Book: Eden's Exodus
Table of Contents
A Plague Wars Novel
David VanDyke and Ryan King
THREE KINGS PUBLISHING
Copyright © 2015 by David VanDyke and Ryan King. All rights reserved. This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, except for brief excerpts for the purpose of review or quotation, without permission in writing from the author.
Books by David VanDyke
Plague Wars Series
Stellar Conquest series
A direct follow-on spinoff to Plague Wars
Star Force series
California Corwin P.I. Mystery series
Click the links to find them on Amazon. For more information visit www.davidvandykeauthor.com
Books by Ryan King
Ryan King's Land of Tomorrow series:
See more of Ryan King's books at: Ryan King's Amazon Author Page
Cover by Jun Ares
Formatting by LiberWriter
Alan “Skull” Denham didn’t really enjoy running, but like so many things in his life he saw it as a means to an end. It was important to him that he remained fit and in excellent physical condition so that he could do his work.
That there hadn’t been any work for him for several months was of no concern to him. His kind of jobs always came around.
Running on the beach was especially difficult, but Skull did it anyway. The packed sand served to strengthen his feet while giving his joints much less of a pounding.
Five days a week he ran six miles after going for a one-mile swim in the warm water off the southeast tip of Cuba. The current was strong there, and Skull used the challenging swim to keep his mind and body sharp.
Today, Skull let his mind drift and relax as his body strained. The beautiful white sands and clear blue water soothed him. He nodded to Julio as the fisherman washed out his nets beside a small white boat. Skull would be buying fresh catch from the old man later.
The Cuban’s wife Marcella waved to him, as she did every morning. The old woman picked up shells on the shore for some purpose Skull could not imagine, but it seemed to be her routine, a comforting ritual that made her happy.
I can understand that, Skull thought. I’m a creature of habit myself.
He was almost to his turn-around point when he saw someone walking toward him in the distance, a woman with a good figure and long blonde hair blowing in the wind. Skull didn’t know any blondes on the island, yet he found something familiar about her.
Skull kept running. He didn’t like unknowns. This was something new and out of place. This part of Cuba didn’t attract tourists and lay far from any sizable habitation. A blonde in a bikini walking here was as unlikely as coming upon a beachside acupuncture stand.
By the time he reached a quarter mile distance, Skull knew who the woman was. He resisted the urge to stop and turn around to avoid the meeting. Keeping his pace steady, he ran toward her.
“Why hello, Cassandra,” Skull said, slowing to a walk and stopping in front of her.
Cassandra Johnstone stopped and smiled at him. “You look good, Alan.”
“So do you,” he said, meaning it, looking her up and down with pointed relish. “Smart, fine woman like you won’t be on the market long, I reckon.”
“Is that stuff for real, or are you just trying to knock me off balance?”
“Maybe I should ask you the same thing about you and your bikini. You could have worn something less distracting, but you didn’t.”
Skull tilted his head slightly. “Zeke wouldn’t mind, you know. He’s been gone a while now. As a matter of fact, he’d probably encourage it.”
“You don’t have to tell me what my dead husband would or would not mind,” she said. Her voice remained even, but there was a sharp glint in her eye. “Besides, do you really want to risk getting infected?”
“Then quit jerking my chain.”
Skull showed his teeth. “It’s better than being bored.”
“I might be able to help you out with that, at least.”
“Fair enough,” said Skull, shrugging. He pointed back the way he had come. “Let’s walk a little. Don’t want to cramp up, you know.”
They strolled in silence for several minutes. Skull took satisfaction in knowing he had thrown Cassandra off her game. She’d obviously come here to get something from him. As his best friend’s widow, he had a soft spot in his heart for the spymistress, but knew she could be manipulative and cold as ice when the need arose. She hadn’t been chosen as the CIA’s Moscow Chief of Station for nothing, back before…before Infection Day.
“It’s great to see you, Cassandra,” Skull eventually said with a hint of sarcasm, “but we both know this isn’t a social call, so why don’t you go ahead and spill it. No need to beat around the bush. We’ve known each other too long for that.”
“We have known each other a long time,” she said, not looking at him.
Skull frowned at her silence. “I told Spooky the last time we spoke that I wasn’t interested in joining his reindeer games. It’s cheap of him to send you.”
“No one sent me. I’ve come on my own.”
“Not even Markis?” Skull scoffed, spitting out a sound of derision. “One of them needs something and knows that I’ll tell them to piss off. That’s why you’re here.”
She stopped walking and turned to face him. “You’re saying you wouldn’t tell me to piss off? Why is that, Alan?”
He looked away. “You know damn well why.”
Cassandra reached out and laid a hand on his shoulder. “You don’t owe me anything, Alan. Not for Zeke and certainly not for me personally. Nothing that has happened is your fault. You don’t have to feel sorry for me or try to protect me or be my guardian angel.”
Skull stepped back from her, shrugging the hand off. “That’s a relief,” he said with more bitterness than he intended. “Now that I feel comfortable telling you to go to hell, maybe you should tell me what you want before I do just that.”
She smiled slightly and nodded. “Ten thousand or more lightly armed Edens are trapped in southern Ethiopia. Their own government’s army has surrounded them on Mega Mountain – yes, that’s its real name – after they fled from the internment camp and won’t let them depart. Food and supplies have been cut off and they can’t last much longer. We’ve also gotten intelligence that indicates the North African Islamic Caliphate is pushing the Ethiopian government to massacre them all quickly and quietly.”
“Wouldn’t be hard,” said Skull. “They’re all gathered together in a remote location. Either keep them in one place until they starve, or pound them with mortars until they surrender.”
“And then murder them.” Cassandra’s eyes narrowed. “They’ve asked for our help, and I intend to find a way to get those people out before they’re all slaughtered.”
Skull picked up a shell from the beach before throwing it out toward the ocean to skip on the water. “That is all very, very distressing, but why can’t Spooky and his crew run this little rescue mission?”
“He’s got his hands full in Colombia,” she said. “Besides, you’ve worked in Ethiopia and know the Oramia Region. You helped train their troops. You’re perfect.”
He stared at her hard for a few seconds before laughing. “You know what I think? I think you’ve come to me because Spooky isn’t fully behind this, and you can’t get Markis to force the little sneak’s hand. I think you trust me more than Spooky. Looks like this whole Free Communities paradise commune love fest reality doesn’t match up to the claims on the sales brochures.”
“I never tried to sell anyone paradise, Alan. That’s Markis’ role. Mine is to keep him realistic. I’m well aware the world hasn’t changed all that much just because there’s a virus that improves people. Be that as it may,” said Cassandra levelly, “we can’t turn a blind eye. There are thousands of children there, Alan.”
“Correction,” he said, “you can’t turn a blind eye. As far as slaughtered innocents, I hate to break it to you, but they’re everywhere, in the thousands. In the millions. You can’t save them all.”
“No,” she answered, “but we can save these.”
“Because they asked for our help, that’s why.”
“Okay then. Because in doing so, we demonstrate our commitment to helping Edens, which will attract more to our cause. Hearts and minds, Alan. You used to know what that meant.”
Skull growled, “Hearts and minds were Zeke’s thing; all that softhearted Green Beret crap. I never wore the beanie. My version of changing people’s minds was killing anyone stupid enough to stand up to the Corps.”
“Yet somehow he became your friend. Maybe your only one, huh?”
Skull laughed bitterly. “Zeke did have the knack for getting people to follow him. And, he always had my back. He was loyal. Hell, if he’d lived instead of Markis, I’d be right there by his side. But that didn’t happen. Shit is what it is.”
“If he was here, he’d want you to do this.”
“You used to be more subtle.”
“You used to have a heart.”
“That died with Zeke.”
Cassandra stepped toward Skull again, taking his right hand in both of hers, refusing to let him pull away. “That’s bullshit and you know it. I saw how you looked at my children and at me after Zeke was gone. You’re a good man, Alan, even with the doom that haunts you. Rescuing these people will push the darkness back for a while. That’s what he would have wanted.”
Skull stared down at Cassandra’s hands. “You play dirty, you know that?”
“Only in a good cause. Please, Alan. Forget DJ. Forget Spooky. Do it for the children you’ll save.”
“No.” Skull reached out his left hand to brush her cheek. “If I do it, I’ll do it for Zeke…and for you.”
Cassandra smiled and released her grip, but remained tantalizingly close, lifting her face toward his. “I can’t give you what you need, Alan. I can’t fill up your emptiness. Only you can do that. But today, tonight, I’ll give you what you want, if that’s the price of thousands of lives.”
Almost, he took her offer, but…no. Even if he wanted to risk infection, it would make her a whore and him a client, a john. He didn’t want anyone that didn’t wholeheartedly return the desire, so again he closed down that part of himself and focused on the job he’d half decided to do.
“So. You’ve got ten thousand starving Edens surrounded by the military on a mountain way off in East Africa. It’s not just a matter of helping them; you want to get them out alive. And then where are they going? Most countries aren’t taking in mass groups of refugees. Especially not Edens.”
“We have a plan,” she answered. “Kenya has agreed to let them stay temporarily in a refugee camp they have designated. It’s close to the border and only a couple days’ walk from Mount Mega.”
“Temporarily? Then where?”
“We’re not sure yet.”
“Hell,” Skull said, shaking his head. “You only have the barest beginnings of a plan. You know this isn’t going to work, Cassandra. Save yourself some headache and disappointment.”
“We haven’t figured everything out yet, okay?” she said evenly. “But we can get them out of the situation they’re currently in. Once we have time, we can work on where they are going afterward. Right now we just need to save them. And we can, with your help.”
Skull sighed. “So, let me get this straight. Someone is supposed to go in there and get ten thousand Edens – who must have an epic case of the munchies since they’ve been starving for a while – to move across the border and settle in Kenya?”
“Yes,” she said. “But getting them to move isn’t the problem. The problem is the Ethiopian army surrounding them.”
“Oh, I remember you said something about that,” Skull said. “There’s no way I’m going to be able to get these frightened civilians to break through an army to escape…not without help, anyway.”
“There will be help,” Cassandra answered. “We’ll be sending a team to create a diversion and assist with the exfil once you give us the signal that you’re ready to move.”
“One,” said Skull holding up a finger, “I haven’t agreed to anything. And two,” he held up a second finger, “this is not an exfil. This is a goddamn exodus. Probably have to drive all their goats and sheep with them along the way.”
Cassandra shook her head. “The livestock will all be eaten long before you move.”
“You get my point, though,” said Skull. “This situation is too difficult and too complicated. You would be better off pressuring or buying off the Ethiopian government to let them go. What do they care, anyway?”
Cassandra huffed in frustration. “We’ve tried. Believe me, we’ve tried. The Caliphate is in a better position. The virus scares people, especially those in power. It’s something they can’t control, and they can’t control the people who have it as easily, either.”
Skull smiled. “With good reason. Markis turned over the global apple cart. Since that’s their cart and their apples, they’re likely to get a tad bit testy.”
“We’re helping people, Alan. The world is already better off, and if we can keep it from exploding for a while, it will eventually stabilize.”
Skull started walking down the beach again and Cassandra followed. “I got to tell you, Cassandra, I’m not happy with this. Complicated mission. Large number of civilians. Hostile forces in dangerous territory. Tons of unknowns, and it seems like your own people aren’t fully committed, otherwise you’d be offering me a battalion of commandos. I’d advise you to walk away. You can’t save them. Find some other place where the chance of success is higher.”
Cassandra didn’t answer for several seconds. “I can’t walk away,” she said softly. They continued down the beach in silence for a while before she spoke again. “Zeke told me that if anything ever happened to me, if I ever needed anything, to come to you.”
Skull stopped again and turned to her, clenching his fists. “That’s bullshit.”
“He did,” she insisted.
“Oh, I’m sure Zeke said it,” Skull answered, “I’m sure he even meant it, but not for something like this. He meant if you were in trouble, or the kids needed something, or the goddamn bathroom toilet was clogged up. Not something like this. I’m getting tired of your blatant manipulation. Doesn’t the Eden virtue effect make that harder to do?”
“That’s not what I’m doing.”
“Oh, really? Then just what is it you’re doing?”
Cassandra searched for words and Skull thought he saw her mask slip just a little bit. He thought she was desperate and maybe even a little afraid….unless that was an act, too. “This is just one friend asking another for help,” she finally said, letting her hands drop to her sides.
Skull wanted to blow her off, but knew he couldn’t. Zeke had been his best friend. The man had stuck with him and supported him when no one else would, saved his career and his sanity, probably.
It wouldn’t make a difference to Zeke; the man was dead after all, but Skull believed in paying back what he owed. And if he wouldn’t take Cassandra’s payment in flesh, he might as well get something concrete out of it.
“Ten million Euros,” Skull finally said. “Five up front and five when the job is done. I’ll get you the account info.”
Cassandra’s eyebrows shot up. “Really? Just like that?”
“Why not?” Skull asked. “Suicidal mission where a thousand things can go wrong and everyone is likely to get killed? I’ve got nothing else going on.”
She smiled and looked like she was going to cry. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me,” he said. “This is business, remember. Ten million Euros, plus expenses. I’m going to need you to pay for weapons and a lot of gear.”
“No problem. Just give me a list of what you need.”
“I will. One other thing.”
Skull looked at her hard. “I know Spooky would leave me dangling in the wind if he thought it was advantageous. Hell, he already did, at least once. Will you?”
Cassandra patted him on the arm and smiled. “You already know the answer to that question. I’ll be in touch with you after we wire the money.” She turned, took a few steps, and then stopped and glanced back as if she had forgotten something. “Oh, and Rick wanted me to tell you hello.”
“Rick,” said Skull, nonplussed. “Little Ricky? He must really be coming along. I’m happy for you.”
“Yes,” Cassandra said. “The muscular dystrophy is completely gone. He plays soccer with the other kids now.”
“He’s cured?” asked Skull, surprised.
She nodded. “Like I said, Rick told me he misses you, and to tell you hello if I ever saw you again.”
Skull smiled involuntarily. He’d always liked the kid. It was hard to believe he was healthy and normal now. He saw a peaceful look come over Cassandra.
“That’s what the Eden Plague is about,” she said. “Every time I look at him I remember all those other kids out there. Kids with Duchenne’s, with cerebral palsy, with cystic fibrosis coughing their lungs out every day, with every debilitating disease that ever killed them before they got to fall in love and raise a family. That’s why I’m doing this.” Then she turned and walked away.
Skull tortured himself some more, checking out the smoking hot body of his dead friend’s widow. He felt slightly guilty…but not too much so. Besides, he’d taken the high road and turned down the chance she’d given him.
Zeke would understand.
Skull turned and resumed his run. He had to get back to his bungalow. Work had finally found him, as always. Despite his protestations, despite his reservations, he had a job to do.
And unlike the Edens, he wasn’t getting any younger.
Husnia jerked herself awake from the heart-pounding nightmare. She lay still on her cot listening to the comforting, familiar noises of thousands of Eden refugees waking to a new day. The smell of fresh Ethiopian coffee, the beans of which were collected, roasted, and ground only the day before, was comforting. They are all safe; only a bad dream, she told herself.
Waiting until after the worst of her trembling had subsided, she sat up gingerly. She still did many things slowly and carefully, forgetting that she was no longer old.
Since the Plague had rejuvenated her, the tall, lean woman with the distinctive high cheekbones and dark caramel skin of her region of Africa could have passed for mid-twenties. Young men gazed at her in admiration, and she chuckled at their amateurish offers of affection. After all, by the calendar, Husnia was seventy-six years old.
Her heart still hammered, but it eventually slowed as she forced herself to take long, steady breaths while dressing in the dimness of her small tent. Privacy was at a premium in the Cumba Refugee Camp in the Oramia Region of southern Ethiopia, but being the Angel of Addis Ababa had some perks. Time spent alone was something she had grown used to as an elderly woman in a society that was chronically young due to rampant disease, malnutrition, violence and frequent accidents. She had hoped all of that was going to change.
“It will,” she told herself softly. “It is inevitable.”
She believed this. After all, how could anyone in her society refuse the Eden virus? It was a godsend. The answer to all their prayers and hopes. A miracle from heaven custom-made for her people. No more disease, no more death, no more loss of family and society.
Yet, her people were superstitious by nature and reluctant to accept something so wonderful at face value. How could such a thing be free and have no strings attached? The weak Ethiopian government had also recently fallen under the influence of the new North African Islamic Caliphate, which was steadily spreading southward.
The Caliphate, it was rumored, claimed Edens carried the Mark of Hell. They reportedly did unspeakable things to any infectees they captured, torturing them, trying to “exorcise” the supposed devils of the virus. Ethiopia had not yet fallen under total control of the Caliphate, but many had begun to respect the growing power’s ability to keep the peace and enforce law and order, something always in short supply.
Thus, the Ethiopian Edens were confined to this camp in the far south, only days from the Kenyan border, where more were brought every day. Husnia wondered what her people thought of the Edens now that they were no longer in their cities, villages, and towns. How did they view the virus? As a miracle or a curse?
Only time would tell, she was afraid. Still, the dream nagged at her. In it they had all been in the refugee camp in Cumba, as they were now. Mega Mountain beckoned in the distance. A loud voice rumbled from the mountain that danger was coming and the people must move to its bulking presence for safety.
The people had laughed at the voice and ignored it. Soon, soldiers and demons arrived and began to slaughter the Edens. Small children murdered. Women raped while their men were forced to watch. No wounds healed. None were spared. None escaped. The dead rose from where they fell to stare at her accusingly with despair and blame.
“It’s just a dream,” she told herself as she looked out her tent flap at the camp. She expected a busy day ahead of her. Although her work as a nurse had significantly diminished with the spread of the Eden virus, she still had plenty of visitors. Most now sought her out as a counselor, or perhaps as an oracle, rather than for medical advice as they once had.
It is only fitting, she thought. I did cause all of this after all. Anyway, what else am I supposed to do? Being a healer is all I have ever known. All I’ve ever wanted to be. The Angel of Addis Ababa was what they’d called her long before the Eden virus arrived.
A year before Husnia’s father had died, he’d managed to somehow find the money to send her to London to train as a nurse. His intention had been for her to leave the rampant poverty and sickness of her home country forever, but her land and people had called to her, even from the midst of wealth and plenty. She’d worked at a large hospital in England for several years and found she could not stay away. Husnia had prayed for guidance, and when the opportunity to open a free clinic in her home country came along, she knew it was her best chance to return.
That was nearly fifty years ago. She had seen and suffered endless doubt, pain, and heartbreak. Children died due to lack of medicines and vaccines that cost pennies. Hunger ran so rampant that the young frequently had seizures as a result of the body consuming the fatty outer coating of their brain synapses simply to try to live. To relieve their suffering had been her vocation and her burden, and she had accepted it. She’d done what she could and the people had praised her, calling her an angel. For years, as she served them and served God, Husnia had barely managed to hold her tears in check until she could be alone each evening.
Until the Eden Plague changed everything two years ago, she thought.
* * *
The American had been in a horrible automobile crash, brought into the hospital almost dead. He’d kept trying to rise, but Husnia pushed him down to treat his ghastly wounds. Her hands worked with precision as she placed a tourniquet on the blood-soaked thigh where the femur had obviously broken and cut the femoral artery. She expected the man to be dead in minutes if she didn’t stop the gushing blood.
Should be dead already, she’d thought and paused. Looking closely at him, she saw his wounds seemed less severe than she had thought. Maybe I misjudged the extent of his injuries.
But Husnia knew better and, over many years, had learned to trust her instincts. She slowly released the tourniquet, ready to reapply it when the blood flowed again, but nothing came. Untwisting the stick she had used as a lever, she pulled the strap off and probed his wound. Even the leg bone felt whole where she and a strong orderly had set it just ten minutes ago.
“Impossible,” she had muttered in Amharic.
She was startled by the man’s fingers as he smeared them on her lips. Jerking back, she saw that they had blood on them. Spitting and cursing, she wiped her mouth. She went to a sink and rinsed several times. He was a westerner and didn’t look sick, but a lifetime in Africa around infectious diseases had made her particularly mindful about such things. Fortunately, AIDS was difficult to contract orally, as the virus tended to die in stomach acid.
When she returned, incredibly, the man was easing himself off his bed to stand in front of her. “I need something to eat,” he had said, looking around and gathering up his belongings on the floor.
“What you need is to rest,” she told him in her clipped British English that had not been used in many years. “You certainly have internal injuries.”
The man had smiled at her serenely. “I’m fine, and you will be soon too. Except, I need food.” He looked at her carefully. “How old are you?”
She didn’t answer the question, only gazed back at him. Could he be in shock? she wondered.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “I can tell you’re a beauty, and were even more beautiful once. You will be again very soon. It’s called the Eden virus. Don’t be afraid of it. It is a blessing.” He had then turned and left. She’d been so puzzled by his certainty that she’d let him go.
Within days, Husnia’s arthritis had disappeared. Her eyesight and hearing became sharper than they’d ever been. Hair that had been silver began turning black again from the roots, and she found she was constantly hungry.
Beelsha, a former patient and computer whiz who sometimes did internet medical research for her had looked up this “Eden virus” at her request. What he’d discovered had amazed her and changed her life. It had altered thousands of lives, and the very fabric of civilization for all she knew.
One thing was certain. There was no going back. Too many things had changed and were still changing. The government was wrong to hide this blessing, to keep it out.
* * *
It was not just a dream, Husnia thought. It was a warning from God.
She stared out at the camp as it came to life. Men gathering wood and water. Women preparing coffee and porridge for breakfast. Children helping their parents and playing while they did it. A thriving and healthy multigenerational community. It was something she would have never expected to see in the Ethiopia she knew. Not in her lifetime.
Now, the Caliphate threatened the miracle, the blessing, because of its fear and reactionary ways. As a devout Christian, Husnia had lived peacefully alongside Muslims all her life, but this extreme version of Islam wouldn’t coexist with anyone. She was an educated woman, and so had pored over a Koran for many weeks, searching for anything that would tell her that the Eden Plague was haram, forbidden to those of that faith.
She’d found nothing, and while she tried to explain to her Muslim friends, that didn’t stop the imams from issuing fatwas based on culture and fear instead of their scripture. As in most religions, believers often unthinkingly followed the clerics’ decrees rather than investigating for themselves.
Husnia picked up the worn and familiar walking stick she no longer needed and made her way toward the center of camp. She smiled and waved at people as she passed. Many offered to share their breakfasts with her, but she refused. Now that she had decided what to do, every ticking second felt like it brought the horrific image from her nightmare closer.
She picked up her pace.
Passing a food distribution point, she looked at the Ethiopian soldiers there. They all proudly wore the fashionable facial scars that proved at a glance they were not Edens. Some of the Eden children had even tried to copy the soldiers, but the wounds had healed within minutes and made them hungry, so they gave that up.
It is a crazy world, she thought, when being healthy makes you anathema.
Husnia’s stomach rumbled and she stopped in her tracks. Perhaps she should have accepted one of the offers of food.
She looked back at the distribution point and the soldiers. Every bit of sustenance, with the exception of what little they could gather, such as berries and wild coffee, came through the soldiers. There would be even less food on the mountain she’d dreamed of. If they moved without permission, the government would be less likely to keep feeding them. She wondered why she was even considering basing actions on a vision, but she’d learned what the voice of God sounded like, and this…this was it.
“We need help,” she said aloud, startling herself and several others nearby before snapping her mouth shut. She’d gotten into the habit of talking to herself years ago and evidently the Eden virus couldn’t do anything to fix that ailment.
Turning to walk in a different direction, Husnia thought of how close to the survival line they all were. Edens were healthy, but needed extra calories to heal, even to simply live. Most were constantly fighting off some sort of disease, growing young, or correcting a longstanding illness or birth defect. There was never any leftover food, despite what the government brought.
Yet there had to be storehouses nearby. Husnia had learned that in a country where transportation was so unreliable, the Ethiopians knew to gather resources where and when they could, and she could be certain the soldiers weren’t giving the Edens all they should. There was always corruption, skimming off the top for sale. The fact that everything could be bought on the black market was proof.
Therefore, somewhere close there were supplies, probably in one or more warehouses, food they would need if they were to survive the plan she had decided to set in motion.
Husnia knocked on the wooden frame of a tiny shack. A small round face poked out and smiled at her.
“The Angel herself,” the man said, “here to see me. I am honored.”
“Good morning, Beelsha,” she answered, “and you know I don’t like people calling me that.”
He shrugged. “It makes no difference. It is what they call you. I didn’t make it up.”
Husnia shrugged in return, a subtle admonishment. “Do we have signal today?”
Beelsha’s smile vanished as he looked around to make sure no one had heard. The Ethiopian guards confiscated every cell phone and electronic device they could find. They evidently did not want there to be any communication with the outside world.
The man nodded, unconsciously touching the flat metal roof. Beelsha had managed to turn it into a crude satellite antenna that could send and receive internet signals. The Ethiopian authorities did not know of its existence. He carefully pulled a small briefcase from under a pile of boxes and set it on a wooden crate. Opening the battered briefcase, he revealed a sturdy laptop connected through some arcane device to several batteries that were obviously not made for it.
“Need to recharge them soon,” Beelsha said. “Yesterday was cloudy, but today looks better.” The man began unfolding a thick silver blanket, which he lay outside on the ground. He then plugged a thin cord into one end and, after burying it in the dirt to hide its presence, connected the other end to the side of the briefcase. He pulled a spliced and multicolored wire from the roof and plugged it into the side of the laptop before looking at her. “What would you like me to look up today?”
Husnia felt hesitant now. Could she be mistaken? If it were only a dream, she might end up leading them all down the path of destruction.
Trust your instincts like you always have, she thought. That was no dream and you know it.
“Is the Free Communities website still up?” she asked.
Beelsha nodded. “Certainly is. They’re constantly trying to contact us, as they are other Eden communities around the world.”
“Have we responded yet?” she asked.
He frowned at her. “Is that supposed to be a test or something? You asked that we not. You said involvement with the Free Communities could put us at odds with our government.”
She nodded. “Yes, I did tell you that. Can you pull up the site for me?”
Beelsha looked at her curiously for a long moment. “Something has happened, hasn’t it?”
“Just pull up the site, please,” she said. “I promise to explain everything soon, but I’m afraid time is not our friend right now.”
Beelsha hesitated only a moment longer before leaning over the keyboard and typing furiously. After several seconds, he leaned back and turned the briefcase in her direction. “Here it is. You want me to do anything for you? We both know I’m the faster typist.”
Husnia smiled. “Actually, you can go and get Misgana.”
“Bring him here?” Beelsha asked. “Do we want him to know about this?” he asked, opening his arms to indicate the shack and the computer.”
“We do now,” she said. “Haven’t you seen him around the camp? He is the real leader of the people, not me. I am the Angel of Addis Ababa. The Healer. An oracle to some, but not really their leader.”
Beelsha thought for a moment. “But can we trust him?”
She smiled, bleak and humorless. “We have no choice. Besides, he’s an Eden. If we can’t trust each other, we are all doomed.”
The small man dropped his head and stared at the ground before nodding. “Okay,” he finally said. “I’ll go get him, but don’t break my stuff or go to any wacked-out websites while I’m away, you understand?”
“I understand,” she answered with a warmer smile. “Thank you, my old friend.”
Beelsha shook his head and turned to walk out of the shed.
“What’s his name again?” she called.
She pointed at the Free Communities website on the screen in front of her. “The man who keeps composing messages and trying to get in touch with us and the other Edens.”
“Markis,” Beelsha answered. “Chairman Daniel Markis. The man who claims to have started all of this.”
Husnia turned back to the laptop and began carefully typing another message, praying as she did so that she had made the right decision.
“Captain” Misgana walked along the rocky paths between defensive positions. The men and women smiled at him and he did his best to smile back, deliberately returning their naïve optimism.
Misgana knew better. He’d been a soldier himself once, and had fought in the Ethiopian Army in Somalia, Eritrea, and Sudan, which was why the people had stuck him with the martial nickname of “Captain,” despite the fact he’d only been a lieutenant. Still, his military expertise was greater than any other here, and the people seemed to want to follow his confident presence.
They all believe we have a chance, he thought as he walked among them.
Looking down the cliffs at the enemy soldiers surrounding them, he knew it was only a matter of time before they brought overwhelming firepower to bear on the Edens and wiped them out, as the Caliphate wished.
“Damn that old woman,” he muttered under his breath. He laughed at himself. Husnia was no longer old, although he thought of her that way when she wasn’t around. When he was near her, it was hard not to be mesmerized by her beauty and charisma.
That’s what makes her even more dangerous, he thought. She’s brought us all here to die. We were in a tight spot in the camp, but now we’re forcing the government’s hand.
As if reading his mind, the loudspeaker van boomed out at them again from across the lines below. “You Edens. Come down from the mountain. You will not be harmed. We have food and shelter for you. Edens. Come down. We are your friends and countrymen.” Then the message would repeat as the truck drove up and down the base of the mountain.
They aren’t likely to treat us as friends after we raided their food and weapon stores, Misgana thought. He hadn’t been in favor of the move to the mountain, but once the people decided they would go along with Husnia, Misgana had agreed to the food raid and the sneaking out at night.
While at the depot, Misgana had seen the armory and simply couldn’t help himself. He’d taken the opportunity to break the flimsy locks off the weapons and ammo bunkers. His men had loaded all their animals with weapons and supplies.
This may make the soldiers eager for vengeance too, he’d thought, but had done it anyway.
Over the weeks before, the soldiers had become lackadaisical. Some had seen the raid in progress, but were too drunk or lazy to bother stopping them, believing it was someone else’s problem. However, allowing several thousand civilians with children to sneak off in the middle of the night after stealing all the food supplies made the officers look bad to their senior leaders. Misgana knew from firsthand experience that those on duty at the time would likely be whipped publicly.
He looked up at the slope, and then down at the soldiers below him. So far they had concentrated their forces on the north side of the mountain nearest to the lines leading back to the capital, but that might only be to lull the Edens into neglecting the rest of their perimeter. Misgana made a mental note to strengthen the other approaches.
He heard someone creeping along behind him on the mountain trail. Turning in exasperation, he glared at a small lithe girl with big intelligent eyes. “Jemmia! I thought I told you to stay back and help watch the little ones.”
She looked away, wringing her hands, but then gazed up at him and smiled. “It’s okay, daddy. Husnia said she would watch them.”
“Did she now?” he asked, and repressed a frown. His daughter loved the woman because she doted on her like all the children. Misgana figured he couldn’t begrudge the little girl finding comfort where she could.
“Have you heard anything?” Jemmia asked her father.
He didn’t have to ask her what she meant. When the soldiers had come to their village to round up the Edens, his wife and son had been away visiting her sister. It still hurt him to remember how friends and neighbors who had known them all their lives had pointed them out readily enough as Edens when the soldiers arrived.
“I’m sure they are fine,” Misgana said, hoping it was true. Certainly if they had been captured they would have been brought to Cumba. He’d waited there to greet every arriving vehicle of refugees, but had seen nothing of his wife or son. Hopefully they’d gotten the news about the roundups and stayed with her sister. He felt the urge to run off after them, but knew he had to take care of Jemmia.
And take care of the rest of the people who depended on him.
Misgana had somehow found himself responsible for everyone here on the mountain. It wasn’t as if he didn’t have enough worries and concerns of his own. His father had been the leader of their clan, and had talked about the burden of being responsible for other people. Misgana hadn’t understood at the time, but he thought he did now.
“Come on, then,” he said ruffling her hair. “Stay close to me.”
Jemmia smiled with pleasure and bounded over to him, as agile as a mountain goat, and took his hand. The two walked around the side of the mountain, greeting the men there and asking about them. Misgana was primarily interested in the weapons placements and defensive positions, but couldn’t turn away from their need to be reassured, to know that someone was in charge…as if that would keep their problems at bay.
As much as he hated it, he knew that someone was him. Husnia was the force behind everything, but as revered as she was, the Ethiopian people were traditional and set in their ways. The men would never allow a woman to give them direct orders. Misgana wished it were not so. If she were in charge, he would be free...well, at least a little freer, he thought.
Stop feeling sorry for yourself, said the voice of his father in his head. That is the beguiling curse of our clan. We could have ruled Ethiopia if we had not spent so much time feeling sorry for ourselves. Don’t waste time you don’t have. Instead, do what you can while you can.
The men and women smiled back at him, though he could not help but notice the fear in their eyes. He also saw the deep hunger in their faces, the same hunger he felt. The Eden virus had cured him of maladies and ailments he didn’t even know he had. His mind was sharper and his body filled with more energy than at any other time in his life. Misgana sensed he was alive like he had never been. Yet, this came at a cost, and food was never in abundance in Ethiopia.
“Let’s go check out the caves,” Misgana told Jemmia.
The girl bounded ahead. Like all the children, she loved the idea of the caves, so the adults had given up trying to keep them from playing there. The guards Misgana had posted at the entrance were mainly to keep anyone from walking off with anything stored inside. They also carefully measured out the food supplies each day. If they kept themselves on the near-starvation diet plan, Misgana had calculated that they had enough food for several weeks, perhaps a month.
“Any trouble?” Misgana asked the two men. He didn’t expect any, but Misgana had never been one for conversation, and it seemed like something to say.
“Just a few people asking about any extra food, Captain,” one of the men said. “No trouble.”
“You didn’t give them anything did you?” Misgana asked. “Not even the kids.”
Both men looked away.
“You can’t,” Misgana insisted. “I know it’s hard, but we have to carefully ration the food. It’s all we have, and if word gets out you’re handing out extras to people, there will be a riot as everyone comes for more.”
“Just a little to a few of the children,” said one of the men. “Nothing much.”
“They’re very hungry, Captain,” the other man added.
“We’re all very hungry,” Misgana said looking at them sternly. “No more extras handed out. I get even the hint that anyone is handing out food, that man and all his family members get nothing for three days. Do you understand?”
They looked at him in shock.
“Do. You. Understand?” he asked slowly.
The two men nodded that they did.
“Good,” Misgana answered. “Spread the word to everyone. Make sure all the guards know the consequences.” He turned to Jemmia. “Come on now, let’s get going.”
She didn’t appear immediately, and he was about to call again when she popped up out of a hidden hole ten feet to his right.
“Be careful,” he told her. “It would be easy to get lost in all these caves. We don’t even know where most of them lead.”
“Captain, Brenha walked down that one off to the left the other day,” said one of the men. “Said after an hour of walking, he found an underground lake filled with cold spring water.”
“Really?” asked Misgana.
The man nodded. “It’s a long way to go for water when it’s just after the rainy season, but it could serve us well if the sky closes up.”
Misgana nodded. “True. Tell Brenha I want to see this lake.” He turned to Jemmia. “Come on. Let’s get out of these men’s hair.”
Jemmia laughed. “They do have such long hair now.”
They all had longer hair. Everyone typically kept their hair cut short to avoid lice and make cleaning themselves easier, but now neither of those things seemed as difficult. Besides, their hair always grew back thick and healthy.
Walking around to the next crossroads, he saw a small shack with a metal roof. It had been moved with some difficulty, but looked much like it had before. Misgana hadn’t intended to go to Beelsha’s shack, but now that he was there he felt the need for information.
“Wait right here,” he told his daughter. “I’ll be back soon.”
“Why?” she asked. “I can go with you.”
“No,” he said seriously. “You stay here. I’ll be back in a minute.” Not waiting for a response, he walked over and knocked on the side of the shack.
There was some scurrying inside and then silence before the edge of the makeshift door opened a crack. Half of Beelsha’s face could be seen.
“Yes?” the small man asked.
“I’d like to know if there have been any updates,” Misgana said.
Beelsha looked back toward the briefcase and then at Misgana. “I’ll check this evening and let you know.”
Misgana forced the door open farther so he could see the man fully. “This is important. I need to know exactly how far out in the wind our asses are hanging and if we are on our own or not.”
“If I use the antenna too much,” Beelsha whined, “they could triangulate the signal and jam it…or worse. They might send a missile, or a bomb.”
Misgana frowned. “I doubt they’re worrying about that right now. Besides, we’ll only be a minute.”
Indecision fought on the man’s face. Finally he nodded. “I’ll check and get back to you.”
“No need,” said Misgana forcing the door the rest of the way open and stepping into the small shack. “I’m here now, so let’s see if there is any response.”
Beelsha appeared on the verge of arguing further, only to decide against it. As he was setting up the computer and its link, he said without looking at Misgana. “You know it was her message. If there is any response, it should be her who reads it.”
“I’ll make sure she gets it,” said Misgana. “Besides, she wasn’t speaking for herself, but on behalf of all of us. There can be no secrets here. Not if we’re going to be able to trust each other and make it through this thing.”
The man nodded and kept working. After several minutes, he typed furiously into a keyboard. He then stared at the screen silently before turning to Misgana and spinning the laptop so he could see it.
Misgana looked at the scene and then back at Beelsha. “I don’t read English.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Beelsha typing on the keyboard more. When he turned the laptop toward him again, the writing was in the distinctive Amharic text.
Misgana read Husnia’s emotional appeal for help first, as it was at the top of the screen. He had to admit it was well composed and thoughtfully executed. It asked for help without begging, laying out their needs and the logic of each potential course of action.
“She writes well,” Misgana said softly to himself.
“Yes,” answered Beelsha simply.
The response was from “Markis” and read:
Husnia. Thank you for reaching out to us for help. I can appreciate your reluctance to do so until now, but we live in an increasingly interconnected world. Sadly, we also live in an increasingly polarized world. That world is divided between those who are Edens or tolerant of them, and those who want to persecute or destroy. We all find ourselves on one of those sides even though we may not have chosen.
You are not alone. There are many communities and many people like yourself and I am committed to helping all of them and helping you. Rest assured that we will do what we can to help. I believe you made the right decision to leave the internment camp. We have seen similar situations around the world and far too often the ultimate outcome is horrific. It is quite possible that by leaving that camp you saved your own life and the lives of those with you.
We will be sending help soon. Until then, hold out. We have embedded links to information on how to effectively ration food and make weapons. Remember above all that your greatest weapon is the Eden virus itself. Every time you manage to infect an opponent, it not only weakens those who want to destroy you, but gains you an ally.
May God be with you and bless you. We will be in touch.
“What does it say?” asked Jemmia startling both men.
“Ah, man,” said Beelsha. “Now a kid knows about this, it will be all over camp soon.”
Misgana turned from Jemmia to the small man. “You needed secrecy down in that camp to keep the soldiers from shutting you down. That is no longer a concern.”
“Yes,” he said, “but I don’t want everyone to know. Just like you, they’ll all be in here wanting to watch Baywatch or something, and the batteries are on their last legs.”
“Jemmia,” Misgana said turning to his daughter. “I need you to keep this a secret.”
“But why?” she asked.
“Because it’s important,” he insisted. “Can I trust you?”
She was silent for a long time. “I won’t tell anyone,” she finally said.
“Okay then,” he said. “Best go get Husnia.”
“Husnia?” asked Beelsha.
“Yeah,” Misgana answered. “Like you said, the message was to her. Besides, we need to compose a response, and it’s obvious she writes better than I do.”
Beelsha nodded in agreement. “Better than me too. I’ll go get –”
“I’ll go,” yelled Jemmia, darting out of the shack.
Misgana shouted for her to come back, but she was already gone, fleet and agile as the wind.
Skull came out of his light drowse as he felt the commercial plane begin to descend. Looking out the window, he saw smooth beaches and high-rise buildings as Tel Aviv came into view. Sighing, he pulled his seat up and prepared for the impending ordeal. Israel’s intense and competent security made it the sort of place where he could appreciate living, but not a place in which he liked to operate.
The plane’s wheels touched the runway smoothly and they taxied toward the terminal.
“Welcome to Tel Aviv International Airport,” said a voice over the intercom, and Skull blocked the rest out. He closed his eyes and relaxed, running over the details of his cover persona one last time, thinking this might be the last moment of peace he would see for a good while.
Soon, passengers filled the aisle, but Skull remained in his seat until most had disembarked. Then he stood, gathered his carry-on bag, and slipped into the flow of people. Exiting the plane, he immediately saw Israeli soldiers with Uzis standing ready and vigilant.
The lines through customs moved slowly as always. Skull forced himself to smile at the agent when he called, “Next.” He strode forward to hand the clerk his passport and declaration form. The man didn’t smile in return, only scanned the barcode of the passport before looking at the screen. He then glanced up at Skull to compare the photo, flipping through the pages of the passport.
“What is the purpose of your visit, Mister Carter?” the agent asked.
“Business,” answered Skull simply. He knew the agent was giving him an invitation to babble. Nervous people with something to hide often did that.
“And what is the nature of your business?” the man asked.
Skull pulled out a business card with a bright blue emblem. “I work for a consulting firm that locates software for computer companies. I’m going to check out several of the local IT labs here and see if they are willing to give us agreeable terms.”
The man already looked bored, which was the intent. “I see your virus card is up to date.”
“Yes,” answered Skull simply. The unstated assertion was that he had been tested for the Eden virus. Israel didn’t yet bar infectees, but anyone exiting a United States airport required tested before boarding. Those who tested positive were pulled from the flight and put into “quarantine”…a euphemism for a prison camp.
The agent flipped quickly through the passport again, looked at the declaration form, and then handed them both back to Skull along with the business card. “Enjoy your stay in Israel,” he said before looking behind Skull. “Next.”
Skull found the proper baggage carousel and retrieved his small suitcase. After a short taxi ride, he checked into the hotel, unpacked his bag, and took a shower. He got dressed and went downstairs to the restaurant for an excellent dinner alone.
By the time he finished his meal, it was dark outside. He exited the hotel and began walking toward the vibrant nightlife district adjacent to the seaport. Passing streets filled with outdoor cafes and restaurants where couples and friends shared drinks and food in the night’s ocean breeze, he wandered farther into the neighborhood. The cafes gave way to bars which soon gave way to clubs. Neon lights and loud rhythms told passersby the type of experience available inside.
He finally saw what he is looking for and cursed Cassandra. “Xstasy” looked like just the sort of place he loathed. There would be annoying and overloud music, an indifferently hidden drug culture and scantily clad youngsters who either sneered at him or wanted to start trouble because he didn’t fit in.
Skull sighed and walked toward the club.
The man at the front looked him up and down, but didn’t stop him. After all, business was business, and the place was far from packed. Skull entered and found it exactly as expected. It was early, so the music had not yet reached its eventual eardrum-bursting level. He walked to the bar and ordered a club soda. Looking at his watch, he saw he would have a short wait.
After fifteen minutes, a tall, thin African entered the club. He had distinctive Ethiopian features marred by the trendy facial scars. The man glanced around casually before taking a seat at the opposite end of the bar.
Skull picked up his drink and walked over. “You might want to order some hot tea. I heard it’s supposed to be cold tonight.”
The man turned and regarded Skull carefully before answering with the expected code phrase. “I actually prefer coffee and do not mind the cold.”
“Okay,” said Skull leaning in close. “Now that we both know we’re talking to the right person, can we please get the hell out of here?”
“My pleasure,” said the man with relief.
They soon found a nearby restaurant with a private booth near the back. Skull ordered a beer and the Ethiopian a glass of red wine.
“So you must be Denham,” said the man. “I heard something about the name ‘Skull’? What is this?”
“It’s what some call me,” he answered pointing a finger at his cadaverous face under the skin of his bald head. “Been with me a while.”
“I see,” said the man, taking a sip of his wine. “My name is Zinabu Besher. I am pleased to meet you.”
“So what’s your story?” asked Skull. “There a lot of Ethiopians in Israel?”
“Actually there are,” the man smiled. “Ethiopia and Israel share much tradition dating back to King Solomon. He took our queen to be one of his wives. Many Ethiopians are Falashas like me.”
“Falashas?” asked Skull.
“Ethiopian Jews,” Zinabu explained. “Many of us are sent to Israel’s universities if our families can afford it, and mine could. I was here studying engineering when the nukes started going off in America. Wasn’t long after that the Eden virus was everywhere and it became harder to cross borders.”
“Your family back in Ethiopia,” asked Skull. “Are they Edens?”
“Yes, every one of them. My sister was blind from birth. It is a miracle.”
“But you’re obviously not an Eden. Why not? And what’s with the facial scars?”
Zinabu touched them self-consciously. “They allow me to move freely into and out of my country. It is getting more and more difficult for Edens in this part of the world. People do not trust what they cannot understand or control. As with AIDS and Ebola before it, fear is often a greater enemy than sickness.”
“I see,” answered Skull. “And you’ve made this journey before?”
“Many times, although it is getting more difficult each time due to border security.”
“What about the Israelis? I’ve been told they’re supportive of what we’re trying to do.”
Zinabu nodded and looked around. “I was approached by someone. Mossad would be my guess, but I cannot prove it. He knew our mutual female friend and said he would be in touch. Gave me a location and time to pick up the gear and equipment she sent.”
“Where is it all now?”
“In my apartment,” Zinabu answered. “Had to take it all inside piece by piece so as not to arouse suspicion.”
“I’m surprised they didn’t offer to hold onto it for you.”
“They did,” Zinabu admitted, “but in my experience it is never good to leave people with valuable things once you have what you want from them. Anything can happen.”
“I can appreciate that,” Skull answered. “What about my personal gear? Did it make it?”
The man nodded taking another sip of wine. “It’s at the house of a friend of mine.”
“Don’t worry. He can be trusted. He is a Falasha, like me.”
Skull frowned. “I hope so. Did this Mossad contact of yours give you a location and time for pick-up?”
Zinabu nodded. “Tomorrow evening. We will need to get the equipment to an old airfield south of town. They will collect us there and fly us to Eritrea.”
Skull remembered this from Cassandra’s brief. “Have you crossed there before?”
“No. It is difficult terrain from my understanding, but you can say that for most of east Africa.”
Skull remembered his own experiences in the region and knew the man was right. It would be a long and difficult journey no matter what route they took. “I’d like to go see the gear she sent us.”
“All right,” said Zinabu, finishing the rest of his drink. “It is at my apartment, not too far to walk.”
Skull left money on the table, and then two men walked outside to the sound of music mixed with the rustle of ocean breezes through the trees.
Zinabu led the way. Skull stayed alert, but he didn’t see anyone watching or following them, although he admitted it would be difficult to tell for certain in the unfamiliar city.
They had just walked around a tight corner when a large white van pulled up beside them and its side door slid open, giving them no time to run. Skull had yet to acquire weapons, so he did nothing.
Several athletic men in suits stepped out of the vehicle. Skull could see pistols in shoulder holsters.
“Gentlemen,” said a man with gray hair and a dignified mustache. “We need you to come with us.”
“Where?” asked a startled Zinabu.
“Just to a place where we can talk.”
Zinabu took a step backward. “Let’s talk right here.”
Skull watched as the men circled them. He looked into the van and saw the driver wearing an earpiece. There appeared to be electronic listening gear inside the van. Glancing around, he noticed several passing civilians, but none paid them much attention. In their ever-vigilant security state, such events were fairly common.
“I don’t think the man is giving us a choice,” Skull said with a tight smile.
The leader of the security team grinned back at Skull. “Right you are. I apologize ahead of time for the inconvenience, but there is no reason we have to make any of this more uncomfortable than it has to be.”
Skull considered making a sudden run for it, but what would be the purpose? These men were likely Israeli Mossad, and for the mission to go forward he needed their help. Skull resigned himself to the situation, climbed up into the van and sat on one of the benches along the wall. After a brief delay, Zinabu followed.
The other men boarded and closed the sliding door behind them. The leader sat across from them.
“My name is Benjamin Ur’ion,” the man said. “All will be explained shortly, but we must insist on certain measures for your own safety.”
“What type of measures?” Zinabu asked.
“The usual measures, I imagine,” Skull said, looking at the tense men.
Those on either side placed handcuffs on the two men’s wrists, and then put hoods over their heads. Zinabu struggled at first, but the men held him down.
Skull sat still throughout the entire process. He could hear Zinabu breathing heavily in the dark hood beside him. “I thought Israel was supportive of what we are doing,” he said with frustration.
“I am afraid that is no longer the case,” answered Benjamin sadly.
Cassandra Johnstone had always been interested in the story of the Titanic and its final voyage. She had grown up imagining that she would find the site of the lost ship and was a little disappointed when she was beaten to the discovery.
Nevertheless, she was grateful someone had finally located the lost liner. She’d been to nearly every Titanic museum or display that existed and she knew much of the history by heart.
Today, the Queen Mary II ocean liner was billed as the finest passenger ship in the world, the flagship of Cunard Cruise Lines, the modern name for what had once been the White Star Line that launched the Titanic. Cassandra had always wanted to ride on the QM2, but had never had an opportunity. She’d assumed she and Zeke would do it one day after they both retired, but that had never happened and never would.
Now she’d finally made it onto the ship and it was courtesy of the hyper-paranoid governments of the world and their stance regarding the Eden virus. Cunard, like many cruise lines, had adopted the policy of not requiring virus testing in order to travel, leaving that to the governments at each port. Given that many of the commercial air travel hubs around the world required testing and subsequent quarantine of infectees, cruise ships were now a favorite among Edens.
Cassandra had boarded the ship in Panama City four days ago. She would sail another three days to Southampton, England, and then another twelve days on the ship into the Mediterranean where they would make a number of scenic stops…including Tel Aviv.
“Hell of a lot better way to travel,” she told herself, looking out the sliding glass doors onto the balcony of her suite, impressed in spite of herself. She had stayed in five star hotel rooms that were smaller.
There came a knock on her cabin door, and Cassandra walked over to answer it.
“Miss Joanne, do you need any ice or drinks before dinner?” asked her steward.
“No thank you, Raoul,” Cassandra answered. Cunard prided itself also on a high, almost obsequious level of service. On other ships, a steward might service twenty or twenty-five rooms. On the QM2, none of the stewards had more than eight rooms to look after.
As the man turned to walk away, Cassandra had a thought. “Raoul, what time is the concert tonight?”
“Miss Joanne,” he said with a smile and a strong Latin accent, “there are many shows tonight. The main show is at eight, but the ball is of course open with a full band.” He pointed to a piece of paper on her desk. “It is all right there if you would like to look.”
“Ah, I see,” she said, thanking him.
Closing the door, Cassandra opened her closet and laid a dark blue gown on her bed. Protocol required every evening meal in the QM2’s main dining room to be formal in order to maintain the allure and elegance of the ship, and presumably to deter boorish antics from some of the less well behaved, who could always hit the buffet or one of the fast food grills.
Cassandra appreciated the dress code. She put on the outfit, and the slightest bit of lipstick and rouge.
Exiting her room, she saw that she had nearly half an hour before her time to be seated. She made her way down to the lower passageways. These had round portholes set at the waterline to let in the maximum amount of light. Along the walls, tables had been set up with jigsaw puzzles in various degrees of completion, and numerous board games. Cassandra found puzzles relaxing, so she sat down to work on one to pass the time.
“Joanne, dear, you’ll be late for dinner,” said one of her usual tablemates as she walked down the hallway toward the dining room. Cassandra looked at her watch and realized she’d lost track of time.
“You can always finish that later,” the woman continued in a British accent, “unless someone beats you to it.” The beautiful brunette in her green dress and her husband in a tuxedo could have been models, they were so well matched and turned out. “You really should put some weight on, darling. How else do you hope to attract a man? Why don’t you let us escort you to dinner?”
Cassandra smiled and took the woman’s proffered arm. “Thank you, Gertrude.” She was starting to get used to rejuvenated people talking to her as if they were her grandparents. Most of the passengers probably were grandparents, given that Cunard catered to a mature, cultured, and wealthy clientele.
“Now Joanne,” said Gertrude, “we haven’t seen you in the ballroom very much, and when we do, you just sit and watch. That is not the way things are done, young lady.”
“Well,” said Cassandra, playing the vapid blonde, “I must admit that I never really learned to ballroom dance that well. When you mix in all the big band music it only speeds things up. As crowded as the dance floor gets, I’m sure I would just cause a big pile-up.”
“Oh, nonsense,” she said. “Harold here is an excellent dancer and would be happy to show you the ropes, wouldn’t you Harold?”
“Indeed I would,” he said nodding to her. “Ballroom dancing is a skill that every young lady should learn.”
When they arrived, the host led them to their assigned table. Harold held her chair, and then his wife’s. A waiter poured wine and water for them and started them off with soup and salad. The table normally sat six, but their tablemates were either running late or had chosen to take a less formal dinner option that evening.
“So where did you two first meet?” Cassandra asked.
The couple looked at each other cautiously before Gertrude answered. “Harold was a pilot during the war. He was stationed in England and got burned on a bad mission. I was a nurse at the time and helped put him back together.”
Cassandra stopped eating and looked at them. “Are we talking World War Two here?”
Gertrude looked away. “We’re a tad bit older than we look.”
“You have both aged exceptionally well,” said Cassandra with a wink.
“You’re obviously a smart girl,” said Gertrude. “I judge you know what we’ve done? What we...are?”
Cassandra held her hand out to the room filled with gorgeous twenty-somethings who were exquisitely dressed and mannered. “I think this ship is filled with people like you. As far as what you are, I don’t think you have anything to fear. I suffer from the same condition myself.”
Gertrude struck Harold on the shoulder. “I told you she was, didn’t I?”
“We like to be careful,” explained Harold. “You never know when you’re going to run across someone who feels strongly about Edens.”
Not all that careful, to be telling me, Cassandra thought, but kept her mouth shut.
The table got quiet as the waiters cleared away the earlier courses and refilled drinks.
“So,” asked Cassandra. “Do you have children and…grandchildren?”
Gertrude laughed. “Yes, and yes…and yes again. We have a son and a daughter. Both are married and have children of their own and the oldest granddaughter just gave birth this year so you can say we are great-grandparents now.”
“How do they all feel about...?” Cassandra waved her hands at their appearance.
Harold sighed. “Our daughter is holding up, but our son, not so well. He’s well past middle age now himself and has refused to take the Eden virus. Says it isn’t natural. Wants things to be like they have always been.”
“It really confuses the grandchildren at family gatherings,” laughed Gertrude.
Cassandra imagined that it did. She hadn’t really thought about families being divided over the Eden virus and how that might affect the established dynamics. What if one parent took the virus and another didn’t? To date, Cassandra only had experience with entire groups of people who were either Edens or not.
“What about you, dear?” asked Gertrude.
“A son and a daughter also,” Cassandra said with a smile.
“Where is your husband?” asked Harold.
Gertrude punched him again. “Harold! Don’t be so old-fashioned. These new-style women can choose to be married or not.”
“I’m a widow,” explained Cassandra. “Two...almost three years now.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Gertrude reaching out to pat Cassandra’s hand. “At least you have the children.”
Indeed, thought Cassandra remembering Rick’s miraculous recovery from muscular dystrophy. Although Cassandra would never admit it to a soul, she knew Zeke would have gladly given his life for the cure that saved his son, as she would have. Even after all that had happened, even at the cost of the love of her life, she thought that it had all been worth it.
The waiters arrived with the entrees. Cassandra ate every bite of a succulent slice of prime rib with new potatoes and asparagus. Her tablemates did the same. Unlimited food, Cassandra thought. Another reason cruises are favorites of Edens, especially if they are recovering from a disease or in the middle of growing young again.
After dinner, Cassandra said her farewells to Gertrude and Harold and promised to see them later at the ballroom. She wanted to take in the Broadway-style musical that was about to start in the auditorium.
She found herself an excellent seat in the crowded room. The lights lowered, the murmur of conversations faded, and the curtain raised to music from the pit under the stage. Cassandra found herself enthralled by the play, and was startled when nearly an hour into the show, it stopped abruptly and a man in a Cunard staff uniform came out on stage.
Once the audience grew quiet, Cassandra could hear the indistinct sound of announcements throughout the ship over the ship’s public address system.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I do apologize,” said the man on the stage. “We will start the show again shortly, but I regret to inform you that there has been a mishap.”
There were exclamations of concern.
The man held up his hands. “No need to be concerned. The lady will be fine, but the doctor believes she needs to be transported from the ship. Given that we have no helipad on the QM2, we have to resort to a hovering stretcher extraction. Be assured the crew practices exactly these sorts of scenarios and we do not foresee any complications.”
On a ship full of Edens, thought Cassandra, why would anyone need to be medically transported by air?
“There will be a British helicopter arriving soon,” the man continued. “For your own safety, we must insist that everyone remain belowdecks throughout the entire affair. The shows and entertainment will continue and we will make an announcement when you are allowed to go on deck again. Thank you for your understanding.”
The man walked off stage to polite applause as the lights lowered again and the musical resumed. Cassandra tried to get back into the story, but the helicopter medical evacuation explanation didn’t make sense to her. Something seemed out of place.
Cassandra got up during a break in the show and went back to her room. There, she changed out of her dress and into slacks, shirt, and sweater. From her balcony, she could hear the faint sound of a helicopter approaching.
She made her way steadily upward trying to look as casual as possible. Avoiding the crew, she finally found an unlatched door and slipped in behind a lifeboat onto the dark top deck. There, she hunched down and watched as the helicopter approached. A pair of Cunard crewmembers waited on the upper deck. There was no stretcher or patient to be seen, only several lights laid out in a pattern.
The blacked-out helicopter had British Marine markings on the side. It swooped in over the indicated location and a long thick rope popped from an open door in the side. Cassandra looked up to see a crew chief wave men forward.
A man in black fatigues, with a large backpack, slid down the rope before taking up a defensive position nearby. He held a stubby submachine gun. Three more similarly attired men followed the first. The fifth one out the door caused Cassandra to lean forward and stare in amazement.
“Geoffrey Rayburne,” she whispered. “I haven’t seen you since Moscow.” And what the hell is MI-6 doing here?
Cassandra nearly fell over as the sixth man hit the deck. The other five gathered around the last arrival and whisked him quickly away. Within seconds, the rope was pulled back up and the helicopter sped away. A Cunard crewmember on the deck unlocked the doors and spoke into a walkie-talkie before going down the stairs.
She could now safely leave, but Cassandra found herself frozen in shock. Could it really be him? The tall athletic build. The handsome face and commanding presence of a highly decorated former SAS commando.
There is no doubt, Cassandra thought. She had just watched Richard, Prince of Wales and heir to the throne of Britain, sneak onto the QM2.
* * *
By the time the ship’s PA system announced the medical emergency had passed, Cassandra had changed back into her formal gown and left her room. She made her way back to the auditorium to finish watching the play, but no longer paid attention to anything on the stage.
After the performance, she made her way toward the Grand Apartment accommodations at the front of the ship, which was typically reserved for dignitaries, high rollers…and royalty. They were previously unoccupied, Cassandra knew, for she had checked them as well as every other portion of the ship she could surreptitiously gain access to, mostly to keep herself busy and practice her tradecraft.
She found the hallway blocked off by a velvet rope. A sign dangled from it that read, “Maintenance – Please Do Not Cross.”
Cassandra considered crossing anyway and playing the dumb, lost, or drunk blonde card, but she saw a Cunard employee down the hallway speaking into a walkie-talkie, so she retreated. She considered going to the ballroom to meet Gertrude and Harold, though she was too keyed up to enjoy dancing. True to her routine, she made her way to the cigar lounge at the top of the ship near the grand library.
Cassandra had become fond of cigars in the past year, and the cigar lounge on the QM2 was one of the few places where she could easily find solitude or conversation, depending on her particular desires. Once there, she asked the bartender to pour her a cognac and select a nice Cuban. The man spent a good deal of time looking over the cigars and back at her as if he were sizing her for a dress before proudly producing a cigar, which he held out to her in both hands.
“For you,” he said, “I think Cohiba is best. I would not want to lead you astray.”
She didn’t have the heart to tell him she had smoked many Cohibas before, but they were always a favorite so she accepted the cigar and drink gratefully. The bartender clipped and lit the stogie for her and she walked into the smoking lounge.
Thankfully, Cassandra found it deserted. She sat in a plush leather armchair surrounded by barrister bookcases filled with leather-bound tomes. A small fire in the corner provided just enough light and heat for the proper ambiance. On the inboard side, a pianist lightly and softly played a baby grand. Cassandra looked out the high windows at the fleeing Atlantic, took a draw on the cigar, and felt the tension flow out of her.
Her smoke and drink were half gone when a man in an impeccable Savile Row suit walked in with a glass of Scotch and lit a cigar of his own. He sat down in a leather chair across from her and smiled.
“Why, hello, Cassandra,” he says. “What a pleasant surprise.”
“Geoffrey Rayburne,” Cassandra replied without emotion. “I really can’t say the same, you slimy son of a bitch.”
Skull and Zinabu rode in the back of the Mossad’s van for several hours before it came to a stop. They were both led out of the vehicle and into what Skull judged to be, by the sound of the echoes, a large open building.
Early on, he’d chewed tiny holes in his hood, enough to see out of when he managed to get the cloth positioned correctly. It was a trick he’d been taught in his survival, evasion, resistance and escape, or SERE, course so long ago. Using the pinpricks, he could see walls and carpet from time to time and he could sense changes in heat and light. The Mossad had brought them into an air-conditioned building, with hallways and smaller rooms.
The two bound men were guided to sit in chairs, and then their handcuffs were removed, and immediately afterward, their hoods. Skull squinted in the sudden light and, once his eyes adjusted, was able to see they were in a small room. The walls were bare white and the lights brightly fluorescent. Skull and Zinabu sat in metal chairs across a table from a seated Benjamin. The two men who had uncuffed them stood along the walls.
“Is this the beginning of the famed Mossad interrogation?” Skull asked.
Benjamin shook his head. “There is no need to interrogate you. We already know what we need to know.”
Skull noticed his luggage in the corner. It had obviously been thoroughly searched and not repacked very nicely. Another pile that Skull presumed was Zinabu’s lay in the opposite corner. He pointed toward his luggage. “A shakedown perhaps? I hear budget cuts are a bitch. I applaud your outside-the box-thinking to raise funds. Sorry I’m not carrying any Krugerrands.”
“You know we haven’t brought you here to rob you,” Benjamin said.
“Then what?” asked Zinabu. “Everything was arranged. Why this kidnap and bag-over-the-head bullshit?”
“Because we needed to control the situation, for your safety and ours,” Benjamin explained. “Trust me when I tell you that we mean neither of you any harm.”
“What situation?” asked Skull softly. “I’m starting to get the feeling that someone involved in this operation is going back on their agreement.”
Benjamin appeared uncomfortable. “Look, chaps, Israel is hanging by a hair every second of its existence. We lose a single battle and we cease to exist. Our nation is surrounded by enemies that want nothing more than to destroy us and wipe our people from the face of the Earth.”
“Isn’t that the way it has always been?” asked Skull. “And what does that have to do with us being here today?”
“It seems that some in the Mossad agreed to this operation without the full informed consent of their superiors,” Benjamin explained. “Our government is close to a deal with Cairo, where the North African Islamic Caliphate will acknowledge Israel’s right to exist…in exchange for certain concessions.”
“You’re giving up the Edens,” Zinabu said in horror.
Benjamin shook his head. “Not exactly. We aren’t giving anyone up, but we will refuse to grant them asylum if they come from Caliphate-controlled territory. In return for that, we get peace on one flank and can focus on other areas.”
“A deal with devil is what it sounds like to me,” said Skull.
Benjamin looked at him hard. “I would hazard to guess you would be the expert on bargains like that, Mister Denham. You have quite the history yourself.”
Skull set his teeth and stared Benjamin down. Neither man would look away.
“How does all of this affect our mission in Ethiopia?” asked Zinabu, breaking the spell.
“It’s off,” answered Benjamin, using the excuse to move his eyes. “The Mossad has to get you all out of here before anyone in the Israeli government knows we have you.”
“Because they’d be pretty pissed if they found out,” said Skull.
Zinabu leaned forward, a pained look on his face. “Just let us go. We’ll leave the country and no one will be the wiser. Those people need our help. We’ll just take our gear and get out.”
“I’m afraid your equipment has been confiscated,” Benjamin said. “Your personal belongings will, of course, be returned to you, but the rest we have impounded.”
Skull smirked. “I guess it’s a shakedown after all. Seems like the Germans used the same techniques on your people back in World War Two.”
“You two will be on flights back to your countries of origin today,” Benjamin said, ignoring the jab. “My men will escort you.”
“And you need us to play along and not make too big of a scene,” Skull said. “You can’t arrest us publicly because then there would be too much scrutiny.”
“We have places to disappear you, if we really wanted to,” Benjamin said with a hint of menace in his voice.
Skull shook his head. “Nope. You’d have already done that if it were an easy option. I suspect you don’t want to piss off the Free Communities...sorry, piss them off any further than you already have. Have you ever met Spooky Nguyen? Unlike me, he’s not really a nice guy.”
Benjamin looked pained again. “We were hoping you would be willing to carry back a message for me. Explain the situation and the fact that it was not my call. I regret that it turned out this way and hope we can still cooperate in the future.”
“This can’t be happening,” said Zinabu. “Do you understand that there are ten thousand innocent men, women, and children who will be slaughtered if we can’t go forward? Don’t you know they are waiting for our help?”
“I am sorry,” said Benjamin sadly, “but thousands of people die every day in this world. I’m not killing them. I’m not saying you can’t help them. I’m only telling you that Israel can’t become involved – or even seem to be. That’s why you have to go home in full view of the spies who are undoubtedly watching.”
Skull thought quickly. He remembered his conversation with Cassandra and the promises he had made to her. He also knew this was a dangerous mission even with the Israeli support. How much more would his chances diminish without their help?
“Hey, I figure I get paid either way,” said Skull with a false smile. “Works out as a win for me.” He reached across the table and offered his hand to Benjamin. “No hard feelings. I understand it’s just business and politics.”
Benjamin broke into a cautious smile and returned the handshake. “I’m glad you understand.”
Zinabu was looking at Skull in amazement. “Are you serious?”
Skull ignored him and spoke again to Benjamin. “It would go a long way toward putting this in the past if my flight home were first class. It is a long trip.”
Benjamin looked at one of the men behind Skull and nodded. He turned back to them both. “I think that can be arranged.”
“Maybe a decent meal before we get to the airport?” Skull asked.
“Let’s not push it,” said Benjamin. “We’ve got rooms here for you two to rest in before you leave. Dinner and breakfast will be brought to you. Then we’ll take you to the airport. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to eat well on your first class flight.”
“Sounds good to me,” said Skull stifling a yawn. “It’s my bedtime, actually.”
“Yes, mine too,” said Benjamin said drily. “My men will show you to your accommodations. They will also deliver your belongings to you there. Don’t hesitate to let them know if you need anything.”
“Will do,” said Skull standing. “I won’t say it’s been a pleasure, but it could have been worse.”
“Glad you understand,” said Benjamin.
“This can’t be happening,” said Zinabu, looking like he was waking from a dream.
Skull clapped him on the back and winked. “Just roll with it, partner. Everything will work out. Trust me.”
* * *
Their overnight stay had been uneventful. Skull had diligently examined every possible escape route, but the Mossad had the small hotel covered like the proverbial blanket, with at least a dozen men on duty at all times. Their rooms were bugged as well. He found cameras and audio pickups, but left them alone.
The next morning the two men were driven without hoods or handcuffs to the airport in a large black SUV. Four Mossad agents accompanied them and Skull did his best to chat them up learning their names and a little about them. A couple of the men laughed or smiled at his jokes and stories. When they pulled up to the curb, the minders took their luggage and walked with them into Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport.
“Let’s get you guys checked in,” said the agent named Saul, the one with a scar down the side of his face. He appeared to be in charge of the detail.
“They got a restroom around here?” Skull asked. “I had like nine cups of coffee this morning and I really need to go.”
Saul shrugged and nodded, detailing two of the agents to go with Skull.
Skull walked to a nearby bathroom with a Mossad man at each shoulder. As they entered the large airport bathroom, one of the guards remained outside at the door while the other came with Skull.
The restroom happened to be crowded. Men waited in line and the Mossad agent remained awkwardly behind Skull. When it was Skull’s turn to use the urinal, he let out a long, satisfied groan of pleasure. “Ah, that feels good. Wasn’t sure I was going to be able to hold it any longer.”
His minder said nothing.
Skull zipped up his pants and turned to his chaperone. He pointed at the urinal. “Damn, look at that. I’m pissing red!”
When the agent turned to look, Skull elbowed him hard in the face. He felt the man’s nose disintegrate in a spray of blood and he fell back heavily. Bystanders stepped away in shock, not sure what was going on.
Skull quickly went through the unconscious man’s pockets and pulled out his wallet, radio, and pistol. At the sight of the gun, men drew back farther, looking at him suspiciously.
“There’s a bomb in here!” yelled Skull suddenly, waving the pistol around. Men began rushing out the door, shoving and pushing each other. Some glanced back at him fearfully. A few had a look on their faces as if they were considering trying to tackle Skull. At these, he simply pointed his pistol and waved them on.
Skull waited behind the door as they departed. When the second Mossad agent burst in, Skull hit him over the back of the head with the pistol. The man collapsed in a heap on the floor. Retrieving the agent’s pistol, wallet and radio, he secreted these items on his person and slipped out of the bathroom.
Jogging up to Zinabu and the other two agents, Skull kept looking back over his shoulder.
“Where are Moshe and Sam?” Saul asked.
“I don’t know,” said Skull. “I was in the bathroom and then this Arab-looking guy started waving a gun around and talking about how he had a bomb. I ran out of there like everyone else.”
Saul turned to the other agent. “Get these two into a secure area. Don’t let them out of your sight until I get back.” He sprinted toward the bathroom, drawing his weapon and taking out his I.D.
“Let’s go,” said the remaining agent, pointing in the opposite direction.
“Come on,” said Skull to Zinabu, grabbing their bags. “Let’s go. Hurry.”
They ran down a long hallway. When Skull looked around and didn’t see anyone else nearby, he swung his duffle bag and caught the running agent’s feet. The man tripped and went sprawling to the ground. Skull kicked at his head, but missed, so he jumped on the Mossad man’s back, wrapping his legs around his waist and an arm around his neck.
The muscular agent fought and rolled Skull over onto his back, but Skull knew what he was doing, and had taken his victim by surprise. The man couldn’t dislodge him as he worked his chokehold deeper and deeper into the neck.
The agent fought fiercely as the blood supply to his brain was interrupted, but it was no use. Force Recon had used Brazilian Jujitsu as the basis for its hand-to-hand combatives program, and Skull had practiced these grappling techniques to perfection. Within seconds, the man had gone limp.
“Quick,” Skull said to Zinabu. “Help me tie him up. He’ll come to in a few minutes.”
Zinabu just stood there, looking at him in surprise. “What are you doing?”
Skull stood and glared at the other man. “Do you want to go to Ethiopia to help these Edens of yours or not?”
A slow grin spread across Zinabu’s face. He darted forward and pulled the agent’s shoes off and then removed the laces, using them to tie the man’s hands tightly behind his back.
“Grab his wallet too,” said Skull.
“Why?” Zinabu asked.
“We’re going to need the money,” said Skull. “Besides, maybe I can pass for one of these guys down the road. We can always toss anything we don’t need.”
Zinabu nodded and took the man’s wallet.
“Pistol too,” said Skull.
The Ethiopian hesitated only a moment before pulling out the agent’s handgun and stuffing it into the back of his pants.
“Now let’s go,” said Skull picking up his bags. Zinabu did the same, and they did their best to walk inconspicuously toward the exits. There were security personnel running around the airport, but so far no one had locked down the egress points.
Skull led them past two Israeli Army soldiers with assault rifles at the ready. They looked briefly at the two men, and then glanced past them to examine others. Skull flagged the first taxi he saw, and they tossed their bags into the trunk and hopped in the cab.
“Where to?” the drive asked.
“Take us downtown for now,” Skull answered. “My friend and I just arrived and would like to see a little of the city. Is it okay if you drive us around and give us a tour?”
The man nodded enthusiastically, sensing a fat and easy fare. “You bet! I’ll show you the best sites.”
Skull leaned over to Zinabu and murmured in his ear. “That’s pretty much as far as my plan takes us. If you have any way to get us to Ethiopia, now is the time to make it happen.”
Zinabu nodded and pulled his cell phone out of his bag.
Skull put his hands over the phone before Zinabu could dial. He pulled the largest bill he could find out of the first agent’s wallet and then leaned up toward the cab driver. “Say, you don’t have a cell phone we could use, do you?” Skull held up the bill. “Ours are dead and we just need to call a friend and let him know we’re in town. Won’t take but a minute.”
The cabby looked like he was on the verge of telling them no when his eyes caught sight of the bill Skull was holding up. He snatched the money out of Skull’s hand and passed back his phone.
Nodding his thanks, Skull handed the phone to Zinabu, who took the phone and started dialing.
The taxi finally let them out twenty miles south of Tel Aviv at a small roadside restaurant. They explained to the driver that their friend would meet them and take them to his house. Skull paid the driver handsomely and he drove away happy. They both had breakfast inside while they waited.
“How much do you trust this guy?” Skull asked, looking out the window.
“He is a Falasha, like me,” Zinabu explained as if that answered all questions about trustworthiness.
Skull sighed and finished his potato, egg and cheese breakfast.
After nearly an hour, a battered gray van with bald tires pulled up in front of the restaurant in a plume of dust. Zinabu jumped up and ran outside. A tall, lean Ethiopian stepped out of the driver’s seat and gave Zinabu a hearty hug. The two chattered and laughed.
Skull walked outside toward them as Zinabu turned his way.
“This is Kollia,” Zinabu said. “He will be driving us south to the port of Elat where we can get passage to Africa.” He pointed at Skull, “This is my friend, Alan.”
Skull shook hands with Kollia and looked at the van. “No offense, but are you sure we’ll be able to make it in this thing?”
“Sure,” said Kollia, “we will be fine. My little van will never let me down.”
“Until it does,” said Skull, “and then we’re stranded in the desert.”
“Have a little faith,” said Zinabu. He then leaned down to speak in Skull’s ear. “Besides, we have no other options.”
Skull nodded and smiled. He went back inside to pay their bill and retrieve their luggage, which he then loaded into the rear of the van. He noted several large bags and crates in the back.
Kollia saw him looking. “If we are going to be driving all the way to Elat, I might as well make some transport money on the way.”
“Is that what you do?” asked Skull. “You make money transporting things in your van?”
“That’s one thing I do,” Kollia answered. “Shall we be on our way?”
They loaded up and began driving south toward the Gulf of Aqaba, which led into the Red Sea. The van smelled of exhaust and sounded like a toolbox crashing down a flight of concrete stairs when it ran, but it never broke down. Skull got tired of watching the road and telling Kollia to slow down and look out for oncoming traffic or donkeys in the road.
The Ethiopians in the front laughed and talked and paid neither Skull nor the road in front of them much attention.
Skull soon learned that Zinabu and Kollia were cousins from the same clan. Kollia was also an Eden, and extremely proud of that fact. He never ceased in giving both Zinabu and Skull grief about, in his eyes, their inferiority.
“Oh, I see you cut your finger, Alan,” Kollia would say. “It is too bad you are not like me. I do not have to worry about such minor things.”
By the end of the trip Skull was ready to kill him. When they finally reached the port of Elat, he was nearly vibrating with eagerness to get out of the smelly van.
“How are we going to find passage?” Skull asked Zinabu.
“Leave that to us. Kollia has a friend who owns a boat. He can help us.”
“Can he be trusted?”
“Of course. He is Falasha, like us.”
Skull groaned and began unloading their gear while the two Ethiopians walked toward the line of boats. Seagulls circled and whirled, waiting for the fishermen to toss aside the entrails of their cleaned catch. Skirling African music played somewhere in the distance. A gentle breeze blew in off the sea and kept the heat at bay.
The two Falashas strolled up to Skull from the harbor. Their mood did not look as festive as it had before.
“Problems?” Skull asked.
“No,” answered Zinabu. “But he will not take us all the way to Africa, only to Jiddah.”
“Saudi Arabia?” asked Skull. “Do I need to tell you that puts us on the wrong side of the Red Sea?”
“We’ll be able to get passage from there,” Zinabu explained. “It shouldn’t be too much trouble.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier for him to just take us to the African coast?”
“He’s afraid of the Caliphate,” explained Kollia. “Their ships now patrol along the Egyptian and Sudanese coastlines. The ship captain is an Eden and a Jew so if they catch him it will not be good for him.”
“Or us,” said Zinabu.
“Okay,” said Skull. “At least it gets us out of Israel. I’m more concerned about the Mossad finding us, so maybe we should go ahead and be on our way.”
The Ethiopians nodded their agreement, and Skull and Zinabu grabbed their bags. Kollia pulled out a large rolling case and followed them.
“You going with us?” Skull asks.
Kollia shook his head. “No. This is for you.”
“What?” asked Skull.
“Yes,” said Zinabu. “Remember, I told you that your personal gear was stored at my friend’s house because I didn’t have room for it.”
Skull pushed them aside and pulled keys out of his pocket. They fit the padlocks perfectly. He opened the case to stare down at an impressive array of weapons and equipment. Reaching out, he touched the stock of his venerable Barrett sniper rifle, running his fingertips over the many notches there. Then he closed and locked the case and stood, smiling.
He felt better about this mission already.
Spooky Nguyen rode in the back of an armored luxury sedan through the crowded streets of Bogotá, Colombia. He noted the squalor and dirtiness of the slums, much like the ones he knew so well in Viet Nam, Laos and Thailand. Yet there was something different here. Something off.
The playing children were the giveaway. They were still thin and dirty, but they looked healthy. They also didn’t look scared. None of the people on the street seemed afraid. Bogotá had once been among the most violent and dangerous cities on Earth. Now, it was a place where children played outside without supervision. Some would call it a mystery, but Spooky knew the answer.
The Eden virus.
Colombia had been one of the first countries to accept Edens and the virus they carried. Although still technically a minority in the country, they were disproportionately represented among the poorer classes. Many of the rich of Colombia refused the virus, but it was growing in popularity among the middle class and the young.
It’s only a matter of time, Spooky thought. What would my childhood have been like on streets like these instead of in my beloved highlands?
Food was still a major concern, and Markis’ people had been working with the government to improve production. Much of their efforts involved convincing or forcing coca growers to switch their fields to more legitimate crops. Such changes were not terribly popular with the still-influential and powerful drug cartels.
Spooky had also learned that Cassandra Johnstone was providing the government intelligence on the cartels to help them in their fight to eradicate drug production in the country. He didn’t like the fact that her activities were moving farther and farther from his control, but he admired how she had carved out a power base for herself in the nascent Free Communities government.
Until recently, Spooky hadn’t considered her a rival, for his focus had been on covert actions to rescue Edens and recruit them to Markis’ cause, but Cassandra warranted careful watching.
The sedan pulled through the guarded gate of Spooky’s private airfield. Cargo planes and helicopters waited in the humid air or under protective tarps. His driver steered across the two runways and then into a giant hanger. Spooky waited until the doors lowered behind him before he stepped out of the vehicle.
Nearly fifty sets of eyes turned toward him. Most were men, but there were a few women in the group. Some faces openly expressed derision at his appearance and he marked them for later consideration. They likely only saw the small, unassuming Asian man. That perception had allowed Spooky to accumulate power from those who underestimated him.
The makeup of the group was intentionally varied. Spooky had chosen them himself from lists and dossiers compiled by others. Most were Edens who had volunteered for a special team with a vague mission. Among them were former military personnel from various countries. Some were non-Edens. There were even a few inmates with special skills collected from Colombia’s prisons, people that Spooky had freed with his influence, his money, or both.
His eyes sought out a few wild cards he had intentionally slipped into the deck. Some called them psychos, but Spooky didn’t like the term. Early on, he’d realized that Edens varied far more widely in their psychology than the masses thought. While most believed the virus changed everyone into moral paragons, the truth was that the “virtue effect” was a matter of enhancing the conscience.
For those with no conscience, though…multiplying by zero had little effect.
People who carried the virus without its concomitant compunctions might be extremely useful, if carefully handled. It was all just a matter of ensuring the psychos knew where their interests lay.
Spooky walked forward to stand in front of them, his hands clasped behind his back. “All of you have come here today because you recognize we live in a new world. A world that hangs delicately balanced between order and chaos. Most of us have devoted our lives to ensuring order and recognize chaos as the evil that it is.”
That’s why I can never fully rely on Skull, thought Spooky with sudden insight. External confusion doesn’t bother him. He carries his own order within himself and floats among the chaos without concern.
“Order is what allows us and our children to sleep at night,” continued Spooky. “Order is what allows everyone to eat and not starve. Order is the intangible element that prevents all of us and our families from being raped, tortured, and murdered the minute we walk out of our doors each and every morning. It’s the order Daniel Markis and I have worked hard to bring to this corner of the world. But that order is being threatened.”
Spooky started pacing in front of them, trying to make eye contact with each. He remembered there had been a time not too far in the past when he found it difficult to even speak coherently to people. Now, with the clarity brought by the Eden virus, he knew he had become a mesmerizing and charismatic presence.
“We are the guardians. People in this world fall into three groups: wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs. Do the sheep recognize the benefit of the sheepdogs? Do they appreciate getting nipped in order to avoid straying? Of course they do not; the sheep often think anything with teeth is a threat, and would draw his fangs if they could. But the sheepdog does his duty regardless. He does it because he recognizes the evil of the wolf and the flawed and naïve goodness of the sheep. We are the sheepdogs, ladies and gentlemen. We are the defenders of order.”
Spooky ceased pacing and placed his hands behind his back again. He remained silent for nearly a minute looking at them. Mentally he marked those who shuffled or whispered a joke to those near them.
“The world around us is on fire,” he said. “You may not recognize it, but it is true. Those small wisps of smoke belie a raging inferno that can sweep over everything we hold dear. We are here to stop that in whatever way we can. If that is not why you came here, if that is not what you believe you were made to do, then I invite you to save us both much trouble and depart. There is no shame in it. I am sure all of you are good people, otherwise you would not be here, but if you’re not a sheepdog, get the hell out of my kennel.”
No one moved. Some shuffled and looked around at each other.
“You sure?” Spooky asked. “Last chance. When you’re bleeding and in pain and wish you were somewhere else, do not forget this moment. You’re all here because you want to be. I admire that, but I’ll admire it much more when you have made it through the testing and evaluation process.”
“Testing and evaluation?” said a large muscled man up front. “I think I’ve been through enough of that. Why don’t you just tell us what you want done and let us do it?”
Spooky walked up close to the man, who towered over him by nearly a foot and a half and outweighed him by over a hundred pounds of solid muscle.
“Mister Ronald Sievers, is it not?” asked Spooky.
The man frowned. “Sergeant Major Ronald Sievers. Retired. Twenty-six years, Special Forces and Delta.”
“I see,” said Spooky. “And a man like you does not see the benefits of an elimination process in order to select the right members for a particular team?”
“Maybe for some in here,” said Sievers looking around, “but my record speaks for itself. I don’t need to be tested or evaluated. Just give me a team and I’ll get the job done.”
“I think you are under some misapprehensions,” said Spooky.
“Oh, really?” replied the big man, leaning over Spooky in an intentionally intimidating manner.
“Yes,” smiled Spooky. “You will never be the leader of the team I assemble.”
“Now, wait just a damn minute,” Sievers said. “You show me one person in here with a better record than me and I’ll –”
“Also,” interrupted Spooky, “you seem to believe the testing and evaluation process is happening in the future.”
“Excuse me?” said Sievers.
Spooky reached up and grabbed the big man’s sleeve by the wrist and pulled. At the same time he slipped his right hip under the man’s waist. In a split second, his opponent lay on the floor.
Without hesitation, Spooky placed one foot on the side of the man’s face and pulled up on the arm. When it was fully extended, he brought his elbow down forcefully on the reverse side of Sievers’ elbow. A loud pop filled the room and the man screamed.
Letting go, Spooky stepped back. “Mister Sievers, testing and evaluation has already begun. You have the distinct honor of being the first candidate eliminated. I thank you for your effort, and for showing up today. Feel free to reapply for the regular Free Community Armed Forces…when they are formed.”
Two men from Spooky’s staff came over and escorted a staggering Sievers out of the hangar. The room stayed dead silent and the others there watched the departing fellow with surprise, fear, and even some disgust.
It’s not like he won’t be fully healed in an hour, thought Spooky. The man simply didn’t have the right temperament. He was unreasonably impressed by his own record. One can’t lead if one doesn’t know how to follow. How unfortunate.
Spooky raised his voice again. “I would now like to introduce to you to your chief instructor.”
An athletic woman in Marine Corps style fatigues walked forward to stand beside Spooky, her eyes intense. “Let me introduce to you Staff Sergeant Jill Repeth. For good reason, her call sign is Reaper. She’s already performed several missions for us, and she will not only be your trainer, but your operational team leader...for those who make the grade. She will evaluate you in the next few weeks, and she’ll decide who’s in and who’s out. Her word is law. If you have any problem with that, there’s the door.” He pointed at the exit in the back.
When no one took the offer, Reaper nodded, looking over the formation.
Spooky turned to her. “They’re all yours.”
“Oh, yes, they are,” said Reaper with a smile.
Cassandra and Geoffrey stared at each other without speaking for several moments. “That was quite an entrance,” Cassandra finally said. “Too bad no one saw it.”
Geoffrey frowned and took a puff of smoke in his mouth before exhaling grandly. “But you did. That was enough.”
“Why are you here?” she asked. “Don’t insult me by saying it’s coincidence. More importantly, why is he here?”
The man looked away and fiddled with his cigar before speaking. “You know things aren’t going so well in America.”
Cassandra snorted, and then sipped. “Why do you think I left?”
“The Unionists are gathering more power and influence,” Geoffrey continued. “They’re pushing the Red-Blue coalition to use federal troops to pacify Texas.”
“They’re already finding themselves in more of a fight than they expected,” said Cassandra.
Geoffrey nodded. “That’s all to the good, I believe. Texans are not known for being faint of heart, but that’s not really the point, is it? The United States Navy will blockade the Gulf Coast ports. Mexico and the U.S. have reached an agreement to close the border from both sides to everyone but official travelers. Even now, the United Nations is working on a resolution to condemn the rebellion and instruct none of its members to support Texas.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Once Texas has been dealt with,” continued Geoffrey as if she hadn’t spoken, “they will crush the separatists in Alaska. That will take even less time and effort, notwithstanding the logistical challenges. I have it on good authority that Canada will not contest passage of the U. S. military by land or through its territorial waters.”
“You make it sound like neither has a chance at all,” said Cassandra.
“My dear girl,” said Geoffrey with a sad smile, “they don’t.”
Cassandra had never really liked this man, and she was beginning to let that distaste make her argumentative. She forced herself to relax, to be objective. “Some might disagree with you. Rebellions have succeeded before in the face of great odds. The original Thirteen Colonies come to mind.”
Geoffrey laughed. “I hope they win, but they won’t. They don’t have the might or the allies. They are surrounded and cut off. The beginning of hostilities will actually be the endgame. The best they will be able to do is preserve a simmering insurgency, to take the Long War view.”
“And then what?”
“Exactly,” said Geoffrey leaning forward intently. “That is the question everyone is wrestling with. If the federal government wins handily, the Unionists will gain even more credibility, as they are the backers of the hardline policies. More Democrats and Republicans will defect. I for one believe that a Unionist-controlled United States will then turn to eliminate any other threat it sees, real or imaginary.”
“Are you afraid Great Britain might fall into those crosshairs?” asked Cassandra.
“No,” answered Geoffrey, his face turning deadly serious. “I’m concerned the whole world will fall in their crosshairs. And the United States isn’t the only worry. Both China and Russia are now controlled by new governments that are paranoid, powerful, and suffering from inferiority complexes. Those are not the ingredients for stability.”
“Is that why the European Union is trying to remain neutral?” Cassandra asked. “So you can pick the winning horse at the finish line?”
“We’re neutral so we don’t get destroyed,” said Geoffrey. “This is not about winning; it’s about surviving. If we declare openly for anyone, we become the target of their rivals. And then, of course, there are the Free Communities.”
“What about the Free Communities?” asked Cassandra.
Geoffrey frowned. “They might be the most dangerous regime of them all.”
“Oh, come now,” said Cassandra in disgust, mocking the Brit’s highbrow manner. “You’re just trying to bait me.”
Geoffrey shook his head. “I know you don’t like me and I never really cared, but I don’t have time for games now. Britain has endured for a millennium, but the days ahead are darker than any since the Nazis almost brought us to our knees. Your Eden virus has done wonders for the world and helped millions, but it has also overturned stability and established power structures.”
“To hell with them,” said Cassandra. “They’re dinosaurs.”
“Dying dinosaurs can do a lot of damage before they finally fall to the earth. Don’t get me wrong; I feel similarly,” said Geoffrey. “But ‘to hell with them’ won’t stop them from dragging us all down together.”
“People have been saying things like that for thousands of years,” said Cassandra. “The world will remake itself and go on. Look at the atom bomb, the Cold War, and then the fall of the Iron Curtain. No worldwide disasters, no wars between superpowers, no widespread nuclear strikes. Fears are always overblown.”
Geoffrey sighed and flopped back in his chair. He sat and smoked for several seconds. “Let’s put the big picture aside for a moment then, since we can’t agree, and talk about some little things. Israel has gone back on its agreement with you regarding your little rescue operation. I’m sure you’ll hear about it soon.”
“What?” asked Cassandra, sitting forward. “How can you know that?”
Geoffrey gave her a condescending look. “Please.”
“But why?” she asked. “We had an agreement that benefitted both sides.”
“It seems you had an agreement with Mossad,” Geoffrey said. “They conveniently forgot to clear it with their political masters – which usually works out fine. But when they found out about the impending deal with the Caliphate, they concluded the operation was too risky. They’re out. You know how this works. It’s nothing personal. The winds of politics would break a weathervane.”
“Let’s assume I believe you know what you’re talking about. What about Kenya? Are they still willing to provide asylum if we can get the Edens there?”
“I’m afraid not,” said Geoffrey. “The Israelis convinced them to pull out also. They’re afraid that if things go badly, Kenya might mention their previous involvement. From Israel’s point of view, it’s safest to simply pull the plug on the whole thing.”
Cassandra held her hands together tightly on the cognac glass to prevent them from trembling with anger. “You didn’t come here just to tell me that…not with a royal along.”
“No,” answered Geoffrey. “That was simply a courtesy between old friends who happened to bump into each other. My real reason for being here is much simpler...we want all the data you have on the Eden virus. Everything Elise Markis’ team has found out.”
It took Cassandra nearly five seconds to start laughing. “And just why would we do that? I know we’re friends and all, but you can appreciate why we’d be concerned with someone using our research for nefarious purposes.”
“Have you ever heard of Doctor Philip Stanley?” Geoffrey asked.
Cassandra shook her head.
“He’s one of the foremost microbiologists in the world,” Geoffrey explained. “He and his family are Edens, and he’s been researching the virus for us from the first. He believes he’s close to engineering a strain that doesn’t require a massive and sudden influx of calories in order to heal the host.”
“Then why do you need our research?” asked Cassandra.
“Because he is close,” Geoffrey explained, “but he believes he’s missing something. Helping him complete his research would aid your cause by removing one of the objections to the infection – and easing the Free Communities’ food shortages as well.”
Cassandra sat thinking for a few minutes. Eliminating the high calorie consumption would have incredible benefits to the Edens. It would also prevent many hardships and suffering. She knew Elise was working on the problem, but had no detailed knowledge of how close she and her team were.
“I can agree tentatively, subject to Markis’ say-so, of course,” said Cassandra finally, “but under certain conditions.”
“Which are?” asked Geoffrey.
“I’ll recommend Doctor Stanley will come to our research facility,” said Cassandra. “He can bring his family if he wants, but the research will be conducted in our laboratories, not in yours.”
“Working directly with Elise Markis?” Geoffrey asked.
“Yes,” Cassandra answered. “Is that a problem?”
“Quite the contrary,” said Geoffrey. “I understand she was one of the scientists that helped develop the virus in the first place, so who better?”
“She does have a great deal of first-hand experience, and is brilliant in her own right.” She didn’t bother to contradict the man’s impression of how the Eden Plague had been created and Elise’ nonexistent role in its original development.
Geoffrey smiled. “Okay. Sounds like a deal. We’ll work out the details soon.”
“I understand how important the research is,” said Cassandra, “but don’t you think this was quite an elaborate entry simply to ask to collaborate?”
“I’m afraid I must confess, that’s also not my primary purpose for being here.”
“Well, shit, Geoffrey,” said Cassandra, deliberately exaggerating her Georgia accent. “If those first two were the opening acts, I can’t imagine what the main show will be. And I’m dying to know how Prince Richard fits into all of this.”
Geoffrey squirmed in his chair. “Prince Richard is not like most men of power.”
“Most are willing to let others do much of their work for them,” Geoffrey explained. “They allow advisors to speak on their behalf and broker agreements for them, and then simply ratify them.”
“But not Richard,” said Cassandra with a grin. “It seems like that makes you a tad bit…uncomfortable.”
“Prince Richard,” Geoffrey said testily, “always wants to deal personally with people with whom he is reaching an agreement.” Geoffrey tapped at his cigar’s ash. “The Prince wishes to talk to you about reaching a personal arrangement with the Free Communities.
“What sort of personal arrangement?” asked Cassandra.
“That,” answered Geoffrey, finishing the rest of his Scotch, “is for His Royal Highness to discuss with you.”
Eye of the Storm was a small fishing trawler crewed by Captain Loniaisa Desta and his two mates. Although Desta was a Falasha like Zinabu and Kollia, he was evidently not much for laughing, joking, or long conversations. The man stayed in the pilothouse with his hand white-knuckled on the wheel while he carefully watched the shimmering sea.
“Just how much did we have to pay for this ride?” Skull asked Zinabu.
“No matter. It was worth it,” answered Zinabu. “We needed to get out of Israel.”
“The fact that you don’t answer tells me it was too much,” said Skull. “He doesn’t seem as jolly as most Falashas I have met.”
“You have only met Desta, Kollia and me,” Zinabu answered.
“Yes, and you two acted like you were drunk and on spring break the whole time, whereas this guy looks like he’s expecting to take a bullet at any minute.”
Zinabu shrugged. “It may have taken a little convincing to get him to take us. I also think my facial scars make him nervous.”
“Now that you brought it up,” said Skull, “why in the hell do you have them, anyway?”
“Helps me blend in,” said Zinabu.
“I hate to break it to you,” said Skull, “but fearsome scars on your cheeks do not make you blend in. They actually draw attention.”
“Where we are going I will blend in. Besides, few would imagine that non-Edens are going to risk their short, fragile lives to help Edens.”
“I sometimes can’t believe it myself,” quipped Skull.
They arrived in Jiddah the next morning. Although the holiday of Eid was still a month away, the closest port to the Islamic holy city of Mecca bustled with activity and it took them some time to find an open place on a pier.
“Desta thinks we should stay on the boat,” said Zinabu. “He’ll see about getting us passage across the Red Sea.”
“Again,” Skull said, “are we sure we trust this man? Don’t give me your bullshit about Falashas. Our lives are at stake here, maybe thousands of lives.”
Zinabu considered the question carefully. “It would not be in his best interests to expose us or put us in danger. I suspect he wants nothing more than to be done with us. The quickest and surest way to do that is to make sure we get on another ship as soon as possible. Besides, I told him that if there’s trouble, the first thing I will do is sink his boat.”
Skull nodded. “Fair enough. But all the same, maybe you should accompany him. You can understand what he says, and you’ll blend in a lot better than I would in Jiddah.”
“Desta won’t like it,” said Zinabu.
“Tell Desta that I insist,” said Skull. “If he won’t budge, bring him to me for some convincing.”
“I don’t like the sound of that.”
“Tell him, or I will.”
“You’re right,” said Zinabu. “I’ll go tell him.”
Skull watched as Zinabu spoke to Desta. The words became louder, and then Zinabu pointed at Skull.
Skull stared at the captain as if daring him to push the issue.
With a loud curse, the captain led Zinabu off the boat and onto the busy pier.
After making sure that neither of the deckhands was watching, Skull opened his locked case. He pulled out the satellite antenna and unfolded it, pointing it approximately thirty degrees north. Skull next removed the encrypted laptop and hooked it to the antenna. After checking again to make sure no one was around, he logged onto the computer.
Skull navigated through several anonymous secure servers before logging into the Free Communities site reserved for those of the inner circle. He checked to see if there were any messages for him and saw nothing.
Either they don’t yet know, thought Skull, or they don’t think it’s worth their time to warn me.
He started to compose a message to Cassandra before he realized that the driving force behind any rescue mission would be Spooky. After thinking for several seconds he began to type.
The mission is FUBAR, but I’m still willing to see it through. The Israelis have pulled out, but we’re still on our way there, minus all the military gear you sent to help train and equip the Edens. They arrested us and tried to put us on planes home, but we gave them the slip.
I don’t know if Kenya is in or out. Don’t know the situation with the Ethiopians or what your ultimate plan is, but it had better be good.
We’re in Jiddah booking passage across to Eritrea. Will likely depart today. Know this was the route the Israelis intended so might try to adjust in case they feel sore about how we escaped. Don’t worry, I didn’t kill any of the Mossad guys, even though I easily could have.
Although I shouldn’t have to say this, it will make me feel better if I do.
IF YOU LEAVE ME HANGING I WILL FIND YOU AND KILL YOU, YOU LITTLE GOOK SHIT! And you’ll never see it coming, though you do have the comfort of knowing it will be quick and clean.
Anyway, give everyone my best. Take care, and I’ll write back when I can.
Skull closed the laptop and disassembled the antenna. He put the equipment away and started to close the case, and then opened it back up again. Pulling out two of his own pistols in their holsters, he strapped them on under his light jacket near the small of his back. He added spare clips in pouches and several knives. He then tossed the two handguns he had taken from the Mossad agents, and the one he’d retrieved from Zinabu, into the case and locked it again.
Walking up on deck, he saw Zinabu and Desta returning.
“We’ve got passage,” Zinabu said. “Leaves in about an hour. Are you ready?”
Skull felt the reassuring pressure of his pistols and knives. “I am now,” he answered.
Cassandra was escorted into the QM2’s Grand Duplex Apartment. Despite the seriousness of her visit, she felt enthralled by the elegance of the surroundings. She had never hoped to see the inside of the most exclusive cabin in the world’s most luxurious ocean liner.
“Very nice, isn’t it?” said a voice behind Cassandra.
She turned to find the unmistakable face of Prince Richard. “It is, Your Royal Highness,” answered Cassandra. “But I imagine it doesn’t hold a candle to Buckingham Palace.”
Richard held a finger out for emphasis. “I would disagree with you on that. BP has mountains of responsibility and distraction and politics coursing through its halls. I personally prefer tranquility to opulence. And I have lived in some fairly austere places. As long as I’m warm, dry, healthy and fed, life is good.”
“I was sorry to hear about your brother,” Cassandra said softly.
Richard nodded. “It was inevitable. Leukemia is a bloody tough bastard to beat.”
“Yes,” said Cassandra not sure what else to say. It was news to no one that the Eden Plague could have cured the blood cancer, but the Royal Family had let Albert die rather than be tainted by the virus.
She’d also noticed the man’s scarred hands poking out from his cufflinked shirtsleeves and tailored suit. It was rumored that he was sensitive about the burns running up his arms, the price of saving several men from a burning vehicle during his latest tour in the desert.
“Would you like to sit?” Richard asked, indicating a large open area with antique furniture, which looked out a giant bay window upon the open sea.
Cassandra nodded and smiled, following the prince to sit.
“Geoffrey tells me you prefer cognac,” Richard said. “May I offer you some?”
She didn’t want anything else to drink, but it seemed impolite to refuse. “Please.”
“He also tells me you can be trusted,” Richard said, holding out a glass of fine liquor poured with his own hands.
She turned to look at Geoffrey, who was standing off to one side. “I’m surprised to hear it,” she said.
“Why is that?” Richard asked. “The fact that someone finds you trustworthy or that Geoffrey thinks so?”
“The latter,” Cassandra responded. “We haven’t always agreed or gotten along.”
Richard nodded. “He briefed me on some of that. He also stressed that you’ve always acted honorably and in the interests of your government. That’s something that can be respected even if those interests do not line up with those of Britannia.”
“My former government now, if you mean the United States. The Free Communities can hardly be called a government. More of a…political movement. An alternative to the United Nations, open to all.”
“Be that as it may, honor is important to me,” Richard continued. “You know I could have been happy for the rest of my days in the SAS. There, I could be a soldier, judged on my own merits. It didn’t matter one shit about my bloodline, and that was very freeing. Do you know what I mean?”
“I think so,” Cassandra answered.
“But duty is something that can never be ignored. The SAS taught me that better than any court official could. Duty and honor are often the foundation of trust. I would like to be able to trust you, Mrs. Johnstone. Can I?”
“That depends,” said Cassandra, starting to get her footing. “I respect you and admire you, but you are not my prince and you will not be my king. My loyalties lie elsewhere.”
Richard really smiled for the first time. “An honest woman. How rare. Please tell me a little bit about your leader, Daniel Markis.”
Cassandra shrugged. “Of course. What would you like to know?”
Richard tilted his head. “They say you knew him before he was leading the Free Communities. Even before he released the Eden virus on the world. What sort of man is he?”
Cassandra leaned forward to look the prince in the eye. “A military man, before this. A combat lifesaver, as I’m sure you know. A man of honor and duty. Someone I trust with my life. A man who always tries to do the right thing. A man with faith in God, but not a fanatic. I think you would like him.”
“I suspect I would,” said Richard. “It is a pity we can never meet.”
“Why is that?”
Richard sat back. “You know why. Such a meeting would be…misinterpreted. Soon, I will be King and hereditary ruler of my nation and its people, not to mention titular head of the Commonwealth countries…which may come to mean more than it has lately. Unfortunately, the elected government will expect me to perpetuate this farcical neutrality. I’m sure Geoffrey talked to you about this.”
“He has,” said Cassandra.
“Then you realize that I cannot risk meeting directly with the leader of the Free Communities. That’s why you and I needed to meet in the manner we have. I understand you’re close enough to Markis to speak in his name.”
Cassandra nodded. “Very probably, though with powerful men there’s always the possibility of being overruled. Still…perhaps Your Royal Highness could explain to me what exactly it is you would like me to convey to him.”
Richard stood and walked to look out the panoramic window. “I know you’re an Eden, and I have studied the virus and its effects very carefully. There is much to admire.”
“I agree,” said Cassandra. She hesitated before adding. “One of the most admirable traits is that it’s available to all. Theoretically, anyway.”
Richard tugged the sleeves of his shirt farther down to cover his scarred hands. “It may be available to all, but not all can allow themselves to be infected. You must know that the virus is not popular among some power blocs in the U.K. An infected ruler could be seen as taking sides. It might well tear the country apart.”
“Or it could be seen as courageous leadership and cause the common people to change how they think about Edens,” Cassandra said. “When you’re crowned, you’ll be even more popular than you are now. There will never be a better time to take a chance. Your elected government will never dare to speak against you. It would be cutting its own throat.”
Richard frowned and shook his head. “Maybe, but there’s no guarantee it would work out that way. It’s too much to wager on one cast of the dice. And even if the winds blew my way among my own, becoming an Eden would antagonize Russia and the United States both, which are in rare accord on this issue. We cannot afford to be seen as standing against both.”
“So what is it you want from Daniel Markis?” Cassandra asked.
“My brother’s public death left a deep scar on my family. Albert was supposed to be king. He would have made a good one, but he never got the chance. Now,” and here Richard took a deep breath, “I’m going to trust you with official secrets.”
“I’m not bound by your laws, you know.”
“Your word to keep this confidential from everyone but Markis is enough.”
Cassandra lifted her eyebrow. “You have my word…but he might decide to tell someone else.”
“Then that will show me how foolish I’ve been to extend my trust. Call it a test.” Richard took a sip of his drink, watching her.
“All right, then. Go on.”
“Albert is still alive, though well hidden.”
“Ah.” Cassandra’s mind whirled. Of course, the royal family wouldn’t let one of their own die when there was an alternative.
“There’s more. The queen has been ruling for a long time, but she would like to step down.” He then looked at her expectantly.
Cassandra’s eyes widened. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
Richard sighed. “My mother would like to accept the virus and its benefits, but doing so openly would carry the same political risks I just outlined, so she will also have to die…in the public mind, at least. We would conduct an elaborate state funeral of course, but we believe that given time she could lead a relatively normal life, somewhere out of the public eye.”
Cassandra sat there stunned. “The Queen? Where would she live?”
“That’s the crux of the problem,” Richard said. “She looks like who she is now, so she would also have to remain well hidden, with the minimum number of people in the know. When she regains her youth, she will change her hair, dress and manners. Once out of Britain and away from the royal context, it is likely no one will make the connection. Albert could join her.”
“Out of Britain,” said Cassandra starting to get the picture. “You mean, somewhere in the Free Communities.”
“Some out-of-the-way place in Australia, we were thinking, or perhaps New Zealand,” said Richard. “Geoffrey tells me Markis is concluding an arrangement to bring Oz completely into the FC, and the Kiwis will likely follow suit. Given their historical connection to the mother country, we believe one of those would be a good fit.”
“But everything relies upon secrecy,” said Geoffrey suddenly.
“Yes,” said Richard. “Everyone will believe she is dead and must continue to believe that. She wants to lead a simple life without a large security detail. Perhaps a few discreet attendants could go along, posing as relatives. And Albert, of course.”
“A simple life?” Cassandra chuckled. “Are you sure she is really ready for that?”
Richard laughed in return. “You think because we’re rich and live pampered lives that we would want it no other way. Remember that we didn’t choose our roles. They were thrust upon us. Did you know that Albert wanted nothing more than to be an actor? He would have made a good one too, but that could not be allowed. Can you imagine a royal on the stage or silver screen?”
“I guess not,” Cassandra said. “But forgive me for saying...your mother has lived that pampered life for many years. Is she sure she knows what she’s asking for?”
“She is determined. My mother looks forward to the day when she can live a life where every step or move or word doesn’t appear on the front page of a newspaper to be analyzed. She’ll be young again with a world of possibilities, with no ties, as of course my father is long dead. She looks forward to a world where she can explore careers of her choosing and decide what she really wants to do. The freedom of that life is appealing.”
“Even to you?” Cassandra asked before thinking.
Richard stared at her. “Especially to me, but again, duty and honor call. Maybe one day I’ll escape down that path, but not today.”
“So you wish Markis and me to arrange for her to settle in Australia or New Zealand and keep your secret?”
“A little more than that,” Geoffrey said. “We would also like you to share any intelligence you obtain concerning potential threats to her. We also request that you keep an eye on her and let us know how she is doing.”
Cassandra smiled. “I suspect that the soon-to-be former queen doesn’t know about that last part.”
“Correct,” said Richard. “And I would like to keep it that way. I don’t want to control her or run her life, but she is my mother after all. I’ll worry about her.”
“I understand,” said Cassandra. “When is she looking to make the, ah...transition?”
“As soon as possible,” Richard answered. “Now that the idea is in her head, she seems almost frantic to turn into an Eden. I think she’s afraid she’ll die of something before this can happen.”
“Makes sense; she is elderly,” said Cassandra. “Pardon my bluntness, Your Royal Highness: this was described to me as an agreement, but it sounds like a favor. I’m sure we could certainly accommodate you, and you would owe us something in the future, but I suspect that was not what you had in mind.”
“No, I like to keep the books balanced,” said Richard, nodding his head toward Geoffrey.
“In return for this,” said Geoffrey, “His Royal Highness pledges to work behind the scenes to cooperate with the Free Communities on issues of mutual concern, such as the fate of persecuted Edens. As a first step, he’ll use his influence with the Kenyan government to attempt to gain temporary asylum for the Edens trapped in Ethiopia.”
“Pardon me again for being so blunt,” said Cassandra, “and I am grateful for the support, but from my understanding, the royal family has very little real authority or power anymore. I need to know that you can help. Ten thousand lives depend upon it.”
“What is real authority?” Richard asked, his jaw tight.
Cassandra started to reply, but he cut her off.
“Real authority,” he said, “is the ability to influence people, not a set of rules on paper. You should know that the royal family still has plenty of influence, which only grows in times of crisis...like now. When I tell you I will help with your Ethiopian situation, you should not doubt me.”
Cassandra’s face smoothed. “I don’t doubt your intentions, Your Royal Highness…only the limits others place upon you. I am grateful for your help. My concern has to be for those in danger, not for the niceties of protocol.” She cocked her head. “It’s not so easy to set aside the privileges of rank after all, is it?”
“Perhaps not,” said Richard, sighing. “Like I said before, you’re an honest woman. That’s a good and rare thing. So few people are frank and straightforward anymore, especially with me.” Cassandra noticed him flick his eyes at Geoffrey when he said this.
“I have to talk with Markis first,” she said, “but I don’t think anything we discussed tonight will be a problem. May I give you an answer in the morning?”
“Please work out all the details with Geoffrey. I’m afraid we must not meet again after this. Rest assured, it has been a distinct pleasure.” He held out his hand.
Cassandra stood and had the nearly overwhelming desire to curtsy but resisted. Besides she was in a long formal and had no idea how the logistics of such a move would work out. She met his palm with hers. “The pleasure has been all mine, Your Royal Highness.”
The prince lifted her fingers toward his lips, stopping just before they touched, and then let her hand fall. “Please, do call me Richard if we ever meet again in private.”
“But not in public?”
He simply raised an eyebrow, and then departed.
“Quite the charmer,” Cassandra said as Geoffrey escorted her out of the apartment.
“When he wants to be. Care for a drink?”
“Not tonight. I’ve already had more than I normally do. I also need to contact Markis and let him know about this right away.”
“Fair enough. Why don’t we say, the cigar bar again tomorrow night after dinner?”
“Sounds good,” she said, and turned her back on him. “Good night, Geoffrey.”
“Good night, my dear,” he said from behind her, and she heard him walk away.
Cassandra returned to her cabin and assembled her satphone antenna and encrypted laptop. After logging onto the secure site, she sent a message to Markis explaining what had happened. Normally she would have copied Spooky, but she’d given her word. Odds were he’d find out soon enough anyway. Markis would probably tell him.
I’ve spent a lifetime not trusting people, she thought. That was my job. Do I distrust Spooky out of habit, or for a good reason I can’t yet put my finger on?
“Doesn’t matter,” she said aloud to her empty cabin. She explained to Markis in the email why Spooky had been left off, and let him decide. That should cover her ass.
Cassandra almost closed the laptop before remembering Skull. With a pang of guilt – had she been that distracted by the unexpected visit of the prince? – she composed a message telling him that the Israelis had pulled out and the Kenyan option was in danger. She urged him to continue on with the mission if he could until they came up with another plan.
Changing out of her gown and into sleeping clothes, she lay down and tried to relax, yet she couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened that evening and wondering how the trapped Edens were doing.
For the first time since she’d boarded, she felt as if the QM2 were too slow. Now that unexpected issues had cropped up, it seemed like it would take her forever to get to Tel Aviv…and that wasn’t even where she needed to go now. She would have to figure out something else.
Tossing and turning, Cassandra realized that the relaxing and enjoyable cruise she’d hoped to have aboard the QM2 had turned into something distinctly less so.
Spooky studied the man in front of him, who was strapped to his seat in nothing but underwear. Duct tape held him securely by the forearms and shins to the wooden chair. He demonstrated the false defiance of someone who was scared, but didn’t want to show it.
One of Spooky’s technical aides handed him a computer printout. It was an analysis of the man’s cell phone records. Spooky ran down the list and saw several red circles.
The tech nodded. “Got a call right before he made his move. Matches the number of the last one. Not very good technical security, if you ask me.”
“Perhaps we should be grateful, hmm?” Spooky replied.
“What are you two asswipes whispering about?” the man asked. “Cut me loose for two seconds and I’ll be wearing your balls as earrings.”
“Do we know who he is?” Spooky asked.
Another printout was passed to him. “His ID says he’s Javier Gonzales, but his real name is Ramón Salavore. He’s done wet work for the Mendoles Cartel for years. Built quite a reputation for himself on the street. They supposedly call him Ramón the Razor.”
“Quite inventive,” said Spooky. “What else do you have?”
“Not too much. As you know, this is the fifth Mendoles assassin. The other four were killed rather than captured.”
“Does Markis know anything yet?”
“Not from us, sir,” he answered. “You told us this was for your attention only.”
Markis would only lose his emotional detachment and get into my business, thought Spooky. Especially if he were to ever find out that Elise had also been a target.
The tech handed him another sheet of paper. “Parents are dead, but he does have a little sister named Monica living with his aunt in town.”
Spooky nodded and took the sheets of paper over to sit across from the man.
“What?” said Ramón, blustering. “You going to kiss me now?”
Spooky smiled, an expression of hard-edged amusement. “If I were, there wouldn’t be anything you could do about it...and the same goes for anything else I wanted to do to you.”
The smile on the man’s face vanished for a moment, to be replaced by a sneer. Ramón laughed. “Everyone knows you Edens are all pendejos. You don’t have it in you to harm anyone, so cut it with the tough guy shit.”
“We caught you sneaking into Chairman Markis’ apartment,” said Spooky patiently. “What was your intention?”
Ramón shrugged. “Just to see the big man’s digs, you know. That was it.”
Spooky shook his head with exaggerated gravity, as if to a naughty child. “You posed as a member of the staff’s cleaning crew. We know Enrique Mendoles had to have someone on the inside in order to pull this off. I want to know who.”
The man smiled through crooked teeth. “We all want what we can’t have, muchacho. Best get used to it. Life is hard down here, son.”
Spooky stared at the man critically. “You’re not very good at what you do.”
The smile vanished. “Fuck you, maricón.”
“Not yet, but perhaps soon you’ll be on the receiving end of some of that. For now…I know you got caught. I know you didn’t complete your job. That means you are incompetent and stupid.”
“I’ve killed more men than you could count from now until sundown,” Ramón said angrily.
“Sure.” Spooky shrugged. “Farmers. Addicts. Pimps. Old men and kids. A real testimony to your machismo.”
“Let me out of this chair and you’ll see machismo.”
Spooky sighed. “I would like for you to be cooperative. Believe me when I tell you that as much as I want to hurt you personally, Ramón, I am too much of a professional to wish to use those methods. Talk to me and we’ll make it look like you had no choice. As if you held out for a long time under torture. Work with us here.”
Ramón laughed. “You’re playing with a shitty hand there, partner. Like I said, you Edens don’t have the stones to do what it takes to get me to talk.”
Spooky shook his head. “While you’re screaming, remember that I tried to talk reason to you.” He then motioned to the two men standing at the back of the room. They walked forward with a small black bag between them.
“What you going to do?” Ramón asked, fear starting to creep into his voice.
“I’m going to show you that I’m serious.” He nodded again to the two men.
One flipped open a spring-loaded knife and reached out to the front of Ramón’s underwear. He grasped the waistband and pulled it out before cutting down the front, leaving the man’s genitals exposed.
“Hold on now,” Ramón said shakily. “What the hell are you doing?”
“I’m sorry,” said Spooky, “but the opportunity for you to do this the easy way has passed. You have made it plain to me that I must prove my resolve to you. So be it.”
The second man stepped forward with a long nail and a hammer. He placed the point of the nail on top of one testicle and lifted the hammer high.
“But you can’t do this,” said Ramón in a voice filled with more surprise than fear.
The man brought the hammer down forcefully, driving the nail into the wooden chair.
Ramón screamed and tried to leap away.
The hammer came down again.
Ramón wrenched and twisted in the chair, crying out, saliva hanging from his mouth. A stream of urine puddled on the floor, mixing with blood.
The man lifted his arm and brought the hammer down once more onto the head of the nail with a steady thud.
Ramón the Razor vomited onto himself and his head lolled back until Spooky could only see his neck and chin. The man’s color had paled.
“Don’t let him pass out,” said Spooky.
The first man reached down into the bag and pulled out a syringe filled with clear liquid. He popped the cap off and jammed it into Ramón’s thigh before pushing the plunger down.
Ramón started breathing rapidly as his head came back forward. He looked around at them and then down at his crotch.
“Believe it or not,” said Spooky. “We have not yet done you any lasting damage. That nail’s head can be cut off, and testicles are very resilient organs. The damaged one will swell and be very painful for a while, but you should make a full recovery.” Spooky stood and walked over close to the man. He grasped him by the hair and lifted his head so they could look each other in the eyes. “I have not yet hurt you...but I will. That was just a taste. Why don’t we start over?”
“Fuck you,” said Ramón weakly. He tried to spit in Spooky’s face, but only succeeded in a thin dribble down his chin.
“Believe it or not, I respect that. I didn’t give you enough credit. I figured you for the type that would fold like a lily in a soft summer’s breeze, but you’ve shown you have some cojones.” Spooky smiled bleakly. “Well...one cojon anyway.”
“I’m going to kill you all,” Ramón whispered.
“This isn’t working,” said Spooky to his assistants. “Let’s try something else. Your little sister, Monica. Did she inherit your tolerance for pain?”
The man looked at Spooky with wide eyes. “What the hell kind of Edens are you?”
“Don’t believe everything you hear or read on the internet,” said Spooky, “but I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t change the subject. Are you going to make us put your sister through something similar, to get you to cooperate?”
“You wouldn’t,” Ramón said softly.
“How dumb can you be? Wait, don’t answer that question,” he said tapping on the head of the nail embedded in the chair. “I think you already answered that one.”
“Do you think you’re really going to get away with this?” Ramón answered. “No one goes against the Mendoles Cartel and lives. No one. You’ll all...AHHHH…”
“What’s the problem?” asked Spooky.
Ramón was looking down at his crotch. The bleeding had stopped and the wound had closed tightly around the nail.
“What you are experiencing is the wonderful healing properties of the Eden plague,” said Spooky. “You see, that shot we gave you not only contained adrenaline, but the virus as well. Unfortunately for you, that wound is healing with the nail inside, which is causing you a certain degree of discomfort, I believe.”
“I can take the pain,” Ramón said.
“But for how long? You know, now that you’re an Eden, this will never end. I can hurt you and you will heal. Then we can do it again. How many times do you want to experience this, and worse?” Spooky picked up another nail. “Perhaps we should move on to the toes next. Or the fingers?”
“You can go to hell.”
Spooky glanced over at his henchmen in amusement, and then squatted down to bring his head to his prisoner’s level. “I don’t think I could write a better straight line, Ramón, so I can’t resist saying…no, you’ll be going to hell first. The difference is, I can send you there every day, and then bring you back just long enough to despair.”
“The devil take you,” Ramón snarled.
Spooky sighed and stood. “Fingers, I think. A centimeter at a time.”
By the time two and a half digits were gone, Ramón had lost all composure, simply screaming and gasping.
Spooky ordered a break. “Soon, mi amigo, you’ll have no fingers at all. And then no toes. The Eden Plague doesn’t do anything about pain, by the way. If anything, it enhances it, because pain is the body’s way of conditioning you not to do stupid things.”
“Okay,” Ramón mumbled. “Okay, I’ll tell you what you want to know.”
“I thought you’d come around,” said Spooky and nodded at his men.
They pulled a small circular saw from their bag and plugged it into the wall. They then cut the head off the nail and pulled forcefully on Ramón’s damaged but healing testicle until it popped off the stump.
Ramón screamed again and gasped. He lay slumped and panting, before finally looking at Spooky. “You are one sick bastard to come up with shit like that.”
“Oh, I didn’t come up with it,” said Spooky. “A Chinese interrogator performed it on me when I was young. Don’t feel bad. I talked as well. Trust me, you’ll never forget.” He turned back to his two assistants. “Go ahead and get a full debrief. I doubt you will have any further resistance. I’ll expect the full report in my desk tonight.”
“What about the Mendoles Cartel?” said the man still holding the circular saw. “They’ll know that the assassin failed and that we have him.”
Spooky thought for a moment. “Let’s send them a message.”
“What type of message?” the man asked.
“The kind that cannot be misinterpreted,” said Spooky. “Why don’t we see what Reaper’s new team can do?”
* * *
In his office, Spooky opened the messages from Cassandra and Skull, reading them twice and then leaning back in his chair. Cassandra’s had been only intended for Markis, but Spooky had long ago inserted a tap on the Chairman’s communications.
The mission is a no-go, he thought. It can’t succeed without military gear, money, or support from the Israelis. It will take a miracle for Skull to even get into Ethiopia with the Mossad on his trail.
The Prince Richard contact is an interesting development, though. It might be useful to see if they can actually influence the Kenyans after the Israelis have pulled out. We can also always use the Queen’s false death and new identity in Australia as leverage to get what we want from the Brits.
“There is no way they can possibly succeed,” he whispered. “It was a high-risk mission to begin with, which is the reason I wasn’t willing to commit many of my resources.”
He read Skull’s warning again and smiled. So amateurish, he thought. Never warn a target of your actions. Still, it won’t do to make a real enemy of someone as unpredictable and resourceful as Skull. At least not until I have a plan to either pull him back into the fold or eliminate him.
Then Spooky laughed at himself. Yet it seems Skull’s threat has had the desired effect, for it’s influencing my thinking. Perhaps he’s not quite as amateurish as all that. I must guard against underestimating him.
Spooky decided to go down and talk to the Chairman about the situation. He’d recommend keeping all options open and seeing how the situation developed, but not to take any major risks to intervene.
He started to stand, and noticed another sheet of paper on his desk. It was a list of the people remaining on Reaper’s team, after the latest round of eliminations. She was now down to thirty-nine.
“Too many,” Spooky said to himself. “Far too many. Especially if we do have to go to Africa for Cassandra’s damned fool rescue mission. Time to start thinning the herd.”
Spooky looked at the names on the list and crossed off nine more, reducing the team to thirty. He made sure his wild cards were still in the mix. He would cross off another ten to fifteen after the Mendoles operation – if they didn’t get killed.
This will really piss her off, Spooky thought. Exactly how I want her. She works better when she’s worried.
He locked his office and went to see Markis.
The small boat in which Skull and Zinabu traveled headed almost due south before cutting west. The boat’s captain, not a Falasha this time, to the immense disapproval of Zinabu, was nervous about approaching the coasts of Egypt or Sudan.
“The Caliphate raiders come farther and farther out into the water,” Captain Shafiq told them. “They use Islam as an excuse to steal from people and have enslaved many, even fellow Muslims. We will be in Eritrea soon.”
“Yeah,” said Skull, “I’ve been thinking about that. We’re going to need you to put us in a little farther south. Djibouti should be good.”
“Djibouti is no good,” said Shafiq. “Somali pirates come up into those waters.”
“What kind of sea captain are you?” asked Skull. “You can’t go north and you can’t go south. How do you make a living just working this narrow strip?”
“Eritrea,” the captain insisted. “That was the agreement.”
“What’s going on?” Zinabu asked.
Skull leaned over and whispered to him. “I’ve been thinking about our less-than-hospitable exit from the Jewish state. The Mossad had worked out a deal not only with the Kenyans for asylum for the refugees, but with the Eritreans to allow us to land and come into their country. You heard Benjamin back there. They can’t allow our mission to go forward. How best to sabotage it than to tell the Eritreans to stop us?”
“It’s a long coastline,” said Zinabu. “And we don’t even know if they are looking for us.”
“Yes,” hissed Skull, “but don’t you think it’s better to be safe than sorry. Besides, Djibouti is farther south and closer to our destination anyway.”
“I don’t know. We already worked out a deal with the captain. An agreement was reached; we cannot go back on it now.”
“Why not?” asked Skull.
“Captain,” yelled Skull. “Change of course. Get us to a deserted part of the Djibouti coast.”
Shafiq shook his head. “Eritrea.”
“What we have here is a failure to communicate,” said Skull, standing up and walking toward the captain. “Turny the wheely thingy southy.”
Shafiq shook his head and hung on tightly to the wheel.
“Oh, mother of God,” said Skull in disgust. “Why does it always have to be this way?”
“Maybe we should just go to Eritrea,” said Zinabu. “We can just catch another boat south.”
“You’re missing the point,” said Skull. “There might be people looking for us in Eritrea. People who do not have our best interests at heart. Non-Falashas, to put it in terms you can relate to. You get me?”
“Eritrea,” said the captain forcefully, pointing straight ahead.
Skull sighed. “Now, Shafiq. Work with me here. Is it more money you’re looking for? If so, maybe we can do something about that. I’m willing to hear you make your best case. Talk to me, buddy.”
“No Djibouti,” Shafiq said. “Somali pirates very bad.”
“Not as bad as I can be,” said Skull, all levity leaving his face. “Why does it always come down to this?” he mumbled. Pulling one of his pistols from the small of his back, he walked over to place the barrel against the side of the man’s head.
“What are you doing?” asked Zinabu.
“Djibouti,” Skull said to the captain, ignoring his comrade’s concern. “Now.”
The captain flicked his eyes toward Skull, but didn’t move. “No.”
“Frankly, Shafiq I don’t get it,” said Skull. “You’re willing to risk your life to avoid a danger that you may not even run into? I’m right here and can be very pirate-like if that helps you decide.”
“Alan,” said Zinabu standing up to walk over toward them.
“You stay put,” said Skull, pointing a finger at the Ethiopian. He turned back to Shafiq. “Okay, I’m going to be plain. You got five seconds to turn this boat southwest or I’ll blow your brains all over the deck. One.”
“What are we doing here?” asked Zinabu.
“Eritrea,” said the captain.
“Stop it!” yelled Zinabu.
“Pirates very bad,” said Shafiq.
“No!” screamed Zinabu rushing forward.
Skull swung the barrel of his pistol back and slapped it against the base of the captain’s head, catching him as he fell and easing him to the deck.
Zinabu knelt beside the captain and examined his head. “What the hell did you do that for?”
“I thought you’d be relieved,” said Skull. “Up until a few seconds ago you thought I was going to kill him.”
“I am relieved,” said Zinabu, dabbing at the back of the man’s bloody head with a rag. “But in the short time I have known you, you have struck me as the sort of man who is in a frightful hurry to use violent measures.”
“You are a shrewd judge of character, my friend,” said Skull.
Zinabu shook his head and then looked at the wheel. “Who is going to get us there now?”
“Don’t worry,” said Skull grabbing the wheel. “A Marine knows how to drive boats. You’re in good hands.”
Zinabu merely grunted and tended to the fallen man.
Skull used the GPS and maritime charts to keep them away from the Eritrean coast and heading south. Putting in at the right spot in Djibouti would be difficult; there weren’t that many deserted stretches of beach in the small country, but he had a few ideas.
Shafiq had regained consciousness and been incensed at the sight of Skull driving his boat. He had screamed through the gag and thrashed against the ropes to no avail.
“Just enjoy the ride,” said Skull. “I think you’ll find that as far as mutinies go, this one ain’t so bad.”
It was near sunset when they were a few miles out from the beach Skull had chosen. He studied it through binoculars for several long minutes.
“What do you see?” asked Zinabu.
“Nothing,” said Skull, “which is exactly what I was looking for. Come on, let’s load our gear into the skiff.”
Zinabu pointed at the captain. “Are we just going to leave him tied up?”
“Don’t worry about him; just drop the anchor and load our gear.” Skull went below and with surgical precision used his knife to disable the boat’s radio. Pulling out money, he placed it in Shafiq’s shirt pocket. “This should cover the cost of the skiff, radio, extra fuel, and any inconvenience.”
Skull then began carefully sawing at the captain’s bindings. When one of the strands parted, he stopped and tugged. He then cut a little more before putting his knife away. “That should take you about ten minutes to break through. By then, we’ll be long gone.”
Shafiq started yelling through his gag again and struggling.
“I suggest you not tell anyone about what happened,” said Skull. “Maybe Red Sea sailors are different, but most don’t look favorably on captains who lose control of their own ships. From my understanding, it’s a pride thing. Might be best if you pocket the cash and go on with your life. Your call.”
Skull walked to the end of the boat and lowered the skiff, making sure it contained their bags and his equipment case. He had Zinabu get in, and then boarded before pushing away from the bobbing boat.
“I probably should have checked this first,” said Skull laying his hands on the small outboard motor. “May not even have fuel, for all we know.” He pulled on the cord a few times and the motor started. “You had me worried there for a minute, Shafiq,” he called as they sped away toward the coast.
The water turned choppy as the sun descended. “Take the yoke,” said Skull handing the outboard stick to Zinabu.
“I’ve never driven a boat before,” said Zinabu hesitantly.
“Nothing to it,” said Skull, “just hold it steady and don’t make any sudden movements. We’ll be fine.” Skull unlocked his case and began loading the gear into the large tactical rucksack inside. Disassembling everything, he wrapped the more sensitive pieces in clothing from his luggage. He then loaded an MP5 submachine gun and slung it across his chest before tossing the empty container overboard.
Zinabu stared at the gun as he handed the yoke back.
“What? You want one?”
“No,” said Zinabu shaking his head.
“Good,” answered Skull, “because I only brought one.”
As they approached the sandy coast, Skull saw only a thin strip of white with a border of pitiful scrub brush farther inland. He also thought he could see wisps of smoke rising in the distance, probably from cooking fires.
Skull cut the engine and let the waves carry them in; as the bottom of the boat touched the sand, he jumped out and started to drag the vessel up onto the beach. Zinabu saw what he was doing and leaped out to help.
After they had unloaded their possessions into a neat pile on the beach, Skull handed Zinabu a flashlight and one of the Mossad’s pistols.
“What are these for?”
Skull pointed at the smoke in the distance. “I need you to go talk to them. See about trading this boat for a ride to the Ethiopian border.”
“Me?” Zinabu said. “Why can’t you go?”
“Someone’s got to guard our stuff.”
“I can guard our stuff,” Zinabu insisted.
“Yes,” said Skull with a smile, “but I can’t communicate with them. Eritrea used to be part of Ethiopia, right? What do they speak here?”
“Woleta probably. Maybe a little Amharic.”
“And you speak both of those, right? Isn’t that what you bring to the party?”
Zinabu shook his head in disgust and began walking toward the shrubs.
“If they turn out to be hostile,” said Skull, “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention me.”
* * *
The ride in the back of the battered pickup truck was dusty, hot, and uncomfortable, but it beat walking. Djibouti was a small country, but the roads were more like suggestions than facts, and they dominated the discussion among the three Eritreans in the cab, as far as Skull could tell. They didn’t bother to speak English.
As the truck continued west the land began to rise, becoming more arid. They saw fewer and fewer people, but they could see vast herds of sheep and goats in the distance, tended by small groups in colorful robes.
“Tell them not to take us to the actual border crossing,” Skull said to Zinabu. “We want something isolated.”
Zinabu nodded and bent down through the open rear window to talk to the driver.
After another half hour, the truck stopped at what appeared to be an arbitrary spot in the middle of a vast flat wasteland of dust and rock. Low hills flanked their west and north. The men in the cab spoke to Zinabu.
“What’s this?” asked Skull fingering the MP5.
Zinabu pointed to the west. “They say those hills are the border, but no one guards them. Herders cross them all the time with their flocks. Say there is a spring up in the hills and suggests we fill up before we go forward.”
“Because on the other side is the Danekil Desert,” Zinabu explained. “I’ve only heard stories about the place, but none of them were very cheery.”
“Great,” said Skull, climbing out of the cab and slinging his rucksack over his shoulders. He got a sense of déjà vu and realized this reminded him of the Hopi dropping him off in the middle of the New Mexico desert. “I’m half a world away and I’m still sneaking across borders in deserts,” he muttered.
“What?” asked Zinabu.
“Nothing. Let’s go.”
Reaper marched down the firing line and whacked one of the team’s remaining thirty candidates on his helmeted head, causing him to jump.
“Stop jerking the trigger, Flyboy,” she said. “How many goddamn times do I have to tell you that? I can’t for the life of me understand how you even got invited here, you’re such a piss-poor shot.”
The man with the charming good looks and blonde hair smiled at her. “Because I’m the best damn pilot you’ll ever find.”
“That’s the only reason you haven’t been cut. Hey, you heard the one about how you know if there’s a pilot at a party?”
He nodded and smiled. “Don’t worry; he’ll tell you himself.”
“Exactly. Now squeeze the trigger slowly. Make the shot surprise you. Your jerking is why everything is going off to the right.”
Flyboy nodded and slowly squeezed the trigger. The round impacted much closer to the bull’s eye.
“Better,” she said, and then walked on down the line. She stopped behind a small dark Peruvian. All his shots were right on top of each other in the red circle.
“Good shooting, Hawkeye,” she said. “Why don’t you go over and give Flyboy some tutoring?”
“I do not like these new Sam rounds,” he said. “The muzzle velocity is off and I think the knockdown power significantly decreases with range.”
“They’re called Frangible Non-Lethal Ceramic Projectiles,” said Reaper, “and each round contains a tiny dose of the Eden virus. Means we don’t have to kill everyone, and helps some Edens overcome their inhibition to shoot.”
“I prefer the term ‘Samaritan round,’” said Hawkeye, “and I still don’t like their performance. As far as inhibition to kill,” he cocked his thumb down the line to his left, “I don’t think you have to worry about that with some.”
Reaper looked at where he was pointing and wasn’t surprised to see Blade and Hound Dog. They were two prison hard cases Spooky had sent her, and they were as thick as thieves now. Both sat on the edge of the firing pit sharing a joint and laughing. Unfortunately, Spooky had vetoed their elimination, so she was stuck.
Reaper marched down the line toward them.
“What the hell are you two doing?” Reaper demanded.
“Relax there, little tightass,” said Blade. “We’re just taking a break, you’re always welcome to join us.” He gave her a meaningful gaze as he looked her up and down suggestively. “As long as you’re willing to contribute to the fun.”
Reaper kicked out hard and fast. The toe of her boot smashed into Blade’s mouth. His face exploded in broken teeth and blood and the joint appeared to vanish down the man’s throat.
Hound Dog leaped forward and found the tip of Reaper’s knife a millimeter from his eye. “Go on and try it,” she said. “It won’t bother me a bit to cut out your eye. It may take you a month or more to grow a new one, but maybe it will teach you something. It will certainly eliminate you from this mission.” She stared him down. “You got something to say?”
The man slowly leaned back, glaring at her.
“You bitch!” screamed Blade through a broken mouth. His hands were cupped under his face, trying to hold in the teeth and blood.
“You,” she pointed at Hound Dog. “Get him to the infirmary. Should be fine by the evening. They’ll give you a high calorie drip and make sure nothing grows back crooked. The minute you get out, you’re both on extra duty and half rations for three days.”
“You can’t do that,” snarled Hound Dog. “That ain’t right.”
Reaper shrugged. “If you don’t like it, walk away. Oh wait, that’s right. If you don’t cut it here you both go back to prison. So I suggest you drop the hardcase bullshit routine and shape up. Otherwise you can go back to butt-rape in the shower and getting shanked in the yard for all I care.”
Hound Dog just glared at her.
Reaper sighed. “It’s like that, huh?” She picked up one of the men’s rifles lying on the ground and checked the magazine. “Been wondering how these new Sam rounds work on real people,” she said. Reinserted the box, she chambered a round and shot Hound Dog in the stomach.
Thrown backward by the force of the bullet, both of Hound Dog’s hands flew to his belly and he looked at her with wide eyes.
“Hawkeye says the knockdown power isn’t there,” Reaper remarked as if commenting on the weather, “but it looks okay at close range. Better to be safe than sorry, though. We need to practice double-tapping.” She shot him in the leg this time, drawing a scream, and then aimed at his head.
“No,” he said, his hands out toward her and a trickle of blood dribbling out of the corner of his mouth. “Don’t.”
“Then both of you haul your sorry asses over to the infirmary. You’re already healing, but you’ll need the calories real soon. Better get moving before the cramps set in or you’ll be tempted to eat each other.”
The two men rolled slowly out of the firing pit, avoiding looking at anyone. Blade helped Hound Dog struggle to his feet and they hobbled away.
“Those thoughts you’re having right now,” Reaper yelled after them. “Not good ideas, but you’re welcome to try them.”
Reaper had just started to turn back to the training when she saw a distinctive helicopter approach from the west. The VIP bird was only used when it was something important.
“Hawkeye,” she yelled.
The small dark man materialized soundlessly beside her, reminding her strongly of Spooky.
“Take over while I go see what that is about. Get everyone out of the pits and work on firing on the move like we did yesterday.”
“Aren’t you going to tell me not to get anyone shot?” he asked.
“Naw. Let them shoot each other. We just tested the Sam round on Hound Dog and it didn’t appear to do any lasting damage to him, mores the pity.” She strode across the field and arrived near the hanger just as the helo’s blades had stopped whirling.
A stocky man with pale green eyes and a cruel smile intercepted her.
“Shortfuse. What are you doing back here?” Reaper asked.
The man continued to smile and hooked his thumb over his shoulder. “Spooky told me to come on back. You know, the guy that’s your boss? Said he’d smooth things over with you.”
Reaper looked inside the hangar and indeed saw Spooky talking to several of the members of his mysterious special staff.
“Don’t you move one step from here,” said Reaper, her finger in his face. “I’ll be right back.”
“Roger, chief,” Shortfuse said. “I can tell you missed me. It’s good to be back.”
Reaper marched over angrily to Spooky and stopped within eyesight, waiting for him to look at her. He was speaking with several others, and she knew he saw her and was ignoring her for now.
Spooky finally turned to look at her and smiled. “Reaper, good to see you. I’ve gotten your reports and things seem to be going well.”
“Thank you, sir,” Reaper said with deliberate mildness. “What’s Shortfuse doing back here?”
Spooky frowned. “He’s the only demolition expert you have left. The other two are gone. One quit, I believe.”
“And you cut the other one for no reason.”
Spooky’s smile vanished. “I always have my reasons. Whether I share them with you is my prerogative. Regardless, that man is the only explosives expert you have left on the team and you might need one.”
“He blew a man’s fingers off during training,” Reaper said. “He did it on purpose and laughed like it was a joke. He thought it was funny.”
“But the victim was an Eden,” Spooky said. “From my understanding, the fingers have grown back nicely.”
“That’s beside the point,” said Reaper. “We lost training time because of it. And something isn’t right with him in the head. Same for those two convicts you sent me, Blade and Hound Dog.”
“You’ll likely need them also,” Spooky said.
She shook her head. “I want them gone.”
“Blade is an expert with knives and night infiltration,” Spooky explained. “Hound Dog is a superb tracker. That’s why I picked them.”
“Yes, you picked them. But you told me I’d have the final say on my team.”
“And do, with these exceptions.”
“Then I don’t really have the final say, do I?”
Spooky shrugged. “I’m in charge. If you want to work FC covert ops, you do what I say. There are other places for you to go, I’m sure.”
Reaper ignored the challenge. She wasn’t ready to leave just yet…at least, not as long as Markis was the overall leader. If that ever changed, though…
“Something’s not right with them,” she repeated.
“Explain,” ordered Spooky.
Reaper was silent for a moment. “It’s like...almost like they’re not Edens. Sure, everyone knows there are variations in the virus’ effects, and I know they have it because I’ve seen them heal, but there’s something wrong with them anyway.”
“As if they don’t have the virtue effect?” Spooky asked.
“Exactly. It’s like the Eden fixed everything except their consciences.”
Spooky chuckled. “The Eden virus doesn’t infuse people with morality. Until Elise Markis and her team decipher the mechanisms, we’re only guessing, but I think it simply strengthens the ethics people already have by giving them the courage to stand up for what they believe. Most ideas of right and wrong are set long before infection. Perhaps it makes them less afraid to do what they already know is right.”
“So you’re saying if they were killers and thugs before, that’s what they’ll always be?” Reaper asked.
“Not necessarily. Most criminals know what they’re doing is wrong, but they quash their consciences and do it anyway. The Eden Plague makes that much more difficult. You also have to realize that the effect on people is much like a bell curve. The middle of the curve is what we see most of the time. There are always outliers. Look at yourself, Reaper. You’re not exactly sweetness and light.”
Reaper looked at Shortfuse. “Explaining it doesn’t make it acceptable. And personal feelings aside, these guys are unreliable. They’re not on board. I don’t have their hearts and minds, and I never will. That’s the real problem.”
“You need these people. You’ve just gotten a little too used to working with Edens and must remember what it was like before, when you had young recruits from all classes and backgrounds. Train them like you’d train non-Edens. I’m sure these aren’t the first derelicts or ex-cons that you had to whip into shape?”
“You’ve also worked in prisons and interrogation camps?”
“Yes, but this is different,” Reaper said. “Any one of these three could blow the whole mission because they can’t control their impulses.”
“I don’t disagree,” Spooky responded. “But you do have the background, experience, and skills to mold them into a team. That’s why I picked you for this job. You’re getting spoiled. With Edens being so compliant, you’re forgetting how to motivate difficult people. You’re looking for the easy way out, but I’m not going to give it to you. This is the job and I need you to do it.”
“Aren’t you the same guy who broke a man’s arm for giving you a little bit of attitude?”
Spooky grinned. “Then break their arms. Or their legs, or their skulls. Just as long as they’re ready when the mission starts.”
Reaper stared at her boss hard for several long seconds. “You realize you’re putting me in a position where I’m going to have to do something drastic. If we’re on a mission and they go sideways, I’ll put them down. For the good of the mission.”
Spooky patted her shoulder. “If you did, that would truly impress me. But enough of this. How is the team?”
Reaper forced herself to push the frustration aside. “They’re coming together, except for the three problem children. Most of the candidates are good troops. I know we’re trying to get down to twelve for the team, but you might want to consider using the ones you cut for something else. Maybe another mission.”
“Already on my radar,” he said. “You might be surprised to know that I’ve even found a use for Ronald Sievers.”
“The guy whose arm you broke?”
“The same,” Spooky said. “He and I have gotten along wonderfully since then.”
Reaper wasn’t sure how to feel about this. Finally she nodded, “Good. We don’t have enough people to waste.”
“Exactly. But you’re going to have to pick up the pace. The mission for which this team was formed has become more complicated.”
“Exactly when are you going to tell me the details?”
“All in due time. No point until the team is down to its final size. Don’t want non-members knowing about it if they don’t have to.”
“At least you could tell me.”
Spooky shook his head. “It would only be a distraction, and you appear to have enough of those. I need you focused on training and selection. But I might have something to help you with that.”
“Yes, call it a warm-up,” Spooky said. “A live fire exercise.”
“That would be good,” Reaper said. “We could use something different. What is it?”
“You’re going to conduct a raid on the Mendoles compound and bring me the head of the cartel. Alive.”
Reaper stared at him for a moment, trying to determine if he were serious or not. “Holy shit. If that’s the warm-up exercise, do I really want to hear what the real mission will be?”
“You’re right. You may not. And not a word to anyone. Not even your team here. A leak might be fatal…for you. Now get back to work.” Spooky slapped her shoulder one more time before he turned back to the helicopter. “I’ll brief you on the details in person next week.”
Reaper shook her head and cursed. “Follow me, asshole,” she said to Shortfuse as she walked back to prepare her team.
Mistufa Tongali had been Prime Minister of Ethiopia for nearly two years. The youngest to ever serve in that post, he had the confidence not only of the Cabinet and the President but of the newly returned Ethiopian King himself. Still he was nervous about his next appointment.
There came a light knock on his door as he sat deep in thought.
“Yes,” he called, looking up.
A gorgeous woman opened the door. “Sir, your two o’clock is here. Shall I show them in?”
“Yes,” said Tongali. He took a deep breath and stood.
His secretary returned within moments, opening the door wide. A tall man in long white robes entered. “His Excellency the Honorable Jabir al-Raziq, Ambassador of the North African Islamic Caliphate to Ethiopia,” said the woman.
“Greetings and be most welcome,” said Tongali shaking the man’s hand. “Please sit. May I offer you tea?”
“As-salaam-alaikum. Thank you, and yes, please,” the man said. Tongali nodded to his secretary, who departed and closed the door.
“Welcome back,” said Tongali.
“Thank you, Prime Minister. How is your family?”
“They are well. And yours?” The secretary entered again, carrying a tray. She carefully set out tea and a plate of dates before departing.
Tongali poured the beverage for each. “To your health.”
“And to yours,” answered al-Raziq as they sipped the tea. The two men made small talk for a few minutes, as expected in these situations.
Once that had been dispensed with, Tongali asked, “I understand you recently traveled to Cairo.”
“Yes,” answered al-Raziq. “I was called to speak with the Council of Elders. They are very concerned about the Eden situation in your southern region. Of course we respect the sovereignty of your nation, but these abominations are a danger to all of us. I thought we had agreed that it was best to be rid of them.”
Tongali nodded. “We were in the process of handling the situation. As you know, we collected all the Edens and shipped them to a remote location where they could be dealt with quietly.”
“Yet they still have not been dealt with, according to the reports I am getting,” said al-Raziq, biting delicately into a date.
Tongali shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “They have escaped to a nearby mountain and refuse to come down. Rest assured they are not going anywhere; we have them surrounded. We are working on several potential plans to resolve the situation.”
“Escaped?” asked al-Raziq, shaking his head. “That will be hard for my government to accept. How do thousands of refugees, many of them women and children, escape from a camp guarded by the military? I of course believe you, but my leaders may only be able to come to the conclusion that your people helped them escape. Or perhaps you are claiming incompetence?” The Caliphate man’s eyes bored into those of the Prime Minister.
“No,” said Tongali, beginning to sweat. “This is only a temporary situation. We have it under control.”
The ambassador sighed. “Tongali, you and I have become close during my time here. I respect you and trust what you tell me, but you must understand that I have to make reports to my government and they may find these things harder to believe than I. There are factions within the Caliphate that are eager to prosecute our jihad against Edens, those who carry the Mark of Satan. There are even some who have urged that the Caliphate make war on your country. Now, I personally believe this would be a great mistake, but what are they to think? Especially as not all your people have submitted to Allah, the benevolent, the merciful.”
Tongali set down his teacup in order to hide the trembling that had begun in his hands. This was the nightmare scenario he had worried about. Ethiopia’s weak and demoralized military would never be able to stand up to the better armed, more numerous and highly fanatical Caliphate army.
“Now,” continued al-Raziq, “we have dealt with our own Eden problem. They have been rounded up into special camps in Sudan where their abomination cannot spread, and are being put to work. It is said that work makes you free, true?” A smile played around the man’s mouth, but didn’t seem to rise to his eyes.
“I have heard this,” Tongali replied, his terror growing. From his contact with Falashas, he knew the words Arbeit Macht Frei, “Work Makes Free,” had been posted above the entrance to Nazi extermination camps.
Al-Raziq was sending him a message.
“So they are working for you?”
“For a time, to pay the Faithful the cost of their incarceration.” The ambassador continued blandly, “The Edens are worse than mere infidels, because infidels can admit the error of their ways and submit to Allah’s will. One who carries the Mark of Satan can never be rid of that demonic possession. We have tried many times to remove this sickness from them, but every effort has been unsuccessful. The only choice is to release the soul contained therein by driving a stake into the brain. This prevents the demon within them from its unnatural healing. We thus rid the Earth of many hundreds of Satan’s ilk a day. You too must learn to be as committed to eliminating this scourge as the Caliphate.”
Tongali swallowed slowly. “Yes, indeed. Please tell your leaders that we are no friends of these spawn of the Evil One and are working to destroy them all.”
“Very good, I will send my report to Cairo and I trust the Caliph will be pleased.”
Tongali nodded and stood with the ambassador. The two walked to the door and shook hands.
The ambassador was almost out the door before he turned back. “And, Tongali…”
Al-Raziq smiled sadly. “Do not wait too long to resolve this situation. Our friendship can only assure our patience for so long.”
The door closed and Tongali sat heavily at his desk. Shaking, he began to write out orders.
Reaper looked down at the Mendoles compound from the jungle-covered hillside five hundred yards away. An enormous French style chateau surrounded by gardens and walking paths, it included a number of outbuildings to serve as garages, sheds, or additional housing. The entire complex was enclosed by a tall stone wall with concertina wire atop it. Two armed guards watched the front gate and a dozen more roamed the main house and the grounds.
Clearly, the cartel didn’t really anticipate imminent direct action; the guards were there to deter their competition and make the occupants feel safe. Undoubtedly they relied on their deep penetration of the Colombian government to give them warning against a law enforcement raid, and they would have spies and informants everywhere.
Rule of thumb calculations told her that about twice as many men loitered off shift as were visible, about half of whom would probably be elsewhere – in town or at separate homes.
Reaper tried not to squirm in the humid heat. Acclimatization to Colombia for nearly half a year had accustomed her to the worst of the humidity, but being under the jungle canopy seemed to only make matters worse. Keeping the bugs away always turned into a losing battle even with industrial strength insect repellant. She wondered idly if the mosquitoes that sucked her blood could become carriers for the Eden virus the way they had for malaria and yellow fever. If so, more power to them.
“Reaper, this is Hawkeye,” said a voice from her miniature earpiece. “Support team in position. All lines of sight clear.”
Reaper looked far to her right and thought she might be able to make out one of the men, but couldn’t be sure. They were well camouflaged and Hawkeye knew his business. The man had quickly taken over as the team’s de facto second-in-command.
“Roger, Hawkeye,” said Reaper. “No unusual activity detected. Go to fifty percent security. Eat and get some sleep. Make sure everyone is ready for kickoff at 0300 hours.”
“Wilco,” said Hawkeye.
“And Hawkeye… keep a close eye on Blade and Hound Dog.”
“Got it. Support team out.”
“Pass the word,” said Reaper to the team members lying on her left and right. “Fifty percent security with your battle buddy. Everyone gets at least four hours of sleep before 0300.” Then she went back to studying the compound.
It’s a good thing we’re all Edens, she thought. No way we’re going in there without taking some casualties. Hitting them early in the morning will grant us the element of surprise, but it’s still going to be dicey.
She’d rather not have to rely on Shortfuse, but going through the main gate would be even worse, so she supposed she’d have him blow a breach in the wall.
Speak of the devil. Here’s the nutcase now.
“Why don’t you get a little rest, boss?” said Shortfuse as he crawled up close to her. “I’ll keep watch.”
“Thanks, but no thanks,” said Reaper. “I never sleep before a mission. Go ahead if you want.”
“I can’t sleep before a mission either. Too keyed up.” He studied the walls and the gate. “That’s going to be a tough nut to crack.”
Reaper turned and looked at him. “I appreciate you making an effort, I really do, but we’re not going to be friends. You’re only here because Spooky thinks you might be useful. That may be true, but I don’t like people on my team that make me want to watch my own back. You aren’t reliable.”
“We didn’t get off to a good start, but that doesn’t mean I’m not reliable.”
“What about blowing Sparky’s fingers off?” Reaper asked. “He was a damn fine commo guy and we needed him, but after that, he decided not to come back. Can’t say I blame him.”
The man sighed and looked away. “I didn’t actually do it on purpose.”
“What?” asked Reaper. “You laughed and made a big deal out of how much you enjoyed it.”
“That was all show. Better for everyone to think the demo guy is crazy, not incompetent.”
“Are you incompetent?”
“Hell no,” he said fiercely. “I’m the best you’ll find anywhere.”
“So what happened? If you didn’t do it on purpose and you’re not incompetent, how did he lose his fingers on a charge you prepared?”
“I don’t know,” said Shortfuse.
“What do you mean, you don’t know?” Reaper asked. “Didn’t you prepare the charges?”
“I don’t remember, okay?” the man answered.
“You’re going to have to explain that one.”
He rubbed his hand through his hair. “I get blackouts every now and then. Ever since my last tour in Afghanistan. Doc said it was normal. Part of my mind dealing with cumulative stress.”
“Does Spooky know?”
Shortfuse shook his head.
“How did you get through the screening?”
“You know how it is,” he said. “All the questions rely upon the person being honest regarding the questions. I’ve been through enough PTSD briefings to know which bubbles to darken in and which ones to steer clear of.”
“This info just makes it worse,” said Reaper. “I can’t use you, can I? Look, nothing personal, but you could black out at any time.”
“It’s getting better. That was the first one I’ve had in a long time. I think the virus is fixing things.”
“Why would I take the risk?”
“Because you need me and...I need this,” Shortfuse answered. “Ever since my family left me there’s been nothing else. Do you have any idea what it’s like to lose everything at once?”
“Actually, I do,” said Reaper, turning away.
“I know you don’t trust me over what happened, but the truth is, I’m a good soldier and a better demo man. If you let me stay on the team you won’t have any trouble out of me and I promise you won’t have to watch your back. I’ll do that for you.”
Reaper mulled things over. “Okay. For now. But here’s what’s going to happen. After this job, you’re going to train me on everything you know about demolitions and explosives. I want to know what you know.”
“I can’t teach you everything,” he said. “We’re talking decades of experience. I may not look that old, but they forced me to retire after thirty years of service.”
“Well, then show me what you can. Teach me what’s important. I want to double check everything you do to make sure no one else loses body parts.”
Shortfuse’s jaw got tight and his eyes narrowed.
“I’m not going to endanger the team to soothe your pride,” Reaper said. “I’ll make a show of being an asshole about it in front of the others if you want, but that’s the deal and it’s the best one you’re going to get from me right now. Take it or leave it.”
“Okay. I guess I’ll take it. Not like I have a lot of other options.”
“No, you don’t.”
The man nodded and gently took the binoculars out of her hands. He looked down at the compound.
“What do you think?” Reaper asked. “Can you blow a hole through that wall?”
Shortfuse lowered the binos and smiled at her. “Most definitely.”
* * *
They crept through the jungle wearing night vision goggles. Reaper led the assault team forward slowly and carefully. She saw the edge of the compound wall up ahead through the goggles’ green glow.
“Hawkeye, this is Reaper,” Reaper whispered. “Commo check.”
“Read you Lima Charlie,” Hawkeye responded.
“Same here. We’re nearly in position. Everything still quiet?”
“Roger that. Had a car come in around midnight, but nothing since then. There’s a light in the guard house and one in the north shed, but otherwise looks like everyone’s asleep.”
“Good. I’m putting the assault team in position and we’re moving up to place the charges. I’m pretty sure they don’t have motion sensors around the walls, but just in case, let me know if you notice any activity.”
Reaper lined up her ten personnel in a pair of files, ready to charge through the breach. Then she and Shortfuse crept forward slowly; he carried a bag of demo in his arms. They rested at the base of the wall and Shortfuse pulled out a small shovel and began digging.
“What are you doing?” Reaper hissed.
“I have to tamp down the charge, otherwise it’ll dissipate in the air. The farther down I can get it the better.” Shortfuse scooped dirt away from the wall until there was a hole about two feet deep. He pulled a bundle of plastic explosive and wires from the small bag. Placing the package in the hole, he pulled up a wire and laid it aside on the ground. He then covered up the hole with dirt and patted it firmly in place.
Picking up the wire he’d left above ground, he plugged the end into a small radio receiver, which buried under a thin layer of loose dirt, its antenna protruding. “That’s it.”
The two crept back to the line of team members waiting in the blackness.
“Listen up,” Shortfuse said. “Hug the dirt, cover your ears and turn off your radios. After it blows, turn them back on and be prepared to climb through rubble.”
Once she was certain everyone understood, Reaper transmitted, “Hawkeye, this is Reaper. We’re ready to blow the charge; stand by.”
Reaper nodded at Shortfuse.
He pulled a small radio transmitter from his bag and got down behind a big tree. “Fire in the hole,” he said as he pressed the button.
The wall erupted into a blast of noise and light. The force of the shockwave washed over them. Chunks of concrete and rubble rained down through the branches of the trees above.
“Go!” barked Reaper, rushing forward. She climbed carefully over the pile of smoking rubble at the breach. Sniper and machine gun fire from Hawkeye’s team peppered the compound, covering their entry.
“The house first,” she said, rushing forward, followed by her assault team.
Lights popped on all over the compound. Racing up the front steps of the mansion, she crouched down beside the door. “Stack up!” she yelled to the first four as they moved into position. “Go!” She pushed the door open.
The four rushed into the room along the right wall in a textbook deployment, weapons covering their sectors, but there was nothing to shoot. Reaper turned to the next two. “Cover the front of the house,” she ordered. “That’s our way out of here, so keep it clear.”
Reaper led the rest of the team into the foyer, inside toward the main staircase that would lead them to their target’s second-floor bedroom. “We’re in,” she radioed. “Snatch team proceeding to second floor.”
“Roger,” Hawkeye replied. “Copy snatch team moving from first to second floor.”
Before they could ascend, two men began firing pistols from the cover of the kitchen doorway, but their weapons and training were no match for Reaper and her team, who responded immediately with a hail of Sam rounds. When the enemy pulled back, at least one had been hit in the hand.
Reaper immediately rushed the opening, relying on her body armor and healing ability to save her if she was shot, but it was not necessary. Both men lay on the floor, clutching arm injuries. She put another burst into the bellies of each, the safest way to put them out of the fight but allow them to survive. Gut wounds normally took half an hour or more to kill, during which time the infection would take hold and save them.
“Keep moving,” she said as she returned to the foyer. The snatch team filed up the stairs while the others split into pairs and began to secure the ground floor.
A naked woman with wild black hair flew at them suddenly from the top of the staircase. She had a knife in each hand and buried them in the shoulder and neck of Murphy, the first man in line, by luck or skill bypassing his body armor. The two tumbled down the stairs, taking the next man with them.
Reaper stepped back against the wall just in time to avoid getting caught in the mess, and as the blade-woman jerked her weapons free, Reaper put a boot into her head from behind, snapping her neck sideways with an audible crack. Then she put a single round into the woman’s leg, hoping the virus contained therein would save her life.
Shortfuse froze and stared at the fallen woman. Reaper struck him on the arm. “Come on; follow me. Need to move fast. Someone check Murphy.”
She raced up the remaining stairs and into the hallway. Reaper would have preferred to check and clear every room, but they didn’t have time. They needed to secure Enrique Mendoles and be gone before all the guards in the compound converged on the house. Hopefully, Hawkeye was keeping them busy outside.
“He should be in the last one,” Reaper said, rushing forward, hitting the final door with her shoulder. She bounced off; even with body armor and gear she weighed barely one-seventy. Turning to the two who’d followed her up, she motioned to Hulk, her biggest man. “Breach!”
Hulk nodded, lowered his weapon and charged the portal. Three hundred fifty pounds at full speed did the trick. The door crashed inward and the man deliberately fell onto his left side as they’d rehearsed.
Reaper followed, dodging to the right, and looked up to see Enrique Mendoles sitting in bed with a shotgun aimed in her direction. He pulled the trigger and she felt the wave of heat as shot spattered over her head and into the wall, one of the pellets stinging her cheek. In return, she put two Sam rounds into him, one in the belly and one into his shoulder.
Enrique fell off the side of the bed onto the floor, the shotgun skidding into a corner.
Hulk powered to his feet and over to Enrique, who was holding his gut wound.
“You’re dead,” the large, fat cartel boss said in Spanish. “All of you are dead. Do you have any idea who you are messing with?”
“Just one more pendejo,” Reaper replied in the same language, wrenching his hands behind him to flex-cuff them. After wrapping a strip of duct tape around his head and over his mouth, she yanked him roughly to his feet. “Let’s go.”
She turned to see Shortfuse standing in the doorway. His rifle was pointed directly at her. “What –”
Shortfuse fired and Reaper felt the whistle of the bullet pass by. She turned to see a scantily clad woman with a pistol in one hand and a SAM wound in her chest, lying on the floor gasping, lung-shot.
Reaper picked up her boot and stomped down forcefully on the manicured hand that still tried to lift the pistol to kill her. She heard the crunch of thin bones as the woman screamed in fresh pain. “Don’t worry, puta. You’ll soon be as right as rain.”
“I think we better go,” said Shortfuse.
“Definitely,” said Reaper, pushing the bound Enrique toward Hulk. “You take him.” She flipped the selector for all frequencies on her radio. “We have the package. Exiting the building now. Cover our extraction.”
Reaper led her people down the stairs. “Out!” she yelled to the rest that covered the ground floor. “Extract, now!”
They raced across the courtyard with a few bullets striking near them, but heavy covering fire from Hawkeye’s team kept most of the enemy suppressed. Reaching the break in the wall, they began climbing through.
Enrique slumped to the ground at the opening, either passed out or faking. With a grunt, Hulk threw the man over his shoulders. “Shit, he’s heavy,” he said, climbing through the wall.
Reaper waited on the far side until the last of her team was through. “Hawkeye,” she radioed. “We’re out. Call for extraction. Hit anyone that comes after us.”
“You got it,” he replied, and put a bullet into one of the braver thugs trying to climb through the breach behind them.
Reaper could see the light of dawn breaking, so she put her night vision goggles away as her team hustled toward the extraction point. Footsteps became heavy and slow as the post-adrenaline sluggishness hit them. It was clear that some of the team had been wounded, and everyone desperately needed calories.
Checking her GPS, she said, “We’re nearly to the extraction point. Keep pushing. We’ll treat and eat there.” She then radioed Hawkeye. “We’re about seven mikes out from the EP. Extract your team.”
“Will do...on our way...soon,” came a pained voice.
“Long story,” Hawkeye answered. “See you in ten.”
At the extraction point, a large cargo helicopter waited, Flyboy at the controls and the rotors starting to spin up. Team members gave him shit as they climbed into the seats in back.
“Hey, it wasn’t all easy with me either,” he responded with a grin. “I hit some real turbulence on the way in, and I had to spend the night on these uncomfortable seats, so don’t tell me how bad you pussies had it.”
Crumpled MRE packages and other small projectiles made Flyboy duck, accompanied by catcalls.
Minutes later, Reaper saw Hawkeye stumble out of the jungle with his team. He had a long bloody gash down the side his cheek. At the end of the line, one of their two females, Bunny, led a flex-cuffed Hound Dog.
“Where’s Blade?” Reaper asked.
“Dead,” answered Hawkeye, gesturing at his face. “Came at me after you made it through the wall. Lucky I turned to reload my rifle or his knife would have gone into my skull.”
“You sure he’s dead?” asked Reaper.
“We’re sure,” said Bunny, a sour look on her too-pretty face. “I put three into his head and then rolled him into an army ant mound. Nobody gets up from that, and his body’ll be eaten in a day.”
“What’s up with him?” asked Reaper, pointing at Hound Dog.
“Don’t know for sure, but they were butt-buddies,” said Hawkeye. “He tried to run and I wasn’t taking any chances. Figured we’ll straighten it all out in the rear.”
“Speaking of which, maybe we should get out of here,” said Shortfuse, pointing at the loaded helicopter with the blades turning.
Reaper nodded, and they raced to board the aircraft. She gave Flyboy the thumbs-up and he lifted.
“All things considered,” said Reaper, sitting next to Hawkeye. “I think it went pretty well.”
He chuckled and unknowingly echoed her words to Spooky. “Could have been worse. That’s one hell of a warm-up mission. Not sure I want to know what the main act will be.”
I can’t believe I’m in the damn desert again, thought Skull. I nearly died the last time and the odds against me are probably worse now.
“Did you say something?” Zinabu asked.
Skull shook his head, but wasn’t sure; maybe he’d been thinking out loud. He checked the GPS again to make sure they were headed in the right direction. It would be easy to stray in this flat, arid landscape.
“Good thing we have donkeys,” Zinabu said.
“You already said that.”
“Yes,” Skull rasped. “Like five damn times. I’m fond of donkeys too, but evidently not as much as you.”
“I don’t remember saying anything about them before. Are you sure?”
Skull coughed. “Let’s take a break. I think the sun is getting to us.” They stopped and sat in the shade of the animals while taking sips of water from their canteens.
It was good to get the donkeys from those tribesmen, thought Skull. Only cost us one of the Mossad pistols and a flashlight. They even threw in some jugs of water. A bargain. He checked the GPS again.
Zinabu leaned toward him. “How much farther?”
“Don’t even fucking start with me,” said Skull, pushing the man away.
“You should not use vulgar language.”
Skull merely grimaced. They sat in silence until the donkeys moved to investigate grazing, thereby taking away the shade…not that there was much, but evidently these two animals knew their environment and found a scrubby bush to sample.
The two men climbed to their feet and began walking again, as they had the three previous days.
“You sure don’t talk much,” said Zinabu.
“What do you want to talk about?”
“Nothing in particular. It’s just that a good traveling companion can help carry a conversation. Makes the time go by.”
“Traveling companions? We’re not on a college road trip,” said Skull. “And the time is going by quick enough. It’s the miles that ain’t.”
Zinabu sighed wistfully. “I wish Kollia was here. He could really talk.”
“Talk to the damn donkeys if you want. You’re sure as hell fond of them.”
“Don’t listen to him,” said Zinabu, rubbing his donkey’s nose. “He’s just jealous that you’re prettier than he is.”
Skull ground his teeth and kept walking as Zinabu laughed uproariously.
It was nearly sunset when Skull stopped walking.
Zinabu continued a few steps before he stopped too and look back at the other man. “What is it? Time to stop?”
Skull pointed ahead. “Do you see that? Looks like something manmade.”
“Don’t see anything but rock and sand,” said Zinabu. “Why don’t we go ahead and pitch camp.”
“Just a little farther. I want to see what that is.”
Zinabu mumbled something coarse, but followed.
After a half hour, Skull could see what appeared to be a structure cut out of the bare rock. They approached a large open pit with stairs leading down. There were round holes at other places along the hillside.
“It’s a monastery,” said Zinabu in wonder. “We heard about them in school, but I didn’t think I would see one. They are reportedly from the fifth century.”
“Think there’s anyone in there?” asked Skull.
“Oh, yes,” answered Zinabu. “Let’s tether the donkeys and go see.”
They picked their way down the circular stairs cut into the stone. The path was worn smooth by centuries of footsteps, and even the walls had been smoothed where fingers had trailed for balance. The temperature dropped considerably as they descended from the hot desert into the cool belowground.
At the bottom they found a thick and ancient wooden door. There was no handle or knocker.
“What now?” asked Skull.
Skull pulled the knife out of his belt and used the butt of it to pound on the door.
After a few seconds, a small wooden panel opened up and a set of eyes looked out at them. Then the panel closed and the door swung open. A small black man with skin like parchment stood in a black monk’s habit, wearing a crucifix.
Zinabu spoke to the man in Woleta and the man replied. “He says we are welcome to stay. They will stable our donkeys for us.”
“Do we need to worry about them going through our gear?” asked Skull.
“They’re monks, for God’s sake,” said Zinabu walking inside. “You have serious trust issues, my friend.”
“You’re not the first person to say that,” answered Skull as he walked inside. “But what I meant was, will they freak out that we have weapons?”
“Not if you packed them well enough. Did you?”
Skull only grunted.
The monk closed the door behind them and slid a thick wooden beam in place.
They were led inside and shown where they could wash up and rest, a communal bathroom with a large stone depression containing cool running water. It felt refreshing on Skull’s sunburned skin.
Afterward, the monk then brought them into a small room lit by a lantern. A long wooden table with benches held bowls, spoons and cups. The man gestured and spoke to Zinabu.
“He says we are welcome to eat,” Zinabu translated. “Although they know it is a simple fare.”
“Tell him we are grateful and thank him,” Skull replied.
“I already have. Let’s sit.”
Both men ate while the monk stood and watched them impassively. The food proved to be a bland stew. Skull couldn’t identify what was in it, except that there was very little meat, and something starchy formed its base. The cups held water.
“Do they do this for everyone? Take in people out of the desert and give them hospitality?”
Zinabu spoke to the monk, who answered. “He says that it is their custom to receive visitors as they would receive brothers. He says that all they have comes from God, and who are they to refuse it to those God sends their way?”
“To each his own,” said Skull. “Tell him we’re grateful.” He raised his voice to address the monk. “I’m afraid my friend here was starting to get sunstroke and babble.”
“I was not,” said Zinabu.
“Come on now, you were talking to the donkeys.”
“Only because it was easier than talking to you.”
“Which reminds me,” said Skull. “I’m not really one for conversation. I think now I’ve eaten, nothing sounds more divine in this godly place than a good night’s sleep. Please pass my regards to our laconic friend and ask him where I can rest.”
Zinabu spoke to the monk, who led Skull to a small but clean cell, dimly lit by a tiny vertical tube that reached at least ten feet upward to the open air. When his head made contact with the rough wool of the pallet, he fell immediately asleep.
* * *
When he awoke in the near-dark, it took Skull a moment to remember where he was. Looking at his watch and the thin ray of light from the vent, he saw it was morning. Rising from the bunk, he stretched before making his way down the rock hallway to the common room with the tables and benches.
As he did, he heard the sounds of male voices wafting through the corridors, chanting or praying. He found Zinabu sitting at the table with a different monk from the one who attended them the day before.
“How did you sleep?” Zinabu asked.
“Fine. Who is this?”
“This is Father Timothy. He is the head of the order here. Fortunately for us, he has agreed to help us with our endeavor.”
“What?” asked Skull sharply. “You didn’t tell him anything, did you?”
“Why not. He is a man of God. He can be trusted. Besides, he wants to help.”
“Just because someone proclaims themselves a man of God doesn’t mean they can be trusted,” said Skull. “Trust comes from actions over time.”
Timothy spoke up in English. “Very true. After all, does not our Lord say that a tree shall be judged by its fruit? But Zinabu is correct. I would like to help.”
Skull looked back and forth at the two men before settling his gaze on Timothy. “Just why would you want to help us? The monk last night told us your policy was to receive visitors with hospitality, but I wouldn’t have called him enthusiastic about it. Why would you help us on our journey?”
The man smiled and rubbed his rough hands softly over the wood of the table, back and forth. “Journey? Let’s call it what it is, shall we? Your friend has told me of your mission to help trapped Edens. Even out here in the desert we have heard of the blessing that is the Eden virus. There are many who would wish to destroy this gift, to pervert it and call those blessed by it ‘friends of Satan.’ But I know that is not true.”
“Why is that?” asked Skull.
“Because a tree is judged by its fruit, not its flowers. Edens are not perfect, but I have heard they try to do good things and help others. They try to live with each other the way God intended, even if they do not believe in God. Satan, who has wished evil for mankind from the beginning, could have no part in that.”
“Okay,” said Skull. “I can buy that, but how can you help us?”
“I can get you into Addis Ababa,” said Timothy. “There is much difficult terrain and danger between here and there. We can make the road easier for you, and once you reach the capital, a brother of my order may be able to help you further.”
“Won’t we stand out a little?” Skull asked. “I mean, why would you be traveling with someone who looks like me?”
Timothy indicated the robe he was wearing. “You will both wear the habits of monks. We take brothers from anywhere. No one will notice.”
“Isn’t that against some sort of monastic code or something? You know, to deceive people?” asked Skull.
Timothy leaned toward Skull. “Your friend has told me you are Catholic, though he has been reticent about your name.”
“I am, more or less.”
“You were confirmed?”
“Sure. Long time ago.”
“Nothing can pluck you from the hand of the Father once you are His, my nameless friend. Not even your own sins.”
Skull smiled, warming to the debate. “What about the Unforgivable Sin?”
“Do you intend to blaspheme the Holy Spirit?”
“Not intentionally, no.”
“Then I am not concerned. As Zinabu is a Jew, I am sure you both know the story of Rahab the prostitute of Jericho, who lied and hid the Hebrew spies? The Lord spared her and blessed her for this action, thus proving that not all deception is sin.”
“And yet, Satan is the father of lies, right?”
“A lie is a spiritual violence, only to be used in defense of good. A man such as you no doubt understands that two similar and deadly acts may have completely different contexts. Self-defense is not murder.”
Skull cocked his head. “That’s a far more nuanced view than I’d expect from someone like you.”
Timothy smiled. “I’m glad to have disappointed your preconceptions, then. Perhaps, one day, you will return to God and his path.”
“Maybe when I die, if He’ll take me. Until then, I’m my own man.”
The monk said nothing for a moment, only stared. Finally, he said, “I would recommend you both take vows of silence on the way, for your own protection. Speaking will give you away. Do either of you have any problems with that?”
Skull turned to show Zinabu his teeth. “I don’t.”
Enrique Mendoles sat strapped down to a wooden chair. He tried his best to get comfortable, but the sharp stub of a nail near his crotch and the bloodstains on which he sat distracted him.
Mendoles knew from experience that in his business, once captured, brutal torture and a slow death would follow. Body parts would be mailed to family members, presuming they were not also to be killed. Rumor was that these Edens were too soft for such measures, but he was smart enough to realize they could always hire non-Edens to do their dirty work.
But I won’t go out like a coward, thought Enrique. I’ll keep my pride no matter what happens.
Spooky walked in and sat across from the heavy man.
“You have no idea what you have done,” said Enrique. “There is no place you or your family can hide that my people will not find you. Rest assured that no matter what happens to me, you will never have a fearless night again for the remainder of your short life.”
Spooky dismissed his words with a wave of his hand. “Cease your useless threats. You have sent two assassins to kill Chairman Markis, correct? The other cartels who follow your lead have sent others.”
Enrique didn’t answer, only spat on the floor.
“I can only presume that you do this due to fear that Markis’ cooperation with the Colombian government will hurt your business.”
“It already has,” said Enrique, sneering at Spooky. “Go on and do to me whatever you’re going to do.”
“All in due time. This is important, so let’s not rush things.”
“Piss off, gringo,” said Enrique.
Spooky’s face twisted in mock confusion. “I’m not sure it’s accurate to call a Vietnamese highlander a gringo, but I understand the misplaced sentiment.” His face hardened. “I want all attempts on Chairman Markis or anyone else associated with the Free Communities to stop.”
Enrique began to laugh. “Now why would I do that?”
“Two very important reasons,” said Spooky. “First of all, I can ensure the security and continued sale of your product. In fact, I can assure you that if you see reason you will be freed, and become even richer than you already are.”
The tied up man stopped laughing immediately. “How?”
“I have resources and influence. I can even help with distribution through North America.”
“In exchange for a cut in the profits, I presume.”
“Actually, no,” said Spooky. “You will guarantee no further attacks on Free Communities personnel. You will also sell none of your product inside Colombia, or any other nation that joins the Free Communities. In return, you will have my full assistance and support.”
“Why?” asked Enrique, appearing to become genuinely curious.
“Because that will allow me to get the Colombian government off your back. They will see this as a win, and all you have to do is keep your business your business.”
“How can you promise these things? I don’t even know who you are.”
“That’s the way I like it. But now that we’ve met…you may call me Mister Winter.” Spooky waved a hand and wiggled his fingers as if scattering something. “I want you to make it snow…but only where I choose.”
“What else do you want?” asked Enrique.
“I will direct you to send a certain percentage of your product to locations in the United States and avoid other areas there. Don’t worry, there will be no loss of profit to you.”
“Again, why?” asked Enrique.
“Because the Free Communities and the United States are not the best of friends right now,” said Spooky. “Your product will hopefully help keep the norteamericanos preoccupied with other things besides hunting down and killing Edens. That will mean shipping the product to Unionist controlled areas, and avoiding non-Unionist areas. I want their hands full with their own problems, and to discredit them if possible.”
Enrique mused for a few minutes, before eventually nodding sharply. “I like what you’re laying down. I think we might be able to do business. But you mentioned two reasons I would cut a deal. Is there another one?”
“Oh yes, I almost forgot.” Spooky waved toward one of his aides, who brought a laptop and a tiny table to set in front of Enrique. He then hit a button and walked away.
Enrique’s eyes widened as a video ran, tinny sounds proceeding from the speaker.
“I trust you recognize your man?” said Spooky.
“Razor,” said Enrique through clenched teeth. The video looped at the point where the hammer was pounding the nail into the wood and the man on the video screamed.
“That was filmed right here,” said Spooky conversationally. “As a matter of fact, I think that’s the same chair.” He leaned forward and stared down at the wood below Mendoles’ crotch. “Yes, that’s it. See the base of the nail and the blood?”
“You sick bastards,” whispered Enrique.
“Oh, come now,” said Spooky. “We both know that you have had your people do much worse to people far more innocent. This man was evil, a serial torturer and murderer. If you will simply look at this objectively, you will notice the sheer artistry of our methods. We obtained the identity of your insider without even having to kill him or harm his sister.”
“Would you have?” asked Enrique with what seemed, to Spooky, manufactured anger. “As an Eden, could you have?”
Spooky’s mouth twitched. “I can do what needs to be done, or find someone else to do it for me. Now, I need to hear you say you will do as I tell you.”
“How am I supposed to sell this to my people? They won’t look favorably on working for a bunch of Edens.”
“Then don’t think of it that way,” said Spooky, spreading his hands. “Tell them you negotiated a deal that gets the Colombian government off your back and opens new distribution channels in the U.S. All you had to give up is your attacks on FC personnel and selling locally. Your people will see that as a win.”
Enrique mimed mulling this over for a few seconds, but Spooky could see the man had already decided to agree. “I think that will work. It’s not like I really have a choice anyway, is it?”
“Oh, you always have a choice,” said Spooky. “There’s always the hard road.”
“What makes you think I won’t simply go back on my deal? You know, once I’m safe again and out of your clutches.”
“Only this,” said Spooky. He pulled a small pistol from a shoulder holster inside his jacket and shot the man in the thigh.
Enrique screamed. “What the hell was that for? I thought we had an agreement.”
“We do,” said Spooky, “Let’s just call it insurance. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. More than fine, in fact.” He checked his watch. “Give it ten minutes.”
Once that time had passed, Enrique stared at his leg in amazement. The wound had already begun to heal, and the ceramic fragments were being pushed out of the skin to drop onto the floor.
“It’s something new we developed,” said Spooky. “Nonlethal rounds that also infect the target with the Eden virus.”
“The Eden virus?” said Enrique, stunned. “You didn’t!”
“Oh, yes. I did.”
“Why does everyone want to question my parentage?” said Spooky. “But you might want to keep this a little secret between us. I understand in the criminal underworld, being an Eden might ruin your street cred as a cold-blooded murderous thug. All you have to do is keep acting scary and barbaric. That shouldn’t be so hard.”
Enrique hung his head and uttered a string of gutter curses.
“Don’t look so melancholy,” said Spooky. “You entered thinking you were going to be tortured to death and you leave with a deal to assure the stability of your business…and immortality as well.”
“If we’re done, can I go now?”
“Certainly,” said Spooky, turning to his henchmen. “Let’s cut our new partner loose.”
Two came forward and sliced through the duct tape and flex cuffs.
“And get him some new pants,” said Spooky. “All that blood and the hole might be hard to explain without the wound. I think we have some that color in the back. What are you, a forty-five, forty-six?”
“Forty-four,” said Enrique sulkily.
“Well, you’ll be down a few belt sizes soon enough, Gordo. One of the benefits of the virus. Better start exercising or eating less in public so you don’t draw suspicion.”
“Just let me out of here,” said Enrique, taking the trousers he’d been brought and pulling them on.
Spooky ordered, “Drop him off somewhere downtown with his cell phone so he can call his people. Make sure no one messes with him until he’s picked up.”
Enrique had begun walking toward the back of the building between his two guards when Spooky stopped him with his voice. “Mendoles. Remember none of this was personal. Don’t make the mistake of making it so, because nothing you do can protect you from me if I want to reach out and touch you again. It’s all business, my new friend. Do your part, and everything works.”
Enrique started to speak, but then shut his mouth, turning to resume his exit.
Cassandra sat in front of her laptop and checked the clock again. It was almost time for her teleconference with Markis and Spooky, and she had begun to feel the passage of every second as a blow against the trapped Edens.
Numerous emails had flown back and forth, but she needed to speak to Markis to get his final agreement. She also wanted Spooky online so he couldn’t deny receiving his instructions or claim he misunderstood. If he had objections, she intended to make him state them up front and deal with them.
Cassandra noticed Markis log on, and a few seconds later, the video came through. Markis and Spooky sat side by side in the Chairman’s office.
“Good to see you, Cassandra,” said Markis.
“You too, DJ,” said Cassandra. “How is everything? You look tired.”
“I am tired, but that comes with the job, so nothing to be done about it.”
“Hello, Tran,” said Cassandra.
“Good to see you,” answered Spooky with what seemed to her a false camaraderie. “Daniel has passed on reports about the situation. I am intrigued by the offers from Prince Richard.”
“I hope that word has gone no further. I promised only to tell Markis.”
“I do understand OPSEC, you know.”
“Yes,” said Markis, cutting off an argument. “Cassandra, why don’t you lay it out for me and tell me what you think. You’ve been heavily involved in this situation since Husnia first established contact, and in many ways I look at this as your baby.”
That’s a good sign, Cassandra thought, and believed she detected the barest hint of a frown from Spooky. “As of now, Denham is still on his way. I believe there’s a very high degree of likelihood that he will succeed at making it to the Edens.”
“Do you agree?” Markis asked Spooky.
Spooky nodded. “Skull is a hard man to stop when he gets the bit in his teeth.”
“The Edens at Cumba are still holding out,” continued Cassandra. “As far as we can tell the Ethiopians have been content to keep them confined and wait.”
“Probably intending to starve them out,” said Spooky.
“How much food do they have?” asked Markis.
“A few weeks at most,” replied Cassandra, “and they’re already cutting their rations, but I don’t think the Ethiopians are going to wait that long.”
“Why is that?” asked Markis.
Cassandra ran her hand through her hair. “We’ve gotten indications that they’re getting reinforcements and obviously preparing. Orders were issued from Prime Minister Tongali shortly after the Caliphate Ambassador visited. Al-Raziq appeared to leave happy, and we know how they feel about the Edens.”
“Did you get a copy of the orders?” asked Spooky.
“We’re still working on that, but I think we can say they’re going to force the military to deal with the Edens.”
Markis frowned. “And the Ethiopians still haven’t responded to our repeated diplomatic overtures to discuss things. Any luck with your back-channels?”
“No,” said Cassandra. “Our sources tell us they are very concerned about offending the Caliphate, which is only looking for a pretext to invade Ethiopia. Tongali has to comply if he wants to keep his country out of their clutches for a while longer.”
“So what you are saying is that we’re running out of time,” said Markis.
Spooky spoke. “All of this is for nothing if they have nowhere to go. If Kenya is not willing to receive them, we are risking our people for no reason. We may even be endangering the very Edens we are trying to help.”
“Prince Richard has agreed to use his influence with the Kenyans,” said Cassandra.
“Has he been successful?” asked Spooky.
“Not yet, but I hope to have an update on that soon. I believe we have to proceed under the presumption that he will be successful.”
“What I’m getting out of this is that everything rests on Prince Richard’s influence with the Kenyans,” said Markis. “That’s a very shaky foundation on which to mount a rescue mission. Spooky has briefed me on how risky this operation was even before things started to go badly. Are we sure we want to go forward?”
“I understand,” said Cassandra, “but what we don’t want to do is pull the plug too early. What does it hurt to keep our man in play and go ahead and send in the team?”
“They’re not ready yet,” said Spooky. “They need more time for training.”
“Sending them in any later risks complete failure,” said Cassandra. “Just get them to Kenya. They can train and prep some more there. At least they’ll be close.”
“Just get them to Kenya?” said Spooky. “How? We were counting on the Israelis to work that out for us. Odds are they have tipped the Kenyans off. They could get rolled up the minute we set down.”
Cassandra chuckled. “This is what you do, right, Spooky? Covert ops? And isn’t this what your team was designed for? If we’re not going to use them to save several thousand innocent Edens when we have the chance then what the hell are they good for?”
Spooky frowned, apparently knowing full well she was trying to box him in with Markis. “Perhaps we should wait on the final word from Prince Richard regarding the Kenyans.”
“If we wait,” said Cassandra, “it could be too late. Those Edens are our people. Getting them out will prove the FC means what it says. It could be a huge symbolic victory that will bring people over to our side.”
A sneer leaked through Spooky’s mask of friendliness. “I think you need to be a little more objective about this. You’re letting your emotions cloud your judgment.”
“What about Denham?” asked Cassandra. “Even if the mission is a no-go, don’t you need the extraction team on the ground to get him out anyway?”
“Skull is capable of getting himself out of trouble. Besides, it makes no sense to endanger twelve lives to save one.”
“But you just said it makes no sense to endanger twelve lives to save ten thousand. You seem to be arguing both sides of the question.”
“It is not that simple,” said Spooky. “There’s a lot to consider.”
“You’re stalling, Spooky, and I’m wondering why. What’s your hidden agenda here?”
Spooky spread his hands. “Only the good of the FC.”
“Sure doesn’t seem that way. When did you get timid, anyway?”
Spooky clearly understood that she was trying to bait him into saying something damaging, for he simply shrugged and smiled.
Markis held up a hand. “Let’s take it easy now. We’re all on the same team.”
“Yes, but apparently we’re not all trying to get to the same goal line,” Cassandra replied.
“If we are going to use sports analogies,” said Spooky, leaning forward, “we must first clarify what sport we’re playing. Is this a race or a ball game?”
“Both of you quit bickering like a couple of children,” Markis said. “If we had known from the beginning that the Israelis were not going to support us, would we have agreed to go forward with the mission?”
“Absolutely not,” said Spooky. “We pull the plug. It’s not personal. It’s a bad mission.”
Markis nodded and started to speak, but Cassandra cut him off.
“Daniel,” she said. “I’ve read those messages you sent to Husnia. Whether you want to admit it or not, you made her a promise. She certainly used that promise to encourage her people to run. You gave your word to nearly ten thousand men, women, and children that we are coming to help them.”
“I never promised anything more than our best efforts,” Markis said.
“Bullshit,” said Cassandra. “Leave that politician crap for your summit meetings. I need to have a conversation with the Daniel Markis I used to know, the one everyone believes in. The one who could and did make hard decisions.”
“I am making a hard decision, Cass. That’s why I’m letting you argue your side.”
Cassandra sighed. “What are all those overtures on our website for anyway? We tell people to hold on and reach out to us and not to persecute Edens. We tell them to believe, and guess what? Those in Cumba did. And now we’re going to turn our backs on them?”
“This is my people we’re talking about putting at risk,” said Spooky to Markis.
“You haven’t told me who’s on the team,” said Cassandra, “but I would bet money if you told them the mission, all of them would volunteer. Aren’t they all Edens?”
“Yes. The are now.”
“Then it should be fairly easy for them to see the right choice here. They would refuse to abandon these people. Frankly, I’m starting to have some serious concerns about why everyone can’t see that.”
“That’s enough,” said Markis. “I’ve let you have your say and you’ve said it.”
Cassandra bit her tongue and nodded.
Markis turned to Spooky. “Can we get the team to Kenya?”
“Sure,” said Spooky, “but you’re not going to like how it gets done.”
“Because it will involve the drug cartels.”
Markis shook his head. “Absolutely not.”
“DJ,” said Spooky, “if you tell me to go suck eggs, you don’t get to tell me how to suck them. It’s my job to get my hands dirty on your behalf. If you want the job done, this is the way to do it.”
Markis stared past the camera for a long moment, thinking. “Fine. That’s the least of all the evils. Ten thousand lives and our word, against more stains on our souls.”
“Does this mean we’re a go?” asked Cassandra.
“Yes,” said Markis giving Spooky a hard look. “The mission is on...for now. If Prince Richard doesn’t come through, we scrub and back out. That’s the best deal you’re going to get, Cassandra. Are we agreed?”
Cassandra nodded. “Yes.”
“Of course, Chairman,” said Spooky, his eyes glittering.
“I’m afraid I have to go,” said Markis, looking at his watch. “Late for another meeting. You two keep me posted. Good luck, Cassandra.”
“You too,” said Cassandra but the line had already disconnected.
She closed the laptop and clasped her hands together in front of her to stop them from trembling with anger. Damn Spooky. Obviously he had some agenda, even if it was only that he didn’t want to risk his precious covert ops team…but the whole point of forming that unit had been to try to get the Edens out.
Why create something so specialized and then not use it?
* * *
Cassandra and Geoffrey got off the QM2 at Southampton and boarded a private jet for Nairobi, Kenya.
“You look stressed,” Geoffrey said to her.
“I am. Have you heard anything about Prince Richard’s efforts with the Kenyans?”
“Nothing yet,” said Geoffrey as he sipped a glass of Scotch. “Don’t worry. He said he would talk to them so he’ll talk to them.”
“There is a lot riding on that talk. I sometimes get the impression that you are taking all of this a little too flippantly.”
“Cassandra, I know very well what is at stake but learned long ago that you cannot let yourself get too close to things. Otherwise, you’ll break.”
Cassandra stared at him until he had given her his full attention. “In my experience the only place to see things clearly is close to them. Detachment is often an excuse to abdicate moral responsibility and a convenient shelter to hide cowardice.”
“Is that supposed to be directed at me?”
“If the shoe fits. Do you mind if I plug my laptop in and send a few messages? I presume you have a secure link on this plane.”
“Of course,” he said. “It’s in the back.”
“Thank you,” she said, getting up and retrieving her bag. In the rear of the plane, she hooked into their secure data stream after placing an FC security dongle between them. Cassandra didn’t think the Brits would try to download the contents of her laptop or install a backdoor, but it was better to be safe than sorry.
Then she carefully composed a message to her deputy back in Colombia. She ordered him to give every bit of intelligence support he could to the trapped Edens. To hold nothing back, even if they didn’t have a secure link in Ethiopia.
After sending the email, she closed her laptop. As she turned, she caught Geoffrey staring at her.
Cassandra could have sworn he looked sad.
Dust shook down upon frightened faces. Booming thuds like thunder seemed to make the very air vibrate. Mortar fire had started the previous day and remained constant during daylight hours. The only relief they experienced was at night, probably because the besieging troops wanted to sleep as well.
“We’re safe here in the caves,” Misgana told his daughter Jemmia. “They can’t get to us down here.”
“They’re trying to kill us now aren’t they?”
“But why?” she asked.
He shook his head. “I’m not sure. I think maybe we scare them.”
“We’re not scary,” Jemmia responded.
“We’re different,” Misgana said. “That frightens people.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I.” Misgana tilted his head to listen. “I think they may have stopped.”
“Must be nightfall,” said someone nearby.
Misgana stood to begin running up toward the cave exits. Other men followed along behind him. They emerged to dusk with only the barest hints of light remaining.
“Quick, deploy,” Misgana ordered. So far the enemy hadn’t tried to attack after the barrage, but he didn’t want them all buttoned up in the caves if they decided to try.
He watched with approval as his people quickly moved into their defensive positions, ready for any attack. “Check the booby traps,” Misgana ordered as he walked the lines. “They may have been destroyed by the mortars.”
Beelsha’s sandbagged shack loomed ahead in the growing dark. Misgana ducked his head inside and saw the small man at his computer.
“You need to move out of this shack,” said Misgana. “It’s only a matter of time before the mortars gets a lucky hit.”
“They can’t shoot for shit anyway,” said Beelsha, not looking up. “Safest place around here is where they are aiming.”
“Regardless, if you get hit, we’re really going to miss the computer.”
Beelsha chuckled as he was typing, but then stopped and smiled. “You’re not going to believe this.”
“What?” asked Misgana.
The small man turned the laptop so he could see the screen. There were perhaps twelve pictures laid out side by side. Misgana struggled to make sense of them but couldn’t. Still something in his mind thought he knew what he was looking at.
“What is it?” asked Misgana.
Beelsha clicked on one of the images and it took up the whole screen. There were swirls of black and gray on red and orange with slight patches of green. He put his finger on a spot. Do you know what that is?
Misgana shook his head and then froze. “Is that what I think it is?”
“Yes. That is my shack. Where we are now. This is satellite surveillance Husnia’s FC friends have sent us. Only hours old. It shows all the enemy positions around us.”
Misgana bent down and clicked through the images examining each one closely. “Can you print this?”
“Yes,” said Beelsha. “Can’t do too much or the printer jams. It’s better in the cool of the night, when the ink doesn’t run and clog.”
“I just need one sheet,” said Misgana tapping on one of the images. “That one right there.”
Beelsha typed a few keystrokes, and then an uneven jerking sound came from battered printer on the floor. The man reached down and handed a piece of paper to Misgana. It was in black and white, but you could still see the contours and terrain features.
Misgana took the sheet and ran back to the caves with a look of excitement on his face.
* * *
His men crept down the hillside after Misgana. They used the distant camp lights as their guide. The imagery provided by the FC showed a massive hole in the perimeter along a washed-out gully. Maybe the army had thought it served as a secure barrier, or perhaps they had simply been sloppy.
Either way, it was an opportunity of which Misgana planned to take advantage.
He called his leaders around him. “The gully is right ahead. I want half the men to go with Runja to destroy the ammunition and supply depot and the rest follow me to take out those mortars. Remember, speed and stealth are key. We must be like the lion on the hunt at night. Strike fast and hard, and then get out.”
Misgana had asked for volunteers only, men who insisted they could do some violence despite the virtue effect.
“Remember what Husnia said,” Runja muttered.
“Yes,” said Misgana. “Husnia says if you get the chance to bite someone and give them the plague instead of killing them then do it. I would recommend not getting that close, but each man will have to make his own choice.”
Misgana tried to see their faces, but it was so dark he only sensed their presence. “You blow the depot first. That will be our signal to take out the mortars. Try not to get into a fight with the soldiers. They have more soldiers than we do and are better armed. If you get wounded, try to get back here where you can heal. Does anyone have any questions?”
“Captain, how are we going to blow anything up?” asked a voice in the darkness. “We have no explosives.”
“You’re going to have to figure something out,” said Misgana. “Look for mortar rounds. Worse case, just dump gasoline on everything and set it on fire. If you can bring any supplies back, do it, but don’t spend too much time. Speed is key, remember.”
He felt them nodding toward him.
“Okay, Runja,” said Misgana, “you go. We’ll be right behind you.”
About two dozen men with rifles filed past them and climbed down the hill into the gully and across the enemy lines into the camp. Misgana watched carefully, not breathing until they were out of sight.
When the last man was out of the open and into the cover of the darkness, he let out his pent-up breath. “We need to go down to the gully and then turn left. We must make our way in the streambed for a couple of hundred meters until we come to an outcropping. At the top of the outcropping are the mortars. That is our target. Again, stay quiet. We will have to walk under the enemy lines on the far side of the gully during part of the trip. Everyone ready?”
Misgana didn’t hear any response so he took silence for assent. He crept down the hillside, trying to dart from one small shrub to the next. When he reached the gully, he followed the trail made by those who had just crossed and climbed slowly down to the dry stream bed. He counted the men until all sixteen were with him. Not daring to speak, he tapped the first and motioned for him to follow. That man did the same for the one behind him and so on down the line.
During his lifetime, Misgana had spent a great deal of time out in the dark. He couldn’t be certain, but it seemed as if his night sight was better than it had been. He wondered, could the Eden virus be responsible for this? Maybe I even had some sort of eye sickness that I was not aware of that has been healed. Why wouldn’t everyone want this?
Someone coughed. Misgana froze. He tilted his head up and saw a man standing twenty feet above them, looking at the mountain. He lit a cigarette and began to smoke it while gazing casually upward at the amazing expanse of stars in the sky.
After several minutes, he finished the cigarette and flicked it out into space. The butt sailed down, tumbling erratically and slipped down the back of Misgana’s shirt collar.
Pain flared in Misgana’s neck, and he arched his back to move away from the ember, but that only resulted in it dropping down the small of his back, where it caught inside his belt.
He clenched his fists, his eyes on the soldier. Misgana thought he could actually smell his own burning flesh. It wasn’t the worst pain he’d ever endured, but it was certainly the worst he’d withstood without crying out.
After a few seconds, the soldier finally turned and walked back away from the gully’s edge. Misgana ground the heel of his hand into the butt at the small of his back forcefully and accurately. This caused more pain, but the thing finally expired.
Taking a deep breath, he put his hand in his mouth. With his tongue, he could feel the blistered skin knitting back together.
What a marvel this blessing is, he thought. Then his stomach rumbled so loudly he thought the soldiers above them might hear. The men around waited expectantly, but no one came, and Misgana started moving again.
They could see the outcropping ahead by the way it blocked out the stars in the sky. He was just beginning to look for the best way to climb the slope when there came a mighty explosion from the center of the camp. A plume of light lit up the sky and cast shadows into the gully.
“Go!” said Misgana, rushing forward. He knew they would have only a few minutes of surprise to take out the mortars. He scrambled up the steep rocky slope as another explosion erupted into the sky.
The men reached the top and Misgana looked over the edge to see five large mortar tubes angled toward the mountain. Piles of sandbags and ammunition crates sat around them. Tents stood off in the distance and men milled around, looking toward their camp and the fire from the explosion, their backs to Misgana and his men.
Ten ran forward, leaping upon the soldiers and taking them by surprise, hitting them on their heads and shoulders. Some of his men began biting them.
“Grab the tubes,” said Misgana. “Unlatch them from the base plate. Here, watch me.” He showed those crowded around him how to disengage the long hollow tubes. Once one came loose in his hands, he threw it to the ground. “Then do this,” he said picking up a large rock and bringing it down over and over on the tube’s side until it had a significant dent in it.
The ones he’d instructed started working on the tubes, and Misgana stole a look toward his men and a couple of soldiers still wrestling on the ground. He barely had time to see another soldier rushing at him in the dark before the man bowled him over.
The two rolled in the dirt, the soldier gaining a position atop Misgana.
Seeing a wickedly curved knife in the man’s hand descending toward him, Misgana grasped the knife wielder’s wrist with both of his hands as the tip sank half an inch into his shoulder.
Misgana roared, bringing his knee up into the man’s groin. The soldier’s grip loosened slightly, allowing Misgana to roll onto his side. He was about to draw the pistol at his belt when a rock the size of a melon smashed into the side of the man’s head.
Misgana looked up to see one of his men, a wild look on his face.
“Thanks,” said Misgana. “Guess the rocks work to bend heads as well as tubes.”
His man turned to vomit on the ground, stricken.
“Bite him,” Misgana suggested. “You will feel less guilty.”
Nodding, his fighter moved to comply.
Climbing to his feet, Misgana saw all the mortar tubes bent to such a degree they could not be reused without serious machine retooling. The ones who had attacked the soldiers were coming back his way, some of them wounded and slow.
“Should we destroy the mortar rounds?” asked someone.
“No, let’s take them with us,” said another.
“Leave them,” ordered Misgana. “Let’s get out of here.” There were murmurs of disagreement, but his men followed him back down into the gully. Shouts and gunfire could be heard from the direction of the camp.
“Hey,” said a voice from above. “They’re in the gully!”
“Run!” Misgana yelled, sprinting toward the slope that would lead back to their mountain fortress. Bullets whipped around them in the darkness.
Misgana finally reached the incline and ran upward until he found a scrubby tree. He looked back and saw his men struggling to get away, some of them limping or being helped by others. Three soldiers stood on the far edge and shot at the fleeing men.
Misgana unslung his rifle. He sighted on the man in the middle.
People say Edens can’t kill, he thought. I had better risk it, or they are going to kill us.
Squeezing the trigger, he saw the man fall. Misgana adjusted his aim and took out the second, and then the third. “Hurry,” he hissed into the darkness, shaking with revulsion. He forced himself to believe he had only wounded the soldiers.
When all the men had made it out of the gully, he led them back to the caves. He noticed many looked at him oddly with a combination of admiration and fear. They could hear the whooping voices long before they arrived.
“That’s a good sign,” said Misgana to the man behind him. He came around the rocky outcropping to see hundreds of cheering people gathered near three large cargo trucks that had somehow made it up the steep mountain slope.
Misgana found Runja. “Did you lose anyone?”
“Yes,” the man answered. “Henok volunteered to blow the dump. He triggered a land mine himself.”
Misgana lowered his head. “We will remember him.” Then he raised his eyes to look at the trucks. “Please tell me those are filled with food.”
“No such luck,” said Runja opening a tailgate. “They must have kept their rations somewhere else, but we don’t have to worry about ammunition from now on.”
Misgana looked inside the truck and saw it packed full of ammo crates and several boxes of weapons. “Hopefully you didn’t leave them anything to shoot back at us.”
“We can only pray,” said Runja. “I judge you were successful with the mortars?”
“Yes. At least now maybe we can get some peace.”
Husnia materialized out of the darkness and spoke forcefully, as usual. “We will find no peace here. This is a temporary refuge, nothing more.”
“When will we leave?”
“Soon,” Husnia answered. “Our friends in the FC have promised help. They will not abandon us here.”
“I hope you’re right,” said Misgana, going to find Jemmia.
Skull had to admit that the vow of silence was more difficult to keep than he would have thought. It wasn’t merely that he couldn’t speak; according to Father Timothy, he wasn’t even allowed to express himself in any way, not even when alone in the battered van.
This appeared to be killing Zinabu, who did his best to try to communicate with Skull through grunting and deep sighs. Father Timothy glared sternly at his fellow Ethiopian until he subsided. “If you act that way near outsiders, they will know you are not one of us.”
They drove in silence out of the Danekil Dessert and up into the mighty Ethiopian Plateau.
Although it was the rainy season, the weather had been hardly noticeable in the desert. Once they began to climb up the massive ridgelines, though, the air became cooler and filled with a fine mist. Within hours, lush green valleys and forested hills surrounded them, a striking contrast to what they had endured the past few weeks. Skull let his eyes drink in the colors, trying to store them up for later.
Once they reached Addis Ababa, they made their way through the city to the Abreha Monastery on the northern edge of the city. As they drove, Skull looked out at the sprawling metropolis, which he had visited many times before. He was surprised at the number of Muslim head scarves on women, Taqiyah caps on men and facial scars on both genders.
Father Timothy saw Skull’s look. “The growing influence here of the Caliphate has more to do with fear than any genuine acceptance of Islam. Islam is simply the easiest and most visible way to express disavowal of Edens.”
Skull nodded, and Timothy frowned at this breach of his vow. Would choking you be a violation? Skull wondered.
They arrived at Abreha and were led inside another structure carved into solid rock. Timothy had already told them that, like the monastery they had just left, Abreha dated from the fifth century, though it was much larger.
Timothy led them through dim cool rooms lit by candle or lantern until they stood before another monk. This one was taller, thinner, and older than Timothy.
“Brothers Alan and Zinabu,” said Timothy. “Let me introduce to you Father Stephen, the head of this monastery. As of this moment, you are released from your vow of silence.”
“Thank God!” yelled Zinabu. “Whew! That sucked, I mean like really sucked. I can’t believe you guys do it. And for months on end? Ridiculous. I mean –”
Skull put a hand on the man’s shoulder to get his attention. “Easy now, or you’ll sprain a vocal cord.” He looked at Stephen. “Thank you for your hospitality. Father Timothy tells us that you may be able to help us.”
“I may,” said Stephen, “If God wills it. Our order has come to believe that what is commonly called the Eden virus is a blessing from God.”
“Been meaning to ask you,” blurted Zinabu, “if you all think the Eden Plague is a blessing from God, then why aren’t you all Edens?”
“Because we have chosen to remain the way God made us,” said Stephen. “If the Lord chooses for us to receive this blessing, then we will receive it. I permit the brothers to pray earnestly for this blessing, but not to take any active steps to infect themselves.”
“It also keeps us from being targeted by the Ethiopian government,” said Timothy. “Although that in itself is not a reason to refuse God’s blessing. It is simply why He may have chosen not to give it to us as He has so many others.”
“Convoluted reasoning,” Skull said.
“It serves us,” Stephen replied. “Reason is also a gift from God. Those who do not use it often miss the blessings God wishes us to have.” He pointed to several stools around a table with a candle on it. “Shall we sit? I believe we have much to discuss.”
They all sat while a much younger monk brought large stone cups. In the dim light Skull thought it was water, but was surprised to taste delicious beer.
“This is good,” said Skull.
“It is leftover Lent beer,” Stephen said. “During Lent we go without food and subsist only on the beer we have prepared.”
“That seems practical,” said Skull. “If you’re not going to eat, at least you got beer.”
“It is a recipe that dates back centuries,” explained Stephen. “The beer is blessed by our monks and packed with nutrients. In times of famine, we have lived off the beer for close to a year.”
“I’m impressed,” said Skull, taking another drink. “You guys have a gift shop or something? I’d like to take some of this back with me for my next cookout. Sure as hell beats Miller Lite.”
“The beer is not for pleasure or for getting drunk,” admonished Stephen.
“I think the vow of silence has made them chatty,” said Timothy to Stephen. “I would not take anything they say too much to heart. Since entering our monastery they have behaved themselves properly.”
“At least they did not disgrace the habit. So you really are Brother Alan and Brother Zinabu,” Stephen said with a smile before taking a sip.
“Well,” said Zinabu, “except that I’m a Jew. Is it a big deal to be a Jewish monk?”
Timothy choked on his beer, while Stephen smiled wider.
“Let’s not dwell on the details,” said Timothy. “Maybe it would be best if we spoke no more of vows.”
“Hear, hear,” said Skull, pulling off the heavy habit. “I appreciate the disguise, but those things are heavy and just don’t breathe. Have you guys considered a lighter material? Maybe some kind of linen or cotton weave?”
“I like it,” said Zinabu still sitting in his robe.
“These habits are made of the coarsest wool,” said Stephen. “This is what the brothers of our order have worn for centuries.”
“Okay,” said Skull, holding his hands up. “I’m just thinking you could do better, that’s all. ‘Smarter, not harder’ is what I always say.”
Timothy waved Skull’s arguments away. “Perhaps we should talk about where we go from here. You said something about one of our brothers leading the men south?”
“Yes,” said Stephen, taking a long drink of his beer. “Brother Titus will guide you to the Cumba Region. You must be careful of any Ethiopian officials. Many are under the influence of the Caliphate.”
“Doesn’t sound like you approve,” said Skull.
Stephen sat back, staring steadily at Skull. “Ethiopia is the only African country never colonized, by Europeans or anyone else. Many tried and failed. Yet, after thousands of years of fighting invaders, now many welcome them.”
“What would you suggest they do?” asked Zinabu.
“The people should trust in God first. They should stand for Ethiopia and each other. They should do what is best for its people, and that includes Edens. They should not give in to their fears.”
“Even if that leads to war?” asked Skull.
“Yes,” answered Stephen. “War comes and goes, yet Ethiopia is still here. What they are doing now is lunacy, and may destroy us all.”
“I’ll drink to that,” said Skull, clunking his cup against Stephen’s and drinking.
Suddenly, they heard loud voices outside, and then pounding on the door. Timothy and Stephen looked at each other.
“Quick,” said Timothy, “hide.” He pulled a small curtain aside to indicate a large carved alcove in the wall. Zinabu went in first, and then Skull. The material fell back to cover them. Skull watched the room through a tiny hole in the rough cloth.
“I will talk to them,” said Timothy. Before he could leave the room, there came a loud bang, and then soldiers filled the room with angry shouts.
An arrogant officer with facial scars confronted Stephen. Three soldiers with rifles stood behind him. The officer and Stephen spoke back and forth in Amharic. The man tried to step around the monk to go search the rest of the monastery but Stephen blocked him with his body.
The Ethiopian officer backhanded Stephen and yelled at him more in Amharic. He then stepped to the side to walk around Stephen, but the monk once more barred his way.
The officer’s face contorted with rage. He pulled a pistol from a holster at his belt and held it to Stephen’s head.
Skull silently slipped a pistol out from the small of his back and carefully attached a suppressor.
Stephen stared at the officer without wavering.
When the officer stepped back again to walk around him, Stephen again blocked the man’s way.
The soldier pulled the trigger and Stephen’s head exploded in blood and brains.
Before the body had even hit the floor, Skull dodged past the curtain. The officer hardly had time to register surprise before Skull shot him in the forehead.
The other three stood there stunned, and Skull shot them all in quick succession before any of them could lift a weapon. It was all over in less than two seconds.
Silence again reigned in the room. Brother Timothy administered last rites to Stephen and the other monks were attempting to do the same for the soldiers.
Skull searched the bodies carefully, but didn’t find anything to indicate why they had come here, and then he cursed himself for being too efficient. It would have been convenient to question one of them to see what brought them to the monastery. He should have only wounded one, and killed him afterward.
“What brought them here?” asked Zinabu.
It had to be Mossad, thought Skull. Or Spooky. He pushed the latter thought away. Backstabbing them gained Spooky nothing, and he rarely entrusted his business to incompetents such as those now lying on the floor.
Skull turned to Timothy. “Someone back at your monastery talked. It’s the only answer.”
“It can’t be,” said Zinabu.
“You must leave,” said Timothy standing up from beside a dead Stephen. His face was etched with pain and resolve. “These were but a few, and more could show when these do not return.”
“Where’s this Brother Titus?” asked Skull.
At the sound of his name, a young monk turned to them. He shook his head and said words in Amharic. Timothy spoke back to him, but the monk appeared determined.
“What’s going on?” asked Zinabu.
Timothy looked pained. “He says you are men of bloodshed and that he must not yoke himself to such as you. With Father Stephen gone, no one can force him.”
“He’s not wrong,” said Skull. “Leave him be.” He turned to Zinabu. “Can you get us to Cumba?”
“Should be able to. I’ve made the trip from my village to Addis Ababa several times.”
“Now all we need is a vehicle,” said Skull.
“Take the van,” said Timothy. “It already has your belongings inside. Time is short. Take it and go.”
“What about you?” asked Zinabu, indicating the room around them with his hands. “How are you going to explain all of this?”
“I won’t,” said Timothy. “I myself will take a vow of silence.”
“That might not work out so well,” said Skull. “You ought to all leave.”
“We have occupied this monastery for centuries and never left. To lie is more dangerous than to not speak at all. We do not want to endanger you by telling them anything. It is in God’s hands.”
“Okay,” said Skull pointing at the other monks. “Maybe it would be best if all of you take vows of silence.” He pointed at Brother Titus. “Starting with him.”
“Yes,” said Timothy, and then spoke to the men in Amharic for a moment. He then turned back to Skull. “I have declared myself in charge until another can be selected, and as such have placed them under vows. I myself will take them after you leave, which must be soon.”
“Indeed,” said Skull. “Sorry to leave you with a mess like this.”
“You did not bring them here. It is not your fault.”
Zinabu placed his hand on Timothy’s shoulder. “Thank you. Remember to take care of the donkeys.”
Timothy smiled wanly. “God be with you both.”
As they climbed the stairs to the van, Skull looked back. He saw Timothy standing among dead bodies with his hands grasped around his crucifix. His lips moved rapidly as he prayed.
Cassandra and Geoffrey exited the plane in Nairobi and were driven in the back of an armored SUV to the headquarters of the Kenyan National Intelligence Service.
“Why are we going to talk to these folks?” asked Cassandra.
“I told you,” said Geoffrey. “We have to coordinate things if there is going to be an agreement.”
“But if Prince Richard has already contacted the Kenyan government, why are we working with their spooks? I’m presuming he spoke directly to the President or Prime Minister.”
Geoffrey didn’t say anything.
Cassandra’s face tightened. “He hasn’t contacted them yet, has he?”
“You don’t understand how these things work,” said Geoffrey. “The Kenyans are going to want something in return for their help. It’s simply not proper for a member of the royal family to haggle over terms. Our purpose is to find out what their terms are and report them to the prince before he reaches out to them.”
“You do realize this isn’t a game, don’t you? If the Kenyans don’t agree to help, those people in Ethiopia are probably all going to die.”
Geoffrey reached out and patted her hand. “Relax dear. It will all work out.”
She jerked her hand away. “Don’t patronize me. That sort of shit may work on the type of women you’re used to hanging around, but not me.”
Geoffrey started to say something and then stopped. He sighed and looked out the window as they rode through the streets of Nairobi.
Arriving at the NIS Headquarters, they were escorted to a large beautifully paneled conference room on the second floor of the building. An immaculately dressed Kenyan with a commanding air met them at the door.
“Ah, Gakuru,” said Geoffrey spreading his arms wide. “It is good to see you.” The two men hugged and clapped each other on the back.
“And you, my friend,” said Gakuru stepping back and smiling at Geoffrey.
Geoffrey turned to indicate his companion. “This is Cassandra Johnstone. She is my counterpart from the Free Communities.”
“Very nice to meet you,” said Gakuru who took her proffered hand and bent over to kiss it lightly. “It is always a pleasure to do business with such a beautiful woman.”
“Let’s hope so,” said Cassandra with forced grace.
Gakuru turned to another man standing behind him. “This is Pili, my chief of operations. He will assist us with these discussions. Shall we sit?”
The four took places around the large, intricately inlaid wooden table. Cassandra reached to serve herself from the steaming tea pot on the table but Gukuru stood and grasped the pot. “Let me, please. Such a lovely woman should never have to serve herself.”
Cassandra smiled, amused, but caught the frown from Geoffrey.
He’s jealous, she realized. Or at least annoyed by his friend’s behavior toward me. Geoffrey has a bit of a crush.
Cassandra had been on the receiving end of such infatuations before, and had even used them against the men involved from time to time. Though she hardly compared in beauty to the girls easily obtainable by men with power, there was something about a confident, intelligent woman holding her own among them that seemed to invite the desire for conquest. It had far less to do with looks than with the difficulty of the challenge.
Gakuru poured her tea, and then offered her cream and sugar, which she refused with a shake of her head and a smile.
“Shall we get down to business?” said Geoffrey.
“There is no need to rush things. Let the lady enjoy her tea.”
Cassandra felt the press of time. “Actually, Geoffrey is right. I’m afraid we need to get on with this.”
“Then by all means,” said Gakuru with a wave of his hand, “let us discuss business.”
“Thank you,” said Cassandra. “We understand that you previously had an agreement with the Israelis to grant asylum to the Edens trapped in southern Ethiopia asylum.”
“Temporary asylum,” said Pili. “The plan was for them to move on to another permanent location within a year.”
“Yes,” said Cassandra. “We would like you to extend that same offer again.”
Gakuru looked at Pili and then back at the two across from him. “It was our understanding that the operation was off now that the Israelis have pulled their support.”
“That is incorrect. The mission is still very much on. The FC is currently in the process of extracting the Edens from the Cumba Region.”
“We did not know this,” said Pili. “The Israelis were very insistent that it was off.”
Geoffrey pushed his tea aside. “They are definitely out of this now. Nevertheless, there still exists the possibility of saving these people. I should also add that Prince Richard would be grateful if Kenya could assist in this matter.”
Gakuru and Pili spoke in their own language. Pili shook his head sharply.
“I’m afraid we have already taken steps to strengthen our northern border,” said Gakuru. “If the Ethiopians launch a military operation against these Edens, we cannot have it spilling over into our territory.”
“But you could open the road to Cumba,” said Cassandra. “The Edens could enter there.”
“I’m afraid it is not possible,” said Gakuru. “We respect what you are trying to do, but this no longer involves Kenya.”
“I understand that, but we would like it to involve Kenya again.”
“There is much you do not understand,” said Gakuru. “These are uncertain and dangerous times. Such a thing as you propose could gain Kenya dangerous enemies.”
“You mean Ethiopia?” asked Cassandra.
“And the Caliphate,” answered Pili.
“But you are obviously willing to risk this if the situation is right,” said Cassandra. “Otherwise you would never have agreed to help the Israelis in the first place.”
“That was a different arrangement,” said Pili. “The Israelis were willing to make it worth the risk.”
“What were they willing to offer in return?”
Gakuru sat back and smiled. “That was a private agreement between business partners and does not bear on this current conversation.”
“What would it take to make it worth the risk again, then?” asked Cassandra.
Gakuru and Pili spoke again in Swahili before Gakuru turned back to them. “You understand that I am in no position to make such an agreement, but I can outline terms that I believe my government would find acceptable. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” said Cassandra. “We understand and are in much the same position.”
“This is how things get done after all,” said Geoffrey. “Let us work them out at the lower levels.”
“Indeed,” responded Gakuru. “I believe it is possible that our government would risk the disfavor of the Caliphate and Ethiopia by granting these Edens temporary asylum. In return, Kenya would like support at the United Nations. There are several important votes coming up soon.”
“The Free Communities does not have a seat at the UN,” said Cassandra.
“Yes, but the United Kingdom does. It has veto power over any resolution and is a permanent member of the Security Council. We understand that it is in everyone’s best interest if our arrangement remains secret, but they can support us quietly through the casting of votes in our favor.”
“That might be a tall order,” said Geoffrey.
“That is not all, my friend,” said Gakuru. “If Kenya comes under attack from the Caliphate, either directly or through a proxy such as Ethiopia, then both the United Kingdom and the Free Communities must come to its aid militarily.”
“You’re talking about a secret military alliance,” said Cassandra. “Those are very dangerous things, which is why they went out of fashion many years ago.”
“I am not exactly talking an alliance,” said Gakuru. “You will come to our aid if we are attacked, but we will not come to yours. You must understand we are only a small poor African country, whereas the UK and the FC are rich and powerful.”
Cassandra stifled a snort. “The FC is hardly in the UK’s league.”
“But you are growing as the number of Edens grows.”
“I’m not sure that’s going to be possible,” said Geoffrey. “The UK is trying to walk a fine line between a number of dangerous players.”
Gakuru nodded. “Then you understand the position we are in.”
Geoffrey was shaking his head. “I still don’t think that will be possible. Perhaps some other considerations, such as medical supplies or food?”
Gakuru shook his head. “I do not believe that will be sufficient, but rest assured this will not affect our friendship.” He and Pili stood. “I hope you enjoy the rest of your time in Nairobi.”
“Give us some time,” said Cassandra, looking at Geoffrey. “We might be able to make this work.”
Geoffrey looked at her as if she had lost her mind.
“Of course,” said Gakuru. “Might I suggest you do not wait too long. From my understanding, the Ethiopians are concentrating their military for a final attack on the Edens.”
“Yes,” said Cassandra, controlling herself and shaking the two Kenyans’ hands. “Thank you. We will be in touch.”
Cassandra didn’t speak as they climbed into the SUV and left NIS Headquarters.
She realized Geoffrey was angry with her, so she invited him out to dinner in order to soothe his irritation. Their hotel restaurant was rumored to be the finest in the city and she made reservations for two, donning a revealing evening dress.
If he is smitten with me, now is the time to use that to my advantage.
Cassandra made sure she was already at the table when Geoffrey arrived. She could see from across the room that he was still angry, but his face softened at the sight of her. She stood to greet him.
“You look amazing,” he said taking her hand and kissing her cheek. He then walked behind her to help her with the chair before seating himself.
“I took the liberty of ordering some champagne,” she said. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all. Are we celebrating something?”
Both stopped talking as the waiter returned with a bottle in an ice bucket. He opened the bubbly and filled two flutes.
Geoffrey lifted his glass to her. “To the future, then.”
“To the future,” she responded, clinking her glass to his and then taking a sip.
“Should we order?”
“I also ordered for both of us,” said Cassandra. “From my understanding, you’re partial to salmon, and the waiter assured me theirs was superb.”
Geoffrey seemed surprised, though he tried to cover it with a drink.
“So what do you think our chances are?” asked Cassandra.
“Getting your government to agree to the terms,” said Cassandra. “What did you think I was talking about?”
“Nothing,” said Geoffrey. “Like I said, it will be very difficult.”
“What will it take to make it happen? The FC is not without resources.”
Geoffrey sat back in his chair and looked away. He seemed to be making up his mind and Cassandra was content to let him do it.
“It might be possible,” said Geoffrey.
“How?” asked Cassandra.
“You worked for the CIA for what, twenty years?” asked Geoffrey.
“Twenty-two,” she answered.
Geoffrey nodded. “And now you’re the head of the FC’s intelligence service.”
“You know this,” said Cassandra gently. “You don’t have to beat around the bush. What are you getting at?”
Geoffrey smiled. “You know how this works, Cassandra. We’re both in the same business. You need information and I need information. That information has value. You are in possession of information that I might find useful.”
“You mean work for you as an intelligence source?” asked Cassandra. She found that she was more amused than offended.
“No need to look at it that way,” said Geoffrey. “More of a friendship. You do me a favor and I do you a favor. That’s what friends do, right?”
Cassandra smiled. “That’s very good. I’ve used almost the exact same line many times before. So, you’re saying if I were to agree to this, you could get your government to agree to the Kenyans’ terms?”
Geoffrey nodded smiling. “It will be tough, but I think we can make it happen.”
“I understand. It’s good for me to know that you’re flexible.”
“Why is that?” asked Geoffrey.
“Because I have a counteroffer for you.”
“Yes,” answered Cassandra. “When I was at the CIA I did everything by the book. Never tried to go out of my lane. Focused on my area of responsibility and left others to theirs.”
“I would expect nothing less. You’re a professional.”
“But I still have many friends there,” continued Cassandra. “They tell me things. Now that I am not in the CIA, I feel at liberty to snoop where I would have never dared.”
Geoffrey chuckled. “Of course.”
“Imagine my surprise,” said Cassandra. “When I ran across a CIA source file on you.”
The man froze with the glass halfway to his mouth and the blood drained from his face. He finished taking a drink and set the glass on the table, but Cassandra detected the slightest tremor in his hand.
“That’s ridiculous,” said Geoffrey, but he didn’t look at her.
“Evidently you’ve been working for the CIA for nearly ten years. You fell in love with one of your Chinese sources while you were in Beijing and got her pregnant. You knew this would get you kicked out of MI-6, but you also loved her.”
“What an amusing tale.”
Cassandra shrugged. “I’m only telling what was in the file. I haven’t even gotten to the best part. The CIA found out and offered you a way out. They agreed to sneak her out of country and put her up in the U.S. They were willing to keep everything secret and allow you to visit your new family when you came to the States. In return, all they asked for was a little information. Favors among friends, you might say.”
Geoffrey glowered at Cassandra as she continued. “Mia and Geoffrey Junior are living in an apartment in Alexandria now. Junior is about to start the fourth grade, and from my understanding he has your eyes.”
“Enough,” said Geoffrey angrily.
Cassandra asked quietly. “When was the last time you saw them?”
He sat silently for a few seconds. “Before the Los Angeles and West Virginia nuke strikes.”
“Hasn’t anyone from the CIA reached out to you?” she asked. “Have you tried to contact them?”
“Yes,” said Geoffrey. “I was told to lay low until things settled down. My handler was evidently forced out and no one has been reassigned to me. Insight into an ally like the UK isn’t high on their radar right now.”
“Sloppy.” Cassandra considered Geoffrey for a moment. “What if I could get them out of the U.S.?”
Geoffrey returned her look. “Why would you do that?”
“Don’t be coy. You know why. Unlike the CIA, I’ll never ask you to do anything to betray your loyalty to king and country.” Cassandra hoped she could lead horse Geoffrey gently to the water trough and get him to drink without too much trouble.
“Where would you put them? They can’t come to the UK. The CIA would find them too easily.”
“Depends. Where in the FC do you travel?”
He thought for a moment. “I expect with the queen relocating to Australia, that I’ll travel there to coordinate with their security services.”
“Good,” said Cassandra. “We’ll get them a home in Australia.”
“And I visit them whenever I want.”
“Of course. But for this favor I need something in return.”
Cassandra leaned forward. “I need you to convince your prince and your government to agree to the Kenyan’s terms.”
“I’ve already told you I don’t think that’s possible,” said Geoffrey with a pained look. “Ask for something else.”
“No. You already claimed you could arrange it if I agreed to work for you. So, make it happen. You’re resourceful and persuasive – and now you’re motivated. I have every confidence in you.”
They stopped talking again as the waiter brought their salads and refilled their glasses. After the man left, Geoffrey lifted up his glass and chuckled ruefully. “I suppose we’re celebrating something after all. A successful recruitment. Well done, Cassandra.”
“I expect it’s the beginning of a wonderful relationship.”
“Speaking of relationships…” Geoffrey slid his hand across the table to cover hers.
Cassandra suppressed laughter, knowing that would be a blow to the man’s pride. She gently disengaged her fingers from his. “Sorry. I try never to mix business with pleasure.”
There. That should assuage his ego without making this thing messier than it already is.
Skull and Zinabu made their way out of the densely populated capital into green hills and plateaus to the south. The road turned muddy and potholed, and their progress was slow. They frequently found themselves behind herds of goats or horse-drawn carts.
Still, Skull didn’t feel frustration. He saw farmers and herders going about their normal lives. Children played along the road and waved at them as they passed, and he found it impossible not to wave back. It again reminded him of the time he had spent with the Hopi in northern Arizona: poor, simple people, yet somehow they seemed happier than many of the so-called rich.
The two men were stopped several times by soldiers or local police, but experienced no significant problems. Their cover story of Skull as a tourist and Zinabu as his guide seemed to work fine, especially when accompanied by “gifts” of a few dollars. On several occasions they had been forced to pay unofficial “tolls,” but this was also expected.
Although Skull didn’t believe the Ethiopian authorities had a centralized “be on the lookout,” or BOLO, system, nevertheless he switched out the van plates with a similar vehicle at a small rest stop. It was doubtful the other driver would notice for days.
The first night on the road after leaving Addis Ababa, they asked permission of Lebna, a local tribal elder, to camp for the night on his land. He directed them to a spot on a hill near a mountain stream after insisting they share coffee with him first.
To Skull, Lebna seemed truly ancient. It was hard to tell in places like this, though, where everyday life was difficult, brutal, and often short. The man in front of him, who appeared to be in his nineties, could have been far younger.
Sort of the opposite of the Eden effect, thought Skull.
“He asks how you like Ethiopia,” said Zinabu as they sat on rugs around the elder’s fire. A much younger woman, perhaps an unmarried daughter, had brought coffee and small pastries with nuts, like baklava.
“A beautiful land,” answered Skull.
Zinabu translated for the old man. “A safe answer. It is beautiful to us also, but few from here have any basis for comparison.”
Skull looked around at the nomadic tents and grazing animals. Women and girls prepared food over fires while men and boys tended to the animals. “What is the furthest you have ever been from here?” he asked.
Zinabu translated the question and the man was silent while he thought.
Probably trying to decide if the ridgeline is farther than the river down in the valley, Skull thought.
Lebna spoke and Zinabu translated. “I am not sure. Which is farther, Rome or Casablanca?”
“Rome?” asked Skull. “When were you in Rome or Casablanca?”
“I joined the British army. During the Second World War.”
Skull laughed and drank his coffee. “Didn’t you pick up any English in that time?”
“A little,” Lebna said hesitantly. “A long time since speak.”
“How did you end up in the British Army?”
“Fought Italians first. Here in Ethiopia. British come help. I join. We go kill Italians. Some Germans.”
Skull smiled. “Guess you have good reason to dislike the Italians.”
Lebna shrugged. “Long time past. Italian food good.”
“That it is,” said Skull. “You could do worse than to judge a country by its food.”
“What think Ethiopian food?”
“Not bad. I like the berbere spice. Makes things hot, although I’m not terribly fond of your flat bread. What do you call it again?”
“Injera,” said Lebna. “You like my wife’s injera. Addis injera not fresh.”
“Maybe,” said Skull skeptically. Then he looked around. “Your wife?”
Zinabu jerked his head at the tent. “The woman who served us coffee.”
“She must be forty years younger than him!”
Lebna grinned. “No worry. She too old for baby. Not too old for me.”
Skull chuckled. “Good on you, sir. Tell me about your time in the British army.”
“Make deal,” Lebna said. “Tell you stories if you stay, eat dinner.”
Zinabu looked at the food being prepared and gave Skull a wide-eyed nod.
“Deal,” said Skull.
They ate and told stories late into the evening, until some unperceivable point in time arrived. Perhaps it had something to do with where the moon stood in the sky. Then everyone drifted away to their sleep tents.
Lebna bowed to them. Skull bowed back. “Thank you for the food and hospitality.”
The man walked forward and laid one hand each on Skull and Zinabu’s shoulders. He then closed his eyes and spoke in Amharic for nearly a minute.
When they were done, Skull noticed that Zinabu appeared emotional.
“What did he say?” Skull asked as they walked up the short hill to their van. “There at the end?”
“It was a blessing...and a prayer. ‘May the God of my fathers be with you. May the rain always fall gently on your fields. May your children and livestock multiply and fill the land. May you have wisdom all your days. May you always have victory in battle and your enemies flee before you. May God Almighty always hold you in the palm of his hand.’”
“Amen to that,” said Skull.
The next morning they continued south. Military vehicles came and went with more frequency as they traveled farther on the road.
Around noon they crested a hill and looked down upon a wide valley. A mountain stood in the distance. Smoke rose here and there in thin ribbons.
“Pull over,” said Skull. When the vehicle had come to a standstill, he got out a set of binoculars. He was able to see a sprawling military camp spread out at the base of the mountain. A thin picket line of personnel and positions extended around the bottom of the imposing rock.
On the mountain itself he could see little, but ribbons of smoke told him people were there, presumably the Edens they had come to help.
“I think we’re here,” said Skull.
“Now we...” Skull stopped and looked over his shoulder. The sound of a heavy truck coming up the road behind them caused both men to turn toward an Ethiopian army cargo truck laboring up the hill.
Zinabu made as if to leap into the van, but Skull held up a hand. “If we drive off, they’ll pursue, and this road goes straight into the army camp. We’ll have to talk our way through.”
The truck stopped on the road beside them. Soldiers piled out of the back and a man wearing officer’s rank leaped out of the passenger seat, yelling at them. The soldiers crouched down on the ground or behind the shelter of their vehicle in a small perimeter facing outward.
“He wants to know what we are doing here,” said Zinabu.
“Tell him the truth,” said Skull. “I’m on vacation and want to see the countryside.”
Zinabu began to talk, but the officer interrupted him, speaking contemptuously.
“He says we shouldn’t be here,” Zinabu said. “He is telling us we must go back the way we came, but he first must check our vehicle to make sure we are not providing supplies to the rebels.”
“Rebels? What rebels? I’m just here for the scenery.” Skull counted ten soldiers, including the driver and officer.
Zinabu translated, but the officer didn’t respond. Zinabu turned to Skull. “He doesn’t care. They’re going to look in the vehicle.”
“Be my guest,” said Skull. “They’re not going to find anything except my dirty underwear.”
“They may be looking for a toll payment,” said Zinabu quietly.
“Fine. Arrange it.”
The officer opened the back of the van and began throwing bags and gear out onto the ground. He then stopped and began pulling out Skull’s large rucksack.
“That’s mine,” Skull said loudly, walking forward in protest.
The officer pulled out a pistol and pointed it at Skull, yelling at him.
“He says to stay where you are,” Zinabu said. “This is a military issue backpack and is therefore not allowed here. He is confiscating it.”
“No,” said Skull.
“Yes,” the officer replied thrusting his pistol forward at Skull’s face.
“Zinabu,” Skull said in English, keeping his eyes on the officer. “When I move I want you to drop to the ground and get under the van, do you understand?”
“What are you going to do?”
“Just do it,” answered Skull. He held his hands up and backed away.
The officer sneered at Skull and holstered his pistol, yelling at his men. The soldiers reluctantly turned back to watch their perimeter, obviously bored.
Opening Skull’s pack and pulling back the flap, the officer lifted out a raincoat and tossed it on the ground before freezing with surprise at what lay below.
He looked up just in time for Skull to shoot him twice in the chest.
The soldiers were taken utterly by surprise, as they had followed their officer’s instruction to look outward. Skull rushed forward, emptying his pistols, shooting four of the nearest soldiers. When the handguns locked open, he reached into his rucksack and pulled out the MP5.
He felt a heavy blow to the back of his calf and fell to the ground. Bullets struck the dirt around him as Skull rolled under the van and out the other side, where he caught three more soldiers in a spray of bullets from his submachine gun.
Twisting to see where the other two soldiers had gone, Skull heard the truck crank and then stall. A man in the driver’s seat was frantically trying to get the vehicle started. He looked at Skull with wide eyes.
Crawling out from under the van, Skull raced forward and stepped up on the sideboard. He stuck the barrel of the MP5 in the window and let loose a burst. The truck stalled again.
“Where did the other one go?” Skull yelled back to Zinabu. “Did you see where he went?”
“To the north,” said Zinabu, pointing.
Skull looked down at his calf and saw that a bullet had grazed it. He limped to his rucksack, pulled out a field dressing and wrapped it around his lower leg.
“You okay?” asked Zinabu.
“I’ll be fine. The dressing is infused with antibiotics and clotting agents.” He chuckled grimly. “They used to call this a flesh wound in all those western movies I watched as a kid. They never tell you how bad flesh wounds hurt.”
“We have to get all these bodies off the road.” Skull looked at the truck, and then down at the camp. “I’ve got an idea.”
“First, find two soldiers whose uniforms aren’t too torn up. Try to get some that are close to our size.”
“We’re not going to do what I think we are going to do, are we?”
Skull smiled. “Come on. It’ll be fun.” He collected all their gear and loaded it in the back of the truck, which was already half filled with unmarked crates.
“Here, try this one,” said Zinabu passing him a set of fatigues. Skull pulled them on over his other clothes, as they were a little large for him.
“Load the bodies into the back of the van,” Skull ordered.
They both grunted and strained as they rushed to get the bodies into the rear of the van. When they were all loaded, Skull shut the doors. “Drive it down into that ditch over there. Make sure it can’t be seen from the road.”
Zinabu nodded and did as Skull had told him.
He’s come a long way, thought Skull. Even a few days ago he would have argued with me about all of this.
Skull was in the passenger seat of the truck when Zinabu returned. The man climbed into the driver’s seat and looked at Skull. “Alan, I think I know what you are planning, but you don’t look like an Ethiopian soldier. No offense, but we don’t have that many farenji serving in our military.”
“Foreigners. White people.”
“I’m not exactly white,” said Skull. “With my Apache blood, I could pass for North African after all this sun I’ve been getting.”
Zinabu chuckled. “Compared to me, you are pretty pale. So, what are you going to do the first time we get stopped and you have to explain why you are in that uniform.”
“We’ll figure it out as we go. We’re at that point in the operation where we just have to improvise.”
“I’m not so sure about this.”
“It’ll be fine,” said Skull, putting pressure on his wound. “Just drive.”
Mumbling under his breath, Zinabu put the truck in gear and drove down the steeply graded road toward the mountain in the distance.
Reaper and her team felt the plane begin its descent into Kenya’s Nairobi International Airport. They had debated arriving on separate flights, but there was just too much that could go wrong and they decided to come in together.
Hound Dog was the only member of the team she didn’t trust. Hawkeye, Shortfuse, Flyboy, and Bunny were with her, as well as their interpreter and guide C3PO. Crash was their medic, Livewire their commo tech, and Tarzan their survival expert. Reaper would have loved to have kept a few of the other candidates, like Hulk, but Spooky had pointed out how conspicuous the big man was and how much he ate. They needed to get in quiet and stay nimble.
She resisted looking back to check on them. They were split up into several small groups with corresponding cover stories. Reaper, Hound Dog, and Shortfuse were masquerading as journalists, whereas Hawkeye, Bunny, Livewire and Tarzan were posing as a double couple of tourists. Crash, Flyboy, and C3PO had papers identifying them as aid workers for a respectable NGO.
Reaper accepted that none of their stories would withstand careful scrutiny. There was always a possibility they could bribe their way out of trouble, or at last resort they might fight their way out.
It wasn’t as if any of them were strangers to violence.
The plane came to a stop and people were filing toward the exits. Reaper stood and gathered her gear, with both Shortfuse and Hound Dog following her lead, making their way off the plane and collecting their bags. They stood in long, hot customs lines and everyone looked absently at the muted television in the corner showing the elaborate state funeral for the Queen of England, who had died several days before. Richard, Prince of Wales, had already assumed the role of Regent, though the official coronation wouldn’t be for a few more days.
“Next,” said the customs agent in front of Reaper.
She stepped forward and handed the man her passport.
“Why have you come to Kenya?” asked the customs agent scrutinizing her closely.
“We’re journalists,” said Reaper, showing expertly forged press credentials.
He looked down at her passport and seemed to be checking it against a piece of paper he had beside him. The man stopped and looked back up at her and the two men standing closely behind her. “These two with you?”
“They are,” said Reaper. “Camera man and technician.”
“Passports,” he said, holding out his hand. Shortfuse and Hound Dog handed them over. The man checked their names against the list and then waved to a pair of security guards off to the side. They approached the customs agent and he handed them the three passports before turning back to Reaper. “Take your bags and follow these men.”
“I don’t understand,” said Reaper. “Is something wrong?”
“Just follow the men,” he said with hard eyes.
Reaper picked up her bags. “Okay, let’s follow the nice men.”
They were led into a large open room with benches along the walls and a one-way mirror opposite the single door. The guards departed, leaving them alone in the room.
Shortfuse turned the door handle. “Locked.”
“You –” said Hound Dog.
Reaper elbowed him in the side before he could say anything incriminating. She gave him a hard look and then cut her eyes at the one-way mirror. “Just relax. Sometimes people are nervous about journalists. I’m sure we’ll be on our way soon.”
Within ten minutes, Crash, Flyboy, and C3PO were led in by the same guards who had deposited them earlier and then left. Shortly afterward, Hawkeye, Bunny, Livewire, and Tarzan arrived.
“What does this mean, dude?” Tarzan asked her, shaking his flowing locks.
“How the hell should I know?” said Reaper angrily. “And do I look like a dude? Who are you, anyway?”
Tarzan got the message and backed away from her.
“Maybe it’s a racist thing,” said Flyboy loudly. “Looks like they pulled in all the white people.”
“Hello?” said C3PO, unmistakably African in ancestry. “Don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but I’m not white.”
“Neither am I,” said Hawkeye.
“Yes, you are,” said Bunny with a grin of her bleached teeth.
Hawkeye shook his head. “I’m Latino, mamacita. There’s a difference.”
“You’re so white, dude,” said Bunny, imitating Tarzan.
Hawkeye stood angrily. “I am not!”
The door opened and a large, muscular black Kenyan entered the room. He was not wearing any type of uniform and he was followed by four equally large men behind him.
“Looks like you are all here,” the man said in accented English. “My name is Timbe. You will follow my instructions and do as I say.”
“What is this about?” asked Flyboy. “We’re aid workers. Why did you pull us aside?”
The man laughed. “Aid workers. That’s good.” He looked around the room. “Pick up your bags and follow my men.”
“We’re not going anywhere with you,” said Reaper. “Not until we know what’s going on.”
The man looked down at a folded piece of paper. “You must be Repeth, right?”
Reaper didn’t answer.
“Either follow me, or I’ll tip off the airport police to who and what you really are.”
Hawkeye looked at Reaper, obviously wondering if this was the time to fight.
She shook her head minimally, and then turned to Timbe. “Okay then. Lead the way.”
They walked out of the room and down several hallways until they reached the baggage handling area. Men loading luggage onto conveyer belts gave them curious looks, and then turned away quickly at the sight of their escorts.
They approached a large military-style cargo truck and Timbe dropped the tailgate. “Up in here,” he said.
The team looked to Reaper for direction, and she tossed her bag onto the bed before hopping up. The rest of the team followed, and when all were inside the bed was closed and the tarp pulled down over the end. Within seconds the truck was moving.
“Is this part of the plan?” whispered Shortfuse from beside her.
“The plan has changed, apparently, but they didn’t threaten us or bring enough guys to watch us closely, so I think we’re all right.”
Shortfuse nodded and lay back against the seat and closed his eyes.
They travelled for nearly an hour before stopping. Flyboy kept his eye to a slit in the tarp. “We just went through some sort of checkpoint. Guards in civilian clothes, with guns.”
“Think Enrique Mendoles sold us out?” said Hawkeye. “Maybe he’s double-crossing us.”
“I don’t think so,” said Reaper. “Wouldn’t make any sense. He knows what Spooky would do to him. No, if the dealers on this end changed plans, it’s for their own reasons.”
“That would be a comfort to our rotting corpses,” said Hound Dog.
“Just relax, everyone. We don’t even know what type of situation we’re in yet, but I know we’ve made it out of the airport without even going through customs, which was one of our chief concerns. So everyone just chill.”
The truck stopped and after a few seconds the tarp was tossed back and the tailgate dropped. “We’re here,” said Timbe. “Leave your bags and follow me.”
“No. We bring the bags.”
Timbe laughed. “If you want to lug them around, be my guest.”
Reaper grabbed hers and walked beside Timbe. “What’s going on here?”
“You’ll find out soon enough,” he said, not looking at her. “Until then, shut your mouth around me, mule.”
Perversely, the contempt Timbe was showing comforted Reaper. It meant he probably didn’t realize how much more than mere drug carriers they were.
They were led into a large open building where a man in a white linen suit leaned against a table. Another in a white lab coat prepared surgical instruments on an adjacent table.
“Greetings,” the man in the linen suit said jovially. “Welcome to my estate. My name is Busara. I believe you have already met my associate, Timbe.”
“Mister Busara,” said Reaper, shaking her head. “This is not how it was supposed to go down. We were going to get through customs and check into the hotel. Then I would contact you to arrange a meeting.”
Busara shrugged. “Change of plans. In business, you don’t want to give people opportunities to give in to temptation.”
“This is not what my boss worked out with Enrique Mendoles.”
“Then take it up with your boss when you get home,” said Busara. “If you get home. You can tell Mendoles that this is not South America. This is Africa and we do things as we choose to do them. If he doesn’t like that, then he can find another way to sell his product here.”
“You do know who my boss is, right?”
Busara merely stared at her.
Hawkeye leaned over and whispered in her ear. “Maybe we should just make this as smooth as possible. I don’t really like the idea of carrying the shit any longer anyway.”
Reaper nodded, not taking her eyes of Busara. “So how does this work?”
Busara smiled and turned to the man in the lab coat. “Doctor Kilnia here will take care of you.”
The doctor looked up from his scalpels. “Everything is ready,” he said. “First subject, please.”
Everyone remained where they were.
“Come on,” said the doctor. “It’s really not healthy for you each to be carrying two kilos of cocaine inside your bodies. I don’t care if you are Edens. Those bags burst, you’re going to have serious complications.”
“Not to mention the loss of revenue,” said Busara with a stern look.
Reaper stepped forward and took off her shirt, leaving her only in her sports bra from the waist up.
“Lie flat on the table,” the doctor said. “Face down, please.”
She did as she was told.
The doctor looked closely at the small of her back and sides and shook his head. “It really is remarkable,” he said. “There isn’t even the trace of a scar. No way would anyone suspect anything. You Edens are perfect mules. And even better, people believe you would never do anything criminal.”
Busara grunted. “Doctor, let’s unload them instead of admiring them.”
The doctor picked up a scalpel and leaned over Reaper.
“Wait a minute,” said Crash. “Aren’t you going to give her a local?”
“Why?” asked Busara.
“To. Numb. The. Pain,” said Crash slowly.
“She can take it,” said Busara. “Medicine costs money here in Africa, and I’m trying to run a business. Got to keep costs down.”
“The coke is worth millions! You can afford it.”
“I’ll be fine,” said Reaper. “Just give me something to bite.”
The doctor smiled. “You see? She’s tough.” He handed Reaper a roll of leather, which she put between her teeth. Then he leaned over and she hissed as a line of fire stretched across her skin. There came a pause and the doctor did it again.
“How many cuts are you making, doc?” she asked around the cowhide.
“You heal almost as fast as I can make them,” he answered. “It’s incredible.”
“Well, play Doctor Mengele some other time,” she said. “For now, get that junk out of me. Hold the wound open if you have to.”
“Dammit, let me assist. I’m a medic,” Crash said, grabbing a spreader from the layout of medical instruments. “You cut, I’ll hold her open, then you grab the stuff. The faster the better, right?”
The doctor followed Crash’s suggestions, and they forced the wound open long enough for him to slip his fingers inside. Reaper forced herself to remain still, almost blacking out when he pulled the bloody bags out.
“Splendid,” said Busara.
Crash clamped her skin back together, holding it there until it healed enough for her to move. “Food?” he said.
“Some bread and juice on the table there,” the doctor said, pointing with a bloody scalpel. “Now, who’s next?”
Within an hour, twenty freshly washed one-kilo bags of cocaine lay on the table. A chemist systematically tested the contents of each, using a pair of test tubes to check the color. When he finished with the last, he looked up at Busara and nodded.
“Very good,” said Busara.
“Do we get our gear now?” asked Flyboy.
“Your gear?” Timba asked.
“Yes,” said Bunny. “All the stuff that we packed to get smuggled over here. Guns, commo equipment, NVGs, that sort of thing.”
Busara laughed. “If we could smuggle in that stuff, do you think we would have to resort to such measures to get cocaine in here? I don’t know what Mendoles told you, but that was never part of the deal.”
“Then what was the deal?” asked Hawkeye.
Timbe pointed at a large wooden crate in the corner of the room. “That’s for you.”
Several of the team members walked over and looked into the crate. Hawkeye lifted out a rust-pitted ancient AK-47 and pulled back the bolt. He looked at them in amazement. “You’re kidding, right?” he said. “This is shit.”
“They all work,” said Timbe. “Maybe not as fancy as you’re used to, but like the boss said, this is Africa.”
Reaper walked over and peered into the crate. She saw a dozen AK-47s like the one Hawkeye had lifted out, some old Makarov pistols, crates of ammo and commercial-grade, not military, explosives.
“We’re likely to blow ourselves up with this stuff,” said Shortfuse. “Seriously.”
Reaper looked around the inside of the warehouse, noting a pile of goods under a fresh, clean tarp, and then turned back to Busara. “No deal. This isn’t going to work.”
The man looked shocked. “What do you mean, ‘no deal’? I’m not sure you fully appreciate your position.”
“Oh, I appreciate it. We’re getting screwed.”
“No,” said Busara. “You only wish you were getting screwed. In about ten minutes you and your merry band will be gone from my sight. Whether you take this gear or leave it doesn’t matter to me, but our business will then be concluded.”
“You’re supposed to get us to the Kenyan border,” said Reaper. “That was part of the deal.”
“Don’t know anything about that.” The African grinned, certain he held all the cards.
Reaper turned back to Hawkeye and Shortfuse. “I think this is all we’re going to get. Can we make them work?”
The men looked at each other and then down into the crate skeptically.
“There’s a few more weapons than we need,” said Hawkeye. “I can break them all down and put the best pieces together. Accuracy will suffer, but at least they’ll be reliable.”
Crash grumbled, “But this is lethal ammo. We’ve trained with Sams. How are we supposed to use these and not kill people?”
“That’s not the worst of it,” said Livewire. “We have no secure comms. Hell, we have no comms at all.”
“Maybe we can buy something in the city,” said Bunny.
“Not without our cash,” answered Flyboy. “That was supposed to be in our gear as well.”
“We’ll just have to make do with what we have,” said Reaper.
“I can go through and pull out what looks most stable,” said Shortfuse.
She leaned near the demo man’s ear and said, “Can you set a timer to blow this crap in place?”
He shook his head imperceptibly. “No timers,” he hissed. “There’s wire, caps and det boxes.”
“Will rifle rounds set it off?”
“Yeah. It’s such crap, a sneeze might do it.”
Reaper clapped him on the back.
“I need an answer,” said Busara.
“We’ll take it,” said Reaper. “Just give us a few minutes to pack everything up.”
“Splendid,” said Busara. “It has been a pleasure doing business with you and I look forward to doing it again in the future. I’ll leave you in the trusty hands of my associate,” he indicated Timbe. “I bid you farewell.” Busara then walked out of the building.
Timbe turned to them. “Hurry up. You got five minutes and not a second more.”
“Let’s move, people,” said Reaper loudly. “Grab the weapons and ammo. Don’t worry about who gets what, just throw it in our luggage for now. We’ll sort it out later. Make sure everything is out of sight. I don’t want to look like a bunch of vagabond mercenaries if we get stopped by the police.”
They worked quickly until Timbe yelled out. “Time’s up. Follow me or plan on never leaving here.”
The team grabbed their now much heavier luggage and dragged it toward the front gate. They passed through the security fence and heard it close behind them with a loud clang.
Timbe called, “Don’t loiter out here. In ten minutes I’m calling the police if you’re still in sight, and they’re in our pocket. Have a nice life, mules.” He then turned and walked away.
“Let’s go,” Reaper said, grabbing her bags and hustling along the fence line until they rounded a nearby warehouse. “That alley.”
In the narrow back street, she led them behind a dumpster that looked as if it hadn’t been emptied in weeks. “Everything on the ground, now. Field strip what we have, make sure it will work if you can. In ten minutes, we’re going back in.”
“Back in?” Hound Dog protested. “You’re shitting me.”
Reaper put a finger in the man’s face as the rest began to follow her orders. “One, you do as I tell you, dickwad. Two, they actually don’t want to piss off Mendoles too much, or they would have simply killed us. Therefore, three, they threw us just enough of a bone that we don’t squawk, so we leave without trouble. Four, they won’t be expecting us to come back. We’re Edens, right?”
“Okay, but why?” Hound Dog asked, picking up his AK and beginning the process of cleaning and checking it. “I’d like to cap those bastards as much as the next guy, but what’s the upside?”
Reaper bared her teeth. “They have our real gear, I think, and we need it. Something just arrived and was sitting under a fresh tarp. They probably even intended to give it to us as arranged until one of them got greedy and decided he wanted our pretty toys.”
Picking up an AK, she stripped it down and checked all its working parts. She pulled out a tiny tube of petroleum jelly from her purse, all that was allowed on the flight, and used it to lubricate the weapon. “Thank God for Russian ruggedness,” she said. “Anyone find anything disastrous?”
“One broken firing pin, but we have spares,” Hawkeye said.
Reaper could see he’d already rebuilt two weapons before she’d even finished hers. Checking her watch, she said, “Five mikes. Load up and carry all the mags you can. Hide anything we don’t need in one of these dumpsters. We go in under the cyclone fence at the end of this alley and head straight for the building we were in. Timbe and his four guys plus two more were all I saw, so with surprise, we should be able to take them down.”
“We still might lose a couple, especially on the egress, boss,” Hawkeye said.
“That’s where Shortfuse comes in. He’s going to either rig a detonator on a long wire, or we’ll shoot the demo. How big a boom are we gonna get?” Reaper asked.
Shortfuse grunted. “Big. It’ll take down the building. There’s like forty kilos in there. We need to be at least a hundred meters away, preferably in cover.”
“That may not be possible. I guess we’ll have to play it by ear.” Reaper looked around at the men and woman. “Ready?”
“All right. Assault together, full auto, shock and awe. Once inside and we’re halfway clear, Bravo team ports the gear while Alpha provides security. We steal one of the trucks and disable the rest, and blow the demo on the way out. Got it?”
They nodded again.
Reaper stood and slung her bag, watching the others do the same, and then hefted her AK-47. A dozen 30-round magazines clanked in her cargo pockets, an unwieldy load, but without web gear, it was the best she could do.
Leading the rest down the alley, she came to the cyclone fence surrounding Busara’s compound. As she’d thought, it wasn’t staked down very well at the bottom, and she signaled Tarzan and Hound Dog to lift the heavy wire enough for the rest to roll under, one by one, their movements covered by several old broken-down trucks in the way.
Once inside, she signaled Hawkeye and his people right as she took the left. After a three-count, they exploded from cover and spread out, weapons up.
One guard saw them and froze in shock. Reaper cut him down with one burst, and then the rest of her line opened up. In a confusion of smoke and hammering noise, she saw two more men fall, red holes blossoming on their bodies. Then they were into the building.
Gunfire greeted them, and Bunny spun around to fall onto the clean concrete. Everyone with Reaper opened up in a blaze of rifle fire, and ten weapons quickly silencing three more. She saw Timbe bolt out the door on the other side.
“Someone help Bunny! Bravo, get our gear into a truck! Alpha, cover the entry points!” she yelled, recognizing the pile of cases on the floor. Clearly, Timbe had been looking through the goodies, but most of the boxes were still unopened.
Reaper ran over to the door where Timbe had exited and pushed it open with her rifle barrel, keeping her body off to the side. It rang to a burst of bullets as someone, presumably the big thug, tried to mousetrap her.
“Timbe!” she yelled. “Your men are all dead, and only one of mine is down. Nine to one! Be smart and back off, or I’ll have to kill you!” Another set of automatic fire was the only answer her opponent returned, so she backed up and checked to see how her instructions were being carried out.
Bravo team had half the cases in a nice new Mercedes two-ton truck, and Flyboy was already buckled in and had it started up. C3PO helped a wounded Bunny into the passenger seat, but she was moving under her own power so the injury must be manageable.
Near the crate of old demolitions, Shortfuse unwound a roll of wire, walking backward toward the truck. Once the rest of the gear had been loaded, he hopped onto the rear and continued to reel line onto the floor.
“Into the truck! Flyboy, you punch this thing straight through the door. Timbe’s still out there so we need to get egress firing and the hell out of range as fast as we can.” Reaper pushed Bunny over to the middle of the cab, inserting a fresh magazine and aiming the AK out the passenger window.
As soon as the other seven were in the back, Flyboy revved the big diesel and aimed the truck straight for the sheet-steel rolling door. They crashed through at thirty miles per hour and climbing, and immediately the team began firing at anything that moved.
Bullets smacked the truck, and Reaper felt a blow to the side of her head. Lifting a hand, it came away bloody and she’d lost vision in her right eye, so she emptied her weapon in the general direction of the muzzle flashes she could see.
And then the warehouse exploded behind them. Within a minute, they’d lost themselves in the crowded streets of Nairobi.
Skull and Zinabu rode slowly down the steep hill into the valley. Vehicles and lines of tents spread along the ground out into the distance. The tents stopped abruptly at a line at the base of the mountain.
“There’s a checkpoint ahead,” said Zinabu. “What do we do?”
“Just be cool. Believe that you’re a soldier. You’ve been told to drive this truck of supplies in from Addis and you’ve had a long journey. All you want to do is drop off your load and have a cold Bud and some cheese fries.”
“Or whatever,” said Skull. “You get the idea, right?”
“Okay, but what about you? You’re obviously a farenji.”
“Man, you know that’s racist, right?” said Skull. “I’d really appreciate it if you stopped using such an insensitive and offensive term.”
Zinabu pointed through the windshield. “The guard sees us. Quick, what is the plan with you?”
Skull rolled over and put his head against the side of the truck, pulling the hood of his jacket up high. “I’m just going to take a little nap. It’s been a long journey.”
“That’s it?” asked Zinabu. “Seems pretty weak. What if that doesn’t work?”
Skull didn’t move from his sleep position. “Then I’ll have to deal with it in another way.”
Zinabu decided not to ask more questions. He had already seen his traveling companion’s other ways. The guard at the checkpoint ahead made eye contact with Zinabu and he drove forward, trying to calm his racing heart.
About twenty meters from the checkpoint the guard held up his hand for Zinabu to stop. Another guard sat in the shade, his fist on the counterweight of a long sapling pole that served as the road barrier.
Zinabu stopped as the first guard walked forward. The soldier slung his rifle and climbed up on the sideboard of the vehicle, peering in.
I’m just a tired soldier, thought Zinabu. I’m just a tired soldier. I’m just a tired soldier.
The man stared at Zinabu with a bored look for several seconds before finally asking in Amharic. “Traveling orders?”
“I’m just a tired soldier,” blurted Zinabu.
“Hey, we’re all tired,” the soldier answered. “But I need to see your orders.”
Zinabu thought quickly. He didn’t have any orders. Maybe they were on one of the men they had killed, but neither he nor Skull had thought to look for anything. They had been in such a hurry.
“I don’t have any,” said Zinabu.
The soldier shook his head and sighed. “Come on. You know you can’t get in here without them.”
Zinabu let the fear and nervousness show as frustration. He leaned toward the soldier. “All I know is, I was told to drive this truck of supplies down here and that’s what I’ve done. It’s been a long trip and I’m tired. If I can’t get in, then fine. I’ll turn this damn truck around and drive it back to Addis Ababa.”
“Maybe that’s what you need to do,” said the soldier.
“Fine,” said Zinabu, putting the gearshift in reverse. “I’ll need your name so I can tell my officer when I return. He’ll ask, of course.”
The soldier didn’t answer.
“Don’t you have a name?” asked Zinabu.
Eventually, the soldier forced a smile. “I’m just messing with you. I’ll let it go this time, but next time I need to see papers.” He pointed at Skull. “What’s the deal with him?”
“Drove all night,” said Zinabu. “The lieutenant said not to stop for sleep or rest. Told the two of us to switch off and get here quick.”
The soldier tilted his head back to look along the side of the truck. “Must be something important. What cha carrying?”
“Don’t know, and don’t care. We’re told not to nose around the cargo and I don’t. Last guy who did got thirty lashes with a car antenna. Not pretty.”
“That’s nothing,” said the soldier, “I saw a soldier from C Company get a finger chopped off for saying something sympathetic about the Edens.”
“Did it grow back?”
The man looked at him with a blank face for a second before he burst into laughter. “That’s a good one.”
A car horn behind them made the soldier look. Zinabu glanced in the rear view mirror and saw a sedan with a sign in the front window. The red placard had a gold lion over the Ethiopian flag.
“Damn,” said the soldier. “Another VIP. They’ve been arriving the last few days.”
“Who knows?” the soldier answered, climbing down off the sideboard. “I’m guessing they want an audience for the climactic finish of those Edens.”
The car honked again.
“Go on,” said the soldier, waving them forward. “Remember next time about the orders.”
Zinabu waved and drove the truck forward into the camp.
Skull slowly turned over to face him, still keeping himself low. “Sounded like that went well. What did he say?”
Zinabu told him.
“Maybe you should consider a career in drama. What is it exactly that you do for a living? I mean, when you’re not doing this?”
“I’m a graduate assistant at Tel Aviv University,” answered Zinabu. “Studying to be an engineer. Have to be back the week after next so I don’t miss any classes.”
“Well, at least you’ll have something for your ‘What I Did on My Summer Vacation’ essay.”
Zinabu grunted in response and kept his hands tightly on the steering wheel.
Skull peeked through the dirty window around the edge of the door. This close, he could see trash and litter along the ground and weapons stacked in unguarded heaps. Some of the tents had fallen down and not been re-erected. Groups of soldiers sat in the shade and smoked or slept.
“Look at that,” said Zinabu.
Skull glanced up and saw a man hanged by the neck under a rough crossbeam. His hands were tied behind him and a hand scrawled sign was dangling from around his neck.
“What does it say?” asked Skull.
Zinabu swallowed. “It says ‘Mark of Hell’. An Eden.”
As they rode past, Skull stared at the body closer and realized with a start that the man’s eyes were barely slitted open, looking out onto the world.
“Did you see that?” asked Zinabu.
“Yes,” answered Skull.
“What do we do?”
“Nothing. Just keep driving.”
“But he’s just going to keep hanging there,” said Zinabu. “What will happen to him?”
Skull had been wondering the same thing. “He’ll keep healing, but the lack of oxygen probably already has him close to slipping into a coma. Maybe the Eden virus will prevent that, but he’s likely using up all his fat reserves. In short, he’ll hang there until suffocation or starvation gets him. Or dehydration.”
“It’s horrible. If they want to kill him, why not just do it.”
“Because they want the soldiers to see the Edens as inhuman monsters. They’re horrified by a hanged man who is still alive. It’s much easier to hate what they fear.”
They drove in silence for several minutes, making steady time through the camp.
“This road leads right up onto the side of the mountain,” said Zinabu.
“Good,” said Skull. “That’s where we want to go.”
“We’re coming up on the outer perimeter. We’re getting more and more looks. It’s going to be hard to explain us delivering supplies from Addis Ababa as we go farther along.”
“If we get stopped,” said Skull, “just act lost and ask for directions.” After he said this, he pulled a pistol from his back and carefully threaded the suppressor on the end. “Just in case, I’ll have my little friend ready.”
“Killing really doesn’t bother you, does it?”
“No. Is it supposed to?”
“Yes,” answered Zinabu turning to look at him. “It should bother you very much.”
Skull shrugged. “I think it did at one time, but that was long ago. Now it’s just a job, a simple act of necessity. I guess if I was a plumber I’d need a shrink, but in my line of work, killing without hesitation is an asset. If there is something wrong with that, it’s the only thing keeping me alive.”
“How did you get this way? You are not a monster. I just don’t understand it.”
“Well, if you ever figure it out, let me know. Right now I think we may have more pressing matters to attend to.”
Zinabu saw a soldier step out in front of their vehicle and hold his hand up.
Bringing the truck to a stop, Zinabu smiled and looked down from the cab at the soldier. The soldier did not smile back.
“What are you doing here?” he asked in Amharic.
“Which way is the supply drop-off point?” asked Zinabu.
“There isn’t one anymore,” the man answered.
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s gone. Damn Edens blew it up. Been short of everything since then.”
Zinabu was uncertain what to say next. “Then where am I supposed to drop these supplies? I just brought them from Addis Ababa.”
“If you have supplies, drop them here. We need them as bad as anyone else in this cursed camp. Go on, get out of the truck and we’ll get you unloaded.”
Zinabu hesitated, keeping his hand on the door handle.
“Don’t get out of the truck,” said Skull softly.
Zinabu dropped his hand from the handle. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea. My commander gave me very clear instructions.”
“Well, I don’t know your commander,” said the soldier, “but ours don’t know the difference between breakfast and their own feces. Let’s leave the damn officers out of this and handle it ourselves.”
“Maybe I should just go back and ask someone else,” said Zinabu, putting his hand on the gear shift.
“Easy now,” said the soldier pointing his rifle at Zinabu. “Why you have to be that way? Why do you care who gets the supplies? You just drop them off and drive on back to Addis Ababa for a big meal and a good night’s sleep in your soft bed. Get out of that cab and help me unload or I’m going to blow your sorry head off.”
Zinabu gazed down the barrel of the rifle. He saw the man’s face harden and his finger tighten on the trigger. “I think it’s time for your way, Alan,” he said in English
Skull leaned over Zinabu. The soldier only had a split second to register surprise before Skull shot him twice with the suppressed weapon.
“Time to go. Hurry!” said Skull. Zinabu jammed the truck into gear and floored it.
As they picked up speed and passed through the Ethiopian outer defenses, soldiers yelled at them and tried to flag them down. They crashed through a wooden barricade and onto a bridge spanning a large dry streambed. Then they were across and climbing up the mountain. Bullets struck the rear of the vehicle with loud clangs.
Skull began to see flashes ahead of them. He could pick out individual Eden fighting positions.
“They’re shooting at us!” screamed Zinabu over the whine of the engine and bullets ricocheting off the side of the vehicle.
“Look at it from their point of view,” yelled Skull, ducking low. “It’s not like we told them we were coming.”
“Was this how you planned to link up with the Edens?”
“Exactly like this,” yelled Skull as the windshield shattered.
Twenty miles north of Nairobi, Reaper and her team pulled over into a clearing beneath some trees. It allowed them to get out of sight for a while. A dozen other trucks were parked there, the drivers sleeping, eating or smoking and talking. They eyed the mostly white crew of the Mercedes, but didn’t approach when Flyboy parked well away from them.
“What now?” asked Hawkeye.
Reaper forced herself not to prod the bandage covering her right eye. “Eat, drink, take five. Livewire, get me an uplink.”
The commo man quickly had the compact secure satphone out. Once he’d fiddled with it, he handed it to her and she punched in a number. Then she waited, and waited some more. Finally, it connected.
“Yes,” said Spooky’s voice.
“It’s me,” said Reaper. “We had some trouble. Mendoles’ boy Busara double-crossed us as soon as he extracted the drugs. Tried to keep all our high-end gear and pass off a bunch of old crap on us, saying he was changing the deal.”
“I see. What’s your situation now?”
Reaper wasn’t sure, but to her, Spooky sounded genuinely surprised. “Really. He tried to give us some unstable demo, and, well, what can I say? Seems like it accidentally blew his warehouse all to hell.”
“Accidentally on purpose, maybe.” Reaper laughed, deliberately. “Don’t sound so disappointed, Spooky. I’m starting to wonder if you want us to succeed or not.”
“Of course I want you to succeed.”
“Then I’ll expect to see fresh intel in the next databurst.”
“Naturally. Are the locals after you?” asked Spooky. “Are you on the run?”
“No. We’re good...if you hold up your end.”
“Why are you questioning me?”
Reaper chuckled grimly. “Your ops usually go like clockwork, Spooky, and you don’t suffer fools gladly. Yet, you saddled me with people I don’t want, and the moment we arrive here, things start going south. A suspicious woman might wonder. She might even dial a different number with this satphone and talk to Markis.”
“I assure you, you’ll get all the support I can give. Nguyen out.” The call dropped.
“I take it that didn’t go well,” said Shortfuse from her elbow.
“Wasn’t as bad as all that.” Reaper walked away from the man and, after checking to make sure no one was obviously eavesdropping, called that other number.
“Alpha Two,” came the woman’s voice on the other end. “I show secure.”
“Millie, it’s Repeth. I need to talk to the chairman.”
“He’s in a meeting right now, Jill.”
“Get him out. I don’t care who he’s with. Five minutes.”
Reaper heard a sigh. “Okay.”
A moment later, Daniel Markis said, “Yes, Jill. What can I do for you?”
“Sorry to bother you, sir, but I wanted you to know. Our contacts here in Nairobi tried to screw us. Things got bloody, but we’re fine and on schedule.”
“Why talk to me? This is Spooky’s op.”
“Have you even known one of Spooky’s ops to go sideways in a big way? Or rather, for one of his people to cross him with impunity?”
Reaper listened to silence for a long moment. Finally, Markis said, “I see. You think he hung you out to dry?”
“Not completely. I think he tried to screw things up so badly we’d fail without actually intending to kill us. I’m not sure why, and I could be wrong, but I wanted you to know what happened, just in case.”
“I understand. Carry on, Jill. Complete your mission. I’ll put the screws to Spooky so he can’t mistake my meaning.”
“Thank you, sir.” She hung up and walked back to the truck.
“What now?” Hawkeye asked.
Reaper thought for a few seconds, and then hopped into the back of the truck. “Listen up, everyone,” she said, making sure the window to the cab was open. “We’re still a go. We have all our gear, and our wounds will heal by the time we get close to the target area. It’s five hundred miles or so to the border, ten or twelve hours on this highway if we’re lucky. We’ll rotate drivers and rest as we go. Let’s get moving.”
“What if we get stopped?” Hound Dog said. “We were supposed to have Kenyan guides. None of us knows how to deal with the locals – who to bribe or whatever. One checkpoint and we’re toast. Our cover is useless with all this hardware we’re carrying. It’s not like we can fight our way out of the entire country. Not if the Kenyan cops and Army is after us. I say we ditch all this stuff, head for the airport and be on the next plane smokin’.”
“What do the rest of you think?” Reaper asked. “We’re all volunteers here. Anyone got anything else to say?”
“What about all those Edens we’re supposed to help rescue?” asked Crash. “We gonna just let them down?”
Reaper nodded. “Yeah, that’s the flip side. I’m staying, but I don’t want anyone to eat a bullet out of guilt if they walk away from this and the Edens all die. You need to make sure it’s a call you can live with.”
“I say we pull the plug,” said Hound Dog.
“Shut up, dude,” Tarzan said. “We already know what you think. I’m with Reaper.”
“Is there a backup plan?” asked Hawkeye. “If we pull out, is there another team waiting to go in and save the Edens?”
“I don’t know for sure,” said Reaper, “but I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure we’re it.”
“Whatever we decide, it needs to be quick,” said Shortfuse. “Those Edens are running out of time.”
Reaper nodded. “Like I said, I’m going on. Anyone who doesn’t want to, sanitize yourself of anything incriminating and get out. You can hitchhike back to the airport.” She stared at Hound Dog until eventually he shook his head. “Okay then.”
“I’ll go wherever you go, Boss,” Shortfuse piped up.
Reaper bit the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling. Shortfuse obviously had a crush on her. She turned to C3PO, the only black man, and said, “Sit up front and drive. You speak Swahili, right? Maybe you can talk your way past any trouble.”
He nodded, and they climbed into the cab. Soon, they were rolling down the A2 highway at speed while those in the rear took the opportunity to sleep.
“So tell me how you learned to speak all these languages,” Reaper said, making conversation. She’d seen C3PO’s file, but never simply chatted with the man.
“My father was a diplomat. We lived throughout Africa growing up and I’ve always had a knack for languages.”
“That’s why your handle is C3PO,” said Reaper with a wink.
“Yes?” he said. “Why am I called that? No one will tell me.”
“It’s a tradition that you don’t pick your nickname, and you have to figure it out for yourself.”
“Please. I would really like to know.”
Reaper sighed and took pity on the earnest man. “I’ll give you a hint. The movie? Star Wars?”
“I have never seen this movie,” he said. “Is there a man in it who speaks many languages?”
Reaper chuckled. “In a sense. When this is over, be sure you see it.”
“Is it a good one?”
Reaper nodded solemnly. “The best.”
They rode in silence for a time, and Reaper took the opportunity to eat. Her eye itched abominably, but Crash had said the damage was serious enough that it might take days to heal fully, so she left it alone.
“We should really get rid of this lovely truck,” C3PO said. “If there is a report, it will make us a target.”
“You’re right. What do you suggest?”
“We should change to something local.”
“Buy another truck?”
C3PO laughed. “Not exactly. Trust me. I lived in Ethiopia for several years. Kenya is enough like it.”
Reaper stared at the man’s smiling ebony face, and then said, “All right.”
“This town looks big enough.” He took the next turn. “Please tell everyone to put all weapons out of sight.”
Reaper passed on the instructions, and soon everyone had their guns packed inside their bags. They rode through the outskirts of town and into the town center traffic. The density of pedestrians increased with every foot they traveled. C3PO leaned out the window and spoke with several people on the sidewalk, and then turned down a side street they indicated.
“What was that about?” Reaper asked.
“I asked them where trucks were available,” said C3PO. “As I expected, there is a trading lot.”
“You will see.”
After several blocks, they debouched into a large open area where dozens of trucks and perhaps hundreds of vehicles were parked haphazardly, with many people milling about. C3PO drove slowly through the crowd, and no one seemed to think anything of it. Others did the same, creating a slow-motion chaos.
Food stands and merchants of all sorts hawked their wares, but the real action was obviously in the sales of vehicles. Men haggled and dickered with fists full of cash, arguing good-naturedly and with broad smiles, making deals.
“There,” C3PO said, aiming the Mercedes toward a line of mid-size cargo trucks comparable to their own. “One of those will do. Stay in the cab,” he said to her. “Women do not buy vehicles here, especially white women.”
“Whatever you say, Bwana,” Reaper replied with a grin and a wave.
After fifteen minutes, C3PO came back with an older man, who had a broad smile on his face. “This is Petros. I’ve traded our truck for his. Very easy, very good deal for him, since this Mercedes is worth three times the old Volvo I have acquired.” He held up a set of keys. “Follow me.”
“All right, everyone follow C3PO!” Reaper called. “Bring everything, and I mean everything!”
The new owner climbed in the cab of the Mercedes as soon as it was vacated and started the truck, running his hands over the new dashboard and undamaged seats.
“What did he say about the bullet holes?” Reaper asked as she carried her bag to the new ride.
“He did not ask. He knows the truck is probably stolen, and by tomorrow it will be repaired, repainted and have new number plates on it. No worries.”
“Yeah, hakuna matada.”
C3PO looked at Reaper in surprise. “I did not know you speak Swahili.”
She stared at him. “Lion King?”
“What is that?”
“Didn’t they have any movies when you were growing up?”
“My father wanted us to read books, so we saw few movies as children.”
Reaper shook her head. “Never mind.”
When they’d loaded the ten-year-old Volvo truck C3PO had acquired, he turned to Reaper. “Petros has kindly provided his nephew Hanif to drive us.” He waved a younger man, dressed in threadbare trousers and a Bulls basketball jersey, over to them, shaking his hand vigorously. “With our money for bribes, he should be able to get us through.”
Reaper sighed. “Okay. Just means we’ll need to ditch him somewhere along the way, but we’ll probably draw less attention.”
C3PO hopped into the passenger seat and Hanif took the wheel. Soon, they were back on the highway. The Kenyan played the radio loud while dancing and singing in the seat.
“At least one of us isn’t worried,” said Reaper from her position at the cab’s back window. She rolled over to lie on the floor of the truck bed, pillowing her head on her gear bag.
She awoke when Hanif and C3PO stopped to refuel the truck. Their GPS told her they were only two hundred miles from the Kenyan-Ethiopian border. Another call to Spooky confirmed the plan was still on schedule.
Misgana sat on a rock and looked out over the camp. He was hungry and tired. From intel and probes they knew there were holes in the perimeter surrounding them, but where would they even go if they left the mountain?
We need the FC to make good on their promise, thought Misgana. Soon.
A truck caught his eye. It had advanced to near the front edge of the Ethiopian perimeter and vehicles rarely came that far forward. It sat at the checkpoint for a time and then rushed ahead as the guard fell back on the ground. The truck burst through the barricade and strained up the steep mountain road toward them. Misgana could see Ethiopians shooting at the truck as it sped away from them.
He could also hear his own men begin to shoot at the vehicle.
Could this be the FC help we’ve been waiting for?
Misgana took off running down the hillside. “Stop! Stop shooting! They’re friends!”
His men looked at him as if he were crazy, but slowly stopped their firing. Misgana continued to run down the defensive line, yelling for them to stop. By the time the shooting ceased, the truck had rolled to a halt a hundred yards down the hill, steam pouring from the front radiator grill.
Misgana rushed down toward the truck and his men followed. They jerked open the doors on each side and dragged two men out. Misgana noticed that the white man actually had a pistol in his hand, but didn’t use it. The starving and demoralized Edens pressed them both to the ground and screamed at them.
“Stop!” said Misgana. “These men obviously risked their lives to get here.”
“And why would anyone do that?” asked one of the Edens,
“They’ve been sent here to kill us, Captain!” said another.
“Maybe that truck is a giant bomb sent to wipe us all out,” said a third.
At this, everyone froze, looking at each other and the truck.
“I think they would have set it off by now if that were their intention.” said Misgana,
“We don’t know that though,” mumbled one.
Misgana thought for a moment. From his experience working in conflicts around east Africa, suicide bombers seldom brought along partners. “Maybe we should just look in the back and see what they have. I doubt it’s a bomb.”
“Be careful, Captain,” someone said.
The men moved away from the vehicle, yelling for all to stand back and dragging the two men from the truck with them.
With some difficulty Misgana was able to work loose the locking bolt on the rusty tailgate. Freed, the gate swung down with a loud slam, making people gathered farther up the hill jump. He peered into the dark interior of the truck’s covered bed.
Misgana began to laugh. “I think we can let our visitors up.”
“Why?” asked one of the men.
“Because they sure weren’t sent by the Ethiopian army.”
“How do you know?”
Misgana waved them forward. “Come look.”
The skittish defenders gathered around the truck and peered into the darkness; even so, they did not understand, so Misgana climbed up into the bed of the truck and started handing down cardboard case after cardboard case. “Take these up to the caves,” he said with a smile.
The men looked at the boxes in confusion. “What is it?”
“They’re military rations,” Misgana explained. “This truck is filled with food, lots of it.” He climbed down.
Smiles slowly spread across their faces as they realized their children and wives would not be hungry that night. They started to laugh and cheer. Then they jumped and chanted songs in celebration.
The two released men walked up to Misgana. The Ethiopian with the facial scars introduced himself as Zinabu and his fierce-looking white friend as Skull.
“Are you two from the FC?” Misgana asked, and Zinabu translated.
Skull responded through his friend, “Yes. We’re the cavalry.”
Misgana didn’t understand, but the one named Skull seemed amused, so he laughed as well.
Help has finally come, thought Misgana. He quietly said a prayer of thanks.
The truck containing Reaper’s team drove through the night and neared the border the next morning, where she saw a group of Kenyan soldiers. She could also see a camp ahead with military vehicles and a few helicopters parked in a nearby field. Lines of civilian trucks and semis sat idling or shut down on the side of the road, waiting to cross. Soldiers patrolled on foot between, ensuring no one jumped the line.
Hanif pulled in behind the other trucks and turned off the engine.
“What’s this about, Hanif?” Reaper asked.
“Do not know,” he answered. “Driven here many times. Never army here.”
“I think we need some information,” said Hawkeye. “I get the distinct impression something’s changed since yesterday.”
Reaper replied, maintaining their thin cover for Hanif’s benefit, “Just because we’re out of contact with our news studio doesn’t mean we can’t do our jobs. We’re journalists right? Well, let’s go be journalists.” She turned to Flyboy. “Get your video camera out. You and C3PO will be with me. You too, Bunny. Come on.” She grabbed a microphone and recorder, and then fluffed her hair.
With no makeup handy, she pinched her checks and rubbed her lips to bring them some color, and told Bunny to do the same. “Smile a lot and look sexy,” she said. “Keep them distracted.”
“No problem, boss,” Bunny replied, hiking her bra up. “I’ll knock ’em dead.”
Exiting the truck, they walked toward the checkpoint, with Flyboy carrying the large, pro-style video camera on his shoulder. As she approached the soldiers there, Reaper noticed they seemed less preemptory and brusque at the sight of what appeared to be reporters, especially with the two attractive western women.
Reaper walked straight up the sergeant who appeared to be in charge of the checkpoint, smiling and putting on her friendliest manner. Through C3PO, she said, “Hello. We’re reporters from International News. What can you tell us about what is going on here? Why has the border been closed?”
The sergeant looked back and forth between Reaper and Bunny, but seemed unwilling to speak. Other soldiers nearby jabbered at him, obviously making rude jokes, until the man said something, waved and turned toward the camp.
“He says he’ll take you to his officer,” C3PO said. They nearly had to jog to keep up with him as he took them to a large tent in the center of the makeshift camp nearby.
A lean man with pressed fatigues stepped out of the tent. He smiled and ran a hand over his shaven head before walking over to them.
“My soldier tells me you are from International News,” he said in good English, smiling broadly at the two women. “Do you broadcast in Nairobi?”
“We have the capability to broadcast all over the world,” said Reaper. “Can I get your name, please? We want the viewers to be informed of the good work you’re doing out here.”
“Captain Injil,” he responded.
Reaper turned to Flyboy. “Okay let’s roll in three...two...one.” She stood to the side of Injil and faced the camera. “Today I am here at the Kenyan-Ethiopian border, where there is a large military presence.” She turned to Injil. “Tell me, Captain Injil, is the border actually closed or not?”
“Yes,” he said, obviously playing to the camera. “We are taking precautions to protect the people of Kenya.”
Reaper nodded and moved the microphone from Injil to herself. “And do these precautions have anything to do with reports of Eden refugees trapped on a nearby mountain across the border in Ethiopia?”
Injil looked uncomfortable as the microphone was pushed back into his face. “We have been ordered to close the border temporarily as a precaution. As far as the Edens there and what the Ethiopians decide to do about them, that does not concern us. Our role is to prevent their conflict from spilling over into our country.”
Reaper nodded encouragingly. “That makes perfect sense. Tell me, have you gotten any reports about what the Ethiopians intend to do about the Edens?”
“No,” Injil bent down to talk into the microphone, “but it is unlikely to affect what we decide to do. Kenya has a very tolerant policy toward Edens and sees no reason to change that.”
“Certainly a very enlightened policy,” said Reaper. “Captain, can you tell me how long this border will be closed? I mean, it looks like there are many trucks waiting to cross. Trade and commerce will certainly suffer if this continues for very long.”
“Not much longer,” said Injil. “I expect the border to be opened within a few days.”
“I see. Is it only this border crossing or all those leading into Ethiopia?”
“Right now only this one. The point of concern is localized to this area. People should not be alarmed. This is nothing more than a precaution.”
“Very good and thank you,” Reaper said. “Captain Injil, is there anything you would like to say to your family who may be watching this soon?”
Injil grabbed the microphone and proceeded to say hello to his mother, father, four brothers, two sisters, seven aunts, five uncles, grandmother, pastor, favorite teacher from school, girl next door who had rejected him, the village baker, his commanding officer, the Kenyan people, and finally mankind as a whole.
“Thank you very much,” Reaper said to the beaming man. “Would you mind if we walk around and get a little footage of the camp? You are obviously doing a really amazing job here and I think our viewers should see it.”
Captain Injil hesitated for a few seconds, but when Bunny smiled and winked at him, he nodded.
They walked around the camp and confirmed that the crossing was closed, but didn’t see trucks lined up on the Ethiopian side trying to get into Kenya. A few nervous Ethiopian customs police peered back at them from across the border.
“Let’s go there,” said Reaper pointing to a tent with a multitude of antennas protruding from the top.
They walked into the dim tent without asking permission and found two men sitting at a table with headphones on taking notes. Only one of them noticed them and he pulled off his headset.
“You cannot be in here,” he said in English. “No civilians allowed.”
“It’s okay,” said Reaper, nudging Bunny. “We are from International News and Captain Injil gave us express permission to come here and to talk to whomever we wished. He said that the Kenyan Army has nothing to hide and to let him know personally if anyone was not cooperating with us.”
“Oh,” said the man. “Journalists?” Bunny walked over to look at his equipment, leaning over and giving him a good look at her cleavage.
“Yes. Can you start by telling me what it is you do here?”
The man tore his eyes from Bunny and turned to his partner for help, but the other man stayed engrossed in what he was listening to. “We send and receive radio signals.”
“So you communicate among various elements of the Kenyan army?” asked Reaper.
The man nodded.
Reaper smiled winningly. “From my limited experience, communications are out there for anyone to gather and listen in on. With such a huge host of the Ethiopian army nearby, I imagine you are hearing all sorts of things from across the border.”
“Why, yes,” the man said. “Troops reports, movements, that sort of thing.”
“Captain Injil said that within a few days this whole situation would be resolved. He credited you and the information you gathered for that knowledge. He also said we should get the details from you. What can you tell us?”
The man again turned to his partner for help, but the other man seemed oblivious beneath his headset. “We’ve been monitoring the Ethiopian military channels. There has been a larger degree of traffic than normal the last few days. This traffic indicates the Ethiopians are planning a final assault on the mountain.”
“Don’t forget about the bombers,” said the other man, finally noticing Bunny and taking his headset off. “Messages back and forth to Addis Ababa about air strikes. I’d say those Edens are about to be cooked.”
Reaper looked at the map on the wall. “So the Edens are here? And we’re right here?” She pointed at several places on the map while she memorized the locations of the Kenyan army and which border crossings nearby remained unguarded. All the while, Bunny strutted around within their view.
When she’d gotten all the information she could, Reaper thanked both men, and left the tent to rejoin her “camera crew” waiting outside.
“Back to the truck,” she told them tensely. “Keep smiling and act like you’re filming.” They walked down the road past the line of waiting vehicles and piled into theirs.
“Did you get what you needed?” asked Shortfuse.
“Yes I did. I think it’s time we switched to Plan B.”
“Plan B?” asked Bunny. “I didn’t think we even had a Plan A.”
Reaper gave her a reproachful look, and then leaned up to Hanif. “We’re going to need to stay a few days. The story is going to take longer to cover than I anticipated. You can drop us off here.”
“I can wait,” the young man answered.
“No need,” Reaper insisted. “Give us a good phone number for you and we can call if we need to be picked up. We might end up traveling north through Ethiopia anyway.”
“What about your truck?” Hanif patted the dashboard.
“Why don’t we loan it to you for the time being? If we haven’t called in a month, it’s yours.”
“Then I will stay for three days,” said Hanif as they climbed out of the van and put on their luggage packs.
“That’s fair,” Reaper replied, actually wanting the young man out of her hair.
Then again, there’s an off chance he might be useful, she thought.
“Pack everything you need in your rucks, people,” she said. “From here on, we’re humping it. Leave anything you don’t want to carry.” The team hastened to follow her instructions. She broke out an MRE and ate it quickly to fortify her for the march to come.
Fifteen minutes later, they waved to Hanif as he drove away with the radio cranked up loud enough to hurt.
“Nice kid,” said Bunny, looking a bit wistful.
“Keep your head in the game, blondie,” Reaper snapped.
“Sorry. Seemed like he was the only halfway normal guy I’ve met in the last two weeks.”
“Hey, I’m normal, dude!” Tarzan protested.
Reaper snorted and turned to the rest. “Listen up, people. Time is ticking. We need to get to the other side of the border fast. The Ethiopians are planning to give these Edens the final solution soon.”
“How are we getting across?” asked Crash. “We won’t be able to sneak by these boys.”
“There’s a donkey trail that leads west along the border, crossing it a couple miles from here. It turns north and runs right by the foot of Mega Mountain. And anyone straggling gets left behind,” Reaper said, looking at Hound Dog. “So keep up, unless you want to become a permanent resident.”
They slipped out into the bush at a point far from the border crossing, watched only by a couple of the many truckers. In less than a mile they had picked up the trail, passing a man and a boy driving a small herd of goats. From her briefings on the area, Reaper knew that many such people ignored borders, regarding them as irrelevant.
All ten were in superb physical condition, so they quickly crossed into Ethiopia and made good time. Once night began to fall, Reaper had the team break out their weapons and carry them openly, along with the night vision gear and tactical radio headsets. “We’re getting close,” she said. “Livewire, what’s the latest?”
Checking the satphone for messages, he replied, “We’re still a go.”
Reaper nodded. “All right. That means the back door is still open. All we have to do is find it, link up with the Edens, and lead them out.”
“Piece of cake, Boss,” Shortfuse said with a grin.
Hawkeye shot the other man a glare. “In war, everything is simple, but the simplest things are difficult.”
“What do you mean, they didn’t go for it?” Cassandra asked, her voice showing stress.
Geoffrey looked around the hotel bar at the eyes turning their way. He put a hand on her arm. “The government thought it was too much to ask. They said no.”
Cassandra brushed his hand off. “They can’t say no.”
“UN Council support, and a secret military alliance too?” asked Geoffrey. “You really can’t expect the United Kingdom to consent to those terms in order to save non-British citizens in a country far away. I understand how much this means to you, but it’s just not going to happen.”
“You told me it was possible. You dangled that carrot in front of my face when you were trying to recruit me. Either you were lying to me then or you’re lying to me now. Which is it?”
“Neither,” said Geoffrey. “I miscalculated. It happens. They thought the mission too risky and the chance of negative blowback too high.”
“Did Richard support it?” Cassandra asked.
“King Richard,” corrected Geoffrey. “And yes, he did. Just as he said he would.”
“I want to talk to him.”
“You heard me.”
Geoffrey shook his head. “You do not simply demand to talk to the King.”
“He told me he had the influence and could help. I want to remind him of what is at stake.”
“You’re taking this too personally. I’m sure he tried. There are many factors here that we may not be aware of.”
“He evidently didn’t try hard enough,” said Cassandra, crossing her arms. “You can’t tell me that a man like King Richard couldn’t find a way to make this happen.”
Geoffrey shook his head sadly. “Cassandra. You don’t understand our form of government. The King is an influential figurehead, but if he pushes too hard, the elected government will simply dig in their heels on principle. It’s the Prime Minister that makes foreign policy, not the monarch. Let it go, dear.”
She stared at him silently for a long moment. “Then the deal is off.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that King Richard’s mother and brother can find someplace else to live.”
“Keep your voice down,” Geoffrey hissed, and then spoke quietly but emphatically. “The state funeral was last week! She’s been infected with the Eden virus and is already growing young. She’s on a plane to Sydney right now!”
Cassandra slipped out her phone and pulled up a number. When it answered, she said, “Yes, it’s me. That nice lady I asked you to take care of...yeah. Don’t let her in the country. Put her right back on the plane.”
“Stop it!” said Geoffrey, his eyes wide. “Don’t you know what could happen to her? Where is she supposed to go?”
“Frankly, I don’t give a shit right now what happens to one woman, no matter how beloved by the people,” said Cassandra. “Not in comparison to the thousands at risk in Ethiopia. Deal’s off…unless you hold up your end. Personally, I don’t think you’ve been trying hard enough either.”
Geoffrey stared at her for a moment. “Damn it.” He reached his hand out toward her. “Give me a few minutes to make a call.”
Cassandra tapped out a text. “I’m telling them I’ll call them back. If they don’t hear from me, she’ll be just another refugee without a country.” She looked up from the phone. “Her plane lands in three hours.”
“Don’t you bloody move,” Geoffrey said, and then walked to the elevators.
Cassandra ordered an appetizer and an Irish coffee, listening to the light jazz music while she waited.
After an hour, Geoffrey came back to the bar. He looked like he’d fallen off a racehorse in full gallop. “You’ve got a call in ten minutes. I have a secure line set up in my room.”
“Let’s go, then,” said Cassandra, rising.
They rode to the tenth floor and walked down the hall to Geoffrey’s suite. Inside, Cassandra saw a briefcase on the desk with an open laptop inside, hooked to a black box with three steady green lights on top.
Geoffrey typed something, and then stood, offering the seat to her. They sat silently and awkwardly. Cassandra realized she might eventually come to regret what she was doing – after all, she couldn’t expect much cordiality from now on – but she didn’t have time for second thoughts.
There came a ringing sound, and then the screen glowed to life. A gray-haired woman appeared. “Hello. Miss Johnstone?” she asked.
“I will transfer you to the His Majesty momentarily. Please rise and remain on your feet until he offers for you to sit.”
“Are you serious?” asked Cassandra. “I’m halfway across the world.”
The woman looked confused by the objection.
“She’s serious,” said Geoffrey.
Cassandra stood and tilted the camera back so that it still showed her face on the screen. Within seconds, the display went black, and then the side of King Richard’s face appeared. He turned to her. “Ah, Miss Johnstone. The last time I met I was under the impression that we would not speak directly to each other again.”
“Your Majesty, so was I,” said Cassandra.
“I hear that you are blackmailing me,” he said casually, but with a hint of steel. “For me, that’s a novel experience.”
“I wouldn’t call it blackmail,” said Cassandra. “We entered into an agreement. Your government violated the terms, therefore I am released from my part. Aren’t you supposed to ask me to sit?”
“Please sit.” Richard frowned at her. “I told you I would do my best, and I have. Unfortunately, monarchy is not what it used to be, and many things are out of my hands.”
“Interesting. I distinctly remember you getting angry with me when I implied there might be limits to your influence.”
“There are things that you do not understand. The Kenyans are asking for too much. It’s not in the interests of my people to encourage them to accept such an arrangement.”
“I thought you just told me you did your best,” Cassandra said. “Now you’re telling me that you couldn’t do quite so well because it wasn’t in your best interest. Which is it?”
“It is out of my control,” he responded his lips tight. “You must face reality.”
“Amazing,” said Cassandra sitting back in her chair. “A couple days on the throne and already you’ve gone from a soldier to a politician. What was it we discussed last time? Duty and honor?”
“I have not forgotten,” Richard said. “I have a greater duty than you can imagine – to my own people.”
“What about honor then? Honoring your agreements so thousands of innocents don’t get slaughtered because you’re playing politics.”
“I do not have to justify my decisions to you. This call was a courtesy. I now see it was a mistake.”
“You’re right,” said Cassandra. “I didn’t call to get a justification from you anyway. This is blackmail, remember? I get your help on this, and I mean the never-say-die, who-dares-wins help you would expect from an SAS commando, or you can park that dear old mum of yours somewhere else. I might even accidentally let slip who she is, say, to an interested reporter? Can you imagine what your rabid tabloids would print? I imagine that would test the limits of your influence too.”
“You are making a mistake, Miss Johnstone,” Richard said severely.
“Maybe,” she answered, “but if it saves those Edens, I’ll gladly make it. So you now have to decide: is your mother, not to mention your brother – and avoiding the scandal – worth it?”
Richard stared silently at her for long moments. “Someone will be in touch in the next hour,” he finally said. “I will not soon forget this conversation.”
Cassandra was just composing something conciliatory to say when the call ended.
She exhaled deeply. “Well, I think that went well.” She looked around for Geoffrey, but didn’t see him.
Eventually he came out of the bathroom, his face wet and pale, a towel around his neck. “I think I need a drink,” he said. “How about you?”
Skull had to admit that he was physically attracted to the woman who sat across from him. They had already told him that Husnia was in her seventies, but all the age did was give her twenty-something face and body an air of gravitas that made her much more interesting.
It occurred to him that, as Edens grew more numerous, being young in years would turn from an asset into a liability as rejuvenated cougars and suave older men ate the new generation’s lunches, sexually speaking.
Zinabu had just finished telling Husnia and Misgana their story. It had taken some degree of faith for them to believe that the FC would send non-Edens to help them, but finally they had seemed to accept the tale.
“We’re grateful for the food,” said Husnia. “The Lord knows we need it, but I’m not sure I understand. How exactly are we going to get out of here?”
“That’s still a little fuzzy,” said Skull. “I need to talk to our folks in the rear. They should be able to steer us in the right direction.”
“That may be wise, for we are running out of time.”
Skull excused himself while Zinabu continued to talk with the two. He took his secure laptop and satellite antenna from his rucksack. Setting it all up, he saw that the batteries were nearly dead, so he pulled out the hand charger.
Plugging the end of the cord into the laptop, Skull began cranking with one hand while holding the device with the other. After about two minutes, he figured he had enough stored energy in the spring to generate juice to call Spooky. Emails wouldn’t do this time. He needed to talk to the man himself.
Entering the contact address string, he was half surprised when it picked up.
“Skull. I never expected you to actually call me on this line,” said Spooky. “It’s been a while since I saw your face.”
“Not since you guys loaded the plane in Arizona. A lot has happened since then, and I’d love to catch up and all, but we need to talk about the situation here.”
“Please do,” said Spooky.
“Please do?” Skull, mimicked in a similar, faux accent. “Okay then, I’ll go first. My guide and I are finally here, no thanks to you or the Israelis. These folks are holding their own for now and the Ethiopian army appears to have its own problems, but we both know a shitstorm is coming our way.”
“One of my teams has made it to Kenya,” said Spooky. “The original plan was to provide support while you moved the Edens south across the border to a refugee camp established there. Now, imagery shows the Kenyans have closed the border at the main road. I presume we have Mossad to thank for that. The extraction team will follow your direction if you can link up with them. When you make a break for the border, they will create a distraction and hold open a hole in the southern side of the Ethiopian perimeter, if they can. At least, that’s the plan.”
Skull didn’t say anything for a long while, his mouth slightly open.
“I’m sorry,” said Spooky. “Did we lose sound?”
“I sure as hell hope so, because the plan I just heard is sheer lunacy. We have ten thousand near-starving Edens, many of them women and children, with few weapons and little ammo, and they’re supposed to fight their way through a brigade? Because that’s what we’re facing here.”
“You have another idea?”
“Helicopters and gunships and paratroopers and Ride of the Valkyries blasting across the battlefield,” Skull said. “You know what I’m talking about. The big show. All of it.”
“That’s not going to happen. This is strictly a covert mission.”
“Bullshit. There’s not a damn thing covert about this mission. Not anymore.”
“Deniable, then. We don’t want to start a war between Ethiopia and Kenya,” said Spooky. “That would play into the Caliphate’s hands and give them an excuse to annex another country.”
“Then help. Showing us which way is south and telling us to run like hell is not enough.”
Spooky looked at his watch.
“Am I keeping you from something?” asked Skull. “Your tee time, maybe? By all means, go play eighteen and then get back to me. I’ll wait here with the starving, besieged and pissed off Edens. Hope you make par.”
“I do have to go,” said Spooky. “It’s something important. I’ll see what I can do to help you, but don’t count on it.”
“What’s new, you slant-eyed prick?”
“Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?” deadpanned Spooky with a lift of his eyebrow. “I’m working on something, but don’t depend on it.”
“I never do.” Skull ended the call. Packing up his gear, he returned to sit beside Zinabu.
“How did it go?” asked Husnia.
“About as well as I expected,” said Skull. “By which I mean, not well.”
“That doesn’t sound promising,” said Misgana.
Skull looked at him. “You mentioned earlier that the FC sent you imagery.”
“I need to see it.”
“It’s in Beelsha’s shack,” answered Misgana. “It’s days old, though. The Ethiopians may have adjusted their positions since then.”
“I’m not necessarily looking at the enemy positions.”
“What, then?” asked Husnia.
“I think we’d better find a way out,” said Skull. “No one is coming to save us. For better or worse, we’re on our own and this is the end game. It may be time for drastic measures, but you’re not going to like them.”
“If it gets us and our families out of here,” said Misgana. “Then we’re listening.”
Skull told them. He was right. They weren’t happy.
* * *
Husnia shook her head at Skull. “No. I won’t allow that to happen.”
“Just think about it. Have an open mind.”
“I have an open mind about many things. Slaughtering the people I love is not one of them.”
“But they won’t be slaughtered,” said Skull. “Didn’t you hear me explain my plan?”
“Yes,” answered Husnia testily. “These people rush down the hill and throw themselves on the weapons of our enemies and hopefully they’ll be so tired or overwhelmed they will run away.”
“And the Edens will heal,” said Skull.
“Unless they get a catastrophic injury,” said Misgana through Zinabu.
“Most combat injuries are not immediate kills.”
“These people are not soldiers,” said Husnia, crossing her arms.
Skull sighed. He wished he didn’t respect this woman. Then it would be so much easier to crush her objections. “Let me lay it out for you plain. Your people are slowly starving to death. The food we brought gave you a reprieve, but it’s already gone. The Ethiopians are likely massing for an all-out offensive to destroy you once they have assembled overwhelming force. There is little chance we will be able to stand against such an assault. You have few weapons or people with military training. Yet you possess two advantages over your enemy. You can heal, and you have numbers. Things that would kill or cripple ordinary people won’t stop you for long.”
“What about you?” she asked. “Will you be in this wave?”
“I’ll be part of the assault,” Skull said.
“But you won’t be running to throw yourself on the guns and knives of our enemy like my people will. Why is that?”
Skull stared at her angrily. “You know why.”
“I do. Because you are not like us. Why is that? Why did the FC send a couple of non-Edens to help Edens?”
“If we were Edens we would never have made it here. Much of the world outside is scared of Edens. In order for the FC to help them, they have to use people like me who can blend in and avoid scrutiny.”
“I will join in the attack,” said Zinabu.
“What?” asked Skull and Husnia simultaneously.
Zinabu nodded and smiled. “I have decided that I will become an Eden as I have longed to do. I will join my people in this assault.”
“You don’t have to do that,” said Skull. “Your family isn’t even here; you said they escaped to South Africa months ago.”
“They did. I still have to do this. I am not a soldier like you, Alan. This is how I can help.”
There was silence among them until Misgana spoke and Zinabu translated. “We will need to punch a hole through the southern perimeter and keep it open long enough for everyone to get through.”
“Exactly,” said Skull. “We push hard and fast. Everyone needs to be ready to go.”
“What about Kenya?” asked Husnia.
“We can’t wait for people to figure that out. Kenya originally agreed to take you and that’s still our best option. Hopefully my people will have worked something out before we get there. If they haven’t, then maybe having ten thousand refugees fleeing from slaughter show up on their northern border will change their minds.”
“And if it doesn’t?” asked Husnia.
Skull said, “Then you use these same tactics against the Kenyans. You charge them in a human wave, and when we get into close contact, bite them. I heard you used this tactic before and it was your idea.”
She nodded. “It is better to give someone the blessing of the Eden virus than to kill them.”
“Yes,” said Skull looking at them all. “So we are in agreement?”
No one spoke.
“Okay then. Get them ready.”
“When are we doing this?” asked Zinabu.
“As soon as possible. Before the people get any weaker or the Ethiopians attack,” said Skull.
Zinabu translated for Misgana. “We would have a better chance if we do it at night.”
Skull smiled at him. “I like the way you think, my friend. Why don’t we say, just before dawn tomorrow morning?”
“Tomorrow?” asked Husnia. “Will that give us enough time to prepare?”
“That’s one of the benefits of the human wave solution,” Skull answered. “How much do people really need to prepare themselves to run downhill?”
Misgana spoke in Amharic and then departed.
“What did he say?”
“He said he would go to tell the people,” said Husnia wiping tears from her eyes. “God help us.”
Reaper led the team down out of the mountain range that marked the border between Kenya and Ethiopia. The narrow pass she had found was only wide enough for one and was dangerous to navigate, especially after dark. Even with night vision devices, they had to move extremely slowly.
Mega Mountain, sheltering the Edens, loomed nearby. Reaper gathered the team together in a small depression. They covered themselves with a tarp and she pulled out the GPS and a red-lens flashlight.
“Here’s where we are,” she told them, pointing at the map. “And here is where we need to reach. Right between is where we can expect the Ethiopian perimeter. Our job is to get through them as stealthily as possible and link up with the Edens. With any luck, Spooky’s man Skull is there and has worked out where to go and what to do now that Kenya seems to be uncooperative. If we can’t get through, we’ll have to wait for an opportunity to assist from the outside.”
“We might have to inflict some casualties,” said Crash. “Sam rounds might be nonlethal, but even with our suppressors, they aren’t quiet.”
“Knives first, then,” said Reaper. “Gunfire would only draw attention.”
“Like in the contingency brief, we can coat the blades in body fluids to pass the virus,” Bunny said.
“You and me can generate some body fluids if you want,” Flyboy said, leering.
“Call me when we get back,” Bunny replied with a wink.
“Dude!” Tarzan protested.
“Yeah, Bunny, why are you even considering him?” Shortfuse asked. “He hasn’t flown a damn thing on this mission.”
“Yeah, but I look sooo good not doing it,” Flyboy replied.
“Shut up, all of you. Coating the blades is a good plan,” said Reaper. “Blood is probably the best. It’s sticky.” She folded the map. “Fan out and follow me. Again, stealth is key, but we have to move fast. Try to incapacitate anyone you come across with your knives and avoid shooting. If they raise the alarm, run for the mountain as fast as you can and link up with the Edens. We’ll rally there. Any questions?”
All shook their heads and stood up, some checking their knives, some taking them in hand.
“Let’s go,” she said, and began creeping north toward the mountain that loomed over them. Hawkeye fanned out to her left and Shortfuse to her right. They walked in silence for a quarter of an hour before Livewire cursed and fell noisily to the ground.
Reaper walked over to help him and saw a dark, bare-chested black man throw off a blanket and struggle to his knees. She leapt forward and clapped her hand on his open mouth while stabbing him several times in the lower torso with her blood-smeared knife. His eyes rolled up and he fainted from the pain.
He’ll be all right, she told herself as she wiped off the man’s blood from her blade before cutting her forearm to obtain some of her own. Then, she carefully smeared more fluid onto the metal.
Livewire came over to her. “Sorry. He was sleeping on the ground. Didn’t even see him in the dark,” he whispered.
“There may be more of them,” she hissed. “Pass the word to be on the lookout.”
They continued moving forward more slowly, watching the ground in front of them and knocking out two other sleeping soldiers, and then stabbing them in non-vital areas.
After another quarter of an hour of moving slowly forward, Reaper crouched and held up her hand for the others to stop. Like most Edens, her nose was superb, and now she smelled burning tobacco. Holding still, she heard faint voices.
Carefully stepping forward on the rocky and brush-covered ground toward the source, she peered from between two small trees and saw five soldiers huddled together talking and smoking. Scanning the area, she saw no one else. She crept back to the others and gave them her report.
“The sentries have grouped up to hang out together,” said Hawkeye, disgust in his voice. “They probably each have a long sector to patrol, but they’re bored and think there’s no threat. I bet their officers are sleeping like babies at this hour. Worthless troops.”
“Be glad they are. We might be able to circle around them,” said Livewire. “We can avoid them altogether.”
“But we run the risk of stepping on another sleeping soldier,” Shortfuse said. “The longer we delay crossing, the greater the chances something could go wrong.”
“Maybe we should just rush them,” Hound Dog said. “Take them while they’re all together.”
This was the first time Hound Dog had spoken up in a while. Reaper still didn’t trust him, though he hadn’t given her any trouble yet either. “That actually might be the best idea. By doing so, we open up a wide swath of the perimeter. Chances of anyone seeing or reporting us would be fairly slim.”
“Sounds good, dude,” said Tarzan. “Five should charge forward and take them out, one each. The rest come in right behind us and concentrate on securing the weapons or knocking out any that don’t go down right away.”
“A good plan,” said Reaper. “Let’s do it. Hound Dog, you’re point.”
They crept in as silently as possible. It helped that the five soldiers were not being terribly quiet themselves. They talked loudly over each other and laughed. They might even have been drunk.
Reaper, C3PO, Crash, Flyboy, and Livewire followed the others as they rushed the soldiers. Each tried to knock out one man, but a couple of them yelled anyway in alarm. The second team used rifle butts to club the men to silence. If they were as far from other sentries as Reaper hoped, no one would have heard. Then the first team jammed a blood-coated knife into each soldier.
Only then did she wonder what the five new Edens would do when they healed enough to regain consciousness. Would they raise the alarm, defect, or run away? What about the ones they had already taken out?
Too late to think about that now, she thought. The back door is wide open; time to go on in.
A strange sound made her freeze in her tracks, alien, yet oddly familiar: a faint high-pitched screech, echoed many times over. It made the hair stand up on the back of her neck.
Growing up, Jill’s father had been a Civil War history buff. Although he had never participated in reenactments, he often took her with him to see them. She’d been scared and excited whenever the Confederate soldiers screamed the rebel yell as they charged the enemy lines with fixed bayonets.
Even though she knew it was only acting, the surreal shriek of many voices had made her stomach quiver. The sound of it had stuck with her. Now she heard the same sound coming from the side of the mountain, growing louder and stronger, though multiplied more than she had ever heard on those old battlefields.
And then she heard scattered gunfire.
“Oh, shit,” she said with a flash of intuition. “They’re charging the lines.”
“What?” asked Shortfuse.
“The Edens,” said Reaper. “It has to be them. They’re coming this way, trying to break out in a human wave.”
“Aren’t we in a really bad spot?” asked Crash. “They don’t know who we are and the fact we’re here will likely be a surprise to them. If they run into us, they’ll attack us too.”
Reaper raised her voice. “Fall back to the hill behind us. Quickly.”
As the team ran southward, they saw Ethiopian soldiers waking from the ground to look curiously toward the growing ruckus coming from the mountain. Several of them noticed the intruders sprinting past and grabbed their rifles to shoot, but the team left them behind in the darkness.
Reaper stopped at the top of the hill she’d chosen and squatted, motioning for a halt. Looking back, it was difficult to see in the dark overcast night, but lights were beginning to appear along the Ethiopian line. The high-pitched shrieking rose and carried on the thin air, answered by confused voices from the other side, and more shots began to ring out.
Then the clouds parted and a full moon illuminated the scene before them. Reaper and the rest gasped.
Waves upon waves of skeletal men and women were racing down the mountain toward the Ethiopian soldiers. The horrific sound was coming from their open mouths.
“Freaking banzai attack,” said Flyboy. “How desperate do you have to be for that?”
“Pretty desperate,” answered Bunny. “But most of them will probably get through. The Ethiopians are too thin on the ground.”
“Duh. You ever seen a fat Ethiopian?” Flyboy retorted.
“Shut up, you two.” All Reaper could think about were those fields she had visited as a girl, where the boys in gray had rushed, screaming, at the shaky sea of blue.
“What do we do?” Crash asked Reaper.
“Spread out and give them cover fire,” she said. “Single shots. Harass them.”
Her team quickly formed a firing line and began banging away with their carbines. The range varied from one to four hundred yards, making for difficult shots in the darkness, but the bullets impacting near the soldiers quickly caused them to take cover.
Impacts began to strike the rocks near her team. “They’re shooting at our muzzle flashes,” she said. “Fall back and relocate. Spread out!”
The moonlight allowed the westerners to withdraw and take up new positions, putting more distance between the shooters, reducing their vulnerability. Then they resumed harassing the soldiers.
Misgana slowly and quietly pulled his men from the rest of the perimeter during the night and gathered everyone on the south side of the mountain. The remainder of the food had been handed out and consumed. Although it wasn’t much, for people subsisting on starvation rations it was a feast.
What weapons they had were gathered and given to Misgana’s men with military experience. They would not lead the human wave, but would serve as a combination rearguard and reserve.
Skull sat on a rocky vantage point and watched the Edens gather quietly in the wan, cloudy moonlight. He’d already sighted in his sniper rifle and adjusted the settings for current temperature and humidity.
He still found it odd to see the various generations gathered together. The ingrained relationships still applied – mother, father, grandfather, grandmother, uncle, aunt, children – yet all of the adults appeared to be in their mid-twenties. It was often possible to spot an elder by the fact that they still carried a walking stick or staff that they no longer needed.
Misgana seemed to be everywhere at once. Husnia may be the spiritual heart of the group, Skull thought, but Misgana is the driving force. He knew that the man they called Captain would lead the human wave. He was a natural commander. No one had to tell him the proper place to be.
Skull watched as Misgana’s daughter Jemmia ran up to him. The Ethiopian appeared to initially admonish her for not staying with the other children, and then he squatted down to take her into his arms. He spoke to her face to face while occasionally wiping her cheeks. They embraced again and she slowly walked away to the relative safety of the caves with the other children. Her father watched her until she was out of sight.
Misgana talked to the people, directing them to form up. Within minutes, he had created ten lines arranged one behind the other. Each stretched more than five hundred persons wide across the side of the mountain.
Walking out in front of his “troops,” Misgana placed his right hand over his heart and the other in the air. The people returned this salute to him.
Then he dropped his hand and turned slowly to face downhill and began to descend.
The first line followed him almost immediately. Skull could see Zinabu near the far left edge. He hurried carefully down the steep rocky mountainside, keeping ahead of the line he bounded. The people were obviously helped by their improved Eden night vision but still moved with care.
As ordered, the second line waited until the first was approximately ten yards in front before they began to jog downhill.
Skull noticed that each line had one “officer” in the middle that gave the signal to go forward. The men and women of each line looked toward this man until he waved his arms and started jogging downhill. Then the whole line moved, trying to stay even with him.
Within moments, all ten lines moved down the mountainside. The people in front were jogging once they reached the gentler grade at the base of the mountain.
That’s when Skull first began to hear the high-pitched wail of many voices. It started with the first line and moved up to the others as they ran forward. Soon, the others took up the cry.
“So much for the element of surprise,” muttered Skull, lying down behind his Barrett. He looked through his scope and saw the first Edens approaching the Ethiopian lines. Soldiers had begun running here and there, firing from the hip or diving into defensive positions, but the space directly in front of the Edens appeared unusually open and thin.
The clouds above suddenly parted and a bright full moon illuminated the scene. He saw some Edens in the front line fall as they were struck by Ethiopian bullets. Most slowly climbed back to their feet and continued.
Skull sighted along the Ethiopian positions and picked out an officer directing the defense. He laid the crosshairs on the man’s chest and slowly squeezed the trigger. The rifle boomed at his shoulder and the man was nearly cut in half by the .50 caliber bullet. Looking through the crosshairs, he took out another, and then another.
Then Skull heard the telltale chattering of a crew-served machine gun and searched until he found it. Letting his breath out, he killed the gunner, and then the loader. Looking up and down the enemy positions, he put a bullet into anyone who appeared to be in charge or who was firing effectively.
When the first wave struck the Ethiopian lines, Skull could see hand-to-hand combat along a wide swath of ground. Edens were tearing and biting at the soldiers, who shot them from point-blank range. Troops rushed toward the sound of combat from the flanks, but the second wave of Edens slammed into the fight and the Ethiopian line dissolved into chaos.
Skull shifted his gaze across the assaulting waves to see children following behind, led by Husnia and a few other women. The armed rearguard spread out behind these, waiting.
The melee down below became too closely tangled for Skull to risk a shot. Instead, he shifted to picking off those soldiers racing to intervene from the flanks, forcing them to fall back and take cover. Once they’d been checked by fear, Skull put on his pack and grabbed his rifle before climbing farther down the slope.
He stopped occasionally to take shots as they presented themselves, automatically keeping track of the number to annotate on the butt of his rifle later. He’d just fired and was preparing to move again when something caught his eye.
Muzzle flashes, far to the rear of the enemy lines.
He looked farther back, on a hill far behind the fighting, and saw movement and the stuttering pops of rifle fire. Staring hard through his scope, he picked out at least eight people, maybe more. The ones he could see were Caucasian, except for one of the men. All carried carbines and were dressed in civilian bush clothing. They appeared to be pinning down the soldiers in front of them.
Skull shook his head and said aloud, “This is your rescue team, Spooky? A dozen mercs? Well, at least they aren’t getting in the way.”
He chuckled and looked back toward the battle. All resistance had dissolved, except for a few soldiers on the flanks, taking potshots but apparently afraid to advance. Disarmed, beaten troops writhed on the ground in pain or lay still. Some sat stunned, or staggered around in confusion.
There were also a few Edens on the ground not moving, though not many. Those able began to move south again, helping the wounded, and the children were all making their way down the hillside, grouped around Husnia and her attendants. Skull looked farther back and saw the armed rearguard coming down the hill.
Chuckling in amazement, Skull turned to gaze back down the slope. I can’t believe this is actually working, he thought. Through his scope, he saw Misgana reorganizing and directing his people. They were looting food from the fallen soldiers and clumping back into groups. The Edens began to shout and leap, raising their hands in the air in thanksgiving.
“You dumb shits. It’s not over.” Skull put the scope back to his eye and took a snapshot at a group of at least forty fresh Ethiopian soldiers advancing from the eastern flank, weapons ready. This caused them to begin firing at nothing, but they didn’t stop, driven on by several officers and NCOs behind them.
Skull yelled at the rearguard, the ones with weapons, pointing at the oncoming enemy. The Eden troops began firing from their elevated position, and the Ethiopian soldiers ground to a halt and began to shoot back. Skull joined in, picking off as many as he could, but behind the enemy platoon he could see two more advancing, at least a hundred men.
Instead of running, Misgana rallied his people, who seemed elated, high on victory, and led them charging toward the soldiers. Skull had seen this happen in combat, when a berserker spirit overcame troops who had won against the odds, making them feel invincible.
Five or six hundred unarmed, screaming men and women ran toward the leading enemy platoon, who fell back when faced with this new threat. As soon as they reached their reinforcing line, though, they turned back and over a hundred fifty assault rifles began to mow the Edens down.
Skull fired as fast as he could, but he was only one man, and part of a sniper’s effectiveness comes from the terror of the sudden, implacable death. His targets could only see the wave of Edens in front of them, and so hardly noticed when they died here and there.
Skull saw Misgana suddenly fall to the earth. Those around him looked down at the man and reached to pull him up and then stopped.
“Get up, dammit,” he said to himself.
Misgana continued to lie on the ground. Those around him lifted him, but he didn’t rise.
“Get up,” said Skull again, shifting his aim and taking another shot.
The Edens carried Misgana forward like a totem, but Skull could see that most of the man’s head was gone.
Reaper and her team soon wounded or drove off all the soldiers within effective range, so she called her people back together on the hilltop. They watched in amazement as wave upon wave of Edens crashed into the Ethiopian soldiers and overwhelmed them. They either fell under the swarm of biting Edens or ran as fast as they could away from them.
“Listen,” said Hawkeye, looking upward. “You hear that?”
“What?” asked Reaper.
“Heavy rifle fire. That’s a Barrett. I’d know it anywhere.”
“It’s just an echo off the rocks. There’s lots of rifle shots right now,” said Bunny.
“No,” said Hawkeye, “listen for the careful deliberate fire. That’s a sniper up on the mountain.”
“I’ve heard Skull is a sniper,” Reaper said.
“Hell,” said Hawkeye. “To call Skull a sniper is like calling Mozart a piano player. Skull is the sniper of all snipers. He’s one of the best.”
“Regardless,” said Reaper, “we need to link up with him.”
“Without him shooting us in the process,” added Shortfuse.
“Do you see him?” Reaper asked Hawkeye.
“I see his muzzle flashes. Look up near that big gray rock shaped like a giant finger. He’s just to the right of that under a bush.”
Watching, she saw a foot-long flame spurt, highly visible in the darkness.
“Shortfuse, Tarzan, you come with me,” she said. “I’ll go try to link up with him. The rest of you stay here. Hawkeye’s in charge.”
“Shouldn’t we move forward and try to help the Edens?” Bunny said.
“No. Too much could go wrong. They don’t know you and they might react badly. Besides, they’re heading your way anyway. And, more Ethiopian troops could show up at any time and catch you in the open. Here, you have cover and the high ground. You seven can fight off a platoon of these punks.”
“Go on, boss,” Hawkeye said. “We’ll hold this lane open. All you gotta do is get them moving past us and we’ll provide overwatch.”
Reaper led the two men carefully across the edge of the battlefield, trying to stay out of everyone’s way while angling toward Skull’s position. She blessed the bright moon and hoped to hell he would look closely before shooting.
Fleeing soldiers still crossed their path, but they didn’t seem interested in anything other than escape, and the three crouched and let them pass. Reaching the edge of the flat, they began climbing up toward where they had seen the sniper flashes. Reaper picked up the pace, not wanting to miss him if he changed positions.
About a hundred yards from the spot, she stopped and turned to Shortfuse and Tarzan. “You two stay here and cover me. He’ll be less likely to take a snapshot if it’s just one of us approaching him, and a woman.”
Shortfuse obviously didn’t like it, but he nodded sharply. Reaper crept forward, staying low but not attempting to hide from anyone to her front. The position had gone silent, without muzzle flashes. By the time she was twenty feet away she knew he was no longer there.
“Don’t look so disappointed,” said a voice to her right.
Reaper looked up to see a lean dark man with a sniper rifle slung over his back. He stood behind another large rock with an MP5 pointed at her.
“You must be Skull,” she said.
He tilted his head slightly. “And you?”
“Jill Repeth,” she said. “Staff Sergeant, U.S. Marine Corps...well, used to be. FC spec ops now, I guess.”
“Devil dog,” he said with a smile, stepping farther out of the shadows. “Me too. I’m sure that isn’t a coincidence. One of Spooky’s many mind games. He probably figures I’ll be less likely to kill a fellow Marine if I had to. He’d be wrong, of course, but at least I’d feel bad about it.”
Reaper recognized Skull from the photograph in the dossier she’d seen before departing. Spooky had warned her about the man and directed she pay attention to the psych eval.
A sharp intellect with introverted tendencies and an overwhelming drive to excel and win, the paper had read. Resists human interaction or emotional attachments.
It had gone on to report that intense guilt and untreated PTSD had brought on symptoms of a borderline personality disorder.
What the hell did psychiatrists know? Alan Denham is a marine and a warrior just like me, she thought. He’s also here when he doesn’t have to be, helping these people. Screw the docs and their bullshit diagnoses.
“That’s far enough,” said Skull, pointing a pistol with his other hand in the direction she had come.
Reaper looked over to see Shortfuse frozen, a look of chagrin on his face.
“That’s Shortfuse, my demo guy,” said Reaper, slinging her carbine and holding her hands up. We’re all on the same team here.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” said Skull. “I’m not on any team, and knowing who you work for means I certainly can’t trust you.”
“Spooky? He sent us to help you.”
Skull snorted. “I’m sure he sent you. Why? Only he knows. When he believes you’re no longer useful to him, he won’t hesitate to eliminate you.”
“Do you think that’s what’s happening here?” Reaper asked. “Because even though he sent us, it seems to me like he’s been putting speed bumps in our way the whole time.”
Skull grinned without humor. “This would be a perfectly good opportunity to get rid of me, wouldn’t it? Then he wouldn’t have to pay me the rest of what he owes me.”
“Pay you? You’re a mercenary?”
Skull laughed. “I’m a guy that had to be given an incentive, because I won’t fall into line with Spooky’s every whim. I’m not even an Eden like the rest of you.”
Reaper waved her hand. “Look, we’re just here to get these refugees out. We’ve had a shitty time getting here, but now that we are, we intend to complete the mission. Time is short, so let’s cut this chitchat and make a decision. The rest of the Ethiopian army is converging on us. I came up here to coordinate with you, but we’re outta here in one minute.”
Skull looked down the mountain at the mass of Edens and lowered his weapons. “Okay. Let’s get them moving.”
“Right. We need to get the rest of the Edens running instead of fighting.” She pointed at the battlefield near where Misgana had died. “Those soldiers just slaughtered a bunch of Edens and drove off the rest. In about five minutes, they’ll start advancing again.” Shifting her gaze, she continued, “There’s most of the people, gathered around those children.”
Skull stared. “Idiots. They’re just standing there. We have to get them going.”
“I think I just said that.”
“How did you get here?” Skull asked.
“Trail through a mountain pass a few miles to the southwest. Leads over the border into Kenya.”
Skull looked in that direction. “Could we take the people through it?”
Reaper thought and shook her head. “Not that many. The path is too narrow. Single file only. When the Ethiopians arrive they’ll come up behind and chew us apart.”
“Then we have to push south on the main road and hope for the best,” said Skull. “Worst case, we make another human wave attack on the Kenyans at the border.”
“That’s not likely to get them sanctuary.”
“No,” Skull admitted, “but it might keep them alive for another day.”
“Folks, I think we need to move,” said Shortfuse. “The people down there are starting to scatter.”
Skull looked down as if to confirm his words. The Edens were fanning out over the valley, looting what they could find, probably looking for food. The children were still in a group around Husnia, though, who was walking and holding hands with Jemmia.
“Follow me,” said Skull. He hurried down the hill at a breakneck pace, his long legs eating up the ground. Reaper and Shortfuse found it difficult to stay with him, though Tarzan’s athleticism kept him right behind.
Skull made it to Husnia and Jemmia before they reached the place a hundred yards past, where the men had laid Misgana’s body. From Husnia’s smile, it was plain that she hadn’t heard the news. “Call them back together. We have to go soon.”
“What’s wrong?” asked Husnia, examining Skull’s face.
He looked at Jemmia again and then back at Husnia. “It’s bad. He didn’t make it.”
“No,” said Husnia barely above a whisper.
Skull nodded. “Saw it happen; just a freak bullet.” He looked down at the girl. “She shouldn’t look. It’s not pretty.”
“I have to tell her, though,” Husnia said.
Husnia nodded and took a deep breath. She squatted down in front of Jemmia and began talking to her.
Jemmia said a few words and began looking around in confusion before shaking her head as tears came. She began screaming and pulled free of Husnia’s arms, darting toward the pile of Eden bodies.
Reaper saw Skull step forward and catch her by the arm. She turned and lashed at him with her nails, laying open his cheek, but he picked her up and held her to him anyway, turning his face so she wouldn’t take out one of his eyes. Screaming and thrashing, she fought against him, but eventually stopped and simply sobbed.
When he thought it was safe to unshield his eyes, he walked over to place her in Husnia’s arms.
“Tell her it will be all right,” Skull told Husnia. “It won’t be, but tell her anyway. We have to get going.” Husnia translated and the girl didn’t stop crying, but she looked toward him and said a few words.
The woman turned to him, fighting back tears. “She says she’s sorry about your face.”
Skull shrugged. “One more scar. Come on, get your people moving.” At this, Husnia began calling to them in a loud voice.
Reaper watched closely, realizing that Skull wasn’t completely cold. He seemed to have a soft spot for children, which encouraged her. Every warrior had emotional armor and calluses, but as long as something human flourished underneath…
She saw the rest of her team walking forward and was about to introduce them to Skull when she heard a rumbling sound to the north and turned. The sun was rising, painting the mountain in a beautiful orange and yellow glow while the valley remained in shadow. The sky had turned a clear and brilliant deep blue…except for the handful of specks approaching.
“Is that what I think it is?” asked Shortfuse.
“Air strike,” Skull said as bombs dropped from the planes and descended toward the mountain the Edens had recently escaped.
“Run!” screamed Reaper as the rumble of explosions washed over them.
“Run!” Reaper yelled again as she led her team southward, gesturing emphatically, but the people ignored her, instead turning to stare at the explosions on the mountain. After the bombs dropped, the planes flew over them before turning back the way they had come.
“MiG-23s. Crap birds, but good enough to bomb unarmed civilians,” yelled Flyboy above the roar of the jets. “We have about one minute before they come back around and hit us. We have to get moving!”
Husnia apparently heard. She began waving her hands and yelling. Finally, the people’s paralysis broke and they started moving south, following the team.
“Tell them to run south as fast as they can, and don’t bunch up,” Skull yelled to Husnia.
She passed the word and the Edens ran.
“Here they come again,” said Flyboy.
Skull ran up beside Reaper and her team, accompanied by an Ethiopian man in western clothing. “We have to draw their attention,” said the sniper. “Otherwise they’ll focus on the largest clumps of people.”
“Right,” said Shortfuse, “but it’s going to be hard to get their attention with this.” He held up his carbine.”
“But that would,” said Skull pointing at an old ZSU Russian quad air defense gun standing thirty yards to the north.
“I’m on it,” yelled Bunny, running and jumping into the armored gun carrier, Flyboy right behind her. They began cranking the gun around in the direction of the approaching planes.
“Anything else we can do would help,” said Skull. “It doesn’t even have to be effective, just rattle them.”
Reaper had an idea. “Shortfuse, we have any explosives? That might draw the attention of the pilots.”
“Ten kilos,” Shortfuse answered.
“Blow something up, then. Maybe it’ll distract them.”
Shortfuse smiled and took off running.
“Good,” said Skull. “Everyone else try to find crew-served weapons and fire them into the air toward the plane.” He turned to the Ethiopian man beside him. “Zinabu, you keep the people moving down the road. Tell them that when the planes come over, dive into the ditches off to the sides. Otherwise, don’t stop until they’re safe. You understand?”
The man nodded and held out his hand. Skull shook it and then the Ethiopian was running south.
“Maybe they used all their bombs on the first pass,” said Hound Dog.
“We wouldn’t be that lucky,” answered Skull. “Not the way this mission has gone.”
“Here they come,” said Reaper. She screamed at her team, “Take cover and fire whatever you got!”
The deafening sound of the ZSU’s four parallel cannon silenced Reaper. Bunny seemed to be laughing as she fired the heavy antiaircraft gun. Amazingly, a trail of smoke appeared from the lead bomber.
“Holy shit,” said Skull. “I think she actually got one.” He raised his Barrett to sight on the next airplane, which had its variable geometry wings extended to the slow-flight position, the better to target the supposedly helpless people on the ground.
An explosion erupted forward of them, throwing debris into the air and sending a dust cloud rising in front of the bombers: Shortfuse’s distraction effort.
The damaged plane peeled off and headed back the way it had come, but three kept coming.
“It’s working!” yelled Livewire prematurely.
Bombs released from the underside of the remaining planes’ wings.
“Great,” hollered back Reaper. “Now get down! Incoming!” She crawled into the lee of a nearby boulder just as the earth shook and rumbled. The air was sucked out of her lungs and her eardrums popped. The world became silent and hazy. Rocks and dust rained down on top of her as pain shot up her arm. Something large had come down and crushed it.
It took her half a minute to realize that the bombing was over. Someone stood over her talking, but she couldn’t hear them. A few more people arrived and, after several tries, succeeded in pushing a rock weighing at least a hundred pounds off of her forearm.
Crash pounced on her and began expertly putting her bones back into their proper place before they knit together wrong. Pain washed over her and she greyed out. “All done,” he said, and she looked down to see he’d already splinted and wrapped the arm. She must have lost a couple of minutes.
“Let’s get moving,” she said, barely able to hear her own voice. Looking up, she saw C3PO leaning on Hound Dog’s shoulder, his leg dangling. Crash went to work on him.
“They unloaded on us and skedaddled,” said Flyboy. “Don’t have enough fuel to circle around here all day, so they dropped everything on the last pass so they can RTB. That ZSU probably scared them off.”
“We should still get out of here, before their reinforcements show up” said Hawkeye.
“Where’s Skull?” asked Bunny.
They all looked around but didn’t see him. Finally Tarzan pointed south. “There he is.”
Reaper turned and saw Skull more than a hundred yards away. He was waving his arms and motioning for them to come. They walked and hobbled across the blasted field until they reached him.
“Where did you go?” asked Hawkeye.
Skull pointed at a foxhole some enterprising soldier had dug. “I’m not dumb. I found cover. You’re Edens, I’m not.” He looked up into the sky, and then back to Bunny. “Good work with the ZSU.”
Bunny actually blushed, which surprised Reaper. Usually the woman was unflappable when she flirted.
“Glad we could be of service,” said Crash.
“We should get out of here,” said Flyboy.
“Where are the Edens?” asked Hawkeye, looking around.
“Running south, if Zinabu is doing his job.” Skull looked around at the trucks and armored carriers scattered across the battlefield. “Now that the bombers are gone, we should salvage some vehicles before the Ethiopians do.”
“You heard the man,” said Reaper. “Get moving. And grab all the gas cans you can.”
They managed to get five trucks and the armored ZSU carrier moving. Bunny sprayed a few bursts toward some soldiers several hundred yards away, and they hurriedly retreated.
Fifteen minutes later, the convoy caught up with the Edens in a grassy area where they’d paused to rest. Men and women lay panting while children played listlessly or clung to their parents.
Zinabu jogged toward Skull as he hopped out of a truck, worry on his face. “Alan, they are at their limits. They cannot go on.”
“It’s only about ten more miles, all on the road,” said Skull.
“They were already starving before this. The attack and the running have exhausted them. They have nothing left.”
“There’s always something left,” said Skull. “Believe me.”
“Why not use the trucks to shuttle them?” asked Flyboy.
“If we have to force the border crossing,” said Skull, “doing that will lose any element of surprise.”
Reaper looked at Skull. “That was never a viable option to begin with, just a last resort measure to get people moving. We need to get them to the border and take it from there. One step at a time.”
Skull thought for a moment, and then nodded. “Children first, and a few women to watch them. They’ll be less likely to fire on them.”
Reaper nodded. “Bunny, Flyboy, you’re rearguard in the ZSU.” Her team helped children pack into the trucks. They crowded in more than she’d believe possible. She hopped into the passenger seat of the lead vehicle and had Hound Dog drive, the better to keep an eye on him. He’d been a good boy so far, but she still didn’t trust him. And, ironically, they hadn’t needed a tracker and woodsman at all.
She thought about Skull’s words as they drove, how he said Spooky would leave them out to dry if it suited him. That wasn’t the man she knew; Spooky had always seemed trustworthy to her, or at least reliable, if a hardass. But she was used to hardasses. Maybe it was just some kind of interpersonal thing between the two men.
On the other hand, for the first time since she’d begin working for Spooky, he’d seemed less than fully committed to the mission.
Maybe Spooky really did want to get rid of Skull, seeing him as a threat, given the tall man’s attitude. Sometimes these things became self-fulfilling prophecies; go off the reservation once, and the powers-that-be considered you a loose cannon thereafter…and the best thing you can do with a loose cannon is send it rolling in the direction of the enemy and hope it did some damage before it blew up.
Would Spooky risk Reaper and the rest of the team merely in hopes that Skull would get killed from lack of support? That seemed excessively indirect for Spooky. He could be subtle, but when the time came to finish a job, he wanted confirmation and certainty.
No, something else was going on…but now wasn’t the time to worry about it further.
When the trucks neared the border ten miles later, Reaper had them stop a hundred yards back. The Ethiopian guard shack was unmanned and the Kenyan soldiers watched impassively from their side, alert but not hostile. Behind them Reaper could see the line of trucks, and wondered if Hanif was still there somewhere.
“Turn around in this space and unload,” she instructed Hound Dog. The man made a wide circle and pulled up facing the opposite direction alongside the road. The other five trucks followed suit, and as soon as they stopped, the children piled out and raced for a nearby stream to drink, followed by the handful of women that had come along.
Almost, Reaper went to stop them, and then remembered that, as Edens, waterborne illnesses were no worry anymore. Even the worst infections were mild with the virus supercharging their immune systems.
“Let’s go,” she said, looking at the half-full fuel gauge. “We should be able to make eight or ten more trips.”
The trucks moved back and forth all morning.
* * *
“What’s it like up there, amigo?” Skull asked Hawkeye. The short sniper sat behind the wheel of one of the trucks.
“You speak Spanish?” Hawkeye said.
“Nada. Nothing’s happening. The border’s closed and the Kenyans just watch us. The Ethiopian border guards ran off, I guess.”
“Probably afraid of getting bitten. How many more loads do we have?”
“I figure two more trips,” said Hawkeye. “The people are already setting up camp as if they’ll have to spend the night there, but they need food.”
Skull looked around, and then at Tarzan in the passenger seat. “Swap with me, will you? I want to go up.”
Tarzan nodded and hopped out. Skull rode in the cab with Hawkeye. It took twenty minutes to make the ten-mile journey, though it seemed longer somehow.
When they reached the border, Skull walked the perimeter of the camp. He found Zinabu trying to get the men with weapons to take positions to the sides and rear in order to guard against any stray Ethiopian soldiers that might wander into the area.
After spending almost an hour trying to motivate the starving Eden pickets, a boy ran up to him and tugged on his arm, speaking rapidly.
“He wants you to come with him,” Zinabu said. “He says a white woman wishes to see you.”
Skull grunted and allowed himself to be led toward the crossing and the Kenyans. He wasn’t sure what he expected to happen; certainly not for the gates to open, but they did. Soldiers motioned him forward. They didn’t seem hostile, but he didn’t approach until he saw the flash of dirty blonde hair framing a familiar face.
She hadn’t noticed him yet and was walking toward the gate between a man in a suit and a Kenyan general. She appeared to be giving the officer an ass chewing, and by the look on his face he was unused to such treatment.
Cassandra noticed him and stopped. Slowly, she smiled, and then started forward again. Skull stuck out his hand but she engulfed him in an embrace.
Whispering upward toward his face, she said, “I knew if there was anyone who could get them here, it was you.” She then stood on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek before stepping back.
“Glad to see you didn’t leave me hanging,” said Skull. “Spooky had me worried.”
“Me, too,” Cassandra frowned. “I’m going to have words with him when I get back.” She glanced at the man in the suit, but didn’t introduce him. Presumably, that was deliberate. She did look at Repeth, who came forward to join them. “I see you’ve met Reaper.”
“Reaper?” Skull asked.
“Yes,” Reaper answered. “You’ve got your handle. Why shouldn’t I?”
“I didn’t pick it,” said Skull. “In truth, I don’t care for it.”
“Nobody chooses their own,” she shrugged. “You oughta know that.”
“Do you have someone who can translate for me?” Cassandra asked.
In response, Skull saw Zinabu and led Cassandra across the border to him.
The Kenyan general and the civilian stayed behind, watching. Soon, the soldiers were signaling the truckers to start up and cross into Ethiopia if they wished. Some appeared to refuse, but others, braver or more desperate to make their deliveries, began to roll.
In the clearing, Zinabu relayed Cassandra’s words to those Edens gathering around them like dark skeletons.
“Welcome, my friends,” she said. “We know you’ve been through a lot, and the journey is almost over. The Kenyan government has graciously offered you all temporary asylum. There’s a camp ahead where you will receive shelter, clothing, warm beds, and plenty of food.”
Many of the Edens began crying and embracing each other.
“Who’s the leader here?” Cassandra asked Skull.
“That would be Husnia,” said Skull turning to Zinabu. “Would you mind taking Cassandra over to her?”
Cassandra paused and leaned in close. “We need to talk, Skull.”
Skull grinned. “No problem. Meet me in the camp once everyone is safely across.”
Several hours later, when Cassandra looked for Skull, he was nowhere to be found. Several Edens said they had seen him walk into the bush as soon as he crossed into Kenya.
Chairman of the Free Communities Council Daniel Markis was happy to be home. It had been an eventful month. Not only had he finalized the agreement to bring both Australia and New Zealand fully into the Free Communities, the Eden rescue mission in Ethiopia had been successful.
Although the operation had been secret, once the Edens crossed the Kenyan border word had gotten out, and Daniel wasn’t unhappy about that. It was important that the world knew of FC resolve to protect Edens. Of course, the Ethiopians were spinning it as aggression against their soldiers, but a vigorous media campaign using interviews with witnesses seemed to have convinced people of the truth.
Elise was sitting on his office sofa when he walked in. She leaped up with a smile and gave him a long lingering kiss.
“Good to see you too, Doctor Markis” said Daniel. “I thought you were stuck in the laboratory with that new Brit. Didn’t expect to see you.”
“I wanted to share the good news with you first,” said Elise.
“Good news?” he asked sitting down on the couch.
“Yes,” Elise answered, sitting beside him and holding his hand. “We’ve had a breakthrough. A major one.”
“Involving the Eden Plague, I presume?” asked Daniel.
“Yes,” she said almost vibrating with excitement. “We know how to fix it.”
“To remove the problem of caloric overconsumption. It will take a few months to engineer and test the new strain, but on paper, in the simulations, it looks perfect.
Daniel opened his mouth and closed it before speaking. “How did you do it?”
“I love you, Daniel, but I’m not sure you could follow the science.”
“I guess I really wanted to know about the people involved. Was it serendipity, or did some young wiz kid in your labs have a brainstorm, or…?”
“There’s a British researcher who’s contributed some good insights.”
Daniel sniffed. “Nothing more than that?”
Elise furrowed her brow. “Well, funny you should ask, but we’ve been receiving a lot of stuff over the internet from researchers ever since Infection Day. Some of it has dried up because of the crackdowns by those opposed to it, so most of the independents now either work in Eden-friendly countries or they’ve gone underground and use anonymizers and other hacker methods to communicate.” She leaned back to look at her husband. “But you knew something already, didn’t you?”
Daniel shifted uncomfortably. “I’m not spying on you, if that’s what you mean, but I read Shawna’s reports, some of which are confidential. I am the chairman, after all.”
“Well, then you already know about R.”
“Not ‘arr.” R, like the letter.”
Daniel nodded. “I read something about it. So who is he?”
“One of the independents. He – or she, I suppose – communicates only via secure email, and only once a day, but he’s done some incredible work. I’ve tried to persuade him to join us, but he won’t. But who cares about how, Daniel! More and more people are coming to know that the virus is a blessing, and fixing the hunger problem is going to be really, really good for the FC.”
“What about the virtue effect? What have you found out about that?”
Elise’s face hardened. “Why do you keep asking about that? The virtue effect is one of the best things about it, most of us think.”
“Except when we have to defend ourselves – and we eventually will, on a larger scale than just covert actions with a carefully selected handful of people who can bring themselves to risk killing.”
“I’m all right with most of our population not wanting to kill people.”
Daniel shook his head with exasperation. “I’m not looking for people who want to kill. Hell, I never wanted to kill anyone, but I did what I had to on the battlefield in order to defend my patients. If I hadn’t been able to do that, more good men would be dead and a bunch of freedom-hating fanatics would be dancing on their graves. Personally, I’d rather have our guys alive and the extremists dead. What happens when one of our FC nations gets attacked? In fact, they might get attacked precisely because someone thinks we can’t fight back effectively.”
“I know all the arguments, but I’m not going to push people to do research they disagree with. Why can’t you be happy with what we’ve accomplished until now?”
Daniel took Elise in his arms. “You’re right. I’m sorry. What you’ve done is incredible.”
“What the team did. I have a couple of people that should win the Nobel Prize for this, but politics and fear will prevent that from happening.”
“Do you understand what this will do? The possibilities it presents?”
“Better than you, I bet,” said Elise. “This is all we’ve been thinking or talking about for days.”
There came a knock on the door and his assistant, Millie Johnstone, stuck her head in the door. “I’m sorry, Mister Chairman, but Colonel Nguyen is here to see you.”
Elise gave him another kiss. “I’ll see you tonight. Dinner?”
“Definitely,” said Daniel. “A nice big one, before your change to the virus makes everyone fat again.”
“Funny.” She smiled and departed, giving Spooky a sharp look as she went.
“Tran,” said Daniel. “Good job on the Ethiopian extraction. It was a tough one, but you and Cassandra found a way to get it done.”
“Yes, sir,” said Spooky. “I know it’s not my lane, but I’m curious about their final location for permanent settlement.”
“I believe I’ve already worked that out,” said Daniel. “They’ve been invited to New Zealand.”
“Quite a bit colder than Ethiopians are used to,” said Spooky.
“It’s not too bad in the summer. Besides, not to be too harsh, but anything is better than what they had or have now.”
“Of course,” said Spooky.
“Has your team returned safely?”
“This morning,” said Spooky.
“That woman,” said Daniel. “The former Marine?”
“Yes, that one. I think you’ve found a good one there.”
Spooky nodded. “She’s very capable.”
Daniel smiled. “And I’m glad to see you and Cassandra working together. You both had me a little bit worried there for a while.”
“Nothing to be concerned about. Like you said, it’s nothing personal. Intel and covert ops overlap sometimes and we have differing perspectives, that’s all.”
“Good,” said Daniel. “You know that without the two of you I don’t think I could do this job.”
Spooky smiled knowingly.
There came another knock on the door and Millie stuck her head in again. “I’m very sorry, sir, but I have a call from the staff of the President’s office. South African, I mean. His people say it is urgent.”
“Sorry, Tran,” said Daniel, “but I’ll need to take this. Getting Australia and New Zealand to finally become full members of the FC has given us momentum for expansion that I don’t want to lose. South Africa would be a real prize.”
“No problem,” said Spooky, standing. “We’ll talk more later, Mister Chairman.”
Daniel waved his assent distractedly at Spooky. The secure phone was already on his ear.
* * *
Spooky walked slowly down the hall back to his office.
I underestimated Cassandra Johnstone’s resolve and resourcefulness, he thought. That is a mistake I must never repeat again. Her sources are evidently extensive. She may even have people within FC Covert Ops. In fact, I’m sure of it. I’ll have to find out who they are.
He made a mental note to develop sources of his own among Cassandra’s people. He also resolved to beef up his counterintelligence team and give them a longer leash to dig into the background of his own personnel. Every day, the FC was growing, gaining influence. It was time to stop doing everything on the fly. He had to institute procedures, protocols and policies.
There was only one real loose end flapping in the breeze, and that was Skull. He wondered where the man would be heading next, and didn’t blame him for dropping off the radar.
I made a mistake – perhaps two mistakes – in hoping the circumstances would get rid of Skull, Spooky thought. I was right to believe him too unpredictable to manage well, but I was wrong about his ability to win through. In retrospect, I should have brought him into the fold, and then killed him if I thought it necessary.
After all, if you want a job done right, do it yourself.
A knock sounded on his door and he called for its opening. In the entrance he saw Cassandra, dressed in a neat pantsuit that did nothing for her figure. Perhaps she was de-emphasizing her personal attractiveness, something that competent women often did in the workplace in order to be taken seriously.
No need for that here, Spooky thought as he stood up and waved at a metal chair. “Come in, Cassandra. Sit. Forgive me, but my office has few comforts.”
“You’re right, Tran. Your office doesn’t.” Cassandra stepped inside, turning to gesture behind her. “I took the liberty of bringing Jill Repeth along.”
“Oh, you two know each other?”
“Better all the time,” Cassandra replied flatly, sitting down. A moment later, Repeth took the other chair and smoothed her fatigues, glancing from one to the other.
“To what do I owe the honor of your presence?” Spooky asked.
“Honor isn’t a word I’d bandy about right now, Tran,” Cassandra replied.
Spooky sighed. “You obviously need to get something off your chest, so please, proceed.”
“She’s here because of me,” Repeth spoke up. “I’m not interested in all this spy versus spy stuff, but I also didn’t want to go over your head to the chairman, Spooky. I do want some straight answers.”
“And you think Ms. Johnstone’s presence will facilitate that?”
“I’m hoping. I really am. I can’t work for someone if I don’t understand what they want me to do and why – and right now I don’t know why everything since I began with this team was a lot rougher than it needed to be. I need some explanations.”
Repeth sighed. “Look, Spooky, I’m not trying to blackmail you, but…if I can’t feel right working for you, I have another option now. Chairman Markis is standing up regular FC armed forces pretty soon and they’re going to need military police.”
“I see.” Spooky looked at Cassandra with one eyebrow raised.
His rival chuckled. “Oh, you thought maybe I was trying to steal her away? It may make you feel better to know I tried and she turned me down flat. I guess she likes spy work even less than special ops. So this isn’t about me and you…except that I’d like to hear your justification as well.”
“I hardly owe you an explanation.”
“No, but you’ll owe Markis one if I go to him and drop this grenade in his lap. You know how he is;. If you ever lose his full trust, he’ll never rely on you for anything important. In that regard, he’s far less forgiving than I am.”
Spooky forced himself not to freeze at the naked threat – an effective one, if he had to admit it, because Cassandra was right. If he told Markis the truth, the man would likely fire him, and there simply weren’t any opportunities for positions as challenging, entertaining, and potentially rewarding as this one.
If he lied to Markis, however, it would eventually come out. Lies always did, which was why he much preferred to tell as much of the truth as served him.
So be it. Time to eat some humble pie…and entice Cassandra to join the feast if I can.
Smiling abruptly, Spooky said, “You’re right, as usual. I’m glad you’re on our side, and Jill too.”
“Spare us the buttery topping, will you?” Cassandra snapped.
“Fine. Cards on the table, then? Yes, I wanted the mission – missions, really – to fail, or at least, not to succeed too spectacularly.”
“But why?” pleaded Repeth. “You could have gotten us killed. If we hadn’t taken our gear back…”
Spooky folded his hands and leaned back in his chair. “Your gear didn’t save you, and not having it might have convinced you to call it off, blaming the Africans for double-crossing you. No one would have held it against you, and you could have come home without risk. You chose to go through with it rather than be reasonable.”
“I’m a Marine. I improvise, adapt and overcome. You still haven’t explained why.”
“You’re not going to like the answer, Jill.”
“I already know that.”
Spooky stood up to stare through his window, looking out over the Colombian town of Tunja. “Sometimes, people have to be sacrificed for the greater good.”
“Ten thousand innocent Ethiopians?”
“To help save millions, yes.”
“I don’t get that at all.”
“Cassandra can probably explain, now that I’ve given her that clue.”
The older woman shook her head. “I’m not doing your dirty work, Tran. Tell us, or tell Markis.”
“Very well.” Spooky turned back to stare at Repeth. “What’s the greatest long-term threat we face right now?”
“The North American Unionists, I’d say.”
Spooky shook his head. “No. It’s the Caliphate. The Unionists will eventually collapse, because their ideology doesn’t align itself with the American character – and I’m including the Canadians and Mexicans. But the Caliphate is merely an extreme expression of large parts of the culture of the Middle East – its tribalism, its deep-seated insecurity, its substitution of revenge for justice, and its use of Islam to justify what is really fascism with a new face. It has the power to win hearts and minds for a very long time, and its cause célèbre is Edens, which means there can be no compromise.”
“So what? Get to the point,” Repeth insisted.
“The best way to combat an evil ideology is to rip off its mask and show the world its true face. But the Caliphate hasn’t yet committed crimes on a large or public enough scale to do so.” Spooky leaned over the desk to stare Repeth in the eyes. “We needed a massacre, Jill. We needed a Srebrenica, a Tiananmen Square, a Rape of Nanking, an Auschwitz.”
Repeth recoiled, aghast. “That’s monstrous.”
“That’s the world we live in. We needed a public and undeniable atrocity with an evidence trail leading directly back to the Caliphate through the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s office – which I had all ready to go. It would have turned much of the world against them and aided the cause of Edens and the FC everywhere. Wavering nations would have flocked to join us, and the sideline-sitters would have begun to support us.” Spooky swept papers angrily from his desk, to flutter to the floor. “Instead, we have a heartwarming human interest story that will be forgotten by next weekend.”
Standing up, Repeth said through gritted teeth, “Thanks for telling me the truth. Now we’ll see what the chairman thinks.”
“No,” snapped Cassandra, seizing Repeth’s hand. “He told us, so running to the boss would be reneging on the deal. He’d just deny it all anyway, and then Markis would have to try to play referee. He doesn’t need that kind of distraction. He has his role, and we have ours. Besides,” she said, releasing her grip, “Nobody likes a tattletale.”
“You’re both twisted, you know that?” Repeth stormed out, slamming the door.
“You could have made it a little less stark, you know,” Cassandra said with a sigh. “You hit her with a sledgehammer when a wiffle bat would have done the trick.”
“Do I look like her mommy? She needs to grow up and join the big boys and girls.”
Cassandra shook her head, slowly. “You’ve got a lot to learn about gaining and keeping the loyalty of your people, even if it’s a calculated act.”
Spooky sat down and took out a cigarillo, offering her one as well. They both lit up. “I suppose you’re right. I am surprised, though, that you weren’t willing to do what needed to be done. I’d thought you were more…realistic.”
“Understanding your reasoning doesn’t mean I agree with it. Your ploy might have worked, but then again it might have backfired. With all those lives in the balance, I didn’t think a coin flip was worth it.”
Pointing at her with the cigarillo, Spooky said, “So what if I could have guaranteed it would have worked like I said? Would you have been willing to sacrifice ten thousand to save a million?”
A bleak smile stole across Cassandra’s face. “I guess we’ll never know, will we?”
Enrique Mendoles felt the sweat roll down his back into the top of his pants, although it was a cool morning.
It would be easiest to do nothing, he said to himself again. To let things continue as they were, but he couldn’t. He had to speak to Spooky.
His chief lieutenants had tried to talk to him about his changing attitude. The entire Mendoles cartel, even the other sub-cartels they dominated, were beginning to whisper behind his back. Yet, for the first time in his life he didn’t care what other people said or thought about him.
Enrique waited in the abandoned warehouse Spooky’s contact had directed him to. As always, he came in alone, leaving his driver and bodyguards outside.
A heavy metal door clanged open and then shut at the far end of the dim warehouse. He heard footsteps before he saw Spooky and two of his aides walking in his direction.
“My dear Enrique. You know, it’s always a pleasure to see you, but calling meetings like this can only draw unwanted attention to the both of us. I trust it is something important.”
“It is,” said Enrique as Spooky stopped in front of him. “Very important.”
“Then let’s hear it,” said Spooky, taking out a slim cigarillo and lighting it.
Enrique sighed. “As you probably know, I began working in my father’s business when I was fifteen. When he was killed, I took over the cartel at the age of nineteen. If I hadn’t, others would have done so, and my mother and the rest of the family would be dead. Within three years, the Mendoles Cartel was the most powerful in Colombia. Within ten, we controlled all the cartels.”
“A very impressive resume,” said Spooky. “One of the primary reasons I chose you to work with.”
“Yes. My point is, I never felt I had a choice. I never even thought about doing anything else. I grew up in this business, and it was handed to me without question. In the last few months, though, I’ve been doing some research, and what I discovered disturbs me.”
“How?” asked Spooky.
“The cocaine,” said Enrique. “It ruins the lives of the producers as well as the users. Any monetary benefit is only transient. Father Bolivar has been telling me this for years, but I suppose I never heard him. Until now.”
“So what are you saying? Do you wish to step down?”
Enrique looked shocked. “No, never! This business has been in my family for hundreds of years. Much of it I built with my own hands. But the Mendoles family did not initially owe its success to cocaine. We were plantation owners and growers. Our farmers produced bounties of food that flooded the marketplaces and filled the tables of Colombians, and coffee and cocoa to sell to the rest of the world. It will be this way again.”
“Let’s not be too hasty,” said Spooky. “I applaud your sentiment, but you should not rush into such a decision.”
“I’m not rushing. I haven’t been able to sleep. I can’t think of anything else. The only time I get any peace is when I consider doing this. It must be done. I’ve already started the process. Within the next month, the Mendoles Cartel will begin to phase out coca plants and switch to legitimate crops. I also intend to use my power and influence to pressure the other cartels to follow my lead.”
“Do you realize what you are saying?” asked Spooky.
“Yes. We could reduce cocaine production in this country to almost nothing within a year or two. Can you imagine? All the money spent, the lives lost, the pain and suffering. Yet, I can stop it with a snap of my fingers. I will do this.”
Spooky sighed. “Have you thought about the consequences of this decision?”
“And are you prepared to accept those consequences?” Spooky asked.
Spooky shook his head. “I should have known something like this would happen when I gave you the virus.”
“Yes, I am not a fool. I know it is the Eden Plague that will not let me ignore my conscience, but I do not care.”
“Are you certain you won’t simply step away? You and your family can retire to a comfortable estate where you will be well taken care of, and I can find someone else to run the business. There would be no need for you to feel guilty anymore.”
“No, Señor. I cannot do that.”
Spooky drew a pistol from inside his jacket and began to screw a suppressor onto the barrel. “Are you absolutely certain? Your mother and your sisters will be very sorry to hear of your tragic death.”
Enrique stared at the gun and began to sweat. “You wouldn’t…”
“Don’t be more of a fool than you already are. Of course I will. In about thirty seconds, if you do not change your mind.”
The Colombian gasped, looking from the pistol to Spooky’s face, and then back again. “All right. I will retire. But I do not see why we must engage in this despicable trade anymore! Prices are rising for coffee and cocoa. We can make just as much money if we go legitimate.”
“The money is only a side benefit. My real targets are the populations of the anti-FC nations.”
“But why? I don’t understand!”
Spooky reversed his hands and unscrewed the suppressor, putting it into a pocket and holstering the pistol. “Because I’m so happy you’ve agreed with my suggestion, I’ll explain it to you. The more illicit drugs people use, the more lives will be wrecked and the more trouble that will make for my enemies. The trafficking corrupts their government and their police as well as their population. In desperation, many of those addicts will turn to the only thing that can save them: the Eden Plague, strengthening our cause further.” He spread his hands. “You see? It all makes perfect sense.”
“I suppose I should not have expected anything else from the man who tortured me into agreeing to work for him.”
Spooky smiled. “Glad to see your eyes are finally opening, my friend.” He put his arm around Enrique. “If it makes you feel any better, I’m going to insist that the new cartel boss treat the growers and their families better. Get them health insurance and set up a pension plan. Perhaps I’ll even found a few schools to give their children a better life. It will make everyone more loyal and more compliant. What do you think?”
“I can see you’re speechless, so I’ll let you go now.” Spooky shook the man’s shoulder in mock friendliness one more time. “But don’t even think about changing your mind, unless you want your mother and sisters brought to sit in my favorite wooden chair.” He released Enrique and gave him a slight push. “Go on, go home. Say nothing. I’ll send someone tomorrow with instructions.”
After Enrique left, Spooky congratulated himself on cleverness. A smooth turnover would serve his plans best, keeping the cocaine flowing northward and the money coming south. He chuckled as he wondered what Markis would think if he ever found out his moralistic revolution was being funded by the cartels.
By the time the Unionists took power – as they surely would – they would have themselves a drug war the likes of which North America had never seen. The more they cracked down, the more the hearts and minds of the common people would turn away from them.
And as every Green Beret knows, Spooky thought, hearts and minds win the war.
My kind of war.
* * *
Skull ordered another Scotch. He didn’t really want the drink, but he also didn’t want to leave just yet. The piano player was especially good tonight and the ocean waves crashing onto the nearby Thai beach accented the notes, turning them into a symphony in moonlight.
Somehow he always found his way back to beaches. He’d grown up in Tennessee, about as far from the ocean as he could imagine, but duty with the Marines had changed his mind. Now, the rolling black water felt like home.
He sat and watched the nighttime waves as the gentle wind washed over him. It was almost as if those breezes were carrying his demons away, those might have beens and the wish I could go back again and do things differently tormenters.
It was always like this after a mission, he realized. He would go and recharge in some secluded beach community, and when it was time to leave he would know. Skull knew he would never be happy simply sitting by the ocean until he grew old, but places like this were the safe harbors after the squalls and storms of his work.
And there would be work. If nothing came along, he would eventually go looking for it. There were always private security firms looking for people with his skills. He didn’t need the money, but the principle of the matter demanded he be reimbursed.
Skull commanded healthy compensation for his services. After all, there were expenses. False IDs didn’t come cheap. Neither did good gear, good tequila, or good, discreet, professional companionship…when he allowed himself the release.
The fewer entanglements, the better.
On a whim, he ordered the best cigar available. He hadn’t smoked in years, though he remembered how much he used to like to.
The bartender prepared and lit it for him. Skull took a long slow drag and felt himself relax. The flavor and feeling were delicious and for a moment he wondered why he ever stopped. Health reasons, he supposed.
It’s strange how you forget the things you like, he thought. But never the things you dislike.
The club manager walked over to Skull with a padded envelope in his hand. “Excuse me, Señor,” he said. “Are you Alan?”
“Why?” asked Skull, his senses suddenly on alert.
The man placed the package on the bar in front of Skull. “This came a few minutes ago for you.”
Skull didn’t touch the package. “How did it arrive?”
The manager shrugged. “Just a messenger boy.” He then walked away.
Skull stared at the envelope with irritation. No one was supposed to know he was here. On the other hand, anyone who wanted to kill him probably wouldn’t do it by letter bomb or toxin. Too many things could go wrong.
What he resented was the intrusion upon his cocoon of tranquility. The destruction of his illusion of normalcy. No one here was even supposed to know his name. How could anyone have found him?
Pulling out a slim blade, he gingerly sliced the end of the envelope and looked inside by lifting its edge with the knife’s tip. After satisfying himself there was no danger, he slid the contents onto the bar. A frame came out face down, followed by a folded piece of paper. Skull then shook out the package to make sure nothing else remained.
Picking up the frame, Skull turned it over and felt the air slowly go out of him. It was a framed photograph of Zeke and him, with Cassandra in the middle. Both men had their arms around her, all smiling. It was at a beach, of course, taken many years ago, when things were much simpler. When they were all so much younger and thought they owned the world, before so much had been lost or broken.
It brought back a rush of memories, of good times with his friend.
The only real friend he’d ever had, or probably ever would.
He slowly lifted the folded piece of paper from the bar and opened it. It read simply, Thank you. Love, C.
Skull turned to gaze at the rolling waves and smiled.
THE END of Eden’s Exodus.
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THE DEMON PLAGUES
Infection Year Ten
Alan “Skull” Denham put his eye to the sight of his venerable Barrett sniper rifle. Mexico City sprawled smoggy as ever; he could just barely see his target area. The fascist United Governments of North America hadn’t done any better than the old Mexican regime had in cleaning the place up. Annexation of Mexico and Canada by the former U.S. had proven to be the proverbial anaconda swallowing the buffalo; the process seemed inevitable, but very, very slow.
Skull was indigestion.
The cold logic of insurgency dictated that he kill as many northerners as possible and spare the locals, sowing distrust between Latinos and gringos. When he did, government cracked down, locals protested and rioted and bombed.
Skull loved it.
This target was special: a Security Service Psycho officer, one of the tiny percentage of infected humanity that the Plague turned evil…or at least narcissistic. Most people considered the two the same.
Like many low-level Psychos in the Unionist-Party-dominated UG, this one led an SS death squad, searching out the UGNA’s enemies, criminal or political, real or imagined.
Crosshairs drifted downward to rest on the norteamericano. Skull inhaled, then let his breath out most of the way and paused naturally. His finger gently squeezed the trigger, surprising him with the sharp report. All well-aimed shots were unanticipated; that was a secret of the sniper, especially for shots like this at over eight hundred meters.
He didn’t have to see the Psycho fall, didn’t have to observe his head explode like a ripe melon. Zen-like, as soon as the bullet left the barrel he had felt the shot was good. Skull was already moving from his position before the first sirens wailed and the SS airmobile reaction team spun into the air.
He slid the weapon into the beat-up guitar case, barely large enough to contain the gun. A sombrero settled onto his head, completing his mariachi costume. With his dark eyes and deeply tanned face wrinkled from a lifetime of outdoor exposure, he became just another local musician heading to a concert. His Apache grandfather had bequeathed him the ability to tan darker than any ordinary white man, and he blended in among the South and Central Americans with ease. Down the stairs, off the roof of the building and into the slums, in two minutes he had disappeared among the bars and cantinas and squalid apartments.
Helicopters pummeled the air overhead, too late. The crowds on the dirty streets hid him, one among many, as he made his way to his dwelling.
In his tiny rented room he searched his own face, dark eyes like pits in the cracked mirror. Over fifty now, he was resigned to the aging as long as he could keep the hate alive. He nursed it like a beloved child; the killing gave his life meaning. Perhaps someday the fear of age and infirmity would tempt him to accept the emasculating Eden Plague virus that had upended his world.
But not today. Today he had filled his cup of death. Today he was whole.
Water on his face, on his hands. In the fading light coming through the cheap curtains it turned to blood, but he ignored the sight by long practice. He reached for a bottle of mescal. “Arriba, abajo, al centro y pa ´dentro,” he murmured, and then drank a slug from the neck. The traditional toast of “up, down, center and in” seemed to make the smoky liquor taste better.
Opening the guitar case, he gently removed his exquisite rifle. Before he stripped it down and cleaned it, he took out a knife and made a thin hash mark at the end of the row on the stock.
His fingertips touched the four hundred and fifty-five tiny indentations, one for each kill with the weapon. The first ninety-six had been the enemies of his country, back when he had a country, back when the United States was something to believe in. He’d killed in Somalia, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and countless other places.
The rest of the marks…those were personal. Payback for his old commander Zeke, payback for hacker Vinny, payback for the innocents in the death camps and for the other millions murdered by the chickenshit jackbooted thugs of the Unionist Party and the United Governments, those that had corrupted his flag, stole his Constitution, and murdered all he held sacred.
Who needs sex, he thought, when killing is so much more satisfying.
Closing the knife, he began to lovingly service his weapon.
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