Read an Excerpt
Jacob Driscoll watched the four men, fascinated that they showed no resistance whatsoever. Completely resigned to their fate. A fly landed on the forehead of the nearest one—the one he was to kill—and the captive let it crawl about, tasting his sweat.
Jacob listened to the spokesman continue to rail in Arabic, a small crowd gathered in the square, outnumbered two to one by the gunmen. He didn’t understand the language but could guess at what was being said.
These men are traitors. This is the fate that befalls all who oppose the Kalipha. Stand with us, or suffer the same.
Far from cheering, the small grouping of people looked cowed, as if they wanted to be anywhere but there. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. They’d rather be on the outside watching than on their bellies with their necks stretched out.
The spokesman droned on, building toward a grand spectacle, his black tunic covered in dust, the AK-47 swinging about with his body language, and Jacob knew it was coming close. Execution time. His first.
In the seven months he’d been inside the cult of death known as the Islamic State, he’d witnessed many, many executions, acting as a gunman on the periphery, but he’d never done one on his own.
Not that he minded killing. It hadn’t bothered him in the past, but the action had always been at the barrel of a gun, and he wondered how this would feel. In a detached, almost scientific way, he wondered if it would be different from carving the carcasses of the rabbits he’d killed in his youth. When he’d literally had to hunt for survival.
He looked at his partners, seeing Hussein fidgeting, the nervous tics growing more pronounced. He wasn’t built for this cauldron, and Jacob thought it ironic that Hussein was the one who had recruited them. Convinced them to come to this faraway land.
Not that they had many alternatives after fleeing the cesspool of “rehabilitation” they’d been placed within. Killing the guard had ensured that.
Carlos and Devon, now known as Yousef and Talib, showed no such hesitation. They had embraced the cult of death completely, changing their names and fervently soaking up the Salafist ideology like a cactus in the rain. They were on board one hundred and ten percent, considering this day a sacred one.
Jacob played the role, but he’d long since lost belief in religion. Any religion. He’d had that whipped out of him by the pious Christian guards in the white house.
No, it wasn’t the religion. It was the power. In this land, from Mosul to Raqqa, all that mattered was the courage of the battle-axe, and he’d found a skill that he didn’t realize he possessed. He knew he would die here, but it caused no angst. In truth, he had died long ago. All that remained was for him to slip the coils of his mortal frame. The difference was a cause. He wouldn’t end up as a page-two news story, caught stealing hubcaps and gunned down in the street. And neither would the men he had brought.
Hussein may have recruited him, and the other two may have changed their names, diving headlong into the myth of the Islamic State, but he was the leader of their small group. Just as he had been inside.
With that mantle came a responsibility.
A man in black, completely covered from head to toe, like something out of a Star Wars movie, began walking his way. Jacob inwardly grimaced.
His name was Abu Yabba Dabba Do, or some other unpronounceable Arabic crap, but Jacob called him Ringo. As in the Beatles. An Islamic fighter from England, he and others like him considered themselves above Jacob and his band because they were of Arabic descent. Ringo was Yemeni. Jacob was a mutt.
“So, Jacob, are you ready for your first kill?”
He drew out the name Jacob, showing his disdain for the Biblical reference and the fact that Jacob refused to take an Arabic one.
Jacob said, “It isn’t my first, you shit.”
Ringo smirked and said, “Death with a gun is not killing. You’ll see. This is absolute control. Absolute. As Mohammad dictated. But your little band of Lost Boys wouldn’t know about that.”
He was being tested, which was what he expected. Ringo had beheaded many men, and had developed a cult following on Twitter and other social media, but he was an ass. A small man who gained importance after the fact. After the fighting was done, using his knife and a camera to become famous. At his core, Jacob knew Ringo felt a challenge from him and his friends.
Four tightly knit brothers, forged by a fire outside the Islamic State, with—except for Hussein—no attachment to any Arabic or Islamic heritage, they were an anomaly. True foreign fighters in a foreign land. They called themselves the Lost Boys because of the iconic ’80s movie, but the analogy was apt. They lived in a world of the shadows.
And they killed better than most.
Jacob said, “Ringo, step away.”
That was all.
And Ringo did.
Ringo had seen the punishment the Lost Boys had endured. With two blond Caucasians, one African American, and Hussein, the one who had recruited them, their arrival had been anything but welcoming. Convinced they were spies or, at best, journalists, the emir had subjected them to inhuman conditions and cruelty. And they had thrived.
Because of the white house.
Ringo said, “You are not the future. We are the future. Kafir.”
Jacob looked up, catching Ringo’s pompous eyes with the dead ones he possessed, and said, “The future is dictated by the man who isn’t afraid to die. Is that you?”
Ringo said, “I am not afraid. I have proved that multiple times.”
“Do you wish to die today? Without fear?”
Jacob knew his reputation from Mosul preceded him. Knew that Ringo hated the fact that he was a blond-headed, blue-eyed American, with no ancestral ties to the coming caliphate, but he also knew that Ringo couldn’t get past the stories that had grown into legends.
Ringo snarled and said, “We’ll see, Lost Boy. We’ll see.”
And walked away.
The man on the square finished his speech, which was like every other one, and not unlike speeches given by the blowhard preachers Jacob had heard every night in the reform school. There was a flourish at the end, then a knife placed in his hand.
He looked at the four men prostrate in front of him, and felt the hatred.
They were snitches. People who’d sold out the clan for money, giving information to the enemy for targeted air strikes and intelligence on how the Islamic State functioned. Jacob would have had qualms about killing someone for eating pork or not wearing a head wrap, but he had none for traitors.
They were the ones who had caused the pain in his past. Had caused the trips to the white house.
He looked at his man, a Kurd. Strange that such a person had been able to penetrate so deeply, given the fight against the Peshmerga, but he had. And he’d given massive information about the Islamic State to the Americans. Now he would die.
But the fly on his forehead would live.
He swished the man’s face and saw it buzz away. Then leaned down, wrapping his hand into the hair, pulling it up.
As he had as a child, when the next “new” father had come into the room, stinking of whiskey and taking off his belt, he let his humanity float away, flying on a cloud. Gone.
He became a man of stone.
He looked down the line, seeing the ubiquitous cameraman recording the killing, then Carlos and Devon eagerly snatching up their own heads and looking to him for guidance. He waited on Hussein.
He caught the tears on Hussein’s cheeks and wondered if the man would go through with it. He saw Ringo advancing and shouted, “Hussein!”
His friend looked at him and Jacob said, “For the white house. Do it for the white house.”
Hussein rapidly nodded, then pulled up the head.
Jacob turned to his own man, seeing his eyes rolling back, feeling the shaking in his body, the bright orange smock soaked in sweat.
The first swipe brought a gout of blood. He reached bone, and began sawing.
Omar al-Khatami watched the tape without a shred of revulsion, technically looking for the propaganda value. His media specialist described how he had enhanced the image, optimizing it for YouTube, and said, “This will show the Americans what happens to their spies, and prevent others from following in their steps.”
Omar said, “Yes. Post it tonight. End with the heads on the bodies.”
The door opened and the emir of northern Syria entered.
Mildly surprised, Omar exchanged greetings and said, “Adnan, I thought you weren’t returning for two days. What is happening with the oil?”
Adnan smiled and said, “It’s coming along. We only have the wells pumping at a quarter of capacity because of a lack of technical skill, but we have found men to change that. Soon, we will double our output and our revenues. As long as you don’t lose the fields.”
Omar said, “No chance of that.”
“Good, because I have some news. The caliph has bestowed a great honor on you. He has promoted you to the emir of external operations.”
The mention of the leader of the Islamic State brought a pause. Confused, Omar said, “External operations? I am the military commander here. I still have work to do. Aleppo to take. Damascus to burn.”
“The caliph has heard of your Lost Boys, and he thinks it is time to use them.”
“Then do so, but don’t pull me from my men. They fight because of me. The time is growing short for victory. This will be a setback we can’t afford, given the American attacks.”
Adnan scowled and said, “The caliph believes in you. And your American cell. He chose you.”
“Why? We have many men who could do this. You, for instance.”
“Because of your skill, for one. And because you are Chechen. You have traveled in Europe. You know the contacts. You can build the attack he desires.”
“These Lost Boys are untested. I’m unsure of their commitment.”
Adnan looked at the computer screen, the video paused with four men slicing and cutting. “Is this not them?”
“They show commitment here.”
“It could be simple fear. Hussein, the Jordanian, cried throughout.”
“And the others?”
Omar grudgingly admitted they showed no qualms, but said, “The leader of these so-called Lost Boys hasn’t even taken a proper name. He still goes by Jacob.”
“But you tested him, yes?”
Omar nodded. Adnan said, “The name is why we want them. They will all revert back to their true names. They are gems buried in the sand. Four Americans with no ties to America. No families, no Facebook, no Twitter. They are unknown. Unlike the others who brag to their friends back home, nobody knows they exist. No authorities are fervently tracking their moves. True?”
“Yes. We instructed them on methods of recruitment, but they have shown no interest.”
“Good. Keep it that way. Their mission will be the greatest recruitment drive we have ever seen.”
The media specialist fidgeted, getting Adnan’s attention. He said, “Emir, they are on this video. The one we’re going to post for the world to see.”
“Don’t. Broadcast the stills of the verdict, but keep the executioners out.”
Omar said, “We lose the impact with our own people. They need to see. They need to fear.”
“Then let our men see it, but obscure the faces, and do not put it on social media. The Americans must be protected, and those kafirs in the United States have ways of determining the tiniest things.”
Omar nodded. “It will be done. What about me?”
Adnan looked at him with a question, and he said, “When do you wish me to start, and what will the target be?”
“Targets. Plural. Every attack attempted by that windbag Zawahiri and his diseased al Qaida has resulted in failure because the kafirs managed to hear about it before execution. We have to assume the same will happen here, so we will plan two attacks. One for them to chase, and one for you to execute.”
Omar went through the ramifications in his mind. Having fought in Grozny against a barbaric Russian army, he recognized the wisdom. He said, “Just preparation for the false flag attack?”
“No, no. A real attack. One that you will plan from start to finish. You pick the target and the method. The only parameter is that it must be outside of the caliphate. Outside the borders here. If it succeeds, so much the better, but its primary mission is to protect your American cell. Obviously, don’t tell the other team about that. Let them think they are the chosen ones.”
Omar absorbed the words, glancing away and nodding, thinking through the possibilities. He said, “And the real target?”
Adnan smiled and said, “The real one will destroy the heart of the kafirs.”
Waiting on the president to finish, eyes glued to a television, Colonel Hale sat with the rest of the Oversight Council, watching him getting raked over the coals in the White House James S. Brady Press Briefing Room. Kurt heard a little exasperation escape President Warren, a sign of the pressure he was under. Kurt felt for the president, but was glad it wasn’t him on the stage. The conversation would have been much less civil.
“Kathy, I don’t know how to make it any more plain. None of the men in the picture are either American or working for United States intelligence. They are not in any capacity agents of the United States. Clearly, those barbarians will kill anyone just to prove a point. And that point is fear.”
The hands in the pressroom rose again and President Warren said, “Thank you,” then walked off, hearing a chorus of shouted questions. Sitting in the Old Executive Office Building next door to the White House, Kurt knew it would be a good ten minutes before he arrived for their meeting.
He looked around the room. Only half of the thirteen members of the Council were present, the other half most likely getting castigated right now in the Oval Office over the scourge of the Islamic State.
Kurt knew how President Warren felt: impotent.
For nearly a decade he’d been hunting terrorists with a unique counterterrorist organization that had unparalleled success; yet despite its efforts, a greater threat had appeared. Not only appeared but had thrived like the spread of Ebola in a ward of children. And his unit could do nothing about it.
The thought made him sick, driving home the fact that the application of military force would never be decisive in this fight. The roots were too deep, and the siren call too sweet. No matter how many terrorists he prevented from individually killing, there was a pervading ability for ideology to transcend logical thought, spreading like a cancer through whole societies he would have otherwise thought normal, civilized humans.
Because of it, the Islamic State had become the most powerful terrorist organization on the face of the earth.
Encompassing broad swaths of terrain across Syria and Iraq, the group possessed a brutality unheard-of in the modern world. But it was not unlike the history of the past. The Islamic State cowed its opponents with an unparalleled ability to instill fear, using new social media grafted on twelfth-century barbarism to depict beheadings, crucifixions, torture, and mass executions, and in so doing recruiting waves of others to continue the killing.
As much as Kurt would have liked to take the war to them, that wasn’t his job. The current fight was for overt conventional and special operations—something he had done long ago, but had given up for the secret war. A war he had thought he was winning. Now he wasn’t so sure.
He was the commander of a Taskforce created after 9/11, designed to operate in the shadows outside of the established intelligence or defense architecture. In short, to operate outside of the law. The entire experiment had been an enormous risk—but deemed necessary due to the threat. They worked without legislative oversight, and routinely flouted the Constitution to protect US national interests—read: US lives—and, while Kurt had his qualms about creating such an organization, he’d agreed to head it up because the menace had been grave.
Now, after nearly a decade of work, he wondered if it had been worth it. The threat had grown beyond grave, and they’d created an organization that could prove absolutely cancerous to US liberties. And for what? To see the rise of the most powerful terrorist organization in history ripping through the Middle East like Genghis Khan?
The light flashed above the SCIF secure door, and President Warren entered, followed by Kerry Bostwick, the director of the CIA, Alexander Palmer, the national security adviser, and the secretary of state, Jonathan Billings.
They took their seats, and without preamble, a staffer brought up a digital photo showing four bodies lying facedown, dressed in orange, each with a grisly head positioned above the shoulder blades.
President Warren said, “Everyone here?”
Kurt said, “Everyone except for the vice president.”
The Oversight Council was the sole body that approved Taskforce actions. With the exception of Easton Beau Clute, the chair of the senate select committee on intelligence, all were either civilians or in the executive branch. The president had wanted no part of politics interfering with the decidedly explosive operations the Taskforce conducted, and had made the decision to exclude the legislative branch.
Clute had been read on because of a past operation involving his son and daughter. While serving in the military, both had been taken hostage and faced certain death. They’d been saved from slaughter by the Taskforce. Because of it, Kurt had no doubt about his loyalty.
President Warren said, “Kerry, give them the damage.”
The D/CIA said, “We have managed to introduce three assets into the architecture of the Islamic State. Their crypts are BOBCAT, LEOPARD, and COUGAR. The third from the end in the picture was BOBCAT, and he was the only one reporting.”
Kurt thought, Holy Shit. He was ours.
“BOBCAT was a Kurd we’d recruited in Sulaymaniyah a long time ago, back when we were still in Iraq and still fighting against the Ba’athists and al Qaida. We activated him seven months ago, and he agreed to penetrate into Syria. We knew it was a risk, because he was a Kurd, but there have been several reports about Kurdish recruits, so much so that the Kurdistan administration is beginning to fear a second front, inside its territory. He made it in and began reporting, surprising the hell out of us. I mean, he was really reporting. Quality stuff. He was very good, and our biggest fear was that he’d be caught by a Kurdish PKK, YPG, or some other Peshmerga unit and skinned alive as a traitor. We never saw this coming.”
The secretary of defense said, “And the others? Are they in the picture as well?”
“No. We don’t know who they are. Probably poor saps just caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, or on the outside, reporting for one of the Gulf States or a rival militia. They aren’t ours.”
Kurt said, “You mentioned ‘quality stuff.’ What was he reporting?”
“You know our greatest fear is that a bunch of radicalized citizens come home or go to Europe to wreak havoc. With the FBI in the United States and the CIA’s liaison with European allies, we have a pretty tight handle on who’s gone overseas. Or at least we thought we did. Ninety-nine percent are ‘citizens’ of a country but are one step removed from the Middle East. Like the English rapper who beheaded James Foley. He’s a British citizen officially, but he’s of Egyptian descent and his father was extradited to the United States for the African embassy bombings in ’98. Which is to say, he had a background of terrorism to begin with.
“BOBCAT popped our comfortable bubble on our view of the threat. Six weeks ago he reported on a group called the ‘Lost Boys.’ He didn’t know what they were, only that they existed. It was included with a ton of other reporting from him. Four days ago, he sent an in-extremis message saying they were United States citizens, and they were ‘Americans.’ That was all. We don’t know what he meant, but we think it indicates that they’re not of Arabic descent. They’re pure, dyed-in-the-wool all-Americans. And they might be coming home.”
His words settled in the room like a foul stench and President Warren said, “So, the question is, what do we do about it?”
Secretary of State Billings opened his mouth, and, after the words spilled out, Kurt wondered if he’d forgotten every single Taskforce mission he’d ever been involved with. Or maybe he was just stupid. But then again, Kurt had grown a little biased against the man.
“Can’t the Taskforce get in there? Maybe send them to Damascus to start looking for these guys?”
Kurt waited for someone to describe how stupid that was, then realized it was on his shoulders. He said, “Sir, we are not a green-machine combat force. We operate within the fabric of sovereign nations, taking the fight to the terrorists who use the infrastructure of those nations either wittingly or unwittingly. Clandestinely.”
“Yeah? So what? Wasn’t Pike’s team in Damascus a few years ago?”
Kurt ground his teeth, looking at the president. Warren simply nodded at him to continue, but with a little bit of a glare, meaning, Don’t embarrass him.
“Okay, the ‘so what’ is that, for one, ISIS isn’t in Damascus. President Assad still owns that terrain. Even if we could get a team in—which we can’t now—it would do no good. Secondly, the damn country is a war zone. I don’t know if you’ve been watching the news, but we’re pummeling the shit out of them from the air. The Taskforce operates using plausible covers in otherwise unsuspecting countries. I can’t send a team of supposed agricultural engineers into Syria and expect that cover to last more than five minutes. There are no NGO gringos operating in the countryside. There’s no way to penetrate ISIS with the Taskforce. I mean, are you dumb enough to think they could drive into Raqqa, the heart of the Islamic State, wearing mirrored shades and hauling genetically altered wheat seeds and not expect them to end up on their own video?”
He saw President Warren scowl at the last statement and turned his own glare on the man who’d asked the question.
Billings snapped his head up at the harsh words, glancing toward President Warren for support. He wasn’t getting any. He said, “What about your vaunted walking disaster? Pike Logan? We pulled him back in against my vote, but maybe we can use him here. Surely he could do something. I thought he was Captain America.”
Kurt knew he was being baited. Pike was the best team leader he had, with a supernatural ability to solve problems. Which is to say he killed terrorists with an unbridled skill. He was also a trouble magnet—both on the enemy side and on the side of the Taskforce, causing massive headaches when he went off the reservation, using his own intuition instead of listening to the very council that was supposed to authorize his actions. Because of it, he’d been fired twice, and brought back into the fold each time due to his abilities. At the end of the day, no one could argue with success.
Kurt knew Billings was sick of being on the Oversight Council. Tired of the risk of being exposed for operating outside the law, leaving his long tenure in public service in tatters on the front page of the Washington Post. He was a career diplomat, and the very notion of the Taskforce assaulted his sensibilities. He didn’t like authorizing missions for a normal team, but was petrified of Pike. In his mind, Logan was a loose cannon who was going to cause the downfall of all of them. Pike’s past successes mattered little. Secretly, Kurt believed Billings would rather have a terrorist attack occur than sit on the Council for one second longer.
As much as he wanted to, Kurt didn’t need to get in a fight right now. He chose the better—and honest—answer.
He said, “Yeah, I’m with you. If anyone could do it, it would be Pike’s team. Unfortunately, he’s engaged right now in Africa. As a matter of fact, trying to shut off some Islamic State funding from a corrupt Saudi citizen.”
I felt a fingernail stroking my back, right between my shoulder blades, then a whisper. “Wake up, sleepyhead. I have to go. Before one of those early birds comes and knocks on the door.”
Meaning, Before someone finds out I’m here.
We’d been out very late the night before developing a pattern of life on our target, who wasn’t what one would call a pious Muslim, and I figured everyone from the mission was still asleep. The target wouldn’t be doing anything until at least noon.
I rolled over, leaning on an elbow. “Jennifer, I don’t think we’re fooling anyone anymore.”
She said, “Pike, appearances matter. I know they know, but there’s no reason for the team leader to throw it in their faces. I think Knuckles tolerates it, but only because we make an effort to not let it show during operations.”
Knuckles was my second in command, a Navy SEAL who, strangely enough, was a stickler for the military prohibition on fraternization within the chain of command. I think it had something to do with a bad experience in the close quarters of a ship with a male supervisor. Or maybe he was just a stickler. Either way, unfortunately for him, neither Jennifer nor I were in the military, and it was my company. My team. But she had a point.
“So you want to scuttle out of here doing a walk of shame to keep up the appearances of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’?”
Before she could answer, I heard the door to our room fly open. Like a high schooler hiding from her mother, Jennifer threw the covers over her head. I bunched up the thick bedspread to hide her form, tossed a pillow over her pile of clothes, then turned to rip into the idiotic maid who’d entered.
Instead, I saw Knuckles standing in my room.
He said, “Retro’s finally cracked into the backbone server for the hotel. We’ve got Panda’s computer, and he’s making plans.”
I scowled and said, “What the hell are you doing? Don’t you know how to knock? How’d you get in here?”
He held up a keycard and said, “I just told you Retro got into the server. We can make a key for any room in the hotel.”
“So you figured you needed one for my room?”
He smiled and said, “I figured you’d be asleep and didn’t want to bang on the door.”
“I was asleep. Asshole.”
“You want to dress and come up? Or stay in bed?”
I was already out and throwing on my clothes. He turned back to the hallway leading to the door, disappearing from view. I heard the door open, then, “Oh, Jennifer, you can come too. We won’t say anything about you wearing the same clothes as last night.”
Shit. The door closed and she poked her head out. “Well, that’s pretty embarrassing.”
I said, “Tell me about it. Getting caught skulking around like kids is more embarrassing than getting snagged red-handed.”
She kicked over the pillow, grabbed her clothes, and went into the bathroom, saying, “I’m using your toothbrush.”
I started shoving things into my pockets and unplugging my phone from the charger, saying, “I guess that makes it official.”
I was putting on my shoes when she came back out fully clothed, brushing her hair. She said, “It wasn’t before?”
The words caught me off guard, because I was just making a joke. Jennifer and I had definitely become partners in more ways than just our business, but we’d never verbalized it. I’d made one statement in the heat of the moment on our last mission, then we’d just sort of dropped it. I was a shit show when it came to such things, and she knew it. She was patient, but I wasn’t sure how long that would last.
I said, “Well . . . yeah . . . I mean . . . I was just . . .”
She hit me in the chest with a towel and said, “Oh, please. Spare me. Should I go up?”
Relieved, I stood and held out my arm to the door. “Yeah. Get it over with. You show any weakness with these guys, and they’ll start ribbing us forever.”
We got in the elevator and I noticed her clothes, stained from our mission last night and wrinkled from lying on the floor of my room. She looked like she’d slept in them. I said, “You’re really going to wear what you had on last night?”
She snapped her head to me and said, “I was. . . . Should I go change?”
The car stopped and I said, “Too late. Welcome to the lion’s den.”
I stepped out and she said, “I’m not going in if you think they’re going to laugh at me.”
“Come on. They know better than to laugh at the managing partner of Grolier Recovery Services. You can fire them.”
Jennifer and I were the owners of GRS, ostensibly a firm that specialized in archeological research. We worked for private entities, universities, and others to help facilitate excavations around the world. Since most archeological digs were in areas that were borderline Wild West—like Nairobi, Kenya, where we were now—I handled the security side of things, something that fit my military background. Jennifer, with her anthropology degree and insatiable appetite for annoying anyone within earshot about ancient history, had the hard part of acting like we really were a legitimate archeological firm.
In truth, the whole thing was a shell company that cloaked a top secret counterterrorism unit called the Taskforce. Back in the day, when I was on active duty, I had been a team leader in the unit. Now, I was a civilian co-owner of a cover organization and a team leader yet again. It had been a rocky road, starting with recruiting Jennifer—a pure civilian and a female to boot—getting her read on, trained up, and admitted to the unit, and had ended with me convincing the commander, Colonel Kurt Hale, to let my company start operating not as a support asset, but as an actual team.
On the surface, for anyone looking at the pure black and white, the demands were insane. Let a female Operator into the Taskforce? Let a civilian company start running missions? No way. But there’s much more to special operations than what can be tallied on a sheet.
Jennifer had passed selection with flying colors, and had put away a few bad guys with her innate skill alone before even attempting that trial, and I . . . well, I was fucking Pike Logan.
That might be a little bigheaded, especially given some of the mistakes I’d made in my past, when I’d slipped into the abyss and lost my way. But that was history now, and at the end of the day, even with the stains, I was the most successful team leader the Taskforce had ever used. Just ask all the people walking around today because I had been there to prevent their death. You couldn’t, of course, because they didn’t know I existed.
The Taskforce command and I had been going back and forth, with me running things off the books and the Oversight Council wetting their pants because of my actions, but finally Kurt had said I was officially in charge. Which gave some members of the Council fits, but since I’d personally saved the lives of Oversight Council family members on my last mission, those idiots were shut down.
Kurt had told me not to screw it up, then sent me to Africa to chase a fat Saudi with bags under his eyes that made him look like a panda bear.
I knocked on the door of our makeshift tactical operations center, a suite at the InterContinental Hotel in Nairobi, feeling foolish that Knuckles had waltzed right into my room while I had forgotten to get a key to my own TOC.
I waited for the door to open, knowing someone was eyeing me through the peephole. It took forever, making me wonder if they were screwing with us. Brett finally turned the knob, saying, “Retro’s in back, working the computer. Someone’s on it right now, but it ain’t Panda.”
A short African American built like a fireplug of solid muscle, he moved aside and I said, “Did you need to get a box to see out the door?”
I walked in and waited on a reaction to Jennifer. All he said was, “Hey, Jenn. Good work last night.”
That was it.
She gave off her brilliant megawatt smile and said, “Thanks.”
I started back to the bedroom and heard Brett say, “Yeah, it was a long night, huh?”
Good work? Long night? I slid my eyes his way, but he was innocently standing by the door. No grin or anything else to indicate a double entendre.
I went to the back bedroom, where Retro had set up all of our computer network stuff, and saw him staring at a screen, Knuckles standing over his shoulder.
I said, “What’s up?”
“Retro’s accessed Panda’s computer through the hotel Wi-Fi. He’s covertly turned on the laptop camera and we can see who’s typing, and it’s not him. It’s the security chief.”
“And? Why do we care?”
“He’s setting up a visit from an escort. You know, because Panda’s forty-two wives aren’t enough. Real pious.”
A thought hit me. I said, “Hey Retro, if you can see what he’s typing, can’t you just rip through the computer? Image the hard drive and end this mission right now?”
“Already did. This laptop isn’t the one we want. I’m willing to bet that one is air-gapped from the Internet. We still need to locate it and physically access it.”
Ali Salim al-Naggar—aka Panda—was a wealthy Saudi businessman with strong indicators he was providing money to Salafist jihadist groups. One of many around the world defying their government—or, in some instances, operating with its tacit approval—to fund extremists. In this case, we believed he was using his business connections as a clearinghouse to funnel money to the Islamic State—otherwise known as ISIS, ISIL, or Da’esh in the shifting sands of Arabic naming conventions—the rampaging lunatics running amok and beheading everything in their path in Syria and Iraq.
This mission was strictly intelligence collection. Ordinarily, we would physically remove the terrorist from the playing field, but in this case, Panda was a well-known businessman with ties to the royal family. There was no way to remove him covertly. Unlike the assholes we usually chased, his disappearance would cause an unacceptable investigative effort, so we decided to simply gather irrefutable evidence of his wrongdoing, then feed it into the system.
Our relationship with the kingdom went from hot to cold, depending on the political vagaries of the day, but the Saudis were scared spitless about the Islamic State, and worried about the growth of jihadist insurgents in their own country. There wouldn’t be a lot of tolerance and love once we boxed up Panda’s transgressions. Which is where the laptop came in.
So far, we’d been stymied because his penthouse was always manned, and nobody had been allowed past the door, including the daily maid service.
I said, “Why do we care about his sex habits? It’s not going to help us. Going in when he’s with her is the worst time because his security force will be on edge for the duration she’s there.”
Brett said, “That’s true. We can’t get in behind the escort, but if we can control the escort herself, maybe she could do it.”
They were all looking at me and I could tell they’d already come up with some half-baked plan. Had already talked it out. I said, “Okay, spill it. You want to pay off an escort to attack his computer? No way. I’m not trusting some prostitute to do it.”
Retro said, “He’s not requesting some skinny local. He wants a white girl. A very expensive white girl. Over a thousand dollars for the night.”
“What difference does that make?”
They all looked at each other, gathering their courage, then Knuckles threw it out. “We have a white girl.”
It took a moment for his words to register. Jennifer? I said, “No fucking way. You have lost your mind.”
Brett saw me winding up and said, “Wait, Pike, wait. Just listen. This’ll work. She goes in as the escort; we go in as security. We’ll be there the entire time.”
Retro kicked in, “Yeah, come on. You’ve been saying all along that Jennifer offers the team something because she’s a female, and this is it.”
I said, “Acting like a whore? Really? That’s what you thought I meant?”
Jennifer interrupted, “Hey, you’ve got a short memory. You threw me out on the streets in Prague as a streetwalker. Remember?”
Everyone quit talking and looked at her. I said, “That was just an act to get a reaction from organized crime. I wasn’t sending you in with a man. No way.”
Retro said, “She won’t be with him. . . .” He started to continue, but dribbled off at my glare.
She said, “I’m willing to listen. What’s the plan?”
I said, “Jennifer, no way. If you think I’m—”
She cut me off with a raised hand, something I would never have tolerated from the men. She said, “What’s the plan, Knuckles? I’m sure you’ve thought this through.”
He looked at her, then at me. He waited a beat then said, “Well, first we interdict the real escort. Then, Brett, Pike, and I go with you as security. You get in the bedroom with the guy and swipe him with ABS. When he’s in the bathroom shitting his guts out, you clone the computer.”
She nodded, thinking, then said, “How quickly does ABS work? I don’t want to fend him off while I’m waiting.”
Knuckles grimaced and said, “Trust me, it works within seconds.”
I heard the discussion and realized the plan might actually succeed. In fact, it most likely would succeed. ABS was a chemical compound applied to the skin in the form of ChapStick, lipstick, or other ingenious methods. It was absorbed into the bloodstream and caused massive, explosive gastric distress. Being knuckle-draggers, we couldn’t pronounce its complicated chemical formula and called it ABS—for Atomic Blow-Shits. We’d used it on a past operation, and Knuckles had accidentally gotten it on himself as well as the target, and had suffered the consequences.
He said, “It’s fast, but if you get it on yourself the mission’s over. Then you’ll both be fighting for the toilet.”
I said, “But we don’t even know where the computer’s located. What if it’s not in the bedroom?”
“Then we call it a wash and she leaves. Panda will be in no condition to do anything either way. The only risk is that Jennifer’s potentially out of play for future operations.”
I said, “You’re good with this?”
“Well, yeah. It’s just a mission, and Retro’s right. Unless that guy’s asking for a male, I’m the only one who can do it. You’d do the same if he was gay, right?”
Not on your life.
“Uhh . . .”
Brett cut in, saying, “She’s already proven she can sneak in and out of hotel rooms at night. She’s a natural.”
I whipped my head to him, catching a smirk, which wound me up. He said, “Whoa, why are you getting pissed? She’s climbed walls as slick as marble to access rooms all over the globe. That’s all I meant.”
I glared, seeing all of them trying mightily to stop from grinning. Even Knuckles. Jennifer said, “Yeah, Pike. You’re the one that’s always making me climb and break in somewhere. Let’s do it.”
She started walking to the door and I felt the shame of her being the butt of a joke she wasn’t even getting. I was disappointed in the team’s lack of respect.
I gave them a death stare, then caught up to her with the team trailing behind. I stopped her, wanting them to admit they were secretly giving her a slight. “That’s not what Brett meant.”
She rolled her eyes and said, “Pike, I know exactly what he was saying. I just didn’t think it required a response. They’re juvenile boys playing juvenile games. Just like you do. But it’s the first time they’ve ever made fun of me to my face. Progress.”
And it dawned on me she was right. It wasn’t a lack of respect. It was the opposite. They felt comfortable enough with her on the team to actually start ribbing her. Just like the guys on the team did with one another. As I had done when I’d entered the room with Brett.
She continued, glancing from man to man. “But they’ll be a Taskforce team tonight. Wired for the mission. Right?”
Knuckles smiled. “You better believe it.”
Under his breath, I heard Knuckles say, “Holy shit.” I turned and saw Jennifer coming out of the bathroom of the cheap hotel room we’d rented to prepare for the mission. She looked stunning. I mean, I might be biased, but she was breathtaking. I wondered if it was just me, but I saw that Brett was slack-jawed. Mesmerized.
She caught the looks and said, “What? Is this not what a high-end escort would wear? Should I look sluttier or something?”
Nobody said anything, and she said, “Hey, what’s the problem?”
Knuckles finally managed to find his mouth. “Man alive, Jennifer, you clean up nice.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing . . . It’s just that you’re always wearing jeans or something. Hair in a ponytail. No makeup. I’ve never seen . . . I mean, you never . . .”
“So my natural state is ugly?”
He started stumbling over his words, and I saw her smile.
She’s going to have no trouble with Panda.
We’d spent the better part of the day getting ready for our little adventure, going to the Westgate mall in Nairobi, the same one those assholes from al-Shabaab had assaulted in 2013, slaughtering over seventy people. The men had spent all of thirty minutes buying cheap suits. Jennifer, on the other hand, went hog wild. She was allowed to shop on the Taskforce dime, and she’d spared no expense, buying a black cocktail dress with a modest décolletage, jewelry, makeup, a mani-pedi, a high-end wig, and some sort of ridiculously expensive high heels called Jimmy Choos. I had no idea how she knew what to purchase, because she routinely wore nothing but work clothes for the business, but apparently, it was in the female DNA.
Now that she was wearing the outfit, complete with elbow-length black gloves to protect her hands from the ABS, it made our suits look like sweatpants.
She said to me, “You sure Retro’s stopped the real escort? It’s going to be embarrassing if we both show up.”
Knuckles said, “Yeah, he confirmed while you were in the bathroom. He spoofed Panda’s IP and canceled the appointment. Taskforce had to pay the cancellation fee, which I’m sure will cause some issues after we get back when the bean counters see what it’s for. I told him he was the one claiming the receipt on his travel voucher.”
She smiled and said, “Okay, then. Let’s get it done.”
I said, “Final backbrief. We get to the door and do what?”
Brett said, “I knock and talk to the head of security, telling him we have to be in the suite while she’s there.”
“And when he says no?”
“But not too hard. Act like you’re doing your job, but don’t turn it off. Jennifer?”
“When it gets heated, I say I’m good going in alone.”
“I interject that we’re staying right outside. Then hand her a phone, telling her to call if there’s trouble.”
Before I could ask, Jennifer said, “I go in and place the phone on the nearest available desk or table.”
I wanted the phone in her hand when she entered, so she could set it down with the small clutch she held, without having to pull it out, which would look awkward. The “phone” itself was a digital camera with multiple fish-eye lenses that would give us a view of what was going on inside.
I said, “Then, you do your siren dance and go into the bedroom. Wait until he closes the door, which he will, then wipe him with the ABS. When it takes effect, slave the computer. I promise it’ll be sitting somewhere close to where he sleeps.”
She nodded and said, “If there’s trouble?”
I held up a keycard. “We’re coming in, courtesy of Retro. Keep on comms with your earpiece. You call, and we’re in. Backup, just start shouting. Retro’s got the security laptop slaved, so he’ll hear it even if we don’t.”
She held up the thumb drive with the software Retro had built. “How long will this thing take?”
“Retro says five minutes. It’s got a search algorithm imbedded in it, so it won’t be imaging a bunch of porn, but depending on how much data he has, it might be longer. It’ll flash green when it’s done.”
“What if it takes a lot longer?”
“He’ll be shitting for hours. You’ll be fine.”
She squinted at me and I smiled. “Hey, we don’t pay you just to be eye candy.”
She said nothing, but I was sure I’d hear about that comment later. I went around the team and said, “Any more questions? We good?”
Nobody said anything, and I looked at Jennifer. “On your command.”
A devious little grin slipped out, and she said, “Showtime.”
Brett pulled the car into the drop-off lane at the InterContinental Hotel, and Jennifer saw the doorman looking quizzically inside the town car, then gawking full-on at her. Brett jumped out from the driver’s seat and engaged him.
She felt Pike nudge her and heard, “You good? Ready?”
She smiled, and it wasn’t false confidence. “You just be ready to get in if this goes sideways.”
He gave her a reassuring grin and said, “I hear buffalo, and I’m breaking the door down.”
Buffalo was the code word Jennifer would use if she needed help, chosen because the likelihood of it being used accidentally was nonexistent, but she could slip it into a conversation without the other party knowing. It would be completely her call, and they would do nothing unless they heard it.
Knuckles said, “Time to act the part.”
They passed through the lobby and reached the elevator, Brett pressing the penthouse level. The car began to move and Jennifer leaned back. Behind her, Knuckles practically knocked her into the wall, exclaiming, “Watch what you’re doing!”
She stutter-stepped in her Jimmy Choos, slapping her hand into the rail, glaring at him. He said, “You’ve got the damn ABS on your zipper. No way do I want that on me again.”
They’d created a layered approach to applying the compound, starting with the zipper on her dress. If he didn’t use that, she had condoms laced with the stuff and a final chance with a lipstick tube holding a piece of red plastic that looked exactly like it should, but was coated with the chemical like poison from a dart frog.
Pike said, “Okay, okay. Knuckles is a little sensitive to the effects. Shitting your pants will do that. Break out the camera for test.”
Brett pulled out what looked like a Samsung Galaxy S5 and turned it on. Pike said, “Retro, you getting feed?”
“Yep. Seeing all like intended. Jennifer, where’d all your hair go?”
She was wearing a black wig with a bob cut that ended just below her ears. Pike said, “Truthfully, I was wondering the same thing.”
Jennifer said, “Female secret.”
The elevator stopped and Pike said, “Game on. No mistakes. We get in and out clean.”
Knuckles said, “All you, babe.”
Pike said, “Six on security. Two outside and four in. We go hot, remember the numbers. Take them all out.”
Jennifer took a breath. He saw it and said, “Hey, it won’t come to that. Just making sure for worst case.”
She said, “You guys had better be there if I call.”
Brett said, “You know it.”
She looked at him, saw the determination on his face, and became calm. They might make fun of her, and even have qualms about a female being on the team, but she knew that all such issues were gone now. On the X, all that mattered was the team. And she was one of them.
Worst case, she also had an ace in her back pocket.
An inhuman wrecking machine that would break open the earth itself to protect her.
The elevator’s doors opened, and they saw two security goons outside Panda’s suite. They got within five feet of the entrance before both men held up their hands. One was Caucasian, and when he spoke, they heard a strong Eastern European accent.
“I must search her.”
Pike said, “Yes. We understand. We’ve done this before.”
He did so, working professionally, patting the length of her body and massaging her breasts and groin, but taking no pleasure from it. He turned and nodded to his partner, who swiped the door.
As planned, Brett took the lead. The European stopped him and said, “Only her.”
Brett said, “No way. That’s not how it works. We go in with her.”
“Not here. You stay outside.”
“We can’t do that. She’s our commodity. We protect that. It’s why we’re paid.”
The European repeated, “Not here. Your company knows that. No harm will come to her. It’s why I’m here as well.”
Jennifer said, “It’s okay. I’m willing to go in alone. He’s a repeat customer.”
Brett looked disgusted, then Knuckles said, “Take this. If there’s a problem.”
And the phone was passed.
Pike said, “We stay out here. Right here.”
The European said, “If you want to do that, I must search you.”
She entered the suite, hearing Pike say, “Fine. We don’t have any weapons.”
The room was large, even by penthouse standards, with a full-length dining table, a sectional sofa, and a gigantic wide-screen TV tuned to an American sitcom. To the left was a bedroom, and deeper in she could see a small hallway leading to what was presumably the master suite. And her target.
Three men were on the couch, and a fourth met her at the door. She recognized him as the chief of security from the night before, a large Arab with a neatly groomed beard wearing a suit.
He said, “Leave your things out here.”
That was easy. She put the phone down but kept her small clutch. He said, “Remove your jewelry.”
“No jewelry in the room. I’m sorry.”
She nodded and removed her earrings, a bracelet, and her necklace, setting them next to the phone. He said, “Your Bluetooth as well.”
Uh-oh. “Why? That can’t hurt anyone. I use it to talk to my security.”
“You don’t need security. Please. Remove it.”
She debated, then did as he asked. He said, “Thank you. Your purse as well.”
No way. Deal breaker.
She opened it, saying, “This is for the client.” Inside were a bottle of lubricant, a tube of lipstick, and several condoms. Hidden in the lining was the thumb drive.
He poked his finger around the inside, pressing the lining and causing her to hold her breath. He nodded. “Is okay. Follow me.”
She felt the eyes of the other three men on her as she walked to the main bedroom, the large Arab leading the way. He stopped and knocked on the door, saying something in Arabic. There was a muffled reply, and he opened the door.
She entered, seeing Panda lying on the bed in a bathrobe, the front open, exposing his erection, large folds of flab dripping onto the bedspread. About as disgusting a sight as she could imagine.
He looked her up and down and said, “Beautiful as always.”
She scanned the room and saw a laptop on the desk by the bed. Bingo. She heard the door close behind her, then felt movement, startling her. The large Arab had remained in the room.
Panda saw her reaction and said, “Don’t worry. He only watches.”
I saw Jennifer enter the room, feeling a little like a pimp. Disgusted with myself. As the door closed I almost wished Panda had been gay. Then I would have sent in Knuckles without any qualms. Hippie hair and pretty-boy face—he’d be perfect.
As we backed away from the door, Knuckles saw my grin slip out. We moved a respectful distance down the hall away from the two security men and Knuckles asked, “What’s funny?”
I said, “Nothing. Just thinking about the mission.”
Our earpieces came alive. “Pike, this is Retro. Camera’s in place, but they made her remove her earpiece.”
I glanced at Knuckles. “Why?”
“She had to remove all of her jewelry. Probably just a security precaution.”
Retro knew what I was going to ask next. “Don’t worry. I’m getting good audio from the laptop in the den. I can hear well enough.”
“Even when she’s in the bedroom? With a closed door?”
“Well, no. Not if she’s not shouting.”
Knuckles saw my face and said, “Don’t even think it. She made the call to go in. She could have aborted. Let her play it out.”
Retro came back on. “Uhh . . . Pike, the head of security went in with her and he hasn’t come back out.”
I took one step toward the door, and Knuckles grabbed my arm. “Don’t. She can handle herself. Don’t let your emotions get in the way here. She’s just a teammate. Let her solve the problem.”
What he really meant was I told you this fraternization would become an issue. Did I want to go in because a teammate was in trouble, or because it was Jennifer? I tried but honestly couldn’t separate the two. I locked eyes with him and he slowly shook his head. I knew if I went in, he would question my judgment forever. Just like I was questioning it right now.
I keyed my Bluetooth and said, “Retro, roger. Keep eyes on.”
* * *
Jennifer turned back around to the fat Panda and said, “I’d rather he didn’t stay. This isn’t a show. It’s all about pleasing you and you alone.”
Panda scowled and said, “He stays. I pay you well enough to do anything I want. In fact, when we’re done, you can pleasure him as a reward.”
Great. Well, he’s about to leave, you fat little Jabba the Hutt.
She turned on the megawatt smile and said, “Okay,” then motioned to the security chief. “Can you give me a hand with my dress?”
She kept her eyes on Panda, watching his own widen as the dress slipped over her shoulders. She said, “You must wear protection, you know?”
He said, “No, no. I paid extra. I’m not unclean.”
The dress pooled at her feet and she saw his breathing increase. She twirled around, wearing nothing but her bra and panties, still dressed in her Jimmy Choos, and said, “You want this, you wear protection.”
He said, “I don’t have any.”
She saw his lust and knew she held the cards.
“I have one,” she said.
She pulled out the poison-laced condom packet and tossed it to him on the bed, wondering how long the ABS took to work and beginning to believe the security chief had missed getting it on him.
Panda gave what he thought was a sultry smile and said, “You want me to wear it, you put it on.”
You have got to be kidding.
She winked at him, hiding the desperation building like a freight train picking up speed, and said, “I’m going to freshen up. You be ready when I get back.”
She started to move to the bathroom when the security chief doubled over, holding his stomach. He stood up and looked physically tortured, gritting his teeth so hard she thought she could hear the grind. He shouted something in Arabic and raced out of the room.
Panda said, “Looks like you got your wish. Something he ate.”
She flashed the megawatt and sauntered into the bathroom, feeling his eyes boring into her bottom. She closed the door and sat on the toilet, breathing heavily.
She waited for an eternity, fearing she would hear him call, ordering her to apply the condom. Just get it over with. How bad can it be? You still have on your gloves. They’re sterile.
She gathered her courage and stood up just as Panda came flying into the bathroom, robe trailing behind and limp penis flopping under his flabby belly, successfully encased in a condom.
He screamed, “Get out, get out!”
And she did, closing the door behind her. She heard an explosion of gas, and what sounded like someone pouring muddy water into the toilet, then a moan.
She grinned, racing to her clutch. She dumped the contents, tore open the lining, and pulled out Retro’s thumb drive. She leapt across the bed, jammed it into the port, and powered up the computer. According to Retro, passwords and other security were irrelevant. If it started blinking red, it was working.
The computer beeped and blinked, a small hourglass turning in circles on the screen forever, and she wondered if it had some protection against their exploit.
Come on, come on.
The thumb drive light blinked red, a rapid strobe. She smiled, and the door behind her burst open.
She whirled around, seeing the three remaining security personnel. One shouted at her in Arabic, another ran to the bathroom. The third charged, a tall African with long, ropy braids.
She screamed, “Buffalo! Buffalo, buffalo, buffalo!”
The African reached her and she raised her fists. She struck him once in the head and he bodily threw her across the room, slamming her into the wall. She fell to her hands and knees next to the contents of her clutch. She snatched up the lipstick tube and stood.
She kicked off her heels, ripped off the lid, and jabbed it forward, waving it back and forth like a knife. The man laughed at her and said something to his partner. The first man returned from the bathroom and rattled off something in Arabic. Their faces grew grim, and they advanced on her.
Keep them off of you. Seconds. Only need seconds.
The African darted forward, and she slashed his face with the lipstick. He batted her hand away, the lipstick tube flying across the room, and he slapped her cheek with a glancing blow. She tucked her head and tried to knee his groin. The second man reached her and both began punching.
She drove through them, holding her hands against her head for protection, trying to reach the door. The African grabbed her around the waist and threw her onto the bed. The other two dove on top of her. She shrieked the code word over and over, and for the first time felt genuine fear.
Two things happened that restored her courage. One, the man on top of her explosively shit his pants. And two, she heard her name shouted.
From her personal wrecking machine.
I paced in a tight circle, waiting on either Jennifer to call or Retro to tell me she was coming back out. Neither happened.
Knuckles said, “Easy, slayer. No news is good news.”
“I know. I know. But this is killing me.”
Retro came on the earpiece. “Security chief just came running out holding his stomach.”
Knuckles smiled. “See. Told you. Let her go.”
The words brought great relief. Somehow Jennifer had managed to separate the two, and was driving on with the mission.
I paced about for another five minutes, then heard Retro say, “One of the three remaining went to check on the security chief. The other two are getting antsy. Standing up and pacing. Staring at the door. They don’t have the courage to go in yet, but it’s building.”
I looked at Knuckles and said, “Get ready. Which one do you want?”
“I’ll take the Arab.”
Brett said, “I’ll take the white boy. Kick some cracker ass.”
I said, “Okay. This goes bad and I’ll jump in to help either one of you that’s losing.”
Retro said, “He just came back out. He’s shouting in Arabic. They’re moving to the door.”
Knuckles understood the same thing I did. He said, “It just went bad.”
I flicked my eyes to the men outside and said, “Get to it.”
Brett and Knuckles started walking toward them, me falling in behind. They glanced our way and Knuckles said, “Hey, we got a question about the timeline here. We got some boozing to do. How long does your boss take?”
The Caucasian smiled and said, “He’s quick. Trust me. Even with the Viagra, he can’t last more than thirty minutes. Your girl will be making easy money.”
Through the earpiece, Retro said, “They’re in. . . . Buffalo, buffalo, buffalo. She’s calling buffalo.”
I said, “Execute.” And unleashed a little bit of hell.
Brett darted inside the reach of his target and drove his knee into the man’s groin before he could react. The European doubled over and Brett grabbed his hair and redirected his knee to the man’s face. He collapsed.
Knuckles’ man saw the movement and had a split second more time to react. His brain realized a threat, but his reaction time was nowhere near what was necessary. Knuckles came in full bore, forgoing any submission holds for total destruction.
The man snarled and snapped out with a jab. Way too late to do any good. Knuckles blocked the ineffectual blow and slammed his fists forward like a pile driver, one, two, three, four, snapping the target’s head back so hard it hit the wall and left a dent. I saw him slide to the floor, his face a bloody mess.
Doesn’t have the callsign Knuckles for nothing.
I moved to the door and said, “Get their weapons. Give me an up. Hurry.”
I held the keycard from Retro, ready to swipe. They ripped through the clothing and pulled out two SIG 226 pistols. They nodded and I said, “No killing unless necessary. We can still get out clean.”
I swiped the card and nothing happened. I swiped again. Nothing.
Retro said, “She’s screaming. Get your ass in there. She’s in trouble.”
I said, “You fuck! The card isn’t working.”
Brett went back to a body and started ripping through pockets. I felt the fear grow, my imagination running wild. He found a card and tossed it to me. I swiped, and the door light went green. We flowed in.
I entered on the run and saw the size of the room, a bedroom on the right. I said, “Brett, hit the bathroom with the security chief. Knuckles on me.”
We ran to the back bedroom, exploding in and seeing Jennifer on the bed wearing nothing but a black lace bra and panties, three men on top of her.
I lost my mind.
I reached the first man before he realized I was there. I snatched him by the collar and the groin, hoisted him in the air over my head with rage alone, and threw him directly into the mirror on the wall, shattering it. I turned to the next man and saw Knuckles applying a submission hold, the man screaming in pain, bent over with his arm in the air, his wrist locked up. I took a hop, gaining speed, and kicked him in the face as violently as I could. His head snapped back, a spray of blood blooming.
Knuckles dropped him, looking at me in shock. The mirror man was rolling around on the floor, and I returned to him. Giving out a little rage.
He held his hands up, woozy from the impact with the wall, and I whipped my leg, catching him just behind the ear and laying him out. I whirled to the final man and saw that Jennifer had wriggled out and was now standing on the side of the bed, breathing heavily.
The man rolled onto the floor, holding his stomach, groaning. Then I noticed the odor. The man farted, his bowels letting loose a wet sound. Jennifer said, “He’s no threat.”
Knuckles said, “What the hell was that? Why didn’t you just shoot my guy? Easier than beating him to death.”
I said, “Hey, like you said, she’s a teammate. You fuck with my team, you get my heat.”
He shook his head and said, “Uh-huh. Yeah. Right.”
I turned to Jennifer. “You okay?”
Brett entered the room, weapon at the ready. He nodded at me.
Jennifer said, “Yeah, yeah. I’m good.”
Brett sized up the situation and lowered his weapon, saying, “Oh, you’re better than good. All sweaty and wearing lace. Pike’s not going to sleep tonight.”
I snapped my head to him, not believing what had come out of his mouth. He said, “What? Are you blind? Am I wrong?”
Knuckles gingerly picked up her dress and said, “No, you’re definitely not wrong.”
He handed it to her and said, “I’m not touching the zipper. No offense.”
Brett moved to the laptop and said, “I got green. We have it.”
Jennifer wriggled into her dress, using her gloves on the zipper, and I said, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
We started to the door, with Jennifer still rummaging around the room. I said, “Jenn, get a move on. What are you doing?”
She looked up at me, in between one body with significant damage and another rolling around on the floor voiding his bowels, the odor almost overpowering.
She said, “I’m not leaving my Jimmy Choos.”
Kurt stopped his Oversight Council briefing at Kerry Bostwick’s outburst, not wanting to believe what the director of the CIA had just said.
The room went quiet, and Kurt’s triumphant update on the successful mission in Nairobi crashed against the very data that Pike had obtained. On the screen was a graphic uncut video of the beheading of the CIA source known as BOBCAT, found on the Saudi facilitator’s computer, but that wasn’t what had the room shocked.
President Warren said, “You’re telling me that the man holding the knife is LEOPARD?”
“Yes. I believe it is.”
“But their faces are blurred out. How can you be sure?”
“Before LEOPARD was inserted, he bought a shirt for the rock band AC/DC. It said ‘Back in Black,’ just like the one that man is wearing. He thought it was funny. And LEOPARD had a tribal art tattoo on his forearm. Just like that man.”
Kurt thought, That’s not good.
President Warren said, “So a source who was recruited, trained, and vetted by the CIA was inserted into Syria and never reported. Instead, he ends up beheading the one CIA source that was reporting? BOBCAT?”
Kerry swallowed and said, “It appears so. And that’s not the worst. He’s an American citizen.”
The room broke into a buzz, cut short by President Warren waving his hand for silence. He said, “Lose the crypt. You’re not protecting a source anymore. Tell us the story.”
Kerry took a deep breath and said, “We had no penetration of ISIS. No way to determine what was going on inside the organization. At the same time we were scouring the Middle East and finding BOBCAT and COUGAR, someone came up with the idea of inserting an American. I mean, we’ve had plenty of US citizens go over and join the fight, so we decided to cloak an asset in that mantle. We conducted research and found LEOPARD in Florida. His real name is Ali Jaafar Hussein, and he’s basically a hood. His father is Jordanian and his mother is a crack addict. The father left the family when Hussein was only four, going back to Jordan, then his mother went to jail. He’s been in and out of foster homes and reform schools ever since. He was perfect. No familial ties and he had handed us leverage in the form of some charges he was facing for shoplifting. We offered to get them dropped and he accepted.”
Jonathan Billings, the secretary of state, said, “And you thought this was a good idea?”
Kerry bristled. “It was a good idea. Actually, a great idea. Intelligence work is never perfect. We couldn’t predict this.”
“Couldn’t predict it? You sprung a guy from jail and expected him to become James Bond? Really?”
Kerry said, “We knew the risk of him fleeing once he was in Turkey, and we were comfortable with that. Worst case, we figured he’d just disappear, but best case, he reported, and that far outweighed turning free a small-time hood in Europe. We never expected him to join the fight. He had no jihadist background. He knows more about Christianity than Islam. We conducted a thorough background on him. He was vetted. He had not a shred of anti-American sentiment.”
“Or he hid it well, playing you much better than you played him. Did you hear what was said before he started carving?”
The secretary of defense said, “I didn’t catch it. What was it?”
Kurt pulled out a transcript from a folder and said, “The man known as LEOPARD appears to hesitate, and the man on the right says, “For the White House. Do it for the White House.”
Kerry said nothing, knowing the evidence was damning. President Warren said, “Is he the leak? The reason that BOBCAT was exposed?”
“No. The two were completely separate. LEOPARD had no knowledge of BOBCAT. None.”
“Well, with that statement, we have to assume he’s doing the killing because of the US government. And so is the man who spoke on the right. Any idea about him?”
Kurt said, “All we know is he’s Caucasian. He’s not an Arab.”
Billings said, “And that he hates the United States. Great. The CIA just trained a terrorist to come back home and blow up the White House.”
Kerry said, “LEOPARD won’t get one foot into the United States. As soon as I leave here, his passport information will be out to every government in the region.”
President Warren said, “Okay, okay, this isn’t Taskforce business. We’ll deal with the fallout later. Kerry, get ready for a blistering from the intelligence committees.”