Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not;
and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
New Year’s Eve
Sa-id Harandi looked around the living room of his Old Town Alexandria, Virginia home and rubbed his hands together, pleased with his preparations. Flames popped and snapped in the fireplace, providing the warm, cozy ambience he hoped his guest would enjoy. A bottle of single barrel Jack Daniel’s whiskey and a squat, crystal tumbler reflected the fire’s glow from where they waited on the round walnut table. Glancing at his watch, he headed for the kitchen to retrieve the simple repast he’d created that afternoon.
He chuckled, thinking about the token argument he’d get from Rowan Milani, the son of his oldest friend. You know I don’t like Iranian food, Sa-id. Why do you persist in shoving it down my throat? “Because it’s your heritage and you should be proud,” he murmured. He’d known Rowan for more than thirty years and had watched him grow from an insouciant young boy to a driven, dangerous man. He sighed. The transformation had been fraught with grief for everyone involved.
The doorbell chimed, ending his reverie, and he placed the tray of kebabs, baklava and fruit on the table next to the whiskey before walking to the door. Checking the viewer, he saw his guest standing on the front stoop with a black leather jacket slung over one shoulder, dressed in a royal blue, cable knit sweater and black jeans. He smiled and turned the deadbolt, flinging the door wide. “Rowan, come in, please. It’s a pleasure to see you.”
Rowan stepped through the door, flashing a quick smile in return. “It’s always good to see you, Sa-id. Sorry I’m late.”
Grateful for an evening devoted to simple friendship, he grasped Rowan’s forearm, gazing into the intense, dark eyes. “How are you? And how are your parents and your sister?”
The younger man raised a brow and his smile twisted, almost into a sneer. “I’m fine, and I’m sure my parents and Bettina are as well.”
He let go of Rowan’s arm and frowned. “Surely you were with them for Christmas.”
The sardonic gaze remained. “We’ve been over this a thousand times, Sa-id. Let’s not reprise it tonight, OK?”
Regretting how he must sound, he gestured toward the table with both hands. “Forgive me, I’m a rude host. Pour a drink and sit down. I hope you don’t mind – I grew nostalgic this afternoon and went to the market for a few old favorites, the kind of things your father and I snacked on as young people, years ago in Tehran.”
Hoping his apology was adequate, he watched Rowan toss the leather jacket on the sofa and wondered for a moment how many pistols and knives his friend had concealed on his person. Shaking his head to chase the thoughts away, he ignored the edginess threatening to unravel his peace of mind. When he and Rowan met, their agenda didn’t revolve around their long friendship, but he hoped – had planned for this evening to be different. Meeting the younger man’s gaze, he saw that the whisker smudged face held only affection. “You never stop trying to shove Iranian food down my throat. Aren’t you having your usual wine?”
Relieved that he hadn’t offended his friend, Sa-id smiled. “It’s in the fridge. Go on now and pour your whiskey while I get it.”
When he returned with the crisp 2002 Chateau Montelena chardonnay, he could only see the back of a shaggy, dark head against the top of the sofa facing the fireplace. Rounding the corner, he took a seat in the adjacent recliner. Rowan looked up from where he’d slouched, legs stretched toward the fire with the tumbler of whiskey clasped in both hands, resting on his belly. “This is nice, Sa-id. Thanks for the invite. I didn’t have any plans for New Year’s Eve and this beats another airplane seat or cold hotel room.”
The unsettling edginess gripped him again as he watched Rowan scratching his jaw through the whiskers. He knew the younger man hated wearing a beard, but his line of work made it necessary from time to time. “You have travel plans I presume?”
Rowan glanced at him and then looked away, taking a long draught of whiskey before replying. “In a week or so, but until then I’m doing some research – and growing a beard, of course.”
Realizing he’d been staring unseeing, he blinked and sipped the fruity wine. “Ah, research? That sounds interesting.” He tried to smile but failed, producing a grimace instead. “I’m sorry. For some reason, I can’t seem to relax tonight. I truly want to celebrate the end of a productive year and the start of a wonderful new one, for both of us.”
First giving him a smirk, Rowan tossed back the rest of the whiskey. “It’s all right, Sa-id. My only plan for tonight is to relax and suffer through whatever crap I have to eat for this early celebration of Nowruz that you’re foisting on me. I can’t believe you haven’t pulled out a bowl of cucumber yogurt to go with our drinks.” His friend sniffed. “And the scent of Persian spices is stuffing up my sinuses. Please don’t tell me you’ve got a big pot of Polow somewhere to go with those kebabs.”
Shaking his index finger, Sa-id rose from the recliner. “You’re incorrigible. Just for that, we’re going to dig into that crap, right now.” He swallowed more wine. “You should embrace your Iranian heritage, Rowan.”
He held his breath and waited when Rowan stood up and turned away to refill the tumbler with whiskey before sliding back down on the sofa and scowling up at him. “For God’s sake, Sa-id, how many times do we have to rehash this?”
Disturbed by the reservoir of anger he glimpsed in Rowan’s eyes and fearful that he’d stirred the rage residing beneath the younger man’s veneer of civility, he sank back down on the recliner. “Forgive me for overstepping my bounds, but mark my words – you cannot escape who you are. And regardless of your American birth, your father is Iranian and his blood flows through your veins.”
Rowan snorted and shook his head. “And my mother would tell you that hot Italian blood makes me who I am. My father embraced his new country with passion. Bettina and I were raised as American children. You know that Sa-id, you were there.” Rowan sounded weary. “I could repeat his stories in my sleep.”
Sipping the wine and listening, Sa-id thought about how much he’d like to share the culture he still valued and missed. However, with Rowan, his efforts would be rebuffed. Before he could respond, his friend continued. “Hell, I don’t even have an Italian name to honor my mother’s side of the family. They went overboard when they chose a Celtic name, don’t you agree? Rowan is not an appropriate name for a proud son of Iran, Italy or America.”
Thinking back to the young couple and the multitude of dreams he’d shared with Khalil and Janice Milani, Sa-id couldn’t help smiling. “Yes, of course I remember. And I know the depth of gratitude your father has for the United States. But still – you should understand Iranian culture. It is part of you.”
Rowan looked at him and raised a brow. “My understanding of Iranian culture isn’t lacking, believe me. I know what my life would be like if I’d been raised as a dutiful Shiite in the Islamic Republic.” Rowan shrugged. “Now please – enough of this useless conversation. Let’s enjoy the evening. I’m starving. How about we order a pizza?”
* * *
Sa-id leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes as the documents he wanted began to print. While he waited, he gazed at the gently falling snow, illuminated by the street lights outside his office window at the Council of American-Islamic Relations headquarters in Washington, D.C. When the printer stopped, he yawned and glanced at his watch. It was almost seven o’clock in the evening, much later than he’d planned to stay. Careful to erase the tracks of his subterfuge, he switched off the computer monitor and shoved back his chair.
Rowan and the president would appreciate what he’d found. He’d been a liaison and a secret conduit of information to his friend on behalf of the United States for more than eight years. Following the trail of money – funds that C.A.I.R. funneled to numerous Islamic organizations abroad on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood, he enabled Rowan to intervene and stop many terror plots before they could threaten America.
Sa-id shoved the papers, still warm from the printer, into his briefcase. Another clever plan, this one originating in Pakistan, would be stymied. Thinking about how Rowan would handle this particular situation, an involuntary shudder rippled through his body. It was best he didn’t know too much about his friend’s activities. He just watched, listened, and forwarded information.
It was the least he could do for the country that allowed him to live at peace and in complete freedom, instead of complying with harsh Islamic Sharia. And yet, he’d maintained his identity as an Iranian, possessing dual citizenship with both countries. Smiling sadly, he wondered if his homeland would ever escape the debilitating, choking dysfunction of the Islamic Republic.
Poised with one hand on his briefcase and the other on his coat, his eyes widened as the door to his office swung open. Two men entered and he looked from one to the other in confusion. They wore dark blue jackets and lanyards with CIA printed in heavy letters. One was stocky, with black hair and close-set blue eyes that he would call beady. The other was like a massive bull – tall, broad shouldered and muscular, with blonde hair and hard brown eyes.
The stocky man stepped in front of him, and he caught the aroma of grilled onions. “Mr. Harandi, my name is Seth Hancock.” Pointing at his companion, whose body filled the doorway, the agent continued. “This is Lucien Talbot. We’re with the CIA and we’d like to talk with you about your activities at C.A.I.R.”
Heart pounding, he stared first at the cold eyes and then the thin lips, compressed in a firm line. Doing his best to stop the shaking in his legs, he attempted to sound calm and reasonable. “My activities? I’m a Computer Security Specialist. I’m responsible for many aspects of the network and computer systems here. How does that concern the CIA?”
The bulky man gripped his upper arm with a heavy hand. “We have a car waiting. Come with us now, please.”
Apprehension burgeoned to panic as Sa-id realized he was trapped. How could this be happening to him? This was the United States – not Iran, where this kind of abduction was common. For a moment, he thought about Rowan and his concealed weapons. He’d give anything to have his friend’s courageous presence with him now. “It’s late. Couldn’t we meet tomorrow? I could take the day off and come to Langley, or wherever you choose.”
The agent jerked his head in an impatient gesture. “Right now, Mr. Harandi. We need to talk with you tonight.”
* * *
Secured to a wooden chair by yards of duct tape that held his body upright and his arms and feet immobile, Sa-id waited. The bone chilling cold made his teeth chatter, and he squirmed in helpless terror. So far, neither of the men had returned to talk with him. Of course, that must have been a ruse. But he couldn’t imagine what they wanted with him or why they would employ such tactics.
After shoving him into the back seat of a black Suburban with darkened windows, the big blonde had torn a length of duct tape from a fat roll, bound his wrists behind his back, covered his mouth and then pulled a black hood over his head. They’d driven for what seemed like hours and he had no idea whether they were still in the District, or if they’d taken him into the surrounding area outside the Beltway. They must be somewhere remote, or else how could he have been hustled from the vehicle like a criminal without attracting attention? Despair filled his heart, and beneath the hood, he closed his eyes.
Dozing fitfully, he jerked awake when someone yanked the hood from his head. Fluorescent lights switched on, flooding the room with blinding light. Blinking, eyes watering at the harsh brightness, he strained to see who was standing in front of him. A thickset man with heavy jowls and slicked back, onyx hair stared at him.
“Sa-id, you are very cunning. It has taken some time to expose your duplicity – valuable time that has seen the death of many holy warriors.”
The calamity he’d feared, that had lurked in the recesses of his mind for years, had overtaken him. He’d been careful, diligent and meticulous about security. Now, though, it had all come to naught. But wouldn’t the CIA know he worked on behalf of the United States? Why had the agents handed him to this man? He tried to sort through his jumbled thoughts, but nothing made sense.
The man who’d pulled the hood from his head stood in front of him, breathing hard. Dressed in an elegant black suit with a white shirt and red silk tie, he looked out of place in the dingy room that reeked of diesel fuel. A work bench and shelves, filled with boxes and tools lined the dull gray walls. A pile of greasy looking rags sat in one corner and assorted rakes and shovels were propped against the wall next to the work bench. A closed wooden door appeared to be the only exit, and he wondered if he was in someone’s rural workshop.
As he watched, his adversary strode back and forth, black patent leather loafers gritting on the filthy cement floor. “Sa-id, you will tell me the name of your associate, the one who takes the knowledge you give him and uses it to murder the Brotherhood’s warriors. This man – he is like a ghost, defying Allah’s will in many countries. That will not, must not, stand.”
Reaching out, the man tugged on the duct tape covering his mouth and then ripped it off, making his eyes water as he gasped in pain. “Let me speak plainly, Sa-id. You are Iranian and I will honor you by dealing justly, as the holy Koran dictates. Tell me the name of your associate now, and I will see that you return to your homeland in safety.”
Sa-id didn’t know if he could talk. Voice weak, he began. “I don’t understand. I have no such associate. And I do not wish to return to Iran. The United States has been my home for many years.”
The man patted his cheek. “I have invested many dollars in my quest for the ghost agent who has caused so much destruction. The Brotherhood has lost patience, and so have I. You will tell me his name.”
The cruelty in the dark eyes struck terror, deep inside. But he could never betray Rowan or the United States. “No, I have nothing to tell you. I have no information about an agent who kills holy warriors in defiance of Allah. Please take me home.”
The repulsive stranger chuckled. “I am not in the mood for sophistry. It seems that the depraved culture of your precious United States has captured your soul. Allah’s refining fire will set you free.”
He waited, fists clenched in helpless consternation while his tormentor pulled a needle and syringe from an inside suit pocket, shoved up his shirt sleeve and uncovered his arm. “Your deception and the actions of your associate have cost the Brotherhood much treasure. Allah’s law will be satisfied. The price must be paid, Sa-id, and it starts with you.”
The man traced the vein in his arm with an index finger and inserted the needle with care. Cold eyes locked with his as the contents of the syringe flowed into his body. “When you awaken, I will have amputated your right hand, in the Iranian tradition of punishment.”
Chest constricting in horror, he could only whisper. “Please, you must believe me. I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I have no covert associate.”
His captor bent in front of him, inches from his face. He could smell sweat and see individual droplets on the thick forehead. The obsidian eyes gleamed. “No more lies, Sa-id.”
As his head tipped forward, his gaze focused on the patent leather shoes, so out of place on the grimy cement. Then he passed out.
* * *
A Week Later
Sa-id lay on his back on the work bench beneath the fluorescent lights, his body wracked with pain. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the intravenous pole and a flask of fluid that kept him alive. His butcher’s face appeared above him. Fevered eyes gazed into his and a gentle hand smoothed the hair off his forehead. “Sa-id, why do you choose to suffer? I have told you – it will never end.”
The madman had carved gaping wounds on his body while he moaned and shook in agony. And now the man grasped the bandaged stump where his right hand had been and dragged it up, so he could see it. “To honor your Iranian customs, I took your right hand. Today I will take your left foot and you will not only witness my surgery, you will experience each cut of my knife and saw in excruciating detail. After that, I will wrap your wounds and return you to Iran in shame.”
Breathing in labored, heaving gasps, he twisted his head weakly back and forth. “No, oh no, please don’t.” Tears he couldn’t stop poured from his eyes, running down his cheeks and into his ears. Whimpering, he pleaded with his torturer. “Please, please, I can’t tell you.” When he closed his eyes, Rowan’s smiling face swam before him and he heard the affectionate voice. This is nice, Sa-id, thanks for the invite. I didn’t have any plans…
Light slaps on both cheeks had his eyelids fluttering open. The mad face turned greedy. “Give me the name of your associate, Sa-id, and I will give you a martyr’s death.”
How had it come to this? Sobbing, his heart breaking, he knew it was time – to give the man the name he so desperately desired and then to die. He took a shuddering breath and murmured softly, “Rowan Milani.”
Tears spilled down his cheeks again and a keening moan escaped his lips at the horror of what he’d done. “I’m so sorry, Rowan. Forgive me, please.” Victory shone in the eyes above him and a smile creased the hellish face. The knife sliced across his throat, brutal yet mercifully quick. Darkness claimed him, and his suffering ended.
* * *
First Week in February
The president had been explicit. Eliminate the threat and send a strong message. Rowan slid into his first class seat on the US Air flight from Phoenix to Denver with a sense of weary satisfaction. The president’s objectives had been achieved expeditiously, as usual. Settling into the soft leather, he thought about the month he’d invested with the two jihadists in Mexico. Holed up in a grimy, bug and rodent infested hotel on the edge of Puerto Penasco, he’d patiently deceived the two men until they trusted him. Until they were convinced he could take them and their precious cargo – four pounds of anthrax – across the porous southern border of the United States and all the way to the nation’s capitol.
One of the men who’d bought into his carefully crafted deception was a chubby Columbian named Laszio, a small-time drug lord turned terror thug wannabe. The other, a lanky Arab named Bashir, had come straight from a training camp in Pakistan. Hardcore al Qaeda, the jihadist wore the trademark tennis shoes the operatives prized, and lectured him nonstop about his beloved Koran for the entire month. Remembering the fanaticism in the young terrorist’s eyes, Rowan shook his head. Bashir couldn’t wait to slice through the belly of the Beast and wreak havoc.
The previous moonless evening, he’d persuaded the two men that the time was right to cross the border with the anthrax. The holy warriors had chuckled in good humor while he screwed the suppressor on his Glock 36. In case a wandering gringo border agent crossed their path, he told them with a wink and a smirk. After bouncing along in nearly total blackness on a rutted, sandy road that ran parallel to the border, he motioned Bashir to stop. Turning to the back seat, he shot Laszio point blank, grateful as always for the sub-compact forty-five caliber pistol that placed a respectable hole through the man’s left eye and plastered most of the rest of his head against the back window.
The obliteration of the tubby Columbian momentarily stunned Bashir, but by the time he pulled his knife, the skinny Arab was scrabbling in the dark for the door handle, like the rat he was. Irritated by the martyr turned coward, he grabbed the frightened man by the hair, wrenched his head back and yanked the knife across his throat. He could just as easily have shot Bashir, but it was a matter of principle. Since beheading was al Qaeda’s preferred method of execution, it was only appropriate. Besides, he’d been asked to deliver a strong message and he thought the knife, more than the pistol, accomplished that.
Leaving the two men slumped over in the blood splattered, rusted Chevy Malibu, Rowan took the anthrax loaded suitcase and slid across the border. The other members of the black ops team relieved him of the lethal package for delivery to Washington, D.C. Kuwaiti professor Abdallah Nafisi had suggested during a speech widely publicized on the internet that one person with courage could bring anthrax across the border, spreading the confetti as he called it, easily killing upwards of 300,000 Americans. The vaunted professor had encouraged a finale on the lawn of the White House. He’d love to be a fly on the wall when the despicable man discovered that his four precious pounds of anthrax had indeed been delivered to Washington, but with different results than he’d intended and financed.
Blinking burning eyes and smothering a yawn with his fist, he sniffed as his nose started to run. The first yawn spawned a second and his eyes watered along with his nose. Wishing they’d close the aircraft door and get underway, he gazed with disinterest at the eclectic collection of people lugging their crap down the narrow aisle toward coach. As the last of the passengers trudged past his seat, he noticed with swiftly lit anger that the man seated across the aisle was watching him, wary suspicion in his eyes. With an aggravated scowl, Rowan turned away and pushed himself deeper into the seat, folded his arms across his chest and glared at the seatback in front of him.
The thing that angered – no the thing that enraged him, was that he served his country, helped keep it safe so people like the pudgy jerk staring at him could sleep at night. Yet he was cast as the suspicious character – and why? Well, he knew why. It was the same every time, but his choices had made it even worse this time. He’d been rushed, pulled on black jeans, a black sweater and unfortunately a black leather jacket. But none of that should matter. It wasn’t right that he had to take extra steps, be careful how he dressed and conducted himself because of his Iranian heritage.
No one needed to remind him of September 11, 2001. It held what could be called deep personal meaning. On that day, the monsters had destroyed everything that mattered to him – had annihilated the better part of him. That was why he risked his life on black ops whenever he wasn’t on assignment as an FBI special agent attached to an Anti-Terrorism Task Force. He lived to eliminate the Islamic terror masters. They had taken everything from him, extinguished his future, ambushed his dreams, and turned them into nightmares. It was only fair that he return the favor, as often as possible.
Casting a sideways glance at the man across the aisle, he reasoned angrily to himself that it wasn’t his fault his father had emigrated from Iran and married an American woman of Italian extraction, the two of them passing along their distinctive features to him, their only son. He was an American, born in the United States, and he used his appearance, along with his ability to speak Farsi and Arabic to serve his country in ways a lot of other people couldn’t – or didn’t have the balls to. Gazing out the window at the sun-baked concrete, watching a ramp worker dragging a set of chocks, he sighed. He was neither Arab nor a terrorist, but God forbid that the truth come between people and their preconceived judgments against him.
The door closed and the aircraft jerked into motion as the pushback from the gate began. Resolutely shoving the angry, frustrating thoughts aside, he yawned again and closed his eyes. He was anxious to reach Denver and watch for coverage of the early morning covert operation. News of the whole sordid affair should be breaking by the time he arrived.
As the edges of his mind turned foggy with sleep, he remembered an old song that reminded him of his life, something about dirty deeds being done dirt cheap. Well, except for the cheap part. He smiled as his mind began to drift. His expertise came with a hefty price tag, but he’d received no complaints, just regular, discreet deposits in two designated accounts. As he stretched through yet another yawn, he hoped the strong message he’d delivered and the prompt elimination of the threat would meet with the president’s approval.
The twin jet engines rumbled as the plane lifted into the sky, minor turbulence making it a bumpy ride. Two sweet hours of sleep were his for the taking. After being awake and adrenaline-wired for the previous thirty-six, he didn’t want to waste a minute. Reclining the seat, he folded his hands in his lap and slept.
* * *
Looking out the window of Club Gascon, his favored London restaurant, Muusa Shemal sipped his tea and reflected over the meal he’d just enjoyed, bunching fingers to his lips in silent reverence. The foie gras was beyond compare. Rich, buttery and delicate, it was the specialty of the house. And the milk fed lamb with dates and baby carrots was delicious. The whole meal had been exquisite, and he must commend the chef before leaving.
A rare sunny afternoon, the day matched his mood for celebration. He’d been elated, expressing endless thanks to Allah since returning from the United States. The ghost agent, the jinn who slid in and out of countries like a wisp of smoke, leaving dead bodies and ruined operations, many foiled almost before they’d begun, had been identified. Someday, when he stood over Rowan Milani, teaching him about retribution, he would relate the story of Sa-id Harandi and his remarkable loyalty. The Iranian man had endured his ministrations for a week before betraying his friend.
Now, if it pleased Allah – the FBI agent in Denver would agree to detain Rowan Milani, and he could put the next phase of his plan into motion. If not, he would send the CIA operatives in his hire to the elusive man’s next destination. A feral smile rippled across his face. Allah decreed that he bring the jinn to Egypt, where the Brotherhood waited to exact revenge. The CIA’s adage played over and over in his mind. If you want someone to disappear – never to see them again, you send them to Egypt.
Spearing an errant piece of lamb with his fork, he chewed thoughtfully, considering the fools in America’s Intelligence organizations, so easily beguiled. They were swine, greedy, and blinded by the dollars he’d waved in their faces. That they accepted his lies about Rowan Milani’s allegiance and would secretly deliver one of their own into his hands was testament to the moral rot of the entire kafir nation. They were useful idiots, but they had no honor, and that sickened him.
* * *
Rowan woke as the aircraft touched down, grimacing at the scene outside the window. An overcast sky dispensed snow that swept across the tarmac in waves as the jet roared slowly to its designated gate. First stretching and then shivering, he realized that his bare feet inside the battered, old slip-on shoes were freezing. Being from California, wearing socks was something he didn’t do, unless absolutely necessary.
With any luck his connecting flight to Sioux Falls, South Dakota would be on time. He must be a fool for taking an assignment there in February. It was right up his alley, though. Something was happening, and he feared a new chapter in the war on terror was commencing. Reams of intelligence, along with intensifying internet chatter pointed to a major event somewhere in the vast heartland of the country. Groups of special agents, coordinating with local Law Enforcement and Homeland Security had been assigned in varying locales to address what they all thought was an incipient threat.
He’d been asked to join the operation in Sioux Falls by his boss, Ralph Johnston. A longtime friend and colleague, Ralph treated him more like a son than a subordinate. Special agent Chad Cantor, his only friend in the Bureau besides Ralph, was also assigned to Sioux Falls. Chad was one of precious few people who had never looked at him with suspicion or questioned his allegiance to his country because of his Iranian heritage. They’d become good friends over the years, and he looked forward to working with Chad, who’d grown up in South Dakota and was staying at his father’s home in Sioux Falls for the duration of the assignment.
While tasked with his duties in South Dakota, he intended to pursue what he and the president had discussed in general over the last several years and in detail during their last meeting. He’d expressed his disagreement with conventional wisdom, which said that the most devastating attack to the nation would occur in a single, spectacular event. It wasn’t that he didn’t think an attack like that would happen. But as he’d explained to the president, he thought the more pernicious threat stemmed from the virulent message of domination by the Islamists and submission of the infidels to the ultimate caliphate they wanted to establish in America.
He’d read the fatwas and shared long conversations with terrorists around the globe about the secret jihad Islamists waged in mosques around the United States. Hell, he’d seen the fourteen page plan they called The Project, netted in a raid carried out by Swiss authorities on Youssef Nada, a long-time member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Switzerland, after 9-11. The Project detailed the Brotherhood’s twelve-point strategy, in essence a long-term plan to infiltrate and destroy Western culture.
The FBI’s investigation and indictment of the Holy Land Foundation several years later uncovered the Brotherhood memorandum describing a major jihad to destroy Western civilization from within. These people were dead serious about lowering the Stars and Stripes and running the star and crescent of Islam up the pole in its place. And they didn’t care how long it took them.
The leader, the man assigned by the Muslim Brotherhood to spearhead the sabotage of the United States had evaded identification, flying below the radar for years, teaching the faithful how to devastate the infidel nation from within. If he could infiltrate a mosque and get close to the principal players, he knew he could identify this particular leader and eliminate him. Dealing a blow like that to the Brotherhood might make them think twice about their beloved Project. At the very least, it would slow their progress.
The president had given tacit approval to his plan. Do whatever’s necessary to cut the head off the snake, Rowan, had been the president’s exact words. When he’d said they were dealing with a hydra, the president had smiled. Then make sure your knife is damn hot when you find this bastard.
The sound of the aircraft door opening, accompanied by a blast of cold air ended his introspection. Running a weary hand over his face, he caught the gaze of the plump passenger across the aisle. With a jerk of his head, he motioned the man to precede him off the aircraft, which he did like a scared rabbit. Fingers of snow lined the jetway, and an icy breeze hurried him along its sloping walkway. If it was this cold in Denver, he could only imagine the weather in South Dakota.
Breaking news of his nighttime endeavor played on CNN as he arrived in the boarding area for his United Airlines flight to Sioux Falls. Spotting an empty seat practically beneath the flat screen TV, he sat down to enjoy the spin. The Mexican government thought the brutal murder of two innocent Mexican citizens along the U.S. border highly suspicious. He snorted. They were calling those two innocent citizens? Clasping his hands together, he leaned forward to hear more. Mexican authorities could find no witnesses, but suspected illicit American involvement, which they didn’t appreciate. Hell, the Mexicans couldn’t police their own people, let alone the likes of Bashir and Laszio. They should be grateful for his help.
Walking to the gate podium to present his FBI credentials and the paperwork necessary for carrying his firearm onboard the aircraft, he noticed a few concerned stares. It had been too early, he hadn’t thought it through, but as he touched the stubble that darkened his jaws, conscious of the shaggy hair brushing the collar of his jacket, he wished he had. He’d clipped off the beard and hurriedly shaved, but that had been nearly twelve hours ago. A suit and tie would have helped, but it was too late now. The gate agent smiled, which was encouraging. “Special agent, we’re almost ready to board. Would you like to come with me and hand off the paperwork to the captain?”
Smiling neutrally, he did his best to affect a tame demeanor. “Yes ma’am, that sounds good.” She led him down the jetway to the captain who stood sipping coffee in the galley, looking annoyed at being disturbed. Great – he was one of those, impressed with his position and anxious for everyone to know he was in charge. The captain inspected his ID and detached a copy of the paperwork while he stood quietly next to him, trying not to shiver. “Mind if I take my seat now, sir?”
A good six inches shorter than he was at six feet, carrying excess weight that bulged over his belt and gave his face a round, petulant look, the captain grated on his tired mind. Struggling to control his temper, he clenched his jaws while the man considered, drank more coffee and then gestured with the Styrofoam cup. “Sure, go ahead.”
Sneering while he shoved his laptop and briefcase into the overhead bin, thinking Pillsbury Doughboy, he scooped up the pillow and blanket set out by the flight attendants and dropped into his first class seat. He tucked the pillow behind his head and huddled under the thin blanket. Almost as an afterthought he buckled the seat belt, then closed his eyes and dozed.
* * *
Fred Ralston, Special Agent in Charge of Denver’s FBI Field Office stared at his phone. Not sure how to handle the disturbing call he’d received a few hours earlier, he folded his hands on the cluttered desk and pondered his next move. The caller had insisted on anonymity, but claimed to know the identity of an American operative involved in a terror plot gone bad, resulting in the previous evening’s double murder along the U.S.-Mexico border. Anxiety tightened between his shoulders as he replayed the call.
You can retire, Mr. Ralston, if you apprehend this man. His name is Rowan Milani and he murdered two men in Mexico. We believe he is planning a terror incident. He’s at your airport, booked on a United Airlines flight to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Find a way to detain him. Your country will call you a hero and we will reward you generously.
Ralston put his hand on the receiver and stopped. Did he want to start this ball rolling? Did he want to mess around with another man’s life, especially a high profile, sometimes controversial agent like Rowan Milani – over an anonymous call? Twisting his shoulders to relieve the tension, he weighed his options. Milani gave heartburn to damn near everyone he interacted with at the Bureau. Arrogant and jerk were common adjectives often used in tandem to describe the special agent.
He sighed and shook his head. Milani got away with things FBI special agents were forbidden to do, such as traveling in first class, albeit at his own expense. Saving the taxpayers money was Milani’s explanation, always accompanied by a cocky smirk. Occasionally he’d wanted to utilize the special agent’s talent in an investigation, but couldn’t locate him. He seemed to be nowhere, for weeks at a time. But when anyone tried to delve into Milani’s activities, they ran into a brick wall and he knew the reason for that. Milani’s boss, Ralph Johnston, safeguarded his special agent’s privacy vigorously. He’d heard a few whispers about Johnston, too. Those in the know said that he and the president were long-time friends.
Shit, he’d love to get a warrant and hang onto Milani long enough to get some real answers. But he couldn’t justify a warrant and besides that, he owed Rowan Milani the benefit of the doubt. Jerk or not, he was one of them and anyone could make an anonymous phone call. Still, he could ask the special agent to have a talk, especially since Milani wasn’t traveling with his extra-vigilant boss. Everyone in the Bureau would support him on that.
Decision made, he picked up the phone and speed dialed the special agent on duty at Denver International Airport. “Banks, this is Fred Ralston. Are you prepared to meet with Rowan Milani? He’s booked on a United flight at gate B17. It’s imperative that we talk with him, even if it means delaying that flight.”
He paused, massaging his forehead while he considered. “Follow procedure Banks, and keep this low-key. Get a cup of coffee and have a chat downstairs in one of the holding rooms. Watch yourself, though. I’ve dealt with Milani before and believe me – he’s not going to be happy about any of this. Reassure him that we just need to find out what’s up with that phone call. It’s possible he can shed some light on it. I’ve seen a news report that verifies two people were killed on the border last night, and Milani did fly in from Phoenix. I’ll keep investigating and get back to you in a couple hours. Let me know what you find out.”
* * *
Rowan woke groggily when someone shook his arm. “Special agent Milani, you need to wake up. Hey, Rowan, I need to talk to you.” Yanking his arm away, he opened his eyes wide and stared at a tall, balding man standing beside his seat. At the front of the aircraft, the captain and a flight attendant huddled next to the gate agent. They all looked frightened. He rubbed his eyes and frowned at the man, who pulled FBI credentials and flashed them in his face. “I’m special agent Leonard Banks. Something’s come up and I need to talk to you, but not here. Would you mind deplaning with me?”
Wanting to make the man wait, he stretched and yawned, then shoved the blanket aside, unbuckled his seat belt and stood up, following the special agent to the front of the plane. Banks shuffled into the cramped space next to the captain, forcing the gate agent and flight attendant into the galley. Rowan looked from the captain to the FBI special agent and back. “One of you wanted to speak to me?”
The tall man addressed him before the captain could reply. “Special agent Milani, like I said, you and I need to have a chat. But first, I’d like you to step off the aircraft with me.” Following the man’s gesture out the door of the plane, he saw a Law Enforcement Officer standing in the jetway. What the hell was going on? The cowardly anxiety he read in all their faces brought the submerged but always simmering rage he lived with bubbling to the surface. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d been pulled from a flight because another passenger was concerned about a Middle Eastern man seated in first class. But it had never required the presence of another FBI special agent to make it happen.
The rage had him breathing hard and he clenched his jaws, told himself he’d better bring it down a notch. But goddamn it, he hadn’t done anything except sit in his seat and go to sleep. Glaring at the captain, he planted his hands on his hips. “What exactly is the problem? What are you afraid of, and why do I need to deplane?”
Watching the captain’s ample face turn pink, he knew he’d angered the doughboy. “Look special agent Milani, I don’t know what’s going on. I received a call from the FBI telling me that my aircraft can’t leave as long as you’re on it and that you might cause a problem. What was I supposed to do? I asked the gate agent to call security. This is my aircraft and whether you stay or leave is my decision, so let me be clear – gather up your things and deplane right now.”
Something was amiss and his sleep deprived brain couldn’t put it together. But it wasn’t worth pursuing. He’d lost – big-time. Now it would be hours before he arrived in South Dakota and even longer before he’d see a comfortable bed. Fighting to contain the rage, he nodded at the captain. “Of course sir, I’ll get my things and deplane immediately. But there is one more thing.”
The captain had been turning to reenter the flight deck and swung around abruptly. “What is it?”
He gave the chubby man a shrewd look. “If you consider me a threat to your aircraft, then you need to unload my checked piece of luggage. Otherwise, there is no point in removing me. If I pose a threat, my luggage does as well.” He was pushing the envelope with that one, but he didn’t care.
The rotund man took two quick steps toward him and poked him in the chest. “You have made a threat against a commercial airliner – my airliner, and I can’t let that pass.”
Speechless, he stared down at the flushed, bloated face, thinking about how easy it would be to choke the life out of the annoying man. A fresh wave of anger rolled over him when he glanced at the insipid FBI special agent. The man stood with his hands outstretched in a supplicating gesture. “Hey, everyone, take it easy. Captain, no one’s making any threats, either to the aircraft or your crew. Rowan, let’s take a walk, get some coffee.”
Drawing a breath, he clenched his fists at his sides and willed his hands to remain there instead of around the captain’s neck. That he of all people would threaten a commercial airliner was beyond the pale. Ignoring Banks, he addressed the captain. “I did not threaten your aircraft.”
But the doughboy would not be denied his victory. “You can consider yourself persona non grata on any United Airlines flight for at least the rest of the day and most likely longer.” The captain motioned to the special agent. “Please escort this man out of here. The flight attendant will bring his things. Good day, special agent Banks. Thank you for your help.”
It was over now. He’d be lucky to get a flight anywhere, for the foreseeable future. Still seething, he trudged to the top of the jetway, sandwiched between Banks and the cop. After they stepped from the jetway into the gate area, Banks turned and smiled, first at him and then the police officer. “Sorry to have taken your time. We don’t need your services.”
The officer nodded and raised an arm in a brief wave. “No problem. You gentlemen have a great day.”
Watching the man head down the concourse, the anger receding in the face of monumental exhaustion, he yawned and then glanced at Banks. The special agent still had a smarmy smile on his face. It would be fun to rearrange the smile with his fist, but since that wouldn’t be considered civilized, he wiped his nose with the back of his hand instead. “What now, special agent Banks?”
Banks rubbed his hands together and gestured down the concourse. “How about that cup of coffee I mentioned? Then we’ll head downstairs to one of our holding rooms so we can have some privacy. It’s possible my boss, Fred Ralston will want to talk with you as well.”
Twenty minutes later, he found himself sipping a paper cup of Seattle’s Best coffee, seated on a bench in a small room, somewhere in the bowels of the airport. A security camera with a glowing red light sat high up in the corner, and offhand, he thought he’d enjoy flipping it off. When Banks closed the door and leaned against it, he stared at the special agent and wondered if he’d get some answers. Banks gulped coffee, placed his cup on the desk and sighed. “Sorry for the rigmarole, Rowan. It’s just that the conversation we need to have is sensitive and not appropriate for the front of an airplane or a coffee shop on the concourse.”
The bench he was sitting on was damned uncomfortable and all he wanted to do was lay his head on the desk facing it and go to sleep. Yawning again, he sat the cup of tepid coffee on the floor and gazed wearily at Banks. “All right, why don’t we start by you telling me what the hell’s going on?”
Banks clasped his hands together and frowned at him. “First of all, keep in mind that I’m not the enemy here, OK? You and I – we’re on the same team.”
The special agent’s ass-kissing disposition irritated him and he nodded impatiently. “Yeah, sure, I get it, you and I – teammates. Now, what exactly did you want to talk about?”
The hesitation he saw in the special agent’s face had the anger lighting up again. Banks grabbed his cup from the desk and swilled more coffee, then started in. “Fred Ralston got an anonymous call this morning. The caller said you were involved in a double murder in Mexico last night.” The special agent shrugged. “We thought you could clear that up for us. I mean, shoot, it was an anonymous call.”
Expecting the usual apology about appeasing anxious passengers, the surprise that widened his eyes and dropped his jaw was genuine. He scratched the itchy whiskers on his chin and smirked at Banks. “That’s the craziest thing I’ve heard in a long time, Leonard. You’re telling me Ralston thought an anonymous call held enough weight to drag me off a plane and bring me down here to your holding room? What’s next? You want to haul me downtown to the Field Office for interrogation?” Fighting rising anger again, he held his breath and glared at Banks.
A red stain crept up the special agent’s neck and spread across his face, but he had to give the guy credit. Banks just ran a hand across the top of his gleaming head and chuckled. “I understand how you feel. Let’s keep it simple. Tell me where you’ve been for the past several days. We’ll verify the information and you’ll be on your way.”
Thinking he’d like to say fuck you, he stared at the man drumming his fingers on the wall and decided he was in too deep. Something was off kilter, or must have gone terribly wrong with the operation after he’d left. Since he had no clue, he opted for silence, wishing he’d thought of that earlier, on the plane.
Banks waved an arm. “Rowan, you know the drill. I need answers – to take to my boss.” Banks looked at him intently. When he didn’t speak, the special agent shoved off the wall and gestured with the coffee cup. “I’m at a loss, Rowan. I wish you’d clear this up for me. Not talking isn’t going to inspire confidence. I’m afraid Fred will insist that you come downtown to the Field Office. Why don’t you help me out, so we can both put this behind us and get on with our lives?”
Staring at Banks, he felt like a pawn on a chess board, being maneuvered by an unseen hand, unwittingly shifted where he didn’t want to go. And now he had to lie. Trying for a defeated look, he shrugged. “Oh hell, all right, Leonard. But I can’t say much. We’re conducting private training at a ranch not far from Flagstaff. I haven’t been near the border. I’ve been with a bunch of guys, 24/7 for almost a month.” He paused and gave the special agent a conspiratorial wink. “But that’s not for public consumption, you understand? This training is part of the Anti-Terrorism Task Force I’m attached to and if my boss finds out I said anything, he’ll have my ass.”
Banks nodded, mouth open, and he thought the guy looked like a big carp, fresh out of water. “Oh, I see, I see. Well, now I can understand your reticence.” The special agent tugged on the sleeve of his suit jacket and glanced at his watch. “Tell you what, I need to call Fred and let him know we’ve gotten to the bottom of this. He may not even want to talk to you further.” Banks tilted his head. “He’ll probably just touch base with the facility, to verify your presence. In any case, I’ll be back shortly. You OK with hanging around here for a while longer?”
The whole proceeding had gone beyond tedious, and he wanted nothing more than to escape the stuffy, grimy room. But he had to keep playing the game for as long as possible. Faking a smile, he told Banks what he wanted to hear. “Sure, Leonard, that’s no problem. Do what you need to and I’ll hang out here.”
After the special agent left, shutting the door firmly behind him, Rowan bent his head, closed his eyes and heaved a gusty sigh. One thing he’d told Banks hadn’t been a lie. Ralph would have his ass for the entire debacle, starting with the disagreement between him and the fat captain on an aircraft that was probably being unloaded in order to retrieve his dangerous suitcase. His boss was a former Navy SEAL, if there was such a thing, and a stickler for appearance and decorum. He’d sure as hell shot both out of the water today. Fumbling in his jacket pocket, he pulled out his phone and sighed again. It figured that there’d be no service in the holding room.
Rubbing his eyes, he gazed blearily at the door and wondered how the damaging scenario would play itself out. When he didn’t arrive in Sioux Falls, Chad would call Ralph. That was a good thing, since Ralph was the only one who could get him out of whatever he’d fallen into. But would Ralph find out in time to make a call and stop the process? Picturing Fred Ralston’s disbelieving gray eyes and unsmiling mouth, he grimaced. Ralston didn’t like him, never had, and he couldn’t imagine the man being satisfied with his story. That meant he was headed downtown to the Field Office, which would not be pleasant.
Once in an interrogation setting with Ralston, he wasn’t sure he could keep his temper in check. God only knew what would happen to him then. With the futility of his circumstances setting in, weariness overtook the simmering rage. Sleep in any form was better than sitting hunched over on the hard bench. Gauging the distance to the desk, he thought if he leaned over carefully, it might work.
Laying his head on the cool surface, he contemplated how he’d gone from minding his own business, dozing peacefully in first class to a filthy room somewhere in the depths of the airport. The situation was beyond his purview, too much for his enervated mind. Trying unsuccessfully to pillow his head, he gave up and let his arms droop. Despite the discomfort and the gnawing uneasiness that things were not as they should be, he slipped immediately into exhausted sleep.
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