Along the Iran- Turkmenistan Border
LIEUTENANT MOSHEN HAMIDI, the slighter of the two men dressed in winter camos, raised his hand for his partner to pull up so that he could recheck the GPS receiver for the third time in less than a half hour. They were in the foothills one hundred kilometers north of Mashad and within a kilometer or two of their rendezvous point. The night was bitterly cold and dark under a deeply overcast sky, no lights from any civilization in any direction. They could have been on the moon.
He was twenty- seven, short even for an Iranian, with the dark good looks that his wife of five years still found devastating, and a quick mind that had put him on the fast track through university and then basic training at VEVAK, the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security's School One outside of Tehran. He'd specialized at first in communications services including methods of encryption, until a supervisor had noticed that Hamidi was good with his hands, very good, and in personal combat exercises he never lost. From the start he became known as the dark ghost, because he was too elusive ever to be reached by a knife or club or fist, but when he struck it was with an almost otherworldly speed and force.
And he never showed fear until this mission, which was classified top secret.
"Failure is not an option," Colonel Dabir had warned two days ago.
They had met in civilian clothes downtown at a coffee bar that was never frequented by anyone in government. Hamidi had not questioned his orders, but the colonel had told him in a lowered voice that the need- to- know list was extremely small. The nature of the mission was such that no blame could ever come back to anyone in the republic, not even to anyone in VEVAK.
"Take one man with you, but he is to be told nothing except that you are meeting with a Russian intelligence officer who will bring a computer thumb drive to the border, for which you will pay him one million dollars U.S. When you have it you will return back here to Mashad, to this very place, where I will be waiting."
"Am I to be told what is on this thumb drive?"
"Only that it is potentially more important than your life, or mine, and the sooner you bring it to me the sooner I can send it out of the country to a client."
The colonel was nominally in charge of Section One, which dealt only with Israeli matters, but everyone suspected that some years ago he had carved out his own Special Operations Section that answered directly to President Ahmadinejad and no one else. And right now, with the troubles between the president and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the colonel's position was precarious.
"Succeed and you will make captain."
"And if I fail?"
"You do not want to consider the consequences, for you and your wife and child," the colonel had warned.
They had driven from Mashad late last night, stopping just outside of the small border settlement of Kabud Gombad and going the rest of the way on foot. It was nearly two in the morning and a light breeze had sprung up making the spring morning feel even colder.
"Are we close, Lieutenant?" Sergeant Ali Alani asked. He was twenty- four and built like a short, dark, very dangerous military weapon, which he was. He complained constantly, never smiled, never cracked a joke, but he was completely, even sometimes overwhelmingly, loyal.
Hamidi waited until his GPS unit settled down and displayed a latitude and longitude in a box below the map screen which showed they were twelve hundred meters out, on a correct track. Providing the Russian they were to meet was on time and at the correct meeting place, they would make the exchange and be on the way back home.
"A little over a kilometer," Hamidi said, pointing to the northwest.
"Good, because it's bloody well cold up here. And I'm getting d****d tired of carrying this bloody bag up and down hills. Allah only knows where we are, but if I had to guess I'd say we've crossed into Turkmenistan by now."
"Another thousand meters," Hamidi said, starting up a stony path that led to the top of a low hill. "Just over the top. And take care with the bag because you're carry ing one million in U.S. money."
Alani followed a couple of meters back, silent until he said something under his breath that sounded like a swear word. "Are we defecting then?"
"No," Hamidi said, but he was sure that if he'd told his sergeant exactly what they were doing he'd get some complaints but no objections.
At the top something large and dark like a mass of metal that had been burned lay half- buried in the sandy rubble. Up close it looked to Hamidi like the remains of a jet engine. And spread out below and for as far as he could make out in the darkness was a path of debris.
"An airplane crashed here," Alani said. "A big one by the looks of it and not so long ago. Is this where we're supposed to meet the Russian? Because if it is, something is wrong. And I never heard of a plane crash up here. Have you?"
"No," Hamidi said. The colonel had told him that the crash site was very near the rendezvous point, but he hadn't elaborated whose aircraft it had been, and how it had come to crash at this point. But it was obvious from the pattern that the plane had been trying to get out of Iran not, into the country.
"The crash is none of your concern, Lieutenant," the colonel had told him. "And believe me, you're better off not knowing about it."
"The locals must have seen or heard something."
"That problem has been dealt with. Leave it alone. Just do this mission and get back with the drive. You have no other concerns."
"This is no coincidence," Alani grumbled.
"Only because it's near the border where we're to meet," Hamidi said, and he headed down the hill, where if the topographic map he'd studied was accurate, the Russian would be waiting on the other side of a jagged outcropping of rocks that rose thirty or forty meters above the floor of the valley just across the border.
The highway that ran all the way to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan's capital, was just ten kilometers farther north, making this a perfect spot for the handoff .
About twenty meters from the rocks, Alani pulled out his ZOAF 9mm pistol, which was a knockoff SIG- Sauer P226, and motioned for silence as he headed off to the left .
Hamidi pulled out his own pistol, the hairs at the nape of his neck standing on end. Something wasn't right . . . he could feel it, and not merely because Alani was reacting to something.
He headed slowly to the right when a thin, almost emaciated looking man came around from behind the rocks, his jacket open, his head bare, and his hands in plain sight.
"I'm not armed," the man said in Russian. "No weapons."
"Did you bring the drive?" Hamidi asked in Russian, stopping about five meters away. Alani was to the left about fifteen meters out.
" Da. I will take it out of my coat pocket. Don't shoot."
"Carefully," Hamidi said. He guessed the man was young, possibly still in his teens, and he was obviously frightened.
The Russian took great care to reach into his pocket and take out a small envelope. "It's actually a Zip drive."
"Lay it on the ground and step away."
"Not until I have the money."
Hamidi motioned for Alani, who came forward cautiously, his pistol still at the ready. He laid the bag on the rocky ground one meter from the Russian and backed off .
The young man got down on his knees and opened the bag. He riffled through the stacks of hundred- dollar bills for a few seconds and then looked up, practically licking his lips. "I won't count it here. But if it's short, I will send a signal to erase the Zip drive's memory the moment it is placed in any computer. Am I clear?"
"What's to stop me from simply shooting you? We would have the money and the Zip drive."
The young man got to his feet and hefted the bag to his shoulder. He shrugged. "In certain online circles I'm well known. My absence would be noticed within twenty- four hours, probably sooner, and believe me, Lieutenant, there would be repercussions."
"As there will be for you if the information on the drive is not what we paid for. My friends and I have a very long reach, and an even longer memory."
The Russian nodded. "Then we have a deal," he said. "But tread with very great care. Wars have started for much less than what is contained on that drive. Make sure that your superiors know that there could be consequences." He turned and walked away.
Hamidi got the envelope and was stuffing it in his pocket, when the side of the Russian's head erupted in a spray of blood and the young man was violently shoved to the side off his feet as the sound of the distant rifle shot reached them.
Alani reacted first. "Move," he shouted urgently, and he sprinted to the left .
Hamidi turned as a bullet whistled past his head so close he could feel the shock wave and the heat. Alani had already started up the hill in a broken field run, and Hamidi started after him.
This had been a trap, which meant that the leak had come from the Russians. Hamidi could not believe that someone in VEVAK had leaked the mission details, because it would mean that he could never go home.
Alani reached the top of the hill and disappeared on the other side, seconds before Hamidi made it to his sergeant's side and flopped down on the gravel next to him.
"F*****g Russians," Alani said. He pulled out a pair of binoculars and cautiously rose up over the crest and glassed the spot where the Russian kid was down.
"That wasn't a Dragunov," Hamidi said. "I would have recognized it." The 7.62mm Dragunov (SVD) was the standard sniper rifle used by all Russian Special Forces, and it had its own sound that was distinctive, unmistakable.
"It wasn't a Barrett, either, too light a caliber." The .50in Barrett was the sniper rifle of choice for American forces.
"Who then? Not one of ours."
"No, thank Allah," Hamidi said.
"There they are," Alani said. "Two of them, in white parkas."
Hamidi took the binoculars and, keeping as low a profile as possible, glassed the valley floor. One of the men had laid his long barreled rifle on the ground, the muzzle raised above the dirt by a fairly long tripod just forward of the receiver, and was going through the dead Russian's pockets.
The second man was looking directly up the hill, slowly panning the scope of his rifle left to right, and Hamidi ducked down for a second.
"Who are they?" Alani asked.
"I don't know yet. But I think they're carrying FR- F2 sniper rifles."
"The f*****g French?"
Hamidi rose up again, at the same time the man scoping the hill pushed back the hood of his parka and raised his scope directly at the crest of the hill.
Alani rose up before Hamidi could stop him, and the sniper fired, the shot catching the sergeant in the left eye, the entire back of his head disintegrating as he was flung violently backward.
The sniper jacked another round into his rifle as the second man jumped to his feet and grabbed his rifle.
Hamidi pulled back below the crest of the hill, his heart thumping. Sergeant Alani was dead, and no power on earth could save him. Nor was it possible for his body to be brought back to Mashad, not yet, perhaps never. He carried no identification- neither of them did- linking them to VEVAK. When his body was found and stripped, he would just be another cross- border poacher or trader who was murdered in a deal- probably for drugs- gone bad.
He scrambled backward a few meters below the crest and then got to his feet and headed in a dead run back the three kilometers to where they had left their nondescript Toyota pickup, sick at heart that he had to leave Ali's body behind, and dreading how he would break the news to his sergeant's parents.
But failure had not been an option. He had the Zip drive and as long as he could reach the pickup before the shooters caught up with him he would make it back, though how he was going to convince the colonel that the snipers who'd killed the Russian and Sergeant Alani were Chinese was beyond him.
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