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Maggie's going to want to kill me, he thought as he pushed through Muscat's narrow, crowded, dusty Ruwi High Street, brushing white-robed Arabs and South Asian laborers from Pakistan and Bangladesh, dodging white and orange taxis that crept through the pedestrian melee. And I don't blame her. It was 7:45 pm exactly, a little more than four hours till the fifth.
Air conditioners straining to cool the jewelry and electronic shops along the souk exhaled stale hot air, adding more bite to the rabid ninety-five-degree heat. September in the Sultanate of Oman was a bitch.
Matt Freed took a quick glance over his shoulder to check that dark-haired Cody still followed on the other side of the street. They'd been on foot for more than an hour. Neither had detected hostile surveillance.
At thirty-eight, Matt was a solid six foot one with sandy hair and light brown eyes. An intense high-kilowatt current seemed to run through his body and beam from his eyes. Otherwise he was unremarkablenice looking, but not handsome; alert, but not studied; conventionally dressed in a short-sleeved cotton shirt and khakis.
He could easily pass for an Irish oil field worker, Swedish SAS pilot, American engineer, German businessmanand had used all four identities.
At a kebab stand, Matt made a sharp turn into an alley, jostling the loaded Glock he carried in his canvas briefcase. Almost immediately a young Arab man in a white IZOD shirt standing outside of Big Apple Electronics looked up from his cell phone. The two men made eye contact as the big American closed the space between them.
This better be my man, Matt thought.
It was. He and the Arab exchanged no words, just an electronic key inside a paper cover. The cover read Al Bustan Palace Hotel; room number 723 was written in pencil. Smoothly, without stopping, Matt continued through the alley, exiting back onto Ruwi High Street. His partner stood waiting on the other side of the street. Matt flagged down a cab, and tall, pencil-thin Cody slid in.
"Take us up the corniche, then down into Old Muscat. My friend wants to see the Sultan Qaboos's palace," Cody said in Egyptian-accented Arabic.
"Naam," responded the driver.
"We're clean," Cody said out of the side of this mouth.
Matt pointed to the tattoo of a blonde peaking from under the sleeve of Cody's short-sleeved shirt. "Who's Gayle?"
"An ex-girlfriend. A mistake."
"We've all made a few of those."
As sleek new high-rises and apartment buildings greeted them, Matt relaxed into the back of the seat. After two tours with CIA Operations and five years with the National Counterterrorism Service (NCTS), this was old hat.
The U.S. Army major "on loan" to him remained tense while Matt's mind oscillated between his oldest daughter, Maggie, and the economic development of Oman. He admired bothMaggie for her grace and spirit, the Sultan of Oman for all he had achieved under his benevolent dictatorship.
Entering the coast road, the corniche, the taxi swerved right. To their right, a row of three-story buildings decorated with Islamic filigree and arches. To their left, past the lights, modern commercial vessels mingled with Arab-style dhows in the harbor.
They sat in silence admiring the serene beauty of the landscape. Matt rehearsed the mission ahead. He was interrupted by Cody's humming a tune and drumming on the armrest.
"Focus," Matt warned.
"I was thinking about this girl back home who sent me this download of her dancing to the song 'Polaris.' "
"I need your full attention."
"You got it, sir. I just love watching women dance."
The hills they entered were honeycombed and sucked by the sun of every bit of moisture. After climbing for five minutes, the taxi descended a slope into Old Muscat, past a sheer cliff topped with an ancient Portuguese fortress. The driver hung a right and stopped.
Cody handed him some rials and the two men stepped out. There were no tourists in sightonly a small number of Omanis milling about.
Matt felt exposed. "Let's move."
The gentle breeze off the Persian Gulf carried a hint of poet's jasmine as they passed the palace, its large, flat entrance protruding like a huge concrete tongue. At the next corner, Matt hailed a second cab. "Al Bustan Hotel."
This driver, a Bedouin, took off leisurely, scattering the cigarette ashes that littered every surface of the cab. Picturesque Old Muscat and the coast bounced by again.
After jostling through several villages, they approached a traffic circle with a dhow in the middle. The resplendent Al Bustan Palace Hotel glittered to their left.
They'd be meeting Manochehr Moshiri, a former general in the Iranian Army now living in exile. As a young man, Moshiri had made a name for himself fighting the Iraqis. He had once been loyal to the mullahs. But no more.
The lobby dripped with luxury, from the rich handwoven carpets over marble to the jewel-effulgent eighty-foot dome. Packs of rich Omanis and other Arabs lounged in stuffed chairs discussing business in hushed tones.
Exiting the elevator was a stocky man with short-cropped white hair, dressed in an Omani dishdasha, the traditional long white robe. His skin was a shade lighter than the average Arab's, and he had a C-shaped scar on his neck. Iranian, Matt thought as he inserted the plastic card in the elevator security panel and pressed "7." What's he doing here?
Later he'd be paying the general's bill, which would run at least $800 a night. For a year now the general had provided Matt and his employer with valuable information regarding the Iranian armed forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). On two separate occasions he'd helped thwart attacks on U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf. Clearly, the general had a highly placed source within the IRGC. Matt speculated that it was a member of Moshiri's extended family.
They followed the plush carpet past a dozen doors and stopped. Matt knocked and waited. He knocked again. I bet he fell asleep.
Two men in white robes exited a room down the hall. Matt waited until the elevator swallowed them before inserting the electronic key and letting himself in. The room was pitch black. The plastic key placed in the wall system changed that.
As soon as the lights came on, both men noticed signs of a strugglea chair knocked over, the contents of the minibar spilled across the floor. Then Matt saw the general, facedown on the carpet in a pool of blood.
Silently they drew their guns. Matt moved toward the body and pointed Cody to the bedroom.
One bullet hole above the right eye, a second below the left, four in the general's light blue silk shirt. Matt figured: .22 caliber, suppressed. He found no pulse.
"Nobody in the bathroom or closet," Cody said.
"Holster your weapon, look through the eyepiece, make sure there's no one in the hall. Then put out the Do Not Disturb sign and throw the dead bolt. Company's the last thing we want."
Matt continued the search, discovering a cell phone charger, which was empty. Tearing through the dead man's luggage, he found July's Playboy, a bottle of Lipitor, a gold bracelet, but little else besides clothes.
Pulling a notebook out of his pocket, he was starting to dial a number when a cell phone rang.
Simultaneously he and Cody traced the sound to the sofa. They found the cell behind a pillow.
"Whoever killed Moshiri got everything else," Matt said, scrolling through the numbers. He stopped at a prefix he recognized, then used the hotel phone to dial.
A deep voice on the other end answered in Farsi: "Salaam."
Matt recognized it immediately. "Cyrus, this is Robert," he said. "The general wasn't in. Where are you now?"
"That's odd. He was at the hotel when I left. He knows you're coming."
Matt cut to the chase. "Look, I'm in a hurry. I have something to give you. Meet me across the street from the Sheraton Hotel. You know where that is?"
"I'll see you there in ten minutes."
As soon as he hung up, Matt crossed to the bathroom to get a washcloth, which he used to wipe the phone.
"What's next?" Cody asked.
"We need to get out of the country, pronto. We need to get the general's nephew, Cyrus, out of here, too."
"Because the Omanis will pounce on him, and he'll tell them that we were here talking to opponents of the Iranian regime. Sultan Qaboos won't like that. The Iranians helped the Omanis during the Dhofar War in the '70s. Even though it wasn't the Islamic Republic that helped the Sultan, the Omanis and Iranians are still friends."
"Won't they suspect he was meeting with us?"
"They can suspect all they want," Matt said as he wiped the inside of the door and the handle around the Do Not Disturb sign. "Let's go."
A family of Arabs rode down with them to the lobby, the boys demanding an immediate return to the swimming pool. "The water is refrigerated and cool like the ocean!" one of them exclaimed.
The taxi sped down a double-lane highway cut through the stony hills. Matt's mind raced. He knew who'd done this. The Islamic Republic of Iran made a habit of murdering political opponents. The question was whether this was the work of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) or the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
They were several blocks from the Sheraton when Matt ordered the driver to stop. They found Cyrus standing under a sodium streetlight in a plaid cotton shirt, smoking a Camel. Matt introduced Cody as "my associate, Bob."
The three men shook hands.
Matt took the young Persian's arm. "Cyrus, let's walk."
Moshiri's nephew knotted his dark brows. A light wind rippled his shirt.
"The general is dead," Matt said calmly.
The young man stopped in his tracks and seemed to sink into the pavement. "What do you mean?"
"I mean your uncle is dead. We found him on the floor of his hotel room. He's been shot."
The young Iranian let the cigarette burn his fingers, flinched with pain, and dropped the butt.
"What else was the general doing in Muscat?" Matt asked. "Who was he meeting?"
Cyrus took a deep breath. "We arrived two days ago. He met with someone yesterday. I don't know who." As he finished, he began to sob.
"Cyrus," Matt began, "your uncle was a great man. I'm very sorry."
A handkerchief over Cyrus's mouth muffled his "Yes."
"You need to get out of Muscat immediately. You don't want to be taken into custody. The Omanis will hold you for months."
Cyrus shook his head and said, "The mullahs," in a broken voice.
Matt pulled him close so their noses almost met. "Where are you staying?"
"What airline did you use?"
"British Airways. We were scheduled to leave late tomorrow night."
Matt did some quick calculations. "Go to your hotel, check out. Then proceed directly to Seeb International Airport. You still have time to catch the midnight flight to London."
"Who will take care of the general?"
Matt held both of Cyrus's shoulders for emphasis. "The general's in God's hands now."
This brought more tears and a nod.
Matt continued, "My object is to keep you out of jail. Go. Now!"
Cyrus wiped his eyes on his wrist and blew his nose.
"I'll call the general's brother Ahmad and have him meet you at Heathrow. Speak to no one until you're in London. You understand?"
He responded through fresh tears, "Yes."
Matt squeezed his hand. "I'm so sorry for your loss, Cyrus. I really am." Then he waved down a cab and Cyrus was gone. Watching the red taillights, Matt took out his cell and dialed. A woman answered in accented English.
"Hello, this is Mr. O'Rourke," Matt said, "I'm sorry to be bothering you at this hour, but I understand you're selling a car. Is there any possibility I could see the car tomorrow?"
The woman answered without hesitation: "My husband is out right now. Can you call again in an hour."
"Thank you very much." He snapped the cell shut and turned to Cody. "We need to hurry. The moment Cyrus's plane takes off, he'll probably be on the phone telling the world."
Cody nodded. "I kinda figured that, too."
"I'll tell headquarters you're not as dumb as you look."
They walked in sync another three hundred meters and flagged down a cab. Their destination this time was an upscale shopping center in an area called Medinat Qaboos. Matt instructed the driver to pull up behind a white four-door Nissan Pathfinder parked at the curb. Seated casually behind the wheel was an attractive Middle Eastern woman in her thirtiesraven haired, sharp dark eyes, full confident lips outlined in pink.
"Nice to see you this evening, gentlemen," said Leilathe woman Matt had called about the car. She was a Lebanese Christian who had immigrated to America as a teenager. Like Matt, she was currently employed by the National Counterterrorism Service (NCTS).
"We have a problem," Matt said urgently. "Axelrod One was murdered in his hotel room."
Her narrow black eyes widened. "You mean you went to the hotel?"
"Yes, we went to the hotel."
"You saw the body?"
"With six bullet holes in it. Axelrod Five's on his way to the airport now. I need you to inform Axelrod Two to meet Axelrod Five at Heathrow and make arrangements to recover the body."
She held out her long-fingered hand. "Give me your weapons and holsters."
Without hesitation they handed over their Glocks and extra magazines, which she zipped into a canvas diplomatic pouch and placed on the seat.
"The Omanis are gonna be pissed," she remarked out of the side of her mouth.
"They'll be watching the airports," Matt reasoned. "We need a vehicle so we can make a beeline for the United Arab Emirates."
"What about papers?" She was quick.
Cody held a resident permit from Dubai, which would get him across the border. Matt had none, so he'd have to hide in the trunk.
"My boss is gonna love this," she said firing the engine.
Matt passed the general's cell through the open driver's window. "Have your tech people download the numbers. Send them to Odysseus base and headquarters."
Within an hour the two men were on the road in a new white Toyota Corolla with a full tank of gas. Cody, at the wheel, kept an eye out for stray camels while Matt listened to Iranian radio stations broadcasting from the other side of the Persian Gulf.
"See if you can find the White Stripes," Cody drawled.
"Shut up and watch the road."
They changed positions twice during the night. As the sun began to spread its fingers over the desert, Cody pulled to the side of the road.
"It's time, boss."
Matt transferred their luggage to the backseat and climbed into the trunk. As Cody covered him with a blanket, he said: "Don't let the bedbugs bite."