Authors: Grant Blackwood
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #War, #United States, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Military, #Suspense, #Thrillers
A thought occurred to him. “Ysabel, can you do me a favor?” She walked up. He wrote a couple of items on the notepad, tore off the sheet, and handed it to her. “Can you get this stuff?”
“I think so, yes.”
“Should be able to find it in a military surplus store, if you have those here.”
“What’s it for?”
• • •
ONCE BACK FROM HER ERRAND,
Ysabel spent the rest of her afternoon cooking in the kitchen and listening to her MP3 player, hair tied in a ponytail, humming as she moved among the simmering pots, stirring and tasting and adding spices. She was trying to keep her mind occupied, Jack suspected. Though her romantic involvement had ended with Seth, clearly she cared about him.
And here they were, Jack thought, sitting on their hands and playing house. At this thought, Jack smiled. Despite the circumstances, he didn’t entirely mind the feeling.
He got up from the dining table, stretched his arms, and rubbed his hands through his hair. He called to Ysabel, “Scotch?”
She removed her earbuds. “What?”
He poured two glasses and joined her in the kitchen. He handed her a glass and she took a sip. Jack said, “When do we eat?”
“This?” she replied, gesturing to the pots. “Tomorrow. It’s a complex recipe requiring great patience. Tonight we’re having last night’s leftovers again.”
Khoreshteh qiemeh bademjoon?
Persian eggplant stew.”
“Very good, Jack.”
“Iranians have a thing about stew, don’t they?”
She laughed. “We do.” Slowly the smile faded from her face and she said, “This feels wrong somehow, you know, enjoying ourselves while Seth is . . . out there. We should be doing something.”
“I feel the same. Right now there’s nothing to do but wait.”
“Well, I’m not a fan. Just so you know.”
• • •
Jack’s prepaid cell phone trilled. With Ysabel peering over his shoulder, he checked the screen:
AT PARDIS CONDO.
YOU KNOW WHERE?
Jack said to Ysabel, “Get your coat.”
“You’re not going to reply?”
“If I can track them, we have to assume they can track us. We don’t want to get a knock on your door. I don’t suppose you have binoculars, do you?”
“No, but Mr. Hamdi next door does. I’ll go get them.” Ysabel left.
Jack pulled out the prepaid cell, powered it up, and typed,
OFF NIAYESH, RIGHT? APARTMENT 12?
RIGHT. COME ASAP. BRING STEAK.—S.
Jack disconnected and then from the table grabbed the product of Ysabel’s shopping trip, a silver bag about three times the size of Jack’s disposable phone. He put that and his cloned phone inside and sealed it shut.
“What exactly is that?” she asked.
“It’s called a Faraday bag. The plastic I asked for is ESD, electrostatic discharge material. Specifically, MIL-PRF-8170—”
“Just tell me what it does, Jack.”
“In theory? It blocks all outgoing signals. If they’re tracking us, this might make it impossible.”
“How close is Seth’s building to Mellat Park?”
“It’s southeast of here, about a mile. Right across the street from the park’s west entrance. What’ve you got in mind, Jack?”
“We’re going to kidnap a kidnapper.”
NCE THEY WERE OUT
of Ysabel’s apartment garage, Jack instructed her to drive south along Vali Asr Street, skirting the eastern edge of the park. It was fully dark and both sides of the street were lined with yellow sodium-vapor lamps. The traffic was light; Jack saw only a few cars, most of them headed south toward the expressway. When they reached Niayesh they turned west and joined the flow of merging cars.
“We need a place to park, away from Seth’s condo,” Jack said.
“I’ll find something.”
After about half a mile, Ysabel said, “That’s it, out your window.”
Jack looked right and saw Pardis Condos, an eight-floor tower overlooking the lighted entrance of the park. Ysabel drove for another hundred yards, then turned right onto a short bridge spanning a canal, then turned left into an empty warehouse parking lot. A fluorescent security light flickered anemically over the warehouse’s garage door. She doused the headlights and shut off the engine.
“This won’t draw the police, us parking here?” Jack asked.
“No. Many park visitors park on side streets at night.”
Jack raised the binoculars Ysabel had borrowed from her neighbor and zoomed in on the park. Just inside the park’s entrance he could see a tiered fountain underlit by amber lights; stone benches circled the flagstone clearing, itself hemmed in by trees.
“What’s the plan?”
Jack detected a tingle of excitement in Ysabel’s voice. He said, “I’m going to call whoever I’ve been talking to out on that bench to the far right of the fountain.” He handed Ysabel the binoculars. “You see it, with the branches overhanging it?”
“I see it.”
“When you see someone approach it and sit down, drive across Niayesh, then down that side street—”
“As soon as you pull onto it, shut off your headlights and find a spot directly opposite the bench. What do you make the distance . . . fifty yards?”
“About that. I can get there in less than a minute, I think.”
“Good. If anything goes wrong, if I get taken, drive away. Slowly, headlights off, until you reach the next major cross street, then go back to your apartment, wait four hours, then call that number I gave you.”
“Right. Tell him everything and sit tight.”
Jack pulled the Faraday bag from his jacket pocket, removed his disposable phone, then powered it on and texted,
MEET ME AT THE FOUNTAIN INSIDE THE PARK’S ENTRANCE. SIT ON THE FAR RIGHT BENCH.
A minute passed before the reply came:
WHAT’S GOING ON?
JUST DO WHAT I ASK, SETH.
OKAY. FIVE MINUTES.
Jack powered off the phone and returned it to the Faraday bag.
“I don’t like this plan, Jack,” said Ysabel.
“No plan is perfect,” he replied. “You work with what you’ve got, and this is what we’ve got right now.”
Ysabel hesitated, then sighed. “Good luck.”
• • •
JACK CLIMBED OUT,
walked across the canal bridge, then west, back down the Niayesh Expressway, until he reached a crosswalk leading to Rajaei Boulevard, then waited for a break in the traffic, and trotted across the street and onto Rajaei. In contrast to the expressway, Rajaei was quiet, its tree-lined sidewalks devoid of pedestrians and dark, save a faux gas lamp spaced every twenty yards or so. The sound of the expressway faded as Jack continued north.
To his right he glimpsed the fountain’s amber lighting through the darkened trees. When he drew even with the fountain, he turned left and stopped beneath the low-hanging boughs of an oak tree.
He drew the nine-millimeter from his left jacket pocket and pulled back the slide an inch to expose the glint of brass in the gun’s pipe. He released the slide and returned the weapon to his pocket.
Keeping to the deepest shadows, Jack picked his way through the trees toward the fountain, his eyes scanning left and right until he reached the tree directly behind the bench. Beyond it, the fountain gurgled softly, the amber spotlights casting swirling shadows on the underside of the fountain’s tiered basins. To Jack’s left, down the broad paved entrance to the park, he could see the lighted lobby doors of Seth’s condo building.
He checked his watch. Three minutes had passed since he’d sent the text. In the next two minutes he’d have an answer to one of his worries: Would whoever was on the other end of the text messages assume Jack was in fact expecting Seth? Jack hoped so. If not, they’d likely be setting up their own ambush or at least scouting the area, which would take more than the five minutes Jack had given them.
Sixty more seconds passed.
A figure emerged from the condo’s lobby, crossed the street, and trotted up the steps to the park. It was a man, Jack could see from the build and gait, but he was wearing a hoodie. The face was in shadow. The man angled right so he passed directly under the streetlamps, his head tilted downward, hands stuffed into the hoodie’s pockets.
Son of a bitch,
Jack thought. He took a deep breath, let it out, then drew the nine-millimeter from his pocket and thumbed the safety to the off position.
The man reached the entrance to the fountain’s clearing. He stopped, looked around.
Come on, come on . . .
The man continued forward, his boots echoing on the flagstones, then sat down on the bench.
Jack said, “If you move, I’ll put a bullet in the back of your head. Nod if you understand.”
The man nodded.
“Are you being covered?”
The man shook his head.
“Does it matter? You’re going to do what you’re going to do.”
This wasn’t Seth, Jack realized, but rather Balaclava.
“How did you know?” the man asked.
“Stand up, stay facing away from me, and take your hands out of your pockets.”
“You’re making a mistake, son.”
Jack repeated his order.
Balaclava stood and removed his hands from his pockets.
“Keep your hands out to your sides. Turn around and pull off your hood.”
The man did as instructed.
Balaclava was in his mid-thirties, tanned, with black hair and a mustache. In Iran, he would blend in, Jack decided.
“Walk toward me.”
Balaclava stepped around the bench and into the trees. Jack backed up, nine-millimeter on the man’s chest, until they were deeper in the shadows. Jack ordered Balaclava to drop to his knees, then to his belly, which he did. Jack stepped forward, then knelt down, left shin jammed against the man’s neck, the nine-millimeter pressed between his shoulder blades. With his left hand Jack frisked him, having him roll slightly onto his side to check his front pockets. Balaclava was carrying neither a weapon nor a wallet, but in the hoodie’s right-hand pocket was a phone—Jack’s phone.
“Now what?” said Balaclava.
“Now we go someplace quiet and talk.”
“You haven’t the stomach for it.”
“We’ll see,” Jack replied. The truth was, he’d never had to make that decision. Though the battery-cables-and-pliers routine looked sexy in Hollywood movies, torture usually produced sketchy results at best. Then again, it had worked on Saif Rahman Yasin—the Emir—but it had been ugly and the image of Yasin writhing on the table was never far from Jack’s mind.
“Stand up,” Jack ordered. “We’re heading west toward Rajaei. You lead. If you run or turn around—”
“I know the drill.”
They headed through the trees, Jack trailing ten feet back, his eyes scanning for movement in the trees and occasionally glancing over his shoulder. There was no one. That wouldn’t last, though. Unless Balaclava was working solo, without David Weaver, someone would have seen Balaclava disappear into the trees. If the cavalry wasn’t already coming, it soon would be.
When they reached the sidewalk Jack saw Ysabel’s Range Rover parked across the street.
Jack thought. She’d parked in the dark spot between two streetlamps. The Range Rover’s engine started. Ysabel’s face was illuminated by the dashboard’s blue glow.
Jack and Balaclava started across the street.
Ysabel rolled down her window and said, “Any—”
The top of Balaclava’s head exploded into a red mist.
Dead where he stood, Balaclava dropped to his knees, then toppled onto his side in the middle of the road. His left leg twitched spasmodically. Blood gushed from the man’s head wound and began puddling beneath his torso.
“Down!” Jack rasped. “Ysabel, down!”
She ducked out of sight.
Jack resisted the urge to run for the Range Rover and instead turned on his heel and sprinted back across the sidewalk and into the tree line, where he stopped and crouched down.
“Where are you?” Jack muttered. Jack was stunned, his brain racing to catch up with what just happened. The shot had been little more than a muffled crack—not the sound of a handgun but rather a suppressor-equipped rifle. Where was the shooter? Logic suggested somewhere from Seth’s condo, somewhere high up. No other firing angle made sense. Either way, he couldn’t stay here. As quiet as the shot had been, he had to assume someone had heard it and called the police.
“Ysabel,” Jack called.
“I’m coming to you. Be ready to move. No matter what happens, stay as low as you can.”
“Hurry, Jack, the police will—”
Jack didn’t give himself a chance to think, but stood up and walked back toward the street, his head turned right so he could keep the condo in view through the trees. When he was six feet from Balaclava’s body and directly opposite Ysabel’s Range Rover, he stopped and looked right again. At the end of the block, around the edge of an oak tree, he could see the corner of the condo’s roof, two hundred yards distant. If the sniper was still around, that’s where he would be.
Jack dashed forward, leapt over Balaclava’s body, and ran for the Range Rover’s rear bumper. As he reached it, he glimpsed a red dot reflected on the Range Rover’s window to his left. A bullet thunked into the rear corner post. Jack ducked down, kept going. Another round smacked into the curb to his right. Jack reached the sidewalk and jumped onto it. His toe caught the curb and he sprawled face-first onto the pavement.
Out of the corner of his eye, six inches away, the red dot appeared on the pavement.
Jack thought numbly.
He’s got me.
He heard a pop, then another one. The red dot skittered across the sidewalk, then leapt wildly into the trees beyond.
Jack pushed himself to his knees, got his feet under him, and dodged left, behind the shelter of the SUV. He opened the passenger door, crawled inside, then slammed the door behind him.
Ysabel slammed her foot against the gas pedal, jerked the wheel left, and the SUV surged ahead and down the street.
It had taken time, too much time, Helen thought, to find a pattern, and it had nothing to do with precautions their target took. In fact, they’d found the young Amy traveled with no bodyguards and usually strolled the Rose Street area with only an entourage of giggling and frequently drunk girls. Whether any of her friends knew Amy’s true identity Helen didn’t know, but they were certainly aware of the depth of the young woman’s pockets. The professional part of her brain didn’t care one way or another, but the maternal part, small though it was, hoped Amy’s friends were genuine. Being far from her homeland and among strangers was an experience Helen knew very well. Even with training and preparation, it was a lonely existence; for a nineteen-year-old Muslim girl trying to fit in here . . .
Helen pushed the thought from her mind. They had a job to do.
She turned in the van’s passenger seat and said to Roma and Olik, “Are you clear on what’s to happen?” She didn’t need to ask Yegor, who’d been with her for all but two of these jobs.
“Clear,” Olik replied.
“I’m not an idiot,” he grumbled, eyes staring out his window. “I know what to do.”
“If you were an idiot, you wouldn’t be here,” Helen replied, hoping the compliment would mollify him. He was an idiot, but she was stuck with him.