Tripoli’s Target Exclusive Excerpt
Enjoy an exclusive excerpt (the prologue and the first two chapters) from Tripoli’s Target, the second book in the Justin Hall series, out on October 9. If you would like to receive an advance reader copy of this spy thriller, please let me know by leaving a comment. Thanks, Ethan
“An army of sheep led by a lion would defeat
an army of lions led by a sheep.”
“It is better to die in revenge than to live on in shame.”
May 13, 6:15 p.m. local time
Satam, the driver of the fifth suicide truck bomb, turned onto Ar Rashid Street, merging with the warm evening traffic. He rubbed his sweaty palms against his short khaki pants, his gaze glued to the silver BMW Suburban in front of him. He heaved a wheezing sigh and tapped on the brake pedal. A red traffic light halted the five-vehicle convoy.
A stream of vehicles rushed through the intersection leading to the business district of downtown Tripoli. Tall skyscrapers rose over most of the city’s old colonial-style buildings. The green and gold banner of Jacobs Properties—one of the major British real estate developers in Libya—beamed from atop the glass-and-steel façade of the newly finished Continental Hotel. The same logo had been painted hastily on the left side of the BMW packed with Semtex explosives. Walid, its driver and a Jacobs subcontractor, had exchanged his blue coveralls for a business suit and the promise of martyrdom.
A glance at the dashboard clock told Satam the synchronized explosion would take place in ten minutes. The thought of the coming carnage drained the last drop of courage from his heart. He rolled down the window, but the humid air—blended with the aroma of fried falafel, onions, and lamb donairs from a nearby street vendor—made him nauseated. He gasped for air, sticking his head out of the window. He coughed and struggled to catch his breath. The drivers in the other vehicles gave him curious glares. Behind the truck, the driver of an old Mercedes honked his horn twice. Satam swallowed hard and wiped the sweat off his narrow forehead. He waved at his audience to show them he was doing all right.
“Satam, what’s the matter, brother?” the radio set on the dashboard crackled. He recognized Walid’s gruff voice.
Satam looked at the BMW. His watery eyes met the reflection of the driver’s face in the rear-view mirror of the Suburban. The driver’s usual wicked smirk stretched his lips, revealing his large buckteeth. Walid waved his hands wildly. Satam could not see behind Walid’s black aviator shades but assumed his eyes were ablaze with rage.
“Nothing’s wrong. Just needed some air,” Satam replied over the radio.
He rolled up the window before Walid could scold him with another howl.
“Great. Now that you’ve closed the window, open your eyes!” Walid barked. “You’re not a coward like the infidels, are you?”Satam shook his head.
A third voice came on air before he could say anything.
“Cousin, I pledged my honor so you could be a part of this mission. Don’t you back down now!” Satam’s cousin said. He was driving the Toyota at the head of the convoy.
Satam sighed and paused for a couple of seconds. “I’m not backing down. You can trust me. I will not disappoint you or the brotherhood.”
“That’s my flesh and blood who is soon to be a martyr,” said the cousin in a relaxed tone. “Our families will be proud of us, and our reward will be glorious.”
“It’s easy for you to say, since tonight you’ll be welcomed to paradise,” Satam said.
He noticed the traffic lights changing and stepped cautiously on the gas pedal. The truck jerked forward a few inches before the ride turned smooth again.
“Won’t take long before you join us there,” Walid said.
“Yes, but not before being dragged through the secret police hellish cells…” Satam’s voice trailed off.
“Allah will give you strength, cousin, and soon he’ll take you home.”
“He will, brother, he will.” Walid revved the BMW’s twelve-cylinder engine. “For sure, I’m going to miss this ride.”
“There will be plenty of rides up there to keep you and everyone else busy,” the cousin said with a quiet laugh. “Now may Allah be with us all. Over and out.”
Walid nodded and turned left toward the Continental Hotel.
Satam’s destination, the Gold Market, was to the right. He steered in that direction. He zigzagged through a few crooked streets and slowed down when reaching the Old City. The blacktop disappeared, and the uneven gravel crackled under the tires. Old cars, horse carts, and pedestrians came into view, along with whitewashed stores selling gold and jewelry. The streets narrowed into barely a single lane.
Satam rolled down the window for sideways glances to avoid brushing against planters, chairs, and vendors selling all kinds of junk. A stomach-churning stench from days-old fish, fried grease, and sweat overwhelmed him. Satam felt his head grow heavy, and he hit the brakes.
The street vendors lost no time peddling their wares. A crowd of young boys swarmed his truck. He yelled and shoved away a few of the bravest salesmen waving handfuls of souvenirs in his face. He kept brushing away the hagglers, when suddenly a pointed metal object was shoved against his forearm. Startled, Satam withdrew his arm inside the cabin. He glanced at one of the boys holding a string of scimitar replicas, the sword tribesmen in North Africa carried in ancient times. The curved blade was dull with a rounded point to prevent accidental stabs. Still, the swift jab at his forearm summoned awful visions of the future.
He saw himself hanging upside down in a dark, grim dungeon, tied to the ceiling beams, while three secret police agents “interrogated” him. They would use various methods to “jog” his memory and break his psyche. Sleep deprivation and intimidation by police dogs were just the welcome package. Other techniques included breaking fingers and simulated suffocation with plastic wraps and water boarding. I will tell them everything right away before they even touch me. He struggled to wipe the vivid images from his mind.
Satam slammed on the truck’s horn to clear a path through the crowd. The blaring horn startled him more than the boys and the occasional onlookers. He glanced at the dashboard, realizing he had less than two minutes to reach the busy marketplace square five blocks away. It will be impossible to make it on time.
He blasted the horn again and stepped on the gas. The truck moved slowly, and Satam wrestled to make a left turn. The alley grew wider. The truck sped up, its wheels dipping and climbing in and out of the potholes. He rushed straight ahead, inches away from oncoming taxis, their honks protesting his unsafe speed. A few sidewalk vendors dove out of the way, their overflowing baskets of bananas and grapes spilling all over the place. Tires screeched as he turned right, jumping the curb and narrowly missing a large bronze planter outside a soap store.
The Mediterranean Sea was now visible to his right, through palm trees, coffee shops, and fruit vendor stands. Satam stared ahead at the wide square, one of the busiest markets in El Mina, the ancient city. The bazaar rumbled with vendors squabbling over a few dinars with tight-fisted tourists. I made it. Yes, I made it. He turned his gaze to the left, toward Tripoli’s skyline, and slowed down before parking the truck in front of a small restaurant. He took a deep breath and dabbed at his forehead with the back of his hand, wiping off a sea of sweat.
The dashboard radio crackled and he picked up the receiver.
“Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!” The loud voice echoed over the radio. Satam recognized Walid’s shouts.
A second later, a loud explosion rocked the entire square. Satam’s gaze spun toward the business district, where a cloud of grayish smoke billowed around the Continental Hotel. Chaos erupted among the street vendors who scattered and forgot about their produce and the evening’s clients. The patrons of coffee shops rushed to the streets, staring in disbelief at the sight. Cries of hysteria overtook the growing crowd. Elderly women beat their heads and chests with clenched fists. Young men pointed and shouted, their bodies restless. The sharp siren of an ambulance sliced through the cacophony of terror.
With a quick movement of his wrist, Satam consulted his watch. Just as the digits registered 6:31, another explosion shocked the crowd. This time, the bomb hit closer, much closer, merely five blocks away. From inside his parked truck, Satam looked at the bright yellow glow of the blast. High flames leapt at a ten-story office building. A thick cloud of black smoke began to swallow up the tower. The crowd broke into smaller groups. People scurried in all directions. Some ran back to their shops and apartments. Others simply circled the area, perhaps unsure of the safe way out.
Satam knew his time had come. He revved the engine and stomped on the gas pedal. The truck arrowed toward the vendors’ tables. The market was mostly empty, and the truck crashed into crates of fish, baskets of grapes, and barrels of olive oil. Produce scattered everywhere as the truck rampaged through plastic tables and chairs.
A police truck zipped toward him. Satam steered around, not to escape, but to meet the approaching vehicle. The two policemen in the truck ignored Satam. They were going to drive past him, but Satam swerved hard. The right fender of his truck smashed into the left side of the police truck. The police truck jerked to the other side. He pulled over and stopped less than thirty feet away. The other policeman rolled down the window. Satam stared at the muzzle of an AK-47 assault rifle.
“Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot,” Satam shouted and opened his door.
A quick burst of bullets sent him ducking for cover in the front seat. A shower of glass shreds fell over his head.
They’re going to kill me before I even have a chance to open my mouth. Or one of the bullets will blow up the truck. I can’t let that happen.
He looked at the back of the truck. Thirty pounds of Semtex explosives wired into a homemade bomb were stored inside the seat compartments. He noticed the cellphone on the floor mat by his left hand. He reached for the phone. All it would take for him to set off the explosives—and pulverize himself and the policemen—was to tap three preset numbers. His fingers hovered over the phone, but he remembered his family’s honor and the reward waiting for him in paradise. He dropped the phone to the floor, buried his head in the seat, and locked his fingers behind his head.
A minute or so passed before the shooting stopped, but the screaming continued. At some point, he heard the distinct thuds of combat boots marching down the street. The police were approaching his truck. He looked up slowly as a policeman pulled open the driver’s door of his truck and aimed an AK-47 at his head
“Don’t move!” the policeman ordered.
Without a word, the policeman juggled the rifle in his hands and slammed its buttstock hard against Satam’s head.
May 13, 6:25 p.m. local time
Justin Hall, Canadian Intelligence Service agent, did not want to fire his gun. Too many witnesses crowded the street.
I will kill those two men following me if I have to. Then, I’ll clean up the mess.
His hand rested over the Browning 9mm riding inside the waistband holster at his thigh. He peered again at the reflections in the store window glass. He pretended to admire a black suit. In fact, he was checking every move of two young men behind him. Before he continued to his meeting, he wanted to make sure the pair, which had followed him for the last three blocks, were random strangers, rather than plain-clothes police doing a poor surveillance job.
Or worse. Assassins.
The two men did not stop by the store. They kept walking and, as they rounded the street corner, Justin followed. He tailed the men for a couple of minutes. They wandered along the north side of Nile City Towers Mall, stopping at times for quick window-shopping but never looking over their shoulders. Still, he found their actions suspicious. He used the same counter-surveillance tactic. Justin wondered if a second backup team had replaced the first, after he had made the two men. If this is mukhabarat, there has to be more than one.
The sun had begun to set, its last golden rays bouncing off the reflective glass of the nearby tall skyscrapers. A thin crowd was building up around the shopping district in downtown Cairo. Justin glanced around him on all sides. He tried to spot anyone who looked as if they belonged to a surveillance team. He scouted the area for operatives in dull or baggy clothing, wearing boring sunglasses, sporting earpieces, or simply standing out in the crowd. He listened for the slowing of footsteps, the shuffling of clothes, and any metallic click. No one fit the profile, but profiles were rarely helpful.
The men turned another corner and Justin continued to follow them. Twilight shadows and the flow of pedestrians out for the evening should have made it easier for him to track his prey, but the dry, sizzling air, scorched by a punishing sun for twelve hours, countered all his advantages. Drops of sweat formed on his broad forehead. The bulletproof vest underneath his loose-fitting polo shirt felt twice as heavy as when he put it on earlier in the morning.
His BlackBerry chirped from his pocket, the noise breaking his concentration. Without slowing down, he pulled it out and glanced at the screen.
“Where are you?” the short e-mail asked.
It was from Carrie O’Connor, his partner. He and Carrie should have checked in at the Fairmont Nile City Hotel an hour ago. They were scheduled to meet with Sheikh Yusuf Ayman, one of the masterminds of the terrorist organization the Islamic Fighting Alliance, but the Sheikh had scrapped the meeting at a moment’s notice. Carrie was still surveilling the Fairmont, while Justin was returning from following two of the Sheikh’s associates to a previously unknown safe house.
I’ll be there soon. He pocketed the BlackBerry. A few more minutes.
He followed the two men until they entered the Desert Rose, a hip bar favored by the young and rich. Justin kept a close eye on the main door, throwing casual glances at their table by the window. At the same time, he searched the streets for the elusive second surveillance team.
Ten minutes later, after the two men had finished their first drinks, Justin concluded they were not secret police and he was not being watched by them or anyone else. Still, this was Cairo, and one could never be too careful. In a country ruled by the General Intelligence Service, known simply as mukhabarat, one wrong turn could be the last, even for professionals like him. Controlled paranoia had saved his life more than once in the most dangerous back alleys of North Africa.
Justin headed toward The Castle, a small coffee shop, where Carrie waited for him. The Castle was to the left of the Fairmont, with an unobstructed view of the hotel’s VIP entrance. Rahim, the owner of the joint, was on the CIS Cairo Station payroll. The coffee shop provided a casual yet safe place for CIS agents to run covert operations.
Before pushing open the carved wood door of The Castle, Justin stopped and glanced at the alley in front of the coffee shop. He noticed a white sedan, an old model Ford, parked halfway between the entrance to a three-story apartment complex across the alley and a grocery store. Justin squinted and noticed the silhouette of a small woman wearing a hijab crouched in the front passenger’s seat. A tall man was talking to the shopkeeper by the fruit and vegetable stand in front of the grocery store. Is that her husband? Her brother? Justin scanned the windows of the apartments but noticed nothing suspicious. He threw another sweeping look at the other side of the street and stepped inside the coffee shop.
A thin cloud of tobacco smoke billowed from a handful of patrons smoking their water pipes engulfed him. Justin sneaked in, skirting around the tables, avoiding eye contact with anyone. He stood waiting with his elbows planted on the granite counter until Rahim, who was filling a couple of glasses with dark beer, took notice of his presence.
“Where have you been?” Rahim asked in a low voice. “You’re late.”
“Making sure I wasn’t followed,” Justin replied. “Is somebody waiting for a cab?” He gestured with his thumb back toward the door.
“I don’t understand.”
“There’s an old Ford parked outside.”
“That would be Leilah,” Rahim said, his pot-like head bobbing with every word. “She’s waiting for her husband, Farouk.”
A few servings of kofta, minced lamb sprinkled with spices, sizzled on the grill behind Rahim.
“Did you send Nebibi for a closer look?” Justin asked.
A surveillance camera installed above the archway entrance to The Castle, hidden inside one of the lighting sconces, watched the building environs. It transmitted clear images to Rahim’s computer screen, which doubled as a cash register. With a few clicks, he could keep a constant eye on what happened on the street. Justin preferred to be on scene, the difference between being an observer and actually understanding an evolving situation.
Justin pointed to his left, toward the kitchen separated from the bar by a reddish curtain. “Have him check things out.”
Rahim nodded and disappeared inside the kitchen.
The CIS trusted Nebibi, the cook, like they trusted his uncle, Rahim. Justin, on the other hand, did not trust many people. He knew Rahim had great financial incentives to provide actionable intelligence to them, as the CIS paid him handsomely for his services. Justin worried about another buyer tempting Rahim. The man was willing to trade in nearly all secrets for the right price. The Egyptian was not bound by the same code of honor streaming through the veins of CIS agents. Justin realized the CIS had to rely on local sources to navigate the labyrinths of Cairo’s streets and Egypt’s foreign policies. Still, he kept his reliance on Rahim to the bare minimum.
“The driver was talking to some guy from the grocery store when I walked in,” Justin said.
“Yeah, the store owner. They’re good friends. Nebibi is going out the back. You hungry?”
“No, not really. Still two hours until supper.”
“Yes, for Egyptians.”
“I am half-Egyptian.”
“You’re half everything.” Rahim turned around to attend to his grill.
Justin grinned, rubbing his dimpled chin. His Mediterranean complexion—dark olive skin, raven wavy hair, big black eyes, and a large thick nose—inherited from his Italian mother—allowed him to blend in naturally among the countless nationalities living in the bustling city of eighteen million. Youthful stamina, a natural talent for languages, and an overdose of stubbornness had allowed him to master spoken Arabic like a native Egyptian.
“Can I bring you some mezze at least?” Rahim asked, referring to appetizers.
“Sure.” He seems a little too eager to please today. Something’s up.
Rahim turned around and poured coffee from a long-handled brewing pot into a porcelain cup. Justin savored the strong aroma of the thick, concentrated drink and clenched the cup in his left hand. He climbed the cement stairs, which took him to the second floor. A narrow hall led to two safe rooms, once part of Rahim’s family apartment. Now they were reserved for the private use of CIS operatives. Justin knocked twice on the white door of the first room.
“Come in,” a woman’s soft voice called from inside.
“Hi,” Justin greeted Carrie.
She sat cross-legged in a chair by one of the windows. A pair of powerful binoculars and two manila folders lay spread over a plastic table, next to a CIS-issued Browning 9mm and a tea mug. Poster-sized photographs of the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Sphinx covered the beige walls.
“Hey, you finally made it.” Carrie tossed her reading glasses over one of the open folders. She tilted her head back, stretching her neck muscles. Her auburn shoulder-length hair, which she usually kept in a semi-ponytail, flowed down her slender neck. “What took you so long?”
“Trying to shake what I thought was a tail. A couple of guys who turned out to be nobody.”
“Well, double-checking never hurt anyone.”
“Sorry I’m late.”
“Don’t worry about it. Still hot out there, eh?” She pointed at the soggy shirt stuck to his chest. A trickle of sweat had made its way down his neck.
“Hell on Earth. Ninety degrees in the shade.”
He placed his coffee cup on the table and stumbled onto an empty chair across from her. He took a deep breath, enjoying the cool breeze flowing down from the air conditioner mounted on the wall.
“Did you see a white Ford downstairs?” Justin asked.
“No. Nothing there when I came in.”
“Rahim hadn’t checked it out, but he’s sending Nebibi now.”
“OK, let’s hope it’s nothing.”
Justin dabbed his face with a Kleenex. “Where did Team One lose Sheikh Ayman?”
“We didn’t lose him. Johnson ordered us not to make contact, just track his movements, which we did. Sheikh Ayman arrived at Terminal 3 of Cairo International. Then he boarded a Sudan Airways flight bound for Khartoum.”
Claire Johnson was the CIS Director General of Intelligence for the North Africa Division and their boss. Johnson’s reputation within the CIS was that of a meticulously thorough individual. Terrified of committing a career-ending blunder, Johnson displayed a certain amount of sluggishness that crippled field agents. They joked that she was more efficient at witch hunting than terrorist hunting, as scapegoating often resulted from botched operations in her division.
Justin chewed on Carrie’s words. The Sheikh’s departure aboard a regular commercial flight meant he was not hiding from the Egyptian authorities.
“If mukhabarat is looking everywhere for the Sheikh and his brotherhood, how come he can sneak right under their noses?” Carrie asked, as if reading Justin’s mind.
“I was thinking that too. The short answer: he’s the Sheikh and this is Cairo. The Sheikh’s men are everywhere, even inside mukhabarat. They may be looking for him, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to find him. And according to the Egyptians, the Sheikh is only allegedly linked to the Alliance.”
“Allegedly? Allegedly? What more do they want? A written and signed confession saying I am the second-in-command of the Islamic Fighting Alliance?” Carrie clenched her fists.
Justin stood up. “It’s more complicated than that. The new government is fragile, unable to defeat the militants by force, at least at this time. Maybe after the elections.”
“Oh, that’s six months away.” Carrie sighed.
“That’s why we usually don’t accept support from the secret police. There’s too much to lose by sharing intel with the mukhabarat.”
Justin unfastened his holster and placed it on the table. Then, he unbuttoned his shirt and removed it, along with his bulletproof vest. He felt Carrie’s admiring eyes. He thought he saw her cringe as he turned around, knowing she could never get used to the sight of three deep scars, almost eight inches long, carved along his shoulder blades. They were reminders of the time he was captured in Libya after a hostage rescue operation that went wrong.
Justin fetched a short-sleeve shirt from a white cabinet by the door. The shirt smelled of bleach. Rahim had forgotten to ask his wife, who often did their laundry, not to use chlorine. Justin sighed as he noticed a slight bleeding of his favorite navy blue shirt.
“Did any of the Sheikh’s men come back to the Fairmont?” He returned to his seat and took a big gulp of coffee.
“Yes, one of his bodyguards. He retrieved the armored Mercedes from the valet parking. I have the address.” Carrie tapped one of the folders.
“The Sheikh’s abrupt, but not secret departure, is unusual. Why leave in such a hurry, and without giving a reason? What is so urgent? Is he afraid of something? In Egypt, he’s protected. There’s nothing to fear.”
“Well, maybe there is something to fear.”
“If so, it has to be something big. Something powerful for the Sheikh to abandon our long-planned meeting.”
The meeting with Sheikh Ayman had been in the works for over a month. In late March, intermediaries of the Alliance contacted the CIS Cairo Station, seeking a meeting with them. Initially, Johnson chose another team of agents to handle this case, suspecting the militant was a common defector. Once the identity of the senior leader requesting the meeting became known, Johnson insisted Justin organize all aspects of the operation. His presence became even more essential when they learned Sheikh Ayman held information about an assassination plot against a Western head of state.
“So, what do you think spooked him?” Carrie asked.
“I don’t know. Very few things would scare someone like Sheikh Ayman.”
“Will he reschedule our meeting?”
“I hope so.”
While the location and the time of their meeting were determined two weeks ago, they knew nothing about the specifics of the assassination or the intended target.
“I just don’t want it to take place in Sudan.”
“Hey, why not? It’s easier to bag him down there,” Carrie replied with a wide grin.
Kidnapping or eliminating the Sheikh had crossed his mind too, albeit as a fleeting thought. Lawless Sudan was the perfect place for such a hit. The zeal in Carrie’s voice did not surprise him either. According to her, the most efficient solution to a problem was often also the most extreme and the one she always favored.
“That’s not our mission,” Justin said.
Carrie shook her head in resignation.
Justin walked to one of the windows that overlooked the Fairmont VIP entrance and the Nile. Glowing lights from towering buildings shown from Giza across the river. A constant stream of cars, their headlights flickering through the heavy smog, rushed through the top level of the Imbaba Bridge that connected the two parts of Cairo. Justin hated the Imbaba Bridge. In fact, he hated all bridges. It was a bridge that shattered his life when he was only eleven years old.
Justin took the last sip of his coffee. He stepped closer to the other window, facing the apartment complex across the alley. On a second floor apartment, two lights were on. They were almost in a clear line of sight to their room. Justin squinted but could not see anything more than the silhouette of a man wandering around the living room. A television set was flickering in one of the corners. A knock on the door startled him, and Justin turned around.
“It’s me,” Rahim said, “I brought the mezze.”
“Come in,” Justin said.
Rahim walked in, holding a round tray with pita and garlic bread, pickled olives, slices of cucumbers, and a few bread dips. Carrie began to make room on the table for their supper when a bullet pierced the window glass and slammed into Rahim’s chest. The man tumbled to his knees. The small plates of food flew across the table.
“Get down, get down,” Justin shouted. Carrie had already hit the floor, her hand clenching her pistol.
A short burst of gunfire exploded, breaking the other window. Sharp slivers of glass rained over the agents’ shoulders.
“Two shooters!” Carrie shouted.
Justin nodded, reaching for his Browning pistol. He cocked it and held it tightly in front of his face.
“You can handle them?” Justin asked, as he stared at Rahim. A dip dish still swirled next to Rahim’s lifeless face.
“Yeah, I got them,” Carrie replied.
“Cover me. And watch your head.”
He crawled to the door and ran outside.
* * *
As soon as the gunfire paused for a brief second, Carrie took a quick peek over the shredded windowsill. A gun muzzle flash betrayed one of the shooters’ locations. She squeezed her trigger. She ducked as another hail of gunfire sailed past her head. The few long seconds dragged on. She lay low, her chest heaving with each quick breath. The gunfire stopped for a moment. She looked up just long enough to fire the rest of her magazine. Once she heard the dull clink of her empty gun, she slid in a fresh magazine. She leaned against the wall and listened. Chaotic screams and rushing footsteps came from the street, but no more gunshots.
Carrie looked out the window. Engines roared and tires screeched. Down in the street, Justin chased a white Ford, shooting even as he ran to keep up with the car. Despite his torrent of bullets that riddled the runaway target, the Ford rounded the corner and disappeared behind the grocery store. Justin, gun in hand, stood alone in the middle of the alley.
* * *
Carrie stepped cautiously around the dead body lying halfway through the entrance to the apartment complex. She noticed an AK-47 by the man’s hand and her eyes rested on the wound in his neck. Justin had fired kill shots. Most of their targets wore bulletproof vests, so he never aimed at their chest. After a couple of clashes last year with mercenaries in Niger River Delta swamps, they both gave up shooting at the enemy’s heads. Kevlar helmets were becoming increasingly resistant to small arms fire.
“There’s another dead body upstairs in the hall,” Justin said, drawing nearer to her.
Carrie nodded. “Is this the work of the Alliance?”
“If it is, it’s lousy at best.” Justin looked at the dead man.
“Did you get the men in the Ford?”
“Yes, I got the woman passenger on the shoulder.”
Carrie raised her hand and touched Justin’s bristly face. A reddish stain appeared on her fingers trailing over his chin.
“Slivers. My favorite shirt is ruined, though.” He ran his hand over his chest. “That’s Rahim’s blood.”
“If Rahim had checked the Ford, maybe this would have not happened.”
“If I would have checked it, this would not have happened.”
“It wasn’t your responsibility. It was his. You can’t do everyone’s job.”
“Maybe Rahim didn’t want to check the Ford.”
Carrie’s gray-blue eyes narrowed. “He wanted this to happen?”
“Well, not the part where he died.”
She glanced back at The Castle. Some of its patrons had run away. A few curious souls peered from behind the windows. She scanned the apartment complex’s windows and balconies. Residents’ narrowed eyes glared in their direction. An old woman screamed at them in Arabic. A dog howl cut through the hot, heavy air.
Justin was staring at the dead man.
“What is it?” Carrie asked.
“I wonder if this is why the Sheikh disappeared.”
“You mean, he lured us for a meeting and set up an ambush? That is, if Rahim gave us up.”
“Yes, and before the ambush, the Sheikh disappears.”
“Uh-uh, the Sheikh needs no alibi. It has to be something else.”
Justin nodded and checked the magazine on his pistol. Four bullets left.
“You’re right. But this was no coincidence either.”
“Whatever it is, we’ll find out.”
“You’re right about that too. Whoever it is, they made a grave mistake putting us in their crosshairs.”
* * *
“Tell me what you see.” The man passed his binoculars to the driver.
He took the Bushnell eyepiece and peered through it. The powerful magnification of the binoculars produced a sharp close-up image, even through the BMW’s windshield. They had a clear view of the entrance to The Castle coffee shop from the Nile City Fairmont parking lot.
“He’s standing outside the shop, talking to the woman,” the driver said.
The man shook his gray-haired head.
“No, you see two brave soldiers ready for a fight.”
The disappointment was clear in the man’s voice. After so many years in the Islamic Fighting Alliance, Maksut failed to see beyond what was in front of his eyes.
“They still have their weapons drawn?”
“They do,” Maksut replied.
“But for the driver, our men have become martyrs now.” The man’s voice held no regret. “Good thing they were our least talented shooters. Still, they served their purpose.”
“You don’t think we went too far?” Maksut raised the binoculars to his eyes. Justin and Carrie were now pacing in front of The Castle.
“No. We want to make this fight personal. Revenge is a powerful motivator. This way, they’ll be more eager. More dedicated. That’s exactly what we want.”
Faint police sirens sounded in the distance.
“I’ve seen enough. Let’s go,” the man ordered Maksut, while scanning to his right for any police cars. “It’s time to brief Sheikh Ayman and play our next card.”
May 13, 7:45 p.m. local time
George Patterson was struggling to establish a videoconference connection with the CIS headquarters in Ottawa. He kept pressing keyboard buttons and plugging and unplugging wires in the back of his laptop. Despite his efforts, no images appeared on the plasma screen of the Maple Leaf Conference Room.
George was the CIS Cairo Station Chief and Justin’s direct supervisor, at least in terms of administration. For operations work, Justin and Carrie still reported to Claire Johnson. They had been reinstated to their old jobs with the Cairo Station last year, after a CIS internal inquiry had cleared them of any misconduct during their hostage rescue operation in Libya. It happened right after the Arctic Wargame mission that almost claimed their lives.
Across the square black table from George, Justin mulled over the evening’s events. As soon as Carrie had finished retrieving all their documents and gear from The Castle, the mukhabarat had arrived at the scene. Of course they did not buy the agents’ implausible cover story, according to which two employees of the Canadian Cultural Agency in Egypt had survived a shootout with barely a scratch. Justin and Carrie claimed they found the guns in the coffee shop, where they were having dinner, and used them in self-defense. Their explanation was unlikely, but that was their cover story and they were going to stick to it. The mukhabarat confiscated their guns and interrogated them for a few minutes. Once Justin produced two Canadian diplomatic passports, the mukhabarat had little choice but to escort them to their residence.
The lush neighborhood of Garden City was the heart of the embassy district in Egypt. A few blocks north of Old Cairo, Garden City was perhaps the safest neighborhood in the capital. It was always crawling with Egyptian uniformed police, security contractors, secret agents, as well as Marines from the US Embassy, a stone’s throw from the CIS Cairo Station.
The station occupied seven offices in the east wing of the Canadian Embassy complex. It had its own entrance, parking lot, and security system. The station served the intelligence and operative needs of the entire North Africa region. It was run in a quasi-independent manner from the rest of the embassy—mainly for “plausible deniability” purposes—but still under the umbrella of diplomatic immunity.
“Here, I think I got something,” George said as a bright blue light flashed on the plasma screen.
“Great,” Carrie replied with a sigh. Sitting next to Justin, she was impatiently drumming her fingers on the edge of the desk, swinging in her swivel chair. “That was only what, ten minutes?”
George ignored her and clicked a few more buttons. Then he proudly pressed the Enter key. The image on the screen changed. The three of them gazed at Johnson’s long and narrow face, distorted because of how she hunched over her work station.
“Hello, Ms. Johnson, can you hear me?” George asked.
“Yes, yes, I can hear you. I’ve been waiting here for a while.”
“Hmm, we had some technical difficulties with the connection, but, we’re, eh… we’re good to go now.”
“All right. I see you have Justin and Carrie there. How are you two holding up?”
“We’re fine,” Justin said.
“Everything’s good,” Carrie added with a nod.
“OK, so tell me what happened exactly. Your e-mail was quite short.” Johnson spread her hands.
“We were at The Castle conducting surveillance when we were ambushed.” Justin leaned over his folded hands, elbows resting on the table.
“I know that much already,” Johnson said.
“Those are all the facts we have so far. I suspect the shooters were from the Alliance, since Cairo has always been their home.”
“The Alliance?” Johnson asked. “Why the ambush if their sheikh was meeting with us?” Her forehead furrowed as she pondered the answer.
“One possibility is that the ambush was the purpose of this so-called ‘meeting.’ To lure us into their trap,” Justin said. He glanced at Carrie and his eyes caught a slight jerk of her left hand. He nodded for her to speak her mind.
“One theory is that Rahim sold us out and helped stage the attack,” Carrie said.
“Really? What evidence do you have for that?” Johnson asked.
Carrie shrugged. “None, it’s a theory.”
“I noticed a suspicious car parked by The Castle and asked Rahim to check it out,” Justin added. “Two of the shooters escaped using the same car.”
Johnson absorbed the information. “So Rahim never checked the car?”
“He sent his nephew, presumably.”
Johnson did not ask why Justin wasn’t sure if Rahim’s nephew had searched the car. She concluded he had disappeared or died before Justin could talk to him. “Who is dead?”
“Rahim, his nephew, and two shooters. I also wounded one of the passengers as the car sped away. She should die soon, if she’s not already dead.”
Johnson’s eyes remained still despite the coldness in Justin’s voice. Even over the satellite connection, his chilling tone reminded her why Justin was the most effective agent in her division. He had no regrets over the dead. Once they had targeted him, everyone became fair game.
“I don’t get it,” Johnson said, “if Rahim, and maybe his nephew, sold us out, how come they’re both dead?”
“I didn’t kill them, if that’s what you’re asking.” Justin said. “They both got popped during the shootout. I can’t really tell whether if it was by error or on purpose.”
Johnson nodded and a few strands of her gray hair came loose. “I want you to find out these shooters’ identity and their motives,” she said softly, removing a pin from her hair and fixing her stubborn curls. “Then—”
A knock on her office door interrupted her.
“Yes, come in.” Johnson turned to her left.
A man’s voice could be heard, but he was outside the camera’s angle. His words were unintelligible. But Justin could read Johnson’s facial expression. It went from shock to awe and then to doubt in a matter of seconds. Before he could ask anything, she said, “Justin, I’ve got to check something urgent here. I’ll put you on hold for a few seconds, OK?”
“That’s fine,” Justin said. He had no other option.
“Yes, we’ll be here waiting,” George added, but Johnson tapped a key and the screen turned black.
“Did you see that?” Justin asked.
“No, what was it?” George said.
Carrie nodded at Justin’s question. “The news they just gave Johnson,” she explained for George. “From the look on her face, it can’t be good.”
“Well, now she’s gonna take forever to analyze it, so I’m out of here.” Justin stood up and pushed back his chair. “If it’s going to be a long night, I need some coffee.”
George raised his hands. “Wait, what if she comes back online while you’re gone?”
Justin shrugged. “You’re the boss. Tell her I had to go out for a minute. But, I’ll be back before she does.”
“Wait up,” Carrie said, “I’ll get some tea.”
George sighed. “OK, let’s all take a five minute break.”
* * *
“Hi, boss.” Justin pushed the door with his elbow, carrying a coffee cup in each hand. “She’s still not back?” His question pointed out the obvious, as the plasma screen showed no image.
George replied with a headshake.
“This is yours. Black.” Justin rested one of the cups next to George’s laptop before returning to his place.
“Oh, thanks.” George lifted the cup and took a large sip. The hot liquid streamed down his throat.
“Hey,” Carrie said as she entered in with a teacup in her hands. “How much longer you think?”
George opened his mouth to venture a guess, but the image of Johnson returned to the screen. Her face looked paler and her eyes had sunk deeper into their sockets. “Hello, can you hear me?”
“Yes, yes, we hear you,” George said.
“I’m afraid I have bad news. There has been a series of explosions, car bombs in Tripoli, Libya, about twenty minutes ago.”
“What?” Justin and Carrie asked almost at the same time. They exchanged confused glances.
“Yes. The information we’re receiving is still unconfirmed, but it seems four cars exploded close to major hotels in downtown Tripoli.”
“Casualty count?” asked Carrie.
“In the tens, I guess. We don’t have much intel yet, but we are trying to—”
Justin slammed his fist on the table. He startled not only Carrie and George, but also Johnson, who stopped talking. “That’s why the Sheikh left in such a hurry, to escape the Libyan mukhabarat.”
The Libyan mukhabarat was as notorious as its Egyptian counterpart for its hateful revenge that extended beyond national borders. The looming backlash of the Libyan military, police, and all government armed forces was more than a match for the Alliance and its leaders.
“Very good, Justin,” Johnson said with a nod. “It is exactly so, confirmed by the Sheikh himself. We just received word from him.”
George let out a gasp, while Justin shook his head. Carrie kept her poker face on, as she jotted down notes in her notebook.
“The Sheikh denied the Tripoli bombing was the work of the Islamic Fighting Alliance,” Johnson said.
“Really?” Justin asked, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Did he also deny his men ambushed us tonight?”
“No, he took full responsibility for that attack. However, the intended targets were, let me find it…” Johnson shuffled papers on her desk, looking for her reading glasses. After finding them, she began to read from one of the many documents covering her workspace. “Yes, the targets were ‘despicable collaborators of the infidels.’ I’m assuming that was Rahim and his nephew.”
“Very convenient,” Carrie said.
Johnson slid her glasses to the tip of her nose. “These words came through the Sheikh’s messenger. It doesn’t mean I believe them. In any case, the Sheikh still wants a meeting.”
“No freaking way,” George mumbled just loud enough for Justin and Carrie to hear him.
“This time he’s offering his guarantee of his personal honor to guarantee the safety of his guests,” Johnson continued.
“When and where?” Justin’s eyes flared up.
“He insists the information about the assassination plot is time-sensitive, and he would like to meet tomorrow morning, in Sudan.”
Justin frowned. “Sudan?”
“I’m assuming it’s because of Tripoli,” Johnson replied.
Justin bit his lip. Sheikh Ayman was luring them into the deadly no man’s land. Sudan’s deserts had been the breeding ground of rebellion, civil wars, kidnappings, human trafficking, and all kind of smuggling for decades. Refusing the Sheikh’s invitation, especially after the ambush, would make the CIS appear weak. Justin had spent time building his own reputation, and that of the CIS, as brave and fearless. They were not going to start backing down now. He had been to Sudan three times. And had come back alive.
He looked to his left at a tense Carrie. Her hand was pulling on the handle of her teacup as if it were a gun trigger. Let’s do it, her blazing eyes told him.
“Do you have the meeting coordinates?” Justin asked.
“Yes. I’ll get them to you.”
“Excuse my interruption,” George said. His voice came out dry and staccato. He coughed, then resumed his thought, “but sending a team to Sudan is the same as suicide.”
A wrinkle the size of the Grand Canyon appeared on Johnson’s forehead. She lifted her glasses and peered at George.
“George, let me tell you something.” Johnson’s frown melted and her voice turned soft, taking on a motherly tone. “Cairo is deadly. Sudan is deadly. All of North Africa is a death trap. The world is a dangerous place, George, especially for secret agents.” Johnson sighed. Her left hand jerked in a dismissive gesture. “I appreciate your concern, though.” Her voice returned to her normal tone. “Your objection to this mission is duly noted. And overruled.” Johnson’s past as a judge often returned in the form of legal jargon, whenever she whipped her subordinates like she used to lash at contemptuous counselors in her courtroom.
“Justin and Carrie,” she continued, “our contacts in the Egyptian Air Force should be able to provide you a safe passage across the border and a safe insertion into Sudan. I’ll get in touch with them.”
“The Sheikh’s letter indicates the drop-off area is about sixty miles south of the Egyptian border. We need to find a neutral intermediary escort to take you to the meeting place.”
Justin pondered the possibilities. The escort would have to be a local warlord with a great authority in the area. But his authority could not be too strong, or the Sheikh might consider it a threat to his own safety.
Justin nodded. “I know a few people, gunrunners in the area. The name of Ali Abd Alraheem comes to mind. If he’s still alive.”
“I don’t recall him.” Johnson rubbed her temples.
“I last worked with him three years ago.”
“OK, see if he can serve as the go-between and let me know. The Sheikh expects an answer in the next hour.”
“He will get one.”
“How do we know we can trust this man, Ali?” George asked.
“We don’t know and we can’t trust. Unless a man has taken a bullet for you, never put your trust in them. You’ll be disappointed and you could end up dead. I have worked with Ali in a couple of operations, but we still go down there eyes wide open.” A stern frown covered his face.
“What is it?” Johnson asked.
“The change of plans and this detour.”
“Last thing I’m asking you, then you’re off to your sailboat,” Johnson said, faking a smile.
“Yeah, my deposit is nonrefundable,” Justin replied with a smirk.
He couldn’t care less about the three-thousand dollar deposit for the forty-two-foot cutter. Justin was worried about disappointing Anna, his fiancée, whom he had promised a ten-day sail in the Caribbean on the eve of her thirtieth birthday. It was an occasion Justin was determined not to miss for any reason. Anna used to work for CIS Legal Services in Ottawa, and their bond was forged during the fateful Arctic Wargame operation. To avoid any conflicts of interest, Anna had moved on to become an in-house counsel for the Canadian Division of Vigorsoul Pharmaceuticals. Two weeks away from her desk almost never happened.
“If you’re quick, you can wrap this up by tomorrow at noon,” Johnson said.
“I’m planning to,” Justin said.
“When’s your flight out of Cairo?”
“Yeah, you can make it.”
Justin nodded. “Anything else?”
“No, I don’t think so. Let me know when you’ve heard from Ali, or if not from him, your other contacts on the ground.”
“By all means,” Justin replied.
Johnson turned off the satellite feed and the screen went black.
George signed them out of the connection with a big sigh. “What was that? You have a death wish?”
“Relax, George,” Carrie said. “Nobody’s going to die. Well, at least, we’re not.”
“You’re crazy, going all alone into the lion’s den.”
“Listen, the Sheikh could have killed us today, if that’s what he wanted,” Justin said calmly, “but I don’t think we’ll be of much use to him dead. He wants to talk. We want to listen.”
“We’ll fly down there and learn about this assassination plot,” Carrie added.
George threw his arms up in the air. “Do as you wish,” he said. Then he added with a sigh, “The two of you always do.”
Justin stood up. “Thanks, boss. We’ll bring back the intel. Now I’ve got to get in touch with Ali and finish making preps. Carrie, we’ll leave ASAP.”
“I’m ready,” she said and gulped down the rest of her tea. She placed down the cup on the table. “I’m ready.”