watch the news,” Gabrielle said as her sure hands I worked methodically to stitch the gash under Belvan Virk’s left eye. She was noticeably more tender than she had been with the nubbin of skin left behind from Grigor’s ear. “Ehmet Feng is a vile human being. I felt certain your government would dispatch someone like you to hunt down a man like him.”
“Well, I am glad they sent you, little brother,” Virk roared. He tried a smile but the swelling on his face was getting worse by the moment and he only managed a muffled wince through split lips.
“The Fengs have family in Kashgar,” Quinn said, failing to mention that he was there without the backing of his government.
“Of course.” Virk nodded, receiving a scolding cluck from Deuben as she pulled a suture tight. He closed his eyes and grimaced but kept going with his thought. “It stands to reason that they would come to roost among their Uyghur brethren.”
“The Fengs are bad men,” Deuben said, her voice humming with tension. “And your country had the little shits safely ensconced in an American prison. Who had the bright idea to hand them over to Pakistan?”
“Our very own President,” Thibodaux said, teetering a little from watching the operation. He’d been fine smashing the faces that needed smashing during the fight, and hadn’t flinched when Quinn had cut off Grigor’s ear—but seeing anyone other than the enemy in pain had a tendency to give the big Cajun a serious case of the wobbles.
Quinn brought Virk and the doctor up to speed on the moles hiding within the highest levels of the US administration—including the President and VP. “It’s all connected to that orphanage you told us about in the Wakhan Corridor when Ronnie Garcia and I were here,” he said.
Deuben cursed, as much about Virk’s battered face as the situation. Starting on a second wound, she pressed the Sikh’s beard to one side with her forearm as she closed a second gash, this one over the bridge of his nose. “Raising children up to hate America . . . That is actually pretty brilliant when you think of it. Though I suppose ISIS and others are doing the same thing now—just more overtly.”
“You talk to a lot of working girls as part of your practice,” Quinn said. “Can you think of any who might be connected to the Fengs—or anyone who might be a fugitive?”
“A fugitive around here?” Deuben chuckled. “We have no shortage of people wanted by the law in Western China. There have been killings in Kunming, bombings in Urumqi. . . . A local imam was recently hacked to death on the steps of Id Kah Mosque—for the offense of being too moderate. Things are worse than I’ve ever seen them—and that only gives the Chinese government all the more reason to march in lockstep over the old city and crush what is left of the culture.” She sighed. “It makes me . . . how do you say?
. . . fatigued. Soon there will be no more Western China—only China—one great block of concrete, each corner patrolled and kept in check by a gang of uniformed soldiers.”
Virk looked at Quinn and gave him a conspiratorial wink.
“ ‘Four things greater than all things are,’ ” the Sikh said, again using Kipling to make his point. “ ‘. . . Women and Horses and Power and War.’ ” He closed his eye as Deuben pierced the apple of his cheek, just above his beard, with her curved needle. “Our Gabrielle is no shrinking violet when it comes to espousing her passions.”
“Violets know nothing but the heels of wicked men,” Deuben scoffed.
Quinn had seen firsthand on his last visit how deeply entrenched the doctor was with the Uyghur cause. She generally sided with them over the ethnic Han Chinese, whom she saw as interlopers. She wanted no part in any violent cause or revolution, but if Western China had been a democracy, she’d surely have put out yard signs touting the benefits of a free and separate Uyghur state.
“If anyone knows the whereabouts of the Feng brothers it would be Hajip,” Virk said.
Thibodaux brightened at the sound of a name that would move them forward. “You think this Hajip guy will talk to us?”
“He’ll try and kill you.” Virk chuckled without moving his head while Deuben pulled the last of the sutures tight. He waved his hand over the four unconscious gangsters on the bedroom floor. “But I do not imagine that will prove much of a deterrent for men like you.”
“Hajip is active in the East Turkistan Islamic Movement,” Deuben said. “To tell you truthfully, I am not certain why the Chinese have not already rounded him up.”
“Sounds like a good place to start,” Quinn said, shooting a glance at Thibodaux. “The Feng brothers are ETIM as well.”
“Anyway,” Deuben said. “Hajip will be easy to find. He takes the best spot for his
cart across the street from the mosque.”
It was not unheard of for
dealers to use their large and intimidating knives to up the price of their fruit and nut confections after they’d hacked off a piece for a customer. It was delicious but sticky stuff, prone to pulling out fillings, even if the vendor wasn’t the sort to rest a thumb on the balance scale and then haggle with his blade.
Virk groaned and let his head fall back in relief as Deuben finished with her needle. She stood and peeled off her blood-smeared latex gloves and tossed them in the garbage bin.
His full beard had cushioned many of the blows from his attacker, but precise sutures crossed much of the flesh of his cheeks like tiny sections of black train track.
“So you are finished torturing me then,” the Sikh said.
“I am indeed.” Deuben collapsed back on the bed, sitting with her hands in her lap. She looked up at Quinn. “Beijing has doubled our number of PLA soldiers, and that does not take into account the already huge presence of People’s Armed Police and the roving packs of sanctioned thugs they use as leg breakers. Nationalist views are high on both sides all over China, but they burn especially bright here in the west. The average Han soldier will see you as Americans—the enemy. Most Uyghur people are hardworking folk who are happy to see a few tourist dollars—but separatists like Hajip are growing in number. To them, you are an infidel, less than human.” She looked over the top of a prominent, though not unattractive nose. “Many of the people you meet tonight would be all too happy to see you dead.”
“She is right, you know,” Virk said, pulling aside his beard to study his wounded face in a hand mirror. He dabbed at the sutures with the tip of his finger, earning another scolding from Deuben.
“The Uyghurs are armed with religious zeal,” he continued, “not to mention all manner of axes and knives. The Chinese soldiers have guns and the weight of law. Placing yourselves in between these two factions will be an extremely dangerous endeavor. It will require a . . . delicate touch.”
Thibodaux winked his good eye. “That’s us.” He gave a sickly grin, nodding at the blood-soaked piece of gauze that held Grigor The Mongol’s severed ear. “Delicate.”
The White House
veryone stood when President Hartman Drake entered the situation room, but they kept their eyes glued to the door to make certain McKeon followed him in.
“What have we got?” Drake said, taking his seat at the head of the long table. McKeon sat to his immediate right, rolling his chair away slightly to give the President more space.
Admiral Ricks of the Joint Chiefs along with Secretary of Defense Andrew Filson sat across the table from McKeon. Forrest Beauchamp, the National Security Advisor, sat on the other side of McKeon from the President. The man spent most of his time writing vision statements and watching the television in his office—and that was just fine with the Vice President. When it came to national security, he didn’t want anyone to have this idiot President’s ear besides him.
Secretary Filson’s face was flushed red and his tie was pulled to the side of his collar, as if he’d just been trying to hang himself before rushing to the meeting. McKeon never had been able to put a finger on the man. He seemed to have a difficult time sitting still and often rose from his chair when it was his turn to speak. The constant motion was off-putting, but McKeon made allowances because the man was a hawk when it came to military operations—and that is just what they needed under the present circumstances.
Filson put both hands flat on the leather desk blotter in front of him as if to steady himself, and nodded to the admiral.
“Mr. President, two of our Ocean Imaging satellites have picked up an inordinate amount of submarine traffic out of the Yulin Naval Base in China.” He nodded toward a female Navy lieutenant named Robertson sitting at a laptop computer beside him. She had the short black hair and fine cheekbones Drake had a thing for and McKeon couldn’t help but notice the President appeared to be more interested in her than he was in the briefing. A few keystrokes later, Robertson pulled up a map of southern China on the video monitor at the far end of the table.
“Mr. President,” she said. “The PLA Navy keeps their submarines in caverns on the coast of Hainan Island off the southern coast of China. At present, we believe they have five working nuclear ballistic missile submarines, but those numbers could be low by as many as three. The water is fairly shallow there, maybe thirty to sixty fathoms so our OI birds have been able to—”
“Excuse me, OI?” Drake said, throwing her a flirtatious grin along with his question.
Robertson blushed. She’d obviously heard of the President’s reputation. “Ocean Imaging,” she said.
“Of course,” Drake said. “Please go on, Lieutenant.”
“Using lasers, synthetic aperture radar, and infrared, our birds are able to detect subs at that relatively shallow depth. Even when the sub itself is not visible, its wake stays viable for some time, allowing us to get a reading until the bottom drops away out in the South China Sea.” She used the laptop to add a series of stars on the existing map, forming a rough triangle from the Philippines to the coast of Ecuador to just north of Hawaii. “We have picked up readings on remote buoys that are consistent with a great deal of submarine activity.”
“Our assets?” McKeon asked, since Drake probably would not think of it in his lustful daze.
“We have Los Angeles Class Fast Attacks in the areas of concern,” Admiral Ricks said, apparently happy someone was asking the right questions. He pointed toward the monitor with his fountain pen. “The
, and the
are all prowling, but so far, they have had no contact.”
McKeon studied the chart, thinking over his strategy. This new intelligence was more perfect than he could have imagined.
“This much activity and only three submarines?”
“Three Fast Attacks checking out the areas from the buoy signals,” the admiral said. “We have boats attached to carrier groups around the world, sir, as well as Ohio class ballistic missile submarines well within the range of China. At any given time, nearly a third of our boats are in for refit or servicing. Budget constraints of the last decade have seen orders for new submarines cancelled, leaving the fleet aging and diminished.”
McKeon rubbed his chin as if he was musing over the possibilities. In truth, he’d been waiting for something like this. He turned to Drake and cleared his throat to draw the man’s attention away from Lieutenant Robertson.
“Mr. President, considering the state of affairs with China, I think it’s time to consider bringing the bulk of our naval forces to the Pacific.”
“Mr. President,” Secretary Filson said, giving an emphatic shake of his head. “China would see any such movement as a clear provocation.”
“Because they’ll see we know what they’re up to,” Drake said, shooting a glance at McKeon to show that, amazingly enough, he understood where he’d been going. “Who do we have in the Persian Gulf?”
“The Fifth Fleet,” Admiral Ricks said, giving an almost imperceptible shake of his head. “But, sir, they’re necessary to keep—”
“Put together a plan,” Drake said. “I want a full briefing on contingencies for moving them into the Pacific by close of business today.” He smiled at the admiral’s aide. “Now, Lieutenant . . . Robertson,” he said, looking at the pretty young officer’s name tag. “I’d like to be a little more up to speed on this Ocean Imaging technology. Do you think you could bring your computer to the Oval and enlighten me?”
“I . . . uh . . . suppose,” the young woman stammered. She turned to her immediate boss. “With your permission, Admiral Ricks.”
“He outranks me,” Ricks said, grimacing at the thought.
“Mr. President,” Secretary Filson said, bouncing his fist on the table. “I must advise against positioning too many of our forces in one area. The United States faces threats from all over the world. Some are perhaps even deadlier than China.”
McKeon gave Filson a serene nod. It was the smartest thing he’d ever heard the warmongering fool say.
hmet Feng tied the father of the family to a chair and killed him last—slowly, after he’d been made to watch his wife and children beg and scream for their lives. Feng’s clothing was covered in blood, but he was the same size as his victim. The man’s wife had been a fine housekeeper before Ehmet had killed her, so it would not be a problem to find something freshly laundered that he could wear.
Yaqub had grown used to the cruelty of his brother over the years. Ehmet had a strict code of eye-for-an-eye justice. Even as a child, the slightest breach of trust brought more suffering and pain than Yaqub had thought possible—but something had happened to Ehmet in prison, as if some terrible demon had been released.
This man was an informant, the man responsible for telling Chinese authorities their identities after the train bombing in Urumqi—and, because of that, for their eventual capture by the Americans in Afghanistan. Death, even a slow death, had come as a mercy to the traitor. Ehmet had forced him to watch the killing of his wife and two small children. Yaqub could understand the reasoning behind it, but there was something broken inside his brother, something that looked for reasons to punish—and then relished the opportunity like others relished a delicious dessert. It made Yaqub want to sleep behind a locked door at night, for fear of what his brother might do.
Finished with the gruesome butchery, Ehmet dropped the knife in the bound man’s lap and looked up at a silent Jiàn Z
u, who sat at a small kitchen table with a pile of papers and passports. The woman of the house had been preparing a late evening meal when they’d arrived and the snakehead had pushed all the food to the side to give himself room to work. As far as Yaqub could tell, Jiàn Z
u wasn’t so much surprised by his brother’s violent activity as he was put out by the time it took when he felt they should be on the move. Head bent over a passport now, pen in hand, he seemed to have blocked out the wailing and death that had just taken place a few feet away from where he sat.
Ehmet waved a hand in front of his face to shoo away a fly that had already followed the scent of blood through the open balcony window of the traitor’s apartment. “I am ready to go now if you have the arrangements made.”
u shook his head without looking up.
“What were you doing while I was busy here?” Ehmet’s face darkened. “You have not made arrangements?”
The Chinese man suddenly pushed back from the table. “If you are done with this business,” he said. “A Tajik friend of mine has arranged passage on a cargo flight in a few hours.”
Ehmet leaned against a wall and wiped the blood from his hands on rag he’d gotten from the kitchen. He glared at Jiàn Z
u through narrow eyes. Yaqub knew from growing up with Ehmet that with him it was not so much what you said, as how you said it. “You don’t approve of my actions?” he said, giving Jiàn Z
u a confrontational shrug.
“I personally do not care who you butcher along our route,” Jiàn Z
u said. “Your actions are your business. Getting us out of China is mine.”
“Well said, Mr. Z
u,” Ehmet said, rifling through the dead man’s closet for a clean shirt. “As long as you remember your business, we may all live through the week.”
Yaqub considered the job that lay ahead and decided the odds of any of them living more than a few days were extremely slim, no matter what Jiàn Z
u did or did not remember.