2:53 A.M. Local Time; 7:53 A.M. Eastern Standard Time
With relentless determination, the ship taunted the storm sweeping across the Sea of Crete. Two large nuclear reactors struggled to push the twenty three thousand tons of metal through the angry waters. With every towering wave, the bow of the Russian rocket cruiser Kirov scooped up a wall of water, flung it into the air, and allowed it to crash down on the empty deck. Every loose object had long ago vanished into the sea. The crew was at general quarters stations.
A vertical launch system hatch clanged open, unheard beneath the roar of the wind and sea. A SA-6b surface to-air missile leapt into the rain in an explosion of fire and smoke. A second missile followed quickly. The two missiles accelerated into the sky and slowly angled toward the northwest.
Inside his quarters, a weary Admiral hung up the phone from the Combat Information Center, closed his eyes and wished he was on another ship, in another ocean.
THE WHITE HOUSE
9:26 A.M. Eastern Standard Time
Announcement by the White House Press Secretary
“It is my unfortunate duty to inform everyone we have reliable information that Air Force One has crashed into the Mediterranean Sea near the Greek island of Crete. President Kevin Douglas was on board, as was the Director of National Intelligence, many media personnel and at least fifty Secret Service agents and White House support staff. The site is being examined by the two fighter escorts of Air Force One. U.S. Naval vessels are on their way.
"Initial reports from the fighter pilots indicate a foreign naval vessel fired at least two missiles. There is no evidence of survivors.
"Vice-president Theodore Anderson is now on his way to the White House where he will be sworn in as President. He will address the nation as soon as possible."
THREE WEEKS LATER
The moonless sky blanketed the harbor of Haifa. The darkness was complete. The gentle slapping of the waves against the hull of the Israeli missile boat Gilat lulled the lone security watch. The sailor's concentration was wavering. For the last hour and twenty two minutes it had been his birthday. He was feeling sorry for himself as he patrolled the deck.
Why was he the only one of a crew of nine not asleep in his bunk?
He thought he heard a soft thump against the hull. Sure he was imagining things, he nevertheless walked to the port side to investigate.
Still depressed, he felt a searing pain in his right side, followed by something falling on his foot. His mind numb and detached, he looked down and observed an arm lying on the deck. The machete swung again.
The initial encounter lasted just two swings of a blade, but three sailors managed to awaken in time to force the fifteen terrorists into a brief skirmish. The odds were against the Israelis. Half naked, half awake men stumbling around in the dark searching for their weapons are always at a disadvantage against an organized enemy. The only officer on board made it as far as the weapon's locker before he was skewered. Ultimately, the entire crew was piled on the deck, their blood mingling and forming a large pool encircling the corpses. One sailor was still breathing, his breaths coming in short, ragged gasps.
After their conquest, the terrorists were quietly efficient. Four men went to cast off the mooring lines. Three went down to the engine room. Four carried the wet suits and tanks to the main cabin below deck and stored them. The leader of the raid, called The Scorpion, strode to the bow to inspect the six American made Prometheus cruise missiles. His inspection was as limited as his knowledge of their capabilities. It was enough to know the missiles were on the ship. He would learn how to use them later. Still, he noticed one of the missiles was a little different. Maybe the living Israeli pig would talk.
Walking up to the small bridge, he joined two of his companions. The remainder of the assault force gathered on deck to watch over the victims, preparing to dump them overboard as soon as the Gilat was far enough out at sea.
The departure from Haifa was uneventful. The sixty-ton craft rushed through the water at forty knots, her recently refurbished engines whining at full power. During the Gilat's refitting three weeks ago nothing had been spared that might compromise her ability to protect the cruise missiles or deliver them to their desired targets in the event of war. A new weapons' computer had been linked to the satellite guidance system, so the dumbest officer in the Israeli Navy could quickly activate a missile and correctly launch it.
An hour later, more than forty miles out from the harbor, the terrorists threw the bodies of the dead Israeli sailors into the sea, leaving the unconscious man on the deck, his breathing now somewhat calmer. Thirty minutes later, his quivering eyelids opened to reveal confused brown eyes, darting in all directions until finally focusing on the sharp face of the terrorist leader.
"The missiles are ready to launch?" The Scorpion hissed.
The Israeli's only response was to narrow his eyes, an action that resulted in a swift kick to his ribs. He writhed on the deck, moaning; a response resulting in a second, harder kick. Tears of pain running down his cheeks, he stared up at his questioner. "I don't…know," he muttered, trying to spare himself a third kick. It didn't work. He felt a salty taste in his mouth, and glanced down at the wooden deck to see bloody phlegm accumulating in a small puddle. It took him a few seconds to realize it was his drool and that no matter what answer he gave he was going to die. He wasn't by nature a hero, but deep within him a stubborn resolve began to swell.
"Go rot in…hell."
The Scorpion stared at him, pulled a gun and shot him through both kneecaps. Wasted bullets. The Israeli sailor was already dead, his head rolling in rhythm with the waves, his eyes open to the heavens.
Consumed with anger, The Scorpion, seeking satisfaction, kicked the sailor in the ribs, the side, the hips and the head until his ankles and toes ached from the contact. There was no satisfaction to be found. When his men finally tossed the body of the sailor overboard, The Scorpion glimpsed a slight smile on his enemy's lips.
Alexander Gray stared at the Hope Diamond, the world's most famous harbinger of bad luck, but didn't really see it. He was waiting for Kobold again. He looked at his watch. Four-forty. Time to go. Kobold was already close by or wouldn't be coming.
He left the Smithsonian and walked across the mall toward the National Air and Space Museum, glancing behind him as he went. Kobold wanted him to go to the diamond first, but as usual when Gray arrived, Kobold wasn't visible. From somewhere near the diamond, Kobold was able to survey Gray and everyone around him. Then he tracked Gray to a spot he thought was safe to talk.
A group of pigeons was scrounging around an empty bench across Jefferson Drive from the Hirshhorn Museum. They scattered when Gray took a seat. Someone had left the sports section of the Washington Post. He picked it up, but only had time to read the baseball results before Kobold sat down on the bench beside him.
Kobold—Gnome—Goblin. The names were appropriate. He was short, not quite five feet, and hunched over. Large darting eyes and a withered left arm gave him the appearance of a fairytale villain. But nature had given some compensation. A dark aura of intrigue surrounded him. He had an almost magical ability to disappear. No one could follow him, though he could follow another entirely undetected. Even Gray, who knew his own abilities in those areas to be superior to everyone else had to concede he couldn't tail the man for more than a block. Nor could he detect Kobold when the man was following him.
"My young friend Sockdolager," Kobold crackled. "How are you today?"
"I'll know better after you deliver your message." Gray bristled inwardly at the mention of his code name. Only two people in the world knew he was Sockdolager: Theodore Anderson and Kobold.
"You sound as though you have reservations. Do you? You've been available to Theodore Anderson even before he became President a few weeks ago when Air Force One went down. Perhaps you should quit. I can deliver a message back to Anderson saying you no longer wish to help him."
"I'm sure you would enjoy that."
"I'm only a messenger—what I enjoy or hate doesn't matter. Kobold shrugged, his withered shoulder moving mere inches. "But forget that. It is insignificant advice."
"You told me once you never give advice."
Kobold laughed, harsh but not loud. "Occasionally I may give advice to those I wish to see survive."
Gray took notice. Kobold never spoke frivolously, nor had he ever spoken like this. Kobold evidently noticed the change in Gray's attention. "It's dangerous to sit here very long. Though few know you, many know me."
"Go ahead," Gray said.
His head bobbing on his rounded shoulders like a ball on a short rubber band, Kobold nodded. "You are to go to Sigonella, a U.S. Naval Station on Sicily, near the city of Catania. I have your orders, your identification papers and complete details of your mission in this packet. Your uniforms will be waiting for you in Catania." He handed Gray a large brown envelope. "Destroy all but your identification papers and orders after reading the packet. At Sigonella, you will pose as an operating room nurse. You will assist Dr. Emmanuel Perez, Chief of Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University, as he operates on the world leader identified in your packet."
"Never worked as a nurse," Gray objected.
"Technically, you're a doctor."
"I never practiced after I finished medical school."
"You started a surgery residency at Duke."
"I dropped out."
"And eventually became a Team Six Seal. I know your history well."
Was Kobold right? Did he know about that last spring in high school, when it was clear that the records of every great pitcher were going to be swept aside by Gray's blazing fastball and crisp slider. Pro scouts attended every game his senior year. With a 12-1 record, two strikeouts an inning, it was only a matter of where to go, pro ball or college. Then the regional championship game. The sudden pain in his shoulder after he threw the slider. Several surgeries later, it was better, but fifteen miles per hour had disappeared from his fast ball, and he became just another mediocre middle relief college pitcher. He quit playing baseball after his junior year to pursue other goals—except none mattered. College, medical school, residency—just ways to pass the time—his parents' dreams, not his own.
Eventually, even his goals of becoming a doctor were replaced by a desire to lead a more active life. And he had, eventually rescuing then Senator Theodore Anderson from where he had been captured in Iraq by terrorists. Since then, he had helped Anderson accomplish things around the world, acting as a personal agent. And now, in an odd culmination of events, Theodore Anderson was President. What would happen to Gray's assignments now?
"You won't be head nurse," Kobold said. "Plenty of people will be available to tell you what to do. Your real goal is to prevent the patient's death from forces who don't want the operation to succeed."
When he started to open the packet, Kobold stopped him. "Not until you're in private."
"You are to reveal your identity to no one. You have President Anderson's authority to use any method necessary to make the operation a success. As I said, there are people who would prefer this mission to fail. Right now, there are dark forces at work in our government, seemingly working together to defeat Anderson. Never assume the obvious. These forces control many agents, and they're not afraid to kill. I know they wish to defeat Anderson. The President has something they want."
"I have the President's permission to kill if I think it's necessary?"
Kobold didn't reply. A sign of agreement.
The stakes were obviously high, and so were the dangers.
"Before leaving for Sigonella," Kobold continued, "the President wants you to go to Dr. Perez's house in Baltimore and keep an eye on him until he leaves the States. The address is in the envelope."
"Dr. Perez is in danger?"
"I only deliver messages, I don't interpret them."
"What do they want?" Gray asked.
"They want what everyone in Washington wants. The White House, of course." Kobold suddenly stood up. "Someone is watching us!" he whispered harshly. Looking down the mall, Gray could see no one watching. How did Kobold know? He turned back to ask, but Kobold had vanished.
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