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By Pete Earley
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“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
―Blaise Pascal, Pensées
Cast of Characters
Ebio Kattan, Al Arabic TV correspondent
Esther, Mossad officer
Falcon, radical Islamic terrorist
Hakim “the Destroyer” Farouk, bomb maker
Khalid, General Intelligence Directorate, Saudi Arabia
Major Brooke Grant, U.S. Marine Corps
Mohammad Al-Kader, radical Islamist Imam
Nuruddin Ayaanie “Rudy” Adeogo, Minneapolis congressman
Omar Nader, Islamic Nations spokesman
Payton Grainger, CIA director
Umoja Owiti, billionaire African businessman
The Falcon Draws Blood
“We should forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged.”
—Heinrich Heine, German poet
6:00 a.m. Saturday
New Jersey Turnpike
Mass murder was traveling south on this beautiful April morning.
Hakim Farouk, known to his fellow radical Islamic brothers as the Destroyer, locked the speed on the twenty-four-foot rental truck at exactly five miles above the posted speed limit. It was enough to prevent impatient drivers traveling behind him from becoming annoyed, yet not so fast as to attract the notice of a New Jersey state police trooper.
Two days before this morning, he’d painted the truck pale green, which was the shade of the delivery vehicles owned by Coswell’s Catering. It was the most elite wedding service in Washington, D.C., having been awarded the “Gold Medallion Award” for fine food catering each of its seventy-one years in operation. Its gold logo had been stenciled on the truck’s outside to make it an exact duplicate, but his cargo had nothing to do with Brie en croute and peppercorn beef tenderloin appetizers or Chef Andre Chevalier Laurent’s famed slow-roasted pork loin in honey sauce.
Farouk hated the United States. He hated everything about it. He hated the smell outside the Queens apartment where he was staying when he awoke each day before sunrise to say his morning prayer. He hated the stale taste of the overpriced coffee that he purchased in a neighborhood shop called Good Eats and the babbling old homeless woman who he passed each morning sitting on a park bench guarding a grocery cart stuffed with overflowing green plastic garbage bags. He hated the brick and carved stone churches with crosses atop their spirals that he passed, the giggling schoolchildren chasing one another behind tall chain-link fences in their neighborhood school playground and the teenage boys with odd haircuts who brushed by him on skateboards. He especially hated the Sons of Zion, whom he encountered at the nearby subway stop with their black Hasidic hats and tzitzits dangling from their white prayer shawls. He hated, too, the women who waited for the subway platform, dressed like whores with their arms and legs exposed. He hated the Manhattan commuters in business suits speaking on their cell phones—always speaking on their phones—and the hoodie-wearing young African Americans with earbuds. He hated America’s president, every one of its politicians, its Hollywood movie stars, its crowded major cities, its small towns, and its endless suburbs filled with cul-de-sacs edged by carefully cut lawns and cookie-cutter houses. He hated its universities, its fast-food chains, and its Home Depots, Staples, and Walmarts. There was nothing about America that Farouk liked, admired, or envied. Who did these Americans think they were? Such arrogance! Always chanting “We’re number one” on television. Always bragging about being the world’s only “superpower.” What ignorance!
One morning he’d asked a woman seated next to him in a crowded café if she had ever heard of the Umayyad Caliphate. She had asked if it was a new type of cappuccino. He’d simply nodded, not wishing to waste his time explaining that it was an Islamic form of government that had reigned over an estimated 62 million people—nearly 30 percent of the world’s population—between the years 661 and 750, covering an area of 5.1 million square miles, making it one of the largest empires in history in both area and proportion of the world’s population. It was the second of four major Islamic caliphates established after the death of Mohammad, spanning some 1,200 years. What was the United States in comparison? Had any serious scholar ever called America the “cradle of civilization”?
He would teach these Americans how insignificant they were. He would cause them to cower. He would show them they were not safe. He would do this in a few short hours by which time he would be long gone from this soulless cesspool called the United States of America.
He’d purchased an airline ticket the night before that would transport him from Philadelphia International Airport to London, England, the first leg of several more stops all designed to conceal his whereabouts. If everything went according to his schedule, he would soon be resting comfortably on an international flight when the bomb that he was now transporting was detonated.
Farouk was not a big man. In his midthirties, he was slender with delicate hands, a soft voice, and a calm demeanor that reminded one of a scholarly professor, not a violent jihadist.
Farouk’s life depended on his ability to blend into the crowd and live as a ghost.
He checked his watch as he entered the ramp into the Walt Whitman Service Area, some nineteen miles northeast of Philadelphia. Stepping from the truck, he strolled casually across the blacktop parking lot toward the rest area’s sandstone building. As he neared its portico, a uniformed New Jersey state trooper came outside, holding a cup of steaming coffee in his right hand. Farouk averted his eyes, but the officer stopped him.
“Just saw you pull in and couldn’t help but notice you got New Hampshire plates,” the trooper said in a friendly tone. “I grew up in D.C. and didn’t know Coswell’s Catering operated that far north.”
Thinking it was better to admit ignorance than risk giving a wrong answer, Farouk replied, “Wouldn’t know. I don’t work for Coswell’s Catering. My boss runs a custom paint shop in Brooklyn.” He nodded toward the truck. “They must’ve scored a good deal buying the truck and having us paint it before delivery.”
“That green’s an odd color. I’ll admit that,” the state trooper replied, taking a big gulp of coffee. “That’s partly why I noticed you drive in. ’Course, no one I know can afford Coswell’s Catering, but everyone has heard about them.”
Farouk shrugged. “I’m just a driver.”
“What’s your native country?”
“Kabul in Afghanistan,” he lied. “Such a beautiful city until those bastards ruined it. The Taliban is destroying everything.”
“I agree,” the trooper said, taking another sip. He started to walk away but stopped. “I like your hat but you might want to take it off when you get to D.C.” He nodded at the official New York Giants baseball cap on Farouk’s head. “Washington fans are loyal to their Redskins, or as some folks say, ‘Washington’s team.’ And they hate the Giants.”
Farouk, who was wearing the cap so his contact inside the service pavilion could identify him and to help shield his face from security cameras, said, “Thanks for the tip.”
The trooper hesitated again. “You should ask the folks at Coswell’s to give you a sample.”
“Great idea!” Farouk smiled as he turned away from the trooper and entered the building’s double doorway. He ignored a brass wall plaque that explained the turnpike service stop was named after Walt Whitman, an American poet who’d spent the last decade of his life in nearby Camden, New Jersey. Once inside the lobby, he looked through a wall of windows at the departing highway trooper. As soon as the officer left the parking lot, Farouk hurried outside to the fake Coswell’s Catering truck.
Not using Washington, D.C., plates had been an amateur’s mistake. He’d rushed and been sloppy. Retrieving a screwdriver from the truck’s glove compartment, he removed the New Hampshire plates, which he tucked inside the light jacket he was wearing. Pressing them against his ribs, Farouk scanned the parking lot.
Walt Whitman was one of the smaller rest stops along the turnpike, but a constant stream of cars and trucks was entering and departing on this Saturday. He noticed a Honda minivan with D.C. license plates. Five elementary schoolchildren bolted from it while two women stepped from its front seats.
“Slow down, Danny,” one woman hollered after a boy darting through the parked cars.
“Havetogotothebathroom!” he called back over his shoulder.
“Wait for your older brother.”
The second mother shouted: “Meet us in Cinnabon for breakfast.”
As soon as they entered the service center, Farouk moved quickly to their van, dropped to his knees, and exchanged his license tags for theirs. Hurrying back to his truck, he attached the D.C. plates.
Now satisfied, Farouk entered the building, going directly into a self-serve cafeteria, where he bought coffee and a Danish. He took a seat in a booth near the front windows, casually placing the keys to the rental truck on the plastic red tray that he’d used to tote his coffee and pastry.
He’d finished about half of his drink and eaten none of the Danish when a young man wearing a server’s uniform approached his table.
“If you’re finished, I’ll take this tray for you,” he volunteered.
The young man had sent a selfie earlier that morning to a disposable cell phone that Farouk was using so the jihadist could recognize him.
“I don’t care for the Danish or more coffee,” Farouk replied, “so please take the tray.”
The young man did but returned seconds later.
“Sir,” he said politely, “you left your keys on the tray.” He offered him a key ring.
“Oh, how careless of me.”
Taking the keys, Farouk exited the service pavilion and found a blue Honda Civic with a New Jersey license tag parked exactly where he’d been told it would be in a morning text message.
Farouk had satisfactorily completed his task. He’d delivered the bomb inside the truck to the parking lot and to the young man who was seeking martyrdom. They’d exchanged vehicle keys when the youth had picked up the red tray and switched his car keys for the truck keys.
Farouk felt proud as he drove the Civic south toward the Philadelphia airport. The bomb was meant for a specific target selected by an international terrorist known only as the Falcon. He had issued a fatwa against Major Brooke Grant. Today was her wedding day. It was supposed to be one of the happiest days of her life. Instead it would be her last.
8:30 a.m. Saturday
The White House
So it is true?”
“Yes, Madame President, we have three independent and reliable sources.”
President Sally Allworth folded her arms across her chest as she stood in front of her Oval Office desk and considered the gravity of what CIA director Payton Grainger had told her.
She’d known when Grainger had arrived unexpectedly on a Saturday morning without waiting for his boss, the director of national intelligence, to return from an overseas trip that he’d come bearing bad news.
“The Chinese were supposed to be keeping North Korea in check,” Mallory Harper, the White House chief of staff and President Allworth’s most trusted advisor, volunteered from where she was standing some three feet from the president.
“I’m not certain Beijing is even aware,” Grainger replied. “If it is, it doesn’t want to acknowledge it or get involved. The Chinese will be of no help to us.”
“How could they not be aware that their next door neighbor has sold a nuclear bomb to a terrorist?” Harper replied in an incredulous voice.
“Our sources tell us it was the Iranians who provided the expertise that Pyongyang needed to make a nuclear bomb,” Grainger said. “Not China.”
“Iran,” Harper hissed, “they’ve been a thorn in our side for way too long.”
“Not just our side,” President Allworth added, “the entire world’s. They’re the biggest backer of terrorism against the West and the primary cause of instability in the Middle East. Now you’re telling me that Iran has helped a mentally unstable, half-pint, puffed up, spoiled little man-child sell a nuclear bomb to our enemies?”
“The intelligence we’ve gathered strongly suggests the ‘outstanding leader’ knows it will be targeted against us,” Grainger said. “Meanwhile, he’s getting help from the Iranians to make an intercontinental missile-delivery device strong enough to hit our shores.”
“That misfit runt will spark another world war—even if it means his own destruction,” Harper added.
“Let’s focus on the immediate problem,” the president said. “We’re not going to allow a terrorist to detonate a smuggled nuclear bomb in one of our cities.”
“There is a high probability the Falcon is the terrorist who has bought the bomb,” Director Grainger said as he studied the president’s face.
As with all her recent predecessors, Allworth seemed to have aged at a much faster pace than others during her past five years in the White House. When she’d launched her unlikely campaign at age fifty-six, she’d invited journalists to jog three miles with her before dawn each morning in whatever city she was visiting. It guaranteed a local newspaper and Internet photo and showed her vitality. But as president, she’d had few moments to jog.
President Allworth had come to politics later than most. After the sudden death of her husband, a popular Pennsylvania senator, she’d served the remainder of his term and then had shocked everyone by entering the presidential race. Her victory had stunned pundits and swept her into the Oval Office on a wave of anti-Washington, anti-incumbent sentiment. But thanks to an obstinate Congress and serial domestic and international crises, she’d been kept from delivering on most of her heartfelt campaign promises.
To Grainger, she now looked worn-out.
“Okay, let’s get everyone assembled ASAP to discuss our options. When does Stephen get back from London?” Allworth asked, referring to Grainger’s boss, the director of national intelligence.
“His flight is scheduled to land at three-fifteen this afternoon,” Chief of Staff Harper replied.
“Let’s schedule a four o’clock National Security Council meeting here,” Allworth ordered.
“I can provide a more thorough briefing by then,” Grainger assured them as he excused himself from the Oval Office.
Addressing her chief of staff, President Allworth said, “Mallory, notify the vice president first about this meeting so he doesn’t get his nose further bent out of joint about us not including him.”
Harper smirked. Neither she nor the president cared for Vice President Wyatt Bowie Austin. Their contempt was one of Washington’s most gossiped “secrets.”
“Your chairman of the joint chiefs isn’t going to be happy about an emergency meeting,” Harper said.
“Oh my, I totally forgot!” the president replied. “What time did the invitation say?”
“Major Brooke Grant’s wedding is scheduled to begin at two thirty.”
The president thought for a moment. “Her parents were murdered during the nine-eleven attacks, so General Grant will be walking her down the aisle. How long does a wedding ceremony last nowadays?”
“It depends on how religious the bride and groom are. My nephew’s ceremony lasted less than ten minutes because he and his bride wanted to spend more time partying with their friends than saying their vows. Major Grant is not getting married in a church, so I suspect the formal ceremony will be rather short.”
“If I’m going to drag the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff away from his niece’s wedding, the least I can do is make an appearance at the ceremony.”
Harper frowned. “The Secret Service is going to make a fuss with this short notice.”
“Of course it will. But this might be just the thing I need to lift my spirits before the four o’clock meeting.”
“I’ll see to it,” Harper said, turning to leave.
“Mallory,” President Allworth said, “screenwriters and novelists have been concocting plots about terrorists getting their hands on a nuclear bomb since nine-eleven, but I never thought this would happen under my watch. We can’t let the Falcon destroy one of our cities. We just can’t have that.”
10:10 a.m. Saturday
Northern Virginia suburb
Geraldine Grant was nervously waiting at the front door of her home.
The security team stationed at the front gate to protect the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff had called her moments earlier about an unexpected visitor.
“I’m Cindy Gural,” a fortyish-looking woman wearing a U.S. Park Police uniform announced as she came up the front steps, extending her hand toward Geraldine. “I’ve come to speak to Major Brooke Grant.”
“Yes, yes,” Geraldine answered impatiently. “The guards said it was important and it better be because today she’s getting married and we’ve got to be leaving lickety-split. Should have been gone ten minutes ago.”
“Yes, ma’am, I know she’s getting married because I’m helping provide security at her wedding. Earning a bit of extra off-duty pay. But I promise I’ll take only a couple minutes. Just long enough to deliver this packet.” Officer Gural lifted a thick manila envelope in her left hand as if it were a shield between her and the formidable wife of a four-star Army general who was visibly unhappy about the morning interruption.
“Five minutes tops, you hear?” Geraldine lectured. “Not six, not seven.” Without waiting for a reply, Geraldine called out, “Brooke, a Park Police officer is here.”
Wearing worn denim jeans and a red Washington Nationals baseball jersey, Major Brooke Grant appeared at the top of the steps inside the two-story brick Colonial where she had lived as a teenager after her parents’ murders.
“Auntie,” Brooke said as she began descending the stairs, “I can’t find my mother’s necklace. I put it out last night in a special place where I wouldn’t forget it and now I’ve forgotten where.”
Shaking her head as if to say, What’s wrong with you? Geraldine replied, “Girl, I’ve never seen you this scatterbrained but I suspect weddings do that. Now, I just told this officer she’s got you for only five minutes. Five minutes! Your uncle just got a phone call and now he’s decided he wants to ride with us downtown rather than waiting. We all need to get a move on.”
“Why’s he coming with us?” Brooke asked. “We’re going to do makeup and hair and he doesn’t wear makeup and he has no hair.”
“Ask him yourself. He’s being all mysterious,” Geraldine snapped. “I’ll go find your mama’s necklace.”
Speaking to Officer Gural, Brooke said, “When you called, it took me a moment but I remembered as soon as you mentioned Mary Margaret Delaney—the suicide on the George Washington Parkway.”
“That’s what the medical examiner says happened, but I don’t think she killed herself and you promised to look into it if I ever came up with anything suspicious.”
“I’d like to help,” Brooke said in a hurried voice, “but I’m not on a joint terrorism task force anymore, so I don’t have any jurisdiction.”
“Major, I know it’s your wedding day, but I had to share this information with someone.” She handed the manila envelope to Brooke. “Maybe after your honeymoon you can give it a glance. My conscience won’t be clear unless I do this. Please take it.”
Brooke accepted the thick envelope but before she could respond to Officer Gural, Aunt Geraldine appeared at the top of the steps. “I’ve found your mother’s necklace in your bedroom right where you left it.” Peering down from the top step, she said, “Officer, are you still here? Your time is up, missy. We’ve got to get moving.”
“I’m sorry I had to bring this by today,” Gural said.
“Okay,” Geraldine announced as she descended the stairs, “now you said what you needed to say. Out the door with you.” Exchanging a pearl necklace for the package in Brooke’s hands, Geraldine added, “Whatever’s in this envelope can wait.” She placed it on a side table next to the front door.
“Don’t worry,” Brooke said reassuringly to Gural as she was leaving. “I won’t forget it.”
Shutting the front door behind Officer Gural, Geraldine said, “Your mother and daddy would have been so proud of you. Oh gosh, I’m going to start crying and we’re not even at the ceremony. It’s just, when I think of them and how they were murdered—” She stopped speaking and used a tissue to wipe her eyes. “I still remember the day when you first came to live with your uncle and me. My oh my, and now here we are, you getting all married.”
She leaned forward and hugged Brooke, who was fumbling with the necklace’s gold clasp behind her neck.
“Help, Auntie, please,” she whispered.
“What’s going on here?” General Frank Grant asked as he joined them from the family room. “Little Miss Jennifer has beaten me in four straight games of some dang computer game called Drawful.”
“Five games!” bragged a fifteen-year-old girl who followed him into the foyer. “He’s a lousy artist and I’m not a little girl.”
“Don’t be so hard on him,” Geraldine playfully scolded.
“After this wedding and the adoption papers go through,” General Grant said to the teenager, “you will be my niece’s daughter and at that point, I will expect you to allow me to win on occasion.”
Jennifer broke into a grin. “Can I call you Uncle Frank once I’m adopted or do I still need to call you General?”
“Well, now, that’s something I’ll need time to thoughtfully consider,” he replied jokingly.
“Oh stop this nonsense,” Geraldine said. Looking lovingly at Brooke, the older woman continued. “You know the general and I have thought of you as our daughter since the day you stepped foot into our house. And after you get married and adopt Jennifer, I’ll not have her calling him anything but ‘Gramps’ and me ‘Grandma.’ Now let’s get moving.”
“Maybe I’ll have you call me ‘General Grandpa,” he said teasingly to Jennifer.
- On Sale
- Oct 10, 2017
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Center Street