Avass, Iran
December 5—1410 Hours GMT+3:30

“Another stalemate,” Peter Howell said, easing around a building constructed of indigenous rock.

He was right. They’d come into Avass on foot and were now about five blocks from the city center, wandering along a narrow, twisting alleyway. The sound of gunfire had slowed to a shot every thirty seconds or so, and in this kind of closed-in urban terrain, that generally meant the two forces had dug in.

Farrokh was bringing up the rear, talking urgently on his phone as he navigated a patch of snow protected from the sun by a broad awning.

“Omidi is trapped in a pharmacy with what we believe to be four armed men and as many as twenty hostages,” he reported. “He has the briefcase and my people say he’s badly injured.”

“Can they get to him?” Smith said.

“The street in front of the pharmacy is impassable, and there are no rear or side entrances.”

“Do you have an ETA on the Iranian forces?”

“About an hour,” Farrokh said. “Two C-130s carrying Takavar paratroopers. Seven more to follow, but my people haven’t been able to determine when.”

“Do you know how many are targeting Avass and how many are going to the lab?”

“No. But my men have sealed the facility and are in a good defensive position. They’ll hold until the parasite there dies out.”

Smith wasn’t so sure — nine planes could transport upward of six hundred men, and Takavar troops were the best the Iranian military had to offer.

The gunshots were close now, and he followed Howell onto a muddy slope that terminated in a low wall. From their elevated position, it was clear that the situation was an absolute worst-case scenario. There were men everywhere — behind cars, on rooftops, peering around the edges of alleyways — but it was impossible to sort out who was who. The remains of a pickup were still burning in front of what looked like a market building, causing smoke to further obscure the situation. The pharmacy that Farrokh’s people were talking about had stone arches across the front that looked like they could stop a tank, and there was at least one man stationed at each partially barricaded window.

“Maybe if we could get to the truck in the middle of the—,” Howell started but then fell silent when a man darted from cover and ran for an overturned cart that would give him a better angle on the pharmacy windows. The silence was immediately broken by a barrage of gunfire, and he was cut down before he made it five feet.

“Never mind,” Howell said.

Smith slid down with his back against the wall, swearing under his breath. The Takavar were going to be raining down on them like the wrath of God in less than an hour. It wouldn’t take them long to wipe out Farrokh’s forces and put Omidi on a plane to Tehran.

“Do your people have anything heavier than assault rifles?”

“One rocket-propelled grenade.” Farrokh pointed at a rooftop to the north. “It’s up there.”

Smith dared a quick look, spotting a launcher hanging over the shoulder of a man holding a camera phone around the edge of a chimney. The angle wasn’t great, but with a little luck it might be possible to thread the archways and get the charge through a window.

“We have to use it,” Howell said. “No choice.”

“What?” the Iranian said. “No. There are hostages. Women and children.”

Smith peered over the wall again. “If Omidi’s injured and it’s bad enough, maybe we can offer him a deal. He gives us the case and we let him walk.”

“No way,” Sarie said. “I know him better than anyone here. If you want that case, you’re going to have to pry it out of his dead fingers.”

“I tend to agree,” Farrokh said. “Omidi is not a man of compromises.”

Smith sat silently for a moment, trying to focus on the tactical situation and not imagine the faces of the frightened people inside that building.

“Then Peter’s right. Ask your man if he can make the shot.”

Farrokh stared angrily back at him. “I can’t help wondering if you would be so perfunctory if those were American hostages and the weapon was a threat to Iran.”

Smith raised his head over the wall a few inches again and examined the pharmacy, trying to determine the strength of the barricades and catch a glimpse of the men behind them. When he got to the last one, his eye picked up movement. The shelving pushed up against the window began to rock violently, causing the few products remaining on it to cascade to the floor.

“No…,” he muttered when the cop who had been manning the position came partially through the window, breaking free the last shards of glass. He twisted around, throwing wild punches at something just out of sight as gunfire hammered the walls around him. He was hit in the shoulder, but kept fighting until two more rounds penetrated his back and left him hanging unnaturally on the sill. A moment later, the blood-streaked face of a woman appeared. She fell on the lifeless man, tearing at him, her mouth working in silent rage as bullet after bullet impacted her thin body.

“He’s infected them!” Smith shouted. “Blow it! Blow it now!”

Farrokh still had his phone line open and began screaming into it. A moment later a contrail appeared from the rooftop and the grenade glanced off one of the pharmacy’s archways, exploding in front of the heavy doors with a lot of smoke and noise, but little damage.

Smith yanked his rifle over his head and shoved it into Sarie’s hands before pulling his.45 from its holster. “Kill everything that moves. Do you understand me? Kill everything.”

Omidi’s victims came out of the smoke, moving fast as Farrokh continued to shout orders into the phone. Howell fired calmly, hitting everything he aimed at like he always did. Sarie, despite her exceptional skill, was finding shooting people very different from shooting animals and targets. The men on the rooftops and in the streets hesitated, and by the time they understood what was happening, it was too late.