The three vehicles provided a surprisingly stable ride. The countryside in this desolate area of the world was rugged, famously so, but the cars were all-terrain models and could handle much worse. Besides, the ride would last half an hour maximum, and the passengers were not exactly unfamiliar with hardship and Spartan conditions.
Altogether there were eight men in the cars, three in the one in front, three in back, and two in the center car. Seven of the eight men were of little consequence in the grand scheme of things; they were there as protectors for one of the men in the middle car.
His name was Aarif Sajadi, and he was the target.
The aircraft flew twenty-one thousand feet above them, and they could neither hear nor see it. There were no passengers on board the flight; there never were. No flight attendants, no carry-on baggage compartments, no tray tables to be stowed, not even any seats to be restored to their original upright positions.
The pilot, Sergeant Brian Cole, could see the cars clearly, but even if the men stopped, took out incredibly powerful telescopes, and peered upward, they could not have seen him. That’s because they were in the mountainous region of Pakistan, near the Afghanistan border, and he was sitting in a room at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, drinking coffee and nibbling on a blueberry muffin.
The aircraft that Cole was piloting was a MQ-1B Predator drone. Many people thought of drones almost as small model airplanes, carrying cameras and functioning as eyes in the skies. But this one was twenty-seven feet long, had a wingspan of fifty-five feet, and weighed almost fifteen hundred pounds, including its two Hellfire missiles.
Cole was literally flying it with the use of a console and joystick, as if he were playing a video game. He tried to fully concentrate, as his training dictated, but it wasn’t easy. He’d had a fight with his wife that morning before coming to work, and it was weighing on his mind. He thought maybe, when he was finished, that he should send her flowers.
Fortunately for Brian, though less so for the men in the cars, the Predator’s MTS, or Multi-Spectral Targeting System, was doing most of the important work. Through the use of lasers, it had already homed in on the target and told the missiles where to go. All Cole would have to do was tell them when, by pressing a button.
At this point, the cars’ passengers were lucky to be blissfully unaware. Were they suddenly to know of the aircraft and its intentions, there was nothing they could have done about it. The nearest cover was too far for them to reach in the little time available to them.
They were dead men driving.
Cole did not think much about the political or legal implications of what he was about to do. He knew he was functioning as part of the American government’s strategy of targeted killings, and he certainly assumed that the target in this case was considered a terrorist bent on inflicting harm to the United States.
And that was absolutely true.
Cole was forever seeing claims in the media that the number-three person in the terrorist network had been killed; probably fifteen “number threes” had bitten the dust in the past year. Cole had no idea how many of those killings he had been responsible for, if any, but there was one thing he knew for sure: If he ever became a terrorist and reached number four in the chain of command, he wouldn’t want to get promoted.
A final systems check was accomplished, Cole pressed the button, and the three cars, as well as their occupants, ceased to exist. For Cole, having been at this for a while, it was business as usual.
But what he did not know was that Aarif Sajadi was not like any other target. If Sajadi did not die instantly, then in his last moments he likely took some comfort in the fact that he had already plotted his revenge against his killers, halfway around the world.
His death did nothing to change that.
I, Andy Carpenter, am not often stunned. I’m a criminal defense attorney, and I’ve handled some high-profile cases with many twists and turns, so I’ve generally learned to go with the flow, to expect the unexpected.
I am therefore difficult to surprise, but at 7:34 P.M. on March 17, in my Paterson, New Jersey, office, I have just seen something that has left me shaken to the core.
I used to think of Edna as my secretary, until she informed me she was my “administrative assistant.” Then, a couple of years ago, she self-elevated her status to “office manager.” She most often “manages” the office from a remote location, since she works maybe one day a week.
Actually, I’ve overstated it. She comes in one day a week, but she gets almost no work done even then. Instead she endlessly does crossword puzzles and considers herself the best in the world at it. She also talks on the phone a great deal, mostly with her enormous extended family.
But to see her here in the evening, outside of business hours, is disorienting. Edna simply does not work overtime. She doesn’t even work regular time.
In fact, it’s more than disorienting; it’s astonishing. It would be like walking into a bowling alley and seeing the queen of England throwing practice balls on lane fourteen. Yet here Edna is, hunched over her desk, writing on some papers, so engrossed that she barely looks up when I arrive.
With her is Sam Willis, my accountant, who has an office down the hall. He’s sitting on a couch, but Edna’s not paying any attention to him; she’s too intent on what she’s doing. Sam’s the reason I’m here. He said he wanted to talk with me about something important.
“Hey, Sam … Edna,” I say, which is a witty opening conversational gambit I’ve recently come up with.
“Andy, thanks for coming in,” Sam says, while Edna merely manages an “mmm,” without looking up.
I tell Sam to come into my office so we can talk. Once we get in there, I close the door and say, “It’s seven thirty, and Edna’s here.”
“So did we turn the clocks back or something, and I didn’t realize it?”
He shakes his head. “No, but even that would be just an hour. She’d still be here late.”
“I meant, did we turn the clocks back to 1978?”
“It’s tournament time,” he says. “She’s been practicing.”
“Aaahh.” Suddenly it all makes sense. Edna has long been talking about entering a national crossword puzzle tournament, held once a year in Brooklyn. She’s never actually entered, and I’ve always assumed it was due to some secret self-doubt about her prowess. But now she seems to be ready to throw her pencil in the ring.
“I don’t think you’re going to get much work out of her these next few weeks,” Sam says.
“That’s a shocker. What did you want to talk to me about?”
“Well, I think I may have a new client for you.”
Sam says that with an expression and tone in his voice that indicate he thinks he is giving me good news. “Yippee skippee,” I say.
I have a lot of money, many millions, some earned and more inherited. What I don’t have is a desire to work. I’m not sure where I left it, but it’s been missing for a while, and I haven’t searched real hard.
Unfortunately, even though I don’t seek clients, I seem to wind up with some, and long trials have often been the result. Working long trials is the only thing I dislike more than working short trials.
“You aren’t interested in new clients?” Sam asks.
“What tipped you off?”
“Okay. Whatever you say.” Sam seems rather chagrined at my reaction. He thought he was doing something good for a friend, and the friend just blew him off. I decide to soften the blow by acting half interested.
“What’s the case? Maybe I can recommend someone.”
He shrugs. “I’m not sure. I went to high school with this guy, Barry Price. Last time I had seen him was a couple of years ago, at the reunion. I think I told you about him; he’s the guy who married my high school sweetheart, Denise.”
“How come you didn’t?”
“Believe it or not, I dumped her when I went off to college. Biggest mistake of my life.”
“Sorry to hear that.” Coming here is now showing signs of being one of the biggest mistakes of my life. This is already a long story, and Laurie Collins is waiting for me at home. That means that no matter what Sam was telling me, I’d want him to hurry the hell up.
“Anyway, he calls me the other day and invites me to a party at his house last night; you should see this place. I’m not sure why he invited me, but as I’m leaving, he asks if I can come back tonight, that he needs my help. He sounded a little worried about something, but he wouldn’t tell me what. Then he asked if I still knew you.”
“How did he know that?”
“I guess I mentioned you at the reunion, sort of name-dropping, you know? You’re famous. He said he might want to hire you, and could I put the two of you together.”
I’ve had a lot of high-profile cases over the years, many of which have been heavily covered in the media. But famous? Aww, shucks.
He continues. “He told me to pack a bag, that we’d be flying somewhere on his private plane. Barry’s really rich, in case that changes your mind.”
“Sorry, Sam. Not a chance.”
“Really? I thought you might even come out there with me tonight.”
I shake my head. “I’m retired.”
I look at my watch and nod. “Effective seven forty-two P.M. But if you let me know what’s going on, I’ll recommend another lawyer.”
“As good as you?” he asks.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
Sam heads off to his friend’s house, and I head home to Laurie. Edna remains at her desk, with no signs of leaving any time soon.
We have entered the bizarro world, where black is white, up is down, left is right, and Edna is in the office after five o’clock.
Like so many of these things, it began in a bar. Drew Keller was in the right place at the right time. And while an undercover cop’s job was, in fact, to be in that right place at that right time, Drew had to admit to himself that this was more than a little lucky.
He was investigating a series of auto parts thefts in the Concord, New Hampshire, area, and had developed a relationship with a possible suspect whom he believed held some promise. The man’s name was Rodney Larsen, and he was straight out of central casting for someone in Drew’s line of work. Rodney was a walking undercover trifecta—stupid, talkative, and boastful.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to reveal information that you don’t have, and Drew was starting to believe that his instinct was wrong, that Rodney was a dry well when it came to the robberies.
And then he caught a possible break.
It took three nights and a whole bunch of beers, but Rodney said that his brother and another friend were going to “kill a big shot” and that he was a part of the team. He wouldn’t say much more, but when Drew convinced him that he had access to high-tech weaponry and the willingness to use it, he was promised an invite to meet the others and possibly join the team.
So the plan was for them to come to the bar the next night to get to know Drew and see if he was suitable to sign up for whatever they had planned. He was there at midnight, and Rodney was waiting for him.
But the plan had changed.
Rodney’s coconspirators had decided that they didn’t think the meeting should be in public, so Rodney said that he and Drew were supposed to leave the bar and meet at their “place.”
Because the original meeting was going to be in the public bar, Drew had not arranged for backup and surveillance. He was not comfortable heading into this situation, where he might be vulnerable, so he told Rodney that he would follow him in his car. That way he’d be able to call in for backup while he was on the way, and they could follow the GPS device that he would activate on his car.
But when they got to the parking lot, it all changed for the worse. Much worse. Rodney’s brother Alex was waiting there, and he came up behind Drew and held a gun to his back. Then he took Drew’s concealed weapon, forced him into Rodney’s car, and they drove off together.
Drew was alone, and he was in trouble.
They drove to a service station about three miles away. The station was closed for the night, but the back room was open and occupied. Still at gunpoint, Drew was forced into that room, where two other men were waiting for them.
One of the men was Earl Raulston, the third member of the group. The other was a man the three conspirators knew only as Carter. They assumed it was a last name, but no one was really sure. What was obvious, however, even to Drew, was that Carter did not fit in with this crew and that he was in charge.
“Where is his gun?” were the first words out of Carter’s mouth. Alex, obviously proud that he had been the one to confiscate it, rushed over to Carter to hand it to him. Carter looked in the chamber to confirm that it was loaded and then put it on the table.
“You are an undercover officer attempting to thwart our operation,” Carter said.
“Hey, man, this is bullshit,” was Drew’s response. “Rodney here said there was some action to get in on, that’s all. If you don’t want me, that’s cool.”
Carter had no intention of arguing the point. Instead he took out his own gun and, without hesitating, shot Drew in the head, killing him instantly.
The others in the room were stunned, but no one was about to offer any criticism. “I knew he was dirty,” Rodney said.
“This doesn’t change anything, does it?” Alex asked.
“Actually, it changes everything,” Carter said. He picked up Drew’s gun from the desk, and in a devastatingly quick motion, shot the other three men with it.
He had the ability to have cleanly killed each with one bullet in the center of the forehead, but that’s not how it would have gone down in a chaotic firefight. So now he fired more erratically, and in the case of Alex and Earl, used two shots to make the kill.
The three murders took fewer than five seconds, leaving Carter the only living person in the room. And he would be there for a while; this was a scene that would have to be choreographed.
What law enforcement would find would be implausible but not impossible. Which would be plenty good enough.
Sam Willis kept his glove compartment full. In addition to the registration, insurance card, and other documents that are found in most cars, he kept a substantial number of wrapped Weight Watchers Oatmeal Raisin Cookies. He found them surprisingly good, and even though they obviously weren’t fattening, he was able to overcome that deficiency by inhaling up to ten at a time.
But when Sam was driving, the glove compartment was also an electronics warehouse. He kept his iPad, iPhone, and BlackBerry tucked away in there, which was essentially an act of self-preservation. Sam simply could not resist talking on the phone and texting while driving, so he protected himself from those unsafe activities by putting the devices out of reach.
That is why he had none of those distractions during his nighttime drive to Barry Price’s house in Smoke Rise, New Jersey, about forty-five minutes from Paterson. Sam was cutting it pretty tight; with no traffic he’d get there at eight forty-five, which was when Barry told him to arrive.
Unfortunately, the forty-five-minute estimate did not take into account the accident on Route 23 that had traffic backed up for almost a mile. Sam’s GPS, the one device that wasn’t banished to the glove compartment, alerted him to the problem, and he got off the road to take back streets.
He found himself on a dark country road and basically had no idea where he was, but with his GPS he wasn’t worried about getting lost. He was more concerned about being late and considered calling Barry, but that would have meant stopping to get the phone out, which would have just taken more time.
He heard the thump more than he felt it, but it jolted him. He had hit something, there was no question about that, but he had no idea what it was. It was most likely an animal, but in the darkness Sam couldn’t be sure.
He had a momentary desire to just drive on, but he couldn’t do it. He had to stop and find out what happened.
Sam pulled over but immediately realized that whatever he had hit was behind him, in an area where it was too dark for him to see. So he did a U-turn and crossed over to the other side of the road, angling the car so the headlights might light up the area he thought he needed to search.
He got out and walked toward the brush on the side of the road, and for about a minute, which seemed like an hour, couldn’t find anything. Then he heard a noise. It was hard to tell exactly what the sound was, and he went toward it.
Sam was nervous; the noise seemed to be coming from the fairly heavy brush, and even with the car’s lights, it was hard for him to see. If a wounded animal was lying there, it could be dangerous.
And then he saw it, lying immobile but with eyes that were awake and alert. In the deep brush it was hard to tell what it was, maybe a coyote or maybe a dog, but the message in its eyes was clear: Help me.
“Shit,” Sam said and ran back to his car. He got in and pulled it up very close to the animal, so the lights would better brighten that particular area. He also turned on the hazard blinking lights, and then he got out his cell phone to call the police. It wasn’t until after he dialed 911 that he realized there was insufficient cell service in the area.
Things were not going well, and to make matters worse, it was starting to rain.
He debated whether or not to drive until he got cell service but decided not to. First, he wasn’t sure that he’d be able to identify the location when he got back. Second, the animal was fairly close to the road, and there was a chance, albeit remote, that another car could drive over it.
So he stepped out into the road to flag down a passing car. In the steady rain it was somewhat dangerous, but the road wasn’t curved there, so Sam felt that oncoming drivers would have enough time to see him.
Unfortunately, there weren’t many cars, maybe one or two a minute. The first six cars passed him by, barely slowing to avoid him, but the seventh slowed to a stop. By then the rain was coming down hard.
He went to the passenger window, and when it opened he was surprised to see that the driver was a woman. She was at least sixty years old, and Sam wanted to tell her that she was nuts for stopping.
“Car trouble?” she asked.
He shook his head, which was by then soaked. “No, I hit an animal. It’s alive, and I was trying to call the police, but there’s no cell service.”
“Oh…” she said, apparently upset on the animal’s behalf. She took out her phone and looked at it. “I’ve got two bars. Let me try.”
And she did just that. He heard her tell the dispatcher that she was on the Canyon Road, three miles south of Kinnelon. She asked Sam his name, and told them that Sam would be waiting for their arrival. His nod confirmed that he would in fact be doing just that.
When she got off the phone, she asked Sam if he wanted her to wait as well. The truth was that he did, because she seemed competent to handle anything that arose, but instead he thanked her profusely and sent her on her way.
She was barely out of sight when he realized he had made a stupid mistake. He should have asked to use her phone to alert Barry to what had happened and explain that he would be late.
It took almost fifteen minutes for the police to arrive, during which time the rain got even more intense. A single squad car pulled up, and two officers got out.
“You Sam Willis?” one of them asked. Before Sam could even respond, he asked, “Where’s the dog?”
“I’m not sure it’s a dog, but it’s over here. And it’s alive.”
Sam led them to the spot, and the officers shined a flashlight on the wounded and drenched animal. Sam saw it and said, “It’s a dog.”
The other officer frowned and said, “We’ll take it from here.”
“What are you going to do with it?” he asked, afraid that they might shoot it on the spot.
“There’s an animal emergency hospital about two miles up the road. That’s where it’s going.”
“Is there anything I can do?” Sam asked.
“No,” he said, and then seemed to soften. “Don’t worry about it, pal. It’s dark here; you didn’t do anything wrong.”
The incident had left him shaken, and the look on the dog’s face would stay with him for a while. Sam got back in his car. It was only about seven minutes from where he was to Barry’s house, and rather than call he decided to just drive there.
It was an exclusive gated community, and a guard had to call Barry to get authorization for Sam to enter. Sam had gone through the same process the night before, at the party.
Each house in the development was impressive, and Barry’s might have been the nicest of all. The previous night there had been valet parking for all the guests, but when Sam pulled up this time, only Denise Price was there to greet him. Shielding herself from the rain with an umbrella, she went to the passenger window, and he lowered it.
“Hi, Sam. I’m sorry, but Barry asked me to tell you he couldn’t wait any longer and that he’d call you tomorrow.”
“Damn. There was traffic on the highway, so I got off the road and wound up hitting a dog.”
“He’s alive but hurt pretty bad. Anyway, please apologize to Barry for me.”
“I’m sure he’ll understand,” she said. “Would you like to come in and dry off? Maybe have a cup of coffee?”
He laughed. “I don’t think I’ll ever be dry again. But coffee sounds good.”
“Come on in.” She looked in the backseat. “Your seat is all wet.” She opened the back door and wiped the seat down a bit.
“It’s fine,” he said. “The advantage of buying plastic.”
She laughed and closed the door. Sam got out of the car, looked up into the driving rain, and asked, “Barry’s flying in this?”
She nodded. “He’s a very experienced flier.”
Copyright © 2013 by Tara Productions, Inc.