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By Ben Coes
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Ben Coes
All rights reserved.
AEROPUERTO INTERNACIONAL DE CARTAGENA
Dewey Andreas slept for the first hour after takeoff. When he awoke, he found the liquor cabinet on board the unmarked black-and-white Gulfstream G200. The jet was the property of a Florida-based corporation called Flexor-Danton LLC, which was, in turn, controlled by the Central Intelligence Agency. He pulled out a bottle of bourbon, unscrewed the cap, looked to make sure the pilots weren't watching, then took several large gulps. He put the bottle back and opened two cans of beer.
Dewey was dressed in a short-sleeve polo shirt, black with yellow piping. It was a new shirt, Fred Perry's largest size, but Dewey's shoulders and chest stretched out the material and made it look too small. The sleeves clung tightly to his massive biceps. A Tudor watch with a striped canvas strap was the only thing adorning his tanned arms. He had on jeans and Nike running shoes.
Dewey's brown hair was long and pushed straight back, parted roughly in the middle, and slightly messed up, as if it hadn't been brushed in weeks. An unruly thick brown beard and mustache covered his face. His distinctive light blue eyes, which stuck out from his gruff appearance, projected a coldness and distance. Dewey had a hard, rough quality in the way he dressed, in how he carried himself, but most of all in his eyes.
Dewey stared at one of his cans of beer for a few moments, then lifted it to his lips and chugged it. He crushed the can and tossed it in a trash can next to the cabinet. He took the other beer and sat down. On the seat across from him was a manila folder.
It was his second trip to South America in the same week. The first trip — to Chile — had been a bust. The intelligence had been bad. Or perhaps it had been good and the target had gotten wind of the trip. This was one of the challenges when the target was a former agent.
Dewey opened the folder. He picked up the cover sheet, which was yellow with age:
May 18, 1988
REFERENCE: ROBERTS, SAGE
SANCTION: ADJUTANT JUDGE LEON WHITCOMB
Ref. White House finding 334.67A
DECISION: DISAVOWAL AND TERMINATION EXTREME PREJUDICE
Dewey didn't bother reading the old case order. He knew its contents already. This wasn't an emergency priority. In fact, it had been sealed away more than a decade ago, classified a "cold file" and stuck in the bowels of a building along the Potomac River owned by a group of people who had more urgent fish to fry.
Technically, Dewey was using some well-deserved vacation time, his reward for stopping the Russian terrorist Pyotr Vargarin, aka Cloud, who'd nearly succeeded in detonating a thirty-kiloton nuclear bomb in New York City just a stone's throw from the Statue of Liberty. The vacation time — along with the use of the jet, no questions asked — had been granted to him by Hector Calibrisi, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Dewey had killed Vargarin himself. But the seeds of the monster the Russian had become were planted by America, specifically a murderous rogue CIA agent named Sage Roberts. Dewey told himself that he felt nothing for Pyotr Vargarin, but it wasn't true. He felt sorry for him — sorry for the boy who at age five had watched his parents get shot in front of his eyes, murdered in cold blood by Roberts. As much as Dewey hated what Pyotr became, he hated even more the thought that Roberts still walked the earth.
Dewey flipped through the thick sheaf of papers until he came to a photograph. It was a headshot of Roberts. It was an old photo, his last agency file photo, taken in 1987. He had thick brown hair, parted on the right and combed neatly to the side. His face was long, with dark shadows beneath his eyes and a scar beneath his left eye. He would be much older now.
Dewey flipped it over. Taped to the back of the photo was a small brass key. Scribbled in handwriting just below was an address.
Dewey took a sip of beer and stood up. He walked to the cockpit and stuck his head inside.
"How long until we get there?"
Both pilots turned. "Twenty minutes," said the pilot on the left.
* * *
Dewey found the lockers inside the first-class lounge at Cartagena Airport. He inserted the key in locker 17. Inside was a small duffel bag.
He rented a car and changed his shirt as he drove. He parked on the street, in front of a high-rise building that sat at the ocean's edge. Reaching into the duffel, he removed the gun: a Colt M1911A1, a matte-gray SAI silencer already screwed into the muzzle. He tucked it into a concealed holster inside his leather jacket.
The elevator took him to the penthouse. When he knocked on the door, a pretty middle-aged woman answered.
"Hola," she said, smiling.
"Estoy buscando a su marido," said Dewey.
"Hoy en día se juega al polo," she said.
"Ah, sí, se me olvidó."
* * *
The Cartagena Polo Club was a half-hour drive from downtown. Dewey parked his rental in the lot out front.
The club was crowded with people. Banners covered the side of the main entrance, emblazoned with corporate logos: Rolex, BMW, Bacardi, Tanqueray, and others.
The largest banner read EL CAMPEONATO DE CARTAGENA.
The match was already in progress. Teams of riders moved in frenetic clusters down the field, the ground thundering as the majestic sweep of horses trampled the green grass. Dewey scanned the field, marking him within twenty seconds. He was the oldest one on the field, the edges of his gray hair dangling down beneath his helmet, a tad flamboyant. Too flamboyant. He rode with the natural confidence of one who grew up on horses.
Dewey walked along the sidelines until he came to a young woman who had binoculars in her hands.
"Puedo le prestado?" he asked politely.
Dewey trained the binoculars on the game. He found Roberts, the number 21 in gold on the front of his striped shirt.
He took a program from a table near the clubhouse and went inside. He went down a hallway to the men's locker room. It was empty. The room was dark, wood-paneled, with thick carpet and old photos on the walls of men on horseback playing polo. Each locker had a brass nameplate attached to the front.
He scanned the program and found the team rosters.
#21 — Roberto Segundo
Dewey moved along the line of lockers until he found Roberts's. Looking around to make sure no one had entered the room, he removed a small, powerful flashlight and shone it along the edges of the locker door. Near the bottom of the door, the light showed a nearly invisible piece of thread.
Dewey lifted the thread and kept it in his hand. He took a pick gun from his pocket and put it against the keyhole of the padlock, then pressed the button. A few seconds later, the lock popped open. Dewey opened the locker. On the top shelf was a sleek, smallish silver-colored pistol, Walther PPK. Dewey popped the mag, emptied the bullets into his pocket, then slammed the empty mag back inside the gun and put it back.
He searched the rest of the locker, finding nothing.
Dewey closed Roberts's locker and locked it. He knelt and placed the thread back over the seam of the door, hiding evidence of his intrusion.
Back outside, he found the outdoor bar and got a beer, then watched the match from the back of the crowd. When it was over, a trophy was presented to the winning team.
Roberts stood in the line of players as the crowd applauded from the sidelines. Dewey watched him as he mingled with other players and fans. Eventually, as the crowd thinned out, he walked toward the clubhouse.
Dewey came into the clubhouse from a porch near the swimming pool on the other side of the building from the polo fields. He entered the men's locker room. He scanned the group of players, hand on his pistol, but Roberts wasn't there.
Off the locker room, Dewey stepped into a bathroom. There were two men using the urinals. One of them, a young Colombian in tennis apparel, was flushing. After he left, Dewey shut the door and locked it.
He reached to his torso, then turned, clutching the suppressed Colt .45. He raised the gun and trained it on Roberts, its six-inch silencer jutting menacingly from the end just inches from him.
"Bonito partido de hoy, Sage," said Dewey.
Nice match today, Sage.
Without turning, Roberts answered in English. "I saw you on the field," he said as he continued to urinate.
"Sure you did," said Dewey.
Roberts turned so fast it was almost undetectable, swiveling with the Walther PPK out and aimed at Dewey before Dewey had time to fire ...
"You stood out like a sore thumb," said Roberts with a malevolent look on his face.
There was a moment of silence. Both men stood still — aiming their pistols at each other just feet apart — each man in the crosshairs of the other's gun.
Dewey looked into Roberts's eyes. He noticed the scar beneath the left eye. For a brief moment, Dewey seemed to lose his focus. It was just a fraction of a second, but Roberts sensed it. He pumped the trigger before Dewey had time to react.
The dull click of the gun's empty chamber echoed off the terra-cotta walls. Roberts's face lost its triumphant arrogance at the same instant a shit-eating grin hit Dewey's lips.
"So did you," said Dewey.
Dewey pumped the trigger. The slug spat into Roberts's chest, kicking him back against the urinal. He tried to grab for the wall but fell to the floor. Blood covered his white-and-red striped polo shirt. His hands reached to his chest as he struggled to breathe. Blood gushed from his nose.
"That one was from the United States of America," said Dewey, taking a step closer. He put the end of the suppressor to Roberts's head, inches away. Dewey waited for several moments. Finally, Roberts looked up.
"This one's from Pyotr."CHAPTER 2
VIA PRINCIPE AMEDEO
Rick Mallory was dressed in a double-breasted Paul Smith suit, navy blue with thin red pinstripes, a light yellow shirt, and no tie. He was the only man in the consulate's large, ornate drawing room not wearing a tuxedo. Mallory's blond hair was cut short, longer than it was in the Marines but still barely half an inch in length. He wore rectangular-framed eyeglasses that he'd bought at the Prada boutique down the street.
Mallory stood at the back of the room, in a corner, beneath a large oil painting by Ernesto Serra of a woman asleep on a chaise, her blouse open, exposing her naked body. While it was perhaps a tad racy to be on display at a U.S. consulate, the painting was his favorite in the building, and not just because of the model's beauty. She reminded Mallory of his late wife, Allison. Mallory clutched his third vodka of the evening and forced himself to look away from the painting. He scanned the room. The reception was in full swing. It was the consul general's annual party in observance of Festa di Tutti i Santi, All Saints' Day, a national holiday in Italy.
The crowd consisted of Milan high society. In attendance were businessmen and -women, their spouses and partners, many from the fashion world, government officials, a few celebrities, several members of the Milano football team, and members of the press.
Mallory's eyes suddenly shot to his left. A woman was staring at him. She turned away and started speaking to a man near the bar. As she raised her wineglass to take a sip, her eyes darted back to him and they made eye contact.
She had short brown hair and wore a white dress that clung to her body. Her lips were bright red. She was young, perhaps in her midtwenties, and very pretty. Mallory's heart raced slightly as she moved across the room. Along with the wineglass, she held a small jewel-encrusted clutch. As she came closer, she extended her hand.
"Buona sera," she said. She had a soft Italian accent.
He reached his hand out. "Ciao, signorina," he said, shaking her hand.
"My name is Sophia Paschiano," she said.
"Nice to meet you. I'm Rick Mallory."
"Hello, Mr. Mallory." She smiled.
"What brings you to the party? Wait, let me guess."
Mallory let her hand go, then swept his eyes politely, but also admiringly, down the length of her gown.
"You're a model, am I correct?"
She laughed. "You're very kind. Thank you, but no. I'm a reporter for Il Giornali."
"A reporter?" asked Mallory. "I'm the public affairs officer here at the consulate."
Her smile vanished, and her eyes took on a more sinister air.
"No, you're not," she said. "You're Agency. Is there someplace we can talk? I must speak to you immediately."
* * *
Mallory shut the door to his third-floor office and gestured to a tan leather sofa beneath the window that looked out to the public gardens a few streets away. Sophia sat down. Mallory sat behind his desk, still clutching his drink. He said nothing for some time. Finally, she spoke.
"When I was a student at Oxford, I dated a boy. His name was Marwan al-Jaheishi. He was involved in activities."
"Islamic. They were always peaceful."
"He remained in London for a few years, then moved to Cairo."
Mallory tapped the side of his glass as he waited.
"He called me yesterday," said Sophia. "He asked if I could facilitate a meeting between him and you."
"Me ... or the consulate?"
"You, Mr. Mallory. He said it was very urgent."
"How does he know me?"
"Cairo. He was with the Muslim Brotherhood."
A cold chill emerged at the back of Mallory's neck, which caused him to shudder ever so slightly.
"He wants to give you something."
"Let me guess. A box with a ticking noise coming from the inside?"
Sophia shook her head, then laughed softly.
"You think I'm lying," she concluded.
Mallory grinned, shook his head, then looked out the window.
For all he knew, she was a terrorist, though probably not. A battery of background checks usually ensured that anyone allowed entrance into a U.S. consulate had no ties, but who the hell knew anymore? Quietly, unnoticed, he put his hand on the butt of the gun beneath his left armpit.
More likely, she was telling the truth, and the ex-boyfriend was using her so that he could get close enough to kill him.
"I'm afraid I can't help you," said Mallory.
Sophia paused, then stood up.
"I understand. I don't blame you. But he was a nice boy, for what it's worth."
She removed a small card from her clutch. She placed it on the desk. "His phone number, should you change your mind."
She walked to the door. She twisted the doorknob, but before she opened the door she turned and looked at Mallory.
"He's inside ISIS. He wants asylum."
The cold chill that had been at the base of Mallory's neck shot down his spine as he reached for the card.
"When you say inside ..."
"He reports directly to Tristan Nazir."CHAPTER 3
SALADIN APARTMENT COMPLEX
Nazir stood still as his cell phone vibrated in his pocket. He didn't answer it.
A lone lamp on the desk cast dim, rusty light. Nazir held a white teacup, which was chipped on one side. Other than to take the occasional sip of tea, he hadn't moved for half an hour. His one good eye was focused straight ahead at the wall. His eye was like a black stone, emotionless and cold. He seemed dazed, mesmerized, and, above all, sad. Only Nazir knew that in fact, at that moment, he felt nothing but jubilation.
On the wall was a large map of Syria and Iraq. Spread across the two countries were hundreds of colored thumbtacks.
Nazir could remember the first one he inserted. It was two years before, a red tack that he had stuck into a small Syrian town called Arihah. It was the first military offensive by the polyglot group of jihadists Nazir had brought together under one vision, a group he named ISIS. Arihah was the first victory over the Syrian government. Now, the map was a colorful rainbow of thumbtacks, spread across northern Syria and central Iraq, like cancer.
Nazir took a sip from the cup. His tea had long ago turned cold, but he didn't care.
Excerpted from First Strike by Ben Coes. Copyright © 2016 Ben Coes. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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