Prologue: The Persian Woman
The two assault boats slice quietly across the surface of the Red Sea. The spray that hits my face is as heavy and warm as drops of blood.
I look from the boat carrying my Navy SEAL team to the second boat carrying the British SAS team. I spot Mickey Simski, the U.S. Navy flight surgeon who had volunteered for this mission even though he had never been trained as a special operator. He looks grim in the oversized Kevlar helmet we scrounged up for him. I put him with the Brits because it is their job to locate Senator DeLong’s two daughters in the rambling old compound where they are being held. Mick will be on hand to provide the highest level of medical attention to the girls, if they need it. That keeps our own special ops medic free to deal with any casualties we may incur on our end of the mission. Our job is to neutralize Malaku’s so-called Army of Heaven holding the two girls hostage. I have a clear idea as to what neutralize means.
It is after midnight when we cut into the beach near the little fishing village of Mohammed Qol on the Sudanese coast. A low layer of clouds seals the night sky, but even in the extreme darkness the old colonial era fort on the edge of town where the girls are being held looks like a giant cube of sugar dissolving into the desert. Both teams reach the assembly point without incident. I give my final instructions:
“Remember, this is a hostage extraction,” I say. “That means we’re here under a black flag. No prisoners. The only people we’re bringing out of there alive are the two DeLong girls, if they are alive. Whatever happens in there, keep your cool. Don’t lose your heads. Now let’s roll.”
The demolition squad tapes up twice the necessary amount of boomer on the fort’s entry doors. We aren’t blowing a bank safe; I want a lot of flash and bang to disorient the garrison inside. I watch the massive wooden doors disappear in a thundering ball of smoke and flame. My SEAL platoon storms in first, then the Brits. I am the last one in.
There is gunfire, shouting, screaming. Battle stench clogs my nostrils: blood, excrement, the musk odor of men both frightened by death and excited by it. Other men’s blood soaks my boots.
A British-accented voice comes through the earpiece of my field intercom. “We have one of the hostages, Commander Quinn.”
“Dead or alive?” I ask.
“Passageway under the big stone arch,”
I race down the passageway until I come to a room lit by a dim light from a kerosene lamp. In its glow I see two Brits covering the doorway with leveled assault rifles. Two others are helping a teenage girl from a cot by the wall. She is dirty and slightly emaciated, but she is alive. I fumble out two photographs from the pocket of my flak jacket and compare them to the girl. Great! We have one of the girls, the younger one, the one named Teal.
“Take her out to the beach,” I say. “Call in the dust-off.”
Another British-accented voice crackles through the earpiece, but faintly as though from the bottom of a well. This one belongs to the big sergeant-major who heads the SAS team.
“We’ve got the second one, Yank.”
“Steps leading down from the iron door at the rear of the compound. Watch out, it’s a bloody maze down here. Twists around like a pretzel.”
“Set out some chem-lights. What’s her condition?”
“You’d better come look, Yank.”
I find the steps and head down and down, seemingly forever. The underground passageway is dark and winding, a labyrinth where the dread creatures of mythology might wait to devour the unwary. I follow the chem-light trail to where the passageway dead-ends at a small cell. Its barred door has been ripped off its hinges. Flashlight beams are jumping on its walls.
“Hold those damn lights steady,” I hear a voice say. It is Mickey Simski’s voice.
Three SAS men are half-standing, half-stooping, holding their flashlights shoulder high, pointing them unsteadily at two men kneeling on the floor. One of the kneeling men is the big sergeant-major who had buzzed me. Something dirty and ragged is propped against his wide chest and cradled in his massive arms. Mickey is the second kneeling man. He has his back to me, but I can see he is working furiously at the object the big Brit is holding. As I get closer I realize that the object the Brit is holding is the second DeLong girl, the older one, the one named Robin. Already I know something is dreadfully wrong.
She is covered only by a torn T-shirt gone stiff with sweat. Her legs are skeletal, the knees swollen to the size of melons. Her skin is the color and texture of melted wax. Her entire body is encrusted with dirt, body salt, and feces. Tangled blonde hair falls like jungle vines over her face. She smells of vomit.
“This one they left for dead,” I am thinking.
Mickey is doing something with the girl’s right arm. He un-wraps a long filthy rag from the arm and throws it on the floor. “Damn,” he mutters.
“What is it, Mick?” I ask.
“Just a damn minute,” he says.
He un-wraps another long filthy rag and throws it on the floor. “Damn,” he says again.
“What is it, Mick?” I say. “We’re running short on time here.”
He doesn’t answer me. Instead, he keeps un-wrapping rags and muttering damn. Finally, he finishes and looks up. “Look at this,” he says. “Look at this, damn it.”
He holds up the girl’s right arm. Only it doesn’t look like an arm. It looks like a length of sausage that has discolored and gone bad. Striations of red and purple run up to the elbow. The end is swollen, blackened, and blunt.
Mickey’s voice is bitter. “The goddamn goniphs cut off her hand.”