The particular border region east of Baghdad was a favorite of smugglers as well as of Kurdish nomads. Iranian military personnel guarding the border were few and far between in that area, and there was even a certain level of cooperation between the Iraqis and the Iranians when it came to border security. The growing threat of terror cells entering Iran from Iraq was one concern; the surreptitious movement of Iranian troops coming from the other direction was another. Angell’s mission was aided by the covert support of a clan of Kurdish Ahl-e Haqq adherents

operating up and down the mountains: another strange religious sect in a region replete with strange religious sects: Alevis, Yezidis, Nabataeans, Assyrians, Mandaeans, and Zoroastrians to name only a few. The man he was meeting was an American operative who had been trained as a Navy SEAL but who was ethnically a Kurd, born and raised in the Kurdish community in Nashville, Tennessee: home to America’s largest Kurdish population. He spoke not only fluent Kurmanji but was also at ease in Sorani and Hurami (sometimes called Gorani), dialects spoken by Iranian Kurds.

The flight across the mountains and to a small clearing somewhere near the town of Shahreza was fast and uneventful. The air was cool, the vast central Iranian plateau—largely inhospitable desert—was looming up before them as the helo touched down gently and Angell jumped off, although with less enthusiasm than he demonstrated. He gave the obligatory thumb’s up to the Night Stalkers, who returned the gesture, and then the Black Hawk seemed to ascend straight up as if levitated. It disappeared almost immediately, with only the barest minimum of sound.

Now he simply stood there, in the darkness, and waited.

This was grassland, the mountains rising up in the distance behind him. He shivered a little in the cold. He knew the days would be blisteringly hot as they crossed the desert towards Yazd, and he had no idea if the car coming to pick him up was air-conditioned or not.

Or if the car was coming at all.

At the airbase in Baghdad, James Aubrey was on the sat phone with Monroe, who never seemed to sleep.

“He’s in theater now?”

“Yes. The ride is returning to base as we speak.” “And the others?”

“He’ll be met by one, but we have assets all around him and on the way to target. He’ll be protected.”

“He’s as important as the target, you know that. We need them both.

And the girl, if possible.”

“She’s not a girl anymore, chief. She’s a little disoriented and … off … but that could be the result of what she’s been through the past ten years

and her peculiar mental capabilities. She’s the joker in this deck, and it bothers me.”

“ETA?” Monroe changed the subject.

“He will be at the target in about eight hours, maybe less if our luck holds up.”

“Keep me posted.” He rang off.

Aubrey put down the phone and looked around at the ad hoc conference room they had set up for the mission. There was one officer manning the comms gear and tracking the GPS in a corner of the room. The conference table itself was still littered with coffee cups and the remains of fast food wrappers and cold French fries. It looked a little sad. Like all the cool kids had gone somewhere else without him.

Yes, this was an unconventional mission—the most unconventional in his entire career—and no one was following the rules. Nothing about this latest incursion into Iranian airspace was by the book. The whole thing had the atmosphere of a prank by college kids, frat boys maybe, running some underwear up a flag pole. It was jerry-rigged, put together at the last minute using whatever assets they had, wherever they happened to be, and poaching others on the sly. If they lost that Black Hawk, that was millions of dollars down the tubes not to mention lives. Not to mention an international incident of no small proportion.

And in twenty-four hours, if they were lucky, they would do it all again as they brought Angell back.

Then there was Angell himself. The poor bastard still didn’t have a clue as to what was going on. He was half-starved, sleep-deprived, and totally disoriented. He was rushed into this project and when it was all over he would be rushed right back out again. What they were doing was unethical and immoral. And if anything happened to Angell—if he was captured or killed—it would weigh heavily on his conscience. For about a week. That’s all it would take for the whole world to fall into the crapper if they failed.

Aubrey needed a shower and a shave. He looked around, got up—his knees creaking with the effort—and headed towards the officers’ quarters. You got sleep when you could in this business, and he was overdue.

The sound of a car’s engine tickled the edge of his hearing. Angell turned in its direction and saw an old Paykan—an Iranian-made automobile that had been discontinued seven years previously—wind its way up the dirt

road to where the drop had been made. This one had to be at least twenty years old, with spots of rust and different color paint that had been worn away by the abrasive sands of the desert winds. Had the car been left parked in that spot, in about a week it would have looked like it grew there.

The car stopped but the engine kept running. “Milyaket?”

Angell got the reference immediately. Milyaket is the Kurmanji word for “angel.”

Ereh,” he answered. Yes.

“Hop in,” the driver said, in English.

“You can call me Adnan.” He reached over to Angell in the passenger seat and offered his hand. Angell shook it.

“I’m from Tennessee originally, but my parents are from here. That’s about all you need to know about me, and that’s already too much. I know I am supposed to take you to Yazd, which is a bitch of a drive but at least it’s not summer yet when it would be worse. You speak Kurmanji?”

“Yes, I do. And Farsi.”

“Okay. Kurmanji is not really the lingua franca around here but I guess you knew that if you speak Farsi. You probably know something about Iranian demographics too, which you will agree are as clear as mud. There are a lot of ethnic minorities, and minorities within minorities. There are a lot of Kurdish dialects, too. So try not to speak if you can help it, and if you have to speak, speak Farsi. You can pass for Iranian, maybe. Depends on your accent. If you have to speak, speak in monosyllables. Yes, no, like that. Don’t make any speeches because that’s where they’ll trip you up.”

He looked Angell up and down as he drove. “You have any paper on you?”

“Pardon?”

“Any ID? Anything at all with writing on it?” “No. They took all of that back at base.” Adnan nodded, gratefully.

“Okay. So here’s the story. We’re going to join up with a bunch of pilgrims heading for Yazd. I understand we’re not to go into the city but head instead for the Towers, right?”

“Correct.”

“Good. They’re on the hills south of the downtown area. Not much goes on up there anymore. I mean, they don’t use them for sky burials like they used to. But tourists go there, both foreign and Iranian, so we will just be part of the general population.”

“Who are these pilgrims?” Adnan smiled.

“That’s the beauty of it. They’re all our people. They’re family, you could say.”

Angell stared at him, and Adnan—seeing it—laughed out loud.

“Don’t worry about it. Sit back, relax, and enjoy one of the hairiest goddam rides you’ll ever experience.”

They drove through the town of Shahreza and headed south, towards Abadeh. It was still quite early, but there was already some traffic. Adnan was worried that the helicopter had been caught on radar or by sight, but there was no activity on the road that would suggest there was a military presence in response.

“There are SAM installations around Isfahan, which is why we are not going in that direction. Too big a military presence.

“After Abadeh there is a turn-off and we get on another road to Yazd. It’s the long way around, but the roads here are better. If we try to go direct we will have to cross the plateau and that would be dangerous, if not impossible in this vehicle anyway. We will be met at Abadeh, and that will provide us some cover. There’s bottled water in the back seat and some figs, dates, that sort of thing if you get hungry.”

“I’m good, thanks. How long have you been here?” “Iran?” He smiled. “All goddam day.”

The heat began shortly after they left the outskirts of Shahreza and were on the road driving south to Abadeh. Adnan began speaking in Farsi to see how well Angell could manage the accent as well as the grammar. Angell’s background had been in classical Persian but after spending time in Turkey and Iraq he had managed to find Farsi speakers among some of the Kurds and perfected a colloquial rhythm, although his accent was tinged with a distinctly Kurdish tone. Adnan did not find that too problematic, for it

enabled Angell to pass as an Iranian Kurd. So they chatted amicably for a few hours as they made their approach to Abadeh.

The road passed through some fertile lands, with green fields and vegetation that relieved the rust- and sand-colored lands they were driving through, the mountains still in the distance sometimes giving the impression that they had not moved at all in two hours.

There were the remains of what appeared to be fortifications in places, going back twelve hundred years to the Sassanid times. Crumbling edifices in dusty white stone. Angell felt he was in a mysterious landscape that was no longer really on the Earth. He could understand how so many of the world’s most extreme religious views came out of regions like this. The land seemed to float between this reality and some Other.

“There is our connection,” Adnan pointed out the windshield of the aging Paykan.

Angell saw a small village with low, white-washed houses scattered on either side of the road.

“Abadeh is another few miles, but here we will meet our escort. They’re

Ahl-e Haqq. You know what that means?”

“It means they’re not Muslim, and they’re not Yezidis.”

“Right. The Iranians put them in the same category as Yezidis, though, which pisses off the both of them. They have a secret book, too.” Adnan winked at him.

“You know about that, huh?”

“A few months ago we were told to be on the lookout for any indication that people were talking about a secret book or looking for one, or that some new kind of scripture was making the rounds. When we started getting intel on that, mostly from Kurdish circles, it went right up the chain of command and suddenly here you are. I know you’re not a cowboy, but this isn’t your first rodeo, either.”

“We?”

“Say again?”

“You said ‘we were told’ … who’s ‘we’?” Adnan smiled.

“Why, we in the ‘community,’ that’s who. More than that would be telling.”

He pulled over behind one of the squat white houses and put the car in park but did not shut off the engine and did not get out.

“Stay in the car until we are greeted,” he suggested to Angell.

“Are there people living here?” He didn’t see anything suggesting life in the village. No vehicles, animals, cooking fires, or anything else.

“Just wait. They’re checking us out.”

Somehow Angell felt relatively secure with the Kurdish boy from Nashville. Maybe because he was an American, like him, in a strange land. Maybe because he was an American who knew the local culture and spoke the local languages, something that always impressed Angell who usually saw so little of that.

Adnan was tall, not yet thirty, with a round boyish face sporting a wispy growth of light brown beard. Dressed in baggy brown trousers (called rank) and a brown vest of the same material (called chogha) over a white shirt, and a kind of turban, he looked the part but when he opened his mouth and a Tennessee drawl came out Angell could not help but be amused.

In moments, there was the sound of an engine and an old bus could be seen pulling out of one of the squat white buildings. The house evidently served as a garage, and once the bus was all the way out, two men— dressed similarly to Adnan—came out from nowhere and pulled a wooden screen over the opening in the house from where the bus had driven out.

And what a bus. It was belching smoke and fumes and was painted in a bilious shade of yellow with geometric designs in different colors. The emblem on the front of the bus said it was a Mercedes, but Angell had his doubts.

It was smaller than the usual run of tour buses operating in Iran which were usually more commodious and had the painted name of the tour company covering half of the windshield, but it would do. This one could seat about twelve passengers and was little more than a van.

Adnan got out of the car and walked over to the two men who had covered up the garage and they were joined by the driver of the bus. They stood around, speaking quietly, and Angell could not hear a word. He knew they were talking about him, for every few seconds one of the men would glance in his direction.

Just as Angell was about to get out of the car himself and join them, Adnan walked back and got into the driver’s seat.

“Change of plans.” “What’s going on?”

“There’s a roadblock after Abadeh, between Surmaq and Abarkooh. That’s the route I was planning to take to Yazd. I don’t know the reason for the roadblock, and it probably has nothing to do with you, but it would be better if we avoid it.”

“So what do we do?”

Adnan rubbed his eyes wearily, and stared out the windshield at the bus. “We go as far as Surmaq. From there we get off the highway and go around Abarkooh, pick up Highway 78 a few klicks after it and then it’s a straight run to Yazd. But we have to be careful. There may be more roadblocks on the way to Yazd. Good thing for us it’s a famous tourist area

and there will be a lot of busses on the road.”

Adnan put the car in gear and started driving back onto the highway.

From the rear, the tour bus followed with its driver and two passengers. “We’re going to pick up more passengers in Abadeh. They’ll take the