Echo 3 had come and gone. The plan was perfect, right down to the last detail. It had to be. Omen Quagmer was in charge. The blowers had been loaded into two panel vans that said Smith’s Heating and Air Conditioning on the sides. The drivers even wore matching coveralls with company logos.
Omen had taken the initiative of picking names for the technicians that would deflect suspicion. The fact that all the terrorist bombers on September 11th had been Muslim, with names like Abdul, Atta, and Muhammad, had caused some Americans to be more discerning. So the name patches stitched onto these jumpsuits read "Carlos" and "Manuel." No one would suspect that they were on a mission for Allah.
The blowers looked like air-processing devices. They had been designed to be inserted into the ductwork of commercial buildings. They even bore nameplates with serial numbers, a model designation, the UL logo, and "ILM Manufacturing" proudly at the top. That was Omen’s idea of a joke: ilm was Arabic for "knowing what’s right."
The "Hispanic" delivery boys were instructed to tell building security officers, if they were asked, that they were installing air-quality monitoring systems to help insure the workers’ safety. Omen loved trickery. This was like counterfeiting, a plausible solution designed to fool the gullible. It was a lot like Islam.
A brilliant man, Omen was under no illusions. He knew the truth about Muhammad and Allah. But he wasn’t in this business for the eternal blessings. He craved power and money in the here and now. Fortunately, Islam had something for everyone.
His blowers were ingenious. They had been built to collect the dust inside the ductwork of a building’s HVAC system. His "air quality" devices were designed to mix this duct dust with anthrax spores, introducing them into office environments. This material was less than ideal - it was both oversized and electrostatically charged. But it was plentiful.
Anthrax spores are microscopic. Billions fit nicely into a small canister. A one-gallon pail would hold enough bacteria to kill every man, woman, and child on the planet. But the pathogen must be mated to a particulate to be effective - to stay airborne long enough to infect the intended victims. Dust particles would help get the job done. But dust is bulky compared to the insidious spores. A device designed to collect it could be smaller, less conspicuous, than one that had to carry a full supply.
Research Triangle Park in North Carolina was the perfect place to build such devices. Small warehouses harboring aspiring new companies dotted the horizon. The industrial area outside Raleigh-Durham was always bustling with the comings and goings of people. Strangers were the norm. Better yet, the high-tech firms that congregated here hired people from around the world. No one looked out of place.
There was even a fairly high concentration of Muslims. A tremendous number of Pakistani developers had been hired to write cheap code for many of the nation’s largest technology firms. Anwar Abu and his new associate, the Palestinian engineer Aymen Halaweh, blended right in.
So it was from this base of operation that "Carlos" and "Manuel" made their way north. With three blowers inside their van, they would stop at assigned sites in Washington and Baltimore. A similar van had left a few hours earlier. It was being driven to Philadelphia, New York, and Boston by "Jose" and "Fernando."
As each team arrived, they would gain access by appearing like they belonged. They carried the right credentials, right down to having plausible-looking purchase orders from the firm that managed each building. They knew the brand of equipment being used and had blueprints of the HVAC systems.
Much of this information was public, available in Building Department files. Anwar had been pleased to discover that a discreet fifty bucks would buy everything he needed at the county recorder’s office.
Each crew was prepared to do their duty quickly and quietly. Without drawing attention to themselves, they would slip in, then out, moving on to the next building. No one would even remember that they had been there. That is, until the unlucky occupants started dying.
Everything related to Admiral Thurston Adams was now big news. And no one had benefited more from the tragedy-turned-spectacle than Blaine Edwards. Now, backed by a photograph of Sarah Nottingly, he was telling the world what he had learned about the beautiful agent. "She manages the Middle East Bureau at the CIA, is unmarried, and lives near the Capitol. Ms. Nottingly is twenty-nine years old and has a Masters in economics." The news had evolved. This mutation was called tabloid journalism. Blaine didn’t care. Ratings were soaring.
FOX and other networks had arranged for cars to tail the hot couple like paparazzi following a prince and princess. Adams’ personal life was now no less public than his mission.
Surrendered or not, the newly minted Admiral felt less than virile being driven around by his new flame. The car was stylish enough, and plenty muscular, but it wasn’t the same having a woman at the controls. It was a guy thing, or maybe a pilot thing. He wasn’t sure.
"I suppose you’d like me to take you home, Thor."
"I thought you weren’t that easy." Before she could protest, he placed his hand on hers. "Just kidding."
Sarah accelerated as she turned right onto Constitution Avenue along the north side of the mall. The tires chirped, throwing Thor in her direction. His head fell on her shoulder. "Your home, silly, not mine."
Adams sighed. "Alright, but not yet. Let’s check out the memorials. We could sit and talk for a while."
"And what army of guys is going to help me carry you up the steps?"
"I just want to talk."
"Are all you admiral types so chatty?"
"We’re good at giving orders."
"I thought you said I was in charge."
"You are. Turn right at the next light. I live in Georgetown."
With that, sweet Sarah shoved the Jag down into second gear, thrust her right foot against the pedal, and threw the roadster into another sharp right turn. She kind of enjoyed right turns, she decided.
Within minutes she had pulled into his lot and shut down the engine. Miraculously, they had survived the drive without accident or ticket. But now they would need another miracle. It was all Sarah could do to help her wounded friend out of his seat. With that hurdle overcome, they had to negotiate a short flight of steps before even reaching the building.
Laughing, Sarah tried to position herself under Thor’s good arm. As he leaned against her, she buckled. She was athletic, but supporting a six- foot-two SEAL was more than her slender frame could manage.
They had a problem. For this to work, Nottingly really needed to be under Adams’ right arm. That way she could take the weight off his injured right leg. Unfortunately, he couldn’t separate his broken right arm from his body, much less transfer any weight onto it. Focused, they could have mastered the stairs in a matter of minutes, but they were having way too much fun; it had become a game, a contact sport.
Once inside the building they simply rode the elevator to Adams’ third-floor apartment. Stairs were fun, but.... All too quickly, they reached his floor in the small, traditional-looking apartment complex. This time, with the benefit of experience, Sarah positioned herself in front of Thor. This let him lean against her, bracing himself by placing his left hand on her right shoulder. They both knew that with an injury to both his right arm and leg, crutches were useless, as was a cane. A wheelchair was what the doctor had ordered, but where was the fun in that?
Not only had Thor left his wallet back at the base, he had left his keys there as well. Fortunately, he had hidden a key atop the door frame back when he had been a mere captain. As he opened the door, he could tell Sarah was impressed. The décor was tasteful, not "bachelor," decorated in blues and beiges. The furniture was traditional and things coordinated, more or less.
"Can I show you around?"
"Are you kidding? You’re going down. It was all I could do to get you here." She led him to the nearest couch, one facing a brick fireplace. It was flanked on either side with shelves - filled with books, not a family photo on the lot of them. She didn’t see a TV. She presumed he owned one.
A few steps away, Sarah stood, eyeing him, crumpled up in the sofa. Now what? she asked herself. Just look at him. He’s a mess.
"Yeah, I know. I’m pretty pathetic," Thor said, reading her mind. "They wanted me to hang at the hospital, but I was dying to get home."
"Now that you’re home, fly-boy, how are you going to take care of yourself? You can’t drive. You can hardly walk."
He looked up at her with the sorriest eyes he could muster.
"No. No way. I like you and all, but I’m not spending the night here. I don’t want to see my smiling mug on the front page of The Washington Post," she said, waving her arms in the air. "The last thing this city needs is another bimbo."
"I’m not suggesting that you sleep with me. Just help me get to bed - after we talk awhile...and maybe come back in the morning. We’ll figure something out from there."
"All right," she sighed. "I must be a sucker for a man in uniform. I’ll help you out tonight and come back in the morning. Where’s that key you used?"
Thor handed it to her, holding onto her hand. "Thank you."
"So, what’s a girl got to do to get a drink in this joint? Do you have any wine?"
"Over there," Thor pointed to a rack near the kitchen. "The opener is in the first drawer. The white wines are in the fridge." Thor stared as she walked toward his decidedly un-bachelor-like kitchen. She looked as good going as she did coming.
"A Gervertstramiener from Clos Du Bois. Very nice," Sarah said, holding the bottle against her like it was a long-lost friend. "Do you like them?"
"Sweet, like you," he smiled. "My wine glasses are in the cupboard," he added before it dawned on him. "Hey, aren’t you Christian types supposed to be teetotalers?"
"You’ll never see me tipsy, Thurston. But abstinence is a man-made rule. Jesus not only drank wine, he made it - an excellent vintage, by all accounts."
Although she wouldn’t have admitted it, Sarah was having a great time exploring. With every door she opened, every drawer she pulled, every question she asked, she was getting to know Adams better. And she liked what she was learning. For one thing it was obvious he could cook, that he liked to cook. She reached for the glasses and headed to the couch.
"Now, I suppose you’d like me to open it."
Thor tried to lift his broken right arm as if to say that there wasn’t much choice if they wanted to drink it any time soon. "Yes, and while you’re at it, could you light the fire, too?"
Rather than smack him, Sarah simply placed the wine bottle, opener, and crystal glasses on the coffee table in front of the couch. She had noticed that the fireplace had already been prepared. The wood was stacked neatly on the grate, ready to go. It looked like he had been a Boy Scout. She bent down, opened the mesh screen, lit a match, and started the fire. Taking a moment to appreciate her handiwork and enjoy its warmth, Sarah reflected on all that had happened to bring her to this place.
"If I promise not to bite, will you come back over here?"
Just then the phone rang. With the Admiral pointing in its direction, Sarah raced to a corner of the kitchen. She knew from experience that Thor had an answering machine and that it picked up after the third ring. In her official duties she had called him at his apartment many times.
"Hello, this is Cap... I mean Admiral Adams’ residence." She wondered how often she would get to say that. "May I help you?"
"Yes. This is NBC calling from New York. The Today Show. Katie Couric and Matt Lauer would like to have Admiral Adams on the show tomorrow morning. Is he available?"
"I don’t know. Let me ask." She covered the mouthpiece.
"It’s the Today Show. They want to interview you tomorrow morning. What would you like me to tell them, your majesty?" Sarah giggled.
"Well, let’s see. It’s ten thirty now. To be on the show, we’d have to be in the New York area by six o’clock. In anything less than an F-18, that’d mean we’d have to leave Washington at five - at least if we hoped to be in the city by seven. No, I don’t think so."
She removed her hand from the phone. "He says thank you, but no. It’s too late, he’s tired, and the arrangements would be too difficult."
"What if we arranged for a limousine to take him to the airport and had our corporate jet fly him to New York?"
She placed her hand back on the phone. "They’re begging. Offering the corporate jet, limousine, dancing girls. What say you, O exalted one, and what did you mean by ‘we’?"
"I’m not going unless you’re going."
"You forget, I’m a workin’ girl. What makes you think I can get time off?"
"The last thing the CIA wants is for a fully briefed Admiral going on national television and revealing something that’s classified, right? You’re my expert. You can brief me on what I can and cannot say."
"Not bad," she confessed, still covering the mouthpiece. "Barnes will probably buy that. But what makes you think I’m going to run off to New York City with a notorious bachelor?"
"’Cause you like me?" he grinned hopefully.
"You are pretty adorable in your present condition. And not terribly threatening." She returned his smile. "Okay, I’ll go, but separate rooms." So much for not being easy. "I suppose you’d like me to make the arrangements."
"Admiral Adams says he would be willing to be interviewed the day after tomorrow, Thursday."
"He will be traveling with Sarah Nottingly, the CIA agent that briefed him prior to the incursion."
"The Sarah Nottingly?" the Today Show representative asked.
"Yes." How many Sarah Nottinglies are there in this town?
"Would she be willing to be on the show too?"
"I don’t think so. Now, the Admiral would like the jet to pick him up at National Airport tomorrow at...just one moment, please."
She looked over at Thor. "What time would you like to leave tomorrow? I’ll get them to arrange rooms at the Plaza."
"How about ten. We could have lunch in the park."
"He’d like to be picked up at ten. And please, the jet needs to be big enough, a Gulfstream, a Falcon, or maybe a Challenger. He’s pretty banged up. He’ll need a wheelchair too, one that can be collapsed and put in the trunk of a car."
"NBC has a Falcon 900 here in New York. But how are we going to fly into Reagan National? It’s been closed to general aviation, even charters, since 9/11."
"The Admiral has friends in high places. Your pilots will have no trouble. Now, the Admiral and Miss Nottingly would like rooms at the Plaza, overlooking the Park."
"Certainly. Would you like them adjoining? Is Miss Nottingly going to be providing protection for the Admiral?
A lot of our guests have their security details stay in adjoining rooms."
Protection? Yeah right. She paused for a short eternity. What am I getting myself into? "Yes, that’d be fine."
"Okay. We’ll have a limousine and collapsible wheelchair ready when he arrives. Normally our charters fly into Teterboro, but with his connections he might want to fly into La Guardia. Normally, it’s a nightmare to get in and out of, but..."
"Yes, make it La Guardia." Sarah was feeling her oats.
"And how about dinner reservations and a show? We often arrange for such things when an important guest agrees to be on the program."
"Let me ask."
"Would you like to go to dinner and see a show?"
"Are you asking me out on a date, Sarah?"
"Why, yes, I believe I am, Admiral." She winked at him.
"Yes, he would like to see a show, and would enjoy a good dinner. How about Tavern on the Green?" It wasn’t one of New York’s snootiest restaurants, but it was romantic enough, and it would give them the opportunity to ride a carriage around Central Park.
"As you may know, the hottest ticket in town is the restaging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. Would that please the Admiral?"
"Yes, I’m sure it would." She didn’t bother asking. She wanted to see it, and it was her date, after all. "Two tickets, please. He may want to bring Miss Nottingly." Sarah almost doubled over laughing.
"Normally, I’d have to say I’ll try, but seeing that it’s Admiral Adams, I’m sure they’ll find seats - probably in the front row."
The Today Show executive paused as he wrote a note to himself. "The show starts at nine o’clock. I’ll arrange dinner for seven. Is there anything else I can do for the Admiral?"
"No. I think we...he’ll be fine." Oops.
"Okay then. We’ll have a car waiting at the Plaza at six thirty Thursday morning to take Ms. Nottingly and the Admiral to the studio."
"Wheee!" Sarah jumped up and down and squealed as she placed the phone back on the hook. "New York City, dinner at Tavern on the Green, The Sound of Music, the Plaza Hotel. Am I good or what?"
Excitedly she made her way across the room and sat down in one of the living room chairs facing Thor. All Julie Andrews had was a Navy Captain. I’m flirting with an Admiral.
Adams patted the section of the sofa closest to him.
Sarah shot him a look but complied. She sat down and leaned against him, placing her head on his shoulder. For the longest time they just sat there gazing into the fire.
"I suppose I should open the wine," she finally said, leaning forward and reaching for the bottle. In a move right out of high school, Adams lifted his arm and placed it on her back. She smiled. It made her tingle as she unscrewed the cork from the chilled bottle. He rubbed the back of her neck, under her hair. She pretended to ignore what he was doing.
Making a clinking sound on top of the glass as she filled them, Sarah handed one to Thor. He was forced to remove his arm from around her shoulders. What he would have done for a second good hand.
"I’d like to propose a toast." Adams lifted his glass. "Here’s to getting to know you."
"And you," she smiled, lifting the goblet to her lips. "So what would you like to know?"
The fire was crackling in front of them. "What are some of your favorite things?"
"Oh, ‘silver white winters that melt into springs, wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings’," she said, stealing a line from The Sound of Music.
"Okay, you got me, but really...."
"Well, I like to sing. I like to read, mostly non-fiction. I play golf, ski, scuba dive when I get a chance. I’m a pilot. Generally, I like to have fun. How ’bout you Admiral? Are you a fun guy?"
Thor smiled. "I can’t sing a note, but other than that, your list sounds like mine." He took another sip of his wine. "Would you sing for me?"
"Sure. Come to church with me. I’m in the choir."
"I’d like that. How about next Sunday?" Adams asked.
"It’s a date." She couldn’t have been happier. "It’s getting late. I need to go home and pack for tomorrow. Come to think of it, I probably need to pack for you, too. When would you like me back in the morning?"
She didn’t bite.
"Okay, I’ll settle for zero eight hundred."
Sarah gave him a big smile. "You’re pretty cute all busted up."
With that Thor set down his glass. He stared into Sarah’s eyes, then down at her lips. They both knew what was coming. She put her glass down next to his. The fire’s reflection danced within them. They closed their eyes and leaned forward.
"May I help you?" the guard asked.
"We’re here to install an air cleaner. Here’s the work order."
"Nobody told me." He inspected the documents. "But, um, your papers look okay," the security officer replied, handing the file back to the driver. "Sign here."
"Gracias." After thanking the guard, "Carlos" and "Manuel" drove their van into the basement parking level of the Prosperity Building in Washington.
"The map says we need to find the southwest corner." The Pakistani crewman pointed past the driver. "Over that way."
It was eleven-thirty. The basement was well lit, evidently as a deterrent to crime, but no one was around. Tonight, the lights would only serve the perpetrators.
The men parked their van, got out, and removed the first of their three blowers. It was heavy, but had it not been so awkward, one man could have carried it alone.
Setting the diabolical system on the floor, they retrieved box cutters from their toolboxes and began slicing the tape securing the largest of the ducts. With the tape removed, a series of screws was exposed. It took less than five minutes to remove them all.
Allah’s helpers picked up a small container of anthrax spores and installed the deadly pestilence as they had been instructed. Satisfied with their handiwork, they lifted the now-armed blower into position and set the timer to go off at nine o’clock.
Returning to the van, they lifted a large box out of the cargo area. The carton was marked "Commercial Filters." The box was actually filled with a powdery dust, an extra supply just in case the blower was unable to find enough particulate inside the air-conditioning system to satisfy the requirements. Omen left little to chance.
The Pakistani Muslims set about attaching the feeder hose from the base of the carton to the side of the blower unit. To do so, they first had to drill a small hole into the side of the ductwork. With the hose in place, it looked like a humidifier attachment.
Moving around to the back of the large HVAC unit, they reached for the electrical wiring they had taped to blower. One located the closest splice and connected his wires. The other watched for the light on the unit to flash, indicating that the connection was live.
With the blower secured inside the duct and the wiring and tubing all in place, it was time to reattach the panel they had removed. Armed with electric screwdrivers and self-tapping metal screws, the section went back up even faster than it had been removed.
Using commercial-grade duct tape, the Islamic technicians hid all traces of their tampering. Stepping back they surveyed their work.
"Manuel" closed their toolboxes and checked the floor for any clues they might have left. "Carlos" grabbed a spray bottle of industrial-strength cleaner and a rag. He returned to the HVAC unit and proceeded to obliterate any fingerprints that could inadvertently point investigators in their direction. The job was done. It had taken just twenty-three minutes.
All that was required now was to wave to the guard as they drove out of the basement and motor on to their next site, the FOX News Headquarters Building in downtown Washington. It was that easy. Within less than nine hours, three to five thousand men, women, and children in each of six different buildings in five cities would be dying. And with any luck, one of them would be their least-favorite newscaster, Blaine Edwards.
"I don’t need an MIT graduate to tell me it’s hard," Omen Quagmer spat into the phone. He and Kahn Haqqani were livid. Even with one mission under way, the terrorists were insatiable. They craved a bigger fix.
The Islamic clerics were climbing down their throats, angered by the setbacks they had suffered as a result of a newly unified America. Their Iraqi hosts were equally perturbed. They wanted more killing, not less.
The Iraqis knew that the only reason America had been brought to the brink of capitulation had been the overwhelming amount of terror al-Qaeda and others had inflicted. That’s what terror was all about, wearing an adversary down to the point they were willing to capitulate, to acquiesce to the terrorist’s agenda. There was no other way to explain America’s about-face, her willingness to relinquish her longstanding support for Israel or her willingness to exit the Middle East. But now the nation’s resolve had been rekindled.
Sure, we’ve suffered a setback. But it’s nothing a little more chaos and killing can’t fix, Kahn reflected. Islam thrived on chaos, terror, and war.
"Like I thought, blowers big enough to cover a city are too heavy to be carried aloft. At least with enough particulate to do any good," Aymen Halaweh explained patiently.
"There must be a way," Haqqani raged. "Think harder!"
"I want to help. That’s why I’m here. But I’m not a magician. The numbers don’t add up." The young engineer was becoming frustrated. "Only Allah can break the laws of physics."
"We don’t need you preaching to us, boy," Omen jumped back in.
Young Halaweh placed one hand over the receiver and turned to his host. "What now?"
"Don’t make them mad, whatever you do. Say you’ll keep trying," Anwar Abu advised. "Don’t think for a minute they won’t kill us."
"We’ll keep worki...." Aymen stopped abruptly, staring out the warehouse window.
"You’ll what?" Omen asked over the phone from Baghdad. But all he could hear was beep, beep, beep. "Hello?"
"I’m sorry, sir. I have an idea." The Research Triangle Park Recycling Authority, better known as the trash man, was doing his duty just outside the window.
"Do we know anybody in the refuse business?" Halaweh asked.
"Sure, we must. Why?"
"Can you get us one of those big trucks, a ten wheeler?" the young Palestinian asked his boss. "Commercial grade?"
"I suppose so. What for?" Omen inquired.
"You like the idea of hiding in plain sight, don’t you, sir?"
"Yes, he does. Why ask? Stop the games, kid." Kahn was growing impatient. He wanted revenge, not dialog. "Why trash trucks?"
"I could build a blower large enough to condition a whole city inside a garbage truck. No one would suspect a thing."
"Okay. I’ll check my Palm Pilot and figure something out."
Omen and Kahn were pleased. They had found the right boy. He was a little religious for their taste, but they could work with that.
The call finished, Kahn turned to Omen and asked, "Who’s running the insurance scam in America?"
"Our American coordinator is...let’s see." He played with his Palm XIV. "Abdul Halliz. I’m sure he’s protecting somebody’s garbage."
The "insurance business" had become a lucrative affair, offering life, casualty, and fire protection. If the insureds paid their premiums and kept their mouths shut, they got to go on living, their businesses didn’t become casualties, and their homes and offices didn’t burn to the ground. It was a deal no one could refuse. And as the insureds learned that Muslims were crazy enough to do most anything, the extortion flourished.
"We are honored to have the President of the United States as our guest," Katie Couric beamed. "Good morning, Madam President."
The image of the smiling POTUS filled the screen. She was sitting in front of an elegant fireplace. The setting was familiar to most Americans. The room was used to welcome foreign leaders and as a dramatic backdrop for the requisite photo op. Sitting in front of Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of Washington, the one saved by Dolly Madison as the British were burning the White House during the war of 1812, she looked positively Presidential.
"Good morning, Katie, and good morning, America."
Couric wanted to say, "No, that’s the other show." She bit her lip instead. "You must be pleased that your men captured Halam Ghumani."
"Yes, I am. During the campaign, I promised that we could put an end to the bloodshed by capturing terrorist leaders and bringing them to justice. I have done just that."
"So Halam Ghumani is now in custody in the United States?"
"Yes," she fibbed. "He will pay the price for the pain he has inflicted. It’s time we close the books on this nightmare. This terrorist is finished."
"Do you think this is a fatal blow for al-Qaeda?"
"Yes. I believe so. We can all go back to living our lives. And, more importantly, we can start investing in our people rather than war."
If there had been a live audience, they might have booed her off the stage as they had done the previous evening at Reagan National. But Couric appeared sympathetic, or at least respectful.
"Does that mean you’ll be pressing ahead with your Middle East initiative, Madam President?" Katie asked.
The short blond Chief Executive sat taller in her chair. She was pleased with the question. "Yes, Katie. Just as soon as we encourage the Israelis to leave the Occupied Territories and give the Palestinian people their freedom, this terrorist mess will be behind us. After all, what right do they have to tell the Palestinians how to live? Equally important, Jerusalem should be an international city, a peaceful city, a city where everyone can go and pray. I support the peace process."
She had returned to her campaign patter. "You know, we all worship the same god, Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Why shouldn’t we worship in the same city?" It sounded good, anyway.
"Are you still planning on addressing the United Nations next week?"
"We’re considering every option. When the time is right, I’ll recommend a UN-sponsored international peace-keeping force for Jerusalem."
Couric didn’t want to embarrass the President, but she knew she had to ask. "What do you think of Admiral Adams and his men?"
"It was my operation, Katie. And while the crucifixion scene was horrible, I’m pleased with the end result. I have fulfilled my promise to capture Ghumani. With him out of commission, terrorism will diminish. By working smarter, we have made the world safer."
"And Admiral Adams?" Katie gently prodded.
"He’s really something, isn’t he?"
"You know," Couric concluded, "he’s agreed to be on our show."
"Really." The President forced a smile. "I’m sure he will make an entertaining guest." At least he’s leaving town.
Sarah awoke early. This was going to be a great day. She agonized over what to pack - travel clothes for the jet, stroll-in-the-park clothes for the afternoon, a sexy cocktail dress for dinner and the play, and evening attire appropriate for adjoining rooms, conservative enough not to give the wrong impression. And then there was tomorrow. What would tomorrow bring?
"Oh drat," she said out loud. "Just pick something, girl." What’s he gonna do, say I look ugly and send me home? He can’t even walk on his own.
At issue was the flirt factor. In a weak moment Sarah had purchased a cocktail dress, some lingerie, and a variety of "date outfits" that were a good deal more provocative than she had ever been comfortable wearing. Yet if she was ever going to gallivant in them, this was the time.
Ultimately, she threw caution to the wind. What she chose was on the skimpy side, but it was tasteful enough, she convinced herself. Surprised that she could still get her bag closed, she threw in a pair of jeans, an old sweat shirt, and a couple of books, just in case. Now in a hurry, Sarah slipped into her favorite spring dress, zipping it up as she reached for her roller bag, and headed out the door.
Nottingly pressed the remote trunk release on her Jag, smiling as it popped open and greeted her with a friendly chirp. She sped off with the top up so she wouldn’t muss her hair. Minutes later, Sarah pulled into the crowded parking lot of Thor’s Georgetown digs.
At first she was taken aback by all the commotion. Was there an accident? Then the ugly reality dawned on her. Men carrying large video cameras started rushing in her direction.
"Sarah. Sarah Nottingly! Can we have a word with you?" they shouted.
Trucks sporting satellite dishes were everywhere. NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, and, of course, FOX. She thought she even recognized Blaine Edwards, but it couldn’t be. Surely someone with his ego wouldn’t make house calls.
"No thank you," she said respectfully, waving her hands. It didn’t matter. They rushed in like a pack of hyenas, pinning her inside the car, frightening her, angering her.
"Please, back away. I have nothing to tell you. I’m asking you nicely." That didn’t work, so she summoned her most commanding CIA voice. "Get your cameras out of my face and back off," she said firmly. "Now! Please!" She unlatched the door and tried to open it. "You should be ashamed." Thank God I didn’t spend the night here.
They finally parted just enough to let her wiggle her way between them. As quickly as her long legs would carry her, Sarah walked up the front steps and made a beeline to the elevator. She wasn’t happy with the way she’d addressed the unruly mob, but at least she’d made it through the gauntlet.
Upstairs, she looked all around before pulling Thor’s key out of her purse. Confident she was alone in the narrow hallway, she knocked first, then opened his door. Closing it quickly behind her, she turned the latch and hollered, "Thor, I’m back. Are you awake?"
"In here," Adams’ voice boomed from his bedroom.
"Are you decent?"
"Better than that. Come on in, Sarah."
"How did you manage all this?" she asked incredulously, looking at a man who had obviously showered, shaved, and almost finished dressing.
"It wasn’t easy. I’ve been going at it for a couple of hours."
"Poor baby," she replied in her most nurturing voice. She sat down beside him on the bed, reaching out her hand and caressing his recently shaved face. He leaned over and gave her a kiss.
Jumping to her feet, she asked, "Okay! What do you need me to do?"
"Pack. My suitcase is on the shelf inside my closet."
Sarah walked over and stood on her tiptoes. As she raised her arms, her dress, already short, showed way more leg than the Admiral had yet seen. Realizing what she’d done, Nottingly quickly grabbed the small case and turned around. "Enjoy the show?" she asked.
He was too embarrassed to answer.
"It’s okay. I’m glad you like ’em. Now what?"
Thor smiled. "What do you think, a suit or a uniform for the show?"
"Hmm. Can I sew your new admiral stripes on one of your captain’s uniforms?"
Adams was dumfounded.
"Don’t look at me that way," she laughed. "Yes, I can sew."
"Can you cook?"
"Don’t push your luck."
Thor grinned. "Actually, I don’t have anything to sew with."
"I do. I always carry a needle and thread, just in case." Peering into the closet, she asked, "Is it too early for dress whites?
"Yes. I’ll need one of the dark ones."
She removed a dress uniform, along with all the trappings. Now how about a suit for tonight? I’m wearing a cute little pink number. Do you have something that would look good with a pink tie? You do have a pink tie?
"Yeah. Never worn it. Try the khaki suit or maybe the gray one."
She looked at them both on the hanger and removed the gray suit. Thumbing through his ties, she found what she was looking for, grabbed a shirt, and laid them on the bed. "Mind if I pick out something casual for tomorrow?"
"Be my guest. You’re doing great."
Sarah finished packing her friend’s gear, everything from socks to belts, ditty bag to shoes. Boxers, she noted, not briefs. Zipping up her second bag of the morning, she glanced back at the Admiral. He was sitting on the bed, unsuccessfully trying to button his shirt with one hand.
"Let me," she said as he looked up into her eyes. He was like a puppy. Sarah was thoroughly enjoying this. She was now confident she had picked the right outfits. This was definitely going to be more date than assignment.
"Now all we have to do is get you off this bed, out the door, and past the marauding horde."
"Your parking lot is crawling with paparazzi. I had to fight my way in. They’re really obnoxious. I’m afraid I wasn’t very nice to them."
The Admiral bristled.
"Down, boy," she said, feeling his muscles tense. "You can fight for me some other time. We’re going to have to talk our way out today."
Everything was working according to plan. The timers had gone off on schedule. Six skyscrapers were being surreptitiously infected with insidious spores.
The perpetrators were back in Research Triangle Park. Planning was proceeding apace on their next endeavor. They knew it would be several days before the first victims contracted the disease and reported their condition to the authorities. So between now and what they hoped would be a glorious celebration of Allah’s victory, they focused on the task at hand.
The administrators of al-Qaeda’s lucrative insurance business had managed to commandeer a trash truck, so the boys had plenty to do. The vehicle was well worn and more than authentic. Although its contents had been dumped before delivery, it arrived with a rich aroma.
Suffering in North Carolina, rather than Afghanistan, they were without a handy horde of crazed Muslim Militants. Aymen and Anwar were forced to do the dastardly deed themselves. With flashlight, hose, brush, and cleanser in hand, Halaweh climbed into the fragrant interior of the vintage refuse hauler. As soon as he could see the steel interior through the grime, Aymen hollered for Anwar to turn off the hose. Even inside the small drive-in warehouse, it was uncomfortably cold.
Anwar Abu had already bought components based upon Omen’s impractical demand for a flying city conditioner. Much of what they required was commercially available. Since they had been through the drill with the smaller HVAC blowers, they knew exactly where to find what they needed. This time the components were just bigger and more powerful.
"How are we going to build the machine inside the truck?" Anwar asked the engineer.
"Kinda like they build a ship in a bottle. We’ll build the mixer outside first, to the exact dimensions of the interior. Then we’ll separate the components, carry them inside, and bolt ’em together. The existing trash compaction unit will be replaced with the blower. Can you see if someone makes one that runs hydraulically rather than on electrical current?"
"Sure," Anwar shrugged. "I think the company I bought these from has one."
"Good. It’ll outperform the electric unit and be easier to integrate into the existing hydraulics of the truck."
"We’ll need to leave a reservoir for the particulate powder," Halaweh said, rubbing his sparse whiskers. He hadn’t shaved in weeks, but it was hard to tell. "I’d also like a dehumidifier. The pathogen loses its killing power when it absorbs moisture."
The warehouse they were working in was well equipped. The boys had at least two of most everything Craftsman made, from pneumatic tools to the best contractor-grade electric saws, drills, and grinders. Standing back, the Muslim brothers proudly surveyed a series of giant red boxes, their drawers stuffed with a full complement of hand tools. While they were short on men, they were long on manly paraphernalia.
Sarah felt like a movie star as she pulled her Jaguar beneath the wing of the three-engine Falcon jet. A girl could get used to this, she thought. She removed the key and waited for the steering wheel to automatically lift up and move out of her way. Then she pushed another button and the trunk popped open. The XK-8 was quite a ride, but nothing compared to what loomed above her.
"Let me help you, sir," the pilot said to Admiral Adams. The co-pilot assisted Sarah with the door. The crew looked professional, dressed in their official corporate flight-crew regalia. They formed their arms into a sling and carried the Admiral up the stairs, walking sideways. Once inside, he was good to go on his own. He braced himself on the backs of the custom leather executive chairs as he hobbled to the first starboard seat facing forward. He would rather have gone to the couch in the rear and reprised last night’s kiss, but with the pilots up front, he was reasonably certain Sarah wouldn’t oblige.
Nottingly didn’t like the idea of parking her prized possession outside in what had once been a busy lot. Signature had been a vibrant FBO, the only Fixed Base Operator on the field at Reagan National. With a monopoly, their lobby had witnessed the comings and goings of Washington’s big shots. Corporate types coming to beg the government for contracts and politicos scamming rides home from their access-hungry constituents had kept the place buzzing.
But that was all gone now. America was a nation at war, living in fear. Although there had never been a terrorist incident originating at Reagan National, nor one in which general aviation had even been a factor, the place had been shut down by some brilliant committee of bungling bureaucrats. It was deserted. Yet Sarah was convinced that while the FBO was shut down, the criminals were not. America’s most liberal city was also its most crime-ridden. She didn’t want to return to find her car in pieces, or missing.
Recognizing her dilemma, a lineman suggested she park inside one of the giant white hangers that lined the ramp. They had once held the sleekest corporate jets. Now there was plenty of room for a sexy convertible.
Prancing back to the plane, she scampered up the stairs. Peeking inside, Sarah saw Thor sitting in the right seat, sipping a cup of orange juice. She sat down beside him.
The copilot briefed the pair about the weather and the expected duration of the flight. He encouraged them to fasten their lap belts. As they complied, he offered Miss Nottingly a cup of coffee and a pillow. This was tall cotton for a simple southern girl.
"Clearance, this is Admiral One at Signature. We have the numbers and would like to pick up our IFR routing to LaGuardia," the copilot said into his mike. They had dubbed their craft "Admiral One" for the occasion. The flight crew knew they would get the red-carpet treatment.
"You are cleared direct to LaGuardia, Captain. You may disregard all normal departure instructions and prohibited airspaces. Climb to thirty-five thousand feet as requested. Squawk 1001. Frequency upon departure will be 118.95. Taxi to runway one. Contact ground on 121.9. Have a great flight."
That was hardly a normal clearance. It was tantamount to being told, "Do whatever you please." The flight crew was as excited as the passengers. Entering the new frequency, the copilot pressed the push-to-talk button on his yoke. "National Ground, this is Falcon 2 November, Bravo, Charlie... I mean, this is Admiral One, ready to taxi."
"Yes, Admiral One, you are cleared past the firehouse to runway one. It’s good to have you with us. That celebration last night was one for the ages. It’s great to see the country smiling again."
"That’s a tally ho," the pilot replied.
Reaching the departure end of runway one, the copilot switched the radio to the tower frequency. Before he could even speak, a voice boomed in his headset. "Admiral One, you are cleared for departure. God Bless." Yes, indeed. This was a different place and time.
"Admiral One, rolling." With that, the pilot accelerated, pressed on the left rudder pedal, and positioned his craft in the center of the runway, heading zero one zero degrees, ever so slightly east of north. The flight crew scanned the instruments one last time before advancing the throttles. Within moments, everyone onboard was pressed back in their seats as the corporate jet became airborne - flying directly over the Pentagon. They were headed back to the city where it had all begun - where the Twin Towers had once proudly stood guard, Ground Zero.
Sarah took a sip of her coffee. Reaching down, she pulled a book out of her purse. She didn’t want the Admiral to think she would be smothering him with attention. She flipped on the overhead light.
"What are you reading?" he asked.
"Oh, it’s a book on Israel. It might shed some light on what happened back there on our mission." Although she hadn’t gone on the incursion, Nottingly had played a major role in selecting the target and crafting the strategy the Captain had deployed. She never shirked responsibility.
The book’s cover pictured a trio of fighter jets - F-14 Tomcats, she thought - over a barren stretch of mountainous terrain somewhere in Israel. As Sarah picked up where she had left off the day before, Thor asked, "Would you mind reading out loud? That way we can both learn something."
"Okay, but just so you know, it’s not about the jets pictured on the cover. It’s full of Biblical references."
"Please. That’s all right. In fact, it’s better. I already know about Navy jets." He smiled.
"I suppose you’re right." She turned back to the beginning.
"No, that’s okay," he said, watching her. "You can pick up from wherever you were."
"Alright, if you don’t mind." Turning back, she took another sip of her coffee and began to read. "The author says, ‘The Bible links the Jews’ return to Israel with the Nazi Holocaust and with the end of this age.’"
"What does he mean, ‘end of this age’?" Thor was an active listener. If he didn’t understand something, he’d jump right in with a question. Drove most people nuts.
"The Bible prophets tell of the events that the last generation will witness before Christ returns," she said, not knowing if her explanation would help or just confuse things.
"He’s coming back? Did he forget something?"
"No, silly. Didn’t you ever go to Sunday School when you were a boy?"
"No, but that’s a long story." Adams didn’t want to share the pain he still carried with him from his youth. It wouldn’t endear him to Sarah.
"Well, Jesus told his disciples that he would return. See, the first time he came, it was to show us what God was like and what he expected of us. Then he allowed himself to be crucified, just like your friends were."
"If he died, then how’s he coming back?"
"He beat death, kinda like your friends...well, no. Not exactly. He died, but then he rose from the dead three days later. It was also on a Sunday morning. The first Easter."
"Oh, yeah. Yours is the only religion where the founder beats the rap."
"Beats the rap?"
"Yeah. Escapes death - which is the only real guarantee we have in life." It was spoken like a true soldier.
"He didn’t escape death, Thor. He conquered it. He didn’t have to hang on that cross outside Jerusalem. He could have torched the place, like he did Sodom and Gomorrah. But instead, Christ sacrificed himself for us."
Thor looked puzzled. "I don’t get it. How does getting nailed to a cross and dying help us? How does it help anybody?"
"The Bible says, ‘We have all sinned and have fallen short of God’s glory.’ A just God can’t allow sin to go unpunished any more than just society can allow a criminal to go free without sacrificing something. Without consequences there’d be instant anarchy. Justice means getting what you deserve - whether that’s good or bad. With me so far?"
"That makes sense."
"Okay. Look at sin and crime the same way. If you commit a crime somebody has to pay the price for what you’ve done to make you right with society or God." She looked directly into Thor’s eyes. "That’s what Jesus did on the cross. He made the sacrifice, paid the price, if you will, for our sins - our crimes - so we don’t have to."
She could see that he wasn’t getting this. Sarah tried a different tack. "You ever get a reckless driving ticket?"
"Speeding," he smiled, "but not reckless. I must be more conservative than you are."
"Not likely, but just pretend. You show up in court and you’re found guilty, ’cause you are. You know it, the cop knows it, so does the judge."
"So the judge passes sentence. He says the ticket is going to cost you more than you can pay, and they’re gonna lock you up. What do you do?"
"Umm, go to jail?"
"Right. That’s the whole concept of crime and punishment. When you do something wrong, society requires a sacrifice: your money, your freedom, or your life. Only now, suppose that the judge comes down from the bench, takes off his robe, pulls out his checkbook, and pays your fine - even goes to jail for you."
"Yeah. He is. But pay attention. At this point you’ve got two choices. You can either accept his gift, or you can decline and go to jail."
"I think I’ll opt for the charity."
"Smart move. The Bible calls it grace. That’s what happened on the cross. The judge, the ultimate Judge, paid your fine for you."
"Why would he do that?"
"You ever heard of John 3:16?"
"The thing plastered all over every sporting event?"
"Yes. The verse says that God loved us so much, he personally paid our fine."
Thor stared straight ahead. His head was swimming. "Look, Sarah, I’m gonna need some time to think about all this."
"Sure. I understand. Want me to keep reading?"
"Please. The guy was talking about the Holocaust...."
Sarah brought the cup back up to her lips and drank the last of her coffee. "The author says that this prophecy comes from an anonymous Psalm."
"That wouldn’t be Psalm 102, would it? One of the guys, Yacob Seraph, said something...."
"I don’t know. Let me look." She flipped ahead. "Yeah, it is Psalm 102." Her interest now piqued, she started to read. "‘The Jews’ return did not occur in a vacuum but in the wake of the worst event in human history: the Holocaust.’"
Sarah set the book down. "It wasn’t our proudest moment."
"What do you mean? You’re not German."
"No, I’m not. I’m human. When I was in college, I visited one of the concentration camps. It was horrible - as bad as watching your guys hang. The Nazis created a man-made hell."
He nodded, encouraging her to carry on.
"The author suggests that Psalm 102 speaks of that hellish event. I brought my Bible with me. Let’s see what the Psalm actually says." Sarah pulled a thin leather-bound book from her purse. She opened it to Psalm 102. "Before I begin, Thor, you need to understand something about Biblical prophecies. They’re written in a poetic style, and in a three thousand-year-old vocabulary. God may predict the Holocaust, but he’s not going to call it that, because the word hasn’t been coined yet. Neither has ‘German’, ‘Hitler’, ‘Nazi’, ‘cremation’, or ‘cyanide’. He’s not going to tell you it will happen in 1935, because that calendar hasn’t been invented. That’s why you can sometimes read a passage, as I have this one, and not catch the significance until someone points it out to you."
"Okay. I understand."
Sarah read, "‘Do not hide your face from me in my time of anguish, for my days perish in smoke, and my body is scorched like glowing embers in a hearth.’ That sounds a lot like cremation, like what I saw in Auschwitz."
Thor winced. "In my opinion, the systematic cremation of Jews was the most gruesome act in all of history."
She returned to the passage. "He says, ‘My heart is striken; I am so beaten, I am oblivious, forgetting to eat.’"
"Could be someone in pain, preferring starvation to facing another day in the Nazis’ tender care. Or am I reading too much into this?"
"No, you may be right. Listen to what comes next. It says, ‘I am reduced to skin and bones; my flesh clings to them.’ For me, one of the most haunting memories of the concentration camp was the walls of black and white pictures showing starving people, with legs and arms so emaciated they looked more like birds than humans. I looked at their faces, and then turned and stared at the mountain of human ash that still remains - a reminder, lest we forget what happened there."
"Who wrote this Psalm, Sarah? How old is it?"
She checked. "Well, 101 and 103 were written by King David. He reigned about 1000 BC. I don’t know if he wrote 102, but it’s got to be several thousand years old."
"Is there more?"
"‘I am like a vomiting bird in desolation. My eyes are sunken within their cavities. I am sleepless, always on the lookout. All day long, those who hate me taunt me; they strip and exposed me. Those who are enraged against me, celebrating and boasting, use my name as a curse.’ Thor, do you remember the pictures of Jews during the Nazi reign of terror?"
"Yes. They were forced to wear yellow stars on their clothing, over their hearts."
"The star of David, the six-pointed star, the symbol for the Jews. They had ‘Jude’ written on them, Jew. They were cursed because of their name."
"Is all prophesy like this? I mean, predicting that a people would be singled out and cursed by name, then be starved to the point their flesh clung to their bones, only to have those bones burned en masse - that’s amazing. The combination of these things happened only once in all of recorded history. You know that, don’t you, Sarah?"
"Yes. The day I visited Auschwitz changed my life, changed my view of what we’re like apart from God."
Thor shook his head. "So Psalm 102 is what you Christians call prophecy. Are there a lot of these things?"
"More than you can imagine. The Jews are God’s chosen people - the people he chose to reveal himself through. He tells us everything that’s going to happen to them, right up to the end of time."
Sarah lifted the book again to see how the Psalm ended. "‘For I eat ashes, and mingle my drink with tears.’ Did you know that..." she paused to wipe a tear away, "...that the Jews in the concentration camps were forced to breathe in the ashes of those who’d been cremated before them? The smoke that came out of the crematorium chimneys rained right back down on the camps, on the Jews themselves."
Thor didn’t know what to say.
"‘The Lord gazed upon the earth to hear the groaning of the prisoners and to set free those who were doomed to death.’" She continued to read, "‘Because of your displeasure, you have taken me up and cast me aside.’ Much of the Old Testament speaks about God’s covenant with the Jews, Thor. He tells them what wonderful things he’ll do for them if they hold up their end of the bargain, and what wrath they’ll endure if they don’t. When they don’t, God tells them that they’re going to be expelled from the land he gave them - dispersed among the nations. He’s just saying it a thousand years before it happens."
Sarah reached out for Adams’ hand. "If you’re still open to this, I’ll share some more prophecies with you later."
"I’d like that. But..." he paused, "that doesn’t mean all I want to do is wrestle with this stuff. If it’s all right with you, I’d like to sneak in a kiss or two along the way."
"Is that how they got you to learn your lessons at Annapolis?" She liked yanking his chain. "Okay, Thor. If you’re a good boy, you’ll earn a kiss or two." She was happy to oblige.
A little embarrassed, Sarah returned to her Bible. The Psalmist wasn’t through. "The story has a happy ending. ‘But you, O Lord, endure through all generations.’ Loosely translated, that means God is going to be around to pick up the pieces. The Psalmist goes on to say, ‘You will arise and have compassion on Jerusalem, your capital, ‘for it is time to be gracious to her; the appointed time has come. For her stones are dear to your servants; even her dust moves them to emotion.’"
"Is he talking about returning the Jews to Jerusalem?"
"Could be. The Bible says that in the last days, God, in spite of everything the Jews have done, will bring them back into the Promised Land."
"So even though the world thinks the United Nations gave the Jews their land back in 1948, it was prophesied ages ago? They were exiled for two thousand years, yet they remained intact as a people. In fact, they’re probably the only people to have been conquered and dispersed, yet still remain a distinct nation today. But if what you’re saying is true, man had nothing to do with their getting Judea back."
"You’re a good student, sailor. That deserves a kiss." Sarah leaned over, hoping the pilots wouldn’t turn around, and gave the Admiral his reward. "Do you know why the British and the United Nations even considered giving the Jews a homeland, why they passed the resolution?"
"Do I get another kiss if I get it right?"
"I’ll give you another even if you get it wrong; it just won’t happen as quickly."
Thor was motivated. "1917. Synthetic acetone. Used in explosives. A British Jew, Chaim Weizmann, invented it. Turned the course of World War One. Lloyd George asked him what he wanted in return for saving the nation. He could have asked for anything. Weizmann told him he wanted his ancestral homeland, but the Brits dragged their feet, even though they now owned it, having taken Judea from the Turks. Then, as a direct result of the Holocaust, the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to give the Jews their land back. Quid pro quo. These things are all related."
With his good arm, Adams made like he was pulling the handle of a slot machine. "Ka-ching." It was childish but cute.
Nottingly glanced toward the cockpit again. The flight crew was busy doing their job. She wasn’t crazy about public displays of affection (PDAs, in her vernacular), but a promise was a promise. She leaned over again and gave Thor a kiss. A little moan sort of slipped out, an excited, let-your-guard-down kind of sound that said, ever so eloquently, "It was my pleasure."
"I could get used to this. Is that the end of the Psalm, or is there more?"
Sarah couldn’t remember. Her mind had packed its bags and left for the Bahamas. "What? I’m sorry. I don’t.... What did you ask me?" she said, blushing so red her cheeks matched her painted nails.
Showing good form, Thor elected not to embarrass her. He merely repeated his question.
"Yes. It goes on to say, ‘The Lord will rebuild Israel and appear in his glory.’ And then, ‘Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may clearly see Yahweh’ - that’s God’s personal name."
When she had finished the Psalm, Sarah picked up the other book she’d been reading, the one with the F-14s on the cover. She read, "‘The Hebrew does not say "future generation" but final generation. The phrase in the original Hebrew is written l’dor acharon. Hebrew dictionaries say acharon means "last" or "final."’ Oh, my."
"What did the writer mean by ‘last generation?’" Getting no response, he asked her again.
But the answer was more than Thor was ready to hear. The Psalmist had said that God would return to Earth, restore Israel to greatness and faith, and that the world would worship him in Jerusalem. The Holocaust - the darkest chapter of the history of man - would begin it all; yesterday’s moral eclipse would be the event heralding this most radiant of tomorrows. And all of this was to be a sign to the last generation.
As the Falcon touched down in New York, Sarah was still dazed, wondering whether this chapter in her life was beginning or ending.