The Medong Sui threaded her way among the hundreds of small islands that were silhouetted between the blue-black water and the pink and orange streaks of sunset. The ancient diesel engine groaned pitifully under the strain as it did its best to propel the overloaded freighter across the South China Sea. Long beards of sea grass draped under the hull, slowing the old coaster’s progress even more. Jagged streaks of rust festooned her once white-painted sides. Kei Nugyen Doa leaned back against the ship’s bridge rail while he sucked on a Vietnamese cigarette. He took a deep draw then blew the smoke out, allowing the gentle tropical wind to take away what little smoke he had not been able to hold in his lungs. From up here he could see the passengers milling about on the main deck below. They were finishing the last remnants of their evening meal by lantern light. Soon they would be bedding down for the night, their din would subside, and he could listen to the quiet of the night. This evening, while the passengers and most of the crew slept, Kei would guide the Medong Sui through the narrow Balabac Straits, into the Sulu Sea. Tomorrow night, the Medong Sui would arrive, only a few hours late, at Isabella, on Basilan Island in the southern Philippines. The freighter was four days out of Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. It carried a manifest proclaiming that the Medong Sui was hauling a cargo of foodstuffs for delivery to a wholesaler in Isabella and a supercargo of Buddhist pilgrims returning home from a pilgrimage to Doi Suthep, one of the faith’s most revered shrines. Kei would be happy when he could offload the fifty peasants who were making the passage. He would be even happier to rid himself of the other cargo the ship carried down in its hold. The manifest did not lie. It was just incomplete. It wasn’t the bags of rice and the dried fish that made Kei so nervous. It was the ton of pure heroin hidden underneath the rice and fish that scared him. The value of that cargo represented more money than he and his family could ever earn, not in a hundred lifetimes. He also knew that Sui Kia Shun would hold him personally responsible for every baht’s worth if it should somehow be lost, whether it was his fault or not. Sui, the powerful Chinese drug lord, expected his servants to perform their duties unfailingly. There was no margin for error. Kei’s duty was to deliver the heroin to a waiting freighter in Isabella. Barring catastrophe, he would do just that, then accept his small compensation and wait for Sui to call upon him again someday. Kei had traveled this passage, and most every other one in the South China Sea, countless times. Medong Sui was almost new when, as a young man, he first set sail. Now both he and his ship were well past their prime, worn and tired. Now that they were once again near their destination, he would soon breathe easier again. Kei inhaled the last bitter tendrils of smoke, held it in as long as he could, and then exhaled as he tossed the tiny butt over the side. The embers at its tip died in the damp air. It was time to enjoy the solitude of the night. A million stars would keep him company on what was left of this moonless voyage.
Manju Shehab sat low in the black inflatable boat. Like the men behind him and those in the other two boats on either side of his, he was dressed all in black. The boats were running without any lights, invisible to anyone traveling these waters on such a dark night. Even with very sensitive radar, it would be almost impossible to detect the trio of boats, each with its own well-armed five-man team crouching inside. But they knew their quarry tonight wouldn’t have sensitive radar. Most ships transiting these waters were lucky to have engines that worked, much less electronics. The rusty old freighter they were awaiting was a few hours late but that was to be expected. Shehab’s instructions were to remain in this spot until it came, no matter how long it took. If Sabul u Nurizam…Allah praise his blessed leader’s name…said they were to wait until the stars fell from the heavens, Shehab would do so. Finally, near midnight, Shehab saw the freighter’s running lights on the horizon. There was no mistaking the old coaster. He let it chug a mile past them before he signaled his men to start their engines. The powerful, expensive outboard motors could jet the rigid-hulled, inflatable boats across the water at better than forty knots, yet they were quiet enough that they were almost inaudible above the wave slap. The old freighter was easy to track. The three boats followed the glimmering phosphorescent wake that trailed out far behind the ship. Within minutes they had caught her and were hidden beneath the overhang of the high, sloping sides of the old vessel. Shehab moved his boat up along the starboard side and kept pace while he watched for any sign that they had been observed while they closed. He listened for excited calls of alarm from up on the main deck, but there were none. Satisfied they were ready, he allowed his boat to slip back until it was only a few feet in front of the freighter’s single churning screw. It was a dangerous place to be. One small slip and they could be capsized and chopped into shark food. But this spot had the advantage of being aft of the bridge. In the unlikely event there was anyone up there awake, he would certainly be looking forward. Still, the ship’s superstructure would hide Shehab and his men, even if someone on the bridge should glance backward. The pirate checked his AK-47 ready and then, with one broad swing, tossed his rubber-coated grappling hook up over the rail. He scurried up the line, followed closely by the other four men from his boat. Shehab knew that one of his team leaders already had his boat riding along on the port side, and that they were mimicking every move his group made. The third team would remain a few yards astern, riding in the ship’s rough wake, ready to charge in and open fire if help was needed. Shehab reached the top of his line, rolled over the railing onto the deck, and jumped to his feet, his AK-47 ready. He stayed in a low crouch as he ran the short distance to a ladder that led up to the bridge. He could hear the muted footfalls of his men, following behind. He silently charged up the ladder and rushed through the open doorway into the wheelhouse.
Kei Nugyen Doa was in danger of being lulled to sleep by the quiet night and the soft rocking of the ship beneath him. He was about to light another of the cigarettes when he was startled by movement out of the corner of his eye. He found himself staring at the business end of an AK-47 as a black-clad man slipped through the starboard hatch. Seconds later the first intruder was joined by an accomplice through the port hatch. The old seaman leaned against his chart table and watched the armed men while he allowed his heart to slow its racing. He had sailed these waters long enough to know there was nothing he could do to stop them. The pirates would simply take what they wanted. The best course of action was always to be helpful and hope they left peacefully. They would steal the little bit of money Kei had in the ship’s safe and rob the passengers. There weren’t any of them worth kidnapping and holding for ransom. Maybe, if the gods were smiling, they would never even go below, would never find the heroin hidden deep in Medong Sui’s bowels. Kei was surprised when the pirates herded him off the bridge and down the ladder to the main deck. Pirates usually left one or two men to make sure he steered straight while the others seized what plunder they could easily get to. This time, he was shoved down, right into the middle of the milling mass of crew and passengers who had been awakened by the men’s shouts. This was not going well. The pirates should be in a hurry to gather any valuables and leave the Medong Sui. They would need to be far away from the ship before the sun rose. After all, they were only a few miles from the Philippine Coast Guard base at Balabac. Kei felt the ship heel slightly as it began a turn. He knew at once what was happening. Someone was up in the wheelhouse, turning the Medong Sui so that she was retracing the track they had just steamed down. This was trouble. Kei slumped down, squatting forlornly in the midst of his chattering passengers. There was nothing he could do now. Nothing but pray.
The sun had risen high into the sky when Manju Shehab spotted the ship for which he had been scanning the horizon from the old freighter’s bridge. The vessel rode at anchor, just to the leeward of Royal Charlotte Reef, a narrow spit of land that barely broke the water’s surface at the southern end of the Spratley Islands. The isolated bit of rock and coral was a perfect meeting place. It was too far off the beaten track for anyone to stumble across them accidentally. Not even the most desperate fishermen would venture out here. Shehab ordered the engines stopped and allowed the old scow to coast until he came to a halt two hundred meters from the anchored ship. Then he directed one of his men to drop Medong Sui’s anchor. It fell free with an awful racket and splashed into the blue water.
Kei Nugyen Doa had kept his eyes closed since the bright sun had come up. He did not want to see what might happen next. These men were not the usual pirates, looking for a few coins or cargo that was light enough to drop over the sides to their mates. These men seemed to have no interest in the few bills in an old sailor’s dungaree pockets. When he heard the anchor chain rattling loose, he dared to look. As his eyes grew accustomed to the brightness on the deck, he could see that they were stopped near a rocky sliver of land that looked vaguely familiar to him. If they were where he thought they were, rescue was not likely. There was another ship anchored over there, as if it had been awaiting them. He watched as a pair of lighters left from alongside the other freighter and made their way across the short stretch of turquoise water. They pulled alongside the Medong Sui and tied up next to the Jacob’s ladder that the pirates had lowered. A dozen armed men clambered up the ladder. They milled around on deck, shouting friendly greetings to the pirates who now controlled the Medong Sui. This seemed to be a lot of effort and planning, a lot of men, all just to steal the rice from a little coastal freighter. It was almost as if they were intent on taking the whole ship. Certainly it wasn’t for the value of the Medong Sui. The rusted old scow was near worthless. They wanted something much more valuable. Kei felt his stomach sink. The leader of the pirates, the one who was called Shehab, pointed at Kei and spoke to him for the first time. “Show us where you hid the heroin. Show us now or we will kill all the passengers.” To punctuate his order, the pirate fired a short, vicious burst into the midst of the huddled group. The pilgrims screamed and cried in terror. Four of them fell, their blood staining the deck red as it drained toward the scuppers. “Be quick or more will die. Passengers, then your crew, and finally you, old man.” There was nothing else for Kei to do. The inevitability of what was about to happen had already dawned on the old freighter captain. If he refused to tell them where the drug was, the pirates would murder everyone. They knew already it was onboard and they would still find the heroin, even if they shot everyone and then searched the Medong Sui themselves. If he revealed the drugs’ hidden location, the pirates would still murder them all, if for no other reason than to eliminate witnesses. Kei shrugged his shoulders tiredly. He was much too old to think of dying defiantly. Better to go into the next world with as little angst as possible. “Come, I will show you,” he muttered. Slowly, he forced his stiff old legs to push him upright. He made his way down the ladder into the main cargo hold. There, under the sacks of dried fish, the deck planks were loose. He pulled up one to show the pirates where the bags of white powder were stuffed. Shehab forced the hapless captives to off-load the drugs while all the pirates stood about and watched. One ton of pure heroin made a nice little pile on one of the rusty old lighters’ decks. It would be safely stowed on the other freighter soon. But it was not to be. The actual plan puzzled even Shehab. It had mystified him ever since their leader, Sabul u Nurizam, had spelled out in no uncertain terms this most unusual final step in the plot. It didn’t make any sense to go to all the trouble and danger of stealing fifty million dollars’ worth of drugs, only to dump the stuff into the sea. That money would have gone far in the new war of terror against the infidels. There was no question, though. Sabul had ordered it done so, and Sabul was the anointed one. The remainder of his leader’s orders had made more sense. Shehab set about following them to the letter. When the off-loading of the drugs was completed, Shehab ordered the Buddhist pilgrims and the freighter’s crew herded into Medong Sui’s main hold. Most of them assumed they were to be locked up there until someone came to rescue them. They settled down to pray and wait. Kei knew better. Even so, he could not resist looking up at the pirates as they glared down through the hold at them. He could not help pleading with his eyes. It did no good. They opened fire. The deep-throated rumbling roar of the AK-47s didn’t stop until the last plaintive cry for mercy, the last shrieks of horror were silenced, and nothing remained but the eerie creaking of the old scow as she rocked in the sea swell.
The pale yellow sun peeked over the ledge of the horizon, as if considering whether or not it was worth the effort to resume its mundane daily task of burning away the morning mist. The cloudless sky and clammy air foretold yet another hot, humid day. Typical weather for the South China Sea, a mere eight degrees north of the equator. “Bridge, combat,” squawked the communicator on the bridge of the American warship. “Captain, Aegis reports a surface contact, range five-nine hundred yards, bearing one-seven-nine.” The warm tropical breeze was heavy with the fetid, earthy scent of the jungle, drifting over from the tiny islands to port of where the USS Higgins (DDG 76) patrolled. On her bridge, Commander Paul Wilson, the tanned, lean skipper of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, looked to the south, toward where the reported contact should be. From his seat high on the starboard bridge wing, he should be able to see this new intruder who had so rudely disrupted his first cup of morning coffee. The contact had to be small to stay hidden from the Aegis radar until it got this close. That, or it had just come into view from behind one of the islands. This part of the South China Sea was littered with plenty of tiny islets, rocky reefs and old shipwrecks. The British had lost so many tea clippers out here that their charts still labeled this area “The Dangerous Grounds.” Wilson lifted his ball cap and ran his hand through his steel-gray hair as he scanned the horizon. Nothing in sight. He was about to take another sip of the coffee when he spotted the contact. Just to the right of Grainger Bank, the westernmost point of the Spratley Islands. It looked like a thousand other little coastal steamers that plied the waters out here. Most were all but derelict, with bright rust streaks like streamers down their sides. Even at first glance, this one fit the bill. Wilson noticed one difference though, even from this distance. Normally the decks of these coasters swarmed with people. This one looked abandoned. The bridge was empty. There appeared to be no one on deck. “Another pirate attack? They aren’t answering our call on the marine band radio.” Brian Simonson was standing at the skipper’s right elbow. The young lieutenant, his shirt already wilted and sweat-stained, held a pair of 7×50 binoculars up to his eyes, peering at the steamer. “That’ll be the third one this week.” “Maybe,” Wilson replied. “Let’s move over and take a look. Hey, that’s the reason we’re out here after all.” Pirate activity in the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca had never gone out of fashion. It was still a favorite method of making a living for some of the locals. The restricted waters and thousands of tiny islands made this ideal territory in which pirates could operate. The confused and conflicting sovereignty claims helped their cause. China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and even tiny Brunei all claimed these waters. On top of that, this route was one of the world’s most heavily trafficked sea-lanes. Huge container ships and giant oil tankers threaded their way through the shallow waters on their runs between northern Asia and the Middle East or Europe. They made attractive, slow-moving targets for the modern-day buccaneers, just as they had for their predecessors for centuries. The piracy had become such a menace that Singapore asked for the United States to send warships to help patrol the area. On this muggy morning, the Higgins had been making an anti-pirate patrol on behalf of the Singapore Navy. It appeared they had happened upon their quarry’s handiwork once again. Paul Wilson stole a quick glance at the compass repeater. “Mr. Simonson, come around to one-eight five,” he ordered. “Slow to one-third. Close that coaster to two thousand yards. Get Petranko and his team ready in the RHIB.” Simonson acknowledged and turned away. Commander Wilson had a worried frown on his face as he added, “And man battle stations. I want our batteries manned and ready while we have a boat in the water.” “Yes, sir!”
Gunner’s Mate First Class Joe Petranko balanced himself as the rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) rocked from side to side on the ocean swells. The rust-streaked side of the freighter loomed high above the little RHIB as they drew alongside. Petranko braced himself even tighter. In the ten years that he had led these boarding parties, he had never once fallen into the drink. He didn’t want to break his streak this morning. At least, not before he had breakfast. For some reason, the stocky, muscular gunner’s mate didn’t have a good feeling about this boarding. On the trip across from the Higgins, he kept an eye on the steamer’s deck and bridge. There was no sign of life. The son of a bitch looked like a ghost ship. He had done dozens of these boardings, almost always without incident. But when they turned bad, they turned really bad. He had the same queasy feeling in his gut before each of them. He felt the familiar gnawing nausea now. Petranko glanced around at the rest of his team. The six of them had worked together for over a year now. He had trained them and then worked with them, doing interdiction operations in the Gulf in what sometimes turned out to be dicey situations. They were good. Petranko knew he could count on every man. He hoped he wouldn’t have to. “On your toes, guys,” he growled as they eased alongside the freighter. “I don’t like the smell of this. Not one bit.” The short, powerfully built Petranko grabbed a grappling hook tied to the end of a line and tossed it in a high looping arc. It clanged onto the coaster’s deck high over his head. He gave it a heavy tug. It didn’t come loose. Good. Must be hooked onto something solid on the first try. Next, the gunner’s mate checked a round in the chamber of his M-16. Ready. He looked back over his shoulder. “Cover me guys. I’m going onboard.” He spoke into the boom mike that rested at his lips. “CIC, Petranko. Boarding now.” The tiny earpiece crackled a little with static before he heard Captain Wilson’s voice. “Higgins, aye.” There was an ever so slight pause. “Be careful and good luck, Gunner.” Petranko heard the wariness in his skipper’s voice. The old man must be having the same uneasy feelings. Time to go. He pulled himself up the line hand-over-hand as the other six men in the RHIB kept their eyes on the overhanging lip of the freighter’s deck. Their guns were at the ready. When he reached deck-level, Petranko stopped and then eased up just enough to peek over the gunwale. This was the most dangerous moment. If someone were waiting to ambush them, his team in the RHIB and the big guns on the Higgins wouldn’t protect him a bit when his head popped up for a look-see. Bracing himself for a burst of gunfire, Petranko edged higher. He looked around. Nobody there. The deck was empty. “Deck clear. Everybody up!” he spoke quietly into the little boom mike alongside his mouth. Three more grappling hooks arched up and over the rail. Petranko rolled onto the deck out of their reach and took quick cover behind a king post. The muzzle of Petranko’s M-16 darted around like a cobra ready to strike as he checked every possible line of fire. It was deathly still. Not even a breeze disturbed the silence. The only sounds he could hear were the beating of his heart, the creaking of the old ship, and the grunts of his team climbing up to the deck from the RHIB. The rest of the men rolled over the gunwale, onto the deck. They scurried to covering positions, their weapons ready. Still, nothing else moved. “CIC, Petranko. Team onboard. No one topside,” Petranko whispered into the boom mike. “Deploying the teams to search now. Skipper, I got a bad feeling about this. It’s way too quiet.” “Roger, Gunner. Be careful. Don’t take any chances.” “Aye, sir.” The team fanned out in pairs in a well-rehearsed search of the coaster. Petranko charged up a ladder to the bridge. It was empty. No sign of a struggle or anything violent. Nothing was out of place. It was just empty. The marine band radio, just above the helm, was still turned on. Petranko searched around, trying to find some clue that would point him to what might have happened here. He found the manifest. Rice and fish. Passengers. All the while, his subconscious was alert for any hint of attack, for any clue that they were stepping into an ambush. His earpiece crackled and he jumped. “Gunner, you’d better come down here and see this!” It was one of his crew. “Down where?” “We’re in the hold, amidships.” “On my way,” Petranko muttered and dashed out of the wheelhouse. He arrived on the main deck just as two of his men slid the cargo hold cover back. It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust from the bright tropical sunshine enough for him to see into the dark space. He looked down in horror at the unbelievable scene below. That gave his sense of smell time to react. He stepped back from the cargo hold, the gorge rising into his throat. He fought the almost overwhelming urge to vomit as he tried to breathe again. There was no mistaking what he had seen down there. At the bottom of the empty hold lay what looked like over fifty human corpses. They were swollen and putrid from the heat. Some of the dead eyes stared up at him, as if begging him for help that was much too late. Petranko stumbled to the edge of the deck and leaned over the rail. He tried to swallow great gulps of clean salt air to cleanse his senses of the awful scene, the sickening stench. Finally, he managed to harness his heaving stomach and mustered enough strength to speak. He keyed the little boom mike. “Captain, we found what happened. Someone put what looks like all the crew and passengers in the hold and then machine-gunned them. There’re over fifty bodies down there, I estimate. Been several days.” Then, before his message’s receipt could be confirmed, he turned back to lean over the rail and retched. Gunner Petranko had no more thoughts of breakfast.
Sabul u Nurizam reached out to gently touch the silver-gray device, caressing it with the tips of his long, slender fingers. He might have been examining the nuances of a fine porcelain statuette or some other graceful work of art. He grunted appreciatively as his fingers stroked the hard, metallic surface. Somehow he had expected it to be warm to the touch. There was no logical reason why it should be. Still, anything containing the awful power this object held should be warm to the touch. It wasn’t. It was cold, solid, dead. Outside the dilapidated building where he stood, the icy March wind howled in off the Sea of Japan, rattling the windows. Some of it found its way inside in the form of a chilling draft. March, a week before the equinox, the cold wind was to be expected. They were north of the 42nd parallel after all. Najin was the home to the northernmost of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea’s naval bases. Its climate was decidedly uninviting to Sabul u Nurizam. It was far removed from the perpetual warmth and gentle prevailing winds of his home in the southern Philippines. The trip, the cold, was worth the sacrifice, the discomfort, if he could obtain what he had come here to bargain for. A nuclear weapon. Such a purchase would, at long last, give his Abu Sayuff organization the power it needed to accomplish its sacred goals. With this frightful weapon, if used correctly, he would be able to unite the Muslim population in all of Southeast Asia into one Islamic nation and under one leader. And that leader was Sabul u Nurizam. He would then successfully lead a qital jihad, a holy war, to free his people from the yoke of Western influence. He would purify their souls in the same nuclear fire that would destroy the infidels. Nurizam’s heart raced as he imagined the glorious triumph that would be his, by the grace of Allah and with the help of his new allies from North Korea. Colonel Kuang il Chung had no such holy motives as he stood there in the middle of the drafty warehouse, coldly considering the atomic weapon. He watched through slitted eyes like a used car salesman as the Filipino terrorist leader walked around the nuclear torpedo, a customer kicking the tires. The terrorist was interested. That was obvious. Now, if the crazy cleric had the money to buy, there might soon be a deal consummated. Nurizam bent his tall frame to inspect a nameplate fitted into the side of the weapon. He flicked at it with his long fingernails. The lettering was strange, not a language he could read. He looked up at Chung, the question obvious in his eyes. “The writing is Russian,” the North Korean said. “It says that the screw next to the label must be turned to the ‘armed’ position for the weapon to detonate. It is a Soviet-era type 53-68 nuclear submarine torpedo. It has a twenty-kiloton warhead. That will be more than enough for your purposes.” The North Korean colonel anticipated the next question as well. He shrugged his shoulders before the terrorist could ask it. “Some of my Russian friends in Vladivostok were short of funds and had this…this piece of surplus ordnance…lying around.” Nurizam nodded. He continued his careful inspection of the long gray tube as if he could tell the truth about its potency from its cold, steel shell. He looked over at Chung once more. “Colonel, I must congratulate you on acquiring such a fine weapon. But please tell me. What am I supposed to do with a torpedo?” “Sabul, my friend,” the North Korean answered patiently. “You asked us to find you a nuclear device. My bureau found you a nuclear device. And, I might add, at great danger and expense. What am I to tell my superiors at the State Security Department? Nurizam and his Abu Sayuff do not have the imagination to use a nuclear torpedo?” The device seemed to have a magnetic attraction to Nurizam. He fondled the smooth metal surface with both hands. His eyes had a far-away, glazed look. The colonel was wrong. He had the imagination to use this weapon. It was only a matter of devising an infallible method for delivering it to the most effective target. A nuclear torpedo was a bit more difficult to hide than a suicide bomb strapped to some poor martyr on his short trip to paradise. There were ways. He would find them. Allah would reveal them to him. After all, he was Sabul u Nurizam, the savior of his people. “We will need more than one, of course,” Nurizam stated flatly. “The first one will manage to get the attention of the infidels. The real power is in having another with which to bargain after the devils feel the bite of the first one. Is there a second weapon available, Colonel?” Colonel Chung’s eyes widened. He rubbed his chin for a few seconds, as if running through an inventory list in his mind of stray nuclear weapons. “We might be able to locate a second one, but we must deal in cash,” he answered. “The cost for two weapons would be one hundred million U. S. dollars. Half must be paid before the weapons are shipped and half will be due when you have received them. Can your organization afford such a price?” Nurizam bowed toward the North Korean spymaster and allowed a half smile to soften his thin, gaunt face. “Those terms are acceptable. It will take a couple of months for us to gather that much cash and arrange for its transfer without the nosey Americans becoming aware of the transactions. They are a bit more attentive to such transactions nowadays, as you can well imagine.” Chung bowed in his direction. “Then we have a deal. We will hold these weapons for you for two months. After that time, if you have not been able to accumulate the payments, we must offer them to other buyers. I’m sure you understand that we have several other interested parties in Asia and the Middle East who are anxious to bid on these.” Nurizam did not answer. He only nodded absently, confirming he heard the terms of the purchase. He was once again bent over the deadly torpedo, stroking it gently, an odd, chilling smile on his bluish lips. The faraway look was still there in the terrorist’s dark, cold eyes, too. There must have been a stray tentacle of cold wind that had found its way into the shed. Colonel Kuang il Chung of the North Korean army could not suppress a sudden chill that climbed up the ladder of his spine.
Tom Kincaid squinted against the bright sun as he peeked out through the jalousies again. Nothing new out there. The street that ran in front of his rundown waterfront hotel still bustled with activity despite the sultry midday heat. Banged-up old American automobiles and large, honking freight trucks vied with the Philippine jeepneys for their share of right-of-way in the noisy, crowded street only a few feet from his window. The rude sidewalk, barely more than a footpath alongside the street, was filled with a constant flowing mass of jostling humanity. They all seemed determined to complete their shopping trips, to head off in a hurry on important errands, or to single-mindedly carry out their afternoon stroll regardless of the mob on the streets or the sultry air. Kincaid breathed deeply. The smell of roasted ginger chicken wafted from a stall on the far side of the street and somehow found its way through the window. He felt his stomach growl in response to the aroma. A street vendor was serving savory adobong manok to any passerby who had a few extra pesos and an empty stomach. Isabella was the largest city on the Philippine island of Basilan. It served as a transshipment point for much of the commerce to and from the southern Philippines. Ships from all over Southeast Asia shouldered their way up to the docks here to unload their cargoes. At the same time, smaller boats and barges headed out of Isabella, moving the bags of rice, the computers, and the gasoline to the thousands of smaller island towns along the spine of the Sulu Archipelago. The freighter Kincaid had been watching had not changed its position. It was still tied up down at the end of the pier, in perfect view from his hotel room window. The words “Dawn Flower” were painted across her broad stern. There was one odd thing about the rusty ship, though. Nothing was moving around her. That was in sharp contrast to the rest of the harbor and the ships that were moored there. The isolated freighter was the center of Kincaid’s interest. Tom Kincaid was a career narc. The ship was supposed to be dirty. That’s why he cared. “She ain’t moved in a week,” Kincaid muttered. “If I didn’t know how solid your sources were, Ben, I’d swear your informant on this one had gone sour on us.” Benito Luna grunted from where he lay back on one of the narrow beds in the room, his eyes closed and with a damp washcloth across his forehead. The two drug agents had shared this window for the better part of a week and had little more than headaches and sour stomachs to show for it. By this point, conversation had been reduced to little more than grunts and growls. Luna, the short, stocky undercover agent who was sprawled across the damp, unmade bed, was the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation’s liaison to the Joint Drug Interdiction Agency, a clandestine operation headquartered in the United States. One of Luna’s informants, planted deep in the organization of powerful Asian drug lord Sui Kia Shun, had reported that the Dawn Flower would be picking up a major drug haul coming down out of Thailand on another vessel. When he got the word, Luna had not wasted a minute. He called the JDIA’s Deputy Director for Enforcement, Tom Kincaid. He knew that Sui Kia Shun was prospect number one on Kincaid’s list of bad guys to take down. Besides, he wanted to help Kincaid any way he could. They had worked together before, when Kincaid had been the best agent the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration had on the payroll. That had been a while back, though, before bad politics and a glory-hungry new DEA director had wrecked all that Kincaid had built. Now, the agent was back, working for an agency that seemed to be able to call on any resource it needed to get the job done and didn’t give a tinker’s damn about politics or publicity. Luna was delighted to be working with Kincaid. He felt awful that the seemingly solid intel was proving baseless. The Filipino agent stood and stretched and massaged his aching forehead above the bridge of his nose. He yawned and headed for the door. “My head may well explode, Tom,” he grumbled. “I gotta get me some fresh air and another bottle of aspirin. Maybe I can pick up a hint if anything is gonna come down. You need anything?” “Bring me a mango sorbete,” Kincaid said. “And try to get back this time before it melts, if you don’t mind.” “You and your ice cream,” Luna said with a chuckle. “Worse than a kid in the streets.” The Philippine agent closed the door behind himself, looked up and down the tiny, dark hallway, then hopped down the stairs and out into the blistering Avienda de Mar. He didn’t head in the direction of the ship they were watching, though. Instead, he turned the corner and walked away from the waterfront, his pace matching that of all the others on the sidewalk. This street was no less crowded than the waterfront thoroughfare, but he would be far less likely to draw attention from anyone on the Dawn Flower if he didn’t parade back and forth in front of the vessel. Luna turned left on Murella Street. He quickened his pace as he paralleled Avienda de Mar, but two blocks over. As the burly agent moved down the shop-lined street, he noticed the already crowded concourse becoming even more congested and noisy. By the third block, the boulevard was packed with a mass of sweating humanity. Something was going on. This wasn’t the normal early afternoon crowd, hurrying home for siesta. These people were angry about something. Above the normal street noise, he could hear someone up ahead shouting through a megaphone, leading the crowd in a rabid, rhythmic chorus. Curious, Luna edged closer until he could make out the pro-Islamic, anti-government slogans that were being chanted. More people were pouring in from the side streets to see what was going on. The agent allowed the crowd to engulf and hide him. “It’s Sabul!” someone close by shouted. “It is Sabul u Nurizam, here to reveal to us Allah’s will!” Luna had heard plenty about Sabul. How he was spreading his own militant brand of hateful terrorism across the southern Philippines. How he and the radical Abu Sayuff movement was financing their own private war with drugs and pirate raids. Now he would have a chance to see the mythic Islamic fundamentalist in the flesh. He edged as close as he dared but he could only make out the top of the head of what must be Sabul. It seemed odd that such a well known radical cleric would be right out here in public, for anyone to take a pot-shot at, or for the government to arrest. But there he was. The terrorist leader had stopped the chanting and was pacing back and forth, preaching to the growing crowd. Luna listened to the man’s inflammatory words. No wonder he was able to whip these people into such frenzy. The radical leader was near hypnotic as he espoused the worst kinds of racist hate, but used the cadence and delivery of an evangelical preacher. He called for turning the Philippines and the rest of Southeast Asia into a fundamentalist Islamic state. The western world was evil, decadent, intent on bringing its sinful worldliness to the entire globe. It was Allah’s will that such forbidden non-Islamic temptations be banned. That ban would be forcibly imposed, even if it took the blood of the people to do it, and the infidels would be eradicated to assure they did not return. Luna had heard such rhetoric before, but it seemed all the more venomous coming from this man. He moved to the edge of the crowd and tried to make his way forward, hoping to get a better look at this deadly prophet. There was a mosque a little farther down the street. That must be where Nurizam was holding forth. After fifteen minutes of carefully picking his way through the crowd, Luna could see Nurizam. He was almost surrounded by at least a dozen men who appeared to be bodyguards. Nurizam was a tall, gaunt man. He paced back and forth across the flat bed of a truck, still spouting his bilious message. The man’s face was narrow, pinched, hawk-like, and he wore a full, black beard and flowing robes. But it was the eyes that caught Luna’s attention, even from that distance. The jet-black pools of fire seemed to be looking directly at him as the terrorist spoke. They appeared capable of burning a path into his soul. Luna had never experienced such a pure force of personality as the one that radiated from this radical Islamic cleric. With Nurizam speaking, the milling mass had fallen silent. The man was mesmerizing. “We must be ready to drive the infidels from our lands! It is Allah’s will!” Nurizam ranted. “The Manila government is the puppet of the West! It must be crushed. Allah has revealed his plan to me. We will win this holy war! Then we will build a paradise for his sons, here in our land!” Luna soon found he was nodding and chanting in agreement, although he detested every word of the hate-filled diatribe he was hearing. A white van suddenly screamed down the street from the opposite direction, its horn blaring away, trying to clear a path through the throng. When the crowd was too thick to move out of the vehicle’s way, it rammed viciously into the people, scattering bodies in all directions. The van lurched to a halt twenty meters from the truck where Nurizam was still ranting, apparently unaware of the carnage that had just taken place in front of him. The van’s side doors rolled open and four armed men, two from each side, jumped out. The men leveled their machine pistols at Nurizam and opened fire. The crowd scattered, some trampling on others in their haste to avoid the hail of bullets. Luna could not believe what he was seeing. It was like a movie was unspooling right there in front of him. He stood there amid the bedlam, transfixed, watching in horror as the men who stood behind and to either side of Nurizam fell, chopped down by the gunmen before they could even unholster the pistols they carried. The cleric’s white robes were splattered with the blood of his fallen comrades. But amazingly, as the crowd surged in panic, as the people screamed in terror and charged pell-mell away from the scene, as the men around him were ripped apart by the horrible barrage, Nurizam continued to rant, never breaking stride in his back-and-forth pacing. He seemed oblivious to the murder that was happening, to the seething bullets that tore past him. The gunmen continued to fire. Impossibly, Nurizam kept preaching, unfazed and unharmed. It was as if he knew the bullets could not hurt him. Then, amazingly, the terrorist leader stopped walking, stood tall, and boldly faced his would-be assassins at pointblank range. His arms were held wide. He watched the gunmen with his dark eyes. He was a perfect target. Still, the bullets ripped into the fallen men around him, hissed over the heads of the people on the street who were frantically crawling for cover, clanked into the metal cab of the truck, pocked the wall of the building behind. Not a single bullet struck Nurizam. After a seeming eternity of carnage, but really only half a minute or so, the would-be assassins jumped back into their van and the driver screeched away, running over still more people were sprawled along the narrow avenue. At the same time armed men came running out of the mosque, their weapons drawn. But the assassins had fled. There was no one to shoot at. The newly arrived armed men formed a human shield around the cleric and hauled him away, back into the safety of the stone building. The street was empty. Empty except for the awkwardly arrayed bodies of a score or more fallen men and the bullet-riddled truck with the bleeding corpses of the radical’s local bodyguards. An awful quiet fell on the scene, disturbed only by the distant singsong rising and falling notes of an approaching siren and the occasional moaning of the wounded. Benito Luna slipped down an alley and ran toward where he suspected the van would have to pass once it turned back to the direction from which it came. He would try to head it off. He drew his service pistol, a nine-millimeter Berretta automatic, from his waistband and checked it ready. He had trouble getting past the frightened mob cowering in the alley, some of them shrieking and pointing at the sight of his drawn gun. He burst onto the street just in time to see the mini-van scream around a far corner and disappear. He stopped, breathing hard. The face he had glimpsed through the passenger’s side window of the van looked familiar. It couldn’t possibly be, but Luna was almost certain it had been his old mentor, Colonel Ortega, the head of the Mindanao office of the NBI. Why? Why would one of the Philippine’s top cops be involved in an assassination attempt? It didn’t make any sense. Sure, he might want to get Nurizam, but this was hardly the way it was done. Luna shook his head. He must be mistaken. He re-holstered his gun and walked back toward the hotel room. He didn’t want to have to explain his presence here to the local cops when they arrived on the scene. He also wanted to tell Tom Kincaid the unbelievable things he had just seen. And his headache was now threatening to blow off the top of his head.
Sabul u Nurizam stood before his followers in the central hall of the masjid, the local mosque. He seemed unfazed by the attempt on his life even though only a minute or two had passed since his regular bodyguards had pulled him inside. “See, my sons,” he said as he raised his out-stretched arms, palms up. Broad patches of dark red blood stained his white garment. “It is as I said. Allah protects and guides me on our quest.” He surveyed the group of men who stood around him there in the unadorned, simple room. Even the mihrab, the niche indicating the qibla, the direction of Mecca, was little more than a simple, open, wooden closet. The dozen men stood in sharp contrast to the quiet, peaceful room. Their camouflage dress was still sweaty from the dash outside to rescue their leader. They still held their weapons loosely, ready. Watchful eyes followed Nurizam’s speech, but they stole frequent glances toward the room’s accesses. Bodies were tensed for instant action. Nurizam continued, his voice rising in pitch as his excitement increased. “You saw it! The people saw it! Bullets all around! And not one scratch! It is Allah’s will. He will guide us. We must move forward, push our plan boldly. We cannot fail.” It was Manju Shehab who finally spoke. “Sabul, I don’t understand. Why did you order us to stay in the mosque and insist on using the local mullahs for your protection? They had no training, no experience. You were almost killed.” The terrorist leader looked into the eyes of his top lieutenant and hesitated a moment before he answered. He spoke slowly, weighing each word carefully. “Manju Shehab, you are my most trusted compatriot. It is right for you to question that which you do not understand. There are things that I will tell you to do that you will not understand. You must trust me in those things. Today, I was in no danger. Allah protected me. It was important for the people to see me unafraid, even when faced with such a brutal assault.” Nurizam looked at the dark, muscular fighter, still clutching his AK-47. “I know that you are concerned for my safety. That is good, but trust me, it is not necessary.” Shehab shook his head as he tried to understand what his leader was saying. “Sabul, I faithfully follow you,” he stammered. “You know that. But you are correct when you say that you do things I do not understand. You tell us to stay in the mosque and you are almost killed. You tell us to steal a ship full of heroin worth millions, then you tell us to dump it into the ocean. It was money that could have bought many weapons to use in our struggle against the infidels.” Nurizam shook his head and allowed a slight smile to play on his thin lips. “I will say it again, but only because I know you question me with the purest of motives. It will all be made clear to you later. Believe me when I say those drugs are more useful to us now than if they had been delivered to the decadent streets in America.” Nurizam put an arm around his most trusted lieutenant’s shoulder. “Now, enough of this. Come! We are wasting time here. We must go to the mountains. There is much to do.” With that, the terrorist leader marched out of the room, through a door, and onto a side street. His lieutenants were left to catch up as he rounded a corner and hopped into the back of a black Mercedes SUV that was sitting there idling, waiting. As he ran along behind his leader, Shehab shook his head, puzzled by what had happened just around the corner. Still, one thing was clear. Nurizam had been unscathed, had lived through a barrage no mere mortal could have ever survived. If there had been even the slightest of doubts before in the deepest recesses of his rational mind, it had been washed away in the blood of the mullahs who had died on the bed of that truck. The tall, thin man he followed at a gallop to the SUV was Allah’s emissary on earth. Shehab knew that more certainly than ever.
The torrents of sweat ran down through his eyebrows and stung Jon Ward’s eyes. His lungs were on fire. He charged down the empty path, going all out, the only way he knew how to go. All he could hear was the hammering of his heart as it threatened to burst out of his ribcage and the dull pounding of his feet on the pavement.
The flowering crepe myrtle and the twittering songbirds were lost on him. The bumper-to-bumper late afternoon traffic on Kempsville Road whizzed past but hardly registered on his consciousness. The drivers of those vehicles were preoccupied as well, with the mental recap of their day’s work or the voices on their radios, with their jobs up in Norfolk or getting to their homes in Chesapeake or Virginia Beach. They paid no attention to the muscular, middle-aged man as he ran along the path beside the street.
Ward pulled up at the light on Indian River Road, his chest heaving, jogging in place as he waited for it to change. There, a block down the way, he saw a flash of red running shorts as they disappeared around the corner onto Lake Christopher Drive.
He grimaced. Damn! When did that kid get to be so fast?
The light changed. Ward ran across the six-lane thoroughfare and turned right. A block down the street, he, too, made the turn into Lake Christopher Drive. The final four hundred yards along the quiet, tree-lined street brought him to his house, a neat two-story with the blue water of Lake Christopher lapping at the edge of the backyard.
Jon Ward came to a stop beneath the shade trees in the front yard and bent double. His breath came in great, ragged gasps as he tried to suck oxygen back into his lungs.
“Not bad for an old man,” Jim Ward called cheerfully from where he lay on the grass at the side of the house, idly drinking from the trickling nozzle of a garden hose. The well-muscled young man was not even breathing hard. “If we had run another twenty miles, you might have finished in the same time zone.”
The tall redhead laughed easily as his father staggered over and collapsed on the grass next to him, too winded to even reach for the hose.
“Soon as I get over this heart attack I’m having, I’ll teach you a lesson or two about respect for your elders,” Jon Ward jibed back with a broad, proud grin. “When did you get to where you could run like that?”
“Ain’t youth great?” the younger man retorted. “And Dad, in case you’ve gotten too senile to remember, I am the captain of the Naval Academy cross country team this year. And I could make that run without…”
But his words were interrupted by a call from the back of the house, from someone on the patio. It was Jim’s mother, Jon’s wife, Ellen.
“You two road warriors want to quit lying around, getting grass stains all over your clothes, and come on back here for some Gatorade?”
The two looked at each other. The drinks sounded good. They found Ellen seated at a glass patio table, surrounded by books and papers. More volumes filled the seats of two patio chairs on either side of her. She looked up and pulled off her reading glasses when her two men came around the corner of the house.
They went straight for the bottles of sports drinks she had waiting for them in a cooler filled with ice.
Ellen Ward’s reading glasses were new. She hated the idea that she even needed the damned things. It was her first concession that she might be aging, like most normal humans do.
“Still working on your lecture?” Jon asked as he turned up the frosty bottle of Gatorade. It was mostly gone by the time his wife had a chance to answer him.
“I have to get it done. I haven’t taught college-level botany since you were a junior officer.” She brushed back her red hair, now streaked with gray. Coloring her hair was another concession to age she preferred postponing as long as possible. “I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”
“Humph! Trees is still trees, ain’t they, Miz Ward?” he said with a grin and then ducked the pencil she threw at him.
“Mom, does this mean we have to start calling you Doctor Ward?’” Jim kidded.
She swatted at him. He easily ducked.
“Yes, and you and your father had better start showing me the proper respect. Just because your dad used to drive submarines and you’ve managed to fool the Naval Academy into letting you stay around for a fourth year doesn’t mean I don’t deserve a bit of reverence around here, too. Besides, we academicians stick together. A whisper from me to one of your professors, Mister, and your GPA is toast. Oh, and by the way…”
She picked up an envelope from the stacks of papers on the table and tossed it to her husband.
“What’s this?” Jon asked.
“Oh, nothing much. Just notification that I got accepted to lead the college’s summer tour to Thailand this year. Three months in the highlands researching epiphytic orchids in their natural habitat with a class of twenty students. What do you think of that, Commodore?”
“That’s fantastic! Congratulations, honey,” Jon answered as he bent down and kissed her cheek. “But who’s going to fix my supper while you’re gone?”
Jon Ward deflected another pencil tossed his way.
“Speaking of good news and the Far East…” Jim said, a big grin on his face.
Both parents looked his way, eyes wide.
“You gonna make us guess?” his mother asked.
“I got my orders today for my First Class summer cruise. I’m to report to the City of Corpus Christi in Guam.”
“I thought you’d given up on a submarine,” his dad said.
“I guess it’s good to have an old man who’s a sub squadron commodore. She’ll be leaving for a West Pac deployment right after I get there.”
Sweaty or not, the three of them joined in a tight embrace, right there on the patio. There was no mistaking the pride in Jon Ward’s eyes as he hugged his son and wife.
And no mistaking, either, the motherly worry that creased Ellen Ward’s forehead.