1590: An entire colony of British settlers vanishes from their settlement on Roanoke Island, seemingly into thin air.
1872: The freighter Marie Celeste is found drifting at sea off Gibraltar, its entire crew and passengers gone missing without a trace.
But what if there’s a connection between two of the greatest historical mysteries ever? And what if the roots of that connection lie in a crazed plot to destroy the United States as we know it today?
Those are the questions confronting Blaine McCracken as he takes up the trail of small time preacher Jeremiah Rule whose hateful rhetoric has done big time damage by inflaming an entire people half a world away, resulting in a series of devastating terrorist attacks stateside. Rule, though, isn’t acting alone. A shadowy cabal is pulling his strings, unaware they are creating a monster soon to spin free of their control.
McCracken has just returned from pulling off the impossible in Iran, ridding the world of one terrible threat only to return home to face another. Isolated in a way he’s never been before and now hunted himself, he’ll have to rely on skills and allies both old and new to get to the heart of a plan aimed at unleashing no less than the Tenth Circle of Hell. This as he contends with a failed congressman intent on changing the country to fit his own vision and an Iranian assassin bent on revenge.
Blaine’s desperate path across country and continent takes him into the past where the answers he needs lie among the missing Roanoke colonists and the contents of the Marie Celeste’s cargo holds. Those secrets alone hold the means to stop the Tenth Circle from closing. And as the bodies tumble in his wake, as the clock ticks down to an unthinkable maelstrom, McCracken and Johnny Wareagle fight to save the United States from a war the country didn’t even know it was fighting, but might well lose.
The Negev Desert, Israel; the present
“We have incoming, General! Anti-missile batteries are responding!”
General Yitzak Berman focused his gaze on the desperate scenario unfolding in amazingly realistic animation on the huge screen before him. Eight missiles fired from Iran sped toward all major population centers of Israel in a perfect geometric pattern, about to give the nation’s Arrow anti-missile system its greatest test yet.
“Sir,” reported the head of the analysts squeezed into the underground bunker from which Israel maintained command and control, “initial specs indicate the size, weight and sourcing of the missiles . . .”
“Proceed,” the general said when the analyst stopped to swallow hard.
“They’re nuclear, sir, in the fifty kiloton range.”
Another young man picked up from there. “Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, the Mediterranean coast, the Sinai, our primary airfields . . .” He looked back toward Sherman. “And here, sir.”
“Anti-missile batteries are launching!” a new voice blared through the strangely dim lighting that seemed to flutter as the missiles drew closer.
And Sherman watched the animated simulation of dozens and dozens of Israeli Arrow rockets, along with larger American Patriots, shooting upward in line with the incoming missiles. Four hits were scored in the maelstrom of animated smoke bursts, more rockets launched to chase down the remaining four nukes that had survived the fist salvo.
“We have two more confirmed downed!” yet another young voice rang out.
But the bunker fell silent as the sophisticated animation continued to follow two surviving Iranian missiles as they streaked toward Tel Aviv and Haifa.
“Schmai Israel, hallileh hoseh,” one of the young voices began, reciting the prayer softly as the missiles’ arc turned downward, on a direct course to their targets with nothing left to stop their flight.
“Order our fighters holding at their failsafe positions to launch their attacks,” instructed Berman. “Destroy Iran.”
He’d barely finished when two flashes burst out from the animated screen, bright enough to force several squeezed into the bunker to shield their eyes. As those flashes faded amid the stunned silence and odor of stale perspiration hanging in the air, the bunker’s regular lighting snapped back on.
“This concludes the simulation,” a mechanical voice droned. “Repeat, this concludes the simulation.”
With that, a bevy of Israeli officials, both civilian and military, emerged from the rear-most corner of the bunker, all wearing dour expressions.
Israel’s female defense minister stepped forward ahead of the others. “Your point is made, General,” she said to Berman. “Not that we needed any further convincing.”
“I’m glad we all agree that the Iranian nuclear threat can no longer be tolerated,” Berman, the highest-ranking member of the Israeli military left alive who’d fought in the Six-Day War, told them. “We’ve been over all this before. The difference is we’re now certain our defenses cannot withstand an Iranian attack, leaving us with casualty estimates of up to a million dead and two million wounded, many of them gravely. Fifty simulations, all with results similar to the ones you have just witnessed.” He hesitated, eyes hardened through two generations of war boring into the defense minister’s. “I want your formal authorization.”
“To destroy the Iranian nuclear complex at Natanz.”
Israel’s defense minister started to smile, then simply shook her head. “We’ve been over this before, a hundred times. Our army can’t do it, our air force can’t do it, our commandos can’t do it, and the Americans are saying the very same thing from their end. You want my authorization to do the impossible? You’ve got it. Just don’t expect any backup, extraction, or political cover.”
Yitzak Berman returned his gaze to the wall-sized screen where animated versions of Tel Aviv and Haifa had turned dark. “The man I have in mind won’t need of any of that.”
“Did you say man?”
“We are descending through a million tons of solid rock,” the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Minister of Energy, Ali Akbar Hosseini, told the filmmaker squeezed in the elevator by both his equipment and the trio of Revolutionary Guardsmen. “A technological achievement in its own right. You understand the great task you’ve been entrusted to perform.”
“Just as you must understand I’m the best at my job, just like your scientists are at theirs,” said the bearded, award winning filmmaker Hosseini knew as Najjar. Najjar’s appearance was exactly as depicted in photographs, save for the scar through his left eyebrow the minister did not recall. He was dressed casually in dark cargo pants and long-sleeve cotton shirt rolled up at the sleeves, bulky clothing that hid what was clearly a V-shaped, well-muscled frame beneath. “I was told I’d be given total access to the facility.”
“And you will, at least those parts deemed appropriate by me.”
“That wasn’t part of the deal. It never is with my work.”
“This is a different kind of opportunity.”
The elevator started to slow.
“Then you should have gotten a filmmaker more adept at wedding videos,” Najjar snapped. “Perhaps we’ve both made a mistake.”
“You are about to see what few men ever have,” Hosseini continued, wearing a fashionable suit instead of a military uniform. “And it will be your blessed privilege to chronicle it for the world to see when the time is right. You call that a mistake?”
“You chose me because I’m the best. I ask only that you treat me that way.”
“I could have retained a simple videographer for this assignment,” Hosseini said, his shoulders stiffening. “I chose you because I wanted something that would stand the test of history. This will be my legacy, my contribution to our glorious Republic, and I want it to be celebrated, not just appreciated, a century from now. I want anyone who watches to see not just a place, but a point in history that changed the world forever. An awesome responsibility I’m entrusting you with.”
“I look forward to exceeding your expectations.”
Hosseini’s eyes fell on the bulky equipment lying at the filmmaker’s feet; a camera, portable lights, and a quartet of shoebox-sized rechargeable batteries to supply power. “Others I’ve worked with have turned to much smaller cameras for video, even ones that look like they only take pictures.”
“And how did their work turn out?” asked the filmmaker, his tone still biting.
“Acceptable, but not impressive. This assignment clearly required something more, a case I had to make to the Council’s finance board to justify your fee.”
“If you aren’t satisfied with what I produce for you, you owe nothing. I’ll return my fee to the Council personally.”
“Both of us know that will not be necessary. Both of us know you will produce something that will stand the test of time through the ages and serve both of us well,” Hosseini said to the man he’d personally selected for the job.
“I value your regard and the confidence you have in me,” Najjar said more humbly in Farsi.
Then he slung the camera over his shoulder and scooped up the batteries and portable lights in his grasp, beckoning the minister to exit ahead of him.
“After you,” said Blaine McCracken.
Washington, DC; two months earlier
“You’re kidding, right?” Blaine McCracken said after the Israeli he knew only as “David” finished.
“You come highly recommended, Mr. McCracken. Back home you’re considered a legend.”
“Another word for dinosaur.”
“But far from extinct. And my American friends tell me you’re the only one they believe can get this done.”
“Meaning I’d have to succeed where two governments have failed.”
David shrugged, the gesture further exaggerating the size of his neck that seemed a stubby extension of his shoulders and trapezious muscles. He wasn’t a tall man but unnaturally broad through the upper body. McCracken couldn’t make out his eyes well in the darkness, but imagined them to be furtive and noncommittal.
They’d met at the Observation Deck of the Washington Monument. Closed to the public for repairs indefinitely, but still accessible by workmen, though not at night, always McCracken’s favorite time to view Washington. He liked imagining what was going on in offices where lights still burned, plans were being hatched and fates determined. There was so much about the city he hated but plenty from which he couldn’t detach himself. In the vast majority of those offices, officials were trying to do good; at least, they believed they were.
McCracken found himself wondering which of those offices David had come here from; it would be State or Defense in the old days, across the river in Langley just as often. These days it was Homeland Security, the catch-all and watch word that got people nodding in silence, Homeland’s offices spread out all over the city proper and thus responsible for an untold number of the lights that still burned.
A few work lamps provided the only illumination inside the gutted Observation Deck, riddled with a musty basement-like smell of old, stale concrete and wood rot mixed with fresh lumber and sawdust which covered the exposed floor like a floating rug. David had sneezed a few times upon first entering, passing it off as allergies.
“It’s not that we’ve failed,” David told him, “it’s that all the plans we’ve considered have been rejected out of hand. We’ve come to you for something non-traditional that no one expects.”
“You’ve got a lot of faith in me.”
“If anyone can do it, it’s you. Otherwise, we will have no choice but to try something that is doomed to fail and perhaps even make things worse. But our hands our tied. With Iran so close to getting their bomb, the choice is gone.”
“Your name’s not really David, is it?” McCracken asked the Israeli.
“Why would you think that?”
“Because the last few times I’ve worked with your country, my contacts were named David too. A reference to David and Goliath maybe?”
A flicker of a smile crossed the Israeli’s lips. “I’m told you had a plan.”
“No, what I’ve got is an idea. It’s risky, dangerous, and I haven’t even broached it to the powers at be here.”
“Because you don’t think they’d be interested?”
“Because they haven’t asked.” McCracken looked out through the window at the twinkling office lights again, already fewer of them than just a few minutes before, imagining the kind of things being discussed after office hours had concluded. “The only time my phone rings these days is when the SEALS or Delta have already passed on the mission, with good reason this time.”
“We’re asking,” said David. “You, not them. And we’ll provide you with the right resources, any resources you require.”
McCracken gave David a longer look, the younger man’s thick nest of curly hair making him seem vulnerable and innocent at the same time when neither was true. “Tell me you’re ready to fight fire with fire. Tell me that’s what you meant about making the right resources available.”
David seemed to grasp his meaning immediately. “And if we are?”
Netanz, Iran; the present
McCracken lugged the equipment from the elevator, careful to show strain and exertion on his features to avoid raising any suspicions in Hosseini. The hall before them was brightly lit, as clean and sterile as a hospital’s. The air smelled of nothing; not antiseptic, not solvent, not fresh tile. Nothing. The lighting looked unbalanced, harsh in some places and dull in others.
The new Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s successor, had made no secret of his desire to chronicle Iran’s greatest technological achievement ever. When the time was right, he wanted the world to see the true scope of his country’s accomplishment, so long hidden behind innuendo and subterfuge. Like the mullahs themselves, he was at heart a braggart obsessed with cementing his own legacy in a way history could not deny.
Najjar, the award winning Iranian filmmaker chosen for that task, was virtually the same height and weight as McCracken and the two men bore more than a passing resemblance to each other right up to the scruffiness of their tightly trimmed beards. Of course, the plan was not without its flaws. Most notably, McCracken had no idea when Najjar would be summoned to capture the Natanz facility in all its glory. Based on the current timetable for the Iranians’ ability to generate enough fissionable material from the refuse of their vast centrifuges, though, he guessed no more than six months.
It turned out to be only two.
The filmmaker Najjar was already under twenty-four-hour surveillance by Israeli Mossad agents long entrenched within Iranian society. Barely an hour after the filmmaker was contacted by Minister Hosseini’s office on extremely short notice, McCracken boarded a private jet with a make-up specialist on board to finish the job of matching his appearance as closely as possible to Najjar’s. The result, after a laborious process that took much of the flight, exceeded even his expectations. The lone oversight had been not to disguise the scar through McCracken’s left eyebrow from a wayward bullet decades before. Although Minister Hosseini had clearly noticed it, he seemed unbothered by its presence.
While Najjar waited in his apartment for his government car to arrive, a fresh Mossad team just in country entered his apartment by using a key fit to the specifications of his lock based on the serial number. The filmmaker, who was still packing, was unconscious in seconds with McCracken ready in his stead, equipment in hand, as soon as the car arrived for the first leg of his journey.
Once out of the elevator, he knew he was about to encounter plenty not mentioned in David’s reports on the structure and its schematics. Israel’s intelligence on the Natanz facility was an amalgamation of satellite reconnaissance, prisoner and defector interrogations, and four separate brilliantly crafted infiltrations. Each of these had revealed the particulars of at least a section of the facility, but even taken in sum they didn’t offer a thorough rendering of all of it.
The assembled intelligence did reveal a sprawling single-level underground facility. The original plans had called for multiple levels but this had proven too onerous from both a construction and security standpoint. Natanz had been chosen for the site of the plant specifically because of the heavy layers of limestone and shale beneath which it would be contained, along with an under layer of nearly impenetrable volcanic rock formed in prehistoric times. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the nuclear generating plant that sat at ground level was not positioned directly over the underground facility at all; rather, it served as effective camouflage for the vast tunneling efforts that had forged Natanz from the side instead of from above. The facility was laid out roughly in a square, the size of six football fields laid next to each other, and featured the sophisticated technology required to enrich uranium along with the centrifuges responsible for generating it, a process that undoubtedly included the massive pumps and water systems required for cooling.
But the very features that made Natanz impenetrable to an attack from above made it vulnerable to what McCracken was planning from within.
David versus Goliath indeed.
“One more thing before we get started,” Hosseini said, opening a door McCracken hadn’t noticed before. “If you’d join me inside here. . . .”
* * *
It was a locker room, more or less, each open cubicle featuring an orange radiation suit and wrist monitor hanging from a hook inside.
“Standard procedure,” the minister explained. “The lightest weight suit manufactured anywhere. You slip it on right over your clothes,” he continued, starting to do just that himself.
McCracken followed in step. Modern, sophisticated nuclear plants like this were hardly prone to leaks, so the donning of such protective material could only mean Hosseini meant what he said about assembling a complete picture of one of the world’s most secret facilities. And something else was obvious as well:
That after hearing and seeing so much, there was no way McCracken was getting out of here alive.