A month after his thirty-eighth birthday, Lieutenant Tall Chambers sat in his gray cubicle in a crowded gray room in the Pentagon filled with eighteen identical gray cubicles. He leaned back, folded his arms across his chest, and yawned.
He watched his computer scroll through a long list of codes, compiling data he’d pulled together from thirty-six sources detailing yesterday’s shipments of supplies to Army bases in the Middle East.
When this report finished running, he’d do the same thing for bases in Asia.
Every day, the same sources, the same supplies, the same reports.
A year ago, he was a Captain stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan, training new recruits and leading special ops in country. After an ugly incident with a drunken Colonel, he was demoted to Lieutenant and sentenced to desk duty here in the Pentagon.
He sighed. So much for being a boy scout.
He would have enjoyed hard labor more than this. He grimaced and rubbed his face with both hands, hoping to wipe away the boredom.
He’d recently put in his papers. When he reached his twenty-year anniversary in the Army, he’d retire. He hadn’t decided what he’d do then, but anything would be better than sitting on his butt eight hours a day.
Three more months to go. He wasn’t sure he could stick it out that long. He glanced at the clock on his desk. Only ten-thirty. Hell, he wasn’t sure he could stick it out until lunch.
He’d spend his lunch hour in the gym, as usual. Being stuck at a desk made it hard to stay in shape. He’d joined the Army at eighteen, a gangly stick figure at six feet three inches tall. The Army taught him how to build a solid muscular body, and he liked keeping it that way. He was determined not to turn into a pear-shaped eunuch like the men in the cubicles all around his.
When his cell phone rang, he snatched it off his desk and looked at the caller ID. An unlisted number. He answered it anyway. Hearing any human voice would be a treat.
“Tall, it’s Stephen Winslow. How the hell are you?”
Stephen’s voice triggered a lot of memories. They’d worked together in Special Forces and did a number of ops together.
“Stephen! You son of a gun. I’m bored to tears. How about you?”
“I’m not bored, but I heard they busted you down to a desk job. Is it that bad?”
“Worse. All the fun and thrills of watching paint dry.”
Stephen laughed. “That’s what you get for punching out a superior officer.”
“He didn’t give me much choice. I have to hang in another three months. I’ll have my twenty and I’m gone. What’re you doing these days?”
“That’s why I called you. Meet me in an hour. Take a ride with me.”
“I think I can tear myself away from the excitement here for a little while. Where are we going?”
“Meet me at Dulles. On the west service road, look for the Regional Air Service hangar.”
“Why are we going to Texas?”
“To blow up two carloads of people. Don’t worry about packing. We’ll be back tonight.”
“Uh, did you say blow up–”
“Get a move on, Tall. Wheels up in one hour.” Stephen hung up.
Tall thought about it for only a few seconds. Stephen was a good friend he hadn’t seen for two years. It would be fun to spend some time with him. He didn’t know why Stephen wanted him to fly to Texas. Surely not to blow anyone up. Stephen liked to kid around. Whatever the reason, It would be a nice break from punching computer keys.
Tall followed protocol for signing out of the office for the rest of the day, parked in front of the Regional Air Service hangar fifty minutes later, and saw Stephen waiting for him.
Stephen smiled, waved and walked toward him. “You made good time.”
“I was anxious to see if you’d grown any,” Tall said.
Stephen countered with, “I may not be as tall as you, but I’m still better looking.”
The two men were night and day in appearance. Tall had dark hair and eyes. At five-ten, Stephen was five inches shorter and slender with sandy brown hair and blue eyes. They shook hands and bumped shoulders.
“You look great, Tall. That desk job agrees with you.”
Tall grimaced. “No, it doesn’t. I don’t know how people can stand sitting at a desk and staring at a computer all day.”
“I hear that. So what else you been doing with yourself? Find a woman who can put up with you yet?”
Tall grinned. “I’m, uh, between relationships at the moment.”
Stephen grinned back. “Same here. Remember that sheik who offered us his daughters? Maybe we should have taken him up on it. I hear they make good wives.”
“Yeah, right. One of them weighed four hundred pounds, the other one had no teeth.”
Stephen laughed. “I remember. Ready to go to Texas?”
Tall followed Stephen alongside the hangar to an auxiliary landing strip behind it where a Lear Gulfstream jet sat warming up.
As they climbed the boarding steps, Tall said, “Nice wheels. Yours?”
Stephen snorted. “I wish, but it’s available to us when we need it.”
“Okay, I’m impressed.”
Tall was more impressed when he stepped inside the cabin. At the front were three white leather armchairs on each side and two matching sofas facing each other behind them. The plush carpet was also white except for a circle three feet in diameter between the two sofas. Inside the circle was the blue and gold seal of the President of the United States.
“You think he’ll mind us using his plane?” Tall asked.
“Naahh, he has a bigger one if he needs to go somewhere.” Stephen dropped into the first seat on the left and pointed to the one opposite it. “Buckle up.”
As soon as Tall settled in, Stephen pushed a button on the arm of his seat and said, “We’re ready to go.”
A voice from speakers on the ceiling said, “Yes, sir.”
A few minutes later, they were in the air and leveled off. Seeing Stephen again reminded Tall how much he missed being in regular service. They’d spent a lot of time together in Kuwait and Afghanistan, many times having to depend on each other for survival. He’d heard Stephen left the Army and moved into Homeland Security two years ago.
“There’s coffee in the back if you want some,” Stephen said. “Help yourself.”
“What, no flight attendant?”
Stephen grinned. “’Fraid not. We’ll have to rough it.”
“I’m good for now. You said Texas. FortHood?”
“Dallas. We’ll land at D/FW Airport. There’ll be a car waiting for us. From there, we’ll drive about half an hour to a location at the southeast corner of the city.” He checked his watch. “We should get there at just about the right time.”
“Then what? You were joking about blowing up people, right?”
“No, I wasn’t joking. We wait till two black vans come along, and when they do, we blow them up.”
Tall raised both eyebrows. “You’re serious?”
“Very.” Stephen returned Tall’s look for a moment, then turned to stare into the wall in front of him. “There’ll be six men in each van, Muslims with ties to Al-Qaeda. They left Phoenix early this morning, headed for a shopping mall in Dallas. Each man is packed with C4 and Semtex. When they get there, they’ll wander into the mall like regular customers and make their way individually to twelve designated locations. At exactly six o’clock Central Time, each one will push a button and go boom.”
Tall let it sink in. “So your plan is to blow them up before they get to the mall.”
“That’s it. They want to meet Allah and collect their virgins, we’ll put them in the express lane.”
“Maybe I will have that coffee,” Tall said.
He went back to the kitchen area and found a pot already made. Stephen had a healthy sense of humor, but he was dead serious about this. Tall had seen the results of bombings in Iraq, and the memory of the sudden and merciless act of taking lives with explosives sent a chill down his back. Stephen was asking him to be part of the same kind of thing. They had gone on raids against insurgent groups together in Afghanistan, but their goal was always to take them alive and bring them in for interrogation.
He returned to his seat with two cups and handed one to Stephen. “Suicide bombers,” he said as he sat down. “You hear about one acting solo once in a while, but not in a large group like this.”
Stephen tasted his coffee and placed it in the cupholder in the arm of his seat. “No. Doesn’t happen often.”
“Why not just intercept them before they get to the mall and arrest them?”
Stephen shook his head. “Not possible. They were packed and wired when they left Phoenix. If anyone confronts them in any way, they’ll push the button then and there and take anyone in the area with them. The only way to take them out safely is to blow the vans in an isolated area where no one else will be hurt.”
Tall turned and looked out his window. When he agreed to take a ride to Texas with Stephen, he hadn’t expected anything like this. He’d thought Stephen might be going to a meeting to talk about security procedures or meet with local brass to discuss some routine problem and simply wanted company.
After a moment, Stephen said, “I could use your help, Tall, but I’ll understand if you’re not up for it. You can opt out if you want, and there’ll be no hard feelings.”
Tall continued staring out the window. For the past nine months, he’d been relegated to desk duty in the Pentagon, far removed from the atrocities of war. Everything he’d seen and done in the Middle East seemed like a distant memory, as if it had happened to someone else. The only action he’d seen lately was when his printer ran out of paper or his computer malfunctioned and he had to call in an IT specialist. Now, Stephen was asking him to do something that would put him back where he was in what seemed a lifetime ago. He wasn’t sure if he could return to it, or if he wanted to.
Tall turned back from the window, but didn’t look at Stephen. He stared into his coffee cup as if he’d find an answer there.
Stephen gave him another moment, then said quietly, “Tall, there’ll be between two and three thousand civilians in that mall, and these people have enough explosives to reduce the whole structure to rubble. Those not killed in the explosions will be crushed when the building comes down on them.”
Tall raised his cup and drained it. The hot liquid was bitter all the way down. Then his eyes met Stephen’s. “When you put it that way,” he said, “we have no choice, do we?”
* * * * *