She’s the CIA’s woman in North Africa, a fast-tracker with a brilliant career and an enviable counterterrorism record who suddenly finds her life threatened.
Who among the players wants her dead and why? Is it her mentor, who’s running the biggest cyberwar operation in CIA history? And what about her estranged husband, whose ambitions would be boosted if he were the widower of a genuine heroine in the War on Terror?
The trick is to stay alive while she finds answers and reevaluates her life.
DIP IN AND ENJOY …
Bay of Tunis, Tunisia, February 18, 2011
In Regan Grant’s experience clandestine car meetings were well-managed, carefully orchestrated affairs. The best were wonderfully boring, their normality tinged only by watchfulness.
This one? 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 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 cool breeze came through her partially opened window, pushing Mustafa’s cigarette smoke away from her nose. A case containing $500,000 jabbed the back of her legs. One day soon the swamp behind them would be drained and turned into building sites, but now its night creatures and thick vegetation muttered, whispered, and called. Nearby, so close it seemed to be inside the car, a toad croaked an accompaniment for the man.
“If not because I have new sources, men I recruit and put in place only one month past,” Karim flicked his second cigarette out his window and jabbed a finger at her. “If not for them, the treachery you make? Never will it come clear to … .”
He’d been haranguing her since he’d eased his London bespoke suit and gold accessories into her car back at the pick-up site. But he’d run down soon. She reached for her iPad with its encrypted note-taking ap. Mustafa Karim was a conspiracy theorist.
She read through her meeting notes. The toad croaked. Karim vented, and a rotting pile of kelp tossed ashore in the last storm emitted an increasingly irritating stench. Time to get the man to focus on the reason he’d signaled for this emergency meeting.
Mustafa Karim was a conspiracy theorist…
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, and a dashboard-mounted radio crackled.
“Faites attention. Toyotas. Deux.” The voice continued in excited French, “Four men. Black plates. They take the Falah track at speed; drive too fast. Perhaps break the axels? Can you see them, Madame? Do you copy? Over.”
She saw them. So did Karim. A combination of indignation, anger, and hatred had made his actions jerky, but now a new kind of tension stiffened his body. Fear. He tossed his cigarette out the window and hit the dashboard. “Go. Go.”
“Acknowledged,” she said into the handset, speaking to Bashir Baralguiba, who’d been running countersurveillance for this meeting. “Clear the area. Return to base. Copy? Over.” She spoke the last words over the sound of the engine starting and Karim still shouting. Sand and gravel splattered against the old Peugeot’s undercarriage as she gunned it backwards, away from the placid night sea, away from the toad and the decomposing kelp. Karim finally shut up.
“Cinq cinq.” Bashir signaled agreement.
The car’s front end swung inland. She slammed the gearshift into low and floor-boarded it.
The man grabbed at the dashboard, his knuckles white.
This was his fault; his carelessness. The steering wheel spun in her hands, the lion logo in its center a blur of silver in the pale white light of moon and stars.
The man hung on, lips clamped together, tendons taut, eyes narrowed.
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 bright glow above the coastal scrub showed they were out there—two cars and four men where no cars or men should be. A tire dropped into a hole. The Peugeot’s tough frame, one made to survive African driving conditions, groaned, the wheels spun, then bounced free. She hit the clutch and slid the shift up a gear. How long? Less than a minute by a conservative estimate.
Air rasped from her passenger’s lungs. Weeds, transformed into silver spikes by moon and stars, flashed by as the all-weather radials hurtled the old car body over rough ground and past what had once been a beach house, marked now only by a twisting iron staircase rising from a concrete slab. The ascent to nowhere was a survivor, a remnant of the French colonial past.
The reeds on the beach laid a shadow over the route…
A second later they half-bounced, half-flew into a gap in the surrounding scrub and onto a track along a raised causeway. The reeds on the beach side laid a shadow over their route while swamp vegetation opposite it showed the way, gleaming in the clear white light. She had scouted the causeway in various conditions, including these. In rain it was impassable. On a moonless night headlights were imperative. But tonight? No problem.
They hit another pothole. This time her clear-lensed glasses bounced on her nose. “You will kill us.” Karim’s voice rose. “I should drive.”
He needed a distraction. “Get the binoculars off the back seat and tell me what the bastards are doing.”
He did as she said. “They are there. Headlights. Perhaps it is where we parked but not closer.” As he said the last word, the Peugeot nosed into a declivity that could have served as an elephant wallow, then jounced out. The Libyan cursed as the binoculars banged against an eye socket. He grabbed the passenger-assist handle.
Another ruin, this of tumbled concrete block, passed on the left as the terrain rose, the scrub became trees, and they twisted through a maze of tracks. They were almost at an intersection with a paved road. If the Toyotas were Libyan, she had probably lost them. But if they were Tunisian and knew the area? This would be the logical place for an ambush. Muscles in her thighs ached. She held her breath.
Heavy vegetation fell away, revealing only a line of dark ground cutting across their path. No flashlights. No flares. Not even moonlight glinting off metal. She braked and turned, and the Peugeot skidded onto pavement. That’s when she flipped on her high beams, the turn sweeping them across a row of eucalyptus.
A moment of blindness passed to leave each tree outlined in gold. Splendid. Beautiful. Beautiful because no little black Fiats sat amid their trunks. No men in cheap suits leaned against them or waited on the grass around their roots. No goons. No bad guys. So far … so good.
Ahead of them, where another road branched, the ruins of a small roofless store shone in the headlights. A faded advertisement for Fanta filled a broken wall—orange drink pictured dribbling from a tilted bottle. A yellow cat crouched on a rubbled ledge above the F in Fanta. His eyes gleamed red as though caught by a camera flash. Then he turned with no particular haste, checked the drop, and flowed downwards—liquid honey, his tail the last to vanish. Nothing else moved. No cars emerged from behind the walls.
She accelerated and made two more turns before she began to relax, before her lungs expanded. She breathed deeply. Her heart rate slowed and a CIA mantra echoed in her mind. Cheated death one more time. Cheated death one more time.
But this wasn’t over yet.
Cheated death one more time …
She tapped her ring finger against the steering wheel. Marriage diamonds, turned under, hit plastic in a reassuring way. Her thoughts didn’t match. She said, “Someone knew where to find us.” The words came out as an accusation. She heard her own tone, winced, but still added, “Those cars were hunting and had to be Libyans, Mustafa. They were after you and, maybe, the money.”
With one hand Karim reached into a pocket, extracted a cigarette, found a lighter and applied the flame, the light flaring over his handsome features. The well-shaped brown fingers almost didn’t tremble, and in the glow of the dashboard display he appeared to be a master of destiny, a man in control of his fate.
He exhaled in her direction. 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.
A kilometer rolled by, then a second one as the Libyan smoked and brooded. Was it his pride reconfiguring events to excuse that display of fear? Was it his previous anger returning? Perhaps it had to do with the money. Or was he papering over a guilty conscience? Maybe he’d been indiscreet. Maybe he’d been followed. Maybe he’d bragged about the money. Whatever. Their near brush with the men in the Toyotas—whoever they were—had been his fault, and he’d been the target. She’d simply have been collateral damage.
Clearly, though, there was no more point in pressing the issue now than there had been in defending against his earlier outburst. No. Her best course of action was to finish up this meeting; give him his termination bonus; make it clear to him that there would be no more contact. Get done and get out. Finish. End.
“There’re just a few things left to cover,” she said.
He took a long and audible drag on his cigarette, expelling noisily. “As I say, Madame. 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 idea what he meant, but 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. Regan said, “I’ll drop you off near the La Marsa Tennis Club. We’ll complete our final 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. I know nothing of what goes on there, and with all current chaos …? But 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’d be lucky if he survived his exile as tonight proved.
He rolled his window down an inch and tossed his cigarette out, immediately lighting another. But he didn’t reply.
Finally his long silence made her glance his way. “What?”
“It is clear, Madame. Your Arnie Walker must now eliminate those who were once useful to him. You think I do not know? 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.”
I see how you intend to trick me …
The road brought them past an outlying 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 residential villas began to appear.
The stench of the man’s cigarettes coated her skin despite the open windows.
He continued. “Now, it comes clear to me. I see how you intend to trick me, how you isolate me from my bodyguards. How you think to lull me with a diversion of these pursuits.”
He smoked Gauloise, the worst of unfiltered tobacco.
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 screamed and tried to jerk free. The car swerved violently, rocking back and forth, but Karim had her wrist trapped.
“Stop the car!” Karim’s cigarette was clenched between his lips, and his body leaned on the console. The pain made thought difficult. Her throat seemed to have clogged. Everything in her chest felt like it was climbing upwards hoping to escape through her mouth. Then, the round bore of a gun barrel appeared less than a foot from her right eye and her brain kicked into survival mode, realizing the car was swerving back and forth, veering wildly, bouncing every time a tire fell off the verge.
Sweat trickled out from under a cap covering her hair. He was a paranoid, state-paid sadistic monster. 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. As a security service officer, he’d trained hundreds of terrorists in bomb-making and weapons, prepared them to go out and massacre innocents, to shred their bodies into lumps of unidentifiable flesh.
Her heart felt as though it’d climbed up her windpipe to regulate the pounding pulse in her throat.
The first swerve had been involuntary and had almost put them into a spin. She could— She stood on the accelerator.
“Stop the car!” Karim’s voice rose, the hand holding the lid of the console on her wrist pushed harder, but his head whipped back and forth, side to side, ash spilling from his cigarette. The RPM needle swung far to the right. Cylinders beat and the engine roared; the sound was of violence unleashed.
“Stop or I shoot!”
That’s when she saw the rest of what could be. Not what she wanted. She wanted to collapse or cry or scream. She wanted to stop the car and slam down the curtain on the entire situation. She wanted to turn back time.
Her vision compressed, focused down to a cone, her eyes seeing only what was within the headlights’ beams. Karim and his gun were lost behind black blinders. A sound like a swarm of locusts drowned out anything he might be saying. The Peugeot flew off the pavement and landed with groaning springs and screeching metal. She felt nothing from her trapped wrist, kept all of her weight on the gas pedal, and aimed the car at the cracked plaster of a garden wall a hundred yards ahead. One thing more. She licked her lips and forced the necessary words out of a constricted throat, “Throw the gun out.”
Would he pull the trigger …
The wall rushed towards her, growing in the headlights, shock absorbers protesting on the rough ground. She manhandled the wheel with her good hand. Would he pull the trigger? If he did, her body would fall forward against the wheel and, before he could move her, the car would crash. Would he think of that? The wall seemed to mushroom. In seconds it would fill the universe, would block out the world. How much longer? Ten seconds. Nine. Eight.
“Seven. Six.” She cringed away from a feared shot but, still, she shouted the seconds aloud the way she’d counted a horse’s strides before hitting a take-off point for a high fence. Timing. Timing was everything.
She didn’t want to die. She didn’t want to die. “Five. Four.”
The gun sailed away. Regan neither saw it nor heard it; but she knew when it was gone, realized Karim had released his grip on the console lid and was yelling something. She couldn’t have said what language he used, but the gun was gone. For one additional second she did nothing, mesmerized by the enormity of the wall, seeing individual cracks and broken bits of plaster, hypnotized by the colors and the detail of the moment. It would be so easy to—
Shit! Shit! Shit! She turned the steering wheel hard over, foot jumping from accelerator to brakes. Again the silver lion flashed, but this time the car went into a skid. The fender missed the corner with all four tires skating sideways, Regan pumping the brakes. Next to her Karim held on with both hands, head thrown back. The trunk of a tree flashed by her window before the Peugeot went airborne, bouncing high out of a shallow ditch. With a sound of metallic anguish it came back to earth and landed on the roadway.
Ideas and words to provoke thought…