Read Game Changer Online

Authors: Douglas E. Richards

Game Changer (7 page)

 

9

 
 

Azim Jafari waited several long seconds before continuing, partly
for dramatic effect, but mostly because he wanted to soak in the palpable
electricity that had swept across the room, relish the heightened attentiveness
of all of those standing before him in the soaring prayer hall.

“I have witnessed for myself the horrible, unparalleled
power
of Allah’s fire,” he continued finally.
“And it is truly a power to behold. In 2007, I was living in San Diego, one of
the ten most populated cities in America. In October of that year, a wildfire
began to burn east of the city, heading due west. Embers from the first fire
started others, and these fires grew at an incredible rate. The carnage that
followed, the smoldering hell these fires created, was like something out of
the
apocalypse
.”

Jafari’s memory of this devastation had never diminished,
and he had bolstered these memories with statistics he had read afterward. He
would paint his loyal followers a picture of the potential of fire to wreak
terror and destruction that would be an inspiration to them.

“In a very short time,” he continued, “the walls of flame
were thousands of feet long, and up to eight stories tall. By the end of a
single week almost eight hundred square miles of Southern California were blackened.
Nearly a million residents were forced from their homes, the largest peacetime
movement of civilians in America since the civil war. Before the fire was
brought under control, more than three thousand structures were lost. Ash and
other particulates blanketed hundreds of square miles, like the aftermath of a
nuclear war
.”

Jafari paused to let this sink in, his voice now filled with
awe. “During the day, the darkened sky was
eerie
.
Unsettling to the depths of one’s soul,” he said, his prepared words now bordering
on the poetic. “There was a surreal, orange cast to it, as the sun largely
failed to penetrate the mass of particulates. Ash rained from the sky, turning
San Diego into a sinister, coal-black version of a shaken snowglobe. Backyard
pools turned from a serene blue to a sickly black as soot covered their
surfaces. Residents stayed indoors, or wore surgical masks when they needed to
venture outside.”

He shook his head grimly. “Unless you lived through it,” he continued,
“no description can do it justice. The psychological impact it had was
profound. There is no way to adequately convey the feelings of dread and
impending doom that gripped every last resident when their entire world was
covered in ash, and their sky was scorched and darkened.”

Jafari could tell he now had his audience completely
enthralled. “Seventeen people were consumed by the walls of flame, including
five firefighters. More than a hundred more suffered injuries, not including
dozens who were hospitalized due to respiratory distress. The economic impact of
the fires was measured in billions of dollars. Much of the region was shut down
for the entire week, including schools, universities, and businesses. Critical
roads and highways were closed, and tourists and conventioneers canceled their
visits. Power lines were damaged. Farms were ravaged, including more than three
thousand acres of avocado groves.

“Commerce ground to a halt. For the better
part of a week, one of the richest and most populous regions in the world was
brought to its
knees.
San Diego
suffered a
devastating
blow: physically,
economically, and psychologically.”

Jafari’s eyes were now alive with righteous
purpose. “Was a nuclear bomb needed to cause this mass destruction, this
unbridled terror?” he barked to a mesmerized crowd. “The answer is
no
! Were jumbo jets needed, to smash
into San Diego skyscrapers? Again, no! Did turning eight hundred square miles
of a heavily populated region into a
wasteland
require expensive equipment, highly trained operatives, or complicated schemes?”
He shook his head vigorously. “
A final
time, no!
” he thundered.

The Imam paused, and now lowered his voice
to just above a whisper. “No, this was a catastrophe that could have been
brought about by a single child. A terror that could well be recreated with a
few lighters and twenty dollars worth of supplies.
 
 

“Only now,” continued Jafari, “the same fire would be even
more
devastating. Cities and suburbs across
America are growing denser every year. Homes are closer and closer together,
and civilization is encroaching more and more on the natural world. Back in 2007,
Southern California was the ultimate expression of this trend. But now this
situation is widespread. So our first slice into the body of
The Great Satan
will be a trial by fire.”

 
His voice rose to a
thunder once again and he held a fist out in front of him. “We will burn their
forests to the
ground
! Focusing on
those that straddle their densest population centers. And we won’t do this in
just one state,
but in forty-eight
!
We will turn this country into a living, fiery
hell
, a dark, smoldering
ruin
!”

The room broke out into cheers, which were
echoed and amplified by the magnificent dome above them as the Imam’s followers
were no longer able to contain their passion.

“Can you imagine it?” said Jafari when the prayer
hall had become quiet once again. “Thousands and thousands of square miles
across the entire continental United States on fire. Firefighters spread so
thin they have no chance of success. A psychological, physical, and economic
catastrophe that will make the San Diego fire look like a paper cut.”

He leaned in toward the crowd and raised his
eyebrows. “But there’s more. Once firefighters have their hands full, it will
be time to start even more fires. But this time not in forests. This time in
buildings within the cities and dense neighborhoods themselves. The Great
Chicago Fire

which raged over this
very ground in 1871

started
when a
single lantern
was knocked
over. And it killed hundreds, and left
a
hundred thousand
more homeless. And this was in 1871! I
know
we can do far better now, in the
most populated cities in this country!”

The group once again broke out into cheers,
and Jafari allowed himself a beaming smile for the first time. After weeks of
this treatment, the United States would
wish
it had been hit with a nuclear bomb.

“We will strike in just over a month,”
announced Jafari. “On July 4th.”

He paused to let the significance of this sink
in. “On this day, Americans like to barbecue. So be it. On this day, we will
barbecue
Americans
!” he shouted. “They
want fireworks? We will give them
true
fireworks! They sing of rocket’s red glare, we will give them all the red glare
they can handle—and more. The day that heralded the birth of The Great Satan will
become the day that we begin to push it over the cliff to its eventual death!”

The cheers this time were deafening, and
Jafari soaked them in. The truth was, a July 4th start date was a hope, not a
certainty, and he could well change it, but he didn’t want to do anything to
rein in their enthusiasm right now. He needed to study weather forecasts for
the entire nation. Allah willing, the week surrounding July 4th would be dry
across the majority of the country. If it was rainy, he would have to delay the
strike until conditions were optimal.

But let them roar for a few minutes more
before he continued on to the less inspiring details of the operation. Before
he discussed possible changes to timing and how they would be notified of such.
Before he shared his research on the most ideal locations for the fires. The most
effective ways to start them, with the least manpower and materials. Cover an
array of operational issues, precautions, and detailed instructions of how to
proceed if caught. He had mapped out the implementation of this plan to
perfection, and he needed to share all of this now with his eager audience.

 
Then he
would set these sleepers loose.

And while America was burning to the ground,
he would be busy preparing his next cut.

And then the one after that.
 

 

10

 
 

Cris Coffey sat in
front of the historic Resolute desk in the Oval Office, for once not admiring
the eagle and other intricate carvings cut into the oak section facing him. He
was exhausted, ashamed, and anxious, dreading this meeting like the plague. An
attempt on the president’s life had been made

on
his
watch. Worse yet, it had been made by one of his own men. It was a black eye
from which he would never recover. And now, more than eleven hours after the
attack, he had yet to apprehend Kevin Quinn.

The Oval Office had
famously served as the president’s personal office in the White House since the
days of Teddy Roosevelt. In fact, the West Wing, of which it was a part, had
been rumored to be the brainchild of Roosevelt’s wife, who felt the second
floor of the residence, which harbored both bedrooms and offices, should be
earmarked entirely as domestic space. So the West Wing was built to provide executive
offices. At the time it was slated to be a temporary solution, but it soon
became a permanent and indispensable addition to the president’s domain.

Along with the
magnificent desk, a gift from Queen Victoria in 1880, built from the timbers of
the decommissioned British Arctic exploratory vessel
Resolute
, the Oval Office contained three large windows and a
fireplace, along with four different exits. The east door opened to the Rose
Garden, the west to a private study and dining room, the northwest to a main
corridor in the West Wing, and the northeast to the office of the president’s
secretary.

Davinroy had motioned
Coffey in but had ignored him as he finished the last page of his daily
security briefing, which was delivered to his office by seven every morning. Once
he finished the last sentence he turned his full attention to his visitor, now
seated before him.

“Sorry to summon
you at the crack of dawn,” he began. “But under the circumstances . . .”
 
He let his voice trail away, leaving the
sentence unfinished.

“Of course, sir,” replied
Coffey. “And let me say that I can’t apologize enough for what happened last
night. It was a failure of epic proportions. I take full responsibility.”

Davinroy shook his
head graciously. “Not your fault, Cris,” he said. “Not anyone’s fault. Kevin
Quinn just became delusional from out of nowhere. I’m not a psychiatrist, but
there was no possible way for you to know that someone with this kind of access
would snap like he did.”

So far the
president was being understanding, but Coffey knew that this would change when
he learned what had really happened. Right now he thought Quinn had tried to
shoot him, and failed because of the quick actions of the Secret Service.

Coffey winced,
wishing he didn’t have to be the one to tell him otherwise. “We worked through
the night, sir,” he said. “My teams had two objectives. Capture Kevin. And try
to piece together what happened at Garza’s mansion.” He sighed. “You aren’t
going to like what you hear, sir, on either front.”

Davinroy’s eyes
narrowed. “Go on,” he said warily.

“I won’t go into
the details of our investigation, just the results. First, Kevin Quinn is still
at large. Second, we’ve become convinced he never intended to fire a gun, or to
allow himself to be exposed the way he did. Your drink,” continued Coffey, glancing
down at notes on his phone to make sure he got the name correct, “the
Portuguese Nectar Vector,
was poisoned
.
Kevin relieved the agent on bar detail, and instead of
ensuring your drink was clean, he slipped a mickey into it that would have
killed you within seconds of your first sip.”

A horrified
expression came over the president’s face and he swallowed hard.

Coffey remained
silent as Davinroy digested the full implications of what he had been told. As
Davinroy remembered the events of the previous night, his expression became
even
more
horrified. “Shit!” he said,
his eyes widening. “And I gave it to
Anne
to try.”

“That’s right, Mr.
President. We believe this is what precipitated Kevin’s actions. He revealed
himself so he could shoot the drink from your wife’s hand, sir.”

“Thank God,”
whispered the president.

“How
is
the First Lady, sir, if I may ask?”

Davinroy seemed
lost in thought for several long seconds. Finally, he shook his head, as if to
clear it, and stared at Coffey as though trying to reconstruct what he had just
said. “How is Anne?” he mumbled.

“Yes, sir.”

Davinroy sighed. “Given
what you’ve just told me, it’s a miracle she’s still alive. So I guess she’s
doing well. She was gashed by the glass when it exploded. And she was terrified
when the shots rang out and we were tackled. Not to mention being
horrified
after that.”

“Horrified, sir?”

“Yes. Kevin Quinn
accused me of an unspeakable atrocity. And even though there is no truth to what
he said, no wife should have to listen to something like that. It was very upsetting.”

Coffey frowned. He
hadn’t really thought about this, but it made perfect sense. An accusation this
appalling, despite being false, would leave a foul taste in anyone’s mouth. “I
understand, sir.”

Davinroy now looked
as though he was sick to his stomach. “I should be dead,” he whispered. “It was
only dumb luck that saved me.” He stared off into space for several long
seconds, pondering what might have been

what
should
have been.

Coffey braced
himself for the tirade sure to come his way. He deserved it. He had been incompetent.
How could he have allowed this to happen? Instead of being heroic, as it might
have appeared after the first shot rang out, Coffey and the rest of his detail
had been criminally negligent. The president
should
be incensed. He or his wife could have died. And even if
there had been no way to see this coming, Coffey couldn’t blame the president
in the slightest for condemning him, reacting emotionally,
viscerally
.

Instead, Davinroy’s
composure returned. “Any idea what pushed Kevin over the edge?” he asked, his
expression now thoughtful.

Coffey was shocked by
the president’s equanimity. “None,” he replied. “We’ve interviewed any number
of people who worked with him recently, and none of them thought his behavior
was out of the ordinary in any way. Two months ago he had a standard psych
evaluation and passed with flying colors. This makes no sense to me at all. I
have a meeting with a top psychiatrist later this morning. There may be a deep-seated
reason Kevin came up with the particular delusion he did once he snapped.
Perhaps he disagrees with your policies, and his mind turned you into the
ultimate villain to justify killing you. I’ll be interested in what the shrink
says about this.”

“Me too,” said
Davinroy. “Make sure you send me a report on the meeting.”

“I will, sir. But even before my consult with the expert, it
seems to me that Kevin must have snapped very recently, or he would have come
after you earlier.”

Davinroy nodded. “I
agree,” he said. Then, deciding to change gears, he added, “I read a summary of
Kevin’s file when he was first assigned here, but can you refresh my memory?”

“Certainly.” Coffey
paused for a moment, organizing his thoughts. “Kevin Quinn was a soccer and
track star in high school. A tremendous athlete. He earned a black belt by the
age of sixteen.”

“In which
discipline?”

The Special Agent
thought hard for a few moments but finally shook his head. “I can’t recall
offhand. But I can find out for you in just a few seconds.”

“No need,” said
Davinroy. “Go on.”

“With respect to
academics, he was diagnosed with ADHD, and while very bright, was a poor
student. Couldn’t sit still. Poor study habits. So he did ROTC in college and
went right into the military. Served with distinction in a number of active
theaters, including Syria, Iran, and Yemen

if I’m remembering correctly.”

Coffey was tempted
to call up Quinn’s file on his phone, but decided that even if Quinn had served
in Somalia instead of Yemen, this was close enough. And Coffey was absolutely
certain he knew the precise details of the rest of Quinn’s background.

“During this time
he demonstrated an ability to suss out danger, think on his feet, assess complex
situations, that was considered extraordinary. He possessed excellent
operational awareness. He saved his fellow soldiers from springing traps during
a number of missions. And when things did go south, his grasp of situational
tactics, his quick thinking, and his leadership earned him very high marks. He
was brave, bright, and motivated. He became an expert marksman and an expert
with explosives. Ultimately, he earned two purple hearts and a number of other
medals.”

“Impressive,” said
Davinroy.

“Very,” said Coffey. “And I’m not
even doing his military record justice. Anyway, because of his proven skills,
he was heavily recruited by the Secret Service. On paper, he was the perfect Special
Agent. And it turned out that this was true in the field as well. After some
lesser assignments with us, he was assigned to protect visiting heads of state.
Less than a year later, he had distinguished himself so much he was put in
charge of the protective detail for Awad Zahir, when Zahir came to New York to
speak at the UN.”

Coffey was sure the president could appreciate the trust the Secret Service
had shown in Quinn by assigning him to protect this monster.
As president of Syria, his
invitation to speak at the UN had been highly controversial, drawing outrage
and protests, and making Zahir a target of the highest order.

“I remember from
here,” said Davinroy. “That was only three years ago, during my first term.
Kevin managed to sniff out a plot against Zahir, even though he personally
despised the man, and took a bullet in the arm while protecting him.”

Coffey nodded. “As
you know, his involvement was never made public. We didn’t want to turn Kevin Quinn
into a pariah. When it came to Zahir, he would have been broadly reviled for
doing the job he swore to do. I hired him for your personal detail as soon as
he fully recovered.”

“Good choice. I’d
forgotten that Kevin was the agent involved.”

“He turned out to be my best man,” said Coffey. “Until now,
that is,” he added miserably, sickened that this man had somehow become broken.

One had to be exceptional to land a job protecting the president,
especially after some of the Secret Service scandals that had erupted during
the Obama administration, but Quinn was elite, even among this group. “In fact,”
admitted Coffey, “I planned to nominate him to be my successor when I decided
to move on. He’s that good.”

Davinroy sighed. “This
is tragic,” he said. “It really is. On many levels. Kevin Quinn was an
honorable man. A heroic man. He didn’t deserve this. And now that he’s cracked
completely, who knows who he might end up hurting? He’s expert with weapons and
explosives. He could kill hundreds if he put his mind to it. Thousands.”

The president shook
his head. “And if he kills anyone, in addition to the tragedy of loss of life, this
will be political poison for me, and for the Secret Service.”

Coffey managed not
to show his distaste at this last. He supposed that a politician couldn’t help
but see everything

including a mass murder, if it were to happen

through the lens of politics,
but it was still disgusting. Which is why the popularity of politicians across
the board had never been lower.

“You could be right,” said Coffey. “Kevin could cut a swath
of bodies across the country. He has the skills, and he’s smart, creative, and
disciplined. And he also knows the moves the team hunting him will be making.”

Coffey blew out a long breath. “But I’m betting he doesn’t
hurt anyone. Think about this: he was willing to risk his plan, and risk his
own life, to save the First Lady. Remember, before he shot at you, he made sure
she didn’t take a drink.”

The president nodded slowly. “Good point. So this suggests
he still values life. That his delusions, and the violent intentions stemming
from his delusions, are centered squarely on me.”

“Yes, sir. That is
my thinking.”

Davinroy leaned
back in thought. “Maybe,” he said finally. “But we can’t know what’s in his
mind.
So far the delusions are of a personal nature. But what if this
changes? We
can’t
really rely on logic here. Insane people play by their own set of rules. Yes,
he risked everything to prevent Anne from being killed. But we can’t be sure he
won’t change his colors tomorrow and go on a killing spree, targeting puppies
and toddlers. So proceed with absolute caution. Don’t corner him in public.
Don’t poke the bear. And make sure the trap is ironclad before you spring it on
him.”

Coffey nodded.
“Yes, sir.”

“So you haven’t
found him yet. Do you think you’re closing in?”

“I wish I could
answer
yes
. But I can’t. I was hoping
that his psychological condition would affect his decision-making. But
apparently not. He appears to be the talented man we’ve all come to know. He
arranged to have Garza’s car stolen, to keep us busy for a while. Near as we
can tell now, he made his way to Trenton and then Grand Central Station. From
there he could have gone anywhere. But I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he never
went anywhere near Grand Central Station. This could just be a ruse. He could be
holed up anywhere. Or on the move anywhere. He could pick a forest and live off
the land for months if he chose to, letting us spin ourselves into exhaustion
out in civilization trying to find him.”

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