Aghajari Oil Refinery
June 16, 5:57 a.m.
I backed away from the open door. “Listen, this is what we came for. Go upstairs until you get a signal and then get everyone down here.”
Lydia eyed me dubiously. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to wait right here until you get back.”
“C’mon, Gaucho… I was born at night but it wasn’t last night.”
“Just go. That’s an order, Warbride. Clock’s ticking so do it now.”
She gave me the kind of look my mother gave me when she was really pissed, but she did as she was told. “Try to be alive when we get back,” she snapped, and then with a swirl of black robes she was gone.
I stepped over the corpses and moved to the door once more, listening to the darkness. Nothing. I even tried the earbud once more. Same thing. I would like to think that the lack of signal was simple interference from the dense rock, but I wasn’t actually stupid.
“Uh-oh,” I said to Ghost. I said it like Scooby-Doo. “Rut-roh!’ The joke didn’t make either of us feel any better.
I debated getting the hell out of there, and if this mission was about anything else I would have. This was so phony they should have just painted the word “Trap” on the secret door. On the other hand, if I walked away now and the device was really here, then what was my next play? Buy a condolence card for the relatives of anyone who used to live in the Middle East? Not much of an option.
I licked my lips and used my toe to nudge the door open. I wasn’t afraid of smaller explosives like Semtex. Ghost was trained to sniff them out and warn me. I glanced at him. He wasn’t barking but he was shivering and his hair was standing out in all directions. Not as comforting as I would have liked. I clicked my tongue and he flinched. Then he shook his body like he was shaking off cold water and he looked up at me with troubled eyes. I wished he could talk because the information his senses were processing were probably going to be pretty crucial to my survival over the next few minutes. But only Lassie can explain complex predicaments with a bark; Ghost was merely a dog.
Letting the barrel and flashlight lead the way, I stepped out of the bloody bathroom and into a narrow passage with rough stone walls. The same kind of stone as the wall in the picture Rasouli showed me. Rough, gray white. A little whiter than the walls behind the metal stairs I’d climbed down. A different mineral composition this far down.
I moved down the hallway. Ghost, as silent as his name, was right behind me. The corridor turned and turned, making sharp rights and lefts and then tilted as it angled down deeper into the underbelly of the desert bedrock. The air moved past me, flowing up from below. The stink of death was still there.
I rounded the last turn and the hallway ended at an open doorway beyond which was a massive chamber. There were stacks of wooden crates in uneven rows, but this was clearly not a storeroom. I stood in a vast cavern whose ceiling was a mass of dripstone stalactites that hung like the fangs of an infinitely large dragon. Water dripped seventy feet to the concrete floor, where it pooled around broken stones, fallen rock, and the corpses of at least two dozen men.
They were piled into a mound, their bodies torn and slashed, their skin crawling with maggots and cockroaches and vermin that skittered away from my flashlight beam. The stench of all that rotting meat was dreadful.
I moved cautiously forward. All of the bodies were male, and some of them were naked. No way to tell if they were Iranian, but that was my guess. Many of them were tough-looking, well-muscled, in their twenties and thirties. From the uniforms of the clothed ones I could tell that they were refinery roughnecks and security people. Some of the naked ones probably were too; the killers had likely made them strip off their uniforms before the killing began. I wondered if one of the killers was wearing a major’s uniform.
I shined the light over them, frowning more and more at each new detail I picked out. These bodies were at least a couple of days old. Did that mean that their killers had been fully infiltrated into the refinery for two days? If one of the dead men was the major, then his impostor could easily have ordered staff changes of any kind. Reassignments, replacements. It’s not like Iran has union reps who can make protests or ask questions.
How deep did the infiltration go? And what was its purpose?
I walked around the mound of dead. The injuries were traumatic. Crushed skulls. Arms and legs torn out of their sockets. Throats savaged.
I took a step forward and my foot crunched down on something. I lifted my foot and looked at what I’d stepped on. Dentures. Big buck-toothed dentures. Or… maybe false teeth is a better word. The Hollywood kind that fit over regular teeth. Like the major’s teeth.
“Oh, crap,” I said, but I was only half surprised.
The major had been an Upier. Had to be. I replayed the fight in the security office. The major had gone down easily, but he’d gone down because Ghost attacked him. Ghost was a white dog-a fetch dog, as far as the Upierczi were concerned-and he was covered in garlic powder. Ghost had eaten some garlic too, and during the fight he’d bitten the major. Garlic was supposed to be fatal, but there might not have been enough of it in Ghost’s saliva for a lethal dose. Instead it had probably weakened the Upier, but not enough to keep him from breaking out of the cuffs. Then he’d killed the other guards and fed on them. Disgusting as that sounds. What had that done for him? Probably like Popeye eating spinach.
As I looked at the corpses, I understood that there had to be a lot of Red Knights here at the refinery, and they’d just started their workday with an O-positive energy drink.
Ghost trembled beside me. I tore my gaze away from the corpses for a moment and looked at my dog. He was cross-trained for all sorts of things including searching for dead bodies, and he doesn’t weigh moral or social implications. He shouldn’t have been scared by this. Excited by blood and the evidence of slaughter, sure, that’s hardwired into his animal brain. But not mass murder. And yet he was clearly terrified. His eyes were huge and rolling as if he was checking every possible line of escape at once, and drool dripped from the corners of his mouth. At the point where his body touched my leg I could feel his heart hammering away at dangerous speeds.
“Easy, boy,” I said in a voice I hoped was soothing. Ghost glupped back some of the drool and looked up at me, though whether it was for reassurance that the pack leader would protect him or instructions on what to do next was anyone’s guess. I stroked his side and patted his flank. He pressed more firmly against me. “It’s okay, Ghost… it’ll all be okay.”
I was pretty damn sure I was lying to him. To both of us.
Then I tore myself away from the carnage and looked around the cavern. I shined my light and saw something dark on top of one of the crates and at closer inspection saw twenty sets of folded clothes. Not the missing uniforms, but almost certainly the clothes of the men who had taken them. Black pants, black shirts, black balaclavas.
“Oh… shit,” I said aloud. Did that mean there were twenty Upierczi down here? Or were they up in the refinery? Up where my team was.
I dropped the balaclava I was holding and directed the light into the cavern. It was so wide that the beam didn’t reach the far side, and from the uneven walls and ceiling, it was apparent that this hadn’t been cut into the earth but was a natural cavern that had been repurposed. The far end looked to be a jagged tunnel, but from where I stood I couldn’t make out any details. I crept quietly toward the stacked crates. Some were open and heaps of straw or packing popcorn were spilled like guts onto the ground. A few were still sealed, and I began circling the stacks looking for a crowbar.
Then I suddenly lost all interest in the crates, the crowbar, the dead bodies, and every other damn thing. I could feel the blood in my veins turn to ice water. My guts clenched as I saw what sat on the far side of the crates.
It was there.
Sixty feet away. It squatted there in the center of the big cavern. Sitting out in the open, all by itself except for thick power cords that coiled like snakes toward the nearest wall.
Huge, powerful, feral. Sophisticated in a brutal and primal way.
Deadly as hell.
My heart started beating as fast as Ghost’s and all the spit in my mouth turned to dust.
“God,” I murmured, but I was looking at the devil.