ROBIN MONARCH LEANED OVER the balcony railing, peering out into the darkness toward the Bosporus Straits that separate the Black Sea from the Sea of Marmara. The smell of the straits came to him on the east wind, saline and brackish in the heat that gripped the city.
Monarch wiped a sleeve against his brow, closed his eyes, and breathed deep and slow, trying to clear his thoughts. He took another deep breath and fell into a clean place. Stubble bearded, with short dark hair and a dusky tone to his skin, Monarch was smoothly handsome. He was six-foot-two, muscled, and a bit more than two hundred pounds. Hunched over the railing, eyes closed, breathing slow in deep meditation, Monarch gave off the impression of a panther dozing.
Gloria Barnett walked through the French doors behind him. “Robin,” Barnett said softly. “Slattery says it’s time.”
Monarch roused and turned to look at Barnett, a ginger-haired crane of a woman in her thirties. She wore a white shirt and jeans and was barefoot. A pair of reading glasses hung on a chain around her neck.
“Why’s he here, Gloria?” Monarch asked. “Why the secrecy?”
She shrugged. “Slattery’s a big enough dog—it’s gotta be a big enough hydrant that he wants to pee good and hard on it.”
“Anyone tell you you’re the best?”
Barnett smiled. “Only you, Robin.”
He bent over and kissed her on the forehead. “Watch our backs,” he said.
“Always,” Barnett said.
Monarch went by her through the bedroom, out into the living area of the luxury suite. He took in the suite and its inhabitants in a sweeping glance. The coffee table was strewn with the remnants of room service. John Tatupu, a Samoan-American, was working his massive arms into the sleeves of a dark blue work coverall. A former linebacker at Ohio State, Tatupu sported wavy mahogany hair gathered in a ponytail, virtually no neck, and a tightly cropped King Tut beard.
Chanel Chávez sat on the sofa opposite the Samoan, dressed in a dark skirt and blouse with a black scarf over her short dark hair. She was dismantling a rifle and putting the pieces in foam compartments inside a suitcase.
Abbott Fowler was eating the last of a sandwich at the room’s only table while studying an aerial photograph. Like Tatupu, Fowler wore a dark blue coverall. He was in his early thirties, shorter than the Samoan, and more slope shouldered, with a meld of features that, similar to Monarch’s own, made him look like he could be from any number of racial backgrounds.
“You sure this is the latest we got, Yin?” Fowler asked.
“It’s the latest,” insisted Ellen Yin, a petite Asian-American woman with a perpetually intense air about her. “Just before sundown.”
“Put it on the wall.”
The voice came from the hallway on the other side of the suite. Jack Slattery rounded the corner, his eyes darting around the room before fixing on Monarch, who watched him, calm but alert. Monarch did not like Slattery much. The man was a manipulator and opportunist, traits that had helped him in his climb to his current position of power. According to agency scuttlebutt, Slattery had also been helped by connections. He was a college classmate of Congressman Frank Baron, a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee. Still, according to the rules that Monarch lived by, working with a man did not have to involve liking him or envying him, especially if that man was your boss and your boss was the CIA’s chief of covert operations.
A projector attached to one of Yin’s computers threw the satellite photograph of three large buildings on the wall. Monarch glanced at it and said, “You going to give us what’s inside, Jack? Or are you going to send us in blind?”
Slattery was a lean white man in his early forties, with salt-and-pepper hair; dull, pewter eyes; and an acne-scarred face that revealed nothing. At last he said, “You’re after the secret archives of Al-Qaeda. Copies of every document that organization has generated since its inception, accounting records, personnel files, histories, plans, safe houses. Everything.”
Chávez whistled in appreciation.
A gold mine, Monarch thought. He was beginning to understand why Slattery was here to personally oversee the mission. He asked, “Where’s the intel coming from?”
“Highly reliable Turkish police sources,” Slattery replied curtly, walking to the suite wall and tapping on the middle of the three buildings. “They say the archive is listed as Green Fields in the computers in the office of an engineering firm owned by a Turkish national named Abdullah Nassara.”
Slattery explained that Abdullah Nassara was the president of Nassara Engineering Ltd., and an inventor with several patents. Nassara held doctorates in both electrical engineering and astrophysics from MIT. Before founding his company, he had worked for CERN, the nuclear science research center in Geneva. He posed as a moderate Muslim and a firm supporter of secular rule in the Turkish state. But Slattery’s sources believed Nassara had a secret and deep hatred of the West nurtured during his years in the United States and Switzerland. His company had become a front for an information repository crucial to Al-Qaeda’s international operations.
“Why not just have the Turks arrest Nassara and seize the files?” Monarch asked.
“Because we don’t want Al-Qaeda to know what we know,” Slattery said with more than a hint of condescension. “And in any case, you’re not here to make strategic decisions, Monarch. You’re here to see them carried out.”
“True enough,” Monarch said.
“Then get to it,” Slattery said, tapping his watch.
* * *
An hour later, in the dry hills above the east shore of the Bosporus, Monarch slipped from a Renault sedan driven by Abbott Fowler. John Tatupu followed Monarch, carrying a mason’s bag. Monarch wore a black baggy shirt over his shoulder holster and pistol, and carried a black fanny pack around his waist. As Fowler drove away, Monarch and Tatupu scanned the empty street, and then vaulted a brick retaining wall that held back a steep bank tangled in vine and brush.
Monarch had excellent night vision and led the way uphill through the thicket into a stand of aromatic cedar that choked a ravine he followed in a low athletic crouch, his felt-soled shoes as quiet and as carefully placed as the pads of a hunting cat.
Rule Number Four, Monarch thought. No sudden moves. They attract attention. Sudden moves say you are afraid and unaware, listening to that voice in your head instead of paying attention to what’s around you, which can get you killed, man. No sudden moves.
Monarch came to the edge of the canyon and peered through a high chain-link fence across a short lawn to an empty parking lot behind three factory buildings. Tatupu eased up beside him. Monarch slid on a black face mask, instantly overheating. He felt on edge, which was not normal. But he’d had no hand in the plan. His team was brought in to execute a mission Slattery had scouted and designed.
“Looks straight forward, soft target,” Tatupu murmured to Monarch. “Cameras, a single guard on duty at a front desk. No problem.”
“On paper,” Monarch whispered. “But if this is a terrorist archive, where are the armed guards? The dogs? No razor wire on top of the fence?”
The Samoan shrugged his great shoulders. “Sometimes the best security is just lying low. It looks like what it’s supposed to be: an engineering firm.”
Before he could reply, Chanel Chávez’s voice came over the Bluetooth communication bud in Monarch’s ear. “Settled in. Wide-angle view. Ready to rock.”
Monarch had a microphone taped to his neck. He turned it on and said softly, “Roger that. We are ready, Base.”
* * *
If Jack Slattery had been a professional poker player, he would have been a card counter, a statistics and odds man. The CIA covert ops chief was forever gaming in his head, playing out scenarios and ranking them in terms of their likelihood. Gaming was Slattery’s gift and his task as he paced behind Gloria Barnett and Ellen Yin, listening in on the headset he wore.
Barnett and Yin were working side by side in the hotel suite, watching the computer screens showing various video feeds from the tiny fiber-optic cameras worn by operatives in the field. Monarch’s and Tatupu’s cameras showed different angles on the west side of the Nassara Engineering Building. Chávez’s camera faced the building from the northeast, and from the vantage of a cedar tree that abutted the industrial park. The barrel of her rifle was visible in the bottom of the feed. Fowler’s camera showed the view through the windshield of a sedan as he slowed it to a stop outside the gated entry to the complex. In the corner of the screens, there was a small diagram of the Nassara Building with a moving red dot that showed Monarch’s position.
Nothing on these screens moved Slattery to shift his thinking. The scenarios he was gaming emanated from two thrilling and fearful thoughts that kept repeating in the covert ops chief’s mind: I’m taking the biggest risk of my life, here. What happens here seals my fate.
Slattery summoned cold reserve, flashed on the odds one more time, and then said, “Send him.”
Barnett nodded and said into her microphone, “Monarch, you are go.”
On a screen in front of Barnett, Slattery followed Monarch as the agency’s top field operator bumped knuckles with Tatupu and then started loping toward the fence.
* * *
Monarch leaped up onto the fence and snagged his gloved hands in the mesh. Tatupu had followed him and gone to his knees carrying a portable high-intensity laser light that he aimed through the fence at the lens of the camera above the loading dock doors. Monarch got over the top of the fence in seconds, dropped, and landed softly in a crouch.
His heart began to race. He reminded himself: Rule Number Three: Pay attention. There’s nothing else at these moments. You have no past. No future. Just attention. It’s the only thing that will keep you alive.
Time seemed to slow for Monarch. He crossed the parking lot, hugging the shadows, aware of everything around him: the sound of his feet, the humid spice in the air, the rustle of birds in the trees he passed, and the blinding beam of light Tatupu kept trained on the security camera’s lens. Monarch got up on the loading dock and moved past the locked roll-up doors to a stainless steel door in the corner. There was no knob, just an electronic key slot. He pulled a flat plastic card attached by a cable to his iPhone.
He stuck the card in the slot and murmured, “Can opener, Yin?”
“We got an app for that,” Yin purred in Monarch’s earpiece.
Monarch heard a soft whine in the door and then a sagging of mechanisms. He pushed the door open, slipped inside, and shut it behind him. He paused, still, letting his eyes adjust to the glowing red auxiliary bulb that softly lit the interior of the loading dock, seeing a forklift and tanks of welding fuel—acetylene and saturated oxygen.
Monarch had a photographic memory. He could see the blueprint of the building clearly in his mind. He eased through a second door into a hallway also lit in red light. He smelled oil and brazed metal in the air, and moved toward the odors to a set of locked metal double doors. Monarch fished out a small kit that held thin picks, worked two into the lock, played with them, sensing the teeth and teasing them open. He was inside in less than fifteen seconds.
Shutting the door behind him, Monarch looked over a laboratory and machine shop a football field long, replete with industrial lathes, grinders, shapers, benders, welders, acetylene tanks, and what appeared to be a small unlit blast furnace at this end and a simple glass cubicle office at the far other. Monarch moved by the mouth of the blast furnace, noting the bags of various ores, and smelting tools on the benches nearby that told him that Nassara Engineering, among other things, dabbled in experimental alloys.
He checked his watch—3:15 A.M. According to Slattery’s intelligence, the security guard would not make rounds until at least four thirty.
“Perimeter?” Slattery said in his earbud.
As Monarch wove through the machines, he heard Tatupu, Fowler, and Chávez calling out, “Clear and quiet.”
Monarch came upon something strange near the center of the lab: a heavy metal tube about eight inches in diameter and ten feet long, which had been bent, shaped, and welded into a shape like a Q with the tail coming directly off the center. The tube was bolted into the cement floor. Beyond it was a second Q, only smaller, about six inches in diameter and half the length of the other. A third, smaller still, was bolted to the floor beyond the second one, close to the office door.
Monarch found the door locked, and picked it open. He slid an LED headlamp on, and hit the switch. There were two desks inside the office, one where Abdullah Nassara seemed to handle the affairs of his business, and another—more a table, really—that was covered with four large computer screens all tied to a server beside a stand-up safe. After digging in the fanny pack for a small broadcast modem, Monarch connected it to one of the server’s USB ports. He flicked on the device’s power and saw a green light.
“Yin, run the Chomper,” Monarch murmured.
“Give me a second,” Yin said.
The Chomper, as Ellen Yin liked to call it, was a mainframe computer network at the National Security Agency that employed the most sophisticated algorithmic cryptography software in the world. Once the device was attached to a computer, it could probe its hard drive and pick up digital ghosts that would lead to a password.
While the Chomper gnawed at Nassara Engineering’s security system, Monarch looked at a framed picture of a man he assumed was Abdullah Nassara, kind of a geeky-looking guy, dressed in a business suit, his arms around wife and children on what looked like a graduation day. It was hard for Monarch to imagine Nassara as a terrorist sympathizer. Then again, what did they look like these days? He’d seen the—
The largest of the computer screens blinked and jumped to a desktop.
“We’re in,” Monarch said. “What was the password?”
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Sullivan