First Chapter

December 2, 2006, Agarak, Armenia

A chill mist blurred my view, mist with freezing showers. They obscured the figure approaching me from 100 yards or so down the hill. He pushed through some thorny bushes, and looked around. Nervously, I glanced at my wristwatch. It was nearly sundown, not that I could tell from the thick, leaden coating of sky.

I was two miles from Agarak, a small town on the left bank of the Araks River, on the Armenian side of Armenia’s border with Iran. More than misty weather blurred my vision. Blood oozed from the crease where a bullet had grazed my skull, its thick red drops mingling with the rain and dripping through my eyebrows, though I wiped at it with my sleeve, and burning my eyes.  The pain wasn’t helping, either. Had I been a few inches taller than my 6’4”, or the bullet a few inches lower, I’d be dead with it right between my eyes.

I waved my hand at the man, palm toward him. I even risked calling, “I’m here,” in his direction, but not too loudly—“It’s an oxymoron, you moron”– said the little devil inside me. Some people hear voices. Some see invisible people. Others have no imagination whatsoever. I hear a little devil. I’d survived the shooters’ first attempt, and though I might not be as lucky the second time, if I had to go I was going take a few of them with me.  I had the will, the anger, and enough ammunition to make it happen:  I’d learned a thing or two in my three-year stint in the Israeli Mossad, and in Israel’s Special Forces before that. I wasn’t too concerned that my attackers would re-emerge from wherever they were holed up, waiting for me to move, and finish the job they were probably ordered to do: kill me and the man who came to meet me, never mind who dies first, as long as we both die today. “Hey, hold your horses,” ordered my inner devil, “Who says both of you should die? Maybe the bullets were meant only for you? Consider your options.” Maybe they would re-emerge, maybe they wouldn’t. Should I retreat? Run away? Never. Not yours truly.

As the man came closer, I could make out his thick mustache. He was limping on his left leg. I wondered if a bullet had got him, too. The CIA operational brief hadn’t mentioned any physical disability.

He continued slowly but steadily toward me. He was in khaki military gear, black boots, and black rimmed glasses. He looked younger than 53, his listed age in the CIA fact sheet. Serving for almost twenty-five years in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards had given him a soldier’s upright poise, even when he was on the run. He came closer, but so did a sudden, short barrage of bullets pounding over my head, just when I thought that the pursuers had given up on us. I ducked to the ground, taking cover under the nearest scrubby bushes. The man couldn’t be more than a fifty yards away.

I gripped my Para Micro-Uzi submachine gun and looked around to identify the source of the fire.  I knew I could return hellfire. This little toy, only 3.3 pounds and 19 inches long, was designed in Israel especially for counterterrorism activities. It could fire 1,250 rounds in one minute. However, the Micro-Uzi’s range effectiveness was only 100 feet. That means that you must be close, very close. Oh, yes, you must also be brave, because at that range you still don’t know what kinds of weapons your enemy carries. While you must be less than 100 feet away to hit him, a gun with an effective range of 300 feet can hit you. You’d be dead on the ground before your bullets got a third of the way towards your enemy, wasting their short lives for nothing.

“This is Orange. I’ve just been under fire and took cover. I saw Tango about 50 yards away, but no contact yet,” I reported to the command post. My handheld device’s AES 256 key length encryption automatically scrambled all communications. NSA had approved that symmetric key cryptography for top-secret communication. Although I could rely on it, as an added precaution, I also used code words.

“Report location,” came the response.

How the fuck should I know? I was in a remote point on earth, 6,000 feet or more above sea level, huddled on the ground with the Uzi in my left hand and the handheld in my right, barely hidden by a pair of scrubby bushes. The land was arid; it was now night, blade-cold, and, arid land or no, it was pouring rain. My GPS navigation gear had stopped working, probably because of the massive, sharp-edged mountain slopes around me, and any minute the barrage could start again. What else could go wrong?

Sheltering my hand-held GPS from the rain with my body, I tried to reactivate its personal locater beacon. The internal GPS receiver signal was, I hoped, re-acquiring my position and transmitting it through the SARSAT satellites to HQ.

When the GPS stayed dead, and rain mixed with blood ran into my mouth, I yielded to the whining question that my inner little devil kept asking, “How did you get yourself into this mess?” The truth was, I had to be there. Sense of mission and tenacity—those I had in spades.

So, who the hell had been firing at us? The Armenians?Unlikely, because the shooting seemed to come from the Iranian side of the twisting river. If Iranian border patrol guards were shooting, there’d been a serious breach of security. However, without identifying the shooters, we wouldn’t know if Iranians were pursuing the man I had come to pick up. If they were, that was bad, bad news. It was bad, bad news as well if an Armenian border patrol was in fact shooting: whenever someone tries to cross their border, they shoot first and ask questions later. From my perspective, it really didn’t matter who was shooting, if they hit me, I was dead, regardless of the shooters’ national origin.

A cold breeze chilled my skin, but my blood was boiling with expectation and rage. In a few days, if all went well, I’d be back in a warm room sipping a hot drink, savoring the accomplished mission – unless I was zipped up in a black body bag stretched on a metal slab in the coroner’s freezer. I hunched forward from underneath the bush to give me some visibility, and at least some view, in case Tango came closer.

More than 10 minutes of silence, and then – nothing. Tango should have reached me by now, and I’d lost sight of him. Where did he go? He was a trained soldier, I told myself. He knew how to camouflage himself, how to hide, and how to dodge between the bushes and boulders littering the slope. It was now completely dark. I was losing patience, my feet and hands turning to ice. How come the command post was in a heated apartment overlooking the painfully modest village square, while I was soaked with water and blood, freezing my ass off? Next time, you shouldn’t be the first to volunteer, or agree to be “volunteered,” I told myself.  And my inner little devil, opening just one eye, added, “Don’t whine.  You were ordered to be on the forefront because you didn’t function well as a team member, remember?

Of course I remembered. It had always been my problem, or maybe should I say my advantage. I can still remember Dr. Deborah Katzman, the fat Mossad psychologist, whose hairs on her upper lip made her look older than her real age of somewhere between 55 and 60. She ran personality tests during my Israeli Mossad admission process. A few years later, when a careless Mossad human resources staffer left my file unattended, I’d had a chance to glance at her report. The doctor had suggested that the Mossad should give up on me.

“He’s too independent, tends to work alone, and challenges authority.” She was right, of course, but, lucky for me, the Mossad figured that those character traits would make me a better operative. Square-minded bureaucrats are a dime a dozen, but original thinkers with conniving minds and a bit of entrepreneurial flair are hard to find.

The night stayed silent. I rose partway, crouching and peering around, searching the area for any movement that could mean either the man I had come to pick up, or my backup unit, but I couldn’t see any movement. He had to be near. I hoped he hadn’t taken a bullet, which would mean that all our efforts, in this joint CIA/Mossad operation, over three continents and months of hard work, would be doomed. Visual was the only way to communicate with him. He wasn’t carrying any radio device, and unless he made it through and met us before pursuers’ bullets met him, he was history. Well, either way he’d be history. Not just the idiom, the real fact. Historians would remember the defection of General Cyrus Madani, a/k/a Tango, from the theocracy of Iran as the single most important event helping to derail the Iranians’ nuclear arms development program, or at least to slow its completion substantially. So much work, so much sacrifice. He had to be close. Would it now be for nothing?

“Change of plans,” I heard the voice in my earpiece. “Return to point Sabra immediately.” Good God, why? I wanted to ask, but contrary to my nature, I knew this was no time to question authority. Somebody else from my team would probably pick up General Madani if he’d made it through. We were not going to give up on him, not now.

I backed slowly around bushes and boulders, giving a final cursory look downhill for any sign of Madani. When I didn’t see him, and the gunfire didn’t resume, I stood upright, turned, and continued silently at a slow pace up the hill toward the village, my Para Micro-Uzi at the ready. It could fold to fit into a flat box no bigger than a hardcover book. But I wasn’t about to do that with the shooters perhaps in my vicinity still. Whoever they were, they had tried to kill me or even Madani. That was enough to elevate them from ‘opposition’ to ‘enemies,’ and I don’t treat my enemies well, and definitely not when they fire first. And even when they are second to shoot.

I finally reached the unpaved road and followed it to where a rental Nissan Pathfinder, picked up earlier at Zvartnots Airport in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, awaited me. The driver was a thuggish-looking, bearded agent with bulky pockets that barely hid his own Para Micro-Uzi. I jumped into the Nissan and he sped away.

“Let me have that,” said Brad, pointing at my Uzi. “We might be stopped by a police road block.”

I folded my Uzi and handed it to him. Driving 60 miles an hour, he steered with his left hand and used his right to lock the Uzi in a compartment between our seats, together with two PC9111 Professional handguns and one Glock 23 that he pulled from his right pants’ pockets.

“Where is everyone?” I asked. There were seven of us in the team.

“They’ll leave separately. We don’t want to draw too much attention.”

“Why the hell was I told to leave Tango? He was less than 50 yards away,” I asked, barely masking my frustration. “Did someone else pick him up? Have you heard from him?”

Brad turned his head toward me slightly. “You’re bleeding,” he grunted, as if telling me I had something stuck in my teeth.

“I know,” I said, “In our profession, the target remembers but the gun forgets. The bullet grazed me. Tell me why already.” I was impatient.

“It was a trap. That was Eric’s conclusion, and he gave the order.”

“A trap? You mean Tango wasn’t going to defect?” The thought of all our hard work going down the drain chilled me.

“We don’t know, but the fact the opposition was waiting for us, and in fact from three different directions, told us it was a trap. All we knew was the direction from which Tango was to arrive. That tells us that something got botched. So Eric gave the order to pull you out.”

“Three directions? Then they were aiming from behind his back?” I thought back, trying to remember exactly where the gunfire had come from.

“Yes, but if they were in a lower altitude, and Tango was climbing toward you, they could shoot above his head and get you. It’s also possible that whoever the shooters were, they didn’t care if Tango was hit, too.”

“Is the Agency giving up on him?” I asked, trying to digest the news. All that time. All that work.

“We don’t know,” he said, as he maneuvered the SUV on the dusty, uneven road, searching in the dark for the main road that avoided the village. “We also had a problem with Tango’s visual. The telephoto snapshot we took found some serious image discrepancies when our computer compared them to Tango’s photos taken in Iran.”

I wiped my wet head with a tissue pulled from my pocket. The wound still hurt. So had Tango just been dangled by Iran? Had he been lying about his desire to defect?

“Maybe there was a leak from our end, tipping off the Iranian Revolutionary Guards?” I asked.

Brad gave me a strange look. “Exactly. And if that leak came from us, maybe we have a mole?”

There was something off about his tone. Did he mean me? What the hell? I leaned my head against the seat’s headrest. “Keep your mouth shut,” my little inner devil suggested, “Ignore the provocation.” “Whatever the case,” I said, “it’s bad.”

Brad just nodded. We’d arrived at the airport. The sign said ԶվարթնոցՄիջազգայինՕդանավակայան – Zvartnots International Airport. We met an Agency representative at the newly built modern arrivals hall. He got quickly into the Nissan; directed us to the parking lot; and surreptitiously transferred the arsenal from our car to his car’s trunk. Brad and I returned our SUV to the rental company and boarded an Armavia airlines commercial flight to Moscow.  After a stale, $5 tea in a cafe at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, I boarded a Delta flight to New York.  I had more questions than answers, but couldn’t decide what pissed me off most — that we’d come home empty handed; thatI’d been a wet, cold, bleeding sitting duck on the Iranian-Armenian border for nothing; or my feeling that nobody was bothering to tell me what, exactly, was going on. Something wasn’t right. To quell my mounting suspicions, I slept most of the flight.

By the time I got to my New York apartment and was welcomed by Snap, my tail-wagging golden retriever, I was just as tame.  As I was playing with him, I thought about my divorce in Israel from Dahlia and made an unholy comparison of the respective relationships. Snap was always happy when I came home. In fact, the later I came, the more excited he was. Snap never complained when I left my stuff on the floor. In fact, I think he actually preferred it. And if I said to Dahlia, “OK, I’ll pick it up,” her response was always, “That’s OK.” That was one of the most dangerous warnings Dahlia could send me. ‘That’s OK’ meant she wanted to think long and hard before deciding how and when I would pay.  Finally, I knew that if he ever left me, he wouldn’t take most of my property.