Friday, May 4, 2012

Excerpt

Prologue

2 April. Khartoum, Sudan. 1600 hours.


Blatantly American in pressed khakis, polo shirt, and loafers, he moved through the dark-skinned throng with the athletic stride of a man immune to doubt. Behind the silver lenses of his Predator Ray-Bans, his trained gaze swept the avenue from side to side.

A stately woman approached with a basket of fl at bread on her close-cropped head. Her loose dress could have been hiding anything. So could the dingy rags on the toothless crone who squatted curbside hawking onions and bruised fruit. She grabbed at the cuff of his pants and wouldn’t let go. He gave her a few dinars and kept moving, unperturbed.

A huddle of young males in long Muslim tunics blocked the way, forcing him out into the street. It didn’t bother him that they turned and stared. It was the ones who didn’t seem to register his passing that activated his sixth sense, his inner radar. They were the reason he’d strapped the holstered Walther TPH to his right calf. It was his just-in-case weapon, for social situations. Nothing he’d carry into an anticipated blow-up, but at close, courteous range, it served fine.

Hot winds had smothered the city with yellow dust, coating the two rows of stone lions on his right, which guarded the concrete approach to the National Museum. Remembering a secret meeting there the week before, he forgot his Agency cover—Dr. Peter Thornton, Economic Affairs Officer, U.S. Embassy—and for an instant, he was simply himself, Tyler Pierce, closet idealist, sucker for a crusade against injustice.

Plenty of that in this crazy African capital, where giant construction cranes were erecting a Disneyland of five-star hotels, corporate outposts, and foreign banks, while the crumbling side streets reeked of monoxide, animal dung, and death. On the city’s fringes, disease-infested camps teemed with refugees who’d been driven out of their villages by the government-backed militias. They were hungry and desperate. They had nothing left to lose. The good news: given their huge numbers, even Mukharabat, the crack security police, couldn’t keep tabs on them all. On Pierce’s left oozed the gelatinous brown Blue Nile. Up ahead, past a hazy bridge, it collided with the White Nile and became The Nile, natural wonder of ancient history, whose annual floods brought life to the desert plains.

At the heart of Khartoum two mighty rivers merged and flowed forward.

If there was a message in that—Unity in difference—it wasn’t something the President, a.k.a. Generalissimo, would ever hear, a man who wanted to be all things to his army and no one else. The man loved to hate. Dealing with him was like waving a cape in front of a bull. You got a lot of stamping and snorting. You stepped in a lot of shit.

Up ahead sat the convention center someone with a sick sense of humor had named Friendship Hall. The Chinese had built it twenty years ago, one of their earliest footholds in Africa. This week the sterile, brick and concrete structure hosted a car show, another routine opportunity for Peter Thornton to monitor economic affairs. So what if Tyler Pierce’s knowledge of economics was strictly College 101? No one ever called on him to offer economic advice anyway.

Across the street a black Toyota Land Cruiser idled and sported a dusty film. On the plaza, a brand new C class Mercedes glimmered in the late afternoon sun. You didn’t have to be a Ph. D. economist to figure the annual income of an entire Sudanese village wouldn’t make the down payment on a machine like that. Admirers in skullcaps and fl owing robes peered and prodded at its parts like it was a captured beast.

The secure mobile on Pierce’s belt began to vibrate. He slowed his pace and clicked it open to a familiar voice: “Maud here, returning your call.”

“Tell me how she’s doing,” he asked his closest friend, Deputy Director of Intelligence for the CIA.

“Top five percent of her class, off the chart in professional fitness, but chronic loner.”

“Nothing wrong with that.”

“Chip off the old block. Not great with authority.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Neither one of you ever listens to me.”

“I want you to tell her I’m proud of her,” Pierce said.

“I’m sure she knows.”

“Tell her when this op is history, she and I are going to go biking in Vermont.”

“What op?”

“And tell her I did it for her.”

“What op, Tyler?” Maud’s voice insists.

Pierce veered onto the plaza. “Something’s about to give.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Contrary to all the so-called facts about this place: I’ve targeted a moderate Muslim. He’s pretty high up, or rather was. So expect a breakthrough for the good guys.”

He squinted up at the entrance to the building, where he recognized the stout young man in a white tunic who stepped away from the masses loitering around the glass doors and touched his cap.

“I assume you’ve filed a full report.”

“Don’t give me that shit, Maud. I didn’t choose this one. It chose me.”

Pierce snapped the phone shut and moved in the direction of Ahmed, his most reliable asset. He stopped to feign interest in the Land Cruiser as Ahmed disappeared inside the Hall. After circling the automobile once, Pierce followed. The air conditioning was set on frigid. A low-slung Nissan Teana parked in the giant lobby was being overrun by fans.

Ahmed disappeared through an archway off the lobby. Pierce checked his Longine wristwatch, a gift from his wife before his daughter Victoria was born. Still that twinge of pain when he remembered the inscription, Today is a gift . . . That’s why it’s called The Present. She’d wanted him to know his child in real time–not photographic flashbacks. Young and healthy, neither of them had a glimmer twenty-four years ago how limited her own time would be.

After exactly three minutes he eased himself towards the opening. The sweat he’d cracked on his walk over made his clothes clammy. Casually he glanced into a long gallery. On one side a view of the river through floor-to-ceiling glass, on the other, Ahmed’s mustached profile gazed at a wall hung with poster-sized photographs.

“I never could figure out how they get cars inside buildings like this,” Pierce confessed in Arabic.

“There are hidden doors,” Ahmed replied without turning his head, the signal that all was going as planned. The two men surveyed the enlarged photos: a schoolroom of grinning children raising their hands; a waving shopkeeper outside his spice stall in the oriental souk; a gorgeous, ebony-skinned woman draped in electric colors.

Two more men appeared. Ahmed introduced only the one in the turban: Mahjoub Elradi, former Speaker of Parliament, recently and unexpectedly released from prison, where he’d served twenty-two months of a five-year term for becoming too popular with the people. The other, who remained near the gallery exit, had the blank look and massive bulk of a bodyguard.

“I’m honored to meet you,” Pierce said, offering a hand.

The former Speaker of Parliament kept his hands behind his back but lifted his fl at, grey beard and peered at Pierce through owlish spectacles.

“Men from your country all look the same to me,” he concluded.

“I trust you’re in good health,” Pierce said.

The Speaker shrugged his narrow shoulders. His eyes were so close together they looked crossed, making for a puzzled expression. “Allah protects those who respect His name, Mr. Thornton,” he said.

“In the name of Allah,” Pierce said, “your country has been turned into Hell.”

The former Speaker nodded. “However”—a smile split his dark face from his grey beard—“this Hell will burn itself out. We are prepared to build something new on its ashes.”

They moved on to study a photo of a busy construction site: a crane lifting a concrete slab onto a wall in the sand. The caption read The Future of Sudan.

“Change will bring many rewards,” the former Speaker continued. “Born of the marriage between democratic process and capital investment.”

“I’d be pretty darned surprised if the United States of America wouldn’t be willing to help pay for that wedding.”

“You speak, of course, in an unofficial capacity,” the former Speaker said.

“I think I can make it official, pending certain guarantees.”

Decades of surveillance pulled Pierce’s attention to the pair of men cloaked in white robes and head coverings who had stopped at the entrance to the gallery to confer. One was small and thin as a boy, the other resembled a draped mountain. Why were their backs to the windows with a river view like that? Why didn’t they move on? An arsenal of listening devices could have been hidden underneath those robes. Another visitor looked in, scanned the posters, then left in search of big fuel tanks and mag wheels.

Elradi’s beard bobbed up and down. “Such as what guarantees does your country require?”

“Religious tolerance, for starters,” Pierce said.

“Of course,” said Elradi.

The other end of the gallery was blocked by the bodyguard. Pierce had let that pass. Now his shoulders twitched. A vague uneasiness converted suddenly to certainty: abort the meeting. Get out. Set up a face-to-face with Ahmed, arrange to meet this bigwig at a later time. Take the damned operation back to square one.

But he overrode his instincts. He’d walked fine lines before, faced worse odds. There was a whole new world at stake, if only he and this guy could reach an understanding.

Elradi brought his right hand from behind his back and offered it to Pierce. Its fingers hung limp, grotesquely bent. “My jailers took a very large hammer to these small, but useful bones,” he said in a flat voice.

Pierce gripped the man’s cold, spongy flesh. Were Elradi’s new politics too good to be true? You could never be sure what anyone was up to in this battered country, and this man had sung the tune of a hard-core extremist back when he was in power. Still the right things often get done for the wrong reasons. At the periphery of his vision, Pierce caught the pair of ghost-like robes drifting closer. Shit, he realized, fight reflex kicking in.

He could feel the two strangers gazing at The Future of Sudan over his shoulders. Idealism was a luxury he could no longer afford. He gave a backward jab with one elbow, then spun around and swung a fist up under the jaw of the smaller man, launching him into a back-dive to the floor. His head-piece went flying and his skull made a satisfying crack as it hit the marble tile.

No time to grab his weapon, Pierce heaved a shoulder into the thick tent of a man pressing against his flank. It was like trying to move a refrigerator.

Pierce lurched away and unleashed a kick to the general area of the man’s groin. The bulky attacker staggered backward. Aware of an unpleasant sensation, Pierce checked the man’s hands for a weapon, but the guy was doubled over them, clutching his mashed crotch. Pierce grabbed at his own lower spine, expecting to feel a knife, but there was nothing. Disc ruptured? Who are these bozos, anyway? Where is Ahmed? How come no one’s pulled a gun? Something’s off—

In three seconds everything changed. His brain was exploding. His arms and legs jerked in spasms. He grabbed at his throat as his jaw locked open, transforming his enraged protest into a string of feeble barks. Saliva dribbled from his mouth. His knees buckled. The last thing he saw was a blank, blurry face rushing toward him.

McLean, Virginia. 0600 hours.

The secure call beamed into the Office of the Deputy Director of Operations,Central Intelligence Agency, from the Embassy of the United States, Khartoum.

A cultivated, sardonic voice delivered its message: “It is my unpleasant duty to inform you people that they have taken out the so-called Peter Thornton.”

“Circumstances?”

“Broad daylight. Trade exhibition.”

“I guess one of his NIM crackpots turned against him.”

“National Identity Movement? I couldn’t say.”

“All those rebel groups have their factions.”

“By the time we got someone over there, the police were busy turning it into a riot and no one knew anything. We’ve checked out his quarters.”

“Anything interesting?”

“A doll.”

“Who?”

“Not a who. An artifact. As in hunk of carved stone? Shaped like a woman, you know, small waist, big—”

“I got it, I got it. Jesus Christ! I’m talking about his asset list, OK? Contact numbers?”

“Afraid not. He liked to brag that he kept everything he needed in his head. Look, my best guess is the President’s security police—I mean who else—”

“Sounds good to me. Bag up the body.”

“We have a slight problem in that department: there isn’t one.”

“There isn’t one what?”

“Body. It was not recovered.”

“For Christ sake, but you saw it?”

“Witnesses did.”

“You’re calling in to report a rumor?”

“From one-hundred-percent reliable sources.”

“Well, how about you take a break from your tea party and locate a hundred percent of that fucking corpse?”

The Farm, Williamsburg, Virginia. 0900 hours.

A young woman threw open the French doors of the converted country house, stepped out onto the veranda, and spread her arms wide as if to embrace the view. Victoria Pierce wore nylon shorts, a ragged sweatshirt, and her burnt orange curls defied the rubber band tasked with clumping them on top of her head. She kicked one bare, well-toned leg up onto the stone wall and stretched over it. It was a perfect day for a run—sun shining, yet chilly—a pristine world of green leaf buds and new grass.

Three guys strolled out of the stone barracks after her, laughing and shoving each other. They tossed her a greeting, then took off running with fl ashy speed down a path through the grass. By the time she heard the hollow pounding of their shoes on the wooden bridge over the creek, she was ready to follow.

She’d have liked more of a challenge than a hokey obstacle course, like maybe to take off along the stream and then follow the river till it hit the ocean. On a day like this, anything seemed possible. She could run forever.

In a matter of minutes she’d thumped over the creek and caught up with her three classmates whose pace had slowed. Briefly she considered adjusting hers. They were talking baseball. Social chit-chat. She could do it if she had to, though never quite comfortably. She preferred solitude. Alone, she could be more herself. Melt into the morning. A surge of energy propelled her forward.

“Show off,” called out one, not unkindly, as she took off towards the woods.

The dappled trail was so fragrant with new life she could taste it. She vaulted the fallen trees as if they were the hurdles she’d run in college, picked her way through the piles of rock, scrambled through a pipe tunnel. After seventeen minutes, barely winded, she sprinted into the sunny clearing toward the final challenge.

Fifty yards ahead was The Wall—total piece of cake. Suddenly the strength went out of her legs and she shuffled to a stop. A woman was standing in front of the eight-feet high, smooth concrete obstacle waving to her, a woman in a pale grey pantsuit, her platinum gray hair perfectly coiffed in a style that had gone out of style twenty years ago.

Maud Olson and Tory’s dad went through CIA 101 together. Maud had been a “friend of the family” ever since, a status that she seemed to think entitled her to offer Tory unsolicited advice whenever she felt like it.

In an instant, Tory’s surprise turned to dread. What could be so urgent that Maud would have risked her designer shoes tromping around in the wet grass?

Jebel Barkal, Sudan. 1700 hours.

The far-off horizon rippled between sand and inky sky. In the mid-distance stood pyramids, some crumbling, others intact and sharp. At their center, the ground seemed to have heaved up a tall, crooked ship of a mountain. At one end jutted a separate narrow pinnacle, like a figurehead, or a forearm capped with a stone fist. Or some would say, the flared head of a cobra poised to strike. The mountain was Jebel Barkal, the holy center of ancient Nubia, now an under-funded archaeological site north of Khartoum.

At the base of this mountain a canvas awning four meters square was strung on posts above the sand shading huge slabs of stone. Most were piled in disarray, but some had been set side by side like giant puzzle pieces. These were stained a startling blue, superimposed with either yellow stars or black vultures in flight.

A blue-clad African woman sat in the sand her head bowed over one slab as if in prayer. A golden cobra bracelet gleamed against the dark skin of her upper arm. Time and again she raised her face—her eyes rolled back to white, her cheeks streaked with tears.

Along the edge of the awning, three armed Sudanese in tattered Western clothes and flip-flops observed the woman’s grief helplessly, while an older man with light brown skin had taken off his thick glasses and kept swabbing his eyes with a handkerchief. Time seemed altered; it was as if he could feel the earth turn and the world darkening minute by minute.

The older man was the first to notice the ominous bass notes competing with the woman’s cries. Then her bodyguards picked it up, the thump-thump of hoof-beats. They raised their M-16’s. The woman leaped to her feet.

What took four seconds seemed to last hours. Three men on camels appeared around the edge of the nearest pyramid, each aiming automatic rifles. A volley of gunshots blended into one. Two of the woman’s guards collapsed into limp heaps on the sand. At the same time a scarlet stain bloomed on the chest of one camel rider before he floated in slow motion to the ground. The older man locked his arms around the woman, and they seemed frozen like that forever, him struggling to pull her back behind a pile of slabs, her resisting, until she wrenched free and time began to race again.

She gave three screams and the sky filled with feathered missiles plunging toward the attackers, large grey falcons, talons extended. They flew at the two remaining riders, clawing their faces. The firing stopped. The camels halted also, and trampled the sand in place as the woman shook her fist at the two remaining riders and ripped out curses they did not understand.

An instant later, the riders were digging their heels into the camels’ flanks and bearing down on her, each thrashing at the raptors with one hand. One man hurled an elongated object at her with his free hand. Then came the second, gripping his rifle by the barrel. She saw it coming, wrong-side first, didn’t understand. She raised her hands to her face and began to turn, an instant before he slammed the butt at her, catching her right eye.

It was over. Three camels and two riders vanished into the distance, leaving their comrade to bleed out along with the woman’s slain guards. She herself lay flattened on her back, as the older man rushed over to help her.

Her bare skin was pocked with grains of sand, the cobra bracelet bloodied but unbent. Blood gushed from her right socket, washing out its crushed remains. Yet she smiled grimly. She, Kendacke, queen of the mountain, was still very much alive.

She turned her head and her left eye came to rest on the oblong missile the attackers had left behind. It was the ugly purple-grey of necrotic flesh, slightly bent, an elegant wristwatch encircling its narrow end. Thus at the same moment she realized it was a human arm, she also realized whose.

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