Gary Berntsen, longtime CIA operative and the field commander who cornered Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, writing with award-winning novelist Ralph Pezzullo, offers in this edge-of-the-seat thriller a terrifying vision of where the next threat to America may come from.
—Jeffery Deaver, New York Times bestselling author of The Bone Collector, The Sleeping Doll and The Broken Window
—SJ Rozan, Edgar-award winning author of In This Rain
— Peter Spiegelman, award-winning author of Red Cat
When a highly placed Iranian intelligence operative walks into a U.S. embassy claiming to possess explosive information, counterterrorism officer Matt Freed is dispatched to interview him and is warned of an impending attack on the United States that could kill millions. But is the man’s story precious truth or calculated fiction? Matt isn’t sure, but with a possible catastrophe looming in less than two weeks, his superiors reluctantly prepare for the assault.
Matt can’t leave it alone, though. With questions still lingering about what is really going on, he defies his superiors’ orders and launches his own investigation. As the clock ticks down, he searches frantically for the truth at an Afghan prison under siege, an abandoned Uzbekistan bio weapons facility, and a Moscow hospital where an arms dealer is dying of a mysterious disease.
Ultimately, Matt’s efforts brand him an out-of-control renegade, and he finds himself left out in the cold. Yet he may be the only one with the knowledge needed to avert unimaginable chaos.
Dubai – United Arab Emirates – Athens
Maggie’s going to be disappointed, he thought as he pushed through narrow, crowded, dusty Ruwi High Street, brushing white-robed Arabs and South Asian laborers from Pakistan and Bangladesh, dodging white and orange taxis that crept through the pedestrian melee. “And I don’t blame her.” It was 7:45 PM exactly; a little more than four hours ‘till the fifth.
Air conditioners straining to cool the jewelry and electronic shops along the Souk exhaled stale hot air adding more bite to the rabid 95-degree heat. September in the Sultanate of Oman was a bitch.
Matt Freed took a quick glance over his shoulder to check that dark-haired Cody still followed on the other side of the street. They’d been on foot for more than an hour. Neither had detected hostile surveillance, which was good.
At thirty-eight Matt was a solid six foot one with sandy hair and light brown eyes. An intense high-kilowatt current seemed to run through his body and beam from his eyes. Otherwise, he was unremarkable — nice-looking, but not handsome; alert, but not studied; conventionally dressed in a short-sleeved cotton shirt and khakis.
He could easily pass for an Irish oil field worker, Swedish SAS pilot, American engineer, German businessman; and had used all four.
At the kabob stand Matt made a sharp turn into an alley, jostling the loaded Glock he carried in his canvas briefcase. Almost immediately a young Arab man in a white Izod shirt standing outside of Big Apple Electronics looked up from his cell. The two men made eye contact as the big American closed the space between them.
The Arab exchanged no words, just an electronic key folded inside a paper cover. The cover read Bustan Hotel; room number 723 was written in pencil. Smoothly, without stopping, Matt continued through the alley, exiting back onto Ruwi High Street. His partner stood waiting on the other side of the street. Matt flagged down a cab and Cody slid in.
“Take us up the Cornishe, then down into Old Muscat. My friend wants to see the Sultan Qaboos’ palace,” Cody said in Egyptian-accented Arabic.
“Naam,” responded the driver.
“How did I do?” Cody asked Matt out of the side of this mouth.
“Not bad so far.”
As sleek new high rises and apartment buildings greeted them, Matt relaxed into the back of the seat. With two tours with CIA Operations and five years with the NCTS (National Counter Terrorism Service) under his belt this was old hat.
The U.S. Army Major “on loan” to him remained tense. Cody kept
imagining the soft rolling hills of his family’s alfalfa farm in southwestern Virginia and the sport horses he trained out back. He dug the rush of working with Matt. But the dust, constant heat and danger had tied up his nerves.
Matt’s mind oscillated between his oldest daughter, Maggie, and the economic development of Oman. He admired both. Maggie for her grace and spirit; the Sultan of Oman for all he had achieved under his benevolent dictatorship.
Entering the Cornishe, the taxi swerved right. To their right: a row of three-story buildings decorated with Islamic filigree and arches. To their left, past the lights, modern commercial vessels mingled with Arab-style Dhows in the harbor.
They sat in silence admiring the serene beauty of the lunar landscape ahead. Matt rehearsed the mission ahead. Cody flashed back to the download of his girlfriend back home dancing to the song “Polaris.”
The hills they entered were honey-combed and sucked by the sun of every bit of moisture. Climbing for five minutes, the taxi descended down a slope into Old Muscat, past a sheer cliff topped with an ancient Portuguese fortress. The driver hung a right and stopped.
Cody handed him some Rials and the two men stepped out. There were no tourists in sight; only a small number of Omanis milling about.
Matt felt exposed. “Let’s move.”
The gentle breeze off the Persian Gulf carried a hint of poet’s breath as they passed the Palace, its large flat entrance protruding like a huge concrete tongue. At the next corner, Matt hailed a second cab. “El Bustan Hotel.”
This driver, a Bedouin, took off leisurely, scattering the cigarette ashes that littered every surface of the cab. Picturesque Old Muscat bounced by again and the coast. Jostling through several villages, they approached a traffic circle with a Dhow in the middle. The resplendent Bustan Palace Hotel glittered to their left.
They’d be meeting Manocheur Moshiri, a former general in the Iranian Army now living in exile. As a young man Moshiri had made a name for himself fighting the Iraqis. He had once been loyal to the mullahs. But no more.
The lobby dripped with luxury from the rich hand-woven carpets over marble to the jewel-effulgent eighty-foot dome. Packs of rich Omanis and other Arabs lounged in stuffed chairs discussing business in hushed tones.
Exiting the elevator was stocky man with short-cropped white hair, dressed in an Omani dish dash. His skin a shade lighter than the average Arab and he had a patch of burned skin on his neck. Iranian, Matt thought as he inserted the plastic card in the elevator security panel and pressed seven.
Later he’d be paying the general’s bill, which would run at least $800 a night.
For a year now the general had provided Matt and his employer NCTS with valuable information regarding the Iranian Armed Forces and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. On two separate occasions he helped thwart attacks on U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf. Clearly, the General had an important source within the RGÇ. Matt speculated that it was a member of Moshiri’s extended family, but didn’t know for sure.
They plied the plush carpet past a dozen doors and stopped. Matt knocked and waited. He knocked again.
Two men in white robes exited a room down the hall. Matt waited until the elevator swallowed them, before inserting the electronic key and letting himself in. The room was pitch black. The plastic key placed in the wall system changed that.
Immediately, both men noticed signs of a struggle. A chair knocked over; the contents the mini bar spilled across the floor. Then, Matt saw the General face down in the carpet creating a pool of blood.
They drew their guns. Matt moved towards the body; Cody entered the bedroom.
One bullet hole above the right eye; a second below the left; four in the General’s light blue silk shirt. Matt figured: .22 caliber, suppressed. He found no pulse.
“Nobody in the bathroom or closet,” Cody called out.
“Holster your weapon, look through the eyepiece, make sure there’s no one in the hall. Then throw the dead bolt and put out the Do Not Disturb sign. Company’s the last thing we want.”
Matt continued the search, discovering a cellphone charger, which was empty. Tearing through the dead man’s luggage he found July’s Playboy, a bottle of Lipitor, a gold bracelet, but little else besides clothes.
Pulling a notebook out of his pocket, he started to dial a number when a cellphone rang. Simultaneously, he and Cody traced the sound to the sofa. They found it behind a pillow.
“Whoever killed Moshiri got everything else,” Matt said scrolling through the numbers. He stopped at a prefix he recognized, then used the hotel phone to dial.
A deep voice on the other end answered in Farsi: “Salaam.”
Matt knew it immediately. “Cyrus, this is Robert,” he said. “The General wasn’t in. Where are you now?”
“That’s odd. He was at the hotel when I left. He knows you’re coming.”
Matt cut to the chase. “Look, I’m in a hurry. I have something to give you. Meet me across the street from the Sheraton Hotel. You know where that is?”
“I’ll see you there in ten minutes.”
As soon as he hung up, Matt crossed to the bathroom to get a washcloth, which he used to wipe the phone.
“What’s next?” Cody asked.
“We need to get out of the country, pronto. We need to get his nephew Cyrus out of here, too.”
“Because the Omanis will pounce on him and he’ll tell them that we were here talking to opponents of the Iranian regime. Sultan Qaboos won’t like that. The Iranians helped the Omanis during the Dhofar war in the‘70’s. Even though it wasn’t the Islamic Republic that helped the Sultan, the Omanis and Iranians are still friends.”
“Won’t they suspect he was meeting with us?”
“They can suspect all they want,” Matt said as he wiped the inside of the door and the handle around the Do Not Disturb sign. “Let’s go.”
A family of Arabs rode down with them to the lobby, the boys demanding an immediate return to the swimming pool. “The water is refrigerated and cool like the ocean!” one of them exclaimed.
The taxi sped down a double lane highway cut through the stony hills. Matt’s mind raced. He knew who had done this. The Islamic Republic of Iran made a habit of murdering political opponents. The question was whether this was the work of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) or the Revolutionary Guard Corps (RGC).
They were several blocks from the Sheraton when Matt ordered the driver to stop. They found Cyrus standing under a sodium street light smoking a Camel in a plaid cotton shirt. Matt introduced Cody as “my associate, Bob.”
The three men shook hands.
Matt took the young Persian’s arm. “Cyrus, let’s walk.”
Moshiri’s nephew knotted his dark brows. A light wind rippled his shirt.
“The General is dead,” Matt said calmly.
The young man stopped in his tracks and seemed to sink into the pavement. “What do you mean?”
“I mean your uncle is dead. We found him dead on the floor of his hotel room. He’s been shot.”
The young Iranian let the cigarette burn his fingers, flinched with pain and dropped the butt. He seemed numb.
“What else was the General doing in Muscat?” Matt asked. “Who was he meeting?”
Cyrus took a deep breath. “We arrived two days ago. He met with someone yesterday. I don’t know who.” As he finished, he began to weep.
“Cyrus,” Matt began, “your uncle was a great man. I’m very sorry.”
A handkerchief over Cyrus’ mouth muffled his “yes.”
“You need to get out of Muscat immediately. You don’t want to be taken into custody. The Omanis will hold you for months.”
Cyrus shook his head and said: “The Mullahs,” in a broken voice.
Matt pulled him close so their noses almost met. “Where are you staying?”
“What airline did you use?”
“British Airways. We’re were scheduled to leave late tomorrow night.”
Matt did some quick calculations. “Go to your hotel, check out. Then proceed directly to Seeb International Airport. You still have time to catch the midnight flight to London.”
“Who will take care of the General?”
Matt held both of Cyrus’ shoulders for emphasis. “The General’s in god’s hands now.”
This brought more tears and a nod.
Matt continued: “My object is to keep you out of jail. Go, now!”
Cyrus wiped his eyes on his wrist and blew his nose.
“Speak to no one until you land in London. I’ll call the General’s brother Ahmad and have him meet you at the airport. Speak to no one until you’re in London. You understand?”
He responded through fresh tears: “Yes.”
Matt squeezed his hand. “I’m so sorry for your loss, Cyrus. I really am.” Then he waved down a cab and Cyrus was gone. Following the red taillights, Matt took out his cell and dialed. A woman answered in accented English.
“Hello, this is Mr. O’Rourke,” Matt said, “I’m sorry to be bothering you at this hour, but I understand you’re selling a car. Is there any possibility I could see the car tomorrow?”
The woman answer without hesitation: “My husband is out right now. Can you call again in an hour.”
“Thank you very much.” He snapped the cell shut and turned to Cody. “We need to hurry. The moment Cyrus’ plane takes off he’ll be on the phone telling the world.”
Cody nodded. “I figured that out.”
“I told headquarters you aren’t as dumb as you look.”
They walked in sync another three hundred meters and flagged down a cab. Their destination this time was an upscale shopping center in an area called Medinat Qaboos. Matt instructed the driver to pull up behind a white four-door Toyota Pathfinder parked at the curb. Seated casually behind the wheel was an attractive Middle Eastern woman in her thirties — raven haired, sharp dark eyes, full confident lips outlined in pink.
“Nice to see you this evening, gentlemen,” said Leila. She was a Lebanese Christian who had immigrated to America as a teenager. Like Matt, she was currently employed by the NCTS.
“We have a problem,” Matt said urgently. “Axelrod One was murdered in his hotel room before we got a chance to meet him.”
Her narrow black eyes widened. “You mean you went to the hotel?”
“Yes, we went to the hotel.”
“You saw the body?”
“With six bullet holes in it. Axelrod Five’s on his way to the airport now. I need you to inform Axelrod Two, the General’s uncle, to meet Axelrod Five at Heathrow and make arrangements to recover the body.”
She held out her long-fingered hand. “Give me your weapons and holsters.”
Without hesitation they handed over their Glocks and extra magazines, which she placed in a canvas diplomatic pouch and zipped.
“The Omanis are gonna be pissed,” she remarked out of the side of her mouth.
“They’ll be watching the airports,” Matt reasoned. “We need a vehicle so we can make a bee-line for the United Arab Emirates.”
“What about papers?” She was quick.
Cody was holding a resident permit from Dubai, which would get him across the border. Matt had none, so he’d have to hide in the trunk.
“My boss is gonna love this,” she said firing the engine.
Matt passed the General’s cell through the open driver’s window. “Have your tech people download the numbers. Send them to Odysseus base and headquarters.”
Within an hour the two men were on the road in a new white Toyota Corolla with a full tank of gas. Cody, at the wheel, kept an eye out for stray camels while Matt listened to Iranian radio stations broadcasting from the other side of the Persian Gulf.
“See if you can find the White Stripes,” Cody drawled.
“Shut up and watch the road.”
They changed positions twice during the night. As they sun began to spread its fingers over the desert, Cody pulled to the side of the road.
“It’s time, big guy.”
Matt transferred their luggage to the backseat and climbed in the trunk. As Cody covered him with a blanket, he said: “Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”
Twenty minutes later, as Cody slowed to a halt, Matt was sweating bullets in the trunk.
He heard Cody talking in Arabic, then shut off the engine. The car door opened and shut. Footsteps, then more conversation between Cody and an Omani official.
Finally, the car door opened and closed again. The vehicle lurched forward. Fifteen seconds later it stopped.
That’s when Matt started feeling sick. It had to be at least a hundred degrees in he trunk. Craving water, he occupied himself by remembering the names and ages of his various cousins. He was up to his second cousin Lucille, who lived somewhere in Tennessee when the car jerked forward again.
Hurry up, pal, before I have to kick your butt.
Cody didn’t know why he was humming his Dad’s favorite song, “Summertime.” He did know he was mighty relieved to be back in the U.E.A, heading for his base. Picking up speed, he was planning to pull over once he rounded the rocky knoll ahead.
With one hand on the wheel he gunned the car down the asphalt, thinking about the young radar technician with the cornflower eyes — Tanya, she said her name was — who he had meet in line at the PX. He half-noticed a quick movement to the right. A spray of six bullets splattered the side window and windshield.
He didn’t flinch. Ducking behind the dash, he turned hard right, directly into the Ford Explorer parked on the shoulder like he’d been trained. Precisely at the moment of impact, he yanked the wheel left.
The Toyota Corolla slammed the bigger vehicle and fishtailed. Poking his head above the dash, Cody saw the Explorer turn over and the two men behind it jump back, their automatic weapons pointed in the air.
He hit the gas and prayed. The Corolla responded. Swerving left, then right, he got it under control. With bullets whizzing through the swirl of dust, he found the asphalt and raced, his heart beating a tattoo in his throat.
Ten minutes later, his blood still pounding, he pulled over and let Matt out of the trunk.
“Nice fucking driving,” Matt groaned. Then gulping fresh air, he threw up.
The two men didn’t have time to inspect the damage or discuss what had happened. As Cody drove, Matt cleaned himself, changed his clothes, turned the air conditioning up to full, then dialed his cellphone.
It was 9:45 when they stopped at the gate of . Two members of the U.S. Air Force OSI stood waiting in civilian clothes. Once inside, Cody and Matt both started shaking. It took a six-pack each to calm their nerves.
Approximately three hours later, the C-17 transport touched down on Aviana Air Base just outside Athens. Bright sun stung Matt’s eyes. Waiting on the tarmac was his boss, Alan (Moses) Beckman, with a full head of longish gray hair and a beard.
As soon as Matt stepped off with his luggage, Alan started. “What have I taught you about leaving dead bodies on other people’s operational territory and stirring up a hornet’s nest?”
Matt smiled. “Which commandment is that?”
Alan, who was fifteen years older, liked Matt’s attitude, but wished he would learn to cut authority a little more slack. “The body was found early this morning. The border posts were closed an hour after you crossed.”
As the SUV sped through the front gate, Matt glanced at his watch. It was almost 2 PM, Sunday September 10th. Alan passed him an envelope.
“Here are your true-name documents. I’ll drop you off at home.”
They were on Kydathenron, approaching the Plaka, home to endless tourists shops, jewelry merchants, tavernas, country girls selling flowers, street musicians. The glorious Acropolis loomed above.
For the first time in a week Matt turned his full attention to his wife and three girls. He had an uncanny knack of compartmentalizing things, which allowed him to do his job.
“Alan, you mind if we stop here for a moment? It’s Maggie’s birthday and I forgot to pick something up.”
* * * * * *
Fifteen miles north in cooler Kifissia, smoke continued to pour out of his wife Liz’s ears. The party was already two hours old. Twenty eight-years-olds had eaten pizza, been entertained by the hired clown, had their faces painted and played games. Their parents would be arriving in a few minutes to collect them. But Maggie still refused to cut the cake.
“I’m waiting for Daddy,” she insisted. “He’ll be here any minute. I know.”
She could be stubborn just like her father — a trait that didn’t endear her to her mom.
Still Liz was trying to be patient. “Look, honey,” she started.
“No. No!” screamed the solid little eight-year-old as she climbed on the sofa, turned her back and look out the front window.
“At least go play with your friends.”
Liz retreated to the kitchen, her blood pressure rising, repeating to herself over and over: “I can’t live like this anymore. I can’t.” Seeing the cake melting on the white tile counter, she resolved to call her mother back in Cockeysville, Maryland and break the bad news. Then she heard a scream from the front room.
Liz flew through the passageway, sure that one of the kids had been hurt, already castigating herself for taking her eyes off them for a second, when she saw Matt smiling in the doorway. Maggie had her arms around him hugging with all her might. Sunlight streamed through the open door, casting father and daughter in an other-worldly glow.
“Daddy! Daddy!” Maggie shouted. “Now we can cut the cake!”