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* * *
Avi Yaron wanted to radio his men.
He wanted to make sure they were racing back for the Persian Gulf, not waiting around for him. The Iranian Air Force would be all over them any moment. None of them were worried about getting shot down by mere kids. The Iranian pilots were typically too young and badly trained and had little or no actual combat experience. Worse, they were flying jets more than twice their age, many of which were practically held together with superglue and duct tape since spare parts had long been banned by the international sanctions against the regime. No, the problem wasn’t the Iranian pilots or their planes; it was the Israelis’ own fuel supply.
The ground crews back in the Negev had stripped their F-15s and F-16s down to the bare minimum to add fuel tanks, giving them additional range. Once outside of Iranian airspace, they could get to safe zones where they could hook up with Israeli refueling tankers. But they had to get there first. If they had to engage in dogfights or outrun SAMs or triple-A fire, they were going to burn fuel they couldn’t afford.
David felt a tap on his shoulder.
He turned around, and there was Javad Nouri, surrounded by a half-dozen plainclothes bodyguards.
“Mr. Tabrizi, good to see you again.”
“Mr. Nouri, you as well,” David said. He wondered if Javad and his team had seen the jets.
“I trust you had no trouble getting here.”
“Not at all,” David said.
“Have you ever been here before?”
It seemed like an odd question, given the moment.
“Actually, I’m ashamed to say I have not.”
“Someday I will have to give you a tour.”
“I would like that very much.”
* * *
Karkas Mountains, Iran
Reaching the mountains, Avi Yaron cleared the closest peak.
Then he pushed the yoke forward, diving into one of the canyons. Yonah craned his neck but couldn’t get a visual, though the missile was still on his radarscope. They hadn’t shaken it yet.
Snaking through the canyons, Avi kept pushing the plane faster and faster, burning tremendous amounts of fuel every second.
“Avi, it’s right on us,” Yonah shouted.
Avi accelerated still further and held his breath. Now it wasn’t fuel he feared. Now it was the split-second decisions he was having to make every few hundred meters. One wrong move and they could plow into a mountainside. One wrong move and they could scrape against the top of a ridge, gutting their fuselage and rupturing their fuel tanks. Either way, they’d crash and burn. They’d never have time to eject, and even if they did, neither wanted to be captured by the Iranians. That was a fate worse than death.
* * *
Javad looked at the box in David’s hands.
“Is that the package we were expecting?”
“It is,” David said, “but we have a problem.”
“What is that?”
David glanced around. He noticed there were several more bodyguards taking up positions in a perimeter around them. There was also a large white SUV waiting by the curb with a guard holding the back door open. Ahead of it was another SUV, presumably serving as the lead security car. Behind it was a third, completing the package.
“Most of the phones are damaged and unusable,” David explained, handing the mangled box to Javad. “Something must have happened in the shipping.”
Javad cursed and his expression immediately darkened. “We need these.”
“Now what are we going to do?”
“Look, I can go back to Munich and get more. It’s what I wanted to do in the first place. But—”
“But Esfahani told you not to leave.”
“I know, I know. Allah help me. Esfahani is a fool. If he weren’t the nephew of Mohsen Jazini, he wouldn’t be involved at all.”
“What do you want me to do, Mr. Nouri?” David asked. “That’s all that matters, what you and the Promised One want. Please know that I will do anything to serve my Lord.”
The words had just fallen from his lips when he heard brakes screech behind him. Then everything seemed to go into slow motion. He heard the crack of a sniper rifle, and one of Javad’s bodyguards went down.
Two more of Javad’s men went down. Then Javad himself took a bullet in the right shoulder and began staggering. He was bleeding badly. David threw himself on Javad to protect him as the gunfire intensified and more bodyguards went down.
He turned to see where the shooting was coming from. He saw buses. He saw taxis. He saw people running and screaming. Then he saw a white van driving past. The side door was open. He could see flashes of gunfire pouring out of three muzzles. By now, an Iranian police officer had his revolver out and was shooting back. Two plainclothes agents on the periphery raised submachine guns and fired at the van as it sped away, weaving in and out of traffic and disappearing around the bend.
* * *
Yossi could now see his target just eight kilometers ahead.
The once top-secret uranium enrichment facility at Qom had been revealed to the world on September 25, 2009, but the Israeli Mossad had known about it since late 2007. Designed to hold three thousand centrifuges, there was no way that this center was for developing peaceful, civilian nuclear power, as the ayatollahs comically claimed. The complex was built deep underground. It was built underneath an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps base. It was heavily guarded and surrounded by a phalanx of surface-to-air missiles.
But not for long.
Two of the three F-16s behind him pulled even on his left. His own wingman pulled even on his right. Yossi took his weapons off safety and fired six AGM-65 Mavericks, one right after the other. A split second later, his comrades followed suit. For a moment, the air in front of Yossi was filled with a blaze of antiaircraft artillery.
At nearly the speed of sound, all twenty-four air-to-ground missiles screamed into the radar stations and the missile silos and the triple-A batteries surrounding the main facilities and blew them to smithereens. Yossi pulled back on his yoke to gain some altitude. He fired his first GPS-guided, two-thousand-pound bunker-buster bomb, then his second as well. The ground shook, writhed, and buckled, and soon everything Yossi could see below him was ablaze. It was time to gather his men and head for home.
* * *
David heard the deafening roar of the explosions, one after another.
He turned toward the mountains and could see enormous balls of fire and plumes of smoke rising into the sky and the Israeli fighter jets disappearing into the clouds. As the ground convulsed violently, the minarets began to totter. People were again screaming and running in all directions as the first tower came crashing down, followed by the second, and suddenly the turquoise dome of the mosque split in half.
David covered his head and made sure Javad was covered too. Then he turned and surveyed the carnage. Bodies were sprawled. Some were dead. Others were severely wounded. David turned Javad over. He was covered in blood. His eyes were dilated, but he was still breathing. He was still alive.
“Javad, look at me,” David said gently. “It’s going to be okay. Just keep your eyes on me. I’m going to pray for you.”
Javad flickered to life for a moment and mouthed the words Thank you. Then his eyes closed, and David called for help.
“Somebody, help. My friend needs help.”
Guns still drawn, three injured bodyguards rushed to his side as David carefully picked up Javad and carried him to the white SUV. Together, they helped lay Javad on the backseat. One security man climbed in the back with him. Another climbed into one of the middle seats. The third shut and locked the side door, then got in the front passenger seat.
“Wait, wait; you forgot these,” David yelled just before the guard closed the door.
He picked up the box of satellite phones and gave them to the guard. “The Mahdi wanted these,” David said. “They don’t all work. But some of them do.”
He pulled out a pen and wrote his mobile number on the box. “Here’s my number. Have the Mahdi’s people call me and tell me how Javad is. And tell me if there’s anything I can do for the Mahdi himself.”
The guard thanked David and shook his hand vigorously. Then the door closed. The motorcade raced off, and David stood there alone, staring at the billows of smoke rising from the air strikes just over the horizon.
He turned and rushed to the side of one of the severely wounded guards. He could hear police sirens and ambulances in the distance. They would be there soon. David took off his jacket and used it to put pressure on the man’s bleeding leg, and as he did, he silently prayed over the man too, asking the true God to comfort him and even heal him. This man was an enemy, to be sure, but David figured God loved him anyway.
Emergency vehicles began pulling up to the scene, and medics had to push their way through the crowds that had formed to triage the wounded and get them to the nearest hospitals. In the commotion, David stepped back and blended in and soon slipped away, never to be questioned, much less exposed.
* * *
Karkas Mountains, Iran
The missile was bearing down on them.
Avi didn’t know these canyons. Yonah knew he didn’t know them. But faster and faster they went.
Avi pulled back on the yoke and shot straight up into the atmosphere. The missile stayed on them. Avi pulled harder, flipping the plane and doing a full 180 until they were sizzling through the narrow canyon walls again.
“Avi, watch out!” Yonah yelled.
Avi pulled up slightly and just in time, missing a ridge by less than twenty meters. Then he banked hard to the right, missing the side of another peak by even less. It was a gutsy move and a close one, but it now put them out in the open, away from the mountains, and there was nowhere left to run.
But just then both men heard an explosion behind them as the missile missed the turn and ran straight into the cliff. Avi felt the jet shake. He could actually feel the intense heat of the flames meant for them. Once again he had cheated death and couldn’t describe the experience. It was exhilarating—intoxicating—and Avi hollered at the top of his lungs. Yonah joined him.
They were young and invincible and the new heroes of Israel, and they were headed for home.
Syracuse, New York
It was early Friday afternoon.
Marseille hadn’t imagined being back in Syracuse less than a week after leaving. But this had not been a normal week. The world seemed to be spinni
ng off its axis. It had been difficult to take her eyes off the television reports since she awoke in DC on Thursday morning. She’d been glued to images of the Israeli air strikes in Iran and the Iranian response. Her best friend was on her honeymoon in Israel, her old friend David was in Iran, and she could reach neither. She watched helplessly as missiles were fired into Israel from north and south. She wept when she saw the images of Israelis forced to hide in bomb shelters and of parents desperately trying to put gas masks on their babies and small children. She could not believe it when her own president denounced Israel for its preemptive strike and demanded an immediate cease-fire. How could he not recognize the evil intentions of Iran or acknowledge Israel’s right to defend itself?
The only good news was that none of the missiles striking Israel seemed to be nuclear, chemical, or biological, and under the circumstances that was actually miraculous. But she wished there were something more she could do than pray.
She was holding on to God and His Word as the new information and myriad questions unearthed in the past few days swirled in her head. During her Bible study that morning, she had read in Hebrews about the confidence followers of Jesus can have, based on what He has done for them, and she particularly loved the words “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul.” It was this unchangeable truth that encouraged her as she looked out the window at the gray skies of upstate New York while the plane made its descent into Hancock Field.
* * *
He was exhausted but alive and grateful to see some friendly faces.
It was nearly midnight on Friday in Iran when David finally made it to Safe House Six, the basement apartment the CIA owned on the outskirts of the city of Karaj, about twenty kilometers west of Tehran, in the foothills of the Alborz Mountains. Captain Torres and his men greeted David warmly. They immediately heated up some food for him and wanted to know every detail of his harrowing journey from Qom amid wave after wave of Israeli air attacks from fighter planes and sub-launched cruise missiles. But first David wanted to know about them.
“Are all your men okay?” David asked, taking a piece of naan.
“Yes, yes, we’re all fine,” Torres said. “The van was pretty shot up, but we ditched it and stole another.”
“Good—and Khan, how is he?”
“He was pretty shaken up by everything, but he’ll pull through,” Torres said. “They flew him out yesterday, just before the air strikes began. He’s in Bahrain now. They’re doing more interrogations and a medical check. I expect him to be in Gitmo by this time tomorrow.”
David nodded and chewed his Persian bread slowly. They offered him one of the cold beers the Agency kept stashed in the refrigerator, but he waved it off. He did not feel like celebrating.
True, in a narrow sense, his plan had worked. Following David’s order to open fire as they had, Torres and his team had taken out key men around Javad Nouri. They had severely wounded Javad himself without killing him. They had, therefore, neutralized Javad’s ability to serve as the Mahdi’s trusted right-hand man at a time when the Mahdi would need him most. Most importantly, they had given David the opportunity to play the hero. By taking Javad to the ground and protecting him with his own body from further gunfire and then getting him quickly into the SUV and off to the hospital, David had proven his loyalty to the Mahdi. It was something Javad and his men would likely not soon forget. Indeed, David hoped it was something they would eventually reward.
That said, his overall mission had been a total failure. By God’s grace—and there could be no other explanation for it—David had done nearly everything his superiors at Langley had asked of him. He hadn’t captured Javad Nouri or found Jalal Zandi yet. But he had nabbed Tariq Khan. He had found the locations of all eight warheads. He had gotten the information back to Zalinsky and Murray before the Iranians had launched them. And he had put more phones in the hands of the Twelfth Imam’s inner circle, which he prayed would bear more fruit in the days and weeks to come. But what had really come of any of it? At the end of the day, the president hadn’t been willing to use all means necessary to stop Iran from getting the Bomb. It had all been too little, too late. So what was he supposed to do next?
David apologized to the men and excused himself. He took a long, hot shower and changed into some clean clothes, and as he did, he tried to make sense of the risks he was taking. He was more than willing to put his life on the line to protect his country. He was even more willing now that he knew for certain where he was going when he died. But if neither the Agency nor the president were going to act quickly and decisively on any of the information he was gathering, then what was the point? If they weren’t going to take risks for peace, then why should he?
Exhausted and unable to process any more, he lay down and quickly fell asleep.
* * *
Syracuse, New York
The viewing would be that evening.
The funeral was set for the next morning at eleven. The Shirazis had offered to have her stay with them, but as much as she longed to see David’s childhood home for the first time in years, she’d insisted on staying at a hotel and not burdening the family.
Marseille rented a car and a GPS system at the airport. Then she drove back to the University Sheraton, where she had stayed for Lexi’s wedding. As she did, she pulled out her cell phone and called David’s sister-in-law, Nora Shirazi. Nora, the wife of David’s eldest brother, Azad, had been her contact point for the past few days. They had e-mailed back and forth several times, but it felt strange that Nora wasn’t even going to be able to make it to Syracuse from their home outside of Philly. Nora was the only woman in the family now, filled as it was by the strong Shirazi men. Even Nora’s newborn child was a little boy, carrying on the family name into the next generation. But it was little Peter, born only on Tuesday, who prevented Nora from attending the funeral.
Marseille had replied to Nora’s e-mail as soon as she’d received the message about Mrs. Shirazi’s passing on Wednesday night. She’d explained that she’d actually never left the East Coast and would very much like to be there for the funeral. She’d heard from Nora within the hour and several times on Thursday as the funeral arrangements were being made.
The call went through. “Hello?” a woman said at the other end.
“Is this Marseille?”
“Yes, hi—I hope I’m not bothering you.”
“No, no, not at all,” Nora said. “I’m just feeding the baby. I actually thought you might be Azad. But I’m glad it’s you. Did you get in okay?”
“I did, thanks. I’m heading to the hotel right now. I just wanted to see if there was anything I could do, you know, to be helpful in some way. I feel a little like, I don’t know, like a stranger.”