Barnes & Noble
Published by: Kensington
Release Date: January 6, 2015
They can strike anytime, anywhere. A public landmark. A suburban shopping mall. And now, the human body itself. Three Middle Eastern terrorists have been injected with a biological weapon, human time bombs unleashed on American soil. They are prepared to die. To spread their disease. To annihilate millions. If America hopes to fight this enemy from within, we need a new kind of weapon. Meet Special Agent Jericho Quinn. Air Force veteran. Champion boxer. Trained assassin. Hand-picked for a new global task force that, officially, does not exist, Quinn answers only to the Director of National Intelligence and the U.S. President himself.Add on Goodreads
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2 September, 2100 hours Fallujah, Iraq
Jericho Quinn gunned the throttle, willing more power from the screaming motorcycle.
"Which one is Ghazan?" He threw the words over his shoulder, into the wind as he rode.
Blowing sand scoured his chapped face. He peered through the dusk, squinting, wishing he had a pair of goggles. Something pinched his nose in the gathering darkness—the telltale odor of wet wool seasoned with the sulfur that oozed up from the desert floor.
The smell of a sheep roasting in the flames of hell.
The scent of Iraq.
"There!" Quinn felt his passenger shudder behind him, his words ripped away by the wind.
"Which one?" Quinn scanned a knot of a half dozen FAMs—fighting-age men—loitering at the corner beneath the crumbling walls of a bombed mosque. In the three days following the horrific bombing of a Colorado shopping mall, any semblance of trust between cultures had evaporated from the streets of Iraq. Natives flinched and dropped their eyes when American patrols rolled past. Few in number from cyclical troop drawdown, U.S. forces stood on the edge of a full-blown assault at every encounter. Soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen boiled with righteous anger that over three thousand Americans—most of them women and children—had lost their lives in the blasts.
The worst act of terrorism on American soil since 9/11, the media had dubbed it the Fifth Sunday Bombing—but it was impossible to put a title on something so horrible. Most just spoke in whispered reverence about Colorado. Hunting down those responsible was priority one for men like Jericho Quinn.
Ghazan al Ghazi was the HVT-the high-value target—of the moment. Quinn felt a familiar sensation in the back of his neck—the tingle that told him violence was close at hand—and wondered if he was enjoying this too much. He had no idea what he'd do if peace suddenly broke out in the world. Not much chance of that.
"Which one?" he asked again, leaning back to be certain Sadiq heard him.
"The large one ... he wears aviator sunglasses. He is tall ... there on the end with the neck of a bull." Sadiq groaned, hiding his head against Quinn's back as he spoke. "A blue shirt ... open down the front. Please ... you should drive on...."
In the street, horns honked and beeped, churning up whirling clouds of yellow dust. Thick, angry voices rose into the dusk on ribbons of heat as the snarl of evening traffic came to a standstill. Stopped almost directly in front of their target, Sadiq began to twitch, so much so Quinn was sure it looked as though he was having some kind of fit.
"Hold on," Quinn yelled in colloquial Arabic as he tried to go around the jam. He nearly spilled avoiding the twisted hulk of a bombed Nissan pickup planted squarely in the road. Giving the bike enough throttle to keep it upright, he ducked down a side street away from the din of cars and military and NGO convoys. Slowing, he made a left turn on a quieter side street.
The motorcycle was a Kaweseki, a Chinese knockoff. Little more than a scooter, it had the look of a Japanese sport bike and the suspension of a skateboard. It was sure to rust or fall to pieces just when he needed it most, but it was what the locals rode. It was all they could afford. As an agent with Air Force Office of Special Investigations or OSI, Quinn had an impressive array of weapons and technology at his disposal. But for the moment he rode a piece-of-junk motorcycle and wore an ankle-length cotton dishdasha, called a man dress by American soldiers. His life, and more important, his mission, depended on the ability to blend in with the locals.
He leaned over the handlebars, twisting the last ounce of horsepower from the protesting Chinese motor. The back tire shimmied, throwing up a shower of gravel as he ducked behind an abandoned café. Behind him, Sadiq clawed at his waist in an effort to hang on.
Despite the fact that he was surrounded by men who would be happy to saw off his head with a dull pocket-knife if they discovered who he was, Quinn found the orange-blue dusk oddly soothing. Above the rubble of bombed buildings and rusted vehicle hulks, a neat row of Medjool date palms lined the road, their straight trunks silhouetted against the evening sky. They were reminders of another Iraq, untouched by decades of war.
"Get off at the next corner." Quinn leaned back as he shouted to the lanky Sunni. The boy spoke passable English, but Quinn kept their conversations in Arabic to pacify any listening ears. "I must hurry and get back to Ghazan before he slips away."
"You will please pay me—before you go." The sallow university student's voice wobbled with a mixture of terror and the disorienting effects of the bumpy ride.
"Get off," Quinn snapped. "I don't have time to stop. I'll pay you later tonight." Sadiq was a good informant, but he liked to make things more difficult than they needed to be.
"I insist you pay me now."
Jericho let off the throttle, then gunned it suddenly to spite his rider.
"Must you Americans drive so fast?" Sadiq's voice was a curdled scream against the wind. "Ghazan is a dangerous man. He may kill you when you speak to him. Where would that leave me?"
One of the countless emaciated stray dogs that roamed the country darted in front of them, eyeing the men like a piece of meat. Quinn horsed the little bike to the right, fearing the flimsy handlebars might snap off in his hands. He took a quick moment to wish for his own motorcycle, a massive BMW 1200 GS Adventure. It was impossible to find a good motorcycle in the desert—at least one that allowed him to look like an Iraqi.
Sadiq yanked to the left to keep his seat, spewing an Arabic oath about Jericho's family history. Quinn popped the clutch, downshifting to coax just enough power to avoid a spill. The transmission squealed as if it was about to burst into flames.
They shuddered to a stop. Quinn shot a wary glance over his shoulder and ordered Sadiq off the bike in a voice that left no room for argument. He gunned the motor again. Unencumbered by a passenger, the little bike shot forward, back toward the men who would be all too happy to put a bullet in Quinn's head—or worse. Leaning forward, with the wind in his face, he considered his next move. His Arabic was flawless. Dark skin and a heavy beard helped him blend in with the population.
Very soon, none of that would matter. If all went according to plan, the Iraqi thug in the aviator sunglasses would find out more than he ever wanted to know about Jericho Quinn.
Ghazan split away from the others a half hour later, walking lazily in front of closed shops, their metal doors rolled to the ground and padlocked to discourage thieves. Quinn followed him a short way on the bike. He had smashed out the headlamp with a shard of brick from the side of the road. A broken headlight in a war-torn country wouldn't cause a second look and made him more difficult to spot cruising down dark side alleys.
Quinn watched from the shadows as the bull-necked man disappeared into a shabby, three-story concrete apartment building surrounded by heaps of garbage and rubble. He waited until a light on the second-level window flicked on, then took note of its position before stashing the Kaweseki across the street, behind a trash pile almost as high as his head. For a short moment, he considered calling in backup, but in the end settled back on what he'd known from the beginning—some jobs were better done without witnesses. It protected the innocent from having to report his behavior.
Men like Ghazan didn't worry much about heavy locks on their doors, relying instead on fearsome reputations to keep them safe. It would have been easy to assume the brute was alone, since the light had been off until he arrived. But Quinn knew relying on the probable had gotten a lot of men killed.
So, he would wait alone—and listen.
He crouched in the stifling heat of the concrete stairwell staring at the peeling white paint of Ghazan's door for what seemed like an eternity. The odor of urine and rotting lemons hung in the stuffy alcove. Feral dogs barked from distant shadows. A tiny hedgehog, no larger than an orange, shuffled by in the darkness. The wail of an ambulance siren cut the night. Here and there, the flat crack of an M4 rifle peppered the air. Quinn's knees began to ache. It was during just such moments, with sweat soaking the back of his dishdasha, staining the concrete wall behind him, that he took the time to wonder what he was doing. He had a little girl—a five-year-old—whom he hadn't seen for months. She was with his now ex-wife, back in the cool mountains of Alaska, so far from the grit and gore of this desert and the never-ending war. Missing her, he consoled himself with a quote from Thomas Paine. It was a favorite of his father's. "If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace."
The telltale hiss of a running shower came through the flimsy wood door and drew Quinn back to reality. He tapped the Sig Sauer pistol beneath his robe, taking a breath of solace in the fact it was there, then drew another item from the folds of his robe. This wasn't the time for pistol work. Quinn put a hand on the door and took a deep breath, thinking one last time of his daughter before pressing her from his mind while he worked. He knew he should feel guilty about his absence, about the fact that he put his work even above those he loved the most—but he'd save the guilt for later. That's what made him so good.
Quinn surprised Ghazan with a snap kick to the groin as he stepped from the shower. Water dripped from the mat of black hair that thatched the Iraqi's body like a thick rug. The big man roared in alarm, attempting a kick of his own. The wet tile and newfound pain proved too much for his brain to handle and he hit the ground like a hairy sack of bricks.
Wasting no time, Quinn brought up the Taser X26, aiming the red laser dot at the center of Ghazan's chest. There was a static crackle as twin darts, barbed like straightened fish hooks, unspooled on hairlike wires to strike their target just below the right nipple and above the left knee. The Iraqi's body went taut and the muscles of his face pulled back in a grimace as fifty thousand volts of electricity arced between the two probes. He tried to cry out from the searing pain, but the best he could muster was a gurgle.
Traditional Tasers carried by law enforcement emitted a five-second burst of energy for each pull of the trigger. Quinn had taken the ride himself, along with his entire class of basic OSI agents. He found it to be like having a five-second full-body cramp, while completely engulfed in molten lava and stabbed in the back with an ice pick. It was something he hoped he'd never have to endure again.
The Taser he carried now had been modified to deliver four times that, completely immobilizing the target with pain and loss of neuromuscular control.
Ghazan's first twenty-second ride complete, Quinn pulled the trigger a second time. The muscles in the side of the Iraqi's neck tensed like thick cables, his glistening body arched up, bridging on shoulders and heels. Quinn took the opportunity to stick a small adhesive pad under each of Ghazan's ears. It was remarkably easy to find a vein and inject the contents of a plastic syringe, then secure his wrists and ankles with heavy plastic zip cuffs. The shock took the path of least resistance, which happened to be between the darts in the Iraqi's body, so Quinn felt nothing but a mild tingle as he completed his job.
Ghazan fell slack. He gave a pitiful groan and his head lolled to one side. Quinn slapped the man's cheeks, gaining his attention. He'd be no good if he passed out. The high-dosage scopolamine patches under his ears were already beginning to have the desired effect. His eyes fluttered, but he remained conscious.
"What ...What do ... you want?" The big man's words were a slurred mess, as if he had a mouth full of marbles. "You ... you will suffer ... greatly for this...."
"The American soldiers you kidnapped," Quinn spat in Arabic as he hauled the slippery body upright, propping him against the rough tile wall.
Ghazan gave a rattling chuckle, blinked in an effort to clear his vision. The drugs and fatigue from the two bouts of electric-shock muscle cramping had exhausted him as surely as if he'd run a marathon. "You will die ... for this insult...." Ghazan swallowed. He smiled dopily. "I am thirsty, my friend...."
Quinn grabbed a bit of the man's skin on the back of his upper arm, giving it a pinching twist.
Startled as if from another sudden shock, Ghazan yowled. "They will die tonight...." he gasped.
"Where are they?" Quinn leaned forward.
The scopolamine began to combine with the drug Quinn had injected-a derivative of sodium pentothal developed by the Soviets called SP17. Together they induced a state of relaxed euphoria and, if all went well, would turn Ghazan into an Arab version of Chatty Cathy.
"What do you want with the American dogs? Fool! Farooq will kill you."
"You know of the sheikh, yes?" Ghazan stammered. "He is a powerful man ... with many friends. Get me some water ... and perhaps I will let you live...."
Another pinch brought a scream and a renewed sense of focus. Quinn kept his voice low, a menacing whisper, slipping seamlessly into English. "I need you to tell me about the Americans. They are my friends."
"Your friends ..." Sick realization crept over the big Iraqi's face. "You are American?"
Quinn nodded slowly. "I am."
"Impossible," Ghazan sneered, momentarily coherent. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Quinn drew a long, slender blade from the back of his belt and held it before the Arab's face.
Ghazan blinked sagging eyes. He gave a tight chuckle, trying to convince himself. "Put that thing away. It does not frighten me. You Americans ... you have told the world. You are disgusted by the mere idea of torture."
"We are disgusted by it," Quinn said, nodding slightly. "I am sickened by the act." He pressed the point of his blade up Ghazan's flared nostril until a trickle of blood flowed down his twitching lip. "And yet, I find myself needing the information inside your head." Quinn shrugged, drawing a fresh trickle of blood. "I am disgusted not for what it does to scum like you, but for what it does to the one inflicting the pain. Such violence does irreparable emotional harm to the torturer...." The tip of his knife remained motionless, now more than an inch inside the big Iraqi's nose. "Some say it damages them beyond repair."
Quinn leaned in, almost touching the sweating man's face with his forehead, close enough to smell the odor of spiced chickpeas he'd eaten for supper. "The bad news for you," he whispered, "is that I'm already damaged...."