Excerpt from DECREE © 1999
Nicolas McCayne squinted into the glare of a relentless sunrise and check his rearview mirror. The gray Mercedes was hanging back a little. He'd spotted it before-with almost predictable regularity-in the weeks since the press had first reported Tehran's proclamation of his death decree.
Today, though, something was different. Most often the driver was alone. This morning he had a passenger. Why two of them today?
The driver had been careful not to get too close. As usual, he’d allowed two or three other vehicles to tuck into the space between his Benz and Nick’s Jeep Cherokee. Nick had never been able to see his face clearly or to get the license number.
Nor had he ever attempted to lose the Mercedes. No slipping through yellow lights, no quick turns in front of oncoming traffic, nothing of that sort, although it would have been easy to do. Better to keep the car in sight. If it suddenly stopped showing up, if the familiar pattern changed, then he’d start to sweat. Until then, he’d decided, no point turning paranoid over such a trivial, if somewhat curious, annoyance.
But the presence of a second man in the car today had Nick, without realizing it, keeping a closer than usual eye on the mirror. Even though he was aware that, whatever the reason for the deviation from normal routine, for now the “game” was about to end.
When he turned south onto Aspen Avenue, the approach to the main gate of Denver’s Buckley Air Force Base, the Mercedes did not follow. Instead it slowed, crept uncertainly through the intersection, then sped away to the east.
“See ya later, fellas,” Nick breathed, speaking to the reflection of the gray sedan sliding across his mirror. “Guess you’ll have to find some other way to get your kicks for a while.”
Then he shifted his gaze to the civilian security guard who strolled casually from the gate house and motioned him to a stop.
He lowered his window and held up the identification card of a former military officer. Below his photo, taken when his hair was still cut to regulation length, appeared his full name, Nicolas Allen McCayne, and his former rank, Captain, United States Navy.
The I.D. card represented a bridge to his past. He’d been a career naval aviator, a naval intelligence officer and, in his last assignment, the American Naval Attaché to Egypt. Now, he was Dr. McCayne, associate professor of international relations at Denver University.
The guard waved him through the gate. “Have a nice day, sir.”
“You too,” Nick said, powering up his window. Then he headed for the flight line and base operations.
He was making his way to Washington, D.C., to deliver a lecture on Islamic extremism at the National Defense University, where Uncle Sam’s military elite came to study such things. He could have flown commercial out of Denver International Airport at NDU’s expense, but he preferred to catch a ride with the military whenever there happened to be a plane with an open seat going to the right place.
Today he was in luck. The Air National Guard was returning a contingent of military officers to Andrews Air Force Base near Washington following their inspection tour of base facilities in Colorado, and there were three spare seats.
Having confirmed McCayne’s arrival at Buckley, Moustafa pointed his gray Mercedes toward Denver International, roughly 15 miles to the northeast. He would drop his passenger there at curbside check-in, too much on his agenda to afford the man the courtesy of seeing him to his departure gate.
Next he’d e-mail his superior in Washington a detailed account of McCayne’s movements this morning. Then he’d visit a U-Haul agency, something he would have done long before had he not been saddled with this damned surveillance business.
But he would spend most of the day putting the finishing touches on the plans for the upcoming operation, over which he had obsessed for over a year and for whose success or failure he alone would be held accountable.
Essentially, the plan was complete. All that remained were the pesky little details that could undo the mission and lead to failure if not attended to properly.
“The devil is in the details,” he had often heard.
But Moustafa preferred his own version of the adage: “In the details, the devils shall die.”
Nick checked in at the passenger service desk, then located a pay phone, eager to let Laura know that he’d gotten a seat and would be leaving for D.C. within the hour. By now she would be at work at the downtown offices of Levine, Willis & Kaplan, Attorneys at Law, where at age 34, she was on the verge of becoming a junior partner.
“Hi, counselor. How goes your Monday morning?”
“My God, is it still morning? Seems like a long day already.” She lowered her voice to a syrupy whisper. “Thanks a lot for keeping me awake all night, you…lascivious…”
Nick smiled at the memory. “My very great pleasure, ma’am.”
“I’m paying for it today, but I had a nice time. I always do.”
“Me too,” Nick said. He could almost see the mischievous smile in her cinnamon brown eyes, smell the honeyed fragrance of her thick auburn hair, feel the slender contours of her lissome, tawny-skinned body. He pictured her naked, way he’d seen her last, then tried to imagine how she looked at this moment, freshly showered and immaculately dressed, perched at her desk preparing for legal combat.
“Get your flight?” she yawned. “Guess you did, or you wouldn’t be calling this early.”
“Right you are, m’dear. Now, what can I bring you from Washington?”
“Hmmm, let’s see,” Laura said. “How ‘bout a federal judgeship? That’d be nice.”
“No problem, although you may find me guilty of doing something …contemptible…under your robes.”
“Sounds kinky. No objection.”
Nick frowned, resigned to the fact that he could no longer delay the inevitable. “Okay, lawyer babe. I hate to get serious on you, but we’ll be boarding any minute. Just wanted to let you know…and to apologize for sneaking out so early. Had to get back to my place and pack, you know.”
“I know.” Laura’s voice turned melancholy. “I just wish you didn’t have to go at all. When’ll you be back?”
“In four days. Thursday. Don’t know whether I’ll be coming back military or commercial. Call you when I do.”
“And I’ll pick you up at DIA if you can’t get a flight back to Buckley. Be careful. Oh…and don’t eat the fish.”
“Never,” Nick said, pleased that Laura had remembered his standing gag-fantasy about flying as a passenger—that the pilots would eat fish and be stricken with food poisoning so that he’d have to land the plane. Pure Hollywood.
“Nick, I hate saying goodbye, especially on the phone. But I’m due in court in a few minutes and I’ve gotta run.”
He remembered that Laura’s client was a former city employee who’d sued to get his job back, asserting he’d been the victim of political cronyism. “Break a leg today.”
"Thanks. How ‘bout if I take you out to dinner Thursday night? Maybe something French. Come back hungry, okay?”
“That too? I’ll make a point of it.”
“I love you,” Laura said.
“I love you, too.”
Never had Nick been able to utter those words lightly. Unlike some men he knew, he’d never used them to pave his way into bed. He’d said them to Laura only recently—after their relationship had seasoned for the better part of seven months. It had been a monumental emotional step for him, a step away from the memory of his beloved Susan, who had died in his arms in Norfolk, Virginia, in the 12th year of their marriage.
That afternoon, Susan had played tennis at the base—her weekly doubles match with the girls—then stopped for groceries on her way home. While lugging the bags from her car to the kitchen, an intruder slipped into the house, beat her unconscious with a crescent wrench and raped her. Her attacker didn’t know, and would not have cared, that she was three months pregnant.
When Nick arrived home from work, he found her there on the kitchen floor. He held her, stroking her blood-soaked hair, pleading for the ambulance to hurry.
“I love you, Susan,” he sobbed again and again, praying she would hear. But she did not.
Saying the words now to Laura infused him with a tangle of competing emotions—a warm if somewhat tenuous conviction that his life had regained purpose battling to overcome a persistent sense of betrayal, the demon guilt whose iron-cold grip still imprisoned his soul.
On the flight to Andrews Nick chatted for a while with an Air Force lieutenant colonel seated next to him, a fighter pilot from “down around Austin.” They compared flying experiences and duty assignments, in the process dredging up a couple of mutual acquaintances. Eventually the conversation began to lag and the lieutenant colonel dozed off. Nick had never been able to do that in the air.
Years before, during extended low-level surveillance and submarine tracking missions in the four-engine P-3 Orion, he’d taken his scheduled turns out of the pilot’s seat, stretched out on one of the bunks in the rear of the darkened cabin and tried to wean his mind from the cockpit. But with two less experienced pilots at the controls, his body had remained stubbornly attuned to every turn and power change. He could rush to the cockpit in an emergency, but only if he did not permit himself to sleep. That was a long time ago, yet he’d never been able to shake the habit.
And while he relished his naval aviation experience, he’d also discovered life beyond the cockpit. Between flying assignments, he’d completed three graduate schools, spent two tours in intelligence and one as a naval attaché.
For Dr. McCayne teaching classes and authoring scholarly texts had proven a sedate contrast to the diversity, hardships and stimulation of a Navy career—mostly job, little adventure. To recharge his batteries and to relive the excitement of his flying experiences, he’d compiled a book of short stories about them. And to his pleasant surprise, Remember, It’s Break Ground and Fly into the Wind had actually been published. National distribution was about to begin.
He was carrying an advance copy of Remember in his briefcase as a gift for his dearest friends, Rear Admiral John Porthouse Gibson, director of naval intelligence, and the admiral’s irrepressibly capricious wife Janet.
Over the last few days, Nick had been mentally composing a suitable personal note to inscribe on the flyleaf. Finally he’d come up with something in keeping with the humorous tone of the book itself, but had not yet written it down. Best get it done now, he decided.
He popped his briefcase open and the lieutenant colonel stirred to consciousness, his eyes coming to focus on the book’s title. He chuckled at its play on words. Then he caught the name of the author.
“Hey, is that you, perfesser?” he yawned, stretching his arms high over his head.
“But I thought you wrote academic kinda stuff. This looks like it’s about flyin.’"
“Right on both counts,” Nick said, unsheathing his pen. “This one’s more or less about flying. Something I’d wanted to do for a long time, mostly for fun. All based on personal experience, so it was easy to write. No research required.” Then he added as an afterthought, “And no controversy.”
“Yeah,” Nick sighed. “My first book raised a few hackles among some of the more vocal Muslim factions—here in the States as well as overseas. Some of them even accused me of being in cahoots with Salman Rushdie—the guy who wrote Satanic Verses? Absurd, of course. But according to the press, Tehran has issued a death decree against me like their earlier fatwa against him.”
“Holy shit!” The Air Force officer pursed his lips in a silent whistle as he digested Nick’s revelation. “But…it don’t look to me like you’ve gone into hidin’ like he did. Must be you don’t take this decree thing too serious.”
“It’s startin’ to come back to me,” the lieutenant colonel said, wide awake now, but squinting to recall. “Made the front page of the Washin’ton Post, didn’ it?”
“Unfortunately,” Nick said, nodding his head in disgust. “And their penchant for sensationalism—typical of the press—made folks think my book was anti-Islamic. Obviously, they didn’t bother to read it.”
“Now that you mention it, that’s the impression I got from the Post. Made you sound almost un-American, like you were against freedom of religion or somethin’,” the light colonel said. “But I gotta be honest with ya, perfesser, I didn’t read your book either. Not my style. Mind tellin’ me what it was about? Quickie version, I mean.”
Nick smiled. “Actually, the title, Islamic Fundamentalism: A Movement Betrayed, pretty much says it all.”
“Not really. Its about the way some Islamic terrorist groups use legitimate—and often unwitting—Muslim organizations as fronts to support their activities.”
“Over in the Middle East, ya mean.”
“Sure,” Nick said. “But what most Americans don’t know is that groups like Hamas and Hezbollah also operate active support networks across the United States.”
“You’re kiddin.’ Here in Amer’ca?”
“That’s right. They recruit, train, raise money to buy weapons…you name it,” Nick explained. “And thousands of unsuspecting American Muslims contribute to it without realizing how their money is being used.”
“Guess I didn’t know that. Kinda scary.”
“Yep,” Nick agreed. “And it’s impossible to write a book about the problem without mentioning the Koran—the Islamic bible—and the ways different Muslim factions translate it to suit their own ends.”
The Air Force officer leaned back in his seat. “Hell,” he said through a smug grin, “that don’t sound so different. Lotta Christians do that with the Good Book, too.”
“True enough. Trouble is that some Muslims are deeply offended whenever a Western ‘infidel’ like me claims any degree of expertise about their sacred Koran. They consider it blasphemy.”
“So they issue death decrees,” the lieutenant colonel said. “I see what ya mean about controversy.” Then he changed the subject. “So compared to all that hassle, writin’ this little flyin’ book here must have seemed like takin’ a vacation.”
“Can I…uh…take a peek at it?”
“Sure. Just be careful with it. It’s a gift and I want it to be in virgin condition when I give it to my friends.”
The Air Force officer wiped his hands ceremoniously on the legs of his blue trousers. Grinning, Nick handed him the book. He opened it delicately and scanned the table of contents. Selecting a story whose title intrigued him, he began to read.
Nick put away his pen. He’d have to postpone writing his note to the Gibsons. No problem. There’d be plenty of time for that and for visiting with the two people who meant so much to him. His thoughts turned to them.
The admiral was the only male Gibson he’d ever known who was not nicknamed “Hoot.” It was J.P. to his friends and Admiral to everyone else. At J.P.’s insistence, Nick would be calling on the DNI in his Pentagon office this afternoon and tomorrow night would be having dinner with him and Janet at their home in Reston, Virginia.
Dear, sweet Janet. Following Susan’s death, during the darkest period of his life, she’d taken on the role of Nick’s surrogate sister providing him needed solace. Later, when J.P. engineered the attaché job for him in Egypt, it was Janet who persuaded him to take it. “Therapy,” she’d called it.
Nick hadn’t seen the Gibsons in over a year. A lot of catching up to do. This, he decided, would be an especially pleasant and memorable journey, long overdue.
Outside the smudged glass door of the U-Haul agency’s frigid rental office, Moustafa lit a cigarette. He emerged from the building’s shadow, inviting the warmth of the mid-morning sun to blanket his face and bake the residual chill from his clothing.
The agency occupied one corner of an intersection in one of the city’s busiest commercial districts. Moustafa scowled at the converging streams of delivery trucks, giant SUVs and hand-polished foreign cars—some their drivers holding cell phones to their ears like status symbols—that accordioned to a grudging halt when the light turned red, then herded forward with a great roar the instant it changed to green.
“Fools,” he said under his breath. “Always in a hurry, chasing dollars. For what? To acquire more technological gizmos? To satisfy your unholy addiction to them? You think technology will enable you to manipulate the world like some…mindless video game? Soon you will know otherwise. Very soon.”
He sucked a final toke from his cigarette and flicked the butt end-over-end into the air, a dry wind gust whipping it in a sideways arc, trailing sparks across the parking lot’s oil-stained blacktop. Then he eased into his Mercedes, started the engine, turned on the radio and smiled.
Finally he could focus all of his attention on the mission. No more distractions.
McCayne was gone. He would not be coming back.
DECREE is now available as an e-book or in soft or hard cover from authorhouse.com
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Recommend DECREE and its sequel TAKEOUT as a two-novel set.
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