The remarkable new suspense novel from the man “who has been there and done that” (W. E. B. Griffin)—“Fans of Clancy and Coonts need to add Young to their must-read lists” (Booklist).
Lieutenant Colonel Michael Parson has seen plenty of action lately, so he’s happy with his new assignment as safety officer at a Kyrgyzstan air base. It’s a pretty laidback way to spend the next year.
Or so he thought. On his second day, a C-27 crashes on the runway with a load of electronic gear—and opium. Recruiting his battle companion Sergeant Major Sophia Gold as interpreter, he investigates not only the crash but the source of the cargo, and the answers they find will lead them into a conflict as lethal as any they have known.
A new Balkan war is brewing, driven by a man of ruthless ambition. Parson himself flew during the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, so he’s known their horror firsthand. But neither he nor Gold has seen anything like what’s about to happen now.
A cold front swept across the steppes of Central Asia like an invading army. The wedge of dense, frigid air slid underneath warmer air, lifting the warm air higher until thunderheads spawned and stalked through Kyrgyzstan. The black clouds assaulted the terrain with lightning, and booms reverberated like the peals of distant air strikes.
At Manas Air Base—officially called Transit Center at Manas for political reasons—Lieutenant Colonel Michael Parson stood in the control tower with American and Kyrgyz air traffic controllers. The controllers fretted about the weather, and so did Parson. His new job had him watching weather conditions pretty closely. He’d arrived in Kyrgyzstan only yesterday to start a yearlong assignment as the base safety officer. Parson welcomed the noncombat position after seeing more than his share of action in Afghanistan and Iraq as a U.S. Air Force aviator. Manas served as a major stopover for troops and cargo on the way into and out of Afghanistan, but at least the base wasn’t in a hostile fire zone. Parson considered the place a relatively laid-back outpost: You could sip a beer in your off hours. Even during the duty day, you could take a break and go to the coffee shop, get an espresso, and pet the big gray cat that always slept on one of the chairs. Parson thought he’d like Manas, except for the weather.
“Shall we call a ground stop?” a Kyrgyz controller asked in good English.
“Not yet,” the American tower chief said.
Neither man looked at Parson, because Parson exercised no authority over the controllers. But he understood their dilemma. Cumulonimbus the color of wrought iron loomed to the north. The low-level wind shear alert system already indicated trouble near the approach end of Runway Two-Six. But a lot of traffic needed to come in today, and wind shear always presented a problem at Manas. Every chart for every approach carried the notation: Heavy turbulence with downdrafts and wind shear may be expected on final. You could eliminate the risk only by not flying at all.
The controllers had the tower’s VHF frequency on the speakers. A pilot with an Afghan accent called.
“Manas Tower,” the pilot called, “Golay One-Three is Afghan Air Force C-27 on VOR/DME approach to Runway Two-Six.”
Parson recognized the call sign, though not the voice. He remembered his tour as an adviser to the Afghan Air Force, and he felt proud to hear an Afghan crew on an international flight. Parson wondered where they were going, what they were doing. During his year working with Afghan crews, he’d made a lot of good friends, but most of the pilots he knew flew helicopters. This C-27 Spartan was a twin-turboprop cargo plane.
“Golay One-Three, Manas Tower,” a controller called. “You are cleared to land, Runway Two-Six. Use caution for low-level wind shear.”
“Golay One-Three cleared to land,” the pilot acknowledged.
Parson peered through the tower’s windows, scanned for the Spartan. At first he saw only roiling clouds bearing down on the airfield. Large raindrops began to smack against the glass, and a gust of wind swirled dust outside on the tower catwalk. A controller raised his binoculars and pointed. Parson spotted the aircraft just under the cloud layer, in a right turn onto final approach.
The plane rolled out of the turn, leveled its wings. The landing gear doors opened as the aircraft descended, and the wheels came down and locked into place. The wings rocked a bit; Parson could almost feel the turbulence jolting the airplane. He’d made a few landings here himself in a C-5 Galaxy, riding down the glide slope with the jet crabbed sideways, dancing on the rudder pedals at the last moment, and always keeping his thumb on the go around button in case the wind shear got so evil he had to abort the approach.
The rain fell harder. Drops pounded the roof until the sound rose to a dull roar. Water streamed down the tower windows, and outside visibility dropped by half. Parson could still see the C-27, though, now on short final. The aircraft continued its descent—a little too steeply for Parson’s comfort. The Spartan should have flown a nice, gentle approach angle of about three degrees, but this looked like six or eight. At this rate, Parson thought, the aircraft might even touch down short of the runway. Time to climb away for another try.
But the Spartan continued to descend. By standard procedure, the crew should have set up a stabilized approach by now: configured to land, on glide path, within a few knots of approach speed, and descending at no more than about seven hundred feet per minute.
These guys weren’t even close to stable. Parson guesstimated their descent rate at around fifteen hundred. Harder to judge their airspeed, but the approach looked a good twenty knots hot. What the hell? All the Afghan pilots he knew could have done a better job. Their stick-and-rudder skills weren’t usually the problem. Parson had preached the fine points like checklist discipline, not basic piloting skills. But whoever was flying that C-27 couldn’t find his ass with both hands.
“Go around, you idiot,” Parson muttered under his breath.
Most crashes happened on landing. Airplanes were especially vulnerable to wicked weather on final approach. The nearer the ground, the thinner the margin for error. That’s why a good missed approach beat a bad landing any day of the week.
The pilot’s voice came over the radio again, the resin of tension in his voice:
“Golay One-Three going around.”
So the clue light finally came on, Parson thought. Perhaps he heard the aircraft’s engines advance, though the rain noise made it hard to tell. As the C-27 flew closer, he saw the landing gear retract and the nose pitch higher. But the aircraft did not climb. The Spartan’s descent continued, only at a slower rate.
Caught in a downdraft, Parson realized. Or maybe even a fully developed, honest-to-God microburst that could slam a plane into the ground. That’s why you don’t dick around in weather like this, he thought. Now cob those throttles and get the hell out of Dodge.
Lightning speared the ground. Veins of quicksilver spiderwebbed across the sky, so bright they hurt Parson’s eyes. The Spartan roared along the runway, clawing for altitude, gaining none.
Parson could imagine the scene in the cockpit: the pilot pulling back on the yoke while watching the flight director’s pitch steering bars. The ground prox warning system blaring, DON’T SINK, DON’T SINK. And the vertical speed indicator still showing a descent.
Then came the moment when Parson knew what would happen but could do nothing. The Spartan pitched up even higher, near the verge of a stall. The aircraft floated just a few feet above the pavement, seemingly in slow motion. Inevitably, the tail dragged the ground, and the C-27 pancaked to earth.
The propeller blades struck the pavement, bent backward into fishhooks. The left engine tore from its mount under the wing. Flames blossomed as fuel and hydraulic lines ripped open. The engine shed its cowl panels and prop as it cartwheeled forward, ahead of a spreading black-and-orange fireball. The grinding sound of metal across pavement joined with the boom and crackle of flames.
All four controllers rose to their feet, uttered epithets in English and Kyrgyz. As the aircraft continued to come apart, the tail section separated and skidded sideways out of the flames. The bulk of the wreckage slid forward along the concrete. Streamers of fire erupted from the exploding wings. Metal fragments shot clear of the smoke and bounced along the taxiway.
A Kyrgyz controller reached for a touch-screen computer and tapped a red icon marked pcas. That button activated the primary crash alarm system, and in seconds Parson heard the sirens of crash trucks. Three yellow-and-red Oshkosh trucks charged down the taxiway, red lights flashing. The first truck braked to a stop just short of the flames and opened a blast from its foam cannon. The other trucks positioned themselves around the front of the wreckage, sprayed white chemical onto the burning fuselage.
Firefighters in silver proximity suits jumped down from their vehicles. One man took hold of the plane’s crew door handle and pulled. The handle would not budge, so another firefighter lifted a crash ax from his truck and slammed the ax at the crew door. When the door finally dropped, smoke rolled from the opening.
One of the foam cannons sprayed through the doorway, and two firefighters climbed inside, breathing from air bottles mounted on their backs.
Parson leaned on the back of a chair, closed his eyes. Felt his skin grow flush. He’d lost too many friends and crewmates in accidents and shootdowns. He didn’t know this crew, but he knew plenty of people like them. And he knew they all had family— spouses, parents, children. When one of the controllers made the next radio call, the words barely registered in Parson’s mind.
“Attention all aircraft,” the controller said. “Manas is closed for emergency operations.”
Parson then heard the controller talking to a KC-135 tanker jet, giving the crew instructions to enter holding over the Bishkek VOR.
Two ambulances converged on the crash site. Parson appreciated the quick response. He especially admired the courage of the firefighters, but he doubted they’d find anyone alive inside the Spartan.
The two firemen who’d entered the C-27 came back out carrying a limp body. They took the crewman well away from the smoke and flames and laid him down. The medics went to work, but in a few moments Parson could tell from their gestures that the man was dead.
The same thing happened when the firefighters brought out the other two victims. Though Parson watched from a distance, the appearance of their clothing suggested that at least the crew had not burned to death. Their Nomex flight suits still held the original desert beige coloring. When exposed to fire, flameproof Nomex would not burn, but it would discolor to nearly black. Apparently all three—pilot, copilot, and loadmaster—had died of some combination of crash force trauma and smoke inhalation.
Part of Parson’s mind was already investigating, analyzing. Though powerless to prevent the crash, now he would lead in determining causes. He had hoped he would pass his time as safety officer without handling anything more serious than a maintenance guy falling off a stand. But sadly, his new assignment had begun with a Class A mishap, defined as an accident causing loss of life, loss of an aircraft, or more than two million dollars in damage. This crash covered all three.
Parson sighed hard, looked at the floor. Ignored the chatter on the control frequencies. When he looked up again, he saw three arcing streams of foam attacking the tallest flames—those rising from the tangled metal of the wings. No one remained alive to save, but the crash team kept working, making sure fire and cinders spread no farther to threaten aircraft on the ramp. The three parabolas of foam seemed a grotesque tribute to the lives just lost.
Life seemed so fragile now to Parson. He used to consider himself master of his own fate, someone who steered events instead of merely reacting to them. But time and time again, he’d seen events overcome even the strongest and the most skilled aviators—not to mention boneheads like the crew who’d just flown that Spartan into the ground. The Air Force talked about risk management as if a hazard were something you could get your hands around. Choke it and drown it in a bathtub. But a hazard needed little opening to cause harm. Just a miscommunication or a failure of equipment. A moment’s inattention, an ounce of bad judgment.
Parson struggled to turn off his emotions the way he might use an isolation switch in an airplane to de-energize a bad electrical circuit. He had a lot to do, and his feelings would only get in the way. First, he needed to identify witnesses and make sure the crash site didn’t get disturbed any more than firefighting required. Even though he’d seen the disaster himself, he wanted to record the statements of other onlookers. Then Parson would turn to the big picture: examine the size and shape of the debris field, take photos, establish a grid to pinpoint where all the parts had come to rest. As a safety officer he was not an expert. But he would gather evidence and information, call in experts as needed.
He thought he already knew the cause of this accident: a wind shear event with an unsuccessful recovery. Tragically straightforward. A major contributing factor: stupidity.
However, he couldn’t help thinking maybe the crash was a little too straightforward. Avoiding the accident would have been so easy. For now, he would just let the evidence tell its story. And he felt that story might lead to places where he didn’t want to go. Parson had expected this assignment to turn out easier and safer than some of his previous deployments. But this part of the world had long served as a crossroads of continents. Down through the centuries, East invaded West; West attacked East. All sorts of trouble had ebbed and flowed across these steppes that led the way to Europe.
For the first time in years, Viktor Dušić felt fulfilled. Not because of his money, though he had plenty. But because of his new sense of purpose. After more than a decade in the arms business—building connections, making deals, showing he could deliver the goods anywhere needed—Dušić controlled a network of suppliers, buyers, and discreet middlemen that spanned a third of the globe. And now his wealth and the breadth of his network had reached a tipping point: Perhaps he could not only profit from events but control them.
Luxury had its place: He enjoyed his Lamborghini Aventador, his Patek Philippe watch, his cognac, his women. But a warrior didn’t let those things distract him. Not with a mission yet to accomplish. Dušić felt he possessed the talents, the audacity, and, at last, the resources to bring his people the justice, the land, and the glory that rightfully belonged to them. He had so much to do.
By now, Dušić thought, Greater Serbia should have become a powerful nation, free of Muslims. However, meddling from the UN, NATO, and especially the Americans had denied Dušić and his people a richly deserved victory. So he had bided his time, formulated plans, maintained hope.
In his Belgrade office, on the right bank of the Sava River, Dušić picked up the phone and punched a number. Normally a man of his stature would have his secretary initiate his calls, but Milica, faithful though she was, did not need to know of this conversation. The number rang at a flat in Sarajevo, and the call went unanswered for so long that Dušić nearly hung up. But on the ninth ring, a gruff voice answered.
“Yes?” the voice said.
“Stefan, this is Viktor.”
“Ah, good morning, Lieutenant.” Stefan coughed, cleared his throat, and asked, “What time is it?”
“Nearly noon, you drunk. And I am not a lieutenant anymore. Have you considered my proposal?” The conversation’s start troubled Dušić. His friend Stefan had once been a good soldier. But now Dušić wondered if drink and age had dulled the man’s reflexes and clouded his judgment.
“Viktor,” Stefan said, “I admire your vision. But I do not know if you’ll find enough people. A lot of the former officers feel lucky not to have been arrested and sent to The Hague. They don’t want to take chances now.”
Weaklings, Dušić thought. They had once sworn an oath to Republika Srpska. But now they just wanted to lie low, work their meaningless jobs, and bang their wives. Dušić knew why they’d lost their nerve. Their commander, the great General Ratko Mladić, had faced a war crimes trial after eluding capture for fifteen years. Their president, the poet politician Radovan Karadić, had suffered a similar fate. And the head of the Yugoslav Republic, Slobodan Milošević, had died in prison. The meddling nations did not pursue those of lower rank, at least not yet. But warriors should not live in fear. Warriors should make their enemies live in fear.
“The brothers’ hesitation disappoints me,” Dušić said.
“Perhaps we will find more willing hands among veterans of the Volunteer Guard.”
Dušić thought for a moment. “You may be right,” he said. He preferred professionals—trained officers, disciplined sergeants. Some of those Serb Volunteer Guard men, Arkan’s Tigers and other militias, had been little more than criminals in uniform. But what they’d lacked in smarts, they’d made up in zeal. Dušić would consider his friend’s suggestion. A commander must make do with the tools available.
“Then there is the question of funding,” Stefan said. “I imagine you could bankroll the initial mission with what you have in your pocket right now. But the remainder of the campaign could exhaust even your deep accounts.”
Dušić chuckled. “Don’t worry about that, my friend,” he said. “I have arranged a stream of income that will cover our needs.”
“Ah, yes, Viktor. You always excelled at logistics. May I ask how you did it?”
Dušić wanted to tell him all the details. But Stefan had no operational need to know. And this was not a secure phone connection. In Dušić’s line of work, one did not profit by making sloppy mistakes. So he said only, “Let me worry about that.”
“So I shall, Viktor. I will rest easily with that matter in your hands. You are a fighter with the heart of a comptroller.”
No, Dušić thought, I am a fighter with the heart of a poet. But he took his friend’s compliment in the spirit in which it was intended.
“So will you talk to some of the old Volunteer Guards?” Dušić asked.
“Of course. If I find some who are willing, how many do you want?”
“Three or four,” Dušić said. Though he planned on arming and leading many more men later, he needed only a few for the initial mission. They had to be absolutely trustworthy. Men who would carry a secret to their graves.
At least he could trust his old friend Stefan, as long as the man remained sober. Their association went back to the early days of the Bosnian War.
Dušić remembered one day in 1995 when Stefan had demonstrated his worth. Dušić’s platoon patrolled around the region of Mount Javor to make sure all the UN observers had retreated. His thirty men climbed a wooded hill and emerged at the edge of an open but unplanted field. Grass and wild clover sprouted where Dušić would have expected wheat or corn. That fallow field could mean that the farmer had become a good Muslim in the only way possible—by becoming a dead Muslim. Or it could mean the field was mined. Dušić elected to take his men around the field.
He motioned to one of his sergeants, ordered the man to walk point along the tree line. The rest of the platoon followed until they came to a narrow garden planted in peas and lettuce. Beyond the garden lay a bombed-out home, its tiled roof blown open by a mortar round or tank shell.
The cultivated garden seemed a safe avenue, so the Serb soldiers walked along its rows. The men scanned left and right, held their weapons at the ready. Dušić walked a few paces behind the sergeant on point, the rich, loamy soil sticking to his boots. When they came within two hundred meters of the house, Dušić heard the supersonic crack of a high-velocity bullet. The sergeant dropped to his knees as if to rest. Then he fell forward, flat on his face, rifle still clutched underneath him. Blood gushed from the exit wound in his back, spattered the black loam and the green leaves of lettuce.
“Sniper!” Dušić shouted.
His men rushed to cover. Dušić dived for the scant protection of furrows. Some of his men took positions in the woods to the side of the garden.
The sniper’s weapon boomed again, and a soldier behind Dušić screamed. The sniper, that Muslim piece of excrement, had set a trap. The Turk had known the minefield would channel any patrol right into his sights.
Some of Dušić’s men—the ones among the trees—opened up on full automatic. Under the shield of that covering fire, Dušić and the rest of the soldiers still in the garden rose to their feet and sprinted for the forest. They left the two wounded troops where they’d been shot: to treat them now would amount to suicide.
Dušić slid onto the carpet of pine needles inside the woods. Beside him, one of his soldiers fired burst after burst into the house.
“Did you get him?” Dušić asked.
“No, sir,” the soldier said. “I can see his head and part of his weapon, but the distance is too great, and he ducks when I fire.”
“Listen, everyone,” Dušić said. “Cease fire.” Dušić thought for a moment. His men had handled this ambush well, thanks to his quick-thinking NCOs. Otherwise, his youngest troops, mere fuzz-faced razvodniks, would have died where they stood, pissing their pants. He called on his best NCO. “Stefan,” he whispered, “get up here.”
Dušić’s own sniper came forward in a crouch. Stefan carried an M48 Mauser equipped with a ZRAK scope. Dušić had offered to get the man a more modern weapon than that bolt-action relic, but Stefan said he needed no higher rate of fire; one bullet at a time would suffice.
“Viktor,” Stefan said as he kneeled beside Dušić. First names between officers and sergeants did not accord with Yugoslav military tradition, but Stefan had earned enough respect that Dušić permitted it. Dušić would have slapped any other enlisted man who dared call him Viktor.
“You know what to do, my friend,” Dušić whispered. Then he hissed, “Five of you, retreat farther into the woods, and make some noise doing it. Let that Muslim think we’re leaving.” As the men began to move, Dušić shouted, “Fall back!”
A few of the soldiers crawled several meters away, cracking twigs and kicking their boots against the trunks of trees. “Good,” Dušić whispered, “good.”
“You are one crafty bastard,” Stefan said.
“Flatter me later,” Dušić muttered. “Now kill that son of a whore.”
Stefan adjusted the windage knob on his scope, regarded the house, settled into a prone position. Old M48s like Stefan’s weapon were common as dirt. Dušić’s mind strayed for just an instant— maybe after the war he could sell those things to sportsmen. Then he chided himself: Pay attention. An officer must command at every moment.
But at this moment, Stefan needed little by way of command. He watched through his scope with what seemed to Dušić a preternatural patience, like a cat waiting to strike, motionless but for the flick of its tail—waiting, waiting for the rat.
And the rat took the bait. The Turk sniper peered from the broken lumber of a shattered upper floor. A splintered plank hid the Turk’s left shoulder and part of his head. The rat exposed only part of his face. Enough for Stefan. He pressed the trigger.
The M48 slammed, rocked Stefan’s upper body with recoil. Dušić saw the briefest spray of red as the eight-millimeter bullet found its target. The Turkish rat dropped.
“Bravo,” Dušić said.
“Wait,” Stefan said, almost as if he were giving the orders. But Dušić knew he was right. No way to know how many enemy were in the house. Stefan cycled the bolt on the M48, ejected the empty brass, and loaded another round.
No sound came from the house for several minutes. Dušić considered what to do next. He needed to know if more enemy remained inside. Normally, officers did not make targets of themselves, but enough of Dušić’s men had suffered wounds already. And his men would trust him more if they saw him display courage. Dušić rose to his feet.
“Viktor,” Stefan whispered, “do not—”
“I know you will cover me,” Dušić said. He stepped into the open, walked toward the house. Held his breath, watched the home for movement. Listened for a shot. Nothing happened.
When Dušić made it halfway across the garden, he knew the threat had passed. “Medics,” he called, “take care of those men.”
“Yes, sir!” came shouts from the woods. Two soldiers ran from the trees to their fallen comrades. The medics reported that both of the wounded had died. Dušić felt fury rise within him. Two Serb lives taken by this Turk.
Inside the house, upstairs, Dušić and Stefan found the Turk. He lay on his back, most of his face blown away. Blood spatter ran from the wall, and a pool of red crept across the wooden floor. The Muslim’s eyes stared at the ceiling. Dušić wondered why the bullet hadn’t simply taken off the rat’s head. But then he realized the Turk must have turned his face at the instant Stefan fired. The bullet had ripped away his cheeks and jaws, left the brain intact. A gurgling sound came from what remained of the palate and throat. Breathing.
“Damn your Ottoman mother,” Dušić said. “You are still alive.”
Dušić drew his CZ 99, aimed the handgun. Started to pull the trigger, but decided to enjoy the moment for just another minute. Savor the vengeance.
“Your friends at the United Nations have declared this a safe area,” Dušić said. “Did that scrap of paper in New York protect you, Turk? Do you feel safe now?”
The bloody mess at Dušić’s feet gurgled again. Dušić fired. Brains spattered his boots.
All that had taken place nearly twenty years ago, but Dušić remembered the events as if they had just happened. He saw the glory of his youth as a promise unfulfilled. He and his people had been traveling a brilliant path to the future, but outside intervention had denied them their destiny.
After Dušić hung up the phone, he told Milica he would be out for a while. He took the elevator down to street level, found his blue Aventador in the garage. Dušić raised the driver’s-side door, lowered himself into the leather seat, pulled the door closed. In his forties now, he remained agile, able to climb into the low-slung vehicle comfortably. During his war years he had escaped injury, fortunately, and he knew the tasks ahead of him might require personal strength and endurance.
He placed the key fob in the ignition, raised the cover for the start button on the center console. Dušić pressed the button, and the V12 behind him rumbled to life. He pulled out of the garage, drove through the city, and headed west to Nikola Tesla Airport. When he arrived, he saw the tail fin of the Antonov An-124 looming above the cargo terminal, just as expected. Originally designed to project Soviet military power, now many of the huge Antonov cargo jets flew for civilian operators. Dušić maintained a contract with this particular company, with deals to fly his AK-47s, RPG-7s, and crates of land mines wherever needed. All transactions completely aboveboard and known to the authorities. The people who ran these freight carriers always complained about fuel prices, and those Cossacks used that as an excuse to charge exorbitant fees. But they paid their aircrews like peasants, and that gave Dušić the leverage he needed to ship certain products off the books. A little supplemental pay got him a little supplemental cargo.
Dušić found the Antonov’s captain, Dmitri, smoking an American cigarette, watching the ground crew unload his aircraft. An overhead crane built into the An-124’s cargo compartment lifted the pallets.
“Did your trip go as planned, my friend?” Dušić asked.
Dmitri took a drag on his Pall Mall, nodded, exhaled through his nostrils. The captain looked tired. His face bristled with black and gray stubble, and the skin sagged under his eyes. An oversize flight suit hung from his thin frame, the fabric rumpled and marred with coffee stains.
“It did,” Dmitri said. “We began our day in Dubai, and we made a stop in Kuwait. Then we picked up your cargo at Manas. We got into Kyrgyzstan just ahead of a storm. The packing material is as you described.”
“Excellent.” Dušić reached into the inside pocket of his H. Huntsman coat, extracted an envelope, handed it to Dmitri. The pay did not cover flying; the Antonov had been scheduled to land in Manas anyway. The money paid for the ongoing operation: offloading some of the cargo and swapping out the packing material. Dušić watched the crane lower a pallet onto a flatbed truck. A crewman started the truck and drove it into a warehouse. Dmitri took a final drag on his smoke, then flicked away the butt as if something disgusted him.
“You don’t approve of this business, Dmitri,” Dušić said, “yet you profit from it.”
“If fools inhale that poison or inject it into their veins,” the captain said, “I care not.”
“I do not mean to chide you, Captain. I dislike this product as well. I have never traded it before. But it provides a means to an end.”
Inside the warehouse, the ground crew repackaged the opium, bundled it into plastic wrap, and bound it with tape. Then they boxed the contraband in pasteboard cartons and loaded it onto another truck. Finally, the men used foam pellets and newspaper to pad the cargo of electronic gear. The electronics would fly on to Frankfurt, and the opium would wind up on the streets of Paris and London, Brussels and Berlin. Maybe even New York and Los Angeles. Dušić hoped so, anyway, but where dealers sold to final customers was not his problem. He did not dirty his hands with such matters.
“Take care that you get it all,” Dušić ordered. He could not tolerate stupid mistakes.
“Yes, sir,” a crewman answered.
Rumor had it, Dušić knew, that he’d eliminated employees and contractors who displeased him. The tales exaggerated the numbers, but he did nothing to discourage the stories. They helped motivate the lazy, speed up the tardy. His clients respected ruthlessness and efficiency, so Dušić made those qualities part of his brand.
As he watched the ground crew finish their work, one of his cell phones chimed. It was the throwaway phone that he’d purchased on a pay-per-call contract under a false name. He glanced at the number; the call came from a contact in Kyrgyzstan. This annoyed him; he had told that moron to ring him only for emergencies. Dušić wanted to keep his digital footprint as small as possible. He flipped open the phone.
“What?” he asked.
“Lieutenant Dušić, we have a problem,” the caller said. “One of our planes has crashed.” The caller described how the Afghan C-27 had burst into flames when it tried to land at Manas.
Dušić said nothing, simply let the information sink in. Burned with silent rage. He wanted to kill the fools who’d failed him, but they were already dead. Temper would not serve him well now, anyway. He needed a clear mind. The accident could have ripple effects, unpredictable consequences. It might threaten the operational security of his mission.
“Lieutenant,” the caller said, “are you there?”
“I heard you, idiot.” Dušić clapped the phone closed. He needed to think. And he wished his helpers wouldn’t call him by his old rank. He was making decisions far above that grade now.
Less than a half hour later, Dušić accelerated down Kralja Milana, using the paddle shifters behind his steering wheel. When he turned onto Kralja Petra, he found what he had come to see— the Patriarchate of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Constructed in the 1930s, the Patriarchate building hardly ranked as the most ancient site in the history of Dušić’s religion. But the structure had become one of the most important. Soon the Patriarchate would host the Holy Assembly of Bishops. Dušić often came here to reflect as he planned ahead. As he drove by, he regarded the portico and the columns, and he considered the treasures in the library and museum. The church had never played a big role in his life, but now it played a big role in his plans.
He drummed his fingers on the wheel, let those plans sink into his subconscious. Brilliant ideas needed time to distill. Sometimes he woke in the night as he thought of a detail he had overlooked, and he would pen a note, printing neat figures in Serbian Cyrillic.
With much on his mind, Dušić turned the corner, weaved through central Belgrade, and once again drove down Kralja Milana. He stopped at Pionirski Park and shut down the Aventador, though he did not get out. He only stared at the trees, thinking. Though he never doubted the rightness of his cause, sometimes he had second thoughts about his opening tactic. If all the details came to light, some people would never understand. The mission must take place under strict and permanent secrecy.
Genius, he considered, was a curse. How much more simply he could have lived as a common farmer, or perhaps a gunsmith. Better yet, a poet, concerned only with advancing the literature of his nation. But those given rare vision, the ability to take the long view, must not waste it. He found no time to write poetry now, but he could take inspiration from poems. In his briefcase on the passenger seat, he carried one of his favorite works, The Mountain Wreath. A play written in epic verse, penned in the nineteenth century by the Montenegrin prince-bishop Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, who dreamed of liberating all his people from the Turks. Dušić turned to one of his favorite verses, in which the character Bishop Danilo speaks of Muslims:
Besides Asia, where their nest is hidden,
the devil’s tribe gobbled up the nations—
one every day, as an owl gulps a bird . . .
But the devil’s tribe would soon choke on this nation, if Dušić had any say in the matter. The plane crash at Manas could complicate things, but he would not turn back now.
Praise for The Warriors
“Young’s plots create a lot of dramatic heat, and his characters, ordinary Americans caught up in the disasters of our politically tumultuous times, behave in such ways as to win the reader’s affection even as the novelist himself works with great care and energy to win the reader’s trust . . . Reading Tom Young’s fiction gives you the idea of what actual modern combat might be like, not what someone may imagine it to be. His personal experience plus a good dose of narrative craft lead to yet another triumph of the fiction of contemporary warfare.”—The Dallas Morning News
“A terrific addition to what has become an exemplary series . . . Young handles all the military thriller logistics like a seasoned pro . . . but it's his superior writing that elevates this book above most of the others in this crowded subgenre.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“[Young] is an assured stylist with a gift for subtle characterizations and tightly controlled action scenes. The novel has moral depth as well . . . An expertly rendered tale of lingering hostilities rooted in the former Yugoslavia.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Young experienced the events of the Balkan wars first hand, and his knowledge translates well to the page. The reader develops a true understanding of the atrocities that occurred in the region and shares Young’s concern, expressed in an afterword, that this level of ethnic violence never happens again.”—Booklist
“Part of Tom Young’s attraction for readers is his sense of history and ability to explain the complicated origins of past conflicts . . . [and] as all good action thrillers do, The Warriors ends with a satisfying bang-up climax. Certainly fans of Tom Young couldn’t ask for more.”—Washington Independent Review of Books
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