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“Who are you?” Najjar had asked.
“I am Jesus the Nazarene,” the man had replied. “I AM the first and the last and the living One. I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. Come and follow me.”
Najjar said the first sentences were uttered with a measure of authority such as he had never heard before, not from any mullah or cleric or political leader in his entire life. Yet the last four words were spoken with such gentleness, such tenderness, that he could not imagine refusing the request.
Najjar went on to describe seeing the holes where spikes had been driven through Jesus’ hands. As a devout Muslim, he had never considered the possibility that Jesus had been crucified at all, much less to pay the penalty for all human sins. No Muslim believed that. At that point, Najjar’s mind had been filled with questions, and for David, Najjar’s questions were his own.
How could Jesus be appearing as a crucified Messiah? If the Qur’an were true, wouldn’t it be impossible for Jesus to have nail-scarred hands?
One thing seemed clear to David, just as it had to Najjar: Jesus wasn’t claiming to be the second-in-command to the Mahdi. He was claiming to be God Almighty.
“I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life,” Jesus had said, “and no one comes to the Father except through Me. I am the Light of the World. He who follows me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
At that point, Najjar said, he had fallen to the ground and kissed the scarred feet of Jesus. He said that at that moment, something inside him had broken. “I wept with remorse for all the sins I had ever committed. I wept with indescribable relief that came from knowing beyond the shadow of a doubt that God really did love me and had sent Jesus to die on the cross and rise from the dead for me. I wept with gratitude that because of Jesus’ promise, I knew that I was going to spend eternity with Him.”
In some ways, David wanted to dismiss the story as a fairy tale, an anxiety-induced hallucination from a deeply disturbed individual. But nothing about Dr. Najjar Malik seemed mentally imbalanced or unstable. The guy was not only one of the most highly respected scientists in all of Iran but a man willing to face a $100 million bounty on his and his family’s heads to tell the world what he believed to be true. He clearly wasn’t doing it to get rich. He wasn’t doing it for power. Though it cost him everything, Najjar Malik was now a follower of Jesus, a most unlikely turn of events.
And in the darkness and the solitude of that night, David realized that he, too, believed. Najjar was right. It was all true.
David had not seen a vision or had a dream or any other sort of supernatural experience. But maybe not everyone had to. David was an intelligence operative, wasn’t he? He was supposed to hunt for the truth and follow the evidence wherever it led him. And the evidence pointed to the fact that Jesus was who He claimed to be. Not only that, David knew that Jesus was asking him to come and follow Him, whatever the cost, however high the price. In some ways, it was hard to imagine coming to this point. One moment he did not believe, and the next he did. He couldn’t explain it, but he knew with absolute, inexplicable certainty that it was true, all of it, and that he believed it.
In the stillness of the moment, David looked up into the night sky, at the twinkling stars sprinkled across the heavens. He tried to imagine what God looked like, tried to imagine meeting Jesus face to face one day. And then, feeling compelled in his spirit, he got down on his knees on the pavement of Route 56 and put his forehead on the ground.
“O God in heaven, One True God, most kind and merciful God of the universe, maker of heaven and earth, my Creator, my Master, please have mercy on me tonight. I am the worst of sinners. I have been given so much, but I have squandered it all. You have been calling me, but I have been going my own way. I have been resisting You for so long, yet You have not given up on me. Thank You, O Lord. Thank You so much. Please forgive me for everything I have done in my miserable, godless, selfish life. I am so sorry. I know You are there. I know You are calling me. My heart is racing. I can feel Your hand on my life.”
David looked up briefly as two trucks went by, but they were not the ones he was looking for. So he bowed down again to keep praying.
“But far more important than what I feel, O Lord, is that I now know that the Bible is Your Word. I know it alone contains the true words of life. And I know, too, that Jesus is Your Son and the only true Messiah. I know it because You have revealed it to me. I don’t pretend to understand it all right now. But I believe. And if You will accept me, I want to follow You. Please accept me, O God. I believe Jesus died on the cross for me. I believe He rose for me. I see what He has done—what You have done—to save my friends Najjar and Dr. Birjandi, to change them so completely, and I want what they have. I want to know that I’m going to heaven when I die. I want to know that all my sins are forgiven. I want the joy and peace and sense of purpose and direction they have, even when life is hard—especially when life is hard.”
He was quiet for a moment. All was quiet.
“I don’t know what else to pray, Lord. I just want to say that . . . well . . . I love You, and I need You. . . . And as of tonight, I promise to follow You forever, so long as You will help me and lead me all the way. Amen.”
There were no angels singing. There were no flames of fire. But David knew God was listening and had answered his prayer.
Suddenly three vehicles raced past, headed south.
David was so deep in thought, he almost missed them. But it was a truck with two SUVs. It was the convoy.
He slammed his hood, tossed the flashlight onto the passenger seat, removed the parking brake, and peeled out onto 37.
Once on the road, he speed-dialed Zalinsky. “Jack, I’ve got them.”
“Don’t get too close,” Zalinsky warned. “Keep your distance, but don’t lose them.”
“Don’t worry, Jack. You trained me well.”
“Good. I’m heading to the Ops Center so I can see your location and track your progress. Call me back in a few minutes.”
“Will do, Jack. How far away is the Predator?”
“Still another hour at least.”
“Get it here fast. I have them now, but I have no idea what’s ahead of me.”
* * *
Marseille set her dinner dishes out in the hallway and locked the door.
Then she flopped on her bed, bored and alone. She’d had enough of Facebook and couldn’t take any more headlines from the Middle East. The weather reports from Portland were still depressing. The snow had stopped, but they’d gotten so much of it, the schools weren’t going to be open until Monday at the earliest. What’s more, United didn’t have any flights heading to the Northwest until Friday, and they were all full, though they had her on standby for a Saturday flight, first thing in the morning.
She wanted someone to talk to, someone to hang out with and play a game or go to a movie with. She was half-tempted to call Lexi until she realized it was the middle of the night in Israel. So she sipped a bottle of water and flipped on the TV. Hoping for something light and funny, maybe a romantic comedy to relax with, she conspicuously avoided all of the cable news channels as she roamed the dial. She passed on the third in the Lord of the Rings series, then passed on Gladiator and Saving Private Ryan, too, and couldn’t help but think of David, who had once told her that these were some of his favorite movies. Her spirits lifted slightly when she found a BBC production of Pride and Prejudice just beginning on PBS. She preferred the one with Keira Knightley but reminded herself that beggars could not be choosers.
She closed the curtains, lowered the lights, slipped into her nightgown, and went to power down her computer. Just then, however, she noticed a new e-mail. She clicked on it and was surprised to see it was a group e-mail from Dr. Shirazi’s account, though written by his daughter-in-law, Nora.
Thank you so much for your thoughts and prayers for our family during this terrible time. I’m so sorry to be the one to share this news, and to do it so impersonally, but it is with great sadness that I inform you that Mrs. Nasreen Shirazi passed away this evening.
She went without struggle. It was just her time, though far too soon. Dad and Azad were at her side. Unfortunately, I’m still on bed rest and back in Philly with my mom and the baby. Saeed is on his way from Manhattan. David is in Europe on business. We are trying to track him down now and are hoping he can get back to us soon.
There will be a memorial service at 11:00 on Saturday morning. There will also be viewing hours on Friday evening. Azad is working on the details. I’ll send them as soon as they’re set.
Thanks for all your kind notes, e-mails, letters, and of course, for all the yellow roses that keep pouring in. Those were definitely her favorites, and she was so grateful for all your acts of kindness, as we have been.
For now, Azad and I would ask that you not call Dad directly. As you can imagine, he is overwhelmed by the loss of his beloved wife of more than three decades. I’ll be handling all of his e-mails for the time being. It’s the least I can do since I’m stuck in bed and up at all hours of the night. Thanks.
* * *
Route 37, Iran
David slowed the Peugeot and speed-dialed Zalinsky again.
“You still with them?” Zalinsky asked.
“Yeah, but I’m hanging back a bit more. We’re about thirty kilometers from Khorramabad, in the Heroor Pass.”
“Good. I can see your GPS tracking signal.”
“They just turned in to the Imam Ali military base. Isn’t this an IRGC missile base?”
Eva’s voice came on the line. “It is,” she said. “They have Shahab-3 ballistic missile launchers there. We also believe they produce missiles at a facility on the base.”
“Are you sure you haven’t been spotted?” Zalinsky asked.
“Unless they’re watching from the air, I should be good,” David said. “But what do you want me to do now?”
“Good question. Find a place to stay out of sight. We’ll get back to you in a few minutes.”
* * *
Tears filled Marseille’s eyes as she read the e-mail again.
She didn’t want to believe it could really be true. She felt terrible for Dr. Shirazi and all that he had been through so far, and she was suddenly overwhelmed by bad memories from wh
en her own mom had died. The line that pained her most, though, was the one that said David was in Europe and they were trying to track him down, hoping he could get back in time. She knew he wasn’t in Europe, and given the headlines, she seriously doubted he could possibly be back in time, and it made her even sadder.
She clicked off the TV, picked up the phone by her bed, and dialed the United reservations number she now knew by heart. She booked a flight back to Syracuse the following day and a return flight to Portland for Sunday. Then she called the Sheraton on the SU campus where she and David had had breakfast just the Sunday before and reserved a room for a three-night stay.
* * *
Outside Imam Ali Military Base, Iran
Twenty minutes later, David called Zalinsky.
“They’re moving again.”
“The whole convoy?”
“No, just one of the SUVs with five men inside.”
“Could they see you?”
“No, I’m off on a side road, tucked away in some bushes. They just drove past. I can stay here for a while. But if a patrol comes by, I could be toast.”
Zalinsky directed him to follow the SUV. David warned that the semi could leave again and go someplace else and they’d have no eyes to track it, at least not until the Predator arrived from Bahrain. They also couldn’t be 100 percent certain that the five men were connected to the convoy. But Zalinsky didn’t want to take the risk of leaving David potentially exposed near such a vital military base. What’s more, he said he was now more convinced than ever that the semi had just delivered a warhead, and perhaps the men in the SUV could “shed some light on the situation.”
David needed to follow the SUV, figure out a way to isolate one of the men inside, interrogate him, and find out exactly what was in the semi and what was happening inside the Imam Ali missile base. He accepted the mission without hesitation, though he had no idea how he was going to pull it off.
He followed them along the front range of the Zagros Mountains into the city limits of Khorramabad, then into the downtown area. There, he stopped on a side street as he watched the SUV pull into a three-story parking garage by a small hotel called the Delvar, across from the post office and next door to a restaurant and an auto parts shop. He waited twenty minutes or so to make sure the vehicle didn’t double back and leave the garage and to give the men plenty of time to check in and clear out of the lobby. Then he cautiously pulled into the garage. He spotted the SUV in the corner on the first level but drove up all three levels to get the lay of the land. Returning to the first level, he parked several spots away from the SUV, grabbed his suitcase, and headed into the lobby.
This was no Qom International Hotel, where he was supposed to have checked in by now. There was no marbled reception area, no elegant Persian carpets, no cozy lounge. There were three worn couches and three overstuffed chairs in the lobby that appeared as if they hadn’t been replaced since the seventies. There was a dust-covered chandelier, but half of its lights had blown out. There was a wooden rack of tourist brochures that looked like they hadn’t ever been touched. He doubted there was a Jacuzzi in the entire city, much less in this hotel, but David did notice a small, antiquated video surveillance camera over the front door, pointing back into the lobby, and another small camera mounted on the wall behind the reception desk. He made a note of both and went to check in.
Not finding anyone immediately, he rang a small silver bell on the counter. Soon a drowsy, disheveled, sixtysomething clerk appeared from a back room. He was a short, balding, thin man, nearly gaunt, with bushy gray eyebrows, wearing a wrinkled yellow shirt with a brown stain that almost matched his wide, frayed brown tie.
“May I help you?” he asked.
“I’m looking for a room for tonight and possibly tomorrow,” David replied. “Do you have anything?”
“Only a few left, actually,” the clerk said. “Never seen so much business in thirty years. You working at the base, too?”
“No, just passing through. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, no reason. Just lots of activity over there the last few nights. More than I’ve seen in quite some time. People keep checking in. People I’ve never seen before. Hard for a guy to get any sleep.”
David smiled, but the old man wasn’t kidding.
“ID?” the clerk asked.
David tensed. With everything else going on, he hadn’t thought about the fact that he was going to have to hand over his passport. Now wasn’t the time to let someone trace the name Reza Tabrizi to Khorramabad, of all places, when there was no legitimate reason to be there and he had already told Javad Nouri (among others) that he was going to be in Qom. But he had no other choice. Had he been thinking clearly, he would have parked down the street and slept in the car. But there was no turning back now. Reluctantly, he surrendered his passport and filled out the requisite paperwork, then paid for the first night in cash, since he certainly wasn’t about to use a credit card.
Getting his key, he took the elevator up to the third floor and found room 308 down the hall and on the left, facing the parking garage. His room was small and cramped and smelled like mothballs, but he didn’t expect to be spending much time there. He washed his face and brushed his teeth but didn’t change and didn’t unpack. Instead, he set the alarm on his phone for a half hour and caught a catnap.
Thirty minutes went by far too fast.
Nevertheless, David forced himself to get up, grabbed his suitcase, and took a back stairway to the first floor, where he cautiously poked his head out. Seeing no one around, he moved as quickly and quietly as he could down a side hallway, though he nearly crashed into a room service tray filled with dirty dinner dishes that apparently hadn’t been cleared from the night before.
Reaching the end of the hallway, he glanced outside and again saw no one. It was five in the morning. There wasn’t likely to be anyone around, but he couldn’t take any chances. Confident it was all clear, he headed back to the parking garage and put his suitcase in the trunk. If he needed to move quickly, he didn’t dare take the risk of leaving behind the only possessions he had with him in the country.
He reentered the hotel and decided to check on the clerk. Sure enough, his instincts were right. The old man was slumped in a chair in the room behind the reception desk, sound asleep and snoring, with an old black-and-white Persian war movie playing on TV. With no one else around and the hotel completely silent, David wasted no time. He slipped behind the desk, found the registration forms for the five men, and snapped a picture of each with his phone. Then he found the video surveillance system—an old VHS system he couldn’t believe still worked—and rewound the two tapes covering the lobby. Using the video feature on his phone, he recorded the images of the five men entering the hotel and checking in. He rewound both tapes again, this time to the beginning, and hit Record on both decks. By the time anyone asked to see this footage, the images on them, including those of him checking in, would be recorded over and gone forever. Then he made sure everything was back in its place and hightailed it back to room 308.