Enjoy the Prologue of ARCTIC WARGAME, the first spy thriller in the Justin Hall series.
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 day 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. Are 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 windows.”
“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 after a pause, “Bashir?”
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.
“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.”
“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 you can’t defeat them all.”
“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 of his cell. 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.
Justin and Abdul were first imprisoned in Tripoli after their hostage rescue operation went wrong. They were tortured by the Algerian hostage takers for two days before their failed escape attempt. The Algerians––with the help of the Libyan secret police––moved them to Ghadames, in their minds an isolated and less risky place.
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 bloodstains 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 closed 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 shook 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 to 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. He switched it to full automatic. “Just in case,” he mumbled.
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 grinding under their toes.
“We go to the first floor, then left,” Justin said as they came to a spiral staircase.
“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 glanced at the dim light, then at 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 whispered.
“That’s not me.”
Justin turned his head and looked over Abdul’s shoulders. He stared right into the eyes of a gunman 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 cracked abruptly. Its unexpected high pitch startled Justin. The pistol shook in the gunman’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 gunman 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 across 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 gunsight, 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 that 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 said.
Justin followed the Libyan beyond the arched gate, which was 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 halls 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 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 out 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 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.
Two bullets struck the wall only inches away from Justin’s head. Their shock waves 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 with 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 to a white Toyota truck parked about ninety feet to their left. Four men wielding assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades were positioned behind the truck, 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 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 him 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 and inserted a full magazine into his weapon. Gunfire erupted from the barricade. Bullets scraped the wall and the ground around him. More gunshots followed, then there was a brief moment of relative calm. Justin took a quick peek.
“They’re all dead.” Abdul climbed inside the Toyota.
Justin ran to him, glancing only once at the row of houses behind them. “You’re wounded.” He pointed to 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 backseats, but there were no weapons or ammunition. His eyes moved to the end of the truck, where he saw an RPG launcher and a wooden box loaded with grenades.
“Got it,” he said.
He crawled to the backseats and squeezed through the small window, landing against the rails of the truck box. 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 mosque, tearing it to shreds. The six-story-high minaret came tumbling down to the ground like a sandcastle swept away 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 bullets thumping against the truck. Rifle muzzles flashed from two assailants firing from both sides of the Jeep. A bullet ricocheted off the rail and grazed his left leg.
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 moment 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.”
“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. 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.