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Mack Bolan listened as the all-news station playing on the Ford Explorer's radio kept coming back to it. Grim bulletins from Cuba, where a band of gunmen loosely dubbed insurgents had apparently stormed Camp X-Ray—the controversial, semisecret facility where U.S. Marines and CIA agents had penned alleged terrorist suspects since America's invasion of Afghanistan, in the wake of the 9/11 skyjacking raids. Civil libertarians called the military prison an illegal concentration camp and torture center, whose inmates were held without charges or counsel, some still publicly unnamed after all those years.
Administrators airily dismissed the charges, citing precedent from both world wars to justify their actions, and the controversy showed no signs of winding down while Camp X-Ray survived.
But now, it seemed, someone had tried another angle of attack to bring it down.
The early news was spotty, as expected. Getting any word out of Guantanamo was difficult enough, much less when the Marines and comrades from the Company were agitated by embarrassment. Bolan guessed that Hal Brognola would have the whole story—or most of it, at any rate—when he arrived at Stony Man Farm.
"You made good time," Brognola said, shaking hands with Bolan on the farmhouse porch.
"It sounded urgent," Bolan said. "And I was in the neighborhood."
Almost, considering that Baltimore was more or less in Washington's backyard, both cities reasonably close to where the two men stood in summer sunshine, scanning cultivated fields to the north and west.
Brognola hadn't come to meet him on the porch alone. Beside the man from Justice stood the Farm's missioncontroller, Barbara Price. She had a private smile for Bolan, gripped his hand a heartbeat longer than was strictly necessary, then stepped back. No comment necessary.
"Bear's waiting for us in the War Room," Brognola said. "Do you want something to eat or drink, before we start? A chance to freshen up?"
"I'm fresh enough," Bolan replied. "Let's do it."
They stepped inside the building and headed to the War Room, where Aaron Kurtzman, Stony Man's computer wizard, was waiting. A spinal gunshot, suffered in a raid that nearly doomed the Farm, had left him confined to a wheelchair for life, though it failed to snuff out his gregarious spirit. If Price was Stony Man's soul, then Kurtzman—"the Bear," to his friends—was its spark and its wry sense of humor.
Even so, he spared them any jokes that afternoon, greeting Bolan with a solemn face and a handshake strengthened by years of propelling himself on four wheels. Kurtzman shunned all the motorized scooters and chairs, determined to maintain the muscles that remained within his personal control.
Bolan sat at one end of a conference table that could seat a dozen comfortably, fifteen in a pinch. Brognola sat to his left, with Price directly opposite. Kurtzman assumed his place at the computer console, lowering a wide screen from its ceiling slot, at the table's far end.
"Is this about Guantanamo?" Bolan asked.
"Yes, and no," Brognola said. "It's too late for prevention, and that isn't our department, anyway. We'll leave that to the Corps and hope they get the bugs ironed out. No matter what, the raid's a fact of life—or history, by now, I guess you'd say."
"But it's not over," Bolan said.
"Unfortunately, no," Brognola answered, though it hadn't really been a question. "That's where we come in."
"Okay," the Executioner replied. "I'm listening. Why don't you give it to me from the top."
"What have you heard about Gitmo?" Brognola asked.
"The basics," Bolan replied. "Some kind of raid on Camp X-Ray, guerrillas by the sound of it. Some people are calling on the White House to invade and take Havana. No one seems to know if they were Cubans."
"I can answer that," Brognola said. "They weren't."
A nod to Kurtzman brought the first picture onto the screen. It was a mug shot, full face and profile, depicting a swarthy man with black hair and a mustache to match.
"We've had no luck getting the actual closed-circuit tapes," the big Fed explained, "but the Company claims it's identified both men in charge of the raiders. This is Sohrab Caspari, Iranian, a Shiite extremist linked to bombings and assassinations ranging from Baghdad to Singapore. He's thirty-six years old, a military veteran. You'll find the other details in his file."
"Ringleader?" Bolan asked.
"More like a partner," Brognola replied. "The raiders were divided into two distinct and separate teams."
Another nod produced a second face on-screen. This one was captured in a candid shot, a street scene somewhere in the Middle East, with shrouded women in the background, a street vendor off to one side. A hat shaded the man's face, and he was half-smiling to someone off camera, seemingly unaware of being caught on film.
"Asim Ben Muhunnad," Brognola said. "Age thirty-one, a Palestinian whose father, so I'm told, was in Fatah or Black September, maybe both at different times. So, Muhunnad got his fanaticism the old-fashioned way—he inherited it. Mossad's been tracking him since 1999. They've had a couple of near-misses, but he always slips away."
"Cuba's a long way from the Holy Land," Bolan observed.
"You'd think so, anyway," Brognola said. "Of course, we've seen the tendency of Muslim terrorists to strike worldwide against their enemies—in Europe, Indonesia, Africa, the States."
"Point taken. And Guantanamo was on the list because of the detainees?" Bolan asked.
"You're half right," Brognola agreed. "Except, this wasn't a punitive raid. It was a rescue mission," he explained. "A good, old-fashioned jailbreak."
"From Camp X-Ray?" Bolan said, sounding incredulous. "Inside a fortified Marine Corps base."
Brognola shrugged. "Sounds crazy, I'm the first one to admit. But who can argue with success? I mean, they pulled it off—up to a point, at least."
"The news I heard had nothing on a breakout," Bolan said. "Of course, it wouldn't, right?"
"They've kept that aspect under wraps, so far. How long the Corps and Washington can hold the lid in place is anybody's guess. Odds are, somebody in the Cuban press already knows the truth, or some of it, but anything they say or publish can be panned as Commie propaganda for a while," Price said.
"Unless the runners surface publicly," Bolan suggested.
"Making statements," Brognola said. "Sending the media their videos. Or picking up where they left off, with new attacks."
"Sounds like a major PR problem," Bolan granted, "but the Cubans will most likely give them sanctuary under guard, the way they used to do with skyjackers."
"Maybe," Brognola said. "If they could find them."
"But they haven't," Bolan said reluctantly.
"Not yet, according to our eyes there."
"Well, it's an island," Bolan said. "Where can they go?"
"With outside help," Brognola said, "the world's their oyster."
Bolan glowered at the screen, then asked, "Whose on the runner's list?"
"The raiders hit with thirty men, well-armed and well prepared with layouts for the base and Camp X-Ray," Brognola said. "They lost approximately two-thirds of their men, while taking out some thirty-five or forty U.S. personnel and wreaking havoc everywhere they went. That's part one of the hideous embarrassment.
"Part two is that the handful of survivors got away with nine inmates from Camp X-Ray. They probably went in hoping for more, but those they lifted are enough bad news to keep the Pentagon and White House sweating."
Kurtzman didn't need Brognola's nod this time. He keyed another picture, sending a third mug shot up on the screen. The latest subject had a thin, dark face, with jet-black curly hair and a prodigious, bristling uni-brow.
"I'll take them alphabetically," Brognola said. "This is Yasir Al Khalidha, Palestinian. Records say he's twenty-six years old, and a suspected member of al Qaeda. Emphasis on the suspected part, since he's resisted all interrogation methods used on him so far. The Company had no luck cracking him, and now they've lost their chance."
"Where was he captured?" Bolan asked.
"Afghanistan, 2002," Brognola answered. "He was fighting for the Taliban. No charges filed, so far—which, incidentally, is the case for all of those who made it out.
"All mug shots now, from X-Ray," Brognola added, as a fourth face filled the screen. This one was younger than its predecessors, but with a malicious cast.
"Farid Azima," Brognola announced. "Another Palestinian. Mossad connects him to Hamas. They want him for a dozen fatal bombings, all with multiple victims. We bagged him in Iraq, by chance."
"And didn't lock him up in Abu Ghraib?" Bolan asked.
"That's mostly for Iraqi nationals or tourists passing through. Despite his age—he just turned twenty-one—Azima is rated as a hard-case superstar. There was some talk of handing him to the Israelis, but I take it that the Company was interested in grilling him—for all the good it did them. Next."
An older face this time, bearded, showing a white scar at an angle through the left eyebrow. Another scar interrupted what was otherwise a flourishing mustache.
"Daywa Gul-Bashra," Brognola declared, by way of introduction. "From Afghanistan. At forty-four, he is the oldest of the fugitives, and also spent more time at X-Ray than the others. Special Forces nabbed him in the last week of December 2001. Tentative ID as an al Qaeda associate."
A forty-something face replaced Gul-Bashra's, glaring from the screen at those assembled in the War Room. Dark hair spilled across the pockmarked forehead, over narrow, angry eyes.
"Here's Emre Mandirali," Brognola said. "He's a Turkish national, age forty-two, arrested with a load of weapons in Afghanistan, nine months ago. As far as I can tell, he made it to Camp X-Ray based on his affiliation with the Turkish People's Liberation Army. Someone may have thought he'd spill the beans about an international connection. They were wrong. Next rabbit?"
Kurtzman put a seventh face on-screen. The first smile they had seen, so far, lit up a heart-shaped face framed by shoulder-length hair. A pointed goatee gave the smile a hint of mockery.
"Cirrus Mehrzad," Brognola said. "A twenty-nine-year-old Iranian, picked up in Baghdad eighteen months ago. Arresting officers found evidence that he was building IEDs—that's improvised explosive devices, Pentagon-speak for homemade bombs—and someone suggested he might be a link between Teheran and Iraqi insurgents."
"Seems cheerful enough," Bolan said.
"He's a talker, I'm told, but it comes down to nothing," Brognola replied. "Tries to ingratiate himself with his interrogators, blabbing up a storm about his family and what-not, but they come out on the other side of it with bupkus. Four to go."
On cue, another face took its place on-screen. Brognola gave his audience a moment to survey the deadpan countenance, marred by a crescent scar at the left corner of the mouth.
"Bahram Parwana," he declared, at last. "He and the next fellow you'll meet are both Afghanis, lifted from their homeland. This one got himself arrested in 2004, for sniping at a U.S. convoy."
"I'm surprised he made it," Bolan said.
"He nearly didn't," the big Fed acknowledged. "When our boys returned fire, this one took a shrapnel hit that knocked him out. The medics stitched him up and shipped him out. He's thirty-one, according to the records. Hasn't said a word to any of his jailers since they locked him up."
"The wound?" Bolan suggested.
"Nothing medical. He's just a stubborn son of a bitch," Brognola said. "Next slide."
The ninth fugitive looked younger than Bahram Parwana, if only by a year or two. His lean face was unmarked, except by worry lines around the eyes.
"Mahmood Tamwar," Hal said. "Age thirty, if you trust his file. Picked up in Kabul, in 2003, supposedly associated with al Qaeda and the Taliban. Also a heroin connection, which is nothing very special in Afghanistan, these days. Aaron?"
The next face had a youthful look, despite the salt-and-pepper beard. Wire-rimmed glasses with a cracked left lens magnified hazel eyes under glowering brows. The mouth was a bloodless slash beneath a meaty nose.
"Ishaq Uthman," Hal said. "Egyptian, thirty-six years old, ex-military and associated with a remnant of the gang that killed Sadat. What he was doing in Iraq is anybody's guess. Lord knows he hasn't dropped a hint to any of the X-Ray experts."
"No al Qaeda ties?" Bolan asked.
"Nothing on the record," Brognola replied. "For what that's worth. Last one."
The final face was solemn but serene, the scalp clean-shaved over thin brows, with a close-trimmed beard. The upper lip was scarred by childhood surgery to correct a cleft palate.
"Last but not least, we have Ghulam Yazid," Brognola declared. "He's a thirty-year-old Pakistani, busted in Afghanistan last year, after a border crossing. Guns and ammunition were recovered, plus a message from Osama's minions to the Taliban. That bought Yazid a ticket overseas, but he has not been, shall we say, forthcoming during his interrogations."
"There's a shocker," Price remarked.
"Indeed. And that's the lot. Long story short, we need to round them up or bury them before they mount new operations on their own, or as a group."
"But no one knows exactly where they are," Bolan said, stating it as fact and not a question.
"Hey," Brognola answered him, "if it was easy, we'd all be retired."
"Terrific," Bolan said. "Where should I start?"
The dossier contained sparse information on the fugitives, a bit more on their liberators and two pages on the contact who'd be waiting for the Executioner when he got to Cuba. The short bio told him that Maria Santos was a thirty-three-year-old contract employee of the CIA, whose day job as a tourist guide allowed her contact with outsiders visiting Cuba.
Her photographs showed Bolan that Santos was a Latina looker, with long dark hair, surprising blue eyes and a body reminiscent of Raquel Welch in her prime.
Bolan would travel as Matt Cooper of Toronto, on a Canadian passport. Stony Man's forgeries were impeccable, and he had no worries about clearing Customs. The hassle would come afterward, when he and Santos began seeking their quarry on an island with over eleven million residents.
That was, assuming the nine fugitives and their surviving liberators were still on the island. If not, as Brognola had stated, the world was their oyster.
And none of them would be afraid to crack it open, given half a chance.
Straits of Florida
"Full speed ahead," Captain Arnold Bateman said, peering through his binoculars at open sea before the Tropic Princess. From the giant cruise ship's bridge, he had the vantage of a man standing atop a twelve-story hotel, with no clouds overhead and nothing to obstruct his view to eastward.
In fact, the Tropic Princess looked like a hotel that had been set adrift somehow, as if by magic, floating on the sea when it should logically be squatting on a corner of Park Avenue or the Las Vegas Strip. The ship measured 960 feet from bow to stern and weighed 115,000 tons. Beneath the captain's feet, three thousand passengers were anxiously awaiting the vacation of a lifetime, while twelve hundred crew members and entertainers worked around the clock to meet the needs of paying customers—and to keep the behemoth afloat.
During a classic two-week cruise, the British captain's passengers were treated to a taste of Cuba, the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Trinidad-Tobago, Venezuela and Jamaica. Shore excursions granted them the opportunity to browse and carouse in each port.