Arctic Wargame Exclusive Excerpt

Enjoy an exclusive excerpt (the prologue and the first two chapters) from Arctic Wargame, the first book in the Justin Hall series, which came out in May 2012. You can purchase Arctic Wargame here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0084FH6M8 Thanks, Ethan

PROLOGUE

Ghadames, Libya

Six months ago

October 10, 3:00 a.m.

The sand dunes sank into darkness as a curtain of clouds dimmed the glow of the crescent moon. Justin limped closer to the small barred window of his prison cell. His bruised chest pressed against the rough surface of the bloodstained wall. He squinted and tried to stand on his toes for a better look. The rusty shackles clawed against the scarred skin of his ankles, and the heavy chain rattled on the cement floor.

“Quiet. Be quiet, you bastard infidel,” a guard growled in Arabic from down the shadowy prison hallway.

Justin stood still and drew in a deep breath, the cold night air of the Sahara desert filling his heaving lungs. Everything went silent again. No rapid steps rushing to his cell. No swearing bellowed by other inmates. He lifted his head, wrapped his free hands around the iron bars, and clenched his teeth, ignoring the jolts of pain from his fingers. With his eyes about an inch over the windowsill, Justin scoped the landscape, searching for the long-awaited rescue team.

Abdul, his connection within Libya’s Internal Security Agency who lay in the cell next door, had confirmed their escape was to take place early that morning. Their previous attempt the night before had failed, despite the inside help of one of the terrorists. Justin hoped this time their plan would be executed with no glitches.

At first, he noticed nothing except the rugged outlines of the steep dunes and the whitewashed walls of the sleepy town. Straining his eyes, he peered again. A small shadow slithered toward the prison wall. Justin blinked to clear his vision and stared at the approaching figure.

Bent at the waist, the shadow advanced at a rapid pace. It quickly disappeared from his sight, and he wondered whether the man had encountered a guard.

Justin’s heart pounded. He placed his ear to the wall and sensed a low grating noise. Someone, the shadow he hoped, was scaling the wall.

The window was at least twelve feet above the ground. He wondered how long it would take the shadow to reach it. A long minute dragged by and Justin was still alone. He breathed faster and faster and urged the man on the freedom side of the wall to make good time.

Finally, a hushed voice whispered in Arabic, “Abdul, Abdul, it’s me, Bashir. You there?”

“I’m Justin,” he replied softly.

“You’re the Canadian agent. Where’s Abdul?”

“In the other cell, around the corner, but that one has no window.”

“When did they move him?”

“A few hours ago, after they gave him a good beating.”

“Can he walk?”

“I think so.”

Bashir went silent for a moment. Justin looked up, but could not see the man’s face through the window. He asked slowly, “Bashir?”

“Shhhh.”

A few seconds later, he heard a scraping sound. Bashir was offering him a large metal key through the window bars. “That’s for the shackles,” Bashir said under his breath, “and this is for the guard.” He produced a black dagger.

Justin grabbed the handle and weighed the weapon in his weak hand. A ray of moonlight glinted off the ten-inch blade.

“Can you do this?” Bashir whispered.

“Yes.”

“You have only one chance. I’ll wait for you and Abdul in two black Nissans by the main gate. Then we’ll drive across the border to Tunisia.”

Justin frowned. “What about the hostages? The two Canadian doctors?”

“The Algerians moved them from their safe house to another location, out of the prison but still in town. My men are on their way there.”

“And Carrie?”

“Yes, your partner is with them.”

Justin breathed a sigh of relief. “OK. I’ll make sure Abdul and I meet you by the gate.”

“You’ll have to be quiet. About twenty men are guarding the prison, and we can’t defeat them all.”

“OK.”

“Abdul knows the way, but if you can’t free him, walk down the stairs and go left. The hall will take you to a small courtyard on the ground floor. There will be a guard or two by the gate. You need to cross into the house next door.”

“Downstairs, then left, then to the house,” Justin said, finding it a bit difficult to concentrate on Bashir’s words.

“Yes. Get to the roof of the house and drop down along the side facing the mosque. Follow the road leading to the main gate. Is it clear?”

“Yes, it is.”

Bashir’s clothes rubbed against the wall, and then silence returned to Justin’s cell. He stared at the key and the dagger in his right hand. Stepping back from the window, he was careful not to jerk the chain and alert the guard beyond the solid metal door. The key fit into the shackles’ padlock. He coughed loudly as he turned the key to cover the dull clunk of the lock snapping open. Now almost free, he removed the metal loops from around his ankles.

First imprisoned in Tripoli after their hostage rescue operation went wrong, Justin and Abdul were subjected to torture by the Algerian hostage takers for two days. After Justin and Abdul attempted an escape and killed a guard in the process, the Algerians––with the help of the Libyan secret police––moved them to Ghadames, an isolated and less risky place in their minds.

Justin wasted no time. He took a deep breath, gripped the dagger tightly, and called out to the guard, “Hey, open the door.”

“Shut up,” the guard roared back.

“I need to talk to you.”

“No. Just shut up.”

Justin banged twice on the heavy door.

The guard’s voice grew louder as he drew nearer to the door. “What’s the matter with you? You want me to break your leg?”

Justin slammed his fist against the door.

“That’s it. You asked for it,” the guard shouted.

Keys clattered as the guard struggled to find the right one to unlock the door. Justin stepped to the side and lifted his dagger high, waiting for the right moment. His hand shook. The weapon felt heavy, straining his muscles.

“I’m going to beat some sense into you now,” the guard barked.

As the guard shoved open the door, Justin thrust his hand toward the man’s throat. The blade slashed deep under the man’s thick chin, severing his windpipe. The guard dropped dead into his stretched arms, blood sputtering from the man’s mangled neck.

Justin used the guard’s black robe and turban to wipe the blood stains from his face and his arms. He stripped the man of his keys, his side arm—an old Beretta 92 pistol—his AK-47 assault rifle and two magazines. Justin dragged the body to a corner of his cell and locked the door behind him.

He tiptoed to Abdul’s cell. On the second try, he found the right key. As he opened the door, the powerful stench of sweat and urine almost twisted his stomach inside out. Abdul was lying against a wall, asleep.

“Abdul, Abdul, wake up.” Justin rustled him.

“Huh? What?” Abdul mumbled with a big yawn.

“Time to go, man.”

“Justin, how did you…” Abdul sat up slowly and stared into Justin’s eyes.

“Bashir gave me a key and a knife.”

“Bashir? When did he come?”

“Tell you later. Let’s go. Can you walk?”

“Yes, yes, I can.”

Justin unchained Abdul’s bruised legs and helped him to his feet. Abdul leaned against the wall before taking a few unsteady steps.

“I’m good. I can do this,” Abdul said.

“OK, follow me.”

“First, give me that.” Abdul pointed at the assault rifle.

“Bashir said we need to break out in silence. Too many fighters for us to kill them all.”

Abdul held the AK-47 in his hands with difficulty and fumbled with the safety switch. Finally, he switched it to full automatic. “Just in case,” he mumbled.

“Let’s go.”

Justin threw a glance down the hall and signaled for Abdul to follow him. They moved quickly to the end of the narrow hallway, their bare feet tapping lightly on the concrete floor, grains of sand gritting their toes.

“We go to the first floor, then left,” Justin said as they came to a spiral staircase.

“Then what?”

“Left through the hall until we reach the courtyard. We have to go through the door taking us to the house next to the prison. Bashir will wait for us at the main gate.”

“What? That’s Bashir’s plan? There’s always a group of guards in the back.”

“He said there should be only one, two at the most, and we have to get rid of them quietly.”

“That’s impossible. They’ll see us as we go outside and kill us.”

“Maybe they’re dozing off.”

“If not, we shoot first.”

“No. We’ll have the rest of the Algerians coming after us.”

Justin winced as his left foot landed on the coarse surface of the first stair. He took two more steps and turned his head. Abdul nodded and followed behind him. Holding the dagger ready in his hand, Justin continued down the stairs. He reached the bottom. The hall forked right and left. A light flickered from the right. Justin stepped back, gesturing for Abdul to stop.

“What’s that way?” Justin asked in a hushed tone, pointing toward the light.

“A kitchen and a dining area. And someone’s awake.”“Don’t worry about it. We’re slipping out the other way.”

Justin glimpsed again toward the dim light, then to the opposite side and began creeping down the hall. He saw a door about twenty steps ahead and figured it was the one opening into the courtyard. Pressing on, he quickened his pace. Abdul’s feet shuffled loudly behind him.

“Quiet, quiet, Abdul,” he said.

“That’s not me.”

Justin turned his head and looked over Abdul’s shoulders. He stared right into the eyes of a man standing five or six steps behind Abdul and pointing a pistol at them. The gunman was of a small, thin stature, clad in a white robe and a black headdress.

“Stop or I’ll blow your head off,” he said in Arabic.

The gunman’s voice crackled abruptly. Its unexpected high pitch startled Justin. The pistol shook in the young man’s hands.

“He’s just a kid,” Justin whispered to Abdul, who was preparing to turn his rifle toward the gunman.

“I will shoot you,” the young man squeaked, this time louder. “You, turn around with your hands in the air,” he ordered Abdul.

Abdul swung on his heels, firing a quick burst.

“No,” Justin shouted.

Bullets went through the gunman. Two large purple stains appeared on his chest as he collapsed over a chair.

“No, no, no,” Justin cried. “He was a kid, just a kid.”

“Who was going to blow our heads off,” Abdul replied.

“We could have talked to him.”

Abdul shook his head. “No time for talk. Now run.”

Before Justin could say anything, someone kicked open the door behind him.

“Down,” Abdul shouted and pointed his AK-47 toward the door.

Justin fell to the floor, while Abdul kept his finger on the assault rifle’s trigger. Bullets pierced the bodies of two guards who entered the hall. Loud cries and barking orders came from two stories above. Rapid thuds of heavy boots echoed throughout the prison. Justin pulled out the Beretta from a pocket of his tattered khakis. As soon as two men running downstairs entered his sights, he planted a couple of bullets in each man’s neck.

“Go, go, go. Move, move!” he yelled at Abdul.

Abdul checked the door and fired a short burst into the courtyard. A few shrieks confirmed he hit his mark, and he dove outside. More gunfire followed. The reports of assault rifles echoed in the night. Heavy machine guns hammering in the distance pounded the urgency of their escape into the Canadian agent. After trading his Beretta for a high-powered AK-47 next to the body of a dead guard, Justin joined Abdul in the courtyard.

“This way, quick,” Abdul called.

Justin followed the Libyan beyond the arched gate, now wide open. The bodies of three men lay sprawled across the sandy path. As Justin dashed inside the house, a few bullets whizzed past his head, boring deep holes in the mud brick walls.

“Faster, faster, come on,” Abdul shouted.

Justin noticed Abdul was panting and stopped for a closer look.

“What’s wrong?” Abdul asked.

“Did they get you?”

“No. Don’t stop.”

The corridors of the house were pitch-black, but the moonlight trickling through barred windows guided their steps. They slid around a few stone benches set along the walls. Justin kept looking around for a way to climb to the roof, like Bashir had advised, but Abdul kept pushing them deeper into the maze of narrow halls snaking in all directions.

“We need to get to the roof,” Justin said.

“No, they’ll make us out. Up there we have no cover.”

“So how are we getting to the main gate?”

“I know a shortcut.”

Abdul went through a couple of doors straight ahead then turned left. The maze of covered streets in Ghadames stretched for miles. The town, at the edge of the Sahara Desert and just seven miles from the border with Algeria and Tunisia, was built over the ground but with a roof on top, to keep out destructive sandstorms and sweltering heat waves. Skylight openings and arched windows drew in the faint glow of the moon.

Whiz, whiz.

Two bullets struck the wall only inches away from Justin’s head. Their airwaves swept over his face and dust flew out of the ricochet holes.

“Stay away from the windows,” Justin shouted at Abdul.

“OK. We’re almost there.”

Abdul slowed down after a dozen steps and waited for Justin to catch up to him. Standing by a small doorway, he pointed outside. “You can see the town’s gate, right over there.”

Justin followed Abdul’s hand. The tall archway stood about two hundred yards away.

“We’re not gonna make it.” Justin pointed at a white Toyota truck parked about ninety feet to their left. Four men wielding assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades were positioned behind the car, barricading the fugitives’ only escape route.

“Cover me.” Abdul slammed a fresh magazine into his rifle.

Justin pointed his weapon toward the truck and sprayed a barrage of bullets. One man plopped to the ground. Another started twitching and pulling at his left leg. The last two crawled to the rear without returning fire.

Abdul bolted toward the Toyota, as fast as he could push his weak frame. Justin ran after and kept firing until he heard the hollow click of the gun’s hammer striking the empty chamber. He ducked for cover behind a small wall to his left then inserted a full magazine into his weapon. Gunfire erupted from the barricade. Bullets scraped the wall and the ground around him. Moments later, there was a brief moment of relative calm, and Justin took a quick peek.

“They’re all dead.” Abdul climbed inside the Toyota.

Justin ran toward him, glancing only once at the row of houses behind them. “You’re wounded.” He pointed at Abdul’s right side.

A bullet had pierced Abdul’s body a couple of inches underneath his ribcage.

“Flesh wound. Nothing serious,” Abdul replied. “Get in.”

Justin jumped into the passenger’s seat. Abdul stepped on the gas pedal. He raised a storm of dust as the Toyota bounced over bumps and ruts, swerving toward the main gate. A second later, a torrent of bullets thudded against the truck’s tailgate and the cabin’s doors. A group of men were firing at their truck from the houses’ rooftops. Justin shot back. One of the men fell over the wall. The rest withdrew beyond his sight.

“There’s a car behind us,” Abdul said.

Out of the corner of his eye, Justin took in a Jeep gaining on them. “I’m empty.”

“So am I.”

Justin looked at the back seats, but there were no weapons or ammunition. His eyes moved to the end of the truck, where he saw a RPG launcher and a wooden box loaded with grenades.

“Got it,” he said.

He crawled to the back seat and squeezed through the small window, landing against the rails. He snatched a grenade from the box and checked the RPG launcher before attaching the grenade to the front of the weapon. He shouldered it with a swing, struggling for balance on one knee, and then he pulled the trigger, just as the Toyota veered to the left.

The projectile screamed out of the weapon. A plume of gray smoke billowing from the weapon’s blast cone engulfed the truck. Justin coughed and heaved. As the smoke cleared, he saw the grenade exploding into the dome of the town’s mosques, tearing it to shreds. The six-story-high minaret went tumbling to the ground like a sandcastle swept by a strong wave.

“The Jeep,” Abdul shouted. “That’s the target.”

“Thank you. What was I thinking?”

The Jeep was now about eighty yards behind them. Before Justin could reach for another grenade, sparks flared up from the bullets thumping against the truck. Rifle muzzles flashed from two assailants firing from both sides of the Jeep. A bullet ricocheted off the wooden box and grazed his left leg.

With a loud shout, Justin screwed another warhead to the launcher. He readied the RPG for the next round of fire. Abdul steered the truck around a corner, the last one inside the town. They raced through a narrow tunnel, the main gate of Ghadames. Two black Nissans were parked about one hundred yards outside the town walls. Three silhouettes stood by the vehicles. One of them, slimmer than the others, sported a long ponytail.

“Bashir’s cars,” Abdul said.

“So those should be the freed hostages.”

Abdul peered for a long second before answering, “Yes, they are.”

“And I see Carrie too,” Justin said, his joy clear in his voice after seeing his partner was safe. “Now stop the car.”

“Why?”

“So I can aim the RPG.”

Abdul stopped. Justin aimed at the mouth of the tunnel and pressed the launcher firmly against his right shoulder. As soon as the Jeep appeared halfway through the gate, he fired the RPG. The grenade barreled toward the target with a swishing screech. The warhead slammed into the Jeep. Swallowed up in flames, the vehicle burst into a massive, fiery explosion. The entire tunnel caved in over the burning hulk.

“We’re home free now.” Justin dropped the launcher by his feet and collapsed against the cabin.

“Yes, brother, we are,” Abdul said.

He waited until Justin was back in his passenger’s seat before saying, “My boss won’t be pleased with you blowing up the mosque and destroying the gate.”

“He might change his mind once he learns the terrorists are crushed and the hostages are free.”

The truck growled while its tires spun over loose sand. Abdul eased off the gas pedal, allowing the tires to regain traction. They covered the short distance to Bashir’s cars, and Justin jumped out of the truck, right into Carrie’s arms.

“Are you OK?” she asked.

“Yes. So happy to see you.” Justin enjoyed the safety and the comfort of her embrace. “And you guys.” He nodded at the two doctors.

The former hostages’ faces were pale, but they gave Justin bright smiles.

“Sorry it took the cavalry some time to get here,” Carrie said.

“It’s all good. Let’s go.” Justin headed toward one of the Nissans.

 

CHAPTER ONE

Canadian Intelligence Service Headquarters, Ottawa, Canada

April 10, 7:50 a.m.

Present day

“Good morning, Justin.” Carrie smiled as she entered his sparsely furnished office, bearing a tray holding coffee cups and a brown paper bag. A foot-high pile of bank transaction printouts took up half the space on his desk, with very little room for Justin’s laptop. He was sitting behind it. Carrie took one of the seats.

“Hi, Carrie. How are you?” He took one of the coffee cups from the tray. “Thanks for this,” he said before taking a small sip. “What do you have in there?” He pointed at a brown paper bag she placed precariously over the bank records.

“Breakfast. I bet you haven’t eaten anything yet.”

“No time. Couldn’t wait to come to the office and pore over these financial statements. As a child, this is what I always dreamed of doing. Bookkeeping.”

He rubbed his dimpled chin, then ran his fingers through his hair. Justin had a Mediterranean complexion—dark olive skin, raven wavy hair, big black eyes and a large thick nose—inherited from his Italian mother.

“Have a blueberry muffin. It will cheer you up. Fresh baked.”

“Thanks.”

Justin chewed on a small piece. “Hmmm, these are really good,” he said when finished. “But not as good as the ones you used to make for us.”

Carrie said nothing for a couple of seconds, then shook her head. Her auburn shoulder-length hair, which she usually kept in a semi ponytail, flowed down her slender neck. “Yes, I used to make,” she said quietly after a deep sigh, “but not anymore. Have you heard from the army?” she asked, eager to change the conversation.

“Yes, I did.” Justin’s voice rang with a tinge of despair. “They rejected my application. They consider me, how did they put it, oh, a ‘liability,’ regardless of my flawless service until the Libyan episode.”

“I know what you mean. It took me a long time and a great amount of luck to get in. I’ve heard mil intel selection is even harder than regular army entrance.”

Before joining the Canadian Intelligence Service, Carrie had served in two tours of duty in Afghanistan with the Joint Task Force Two, the elite counter-terrorism unit of the Special Operations Forces. Justin had always been in the CIS, operating mainly in Northern Africa. After returning from Libya, both Justin and Carrie were suspended from field missions until the completion of an internal inquiry on the deadly prison escape. The inquiry was still pending. For the meantime, they were assigned routine desk duties.

“You know,” Justin said, “I got a paper cut yesterday, and I was glad it happened. It’s good to know I still have some blood left in me and that this office hasn’t sucked it all out.”

Carrie smiled. “I think I’m going blind reading figures and names and more names and figures every single freaking day. Some first-year analyst should do this, not intelligence officers like us.”

Justin sighed. Then a smile spread across his face. “Perhaps we’ll get our wish. Did you see Johnson’s last e-mail?”

“The one from last night?”

“No. She sent another one this morning.”

“I haven’t been to my office yet.” She took a sip from her coffee.

“The CSE has recorded another sighting of icebreakers, this time off the coast of Cape Combermere, southeast of Ellesmere Island.”

“Could they determine who they belong to?”

Justin shook his head. “No, they couldn’t.”

“So, what does Johnson want us to do?”

“She didn’t give any specifics, but she called a briefing for this morning.”

“I see. What did you tell her?”

“I suggested a recon op and pretty much volunteered for it.”

Carrie put her coffee cup on his desk. “What? This is the Arctic, in the middle of winter.”

“Well, office boredom is killing me. I’ve got to get out there in the field.” Justin pointed at his office door.

“More like the ice field.”

“It’s not like I have a lot of options. The Libyans didn’t take the destruction of their mosque and half of their world heritage town by an ‘infidel’ lightly. Abdul and I were running for our lives, after being tortured by their operatives working with the Algerian terrorists.” Justin’s voice rose up. “After coming back, it was either this crappy job or administrative leave. Now an opportunity shows up and since no one is going to hand it over to me, I’m going to seize it.”

“You don’t have to explain it to me; we’re in the same boat. I didn’t destroy much of the town, like you did, but I heard I made room for twenty new recruits at the Algerian terrorist camps. Still, you want to go to the Arctic?”

“If Johnson decides to dispatch a team up there, which I’m sure she will, I’d like to go. After all, how else can we confirm the icebreakers’ identity?”

“You’re right. If only those damn satellites would work.” Carrie took a bite of her muffin and washed it down with a gulp from her coffee. “So, it’s safe to assume I’ll need to pack my bags.”

“I didn’t volunteer you.”

“Johnson won’t let you go on your own. That’s if she even decides to assign you to such a task force.”

Justin held her gray-blue eyes. He nodded. “You’re right about that. She’s bringing in a couple of other people to this briefing. Some bigwig from DND and a lawyer from our legal services.”

“You know them?”

“No, and I don’t understand why they’re here.”

“I’m sure Johnson will give us her excuse for calling them in.”

“Yes, she will.”

Justin glanced at his wristwatch. “Shall we head up?”

Carrie finished her muffin and her coffee and stood up. “Sure. Let’s not make her wait.”

* * *

The office of Claire Johnson, Director General of Intelligence for North Africa, was at the northeast corner of the sixth floor. Justin walked in fast, short steps, listening to the rhythmic thud of his shoes over the hardwood floor. He stopped once in the hall. The corner of his left eye caught a glimpse of a huge painting on the wall, depicting an impressive Arctic landscape and three determined explorers. Their weary faces were very much alive as they stoically pressed ahead with dogsleds toward the white horizon peppered with snow-capped ridges. The ice packs, the snow banks, and the heavy blizzard appeared quite real. Justin shook his head in awe before resuming his swift pace. He turned the corner and saw Carrie pacing in front of Johnson’s office door.

“Justin, what took you so long?”

“The painting. And it was only a minute.”

“Everyone’s here.”

“If they are, they’re early. We’re on time.”

Justin knocked.

“Come in,” called Johnson.

Johnson’s office was neatly arranged, with an L-shaped desk and matching bookcases. Two women sat around an oval glass table that took almost half of the office space.

Johnson nodded at Justin and Carrie while still swiveling in her black leather chair and tapping the keyboard of her desktop computer. She stood up. “Welcome, welcome. Let me introduce you to Colonel Alisha Gunn, with the NDHQ. She’s the chief of the Defence Intelligence Section.” Johnson gestured toward the older woman.

The National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa was the heart of Canada’s military defense machine, where every nut and bolt of all operational forces joined together. The colonel was in a perfect position to feel the pulse of the armed forces. She had access to every piece of information streaming into the Department of National Defence databases.

She was in her late forties, with her gray, curly hair sticking out unevenly. Almost a head shorter than Carrie, she stood at about five feet, dressed in a gray pinstripe suit. The colonel had a strong handshake. She gave Justin a nod while her small brown eyes sparked with a tiny, almost invisible, glint of mischief.

Justin said, “My pleasure.”

“Nice to meet you, Agent Hall.” Her voice was coarse and throaty, as if she had just recovered from a serious case of sinus infection.

“Please call me Justin.”

She nodded. “That’s great, Justin, and you can address me as Alisha,” she said with a sincere smile before moving on to exchange pleasantries with Carrie.

“And this is Anna Worthley. She’s an Operational Liaison with our Legal Services,” said Johnson.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Agent Hall, especially after hearing so much about you,” the young woman said.

Justin fought the initial impulse to frown as the counsel’s delicate fingers touched his large, rugged hand. Anna was in her late twenties, with short raven hair that sported an odd red highlight. She wore a black woolen sweater and black dress pants.

Justin disliked all lawyers working for the CIS’s most controversial department. They complicated his life and his operations with lengthy and dimwitted arguments, motions, and inquiries. Security and intelligence meant little to these kinds of people. They were more concerned about the legal aspects of the agency’s operations than their actual impact on the safety of all Canadians. But the innocence of the Anna’s blue eyes—peering timidly at him from behind rimless glasses—and her soft voice—slightly insecure and with a certain amount of agitation—disarmed Justin’s defenses and melted away all his objections.

“I’m very happy to meet you, Ms. Worthley,” he said.

“Simply Anna.” Her blue eyes glowed.

“OK, Anna.” Justin nodded. “Call me Justin.”

Johnson gestured for them to sit down at the glass table.

“The colonel brought over the latest CSE report,” she began, handing out four copies of a briefing note to Justin. He took one and passed the others to Carrie. “It details the movements of the two icebreakers, but we’re still uncertain about their identity.”

Justin skimmed through the pages. The Communications Security Establishment served as the national cryptologic agency. It analyzed foreign intelligence signals and provided technical and operational assistance to the CIS. The briefing note was signed by Jacob Stryker, the Associate Director of Signals Intelligence. Stryker had a reputation as very meticulous when accomplishing his tasks. If Stryker had highlighted on the last page that “there is inconclusive evidence to determine the port of origin, the destination, or the identity of the icebreakers,” one could rest assured he had not overlooked any seemingly unimportant detail.

“There’s strong reason to believe,” said Alisha, “the two vessels infringing on our sovereignty are part of the Russian Navy.”

Justin held her gaze while folding his arms across his chest. “What makes you believe the Russians have sent these warships?”

“Wait a second.” Johnson held up her hand. “Two assumptions right off the bat. First, Russians, second, warships. The CSE report confirms only that two icebreakers navigated through a steady course in international waters, then crossed over into our territorial waters by Ellesmere Island. Nothing more. Let’s be careful with our assumptions, shall we?”

Alisha nodded her understanding. “The Russian generals are constantly declaring their support for the Arctic militarization. Their Murmansk Air Base is buzzing with jet fighters and nuclear subs are always lurking underneath the North Pole. Remember when they planted their flag on the seabed, proclaiming the Pole as a part of Russia? They’ve tried to cross into our airspace in the past many times. All tracks point to the Russian bear, if I were to make an educated guess.”

Justin glanced at Johnson. “I don’t want to come across as dismissive of the colonel’s assertions.” He chose his words very carefully. “But the Russians are just one of the major players in the Arctic. If Stryker’s report offers no decisive answers, our opinions, although based on previous experiences, amount to little more than speculation.”

“You don’t think the Russian Navy is involved?” Alisha asked Justin. Her left eyebrow arched up slightly, and her lips puckered.

Justin realized his words, regardless of how soft he intended them to be, had still bruised the colonel’s strong ego. “They’re a top candidate,” he conceded, spreading his palms over the table. “But until we determine the ships’ identity beyond any reasonable doubt, it’s not wise to jump to conclusions.”

Alisha leaned back in her chair. “Right. We agree that further investigation is necessary. And, like other investigations, it pays to line up the usual suspects.”

Carrie was sitting at the edge of her seat, glancing at the CSE report. She pointed to a paragraph above a large topographical map of the eastern Canadian Arctic, which took up half of the third page. “The US air base in Thule, Greenland is just across the Baffin Bay,” she said, exchanging a glance with Johnson. “A little more than 124 miles from Ellesmere’s coast.”

Anna stopped taking notes on her yellow pad. “You mean these ships could be American?”

Carrie shrugged. “Why not? The Americans have never accepted our sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, and they still cruise it without our permission. They always anchor an icebreaker or two in Thule, and their claims over the Arctic are as aggressive as those of the Russians.”

Johnson nodded. “I will seek clarifications from the US liaison officer in Thule.” She scribbled in her notebook. “But, of course, the honesty of their reply will depend on the icebreakers’ flag. I’m afraid if it’s Stars and Stripes, we’re out of luck.”

Justin stared at the Arctic map. A red dotted line indicated the suspected route of the two unidentified icebreakers. It was in the southeast part of Ellesmere Island. At the bottom of the page, he noticed the cape’s coordinates: North Latitude: 76° 59’ 00”; West Longitude: 78° 15’ 00”. How far is that from the North Pole? A thousand miles? Seven, eight hundred?

Johnson rapped her blue pen on the table. “What are you thinking, Justin?”

Her voice brought him back from his calculations. “I was… I was just reading the map. I know we have few facts, since radio communications were inaudible and the RADARSAT-2 was experiencing problems—”

Johnson interrupted him, “Yes, I’ve already given hell to the DND, no offense to you, Colonel.” She shifted in her chair, turning toward Alisha, whose face remained expressionless. “The DND blamed the thick layer of clouds, the whiteout, and an unexpected satellite upgrade for the blurry pictures in their report.”

“Judging by their route,” Justin said, “I’m trying to figure out something, anything, about the motive of this… this visit, if you will. See, initially, the icebreakers were sailing up to Smith Sound, north of Baffin Bay.” He leaned closer to the map as his hand traced the icebreakers’ course. “It resembles a patrol mission or an attempt to reach the North Pole. But, at this point, almost halfway through the Nares Strait, the icebreakers turn around, heading back.” Justin’s fingers stopped by Cape Combermere. “Here, they cross into our waters. This is the only place where this happens. Then they vanish.”

“And your point is?” Johnson asked, a slight tone of impatience lingering in her voice.

“Perhaps the icebreakers had an accident and needed to anchor on our shores for repairs. Or maybe it was easier to navigate our waters. The visibility was better, fewer icebergs, a thinner layer of ice, so the need arose to steer around and zigzag to our side of the ocean.”

He scrambled to correct his reply before her dismissive headshake. “I’m not trying to justify their behavior in anyway. I was drawing a deduction that may help us to understand better this situation.”

“But their motives for crossing into our waters will not tell us anything about their identity.” Anna raised her glasses to the bridge of her nose.

Johnson leaned forward before Justin could say a word. “I have to side with counsel on this one.” She placed her copy of the CSE report back into one of her folders. “All the deductions in the world simply don’t hold water in the face of empirical evidence.”

Justin lowered his head and avoided Johnson’s gaze. He threw a quick glance at Carrie, whose weary eyes had already accepted their fate. We’re up the frozen creek, her face said. And as usual, without a paddle.

Johnson looked at each of them. “Since we’re helping Marty and his Arctic unit these days, I’ve decided to dispatch a small team for a fact-finding operation.” She stressed the last words a little more than necessary. “Because of our shared jurisdiction over national security and intelligence, as well as the DND’s great assistance to our operations, I’ve accepted the colonel’s offer to join this team. She brings years of experience in similar missions.”

Justin wanted to blurt out his thoughts. What great assistance? Their satellite was barely functional, and she’s giving us nothing else. Maybe she can cough up more details, as the CSE receives them. But if she’s already made up her mind these icebreakers are Russian, how can she be impartial?

Justin knew from previous missions that as a career pencil pusher, Johnson had perfected the inter-departmental game of favors and back scratching. Assigning the colonel to the investigation team meant that the credit for resolving this case would go to both agencies, proving Johnson’s competence in forging strong cooperation. The colonel would also serve as the scapegoat, single-handedly responsible for each and every potential failure. Johnson was covering all angles.

“And because of the sensitivity of this mission,” Johnson continued, “and the CIS’s increased concerns about our interaction with our own citizens, I’m adding the counsel to this mission. She’ll provide her expertise during questioning of witnesses and collecting their testimonies.” She gave Anna a nod.

Justin looked up in time to catch Anna’s smile. Her eyes resembled a splendid sunrise over a calm ocean, with glitters of sunrays sparkling off the water’s surface. She’s so excited, as if making the cheerleading team. Justin suppressed a grin. Poor girl doesn’t know what she’s getting into.

Johnson looked at Justin. “You’ll be in charge of this mission. Carrie will assist you in gathering the evidence about these ghost ships.”

Carrie nodded after two long seconds, which, under the circumstances, was a considerable delay.

Johnson ignored Carrie’s passive objection and returned her gaze to Justin.

His heart pounded in his chest. The opportunity for a field mission was finally in his hand. “You’ve got it, boss.”

“I expect this team to cooperate fully with the Joint Task Force North and its Rangers in carrying out this mission. The Arctic is under their jurisdiction.” Johnson tapped a folder with her index finger and pushed it toward Justin. “In addition to maps and pictures of the area, here’s a list of useful contacts, Rangers, and local chiefs. Trustworthy sources that have proven themselves during our operations in the North.”

Justin browsed through the folder, his eyes running through the names and the pictures, searching for a familiar face. Johnson was assigning him a sensitive mission, with two strangers, whose credentials were yet to be tested in the frigid Arctic environment. The support of a former partner would be extremely valuable.

He stopped on the fourth page and smiled. A middle-aged man, with thin lips and an even a thinner line of a gray moustache, a long curved nose, a pointed chin and almond-shaped brown eyes smiled from the portrait. Justin did not need to check the name of the Canadian Ranger typed under the portrait. The friendly face had refreshed his memory. “Kiawak Kusugak,” he mumbled, “it’s been a while.”

Justin locked eyes with Carrie, reassuring her with a quick wink. Unnoticed by Johnson, who was writing in her notebook, the glint of his eye was caught by Alisha, who replied with a slick grin. I don’t want to be an outsider, Justin translated her grin. I will make my way into the inner circle.

“Sounds perfect.” He closed the folder and looked at Johnson. “I’ll contact the JTFN right away and talk to one of their Rangers.”

“I’m sure there’s no need to remind everyone about the importance of this mission,” Johnson said in an almost solemn tone. “It’s a time-sensitive priority, but the need for secrecy trumps the need for a hasty completion. We’re keeping this very low-profile. The populations of Ellesmere and Baffin are quite low, but the potential for mudslinging is still incredible, especially if things get out of hand. I don’t want to be accused of interference or pressuring the locals into cooperation. This operation should be completed without any scandals. Understood?”

She lectured at the group but lashed her piercing glare at Justin and Carrie. This is not Libya, her glare told them. Don’t screw this up.

They both nodded in unison.

“Great.” Johnson stood up, and the team members followed suit. “Start preparations right away, with the goal of departing as soon as possible, hopefully by tomorrow. Based on your findings, we’ll work on a course of action. Good luck.”

She shook everyone’s hand, and they left her office.

 * * *

“Have you ever been to the Arctic?” Justin asked Anna as they headed toward the elevators. She was walking to his left, while Carrie was to his right, two steps behind the colonel, who led the group.

“Yes, Yellowknife. Last August, for a weeklong conference.”

“Summers are a breeze there,” Carrie said. “The winters, hmmm, not so much.”

“I’ve been to Iqaluit and Nanisivik,” Alisha said without waiting for anyone to ask her and without looking back. “Iqaluit in January, Nanisivik in July. A few years back, I ran the Midnight Sun Marathon, which takes place, of course, during the night, but when the sun is still very much shining in the skies, between Nanisivik and—”

“Arctic Bay,” Carrie jumped in. “It’s thirteen miles west of Nanisivik.”

“Exactly,” Alisha said. She slowed down and turned her head. “But that was quite a while back, oh, maybe twelve, thirteen years ago.”

“Arctic winters are far from a walk in the park.” Justin slowed down. “We get freezing snaps here too, but nothing like minus forty for months and months.”

Anna flinched.

“He’s right,” Alisha said. “It’s essential we dress warm, very warm. Plenty of Gore-Tex and many layers.”

Carrie nodded.

Alisha picked up her pace. “I’ve got to run to another meeting, but send me an update on the preps.”

“Sure,” Justin replied. “Since Johnson wants the utmost secrecy, we’ll fly commercial to Iqaluit, then charter a plane to carry us north. In order to avoid any unnecessary attention, we shouldn’t land right near any of the communities of eastern Ellesmere or Baffin. Once I’ve confirmed we have a Ranger on board, I’ll send you a draft itinerary.”

“Good,” Alisha said.

“Do you mind sending that to me as well?” asked Anna.

“Not at all,” Justin replied.

“Thanks, I need to be in my office in ten minutes.”

“I’ll keep everyone informed on any new CSE reports,” Alisha offered.

“That would be great.” Carrie shook Alisha’s hand, as they came to the painting of the explorers and their dogsleds.

Alisha gestured with her head toward it. “That’s Sir John Franklin and his crew,” she said to no one in particular but loud enough for everyone to hear. “He was a great explorer, but…. Oh, a sad story with a terrible ending.”

“Why? What happened to him?” Anna asked.

“He starved to death,” Alisha replied. “In the Arctic.”

 

CHAPTER TWO

Ottawa, Canada

April 10, 6:50 p.m.

“When’s Uncle Jim coming?” Olivier tugged at Justin’s jacket. “It’s so cold out here, and we’ll miss the game.”

“He’ll be here in any second.” Justin scanned the parking lot for Jim’s white Honda and stroked the little boy’s blonde hair. “We’ll see the whole hockey game. Don’t worry.”

They were pacing in front of the main entrance to Scotiabank Place, the home of the Ottawa Senators, as the hordes of joyful fans swarmed towards the gates. The Senators were going to battle the Anaheim Ducks that night. In the words of five-year-old Olivier, they were going to roast some duckwings, instead of ducklings. Jim, a university classmate of Justin who had taken a different career path––financial advisor in a big bank––was supposed to join them for the game.

“Is he even going to show up?”

“Of course, he will. When Jim says he’s going to do something, you can bet your life he’ll follow through with it.”

“Oookaaay.” Olivier sighed.

He ran to the backlit decorative post featuring one of the Senator players performing a wrist shot. Olivier imitated the player’s body positioning, as he flicked an imaginary hockey stick. The little boy wore the same red, black, white, and gold jersey as the Senators, a gift from Justin. The first time the Big Brothers Big Sisters local chapter introduced him to Olivier through their Mentoring Program, the gift-wrapped jersey immediately melted the ice, transforming Justin from a complete stranger to Olivier’s best friend. The only thing that mattered to the little boy was wearing the colors of his dream team. When Justin was growing up, his older brother never took him to a hockey game. Justin tried to take Olivier to a game as often as his schedule allowed him.

“There he is.” Justin pointed at Jim, who was jogging toward them.

“Yeaaaah, quick, hurry, hurry,” Olivier cheered him on, and Jim broke into a sprint.

“Uh, eh, sorry… sorry, I’m late,” Jim said, shaking Justin’s hand and trying to catch his breath.

“Don’t worry, Jim, this is Olivier. Olivier, this is Jim.”

“Nice to meet you. Can we go in now?”

“Sure,” Jim said.

They found their seats just as the teams were about to begin the game.

“I told you we wouldn’t miss a second,” Justin said. The little boy was to his left, Jim to his right.

“Ehe,” Olivier replied with a mouthful of popcorn. “Why are we so far from the rink tonight?”

“We’re not that far,” Justin replied. “It’s the center ice section, and we’re only a few rows away from the glass.”

“The kid’s a real handful, eh?” Jim whispered as Olivier stuffed his mouth with another scoop of popcorn.

“You’re right about that. He’s afraid he won’t see the puck.”

“Yes, I can’t see the puck,” Olivier mumbled.

The start of the match put an end Olivier’s to yawping, and he lost himself in the game.

* * *

Regardless of Olivier’s cheering and the spectators’ repetitive chants, encouraging the Senators to “charge,” the first period was not very memorable. The occasional fights among the players could not make up for the overall slow pace and the discouraging lack of goals.

“Do you need to use the washroom?” Justin asked Olivier, whose sulking lips and sinking eyes showed his complete disappointment. The intermission had just begun, giving the players and the crowds a much-needed break.

“Oookaaay,” Olivier replied.

“I’ll get you another thing of popcorn,” Justin said, but his words did not lighten up Olivier’s mood. “You’re coming, Jim?”

“Sure, I can’t stand these Zambonis and the silly music from the nineties.”

They struggled with the steady stream of people and made their way into the large halls. The fans had already begun to cluster around the concession stands.

“Do you need some help in there?” Justin asked Olivier when they came to the men’s washrooms.

“No, I can do this all by myself,” Olivier replied.

“I’m gonna grab a pop,” Jim said. “You want anything?”

“Water, get me a bottle of water. Thanks.” Justin waited a few steps away from the washrooms.

“You said there was something you wanted to tell me,” Jim said when he returned. He handed Justin a bottle of water.

“Actually, it’s a favor I need from you,” Justin replied and took a sip from the bottle.

“Man, I knew there’s no such thing as a free hockey ticket.”

“It’s a simple thing, Jim.”

“I can’t afford to run any credit checks, Justin, with or without a CIS order. One day, I’m gonna lose my job for pulling such tricks.”

“It’s nothing like that. I promised to go to Olivier’s game this Saturday, but I can’t make it.”

“Oh, and you want me to babysit him?” Jim’s voice suggested he would rather work through a stack of credit checks for a week.

“Only for the afternoon. His peewee league match takes place at 3:00 p.m. You pick him up, take him to the game, and then go out with him for supper at a burger joint.”

“Hmm, I think I already have plans for the weekend,” Jim said, the likely beginning of a made-up excuse.

“On the phone you said you had nothing going on because Susan is visiting her parents in Barrie.”

Jim frowned, silently cursing himself for making that stupid confession.

“And when you signed up as an Alternate Mentor, you agreed to help me. You remember that?”

“Yes, I do, but I thought it was just a formality, to help you do your volunteering.”

“It’s only a couple of hours or so. C’mon, it’s for the kid.”

“OK, I sit through his game and cheer for his team. But what do I talk about when we go for burgers and fries?”

“Talk about your job, your life, your family.”

“My job’s too complicated for five-year olds.”

“Not really. Say it’s like playing monopoly, just with real money of other people.”

“Exactly, that really covers it all. Very smart observation.”

“You know what I mean. Make it kid-friendly.”

“What did you tell him your work is like?”

“I told him it’s like playing Risk.”

“Ha. So, why can’t you do this?”

“I’m going to be out of town on business for a few days.” Justin took another sip from his water bottle. “I don’t know when I’ll be back.”

“And you didn’t know about this trip earlier?”

“No, I didn’t. It came up today in a meeting. Look, I’m not trying to dump this on you and go golfing somewhere.”

“Well, you kind of are dumping this on me, but… where are you going, if not golfing?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

“Europe?”

“C’mon, Jim.”

“Who’s going with you? Can you tell me that much?”

“Carrie’s coming along. And a few other people.”

“Aha.” Jim’s eyes flashed a wicked grin. His nod meant he knew something was going on. “Rekindling the old flame, aren’t we?”

“It’s nothing like that. It’s been over a year since we broke up.”

“Yes, that may be true, but the two of you keep falling into each other’s arms.”

“No, not really.” Justin shook his head. “But we work at the same place, sometimes on the same tasks, and I can’t help it that we end up in the same mission. But work was what got in the way in the first place. So I doubt it will reunite us at the end.”

“You never know.” Jim looked around for a trash can. He was already done with his pop.

“This time I know for sure. I’ll never fall in love again with a co-worker.”

“Then you’ll remain single for life. Work is all you know.”

“Look who’s talking?”

“Hey, it took a while, but I married Susan. You need to go out more often and with a woman. Leave the national security to the old and grumpy kind of guys who can’t wait to get away from their families.”

Dating Tips from the Love Guru. Volume One. Thank you.”

“More like Volume Ten Thousand, but you never listen to any of them. Do you want another drink?” Jim eyed the closest concession stand.

“No, I’m good, thanks,” Justin replied.

Jim disappeared into the crowd.

“So are you going to do me the favor?” Justin asked when Jim returned with another pop in his hand.

“What favor? Oh, that one about the kid? I thought you’d forgotten all about it. By the way, shouldn’t he be finished by now?”

“Give the kid his time. Yes or no?”

“All right, I’ll do it.” He sounded like he was agreeing to a capitulation treaty. “But, man, oh man, you owe me big this time.”

“Oh, I won’t bug you for credit checks over the next month. That will do it.”

“That doesn’t even come close.” Jim began coughing after taking a big gulp of his pop.

“Or I can give you a Heimlich so you’ll stop choking.”

“I’m fine.” Jim regained his composure. “It’s these kinds of favors that will kill me one of these days.”

Justin consulted his wristwatch. “We’ll have to get back soon to avoid the rush of people during the last minutes.”

As he turned around, Olivier appeared out of the washrooms.

“Hey, little buddy,” Justin said, “Uncle Jim will get you some popcorn while I use the little boy’s room.” He leaned toward Jim and whispered, “You two bond.” He winked at Olivier.

“What do you do, Uncle Jim?” Olivier asked.

“Hmm, I am a fin… do you like monopoly?”

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