Please enjoy an exclusive excerpt, Chapter 4, from Tripoli’s Target, the second spy thriller in the Justin Hall series, which comes out on Amazon on October 9. The prologue and the first two chapters can be found here. Chapter 3 can be found here. Thanks, Ethan
Great Sand Sea, Sudan
Sixty miles south of the Egyptian border
May 14, 8:15 a.m. local time
The gunman tightened the headscarf around his mouth and shut his eyes tight as he tilted his head to the left. It made no difference. The sudden wind gust swept a handful of red sand into his face. He coughed and spat. A spurt of obscenities burst out of his mouth. He cleaned his eyes, scrubbed the grit off his crooked teeth, and wiped his cracked lips and thick beard. Finally, Ali Abd Alraheem looked at the two men in the light brown Land Rover parked about a fifty feet away at the base of a crescent-shaped dune.
“Where the hell is the helicopter?” he shouted at them.
“Should be here anytime,” replied the driver. He was barely in his twenties, the younger of the pair. He coughed, more out of solidarity with his chief than necessity.
“Come take a seat,” said the other man, who was in his forties. “No point in eating sand and boiling in the sun.”
“It’s better than being blown to pieces by Zionist jets, Nassir,” Ali replied. “That car is a deathtrap.”
“Israeli F-16s strike convoys carrying big guns,” Nassir replied, his right arm spearing out of the window. “We’re only two cars.” He pointed at an identical Land Rover about two hundred feet behind theirs. “And we only bring in light weapons.”
“No fish is too small for Mossad.” Ali took a deep breath through his nose. His right hand tightened around the AK-47 hanging on his left shoulder. “And they can hit anyone, anywhere.”
“Suit yourself.” Nassir mopped his brow with a white, crumpled handkerchief.
Ali gazed intently toward the north. His eyes were glued to the horizon, right above the top of the dunes. The helicopter with two guests from Egypt was expected to arrive from that direction. They were thirty minutes late. In Ali’s line of business delays meant trouble. He ran his black, calloused fingers over the pocket of his long robe, feeling for his cellphone but resisted the urge to dial the contact number and check the status of the drop.
It was still early morning, but the temperature had climbed to ninety-five degrees. The air was parched, without a single drop of humidity. Ali’s body grew warmer with every breath he took. He felt his tongue dangling inside his mouth like a piece of dry meat and decided to return to the Land Rover for a sip of cold water.
He stepped down from the top of the sandbank, plowing through the steep slope. After a few seconds, he stopped and listened. His ears, trained to detect any kind of desert noise, sensed a light vibration in the sizzling air. Ali turned around and climbed fast, kicking up sand on both sides of his path. As he reached the peak, he blinked to clear his eyes and grinned at the anticipated sight.
A thick cloud of red dust—about seventy feet wide and thirty feet high—was swiftly approaching the drop point, skirting over the tips of the sand ridges. It would have seemed like a dust devil to a mere observer. But Ali was not a mere observer. The thick cloud was the work of a man, piloting a helicopter at almost ground level. It was a crazy maneuver that needed to be executed to perfection so it would not turn deadly. This pilot has brass balls, but he’s still a man. A man who can be shot and killed.
Ali dropped to the ground, cocked his AK-47 and pointed at the ever growing cloud. If the people who were going to rappel from the helicopter were not the expected CIS agents, they would be welcomed with a hail of bullets.
* * *
Inside the Mi-17 helicopter cabin, Justin and Carrie wrestled the twirling curtain of dust sweeping in through the open door. Olam had informed them only seconds ago he was not going to land the helicopter. They would have to rappel down to the ground. The Egyptians have taken the word “drop” quite literally, Justin thought, but he had no time to argue. The helicopter wobbled, while the top layer of the sand began shifting at the dune seventy feet below.
“Olam!” Justin shouted at the pilot. “Steady the bloody thing!”
“I’m trying,” Olam replied. “I’m trying.”
The helicopter dipped about four feet then hovered almost perfectly still.
“Good job!” Carrie said between gasps.
“How does the anchor look?” Justin pointed at the rappel hardware affixed to the roof of the cabin, right above the door.
“Slightly corroded,” Carrie replied, checking the steel karabiner for damage and feeding the rope through the field clevis. “The hose jacket is missing.”
“Will it hold?” Justin shouted, over the rumble of the two engines.
“I hope so.” She pulled on the rope, testing its strength. “Yes, I think it will hold,” she added without much confidence.
Justin stared at the untidy coil of black rope snaking around his feet then ran some of the rope through his gloved hands. The braided nylon cord felt solid, although some of its fibers were sliced, damaged by dirt, heat, and friction.
“Rope is good,” said the second pilot. “Used it last week. Held five people. Trust me.”
Carrie snorted and tightened her gloves.
“Drop rope!” Justin gave the pilot the signal they were ready to descend.
He threw his camouflaged backpack over his shoulders and swung his carbine to his right side. Then he stepped closer to the door. Carrie handed him the rope coil and he dropped it overboard. The end of the rope hung a few feet over the crimson surface of the sand dune.
“Good luck,” Carrie said.
“You too. See you at the bottom.”
Justin grabbed the rope with both hands and swayed his body outside the helicopter. At the same time, he locked his feet around the rope and began to lower himself. He eased the grip of his hands, allowing for the rope to slide slowly through his fingers. He kept his boots fastened against the rope at all times, feeling the friction of the rope on his gloves.
The helicopter jerked a few inches upwards. The rope swung upwards, scrapping against his vest. Justin threw his head to the side to avoid bruising his chin and held tight to the rope. As he reached the end, he let go and jumped down, rolling on the slope. He fell on his stomach and pointed his carbine toward the south, where Ali was expecting their arrival. In case someone else shows up uninvited.
Soon enough, Carrie dropped next to Justin.
“Everything OK?” Justin asked.
“Everything’s OK.” She nodded, her face tight in concentration and her eyes sharp.
The helicopter resumed its flight seconds later. It veered to the right, turning around at a fast pace, the pilot seemingly eager to return home to Egypt. Justin and Carrie protected their faces from the whirlpool of dust and waited for the red haze to settle. Carrie readied her C7 rifle, while Justin glanced at his wristwatch. Thirty seconds from hovering to securing a perimeter. Not bad, but it could be better. He looked toward the south.
“Do you see Ali?” Carrie asked.
“No, not yet. Wait, I see someone at ten o’clock.”
As the veil of dust began to clear, Carrie looked through her rifle’s sight and spotted a man pointing a gun at her. She squinted but could not make his facial features.
“His eyes are the only thing visible,” she said, “and I can’t tell if he’s our man. But I can tell you, he’s got us in his crosshairs.”
Justin’s eyes narrowed, but their target was making no moves. After a few moments, the man raised his left hand, which held a pistol, and waved it in the air above his head.
“That’s our signal,” Justin whispered, but made no attempt to stand up.
“So, the man’s Ali?”
“I’m not sure.”
The man kept gesturing for the agents to approach him. Finally, he rose to his feet, his AK-47 still pointed at them, and slowly began to lower his headscarf and his face became visible.
“Yes, he’s Ali.” Justin eased his finger on the carbine’s trigger. “We can go now.” He began to get up.
“So trust no one, eh?”
“Yes, trust no one.”
Justin shook the sand off his bulletproof vest but did not bother with his pants. The last two weeks spent between Mauritania, Nigeria, and Egypt had taught him sand crawling under your skin was a simple fact of life. The same was true for deception and lies.
* * *
The agents waded through ankle-deep sand and crossed the distance separating them from Ali. Carrie followed on Justin’s footsteps, her weapon in a cradle carry position in her hands. Justin’s weapon was hanging muzzle-down behind his back on a sling fastened to his vest.
“Welcome to Sudan.” Ali put out his right hand.
Justin shook it as the gunman pulled him closer in a friendly embrace.
“It’s great to see you again. You look fit.” Justin observed Ali’s tall, thin frame and his biceps flexing under his robe.
“So do you,” Ali replied. “And tanned. I almost didn’t recognize you there. I was looking for a white face.”
Justin grinned. He threw a glance at the Land Rover at the bottom of the dune.
“You never trust anyone, do you?” Ali asked, nodding toward the Land Rover then pointing at Justin’s body armor. But for a square, bulky patch on his chest, the bulletproof vest was invisible.
Justin shrugged. “A habit. Can’t help it.”
“Neither can I. But my men we can trust.”
Justin looked at the two men positioned on each side of the car, holding rocket-propelled grenades over their shoulders. The RPGs were pointed in his direction.
“This is Carrie,” Justin said.
Ali measured up the woman with his small eyes. I can’t believe he brought a woman here and didn’t tell me about it. He just said “another agent.” Nassir will hate me for this. Still, she looks like she belongs here. And she’s with him, so she’s OK. In desert camouflage pants, similar to those of Justin’s, Carrie wore a tan vest and a khaki shirt. Ali noticed her tactical knee pads and a thigh holster strapped around her left leg revealing the butt end of a pistol. She also carried a large backpack on her shoulders.
“Nice to meet you,” Ali said with a smile, placing his right hand above his heart.
“Likewise,” Carrie replied.
“Let’s go before Nassir gets nervous.”
Justin nodded and they followed Ali to the Land Rover. Nassir waited until the group reached the vehicle before lowering his RPG-7 on the hood of the car.
“Nassir, this is Justin and Carrie. And this is Omar.” Ali pointed at the young man, whose RPG weapon was still looming over his right shoulder. Omar gave them a reluctant nod, his face still locked in a menacing grin.
“You said they were Egyptians,” Nassir blurted in English with a slight British accent, his hands folded in front of his barrel chest. Then he switched to Arabic, pointing a finger toward Carrie, “And he brought a woman with him. A woman? Our deal with the local tribes doesn’t include the transport of American—”
“We’re not Americans,” Justin said quickly in Arabic. His tone was calm yet firm.
Nassir peered into Justin’s eyes and tried to read his face for any traces revealing his ethnicity. He seems to be in his late thirties and definitely Caucasian, despite the suntan. The black hair and large nose are of no help. High cheek bones. Thick lips. Is he a Spaniard? Turk? Arab-born Brit?
The woman is easier to read. And younger. Maybe early thirties. Her light copper hair made Nassir think of Ireland. IRA? Carrie had a small figure, a bit shorter than him, and he stood at five feet ten inches. Pointed nose, thin lips and a stoic grin. She can’t be Arab. Israel came to Nassir’s mind, more as an afterthought, since he knew well Ali’s hatred for the Hebrew nation. He was sure Ali would never agree to provide a safe passage for two Israeli agents, but he also did not like having a woman around.
“They’re not Americans,” Ali said. “Local tribes don’t care about anything else.”
“But I do,” Nassir said. “Americans, British, Spanish, Irish, they’re all the same to me.”
Justin stepped forward, moving closer to Nassir.
“Funny, your disgust for Brits didn’t stop you from studying at Oxford and definitely isn’t stopping you from enjoying the best cars of the Kingdom.” Justin pointed at the Land Rover.
Nassir was unfazed. “A+ on doing your homework and looking into my background. They taught you well at your secret service, whichever it is.”
Justin craned his head toward Ali.
“He’s not a fool.” Ali spread his palms, grinning wildly. “A hothead maybe, but definitely not a fool.”
Justin shook his head.
Nassir’s nostrils expanded and his chest rose up as he drew in a long breath. “I don’t hate the Brits, but I can’t stand when they bend over for the CIA. Europe is as guilty as the Americans, those bloody oil thieves, for the mess in the Middle East.”
Justin stared into Nassir’s eyes. “I don’t like politics either,” Justin said after a tense pause. “We’re here to interrogate the high-value detainee.”
Justin had given Ali the same cover story, about a man captured in Sudan, who could be in possession of important intelligence. If pressed for answers, anything Ali revealed would not endanger their true operation.
“Listen to him. He even talks like a CIA op.” Nassir snorted, handing his RPG-7 to Omar and opening the driver’s door.
Omar took both weapons to the back of the Land Rover.
“Will you use ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ to extract information from the detainee?” Nassir asked sarcastically.
“I was told the source is very eager to talk to us. Plus, we don’t torture people,” Justin replied.
Nassir groaned. “Yeah, yeah, I have heard all that before.”
Justin and Ali took the second row of seats in the Land Rover, a newer model than what Justin was used to seeing navigating the Sahara Desert. He admired the tan trim of the doors and felt a bit of regret when resting his sandy boots on the new floor mats. He was able to breathe easier now, as the air conditioner was going at full blast. Nassir got behind the wheel, with Omar in the front passenger seat. Carrie sat behind Justin, in the third row.
“I see business is going well,” Justin said, his hands gesturing around the cabin.
“I’m not complaining,” Ali replied.
Nassir released the hand brake and put the car in reverse.
“Cold water?” Ali offered Justin and Carrie two glass bottles Omar had fetched from a cooler in the car’s trunk.
Carrie nodded politely and took one bottle but did not drink from it.
“Thanks,” Justin said. He removed the cap and emptied the half-liter bottle in a long gulp. Then he began digging in his backpack.
Ali noticed Justin’s weapon resting on his lap. “C8 carbine?”
“C8 carbine,” Justin replied. “Very reliable, yet compact. Short barrel, adjustable stock. I removed the carrying handle and attached an HK launcher.” Justin slid his right hand over the Heckler & Koch 40mm grenade launcher.
Ali tried to hide his admiration for the shining carbine. “Eh, nothing beats my old Russian friend.” He knocked on the wood stock of his AK-47. “Mud, sand, gravel. Still fires straight, right between the enemy’s eyes.”
“Yes, it does.”
“How did you get your C8 to Egypt?”
The vehicle dipped into a shallow pit and Nasser bore down on the gas pedal. The Land Rover roared, jolted out of the hole and began rolling over a hard-packed trail.
“This is for you.” Justin finally found what he was rummaging for in his backpack. “You still smoke these, right?” He handed Ali an elegantly carved maroon humidor with brass edges.
The gunman weighted the chest-shaped Narra wooden box, before lifting the hinged lid and discovering a row of thick cigars. “Man, you have a good memory.” Ali’s eyes sparkled with excitement as he picked one of the CAO eXtreme cigars.
Omar, attentive to the flow of the conversation, produced a lighter.
Ali chewed off the end of one of the cigars, spit it out of the window, and lit the cigar. He puffed a couple of times and groaned in pure pleasure. “Oh, I missed you baby.”
“I have to warn you: smoking causes cancer,” Justin said.
“Ha. Men like us don’t live long enough so slow diseases can eat us up. We die fast, by taking a bullet right in our head.” Ali tapped his forehead with his right index finger.
“How long has it been since we last met?” Ali asked
“Three years. Nigeria. Port Harcourt.”
“Yes, yes, now I remember. The aid workers.”
“Yeah, that crazy affair.”
“It was a bloody mess. Sometimes I wonder what goes through those people’s minds when they accept jobs in war zones. Kidnappers don’t care if you’re in their country to feed the poor and help the sick. To them, you’re a goat waiting to be gutted. If not me, then someone else, they think. Plus, for the huge salaries these ‘volunteers’ collect, Africa can pay ten locals to do the same job, and even better.”
“I hear you,” Justin said.
“You still race cars?”
“You still breathe air?”
Ali grinned. “When it’s not blazing hell like today. So did you ever make it to supercars?”
“Your memory is flawless too.”
“That’s because you never stopped blubbering about your dream cars: Mercedes-Benz this, Ferrari that. Even if I saw those cars in person when drivers fire up their engines, I don’t think they’d be as loud as you were.”
“Well, things have changed. I realized the only way I can ever afford to own a decent Merc would be to move here and work with you.”
Ali nodded. “You’d fit in like a glove.”
“I race occasionally at speed festivals or car shows. My girl doesn’t really like it. She thinks it’s too dangerous.”
Ali’s eyes met Carrie’s in the rear-view mirror.
“He’s not talking about me,” Carrie said. “And I don’t think racing is dangerous. I’ve found it’s always the driver, never the car.”
“Do you think this is dangerous?” Ali pointed at her and Justin.
“As dangerous as you let it be.” Carrie’s eyes scanned Ali’s and Nassir’s faces. “Know who to deal with and to whom never to turn your back.”
Ali nodded in silence.
Nassir’s left eyebrow arched and the left corner of his lower lip twitched, as if he were not expecting such a reply. His eyes lingered a few more seconds in the rear-view mirror before he returned his gaze to the road.
Justin noticed the second Land Rover was following them at about three hundred feet, so he asked, “Why are they falling behind?”
“Safety,” Ali replied. “We’ve had a few Israeli air strikes on convoys smuggling long-range rockets, FROGs and such for Hamas. IAF comes down with F-16s, combat choppers, the works.”
“Wasn’t that in the east, by the Red Sea?” Carrie asked. “And those were larger convoys.”
“Yes, but the Zionists’ dirty fingers reach everywhere. We’re just being careful, even thought we don’t deal in rockets.”
“Small weapons only?” Justin asked.
“That’s what rebels prefer these days. We’re simply trying to satisfy the market and keep our customers happy,” Ali replied with a grin.
While they’re killing innocent women and children, Carrie wanted to scream. Instead, she locked her lips and looked away. A stretch of black jagged ridges was rising up in the horizon to their left. Rolling red sand dunes extended as far as her eye could see.
“How come Egyptians refuse to land their choppers in this area?” she asked without making eye contact with anyone.
“Landmines, mainly,” Ali replied. “Some places are riddled with landmines left behind from old wars between Libya and Egypt and the Toyota War of Libya and Chad. We know where the dead zones are and we stay away. Then there’s pride. Local tribes like to feel in control of their land, even when they’re not.”
“Borders are simply straight lines in the desert, hacked in the Sahara by colonialists to divide their loot,” Nassir said. “People cross them when they feel like it, and no one can do anything to stop them, neither Egypt, nor Libya.”
“Speaking of Libya, did you hear about the suicide bombs last night in Tripoli?” Carrie asked.
“We did,” Ali replied.
Justin waited for a few seconds, but no one seemed willing to talk about it.
“Who do you think did it?” he asked warily.
“Eh, that’s hard to tell,” Ali said. “Qaddafi’s loyalists maybe. Unhappy Islamic groups since they lost in the last elections. In any case, it was a blow both to the West and to the new Prime Minister of Libya. After all, they were all American hotels.”
Justin looked in the rear-view mirror, catching a glance of Nassir’s face. The man looked like he was deep in his thoughts, his sunken eyes suggesting he had strong feelings about the matter. Yet he was unwilling to share it with the others.
“What do you think, Nassir?” Justin asked.
Nassir examined Justin’s eyes before opening his mouth. “You really want my opinion?”
“Sure, if you have one.”
“The bombs are a warning to the infidels in Libya that the country is not for sale.” Nassir spoke slowly, with a hint of satisfaction in his voice. “America first armed the rebels then bombed Colonel Qaddafi, kicking him out. Then they installed the new government in place, with this new Prime Minister, who is a little more than a puppet. After the civil war ended, Libya turned into a magnet for all American companies, at each other’s throats over Libya’s oil. The bombs are a reminder that Libya is still a Muslim country, regardless of the sellout Prime Minister.”
Justin nodded. “I see.”
“We’ve set up camp about a hundred miles east,” Ali said, eager to change the subject. “The prisoner is awaiting your arrival. Are you planning to take him with you back to Egypt?”
Justin held Ali’s eyes for a moment. “It depends on what he knows.”
“There are ten guards with him and they travelled in armored BMWs,” Ali said. “He must know a lot.”
“I hope so,” Justin said, “otherwise, with all due respect, we came to this scorching hellhole for nothing.”
“No offense taken. This may be hell, but it’s my hell. And I love it all.”