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Decimation

 

DECIMATION

A novel

By Lee Burvine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Decimation, an original novel

Copyright 2016 by Lee Burvine, all rights reserved.

 

Shakespir Edition License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Shakespir.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

 

Praise for Lee Burvine’s newest sci-fi/thriller

 

THE KAFIR PROJECT

 

“A thrilling roller coaster ride. Fast paced and riveting. I couldn’t put it down.”

Lawrence Krauss—award winning astrophysicist, and author of A Universe From Nothing

[“Grips you from the first page … seamlessly intertwines
sci-fi, applied physics, and a healthy dose of archaeology.”]

Natalia Reagan—anthropologist, writer, TV animal expert (National Geographic Channel)

[* “A compelling read that weds scientific accuracy with an anti-scriptural plot.”*]

Peter Boghossian—philosopher and author of Street Epistemology

“With strong male and female characters. Everything a nerdy faithless feminist could want.”

Karen L. Garst—author of Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life without Religion

“Burvine gives the world a new kind of hero, an intelligent science communicator in the mold of a Richard Dawkins or Neil deGrasse Tyson.”

Andrew L. Seidel—Constitutional rights attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation

[* “Blends the breakneck pace of the best page-turning mysteries with genuine religious history.”*]

Emery Emery—film editor (Aristocrats), and host of the award winning podcast[_ Ardent Atheist_]

“Historians and scientists have long known the Abrahamic religions are fiction. Who would have thought those findings could be turned into such an entertaining science fiction thriller?”

Dan Barker—author of GOD: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction

“Endless fun.”

Alexander Rosenberg—philosopher, novelist, and author of The Girl from Krakow

“Of note, Burvine forges two villains who are truly frightening in their drive, competence, and unpredictability. An impressive first novel.”

Ross Blocher—Co-hosts popular podcast Oh no, Ross and Carrie!

Preview the hit thriller that’s keeping readers up all night at:

 

kafirproject.com

(available now on amazon.com)

 

 

 

CHAPTER 1

HAD HE KNOWN how little time he had left to live, the boy probably would not have rushed through his very last moments on earth.

He was trying to hurry the goats along, but goats are willful and stubborn. You call, clap, nudge them with your staff. If the goats don’t see what’s in it for them, why should they care?

In that respect they were just like people.

He was eager to see the girl again. That was the root of his impatience. She would be coming through the village tonight with her uncle.

He pictured her warm brown eyes and beautiful teeth, so straight and white. She flashed them in a smile that always disappeared too quickly. It bespoke some inner sadness and it always made his heart leap toward her.

The boy looked westward over the sea of red sand to the white crowned mountains beyond, faded to gray by distance. He and the goats were skirting the border of that vast emptiness, high up on an elevated plateau. At the plateau’s westernmost limit, a sheer cliff dropped off to the desert floor far, far below.

A lone goat separated itself from the herd and wandered down a steep slope near the cliff’s edge. This goat was thin and the quality of its fur rather wiry and sparse. Evidence there of the lighter than usual rains this season. The herd had needed to range further for grazing areas, and that was another reason he was running so late today.

In his haste, he’d been pursuing the goat without being particularly mindful of how close they were to the cliff, or of how much more surefooted a goat was than a boy.

A stone under his right foot broke loose and rolled. He fell with a startled cry and slid down the slope toward the cliff.

When he finally stopped, the boy was less than half his body length from the edge. He sat up, breathing heavily, and looked out at the desert spreading out below.

The light that came then didn’t come as light. It came as blindness. Too much for the human eye to see. It obliterated everything.

In a flash the heat ignited his simple cotton clothing. A scream built up inside him but before it could escape, the entire universe shouted him down, howling with a mighty roar that deafened him instantly.

The shock wave raced toward him across the desert like an enormous, invisible beast, kicking up a cloud of dust behind it.

The boy fell into the blackness and silence, blown backwards as the concussion struck him. Shotgun sands tore away at his charred flesh and smoking garments.

And then there was nothing.

CHAPTER 2

“Stop the Sons of Man Bitches,” read one woman’s handmade sign.

On the other side of the packed street another sign shouted back, in all caps, “AMERICA IS A CHRISTIAN NATION!” This one was brandished by a heavy set man in a blue down jacket who was angrily shouting words across the avenue. Jesse Keane very much doubted they were words of brotherly love.

Keane drove with uncharacteristic caution, well below the speed limit. He figured with this many agitated idiots lining the city sidewalks of D.C. chances loomed large one of them might dive headlong across the street, overcome with the altruistic urge to help his fellow man see things the right way.

He glanced in the rearview mirror and caught a look at his own eyes. Tired. That was no surprise.

Keane appeared older than his forty years and people sometimes told him so. On those occasions, he liked to steal the line from Raiders of the Lost Ark. He looked enough like the younger Harrison Ford to pull it off.

It’s not the years, he’d say in the actor’s voice, it’s the mileage.

The events of the last day were going to add a few more miles to him before it was all done. Still, he had to admit, there was a certain efficiency to it all. He’d thought the whole scenario through a hundred times, turning it over and over in his mind. He looked at it from every conceivable angle. Considered the apparent motives of the group that called itself The Sons of Man. Their likely philosophical disposition, possible moral inhibitions and the technical and logistical challenges involved. Mentally he stepped into their shoes and walked around a bit—something he was pretty good at.

“Elegant stuff, what they pulled off out there in that desert yesterday,” Keane said to his partner.

It was a high compliment coming from him. Concluding that he himself couldn’t have thought of a neater, more economical approach. That is, if he had wanted to push the entire world to the brink of the abyss.

Ricky Pasquini, three years older than Keane and irritatingly a man who looked younger than his age, clacked aside a butterscotch Lifesaver into a plump cheek. “Yeah? How does nuking a gigantic sand pile qualify for elegant?”

“Well, think about it partner. They killed three birds with one stone. They tested their device. It worked. They advertised the capacity of the threat in a direct and convincing manner. We all saw it worked. And maybe most important, they eliminated the whole bluff scenario.”

Pasquini frowned. “You had me till the last one.”

As Keane saw it, Pasquini was missing what was perhaps the most brilliant part of the plan. Credibility. Without it, you had nothing here.

Keane went on. “Okay, someone says, ‘We got a nuclear bomb and we’re gonna blow up an unnamed Arab city if there’s another 9/11 or anything like an Islamic terrorist attack on the US or her allies.’ All right, fine. But why take them seriously? How do you know it’s not just bullshit?”

Pasquini closed his eyes a moment and nodded. Getting it now. “Ah … okay.”

He might not always see where Keane was heading, but he was seldom slow to follow. He was a good partner, and not just for putting up with Keane’s sometimes unorthodox approach to the job or the occasional personal failing.

Well, more than the occasional personal failing to be fair.

“We know it’s not BS,” Pasquini continued, sounding pleased with himself now for catching on, “because you don’t burn up the only nuclear warhead you got in the middle of a damn desert. Right? The fact they practically threw one away…”

“Means they almost certainly have another one ready to go. So, like I said, elegant.”

“Fair enough.”

Up ahead, traffic was slowing to a stop. Light bars flashed on two cruisers, and a uniformed cop—who couldn’t be having a good time out in this cold weather—redirected cars with a pair of orange glow sticks.

It was if anything a mixed crowd that converged on the National Mall that night, flooding in from the connecting streets like streams feeding a lake after a big storm.

The whole world was going ape shit over the news of the Sons of Man’s ultimatum. Rallies sprung up in support and also counter-demonstrations (often both at the same time and place) were breaking out with near spontaneity everywhere. That is, if spontaneity could be said to exist in a world so tightly interwoven by social media.

Riots raged across the Middle East. There was already a significant death toll. And it was rising.

Keane eyed the side streets, looking for an alternate route. The only one empty of traffic displayed a Wrong Way Do Not Enter sign facing his way. He turned up it anyhow.

Pasquini shot Keane an alarmed look. “Hey, it’s a one-way.”

“We’re running late.” Keane caught his partner’s pained expression. “It’s okay. I got cop friends.”

He had just started to accelerate when a pair of headlights turned onto the street ahead and came right at them.

“See? See! That’s what you get.” Pasquini pointed to the oncoming lights. “Find some place to pull over. Quick.”

Keane kept his speed steady and stayed right in the middle of the street. In his peripheral vision he could see Pasquini looking from him to the other vehicle and back again.

“You ever play chicken when you’re a kid, Ricky?” Keane let the old West Texas accent out to play a bit on that one.

“Hey. Don’t screw around, all right?”

A smile curled the edges of Keane’s mouth as he noticed that the car ahead was not slowing down either. This might be about to get interesting.

“This guy really wants to dance, Ricky.”

“Seriously, Keane. C’mon.”

The headlights rushed toward them, still unwavering. Keane kept the car cruising steadily on a course straight ahead.

Pasquini’s voice rose about an octave. “Keane. Hey. Goddamnit, Jesse! JESS!”

Keane estimated there would be just enough time, if … now! He hit the lights and siren.

The headlights ahead swerved as that car fishtailed left then right, and finally pulled over to the side of the road and stopped.

“I win,” Keane said, smiling.

Pasquini started breathing again. “Jeezus, Keane. What do you think, that’s funny?”

Keane turned to him with mock concern, “Yeah. Wait, you don’t?”

Keane put on his serious, cop’s face, but his eyes twinkled as he slowly cruised past the other driver. He watched the guy catch the Homeland Security insignia on the door then look up sheepishly and nod at him. Guy might as well have rolled over and showed his belly.

Young male. Naturally. It was a power, territory, status thing, this need to be the top monkey. And the lack of perspective that comes with being young. That was mixed in there too. You think you’ll always win when it really counts.

And then you learn.

Keane turned to Pasquini, who wouldn’t look back at him, and said, “Hey, with great power comes great privilege. Right?”

Baiting him there. He knew his partner was a big comic book fan and wouldn’t stand for that.

Pasquini tried to hide his smile. “The quote is, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ It’s from Spiderman.”

Keane recalled that Spiderman’s creator, Stan Lee, had actually taken the line from Voltaire, but only said, “Well, I prefer the immortal words of the great Mel Brooks. ‘It’s good to be the King.’”

They reached the next intersection, finally. Keane turned right, then maneuvered onto another one-way, heading the right way this time. He worked his way in as close to the National Mall as he could.

And to whatever was waiting for them there.

CHAPTER 3

KEANE AND PASQUINI hoofed it the last block and a half. They flashed their Department of Homeland Security badges at two uniformed DC Metro cops, and were allowed past the temporary barrier.

As they trudged side by side up a slight rise, the frosted grass crunched beneath their shoes. Night mist glowed above them in the near distance, illuminated by floodlights that were set up on the far side of that low hill, but not yet in view.

With a flick of his finger, Keane unlocked his smartphone screen. He was still in love with that little piece of gear. Now we’re all Rain Man plus thirty seconds—he’d told Pasquini once. What’s the population of Katmandu? Who won the 1934 World Series? What’s the atomic weight of Arsenic?

Give him half a minute or less and he could tell you.

It was nothing short of a miracle to folks of Keane’s generation and he often wondered what it would be like to grow up, as many would now, taking for granted the fact that practically every particle of human knowledge lay literally at their fingertips. It surely was a brave new world.

“We have a source for this mystery communication yet?” Keane asked his partner.

“Yeah. Posted onto an obscure bulletin board from an internet cafe in Riyadh, one hour before the nuke went off.” Pasquini, more fond of late night pizzas than all night gyms, sounded short of breath even on this shallow slope. “It had the GPS coordinates of the blast out there in … whatchacallit.”

“An Nafud Desert.”

What’s the average daytime temperature in An Nafud Desert? Give me thirty seconds.

Pasquini continued. “Yeah. No one paid any attention to the post till the thing went off.”

There had been a flood of claims for responsibility after the blast, but there was only one relevant transmission that could be verified to have come before the blast. And it contained the exact location of ground zero, pinpointed in advance. The Sons of Man were behind this thing, and they were making damn sure the whole world knew it. No one was going to steal credit from them.

They’d thought that part out pretty elegantly too.

Keane pulled up a file titled Sons of Man on his phone and opened it. He read aloud as they continued walking up the rise. “‘We are the Sons of Man. Today a voice cries out in the wilderness.’“ He grinned. “Little reference to John the Baptist and the Gospel of Mark there, partner. Bomb in the desert, voice in the wilderness. Nice.” He read on. “‘Acts of Islamic terror will hereafter be punished with nuclear decimation.’ Well, all right then. That’s clear enough.”

“Decimation. Wipe ‘em all out?” Pasquini asked.

Keane shook his head. “Mmm, not exactly, though that’s the common usage of the word now. If a Roman centurion betrayed Caesar, they executed one out of every ten men in his legion. Comes from the Latin decimus, one tenth. Anyway the idea is to make them police themselves. Works like this: one of your pals screws up, you might go down for it too. So you keep an eye out on each other. Right? These Sons of Man guys are trying to do the same thing with the whole Islamic world. Get them to police themselves. Think about it, it’s probably the only effective way to keep tabs on terrorist action. From the inside.”

“Decimation.” Pasquini nodded, looking impressed. “Well, you gotta hand it to the Romans. They didn’t dick around. How’d they decide which poor bastards got the ax along with the, uh, traitor?”

Keane threw his partner a playful frown as he pocketed his phone. “Hey, this is your own people’s history, Pasquini, you should know this. It was random, they drew straws.”

“Huh.” Pasquini popped another Lifesaver into his mouth. “Doesn’t sound fair. If I was a Centurion, think I’d want to talk to my army recruiter about that one.”

“Well, the Romans didn’t care about what’s fair; they cared about what works. That’s how you get to be the Romans, buddy.”

Fair.

Fair was a unicorn. Fair was rules of engagement that went out the damn window the second you saw your buddy’s severed arm lying in a ditch next to the burnt-out Humvee you both just rode in.

Fair was for civilians.

People who were tasked to get things done when lives and empires hung in the balance, the soldiers and Caesars of the world, they didn’t have time for such luxuries.

And sometimes fair got in the way of just.

How many times had Keane seen evil dodge justice because only one side, just one side, was supposed to play fair? Too many, that’s for sure.

Keane and Pasquini topped the rise together, Pasquini more than a little out of breath now.

Spread out below them and stretching on for seeming miles, thousands upon thousands of flickering lights. Candles. A vigil of sorts. Supporting whom? What? The end of the war on terror? The coming of the Apocalypse?

No one knew, really. But whatever was happening in all this, it wasn’t going to be as simple as one side right, one side wrong.

It never was.

And it would have nothing to do with fair.

“APPRECIATE YOU GUYS coming down.” The police sergeant who met them at the bandstand spoke matter of factly, but he looked taut.

Keane guessed the man was nearing retirement age, obviously experienced enough to have seen some hairy days on the job. Which meant this situation had to be pretty serious.

He confirmed that with a glance at the immense crowd and the modest detail of riot police. If things went south, it would be like fighting a forest fire with a squirt gun.

“Yeah, you guys are stretched a bit too thin here,” Keane said.

Up on the stage, a well-known, jowly, political talk show host and ex-pill head was busy strutting his ample bulk and agitating the audience.

“We’re bankrupting our nation, folks,” he barked into his microphone, “fighting endless wars that aren’t making us any safer. No more! No more constant fear. Enough is enough!” He twisted this thick torso around and pointed up to the red, white, and blue ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! banner hanging behind him.

The crowd cheered. But not the entire crowd, Keane noted.

Along with the people here to show support for the sudden appearance of the mysterious Sons of Man and their incredible ultimatum were the counter-protesters. Their outrage at the threat of nuclear terrorism, albeit retaliatory, looked to match the heat of the other side’s enthusiasm. If not exceed it.

It was a volatile mix, to say the least.

“We have extra manpower coming in,” the sergeant was saying, “but Christ knows what some kind of action here tonight could lead to. You know what I mean?”

Keane got it. What if this very gathering were attacked, bombed by enemies of the Sons of Man with an Islamic connection? Would that be considered an act of terrorism? Would that be large enough to trigger the nuke that was hidden somewhere right now in some large Islamic city?

And who would decide if it was? Based on what particular set of metrics? Someone has to pull the trigger, but how much discretion did that someone actually possess?

Huge questions with no clear answers.

The police sergeant led Keane and Pasquini to the makeshift command center set up beside and behind the stage. Five EMT’s and three ambulances stood by in the back. Thin there too.

As they walked, Keane saw his partner eyeing a two-man scuffle. Some riot police officers were already in the process of breaking it up.

“Man, that’s just a sea of gasoline out there.” Pasquini said, shaking his head.

“And here comes the match,” the sergeant added with unmasked disdain. “Just couldn’t wait to jump out in front of this thing and shout follow me.

A forty-ish woman whom Keane recognized immediately was taking the stage to the sound of her introduction. She had a square-edged smile and an oddly mechanical wave. Ex-beauty pageant queen, Keane recalled. Funny how easy you could tell. She was being escorted by a tall, silver-haired gentleman.

The woman was really showing a bit too much skin both for her age and for a frigid December night, but it was part of her trademark sexy momma persona, and she was working it.

The political talking head up there revved into the intro’s closing, “… and folks, this country needs her now more than ever. The former governor of the great state of Florida. A real American. Laura Bayley!”

Bayley took the microphone with practiced ease as she acknowledged the cheers from the crowd. Cheers that easily drowned out the jeers this time. And Judging from the gleam in her overly made up eyes, she was digging all of this.

When the crowd at last quieted down, she spoke with passion into the microphone, “My fellow Americans. We are here tonight, united in our concern for freedom, faith, and family. Our country is at war and yesterday a new ally made itself known.”

Keane was already well aware of Bayley’s love of country and other All-American values. They were well advertised, after all. But he also recalled that her sense of patriotic duty apparently didn’t extend to completing her full term as governor. She bailed after just the first year, and blamed the press for making her job “too difficult.”

In Keane’s world they called that abandoning your post. In Washington it was just a slightly questionable, but very financially rewarding, career move.

Keane’s eyes were drawn away from her, upstage to an older gentleman. Maybe he didn’t know from custom tailoring, but he did know an expensive suit when he saw one. The talk show host’s body language as he spoke with the man there behind Bayley revealed a submissive deference too.

Yep, there was power there. And not surprisingly it wasn’t standing all front and center in the spotlight. Nope, not surprising at all.

Keane nudged his partner and gestured with a nod toward the stage. “Who’s grandpa?”

Pasquini followed Keane’s gaze to the silver-haired gentlemen. “Ah, the man behind the curtain. That’s Bayley’s ‘spiritual mentor’ David Cavanaugh. You’re big on history and stuff, but politics not so much, huh?”

“Politics? Partner, if I wanted to watch whores street-fighting, I could always go downtown after the bars close.”

Pasquini chuckled. “Yeah, okay. So that guy? The fact he’s lined up in Bayley’s corner means two things. She’s thinking presidential run, and he’s thinking she could pull it off. That’s the kinda juice he’s got.”

Keane’s attention had moved on to a thin, sunken-faced man in a black overcoat, right then sliding through the crowd. Something furtive about him. Keane’s cop instincts tingled.

Sure enough the man was up to something. He surreptitiously took a nip out of a metal flask, then squirreled it away again under his coat.

Pasquini caught the action too. He gestured to the drinker. “Now that’s more like your kind of juice, eh?”

He knew very well it was, and Keane didn’t mind the jab at all. It was a joke with an edge that deep friendships allowed for.

He even smiled wistfully. He could use a snort himself right about now. “Aqua vitae buddy. Water of life.”

Keane was fond of his liquor, as most around him knew. It never got in the way of work, though, which made it no one’s business but his own.

As Keane and Pasquini both watched, another man in jeans and a blue hoodie pushed past the flask guy, heading toward the stage. He had both his hands in his kangaroo pouch pockets.

And was that a paunch under there, or a bulge?

“Two o’clock. Blue hoodie.” Keane said.

Pasquini’s eyes were on him now. “Got ‘em.”

“Tell them to keep their men back until I make a move.” Keane left his partner’s side, worming his way into the crowd.

Meanwhile on the stage, Bayley’s eyes were blazing. “And we have to ask ourselves—are we really free? Are we free to shape our communities by our majority values? Or free to define marriage in accordance with God’s laws?”

The crowd answered with a resounding and drawn out: Nooo!

Keane set himself on a course to intercept Blue Hoodie. But they were packed in shoulder to shoulder tonight and the going was difficult. He stepped on a toe and apologized to a woman wearing a revolutionary era, three cornered hat.

At least Blue Hoodie wasn’t having it any easier. He stumbled. One hand shot out for balance, but the other was definitely clutching something under there.

Keane had to get to that guy and fast.

CHAPTER 4

PACING ON STAGE, Bayley continued to wind the stem and the crowd was eating it up. “Real freedom is the freedom of the Spirit! Not being forced to allow depravity in our society.”

[_Forced to allow? What the hell does that even mean? _]Keane shook his head as the crowd cheered again. They loved her message. Real freedom was the freedom to control what other people are doing. Total reversal. Gets them every time.

Keane couldn’t afford to get distracted. He tuned her out best he could as he cut the distance between him and Blue Hoodie to ten feet.

It might as well have been a thousand miles if all the man needed to do was press or release a button.

As Keane pushed past another spectator, he found himself running right into a brick wall. The human version. The big man stood six feet seven and at least two hundred and eighty pounds. All muscle on this stubble-headed gym rat.

Keane put a hand on the giant’s shoulder with the intention of getting him to look back and turn sideways a bit. It would allow Keane to slide past him.

The guy grabbed Keane’s arm with a grip like a bulldog’s bite. He was wearing a tight T-shirt emblazoned with the words My God’s bigger than your god. On the face of it, not the sign of someone who was going to be quiet and helpful.

“Don’t touch me, asshole.” The big guy squinted down at Keane.

Yep, he was the kind that enjoyed a good fight. You could read it in his eyes. And on another night, maybe.

No time for this shit right now.

The huge man’s chest was even with Keane’s shoulder. That was fortunate, because it allowed Keane to drive the punch from his heels through a straight arm, get his whole body behind it.

He aimed his fist at the bundle of nerves in the center of the chest, the solar plexus, and connected with a sound like a steak hitting the sidewalk from ten floors up.

The big man’s eyes opened wide as he woofed out all his air and sunk to his hands and knees like some kind of religious supplicant.

On stage, Bayley was whipping them into a frenzy. “America is a Christian nation! If the Sons of Man can protect our way of life, I say we support ‘em!”

Again the crowd cheered and booed simultaneously. But the cheers sustained and grew defiant, easily drowning out the naysayers.

Looking over the felled giant, Keane watched Blue Hoodie’s hand come out of his pocket. He was holding a dark grapefruit-sized object.

Shit, this was it. Keane had to stop him. There was no one else.

He reached under his coat and grabbed his service piece, a Glock 17. At the same time he planted his right foot in the middle of the big man’s back.

Blue Hoodie cocked his arm back to throw, his face contorted with rage, lips peeled back in a snarl. “Go to hell, you fascist bitch!”

Using the big man down there on all fours as a take-off platform, Keane sprung. launching himself over the intervening spectators.

He saw a shocked face looking up with mouth open. An instant later he landed on top of Blue Hoodie, who crumpled beneath him. They hit the grass together hard with a dull thud.

Keane turned his head to one side. A woman nearby in jeans and a white sweatshirt was looking down at her chest. A thick red splatter covered her from her knee to her neck.

“Blood. It’s … I’m bleeding blood.” The woman screeched in a tight, high voice. She held her arms out to the sides, as if to keep them from getting involved in this terrible mess.

Keane lay on top of Blue Hoodie, belly to belly, his gun pressed to the man’s temple now. He peeled himself up a bit and looked. Blood everywhere. Blue Hoodie’s face was covered in it.

How much of that is mine?

The thought came to him with a weird detachment He felt nothing and knew that could just be the initial shock.

Onstage, Bayley finally got a glimpse of what was going on and backpedaled instinctively from the fracas. A look of horror came over her face.

A young girl in braids and a Power Puff Girls T-shirt had climbed part way up the back stairs to the stage, trying to see what was going on.

The political talk show host apparently smelled danger and was barreling right at her on fat, bandy legs.

“Out of the way, move, move, move!” He mowed the little girl down in his haste to flee whatever danger he imagined was here.

Pasquini pushed his way through to Keane and started shoving people outward, clearing space to work in.

“Get back! Get back now!” He spun around and got an eyeful of Keane rolling off Blue Hoodie.

Keane could see the moment his partner spotted the blood.

“Keane. Jesus, Keane.”

Keane still didn’t feel anything, though. And the man beneath him was squirming with surprising strength.

Something wasn’t right here.

Keane brought a bloody hand to his nose, sniffed. The aromatic smell of petroleum-based chemicals tickled his nose and sinuses. “Paint. It’s red paint.”

A paint bomb. Just red paint in a balloon.

“For her!” Blue Hoodie shook a crimson, paint-covered fist in the direction of Bayley and the stage. “Fascist!” he screamed.

Bayley, for her part, had backed into the protective arms of David Cavanaugh. No way for her to know that was just paint down there. Must have looked like some awful carnage from where she stood.

The older man in the expensive suit had moved downstage to her aid moments after the talk show host beat his cowardly retreat. The suit took Bayley’s arm and started leading her away.

The woman in the white sweatshirt and red paint had started to shake. “I’ve been shot.” Panic creeping into her shrill voice. That was not going to be helpful.

Keane threw Pasquini a warning glance that his partner read instantly. The message was clear: nip that shit in the bud right now.

Pasquini stepped up to the paint-covered woman and took her by the shoulders. “You’re not shot, ma’am. It’s just paint.”

“This woman’s been shot!” Another man standing next to her, also in one of those ridiculous tri-corner hats, announced the bad information to all who could hear.

Great, Keane thought, it was starting anyway.

“I’ve been shot!” the woman repeated, louder this time. Keane could see the whites all the way around her irises.

“It’s just red paint,” Pasquini said in a calming voice. “You’re okay, ma’am. You haven’t been—”

“I’m bleeding!” Full on hysteria now.

Pasquini grabbed her and shook her a bit. “Listen to me, lady, you’re not—”

“I’VE BEEN SHOT!” she screamed.

Pasquini shook her again, harder now. “Goddamnit, shut the hell up lady!”

It was too late. People nearby began shoving each other, trying to get away from … whatever. A sniper. A bomb. Who knew and who cared? People smelled fear and sensed danger, and ancient herd instincts kicked in. Shockwaves of panic were spreading outward like ripples in a pool.

Keane saw the police sergeant nearby getting on his walkie-talkie. “Move in. Now. Move!”

And in they marched. Behind a wall of Plexiglas shields, the riot police trudged toward the agitated crowd.

The first spectators they reached didn’t back up more than a step or two before resisting. Or if not resisting, just getting pushed up against people farther back who hadn’t got the message yet to move the hell out. This was about to get ugly.

Keane had Blue Hoodie up on his feet now in a wrist lock, and the man was bitching furiously about Nazis and human rights violations.

With Pasquini by his side, Keane searched for the shortest path out of what looked to become a full scale riot any second now. He picked his line and moved.

Blue Hoodie winced in pain as Keane tightened the wrist lock. “Ow, you’re hurting my arm. You’re a fascist too.”

“Really?” Keane was a little amused at that. “I thought I was sort of a half-assed existentialist. More Camus than Kierkegaard, of course. Well you know, you live and…”

The giant was back, and right in Keane’s face. He grimaced and took a massive swing.

Keane ducked reflexively. Then, spinning Blue Hoodie around, and using the man’s free arm like a whip, Keane cracked the big man right in the throat with Hoodie’s forearm. It made a hollow [_thwok _]sound.

The giant went down again, gurgling this time.

“Shit, that hurt!” Blue Hoodie rubbed his arm.

“Yeah, sorry. Now move,” Keane said, and got them going again.

He glanced back at the stage. That silver-haired Cavanaugh guy had an arm around Bayley as he led her off the back of the stage. He stopped to let her take the stairs ahead of him, and looked back at the incipient riot, just for an instant. And then he was gone too. Down the stairs.

And Keane could have sworn he saw a smile.

CHAPTER 5

IT WAS AN appropriately modest space for worship, Umar Farooq thought, unlike some of the American cathedrals he’d visited in D.C. He felt comfortable here, generally. Though not this afternoon. Not with this big meeting looming before them.

This small mosque was plain, in a good way. Nothing here was gilded, or studded with semi-precious gems. None of that vulgarity.

To be fair, Islam had its ostentation too, particularly in major holy sites. In that respect, it was much like Christianity and its bastard child Mormonism, or many eastern religions for that matter.

But that sort of showiness had never felt right to Farooq. It was, he supposed, one way to express the magnificence and grandness of Allah. But somehow it seemed more like grandiosity. Simple human pride and self-importance. Look at us, look what we have done, it seemed to call out.

The wrong message altogether.

There were twenty men worshiping today. Many appeared to be the same age as Farooq and his compatriot Ali Zadari. Mid-twenties or younger. Most were dressed in the typical western style, slacks or jeans, button down shirts and sweaters.

There was not a stern and fundamentalist approach here, which was good. It provided the cover Farooq and Zadari required for their important mission.

The Mullah—who was not involved with the plot in any way—stood in the undecorated minbar, and delivered a commentary to one of the surahs. Farooq hadn’t caught which one it was today. But the ideas being expressed were common to many surahs.

“The unbeliever’s eyes are shut,” the mullah intoned earnestly. His own eyes were bright, but also gentle. “And his heart is closed to the truth. He cannot know the freedom that is walking in the will of Allah.”

[_Walking in the will of Allah. _]Is that what they were doing?

Farooq hoped with all his heart that it was. It was not the easiest thing to know, though some seemed to have absolute confidence that they were doing it.

He looked at Zadari, who was nodding silently. His eyes were focused on the mullah with the keen attention he brought to all things religious.

And he did not blink.

It was something Farooq noticed after knowing the man for some time now. He couldn’t put his finger on what had seemed so odd about Zadari’s affect until he nailed that down. The man almost never blinked. Weird. It made him resemble some kind of reptile, sitting still and waiting for its prey.

Farooq glanced over his shoulder to the doorway that led to the back room. No one there. Maybe something had gone wrong.

He wasn’t looking forward to this meeting, but the sooner they had it, the sooner things would be resolved. And they had to be resolved. There was no real choice in the matter anymore. Although he had the feeling that Zadari was still holding out hope for a go ahead.

No chance of that, not now. Was there?

Farooq had been fully prepared for martyrdom, that part wasn’t a problem. He had even made his video. It was strange watching that and imagining others seeing it, knowing he himself would never watch it again.

He liked to picture his parents and sister back in Egypt watching it with pride. He would be in Paradise when it was released, of course. He wondered if he could literally look down and see them watching it.

Or he would have been in Paradise. Now … everything was different.

Still, in all of this, in his full willingness to go to any length for Allah, Farooq believed he had proved himself far superior to his enemies. Americans were already tired of their little war in Afghanistan. A war that was barely a decade old. A decade! Imagine thinking ten years to be a long time in the course of world history.

It was foolish beyond description.

They had no perspective, no sense of proportion in the West. Nor any taste for what Farooq liked to think of as the long game. Hundreds, or even a thousand years of struggle meant nothing. Not with the destiny of his people and the souls of all mankind at stake. It would take as long as it will take.

Allah would decide the timetable.

It seemed to Farooq that Americans were practically allergic to personal sacrifice of any kind too. They whined like babies if they didn’t have enough money to buy the newest athletic shoe or the latest cell phone or video game. Compare that with an army of people like Farooq, who were ready to lay down their very lives for a passionate cause they knew was holy. This is why he and his side would win in the end.

Or so he once thought.

And now this, this thing had come from out of nowhere. This ultimatum. Somewhere near to millions of his brother Muslims a nuclear bomb sat waiting. It waited for someone to undertake exactly the kind of action that Farooq and Zadari had planned.

And what could they possibly do about that? This thing was real, this nuclear counter-threat. One atomic bomb had already been detonated in the Arabian Desert.

Until all of this was resolved, what other choice was there but to wait and see how it all played out? Time would still be on their side. And besides, everything that happened in this world had happened according to Allah’s will. And always would.

Somehow, in a way that Farooq couldn’t understand, this thing too was all part of His plan.

In the minbar, the mullah continued his oratory. “No hand, no knife, no atom bomb, can stay the will of Allah or alter the laws of his Prophet, peace be upon him.”

Farooq glanced again at the doorway. An Imam in black robes had magically appeared there.

Farooq nudged Zadari, who turned and saw the Imam too. Zadari’s face visibly darkened.

And he did not blink.

THEY WERE ALONE in the back office of the mosque, just the three of them. The door was locked and they would not be disturbed. Insha’Allah this would not take long. The tension was making Farooq a little sick to his stomach.

There were brief introductions, and then straight to business.

“Your plan will stop,” the Imam announced with finality.

He had a full, dark beard, thick eyebrows, and blazing eyes that gave him the look of a Hollywood parody of holy men of Islam. Only he was no parody. He was the real thing and a man of some authority in the Islamic hierarchy in America.

“The target is already selected,” Zadari replied calmly to the Imam.

Farooq could hardly believe his own ears. That was an absolutely ludicrous thing to say. Zadari was speaking with an air of authority that matched the Imam.

The Imam caught that impudence too and the fire in his eyes flamed up a few degrees.

“Are you challenging me?” the Imam asked. His anger was palpable. A vein throbbed at his temple.

Farooq jumped in quickly to defuse the situation. “He is just saying … the target is selected, yes, but it’s nothing that can’t be undone if—”

The Imam waved him off. “I direct you both to stand down!” He glared at Zadari again. “You understand me? That is an order. A direct order that comes from far beyond myself.”

Zadari looked confused now, sheepish. Good. A little air let out of his sails would be helpful. Farooq felt some of the tension going out of his shoulders.

“But, I have authorization. I have it right here,” Zadari said defensively.

That caught the Imam (and Farooq too) completely by surprise. His thick eyebrows shot up. “What authorization? Show me this.”

Zadari carefully reached into his inside coat pocket. His hand emerged a moment later and in one continuous movement it thumped into the center of the Imam’s chest.

The Imam knit his brow and looked down.

Something wet glistened there on the dark fabric of his robe, just below Zadari’s hand.

“No mere knife could stop the will of Allah,” Zadari said. His voice soft now, face serene. “But this blade had stopped your wicked heart. That is my authorization. The will of Allah.”

The Imam, eyes wide with shock and anger, reached feebly for Zadari’s throat. Zadari took an easy step back and let the man fall forward, dead at his feet. The bloody knife clearly revealed for the first time.

Zadari turned to Farooq. “We proceed with the attack.”

Farooq sensed the blood draining from his face and his feet seemed not connected with the floor. He could feel a trickle of cold sweat running down his spine.

He watched as Zadari bent down and wiped the knife on the Imam’s robes then returned it to its place under his coat.

But it simply couldn’t happen, what Zadari was prepared to do. A bombing now? With that device out there? How many of their own would die if this went forward? What precious holy site might be destroyed and poisoned forever?

No. He couldn’t let it happen.

“Take his feet,” Zadari said.

And Farooq did as he was told. For now.

CHAPTER 6

THE SUN SHONE bright through a frigid, blue December sky. Joggers and a pair of stoic Frisbee players were enjoying the neatly kept public park. D.C. residents were taking advantage of this break in the weather to get outdoors while they could. A cold front was on its way in, and the forecast was for rain and sleet late that night and into the next day.

Days like this, when the views of the alabaster monuments were breathtaking, the city seemed weirdly invincible to Keane. It was as if he could feel the collective power of it all radiating up through the clear, cold air and beaming right out into space.

It made the realization of how terribly fragile the situation was with this crazy Sons of Man business all the more nerve-rattling.

Keane had dressed in a black nylon track suit that was a bit too thin for standing still in this chill air, but it would do fine in a minute.

He liked this meeting setting in the park, as it was near impossible to eavesdrop on a jog without being glaringly obvious. With his job and background, Avi Fleischer would appreciate that too.

Keane’s old friend Ari had arrived from Tel Aviv that morning and although he was in his sixties now he was still in marathoner condition. Keane knew no jet lag would slow the man down.

Especially not today.

Understandably the Israelis immediately went on high alert in response to the news and the detonation out there in An Nafud. It didn’t take much foresight to see that if a nuclear bomb were to go off somewhere in the Islamic world, retaliation would be swift and, at least at first, regional.

And it would be directed against old enemies.

Israel and America were twin faces of the Great Satan to many in that part of the world. Hate that had festered for thousands of years needed far less excuse to erupt than the casus belli that was looming out there right now.

The riots that had broken out across the Middle East were escalating. The death toll continued to rise.

Pasquini was stretching in preparation for the run, if you could call bending over low enough to pat a tall child on the head stretching. “So your Mossad friend Avi is talking with the big boys today?” he said in between grunts.

Keane locked an ankle behind his butt and stretched his quads. “Yeah. And us. And visiting some family, I would guess. He has three ex-wives that live here in the States. And a handful of kids. And a few girlfriends too.”

“Popular guy.” Pasquini moved on to side stretches, without any improvement in range of flexibility.

Watching his partner, Keane was reminded of a Louis C. K. joke. It was like trying to fold a bowling ball.

The throaty sound of a powerful car engine turned their heads. As Keane and Pasquini watched, a black, BMW M4 pulled up to the curb, and the revs dropped down to a sexy purr.

The woman driving was a knockout, even from this distance. She leaned in and kissed the passenger, whose face was still lost in the shadows of the car’s interior.

The kiss lingered on.

Pasquini grinned. “A lot of hot women go for the tall, dark and dangerous types, huh?”

Avi Fleischer climbed out of the car in his brown velour warm up suit. He was short and squat, with a pocked face and frizzy hair.

“And others are apparently just into the whole Jackie Mason thing,” Pasquini added dryly.

As the BMW pulled out, Avi spotted Keane and waved.

They’d met during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, when Fleischer assisted the US with Israeli HUMINT, Human Intelligence Resources. He didn’t look like anyone’s version of a spy, which was useful in and of itself.

Like Keane, Fleischer saw active duty inside the battle zone. And he’d stayed in shape since those days. Unlike Pasquini’s, Fleischer’s slightly chunky build was solid muscle, through and through. He wasn’t fat, not a bit. He was condensed.

It suited his personality, Keane thought.

Avi Fleischer took up no more space than he needed in order to function. Not in his own department within the Mossad (where he wasn’t the least bit ambitious, and yet had risen steadily to the top) not in his personal friends’ lives, not even in his conversation.

Fleischer extended into the lives of others just enough to achieve the desired result, and no more. Smaller was faster, condensed was efficient. Israel itself occupied no more area than the state of New Jersey.

If a whole nation can be so compact, so can a man’s life—he seemed to be saying.

And what if you wanted more of Avi Fleischer? If you left the door open and invited him to wander further into your life? Well, that was something Keane had no inclination to do. With anyone. For him it had always been a moot question. In fact, it was something he appreciated about Fleischer.

Nevertheless, Keane thought he knew the answer. It was evidenced clearly enough in those three ex-wives.

KEANE AND FLEISCHER jogged at a moderate pace side by side along a circuitous course up and down through the park. At first, Keane had felt a side stitch coming, but mercifully it faded.

Behind them Pasquini struggled to keep up.

The trio had just jogged past some slower runners, run-walking really, when Fleischer apparently decided they were far enough from prying ears.

He spoke in his heavy Israeli accent. “Cooperation with the Arabs is unprecedented. But the only lead we have generated so far? Photographic equipment. Hot with radioactivity.”

It didn’t take Keane a moment to work out how that happened. “So they recorded the test blast in An Nafud. The Sons of Man. Of course they did. Where’d the cameras turn up?”

“Within a Christian charity group, in the Sudan. YWP—Youth with Purpose. Operates under the auspices of the Brotherhood. They’re making a documentary, they say. Clean water for children in sub-Saharan Africa.”

“A documentary. Okay. With radioactive cameras that they acquired how? And who’s this Brotherhood?” Keane asked.

Pasquini, badly winded, cut into the conversation from behind. “That’s Cavanaugh. Remember him? Man behind … the curtain? At the rally with … Bayley last night. The Brotherhood … that’s his people.”

“We suspect there’s a connection, yes,” Fleischer said. “We tried to follow up through regular channels, but …” He let that last part trail off meaningfully.

“Good luck … with that,” Pasquini said. “Half the congressmen in Washington … pray with Cavanaugh … The other half … make business deals … with his buddies.”

Keane understood. So they weren’t talking about regular channels now. This was going to take a more creative approach.

“Avi’s not looking for luck,” Keane explained. “He’s looking for help on the down low,”

Keane glanced at Fleischer, who pointedly didn’t deny it.

It all made sense. If Cavanaugh’s powerful Washington friends were blocking an official investigation into a possible connection between the Brotherhood and the Sons of Man, then Keane could assist with a little unofficial investigating.

And if it meant drawing outside the lines a bit? Keane was perfectly comfortable with that.

“You think they’re the Sons of Man, this Brotherhood group?” Keane asked. He was thinking they might be like Sinn Féin to the IRA, the official arm of a secretive paramilitary organization.

“No. Not identical. But overlap is clearly indicated. The Brotherhood has the means and the manpower. And ideological sympathy as well.”

Keane said, “Consider it done. What else, Avi?”

Fleischer kept silent as they passed a young couple walking their dog.

Pasquini was wheezing audibly now. “You know … anytime you two guys need a break…”

When the couple was well behind them, Fleischer said, “Your president has announced it to the world—you will find the Sons of Man. And you will stop them.”

“That’s the order I got,” Keane said flatly.

Fleischer glanced over. “And so…?”

Keane let the silence speak for him.

“That’s what I thought,” Fleischer said.

At press conferences and in public announcements, this administration was as outraged as the rest of the world by the actions of the terrorist group that called itself the Sons of Man. It was unacceptable. It would not stand. There was plenty of table pounding and calls for international action and unity.

Behind closed doors the story was a little different.

Yes, Keane was tasked with finding out who filled out the Sons of Man organization and where they operated from. So were the FBI and CIA. But no one was breathing down his neck and demanding results.

Just the opposite. No one was demanding much of anything.

FLEISCHER STOOD NEAR Keane after the run, drinking the bottled water he’d been offered. Keane knew the importance of rehydration after runs. Not all of which involved exercise.

Pasquini sat on the grass looking wrecked and sucking air.

Above them wisps of cirrus clouds heralded the approach of that low pressure front.

“I need better shoes,” Pasquini finally managed to get out. “And legs. Better legs too.”

Keane took a sip of his own water and turned to Fleischer. “You’re heading back tonight?”

Fleischer nodded. “Hmm. You know, a lot of my people think this ultimatum is a Godsend.”

[_So do mine. _]“But you don’t think that.”

Fleischer looked at Keane with a stone face, letting a long moment pass. “Some people are just prone to ignore the consequences, Jesse. Even when they should know very well what’s coming. Look at me.” He raised his left hand solemnly then wiggled his fingers.

Keane took in the sparkling diamond ring on Fleischer’s fourth finger. He was engaged again.

“Mazel Tov, Avi.” Keane said.

Pasquini meanwhile had flopped onto his back in the grass, and was looking up at the two of them. “Yeah, that’s beautiful, Avi. Congratulations on the engagement. By the way … my left arm is numb.”

“You’re getting the same reports,” Keane said to Fleischer, all business again. “Terrorist operations are on hold all around the world. You can’t argue with results.”

“So the end justifies the means, eh?”

It was a maxim attributed to Machiavelli, though it wasn’t quite what he said. The man got a bad rap, really. All he was doing in The Prince was telling the common people what the ruling class already knew and how they operated.

“Consider the final result here,” Keane said. “A potential end to Islamic terrorism. With no blood shed. Do that, Avi, and then explain to me, on balance, how the Sons of Man’s ultimatum is a bad thing.”

“You’re counting on your enemies to act in their own self-interest. That’s the big logical flaw in this little plan. Remember…” Fleischer waved the engagement ring again.

Just then Keane’s and Pasquini’s phones beeped. Keane pulled his and read the text.

“Crime scene,” Keane said. “It’s a mosque we’ve been watching. Sorry, Avi. We have to go.”

Fleischer was looking down at Keane’s hand, frowning. “Are you all right?”

Keane’s hand, both hands in fact, were shaking pretty badly. That came as no surprise to Keane, given the change he’d recently made in his morning drinking routine.

“The run,” Keane said calmly. “Low blood sugar.”

Fleischer nodded.

“You need a ride?” Keane asked him.

“Thanks, she’s coming back for me.” Fleischer held Keane’s gaze for a moment. “You should probably get yourself a drink.”

Keane stiffened involuntarily. It wasn’t like his old friend to cross that line. But before he could say anything…

“Orange juice,” Fleischer added innocently. “For the blood sugar.”

“Right,” Keane said. He glanced over at Pasquini, who was retying a shoe, and casually pretending the moment hadn’t happened.

Like a good friend would.

CHAPTER 7

THE MALL WAS busy with the pre-Christmas rush. Still, the Russian FSB agent had a clear position from which to observe the clandestine meet this time. She sat on a bench outside a jewelry store and waited for an opportunity to get incriminating photos.

This pair, an ersatz Russian diplomat and a crooked FBI agent, used a Wi-Fi enabled electronic dead drop at a downtown Starbucks to set up this rendezvous.

They didn’t meet on a regular schedule or ever in the same place twice. They weren’t taking chances with that part of it. This demonstrated a fair amount of professionalism and at least some knowledge of spy craft.

It had taken quite a while to figure out how they exchanged information. Via that electronic dead drop, as it turned out. It took much less time to crack the drop’s encryption security once its existence was established.

Because they generally avoided being in the same place at the same time, to the casual observer it would appear that the two men’s paths almost never crossed. Almost.

But diligent surveillance had revealed they both visited the same coffee house once a week. One went in on Mondays and the other on Tuesdays. Always the Russian first.

Once there, each man simply logged onto a WI-FI network that anyone could see, but to which only they had the password. The gear and storage drive for that very private network resided in an innocent-looking hollow rock amongst the shrubbery just outside the café.

The Russian uploaded the pertinent information on Mondays and the FBI agent downloaded it on Tuesdays. All completely off the internet, and entirely out of the reach of the NSA. Or anyone else for that matter.

This set up didn’t even have the usual drawbacks of a physical dead drop, since no one could see the action of either man leaving or retrieving messages. It was in every way ideal for keeping them apart.

Cash, however, had to be exchanged physically.

Apparently, the FBI agent had insisted on cash. A foolish decision there. Had he not been dealing with a thuggish Russian ex-mobster who was himself used to dealing in hard currency, he probably would not have been accommodated.

But he was, thank the Fates.

The result was an occasional face-to-face rendezvous. Like this one. Opportunities which the FSB agent used to observe and photograph the two of them together.

When the time was right, the connection between these two men—a connection that had absolutely no legitimate reason to exist—would be exposed to the governments of each.

But not until the evidence was damning.

There was immense power behind the diplomat. That one had to be mortally wounded in this attack. Anything less would leave the FSB agent exposed and fatally vulnerable.

Patience was more than a virtue here. It was the fine line between life and death.

The diplomat and the FBI agent were both in clear view now, standing side by side in the food court across the way.

The envelope exchanged hands. The FSB agent snapped a series of shots.

These would be added to the others.

It was a start.

CHAPTER 8

KEANE KNEW IT was politically incorrect, but at one level or another, the federal government had been keeping tabs on certain mosques and other Islamic organizations ever since the attacks on 9/11.

Tough luck for them.

Even the NYPD did it, until they were called out on the practice by some intrepid young reporter. Racial and religious profiling was taboo in the United Sates in the twenty-first century. And it was still effective at times.

So it was still done. Albeit quietly now.

In a number of important ways, this particular mosque fit the parameters that made the awkwardness of keeping an eye on it worth the potential trouble. Mostly younger Islamic men here, some of them in the US on student visas. The resident Mullah wasn’t exactly a firebrand, but there were still viable connections from him to radical, hardline clerics in New York and overseas.

Including the one who just turned up dead.

It was hard to make any sense of this killing. A moderate getting tapped for failing to support some flavor of extremism … sure. That wasn’t unheard of.

But why did this radical hate-monger’s ticket get punched?

These things were on Keane’s mind as he and Pasquini drove together in silence from the park to the mosque.

Keane, riding in the passenger seat this time at Pasquini’s insistence, finally broke the quiet. “What is it Pasquini?”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Yeah, it’s what you’re not saying.”

Pasquini returned to his former silence for as long as his limited self-control allowed. About a half minute there.

“Your hands don’t shake when you drink, Jess. They shake when you stop. After you been drinking hard. So it’s obvious you been hitting it pretty good lately, and now you’re on the wagon. That about right?”

That was about right. Before the whole decimation ultimatum, Keane had been on something of a bender. Several weeks of it, in fact. But things being what they were right now, that couldn’t really continue. So he sobered himself up. Quickly. And painfully.

He’d been gritting his teeth through the classic symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome, including some pretty nasty DT’s.

Keane smiled. “Yeah, well. You’re right about all that, buddy. I had been drinking a bit more than usual, before this whole deal. But then when it all came down, well, starting each day off with an eye-opener didn’t seem like such a great idea anymore. So for now, just seems better to lay off altogether.” He waited, and when it became clear Pasquini was not going to reply he added, “Few days is all. It’ll pass, buddy.”

“Course it will. Always does.”

THE ALLEY BEHIND the mosque was fairly bustling with police activity.

Keane and Pasquini crossed the crime scene tape and flashed DHS Security badges and ID. This drew a few looks from the nearby uniforms, and Keane assumed that was because he and his partner were still dressed in jogging suits.

The coroner, a surprisingly young guy Keane didn’t recognize with the odd last name of Lingo, led them to the body.

It had already been moved out of the dumpster where it was initially found and now lay in an unzipped body bag. CSI techs were combing the dumpster for forensic evidence.

An FBI agent named Sugiyama joined the three of them. Keane had run into him before on the job. Pleasant enough guy, and seemed reasonably proficient. That was all Keane really needed from his co-workers. Less than that he couldn’t stand, though. If you didn’t care enough about your job to at least get competent at it, what in the hell were you doing it for? In this field especially, it sure wasn’t for grins or riches.

They got the preliminaries out of the way. Liver temp established the time of death around noon yesterday.

Sugiyama took a good look at the dead Imam’s face. “So this guy wasn’t even on your D.C. watch list, huh? My understanding is he’s something of a player.”

Keane shrugged. “If you say so, but not locally. I can tell you that much.”

Sugiyama made a note on his pad. “His name is Hassam Al Sabbah. High-ranking US Imam. You guys have any idea what he was doing here?”

“Was kinda hoping you’d tell us that,” Keane said.

“Who found the body?” Pasquini asked.

“Anonymous phone tip.” Sugiyama gestured to the coroner hanging out nearby. “He can tell you the cause of death.”

Lingo blinked. He didn’t seem to like being put on the spot like that. “Well, it’s preliminary, of course,” he said, wringing his hands. “But it looks like cause of death was a single knife thrust to the heart.”

“So,” Keane said, “either this attacker got really lucky…”

Sugiyama finished the thought for him. “Or he has extensive experience with hand to hand combat, which means he’s a trained terrorist.”

Pasquini smiled at that. “Beautiful. They’re knocking each other off now. Why don’t we just step out of the way and leave them to it?”

A member of the mosque approached. A young, Middle Eastern man in jeans and a blue oxford shirt. He was being escorted by two uniforms. He took in Keane’s and Pasquini’s casual dress, and looked a little lost for a moment. Not surprising, since they probably looked more like the cast of the Sopranos right now than law officers.

“You are the federal authorities?” the young man asked,

Sugiyama answered for them all. “Yes, we are. Can we help you, sir?”

The young man looked nervous, but that meant nothing. There had just been a murder at his mosque. And in this day and age any young Islamic male had good reason to be nervous around US law officials, even when there wasn’t a body lying in a bag nearby.

“There’s a phone call for you,” the man said. “Inside the mosque. The caller won’t say his name. Just that he wants to talk to you.” He looked them up and down once again. “To the authorities.”

This could be their anonymous tipster, Keane thought. If they could reel him in, interview him properly, things would get a lot clearer a lot faster.

He went inside with Pasquini and Sugiyama.

IN THE MOSQUE’S office, Keane hovered over a multi-line desk phone. The red hold light was blinking steadily.

He checked that Pasquini and Sugiyama were ready at his side, and then hit the button.

Leaning in he said, “This is Homeland Security agent Jesse Keane. Who am I speaking to, please?”

“There is an attack coming. A terror attack with high explosives.” Middle Eastern accent. Egyptian, maybe. The man sounded pretty wound up.

Keane looked at Pasquini and Sugiyama to see if they were hearing this clearly. The tension in their faces told him they were. This was grave news and they all knew why.

“And what’s your name, sir?” Keane kept his voice relaxed and neutral.

“Listen to me, this cannot happen. Not with this ‘decimation device’ out there somewhere.”

Sugiyama leaned into the phone then. A quick glance at Keane. Keane nodded a go ahead.

“Sir, this is FBI agent James Sugiyama. Who is planning this attack?”

“He calls himself Zadari. I am meeting him today.”

Great, Keane thought. The man was going to help them. He was already giving out valuable information.

“When is the meeting?” Sugiyama asked.

“Twelve O’clock, the Hotel Monaco.”

Pasquini checked his watch and displayed the time for Keane and Sugiyama. Eleven-twenty.

Well shit, at least there’s plenty of time…

Keane leaned in again. “We need to meet you somewhere else first. Where are you now?”

“I’m wearing a yellow coat, black pants. I will hand him a newspaper.”

Sugiyama said, “Sir, listen to us. You need to—”

The speaker clicked. Disconnected.

“Sir? Sir?” Sugiyama checking. But the man was gone.

They all looked around at each other. Keane figured they were each having pretty much the same thought.

“Jesus,” Pasquini said. “Some jag off is actually going ahead with a bombing. Un-freaking-believable.”

“Or he’s calling their bluff,” Sugiyama said. “Maybe he doesn’t believe they’ll really do it. I mean, it sounds pretty insane. Even if they blow up some Arab city, all they’d end up doing is fueling a hundred more terror attacks. And what do they do then? They can’t have a hundred more bombs.”

“We can’t afford to find that out for sure,” Keane said. “We gotta move fast and nail this guy.”

Keane did some quick mental updating based on what they’d heard there. Several important questions had just been answered.

Would anyone ignore the ultimatum and move ahead with a terrorist plot anyway?

Yes.

In the face of that, would the Islamic world be worried enough of the Sons of Man’s threat to actually act against their own?

Yes.

The proof of the pudding’s in the eating. Whatever your politics or your philosophy, you couldn’t deny that the Sons of Man and their outrageous plan were having exactly the effect they had wanted. An effective end to Islamic terror.

Strange days indeed.

CHAPTER 9

KEANE PRETENDED TO browse the newsstand, across the street and about a quarter block east from the entrance to the Hotel Monaco.

The horsetail cirrus clouds had thickened into a high altitude sheet as the front moved in. But the sky was still bright and Keane had no trouble viewing the foot traffic coming and going from the hotel.

With any luck, they would have both men—Zadari and their mystery caller—in custody very soon.

It still sounded all crazy on at least one level. Who in hell was challenging the Sons of Man’s ultimatum in such an apparently direct manner, and so damn soon? Even if the operation had been ongoing, and it sounded that way from the phone call, wouldn’t those in charge want to wait at least until…

The dead Imam.

Ah, of course. Suddenly it made sense. He must’ve come out here to shut it all down. That’s why he made the trip from New York.

And despite orders, someone had taken matters into his own hands. Someone with deadly skills. And that’s why the Imam was laying now in the coroner’s office. It didn’t matter that he was a hardline radical. Apparently even he wasn’t insane enough to move forward with this bombing given the potential consequences.

But someone else was. And they would be meeting that guy soon.

Keane’s ear piece crackled. “Keane, you in position?” Sugiyama checking in.

It occurred to Keane that the track suit had come in handy as an inconspicuous undercover outfit. Couldn’t have planned it better, really. Except, of course, maybe giving themselves about a week longer to prepare for all this shit.

Keane spoke into his cuff mike. “Keane here. Across the street at the newsstand, just east of the hotel entrance. I have a clear view. Where’s MPDC?”

Keane saw Sugiyama’s outline, just his head and shoulders, sitting in an unmarked police car near the western end of the block.

The detective’s voice came over the earpiece again. “Metropolitan Police are hanging tight and outta sight. Waiting on our call.”

As it turned out, they got themselves settled in and operational without a moment to spare. Because just then one of their two targets walked around the corner west of the hotel.

He passed east of Sugiyama’s position and strolled right by Pasquini, who was sitting on a bus bench.

When the man was well past him, Pasquini brought his wrist up as he touched his ear piece. “Pasquini. Okay, I got a young Middle Eastern male, yellow coat, black pants, holding a newspaper. That’s gotta be him. He’s here.”

Keane spotted him next. He certainly fit the description given by the phone caller.

“I see him,” Keane said. “He’s reading east on the south side of F street”

From his vantage point, Sugiyama seemed to have trouble finding the man in the foot traffic across the street there. “Wait, I don’t…” And then the yellow and black outfit must have popped into the clear. “Okay, got him. He’s past my position and heading for the hotel entrance.”

As Keane watched, another man—this one in a green down jacket—came walking in from the other end of the street and stopped in front of the hotel entrance. He didn’t go in, though. He just looked up and down the street.

Keane went to his cuff mike again. “Heads up. We have a white male in a green jacket. He’s stopped just outside the entrance.”

He didn’t look Middle Eastern. In fact he was pale and blonde.

Keane thought if this is our man, then Zadari is just an alias. Our guy could be a home grown terrorist. It would be terrific to get a crack at interviewing him and looking inside his head.

Keane had often wondered what the hell made these guys tick. Forget about the technique that went into radicalizing young men, and how well perfected it was. Even given all that, how could any American be so stupid (let alone so dishonorably treasonous) as to turn against his own country in that way?

Keane remembered that kid from the San Francisco Bay area. Lindh. Captured during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. He was speaking mangled English with a full-on Arabic accent when his captors interrogated him.

The guy grew up in Marin County. Lounging in hot tubs eating cheeseburgers.

How completely nutso was this guy to actually have convinced himself that English was his second language?

Keane found it amazing what people could talk themselves into believing. Look at Scientology. Alien souls imprisoned in volcanos? Hey, sure. Why not? Or Mormonism. A convicted con man found golden plates that God Himself wrote on. Oh, but they vanished. Sorry. Hey, sounds good! There seemed to be absolutely no limits on self-delusion. None.

“Got him. Green jacket.” Sugiyama on the radio again, following the action from down the block. “Move in the second our guy hands him the newspaper. Keane, you have the best sightline, you call it.”

“Roger that.” Keane watched as their man with the newspaper stopped right next to Green Jacket, who had just taken out a cigarette. Green Jacket turned to the other man and said something. “Wait for it … wait.” Keane instructed.

Their guy shifted the newspaper.

Keane felt the adrenaline kicking in, making his hands tingle. “Ready…”

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Pasquini get to his feet off the bus bench.

The man with the paper pulled a lighter out of his pocket, and lit Green Jacket’s cigarette for him. Green Jacket gestured a thank you with the cigarette. And walked on.

And that was it.

“Not our guy. Stand down. Repeat, stand down.” Keane said. Then added, “Sugiyama, tell metro to stop that guy when he passes out of sight lines. We gotta be sure on him.”

He probably had nothing to do with the meet, just a guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. But there was no sense taking any chances.

“Copy that,” Sugiyama said.

Green Jacket made the corner east of the hotel. From the newsstand Keane could still see him clearly.

A few steps later, three uniforms grabbed him and took him down to the cement. In seconds they had the man cuffed and back on his feet, leading him away down the block. His day was about to get really interesting.

Keane watched their man with the newspaper in front of the hotel check his watch. Good. It didn’t look like he’d caught any of that little scuffle.

Their mystery caller continued to stand in front of the hotel entrance with the newspaper in hand for the next five minutes, waiting. But he was getting fidgety, pacing nervously. Tension getting the better of him, it looked like.

As more time passed, he was looking increasingly agitated.

The man in black and yellow checked his watch for the third time in as many minutes and started walking west on the sidewalk, back in the direction of Sugiyama and Pasquini.

Shit, he was giving up. They’d have to settle for taking him in. They could use what he knew to find this Zadari guy. And as quickly as possible.

Sugiyama’s voice was in Keane’s ear again. “He’s leaving. Something went wrong with the meet. We need to grab him.”

Keane watched as Pasquini turned and brushed something nonexistent off his shoulder. He kept an eye on the guy as he passed.

When the man was a few steps away, Pasquini raised his wrist.

In Keane’s ear piece, “Pasquini here. We take him down now?”

Sugiyama was already out of the car, holster unsnapped. He started across the street to cut the man off.

Why didn’t he wait for the green light?

No choice now but to go for it.

Keane gave the order. “All units move in. Take him. Take him alive. We need this guy.”

Pasquini arose from the bench. “I’m on him.”

Car tires screeched nearby. Keane jerked his head in the direction of the sound.

Sugiyama had miscalculated the traffic. The driver of a blue Honda SUV just locked his brakes to keep from running into him.

Goddamnit.

Keane watched the target turn his head and spot Sugiyama, and see the detective’s holstered weapon, which was visible as he hustled the rest of the way across the street.

Sugiyama must’ve noticed that the guy made him. He called out to him, “Stop, FBI!”

The man didn’t hesitate a moment, he turned, dropped the newspaper, and started running east up the sidewalk.

Right toward Pasquini.

Keane watched as Pasquini squared up to block the guy. But just before he reached Pasquini, the man shoved a pedestrian, an older woman, right into him. Reflexively, Pasquini caught the woman as their target dashed on past.

Keane ran over to the south side of the street to try and cut the guy off. But this character was too fast. He hit the street corner ahead of Keane. Didn’t turn or slow down. Just raced right into the busy intersection.

Brakes squealed again and tires screamed as several cars slid sideways.

A white Porsche swerved across the center line, trying to avoid hitting their man. He slammed head on into a motorcycle coming the other way.

As Keane watched helplessly, the motorcycle’s rider pin-wheeled through the air. Up and over the Porsche. Impossibly, he landed upright, on his feet, rolled a couple of times, and then stood up.

Another car slammed right into him.

Keane’s target made it through the intersection untouched, though. He hit the other side of 7th Street, and kept on going at full speed.

Keane figured there was no time to help the motorcycle rider and also catch their man. The lives of millions, maybe billions, were at stake. An awful piece of triage there, but no real choice.

He sprinted across the street, through the stopped cars. Their target was a good half block ahead now.

Keane heard police sirens in the distance. Good thing too, because he wasn’t gaining on this guy at all. A dragnet was being set up. He would have nowhere to run. They’d get him sooner or later.

He made the next corner ahead of Keane and turned left.

As Keane rounded that corner he saw a squad car, sirens blaring and light bar flashing, heading their way. The police car swerved across the sidewalk right in front of the target, blocking his progress.

The man still didn’t slow down.

As the officers opened their doors to get out, the man just jumped the front bumper of the cruiser, ran down the middle of the car’s hood and roof, then leapt off the back. The officers craned their necks to watch. All they could really do.

Keane ran around the squad car. As he glanced back over his shoulder, he saw two uniforms racing up the sidewalk at a full sprint.

The target reached the next corner and turned left again, out of Keane’s sight. Keane made the corner just in time to see Pasquini dive out of an alley like a pro football defenseman and execute a flying tackle.

He must have cut through the alley, Keane thought, in case their man doubled back.

Which is just what the asshole did too.

Good work partner. That’s using your head.

As Keane slowed to a walk, the two uniforms came running up from behind him.

Pasquini already had the cuffs on the guy.

Pasquini stood first, and yanked the smaller man in black and yellow up to his feet. Keane’s partner was pretty winded, but smiling big time.

“And the race … goes to the chunky Italian guy!”

Before Keane could say anything, the sound of tearing metal pulled his attention farther down the block. Behind Pasquini.

A speeding, black Mercedes sedan threw sparks as it scraped the cars parked along their side of the street. It swerved back out toward the center of the street then sharply veered the other way.

Right at Pasquini.

“Ricky, look out!” Keane shouted.

Pasquini turned just in time to see the Mercedes strike him and the other man. It drove them both backwards into the building behind them. There was loud crunching sound as the Mercedes flattened them both against the stone façade.

Then the car bounced back into the street.

CHAPTER 10

KIRIL ALEKSEEV HAD his orders. Umar Farooq was not to be taken into custody. That meant it simply would not happen.

No matter what.

Alekseev had been hoping to intercept Farooq en route to this meet with Zadari, but there was not enough time. Now the police were in hot pursuit. He would have to switch to a fallback plan.

The final outcome of either course would have been the same for Farooq. He had to die.

Unfortunately, this version of events also meant Alekseev himself would likely end up in police custody. That was something he was doubly prepared for, though. Prepared on an official level as well as the more practical one. That of having a plausible cover story for what was about to happen.

A story that didn’t involve murder for hire.

The Mercedes was a big, heavy, powerful car. That made it perfect for the job. While doing all the necessary damage, it would keep Alekseev relatively safe.

He passed Farooq heading west on G Street just as a man in a track suit came out of nowhere and took him to the ground. Bad luck for that undercover officer, if that’s what he was. This was not going to end well for him either now.

Alekseev continued on and made a quick U-turn. Then the show began in earnest.

He weaved the car while he kept an eye on Farooq and the other man on the sidewalk ahead.

He scraped some parked cars on his right. Swerved left. Almost there.

Farther left to get a good angle.

Hard right now.

Center the bumper on the two men.

Stomp on the accelerator…

The impact with the building’s façade triggered the Mercedes’s air bag, and, for a moment, everything went white. The bag deflated instantly. The car rebounded off the building and came to rest on the sidewalk.

Alekseev couldn’t see Farooq or the other man, but he knew where they were. He’d seen them between the car and the building the instant before the impact.

He only had a few moments now. Had to act quickly. He removed the syringe from his inside jacket pocket, popped the safety cap off and plunged it deep into his thigh, right through the pant leg. He depressed the plunger and felt…

Nothing.

For a moment a tiny flame of fear flickered deep in his chest. Then his training kicked back in. This was an intramuscular delivery. It would take nearly a minute to feel the effects of the sedative injection that he originally intended for Farooq’s neck.

Until then, he had to fake it. And also ditch the needle somewhere. He thought he saw a drain nearby.

He opened the car door.

CHAPTER 11

AS KEANE WATCHED, the black Mercedes rolled back a few feet and came to a stop. Half in the street, half on the sidewalk, the engine still running.

Keane ignored the driver as he raced in front of the car, dreading what he might see there.

Pasquini was down on the cement, his back against the building face, legs splayed in front of him as blood pooled beneath. He’d been crushed badly.

The other man, the caller, was nearby. Fallen forward on the sidewalk with his head turned to the side and hands beneath his cheek. It looked like he’d decided to take a quick nap. He wasn’t moving and there was even more blood there than under Pasquini.

“Ricky?” Keane said.

Pasquini’s eyes were open, but he wasn’t all here. Keane thought that much was a blessing, really. Pasquini’s wounds weren’t just gruesome, they were mortal—no question about that. Keane had seen enough battlefield injuries in his time. If this were a triage situation, he would have already moved on to the next man.

“I think I’m hurt,” Pasquini said. He was looking out into the distance, his eyes unfocused.

Keane fought to keep his voice steady. “Yeah, buddy. We’re gonna get you some help.”

Pasquini locked eyes with Keane. “It’s bad, yeah?”

Keane nodded. “It’s bad.” His partner deserved to know that much.

The driver’s door of the Mercedes opened just then and the driver spilled out. He was a well-dressed white male, late middle age, in a suit and gray overcoat. Pale complexion with sharp features. Buzz cut on his balding head.

He didn’t look injured, apart from a red slash across his nose. But he swayed as he staggered crossed the sidewalk toward the gutter. He fell on his knees near the storm drain. It looked like he might’ve dropped something.

The two uniforms were there. The shorter one grabbed the driver, who was blabbering loudly now in a foreign language. Russian, it sounded like.

Officer down,” Keane shouted over to them. “We need an ambulance.”

The taller officer grabbed his radio and called it in.

When Keane turned back to Pasquini, his friend was looking over at the man he’d handcuffed moments earlier. “Target, Keane. We need to know the target,” he said in a slurred voice.

“Don’t move, Ricky,” Keane felt like an idiot the moment he’d said it. What the hell difference would it make now?

Pasquini had turned his head and was looking at the mystery caller now. “Is he dead?”

Keane glanced at the caller’s body, lying inert on the cold cement. The only motion there was the spreading blood pool. If he wasn’t dead, he would be soon. Too much blood loss there to survive.

“I don’t know, Ricky. Let’s just—”

“Jess, you gotta … get the target. From him. Stop that attack, man. You gotta do it.”

Keane hesitated. Pasquini was watching him, waiting…

“Shit.” It came out through clenched teeth.

Keane crawled over to the other man, the mystery caller. He grabbed two hands full of clothing and roughly flipped the man over onto his back.

The caller groaned. A trickle of blood flowed out of the corner of his mouth. His eyes opened. He looked terrified.

He knew what was happening to him.

Keane leaned into the man’s face. “What’s the target? Is it a suicide bombing? Is it here in D.C.?”

The man’s eyelids started drooping shut.

Keane felt a fury building inside and shook the man viciously. “Talk to me, Goddamnit! The target, where is it?”

The caller’s eyes opened again. They didn’t appear focused on Keane or anything else. He was on his way out for sure. “Here, yes … not suicide,” he said.

Keane got into his face. “Not a suicide bombing?”

“No … Zadari, he wants to see it.” The man’s eyes rolled back then, but the lids stayed open.

Keane resisted the impulse to shake him again. It would be pointless.

He quickly checked for a pulse at the neck. Nothing. As he expected. The guy was gone. From the looks of it, there had to be five pints of blood around him. No point doing CPR now.

Keane backed away from the dead man’s face. He turned back to his partner and crawled over to him again. “Ricky. Ricky?”

Pasquini’s eyes were closed. Keane felt his heart pounding. And then his partner’s eyes opened.

“It’s all right,” Pasquini said.

Keane didn’t know if he was talking to himself now. It didn’t matter.

Pasquini stared off into some unseen distance. “If this is it, it’s all right.”

Pasquini’s broken wristwatch lay on the sidewalk next to him. Keane picked it up and pocketed it.

An ambulance siren sounded off in the distance.

Keane looked up to the taller officer who’d called it in. “What’s the ETA?”

“Three minutes,” the officer said, looking down at Pasquini.

Pasquini was pale and sweaty now, even in this cool weather. Shock. Keane didn’t remember taking his friend’s hand, but he noticed he was holding it now.

It was frighteningly cold.

“You know, it’s a good way to go,” Pasquini said. He was still looking straight ahead, not focused on Keane. “On the job, you know? It’s a good way to go for a cop.”

Hoping against all reason he was wrong about those wounds, Keane said, “Just hang in there, buddy.”

“Okay.” But Pasquini’s eyes slipped closed.

He was still breathing. Barely.

Sugiyama arrived on the scene in a trot. He slowed to a walk and took in the carnage. “Ah, shit.” He looked down at Pasquini. “Your partner still with us?”

Keane nodded, then gestured with a head nod to the mystery phone caller. “But that one’s dead. Didn’t get much from him.” Keane turned the other way. “And the driver is over there. He’s drunk. Or he’s on something.”

Sugiyama followed Keane’s gaze to the handcuffed driver who was going on and on in what was definitely Russian. He was sitting on the curb at the feet of the shorter officer.

The officer had the man’s ID in hand, but he seemed puzzled as he examined it.

Keane watched as Sugiyama went over to him. The officer showed the ID to the FBI agent. Sugiyama frowned.

“What do you make of that?” the officer asked him.

Sugiyama took the ID in hand and scowled at it. “Oh, Christ. He’s a goddamn diplomat.”

Keane’s eyes shot back to the Mercedes’s front bumper about ten feet away. He hadn’t noticed before. Diplomatic license plate. His mind raced. There were all kinds of legal implications now.

No, he couldn’t even think about that yet.

He looked back at his dying partner. Pasquini was still breathing, but very shallow now.

Keane turned back to the driver sitting on the curb. The guy was clearly out of it. And … was he crying now? His shoulders were shaking slightly.

No. The son of a bitch was laughing. Laughing softly to himself.

Keane felt the heat rise in his face. His hand went to his shoulder holster for the Glock in there.

Sugiyama must’ve seen that. He stepped in front of Keane. “Hey, hey. Keane. We’ll get him. Come on, now. Let’s just … we’ll get him. Okay?”

The driver chuckled softly to himself as Keane, with a Herculean effort, let his hand fall to his side.

CHAPTER 12

PASQUINI WAS GONE. Pronounced dead minutes after his body reached the trauma center. Keane had expected that. Those wounds were not survivable.

The news still hit him like a kick in the stomach.

Pasquini had been more than a partner for the last six years. He was the closest thing Keane had going to a real friend. That’s because Pasquini decided he liked Keane for what he was. And because he was the kind of man who, once having made such a decision, stood by it forever. Regardless.

Keane had never tested the limits of that “regardless,” but enough had passed between them, much of it alcohol fueled, that he knew it was there. And he cherished it.

Now it was gone.

And there was nothing he could do about any of it right now. So he worked. It was all he had and all he’d ever had, really. His one cure-all.

He sat at his desk in the office of the Department of Homeland Security. Those facilities were located in a nondescript building near the corner of 12th and C Street, five minutes from the White House and from the heart of the Western World’s only remaining superpower.

Except a huge amount of that power had suddenly shifted places, virtually overnight.

It wasn’t the President, or even Congress calling the shots on this newest war on terror. It was some anonymous, quasi-religious group of unknown size and composition that had got its hands on a nuclear device somehow.

But how exactly? That was an interesting question all by itself.

Someone somewhere had either screwed up big time, or had chosen to take a large sum of money into consideration over any notions of duty and honor. It wouldn’t be the first time.

In any case, the nuclear genie had at last escaped the bottle of nations with physical borders, entities who could be held accountable and even counterattacked. It was in private hands now. There were no sanctions to be leveled. No representatives to negotiate with in Geneva. No targets to bomb and no country to be invaded.

This was a whole new ball game. Unprecedented and unpredictable.

At first Keane thought it could have just as easily been the terrorists who ended up with the bomb once it left the system. And then he amended his estimation.

Maybe the very fact that this wasn’t some Islamic terrorist organization bent on blowing up targets in the Western World was playing a key role here. Maybe there had been more than incompetence or greed at work.

Out and out cooperation might have entered the picture.

The Sons of Man were, after all, only doing what certain US military and political leaders had suggested was long overdue. Unsheathing the nuclear sword. The question now was whether—with the point having been clearly made that no more terror attacks would be tolerated—such a sword could really be returned to its scabbard unused. That seemed doubtful at best.

Setting all those thoughts aside, Keane focused on the computer monitor in front of him. A picture of Umar Farooq along with some sketchy background intelligence on the man now filled his screen.

Their mystery caller had turned out to be a twenty-two year old Egyptian national. Here in the US on a student visa, he was studying engineering at George Washington University. Probably going to football games too. And movies. And maybe even the occasional strip club.

And plotting to kill American civilians on their own soil.

That is, until he had an abrupt change of heart, courtesy of the Sons of Man.

Chalk one up for them.

Keane’s cell phone chimed. He checked the caller ID and answered. “Keane here.”

Familiar voice there on the other end of the call. “Okay, driver’s name is Kiril Alekseev. Diplomatic credentials, but … something hinky there. I got a little background on this guy. Possible connection to a Russian crime syndicate. That doesn’t add up to diplomat in training.”

Keane cradled the phone between his ear and shoulder and opened a new doc on the computer to type notes into. “Yeah. Got ya. Will the Russians waive immunity on this?”

That was the big question.

They had done it before. It all hinged on how important this guy was. If he was just a low level diplomat, they might not stick their necks out. He’d have to face justice for what he’d done.

“Well, it looked like they were gonna do that,” the voice answered, “waive immunity, but they just reversed themselves. So now they’re taking custody tonight.”

“Damnit.”

So he was some kind of big shot, this Alekseev guy. Might even be a spy. Plenty of so-called ambassadors were.

Keane stopped typing and picked up Pasquini’s broken wristwatch. He looked at the cracked crystal. For the first time, he noticed the flecks of blood on the silver wristband.

The Russians weren’t waiving immunity. That meant Alekseev was going home. Soon. The bastard was going home to a slap on the wrist, more than likely.

For the same reason that the Russians weren’t waiving diplomatic immunity, they were unlikely to prosecute this guy. Because he was a powerful man, apparently. Or at least protected by powerful friends.

The voice on the phone said, “Oh, and Alekseev was loaded. I spoke to my connection at the hospital and tests showed high levels of zolpidem.”

“That’s Ambien, the sleeping pill.”

“Right. Could be accidental re-dosing. It happens. You forget you took it, because you took it. Anyway, he claims he can’t remember anything. And you wouldn’t, so…”

“What about Zadari, the man who didn’t show up? We have nothing on a Zadari in our database and I’m getting nothing from Interpol. Nada.”

That man was a ghost as far as Keane could tell. And that hinted at something that would make the whole game of catching him a lot tougher.

“Yeah. We’re interviewing other members of the mosque, but so far… nothing.”

“He’s a pro then,” Keane said.

“Let’s just say he knows how to cover his tracks. So, maybe, yeah. We’ll get a sketch out of it then get it on the TV news.”

“And that’ll generate about a hundred or so useless leads.”

Keane knew damn well that you don’t catch professional terrorists with police sketches. It would take a lot more than that. It would take something like a mistake on that man’s part or some lucky break out of the blue. Not the kind of thing you wanted to hang your hopes on.

The voice took on a supportive tone then. “Hey, man, I’m sorry to hear about Pasquini. I know you guys were tight.”

“Yeah. Thanks for the update,” Keane said.

“Any time. I owe you.”

“I know. We’re even now.”

Keane hung up, then slowly put the watch back down on the desk. He opened the lower drawer and lifted out the pint bottle of Jack Daniels he kept in there.

What he had in mind to do was going to be a lot easier to manage after a couple drinks.

CHAPTER 13

OUTSIDE THE POLICE station the rain pounded down harder by the minute.

Keane watched it streaking the windshield of his unmarked police car. A Crown Vic with a powerful V8 under the hood. It had just started turning to sleet, which made his plan a little trickier to pull off.

He really should have taken his own vehicle. No reason to smash up government property. Not that it would add much to the pile of damage he was about to do to the rest of his life.

The murder rap would far outweigh everything else.

He finished off the bottle of J.D. and tossed it into the backseat. They could throw in drunk driving while they were at it. Again, not gonna add any real time to the sentence there.

He saw motion at the front of the police station.

Two plainclothes came through the glass doors escorting two civilians to the sidewalk. The plainclothes turned and headed back inside. No one bothered to look Keane’s way. Why would they?

One civilian had a brief exchange with the other, then crossed the street to the parking garage. He left his buzz hair cut-wearing companion standing there under the awning.

That was the man called Kiril Alekseev. Keane watched him light up a cigarette.

Enjoy your last one, pal.

He started the engine and looked at Alekseev standing there alone. Nothing between him and the murderer but rain and sleet and a few hundred feet of wet, empty road.

Keane planned to wait until the very last moment to swerve. He hoped the car grill and the glass building front would get the job done. Some poetic justice in that. If not, there would be enough time before anyone responded to use his Glock.

There was a tap on the passenger window and Keane jumped.

A man in a tan trench coat and rain hat pulled down low was standing just outside the car on the sidewalk. Keane couldn’t make out his face in the dim light.

The man reached into his trench coat and Keane went for his holster.

But the man only brought out a folder of some kind. He tapped again on the passenger window. He wanted Keane to roll it down.

Who could have followed him here? He’d told no one what he planned. He was drunk, sure, but he wasn’t stupid. What the hell was this all about?

The quickest way to find out was to lower the window, and Keane did. Just a crack.

“Who are you?” he asked.

The man didn’t answer. He just slid a manila folder into the car. It plopped onto the passenger seat, and some glossy, color photos spilled partway out.

Keane picked up the photos. On top was a picture of two men in what looked like a shopping mall food court. Hot Dog on a Stick visible in the background. One of the men was handing the other a fat envelope.

Keane recognized them both. It was Sugiyama and Alekseev.

What the hell is this?

His mind reeled. How could that even be possible? The photo showed a connection between the two men. Before the accident.

Which could not have been an accident.

It couldn’t because the coincidence didn’t make any damn sense. It would be a billion to one shot that Sugiyama just happened to know the drugged-up man who killed Pasquini.

No, no way. So how the hell did they know each other?

The man outside his window leaned in closer. Sharp Russian features there. High cheekbones and big eyes. Full lips and long dark hair.

This was no man, not by a long shot.

“You want to talk to me,” she said.

Yes, I do. I most certainly do.

CHAPTER 14

[*A HANDFUL OF *]cheap, green and red Mylar Christmas decorations hung from the restaurant air vents. The front window had a snowman in a top hat and muffler painted on it. Other than that, the diner looked as it did the rest of the year. Chrome and shiny blue lacquer, a tribute to classic 50’s diners. The service staff wore paper hats. Everything was a bit faded, but clean.

It had the look of a place that promised average food at average prices delivered with average enthusiasm. And that was about as much as Keane ever wanted from a dining establishment anyway.

He and Pasquini use to come there regularly.

He sat in his usual booth behind a steaming cup of black coffee. Across the gold flecked, Formica tabletop sat the woman who had introduced herself as Evana Volkov.

Keane was too drunk and too much in shock to think about food right now, so he didn’t order any. Neither did she.

Volkov sipped some tea and watched him silently. He knew her name and that she worked for the Russian government. Nothing more.

Well, he also knew that as drunk as he was his head felt clear and sharp. That had to be the anger. It was still churning in his guts. And it had only grown fiercer after seeing those photos of Sugiyama and Alekseev together.

What had happened to Pasquini was premeditated. Even if he was only collateral damage.

The drug they’d found in Alekseev’s system, the sleeping pills: he must have ingested that to assist in the cover up. Of course he did. That meant the whole thing was carefully planned by people with resources and experience who knew exactly what they were doing.

Planned by whom? And why? That’s what he wanted to know now.

Pasquini couldn’t have been the target. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Someone wanted Umar Farooq out of the way.

Again, who and why?

Maybe Zadari figured out he was being betrayed by Farooq and had some prior connection to Alekseev. He might have reached out to the Russian and his old mob ties for help. If Alekseev had ever done work for the Chechen rebels back home, there would at least be a Muslim-Russian connection, a place Farooq might have heard of the man.

But why on earth would an FBI agent be mixed up in all of this? That part Keane couldn’t even begin to guess at.

Small answers would do for a start. A little grit on the ice so he could get some mental traction. The woman across from him might have that, at least. That was the only reason he was sitting here.

“Who is he, this Alekseev guy? He’s not a goddamn ambassador, I know that much,” Keane said to her, breaking the extended silence.

An older couple sat in the booth next to Keane and Volkov. The husband craned his neck to peer over Volkov’s shoulder and gave Keane a dirty look through his bifocal glasses. A response to the expletive, it seemed.

Keane wasn’t in any mood for it. He returned the man’s gaze with a steely I-will-freaking-kill-you-without-blinking-buddy look.

He saw the man’s eyes flick down then to his partially exposed shoulder holster. The other man’s expression instantly shifted from annoyance to alarm, and he turned his attention to his own plate then, as if something there had suddenly become very interesting.

Volkov apparently hadn’t caught any of the silent exchange. Referring to Alekseev she said, “He is what in America you call a fixer. He works for a very powerful man. Mikhail Potanin. High up in the organization.”

Keane knew that name. It popped up in the news from time to time. “Potanin, the Russian billionaire?” he asked.

“Yes, he has made quite a name for himself with his lifestyle and his sports teams.” Her soft Russian accent was easy on the ears. Keane felt his mind start to drift but yanked it right back.

The waitress, young and attractive, though not in Volkov’s league, came by then. She was new and Keane hadn’t seen her before. Her nametag read Leanne.

“Is it just coffee and tea, guys? Do you want anything else?” Leanne asked with a smile you’d have to call perky.

Keane gave her a quick once over, up and down. He flashed a smile back and said, “On any other night, Leanne, sure.”

Looking a bit confused, Leanne quickly checked on Volkov’s expression.

Volkov just smiled at her and said, “We are fine, thank you.”

With a professionally forced grin that didn’t quite reach her eyes, the waitress set the check down and departed.

Keane fixed Volkov with a direct gaze. “So, officer Volkov, of the Russian Federal Security Service, what’s your interest in this phony diplomat and his rich ass boss?

She finished taking another sip of her tea before answering. “We believe Mikhail Potanin has been selling arms to Chechen rebels.”

So there was a Chechen connection. That still didn’t explain Sugiyama’s involvement, but it was a start. One mystery at a time. But it raised another question.

“You believe he has been selling arms. Illegally, eh? Okay. So why don’t you arrest him?” Keane let that hang a second. “Ah, ‘cept you can’t. Right? Because guys like Potanin, they run your whole corrupt country.”

Volkov didn’t take the bait. She continued to sip her tea placidly. When she finished she said, “What do you know about the FBI agent, Sugiyama?”

“I know the asshole has a lot of questions to answer.”

Keane saw the elderly wife in the next booth make a pinched face and look to her husband. She didn’t like Keane’s language either. He couldn’t see the older man’s face, but he saw the slight shake of his head no. Telling her to let it go.

Good advice, buddy.

Keane continued. “You’re a long way from home for an FSB officer, agent Volkov. That’s domestic intelligence isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

The FSB was the Russian equivalent of the FBI. If Potanin was involved in something international, Volkov was well out of her purview. Keane knew that, and she knew he knew it.

Keane took another sip of his coffee then stared Volkov down. She met his eyes directly. He waited for her to volunteer some explanation. She didn’t.

Finally he sighed and said, “Why don’t you just tell me exactly how you’re full of shit, and save us both a lotta time?”

Another look passed from the elderly wife to her husband. Another head shake from him, No.

Well done. Keane didn’t need any interruptions right now.

“I am not here officially, agent Keane. I cannot be.” Volkov sounded genuinely unruffled by Keane’s brusqueness. “Because Mikhail Potanin owns powerful men inside the Security Service, as you have suggested. Maybe he owned agent Sugiyama too. It seems like a possibility.”

So she’d gone rogue, it appeared. Keane got the idea to rattle her cage a little.

“And maybe Potanin owns me too,” he suggested. “You stop to think of that, agent Volkov? Your whole game might be up right here.”

“After what happened to your friend and what you were about to sacrifice outside that police station? I do not think so.”

She was good. A seasoned professional. That still didn’t explain what an FSB officer was doing here in America unofficially, as she put it.

“So what then, this is personal for you?” he asked her. “Is that it? Potanin hurt someone you care about?”

That reached Volkov somewhere. Her expression changed. A weight transformed her features and made her look a bit older. And tired now.

“The law wants Potanin,” she said after a pause. “I want the law. Do you understand this? To be a nation of laws that no one is above—this is perhaps the only chance my country has. Men like Potanin have to be subject to the same rules as any other citizen.”

[Well, goddamn and hallelujah, she’s a patriot. _]And she believed in the rule of law. A government of laws, not of men, as they say.[ _]That was something Keane could get behind. He’d had a bellyful of the powerful walking away from the shit they did. Alekseev was only the latest and worst in a long line of ‘em.

“We are all servants of the law, in order that we may be free,” Keane said.

“Cicero.”

Keane applauded. “Oh, ho! She knows her Cicero. I am duly impressed, agent Volkov. I am genuinely impressed.”

She got right back to business. “I have intelligence that Sugiyama and Alekseev will meet again tomorrow.”

That was an offer there. Giving him a chance to work with her. And taking quite a risk too. She had to know that, because she certainly wasn’t stupid. Not this one.

He thought it over.

If Alekseev worked for Potanin, would he really take a freelance hit job from Zadari on Farooq? It didn’t sound right. You’re high up in the employ of a multi-billionaire, then he’s probably taking care of you pretty good. That meant Potanin likely played some part in killing Farooq. Pasquini was, again, just a bystander. Yes, that seemed much more plausible than the whole freelance scenario.

But it also raised more questions than it answered. What stake could Potanin possibly have in an Islamic terrorist bombing plot?

And there was still no clear reason for Sugiyama to be involved, unless he was working an angle within the FBI for Potanin. Too many questions to try and work on alone.

Keane made up his mind. “Let’s find out what their game is, and nail these pricks.”

The wife in the next booth apparently couldn’t contain herself any longer. She sat up straight, shot Keane an angry look, and said loudly, “I’ve had about enough of your filthy mouth.”

Several nearby patrons turned their heads to check out the disturbance.

Keane decided to make as little of it as possible and just get the hell out of there. There was important work to do.

He said in a quiet voice, “My apologies, ma’am. I am sorry.”

“This is a family restaurant!” The woman was genuinely angry and her face had turned red. She wasn’t going to let it go.

Her husband stepped in, trying to play peacemaker. “All right, dear. The man apologized.” He reached across the table to touch her hand.

She yanked it away. “Don’t ‘all right’ me. I shouldn’t have to hear that kind of language. It’s my right!” She glared at Keane as she spat out that last sentence.

Keane was about to let it all go until that final line. That wasn’t a word you should throw around, rights.

“Due respect, ma’am, if you think saying some word or other makes you a bad person, as crazy as that is, then by all means don’t say it. That’s just fine with me.” Keane started to turn away.

She raised her voice even more then. “You shouldn’t say those words either. That’s what your kind doesn’t understand.”

And there it was.

Rights are about your personal freedom. But this crap, as per usual, was about just the opposite. The sloppy thinking there always drove him nuts. And the booze loosened his tongue.

“That’s true, ma’am, I don’t understand. Maybe I’m just too thick. But how come it’s not enough for your kind just to do what you think’s right? Huh? Why’s everybody else got to goddamn do it too? You think about that awhile, ma’am, would you? And if you figure it out, you tell me. I come here regularly. Just leave a note with the waitress and she’ll get it to me. Thanks.”

What the hell was wrong with people who needed other folks to fall in line with their own personal moralities? Keane had long believed that half the world’s problems would disappear in the blink of an eye if people just took Candide’s advice.

Tend your own garden.

So damned simple. And contrary to human nature at some deep level, it appeared.

The other patrons watched as Keane left the tip on the table. They got up and headed to the front door. He opened it for Volkov, who followed close behind.

As she passed him, and just before the door swung shut, they heard the older woman in her booth.

“Asshole,” she said.

CHAPTER 15

ALI ZADARI WALKED down a narrow alley between buildings pocked with bullet holes, a strip of cloudless blue sky hanging above. He knew this street well. Knew it before the wounds it suffered, before the scars.

He passed a parked car and looked at his reflection in the window. A young boy, maybe thirteen, stared back at him with haunted eyes.

Zadari turned his head at the sound of high-pitched laughter behind him.

A ten year old Arab boy in an Aerosmith T-shirt ran across the intersection and disappeared out of view around the corner. He looked familiar.

“Ahmed?” He turned and followed.

As he rounded the corner, he saw the boy ducking into the open doorway of a residence. Yes. It was Ahmed.

“Ahmed! Istanna!”

He continued to follow him, and reached the doorway just as someone else stepped out of it. He almost collided with a US soldier in desert camouflage fatigues. A woman. She was quite beautiful and very pale, unnaturally so.

For a long moment she regarded him with sad and lovely blue eyes beneath long, blond lashes. Then she sidestepped him quietly and left.

Zadari walked through the doorway.

Inside, the place was instantly familiar. His childhood home. But everything was dilapidated now.

The glass coffee table top was shattered and most of it lay on the threadbare rug. The couch fabric had rotted off the wooden bones of the frame. Wallpaper hung from the walls in ragged sheets like torn skin.

A faded picture on a bookshelf that itself was falling off the wall displayed the young Zadari with Ahmed and their parents. All smiling at the camera, frozen in some better time.

Ahmed’s laughter drifted in from the next room.

Zadari followed into the kitchen, the scene of countless family meals.

Ahmed was down on the yellow linoleum floor beside the kitchen table now. Playing tug with a black and white dog, giggling and laughing.

Zadari took a step closer.

There was no toy. Ahmed was eviscerated. The dog pulled and tore at the boy’s ropy, pink and white intestines.

“La’ahhhhh!”

The dog turned to bark at Zadari, red gore dripping from its bloody maw. And even more horrifyingly, it had a human face.

Zadari’s face.

Zadari startled awake with a strangled scream.

MACHINE AND ELECTRONIC parts lay scattered across the kitchen tabletop. Zadari assembled pieces on a circuit board with a fine tipped soldering iron. The acidic smell of hot solder stung his nose.

The dream. The dream was never exactly the same, but his younger brother Ahmed was always there. And always dying in horrible ways.

There was every time, in each variation, an overwhelming sense of powerlessness that permeated everything. That was the worst part. To be made to see over and over again something devastating and terrible, and to be unable to do a thing about it.

But he was doing something now.

The men who hired and supplied him had their own agendas, it was true. He didn’t care about any of that. All that mattered was striking back against those who killed his countrymen again and again with impunity and from a safe and cowardly distance.

Because they were powerful. And because in this world the powerful did as they wished and the weak suffered.

Zadari heard that some of the predator drones, like the one that had killed his brother, were flown from an air base near Las Vegas of all places. He couldn’t believe it when he was first told about that. It was as if Satan himself was making some grotesque joke, mocking the holy with a demon’s grin from a place that dared to call itself Sin City.

American soldiers stationed there—if they even deserved the name of soldiers—flew the deadly machines with joysticks from computer screens, like a video game.

They killed, but never saw the carnage. They never heard the screams. They pressed a button and half a world away men, women, and children all died in a flash of unholy light.

Then they went home to eat barbequed pigs and screw their whore wives.

So now they would be repaid in kind for their smirking evil. They would learn the hard justice of retribution.

They would know what war really was when they picked the bloody, broken teeth from out their children’s hair.

And what of these so-called Sons of Man?

It was just the US government, of course. It and its Zionist puppet masters all hiding behind the false flag of some imaginary group that never existed.

They didn’t fool Zadari. Not for a second.

Anyway, nothing would stop them if they wanted to start an all-out war with Islam. They didn’t need Zadari and what he was about to do as an excuse for that. And if they wished not to do this thing, then nothing could force their hands in that direction either.

So that was that. It was entirely their choice, either way. It would have nothing to do with him in the end. And he would not play their game.

He finished the last of the soldering and set the iron in its stand, then connected a battery to two wires. An electronic timer blinked to life. It displayed 00:00:00 in flashing red LED lights.

Soon. All would be ready soon.

CHAPTER 16

FOUR O’CLOCK ON a gloomy, gray, late December afternoon. It exactly matched the tone of Keane’s hangover.

Keane and Volkov had tailed Sugiyama from a discreet distance in her rent-a-car. Then watched the FBI agent pull his car to the curb.

They pulled over one block back. Volkov cut the engine.

The neighborhood around them had seen better days. It was once a thriving business district but never fully recovered from the Great Recession. Apart from investment bankers and the super-rich, though, who really had?

The building Sugiyama stopped in front of was now empty of tenants. Not a bad secret meeting spot. Certainly more private than the mall where Volkov had photographed these two before. Maybe the business they had to take care of today required a little extra privacy.

Now that Keane knew about the billionaire Potanin’s likely involvement, he was trying to work out the whys and wherefores of that piece of the puzzle.

“So Sugiyama is helping Mikhail Potanin protect a terrorist,” Keane said.

“Zadari, yes. What do you know about that man?”

“Not much. I have a call into a friend in the Mossad. He’s looking into it. Hopefully he’ll find something. Sugiyama’s doing it for the money, so his motivation is clear enough. But that doesn’t explain what’s in it for Potanin. Why does he give a shit about this guy Zadari and a terrorist bombing plot?”

Volkov answered without hesitation. Seemed she’d already formulated her own theory.

“Again money is the probable answer,” she said. “Potanin makes most of his wealth selling arms legitimately in the Middle East. Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, even the Saudis. So war is his friend. Chaos is his best friend.”

It made sense to Keane. “If the Sons of Man’s ultimatum works, it’s just bad for business. No war, no war bucks. So he’s gotta undermine it somehow. And Zadari just might do that for him.”

Volkov nodded in agreement. “If he succeeds with the bombing, yes. Then the Sons of Man must make good their ultimatum. The aftermath of a nuclear explosion in the Middle East would surely be a boon to any merchant of arms.”

“Yeah. Talk about your chaos,” Keane said.

Keane wondered what kind of man could look at the inevitable and massive loss of life involved in something like this and see only dollar signs? He once read a psychological study that suggested a fair percentage of the world’s most powerful and successful men were sociopaths. If this was true, Potanin certainly fit the description.

As Keane and Volkov watched, Sugiyama got out of his car, looked up, and then crossed the sidewalk into the empty office building.

Keane clucked his tongue. “And there he goes. Off to get his paycheck.”

“Do you think it goes beyond Sugiyama? On your end?” Volkov asked.

“Not sure. It’s hard to know who to trust.”

“Or maybe you just want him for yourself.”

Yep, she was a sharp one.

Keane did have an ulterior motive for keeping this operation off the books. But that was a hand he preferred to play close to the chest. He liked Volkov, but taking her entirely into his confidence—it was a bit early for that yet.

Volkov pressed him for assurances. “I need Sugiyama alive, Keane. To tie these murders to Potanin.”

He gave her his best, nice guy face. “Right. Alive, I get it. Don’t worry. Now check that out up there.”

Keane was pointing to a spot on the building’s face five floors up. A white handkerchief hung outside one of the windows, waving a little in the breeze. A pre-arranged signal.

“It looks as though Alekseev is already here,” Volkov said.

“Time to move closer.”

KEANE AND VOLKOV silently ascended the steel and cement stairwell. The building’s elevators weren’t operating, not that they could have used them anyway without being detected.

While they were still outside, Keane had counted the floors up to the white handkerchief. He was confident he could get them close to the meet now. Would they get close enough to hear anything? That would take some luck. If they didn’t have it, he’d just have to corner Sugiyama and Alekseev on the way out and see how that played.

And if somewhere in all this he just happened to get a minute alone with Alekseev? Well, maybe justice might find a way to gently assert itself after all.

They were on the stairs and approaching the door to the fifth floor when Volkov stepped on something that made a loud snap. It had been a glass crack pipe, by the looks of what was left of it.

Volkov gave Keane an apologetic wince and they continued to the next landing.

Keane put his ear up to the door and listened. Nothing.

He checked with Volkov through a quick glance, drew his Glock, and grasped the doorknob with the other hand. He was thinking maybe if he cracked the door a little they might hear something or at least be able determine if it was safe to move closer. He twisted the door knob.

The door flew open and knocked Keane backwards right into Volkov.

Keane’s gun fired as it flew out of his hand. A deafening boom in this small space, followed by a metallic clattering he could barely hear as it bounced down the stairwell.

Volkov tumbled backwards and flipped over the railing, just catching herself with one hand.

Sugiyama had been waiting for them on the other side of that door.

He’d put his full weight into the door the instant Keane turned the knob. Now he had Keane pinned between the door and the cement wall. But he had to back off with one arm to draw his gun.

Keane’s palms were both chest high and flat against the door. With the wall behind bracing him, he shoved forward with both arms, giving it everything in him.

The door flew back the other way and knocked Sugiyama on his back. His gun skittered and spun across the cement floor.

Keane turned to Volkov, who had now managed to get both hands onto the railing.

He thrust an arm out toward her when suddenly the top rail she was hanging from broke loose. The whole thing rotated outward on the bottom rail like the tailgate of a truck opening, and then clanged down flat.

Somehow Volkov still hung on.

Before Keane could reach her, he heard Sugiyama’s footsteps coming up from behind.

Volkov shouted, “Keane!”

He spun around, prepared this time. With a fluid motion, he knocked Sugiyama’s attacking hands aside and struck a hard blow to his throat, followed by a quick elbow to the ear as his assailant went down yelling.

When Keane turned toward Volkov again, she had already hoisted herself most of the way up. He looked back at Sugiyama. Still stunned on the ground. Kean had a moment to spare now.

He gave Volkov a hand the rest of the way up. She immediately raced past him through the open door and across the room, then retrieved Sugiyama’s gun from the dusty floor.

Sugiyama held a hand over his ear and coughed repeatedly from the punch to the throat. Finally he struggled to his feet.

Keane let him get up.

“I know you’re working for Potanin,” Keane said in a low, even voice. He walked steadily toward Sugiyama. “You tipped off the bomber, Zadari. That’s why he never showed up for the meet at the Hotel Monaco.”

Sugiyama was looking over at Volkov. “Who’s she?”

“She’s not your problem. I am,” Keane said. And you don’t know the half of it, asshole.

He kept walking toward Sugiyama. And although his gait appeared almost casual, Sugiyama knew enough now to back up.

“You don’t understand what you’re getting into, Keane,” Sugiyama said. “No one has your back here.”

Volkov had his own gun trained on Sugiyama now. “Where’s Alekseev?”

Keane advanced slowly on Sugiyama, who wisely continued retreating across the empty room.

“Seriously, you’re in way over your head, both of you,” Sugiyama said, as he back pedaled all the way to the front windows of the office building.

Keane kept his voice placid as he walked forward closing the distance to Sugiyama. “I need answers. And I really don’t give a shit how I get them.”

Sugiyama bumped up against the window sill and stopped.

He directed himself to Volkov. “You want to lower that gun, please? We’ll talk this thing out, okay? You got some bad information is all. I don’t know what you think is going on, but it’s obvious you don’t have the whole picture.”

Keane glanced at Volkov. As he did, Sugiyama lunged with a slat of gray metal he must have picked up off the window sill behind his back.

Keane removed the makeshift weapon from Sugiyama’s hand so quickly it looked like some kind of magic trick.

Holding the metal slat in front of him now with both hands, he thrust it out suddenly. It hit Sugiyama mid-chest, sending the man flying backwards.

The window behind him shattered as his momentum carried him through it and right outside the building.

Keane dropped the slat and grabbed Sugiyama’s ankles just before they flew out the window. He tucked them both firmly up under his arms and held the man dangling five stories above the sidewalk.

“Answers,” Keane said.

Sugiyama wasn’t screaming, which was impressive given his situation. “You drop me, you get nothing.”

That wasn’t even close to right and the thought made Keane smile. “I drop you, you die. I’m good with that too. So you see, it’s a win-win for me here.”

“Pull me in!” Sugiyama shouted.

“Give me something.” Keane let him slip an inch or two for motivation. “Now!”

That did it.

“All right, okay! The nuke. Potanin knew they had it. Before the announcement. He’s the one that hired Zadari. He—”

The stonework near Keane’s head exploded in a cloud of gray dust and chips, and pain stung the side of his face. Bullet strike.

He flinched, almost dropping Sugiyama.

This time Sugiyama did scream.

Keane shouted back over his shoulder to Volkov. “Sniper!”

CHAPTER 17

ALEKSEEV HAD PICKED a place for today’s meeting with Sugiyama where two empty office buildings faced each other across a relatively unpopulated thoroughfare.

That was because there was to be no meeting. Just the tying up of a troublesome loose end.

Sugiyama’s low character had served its purpose during the most critical phase of the operation. Inside information from him on government activity had prevented a potential disaster when Farooq turned informant on his partner Zadari.

But now that everything was smoothly in motion again, that same weakness of character was a liability. Sugiyama ultimately tied Alekseev’s boss Mikhail Potanin to Zadari and to what he was about to do.

Potanin knew that a man who betrayed his duty and honor for money was not someone to be trusted with such a vital secret. Alekseev’s orders were to eliminate Sugiyama.

And today was the day.

But surprisingly, someone else was here with the crooked FBI agent. And that someone was obviously intent on getting information out of him.

With Sugiyama now dangling upside down outside a fifth story window, his interrogator—whoever he was—would likely succeed in that effort too. He may have already obtained something dangerously incriminating.

Not to worry. One good shot on the man holding Sugiyama would put an end to both of those problems.

But Alekseev had missed. He needed to correct his aim about a quarter meter to the right it appeared.

Looking down his scope, he lined the shot up through the open window.

Then he recognized the man holding Sugiyama.

It was the same Homeland Security agent who’d been there on the street when he killed Farooq. This could mean only one thing. There had to be some kind of leak.

It was time to plug it.

Just as he began to squeeze the trigger again, the window pane above him shattered. A millisecond later he heard the report of small arms fire followed by two more shots.

As glass rained down, Alekseev ducked below the window sill. There was someone else over there with the Homeland Security agent.

The whole operation had just grown exponentially more complicated.

CHAPTER 18

VOLKOV BROKE A window with her elbow and laid down suppressing fire with Sugiyama’s revolver. She directed it toward the only open window across the way with any kind of motion in it.

“I don’t have many shots left,” she shouted to Keane.

Keane saw the figure across the street rise into the window frame again. Volkov fired off another volley, and the figure disappeared once more.

Then Keane heard the click of the empty gun.

“I’m out,” Volkov said.

Sugiyama tried to sit up and grab Keane’s coat, but he couldn’t reach it. “Pull me in, goddamnit! Pull me in!”

Keane leaned back to drag Sugiyama back through the window. He had just started to reel him in when the bullet struck him in the right shoulder.

No amount of willpower could override the reflexive reaction in that arm. He lost his grip and dropped Sugiyama.

Sugiyama screamed all the way down to the pavement.

Keane landed on his back on the floor. A searing hot pain in that right shoulder. He sat up quickly, keeping low, and peeked out over the sill.

He spotted the figure in the window across the street for just a moment. And then it was gone.

Volkov rushed to his side, still holding Sugiyama’s empty gun. “You are hit.”

Keane offered her his left hand. She took it and helped him back to his feet.

He took a quick look at the wound. Hard to see much with his coat and shirt on.

“Yeah, got me in the shoulder,” he said. “I think it missed the bone.” He stepped back up to the window, leaned out, and looked down at Sugiyama’s body splattered and crooked on the sidewalk. “He got the worst of it.”

Volkov came to the window too and looked down. If she felt anything at all for the man, she didn’t show it.

“I really was gonna pull him in,” Keane said apologetically. “Honest.”

Somewhere in the distance police sirens sounded. Someone had already called in shots fired.

Volkov backed away from the window. “We must go. I cannot be here. You cannot be here either. If they detain you now, the wrong people could easily find you. You must not underestimate Potanin’s reach.”

Keane gripped his shoulder tightly to slow the bleeding. He looked around the room, at the blood droplets on the floor.

“They’re gonna know I was here. One, two days at most before the crime lab ID’s my prints, my DNA, it’s all on file.”

“Then we work fast, before it gets harder.” Volkov turned and headed for the door.

Keane felt the pain in his shoulder intensifying as it burned through the initial shock of being wounded.

Before it gets harder. A bitter smile twisted his mouth as he followed her across the room. “Yeah. Because it’s so easy right now.”

CHAPTER 19

LAURA BAYLEY WAS curious about the Sons of Man. Answering her questions while steering her away from the truth had proven to be a taxing exercise for David Cavanaugh. Not because she ever got too close to the hidden realities of it all.

No. It was simply because Laura Bayley, for all her political success, was a damn idiot.

In the end, that fact didn’t matter. King David was an adulterer and a murderer too. Jonah was a coward who initially ran from his duty as a prophet. St. Paul was at times pompous, at others insecure and then embarrassingly egotistical. The disciple to the Gentiles had apparently struggled with a terrible temper. Perhaps had certain deviant sexual predilections as well.

God chose whom He would use and how. It’s not for us to judge His purpose.

While Laura Bayley was a fool, she was a fool for the Lord. That was enough to make her useful to Cavanaugh as well as to God. Also, she was now in good position to rise to the most powerful public office in the world. With Cavanaugh’s help.

Which is why he always took her calls.

Today she had phoned to ask about why there was no specific reference to the Sons of Man in the Book of Revelations. Not that the woman knew a thing about prophecy beyond what she read in the Left Behind novels. But it seemed to her there should be one or two passages calling them by name.

Cavanaugh sat behind his desk in his office at Poplar House, surrounded by pictures of himself smiling with US Presidents and other world leaders, and patiently answered her questions, often with questions his own.

“Why did you think you would see something there, in that particular book, Laura?”

“Well, these are the End Times, are they not? And these Sons of Man guys are playing a big role, so they ought to be mentioned in the Revelations. It just seems obvious.” Her voice, naturally shrill, sounded even more tinny when thinned out by the telephone speaker. “We have the dark antichrist in the White House, right? We have wars and rumors of wars to come.” She paused briefly and continued in an excited tone. “Hey, maybe that’s a reference to them right there! That ultimatum of theirs. That’s a rumor of a war to come. Right?”

It was exactly the opposite of a rumor of war to come, as it so happened, but Cavanaugh said only, “Well, now that’s an interesting interpretation, Laura. Yes, very interesting. But let’s set all that aside for a moment.” It was time to direct her attention toward a matter of their mutual benefit. “I have some people I’d like you to meet soon. They’re members of the Brotherhood. Businessmen. They’re very interested in hearing about your plans and ambitions and discussing how we might all serve God’s purpose together.”

Quiet on the line. Then, “Are these industry leaders, David? Because I don’t have a lot of slack in the old schedule these days. As you know.”

This was her not so subtle way of asking Cavanaugh if these men would be willing and able to donate enormous sums of money to her presidential campaign war chest. She was nothing if not obvious. And that was actually quite convenient.

Cavanaugh smiled to himself and said, “They are powerful men with a great deal of influence, and I feel confident that together we can all do God’s work.”

They’d also made their fortunes mainly from government contracts, and would not be in the least upset to find themselves with a deeply indebted friend in the White House.

“Well, that’s good enough for me. Call Karen and she’ll work something out.”

Cavanaugh waited a moment, then said, “He comes like a thief in the night, Laura.”

“What?”

“You seem confident that these are the End Times. How can we know such a thing? Paul wrote, ‘The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.’”

“Oh, right, I know that verse. It means no one knows the time of His return. But ya know, I always thought someone would know. Right? What with signs and prophets and all. And then there’s the elite. It’s always different rules at the top. Don’t you think one of them would know?”

“It’s a good question, Laura. A very good question.”

And amazingly she wasn’t that far off. Some of the elite did know. Several of them, in fact.

And he just happened to be one of them.

AFTER HE HUNG up, Cavanaugh leaned back in his plush leather chair and meditated on the events of the past week. War and rumors of war. And now rumors of the end of war.

Rumors that he happened to know were not true.

In the wake of the desert test/demonstration blast, questions had been asked of him, of course. Polite questions. The Brotherhood’s reach extended into the halls of secular and religious power around the world and if anyone might know something about the Sons of Man, surely the Brotherhood’s own leader, Davie Cavanaugh would. It was a perfectly logical assumption for the authorities to have made.

But the inquiries were respectfully proffered, and always entirely in private. By his friends. And the answers he’d given were accepted without question. To call what he’d been subjected to anything like an investigation … well, that would be laughable.

After all, you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth now do you? And to the extent that anyone thought he might somehow be personally involved, the prevailing emotion was simply one of gratitude.

The Sons of Man promised to put a finish to one of the longest and bloodiest wars in human history. The war between Islam and Christianity that had waxed and waned for almost fourteen hundred years. The war which had come to a head again in the Middle East in the late Twentieth Century.

The world was already reaping the benefits of that promise, in the form of a standstill of major terrorist activity. That was what his State Department connections told Cavanaugh and there was no reason to doubt them. Peace in our time.

The Sons of Man were changing history according to their own plans. And no serious attempts were being made, at least here in the West, to undo what they had done.

The political will was just not there.

That was Cavanaugh’s opinion, anyway. And he would tell the Sons of Man himself at the very next opportunity.

CHAPTER 20

THEY WENT STRAIGHT to Keane’s apartment. As far as Volkov could tell, no one saw them going in.

It was safe there, for now, but soon it wouldn’t be. So this was the time for Keane to collect whatever he needed, as well as an opportunity for her to patch him up. The best she could, given whatever medical supplies Keane might have ready to hand.

As Keane went into his bathroom to gather the materials they’d need, Volkov thought about Potanin and how his moves and motives might affect their strategy.

He had one US agent on his payroll for certain. That much they’d confirmed. And more than likely it didn’t stop there. In a day or two Keane’s fingerprints and DNA would connect him to FBI Agent Sugiyama’s death. Assuming he was taken into custody as a result of that, Keane would be, as they said in English, something of a sitting goose.

Potanin would know that Keane was after Zadari, and the lengths the Russian billionaire would go to protect that whole project had already been amply demonstrated.

Their course of action was therefore clear. They would have to go underground, at least for a while.

Volkov sat on Keane’s couch with no conscious intention of prying into his private life. But the inside of a man’s apartment was always revealing. How could it not be? And she couldn’t simply turn off years of training she had pick up on the job. Or just from dating for that matter.

The first thing anyone would notice, even if he or she wasn’t a detective, was the incredible number of books here. Not just on the plentiful shelves either, but stacked high on every available horizontal surface including the coffee table before her.

Several of these books were cracked open facing down, which suggested that Keane was reading them simultaneously. Aristotle’s Ethics lay splayed out next to a similarly arranged copy of Goethe’s Faust. The Goethe tome was in the original German, too—if the cover was any indication. Keane, despite outward appearances, was clearly something of an intellectual.

When she’d asked him about all the books, just after they’d entered his apartment, Keane had simply said, It passes the time.

It looked like much more than that to her. It looked like some kind of a quest.

The next thing she saw, or rather didn’t see, was photographs. There weren’t any. No smiling family or friends on these unadorned walls. No souvenirs or knickknacks either. Their absence spoke volumes. We cut ourselves off from others to protect ourselves from them.

Or, as was more likely in this case, to protect them from us.

There was a music collection in the corner of the living room. Mostly classical, a fair amount of opera, and a few names Volkov recognized as famous Jazz musicians, such as John Coltrane and Miles Davis.

No artwork here though. What that last bit said about him she couldn’t be sure. He didn’t seem to be a man without passion or humor, so maybe that part was a function of him living light and unattached. Pack a few books and records in a bag and he could be gone in minutes. Nothing irreplaceable left behind.

It was not an unappealing way to live, Volkov thought.

He returned from the bathroom and supplied her with a medical field kit. They moved into the kitchen where the afternoon light streamed in through the window, making it easier to work.

Keane then stripped to the waist and they got to it.

As Volkov cleaned the shoulder wound, first with soap and hot water, Keane theorized out loud on what the recent events were all about and how they might all fit together.

“No one knew we were going to be in that office building today,” he said. “So Sugiyama was the target. But the shooter went for me. Two birds with one stone. He must’ve considered me a threat too.”

She dunked the cloth she was using in the porcelain bowl there on his table, then squeezed out the reddish water. “That makes sense. So who would have wanted Sugiyama dead, who also would have recognized you—that is what we want to understand.”

“I have one guess. Mikhail Potanin’s man, Alekseev. He saw me when Pasquini…” Keane paused. “So Alekseev’s boss, Potanin, was using Sugiyama as an inside man, to keep tabs on what the Bureau knew. Means Sugiyama must have known about the whole Zadari bombing plot and Potanin’s connection. But he might have already outlived his usefulness. It’s a case of the man who knew too much, is my guess there.”

She dabbed the last of the caked blood from the wound as she considered his question. It looked better now, less serious than she’d feared. “Yes. It is as good a theory as any. Dead men do not tell tales.”

Keane smiled. “As good a theory as any? All right, I’ll take that. Next point to consider. Sugiyama told me that Potanin knew about the nuke. And I believe him. Because he was hanging upside down out a window when he said it. So Potanin knew about the nuke even before the Sons of Man went public with the whole deal. Now how do you figure he came by that little piece of information?”

She had already worked out a strong possibility there.

“He would have known if he provided the two bombs. Both the test device they set off in the Arabian Desert and the one that is now hidden.”

“Russian suitcase nukes?”

They were once thought to be mere mythical creatures, these suitcase nukes. Volkov knew otherwise, though. They were very real, albeit not exactly suitcase sized. More like the volume of a large foot locker. Still, they were eminently portable and concealable.

Not long ago the FSB interceded in the attempted sale of one of these compact fission devices to a powerful Islamic extremist group in Iraq. So they were on the market; that much was full established. And an arms manufacturer like Potanin would have numerous military contacts able to reach out and find one for him. If the price were right.

“Potanin has all the right connections for this scheme,” she said. “So, if I am correct, he has sold a nuclear bomb to a group of religious fanatics.”

Keane nodded. “Yeah, but it all backfired. He wanted a war, and he thought the Sons of Man were gonna give it to him. Then he gets this crazy situation where they’re holding an unnamed Arab city hostage. For peace, though. Who could’ve seen that coming, huh?”

“He would not have been pleased about that. He does not seem like the kind of man who would take it lying down.”

Keane flinched as Volkov cleaned a little more deeply into the wound. “Nope, not too pleased for sure. Potanin and the Sons of Man have opposite aims here. He wants an escalated Middle East conflict. They’re trying to put a lid on it permanently. But now Potanin’s worked a way around it, hasn’t he? He hired Zadari to kick the hornet’s nest for him.”

“This is a colloquialism?” Volkov asked. She was not familiar with the expression, though she thought she understood.

“Yeah, means to stir up trouble. It would appear your countryman found someone willing to ignore the ultimatum and go ahead and bomb a US target. He’s just making sure that nuke out there goes off anyway. You got to hand it to him, really.”

“You sound as though you admire him.” Volkov leaned back to appraise this stage of the wound cleaning.

“Well, his reasoning, yeah. It’s a neat solution to his problem. He sold a nuke with the intention to start a war. A war he would profit by immensely. Now, one way or another, he’s making damn sure it does.”

“Unless we stop him.” She stopped cleaning to watch his face for the reaction.

“Unless we stop him?” Keane’s smile broadened.

“Our interests are clearly aligned now, you and I. We both want Potanin. And his crimes are international in nature.”

She needed Keane’s help and this was not a rationalization she was offering. They truly were on the same path right now. They could, if he accepted her offer, make each other’s jobs much easier.

He said nothing, but he was still smiling at her.

It was a charming smile too. And she had to force herself to resist smiling back. She changed the subject back to his injury. The soap and water stage was finished now.

“It looks as though you were right,” she said, pointing at the shoulder. “The bullet did not hit the bone. It’s little more than a graze, really. But there is fabric from your shirt inside the wound and it must come out.”

Fortunately he had the tools for it. The medical kit he provided was small but well stocked.

“We’ll need alcohol,” Keane said.

“To sterilize, yes.”

“Well, that too.” He indicated a cabinet above and behind her. “Up there, to the left of the stove.”

She went over and opened the cabinet. Maybe a dozen bottles of liquor in there. Multiple bottles of the same type and brand in several cases. Backups. The man surely did like his drink.

“You live alone?” she asked, taking in all the bottles. There was enough there for a sizable wedding celebration.

“Yeah, but I entertain a lot.”

“I somehow doubt that.”

He was being flippant, but making no real effort to deceive her. He probably understood that he could not anyway. That aside, there was no shame or embarrassment in his voice. He was quite comfortable with what he was.

“No girlfriend living here?” she asked, surprising herself a little. She’d meant to say roommates. Or did she?

From across the kitchen she could see Keane’s torso clearly. He was shirtless, lean and muscular. Chiseled, not puffed up like those men who spent all their time in the gym. It was … quite beautiful, actually.

A body to match the face.

That thought had come unbidden and she tamped it down fast. No room for such things right now. And certainly not with a partner in a crime investigation.

Fortunately Keane seemed to make nothing of her question. “No, no girlfriend. They kept breaking. Costs too much to replace ‘em.” He smiled again.

She liked that smile, she truly did. Too bad it just wasn’t going to happen.

She selected an unsealed vodka bottle and shut the cabinet. Then she hunted through the drawers and found a clean, linen napkin and collected that too. Then she went back over to the kitchen table and set the liquor bottle down.

Keane made an exaggerated sad face. “No glasses? I wasn’t kidding about that drink.”

“I know you weren’t.” She poured some vodka over the napkin and capped the bottle. “This is going to burn.”

She washed the wound out as gently as she could with the alcohol. It must have hurt, nonetheless.

Keane only grunted once, with his teeth clenched and mouth shut. Trying to stay quiet, as she knew he would. She had no doubt he would consider it un-masculine to cry out. Men. In so many ways they were comically predictable.

She paused. “You can make noises if it helps you. And it does help. This is a demonstrated fact. Also I promise I will not think you are a sissy.”

“Nah, I got these thin walls. If the neighbors hear me moaning, they’ll think we’re having wild sex and—”

She poured a splash of vodka directly on the wound.

He jerked and sucked in air through his teeth with a hissing sound. “Ow, shit! Jesus.”

“See. It’s better, yes?” she said with a straight face.

She doused a hemostat with more vodka and checked out the various scars that decorated Keane’s upper body. They were quite numerous, even for a professional law officer.

“You were special forces,” she said, matter of factly.

He raised his eyebrows. “I was?”

She pointed as she spoke. “Knife scars. Shrapnel there. Burns. And your fighting style … who taught you Systema?”

She’d recognized it immediately in the office building with Sugiyama. He was the first non-Russian she’d ever seen using The System. It was a deadly, super-efficient martial art discipline developed by the Russian military that focused on the six body levers. The Russian equivalent of the no nonsense, Israeli Krav Maga style.

“You noticed, eh?” Kean said. “One of your countrymen passed that on to me.” He paused, choosing the next words carefully, it seemed. “We fought together.”

She dug in with the hemostat, exploring for bits of cloth and string. “Afghanistan, yes?”

Aaooow, yeah. How’d you … you pulled my file? I have a Russian security file?”

He did not, in fact. “Facebook. Afghanistan veterans,” She told him. “One of your groups.” She never collaborated with anyone without doing at least some background research.

“Wow. With Facebook, who needs the NSA? So, what else did you find out about me?”

“You do not have many friends.” She was in deep with the hemostat and he flinched again.

“Maybe I don’t need many.”

She dug deeper. “Or you do not let people close.”

He winced again and asked sarcastically, “Oh, really, doc? Why would that be?”

“Afraid of what they might see. Things even you do not like to look at, or remember.” She found what appeared to be the main bit of cloth and tweezed it out, giving it a firm tug.

Oooow! Damn.” His whole body stiffened momentarily.

“Sorry. I must have hit a nerve.” She had the material free and dropped it on a plate she had ready. “There. We just need to keep this clean now.”

She put a butterfly dressing on the wound and covered it with gauze, then wrapped athletic tape around the shoulder.

Behind them in the window, the gray sky was fading out. It was nearing sunset behind the clouds.

She reassembled the medical kit and closed it up. “Tonight, you rest,” she instructed. “Tomorrow we speak to Potanin, while you can still call on him officially.”

“Is that what we’re gonna do?”

He seemed amused at the degree to which she was taking charge. Get used to treating me as a full partner, Agent Keane. You will have no other choice.

“You have other plans?” she asked.

He shook his head. “No, that works for me. I don’t expect we’ll get much out of Potanin right away. But we can still piss him off.” His eyes twinkled when he said it.

She got up from the kitchen table and returned the Vodka bottle to its shelf. “And exactly what does that accomplish?”

“People get stupid when they get angry. I want him stupid.”

He was right about that. Passion and reason don’t live well together in the same house.

She returned to his side and did a final recheck of her shoulder wrapping. Keane turned then to look at her and she found herself nearly face to face with him. He smiled again.

“So, what’s your plan for tonight?” he asked, looking into her eyes.

It really is a nice smile.

She stood up. “Not to do anything stupid.” And then she left.

Before she did it anyway.

CHAPTER 21

Alekseev watched Mikhail Potanin aiming the AK-47 assault rifle with the black, polymer stock. One of his favorites. He had surprisingly small hands for a man over two meters tall. Delicate features too. Perhaps that was an accidental advantage. It disguised his inner ruthlessness.

Potanin fired three short bursts at the driver’s window of the old Cadillac.

The Kalashnikov made a distinctive sound. Alekseev had heard its deadly song over many years and in many places around the world. It was the sound of reliable killing power at a reasonable price.

A description that fairly fit Alekseev himself.

The first burst of fire from Potanin took the auto glass out entirely. The second and third went right over the car’s roof, though. He wasn’t the best shot.

You wouldn’t know that from the applause that soon erupted. Sycophants, one and all. Even the filthy rich were pathetic given the right circumstances. Like this one.

They were gathered here at Potanin’s magnificent estate. On his private gun range, more specifically. Shooting up old automobiles in the penumbra of the big man’s charismatic aura. And while these were all powerful men in their own right— most of them multimillionaires—Potanin was a billionaire with a capital “B.” A plutocrat with the political muscle to equal or exceed any of theirs. A close friend of Putin’s too. They often hunted together both in and outside of the forests.

Potanin was in the habit of dealing out favors like a trainer handing meat treats to well behaved dogs. And so they applauded his shitty marksmanship. As Alekseev himself was now doing, while thinking: old cars don’t shoot back at you.

How much worse would his employer’s aim be in the field, he wondered? They would never know. Potanin didn’t like to get his hands dirty with such things. At least not anymore. That’s what Alekseev was for.

“Please, my friends. Enjoy.” Potanin gestured with his weapon toward the Cadillac parked out on the range, indicating that the others may now fire at will.

And they did. Blasting away with various handguns and rifles both semi and fully-automatic. Windows shattered and tires exploded on the old car. The sound was deafening.

Potanin nodded along approvingly.

Alekseev called Potanin aside when he could, where they could speak without shouting. He informed him who had just shown up at the front gate.

Potanin nodded. A slight smile crinkled the corners of his blue ice eyes. “Let them in.”

Agent Jesse Keane of the Homeland Security Agency had come to poke the big Russian bear, no doubt thinking he would learn more about his partner’s death on that sidewalk in front of the Hotel Monaco.

He would learn something, it was true. He would learn a hard lesson before the day was over.

Alekseev would see to that personally. And with pleasure.

CHAPTER 22

KEANE AND VOLKOV accelerated away from the guard’s station.

We’re federal agents and we’d like to speak to Mr. Potanin, Keane had just told the uniformed guard, offering his ID.

The guard made a quick call. To the main house, Keane guessed

Keane had made no mention of a search warrant, because of course there wasn’t one. The day’s efforts could easily have ended right there. But Mikhail Potanin evidently feared very little.

The guard opened the gate.

Keane wasn’t surprised. You don’t pile up that much treasure being timid.

Up in the distance a palatial, white mansion sprawled along the crest of a hill over an oak and pine forest. A private forest. The property rolled on past a ridge and into the next valley in which sat a good-sized lake.

As the car crawled up the winding road, Keane thought again about that forest. There was just something not right about one man owning an entire damn forest. And that was only one of many things he couldn’t get his head around whenever he considered all that money and power.

Twenty billion dollars. That was Potanin’s estimated net worth, according to the all-knowing internet. Twenty billion dollars represented a kind of wealth that was impossible to really imagine tangibly. And he knew because he’d honestly tried.

It was as difficult as comprehending how the eighty-five richest people in the world could have as much wealth as the bottom three billion all combined. Which they in fact did. Keane reckoned all that as an advantage for the one percent of the one-percenters. It’s hard to get outraged over something that doesn’t even seem remotely possible.

What was even more unimaginable was the plainly demonstrated fact that Mikhail Potanin still wanted[_ more_].

Twenty billion just wasn’t cutting it apparently, what with inflation and the odd golden toilet that needed unstopping. This whole crazy plot, from arming the Sons of Man to backing the bomber who would force their hand—all of it was going down for the sake of more.

But truth be told, that’s how it was with most people. It was just how we’re wired, as Keane understood it. The kick, the jolt of dopamine that lights up the brain’s pleasure centers in the nucleus accumbens doesn’t come from having. It comes from acquiring. And that, friends, is a hungry beast that has to be fed regularly.

The irony, of course, was that you could never actually have more. Because there would always be … more. It was like wishing it was tomorrow and not today. You’ll never get there. It’ll still be today every damn time you wake up. But that fact stops virtually no one from running on what psychologists called the hedonic treadmill. Except maybe a handful of monks here and there.

“How is your shoulder?” Volkov interrupting his little reverie. “My medical skills are primitive.”

It hurts like a bitch, thanks very much. “Eh, it’s been better. You did fine. Your heart must’ve been in the right place.”

“Actually, no.”

An odd reply and Keane glanced over at her. Volkov had her smartphone in hand. She was reading something off it.

“What have you got there?” he asked her.

“You have made the news. Well, except that they do not know it’s you.”

“They’ll know soon enough. What’s the headline say?”

“It says, ‘FBI Agent Killed in Mystery Shootout.’” She paused. “We are going to need evidence that Potanin is behind all this. To clear you.”

Keane wasn’t feeling too optimistic about his chances there right now. “What do you got in mind? I’m all ears.”

“A money trail. Proof that Potanin bought Sugiyama off.”

Not enough by itself, in Keane’s own estimation, but it would make a good start. And it might very well open up other avenues of investigation.

“Then that’s what we’re looking for,” he said. “Which reminds me—you bring a search warrant with you? I forgot mine.”

He was teasing her. It was fun to try and get a rise out of her, because it was genuinely challenging.

She looked puzzled for a moment, and then her eyes narrowed in amusement as she caught the sarcasm.

“Oh,” Keane continued, “I guess we’re just gonna have to bend the rules a little, the ones that have to apply to everyone equally. Think you can live with that on your conscience?”

She looked serious again. “Well, if I have to, I can always start drinking too much.”

Keane laughed. And he felt something more than good humor there. He felt that gratitude you have for someone who really gets you. And who likes you anyway.

And even though he gave her a hard time about it, he truly admired her principles. The ones she was so loathe to compromise. It might not be an entirely effective way to navigate life, but it was a rare quality in someone who lived on the front lines and not up in some ivory tower.

You had to give her that.

A SERVANT LED them through Potanin’s mansion. It was everything Keane had imagined and more.

Ultramodern and ostentatious in its huge expanses of empty space for the sake of empty space. Many of the exterior walls were made entirely of glass, in places two stories tall, allowing for breathtaking views of the surrounding woods and hills.

Once they were outside again in the back of the property, the servant left them. Keane felt disoriented for a moment, seeing waves breaking just down the hill. A beach up here? No. It was an artificial wave pool, like the kind you might find in a water park.

And there was the private gun range that Keane had been hearing since they got out to let the valet park the car. It sounded like a small scale war and yanked his mind back to places he’d rather not go. He distracted himself by focusing on the cliques of powerful men and beautiful women that they were passing now.

He took a theatrical sniff of the air. “You smell money?” he asked Volkov. “I smell money. Money and power. Best cologne they ever made. Speaking of which…”

Keane directed her attention to a paunchy, middle-aged Hispanic man wearing a US flag lapel pin and talking to a slimmer, older white man.

The older man had a severe look about him, aided by an army crew-cut. He had a military bearing to match the cut too, and even from here he seemed practically to ooze testosterone.

Volkov had followed Keane’s gaze. “That man,” she said, indicating the heavier one. “He is a US senator. Who is the other one? He looks familiar to me.”

“Yeah, he would. That’s General Henry Hoyle, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. I served under him in Iraq. Real peckerhead, that one.”

Volkov frowned. “Peckerhead?”

Hoyle had just spotted Keane. He smiled and waved him over. Keane lifted his chin in recognition. He’d have to explain that little bit of slang to Volkov later.

Aside to her Keane said, “Hang back here. I want to avoid awkward introductions. Okay?”

She gave a quick nod, turned and walked away casually. And as usual she looked damned good doing it. She certainly didn’t appear out of place here among the rich and beautiful.

Keane crossed over to Hoyle and offered his hand. “General, sir. How are you?”

“Great, just great.” Hoyle shook Keane’s hand with a he-man grip then lifted the glass of champagne he was holding in the other hand. “But this is just a social event here, Jesse. No need to be so formal.”

“To be honest, sir wasn’t the first thing I thought to call you, Henry.” Peckerhead.

Hoyle laughed. “That’s more like it. I didn’t know you were a member of our little gun club. Haven’t seen you at any of our other functions.” He knew damn well Keane wasn’t here as an invited guest of a billionaire Russian arms manufacturer, and this was just him making it clear. He gestured to the man beside him. “Have you met Senator Santaro?”

Keane shook hands with the Senator. “No, I haven’t.”

Santaro smiled and said, “I was just asking Henry why the US Government had to wait for some secret religious organization to do what we should have done ourselves a long time ago.”

“Really?” Keane said. “You think we should have hidden a nuclear device somewhere in the Middle East? Or did you just mean we should have threatened to take an action that we couldn’t possibly follow through on. Maybe just to take our credibility down a couple more notches, eh?”

Santaro’s face fell. He must’ve thought he was preaching to the choir here.

“Well, no.” he said. “I mean—”

Hoyle cut him off, politely coming to the rescue. “And I was just telling the Senator here that the US doesn’t flex its nuclear muscle because these days the powerful aren’t supposed to act like they’re powerful. Because the weaklings say it’s wrong. So instead we die a slow death by political correctness.”

Keane turned back to Hoyle. “Well,” Keane said, “you were never one to fret too much about methods, were you, Henry?”

The General was without scruples of any kind, as Keane’s past experience with him painfully demonstrated.

Hoyle just smiled at the jab, and said amiably, “Now, I don’t recall you objecting to whatever got the job done either, Jess.” And then with mock concern added, “Sleeping poorly these days, are we?”

“Oh, I sleep just fine.” After a few drinks.

Keane spotted Potanin standing nearby, and all alone for the moment. It was time to get down to business. “If you two gentlemen will excuse me, I want to thank our host.”

He left the two to their idiotic conversation and picked up Volkov on the way over to Potanin. She fell in step beside him.

“You will take the lead?” Volkov suggested.

“That’s probably best. Since you aren’t even supposed to be operating in this country.”

As they approached Potanin, Keane flashed his badge and ID at the tall Russian. “Mikhail Potanin. I’m agent Jesse Keane with the US Department of Homeland Security. Like to ask you a couple questions.”

Potanin offered his hand and a warm smile. “Of course.” His Russian accent was immediately apparent. As he shook hands with Keane, he turned to Volkov. “And this is FSB officer Volkov, I would presume?”

Volkov did a poor job of hiding her surprise at being called out, but she recovered pretty quickly. “My participation in this investigation is not official.”

Potanin grinned at that. “No, not official. Or legal, even. And not a very keen career move, Evana. It’s Evana, yes?” Potanin continued to smile, but it was the smile of a shark closing in on its prey.

A tuxedoed waiter came by right then with a filigreed silver tray. Not with hors d’oeuvres, though. With watches. Gold watches. They looked damned expensive to Keane.

Feeling a bit mischievous, he took one off the tray. “Don’t mind if I do. Thanks.”

Potanin, smiling politely now, reached over and removed the watch from Keane’s hand. “Those are worth, oh, twenty thousand dollars apiece, Agent Keane. That might be difficult to explain on your federal tax return.”

Keane whistled his appreciation. Then he noticed Volkov looking at his hand. It was trembling again. Still a bit of alcohol withdrawal left. He casually dropped it out of view.

Potanin went on about the watches. “Franck Muller, custom made with our logo. The gun club’s anniversary today, you see.” With a sweep of his hand he gestured to the swank surroundings. “Such is the reason for this small gathering.”

Keane looked around at the powerful men here to network and trade favors. “Gun club, huh? That’s what you call yourselves?”

Potanin ignored the question and returned the watch to the silver tray, saying pointedly to the waiter, “They are not members. Move on.”

With a nod the waiter was off to distribute the twenty thousand dollar watches to the other, legitimate guests.

Potanin turned his attention to Volkov then. “So, if the lady will excuse us, I would speak alone with Agent Keane here. You don’t mind, do you? I prefer to keep with one government investigation at a time whenever possible.”

Keane glanced at Volkov, who gave him a slight nod.

Potanin put an arm around Keane’s shoulder to lead him off. Just two friends enjoying the party. “Come, I will show you one of my favorite new toys.”

Keane intended to keep Potanin occupied wherever it was they were headed. He’d give Volkov ample time to scout for that money trail however she thought best to do it.

It was his fond hope that neither one of them would end up dead before the day was over. Because that didn’t seem beyond the range of possibility here.

They were in the lion’s den now. He figured it’d be a good idea to keep that little fact in mind.

CHAPTER 23

VOLKOV HAD NO trouble slipping away from the rest of the guests. She strolled into the main house, reasonably confident that wasn’t being followed, ready to announce to anyone who asked that she required the ladies’ room.

Once inside, the sense of wealth presented itself like a smell permeating the very air. This was no doubt intentional. Potanin seemed to think that riches were totally pointless if they were not on display. Not an uncommon trait amongst the nouveau riche, which essentially he was.

The furniture was all sleek glass, chrome, and black leather. A bachelor’s choices. There was no sense of a woman’s touch here anywhere.

Stark modern abstracts hung at irregular intervals on the bone colored walls. Mainly artists Volkov didn’t recognize, except for the original Jackson Pollock that she’d just passed. That piece alone had to be worth tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. The art with which she was not familiar was no doubt similarly stratospheric in value. More money on the walls here than the average person could spend in several lifetimes.

As she approached the grand staircase a maid in traditional black and white uniform passed her, keeping her eyes respectfully downcast.

When the domestic turned the corner, Volkov doubled back and took the marble staircase up to the more private areas of the enormous house.

She wandered the main hallway, peeking in several rooms, until she located what looked to be Potanin’s private office. She went in.

A waist-high, ebony counter running along one wall displayed various expensive objets d’art. Mirrors ran behind the artworks to facilitate viewing from all angles. That was likely a real Fabergé egg that just caught her eye. Manufactured for Czar Alexander III, or maybe Nicholas II. Potanin no doubt saw himself as a modern version of those men.

She closed the office door and locked it, and then went straight to the enormous glass and steel desk. The desktop computer was in sleep mode. She touched a key. Password protected. She’d get nothing there.

She moved on to the drawers, which surprisingly were not locked. Riffling through file folders, she noticed that several contained papers or correspondences related to an Atlas Enterprises. She pulled out one of those.

Another folder contained multiple references to Chechnya and several smaller oil companies that she had actually heard of. She dug deeper there. Potanin appeared to have made some substantial investments here. Some of them fairly recently.

Behind her the doorknob turned. The door was still locked.

For the moment.

She ran to the window. A sheer drop there to cement pavement. She’d break her leg if not her neck. Turning away from that, she eyed the art shelves and the enormous fireplace that dominated the room. And formed a plan.

ALEKSEEV RELEASED THE door handle and drew a silenced nine millimeter Beretta from the shoulder holster under his jacket.

Motion in the corner of his eye caught his attention. A housemaid was coming down the hall toward him. He quickly stuck the gun back under his coat. She passed him without comment.

He waited until she’d gone around the corner.

Then he took the gun out again and immediately kicked in the door. Splinters of wood flew into the room along with him.

He swung the gun right to left. The room was empty. But someone had locked it from the inside.

Looking around, he hunted for for anything out of place. A desk drawer was open and the fireplace screen had been moved out and away from the firebox.

He dashed across the room and dropped to his hands and knees. Taking a deep breath, he rolled onto his back to get an angle up into the chimney. He thrust the Beretta inside it and fired three shots. The silencer and the fireplace itself muffled the shots into explosive coughs. The guests would not hear a thing.

He waited for a body to drop. Nothing.

Cautiously he slid forward and looked straight up into the chimney. He could see daylight far above. Nothing appeared to be obstructing the space up there.

He scooted back out of the fireplace, and rolled onto his knees checking under the art display counter that ran along the opposite wall. Nothing under there.

Underneath the desk was visible from where he was. Nothing there either.

As he climbed back to his feet, he noticed the room’s window was open. With his gun ready he crossed over to it.

Looking out, he judged the drop as too far to make without serious injury. If she’d leapt, he’d be seeing her lying there right now. Or maybe limping across the lawn at best.

He craned his neck, scanning upward, and spotted a sturdy drainpipe that lead all the way up to the roof. Not without risk, that route, but manageable if you had the arm strength and the balls.

He re-holstered the Beretta and quickly left the office.

VOLKOV LISTENED AS heavy footsteps hurriedly crossed the room again and continued down the hallway. She waited silently for about a minute longer. Then she lowered the mirror she’d taken from behind some art pieces down to the floor.

She’d had to guess at the angle to lean it, so that anyone looking under the counter would see nothing but more floor boards. It was the secret to a magic trick she’d seen exposed once in an old movie. How the beautiful assistant vanished down through a trap door even though the audience thought they were seeing under the platform.

All smoke and mirrors.

And it appeared to have worked, because whoever had come in the office was gone now.

She replaced the mirror on the counter behind some jade sculptures, went over to the door, and looked out.

The hallway was clear now.

CHAPTER 24

POTANIN LED KEANE to his gun range and retrieved that promised new toy of his from what turned out to be an immense weapons arsenal.

It was an Atchisson Assault Shotgun, the AA-12. A fully-automatic shotgun with a rotating, circular clip. He hefted it and struck an action hero pose for Keane. To Keane the man looked like a mobster with an oversized, old-style Tommy gun.

It was a fitting image.

A tow truck arrived moments later and deposited an aging white Range Rover downrange. Apparently old cars were Potanin’s preferred targets. Keane supposed that for him a used automobile’s price was relatively less than the equivalent cost of a paper target to the average guy.

Potanin sighted up the shotgun with a squint. “It was a tragedy, the deaths of those two men in the car crash. I’m sure ambassador Alekseev is filled with remorse.”

He let loose a barrage of fire from the AA-12 that sounded like cannons going off in sequence. Each shell tore a gaping hole in the side of the Range Rover.

Potanin lowered the smoking weapon to inspect the damage. “Ha! Look at that!”

Keane was genuinely impressed with the fully automatic shotgun. An efficient machine of destruction right there. But he maintained a placid expression. He wouldn’t give Potanin the satisfaction of getting excited over his play thing.

“It wasn’t a tragedy, what happened to Farooq and Agent Pasquini” Keane said, getting to work on Potanin. “It was a murder. And Alekseev is as much an ambassador as I am. He’s just your personal puppet, isn’t he?”

Potanin looked into Keane’s eyes. “If that were true, that would make me responsible for the death of your partner. You would want to kill me then, no?” He immediately offered Keane the high-tech shotgun. “You really should experience this.”

Potanin was grinning at his own audacity. He seemed to enjoy taunting Keane. Yeah, he was a real prick, this one. Probably knew it and enjoyed it too.

Keane declined the offer with a single, slow shake of the head. “No thanks. Maybe later?”

In reality, that was a promise. He owed this guy one for Pasquini, and he’d even the score eventually.

Potanin popped the empty, round clip out of the AA-12 and picked up a new one. This one was straight, not Tommy gun style like. The top shell had a bright blue warhead of some kind. Potanin slapped the new clip into the shotgun.

Keane decided it was time to go for it. “I know you’re financing a phony terror attack. You sold that loose nuke out there. But you didn’t count on it hurting business, did you?”

“Really? You know that.” Potanin arched a brow as he sighted up the deadly weapon. “You think you have the truth, Agent Keane. But all things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails is a function of power.”

He fired one round at the Range Rover. It exploded on contact and sent the crumpled hood of the vehicle flying, spinning thirty feet into the air and crashing to the ground.

Damn, Kean thought. Those blue-headed shells were practically pieces of artillery.

Potanin lowered the shotgun and smiled broadly at Keane. “All a function of power. Yes? Power, not truth.”

Keane knew this argument very well. A bad but popular interpretation of Nietzsche. That’s all it was. Potanin had just paraphrased the German philosopher too, so no surprises there.

“Just competing interpretations, not some objective truth?” Keane said.

“Absolutely,” Potanin popped out the warhead filled magazine and white smoke flowed like liquid out of the A-A12’s recesses.

“I get it,” Rees said. “Just interpretations. Like the popular interpretation of Mikhail Potanin as a great, self-made Russian industrialist.”

“Ah, now that is actually truth,” Potanin said playfully.

Keane allowed himself a laugh. “Very good. Very, good. See, ‘cause my own thinking is that you’re essentially a whore. A whore who was just kneeling in the right alley when some big, state-owned industries got privatized and the powerful nomenklatura dropped their pants, so to speak.”

Potanin maintained excellent composure. You had to give him that much. But Keane saw the corner of one eye twitch a bit.

“Sometimes,” Potanin said flatly, “it is not best to reveal all that we are thinking.”

Keane’s phone buzzed and he pulled it out. “I don’t always do what’s best for me,” he said as he checked the screen. “Some people are just like that.”

There was a new text. He opened it. It read: police here for you do not return to house meet me on the road out.

Keane casually pocked the phone. “Looks like I’m wanted. Excuse me.”

And then he left the big man there on the gun range to stew.

And hopefully to do something stupid.

CHAPTER 25

VOLKOV PULLED TO a stop at the security gate on the way out of the Potanin estate. It was closed and the guard who allowed her and Keane in earlier had now been joined by a uniformed police officer.

A police motorcycle was parked there by the roadside. Chatter erupted periodically from the cop’s open radio.

Volkov rolled down her window and waited.

The police officer made a complete circle around the car and then approached her. She made a quick threat assessment. He looked fit, and he was wearing a sidearm in a hip holster.

Potanin’s private security guard, on the other hand, was not carrying a weapon. It was likely he had something back in the guardhouse, though.

“Good afternoon, ma’am,” the officer said as he stepped up to her window.

He looked past her at the passenger side of the car and peered into the back too.

“Good afternoon,” Volkov said, putting on a smile that she hoped also looked perplexed. “Is there something wrong?”

“We’re looking for a fugitive, ma’am, and we have a report that he was at the party you just came from.” He was studying her face now, giving her the hard stare as he did.

“Well, I certainly hope you find him.”

“Can you turn off the engine, please?” he made the order sound like a polite question. But it was an order.

He is going to do a search.

She obediently threw the transmission into park and killed the engine.

“I’ll need to see your ID,” the officer said. “We’re making a list of everyone who attended the event. You may have seen something up there and there’s a chance we’ll be contacting you at a later time for an interview.”

“Yes, of course.”

She dug her passport out of her purse and handed it to him. She thought briefly about showing her FSB badge. There was a chance that some professional courtesy might be extended here, cop to cop. On the other hand, it was just as likely to generate a lot of sticky questions. She decided to keep it in the bag.

The officer scrutinized the passport and stared again at her face. “You’re a Russian citizen?”

“Yes. Just here on vacation. My first time to your country. I love it.” Giving him the smile again. And eyes this time too.

He nodded without commenting. Then he asked her for a contact number and the address where she was staying. She gave him the name of a downtown D.C. hotel that she had already checked out of and threw in a false phone number.

He wrote the information down on a leather-bound notepad then handed her back the passport. “Enjoy your stay.”

“Thank you.” She reached for the ignition key. Before she could turn it…

“Can I just get you to open up your trunk for me, please?”

“Oh, it is a rental car. There is nothing in there.”

The look on his face said he wasn’t buying it. “That’s good. I just need to have a quick look anyway.”

She tried feigning amusement. “You think that this person you are looking for, this fugitive is hiding in the trunk of my car?” Why officer, the absurdity of such a suggestion!

He didn’t return the smile. “It’s just standard procedure, ma’am.”

The hell it was. “I don’t want to be uncooperative, officer, but do you not need to have a search warrant for this?”

The officer looked over at Potanin’s private guard and nodded. Then he turned his attention back to her. “Not if you agree to let me look, no. But if you’re hiding something back there…”

“Of course not.”

The guard walked over to the car, around the back, and stood waiting behind the trunk.

She reached down for the trunk release and pressed it. There was a thunk and she saw the trunk lid rise up a few centimeters in the rearview mirror.

Potanin’s guard stepped forward, opened the trunk lid all the way, and looked in.

A few moments later he nodded to the police officer. And closed the lid.

Volkov was already looking forward to telling Keane about all this. She’d had to fight with him to convince him to exit the car just up the road, then slip through the woods and meet her outside the estate.

He had wanted to hide inside the trunk.

She’d made the officer work for it, so that he would feel some sense of having gotten what he wanted while also being in control. It seemed to have done the trick.

The police officer nodded back to the guard. Then said to Volkov, “Thank you for your cooperation. If we need to talk to you we’ll…” He stopped. His attention was on the passenger side of the car again. He was looking intently at something over there. “Ma’am, I’m going to need you to step out of your vehicle.” He stepped back then and unsnapped his holster.

She looked over and saw it too now.

Dried blood from Keane’s shoulder wound on the door.

He must have leaned on it yesterday while they drove back to his apartment from the shooting incident with Sugiyama. The officer missed it on his first pass.

She had Sugiyama’s gun stashed in her coat pocket and she pulled it out now. Behind the car door, blocked from the officer’s sightline.

Sugiyama’s empty gun.

As she stepped out of the car she quickly raised the gun and aimed it at the police officer’s chest. Reflexively, he started to go for his own weapon.

“Stop!” She took another step toward him.

Thankfully he did.

Another guest was pulling up outside the gate in a silver Lexus as Volkov turned her head slightly toward the private guard. “You. Come stand beside this man right now.”

The guard broke and ran toward the guard station. She hadn’t expected that. A stupid move, that was. By a very lucky man who couldn’t know her gun was empty.

Volkov ignored the guard and stepped into the officer’s space before he had time to think. She held Sugiyama’s empty gun extended in her right hand and moved in close. Much too close.

Offering him the bait.

He took it. He reflexes were good too. He grabbed her gun arm while rotating out of the way. She just flowed with him as his focus remained entirely on the useless weapon. Instinctively from hundreds and hundreds of hours of Systema training, she redirected his momentum, using her hip as a fulcrum. As the officer flipped, she smoothly pulled his gun from the holster.

His loaded gun.

She started to turn back toward the guard’s station when she heard that man’s voice.

“Drop it,” the guard said. He’d retrieved a gun from his station and had already taken aim.

Damnit. She did a quick calculation. She might get off a shot, but not without him firing first. She started to lower the police officer’s gun when…

“You flinch and I’ll kill you.” Keane said. He must have used the Lexus pulling up for cover. “You’re outnumbered and outgunned, buddy. Don’t be stupid.”

The guard carefully glanced over at Keane pointing his weapon at him, and then prudently dropped his gun.

The standoff was over. They had won.

They used the trunk of the Lexus to lock up the police officer, the guard, and the Lexus’s driver. Fortunately, it was a big trunk.

Volkov followed as Keane drove the Lexus to a spot a few miles down the road and pulled off. He chose a location isolated enough that the noise from their captives pounding and shouting inside trunk would be noticed.

Eventually, but not right away.

As they left there together in Volkov’s rent-a-car, Keane turned to her and said, “You were right.”

“About?”

“I was a lot more use outside the trunk.” He gave her that charming smile of his again.

This time she allowed herself to smile back.

CHAPTER 26

A HALF HOUR after Keane had disappeared off the property and one of his own guards went missing along with a local police officer, Mikhail Potanin sat behind his oversized desk. Seething with anger.

He was not a man accustomed to being beaten. And he wasn’t taking it very well.

Alekseev had come back out to the gun range to tell him someone had been snooping around upstairs. And sure enough, upon inspection, some paperwork was missing. Nothing particularly damning but Potanin wanted to kick himself for being so careless.

It was that Volkov woman who’d done it, of course. And it was she, no doubt, who had also warned Keane about the police arrival.

Getting Keane into custody would have been halfway to having him dead. Now that golden opportunity was lost. No matter. The police manhunt would catch up with him eventually. Volkov might be compromised in all this as well, since she obviously aided him.

Fine. Kill two birds with one stone.

Potanin had been aware of Volkov’s investigation into him from nearly the beginning, through a number of paid inside sources in the Russian government. She was interested mainly in that Chechen separatist business. Arms sales that were, shall we say, less than properly documented.

If she knew what deeper purpose was involved there, she most likely would have shared it with Keane already. And Keane would have said something about that to Potanin. But he had not. Ergo, she knew nothing of that. So it appeared that she had barely scratched the surface of the whole thing.

For now.

Keane, however, had made some astute guesses at the very least. Potanin was just playing the old game of letting the enemy near in order that he might con his opponent into tipping his hand. But nothing much had come of it. It would seem then that Keane had no hard evidence. Not for the moment, at least.

Certainly he possessed nothing that proved Potanin had orchestrated the procurement of the two suitcase nukes for the Sons of Man. Nor why he’d done it.

An increase in arms sales? That was Keane’s current hypothesis it would appear. Totally absurd, of course. That would hardly have been worth all of this. Nevertheless, Agent Keane was on the trail of the whole truth and that was a very real problem.

Also, he had also called Mikhail Potanin a whore.

Potanin prided himself deeply on being a man who scratched his way with his own hands from the pits of poverty to stand on the very summit of wealth and power. A billionaire many, many times over. Almost out of sheer will alone he had pulled off this superhuman feat.

This was not an insult he was inclined to forgive or to forget.

Yes, it was true that he had been in the right place at the right time when the Soviet Union fell and numerous nationalized industries went up for sale. But so had many, many others. What he made of that opportunity was not a matter of luck. It was a triumph of will.

What set Potanin apart was a combination of fierce desire and a willingness to do what was necessary. To do[_ whatever_] was necessary.

Did a rival bidder for a formerly government-owned firm have a secret mistress kept somewhere? In one case, yes. And of course, that was not enough by itself. Powerful men had their dalliances.

But the mistress’s convenient death by drug overdose, and the even more convenient discovery of the cache of chemically identical drugs in his rival’s car?

Oh, now that was enough.

Did a recalcitrant or overly curious government official have young children? In another case, yes again. Their temporary disappearance was a very powerful motivator. And the young boy’s dismembered finger absolutely sealed the deal.

Keane had simply been stirring the pot with the insult, of course, hoping something would float up into view. But he possessed nothing tangible at this point. That much was clear now. The scope of the awesome plan that was now in progress was far beyond his imagination.

Keane had also failed to imagine the kind of resources that were available at Potanin’s fingertips. Resources more than sufficient to bring a puny Homeland Security officer down for good. The triumvirate that comprised the Sons of Man was a force such as the world had never known.

Keane would find out the extent of their power. He and Volkov both would, and soon enough. And then the man would pay for his rash insult.

He would pay with interest.

CHAPTER 27

CHRISTMAS MUZAK FILLED the giant mall along with thousands of holiday shoppers, many with children in tow. It competed in one area of the mall with the sound of calliope music coming from a carousel near Santa Claus’s Village.

Amid the drifts of fake snow, American kids and their parents lined up for photos and the annual ritual of asking the jolly fat man for gifts. They were happy and expectant.

They could not know this whole area would be eaten up in a fireball within the very day.

Zadari, dressed in a tan technician’s jump suit, wheeled an inconspicuous work cart up to a blue door beside the carousel. A sign marked the entrance for EMPLOYEES ONLY.

Inside the service area, isolated from stores and shoppers, Zadari rolled the cart quietly right up to the mall’s backup electric generator. Next to that impressive machine stood a large, red fuel tank with a “Danger Flammable” sign on it.

He lifted the concealing canvas and looked in on the bomb there in its hiding place inside the cart. He checked that the detonator was still firmly inserted into the gray block of C4, and set the timer for six hours.

He checked his watch just as it changed over to four o’clock.

Everything was right on schedule.

ZADARI NOTICED THE mall maintenance man following him out into the parking lot and consciously kept his pace slow and steady. Whatever the man had to say to Zadari, there were multiple options available for dealing with the situation.

He was opening the van’s back doors when the mall employee caught up with him. The man was bald. His face and pate glowed bright pink in the cold air. He looked agitated.

“Who the hell are you?” the man said. Brusque, challenging.

Zadari remained unruffled. He put his tool box into the back of the van and said quietly, “I was called to check the heating.”

The man looked further upset by that. “Yeah? Who called you? Was it Haxton? That asshole is hiring non-union again, isn’t he?” He narrowed his eyes, waiting for a response.

“I will.”

Zadari saw the man’s eyes rake over the back of the van. A rental car sticker was prominent there on the bumper.

“You got a rented van?” Suspicion now.

“My regular vehicle is broken,” Zadari said with a shrug. Then he closed the back doors, still moving slow and easy.

The man was squinting at him now. “Hey, I seen your face somewheres. Where’ve I seen you?”

Zadari turned away to head for the driver’s door. “You are mistaken, my friend,” he said pleasantly, scanning the surrounding area now.

The man followed Zadari closely. “No. No, I don’t forget faces. I seen you. I seen you … on the news.”

That was it. Zadari turned to face him now.

The man’s eyes widened. He had just linked Zadari to the sketch that was showing on all the local news channels. The one connecting him to the Imam’s murder at the mosque. It was a fair likeness of Zadari too. He’d credit them that much.

It took only a moment. To anyone watching, it would have looked as though Zadari had just given the maintenance man a friendly and familiar hug. Perhaps wishing him a Merry Christmas.

They could not have seen the knife there between the two men.

“Allah gives your heart to my blade,” Zadari whispered into the man’s ear.

A quick look around the parking lot revealed no one watching. No one at all. Zadari lifted the already lifeless body into the back of the van.

Then drove off. Slowly and calmly.

CHAPTER 28

IN FINDING A place to crash for Volkov and himself, Keane figured that wherever they ended up he’d have to pay in cash. They were both wanted now, after the episode at Potanin’s front gate. They had to avoid any kind of paper or electronic trail from this point forward, which pretty much predetermined the quality of their motel selection right there.

Still, there was cheap and there was inexpensive with a little bit of self-respect, and the room they were in now fell solidly into the latter. It suited Keane just fine.

There was a TV here on a shelf, a flesh-toned phone, and one queen-sized bed with a faded green bedspread that clashed pretty badly with the aqua-colored carpet.

There was a serviceable couch, where Keane would probably end up sleeping, and should end up sleeping. The room didn’t smell bad. Mostly it reeked of disinfectant and cleaning agents.

No minibar here, which was just as well. The shakes were pretty much gone now and there was no good reason to invite them back in for another visit.

He watched Volkov unpack the Chinese takeout they’d picked up. Watched with no small amount of pleasure too. No denying it, the lady was a stunner. High cheekbones, big dark eyes, and a body to… forget.

And that wasn’t going to be easy either.

That bed there was only a step from the couch. And it would continue to be, all through what probably going to be a long, long night.

Keane took out the disposable phone he’d just purchased with cash and punched in Avi Fleischer’s cell number from memory. He heard the ring on the other end, and waited.

“Who is this,” Avi’s voice. Sounding peeved.

“Hey, Avi, Keane here. I’m on a burner, sorry.”

“Really? That sounds … complicated.” And Fleischer left it at that. Which made things much easier for both of them. “So, what do you have for me, Jesse?”

“The FBI agent on the case, Sugiyama, the asshole was working for Potanin all along, Avi. Being paid off. He was protecting Zadari from the inside.”

“You know this thing for a certainty?”

“Without getting into how I know it, yeah, I do. And yes, that has something to do with why I’m calling you on a disposable phone right now.”

“Potanin has been on our radar here. He’s been arming certain radical Islamic groups in Chechnya and elsewhere too.”

“Radical groups? That doesn’t feel quite right, buddy. He doesn’t seem like the ideological type.”

Keane stepped over to the dresser and picked up the folder with the Atlas Enterprises papers.

“No, you’re right about that,” Fleischer said. “It’s something else, to be sure. We’re looking into it more deeply. Not sure how any of that would help you, though.”

Keane leafed through the folder. “I don’t know if what I’m about to tell you goes anywhere either, Avi, but check out a Russian based company called Atlas Enterprises while you’re at it. Potanin has some kind of financial stake there.”

“Consider it done.”

Keane was watching Volkov now, spooning their food into Styrofoam plates. His stomach grumbled loudly. Dinner would come soon enough. Focus. Focus.

“So, did you get anything on our terrorist, this Zadari guy?” he asked Fleischer.

“Yes, but very little I’m afraid. We learned that he was trained in Yemen. And that he lost a younger brother to American forces in Iraq in 2002. That could be important right there. I’m sure you see why.”

Keane saw it. It made sense now. “That’s why Zadari doesn’t care what happens after his attack. It’s not ideological or political. It’s about revenge, pure and simple.”

“Exactly what I concluded.” There was a pause, and when Fleischer spoke again, his voice took on a new quality. Strained, but controlled. “There has been a … development since we last spoke, Jesse. Pakistan will soon announce its intention to make a nuclear counter-strike against a western city. That is, if the decimation device is ever exploded.”

Keane was stumped for a second. “Pakistan doesn’t have any missiles that can reach Europe, let alone the United States.” Then he got it. “Ah, shit, Avi.”

“Yes. By ‘the West’ they mean Israel. We would naturally have to retaliate.”

The fallout from that leapt to Keane’s mind instantly. There would be a series of inexorable and horrific escalations.

“Of course you would retaliate,” Keane said. “Then China’s treaty obligations with Pakistan bring them in against you. And then the US has got to launch, which means Russia gets into it.”

“Yes. It would be Armageddon.”

IN THE SMALL, mobile unit in the darkened back of a nondescript van, the signal intelligence systems operator listened to the conversation he was eavesdropping on in his headset.

He read the directional data off a laptop screen that gave him the location of both parties down to less than half a meter.

When it was over, he called the contact number he’d been given earlier.

“We have a location, sir,” he said.

On the other end of the line, the Head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Henry Hoyle, gave the order.

“Move in.”

CHAPTER 29

KEAN PASSED ALONG all the details that he’d learned from Fleischer to Volkov while they sat eating cheap Chinese food.

The lukewarm mu shu chicken and the weirdly fluorescent orange sweet and sour pork were tastier than they had any business being, really. Cervantes was right. Hunger was the best sauce.

After the meal, Keane continued to sit on the couch and dug into the Atlas Enterprises folder.

“So these are economic figures,” he said to Volkov. “Reports on Russian oil prices, refineries, pipelines. If I’m reading this right, it doesn’t look too good either.”

Volkov was over in the kitchenette section of the motel room tossing out the empty takeout bags.

She paused to say, “Yes, the whole national oil industry is depressed right now. Russian crude oil supply is constantly threatened by Islamic separatists, for one thing. The refineries have been attacked repeatedly, as well as pipelines.”

Keane continued to scan the papers and came across one with a name that he recognized. A ghost from his past.

“And here’s Darkriver International,” he said. “I know this outfit. A little too well. But I just don’t see the connection there. Darkriver doesn’t really have much of a presence in Russia. Not as far as I know, anyway. Unless it’s being covered up through a lot of intermediaries.”

Volkov finished with the trash and rinsed her hands in the sink. “Who is this Darkriver?” she said over the sound of running water.

Keane got up and brought the document over to show her. “Private military, with more men and firepower than some small countries. They had upwards of fifty thousand men active in Iraq when I was over there.”

Darkriver International was a virtual nation unto itself and answered, practically speaking, to no one. Keane thought back to those early days, post 9/11, when he first encountered them in the Middle East.

He and his unit had already been pulled out of Afghanistan and the White Mountains, effectively abandoning the Battle of Tora Bora. In hindsight, that’s when it all began to go south.

The Taliban was harboring Bin Laden after the attacks on 9/11. In Keane’s mind that gave the US every right, and even perhaps the moral obligation, to kick some serious Afghani military ass.

But it should have been a decapitation mission right from the start, with elite forces and maybe some close air support. Leave the general civilian population out of it. Hell, they hated the Taliban and their Gestapo tactics as much or more than we did.

Along with going after Bin Laden in Afghanistan, the main focus of the war should have been in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden, after all, was a Saudi.

So were fifteen of the eighteen hijackers.

The one country with an absolutely iron clad and unassailable connection to the attack and the planning and funding for 9/11 was Saudi Arabia. Not Iraq. Iraq had nothing the hell to do with anything.

On the other hand, Iraq had oil and an old enemy of the president leading it. So, you know, there was that. And then there was that insane positive domino theory, as it was called by one right wing think tank.

Once regime change had been accomplished, and Iraq turned into a western style democracy with a thriving economy, amusement parks and a Coca Cola in every fridge, other nations in the region would follow suit. Like dominoes. Right?

Like dominos standing back up on their own and somehow causing the next domino to stand back up too.

It was a crazy and costly example of wishful thinking on steroids and nothing more. And the cost was heinous in both blood and treasure. To this day it made Keane a little sick to the stomach to think of it.

And it all came to a head in Fallujah after the insurgents killed those four private contractors. That atrocity was taken personally by certain powerful business men. So Darkriver flexed its political muscle. They wanted to make a lesson of it for the whole Islamic world to see.

Only it wasn’t that easy, as it turned out.

Resistance was fierce. Fallujah became the make or break point of the whole Iraq war. If the US didn’t win there, the tide would almost certainly turn against it. We would be looking at the end of the Vietnam War all over again. If the US didn’t regain control there, it would struggle on hopelessly until public support back home fell so low that the administration would have to make some face-saving, bullshit peace gesture and leave the carcass of the dead nation to the jackals to fight over.

No, they had to win Fallujah, by any and all means necessary. And that’s exactly what they did, Keane thought bitterly. They used all means necessary.

It was Darkriver that led the way. They were the experts at dirty fighting. And they were, by law, unaccountable. As private citizens, unbelievable as it seemed, they could not be prosecuted for war crimes. That was the law.

Keane wasn’t worried about any of it back then. The end justifies the means was his firm belief. And the ends they fought for, murky as they were, were better than the shitstorm that would come down if they lost.

And if he kinda squinted and looked at it all sideways, maybe those Project for a New American Century people were right. Maybe we could remake the whole Middle East in America’s image. There would be peace and security at last.

In the light of all that twisted and magical thinking, White phosphorus seemed justifiable. Chemical warfare seemed justifiable. So that shit was deployed. And so Keane used it.

It was the screams that he heard in his darkest dreams.

Some insurgents had taken an apartment building. Intel was that they were holed up there alone.

They were not.

At least thirty children and their families died in the attack. Keane tried to save a child who ran out to him, the phosphorus eating him alive as he wailed in helpless agony. Keane couldn’t even hold the boy. Couldn’t even offer him any human comfort.

Darkriver operatives had supplied that bad intel. And the head of the operation, General Henry Hoyle, had blessed the whole thing both before and after. A job well done, he’d called it. And of course he aided in the inevitable cover up. His ties to Darkriver ran deep then and probably still did.

This afternoon, Hoyle had asked if Keane had trouble sleeping at nights. Yeah, he did. Particularly when he was sober.

[KEANE REALIZED HE’D *]been somewhere else in his own head for who know how long. Volkov must have[ *]seen the faraway look in his eyes, but she said nothing. He gave her major points for that.

She was standing in the kitchenette area just then, looking at him. “Mercenaries?” she asked.

Keane came back to the couch and sat down. “Who, Darkriver? Yeah, they’re mercs. But, I don’t know, corporate mercs I suppose you’d call ‘em.”

“You do not approve of fighting for money.”

Keane set the folder down on the coffee table and took a moment to think his answer through. “Look, the fact is we all did what we did. Okay? Some of us did worse than others. But the reason why?” He shook his head. “That doesn’t change anything. It sure doesn’t change the past.”

Volkov came and sat beside him. She’d pushed her sleeves up while cleaning up after dinner. Keane noticed a small tattoo. Cyrillic letters.

“Nice ink there, Volkov” he said. “What’s it say?”

She looked at her arm and casually pulled the sleeve down. “It is just initials.”

“I can see that. Who is it? Old lover?”

The tattoo seemed incongruous with her controlled and collected demeanor. It hinted at an intriguing wild side.

Something flashed across her face and was as quickly gone. “It was a … social club.”

Keane thought he knew the key to that code. “A gang? Really, you were a gang-banger?” He laughed. “Never pegged you for a reformed criminal, Volkov.” He slid closer to her on the couch. “So, were you a bad girl?”

She was looking down now, not meeting his gaze. “We did what we did. As you say. But you were wrong about something just then too.

He was well into her personal space now and kind of enjoying it. “I get all kinds of stupid ideas. How was I wrong?”

She looked up at him, her face open again. “The past does change in a way.”

“It does, huh.” He moved closer. And she didn’t back away.

“The meaning of it changes,” she continued. “It was through the gangs I found law enforcement, through an outreach program. The past is a road that leads to who you are now.”

“Okay.” Closer again.

“It is part of a longer story. So, where it goes and what will it mean—you get to decide that, when you yourself write the ending. Because … the ending could change it all.”

They were face to face now on the couch.

Keane felt her breath on his lips. “So, even if it seems bad at the time, the path could be going somewhere good? That’s what you’re sayin’?”

“It could be,” she said, holding his gaze.

He kissed her. She returned the kiss passionately and without hesitation.

Keane could smell her hair and somehow that was making the whole room spin. In an instant he had her face in his hands, his forehead pressed against hers, feeling the heat of her flesh.

This—the thing he’d been trying hard to keep from even thinking about—was really happening.

When they parted, mainly to catch their breath, she looked distressed. “I’m concerned.”

Goddamnit. He’d gone too far, or too fast, or both.

“I know. We probably shouldn’t be—”

She cut him off. “The perimeter. We should check the perimeter … first.”

[_Jesus. Almost blew that before it started. _]“Right. No, you’re right. I’ll, I’ll go take a look around.”

He retrieved his gun and holster off the back of a chair and headed for the door. He stopped with his hand on the doorknob. A thought had just come to him.

“Uh, when I come back…,” he said.

“Yes?”

“We’re still gonna, I mean, you’re not just…”

She was flushed and her voice sounded deeper, throatier than usual. “No. I mean, yes. Yes.”

“Okay.”

She nodded and he nodded back. They were both grinning like idiots as he opened the door that led to the parking lot.

CHAPTER 30

IT WAS DAMNED cold that night and Keane, in his eagerness to get the perimeter check done, had neglected to put on his jacket. The chill air bit at his ears and the tip of his nose.

In his imagination he could still smell her hair.

He tried not to let it push him into rushing this check. This was no time to make a stupid mistake. Even though he couldn’t imagine how whoever Potanin had working for him would be able to track them here to this little no-tell motel.

Nevertheless, he went straight to the rear parking lot and started there, keeping as much as he could to the shadows. The lot itself was well lit, with the blue-white light of several mercury vapor lamps. No action of any kind out here.

He worked his way clockwise around the motel complex, and planned to spiral in after that.

As he approached the north side of the complex, a loud rattle spun him around. He had his gun in hand in one smooth, well-rehearsed motion.

Ice machine. The automated mechanics in it had just dropped a fresh load of ice cubes into the hopper. He felt his heartbeat racing with more than the sexual excitement he’d felt a moment before.

The back lot was quiet otherwise. He re-holstered the gun, and continued on a route that eventually took him to the office where they’d checked in.

As he came around the corner to the front of the motel, a white Prius quietly pulled up. It wasn’t unusually late yet and this was probably just someone, or more likely some couple, pulling in to rent a room for the night. Most of the motel’s guests weren’t staying here much longer than that, Keane guessed. Many would be here even more briefly.

A white man of average height in gray sweatpants and a jacket of the same cotton material exited the Prius and went into the motel office. He was carrying an Adidas gym bag.

Keane moved through an unlit patch of sidewalk to where he could get an angle on the guy inside.

A paper Santa Claus taped to the motel office window partly obscured his view, but nothing going on in there looked particularly unusual or out of place. The older black man behind the counter, same guy who checked in Keane, appeared to be checking in Sweatsuit Guy too.

A glance back at the Prius showed no lady friend waiting, or anybody else for that matter.

Keane had now made a full lap of the motel complex, so it was time to take that spiral inward and back to his own room. To Volkov. Evana. He should probably get used to calling her by her first name.

He only just started out when he saw the footprints in the snow. Sweatsuit Guy’s prints. He recognized that particular knobby pattern. Those weren’t sneakers or any kind of workout shoes. Those were military boot prints.

Keane reversed himself and regained the angle he just had a moment before. He looked in again.

Sweatsuit Guy had moved behind the counter and was bent down looking at the motel’s computer screen. A pair of legs were visible on the floor, sticking out into the lobby.

The motel clerk was down.

Sweatsuit Guy seemed to find whatever he was after and stood up straight. Probably he just scouted the room numbers of the most recent check-in’s. Which would, of course, include Keane’s and Volkov’s room.

He stepped out from behind the counter and over the legs of the clerk. As he headed for the door he reached in his jacket pocket for something. Cell phone. He was getting a call.

Keane positioned himself low outside the door. This had to be done quietly. No telling how many more there were and certainly no need to alert them.

The door opened.

“I’ve got the room number,” the man said into the cell. “The check-in time works out, so it’s probably them. Room 267. We’ll rendezvous outside … Roger that. Out.”

He’s got our room number. Shit.

The man stepped onto the sidewalk.

Keane swept his shin into the guy’s ankles and hoisted his legs up and out from under him. Sweatsuit Guy fell flat on his stomach. The phone bounced away and clacked off somewhere nearby.

In a flash Keane leapt onto the man’s back, grabbed a handful of his hair, and thumped his head hard into the cement. It made a sound like a baseball bat hitting a dead log. The man went limp instantly. This one was out cold.

Keane reached beneath the unconscious man and found what he was looking for. A gun in a shoulder holster. He grabbed it and turned his attention next to the gym bag.

Unzipping the bag, he could see ordinance in there. A half dozen black canisters with pins. He recognized those as flash-bang grenades. Couple of ammo clips in there as well.

Keane looked up in time to see a black van speed into the parking lot, tires hissing in the wet snow.

Time to get out of there.

CHAPTER 31

VOLKOV PACED THE small motel room. This is a big mistake. It was the only reasonable thought she’d had in the last ten minutes and she was trying very hard to push it away. Far away.

Just until it was too late to turn back.

She wondered if there was enough time left to take a quick shower. Probably not. Keane would be back any moment. But then, his finding her in the shower wouldn’t be the worst thing either…

There was an expression in English that described what she was about to do. Very colorful, if somewhat scatological. It advised against going to the bathroom in the same place where one habitually dines.

Was she just scratching an itch here? Was that all it was? Or was she actually, insanely, thinking that something more could come out of it?

He was good-looking, no denying that. And perhaps brilliant. His eyes had depth and humor in them. And yes, something a little dark there too.

He was in terrific shape, as she’d seen when dressing his shoulder wound. She felt a tug even then. And quashed it. But it wouldn’t stay down. It was persistent, this desire.

And he was something of a bad boy, as they like to say over here. She had always been attracted to the type. But he was also American and a career police professional. He wasn’t going to pick up and follow her back to Russia, that’s for sure.

And he was also a drunk. Let’s not forget that.

Her father had been a drunk and she knew the heartbreak that waited for her there. Her father, oddly enough, had been in Afghanistan too. In an earlier war, though. And he too had come home, part of him at least, changed and broken. And, even with his family surrounding him again, somehow terribly alone.

There was a monster roaming the halls of Keane’s memory. There too he was like her father. Keane was throwing bottles of liquor at it to keep it at bay. And he kept all the doors locked from the inside, to stop the monster getting out and hurting other people.

But that also stopped anyone getting in.

Yet despite all of this she wanted him badly. It had been so very long since she gave herself what she really wanted. And so she was going to sleep with him. And then afterwards? Afterwards, she would—

The door burst open and Keane flew into the room followed by an invisible cloud of cold air. He quickly shut the door behind him. He was carrying some kind of athletic bag and a gun that was not his.

“Here, take this,” he said.

He threw the gun to her and she caught it.

“What happened?” she asked.

“They found us.” He stopped there in the center of the motel room and took a deep breath.

“How?”

“I don’t know. They got our room number. I caught a guy on recon in the rental office.”

Keane was checking around methodically, probably adding up their resources.

“There’s a back window,” she said. She’d scouted potential exit routes not long after they first came in. “If there’s time, we could get out that way—try to get to my car.”

“We could, but we’d lose our only asset.” He went over to the couch.

“What asset?”

Keane began pulling cushions off the couch. “Right now … here take this …” He tossed one of the cushions to her. “We know exactly where they’re gonna be and just about when. Here…” he handed her another cushion as he walked past her toward the corner of the room, “and if we leave, that’s all gone.”

Solid Intel the enemy didn’t know they had. That was the asset. A strategic advantage for sure and Keane had already built a plan on it.

“Okay,” she said.

Keane deposited the couch cushions in the corner, then went to the gym bag and opened it. From where she stood, Volkov could see cylinders of dark metal inside.

THE THREE MEN were armed with M1 rifles and dressed identically in black clothing, helmets and body armor. They stood to the left side of the motel room door, ready to come through it on command.

From the right of the door a similarly outfitted man looked back at the other three. He nodded and gave a quick hand gesture. Then he raised a flash-bang grenade and pulled the pin.

The three men rolled away, turning their faces.

The other man lobbed the grenade through the front window of the motel room, shattering the glass.

A few moments later came a brilliant flash and concussive thud that blew the room’s drapes out through the window frame.

The man who’d thrown the grenade positioned himself in front of the door. He coiled up a leg and kicked the door in. Then he raced into the swirling smoke.

The others followed close on his heels.

All four men were now inside, weapons leveled, sweeping left to right, right to left, searching for their targets. Through the clouds of haze they could see…

An empty room. No one here.

The grenade thrower spotted the pile of cushions over in the corner of the room just before he saw the two flash-bang grenades rolling at him across the shabby carpet.

 

THE CUSHIONS THEY had sheltered beneath absorbed the sound and shock waves very well.

Volkov threw them aside, springing out from the corner the instant she heard and felt the twin booms from the concussion grenades.

Keane was right up beside her. He waded through the thick smoke straight at the first man in front of him, who seemed badly disoriented by the explosions. He stripped the enemy’s rifle and swung the butt of it into the side of the man’ head with a loud thwack. His target fell sideways into a heap on the floor, striking the wall on his way down.

Volkov went after the next closest man. This one was also too stunned to make much of a defense. She almost felt bad for the groin kick and knee to the face she delivered. He doubled over and crumpled to the floor.

“Sorry,” she said, bending down to relieve him of his rifle.

She turned in time to see the other two men beginning to recover. They were just bringing their weapons to bear when Keane sprayed strafing fire at their legs. Below the body armor.

They both went down screaming.

Volkov stepped over and knocked their rifles out of reach.

The man Keane gun had butted in the head was still down on the floor but he was conscious. He’d managed to sit up.

Keane stepped over him and aimed the M1 between his eyes. “Who sent you?”

The man was having understandable difficulty focusing. He shook his head like he was trying to get the cobwebs out.

“Who sent you?” Keane demanded again. “Who are you working for?”

The man looked up at Keane, his eyes narrowed. “Screw you.”

It didn’t sound like bravado. It sounded like … hatred. Where was that coming from, she wondered?

“You were first through the door. I’m betting those are your men over there.” Keane’s tone had changed. Less anger. “Am I right?”

The man there in front of Keane looked over at the two who’d been leg-shot, still moaning and writhing on the carpet.

Keane swung the M1 around toward them now. “How ‘bout I let you live and kill them instead? You good with that?” He took aim at one of the men and shouted his question this time. “WHO ARE YOU WORKING FOR?”

With a clear tone of disgust in his voice the first man said, “The US Army, you goddamn traitor.”

Keane seemed to miss a beat. “Bullshit. You’re lying.”

The man was looking straight at Keane, the hate still burning there. “Yeah? And you’re scum.”

Keane seemed out of balance, unsure what to do next.

Volkov went over to him. “No time.” They had to move now. Reinforcements could be on the way already.

She saw Keane struggle with it for a moment, then relent.

“Yeah. Let’s go,” he said. “Get the other weapons.”

She rounded up the rifles while Keane kept watch, and then they left the room together.

When they got to the parking lot, Keane led them to a white Prius near a man unconscious on the ground. That would be the scout he had encountered outside the rental office earlier, she assumed. The keys were still in the car.

There were questions to ask and to answer, but it would have to wait until they were well clear of here.

CHAPTER 32

KEANE AND VOLKOV sat in the car at a Chevron station next to the pumps, and watched as the column of police cars flew past them toward the motel. When the last one rolled by with red and blue lights flashing and siren wailing, Keane started the car. He pulled out onto the street and drove off in the other direction.

He’d worked out a theory on how they were located by Potanin. But the potential answer was more disturbing than it was useful. If the kind of power it required was lined up against them now, then the way out was anything but clear.

One thing for sure. He needed allies. But he couldn’t call Avi again, not for the time being at least.

And there were a couple of practical matters that needed more immediate attention.

“We gotta ditch this vehicle and grab a taxi or steal a car,” he said to Volkov in the passenger seat. “There could be a LoJack in this thing, a tracking device.”

She looked remarkably calm considering what just happened. She just asked, “Who were those men in the motel?”

That was a damn good question and there were no pleasant answers. “Well, at first, I was sure they were Darkriver operatives, working for Potanin, but…”

“The anger.”

“Yeah. You saw it too, huh? End of the day, being a merc is only a job. You don’t hate the enemy, you just kill him. Those men in there were Special Forces. I could smell it. And someone convinced their leader that I was … I don’t know, a traitor. Or something like that.”

Keane remembered something else and quickly rolled down the window, letting in a blast of cold air. Then he pitched his cell phone out into the darkness.

Volkov looked confused. “I do not understand. You think they tracked your phone? But it was a prepaid, bought with cash. It is not possible.”

“You’re right. They couldn’t have found me through that phone, but they sure as shit have that number now. No, they found me through Avi’s phone. Someone was monitoring his line over in Israel. And that’s not Potanin doing that. It can’t be, no way. Even he doesn’t have the juice to tap the phone of a high ranking Mossad officer.”

“The FBI?” she offered.

He shook his head. “Nah, I don’t think so. More like military intelligence, or NSA. See, here’s the thing—I think it’s Hoyle. The guy I pointed out to you today at Potanin’s place. Head of the Joint Chiefs. I think that he and Potanin are working together.

“Why?”

“No idea.”

“Perhaps the same reason that Sugiyama worked for Potanin. Money. Hoyle could have been bought off too.”

“It could be.” That was a disgusting thought, but it made sense. “Maybe power is for sale here in the good old USA just as often as it is back home in your country. I’d hoped we were a little better than you. No offense.”

“None taken.”

Keane and Volkov sat in silence for the next few miles. They passed through a residential district where someone had a sign out on the lawn. GOD BLESS THE SONS OF MAN.

Volkov was the first to break the silence. “Potanin wants the world to think an Islamic terrorist ignored the ultimatum. He needs the Sons of Man to fail. Right? Because he wants a war.”

“That would seem to be the basic plan, yeah.”

“And that makes him their enemy.”

“Who, the Sons of Man?” Keane asked.

“Yes. He’s ruining their whole intent here. Undermining their bid for peace through the leverage of an unthinkable consequence.”

Keane thought about it. She was right, but what of it? “Let’s say that’s true. I don’t see how that helps us.”

“Well, if the Sons of Man are Potanin’s enemy and Potanin is our enemy, then we are allied with the Sons of Man now.”

“Ah, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” He smiled

She nodded. “Exactly. So whatever resources the Sons of Man may have, they would want to bring them to bear against Potanin, to keep their plan intact. And that could help us immensely except…”

“Except what?”

“We don’t know how to reach them. The Sons of Man.”

A light went on for Keane and at last an actionable tactic presented itself. “Avi told me an outfit called the Brotherhood may have some connection to the Sons of Man. Their leader’s a guy named Cavanaugh. David Cavanaugh, if I’m remembering it right.”

“The Brotherhood?” Volkov asked.

“Yeah, they’re some kind of religious group with a lot of political pull. See if you can Google them.”

Rain Man plus thirty seconds. Boy, you can’t beat it.

Volkov dug out her smartphone and did a search. In no time she had something useful. “Yes, they have a kind of headquarters in Arlington.”

Keane checked his rearview. “All right then.” He slowed down, then made a quick U-turn. “We need to talk to this Cavanaugh guy. Let’s just hope he’s there.”

“We will tell him about Potanin?”

“Right, we tell him the whole plot. How Potanin is screwing with his buddies. Manipulating them.”

She saw something in his face and asked, “What?”

“Well, this isn’t gonna be easy. We need to get to Cavanaugh without getting shot or arrested, and then we have to convince him to listen to a Russian spy and a man wanted by the FBI for killing a federal agent.”

“Slice of pie,” Volkov said, deadpanning it perfectly.

Keane laughed. It was damn too charming to correct.

“Yeah. Slice o’ pie.”

CHAPTER 33

THEY WERE MOSTLY young men, seated in rows of folding chairs that had been set up for this evening’s talk.

They all stayed here, living dormitory style, studying at the Poplar House—as they called the large, private residence. They’d been sent by their fathers to sit at the feet of David Cavanaugh. Not just to learn, but to connect with each other, to network, to form alliances. They would need them.

They were going to run the world.

This was tomorrow’s power elite, and they’d come from all over the globe to listen to Cavanaugh’s rich, baritone voice. North Africa was represented here, along with China, Ukraine, Paraguay, France, Ireland … the list went on and on.

Cavanaugh had them under his spell as he held forth in the wood paneled great room, with a homey fire crackling in the hearth. He was dressed casually in a sweater and slacks as were most of the men he spoke to. There was no need for ostentation here. They all knew who they were.

Cavanaugh was quite a tall man and even seated as he was now his presence was big and powerful. He had a dark coat of tan, a thick silver mane, and an affable, megawatt smile that he flashed naturally and often. He was a happy man too.

He grinned as he said, “Do you know what friends can do—two or three praying together in agreement? They can do anything if they have a covenant. Who do we know who had a covenant, one that changed history?

Hands shot up. Cavanaugh pointed to one young Latino man, the son of an entertainment mogul in Mexico City with political ambitions for his progeny.

“Hitler,” the young man said.

Cavanaugh nodded and smiled. “Yes, absolutely. Who else?” There were other hands still up. This was familiar territory and the men knew that he wanted multiple answers to underscore the message.

He gestured to another young man, blond and blue-eyed who was normally quite shy, but eager now to show his understanding of the point.

“Stalin,” that man said.

Cavanaugh nodded again. “Very good.” He pointed to a young black man in the front row of chairs.

“The mafia,” the young man said.

“Yes,” Cavanaugh said, still smiling. “And the Red Guard too. A powerful covenant there. You know, I saw a film once of a young Red Guard killing his own grandmother for the Party. Brutally, with a cutting weapon. ‘He who does not hate his father and mother and brother and sister cannot be my disciple,’ Jesus said. Luke, chapter fourteen, verse twenty-six. What does that mean, hmm? That just means total commitment to the covenant before everything else. Even family. These people and groups you mentioned, they all had a covenant. It’s the principle means of power in this world. You must remember that. Now they used their power for selfish purposes. But we use ours to further God’s Kingdom on earth. Still, the laws of power are exactly the same! Just exactly the same.”

The Brotherhood’s covenant with the powerful leaders of the world ran wide and deep. These were men enlisted into God’s army, that their strength might be put to good purpose.

Cavanaugh went on to say how a Watergate co-conspirator who found the Lord had once described the Brotherhood as: a veritable underground of Christ’s men all through the U.S. government. And a member of George W. Bush’s Faith Based Initiatives Office had written that the Brotherhood’s reach into governments around the world was impossible to overstate or even grasp.

Those were fair enough descriptions, Cavanaugh told his young audience. Actually modest when compared to the reality of the Brotherhood’s actual reach. In fact, the amount of power Cavanaugh’s group wielded was so great it was hard to imagine.

Which had turned out to be one of their greatest assets.

A book was written on the Brotherhood just last year, he went on to say, by an investigative reporter from New York who’d infiltrated its lower ranks. What that man said about the Brotherhood and the fantastic amount of influence it had would have been explosive … if people could actually believe it.

But they could not. It just sounded too incredible.

And all of it was simply the power of the covenant. That was the main point Cavanaugh was making tonight. All just the covenant they made with Jesus and with each other.

Jesus plus nothing. That was the formula here.

No church, no theology. Not even scripture could be placed before His directions written on the hearts of these powerful men.

As Cavanaugh was summing all this up, one of the brothers come into the room and waited for a propitious pause.

He stepped up when there was one and handed him a note. “There’s a man and a woman here to see you. They don’t have an appointment and they wouldn’t give their names.”

Cavanaugh opened and read the note. Handwritten in a smooth cursive.

Follow the other man’s path to your own goal.

He looked up from the note to the brother and said, “Show them to my office upstairs. I’ll be there in a moment.”

CHAPTER 34

HENRY HOYLE TOOK the phone call in his study. The news wasn’t good.

“Damnit. How many men did we send into that motel?” he asked the Ranger team leader reporting back to him.

“Five men on the advanced unit.”

“Five men,” Hoyle said with open disgust. “And Keane had no idea we were coming for him?”

“I don’t see how he could have, sir.”

“You don’t see a lot of things. Goddamnit. He’s in the wind now.”

Keane was a damn good soldier, sure, but he was out there essentially alone. This just shouldn’t have happened. He must have caught a nice break to get out with his skin this time.

He probably wouldn’t call Fleischer again now. Chances were good he’d narrowed all the possible ways they could have traced his location down to that eavesdropped phone call. Shit.

How the hell were they going to pick him up again?

“We have his accounts frozen,” the team leader said to Hoyle. “And the Volkov woman too. The Russians are cooperating there. Those two don’t have a lot of resources at their disposal.”

“They have their wits,” Hoyle said. “And so far, that’s all they’ve needed to beat you. I want you in touch with the NSA the second you hang up. I doubt Keane’s gonna try and leave the country, but if we’re lucky we might get a hit off of facial identification software somewhere.”

“Yes, sir.”

“That’s all for now.”

Hoyle hung up. Then he went over to his liquor cabinet and poured himself a stiff one.

How much did Keane know now? How much could he have guessed? Potanin’s man in the FBI, Sugiyama, never knew a thing about Hoyle or the third man, so nothing could have leaked out there.

Hoyle went to his window and looked out over the lights of Georgetown. It was late and many residents were sleeping. Sleeping peacefully. That they could do that was all thanks to men like Hoyle and those who came before him.

Men who knew the price of peace. Men willing to pay it.

If Keane had any idea that Hoyle was involved in the Zadari bomb plot, he wouldn’t have any proof of it. Not yet. And he sure as shit wouldn’t have any idea why.

You were never one to fret too much about methods, Keane had said to him.

He was wrong there. Methods were exactly what this was all about. Methods that worked and methods that were, in the long run, unworkable.

The phone rang again and Hoyle answered it. The third man in all of this was on the line this time.

And he had news.

CHAPTER 35

ONE OF THE brothers, as they called each other here, showed Keane and Volkov upstairs to Cavanaugh’s private office. He left them with the promise that the head man would join them shortly.

Keane took the opportunity to look around. The office was all oak and leather, with a couple of antique book cases in early American style.

The first thing he was drawn to was Cavanaugh’s choice of reading material. There were a number of different bibles, as one might expect, but also plenty of modern texts with a sociological bent. Even one by a well-known evolutionary psychologist Keane had also read. Their host was not stupid.

Of course, that didn’t mean he wasn’t deluded. The whole Brotherhood thing gave Keane the heebie-jeebies. Separation of church and state? Golly, gee whiz what was that?

One thing Keane felt he’d learned over the years was that native intelligence didn’t guarantee the holding of reasonable ideas in man. Whether he was a genius or an idiot, in the end every man was just exactly clever enough to fool himself. And would.

Sharper minds just make up sharper rationalizations. The ability to self-deceive was a kind of universal constant.

Keane looked next at the framed pictures that lined the office walls. Volkov was eying them too, he noticed.

Cavanaugh stood there in various photographs with three different US Presidents. Pasquini had him pegged right when he called him the man behind the curtain.

“He certainly is well connected,” Volkov said, sounding impressed.

“And yet, I never heard about him until the other day. Maybe that’s the mark of the truly powerful. Quiet access, with emphasis on the quiet.”

Volkov was looking now at more photos on the desk beside a computer. “He’s pictured with this other, younger man several times here. And there are photographs of this man without Cavanaugh.”

Keane walked around the desk to her side. “Is that a family resemblance I see there?”

And just as he said that, the office door opened.

David Cavanaugh stepped in with a friendly smile on. He took in Keane and Volkov behind the desk and seemed immediately to recognize the object of Keane’s last question.

“Good eye. That’s my son, Kenneth,” Cavanaugh said pleasantly. “Won’t you take a seat?” He gestured to two chairs in front of the desk.

Keane and Volkov came out from behind the desk and sat down.

Cavanaugh went around to the other side and sat across from them. He picked up one of the pictures and turned it so his guests could peruse it. “That’s the Prime Minister of Israel he’s with here. In fact, Kenneth is back in the Holy Land right now. He’s the light of my life, and he’s going to take over this ministry before too long.” He returned the picture to his desktop and then calmly regarded Keane and Volkov.

Keane noticed that Cavanaugh was holding a slip of paper.

“I see you got my note,” Keane said.

“Yes. You quoted St. Ignatius of Loyola there. I’ve written a biography of him. Ah, but you must have known that.”

Yes, and thank you Wikipedia.

Cavanaugh went on. “You’ve read his works, I take it?”

Keane had studied them extensively. He was an interesting thinker, Loyola. And a tortured man. But Keane didn’t want to get into that discussion right now with Cavanaugh. The quote from Loyola was meant to intrigue and to send a message, and it had done both. He was finished with it.

So all he said was, “It passes the time.”

Cavanaugh watched Keane intently. “Saint Loyola was by many accounts a penitent of great dedication.”

“He had a guilty conscience.”

Cavanaugh smiled again. “Yes, he did. And you?”

For a moment Keane thought Cavanaugh was getting personal awfully fast.

But Cavanaugh continued, “You are…?”

[_Ah, just asking our names. _]He and Volkov had discussed how to approach this. The easiest way to overcome the baggage about who they were—a wanted man and a spy—was just to leave that all blank.

“That’s not important,” Keane said after a meaningful pause.

Cavanaugh nodded as he looked to Volkov. “Ah, well then. We’ll let that go for now.” He displayed the note again. “This is what matters, yes? It’s an important principle in here. If another man’s ship can take me where my purpose lies, it behooves me to get on-board. Your note implies we have something of a common agenda. Or have I misunderstood?”

No, he hadn’t. That was exactly the point.

Loyola had literally ridden ships that represented other men’s agendas—establishing commercial trading outposts in far flung countries. He rode along to set up missions on the same routes.

The Brotherhood seemed to have taken a page right out of Loyola’s playbook, merging multinational corporations with religion in a manner similar to how the Saint had merged trade with evangelism. In both cases not the same goals, but overlapping paths.

“Yes, I think we do have a common agenda, sir,” Keane said.

“David, please. It seems we are, after all, friends of a sort. Now, would you like to tell me what this mutual agenda is or is that going to remain a mystery as well?”

Keane leaned forward in his chair. “Four days ago a charity associated with your—I’m sorry, what do you call this organization of yours?”

“We’re a family. A family of friends in Christ, you could say.”

“Well, some friends of your family were in possession of film equipment recently exposed to radioactive fallout. Youth With Purpose is the name of the outfit. You understand what that means?” Keane watched the man closely for his reaction.

Cavanaugh kept a pleasant expression on his well-tanned face and spread his arms wide, as if to indicate he had nothing to hide here. “I understand what you think it means. Has the source of this radioactive film equipment been ascertained?”

Keane sighed. Cavanaugh wanted to play it cagey. All right. He leaned forward a bit more and raised his voice a notch. “You already know that hasn’t been ascertained. You helped stonewall the investigation. Look, if you’re not actually one of them, the Sons of Man, you damn well know who they are.”

“I’m sure I don’t—”

“It’s not a goddamn game!” Keane shouted.

To his credit, Cavanaugh didn’t react to that at all. He was one cool customer.

A tense silence fell over the room. Keane sensed that Cavanaugh would be happy to let it go on indefinitely. He was also a patient man, it appeared.

It was Volkov who broke the quiet.

“You agree with what the Sons of Man are doing, Mr. Cavanaugh.” she suggested. “You approve of their approach, and their goals, yes?”

Cavanaugh took a moment. He tented his fingers in front of his chest and spoke noncommittally. “My approval or disapproval is moot. God is using them. He’s using their power to influence others. That is how He works.”

Volkov said in a voice soft but serious, “Someone else is using them too.”

Something changed in Cavanaugh’s countenance then. For the first time, Keane thought he saw a tiny crack.

“Go on,” Cavanaugh said calmly. But his cool composure seemed a bit forced now.

Volkov gave Keane a questioning look. Keane nodded her the go ahead. She was getting somewhere and might as well lay it all out.

“A man who calls himself Ali Zadari is going to make an attack on US soil,” she said. “But his motives are neither ideological nor political.”

Genuine concerned marked Cavanaugh’s expression. “Then what are his motives?”

“It’s all part of a plot to make it look like someone’s ignoring the Sons of Man’s ultimatum,” Keane explained. “Zadari is working for a man named Mikhail Potanin.”

Cavanaugh wasn’t even trying to hide his surprise now. “I know who that is. Why would Potanin do such a thing? He’s a businessman. A damned good one too.”

It made sense that Cavanaugh would have heard of Potanin. He was immensely powerful, after all, and that was part of The Brotherhood’s formula, to align themselves with just such men.

Volkov answered that question. “Potanin wants to trigger the decimation device. By faking a terror attack. He stands to profit in the ensuing war. That is how he works.”

Cavanaugh sat back in his seat, fairly shaken up it seemed, and drew a deep breath. He gazed down at one of the photos on his desk. For a moment he appeared lost in thought. He looked up again. “How do you two know all of this?”

Keane shook his head. “You don’t need the details right now, you just need to believe it.”

Cavanaugh smiled. “Ah, I should just trust you in everything, when you won’t even trust me with your name?”

He was asking for something in return for his belief in them and their story. A gesture of good faith. Keane thought he knew something that would do the job, but it was definitely sticking his head on the chopping block.

He reached into his coat and pulled out his Homeland Security ID. “You heard about the FBI agent who was just killed here in town?”

Cavanaugh’s thick, white eyebrows went up. “Yes, terrible thing. It was all over the news.”

Keane glanced at a worried-looking Volkov. “It’s all right,” he said to her. Then to Cavanaugh, “I was there when it happened, and I’m the target of a federal manhunt right now. That FBI agent was working for Potanin. He was part of the whole plot we’ve just told you about.”

Keane reached under his coat and pulled the Glock 17.

Volkov’s eyes widened as Cavanaugh went stiff.

Keane set the gun down on the desk in front of Cavanaugh. “If I were here as anything other than your ally, then what I’m doing right now would pretty much be suicide.”

That’s it. I’ve played out my hand.

Cavanaugh left the gun alone, but picked up the ID, examining it. “Assuming I could reach the Sons of Man, what would I tell them?”

It worked. The gamble had paid off.

“Tell them what I just told you,” Keane said. “They promised to set that nuke of theirs off after a terror attack. But this thing is a con—they’re just getting played. Whoever has his finger on that button needs to understand that.”

Cavanaugh looked up from the ID, locking eyes with Keane.

“I can’t get involved.”

Damnit. It was a dead end. And for that Keane had exposed himself. Now they were going to have to put distance between themselves and this place as quickly as they could.

As Keane started to reach for his gun, Cavanaugh laid an age-spotted hand over it.

“I can’t get directly involved,” Cavanaugh continued in a different tone. “But I may be able to facilitate a meeting. I think your message would carry more credibility if you spoke to them in person.” He picked the gun up by the handle with two fingers, holding it out like it was a dead rat. “Without this of course.”

Keane nodded and retrieved his ID from the desktop.

Cavanaugh turned to Volkov next. “Are you armed as well?”

Volkov pulled out the gun that Keane had taken off the guy at the motel office. She laid it on Cavanaugh’s desk. He collected that too, and put both guns in a desk drawer and closed it.

“How soon can we meet with the Sons of Man?” Keane asked.

Cavanaugh considered that for a moment. “The attack you spoke of—you think it’s imminent?”

Volkov answered him. “Any time now.”

Cavanaugh nodded solemnly and then stood up. Keane and Volkov followed suit.

Cavanaugh went before them to the office door. He opened it and smiled warmly. Back in the role of the congenial host. “Stay here for the moment. Someone will come to take you downstairs to the library. You can wait there while I make the … arrangements. You look like you could use some coffee and refreshments too. It’s likely to be a long night for both of you.”

And with that he was gone.

CHAPTER 36

[*BUILT IN FLOOR *]to ceiling shelves covered the walls in the Poplar House’s library. These were crowded with leather-bound books that gave off that distinctive musty paper smell that Keane loved. No digital notebook was ever going to replace that.

Mostly the classics here. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Kipling, the great Russian and French novelists too. These books and the overstuffed leather chairs and benches gave the place the feel of a nineteenth century English men’s club, where stories of service in India back when it was part of the British Empire might have been exchanged over a good cigar or well-tended pipe.

Keane and Volkov were left alone there to wait while Cavanaugh attempted to reach some representative of the Sons of Man. Well, there were worse places to cool your heels, Keane thought.

He pulled down a copy of The Brothers Karamazov with a deep red, gold-embossed cover and flipped to his favorite passage. The parable of the Grand Inquisitor.

Here the returned Christ is arrested and informed that the freedom of choice he offered mankind was too heavy an intellectual and moral burden for most to bear. An elite few should lead the blissfully ignorant masses instead, the Inquisitor tells Jesus. Only by that helpful formula would the world know peace and happiness.

Keane imagined the Inquisitor’s argument would go over pretty well here at Poplar House—all things considered.

Volkov sipped on the coffee that had been brought in for them and fixed Keane with a questioning gaze. “What will you do after this?”

Keane returned Dostoyevsky to his place on the shelf and offered her a wan smile. “You mean after we save the world? Oh, go to jail I expect. For murdering an FBI agent. It’s okay, they have libraries there too.”

“To pass the time, yes. You know, you didn’t kill Sugiyama.”

Keane poured himself a second cup of that coffee. “No, the fall killed him. But I kinda helped by hanging him out a fifth story window.”

“It was not your fault. You were shot. There was nothing you could have done.”

“Well, I don’t think Potanin is gonna come forward to the authorities about his part in all of this, do you?”

Volkov paused a moment in thought. “One thing. If we succeed tonight in getting the Sons of Man to listen to us, then Potanin must be informed that his plan is ruined.”

“What, so he’ll call off Zadari?” Keane waved off the proposition. “Zadari will likely go through with it anyway. It’s all about revenge for that guy. Remember?”

Zadari was in this for blood, his brother’s blood. He wasn’t likely to feel any loyalty to Potanin. Certainly not enough to sacrifice his glorious vengeance.

When Keane looked at Volkov again, he saw new excitement there on her face.

“Yes! Yes, Zadari might go forward with his plan no matter what Potanin does,” she said.

“And that’s a good thing now?”

She came over and took his hand, looking up into his eyes. “No, not by itself. But it means the Sons of Man must help us expose the plot.” She smiled then.

Keane realized immediately that she was right. Once again she’d been thinking a step or two ahead of him. There really was a ray of hope there.

“I get it,” he said. “If Zadari went through with the bombing and the Sons of Man didn’t respond? It would look like they were just bluffing all along. They’d lose all their hard won credibility.”

She nodded in agreement. “Right. So they must do everything in their power to expose Potanin and the entire plot. Or all that they have done would be for nothing. This means the truth will come out. It will.”

“And the truth shall set you free?” Keane said, smiling back at her now.

At that moment the library door opened and Cavanaugh stepped in. He looked all business.

“They’ve agreed to meet with you,” he said. “We have a car waiting for you out front. There’s no time to waste.”

And with that, they’d succeeded in the first step of the plan—such as it was.

Things really were finally starting to look up.

CHAPTER 37

A BLACK TOWN car was parked waiting at the curb out front, engine running. White plumes of condensation billowed up from the exhaust pipe into the frigid night air.

Standing there just outside the main entrance to Poplar House, Keane thanked David Cavanaugh and promised to report back after meeting with the Sons of Man.

Strange bedfellows indeed, he thought.

When he turned to Volkov she looked exhausted. “How you holding up?”

“Okay. Just tired. I should have drunk more coffee.”

Cavanaugh led them to the car, giving final instructions as they went. “After you’re in the car, you’ll both be hooded and driven to the meeting location. The hoods will remain in place throughout the entire interview. I’m sorry about that, but these were the conditions I was offered.”

They stopped beside the car. Volkov was blinking a lot now. She really was beat.

“We can live with the hoods,” Keane said. “As long as they’re sincerely interested in hearing what we have to say.”

Cavanaugh nodded. “Without going into the whole story—because I think it’s best that you present that yourself—I made them aware that your information was vital to their own interests.”

Keane saw Volkov’s knees wobbling. She looked sick. He took a step toward her. “Hey, what’s wrong?”

She put a hand to her forehead. “I don’t…”

Her legs buckled. Cavanaugh was nearest and managed to catch her. He bent over and lowered her down to the walkway onto her rump. In the process his sweater sleeve got pushed partway up his forearm.

Keane saw the other man’s wristwatch then for the first time. But he’d seen another one of those.

Cavanaugh looked up at Keane and then down at his own watch. Then back at Keane. There was a moment of alarm that told Keane everything he needed to know.

Keane grabbed Cavanaugh’s arm and gave it a vicious twist. The pain forced the older man to his knees there on the walkway. Keane locked the arm behind Cavanaugh’s back and shoved his face all the way down into the icy cement.

“You son of a bitch.” Keane said. He glanced over at Volkov. She was still sitting up but her face was a mask of confusion. “What did you do to her?”

“I don’t know what you’re—”

Keane twisted the arm aging and pushed it up almost to the back of Cavanaugh’s neck.

“Ahhh! You’re breaking my arm,” Cavanaugh wailed.

“You’re working for Potanin.”

“No! I’m on your side! I—Ahhh!”

Keane jerked Cavanaugh’s arm yet again and stripped the gold watch off with the other hand. Then he shoved the custom Franck Muller timepiece into the evangelist’s face. “The watch, the custom watch! Potanin had these made for him and his cronies. Now what have you … what have…”

Keane was suddenly having trouble focusing his eyes. His tongue felt thick.

We’ve been drugged. Goddamnit, we’ve both been drugged.

He let go of Cavanaugh’s arm and tried to stand up straight. But the streetlamps jumped and jerked, leaving streaks of light against the night. The whole world started to spin. He had to sit down on the walkway next to Volkov in order to keep from falling. She was on her back now.

He could see Cavanaugh moving away from him, climbing back up to his feet.

“The coffee,” Keane said half to himself.

His head was so heavy. He had to lay it down on the cold cement. Yes, that was better. Maybe he could clear his mind now. He eased himself down onto his side.

He heard the town car driver’s door open somewhere. Footsteps coming his way. He couldn’t raise his head now, but he did see the driver’s face appear as that man came around the front of the car into view.

Alekseev. It was Kiril Alekseev. Pasquini’s killer.

Cavanaugh stood beside the Russian. They both looked down at Keane.

Tired. So very tired.

Cavanaugh’s voice when he spoke sounded like it was coming from another world. “We know you talked to your friend in Israeli intelligence. Avi Fleischer. Who else knows the plan?”

The plan?

Trying to think was like lifting a thousand pounds of shifting mud. If he could just get something solid beneath him.

Avi. Cavanaugh had just mentioned Avi. Keane remembered making that phone call from the motel. And they had traced it. Hoyle. That’s how they found them at the motel.

“Black ops,” Keane managed to get out. “Hoyle. It had to be Hoyle. He had the resources to tap … Avi’s phone.”

Alekseev spoke now, to Cavanaugh. “You hear this? They know something about Hoyle.”

“Yes, it would seem so.” Cavanaugh gestured to Volkov. “Get her into the car before someone sees her down there.”

Alekseev picked Volkov up and carried her somewhere out of Keane’s sightlines. A few moments later, Keane heard the car door open and close.

Cavanaugh was squatting down in front of Keane now. He looked right into Keane’s face. He reached out and took something from his hand. The watch.

“He bought you both,” Keane said. “Potanin. Bought you and Hoyle. How many … pieces of silver?”

Cavanaugh flashed that damned grin of his. “No, agent Keane. Remember St. Ignatius. Pursue the other man’s path to your own goal. I was not bought. My goals just happen to be perfectly aligned with Potanin. Or so he thinks.”

It was all a tangle in Keane’s drugged brain. Cavanaugh was allied with the Sons of Man, but he was working with Potanin who was undermining that group.

It made no sense. Jesus, they were all insane.

“You let that nuke go off … it’s not just war … it’s the end of everything,” Keane’s voice slurring pretty badly now.

“Do you really think so?” Cavanaugh asked with an odd note of sadness in his own voice. Or maybe pity there.

_Got to rest. So tired. So tired. _

“None are so blind as those who will not see, Agent Keane,” Cavanaugh said. He sounded like he was speaking underwater. And he was getting dimmer. His image fading.

Keane needed to sleep. Later there was something important he had to do. Something very important. If he could remember what it was. He hoped that he would.

He closed his eyes.

CHAPTER 38

HOYLE MERGED ONTO the beltway. Traffic was light tonight and almost immediately he had to fight to keep his speed down. Even under ordinary circumstances he had something of a lead foot.

Cavanaugh had come through for them, with some help from Potanin’s man. Now Hoyle would finish the job. A religious fanatic, a Russian plutocrat, and a military leader. Their unlikely team was continuing to function quite well.

Who’d a thunk it?

Hoyle was on his way to the safe house in Virginia because he wanted to be there in person this time, to take matters into his own hands and get it done right. What he didn’t need right now was to be pulled over now by a state trooper. That would make his exact whereabouts on this evening a matter of public record. He slowed the car down again.

When Keane and the female FSB officer who was helping him both woke up from being drugged, there was going to be a thorough interrogation. And then loose ends would have to be tied up.

But first Hoyle needed to know exactly how far the leak had spread.

From all appearances, Keane had gone rogue on this one, involving no one else but this one woman and the Israeli Mossad officer, Avi Fleischer. Homeland Security was still in the dark, thank God.

Hoyle’s own inside men, a special Army Rangers unit, had been told that Jesse Keane was selling national secrets. A traitor, in other words. That was enough cover story to fire them up. Unfortunately, Keane had proven too much for them in the field.

And so now it was up to Hoyle to clean up this end of things. Others would take care of Fleischer on the far end of it. That had already been set in motion.

It was all a shame, really. Keane could have been an asset on this, the most important mission of Hoyle’s career. Before the man went soft, that is.

As Hoyle drove, he remembered the day that David Cavanaugh first approached him with the whole idea. He thought the man was crazy. Turned out he was crazy. In one sense, at least—all that religious nuck-futtery. That didn’t stop him from being amazingly effective.

It had all happened after the National Prayer Luncheon at the Washington Hilton two years ago.

Cavanaugh’s group had been sponsoring the event since it was founded back in 1953. Congress and the President of the United States hobnobbing with the ultra-religious business and military elite from all over the world. It was amazingly open and right in your face, when you really thought about it.

Bright lights and video cameras had taken the place of smoky back rooms where alliances were struck and deals got made. Including this one alliance, or covenant as Cavanaugh liked to put it, that would soon change the entire course of history.

Ostensibly interfaith, the Luncheon was really an organizing, influencing, and recruiting tool for Cavanaugh’s extreme Christian group, the Brotherhood.

How something that huge and powerful operated out in the open was still a point of wonder to Hoyle.

Cavanaugh’s group had effectively infiltrated virtually every nation on earth, through a network of the rich and influential. God must have put those men in power, Cavanaugh told him, since everything happens according to His will. Sure, maybe that man had to kill a lot of his countrymen to get to the top, but clearly God wanted it that way. And now He needs your power to help spread His Kingdom. That’s what he’d told Hoyle.

What an easy-sell message for the world’s megalomaniacs that was! No wonder this Brotherhood thing was going gangbusters.

Cavanaugh had already reached out to Potanin at the time when Hoyle became involved. The nukes were there for a price through avenues that weren’t ever going to be available to Islamic extremists. It just needed the right people to pull it off.

It was really quite amazing how different their three separate goals were, Cavanaugh’s, Potanin’s and Hoyle’s. And yet, each benefited from being part of the Sons of Man.

Of course if Cavanaugh was right, the future was not going to play out to Hoyle’s, or to Potanin’s, liking at all. But Hoyle was quite confident that the Brotherhood’s lunatic leader would be the one sorely disappointed. And very soon. Regarding what would actually happen, the loss of life would be horrific, of course. Millions, maybe hundreds of millions dead, many more wounded and displaced.

But America would survive and emerge victorious. In the end that’s all that mattered. This would be the final stage of an ongoing war, a hot war, not a cold one. And not a war against terrorism. What an idiotic term that was. How could you fight a war against a frigging tactic? No, this was a war of cultures.

And there could be only one victor.

That anyone could be so blind to the intent of the Islamicists when they stated their aims so plainly and unabashedly—well, it was beyond Hoyle. All you had to do was look at history.

Islam conquered much of the known world in its first rapid thrust, fifteen centuries ago. It was stopped after the siege of Vienna and then it went to sleep for hundreds of years. But it was awake again now and ready to finish what it started.

But the enemy was vulnerable right now to a nuclear attack, if that was followed by a full scare conventional war. And that opportunity wouldn’t last forever. Shit, Iran was most of the way to having a bomb, and that was just the beginning. The future did not look bright. No siree. The West was not going to win a two hundred year-long asymmetric war with Islam.

For one thing, it just don’t have the stomach for it. No, if the West was going to win this thing, it would have to fight the battle on its own terms and schedule.

Now was the time to strike. And Hoyle had been selected by fate as the man to do it.

Two more deaths on this cold December night were insignificant when the stakes were this high. Two deaths to save a civilization? Yes. Absolutely. Not worth wasting a second’s thought on that bargain.

Hoyle noticed he was passing a lot of cars again. He eased off the gas. He was still a good half hour from the safe house and he had to keep it cool.

Thankfully this whole distraction would be over soon enough. Then, when Alekseev was done with the bodies, they could get on with the main show.

It was a damn shame, though.

CHAPTER 39

AS ALEKSEEV NOSED the town car up to the safe house the motion detector above the garage switched on a set of twin, outdoor security lights. The house itself sat on a rise behind a row of cypress trees, up and out of view of the street. So the bright light wasn’t a problem.

Additionally it was quite late and very cold out tonight. In this middle class neighborhood in rural Virginia no one would be out taking a stroll.

He parked the car and killed the engine. To his right he could see Volkov slumped in the passenger seat, eyes closed, gagged and bound with gray duct tape.

He glanced in the back. Keane was still out cold too.

He would keep a close watch on Keane after he was secured in the safe house. They needed information before he was eliminated and sometimes the wooziness from being drugged was a real asset in that effort. If you could get to the subject just as he was waking up and still disoriented, that was.

Once Keane had his wits about him, though, he’d understand that he wasn’t getting out of there alive. No reason to cooperate after that point. At least not until significant physical pain was applied. That part was messy, time consuming, and not always reliable. Which is why if they could get anything from him before that, so much the better.

Alekseev opened the driver’s door and got out. He felt the night’s chill air flowing like a frigid liquid.

He started for the car’s back door and stopped again.

A sound just then. Did that come from inside the car or from behind it? He couldn’t tell.

He tried to peer in through the back window but it was tinted glass, and the security light was reflecting off it too, making it impossible to see in. He cupped his hands around his eyes and leaned in close to the window to block out the glare.

The window shattered into Alekseev’s face as the soles of two shoes burst through it.

KEANE HAD COME to in the back of what he assumed was the same car that’d been parked in front of the Poplar house where they met with Cavanaugh.

It didn’t take long to quietly work the duct tape loose.

He both felt and heard it when the car went off the freeway, though there was no way to know how long they’d been driving or in what direction.

The street lamps he saw as he looked out the rear windows told him he they were in a residential neighborhood. They pulled onto what he imagined was graded driveway. A safe house.

After the car was parked and the engine stopped, Keane laid still and waited until he heard the sound of the driver’s door open and close.

He quickly drew his knees up to his chest and scooted down toward the driver side passenger door. Slightly better chance that would be the one Alekseev would open.

The plan was to kick the door hard with both feet the moment it was cracked. If Alekseev had a gun in his hand, he might get knocked off balance enough for Keane to have a second or two before the Russian could shoot straight.

But then when he saw Alekseev’s face looking in the window, it was like an early Christmas gift.

Keane kicked out the glass and felt the bottoms of both feet connect with Alekseev’s face.

Recoiling quickly he opened the door, and jumped out of the car…

And almost fell on his face right then. He was dizzy as hell.

What held him up was Alekseev. He’d flown right into the Russian. They went down to the cement together with a thud.

Alekseev went for his gun. Keane’s Systema training and reflexes took over. To anyone watching, it would’ve looked as though Alekseev took out his weapon with the express intention of handing it right to Keane. Because Keane had the Russian’s gun in hand and turned around within the blink of an eye.

He sat on Alekseev’s chest and pointed the gun at his blood-flecked face. A piece of window glass sparkled in the man’s dark, curly hair.

“Go ahead,” Alekseev said emotionless. “It means nothing.”

He stared back at Keane with a dead man’s eyes. It was no act. Keane could tell that the Russian really didn’t care one way or the other.

He considered pulling the trigger. Just blow Alekseev’s brains all over the driveway. But some dark part of him said that it would be too clean, too quick and painless. Much better than the man who murdered Pasquini deserved.

The drugs hadn’t entirely given up yet, though, and a rush of vertigo struck Keane. For a moment he felt the ground beneath him rise and swell like an ocean wave passing.

Alekseev must have seen something. He grabbed for the gun and got a hand on it. But the weapon had a hair trigger and it fired instantly.

The bullet tore off a piece of Alekseev’s right ear and blasted cement dust up into Keane’s face.

Alekseev screamed and bucked Keane off his chest. Keane sat up a few feet away and trained the gun on him again.

The Russian rocked and mewled in pain with his hand on his ear, dark blood running down between his fingers.

That’s better, Keane thought. That’s much better.

CHAPTER 40

VOLKOV’S HEAD WAS pounding and she felt a little sick to her stomach. Still, she’d been able to hold the gun steady on Alekseev while Keane tied him to a chair with some clothesline rope he’d found.

They were all in the dining area adjacent to the kitchen, and it was freezing cold in there. No one else in the house, which didn’t appear to have been occupied recently. Not much in the way of furniture here. The place had a dry, closed up smell to it, and the sinks were all dusty.

Keane tried to turn on the central heating but the pilot light was out. He managed after a few more tries to get that going and the place was starting to warm up a little.

Keane took the gun back from her and stood in front of Alekseev, staring down at him in the chair there.

“If you’re gonna drug someone who drinks like I do, buddy, you better figure on a little thing called tolerance,” he said. “Didn’t occur to you, huh?”

Alekseev couldn’t answer him. His mouth was covered in gray duct tape.

The right side of his neck, his right shoulder, and part of the his shirtfront were soaked in dark red blood. His ear was still dripping some, but it seemed to have slowed down. The whole top of it was gone.

He was lucky to be alive. Another inch or two the wrong way and the side of his head would have come off too.

Keane’s heavy drinking had saved his and Volkov’s lives. He woke up much sooner than Alekseev had anticipated. Now she and Keane had the upper hand and they had to decide how to play it.

Keane walked around behind Alekseev. “What you guys gave us, the drug, it was the same stuff you took yourself after you killed my partner, wasn’t it?” He slapped the Russian in the back of his head and Alekseev winced in pain.

The drug had been in their coffee. Volkov felt like she could use a pot or two of the real stuff right now. She stifled a yawn and patted herself firmly on the cheek, hard enough to sting. She needed her mind focused.

Keane had finished making a full circle around Alekseev and stood in front of him again. He reached down and in one quick motion tore the duct tape from the man’s mouth.

Alekseev cried out and Keane shoved the gun in his face.

“Shut up.” Keane had the barrel of the gun against Alekseev’s forehead as he leaned in close. “You’ll open your mouth when I ask you to. And then you’re gonna tell me what I want to know. Everything I want to know. You understand?”

Alekseev looked resigned, but not afraid. “Or else what? You will kill me? Ha. You will kill me anyway. You could not live with yourself if you did not. Not a man like you.” He smiled. “It would eat you alive, yes?”

Keane straightened up again.

Volkov studied Keane’s face as he looked away from Alekseev, off into the living room. He kept his expression blank. A poker face as they say. But she thought she could read him well enough now. He was considering what Alekseev had just said. Weighing the truth in it.

Keane turned to look straight at her then. The tension went out of his body, and he seemed to have come to some sort of decision. “He’s right. He is right. Well … screw it.”

He stepped over to Alekseev, put his foot in the middle of the man’s chest, and pushed. Man and chair tipped over backwards. Alekseev’s yell was cut short by the impact of the chair as his back hit the floor.

Keane raised the gun to shoot.

“Stop! Keane, no!” Volkov shouted.

Without looking at her, Keane said, “Go outside, Evana. Just go outside.”

She stepped in closer. “He has to tell us where the Sons of Man hid the nuclear device. If we can’t stop Zadari, at least we could evacuate. If we knew what city, GPS coordinates, something. He might have information we can’t retrieve any other way. Jesse, please. We need him alive. Even if he doesn’t know where the bomb is, he could still lead us to someone who does. Think about this.”

Keane kept the gun trained on Alekseev and spoke slowly. “I can’t let him live, Evana. You understand? I can’t and he knows that. So he’s not gonna talk. Why should he? Just go outside now. I’ll finish it. You’re not a part of this.”

She took another step closer to Keane and something flashed in his eyes. She had to be careful not to underestimate his determination. She didn’t think he’d hurt her, but she’d also seen him fight. She wasn’t going to get that gun away from him unless he handed it to her.

She stopped and showed him her hands. “Look, it is just a simple logic problem. Alekseev lives or millions die. There is no other choice. And it is your choice. I know that.”

“Glad you do.”

“Please ask yourself the reason you will kill him. Why you are doing this. Revenge. Yes? It is revenge for your partner.”

“Like you say, it’s kind of simple.”

She nodded even though he wasn’t looking at her. All his attention was still focused on Alekseev.

“I understand this need, Jesse. I do. But is your personal revenge worth all of their lives? The millions who will die because we don’t know where that bomb is. Is it really worth all that? If you weigh the fulfillment of your own desires as equal to the lives of innocent people … then you are no better than Zadari. He wants his revenge too. Are you two the same?”

Keane turned and looked at her for a long time, looked into her eyes. Then back down at Alekseev again in the chair.

She couldn’t tell if she was getting through to him or not. He was a man guided mainly by reason. She thought she knew that much about him. But his passion for what felt like justice was just as strong. Maybe stronger.

She heard the ticking sound of a vent somewhere expanding in the hot air from the heater. Seconds dragged by.

With his eyes still on Alekseev, Keane dropped his aim. Then he swung his arm around and held the gun out for her. “Take it. Take the goddamn thing before I change my mind.”

She stepped over and accepted the gun.

“There are too many lives at stake, Keane. Innocent lives.” She waited until he was looking at her and added, “I will shoot you if you try to take this gun back. You must believe me.”

Please, for God’s sake don’t make me do that.

“I know you will.” Keane nodded toward Alekseev. “And I think he knows it, too.”

He walked behind the Russian, squatted down, and gripped the top of the back of the chair. He levered it upright again.

Then he walked around front, to where Alekseev could see his face. “You know all about her, don’t you? You researched her for your boss. You knew she was here in the states and you knew why. So you also know that she plays by the rules. She always has. That’s what you found out right? So whatever deal she offers you, she’ll keep her end of the bargain.”

Volkov stepped over beside Keane and faced Alekseev too. Their captive stared up at her, but not Keane. He seemed to be considering his options.

He took his sweet time thinking about it.

Keane was right. She always played by the rules. And this was why. Because in the end, if it’s catch as catch can when no one is looking, if your promise to abide by a set of laws is worthless, then what have you got to offer that anyone could truly count on?

Finally Alekseev said, “If I cooperate, what then?”

She was ready with the answer. Thinking ahead was one of her strong suits. “Cooperate and I take you back to Russia to stand trial. You should be able to cut a deal there.”

That was putting it mildly. Anything was possible for a well-connected man back there. Alekseev knew that, of course.

She glanced over at Keane. He knew this too. Justice for his partner would not be served by Alekseev’s return to Russia. She was, in all likelihood, asking him to give that up.

Would he do it? Let the man not only live, but go free? She could not read his face. He just stood there impassively.

It seemed for now that he would go along. He might only be biding his time, of course. There was no way to know. And it didn’t matter for the moment. She still had the gun.

Alekseev narrowed his eyes. “And if I refuse to help you?”

Volkov took a beat and held the man’s gaze. “That is one choice that is available to you, of course. But if you do refuse, then I am afraid I must turn you over,” a nod to her side, “to agent Keane here.”

She had shown him the carrot and the stick. It was all up to him now.

CHAPTER 41

HOYLE PULLED IN behind the town car and got out. Some automatic floodlights came on. Twin shadows stretched out on the driveway behind him.

He was about to close the car door when he noticed something dark on the drive beside the other car, a blotch or puddle. Motor oil? An instant later he saw the color.

That was blood.

Keane and Volkov had been drugged. There was nothing in the communication about a fight first. And that was a lot of blood down there. In fact, Hoyle could see a blood trail leading toward the front door along with three different sets of footprints.

If they were still unconscious, wouldn’t Alekseev have carried his captives into the house?

Hoyle climbed back in the car, retrieved his Colt Defender from the glove box, and made a quick call for backup. He got back out and closed the car door gently and incompletely. He didn’t want to make any more noise than he already had.

Moving low and slow, cursing the bright security lamps that were on him like a prison spotlight, he crept up to the front window.

The curtains were drawn.

He stepped softly, keeping to the clear parts of the walkway to avoid crunching any ice or snow, and worked his way around to the kitchen window where he carefully peeked in.

There was a woman standing with her back to him. She had a gun. That would be the Russian woman, Volkov. Alekseev had screwed up somehow.

Well, he’d been right in coming all the way out here to handle this himself. That much was clear now. He didn’t take any pleasure in being correct about that. It just pissed him off, really. And he was looking forward to venting that anger very soon.

KEANE LOOKED DOWN at Alekseev, still bleeding and tied up tight in a sturdy chair. The man wasn’t going anywhere until and unless he made up his mind on their offer.

“So, you’ve got your choices,” Keane said. “What’s it gonna be? You tell us what you know about the bomb’s location or she walks out of here. Then it’s just you and me, friend. And I’m good with that.”

Keane had given the gun to Volkov, although he knew damn well he would regret it. But what she’d said just made too much sense. This bastard might have some idea where that nuke was or at least where to find out.

And she was right. The logic was that simple.

There was every chance that Zadari would succeed in his phony terror plot. What the Sons of Man would do then was unclear at best. But a lot more was at stake than just getting even for Pasquini. Sorry buddy, that’ll have to wait.

Keane still couldn’t see the whole picture and that part was maddening.

Why Cavanaugh was still helping Potanin was a total mystery. He must have needed the Russian billionaire to get the nukes. Fine. But Potanin had tried to force Cavanaugh’s hand. If he succeeded, then the whole point of a nuclear deterrent against terrorism was lost. It didn’t add up.

Hoyle seemed to be in it for himself. Money perhaps, or maybe something more. Keane couldn’t quite put his finger on it but he sensed something else going on there too.

But none of this changed the facts or choices in front of him right now.

There was a very real chance the nuke out there was going to be detonated, one way or another. And if there was any way to find out where it was, then that would have to be the top priority.

For now.

After they had that information, there would be time to revisit what was gonna happen to Alekseev. Volkov was genuinely trustworthy, and that had proved to be a huge asset.

It didn’t mean that Keane had to be trustworthy, too.

Alekseev just looked straight ahead for a while, saying nothing. Keane was beginning to think the man had decided to keep his mouth shut from this point on when he said one word.

“Mecca.”

“The holy site, Mecca,” Volkov said.

Alekseev looked up at her. “The most holy site, yes. The decimation device is hidden somewhere there, or near there. I don’t know the exact location.”

Volkov turned to Keane and spoke with some hope in her voice. “They could still find the bomb, Fleischer and his people. They might locate it with radiation detectors. And in any case we can start getting people out.”

Keane didn’t feel nearly as optimistic. To the billions of Islamic faithful the destruction of Mecca would mean more than the loss of human lives. It would be a sacrilege beyond imagination.

“If Zadari succeeds and the Sons of Man detonate their nuclear device, an evacuation won’t change anything,” Keane said. “You might save lives. For a while. But Mecca—we’re talking about the birthplace of Mohammad, here. Every Muslim’s duty is to visit it at least once in their lifetime. If the Sons of Man destroy Mecca? Then it’s a world war we’re talking about now, after a series of inevitable escalations. A nuclear world war. There won’t be any place on Earth left to evacuate to in the long run.”

“Then we must stop Zadari,” Volkov said. “There is no other choice.” She turned back to Alekseev. “Potanin, your employer, has hired the man Ali Zadari to carry out a bombing and make it look like terrorism. What is the target? When will it be attacked?”

“Zadari’s bombing happens tonight, at ten o’clock.” He shrugged. “I do not know the target.”

Keane cuffed Alekseev right in his mangled ear. Alekseev rocked back in the chair and howled in pain.

“You’re lying,” Keane said. Eyes ice cold.

Alekseev was breathing heavily now. He looked up at Keane with his face still contorted. “The name of the target … is a tightly guarded secret. It’s one part of the trigger for the decimation device.”

It didn’t sound like an evasion. It was far too odd a statement.

“What do you mean?” Volkov asked. “‘The name is part of the trigger.’ How is that possible?”

Alekseev licked his lips before he spoke. “The device is not triggered by just any attack, as they have claimed publicly. Only by the one attack they know is coming. That made it quite simple to do.” He tensed up and sucked in air through his teeth. “Pizda, my ear.” His eyes squeezed shut as another bolt of pain hit him.

Keane waited until that seemed to pass then said, “Go on.”

Alekseev took a moment to compose himself. “An onboard computer program, part of the decimation device, scans the Internet looking for something. A spike in occurrences of the target name, plus the words ‘bombing’ or ‘terrorist’.”

Keane got it. The look on Volkov’s face seemed to say she did too. That was damned clever, really. This way no one had the physical trigger. So no one could be stopped from pulling it.

It was all automatic.

“After Zadari attacks, those references will be everywhere, all over the internet,” Volkov said. “They will—how do you say it here. Trend? Be trending?”

Alekseev nodded. “Yes. The news of the attack itself acts as the triggering mechanism.”

Something Alekseev just said returned to Keane’s mind. “You said the name was one part of the trigger. So what’s the other part?”

“A program also looks for spikes in the words ‘Mecca.’ A kind of fail-safe. They were taking no chances.”

“Damnit,” Kean said. “That means any evacuation is out. Mecca would be attached that news story. The evacuation itself could set of the bomb. Well, shit. You and your buddies sure made a goddamn mess of it.”

“Let us say we believe you,” Volkov said. “And you really do not know the name of Zadari’s target. Who does? Someone has to. Someone had to place and program that device. Someone gave that person orders.”

Keane saw Alekseev’s eyes catch on something behind them, then look away again quickly.

Without glancing back, Keane immediately grabbed Volkov and pulled her down to the floor.

Shots rang out and a window shattered in the kitchen.

But Keane and Volkov were both below the kitchen counter, which provided cover from the direction the shots had originated.

Keane looked up at the sliding glass door that led out to the darkened backyard. No way to get there without drawing more fire.

“We can’t defend this room,” he said.

Volkov looked toward the back of the house. “The hallway,”

They fled the dining area in a crouched walk, keeping the kitchen counter between them and the shooter.

They turned a corner and stopped a few feet into the hallway that led to the bedrooms. There were at least two walls between them and the outside now, and the narrow hall was at least more defensible than where they just were. The first few men to try and penetrate that hallway were going down. They’d take at least some of the bastards with them.

But he and Volkov wouldn’t be able to hold out for long. One gun between them was all they had, and no ammo but what was already in that.

Keane spotted an access hatch to the attic, up on the ceiling on the far end of the hallway.

“I’m going high,” he said.

She looked down the hallway and then up, saw his intention, and agreed with a single nod. She offered him the gun.

He pushed it back toward her. “Keep it. Whoever’s out there is coming this way first.”

Thankfully she didn’t argue.

Keane had the folding aluminum ladder for the attic pulled down in a flash, and climbed swiftly up into the darkness.

The only light up there was the weak glow coming up through the open hatchway. Using that, he was able to stay oriented with the hallway, at least, and worked his way forward, feeling for the edges of successive two by fours beneath his feet and using them to avoid crashing down through the ceiling.

He sensed cold air on his face just before he reached a vent under one of the house’s gables. He sat down on a ceiling beam and kicked out the grate with the bottom of his shoes.

It made a loud cracking sound. No way to do that job quietly. If there was someone out there right now, then he was a dead man. But this was at least a chance. Because if they hunkered down and waited, he and Volkov were goners for sure. It would just be a matter of time.

He kept still for a moment, listened, then stuck his head out and looked around.

No one out there. And as luck would have it, he could gain the roof from was he was.

Moments later he was up there and doing recon from the roof top. There was one new car in the driveway—a white Jeep Cherokee. That looked like a private vehicle. Some person or persons connected with the safe house had arrived sometime after they did.

Thank God for small favors, at least it wasn’t a damn Delta Team down there. The fact that they hadn’t been attacked simultaneously on more than one front suggested it was just one shooter coming after them.

That meant they had a fighting chance now.

HOYLE STOOD BEHIND the house and swore under his breath. Keane had ducked. Something must have tipped him off at the last instant. The man had his own personal radar.

That meant Hoyle had a decision to make now.

Either go in after the two of them alone, right now, or wait for that backup he called for to arrive.

There were at least two problems with waiting. First, because he had to rely on his own men for this and they weren’t stationed nearby, they could be a half hour or longer getting here. Second, the more people who knew about Alekseev’s involvement here and the connection back to Potanin, the more complicated and less believable the whole story would get.

Simple and fast was the best way. End it now.

Hoyle kept to the shadows and worked his way around to where he could get a view into the living room. No one in sight there. They had probably retreated somewhere in the back of the house. He took the opportunity to advance.

As he approached the sliding door, he sensed movement and swung his Colt around to point behind him.

But he never looked up.

[KEANE FELL RIGHT *]on top of[ *]Hoyle, striking him in the head and shoulders with both heals.

The general crumpled beneath him, absorbing most of the fall’s energy. The rest of it Keane managed to roll out into the icy snow. He was back up on his feet quickly, and turned around to face his adversary.

Hoyle still had his gun. He fired twice from the ground up. Both shots went wide and then Keane was on top of him grappling for the gun.

Another muffled shot fired.

Hoyle went limp there on the ground. Keane wrestled the gun free from the general’s grip and stood up.

There was a clean hole and dark scorching in the general’s coat front. In the middle of his chest.

Hoyle was still breathing down there.

Keane squatted down next to him. “What’s the target? Where is Zadari’s bomb going off tonight? Where?”

Hoyle looked up at him. He seemed to have his senses still, but he wasn’t talking.

Keane leaned in closer. “Why, Henry?”

There was a fierce look in Hoyle’s eyes now. “God and country, Jesse. I did it because … men like you wouldn’t.”

He coughed and stiffened. His face went slack and his eyelids closed. He drew one ragged breath, then another. Then stopped breathing altogether.

Keane felt for a pulse at the carotid artery. Nothing.

He pawed around the General’s pockets until he found a cell phone. He quickly pulled up the call history. A call had been made just a couple minutes ago, as he’d expected. That would’ve been for backup.

He redialed the number.

A man’s voice came on. “We’re on the way, General.”

Keane coughed and said gruffly, “How far out?”

“ETA is twelve minutes, sir.”

Keane hung up, pocketed the cell phone, and went to the sliding glass door.

“Volkov, it’s me,” he shouted through the window. “I’m coming in. We’re all clear out here.” But we won’t be for long.

Mecca. Now they knew where the nuke was and it still didn’t do them any damn good.

And he was just about out of ideas too.

CHAPTER 42

THE FIRST THING Keane saw when he stepped back inside the safe house was splintered pieces of chair on the dining room floor and loose rope. Alekseev was gone.

Volkov walked into to the same scene. “B’lyad!

Keane had to laugh. “Pretty sure I know what that means.”

They went to the front door and found it wide open. They both hurried outside into the freezing night air.

Keane watched a set of headlights bounce and dip as that Jeep he’d spotted from the roof backed swiftly down the driveway. He raised the gun instinctively but let the car go. He wasn’t going to start firing shots out into the semi-darkness. Not in a residential neighborhood.

“He’s gone,” Keane said.

“Are you all right?” She was looking at his arm.

He’d torn his shirt and cut his elbow when he jumped from the roof. There was some blood, but it wasn’t bad.

“I’m okay. Hoyle’s not. He’s dead, out back there.”

“That was the General that Potanin is working with?”

Keane nodded. “Yeah, guess he was gonna handle the wet work himself this time. I checked his cell. He called in for help. They’ll be here in a few minutes. We gotta go right now.”

ALEKSEEV MUST HAVE taken the keys to the town car, but Keane was able to hot-wire it without too much trouble.

They were driving along two-lane streets in some business district filled with strip malls. No particular destination in mind yet. He just wanted to put a little distance between them and whoever was coming to back up Hoyle. With luck, it would take them some time to work out what happened at the safe house.

He was running their current assets through his mind when he remembered he had Hoyle’s cell phone still. He took it out and gave it to Volkov, then directed her to dial a number.

“Who are we calling?” she asked while punching it in.

“Avi Fleischer. I’ve got an idea.” Half an idea really. But it’s a start.

“It’s ringing.” She handed him the phone. “But they are listening to his line. Won’t they trace the call?”

“Yeah, that’s what I had an idea about. If they’re monitoring the line, they’ll just trace the call back to General Henry Hoyle.”

There was a click and then, “This is Avi Fleischer.”

Keane said, “General Henry Hoyle here. Call this number back, but use a secure line,” and then he disconnected.

Volkov looked at him expectantly.

He explained. “So, now Avi knows his own line isn’t safe. They’re not listening to Hoyle’s phone and no one knows the General’s dead yet but us. When Avi calls back from a clean line, we’ll be talking in private.”

“That was good.”

“Yeah, I manage that from time to time.”

Exactly how good it was, Keane didn’t know. That was the missing half of the idea. What the hell could even Avi do for them now?

In about two minutes they had Fleischer on the line again, calling from a sat phone with an attached scrambler. In a few more minutes Keane had him filled in on the basics and also the recent developments.

“Mecca,” Fleischer said. Keane had him on speakerphone now. “This is not good news.”

“I’ve got worse news for you, Avi. You can’t tell anyone. The bomb goes off if they even try to evacuate the city.”

“Do we know who will set it off? Can we reach them and take them out? I have the people who can do it if you can give me names.”

“It’s all automatic. A computer program and an internet connection. It searches for the name of Zadari’s target and any references to terrorism. When the bombing happens and people start talking about it, that’s your trigger. Same deal with evacuation of Mecca. What you can do is start sniffing around quietly with radiation detectors.”

“All right. I’ll get started. But it could take weeks or months.”

“In the meantime, Avi, be careful. Your line was tapped. Potanin knows that you know something, and he has resources worldwide. Darkriver is mixed up in this too somehow, and they’re in your neighborhood. You represent a risk to these people now and they were perfectly ready to kill Volkov and me to keep their little secret.”

“Understood.”

Keane stopped at a red light. There was a travel agency on the corner with posters in the window for cruise vacations to the Caribbean, and package trips to, of all places, the Holy Land.

He remembered something from earlier. And now he had the other half of that idea.

“Avi, I need you to locate someone—an American citizen in your neighborhood. He’s kind of a VIP, shouldn’t be too hard to find.”

“And when I do?”

“You’re going to kidnap him. Then you’ll follow my instructions to the letter.”

“You don’t ask for much.”

“Everything depends on it, Avi. Everything.”

There was a silence on the line, and then, “Fine. So give me the name.”

CHAPTER 43

FLEISCHER MADE THE calls from his home in Jerusalem and put the team together in a matter of minutes. After all, the process of kidnapping and extracting a target from foreign soil wasn’t entirely new to him.

In fact, it was rather a specialty of his.

Keane had given then a name and plenty of background on the target. God knows in the past Fleischer had worked with much less.

There was nothing more for him to do now while they nailed down an exact location on their man but to wait calmly for the call. If sixty-eight years on this planet had taught him anything, it was the utter futility of impatience.

It didn’t mean he couldn’t put the passing time to good use, though. He sat down at his desk, woke up his computer, and opened one of the encrypted files he’d requested and been sent earlier. The file name was Atlas Enterprises. Research his old friend had suggested might be profitable.

Yishar koach.” his parrot, an African Grey congratulated him for nothing in particular and bobbed his head from the perch inside his cage.

Baruch teheyeh.” Fleisher glanced at the bird’s food dish and water, both fine, and returned his attention to the computer.

In his experience a little thread, if it was the right one, could help unravel a lot of mystery. He had been pulling on this one since Keane handed it to him, but still wasn’t sure where exactly it led.

Atlas Enterprises was a holding company with an interesting distribution of investments. It was itself owned through a number of bogus, international shell corporations that eventually led back to Mikhail Potanin. Which was no surprise, as Keane had told him as much.

Potanin was making what looked like some pretty questionable investments through Atlas, though. And that was surprising.

These were distressed oil and pipeline resources, mainly. Many had been big money losers since he had purchased them. The common factor between them, besides bleeding red ink, was their connection to oil reserves in the Caspian Sea.

If the plan was to pull off some turnarounds on these companies, then Potanin and the other well-hidden investors in Atlas Enterprises had not yet succeeded.

And then there were the private security firms he’d been buying up through Atlas. You might want those to defend your oil fields in a war zone—one possible logical connection there. But that description didn’t exactly fit. These weren’t war zones.

His secure phone line rang, and Fleischer answered it. He hung up mere moments later. The communication was brief and to the point. The target had been located. This meant it was time to move to the next phase of the operation.

He swiveled his chair around to gaze out his large, back window. From his hillside home he could look down on a small, local park.

Some children were playing a game of football down there. Behind them in the distance a scattering of glass and steel office buildings towered over clusters of red clay rooftops set on rolling hills. Just one more sunny day in Jerusalem. A city that had lasted through six millennia.

If Keane’s plan failed, it might be mere hours before fire rained down and wiped it all out forever.

Fleischer turned back to his desk and opened his phone book to some important names. It might be the end of the world, but time permitting there were a couple of delightful women he was going to see first.

His doorbell rang.

He checked the security monitor on the wall over his desk, the screen there split into four zones. The quadrant for the front door camera showed a clean-cut man in a cheap suit holding a clipboard. A pouch slung over one shoulder. No doubt that was filled with polemical booklets of some kind.

This was either something about local politics or it was religious and either way Fleischer didn’t care. Nothing about local politics mattered at this point. And any religious questions—particularly regarding the afterlife—might be cleared up quite soon anyway.

He flipped on the intercom and said in Hebrew, “I’m busy, thank you. Another time.”

The man looked in the direction of the external speaker beside the front door and screwed up his face. “I’m sorry?” he said, speaking Hebrew as well.

Great. This one was thick-headed, apparently. “Come back some other time.”

The man shook his head and pointed at his ear. “There’s something wrong with your system there. I hear static, but…”

Wonderful. Not only was the world coming to an end but his intercom was broken. It’s always something.

Fleischer went through the house to the front door; unlocked and opened it.

“I’m sorry, I don’t have—”

“Yishar koach.” That was African Grey again. It had come from the speaker by the door. He must have left the line open back in the office. But something wasn’t right.

Because there’s nothing wrong with my intercom.

The man before him quickly reached into his canvas pouch.

Fleischer kicked at where he estimated the hand was in there. He connected with something hard and heavy. A gun came flying out of the pouch, up and over the assassin, falling somewhere behind him.

The man recovered quickly and came straight at Fleischer.

This assassin had both strength and youth to his advantage, and Fleischer knew this fight would end two ways. Quickly or badly. Fortunately for him, the whole Krav Maga fighting approach that he’d long ago mastered was designed with exactly that dichotomy in mind.

The assassin threw a punch that Fleischer blocked and countered with a stiff finger thrust to the face.

Fleischer felt his first and second fingers slip past one of the man’s eyes and deep into the socket. Reflexively, he curled them and yanked back.

The eye came out easily.

The assassin screamed and clutched at his face. Fleischer then delivered a kick to the groin that crumpled his opponent to the ground with a breathy screech. A powerful boot kick to the man’s head silenced that racket.

Quickly. Yes, quickly was always best.

CHAPTER 44

CARS WERE SLOWING for traffic stopped up ahead. An accident, it looked like.

The taxi’s passenger checked his wristwatch. He wanted to be at Queen Alia airport three hours early for the international flight. This delay was going to eat into that buffer. By how much was hard to tell yet.

His transportation had come to a complete stop now. There were no emergency vehicles on the scene, as far as he could see. They might be here a while.

He noticed something moving beside the cab in the periphery of his vision and assumed someone had gotten out of their car to assess the scene. As he turned to look, the door to the passenger compartment opened. Hot, dry air rushed in. A man on the street leaned in and pointed a handgun in his face.

At the same time, someone moved in to stand outside the driver’s window. He saw both the driver’s hands go up.

We’re being robbed.

Two men were apparently taking advantage of the stopped traffic to pull off a quick heist. The passenger’s heart started pounding so hard he could feel it in his neck, at the collar.

Christ you are the salvation of all who believe in You.

The passenger put his hands up too. “You can have my watch and my wallet. All right? They’re yours. Please, just … can I hand them to you?”

“Come with me and you won’t be harmed,” the man pointing the gun at him said. His eyes unreadable behind dark glasses.

The accent. That was an Israeli accent.

There was a police or emergency siren now in the distance. Involuntarily the man glanced in the direction of the sound.

“You are going to move when I tell you and where I tell you,” the armed man said. “If you try to run, I will kill you. If you call out for aid, I will kill you. If you hesitate to follow any of my directions, I will kill you. Do you understand?”

He looked again at the gun. He’d seen enough action movies to know that the big, black cylinder on the end there was a silencer. It occurred to him that ordinary stick-up men don’t carry guns with silencers.

This is a kidnapping. Or…

His mind shut off then. He no longer knew anything except that he could not be in this small space with a gun pointed at him for a moment longer.

He lunged for the far door handle and twisted it.

Time didn’t slow down. It was more like chunks of it went missing, like a length of torn film restored but with pieces cut out.

He was in the street squinting at the bright light.

He was pounding on a car window.

A woman’s alarmed face looked up at him from the driver’s seat.

He ran between the lines of stopped cars.

Flashing red lights coming up the meridian, a police car.

Glancing back. The man in the sunglasses coming up fast behind him.

Another flashing light and a snapping sound as an arm came up in front of him. The bright blue arc of electricity. Then pain, terrible pain. In his gut and coursing through his body.

A feeling of falling. The world tilting.

Everything going dark.

CHAPTER 45

KEANE POINTED THE town car back toward D.C. on the 267. He quickly explained to Volkov what his logic was in their heading back there.

“So the target of the bombing is inside D.C.” she said. “This is all Zadari’s partner told you before he died?”

Keane changed lanes to let a tailgater pass him by. Last thing they needed now was a goddamn traffic accident.

“Pretty much, yeah,” Keane said. “And that it wasn’t a suicide attack. Zadari wants to be alive to see it. I don’t know if that means he’ll be watching on the news or actually camped out somewhere near the blast itself. In any case, we head back to D.C. now and we’ll be more or less in position if we get the intel we’re after.”

“If your friend Avi comes through for us.”

“Yeah.” Keane hesitated, wondering if it was too soon to say what he had on his mind next. Now was as good a time as any. “You know, there’s no reason for both of us to do this thing.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, unless you have some special bomb disposal skills you forgot to mention, you don’t have to do this. And this is going to be hands on, make no mistake there. We can’t call anyone in, because we can’t let this hit the news. That could trigger the nuke in Mecca.”

She looked at him for a long time. He had a sense of what was going on in her head. She knew he trusted her and respected her, that what he’d just suggested didn’t indicate any lack of faith. He guessed she probably knew very well why he wanted her to stay clear of defusing a live bomb.

He cared for her now.

He hadn’t meant for that to happen, but it did. They crossed a line back in that motel room. He wondered if she could see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice.

“There is no one else you can trust for this,” she finally said. “And it covers more potential scenarios if we go in as a team, yes?” She waited a moment then added, “We make a good team, I think.” She smiled.

Keane let his own smile answer her. Yeah, I think we do.

Hoyle’s cell phone rang in the cup holder on the dash where Keane had stashed it. He saw the incoming number displayed. It was Fleischer.

He put the call on speakerphone. “Avi, tell me you have him.”

There was a delay that Keane hoped was just the satellite connection. “Yes. Agents intercepted Kenneth Cavanaugh on the way to the airport in Jordan. We have him tucked away safely.”

Volkov reached over and squeezed Keane’s hand.

He heaved a sigh of relief and said, “Thank you, Avi. This gives us a real chance. And the rest of it? Did you manage that too?”

“You can tell the elder Cavanaugh to check his primary e-mail. We sent a video link there to a recording we made per your instructions. He should have no trouble finding it. It’s from a Mr. Jesse Keane. I thought that might help drive the message home.”

Keane smiled. “Nice touch.”

“The other thing, you asked me to look into Atlas Enterprises. Potanin is buying up a great deal of cheap oil infrastructure and potential resources in Russia, mostly around the Caspian Sea.”

“The Caspian? That is all tied to Chechnya,” Volkov said, apparently excited by the idea.

“Yes, exactly,” Fleischer said. “I didn’t see it at first, the connection there. He has been arming Chechen rebels, as we know.”

Now Keane got it too. “He was able to pick up those investments for pennies on the dollar, because he helped drag them down in the first place. All the regional instability he’s been supporting there.”

“Yes. Also, he has invested in what amounts to a private army, which I believe he intends to merge with Darkriver International,” Fleischer said.

Keane nodded to himself. “Yes. Yes, and he’ll use them to crush the Chechen rebels after he no longer needs them. Those mercs will make the Russian army look like playground guards. Plus, it will fit into the all-out war against Islam, once the shit hits the fan. And this time, they’ll stop at nothing to exterminate those rebels and anyone who supports them. Then the oil flows again and Potanin’s investments all soar.”

“Jesse, I’m in touch with a friend of mine in the US State Department whom I can trust.” Fleischer said. “He’ll try to help you if, and when, he can.”

“Can he bake a file into a loaf of bread?”

“Come again?”

Volkov looked at Keane with a confused expression. She didn’t get it either.

“Nothing,” Keane said. “Just, thanks. And, Avi, if things don’t go well … You’re a good man. Thanks for that too.”

Lehitra’ot, my friend,” Avi replied. And the call ended.

I hope to see you later too.

Volkov looked to be deep in thought. After a few moments she said, “The Caspian Sea oil reserves. They are perhaps the largest in the world after those in the Middle East.”

“Yeah, I get it. And access to Middle East oil is about to go away,” Keane said.

Potanin’s game went deeper than just eliminating the Chechen problem. Sure, that was going to reverse the fortunes of the companies he’d invested in, when the rebels were wiped out. But then there was a second stage of the plan. After the Sons of Man detonated their nuke in response to Zadari’s phony terror attack, the entire Middle East would go up in flames.

And Potanin would control a fair amount of the world’s available oil supply.

“He may well become the single richest man in the world,” Volkov said.

“Yeah. Or what’s left of it. That’s the part I don’t get. This thing is not going to stop with the Middle East. Potanin must know that.”

Keane took the next exit off the freeway, pulled into the parking lot of a small shopping center, and parked. He wanted to be completely focused on this next call.

It was just the fate of the world hanging on it, that’s all.

Slice o’ pie.

CHAPTER 46

CAVANAUGH WAS SITTING in his office, waiting for news from Hoyle when the phone rang. His personal assistant on the line. At first he thought he must have heard it wrong, but his assistant repeated the name of the caller.

“All right,” Cavanaugh said. “Put him through.”

There was a click and a change in background noise level. Cavanaugh waited a moment, then spoke first. “Hello, agent Keane. As I’m sure you can imagine I’m a bit surprised to be hearing from you.”

“Listen carefully, Cavanaugh. We have your son, Kenneth.”

Cavanaugh’s heart jumped. But this was just some kind of bluff. It had to be. “You’re lying. He’s not even in the country.”

“No he’s not. And he’s not on his flight from Jordon to New York either. Israeli intelligence has him.”

There was a sense of something huge stopping suddenly. Cavanaugh even swayed forward for a moment, as if the world had ceased turning and his own momentum carried him on a bit.

“They have no right to do that. He’s an American citizen,” Cavanaugh heard himself saying.

Keane laughed. “You’re joking, right?”

“I demand that you—”

“Hey listen, you’re not making any demands now. You need to check your email. There’s a video there you really want to see. You still have Hoyle’s cell phone number, I assume.”

“Yes.”

“Well, take a look at that video and then call me back at Hoyle’s number. You have three minutes.”

“Kenneth had no knowledge of any of this.”

There was a click. Cavanaugh turned to his computer.

He found the email at the top of the queue there, under Keane’s name. He double-clicked the video file. It began to play.

His son appeared. He was sitting in front of what looked to be a web-camera—a slight fisheye distortion. His head and upper torso filled the frame. What little of the room that could be seen behind Kenneth appeared to be bare and white. Nothing in the way of useful or identifying details.

His son looked disheveled and frightened, and the elder Cavanaugh felt a flash of heat come into his own face.

There was sound.

“Dad, I’m okay,” he said. “I don’t … they haven’t said anything to me and they just turned this on and I don’t know, I don’t know what I’m supposed to say here exactly. They won’t even tell me. I’m okay. I’m not hurt. They didn’t do anything to me. I’m praying, and I know the Lord is with me. And…”

Kenneth looked to his left and upward. A shadow grew as someone appeared to move in closer to him. Then the video abruptly ended.

Anger filled Cavanaugh like a white hot gas. He felt as though his head was going to burst from the pressure. If Keane were here before him, not even the vast differences in their ages would have stopped him from tearing the man to bloody pieces

No time for that fantasy. He had to call Keane back quickly. Three minutes he’d been told. He composed himself.

If you do anything to my son. God help you, Keane.

He checked his cell phone for Hoyle’s number and dialed it from the line on the desk. If Keane had Hoyle’s phone … then where was Henry Hoyle?

A click, then Keane’s voice on the line. “I take it you saw the video.”

Cavanaugh gripped the phone so tightly his fingers turned paper white. “If you hurt him, there won’t be anywhere on Earth you can hide. I have friends, powerful friends, in every country on this planet.”

“I’m not going to do a damn thing to him. I don’t have to. You’ve already done it yourself.”

“Where have they taken my son?”

Silence on the line. Then, “He’s in a safe house. In Mecca.”

“No. No. You can’t…”

Cavanaugh stopped breathing. He felt his heart hammering inside his chest, trying to bust its way out of that bone cage. His mind raced, looking for a way forward. He couldn’t see any.

No, maybe one.

Was it possible that Keane could be made to understand? What if he knew everything, were told everything? In God all things are possible. If the Creator wanted to touch Keane’s mind…

Cavanaugh managed at last to exhale. He had to stay calm and deliver the message.

“I can’t stop it,” he said. “It goes off on its own. You understand? It’s automatic. You have miscalculated.”

“We know how it’s triggered. That’s why we need to stop Zadari. We stop him—there’s no news. No news, no trigger. And then your son lives. Only then.”

“No!” Cavanaugh slammed his fist down on his desk and immediately regretted it. Calm. He was a messenger for the Father of Light and he had to act like one. “No, listen to me. I can’t stop Zadari. I have had no contact with him, ever. That’s Potanin. Zadari is his man. And Potanin not going to stop him. And you … you mustn’t either. Please, you don’t understand what you’re interfering with here.”

“Potanin is screwing you,” Keane said. “Don’t you see that? How stupid are you? Whatever agreement you thought you had, he’s double-crossing you now. If you’re working with the Sons of Man, or you are them, whatever—he’s destroying everything you wanted to do. You have to know that.”

It was time now to help Keane see. Please, God, give me the words. “It was always going to be detonated, Agent Keane. Do you understand? The bomb in Mecca. There was never any other plan. It has to go off.”

“That’s insane. You’re out of your goddamn mind. And if you can’t see that, then see this. You’re about to kill your own son. If Zadari succeeds, your son dies.”

“You have to set him free while there’s still time. You cannot tempt me like this. Tempt me away from the path. You have no idea what’s at stake.”

“The whole goddamn world is at stake! You think if you blow up Mecca, that what? You’re going to put an end to Islam, or something? Christianity wins. Is that it? You think it’s gonna stop there?” There was outrage in Keane’s voice, and incredulity.

Cavanaugh kept his voice as calm and reasonable as he could. He tried to let God’s words flow through him.

“No, Agent Keane. There will be retaliation, and escalation. Of course. And the blood will flow out of the winepress as high as a horse’s bridle. I know what it is we are starting. It’s Armageddon.”

“And you want that?” Shock and disbelief now.

“Yes, of course. Of course I do! Because then, at last, The King will return. This is the Apocalypse, Agent Keane. The Second Coming, as prophesied by St. John the Divine. And Christ’s return is worth any price. The suffering and sin of mankind will end at last. Don’t you see that? It’s just what you yourself have been working for in your own way. The battle against evil that you too are fighting. This, this is its climax. This is the final victory in that ageless war.”

Again silence on the line. Lord, open his eyes to the truth.

“Cavanaugh, whatever you think is happening here, I don’t care. This is all you need to understand. I’m giving you a choice right now. If you know what Zadari’s target is tonight, the target for that bombing, you can tell me and I’ll try to stop him. Your son might live. Otherwise, like you said, it’s all automatic. Your son dies. Burned alive most likely.”

It hadn’t worked. Keane didn’t see. His heart had been hardened like Pharaoh’s. There was nothing left now but a terrible choice.

Father in Heaven, Kenneth is flesh of my flesh and the flesh is weak. Please, help me.

Inside he felt something tearing. Some part of him was ripped loose and bleeding, as if Keane had his claws deep within him, hooked into his soul.

Cavanaugh said, “Send me proof of my son’s release. When he’s on a plane, I—”

“You don’t get it,” Keane snapped back. “You’re not calling any shots. Give us the name of Zadari’s target and maybe, maybe your son won’t be turned to barbeque in a few hours. It’s the only chance he’s got. You better make up your mind fast.”

It was an unspeakable choice and it had been offered once before. Four thousand years ago to Abraham.

“You know the decision you’re asking me to make here.” Cavanaugh said. “My God or my son.”

“I know it.”

You never want to find out how strong you are, someone had once told him. And he understood the subtle meaning of that now. It’s only after you have faced the ultimate crisis, your own personal hell, that you could ever know such a thing. Far better never to know.

But he was there now. And it wasn’t his strength that he found. It was his weakness. Lord, I am not Abraham. I don’t have his faith. Please forgive me.

The mall at Union Station,” Cavanaugh said weakly. “Massachusetts Ave. Down near—”

“I know where it is. It’s huge. Where in the mall? Be specific.”

“I don’t know. That’s all I know.”

“Not good, Cavanaugh. Not good enough.”

“I don’t know! God damn you, that’s all I have.”

A click then a dial tone. Keane had disconnected.

Cavanaugh hung up the phone and sat still in his chair. The picture of Kenneth and Netanyahu sat before him on the desktop.

His son smiled up at him from the frame.

He had betrayed God and he would have to pay for it. Cavanaugh knew that. But Keane would pay too. God forgive him, he would make Keane pay.

He looked at the clock on the far wall of his office. Keane had less than two hours to stop Zadari.

His first impulse was to pray for Keane’s success. But of course he could not do that. He was separated from God now and the emptiness he felt was unbearable. He hung his head and began quietly to weep.

THE SECOND HE hung up, Keane started the car and tore out of the parking lot. He made a quick left, cutting off heavy traffic and drawing several angry honks.

The entire call to Cavanaugh had been on speakerphone, so Volkov had heard it all.

“He is a madman,” she said.

“I usually reserve judgment on something like that, but in this case I think that’s fair enough.”

Keane swerved around a car and punched the accelerator. He caught a stale yellow light and flew through the intersection just as it turned red.

“How far are we from this mall?” Volkov asked.

“Depending on traffic, maybe a half hour.”

He glanced at the dashboard clock. Just after nine PM. He double-checked that against his own wristwatch. It looked right. This thing was coming right down to the wire.

Volkov was looking at him. “We can only do what we can do, Jesse.”

“Yeah. How it always is. And I really hate that right now.”

CHAPTER 47

KENNETH CAVANAUGH WATCHED one of his two kidnappers taking a call on a satellite phone. The man ended the call, said something to the other one, and they left the room.

Time passed. He couldn’t see his watch because his hands were cuffed behind him, but he thought it had to be at least a half hour.

They had not returned.

He could turn his head and shoulders far enough in both directions to see all the way around the room. It was empty except for the table in front of him, on which they had placed a laptop computer. They used it to make and to send a video, and had taken it away before they left.

There were no security cameras visible to him anywhere. There was no mirror through which they could be watching him right now. There was one door.

He had woken up in the back of a car that had darkened windows. Handcuffed and with a gun pointed at him.

They must have used some kind of stun gun to knock him out. He still felt a strange tingling and burning sensation in his side where he’d been prodded.

They never spoke to him, except when they instructed him to talk into the camera. It was just the one man who did all the talking. And he had an Israeli accent. Kenneth thought they would instruct him to say something about their demands, but they didn’t. That was disturbing.

He should have traveled with a bodyguard. His father had suggested it many times. But it seemed to demonstrate a lack of faith. Like when the last Pope had chosen to drive in that ridiculous vehicle with the cubicle made of bulletproof glass. People laughed, as well they ought to. How strong is your God?

He shouldn’t let his mind wander like this. He needed to stay focused and sharp.

More minutes passed and still no sign of the two men. If they were coming back, then whatever time he had until that moment was ticking away.

Lord Jesus, you are here with me now. Give me strength and show me the way.

The chair he was in was made of aluminum or some other light metal, but looked to be a one-piece construction from what he could see of it. Strong, and it was bolted to the floor boards.

The handcuffs had a chain between them that was threaded through the slats of the chair. He wasn’t going to get those free.

He tried rocking the chair.

It didn’t budge. He stopped after a few moments. He was terrified they would walk back in any second and see him trying to get free. What would they do?

They probably wouldn’t kill him, because his father might demand proof of life before paying the ransom. But they could hurt him. He remembered the Getty kidnapping from his youth. They’d cut off the boy’s ear.

He looked at the table in front of him. Its long axis was perpendicular to him, with a few feet between it and the wall.

But if he turned it…

He was able to slide down in the chair and stick his leg out a fair distance. He managed to hook his right heel around one of the table legs. He pulled.

It slid his way. It wasn’t bolted down.

Working methodically, in fear every moment that the door would open, he rotated the table through ninety degrees. When he finished, the far end of the table was flush against the wall.

The near end was a little more than two feet in front of him.

He scooted back up into the seat and curled his knees into his chest. That allowed him to get both feet up against the near end of the table.

He took one last look at the door.

“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”

He pushed with both legs.

“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.”

Pushing harder. He grit his teeth.

“He leadeth me beside the still waters.”

There was a cracking noise below the chair.

He took a deep breath and pushed again, groaning now, letting the terror and adrenaline feed his strength.

The sound of wood splintering.

The chair suddenly rocked back half a foot.

The bolts on the front two legs of the chair tore free of the floor.

CHAPTER 48

DAVID CAVANAUGH STOOD still as a corpse, looking out the window of the Poplar House’s library into the cold and dark. And in fact, he felt dead.

Even if Keane succeeded in stopping Zadari and the device in Mecca was not detonated tonight, even if Kenneth was not killed in the blast, there was something that would not change.

He had failed his God.

He was, at his core, a fraud. How he would face this or if he could live with it at all, he did not know. His life had been a series of victories large and small up until this moment. He had little experience with losing, and none at all with utter defeat.

At last his own long, dark night of the soul had come. But it hadn’t ended in revelation and rebirth. And it didn’t feel as though it could ever really end. The sun, when it next arose, could not lift with it the blackness from his soul.

God, I am lost with no light to guide me.

The door opened and Cavanaugh’s personal assistant, a bright and studious young Venezuelan man whose father owned a petrochemical conglomerate, entered holding a cordless phone in his hand.

“I have an overseas call for you, from Kenneth. He sounds very upset.” He held the phone out.

Cavanaugh’s first thought was that this was Keane or someone who worked with him calling back under Kenneth’s name. But charging along right after that thought came … hope.

He took the phone and his assistant promptly left him to his privacy.

“Kenneth?” Please, please, God.

“Dad. I’m okay. I’m safe.”

Cavanaugh felt his legs tremble beneath him. He was near a chair and he sat down to keep from falling down.

“Did they hurt you?”

“No. I mean not bad. I went to the authorities and reported the kidnapping. I think they were Israelis, dad. One of them at least. There were two men. If they asked for a ransom, you—”

Cavanaugh cut him off. “You shouldn’t have gone to the police. They’re going to hold you. They’ll have lots of questions for you. Too much time.”

“Well, yes, of course,” Kenneth said. “They want to find the men responsible.”

“I can make some calls and get you released. You have to leave right away. We need to get you on a plane.”

“Dad, I’m safe. They can’t get at me here. Unless,” Kenneth’s voice dropped in volume, “are you saying the authorities may have been involved?”

“No, listen, we have to get you out of Mecca. As soon as possible.”

“What?”

“It doesn’t matter where you go. We want to avoid Israel, though. I can have a private plane made ready.”

“What are you talking about? I’m not in Mecca?”

“What?”

“I’m not in Mecca,” Kenneth said again. “I’m in Amman, in Jordon. Mecca wasn’t even on my itinerary. What made you think I was there?”

Cavanaugh’s mind raced back over the events of the last half hour. It was all a ruse.

It was all a ruse to get the name of Zadari’s target. And the Israelis who helped didn’t need to put themselves in Mecca, in harm’s way, to pull it all off. So why would they?

Somewhere deep in his gut Cavanaugh felt a stabbing pain. Hatred like one he’d never known before was being birthed in that moment.

Keane had tricked him into ruining the plan he’d spent years laying out, and blackmailed him into betraying his own faith in the bargain.

But it wasn’t over. The night wasn’t over.

And when the sun came up, it would shine blood red. He would see to that. God had given him a second chance, and he would never fail his Maker again. And Keane would pay dearly for this.

Thank you, Lord.

[_ _]

CHAPTER 49

THE UNION STATION Mall lay ahead of them, at least five more blocks. Traffic had slowed to less than a crawl.

Keane checked his watch. Nine-thirty now. Assuming Alekseev was right, and the bomb was set for exactly ten o’clock, they really were not going to have a lot of time to hunt around for it.

“We’re getting out here,” Keane said to Volkov. “We go the rest of the way on foot or we’re going to lose too much time.”

He threw the car in park and jumped out. Volkov was right there with him, flying out the passenger side. The adrenaline was already pumping so high he barely felt the night’s cold.

It only took a second or two for the cars behind them to realize someone was abandoning the town car right in the middle of traffic. Angry drivers started blasting their horns.

Someone shouted out his window, “What are you, nuts?”

Keane moved fast toward the side of the road with Volkov just behind. “Not for nothing, but I may be saving your life, asshole.”

He could see other streets feeding into the giant shopping mall, lines of headlights and taillights stretched far into the night. All the roads were equally strangled with last minute holiday shoppers.

Christmas Eve.

Zadari had picked the time for his bombing exquisitely, with an eye to generate the maximum level of outrage. If he succeeded in killing Americans on the eve of Christianity’s biggest holiday and the Sons of Man’s retaliatory nuke went off in Mecca … well, the first reaction over here was going to be jubilation, not horror.

A LIGHT SNOW fell as Keane and Volkov approached the entrance to the Union Station Mall’s parking lot. Snowflakes drifted down through the street lights decorated with red and white candy stripes, green wreaths of artificial pine boughs, and golden bells.

The exterior parking lots were choked with cars coming and going and shoppers burdened with bags full of presents.

Keane headed for the main entrance and was maybe thirty yards out when he reached over and pulled Volkov to a stop.

Two men in gray overcoats bracketed the mall entrance. Their stillness lifted them out of the stream of shoppers entering and exiting. The looks on their faces—intense. Their heads swiveled slowly back and forth as each man scanned the parking lot.

“Damn,” Keane said.

Volkov had spotted them too. “Who are they?”

So that their own stillness wouldn’t mark them, Keane led Volkov out of sight of the mall entrance and whoever was guarding it, over between a couple of parked cars.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe Potanin heard about what went down at the safe house. He doesn’t know that we have the location for Zadari’s bombing, but maybe he’s not taking any chances. He might have put those guys here just in case.”

Keane checked his weapon, Hoyle’s .45 caliber Colt Defender. He released the magazine and eyed the sighting holes. Six shot mag, and Hoyle had fired five back at the safe house.

As he reinserted the mag, Volkov was checking her own weapon, Alekseev’s nine millimeter Beretta.

She ejected the magazine and hefted it. “Eight shots here.” She popped the mag back in. “We have to assume they have men at all the entrances.”

“Yep. We could use a diversion,” Keane suggested. “Let me draw them away. You get inside there and start searching for that bomb. Focus on the areas where an explosion would result in the highest number of casualties.”

She didn’t look happy with that. “You are going to use yourself as bait?”

“I don’t see another quick route to clearing an entrance here. If we go in shooting, take them out, even if they don’t get a chance to return fire, there’s going to be a panic, possibly a stampede. That could make a search impossible.”

She looked into his eyes and drew a long breath, then let it out in a sigh. Then she took his face in her hands and kissed him. Urgently, passionately.

When it was over she said, “Don’t die. I want you.”

“Okay. Good reason.”

He left her between the cars and walked quickly toward the entrance. The two men in gray overcoats were still there scanning the Christmas shoppers coming in.

When one of the men looked directly at him, Keane made eye contact then abruptly tilted his face down, giving the man a view of nothing but the top of his head. Then he cut sideways to his right at a near trot, out of that parking row.

That should look suspicious enough.

When Keane emerged into the next row, he checked to his left at the mall entrance.

Sure enough, both men were already gone. They’d seen him all right, and they were on their way out to say hello.

So far so good. Armed men were coming to kill him, but he had the advantage. They would assume he was running when in fact he was now actively hunting them.

He continued on a path between the parked cars, across the rows, running parallel to the mall.

Keane spotted one of the men from the entrance. He was walking along the sidewalk that rimmed the mall, trying to match Keane’s pace and keeping an eye on him. Looked like he was on a cell phone or maybe a walkie-talkie.

The other one was probably coming up behind Keane. If they had them, they would try to get more men ahead of him. Stop his progress while backup closed in from the rear.

Keane knew he could intercept that backup force more quickly than they ever expected just by doubling back. And he had one more idea ready to further increase that slight advantage.

He waited until he was in between parked cars again and out of sight of the man on the sidewalk. Then he reversed his course at a full run.

Three rows back toward the mall entrance he stepped out in front of a car that was just coming out of a space and turning to exit. He faced the driver and waved his arms.

The driver stopped. Keane pointed down toward the front right tire. “You got a flat,” he shouted as he walked around to the passenger door.

The driver put the car into park.

Keane opened the door and jumped into the passenger seat as he drew the Colt. He pointed it at the driver’s head.

The man jerked back instinctively. “Don’t hurt me. Don’t hurt me.”

He was an older Asian man with thick glasses and a green and red sweater with snowmen and Christmas trees on it. He smelled of pipe tobacco, some fruit-flavored blend, and he was going to have a hell of a story to tell his family if he didn’t have a heart attack before he saw them again.

“Keep quiet,” Keane said. “We’re taking your car. My partner is watching you and he’s armed. Walk away from the mall and don’t stop walking until you get to D Street. He’ll be following you to make sure you do it. You understand?”

The man nodded.

“Now get out of the car and start walking. Keep your head down. Don’t look at my partner.”

The man nodded again. He unclipped his seatbelt and reached automatically for the keys.

“Leave the keys,” Keane said. Jesus, the poor guy was really rattled.

“Sorry, sorry.”

“Just get out.”

The man opened the driver’s door and bailed out. Keane watched him walking away from the mall, dutifully keeping his head down. He hoped he hadn’t just knocked a couple of years off the old guy’s lifespan.

Right then two men emerged from between a pair of cars, moving across the parking lanes. The coat on one of them flapped open partway. Keane saw the holster there. One of them was from the mall entrance. The other one was new. So they had picked up some backup already.

They kept walking right past Keane. Didn’t even look at the car. Exactly as he’d hoped. They were after a man on foot, after all.

That was all the advantage he needed.

Just as they finished passing the rear of the car, Keane swiftly got out. He came up on their unguarded six o’clock.

The two men turned his way but he was already on top of them. They both went for their guns. A mistake on their parts. They didn’t have the time or the distance they needed to draw, extend, aim, and fire.

And that was the whole idea.

Keane delivered a kick to the knee of the man who was closest. There was a loud snap as the bone shattered. The man screamed and started to fall.

The other one had his gun out and was starting to bring it up to shoot. Keane stepped in, caught the man’s shooting arm under his own, and pinned it to his side. The gun extended uselessly behind Keane now.

With his other hand Keane delivered a hard strike to the side of the man’s neck just below the jaw, to the carotid sinus where the vagus nerve runs shallow under the skin. The man’s eyes rolled up and he collapsed instantly.

Returning to the first man with the destroyed knee, Keane saw the guy had managed to hang onto his gun through the fall. Keane stepped on his shooting arm, bent down and stripped the weapon. The man started to yell and Keane used the gun butt to smash him in the temple.

He went limp and joined his friend in dreamland.

Keane checked his newly one weapon. A Beretta like the one they’d taken off Alekseev. At least he had more than one shot now.

He did some quick assessing. Two down, at least one more nearby. No way to know how many others were here in total. But the last time he looked, the mall entrance wasn’t covered. He might be able to get in there now and help Volkov with the search.

He hustled out of the row that had two conspicuously unconscious men on the ground.

In the next row, he turned sharply toward the mall.

Keane checked his watch as he walked. 9:35 PM.

It didn’t seem possible that they could find the bomb in what little time they had left. And with no way to know how sophisticated Zadari’s device was, Keane had no idea if they could even disarm it if they did manage to find the damn thing.

He wondered how Volkov was making out inside the mall, and hoped that at least she would come through this all right. Somehow.

She deserved to.

Too bad deserving never seemed to enter into the whole equation of how people ended up at the end of the day.

CHAPTER 50

[*VOLKOV HAD OBSERVED *]from behind a car as Keane drew the attention of the two men guarding the mall entrance.

He had played it well in her estimation. He looked suspicious, but not like he was actually trying to be seen. They took off after him straight away and left the entrance unwatched.

Amid the crush of last minute shoppers, Volkov walked right through the mall’s main entrance and past a second set of sliding glass doors.

The reassuring weight of Alekseev’s Beretta tugged at her coat pocket. She wouldn’t be able to get at it very quickly in there, but she didn’t see any scenarios right now where she’d need to outdraw someone either. Potanin’s men, or whoever was out there, would not be guarding the bomb itself. They could not afford to be that close to the explosion.

Christmas music was playing above the hubbub of thousands of mall patrons and echoed in the cavernous space. She pushed her way through a clot of people and stopped to glance at a mall map.

Nothing jumped out at her so she headed for the nearby escalators. From the second floor she would be able to look across a wide swath of the mall.

She’d be searching with Zadari’s eye, she knew. She would look for the same things he considered when he planned the bombing. Someplace near to a reliable crowd, but unlikely to be closely inspected any time soon.

She reached the top of the escalator and raced to the balcony to look out.

Lighted store signs everywhere and literally hundreds of shops in here.

This is impossible.

She checked her watch. 10:45. No time for a general search. If some particular area didn’t stand out as promising…

Then what?

She didn’t have a backup plan. She took a breath and tried to channel Zadari’s hatred and bitterness.

This was his grand revenge. Where? Where would he have chosen to make his statement as loudly and clearly as he could?

CHAPTER 51

AS KEANE APPROACHED the mall entrance he fell in behind a couple of shoppers, a man and a woman walking in from the parking lot. Some visual cover here at least.

That turned out to be a wise move. Just moments later one of the men who’d been guarding the entrance—the one who’d stayed put on the sidewalk—returned to his post.

While Keane was weighing the cost of taking him out (in terms of the panic it might ignite), four other men came up to join him. He had to assume they were all armed.

Well, that entrance is right out then.

He looked back over his shoulder just as a SWAT van pulled up and stopped in the parking lane behind him. Armed police in body armor poured out.

Aaaand it just keeps getting better.

It was bad news, but it wasn’t surprising. Potanin had a man in the FBI. Clearly he wasn’t averse to using legitimate resources whenever he could. Right now Keane was a wanted fugitive. Why not let the police help block off his access to the bombing site? It just made good logistical sense.

As Keane watched, the SWAT cops fanned out. No doubt there would be a lot more of them than the one van. There probably were vans pulling up on all sides of the mall right now.

He was at the end of the row of parked cars nearest the mall, still approaching the entrance. If he went in any further he was going to be spotted. He turned in between a couple parked cars again.

As he came out in the next lane a silver Bentley suddenly stopped in front of him. It locked up the brakes and slid two or three feet on the wet asphalt. He must’ve been made by someone in the car.

But who?

He pulled the Beretta he’d just confiscated from his coat pocket and kept it down by his thigh.

The driver’s window slid down.

David Cavanaugh sat there looking at him, grim and pale. “I know where Zadari planted the bomb. Get in.”

Keane thought it through quickly. As far as Cavanaugh knew, his son Kenneth was locked up in Mecca. Ground zero for the nuke. If he was trying to trick Keane right now, he was signing his son’s death warrant. That didn’t seem likely.

“I couldn’t let them stop you,” Cavanaugh said. “Let me help. Please. I don’t want my son to die.”

Keane took a quick look around and saw that he hadn’t been spotted by the SWAT team yet.

He opened the back door of the Bentley and climbed in, then lay down flat on the floor. “Where’s the bomb planted?”

“Near a fountain on the ground floor. I’m going to have to show you.”

CHAPTER 52

VOLKOV WALKED ALONG the brass railing on the second floor trying her best to think as Zadari must have done when he selected his exact target. He wanted to inflict maximum damage, as Keane pointed out back in the parking lot.

She felt her mind being pulled off track into thoughts of Keane’s safety. But there was no time for that and nothing she could do now anyway.

The food court to her right was crowded, particularly around McDonalds. That would not be a bad choice. But there would be cleaning crews working regularly who might spot something out of place. She let her eyes move on.

Straight ahead of her was a multiplex cinema with long lines. That would also do. Unfortunately there were at least a half-dozen places she could see just from here where the crowds were thick enough to make good targets. And no time to check them all.

She needed an additional criterion to narrow the search.

Below her some music was playing, as if from a circus or carnival. She stopped at the railing and looked down.

She saw a carousel spinning. Colorful horses and dolphins rising up and down on brass poles. Birds and fanciful animals.

And children. Lots of children.

Right next to the carousel there were even more children. A lot more. Santa’s Village. Families waiting in line to get their pictures with Santa. Eager and happy.

When Zadari’s younger brother was killed how old was he? That was 2002. He would have been a mere child.

An eye for an eye.

That was it. Zadari would aim for the children.

He would want the surviving parents and relatives to suffer just as he had. And there was no more dependable place in the entire mall to find crowds of children than right there.

She raced back to the escalators.

CHAPTER 53

CAVANAUGH STOPPED THE Bentley. Keane heard him roll down the driver’s window to take a ticket from the machine as they entered the parking structure. Keane stayed down on the floorboards in the back when they started forward again.

The floor the car had a musty smell mixed with the perfume of some carpet shampoo. Looking up through the back windows, he could see fluorescent bulbs flashing past on the low cement ceiling beams of the garage.

“How do I know that you’ll release Kenneth unharmed when all this is over?” Cavanaugh asked him, as they turned and drove up a ramp. The anxiety in his voice clear and undisguised.

Keane rose up a bit, to where he could see the back of the Brotherhood leader’s head. He really wanted to watch the man’s eyes right now, but that wasn’t an option at the moment.

“You don’t know,” Keane told him. “But what choice do you have? And what would anyone gain from that anyway? You just need to focus on getting me to that bomb in there.”

There was one step before defusing the bomb that was still bothering Keane. Getting inside the damn mall itself. “They’re going to have men on all the mall entrances from this parking garage as well as the exterior lots. That’ll be either Potanin or the police. We have to get past all that.”

They drove on the level for a short while. Then Cavanaugh made a sharp turn and the car started up another ramp.

“I assumed they would have guards. I’m not a fool.” Cavanagh sounding a bit more like his old, arrogant self again. “That’s why I’m going to go in first and tell whoever’s there that I just saw you at the entrance to the garage.”

“That should do it.”

“It will draw them off. That’s one of the advantages of being a respectable senior citizen, Agent Keane. People tend to take you at your word.”

Keane rose up again and peeked out the window. Cavanaugh was driving over some orange traffic cones that blocked off an area of the garage. Maybe they were entering was the far reaches of valet parking.

“Where is the Russian woman who was with you?” Cavanaugh asked.

“In the mall already, looking for the bomb. If we don’t—”

“Get down!” Cavanaugh seemed to have spotted something up ahead.

Keane ducked to the floor again and pulled out the Beretta.

The car came to an abrupt stop. Keane felt the clunk of the transmission being thrown into park. He heard the driver’s door open and close.

Cavanaugh had just gotten out!

There was a loud chirp and a ka-thunk as all the doors locked simultaneously.

Keane rose up quickly and looked out. They had stopped in a center thruway, with perpendicular parking lanes on both sides. And Cavanaugh was running away, back in the direction they just came from. As fast as his old man legs could carry him.

Keane turned and looked out the driver’s side windows. Someone was coming around the end of the row of cars.

Alekseev. And Potanin was there with him. Potanin was carrying some heavy hardware. It looked like that AA-12 automatic shotgun from his firing range.

The old man set me up.

Keane flung himself over to the passenger side and yanked on the door handle. But that didn’t unlock the door as some handles would.

He glanced over his shoulder out the driver’s side window.

Potanin was taking aim with the AA-12.

Keane fumbled with the unfamiliar lock mechanism in the door panel. His fingers found it. And slipped. He tried again and managed to toggle the door unlocked. He pulled the handle and shoved the door outward, following it as it flew open.

He heard the rapid BOOM, BOOM, BOOM of the automatic shotgun and the sound of safety glass bursting as he fell out of the car. As he hit the cement, four more rounds cut loose.

He laid himself out flat just as another volley of shells tore up the car behind him, spraying a tinkling rain of glass and flakes of metal onto his back.

The shooting paused a moment.

Keane felt a sharp stinging in his left forearm. He’d been hit. There was no time even to check it out before the blasts from the shotgun started up again.

The AA-12’s drum magazine held twenty rounds, he remembered. Keane tried to make a rough estimate of how many shots had been fired, but the fully-automatic shotgun discharged several rounds every second. And with all the echoing off the cement walls, ceiling, and floor—it was just a constant roar now. Impossible to count rounds.

The shooting stopped again. The echoes died down.

Are you out of ammo, or waiting for me to stick my head out?

On one level it didn’t matter. Alekseev would certainly be working his way around to try and flank Keane. Staying put just wasn’t an option.

Keeping the Bentley between himself and Potanin, Keane looked around for a retreat. He would have to get across a large open space between the Bentley and a row of parked cars, which he could then use for cover. But only if he could reach it.

But he’d be wide open crossing that space.

What he really needed now was to lay down suppressive fire. Buy a second or two of time. But he’d lost the Beretta back in the car while he was scrambling to get out. He couldn’t risk going back for it.

So he took out Hoyle’s Colt. He only had one shot in there, but they wouldn’t know that.

In his mind he had a still fix on Potanin’s and Alekseev’s last position. He squared up beside the Bentley’s front passenger door and pictured Potanin still standing down the parking row holding the big AA-12.

He lifted the gun above the car roof and fired his last shot in that direction.

As the echo of the shot continued to reverberate off all the hard surfaces in the garage, he took off running.

Two long steps and a headlong dive propelled him across that deadly open space.

The shot he fired must have at least made Potanin flinch, because the AA-12 didn’t start booming again until Keane was sliding on the cement between two cars.

More glass started flying, and somewhere a car tire exploded. But he’d made his cover. Then the shooting stopped again.

Keane scooted to the front bumper of the car he was next to now. In front of his nose a low fence made of three woven steel cables divided this parking level from the next level down. He leaned in close and looked through it. About a twelve foot drop there.

He turned himself around and squeezed between the cables feet first. He had to hang from the lowest cable, and the agony in his wounded arm made him want to scream. He was exhausted, was part of the problem too. He was losing some of his ability to resist pain.

He was still stretching his legs downward getting ready to drop when Alekseev crossed into view right in front of him.

Keane let go of the cable just as Alekseev brought up a handgun to fire.

As he dropped, Keane heard two shots and saw sparks fly off the steel cable above his head. He executed a clean parachute landing fall onto the cement below. All of that just unconscious sense memory.

He continued the roll back up onto his knees, then leapt up and raced across this parking lane and on into the next one. That put a solid line of cars between himself and Alekseev now.

A quick assessment of the area was indicated now. Give him something on which to base a strategy. Anything was better than running blind like this.

Potanin had already made a hell of a racket. The SWAT cops outside would be moving into the parking structure now—albeit with some well justified caution. They wouldn’t rush it. But they were coming.

So Keane wouldn’t have to hold out forever. Just a few more minutes.

He took a moment to check the wound. He’d been hit in his left forearm and was bleeding badly. His belt would do for a quick tourniquet. But as he watched the blood dripping off his fingertips, he suddenly had a better idea.

Halfway down the row that he was crouched in, a blue tarp caught his eye. It partially covered the bed of a white Ford pickup.

Keane headed over to it with a plan forming as he went.

CHAPTER 54

AT A NEAR run Volkov maneuvered through the crowd of parents and children waiting to see the mall Santa Claus. She headed straight to the carousel.

She got down on her hands and knees to look under the ride. Not much room there to plant a sizeable bomb of any kind.

She ignored the strange looks from the people nearby and jumped onto the carousel. She almost lost her footing, recovered, and moved toward the center of the machine, weaving through the horses and other animals past a father and daughter sitting in a giant, white swan.

The colorfully painted panels in back looked easy to remove. Probably a lot of space behind them too.

She approached one of the panels and looked for a release latch of some kind. At that moment, the section of the carousel she was on spun closer to a wall with a blue access door.

An EMPLOYEES ONLY sign on the door caught her eye. Below that a warning sign: DANGER FLAMMABLE.

Fuel for the fire.

Car bombs were often planted near automobile fuel tanks to take advantage of the additional explosive power of the gasoline. If there were a fuel source behind that door, heating oil, whatever, Zadari could magnify the effects of his bomb. He could take out this whole area with a fireball, and kill even more people in the resulting conflagration.

She didn’t wait for the carousel to spin her around again. She raced to the edge and jumped off. Losing her balance this time, she tumbled to the floor of the mall.

She startled the people nearby and they instinctively moved back.

A heavyset man stepped in and reached down to help her. “Are you all right?”

She jumped to her feet. Because the man was between her and the blue door she pushed him aside roughly. No time for niceties.

“Hey! Jesus, lady.”

She ran straight toward the blue door, hoping desperately that it was unlocked.

The last time she had checked her watch, it was less than ten minutes to ten.

CHAPTER 55

ALI ZADARI WATCHED and waited. In a few more minutes he would have his full revenge. At last.

He looked down from the second floor railing at the families below and felt … nothing.

It seemed appropriate. It was what they felt every day as children lay dead in bloody pieces back in his homeland. Soon they would know, though. They would know the pain he had felt every day since the death of his brother. They would understand the price of waging war on innocents when that war finally came home to them.

A flash of motion caught his eye. Someone travelling unusually fast. A woman with dark hair cut through the crowd and headed for the carousel. She jumped on it and was soon carried out of sight.

He moved down the rail closer to the carousel to get a better look at her. Something about the way she had pressed forward. So purposeful, so urgent.

When she came around again, she jumped off the carousel and fell down. Was she drunk?

She picked herself up and took off at a run toward…

No! She was at the blue service door now.

He raced off to stop her, his heart beating double time. Hitting the escalator, he shoved the people there aside. He ignored their outcries and protests. Nothing and no one was going to take this from him. Not now. Not this close

Somehow, someone had learned of the plan. But she was just one woman and she was alone. And he was doing the will of Allah.

His knife would soon prove that again.

CHAPTER 56

ALEKSEEV COULDN’T TELL if he’d hit Keane before he dropped to the next parking level below. He had to assume Keane was still alive and armed. And waiting for him now.

His wounded ear throbbed with pain but the bleeding had stopped. The disfigurement he’d suffered made him just that much more determined to kill Keane. And it would also make it a bit more satisfying.

Now there was also an element of revenge.

This was not the ideal terrain in which to hunt for a man. Too many places for Keane to hide. Too many shadows and unlit corners. So be it. These were the conditions. He had to make best use of them.

He walked quickly, keeping his backup gun, a Sig Sauer .357, pointed ahead in a two-handed grip. Keane or maybe Volkov would have his Beretta now. It wouldn’t do to be killed by his own gun. Bad form there.

He carefully worked his way down to the next level. There he saw something and smiled.

Blood. Drops of fresh blood. So he had hit Keane. Or Potanin did earlier. Either way Keane appeared to be bleeding profusely and leaving a trail. A nice one.

The illumination in the center of this parking lane was good enough to see the blood drops and splatter for a fair distance. The trail led halfway down the parking lane, and then it either turned out of the light or it stopped altogether.

Alekseev crept forward until he saw that the blood trail didn’t stop in the middle of the lane. No, it turned sharply toward a white pickup truck there on the right.

The back of the truck was partly covered by a blue plastic tarp. There was a bloody smear on the tailgate and a crimson swipe on the truck’s white paint job.

Blood right on the tarp too.

Alekseev had him.

CHAPTER 57

VOLKOV TWISTED THE handle and pulled. The blue access door was not locked.

She quickly slipped inside. The calliope music from the carousel behind her muffled as she shut the door. No doubt people had seen her go in. That was all right. She wouldn’t need much time if in fact the bomb was here.

She had no special bomb defusing skills, as Keane pointed out. So the logic table on possible outcomes here was simple. Either the mechanism she had to disable would be obvious or she would soon be dead. There were only a couple of minutes left, at best.

The space was narrow with a high ceiling. And rather dim unfortunately. Weak fluorescents barely managed to cast their light all the way to the floor. She could have used a good flashlight right then.

She scanned the place in a hurry.

It was dusty. That much was good. Disturbances in the dust could be useful. There was a large, red metal tank in the rear of the space.

Could that be the reason for the danger sign on the door?

She rushed over to it. And yes, it was a fuel tank.

There was a workman’s cart with some hand tools parked next to the tank. That was not the least bit dusty either.

It had clearly not been here long.

A canvas skirt all the way around the top surface of the cart closed off the space beneath. She lifted it up.

Red LED lights flashing. A digital timer read 02:15 and was counting down. Wires here and a large block of something that look a lot like off-white clay.

She had found the bomb.

CHAPTER 58

ALEKSEEV APPROACHED THE back of the white pickup with the blood streaks on it. Quietly he climbed up on the rear bumper of the big, black Toyota Land Cruiser parked next to it.

He aimed his gun down at the blue tarp that covered the front half of the pickup bed.

As he fired rapidly, eight dark holes appeared in the tarp. A neatly spaced grid pattern.

“Say hello to your partner for me, Keane.”

The shooting had masked the sounds of Keane creeping up behind Alekseev. His ploy worked perfectly and the Russian left had his six o’clock wide open.

Keane kicked Alekseev in the back of his legs and reached for the arm holding the gun as his opponent fell.

But Alekseev managed to spin as he came off the bumper. He hooked one arm around Keane’s neck. They both went to the cement together.

The fall knocked the gun out of Alekseev’s hand and it slid off under the pickup truck and out of reach.

Alekseev rolled away and just like that both men were up on their feet again.

Alekseev took a fighting stance that was loose and casual. Familiar looking to Keane. That wasn’t any Eastern form of martial art there.

Keane advanced. Alekseev stood his ground. Keane threw a kick at Alekseev’s solar plexus. He casually blocked it, then stepped in and threw a punch at Keane’s throat.

Keane swayed back from the punch and grabbed Alekseev’s outstretched wrist, twisting it hard.

But the Russian immediately threw himself into a sideways roll, going down to the cement. He broke Keane’s grip, sending a jolt of searing pain up the wounded arm. Alekseev then popped back up like he was spring loaded.

Well, this is gonna be interesting…

Systema. His enemy was trained in a fighting style similar or identical to the one Keane had mastered. And Keane’s left arm was impaired right now. Suddenly he didn’t like his odds in this fight.

Alekseev stood next to the bed of the pickup. He reached into there and pulled out a metal chain, maybe six feet of it. The Russian held the chain at two points near the middle, hands shoulder width apart. He started spinning both ends, like a sansetsukon, a three-section staff familiar to martial artists.

Alekseev lunged forward, swinging one end of the chain at Keane’s head. Keane managed to duck but Alekseev fluidly continued the attack with the other end of the chain. That end struck Keane right in his wounded arm and wrapped itself around it, digging into the torn flesh.

The pain was so intense that the whole world went white for a second. Keane felt like he was falling backwards. No, no, I can’t pass out.

In an eye blink, Alekseev had the free end of the chain wrapped around Keane’s neck. He yanked it tight as he pulled Keane close to him.

The Russian’s florid face filled Keane’s field of vision now. Keane tried to bring a knee up but he was too close to get any real force into it.

It occurred then to Keane that he had control of a fair bit of that chain too, as part of it was wrapped around his wounded arm. He dropped that arm and let the chain unwind. Then he took that end and whipped it around Alekseev’s throat, jerking it taught with both hands.

The two men were locked in a death struggle, each with a length of chain around the others’ throat. Each trying to choke the other man out.

Slowly they both sunk down to their knees.

Keane could feel his temples throbbing and his eyes bulging in their sockets. His left arm screamed in agony as he muscled the chain tighter around the Russian’s neck.

Alekseev’s bloodshot eyes, inches from Keane’s own, vibrated with hate. A vein on his forehead stuck out like a tree root that was emerging from his skull.

In a matter of moments one of them was going to pass out and get finished off by the other. But who?

[*POTANIN HOPED THAT *]Keane wasn’t dead yet. He would truly enjoy personally killing the man who dared to call him a whore to his face.

So when he came around the end of the parking lane and saw Keane and Alekseev fighting, he just smiled. Then he swapped the round, tommy-gun magazine in the AA-12 out with a new box-shaped one. The one with explosive warheads in it.

At this point Potanin couldn’t tell who was winning in the struggle, but it really didn’t matter. Alekseev and Cavanaugh were the only two men left in the world who could ever bear witness to the full extent of Potanin’s own involvement in the Sons of Man plot.

He could kill Cavanaugh and tie up that loose end anytime. Alekseev, on the other hand, was an extremely dangerous and wary man. So what was happening right now before him? Well, that presented a rare opportunity to get at Alekseev with his guard down. One had to take advantages like this when they came.

Killing Keane and Alekseev together would, if one looked at it objectively, be an eminently efficient and practical move.

And satisfying. Very, very satisfying.

CHAPTER 59

VOLKOV EXAMINED THE bomb down there on the workman’s cart.

The timer was wired directly to a car battery, and also to some kind of mechanism. That would be for closing the circuit and firing a detonator to set off that large block of plastic explosives.

The whole set-up employed only a handful of parts. There was nothing complex or of any self-defensive nature built into the design. There almost never was, she had been told by one bomb expert of her acquaintance.

Simply disconnect the battery wires and the detonator would be neutralized. That was it. And that she could do.

She heard something behind her and turned around.

The man she discovered standing there was not a half-step away. She took in his face and realized who he must be, and felt the pain in almost the same instant.

It was the bomber, Zadari.

His right hand was pressing against her chest, center left. And something horrible was happening deep inside there.

She coughed involuntarily as he drew back his hand. She knew what she would see if she looked down. She could feel the blood spreading out on her shirt.

But she did not look. She held his eyes with her own instead.

“This is God’s will,” Zadari said to her, smiling.

He kept eye contact with her and she stayed in close. She did not fall, although her knees felt like they were made of water right now.

Yes. Keep looking at my eyes you demon.

A crease furrowed the man’s brows as she continued standing there in front of him. Confusion. He was wondering why she hadn’t dropped yet.

He couldn’t know, of course.

His body and the close space between them muffled the gunshot.

Zadari stumbled back, but stayed on his feet. He looked down and spotted the gun smoking in her hand.

Too late now.

He looked up at her again and shook his head slowly. “No. No.” Then he lurched toward her, the knife still clutched in his hand.

Volkov fired three more times. A tight pattern right over the heart.

Zadari gasped once then crumpled to the floor.

CHAPTER 60

[*KEANE AND ALEKSEEV *]were both on their knees.

Keane saw spots dancing before his eyes. Alekseev must be hurting too, but the tension he held on the chain around Keane’s neck hadn’t eased up. Not a bit.

Keane figured he had only seconds left before he blacked out. And if that happened before Alekseev lost consciousness, his enemy would retrieve his gun and finish Keane right here.

Someone was moving now behind Alekseev.

Keane could just see over the Russian’s left shoulder. A man standing back there. It was Potanin. He was aiming the big, automatic shotgun right at them.

Holy shit. He’s gonna kill us both.

As crazy as that seemed, Keane didn’t put it past Potanin. Not for an instant. That meant he only had a moment to act.

He let go of the chain around Alekseev’s neck.

Alekseev immediately sucked in a huge breath. Then he shoved Keane down flat on the cement, still pulling tight on the chain around Keane’s neck.

He must’ve he’d won in that moment. And that was the idea. Let him get on top. Because that was right where Keane needed him now.

Alekseev loomed over Keane. “Time to meet the devil.”

Keane drew his legs up and set his shoes in the middle of Alekseev’s chest. “You first…”

With every atom of strength he had left, with every spark of anger at the murder of his friend and partner, he pushed up with both legs.

He launched Alekseev up and off him. Up into the air like a clay pigeon.

Then he heard the boom of the AA-12 and watched Alekseev’s whole body explode in a cloud of red and gray.

Potanin had used one of those blue artillery rounds.

Ironically, like when a fellow soldier throws himself onto a grenade, the mass of Alekseev’s body absorbed the blast.

He just saved Keane’s life.

Keane felt hot, wet gore raining down on his face as he gasped for air. He rolled away and found Alekseev’s gun under the back of the pickup. He grabbed it.

The AA-12 boomed again and the rear bumper of the Land Cruiser next to Keane went flying. Hot pain cut into his side too. Shrapnel. Damn, he was taking a lot of hits tonight.

He scooched backwards for better cover.

More shots exploded into the rear end of the big SUV, starting a small fire there in the wheel well. Keane smelled gasoline. The tank was breached. But that might actually be a good thing. That he might be able to use.

He scooted down to the front of the Land Cruiser, then climbed up on the hood, staying low behind the cabin.

Potanin fired another round. That one caused the Cruiser’s gas tank to explode. Yes. It was just the distraction Keane had been hoping for.

A huge fireball erupted, yellow, orange and black. It roiled up and flattened out against the low garage ceiling. Keane felt the big car rock beneath him. A blast of heat hit his face and hands.

He made his move, clambering onto the Land Cruiser’s roof and racing aft.

Heading right toward the fireball.

It was the last place Potanin would expect to see him appear.

Keane launched himself into the air, diving at the billowing black smoke and flames, holding the gun aimed out in front of him. He passed through that safely and in just a fraction of a second, and came out the other side of the column of flames and smoke.

And there Potanin was. Straight ahead and below him.

Standing on the garage floor with the big shotgun held level. Much too low an angle to do him any good right now. Just as Keane had figured. His enemy wasn’t expecting an aerial attack from out of the fire and clouds.

Keane’s brain made the adjustments automatically. His forward motion, his rate of fall, the angle of his arm and orientation of his body—all factored in.

He squeezed off three shots before he even hit the cement.

The impact was as bad as he expected. He cracked his head on the garage floor and briefly saw stars. A sharp pain in his chest as he rolled to a stop. Probably broke a rib or two there.

He looked up and…

Didn’t see Potanin.

He had missed. He was a dead man.

Then he looked in the other direction.

Potanin was on his back, the AA-12 by his side. Keane hadn’t missed. He just got disoriented in the roll he made after the fall and head bump.

He climbed painfully to his feet, walked over to Potanin, and kicked the automatic shotgun away. As he watched with satisfaction, the Russian billionaire lay still there on the oil-stained floor of a parking garage, bleeding profusely.

Potanin was gut shot twice. Keane had aimed for center of mass. But he missed with one shot. It caught the Russian a bit lower, in his upper thigh. Ironically was that missed shot that was going to kill the man. Bright red blood spurted rhythmically from it. The bullet had torn the femoral artery.

Potanin’s eyes were open.

“That was my partner you killed out on the street the other day.” Keane said. “This was for him. You understand.”

Potanin grimaced in pain. “Just finish it, asshole.”

“You know, it was never going to work. This was all for nothing. You do get that, right?”

“You are a little man with no understanding,” Potanin met Keane’s steady gaze with his own.

“Yeah? Well, even I know you couldn’t have contained that war you were starting to the Middle East. World-wide nuclear war. That was next. And you thought you were going to make money off that? You’re either insane or even more stupid than I imagined.”

Potanin actually smiled then. “The gun club.”

“What about it?”

“You think the nations that sign defense treaties decide when the rockets are launched? That the politicians decide? You think an elected President chooses what country to invade? That is why you are a fool, Keane. They decide nothing. They answer to us. To the gun club.”

There was no reason to doubt the words of this dying man. Keane was hearing with his own ears every conspiracy nut’s dream come true. The truth. That was the truth just there, coming directly from the source.

Potanin and the gentlemen of the gun club pulled the strings of the world.

The rest was all just theater.

Well, it wasn’t that surprising to hear. Keane’s war, the second Iraq war, had been undertaken at those people’s behest, no doubt. He always thought that had been at least a part of it. Now he had confirmation. Did that change anything? To know it for certain?

Not really.

Sirens wailed nearby. The SWAT team would be here soon. He had a decision to make, and quickly. Because Potanin’s wounds might just be survivable.

He raised Alekseev’s gun and pointed it at Potanin’s head.

And in that moment he thought of Volkov. They got the location of Zadari’s bomb here in the mall because of her. Because of her principles. Because she played by the rules.

There was something to be said for that.

And she wanted Potanin badly. It was why she came to the US, risked her career and her very life. She wanted him to face justice back home, and, in doing so to reinforce the whole system of justice there. Her homeland’s only real hope, she’d said in the diner right after they met. She needed Potanin for all that.

And she would have him. If he survived.

Keane lowered the gun. Slowly. And it might have been the hardest thing he’d ever done in his entire life.

Sorry, Pasquini. But I bet you’d understand buddy. I bet you would.

CHAPTER 61

VOLKOV TURNED AWAY from Zadari, lying dead down there on the floor. She returned her attention to the bomb on the workman’s cart. The timer read 00:45 now, and still counting down. 00:44. 00:43

She kneeled and reached for the battery wires. As she took a breath, her chest wound issued a wet, sucking sound. The world started to sway and she had to close her eyes to stop it.

She opened her eyes and the scene steadied. She disconnected the positive lead of the battery.

The timer blinked out. Done.

It was a simple mechanism, just as she had thought.

A painful cough brought the tang of blood to her mouth.

It was over. Now she just wanted to live. She wanted to live and knew that was not really up to her. Like nearly everything else.

She stood up with difficulty. The light-headedness worsening rapidly. No doubt she was losing a lot of blood internally.

She stepped over Zadari. His eyes were still open and questioning. No more answers for him.

She staggered back to the access door, almost too weak to pull it open. But the thought of dying there alone in that dim space drove her on.

And she wanted to see Keane again.

She gripped the handle with both hands, turned and pulled.

As the door opened the calliope music from outside grew louder once again. The bright lights and colors of the mall were literally dizzying, and she found it difficult to stay on her feet.

She took a few hesitant steps anyway, wanting to put some distance between herself and the access door while she could. If they found a terrorist’s bomb there before Keane could get word to the authorities to keep it all quiet and avoid that news-driven trigger … no good. It might have all have been for nothing.

Faces turned her way. Eyes widened in shock and fear.

“I need medical attention,” Volkov said to no one in particular. She coughed again and felt warm liquid running down her chin. Blood probably.

And I really, really need to sit down.

Not a chair in sight either. She didn’t want to lie down because something in her said she would never get up again. But she had no choice now.

She lowered herself gently to the floor as a mall security officer raced up to her through the crowd.

The mall floor tiles felt so cool and solid. She needed to close her eyes for a while. She thought of Keane and hoped he had made it through all this safely.

Then she let the blackness come.

CHAPTER 62

KEANE WIPED BLOOD off the crystal of his wrist watch and read it. Well past ten o’clock now. And no explosion.

Volkov must have succeeded in there.

He hoped she was on her way to the Russian Embassy now. It was the best place for her at this point. They hadn’t even talked about any of that. There had been no time for follow up planning.

He waited for the SWAT team to show up on his level of the parking garage and it wasn’t long before they did.

Potanin was still breathing when they got there.

Keane set his gun down at the first sign of their arrival and backed away from it.

Now he was following their orders to lie face down with his hands laced behind his head and doing it with as much alacrity as he was capable of, given his various wounds.

Two officers hauled him up to his feet after handcuffing him. Keane figured he must be a hell of a show. Covered in blood and bits and pieces of Kiril Alekseev, whose gruesome remains were nearby in plain sight.

Keane looked past the officers holding him and spotted Cavanaugh, neat and natty. Still the very picture of an upright character. He was standing with a handful of uniforms and plainclothes cops next to three black and whites and an ambulance all with lights flashing.

Just an upstanding citizen here to help out where I can, officers. Let’s go get the bad guys, shall we?

What had Cavanaugh said to him earlier? That one of the advantages of being a respectable senior citizen was how people take you at your word. Well, looking at the two of them right now—one man literally a bloody mess, and one nice old religious geezer in a suit—it wasn’t hard to guess whose version of the story was gonna carry more weight.

Keane watched then as an unmarked black sedan pulled up beside one of the SWAT vans. A man in a dark suit got out. Fed. Probably FBI.

That man walked straight at Keane through the throng of police and detectives.

Shit. Sugiyama. The arrest for his murder … here it comes.

The man showed his badge and ID to the cops holding Keane. Keane got a glimpse of it too. State Department. So he wasn’t FBI.

He got face to face with Keane. His expression emotionless cold and professional. “Are you Homeland Security Agent Jesse Keane?”

“That’s me.”

A pause. “Avi Fleischer says hello.”

Avi’s man in the State Department. This was him. Keane had forgotten all about it.

Keane immediately told the man, “You need to tell the local authorities to keep quiet about what they find in there. I’ll explain why, but it’s complicated and we don’t have much time.

“We’re already in touch with them. Fleischer gave me the whole story. The internet trigger. We know all about it.”

Avi’s man then informed the officers holding Keane that this case was a matter of national security. The Feds would be taking charge from here. There followed a heated back and forth on that little matter.

Several quick phone calls later, though, Keane was standing by that unmarked black sedan as the cuffs came off.

Cavanaugh wasn’t far away through all of this, hanging around talking to one of the detectives. The Brotherhood’s leader, the lead architect behind the Sons of Man and this whole plot saw the handcuffs coming off Keane.

Keane watched his face drop.

The guy had to know it was the beginning of the end for him. You could see it in the sonofabitch’s eyes.

Keane wanted to shout it out, but he kept the words to himself as a satisfying thought. I beat you, you crazy bastard. We beat all of you.

Just then two EMT’s burst of the mall hauling a gurney. Keane recognized the woman they were wheeling toward the ambulance.

It was Volkov.

They rolled her right past him. He turned to his new handler. “Hey, that’s my partner. My partner’s hurt.”

He didn’t have to explain to another law-enforcement professional the sanctity of that relationship, how it overrode everything else. The other agent just followed behind as Keane fell in beside the gurney and the two EMTs.

Volkov’s eyes were closed. Her chest covered in blood. And the primary wound looked to be right over her heart. Keane stopped breathing for a second.

Then he saw it. She was alive down there.

She was still alive.

CHAPTER 63

LIGHT AND PAIN. Lots of pain. She was awake again. An intern standing over her.

He’d been there when they brought her in, and also when Volkov woke up two days later. A California transplant to the East Coast—she had learned subsequently. He must have seen her eyes open just then. He leaned over and with a surfer accent that she had only heard on TV shows said: Hey dude, you almost didn’t make it!

She knew she would remember that line forever. One of many odd moments from the last few days that would be etched on her brain permanently.

Her doctors kept her on a ventilator for several more days. There had been a few minutes of panic earlier that same day when a nurse took the mouthpiece out. The one that kept Volkov from biting down on the breathing tube while she was unconscious. Unthinkingly, the nurse did it at the same time she turned the positive pressure on the ventilator down.

Without explaining anything to Volkov.

Volkov had to fight to breathe suddenly. She thought she was suffocating. After all she had survived, to die in a hospital surrounded by doctors…

But she was just being weaned off the ventilator. They had to do that in increments, and you needed to learn to breathe on your own again, with less and less assistance.

It would have been nice to have been told that first.

You have to ask a lot of questions here, she discovered, but of course at that early point with the ventilator in her throat she couldn’t.

Keane had already been in to see her several times. When she turned her head now he was here again. Standing by her bedside.

She swallowed and the pain in her throat was awful. “Have they found it yet?”

The Decimation Device. In her more lucid moments it was all she could think about.

“Yes, this morning.”

She nodded and felt her eyes filling with tears. Tears of relief.

Keane continued. “Potanin’s been cooperating. He gave up the men who actually planted the nuke in Mecca. And once they had those guys, it wasn’t long before they found the thing and neutralized it.”

“I am surprised.” Her voice sounded hoarse and scratchy.

“Well, he’s doing whatever he can to cut deals, is all. I’m sure it wasn’t from the goodness of his heart.”

“No. I am surprised that you did not kill Potanin. You had the opportunity, I assume.”

Some complex swirl of emotions played out on Keane’s face, but too fast for her to read.

At last he smiled. “Yeah, well. That turned out to be a good thing, didn’t it? Besides, it would’ve been against the rules. And you know how I’m a stickler for the rules.”

“Thank you.”

Keane took a moment and seemed to turn inward. Then he focused his attention out on her again. “The end justifies the means. I lived by that for a long time. And I paid for it, too. Thought it was just the price of getting things done. Some of us had to bear the burden of doing the wrong things for the right reasons. Right?”

“And now?”

“After watching you and looking at what Cavanaugh and his people were doing, or trying to do … I began to see it a little differently.”

“I’m glad you did.”

Keane nodded. “In the long run the means become the end. What you build is made of whatever you build it with. The actions. You just can’t escape that.”

“And you were thinking all this in the moment when you had Potanin at gunpoint?”

“No. I was thinking about you. About getting him back to Russia. Because you earned that, Evana. Hey, that’s just what you get for having your heart in the right place.”

She smiled. “I told you that it wasn’t.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t get the joke then. Situs inversis. One in every ten thousand people has their heart on the other side.” He touched his chest on his own right. “I always knew you were a little freaky.”

She thought about Zadari again. The confusion on the killer’s face when she didn’t collapse from a knife thrust to the heart. Or so he thought. “Zadari, he thought it was God’s will. Everything that he was doing was just God’s will. I suppose David Cavanaugh thought something like that too.”

Keane shook his head. “Yeah, probably he did. But he shoulda asked himself … how the hell would you know that? How could anyone ever know that?”

He pulled up a chair, sat down, and took her hand. They stayed like that for a while. Quietly letting the minutes slide by while doctors, nurses and interns made their rounds nearby

They didn’t speak. Words could not have improved on the silence.

She had no more idea right now what the future would bring for her and Keane than she had back in that motel room. And she didn’t care.

She didn’t fear not knowing.

CHAPTER 64

A SHIP’S HORN sounded out on the East River and somewhere nearby a car seemed to answer it with a honk. Manhattan fairly hummed with activity on this bright, clear-sky day.

The weather had been warming up all week, and even if this was a false spring, the city’s residents welcomed it anyway; it had been a particularly long and brutal winter. But today, the sun was shining on the steps of the UN Building as Keane and Volkov ascended them together.

A gaggle of TV reporters surrounded someone on the landing there in front of them. As they got closer Keane could see who it was. The former Florida governor and now Presidential candidate, Laura Bayley.

“… a cowardly end for a cowardly man,” she was saying. “David Cavanaugh was an enemy of freedom. The freedom that America, alone in the world today, holds as sacred.”

A hubbub of questions rose up from the reporters. Keane and Volkov just moved on.

A few steps away Volkov asked Keane, “Could she have been one of them, do you think?”

He considered it again, but he’d already dismissed that possibility and nothing new had changed his opinion. “She wasn’t nearly bright enough. Plus, she’s a vulture. They don’t fight the battles, her kind. They just eat the dead.”

Keane spotted a familiar face coming toward them. Avi Fleischer had been here and back to Israel several times since the Sons of Man’s plot had been taken apart.

Fleischer smiled when he saw them approaching. Keane didn’t recognize the man accompanying his old friend. He had a dark-complexion and could’ve been Middle Eastern.

“Jesse, so good to see you,” Fleischer said as he embraced Keane.

“Good to see you too, Avi.”

Fleischer then turned to Volkov. Keane suddenly realized it was the first time they’d actually met in person.

“You are Evana?” Fleischer asked.

“A pleasure to meet you, Avi,” she said.

Fleischer gave Volkov a hug too. A long one.

“Hey, hey, Romeo. Enough.” Keane said it as Volkov smiled at him over Fleischer’s shoulder.

Fleischer broke off the hug and introduced his companion. “My colleague, Ibrahim bin Nayef, security chief, Saudi Defense Ministry. A good man here.”

Keane and Volkov both shook Nayef’s hand.

“It is a pleasure to meet you,” Nayef said. “Of course Avi has been telling all me about your exploits. You are quite the heroes, both of you. We are all in your debt.”

His English was perfect. And he spoke with a high-toned British accent. Oxford or Cambridge educated was Keane’s guess.

“Mr. Bin Najaf and I are working together now on old issues, in the light of this new … relationship,” Fleischer said.

That was good to hear. The cooperation that the Sons of Man plot had begun was being continued and channeled for good now.

Bin Nayef addressed Keane again. “I watched your testimony before the UN Security Council, regarding former Secretary of Defense, Hoyle. However, I did not understand some of the technical terminology. What is ‘peckerhead’“?

Volkov and Fleischer smiled.

Keane kept a straight face. “Avi can explain it better.”

“Yes but later,” Fleischer said. “Have you two heard the news about Cavanaugh?”

“Yes. And we just saw the press interviewing someone about it,” Volkov said.

“What do you think, Avi?” Keane asked. “Was it suicide?”

“Could be. Or it could be someone covering up their tracks. God only knows, eh?” Fleischer checked his wristwatch. “We have testimony to give. I will be in touch.”

They said their goodbyes, and Keane and Volkov headed for the Dag Hammarskjold Library. Keane had always wanted to see it and finally had the free time. Which was new. And they were going to see it together, which would make it even more fun. And that part was new too.

A few yards from the library door Volkov stopped suddenly, looking very concerned.

“What’s wrong?” Keane asked.

“Nothing, I just thought … we ought to check the perimeter. You know. First.”

He laughed, then put on a serious face. “Right. I’ll take care of that. But, after I do, are we still going to…?”

Volkov smiled at him. “Oh, yes. Yes, definitely.”

Together they walked on toward the library, as above them the flags of all nations flew in a clear blue sky.

 

FREE PREVIEW

 

 

 

the

KAFIR PROJECT

by

LEE BURVINE

Foreword by

LAWRENCE M. KRAUSS

 

[_ _]

CHAPTER 1

[*THE FACE TO *]face meeting came as a huge surprise to Gevin Rees. To begin with, Edward Fischer was notoriously reclusive. The world’s most celebrated physicist never granted personal interviews to a science communicator like Rees, let alone asked for one.

Additionally, he was dead.

Or he was supposed to be anyway. Rees leaned into the salt mist blowing cold off San Francisco Bay and watched as Fischer (looking very much alive in dark sunglasses and a red and gold ‘49ers hoodie) continued to scour the waterfront.

“Are we expecting someone else?” Rees asked.

“Our muscle.”

“Muscle?”

“Yes, but we can’t wait any longer. Gevin, you’re in serious danger. You weren’t directly involved in the research, so I wasn’t as discreet with your identity as I was with the others. That was a mistake.”

“Others? Wait, what kind of danger?”

“You didn’t tell anyone you were coming out here to meet me?”

“No. I did exactly as you asked.” Rees was trying his best to look calm. Given how he really felt, that amounted to lying with his face. “Can you just tell me what the … what’s going on here, please? Everyone thinks you died in the explosion at Fermilab. They’re saying they found you. Pieces of you.”

“And that’s good. I want them to believe they succeeded in killing me. They think they’ve destroyed all my data too, but it’s still right here in my DNA. Oddly enough we owe that one to church. Herodotus will have it all soon if not already. Five hundred exabytes. He’ll be contacting you.”

“Herodotus?”

“An alias. For his protection. Another man we’re calling Anaximander is bringing the artifacts. The science I’m entrusting to you.” Fischer dug into a beaten up leather pouch he had slung over one shoulder and mumbled to himself. “It’s all coming together. The end of their authority.”

Artifacts? Jesus, he’s lost his mind. Rees wondered if the shock of the explosion had thrown the man into some kind of psychotic episode. By reputation he wasn’t all that mentally stable to begin with.

At thirty-three, Fischer was ten years younger than Rees. But right now, shaky and slump-shouldered, he actually looked the older of the two men.

He began to pull a notebook of some kind out of the pouch, but stopped in mid-motion. He was looking over Rees’s right shoulder, eyes tracking something back there.

Rees turned and looked too.

A middle-aged Japanese couple—tourists, judging by the guidebook they were consulting—strolled close by. Apart from them, this stretch of Fisherman’s Wharf near Pier 35 was mostly deserted. Swept clear by dark skies and the imminent threat of a chilling December rainstorm.

Behind the two tourists, a white van pulled up to the curb nearby and stopped.

As Rees turned back toward Fischer, the scientist jerked the pouch off his shoulder. “No! They can’t have it.” He heaved it over a nearby railing, into the bay. Then he turned back to Rees. “Run!”

Before Rees could even move, he heard a loud pop. Fischer dropped in place like someone had just flipped off his master power switch.

A man in sunglasses and billed cap, wearing a Jimmy Buffett T-shirt, stood outside the van now, maybe a hundred feet away. He held a gun in front of him in a two-handed grip. A fat, black cylinder stuck out from the end of the barrel.

Rees tried to run and couldn’t. His feet seemed bolted to the walkway.

The two Japanese tourists didn’t have the same problem, apparently. They turned and fled up the waterfront.

The gun popped again. Once, twice.

As Rees watched, the man and woman both dropped. The man lay there quietly. The woman screamed as she tried to crawl away.

A third shot silenced her.

Rees, meanwhile, had finally come unstuck.

Survival instinct kicked in and the rest was automatic. Without looking back he took a single long step and launched himself headfirst over the railing.

Another pop behind him.

Gray sky and green water rotated, trading places while he tumbled.

Cold shock as he plunged into the bay. The taste of salt water in his mouth.

Rees reopened his eyes underwater, fighting the sting after shutting them reflexively. Disoriented, twisting this way and that, he hunted for the surface, having already formed the intention to swim the hell away from it.

There

He spotted the green glow of daylight filtering through the murky waters. Above and below suddenly fell into place again in this weightless and featureless expanse.

Making his best guess, Rees swam downward and in the direction that he fervently hoped would take him back under the walkway. He couldn’t see much farther than the tips of his fingers, though. For all he knew he would be forced to resurface in full view of the gunman.

He swam using breaststroke and frog kick. On and on. The green emptiness all around killed any sense of forward progress. His lungs felt about to burst.

This had to be too far. If he were going the right way, he’d have reached—

Something materialized out of the haze in front of him. A pylon encrusted with barnacles and marine algae.

His lungs burned as he let himself float upward alongside it. It looked dark above him, so he was coming up under some kind of structure, thank God.

Rees broke the surface, purged his lungs explosively, gulped briny air then dove right back down. He held his breath as long as he could, and then floated up again for another quick lungful of air.

He repeated this process maybe twenty times.

Eventually, Rees reasoned that if the man with the gun were coming for him, he would probably have been discovered by now. The next time he came up for air, he stayed on the surface and looked around.

He was under the walkway from which he’d jumped. No sign of the shooter.

After another five minutes or so of waiting, he decided to risk a move. The situation merited an abundance of caution, so he planned to swim from pylon to pylon, staying under the walkway wherever possible, and to head for Pier 39. There was a marina over there. And people. He could call for help.

Rees had just started out when his hand bumped something floating half-submerged in the water.

Fischer’s leather pouch.

He pulled the strap over his shoulder and began to swim.

Making good on its threat, the sky finally let loose torrents of frigid rain. The splashes of thousands of heavy drops hissed loudly around him as Rees slogged toward Pier 39 and that marina. The swim seemed to take forever.

When they pulled him from the water, his teeth chattered so violently he couldn’t make himself understood.

Finally, he managed to get out two words.

Police and murder.

[_ _]

CHAPTER 2

“SOMETIMES REGULAR PEOPLE look a lot like famous people,” the officer whose nametag identified him as Honeycutt explained. “We have an ID kit that works on exactly that principle. Some guy’s got Brad Pitt’s eyes, John Travolta’s chin, or what have you.”

Within minutes of Rees being hauled out of the bay, Honeycutt and his partner had arrived at the marina in a patrol car, siren wailing and lights flashing. A rescue vehicle followed another minute later, repeating the noisy show.

“No, it wasn’t a lookalike,” Rees said. “Okay? Edward Fischer asked me to meet him here. I flew out here to meet him. He said someone was trying to kill him. He wanted them to think he was dead. But he isn’t. I mean, he may be now, but…”

It sounded insane even to Rees. And that was without the bit about the ancient Greek code names he’d intentionally left out. Nevertheless, the officers called it in. From what he could make out, a police unit was dispatched to the scene near Pier 35.

Honeycutt rode in the back of the ambulance with him for the short trip to San Francisco General.

Hospital staff in the ER stripped off Rees’s wet clothes and buried him under layers of warm blankets.

Shortly after that, Officer Honeycutt took the full report. Lanky and bug-eyed, Honeycutt actually looked a lot like a young Christopher Walken—though Rees certainly wasn’t going to mention it.

“So you got a phone call last night from Edward Fischer?” Honeycutt asked.

“He called me in New York.”

“This is after he was killed in the explosion?”

“Yes. No. Obviously he hadn’t been killed. He wanted me to meet him here in San Francisco. And no, he didn’t say why. Just that no one could know. I grabbed the first flight out of La Guardia this morning.”

“And were you friends? Had you worked together?”

“No. We’d spoken before, just once. I’m a science communicator.”

“Uh huh. And what is that exactly?”

“Well, you’ve heard of Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson? I’m basically in the same line of business.”

Honeycutt jabbed a finger at Rees. “Ah, yeah. On TV, right?”

This was good. At least the officer might be less inclined to think he was just some random lunatic. “You recognize me now.”

Honeycutt shook his head. “No, sorry. I’ve seen those other two guys.”

“Oh. Anyway, the point is that’s why Fischer wanted to speak with me. There was some science he needed to make clear to the public, to non-scientists. Something that he was working on.”

“Right, okay.” Honeycutt wrote something in a spiral notepad.

In Rees’s imagination the officer was drawing a caricature of him in a straightjacket, running away while men in white suits with giant butterfly nets chased after him.

Honeycutt asked for a description of the gunman. Rees couldn’t give him much. Only that the shooter had been a white male of average height and weight, who might have had blond hair. He apologized for not being able to offer more.

“No, that’s good. It’s a good start.” Honeycutt put away his pad and pen, and excused himself to check in with his superior.

Rees lay back under the mound of blankets in the busy ER, amid the beeps and pings of medical monitors, and the sharp smell of disinfectant. Pins and needles sensations pricked his hands and feet as the restored blood flow woke up the peripheral nerves there.

He closed his eyes and tried to put it all together.

Six months ago, when he got that first call from Edward Fischer, he thought a colleague was pranking him. The famous physicist’s Brooklyn accent and staccato cadence were easy enough to imitate. Rees humored the caller, working in a few wisecracks about Fischer’s well-known eccentricity, which was said to border on outright insanity.

When he realized it really was the great scientist on the phone, he felt simultaneously thrilled and mortified. “Dr. Fischer, I’m so sorry. I really thought someone was pulling my leg.”

“Not to worry. It was a reasonable hypothesis. Also, I’m well aware people think I’m half-crazy. They’re right. It’s fortunate for me the other half of my mind functions pretty well.”

Fischer informed Rees that his current research, when completed, would be impactful—as he put it. He wanted to know if he could call on Rees when the time came to help make it all more comprehensible to the general public.

“Yes, of course,” Rees told him. “That’s what I do, and I’d be honored. But I have to ask—when did you become concerned with what the public understands?”

The popular press loved to compare Fischer to Albert Einstein. In temperament, however, Fischer was more like the solitary and obsessive young Isaac Newton. He made Rees, who also tended to keep people at a distance, look positively gregarious.

Fischer replied, “I’m concerned with the public’s understanding because their confidence in the accuracy of this work affects its larger purpose. Beyond that, I can’t say anything right now.”

Rees wondered if perhaps all this was about some breakthrough in climate change modeling. The credibility of science and the course of public policy did intersect there. But before he could say anything, Fischer spoke again.

“Gevin, I understand you’re not a religious man.”

“I … no, not in the traditional sense.

“You were raised Mormon, though.”

Where the hell did that come from? Rees knew the information was out there on the internet. But it was hard to picture the twenty-first century’s most famous genius seated at his desk, Googling your name.

“Yes, I was a Mormon,” Rees said. “Can I—”

“How did you lose your faith?”

And it gets even weirder. “Okay. Well, as you yourself are fond of saying, the theory didn’t fit the evidence. Israelites in the Americas. The ‘reformed Egyptian’ and the Anthon transcript. It just doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny.”

“And did it stop there?”

Rees wasn’t sure exactly what Fischer meant, but the conversation was making him increasingly uncomfortable. “Can I ask what all this has to do with the work you want me to help popularize?”

“Thank you for your time, Dr. Rees.”

Fischer disconnected then without even giving him a chance to say goodbye. Was he offended by something Rees had just said? The whole call had been exceedingly strange. He remembered it had left him wondering for days whether there was something he missed.

He opened his eyes at the sound of approaching footsteps in the ER.

Officer Honeycutt was returning. Something in his demeanor had shifted. It was subtle, but Rees picked up on it right away.

Honeycutt reached Rees’s bedside and stood looking down at him, eyes probing. “Sir, are you currently under the care of any physician or institution we should notify?”

Tactfully put, but the meaning was clear enough. Rees sat up in the hospital bed. “I know how crazy this sounds. But one of those poor people back by Pier 35 really is Edward Fischer. The Edward Fischer. Was anybody still alive there?”

Honeycutt paused a moment. “I just spoke with my supervisor, sir. The units that responded to your report didn’t find anything at that location.”

“What do you mean, ‘anything’? No bodies?”

“No bodies. No blood. No bullet holes or shell casings. On the chance that you may have misremembered or been confused about which part of the wharf you … jumped from, officers checked the nearby piers. Nothing there either.”

The rainstorm.

It had poured down buckets as Rees swam for the marina. The rain must have washed away any blood. As for bodies and shell casings, well, obviously the gunman didn’t want to leave any evidence behind. And apparently he did not.

“So what now?” Rees asked. “Someone killed three people today. And tried to kill me too. Dr. Fischer said I was in danger. And that gunman is still out there.”

Officer Honeycutt nodded along, as if he agreed completely. “What we’ll do, sir, is we’ll file a suspicious incident report. My supervisor will be looking into this thoroughly.”

“A suspicious incident report?”

“Yes, sir. That’s really about all we can do at this point. Would you like us to contact your family?”

“No, thank you.”

Officer Honeycutt finished by asking if Rees was staying in town and if so where? Rees gave him the name of the hotel Fischer had instructed him to use. He was too tired and mixed up to attempt to fly back to New York right now anyway.

Honeycutt produced a business card and handed it to Rees. “You can reach me at this number if you have any questions.”

Rees read the card and looked up again. “I’m not crazy, Officer Honeycutt.”

“I didn’t say you were, sir.”

“I know how this sounds. If I were you, I don’t guess I’d buy it either. But just … please. Just take this seriously. Because something very strange and terrible has happened here. And someone needs to get to the bottom of it.”

Honeycutt nodded with a solemn expression. “We’ll do everything we can, sir.”

And that was it. Officer Honeycutt left.

Rees looked around at the controlled chaos of the ER.

Nearby, hospital staff cut the bloody clothes off the victim of a car accident and prepped her for emergency surgery. It brought back an unwelcome memory from Rees’s teens, images of his late sister. He felt a pang of sadness mixed with resentment, and turned away.

The room was buzzing with life and death crises. And as was the case with many big city ER’s, the resources here appeared to be strained to their limits. If someone walked in off the street, claiming to suffer from a severe allergy to leprechauns, not a lot of staff time and energy would be assigned to him.

The San Francisco Police Department was in exactly the same boat. Rees didn’t think they were really going to investigate the shooting of a man who had already died the day before.

The two Japanese tourists, the only other eyewitnesses, had to be dead now too. If they were foreign nationals here on vacation, it could be days or maybe even weeks before the SFPD received any formal inquiries regarding their disappearances. Would someone then connect two missing tourists back to Rees’s “suspicious incident” report? He didn’t know, but it didn’t seem very promising.

You’re in serious danger, Fischer had told him.

Three thousand miles away from home, in a city where he knew virtually no one except a colleague or two he might see at a scientific conference, he felt completely alone. Ordinarily, that was a condition Rees immensely enjoyed, even cultivated.

Today, he would happily make an exception.

He lay back down in the bed and tried to think productively. Somebody wanted him dead. It might help to know more precisely…

Why?

He needed to plan his next move. But it was no use theorizing without any real data to work with. Somehow, on his own, he would just have to generate it.

How he’d do that, he didn’t have a clue.

An orderly appeared then, carrying Rees’s wet clothes in a clear plastic sack. And something else.

Fischer’s waterlogged leather pouch.

CHAPTER 3

TERRY SABEL DIDN’T have to wait long to move the bodies. Night fell early in Northern California this time of year. Even earlier than usual with the day’s overcast sky.

Not that Sabel minded waiting. He didn’t mind anything, really.

It was part of his special talent.

You gotta find your special talent, and when you do, that’s what you do. And nothing else. That’s what Sabel’s old man always said.

He piloted the rented boat on a heading due west. The Point Bonita lighthouse beacon drifted back lazily on the starboard side, as a chill wind tousled his light blond hair.

Sabel thought about his own special talent. It had taken him thirty three years and four tours of duty to find and fully engage it. But he had. Just a matter of applying his unique assets where they produced the most results.

He learned that you got some leverage when you could do things other people can’t. Turns out you got even more when you could do things other people won’t.

The boat’s engines thrummed steadily as the Golden Gate Bridge and the lights of San Francisco receded behind him. The smell of diesel smoke mixed in with the living scent of the sea brought back pleasant memories. Fishing in the Gulf of Mexico with his father.

Sabel’s old man was a shrimper with a small, two-man operation out of Carrabelle, a pissant town in the Florida panhandle. When Sabel was old enough, he started helping out with the family business. By the time he was seventeen, he’d learned all there was to know about the ship itself and the fishing end of the whole deal. He replaced the second crew member permanently.

Sabel was out at sea with his old man on the day he died.

They got caught in a furious rain squall. His father was out on deck, hauling the nets when he lost his footing and fell overboard.

Sabel grabbed a life preserver and ran to the rail.

His father looked up and spotted him there. “Terry. Throw it!”

That’s when it happened.

Sabel’s father was a violent drunk. And though he hit his son pretty regularly after getting sauced, the old man saved the real beatings for Sabel’s mother.

He wasn’t mad at his father for any of that stuff—at least he didn’t think so. He wasn’t sure what anger felt like, but he knew what it looked like and he’d never behaved that way.

But Sabel’s father had got to be a real problem for their family and its little shrimping business. His drinking reached the point where he missed good fishing days. The beatings were getting worse too. Sabel’s mother feared for her life, and with good reason.

And Sabel didn’t understand the business end of shrimping at all. That was entirely her thing. For that reason, he needed her to stay well and functioning.

What they both didn’t require any longer was Sabel’s alcoholic dad.

As his father sputtered and thrashed in the rough seas, Sabel stopped there at the rail and set the life preserver down on the deck.

“What are you doing?” his dad shouted up. “Throw me the damn thing!”

The rain hammered down thick and heavy—a gray curtain, cutting them off from the eyes of the world.

Sabel could barely even see his dad out there in the water. But it looked like he’d managed to catch hold of a section of the net. Yes, he was pulling himself in toward the boat now.

Sabel ran aft, found what he needed, and returned to the rail.

By then his father had made his way to the side of the boat. He was using the shrimp net like a rope ladder. Already halfway back up.

Sabel extended the gaffing hook down to his father.

His father stretched his hand out for the pole. It was just out of reach.

“Lower, Terry. Hold it lower. I can’t—”

Sabel lunged down and gaffed the side of his father’s neck. Then he heaved back hard with both arms and squatted down, levering the pole off the gunwale.

His father’s full body weight now held him dangling on the hook, which ran behind his trachea and exited his neck under the right ear.

Sabel’s father gurgled horribly and grabbed for the pole. He tried to free himself, but it was no use. The gaffing hook did exactly what it was designed to do.

Keep a flopping catch from working itself loose.

When his father finally stopped struggling, Sabel lowered him back into the water until he floated there on the surface. With the weight off the hook the gaff slid out easily, like it should. That’s why you don’t ever want to use a barbed gaff.

It was something the old man had taught him.

As the rains continued to drench him, he silently thanked his father for being a good instructor, and always providing the right tools.

[*SABEL HAD REACHED *]his destination and cut the engine. This was far enough off the coast for the corpses to sink deep and to rot in peace and privacy.

He dropped the bodies into the dark waters one by one, in no special order. Whatever rank they’d reached in life, they were all on equal footing now. The fish and crabs certainly weren’t going to taste any difference.

Sabel restarted the engine and steered the boat back toward the mouth of the bay. As the lights of the city grew brighter, he considered his next objective.

The ambulance had taken Gevin Rees to San Francisco General. The hospital itself would not do as a working location. Too many witnesses. Security cameras to boot. You could go in disguise, but that sort of Mission Impossible shit worked better in movies.

Rees’s background information indicated no close contacts in the Bay Area, so the man was likely to end up in a hotel somewhere. That would do just fine.

The boat’s engine thrummed on. The smell of the ocean and the diesel smoke once again returned Sabel’s mind to those teenage days back on the shrimp boat with his father.

Fond memories, all.[* *]

[* *]

CHAPTER 4

WHILE THE HOTEL desk clerk processed his credit card, Rees watched CNN on the lobby’s TV monitor. No sound, but the chyron beneath the picture displayed the headline: BREAKING NEWS.

The scroll beneath that summed up the story. DNA analysis of body parts confirmed it, and federal investigators had made the official announcement.

Edward Fischer died in yesterday’s blast at Fermilab.

Yesterday.

At Fermilab.

Federal investigators.

Rees didn’t want to follow the line of thinking this news story suggested, but he couldn’t stop himself. Whatever was going on here, it reached into the US government. Those DNA tests had obviously been faked.

What the hell have I gotten myself into here?

A decidedly upper class clientele passed through the lobby, paying no attention to the TV monitor. The Mark Hopkins on Nob Hill provided by no means the most affordable hotel rooms in the City. But Fischer had absolutely insisted Rees should go there and nowhere else.

Rees finished checking in, grateful that he still had his wallet. The cell phone was a goner, though. And he’d abandoned his overnight bag out by the pier. If the killer didn’t take it, someone else certainly would have by now.

San Francisco General Hospital had dipped into its clothes bank—items left behind and laundered along with the hospital’s linens—to provide Rees with shirt, pants, jacket, and a pair of very new looking Nike running shoes that actually fit reasonably well.

He politely passed on the proffered secondhand underwear and socks. Thanks, but no thanks.

Once he’d finished checking in, he headed up to his suite.

The first thing he did there after he dead-bolted the door and attached the security chain (did those little brass links really stop a determined intruder?) was to take a long, hot bath.

He did his best thinking in the tub. A personal quirk that left him feeling let down whenever business travel landed him in a hotel room with only a shower.

As condensation fogged the bathroom’s gilded mirrors, Rees soaked the remaining chill out of his bones and debated with himself on whether he ought to call someone back in New York and explain what was going on out here.

But who? And what exactly would he tell them?

That Edward Fischer wasn’t really dead, except now he was? That a dark conspiracy was underway at the level of the US government, by persons unknown, for reasons unknowable?

“Yeah,” he said to the bathroom ceiling. “That would go over great.”

His assistant was aware of the impromptu trip to San Francisco and would hold down the fort as usual. Per Edward Fischer’s instructions, Rees had made up a vague story about a relative’s medical emergency. He’d given no timetable for return.

As luck would have it, there were no interviews or TV appearances scheduled for the next several days. Rees had a deadline for a Scientific American article coming up at the end of the week, but he’d finished the first two drafts. It only needed a polish. He could get to it later.

For the moment, Rees could do what he wanted. And he wanted to find some goddamn answers.

If he went public now with what he’d seen and nothing to back it up, it would only damage his reputation. He might be safe confiding it all to a close friend, but for the small matter of his not really having any. Warm acquaintances both professional and personal, sure. Closer than that and the risk/reward ratio just didn’t work. Not for him.

People ultimately disappoint. He’d learned that long ago.

So, no phone calls. No statements to the press.

For better or for worse, you’re in this thing alone.

The bath water had gone tepid. Rees climbed out of the tub, toweled dry, and wrapped himself up in one of the hotel’s luxurious, terrycloth robes. Thinking next, as he always did, that there was no good reason to wear anything but one of these things. Ever.

He carried a dry, white towel with him out of the bathroom and spread it out across the hotel room’s mahogany writing desk. Then he removed Fischer’s wet leather pouch from the clear plastic bag in which the hospital had returned it to him.

The police and hospital staff had just assumed the pouch belonged to Rees. At first he thought the bag’s contents might connect it to Fischer, and support his story. Then he realized he couldn’t establish a timeline to prove he hadn’t just possessed the pouch since before Fischer was supposedly blown up.

So, on the chance that something in there could throw some light on all of this, he decided not to inform the police of their mistake. He kept the pouch and its contents for himself.

Rees carefully removed those contents again, one item at a time, and laid them out on the towel.

“All right, let’s take another look at all this stuff.”

Green, spiral notebook thoroughly waterlogged. He set that aside.

Bus schedule from Greyhound. That didn’t look very promising.

Next, he gently pulled out several soggy, loose sheets of paper, covered in mathematical expressions and the occasional brief note. Most of them were badly smeared.

One loose sheet stood apart, inasmuch as it had not been authored by Fischer—a printout of a published paper on DNA synthesis. Something about the author byline drew Rees’s attention. Upon closer inspection, he didn’t recognize any of the scientists listed there. He moved on.

Toothbrush. Cheap reading glasses, and…

“Hey, hey, hey. Where’d you come from?”

Something there at the bottom of the pouch he hadn’t noticed back in the ER. A black, plastic flash drive.

Unsurprisingly, the drive was as wet as the rest of the pouch’s contents. It might be waterproof, many were these days, but if not, borrowing a laptop and plugging the flash drive in with any moisture present would fry it.

He set the drive on the towel to dry out thoroughly. Then he returned to the green notebook. Fischer had written #127 on the cover. Maybe this was part of a series?

Rees opened it. As with the loose sheets the ink here had smeared, though not quite as badly. Large portions were perfectly legible.

The entries were dated. Turning to the very last page showed the notes there had been made about five years ago. Why had Fischer been carrying around this particular old notebook?

The notebook’s contents looked familiar to Rees, as they would to any astrophysicist with the requisite mathematical training.

The first section contained explorations of the Einstein Field Equations for General Relativity. These ideas alternated back and forth with novel formulations of the Dirac and Yang-Mills equations, which suggested thinking more along Quantum Mechanical lines.

“What are you up to here, Dr. Fischer?”

Further along, Rees found formulae representing higher dimensional structures called D-Branes. Some form of String Theory there. An angry hand had viciously crossed out several pages of those expressions, rewritten them somewhat differently, and crossed them all out again.

“Well, that didn’t quite work for you, did it?”

The ideas in the notebook seemed at war with each other. And no surprise there, really. Relativity was in a sense at war with Quantum Mechanics. Or if not war, then at least hostile estrangement.

Relativity described gravity and the universe on a vast, cosmic scale. Quantum Mechanics operated mainly at the sub-atomic level and described the other three fundamental forces. Each theory required the other for completeness, but no one had succeeded in marrying them together into a workable theory of Quantum Gravity.

Rees turned another page and stared at it for a full minute in wonder.

“What in the world?”

Something bizarre and elegant, to be sure. Still mathematical expressions of some kind here, but the symbols and diagrams were entirely unknown to him.

Fischer had written out something like a key at the bottom of the page and on the next few pages, along with a note.

not workable, nothing for it

but the Newtonian approach

“The Newtonian approach? Calculus? This thing is already filled with calculus.”

Rees flipped forward through the notebook.

The strange notations decorated the pages like some kind of fantastic alien artwork. He could sense something here of enormous power and beauty, and the effects of it were almost hypnotic. He felt his mind relaxing open.

And as he flipped back to Fischer’s key, it came to him.

Nothing for it but Newton’s approach.

“Jesus. He’s invented a whole new mathematical discipline.”

When Newton developed his laws of motion and optics, the mathematics available to him at the time were inadequate to the task.

So he simply invented the calculus.

Apparently Fischer had done the same sort of thing here.

Rees studied Fischer’s key, applying it to the complex expressions that filled the rest of the notebook. He flipped back and forth, slowly but steadily teasing out the ideas expressed in this glorious new language that he was reading.

And as he did, Fischer’s math completely transported him. He no longer sat in a hotel room in San Francisco. He was soaring above a landscape of pure idea.

This was the world Rees had longed to live in since his teens, a world beyond human cares and woes. An eternal place, shining and true, that revealed itself only to the pure of mind. This was the very reason he had turned to science as his passion. To live and work here, among the forces that shaped the universe and ignited the stars.

 

SABEL PARKED THE van at the bottom of Nob Hill and walked up Mason Street toward the Mark Hopkins.

The wet, black asphalt shone like volcanic glass, reflecting the rubies and diamonds of car taillights and headlights as they passed.

Finding this target had been a routine matter. Gevin Rees left a local address with San Francisco General as part of their standard patient processing protocol. The government ID Sabel had flashed at hospital staff gained him easy access to their records.

Through his shoes, Sabel felt the faint vibration of the twisted steel cable whirring beneath the street. The power that drove the city’s cable cars flowed underground, out of sight.

Where all real power dwelled.

A tingle arose deep inside him. A city at night, even cold and damp like this, always excited Sabel. Darkness invited those who didn’t fear it. And fear was another emotion that Sabel only knew from witnessing it.

But he had done that many, many times.

Go to…

 

kafirproject.com to learn more about the controversy behind the new novel


Decimation

When an atomic bomb detonates in the Arabian desert, a shadowy Christian group called The Sons of Man takes credible responsibility. Their open communique contains an ultimatum. They have another bomb, and it's already hidden in some major Islamic population center. It too will be detonated in the event of any future radical Islamic attacks on the USA or her allies. Decimation, the ancient Roman disciplinary strategy. If one in your ranks or village runs afoul of the rules, you too may pay with your life. Therefore police yourself, or be prepared to face the consequences. Enter Jesse Keane, a Homeland Security Agent and former Marine with a scarred conscience and the liquor bills to prove it. He's happy enough to let the ultimatum stand, despite orders to get to the bottom of it. Until he uncovers a terror plot on US soil that's ongoing despite the Sons of Man's terrible threat. Keane dives in to stop the plot, and falls down a rabbit hole the leads to the halls of the world's military, religious, and financial power. If he fails, Armageddon follows. And the forces lined up to stop him constitute a deadly power block of strange bedfellows like the world has never known.

  • Author: Lee Burvine
  • Published: 2016-10-06 23:05:31
  • Words: 73989
Decimation Decimation