Towering dunes and rocky crags stretched as far as theeye could see, baked by the harsh midday sun. The IL-76 cargo plane, now threehours out of Cairo, had been flying a zigzag pattern across the Saharaaccording to instructions.
Tiny Gunderson turned in his pilot’s seat and blinked inconfusion when he saw Juan Cabrillo standing behind him.
Normally, Juan sported short blond hair, blue eyes, and atan complexion like the native Californian he was, but today he was disguised asan Arab native, with dyed black hair, brown contact lenses, skin darkened evenfurther by makeup, and a prosthetic nose to alter his appearance.
“For a moment, I thought you were one of our otherpassengers,” Tiny said.
“They’re busy down in the hold, checking their gear,”Juan replied. “They look a little nervous. A couple of them have never skydivedbefore.”
“Well, they picked a doozy of a place to learn. I haven’tseen so much as a road for the last thirty minutes.”
“They want to make sure no one beats us to their target.”
“Fat chance of that happening. We’re nearing the latestcheckpoint. I’m going to need the next set of coordinates.”
“Then my timing is impeccable,” Juan said. “Our clientjust gave me this. He said it’s the drop location.” He handed Tiny a piece ofpaper with a set of GPS coordinates. Tiny plugged the new numbers into theRussian jet’s autopilot computer, and the four-engine plane began banking inthat direction.
“We should be on-site in ten minutes,” he said. “I’llopen the rear door two minutes before the drop.”
Juan nodded. “What’s our fuel status?”
“No problem. I’ve got eight more hours of flight time.”
“Remember,” Juan said, “they won’t leave the landing zoneuntil you’re out of sight, so hightail it as soon as we’re away.”
“Like I’ve been bit in the butt, Chairman. Have a goodfall.”
Juan smiled. “Keep in touch.” He left the cockpit andtook the stairs down into the cavernous hold.
Four pallets occupied the center of the hold. Three dunebuggies were packed nose to tail, their parachutes piled on top and their ripcords attached to the plane so they would be triggered automatically whendropped.
The dune buggies were Scorpion desert patrol vehiclessold as surplus by the Saudi Army, with their armaments removed, of course. Ithad taken a day to refit them with the .50 caliber M2 Browning machine gun and40mm Mk 19 grenade launcher that were usually mounted on the chassis. Now theycould take on anything, short of a tank, and, according to their clients, theweapons weren’t going to be just for show.
The fourth pallet, the same size as the dune buggies, wasstill under wraps at the front of the hold. It wouldn’t be joining them on thisdrop.
Juan strode toward the six men gathered near the reardoor. All of them were elite soldiers of the Saharan Islamic Caliphate, aterrorist organization hoping to build a fundamentalist state that would spanthe entire width of North Africa.
The leader of this particular group, a brutal Egyptiannamed Mahmoud Nazari, who was suspected of several attacks on tourist groups,had made it known that he was trying to gain access to weapons of massdestruction that would aid in his goal to become the ruling caliph. The NSA hadintercepted a conversation between him and his benefactors in Saudi Arabia thathe needed funds to make an incursion into Algeria, where he could obtain suchweapons.
Although the type of weapon was never specified in thecall, the threat was taken seriously, and the Corporation had been tapped totake on the mission to discover what Nazari was looking for.
Juan stopped in front of the group. Nazari, a thin manwith a heavy beard and dead eyes, showed no emotion whatsoever. He said inArabic, “How long until our jump?”
“Less than ten minutes,” Juan replied with flawless SaudiArabian inflection. He also spoke Russian and Spanish fluently in variousaccents, but he’d never been able to master Arabic in any other dialect, so hisbackstory sold him as a jihadist from Riyadh.
Given the atrocities Nazari was thought to havecommitted, Juan got a bad taste in his mouth every time he had to talk to theterrorist. When Nazari bragged about slicing off an infidel civilian’s handsduring one of his attacks, Juan nearly threw him out of the plane’s doorwithout a parachute, but the mission to find the WMDs was too important toindulge his urge.
“How far do we have to drive once we land?” Juancontinued.
“You’ll know when I tell you. Now, complete yourpreparations.” Juan hadn’t been expecting an answer, but he would have seemed suspiciousif he weren’t curious about the mission.
“Yes, sir,” Juan said, forcing himself to say the wordswith a convincing tone of feigned respect. He pointed at the warning lightabove their heads. “That will flash red when the rear door opens. Stay behindthe yellow line on the floor if you don’t want to get sucked out. The lightwill change to amber a minute before the jump, then green to signal the jump.The pallets will go first, then us. Understand?”
“We went over this in the preflight briefing,” Nazarisaid with clear disdain. “We’re not simpletons.” His men, who busily recheckedtheir harnesses and static lines, didn’t seem bothered by the reminder.
“Of course,” Juan replied. “I didn’t mean to offend. I’llsee you on the ground.”
Juan left them and headed to the front of the cargo deck.The only reason he cared if they made it to the ground intact was so they couldlead him to the target. It had been a challenge to get them to trust him to thedegree they had, which was why this operation hadn’t been tasked to U.S.Special Forces. As good as they were, infiltration wasn’t their specialty, andthe CIA had their own limitations.
Juan had created the Corporation to do work the U.S.government couldn’t engage in directly. Plausible deniability was the rule. Hisstint as an agent in the CIA had made it clear that there were plenty of thosetypes of operations needing to be carried out through the Corporation. Juan hadoffered to take on the risks, for which he and those in his employ had beenwell compensated. Side jobs supplemented their income when work from the CIAwas scarce, but Juan never took on a job that he didn’t feel was in the bestinterests of America.
This mission certainly fit the bill.
It had taken weeks of secret meetings to gain Nazari’strust enough to be hired for the mission. He required a clandestine insertioninto the southern Algerian desert, fifty miles of rough terrain from thenearest settlement or oasis. The dune buggies had only enough fuel to get themfrom the drop to the target and then back to civilization, which was one of thereasons for the aerial insertion. The other was because they weren’t supposedto be on Algerian soil. The Oregon was already positioned at the port ofAlgiers to smuggle them out of the country. Tiny Gunderson, the Corporation’sfixed-wing pilot, would return the chartered IL-76 to its owners at the end ofthe mission. Originally, the operation was to take place three days from now,but Nazari had suddenly shortened the time line for unknown reasons.
Juan found Eddie Seng verifying that the pallet tie-downsfor the dune buggies were tight. As lean and sinewy as an Olympic gymnast,Eddie was another veteran of the CIA and the Corporation’s chief of shoreoperations. Though he was fluent in Mandarin, he didn’t know any Arabic, so hehadn’t mixed with Nazari and his crew. Juan told them that Eddie was a freedomfighter from Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world. Luckily,they hadn’t recognized that Eddie was actually of Chinese descent.
“How are our friends doing?” Eddie asked, and smiled whenhe saw one of them wrestling with the line that would pull his rip cord. “Someof them look a little green.”
“I just hope they hold it together until they jump,” Juansaid, shrugging into his parachute rig. “Tiny will have a fit if they tosstheir cookies and he has to clean up the mess before he returns the plane. Arewe set?”
“Everything checks out. We’re good to go.”
“Just took one last trip to the head,” said a basso voicebehind Juan. He turned to see Franklin Lincoln, carrying his chute in one handand two AK-47 assault rifles in the other as if they were toys. The gargantuanAfrican American, with a head as smooth as a cue ball, handed Juan an AK-47,one of his least favorite weapons. He took it reluctantly.
“Don’t blame me, Chairman,” Linc said. As a former NavySEAL, he would have much rather been carrying a more state-of-the-art weapon,too. “Remember, we’re trying to fit in.” Linc’s cover was that he was aNigerian who had joined the struggle to fight the Western infidels.
Intel said that it was unlikely that Nazari and his menspoke any English. Juan had told Nazari that he, Eddie, and Linc had onlyEnglish as a common language, since they were supposed to be from Saudi Arabia,Indonesia, and Nigeria. Still, Juan kept his voice low when he could, just incase the intel was wrong.
“Doesn’t mean I have to like it,” Juan said. He securedthe rifle to his pack.
“Any word yet on what our target is?” Eddie asked.
“Nada. Nazari’s not the sharing type. I’m not even surehis men know.” Juan tapped his watch, and voices suddenly popped into hisearpiece. He could hear Nazari as clearly as if he were standing next to theterrorist. So far, the minuscule microphone transmitter that Juan had installedin the liner of his harness hadn’t yielded any strong intel.
“But they have done everything we’ve required,” Juancould hear one of the soldiers telling Nazari.
“I don’t care,” Nazari said. “We can’t take that chance.Once they realize what we’ve dug up, they may change their minds about—”
At that moment, the rear door lowered, letting in a blastof air that garbled the sound so much that Juan could only catch a few snippetsof the remaining conversation.
Juan, Eddie, and Linc didn’t waste any time finishing thedrop prep. Everything was ready when the amber light flashed.
A minute to the drop.
“We’re going to have to keep on our toes once we reachthe target and recover whatever it is they’re looking for,” Juan said, his eye onNazari at the other end of the hold. “I’m pretty sure I just heard that that’swhen our client plans to kill us.”
Linc smirked. “Lovely.”
Then the green light blazed, the dune buggy palletsneatly slid out the back one after the other, and Juan led the jump out overthe desert waiting a mile below.
Henri Munier would never admit to a soul that he couldn’tstand motor sports, not when he was the president of a bank in a country withthe world’s most famous auto race. Many of his biggest clients were Formulaseries drivers who lived in Monaco to take advantage of its reputation as atax-free haven. They would be appalled to learn that he thought their sport wasobnoxious and boring.
He couldn’t help cringing as he drove his new customizedTesla electric SUV past the Monaco Grand Prix turn known as La Rascasse. Themorning race of Formula 3.5 cars was nearing its end, the sleek race cars’high-pitched engines whining as they rounded the corner and revved to fullspeed. The SUV’s windows did little to block out the incessant shriek.
And it would only get worse. The main Formula 1 event,featuring the most advanced race cars on earth, would take place later in theafternoon. The race was one of the few Grand Prix events run on city streets, andMunier hated the disruption to Monte Carlo traffic, for the six weeks beforeand the three weeks after, as the course was constructed and then taken down.
He had no intention of attending the race and gettingstuck feigning interest in it for two hours. As he did every year, he took theopportunity to accept an invitation to one of the lavish parties thrown on themultitude of mega-yachts squeezed into the harbor, many of them with a perfectview of the racecourse. He’d sent his wife and two daughters to sunbathe on thebeach in Antibes so he could enjoy the weekend by himself.
This year, he’d scored the most sought-after invitationin town. One of the largest yachts in the world, the Achilles, had tied upalong the harbor’s longest berth, and the decadent bashes visible on her deckshad been the talk of the city all week. The host, Maxim Antonovich, had sent agilded invitation for Munier to be his guest, and the banker suspected thereclusive billionaire wanted to talk about stashing a substantial portion ofhis holdings in Credit Condamine. Perhaps he was even considering becoming acitizen.
Munier wouldn’t mind combining a little business with hispleasure.
He stopped at the end of the pier closest to the Achillesand stared at the massive vessel. Even though Munier was accustomed to thetrappings of wealth, it was like no other yacht on the water.
At 400 feet, she wasn’t as long as the largestmega-yachts, but her width was unsurpassed. The main body of the superstructuresat astride gigantic twin hulls, which would give the ship impressive stabilityeven in heavy seas. The interior space had to be double that of othersimilar-length yachts, and two huge pools and a hot tub on the top deck werethe settings for many of the parties. The rear deck had room enough not onlyfor a helicopter landing pad but for a hangar as well.
The bone-white yacht had been built in secrecy, so manyof the features were only rumors, but it was thought to have a submarine and adefense system to ward off rocket-wielding pirates. Munier wouldn’t besurprised if it did. Ever since the luxury yacht Tiara had been boarded off thecoast of Corsica in 2008 and robbed of a quarter million in cash, yacht ownershad been going to greater and greater lengths to protect their vessels.