When Robie arrived home he walked for two hours through the darkened streets. He ventured down by the river and watched the headlights on the Virginia side cut through the night. A police patrol boat slid past on the calm surface of the Potomac.
He stared up at the drab, moonless sky; a cake without candles.
Happy Birthday to me.
IT WAS THREE A.M.
Will Robie had been awake for two hours. The mission set forth on the flash drive he’d been given would cause him to travel well past Edinburgh. The target was yet another well-protected man with more money than morals. Robie had been working on the task for nearly a month. The details were numerous, the margin of error was even less than with Rivera. The preparation was arduous and had taken its toll on Robie. He could not sleep. He was also not eating very much.
But he was trying to relax now. He was sitting in the small kitchen of his apartment. It was located in an affluent area with many magnificent dwellings. Robie’s building was not one of them. It was old, utilitarian in design, with noisy pipes, odd smells, and tacky carpet. Its occupants were diverse and hardworking, most just starting out in life. They left early every morning to take their place at law firms, accounting practices, and investment concerns spread over the city.
Some had chosen the public-sector route and took the subway or bus, biked, or even walked to the large government buildings housing the likes of the FBI, the IRS, and the Federal Reserve.
Robie did not know any of them, though he saw all of them from time to time. He had been briefed on all of them. They all kept to themselves, immersed in their careers, their ambitions. Robie kept to himself too. He prepared for the next job. He sweated the details because it was the only way he could survive.
He rose and stared out the window, down to the street where only one car passed by. Robie had traveled the world for a dozen years now. And everywhere he went someone died. He could no longer remember the names of all the people whose lives he had ended. They didn’t matter to him when he was killing them and they didn’t matter to him now.
The man who had previously held Robie’s position had operated during a particularly busy time for Robie’s clandestine agency. Shane Connors had terminated nearly thirty percent more targets than Robie had in the same amount of time. Connors had been a good, sound mentor to the man who would replace him. After his “retirement” Connors had been assigned to a desk job. Robie had had little contact with him over the last five years. But there were few men Robie respected more. And thinking about Connors made Robie dwell for a bit on his own retirement. A number of years off, it would eventually happen.
If I survive.
Robie’s line of work was a young man’s game. Even at forty Robie knew he couldn’t do it another dozen years. His skills would erode too much. One of his targets would be better than he was.
He would die.
And then his thoughts came back to Shane Connors sitting behind his desk.
Robie supposed that was death too, simply by another name.
He walked to the front door, placed his eye against the peephole. Though he didn’t personally know any of his neighbors, that did not mean he wasn’t curious about them. He was, in fact, very curious. It wasn’t hard to explain why.
Their lives were normal.
Robie’s was not.
Seeing them going about their everyday lives was his only way to stay connected to reality.
He had even thought about starting to socialize with some of them. Not only would it provide good cover for him—attempting to blend in—but also it would help prepare him for the day when he would no longer do what he did now. When he might have a normal life of sorts.
Then his thoughts turned, as they inevitably did, back to the upcoming mission.
One more kill.
It would be difficult, but then they all were.
He could very easily die.
But that was also always the case.
It was a strange way to spend one’s life, he knew.
But it was his way.
THE COSTA DEL Sol had lived up to its name today.
Robie wore a straw-colored narrow-brim hat, a white T-shirt, a blue jacket, faded jeans, and sandals. There was three days’ worth of stubble on his tanned face. He was on holiday, or at least looked to be.
Robie boarded the large, bulky ferry to cross the Strait of Gibraltar. He looked back to the mountains rising along the rugged and imposing Spanish coastline. The juxtaposition of the high rock to the blue Med was captivating. He admired it for a few seconds and then turned away, forgetting the image just as quickly. He had other things occupying his mind.
The high-speed ferry headed to Morocco. It pitched and swayed like a metronome as it left Tarifa Harbor on its way to Tangier. Once it gathered speed and hit the open waters, the ride smoothed out. The belly of the ferry was filled with cars, buses, and tractor-trailers. The rest was crammed with passengers eating, playing video games in an arcade, and purchasing duty-free cigarettes and perfume by the carload.
Robie sat in his seat and admired the view, or at least pretended to. The strait was only nine miles wide and the ride would take only about forty minutes. Not a lot of time to contemplate anything. He spent it alternately gazing out at the waters of the Med and studying the other passengers. They were mostly tourists, eager to say they had been to Africa, although Robie knew that Morocco was very different from what most people probably would think when they imagined Africa.
He walked off the ferry in Tangier. Buses, taxis, and tour guides awaited the masses. Robie bypassed them all and left the port on foot. He entered the main street of the town and was instantly besieged by peddlers, beggars, and shopkeepers. Children pulled on his jacket, asking for money. He directed his gaze down and kept walking.
He passed through the congested spice market. At one corner he nearly stepped on an elderly woman who looked to have fallen asleep while holding on to a few loaves of bread for sale. This had probably been her entire life, thought Robie. This corner, and a few loaves of bread for sale. Her clothes were dirty, her skin the same. She was soft and plump but malnourished, as was often the case. He bent down and put some coins in her hand. Her gnarled fingers closed around them.
She thanked him in her language. He said “you’re welcome” in his. They both somehow understood the exchange.
He walked on, increasing his pace, taking any steps he encountered two and three at a time. He passed by snake charmers who placed exotically colored and defanged reptiles around the necks of sunburned tourists. They wouldn’t take the snakes off unless five euros were placed in their hands.
A nice racket if one could get it, thought Robie.
His destination was a room over a restaurant promising authentic local food. It was a tourist trap, he knew. The food was generic, the beer warm, and the service indifferent. The bus guides led unsuspecting folks there and then hurried elsewhere to eat a far better meal.
He headed up the stairs, unlocked the door to the room with the key he had previously been given, and locked the door behind him. He looked around. Bed, chair, window. All he needed.
He put his hat on the bed, looked out the window, and eyed his watch. It was eleven a.m. local time.
The flash drive had long since been destroyed. The plan was in place and the movements practiced at a mock facility back in the States that was the exact duplicate of his target. Now he simply had to wait, the hardest part of all.
Robie had brought nothing with him from Spain because he had to pass through customs to get on the ferry. A weapon found in a bag by Spanish police would have
been something more than problematic. But everything he needed would be in Tangier.
He took off his jacket, lay back on the bed, and let the heat from the outside make him drowsy. He closed his eyes, knowing he would open them again in four hours. The sounds from the street receded as he fell asleep. When he woke, nearly four hours had passed and it was the hottest part of the day. He wiped sweat from his face and went back to the window, looked out. He watched big tour buses navigate streets never built for anything so large or cumbersome. The sidewalks were full of people, both locals and visitors.
He waited another hour and then left his room. On the street he turned east and double-timed it. In a few seconds he was lost in the hustle and bustle of the old city. He would collect what he needed and move on. All these items would be for the mission. He had traveled to thirty-seven countries and had never purchased a single souvenir.
Seven hours later it was quite dark. Robie approached the large, stark facility from the west. Over his back was slung a hardened case and a knapsack with water, a pee jar, and provisions. He did not plan on leaving here for the next three days. He looked around, taking in the smells of a third-world country. The air was also heavy with the threat of rain. That would not bother him. This task was an inside job.
He checked his watch and heard it approach. He ducked down behind a cluster of barrels. The truck passed by him and stopped. He approached it from the rear. Three strides later he was under it, holding on to metal jutting out from its underside. The truck drove on and then stopped once more. There was a long, wrenching sound of metal on metal. It started up again with a jolt that nearly caused Robie to lose his grip.
Fifty feet later the truck stopped once more. The doors opened, feet touched the floor. Doors clunked shut. Footsteps headed off. The wrenching sound came again. Then hardened locks were clicked into place. There was quiet, except for the footfalls of the perimeter patrol that would be there 24/7 for at least the next three days.
Robie timed it so he was out from under the truck and racing away just as the wrenching sounds stopped. The facility technically had been cleared and put in lockdown. This was the only opportunity Robie had to get in. Mission accomplished, at least this part.
He took the steps three at a time, the hard-sided case hitting him in the back.
Next came the race against the clock.
He reached the top, grabbed the girder, and did a monkey crawl, hand over hand, to the targeted spot. He swung to the left and then the right and then made his leap.
He landed nearly silently on metal and skittered to a spot eighty feet distant, in one of the darkest corners of the space.
He did so with five seconds to spare.
The lights clicked off and the alarms came on. The interior space was instantly crisscrossed with beams of energy that were invisible to the naked eye. But if anything with a pulse touched them sirens would go off. All intruders found would be executed. It was just that sort of place.
Robie turned over on his back, his face to the ceiling.
Three days, or seventy-two hours, to go.
It seemed his entire existence was one uninterrupted countdown.
IT WAS TIME.
The prayer rugs came out. Knees dropped to the ground and all heads turned east and then lowered to rest near the knees. Mouths opened and the familiar chants flowed.
Mecca was twenty-five hundred nautical miles away, about five hours by plane.
For the folks on the rugs it was a lot closer.
Prayers said, religious duties fulfilled, the rugs were rolled back up and stowed away. Allah was also put away, in the backs of his followers’ minds.
It was too early to eat. But it was not too early to drink.
There were places in Tangier that accommodated this, Muslim teetotalers or not.
The two dozen men went to one such place. They did not walk along the streets. They traveled in a four-Hummer motorcade. The Hummers were armored to American military standards and would defeat all bullets and most missile strikes. Like the buses, these vehicles seemed far too large for the narrow streets. The main man rode in the third Hummer, where his front and rear were covered.
The man’s name was Khalid bin Talal. He was a Saudi prince. A cousin to the king. With that sole connection he was accorded respect in almost all corners of the Muslim and Christian worlds.
He did not come to Tangier very often. Tonight he was here to do business. He was scheduled to leave during the early morning hours in his private jet that cost well over one hundred million dollars. A staggering sum to virtually anyone, it was less than one percent of his net worth. The Saudis were close allies of the West in general and the Americans specifically, at least in public. A stable flow of petroleum made for good friendships. The world moved around at speed, and men from a desert country where few things would grow could afford aircraft costing nine figures.
However, this Saudi prince was not such a friend. Talal hated the West. He hated the Americans most of all. That was a dangerous position to openly take against the world’s remaining superpower.
Talal was suspected of the kidnapping, torture, and murder of four U.S. servicemen, abducted from a club in London. Nothing could be proven, though, and the prince had suffered no consequences. He was also suspected of bankrolling three terrorist attacks in two different countries, resulting in the deaths of over one hundred people, a dozen of them Americans. Again, nothing could be proven and there were no repercussions.
But those actions eventually had put Talal on a list. And the payment for being on that list was about to come due with the full blessing of the Saudi leadership. He simply had become too bothersome and ambitious to let survive.
The people he had come here to meet did not much like the West or the Americans either. They and Talal had a lot in common. They envisioned a world that did not have the stars and stripes leading the way. The gathering was to discuss how to make such a world happen. This caucus was a closely guarded secret.
Their mistake was letting the closely guarded secret no longer remain a secret.
The club was entered through a metal door with a number pad. Talal’s lead guard hit the ten-digit code that was changed daily. The six-inch-thick hydraulic-powered door clanged shut behind them. There were blast walls set up at strategic points. The interior perimeter was ringed by armed guards. This was serious security for the few people who could afford it.
The prince and his group sat at a large round table in a roped-off area that was hidden behind drapes and set atop an elevated teakwood platform. The prince’s eyes continually moved, sizing up the environment around him. He had survived two assassination attempts, one by a cousin of his and another by the French. The cousin was dead and so was France’s best contract killer.
Talal trusted no one. He knew the Americans wouldn’t be far behind now that their French ally had failed. His guards were vetted and loyal and a close-knit group that allowed no outsiders in. There were no whites, blacks, or Hispanics anywhere near his inner circle. He was armed. He was a good shot. He kept his mirrored sunglasses on even indoors. No one could tell where he was looking. The lenses were also specially designed. Their magnification levels allowed him to see things his naked eye could not. But he did not have eyes in the back of his head.
The uniformed waiter approached not with drinks but merely with napkins. The prince brought his own glasses and liquor. Being poisoned was not on his agenda. He poured his Bombay Sapphire and added the tonic. He sipped, his gaze swiveling, his mind partly focused on the upcoming meeting. He was prepared for every contingency.
Except an enlarged prostate.
It was an annoyance that even his wealth could not overcome. He could not have someone else piss for him.
His men made sure the bathroom was empty of enemies and free of explosives, and inaccessible except for the one door. An aide wiped down the sink, commode, and stall with an anti-bacterial spray. Billionaire royalt
y do not frequent urinals.
Talal went to the cleansed stall, closed the door behind him, and latched it, using a handkerchief to do so. He had discarded his robes before coming here. He wore a custom-made suit that cost ten thousand British pounds. He had fifty such suits and couldn’t remember where they all were, since they were spread over his many properties around the world. He had never flown commercial even as a young man. He had teams of servants at each of his homes. When he stayed at hotels they were the finest, and he rented out entire floors so he would not have to endure seeing a common person when he went to his room. He was whisked everywhere either by motorcade or helicopter. People of his wealth did not sit in traffic. His life of rarefied luxury was unimaginable. And that was fine by him, because in his mind, he was unlike other human beings.
I am better. Far better.
Yet he still had to unzip his fly to do his personal business, just