Malik entered the dingy elevator, jostling between two middle-aged Indian men and an Australian backpacker with a braided beard. Assaulted by the stale odor of cigarettes, he felt his feet sticking to the floor like it was coated in flypaper.

A small price to pay.

Unaware of the depth of the penetration or knowledge the enemy now held, he’d had Sanjar locate a cheap hostel that took cash. One that wasn’t a stickler for recording passports.

Sanjar had found exactly that inside an indoor flea market, a maze that wound around not unlike the souks of his home. Just off Nathan Road on the Kowloon side of the harbor, it was actually six or seven different hostels, each one taking up a floor. All housed what he would charitably call frugal travelers, from touring college students to men such as the Indians in the elevator with him. Malik decided they’d stay here until he could obtain new identification, which was what he was doing now.

Leaving the elevator, he slipped through the flow of people in the narrow hallway of the market, hearing at least four different languages and passing stalls that sold everything from T-shirts to Internet time.

He turned north on Nathan Road, and the world became much more homogenous, a river of people, all Asian. He walked up a few blocks, keeping pace with the foot traffic around him. He passed a subway station spilling people onto the street, a seemingly endless stream adding to the current of the human river. Had he not been preoccupied with the upcoming meeting, he might have studied the people flowing south on the opposite side of the street. Might have cataloged them as a precaution. Might have saved himself some trouble later.

* * *

Retro and I exited the subway station and took a moment to get our bearings. Hong Kong was about as crowded a city as I had ever been in, but luckily it was fairly compact, unlike the urban sprawl you see in the United States.

Retro saw a sign pointing the way to the ferries at the harbor only a few blocks away, and we began walking south, toward our target.

We’d gotten the go-ahead to transition to Hong Kong and had squeezed the only lead we had: the two names we believed were associated with the Iranian we had caught. Unfortunately, neither had panned out. Once they left the aircraft, they simply disappeared, like I figured would happen. There was no known registration at any hotel we could find. We’d flown anyway, waiting on the forensics of the cell phone we’d captured with the Iranian.

By the time we had arrived, the forensics had been completed, and the phone had little to offer, having only spoken with three other handsets: the doctor’s, the general’s phone we found in the cab, and an unknown number, presumably belonging to the countersurveillance that had saved the general at the park. We tried to track it, but it was off the grid, more than likely thrown away because of the compromise.

Digging further, building the spiderweb, we had scrubbed the connections from the unknown phone and hit a potential lead.

Outside of cab companies and the other phones we already knew, it had called a number of low-grade hostels on the Kowloon peninsula, with five located in one building and two in another on the eastern edge of the peninsula. It wasn’t much, but it was all we had.

The two on the eastern edge were a tick above slum land and had databases we could hack. Our target names weren’t registered, which meant little in the greater scheme of things, but I decided to concentrate on the other five. They appeared to be cash-and-carry-type affairs, with nothing on the Web.

I could have split up the team, focusing on both targets, but that would have left me without the ability to react immediately to what we found. On the other hand, while focusing on one would allow me to start immediate surveillance, it would get me nothing if we were on the wrong target.

Ordinarily, this type of mission would have been old hat, and we would have had the luxury of a slow, deliberate process. Here, I felt the press of time — and the threat of a global pandemic. At times like this I wondered if I wouldn’t have made a good shoe salesman.

Jennifer and Decoy had conducted a reconnaissance and found that the five hostels were serviced by the same elevator; each hostel was on a separate floor deep inside a claustrophobic market catering to foreigners. Retro and I were going to emplace a wireless covert camera in view of the doors, then we were going to pull old-fashioned stakeout work, keeping eyes on the door 24/7 in the hopes of spotting our quarry.

* * *

Malik saw a sign for Kowloon Park and crossed the street, still headed north. He passed two men speaking Urdu and wearing taqiyah skullcaps and knew he was close. He crossed Haiphong Road and saw his destination: the Kowloon Mosque and Islamic Centre. He studied it as he approached, looking for anything that didn’t seem to fit. He saw nothing alarming.

He passed through the wrought iron gate and marched up the stairs as if he had been there a hundred times before, not wanting to encourage anyone to be helpful because he appeared to be new. Not wanting anyone but his contact to remember him at all.

Using his memorized instructions, he moved through the building until he reached a small sitting room in the back. Pushing through the curtain, he recognized the man inside. A cleric who worked for the mullahs themselves. And he didn’t look particularly happy.

“General. Come in. Sit down.”

Malik did as he asked, saying, “I’m surprised to see you. I hope my request in Singapore wasn’t mistaken as something needing the attentions of someone as important as yourself.”

“From what you told us, it was no mistake.”

“The plan is proceeding perfectly. I couldn’t very well fly the vials in my carry-on bag.”

“Perfectly? Do you know what happened to Roshan?”

“Yes. He was arrested. Don’t worry, he won’t talk. Even if he does, he has no knowledge of the overall plan.”

“He wasn’t arrested. He disappeared. Just like your men in Thailand. Someone is tracking you.”

Malik absorbed the information, slowly nodding his head. He had begun to suspect the same thing. At least as far as the Thailand team was concerned. “If what you say is true, we need to counterattack. I’m due to meet my shahid tomorrow. I can send her immediately, but I would like to set a trap for those who took Roshan. They will surely follow me here.”

“There are others who think we shouldn’t execute at all. That there are too many fingerprints pointing to the republic as it is. Rumor has it you’re using a Chechen. Is this true?”

Irritated that his Chechen contacts had leaked the information, Malik said, “Yes. Why is that an issue?”

“The Russian Federation is our ally. A relationship we don’t want to upset. Using one of her citizens could prove problematic.”

“Problematic for the Chechens, yes. Not for Russia. Think about it: The shahid will give them free rein to do whatever they want in Chechnya. The world will be appalled at the carnage, all done at the hands of a Black Widow. We’re handing them a gift.”

The man considered for a moment, then reached underneath his chair and retrieved a satchel, passing it over.

“Your new documents are there, along with a cell phone.”

“Thank you, but I have Sanjar getting phones as we speak.”

“That is well and good, but this phone will remain with you always. So we can contact you should we need to. Be sure and answer it.”

So, tightening the noose, are we?

Malik opened the satchel and saw the small dry-ice box containing both the virus and the vaccine. He said, “Of course. I am always at the ayatollah’s mercy.”

“There is also the matter of the vaccine. Where is it?”

Malik feigned surprise. “It’s here. Right here. You were only supposed to leave me three doses for my team, then take the rest for development.”

“What? Those weren’t the instructions given at the embassy in Singapore. You gave them the vials, telling them they both held the virus.”

Which was absolutely true, but Malik had known this question was coming and had decided to play stupid, giving them the faulty vaccine to provide breathing space for the mission. They would never let him continue if they knew a successful vaccine didn’t exist. All he needed was one dose for the Black Widow.

Malik said, “There is some mistake. Those were not my instructions. Look, I can’t open the vaccine here, and I need it for the mission. I will bring it to my contact in the United States after setting loose the Widow.”

The cleric regarded him with a scowl, Malik knowing the entire operation now hung in the balance.

Eventually, he said, “Okay. Because of your past service and judgment, I’m going to let you continue, but keep that phone on you at all times. Malik, I believe in you, unlike others. Don’t prove me wrong.”

“What about the men searching for me?”

“I’ll get another Quds Force here. Come up with a plan.”

Malik nodded and said, “Thank you. Insha’Allah, this strike will cause the Great Satan unimaginable pain.”

The cleric stood to leave, his parting words sending a chill through Malik.

“There will be pain, no doubt. If you fail, if the West learns the source of the attack, the pain will be yours to bear.”