It was the mother of all bad days.
The date, September 11, 2012. The place, Benghazi, Lybia.
While a brave band of warrior’s fight for their lives in the consulate and CIA annex, outside, a Mossad Agent, a missionary, and a Mississippi giant fight a different battle. Caught between a terrorist and an enraged Russian arms dealer, they must complete the mission and manage to stay alive until they can escape or the cavalry arrives.
Never assume things can’t get worse.
The Black Pearl Yacht
off the Coast of Libya
Shay Roth stood in the cabin’s doorway watching Sergei Cherkesov adjust his tuxedo tie. It could be said Cherkesov was a handsome man. Tall, broad shouldered, with the high cheekbones and dark coloring of his Slavic ancestors. The most despicable man Shay Roth had ever encountered. And Shay was charged with keeping the slimy rat alive.
The Russian hired him six months ago under the alias of Sean Roberts, former Marine sniper, as a bodyguard.
“I won’t need you tonight, my friend. I’ve persuaded the lovely Miss Winter Merton to come aboard the yacht. I’ve been trying to lure her here for weeks.” The Russian smiled at his reflection in the mirror, smoothing his straight, dark hair with a brush. “This will be a memorable evening and I don’t want any interruptions.”
Tension tightened Shay’s chest and he had to work to keep his voice calm. “If this is the missionary you’ve been telling me about, I wouldn’t make any long-range plans.”
The big Russian laughed. “Don’t worry about me. There are ways to persuade an unwilling lady.”
Great. Just great.
Shay left the cabin before he did something that would undermine his mission. His Mossad handler in Tel Aviv wanted information on the Russian’s involvement in arms and munitions flowing to Palestinian terrorist groups. Shay was only one week away from completing the job and getting off this wretched boat.
Mossad informants had creditable information Cherkesov was the man behind weapons flowing to Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and others too numerous to name. Israel intended to chop off one of the Hydras’ heads at the source. All they needed was a name. Shay was set to accompany his boss to a meeting with the supplier in Benghazi in a week. Once Shay identified the source, he’d put Cherkesov and his dealer out of business. Permanently.
Shay wrestled his conscience while heading for the upper deck. He could let this girl fall into Cherkesov’s hands or come to her aid and jeopardize the assignment . . . something he’d been working on for months. A mission critical to protecting his country. Any woman stupid enough to associate with Sergei Cherkesov deserved whatever happened to her.
Muttering under his breath at the turn of events, he stomped up the stairwell and stood at the rail, filling his lungs with the salty breeze to release some of the anger. On the distant shore, harbor lights reflected off the calm silver sea. Deceptively serene.
Tuxedoed men, and women in barely-there dresses, mingled around the bar and lavish hors d’oeuvre buffet. Loud disco music blared from hidden speakers. A typical evening aboard the Black Pearl.
No tuxedo for Shay while he was working. The light linen jacket he wore over jeans and short-sleeved polo shirt gave him ease of movement and concealed the Sig Sauer in an underarm holster.
A silent group of men clothed in black, with AK17’s slung over their shoulders moved around the boat’s perimeter. Supposedly to protect the vessel from pirates, but their real purpose was to keep passengers onboard until Cherkesov permitted them to leave.
As was his custom, Shay ignored the music and laughter. Cherkesov attracted politicians, businessmen, and prostitutes to this weekly social event like caviar to crackers. He bought power by money, blackmail, or intimidation. And somehow, he had lured a missionary onboard. Incredible.
Shay scanned the crowd looking for Cherkesov’s latest victim. She had to be attractive or his boss wouldn’t have been interested. And considering her vocation, she should stand out from the other scantily-clad women.
No one matching the description he’d conjured up came into view. He pushed off the rail and moved into the party-goer’s midst. A woman he knew as Jill, a regular onboard, grabbed his arm. “Have a drink with me later, Sean?”
He removed her hand. “Don’t count on it, I’m working.”
She gave him a pout and turned away.
After a few minutes, he spotted the missionary surrounded by a group of very bad characters. The men had moved into her personal space, her back pressed against the bar, her hazel eyes wide with concern.
Add a too-long string of pearls to the simple black dress she wore and a smear of red lipstick, and she’d look like a little girl playing dress up in her mother’s clothes. Dark brown curls with gold highlights hung past her thin shoulders. No more than five-feet-two, she had the plush lips of a child and could pass for a twelve-year-old. A look women paid plastic surgeons a fortune to achieve.
He groaned. The face of his sister flashed into his mind. Why did this girl have to look like such an innocent? He rubbed his finger across his lower lip weighing what coming to her rescue would cost him. Imagining what his handler in Tel Aviv would say. Nothing that could be repeated in mixed company. Shay would find himself in an unemployment line or at the North Pole monitoring Russian radio signals.
Cherkesov stood at the top of the stairs, his gaze searching the crowd.
A vision of the girl in Sergei’s clutches made Shay’s decision for him. A decision he was already regretting.
He strode across the deck to the girl. “Excuse me gentlemen,” Shay said, taking the girl’s arm. “I need to borrow Miss Merton for a moment.”
She cast him a grateful look. “Do you work for Mr. Cherkesov? Is he ready to see me now?”
Shay led her to an alcove out of his boss’s sight. “Not after tonight. And yes, he’s looking for you. But trust me, you don’t want him to find you. What on earth possessed you to come aboard this yacht?”
A quizzical wrinkle formed between her brows. “I-I don’t understand. I met him at the American Consulate in Tripoli. Why?”
“Figures.” Shay heaved an exasperated breath. “You shouldn’t be here. Do you know what this boat is used for?” How could he tactfully explain what she’d fallen into before Cherkesov found them? “Miss Merton, this is a floating bordello.”
A pink tint flushed her cheeks and she tried to push past him. “I don’t believe you.”
He held her in place. “You’d better believe me. Take a close look at the women onboard and tell me you can’t see it. Why do you think those men were hovering around you? You’re fresh bait.”
She peeked around him. Her face paled as awareness dawned. “Then why did your boss invite me here?”
Could anyone be this naive? “You’ll have to figure that one out for yourself,” he said. “Why did you come?”
“Mr. Cherkesov promised a large contribution to our mission hospital in Kenya. We need medical equipment and supplies for the clinic.” She leaned back against the bulkhead with wide frightened eyes and moved towards the open deck. “How do I get out of here?”
Shay nearly missed grabbing her arm as she twisted away from him. “This boat has tighter exit security than Libya does.” He spoke through clenched teeth. “No one leaves without Cherkesov’s permission. No one.”
“He can’t hold me here against my will.”
“You’re kidding, right? What do you think the men in black are for? If we try to take a launch, those guys will open fire.”
She took two deep breaths as though she might hyperventilate. Looked like she finally realized the gravity of her situation.
Scanning the crowd, Shay plumbed his mind for a way off The Pearl without getting them both killed.
“Then how—?” Her dark gaze found his in the dim lighting and she lifted her chin. “Tell me what I need to do. I’m not as helpless as I look.”
“I certainly hope not.” He moved them farther back into the shadows. Getting off the yacht was just the first step. They would have to make their way to the American Consul then ensure she was on the next flight out of Libya.
Cherkesov wouldn’t let Shay leave alive if he could stop him. He knew too much. The Russian would chase him like the Hounds of Baskerville.
He secured his wallet and gun, reached into an orange bin of lifejackets, and removed two. Great, reflective tape. They’d be visible for ten miles. He tested the threads. He reached for his pocket knife.
“I’ve got a knife on my keychain. It belonged to my grandfather.” She dug through her small handbag and handed him a small folded blade knife, then shrugged. “It’s little, but it should be easier to cut through the threads.”
He sized her up again. Looked like she wasn’t totally defenseless.
Working on her jacket first, he quickly removed the reflective tape. If they were discovered, he would toss her overboard. She could make it to shore alone. He could take care of himself. Finished, he handed the life preserver to her. “I hope you can swim.”
She fastened it on and gave him a curt nod. “Olympic caliber. But I don’t usually swim in a dress and pantyhose.”
“That’s the least of your worries. This is North Africa. The water this close to the harbor is nasty, if you know what I mean. That’s why we’re anchored a mile offshore. Be careful not to ingest it.”
He hastily removed the reflective tape from his life vest and donned it. They waited until a guard passed out of sight, then climbed down the ladder and slipped silently into the sea.
The Mediterranean’s water temperature this time of year hovered around eighty degrees but that didn’t decrease the chill factor. People could die of hypothermia at that temperature. The body’s core temp only had to drop 6 degrees to cause organ failure. As if he needed something else to worry about.
Once on shore, with his dark features, he could pass as Muslim. She could as well, but not in their present clothing. He could fix that once they were in the city. He spoke Arabic, Farsi, and a few other dialects. It was doubtful she was fluent in Arabic but if she kept her mouth shut, no one would know.
“I hope you’re prayed up, Miss Merton,” he whispered as they struck out for the shore. “We’re going to need all the help we can get.”
Shay headed towards the beach, the girl swimming easily beside him. He avoided the harbor. That would be the Russian thugs first stop. They would undoubtedly question everyone at the harbor. He glanced back at the ship from time to time, looking for unusual activity on the deck. So far the party appeared still in full swing. But the minute Cherkesov realized the girl had slipped through his fingers, the launches would be loaded and a full blown search would begin. Shay figured they’d use up about twenty minutes searching the ship to ensure they weren’t hiding on board, then Sergei would send the launches to find them. He didn’t take kindly to having his plans thwarted.
Their feet touched the sandy bottom and they waded ashore.
Shay removed his jacket and hooked it over his shoulder with one finger. Heading up the beach towards the lights, they walked along the edge of the tide to keep from leaving footprints. Once they reached the city they’d need to find cover quickly.
Winter shivered, the wet black dress clung to her thin frame. The good news was with the temperature in the mid-eighties, and the physical exertion, she would warm up fast.
He turned around walking backward, watching her. “You okay?”
“Y-yes.” She grabbed the hem of her dress and squeezed out a stream of water, trying to keep up with his long strides. “It’s a m-miracle fabric. It doesn’t wrinkle and it dries quickly. But I lost my s-shoes in the water.”
“Tell me, how did you wind up with a name like Winter?”
She grinned. “I have three sisters named Spring, Sumner, and Autumn. I’m the baby.”
He spun back around, a smile tugging at his lips. “I guess that explains it.”
Night air against his skin was hot and dry, and the salty seawater made his skin crawl as he dried out. Cool waves felt good against his legs.
She caught his arm and stopped him, then pushed back a lock of wet hair from her face. “So what do we do now?”
He paused and looked down at her bedraggled appearance. “Get you back to the safety of the consulate, and we don’t have time to stop for a discussion.” He started on down the beach talking as he went. “Then you’ll get an armed escort to the airport tomorrow morning to catch a flight home, wherever that is. Are you quartered inside the compound?”
“Yes,” she called from a few steps behind him. “I just arrived this morning.”
He glanced down at his watch. Almost ten o’clock. “They’re probably locked down for the night. Does Cherkesov know where you’re staying?”
“I never told him. I wouldn’t have given him my address even if he’d asked, but I’m sure he knows I’m at the consulate. A woman can’t travel alone in Middle Eastern countries and I wouldn’t be welcome at the hotels.”
He halted, but kept his eyes on the beach behind them. “I’ll take you home and see that you get out tomorrow. They’ll probably put me up for the night as well. It’s a big place.”
Even though she’d followed him off the ship without question, swam a mile and kept the pace he’d set, he couldn’t suppress the resentment eating away at him. Because of her he had to chuck the job he’d been sent to do. He looked up at the sky and shook his head. Why now, Lord?
At least she kept her mouth shut. Hadn’t complained once.
Shay looked across the water at the Black Pearl. Men rushed around the deck and a launch was lowered into the sea. Cherkesov knew he and the girl were gone. They had to find cover fast.
He turned his back on her and headed toward the city. “Hurry. We’ve got a long walk ahead of us and Cherkesov just discovered we’re gone.”
A thunderous explosion filled the night, followed by another, then another. Bright flames glowed against the dark sky and the ominous sounds of automatic gunfire filled the night air.
He knew those sounds. Rocket-propelled grenades, gelitina IED or both.
From the direction of the blaze, it was the U.S. Consulate under heavy fire.
Then it hit him. Today was September 11th.
They had bigger problems than Cherkesov.