1 They Won’t Know It Was Missing …
“Yo, Katy, how’s it hanging? Thought I’d send you a memento mori, just to let you know I’m thinking of you.”
Stone was on her phone screen, smiling and waving at the camera.
Kate Magruder hit “pause”—freezing his grin on the screen. It was hard to believe that three years ago they’d been lovers, partners—a team.
She sighed. It seemed a million years ago.
In another hour Stacy would make Kate up, and she would be on TV—her special news report from Mecca. In the portable makeup mirror on her folding camp table, she studied her face with professional detachment. At age thirty-six, she had her mother’s mouth and high Apache cheekbones, framing her father’s emerald eyes. Her reddish blond hair she wore straight down her back, and her figure—still athletic from decades of running, weight workouts, and Tae Kwon Do—drew more than its share of wolf whistles.
But she took no pride in her appearance. She’d always viewed good looks—hers, anyone’s—as physical fraudulence, a diversion from the person within.
“Whoever the hell that is,” she grumbled to the mirror.
Maybe that was what she’d seen in John Stone. He put no one on pedestals. His nickname for her had been Beauty—which he’d always intoned with a sneer—and he’d goaded her continually about her now-famous face.
“Your looks may stop some men’s clocks, but not mine. Around here we work for a living. Get the picture, Spoiled Rich Girl? Pick up those mikes and cameras. Get the lead out. We have a shoot and a story to cover.”
And stories they had covered—every war, famine, earthquake, and plague planet Earth had to offer—for four long years. She’d been his camera operator and sound woman, then rewrote his copy, then coauthored the news stories.
He’d been a bastard—but without bullshit. And he’d seen her for what she was—a consummate pro, not just a pretty face.
For that she had loved him.
She still loved him.
Oh, John, where are you now?
Where did it all go wrong?
Not that he was hard to look at. She wished he’d gotten his nose fixed after she’d dragged him bleeding out of a biker bar in East L.A. As usual, he needed a haircut. She also wished he’d get a new wardrobe. Bush jackets and fatigues were hardly her idea of haute couture. Lean, rangy, she guessed he was still fit. Maybe as fit as when he’d won fourteen straight for the Yankees his rookie year and taken them to the Series. Ordinarily, she would have muttered an obscenity about his conceited smirk, except the grin now bothered her in a way she couldn’t explain to herself.
Something about the eyes.
Kate sat down on her cot. She couldn’t sleep. Even when she wasn’t playing the video of John Stone, it was playing in her mind. Memento mori. Remember that you shall die. It was just like Stone to send her a message wrapped in a riddle. Stone was afraid of nothing, but there was something in his voice.
Wind attacked her tent, and she peeked out the flap as the bloody dawn rose over the city. Mecca sprawled like a wrinkled old woman in a wadi, a dry river-bed carved between steep hills. The muezzins’ morning call to prayer from the minarets towering over the city’s mosques sang to her on the stinging wind. Their song, for Kate, summoned the ghosts of Islamic holy warriors past, a wail for the Mahdi-Messiah to redeem the True Believers and restore Dar-al-Islam—“the Domain of Islam”—to its rightful place on Mohammed’s earth and in Allah’s paradise, to punish the wicked and reward the righteous.
Answering the call of the criers, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims came out of the tents that surrounded the city and prostrated themselves in the direction of the black draped Ka’ba, the House of Abraham in the heart of the city. Kate knew that many of the Muslims on earth, more than a billion people, were at this moment facing in her direction as they answered the call of the muezzins to embrace Mecca and praise Allah. She ducked back inside the tent, reminding herself that she was one of the infidels.
They were here to cover the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mohammed’s birthplace that attracted millions of Muslims each year. Vladimir Malokov, Russia’s minister of defense, had been her ostensible reason for coming to Mecca. He had converted to Islam, was in Mecca for his hajj, and despite her mother’s wishes, the Saudi government—sensing in his pilgrimage a PR bonanza—had granted Kate and MTN exclusive coverage of the event. But her real reason was the concern raised by Stone’s video. Stone claimed he was unearthing “the scoop of the century.”
She flopped back down on the army cot and picked up the phone. Stone was one of the few people who mattered to her. He was the best reporter the gods ever created. Stone and Kate had been through some hairy stuff together. Genocide in Africa and the Balkans. Invading a Cuban gulag to search for a gun-toting nun.
“You’re a man to ride the river with,” Stone told her in an exaggerated Texas drawl after she’d covered his back in that biker bar after he pissed off guys who thought MAC-10s and rattlesnake tattoos were fashion statements.
Kate backed up the video and hit “play” again. Stone’s curly black hair and raptor’s grin reappeared on the phone’s small screen.
* * *
“You thought your mom and I were a few bricks shy on the subject of nuclear proliferation. Well, after my last foray into the Land of Loose Nukes I couldn’t resist proving you wrong. Catch a glimpse of the Russian nuclear storage facility behind me.”
* * *
Behind Stone was a paint-blistered storage building. Untended, unguarded.
* * *
“As you can see from the rickety fence, the absence of guards—or any personnel at all, in spite of the fact that this shed is a high-security installation warehousing several tons of bomb-grade nuclear fuel—we can walk right in now and help ourselves to any of the containers, then waltz out the way we came. How can we be so sure? you ask. Because we did just that.”
* * *
The camera moved in tight on two small slate-gray steel drums.
* * *
“One of the drums is filled with bomb-grade plutonium, the other enriched bomb-grade uranium. Each weighs around fifty pounds—containing enough for an Hiroshima and a Nagasaki bomb blast. Easy for me to carry out.”
* * *
The camera panned to the fence and the side of the building.
* * *
“How can this be happening? The Russian economy is in chaos. The guards and workers are gone because they haven’t been paid in months. They’re out hustling for food, heating oil, medicine, and gasoline—anything to make ends meet.
“Not that anybody would want to hang around these installations even if they were well-paid. There is no money for upkeep or even safety inspections. Consequently, these installations are death traps.”
* * *
The camera panned the interior of Stone’s nearby hotel room. In the middle of the room sat his drum of nuclear materials.
* * *
“Well, Katy, I know what you’re wondering now. How is that maniac going to get that stuff out of the drum? No prob-lem-o. As long as I don’t ingest the shit, it’s perfectly safe. So first I open this drum with my trusty hacksaw.”
* * *
The camera closed in on Stone’s trusty hacksaw.
* * *
“Then I can scoop it up with my bare hands and shove it into the cargo pockets of my shirt and fatigue pants. Because … alpha rays don’t pass through skin!
“By the way, I can squeeze enough into my pockets for a couple of bombs. You don’t need boxcars full of this stuff to build a good fissile bomb. A piece of high-grade nuclear fuel the size of your fist is all you’d need.
“Getting it through airports, seaports, and border checkpoints, you ask? Ha! Russia has no money for detection devices.
“Now you’re thinking: ‘Okay, asshole. You were foolish enough to swipe some stuff from an unguarded installation. What are you going to do with it? You need nuclear weapons scientists to turn that stuff into a bomb.’
“Wrong again, Katy dear.”
* * *
The video cut to a photo of an old Civil War cannon.
* * *
“All I have to do is sneak up some dark night on one of the innumerable Civil War cannons, and with an acetylene torch cut off a hunk of cannon six feet long.
“Or I can just buy a hunk from an ordnance plant—the easier course.
“In any event, I weld one end shut, load it with a piece of the enriched uranium we just stole, then pack the other end with more dynamite or gunpowder—and wham! We blast our uranium bullet into the uranium at the cannon barrel’s far end. Guess what we have? The Hiroshima ‘gun-barrel bomb.’ The genius of this baby is that it’s foolproof. Any moron can make it work. The guys at the American Manhattan Project—not to be confused with that gaggle of State Department morons who ran our ‘Pakistani Manhattan Project’—were so confident of the old gun-barrel design they never tested it. Well, actually they did, if you want to be technical. The test site was Hiroshima.
“Now if you want to do some real testing, it really isn’t all that hard. Get a ball of plutonium, encase it in a spherical steel jacket lined with C-4, crimp fifty or sixty blasting caps around it—all uniformly placed—wire them up to a single electrical source, and throw the switch. You may want to test it a couple of times with a conventional explosive, but it will work. Trust me. It worked at Nagasaki.
“And no, this isn’t the only nuclear shit exiting Mother Russia. ‘Mad Vlad’ Malokov reports a dozen Kilo-Class subs, over one hundred suitcase nukes, and a sizable assortment of cruise missiles are currently on their misplaced list. In other words, these weapons have gone over the hill.
“Time to go. Don’t worry. I’m going to return this stuff to the place I stole it from. Otherwise they won’t know it was missing. I’ll leave it on the front porch. No one knows what these storage sites contain. There’s no bookkeeping.
“So you can see, Katy dear, the shit’s so easy to obtain you have to assume that noisy neighbor of yours is now a nuclear player. I know you’ve sometimes been skeptical of your mom and me, but the Global Arms Race from Hell is on.”
* * *
Kate turned off the video and sighed.
She’d seen something she’d never expected to see.
John Stone was scared.
Maybe it had to do with Vlad. Many people thought he was extremely dangerous. He wasn’t called “Mad Vlad” for nothing. He’d also earned the name Vlad the Impaler during the Chechnya War when he’d staked dead prisoners on posts lining the main street into Grozny.
There were rumors he’d had the men impaled alive.
He was wealthy beyond dreams of avarice, and so far the ineffective Russian bureaucracy had been unable to remove him from office.
If Vlad was in Mecca, Stone wouldn’t be far away.
She got up, donned her pilgrim’s robes and veil.
What are you trying to tell me, John?
She already knew about Russia’s nuclear yard sale. Her mother’s media empire was now dedicated to warning the world about nuclear Armageddon, which had earned her considerable ridicule, including the nickname “the Nuclear Noah,” particularly after she built her Fortress–bomb shelter she called “the Citadel” in the middle of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.
When Stone came to share her dementia, her mother—known to her friends as L. L.—had shipped him off to the ends of the world. In Russia, China, and the Middle East in particular, L. L. and Stone had chased every rumor of Planet Earth’s imminent demise.
Kate didn’t believe any of their paranoia, but still the video bothered her.
There was also the letter she’d received from Stone the week before—from an area in Central Asia so remote the envelope had four different postmarks. His letter sounded a little crazy, haunted, and, she believed now, scared. She’d perused his letter a hundred times.
It read like a last will and testament for the human race.
Kate shut her eyes. Arab music began as the haunting voices of the muezzins faded. She had thought music was illegal during Ramadan.
Personally, she would have been happy to outlaw it the year around. She hated desert music with its endlessly repeating, jarringly discordant refrains.
Memento mori, Stone said to her. Remember that you shall die. In the Middle Ages people wore a skull on a necklace and periodically looked at it to remind themselves that death was waiting.
But whose death was Stone talking about?
Copyright © 2011 by Robert Gleason