Radio Intercept, Paris: September 9, 2013, 19:30 hours. Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale: Code Red Alert.
“. . . Batobus Manon dockside at Musée d’Orsay. Several bodies seen floating in river. Manon heading east on river. Anonymous tip reports area of Notre Dame to be target of attack by Muqatileen Lillah. This is a GIGN Code Red Alert. Engage Operation Dragon Fortress. Repeat: This is a GIGN Code Red Alert. Engage Operation Dragon Fortress. Level A terrorist strike in progress. Six men wearing black jumpsuits and balaclavas, carrying light automatic weapons have hijacked Batobus Manon dockside at Musée d’Orsay. Several bodies seen floating in river . . .”
Harper’s mobile reconnected to Operations Control in Berne. “Did you copy that transmission, Mr. Harper?” “The enemy tipped off the police.” “Indeed, they plan to make a show of it. The world’s news media will be all over the story in a few minutes.”
“You’re sure the bomb is on board?”
“How many goons?”
“Standard kill squad of six.”
“Time to target?”
“Tactical gives it eighteen minutes at present speed and course.”
“Can the mechanics shift the time warp?”
“Negative. It’s locked over Saint-Sulpice.”
Swell, Harper thought. Plan A looked great on paper. Goons attack, Inspector Gobet’s time mechanics drop a warp over Saint-Sulpice. Harper sorts the goons, cleanup crew secures the bomb. Just another night in paradise. None of the Parisian locals the wiser as they take aperitifs in nearby cafés.
“Then now’s the time for suggestions, Inspector.”
“Tactical is transmitting a counterattack to your mobile as I speak.”
A map of Paris appeared on Harper’s mobile screen, zoomed in on the border of the 6th and 1st arrondissements. Two dots appeared marking Pont Alexandre III and Notre Dame; a third dot triangulated Harper’s position at Rue de Mézières, then a line appeared marking a track to l’Académie française on the Left Bank.
“Double-time it, Mr. Harper, and you’ll reach the river ahead of the Manon. From there you’ll have an opportunity to intercept.”
“Just how am I supposed to get aboard, swim?”
“Tactical suggests something more along the lines of flight.”
“Old tricks being what they are, Mr. Harper.”
The map zoomed into a footbridge above the river Seine, directly in front of l’Académie française. Manon’s course would bring her directly under Pont des Arts. The map flipped to side view and an arrow marked height from bridge to river. It was a thirty-five-meter drop; winds: southwest at nine klicks per hour.
“You can’t be serious.”
“In the last few minutes, SX sweeps have popped hot with chatter on the Internet. Signals decode the chatter to read the bomb is worse than suspected.”
“Define ‘worse.’ ”
“The enemy has successfully bonded the Ra-226 with agony potion.”
Harper worked the chemistry. Ra-226: radium, rare earth metal. Number 88 on the periodic table of elements, highly toxic. Pack enough of it with explosives, you’ve got a dirty nuke. Bond it with agony potion, you’ve got a fucking nightmare.
“Christ, they’ll turn the center of Paris into a dead zone.”
The pilot of the MANON felt the blade slice across his throat and he watched his blood spill down his chest. In the last moment of his life, he heard voices and screams . . . “We bring you forever death!” “No, please!” “Oh, God! Help me!” “Get the skins together!”
The hostages fell atop one another as they were herded to the center of the cabin. They huddled between the benches and watched six hooded men move quickly to take control of the boat. Four of the men squeezing the hostages together, another carrying a large backpack and rushing to the outer deck at the stern, one more taking the helm and hitting switches to kill the cabin and pilot lights. The Manon was cast into darkness. Abu Jad, at the outer edge of the hostages, held his daughter close to his chest to hide her from the hijackers. It was her ninth birthday and this was to be her present: a trip to Disneyland Paris and a night cruise of the river Seine to see Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It was all the little girl dreamed about since seeing The Hunchback of Notre Dame on DVD last year in Beirut. She knew all the songs from the film. She was singing her favorite of the songs to her father as the boat docked near Musée d’Orsay to take on a family of German tourists. That’s when the hijackers appeared from the shadows. Long knives in their hands, machine guns strapped across their chests. And though Abu Jad heard the hijackers’ leader shouting his commands in Arabic, there were French and Americans and Asians on board, too, all of them seeming to understand the leader’s commands.
“Get down on your knees! All of you!”
The hostages sank to the deck. Abu Jad felt his daughter’s face against his chest; her eyes squeezed shut, her voice singing quietly:
“But suddenly an angel has smiled at me, and kissed my cheek without a trace of fright.”
Abu Jad stroked his daughter’s hair. He whispered in her ear.
“Yes, my darling Rima, God will send an angel to protect us.”
Abu Jad felt the tip of a bloodied blade under his chin, forcing him to look up into the leader’s eyes.
“Perhaps you should pray to me, little man.”
“I . . . I pray only to God.”
“Hal ante muta’aked wa ana al lathy mumsek bi rouh ibnaitka alkhalida ayuha al rajul?” the leader said.
“I hear your words as Arabic, but you are not speaking Arabic. How can this be? Who are you?”
The leader moved the blade from Abu Jad’s chin and traced it through Rima’s long hair.
“Aren’t you the clever little man?”
Abu Jad pulled Rima to his chest.
“I beg you to have mercy on my child.”
The leader set the tip at Abu Jad’s throat.
“Tell me who I am, clever little man, tell me and I will be merciful to the little skin.”
The black eyes staring at him, Abu Jad thought, were not even human. No, they were the eyes of the evil jinn.
“You are not a man, you are a demon escaped from hell!” Abu Jad cried. “May God send an angel to crush you and protect the innocent!”
The leader’s evil eyes glared with hate.
“Tsk, tsk, little man. Haven’t you heard? There is no heaven, there is no hell. There is only this place.” By the time he finished the words, the demon had buried his blade in Abu Jad’s throat.
Harper ran up Rue de Seine, crashed through the tables at Café La Palette. Just after Place Gabriel Pierné, he cut through the passageway off Rue des Écouffes and came onto the esplanade of l’Académie française. At first sight things were as they should be of an autumn night. Traffic speeding down Quai de Conti, bouquiniste stands along the embankment walls, people crowding around. Traffic lights turned red and cars and buses stopped. Pedestrians hurried to and from Pont des Arts, the footbridge stretching above the river to le Louvre.
Harper checked his watch: four minutes to intercept.
He moved into the shadows along the limestone façade of l’Académie. He stood motionless and unseen, watching Pont des Arts. The footbridge was one of the city’s favorite gathering places. And tonight, hundreds of locals had come to sit on the wooden planks and picnic and wave to the tour boats passing below. Words flashed through Harper’s eyes. Words he’d read somewhere . . . For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
A local wrote those words, Harper thought. A poet, maybe. Harper reached under his coat, unhooked the lock straps of his killing knives. He drew his SIG Sauer, loaded a 9-millimeter hollow-point into the firing chamber. He pulled the decocker, eased down the hammer, imagining what he’d tell the poet over a pint: It’s the war, mate, eternal and forever . . .
“But it wasn’t supposed to be this way.”
An EC135 police chopper dropped from the sky with a growl, skimmed the heads of the locals on the bridge before racing downstream. It hovered over Pont Alexandre III, searchlight switching on, lighting up the dark river below. Airborne French coppers, Harper thought, searching for the Manon. Another chopper roared in from over the Tuileries, searchlight already blazing. It circled above Pont de la Concorde, drifted slowly upriver toward Musée d’Orsay. The locals on the Pont des Arts fell quiet, all eyes following the two shafts of light like moths to flames.
Harper looked upriver, saw the spinning blue lights of police vans turning onto Pont Neuf. The vans skidded to a stop, doors burst open, and a company of GIGN deployed across the length of the bridge. Snipers armed with M82s took positions in the downstream bastions. The rest of the company draped a curtain of heavy chains over the bridge’s arches. The chains reached down into the river. And that would be Operation Dragon Fortress, thought Harper. Meaning no matter what, Batobus Manon was not getting beyond Pont Neuf.
He checked his watch again: three minutes.
He stepped from the shadows, marched toward Pont des Arts. He saw a platoon of French police storm Pont des Arts from the Right Bank. They were decked out in body armor and helmets with blast shields. They were armed with PSR assault rifles. The locals on the bridge made way for the platoon, many of them capturing the action on their mobile phones. The platoon’s lieutenant raised his mask and yelled through a loudspeaker:
“Évacuez le pont! Évacuez le pont!”
The locals were hesitant to leave the bridge till the lieutenant pulled his sidearm and double-tapped the sky with warning shots. Civilians ran without thinking, bodies were pushed back onto Quai de Conti. Tires screeched as cars and buses plowed into one another trying to avoid the crowd. One taxi lost control and ran onto the sidewalk. It crashed into the embankment wall and rolled. A man and women, too slow to escape, their terrified faces caught in the headlights, were crushed. Panic took hold, and the locals stampeded straight at Harper. He pushed against the mob, headed for the dead and dying. He pulled his mobile, connected to Control in Berne.
“Casualties on the Left Bank at Pont des Arts, Inspector. Request comforters on site.”
“Negative. All comforters have been evacuated from the target zone.”
“We cannot afford to lose comforters in the blast.”
Harper looked up, saw long shreds of black mist race through the sky. They caught the high turrets of the Louvre and slithered down the limestone walls.
“The devourers already smell death,” Harper said. “They’re closing in.”
The inspector’s voice was steady. “You are ordered to disregard casualties and continue with intercept. You know how it is.”
Harper watched shreds of black mist claw their way over the river, following the scent of dying souls.
“None. Good luck, Mr. Harper.”
Harper saw the lieutenant setting his platoon across Pont des Arts. The barrels of their rifles balancing on the guardrails, taking aim at the Manon.
“Hate to tell you this, Inspector,” Harper said, “but good luck just got harder.”
He dropped the mobile in his pocket, raised his SIG above his head, and forced his way through the locals.
“Move! Get out of the way!”
He jumped onto the hood of a crumpled van, looked downriver again. Searchlights on the police choppers had found the Manon. The boat’s speed now cut to a crawl. Good news: Slowing down buys a couple of minutes. Bad news: It gives the police on Pont des Arts plenty of time to lock sights on the target. The lieutenant took his position behind the firing line, his voice screeching through the loudspeaker: “A mon ordre, ouvre le feu pour éliminer!
“For Christ’s sake, wait!”
Harper fired a round into the sky. CRACK!
The lieutenant turned to see a man in a beat-up coat, pistol in hand, jumping from the top of a van and running toward the bridge. The lieutenant turned, raised his sidearm, drew a bead on Harper. So did three police with assault rifles. Harper froze in his tracks, slowly pointing his SIG Sauer to the ground. He spoke calmly. “Écoutez, Lieutenant, il ya une arme nucléaire à bord.”
The officer wasn’t impressed. He ordered Harper to drop his weapon.
“Posez votre armes!”
“Lieutenant, listen, you kill the bomber, the bomb still activates.”
An earsplitting growl buried Harper’s voice as the two choppers swooped in and hovered three meters above the bridge. The downdraft knocked the police off balance and Harper to his knees. Searchlights bore down with an otherworldly light that crawled over the wooden planks. The light broke into streaks and illuminated the Plexiglas-topped boat passing slowly beneath the bridge. One half-breed in the pilot’s cabin, three more taking firing positions at the bow, surviving hostages gathered in the center of the cabin. All the half-breeds armed with UZIs and AKs . . . Where’s the fucking bomber? Then Harper saw him. He was crouched at the stern, shooting up a hypo’s worth of dead black potion. Harper saw the deadman’s switch in the goon’s left hand, saw the goon’s fingers twitching against the trigger pad. Standard bad-guy slaughter kit. Release pressure, the device begins a nonstop ninety-second countdown. Gives the rest of the kill squad time to transmigrate into shadows and escape before the blast. The goon dropped the hypo, kicked back its head, ready to check out to the big nowhere.
Harper grabbed the meshed fencing of the bridge, struggled to pull himself up against the downdraft. He felt the barrel of a gun at the back of his neck, heard the French lieutenant scream through the choppers: “Drop your weapon, English bastard, or I’ll fire.”
“Mate, what part of nuclear fucking weapon don’t you understand?”
Harper dropped his SIG on the planks.
“Hands to your back!”
Harper did as ordered, watching the Manon clear the cutwaters of Pont des Arts and crawl toward Île de la Cité. The French police on Pont Neuf had a clear shot at the Batobus, and they opened up with a hail of bullets into the pilot’s cabin. The Manon stalled, then the night exploded as the goons returned fire. Tracer rounds ripped through the dark at seven hundred meters per second and ricochets sparked on the bastions of Pont Neuf. Rapid-fire reports echoed through the heart of Paris like jackhammers on speed.
The lieutenant turned his eyes to the firefight for a second. It was all the second Harper needed. He scooped up his SIG, knocked the lieutenant to the floorboards, saw the boat pulling farther away, saw half the police on Pont des Arts taking aim at the Manon . . .
“Shit.” He reached inside his coat, pulled a small glass vial from his weapons rig, and smashed the vial onto the wooden planks of the bridge.
“Et facta est lux.”
There was a blinding flash of blue light before Pont des Arts disappeared in thick, churning fog. Harper tossed the SIG to his left hand, pulled a killing knife with his right. He jumped for the guardrail—at least where he remembered it to be before it disappeared in the fog. He caught the rail with his foot, balanced for the hundredth of a second it took to work trajectory . . .
“Old tricks being what they are and all.”
He jumped into the fog.
The goon at the stern of the MANON saw the flash of light and the fog envelop the bridge; it was drifting toward him now. But with 30 cc of dead black rushing through his blood, it was all part of the groove in knowing mass death was about to be unleashed at his hand. The human skins would inhale the agony potion, blisters and burns would form in mouths and tracheae, they’d choke to death. And now, bonded with radium, the agony potion would kill for a thousand years. The goon pulled off his balaclava and cursed the searchlights glowing weirdly in the fog.
“See me, watch me! I bring the world forever death!”
Soon he would be free. Soon he would be one of the devourers, roaming the world, feeding on the dying souls of men. He raised his fist to the searchlights.
“Tonight, tonight! I will feast!”
The dead black pumped harder through his veins. He began to let his fingers slip from the trigger pad . . . but he stopped . . . to behold a wondrous vision. A winged form in silhouette, descending through the churning and glowing fog. One arm rising with a small sword in hand, the other hand pointing down to him. The goon’s eyes widened.
“Yes, yes! My Lord and Father! You have come to carry me to the darkness! Father, I open my arms to receive your blessing!”
Harper crashed down, slammed the goon to the deck. He swung his killing knife, sliced off the goon’s trigger hand, rammed the SIG’s barrel into the unbelieving thing’s gaping mouth.
“Receive this instead, pal.”
He pulled the trigger, blew apart the goon’s skull. He flipped the dead thing onto its belly, sliced open the backpack. The bomb was in a sealed plastic box, one meter long by half a meter wide. Inside: a shape-charged, high-explosive device surrounded by aluminum tubes. Try and fuck with it, it’d blow. His eyes followed the jumble of wires to a small isolated compartment where a digital timer counted down bad news.
Quick scan of the cabin.
Hostages amidships, out of their minds with fear, screaming as bullets ripped over their heads. Three goons firing off the bow toward the police on Pont Neuf, one more crouched behind the controls driving the boat ahead . . .
One goon missing.
Then a form rushed from starboard, an UZI blasting from its hands. Harper ducked behind the dead bomber as thirty rounds ripped off in three seconds. The cabin’s Plexiglas shell shattered to bits. Harper raised his eyes—the goon had been targeting police speedboats off to port. Harper raised his SIG, the goon caught the move and turned to fire. Harper beat him to the trigger with two rounds to the head. The goon dropped.
Harper looked for a way to get at the bomb. Plastic casing, quarter inch thick. He dug at the corners with his killing knife. He heard the hostages scream, saw another goon coming straight at him. Harper threw his killing knife. The blade caught the thing in the stomach. It squealed, stumbled ahead, fell on Harper. Harper pulled the knife from its guts, the goon crumbled to its knees. Harper rammed the knife into the back of its neck, severed spine from brain. He kicked the dead thing over the side.
He smashed at the bomb casing with the butt of the bloodied knife.
10, 9, 8 . . .
He lifted his SIG from the deck, set the muzzle on the casing, pointed it at the timer.
. . . 5, 4, 3 . . .
“Welcome to Plan B.”
He closed his eyes and squeezed the trigger. He heard the report of the bullet, waited for the blast of the bomb. It didn’t happen. He opened his eyes. The bullet had blown the timer to pieces.
The searchlights blinked off and on. Harper looked up to the choppers. The police had been watching him struggle with the bomb and blow its brains out. He raised a thumbs-up to the light. As if getting the message, the choppers pulled away and the snipers on Pont Neuf sent a volley of fuck-this-shit into the Manon. CRACK! CRACKCRACK!
The boat lurched ahead and turned in a wide loop. Harper saw the hostages’ faces, the sudden speed like mainlining terror. He rolled over, saw one bullet-ridden goon dead at the controls, another in the same condition nearby. Then on the bow, caught in the glare of searchlights, the last goon rising without a shadow to piss in. Harper squeezed the grip of his SIG to activate the laser sight and light up the kill spot between the goon’s eyes.
“So, hotshot, any last words?”
The goon slowly raised its hands in surrender, turned around. Harper saw the half-dead eyes under the balaclava break into a smile.
“Acta est fabula, plaudite.” Harper ran the words: The play is over, applaud . . . last words of Emperor Augustus. Harper squeezed the trigger.
The back of the goon’s head blew apart in a spray of blood and brains. Harper crawled ahead, fired rounds into the skulls of his pals.
“Now stay dead.”
Harper turned, saw two passengers pointing off the bow. The Batobus had come around, heading for Pont Neuf. In the searchlights Harper saw the chains hanging from the bastions . . . laden with four-sided hooks and razor wire. The chains wouldn’t just entangle the Manon, they’d rip all human flesh to shreds. Harper rushed to the pilot house, pulled the dead goon from the controls. He tried to pull back on the throttle and shut down the engine, but it was jammed. He scanned the riverbanks. Stone embankment to port, wood-hulled barge tied up to starboard.
He turned the wheel to the right, pulled the dead goon back over the wheel to hold it in place. He dove back toward the hostages.
The boat rammed the barge with a sickening crunch. Benches ripping from planks, shards of Plexiglas cutting through the air, hostages skidding over the deck. The Manon’s hull rose from the water, slammed down, and shuddered as if hitting concrete. And with engines running full speed and the rudder now jammed to forty degrees, the stern came about wildly and rammed the chains hanging from the bridge. The Manon struggled like a fish on a line till the razor wire caught her propellers. The engines shrieked, sputtered to a stop. The Manon was dead in the water.
The hostages lay scattered about the cabin like broken things. Harper scanned their eyes. He could already see the nightmares that would haunt them the rest of their lives. He got to his feet, holstered his SIG. The hostages stared at the bloodied knife in his right hand. Harper pulled the knife to his back.
“It’s over. Help will be here soon.”
He hurried aft, sliced the shoulder straps of the backpack from the headless bomber. He sheathed his knife, pulled off his coat, and lay it on the deck. Carefully, he slid the bomb from the bomber and lay it on his coat. He tied the coat’s arms into a sling, lifted the bomb, and hurried to the bow. Here he could jump onto the barge, slip away in the shadows. He heard a voice:
“And kissed my cheek without a trace of fright”
Down at his feet, a little girl clinging to the body of a man.
Harper saw the gash across the man’s throat. He checked the man’s eyes for light. The man was dead, but his soul held on to the last breath as desperately as his daughter held him. Rules and regs flashed through Harper’s mind. Stopped cold on Do nothing to reveal yourself to men, even if it means abandoning a dying soul.
Then came the sound of steel-toed boots pounding along the embankment heading for the Manon. French coppers in full battle array, Harper thought. He turned, walked away from the little girl and the dying man. He hurried past the hostages and jumped the rail and landed on the barge. His eyes followed the shadows, saw where he could move into them and slip away. He looked back over his shoulder at the wreckage of the Manon. Could have been worse, he told himself. He headed for the shadows, stopped . . .
He jumped back aboard the Manon. The hostages, thinking the killing had returned, screamed with fright. Harper raised the palm of his right hand to their eyes.
“Transit umbra, lux permanet”
They quieted. Harper rushed through the cabin, knelt next to the little girl. Her head was resting on the man’s chest, and her eyes stared blankly ahead. Harper knew she’d slipped into that terrible place of numbness human beings go when their souls are battered by unknowable things. He passed the palm of his hand before her face.
“Et non somnia visitet te”
She took a sharp breath, released it slowly, and fell to sleep.
Harper leaned over the dead man, called to his soul.
“Your daughter is safe now. The nightmares will pass her by. You can let go now, you’re finished here. Be not afraid, this is how it happens.”