BY MICHAEL JOLL
This is the second part of a two-part story. Read the first part here. Copyright is held by the author.
Dubai, 7:30 a.m., August 6th.
“HE WANTS a rental car, boss,” Jasmoun announced without preamble as she strode into the Director’s office. “Outside the office at 1:00 o’clock. The handover will be between three and four. These are the co-ordinates.” She handed the Director a yellow sticky from a pad of Post-It notes. “I’ve checked. There’s nothing there but desert. I’m to meet him, alone, no GPS, no tail either way. He wants to be on a commercial flight to Kuwait no later than eight tonight. Unaccompanied. And his wife and kids to meet him at the airport.”
“I’ll have Hanif in position at one, and I’ll notify Langley to be watching the big screen. The Pentagon will provide aerial surveillance. Don’t take any unnecessary risks, Jazz, okay? I want you to live to be old and disreputable.”
“I already am.” Jasmoun laughed, then turned serious. “Don’t worry. I’ll be careful.”
36 miles south of Dubai, 1:00 p.m.
Hanif parked the Toyota Land Cruiser in a dry wadi, hefted his camera bag over his shoulder, and began his trek across the stone desert to the ridge a mile away. He glanced upward at the early afternoon sun. “Jeez, it’s hot,” he muttered. “Why can’t they do this in an air conditioned mall?” Choosing his vantage point, he crouched behind the rocky outcrop and glanced at his watch. “How long do I have to wait?” he grumbled. “It’d better be soon, or I’ll turn into a fucking raisin.” He took the camera out and squinted through the viewfinder. “Jeez, it’s hot.”
42 miles northwest of Bismarck, ND, 4:00 a.m.
In a squat, cement block building at a mothballed Air Force base outside Bismark, North Dakota, Master Corporal Herb Heaney returned from his washroom break and resumed the controls of Surveillance Drone SD-147K. He glanced up at the picture on the HD screen above his head then back to the plot in front of him. The drone was four hours out of Kuwait, circling a point 36 miles south of Dubai at 26,000 feet. All was as it was supposed to be. He settled down for the long wait before the order came to bring his bird home. Routine flight across the Gulf to Dubai and back, that’s all they told him. Nobody told him why; he didn’t want to know. Be a mushroom. Stay a mushroom.
36 miles south of Dubai, 1:40 p.m.
Hanif focused his camera on the black speck in front of the growing cloud of dust as it slowed and pulled to a stop nearly a mile from his position. As the dust settled, the telephoto lens enlarged the picture until the windshield and the target filled the viewfinder. He started shooting, one frame a second uploaded to one of hundreds of communications satellites in geosynchronous orbit over the Gulf. He watched Soltani light a cigarette and settle back in his seat.
Hanif looked up. The sky had turned brassy, and the light wind from the south had increased to a steady breeze, but it did not help: Someone had opened the furnace door of the Rub al Khali.
At 2:30, Hanif searched the sky again. The target had lost its sharpness. The sun had all but vanished behind a high corona of dust, and the wind had begun to gust. “If it gets much worse, we’re screwed,” he grumbled.
Washington D.C., 5:20 a.m.
At the Pentagon, General Pandolfo glared at his sleep-deprived team. “What’s happening with the Goddamn picture? It’s murky. We can’t see shit. Tell whoever is responsible to fix it. Immediate.”
Two minutes later Master Corporal Heaney held the phone away from his ear, flinching at the voice yelling at him.
“Dust storm, sir,” he replied in a calm voice. “Nothing we can do about it. And there’s a Lulu of a sand storm picking up behind it. It should be over the target area in 15 to 20 minutes.” He listened again for several seconds. “We can penetrate clouds, rain, mist, fog, night, you name it, sir. We can even read the brand of cigarette the guy’s smoking, but not even UV can get through a sand storm.” He held the phone away from his ear until the screaming ended.
“No need to speak like that to an enlisted man, sir,” he said to the dead line.“I just fly the fucking thing.”
At almost the same moment at Langley, Sandy Brohman hurled abuse at the TV screen as the picture vanished behind an impenetrable veil.
36 miles south of Dubai, 3:20 p.m.
The headlights of Jasmoun’s Mercedes failed to penetrate the solid cloud of sand and she almost drove into the Kia parked on the side of the track. She pulled her headscarf over her nose and mouth, eased out of the seat and crossed to Soltani’s car. He reached over and opened the passenger door. She slid inside and slammed the door.
Jasmoun turned to face him. “You have something for me, Firoze?”
“What you want is in my head,” he replied.
“Now is not the time to play games, Firoze. You did me a great honour last night, one which I shall always remember, but now it is time to show me that you are truly a man of your word, not merely deeds.”
He looked away. “I have dishonoured my wife,” he said. “I am about to betray my country. I am consumed with guilt. But it is true that I have memorized all that you require. However, I also downloaded everything onto four 256 Gig memory sticks.”
“How did you get them out of Iran and into the Emirates without being detected?” she asked.
“I mailed them to a friend in Dubai.It was a risk, but even in Iran the authorities can open only a small fraction of the mail that leaves the country.”
“Show me,” she said.
Soltani pulled four memory sticks from his jacket pocket. “My laptop is on. See for yourself.”
Jasmoun inserted the first stick into the USB port and began to scan it. What she saw on the screen meant nothing to her. She repeated the process with the other three, fast-forwarding at random and stopping to inspect what showed on the screen.
When she finished, she slipped the sticks into her purse and pulled out an envelope.
“Your plane ticket to Kuwait,” she said. “Sharifa and your children are waiting for you. You will be in Kuwait for a full debriefing for several weeks before all of you go to America. I think you will like it there. There will be important work for you, if you want it.”
Soltani took the envelope, opened it, and pulled out the ticket. He was still reading with tears in his eyes when Jasmoun squeezed the trigger of a silenced 9 mm semi-automatic Glock. The bullet pierced his temple from point blank range. His homogenized brain and skull fragments splattered the window. She ejected the spent casing, tucked it into her purse and inserted a live round. She took the ticket from his lifeless hand, slipped it and the envelope into her purse, and wiped the handgun clean of fingerprints with her headscarf. She opened the car door, placed the gun in Soltani’s right hand, pointed it in the air, and squeezed the trigger. Satisfied with the powder burns on his hand and jacket sleeve, she removed the silencer and dropped the handgun with his fingerprints on it between the two front seats.
Jasmoun inched her way from the Kia through the shrieking sand storm back to her Mercedes. She turned the car around and edged forward at little more than a walking pace. After several minutes she opened the window and threw the spent casing into the desert. With a prayer that she would not meet any other traffic she sped up until she was through the sandstorm, and on the main road to Dubai.
Back at her apartment she showered, cleansing herself of death, and threw every piece of clothing and the silencer down the garbage chute. Shortly before seven she pulled into the walled compound housing the CIA office. The Director was waiting for her.
“What happened? Where’s Soltani?”
“Major sandstorm, but I found Soltani,” she said. “He told me again that he had everything memorized, that he had nothing concrete for us. I dangled the ticket in front of him, but he insisted it was all in his head, that he would tell everything he knew after we’ve brought his wife and kids to him. I threatened to send the police out looking for him. I even threatened to ship him back to Tehran.”
“He insisted he’s telling the truth.I told him to go screw himself, and kept the ticket.” She opened her purse and handed the ticket to the Director. “I’m half inclined to believe him. Like I said, he’d be crazy if he tried to get out of Iran with the goods on him. Should we get Hanif to pick him up or . . . ? I hope I did the right thing, boss.”
The phone rang. The Director picked it up and listened for several seconds.
He replaced the phone without a word. “That was Hanif,” he said. “He’s just found Soltani in his vehicle with his brains blown out. If there’s nothing on his laptop, we’re screwed. Shit!”
“He had his laptop with him, but he wouldn’t hand it over when I asked. That made me suspicious that he had what we want in there, but I didn’t want to push the point. Not then. There were other ways of getting him to talk. He was pretty wired when I left.”
She looked down at her hands, twisting her headscarf. “I left him to stew. I had no idea he might kill himself. I’m sorry, boss. I failed. You’ll have my resignation in the morning.”
“Resignation denied. It’s not your fault, Jazz. I know you did your best. This operation was my responsibility. The President will personally rake me over the coals for its failure. It goes with the territory and the pay cheque. And the pension. I’ll notify Langley. Now go home. I’ll call you in the morning.”
Jasmoun drove back to the Burj Khalifa, packed a suitcase, grabbed her laptop and took a taxi to the airport. She caught the last Emirates flight of the day to Paris.
Paris, 1:15 a.m., August 7th.
At Charles de Gaulle airport Jasmoun inserted a Crédit Agricole Visa card in the name of Paulette Lafrennière into a pay phone, and punched in a number from memory. The call went straight through to a private line.
“44-26-07,” she said.
“80-06-91,” a voice replied. “Where?”
“De Gaulle,” Jasmoun said. “International Departures. Black coat, black headscarf.”
“A cleaner. Sixty minutes.”
The line went dead.
An hour later Jasmoun watched a dark-skinned woman approach her row of seats, sweeping the floor. As the cleaner reached her, Jasmoun lifted her feet.
“Third stall from the left,” the woman whispered in Arabic while she swept beneath the seat. Without pausing, she continued along the row.
Jasmoun waited 20 minutes before making her way into the nearest ladies’ washroom. She checked for CCTV cameras, pushed open the door of the stall and shut it behind her. She reached behind the toilet tank and retrieved a slim, red cardboard booklet. A minute later she flushed the toilet and left.
The experts in the Paris office supplied the stamps in the EEC French passport, but the photo was hers, two years old and wearing a wig. She handed her passport and boarding card to the Security guard at the entrance to the Departure lounge. He scrutinized the photo and looked hard at her.
“Merci, madame,” he said, and motioned her through to the metal detector.
Dubai, 8:15 a.m.
The analyst entered the Director’s office with a sheaf of papers in her hand.
“I don’t like these voice prints from last night,” she said, handing them to the Director. “I’m sure Jazz is lying about Soltani.”
The Director looked at the papers in his shaking hands. His face went white.
At the same moment, Jasmoun’s Air France early morning flight touched down. It took her 30 seconds to make out the scruffy plain clothes security man eyeing her from a corner of the crowded Immigration hall. She untied the knot in her headscarf, and let the ends dangle. The man approached and motioned her to step aside. The other passengers regarded her with suspicion and edged away.
“Passport,” he demanded. Jasmoun showed it to him. He examined it carefully and pocketed it.
“Come with me,” he said gruffly.
“We’ve been expecting you,” the man now standing behind her in the Immigration line said, and took her elbow. “This way.”
The first man thrust open a side door and beckoned her to follow him along the corridor. In a drab, cramped office, he ordered Jasmoun to empty her purse on the table.
“I believe this is what you’re looking for,” she said, pushing a creased envelope across to him.
He ripped open the envelope and tipped out the four memory sticks before slipping them into his jacket pocket. He returned her passport and smiled for the first time.
“Welcome to Tel Aviv,” he said. “Israel thanks you.”