Sophia did not exist.
Unofficially, she squeezed the trigger. The .50 BMG round the size of a cigarillo punched through the Minister of Defense’s head, popping it like a grape. The empty shell jumped from her rifle’s ejection port and rolled across the rooftop. She ignored it and thumbed a new round directly into the ejection port and slid the cocking handle to the rear. The working parts were smooth and well oiled.
Through her Nightforce scope, she shifted her aim from the decapitated body to a nearby parked motorcycle. She aimed for the explosives concealed on the bike and fired. The gases propelled the round through the free-floating barrel, out the muzzle brake and across downtown Tehran with a sound like a thunderclap. The explosives detonated, tearing open the Minister’s car and shredding everything around it. A cloud of dust billowed outwards.
Sophia crawled back from the edge of the rooftop, taking her Steyr HS .50 sniper rifle with her. The explosives would mask the assassination. On the other side of the world, the Fifth Column were busy inventing a previously unknown terrorist group to claim responsibility for what Sophia hoped would be regarded as a suicide bombing. The Steyr HS .50 was an added precaution. Iran had purchased 800 of the sniper rifles a few years ago, so any trace of the Steyr HS would cast suspicion on Iran. One of several necessary steps to vilify that country and butter up the western world for the next Middle Eastern power grab.
The rifle’s bipod detached in seconds, but field stripping the weapon took a bit longer. She rolled up the rifle components in her sleeping bag and stuffed it into her backpack.
Damien, one of the operatives under her command, was waiting for her with unblinking hazel eyes at the bottom of the stairs, backpack slung over his shoulders. He scratched his unshaven neck and slipped on a pair of imitation Ray-Bans. He nodded and moved for the elevator.
Neither of them said a word as they took the elevator to the hotel’s second floor and exited the lobby slowly and calmly. They looked like American tourists fresh out of college. They jumped on the second-hand Honda 125 motorcycles they’d purchased yesterday and disappeared.
The team of three operatives slipped across the Iranian desert in a Land Cruiser, the Honda motorcycles stowed in the back. Headlights off, interior lights off. Nothing but the coal-black night. Sophia sat in the front passenger seat while Damien drove and Jay sat in the back.
Jay broke the silence with a tuneless song. Something about living in a pineapple under the sea.
‘SpongeBob SquarePants!’ Damien said.
‘Who died in an oil spill because of BP?’
‘SpongeBob SquarePants!’ Damien said.
‘Stop,’ Sophia said.
Damien drew the Land Cruiser to a halt.
‘No,’ Sophia said. ‘Stop singing.’
‘Oh.’ Damien picked up speed again.
Over her shoulder, Sophia noticed Jay had something bright purple on his head. ‘Jay, are you wearing a glamor turban over your helmet?’
Jay was suddenly still. ‘No.’
‘Take it off.’
A Citroën sedan peeled from the night, heading straight for them. Its driver seemed oblivious to their presence.
‘Shit,’ Damien said, gripping the steering wheel.
Sophia leaned forward, peering through the darkness. ‘What’s someone doing out here at this time?’
‘You mean other than assassinating the Minister of Defense?’ Damien said.
‘Mickey-D’s run,’ Jay said, unwrapping his turban. ‘Someone’s hankering for a halal Happy Meal.’
Damien stifled a laugh.
‘Quiet,’ Sophia said. ‘They’re looking for us.’
If anyone spotted them over the Iranian border, the operation would be compromised. She knew what had to be done. She drew her pistol.
‘Damien, you’re playing sergeant,’ she said.
Damien nodded once. Jay rolled his eyes.
She’d chosen Damien because he wasn’t as likely as Jay to push anyone’s buttons. It was just for appearances. A woman commanding a security team was going to attract more attention than she wanted. She didn’t want any.
Jay opened his window, hauled his belt-fed Minimi machine gun onto his lap and pulled the cocking handle back. His way of saying he was ready.
The sedan’s windows were up, but Sophia could hear exotic stringed instruments and the undulating pitch of a female vocalist. Through the Citroën’s fogged windshield, she recognized faces from the street where she’d assassinated the Minister of Defense. They were Takavaran, Iranian Special Forces, the Minister’s personal guards tasked with protecting him. And if they hadn’t seen Sophia’s team at the time of the assassination, they certainly had now.
Jay rested the Minimi’s barrel on his windowsill. ‘What’s the call, Soph?’
‘It’s Sophia,’ she said. ‘Take them.’
The sedan’s back wheels kicked dust into the air, accelerating fast.
Damien pumped the brakes and pulled hard on the steering wheel. Sophia braced herself as he swung the Cruiser to one side, lining Jay’s Minimi up perfectly with the Citroën.
Jay opened fire. The sound was deafening inside the Cruiser. Empty cases from his Minimi bounced past Sophia, hitting the glove box. Through her driver’s window, she saw the sedan slow to a crawl. She hit the decocking block on her Walther P99 pistol—or ‘007’ as Jay insisted on calling it—then held the pressel switch on her throat mike. ‘Damien. Check the vehicle.’
Before the sedan came to a complete stop, Sophia was running towards it, her P99 trained on the shattered back window. Damien was on her right, his Colt Canada C8 rifle leveled as they rushed forward. The rusty hood looked like it was covered in crushed rubies. It was sticky and wet.
‘They’re toast,’ Damien said from the driver’s side, his breath fogging in the cold.
He indicated with his C8 barrel to what was left of the two heads. In the back seat, three more heads, like split watermelons.
‘Lucky we saw them first.’ Sophia spoke into her mike. ‘Jay, plant one of our IEDs. Now.’
She opened the back door on her side of the sedan. A young man fell out, face down. His body glistened red. She looked through at the other door as Damien opened it. A young woman tipped sideways. Damien caught her mid-fall. Her head lolled. Strands of tangled wet hair stuck to his arms.
Trembling in the center of the back seat was another woman, her head still intact, her round face and white T-shirt dotted crimson. Sophia nodded to Damien. He leaned in to grab her. The woman resisted, clawing at him. He pulled her out and dropped her onto the dirt. She kneeled before him, screaming under his Colt’s barrel.
Damien looked up at Sophia, his finger closing over his trigger. ‘Drop her?’
Before she could respond, he nodded to her nine o’clock.
Another vehicle. Wider, higher. Humvee. It pulled up fifty feet short, hip-hop music rattling hillbilly armor. A shortage of armor kits had forced the soldiers to improvise with scrap metal.
‘What are they doing over the border?’ Damien whispered.
‘Must’ve been nearby, heard the crash.’ Sophia said softly into her throat mike, ‘Leave the IED.’ She nodded at Damien. ‘The floor’s yours.’
Five US Marines climbed out and approached her team, dusted boots crunching on grit. They were dressed in desert camouflage, helmets fitted with night-vision monocles. Their M16A2 rifles gleamed in the moonlight.
‘Lemme guess,’ the staff sergeant said. ‘They don’t know a stop sign when they see it?’
His marines laughed like a cued audience.
They didn’t know the occupants of the Citroën were Iranian military, Sophia thought.
‘No kidding,’ Damien said, stepping in front of the Citroën so they couldn’t get a closer look. He spoke with a mild northeast England accent, as he’d been briefed.
American private security weren’t warmly regarded here, even by the US military. British security, on the other hand, made a point of not shooting every civilian vehicle off the road. They kept a low profile, stayed out of danger and consequently had better relations with the US military. Hence the cover story Sophia’s fireteam was running with: they were British private security and Damien was commanding the assignment.
‘What you guys doing out here, man?’ the staff asked.
‘Escort,’ Damien said.
The staff looked down at the surviving woman. His upper lip trembled into a grin. ‘We’ll go ’head take this girl in. Figure you wanna travel light.’
Damien shrugged. ‘Yeah, suit yourself.’
The staff’s lower lip jutted outward slightly. Tobacco was lodged in a wad between his lower teeth and lip. He angled his head away from Sophia. She caught him winking at Damien.
One of the marines seized the woman by her slender wrists and led her to the back of the Humvee. He was Hispanic and might’ve passed for Jay’s younger brother.
The staff shot Sophia a lingering glance, taking in her dark hair, desert cams and gray eyes. She knew what he was thinking. The scar on her right eyebrow was probably making him hard.
He scraped the stubble on his chin with a calloused hand. ‘Hey man,’ he said to Damien. ‘Ya night-vision ain’t on.’
Damien didn’t need it, but he turned it on. ‘Yeah, thanks.’
‘Fuck me how you motherfuckers see without it.’
The staff drummed his fingers on his rifle in time with the beat from the Hummer’s CD player. Sophia noticed his M16 was shorter than it should’ve been. It wasn’t an M16 at all, but an M4 carbine. Strange, she thought. Only marine officers carried M4s. Something about these marines didn’t seem right.
‘Let’s move.’ The staff started walking back to the Hummer.
In unison, his marines—also carrying M4s—shouted a guttural ‘Uh-rah!’
One of them pushed the woman into the back compartment of the Hummer. Sophia caught a glimpse of her face. She wasn’t Iranian Special Forces. She was just a girl, no more than ten years old. She hadn’t been on the street during the assassination at all. How had Sophia mistaken a ten-year-old girl for a woman on the street in Tehran?
She looked back at the Citroën, at the torn, ripped faces in the front seat. They hadn’t been on the street either. They weren’t the Takavar guard unit. No wonder they’d been so easy to kill.
She turned to Damien. His fingers were white over his C8. His thick eyebrows pressed together, his teeth clenched. Something was wrong, and it wasn’t the marines’ taste in music.
Sophia heard a faint click. The discharge of a suppressed weapon.
The staff stumbled and fell face-first onto the dirt road. Hard. Sophia heard the air rasp from his throat. He scrambled to his feet, snatched his rifle. Spun around, eyes wide. Saliva, thick with tobacco, oozed down the staff’s chin and neck.
Two marines—the younger version of Jay, and an African American with a square jaw and a permanent scowl—rushed in to help him.
‘Mother . . .’ Sweat poured from the staff’s face.
Square Jaw moved in closer. ‘Staff?’
The staff shoved him aside. ‘Take cover!’ He ripped off his modular tactical vest, then the buttons from his uniform. ‘Some raghead motherfucker just fuckin shot me!’
His eyes rolled up and he dropped to his knees, then his hands. His elbows buckled. His face hit the dirt.
The two soldiers rushed to him again. Square Jaw checked his carotid pulse, then saw the blood-soaked patch over his stomach. The other three marines—faces confused—dropped to their knees, rifles ready, snapping their night vision on to search the desert around them.
All was flat and featureless. There was nowhere for the enemy to hide. The marines wouldn’t stay confused for much longer.
Sophia dropped to her stomach, not bothering with night vision. She bent her right leg, giving her lungs room to breathe. Wind howled past, filling her nostrils with gasoline and the coppery tang of blood. With her peripheral vision, she could see Damien lying prone and holstering his suppressor-equipped pistol. He put both hands back onto his C8. She’d realized what he’d done. She just couldn’t believe he’d done it.
‘Bring it, ya dirty son of a whore!’ Square Jaw yelled. ‘I’ll put a bullet right between ya fuckin eyes!’
Sophia figured it would only be a few minutes before they figured out there were no insurgents. There was only one way out of this now.
She raised her compact P99 pistol and squeezed off two rounds. Square Jaw’s rifle dropped. His mouth opened like a purse. Blood gushed down his neck.
The other marines took aim—not at her but at the invisible insurgent they thought had opened fire.
A marine’s head exploded.
The three remaining soldiers turned to Sophia’s team, rifles aimed. They knew they’d been had. They returned fire. Rounds cracked past Sophia. One broke the sound barrier inches from her head with the snap of a bullwhip.
From the Cruiser, Jay pinned the marines with heavy supporting fire. They dropped flat on their stomachs and shifted their arc of fire. Their rounds smacked into Sophia’s vehicle. Above the gunfire, the female singer informed everyone of the heat coming from the beat.
Jay’s Minimi continued its barrage. Sophia shifted on her elbows and found herself in line with one of the marines. Before she could squeeze off more shots, he folded into himself like a plastic toy. Damien had beaten her to it.
She rose into a crouch. All the marines were down. She got to her feet.
Damien was on his feet beside her, uninjured. With his trademark thoroughness, he swept his C8 over the dead marines a few times. There would be no survivors.
Sophia turned to check on Jay. It didn’t look good. The Cruiser was peppered with bullet impacts. None had penetrated the vehicle’s armor, but it was the bullets penetrating Jay that worried her. His Minimi was visible, but he was nowhere to be seen.
She marched towards the Cruiser, fingers trembling. ‘Jay? Call out!’ she yelled. ‘Call out!’
Jay’s Minimi almost fell out as he kicked open the door. ‘Yeah, I’m good,’ he said.
She watched his boots hit the ground. ‘Injuries?’
‘I said I’m good.’ He brushed dirt from the Minimi’s feed tray. ‘But this needs a clean.’
Sophia returned to Damien, who was busy checking the pulse of every marine. Jay stormed past and inspected the staff sergeant’s body. He rolled him onto his back and pried his clenched hands from the vest buttons.
‘I guess that’s the last time we let Damien run the show,’ Jay said.
Damien either hadn’t heard him or chose not to respond. Considering his enhanced hearing, it was probably the latter.
Sophia spotted movement at the edge of her vision. It wasn’t the girl. She was sitting in the back of the Hummer, still and breathless. Someone was in the front seat. They’d missed a marine.
He reached for a weapon. Sophia broke into a sprint, closing the gap. The marine was on the driver’s side. He wasn’t reaching for a weapon, he was reaching for a radio.
No time to draw.
He noticed her approach and drew his pistol. His arm leveled across the Hummer’s window. He would’ve had her too, if she’d been a step behind. She smashed his forearm down on the window frame. Bone shattered through the inside of his elbow. She cracked the stock of her pistol into the side of his neck. It struck his carotid sinus and sent a sudden surge of blood to his brain. In an instant, his body’s self-defense kicked in, slowing his heart rate and dilating blood vessels to drop his blood pressure. She watched him slump forward, unconscious, forehead hitting the steering wheel. The horn blared.
She reached in, cut the volume on the CD player. The girl sat in the back of the Hummer, trembling. Sophia opened the rear door and the girl scrambled away, lips quivering.
Sophia’s nostrils burned with the smell of sweat and urine. She opened her mouth but nothing came out. She wasn’t here to save the girl. She thought she’d killed a unit of Iranian Special Forces, but she’d killed a family and orphaned a terrified little girl. What the hell was going on?
‘Soph!’ Jay yelled over the horn.
A marine was standing ten feet behind her. She couldn’t believe she’d missed another one. His M4 carbine shifted in blood-coated hands. Rounds from the firefight had cratered the boron carbide plates of his vest, but hadn’t penetrated his flesh. He’d survived by playing dead. Damien hadn’t made it that far to check his pulse.
Before the marine could shoot her, he hunched over abruptly, eyelids twitching. Saliva dripped from his chin. He collapsed.
Jay was standing behind him, teeth clenched, breathing heavily. He looked like he was in pain. Sophia checked him over. No blood. His hands were empty. The marine’s flesh smelled burnt, as though he’d been roasted with a taser. But Jay was more effective than any taser. He’d touched the back of the marine’s neck and discharged a high-voltage electric shock. His enhanced ability came in handy once in a while.
She checked her own hands. She was still holding her P99. Their situation wasn’t looking too hot. Their presence in Iran had been compromised only hours after she’d slotted the Minister of Defense, and—
‘We just slotted a whole bunch of marines,’ Jay said. ‘That can’t be good.’
‘I thought they stopped issuing M4s to marines. The sand jams them too easily,’ Sophia said. ‘These look new.’
Damien kneeled to inspect the toasted marine. ‘They like to keep their weapons well oiled, I guess.’
‘Or they were deployed at short notice.’ Sophia nodded at the pistol near her feet. ‘With Heckler & Koch pistols.’
Jay chewed his lip. ‘Right, you have a point. So who the fuck are they? Private security? Special Forces?’
Sophia shook her head. ‘Whoever they are, I think we’ll need both IEDs after all.’
‘Too late for that,’ Damien said. ‘We have incoming.’
Sophia tracked his gaze to the west. Saw three vehicles crossing the Iraq–Iran border. They would’ve seen the firefight from there.
‘Orders?’ Jay said.
When she didn’t answer, he grabbed her shoulder. ‘Hey!’
His touch jolted her, but she stared through him. Her attention was riveted to the three vehicles. There was no time to escape.
‘Great,’ Damien said. ‘These guys probably saw us slaughter the marines through their night-vision.’
‘So either they shoot us or take us into custody,’ Jay said. ‘I’d like to think the latter.’
The screech of brakes. A spotlight splashed over them. The girl screamed from the back seat of the Hummer.
Two dozen marines poured from the newly arrived Hummers, barely silhouettes in the night. Whether they were real marines or dress-up marines, their spotlight made Sophia squint. Someone yelled at her, Damien and Jay to drop their weapons.
Sophia was the first to raise her hands. She showed her finger was nowhere near the trigger of her pistol, hit the decocking block and the magazine-release catch. The magazine fell out, landing by her feet. The marines kept their rifles trained on her as she placed the pistol on the ground and stepped back, her hands up.
In her peripheral vision, she saw Jay—who’d left his Minimi in the Cruiser and his pistol in his thigh holster—raise his hands in the air. Damien was out of her field of vision, but she heard him place his rifle and magazine on the dirt.
The marines rushed forward, rifles fixed on the trio. M4s.
‘Shit,’ Sophia whispered.
Two marines threw her against the side of the Hummer. There was no hesitation, no questions. They’d seen what had happened. She couldn’t talk her way out of this.
The girl screamed again.
‘Shut her up,’ someone yelled.
A marine pulled the girl out of the vehicle and put a bullet through the back of her head.
Sophia looked away from the ceiling to find her body in one piece. She was lying on a hospital bed. Her vision blurred and her head spun. She felt as though she had a lifetime’s supply of hangovers in one hit. She tried to move her limbs but they refused to obey. She opened her mouth. Her throat burned and her tongue felt swollen. She could barely swallow.
Beyond her feet she saw a pair of military police sergeants standing in the doorway. One of them had a long, crooked nose and pencil-thin lips. The other was five inches taller and as white as the ceiling tiles. They stepped outside the room to get a better view of the television Sophia could hear in the opposite ward.
The ward was empty, save for two beds on her left. She managed to turn her head in that direction. Beside her was a young, unshaven man in his early twenties. He had pale olive skin, dark hair that hadn’t been brushed in weeks and a nose slightly too big for his face. Damien. He looked like a young, ethnic version of James Dean.
As Damien leaned back against the bedhead, Sophia was able to see the patient on the next bed. With even shorter hair, higher cheekbones and darker olive skin, Jay was hard to miss. There were quite a few Hispanic operatives, but Jay was Pardo: half Portuguese and half African. At a stretch, he could pass for Arabic, which made him a popular choice for Middle East operations.
‘They said Iranian missiles could hit the States in 2015,’ the MP sergeant on the left said, speaking softly. ‘Fucking hell.’
The sergeant on the right laughed. ‘That’s a slow fucking missile.’ His voice sounded like gravel.
Sophia tried to move her fingers but felt nothing. She could hear the news reporter talking on the television.
‘The United Nations representative for Human Rights was killed in a suicide bombing last night. The US Secretary of State said the bombing underlines the absolute moral bankruptcy and brutality of those who planned and executed it. A previously unknown terrorist group, the Holy Jihad Brigades, issued a statement claiming responsibility.’
Suicide bombings by ‘previously unknown terrorist groups’ were a great way to cover up assassinations. Sophia wouldn’t be surprised if the real culprit was an operative just like her.
Her blood iced up.
It was her.
Her memories shifted like a prism. The face of the person she’d shot flickered before her. It wasn’t the Iranian Minister of Defense. It was the United Nations representative.
‘No mention of our killing spree in the desert last night. Which is interesting,’ Damien’s voice croaked from beside her. He was listening too.
She remembered everything now. But it was all different. The faces were different. The people were different. Even lying down, she felt dizzy. This wasn’t just an operational failure, this was catastrophic.
She opened her mouth, pulling her dry lips apart. ‘Where are we? Iraq?’
Damien nodded. ‘Looks like Camp Anaconda. Or Joint Base Balad as they call it these days.’
‘Why did you kill the staff sergeant?’ she said.
Damien’s gaze hardened. ‘Why did you shoot the marines?’
Her arms and legs tingled. ‘I don’t know.’
Whatever sedatives she’d been given, they were starting to wear off. Her fingers flexed when she told them to. The fog was beginning to clear from her mind and something inside her was convinced she had to get away from here.
Struggling to sit upright, she looked at the vital signs monitor beside her. It was measuring her pulse rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate. She knew as soon as she detached the wires from her body it would start beeping, alerting the MPs. She looked over at the ward entrance. She could only see one elbow, but she knew they were both still there, the television informing them of the latest celebrity breakup.
Jay stood, peeled tape from the hypodermic needle embedded in the back of his hand. Sophia whispered for him to stay down, but as usual he didn’t listen. No wonder she trusted Damien more. But maybe Jay had the same urge to get away from here that she had. Only, in keeping with his style, he’d do it recklessly and get them all caught. She could already see a blood-pressure cuff hanging loosely from his right arm.
Jay removed it and quickly wrapped it around Damien’s arm. The monitors didn’t have a chance to beep.
Damien caught Sophia’s gaze with large hazel eyes. He held a slender finger to his lips.
‘Your wife kisses another dude, that’s cheating,’ one of the MPs said. ‘You down?’
There was a long pause.
‘Wouldn’t happen,’ said the other one. ‘No point talking shit that don’t happen.’
‘You’re on the other side of the world, man.’ The first sergeant spoke slowly and deliberately. ‘What if she slips the tongue? That’s cheating, right?’
Sophia used sign language to say to Damien, What are you doing, idiot? She didn’t know the sign for ‘idiot’ so finger spelled it instead.
Damien nodded, grinned, then turned his attention to Jay, who had just clipped a pulse oximeter onto Damien’s fingertip. One by one, Jay peeled the electrodes from his body, transferring them immediately to Damien, right next to Damien’s own electrodes. Jay’s vital signs monitor hadn’t beeped yet.
‘It ain’t proper cheating, man,’ the second MP said.
‘Totally is.’ The first MP was pacing now. His crooked nose strayed dangerously into view and then moved away.
Barefoot, Jay hobbled unsteadily from the end of his bed to Damien’s, then to Sophia’s. He paused, his gaze locking with hers. He held his hand out, palm down, indicating for her to wait.
She shook her head. No. But Jay was already staggering for the ward entrance.
She peeled the tape from her own needle. She couldn’t just sit here and wait for Jay to screw up. He was in no condition to take on an armed soldier, let alone two. She could see his movements were unsteady and sluggish. He was going to get himself killed. She wasn’t going to let that happen.
‘Why don’t you check on the vegetables in there,’ the second MP said.
‘Why don’t you not change the subject?’ Crooked Nose said.
‘Fine. If we’re getting into technicalities, then yeah,’ the second MP said. ‘But cheating is like speeding fines, you know? Who cares if you speed a bit? We all do it. And when you get caught you’re given a warning or a fine or whatever.’ He cleared his throat. ‘But what if you get wasted and crash into a bus? You’re screwed. And by bus, I mean vagina. And by crash, I mean have sex with.’
Jay half-collapsed against the wall. Sophia could hear his heavy breathing. The second MP walked in, eyes narrowed and complexion chalk white. His eyes widened when he realized she was awake.
Jay was behind Chalky, limbs moving simultaneously: knee into the back of Chalky’s thigh, hand slamming into his shoulder blades just to the right of the spine, and the other hand pulling his left shoulder back. All three movements sent the MP in a counterclockwise spin straight to the floor.
Sophia pulled the needle from her arm and got to her feet. Crooked Nose stormed into the ward, chest puffed and mouth agape, to find Chalky lying on his stomach and Jay staggering over him.
Crooked Nose drew his pistol. ‘What the fuck is this? Turn around!’ he yelled. ‘On the floor, spread your shit!’
Jay wasn’t anywhere near close enough to attack an armed soldier.
Crooked Nose eyed Sophia. ‘Hands where I can see them, princess!’
Sophia raised her arms. Dizziness burned inside her head, blockading her thoughts. She did her best to remain upright and not pass out. A slight glance over her shoulder showed Damien lying in bed, eyes closed.
Chalky pulled himself to his feet while Crooked Nose mumbled into his radio. ‘Echo Five Charlie to Echo Five Golf, we need assistance in Ward Three East Eighteen to Twenty Four, over.’
Jay was on the ground between the two MPs. Chalky kicked him in the ribs. Jay roared in pain, folding into a fetal position.
‘Limbs spread, spic!’ Chalky said.
Jay spread his arms and legs, but kept one knee slightly bent. Sophia knew why.
‘Echo Five Charlie to Echo Five Golf, patients trying to escape,’ Crooked Nose said into the radio. ‘One patient, aggressive behavior, attempted assault. Patient is restrained, over.’
Sophia’s mouth felt incredibly dry. All she could think about was Crooked Nose’s bony finger resting on the trigger of his Beretta M9 pistol. A bead of sweat trickled down his skewed nose, hung from the tip. Sophia waited for it to drop. The wait seemed eternal.
Crooked Nose’s attention shifted to Jay. ‘Five minutes. We got this. Let’s get this joker tied up.’
He held his M9 in one hand and dug into a pouch for plasticuffs. Crouching down, he wrapped one of Jay’s legs with a pair, then moved to straighten his bent leg. Chalky was standing in front of Jay, near his hands. Jay moved quickly. He grabbed Chalky’s nearest boot with one hand and clamped behind his knee with the other. He pulled sharply. Chalky’s body twisted to one side and he dropped to his knees. As he went down, he tried to smash his pistol into Jay’s face. It glanced off Jay’s arm.
Chalky straddled Jay’s head. Jay pulled his hand back and punched Chalky in the testicles. Hard. Chalky cried out in the highest pitch Sophia had ever heard from a grown man. ‘Motherfucker!’ He waved his pistol, trying to aim at Jay’s head.
Crooked Nose moved for a clear shot. They were prepared to shoot. That wasn’t good news. Sophia ripped off her blood-pressure cuff. She had to do something.
Jay ran his hand down Chalky’s firing arm. He wrapped his right hand over Chalky’s and took control. At the same time, he hit Crooked Nose’s neck with the edge of his other hand, then smeared an open palm over his face, fingers into his eye sockets.
Crooked Nose had heard Sophia’s machines wailing. He aimed his pistol at her, but she’d already snatched the pillow from her hospital bed and thrown it in his direction. It was big and slow, but he still had to sidestep it. By the time he had, she was under his pistol. Thumb tucked under her palm, she brought her hand around in a smooth arc. Its inner edge crushed his windpipe. With his pistol-holding arm poised over her shoulder, she pivoted on her heels, turning her back to him. She grabbed his hand, clamped over the pistol and brought it down hard. His arm snapped over her shoulder. She thrust her elbow back, catching him in the ribs. He couldn’t breathe. She turned in time to see him collapse to his knees.
On her left, Jay had one hand over Chalky’s face and the other over Chalky’s pistol. He pulled the pistol’s aim away from Sophia, towards Crooked Nose, then rolled Chalky’s head back, disrupting his balance and throwing him off his feet. Jay crouched behind him, M9 pointed at Crooked Nose.
Sophia’s machines were still beeping.
She glared at Jay. ‘Don’t.’
He squeezed the trigger. The shot echoed into the corridor.
There was a sickening snap. Chalky’s neck.
‘We have three or four minutes,’ Sophia said. ‘At most.’
Damien was on his feet, his and Jay's machines creating a symphony of beeps and wails.
Jay grabbed the clipboard from the end of Damien’s bed. ‘Four milligrams of haloperidol and four milligrams of lorazepam.’ He threw the clipboard aside. ‘What is this fuckery?’
Damien removed his needle while Jay checked the window. Dawn was about to break.
‘Safe to say Denton won’t be impressed,’ Damien said.
Sophia glanced at the clipboard. Antipsychotic and strong sedative. Potent amnesic effects. Had the drugs changed her memories and made her think she’d killed a bunch of innocent people? The clipboard said the drugs had been administered to Private Esposito: Damien’s cover surname. She checked her clipboard. It had her own cover name, the same drugs.
‘What are they doing to us?’ Jay said. He checked the rounds in Chalky’s M9, then dragged the MP behind a bed curtain.
Damien took the clipboard from Sophia. ‘They’re not fooling around.’
Sophia untied the string from the back of Damien’s hospital gown and, when he turned, pulled it from his body. ‘Get changed. Now.’ Her tongue felt like cotton as she spoke.
Damien, naked, glared at her. ‘Was that really necessary?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Was killing that staff sergeant really necessary?’
Damien hesitated. ‘The girl.’
‘You saw the girl as well?’ Sophia said. ‘It was a girl?’
‘I don’t . . . I didn’t,’ Damien said. ‘I thought she was a terrorist. But then she wasn’t. And . . .’
Sophia checked the clock on the wall. ‘Get changed. We’re out of time. After what we’ve done, there’s a very real chance we’ll be disposed of.’ She licked her dry lips. ‘We need to get as far away from here as possible.’
‘And then what?’ Damien asked.
‘Let’s concentrate on surviving first. We’ll last longer if we stick together.’
Jay nodded. ‘Agreed.’
‘I don’t need you to agree,’ Sophia said. ‘I need you to do exactly as I say.’ Jay opened his mouth to protest, but she cut him off. ‘Or you can wait another two minutes for the Fifth Column’s extermination squad to arrive. After all, you did open fire on US Marines, didn’t you, Jay?’ She raised an eyebrow.
‘I don’t know what the fuck went through my head there,’ Jay said. ‘I just . . . had to protect Damien. And you.’
She indicated Crooked Nose’s limp body sprawled on the floor. ‘You have sixty seconds. It’s time for dress-ups.’
Damien relieved Crooked Nose of his desert-cam trousers while Jay got busy fleecing Chalky of his uniform. They each strapped a tactical vest over the top. Unfortunately, the MPs weren’t wearing any armor. As if to make up for it, Jay snatched Chalky’s twelve-inch fighting knife.
Sophia pulled a hip flask from Chalky’s pouch. It was half full. She tossed it to Damien and checked the clock again. ‘Time’s up.’
‘What’s your plan?’ Jay said.
‘Escort me out of the hospital.
Jay took a sharp left in front of Sophia, breaking formation. With the M9 drawn, he stepped out of the exit and under a canopy. Sophia followed, with Damien beside her. They marched under a grammatically incorrect sign, HERO’S HWY, barely visible in the moonlight.
A pair of tan-colored Land Cruisers pulled up in front of the building. Sophia hesitated. She pulled back and crouched in the canopy’s shadows. Damien did the same. As long as no one walked into the canopy, they’d go unnoticed.
Jay was already out in the open. He’d been spotted. She watched him approach the marines as they climbed out of the 4WDs. Even in the dim light, she could identify the three chevrons and rocker on the shoulder. A staff sergeant. Jay would’ve seen it too.
‘We have three escaped patients, armed and mentally unstable,’ Jay said, pointing left, down the road. ‘I saw them take a Cruiser and head for that entrance. They’re in stolen uniforms.’
‘Can you ID them?’ the staff said.
Jay shook his head. ‘Only seen the back of their heads. They’re in that Cruiser at the rear.’
The staff called to his marines, ‘Cruiser at the rear of the line! Move!’
Jay was so busy watching the marines head for the base’s entrance that he bumped into one of them. Sophia knew why. The soldier just happened to be the driver, and carried his M16A2 rifle right-handed. Magazine catch button above the trigger. She saw Jay press the catch, saw the magazine drop into his hand. The marine didn’t even realize. Jay apologized for bumping him and kept walking.
Sophia shook her head. Now he was just showing off.
Jay called out to the marine, his breath pluming in the morning air. ‘Hey! Your mag!’ She saw the marine’s face flush.
Jay handed him the mag, then moved in closer to point at the magazine. ‘Make sure it’s in tight.’
Sophia watched Jay’s other hand run his stolen knife under the marine’s right hip pocket. The 4WD’s ignition was on the right so the keys would be pocketed with the right hand. Jay had probably pushed his hip against the pocket when he bumped the marine, just to be sure they were there. Real slick.
A ring of keys dropped from the sliced pocket into Jay’s hand. He curled it into a fist so the keys wouldn’t jingle, then watched with mild curiosity as the marines ran ahead to the base’s entrance.
Damien moved out from the canopy towards their new ride. Sophia followed him, trying to walk as naturally and purposefully as possible. Jay was in the driver’s seat, key already in the ignition. Damien jumped in the front passenger seat. Sophia took the back.
The eight-cylinder engine growled at Jay’s behest. The tires were run-flat—more resistant against punctures—and had an extra lining that self-sealed in the event of a puncture. If this failed, they had additional support rings that, even with lost tire pressure, could support the weight of the 4WD at a reasonable speed for another 200 miles. Sophia knew that with run-flat tires came level B-6 vehicular armor. At this rate, they were going to need it.
Jay put the 4WD into first. ‘Which way?’
They were facing an exit eighty miles ahead. Beyond it, the twilight gradually revealed a main road and bridge. It would’ve been a possible escape route, had there not been a couple of armored Cruisers in the way and—thanks to Jay throwing the marines off their scent—a whole bunch of marines going haywire at each other with assault rifles.
Out Sophia’s window, another dusty road. Too much traffic up ahead. She looked behind them. The road stretched on, flanked by concrete walls for a mile. Right into the heart of the base.
‘Turn us around,’ she said.
She noticed a disposable cigarette lighter sitting in front of the stick shift. She pointed to it. ‘Damien, hand me the lighter.’
Damien passed it to her while Jay pulled into second and punched the accelerator. Two Cruisers streaked past them. Jay hit third, passing a KFC and Burger King. The base was so large it even had its own fast-food places.
Two faces from the second Cruiser registered in Sophia’s mind. Operatives. Her cheeks flushed as blood shunted to her muscles.
‘I thought we were the only team in Iraq,’ Damien said. He’d seen them too.
‘Then I guess you thought wrong,’ Jay said.
‘Slow down,’ Sophia said.
Jay’s eyes went wide in the rear-vision mirror. ‘You for real? Jesus, Soph, I should be going faster, not slower.’
‘We don’t want to attract attention.’
In all honesty, she wanted nothing more than to get out of there as fast as possible. Before the other marines worked out they’d been duped.
The stretch of dusty road ended just shy of its second mile. A set of gates were open and manned. A single vehicle was waiting to be cleared. She searched the pockets in the back of the driver’s seat, found a first-aid kit and stole a small tube of Dermabond. Holding on to both, she curled up in the foot space behind the passenger seat. She pulled an olive-colored backpack over her, hoping it would conceal her in the waning darkness.
Jay kept the 4WD in second gear. Sophia held her breath. She heard boots crunch on gravel as they moved just outside her door. A radio crackled and a scratchy voice said something. She listened, breathless.
Jay whisked the 4WD through the gates, out of Joint Base Balad.
It had been twenty minutes since they’d left the base. Sophia wanted to change vehicles.
The road Jay had taken was feeding them between two mountains, their peaks dipped in fog. Coming up on their left, a town peppered across the mountainside forest. Two-story yellow-clay houses were nestled in a stepped fashion, the rooftops acting as walkways for the levels above. Sophia couldn’t see any vehicles in the town itself, but up ahead was a repurposed hospital bus.
‘Jackpot,’ Jay said, pulling in beside it. He hunched over the steering wheel, rubbing his eyes. ‘On second thoughts, it probably wouldn’t make it over the next hill. I think we have a better chance sticking with what we got.’
‘A military Land Cruiser doesn’t exactly blend in,’ Sophia said. ‘And neither does a hospital gown or military uniform.’
Jay was about to answer back but sneezed instead. It was absurdly loud inside the 4WD.
Damien slouched in the front seat, arms folded. ‘So much for stealth. I’m pretty sure goat herders on the other side of the mountain heard that one.’
‘Shut it,’ Jay said. ‘You snore like a trumpet.’
Sophia remained still in the back seat. Since their capture in the desert, something was different. She felt . . . strange. She examined the hospital bus parked next to them. At least, what had once been a hospital bus. The drab olive paintwork remained, but it was decorated with straw-colored curtains and had collected a small army of trinkets on the dashboard.
‘Where’s your knife?’ she asked Jay.
He pulled the KA-BAR from its scabbard.
She took it from him. ‘Take the bus.’
He exhaled loudly through his nose. One nostril whistled in disappointment. ‘No way. Riding a brick would be faster than riding that bus.’
‘Not if the brick was painted in army cam,’ she said.
‘Fine. I suppose you have a point for once.’
She could see a clothesline on one of the rooftops. Dry clothes. No one was outdoors yet, it was too early.
‘Think you can get us some clothes?’ she said. ‘And shoes for me if you can.’
Jay grinned. ‘Easy.’ He stepped out of the 4WD. ‘I’ll steal some cash too.’
‘Jay.’ She climbed through to the front seat. ‘Quietly.’
He winked. ‘It might interest you to know that I have the grace of a ballet dancer.’
She shut the door in his face. ‘I sincerely hope not.’
That should’ve earned a chuckle from Damien, but instead he said, ‘I shot the staff sergeant.’
‘I know,’ Sophia said.
She watched Jay plot a careful path to the clothesline, then surveyed the town again. Not a soul in sight. Good. She pulled out the disposable cigarette lighter and began sterilizing the tip of the KA-BAR knife.
‘We killed that family,’ Damien said. ‘They looked like soldiers. But then they weren’t.’ He watched her sterilize the knife. ‘I grabbed that girl. I thought she was a soldier. I don’t know what I was doing.’
Sophia withdrew the knife from the flame. ‘Get the hip flask.’
Damien searched the pockets of his stolen uniform for it.
She offered the underside of her right forearm. ‘Pour.’
He unscrewed the lid, splashed alcohol on the skin over her RFID. Now she stank of cheap whisky.
The RFID was a radio-frequency identification tag encased in silicate glass and implanted under her skin. It was pill-shaped and about twice the length of a grain of rice. It kept precise GPS coordinates on all operatives in the field, above or below ground. As long as they had them under their skin, Denton would always know where they were. He had been using the RFIDs with the Fifth Column Assetrac—asset-tracking system—since 2004.
‘I think we’re all a little confused right now,’ Sophia said.
Damien watched with detached interest as she made an incision over the top of her RFID. Blood escaped. She ignored it, flexed her forearm a few times to nudge the RFID, then used the tip of the blade to coax it out. The fingers on her right hand twitched involuntarily. The pain almost made her drop the knife, but she clenched her teeth and fought through it. The RFID slid out. She discarded it between her feet. It can stay in the Land Cruiser, she thought.
She wiped the blade, let Damien douse it in more whisky, wiped again, then swapped the flask for the blade and lighter. It was Damien’s turn now.
She stared at the incision in her arm. It was hard to believe what she was doing. Her thoughts didn’t feel like her own any more. For a moment, she considered secretly approaching Denton and explaining she was no longer fit for service. But he would never trust her again. And there would be nothing she could say to change that. If she returned to the Fifth Column, she would face her end. All the more reason for them to cross the Iraq–Iran border again and get back to Tehran, where they had some chance of obscuring themselves from the prying eyes of surveillance satellites.
She gritted her teeth, pulled out the tube of Dermabond and applied a thin stripe of the violet liquid across the cut. She held it in place with two fingertips on either side. Once it was set, she poured whisky on Damien’s forearm, then watched him cut out his RFID. When he was done, she gave him the Dermabond.
Jay returned. He was wearing a thick woolen jacket and a headscarf, but fortunately no glamor turban. There were two other jackets slung over his shoulder. He opened the driver’s door. ‘Bus is ready to roll.’ His breath fogged the air between them.
‘I didn’t even hear you,’ Sophia said. ‘Good work.’
He dangled a set of keys. ‘Someone up there loves me.’
Damien snorted. ‘That’s hard to believe.’
‘And we’re rich.’ Jay shoved a wad of notes into Sophia’s hands. ‘Two million rials.’
Sophia checked the notes. ‘That’s around 200 bucks.’
Jay unraveled his headscarf. ‘Right. Well, it’s all I could get my hands on without being compromised.’
Sophia took the headscarf and wrapped the notes inside. She jumped out of the driver’s seat. She could see a wafer of orange upon the horizon. The sun was rising.
She turned to Jay and handed him the knife. ‘We can go to Tehran. But you need to remove your RFID first.’
He glared at her. ‘Are you fucking insane?’
‘Jury’s out on that,’ she said. ‘But there’s no point changing vehicles if they can still track us.’
Grumbling, he snatched the knife off her and rolled back the sleeves of his jacket. ‘I’m only agreeing to this because Tehran has some seriously good beer.’
Denton sat alone in the private jet as it skimmed the North Atlantic skyline. From above, the water’s surface looked restless and murky, reflective of his mood. The air phone rang. A sharp, high-pitched noise that irritated him.
‘We’ve tracked every military Land Cruiser within a radius of thirty miles,’ Grace said.
Denton had assigned Grace as leader of the team tasked with tracking and capturing the defective operatives: Sophia, Damien and Jay.
‘We have two suspect vehicles,’ she went on. ‘One is confirmed to contain military personnel, but the other has been abandoned at a large lake east of the border. It stopped moving one hour and twenty minutes ago. Echo Four India has disabled booby traps inside the Cruiser and recovered the RFIDs. The defective operatives cut them out.’
‘That shouldn’t be possible.’ Denton pinched his nose and exhaled hard. His ears popped. ‘Wait one.’
He opened his laptop and navigated to the US National Reconnaissance Office portal. He logged in with his Department of Defense ID, then said to Grace, ‘Coordinates.’
He keyed in the GPS coordinates as she read them out. He was using recent coverage recorded by the KH-14–2 spy satellite. Once the imagery loaded, he overlaid the road maps and fed in Grace’s team’s locations. With that done, he gave the terrain his full attention. He could see a lake near the eastern border that was shaped like an arrowhead and flanked by nearby mountains. He identified the abandoned Land Cruiser just north of a small town on the lake’s east side, and zoomed in on the ultra-high resolution image to inspect the river. Panning east, he followed the river as it snaked away from the lake towards a mountainous region.
He checked the operations queue for all satellites in this area over the next six hours. Only one was in range—the same KH-14–2 that had recorded the recent coverage—but it was currently in use for a high-priority operation.
‘We won’t have the luxury of live satellite coverage,’ Denton told Grace, ‘so you’ll have to find them the hard way.’
‘Do you have any leads?’
‘We suspect the defective operatives crossed the river either by boat, ferry or possibly by swimming. It would be logical for them to steal a vehicle and continue on a northeast bearing.’
‘Into the mountains,’ Denton said.
‘Difficult for us to ambush by vehicle. It’s a clever way for them to slow us down. We’ve placed a blocking party in just before the north border. We have four helicopters searching vehicle routes. There aren’t many, so it won’t take long to find them.’
Denton zoomed in to inspect the Land Cruiser’s location. ‘I think you’re wrong.’
There was a moment’s silence. ‘Colonel?’
‘They’re not heading for the north border,’ he said. ‘They’re still moving west. They’re heading deeper inside Iran, you halfwit. Move your—’
He stopped, realizing the implications of what he’d just said. The defective operatives were heading for the holy city of Qom, right near a subterranean former military base the spy satellite was queued up for. The same former military base that a US Air Force B-2 Spirit stealth bomber was soon to take out with a GBU-28 bunker-buster bomb—the Fifth Column’s planned retaliation for the suicide bombing.
Sophia and her team were walking right into the middle of a 2.2 ton bomb.