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No one could help but spot the tall, gangly man with the chocolate brown complexion and ridiculous Hawaiian print shirt at the baggage claim area in Juneau International Airport. Everyone noticed that he retrieved too many leather satchels and overstuffed B4 bags to reasonably carry, and that he wore striped Bermuda shorts when it was in the low forties and drizzling outside. But his broad smile seemed to be genuine and was infectious. He was a man in his mid to late forties, with flashing dark eyes under a sharply defined brow that complimented a sculpted aquiline nose and high cheekbones, who knew that he cut a silly figure but who nevertheless was having a grand time. His laugh was the best of all, a rich deep baritone that boomed across the hall as the last of the luggage off the Air Canada flight from Vancouver came out on the moving carousel.
The man was content to wait his turn with dozens of people, many of them older couples on their way to or from cruise ships up or down the Inside Passage. Everyone was in a holiday mood, and the tall man joked and laughed with the people around him, putting everyone at ease, and making this trip just a little extra special. Characters were rare in these difficult times, and the man’s Caribbean British accent was pleasant as was the mellifluous timbre of his voice.
“Of course I know that I’m not dressed for the cold, madam,” he told a frail; white-haired old woman waiting in line. His smile widened. “In Trinidad it is never cold.”
The woman was puzzled by the man’s answer, as was her husband and others around them.
“Don’t you see, mum? I want to be cold.”
“Yes. It’s a new experience.”
Her husband smiled and shook his head. “I don’t think you’ll like it,” he said.
“Isherwood?” one of the passengers asked, holding up a duffel bag he’d snagged from the carousel.
“Yes, Thomas Isherwood, and that is my bag, my good man.” He retrieved his bag from the passenger, then gathered up his other luggage and with a toothy grin strode across the hall toward the exits, leaving in his wake the scent of Bay Rum cologne and a few good-natured chuckles.
When he was out of sight, he ducked down the corridor that led to the car rental agencies. Alaskan wilderness and wildlife posters adorned its walls. He went into a men’s room, where in a stall he changed into jeans, an oiled wool Irish fisherman’s sweater, a light jacket, and wafflesoled, lightweight nylon hiking shoes.
The man who emerged still traveled as Thomas Isherwood from Port of Spain, Trinidad, but no one from the Vancouver flight would have recognized him; the Caribbean bonhomie was gone, replaced with the matter-of-fact bland indifference of a well-heeled businessman here to catch fish no matter how much effort or money it cost. The face was the same, but the expression was so completely different it was as if he were wearing a mask.
Isherwood walked past the car rental counters and went outside where he loaded his bags in a cab. A steady cold rain fell from a darkly overcast sky. He ordered the driver to take him to Flights over Alaska Air Charters, then sat back and allowed himself to relax for a few minutes. He’d been on the go for three days, since he left Switzerland, maintaining several different personas, and the effort was draining, though if need be he could continue his charade for weeks or months, even years.
This was nothing new for him. Home was just another word that held little or no real meaning, though his wife and children were in Switzerland for the moment, and his many aunts, uncles, cousins, two sisters, and three brothers were scattered across Saudi Arabia. Over the last nine years, ever since he had received the call, he had spent very little time with his own people.
But that was as it should be, insha’allah. Progress was being made, though even if it weren’t he would still move forward if for no other reason than the thrill of the hunt. Osama’s fatwah was as crystal clear as the Qur’an. If the unbelievers cannot be made to see the error of their ways, if they cannot be converted, then either treat them as slaves by taking away their liberties and their properties, or kill them. All the world was to be converted to Dar el Islam, even if it took one thousand years. The hunt was on. It was the grandest game in the universe, and Isherwood was one of its most successful practitioners. He was alive as never before. He had been born for this. From the desert tents of the Bedouin to the towers of Babel in New York, he was in his element.
It was a little late for the normal tourist season, so the reception area in the Flights Over Alaska Air Charters Operations Building was deserted except for the square-shouldered woman who looked up and smiled when Isherwood walked in.
“May I help you, sir?”
“The name is Thomas Isherwood. I believe you were expecting me.” He handed her his passport. Payment for the hundred-mile flight down to Kuiu Island on the Inside Passage had been made with a credit card two weeks earlier.
The woman glanced at the clock. It was coming up on noon. “We weren’t expecting you until later this afternoon.”
“I caught an earlier flight,” Isherwood said. He made it a point to change his schedules whenever it was possible. “Are there an airplane and pilot for me?”
“Of course, sir,” the woman said. She glanced at the passport, then handed it back. She picked up the phone and dialed a three-digit number. “Your three o’clock is here. Can you fly now?” She gave Isherwood a reassuring smile, and nodded. “Thanks, Frank. I’ll bring Mr. Isherwood right over.” She hung up, and came around the counter. “The rain won’t bother you none. Should be a smooth flight.”
“I appreciate it. I’d like to get down there, have a couple of drinks, and then maybe get a couple hours of fishing in before dark.”
“Name’s Mary,” she said. Outside she tossed his heavy bags in the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser as if they were filled with air, then drove him a half mile across the bumpy concrete apron to a large hangar where several Otters, Beavers, and one DeHavilland floatplane were parked. “I have to tell you that I fell in love with your accent when you called to make the reservation.”
Isherwood gave her a warm smile, thinking that killing her would give him a certain pleasure. “I hope my appearance fits your expectations.”
She glanced at him to see if he was going along with her good-natured ribbing; then she nodded, the corners of her eyes crinkled in laughter. “Oh, I guess I was expecting someone older.” She shook her head. “But don’t get me wrong, you’ll do just fine—”
Isherwood threw back his head and laughed from the bottom of his feet. He would crush her windpipe with one blow, and then watch her eyes as her life drained away. He especially enjoyed the moment when the person knew that they were going to die and knew with equal certainty that there was nothing they could do about it.
He patted her hand on the steering wheel. “You’re a gem, Mary. An absolute jewel.”
She blushed openly as no Arab woman would ever dare, but then she didn’t know how close to death she was.
The pilot, Frank Sterling, a gray-haired but rugged-looking outdoors type in his early sixties, was finishing his walk-around as Mary tossed Isherwood’s bags in the back cargo area of the beefy-looking Otter wheeled floatplane. This, the Beaver, and the DeHavilland were Alaska’s workhorses, delivering people, mail, food, and supplies, and doctors to just about every inaccessible spot in the state. And there were a lot of them. The pilots were among the best in the world. They had to be, often operating out of extremely short, muddy fields, or lakes still half-choked with ice, in every weather condition including all-out blizzards. They were generally no-nonsense people who would just as soon haul cargo, or passengers who had the good sense and manners to keep their mouths shut, tourists.
“How long a flight?” Isherwood asked him.
Sterling gave him an appraising look. Not many Caribbean blacks got this far north, and Sterling inspected his passenger as if he were studying a circus oddity. “About an hour, if we can start anytime soon, Mr. Isherwood.”
Isherwood’s muscles bunched. It would take less than two seconds to remove his belt buckle, slide the razor-sharp lower half open on its hinge pin, and slit the man’s throat. Maybe he would see an apology in the eyes. Maybe not. But there would be copious amounts of infidel blood. He forced a faint smile. “Anytime that you’re ready, captain.”
Mary was obviously embarrassed by an exchange between the two men that she didn’t understand. “I hope you have a good week of fishing, Mr. Isherwood. This time of year it should be great.”
“Ah, thank you, Mary, my love,” Isherwood said, laughing. “You’re a terrible flirt, but thank you for the transport over.”
He stepped up on the starboard float, climbed in the front right seat, and strapped himself in. Sterling said something to the woman, then got aboard, strapped in, flipped a few switches, and hit the starter switch. The big Pratt & Whitney radial engine roared into life, and once the gauges were all in their nominal ranges, Sterling set the altimeter, released the brake, and eased the throttle forward, sending them trundling out of the hangar and down the sloping apron into the chilly black waters of Stephens Passage, doing his run-up to check the magnetos on the move.
Without a glance at his passenger, Sterling said something into the mike of his headset, then firewalled the throttle as he turned the big plane into the wind. They were airborne within a thousand feet, water streaming off the floats, and almost immediately the thick overcast ceiling was just above them. Sterling leveled off, and turned just east of due south to follow the pass all the way down to Entrance Island, where he would swing west to pass Cape Baranof, and then on to Karsten’s Fishin’ Mission on the northwest bay of Kuiu Island.
Isherwood had studied the air and sea charts of the region, so he knew the area almost as if he had lived there all his life. He prepared for every mission in the same way, with a professional thoroughness that left little or nothing to chance. He was a man who did not like surprises. In his business the unknown could be deadly.
In fact, Isherwood was not his real name. According to Western intelligence agencies, he was the international terrorist, possibly Osama bin Laden’s operations chief, known only as Khalil. According to the CIA, he was thought to be an Egyptian with a wife and children hidden somewhere in Cairo under assumed identities. Supposedly he was a medical doctor who had served with bin Laden in Afghanistan in the eighties fighting Russians, whom he hated almost as deeply as he hated Jews and Americans. No clear photographs of him existed in any Western intel file, nor was there any DNA or fingerprint evidence available that could positively identify him. He was as elusive as the night mists, and as cruel as is possible for a human being to be. In the past fifteen years no one who had come up against him had survived. Rumors were that even bin Laden was respectful—if not frightened—of the depth of the man’s savagery.
As the town of Juneau fell away from them, one spot of civilization in the middle of a vast rugged wilderness, Khalil realized how perfect an area this was for the operation he had so meticulously planned. Heavily forested, craggy islands separated the limitless expanse of the Pacific Ocean to the west from the snow and glacier-covered, forbidding mountains to the east. Except for fishing boats heading to or from the passes to the open ocean, cruise ships that traveled the Inside Passage, and the occasional sailboat or recreational trawler, there was nothing below them for as far as the eye could see.
“Empty, isn’t it?” Sterling shouted over the roar of the engine.
“No,” Khalil replied, mesmerized by the bleak landscape below. “It’s filled with opportunities down there.” He glanced at the pilot, who was looking at him. “Lots of fish to catch. And I will catch them.”
The small fishing resort was invisible from the air until the last moment, when Sterling set down in the long bay as lightly as a feather on a woman’s cheek and taxied to the end of the long dock on the south side. Then, except for the dock and two small fishing boats and three canoes, all that could be seen was a gravel footpath that led to a scattering of cabins all but hidden in the dense forest that ran right down to the water’s edge.
It was raining harder here than up in Juneau, and it had gotten dark. Sterling held up at the dock, the Otter’s engine idling, as Khalil got out and unloaded his own bags.
“I’ll be back the same time next week, unless you want to get out sooner,” Sterling said. Without waiting for a reply, he reached over and closed the passenger door, then gunned the engine and turned left, the broad wing sweeping over the dock so that Khalil had to step back to avoid getting hit.
There were seven sets of eyes watching from the woods and from the cabins. Khalil could feel them studying him, evaluating his behavior. Some of his soldiers had been here for as long as three days, waiting for their leader to show up. Waiting for the operation to finally begin. Only Zahir al Majid, his second-in-command, had ever worked with him on an operation. The others had heard of him, of course. Kahlil was a living legend, and they would be curious to see how he handled what was obviously an insult.
He gave a thumbs-up to the departing airplane, then walked up to the main lodge completely hidden in the forest, leaving his bags on the dock for someone to fetch.
Zahir, a short squat man with a thick mustache, but nearly bald on top, met Khalil in the rustic lobby. They warmly embraced. A fire burned on the stone hearth. The log walls were adorned with mounted fish, presumably caught by former patrons of the fishing camp.
“I’m glad you have finally arrived safely,” Zahir said. “Will you have something to eat? Our people would like to sit with you.”
“Soon. Is the equipment we need here?”
“Our other soldiers are in place?”
Zahir checked his watch. “I spoke with Abdul in Juneau this morning. All is as it should be. The vessel will depart in a few hours and begin its southbound cruise.”
“The resort staff?”
“The maintenance man, two guides, and the owner are dead, as you ordered. Their bodies were placed in the generator building, safe from the wildlife. The owner’s wife and their daughter are being held upstairs, in case a radiotelephone call needs to be answered.”
“Cell phones are out of range?”
Khalil nodded in satisfaction. “Give the daughter to the men. When they are finished with her, kill her. The mother can answer the telephone if need be.”
“They will like that.”
“Now we will go fishing,” Khalil said. “Do you know how, Zahir?”
“There is no fishing in the desert.”
Khalil laughed. “Then we will learn together.”
“In the meantime I will send someone to the dock for your bags.”
Copyright © 2005 by David Hagberg