Eleven months earlier
THE TWO MEN STANDING IN the shadows of the gate watched as a woman dressed head to toe in flowing black robes walked toward them. They’d been following her progress since she’d left the village road a mile away and started down a long dirt path to the compound. But night was falling, and concealed by the loose clothing and veil, there was little they could see of her or what she might be carrying.
“Halt,” said one of the men, stepping into the middle of the road and pointing his AK-47 at her. “What do you want, woman?” he demanded nervously in Arabic.
Startled by the man’s sudden appearance and threatening gesture, the woman stepped back with a small cry. “I am sent
from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” she replied, also in Arabic but in a dialect more in keeping with northern Iraq. “I bring a message for Ghareeb al Taizi.”
The second man now stepped out onto the road. “What did she say?”
The first man frowned and turned to his companion. “What? Speak Arabic. I don’t understand Persian. Besides, it is an infidel language and grates on my ears.”
“And I have a hard time understanding your old-fashioned babbling,” the second man retorted in a halting Arabic. “You Saudis are full of goat shit, so high and mighty when if it wasn’t for oil, you’d all still be wandering the desert on camels. But watch your tongue, sand flea, or did you forget you’re speaking to a VAJA officer?”
“Ah, yes, VAJA, the vaunted Iranian intelligence agency. How could I forget? You are constantly reminding me,” the Arabian scoffed. “But I’m not afraid of you. I’ve fought in Libya, Yemen, Chechnya, and now here with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, where nobody gives a shit who you are. I’m a jihadi, not some spy sneaking around like a snake.”
The two men glared at each other for a moment before turning back to the woman. “Never mind your ignorant insults, what does she want? I don’t understand her dialect,” the Iranian said, pointing his own gun at her.
“She said she is from the Commander of the Believers, al-Baghdadi, and that she has a message for al Taizi.”
“How do we know she is not a spy?” the Iranian asked. “I don’t trust women. Like that Chechen whore the Russian brought as his bodyguard; there’s something funny about her.”
The Arabian laughed. “Watch what you say around her, and even how you look at her. I agree, she has no shame and won’t cover her hair and face, and those tight-fitting clothes are an affront to Allah. But I’ve heard stories from Chechnya about Ajmaani that would curl your hair. That ‘whore’ could cut out your heart and show it to you with a smile while it was still beating. She’s no village cow like this one here.” He gestured to the woman, who waited quietly for them to finish their argument.
“As I said, how do we know she is telling the truth?”
The Saudi wrinkled his nose. “Well, she’s definitely from this region; I can tell by her peasant Iraqi Arabic and the way she smells like a goat.” He addressed the woman. “You would have been told our password. Say it now, and I’ll take you to al Taizi.”
The woman’s brow knitted and she hesitated. The two men gripped their weapons and began to walk toward her. “ ‘Who dies today is safe from tomorrow’s sin,’?” she blurted out, and fell to the ground groveling as if in fear. “Please, do not hurt me.”
The Saudi kicked at the woman. “Get up. That was correct.”
“What kind of a password is that?” the Iranian scoffed.
“It’s an old proverb that al-Baghdadi likes. No one else would think to use it.” The Saudi bent over to look at the prostrated woman. “What is this message you have for al Taizi?”
The woman looked up. He expected to see fear, but there was none. Just a sort of sad reluctance for what was about to happen. “Only that may Allah have mercy on your souls.”
The Saudi stepped back and began to bring his weapon to bear on her. “Her eyes,” he said to the confused Iranian.
“What about them?”
The woman answered for him. “They’re gray.”
There was no time for any more questions. Death arrived for the Saudi with an angry whiz followed by a heavy thud, and a grunt escaped his lips like he’d been punched. The bullet struck him in the center of his chest, deconstructed his heart, tumbled, and then exited out his lower back, creating a much larger hole coming out than going in. He was already dead as he looked down in bewilderment. He sighed and crumpled to the ground.
The Iranian was still trying to understand what had just happened when the sound of a muffled gunshot arrived a moment later. By then it was too late for him as well; a second 7.62 caliber bullet from an M40A5 sniper’s rifle struck him in the temple, and half of his head disintegrated into a fine red mist.
Lucy Karp lay still. The shots had come only seconds apart, but she knew they were from the same rifle fired by a single sniper. In fact, the shooter was Ned Blanchett. And she also knew that the footsteps of two men running in her direction from the desert belonged to John Jojola and Tran Van Do.
While she’d walked openly from the village and down the path toward the mud-walled compound to draw the attention of the now dead guards, the two old guerrilla fighters had worked their way carefully up a small ravine and then waited for her to fall to the ground. That was her signal that the target was present in the compound and the mission should go forward, beginning with Ned taking out the guards she’d drawn into the open. She’d also ascertained that the target, al Taizi, was present before she gave the signal to attack into the microphone hidden behind her veil.
“You okay, Lucy?” Jojola asked as he ran past.
“Yeah, I’m good,” Lucy replied, quickly pushing herself up off the ground. She slipped into the shadows beneath the gate as her two friends dragged the bodies of the dead men next to the outside wall. Then they joined her.
“You see anyone else?” Jojola asked, turning his craggy bronze face toward her, his dark eyes seeming to gleam with adrenaline, even in the shadows. A former Army Ranger who had served in
Vietnam, Jojola was a member of the Taos Indian Pueblo in New Mexico. He had, in fact, been the pueblo’s police chief trying to catch a child killer until a chance encounter with Lucy and her mother, Marlene Ciampi, resolved the case and somehow many years later led to this small isolated village in Syria.
“I couldn’t see much beyond the gate,” Lucy replied. “But I think our spy in Ramadi was right. These guys might be afraid of drones, but they’re so far off the beaten path here, they’re not too worried about boots on the ground. The guard was minimal and careless.”
“There’ll be others in the compound,” Jojola said, “including the targets.”
“We have to go set up,” Tran, a former member of the Vietcong and once the mortal enemy of Jojola, interjected. “Espey and the others will be here in less than a minute.”
The two men split up and moved quickly to take up positions covering the largest of the buildings inside the compound. They’d hardly melted into the shadows before the MH-60 Black Hawk helicopter appeared overhead and four men rappelled down a rope. The last of these was S. P. “Espey” Jaxon, the federal antiterrorism agent who led the team. He made his way to where Lucy waited, while the others, on a signal from Jojola, moved toward the building, advancing one at a time across the open space.
About the same time, someone from one of the other buildings shouted in Arabic and opened fire. He missed, but the member of Jaxon’s team who turned to deal with the threat did not. Even so, the element of surprise was gone.
There was a flash and a bang as the team blew open the main door of the large building and entered. The sound of gunfire and hand grenades erupted from inside, then it stopped abruptly. Someone whistled. “Let’s go,” Jaxon said to Lucy, and they ran for the building.
The lighting inside was dim but enough for Lucy to see bodies lying in doorways and sitting against blood-spattered walls. They were all “bad guys” and none from the team, who were searching the rooms and removing equipment and papers like high-speed burglars.
Up a flight of stairs, past four more bodies, and at the end of the hallway, Jaxon and Lucy entered what appeared to be a mission-planning room with several laptop computers on a large table and maps on the walls, including a big one of Yemen on the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula and others of countries in the Middle East and Africa. A chill ran down Lucy’s spine as she noted maps of Europe and the United States with colored pins stuck in some cities. Members of the team were taking photographs of the maps before rolling them up and sticking them in aluminum tubes.
However, it wasn’t the maps that drew Lucy’s attention but the bodies near, and in some cases slumped over, the large table. She hadn’t expected so many of them. A neatly coifed, dark-haired middle-aged man with a small mustache sat in a leather chair staring up at the ceiling through dead eyes, a neat bullet hole centered in his forehead. He was dressed like a wealthy businessman, in a tailored dark suit with a starched white shirt and black tie. Next to him, an immensely fat man with a swarthy face, also in a business suit, though his was ill fitting, slumped in his chair with both hands pressed against his chest. A large stain spread out through his fingers. His breath came in ragged gasps and then stopped altogether. Two younger men in leisure suits lay on the floor behind them, clutching semiautomatic handguns they’d had no chance to shoot before bullets caught them in the face.
Across from them, a large, florid older man with an enormous belly, short silver hair, and wearing a camouflage shirt and coat lay on the table with a knife protruding from his back. His head was turned to the side and his sightless blue eyes registered surprise. He seemed to be looking at the head of the table, where the last dead man sat upright; he’d been shot in the mouth, and a trickle of blood ran from his lips. He was dressed in a black sweatshirt, baggy black pants, and a black turban.
Sheik Ghareeb al Taizi, Lucy thought. One of the targets,
except we’d hoped to capture him. But who are all these other guys? Who killed them? Her eyes shifted to the other target, a strikingly beautiful woman sitting calmly in a chair at the other end of the table. She was looking at Lucy and smiled when their eyes met. “Lucy Karp,” she purred in heavily accented English. “Good to see you again.”
“Nadya,” Lucy replied without emotion. “Or are you Ajmaani this evening?”
Nadya Malovo shrugged. “I’m whoever I need to be when I need to be someone. But I prefer Nadya among old friends. Isn’t that right, Ivgeny?” she asked in Russian as she turned to a tall man with a scarred face and a patch over one eye who stood next to her with a gun pointed at her head.
Listening to Malovo talk, Lucy understood how she could pass herself off as Ajmaani, a supposedly Muslim terrorist from Chechnya. Even speaking English or Russian she has a touch of a Chechen accent; almost perfect, Lucy thought. However, she could still discern that underneath it all Nadya Malovo was a native Russian speaker from the area around Moscow. Lucy was a “super-polyglot,” a savant fluent in more than six dozen languages, as well as several dialects.
As such, Lucy had immediately identified the first guard at the gate as being a native of Medina in Saudi Arabia. She’d
been surprised that the second guard spoke Persian. “Educated, upper middle class, said he was with VAJA,” she’d told Jaxon while they waited for the firefight to be over.
“Iranian intelligence,” he’d replied, his eyebrows scrunched together. “What was he doing here? We were looking for Malovo and al Taizi. We’ll make sure we get his fingerprints when we leave.”
Now Jaxon looked at the man with the eye patch and nodded to the dead men in the room whose faces were being photographed and their fingerprints taken by other members of the team. “They all resist, Ivgeny?”
Ivgeny Karchovski shook his head and replied in his own heavy Russian accent. “They were all dead when we got here. Every one of them, except the one who just died.” He looked at Malovo. “Only one other person was alive.”
Jaxon walked over to Malovo. “The guy at the end of the table is al Taizi,” he said to her. “Who are all the rest of these guys?”
Malovo shrugged. “Dead men.”
“Why did you kill them?”
Malovo smiled as though she’d just been complimented on her clothing choice, which was a tight-fitting T-shirt and camouflage shorts. “I heard the shooting and thought it was probably American special ops,” she said. “These fools might have tried to go out in a blaze of glory, and I didn’t want to get caught in the
crossfire. So I took care of the problem and waited to surrender quietly. Imagine my surprise when the first man through the door was my old flame from Afghanistan, Ivgeny Karchovski.”
“Are you sure that’s the only reason you killed all of them?” Jaxon asked, his eyes narrowing. “Or is it that dead men tell no tales?”
Malovo laughed, then winked. “We may need to talk, but shouldn’t we be going? There’s a large ISIS presence here, as I’m sure you know, and they’re bound to have heard the shooting.” She glanced at Karchovski. “You don’t seem happy to see me, darling.”
Karchovski shook his head. “On the contrary, I’m glad you’re here; we came to arrest you and bring you back to the U.S.” He looked down at the dead man on the floor. “And this piece of trash.”
“Sorry about that,” Malovo answered. “But I think that between the computers and documents you’ll find here, and what I might be able to help you with in the future, your trip won’t have been wasted.”
At that moment, one of the young men who’d rappelled from the helicopter entered the room. Unlike the rather eclectic members of the team like Lucy, Jojola, Tran, and Blanchett, the other agents were elite former Special Forces and all business in a war zone. “The locals will be swarming this place like ants at a picnic in a few minutes. I think we’d all rather hitch a ride
out of here on a Black Hawk than hoof it across the desert with a bunch of angry ISIS members after us.”
“Agreed,” Jaxon replied. “You got what we need?”
“We’ve grabbed all the hard drives from the desktop computers, laptops, cell phones, and any documents we could find,” the young man replied. “There’s a safe we’ll blow and clean out as we’re leaving.”
“Then let’s call in the bird and get the hell out of here,” Jaxon said. He looked at Malovo. “Cuff her.”
Karchovski pulled plastic ties out of a pocket and put them on the assassin’s outstretched wrists. “How romantic,” Malovo said with a sardonic smile. “Reminds me of that night in Kabul when we were oh so much younger.”
“I wouldn’t remember,” Karchovski said.
“Nonsense. You could never forget, darling,” Malovo said with a laugh, and stood up.
Outside the compound walls, Lucy saw that Ned Blanchett had arrived. She walked up and hugged him. “Good shooting, cowboy,” she said.
“Thanks, sweetheart,” Blanchett replied. “Just like we planned.” He looked at Malovo and frowned. “Where’s al Taizi?”
“Dead,” Lucy replied. “Nadya killed him, along with a half dozen other guys, before we got there.”
“We got company,” Jojola shouted. He pointed in the direction of the village, where the headlights of a convoy of vehicles had suddenly appeared and were racing toward them.
“Where’s the Black Hawk?” Jaxon asked.
As if summoned at his command, the helicopter materialized out of the night, hovering just a few feet off the ground. There was a small explosion from inside the main building, then the rest of the team came running, one of them carrying a black bag with what Lucy assumed were the contents of the safe.
Less than a minute later, the team was back on board the helicopter as it climbed up and away from the onrushing vehicles. Looking down, Lucy saw red flashes from guns, but they were soon left behind. She turned to find Nadya Malovo watching her. The beautiful assassin sat between two of the younger members of the team, who looked like teenagers who’d suddenly found themselves sitting on either side of a Playboy bunny. How can one woman—especially such a dangerous woman—exude so much animal sensuality? she wondered.
As if reading her mind, Malovo winked. “Just like old times,” she said. “Be sure to give my love to your father when you see him. Tell him I’ll be in touch.”