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Authors: Stephen Coonts

Tags: #Qaida (Organization), #Intelligence officers, #Assassination, #Carmellini; Tommy (Fictitious character), #Fiction, #Grafton; Jake (Fictitious character), #Suspense, #Espionage, #Thrillers, #Suspense fiction, #Undercover operations, #Spy stories

The Assassin (5 page)

BOOK: The Assassin
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“I need your help,” Grafton said, his eyes pinning me again. “If we can kill Abu Qasim, this whole mess will have been worth whatever it costs, including a prosecution and trip to the pen for me.”

“The terrorists have lots of soldiers,” I pointed out.

“And damn few really good generals. Qasim is unique. He speaks five or six languages, has a network all over Europe and the Middle East—maybe even in America—and he thinks big. Most of these guys think small. They are small. Qasim is a great white shark with brains.”

I watched his face, which mesmerized me. The years had left crow’s-feet around his eyes and weathered his skin. Still, behind those gray eyes I could see the fire. Jake Grafton was a warrior to the last drop of blood. Sitting there beside him, I could feel the heat of that flame.

Maybe I’m a fool, but I would have followed the man through the gates of hell to shoot it out with the Devil—and it looked to me as if that was precisely where he intended to go.

“The key is Marisa Petrou,” he said. “She knows this bastard better than anyone alive, and I’ve got a hunch she knows what he’s planning.”

His eyes were focused on infinity. I had seen him like that before when he was trying to see what other men could not.

The admiral was silent for a while. Then he said, “The Islamic jihadists want to destroy civilization. They reject religious freedom and the right of others to live as they choose. They want to deprive us of our right to think. In the name of a bloodthirsty, vengeful, merciless god, they are trying to drag the people of the earth back into a new dark age.”

He thought for a bit as he drove along. When he spoke again, Jake Grafton said, “Those people in Winchester’s living room are willing to make a stand. They’re willing to risk everything they have—their reputations, their fortunes, their freedom and their lives. So am I. I’m going to help them if it’s the very last thing I do. And, God willing, I’m going to lay hands on Abu Qasim.”

The Assassin
CHAPTER THREE

November

Even in late autumn Paris is full of tourists, most of whom speak some variant of English. With digital cameras dangling on straps around their necks and wearing backpacks stuffed with snacks and guidebooks, they lead their wives and children through the endless crowds and stand restlessly in the eternal queues. They are white, ubiquitous and unmistakable. From London, the Midlands, Boston, California and everyplace in between, they crowd the Metro platforms and mill around the maps of the system. They pack the cafes, restaurants, and hotels and bitch endlessly about the prices. They also congregate in the public restrooms, where they complain loudly about the coin-operated stalls.

Jean Petrou tried to ignore the foreigners as he strode purposefully along the sidewalk and joined the line leading to the stairs into the Metro station. Just before he went down into the station he looked around, trying to spot anyone he knew. He saw no familiar faces or figures. The swarm of sightseers was the perfect place to lose oneself, he thought, as he went through the turnstile and joined the throng on the platform.

The truth was that he didn’t blend into the casually dressed crowd. He was wearing a dark blue silk Armani suit, accented by a white shirt and light blue tie. Over this he wore a tailor-made black coat that reached to his knees. His shoes were rich black leather, highly polished. When he shot his cuffs, as he did while he waited for the train, his diamond-encrusted Rolex sparkled and gleamed under the lights.

The train roared in and ground to a halt. After another look around, Jean Petrou entered the nearest car and found a handle to hold. Tourists surrounded him, jostled against him, and the children eyed him without curiosity. He ignored them all.

Petrou changed trains at Les Halles station and rode the 4 train to the Cite station, where he got off and walked toward the stairs. He glanced back over his shoulder, checking the other people who were also getting off. No one he knew.

A short walk led to the narrow streets of the restored old town. The streets were packed. Tourists strolled and read the menus posted in front of the restaurants, snapped endless pictures and paused in family knots to refer to maps and guidebooks. Petrou angled through them and entered one of the restaurants. He paused in the doorway and looked around. Ah yes, in the far left corner. He waved off the maftre d’ and walked over to the table. He nodded at the man sitting there facing the door and, without removing his coat, seated himself.

His tablemate wore a goatee streaked with gray, long black hair, which was also graying, and horn-rim glasses. His dark suit was not as fashionable as Petrou’s, but it was cleaned and pressed. On the table before him sat a glass of water and a menu.

Petrou looked around, ensuring that he was seated among strangers. He was. Tourists filled every other table. A knot of students on holiday sat at the large table behind him. To his right a family from America, somewhere in the South judging from their accent, were oohing and aahing over the menu prices.

“Did you bring it?” Petrou asked softly in French.

His companion glanced down, under the table. Petrou leaned left and looked. He saw a brown leather attache case sitting on the floor by the wall.

Before he could speak, the waitress brought him a menu and a glass of water. He ordered a glass of white wine. The man with the goatee said water would be enough for him.

After the waitress departed, Petrou said, “I want to count it.”

The expression on the face of the man across the table didn’t change. “You earn it and you can count it in the men’s room,” he said.

Petrou looked around again. He was plainly nervous. “I don’t trust you,” he said.

“It is difficult to believe that you are actually in the diplomatic corps.”

Petrou glanced around again without moving his head. He hesitated, then apparently reached a decision. From an inside coat pocket he removed a folded piece of paper and passed it across the table.

His companion slowly unfolded the paper and held it in both hands as he read. “Your mother?” he said.

“Yes.”

The man folded the paper along its original lines and put it in an inside jacket pocket.

“It’s yours,” he said.

Petrou reached for the case, then saw the waitress bringing his wine. He withdrew his hand.

After thanking her, he took a sip. Cool, tart and delicious.

The man across the table consulted his menu. “I am thinking of having the fish,” he said pleasantly. “I hear it is acceptable here.”

Petrou didn’t pick up the menu. He took another drink of wine, a healthy swig. “I remind you that you promised nothing was going to happen to Mother.”

The man glanced up from the menu, met his eyes and said, “So I did.”

Petrou drained the wineglass, then reached for the case under the table. As he rose from his chair he caught the waitress’ eye. “He’ll pay,” he said, nodding at his companion. Then he walked out, carrying the attache case.

Abu Qasim took his time over his meal. Petrou had told him last week that a small group of wealthy Europeans and Americans was funding a private army to search for and kill key members of the Islamic Jihad movement with information mined from the records of some major international financial and shipping concerns. Now he had supplied him with a list of the people and institutions involved … in return for money, of course.

As he ate, Qasim weighed the information he had received. His networks were going to have to be more careful, avoid the companies on the list if possible. Sometimes it was not possible. Zetsche’s shipping concern was really the only major shipper in much of the Arab world. Still, the data-miners would get little information if all parties to the transactions took the proper precautions. As for the private army … the holy warriors could and would deal with them, if they should become a nuisance. He had made a good bargain with Petrou, receiving very valuable information for a relatively modest sum. As he dined, Qasim marveled again at what a low price most people put on their honor, and their souls.

December

Abdul-Zahra Mohammed drank the last of his tea as he stood looking through the dirty, fly-specked window at the crowds in the narrow street below. Two- and three-story flat-roofed buildings lined the street in the Old Quarter, which had stood essentially unchanged on the flanks of the hill under the mosque for almost five hundred years.

The crowds in the street… they, too, looked as they had for generations, with only a few changes. Many of the men and all of the women wore robes, and the women were veiled, yet here and there a man, usually young, usually a common laborer, wore trousers and a loose shirt. The street was too narrow for vehicles; instead of the mules, donkeys and camels that had hauled food and merchandise through the Old Quarter since the dawn of time, most haulers used a bicycle, a motor scooter or even a motorcycle.

The window was open a few inches, admitting the smells and sounds of the quarter. Spices, unwashed humans, leather, animal dung, smoke from cooking fires, spoiling meat and fruit—it was a heady aroma, one Mohammed rarely noticed anymore. He was used to the sounds, too, a cacophony of voices, power tools, small gasoline motors, and whirring fans.

Abdul-Zahra Mohammed had spent his life in this quarter. Born in the back of his father’s shop, educated in the mosque, he left the quarter only when he needed to meet with people in the movement who could not or did not want to come here.

The quarter was watched—Mohammed knew that. Everyone did. The entrances to the narrow streets of the Old Quarter were under constant government surveillance.

The followers of Abdul-Zahra Mohammed also watched the entrances, but from the other side. Keeping the quarter safe for the faithful and as a base for holy warriors to rest, equip and train was an essential task.

Still, today Abdul-Zahra Mohammed was uneasy. It wasn’t the crowds—the people looked like they always did. The rug merchant, the boy on his bicycle carrying fruit, the man who made “genuine” leather souvenirs for sale to infidel tourists—who used to come to the quarter but were no longer welcome—the butcher, the imam and his students. .. Mohammed knew or recognized most of them.

The air smelled the same, the noise was the same …

And yet… something was wrong! What, he didn’t know.

Ah, he was getting old. The government didn’t molest him because he and his organization didn’t cause trouble in-country. Their efforts were directed against infidels abroad.

Someday, someday soon, the government’s turn would come. The generals and faithless would be unable to resist the power of the organization, the might of the faithful focused in holy zeal. Someday soon.

Abdul-Zahra Mohammed finished his tea and left a coin on the table. The proprietor nodded at him, as he always did. They had known each other since Mohammed was a boy and his father brought him here. Mohammed descended the narrow stairs and paused in the hallway, which was empty. There was a gentle breeze here, just the laden air in steady motion, coming through the open door. He stood listening to the voices, the shouting, cajoling, earnest conversations, some light, some serious, some haggling over prices.

The merchants had been haggling for as long as Mohammed could remember. Mohammed’s father had been good at it, and loud, and hearing his voice rise and fall, ridiculing ridiculous offers and pleading for justice, was among Mohammed’s first memories.

So what was troubling him?

He stood in the hallway, just out of sight of people on the street, as he weighed his feeling of unease.

Abdul-Zahra Mohammed took a deep breath, exhaled and stepped through the door into the crowxl. He went to the corner, avoided a bicycle loaded impossibly high with copper pots and strode along by the leather merchants and their customers, who were fingering the merchandise and haggling.

Something—or someone—was behind him.

He could feel the danger, the evil.

Mohammed glanced behind him and saw the cloth on the head of a man at least three inches taller than the people surrounding him. A strange face, a tall man .. .

Mohammed pushed his way into the crowd, galvanized by a sense of urgency and fear. Yes, he could feel the fear. It surged through him and stimulated him and made him breathe in short, quick gasps.

He glanced over his shoulder again, and the tall stranger was still there, only a few steps behind. It was an evil face, the face of the Devil, the face of the enemy of God.

He tried to run, but the crowd was too thick. Too many people! Get out of the way! Let me pass. Don’t you understand, let me through!

Now he felt panic, a muscle-paralyzing terror that made him lose his balance and stumble and grab at the people around him like a drowning man. He was drowning—drowning in his own fear and terror.

He sucked in a deep breath to scream and opened his mouth, just as an unbelievably sharp pain shot through his chest. A hand roughly grabbed his upper arm.

He had been stabbed! The realization came as he felt the knife being jerked from his body with a strong, steady stroke.

He staggered, felt his legs wobbling, felt dizzy .. . then the knife was rammed into him again. He looked at his chest and saw the shiny steel tip of the knife protruding from his robe. Blood … there was blood!

The pain! He felt the knife being twisted by a savage hand. The pain was beyond description! He couldn’t draw breath to cry out.

The world turned gray as his blood pressure dropped. Then the light faded and he passed out.

Abdul-Zahra Mohammed didn’t feel the hand on his arm release him, nor did he feel himself fall to the stones of the street. Nor did he feel his heart stop when his chest filled up with blood.

The man who had killed Mohammed walked on in the crowd, his brown eyes roving ceaselessly, taking in everything and everyone. He was in no hurry, merely moved with the crowd.

He did hear the excited exclamations and shouts behind him as the crowd became aware of the body of Abdul-Zahra Mohammed lying in the street. He kept going.

Five minutes after he knifed Mohammed, Ricky Stroud, former master sergeant, U.S. Army Special Forces, now just plain Mr. Stroud, walked out of the Old Quarter. He hailed a taxi and told the driver in perfect Arabic to take him to the bus terminal.

BOOK: The Assassin
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