April 8, 2003, 4:05 a.m. 10 Kilometers south of Tallil, Southern Iraq
Adara Dunbar opened her eyes to find herself floating in a world gone brown. The air shimmered and folded in on itself in constantly moving circles. Nothing stayed solid. Where was she?
She clawed at thoughts to catch hold of them, but they, too, darted past her, spinning out of control. It was disconcerting, the effort needed to lay claim to some shred of her identity, of her surroundings.
Then she moved slightly and with the tearing pain in her abdomen came a shock of lucidity. She had been shot. She had been captured. She was on a cot, in a tent.
There had been a man in the black robes of the Fedayeen, Saddam Hussein’s trained assassins. He had a sharp nose and a black beard, shaved close. But his eyes were what she remembered. They were violet. In a woman, they might have been beautiful. In his face, they blazed hatred. He had asked her questions. He had delighted in causing her pain.
She stirred again, and the tent walls seemed to fall in on her. She closed her eyes quickly, but the world did not stop spinning. And her stomach lurched as well, vomit rising in her throat. Suddenly her nausea and confusion made sense.
She had been drugged. That was the only answer.
For the first time, she panicked.
What had she said?
Adara opened her eyes again to see where the guards were. She was alone in this tent with the cot, but she could see shadows against the walls of the larger tent adjoining hers. How many were there? Four? Six? She could hear low mutterings in Arabic.
“God help me,” she whisphered. “Give me wisdom. Give me strength.”
She was a messenger, delivering the most important information of her life. It concerned safeguarding the secret that had shaped mankind for millennia–and, most likely, the real reason for the war that had started days before.
How had these men found her? Where had their information come from? How had they gotten this close?
She reached under the black hijab, the head scarf that also covered her neck. With great relief, she felt the small silver chain still there, the pendant still intact.
There was no question, she had to deliver the message.
Her hand was sticky and as she held it up, she saw it dripping with blood. She tried to move to ascertain the extent of her injuries, but the pain of even a small shift caused a sharp intake of breath. She did not want to call attention to the fact that she was conscious. Why was no guard left here with her?
She forced herself up, pushed the wine-colored fabric of the robe from her right side–and she knew. She had been left for dead.
From outside, a new voice was heard, shockingly loud, striking nonchalant. “Muleskinner One Two, this is Rock Three November. Over.”
The American accent was dead-on. He repeated, “Muleskinner One Two, this is Rock Three November. Over.”
The response came over the crackle of a radio: “Rock Three November, this is Muleskinner One Two. Over.”
The new voice was female. It was familiar.
“I have been tasked to relay the following message from Muleskinner Six. Break. Be advised, a ROM site has been established along MSR Falcon. Break. Are you prepared to copy grids? Over.”
“Ready to copy.”
And with those three words, Adara knew. She had given them the name of her backup.
The man outside her tent continued. “Proceed along MSR Falcon to grid Papa Victor 17771667. How copy?”
“I copy Lima Charlie. Thanks for the relay. If you are in contact with Muleskinner Five, tell him we should arrive in about three zero mikes. Over.”
It was Jaime. The sound of her voice sent Adara reeling back into Dr. Hayden’s History of World Religions class. An unusually hot September day in Princeton, Professor Hayden’s hair flaring from his head like leaping sunspots. The two women sat next to each other. They had formed a bond the first day of class, the only students actually paying attention in what was obviously a beyond-boring required course for the majority of their classmates.
“Muleskinner One Two, Rock Three November. Wilco. Out.”
She had led them to Jaime Richards. She had as good as arranged the ambush; she had signed Jaime’s death certificate.
With an incredible act of will, Adara held up her right arm. It was bare; the bracelet was gone. Hot tears crowded her eyes.
Short of a miracle, her mission had failed completely.
If there was one thing she had learned in her short life, it was that there was little use in waiting for miracles. Sometimes you had to create them yourself.
PART ONE TALLIL / UR
April 8, 2003 4:22 a.m. Highway 1 (Route Tornado) 12 kilometers south of Tallil, Southern Iraq
The first sign of trouble was a jolt to the Humvee. The vehicle continued another few paces, but it was slightly rocking, like a man with a limp. Chaplain (Major) Jaime Richards hit the brake and pushed the gear stick into park. “What now?” she muttered.
Before the question was completed, her chaplain assistant, Staff Sergeant Alejandro Ramon Benito Rodriguez, was on the ground, searching for the cause of the problem. The other five vehicles in their small convoy saw their predicament and rolled to a halt in the darkness of the barren landscape.
Jaime got out as Sergeant Moore, a tall black man–a good six feet to her five foot seven–climbed out of the lead vehicle and joined them. “What happened?”
“It looks like we ran over a small bale of concertina buried in the dust,” Rodriguez said as he grabbed a battery-powered work light from the back of the Humvee. Concertina was the Army’s improvised version of barbed wire. It was stronger, with razorlike barbs that could easily slice through clothes–or flesh.
“Damn,” said Sergeant Moor, sighting the left rear tire. “That’s wound around that wheel tighter than a ball of yarn!”
Jaime pushed at the Kevlar helmet over her plaited blonde hair and stifled a sigh. So what else could go wrong? She was in the headquarters of the 57th Corps Support Group, whose mission it was to support units in the Fifth (V) Corps with essential supplies such as water, ammunition, and fuel. V Corps had entered Iraq frst and had already secured camps in Tallil and other towns that dotted the way to Baghdad.
Jaime was with the CSG Headquarters, which had headed out at noon yesterday, April 7.
Everything had gone well until one of the Humvees in her unit had broken down and the mechanics had tried to fix it so that it could move under its own power. All fine and good, but that meant they’d been stuck on the side of the road for hours. Once they’d started moving again, a sandstorm had kicked up, slowing their pace at times to a crawl.
The little six-vehicle convoy had no way of locating the rest of their unit until they received the radio message twenty minutes earlier. They must be within radio range, and that was good news.
It seemed they’d been out of the sandstorm and moving with purpose for an entire five minutes before they hit concertina. What else could go wrong?
Rodgriguez crawled under the Humvee on his back, switched on the work light, and started pushing against the wire with his boots. Moore shook his head. “You’ll never get that off by yourself.”
But the compact staff sergeant was absorbed in his task. Jaime could see in an instant that Moore was right. There was good reason the soldiers referred to concertina as barbed wire on steroids. It was thick and nasty and could easily have fallen off any passing truck. “We’ll need help,” she said. “Why don’t you continue to the ROM site with the rest of the convoy and see if they have a wrecker there? We’re only one klick from the turnoff point.”
A Refuel on the Move site, or ROM, was the Army’s version of a mobile gas station. According to the transmission, they were less than one mile from the turnoff for the ROM established by their own soldiers.
“Yes, ma’am. But we should leave another vehicle here with you.” Sergeant Moore thought for a second. “Specialist Houghton has an automatic weapon, so I’ll leave his vehicle, Headquarters 15, here with you, and the rest of us will head for the refuel site.”
“Here. Take my GPS. I have the ROM site programmed in.” Jaime offered him her personal handheld global positioning system. It was the only one in their convoy.
Moore took it gratefully. “What about you?”
“You’re sending a vehicle back, right? We’ll be fine.”
“OK. Keep a guard posted at all times. There are still pockets of reistance in Tallil”
“Already done…look.” She pointed toward Private First Class Patterson, an 18-year-old white female from Kentucky, who had hitched a ride in their Humvee. She stood five meters from them, intently scanning the countryside, her weapon ready to fire.
Even as the chaplain pointed, she noticed that Patterson’s silhouette on the dark desert landscape was losing definition. Another sandstorm was kicking up. Just what they needed.
When will I learn? she chided herself. Never, but never, wonder what else can go wrong. You’ll invariably get the answer.
Seargent Moore was moving back up the line, instructing drivers as he went. Headquarters 15, Specialist Houghton’s vehicle, pulled out of the line and circled back toward them. The other four, three Humvees and an ambulance, roared forward on the road.
“Any luck?” Jaime asked, squatting down by Rodriguez. What he lacked in height he easily made up for in muscle and sheer determination. He didn’t answer but kept resolutely kicking at the encumbering wire. Jaime opened her door and found her work gloves. She squinted at the wire and gingerly tried to find a handhold from above. It wasn’t easy. Concertina would slice through ordinary work gloves like a steak knife through watermelon. But she continued to try. There was little chance they could actually free the wheel without a wrecker, but it was better to give an effort than just wait.
Rodriguez shifted back out from below the vehicle. “I think I saw some wire cutters,” he said and shifted his search to the back of the Humvee. He turned around with a small pair of cutters and a grin on his face.
They squatted together and he tried to come up under the concertina with the tool, but there was no way the small clamps could even make a dent. “I guess that’s what makes this stuff so effective,” he sighed.
Suddenly the sound of gunshots–small-arms fire–tore through the darkness. As they leapt to their feet, the sky erupted in light as flares exploded over a hill about two hundred meters away. Another round of shooting was answered, this time with something larger.
“Tallil?” asked Rodriguez.
“No, it’s too close for Tallil.”
Jaime strode to Private Patterson, also fully alert, watching the flares set off by the military to reveal the attackers in the distance. The young soldier held her rifle with a combination of enthusiasm and nerves.
“I’m ready, ma’am,” she said.
The chaplain turned and stalked toward their second vehicle. “Houghton?” she asked.
Specialist Randy Houghton was on the ground, his automatic weapon in position. “I see it, Chaplain. It doesn’t sound like they’re heading this way. Yet.”
“I hope you’re right.”
The next round of flares illuminated an ever-thicker swirl of sand. Jaime knew her immediate objective was to get out of any potential line of fire. As a non-combatant, she wasn’t even carrying a sidearm. She did, however, have her own security detail in the person of her chaplain assistant. She came behind the truck and was startled to find Rodriguez on his feet, looking off into the desert in the opposite direction.
“Chaplain?” he said.
She squinted, dismayed by the quickening intensity of the sandstorm. The whistle of the wind was picking up as well. What was he looking at? Why wasn’t his weapon drawn?
Then she saw it–a shape moving in the darkness. She turned to make certain that Rodriguez had his weapon ready and was shocked to find him moving off into the sand instead. She grabbed her night-vision goggles from the driver’s seat. Was it a person? The movement was not fluid–neither a walk nor a crawl. But it was advancing. It had to be a person. What was Rodriguez doing? It could be a trap. Damn! You don’t just go walking up to an unknown person in the dark!
“Patterson!” she called, and the young soldier turned, saw the situation, and used her weapon to cover the receding form of Rodriguez. They both watched, dumbstruck, as he fought his way over–and through–the sand to the figure. It collapsed into his arms. Jaime moved forward to meet him. It was slow going, each step hard-won. Finally she reached Rodriguez as he plowed forward, carrying the person in his arms.
“What…?” started Jaime, shouting to be heard.
“She’s injured!” answered the staff sergeant, not breaking his labored stride. He laid the form gently on the sand behind the truck. Chaplain Richards was still startled by his actions, but before she could respond, a female voice spoke.
“Jaime,” it said.
The chaplain dropped onto her knees in the sand. She moved the dark scarf from the woman’s face. Jaime had never been more shocked in her life. The features were familiar, but so out of context she couldn’t make the connection. They were streaked with mud, the head scarf unwound to reveal thick black hair plastered with sand and sweat.
And then Jaime’s mind found a circuitous route to recognition.
Princeton Seminary. Her year getting a master’s in world religions. The school library. The scent of wood. An open map of the possible dwelling places of Abraham, patriarch of three major faiths. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Ur of the Chaldeans. And Adara, studying with her. Now here they were, halfway around the world, in the middle of a sandstorm in Iraq, outside Tallil, a stone’s throw from Ur. They were here.
“Adara?” she said.
“Listen.” The younger woman’s voice was urgent through parched lips. “Message. So…important. you must deliver it.”
“What are you talking about? Message for whom? From who?”
“In four hours. 0800. 3057 4606.”
Out of habit, Jaime reached into the cargo pocket of her pants and pulled out a small green notebook she carried with her everywhere. She wrote down the numbers.”
“I don’t understand. 0800 is the time. But what are the other numbers?”
“The Fourth Sister,” Adara whispered. “You must find it!”
“Here,” she said, and she had to struggle for another breath. From beneath the folds of crimson material she withdrew a delicate chain. A finely crafted silver pendant, less than an inch long, hung from it. The pendant looked like a flattened cylinder–barely wide enough to contain something very small. “Must bring home the lost sword.”
“Adara! What are you telling me? I don’t understand. Are you hurt?”
“Yes,” she said. “Not important. Please, promise me. The message. Leave it there. 3057 4606. Where the Sister points.”
“The Fourth Sister.”
A faint nod.
This was all too baffling.
“Where are you hurt? We’re traveling with an ambulance–medics. As soon as we can free our wheel, we’ll catch up to them.”
“They’ve gone? No! The radio call…ambush. Don’t go.”
“It’s OK,” Jaime said. “It was one of our guys. Had to be–our transmissions change frequencies every second. No one who isn’t U.S. military can listen–let alone talk to us.”
Ambush, mouth Adara, and Jaime gingerly moved what remained of Adara’s tattered robe from her side. Even in the darkness, Jaime could see her friend was in serious trouble.
“Rodriguez,” Jaime called, and he appeared beside her.
“Look what they were carrying in Headquarters 15,” he said, brandishing a pair of bolt cutters.
The gunfire that split the night this time was heavier caliber. More gunfire, and an explosion. Jaime and Rodriguez scrambled to their feet. “That’s not the hill,” said Rodriguez. “That’s further up ahead up the road.”
“Ambush,” whispered Adara again, urgently.
Jaime’s assistant handed her the light, and she knelt to hold it by the tire, keeping it as hidden as possible. These wire cutters worked like a charm. Eight snips and Jaime was able to grab the concertina wire carefully with her gloved hands and peel it back.
Seargent Rodriguez already had Adara in his arms and was placing her carefully into the transport.
“Get her settled!” Jaime yelled at him. “I’ll tell Houghton we’re going to proceed. We’ve got to assist the rest of the convoy! They’re being ambushed! They don’t know it was a bogus call. They think we’ve got friendly forces just ahead!”
“Due respect, ma’am, but I’m not driving you into a known ambush!”
“OK, it’s noted you’ve argued the security crap. Let’s move!”
She clearly saw the dilemma reflected in his eyes. His job was to keep her out of harm’s way. But they also needed to help the vehicles up ahead.
“Are you driving, or am I?” The question painted him into a corner. Since she had no weapon, the safest setup would put her in back, Rodriguez driving, Patterson riding shotgun. But Rodriguez couldn’t stop her from driving, or from heading straight into the ambush.
Richards and Rodriguez squared off, eyes blazing. “You don’t have a choice, Sergeant,” Jaime said, for once underscoring his rank. “Get Patterson.” And she ran to instruct Headquarters 15.
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B. K. SHERER holds a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and a doctorate from Oklahoma State University . A Presbyterian minister, she served on active duty as a chaplain in the United States Army for 20 years. Her work has taken her to Argentina , Somalia, Korea , Costa Rica, Germany, Kuwait and Iraq. She is now officially the Rev. Dr. Chaplain (COL) Retired.
Besides the Eden Thrillers, SHARON LINNÉA is the author of the mystery These Violent Delights. She has also written the biographies Raoul Wallenberg, The Man Who Stopped Death and Princess Ka’iulani: Hope of a Nation, Heart of a People, which won the prestigious Carter G. Woodson Award, as well as the nonfiction book Lost Civilizations. Sharon has been a staff writer for five national magazines and a ghostwriter for dozens of celebrities. She lives with her family outside of New York City. She also penned the YA spy novel COLT SHORE: Domino 29 with Axel Avian.