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Authors: Dale Brown

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BOOK: Whiplash
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Being detained by the museum security people wouldn’t be helpful either.

Nuri opened the book he’d bought, paging through until he found the Coliseum. He folded it open, and glancing at the illustrations, began walking forward through the corridor, pretending he was somehow following the book. He was in the center area of the Coliseum, the basement beneath the arena where animals and gladiators waited before the games. You didn’t have to be very superstitious to think the place was thick with ghosts.

He heard voices as he approached the first corner. He
stopped, folded over the page in the book, then plunged forward, holding the tour guide out as if he were using it to relive an ancient scene of life and death.

There was no one there. The voices echoed against the thick stones of the massive structure. The sounds were odd and distorted; he couldn’t tell what the language was, let alone pick out individual words.

He started walking again. The corridor opened up—

“Direct me,” he told the Voice.

“Proceed forward twenty yards.”

Nuri took two steps, then stopped, considering how much distance he should keep from Luo, and whether he might not be better off circling around. The ruins were a maze of small rooms and alleyways; he could probably slip very close to him without being seen.

He turned and started down a small passage just behind him. Nearly two thousand years before, the passage had held the cages for lions brought back from Africa especially for the anniversary games held in honor of Rome’s founding. A winch and pulley located on the wall just behind him had been used to haul the cage up to the level just below the arena floor. There, its open third side allowed the animal to escape. Sensing freedom, the lion would trot up a ramp into the open air, confronting a pair of terrified Christians, who were promptly torn apart by the starving beast for the amusement of the crowd.

All of this was recounted in the book Nuri was holding in his hand, but he had no chance to contemplate it, or even read it. For as he walked down the passage, two gunshots, very close together, echoed loudly through the stone archways of the Coliseum’s basement. He spun and dropped to his right knee, watching as a figure ran past in the corridor.

All he caught was a fleeting glimpse. He rose, his instincts telling him he should follow. But as he took a step, another instinct took over; he jerked himself backward, diving around the low, ruined wall to his right. As he hit the ground, the shadow that had passed returned, pumping two shots
in Nuri’s direction. The bullets missed, but their ricochets sprayed stone splinters and dust. There was a scream above, and another shot. Nuri dove through an opening on his right, rolling into a small room as the figure with the gun ran into the passage where he’d just been.

Nuri leaped to his feet and ran from the room. He turned left, running toward a stage that had been erected opposite the gladiators’ entrance to the arena.

The shooter followed. Nuri ducked to the right, into another small alley connecting the rows of rooms, flattening himself against the wall. The footsteps continued, then suddenly stopped.

Nuri looked up and saw a half-dozen tourists standing on the ruined steps opposite him, staring down in horror. He slipped to the ground and turned the corner, hoping to catch a glimpse of the gunman as he ran off.

He saw him, or rather, her—a young woman dressed in baggy green khaki slacks, with a wide top and a knit cap pulled over her head. She wasn’t running. She had stopped and was looking directly at him.

She started to pull the gun out from the holster beneath her shirt where she’d just tucked it.

Nuri jerked back into the corridor, about to run—only to realize that his escape was blocked off by a wall. He’d turned into a dead end.

Washington Metro

in the dust of the Coliseum, Colonel Danny Freah was scram
bling down the platform at the Alexandria stop of the Washington Metro, heading for the train that had just stopped and opened its doors.

The car was crowded. He slipped in next to a tall woman in a powder-blue pantsuit a few feet from the door, trying to squeeze himself into the tiny space as more passengers crammed in behind him. The doors slapped shut, then opened, then closed. The train started with a jerk, and he just barely kept himself from falling into his neighbors.

The people around him, all on their way to work, barely noticed him. The lone exception was a black woman about half his age, who thought he reminded her a little of her father, albeit a slightly younger version.

Danny, who had no children himself, might have been amused had he been able to eavesdrop on her thoughts. His own, however, were much more practical. It had been a while since he’d been in D.C., let alone since he used the Metro, and he wasn’t sure if he’d gotten on the right train.

“I can get to the Pentagon from here, right?” he said, looking at the woman in the powder-blue suit.

“You would have done better to figure that out before getting on the train, wouldn’t you?” she answered.

“Then I would have missed the train.”

“Wouldn’t you have been better off in the long run?”

“Maybe yes, maybe no. I have a fifty-fifty chance, right? Assuming I found the right line.”

The woman looked him up and down.

“Most colonels are not gamblers,” she said. “They tend to be conservative by nature.”

“There’s a difference between gambling and taking a calculated risk,” said Danny. “This is taking a calculated risk.”

“I suppose.”

Danny laughed. “Is it the right train?”

“I suppose.”

The train arrived in the sculpted concrete station a few minutes later. As the crowd divided itself toward the exits, Danny spotted several people in uniform and followed them
toward the restricted entrance to the building. As the crowd narrowed, he found himself behind the woman in the powder-blue suit.

“So I guess this was the right stop,” he told her.

“I didn’t say it wasn’t.”

“You said you ‘supposed.’ Like you had some doubts. But you work here, so you knew.”

“You ‘suppose’ I work at the Pentagon,” she told him.

Danny looked for a smirk or some other sign that she was kidding with him. But she wasn’t.

Mary Clair Bennett did not have much of a sense of humor. She had spent the past twenty-two and a half years working for the Defense Department, and if she’d laughed at a single joke in all that time, the memory of it had been firmly suppressed.

In the days before titles were engineered to replace pay raises, Ms. Bennett would have been called an executive secretary. Her personality fit the words perfectly, combining efficiency with more than a hint of superiority. Ms. Bennett—she was a particular stickler for the title—had always felt that being a little chilly toward others enhanced her position with them. While her two nieces might have argued passionately on her behalf, few people would have called her a particularly warm person. Even her sister, who lived out in Manassas, found she had very little to talk to her about when she came for her biweekly visits.

“Well, thanks for getting me here,” Danny said as they reached the security checkpoint.

Ms. Bennett rolled her eyes. He smiled to himself, amused rather than annoyed, and joined the line for visitors.

The line led to a sophisticated biometric scanning and security system, recently installed not just at the Pentagon, but at most military installations around the country. More than a decade and a half earlier, Danny had presided over the system’s precursor, developed and tested at the nation’s premier weapons test bed and development lab, the Air Force’s Advanced Technology Center, better known as Dreamland.
That system had essentially the same capabilities as the one used here. It could detect explosives and their immediate precursors, scan for nuclear material, and find weapons as small as an X-Acto blade.

The system checked a person’s identity by comparing a number of facial and physical features with its stored memory. The early Dreamland version had been somewhat larger, and tended to take its time identifying people; it would have impractical dealing with a workforce even half the size of the Pentagon’s. In the fifteen or sixteen years since then, the engineers managed to make it smaller and considerably faster. The detectors were entirely contained in a pair of slim metallic poles that rose from the marble foyer floor; they connected via a thick wire cable to the security station nearby. Each visitor walked slowly between the poles, pausing under the direction of an Army sergeant, who raised his hand and glanced in the direction of his compatriot at the station. The station display flashed a green or a red indicator—go or no go—along with identifying information on the screen.

One couldn’t simply visit the Pentagon; his or her name had to be on a list. Even a general who didn’t have an office here needed a “sponsor” who made sure his or her name was entered into the system.

“Please wait, sir,” said the sergeant as Danny stepped up to the posts. “We have to recalibrate periodically.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same, thought Danny. Such pauses had been common at Dreamland.

Then, the process could take as long as half a day. Now it took only a few seconds.

“Please step forward,” said the sergeant.

“Good,” said the second sergeant at the console, waving Danny through. Then he caught something on the screen. “Whoa—hold on just a second.”

Startled, Danny turned around.

“Um, uh—you’re, uh, Colonel Freah.” The soldier, embarrassed by his outburst, stepped awkwardly away from the console and snapped off a salute.

It was unnecessary, since they were inside, but Danny returned it.

“This here’s a Medal of Honor winner,” said the sergeant, turning to the other people on line.

Now it was Danny’s turn to be embarrassed. One of the civilians spontaneously began to applaud, and the entire line joined in. Danny put his head down for a moment. He always choked up at moments like this, remembering why he had gotten the medal.

More specifically, remembering the men he couldn’t save, rather than those he did.

“It was…a while ago,” he mumbled before forcing a smile. “Thank you, though. Thank you.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” said the sergeant nearest him.

“You all have a good day,” said Danny, turning and starting down the hallway.

It had happened a very long time ago, more than a decade, during his last assignment with Whiplash—his last assignment at Dreamland, in fact. Colonel Tecumseh “Dog” Bastian had just turned the base over to a three-star general, officially completing his mission and restoring the base to its former glory after an infamous scandal had threatened its closing. Danny, who’d come on board with the colonel, was due to be reassigned when the mission came up.

Just one more job before you go, son. Can you do it?

The irony for Danny Freah was that if he had to list all of the action that he’d seen under fire, the mission that led to his medal would only have ranked about midway to the top. Five minutes of sheer hell wrapped inside days of boredom—the usual lot of a soldier, even a member of Whiplash—at the time, the ultraelite Spec Warfare arm of Air Force Special Operations, assigned to provide security and work as Dreamland’s “action” team. They had deployed all around the world under the direct orders of the President. Colonel Bastian had worked for the President himself, outside the normal chain of command. They’d accomplished an enormous amount—and burned bridges by the country mile as he went.

Those days were long gone. Danny was a full bird colonel now, his life as boring as that of a life insurance actuary as he tried to get in line for a general’s slot.

In a perfect world the coveted star would have been presented to him on a velvet pillow, thanks to his service record. But the world was far from perfect. The enmity that Dog had earned throughout the military bureaucracy also extended to those closely associated with him, including Danny Freah. Dog’s successor—who liked and helped Danny, though he wasn’t a particular fan of Colonel Bastian—hadn’t exactly won a lot of friends either. And then there was Danny’s record itself. Jealousy played a much more important role in the military hierarchy than anyone, including Danny, liked to admit. The fact that he was neither a pilot—a “zippersuit”—or a graduate of the Academy also hurt him subtly, denying him access to networks that traditionally helped officers advance. His closest friends and associates tended to be the enlisted people he’d worked with, and as loyal as they might have been, they had zero juice when it came to the promotion boards.

Still, professional back-biting, petty rivalries, and old boys (and girls) clubs wouldn’t have amounted to much of a block to Danny’s career during ordinary times. Even two or three years before, he would have made the general’s list without too much trouble. But the world’s economic troubles had made the times anything but ordinary.

The new administration had come into office the previous year by promising to both balance the budget and hold the line on taxes. Other administrations had made similar promises. The difference was that this President, Christine Mary Todd, actually meant to keep her word. Every area of the budget had been cut, including and especially the military. The Air Force was looking to cut the number of generals on its rolls in half.

The man Danny was coming to visit had been a victim of those cuts, though in his case he hadn’t done too poorly. Harold Magnus was the deputy secretary of defense, a position he’d stepped into just a few months before after retiring
from the Air Force, accepting the fact that earning a fourth star was highly unlikely.

General Magnus had briefly served as Colonel Bastian’s commanding officer; though technically responsible for Dreamland, the general’s responsibilities were mostly on paper. A reshuffling had soon taken him out of the chain of command, and he’d had almost no contact with Dreamland or its personnel since.

“Actually, I was looking forward to getting some serious fishing in, and maybe improving my golf,” Magnus told Danny as he ushered him into his office. “But I got suckered into this. Primarily because I’ve known the Secretary of Defense for thirty years.”

Magnus winked. Though in his late sixties, he still had the look of an elf about him. Or maybe Santa Claus—the years had added several pounds to his frame, which had never been svelte to begin with. Known as a firebrand during his early days in the Air Force, Magnus had gradually softened his approach. He now came off more like a grandfather than a whip-cracker. He was, in fact, a grandfather, and a rather proud one, too, as an entire table’s worth of photos near his desk attested.

“Coffee?” Magnus asked Danny.

“No thank you, sir.”

“I’m going to have some, if you don’t mind.”

Magnus pressed the button on his phone console. His secretary knew him well enough that she didn’t have to ask what he wanted, appearing with a tray inside a minute.

“So how’s your wife?” Magnus asked Danny.

“I’m afraid we divorced a number of years ago.”

It was five, to be exact. The marriage had floundered long before then.

“I see. I’m sorry to hear that.”

Magnus stirred his coffee. Married to the same woman for nearly forty years, he was a little baffled by marital discord. He never knew exactly what to say when confronted with it. He could count on one hand the number of times he’d had a disagreement with his wife in all that time. But he knew
it existed, and realized it wasn’t a character flaw. His usual strategy when the issue was raised inside his family—one of his daughters and son-in-law had been having troubles for over a year—was to stay silent for a moment, offering the other party a chance to speak if they wanted. If nothing was forthcoming, he always changed the subject.

“See the old Dreamland crew much these days?” Magnus asked when his internal time limit had passed.

“No, not really,” confessed Danny. “I still see some of my men occasionally. Ben Rockland’s a chief now, out at Edwards.”

“Rockland—I think he may have been after my time.”

Danny nodded. The general was being polite. He’d had no dealings with the enlisted members of Whiplash, and thus had no reason to know Rockland—whose nickname was Boston—let alone any of the other team members.

“What about the scientists?” asked Magnus, sipping his coffee.

“The scientists, not really,” said Danny. “Ray Rubeo invited me to his birthday party two years ago. It was an interesting affair.”

“Some estate, huh?”

“You can tell he doesn’t work for the government anymore.”

Rubeo had been the chief scientist at Dreamland for several years. He left after falling out of favor with Dog’s successor. He was now the owner of a portfolio of companies in the alternative energy field; his biggest had recently won a contract from the government to build an orbiting solar power station. Rubeo’s birthday party, his fiftieth, had lasted two weeks and featured a Venice night, a Cairo night, and a Taj Mahal night, all in the actual places. Danny had caught the Taj Mahal celebration.

“You don’t see Jeff Stockard anymore?” asked Magnus.

“Zen? Oh yeah, I see him every so often. Couple of times a year. A little more if I’m around. We’ll go to a ball game or something.”

“Really? I’ve been spending a fair amount of time with Senator Stockard myself. He likes to take my money.”

“You don’t play poker with him, do you?”

“I’m afraid I do. Though it’s more like work.”

“You can say that again.” Danny shook his head. “I’d never play cards with Zen. Much easier just to give him my wallet.”

“Some people think he might run for President next time out,” Magnus said.

“Oh?” Danny hadn’t heard that.

“Some people think he’d be perfect. He wonders if the voters could deal with a guy in a wheelchair. Roosevelt was in a wheelchair, but no one knew it.”

BOOK: Whiplash
11.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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