Authors: Eric Van Lustbader
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For Victoria, as always, with deepest love
[precise location redacted], Pakistan
The wind came shrieking through the interior of the helo, demonic and vicious, like a cop hell-bent on pursuit.
Greg Whitman, eyes closed, listening to Artie Shaw's version of “Begin the Beguine” on his iPod, didn't hear it. Cole Porter, he thought. A giant among men. So was Hoagy Carmichael. His “Star Dust” would be coming on next, but Whitman knew he'd skip the song. He should have deleted it, but he couldn't bear to do it. The pilot tapped him on the shoulder, saving him. He opened his eyes, stowed away his iPod, and substituted the helo's comm unit for his earbuds.
“Rain,” the pilot said in Whitman's earpiece. “Here it comes.”
He wasn't kidding. The first burst was like flak hitting the side of the helo. The aircraft banked, and dipped sharply, swinging like a pendulum between the peaks of two mountains, keeping timeâthe slow, drawn-out minutes before the boots on the ground moment when time accelerated like an arrow shot from a bow. Inside the helo it was like an orchestra warming up, or Hoagy Carmichael at his piano picking out a melody that was not yet quite there.
Before the pilot was able to right the craft, Felix OrteÃ±o had taken up his position at the rear of the helo, vomiting into a plastic bag.
Jonas Sandofur smiled as he checked the trio's weaponry for the sixth and last time, making certain the ammo was as he'd requested it from Armaments: .500 S&W Magnum. He checked every single bullet; there would be no misfires on his watch. Sandofur was smiling because OrteÃ±o's distress was a sign of good fortune. The communications and electronics expert always threw up just before insertion. It was a guarantee of the mission's success. Not that this trio needed it. In the five years since Whitman had put the team together, when he had been hired by King Cutler, the head of Universal Security Associates, the team had never failed in their ultra-black missions of insertion and termination. Each plastic bag was saved, like a notch in a belt or a scalp on a length of rawhide.
“Seven minutes,” the pilot said in Whitman's ear as they shot past another obsidian mountainsideâhe didn't have to add “to insertion”; they all knew.
Whitman, a slim, leathery cowboy of a man, had been born and raised in Montana, but that life seemed part of someone else's past, not his. All his adult years, and some before, had been spent overseas, in places marked out in bright red on Pentagon maps. He was in charge of planning and tactics; the trio was on the path he devised and designated. With a small flashlight held between his teeth, he bent over the plastic-coated topographical map, though he had previously memorized each and every formation. He had the ability to instantly translate two dimensions into three. In so doing, he had already been to their target area many times in his mind's eye. When they landed he would be on familiar ground.
Another gust of wind sent the rain rattling against the helo's skin like buckshot. OrteÃ±o staggered as he made his way forward, the flat of his hand against the gunship's metal bulkhead.
“Hey, Flix,” Jonas said into his swing mike, “how's the gut?”
“Nothing a couple of tacos with a squirt of hot sauce wouldn't cure.”
The helo creaked and groaned like a seventeenth-century ship of the line in a storm far out to sea.
“I'll stake you to 'em after we get home.”
OrteÃ±o grinned, cocked his forefinger like a gun barrel at Sandofur. “I'll hold you to that.”
“Settle down, ladies,” Whitman said without looking up from his map. “Two minutes to the drop point, Sandy. Make sure our protection's kosher.”
Sandofur handed over the small-arms weapons he had so lovingly prepared. “Into the valley of heathens dropped the three sombreros,” he intoned. This, too, was a ritual performed before each drop.
Ai de mi!
” OrteÃ±o yelled, getting into it as he settled the parachute more comfortably between his shoulders.
The gunner slid open the helo's side door.
“Valley dead ahead! Get the hell off my ship!” the pilot shouted over his shoulder. The trio had ditched their comm sets for Flix's wireless earwigs. “See you girls at oh-five-hundred sharp, before the sun rises. And, for fuck's sake, don't any of you break a leg!”
Out the open doorway, into the stinging blackness, one after the other, an unholy shrieking in their ears, a rush of adrenaline, a hollowness in the pit of their stomachs as they fell between leaning black walls, the ground, invisible in the rain-swept night, rushing up to meet them with hellacious velocity.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
As usual, it was Sandofur who landed first. Shrugging off his parachute rigging like a sailboat in dry dock, he raced to the metal case that had landed a hundred yards away, one corner buried in the soft, loose earth. Righting it, he set about releasing the clamps.
By the time the others had come up beside him, he had the case open. He distributed the AR-15s and other large-bore weapons with a sure hand. He had done this so many times he could have parceled out the armaments one-handed and wounded, a point of pride with him.
The rain beat relentlessly down, but there was almost no wind. Whitman, glancing up at the roiling clouds, hoped that the poor weather would continue as the forecast predicted. It was the time of the full moon, and he had argued for waiting until the waning crescent, but King Cutler had insisted they move at once.
“For the first time we have positive intel concerning Seiran el-Habib's whereabouts,” Cutler had told Whitman. “He's too big a catch. We can't wait.”
But the weather had turned in their favor, the night black and impenetrable as pitch. Whitman fired up the GPS, plugged in the coordinates of the private villa where el-Habib was currently holed up, and, silently signaling to his team, took point as they headed out.
Their landing site was approximately a mile from their target. The villa was in the center of an armed compound, walled and wired. This much they knew for certain; the rest they would have to find out when they arrived.
It was a long, hard slog, along muddy lowlands, then over rising, rocky hillocks, tufted plateaus, and narrow overlooks. Not that they could have seen much of anything without their next-generation night vision goggles, provided by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to which Cutler had inside access, but using them for long periods of time was fatiguing on the eyes, inducing dizziness and, often, headaches. Cutler was forever shoving the newest weaponryâ“toys,” as he called themâat the team.
“Red Rover is my blackest of black ops unit, so far off the radar that no one on Capitol Hill knows of your existence. No one even knows NSA is hiring people like us,” he'd tell them. “You deserve the fruits of the best and brightest sparks our government has to offer.”
Despite the utter darkness and the filthy weather, the team had no difficulty negotiating the terrain. After all, they had spent hours traversing it in a three-dimensional simulation built up with photos and videos from numerous drone overflights. As a consequence, the ground was as familiar to them as their own backyards.
This was just as well, because Whitman's mind was firmly set on Seiran el-Habib, the Saudi-born terrorist mastermind who was their current target. According to the intel Cutler had shared with him that came direct from Omar Hemingway, their contact at NSA, el-Habib was highly connectedâto what or whom was a mystery they had been sent to unlock.
If it had simply been a matter of taking el-Habib out, a drone could have done the deed almost as well. But their brief was to extract el-Habib from his compound, then rendezvous with the helo.
“El-Habib isn't like your other targets,” Cutler had told Whitman. “He's a very special case that needs to be handled with kid gloves. You get me
“As always, boss,” Whitman had replied.
Cutler's green eyes had bored into Whitman. “I hope to Christ you do, Gregory.” He was the only person since Whitman's father to call him that. “We're getting triple our fee for the extraction, but we will get a shitload of moneyâeven for usâonce you unlock this sonuvabitch's mind.”
“You mean we're not bringing him back for interrogation at the Fortress of Solitude?” He was referring to the USA safe house facility, as it was known internally, deep in the forests of rural Virginia.
“I mean you're not to take him anywhere near the Fortress and its inquisitors. You'll take him to the Well.”
“The Well?” Whitman had echoed, his voice tinged with a special anxiety. “No one's been to the Well in years.”
“All the better. And you know the Well better than anyone, don't you, Gregory? I mean, that's what Luther St. Vincent told me.”
“St. Vincent should keep his trap shut.”
“He and I have aÂ â¦ special business relationship, but that's not relevant to this conversation.”
“The hell it isn't.”
Cutler, intuiting the storm clouds gathering in Whitman, said, “Listen, he's the one who recommended I hire you.”
“So you could keep an eye on me.”
“Don't be paranoid.”
“You pay me to be paranoid.”
“Do you think I hired you simply on St. Vincent's say-so? You're special, Gregory. You know it; I know it. So go and do that voodoo that you do so well. This is one case where nothing short of your magic will work.” Cutler's shark-like smile put Whitman's teeth on edge. “You're going to pry open el-Habib's mind yourself. That's how completely off the grid this op is.”
Whatever magic Whitman possessed was dark magic. He didn't like to dwell on it; in fact, he resented Cutler every time his boss brought it up, as if it was a terrible secret he chose to hang over Whitman's head. Which was precisely what it was. On the other hand, Whitman knew he had no business blaming anyone but himself for the mistakes he had made in the Well. But were they really mistakes? The members of the Alchemists, his former cadre, had believed fervently in what they were doing, so St. Vincent had said. His Rubicon moment had arrived in nightmarish fashion in the Well, when he was faced with the truth about the Alchemists. In that moment of revelation, what he had done at their bidding came rushing back to haunt him like the undead. How could he have been so naÃ¯ve as to think their aims were really altruistic? How could he have believed St. Vincent's honeyed lies. It would be far too easy to blame St. Vincent, Monroe, and the others, so instead he blamed only himself. The blood was on his hands, not theirs. He had refused to cross the Rubicon, to enter the Alchemists' Rome, but, considering what had transpired in the preceding days, hadn't stopped himself in time. This was what haunted him in those cobwebbed moments before, at the end of his rope, an exhausted sleep toppled into his grasp.