A NOVEL OF SUSPENSE AND ESPIONAGE
She’s the CIA’s woman in North Africa, a fast-tracker with a brilliant career and an enviable record.
She has it all. Even history favors her by setting the opening act of the Arab Spring in her backyard.
Who could ask for more?
a cyberwar operation goes bad drawing her into a vortex that threatens her career and her life.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I was totally absorbed in the plot, characters, the intrigue, and the twists and turns.
Debi Baum, IL
Have you left it open for a sequel??
Helen Marshall, Halifax, NS
A taut, thrilling ride.
Avvy Mar, CA
This is an incredible book … will keep you on your toes.
Austen Samet, WY
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The interior of the car was dark except for the glow of Karim’s cigarette and light shining from a GPS-looking device mounted on the windshield. Its screen showed a ghostly night-vision video of an empty dirt lane.
She brought the car to a stop on a gravel hammock above a rocky shoreline and turned off the ignition. Next to her smoke escaped in strings from Mustafa Karim’s mouth and nose, roughening his voice as he ranted at her from the passenger seat about how, “You people insult my intelligence and treat me like a dog in the street. There it is. You comprehend nothing, understand nothing. But me?”
Nearby, so close it seemed to be inside the car, a toad croaked an accompaniment for the man. A breeze wafted the foul-smelling Gauloise smoke out the open windows and whispered through reeds and coastal shrub, the sea grooming the beach beyond.
This meeting hadn’t started well, but emergency meetings never did. He continued, “Now, I know everything. Every thing. Some times it is a thing of months for me to receive this intelligence, but always it comes to me. Some times …” Through the windshield she could see rocks and sand and long lines of surf shuttling silver froth along the moon’s path.
A case holding $500,000 jabbed the back of her legs. It’d taken the station’s Intel Assistant hours to assemble. “You’re going to let me do this by myself?” Gwen had feigned disbelief earlier in the afternoon when Regan left her and the office to drive out here to look around. It’d turned out to be an unnecessary precaution. Nothing in this stretch of undeveloped land along the Bay of Tunis had changed since the day, three months ago, that she’d last scouted it.
“If not because I have new sources, men I recruit and put in place only one month past,” Karim jabbed his cigarette at her. “If not for them, the treachery you people make? Never will it come clear to … .”
He’d been haranguing her since he’d eased his London bespoke suit, floor-length burnoose, and gold accessories into her car back at the pick-up site. But he would run down soon. She reached for her iPad with its encrypted note-taking app. Mustafa Karim was a conspiracy maven, having built his life on plots and machinations and prone to see an elaborate web of deceit behind the most innocent of events.
She read through her notes not having to look at her core instructions.
Terminate contact at earliest convenience. Pay him off. Having lost
access to high-level information and ability to influence leadership
Simple enough instructions but, clearly, Karim had a bone or two or ten to pick with the CIA, and it might not be as easy to sever the connection as Langley would like to think. The toad croaked. Karim vented, and a rotting pile of kelp tossed ashore in the last storm emitted an increasingly irritating stench.
“Tu compris?” he said. “These things I tell you so you will understand the situation in Libya. Your people are … .” And he was off again on another rant.
The iPad shut itself down and, for a moment, its last gleam of light seemed to bounce off the scrub growth half a mile or so to her right. There was another flash. Headlights? Couldn’t be.
Karim’s finger waggled. “… me to believe this massive lie—” A strong wash of surf rose to tug at the dead kelp.
Her eyes flicked to the GPS lookalike, and she saw them. So did Karim. A combination of indignation, anger, and self-righteousness had made his actions jerky, but now a new kind of tension stiffened his body. She felt it herself. Fear. Or maybe just trepidation.
“Who?” He tossed his cigarette out the window and hit the dashboard. “Do not wait to see. Go. This moment.”
A second car passed the camera she’d mounted at the turn into this track. The video was not good, but the first car had held at least three men. The second? Two?
She started the Peugeot, saw a spark where Karim’s Gauloise had landed. Said, “Son of a bitch!” And, “Get that cigarette.”
His eyes flashed white, his breath hissed, but he did as she said, his embroidered gray burnoose flaring, as seemingly insubstantial as the vehicle images on the screen. Then, he was back in the car, the cigarette head glowing once before being mashed out.
She turned off the camera monitor and eased the car forward across a rocky bed lining the high-water mark.
“What are you doing?” He’d switched from Arabic to French, using the hard and impersonal ‘vous’.
“My job.” She saw no reason to explain further. There should be no cars. Not here. Since there were? It had to be Karim’s fault; his carelessness. Had to be. He’d said something; not run a proper surveillance route; something.
Tires slipped and slid over loose rocks, the steering wheel twisted in her hands, the lion logo in its center blurring silver in the pale white light of moon and stars.
In seconds the first car would top the berm separating swamp from drained flatlands. More seconds would pass, seconds of blindness for their pursuers, a small period of grace for her. The Peugeot would be hard to see, its original dark blue paint lusterless with age. Only the windows might catch and reflect light, and they were dirty.
A brighter glow above the coastal scrub showed they were closer, very close. The Peugeot’s right front tire dropped into a hole. Its tough frame, one made to survive African driving conditions, groaned and bounced out. How long? Less than a minute by a conservative estimate. There. She saw the broken but still intact concrete ramp where once a French colon had run his boat down to the sea. Now, the house that had graced this place was mostly gone, its walls and contents recycled, the site marked only by a twisting iron staircase and the remains of a chimney rising from a heap of oleander.
The Peugeot rocked and bounced up the fractured ramp to settle on firm ground. She parked behind the old fireplace.
“Wait here.” She switched off the engine and turned to rummage in her tote bag, pulling out a CIA-adapted Nikon and a black scarf. “I’m going to find out who the bastards are.”
They could hear the cars now and see the glow of headlights above the thick vegetation that separated her parking place of moments earlier from here.
“Stop.” Karim had a gun in his hand. The rant. Now, a gun? But she had no time for this. “Put that away,” she hissed, hearing car doors slam and flipping the scarf over her head. “You won’t need that if you stay here and stay quiet. Whoever they are, they’re not going to find us.” She hoped.
“You remain here.” The gun was aimed at her.
“Okay, Karim.” She could feel a red-head’s flush of anger spread across her face. “You go. You can crawl through the bushes to identify those bastards.”
“We wait here until they go.”
“Is there some reason you don’t want me to see them?”
He said nothing, so she kept talking. “Then, I’m going, and if you shoot me, those men will be all over you. How many bullets in that gun? Or would you rather run and die in the swamp out there?” She didn’t wait for an answer but slid out of the Peugeot, leaving the driver’s door open behind her, the interior lights disabled, the car dark except for Karim’s pale shadow.
Her skin crawled. Her black windbreaker and pants, black scarf and gloves gave her near invisibility but no protection against a bullet in the back. Predicting what Karim might do was impossible. From everything she’d learned, the Libyan was a state-enabled psychopath. Among other things, he’d been Qadhafi’s Director of Prisons, meaning interrogating and warehousing Qadhafi’s enemies, making them examples to the populace, his name used by mothers to frighten their children into obedience. Before that as a security service officer, he’d trained hundreds of terrorists in bombmaking and weapons, prepared them to go out and massacre innocents, to shred their bodies into lumps of unidentifiable flesh. Most recently, as head of the Libyan intelligence and security service, he’d become almost respectable, but … .
She inched the last few yards until the glow of light through the foliage resolved into the shapes of cars and men. Both cars faced the sea, their headlights aimed at the beach, the tires of the vehicle nearest to her almost where her Peugeot had parked. It was a Toyota. Five men stood in a semi-circle staring out at the bay as though looking for a boat. All were dark haired, swarthy-skinned, and bearded. All wore suit jackets over white shirts, reminding her of Mohammed Hamdan and his people. Where others of their ilk favored fatigues or native robes, he’d invariably dressed in a suit, and his men had followed his lead.
Maybe these people had nothing to do with her or Karim. Maybe they were smugglers and she’d stumbled upon a rendezvous site? What was perfect for her purposes could equally serve another type of covert activity. She eased her body up to a sitting position, the litter under her rustling. Which didn’t matter. The engines of the two cars still hummed and music blared from one of the radios, a bastard fusion of a minor key melody with a hard rock sound. Cross-legged, she propped her elbows on her knees. She was almost buried among the dense, low-hanging branches of some kind of oak, its lobate leaves providing excellent cover, its acorns bumpy under her. One jabbed her butt, and she shifted, bending her head to look through an old-style view finder. The camera’s monitor screen was fully enclosed to render it light secure while the telescopic lens was recessed to prevent reflections
It took a few seconds to focus in on the first man’s face. She snapped off a series of photos, the digital camera making no noise. She got a good full face and a good profile before going on to the next man. The camera seemed to bring his features almost up against her own. That nose. The eyes … no. She shied backwards, almost dropped the camera.
“No,” the word hissed on her lips, almost escaped. “No.”
But it was. It was him.
Abdul-Ghaffar al-Din. She’d never forget that face or that thick, bulldog body. Last seen it had been laid out on a stretcher, blood soaking the right side of his shirt and the fabric of his pants. Bullet holes had told the story of his injuries if not the tale of how he came by them. She, though, knew. She’d been there, her own blood gathering in her right eyebrow and in the hair around her right ear, leaking from a gash in her hairline— made, possibly, by a bullet from al-Din’s gun.
The memory made the scar, her souvenir of a hard-fought rendition operation, throb.
Not smugglers. No.
The camera weighed on her hands and wrists. Pictures. She needed pictures. This was her job. It was her life, too. She was sitting only thirty feet or so from a man who’d sworn to kill her. She stared. That day three years earlier, CIA Air Branch contractors working with a Tunisian special forces unit had overrun what had been a terrorist training site deep inside Libya. The operation had bagged al-Salan’s chief, Mohammed Hamdan. It had won her an intelligence medal. It had also led an obscure Sanusiya mullah to issue a fatwa condemning her to death.
But al-Din? He had been Hamdan’s second-in-command, had spent six years with the Muj in Afghanistan, then had followed Hamdan back to Libya via Yemen and several spectacular terrorist incidents. He’d been captured and given to the Tunisians for interrogation, trial, and prison. Three years ago.
“Should still be in prison,” she mouthed the words. “Should still be.
Why isn’t he?”
The answer was obvious—mass prison releases as a side effect of the Jasmine Revolution.
The man standing next to al-Din? Hadad Abdullah Juriy. Of course. Where al-Din went, so did Juriy. He’d been imprisoned in Tunisia with al-Din, had been his faithful lieutenant from the beginning. Juriy was speaking, but whatever he had to say was lost to her. Between music, engines, and sea, she could hear nothing, just see the mouths moving. The effect of the words on al-Din, though, was evident. He turned and walked back to the passenger door of the second car—one hidden from her by the Toyota. She switched to video function as he leaned down to the window.
So there were more than five men. Who else? She moved the camera, changed the focus, adjusted the zoom. Nothing worked. She could get no more than a vague form inside the second car. But it was one form. One person. Male or female? Not sure, but one only, not more.
She finished photographing the faces she could see, then went back to video, panning as the men returned to the open car doors. Al-Din was the last, taking a final look around. Then he returned to the open back seat door of the car nearest her, his mouth moving, apparently responding to something said by someone she still hadn’t seen. The front doors of the other car slammed shut, cutting down on the music’s volume, and al-Din’s final words, spoken only feet from where she sat, came clear.
“… God’s will if they do not come here. Speak to Him, not to me.” He slid inside and closed his door. His Toyota backed and turned and drove off.
The other car followed.
“… if they do not come … .” She tried to make sense of the words while zooming in on the license plates. Then she did speak aloud, muttered, “Al-Din used English.” Not Arabic or Maghrebi Arabic or French.
When their cars weren’t even a glow on the horizon, she eased back through the oak’s branches, then stood, her joints reluctant. She still had to deal with Karim and his gun.
A few minutes later she stood beside an empty Peugeot. Only Karim’s gray burnoose showed he’d ever been there while the money case was gone. Paranoid. Karim was paranoid, but he hadn’t lost sight of the important thing in his life: money.
Serve him right if she got inside and drove away without him. Not that he’d let her. Without doubt he was somewhere nearby with his gun trained on her.
“Olly, olly oxen, all in free,” she called, disturbing the nocturnal creatures, quiet radiating out from her like ripples on a pond leaving only the soft wash of the sea and the whisper of leaves. It’d been a silly thing to say, but the childhood game call gave her an illusion of security, almost made her smile. Almost.
“What is this you speak? This ‘olly’?” Karim’s dark suit separated from the trunk of a tree. He carried the money case. The gun was nowhere in sight, and he sounded relaxed, safe.
“We still have a few things to do,” she said. “And you may want a ride out of here.”
“I saw these al-Salan men. They are employed by your CIA but, I think, it is you they want. It is you who they follow here. Not me. It is the fatwa that brings them.”
She didn’t argue the point. It was all too likely he was right—at least about the fatwa. “Load up,” she said but couldn’t resist adding, “and as I recall the al-Salan are all Harabi, as are you.”
He grunted. Tribal affiliation among Libyans usually meant something. In this case, though, what? She let the topic go. Instead she turned on the monitor and watched the two al-Salan cars depart the area via her concealed camera. Then she used another route out of the wasteland. Ten minutes later, the Peugeot bounced onto solid paving near the ruins of what had been a small store, the headlights illuminating a faded advertisement for Fanta on a broken wall—orange drink pictured dribbling from a tilted bottle. She accelerated and made two more turns before she began to relax, before her lungs expanded. She breathed deeply.
Until then she’d been unaware of the tension that had tightened her muscles and increased her heartbeat.
But this wasn’t over yet.
She tapped her ring finger against the steering wheel. Wedding diamonds, turned under, hit plastic in a reassuring way. Her thoughts didn’t match. She had to finish up this meeting; get his signature on a receipt for the money; make it clear to him that there would be no more contact. As for the debrief she’d planned? Forget it. Get done and get out. Finish. End.
“There’re just a few things left to cover,” she said.
Karim lit a cigarette and exhaled. Smoke gagged her despite her lowered window, but she said nothing. They’d had the ‘no smoking in the car’ conversation a year ago. She’d lost.
“There is only one thing to finish, Madame,” Karim said. “As I say before, you people steal from me, and I will have compensation. Not with the small sum you bring tonight. I require twenty millions of dollars, and I require it immediately.”
She didn’t answer. Had no answer he’d want to hear. The man had always been inventive and demanding. And now that he’d become about as welcome to the Agency as a flea on a dog?
The final crossroads before the coastal village of La Marsa came and went. Karim brooded and puffed smoke. Finally, Regan said, “I’ll drop you off near the La Marsa Tennis Club. We’ll complete our accountings there and say good-bye. Use your recontact number if you ever return to Libya. You understand? As for the twenty million? You’ll have to take that up in Libya. When things stabilize, well … .”
She didn’t finish either sentence. They had no endings. But Karim did. He was one man who’d never have another position of power or ever again be in a position to demand anything. He might never be able to return to Libya. For that matter, he’d be lucky if he survived his exile as tonight proved. Remember. Al-Din had said, ‘they.’ And, now that she’d had time to consider the matter?
If al-Din just wanted to kill her, he’d stake out her house or the embassy. No. For some reason—most likely for many reasons—al-Din was after both of them. Somehow he’d known they’d be together and where to find them. He’d not used a tracking device, obviously. Which left … what? Karim couldn’t have told them. Karim hadn’t known where she planned to park.
She looked sideways, realizing the Libyan hadn’t replied to her statement about the money and recontact. He glowered at her, tossed out his cigarette butt and lit another, said, “It comes clear to me, Madame. You think to save your twenty millions. You think your Agency can steal my facility and my algorithms without repercussion. This is why your CIA sends its killers.”
The road brought them past a solitary house to the right and the ruins of what might have been a factory of some sort to their left. Widely spread eucalyptus bordered the way now, their leaves tattered and dry with winter and dust and pale as shrouds in the night. Behind them the walled compounds of more residential villas began to appear.
He continued, “But I have a gun and can defend myself, so you change your plan and now think to make me relaxed while you drive me to an ambush. You think I do not know all? Know your Arnie Walker spreads lies about me with my own government, forcing me to flee my own country. But this is not enough for him. He still fears me and must order me to be killed.”
Gauloise smoke, unfiltered and rancid, puffed from his nose and mouth. He had also gone completely off the rails. She sneezed, stayed focused on the broken edge of the road, using her right hand to grope at the lid of the center console where she kept her tissues. It opened easily, and she reached inside.
As her fingers touched a plastic wrapper, the lid smashed down. Pain shot up her arm. She yelped, an involuntary sound, and tried to jerk free. The car swerved violently, rocking back and forth, but Karim had her wrist trapped.
“Stop the car!”