Chapter One Hundred Six

Aghajari Oil Refinery


June 16, 5:44 a.m.

We were twenty feet away.

The major’s hand strayed toward his holstered pistol. The other cops grabbed for the AK-47s slung from their shoulders.

I said, “Hit!”

Ghost went from a tense crouch to full speed in two steps. The bucktoothed major’s gun cleared his holster but that was as far as it was ever going to go because Ghost hit him like a cannonball, catching the man on the meat of his forearm and using all of his canine weight and mass to slam the major back against the edge of the doorway. The major screamed and fell down and out of sight with Ghost atop him.

I can’t run as fast as a shepherd, but I’m no slowpoke. I barreled right for the guards, all of whom made the mistake of taking half a second to gape in mingled horror and indecision. That was a half second too long.

When I was ten feet from them I threw myself into a rugby tackle that plucked two guys completely off their feet. They fell down and I bodysurfed one of them for three yards. I heard Lydia’s footfalls less than a yard behind me.

I hammered the rifle out of one guard’s hand, smashed him across the mouth with an elbow, and rolled sideways off of him and whipped the same elbow around into a backward blow that caught the second officer in the nose.

From that angle I saw Lydia slide into the third guard like Rickey Henderson stealing second base. Her right foot caught him on the shin and chopped his leg out from under him. His body crashed down on hers, but as he landed she caught his shoulders and turned at the perfect moment, slamming him face down onto the hard floor.

I had most of my weight on the second cop, and I gave his nose a couple of extra pops while I axe-kicked the first guard into dreamland. Then I pivoted on my hip and hopped atop the second guard, who, despite three hits to the face, was still full of game. I straddled his chest and arms with my thighs, grabbed two sides of his shirt and cross-choked him. Do it wrong and the guy either dies of a fractured hyoid bone or struggles with you like they do in the movies. Do it right, using valve pressure on both carotid arteries and the cloth to cut off the airway, and your opponent goes sleepy-by in eight seconds. I did it right.

As soon as he sagged down, I released the pressure, flipped him over, and speed-cuffed him with his own handcuffs. I looked up to see Lydia whipping cuffs around the third guard. His face was a mass of blood, but he was still struggling feebly.

“Hold still, cabron, or I’ll break off something you don’t want to lose.”

“Get the other one. Wrist and ankles,” I said, and left her to cuff the first cop. I was up and moving, skidding around the doorway into the office.

The major was down and he was bloody, but he wasn’t dead. The pistol lay in the doorway and the arm that had grabbed for it was torn and bleeding-though still attached. Ghost was crouched down over the officer, his bloody fangs clamped around his throat. Not hard enough to kill or even break the skin, but hard enough to make a very clear point: lie still or die.

The officer had put up a struggle, though. Blood was smeared eight feet into the room, which meant that he was trying to drag himself away from Ghost even while the dog was chomping on him. I glanced past the major. There was a glass case with a fire ax on the wall by the door to a small bathroom. Ghost had shifted from a tug of war with the major’s arm to a more effective hold on his throat only a few inches short of the wall with the ax. His teeth hadn’t torn into the man’s throat, but the pressure was there and the major was one bad decision away from dying.

He stopped and lay utterly still except for his heaving chest. The wounds on his arm must not have been as bad as they looked because they only bled sluggishly. Must have hurt like hell, though, because the officer’s face was as white as milk.

I drew my pistol and put the barrel to his temple.

To Ghost, I said, “Off. Watch.”

Ghost opened his jaws with great reluctance and moved to sit in the corner between the bathroom and a wall on which was a poster-sized copy of the same floor plan I had in my PDA. Ghost sat down where he and the major could have a meaningful visual encounter. Like me, Ghost had shaken off most of the ill effects of yesterday, and like me he was in no mood to get pushed around today.

Lydia appeared in the doorway with one of the rifles in her hands. Before she could speak I gave a quick shake of my head and then ticked my chin toward the door. She nodded and went outside without a word.

I knelt by the major. The officer was wide-eyed with fear, but he wasn’t looking at me. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from Ghost, who was, to be fair, looking smug and giving him the evil eye. I snapped my fingers in front of the major’s eyes, and he flinched and shifted his gaze to me.

“Listen to me,” I said in hushed Persian, but I gave my accent a tweak, putting just a hint of Russian in it. “This can go two ways, and I don’t think I need to explain the bad way. If you play fair with me, I’ll let you bandage your arm and I’ll tie you up without further injury.”

The major’s lip curled back from his big horse teeth as he prepared to fire back a vicious comment, but Ghost warned him with a soft growl.

“We are not here to sabotage the refinery,” I said. “I don’t care if you believe that or not. It won’t change anything. Someone else is here to sabotage the place. Listen closely to what I’m about to say next. They have planted a nuclear device in one of the subcellars. I am here to de-arm it because neither of us wants that device to detonate. Can we agree on that?”

“No! We do not have any weapons like that here. What stupidity is this?”

I put a little extra pressure on the gun barrel. “Be nice. If you know anything about that device, then now would be a good time to unburden your soul.”

He started to shake his head, but the barrel wouldn’t permit the movement. Instead he said, “No!”

“Take a second,” I cautioned. “Think it through. It would be so unfortunate if I learned otherwise and had to come back here to discuss it with you.”

“No,” he said again. “Why would I plant a bomb in my own country? It is the Americans who-”

“Shhh,” I soothed. “You don’t want to debate politics with me right now, trust me on this. I’ll ask it one more time: do you know anything about the device?”

“No. Of course not!” He spat the words at me. “I do not believe it.”

If he was lying, then he was a pretty good actor.

“Very well. I’m going to step back and you can get up. Be smart about how you do that.” I kept the gun on him, and the major sat up, wincing and hissing with pain. He clamped his left hand over the ragged wounds in his right forearm. I asked him to tell me where the first aid kit was and he nodded toward a box mounted to a wall.

“Bandage your arm. Do it quickly,” I said and stepped back while he did so.

“I need to wash it,” he said and started walking toward the bathroom. That fire ax would have been an easy grab for him.

I put the barrel of the gun in his ear. “Nice try. Clean it with alcohol or wrap it dirty.”

He threw me ugly looks and aimed uglier looks at Ghost, who managed not to wilt and die under the lethal glare. The major opened the first aid kit and started angrily tearing open packaged alcohol swabs.

“Who are you?” he demanded.

“No one,” I said. “I’m not even here.”

“You are not Russian,” he said, and then tried to prove it by rattling off a quick insult in that language. Something about my mother and a goat. In the same tongue I told him that his father dallied with little boys and ate pork during Ramadan. That shut him up and probably raised his blood pressure by too many points. He cut another look at the wall with the fire ax.

“Those are bad thoughts you’re having, friend,” I said.

He continued cleaning his wounds, though his eyes flicked to the wall over and over again.

My earbud buzzed and, through a burst of bad static, Khalid said he was two floors up. I touched the bud and, still in Russian, said to wait until further orders. Khalid doesn’t speak a word of Russian, but it didn’t matter. He was sharp enough not to spoil whatever play I was making. The major, however, looked somewhat mollified, if still alarmed and confused. And he kept shooting frightened looks at Ghost, who in turn occasionally licked at the blood on his muzzle. A nice effect.

When the major was done wrapping his arm, I took him into the adjoining bathroom and used his own metal handcuffs to chain him to the toilet pipes. Then I had Lydia stand guard as I dragged the other cops in and similarly secured them. It was a tight fit in the tiny bathroom cubicle. The place stank of old urine and fresh blood. The guards started coming around, but they were sick and dazed and hurt; they had no real fight left in them.

“If nothing goes boom,” I said to them, “someone will be along to let you out. Hopefully that will be today. If you start yelling or try to escape, I will come back here and kill you. Tell me you understand.”

The major answered for all of them. A short guttural grunt. Good enough.

I closed and locked the door and barricaded it with a desk.

“Come on,” I said to Ghost, and went back out into the hall.

“Gaucho,” Lydia said quietly, “I’ve been trying to raise the rest of the team but all I’m hearing is my own voice.”

I tried my earbud. Nothing.

“Worry about it later,” I said. “We still have a nuke to find before it blows us all into orbit.”

She faked a coquettish grin. “Aww, you sure know how to sweet-talk a girl.”

The clock inside my head said tick-tock.