The woman raised a hand to shield her eyes from the glaring South African sun. Unlike most redheads whose skin is normally very fair, hers had acquired a rich bronze tone from years of living in this hard, unforgiving region.
She stood tall at six feet two inches–exercise and body sculpturing had changed her physique from voluptuous to athletic. Her poise belied the strength and cat-like agility hidden beneath her loose white, Egyptian cotton, open neck blouse and light tan slacks. Her flawless features and mane of fiery red captured the attention of every male and female wherever she went.
Her electric green eyes followed the approaching vehicle snaking its way up the steep grade trailing a despondent tail of pale dust. When he had the mile-long driveway altered from being straight to its current zigzag course, she had thought her partner-in-crime and lover, Valdiron, crazy at the time. Now she appreciated his wisdom and forethought. If ever the law discovered her lair and planned a surprise visit by road it would be a slow, torturous undertaking.
She felt a modicum of guilt for the discomfort of her visitors as she watched the luxury Mercedes SUV bounce and sway closer. She turned from the balcony railing to be on hand downstairs to welcome the small delegation.
The SUV pulled up before the house and the driver leaped out to open the doors for his passengers. A few moments passed while they waited until the trailing dust swept by then three men alighted.
Instead of wearing their traditional ankle-length khamiis, each of the visitors had opted for unassuming Western jeans, polo shirts, and Nike footwear. The youngest man sported a ball cap clamped down on a head of tight black curls. Their hostess always admired how well Middle Eastern men could appear in virtually any style of clothing. She put it down to their dark, mysterious looks. This trio was no exception.
“Welcome, gentlemen. Ahlan wa sahlan. I have been looking forward to this meeting. I trust your journey was not too uncomfortable. Please join me inside. Refreshments are waiting.” Shelley Harper stood aside and beckoned her guests into her home.
The men strode up the stairs and nodded curtly as they passed Harper. The large entrance hall gave them pause and the two eldest men exchanged whispers in Arabic that failed to conceal their disdain for the opulent surroundings. Their young associate lowered the two large briefcases he was carrying and scowled at the marble flooring, and the rich wood and stainless steel and glass architecture. But most of all, his attention was focused on his hostess’ figure as she swept past them.
Harper bowed her head slightly. “Please, this way, gentlemen.” She was well aware of the lascivious remarks and looks happening behind her back as she led the men through the huge house.
A hidden staircase took them down some twenty or thirty feet before leveling out into a long passageway that ended at a solid looking wooden door. It was closed. The air was decidedly cooler at this level and the men shivered a little; they were more accustomed to the desert heat of Syria and northern Iraq.
The young man glanced over his shoulder and was startled. At some point during their walk a hulk of a black man had quietly joined the small retinue. The ebony giant flashed a dazzling white smile at the man. But there was no humor behind the giant’s deep brown eyes.
Harper produced a key and unlocked the heavy door with a well-oiled metallic snick. It swung easily open at her touch and she made certain the men noted the door’s thickness as they stepped through. It was all of six inches thick and strapped with several steel bands each four inches wide.
The visitors looked about in amazement. They stood in a cavernous chamber, the ceiling barely visible in the high shadows. The house stood close to a low range of hills and this section of the building extended inside that same range.
The depth of the chamber disappeared out of sight well beyond the smudge of light cast by the overhead lighting. The width of the space was hidden behind the huge wooden barrels that flanked the group.
Harper smiled at her guests’ expressions. “This is a little venture I dabble in on the side—quite legitimate and surprisingly profitable. Wine. I’d say that on average we produce close to ten thousand bottles a year.”
She approached one of the huge barrels and put a hand on its thick metal rim. Unseen by the men, she pressed a hidden trigger. The soft clunk was barely discernable to the others, but their gasp of surprise was very clear as Harper swung open a tall door that formed part of the barrel’s face.
They hesitated when Harper beckoned them to step through, so she took the lead and they followed, albeit warily. The black giant stepped in after them and closed the door. Concealed inside the fake barrel was a well-appointed boardroom worthy of any major world corporation.
“Please take a seat, gentleman.” Harper stood at the head of the large table and indicated the high-backed leather chairs. “Numbadno, please pour us a round of drinks.”
The giant nodded and moved quietly to an impressive bar featuring a wall of backlighted bottles. He bypassed the alcoholic drinks and withdrew a distinctive black bottle from a large wine fridge. He poured four glasses and placed them on a silver tray, along with the bottle. After serving the wine he left the tray and bottle on the table and took up a position standing behind Harper’s chair.
The oldest Arab took the bottle and regarded it closely. After passing it to his lieutenant he held his glass up to the lights and studied the rich blood red wine.
Harper smiled inwardly. She had gone to a great deal of trouble to secure a case of KevserTabak, the world’s first halal certified, non-alcoholic wine. The makers had been only too pleased to inform her that the halal symbol/logo depicted on their bottles would ensure her guests’ approval of her wine choice.
Halal is an Arabic word that means ‘permissible’. In terms of Islamic dietary laws, ‘Halal’ meant the nutrients came from permissible sources, and were free of any forbidden substances.
“We are unaccustomed to having our hosts be so considerate of our faith, Miss Harper. Your selection of wine will certainly alleviate the discomfort of the last part of our journey.”
Abu Omar al-Masri was in his mid-sixties, and was the leader of the small ISIS delegation. He was long limbed, lanky, and resembled a length of dark jerky as he reposed in the boardroom chair. Long fingers encircled the wine glass much like the talons of a bird of prey. Atop a sinewy neck, his cadaverous-looking head tilted slightly toward his hostess. Exceptionally deep-set eyes regarded her like two glowing embers. His teeth were startlingly white as he proffered a tepid smile.
Second in seniority to al-Masri was Abu Muhammad al-Bukamal. A decade younger than his leader, he appeared healthier and lighter of skin. He was of medium height, muscular—but not overly so, ruggedly handsome in sort of a beaten copper fashion. Unlike al-Masri’s hawkish nose, his was more refined, and balanced the widespread almond-colored eyes that regarded everything shrewdly. There wasn’t the slightest hint of warmth or kindness about the man.
The youngest ISIS member looked to be in his early twenties. Abdul Faris al-Sayyaf joined the movement at the age of nine, and despite his years was very much the consummate warrior for the cause. He had a wiry build, deep bronzed skin, features that included a finely chiseled nose and chin, high cheekbones, sensuous lips, and eyes that were strangely hazel, brooding, and constantly moving. Outwardly he displayed a certain innocence accentuated by his boyish curls, but his eyes veiled the deadly killer within.
Harper acknowledged their compliments. Then her smile faded. “Shall we get down to the business at hand.” Her remark was not meant as a question.
Abu Omar al-Masri bobbed his head and cocked an eyebrow at his underling, al-Sayyaf, who rose to his feet and carried the two briefcases to where Harper sat. He placed both on the table, worked the locks, and turned the cases so she could see their contents as he opened them with a flourish.
Harper remained stoic, well aware the ISIS contingent was studying her closely. She saw the Muslims look at each other questioningly. She knew they expected at least a raised eyebrow from her when presented with one hundred million dollars in uncut diamonds.
Harper merely leaned back in her chair and sipped her wine as Numbadno removed the laden briefcases and carried them from the room, closing the door quietly behind him. The Muslims, somewhat taken aback by the emotionless display, turned to their wine to offset the lengthy deafening silence.
They jumped when Harper put her empty glass down and slapped the table with a resounding smack. “Good. Once Numbadno verifies your payment, I have instructed him to pass on word to the resources I have set in place for you that stage one is complete and to await orders for stage two.
Now gentlemen, let us re-visit the plan to attack the United States of America.”
Hours of being shackled to a computer were the pits for someone more inclined to stalking enemies through jungles, desert and mountainous regions.
Darci leaned back in his chair, rubbed his eyes, and massaged his temples. Several years ago he retired from Australia’s elite Special Air Service Regiment, or SASR. Soon after that he met Maria and they were married. Their nuptial bed was barely cool when they made a joint decision to create their company, Global Security Corporation.
Breaking into the international private security scene could have proved a daunting task for the newcomers had they not entered the game with a number of aces up their sleeves. At the same time Darci left the SASR so did a lot of his mates, and when they got wind of his and Maria’s plans they all wanted onboard. GSC hit the world market with an established core of hard-nosed elite military professionals and it wasn’t long before their clientele began to grow.
He turned his weary eyes to the view beyond his office window overlooking the flag stoned patio encasing the large pool and Jacuzzi and the stone pathway flanked by terraced gardens that swept down to the sloping lawn. A smile creased the heavily lined face.
Kramer romped and rolled on the lush lawn with his two best friends.
Shadow, verging on five years old, was fully-grown and said to be large even for an Anatolian Shepherd dog, more that of a Great Dane size. But he was all muscle and, what’s more, had been trained by the Marine Corps how to use every ounce of it. Right now he was nudging Kramer with his wet nose and using his powerful neck to roll him down the yard. The dog barked each time Kramer flipped over.
Spirit, every jet-black inch bursting with mischief, bounced and romped and barked at his two playmates, darting in for a quick nose touch then dashing around for another point of playful attack.
Peels of laughter echoed around the yard as Kramer tussled with his canine mates, trying lamely to grab them and bring them to ground by his side.
“That’s a great sight for these sore eyes to see.” Maria hugged Darci from behind, resting her chin on his shoulder; her voice soft and warm close by his ear.
“Ain’t it though,” he sighed. He reached a hand up and sank his fingers into her thick dark hair. “It’s been a while since we’ve heard him laugh like that.”
Maria stood and massaged her husband’s shoulders while she continued to gaze out at the playful trio. “I know, honey. Give him time, that’s what he really needs—that and knowing he can trust us to cover his back and be here whenever he needs us for . . . whatever.”
“It’s been, what, two years since . . .” Darci began to grumble.
“Some people need more time than others to heal. You know that better than me. I’ve lost count of how many times you’ve told me how Kramer never seemed to be able to keep a relationship. Then along came Sarah, and after a couple of years romancing each other the two got engaged. Kramer was serious about her, about settling down, then it all blew up in his face. And don’t forget it all happened at the same time he lost both his parents.” Maria said all this almost to herself. She was still focused on Kramer and the two dogs outside.
“Yeah,” Darci whispered. He turned his chair around and pulled Maria onto his lap and held her tight. “I can’t fault a word you said. I guess I need to give the bloke a bit more time to come to terms with Sarah and everything that happened. At least it doesn’t seem to have affected his approach to his work.”
That we know of, thought Maria.
Outside Kramer rose to his feet and began running for the house with both dogs on his heels. They all beamed from their rough housing. It was obvious the dogs had sorely missed Kramer and, now that he was back, wanted to be with him every possible minute—and he them.
A couple of hours later, showered, rested, and satiated by Maria’s Asian cooking, Kramer lounged in a sumptuous leather chair, a bottle of his favorite Aussie XXXX beer in one hand while he toyed with Shadow’s ears with the other. Both dogs lay on the floor either side of him.
He had returned from Tangier several days ago and undergone Maria’s unique hypnotic interrogation as part of his post-assignment debriefing—a process each agent faced after each assignment, except that theirs was conducted at GSC’s Australian office.
These sessions had proven invaluable since their inception, as several critical intelligence elements had been revealed that previously were missed by either the reporting agent or his or her handler during non-hypnotic debriefing sessions.
In Kramer’s case the only detail he had missed in his report had been that of Kasun passing a key to Harrak, and Darci had already brought that subject up on their way from the airport.
“So, this lead we have on Harper . . .” Kramer said as Darci entered the room carrying an ice-cold beer and took a seat across the large coffee table from him. “I’m guessing it starts in Limassol, Cyprus but exactly when do I begin chasing it down?”
“You’re wrong about Cyprus and—”
“But I thought you said you’d traced Harrak’s caller to Limassol.” Kramer stopped fiddling with Shadow’s ears and leaned forward. He rested his forearms on his knees and held his drink with both hands. “Admittedly, we haven’t got the exact address yet, but I have faith in Maria’s magical team of techies. They could track it down any time soon. So I’m thinking that would be the logical place to start.”
Darci took a swallow of his own XXXX beer and admired its deep amber glow as he held his glass up to the light. “Normally you’d be right and we’d have you on the next flight to Cyprus. But when we recalled you from Tangier we also put a tail on the courier who collected the two briefcases from Harrak. We felt it prudent to have a new face on the scene and forego the risk of you being recognized by Harrak or someone else there. As it turned out, the briefcases were not delivered to Cyprus at all.”
“That, and the fact that we needed you back here so we could introduce you to your new partner.” Maria walked into the room followed by a woman who looked to be in her late twenties. Dressed in safari-style tan short sleeve shirt and pants, and sturdy black utility boots, she looked as if she stepped right out of Africa.
She had an oval face with softly chiseled cheekbones. Her eyes were electrifyingly hypnotic; a pale blue with a very deep blue—almost black—outer ring, and her thinly plucked eyebrows were shaped into a deceivingly perfect arch that followed the slight curve of her eye. Her nose was elegant with a subtle up-turned tip and her firm, sensual lips, sans lipstick, wore an impish smile. Sun-bleached blonde hair swept down to her shoulders, its partially disheveled style giving the woman an overall freshness about her, as if she’d just cleaned up after a day at the beach. Those areas of bare skin that were visible displayed a healthy golden tan.
Everything about her displayed a quiet self-confidence, her movements cat-like, smooth as silk. Kramer judged her height about five-ten, and could tell she worked out. The young woman gazed around the room then those hypnotic eyes settled on Kramer.
“Kramer, I’d like to introduce Charise Brandt.”
“Just call me Charlie.” The woman approached Kramer with her hand extended. There was no mistaking her Aussie accent.
He rose from his chair and shook hands. The firmness of her grip caught him off guard. His surprise must have shown.
“Mum taught me to always shake hands firmly when it comes to men. Levels the playing field right from kickoff.” Charlie smiled. “Glad to meet you finally, Kramer. I’ve heard a lot about you.” She stepped around him and knelt. “And this has to be Shadow.” She ruffled the dog’s thick neck and Shadow reacted as if he’d known the woman for ages.
“Up ‘til now I thought I’d been doing my job quite well without a partner.” Kramer directed his comment at Darci and Maria, but kept his eyes on Brandt.
“Oh, no question about that, mate,” Darci replied. “It’s just that Charlie has reached the stage where she needs some in-the-field experience, and we thought you’d be the best partner for her.” He shot Maria a glance.
Kramer frowned when Spirit nuzzled his way between Brandt and Shadow seeking his share of her attention—the twinge of jealously surprised Kramer. He turned back to Darci.
“You sure about that? There must be others she can work alongside. Besides, next time out I’ll have Shadow with me, and we move pretty fast. There might not be time to play teacher.”
“Don’t worry about me keeping up. Besides, I think you’ll find I’m a fast learner.” Brandt gave the two dogs a last pat then rose and took a seat.
Kramer resumed his seat and brought both dogs close to his legs and motioned for them to lie down. He reached for his drink on the coffee table and took a sip as he eyed Darci and the two women. They were all looking at him. He pursed his lips and shrugged.
“Well, I guess we’ll have to wait and see.”
Darci appeared to relax and settle deeper into his leather chair. “Great. Maria and I have no doubt the two of you will make a terrific team.” He frowned at the empty glass in his hand then smiled. “I’m up for another beer. Can I get you two ladies a drink? Kramer, another beer?” He launched himself out of his chair. “Then we can get down to business and go over your next assignment.”
“The courier left Tangier, taking an Iberia flight direct to Paris. There he switched to Air Austral with minutes to spare for a flight to Budapest, and a two-hour stopover, during which time he never left the terminal or interacted with anyone else. Then he boarded EgyptAir Flight 752 to Cairo.”
Brandt interrupted Darci. “That’s an awful lot of switching. My guess is he was trying to lose any possible tails. Our agent did a great job not to lose him.”
“She’s one of our best for that kind of task,” Maria chimed in.
“And once the courier reached Cairo?” asked Kramer.
The group–including Kramer’s dogs–was seated in a dimly lit home theater studying the courier’s route marked on a map accompanied by the relevant airline flight numbers and arrival and departure times. The map disappeared and a satellite image appeared on the screen. The word CAIRO occupied the top right-hand corner. As everyone watched, the image zoomed into an outer district of the city comprised of a myriad twisting and angular streets.
“He was followed to a small tailor shop here on Haret Alam Al Din Street where he entered and reappeared seven minutes later—without the briefcases,” Darci said.
“The shop was a drop-off point then,” Kramer said.
“Yes,” Maria replied. The satellite image was replaced with a series of snapshots taken from opposite the store and showed two men leaving the tailor shop.
Several of the surveillance photos included part of what looked to be a small glass filled with a very dark, almost black liquid, and Kramer guessed their agent had taken a seat at one of the ubiquitous tea shops found all over Egypt. Tea is the national drink and holds a position even coffee cannot rival.
“Our agent confirmed the briefcases carried by these two men are the same as delivered by the courier,” Maria said.
On the screen were two men about to climb into a vehicle. The older of the two looked to be in his late sixties or early seventies, dark skinned, and a hairless skull featuring a large hawkish nose. His companion was at least ten years younger, of lighter skin, shorter, and more muscular.
“Do we have any clue who these two characters are?” asked Brandt.
Darci answered. “We’ve identified the taller guy to be Abu Omar al-Masri. He’s high up in the ISIS chain of command.”
“I thought the Americans reported killing him in an airstrike last week somewhere in northern Syria,” Kramer commented.
“He certainly looks like one of the walking dead,” Brandt cut in.
“Well, despite his looks he is very much alive, and we’ve passed along our latest Intel to Homeland Security, the FBI, and the military.” Maria pointed at the second male. “And his friend there with him is none other than Abu Muhammad al-Bukamal, the—”
“The butcher of Al-Baghdadi,” Kramer interjected. “He’s purported to have been the one who burned forty-five people alive there in Iraq about a year ago. And there are other atrocities attributed to him as well since then.”
“When were these photos taken?” Brandt asked.
“Some eight hours ago,” Darci answered.
“Do we know where these two bastards went after taking delivery of the briefcases?”
“They went straight to Cairo International, where they boarded an Ethiopian Airways flight for Cape Town.”
“South Africa?” Kramer frowned. “What’s in South Africa that would have two of ISIS’s top dogs hauling a couple of briefcases full of stolen diamonds?”
“Not what, but who.”
Kramer looked at Darci then at Brandt and Maria and back to Darci. His eyes widened. “You don’t mean—” Darci nodded silently. “Shelley Harper.” Kramer uttered the woman’s name like a hiss. Shadow’s ears stood up and the huge dog growled.
“Recall what I told you earlier?” Darci said. “Harrak was told the contents of the briefcases were needed for an urgent meeting with a woman formerly associated with an American crime lord. We’re still moving forward on the assumption that said woman is our Shelley Harper. All the pieces are beginning to indicate it’s her.”
“I’ve read through the file you have on her. We know she has her fingers in a lot of international operations—a few of which are even legit. I could be wrong, but a hundred mill in uncut diamonds can translate into a whole lot more dirty business on her part.” Brandt was resting back in her seat with her hands clasped behind her head.
“That’s a sure bet, Charlie,” Darci said. “But now that we suspect a possible link between Harper and ISIS, we have to change our operation to not only track down Harper but stop her before she has a chance to put those diamonds into play and—”
“And find out what she sold to ISIS that’s worth a hundred million to them.” Kramer leaned forward in his seat and toyed absently with his dogs’ ears. “You can bet that whatever it is will include a huge body count in their plans.”
“Maybe they’re planning to pick up where Al Qaeda left off with 9/11.” Brandt’s eyes seemed to burn with a bluish fire. “I lost both of my brothers that day.”
The room fell quiet. Spirit whimpered softly as he detected the change in the group and nuzzled closer to Kramer’s leg. The silence broke as Darci slapped his knees and stood up. The room lit up and the large theater screen shut off and slid up into the ceiling with a soft mechanical hum.
“Which is why we have our jet waiting for you right now. The crew informs me it normally takes twenty-six hours to fly non-stop from San Diego to Cape Town. They’re going to do their best to set a new record time.”
The others rose to their feet and the mood in the room instantly changed. The dogs sensed it and rocked the place with their barking. Everyone filed from the room.
“Good as she is, our agent tailing the two ISIS blokes wasn’t able to get a flight out of Cairo fast enough. But she did manage to alert another agent on the ground in Cape Town to watch for their arrival.” Darci opened the front door and the group headed for Kramer’s Wrangler parked in the driveway.
“We haven’t heard from the other agent yet, but the ISIS guys must have landed in Cape Town by now,” Maria added. “Here’s our agent’s address and cell number.” She handed Kramer a manila folder. “In there you’ll also find printouts of the ISIS duo, their background info, plus any other intel that might be of help. We’ll shoot you updates as any new intel comes in.”
Kramer, Brandt, and Shadow climbed into the Wrangler leaving Maria to hold back an anxious and disappointed Spirit. The black Pit Bull whined pitifully. Darci laid a hand on Kramer’s shoulder.
“Call us the moment you touch down. In the meantime, we’ll try to contact the agent there, but he could well be tailing the ISIS blokes and be out of cell range. Whatever the case, there’ll be a vehicle waiting for you at the airport.” He glanced across at Brandt. “Try your best to do whatever Kramer tells you to do, Charlie.”
Darci patted Kramer’s shoulder and stepped back from the Wrangler. “We won’t wish you good luck because that’s only meant for those unprepared—and you’re anything but that.”
Kramer responded with a slight nod and drove through the heavy security gates already standing open at the head of the driveway. He glanced sideways at Brandt as they sped down the hill toward the freeway.
“What did Darci mean back there—try your best to follow my orders?”
Brandt turned her head, pursed her bottom lip, and shrugged. She shifted back to watching the road ahead. Kramer’s eyes narrowed then refocused on his driving. He hated not being privy to any prior association between Darci and Brandt. It tainted his professional opinion of his Aussie boss and business partner. It also made him wary of the real reason behind Brandt’s assignment as his team member. Her attractiveness aside, Kramer had to be able to totally focus on the mission and not be distracted by any infernal intrigue.
Mother Nature proved benevolent for once and the GSC corporate jet landed in Cape Town with a new flight time record to its credit.
The aircraft was directed to an area away from the main terminal where everyone underwent a perfunctory customs check. For the crew and Kramer it was a routine procedure carried out by a local customs officer accompanied by a Department of Agriculture official from the American Embassy. Kramer thought the official to be more likely CIA but it was a new experience for Brandt, and she found it all a trifle entertaining.
Kramer, Brandt, and Shadow deplaned and the embassy man handed over the keys to a Land Rover parked nearby before he drove off without a word.
Kramer walked around the older model vehicle checking the exterior that was a little worse for wear. He lifted the hood and found the modified engine to be in immaculate condition. The interior had been modified as well to accommodate the specific weapons requested by Kramer and Brandt.
All good and squared away.
While Kramer carried out his inspection, Brandt stowed the gear they had brought then checked the onboard weaponry. Shadow climbed into the Land Rover and assumed the back seat for himself.
“What now?” Brandt asked from the front passenger seat.
Kramer stood beside the vehicle and looked about, then at his watch. The crew had deplaned after carrying out their post-landing checklist and left for their hotel. The GSC aircraft was being towed away by a tug to its hangar, leaving Kramer and his team alone. “Well, our contact hasn’t turned up to meet us.” He climbed behind the wheel. “Let’s see if he’s at home. While I drive, see if you can raise him on your cellphone. As Darci warned, he could be tailing our targets and be out of cell range, but try anyway.” He glanced at the rear vision mirror. “You all settled back there, Shadow?” The dog barked. “Okay then, let’s roll out.”
He keyed the agent’s address into the onboard GPS and the Land Rover moved off toward the nearest exit gate.
Driving on the left-hand side of the road—the wrong side—didn’t faze him. While in the Marines, and even since retiring and joining Global Security Corp, he’d had many opportunities to sit behind right-hand drive vehicles.
He cast a sideways glance and noticed that Brandt obviously didn’t share his confidence behind the wheel. She had a death grip of the roof handle while attempting to call Darci on her cellphone.
He handled the Land Rover expertly as it sped along the divided eight-lane highway towards downtown. It was ten o’clock at night and the mid-March evening air, riding summer’s tail, was balmy. Traffic was light and the twenty-minute drive raced by. It wasn’t long before the N2 highway changed from eight lanes to six and became the Nelson Mandela Boulevard.
The Land Rover took an off-ramp that curled back underneath the main thoroughfare. The GPS route skirted the western edge of City Bowl. The central area of Cape Town so-called by the locals because it is enclosed by the dramatic mountainous backdrop of Table Mountain, with its near vertical cliffs and flat-topped summit over thirty-three hundred feet, with Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head on either side.
Residential houses gave way to light industrial buildings interspersed with obvious low-income structures. Streets, some poorly lit, slid past and the team spotted desultory figures moving among pools of light and dark shadows.
They rode in silence until Kramer turned onto a dim street and pulled to a stop before a pillbox-shaped building surrounded by a five feet high wall heavily daubed with graffiti. The drab concrete apartment hunkered between two warehouses with a dark narrow passage either side separating it from the taller structures. A glow came from two front windows.
“Anything?” Kramer asked.
Brandt shook her head and put away her cellphone.
Kramer stared at the apartment for a moment. His gut told him there was something not quite right. Their agent’s failure to meet them at the airport could be regarded as odd, but not enough to trigger alarm bells. Kramer knew all too well that anything might crop up to throw plans askew. But protocol required the agent to at least call in. It hadn’t happened. Kramer’s only recourse was to check the agent’s residence in the hope to make contact or find answers to his misgivings.
He pulled out his Glock 19 9mm and checked it. Brandt did likewise with her own handgun, a Sig Sauer P226 then nodded at Kramer. They alighted from the Land Rover and Shadow padded quietly at Kramer’s side as they approached the gate set into the wall. They found it unlocked. So far not so good.
Kramer and Brandt positioned themselves on either side of the gate, guns at ready-low position. Brandt covered Kramer as he eased the gate open with his boot. He froze when it squeaked, waited several long seconds, and when nothing happened, pushed it aside enough for them to slip inside.
The entire front area between the wall and building was concreted and empty. They moved quickly to the corners careful to avoid crossing before the windows, and peered down each side of the apartment. Brandt signaled that hers was clear except for a window looking onto the passage while Kramer signed that his contained a couple of garbage cans and nothing else.
Ducking low, they approached the front windows and peered inside. A single room stretched the width of the apartment with an old TV perched on a folding table at one end and a worn two-seater lounge and small coffee table at the other. A naked bulb hung at the end of its cord in the center of the room.
Kramer motioned to Brandt and they converged on the front door. Shadow remained at Kramer’s side every step.
“I know that Darci told us—” Kramer murmured.
Brandt looked grim. “Yeah, but I think both our guts are telling us different.”
Kramer nodded. He felt good that Brandt’s instincts mirrored his. That’s a good sign. “You have twenty seconds to get to the back door. When you hear Shadow and I take the front you come in through the back.”
Brandt slipped around the corner and Kramer began counting with Shadow watching him closely. One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . Kramer’s eyes tracked the second hand on his watch . . . twenty. He stood in front of the door—and kicked.
Kramer and Shadow exploded into the room. The Marine ducked to the right in a crouch and swept the room with his Glock. Shadow leapt to the left and prepared to spring at anything that moved.
Sound of the back door smashing open reached them.
“Front clear,” Kramer called.
A short hall connected the front and rear rooms. In the middle were two doors facing each other. Both were closed. Brandt and Kramer moved quickly and each slammed a door open.
Kramer pivoted, sweeping the small bedroom with eyes and pistol. “Clear.”
Across the hall, Brandt’s voice sounded hard. “Kramer—in here.”
A man sat on the toilet; his hands bound with wire to the overhead cistern effectively immobilizing his arms that were stretched taut. His head was slumped onto his chest and the mop of blonde hair was dark from perspiration. The salty smell mingled with that of rusty iron. Blood. Judging by the copious amount of the dry liquid splashed over his bare chest, the guy’s throat had been cut.
Brandt stepped forward and lifted the head so they could see the face. It had been worked over by an expert who really knew how to trash someone’s face.
Kramer drew a photo out, unfolded it, and held it up to the destroyed features. “It’s him—our agent.”
“First thought that comes to mind is the poor bastard got too close to the guys he was meant to tail.” Brandt’s tone sounded harsh, even unsympathetic.
Kramer’s head snapped up but he held his tongue. He reached up and untied the agent’s arms then lowered them slowly. Both had been expertly sliced to the bone in numerous places. Kramer’s jaw tightened.
“This guy was tortured.”
“No shit, Sherlock.”
Kramer scowled at Brandt but kept his tongue. “And not too long ago—maybe twelve to eighteen hours.” He’d seen his fair share, then some, of death. “Here, give me a hand to move him into the bedroom.”
Space in the bathroom was tight but they managed to maneuver the body across the hallway and onto the sorry-looking bed. The tired springs protested under the dead weight.
Kramer draped a sheet over the corpse. “Check the place over for anything this guy may have left behind. There might be a clue of some sort that will tell us where those ISIS characters were headed.”
He began searching the bedroom while Brandt stepped out and followed the hall to the front room. Kramer soon heard furniture being upended and things thumping to the floor. At the same time Shadow poked his nose into dark corners and other places.
A short while later they gathered in the front room.
“I didn’t come across anything helpful,” Brandt said. “Either the place was scoured before we turned up, or our guy was well and truly into Spartan living.”
“Yeah, I didn’t find anything either,” Kramer added. He looked around. “Hey, did you come across Shadow, I haven’t seen him for—”
Sound of a dog barking made them turn and rush to the back of the house. They found Shadow blocking the back door and staring up at a pair of spindly dark-skinned legs hanging from the ceiling. They were kicking wildly as their owner tried to scramble back into the roof.