Harper strode across to the multi-level car park, glanced at the note in her hand, and made for the small elevator that took her to the level below the open upper deck. She walked along the rows of cars and spotted the one waiting there for her as arranged. She found the car keys exactly as promised.
Though it was an older SUV it still was fitted with an onboard navigation system. Part of the deal was for her contacts to make sure the vehicle had a full tank of gas and when she switched the ignition on that’s exactly what she found. She tapped in her destination on the nav screen and as soon as the directions popped up she left the car park and headed for the I-95 N highway.
As she worked her way out of Fort Lauderdale the nav system continually updated road and traffic conditions and directed her around more bothersome holdups. Overall, the trip was just over a thousand miles and would take nearly fifteen hours. That was fine if she intended to drive straight through but she was working to a timetable that meant she could take it slower—maybe even spend the occasional overnight along the way.
Harper checked the time. The ISIS teams would have crossed the border by now and each should be heading for their individual destinations. If everything went to plan—and there should be no reason for it not to—then America was in for the awakening of its life for the first time since 9/11.
The unexpected bonus was the final demise of Kramer. The mere thought brought a smile to her face and for the first time in years she actually found herself humming happily. It made it all the more stranger considering the turn of events and the mayhem she’d left behind.
It had proven absurdly easy for Harper’s person in Florida to con a look-alike woman into taking the free cruise. What person these days would think twice about such an offer? More amazing was the fact that the blonde had actually found a young kid to meet the requirements of the offer, even though she had no children of her own.
Little did the blonde suspect that she would be Harper’s ticket into America.
Disposing of her body had proved ridiculously easy for the men hired on Roatan to kill her. As for the boy, he was kept incommunicado while the killers awaited the arrival of his new surrogate mother whom he readily welcomed after having a fresh one hundred dollar bill thrust into his young hands. Who ever said that love couldn’t be bought had it all wrong.
It merely took a blonde wig and some clever makeup for Harper to assume the identity of her look-alike then once back on American soil, having passed through customs and immigration without any problem, the boy was disposed of to ensure no loose ends.
The only hitch in the whole plan had been the surprise appearance of Kramer and his partner. In and of itself it should have proven a slight distraction—her bodyguards could have dealt with them easily. But it had been the two cyclists who proved to be the spanners in the works.
Even now, over a week later, Harper still had no idea who those two had been. Did they just happen to be there to score a hit on any easy looking target? Was a woman carrying a briefcase and escorted by two bodyguards too good to pass up regardless of what may or may not was in the briefcase? Or did they know all along what Harper was carrying, in which case were they lone wolves or were they working for someone else?
All these questions whirled around in her mind as she drove northward, careful to keep her speed just below the regulated maximum.
There would come a time when she’d have her answers but until then she had to prepare herself for the repercussions of losing the damn briefcase full of hot diamonds. They were to have been handed over to the men who picked her up in the launch and transported her to Roatan, the largest of the Bay Islands, and where she boarded the cruise ship back to Fort Lauderdale.
They were several miles offshore from Belize City when the men asked her to hand over the diamonds. Matters had escalated quickly past the ugly stage when they discovered Harper didn’t have the briefcase—that she’d lost it.
It took a little convincing on her part to diffuse the situation and once she’d tossed both men overboard she’d managed to captain the boat herself the rest of the way to Roatan.
She knew full well that she’d only managed to delay the inevitable. Even with two of its minions at the bottom of the ocean or as shark food, the cartel would soon receive word that Harper had skipped out without making payment for their services. Thankfully the ISIS people had, by that time, already been delivered across the border. There was no way of stopping those men now. But it left her as the single target for compensation.
The cartel had little respect for international borders. If they weren’t already on their way, the cartel’s ‘collection’ people would soon be searching for Harper.
If her final plan proved successful, the collection squad may never have the opportunity to collect.
Shadow bounded down the aisle after the ball Kramer had tossed for him. The dog had been ecstatic to see his mate after days of inactivity sitting around with the flight crew who were more interested in the games on their smartphones than spending time with him.
The moment the call came in from Darci and Maria with their suspicions concerning Harper’s movements, Kramer and Brandt had curtailed their search for the motor launch and hightailed it back to the airport and the GSC jet. They found it ready for them and within minutes had wheels up.
Brandt gazed out her window at the spectacular sight of the Caribbean slipping by thousands of feet below. She was always amazed at the numerous hues of blues and greens that comprised the ocean canvases and the swirls and odd shaped coral reefs, atolls and cays below reminded her of her beloved Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, Australia.
The co-pilot appeared at the cockpit door. “We’re an hour out of MIA and will be commencing our descent shortly. I’ve been asked to let you know there will be a vehicle waiting for you after we touch down.” He returned to the flight deck and there was an audible clack as he secured the door behind him.
Brandt turned in her seat. “So, what do you think of Darci and Maria’s idea about Harper?”
Kramer took the ball from Shadow and signaled for him to lie down. For a long moment Kramer rolled the sticky ball around with his fingers, staring at in blankly.
Kramer looked up slowly—his face an emotionless mask. “What they said makes perfect sense when you take all the pieces and put them together. There’s a slim chance they might be wrong but right now it’s the best we have to run with.”
“Well, let’s hope that by the time we land Maria will have had some luck searching through all that security footage taken at the ports used by the cruise lines over the past week or so. At least she has her team of wizards Down Under to help her.”
“We can only hope,” Kramer replied cryptically then he turned his attention back to the ball unaware Shadow was eyeing it as well.
Customs and Immigration were a formality so it wasn’t long after landing at Miami International that Kramer, Brandt and Shadow were ensconced in their hotel room FaceTiming with Darci and Maria.
“Working on our assumptions of Harper’s movements and the resulting possible timeline, we’ve been able to narrow security footage to the arrival of just three cruise ships.”
As Kramer and Brandt watched, Maria transferred the videos from her three computer screens to a huge digital wall similar to that in Darci’s office.
“It will be a whole easier for all of us to view everything this way together,” she explained. She tapped a few keys and one of the three images began running. “Each video stream is about two hours long,” she warned.
“I don’t know about you lot,” Darci said, “but I need a break. Can I get you a drink, hon?” Maria stretched and nodded and he wandered across to his office bar and poured a couple of stiff drinks. Spirit lay patiently in a corner of the room, his eyes tracking Darci’s every move.
Kramer did the same for Brandt and himself from their hotel minibar after looking to Shadow’s needs first. They had all been sitting staring for over three hours at lines of passengers filing off cruise ships. The first security footage came up empty, although Darci warned that if all three streams did the same they would have no choice but to run through them again. After a half hour’s break everyone resumed his or her seat and Maria resumed the second video.
The digital counter was almost at the video’s end when Kramer leapt from his chair.
“STOP. Run it back . . . there, stop it there. Maria, can you zoom in on that couple coming down the gangway? No . . . the two walking behind the old couple.”
The elderly couple dressed in gaudy island outfits passed off screen. Behind them walked a tall woman with blonde hair and a young boy maybe ten years old.
“Those two? Your eyes must be more tired than mine, Kramer,” said Darci.
“Humor me, mate.” Kramer snapped. “Maria—that recognition software of yours—can you run it on the woman’s face?”
“Sure, it’ll only take a second to get it started.”
They all looked on as she went back over to her computer and worked the keypad for a few minutes. When she returned to the big screen the image of the woman’s face was overlaid with a mesh of lines and numbers that began changing shape slightly. A minute later the process gained speed. Everyone watched in silence.
Just when they had all given up hope of anything happening, the recognition program stopped and another image appeared off to the side. The name beneath the woman’s face read ‘Shelley Harper’ with a seventy-five percent probability.
“I’ll be damned,” breathed Darci.
“Maria, any chance you can change the other woman’s hair from blonde to red?” Kramer edged forward in his chair.
He felt Brandt watching him closely, recognizing the expression growing there. It was that of the hunter creeping in for the kill.
It took mere seconds for Maria to make the change. The probability number jumped to eighty-seven percent.
“Shit. Will you take a gander at that?” Darci gasped. “Kramer how did you—”
“Maria, can you do something about those sunglasses—like get rid of them? And that heavy makeup the blonde is wearing—can you somehow soften the cheek areas?” Kramer was almost out of his chair.
This time it took Maria nearly twelve minutes to make Kramer’s adjustments to the security image. Finally it was done, and she hit a single key and sat back to allow the computer to complete its work.
On screen the sunglasses were magically painted out, the eyes from the Harper image copied and pasted onto the surveillance image, and tweaked to match the facial angle. Then the computer’s cursor hovered over the cheeks and gradually the heavy makeup softened to a lighter tone. A beeping sounded and Maria reached out, tapped a key, and the alarm stopped. The probability now read ninety-eight percent.
Everyone sat in stunned silence. Darci swung round and peered into the computer’s camera positioned behind him.
“Bloody hell, Kramer. How in the world did you suspect it was Harper? And what about the boy? Anyone else would have pegged them as mother and son.”
“You’re forgetting one thing,” Kramer said quietly.
“What’s that mate?”
“I’m the only one among us who has been face-to-face with Harper. I also have more than one reason never to forget that face.” Kramer absently touched his chest. “As for the boy . . . I think you’ll find he’s merely a stooge for her plan to enter the States. My guess is he’s already dead.”
All the drivers involved were homegrown ISIS sympathizers and volunteers with impeccable driving histories and no criminal records because all were government employees with Level 2 – Secret – security clearances issued by the Department of Homeland Security.
The team with the furthest to travel had twenty-seven hours to look forward to, nearly ten more than the other nine teams. Two drivers were assigned to each vehicle with strict instructions not to engage their passengers in conversation of any kind other than to ask if they were hungry, thirsty or needed a rest stop. So, in order to cope with the long hours of silence, all the drivers wore earbuds and tuned into their favorite music or audiobook.
The American landscape the group’s leader was forced to endure was one he and his men had been educated from birth to abhor. He knew they were doing the same as him, peering through the heavily tinted windows at sights that boggled his mind and senses; women walking about with faces uncovered, wearing degenerate clothing and makeup; women driving vehicles and moving about unescorted by a male; the blatant display of wealth; and stores that displayed all manner of ungodly wares and services.
The land of the Great Satan surely needed the righteous touch of the Hand of God and they, His servants, were here to do just that in His name.
Before departing their new stronghold in Sirte, Libya—the former home of Colonel Gaddafi—the twenty fighters were each handed a blessed copy of the Qur’an and a document listing the steps they should take to ensure the successful completion of their mission.
As his vehicle sped northward, one of the fighters pulled out his copy of the letter and read one of the points listed.
‘Remind your soul to listen and obey all divine orders, and remember you will face decisive situations that might prevent you from one hundred percent obedience, so tame your soul, purify it, convince it, make it understand, and incite it. God said: ‘Obey God and His Messenger, and do not fight amongst yourselves or else you will fail. And be patient, for God is with the patient.’
He reread the passage several times before returning it to his jacket pocket then rested his head against the window and gazed blindly at the gentle rolling hills, broad flats, crop fields, and grazing livestock of the Texan Rolling Plains region as they slipped past.
None of the fighters knew their final destinations, nor did they care. They knew there would be comfortable accommodation awaiting them along with further instructions, explosives, ammunition, and weapons—all the tools of their trade.
His comrade glanced across at him knowing full well what was passing through his mind. Together they had carried out many missions, and though this may be their most audacious, and therefore most likely their last, each mission required the same mental and physical preparation.
He glanced at his watch then squirmed into a comfortable position and fell asleep.
* * * * * *
The time on the car’s digital readout showed one pm, quite early to pause in her journey north, but Harper had time to spare and decided to take the exit ramp into Kingsland, Georgia just over three miles north of the Florida state line.
She parked the SUV in a space adjacent the entrance to the Hawthorn Suites, checked in under a false name, and fifteen minutes later stretched out on the surprisingly comfortable bed in her room. She lay a while staring up at the ceiling and allowed her mind to replay the events of the last few days. Two made her smile-—shooting Kramer and watching his body slide beneath the waves, and setting foot in America for the first time in years.
The latter caused her eyes to well up as she remembered the last occasion she had seen her daughter, Catalina, alive. It had been an exceptional occasion for Valdiron and herself—the graduation of Catalina from the FBI Academy. It was also near impossible for them to attend because of their notoriety with the agency. But they had managed with a lot of ingenuity and Hollywood-quality makeup and disguise. The fact that two of the FBI’s most-wanted would have a daughter as a Special Agent was no accident. Catalina was to be the eyes and ears for her parents’ criminal empire. Little did they know then that Valdiron would later kill her.
Once again the painful past became almost unbearable. The last time Harper had seen her lover and partner-in-crime, Valdiron. It had been at their estate in South Africa and they had exchanged angry words over his decision to make a personal trip to the U.S.—something she had regretted ever since. She never saw him again—alive that is—only images on the Internet of his body and that of Catalina’s surrounded by FBI and others, including Kramer and his blasted monster of a dog.
Now it was time for her to exact retribution. The plan for sneaking back into America had been fairly simple to come up with. Reaching out to some of Valdiron’s old criminal contacts proved even less complicated, right down to providing them with a shopping list of supplies her plan required and having them delivered and waiting for her to collect.
The plan, though, demanded a major diversion; something to catch and hold the attention of the FBI, police and as many other agencies as possible. She had spent over a year racking her brain for such a diversion when ISIS reached out to her.
Not for a moment did she forget that this could well prove a one-way trip; that her chances for survival were stacked against her—and stacked extremely high. Unknown to everyone except for Valdiron and Catalina, Harper had a contact, the only other person to whom she could turn for help. Right now that person was waiting patiently for her to arrive so that, together, they could bring Harper’s plan to fruition.
She sat up sharply and raked her hair with her fingers. What she needed was a nice long hot shower and food. Her corner room looked out onto a dense forest that provided good privacy so she didn’t bother closing the curtains. She undressed, leaving her clothes lying where they fell, and walked naked to the entertainment unit and switched on the radio then entered the bathroom.
Steam quickly filled the room and drifted out into the living area along with a melodic voice singing ‘I’m Coming For You,’ a song by Triggerfinger.
It had been a long sleepless night for Kramer. Something about Harper’s return to America didn’t sit quite right in his mind. Despite the fact that the attack on her South African estate had flushed her out into the open Kramer could see no plausible reason for Harper to go to such extraordinary lengths to get into America. Her businesses extended worldwide; with her contacts she could have simply disappeared underground anywhere in the world and chances of locating her again would be next to zero.
Since her husband’s death Harper had assumed his criminal organization and proven herself more than proficient in nurturing it into the empire it now was.
So why put all that at risk by running straight into the arms of the one country that hunted her the most? It contradicted everything Kramer knew about Harper. Whatever the reason, it meant more to the woman than anything else. A memory glowed dimly in the far reaches of his mind.
Then the fog lifted from his befuddled thoughts and he recalled the alarm on his smartphone that woke him just as he was about to drift off moments before Brandt was due to arrive.
He searched about for the device and found it on the floor. He pulled up the message and then all the pieces regarding Harper’s recent behavior began to fall into place.
“So we now know that after disembarking, Harper had a SUV waiting for her in the nearby multi-level car park,” Kramer said.
He and Brandt sat together on a couch in their hotel room using their iPad to talk with Darci and Maria on the west coast. They had been in the process of cleaning their Glock and Sig Sauer when Darci called and the coffee table was covered in weapon pieces and cleaning material.
“That’s what the car park security camera shows,” Maria confirmed. “But someone obscured the tags enough that the camera wasn’t able to give us a clear enough image for us to track down.”
Brandt leaned forward. “Darci, Maria . . . do either of you have any clue why Harper would choose now to return here? I can’t come up with anything that makes sense but, then again, I’m the new kid on the block, so to speak. I’ve read our files on her and Valdiron, but I didn’t find anything to spark an idea.”
Darci and Maria looked at each other, shrugged then looked back at their two operatives in Florida.
“We can’t say with any certainty, other than it seems strange to us that she would abandon her lucrative business in South Africa, even if it was legit,” Darci said.
“And her criminal activities, operating under the name Inkwazi Enterprises, extend all over the world. She’s been doing it for years—and very successfully. There isn’t any viable reason we can determine for her to leave all that and make a personal trip here. The risks are too high for her. She’s on everyone’s watch list. If she has a plan in mind—whatever the hell it is—surely it wouldn’t be hard at all for her to have someone else to carry it out,” Maria said.
“You’re mighty quiet, mate. Care to share any thoughts you might have with the rest of us?” Darci asked.
“What date is it?” Kramer simply asked.
“July twenty-fourth. Why do you ask?”
“Anything about that ring any bells?” Kramer calmly picked up a couple of metal pieces and began reassembling his Glock.
“Nope, not with me.” Darci glanced at his wife. “Maria, what about you, hon—any bells ringing in that pretty head of yours?” She pursed her lips and shook her head.
Silence settled at both ends of the Internet call, and all eyes focused on Kramer as he continued to piece his weapon together. Moments later he gave the Glock a once over with a cleaning cloth then placed it on the coffee table.
“Three days from today it will have been thirty-one months since Valdiron and Catalina were killed,” Kramer said quietly, almost unemotionally. “Maybe all this is simply about revenge. Maybe Harper has finally come back to reap retribution from those she holds responsible for their deaths. As far as she’s concerned this is a different kind of business trip. It’s purely personal—nothing to do with rebuilding her operations here at all. And don’t forget that we’ve established a strong connection between Harper and ISIS.”
Darci and Maria stared wide-eyed at each other for a long moment then both turned slowly back to Kramer. He could see their minds working overtime behind their incredulous expressions. Finally Darci squinted hard at him.
“You’ve suspected this revenge motive all along, haven’t you, mate? When did you—”
“The moment I saw her step off that cruise ship.”
“What? And the thought never entered that thick skull of yours to let any of us know?”
Kramer shrugged. “I needed to mull it over for myself. I needed to be sure all the pieces fit before shooting my mouth off. Then this morning the notification alarm went off on my smartphone—and I knew.”
“You marked down the date Valdiron and his daughter were killed?” asked Maria.
Kramer shook his head.
“No, Maria, he marked down the date Sarah was killed—they’re both the same,” Brandt said softly, and her eyes couldn’t hide the empathy she felt as she regarded Kramer sitting quietly.
Maria shrank into her chair looking positively mortified by her faux pas. Darci looked equally admonished. And Brandt felt wretched being there and having to watch Kramer struggle with his painful memories. She rose from the lounge and went out onto their hotel balcony. She felt a nudge against her thigh and noticed Shadow had followed her. She stood there gazing out at the city skyline basking in a hazy sunset and stroked the dog’s large head.
“Okay, enough of this pity party.” Kramer’s voice boomed through the room. “We haven’t got the luxury to waste time while Harper is out there running around like a loose cannon. And don’t forget it’s a fair bet that ISIS might be somehow involved as well. Charlie, get your ass back in here. Shadow—you too, you big lug head.”
They both virtually sprinted back into the room and dutifully sat on either side of Kramer. He put an arm around both their shoulders and smiled into the iPad’s camera.
“Now, Maria, we don’t have the license plates to Harper’s SUV but we do have fairly good images of the make and model. Send the best over to us—maybe see if you can fiddle with them first, and work your magic in sharpening them up for us. As soon as we receive them, Charlie and I will hit the streets and try our best to get any leads.
“Darci, pass on our concern about ISIS to your contacts at Homeland Security—I think they’d appreciate the heads up. Then get in touch with everyone you know over here and begin circulating those same SUV images. Call in whatever chips are owed you to get people working with us—the more eyes we have looking for Harper the better our chances of finding her sooner than later. I know her better than anyone, and if I’m right about her reason for being here then you can bet she’s had time enough to plan something big.”
Kramer was suddenly reenergized. He was back in his element of giving orders, getting people to jump to action. None of his friends watching could guess the former Marine sensed he was being given his one last chance to settle his score with Harper—the last remaining vestige of Valdiron’s legacy. This time he vowed to himself that one way or another he would bring Harper down—take her out once and for all.
“We’re on it,” Darci and Maria said in unison, and the iPad screen went dark.
Kramer nodded at the items cluttering the coffee table. “You’d better begin putting that Sig back together unless you want to leave here feeling naked.” He winked at her and shot her a wry smile.
She turned away but not before he noticed the flush on her cheeks. For some reason a tingle ran down his spine and settled in his groin. Damnit.
Within the first twenty hours calls began filtering in from around the country. The ISIS teams were arriving at their various destinations and reporting in. The ringleader behind the whole plan sat peacefully at his desk and took their short calls, then updated the data on his computer map. Except for the last three teams that had the furthest to travel and were scheduled to report in the next six to seven hours, everything was running as per his timetable.
Each digital flag representing one of his teams was assigned a letter from the Arabic alphabet: alif, baa, taa, thaa, jiim, haa, kha, daal, thaal, and raa. As he leaned back in his chair and scanned the first seven flags flashing to mark that they were active, his private smartphone rang. He leaned forward and took it up.
“Nem fielaan? Yes?” The caller identified himself and the ringleader ended the call. He moved the cursor over the map and selected the flag titled daal. Eight down, two more to go. He clicked on the daal flag and it went active.
He opened his briefcase and, from inside the false lining, retrieved his copy of the same document issued to each of his holy warriors. He ran a long slender finger down the point-by-point list and stopped at number ten under the heading The Last Night. His lips moved silently as he read.
‘Remember the words of Almighty God: ‘You were looking to the battle before you engaged in it, and now you see it with your own two eyes.’ Remember: ‘How many small groups beat big groups by the will of God.’ And His words: ‘If God gives you victory no one can beat you. And if He betrays you who can give you victory without Him? So the faithful put their trust in God.’
He meditated on the words for a long while then slipped the papers back and closed the briefcase. When news came across his desk of the South African attack by persons unknown, and the subsequent death of two of ISIS’s high-ranking officers as well as one of the movement’s top warriors, at first he had feared for his plan. Then he had turned to passages from the Holy Qur’an and received much needed peace of mind and reassurance that all would go well.
There was a gentle knock on his office door and he closed the desktop window displaying the map.
A smartly dressed woman in her thirties entered carrying a silver tray on which was a china setting for one. She moved quickly across the room and placed the tray gently down.
“Would you like me to pour, sir?” she asked in a soft voice.
“No thank you, Selena. I can manage.” He gave her a wide smile that displayed a perfect set of teeth.
She bobbed her head and quickly left, closing the door quietly behind her. He regarded the blank door, resting his elbows on his polished desk and cradling his chin on steepled fingers.
The road he’d traveled to reach this pinnacle in his long career had been arduous with numerous twists and turns and setbacks. But he had persevered with the help of his devoted innocent wife and children.
Nevertheless, even harder had been the task of keeping hidden his previous life prior to coming to America. Thankfully, as God would have it, he had entered the country many years before the 9/11 attack-—before the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and all the toughened immigration and security laws and procedures that came with it.
It also helped that those in Syria responsible for creating his new sterile identity were experts and their foresight to have him procure an American wife from among the political elite had only cemented his place in the field he was supposed to pursue.
When he had been promoted to his latest position the same people also provided him a flash drive, by way of a dead drop, that enabled him to encrypt his computer in such a way that his insurgent files were partitioned and isolated from his department’s internal IT security surveillance and backup but more importantly, programed to auto-destruct.
Then came the moment when he felt the sudden inspiration for a plan that could have as much effect and damage on the American psyche as that of the 9/11 attack.
He spent over two years devising and refining his scheme before considering it worthy to submit to his superiors in Syria. Months later he was unexpectedly contacted while at lunch away from his office. His plan had been accepted but, more important to him, sanctioned to put into operation whenever he deemed the time right.
When he posed the question of funds and personnel he received an immediate answer confirming neither would be an issue. While deliberating over his submission, ISIS had contacted a person in South Africa who claimed to have the means of inserting its fighters into America without too much problem. The price was considerable but not impossible and a deal was struck.
A self-assured smile appeared on his lips and he reached for the long triangular nameplate on his desk and gazed at it. Printed in gold lettering on the dark mahogany wood were the words ‘Peter Halsted, Deputy Assistant Director, Office of Intelligence and Analysis, Department of Homeland Security’.
He replaced the nameplate as his smartphone rang. “Yes?” Again he listened for a few seconds before hanging up. He reopened the window on his computer and activated the thaal flag. One more to go, and then the first phase of his plan would be complete.
Twelve hundred miles away the two men of alif team settled into their safe house—their place for preparation. They were less than two miles from their target. The drivers who had brought them were in their own room in the rear of the house enjoying a well-earned rest before the action started.
The older of the terrorists parted the curtains slightly and peered out at the quiet suburban street. He watched as people went about their everyday business totally unaware that if he so desired he could pluck out their lives in the blink of an eye. The image brought a grim smile to his face.
He turned as his younger comrade entered the room and walked over to the wall-mounted TV. He looked about for the controller, spotted it lying in its cradle on a table beside an overstuffed single lounge, and grabbed it as he dropped into the chair. He switched on the TV to watch the news when his comrade pointed out it was almost time for Asr–their afternoon prayer.
He held up a few sheets of paper. “Have you read all that is written here?”
“Well, whether you’ve read this already or not, I think this is the perfect time for this particular passage from the letter,’ he said, referring to the document handed out to them all. He began to read in a monotone:
‘When you have reached your place of preparation, say a supplication of place [‘Oh Lord, I ask you for the best of this place, and ask you to protect me from its evils’], and everywhere you go say that prayer and smile and be calm, for God is with the believers. And the angels protect you without you feeling anything. Say this supplication: ‘God is more dear than all of His creation.’ And say: ‘Oh Lord, protect me from them as You wish.’ And say: ‘Oh Lord, take your anger out on the enemy and we ask You to protect us from their evils.’ And say: ‘Oh Lord, block their vision from in front of them, so that they may not see.’ And say: ‘God is all we need, He is the best to rely upon.’ Remember God’s words: ‘Those to whom the people said, “The people have gathered to get you, so fear them,” but that only increased their faith and they said, God is all we need, He is the best to rely upon.’
“Allahu Akbar,” the younger responded firmly.
Both men pondered the message, each taking courage from the words and strengthening their resolve for what lay ahead.
“Do you want to watch that propaganda, or would you prefer we scout out our target?” the elder asked, gesturing at the newsreader on the screen.
“I say we take a ride.” The younger switched the TV off and tossed the controller onto the side table. “I can watch their news when we get back. I need a good laugh.”
The elder knocked on the bedroom occupied by the two drivers. A bleary-eyed man opened it. “We want to check out our target—now. It shouldn’t take long.” His tone indicated a command, not a request. The man shrugged and told his fellow driver of their plan then the three men walked out to the SUV parked out of sight behind the house.
Nine minutes later the SUV cruised slowly through one of several large car parks, the ISIS team seated in the back craning to see as much as they could of the complex’s layout. Until their arrival at the house the men had no prior knowledge of their target, but waiting for them were instructions that quickly made it all clear.
Now that they had eyes on the target they appreciated the enormity of the task at hand. There were numerous access points to the site, too many for the two-man unit to contend with. Instead, they had to select the best option open to them that promised the greatest results.
“Driver, pull around and take us by that last entrance,” the elder terrorist said.
As they cruised past the spot again he gestured at the building through the SUV’s darkened windows. “There, that one is the best. The way everything is laid out will work to our advantage. There’s hardly any cover or shelter to speak of. What do you think?” he asked his comrade.
The younger leaned across and regarded the area. After a moment he nodded, satisfied. “Yes, I think you are right. The other access points are good, but this is the best. Yes, this one will work very well.”
“Excellent,” the elder replied. He leaned forward and touched the driver on the shoulder. “Pull into that space there. I’ll be but a moment. I need to see inside the place.”
The SUV slid into a vacant parking spot and the terrorist climbed out and made his way as casually as he could into the huge building. Ten minutes he reappeared and joined the others waiting in the vehicle. The younger looked at him inquiringly. The elder nodded with a smile and directed the driver to return to the safe house.
“All that is left now is for us to sketch out our plan on paper and strategize our timing.” The elder had no inkling that their attack would to be the first.
The morning proved to be nondescript. The sky was a watercolor palette of soft hues and pale clouds, the early humidity and heat sufficiently comfortable that Harper could drive with her window down. Great swaths of watery green wetlands stretched out either side of the highway and tainted the air with a decidedly moldy smell that fortunately was bearable.
She maintained a steady speed, stuck to the outside lane, and watched as others sped past on their rush north. The road ahead rose as it prepared to take her out of Georgia, over the Savannah River, into the next state.
As she passed over the wide ribbon of sky gray water and reached the river’s midway point the blue South Carolina state welcome board caught her eye. Welcome to South Carolina – Smiling Faces, Beautiful Places. Then the highway eased back down to earth where moments later she was officially greeted again by the state’s welcome gate that flanked the I-95; the central portion standing in the medium strip flourishing the American and state flags. Today they hung limp and unmoving.
Harper consulted her nav system and chose a rest stop close to the state’s northern border for lunch. Traffic was reasonably light, certainly not stressful, for which she was thankful, so she scanned the radio stations and settled back to go over her plans as the dulcet voice of Harry Connick Jr filled the car.
Nearly four hours later she had to double take at the sight of a huge alien sombrero rising some two hundred feet above the miles of pine forest and cultivated fields. The structure turned out to be Sombrero Tower, the notable landmark of a unique amalgam of Dixie and Old Mexico—the South of The Border tourist complex, better known to locals and insiders as SOB.
Harper almost reconsidered her choice of rest stop when she encountered the ninety-seven foot tall grinning mustachioed caricature of Pedro, the supposed lovable mascot of the place that straddled the entrance to SOB. What the hell? She drove between Pedro’s legs.
It had been quite a while since she had treated herself to a decent meal so when the sign for Peddler Steak House caught her eye it didn’t take long before she pulled in and was shown to a corner booth looking out to the car park.
While she waited for her order, she read up on the history of SOB–how it started in 1949 as a beer stand called South of The Border Depot and expanded over the years to its current status as an intriguing campy attraction for travelers on the I-95.
She salivated the instant her meal arrived. Until that moment she had not realized just how hungry she really was—her mind had been preoccupied with more important things.
She was almost finished when she noticed a South Carolina State Highway Patrol car pass by the restaurant, then stop and reverse until it was level with the car park entrance. She could see the trooper looking at something, but had no idea what caught his attention until the patrol car turned into the lot and pulled up behind her SUV.
Suddenly her appetite was gone. She eased the unfinished meal aside and sipped her coffee as the trooper left his vehicle and walked around hers. He stooped and peered inside the front and back, then went around to the front and pulled out his large notebook. He jotted down something then returned to his patrol car. Damn.
Harper calmly finished her coffee and paid her bill then went and stood just outside the restaurant’s entrance. She sucked in her lower lip and scrutinized the area checking for more police. There were none. Taking in a deep breath, she exhaled slowly then casually approached her SUV.
“Excuse me, ma’am, but are you the driver of this vehicle?” The voice had a thick southern drawl.
Harper turned slowly and looked appropriately surprised. The trooper was tall—over six feet, broad shouldered, and square jawed, his two-tone gray uniform tailored to his trim figure, his hat sat jauntily tilted forward on his head, reminiscent of the U.S. Marine Drill Instructor image. He appeared pleasant enough, not at all threatening or intimidating—actually smiling.
She took a couple of steps toward him and glanced at the nametag pinned to his chest. “Officer . . . Westbury, or is it Trooper Westbury?”
“Officer Westbury will do just fine, ma’am. Is this your vehicle?”
“Um, yes it is, officer. Is there something wrong? Did I do something—?”
“Could I see your driver’s license and vehicle registration, please?” A slight hardness crept into his voice.
“Of course.” Harper opened the driver’s door and leaned inside the SUV.
“Slowly please, if you don’t mind, ma’am.”
She eased out slowly as requested and handed the trooper her identification. “You didn’t answer my question, Officer Westbury. Did I do something wrong?”
He didn’t answer but merely studied the ID in his hand. That was when Harper noticed the trooper’s body camera. She’d forgotten that those were becoming more and more prevalent in police departments across the nation. Westbury’s could prove a potential problem. She wasn’t sure exactly how the cameras worked but assumed they weren’t linked directly back to his station.
“Thank you, ma’am. Sorry, nothing wrong. I had a report about someone speeding and the description of the vehicle matched yours, that’s all.” He handed her ID back, but his tone and body language seemed hesitant.
“So I’m free to go, officer?”
“Yes, ma’am. Let me move my vehicle out of your way.”
Westbury turned right out of the car park and drove toward the southern end of SOB. Harper, conscious of customers staring at her from the restaurant, turned left from the car park and headed north to regain the I-95. Movement in the rearview mirror caught her eye and when she looked she saw Officer Westbury turn his vehicle around and begin following her at a distance.
It was the first time since setting foot in America that Harper felt truly nervous.
She took the onramp and resumed her northward journey, ever conscious of the highway patrol car in her mirror. When she crossed the state line and entered North Carolina she thought she would relax knowing that Westbury couldn’t follow her. But even as she watched his vehicle pause at the border and turn back around she was surprised to discover she had been holding her breath all the while. She exhaled loudly.
There was now something that had to be done, and done quickly. She worked at the nav system for a few minutes and chose her next stop.