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He ran to his office and came back a minute later with his laptop. “Have you ever used Twitter before?”
Najjar stared at the young man. “I’ve been building nuclear reactors and weapons all my life. I haven’t even learned how to use a mobile phone for more than calls and e-mail,” Najjar answered.
“So no tweeting?” the producer asked.
“I’m sorry,” Najjar said. “I don’t even know what that means.”
“It’s okay. I’m setting up an account for you right now, and we’re going to tell people throughout the show to sign up to follow you. Don’t worry. I’ll explain it all after we’re done.”
A production assistant brought Najjar a bottle of water while the crew made final adjustments. Soon they were all ready, and the red light of the lead camera came on. Najjar tried to relax, tried to look calm, but he was holding the arms of his chair so tightly his knuckles were white.
“Let’s start at the beginning,” the producer said. “Please tell us your name, your background in Iran as a high-ranking nuclear scientist, and why you were once a follower of the Twelfth Imam but have now become a follower of Jesus Christ.”
David found a hotel and checked in.
Once his “minder” had driven off, he went up to his room, locked the door behind him, closed the curtains, and sat down on the bed. He opened the box that held the satellite phone and took the phone apart piece by piece. He could not take a chance that it was bugged.
When he was convinced it was clean, he put the phone back together and dialed the Munich Digital Systems branch office in Dubai. No one answered, so he left a message with his manager, letting him know he was safe in Tehran and would be checking in with the technical team the following morning. Next, he called the MDS headquarters in Munich and left a cryptic message on Eva’s line, saying he needed to “accelerate” the arrival of the “shipment we discussed” and see if it could be rerouted to his office in Tehran. His goal was to be doing what Abdol Esfahani had asked him to do, on the satphone Esfahani had given him to use for that very purpose. If somehow someone was listening, David needed them to hear what they expected to hear. Nothing more. Nothing less.
That done, however, David pulled out his own Agency-modified Nokia N95, the company’s top-of-the-line smartphone, which worked more like an iPhone than a BlackBerry. He took that one apart as well, since from the moment he’d been subjected to interrogation, it had been out of his hands. Had it been tampered with in any way? The process of pulling it apart and reviewing every microchip and wire took nearly an hour, and he was grateful for the first time for all the training Langley’s techies had given him—and that he was remembering it all.
Convinced everything was fine, he now had to put it all back together without messing up any of the special improvements the technical division had made. The phone had a special GPS function that allowed Zalinsky and the Agency to track his location in real time without anyone being able to detect that such tracking was going on. It had also been preloaded with the names and contact information of people David would be expected to know in his job as a technical consultant for MDS. What’s more, special software securely uploaded any new names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses he added to his contact directory to Langley’s and NSA’s mainframe computers and alerted both agencies to hack in and begin monitoring those phone numbers and e-mail addresses as new high-priority targets. Most important, while his phone typically operated on standard frequencies, allowing foreign intelligence agencies to listen in on his calls and thus be fed disinformation if needed, a proprietary encryption system could be activated to enable him to make secure satellite calls to Langley or to other field agents. This was only for rare cases and extreme emergencies, because whenever the software was activated, those monitoring David’s calls would know immediately that he had gone secure, potentially risking his cover as a consultant for Munich Digital Systems.
This, however, was one of the rare cases. He had to talk to Zalinsky and tell him what had happened so far—the waterboarding, the invitation to join the Group of 313, and the urgent request for the rest of the phones. But he didn’t feel comfortable making the call from his room. He still hadn’t gone through everything in his briefcase and his luggage to make sure no bugs had been planted. Esfahani had said he was clean, but they were clearly concerned enough that he might be a spy that they were applying extraordinary measures. At this point, he couldn’t be too careful.
He ducked out into the hallway. Then he found the stairwell, headed up to the roof, and made the call.
“I don’t know,” Zalinsky replied after hearing Esfahani’s demand for the rest of the phones. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable giving the Mahdi and his team a full communications network right now. We’re too close to war, and we don’t have the manpower to track all those calls in real time.”
“What if you send a hundred or so for now,” David suggested, “but have most of them be ‘damaged in shipping’? That would make it look like I was trying hard, but it would also buy us time.”
“It’s a good idea,” Zalinsky said, “but it’s risky. What if Esfahani explodes?”
“I’ll tell him it’s his own fault,” David replied. “He should have let me go get them in person.”
Zalinsky agreed, then asked if David was still okay, all things considered.
“I’m in some pain,” David replied, “but that’s not what worries me.”
“I don’t have a single lead on these warheads, and events are moving too fast. Jack, I don’t know how I’m going to find the warheads in time, and even if I do, the president won’t take action to destroy them.”
“Don’t worry about the president,” Zalinsky countered. “You just find those warheads, and when you do, believe me, I’ll find a way to take them out. On that you have my word.”
“What you’re doing isn’t in vain. Now listen—do you remember a guy named Javad Nouri?”
“Of course. He’s the guy I delivered a bunch of phones to. Works for the Supreme Leader, I think.”
“Actually, we’ve determined he’s the personal aide to the Twelfth Imam.”
“Wow, that’s huge.”
“He keeps popping up on the call intercepts, and we now have video of him traveling with the Mahdi in Mecca and Beirut. Now here’s the thing: do you know anything about his family?”
“We believe he has a cousin, Firouz, who was the cell leader for the attack on the president at the Waldorf on Sunday night. We think he’s still in the States, probably still in New York. We have a huge manhunt under way right now. The problem is we don’t have a picture. If you can get one, we need it.”
David had to shake his head. “So I was right.”
“The cell was Iranian, not al Qaeda or the Brotherhood.”
“That’s true,” Zalinsky confirmed. “The guy the Secret Service shot and killed is Rahim Yazidi. He’s a member of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. The guy we have in custody is Navid Yazidi, Rahim’s kid brother, also part of the Guard. Eva got Navid to give up Firouz Nouri. His father is Mohammed Nouri. He’s a mullah in Qom, big in the Twelver community, apparently. He’s written several books on the Twelfth Imam. Anyway, see what your friend Birjandi can tell you about the family. We need everything we can get. I don’t have to tell you how much pressure the Agency is under to get this guy, Firouz. The president is off the charts about us not seeing the Manhattan attack coming. We need a success, and we need it fast.”
* * *
Eva Fischer popped her head into Zalinsky’s office.
“Got something you need to see.”
Zalinsky was typing furiously on his laptop. “Close the door,” he replied without looking up.
Eva complied and took a seat.
“Is it Malik?”
“No, but we’re doing everything we can to find him.”
“Then why haven’t we?” Zalinsky asked. “Murray’s handling this reasonably well, under the circumstances. But the director—who’s still in Israel—is furious. They haven’t told the White House yet, but they’re going to have to soon. But that’s not the worst of it.”
“The director is asking if there’s any chance Malik is a double.”
“Absolutely not,” Eva said categorically.
“You’re sure about that?”
“You’ve read the transcript,” Eva replied. “Does he come off as a double agent to you? I mean, the guy renounces Islam and claims he saw a vision of Jesus Christ, for crying out loud. Not exactly typical behavior of an Iranian mole.”
“Wouldn’t that throw us off all the more?”
“He’s not a double, Jack. He’s scared. He’s lonely. He misses his wife. He misses his daughter. And we had him confined to a house all alone, but for the armed guards.”
“Some good it did us.”
“Look, Jack, everything he’s told us has checked out. Everything. And we’re doing everything we can to find him. What else can we do? In the meantime, I’ve got a new intercept for you.”
Zalinsky sighed and put on his reading glasses as Eva handed him the translation of a recent call.
VOICE 1: Code in.
VOICE 2: “This ill cannot be healed, neither can the serpents be uprooted. Prepare food for them, therefore, that they may be fed, and give unto them for nourishment the brains of men, for perchance this may destroy them.”
VOICE 1: Cousin, is that really you?
VOICE 2: It’s me, Javad.
VOICE 1: Are you all right?
VOICE 2: Yes, yes, thanks to Allah, I’m safe—for now, at least.
VOICE 1: Are you alone?
VOICE 2: No, Jamshad is with me.
VOICE 1: What about Rahim and Navid? Are they safe too?
Zalinsky looked up from the transcript. “Is that really Firouz Nouri?”
“So they’re actually cousins.”
“What’s the code he uses?”
“It’s a few lines from a Persian poem.”
“The Epic of Shahnameh by Ferdowsi.”
“What’s the significance?”
“I don’t know yet.”
Zalinsky kept reading. “They’re in Queens?”
“So it seems.”
“Firouz’s sister. We’re working on all the connections. The point is, I just got this t
o the FBI, and I’m having them intensify their manhunt in Queens.”
“Okay, good work. And, Eva, make it crystal clear to the Bureau—we need this guy and Jamshad fast, and we need them alive.”
* * *
David slept for a few hours and awoke early Wednesday morning.
He showered, dressed, grabbed his phone, and headed down to the lobby, half-expecting to see an intelligence goon waiting for him. But the lobby was empty. The restaurant was still closed. All was quiet.
Heading out to the street, he hailed a cab to the Iran Telecom operations center on the south side. Given the typical but unbearable Tehran rush-hour traffic, the six-mile ride took him nearly an hour. Once there, he spent the next several hours catching up with his MDS technical team, finding out how their work was going, and answering their many questions. By no means was it what he wanted to be doing, and he didn’t feel it was the best use of his time. But he had no choice. He knew he was being watched. He had to maintain his cover. What’s more, the senior executives back in Munich, the ones who paid him a salary and generous benefits each month, had no idea he worked for the CIA. They had hired him to help them rebuild Iran’s antiquated mobile phone network, and they were expecting him to deliver.
The military helicopter touched down at noon.
It landed in an open field across the street from the home of Dr. Alireza Birjandi as it did once a month. The neighbors didn’t like the noise or the sight of armed men taking up positions on their street, but they certainly didn’t complain. They lived in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and they knew better.
Two soldiers knocked on Birjandi’s door. The old man was ready and waiting as always with his white cane in hand. They helped the blind, eighty-three-year-old cleric down his steps, across the street, and into the still-running chopper, without saying a word. It was routine now. Each man knew his place and did what he had to do, and soon they were airborne again, gaining altitude and airspeed en route to the Qaleh.
For Birjandi, it did not really matter where he met the Supreme Leader and the president. Their monthly luncheons had not begun in the Supreme Leader’s private mountain retreat center in the early years. They had originally occurred in Hosseini’s residence on Pasteur Street, not far from the German and British Embassies. However, six months earlier, Hosseini had invited Birjandi up to his compound in the mountains, and they’d been gathering there ever since. From what Birjandi heard, Hosseini was spending less and less time engaged in official functions in Tehran and more and more time in the mountains. Was it for security reasons? Or health reasons? Or just the peace and quiet that Mount Tochal afforded? Birjandi wasn’t entirely sure, but he had his suspicions.
Hosseini was now seventy-six years old. He was alone in the world, having murdered his wife in 2002, and having sent all three of his sons to minefields to become martyrs during the Iran–Iraq War in the eighties. He had been a loyal disciple and deputy to Ayatollah Khomeini and had been at his side when the leader of the Islamic Revolution had passed away. Though he was not the first choice of the Assembly of Experts to replace Khomeini, Hosseini had eventually gained their favor and had now been the nation’s Supreme Leader for over a decade. During that time, he had worked diligently to shore up his power base and solidify his control of the military, the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Basij militia, and most of the ruling class, including the religious leaders in Qom and the business elite in Tehran. Now he was firmly convinced that both the end of his own days and the end of all days were rapidly drawing near. He did not seem to want to be bothered with the trivial pursuits of the mere mortals living down below. His eyes had been firmly fixed on the coming of the Twelfth Imam, and now that he was here, the Supreme Leader was consumed with pleasing the so-called Promised One. Hosseini seemed to think it was more spiritual to stay in the mountains and beneath him to attend to the needs of his people.
As the helicopter made its final approach to the landing pad at the Qaleh and finally touched down, a sadness settled on Birjandi’s heart. He genuinely loved Hamid Hosseini. He abhorred the man’s choices. He abhorred the man’s religion. But the man was lost, utterly lost, and it grieved Birjandi. Imagine, he thought, if a man like this became a follower of Jesus Christ. Imagine what joy and forgiveness he would experience. Imagine how much influence he would have on Muslims worldwide. On his knees for hours at a time, Birjandi had begged the Lord to open the man’s eyes to the truth of Christ’s unfailing love and free gift of salvation. Birjandi chose to meet with Hosseini, as well as with President Darazi, because he was not sure there was a single other person in their lives who was a follower of Jesus Christ, who knew that the Twelfth Imam was a false messiah, and who was willing to risk his life to bear witness to those truths.
When he heard the chopper’s engine shut down and the rotors slow, Birjandi asked the Lord the same question he asked before every meeting: Is today the day I should tell them I follow the true King of kings? He had felt the Spirit’s undeniable restraint each time they met. He wasn’t sure why. He always listened to the men carefully and sincerely. He always answered their questions honestly. But they believed that they and he were kindred spirits, equally excited about the Twelfth Imam and equally devoted to serving him as the Lord of the Age. That had been true when they had first begun meeting, but it had not been true for some time now, and Birjandi prayed that today the Lord would give him an open door and a green light to tell these men the truth, for he had no idea how many more opportunities he would have to meet them face-to-face.
* * *
After a productive morning, David took the MDS team out to lunch.
At their strenuous request, he reluctantly agreed to meet several of them at one of Iran Telecom’s switching stations near the city of Qom the following day to troubleshoot some software problems they couldn’t seem to solve. He had never been to Qom before, and it was not in his game plan for the Agency. But at the moment he couldn’t see a way around going, so he agreed and then said good-bye.
Promising to check in with them in the morning to finalize the arrangements, he left the upscale restaurant where he had splurged on them and walked for a few blocks, stopping occasionally to window-shop in various storefronts, really to see if anyone was following him. Unsure, he walked for another two blocks, then ducked into a crowded coffee shop, ordered a cup to go, and waited to see who came in behind him. No one looked suspicious, but he was taking no chances. After another ten minutes, he made his way to the back of the shop toward the restrooms, then ducked out the back exit into an alley, walked quickly around the corner, and bent down to tie his shoe. He glanced down the street to the north, then back to the south. No one appeared to be trailing him. Finally convinced, he hailed a cab.
“I need to get to the airport as fast as possible,” he told the driver. “How long will that take?”
* * *