Authors: Steve Jason & Yohn Elam
“Yeah, Ross, Tara said you’d be calling. The boys who were listening in on the interrogation should be getting you a transcript soon, but let me give you the highlights. Kurshumi was on his way toward Minneapolis, where he was supposed to locate a green Toyota Highlander with Michigan plates in the parking lot of a Byerly’s in St. Louis Park. In the wheel well of this car would be an envelope with instructions and keys. All indications are that he was going to pick up items to make an explosive belt as part of a coordinated suicide attack.”
“Of course! ‘Allah controls the weather!’ I thought they didn’t want bad weather, because it would keep people in their homes. Instead, they do want it cold and nasty so that they can put as much clothing on their bodies as possible to disguise themselves and their vests to help . . . Wait a second, did you say ‘suicide attack’—as in a Palestinian-blows-up-the-bus kind of suicide attack?”
“Unfortunately, that’s exactly what we’re looking at. We’ve sent people out to gather the stuff that Kurshumi was meant to collect. I’m guessing their scavenger hunt will turn up between thirty and forty pounds of explosives, a vest or belt, and a projectile of some sort.”
“I can’t believe it’s finally happening here,” Scott said.
Hicks knew what he meant. Ever since 9/11, the evidence had pointed to the inevitability of just this sort of attack. However, there was a huge emotional leap separating theory from reality.
“So,” Scott continued, “how many are there, and where and when are they planning to hit?”
“I wish I had better news here, but this guy doesn’t seem to know any details. He’s just an expendable pawn on a need-to-know. All he could tell me was that the attack is scheduled for tomorrow. This evening, he was supposed to call a number that he carried with him, but when he got pulled over, he swallowed that number without looking at it. That’s all we’ve got right now.”
“C’mon, man, you know we need more than that! We’ve got some psychos out there who want to blow a whole load of bolts or bearings or screws or something through a bunch of American bodies tomorrow, and all you can tell me is that someone’s going to do it somewhere sometime? Are you sure you got everything out of Kurshumi? Can anyone else up there take a shot at him?”
Hicks gave his anger time to vent through his grip on his cell phone before he answered. “I’m going to chalk that question up to your youthfulness, Mr. Ross, and to your enthusiasm, which I highly suggest you get under control. Believe me when I tell you that there is nothing Kurshumi knows that he did not tell us. Do you understand?”
“I understand. . . . It’s just that this is a really nasty game, and I feel like we’re playing in the dark.”
“Welcome to counterterrorism, Mr. Ross. Now, I’ve got work to do.” Hicks flipped the phone closed and cocked his arm back, then stopped himself just before pitching a strike against the aqua blue tile wall. Little punk sits behind a computer screen all day and then tells me how to do my job? The only blood he’s ever had on his hands was probably from his own nose.
With effort, he got himself back under control. Glancing in the mirror one more time, he quickly turned his eyes away. You’ve got work to do, son, he thought as he burst out the door to head back to his team. Enjoy your self-loathing on your own time.
Friday, December 19
North Central United States
Abdel eased the blasting cap into the final cylinder of C-4. Although he had practiced this countless times while training in Pakistan, he still felt nervous sliding the triggering device into the plastic explosive. There was finality to the action, as if engaging a lock for which he had no key. Click! Your fate is sealed. Your destiny awaits.
Aamir’s hand clamped down on his shoulder, startling him. “Can you feel it, Abdel? We truly are the most blessed among men. Think about what this means. Most people live and die in insignificance. But we have been given a chance to achieve immortality. The names of the great martyr brothers Aamir and Abdel al-Hasani will be venerated for generations in story and song. Think of the honor that will be bestowed upon our family. Think of the financial security Father and Mother will experience the rest of their lives. Think of the smile of Allah and the joy of the Prophet as they witness our victory, achieved in their names.”
Abdel stared at his brother. He still hadn’t forgiven Aamir for striking him earlier. He had spoken only what words were necessary since the incident. As he listened to his brother’s voice drone on and on, he wondered whom his brother was really trying to convince. Does he truly believe the words he’s saying? I know that I once did. I wonder if I still do.
When Aamir finally finished his soliloquy, Abdel shook himself loose from his brother’s grip and walked to his jacket, which was hanging over a chair. Ripping open the Velcro, he reached into the front pocket and pulled out a small, very sharp folding knife. As he walked back to his brother, the snap of the opening blade broke the silence of the room. He reached up and grabbed the top of Aamir’s T-shirt, then brought the knife up and with three quick cuts sliced off the front of the shirt’s thin collar.
When Abdel opened the double layer of material, a small roll of paper fell out into his hand. The paper had been loosely sewn into the shirt in a way that combined security with easy access. The garment had then been given to Aamir with the instructions to wear it under his clothes at all times and to not remove the paper until 6 p.m. the night before the attack. The only deviation allowed was if he was in danger of being caught, at which time he was to rip off the collar and swallow the enclosed information.
Abdel gently unrolled the paper, revealing ten neatly printed digits. He dropped the small strip into Aamir’s hand. “It’s time to make the call.”
Aamir pulled a disposable cell phone out of his pocket. They had paid cash for the phone at a Wal-Mart last night and had not even had to show ID to acquire their minutes.
Aamir dialed the number, then simply said, “The hand is poised to strike.” The older brother scribbled quickly in Arabic as he listened to the voice on the other end. When the line went dead, he placed the cell phone in the waste can next to the television and pounded it to pieces with the lug wrench from their car, wasting twenty-eight of their original thirty T-Mobile To Go minutes.
Aamir popped the strip of paper into his mouth and spoke to his brother as he chewed. “The plan is beautiful. We will strike America a blow it will not soon forget. Tomorrow, we will leave—”
Abdel put his hand up, interrupting his brother. “Please, not today. I can’t handle any more today. Tomorrow, Aamir . . . please . . . after sunrise prayer . . . you can tell me what to do then.” He grabbed a chair, placed it in a corner of the room, and sat with his head in his hands. He could feel the eyes of his brother on him, but he didn’t look up.
Is this fear? Is it doubt? I was so sure at camp in Pakistan. I was so sure back home in Riyadh. Why am I struggling so much now? Is this really what you want, Allah? You know I will do anything for you.
Abdel remained stationary as the room settled into darkness. At some point in the evening, his brother asked him if he wanted to join him for some dinner. He responded with a weak wave of his hand. The hotel door closed with a click as his brother left, then clicked again when he returned.
Abdel heard the sounds of Aamir quietly getting undressed and slipping into bed. Soon his brother’s familiar soft snore drifted across the room, a sound that had been part of Abdel’s life for as long as he could remember. He wasn’t sure when he finally fell asleep, but when he woke up the next morning his back and neck were stiff and his forehead was red from the hard pillows of his hands.
Friday, December 19
CTD Midwest Division Headquarters
St. Louis, Missouri
Scott Ross had assembled his primary team of five in a conference room when the call came from Jim Hicks. He tossed his phone to Tara, telling her that he and Hicks were “relationally challenged.”
She listened for a minute, then tossed the closed phone back to Scott. “They’ve collected all the materials that Kurshumi was supposed to pick up—a vest, thirty-five pounds of C-4, and three boxes of 5 mm ball bearings. We’ve got tonight to figure this thing out, because tomorrow things are going to get really ugly really fast.”
“So we know the what and the when. If we can figure out the where, then we’ll have a better chance of nailing the who,” Scott observed.
“You sound like an Abbott and Costello routine,” said former teen hacker Evie Cline.
“Oh, I don’t know,” added MIT grad Virgil Hernandez.
“Third base!” the rest called out. The rest, that is, except for Tara, who often felt like the only one in this group who had actually broken out on the other side of puberty.
“Okay, gang, let’s reel it in. Tara’s giving us the eye again,” Scott said. “So we’re missing something here. Let’s start from the top. I really think that the key to this whole thing has to be the ‘heart of capitalism.’ Evie, you checked out the financial areas of the Twin Cities. Anything stand out to you?”
“They’ve got a federal reserve bank, but it’s just one of twelve around the country. It’s nothing that would make a huge statement.”
“Joey, you checked out manufacturing. Can you give me anything?”
“Nothing that would make me stand up and say, ‘Wow.’” Joey Williamson was the only member of the group besides Scott not to have a degree from a prestigious university.
“Virgil, you checked to see if there were any big meetings or conventions in the Twin Cities.”
“There’s not much of anything. Not many trades schedule their conventions the week before Christmas.”
“Right. And, Tara, you were checking on . . . Wait a second—back up. It’s the week before Christmas?” Without a wife, kids, or parents, Scott tended not to notice holidays.
“Sorry,” Hernandez said, “am I being politically incorrect? We’re also right in the middle of Hanukkah and a couple of weeks away from Kwanzaa, if you’d prefer.”
Scott ignored Hernandez and put his hand up, signaling for everyone to be quiet. After two solid minutes of silence that seemed like an eternity to the highly caffeinated, attention-challenged team, he turned to Tara. “We’ve got them! The heart of capitalism. It’s Christmas! Greedy kids, plastic cards melting from the friction, useless junk flying off the shelves! That’s got to be it! What’s the biggest shopping area in the Twin Cities?”
Tara didn’t answer; she was already dialing Jim Hicks’s number. When he answered the phone, she said, “Jim, Tara; we’ve got it. ‘The heart of capitalism’—it’s the mall. They’re going after the Mall of America!”
Friday, December 19
Inverness Training Center
Riley jogged out of the training facility after finishing his live interview with the PFL Network. The cold night air hit him full force, catching the breath in his lungs. A weather system had moved in during the afternoon and dropped the wind chill below freezing. Fifties today and twenties tonight. You want to know Colorado weather? Flip a coin.
Quickly he zipped up his leather bomber jacket the rest of the way and shoved his hands deep in the pockets. He wanted to smack himself when he thought of the toasty nubuck service gloves that he had just picked up at REI but were currently sitting in the bag on his dresser back home.
When practice ended around 3:30 p.m., most of the players had spent time lifting weights before going to position meetings. After the linebackers’ meeting, Riley had quickly cleaned himself up for his interviews. Robert Taylor had given the go-ahead to KCNC, KUSA, and Fox Sports for taped conversations, after which Riley was scheduled for a five-minute live shot with PFL Network.
Each reporter was given a ten-minute slot to set up equipment, do the interview, tear down, and be out the door. The room was big enough for the video crews to get creative with the lighting, which always seemed to take up the bulk of the prep time. Riley sat down on a stool in front of a large black curtain and tried to manufacture excitement. But by the third time he heard the same questions, Riley was having a hard time keeping his answers fresh and his armpits dry. Repetition and heat—that was the glamour of a PFL player interview.
Finally, with the live shot done, he bolted out the door. It was 7:15—only five minutes later than Taylor had promised he’d be finished.
When Riley got to the parking lot, he couldn’t help but laugh. Every Hummer limousine in the Denver metro area must have been lined up there, stretching from the maintenance garage, past the Mustangs store, and out onto Inverness Boulevard. There were white ones, black ones, and one that was bright yellow. I hope these rookies have been saving their money, he thought as he looked for the linebackers’ limo.
He spotted first-year man Garrett Widnall five cars down, waving to him and holding the door open. Widnall had been a rookie free agent who had barely made the team. It was one thing to be a big fish in a little pond at Division II Humboldt State. Now Widnall was swimming with the sharks, and it was still a toss-up as to whether he would get eaten alive. Riley knew the evening’s festivities would hit the kid’s wallet hard. He decided that he would pull him aside tonight and talk through some sort of financial arrangement with him.
Passing by vehicle after vehicle, he could feel the deep bass from the Hummers’ sound systems rattling his insides. Lord, please blow my limo’s speakers before I get there. Suddenly, something caught his ear. What in the world is that? Opera?
A center window in the behemoth next to him slid down, and Sal Ricci stuck his head out with a big grin.
Anticipating Riley’s question, Ricci said, “It’s Andrea Bocelli—my gift from the boys for getting offensive player of the week.” Ricci had been awarded that title after last Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Miners in which he had racked up 178 yards receiving and caught 2 touchdown passes, one for 85 yards.
“You must be loving that.”
“Well, not exactly.” Ricci leaned back from the window so that Riley could look in. Toward the back of the limo, a trio of wide receivers was doing an impersonation of the Three Tenors—singing into bottles of Michelob. Judging by the number of empties on the floor of the vehicle, these weren’t their first microphones, and this wasn’t their first song. While they sang with great passion, their goal seemed to be focused more on volume than pitch. Riley grimaced.