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Authors: Dale Brown

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BOOK: Whiplash
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“I think if anybody could convince them, Zen could.”

“I agree with you there, Colonel.”

Magnus glanced at the clock on his desk. It was early in the morning, but he was already running a little late. “I suppose you must be wondering why I asked you here,” he said, putting down his coffee. “Actually, it has to do with Breanna Stockard.”

“Bree?”

“You know she’s working for the Office of Technology, right?”

“Uh, yeah, she might have mentioned something like that.”

Breanna had left the regular Air Force to help Zen when he ran for Congress twelve years before. After that, she’d stayed at home for a few years to raise their daughter, Teri. But even a rambunctious preschooler wasn’t enough challenge for the former Megafortress pilot, and Breanna had begun examining her options soon after Teri learned how to count.

Her husband’s job as congressman complicated things. Zen was borderline fanatic about avoiding even the appearance of a conflict of interest, which ruled out working at any company that did business with the government—a surprisingly large range of firms, especially in the Virginia area where they lived. Though Breanna was still in the Reserve and flew C-5s and C-17s part-time a few months a year, returning to
the Air Force full-time was out of the question because of Teri. So she’d gone back to school for a law degree.

That wasn’t without its potentials for conflict, either, considering how many law firms had dealings with the government. She’d held several posts, including civilian jobs with the Air Force, and had last worked for the U.S. Satellite Agency, a quasigovernmental concern responsible for putting and maintaining satellites in orbit. The Office of Technology was a Defense Department entity that had largely taken the place of DARPA—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—the military’s central research organization, during the last administration.

“We’re putting together a special project out of that office,” Magnus said. “And we’d like you to be part of the team.”

“I see.”

“Breanna suggested you for the position. I immediately agreed.”

“It’s a civilian job?”

“Not exactly. You’d still be a member of the Air Force,” said Magnus. He was hedging, because he couldn’t tell Danny too much about the job unless and until he actually agreed to take it. “Your responsibilities—let’s say they would be multidisciplinary. And in keeping with some of your past experience.”

“I see.”

Danny leaned back in the chair. He had suspected there would be some sort of job offer, of course, but he had been hoping the assignment would be something more traditional—a base command would be ideal. He’d already done two stints at the Pentagon and hadn’t particularly liked either. From everything he had heard, a staff position was unlikely to help him get promoted, unless he worked directly for the Joint of Chiefs of Staff.

“You’re worried about your career,” said Magnus, deciding to be blunt.

“Well, a little.”

“You should be in line for a promotion, but with the freeze
on, you know the odds of getting a star on your shoulder are pretty slim.”

“I’ve heard slim and none.”

“None may be an exaggeration,” said Magnus. “But I think you’re right as far as the immediate future goes. I don’t see any additions being made to the list of generals this year, or next. It’s tough. They’re encouraging people to retire.”

“I know.”

“This team would be outside the normal route to promotion,” admitted Magnus. “In fact, it might make it harder for you to get to general—at least in the
traditional
way.”

“Is there another way?”

“There’s always another way,” said Magnus. “This job could lead to other things. But it won’t help you become a general, not by itself. I’d be lying if I told you that.”

“What is it?”

“You’ll understand that I can’t go into too many details,” said Magnus. “But it’s very similar to the job you had at Dreamland. Part of that job, anyway.”

“Part.”

Magnus decided he had to give Danny more information if he was going to win him over.

“We want to resurrect Whiplash,” he said. “Only this time, it’ll be even better.”

Coliseum, Rome, Italy

N
URI’S HEART DROPPED A BEAT AS HE STARED AT THE SOLID
stone wall cutting off his escape. He threw himself to his right, pressing against the wall as a bullet flew next to him.
Stone flicked from the wall, hitting him in the forehead. Unhurt, he threw himself down out of desperation, crying out as if he’d been hit by the bullet itself.

“There! There!” people were yelling above.

“Look out!”

“Watch!”

“There’s been a murder!”

“That man has a gun!”

Nuri heard footsteps running toward him. He collapsed facedown on the ground, pretending he was dead.

The shooter hopped over the wall and saw him. She pushed him over to his back, extending her arm toward his heart and firing twice. Then she raised her aim for his forehead and pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened. The pistol, smuggled past the metal detectors by an accomplice she’d never met, was empty.

Nuri looked dead. Ordinarily, the woman wouldn’t have taken a chance on looks alone, but she had no choice. She was out of bullets, alarms were sounding, people were watching. She dropped the gun on his prostrate body and fled.

The bullets that hit Nuri in the chest had bruised his chest and trachea, but he was otherwise okay, thanks to the thin-layer protective vest he wore under his shirt. The Teflon and carbon polymer vest had diverted most of the energy from the small caliber bullets, saving him from death, though not pain.

He rolled over, trying to get back his breath. With great effort he forced away the black shroud around the edges.

Scumbags, that hurt. Damn.

Nuri pushed up to his knees, his whole body trembling. He couldn’t hear anything—there was sound around him, echoes of noise, but nothing his brain could process.

He got up and stumbled into the next passage, saw someone’s legs moving ahead to the left. He leaned forward, using gravity to help him move. Disparate sounds began to emerge from the incoherent cacophony. People screamed and shouted in panic as they tried to funnel through the Coliseum’s narrow outer passages.

I have to get close to her
, he told himself.
Close enough to get a marker on her.

He reached into his pocket for the vial of marker liquid and held it. A wave of pain hit him as he reached the hall where he’d entered the arena area. Feeling faint and nauseous, he put his free hand against the wall, steadying himself while waiting for the pain to pass. It didn’t, though, and finally he lurched off the wall, heading toward the steps.

There were so many other alarms and sirens sounding that if the alarm went off when he pushed through the door to the main level, no one noticed. He walked into the main hall, then took a step back as a flood of panicked tourists rushed by, running toward the exit despite the pleas of one of the guards for them to stop.

“Which way?” he asked.

“The subject is below,” replied the Voice. “He has ceased to move.”

“The shooter?”

“No data.”

Of course not; the system had no information to use to follow her. Nuri pushed out into the corridor, weaving left and right as people fled. He went to the archway, looking out on the stone path below. But he didn’t see her.

It was too late now to go back to Luo. His best bet would be to get outside, take a wild shot at finding the shooter or maybe someone supporting her. If that didn’t work—and it almost certainly wouldn’t—he would find someplace to catch his breath, then start figuring out what had happened.

People were still running toward the exit. Nuri took a few steps with them, his chest heaving but his legs sturdier now. He felt a sting in the top of his thighs and pushed harder.

The woman had been wearing khaki green pants, with black running shoes. The detail crystallized in his mind as he reached the exit. He tried working his memory toward her shirt. It was some sort of print T-shirt, over another T-shirt.

Italian, maybe. A soccer team?

No, some sort of slogan. Not in Italian. French, he thought.

Maybe one of the cameras had seen it.

Her face?

Nuri pressed his memory but it wouldn’t yield an image. He turned in the direction of Piazza del Colosseo, the street at the end of Via dei Fori Imperiali. There was a truck there, selling water and other drinks. The alarms were still sounding in the Coliseum, but the people milling around didn’t know what was going on. Most thought there was some sort of fire, or a false alarm.

Nuri quickened his pace, his stomach queasy but the rest of him feeling stronger. Adrenaline buzzed through his body, making his ears ring. He saw a woman with green pants eyeing him in front of the truck. He glanced at her shoes and saw that they were black. But she was wearing a red silk blouse, and her hair was long. The shooter’s had been short.

A wig.

He stared at her face. The woman turned abruptly, walking up the hill. Nuri glanced around, making sure there were no other likely suspects, then started to follow. But as he did, a girl nearby began to yell.

“There he is! There he is!” she said in English, pointing and screaming. “There! There!”

The girl had seen him in the ruins and thought that he had been the one shooting. Everyone nearby turned, and one of the men near Nuri reached to grab him. He pushed the man away, then saw a pair of policemen running toward him from the Coliseum.

The last thing he wanted to do was end up in police custody. Nuri spun and ran across the street, dodging past a tourist bus to run into the Metro stop. Leaping over the turnstile, he ran toward the down escalator, pushing people aside and then squeezing past a pair of old women. His stomach felt as if it was going to explode.

A train was just arriving. Nuri ran through the doors and found a seat, then closed his eyes as he waited for it to move again. The doors shut. The train lurched forward, then stopped. Nuri pushed his eyes closed further, worrying that
it wouldn’t start, afraid he’d been caught. But then the train began to move again.

He leaned his head back against the window and contemplated his next move.

Two stops later he got off at Termini, hoping it would be easier to blend into a crowd there if anyone was looking for him or following him. He decided he would find a hotel where he could see to his wounds and perhaps monitor the news. He walked up and around the piazza, down the block, then back, and finally across to Nationale. He chose one of the hotels a few blocks from the station that he had passed earlier.

The desk clerk squinted at the disheveled man who stood before him. Most of their clientele, especially at this time of year, were Italians in Rome on business. The man before him looked too disheveled to pay the bill.

Nuri gave him an American Express card for the reservation. The clerk made sure to check his signature on the register against the blurry script on the back. It matched, but that didn’t satisfy his doubts.

“I need your
passaporte
,” he said.

It was a standard request in Italy, where technically visitors were required to be registered with the local police. Nuri hesitated, unsure whether to hand over his “regular” passport or the diplomatic one. He decided the diplomatic passport might raise too many questions, and gave the man the normal one.

The clerk saw the hesitation as one more bad sign, and might have called his supervisor or even decided to claim they were full had not a large family come through the doors. Just in from Modena for a visit with an ailing grandmother, there were three children under six in the party, and the small lobby suddenly felt as if it were under assault. The clerk processed Nuri’s credit card, then promised to have his passport ready within the hour.

“Your bags?”

“The airline lost them,” said Nuri. “I’ll deal with it later.”

Upstairs, he pulled off his top shirt and undid the vest,
which looked like a tight-fitting, waffle-style sports T-shirt. The sides were hooked together, and Nuri had to hold his breath to undo them. Pain shot through his entire chest as he pulled the vest apart. The spots where the bullets had hit were dark purple and black. Bruises in the shape of spiderwebs ran out from them. His nausea returned. He stood over the toilet, dry heaving for four or five minutes. He ran a warm bath, laying with some difficulty against the side of the tub as the water slowly filled it up.

The bath didn’t do much to relieve the pain. The beer in the minifridge, Stella, made only slightly more headway.

The bruises were nothing. The real pain came from the fact that he had permanently lost Luo, and would now have to start from scratch on the Jasmine Project.

 

J
ASMINE WAS ONE OF THE CODE NAMES USED BY A RING OF
smugglers who worked primarily in Africa. As these things went, they were relatively small fish. Their main wares were flowers—they got them in and out of different countries cheaply, sometimes legitimately, but more often without applying for the proper inspections or paying government fees, thus allowing them to be sold more cheaply. Low-priority smuggling of this nature was common, especially following the collapse of the Free Trade agreements at the start of the decade.

But if you could smuggle flowers, you could easily smuggle drugs. If you could smuggle drugs, you could easily smuggle weapons.

Actually, the flowers tended to be relatively lucrative, especially when the risks for everything else were figured in. But most of the organizations involved in smuggling didn’t have risk analysts on the boards of directors.

Jasmine had attracted the CIA’s attention after it sold machine guns to a notoriously abusive warlord in Somalia. The Agency didn’t mind the sale—the warlord was fighting against an even more notoriously abusive warlord. But it raised Jasmine’s profile in the Agency, which soon realized that the
network—actually more a loose organization of contacts with a variety of benefactors—was very active in the Sudan. Still, Nuri might never have been assigned to check into the network had it not acquired a variety of finely milled aluminum tubes and small machine parts some months before.

Aluminum tubes might have any number of uses, depending on their exact dimensions. In this case, the tubes happened to be of a size and shape suited for the construction of medium-range missiles—a particularly potent weapon in the Sudan, since they would allow rebels to fire against urban centers from a considerable distance.

The tubes could also be used to construct machines useful in extracting uranium isotopes from “normal” uranium. That seemed unlikely, given that they were bound for the Sudan, but just in case…Nuri was given the assignment to find out what he could about Jasmine.

He’d spent months wandering in and out of eastern and northern Africa, getting the lay of the land. He had help from the NSA, which provided him with daily summaries of intercepts and would give him transcriptions on the hour if necessary. And he had an array of “appliances” to help—most importantly, a biological satellite tracking system that could locate special tags practically anywhere on earth, and the Massively Parallel Integrated Decision Complex, a network of interconnected computers and data interfaces that constantly supplied him information via a set of earphones and a small control unit that looked like a fourth generation Apple Nano. Called the MY-PID by the scientists, Nuri referred to the system as the Voice, since it primarily communicated through a human language interface.

But mostly Nuri was on his own. He didn’t mind. He’d always been a bit of a loner, not antisocial, but willing to rely on his own wits and abilities. The only child of expatriate parents who spent most of their adult lives moving through exotic countries, he was used to that.

By the time Nuri reached the Sudan, the aluminum tubes had been delivered. Jasmine had not had a similar deal since.
In fact, the network seemed to have fallen into a bit of a lull, without any large deals for some months, if the NSA intercepts were to be believed. But he’d managed to track down Luo in Turkey two weeks before, following a credit card trail. He’d missed him in Istanbul, but found him in Alexandria, where he was able to have him “tagged” by an unsuspecting masseuse working in an unlicensed bath.

At least the sign claimed it was a bath.

His surveillance and NSA intercepts made it clear that Luo was expecting some sort of big payoff from a deal being cooked up in Italy.

But now all that work had been flushed by a woman with a gun.

 

N
URI POPPED THE TOP ON ANOTHER BEER, SIPPED THE OVERFLOW
on the top, then sat down to talk to his CIA supervisor. The Voice network had a separate communications channel, but he used his sat phone; Jonathon Reid wasn’t typically on the Voice network.

“Hey, Bossman,” Nuri said to Reid, “how’s it shaking?”

“Poorly,” said Reid. “Was that your subject who died at the Coliseum?”

“Word gets around fast.”

“It’s on the news.”

Nuri reached over and flipped on the television. It was, in fact, on the news. The reporters didn’t know the dead man’s name, let alone the fact that he was an arms smuggler. But they did have his picture, courtesy of several tourists. They also had a reasonable description of the alleged shooter: Nuri Lupo.

“I didn’t shoot him,” said Nuri, watching the homemade video on the screen. The legend at the bottom said it had been posted on YouTube.

“That’s good to know,” said Reid. “I was beginning to lose faith.”

Jonathon Reid’s official title as special assistant to the Deputy Director Operations, CIA, covered a myriad of re
sponsibilities and not a few sins. Reid was a throwback in many ways, an old-school line officer who had been exiled from the Agency following a very bad case of “red butt” two decades before.

“Red butt” was a term veteran officers used to describe how someone in the field reacted when someone in the bureaucracy told them how to do their job. Someone with red butt typically began telling that person what he or she could do with their advice. The general result was termination of some sort—usually by reassignment rather than firing, though the latter was not completely unheard of. A red-butt-induced reassignment was both mind-numbing and career ending. Usually it resulted in something that made counting paper clips in Fredonia look exciting, and the usual result was early retirement.

BOOK: Whiplash
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