“I understand,” said Angell, although he really didn’t. He picked up a cardboard cup of coffee and added enough cream and sugar to make a cake. He figured he needed all the caffeine, lactose and glucose he could manage.

“You will be met by one of our people who will infiltrate you into a group of tourists that are heading to Yezd. When you get close to your target location you will be separated from the group and will be guided to your final destination. Our operative will then escort you back to the LZ.”

Aubrey was oddly quiet during the whole exchange. Angell had the uneasy feeling that something had changed.

The man from SOAR continued.

“Yezd, or Yazd as it’s officially spelled by the Iranians when they use Roman letters, is not an easy place to get to from Iraq. For one thing, you have an entire mountain range between here and there. For another, there is no direct highway that cuts across the interior from the border to the city. There are smaller roads, but they are not secure and would take much longer anyway. So you have to take highways that circle around the wasteland in the middle. We can’t get you further than about four to five

hours’ drive to Yezd. Those five hours could get hairy. You have the Revolutionary Guard to deal with, checkpoints everywhere. A good thing is that Iran actively seeks to attract foreign tourists, so there are tour bus operators going from Isfahan to Yezd. They are all, of course, in the employ of the government and should be regarded as informers and spies. Hopefully that won’t be a problem because you will have your own car and driver.”

There it was.

“You’re not going with me, are you, Aubrey?” The old spy shook his head.

“This is as far as I go, Professor. I would never pass as an Iranian. I don’t speak Farsi and I don’t know Islam well enough to pass as a Muslim from Iraq, for instance. I will be waiting here for you to get back, of course. If your mission to Yezd is successful, then we should be able to return Stateside in a few days.”

Although Angell had never cared very much for James Aubrey, he had gotten used to relying on him. Now he was going into the lion’s den without a whip or a stool.

“You’ll have full communications, courtesy of your escort and guide. You’ll be fitted with a GPS tracking device so we will know where you are every step of the way. Once we know you are on your way back, these nice gentlemen from SOAR will send an extraction team and you will be on your way to this hangar. It’s less than an hour’s flight from Baghdad to Yezd itself, of course, so it takes about half of that for us to get you from the extraction point to base.”

“We can’t take a shorter route from the coastline inland, because that area is heavily monitored by Iranian security forces,” added the SOAR commander. “We considered bringing a dhow or sambuk close to the coast and dropping you off from there but the whole thing is too risky. Flying a helo over the mountain range at its lowest point and setting you down outside of Isfahan or Shiraz seemed like the best option. Either way, it’s a good five hour drive and that’s without checkpoints and other hazards. So you’ll have an hour or so at Yezd and then an immediate return. All things being equal, and figuring for unforeseen delays, you should be in-country for only about twenty-four hours, max.”

Angell was not convinced.

“An hour at Yezd? How do you figure? I have to find the contact there, get him or her to talk to me, and then figure out the location of the book. It could take hours. Or days.”

“Days is not an option,” Aubrey replied. “We don’t have days. You don’t have days. If it is not going well, you’re going to have to return without the book.”

“Then this was all for nothing?” Angell was thinking of the old man.

And the exploding teenage assassin.

“The longer you stay in-country, the greater the chance you will be discovered. The penalties for espionage—and you will be considered a spy without a moment’s hesitation—are harsh. And that’s if they let you live.”

“But if I don’t find the book, then we have no way of stopping this scheme from going forward.”

He leaned forward, forgetting the fast food, the smell of French fries, the allure of fresh coffee. Forgetting even his exhaustion.

“I saw what happened at Kutha. I saw what happened in the refugee camp. There is something very strange going on and it involves people who don’t care if they live or die. It involves a religion or a cult or something that is as dangerous as anything we have faced out here in a long time, and I’m including Al-Qaeda. This is the worship of Death. And worse.

“It’s reaching a fever pitch. I know religion, and I know religious movements. This is a religious movement on steroids. That idol, that obscenity in the center of the ritual at Kutha, can only be an object of veneration by people who have lost all sense of humanity. They keep using the word qhadhulu. It’s from the Qur’an. It’s a demon, a jinnee. An evil spirit. It’s an imprecation. A curse. And they are worshipping it. And not just Sunnis, but Shiites, too. And maybe some Kurds. Iranians. God knows who else. This could be something that unites all of these warring factions into one movement, something so crazy that it attracts the psychotics of entire nations.

“Look. The old man, the one who died at Kutha, told me they were waiting for the First Priest. This is like the Mahdi, a kind of warrior- Messiah figure. Every time a Mahdi is declared there is widespread violence. Warfare. Bloodshed. But the Mahdi is a subject of controversy and disagreement between the Sunnis and the Shiites. The one they were

calling at Kutha was a universal Mahdi. One who would satisfy the requirements of both Sunnis and Shiites.

“You understand? There is no such thing! It doesn’t exist, not even in the wildest imaginations of Islamic theologians. The Mahdi only comes at the time of the Second Coming of Jesus, and together they both cleanse the world of evil. That’s the idea. But this … this Mahdi … is evil. Satanic. No! More than that. Other than that. Like the figure of the Mahdi among the Twelver Shiites, this one is ‘hidden.’ A Hidden Imam. Dead and buried, but not really dead. They want to summon it, call it back from the dead. They think they can hear it speak. It’s … it’s talking to them.”

Aubrey was silent but extremely attentive to everything the professor was saying, for it only reinforced the chatter that had started this whole process going. The remote viewers in their employ had seen the same thing, had communicated with it. And now Angell was saying that there were others—many others—who also were communicating with it. Young Jamila was one.

Jason Miller had been another. “How do you know this, Professor?”

Angell rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands.

“It was there. During that ritual in Kutha. It was like a revival meeting. Everyone was in synch, from the guys in makeup and halter tops and machine guns to the women in burqas. They all knew their roles. They moved like a single organism, thought like a single organism. The Imam was the ground, like in electricity. He was grounding the energy being raised by the … the worshippers. Except that it really was a grounding. Literally. The energy was being sent into the ground. Underground. Into the Underworld. The rhythmic dancing, stamping of feet … the fires lit everywhere … I mean, that’s the whole point of Kutha, right? Why else would they have chosen that spot?

“And it was a revival. A literal revival. They were reviving a dead god.” There was silence around the table as his words sunk in.

“So it was an act of necromancy, in a way?” This from Aubrey, who knew more about this than he let on.

“Yes. Necromancy. Necronomicon, right? Dead names. It’s all about reviving the dead. Dead gods. Dead religions. It’s like those Tea Party true believers back in the States who are always talking about ‘taking their

country back.’ Except that in this case it’s the dead gods who want to take their planet back.”

The words flowed out of him. Maybe it was the exhaustion. Maybe it was the experience of being in his first firefight. Maybe it was all the death around him. Or watching the slow implosion of the world and everything good and beautiful in it. But he found himself saying things he would never have thought about so clearly, not in the privacy of his own brain anyway.

“It doesn’t matter if we believe any of this, or not. They believe it. That’s what’s so dangerous. They believe it. And … look! Look at the state of the world. All those apocalyptic predictions look like they’re coming true. It verifies what they think they know. Validates it. Gives it a voice.

“All they need now is the ultimate validation. These are all People of the Book. They need the text, the scripture, to give their darkest emotions form and function. Without the focal point of the text, it all dissipates and withers away. The book is not just a text. It’s a roadmap. A circuit diagram. A contract with zombies. It’s the social network of demons, a telephone for talking with Satan. It’s all the protocols they need to navigate the Pit. That’s what they believe, anyway. It was written on their faces, on their foreheads like the Mark of the Beast.

“Imagine a cult, a secret society, that didn’t need to be secret anymore. Look what happened when Christianity came out of the catacombs and became a state religion under Constantine. Now imagine something a lot darker than Christianity. Something a lot older. Imagine an Inquisition where a Church is at war with all of humanity.

“Susan Sontag once wrote that white people are a cancer in the world. Later she walked that back, but imagine that there is something …someone

… who thinks that all people are a cancer on this planet, a cancer to be eradicated.”

Aubrey stopped him there.

“It doesn’t make sense. Why would human beings go along with an agenda like that? Why are there cultists, devotees, whatever you want to call them, of this hideous philosophy and this savage Being?”

Angell took a deep breath, and let it out slowly before replying. “Because they are in contact with It. It’s real. Somehow it’s real. It talks

to them. And because they are dancing to his music. Because they have

already lost their souls and their minds. They are just vehicles for It. Puppets. Pawns. Whatever you want to call it. But they still need the Book. Without it, they are just a weird, violent and deeply unsettling road show of suicide bombers and sociopaths, playing the small towns and summer stock. But with it, with that script, that scripture, they are ready for the big time. They are ready to open on Broadway.”

The SOAR commander, who had been listening to it all and not sure what to believe, checked his watch.

“It will be dawn in another two hours. We have to go now, Professor.”

The old spy and the religion professor met in front of the Black Hawk helicopter and shook hands. The rest of the Night Stalker team was already on board and the rotors started to turn.

“Best of luck, Professor. I’ll be here when you get back. I wish this was the type of mission where we could just send in a covert action team, locate the missing object, and get out quickly. But this is not that mission.”

Angell smiled in spite of himself. “You mean you wish you didn’t have to rely on somebody like me. I get it. I wish things were different, too. To be honest, I’m scared shitless.”

“You’re with the best right now, Professor. There are no more highly trained commandos in the world.”

“I have no doubt about that. But I lose them at the border.”

“You’ll be met by someone equally experienced and capable. Your expertise and knowledge are essential to the mission’s success. We wouldn’t risk that if we didn’t know for a certainty that you will remain safe.”

The rotors picked up speed and the two men found themselves ducking from the wash. Aubrey shouted over the racket:

“Good hunting, Professor Angell.”

Sitting in the state-of-the-art helicopter, holding on for dear life, Angell watched as the lights of Baghdad twinkled out below him. He had the sinking feeling he would never see James Aubrey again.

Ahead of them, to the east, Angell thought he could make out the faint light of dawn over the Zagros mountain range. Perhaps it was a trick of the

imagination, for otherwise the entire scene outside the helicopter was pitch black.

Once they were airborne, one of the SOAR team handed him a small bundle. The man tapped on his ear to signal that he wanted to talk over the communication system. Angell nodded and put on the headset that was handed to him.

“These are clothes. Some of those baggy trousers they wear, and a kind of vest, jacket-type thing. And a cap. Before we arrive at the insertion site you’re supposed to change into them. They’re to help you blend in. You can keep your other clothes with you in your backpack, or you can leave them with us and we’ll get them back to you when we pick you up.”

Angell thought a moment and considered. He would need his backpack. He had his reference materials in there. But he was worried that any scraps of paper, notes, and even the books themselves might give him away.

“The GPS locator is sewn into the trousers we provided. Anything else you might need will be in the car at the insertion site.”

Angell simply nodded. He would leave his clothes and his backpack with the Night Stalkers. He began to change out of his Western clothes and into the Kurdish trousers.

It was all suddenly becoming very, very real.

The area they were flying to was located just over the mountains, about an hour’s drive south of the city of Isfahan but far enough away from that city’s air defense batteries and radar systems to enable a quiet insertion with no fanfare. Iran’s defense systems were largely Russian and Chinese made, but with newer Iranian-manufactured systems nearing completion. The major cities—like Tehran—had substantial radar operations as well as deadly SAM (Surface-to-Air Missile) batteries. The coastline from the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean was also well-defended.