Authors: Steve Jason & Yohn Elam
Sweat poured down Abdel’s face and froze on his cheeks as the two brothers approached the entrance. His whole body was on edge. A sudden commotion to his right caught his attention. His thumb shifted to the detonator button. Looking over, he saw an older lady sprawled out on the sidewalk, bags spread all around her. A man was leaning over her, trying to help her back up.
“Easy,” Abdel heard his brother say softly to him.
They waited for the doors to clear; then Aamir held the door and the two men entered.
The blast of hot air was almost disorienting when coming in from the frigid outside. The scents of peppermint, cinnamon, and popcorn filled Abdel’s senses. He automatically assessed the situation. It wasn’t the moving people he was concerned about; it was the stationary ones—people who could be watching for them. But as he scanned the surrounding areas, all he saw were a few teenage girls talking on their cell phones, a scruffy-looking guy in a trench coat hanging out at the juice bar, a family dividing up their cash, and singles and couples passing by, carrying bags of expensive, worthless junk out to their cars. They’re the lucky ones, Abdel thought. They made it out alive. But look at the thousands of people who won’t be so lucky.
All Scott’s old AFSOC training was coming back to him: his body control, his mental focus, his ability to rapidly process a potential target to know whether to move in or to stand down. It’s too bad old Pach isn’t here for this. He’d be—
Suddenly his heart froze at the same time his adrenaline spiked. Walking right toward him, unwrapping a blue scarf from his face, was Abdel al-Hasani. The taller man next to him had to be his brother.
He brought his smoothie to his mouth and spoke around his straw into the comm system on his wrist. “Boss, I’ve got the al-Hasani brothers.”
Scott saw Hicks look his way; then he deliberately shifted his eyes to where he could still see the al-Hasani brothers, knowing Hicks would follow his gaze.
A moment later Scott heard Hicks’s voice in his earpiece. “Everyone on comm, this is Hicks. Only essential chatter. All teams high alert. We’ve got a visual on the al-Hasani brothers. Four Team and Six Team, get ready to follow up our takedown. Everyone else, find any others.”
Scott locked eyes with Hicks across the corridor and again heard Hicks’s voice, this time directed only to him. “Okay, easy does it, Weatherman. If these guys suspect anything, it’s all over.”
Slowly, the two men slipped out after their prey.
As the brothers bumped and pushed their way through the crowds, the detonator Abdel carried felt heavier and heavier. The pressure of his grip increased to keep the cylinder from slipping out of his shaky, sweaty hand. He carried it as he’d been taught, with his thumb next to the button but not on it—too big a chance for an accident. This attack was perfectly planned to cause the greatest amount of terror among the shoppers in the mall . . . and the people of America. It wouldn’t do for the bombs to go off too early.
What was that? The trench coat man is moving. Abdel’s thumb instinctively twitched. Steady. They can’t know we’re here. Just keep it together. The man seemed to be looking straight ahead. Relax. He doesn’t even notice me. Why should he?
Jim Hicks walked out the door of American Eagle and slid in purposefully behind the larger of the two brothers. Come on, Aamir, give me an opening, he thought. He glanced to his left and saw Scott gradually shifting his course to come up behind Abdel. Not bad moves for a flyboy.
As the two men slowly followed the brothers through the bustling crowd, Hicks’s mind raced. He had no doubt that the hand buried deep in a pocket of the terrorist’s parka held a detonating device. How to separate the device from the hand without the bomb going off was the seemingly impossible question.
Hicks looked ahead and saw an escalator. Going up will make it even harder for the snipers to get a clear shot. We gotta move fast. Think!
He shot a glance toward Scott. As he did, he saw Aamir give his brother’s arm a squeeze, then break right, skirting the escalator. Hicks followed him, while Scott stayed with the younger man. Quickly glancing at Scott boarding the escalator immediately behind Abdel, he thought, Why’d I let a rookie in on this? If he takes him down too soon, the commotion will cause this guy to detonate. Patience, Weatherman. Patience.
Aamir al-Hasani knew that clutching his brother’s arm just before they split up had been against the rules they had established, but he couldn’t help it. The pride he had in his brother and in his family was overwhelming. He glanced one last time at his brother going up the escalator, but instead his eyes locked with the man behind Abdel. Isn’t he the man in the trench coat from the juice store?
Aamir saw something in the man’s eyes—recognition. He knows who we are! The plan’s been betrayed! His thumb moved over the red button. Allah, this isn’t the plan, but I must do it now!
Throwing open his jacket, he yelled at the top of his lungs, “Allahu ak—”
Hicks saw Aamir look up at Scott and knew that he had been made. But he also realized that the detonator was now out in the open. He had just seconds to act. “Code red! My guy! Take the shot! Take the shot!”
A CTD sniper who had been following Aamir with his crosshairs and half depressing the trigger of his M24 SWS eased his finger back the rest of the way. The 7.62 mm round exited the barrel of the rifle traveling at 2,800 feet per second and a tiny fraction of a second later exploded the head of Aamir al-Hasani.
As they reached the top of the escalator, Scott saw what was happening on the ground level, but the noise of the mall had kept Aamir’s cry from Abdel’s ears. However, the surrounding din would not drown out the screams of the mall patrons when they recognized what had just happened.
Instinctively, Scott acted. He slid his knife out of the sheath in the small of his back, grabbed Abdel’s left arm, and drove the ASEK’s five-inch blade deep into the man’s armpit. That moment of shock was all Scott needed to pull Abdel’s hand out of his pocket and sweep his legs out from under him. Then, pulling the blade out, Scott shifted it to his other hand and drove it through the back of Abdel’s wrist and into the wood of a bench. The detonator dropped to the ground.
Hicks dove for Aamir’s lifeless left hand and removed the detonator, acting more out of instinct than need. Quickly glancing up the escalator, he saw that Abdel was down, and his left hand was pinned to a wooden bench with a combat knife. Scott was leaning over the younger brother with a handgun pressed to his forehead. “LOCK DOWN! LOCK DOWN!” Hicks commanded into his comm, giving the order for all entrances to be closed. He was grateful to see Six Team converging on Scott’s position.
People were screaming and running all around him. Hicks pulled out the neck chain holding his badge just so no one would get the wrong idea about what was happening and try something foolish.
Suddenly, Hicks’s insides churned, and the glass all around him shook. An instant later a deafening noise assaulted his ears. Hicks looked up at Scott, but the explosion was too distant to have come from Abdel.
Hicks ran in the direction the shock wave had come from as Scott bounded down the up escalator and jumped over the handrail from eight steps up. Getting through the mass of panicked people was nearly impossible. Parents were searching for their children in the amusement park. Others were running and pushing, trying to get to the parking garages. Here and there were individuals and small groups who, stunned by the mayhem, just sat down, unsure of what to do.
Finally they made it to the other side of the mall. The frigid air hit them in the face even before they cleared the now glassless doors of the north entrance. Spotting smoke fifty yards into the parking lot, they pushed through the screaming crowd of people and continued their sprint.
The nearer they came to the blast site, the greater the damage they saw. Car windows were shattered all around them. Some higher-profile vehicles had large round holes punched into the sheet metal. When they arrived at ground zero, Hicks held up his CTD badge.
As he surveyed the site, his mind flashed back to the carnage he had seen in Desert Storm. Surrounding them were blasted-out cars—most smoking, a few still burning as agents tried to put out the flames with fire extinguishers that had been pulled from the entrance to the mall. Flashing blue and red lights in the distance briefly caught Hicks’s eye as emergency vehicles approached. To his right, agents and officers had congregated in two huddles, looking at something on the ground. Blood reddened the snow as it flowed beyond the circles of men.
Hicks grabbed the nearest CTD agent, showed his badge, and leaned in close. “What’s going on?” he yelled over the deafening sound of hundreds of car alarms.
“When lockdown was called, about fifteen cops came bursting out the doors, surprising the bejeebers out of some guy who was about to enter. The perp took off running, so two of the officers went after him. He gets out here, holds up his hand, and then vaporizes. Unfortunately, he took the two cops with him.”
“Kurshumi, number one,” Hicks muttered. “Aamir and Abdel, two and three. This must have been Bogra, which would make him the fourth and, hopefully, last.” Turning to Scott, he said, “Do me a favor and get back to Abdel. I want you to oversee the bomb squad getting that vest off of him. And then get him hauled back to CTD for interrogation ASAP.”
“You got it.” Scott ran back the way he had come.
Hicks stared at the smoke swirling in the cold Minnesota wind. These guys were just pawns, but they had to have known the chess master. Or at least they’ve heard of him. The seeping blood of the slain officers had reached his feet, and he instinctively stepped back. This can’t happen again. This cannot happen again! Not here. Not in America. Abdel knows something and he’s going to talk! No matter what I have to do, he will talk!
Hicks turned and slowly made his way back inside. Although he had helped save thousands of lives, the two dead cops weighed on him. He sensed the direction that the Abdel interview would take. While he walked, he mentally began distancing himself from what he was about to do. However, the weight of the knife belted on his leg was a persistent reminder of the heaviness of the guilt that was strapped to his conscience.
Saturday, December 20
Denver International Airport
“Where’s my chicken? I want my chicken!” Chris Gorkowski, in his usual understated way, was wandering the aisles of the chartered Boeing 767 in search of a bucket of Popeye’s. The rookies were expected to bring fried chicken, biscuits, and mashed potatoes and gravy for the veteran players in order to help offset the typical airline food. For the rookie who overlooked his poultry obligations, there was usually awaiting him when he arrived back home a little ritual in which the player was dog-piled by the rest of the team, duct-taped so he couldn’t move, and then dumped into the ice tub.
Gorkowski’s bulk brushed past Riley Covington, who had settled himself into seats 35H and J for the two-hour flight to San Francisco. Coach Burton had such an intense hatred for the city of Oakland that he refused to stay in a hotel on that side of the bay. So tonight would be spent in downtown San Francisco, and tomorrow morning they would bus across the Bay Bridge to Golden West Stadium.
Riley checked his watch—1:35 p.m. The plane was set to depart in twenty-five minutes. Slipping earbuds into his ears, Riley toggled his iPod to A Decade of Steely Dan, closed his eyes, and absorbed the smooth tones of “Deacon Blues.” The players each got two seats to stretch out their large frames, while the coaching staff enjoyed the luxury of first class. The plane was fairly empty now, but it would fill up quickly as the three remaining buses emptied of players, coaches, support staff, media, and the owner’s guests. Eventually the plane would take off with more than 150 passengers on board, along with thousands of pounds of game-day gear, medical supplies, and video equipment.
Saturdays were meant to be relaxing days. Everyone involved in special teams gathered at Inverness Training Center at 8:30 a.m. for a review. The rest of the players made their way in by nine for thirty minutes with the position coaches to finalize the game plan and answer any questions.
After these short get-togethers, most of the players went home and packed before returning to Inverness. Some of the players who didn’t have family to go back to hung around in the players’ lounge playing pinball or Xbox or poker. The buses left promptly at 12:30 p.m. Anyone not there on time was fined five thousand dollars plus the cost of a first-class ticket to wherever the team was playing that week.
At Denver International Airport, the team buses pulled up planeside. Security was cleared with surprising efficiency: tables were set up next to the plane, and ten TSA personnel screened the bags while another ten screened the passengers with the light saber–esque magnetometers. There were no checked bags for the players.
“Hey Nineteen” had just begun gliding into Riley’s ears when a voice roused him from his half doze. “Riley Covington to the cockpit, please. The captain would like to speak to you.”
Riley grinned. He had a good idea why the captain wanted to see him.
He dropped his iPod into his shirt pocket and began working his way against the human traffic to the front. About halfway up the aisle, he had to squeeze in over Sal Ricci to let some people by. Ricci cursed at him, something Riley had rarely heard him do.
“Sal, you kiss your daughter with that mouth?” Riley asked. Looking down at his friend, Riley saw that he was pale and sweat was on his forehead. “You okay, man? You look stressed.”
“I’m sorry, Pach. You know how I hate flying.”
“You want me to send Bones back here to give you something to take the edge off?” Bones was Ted Bonham, the head of the medical team.
“No, I’m all right. I just need to relax a bit.”
Riley pulled his iPod out and dropped it on Ricci’s lap. “Put it on Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach: The Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites, then sit back and close your eyes. If that doesn’t take you to your happy place, then you can’t get there from here.”