Chapter Six

Starbox Coffee

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 7:56 a.m.

He was late forties, average height, with dark hair and fair skin. Iranian without a doubt, and the European heritage was there in the aquiline nose, green eyes, and non-Semitic features. Iranians aren’t Arabs. Most people don’t know that, especially the mouthbreathers who lump all Middle Eastern peoples into one group so they can be more easily despised. The name “Iranian” comes from “Aryan,” but the culture draws on ethnic lines from Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. Lots of nice diversity in a generally good-looking people.

This guy could be a soap opera star. Women would swoon. If they didn’t know who and what he was. If they did… well, I think even the president of the antigun lobby would pop a cap in him and laugh while he did it. The stakes on this bizarre morning encounter jumped about tenfold.

I did know who he was.

He was accompanied by a second man who might as well have had “thug” tattooed on his forehead; he shooed away the only other customers, a pair of middle-aged men, and positioned himself at the door to prevent anyone else from coming in.

The man I was here to meet bought a cup of coffee, told the girl behind the counter to go into the back room and stay there, and then he walked over and stood in front of me. He wore a blue sport coat over a white dress shirt with only the top button undone, khakis, and a pair of hand-sewn Italian shoes. He looked down at me and I sat there; I smiled affably, holding my coffee between my palms, resisting the urge to kick his kneecaps off and stomp him to death.

“Captain Ledger,” he said. Not a question.

When I didn’t reply, he nodded toward the other chair.

“May I?”

“Sure,” I said. “It’s a free country.”

His mouth twitched a little at that. He sat, perching on the edge of the chair like a nervous Chihuahua ready to bolt. He looked around and then stared out through the window for a moment, then nodded. Not sure if it was to the mysterious woman or the shooters or to himself. This was his home turf, so I was curious why he should be skittish.

He looked at me looking at him. “You know who I am?”

“Yes.”

“If we were in your country I imagine you would like to arrest me.”

“‘Arrest’?” I said, tasting the word. “No… not really.”

“Then-”

“‘Kill’? Sure, that would work.”

He had eyes like a hunting hawk. Piercing, fierce, and almost unblinking. “Why do you believe that it is up to you to judge whether I live or die? I have never killed anyone. I have not spilled a single drop of human blood. Not ever.”

I crossed my legs and leaned back in my chair. “Jalil Rasouli,” I said. “I always thought that was kind of funny. Same name as the artist. I like the artist. He brings something to the world. He uplifts.”

“As do-”

“If you say that what you do also uplifts I will rip your throat out,” I said in a conversational tone, my smile unwavering. Rasouli shut up. I let a couple of seconds pass. I said, “If you know who I am then you should be able to guess that I’ve read your file. Not the public profile, but the real stuff. You say that you don’t have any blood on your hands?”

He said nothing.

“Vezarat-e Ettela’at Jomhouri-ye Eslami-ye Iran,” I said quietly. His eyes bored into mine. I translated it just to put it out there. “The Ministry of Intelligence and National Security of the Islamic Republic of Iran. MISIRI. Pretty unfortunate acronym.”

Nothing.

“You were the deputy operations chief during the 1999 chain of murders. CIA, Interpol, even some spies in your own government name you as the man behind the whole shebang. No blood on your hands? But how many murders did you green-light? Car accidents, stabbings, shootings in staged robberies. Oh, and all those faked heart attacks-what was it you used for those? Potassium injections? And who were the targets? Soldiers, enemy combatants? No. You went after writers, translators, poets, political activists, ordinary citizens. Iranian citizens. The intellectual class, the ones capable of phrasing a compelling argument against the extremist government. You get that idea from reading Stalin’s biography?”

Jalil Rasouli brushed some lint from his jacket sleeve. “Your Persian is very good; you speak it like an Iranian. Excellent.”

“You should hear my pig Latin.”

He didn’t seem to know what that was and shrugged it off. On a different and mildly perverse level, I was pleased by the compliment. I have a talent for languages and Persian was one of the first I learned. Before I joined the DMS I sat on wiretaps as part of Baltimore PD’s role in Homeland. Listening to endless hours of people talking about ordinary things helps a linguist smooth out the edges of their own command of the language. On the other hand, I’d rather have my fingernails yanked out with pliers before I let Rasouli know that I appreciated his approval.

“Most of the world press thinks you’re going to make a bid for the presidency,” I said. “Oddsmakers say you even have a shot. Not sure it would be an improvement over the current psycho in office.”

He yawned. “You want to provoke me? What do you think I would do? Attack you?” He jerked his head toward the thug. “Or order Feyd to do it?”

“Don’t count too much on that moron.”

“He is very good.”

“His coat is buttoned and he’s leaning against the wall on his gun-arm side. He tries anything, you’ll be dead before he can draw his gun, and then I’ll feed it to him.”

Rasouli considered his bodyguard and gave a noncommittal shrug. “If I am the man you believe me to be, then I could have sent a squad of soldiers here.”

“Maybe you should have.”

He smiled. Son of a bitch had a great dentist. I wanted to knock his caps down his throat. I had to covertly take a calming breath. This guy was not bringing out my best qualities.

Rasouli cleared his throat. For a moment he looked almost embarrassed by his own threat, which I found confusing. With a clear change in his tone of voice he leaned forward and placed his elbows on his knees. “I am risking much in meeting you here.”

I resisted the urge to prove him right. Instead I gave an encouraging nod.

“I could not go through the regular diplomatic channels,” he continued in a quiet and confidential tone, “for reasons that should be apparent to you.”

“Because your regular diplomatic channels are staffed by vultures, thieves, cutthroats, and scumbags,” I said. “And your own people would sell you out for the price of a bowl of lentil soup.”

“No,” he said, “my own people would sell me out, that is not a question, but it would be for very much money.”

“Ah. So you know that your ambassadors and diplomats are as crooked as a barrel of fish hooks.”

He smiled. “There is a saying: ‘Trust a thief before a diplomat.’”

“That says it.”

“There is a matter of great importance and equally great complexity that needs to be dealt with, but it is so…” Rasouli waved his hand as he searched for the word.

“Fragile?” I suggested. “Volatile?”

“Either will do. Both, I suppose.”

“And you thought it would be easier to discuss it by ambushing me with snipers?”

“Would you have agreed to this meeting without them?”

“Probably not.”

“Of course not,” he said. “Besides… the snipers were already here, preparing for another task. I… borrowed them.” He paused, then added, “That other task is now canceled and will likely be abandoned.”

“What was the other job?”

Rasouli considered, then shook his head. “No, it would confuse things to discuss that. What we are here to discuss is much more important.”

“Before we get to that-why me?”

He spread his hands. “You came highly recommended.”

“By whom?”

“A mutual friend.”

“Give me a name.”

A strange, fierce light flared in his eyes and he studied every inch of my face before he answered. “Hugo Vox.”

Rasouli couldn’t have hit me harder if he’d swung a baseball bat at my face.

“You’re shitting me.”

“Not at all.”

I swallowed a lump the size of a football. Hugo Vox. Now if there was ever an “enemy of god,” then Vox had my vote. Pretty much my vote for “actual supervillain” too. Vox used to be one of the most trusted men in the United States anti- and counterterrorism community, trusted by the kind of people who don’t trust anyone. Vox was a screener for above-top-secret personnel and the director of Terror Town, the most effective counterterrorism training facility in the world. To be “vetted by Vox” was the highest honor and a seal of absolute trust. Unfortunately he turned out to be a murdering psychopath and a founding member of the Seven Kings, a secret society that we believed to be behind everything from 9/11 to the London hospital bombing. A very conservative estimate of the deaths that could directly or indirectly be laid at his door was somewhere north of twelve thousand. I wanted his head on a pole, as did most of the law enforcement agencies in the world. My boss, Mr. Church, most of all.

“How do I know that you really spoke to Vox?” I said in a quiet growl.

Rasouli offered a thin smile. “He said that you might ask that, so he gave me something to say. I suppose it is a code phrase that will mean something to you. It means nothing to me.”

“What is it?”

“Vox told me to say, ‘I vetted Grace and she was clean. She wasn’t one of mine.’”

I had to work really hard to keep what I was feeling off my face. It cost a lot.

Grace.

Damn.

When I’d first joined the DMS a year ago, Church’s senior field officer and my direct superior was Major Grace Courtland. She was as beautiful as she was smart and tough. She had been the first woman to enter Britain’s elite SAS team as a field operative, and she helped build Barrier-Britain’s elite and highly secret counterterrorism rapid response force-and was later seconded to Church when Congress gave him approval to build the DMS. Grace and I went into combat together, we worked together, and we fell in love together. We never should have done that, it was against common sense and every rule in the book. Then, last summer, a professional killer’s bullet took Grace away from me. She died saving the world. The whole damn world. I still hear her voice; still catch glimpses of her out of the corner of my eye. Still feel the absolute yawning, cavernous absence of her in my heart.

She had also been vetted by Vox before coming to work for Church. Some people on both sides of the pond tried to use that to smear Grace’s good name. Church had words with a few of them. I had words with a few others. Word got around and people shut the hell up.

Hearing her name on the lips of this monster filled me with a rage so intense that black poppies seemed to bloom before my eyes. Rasouli watched my face and I could see the delight he took in what he saw. He was like a vampire, feeding off of my pain.

The voices in my head all screamed at me to drag Rasouli to the floor and…

… I closed my eyes for a moment.

Grace.

Thinking of her tricked me into a memory of her speaking my name.

Joe.

The black flowers of hate withered and blew away, leaving a strange, cold control. I smiled at Rasouli and after a moment his smile faded.

“Vox,” I said quietly.

“He spoke quite highly of you. I think he likes you… and he certainly admires you. He called you ‘tenacious.’”

I leaned toward him. “Hear me on this. If you are working with Vox to bring any harm to the United States or its people, I will make it my life’s work to tear your world apart. I’m not talking about government sanctions, and I’m not even talking about a black ops hit. You’ll go to sleep one night and when you wake up it’ll be you and me someplace where you can scream all you want, because believe me you will want to scream.” He started to smile at the brash phrasing, but I leaned an inch closer. “If you’re here then you know who I am, and what I’ve done. You know that most of the wiring inside my head is already fucked. It wouldn’t take much to push me all the way over the line. Look at me. Look into my eyes, tell me if I’m lying.”

His mouth tightened into a hard line as he cut a glance at his bodyguard, who was cleaning his fingernails with a toothpick, and back to me.

He said, “You are correct, Captain Ledger. I do know who-and what — you are. And it is for that reason that I risked so much to meet you.”

“And Vox?”

Rasouli’s lip curled as if he suddenly smelled dog shit on his shoe. “He is an insect to be stepped on. If you are asking if he and I are conspiring together, then no. I would sooner let a desert camel have its way with me.”

“And yet you can call him up for favors any time you want?”

He thought about that, shrugged, took a pen and notebook from his pocket, wrote a string of numbers, tore off the page, and handed it to me. “All I have ever had for him is a phone number. It’s a cell number that we have never been able to trace.”

I looked at the number. “What are the chances that Vox will answer this call?”

“I do not know and do not care,” he said. “Vox is your concern. If you can use that number to find him, then do so with my blessings.”

“Is this the party line?”

Rasouli shook his head. “No. Vox has friends among the ayatollahs, but you probably know that.”

“Is he in Iran?”

“I have no idea.”

We sat for a moment with that floating in the air between us. Then I slipped the page into my shirt pocket. “God help you if you’re lying to me.”

Rasouli frowned, but it wasn’t a fear reaction. It looked as if he was considering another aspect of what I’d said. Perhaps it was the reference to “God.” Whatever it was, he nodded.

“There are times, Captain, that people who share as many ideological and political differences as do we can share a compatible view of something else. In prisons, for example, even the most hardened murderers cannot abide a molester of children.”

I said nothing.

“Before we continue, Captain Ledger, let’s be clear on something,” he said. “I know that it was you who freed the spies last night.”

“Don’t even try,” I warned. “Those three kids were hikers. They’re as close to being spies as I am to being a prima ballerina, and believe me I don’t look good in a tutu.”

He arched an eyebrow. “Are you really so naive that you believe their cover story? I would think someone of your caliber would be in the loop.”

“I am. They’re not spies.”

“This isn’t the first time we’ve encountered this kind of thing,” he said. “You always send ‘kids’ to spy on us. You think the veneer of innocence is more convincing than it is. The Peace Corps was created with CIA money. Doctors Without Borders, the World Health Organization… they’re all fronts and everyone knows it. It’s not even an ‘open secret’ anymore.”

“Horseshit.” I said it loud enough to finally provoke the doofus bodyguard, Feyd, to take notice. I wanted to see how he reacted. He straightened and looked around like an old dog that had just woken from a deep sleep. Rasouli watched me watching and waved Feyd back with an irritable flick of his hand.

“Of course, you would deny it,” Rasouli snapped. “You deny it because you think I’m wearing a wire?”

“I don’t care if you brought a film crew.” I took a sip and set aside my cup. “What’s the play here? Did you really set this whole thing up, the snipers and all, just so you could debate politics with a tourist?”

“Ah,” he snorted with a sour smile. “‘Tourist.’”

“Ah,” I said with a nod in his direction. “‘Human being.’”

“The spies-”

“Hikers.”

“‘Hikers,’ whatever, are not the issue, Captain. We will get them back.”

“Not a chance.”

“Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure. If I had to guess, I’d bet you a shiny ten-rial piece that they’re eating lunch at the U.S. embassy someplace safe. Kuwait, maybe.”

“Then why are you still here?”

“I’m doing touristy things. I even went to a few museums. Want to see my ticket stubs? Right now, I’m doing nothing more sinister than having a cup of coffee and reading the paper.”

“While waiting for a pickup car, perhaps?” His smile faded. “Captain, let’s not-what’s the American expression? ‘Jerk each other off’?”

I grinned.

“Frankly I don’t much care about the hikers, even though I know you were involved.”

“Yeah? How about the mosque bombing? You don’t want to try and hang that on me, just for shits and giggles.”

“I have no interest in arresting you for anything.”

“Better for everyone,” I said. “You wouldn’t survive the attempt.”

“You are very sure of yourself,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “I am. I’m not saying that your guys couldn’t take me-we’re in your country, not mine-but not with you still sucking air. Might even be worth it, though.”

If Rasouli was frightened by my threat he managed not to show it. “We are wasting time neither of us has.”

“Okay. So why are we here? What do you want to talk about?”

His eyes glittered like cold green glass. “Let us talk about saving the world.”

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