Tripoli’s Target Cover and Excerpt
Please enjoy the cover of the electronic version of Tripoli’s Target, the second spy thriller in the Justin Hall series, which comes out on Amazon on October 9. I have also included an exclusive excerpt, Chapter 3, from this novel. The prologue and the first two chapters can be found here: https://ethanjonesbooks.wordpress.com/2012/09/07/tripolis-target-exclusive-excerpt/
May 13, 9:00 p.m. local time
Justin began to lose track of time as the hot shower splashed over his head and shoulders. He leaned against the white ceramic tiles, his fingers combing aimlessly through his wet hair. His scalp was smooth and soft, but he noticed some gray hairs stuck to his fingernails when he rinsed his hands. The water took them away and he followed their swirl in the shower drain. A single hair became stuck to his left toe and it resisted the stream for a brief second. More water trickled down from his chest and the stubborn hair disappeared into the drainpipe.
Justin couldn’t help but wonder about swimming against the tide of death. He didn’t think much about dying, for death was an almost daily occurrence in his life. Few days went by without Justin shooting at or being shot at by someone. So far he had been wise and, in part, lucky. Flesh wounds, broken bones, stitches, but nothing he hadn’t overcome. Despite that, his mind still raced at the moment when the current of violence facing him would grow strong, stronger than him, and it would drag him down the drain. Like the single hair strand that had gone and could be seen no more.
“It hasn’t happened in the last eleven years. It didn’t happen today and it’s not going to happen tomorrow either,” Justin cried in a loud voice and slammed a clenched fist against the shower wall.
Speckles of grout burst out of the tile edges. Justin used his foot to push them toward the drain. He blinked to clear the last drops of water from his eyes and stepped out of the shower.
Fifteen minutes later, dressed in a short-sleeved white shirt and navy blue pants, Justin waited for Carrie in the hall of their apartment complex. The three-story residence was across from the Canadian Embassy. Both agents rented two-bedroom apartments paid for by the Service. At one time, Justin used to live in a small house, a five-minute walk north of the Garden City. But that was seven years ago when he first arrived in Cairo. Then, field missions took him away once or twice a month. Now, he couldn’t remember the last time he spent a full week in the city.
“Hey, you look sharp,” Carrie said as she stepped out of the elevator.
“You, on the other hand, you look gorgeous.”
Carrie’s v-neck black dress flowed down to her knees. A gray cardigan added a casual touch to her look. Her shoes were the essential pumps, with a rounded toe and four-inch stiletto heels. She had applied very little makeup, just a light shadow of mascara and pink lip gloss. Her hair was pulled back and arranged in a small ponytail. A black leather purse hung loose around her left shoulder.
“A bit of overkill, you think?” Carrie pointed at her dress, noticing Justin’s gaze moving up and down her body.
Justin hesitated for a second then nodded.
Carrie shrugged. “I thought so. Oh well. How often do I get to wear a dress and heels in his job?”
“Not very often, but this is a simple dinner.”
“If you knew how to cook, you’d know there’s nothing simple when preparing a delicious meal.”
Justin grinned. He remembered Carrie taking pride in cooking suppers when they were still dating. Soon they discovered they were better off friends. Once in a while, Carrie came over to his apartment and cooked supper for the two of them. Some of the best steaks he had ever enjoyed were grilled by her hands.
She waved a hand. “I know what you meant. We’ll go and enjoy our meal. Let’s just hope nobody is planning to interrupt us like the last time.”
“You never know.” Justin swung open the doors for Carrie. “New York is two blocks away and the place has more Westerners than locals. Still, one crazy bastard wearing explosives can blow everything to pieces.”
They walked toward New York, an Italian restaurant around the corner, in the warm evening. The narrow alley, cordoned off to vehicle traffic, was well-lit, with lampposts at every ten steps. The sidewalk was in a decent shape and a few security guards patrolled the area, offering a visible safety presence. But a dog yelp, followed by a short burst of gunfire, reminded them of the ever-present danger.
“Jim doesn’t like it when you come in packing heat,” Carrie said, pointing at Justin’s right thigh.
The pistol in his waistband holster was not visible, but she knew it was there. So did Jim, the restaurant’s head of security. Three months ago, a brawl with a group of drunken Russian military contractors had ended in a free-for-all shootout. Justin had sent four Russians to the hospital, and New York’s renovation bill had been over fifty thousand dollars.
“And I don’t like it when they burn my steak.” Justin nodded at two guards stationed in front of the British Embassy. “Don’t tell me you didn’t bring yours.”
“As a matter of fact, I did.” She glanced at her purse. “But Jim doesn’t seem to mind it.”
Jim—the man Justin had nicknamed “Rhino,” not only because of his body size, but also for his unexpected charging toward targets—was off duty this evening. Much to the delight of both agents, Wilson, Jim’s underling, threw them an uninterested gaze when they came in. They had no reservations, but it was a slow night at New York. The hostess escorted them to their table, next to a window overlooking the eastern shore of the Nile. They were the only people sitting in the dimly lit, non-smoking section of the restaurant.
While Carrie took her time flipping through the menu, Justin ordered his usual fare at New York: bruschetta, a 20-ounce ribeye steak, and sparkling lemon water. He tapped his fingers on the black tablecloth and fiddled with the pepper holder, a replica statuette of Lady Liberty. The waiter arrived with his drink as Justin’s BlackBerry chirped.
“Is that Johnson?” Carrie asked, her eyes still glued to the menu.
Justin did not reply. He frowned as he glanced at the screen. He pressed the answer button then barked at the phone, “This is Justin. Who’s dead?”
Carrie looked up, slowly shaking her head. Justin greeted only one person with that dreaded question: his father, Carter.
“Justin, I can’t hear you very well.” The weak voice of his old man came quietly over the waves.
“I’m not surprised. You never did. Now what do you want?”
“I just… I wanted to hear your voice.”
“Are you dying?”
“No, no, I’m not dying. Not yet, anyway.”
Justin glanced at Carrie. She stood up and gestured to him that she was headed to the washroom.
“How are things going?” Carter said.
An awkward silence followed for a few seconds.
“You still there?” Carter asked.
“Yesterday was Seth’s birthday, but he told me you didn’t call.”
Yes, I was trying to forget all about it.
“It’s always about Seth, isn’t it? He’s the son you always wanted.”
“Not again, Justin. You know that’s not true.”
“It isn’t? I never get a call from you or him on March 1. Or a card. Or a letter.”
“You’ve said many times you couldn’t care less about that stuff.”
Justin sighed and shook his head. “I don’t care about that stuff…” His voice trailed. I care about the thought.
“So, why are we fighting about this?”
Justin kept silent for a few seconds, clenching his teeth. Then he took a deep breath, cleared his throat and said, “Listen, I’m quite busy here, so I can’t talk anymore.”
He pressed the end button on his BlackBerry so hard he thought he broke it. Then he tossed the phone on the table, where it clanged against the glass of water. Oh, he always gets to me. As much as I tell myself I’ll stay calm the next time I talk to him, he always finds a way to drive me nuts. Justin raised his left fist but saw Carrie out of the corner of his eye. He slowly dropped his hand to his lap, tried to regain his composure, and offered her a big fake smile.
“Don’t use the washroom if you can help it,” Carrie said while sitting down. She took one of the napkins and scrubbed her hands. Justin detected the faint smell of smoke on her, as the bathrooms were in the smoking section.
“Do you know what you want to eat?” Justin asked.
“Yes, I think so.”
The waiter appeared to take her order: a salad of mix greens and a four-cheese ravioli alla napoletana. Carrie stuck to sparkling lemon water, like Justin.
“So when do you think we’ll hear from Johnson?” Carrie asked.
“If she’s changing the plan, tomorrow morning. Five minutes before takeoff.”
Carrie snorted. “Will she ever change?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Haven’t we started yet?” She pointed at the BlackBerry on the table.
“Oh, no, that’s not change,” Justin replied with a headshake. “Well, the more I try to change, the more he stays the same.”
“But isn’t Carter trying though, trying to reach out to you?”
Justin wondered if perhaps some of her encouragement was motivated by the recent news that her mom was having health problems and a desire for Justin to make peace with his father before something similar happened to him.
“His shadow is,” Justin said. “I move to the other side of the world and he still finds me. I change my freaking phone number to classified, and the old man still pulls in favors to find it and harass me.”
Justin’s mother had gone off a bridge in her car when he was only eleven. The police had ruled out suicide, blaming instead the icy roads for the accident. But he knew better. And he hated the man he blamed for his mother’s death. The man he never called “Dad” again.
Carrie’s lips formed a thin line. “Yeah, big money buys pretty much everything these days. Even access to secret agent files.”
“He still thinks he can run my life and tell me what to do. Like hell he can. I won’t let him do that anymore.”
Carrie reached over the table for Justin’s trembling hand. “It’s OK. It’s OK,” she said softly. “It’s all over. Finished. He can no longer do anything. You, and I, we’ll never allow it. Never.”
His eyes found hers and she gave him a reassuring nod. Justin let out a sigh of relief.
“Talking of controlling freaks, me being one of them, Thomas is starting to worry me,” Carrie said, changing the subject.
“You think your boyfriend may be chasing tail?”
“No, he’s loyal, I know that. But lately he is kind of distant.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I called him tonight and told him what happened. He didn’t seem overly concerned.”
“That’s because he knows you’re a big girl and you can handle things just fine.”
“Yeah, thanks. His lack of interest was a bit unnerving, I should say.”
“What was he like when you last saw him?”
“Last month in Malta? He was fine. Joyful, funny, relaxed. Everything was great.”
“Could it be work wearing him down?”
“PR work? Give me a break.”
“Well, Thomas is still CEO and I’m sure there’s a lot on his mind.”
“Not the same thing as in my mind.” Carrie took a deep breath.
“Don’t worry about it. He’ll come through.”
“I hope so. I really hope so.”
“Thomas is a good guy. He’s just looking for the perfect ring, for the perfect girl.”
“Ha. Thanks. At this point, an onion ring would do.”
She locked her fingers together, her elbows resting on the table. Then she said, “Oh, Thomas, Thomas, why does it have to be so difficult?”
“Love always is.”
Carrie opened her mouth but saw the waiter bringing their drinks. She waited until he left, then asked, “Talking about love, did you call your sweetheart?”
“Yes. Anna’s wasn’t in her office and she wasn’t picking up her cell. I left a message. She’s probably in some merger meeting or something boring like that.”
Carrie took a quick sip of the cold lemon water.
“Oh, that’s good.” She drew her lips together. “The lemon taste is so strong. Does she ever pick up when you call?”
“Anna’s very busy and I always seem to call at the wrong time. It was better that way, ‘cause I didn’t feel like explaining that I’m going to miss my flight tomorrow.”
“You think we won’t be back in time?”
“No. We haven’t heard from Johnson yet and I doubt we’ll be leaving before midnight. We’re not meeting Ali until 8:30 tomorrow morning. If everything goes smooth, we’ll not be back in Cairo before nightfall.”
“Did you book another flight?”
“No, I’ll take the first one out as soon as we get back.”
Carrie shrugged and brought the water glass to her lips. Justin glanced out the window.
“They’re taking their time with the appetizers.” He turned his head toward the door leading to the kitchen and stared in that direction for a few seconds, hoping the waiter would appear with a tray of food. He did not.
“This place may be called New York, but their service still runs on Egyptian time.”
“Well, I’m starving here.” Justin rubbed his stomach with his left hand.
A few moments later, the waiter waltzed in with a large tray of food in his hands. Justin instinctively looked out the window, his hand jerking toward the Browning pistol in his waistband holster.
“Relax.” Carrie said. “Twice in half a day?”
“It has happened before. It may happen again.”
“Not here. Not now.”
The aroma of the fresh baked focaccia bread, topped with tomato, garlic, and onions and seasoned in olive oil and herbs, loosened Justin up. He broke off a piece of the wedged-shaped bread and stared at the steam rising up in the air. Devouring the piece in a swift move, he looked over at Carrie. She was carefully sifting through her green salad, pushing to the edge of the plate every small slice of black olives.
“You know those things are good for your skin,” he said and stuffed another larger piece of focaccia in his mouth.
“And you know this is not a race.”
“Hmmm, but it is so good.”
Carrie rolled her eyes. She lifted a small portion of shredded carrots and peas to her mouth. She closed her eyes and savored her food.
* * *
By the time Carrie was halfway through her salad, Justin had cleaned up not only the last crumbs of the focaccia, but also the dips of sour cream and roasted garlic.
“Man, you were hungry,” Carrie said.
“Starving.” Justin wiped his lips with his blue napkin.
“Tell me, how did you convince Ali to help us?”
Justin smiled. “SCR 1267.”
“What promise we can’t keep did you make him?”
“This one we can keep. Ali has a half-brother listed as a terrorist, an accomplice of Al-Qaeda. The man secured a car and drove around a group of terrorists for a week or so in Baghdad, about two years ago.”
“So you told Ali that Canada will delist him?”
“I promised I’ll write up a request, asking for his name to be removed from the list. It’s up to our bosses to decide.”
“You know your request is going nowhere.”
“I can’t control that. The man used to live in Canada and still has relatives in Ontario. The government doesn’t want him back, even though he hasn’t been convicted of anything.”
“I see.” Carrie sipped the last of her drink and looked over Justin’s shoulder for the waiter. He was nowhere in sight.
Justin’s BlackBerry chirped twice and he picked it up. “It’s Johnson.”
“Hello,” Justin said and placed the BlackBerry on the table between the two of them. “How are things going?”
“Great, great,” Johnson said.
He thought her voice sounded with an echo as if she were in a tunnel. Then a familiar elevator ping solved the mystery.
“I don’t have a lot of time, as I’m running to a meeting. Just wanted to confirm that the Egyptians reluctantly agreed to drop you into Sudan tomorrow morning. Do you have a pen handy?”
Justin motioned a scribbling gesture to Carrie. She pulled out a pen and a small notepad from her purse.
“This is the place where you’ll meet the transport.” She gave them the coordinates.
“You’ll take off at 1:00 a.m. The Egyptians have committed one of their helicopters to this operation.”
Carrie shook her head.
“Is it a Mi-17?” Justin asked.
“Yes, it is.”
Carrie swore under her breath. She hated Russia and everything Russian, even the Mi-17 helicopter. Ever since her father, a Canadian Army colonel, disappeared during a covert reconnaissance mission in the late eighties in the Soviet Union, she had begun to first fear, then hate everything related to the country that took away her father. She joined the Army with high hopes of learning about his fate, but she was no closer to the truth today than when she began scrapbooking her interrupted memories.
“OK,” Justin said. “Anything else?”
“No, that’s all. Good luck.”
“Thanks.” Justin ended the call.
Carrie looked out the window staring at nothing in the distance. Justin could see the fog of memories building up in her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Carrie shook her head. “It’s OK, I guess. I should let go. I will let go.”
Justin nodded. He had heard such pledges before, and he knew Carrie tried real hard. Some habits were extremely difficult to break. He knew that first hand.