Authors: Christopher Reich
ALSO BY CHRISTOPHER REICH
Featuring Jonathan and Emma Ransom:
Rules of Vengeance
Rules of Deception
The Patriots Club
The Devil’s Banker
The First Billion
For my father, Willy Wolfgang Reich,
Above Camp 4
May 30, 1984
“Did you hear that?”
The climber dug his ice ax into the snow and cocked his head, listening.
“What?” asked his partner, perched a few feet below on the near-vertical face.
“A scream.” The climber squinted, trying to locate the shrill sound hiding inside the untiring wind. His name was Claude Brunner. He was twenty-two years old and considered France’s finest alpinist. Suddenly he caught the high-pitched wail again. It seemed to come from far away, and for a moment he was certain that it was approaching. “There!”
“A scream?” asked Castillo, a Spaniard ten years his senior. “You mean like a person shouting?”
“Yes,” said Brunner. “But not a man. Something else. Something bigger.”
“Bigger? Up here?” Castillo shook his head, and chunks of snow fell from his beard. “I don’t hear anything. You’re tired and imagining things.”
The wind calmed and Brunner listened intently. This time he heard nothing but the pounding of his heart. Still, the sound stayed with him, and he felt a stab of fear between his shoulder blades.
“How many hours’ sleep did you get last night?” asked Castillo.
“It’s your mind playing tricks on you. The only thing you can hear this high is the jet stream. It makes you crazy.”
Brunner hammered a screw into the snow and affixed his rope. Castillo was right. He was tired. Bone tired. They’d left Camp 4 at 24,000 feet at two in the morning. It had taken eight hours of steady climbing to make it past the shoulder. Not bad, but not as fast as he would have liked. Not as fast as the American, who’d left their side two hours earlier to break trail.
Brunner looked down the precipitous incline. A string of six climbers approached from the ridge. In their brightly colored parkas, they resembled a Nepalese prayer flag. Red was Bertucci from Italy. Blue was Evans from England. Yellow was Hamada from Japan. And the others were from Germany, Austria, and Denmark.
The expedition was a UN-sponsored “Climb for World Peace,” though the idea had been the brainchild of the Reagan White House and seconded by Margaret Thatcher. Over the next mountain range, barely 160 kilometers away, a force of some 100,000 Russian troops had overthrown the government of Afghanistan and installed their own puppet, a wily dictator named Babrak Karmal.
Brunner gazed up. High above, emerging from the shadows of the great ice serac, was the final member of their team. The American.
“He’s moving too fast,” said Castillo with concern. “The snow up there is bad. We lost two men on my last attempt.”
“I think he’s trying to set some kind of record,” said Brunner.
“The only record that counts is getting to the top and back down alive.”
Overhead, an untrammeled blue canopy stretched to all points of the horizon. The peaks of the Hindu Kush rose in a saw-toothed crescent. The wind, though blowing at a constant fifty kilometers an hour, was calmer than at any time in the two weeks they’d camped on the mountain. It was as fine a day as a climber could ask for to summit.
Brunner cut another step out of the hard ice, stopping as a cry cut the air. It wasn’t the shrill sound he’d heard before. It was something else entirely. Something he knew all too well.
Looking toward the crest, he spotted the American’s dark form, shrouded by snow, hurtling pell-mell down the incline and making a beeline for them.
“Put in another screw,” said Brunner. “Hook me in. I’ve got to stop him.”
“It’s suicide,” said Castillo. “If the impact doesn’t kill you, he’ll take both of us with him.”
Brunner motioned toward the climbers below. “If I don’t try, he could kill all of the others. They won’t see him coming until it’s too late. Just make sure the screw holds.”
Castillo hammered a screw into the snow while Brunner two-pointed across the face in an effort to position himself in the American’s path. “Is it in?”
The American bounded closer, desperately clawing at the mountainside. Brunner could see that his eyes were open and hear him grunting with every rock he hit. Amazingly, he was conscious. Brunner moved a few feet to his left and dug in his crampons. The American struck an outcropping and lifted off the ice entirely, spinning until his head was below his feet.
Brunner shouted his name. “Michael!”
The American stretched out an arm. Brunner threw himself at the hurtling figure. The impact knocked him off the mountainside, and he plummeted headfirst down the face. But even as he fell, he was able to wrap his arms around the American’s waist.
The rope caught, halting Brunner’s descent. The American slipped from his grasp, his body beginning to slide across the ice. Brunner flung an arm at his leg, mitten curling around a boot, the force wrenching his shoulder clear of its socket. Brunner screamed, but maintained his grip.
The two men hung that way, suspended head below heels, until Castillo down-climbed to their position and fashioned a bivouac. A gash on the American’s forehead was bleeding heavily, and one of his pupils was dilated.
“Can you hear me?” asked Brunner.
The American grunted and forced an ugly smile. “Thanks, bro. You really hung it out there for me.”
Brunner said nothing.
“Why did you take yourself off the rope?” demanded Castillo.
“Had to,” said the American.
“Why?” asked Brunner.
“Had to get everything set up.”
“What do you mean, get everything set up?” asked Castillo angrily.
The American mumbled a few unintelligible words.
“Tell us,” said Castillo. “What were you setting up?”
“Orders, man. Orders.” The American’s eyes rolled up in their sockets, and he lost consciousness.
“Orders? What does he mean by that?” Castillo grabbed the American’s pack and freed the straps that held it closed. “What the hell?”
“Find something?” asked Brunner.
Castillo pulled out a large cardboard box. On its side were the words “Property of United States Department of Defense.” He shared a look with Brunner, then said, “It must weigh twenty kilos. And still he beat us up the mountain. You know anything about this?”
Brunner shook his head. He was no longer looking at the box or the American. His gaze shot up to the serac hanging above them, and past it to the sky. This time he didn’t need to ask if Castillo heard the sound. It was no longer faint or shrill. It was the full-throated, ear-splitting roar of a jet engine in the throes of mechanical failure.
A shadow passed in front of the sun, and then he saw it, and his breath left him.
Claude Brunner knew that they were all going to die very soon.
The aircraft passed directly overhead, its wing coming so close to the mountain that it appeared to slice a sliver of ice from the crest and launch a million snowflakes into the air. One of its engines was on fire, and as he stood rooted, watching, it exploded, causing the aircraft to tilt wildly to the left and assume a downward trajectory. He recognized
it as a B-52 Stratofortress, and the large white star painted on the underside of the wing identified it as American.
For a moment the pilot righted the aircraft. Its nose lifted, and the engines no longer whined so angrily. And then the right wing snapped from the fuselage. It separated so cleanly, and so rapidly, that the action appeared to be a normal occurrence, and for another moment the plane continued to carve a perfect trajectory, framed by the brilliant blue sky. Abruptly, the bomber lost all airworthiness. The nose dropped and the jet began to spin, heading directly at the far mountainside. Debris tumbled from the aircraft. Several large cylindrical objects hurtled through space. The jet’s engines howled like a dying beast.
Five interminable seconds passed before the jet struck the face of the neighboring peak, three kilometers distant. Brunner saw the fireball before he heard the explosion. The sound came seconds later, buffeting him like a gale-force wind.
Brunner looked over his shoulder at the giant lip of snow and ice hanging above him.
. The mountain shuddered. The overhang began to tremble.
The serac broke free. Two million tons of snow separated from the mountain and fell.
The last thing the Frenchman saw was a wall of infinite white plummeting toward him.
In the morning sun, the snow sparkled like diamonds.
Zabul Province, Afghanistan
They formed on the plain
Man and beast and machine spread across the hard brown dirt in a line one hundred meters across. There were horses and jeeps and pickup trucks with heavy machine guns mounted on the flatbeds. They numbered only fifty men, and the villagers counted one hundred times that, but they were committed men. Warriors united under the banner of heaven. Sons of Tamerlane.
The commander stood in the rear of his Hilux pickup, binoculars to his eyes, surveying his target. He was tall and formidable, and he wore his black wool turban piled high on his head, the trailing folds wrapped tightly around his face to guard against the bitter cold. His name was Sultan Haq. He was thirty years old. He had been imprisoned for six years, twenty-three hours a day, in a small, clean cage in a hot place far, far away. In deference to his name, and to his habit of growing his fingernails long and keeping them as sharp as a bird of prey’s talons, his jailers had called him “the Hawk.”