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Authors: Andrew Kaplan

Scorpion Deception

BOOK: Scorpion Deception
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DEDICATION

For my late mother and father,

Rose and Joseph Kaplan.

May their memory be for a blessing.

EPIGRAPH

“All war is deception.”

—Sun Tzu

PROLOGUE

Khorramshahr, Iran

1986

T
he boy was next in line to be shot. He was thin, dark-haired, about seven, small for his age. He was younger than the other boys, most of them teenage Basiji, volunteers for the front. They had been rounded up from schools and playgrounds across Iran to be
shahidan.
Martyrs. There weren't enough guns or ammunition for the Iranian forces fighting the Iraqis. The Basiji boys were sent unarmed to clear the minefields with their bodies ahead of the human wave attacks of Iranian Army and Pasdaran Revolutionary Guard soldiers. “Saddam Hussein has artillery; Iran has men,” the ayatollahs said.

But the boys lined up were those who had panicked under enemy fire or ran when the first mine exploded. They had been brought to a warehouse parking lot near the port to be executed for cowardice. The warehouse's brick wall and the concrete pavement in front of it were stained red and pockmarked by bullets.

The executions had gone on for almost an hour when it became the boy's turn. His small size caught the eye of the Pasdaran commander's wife, Zeeba. In her black chador she was a common figure at these executions. Among the Baradaran of the Revolutionary Guard in Khorramshahr, the woman Zeeba was called “Mother Death.” It was said she had more steel for the Revolution in her than any man.

“What's that one doing there? He's too little for a
shahid
,” she said.

Her husband checked his clipboard.

“He's a Yahud.” A Jew. “From Isfahan.”

There had been a recent execution of Jews, Zionist spies for Israel, in Isfahan. No doubt the boy's family had been caught up in it, she thought. What a pity. Such a good-looking little boy with beautiful brown eyes. Something in his eyes made her uncomfortable. They reminded her of her own son, Rahim. Two Pasdaran guards grabbed the boy and marched him toward the wall. There were some forty bodies stacked like wood. They were beginning to stink in the hot sun.

Just then, the sirens sounded, followed by the high-pitched sound of an incoming Iraqi shell.

“Incoming! Take cover!” someone screamed, immediately followed by an explosion in the street. Everyone started running.

There was a bomb shelter in the port, but there wasn't time to reach it. As Zeeba ran for cover next to the wall, she heard the whistle of a shell sounding like it was coming right down on top of her.
“Allahu akhbar!”
God is great! It was all she had time to think or pray before it exploded in the parking area, killing two of the prisoners and scattering the rest. The force of the blast knocked her off her feet. She could smell the explosive and feel its hot wind on her skin. She got up and started toward the warehouse. As she did so, the little boy ran into her.

She held him. He didn't try to get away. Just looked up at her with those brown eyes. At that moment she did something she was never able to explain to herself. Perhaps because the shell had come so close and she'd almost just died. Or because before the Revolution, her best friend in school, Fareeza, had been Jewish. She grabbed the boy's arm and began running out of the parking area with him. Out of the corner of her eye she could see her husband looking strangely at her. She continued running.

In the street, people were lying on the pavement, some wounded, others with their arms over their heads. Still others ran to get inside the warehouse. A shell screamed overhead and exploded near a building on the street leading to the port. Pieces of the building rained down around them, peppering the street with shrapnel. Zeeba hit the ground, pulling the boy down with her. She could feel him trembling against her as fragments of the building splattered around them. They lay in the street waiting for the next shell to blast them into nothingness. Was what she was doing a sin? she wondered.

Another shell exploded down toward the Bulwar Road near the harbor. As a woman, she did not know the Quran as a good Muslim should, but she seemed to remember something about the Prophet of Allah, peace be upon him, saying that it was good to help orphans. She had heard about the executions in Isfahan. Two Jewish women had been raped over a hundred times before they were killed. The men, those Zionist
jasoosa
, had been chained between trucks and literally pulled to pieces. She looked at the boy. Was it possible he had witnessed such things?

O Allah, you demand much, she thought, wondering if she should just walk away. If she brought the boy back to the warehouse or left him here, he would surely die. A shell exploded far up the street. A second shell exploded louder and closer, less than a hundred meters away. The next one would come down right on top of them. She buried her head in her arms, certain she was about to die, the boy next to her on the pavement. She waited, every nerve screaming, unable to breathe.

Nothing happened.

The shelling had stopped. Zeeba looked up. People were starting to get off the ground. She stood and pulled the boy up with her. What should she do? She didn't even know why she had saved him. What had possessed her? What would she tell her husband? It was just that he looked so little standing there, not much bigger than Rahim.

She knew she had to do something. People were walking, running, some looking anxiously to the west, toward the Iraqi front. The shelling might start again any minute. She took the boy's hand and began walking, remembering that before the Revolution there had been a synagogue a few blocks from here. She walked quickly, pulling the boy with her.

“What is your name?” she asked him.

He looked at her but didn't answer. Was he dumb? she wondered. Traumatized? He wasn't retarded. His eyes were too intelligent for that. Perhaps for Allah, his name didn't matter.

She turned the corner and saw the old synagogue. It looked battered, ruined. All the buildings in the city were scarred, but this one was barely standing, more a ruin than a building. There were holes in the facade and roof, and deep scars gouged by bullets and shrapnel during the fighting. Someone had painted
Marg bar Esra'il
, Death to Israel, on the door. She knocked and waited.

No one answered. She knocked again. And again.

A small door in the building next to the synagogue opened. It looked like a shop where they had stopped selling anything a long time ago. A gray-haired man stepped out. He wore a tattered suit jacket and a
kipa
on his head.


Salam
. May I help you,
khanoom
?” the man said.

“Here,” she said, shoving the boy at him. “He's a Yahud, from Isfahan. If you don't take him, he'll be executed.”

The man looked at her. The boy looked at neither of them. He said nothing. Zeeba turned and walked away. She kept waiting for the boy or the man to call after her, but there was only the scrape of her shoes on the pavement and the sun casting her shadow ahead of her as she walked. When she reached the corner, she looked back. The street was empty. The Jews, she thought. They take care of their own. Something we could learn from them.

She never saw the boy again.

I
t took the Jews two weeks to move the boy, whom they named Davood, from Khorramshahr to Tabriz. With the help of Kurdish smugglers, they got him over the mountains to Mosul in Kurdish Iraq and from there to Turkey. In Diyarbakir, a local Jewish businessman provided the boy with false papers that got him on a flight from Istanbul to Tel Aviv.

The boy arrived alone at two in the morning at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel. He was the last one off the plane. By the time he walked out, the other passengers had left the gate area. The only one there to meet him was a heavyset middle-aged Iranian Jew, Shlomo, from the Sochnut, the Jewish Agency.

When Shlomo saw him standing all alone in the terminal, in shorts and a T-shirt, holding nothing but the papers they had given him, he knelt and put his hands on the boy's shoulders.

“You're in Israel,” he said in Farsi. “You're safe now.”

For the first time since he had watched his parents murdered in Isfahan, the boy spoke.

“I don't want to be safe,” he said.

CHAPTER ONE

Lower Shabelle Region,

Somalia, The Present

“K
ata'lahu.”
You kill him, Khalaf said to the American in Arabic.

Khalaf stood behind Dowler, his long razor-sharp
belawa
knife at the British aid worker's throat. Dowler, on his knees in the sand, hands tied behind him, face pockmarked with cigarette burns, had the dazed look—part fear, part sheer disbelief—that comes in the final seconds when a person realizes he is about to die.

You stupid twit, the American code-named Scorpion thought.

“No. You want him dead, do it yourself,” Scorpion replied in Fusha; standard Arabic.

“Kill him or we kill you,” Khalaf growled, motioning to one of his Al-Shabaab militiamen. The man put the muzzle of his AK-47 to Scorpion's head, his finger on the trigger.

“I thought we were having
shah hawaash
,” Scorpion said, implying that they still had unfinished business. He gestured at the spread of tea, bread, and dates on the blanket under the shade of a plastic tarp a few feet away. “The tea is still hot,” he added, reminding Khalaf of the Somali courtesy due a guest.

“Why not?” Khalaf said, kicking Dowler down to the sand.

Khalaf came over and sat on the ground beneath the tarp. Scorpion sat cross-legged at an angle to him, facing two of Khalaf's militiamen, their faces hidden behind red-checked keffiyeh scarves, fingers on the trigger guards of their AK-47s. Scorpion kept his hand on his leg near the Glock 28 he had in a tear-away ankle holster hidden under his jeans.

They sipped the cardamom and cinnamon flavored tea in thimble-sized metal cups. The day was hot, with only the faintest hint of a breeze stirring dust devils on the savannah; featureless but for the dry thorn scrub and, in the distance, a stunted acacia tree. It hadn't rained in this part of Somalia in six years.

As was the custom, Scorpion smacked his lips loudly in appreciation.

“You are taking the children to Dadaab?” Khalaf gestured at the Toyota pickup truck crammed with children stacked like cordwood, broiling in the hot African sun. Scorpion had bought the truck in Nairobi only a week earlier, from a dealer on South-B Road, next to the hospital. He had been bringing the children across the border to the refugee camp at Dadaab, in Kenya, when Khalaf's Al-Shabaab militiamen stopped him at a roadblock.


Inshallah
,” Scorpion said. God willing. “If it is permitted.” Reaching into his backpack, he pulled out a plastic bag bulging with
qat
. He gestured for them to take it. As soon as he did, he realized it was a mistake. The eyes of the three men stayed riveted on his backpack.

Khalaf looked up at the American, and for a moment the two men studied each other. Sheikh Mukhtar Ali Khalaf was a thin coffee-colored man in his fifties. He wore a
ma'awis
, a Somali-style sarong, and on his head a
koofiyud
cap, embroidered, Scorpion noted, with the colors and pattern of a sheikh of the powerful Dubil tribe. He was notorious. Across the Lower Shabelle there were stories of beheadings, torture with power drills, and mass graves. Those who had met Khalaf and lived to tell the tale considered him a homicidal maniac. No doubt Dowler, on his knees in the sand, might have something to say about that.

Khalaf nodded, and soon they were all chewing the mildly narcotic leaves that even more than tea was the Somali national habit. The two men with the AK-47s pulled down the scarves covering their faces and one of them almost smiled. We're bonding, old buddies, Scorpion thought, chewing the green-tasting leaves like a teenager with a wad of gum.

“The toll for the children is two hundred,” Khalaf said.

“Shillings?” Scorpion asked. Two hundred Somali shillings was about twelve cents American. Not a real number, but a way to start the bargaining.

Khalaf laughed and the soldiers smiled, showing mouths with rotten yellow teeth caked green with chewed
qat
.

“Two hundred dollars American,” Khalaf said. “Apiece.”

“My elder brother makes a joke.” Scorpion grimaced, doing the arithmetic in his head. Sixteen kids in the truck. All that were still alive out of the twenty-four at the school he had gone into Somalia to get; $3,200. “One hundred,” he said.

“Two,” Khalaf said, impatience in his voice. Scorpion wasn't sure if it was Khalaf's craziness, the
qat
making him more aggressive, or both. But he was right at the edge. “Plus a thousand for you and the truck.”

“I'll need money to bribe the border guards,” Scorpion said.

“Or I kill you now and take everything in your
klee'asa
,” Khalaf said, indicating the backpack. Scorpion watched the two men finger the triggers of the AK-47s.

“Maashi. Mafi mushkila.”
Okay. No problem, Scorpion agreed, smiling.

Khalaf stood up.

It was just rotten luck he had run into the roadblock on the way from Baidoa to the border, Scorpion thought, getting up. Worse still for Dowler, captured a few days earlier. Dowler had been fool enough to try to bring food supplies to Mogadishu without first bribing the tribal leaders. Now Dowler was a complication. If he tried to save the British aid worker, ten-to-one they'd kill them both. And Scorpion knew if he died, the children would die. Some of them were barely clinging to life as it was.

Time to decide. He took a deep breath, calculating. It would take him 2.5 seconds to pull up his jeans leg and fire the Glock from his calf holster. Plus at least two seconds to deal with Khalaf and one of the soldiers. No good. Even if the remaining soldier's reaction time was slow, it would take him at most two to three seconds to bring the AK-47 into line and shoot.

It wasn't going to work.

Still, accuracy wasn't the AK's long suit. Despite its small size, the Glock 28 fired a .380 auto bullet with low recoil characteristics. No problem there. He glanced toward the Toyota pickup. It was a good sixty meters away. A decent NCAA running back could do it in under eight seconds. It would take him at least ten or eleven. But what about Dowler? In his condition, how fast could he run? Khalaf had close to a hundred Al-Shabaab soldiers armed to the teeth all around the area.

Don't be stupid, he told himself. It was Dowler or the children. He couldn't save both.

If not for Sandrine, he wouldn't have gone into Somalia in the first place.

T
wo days earlier. The small boy lay on his side, barely breathing. They were in the hospital tent, crowded with patients, in the Ifo refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. The Frenchwoman, Dr. Sandrine Delange, checked the boy's breathing, heartbeat, and temperature, then adjusted the drip feeding into his tiny arm.

“It's no good. He'll die today,” she said in English to Scorpion.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“Look at his upper arm. Less than 115 millimeters circumference. Smaller than a golf ball. She got him here too late,” indicating the child's mother, squatting beside the bed, looking up at the white woman doctor. “The child has pneumonia and gastroenteritis brought on by severe malnutrition. It affects the immune system like AIDS. His little body has nothing to fight the infection with.”

She patted the mother's shoulder. Scorpion couldn't take his eyes off her. Slim, beautiful, straight chestnut-brown hair carelessly tied back, and almond-shaped eyes, like no one he had ever seen; multicolored, with gold around the pupils, surrounded by emerald green and an outer ring of pure blue. Lion's eyes, he thought of them, because of the gold.

“How do you do this?” he asked as they walked to the next bed.

“How not?” brushing a wisp of hair out of her eyes. “Besides, there are always others. Thousands. And you, David? What are you running away from?” she asked. Scorpion was using the cover name, David Cheyne, an American from Los Angeles.

“What makes you think I'm running away?” he said, thinking in an odd way that Shaefer, the CIA station chief in Bucharest and his closest friend in U.S. intelligence, had implied the same thing when he had called him from Rome before coming to Africa. He and Shaefer had history together; the only two survivors of a Taliban ambush at FOBE, Forward Operating Base Echo, in North Waziristan.

“Where are you?” Shaefer had asked.

“Not Herzliya,” he said, naming the suburb north of Tel Aviv where the Israeli Mossad had its headquarters, meaning he had decided not to take on the mission the Israelis and the CIA had wanted him to. As an independent operative, a gun for hire, he had the option. But he didn't want another mission. Not after Ukraine, he thought. “I'm done.”

“It's not that simple. You can't just walk away,” Shaefer had said.

“I know,” he said.

“What will you do?”

“Get clean,” he said, ending the call and immediately contacting a private arms dealer he knew in Luxembourg, to make sure he was equipped in case someone came after him in Africa.

“People think they come to Africa to do good. But,” Sandrine, the French woman doctor said, sliding into French, “
tout le monde ici est aussi fuyant
.” Everyone here is also running away.

She had been surprised that this athletic-looking American with the strange gray eyes, a scar over one of them, spoke French. But then, everything about him was a mystery. He had just suddenly appeared at the camp. When asked, he wouldn't talk about himself. But the truck and the medicines he had brought with him had been a godsend.

“Including you?” he asked. It was impossible, he told himself. What you're feeling for her isn't real. It's too soon. A rebound after having to leave Iryna behind in Kiev. Except he knew better.

“Of course me. Why do you think I asked?”

A Somali woman in a vivid Van Gogh blue and yellow
direh
robe came by then and told them about the children trapped and starving in a school across the border in Baidoa.

Later, outside the MPLM tent, passing around what Cowell, the red-headed Scot, said was his last bottle of Glenlivet, Moreau, the handsome French surgeon, a craggy Louis Jourdan with a three-day stubble, had said: “It's
shonde
about those kids in Baidoa,” using the Swahili word for shit.

“A few of us could go. Bring them here,” Jennifer, the Canadian nurse, said.

“Don't be bloody daft,” Cowell said. “There's fighting all over there. You'd have to go through two sets of front lines. Twice! Going and coming, plus tribal pirates, assorted bandits, and Al-Shabaab all over the fucking place. It'd be bloody suicide.”

“So we do nothing,” Sandrine said, her profile outlined in fire by the last rays of the setting sun.

“Too bloody true. They're buggered,” Cowell said. “Poor little sods.”

That's when Scorpion understood why he had come to Africa and what he was going to do. He had skills they didn't have. Skills honed in his youth in the Arabian desert, in the U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as a highly trained operative in the CIA. After an assassination operation, he had left the CIA to work as a freelance agent known only to certain top echelons within the intelligence community. With a little luck—no, be honest, a lot of luck—he might get through where they couldn't.

That night, Sandrine came to his tent in the CARE compound. He started to say something, but she put her finger to his lips. She pushed him back on the cot and got on top of him, kissing his face and lips, then working her way down his body, tugging at his undershorts, followed by the brief fumble to put on protection.

It's impossible, he thought, even as her lips grazed him. He had seen the way the men all looked at her. There was a rumor she had turned down a marriage proposal from one of the richest men in France. Earlier that day, Moreau had caught him looking at her and told him, “Don't even think about it. Many have tried. She is
d'un abord difficile
.” Unapproachable.

The feel of her was unbelievable. Smoother than any silk. She was like a drug. The two of them moving together on the creaking cot like the rhythm of the sea.

Afterward, pulling on her clothes in the dark, she said, “Don't think this means anything, because it doesn't.”

“Why me?”

“Who should it be? Moreau, who thinks he's so handsome, and because he doesn't wear a wedding ring thinks I don't know he has a wife and two kids in Neuilly-sur-Seine? Or Cowell, who'd fuck a monkey if it would let him? God, men are idiots.”

“True,” he said. “But why me?”

“I know how they look at me. A not-so-bad-looking white woman in Africa . . .” She shrugged. “It's not about me.” Sitting on the edge of the cot, she brushed a lock of hair out of his eyes. “Maybe it's the scar over your eye. I don't know.” She stood up. “Don't ask women to explain themselves. Half the time even we don't know why we do things.”

“Don't,” he said.

“Don't what?”

“Don't bullshit,” he said. “It insults both of us. Just tell me the truth. Why me?”

She looked at him as if seeing him for the first time. She took in his lean, muscled torso, dark bed-tousled hair, the scars on his arms and ribs. His stillness.

“I don't want this talked about,” she said. “You seem the type who can keep a secret.”

He had to smile to himself. Given that barely six weeks earlier he'd been lying naked and tortured in a freezing cell in Ukraine waiting for them to put a bullet in the back of his head, there was more than a little truth to that.

She turned then stopped as she lifted the tent flap and peered out into the darkness.

“I'll see you in the morning?” she asked.

“I'll be gone. I have some things I have to do,” making a mental checklist of what he would need to get through to Baidoa.

“I was right. You are running away,” she said. For an instant her silhouette was framed against the stars, and then she was gone.

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