Martyrs Never Die (#8 in the Enigma Series)
The dune buggy drove recklessly across the sand dunes, bouncing the two young men up and out of their seats in spite of the seat belts they wore. Their shouts of joy echoed across the drifting sands as the setting sun turned everything into rivers of wavy gold. They halted at the top of a rise and stared down toward an encampment of Bedouins who’d arrived several days earlier. The gentle wind carried the sound of flapping tent awnings. The two men exchanged how old-fashioned their families were to still follow the old ways.
“My father says I’ll meet my new wife when I arrive.” The driver killed the engine and stared forward. “What a waste. I want to pick my own wife. As a matter of fact, I don’t want a wife. Not yet.”
“Maybe she’ll be pretty,” his friend teased.
“Or maybe like one of my father’s camels.” He imitated the face of a camel followed by the way they chewed.
The friend chuckled then unfastened his seat belt and stood. “Wonder why no one is moving about? Shouldn’t there be cooking fires? I was hoping my mother fixed my favorite since she knew we’d be here tonight.”
The driver squinted at the camp. “Something is wrong.” He turned over the engine and waited for his friend to secure himself before easing toward the road that created a patchwork of shifting sand.
As they drew closer, it became obvious people and animals weren’t moving, or an alert would have been sounded. Cooking fires failed to perfume the air with aromas of cooked meat from a slaughtered sheep. Their fathers knew of their arrival from the university and would celebrate with a feast. Yet, there was no hint of celebration or welcome.
Instead, the hollow sound of wind swept across the desert and brought the odor of death as they eased out of their dune buggy to stare at the carnage before them. Livestock lay bloated and cooking fires smoldered with upended pots of charred remains of what might have been a traditional Bedouin meal.
In spite of the heat, the young men stood as if frozen, afraid to speak what they imagined they might find inside the tents. The driver pointed toward a lump outside the flapping awning that freed itself from the wind. Could this have been an unexpected sandstorm?
“There? What is that?” he whispered.
Together, they walked toward the lump in the sand and halted when the stench forced them to cover their noses and mouths. The driver gagged but decided to rush forward as he covered the bottom part of his face with part of his kaffiyeh. He turned the lump over with his foot and cried out. Stumbling back to his friend, he fell into his arms.
“I recognized my father’s knife in his hand.” Terror caused him to choke as he spoke. “His face melted away.”
The friend pushed him at arm’s length. “The others must be—”
“Dead. All of them,” he sobbed.
~ ~ ~ ~
Director Benjamin Clark, current head of Enigma, hung up the phone after talking to President Buck Austin. He knew being summoned to the office on a Sunday morning by the most powerful man in the world meant only one thing. Trouble. Even before he’d spoken to the president, he’d put a call in to his most trusted agent, Captain Chase Hunter, to meet him at the Sacramento office. He was waiting, as he knew he would be, when he arrived. No secretary to get in the way or make coffee. Chase held two cups. Director Clark grabbed one without asking or showing appreciation.
The soldier didn’t react. This wasn’t the first time matters of national security pulled him in without an explanation. The director knew he didn’t have to explain to a man who’d seen too much danger and not enough common sense over the years. His heart, at times, was as cold as a research station in Antarctica on any given day. Men feared the battle-weary soldier but respected him nonetheless. The director cared deeply for the man and hated the thought someday he’d have to send him into a situation where he wouldn’t return.
“How is the president, Ben?” The director enjoyed when his agent called him by his first name. When others were around, he employed a formal address.
“He’s about to go cowboy on us, I think. Beat around the bush a few minutes on how the world was going to hell in a handbag, and folks have lost their moral compass.”
Captain Hunter smirked. “Well, he’s not entirely wrong, Ben. So, what is the burr under his saddle now?”
Unamused at the attempt to sound like John Wayne, the director sat down and pointed to a chair across from him in a silent order for the captain to do the same. “Saudi Arabia is the problem.”
“What are they not admitting to now?”
“They’re asking for our help. Scared out of their minds.”
The obvious lack of interest and steely eyed glare reflected an abundance of unconcern and contempt. Ben was well aware how much disdain the man held for the Saudis after 911. He carried a grudge so heavy, it helped shape him into the killer and soldier he was today. A beloved grandmother died in the fall of the first tower. It was one of several losses the man experienced. Having already lost his parents serving as medical missionaries in China, he’d also suffered his little sister being murdered in college. The man didn’t let anyone get too close and, certainly, not a woman.
Well, not until Tessa Scott stumbled into his life, smelling of chocolate chip cookies and batting her baby-blue eyes at him. Chase didn’t think a woman with three kids and a self-centered husband could be of any use to Enigma. She was one of the innocents. But he was wrong. Although hesitant, the woman helped save the country from Libyan terrorists. For the first time Ben could remember, he heard Captain Hunter laugh. She both amused and intrigued his top agent. Day by day, she sanded off the cruel and deadly character he hid behind and gave him a reason to keep up the good fight. Everyone at Enigma knew the man was in love with the woman, in spite of him not wanting to admit it. They became unlikely friends. The upside of their partnership was both made Enigma better.
Ben continued. “A Bedouin camp was attacked a few days ago by what appears to be a chemical weapon.” Ben noticed the captain blink and cock his head with interest. “Over forty people died a horrible death, as did their livestock. Two young men belonging to the group found them as they returned from college. Others were scheduled to arrive in a few days after the attack occurred. From my understanding, they were urban Bedouins who have jobs in Riyadh. They still practice the lifestyle with family several times during the year.”
“Who do we have on the ground?”
“FBI landed within twenty-four hours of finding them. A sandstorm followed the discovery and compromised some of the evidence.”
“Maybe it’s an in-country rivalry.”
“Maybe. Doubt it. The weapon was pretty sophisticated for a bunch of Bedouins. No indication it was launched. FBI thinks someone brought it into camp.”
“Any identification of the dead?”
“Most had melted faces and body parts. Pieces of clothing, jewelry, and such helped with identification.”
“Who do you think brought it into camp?”
“The two boys who found the families couldn’t account for one of the dead. One too many. FBI thinks something went wrong. Possibly the unknown person didn’t know what he had. Still too much we don’t know.”
“And why do we care?”
“The future leader of Saudi Arabia, Prince Muhammad, was due to arrive the following day.”
Captain Hunter sighed, and his mouth twisted in disgust. “And I guess we have to babysit while he participates in the Environmental Impact Summit here next week.”
“And you’re going to get Tessa to be his arm candy to make sure he behaves himself.”
“Absolutely not,” Chase growled. “The man is a—”
“I’m well aware of his reputation. Be sure you put the fear of God in him with Zoric at your side. Tessa can take care of herself these days. Russia proved as much.” Ben knew bringing up Russia may not have been the most persuasive approach. “She’s coming in later. Stick around and put her mind at ease. She hasn’t had much interaction with the team since the divorce.” The captain remained quiet. Ben wondered if Chase would finally make his move on the woman, or did he now have bridges that needed to be burned before his confession of love? Finally, he stood and stared at Ben with laser focus.
“Future king or not, if he touches her, I’ll kill him.”
“I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that.”