Chapter Seventy-Eight

Mustapha’s Daily Goods

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 7:49 p.m.

“Did you see her?” I demanded as Echo gathered around.

Bunny frowned. “See who, Boss?”

“The woman. Violin. She was fighting them from the store.”

He shook his head. “Didn’t see anybody but the bad guys. Lot of hostiles down out there. Saw a couple stiffs with their throats cut, too. Whoever she was, chick can fight. Who was she?”

“Long story.” I hurried into the store and checked the bodies, and though one of them was female, it wasn’t Violin. “Check everyone. Do we have anyone with a pulse?”

“Got one here,” said Lydia, who was crouched over a slender figure. Jamsheed.

“He’s one of ours,” I said. “Khalid-?”

“On it.” Everyone on Echo Team was a certified medic, but Khalid was an actual medical doctor with a specialty in traumatic injuries. He went to work on Jamsheed.

Top said, “This was a pretty noisy frat party, Cap’n. We’re going to be ass deep in police real soon.”

We listened for sirens but did not hear any yet. I wasn’t certain how reassuring that was. Special Forces and military SWAT units don’t roll with sirens.

“Who’s watching the street?”

“John Smith and he’s got night vision.”

I tapped my earbud. “Cowboy to Chatterbox. What are you seeing?”

“Nothing.”

He wasn’t the most talkative guy on the team.

“Stay sharp. You see so much as an old lady with a shopping cart give a yell.”

“K.”

I turned to Khalid. “Talk to me.”

He looked up from where he knelt by Jamsheed. I could read it on his face. “Blunt force trauma to the head resulting in a depressed fracture. Got some pretty severe damage to the cervical spine…” He let the rest hang.

I moved over and dropped to my knees by Jamsheed. His eyes were open, but they were bright and glassy with pain and one pupil was fully dilated, indicating a cerebral hemorrhage. Khalid’s eyes bored into mine and he gave a tiny shake of his head. I took a cotton square from him and dabbed at the blood and sweat on Jamsheed’s face.

Before I could say anything, Jamsheed spoke. His voice was hoarse, low. “You cannot stay here. The police…”

“I know, but we have to-”

“No, you don’t,” he interrupted. “You can’t take me with you and still do what you have to do.”

“You don’t even know what we’re here for.”

He smiled faintly. “Does it matter? You work for the Mujtahid. He called me to say that I should trust you because he trusted you.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I nodded.

Jamsheed tried to lift his hand; I took it and his fingers curled as tightly around mine as he could manage. He looked into my eyes and saw the truth, but instead of panic I saw a peaceful expression settle over his face.

“I am so… tired… of war,” he said, and that said a lot.

I thought of the photos he had on his walls and the gentle way he had touched the frame of the one with the playing children.

“The little girl-?” I asked.

His lips formed the word “yes.” The hurt and loss was palpable.

“She’ll be waiting for you, brother,” I said.

He nodded and then hissed with the agony that it caused. When he opened his eyes he seemed farther away.

We regarded each other for a few moments, and then he squeezed my hand.

“ Ma’assalama,” he said. Go in peace.

I returned his squeeze. “ Fi aman Allah.”

Go with God.

Jamsheed died without another sound, a quiet man going silently into the shadows that stood between this ugly world of pain and the paradise he believed waited for him. I placed his hands on his chest and sat back, exhausted and defeated. Ghost came over and sniffed Jamsheed, then he whined and lay down as if in vigil.

From the storeroom behind me, Lydia snapped her fingers. “Got another live one.”

My exhaustion shattered and fell away, and I turned, instantly hot and angry. Even Bunny took an involuntary step back from me when he saw my face. Top quickly closed in and knelt down, and I think he also saw my face and wanted to get between me and a hostile who was still conscious. The Sabbatarian was a young Spanish-looking man with a slab face and beefy shoulders. There was a ragged red hole on his right sleeve.

“Took one through the biceps,” said Lydia. “Arm’s busted above the elbow.”

The Sabbatarian glared up at us with a mixture of anger, fear, and defiance.

“You got one chance, friend,” I said through gritted teeth. “Cooperate with us and we’ll provide protection and-”

But the Sabbatarian suddenly snapped his jaws shut and grimaced. I could hear something crunch.

“Ah, shit!” yelled Bunny. “Poison tooth. Fuck…”

It was over in five seconds. The bitter almond stink of cyanide rose from the man’s mouth as his lips went slack and hung open. Bunny spun away and punched the wall hard enough to leave a hole the size of a softball.

“Spilled milk,” said Top. “And we got to go.”

“Boss,” said John Smith in my earbud. “Six units coming hard from the center of town. Black SUVs. Five minutes.”

“Copy that. We’re out of here. Watch our backs and meet us at the end of the block in two.”

“K.”

I turned to the others; they’d all heard the same info from Smith. “What do we have for wheels?”

“White vegetable truck,” said Bunny. “Two blocks east.”

“Let’s go. Lydia, my laptop’s in the bedroom. Grab it. Khalid, you’re on point. Let’s move.”

Less than two minutes later we were crammed into a vegetable truck that smelled of rotting cabbage and diesel oil, rolling through quiet streets, leaving another scene of bloody destruction far behind.

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