only he wasn’t a shepherd, and he carried not gifts but automatic weapons, and what waited under the point of the star wasn’t a Holy Mother and Child but the minions of the damned who sought to bathe the world in fire.

62

Bird of Prey

Cohen stared out the window. The rising sun ran from a deep red to a yellow-orange as it climbed over the horizon. Men fueled a black aircraft under the morning rays. She was no aviation expert, but it was clear the plane was an altered version of some standard design, with several modifications built into the belly. A long tubular extension ran nearly the length of the body underneath, with a set of thin payload doors. The exterior was coated in an unusual material, and the sun was absorbed, its light unable to reflect from the surface.

A mist rose off the vegetation in the distance, and dew covered the surfaces of the aircraft and runway. A line of soldiers guided a long crate up a loading ramp and into the plane. They moved solemnly, like marching in a long funeral procession for a beloved statesman. Beside the ramp stood three men at attention. Two were stout and of military bearing, dressed in fatigues, one older than the other. Between them in an expensive suit, with reflective aviation sunglasses strapped to his grayed and angular head, was CEO William Gunn. He watched impassively, and yet every muscle in his body was taut with a hidden energy. The three watched the crate being loaded onto the plane and remained unmoving as the soldiers finished, returning down the ramp and entering formation behind the fuselage.

She pulled herself away from the window. What was that all about? The entire scene felt ominous to her, and she wondered what they were loading onto the aircraft.

Cohen sat, exhausted, legs crossed and eyes bloodshot, staring at the door and window of her prison. She’d slept fitfully in the makeshift bed they’d rigged for her—not a cot exactly, but not a bed. Even if she possessed a king-sized mattress and springs it would have meant nothing last night. She’d tried all the possible escape routes—the windows on either side, the door—but each had been effectively barred and locked. After an hour of blistering her hands, she’d given up. A refrigerator held cheap foods and drinks inside. She hadn’t touched it. She’d simply grown more subdued, waiting until her captors would call on her again.

At four in the morning, she’d decided to kill the guard when he returned.

The ferocity of the decision, its clarity and her deep commitment to it, shocked her. She’d struggled at the FBI to reconcile her innate analytic personality with the occasional needs of violence, carving out a space in the Bureau where her contributions had increasingly focused on detective work, shying from inflicting pain and bloodshed. It suited her best. But now the monsters had come calling.

Cohen stood and walked to the cot, emptying the last of the tomato sauce from the food provided onto the white pillow and sheets. She checked the shape of the materials placed under the blankets. Close enough. It appeared as though a head and body in the fetal position were buried under a blanket. She spattered sauce along the floor, letting it pool beside the cot.

She checked her watch. Almost time. The guard had come at regular four-hour intervals, sometimes with food, sometimes to check on her status. She overturned several more items in the room, the space looking like it had been ransacked, the items littering the floor up to the doorway. Cohen picked up a jagged pipe, the metal ripped painstakingly from the foldout cot. She positioned herself alongside the door, back against the thin walls of the shack, breathing in slowly to calm herself. Back of the head. All your strength. Don’t panic. Strike cleanly.

Footsteps thumped on the makeshift stairs outside. Locks disengaged. The door opened slowly, the clutter blocking the way, the space barely enough for him to fit the tray of food inside. His head followed, body tensing as his gaze swept the interior.

“What the hell?”

Cohen held her breath. Not yet. One more step.

The soldier’s eyes settled on the shape in the bed. They darted to the red stains on the sheets and pillow, the pool on the floor.

“Ah, no, no, no. Shit!” He tossed the tray down and stepped in.

Cohen swung the pipe with everything she had. It struck the man’s head, her determined follow-through adding considerable force from the twist of her hips and shoulders. The impact rang, both brittle and organic. The soldier fell face-first to the ground, his nose shattering, blood seeping into the cheap carpet. He didn’t move.

Not done yet, Rebecca.

Cohen continued to pace her breathing. She walked determinedly to the man and removed his sidearm. SIG Sauer, no safety, double action trigger, locked breech short-recoil. She reeled through the weapons training and popped out the mag, yanking the slide. Nothing chambered, mag fully loaded. All she had to do now was not get shot while finding a way to escape the airport.

The door burst open. Cohen turned and leveled the weapon at the sound. A young man entered, his eyes wide. He stared at the body on the floor, then back to Cohen. He didn’t move. Her finger twitched on the trigger—she’d seen him. The one who’d stared so intently at her the other day. The one with decent eyes.

“Am I going to have to shoot you?” she asked.

“Ms. Cohen?” he asked.

“Yes. Who are you?”

He took off his hat. “My name’s Michael Inherp, ma’am. I’m sorry for all this, but it’s Mr. Gunn’s doing, his plan’s to keep you here and stop the FBI and others from trying to stop the mission.”

Cohen furrowed her brow. “I don’t have a lot of time, Mr. Inherp.” What is he doing?

His eyes widened and they darted about the room. “I’m the one who wrote to the army to tell them about the missile.”

“What missile?”

“You don’t know?” He looked bewildered. “There’s no time. Please, you need to come with me, now. FBI and CIA agents are almost here. There’s no telling what they’re going to do. The Air Force is going to bomb everything. We’ve got to get you out.

Her stomach lurched. “Please!” she said. “What are you talking about!”

“Ms. Cohen, this is Mjolnir. They’ve got a nuclear missile they just loaded on a plane. I notified the military just before sunrise. They said FBI and CIA agents are already on their way, that I had to warn you and them that they’re going to bomb the airport! The rest of the airport’s evacuating already, and it’s a miracle they haven’t noticed yet. Please, we’ve got to go, now!” He offered his hand.

Decide, Rebecca!

She lowered her gun and grasped his hand. Together, they fled the building, sprinting down the side of the fence and away from the airplane. She had no idea where they were going or how this soldier planned to get them out without Gunn or his troops stopping them. And FBI coming here? During a military strike? My God, can he be right? A nuclear weapon?

As they ran, the earth shook and Cohen stumbled from the tremor. She looked behind her. A fireball climbed skyward a hundred yards on the other side of the plane. Both stared at the darkening flames.

“Well,” said Inherp, the wind blowing the smoke across the airfield. “I guess your friends are here.”

63

Acceleration

Jordan stood by the storage building, shielding his eyes from the flames. What was left of the fuel truck lay scattered across the tarmac, tendrils of fire reaching in several directions, threatening buildings, other vehicles, and the airplane.

Close, but not close enough.

It had been a wild idea. He had coordinated with Savas and Miller once they arrived, communicating over cell phones. They knew that they were hopelessly outnumbered, but their main goal had been to disable as many troops as possible, create a distraction, and damage the plane. Well, at least I got the first two done. Indeed, troops were running around in total confusion, and many had been killed instantly by the explosion as Jordan had announced his presence and drawn nearly a dozen in pursuit past the fuel truck. But the plane was the most important target, and it was out of the blast radius, still guarded by at least ten well-armed soldiers who were now on high alert.

New York had reached them on their phones. Wonderful invention, the modern cell phone. A brave new world that rendered half the old tactics obsolete. Inherp had contacted the army about the missile, the location, and the plans to load it on a plane. Whatever the FBI and CIA thought about their going AWOL, right now they were the only assets on the ground. The Air Force was scrambling fighters from nearby bases, but by the time they got airborne and made it to the site, the plane could be gone. Jordan had seen enough to know that it had been converted into a stealth craft. How Gunn had recruited the expertise, found the materials, and pulled it off, he had no idea. But the man was resourceful, with deep pockets, and obsessed, and it looked like he had forged his own private invisible bomber. This thing would fly low and be invisible to radar. It wouldn’t exist in the air. They couldn’t let it get off the ground.

He reloaded his weapon and opened his cell phone. He had to get Savas and Miller on the line. Time is running out.

&Gunn leapt& out of the hangar. “What the hell’s happening?”

Fire belched into the sky from the explosion, and the noise of automatic weapons echoed across the airfield. His second-in-command bolted to his side with a machine gun.

“Sir, we’re under attack, the plane was nearly destroyed. Looks like a fuel truck. Haphazard ground assault—likely a small force. But they’re determined to hit the plane. They know, William!”

How can they know? It’s crazy!”

“The main airport’s evacuated. Pilots denied permission to fly. That means one thing—a strategic strike, airborne, no doubt. The mission’s been compromised, sir. We may have only minutes.”

“Get the plane in the air now! Fuck air traffic control. If they’ve shut the airport down, the skies will be empty. They can’t track the plane once it’s in the air. Tell them to go, now!”

“Yes, sir! But we have to get you out! I’ve called in the helicopter.”

“Tell the pilots to go, but get over to the plane! Work with the soldiers, pin down whoever the hell’s doing this!”

“Yes, sir, but you’ll be exposed!”

“I’ll loop around to the helipad. I’ll be fine. That missile is what matters. We can’t jeopardize this mission! Go! Meet me at the chopper as soon as the plane’s in the air!”

“On my way!” The soldier sprinted toward the billowing smoke and the sound of gunfire. Gunn turned and jogged toward a row of cars near the building, his jaw clenched.

They were too close to fail now!

&Savas placed& the cell phone in his pocket. He felt like he was going mad in the middle of this chaos, coordinating multiple phone calls with the FBI and this Mjolnir soldier turned ally. The fire was spreading, igniting flammables in the hangar near the fuel truck. This could get completely out of control. The heat was searing, and his eyes were watering from the smoke. He leaned against the metal siding of one of the storage buildings near the fence and yelled over to Miller.

“This Inherp—he’s with Rebecca. Looks like we’re on the wrong side of this inferno, and he’s two buildings down waiting for us. We need to get across, past the soldiers guarding the aircraft.”

Miller nodded. “We’ve got smoke for cover. You reach Husaam?”

“No!” shouted Savas. “He’s not picking up. I don’t know if he can’t hear or if he’s engaged. He said he’d bring that plane down, but the explosion failed. Once we find her, we need to regroup and stop them from getting that missile in the air.”

Miller crouched, keeping his body low. “Through the worst of the smoke. We might asphyxiate, but it’ll be nearly impossible to see us in all that shit.”

They both sprinted forward into the smoke and fire, weapons raised and at the ready. Plunging into the black cloud, Savas held his breath as long as he could. Soon he had to inhale. He choked, his eyes watering, the fumes burning his lungs. I’m coming, Rebecca!

64

Takeoff

The engines on the aircraft changed pitch and throttled up significantly. Jordan looked at the machine, watching men scramble on and off and around the thing, confused, uncertain what to do. No. They’re going to get it out while they can! He couldn’t allow it to leave, but he saw no way to stop it. He sprinted with his automatic toward the aircraft.

Two men were removing the wheel stops from underneath the plane. Most of the soldiers sprinted away from the aircraft. He was fortunate. They were moving to engage in the firefight erupting around them. John and Frank. Jordan knew they would need help, but he also knew that far more people might depend on him getting to that plane. The loading ramp of the plane began to rise. He was perhaps twenty yards away. He could reach it before takeoff.

Two of the soldiers slowed, noticing his movement. They turned slowly, stunned to see this man shoot like an arrow toward the craft they had just abandoned. Jordan lowered his automatic and sprayed a line of fire across them as he ran past. The two men had begun to aim their weapons but were caught in the spray, each hit by multiple rounds. They pivoted following the impact, then fell toward the ground, one rolling in agony, the other still and unmoving.

Jordan turned his attention to the ramp, ignoring the screams of men now alerted to his presence. Ten yards, five . . . the plane made a slow pivot toward the main runway, and he closed the remaining distance and leapt onto the ramp. There was hardly room for him. He rolled into the body of the plane as the ramp slammed shut and locked.

Jordan raised himself on his stomach and aimed his weapon. There was no one there. He paused for a moment and caught his breath. His leg was throbbing. He must have smashed it in the leap onto the ramp. He rolled over as quietly as possible and looked down. Blood stained his thigh next to a large rip in his robes. Red spread slowly across the white of the clothes. He raised his leg to his chest and gasped in pain, but he saw that the laceration wasn’t too deep. He could function for some time, but the leg had just recovered from previous injuries.

He got to his feet slowly, gingerly, keeping low. The aircraft picked up speed and taxied to the runway. Takeoff any minute. He needed to secure himself until they reached a more stable altitude. He crept into the main cargo chamber as silently as possible.

The cargo chamber was split into two sections, divided by a sealed wall with a door. Is this for when the missile is lowered into the underbelly? He saw the large crate in the center of the hold. To the side was netting of some kind attached to the walls of the plane. He limped over to it and lowered himself into the netting, using the ropes as a set of straps to stabilize him during flight. Just in time—he felt the plane turn ninety degrees as the engines throttled up. The pilots had reached the runway.

&Several dead soldiers& lay between the two metal storage buildings behind the hangar. Miller and Savas raced across the area as gunfire erupted around them, the ground exploding as countless bullets rained. Crossfire raged from the point they sought, as Cohen and Inherp sprayed bullets toward the source of the gunfire. The shooting slowed considerably but continued. Miller cried out and stumbled forward, rolling behind the shed. Savas was right behind him, slamming into the wall beside Cohen. She grabbed and held him tightly. Both turned toward Miller, who crawled beside them.

“Frank!” she cried out.

Miller swore like a sailor. “Tell this shithead of yours that I’m done saving his ass! Fuck! John, you’re a gift of holes for me.” He pulled out a large T-bar knife from his belt and ripped open his pants leg. An ugly rip ran along his calf, and blood poured out of it profusely. Miller grimaced and staunched the wound with torn fabric. “At least this time they won’t be digging any damn metal out of me,” he hissed. “A graze. A deep fucking graze, but a graze.” He stared into the sky.

“What’s wrong?” began Savas.

“Listen!”

Two distinct sounds became clear. The first was the roar of an airplane. The other was the unmistakable sound of a helicopter approaching.

“The missile!” Savas yelled in frustration.

“It’s gone, John. Look!” Rebecca gestured toward the sky behind them, and Savas saw a black shadow climb into the air and begin a slow roll to the left. “There’s nothing we can do now. We’ll just have to wait and hope the Air Force intercepts.”

Miller leaned against the metal wall, gasped in pain, and spoke through gritted teeth. “Something else just as important.”

Savas glanced at Miller. “What?”

“Gunn. The helicopter’s got to be for him. Plane’s off the ground. They’re compromised. They’re getting him the hell out.”

Inherp turned toward them. “He’s right! There’s a helipad at the far end of the cargo section—that way!” he gestured. “Maybe three minutes. If he gets away, the missile’s just the beginning! Stop him! Before it’s too late.”

Savas looked at Miller’s leg. “Frank, can you make it?”

Miller tried taking several steps, but he crouched, almost falling, and cried out in pain. “Damn bullet’s cut through the muscle, John. I won’t make it in time. You two go. I’ll stay with Rebecca.”

“No,” said Savas. “I’ll go alone.”

Cohen raised her gun. “I’m coming with you.”

“No! Frank’s wounded and you need to make sure that damn platoon doesn’t come this way. Slow them down or I won’t have a chance.” She clenched her jaw but nodded.

Miller pushed Savas forward. “Move, John! The damn bird’s almost here!”

Savas could hear the approaching craft much more clearly now. He gave one more look to Cohen and sprinted off toward the landing pad.

Miller’s cell phone rang. “Yes?!” he called loudly into the microphone. As he listened, his eyes grew large. “What? Yes, I can, but, wait!” He looked increasingly shocked, and he called out, “Wait! Husaam? Are you there?”

Cohen and Inherp looked toward him. He stared at them with a stunned expression. “Well, I’ll be damned. Husaam—he’s on the plane.”

“How did he get on the plane?” Cohen asked.

“No damn clue,” answered Miller. “We need to get the Air Force to call him now. He says he needs to deactivate a nuclear warhead.”

65

Hammer Strike

The takeoff was rocky, and the netting didn’t offer the smoothest ride. The plane began to level off as he ended the call with Miller. Until he got the required expertise, he had a lot to do. First, he had to get to the missile. The crate was large and the wood thick. He’d need tools. He shook his head. He’d really need tools once he got it open.

The tools would have to be onboard, somewhere. Jordan stood, disentangled himself from the netting, and scanned the cargo hold. There. In the corner, near the dividing wall in the cargo hold, was a metallic box on four wheels. A tool case. He limped up to the case and confirmed his suspicion—an elaborate tool set, with equipment he knew and much he had never seen and couldn’t guess its use. As a gift, lying on top of the box, were several sets of large iron crowbars. He grabbed one and struggled over to the missile.

Despite the pain in his leg and the fatigue he was beginning to feel from the wound, in five minutes he had the top and side panel off the crate—enough to access the missile. With the right tools. Holding the crowbar in one hand, he limped back toward the metallic box and was about to open some of its top drawers when the door to the chamber opened. Jordan and a Mjolnir soldier stood face to face, not more than five feet apart. Both froze, but Jordan reacted faster and swung the crowbar upward, striking the man underneath his chin. His head snapped backward, and he fell to the ground unconscious. Jordan almost fell over, the stress the movement put on his wounded leg nearly too much. He righted himself and limped over to the door and closed it. There was no lock or doorknob, just a rectangular handle jutting toward him; the door itself opened outward. He grabbed several crowbars and wedged them inside the metal handle and across the divider beside the door. It worked like a barricade in an old castle. It wouldn’t hold long. But perhaps long enough.

He wheeled the tool cart over to the missile and parked it next to the warhead. Now, how on earth did one open this thing?

&Andrew Bryant paced& in the Operations Room at FBI headquarters. Angel Lightfoote and JP Rideout were there with him, as were several other members from Larry Kanter’s former division, as well as representatives from the CIA and the U.S. Air Force. Everything was happening so quickly, too quickly. For better or worse, it was now centered at the FBI—Savas and Miller, and Mjolnir kidnapping Cohen, had seen to that. This made Kanter’s Operations Room as good a congregation point as any. Live feeds to similar crises management teams at the CIA, the Air Force, and the Pentagon had been established.

Two monitors showed live satellite feeds from the airport. What had been much easier to see a little while before was now mostly obscured by smoke pouring from a large fuel fire. The dark plane identified by Inherp was nowhere to be seen.

The phone rang and Rideout answered. “It’s Cohen,” he said with a shout.

“Audio!” snapped Bryant. The call went live to speakers in the room.

“This is Special Agent Rebecca Cohen.” The sounds of automatic weapons could be heard over the sound system. “We’re under heavy fire from Mjolnir troops. I’m with Frank Miller and Michael Inherp. Miller’s wounded and John Savas left to intercept William Gunn.”

An Air Force major looked at Bryant. “Fifteen minutes until the fighters can engage.”

Bryant nodded and spoke into a microphone around his neck. “Rebecca, this is Andrew Bryant, FBI. I need to know—”

“Wait!” interrupted Cohen. “The plane’s taken off. I repeat, the plane has taken off. It’s loaded with the missile. Husaam Jordan is on the plane.”

Heads turned and voices mumbled beneath the background sounds over the speakers. The Air Force major spoke. “Rebecca—are you sure? The missile is onboard?”

“Yes! I saw it loaded myself.”

“Do you know where they’re headed? What’s the target?”

“No, but something important. Something game-changing. Inherp believes it’s intended to cause a world war.”

Damn it, Rebecca!” yelled Bryant, “we need to know where this plane’s headed.”

“Listen to me! Agent Jordan is on the plane. He just called Frank. He needs experts to tell him how to disarm the weapon! If we can’t shoot the plane down, we can deactivate the missile!”

Chaos erupted as voices shouted over each other in the room and phone links. Bryant spun in a half circle, trying to quiet the babble, finding himself powerless.

“Everyone, shut up!” shouted Cohen, static erupting over the line. “We need someone from the Air Force to find an engineer right now and connect him to Jordan. We’re under attack. We have to move! He’s the one you need to speak with. Get someone on the phone to him, now!”

The line went dead. A rough voice came over the speakers. “This is General Jim Richards. I’m instructing all Air Force personnel hearing this to get me a weapons engineer yesterday!”

The Air Force officers grabbed their phones and exited the room to make calls. Bryant placed his fingers to his temple. This was all getting out of his control. From of the corner of his eye, he saw the large monitors flash. He looked up. The satellite feeds were gone, replaced with a flat map of the world. Red dots were appearing in several places across the globe.

“Where’s the feed?” called one of the CIA agents. Bryant looked around with irritation. What the hell?

Rideout glanced over toward Lightfoote, who was furiously working her keyboard. “Angel, that you?” She continued work but nodded slowly, not taking her eyes off the screen. “Angel, we need to focus on Mexico. Can you switch it back over?”

An Air Force officer back in the room shouted over him. “Tell her to get that satellite video back! What the hell’s she doing?” Red dots were popping up in several places, and red lines were being drawn between them. Lightfoote appeared oblivious to the rancor around her. Rideout looked at the screen and understood.

“She’s marking out the locations of all the attacks,” he said.

Bryant shouted, “How’s that relevant now? Damn it, Rideout, I’ve had just about enough of that little freak! Override her! Get the damned feed up this instant!”

Rideout spoke in a measured tone. “Andrew, I’ve learned to trust Angel’s strange but often very important contributions. That’s why Larry brought her in.” He turned to his new boss. “I’m going to give this a few minutes. The satellite feed isn’t going anywhere.” Bryant glared at Rideout, who stared right back.

Across the world map, red marks appeared. New York, Caracas, London, Sudan, over the South Atlantic—digital thumbtacks at each of the sites of Mjolnir bombings. Red lines were now connecting nearly all of them, creating a shape with a clear structure, but one that wasn’t identifiable to anyone in the room.

Bryant shook his head. “I don’t see anything here, Rideout. This cartoon is wasting our time. Cut back to the feed, or I’ll have someone remove her.”

“Wait!” Lightfoote shouted, holding up one hand while working the computer with the other.

Bryant was about walk over and remove her himself when a digital image appeared on the screen, superimposed over the world map and the web of lines linking the attacks. The image was by now familiar to all in the room—an anchor shaped emblem, but flat at one end and curved to a point, a long shaft sticking out from that end. It was clearly a relic, old metal carved and weathered, the end of the shaft broadening out like the hilt of a sword, the face of a bird carved into the end. It was Thor’s hammer.

Lightfoote manipulated the image, first turning it partially transparent to reveal the map underneath it. She then rotated it ninety degrees counterclockwise, resized it, and distorted it in each dimension slightly until the handle of the hammer rested on North and South America, the shaft extending across the Atlantic Ocean into Africa, and the head of the hammer landing on the Arabian Peninsula, with the sharp tip like a pointer centered on Saudi Arabia.

“What the hell?” said Bryant.

“It’s pointing where, Angel, Mecca?” said Rideout.

Lightfoote rotated around, the large monitors behind her glowing with the image of a god’s hammer laid across the earth. Her eyes were large and bright.

“Not pointing, JP.” She looked across all the faces. “Smashing. The hammer is smashing.”

The Air Force major was back in the room. “You mean they mapped out the shape of that thing in their attacks? Pointing to Saudi Arabia? Why on earth?”

Lightfoote shook her head again. “Not pointing. Smashing.” She looked over at Rideout for help.

Oh, my God,” he said. He turned to Bryant. “Get me Husaam on the line. Now!

Bryant looked stunned. “What’s going on?”

Rideout looked at Lightfoote, and she nodded with her eyes wide. He spoke flatly. “I know what this attack is all about, Andrew.”

66

First Pillar of Islam

Jordan shook his head. He was glad he’d learned from his gang-years how to take apart cars—a skill used mostly for stealing them. To his astonishment, he’d managed to open up the missile housing and expose the warhead without incident. The missile was long, aerodynamic like an arrow. The warhead was fat and dull, a huge bullet the size of a laundry basket, housing the radioactive materials in a manner that would lead to the optimal explosion. The “physics package” was connected to the rest of the missile by numerous wires and circuits, and now Jordan knew he was completely out of his element. He was also nearly out of time.

&“Where the hell’s& the engineer?” the gravelly voice of their mission leader called out near the cockpit, his eyes darting around in annoyance. He prided himself on an optimum of organization. The engineer had gone back to make sure all systems were normal on the missile. Not a trivial issue with what they had onboard.

They had all sat through the long briefings prior to the mission. Mjolnir engineers had employed a number of workarounds to defeat the multilayered safety systems on the missile and warhead. The military had become very good at making nuclear weapons impossible to detonate accidentally. Safety systems prevented fire, external explosion, or impact from triggering detonation. Safety codes and environmental detection systems ensured no warhead would go off unless it had been properly programmed with secret codes and had been delivered in the way intended—in this case, fired within a cruise missile. Unless the proper acceleration, altitude, and pressure readings were in place, the bomb would not detonate.

Of course, they planned to use the cruise missile as the delivery system—it was perfect, and engineers had easily programmed it for the desired coordinates. Defeating the arming safety measures had proven far more difficult. Stealing the missile was one thing, nearly impossible. But stealing the codes was impossible. The “permissive action link,” or PAL lock, was a real bastard: multiple-code, six-digit switch, limited-try followed by lockout. Their cryptologists didn’t have the luxury to get it wrong. But Gunn had recruited some extremely talented people. The engineers had rigged something that had bypassed the PAL lock. He didn’t care to understand how. They said it worked; the missile was armed, although now in a fairly unprotected state, he had been told. Many of the key safety systems were no longer operational. Best not to drop the thing, he thought with a smile.

The engineer was to keep babysitting it. So where the hell was he?

“I’ll go have a look, sir,” said a soldier next to him.

“He should have reported by now.” The leader released his belts and headed to the dividing door.

&Rideout yelled over to Bryant&. “We’ve got him conferenced in from Minot. The line’s not secure.”

Bryant waved his hand dismissively. “That’s been cleared. Put him on.”

Rideout nodded toward them. “Captain Edwards, can you hear me?”

A voice spoke with a moderate static component. “Yes, sir. Loud and clear.”

“This is Andrew Bryant with the FBI. We’ve got senior officers at the Pentagon, the CIA, and the Air Force listening in from several locations. You’ve been briefed?”

“Uh, yes, sir. I’m to talk a man through the disarming of a W80 warhead mounted on a cruise missile.”

“That’s it.”

“Sir, is this a drill?”

Bryant looked over toward the Air Force men. They exchanged looks but remained silent. A familiar voice was heard over the line.

“Captain Edwards. This is General Richards, Pentagon. Listen to me well, son—this is not a drill. We have an AWOL nuke in the hands of some very bad men, and we have a few minutes to walk a CIA agent through disarming it. We don’t have time for more background. I need your very best, young man.”

There was a short silence on the other end of the line. “Understood, sir. You’ve got it.”

Bryant continued. “We’re connecting with the agent now. Everyone, hold on.”

&Jordan heard& a commotion outside the door. How long do I have? He figured five minutes at best before they forced it open. His phone buzzed, and he pulled it from his pocket.

“Husaam Jordan, this is Andrew Bryant with the FBI—”

“Just tell me—do you have someone to walk me through this?”

“Yes, but wait! You need to know something first. We have determined the target for the missile. It’s the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca.”

Jordan was stunned. Mecca? The holiest site in all of Islam. His stomach turned as a realization dawned on him. “The Hajj,” he whispered. There could be more than two million visiting Muslims in Mecca performing the pilgrimage at this moment, plus another two million from the city itself. A massacre in fire of four million souls, a destruction of the center of Islam. A horror without precedent that would spawn horrors of retaliation across the world. “Tell me how to disarm this thing, then. Now!” he shouted.

Bryant continued. “Air Force Engineer Al Edwards on the line. Go, Edwards.”

“Agent Jordan?”

“Listen, I don’t have time to tell you everything. I’ve taken several photos with my cell and sent them to Rideout at FBI. Put them up and you can see what I’ve done.”

Rideout cut in on the line. “Husaam—that’s not going to work. He’s in Minot, North Dakota. He can’t see the monitors. Edwards, you by a computer?”

“Yes!”

“Your email, I need it now!” shouted Rideout. The captain told him. “Log into your account, I’m forwarding the images.”

Jordan spoke through the pain in his leg. “I don’t have a lot of time.”

“Got them, sir. Let me have a look.”

Jordan was startled by a loud crashing sound. He turned to the door. Someone on the other side was repeatedly yanking on the handle, and the crowbars were being smashed into the door and the wall. Already one was about to fall loose from the handle. He knew it was only a matter of time before the vibrations knocked them all out.

“Edwards—I’m here with the missile near a bunch of hostiles, and in about two minutes they’re going to be through the door and on me.”

“You opened it up well. Wow. They’ve run around or rewired nearly all the PAL circuitry, but the way they’ve done it, all the strong and weak safety systems around the exclusion zone have been bypassed. What a mess!”

“Speak English!” shouted Jordan. One of the crowbars made a clanking noise as it fell to the floor. He could hear shouts on the other side.

“Sir, it means that the warhead is sensitive to detonation by impact, even electrical surge. That’s one unstable nuke you have there.”

“Just tell me how to disarm the thing!”

“It’s not going to be easy with what they’ve rigged. You need to ground yourself. Even a static charge and that thing will blow. Okay, first, you’ll need—”

There was a loud noise from the speakers—first a crashing sound with metallic elements, then several staccato bursts.

“That’s gunfire,” whispered Rideout.

The Air Force major rose from his chair. “Oh, God.”

&Jordan fell backward&, his shoulder and chest covered in blood, his hand barely holding him upright next to the missile. Not enough time. The pain was nearly overwhelming. The door had been yanked open, and two men had jumped into the chamber. Jordan had the advantage, initially. They had to negotiate the door, climb over the body of the soldier, and scan the area for him. He shot both but not before taking fire from a third soldier on the other side who had ducked back. Jordan thought he had hit him, but how seriously, he didn’t know.

“Husaam!” shouted Rideout. “Are you there?”

Jordan righted himself and grabbed the tool cart with both hands. The front of his white robes was soaked red, and he felt dizzy from the loss of blood. He leaned on his elbows, aimed his weapon at the door, and spoke into the phone.

“Not much time now. I’m shot, badly. More coming.” He gasped. “No time.”

“Agent Jordan!” shouted Bryant. “You must disarm that weapon!”

Jordan’s voice was barely a whisper. “No time. The Hajj . . . the Fifth Pillar . . . I wanted to go . . . God be merciful for my failure . . . tell Vonessa, good-bye.”

“He’s not going to make it,” whispered Rideout.

Jordan reached into the tool crate drawers and pulled out a voltmeter. He ripped the wires out of the device and stumbled to the missile, crashing against the side of the crate, his blood smearing the porous wood.

A new round of gunfire broke out. The Mjolnir mission leader had leapt through the door and over the bodies of the other soldiers. His left arm was bloodied, as was his stomach, but he willed himself back into combat. He took aim and fired a burst into the Muslim’s back. Jordan arched in pain and cried out. Miraculously, he held himself upright for another moment and inserted the wiring onto the circuit board as the soldier labored over to stop him.

“Get off the weapon!” he roared.

“I bear witness that there is no god but Allah,” Jordan whispered to the circuitry, his legs buckling, sweat pouring over his face, “and Mohammed . . . is his Prophet.”

He connected two regions of the circuit board with the leads. There was a small spark, then a terrible light.

&“We’ve lost the signal&,” said Rideout.

“Damn it, get him back on the phone!” shouted Bryant.

Lightfoote was crying, staring up at the ceiling. Rideout held her. People spoke over each other, and Bryant simply roared again.

“Get him on the phone!”

Lightfoote looked at him and shook her head. Bryant was about to shout again when he was interrupted by a voice over the speakers.

“This is General Richards. Military satellites report the detection of a nuclear detonation signal in the air above the Gulf of Mexico. I’m told that the location is within the cone of probability for the aircraft that took off from Tampico airport. The explosion’s almost certainly the stolen weapon. We’ll end this crisis call now and work within our individual organizations. The president’s been informed at every stage and is aware of its resolution. We’ve a brave man to thank for saving millions of lives.”

The line went dead. Lightfoote wept in Rideout’s arms. Everyone in the room sat in stunned silence. Recovering his composure, Bryant tried to mobilize his team.

“All right, people, it’s over now. Let’s get back to work.”

Lightfoot wiped her eyes, staring at the screen in front of them, the image of Tampico airport back online from the satellite feed.

She whispered. “No, it’s not over yet.”

67

Last Temptation

Savas stepped out from behind stacks of crates. His face was blackened with smoke and sweat. He panted, nearly out of breath, having sprinted from the firefight beside Cohen and Miller. The acrid reek of petroleum and fire left his throat raw, but every muscle was primed, alert for what lay before him. He drew his weapon.

Gunn was walking confidently toward the approaching helicopter, not more than one hundred yards in front of them both. A distance of fifty feet separated the two men. Savas aimed his firearm and shouted over the cacophony.

“Far enough, Gunn!” The CEO paused and turned to face Savas. “Don’t get any closer to the helicopter. I’ll kill you if you do.”

Gunn didn’t blink. “I highly doubt that, Agent Savas.”

Savas held the gun steady. “And why is that?”

“Because you’re an honorable man, and I’m unarmed, soon to turn my back on you. Will you discharge your weapon into my back?”

Savas stared into the cold, expressionless eyes before him and took several steps forward. “You’ve got millions of people in front of your weapon. You aren’t unarmed, and I promise you, I’ll shoot you in the back, in the front, or in the ass, if I have to.”

“Effective and crude point, Agent Savas. But you really should put the gun down. Your son, Thanos, would want you to.”

Savas felt his stomach tighten. “Leave him out of this, Gunn, or I’ll kill you for sport.”

William Gunn did not flinch. “But that’s the truth, isn’t it? Your son’s death drove you to fight the madmen and their beliefs. My wife died that day, Agent Savas. She died someplace near your son, having fallen one hundred floors, doubtless in terror, pain, and panic, to be smashed and crushed, her body so broken that only fragments remained to be identified by DNA analysis. I, too, resolved to fight the monsters that caused this, and fight them we both have.”

“You murder the innocent, you bastard! You’re no better than they are.”

Gunn displayed the first mild hint of anger. His nostrils flared, and his jaw set tightly. “In war, we don’t blame the defenders for killing the aggressors. In war, it becomes necessary to take innocent lives at to protect many more lives. Bombs leveled Germany to bring down a madman, too late for six million Jews. Taking a hundred thousand more German innocents would have been justified to prevent that. The madmen of 9/11, their revolting organization, they’re not rightly our focus. They’re only a single branch of a tree with deep and strong roots. That tree is the barbaric religion of Islam, a religion that marched by the sword across the deserts of Arabia and the sands of Africa, to the very doorstep of Europe.”

Gunn shouted over the helicopter, his words growing in volume as he spoke. “Now this beast stirs after centuries of sleep, threatening to devour the world! Europe and America will wait until thousands, millions, entire civilizations fall before to Mohammed’s armies. I will not. I will strike back—not at a leaf, or a branch, but at the heart of this vile plant and wound it to its core. I owe her that. You owe that to your son.”

Savas felt dizzy, standing on the precipice of his own thoughts and soul, looking into an abyss that called and tempted him even now.

“That’s why I’m here. You should be here with me, instead of holding a gun to my face, torturing yourself with the delusion that protecting Muslims from me is the same as protecting us from them! That can’t be more wrong. We are the defenders, John Savas. We wage a war of survival against a many-headed beast. But we’re not chasing the heads stupidly. We’re bringing fire to purge the creature from the world.”

Savas shook his head, keeping his gun raised and aimed. “You can’t set fire to the world to rid it of weeds.”

Gunn took another step toward Savas, his eyes earnest, his tone nearly pleading. “Join me in this fight! There won’t be any real change in your design, only in your means. We must change our means for any hope that order can finally defeat chaos.”

“This isn’t a Norse myth, Gunn! This is real! With real nations, real people, real chaos and death you’re bringing. If you do this thing, it’ll burn out of control.”

Gunn stepped forward. “The first step, Agent Savas. Do you think we’ve built this organization only to blow up a few mosques and deliver one bomb, however potent? Our attacks, together with the world war to come, will ensure the total destruction of the Islamic threat.”

Savas could hardly believe what he was hearing. “You are mad.”

Gunn clenched his jaw. “I can’t waste more time with you. You won’t stop me. My plan is too important, too close to your own desires. Kill me and you take from the world the hope for the deliverance that I bring. You’ll betray your nation, yourself, and everyone who died at the hands of these murderers. Put the gun down, John Savas. You won’t shoot me.” Gunn turned and walked briskly toward the helicopter.

Savas shouted. “Don’t make me do this!”

The CEO did not stop. Savas danced around the trigger, seeing himself in the retreating shape, knowing the man’s pain, the knife’s edge that separated their choices. But that edge had turned into a chasm. Savas had found himself in that darkness, grasped a hand that had pulled him from the abyss.

And he wasn’t going back. He aimed the weapon carefully.

A black town car flew recklessly across his field of vision, coming to a screeching halt between him and Gunn. A blond man leapt out, and Savas reacted instinctively to what he saw by diving toward the ground. The older soldier landed sure-footed on the asphalt with a machine gun in his right hand and opened fire.

Shots erupted around Savas as he rolled desperately. To his amazement, weapons discharge came also from behind him. The bullets ceased and he pulled himself into a crouch, aiming forward. The assailant had fallen against the hood of the car, clutching his chest, sliding down the curve of the hood. He dropped to the concrete surface with a slap.

Rebecca Cohen walked slowly onto the scene, her face covered in soot, an automatic weapon in her hand. Smoke rose from the barrel. She was followed by Miller and Inherp, the former Mjolnir soldier nearly carrying the wounded marine. They stood, discombobulated, staring back and forth between Savas and the retreating figure of Gunn, not understanding the dynamic.

Savas rose, aimed his weapon, and pulled the trigger.

The single gunshot was nearly swallowed in the noise of the helicopter. William Gunn arched his back, paused a split second, then crumpled to his knees on the tarmac, rolling slowly to his side. The helicopter pilot panicked, throttling up and away from the site, leaving a blast of air and heavy silence behind. Savas approached the figure of Gunn and knelt beside him.

Blood pooled beneath the CEO. The bullet had been well aimed, entering near the heart. Gunn gazed upward at Savas, his eyes glazed, life draining from his body. His mouth trembled, his voice soft on the air.

Why?” he gasped.

Savas stared at the dying man. “Because we’ve got enough monsters in this damn world.”

William Gunn slowly released a final breath, his eyes rolled back into his head, and he spoke no more. Savas looked up to see the others approach. He stood and embraced Cohen tightly.

She looked at the body. “He’s dead?”

Savas nodded, pulling her away from the lifeless form, and turned to face the sea. “But he died a long time ago.”

They held each other, gazing up into the blue as the sun reached higher into the sky. In the distance, another light grew in intensity, until it became a bright star vainly trying to rival the sun. The four stood there in the blowing wind, the sounds of flames and sirens ringing, smoke pouring across the airfield, watching the display of two stars rising in the eastern sky.

“Well, looks like something went wrong with their plan,” said Savas. “Detonated a little too soon.” He smiled at the others. His grin faded at their somber faces.

Cohen spoke. “Husaam was on the plane, John. He jumped on as it left for takeoff.”

At that moment, several fighter planes blasted low over the airfield, shaking the ground with their sonic vibrations. They darted from the west heading over the sea, pulling into the sky between the two suns. The smaller star dimmed and surrendered its pretenses to the brighter light.

Savas closed his eyes. So many deaths. Yet, so many deaths prevented. He looked at the body of William Gunn—mastermind, wounded titan, madman. He thought of Husaam Jordan—Muslim, once an object of his hatred, who sacrificed his life for so many. He glanced over toward the car where another deluded soul, misled by William Gunn, like so many others, had just lost his life.

But the ground was empty. Savas drew his weapon. Cohen looked over cautiously. But there was nothing to be seen. The body of Patrick Rout wasn’t there.

68

No Kind of Fair

TENSIONS EASE AFTER TERRORIST PLOT FOILED

By Brandon Lewis and Thomas Fischetti

Associated Press

The new month began with hopeful signs across much of the world. The U.S. government’s dramatic thwarting of the terrorist plot to use a nuclear weapon helped to restore relations between Western nations and the OPEC countries. With the lifting of the oil embargo, stocks around the world recovered dramatically, and military buildup in the Persian Gulf was reversed, decreasing tensions in what had become a highly volatile situation.

Anger still boils underneath the surface in many countries, however, as leaders express dismay that the United States could allow a nuclear weapon to be stolen and not report the incident. With the explosion above the Gulf of Mexico, the current administration has been left scrambling to explain its silence, and congressional leaders of both parties have called for a thorough investigation.

Meanwhile, questions still remain about the mysterious terrorist organization called Mjolnir. The revelation that the terror group was headed by the international tycoon William Gunn has stunned people across the globe. His death at the hands of FBI agents has not calmed fears, however, that the organization has been defeated.

“There are too many loose ends, too many unknowns,” said Senator Deborah Cholon, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. “Gunn kept the governments of the world in the dark. He’s dead, but is Mjolnir?”

The FBI has issued no comment on this topic, but anonymous sources report that there is concern that the terrorist organization will re-form, and perhaps begin again its campaign against the Muslim nations.

For the moment, most nations breathed a sigh of relief that the attacks have stopped, and that the escalating crisis has been defused. Even Cholon expressed optimism. “For now, because of the brave sacrifices of so many, we have reason for optimism in the coming year.”

&A cold December& wind whipped through the coats and scarves of the onlookers gathered outside a mosque in Queens. The fading light cast a grayish pall as the sun plunged behind the cityscape. Several hundred people stood before a symbolic kafan, the ritual cloth folded neatly, the body of the deceased never to be recovered, vaporized by an atomic blast. An imam led the prayers, with the deceased’s family, his wife and two sons, brothers and sisters and parents behind him, and friends and other relations behind them.

Savas stood close to Cohen in the sharp wind. For them, the service was also a remembrance of all those friends and coworkers who had died. Near them were Rideout, Lightfoote, and Miller, along with several others from the FBI and CIA who had known Jordan and had come to pay their respects.

They were not so far from Father Timothy’s church in Astoria. Savas thought about the people around him—Muslim, Christian, Jew, black, and white—and he closed his eyes and said a prayer that this society might be given a chance to continue its mad experiment in tolerance. He opened them and listened to the words of the imam.

“It is said in the Quran: Every man shall taste death, but only on the day of resurrection shall he be paid his wages in full. No one knows what it is that he will earn tomorrow: Nor does anyone know in what land he is to die. Only God has full knowledge and is acquainted with all things. When the angels take the lives of the righteous, they say to them: ‘Salaamun Alikum, Enter Paradise! because of the good deeds that you have done.’ Today we pray for a man who has done great deeds and who offered his life for the lives of many—our brother, Husaam Jordan.”

There were muffled sobs and tears all around. Savas looked over and saw the two young boys, perhaps three and five. The older of the two was weeping; the younger appeared dazed and confused, afraid in this mass of strangers—his father nowhere to be found. Sons taken from fathers, and fathers taken from sons. He whispered something to Cohen; she nodded, and he quietly stepped away from the ceremony. He had yet to make his peace with God.

After the crowds had dispersed, Savas stood alone beside a rocky drop-off looking over the East River. Not really a river, he thought, but the sea. He had always been drawn to the sea. My Greek blood. His eyes squinted against the sun and the salty gusts as he gazed over the snow-crested waves. The imam stepped to his side.

Savas looked him over—a tall and thin black man in his late sixties, trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, proud of bearing yet bookish, rectangular glasses on his face. Like Jordan, he wore the flowing white robes and the African kufi on his head. This was the man who had found Jordan in prison, then a violent gang member lost in a world of crime and death. He had shown him the light of Islam and had changed a young man’s life forever. The imam had sponsored Jordan’s education in prison and his college tuition when he was released. He was more a father to Jordan than the man who abandoned him when he was a child.

“Husaam told me that you are Greek, yes? Christian?” he asked. He still spoke with the accent of his native Nigeria.

Savas shook his head. “Holding on by my fingernails. Father Timothy might be the only reason I still go to church.”

The imam nodded. “Yes, Husaam also told me this. Go to your priest, Agent Savas. Go to your Book. At such times, we must seek the will of God.”

“I’m not so sure I like God’s will. Whatever it might be.”

The imam bowed his head. “You lost your son. There can be no greater loss for a father. Madmen of Islam took him from you.” Savas tightened his jaw yet said nothing. “But now these Western madmen have taken a son of Islam, a son to me as much as my own son, one I pulled from the fire of his lost youth. A son for a son. Some would say a debt has been paid.”

“They would,” Savas echoed, gazing out over the water, his eyes fixed far to the horizon, as if seeing into a great distance. He spoke quietly but firmly. “But I can’t look at it that way. Not anymore. Not after all this. That’s the sort of thinking that got us into this mess in the first place. Husaam and my son, they were good men. Good men taken by those who didn’t deserve to breathe the same air. Two sons were taken.”

He looked over to Jordan’s widow, Vonessa, and the two boys standing in the grass, then turned back to the imam. “But I see those two boys in the grass. Two sons were given. I don’t know what kind of fair that is, and it’s not one that satisfies me very much, but right now, it’s all I’ve got.”

Savas turned from the edge and walked back across the field toward his car and the silhouetted form of Rebecca Cohen in the failing light.

Epilogue

The freighter cut through the waves with tremendous momentum. The craft was weighed down by its stacks of cargo, giving it a heavy sail en route but a respectable profit at harbor. The captain of the craft looked down from the piloting room at the tourists who paid money for a “freighter cruise,” a relatively new and low-thrills way to take to the seas. More and more captains were entering this market, and it allowed them to pocket substantial extra cash.

The cruise passengers were usually the very young, lots of college kids, low on cash but high on adventure, eschewing fancy and expensive cruise boats for container packing freighters. He was glad to see them. Not only did they bring him money he wouldn’t have had otherwise; they brought some youth and vitality to a job that was as monotonous as any he could imagine. Besides, the young girls were something to look at in their miniskirts and shorts.

The captain’s gaze paused and lingered over the group. He focused on the one passenger that did not fit the pattern. The man was older, in his fifties and traveling alone. He came onboard with a limp, and he seemed in poor health. But he was imposing, built like a tank, with a blond crew cut and a hard face. It made the captain uneasy to look at him for very long. He had asked the strangest questions, insisting that he had to know whether the boat would take a certain route, underneath the site where that plane with the bomb had exploded. The captain told him there was no debris to see, but the man had waved him off, saying he knew that.

The captain shook his head. There was no point in concerning himself too much with any one passenger. In all his travels, he had come to know clearly that there were all kinds of strangeness in human beings. The wind picked up strongly, cold even for the January Gulf weather. Many of the others went inside for shelter. The blond man did not stir. He simply gazed into the sky as the boat motored on.

Whoever fights monsters should take care not to become one.

For as you gaze into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Acknowledgments

After numerous agents either passed without comment (or return mail!), or shrank from the controversial subject matter, my thanks go to Sara and Stephen Camilli for their belief in the story and skillful representation in an increasingly topsy-turvy publishing world. My sincerest appreciation goes to editor Dan Mayer of Seventh Street Books for his time and energies in bringing the first edition of the novel to press with Prometheus Books. A similar “thank you” to Julia DeGraf for her work in copyediting the manuscript.

For this, the second edition of the novel, now published with Twice Pi Press, I want to again thank Prometheus Books and Sara Camilli for reverting the rights of publication to me. The novel is now 10% “lighter”, reading tighter and with more velocity, I believe. I hope you enjoyed it.

Erec Stebbins, June 2016, NYC

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erec Stebbins is a biomedical researcher who writes thrillers, science fiction, mysteries, and more.

He was born in the Midwest. His mother worked as a clinical psychologist, and his father was a professor of Romance languages at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. In fact, his father’s specialty, old Romance languages and their literature, is the source of the strange spelling of his middle name: “Erec.” It is an Old French spelling, taken from an Arthurian romance by Chrétien de Troyes written around 1170: Érec et Énide.

He has pursued diverse interests over the course of his life, including science, music, drama, and writing. His academic path focused on science, and he received a degree in physics from Oberlin College in 1992, and a PhD in biochemistry from Cornell University in 1999. He completed postdoctoral studies at Yale University. He has worked for several decades studying the atomic structure of biological macromolecules involved in disease.

For more information:

www.erecstebbinsbooks.com

[email protected]

MURDER, TORTURE, AND VENGEANCE COLLIDE TO THREATEN THE HIGHEST ECHELONS OF POWER.

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Book 2 in the INTEL 1 Series

[_ "Startlingly dark" -San Francisco Book Reviews _]

[_ "A labyrinth of highly charged action" -Tome Tender _]

[_ "A plot that never stops" -ForeWord Reviews _]

Uncovering a shocking conspiracy, a rogue CIA agent is followed by a killer bent on a terrible revenge. No one escapes unscathed, no beliefs go unchallenged, and no wrong eludes the terrible, final, and extraordinary retribution. LEARN MORE.

“STEBBINS IS THE MASTER OF THE THINKING READER’S TECHNO-THRILLER.” —Internet Review of Books

Four Action Packed Political Thrillers. Three Armageddon Scenarios. Two Unusual Love Stories. One Secretive Intelligence Branch.

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The Ragnarök Conspiracy (INTEL 1, Book 1)

"Fortify your shelf of Armageddon thrillers with this promising newcomer." (Library Journal). A Western terrorist organization targets Muslims around the world, and FBI agent John Savas must put aside the loss of his son and work with a man who symbolizes all he has come to hate. Both are drawn into a race against time to stop the plot of an American bin Laden and prevent a global catastrophe. "Outrageously entertaining: epic, explosive, subversive, engaged and compassionate, like a Michael Bay movie written by Aaron Sorkin." -Chris Brookmyre, author of Where The Bodies Are Buried

  • ISBN: 9781942360308
  • Author: Erec Stebbins
  • Published: 2016-08-09 21:35:46
  • Words: 92775
The Ragnarök Conspiracy (INTEL 1, Book 1) The Ragnarök Conspiracy (INTEL 1, Book 1)