BY MICHAEL JOLL
This is part one of a two-part story. Read the second part here. Copyright is held by the author.
Dubai, 7:00 a.m., August 4th.
THE PHONE rang three times, then stopped. Twenty seconds later it rang again. This time Jasmoun Habib picked it up on the first ring and listened for three seconds. The line clicked off. She dressed, and took the elevator from her apartment on the 108th floor of the Burj Khalifa to the parking level below ground. She was in the office of the CIA Director, Middle East, in 27 minutes.
“This comes from the Oval Office,” the Director said. “It’s probably the biggest intelligence coup in the history of the United States.”
“Go on,” she said.
“Ever heard of Dr. Firoze Soltani?”
She shook her head.
“He’s a nuclear scientist,” the Director said. “Soltani is on the inside of the Iranian plans to develop their nuclear arsenal. That’s in complete non-compliance of the 2013 Geneva Accord.”
“And?” she said.
“Until last week he was working on Tehran’s nuclear weapons program. He knows the location of the centrifuges used to convert U-235 into weapons-grade U-238, and the location of the stockpiled warheads.”
Jasmoun sucked in her breath.
“Hanif met him in Abu Dhabi off the Etiad flight from Tehran yesterday. The deal is, we get his wife and children out of Iran safely, and he talks. We spirited them away to Kuwait last night, not that they had any choice in the matter. Depending on what he brings to the table, we can do anything from requesting the United Nations conduct yet another futile search of the Iranian facilities, to nuking them back to the Stone Age.”
“Where do I come in?”
“You meet with Soltani, get him to cough up the goods, and put them on my desk. Either of us screws up —”
“We’re expendable. I get it.”
The Director looked serious for a moment. “The President demanded the best person for the job. I made sure he got her.”
Dubai, 3:10 p.m.
In the Director’s office the phone rang. He listened for several moments, scribbling notes and offering the occasional grunt. “Hanif,” he called. In seconds the young man was by his side. “Have Dr. Soltani pick up the phone. Wake him if you have to. I have his wife on the line.”
In the basement, a technician recorded the conversation for voice analysis.
A few minutes after the phone call ended the analyst stood in the Director’s office.
“It’s him, sir, for sure,” she said. “Voice prints virtually identical, speech patterns, vocabulary, accent all match.”
The Director picked up the phone and punched in a number. He listened to it ring three times and hung up. He called again. “Thirty minutes,” he said.
The next round of the operation had begun.
Langley, Virginia, 1:00 p.m., August 4th.
Sandy Brohman pushed open the door of the small meeting room in CIA headquarters and strode to the front of the room. He pulled down a screen, placed a laptop on the grey metal table, and turned to face the four men seated in front of him. “Gentlemen,” he said, “if our information is correct, and we believe it is, this is the biggest coup since Yan Ki Guang defected from Pyongyang, maybe bigger. The orders come from the President himself, so nobody screws up or all our balls will be on the breakfast menu at the White House next morning. The Pentagon will be co-operating with us, but it’s our baby, 24/7.”
Brohman switched on the laptop and began his PowerPoint presentation.
“Our target,” he said. “Firoze Soltani.”
Simultaneous with Brohman’s team briefing, three-star Air Force General Luca Pandolfo addressed a group of grim-faced senior officers at the Pentagon.
“This comes from the President himself,” Pandolfo began. “We are to afford those paranoid spooks at Langley every co-operation, whatever they want, whenever they want it, without question. Anyone in this room drops the ball, he’ll be selling pencils out of a tin mug on a street corner in Waco, Texas. Do I make myself clear?”
To a man the officers nodded.
“Here’s what the spooks have entrusted us to know so far . . .”
“Our best man in the Middle East, gentlemen,” Brohman said as a photo flashed up onto the screen, “is, as you see, a woman; Jasmoun Habib. Born in Algiers. Age 42. American father, Algerian mother. Nominally Muslim. Moves in top circles posing as a wealthy widow. Fluent in four languages. She’s task-oriented. Single-minded. Some call her ruthless. We prefer ‘determined.’ Her job is to get the information out of Soltani.”
Dubai, 5:15 p.m.
“Your Farsi is very good, Mrs. Habib, but you’re not Iranian,” Soltani said after Jasmoun had introduced herself.
“I’m a lot of things,” she replied, “but I’ve not a drop of Persian blood in me. And I’m not an interrogator. You are safe here, but I must warn you that every room is wired for sound.”
“The call from my wife, too?”
Jasmoun nodded. “There are no secrets in this house, Dr. Soltani. Sharifa and your children are safe in Kuwait. Once you provide us with the information you promised, we will take you to them before you all go to America.”
“I do not have the information with me,” Soltani said. “It is still in Tehran, in our apartment.”
In the basement the analyst turned to the Director. “That’s a lie. You can see by the stress patterns in the voice scan.”
“Keep up the good work,” the Director said.
“Yes, of course, Dr. Soltani,” Jasmoun said. “If you tell us where it is hidden I’m sure we will find it.”
“Not before I see my wife.”
“As agreed, we will take you to her after you hand over the information.”
“Then we have no business to conduct.” Soltani turned his back on her.
Jasmoun went straight to the Director’s office.
“He’s lying,” the Director said without preamble.
“Do you think he really has the goods? He can’t be dumb enough to keep it in his laptop,” Jasmoun said.
“My hunch is he does. All he has to do is cough it up or we send him and his family back to Iran, and he knows it. I don’t care where he’s hidden the stuff, Jazz. Find it and put it on my desk. How, is your business. Now go home and enjoy your evening.”
Dubai, 10:18 p.m.
Jasmoun picked at her restaurant dinner, weighing her options how best to tackle Soltani and persuade him to part with the promised intelligence. She checked her watch: She had kept the Iranian Ambassador to Dubai waiting long enough.
“I was afraid you might not come home tonight,” the Ambassador said as Jasmoun let herself into her apartment. “I was about to go home to my wife and interrupt her snoring, but it would not be the same thing.”
“I had to work late,” Jasmoun replied, removing her headscarf. “Have you helped yourself to a little Scotch while you were waiting for me?” She planted a playful kiss on his cheek.
He held up an empty glass. “Have another while I undress,” she said. “Not too much. I need you to be at your best. And bring me one.”
She mouthed him a kiss and disappeared into the bedroom. Drinks in hand he followed her in a moment later and watched her undress.
“Would you like to take a shower with me?”
Please say ‘yes’. Anything to get rid of your body odour and the stench of your athlete’s foot fungus before we hit the sheets.
The Ambassador tugged at his tie. “My wife has never asked me, not even on our honeymoon,” he said. “She’s too . . . too . . . Muslim,” he finished.
Much later, the exhausted man propped himself up on a pillow, clasping a Scotch to his hairy chest. A Sobrani Black Russian smouldered between nicotine-stained fingers. Jasmoun slid a hand down to his groin and squeezed gently.
“So, the best lover of my entire life,” she growled, “what’s new and exciting in Tehran that Al-Jazeera hasn’t seen fit to tell the world?”
“One of our scientists,” he said after a moment of hesitation, “has disappeared. We traced him to Abu Dhabi, but since then he has vanished. His wife and children are also missing. We have searched their apartment, but found nothing of interest. I expect they will turn up one day in North Korea. Or Israel. It had better not be Israel.”
“Or heads will roll?”
“That’s so boring, my darling Saeed. Can you manage one more time?” She pulled the sheet down to his knees. “I owe you so much as it is; this apartment, your gifts. It is the least I can do to show my appreciation.”
“I’ll do my best, just for you,” he said.
She slid down the bed with, “And the Oscar for Best Actress in a Dramatic Role goes to . . .” ringing in her ears.
Dubai, 8:00 a.m., August 5th.
“The Agency owes me a bottle of single malt Scotch, boss,” Jasmoun announced as she stepped into the Director’s office the following morning.
“It will be in the diplomatic pouch tomorrow,” he replied.
“The official line is, Soltani’s missing, and they’re worried where he might show up. My contact succumbed to the rigors of our tryst before I could get any more out of him. I may have worked him too hard. He’s no longer a young man.”
“It’s time to talk to Soltani,” the Director said. “Take him out on the town tonight. Make him feel appreciated, okay?”
“He’s strung out so tight he’ll snap at any moment, boss. I’ll see if I can coax what we need out of him. I’ll be gentle. Leave it with me.”
Dubai, 10:45 p.m.
From a window table of the 122nd floor @mosphere restaurant in the Burj Khalifa, Dr. Soltani looked out over the city far below, sipping a Turkish coffee.
“I have an apartment on the 108th floor,” Jasmoun said. “In many ways the view is better.” Soltani’s head jerked around.
“You have nothing to fear, least of all from me,” she said, smiling and tucking a stray strand of hair beneath her black headscarf. She eased the hem of her black Armani skirt an inch higher. Soltani’s Adams Apple bobbed.
“My wife . . . ,” he began.
“I am told that Sharifa is beautiful, and that your children are a credit to you both. None of them will ever know if I help you relieve yourself of your burden. I am a widow. It has been a long time for me since . . . You would be doing me a great honour.”
Soltani hesitated. He swallowed hard and averted his eyes. “How can a man of honour refuse such a request?” he said finally.
Part Two will be posted tomorrow.