KARIM vented more of his rage by smashing several lamps and knocking all the photos off the fireplace mantel. Hakim sat in the big leather chair and didn’t dare twitch a muscle. Under Karim’s untucked shirt the bulge of his pistol was obvious. It was best to let the storm pass. It took a few minutes, but Karim eventually composed himself. He announced that they would leave in precisely one hour. He wanted everyone showered and clean-shaven for the trip. He told Ahmed to go through the kitchen and pack any food that he could find, and then he took the big road atlas he’d found on the bookshelf and threw it at Hakim.
“Find the best way to get there.”
“Get where?” Hakim asked in as nonthreatening a voice as possible.
Hakim got the impression Karim was looking for an excuse to get rid of him, so he nodded and began flipping through the pages.
“And keep an eye out the window,” Karim barked.
Hakim watched him leave. He stopped in the kitchen and said something to Ahmed, and then he went to the owner’s room. A moment later the shower came on. Ten seconds after that, Ahmed came around the corner with a nervous look on his face. As he crossed the room he looked over his shoulder twice.
When he got to Hakim he whispered, “Can you move?”
Hakim didn’t understand, and then suddenly Ahmed was pulling something from his pocket and handing it to him.
In a hurried whisper he said, “He’s going to kill you. He told me. Take these.” Hakim pushed the car keys into his hand. “There is a white car in the garage. I put your backpack in the front seat. Go! Go now, before he gets out of the shower.” Ahmed pulled him out of the chair and got him to his feet.
Hakim’s body was screaming at him from virtually every point. He was in such pain he didn’t know if he could move, but somehow he did. They were short steps at first. More like the shuffle of an old man. He reached the front door on his own and looked over his shoulder to thank Ahmed, but he was already gone. Cupboards were being noisily opened and slammed in the kitchen. Hakim opened the door and closed it behind him. He moved across the porch to the steps and then froze. There were only three steps, but they might as well have been a cliff. Hakim grabbed the railing and willed himself down. His torso twisted stiffly with the first step and he instantly felt a white-hot pain. It was as if someone were stabbing him in the ribs with a knife. Having already diagnosed himself, he guessed that was exactly what was happening. One of his broken ribs was tearing into the soft tissue of his left lung with a jagged, serrated edge.
He practically fell down the next two steps and then he was shuffling across the gravel, his right foot first, and then he’d drag his left foot to catch up. The pain was nearly unbearable. He felt that at any moment he would launch into a coughing fit and then it would be over. He would collapse right there in the middle of the gravel courtyard and pass out. Karim would then saunter out with that arrogant, disapproving look on his face, and before killing him he would have something stupid to say. Some phrase that would elevate his act to something noble while decrying the betrayal of his best friend. That more than anything was what drove Hakim toward the garage. The hate that he felt for Karim at the moment was unlike anything he had ever experienced.
Hakim wanted to win. He wanted to survive and he wanted his arrogant friend to feel the sting of betrayal. He wanted the narrow-minded fool to try to make the journey to Washington on his own, and he wanted the Lion of al Qaeda to fail, and feel the sting of death, just like his six brave warriors.
Fortunately, the garage was closer than the big barn where they had stashed the RV. Hakim lurched for the side door, taking shallow breaths as he went. It was the only way to prevent the stabbing pain. He didn’t dare look back until he got to the metal service door and then he did so for only a second. There was no sign of anyone leaving the house. Hakim twisted the knob and practically floated over the threshold. The overhead lights were automatically triggered by a motion sensor. Hakim slammed the door closed behind him and was about to open the big garage door and then stopped. He decided he would get into the car first. There had to be an automatic opener inside.
It was a big four-door white Cadillac DTS. The owner had been kind enough to back it in for him. Hakim opened the driver’s door and was relieved to see his backpack sitting on the front seat, just as Ahmed had said. Placing one hand on the roof and the other on the door, he carefully lowered himself into the seat. At some point he couldn’t bear the pain and just let go, falling the last foot. Holding the steering wheel, he dragged his right leg into the car and then the other, and then he just sat there completely immobile, wondering if he would pass out.
It seemed like an eternity, but it was probably no more than five seconds. A voice seemed to be guiding him. Walking him through each step. It was now telling him to put the key in the ignition. He did and it turned over on the first try. The dashboard lit up with various gauges and lights. Hakim looked for the door opener on the visor but there was none. It took him a moment, his eyes scanning every inch of the dashboard for the button, and then he realized it was on the rearview mirror. He stabbed the button and the door lurched up.
Hakim put his foot on the brake, pulled the gearshift into the drive position, and prepared himself for the worst. If Karim was blocking his path he would have to run him over. The optimistic side of him was hoping he would be greeted by nothing but daylight, but the vengeful side of him hoped the arrogant asshole would be waiting for him. He slid lower in the seat and prepared to duck farther and hit the gas should his friend attempt to block his escape. With each passing foot of open space the conflict deepened until the door was open and he saw that the courtyard sat empty. Hakim stayed low and slid his foot from the brake to the gas.
Back inside the house Ahmed continued to rifle through the kitchen cupboards, making as much noise as possible, all the while silently counting to himself. His biggest fear was that Hakim would not be able to make it to the car. How would Karim react if he found him outside passed out on the gravel? He turned to head into the dining room and look out the window, but stopped himself. He would give him another thirty seconds. He couldn’t risk helping him any further or he would be the one facing a one-man firing squad. Ahmed prayed to Allah over and over, harder and harder, begging that he would heal Hakim’s wounds and give him the strength to get away.
Ahmed did not understand any of it. He had nothing but respect for Karim. He was an amazing commander and was as good a leader as he had ever seen, but when it came to his childhood friend, he was not himself.
There had been times in the past few days where he had felt as if he was watching two eight-year-old kids fight. The constant bickering. The back and forth about every petty thing they could dream up and then the decision back in Iowa to kill the father and son. It was the first time he honestly thought Karim had made a tactical mistake. Everyone made mistakes, but this one was obvious, and Ahmed couldn’t help but think it was rooted in the jealousy Karim harbored for Hakim. Karim needed to be the hero, and everyone around him had to offer absolute subservience. That was why he stepped from the house back in Iowa and destroyed all of the careful plans and set them on this dangerous and uncharted course.
Ahmed finished counting to thirty for a second time and then kicked a pan as he walked across the kitchen floor and back into the dining room. He looked past the living room and through the big picture window. His heart leaped as he saw the hood of the white sedan ease out of the garage. He glimpsed Hakim through the windshield and thought he saw blood on his chin.
“Keep going,” he said to himself. “Don’t pass out. Allah, please give him strength. Please protect him.” Ahmed watched the car turn and accelerate past the big barn. It started winding down the driveway, a faint trail of dust kicking up, and then the taillights vanished. Ahmed exhaled a sigh of relief, but it didn’t last long. From the bedroom the noise of the running shower suddenly stopped.
CIA HEADQUARTERS, LANGLEY, VIRGINIA
RAPP parked underneath the building and took the elevator up to the first floor. He was grinning with anticipation as he walked past the CIA’s gift shop and cafeteria. The wide double doors to the Award Suite were open and he could see a good number of people milling about inside. He crossed the threshold and paused for a brief second, his eyes sweeping the room from right to left, scanning faces just long enough to see if there were any land mines waiting for him, but not so long as to make eye contact with any single individual. Rapp tended to skip these events. Better to come and go from HQ and make as little actual contact as possible. This afternoon, however, was worth the exception.
It was a virtual who’s who of the national security community, the top dogs from every agency and department that had a hand in the alphabet soup of counterterrorism. As was standard procedure, there wasn’t a single reporter or photographer in the room. There would be plenty of time for that later, but for now, this was the one chance for the men and women of the clandestine service to poke their heads out of their rabbit holes and celebrate the bravery of a colleague. Most of these folks had the security clearance, or at least the connections, to know the full story of what had happened the afternoon of the attacks, and a good number of them were turning to get a look at Rapp—the other man who had risked his life. These professionals would whisper among themselves, but they would honor their oath. They all knew there were valid reasons for a man in Rapp’s position to keep his head down. Rapp had to be realistic, though. His role in the affair would be passed from one person to the next, and with each retelling, it was likely the facts would be warped like a rain-soaked piece of wood— impossible to know in advance just how it would turn out.
Rapp heard the squawk of a child to his left and moved in that direction. He figured there couldn’t be too many toddlers at the reception, so the odds were the noise was coming from Charlie Nash. He wanted to get in, give his congratulations to the kids and Maggie, and tell them how proud he was of their father and husband, if possible track down Art Harris for a brief update, and then get the hell out of Dodge.
Rapp made it three steps before a smiling Julie Trittin cut him off. Barely five feet tall in her heels, the petite brunette was the hotshot rising star over on the National Security Council. She’d come up through the ranks on the military side, and until a few months ago was helping run a highly sensitive operation at the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Trittin looked up at Rapp and with a mischievous smile said, “Well, well, Mitchell. Just how in the hell did you pull this off?”
Rapp cracked a dry smile and said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, Julie.”