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By MICHAEL WALSH
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Michael Walsh
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEcho Park, Los Angeles
Ghosts everywhere. Ghosts all around, ghosts of the past and ghosts yet to come. Ghosts looming through the fog, reaching out to him, some beseeching and pleading, some clawing and snarling. Vengeful ghosts, sorrowful ghosts. Ghosts of those whom he had once loved and ghosts whom he still hated. The ghosts of his mother, who died protecting him, and of his father, who died fighting back. The ghosts of Milverton, his back broken, and of Raymond, that boy under the Central Park Reservoir, his eye gouged out and his head blown off.
All of them dead. And all dead because of him.
Was there vengeance in the next world? "Vengeance is mine," the Lord supposedly said, but if there was no God, then vengeance belonged to the shades, souls existing along the great continuum of being and nonbeing, of something and nothing.
And, as every scientist knew, the greatest difference in the universe lay between zero and one. Everything else was commentary.
If the greatest distance between two points was not one and infinity but one and zero, then the shortest distance was between life and death. Until the lights go out, there is yet light—but in darkness there is only nothing.
He strained his eyes in the darkness. Not yet nothing; he could hear his own breath. Even if the points of light he could still see with his eyes closed were illusions, optical memories, random bits of electrical impulses shooting through his eyeballs, there was yet light. God created light with a command, and Lucifer, best-loved, was the Bringer of Light. The light was both friend and enemy; in darkness lay solace. Because something was more terrifying than nothing.
Not yet nothing: his heart was yet pounding, his newfound heart, his reborn heart, his breathing becoming shallower and more insistent. He clutched life as he dealt death.
And there she was, just beyond his grasp, as real as he was. Looking away, unable to see him or hear the sound of his voice, her gaze fixed on something distant, her dark hair cascading down her naked back, moved not by the wind but by a careless toss of her head, almost coquettish, as she gestured to one unseen.
Was she looking at him, perhaps in her own dream, her own vision, her own fantasy? Or was there another?
Close enough to touch her now, he reached for her—
—and she dissolved at his touch. Melted, not like a real woman should but as a dream woman does, filigreeing away in a shower of light, as if she had never really existed, merely a figment of his imagination, a succubus come to save him from his own private demons, not a real woman to console him in his own private hell.
"Maryam," he heard himself saying. Her name was an incantation to a god in whom he did not believe.
She could not hear him. Something was drowning him out. A sound, like the beating of the wings of a gigantic bird, the thwack thwack thwack of a helicopter's blades, like the roar of an approaching tornado. Like the gunning engine of an airplane, and him alone on the Midwestern plain, helpless, mystified, and alone, like George Kaplan or Roger Thornhill. Or, worse, like his namesake, T. R. Devlin, who put the woman he loved in needless, fatal peril, just to do his job, and risked everything to get her out.
—and sat bolt upright in his bed in the house in Echo Park. The traffic on Sunset, down the hill, was quiet at this hour, the Mexican restaurants closed, the Dodgers game at the nearby Stadium long over. Not even the sound of gang-related gunfire, which occasionally punctured the stillness of L.A. nights. The city was never this quiet, especially this close to downtown and the intersection of two great freeways, but at this moment he was all alone in the world. He could even hear the freight trains, passing through the central city like the ghosts of civilizations past.
But over everything was the beating of his hideous heart.
He rose and shook his head, trying to clear it of the ghosts who haunted him now, more than ever. But they would not go gently....
He shook his head again, harder. A confidential op should never see ghosts. Seeing ghosts was a sign of weakness, or sentimentality, a sign of—if you were given to portents and runes—impending doom. Seeing ghosts was a sign of conscience. A sign of a heart. And a heart was the one thing he could not have. Not if he wanted to live.
A heart was no use in prison, especially a prison in which the lights were always turned off. In which you were not plunged into darkness, but in which you dwelled in darkness—the vast emptiness wherein the only sound was the voice of Lucifer, whispering that he could bring light that God Himself could not—would not. That he could salve the wounds, sever the irons bonds of superstition, and welcome you home.
"Maryam!" he cried.
A couple of blocks away, the spires of St. Andrew's, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, caught the first motes of sunbeams, the gleam in the eye of God.
He was not alone.
He would save her, no matter where she was, no matter what it took.
No matter what it cost him, no matter whether it cost him his life.
For a life was a small price to pay, to banish the ghosts and see the light once more.
For, God help him, he had sent her into the monster's lair, a poisoned pawn, bearing the gift of NSA technology in the form of the secure computer he had given her. They both knew the chance she was taking, and they had both signed off on the operation. Consenting adults, and all that. It was only business.
But that didn't make him feel like less of a heel.
He stepped into the shower and let the scalding water play over him. Water was a precious commodity in Los Angeles. He didn't care. He didn't care about anything—not about the ghosts, not about himself, not about anything. He cared nothing for the whole fucking lot of them. He only cared about her.
In the distance, the secure phone. Only three people on earth had that number, all of them on a need-to-know basis. Even more important, on a need-to-call basis. Since the events in NewYork and their aftermath, there had been little to know, and even less to call. The last phone call, the one from his stepfather, had said it all:
Stand down, for your own safety. Branch 4 will go forward without you. Keep your head down, stay out of sight, and, whatever you do, do not try to find her.
From this moment forward, she is dead to you, dead to us. While she may yet still live, her death is merely a formality of the future, an i to be dotted, a t to eventually be crossed, and crossed off. If you're lucky, your photo and hers will go on the Wall of Shame in Fort Meade. If not ... then you already have all the immortality you are ever going to need.
The phone, more insistent. The relays kicked in, routing the call through a series of secure servers, to determine the real number and the actual location from which the call was being made. Anybody could fake anything these days, especially the National Security Agency, but he knew them— because he was them. At least, he had been, for as long as he could remember.
It must be some sort of a joke. After what had happened, why would anyone call? Why would Seelye call him, or the new secretary of defense—or, even more unthinkable, the President of the United States? Skorzeny had escaped again, Maryam had defected to her native country, and everything he had done for his country, all the bodies he had left in his lethal wake, amounted to nothing.
Most likely, they had burned him, as they always said they would. It was the code of Branch 4, that once an op was burned he or she was no better than dead, and it was only a matter of time before the killer announced himself, two .22s in the back of the head, just like the mafia but more lethal.
It was always your friend, and never your enemy, because what worse enemy could a man in his line of work have than a friend?
This line was designed so that, if the incoming call passed all the security checks, the ring would continue to loop until it was answered. It didn't matter that the person on the other end of the line would have rung off; the instant he picked up the secure instrument, he would automatically be connected, via a series of secure cutouts, with the person who had called. That way, the security checks ran in both directions, and both parties could be sure they really were speaking to each other.
He picked up the line and waited. No beeps and blips, just utter silence ... until, finally, a voice:
"Is that you?"
"Bullshit. Try to kill me and you're in a world of hurt. I know where all the bodies are buried."
"You should. You put most of them there."
"And there's at least three more to go if you fuck with me."
"This is supposed to be a friendly call."
"Then start acting like it."
"Okay, I have three words for you."
"They'd better be good. Because if they're not, I have three words for you."
"Skorzeny. Maryam. Devlin."
For a moment, he had nothing to say. "Have I got your attention now?" said the voice, the voice he knew so well.
The answer surprised him. "The La Brea Tar Pits, tomorrow, one o'clock ... not in them, don't worry. Look for the wooly mammoth and await your contact."
"Does he come armed or unarmed?"
"He's a she. Jacinta. Act like a gentlemen."
"And then what?"
"You'll know what to do."
"How? A miracle?"
The line went dead.
He stood there, still naked except for a towel around his waist, his hair dripping.
Nothing. Emptiness, as usual.
He poured himself a short whiskey. It was a short step onto the terrace. To the south, he had a panoramic view of downtown. Nobody cared that he wasn't wearing any clothes. This was L.A. Nobody wore clothes in L.A., not really, just costumes.
The Bruckner symphony he'd been listening to was still playing. The Fourth, all horns and majesty and a slow death march and a vision of the afterlife and just enough harmonic wild cards to keep a listener on his toes as he contemplated the face of—
He raised his glass in a toast to the desert city by the ocean—water water everywhere and not a drop to drink—to Hollywood, and to the wide world beyond. The Hollywood Sign, from which poor Peg Entwhistle had thrown herself in revenge against its utter indifference, was behind him and off to his right, out of sight, which was where it belonged. Danny could see it from his house on Hobart Street in Los Feliz, could look up at it, just off to the west of the Griffith Park Observatory, the original rebel without a cause, white, gleaming, illuminated—a beacon in the L.A. darkness, reaching out to the heavens—redemption, if not quite salvation.
Not like the pagan Hollywood Sign, which appealed to the basest instincts of every kid who got off the bus, every hack screenwriter, every hooker-in-waiting, the waitrons of the past, present, and future: buy here, buy now, but buy, buy, buy.
If he had his way, the sign would not read HOLLYWOOD. Instead, it would read: FUCK YOU, SUCKER.
"Here's looking at you, kid," he said.
In the silence of the night he could say things like that. Because he knew that, after this drink, he had a job to do.
He was Devlin.
Chapter TwoTehran, Iran
The Grand Ayatollah paused and waited for the reaction from his subalterns. Like all great imams—and none was greater than he, certainly not those Sunni infidels in Cairo, no matter their exalted titles at Al-Azhar University. Unbelievers, all of them. As they—and the world—would soon discover.
He paused for a moment, collecting his thoughts, making sure they were in accordance with the sacred word of Allah, divinely revealed through his Prophet, Mohammed. He took a deep breath. How wonderful to have been freed of Western superstition—the blasphemy they called "science"—by revelation. Those years spent in England, at the London School of Economics—what a waste. How foolish had been his country and his countrymen, still in thrall to the throne of England, upon which, in just a few decades or, Allah (PBUH) willing, a few years, the new caliph would sit, resplendent in his glory and beckoning to the twelfth Imam, the Mahdi, the expected one, to deliver the world from iniquity and unbelief.
How close it all was.
"O Muslims," he began, his intonation stentorian, as befit his station. Another pause. He looked out upon the sea of humanity—all male—that faced him expectantly. Hanging on his every word. Watching him for signs and wonders. Never was he more conscious of his station, or of his sacred duty.
The Grand Ayatollah Ali Ahmed Hussein Mustafa Mohammed Fadlallah al-Sadiq said a silent prayer to Mohammed ibn al-Hasan al-Mahdi, still occulted at the bottom of his well in Qom. Soon, my lord, soon will you come again, accompanied by Issa to unite the world of holy Muslims and benighted Christians against the Jews and infidels, ushering in the final era of peace and submission to Allah's holy will.
"O Muslims," he began again. "For thirteen hundred years have we, the Faithful, awaited this holy day. For thirteen centuries, O my brothers, have we patiently and faithfully observed the strictures and commandments of the one true faith. Triumphant have we been, and oppressed by the lies of the Jews and infidels, who have taken from us the holy cities of al-Quds, of al-Andalus. We have patiently awaited the day of deliverance, the day on which even the rocks and the trees cry out to alert us to the presence of the Jew, and reveal to our holy warriors his infernal hiding place, that we might kill him, his women, and his children."
The crowd rose and cheered its approval. The Faithful could always be counted upon.
"Signs and portents were we promised by the Prophet and his holy Imams. And today I stand before you, Ali Ahmed Hussein Mustafa Mohammed Fadlallah al-Sadiq, to bring you the joyous news of fulfillment. O Muslims, I bring you the news of our Brother Arash Kohanloo, a glorious martyr to the sacred cause, who has struck a great blow against the Great Satan, the United States—such a blow as not even the Great Atta and his fellow martyrs on that happy day of September 11, 2001, could have dreamed."
An enormous roar rumbled up from the crowd of the Faithful, here in Azadi Square, beneath the great tower of Freedom. Let the infidels of New York call their blasphemous tower, still rising after more than a decade, a sign of their surpassing impotence and of the immanence of the Twelfth Imam, call their pitiful attempt at reconstruction the Freedom Tower. Here was the heart of true freedom, brought by the Arabs a millennium and a half ago but since purged and purified of their desert savagery. The destruction of the Sassanid Empire and the abolition of the Zoroastrian religion was a small price to pay for enlightenment.
Thus spake Zarathustra? Only in the infidel lands. Here, only Allah spoke, and always spoke the truth, immutable and eternal and preserved forever in the Holy Qu'ran.
From here he could see the Alborz Mountains to the north, from what used to be called the Square of the Shahs, Shahyad, before the Revolution. How inspiring they were—almost as inspiring as the Holy City of Qom and the holy mosque of Jamkaran.
"O Muslims," he began again. "Of signs and portents and wonders have we long spoken. Of the Occultation. Of the Expected One. For centuries have we endured and suffered under the false promises of men such as Mohammed Ahmad, who slew the infidel Gordon at Khartoum but left us with nothing but blood and desolation and disappointment while the Crusaders took our lands, even unto the blessed city of al-Quds, where the Jew sits, plotting against us.
"O Muslims—the time has come, for I bring you joyous news." He paused once again, for effect but more—for divine inspiration. He breathed the air in deeply, letting the breath of Allah wash over him, purging and cleansing him, revealing holy Truth to him as had been vouchsafed to only a handful of great men in the centuries since al-Hasan secluded his holy person in the sacred well.
Greatness. It felt good. It felt holy. It felt right.
"O Muslims. The Day of Deliverance is at hand."
Excerpted from SHOCK WARNING by MICHAEL WALSH Copyright © 2011 by Michael Walsh. Excerpted by permission of PINNACLE BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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