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The Light blue Mercedes came around the corner a bit too fast, tires squealing as the driver tucked around a tour bus parked near Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. Just then a cab spurted from the curb directly into the Mercedes' path. The Mercedes veered to the left, but the way was blocked by another bus; before the driver could veer back, two of his tires blew. The car plowed into the side of a small panel truck, striking it so hard that the truck's gas tank exploded with a gush of flames.
Or so it appeared from the Mercedes.
Most of the tourists and others nearby were too stunned to react, even to run away. But one devout woman who happened to be passing nearby saw the accident and rushed toward the flames, her long dress and chador fluttering in the wind as she ran. Dodging a vehicle that just slammed on its brakes, she ran to the Mercedes. As she reached it, a fireball rose from the tour bus, exploding above with a boom that shook the entire block.
"So far, so good," said Jeff Rockman, watching the disaster unfold on the large screen at the front of Desk Three's op center, commonly known as the Art Room.
"We have a considerable distance to go, Mr. Rockman," replied William Rubens, who as the number two man in the National Security Agency ran Desk Three, colloquially known as Deep Black. "Please direct your attention to Ms. DeFrancesca and keep your color commentary to yourself."
Lia Defrancesca threw her hand against the window of the Mercedes, slamming what looked like a large cookie into the corner of the glass near the driver. She twisted her palm against the device and let go, jerking back as flames from the nearby bus erupted above her. The heat from the fireball drove her to her knees. There, she reached her right hand into her left sleeve and pulled out what looked like a fabric eyeglass case with a metallic nipple at the top. She rammed the nipple into the center of the cookie, which by then had drilled a hole through the glass window. Black smoke furled around her, so thick that Lia had trouble seeing the brown swatch at the side of the case she had to press. She worked her fingers across the canvas exterior, feeling for the button; when she found it, she pressed twice without feeling the click of the spring beneath her thumb. Finally a third touch solicited a loud swoosh, as the compressed gas in the canister inside the bag was released into the car through a hole drilled by the cookie. Still on her knees, Lia reached into her right sleeve and took a cell phone from its elastic holding spot. She flipped the phone open and punched the green button; rather than dialing a number, the phone sent a code to the car's master computer, unlocking the doors. By the time she got up, the device she'd placed on the window had already done its job: all four of the car's occupants were unconscious.
"The security team is out of the vehicles," said a voice in Lia's head. It belonged to Rockman, the runner back in the Art Room monitoring the mission. "You have thirty seconds."
Lia pulled the gas device from the window and kicked it under the car. Opening the rear passenger door, she removed a switchblade from her sleeve and hacked through the seatbelt of the passenger nearest her, then tucked her shoulder down and lifted him from the car. She'd just gotten him to the ground when a beefy set of fingers grabbed her right arm and threw her to the pavement.
Tommy Karr winced as his left leg was jammed toward his neck. The man looming over him began pummeling his back, pounding the muscles senseless. Without warning he grabbed Karr's head and pushed it to the side, first left then right, rocking back and forth with sharp jerks.
A beating had never felt so good.
"You like?" asked the tellak, a combination attendant, masseuse, and scrubber in the exclusive Turkish bath.
"Gave me goose bumps," said Karr.
"We move on when you're ready."
"Awesome." Karr rolled off the hot marble slab, letting his bones soak in the warmth from the steam. Then he went out through an archway opposite the one where he had come in. The tellak was waiting, a razor in his hand.
"I think I'll skip that, thanks," said Karr. The next stage of a traditional Turkish bath, tozu—the removal of hair from all parts of the body—was generally optional for foreigners, but the attendant looked disappointed as he put his blade away and led Karr through a set of columns to a shallow marble bath. There he poured water over the American and began rubbing his torso with a camel hair glove several grades rougher than coarse sandpaper, pulling dead skin and hair into his fist.
"Tickles," said Karr as he was flayed.
After he was buffed down, Karr was soaped with a cream that smelled like olive oil; he felt like a chicken being prepared for a barbecue. A rinse with ice-cold water followed. It took three large basins to properly baste the six-six American, whose muscles tingled with each splash.
Finally the tellak pronounced him finished by flapping a fresh towel in the air, wrapping it ceremoniously around Karr's midsection. As a final gesture, he gave Karr a long lecture in Turkish on the history of Turkish baths—they extended to the Romans, who had made their capital here in Istanbul in the sixth century—and their many health benefits. Since the American had no idea what the man was saying, he nodded as soberly as possible, given the circumstances. Only when he was properly educated did the tellak see fit to release him, pointing toward an archway beyond the columns.
These led to the masak or cold room, a lounge where bathers went to recover from the ordeal of coming clean. Karr's wooden clogs were two or three sizes too small, and he felt a bit like a ballet dancer in special shoes as he ambled into the room. The only other occupants were two middle-aged Turkish men sharing a nargile, a classic Turkish water pipe, smoking apple-scented tobacco. Karr smiled at them, giving his head a half bow. One of the men said something to the other, and they both laughed.
"Yup," said Karr, laughing himself. "Definitely my first time." He ran his fingers through his yellow hair. "Guess it shows, huh?"
The men looked at each other and laughed again. They were in their fifties, obviously well off or they wouldn't be here. They sat on a large couch covered with a cloth so thick it looked like a rug. A tray of dried apricots sat on a small table at the side, along with two glasses of elma or apple tea.
"Stuff in the pipe smells good," said Karr. "What is it? Ganja?"
"Eh?" asked one of the men.
"Dope. Pot." Karr put his fingers to his lips as if smoking a joint. The men remained confused. "Marijuana?"
"Oh, no, no, no," said the man on the left. "This is tobacco," he said, speaking in English. "Here—join us."
"Me?" Karr glanced around.
"Yes, yes, come, come. You're American?"
"Born and bred," said Karr. "You guys?"
The man turned and looked at his companion, then burst out laughing.
"We're Turkish," said the first man.
"Well, no, you just speak English real well," said Karr.
"English is the universal language," said the second man. "Come, sit with us, young fellow. Have a smoke. Very good."
The men moved over on the couch and Karr sat between them. He took a hit on the water pipe and immediately began to cough. This amused his new friends so much they nearly fell off the couch laughing. He did better with a second puff; the smoke had a soft, cool taste.
"Wow. Don't let the surgeon general taste that, huh? Get hooked right away." Karr laughed and sat back on the couch. "Name's Thomas Magnum. Dr. Magnum. I'm here for a conference. Great city."
"I am a doctor as well," said the man who had first spoken to him.
"More than a mere doctor," said his friend. "The head of neurology."
"I crack heads open to take a look," said the doctor. He laughed, then told Karr that he had trained for a while in the U.S., and had thought of living there for a while. But pleasures like his regular Tuesday and Thursday visits to the hamam brought him back.
An attendant came to ask if Karr would like any refreshments. He deferred to his hosts for advice; after conferring in Turkish, they recommended a glass of ayran.
"Okay," said Karr. "What is it?"
"Very healthy," said the doctor. "You will live to one hundred."
The attendant returned with a large glass of a white liquid that smelled like curdled cream. It turned out to be a salty yogurt drink that was clearly an acquired taste.
"Maybe some tea," he said, putting the glass back on the table.
Tears of laughter flowed from his companions' eyes. A small glass of tea appeared almost instantly. Karr took a sip, swished it around to get the salty yogurt taste from his mouth, then began to sneeze. The attendant reappeared with a small cloth—a handkerchief.
"Just what I needed. Thanks," said Karr, adding another of his meager store of Turkish phrases, "te·s¸ekkür ederim." The words meant thank you, and were pronounced "teh-shek-kewr eh-deh-reem." Karr stumbled over the middle syllable in each word, and looked apologetically at his hosts.
"Did I get that right?" he asked. Then he covered his face as he sneezed.
The doctor corrected his pronunciation. Karr tried the phrase again, but once more had to sneeze. He excused himself—in English—rose and turned away to be polite.
It also made it easier to remove the small prosthetic tape at the roof of his mouth. He took the flat capsule and snapped it between his fingers, dividing the contents in the other men's tea cups, which were blocked from their view by his hulking back.
"Wow. Must be allergic to something." Karr held up his glass. "A toast, to Turkey and its great hospitality."
His hosts nodded, and raised their teas as well.
"Bottoms up," said Karr, draining his glass.
Charlie Dean tried not to react as the bodyguard grabbed Lia. As deliberately as he could, he pulled up the camera that hung around his neck as if to take a picture of the disaster in front of him. His fingers slowly manipulated the focusing ring, zeroing the crosshairs on the head of the man who had just grabbed his partner. The camera was linked to an automated sniper rifle hidden in a van parked nearby; when he pushed the autofocus button down, it locked the target, allowing the computer that guided the weapon to remember and track the head he'd zeroed in on for about ten meters.
He could hear Lia arguing with the man, her tone familiar despite the strange words in Egyptian Arabic she'd spent hours memorizing over the past few weeks.
She's okay, he told himself; just keep playing tourist. If he was going to work with her, if he was going to remain close to her—love her—he had to learn to hang back. That was the deal they made.
Not that he could ever be comfortable with it: his heart jumped when he saw the bodyguard pull her roughly to her feet.
"what are you doing?" demanded Lia, speaking in Egyptian Arabic and then switching to English. "The men need attention and I am a nurse."
The first man ignored her. Another grabbed the sleeve of her long Muslim dress.
"Stay back, sister," said one of the bodyguards in Arabic. "We will attend to the wounded."
"I am a nurse, educated at Aga Khan University School of Nursing in Pakistan. That man in the back needs attention. Look at the cut on his head," she added, pointing.
"You're not from Pakistan," said the man. "Or here."
"I was born in Malaysia."
"You sound Egyptian."
"Where I have worked for ten years. Are we meant to argue here while your friend bleeds to death? Is that why God Himself directed me to walk down the block at the moment of this catastrophe?"
Smoke poured from the bus. The bodyguard who had thrown Lia down took the man she had pulled out and began dragging him away.
"No!" yelled Lia. She surged forward, pressing against the arm of the bodyguard holding her. "He may have a head injury. You will paralyze him! Careful!"
The man on the ground was Asad bin Taysr. Known in the West as "the Red Lion," he was the number three official in the al-Qaeda terrorist network. Traveling as a Syrian businessman, he had come to Istanbul for a meeting with other members of the terrorist network.
"Hayir, hayir!" screamed a man nearby, saying no in Turkish.
Lia turned in time to see another of the bodyguards pull a Beretta handgun from his holster and fire pointblank into the face of a driver whose car had stopped nearby. It was apparently a case of mistaken identity—the cabbie who had set up the accident was long gone—but it was too late for Lia or anyone else to do anything about it. The man's head flew back and his mouth opened, as if he were taking a last gulp of air before expiring.
The gunman turned and came toward her, gun pointed at her face. Lia stared at the barrel; Charlie Dean was nearby somewhere, but it seemed unlikely that he'd be able to do anything if the man with the gun decided to fire.
"Who are you?" he demanded in English.
"I am a nurse," she answered. "Your friend there needs attention or he will die. And you cannot drag him on the street like a bag of rice."
The man put the pistol a few inches from her forehead. "If he dies, so will you."
Lia scowled at him, then pushed herself from the other bodyguard's arm and knelt beside Asad.
"An ambulance," she said loudly. "An ambulance quickly, or he will join the Prophets in Paradise, all praise and honor to their souls."
"the ambulance is two blocks away," Rockman told Dean. "You'd better get over to the hospital."
Dean didn't answer, watching as a police car pulled up. The officers ran over to the bodyguards standing over Lia as she pretended to minister to Asad. The guards had not bothered to holster their pistols. One of the policemen began shouting at them; Dean tensed, almost expecting a shootout. They'd rehearsed this operation more than two dozen times, but that was one contingency they hadn't thought of.
"Charlie, you there?"
"Relax, Rockman," said Dean.
One of the bodyguards raised his pistol and pointed it at the policeman. Dean glanced at Lia, kneeling a few feet away; she'd be sure to be hit in a crossfire.
A second and then a third police car drove up the street, followed by a fire engine, its siren blistering the air. The bodyguard who'd pointed the weapon at the policeman began telling him in English that someone had tried to murder his boss, a prominent Syrian diplomat.
"The lies just keep on comin'," said Rockman sarcastically. "Red Lion will be president of Syria next."
"You, back," barked someone to Dean's left.
He turned and found a plainclothes detective with his hand out, moving the onlookers back to the curb. Dean shuffled back to the sidewalk, deciding that it was indeed time to go—the hospital was only a few blocks away, but even with the bicycle it might take several minutes to weave through the traffic. Dr. Ramil would be wondering where he was.
But as Dean started for the corner, the plainclothes policeman caught up to him.
"The film," said the policeman in Turkish, grabbing him by the arm. "We need it for the investigation."
The policeman was considerably younger than Dean, but that was his only advantage; he had a potbelly, stood six inches shorter than Dean, and was already huffing from the few steps it had taken to catch up with him. But the last thing Dean needed at the moment was a confrontation.
"He's asking for the film in your camera," said the translator back in the Art Room. "Tell him you don't understand: Anlamryoyrum."
You're a big help, Dean thought.
"This camera doesn't have film," Dean told the policeman in English. "Do you see? It's digital?"
The detective squinted. Dean guessed that like most Turks, the man could understand English, as long as it was spoken carefully, but felt more sure of himself in his native tongue.
"The camera doesn't use film," repeated Dean. He slipped his finger to the side, snapping open the compartment where the battery and memory card were kept. "I can give you this. Is this what you want?"
He pushed on the back of the small Memory Stick and removed it from the camera. It was blank, but the policeman had no way of knowing that.
"Film?" asked the cop.
"Evet," said Dean, using one of the few Turkish words he'd been able to memorize. "Yes. Digital film."
He handed it to him. The policeman told him in heavily accented English that he could pick it up at the police station in two days. Then he waved him away, turning to find someone else who might have witnessed the accident.
"You have to work on your accent," said the translator as Dean hurried for the bike, chained to a post on the next street.
"I'll try and work that in," Dean replied, fumbling with the combination.
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen Coonts. All rights reserved.