Outskirts of Tehran
June 16, 1:50 a.m.
Violin led me to another warehouse two blocks over. The rear loading doors were open and there were several cars and small panel trucks parked inside, out of sight. Ghost sniffed the air and growled, cutting inquiring looks at me. I signaled him to remain calm and alert. Having the signal seemed to calm him-dogs are always at their most content when the pack leader has things under control. Not that I actually did, but it was nice that my dog thought so.
There were twenty-five people in the warehouse, all women. The youngest was about Violin’s age, the oldest was at least seventy. They all looked fit and trim, though, and they were all armed. The women stood in a loose circle around another woman who sat on an overturned packing crate. As we approached, the circle opened to allow us in. The eyes that turned toward me were in no way welcoming. There were no smiles, no acknowledging nods. Twenty-five sets of eyes assessed me as if I were a side of beef, and not a very fresh one.
“I brought him, mother,” announced Violin. She peeled off from my side and went to stand by the seated woman. That gave me a chance to take a closer look at the woman I presumed was “Lilith.” Each of these women looked powerful, but Lilith was different. She was magnificent, with a face that was cold and beautiful, like the death mask of an ancient queen. Sculpted cheekbones and a strong chin, straight nose and a high, clear brow. But her eyes were absolutely compelling. Endlessly deep and intelligent. And totally without mercy.
“These are the Mothers of the Fallen,” said Violin. “And this is my mother, Lilith.”
Ghost whined faintly and looked at me. It was pretty obvious that he was confused in the presence of what was perhaps a much more powerful pack leader.
“Captain Ledger,” said Lilith. “My daughter has risked much to arrange this meeting.”
I stopped about ten feet from where she sat. “So what’s the drill? Do I bow and curtsy?”
“No,” she said, “but you can mind your manners.”
“Yeah, about that?” I said. “Kiss my ass.”
Violin stiffened but before she-or anyone else-could say anything Lilith raised her hand slightly. It silenced all reaction, but I could feel all those eyes burning into me. The Mothers of the Fallen were not lining up to join the Joe Ledger fan club. That went both ways.
“Here’s the thing,” I said, “it’s not that I have any specific disrespect for you-whoever the hell you are-or these fine ladies here. Or your daughter. It’s just that I just had a real bitch of a day yesterday, and I’m tired, sore, and cranky. I’ve been chased, attacked by Sabbatarians and vampires, and people have been very mean to my dog.”
“And,” I concluded, “your daughter put sniper scopes on me to force me into a meeting with Iran’s biggest psychopath who told me that there are nuclear bombs planted all over the Middle East. One of those bombs is in the United States. My boss gave me the impression that you know more about what’s going on, but so far you haven’t told me shit. So, if you’re looking for deference or civility, I’m fresh out. In fact, I’m wondering why the fuck you’re wasting time with clandestine meetings, cryptic phone calls, and a lot of cloak and dagger bullshit.”
Lilith smiled a little. Beautiful as she was, her smile was unpleasant. Kind of an Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS vibe.
“I won’t apologize for the confusion, Captain,” Lilith began. “Arklight is not in the habit of sharing information except under very limited circumstances. When my daughter was contacted by Rasouli yesterday she had no idea who you were. Once you provided your name, she was able to do a database search to come up with some background on you. We know about your military and police careers, and we know that you are an agent of the Department of Military Sciences. You work for St. Germaine.”
“What do you know of Mr. Church?”
“Almost certainly more than you do,” she said.
“And we’re back to the cryptic bullshit. You still haven’t explained what the ‘Mother of the Fallen’ are, what Arklight is, and how you know anything about Mr. Church.”
Lilith ignored that. “There have been times when Arklight’s agenda has overlapped with his operations.”
“‘Overlapped’ is a slippery word. I don’t know who you ladies are or what you stand for. Granted, Violin saved my bacon at the hotel when the Red Knight attacked me, and she stepped in during the Sabbatarian hit on one of our safe houses, so she gets a lot of Brownie points for that.” I saw Violin look away to hide a smile. “But at the same time she’s stalled me all day long, feeding me enigmatic bits and pieces of information. Plus there’s that whole ‘working for Rasouli’ thing. Let’s start with that, and I’d like some straight answers. No bullshit, no runaround.”
“Watch your mouth,” snapped a tall woman as she stepped up and laid a hand on the butt of a holstered pistol. She was a hatchet-faced broad who looked like she could go three rounds with Top and Bunny. Ghost growled, but I flicked my finger and he went silent but stayed hyperalert. “You will speak to Lilith with respect or-”
“Actually, sister,” I interrupted, “I’ll speak to her any goddamn way I want, and you will pretty much stand down and shut the fuck up.”
I thought the woman was going to go for it. The others were equally tense, hands touching weapons.
But then a red dot appeared on the center on Lilith’s forehead. Violin gasped. The women turned and stared in horror.
In my ear John Smith murmured, “Call it, boss.”