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Charles C. Anderson
Lieutenant Commander Andrew Carlson, U.S. Navy SEAL, stared from the crest of a 900 foot sand dune at the smoldering hulk that had been an HH-60H Seahawk helicopter only fifteen minutes ago. If he had not been the first one down the rope, he would have been included in the twisted metal and fireball. Just as he had been trained to ignore physical pain, he would postpone his grief for the other member of his recon team, Petty Officer Josiah Chambers, not to mention the nameless pilot and copilot. The bottle would be there waiting for him when the mission was over.
The pilots were new to the Navy base at Bahrain. They would be easier to forget. But Josiah had been his closest friend for the last five years. They were more like brothers than partners. They had endured thirty months of SEAL training together. This was their sixth covert insertion into Saudi Arabia.
Covert was really not an accurate term, since a member of the Saudi royal family not only knew when Andy was coming, he had picked out Andy’s targets and arranged for camels and water to be near the insertion site. A typical sniper mission took out a financial supporter of Al Qaeda or Hamas or some other terrorist faction. Other targets were simply identified to Andy as team leader, and no explanation given for their elimination.
This mission was a rush job from the get-go. A curt phone call from his CIA contact, Harrison, gave Andy and Joe thirty minutes to gear up and report to the helicopter tarmac. There were no written orders. Andy was informed by Harrison that the royal family had approved the mission. He wrote the GPS coordinates for the insertion site and recon target on his paper map.
Satellite intel had noted that a Russian freighter had delivered a shipping container to the port of Al Jubayl, in the Persian Gulf, west of the island of Bahrain. This container was transported by truck to the remote desert palace of a Saudi prince named Khalid. Their mission was to investigate the contents of the container, avoid capture or identification at all costs, and leave no witnesses to their presence. Andy completed his GPS and map work en route to the insertion site.
Andy and Joe had encountered blinding sandstorms before. It would not have mattered if the pilot were a rookie to desert flying or a veteran. No pilot could control a chopper that was sucking hundreds of pounds of sand per second into its engines. Andy dropped most of his gear the forty feet to the desert before sliding down the rope. He planned to stabilize the rope in the wind for Joe while the chopper hovered.
As he descended the rope, he heard the engines coughing. Their steady whine dramatically decreased, accompanied by his free fall the last six feet to the sand. Instinctively he rolled out from under the helicopter, which keeled over, dug its rotors into the sand, and blew up. Andy’s pack was blown off of his back, but it absorbed much of the blast as he was catapulted away from the inferno. He had crawled, clawed, and run up the sand dune to escape the heat of the burning JP-5 fuel.
Andy took stock of his physical condition and gear from atop the sand dune. He stood up and checked his boots. He felt sore all over, but could find no injuries. He still had his dust goggles. His binoculars hung around his neck, held against his chest by an elastic apparatus. A bota bag of water was slung by leather straps across each shoulder to his hips.
The handheld GPS receiver and the short-burst radio that he had attached to his combat jacket had been blown away, along with his desert hat. He had programmed his entire mission, including his maps, onto the missing GPS unit. From his backpack he had lost his camera, his secure long distance radio, a tool kit, a tent, a blanket, and all of his food.
Andy checked his paper map and compass in the inside pocket of his combat jacket. He was dressed in desert camo. Bedouin robes were supposed to be with the camels. He checked his knife, always attached to his left thigh. His SIG Sauer nine mm pistol had grown to his right thigh during his SEAL career. His M110 sniper rifle was rarely off of his shoulder unless he was shooting or spotting. Inside one cargo pocket he carried desert camouflage netting. Extra twenty round clips of 7.62 mm ammo were in his combat jacket.
Andy reminded himself of his current position. The southern fifth of Saudi Arabia is called the Empty Quarter. This is the world’s largest sandy desert. It is almost waterless, 250,000 square miles, and uninhabitable except for nomadic Bedouin tribes and their camels and sheep. His insertion site was 128 miles into the windswept, rippling sand dunes, which stretched as far as he could see in any direction.
The sandstorm had passed, leaving an orange sunset. Within minutes, the sky turned blood red. The temperature would soon plunge a staggering seventy degrees. But he had planned to travel during the night, to avoid the 120 degree heat of midday.
His first priority was to find the camels. Lowering his dust goggles, he checked his compass and focused his binoculars north. The camels were a small mound out of place compared to the sand dunes around them. If he had not seen camels huddled for a sandstorm before, he would probably have missed them.
There was never any consideration in his mind that he would not complete his mission. The whole process of choosing the right candidates for SEAL training is to identify persons who never give up. An excerpt from the philosophy of the U.S. Navy SEALs states, “I will never quit. I persevere and thrive on adversity. My Nation expects me to be physically harder and mentally stronger than my enemies. If knocked down, I will get back up, every time. I will draw on every remaining ounce of strength to protect my teammates and to accomplish our mission. I am never out of the fight.”
Like every other SEAL, Andy was trained in the expert use of weapons, explosives, underwater and parachute insertions into hostile territory, land combat in any terrain, and close quarters combat with and without weapons. He was the top sniper in his class. He was a communications and navigation expert. He was fluent in Arabic. He considered himself a patriot and a warrior, an American who would come out fighting on behalf of the U.S. government and his commander-in-chief, the President of the United States. Andy was a fully-trained emergency physician and a binge drinker.
Being an emergency physician and an officer had no meaning during his SEAL training. The Navy was glad to have a SEAL with extra skills, but they would never compromise their training to accommodate anyone. Team leaders earned their position and respect by out-performing their peers. Each of the 160 potential SEALs who started in Andy’s class had to complete stringent physical and mental screening tests just to qualify as candidates. They were all volunteers.
Most rang the bell on the beach and gave up on their own. The rest were dismissed because their performance in any area was merely good, not outstanding. They simply could not swim well enough, run fast enough, or lift enough. Some lacked confidence in one terrain. Some were unwilling to punish themselves. Some had no fire in their gut or were not suited for difficult decisions under pressure.
Most who survived the training were college graduates. Only four of the twelve commissioned officers in Andy’s class earned their trident patch as a SEAL, and only twenty-eight enlisted men graduated. Once the right thirty-two men were identified, they trained for another thirty months.
A SEAL believes that there are few problems he cannot solve with explosives or a well-aimed bullet. In his mind, he is invincible. SEALs gladly go in teams of two, or six, or sixteen into any battlefield. They expect to be outnumbered. They take for granted that they may be wounded, soaking wet, trapped, deprived of food and water, fighting for their lives in freezing cold or searing desert heat. Most of their work is done in darkness, in two to six man teams. They do not complain. This is what they signed up for. They do not seek rewards or medals.
So how did a fully trained emergency physician end up in SEAL training? Andy blamed it on the kids of active duty personnel. He had gone to medical school on a Navy scholarship. After four more years of internship and residency training in emergency medicine, he owed the Navy four years of payback. The choice was to be a general medical officer in the Navy or do something that suited his personal skills.
Andy loved kids, but he had come to believe that they did not like him. Those little Navy brats who whined about their sore throats wouldn’t even open their mouths unless he drew blood from their gums with his tongue blade. If he got the blade inside their mouths, the little hellions would chomp down and commence kicking, spitting, or blowing snot out their noses. Deployments to forward areas did not come along often enough between the months of working in the Navy clinics scattered around Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Portsmouth, and Newport News, Virginia. Thus, a SEAL was born.
The desert insertion site had been chosen by Harrison. There are few places in the Empty Quarter where camels could be bought like used cars and delivered within an hour. After all, a camel only walks two and a half miles per hour. A Bedouin oasis, two miles to the south, was such a place.
The Bedouins were the idealized version of the American cowboy. They were tough, self-reliant, and fiercely independent. These noble loners didn’t become involved in Sunni and Shiite disputes. They wanted no part of terrorist organizations. They didn’t look to Riyadh for financial or political support. Camels, sheep, gold, and goats were their money. They knew every blade of grass and teaspoonful of water in their ancestral territory.
Andy and Joe had been inserted near this oasis twice before. They had never had a reason to kill Bedouins. Andy didn't like the idea of using a repeat insertion site, but those were his orders. The camel trader at the Bedouin oasis was not Bedouin but traded with them. Andy didn’t know his name but had seen his eyes, the only part of him left uncovered by his pale robes and headdress.
Harrison always arranged for the camel trader to be paid. Andy had only one contact within the Saudi royal family, Prince Salmon Abdullah Akbar, who had the ear of the king. The prince knew Andy as “R.E. Lee,” his code name. They had never met in person, but had talked over a secure radio many times. Andy trusted Prince Akbar, as much as he trusted anyone in the Middle East.
Andy checked his compass and walked toward the camels at his desert pace of four and a half miles per hour. From a hundred yards away he could see that something was wrong. The two camels were not watching his approach. They sat perfectly still, their forelegs folded underneath them, staring across the empty desert with indifference.
He pulled up on the nose rope of the closest camel. Its head lifted and stretched out, but it would not get up. This was a new experience for Andy, but he had watched Bedouin shepherds deal with stubborn animals. There was an old saying that the Bedouins loved their camels as much as a man could love a camel, which meant they only hated them a little bit.
No matter how stubborn they were, camels were a necessity in the desert. They were also a disguise for Andy and Joe, so they could move unmolested in the desert. A man could not survive for more than a few days in the desert without a camel because he could not carry enough water to sustain himself.
He walked around to the camel’s rump and kicked it. The camel didn’t seem to notice. More kicks, gradually increasing in severity, produced no response in either camel. He tried pricking the camel’s rumps with the point of his knife, but neither camel cared. Andy had seen Bedouins build a fire under a camel’s hindquarters to get it moving, or pour water into its nostrils.
There was no point torturing these camels. He noted that their pupils were dilated. They had been poisoned. It didn’t make sense that they were dehydrated. They could not have been at this location more than an hour. Their mucous membranes and mouth were not parched.
Two goatskin bags of water were tied to each animal. Andy estimated each bag held five gallons. He would need at least three quarts a day if he were riding, more if he were walking. Each gallon of water weighed over eight pounds.
But if the camels were poisoned, the water might also be poisoned. Hurriedly he removed the stopper of the nearest goatskin bag, pushed his finger into the spout, closed his eyes, and brought his finger to his nose. The smell was fetid. Camel dung had likely been mixed with the water. He checked each goatskin bag. They all stank. Vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration from drinking contaminated water were not options on this mission.
The loss of the water and the camels was a disappointment, but unexpected hardship was not a source of fear to a SEAL. He processed the information. Someone had made a connection between his past insertions near the oasis and the subsequent death of a prince or a terrorist supporter. Such a person would likely be following his tracks in the sand.
But this new enemy would likely travel like everyone else in the desert, on camels. Andy knew that he could easily walk faster than a camel. There would not be enough light tonight for a man on a camel to see his boot tracks in the sand without a light or night vision goggles. A moving light in the desert could be seen from miles away. He would push on. Even with night goggles, few men could match his pace up and down the sand dunes.
He felt the two leather bota bags on either side of his waist. Unlike canteens, they made no noise from sloshing water. As water was removed, the bags collapsed. Each held two quarts.
He would have to change his course to Prince Khalid’s palace. Under normal conditions Andy could use his handheld GPS display to watch himself move through the desert toward his target. He could make random movements and still arrive at his target. Now he had only a compass and his map. And the red glow of daylight was almost gone.
Andy opened his map on the back of a somnolent camel and placed his compass on it. He would navigate by dead reckoning. If he could maintain a course of seventy-eight degrees NE for thirty-nine and a half miles, he should see the palace or intersect the concrete road that ran from northwest to southeast toward the palace.
He must follow the compass wherever it pointed, never giving in to the temptation to skirt a high sand dune. Even a fractional error in course could result in missing the palace entirely, and continuing on into the desert. The ground would become more firm as he moved northeast toward the coast. The moon was only one quarter, but would offer some light. His compass used LED lighting, only visible to the person holding it. The stars were beginning to appear. The temperature was falling off a cliff. He wanted to identify the north star before he left, and confirm his course relative to it.
Whoever poisoned the camels and the water did leave a Bedouin robe and headdress tied to each camel’s saddle. He covered himself from head to foot in the traditional dress, except for the slit in the howli which accommodated his sand goggles. Andy had been encouraged to grow a full beard, like a Bedouin. This meant he had to dye his sandy hair and beard once a month.
From his left hip pocket he retrieved a small GPS receiver/transmitter with a safety pin attached to it. He activated the lithium battery and pinned the device to the left shoulder of his robe. The battery would only last three days in the desert heat. The device would give him no information, but he could be tracked by satellite.
He looked at the camels. He would not leave them suffering in the desert. With a quick slash of his knife across each neck, they lay their heads in the sand. If those camels were rentals, he thought, Harrison had lost his deposit.
Andy thought of Harrison. He had never even met the guy, who had a squeaky voice on a secure phone. He was apparently the CIA’s point man in the Middle East. Harrison’s intel was never as good as that of his Saudi royal family contact, Mr. Akbar. Akbar did not seem to hold Harrison in high regard.
Harrison would know about the helicopter crash by now, from an AWACS plane or a satellite. Now that the GPS homing device on Andy’s shoulder was activated, Harrison would know that at least one person had survived the crash. He would be following Andy’s course across the desert.
At 2000 Andy strode briskly into the desert night air. He calculated that it would take nine hours for him to reach Prince Khalid’s palace. Marching all night was as much a mental exercise as a physical one. Most important, he was not afraid of the desert. At this point in his career he had marched hundreds of miles at night in the desert with only a compass for navigation. He usually carried a forty-five pound pack.
Another man might be complaining about the cold night air. Andy was grateful to be marching at night because he knew what it was like to march in the heat of mid-day. The M110 rifle on his right shoulder no longer felt like extra weight. It had become part of his body.
One sand dune led to another, and to another. He thought of his father, who was currently visiting Andy’s two brothers in Uganda, where they were missionaries. He looked forward to the report from his dad. They had always been close, especially since his mother’s death. Andy had been sixteen years old when his mother had died of breast cancer. She was only thirty-nine. The miles in the sand passed quickly as he thought of his mother. His family was always praying for him, but he was not religious. He had never forgiven God. His comfort was Southern Comfort.
Abruptly, there was a faint light in the distance. It appeared as he reached the top of another sand dune. He stopped and lifted his binoculars. The light was perhaps two miles away. It didn’t flicker like a campfire or twinkle like a star. He was confident that it was Prince Khalid’s palace.
He looked at his watch. It was 0415. He sat down and studied his back trail with the binoculars. Nothing. It was time to rest. No man or beast could catch up to him for the next three or four hours. He would not need to worry about oversleeping. The heat would wake him up. His last thoughts were of camping overnight with his mom and dad at age ten. They had slept on the sandbar in the middle of the Appomattox River, on his family farm in Virginia.
Andy awakened at 0710 and quickly scanned his back trail with the binoculars. He had chosen a good spot to stop. The crest of the nearest dune behind him was over 800 yards away. He preferred to shoot at this range. The M110 sniper rifle had a sound suppressor which muffled everything but the sonic boom of the bullet. At 800 yards, even the sonic boom was undetectable.
His bullet could arrive at the top of the other sand dune in less than one second. The M110 was just as accurate as the bolt action M24 he had initially been trained with. Unlike the M24, the M110 was fed by the spring in the magazine. He could make one carefully aimed shot per second until his twenty round clip was empty. Within three seconds he could remove the empty clip and insert another from his combat jacket.
Andy drank the remainder of the water from the first bota bag and unstrapped the second, placing it in front of him as he lay prone on the sand dune. The barrel of the M110 rested across the bota bag. He removed the plastic lens covers of the telescopic sight. The sun was on his left. It would not create glare or give away his position by reflection on the lens. He dozed off again.
By 0900 the temperature was already ninety. He sat up and rested the binoculars on his knees, looking toward the palace. He could see two buildings, one with a dome, inside a solid wall compound. The Bedouin robes provided some protection from the heat, which had begun to radiate off of the sand, producing a rippling effect in his vision.
He turned 180 degrees to scan his back trail. A speck was moving toward him. It was 0930. The speck disappeared behind another sand dune. Within an hour he could make out a lone traveler on a camel. There was no point in shooting too soon. He would allow this man to bring his camel, water, and provisions closer.
At 1012 the lone rider stopped his camel at the top of the sand dune in front of Andy and lifted his binoculars. The 7.62 mm bullet passed through the center of his chest. The camel heard nothing and was unconcerned as his rider dismounted into the sand.
Andy walked the 850 yards back to the camel, which had folded his forelegs underneath himself and lowered his rump to the sand. This camel watched Andy’s approach.
He pulled back the headdress and stared at the man’s face. He knew those eyes. It was the Arab camel trader from the Bedouin oasis. The man had a curved Bedouin knife in a sheath underneath his robes, along with an antique pistol. The Chinese-made AK-47 tied to the saddle was not antique, nor was his M24 sniper rifle. If the M24 had come from a SEAL, Andy was glad to recover it. The rightful owner could be identified from its serial number.
A pocket inside the man’s robe held two grainy pictures. Andy recognized himself and Joe. The pictures had been taken at an earlier visit to the oasis. He looked at Joe’s picture and reminded himself that it was not time to mourn.
What kind of a man would poison his own camels and contaminate another man’s water supply? The answer was in two hefty bags of coins, tied together and slung over the saddle. The coins were gold, but Andy didn’t recognize the language or picture on the coins. He took one coin and put it in his hip pocket. Harrison would have to figure it out.
The camel was loaded with almost everything Andy needed. There was plenty of uncontaminated water in twin goatskin bags. He helped himself to all he could drink and poured a quart over his own headdress before refilling his bota bags. The camel was stocked with a tent, a cooking bowl, a tin cup, a teapot, tea, and some desiccated goat’s meat. A bag of mixed grain and hay was apparently for the camel. A smaller bag contained German night vision goggles and extra ammo for the rifles.
Andy grabbed the nose rope and pulled the camel to its feet. This camel walked obediently behind him for four hundred yards. They stopped between the two towering sand dunes. It would make a nice base camp. He needed the tent for shelter. The camel was tired from its night journey. He would watch the palace during the day and recon it tonight. Harrison should be able to figure out what he was doing from the GPS receiver/transmitter on his shoulder.
He left the camel at base camp, content with a second bowl of water and a small pile of grain and grass mix poured from the bag onto a leather roll. It was not much, but enough to make a new friend. Friends were important in the desert.
Andy untied the tent roll and stuffed it underneath his left arm. The leather bag with the night vision goggles and the goat meat fit nicely across the left shoulder and rested on his bota bag. He slung the AK-47 on his left shoulder and his own M110 on his right shoulder. With this gear he climbed the sand dune toward Prince Khalid’s palace. When the palace came within sight, he pushed the barrel of the AK-47 into the sand and fashioned the tent overtop. The camo netting from his cargo pocket disguised the tent. He backed into his day bed and lay prone, facing the palace. The sand would soon be hot enough to burn uncovered skin.
The day was bearable due to his lack of activity and the tent to block the sun’s rays. He drank frequently from one bota bag, knowing that he had plenty of water at his base camp. He rested his chin on the other bota bag and watched the compound below with his binoculars.
The palace was typical for a wealthy prince, of which there were between 4000 and 5000 in Saudi Arabia. Each had one or more vacation palaces which sported concrete roads into the desert, underground water pipes, and utility poles made of steel. This palace had a pale blue concrete dome and a water fountain. The walls surrounding the compound were solid, but only six feet high. He made a note of the electric transformer on a steel pole inside the compound and the satellite dish on the roof, facing almost straight up.
The concrete road and the splendor of the palace were out of place in the desert. What he had thought was a second building inside the compound was actually the shipping container still atop its tractor-trailer. This was encouraging. If he could get a good look at the contents of that container without having to kill anybody else, he would be even more encouraged.
This thought seemed strange to Andy. He had never been concerned before about avoiding casualties. Enemies were enemies.
No traffic came or went during the day. No one ventured outside, at least as far as he could see above the compound walls. As the sun dipped to the horizon on his left, he inspected his M110 rifle. After removing the lens covers he used the telescopic sight to take a closer look at the palace’s vulnerable points. He checked his watch. It would be dark in thirty minutes. He needed enough light to hit the transformer and the communications lines and to see who would exit the compound.
Andy’s first shot disintegrated the telephone line at its attachment to the pole in the compound. One second later the satellite dish that had been pointed up was pointed down. The third shot caused a minor explosion at the transformer. Three people ran out of the door and down the steps out of sight. Within a minute a large dark sedan burst out of the compound and accelerated down the concrete road. A second vehicle soon made its exit, a white sports car. These people were unwilling to give their lives for whatever was in the container.
Andy checked the gear he would need to recon the palace. He replaced the lens cover on his M110 telescopic sight and used its quick-disconnect feature to remove it from the rifle. He left the sight in the tent and picked up the leather bag with the goat meat and the night vision goggles. He methodically touched his binoculars, his knife, and his SIG Sauer pistol. The people in the two vehicles had made the right decision, he thought, as he slung the M110 over his right shoulder.
He walked toward the palace until it was dark enough to put on the night vision goggles. They were fourth generation, state of the art. If there was anyone left at the compound they would probably not expect trouble from the south, from the Empty Quarter. Nevertheless, he kept his gaze on the widows and walls of the compound. When he reached the wall, he sat down and leaned against it. He listened for thirty minutes. There was no sound.
He got up and pulled the SIG Sauer from its holster. The gate, which faced west, was wide open. Andy circled the palace inside the wall and peered into every opening. He noted no movement or light. The palace was silent, except for the water in the fountain. Returning to the front of the palace, he walked through the open door into an empty room underneath the blue dome.
The rooms of the palace were spacious but easy to distinguish with the night vision goggles. The sand from his boots grated on the marble floor. He stopped to listen. He heard the sound of bare feet running on the floor in a bedroom to his left. A child? The unmistakable click of a lock.
Andy entered the room with his pistol out in front, quickly scanning from left to right in a crouched position. There was only one closed door in the room, which featured a large Jacuzzi built into the floor and a massive round bed.
He walked to the locked door and stepped to the right side. Whoever was behind the door was breathing rapidly. He spoke softly in Arabic. “You don’t want to see my face and I don’t want to see your face. Tell me what I need to know and I won’t harm you.”
After a brief pause, a young woman’s voice answered in Arabic, “I’m just a girl. They don’t care what happens to me.”
”Is there anyone else here? You must be truthful.”
“I’m the only one left, and I’m at your service.”
“I don’t need anything from you, young woman, except for you to stay where you are for an hour. I ask you again: Is there anyone left at this palace that will die because you have not told me about them?”
“Then stay where you are.”
“I understand. What you’re looking for is in the shipping container. I heard the prince talking about weapons that were very valuable.”
Andy checked every other room to confirm the girl’s story. Satisfied, he holstered his pistol and pulled his gloves from the cargo pocket on his thigh as he walked back outside toward the shipping container.
The international shipping lock on the container doors had already been broken. Andy pulled a pen from the inside of his combat jacket and wrote the unique shipping container number and GTIN number on his sleeve. Adjusting the focal length of the night goggles, he crawled underneath the container looking for trip wires and explosives. He found none.
From underneath the rear of the trailer he lifted the handle of the right rear door with the barrel of his M110 rifle. He pushed the door open with the rifle before crawling out from under the trailer. Standing behind the trailer, he noted two tarps covering two wooden crates with built-in fork lift openings in their bases.
He opened the second door and climbed inside the trailer. Removing the tarp from the first crate, he stared at a device he had only seen in pictures. It looked somewhat like a generator with hand rails. He squatted and peered through the openings in the wooden crate. He recognized a new keyboard and battery, which was disconnected. The center of the device was a basketball sized mass of molded metal with dozens of wires protruding, each connected to a box under the keyboard. Russian lettering was on several metal parts. In the side of the basketball he found the female threads for the tritium reservoir.
The reservoir itself was shielded in a smaller lead box attached to the inside corner of the crate using brackets. The second crate proved to be exactly like the first. He covered the crates again, closed the doors of the shipping container, and pulled down on the handle on the right side door.
Some faction in Saudi Arabia now had Soviet-made Cold War era tactical nuclear weapons in the ten to fifteen kiloton size.
Andy re-entered the house and walked into the bedroom. The door was still locked. Technically, he was not authorized to leave anyone alive who knew that he had been at the palace. He was not authorized to take any prisoners.
He again took a position to the side of the door. “Are you still there?”
“I’m still here. You can speak English. My father sent me to a good school.”
“I must go,” Andy said.
“Will you take me with you?” she asked.
“Why would you want to go with me?”
“Prince Khalid’s men took me from my school two months ago. They’ve done things to me. Now my family won’t take me back. If the prince returns and I’m here, he’ll torture me until I tell him about you.”
Andy took off his night vision goggles and pulled a mini Mag-lite from the inside pocket of his combat jacket. He turned the light on and said, “Come on out.”
She unlocked the door and walked into the bedroom. She was wearing her abaya. He studied her eyes. They were young eyes. She was five foot four, he thought, and slim, maybe sixteen years old.
“What do you know about the shipping container on the truck outside?” he asked.
“The container has powerful weapons that Prince Khalid expected to sell,” she said.
“Who would buy these weapons?” Andy asked.
“A man named Harrison.”
“This man named Harrison--what do you know about him?”
“He was here at this palace for three days, two weeks ago.”
“Tell me what you remember.”
“He is a small man for an American. He has a high pitched voice and wears his dark hair and beard like a small animal in the zoo at Riyadh,” she said. “His friends call him Weasel.”
“Tell me what you heard from this Weasel.”
“No one here knew that I could speak or understand English,” she said. “The Weasel’s voice is so unusual that I could hear him whispering. He secretly buys weapons for the CIA. He and Prince Khalid have done business before, but they don’t trust each other. The Weasel hurt me in bed. More than once.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Would you be willing to leave with me tonight, on a camel ride?”
“I have no future in Saudi Arabia. Where would we go?”
“First we would go to a helicopter crash, and then a Navy base, and then to America, I hope.”
“I have prayed for this day,” she said.
Andy asked, “Did Harrison ever see your face?”
“That was the only part of me he was never interested in. I doubt it.”
“Does he know your name?”
“Not unless the prince told him.”
“We need to give you a new name before we get to Bahrain.”
“My name was all I had left.”
“Do you carry any weapons?” he asked.
“Only my brain. It’s a very good weapon because no one expects me to have one.”
This girl had spunk. He liked that.
She followed him into the domed room.
Andy asked, “Did Prince Khalid have a radio or a satellite phone?”
She walked to a table and Andy followed her with the flashlight. She handed him a satellite phone, which was sitting in a charger on the table. “They left in a hurry when the lights went out.”
“What should I call you?” he asked.
“Sahar. It means dawn in English.”
“I don’t understand what’s going on here,” he said. “You and I have apparently stumbled into an extraordinary circumstance. I don’t know who to trust anymore.”
“You can trust me,” she said.
“I believe you,” he said. “My name is Andy. While you find some shoes for the desert, I’m going to try to make a phone call.”
Andy considered the reasons that Harrison might have for buying nuclear warheads. He could think of no justification for CIA trafficking in such weapons on the soil of an ally of the United States. The whole thing didn’t pass the smell test. There was no honor in it. He would not be defending the United States or its allies if he assisted Harrison.
Sahar opened a cabinet in the domed room, lit a lantern, and brought it to Andy.
He examined the phone carefully. The battery was fully charged. He considered the risks of using the phone, knowing that the United States listened to many calls. He concluded that the risks were worth the possible benefits and dialed a number.
“Mr. Akbar, this is R. E. Lee. I am calling from the palace of Prince Khalid, south of Harad.”
“But I have heard nothing from Harrison. You are not authorized to enter my country without my consent. I am the Saudi Ambassador to the United States.”
“I know that, Mr. Akbar, and I apologize. Harrison told me that my mission had been authorized by you.”
“I’m not surprised, but why are you calling my secure line?”
“I’ve found something here that requires your immediate attention. You must come at once by helicopter and bring a tractor-trailer driver. I won’t be here when you arrive. I must cross the desert to my extraction point. This will give you enough time to come and remove the tractor-trailer. Harrison will send a team to remove the trailer as soon as I tell him what’s in it.”
“What was your mission?”
“Apparently Harrison didn’t trust Khalid. I was sent to confirm the contents of the trailer. I’ll not mention our conversation to Harrison. When you see what’s in the trailer, you’ll understand why I’m giving you this information first. I hope that I’m not being a traitor to my own country.”
“You are a reliable man, Mr. Lee. The king will call you an honest man. We have been suspicious of Harrison for some time. He’s helped us maintain stability. Both of you have solved problems for us, but we didn’t know that Harrison was in the arms business.”
“It doesn’t make sense for Harrison to buy what I’m looking at,” Andy said. “We have plenty of our own. The Russians are already allowing us to dismantle their weapons of this type. Terrorists would not sell such weapons to the United States. They would want these for themselves. If Harrison wanted these weapons destroyed or removed from the reach of terrorists, he could destroy them at any time. My sources tell me he is trying to buy these weapons for the CIA.”
“And on Saudi soil,” Akbar said. “Most disturbing.”
“This will likely be my last trip into your country,” Andy said. “Whatever Harrison is up to, I want no part of it.”
“May Allah go with you.”
“And with you, Mr. Akbar.” He turned off the phone and stuck it inside his combat jacket.
“We have something in common, Mr. Lee,” she said. “Both of us dislike Harrison. Both of us feel betrayed by our own country.”
She was wearing a yellow scarf with her abaya, and sandals.
“You’re a very good listener.”
He took her hand at the gate of Khalid’s palace. He could tell that she had never held hands. He showed her how to lock fingers. They walked silently as he looked down at his compass.
Within an hour they were back at his recon site. He picked up the tent and the AK-47. He reattached the telescopic sight to the M110 rifle. The camel appeared to be glad to see them approach, standing up as soon as he spotted them. Andy repacked the equipment on the camel and allowed Sahar to use his hands to step into the saddle. He took the nose rope and set their course into the darkness, toward the burned-out helicopter.
After a few hours of silence, Andy said, “We must invent a story about how I found you in the desert. You must forget that you know English. You have never heard of Prince Khalid or weapons. You must request asylum in the United States because you were raped, and your family left you in the desert.”
“That will be an easy story to tell,” she said. “How many wives do you have?”
As the helicopter lifted off out of the sand, tears trickled down Andy’s cheeks. Grief can only be shoved into the back of your brain for so long. His partner, his confidant, his best friend, was gone forever. He didn’t regret his SEAL career. But there were so few opportunities to save lives as a SEAL, and so many opportunities to take lives. The day had finally come. He didn’t want to take any more lives. Once such a thought enters your head, you have no business being a SEAL.Andy had long since repaid his debt to the Navy. It was time to save lives for a living. Harrison would find someone else to kill people for him. The steady drone of the engines and rhythmic vibration of the rotors had rocked Sahar to sleep. He looked down at the girl who leaned against him. He had forgotten how good it felt to save one life, to free one person from a miserable existence. He would have to stay sober until she was safe.