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By Kyle Mills
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2005 Kyle Mills
All rights reserved.
Hillel Strand looked over the file in his hands as the distance between his eyebrows and the tops of his reading glasses increased. "Jesus Christ, Matt. What now? The man's former Army Delta with multiple successful missions in hostile territory. He has a reasonably clean service record. ..."
"I know all about Roy," Matt Egan said. "We're looking for scalpels and this guy's a sledgehammer. A violent, arrogant, redneck sledgehammer."
"At this rate our team's going to consist of you and the secretarial pool, Matt. Is it possible that your standards are a bit high? These guys are Special Forces. I think we can expect them to be arrogant and a little violent."
"To a point," Egan agreed. "But Roy has a real problem with overestimating his abilities — which I'll admit are considerable — and he's a little too enamored with killing. A story about Roy: He was on a joint mission in Syria a few years back with a SEAL I worked with — the best operator I've ever known. Roy spent the entire mission grandstanding, trying to prove he was the best man, and damn near brought the entire thing down around their ears. He doesn't know it, but that SEAL was within about three seconds of putting a bullet in his back. And if he had, I'd have supported that decision."
Strand tossed the file onto his growing "maybe" stack and began digging through the ones they hadn't reviewed yet, finally pulling one from near the bottom.
"Your SEAL," he said, opening the manila folder. "Salam al Fayed. I assume there's no discussion necessary? We want him, right?"
Egan sighed quietly and leaned back in his chair, gazing at the photograph clipped to the file in Strand's hand. It had been a long time since he'd looked at that face. But nowhere near long enough.
Homeland Security had finally stabilized its organizational structure and Egan had been brought in to help create a division that would be involved in the more tangible side of ensuring the safety of America's citizens. The exact mission of the euphemistically named Office of Strategic Planning and Acquisition was still a bit hazy, but the bottom line was that the government was moving to what politicians politely called "a more surgical approach."
Apparently, they'd finally come to the rather obvious conclusion that the U.S. couldn't go to war with every country that hated it or was starting a nuclear weapons program, and this was their solution.
Matt Egan had been recommended for the job as Hillel Strand's number two at OSPA and during his interview, Darren Crenshaw, the new director of Homeland Security, had described the program as being based on a Mossad-type model. Egan had assumed that his response to that characterization — essentially, "Yeah, and look how well it's worked out for the Israelis" — would quickly end his candidacy. It turned out that the opposite was true. General Crenshaw was looking for someone to be a voice of reason in what was becoming an increasingly paranoid and reactionary choir.
"I think it would be best if we stayed away from al Fayed."
Not surprisingly, Strand slammed the file down on his desk. "What are we getting paid for here, Matt? I'll tell you: To form a team that can get things done. Not to shitcan every possible candidate." He pointed to the folders stacked on his desk. "These are the men we have available. We need at least eight. So far we have zero."
OSPA had access to current and former Special Forces operatives from the various branches of the military but, even with that kind of talent available, it was a fairly delicate piece of staffing. This was made even more difficult by the fact that Strand was a political appointee with no field experience and an apparent inability to face the complexities of creating this team.
"A few years back he was on his way to his extraction point after completing —"
"I read the file, Matt. He let himself get involved in some street scuffle and got shot."
Egan nodded slowly. "He almost died, Hillel. Actually, it's a miracle he didn't. A radical Muslim man found him, took him home, and saved his life. It took us six months to find him and get him out."
"So you're saying, what? He's gone native? Some guy helps him out and now he's a terrorist sympathizer?"
Egan considered just saying yes and being done with it, but he didn't want to risk the possibility that something negative might then find its way into al Fayed's file. "Come on. You read what happened. When we got him back to the States we found out he had a bullet lodged next to his spine. There was a doctor in California who thought he could get it out but the procedure was expensive and experimental. Because the doctor was using a new technique, the surgery didn't fit onto any of the government's forms. So they just decided it wasn't covered. The bullet's going to paralyze him someday, Hillel, and we didn't lift a finger to help him. I think it's fair to say that when he walked away from us he didn't do it with a lot of warm feelings."
Strand sat thoughtfully for a moment, then opened the file and began paraphrasing from it. "Born to a first-generation Arab Christian family in New York. He looks Arab and his Arabic is near perfect — he has no problem passing. No siblings. Parents dead. Unmarried, no relatives in the U.S. He left the Navy to work for the CIA." Strand looked up for a moment. "Recruited by you personally."
"That might as well have been a thousand years ago," Egan responded.
"I did some checking into this one. Currently, he has no real job. No money. No friends. Things haven't been going so well for our Mr. al Fayed. Maybe he's ready to come back into the fold?"
"Look, Hillel ...I knew this guy for years — actually, he was one of my best friends. Trust me when I tell you this is a dead end. Even before we screwed him over he was starting to put together this weird mishmash of history, politics, and Darwin in his head. ... Let's just say that he was on his way out one way or another. Besides, he's injured to the point that he really isn't qualified anymore."
"I'm not sure I like the defeatist attitude you're adopting, Matt. You seem to be focused on 'why' instead of 'how.' If there's anything we're learning from this process it's that no candidate's perfect. But al Fayed is goddamn close. There are no other guys like this anywhere right now. We're looking at people with Arab backgrounds, but we're years from having anybody like this. Other than al Fayed, we don't have a single candidate who can move around unnoticed in an Arab country. This guy could walk in here and be operational in a week. Not to mention how useful he could be in a training capacity."
"What? You know the position I'm in. Those sons of bitches in Congress are coming down on the intelligence community for not taking chances but we know goddamn well that what they really mean is that they want us to take risks and win every time. If things get screwed up, then they're going to be falling all over themselves to be the ones who nail us to the cross. We need to have the best and as I see it, even with his drawbacks, al Fayed is head and shoulders above anyone else."
Strand waved his hand for silence. "I don't want to hear the reasons we can't have him, Matt. What I want to hear is a way we can have him."CHAPTER 2
The house was warped and bowed enough that if it was painted in bright primary colors instead of peeling gray, it would look like a carnival funhouse. It was situated about two hours from Washington, D.C., in the center of a five-acre lot strewn with mature trees and jagged boulders. Al Fayed had apparently been renting the property for almost a year and was currently two months behind in his payments.
Egan eased off the dirt driveway about fifty yards from the house and stepped from the car, looking out over the property. To the right of the house was a large metal building that leaned a bit less radically but that was rusted in a pattern that made it look like someone had dumped brown paint over the edges of the roof. In front, and only slightly less rusted, was an old car resting on blocks fashioned from rotting logs. A Thunderbird was Egan's best guess, though his knowledge of classic cars was spotty at best. The little he did know had come from al Fayed who, after a few beers, used to go on about them for hours.
"Are we just going to stand here?" Strand said, leaning over the roof of the car and slapping a palm down on it.
Not if running away is an option, Egan thought as he forced himself forward through the patchwork of dirt, gravel, and weeds that covered the ground. Strand came up alongside and frowned as he found himself forced to match Egan's unnaturally slow gait. On some level, he probably knew that this wasn't a great idea and he wasn't anxious to take point.
Egan slowed even more as they passed by the old car, examining the graceful lines barely visible beneath the toll time and weather had taken. It was hard not to see it as another one of al Fayed's dreams that hadn't quite worked out.
The man who stepped out onto the porch didn't seem familiar at first. His black hair was held back in a haphazard ponytail that hinted at going well down his broad back. His arms and shoulders were thick and powerful looking but lacked definition and gave him a beefy, almost clumsy, look. That slight softness continued in his face, rounding it out and smoothing the lines in the dark skin around his eyes.
Egan stopped a good fifteen feet from the house and Strand followed suit.
The nickname had been bestowed by his teammates years ago based, it was said, on his ability to disappear into the background and slit your throat. More likely it was because Salam al Fayed wasn't the name of someone your average SEAL wanted watching his back. Either way, it had stuck.
"What are you doing here, Matt?"
Strand found his voice, as he eventually always did, and answered. "We wanted to talk to you."
Fade walked down the steps and Egan fought an urge to back up.
"About getting you back into the game."
"The game?" Fade's gaze moved from Strand back to Egan. "Where'd you get this guy? Bureaucrats Us? Get the hell off my property."
"It's not your property," Strand pointed out. He was controlling it, but there was a hint of anger audible in his voice. He wasn't accustomed to being insulted or spoken about like he wasn't there. "In fact, it seems that you're about a month away from being thrown off it."
"Hillel ..." Egan cautioned, but Strand ignored him.
"Have you been watching the news, Mr. al Fayed? The world's changing and we have to control those changes. To do that, we need men like you."
Fade looked like he was about to walk away but then seemed to change his mind. "But you're doing such a great job on your own. We've got a big hole in the ground where the Trade Center used to be and every country in the world either hates us or is so afraid of us that they're spending every dime they have to build nuclear missiles to aim our way. If it weren't for dumbass politicians like you mucking around in things you don't understand, how would all those defense contractors keep themselves in Ferraris and trophy wives?"
This wasn't going quite as well as Egan had hoped. But at least no shots had been fired yet. "I think what —"
Strand cut him off. "I have a master's in public policy from Harvard and I'm doing graduate courses in Middle Eastern history. Now, remind me about your background? Did you ever graduate from high school?"
Fade's reply was undoubtedly less than civil but Egan couldn't be sure because it was in Arabic.
"What's the problem?" Fade asked, switching back to English. "Don't tell me you missed that. There are illiterate six-year-olds in Iraq who would have understood what I just said, so you'll excuse me if I'm not terribly impressed by your expertise. And by the way, who the fuck are you?"
"My name is Hillel Strand. I work for Homeland Security. I —"
"Ever read the Koran, Hillel Strand from Homeland Security? Ever even been to the Middle East? Or is your entire experience with the area from playing golf with one of those assholes you people keep sending over there to fuck things up?" He pointed at Egan. "At least Matt, the back-stabbing slug he is, was willing to go over there and get in front of a bullet. People like you make me —"
"Fade!" Egan shouted. "That's enough. You've got no beef with Hillel. He had nothing to do with what happened to you."
"Oh, right. That was you."
There it was again. That urge to back up.
Fade jerked forward, causing Strand to jump back, land on a rock, and almost fall over.
A smirk, a roll of the eyes, and then Fade turned his back and started toward his workshop.
"Why don't you two run on back to Homeland Security and tell them that this sand nigger is retired," he said as he disappeared into the building's bay doors.
Egan let out a long breath, relieved that Fade was gone. Strand, on the other hand, was standing there with his jaw set in a display of anger that was becoming all too familiar.
"Well, like you said," Egan began, trying to diffuse the situation. "It was worth a try. But the guy's obviously lost it. Look at him. He used to be chiseled out of stone. Now he's just some wacko hippie living in the woods." He turned back toward the car but stopped when Strand spoke.
"That's the difference between you and me, isn't it, Matt? I've never thought losing is acceptable."
"You're pushing your luck, Matt."
Egan stepped cautiously through the door and stood at the back, letting his eyes adjust to the lower light levels. The shop was packed with neatly arranged power tools and any number of other potentially deadly instruments.
"You could have handled that better, Fade. Hillel's a pretty powerful guy and he's not used to being talked to like that."
"So what happened, Matt? You get tired of kissing CIA ass and decided to go find some fresh cheeks at Homeland Security?"
The ironic truth was that he'd gone over his boss's head trying to get Fade his surgery and the director had slapped him down. After that, it had become pretty clear that his career at the CIA was dead-ended. Homeland Security was supposed to have been greener pastures.
Fade put on a pair of safety glasses and began cutting through a board with a radial arm saw. Egan walked to within a few feet of him and shouted over the scream of the blade. "I want to help you!"
Fade slammed a hand into the switch controlling the saw and threw the cut piece of wood to the ground as the motor died. "I haven't seen you in six years and suddenly you show up and you want to help me? What, like you did before?"
Egan walked over to the door he'd entered through, slid it closed, and turned back toward Fade. "Look, Hillel's just another asshole politician who thinks he's a tough guy. You know the type as well as I do. If you hadn't just stood there and insulted the man to his face, I'd have convinced him that you're crazy and you would have never heard from us again. But now his back's up and it's not going to be that easy. I can smooth this thing over, but you're going to have to come in and play the game a little bit."
"You don't want to be —"
"What the hell happened to you, man? I can't believe I used to trust you with my life."
"Why do you have to make everything so hard?"
"Because it is hard!" Fade shouted, picking up a long screwdriver that was lying next to the saw. Egan kept his eyes glued to the instrument.
"I've given everything to this country! I've been shot, stabbed, poisoned. I've had malaria, dysentery, and dengue. I drowned once, for Christ's sake — they were barely able to bring me back. I was always there when my country needed me. But when I needed it, everybody just turned their backs and walked away. Do you know that after everything I've done, everything I've been through, I can't even get on a plane without someone trying to shove a camera up my ass first? Do you have any idea what my life is like now, Matt? What it's like to stand around waiting for this bullet in my back to move a millimeter in the wrong direction and paralyze me?"
Egan shook his head. "I don't."
"Well, let me tell you, then. I don't really sleep anymore because I'm afraid that if I do, I won't feel it coming and when I wake up, I won't be able to move. One day I realized that I'd found something I could kill myself with in every room of my house. Razors, knives, Drano, glass. An outlet and some water. It wasn't something I figured out on purpose. It just happened. But you know what the really sad thing is? I'm probably just fooling myself. The doctors tell me that there's a sixty percent chance that the paralysis will be from the neck down."
"Fade, I —"
"You know what my greatest fear is, Matt? That some UPS guy will find me before I die of thirst. That I'll end up lying in a nursing home wearing diapers and staring at the ceiling for the next thirty years."
What was the appropriate response to something like that? There was none. Egan pushed the door open and began backing out of it, holding his gaze on the screwdriver in Fade's hand.
"Hey, Matt ..."
He glanced up long enough to see the dead expression on his old friend's face.
Excerpted from Fade by Kyle Mills. Copyright © 2005 Kyle Mills. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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