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HEATHROW AIRPORT, LONDON
The traveler had a secret.
He was a young man with an American passport; one of 155,000 travelers who passed through Heathrow Airport west of the city that day. The British customs official in Terminal Three personally dealt with scores of them at a time, and she had become expert at sizing up people. Patrice Assamba was Jamaican by birth and British by her first marriage. She was also the senior agent on her shift by virtue of thirteen years' experience.
Assamba accepted the youngster's dark blue passport and began her initial examination. Another screwed-up American, she told herself. His appearance was unremarkable: early to mid-twenties, slight build, close-cropped dark beard, blue eyes turning watery behind John Lennon glasses. He wore the headgear common to many Islamic males--a brimless cloth cap of nondescript shape, vaguely khaki in color, pushed back on his head.
The traveler standing before Agent Assamba held the passport of one Youssef Ibrahim, but he certainly had been born with another name. Apparently a convert to Islam, his hometown was listed as Berkeley, California. That figures, Assamba sneered. She had been through the "People's Republic" several years before, helping a friend guiding a U.K. tour group. Free airfare and accommodations in the San Francisco area for four days and three nights. Hell of a deal. The scenery was marvelous, and Fisherman's Wharf alone was worth the effort.
Young Mr. Ibrahim's hand trembled when passing his documents, but Patrice Assamba attributed that to initial nervousness. Gauging by the stamps in the passport, he was new to international travel. Apparently he had gone from California to Saudi Arabia, via Frankfurt, thence to Pakistan for two months. Evidently the boy was on some sort of personal pilgrimage.
Assamba looked closer at the supplicant. She noted his pale, clammy skin and the watery eyes that seldom fixed on her. She read the signs: He's trying to appear relaxed by body posture but he won't look directly at me. Keeps glancing away.
Youssef Ibrahim probably was hiding something.
Assamba's accent bore the carefree lilt of the Caribbean. "Welcome to Heathrow, sir." She gave him a gleaming smile and perky tilt of the head. "Are you staying in England for long?"
Ibrahim shifted his weight, placing his hands in his jacket pockets. "Uh, no. Ma'am. No, ma'am. I'll just be here a few days." He glanced away again.
Agent Assamba decided to play this strange fish before reeling him in. "After Pakistan, you must be glad to be going home."
A brisk nod. "Yes, ma'am. You bet." Mentally he excoriated himself. You bet. The slangy residual of a wasted California youth.
In fact, Youssef Ibrahim loathed the very existence of Berkeley, California. After all, that's where his parents lived. He felt an onset of queasiness, uncertain whether it was caused by parental disdain or the effects of his secret. He swallowed hard, keeping the saliva down only by conscious effort. His mouth now was drier than ever before. He damned himself for shivering visibly. The headache that had begun as merely annoying hours before was a growing, insistent pressure behind his eyes.
Now the customs agent was examining him more closely. She suspects something. Well, let her look. They can't find what I'm hiding. No way, man.
"Sir, you don't look well. Would you like to sit down? Could we get you some water?"
Ibrahim opened his mouth, intending to decline the offer, when he felt the sudden rumbling in his bowels. He contracted his sphincter, desperately needful of a lavatory. He turned away, not sure where to go, realizing it was already too late. He turned back to Agent Assamba, beyond embarrassment at confiding his crisis to a strange woman. An infidel woman. He felt the first liquid tracking down the back of his legs, squeezed harder, and failed. The eruption announced itself to everyone within twenty feet.
ST. EDMUND'S HOSPITAL, LONDON
Dr. Carolyn Padgett-Smith resembled a practitioner of neither medicine nor immunology, though she possessed a master's degree in the latter. Tall and slender, at forty-one she could have passed for thirty-five, and it took most of her male colleagues a while to get their egos around the fact that a woman with large, violet eyes and high cheekbones knew more about infectious diseases than most Ph.D.s. None would have been surprised to learn that she had paid much of her college tuition by modeling; few realized that beneath her stylish clothes she had the muscular agility of a passionate rock climber.
"CPS" had planned on grading some postgraduate papers but the call from the Home Office changed all that. Because she had been on the short list for notification in the event of a communicable disease crisis, she was summoned to St. Edmund's, a well-equipped teaching hospital of 1960s vintage.
Padgett-Smith was met by a security officer she knew slightly, Richard Eversole Carruthers. She knew him to be professionally competent but, like too many coppers of her acquaintance, prone to situational ethics. "Hullo, Mr. Carruthers. What've we got?"
"Nice to see you, too, Padgers." Carruthers had long since abandoned hope of getting anywhere with Carolyn Padgett-Smith,burdened as she was with conventional morality and an attentive husband. Forsaking all others, that sort of thing. Pity. "The boy arrived yesterday on the PIA flight from Islamabad. He collapsed at the customs station and was brought here because it's closest to the M4 access to Heathrow."
"Likely that or Marburg, I'm told."
CPS muttered some fervent Anglo-Saxon monosyllables, none encumbered with a fifth letter. Then she focused her attention. "I shall need to see a blood sample to confirm the virus."
Carruthers nodded in his curt fashion. "Right. They're ready for you in the lab."
Padgett-Smith pulled on a gown, mask, and rubber gloves before stepping to the microscope with the blood in the high-quality plastic tube. She appreciated the caution: Glass could shatter if dropped, possibly spreading a deadly virus.
CPS focused the eyepiece more sharply and looked into the microscopic world. She felt a slight chill run down her spine, as if she had locked eyes with a cobra.
A layman would have seen a riot of cells, hardly recognizable one from another, though the sick ones outnumbered the healthy. But Dr. Padgett-Smith immediately discerned the dying cells: discolored, pale, swollen. Some had already burst apart.
Something had caused them to explode.
Padgett-Smith looked up at the lab director. "Filovirus?"
The man nodded. "I'll show you the microphotographs. We're also running tests to see if the patient's blood reacts positively in other samples. We should know before long."
Padgett-Smith returned to the lobby, ordering her priorities to coordinate with Carruthers's.
"Who had contact with the patient?" she asked.
"Well, the customs agents of course. And the ambulance attendants; probably some others."
"I shall like to see all of them."
"Of course. You can start with the point of contact, Agent Patrice Assamba."
"Give me the short version first."
"She seems a reliable observer. At first she suspected this so-called Ibrahim fellow was merely nervous because he was hiding something. Then with the sweating and chills, she thought he had malaria or a bad fever."
CPS nodded slowly. "Yes, that's the trouble with Marburg and Ebola. The onset is similar to far lesser illnesses with comparable incubation periods." Then she focused those violet eyes on his hazel orbs, two inches lower than hers. "You said 'so-called Ibrahim.' Is that an alias?"
"Well, it's the name on the passport, for what that's worth. We're checking with the Americans." CPS suspected that when drinking with his mates at the Hare and Hounds, Detective Carruthers said "Americans" with the same sneering tone as "wogs."
"He's been in Africa? Exposure to monkeys?" she asked.
"Arabia and Pakistan. About two months, apparently." The dick shrugged his sloped shoulders. "Don't know about any bloody apes."
Dr. Carolyn Padgett-Smith extended a manicured hand and patted Carruthers's cheek. "Why, I'd expect you'd know all about the great bloody apes, dear. Friends of the family."
Jason Scott Lamunyon knew the end would be bad. Dr. Ali had warned him, but "bad" was a vast understatement. The Californian remembered collapsing in a pool of his own excrement, blood, and vomit, regaining consciousness hours later in the isolation ward. Nobody came near him without a biohazard suit and respirator. He realized that he was dying a putrid death: the kind of blight he sought to inflict upon arrogant, decadent Western Civilization.
A nurse approached the bed to replenish the IV drip. He wanted to raise an arm, beckoning her--or him--to bend closer. So weak. Can't lift much. He barely nodded his head, and the attendant leaned down. The patient's lips were moving; apparently he wanted to say something. Dr. Padgett-Smith would need to knowabout it; the American had been unconscious when she first looked in.
Through the morphine haze, which only dulled the soaring pain, Jason Scott Lamunyon tried to speak. It was doubly hard since the virus had attacked his tongue, which was shedding skin at an alarming rate. He croaked something almost unintelligible: "Sorry. So sorry."
With an exertion of will, he moved his right hand to his left forearm and flexed his right thumb. Then he raised two fingers.
The attendant had no idea what the pantomime signified, but she hastened to find Carolyn Padgett-Smith.
OFF THE MARYLAND COAST
"My God, this fish is a fighter!"
Rear Admiral Michael Derringer, USN(Ret) loved the sea. But now, after nearly seven hours strapped into HMS Bounty's fighting chair, he was beginning to think fondly of a warm, dry place ashore. Preferably someplace where marlin fishing was unknown.
The 130-pound test line unreeled again as the big blue sprinted away. At Bounty's helm, "Cap'n Bob" Bligh glanced back over his shoulder while the skipper's son Bobby shouted directions and lent encouragement.
With his feet braced against the strain, Derringer waited for his prey to broach again. When it leapt into the sunlight once more, he used the opportunity to reel in several more precious inches. Cap'n Bob had already pegged the blue at perhaps nine hundred pounds, and Derringer was glad that he had accepted the skipper's advice. Blue marlin had been landed on far lighter lines, but mainly in shallow water. Here at Poor Man's Canyon, fifty miles off the Maryland coast, the bottom was 1,200 fathoms. A big, strong fish like the one Derringer had hooked could use some depth to gain momentum and snap a lighter line.
This time the marlin changed tactics. Instead of running astern, tiring itself against the tension of the line, it abruptly turned and charged the boat. Bobby gave the "full power" signal and Cap'n Bob ran the throttle forward. Derringer appreciated the wisdom of themove: he did not want to give this very capable fish too much time at the end of a slack line. As Bounty nosed into the swells, the distance between fish and boat stabilized, then began opening. Derringer cranked furiously on his reel, taking advantage of the opportunity. When the line snugged up again, he pulled with both hands, relishing the physicality of the contest even as he felt the strain in his back and arms.
Bobby patted the client on his aching shoulders. "We're gettin' him, Adm'ral. Keep him comin'."
A couple of years before, Derringer had landed a 680-pounder in barely two hours. But that was in the Gulf of Mexico. This would be his biggest catch yet, maybe even a "grander." That would put Michael Derringer in elite company: thousand-pound marlins were getting rare these days.
"Adm'ral, there's a message for you." The scratchy voice belonged to Miz Alice, Cap'n Bob's "able-bodied first mate." In fact, her insubordinate actions late one night--declared mutinous by Cap'n Bob--inspired the name of his next boat. For a moment, Derringer could not imagine who could possibly reach him. He had left his cell phone turned off--it was a curse more than a help.
Miz Alice emerged from the cockpit with a thermos of vegetable soup. "We just got a radio call from the Coast Guard," she advised. "ComFifth says you need to talk to them right away."
Derringer tugged on his pole again. He could sense that at length the marlin was tiring. "Damn it! I've got my hands full here ..."
"They're still on the horn, Admiral. Shall I tell 'em to stand by?"
Derringer nodded, then focused on the tactical battle. "Cap'n, you better back down a little and I'll switch with Bobby."
"Aye sir!" Bounty's captain maneuvered to take some of the tension off the line while Derringer quickly unstrapped from the chair. Bobby, a muscular twenty-four, would have little problem keeping the fish occupied.
In the cockpit, Derringer keyed the microphone. He could not imagine why the Fifth Coast Guard District needed to talk to him. "ComFifth, this is Derringer in Bounty. Over."
"Ah, roger, Bounty. Sir, this is Captain Deevers, chief of staff. We have an urgent message relayed from headquarters in Washington.You need to call your office immediately. Apparently they couldn't get you by cell phone."
"Hell no they couldn't get me by cell phone! I turned the damned thing off so I could go fishing."
Captain Deevers permitted himself a polite chuckle. "Understood, Admiral. All we know is that the Secretary contacted SSI and apparently some important people want to talk to you soonest."
Derringer thought for a moment. If the Secretary of Transportation had contacted SSI, something unusual was afoot. Unusual and likely unpleasant. "Thank you, Captain. I wish those people were as important as the blue marlin I've hooked out here."
The founder and CEO of Strategic Solutions, Inc. shouted back to Bobby. "Cast him loose, son. We're headed in."
HMS Bounty turned her stern to an exhausted blue marlin that happily dived on the continental shelf.
Dr. Phillip Catterly was accustomed to urgent calls at fearsome hours. This was the one he had always dreaded.
The clipped, upper-class tones of Carolyn Padgett-Smith snapped Catterly wide awake. Without bothering to apologize for the time, she said, "Phillip, check your email. When you've read my message and seen the attachments, get back to me straightaway."
Catterly blinked away the crusty feeling behind his eyes. "What is it, Carolyn?"
"It's awful, Phillip. Just awful."
"Well, it's about as bad as it gets." Catterly spoke bluntly to the short-notice meeting of the Department of Homeland Security's Advisory Committee. Normally few of the attendees would have left home yet, but much of the federal alphabet was represented: DoD, DoT, FBI,FEMA, INS, and TSA, as well as delegates from science, industry, and academia.
DHS Secretary Bruce Burridge stifled a yawn. It was barely 8:00 A.M. "We have some time, Phil. Please give us the medical background. I've already explained the carrier's travels and likely intentions."
"It's Marburg virus, similar to Ebola." The conference members stirred in their padded chairs; one or two uttered exclamations. The FBI representative emitted a low whistle. Catterly continued, "To give it its proper name, it's a family of negative-stranded RNA viruses, called Filoviridae. It's a hemorrhagic fever identified in 1967 in Marburg and Frankfurt, Germany, after researchers were exposed to African green monkeys or their tissues. The first two Ebola outbreaks were reported in Zaire and the Sudan in 1976, with mortality rates between fifty and ninety percent depending on conditions and locale. With Marburg we expect twenty to twenty-five percent fatalities."
FEMA and TSA exchanged glances. FEMA asked HSD, "Should we increase the national threat level?"
Burridge shook his head. "No, at least not yet. The fact is, most people don't pay any attention, even at the elevated level." He turned back to Catterly. "Phil, how is the virus passed along?"
Catterly seemed to bite his lip. "Frankly, we don't know much about Marburg's origins or mechanics of transmission. Other than dealing with infected monkeys, most documented cases are based on close contact with the carrier, including sexual transmission, exposure to small amounts of body fluids, or handling of contaminated objects. There is also evidence of respiratory transmission among monkeys, dating from 1983. Of course, that's what we fear the most."
"How do we prevent it?" Burridge asked.
Catterly glanced around the room. "I wish to God I knew." He allowed the sentiment to sink in. "There's a CDC manual for treating hospitalized patients, basically the same as other hemorrhagic fevers. Sterilization and isolation. But the long-term effects can be grim. Patients who recover still are susceptible to recurrent hepatitis, transverse myelitis, or uveitis. There is ..."
The FBI's special agent, Jefferson Bethune, intervened. "Excuse me, Doctor. What's all that?"
"Transverse myelitis is partial inflammation of the spinal cord. It's a neurological disorder related to polio. It interrupts control of body movements and functions. Recovery may be total or partial over a period of months. Uveitis is serious inflammation of the eyes. There's also a record of inflammation of the testicles and other glands."
"So, even without a twenty-five percent fatality rate, this thing could overwhelm our entire healthcare network."
"Correct." Catterly continued. "The incubation lasts four to sixteen days with fever, chills, headache, anorexia, and muscle pain. It's often followed by nausea, vomiting, sore throat, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. Most victims exhibit severe symptoms between days five and seven with bleeding from multiple sites but mainly the gastrointestinal tract, lungs, and gums. Bleeding and lesions precede death by day sixteen at the latest, resulting from shock, with or without extensive bleeding." He paused. "That seems to be about where our mysterious young patient is. We don't know when he was infected, but he can't last much more than another day or so."
Secretary Burridge tracked his gray eyes around the room. "I'm meeting with the President, SecDef, and the Surgeon General this afternoon. We need to present some options right away."
Bethune asked, "Well, do we know enough to start looking for anybody?"
Burridge shrugged. "Apparently not. But we should at least formulate a couple of contingency plans."
"My God, Bruce, don't we have contingencies in place yet?" Virginia Governor Fitzhugh Parmenter was more concerned than most. The Old Dominion would take the brunt of a DC outbreak.
"Sure, for outbreaks of bio weapons. But if this Islamic kid was injected with a virulent strain of Marburg, as the Brits suspect, we need to get to the source ASAP."
The NSA representative spoke up. "If we're going to start looking along the Pakistan-Afghan border, we'll need thousands of people, or just a few who are really well informed."
Burridge nodded. "That's right. I'm talking to Donna over at State this morning. It seems there's concern about an increased American presence in Pakistan, and it looks as if we don't have enough assets to spare on the Afghan side. So ..."
Bethune finished the thought. "We send a deniable asset."
Burridge remained expressionless.
"Who you have in mind, Bruce?" Parmenter thought he already knew.
"Mike Derringer and SSI."
The afternoon meeting convened in the Oval Office, where President Patrick James Quincannon wasted no time on pleasantries. He had already consulted with SecDef Gregory Hooper, who shared Burridge's recommendation of employing a private military contractor: a PMC.
The president opened: "Allow me to save time by summarizing your info sheets. We have a particularly nasty situation brewing, probably the work of Islamic radicals operating in Pakistan. State says we can't insert our military without drawing more heat from the fundamentalists in-country, so that limits our options." Quincannon then addressed his Homeland Security czar. "Bruce, I don't know much about your friend Derringer other than he runs Strategic Solutions and he's reliable. What's he like, personally?"
"Mike Derringer is one smart son of a bitch," Burridge began. He briefly flushed in the obscure presence of Secretary of State Donna Lombardi. Sailor's vocabulary, he told himself. "We were at Annapolis together. I was in the upper half of our class but he graduated ninth out of 388 and just kept going. The guy was a water walker most of his career: astute and tough; a tad cynical. He was on the staff of the Joint Chiefs when the Soviet Union collapsed, and he saw it coming before most people. Even though he had one of the best records as an analyst in Pentagon history, hardly anyone believed him. He predicted the collapse about ten months beforehand, but where colonels go for coffee, a rear admiral doesn't carry a lot of weight."
"So what'd he do?"
"With his record he probably could've stuck around for a third star, maybe got a fleet command, but by then he'd had enough. In '89 he wrote me a letter and I wish I'd kept it. He laid it all out, almost month by month. He said that with the Evil Empire no more, the politicians would rush to dismantle DoD to placate the peace lobby.Mike's nothing if not objective. He detested Clinton, but said the Republican-controlled Congress would roll over for major force reductions, and he predicted increased deployments that would lead to retention problems. He was right. He also said that few service chiefs--if any--would protest, let alone risk their jobs by standing up for the troops. He was right.
"Mike said there would be a major war in the Mideast in 1991 or 92: likely involving Iraq, Iran, and/or Saudi. He was right. When Bush wimped--ah, opted--out and left Saddam in power, Mike said we'd have to go back and do it again in ten years, but with fewer assets. He was wrong there--it was twelve years."
Quincannon grinned. "Doesn't he ever get tired of being right?"
"No. Never. But if you want to get his goat, just mention 'rightsizing. ' Man, he hates that word."
"So how did all this lead to SSI?"
"Well, Mike foresaw that all the downsizing and rightsizing bull ... was based on an absurd premise: just because the USSR collapsed didn't mean peace in our time. He knew we'd get caught short eventually, and he saw an opportunity. That's mainly why he put in his papers: he wanted to get a jump on other private military corporations. While outfits like Executive Outcomes were showing their stuff in Africa and elsewhere, he decided that he should form his own PMC. The result is SSI."
"Very well," the president said. He looked around the table. "Any comments?"
Secretary of State Lombardi leaned forward. "Mr. President, you must realize that even though they're legitimized as PMCs today, these organizations are basically mercenaries. That still carries a stigma in some quarters." She glanced down. "Especially in the UN."
"I know, Donna. But what's your point?"
"It's just that, well, we might lose some support in the international community."
Before the president could respond, SecDef Hooper intervened. "So what? The so-called international community isn't doing a hell of a lot to support us as it is. Besides, the whole point of using a PMC is deniability. A contractor is not operated by the U.S. Government. Any of us can go on CNN or Fox and truthfully state that no Americanmilitary forces are engaged." He choked down a derisive snort. "But you already know that, Madame Secretary." It was an open secret in Washington that SecDef and SecState really truly disliked one another.
Ms. Lombardi's face reddened beneath her makeup. She half rose from her chair when the president responded. "I understand the concern about PMCs or mercenaries or whatever you call them ..."
Hooper saw an opening and took it. "Excuse me, Mr. President. I remember the, ah, 'contradictions' in UN attitudes about Executive Outcomes, one of the early PMCs. In '93 when the Angolan army couldn't protect its oil fields against the rebels, EO was called in. It solved the problem with a few hundred elite troops, but then international protests arose. EO was recalled and several thousand UN 'peacekeepers' arrived but they couldn't keep the peace--or even defend themselves. The usual UN crowd was all hot and bothered because of EO's South African origins, but you know what? Most of the troops were black, and they were saving thousands of black lives. EO did the same thing in Sierra Leone and elsewhere, but the facts didn't matter then, did they?"
The Secretary of State returned her rival's gaze without speaking. As the ambient temperature in the room dropped ten degrees, the president resumed control.
"Well, there you go. State says the situation in Pakistan doesn't allow us to insert military forces, so we have two other options: rely on the locals, some of whom support the terrorists, or go with a PMC." He visually polled each secretary in turn.
Secretary Lombardi had recovered enough to find her tongue. "One moment, sir. I think we should know what we're getting into. I mean, have we ever used this SSI company before?"
Quincannon looked to Hooper, who said, "Sure, and several other PMCs besides. You know, Donna, in Iraq we don't have enough troops for convoy escorts and contractor security. In fact, our soldiers will tell you that the PMCs and military are working pretty well together."
Lombardi shook her head. "No, no. I mean, have you hired this firm for other covert operations?"
SecDef exercised his best press-conference blank face while the commander in chief regarded SecState for two heartbeats. PresidentQuincannon smiled and looked around the room. Damned if I'll tell her what I don't know. "Well then, if there's no other business, we'll adjourn. Turning to face Homeland and SecDef, he said, "Bruce, Greg: make it happen."
ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA SSI OFFICES
Michael Derringer convened the briefing in SSI's most secure facility. There was seating for sixteen people in the room known as "the cone of silence."
"Gentlemen." He nodded at Sandra Carmichael, the firm's head of operations. "Lady. Dr. Catterly is one of the leading immunologists in the country. He's worked all over the world and now chairs a crisis response committee with representatives of WHO, CDC, and other agencies. He's here to familiarize you with the threat we face. You've all heard of Ebola; well, we're up against something almost as bad: Marburg virus.
"Three days ago, an American citizen collapsed at Heathrow Airport with advanced Marburg. He won't last much longer. We know a little about him and the feds are looking closer. Briefly, he was a disaffected youngster who converted to Islam and spent quite some time in Arabia and Pakistan. It's likely that he was intentionally infected with the virus as a means of spreading a serious disease in the western world. His travel plans included the UK, U.S., and Canada." Derringer turned to Catterly. "Doctor."
Phil Catterly cleared his throat. "I've spent a few years in Africa and Asia and I've seen some terrible sights. But based on the images I received from a colleague in Britain, this young American is far worse than anything I've ever seen. He had one of the worst cases of Marburg anybody's seen.
"While driving out here, I tried to think of a phrase to communicate the severity of this case for you. The best I've come up with is from a book called Plague Wars. Mangold and Goldberg said that Marburg turns humans into 'a digested slime of virus particles.'"
Derringer scanned the faces around the table, assessing the reaction. Most remained impassive. Sandy Carmichael covered her mouth with one hand. She had two daughters.
Catterly stopped to gather his thoughts. "The worst cases are almost indescribable. The virus attacks nearly every system and organ except the bones and some skeletal muscles. It replicates itself in the body, and accumulates small clots in the bloodstream. Circulation suffers. After a while, the patient develops red spots that are hemorrhages beneath the skin. As they grow, they burst through the surface, and often the skin just drops off. Finally, the heart begins bleeding into itself. You can tell at that point because the eyes turn red from excess blood." He spread his hands on the table, palms up. "The pain is horrible. Just horrible. Without heavy sedation, the patient dies trying to scream, but sometimes the tongue is gone."
The firm's domestic ops chief uttered, "Jesus wept." It was a cross between a whisper and a croak. Derringer knew Joseph Wolf, former FBI assistant director, to be a devout Catholic.
SSI's president, Marshall Wilmot, tapped his pencil on the table. "What's the likely mortality, Doctor?"
"Best case: about twenty-five percent."
Wilmot nodded, apparently unaffected. Derringer thought, Marsh's home life isn't much cheerier than that prospect.
"There's something else," Catterly added. "It got little notice, but there's already been an outbreak in the U.S. In fact, in this area."
Derringer already knew about it. "Reston."
"Correct. In 1989 a shipment of laboratory monkeys from the Philippines was imported by a legitimate contractor. At least one of them was a carrier and infected many of the others. CDC and the Army were both called in. The only thing to do was euthanize all the monkeys, decontaminate the facility, and close it up. We were just damned lucky that no humans died, though a few were infected."
A chilly silence descended over the room. Finally Wolf asked, "Okay. How do we fit in?"
Derringer leaned back, flipping some notes he did not need. The hard drive of his memory was almost infallible, but a lifetime of habit had sunk deep roots. "You heard about the C-130 crash inKarachi a few days ago. It was loaded with disaster relief supplies for delivery up-country but it went down in a populated area. At least thirty people died on the ground. Of course, the radical elements in Pakistan turned it into an Evil Satan situation--never mind that we were trying to help the locals. The responsible agencies in Islamabad understand the facts, but there are unsympathetic people in the government. State says that an increased U.S. military presence in the country is not acceptable at present." He shrugged. "They've offered the job to us. I wanted a consensus before accepting."
Wilmot gave Derringer an arched-eyebrows expression with a slight nod toward Catterly. Derringer nodded, then turned to the researcher. "Phil, we need to discuss some discreet business. May I ask you to ..."
"Surely." Catterly read the signs all too well. They need to talk money.
As the researcher closed the door, Wilmot continued. "Just as background, I think everybody should know that Mike and I haven't had much time to discuss this contract. He was still fuming about The One That Got Away when I picked him up."
There was laughter in the room; some knew that Wilmot was only mildly exaggerating.
"Anyway, because I'm working with Corin Pilong on contracts, I think it only fair to note that this is a seller's market. Now, maybe that makes me an evil bastard, considering what we're up against. But I'd be remiss if I didn't point that out."
"Marsh is right," Derringer added. "Because this is a covert op on a tight schedule, there's no competition. We can maximize the profits on this one because there's relatively little overhead. We envision probably three dozen operators and maybe a few helos. Plus the cost of getting there and back, of course."
Sandra Carmichael had enough experience with international PMC ops to raise a cynical question. "What are the chances we may run into other operators over there? You know, somebody working as a backup in case we fail." She shrugged. "And what about the Brits?" It was the kind of question that Derringer liked.
"Sandy, unless Greg Hooper is leading me on, it won't happen. And I've known him over twenty years. We have the lead on thisproject, but the administration is keeping London informed in general terms."
Derringer almost smiled at Carmichael's mission-oriented attitude. It was one of the things he appreciated about the small-town Alabama girl who finished her army career as a lieutenant colonel. He suspected that deep down, the rural squirrel shooter still stirred in her; she liked to play with subguns and pistols, which gave her credibility with Frank Leopole, chief of SSI's foreign operations division. The former marine O-5 looked the part: high-and-tight haircut and perennial scowl. While he enjoyed plinking with Carmichael, he still felt that it should be beneath a lady's dignity to kill anyone.
Derringer proceeded to the next items on the agenda. "Very well. We'll push the contract right along but we'll begin planning today to save time." He looked at Leopole. "Frank, unless we have an operator fluent in Urdu and Pashto, you'll want to put Omar on this one. Of course, he also speaks Arabic."
Leopole nodded, grunting, "Roger that." Though suspicious of all Muslims, he respected Dr. Omar Mohammed's awesome linguistic ability--the native Iranian was fluent in four languages and conversant in half a dozen others.
"One more thing," Derringer added. "Given the medical and scientific nature of the mission, we would benefit by having a specialist on the team. I'll talk to Dr. Catterly but he's on the shady side of sixty, and he wouldn't perform well at eight thousand feet. He may know somebody."
Leopole dexterously flipped his pencil like a miniature baton between his finger. I could never do that, Sandy Carmichael thought. "We could go through Dave Main; he probably has a couple of names from Fort Detrick."
Colonel David Main was SSI's "official unofficial" liaison with Special Operations Command. Leopole looked at Carmichael. "Sandy?"
Carmichael shifted awkwardly in her chair. Leopole knew they were acquainted from West Point and suspected they may have been something more than classmates. "Sure, ah, yes. I can call him today. But aren't we supposed to avoid U.S. military personnel?"
Derringer caught Leopole's expression and made a mental note. Something going on there. No business of mine--unless it affectsmy business. "Sandy's right. But go ahead and call him. Maybe the bio researchers in Maryland can put us onto a civilian immunologist who likes exotic places."
After the meeting, Derringer invited his golf partner to the office to consult with Leopole and Wolf. "Phil, you're now on the clock again. I need your help with immunology because we could use somebody who understands Marburg and Ebola. Can you suggest someone who could handle the physical challenge? It's likely to be high elevation for days at a time."
Catterly thought for a moment. "Well, let me ask: does the immunologist have to be a U.S. citizen?"
Derringer looked at Leopole, who shrugged. "I don't know. It's preferable for legal reasons, but from a practical viewpoint I'd think it's okay. Why?"
"I know a highly qualified person in Britain. In fact, she's the one who told me about the Marburg case at Heathrow. She consults for the British government and she's even investigating homeopathic remedies for Ebola."
Frank Leopole, erstwhile lieutenant colonel of marines, leaned backward as if reeling from an impact. Going on an op with a scientist, a foreigner, and a female. What in the name of Chesty Puller was Catterly thinking?
"Doctor, I don't think you understand," the operations officer interjected. "This mission will likely involve combat. It'll definitely involve strenuous physical activity."
"Then Carolyn Padgett-Smith is qualified, Colonel. She's a world-class rock climber, an excellent skier, and as far as I know, she's in tip-top condition. You should see her." Phillip Catterly unknowingly arched his eyebrows in a universal male gesture. Hubba-hubba.
"Well, how old is she?"
"Oh, early forties."
Leopole shook his head. "Doc, I'm in my forties, and this job might be a stretch for me. Most of our operators are in their thirties, and they work out all the time."
Catterly persisted. "It's just a thought. If you want to contact her,let me know. Otherwise, I can't think of anyone qualified both professionally and physically." He turned back to Derringer. "What about the army? Have you tried Fort Detrick?"
Derringer cleared his throat. "We're checking that out." Then he turned to Wolf. "Joe, I suppose the FBI has already talked to the boy's parents. I'll leave it up to you whether we see what the bureau will share with us or if we send our own people out there."
Wolf, who had been a rarity in the FBI hierarchy by advocating "civilian" training such as SSI's, had already alerted his domestic operations staff. A team was ready to fly to Berkeley on short notice. "I'll find out today, chief."
Derringer tapped the tabletop in a rhythmic tattoo. "Very well. Let's push this one, guys. Time is crucial."
After Leopole and Wolf left, Catterly remained. "Mike, I appreciate your trust in me, and I'll give you all the help I can. But if I'm going to work with some of your people I'd like some background."
Derringer sipped some raspberry iced tea. "Ahh, that's good. Sure thing, Phil. Where do you want to start?"
"Well, what's Dr. Mohammed's background?"
"Oh, he's an incredible linguist. You should read his Ph.D. dissertation: the effect of language on war. He grew up in Paris and was partly educated in Britain. His father was a diplomat for the Shah so Omar was raised speaking Farsi, Arabic, and French. He decided to concentrate on Mideast languages and picked up Hebrew just for drill. After 9-11 he read the map and concentrated on Pashto and Urdu so he could work both sides of the Afghan border. Besides that, he's conversant in Russian and I think he's studied Hindi. He said his next language is Indonesian."
"Yeah. It has the largest Muslim population on earth, by about two and a half laps."
"So he teaches Islamic languages to your people?"
"Well, he can do that, of course, but Omar's a man of many parts. Actually he's director of training. A few years ago I brought him in for a couple of months to teach our operators about Islamicculture and some basic Arabic: asking directions, field interrogations, that sort of thing. Frankly, those segments were only marginally successful because Omar believes in immersion for really learning a language. We have better luck with former Green Beanies who studied at Monterey and worked in the Middle East. The Army was real cranky when we scooped up some of those guys, but that's another story.
"Anyway, Omar got along great with some of the door kickers, which kind of surprised us. I mean, he comes across as more an academic than an operator, and he's not exactly a boozer or a chaser. In fact, he's a pretty strict Muslim. But when he went on some exercises in Saudi and, ah, elsewhere"--Derringer raised his eyebrows--"the guys found that he kept making really good suggestions. After a few months we made him assistant training director, and he's run the department since last year."
"I'd never have guessed it. What's he do besides language and cultural stuff?"
"Oh, you name it. He's not an operator, but we have instructors for tradecraft. Omar coordinates all that with the specialists. He just knows a hell of a lot, and he has contacts throughout Europe and the Middle East. If you need somebody to teach alpine climbing or how to operate in a sand storm, he can get'em. Basically, he's a big-picture guy: he knows what he doesn't know, but he can write a first-class training syllabus faster than anybody I've ever known."
Catterly sipped his coffee, absorbing the information. "How's he get along with the others?"
"Very few problems. Oh, Frank Leopole might still be suspicious, but he's leery of anybody who can't sing all three verses of 'The Marine Corps Hymn.' No, Omar's solid. He plays it close to the vest most of the time, but if you get to know him, he'll open up. Just don't get him started on how OBL and al Qaeda have hijacked Islam. You'll be there for hours."
Copyright © 2007 by Harold Coyle and Barrett Tillman