BROTHERHOOD (Chapter 1)
U.S. Disciplinary Barracks
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
March 15, 2003
The Castle lay in ruins that bitter late-winter morning. Huge wrecking balls were pulverizing the formidable brick structure, once the American military's sole maximum-security prison.
In the backseat of a blue Ford sedan, U.S. Army Major General Percival Barrens barely glanced out his window at the destruction. A lean African American with short iron-gray hair and a face that revealed nothing, General Barrens's attention was focused a mile ahead on the new military prison that replaced the Castle.
"What are the chances he accepts, General?" asked the woman in a dark pantsuit sitting beside him. Her name was Ellen Wolfe. Attractive, chilly, with short blonde hair, Wolfe worked for the Central Intelligence Agency.
"Man who's been through as much as he has, it's hard to say," Barrens replied as they pulled into the parking lot outside the visitors' entrance to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks.
The USDB was more like a fortress than a prison and featured the kind of security common at so-called "super-max" facilities such as Pelican Bay State Prison in California and the U.S. Penitentiary, Florence in Colorado. Guards in the towers carried submachine guns. Guards inside worked in bulletproof "pods" with portholes for shotguns. They operated gates, air locks, and the lives of prisoners with computer controls and dispassion.
Inside, one such guard nodded at General Barrens and Wolfe and slid their identification back into a steel retractable box. They retrieved their papers and passed through an air lock, where they submitted to a body scan.
On the other side, they were met by Colonel Harrison Craig, commandant of the USDB, who looked at Barrens and said, "This kind of short notice is most unusual, General. Completely out of protocol and--"
"I don't give a damn, and neither does the secretary of defense," the general barked.
"Where is he, Colonel?"
Colonel Craig's cheeks burned and his jaw stiffened, but he replied, "Special segregated facility. Follow me, sir."
"Segregated?" Wolfe asked. "He did nothing violent that I--"
"A precautionary measure," the colonel snapped. "Have you read his file?"
The general said nothing. But the details of the complete file--not one the commandant had seen--sped through Barrens's brain. The inmate he was about to meet had seven years with U.S. Special Forces, Rangers first and then as part of a JSOC unit, an elite team drawn from all four branches of the military. He spoke eight languages and tested genius on IQ tests. A master of disguise and subterfuge, he was an expert in hand-to-hand combat and versed in virtually every kind of weapon known to man. He had also endured one of the strangest childhoods Barrens had ever heard of....
"General?" Wolfe said.
Barrens had fallen behind. He hustled to catch up. He, the CIA officer, and the warden passed through six more sets of steel bars and doors, climbed a stairway, ducked through a hatch, and eased out onto a catwalk of sorts. The opaque roof allowed little natural light. Below the catwalk and to either side were rows of deep rectangular cement wells, exercise yards for the segregated prisoners, who used them one hour out of twenty-four.
"That's him," Colonel Craig said, gesturing to the second exercise yard on the right and the shirtless man in his late twenties doing handstand push-ups. "Robin Monarch."
Monarch appeared to have heard the warden because he came to his feet fluidly, changed directions with the grace of a natural athlete, and looked up at the three on the catwalk. Better than six feet tall, lean, and hard-muscled, the prisoner had a dusky tone to his skin and possessed a handsome face of smoothly melded features. He was, as Barrens had heard him described, "a man who could fit in almost anywhere."
Monarch's almond-shaped and -colored eyes took in the warden and Wolfe, whose nostrils flared under his gaze, before fixing on Barrens and the two stars he wore on either shoulder. His attention remained on the general, even when Colonel Craig said, "Exercise is over, Monarch. You have visitors."
Five minutes later, guards armed with pump-action shotguns led the now manacled prisoner into a room bare but for a table and four chairs bolted to the floor. Barrens, with Wolfe beside him, sat facing Monarch.
The inmate showed no emotion as the guards ran a chain from his ankle irons to a heavy-gauge eyebolt sunk in the cement floor. With a shorter length of chain they secured his wrist manacles to the underside of the table. Barrens's focus went to Monarch's inner right forearm and a tattoo that read "FDL" in flowing script that looked like calligraphy. The inmate did not seem to notice the general's interest. He was looking at Wolfe, the CIA officer, who at first seemed amused and then slightly flustered by his unwavering attention.
When the guards left them alone, General Barrens introduced himself and Wolfe before saying, "We have a few questions for you, Monarch."
The prisoner looked at Barrens, blinked. Said nothing.
The CIA officer cleared her throat and said, "It would greatly help your cause if you'd first tell us where the money from the stolen gold went."
Across the table, Monarch took the question in stride, but flashed on the mental image first of a kind woman with a long gray braid, and then of boys running barefoot through dusty streets. He could almost smell the air, hear the music.
He held his tongue for several seconds, but then said, "As I told the court, I have no idea what happened to that gold. And help my cause in what way? And with who, exactly?"
General Barrens grimaced. "The court didn't believe you. How could it? Eyewitnesses saw you enter that Afghan chieftains' compound. Afterward nearly a quarter of a million dollars in gold--gold generated by the opium trade--was gone. Do you think the judge and judge advocates were stupid, Monarch? Do you think the jurors were complete imbeciles?"
Monarch shrugged and said, "Help my cause in what way? And with who?"
Wolfe glanced at Barrens, who said, "We have the power to get you out of here. But only if you level with us."
Monarch was stunned by the offer but did not show it. For several beats he studied Wolfe, an attractive woman to say the least, but one whose body language betrayed her. She was lying, or at least not telling him everything. These two had the power to release him from Leavenworth? No, there had to be another angle here beyond simply telling the truth, which he would definitely not do.
Monarch said, "Besides the gold--whatever happened to it--what do you want to know?"
"Why did you lie on your enlistment documents?" Barrens said. "That's a federal offense all by itself."
It was true. Monarch had lied on those documents. But he said, "Did I?"
"You did," Wolfe said. "We know who your real parents were, Robin. We know what they did for a living, what they had you do as a boy. We know how they really died."
This time, Monarch flashed on an urban street scene at night where salsa music played. He saw uniformed police climbing from unmarked cars. He saw himself at thirteen, fleeing from those officers into the sweltering darkness.
"We know almost all of it," Barrens said. "It's a big part of why we're here."
"We just want you to fill in the gaps a little," Wolfe added. "So we know we're justified in trusting you."
Monarch almost smiled. "As the court martial panel decided, trusting me would be a mistake, Ms. Wolfe."
The general's lips twisted in annoyance. "You disappear in Buenos Aires for more than four years after your parents' murder, and then you just show up in Miami at an enlistment office. Where were you during those four years?"
Monarch fought the urge to glance at his FDL tattoo and said, "Surviving."
"How?" Wolfe demanded.
Monarch had nothing to say. That part of his life was a secret. It would remain that way, no matter the consequences. He had sworn an oath, and above all he was a man of his word.
He said, "You don't care about my past. That's not why you're here. What's really going to get me out?"
Barrens hesitated, then said, "We want you to steal something, Monarch. If you're successful, after your return, you'll be granted your freedom."
Monarch almost smiled again. "Full pardon?"
Barrens nodded. "And your conviction expunged from the record."
Monarch shook his head. "Sorry, General, but a two-star does not have that kind of authority."
"But the secretary of defense does."
The secretary of defense. That surprised Monarch. "What am I supposed to steal for the secretary of defense?"
Over the course of the next ten minutes, they told him. Monarch listened, digested, calculated, then said, "And you expect me to survive that kind of mission, in those kinds of conditions?"
"That's up to you, isn't it?" Barrens replied.
Wolfe said, "It's the deal, anyway, Robin, and it's on the table for exactly one minute."
"Take it or leave it," the general said. "Freedom or back to the cell."
Monarch considered each of them in turn. "I may be in isolation, but I read. I know what's going on in the outside world. The protests. And I've read the justifications for... Let's just say that the evidence doesn't strike me as overwhelming, you know?"
The CIA officer said, "From your position, isn't that quite beside the point? And think about it: You'll be saving lives in the long run."
Monarch looked at her and thought about their offer. "Restoration of rank? Full reinstatement?"
The general shook his head. "We can only go so far. You'll be a civilian if you survive."
Monarch thought, cocked his head, and rotated his palms up, causing the chains to clink and jingle.
Wolfe smiled. "You'll do it, then?"
"Sure," he said at last. "Why not? I was taught as a child to be a gambler who always bets on himself."
"Congratulations, then," Barrens said, sounding greatly satisfied. "In a half hour you'll see the real light of day."
"I look forward to that," Monarch admitted.
Wolfe's smile intensified, and then she turned somber. "But first the gold, and where you were between the ages of thirteen and eighteen."
"Sorry," Monarch said. "Not part of the deal."
She hardened. "You're hardly in a position to negotiate."
"Really?" Monarch replied. "The way I see it, you are in no position to negotiate. If you so desperately want me to steal for you, those are my terms."
The CIA officer glanced at the general, who paused but then nodded.
The biting air outside the USDB gates made Monarch feel so good he swore he could taste freedom in every breath. Six months. It was the longest he'd ever gone without seeing the sun.
He climbed into the backseat of the Ford. Wolfe got in the other side. General Barrens rode up front. As they drove past the ruins of the Castle, Monarch caught the CIA officer watching him with a look of bemusement.
"What?" he asked.
"You've piqued my interest," Wolfe said.
"That right?" Monarch said.
"Your mysterious past. I feel like a bull that's seen a fluttering red cape."
"You calling me a matador?" he asked.
Wolf half laughed and said, "I'm a stubborn woman. You watch, Monarch. It may take me a while, but I'll figure out where you went after your parents died."
"Good luck with that," Monarch said, and closed his eyes.
He meant only to end the conversation, but soon realized that his sudden, dramatic reversal of fortune had left him strangely exhausted. Over the years he had learned to rest when his body told him to rest, and he soon dozed off into an altered state of vivid dreams.
Monarch saw himself at fourteen. It was dusk, summer, still hot, and he was walking with an older, much larger boy named Claudio on a busy commercial street in one of the better neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. Beneath the right side of the black ball cap Robin wore, he felt a scar itch. He'd taken to scratching at it obsessively, even through the stiff fabric of the hat.
"Quit picking at it, or you'll get yourself all infected again," said Claudio in Spanish.
"Rule number ten, Robin. Take care of yourself. Except for a brother, no one else will."
"Sometimes I think you and the others have too many rules, Claudio," Robin complained, but lowered his hand, felt the scar itch for attention almost immediately.
"Eighteen rules are too many to live by?" Claudio demanded sharply. He'd stopped to glare at Robin. "If you think that, you are an even bigger fool than I thought when I found you lying in the ano's mud. And I am wasting my time."
Robin remembered coming to at the base of the garbage heap after the pipe had hit him, left his scalp split open and his face covered in blood. Almost nine months ago now. He remembered the pain, the nausea. But most of all he remembered what had come before the attack, the grief, the loneliness, and the want that had permeated his terrible existence.
"What is it, then?" Claudio demanded.
The older boy had folded his arms. Robin's attention flickered to the ornate calligraphy tattooed on Claudio's inner right forearm: FDL. The top of the D had been crafted to suggest fingers about to pluck something. In a moment he recalled all that Claudio had taught him in the nine months since their meeting. How to glide and bump during a pickpocket scheme. How to swarm a mark as part of a team, to pick a dozen different locks, to disable alarm systems, to steal creatively.
Robin's left hand reached across to scratch his own inner right forearm.
"I guess eighteen rules are not too many to live by," he said.
Claudio smiled, tapped his lips. "I knew you were not so dumb, my friend."
As night fell over the city, the older boy said, "You know, we will not always be thieves. I, for example, will be a great artist someday."
Robin had seen Claudio drawing and painting on walls and pieces of cardboard, but laughed. "An artist?"
Claudio's face clouded. "A great painter. You watch, I'll paint the city with all that I have seen."
After that boast, he led Robin through a park and into an alley that ran out behind fourteen-foot-high brick walls that helped create individual compounds surrounding a row of ornate mansions. Across the alley, opposite those walls, a steep ivied bank rose and disappeared into a stand of flowering Palo Borracho trees.
Claudio inspected the rear gates of the compounds until they reached the sixth, the one that boasted a red wooden door. Robin could hear people laughing and glasses clinking inside.
Claudio surveyed the alley in both directions, turned away from the red gate, and began to claw his way up the steep ivied bank and into the trees. Robin clambered after him, ignoring the thorns that ripped at his arms. He reached the top, gasping beneath the flowering trees. The air was sweet, and for some reason it caused the boy to think of his mother, Francesca, and he had to fight the tears that welled in the darkness. She'd been dead ten months.
Claudio took no notice of Robin's sudden grief. The older boy was peering down at the mansions. Robin wiped at his eyes and joined him. The compounds to the left and right of the one with the red rear gate were silent. No lights on in those houses. No lights on in those yards. But in the middle compound, behind the red gate, a party was under way, not a formal affair, but a generous gathering of "the wealthy and well dressed," a description Robin's late father, Billy, had liked to use.
The party was on a terrace beside a glimmering pool. Tiny white lights glowed in the trees. Soft piano music filled the air.
"Which one?" Robin asked, gesturing to the darkened compounds to either side of the one hosting the party.
Claudio shook his head, pointed at the party compound. "You want in to La Fraternidad de Ladrones, you go big, my friend. You want in to the Brotherhood of Thieves, you got to sneak in there, right under their stinkin' rich, don't-care-about-nobody-but-themselves noses, and then you got to steal 'em blind."
Monarch heard the voice in his dream, felt the nudge at his shoulders, bolted awake into a defensive posture, arms set, ready. He glanced around wildly, seeing General Barrens and then Wolfe, who cringed back in her seat.
"Plane's waiting," Barrens said.
Monarch glanced out the window and saw a military transport jet idling on the tarmac at Sherman Army Airfield, twelve miles from the prison. It was real, then, not a dream. He was free. He got out of the car, did not bother with a last look around at the bleak Kansas winter, and climbed up into the plane's hold.
Folding seats and harnesses were bolted into the flanks of the inner hull. The rest of the space was bare but for a huge metal table on which a stack of large maps lay beside a bank of computer screens. Three people, two men, one woman, in Army Air jumpsuits, worked at keyboards.
Monarch sat beside Barrens, clipped himself into the harness, a move that felt oddly comforting to him, a familiar gesture that had been lost to memory inside the Disciplinary Barracks. Wolfe took the jump seat across from him.
"Where to now?" he asked as the jet rolled onto the runway.
"Andrews, then Diego Garcia," the general replied, referring to the U.S. military's island base in the Indian Ocean
"Diego Garcia?" Monarch said. "So you want this done sooner than later."
"No exact parameters yet," Barrens admitted as the jet took off. "But I'd say we're within days of launch."
Monarch shifted with slight discomfort, wondered whether the six months in solitary confinement had dulled his skills, his instincts, whether he'd be up to this assignment. He didn't have a choice, did he? This was literally a case of do or die, and he did not plan on dying anytime soon.
He heard Claudio's voice say: "Rule number one: You have the right to survive."
Monarch half nodded to affirm his belief in one of the rules by which he lived, and by the time they'd reached cruising altitude, he had begun the process of convincing himself that he could and would succeed and survive this mission. Monarch did this by closing his eyes, breathing deeply, and eliminating all other thoughts. Within moments, as far as he was concerned, there was no past, no future, just this one thing to do.
He was ready when the jet leveled off and he heard Barrens unbuckle his harness and say, "Let's show you the latest intelligence. Ellen? Can you bring Monarch up to speed?"
Monarch opened his eyes to find Wolfe already free of her harness and moving toward the metal table. He pulled the buckles free and joined the CIA officer and the general, who were spreading out several large blueprints.
"This where you think it is?" Monarch asked, his eyes scanning the construction diagrams, which detailed the inner and outer workings of a massive building that featured two long, low wings jutting out to either side of a shorter but more multilevel space bordering a large swimming pool.
"Yes," Wolfe said. "Among other places."
"Meaning we believe from NSA intercepts that there are copies, perhaps four," the CIA officer replied. "We have rumored locations on all four, but this target is a lock and features penetrable security."
"And you know that how?"
"From CIA Special Activities Division and Ranger teams that have been inside the city already," Barrens said. "You'll get their reports, see the video they shot."
"They can't handle this?"
"Not without a gunfight," Wolfe said. "We came to you looking for finesse."
Barrens nodded. "Obviously we'd much rather this go off without notice."
Monarch responded skeptically, "From the chaos you expect at the time of launch, I don't think anyone will be noticing a little light weapons fire."
"Just the same," Barrens said. "This is how the joint chiefs and the secretary want it run. No undue attention. Lives are at stake."
"Mine more than most," Monarch said.
"Get-out-of-jail-free card's a costly thing," Wolfe said.
For the next hour of the flight to Andrews Air Force Base, they showed Monarch satellite photos, more blueprints, and long-range raw video footage of the exterior of the facility. Monarch inherited perhaps his greatest gift from his father: an uncanny photographic memory that allowed him to recall virtually every line of every diagram, every shadow of every photograph, every nuance of every film frame. Organically, all these came together in his brain to form an almost three-dimensional understanding of the target facility and grounds. Seeing that model float in his mind, Monarch listened without comment as the general outlined a suggested plan leading up to the moment of entry.
"You'll float inside the walls, and from there you're on your own," Barrens said. "You're the expert here, we'll leave the interior job to your designs and the circumstances at hand."
Monarch chewed on all that he'd been shown, all that he'd been told.
"Extraction?" he asked.
"Your call as well," the general replied.
For several moments Monarch said nothing, his left fingers rubbing at the tattoo on his forearm, one of the few things he ever did subconsciously.
Wolfe asked, "You think it will work?"
Monarch squinted, glanced at her. "Everything except the high-altitude jump. If deployed even at a low altitude, the parachute will be spotted with that kind of show going on."
"You have a better idea, then?" Barrens asked.
Monarch nodded. "I'm going to need a squirrel suit."
They landed at Andrews at eight that evening. A light rain fell as the jet was refueled and they got out to stretch their legs in a hangar. A courier, a female African-American Army sergeant, awaited them. She carried a large black duffel bag.
"You ordered a squirrel suit, General?" Sergeant Greene asked, as if that were an absolutely normal thing to say.
Barrens glanced at Monarch. "Against my better judgment. Where did you ever find it?"
The sergeant allowed herself the barest smile. "We at the Quartermaster's Corps have deep and wide resources, sir."
"I appreciate it," Monarch said, taking the bag and shaking her hand.
"You gonna put that on for real?" Sergeant Greene asked.
"That's the plan," Monarch replied.
She looked at General Barrens. "Permission to speak frankly, sir?" Barrens nodded, confused.
Greene looked back at Monarch and said, "Funny, but you don't look like a damn fool." Monarch laughed. "Appearances can be deceiving, Sergeant."
They took off for the Indian Ocean twenty minutes later. As they flew out over the Atlantic, Monarch stayed in his jump seat, the squirrel suit tucked away behind a cargo net. In his mind, however, he was inside that 3-D model of the building, trying to devise the most efficient and safe route to the target.
As he did, thoughts of Billy kept intruding, echoes of his father's voice from long, long ago: "You want the surprise, Robin, the unexpected, of course, but you're also looking for the path of least resistance. Think of how water gets into places, how it'll seep into cracks and dribble down the walls. That's how you have to be to get in and out of places unnoticed."
Monarch examined the target facility using that filter again and again. But hours later, as exhaustion licked him into unconsciousness and vivid dreams again, he still had not figured out how to become like water in this case.
"Are you out of your mind?" Robin demanded, looking at Claudio in the gloaming light beneath the fragrant trees in Buenos Aires.
"Are you in your mind, or seeing things for what they are?" Claudio retorted. "Rule number--"
"I don't care which of your goddamn rules applies," Robin hissed. "How can you expect me to sneak in there and steal... I... I don't even know what I'm supposed to steal!"
"A diamond bracelet and a painting," Claudio said calmly. "The maid says there are many stones in the bracelet that we can sell. Enough to feed the Brothers for months. And the painting, this I read about in a book." He handed Robin the torn page. "This is how you will know it is the right one."
Robin took the paper, frowned. "In a book? That makes it like, famous?"
"Interesting," Claudio corrected. "To me. I want to study it. The brushstrokes. The composition. When I am done, maybe I give it back. But not the bracelet. We keep that."
"But..." Robin began, then saw the older boy was unwavering. He either had to steal the bracelet and the painting and become a full member of La Fraternidad, or he had to walk away, fend for himself again.
He started to resign himself to his fate. But what fate was that? A Buenos Aires jail? He flashed again on that image of police officers leaving an unmarked car with shotguns. He saw himself running hard away from a movie theater and the bloody bodies of his mother and father sprawled on a cold sidewalk.
No, he could not go to jail. He couldn't chance an encounter with any police officer whatsoever, certainly not in this city, even now. They'd kill him if they caught him. No doubt.
"Well?" Claudio demanded.
Torn as he was, Robin realized that he only had one way to get where he really wanted to be--inside the Brotherhood with Claudio. Protected. Part of something bigger than himself.
"Okay," Robin said at last. "I'm getting the bracelet and I'm getting the painting. I am not going to get caught. I'm going to steal them blind."
Claudio grinned. "Just like any good little thief would."
Central Indian Ocean
March 19, 2003
Beneath an open-air hangar that shielded him from the sun but did little to cut the brutal tropical heat, Monarch buttoned an oversize green military fatigue top, hiding a chest harness beneath that held two Heckler & Koch USP .45 caliber pistols and four loaded clips for each. There was also a small but powerful handheld satellite radio, two Mag lights, and a GPS tracking device that he had just turned on.
Monarch could smell the sea, but was barely aware of the beck and call of men working around him. Wiping at the sweat already beading on his forehead, he picked up the bib-style bottom of the squirrel suit and struggled into it.
Made of Kevlar and cable-reinforced parachute fabric, the squirrel suit was two-piece, jet black, and featured soft wings like a flying squirrel's that hung down from the arms to the waist and between the legs of the suit from the crotch to ankle. An integrated hood fit him like a glove. Extreme sports base jumpers had invented the suits to fly off cliffs, but over the years Monarch had found them perfect for high-altitude jumps, giving him the ability to soar in virtually any direction and at varying speeds, all while plummeting toward Earth.
He checked the altimeter on his right wrist and then a second GPS device on his left. Two feet above sea level. Thirty-three hundred and fifty-two miles to target. He put a headlamp on over the hood, and then swung his arms into the straps of a lightweight parachute pack that he'd use at ultralow altitude.
Sweltering now, Monarch nevertheless picked up a helmet and a set of clear goggles and turned toward General Barrens and Ellen Wolfe. The general wore short sleeves and aviator sunglasses. The CIA officer wore a khaki top and shorts and Ray-Ban sunglasses sat on top of her head. For the first time, she looked genuinely concerned about Monarch's safety.
He looked beyond Barrens and Wolfe at a black B-2 stealth bomber that was also inside the open-sided hangar. The stealth bomber featured special coatings that allowed it to slip past radar undetected and had a range of six thousand miles The pilot and navigator bombardier were making their final inspections. A team of U.S. Navy ordnance specialists were maneuvering the last of sixty-five five-hundred-pound Mark 82 bombs into the belly of the flying beast.
"You sure those are going to hold above me?" Monarch asked.
Barrens nodded. "There's a foolproof rack system up in there; you'll see it. The ride will be uncomfortable, but you'll have plenty of room. Test your radio and headset once you get yourself situated."
Monarch nodded. "Oxygen? Water? Pressure?"
"Four tanks of O2," Wolfe replied. "More than enough. And two gallons of water, two bags of jerky, dried fruit, nuts, and a bar of dark chocolate."
"They've rigged the bay so it will have about the same pressure dogs get when in transport on commercial jets," Barrens said.
"What more could a man want?" Monarch said, and moved past them toward the bomber, irritated by the ungodly heat.
"Robin?" the CIA officer called.
Monarch glanced back over his shoulder at her.
"Be safe," Wolfe said.
He smiled and said, "You too, Ellen," and kept going.
The bomb bay doors were open. Monarch flipped on the headlamp. Bombs filled much of the bay above him, stacked and positioned on hydraulic racks linked to a retractable pin system that the bombardier alone controlled. But between the underbelly of the bomber and the first actual bomb, there was a gap of five feet. Strapped to the empty racks below the bombs were the four oxygen canisters, water jugs, and a nylon sack, which he guessed held his food.
Monarch donned leather gloves and the helmet, then climbed up inside. He got to his feet, got a firm grip on the empty bomb racks before looking down at one of the ordnance specialists, a thickly set Hispanic whose name tag identified him as Corporal Escobar.
"Dude, you out of your frickin' skull, or what?" Escobar said.
"I've considered that more than a few times," Monarch admitted, then gave the man a smile,\ and said into his mic, "Let's button her up."
He held tight to the rack above him and lifted his feet. The bomb doors hissed and slid shut, leaving him in a steel sauna lit only by his headlamp. He grabbed one of the water jugs and drank as much as he could stomach, hearing the B-2's turbines start and gather power.
When the bomber began to move, Monarch removed the helmet. He took the mouthpiece and hose connected to the first oxygen tank and fit it over his nose and lips, then got the helmet back on.
Using the handle given to Monarch back in the Special Forces, the pilot, a Texan, drawled over the speaker in his helmet, "Rogue, you ready to get up close and personal with a little 'Shock' and 'Awe'?"
"Roger," Monarch said, then sat on the bomb doors and braced himself, the heels of his boots pressed against two nubs of steel on the doors, his back against the rear wall of the bomb bay, holding tight to the empty racks again.
Given the sheer tonnage of the bombs above him, he was surprised at the power of the B-2's engines, which roared and hurled the stealth down the Navy airstrip toward the ocean. The force of the acceleration pinned him against the fuselage, and they climbed steeply.
Two minutes into the climb, Monarch became agitated. His muscles began to throb and his teeth began to ache.
"This is Rogue, are you pressurizing the bay?" he asked as the heat around Monarch became overwhelming, smothering, swiftly robbing him of consciousness.
"That's a negative," came the Texan's response as Monarch plunged into darkness. "We are having problems with initiation. Rogue? Rogue, do you copy?"
His face blackened with dirt, Robin stood in the alley shadows beside the rear wall of the compound immediately north of the one where the party was taking place. Claudio had pointed out that several stout limbs from the ancient live oak tree in the darkened compound hung over into the shadows behind the revelers. The older boy had also pointed out that the alley wall of the dark compound doglegged slightly, a corner that could be climbed. That would be his route in. How he got out was his own problem.
Robin felt in his pants pocket for the pocketknife and the three thin picks Claudio had given him as his only tools. Satisfied, he bowed his head and pleaded with the spirit of his late father to watch over him. The teen remembered when he was much younger, perhaps six, and Billy was coaching him as he climbed through a jungle gym at a playground in Germany. His father showed Robin how he could hang from things as well as a monkey if he just allowed his fingers, arms, and shoulders to rotate effectively. With that in mind, Robin began to ascend the alley wall, his fingers and rubber-sole shoes finding niches in the brickwork and mortar that he clung to or pressured against to inch his way ever upward.
As Claudio had warned, there were glass shards embedded along the top of the wall, except in one small section, up at the top of the jog he now climbed. Claudio had been on the wall three nights before. He'd broken off the shards there and filed them down smooth.
Still, Robin had to kip his way up onto the ledge with care lest he slice his feet and hands. He perched up there for three short breaths and then somersaulted forward off the wall and into a splayed position. He landed with an oomph in a freshly tilled flowerbed, just as Claudio had said he would.
It took several seconds for Robin to catch his breath and another several to get to his feet, but then he was running across the interior of the darkened compound, praying that the older boy was right, that there were no dogs patrolling the yard.
He reached the base of the live oak without incident and saw to his surprise that a children's swing hung off one of the bigger limbs, one that could not be seen from that high spot in the flowering trees across the alley. Without hesitation, he grabbed the chains, twisted them together, and began to haul himself up into the tree hand over fist.
Soon he was twenty feet up in the tree. Foliage surrounded him, blocking anyone's ability to see him, certainly anyone attending the party, which was now less than one hundred and fifty feet over the wall and down from him.
Amid the music and the happy din echoing over to Robin, a man's deep, boastful voice boomed something about the wonders of the Perón family. Anger flooded through Robin with such hot intensity that he wanted to fling himself over the wall and find and attack the man. What did he know? How could he know?
Robin flashed on images of his parents leaving that movie theater and uniformed policemen exiting a dark unmarked sedan, seeing the entire scene as he had from far up the sidewalk. For a moment, there in the oak tree, he relived those terrible memories as if they were unfolding right in front of him. Echoes of shotgun blasts pounded inside his head.
"Rogue? Rogue, do you copy?" came the pilot's Texas drawl.
Monarch roused in the bomb bay, gasping for air, aware that it was cold and that the terrible pressure and heat that had built inside his body was gone.
"Copy," Monarch managed.
"Sorry 'bout that, partner," the pilot said with a sigh. "Pressurizing system kind of locked up on us there for a minute. You feeling all right?"
It felt as if every muscle in his body had been worked hard, but nothing was broken. "Just tell me if that's going to happen again."
"It won't," the pilot promised. "We are at thirty-five thousand feet. ETA twenty hundred hours and fifteen."
Monarch shook his head, coming more awake, feeling colder still. He got to wobbly feet, breathed the oxygen deeply, then eased over, hanging on to the rack until he got to the food sack. He sat with the food and water and forced himself to eat half of the ration they'd given him.
Two hours later his feet were turning numb and he was fighting chills. He ate the rest of his food and drank half a gallon of water. Ten minutes later, he strapped the smallest oxygen tank to his chest.
At twenty hundred hours and ten, the pilot said, "You ready, Rogue?"
"Affirmative," Monarch replied, checking the oxygen mask once more. Trying to minimize the effect the squirrel suit's wings would have as he exited the bomb bay at better than four hundred miles an hour, he took a narrow stance, parallel to and above the seam of the doors, almost like a diver out on a high board.
"Once the doors open, you have ten seconds to be away," the pilot said. "I've got targets that will be right out in front of you. Copy?"
"Understood," Monarch said, and went down inside himself, breathing and pushing away all thoughts until there was only the seam of the bomb bay reflected in his mind.
Robin lay belly-down on the branch and grabbed leaves, his heart beating wildly at the memory of the shotgun blasts that killed his parents. Gasping for air, furious yet again, he noticed that the deep male voice that upset him so much had died back into the good-natured din of the party. In the next few moments, the anger in the teen chilled and iced until he believed he could hang from it, rely on it, use it to do whatever he wanted.
And in that process, in that icing, something transformative happened to Robin. All those things his mother and father had taught him, all those things Claudio had been teaching him, they all came together and gelled, and quite suddenly the idea of cat-burgling a multimillionaire's house during a party became the normal, the expected, the longed-for.
I am my father's son, I am my mother's son, Robin thought fiercely. I will be a member of the Brotherhood. I'm going to take these things right from under their noses.
He imagined that the bracelet and the painting belonged to the Perón supporter with the booming voice, and that set him in motion again, scrambling among, over, and along the branches of the live oak with the nimbleness and light touch of a monkey. He stopped, belly-down again on the largest of the upper limbs. About eight feet below him he could see the top of the wall.
Robin looked down into a narrow spot between the wall and the side of the mansion, which was covered in thick leafy vines. Waitresses in gray uniforms exited and entered through a door about forty feet to his left, carrying dishes that smelled indescribably delicious and made him realize he hadn't eaten at all since the morning.
The tree limb ahead twisted and stretched toward the mansion, coming closest to a small arched dormer up on the third floor. He judged the space that separated the tree from the roof of the dormer at four feet to the wall and about a six-foot drop. The shutters on the window had been thrown open and the sash lifted to catch the night air. Inside he spotted gray dresses hung in a row. A closet for the domestic help, Claudio had said
Robin studied the branch and the dormer for another minute until he saw how to cross that gap and snag the lip of the arch above the window. From there it was a cinch.
However, if he missed, if he didn't snag the lip of the dormer, it was at least thirty feet to the ground. He'd break bones. Lots of them. He never wavered. He was going to get in that window or he was going to bust up, maybe die trying.
The latest round of waitresses exited through what he assumed was the kitchen door. They passed around the corner and out onto the terrace where the party was in full swing, the air full of music, bravado, and the self-satisfied laughter of the moneyed and the privileged.
The laughter rang in his ears as he locked his ankles and hands around the tree limb and then rolled intentionally to his left. The teen's body swung like a pendulum and now hung below the branch like a sloth. Robin slid and reached, grasping, covering distance, focused completely on his hands and ankles, which screamed at him to let go. He didn't until very near to the end of the branch, and then only with his legs.
That sudden change in his position caused the branch to dip and quiver. Robin kicked his feet up and down as a frog might, encouraging the branch to rise and fall, rise and fall, and...
On the way up that third time, Robin let go, felt momentum toss him up, forward and then into a fall. He stared at the lip of the dormer as if it were his own dead mother, hands outstretched, and willed himself to grab it. But the edge of the roofing tiles scraped the tips of his middle fingers, three inches short, and Robin knew he was done for.
"Bomb door opening, Rogue. Go with God."
Monarch did not reply. It wasn't that he didn't believe in God. He did, or at least in a power much greater than his own. But in that moment he thought of the older woman with the long gray braid, asked her to watch over him, and then focused his entire being on that seam in the bomb bay as it separated, giving him a view of a broad swath of lights miles below in a sea of inky blackness.
The wind howled, threatened to throw him off his feet.
"Five seconds," the pilot said.
Monarch wrapped his arms across his chest and somersaulted forward out of the bay above Baghdad much in the same way he had into the darkened compound in Buenos Aires when he was a boy.
He hurtled past the underbelly of the B-2, blasted by the jet wash of the bomber, and was sent cartwheeling out into space with such force that it was ten, maybe fifteen seconds before he'd slowed enough to risk opening his arms and legs.
Monarch had an uncanny sense of direction, even when falling. Like a cat instinctively turning to the floor, he rolled over until he saw the lights of Baghdad below him and then spread his arms and legs.
The wind caught the wings, slowing Monarch's descent dramatically. Indeed, for several seconds, he felt as if he were hovering and not dropping inexorably toward what was about to become the mother of all war zones. Even with the helmet on, he heard the whistling of bombs dropping somewhere in front of him.
Then, below and ahead of him tens of thousands of feet, he saw the flaming arrow of the first cruise missile heading across the Tigris River toward central Baghdad. The explosion was bright as magnesium igniting and louder than thunder. It threw a rolling plume of fire, smoke, and debris that he could see from five miles up. Air raid sirens began to wail. Lights began to die everywhere, and Monarch hurtled toward hell on earth in a gathering darkness.
The bombs from the B-2 struck beyond the cruise missile's target, blowing like a string of firecrackers attached to balloons filled with gasoline. Monarch aimed the headlamp at his altimeter. Sixteen thousand feet and dropping. On his other wrist, the GPS indicated he was 2.4 miles southeast of his target.
Monarch dipped his left wing and soared northwest toward central Baghdad, right at the bombardment as more planes began to drop their payloads. He'd fallen below eight thousand feet and was less than a mile and a half from his target when the antiaircraft guns opened up below, sending up rounds that began to explode in the sky above and around him.
Robin's hands slapped the ivy leaves before his fingers found a vine and grabbed, halting his fall but slamming his lower body into the wall of the mansion. He clung there, shocked that he wasn't lying broken on the ground below. Another dose of adrenaline surged through him, took over his every impulse, and drove him to claw his way up through the vines until he'd reached the bottom of the windowsill.
Desperate, he let go with his left hand and stabbed it up over the sill and snagged the back edge of it. His left followed. Robin hung there, panting, and then with what seemed like his last ounce of strength, he hauled himself up over the sill and dropped onto the closet floor.
He lay there, grunting, soaked with sweat, and wanting to laugh himself sick. He was in and Claudio had to have seen how he'd pulled it off. He looked at his scraped and bleeding hands and forearms, already imagining a tattoo there.
More antiaircraft rounds blew above Monarch, throwing shrapnel. A hot piece of it glanced off his left cheek, flaying open skin. He reacted by slapping his arms to his side, holding his legs together, and going into a nosedive. As he hurtled toward the ground, a symphony of bombs erupted to the east inside Baghdad's administrative district, the heart of Saddam Hussein's political regime.
General Barrens had explained the "Shock and Awe" concept to Monarch on Diego Garcia. The intense barrage was intended to throw Hussein's forces into disarray, especially the top command, while U.S. infantry, tanks, and helicopters invaded Iraq from the north and the south.
The barrage would also cover Monarch's entry. At least that was the plan.
He pulled out of the dive at five thousand feet and threw the wings wide again. Shedding the oxygen tank and mask, he swooped at a hard angle toward the target. He could make it out now. Streetlights still glowed on the absurdly wide avenues inside Saddam Hussein's vast presidential compound, making it look some ultra-affluent neighborhood in the desert southwest.
The blast and rumble of the aerial bombardment continued unabated as Monarch soared toward the compound, close enough now to the explosions that he felt their shockwaves as he passed under fifteen hundred feet, spotting people on the roofs of houses that surrounded the palace compound.
No one shot at him. No one shouted. No one even seemed to notice. All eyes were turned to the east and the flash and loud rumor of the bombardment.
Monarch waited until he'd passed over the palace wall at eight hundred feet, waited until he'd cleared Saddam Hussein's personal palace, and headed toward the deep back corner of the compound before he pulled the chute.
It popped open but deployed oddly, with only three of the four panels splayed against the wind. The lines that controlled the sail's front right corner were knotted up.
Less than four hundred feet above the ground, Monarch was thrown into a fast spiral that he was able to control only marginally as it bore him toward a second compound wall and a dimly lit multistory palace inside. As he crossed over the wall at one hundred feet, Monarch saw several other buildings and then a pond. The grounds were thick with irrigated pine and eucalyptus. He wanted to land in a shadowed area well to the right of the target.
But the wind picked up, and shifted the angle and speed of his final spiral descent, taking him over the pond and deep into the darkest part of the compound. He thought he caught sight of steel fencing right under his boots before he plunged into a pit of some sort. His heels slammed into the ground and he fell, crashed, and rolled across gritty, sandy soil before thudding to a stop.
Monarch lay there, the wind knocked out of him, listening for voices, for alarms raised, but he heard none. He fought for air, forced it through his nose, and smelled cat urine as strong as smelling salts, as if he'd landed inside the yard of some crazy old woman and not the sadistic oldest son of a dictator.
Monarch rolled up to his knees and got free of the parachute harness. He felt the blood dripping down his face and knew he was going to need to patch it. He rolled up the chute first, removed the helmet, took off the jacket part of the squirrel suit, and unzipped the bib. He got out the satellite radio and turned it on.
"Barren Wolf this is Rogue," he said.
"We've got you, Rogue." Barrens's voice came back immediately. "GPS signal's strong. Well done. You have forty minutes until the next sortie arrives. They are targeting that palace. Repeat, they are targeting Uday's palace."
"Roger that," Monarch said. "I came in spinning and screwed up. Having trouble getting oriented."
There was a pause, and then the general's voice came back. "It appears you landed inside Uday's personal zoo."
It was then that the bombardment stilled. In that pause, over the faint ringing in his ears, Monarch heard the hollow, wet rattle of breath exiting the throat of something very large and very close. He holstered the radio and grabbed a pistol and a flashlight, all the while backing away from the sound. He did not want to use the light, but felt compelled to flip the switch.
In the Maglite's powerful thin beam, a black-mane African lion sniffed at the line of blood drops that separated them.
In the closet on the third floor of the mansion in Buenos Aires, Robin recovered enough to stand and inspect his surroundings. The row of gray dresses proved to be maids' uniforms; on the other side of the closet were a row of dark pants and white shirts. Butler? Waiter? Certainly help of some sort.
He remembered one of the rules Claudio had taught him. He could never remember the exact number of the rule, but he distinctly recalled the advice: "Fit in." Pausing only for a beat, Robin tore off his filthy t-shirt, ripped jeans, and sandals, then climbed quickly into a pair of pants that were only slightly large and a white collared shirt that fit him perfectly. He didn't see socks, but found a pair of shoes that fit.
He remembered from the drawing Claudio had showed him that the closet was off a landing at the top of a staircase along with two bedrooms and a bathroom irregularly used by servants. He squeezed the door handle, opened the door, and peered out into the hallway, hearing the muted sounds from the party coming up the staircase and even louder through the closet window behind him.
He sniffed, smelled meat frying, felt hungry again. But he pushed his appetite aside and strode lightly out into the hallway, hand along the banister, peeking over into the well and seeing no one. He danced down the hall, spotted laundry and trash chutes low on the near wall, and reached the bathroom in three seconds. He shut the door behind him, locked it, turned on the light, and looked in the mirror over the sink.
Robin looked like the street urchin he'd become in the months since his parents' murder, face streaked with grime, hair matted to his head, skin scratched and cut, the last purple hues of a black eye he'd gotten trying to outbox Claudio.
The clothes aside, Robin didn't fit in at all. He turned on the water, ducked his head under the spray, ran a bar of soap through his hair and all over his face, took off the shirt, and washed under his armpits too. He rinsed as best he could, then found a towel, wetted it, and turned it near black cleaning his torso.
His dusky skin now had a reddish glow to it and he'd managed to comb his hair into something resembling neat. He smiled, bowed his head as if to a powerful employer, then summoned up his courage once more.
He shut off the light in the washroom and eased open the door. The hall was empty. So was the stairwell.
Robin stalked down the stairs, found himself within two doors of the master suite, where Claudio said the woman of the house kept her jewelry. The sounds of the party were louder here, coming up another stairway from below. He could hear the slap of shoes on tile and odd snatches of conversation and the building chords of a piano solo. The aroma of coffee brewing drifted up to him.
The double doors to the master suite were right there at the head of the lower staircase. The floor seemed deserted at the moment, but he was going to need sheer luck not to be seen by someone on the first floor, which sounded increasingly crowded and raucous.
Then he heard that man's deep voice from before, yelling that he wanted everyone out on the terrace to sing to his wife on her birthday. Robin waited, listening until the last footsteps were fading before bolting toward the master suite. He grabbed the door handles. Locked.
Trying not to panic, the boy fished out the three picks, dropped to his knees, and began to toy with the lock, all the while praying to his mother and father to watch over him, to bless him in his...
He heard people start singing "Que los cumplas feliz," but over it came the quick slap of someone running and then a creak directly behind Robin. Someone was coming up the stairs.
Monarch thought for a moment that the shrapnel had hit him harder than he thought, that he was wounded and hallucinating in shock. But then the lion lifted its head and looked straight into the flashlight beam, so close Monarch could see the cat's yellow eyes dilate.
He had never stopped moving, however, rolling backward, toes to heels, gun aimed at the lion. He could and would kill the animal if it attacked, but he didn't want to shoot for any number of reasons, not the least of which was noise. Though the lion began to pant, it did not move as he backed up. Indeed, it acted as if mesmerized by the light, expecting something.
Monarch flicked the beam off the cat and around and saw that he was indeed in a pit with sheer walls and a steel fence above. The top of the wall had to be seven feet, the top of the fence another six.
He swung the light back at the cat and perhaps twenty feet behind the lion saw a steel door set in the wall under an overhang. Monarch heard the sound of a gate clanging. He flipped off the light, listening to the cat's breath come in deeper pants that swelled into a low, salivating roar.
Monarch heard someone walking above him, the strike of a stick and then shuffle, stick, shuffle, followed by the nervous bleating of a lamb. Over it, he heard a man muttering and shouting gibberish in Arabic. Monarch pressed tight into the wall, heard the padding of the big cat coming closer, stalking him now.
When he picked up the shadow of the lion less than five yards away, he felt certain he was going to have to shoot it and then kill whoever was walking above him, and...
Light played into the pit, cutting back and forth.
"Here, kitty," called a drunken man in Arabic. "Come here, my love. Daddy has a present for his vicious kitty love."
Robin felt the lock to the master suite give, squirted inside the door, and heard a woman's voice behind him say, "Is the powder room up here, Estella?"
Another woman's voice said no, it was around the corner and to hurry because cake was about to be served.
Robin shut the door, slumped to his side on the carpet, and wondered if he had a thieving heart after all. But that doubt lasted less than ten seconds. He heard a car honk and sat up. He was in an anteroom that opened into a softly lit master bedroom, a large, airy space dominated by a four-poster king-size bed.
Claudio said the diamond bracelet was in a box in a drawer in the woman's dressing room. It was an odd place for it to be kept, but the maid had told Claudio the woman wore it so often she rarely put it in the safe, which was supposedly behind a painting somewhere in the master bedroom.
Robin heard the car honk again. He crossed to a window. Below him, a red sports car idled in the circular driveway. Beyond, he could see a steel gate closing. A boy several years older than him, but dressed in much the same way as Robin--white shirt, dark pants--was holding the car door open and saying something to the fat silver-haired man trying to extricate himself from the bucket seat.
Robin left the window and found the dressing room between one of two walk-in closets and a luxurious master bath. An ornate dressing table with a lighted oval mirror was pushed against the wall beside a hamper and clothes butler. He started going through the drawers, looking for the bracelet.
The top center drawer held brushes, combs, pins, barrettes, and, in a corner, a small, plain key on a sterling silver chain. But no bracelet. The side drawers contained makeup, nail polish, scissors, and the like. The bottom right drawer featured hair rollers and a bag of cotton. The bottom left a hair dryer.
But no bracelet.
He double-checked to be sure. The woman was either wearing it or she'd returned it to the safe. In any case, Robin couldn't be faulted for not coming out with the bracelet. He couldn't steal what he couldn't find, now could he?
That left the painting. Where would they put something like that, a painting that had been in a book? He imagined it was valuable, and his mother had taught him that rich people like to show off their expensive things.
"They're like birds," Francesca had once told him. "They like flashy things, and they like to show off in gaudy colors."
So where do you show off a painting from a book?
He figured downstairs, probably as the centerpiece of a large room, probably fitted with an elaborate alarm system. How could Claudio expect him to get at something like that? A fourteen-year-old boy might get away with walking through the house in an official uniform, but he'd never get the chance to disarm a security system.
Robin endured a moment of confusion and then decided the heck with it. It was enough that he'd gotten in, reached the dressing room, and searched for the bracelet where the maid had said it would be. If he could get out now, clean, it would be enough. Wouldn't it?
Yes, he decided. It would be enough to earn the tattoo. How many of the other Brothers had made a jump from a tree like that? None. He was sure of that. And Claudio had witnessed the leap. He was sure of that as well.
Now all he had to do was get out of the house and the grounds without being stopped, or better, noticed. He left the dressing room thinking that his best chance was not to sneak out, but to just walk straight out the front door, act as if he did work there, convince the kid parking the cars to open the front gate, and he would be gone.
Robin returned to the master bedroom, gave it all a quick glance before stopping short. Hanging on the wall directly facing the bed was the painting Claudio had told him to steal.
"Where are you, Kitty Vicious?" the man called in a hoarse slur. "Come out! Come get your lamby!"
The lion turned its head toward the voice, panting, drooling.
Then Monarch heard a squeal of fright, followed by a thump. The lamb began screeching in pain. The lion leapt away, became a bounding shadow until the trembling light found it biting into the lamb at back of its neck and shaking the poor beast until it hung limp and bleeding from his mouth.
"Good Kitty Vicious," the man purred. "Daddy's best Kitty Vicious."
Monarch leaned slightly away from the wall and peered back up and along the fence until he found the source of the beam and saw the man holding the torch. Uday Hussein was weaving on his feet, light in one hand, a fresh bottle of whiskey in the other, a leer smeared across his face as he watched the lion tear into the lamb.
Monarch pressed back into the shadows, hearing Saddam's eldest son's voice change, become almost melancholy. "Kitty will stay with Daddy, won't she?" he asked before his tone turned bewildered. "Or will you be like all the other pussies? Bitches...cunts...that's all they..."
The light fell with a clatter and bounced off the bottom of the pit, but did not die. The beam cut away from Monarch, away from the lion, shone tight on the wall. Not far away, the antiaircraft guns opened up again, and bombs began to explode once more. The sky flashed with reddish light and Monarch plastered himself against the wall for fear that Uday would spot him.
But then he heard wood--a cane? a staff?--strike above him followed by that shuffle, strike, shuffle, and then the sound of a man choking against tears.
Twenty seconds later, he heard a gate clang shut, and the dictator's son scream, "Why?"
In the glow of the flashlight Uday had dropped, Monarch saw the lion still busily feeding. He went straight across the pit and found the door in the wall. Maglite in his teeth, he quickly picked the lock, levered the door open, and exited into a short tunnel that climbed and exited behind the pit and the fence.
He checked his watch. Thirty-four minutes until the bombs came to lay waste to the palace. He scanned the compound, seeing a second, smaller residence by the main one. The windows were dark. He was about to circle toward the big palace when a light went on in a window on the first floor of the smaller residence. He thought he saw Uday walking around inside.
Better yet, Monarch thought, and began to jog in a loop around the lion pit, alert for any movement. But there was none, and it was becoming apparent to him that the dictator's son had been abandoned by his guards.
Uday Hussein was alone here, drunk out of his mind, clinging to the last vestiges of his power and grandeur.
Better yet, Monarch thought again.
Robin's heart began to pound. That had to be the painting there locked inside a glass case hanging on the wall. He walked closer and saw, exactly as Claudio had said, that it was signed in the lower left-hand corner, "Xul Solar." The painting depicted in gaudy watercolors the shapes of a distorted city, with orange and red buildings that curved and bulged as if seen reflected in a curved mirror.
The teen got close and studied the glass box that held the painting from several angles, could see the clear material was thicker than glass, stronger too, probably bulletproof, and it seemed connected to a steel frame of some kind set in the wall. But Robin couldn't see any wires. Then again, maybe the wires were behind the painting where he couldn't see them. He fretted a moment, then reached out, touched the box. He tried to move it left, right, up and down, but it didn't budge. It was locked to that frame in a way he couldn't figure out.
Robin tugged on the box. He felt resistance, and then to his surprise the entire box and painting swung out toward him on two thick extending steel hydraulic arms a full eighteen inches from the wall. He looked behind it and saw a safe sitting inside the steel frame.
He didn't know how to crack a safe, and was about to shut it back up, when he thought to look at the rear of the bulletproof box. Ducking under one of the arms, he saw that there was a door and a lock. The lock was embedded deep inside three layers of bulletproof glass. No dial like the safe. It took a key to open the box.
Robin blinked, thinking of that key back in the top center drawer of the dressing table. He raced back to the dressing room, found the key, and raced even faster back.
Fitting the key in the lock, he heard muffled voices somewhere, and then the piano music starting up again. He turned the key. An audible click. His heart jumped with joy. He glanced at his inner right forearm and let the door slide down dovetailed grooves into his hand.
Heart still pounding wildly, he stared at the rear of the painting and the frame that held it. Bolts, screws. He'd never get the back off, and he couldn't carry it anyway.
Scissors. He'd cut it out. For the second time, he sprinted back to the dressing table, found the scissors, and dashed back. He lifted free the painting, turned it to face him, pressed the bottom of the frame against his hip, and stabbed the narrow blade of the scissors in the lower right corner. It punctured easily.
He started cutting, surprised that the painting was not on canvas, but paper glued to a piece of cardboard. And this ended up in a book?
It took Robin less than a minute to cut it free of the frame, and less than ten seconds to roll it up. He ran back to the dressing table a fourth time, got hair bands and barrettes, and made the rolled painting into a tight tubular package.
He put the painting under his shirt and tried to pin it beneath his arm. He looked stiff, but it could work. Before he could talk himself out of it, Robin went straight to the glass box and pushed it back to hide the safe, then crossed to the suite door and twisted the knob. He peeked out, saw no one at the bottom of the stairs, and stepped out, closing the door behind him.
Down and out, he thought, and took a step toward the stairs.
Then he saw a woman appear below, her back to him, looking the other way. He saw what she was wearing and panicked.
It was one of the hired help--someone who would know who was working the party. Robin no sooner had that thought than she started to turn toward him.
Monarch had the pistol leading when he slipped into the smaller of Uday Hussein's palaces through the front door, finding himself in a brilliantly lit foyer with a rose marble floor, elevator, and lurid red wallpaper. The nearest door, the one on the left, the one that led toward the room where Monarch figured he'd seen the dictator's son, was open. It too glowed with light. He took a step in that direction, then heard something smash somewhere in the palace above him, followed by screaming and ranting.
Uday was losing it big time.
Monarch ran across the foyer past the elevator and a white grand piano that looked as if it were on loan from Liberace and started up the curving staircase. Everything about the place was garish: the chandeliers, the shag rugs at the top of the stairs, the gold-flake fixtures, as if it had been designed and decorated in homage to a whorehouse, or some demented caricature of one.
When he reached the landing, Monarch heard another item smash, large, like a lamp or a vase, down the hallway, past several closed doors.
"I have the power to destroy you!" Uday shrieked. "The power!"
A girl began to weep and beg for mercy.
Monarch went straight at him then. He eased around the corner and found himself in the bedroom of a decadent sultan. There was a tufted green-and-gold silk ceiling. Matching drapes framed huge gilt mirrors. There were snapshots pinned all over the drapes, every one of them a picture of a naked woman, many of them shot with a Polaroid.
Wearing pajamas and a robe, surrounded by the pornography of his life and the shards of a drunken tantrum, Uday had a large ceramic vase raised overhead and looked poised to hurl it not at the naked young girl cringing and weeping on one of the couches, but at the last of the intact mirrors.
"I have it," Uday drunkenly promised his mirror image. Then he raged, "The power over life and death!"
Then his head jerked and Monarch realized the dictator's son had spotted him in the mirror. Uday dropped the vase, shattering it, and pivoted, wild-eyed, homicidal. Until he saw the gun, and the uniform Monarch was wearing.
"Did you come to protect me?" Uday asked, the rage fleeing before fear. He stopped in his tracks and began to weave. He turned away, went to a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, and chugged on it, one eye on Monarch, who stepped closer, trying to figure out how best to handle the situation.
He had a good idea why Saddam's oldest son had just asked if he'd come to protect him. Monarch was wearing a uniform that identified him not only as a member of the Republican Guard, Iraq's elite fighting force, but also a member of Uday's father's palace guard, the most loyal of his troops.
When the dictator's son lowered the bottle, Monarch half lowered his gun.
"Your father sent me," he said in flawless Arabic. "He needs you to give me something."
Uday's eyes screwed up in anger. "My father?" he asked. "That fucking cocksucker? Disowning bastard fuck of his crippled son."
Monarch understood some of that as well. Eight years before, when Uday was primed to be his father's successor, there was an unsuccessful assassination attempt on him. Uday took multiple rounds and lived. But the attack caused brain damage and left him with a deformed right leg. Soon after the shooting, Saddam began favoring Uday's younger brother, Qusay, as his political heir.
Uday sneered at Monarch. "Why doesn't my father come see me himself?"
The dictator's son stumbled and weaved again, looking at the girl now. Uday began to fumble with the drawstrings of the pajama bottoms he wore, as if Monarch were not even there.
"Your excellency!" Monarch shouted. "Your life depends on getting me what your father wants. Now."
The dictator's son frowned, looked back at Monarch, and asked caustically, "What does my dear disowning bastard fuck father want for my life?"
Monarch said, "The three other copies have been destroyed in the bombing. He needs your copy. Now."
For a beat, Monarch thought Uday was going to argue further, but then he appeared won over. "It's in my computer in the other house." He glanced at the girl, looked back at Monarch, and added, "Shoot the bitch. Then we go."
Robin vaulted away down the hall, back toward that narrower staircase that led to the third floor of the mansion.
"Alejandro?" the maid hissed after him. "What are you doing? You crazy?"
He heard the woman pounding up the stairs just as he ducked into the narrow staircase and sprinted toward the top. He reached the landing, heard her calling in that hiss, "Alejandro!"
She was coming all the way. There were only two bedrooms, the bathroom, and the closet. He couldn't jump from the window. It was thirty feet. She was going to find him. And the police would be summoned. And the police would question him and then talk. And soon the men who'd killed his parents would come for him and...
Robin raced to the closet. The maid stormed up the narrow stairs behind him, hissing, "Alejandro?"
He dropped the painting out the window, heard it slap the grass below as he climbed out backward, reached up, and grabbed at the drip edge of the dormer at the same time he heard the maid call, "Alejandro, she will fire you!"
"Shoot the cunt," Uday ordered, looking excited at the prospect of watching the poor naked wretch of a girl endure further suffering, as if she were nothing more than meat for the lion's bottomless appetite.
Monarch couldn't take it anymore. Though he might have been able to carry on the charade of being a palace guard on a mission from Saddam, he just couldn't stomach the dictator's son any longer.
He swung the pistol, took a step forward, jammed the muzzle of it between Uday's eyes, and said in English, "I'd rather blow your head off, you depraved excuse for a lunatic."
Uday's suddenly terrified eyes looked at Monarch right down the gun barrel. "I have the pow--" he began in Arabic.
"No, Uday," Monarch replied. "You don't."
Monarch grabbed the dictator's son and slammed him up against one of the drapes, grinding Uday's nose against the snapshots of the naked women he had defiled in the room.
"You don't have anything anymore," Monarch growled in his ear in Arabic, the gun against the back of his head now. "You have nothing but me. I am your lord and master, the only thing separating you from death. Do you understand?"
Bombs fell so close to the compound, the place shook and dust fell.
"Do you?" Monarch shouted as he slipped zip ties around the wrists of Saddam's eldest son.
Uday whimpered, nodded, and said, "Allah, have mercy on a true believer."
"A true believer?" Monarch snorted. "If I were you, I wouldn't be counting on virgins waiting for you at the gates of paradise. More like guys with knives, fired up for a castration."
"Let me go," Uday pleaded. "I'll pay you. Anything you want. A fortune is yours for the asking, my friend."
Monarch thought about that, then said, "Deal. Your life for the battle plan."
"The battle...of course," the dictator's son said. "Yes. That's all?"
"We'll see," Monarch said.
Then he looked at the girl. "Get dressed. Get out of here. Now."
The traumatized girl went for a robe. Monarch hauled Uday out into the hall. "My leg," he complained. "I must have my cane."
Monarch wanted to hurl him down the marble staircase, but held him by the collar of his robe and dragged him to the bottom and out through the front door into the night. The bombs fell stunningly close--just outside the greater palace compound now, no more than seven, eight hundred yards away.
Uday was crying, "We've got to get out of here."
"Not without that final battle plan," Monarch said. "Where is it?"
"In my office upstairs," Uday said, pointing at the big palace. "The computer, it is--"
The bomb went off just outside Uday's compound with a flash that blinded Monarch, threw him off balance, and made him release his hold. He ducked, arm raised overhead to ward off debris, then realized that Uday was trying to flee. Monarch sprinted after him, hit him across the center of his back, forced him to his knees, and then jerked the now sniveling dictator's son to his feet.
"I told you I am your lord and master, Uday," Monarch yelled, stuffing the barrel of the pistol into the man's mouth. "Get me that plan or you will die and face the cosmic castrators right now."
Robin pulled, kicked, and hoisted himself up onto the roof of the dormer not five seconds before he heard the door to the closet open and the maid call yet again, "Alejandro?"
The boy stayed frozen, but looked over the edge of the dormer, hearing her cross to the open window and pause. After several beats, her hand reached out and pulled closed the shutters.
Robin took two deep breaths after hearing the closet door shut. Then he willed himself off the roof of the dormer and clung to the thick ivy vines. He started to drop down the wall, every muscle in his body shaking and then screaming in pain as he fought his way down, stopping twice when waitresses returned from the party and entered the kitchen.
Ten feet from the ground, his grip slipped and he fell, hit with a jarring landing that shook his teeth.
But his brain whirled. Why wasn't he laying there too cracked up to move? How had he gotten down that wall? He thought of his parents the way he'd last seen them, Billy's arm around Francesca, exiting the cinema, both of them smiling at him from down the block.
They had to be watching over him. There was no other explanation.
Fortified by that belief, Robin got to his feet, spotted the painting lying in the grass in the shadowed yard. Quick now. You're not done yet. He grabbed it and headed for the front of the mansion. Behind him and around the back, a woman was singing for the party, which had fallen quiet except for the piano that accompanied her.
His feet crunched onto a gravel pathway. Ten feet from the corner where the pathway met the front yard and twenty feet from where it met the circular driveway, the older boy who'd been parking cars came around the corner, face to face with young Robin Monarch.
Uday Hussein sat propped against a gilt-framed couch, wrists still in restraints, watching Monarch the way a trapped hyena might, sidelong and twisted with impotent menace.
They were up on the second floor of the main palace in an office decorated with lewd paintings of women. Monarch sat at a black lacquer desk, watching the screen of a laptop and an upload icon blinking to tell him that the data transfer had been a success.
There was a lull in the bombing again. But Monarch had less than twelve minutes now to get out before the entire presidential palace compound became a hard target.
Monarch picked up the satellite radio and said, "Barren Wolf, you should have it now, Saddam's most up-to-date battle plan, position of all planes, tanks, bunkers, missiles. Everything."
"That's an affirmative, Rogue," General Barrens said. "You've just saved thousands of allied lives. Extraction?"
Monarch thought about that. "I'll stay in Baghdad until U.S. troops arrive, maybe at that hotel where all the journalists stay. The Al-Rasheed?"
A pause, then, bristling, the general shot back, "No, that is completely unacceptable, and--"
"I don't follow your orders anymore," Monarch said. "Deal's a deal, and I'm done."
"Wait, wait," Barrens replied. "Uday? Have you seen any sign of him?"
Monarch looked at the dictator's son, who stared at him, pleading-eyed.
"Alejandro!" Robin said as if he and the valet were the best of friends, and went straight at the older boy, right hand extended, offering him the rolled-up painting. "Look what I've found for you!"
It was dim there in the side yard, dim enough that the older boy looked confused, his focus jumping from Robin's face to whatever he had in his hand, distracted enough that he did not see the punch coming. Robin connected with a perfect left hook to the valet's jaw, which broke his middle and ring fingers, but crumpled the boy in a heap. Grunting in pain, Robin nevertheless jumped over Alejandro and walked around the front of the house, seeing a white Mercedes-Benz sedan at the gate, which began to open.
The Mercedes pulled through and up to the front walk, where Robin stood at attention, acting like a pro, broken hand and painting held behind him. Biting his inner lip against the pain, he reached around with his good hand and opened the door for a middle-aged woman who once must have been beautiful.
"Welcome to the party," he said. "You haven't yet missed the cake."
"Cake?" she said dismissively, getting out, eyes on the front door. "I just hope they haven't drunk all that fine wine Louis loves to bray on and on about."
She weaved ever so slightly on her feet heading toward the front door. Robin realized the car was still running, keys in the ignition. He climbed in, tossed the painting on the passenger seat, and threw it in gear. He'd never driven a car before and promptly plowed over a flowerbed in the front circle and clipped off the driver's side mirror exiting the gate.
Monarch smiled at the dictator's son and said, "No Uday here, General. That rat's fled the ship."
Then he twisted the radio off and tucked it back in its holster.
"So," Uday said, brightening. "We have deal?"
Monarch came around the desk and said, "We do." He pushed the man onto his side, knelt over him, caught the horrible goat smell he gave off, but then used a knife to cut free the restraints.
Uday looked at him and said in stilted English, "Why you no kill me?"
"Because I'm a thief, not an assassin," Monarch said, and headed toward the door to the office. "Not so nice doing business with you."
"What about me?" Uday demanded in English.
"What about you?" Monarch said, not turning.
"Take me with you," Uday called. "I have much to tell."
Monarch looked over his shoulder, saw that the dictator's son was back on his feet, right hand down the front of his pajamas.
"Take me with you," Uday said again, more insistent. "Get me some whiskey and girl, maybe two. Virgin like this last one, the cunt, and yes, I have much, much to tell you American. You will see."
It was as if some power far greater than his own seized hold of Monarch then. He raised the pistol and said, "I don't think anyone wants to hear about it, Uday. I really don't."
Uday threw up his hands. Monarch shot the dictator's son in the groin, left Uday on the floor of his palace office, screaming, writhing, and holding his bloody crotch.
"You didn't get the bracelet," Claudio said two days later.
"I got a Mercedes," Robin shot back indignantly.
"Busted side-view mirror," Claudio sniffed. "Hard to fence."
"Take it apart, then," Robin said. "Sell it for parts."
Claudio said nothing.
Robin couldn't stand it. "I got the painting."
The older boy pursed his lips, glanced at Xul Solar's twisted painting laid out on a table beside him, and smiled. "You did." Then he nodded to the tattoo artist poised with the needle above Robin's right inner forearm.
"Ink him, Raoul," Claudio said. "He's one of us now."
Robin smiled fiercely at Claudio and the fire of the electric needle that penetrated his skin. It was the best feeling he'd had in almost a year.
Monarch came out of the bathroom inside a room on an upper floor of the Al-Rasheed Hotel and flopped on the king-size bed. The television was on, showing CNN's coverage of the fall of Baghdad, of tanks rolling into the city, of citizens tearing down statues of Saddam, and of the widespread looting and chaos.
Monarch turned and looked at Ellen Wolfe. The CIA officer lay beneath cotton sheets, watching him.
He smiled and said, "Glad you tracked me down."
She grinned back. "I was just thinking that I should hook up with men just out of prison and in a war zone more often."
"Really," Wolfe said.
"Happy to be of service."
"Me too," she said, as CNN began to describe the hunt for Saddam and his two sons.
Monarch was surprised to hear that Uday's bombed palace had been searched, but his body had not been found. He flashed on the brilliant explosions that had rocked the palace as he helped the poor girl escape. Could Uday have lived through that? In any case, Monarch was positive that the dictator's son wouldn't go far or long before being caught. And he sure wouldn't be using his favorite tool ever again.
"A lion?" said Wolfe. "Did you hear that? Uday kept lions?"
"Did he?" Monarch asked. "I don't recall seeing any."
The CIA officer studied Monarch for a moment, ran a finger down his chest. "Why do I get the feeling that you haven't told me the entire story?"
"Some ingrained insecurity on your part?" Monarch asked.
"Behavioral response," she replied. "I mean, you still haven't told me where that gold you stole went, or where you disappeared to for four years after your parents died."
Monarch flashed on that image of the older woman with the long gray braid and then of young boys playing soccer barefoot in the dust.
"What gold?" he asked.
Wolfe groaned. "You're incorrigible, Robin Monarch."
"I'm a lot of things," Monarch replied in an agreeable tone.
She studied him once more before saying, "You know I wasn't sent here to end up in bed with you. That just kind of happened."
Monarch studied her, wondered if he should go for his gun. "What were you sent here for, then?" he asked.
Wolfe cocked her head to one side. "To offer you a job. The CIA director thinks he could do a lot with a man like you. And you know what, Robin?"
"What's that?" Monarch asked.
"I think the director is right," she said, moving on top of him hungrily. "There's lots and lots to do with a man like you."
BROTHERHOOD Copyright © 2012 by Mark Sullivan.