SOUTH GOVERNATE, LEBANON
The stalkers awaited the signal.
It came in the dappled gray light of 5:00 A.M. because delay was as much an enemy as the dedicated men inside the remote building.
Outside the five-room house, the assault leader gave a quick click-click of his tactical headset. The eleven members of his team recognized it as the preparatory signal. Receiving no response, he proceeded with his countdown.
"Ready ... ready ..."
A long three-second wait allowed anyone to delay the inevitable. No one did. The four men on perimeter guard saw nothing to interfere with the operation. Meanwhile, the two assault teams and the command element were tensed, leg muscles coiled to propel them from the shadows.
The team leader licked his lips. He had extensive experience but it was always like this: an eager dread. He glanced around. Only his radio operator returned his gaze; everyone else was focused on the objective. It looked good: they had probably achieved surprise, but surprise without violence was useless.
"Ready ... go!"
Two explosions shattered the Mediterranean air, two seconds apart. The first was a Chinese-made RPG whosehigh-explosive warhead blew a hole in the brick-and-mortar wall facing the sunrise. The second was another RPG near the opposite corner that smashed through a window and detonated on the interior wall.
Assaulting together, each section was preceded by Rheinmetall flash-bang grenades to compensate for any defenders who escaped the RPG blasts.
A quick two-count, and both teams entered through the holes. It was doctrine: avoid the usual entrances, which could be mined.
The attackers' mission was simple: kill or capture everyone present. Take no unnecessary chances.
There were no novices on either side of the door.
The raiders held the advantage, exploiting the stunning effects of the grenades and flash-bangs. Moving with fluid rapidity, they "ran the walls," closing the distance on the defenders, firing short, disciplined bursts. The Egoz reconnaissance unit allowed its members a great deal of latitude: most chose 7.62 Galils but a few carried AK-47s. Both were lethally effective.
Three defenders were shot down in the front room; only one got off a round and it went high. A fragmentation grenade arced through the entrance to the next room. Before it exploded, the men inside opened fire with their AKs. The 150-grain rounds shredded the blanket separating the two rooms, and some were deliberately aimed low. One raider dropped with a Kalashnikov's bullet through the left thigh.
The grenade fizzled. Too long in storage--the result of clandestine acquisition policies--it exploded in a low-order detonation that inflicted minor wounds. Inside the small room, a close-range firefight erupted. It was fought at near muzzle contact.
One raider was killed, taking a round above the ballistic plate of his tactical vest. Another was clipped in the right bicep.
The defenders were shot down in an ephemeral moment of loud noise, bright muzzle flashes, and icy terror. Each body received one or two rounds to the head before the last brass clattered on the wood floor.
One man escaped the house, fleeing through the back door. The designated marksman with a scoped Galil shot him from sixty meters.
Order, if not quiet, returned to the shattered structure.
Without awaiting instructions, the raiders moved through the house according to their individual priorities. Two guarded the bodies on the floor while two others secured the victims' hands with flex cuffs. The fact that they were dead was irrelevant; some of the raiders had seen dead men kill the living.
The number two man turned to his superior. "No useful prisoners, Chief. Sorry."
The team leader shrugged philosophically. "I know. It couldn't be helped." As papers were gathered, the radioman began taking photos with his digital camera.
Hearing the all-clear, the team medic entered through the door--the only one to do so. He had one immediate case and two lesser. He was experienced and calm; combat triage was nothing new to him.
"Arterial bleeding here," said one man, leaning over the first casualty. The medic went to work, knowing that his friends would treat other casualties for the moment. He glanced at a green-clad form, not moving. One of the raiders merely shook his head. The decedent's family would be told that he died in a training accident, body unrecoverable. Knowing it was a lie, the parents would accept the fabrication.
The other killers began tearing the place apart. They searched thoroughly, quickly, indelicately. They opened every cabinet and drawer, spilling the contents, and pulledmattresses off beds. They searched for loose boards and pried at the ceiling. Finally one of them returned to the living room.
"Nothing here, Avri."
"It has to be here. Look again. Everywhere."
Abraham pulled the kaffiyeh off his head and allowed it to drape over his tactical vest. "We've already looked everywhere. Twice. I'm telling you, it's not here."
Avri looked around the house. "God damn it!" For the grandson of a rabbi, he was famously profane.
He grabbed the radioman. "Get me Capri Six. Priority."
The RTO handed over the instrument. "Scramble mode selected."
"Capri, this is Purchase. Pass." The commander released the transmit button, allowing the scrambler to do its work. In an instant the carrier wave was back.
"Purchase, I read you. Pass."
"The well is dry. Repeat, the well is dry. End."
The response was decidedly nonregulation, but the transmission from the south drew no comment. After all, this time the offending voice belonged to an agnostic.
SSI OFFICES, ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA
"Ladies and gentlemen, we're in trouble."
Rear Admiral Michael Derringer had been retired for longer than he cared to remember but he had lost little of his command presence. As founder and CEO of Strategic Solutions, Incorporated, he had conned the company through its early years, building success upon success as the military contractor market expanded. Working around the world, performing often clandestine tasks for the U.S. Government, SSI had become the go-to firm when DoD or State needed something done without official recognition.
But that was then; this was now.
"Still no new contracts?" George Ferraro, SSI vice president and chief financial officer, had no problem guessing the admiral's intent.
"Correct." Derringer's balding head bobbed in assent. "SecDef canceled our electronic warfare project in Arabia and State vetoed us for another African job. Oh, we're still getting business but it's paper-clip money: security work, training assignments, small-scale jobs. About the only advantage is that they keep some of our regulars on the payroll. But they don't reduce the red ink, and we can't operate on our stock portfolio indefinitely."
Among the nine people sitting around the polished table was Lieutenant General Thomas Varlowe, U.S. Army (Retired), the gray presence who never quite shed the three stars he once wore. As chairman of SSI's advisory board, he had little financial stake in the firm but remained interested in the fascinating projects that came down the Beltway. Though he seldom spoke up in board meetings, the situation called for an exception.
"Ahem." Heads turned toward the former West Point track star. "I wanted to talk to Admiral Derringer before the meeting but I didn't get the chance. In case there's any doubt about the company's lack of work, I can elaborate."
Derringer barely managed to suppress a tight smile. The two retirees were "Admiral" and "General" to one another in SSI meetings but friendly rivals named Mike and Tom the rest of the time--especially in November for the Army-Navy game.
"Go ahead, General." The Navy man knew what was coming.
Varlowe shoved back from the table. "It's that job with the Israelis. Damned poor situation to get into ..." He came within an inch of adding, As I tried to tell all of you. Instead, he pushed ahead. "I've snooped around and found that new business dried up almost before that ship sank ... what was it? Three or four months ago? Sure,our people prevented the uranium ore from reaching Iran, but that hardly matters."
"I've been traveling in Europe, General. What does matter?" Beverly Ann Shumard, with a PhD in international relations, was one of two women on the board of directors, and among the most outspoken of all.
Derringer interjected. "Dr. Shumard, the mission summary is still being prepared owing to, ah, security concerns. But the short version is, our training team in Chad got involved in a double play set up by the Israelis, presumably against the Iranians. Colonel Leopole can provide some operational details, but basically our tasking changed from instruction to interdiction, preventing a load of yellow cake from being shipped to Iran."
Shumard shook her head. "I'm sorry, Admiral. As I said, I've been away and didn't know the particulars. But why would Iran want ore from Chad? I mean, Iran has its own mines."
Derringer nodded to the chief of operations.
Lieutenant Colonel Frank Leopole looked, talked, and acted as Central Casting would expect of a Marine Corps officer. He was tall, lean, and hard with a high and tight haircut that screamed "jarhead" to the Army and Navy men in the office. His tenure with SSI had been marked by some notable successes and few failures.
"Deniability, ma'am. At least that's what our intel said. Presumably Tehran wanted foreign yellow cake to use in a weapon and avoid the nuclear fingerprints of its own ore. So our team went chasing off across Chad and Libya, then through the Med and down the west coast of Africa to overhaul the shipment. All the time we were working with the Israelis, who provided most of the information and logistics. We caught the ship, which was scuttled with its cargo, so presumably everybody was happy."
"But I take it nobody really is happy."
"Nobody but the Israelis," Varlowe added. It was an uncharacteristic interjection from the normally taciturn soldier. "As I was going to say, our team--this firm--was stiffed by Mossad. The Israelis concocted the plot in the first place to distract us--the U.S.--from their genuine concern. They had their own operation going against Iran's nuclear program but were afraid we would learn about it and bring pressure to bear. Apparently their real plan failed but what matters is, they tossed us a straw man: something credible that we could pursue and leave them alone." He gave an eloquent shrug. "It worked."
George Ferraro spoke up. "See, that's what I don't understand. We did what the government and the administration wanted done. So why are we the heavies now?"
"There are several major players," Derringer replied. "Not least of which is the CIA. The agency accepted the Israelis' ploy, apparently almost at face value. Our own sources--mainly David Dare--sniffed out the facts but too late to affect the operation."
Shumard accepted that explanation without reservation. Though not involved in intelligence or operations, she and everyone connected with the firm knew the eye-watering reputation of the former NSA spook. It was said that if you wanted to know what Japanese porn film Kim Jong Il watched last night, ask Dave Dare.
"So Langley's embarrassed that SSI figured out what was going on, and wants to cover its hindquarters."
Derringer spoke again. "It's bigger than that, Doctor. We've taken hits before from various agencies, and I admit that a few were justified. But usually when some agency tries to stiff us, it's as you say: embarrassment or jealousy or some sort of perceived rivalry. In this case, we're criticized by State and Langley and to an extent by DoD." He grimaced, then adjusted his glasses. "In a way I can understand it. Considering the high stakes involvedin any Israeli-Iranian conflict, nobody this side of the pond wants to be blamed if something goes wrong."
Marshall Wilmont spoke up for the first time. As SSI president and chief operating officer, he had a finger in most of the company pies. "So much for the reason for our drought. What I want to know is, what can we do about it?"
The question hung suspended above the polished table, lurking in brooding silence.
SOUTH GOVERNATE, LEBANON
The dream returned again.
At the command, the executioners assumed their positions: squatting or kneeling with their rifles aimed at the condemned men's chests.
The sequence usually resembled a grainy black and white newsreel, for the sleeper was one of those who seldom dreamed in color. When awake, in the rare moments when he had nothing else in mind, Ahmad Esmaili sometimes pondered the odd situation. As a participant in the event that stalked his nights, he expected to relive the glorious, dreadful moments from behind the sights of a Heckler & Koch rifle. But more often his perspective was that of an observer, seeing himself and his colleagues from several meters away.
In 1979, at eighteen, Esmaili's first full-time job had been on a revolutionary firing squad. The first day had been dreadful, and if anything the second day was worse. But by the end of the week it was tolerable. After a while, to display his revolutionary fervor, he notched the wood stock of his G3 for each of the Shah's vermin he shot. However, as the imams noted, hell was reserved for infidels--those who rejected Islam. Presumably even Muslims whooppressed others of The Faith had a chance to achieve Paradise.
Apart from former government officials and Savak policemen, Esmaili also had dispatched evildoers such as drug addicts, perverts, and Kurds.
Esmaili had to admit that most of the dictator's men had died reasonably well, some with the Koran in hand. Resigned to their fate, they had stood their ground, eyes bound but hands free, and accepted the ayatollah's justice delivered almost from powder-burn distance. But the former revolutionary guard seldom alluded to that aspect of the process. A few early attempts from twenty meters or more had resulted in some messy episodes, and eventually the range was diminished almost to muzzle contact.
Esmaili felt the heavy trigger pull, then somebody was shaking him awake. It was two hours before dawn.
Forcing his consciousness to swim upward through the haze of REM sleep, he surfaced to think: No good news arrives in darkness.
He was right.
Esmaili sat upright on his cot, rubbing his eyes and stifling a yawn. He merely said, "Tell me."
"It is Malik's team." The tone of the messenger's voice told Ahmad Esmaili as much as the words. "They are all with God."
The Iranian was fully awake now. He focused on the face of his colleague, a young man from Tyre who called himself Hazim: Resolute. He was more enthusiastic than capable but occasionally he showed promise. Esmaili had decided to cultivate him.
"All of them?"
Hazim nodded gravely.
Esmaili swung his bare feet onto the floor of the smallhouse. His toes found his sandals and slid into them, rising in the process. Otherwise he was already dressed. "When?"
"Early this morning. We only got word a little while ago."
The senior man shook his head. "They could not have been more than forty kilometers from here. Why the delay?"
Hazim defaulted to his passive setting. "I do not know, Teacher. I only pass the message from the courier."
"Then I need to speak with him, not an errand boy." The words were selected to cut, to hurt. To teach. He stalked from the house, making for the larger building that served as headquarters for a few days.
Hazim trailed in his master's wake, biting down the pain. Belatedly he realized that he should have informed himself of more details before awaking the Iranian. Or I could have brought the messenger with me.
He was learning.
In the main building Esmaili found the courier drinking thick tea and devouring some biscuits. Showing deference to the Iranian, the Lebanese fighter stood and inclined his head. "Teacher ..."
Esmaili waved a placating hand. "Please sit, brother. You are a guest here."
The two men were within three years of one another's age, both in their mid-forties, both dedicated and competent. But few Hezbollah operatives possessed Ahmad Esmaili's depth of experience. From the revolution onward, through the nightmare of the Iraq war of the 1980s and what the Zionist lackeys called the present "terror" war, the Iranian liaison officer had been constantly engaged. His masters in Tehran knew his worth--and so did his acolytes in The Lebanon.
The messenger was called Fida, and while he surely had sacrificed much of his earthly life to the service ofGod, it had been a willing sacrifice. This night, he knew what the Teacher wanted to know without being asked.
"We were to meet Malik and his team this morning for a joint reconnaissance. When they did not appear, we searched for them." Fida sipped more tea but did not taste it. "We probably arrived two or three hours after ... after the Jews."
Esmaili's obsidian eyes locked on to the courier's face. "You are certain it was Israelis?"
Fida reached into his vest pocket and produced a metal object. From across the table, Esmaili recognized an IDF identification disk. Neither man read Hebrew but both recognized the characters.
The Iranian's mind churned through various options. "This might be a ruse to mislead us. The killers could be local militia trying to drive us from the area." He thought for an additional moment. "Was there expended brass?"
"Yes. It was unmarked--no head stamps."
So it was the Jews.
"In any case, Malik and his men are dead," Fida continued. "We buried them properly and came here. I thought it best to avoid the radio. We are almost certain that the Jews have learned our frequencies again. We will have to change ..."
"You did well, my friend. Now rest here. I have much to do this night."
The intercom buzzed on Derringer's desk. "Admiral, there's a message for you at the front desk."
Derringer turned from his copy of Naval History. There wasn't much else to occupy him that morning, and besides, as an admiral himself, he often sympathized with Takeo Kurita's dilemma at Leyte Gulf. "What is it?"
Mrs. Singer's contralto voice crackled over the line. "Cheryl said it's just a calling card in an envelope addressed to you. She can bring it up."
"No, I should stretch my legs. Tell her I'll be right down."
In the lobby fronting on Courthouse Road, Derringer greeted the receptionist. "Hello, Miss Dungan. I understand there's a message for me."
"Here it is, Admiral." With her Peach Street drawl, Cheryl Dungan pronounced it "hee-yer." She handed over the envelope and beamed a heartbreaking smile. Office gossip said that she had been engaged twice but was having too much fun to change her marital status after just twenty-six years.
Suppressing his sixty-something male hormones, Derringer forced himself to concentrate on the message. It was a plain white envelope with the recipient's name and "PERSONAL" typed on the front. The CEO opened the envelope to find a business card.
Mordecai Baram, Minister for Agriculture and Scientific Affairs, Embassy of Israel, 3514 International Drive Northwest.
There was also a handwritten note that Derringer read in a glance. He turned to the receptionist again. "Who delivered this?"
"Oh, a man who spoke with an accent. Maybe thirty, thirty-two. Kinda cute." She said "kee-yute."
Minutes later Derringer walked into Wilmont's office and closed the door. "Marsh, take a look at this."
Wilmont looked up with a furrowed brow. "Agriculture and science? That's got to be some kind of cover."
"Concur. If I'm not interested, I'm to leave a phone message. Otherwise the note says to meet him at Natural History, 1100 tomorrow. At the evolution exhibit."
The SSI president slid the card across his desk. "What do you plan to do?"
"I see no reason to pass this up. I admit that I'm curious."
Wilmont's paunch bulged beneath his vest as he leaned back. "Obviously that's what Mr. Baram intended. But I wonder why he didn't just call or send an e-mail." He thought for a moment. "Have you ever met him? I've never heard the name."
Derringer shook his head. "Me neither. But that's probably the way he wants things."
"So you're going to keep the appointment?"
"Affirm. But I'm not going alone."