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“He’s a dead man,” David said.
“If we don’t find him before they do, yes,” Zalinsky agreed. “And that’s not going to be easy. The Ayatollah just put a $100 million bounty on his head.”
Somewhere over Saudi Arabia
The Airbus jumbo jet would be back in Tehran in less than an hour.
But the Twelfth Imam could not wait. Still seething at the incompetence of the Iranian intelligence services for having let Najjar Malik slip through their fingers and broadcast his heresies to the world, he summoned Javad to his luxury cabin in the front of the aircraft. Javad rose from his seat in the back of the plane and made his way forward, dreading every step. After taking a deep breath and removing a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his perspiring hands, he knocked twice and was told to come in. He complied and bowed low.
“Have you heard from Firouz and Jamshad?” the Mahdi asked.
“Yes, Your Excellency,” Javad replied. “I just got a text message from Firouz a little while ago.”
“Are they safe?”
“Yes, they are.”
“They weren’t arrested?”
“Were they watched?”
“They don’t think so.”
“Where are they now?”
“They’ve gotten to Venezuela? Good. So they are coming home now.”
“Yes, they figure they should be home by tomorrow night.”
The Mahdi nodded and stared out the window, pondering something, but his expression was inscrutable, and Javad was in no mood to ask questions.
“Get Ali Faridzadeh on the line,” the Mahdi commanded without looking back at Javad.
Javad was surprised, not so much that the Mahdi wanted to talk to the Iranian defense minister—that was to be expected given how close they were to zero hour—but that the Mahdi evidently wanted him to use one of the satellite phones not for a text message or two but for an actual conversation. Thus far, he had been suspicious of their ability to speak securely on the phones and deeply reluctant to use them except when absolutely necessary, such as the call with the Pakistani leader, Iskander Farooq. But such decisions, Javad decided, were above his pay grade. He pulled the satphone from his pocket, dialed Faridzadeh’s personal satphone number, and handed the phone to the undisputed leader of the Islamic world. He wondered if he should return to his seat, but he had not been dismissed, so for now he stood still, his stomach in knots.
“Where are you?” the Mahdi asked. “Good. I will be on the ground in about an hour and at the location we discussed in less than two. I will meet you there. Just make sure everything is in place and ready—everything—when I arrive.”
* * *
David needed to get to Qom.
He was exhausted and wanted to ask Dr. Birjandi if he could crash there overnight, get up early, and make the three-hour drive to the holy city at sunrise the following morning. Yet something in him felt uneasy about that plan. He sensed he needed to be in Qom, fresh and ready, when the day began. He had no idea why, but he had learned to trust his instincts.
Pulling out his laptop, he looked up hotel options and found a website called AsiaRooms.com, which gave him a selection of higher-end facilities.
“The Qom International is one of the best hotels in Iran,” one entry read. “The building has a lovely glass frontage with attractive lights. There is a marbled reception area and a cozy lounge with elegant Persian carpets. The Qom International in the historic city of Qom offers complete privacy, security, and comfort to its guests.” The lavish description went on from there.
It was a little pricey for David Shirazi, but it was exactly the type of place Reza Tabrizi would stay. He booked a single room with a king-size bed for one night, then closed the laptop, packed up his car, and took Dr. Birjandi into the kitchen, away from the others. There he gave the old cleric his own satellite phone, the gift he had promised him, and quickly explained how to use it and how to charge it.
“Please don’t hesitate to call me,” David said. “If you learn something, anything—even if you’re not sure if it’s useful or you think maybe I already know it—please call me, no matter when. Okay?”
“That’s very kind, my friend,” Birjandi replied. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” David said. “But really, it’s no good to me if I don’t hear from you. So promise you’ll use it.”
“You have my word.”
“That’s good enough for me. Thank you for everything, Dr. Birjandi. I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m very glad to have met you and deeply grateful for all you’ve taught me and all you’ve shared with me so far.”
“You’re welcome, David. Now I have a gift for you.”
He padded over to a cabinet next to the refrigerator and opened the top drawer. From it he drew a slim volume with a green cover and put it in David’s hands. It was a Farsi New Testament. Internally, David recoiled. His heart started racing. He tried not to give any evidence of his anxiety to the man standing next to him, but he had never owned his own Bible. He had barely touched one in all his twenty-five years. He had been taught by the mullahs in Germany during college that to read one would sentence a Muslim to the fires of hell on the Day of Judgment. And he dared not be caught by Abdol Esfahani, or really anyone else in the country, with a New Testament, especially now with the fatwa issued against Najjar Malik and the government crackdown surely coming against the followers of Jesus Christ throughout Iran. And yet it was a gift from a man who had become a dear friend and his most important asset. David did not want to seem ungrateful or unwilling, so he simply said thank you, as sincerely as he knew how.
“I know you do not want to take this,” Birjandi said quietly, as if he could read David’s every thought. “You’re scared of the words in this book, and you should be. The apostle John wrote his letter to the secret believers and said plainly, ‘He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.’ If you desire eternal life, David, you will receive Christ as your Savior, and you will read this book every moment you have the chance. If you choose to spend eternity separated from Him in hell, then reject Christ and don’t bother reading this book. It’s your choice. But I am warning you, son, you do not know when your life will be required of you or when you will stand before the Lord God Almighty. Choose well, and choose quickly.”
* * *
Faridzadeh sent an urgent secure text message to Jalal Zandi.
Are the last two cakes baked?
A few minutes later, Zandi—now the most senior nuclear scientist in Iran after Mohammed Saddaji’s assassination and Najjar Malik’s defection—replied. Baked, yes, but T has had trouble with the candles. Has been working on this around the clock for the past few days. Literally putting finishing touches on it now.
T, Faridzadeh knew, referred to Tariq Khan, Zandi’s senior deputy. Questions are being asked, the increasingly impatient defense minister texted back. Need answers immediately. When will the cake be finished?
Within the hour, T believes, came the reply.
It can then be transported to other factory and readied for delivery?
Are you with T?
No—preparing other cakes for delivery.
How is that coming?
Delicate process. But making progress.
Why are these cakes taking so much longer than the first two?
Difficult question to answer by text.
Short version: originally told first two cakes were for special delivery. Told we had more time to get the others ready. Party date has shifted multiple times. Doing best we can.
Bottom line—will they all be ready?
Nearly two minutes passed before Zandi finally replied. If the party is Sunday, we should be ready by Saturday, midday at latest.
Faridzadeh turned to Mohsen Jazini, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The two men stood in the war room in the bunker ten stories below the Ministry of Defense in downtown Tehran. Faridzadeh showed Jazini the exchange. “What do you think?”
“I pray to Allah that Zandi is right,” Jazini said. “Or heads will roll.”
“My thoughts exactly. If we don’t start this party by Sunday—and the earlier in the day the better—I fear the Zionists will beat us to the punch.”
“You don’t buy Darazi’s argument that the Americans will find a way to restrain Naphtali from launching a preemptive strike?”
Privately, Faridzadeh thought Darazi was an uneducated, pretentious fool, boastful, arrogant beyond words, and basing his case purely on emotions—on what he hoped the Americans would do—not on reason or intellect or pure facts. “President Darazi is a fine and able man,” Faridzadeh said cautiously. “But respectfully, I have a somewhat-different perspective.”
“Go on,” Jazini said.
“Look,” the defense minister said, “the Israelis almost certainly assassinated Saddaji, and they almost certainly were the ones behind the attempt to kill the Mahdi as well. Naphtali is willing to take risks. He’s proven that. But he’s running out of people to kill our nuclear program and strangle the Caliphate in its cradle. He and his air force are coming after the warheads next. You know it. I know it. The Mahdi knows it. I suspect the Ayatollah knows it as well. That’s why they’re pushing us so hard to accelerate the timetable. But what can we do? Until all the final technical glitches are resolved and the six remaining warheads are successfully attached to missiles, we are all at the mercy of the scientists and the engineers. And you know me, Mohsen—I don’t like to be at the mercy of anyone.”
David thanked Birjandi and his study group of young clerics.
He said good-bye, then hit the road for Qom. From Hamadan, it was a 283-kilometer journey. He estimated it would take about two and a half hours. As soon as he was under way, he put on his Bluetooth headset, pulled out his phone, and speed-dialed Eva on the secure channel.
“Hey, it’s me, checking in,” he began.
She seemed glad to hear his voice and asked him how he was feeling. It felt good to talk to a friend, and he confided he was still battling physical discomfort and flashes of panic, both from the waterboarding and from the car crash in Tehran the week before. But soon he shifted quickly to the real reason for his call. “Have you mailed the phones yet? Please say no.”
“I need them rerouted.”
“Well, you’re in luck,” Eva said. “The phones actually just arrived from technical, all one hundred, most of them damaged, just as you requested.”
“Do they really look like they were beat up in shipping? It has to be believable.”
“Don’t worry,” she assured him. “These guys are pros.”
“Good. Look, don’t send them to my address in Tehran.”
“I’m not going to be there tomorrow. Change in plans. I’m heading to Qom right now. Can you overnight them there?”
“Of course. Where to?”
He gave her the address for the Qom International Hotel on Helal Ahmar Street.
“Done,” she said.
“Thanks. Any luck hunting down Najjar?”
“None. It’s a nightmare. He’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
“How in the world did he escape?”
“Please don’t go there.”
“I’m just asking.”
“I don’t know how it happened, all right? I wasn’t there. I was coming back from New York at the time, but I can’t tell you how many people who outrank you I’ve had that conversation with.”
“I’m not blaming you,” David said.
“You’d be the first.”
“I was just asking—really.”
“How about you? Any leads on the nuclear scientists, the location of the bombs, on any of your objectives?”
He could see he’d made a mistake asking about Najjar’s escape. “Okay. Let’s change the topic. What did you think about Egypt joining the Caliphate today?”
“I’d expected Riad and Yassin to hem and haw and tell the Mahdi they needed to think about it and they’d get back to him,” she answered.
“I thought the same. How can we expect to build a Sunni alliance against the Caliphate with Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, and hopefully some others, if Egypt fell so quickly?”
“The director is furious. So is the king. They met in Amman today.”
“Did it go well?”
“Not after the news out of Cairo.”
“What happened in the meeting?”
“The one between Riad, Yassin, and the Mahdi.”
“I’ve got nothing on it yet.”
“Let me know when you hear something,” David said. “Fareed Riad didn’t bide his time as vice president and carry Abdel Ramzy’s water all these years to gain the reins of Egypt one day and then hand them over to the Twelfth Imam the next. Something doesn’t add up.”
“You’re right,” Eva said. “And it was odd, too, because Riad wasn’t standing with the Mahdi in Tahrir Square when he gave his big speech. The field marshal was there and some of the other generals, but not Riad.”
David needed to get off the phone, but Eva asked him one more question. “Any news on your mom?”
There was a long silence. “No,” David said quietly. “Not yet.”
“Keep us posted, okay?”
“I will. Thanks for asking.”
“Sure. See you soon.”
“Okay. Oh—one more thing. Are you still there?”
“Yes,” Eva said. “I’m here.”
“Could you send some fresh flowers to my mom’s room from me?”
“Sure, anything you need.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it.” David signed off and hung up the phone. He glanced at the clock on the dashboard of his rented Peugeot. It was getting late. There was almost no traffic on Route 37 as he headed north for the junction with Route 48, which would take him most of the way to Qom. He yawned and rubbed his eyes and scolded himself for not asking Birjandi for some coffee to take on the road.
He was grateful for Eva’s friendship and for how good she was at her job. She was an incredible researcher and an even better interrogator. Her Farsi was flawless, her judgment was solid, and she always bent over backward to help him do his job better. She was a first-rate intelligence operative, which was why her questions to him had stung. She was right—he didn’t have any leads on Khan or Zandi or the other six warheads, and he was running out of time and options.
* * *
Jalal Zandi sent an urgent page to Tariq Khan.
Less than a minute later, he felt his own pager vibrate, checked the incoming numeric code, and immediately excused himself and logged on to the Iranian singles chat room that he and Khan often used to send classified messages to one another outside normal communications channels.
u still at the bakery? Zandi asked under the user name Mohammed.
yes—y? Khan replied under the user name Jasmine.
need the cakes—are they done?
can’t start without u.
u keep saying that.
really—just putting on the icing—you’ll like it.
friends need 2nite—urgent.
positive—bridegroom coming—wants 2 know if everything is ready.
okay—where do u want them?
send 2 party house in K—urgent.
fine—will you b there 2 take delivery?
no—preparing other cakes for delivery—got 2 go.
no problem—they will be on road shortly.
good—c u soon.
* * *
Highway 37, En Route to Qom
David pulled up Abdol Esfahani’s personal mobile number.
But he hesitated before dialing. It was so late. Yet he had to be up. The man was quickly moving up in the Twelfth Imam’s circle of allies, and he would want to know the phones were on the way. Maybe he’d have a tidbit of intel David could squeeze out of him, something—anything—to point him in the right direction. He finally hit Send but got no answer and had to leave a message.
Next, he called Esfahani’s secretary, Mina, at home. She wouldn’t be happy with a late-night call, but she’d always been helpful. She was single. She lived alone. So he wouldn’t be getting a husband or a father. He’d tell her the truth, that he was trying to find her boss to talk about the delivery of the satellite phones, but maybe he could elicit some valuable information from her as well. After seven rings, however, he got voice mail, so he left a message and asked her to return his call as soon as possible.
As he continued driving north in the darkness, he began to have second thoughts. Even when they called back, what were they really likely to know? And if they did know something useful, why would they tell him? His doubts were rising rapidly and with them a growing sense of anxiety that all this effort wasn’t going to work, that he wasn’t going to be able to find these scientists or these warheads or stop this war in time, yet he might actually get killed trying. The waterboarding had shaken him more than he was willing to concede to Zalinsky or Eva. He had always told himself he was ready to die for his country, but now he was not so sure. He was giving this job, this mission, all he had, but what if it wasn’t enough? How far was he willing to go, how much was he willing to put on the line, if in the end all the effort achieved little or nothing at all? What would be the point of making the ultimate sacrifice if he didn’t make a lasting difference?
That said, was he really going to give up now? How could he? He was deep inside enemy territory. He had given his word. He was fully committed. And he reminded himself that he ultimately wasn’t doing any of this for Zalinsky or Murray or Allen or the president. He was doing it for Marseille, for his parents, to protect them if possible but also to honor them in a way he had a hard time explaining. He hoped someday they would understand.