by Clay Jacobsen


The Northern Syrian Desert
Mid January

At first there was nothing, a void he embraced.

Then flashes of green light darted across Mark Taylor's vision, appearing like fireflies dancing in the blackness of a moonless Tennessee night. Next came the pain...terrifying waves of agony. He fought desperately to keep hold of the darkness.

Through the mental fog his first thought took shape...not about himself, where he was or how many bones might be broken, but a hazy impression of his wife, Tracy. The image lured him toward consciousness. His eyes blinked open, the light immediately pierced through his head. He winced and shut them in a vain attempt to block out the pain.

After a moment he tried again, slowly this time. Before he could orient himself he heard footsteps. Holding the image of the stark room and dirt floor around him, Mark gently closed his eyes and laid still.

There were voices now, but he couldn't make out the words. Arabic? It sounded like it. The noises combined with the pain began to clear his head. He remembered where he was--somewhere in the Middle East,--Turkey, possibly Syria. And as the thought took shape so did the realization that he was in desperate trouble.

Lying on his side, Mark was curled up in a fetal position on the hard surface. There was no way to tell how long he'd been unconscious. As the voices approached he remained motionless, taking in short, shallow breaths.

Suddenly a shower of foul smelling liquid drenched him. His attempt to feign unconsciousness shattered as he gagged and coughed. The pain throughout his body was nearly unbearable.

"I trust you've had a pleasant nap," a voice spoke above him in near perfect English.

Spitting away the putrid water and wiping at his eyes, Mark looked up. Surrounded by three men brandishing AK-47s stood Ahmad Hani Sa'id, the infamous leader of the Jihad al Sharia terrorist network.

"Now Mr. Taylor," Sa'id continued, "I think it's time you and I had another little chat."

Chapter 1

Five days earlier...
Studio City, California
6:03 AM

She sat on the edge of the tub, watching--waiting, looking at her watch then glancing back at the strip on the counter. Fidgeting with her hands, Tracy Taylor mindlessly pushed back the cuticles of two fingernails before taking note of the time once again.

A faint glow just beginning to appear in the eastern sky. Tracy had lain awake most of the night. The deep breathing from her husband had soothed her, at times enough to catch a few restless moments of sleep. Then she'd wake up again, wondering. She was over three weeks late--something not that uncommon with her, but this time it felt, well...different.

On the way home from class the day before she'd stopped at the drug store and picked up the home pregnancy test. She was too nervous to take it then, so she had placed it in her closet hidden under her sweaters until a few minutes ago when the curiosity overcame her.

She stood up glancing at herself in the mirror, then turned side ways lifting the fabric of her nightgown away from her body as if her stomach were the size of a basketball. She smiled, moving her right hand slowly over her imaginary belly. How would her small frame handle the transformation if she was pregnant? She puffed out her cheeks, giggling at the image facing her in the mirror.

She tiptoed across the bathroom and glanced through the crack in the doorway out to the bedroom beyond. Mark was curled up under a heap of covers, his unruly brown hair sticking up in all directions, his breathing even, but heavy. Her stomach tingled deep inside. How would he handle it? They hadn't even been married a ye ar. She knew he wanted children...someday.
His alarm would ring in the next few minutes. She looked down at her watch anxiously. It was time!

Damascus , Syria
4:07 PM

Josh Mclintock walked along the busy street, glancing nervously over his shoulder every few steps. The avenue, Souk as-Sarouja, was crowded with shoppers lining the narrow road buying the latest fashions and jewelry from the vine-covered old homes. The shop keepers fought for his attention waving their goods at him as he passed, but he had no interest in haggling.

He walked toward the Thawra Bridge just as he'd been instructed on the phone one hour ago, waiting for Mustafa to contact him.
Josh raised his shoulders and tucked his head slightly into his black overcoat as a gust of wind sent a chill down his neck. Anytime Mustafa, Josh thought nervously as he continued to walk.

Josh Mclintock was the Middle East deputy chief for National Network's cable news division, and their lead on-air reporter. All aspects of the War on Terror from this part of the world were under his control. He'd been living in Syria for the past six months as America's focus had shifted to this part of the Middle East.

With the overthrow of the Taliban and the al-Qaida network based in Afghanistan nearly two years before, America had begun to settle back into their pre 9/11 sense of security when a series of new attacks once again plunged the nation into a massive state of fear and uncertainty. The first wave came when four school buses exploded within minutes of each other inside National Football League stadiums in Chicago, Dallas, New Orleans, and Washington DC, killing over twelve thousand people and injuring tens of thousands more. Now refereed to as the Sunday Massacre, the suicide terrorists had approached the entrances to the stadiums during half time driving school buses marked from the cities that had been invited to appear in the special activities. All but one were allowed to pull up into the loading areas just before the bombs went off. Thanks to an alert security guard in Chicago, that bus didn't get under the stadium and thousands of lives were saved.

Then came the bombings of the American Embassies three weeks ago on Christmas morning in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt, again timed within minutes of each other. Nine hundred more lives tragically ended. It was reminiscent of the type of planning attributed to Osama bin Laden...and had America in another tailspin.

As evidence was collected from the various law enforcement and security agencies, all information pointed to the Jihad al Sharia network. Its leader, Ahmad Hani Sa'id, was an enigma to the western intelligence coalition. Their file on him was paper thin, only a brief history of his childhood years in Saudi Arabia as the son of an oil sheik before he disappeared at the age of eighteen. He resurfaced within the past five years as head of the terrorist network believed to be based in the northern desert of Syria...undoubtedly the next target for American cruise missiles and laser guided bombs.

The relationship Mclintock had with Mustafa wasn't official...any of his dealings with the Arab were kept secret, never reported to his superiors back in New York. To do so would be to cut off any further source of information from inside the terrorist organization, useful tidbits that had kept National News a step ahead of the competition in the Middle East. Of course the other reason Mclintock had to keep any dealings with Mustafa secret was to protect his own life. Mustafa had made that very clear the first time Mclintock was contacted.

"Good to see you again, Josh," the heavily accented voice echoed from behind, freezing Josh in place. He turned slowly, seeing the shape of a robed figure in the shadows of an alley to his left. Josh glanced down the street quickly, then stepped into the darkness behind the as-Saada Hotel.

"I hope this is importan t," Josh tried to keep an edge of irritation in his voice to mask the fear he always felt in the presence of Mustafa. Josh knew he was connected, somewhere at the top of the terrorists' hierarchy. Every tip he'd received was dead on, usually resulting in Josh looking like a genius for being in the right place at the right time.

Mustafa placed a bitter smelling Arab cigarette up to his lips and took a long drag before responding. "I think you'll find your trip worth while."

Josh didn't respond, having learned it was not wise to engage in unnecessary conversation.

"Sa'id wishes to grant your network an interview."

Josh was shocked, was this some kind of joke? He studied the face of the terrorist, looking for any hint of deception under the black turban--there was none, just the dark lifeless eyes.

"I find that hard to believe. Ahmad Hani Sa'id?" Josh laughed cynically. "He's never been interviewed or even photographed since he was 18."

"It is time," Mustafa answered matter-of-factly.

Josh angled his head, juggling the possibilities...if Mustafa was for real this would be the scoop of a lifetime, his ticket out of cable news and straight to a major network.
"An interview, with Sa'id? How would I even know it's him?"
Mustafa grunted through his long b eard, "There will be proof, but this interview is not for you."

"What do you mean not for me?" Josh spit back angrily. "I've been stuck in this hell-hole for over three years covering this blasted war. I've earned the right..."

"No! You have no rights!"

Mustafa's hand lashed out and grabbed Josh's face, his fingers sinking into the flesh of his cheeks.

"Sa'id does not care that you have suffered so terribly living in this hell-hole as you call it!"

Josh pulled away, breaking the hold of the terrorist as the precariousness of his situation became crystal clear. He stretched his jaw then rubbed at his bruised cheeks.

"The interview will take place in three days. On that day, he will talk to only one man, from your network in America." Mustafa spoke the last word with seething hatred.

"And that man is Mark Taylor."

Studio City, California
6:10 AM

"...another day of sunshine here in the Southland," the disembodied voice filed the bedroom as the clock radio broke the early morning silence. Mark groggily slapped the button on top of the clock-radio, then rolled over on his side, his left arm reaching out to take Tracy and engulf her in their morning ritual of cuddling through the first snooze period. When he grabbed no thing but sheets and a pillow, his eyes opened in surprise.

"Tracy?" He called. She wasn't a morning person, usually staying in bed through Mark's shower.

She came out of the bathroom with a leap, landing on top of Mark and pinning him under the covers.

"You called?" She laughed directly over him.

"Yes I did," Mark answered with a smile, never growing tired of her beautiful face, outlined exquisitely by her long dark hair. He stretched his neck up to kiss her warmly on the lips. She responded eagerly as she leaned forward, allowing him to lay his head back on the pillow. The kiss lingered.

"My aren't we cheerful this morning," Mark said when she finally pulled back.
Tracy blushed, rolling off beside Mark, "Why not? It's a beautiful day, and just looking at you lying there. Well..."

Mark laughed, he knew his hair would be a mess, not to mention the stubble on his face and the morning breath. But if Tracy found that desirable...who was he to argue?

He made a move toward her as the radio blared back to life. At the same instant he was pressed deeper into the bed as their Sheltie jumped up between them. Mark looked over Shandy into the passion evident in Tracy's emerald green eyes and groaned as he reached over and gave the dog a quick scratch around the ears. He looked at the digital display on the clock radio, 6:15 AM. He shook his head and shut the alarm off.

"I need to get moving, staff meeting today."

Tracy met his gaze as she reached up and caressed his rough cheek, "I know."
Then her eyes twinkled and a fiendish grin spread over her face. She jumped off the bed heading back to the bathroom as she yelled over Shandy's barking, "Race you to the shower."

"What time do you think you'll get home tonight?" Tracy asked thirty-seven minutes later as Mark was settling into the black leather seat of his silver Lexus.

"It shouldn't be too late, maybe around six, six thirty." Now clean shaven and ready for work, Mark's hair only managed to flare out in a few spots. Tracy found it charming.

"Good," she smiled. "How about I have dinner ready for us here?"

Mark leaned toward the window with raised eyebrows, "Don't you have to study tonight?"

Tracy leaned in and gave him a quick kiss, "Nothing that can't wait. Let's make tonight special."

He grinned as he started the car, "That sounds good to me. I'll see you tonight honey."

Tracy watched Mark back out of the driveway, then waved as he spun off down the street. They had met several years ago when Mark, an investigative television journali st, was working on a story about public opinion polling. He'd chosen her grandfather's firm to do his research, and Tracy being the press liaison for the company showed Mark how the business worked. There was an immediate attraction between the two that quickly blossomed into a romance, complicated greatly by Mark's investigation proving to be the downfall of her grandfather and his media empire...but that's another story.

If she was pregnant, how would she tell Mark? The plan for dinner had just spilled out, but the more she thought about it the more she liked the idea. There was a couple of steaks in the freezer...or maybe she should make something Italian, reminiscent of their first meal together. Mark would come home to a lovely romantic dinner, soft music playing lightly in the background, candles flickering on the table. Tracy giggled as she wondered how far into the evening she could get before blurting out the news.

But first she had to be sure. The home test had turned out positive, but they weren't one hundred percent accurate. This was going to change their lives...ready or not. She had recently enrolled in law school at UCLA. She could complete this school year without any complications from the pregnancy, but she'd still be a year away from graduating. How could she complete her degree with a n ewborn around the house? She smiled, gently touching her belly. We'll just have to figure that out, won't we?

She walked back into the house heading toward the bedroom. Her early class would have to do without her today. She decided to be the first appointment at her doctor's office instead.

CIA Headquarters, Langley, Virginia
11:32 AM

While most people on the east coast were entertaining ideas of where they might go to lunch at the half-way point of their work day, Wendy Hamilton had already been at her desk for over six hours. As a CIA analyst for Middle Eastern covert surveillance, she couldn't find enough hours in the day without starting before the sun rose.

She began her intelligence career in January of 2002. She was one of thousands that had applied to the agency after the high jacked airliners had crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They were called the 9-11 class. She had accelerated her class schedule so that she had enough credits for graduation a semester early. Then to the surprise of her parents who had wished for her a more normal life, she applied to the CIA.

Wendy had a lot going for her, a double major in psychology and sociology from Dartmouth and she spoke three languages fluently, French, Farsi, and Arabic. At five feet three inches, she had an athletically trim body and brunette hair accented by natural blond streaks.

Wendy had only made her way through half of the reports stacked in front of her when Phillip Nest entered the cubicle they shared carrying an armful of reports accented with large colored banners and the words TOP SECRET.

"Just what we need, more field reports." he muttered, setting them down on her desk. Wendy and Phillip were part of the thirty employees that shared the huge space separated by half-walled cubicles on the lower floor of the Old Building. Phillip had been with the agency for over three years and was amazed at how quickly Wendy had picked up the spy trade. She had poured herself into the job, having an uncanny knack at spotting associations and picking out patterns in what seemed to be unrelated people and events.

Wendy glanced up, "Anything important?"

"Don't know," Phillip responded. "haven't looked through it."

Wendy sighed and picked up the top part of the stack, flipping through the reports as she gave each a quick glance. Too often it felt like her job whittled down to pushing papers around her desk or staring at her computer screen for hours on end, frustrating when all she wanted was to get definitive intelligence on the Jihad al Sharia terrorist network.

Her analysis of the reports was interrupted by a beep from her computer...something had triggered one of the many alarms she kept activated. She put the papers aside and reached for her mouse as her eyes scanned the dialogue box on the screen.

"What have you got?" Phillip asked from behind her.

"Another NSA report that mentions Sa'id." Wendy answered calmly. She received a hundred of these alerts per day, but it was worth it to make sure nothing of importance slipped past her desk. She clicked on the 'open' button and waited the few seconds until her screen was filled with the document that had triggered the alarm. That's when her eyes flared, her heartbeat increasing dramatically as she read the words on the screen in front of her.

National Studios, Hollywood, California
8:51 AM

Mark parked his Lexus behind three other cars waiting at the front gate of National Studios. It was the same routine every morning since the attacks at the football stadiums in November. Once he reached the guard shack underneath the archway with the huge studio logo, he popped the trunk for one guard to search inside while another one checked his ID. They both knew him well, having played this routine over and over five days a week. They'd had simil ar procedures after the 9-11 attacks, but those had slowly fizzled out as time passed. Now they were back in full swing.

To Mark it served as a daily reminder of the terrorist attack upon America and inspired him to spend the minutes driving into the studio to pray for his country and her leadership. The freedoms he'd taken for granted over the many years seemed a little more precious each day.

He made it to the production office a few minutes before the scheduled meeting, allowing him time to put his briefcase in his cubicle before heading into the conference room.

Their show was called Across the Nation, a newsmagazine show similar to 60 Minutes or Dateline NBC. The National Network had not gained the status of the big four networks, but they were gaining. Through local affiliates and their access on cable and satellite, they now covered over ninety percent of American households and in some markets their cable news division was rating higher than CNN and Fox News with their coverage of the War on Terror. Across the Nation was in its third season, airing twice a week on Sunday and Thursday nights.

Mark walked into the bustling room full of people and settled into the chair next to his producer, Ross Berman, who at six feet four inches dwarfed Mark's at five-ten. Compared to Mark's casu al dress of a pair of Levi's and denim shirt, Ross looked like a GQ model with his jet black hair and trimmed physique displayed in pressed charcoal gray slacks and sports coat over a silky knit black shirt. He had joined the show at the start of this season, a recent graduate of Princeton University in broadcast journalism. He still had a lot to learn, but you wouldn't want to tell him that.

"I got the interview lined up with Senator Boxer," Ross whispered to him.

"When?" Mark was impressed. He had been unable to get her office to commit to a story they were doing on an upcoming bill before the Senate that Boxer was cosponsoring.

"Tomorrow afternoon before the show, she'll be in town for a fund-raiser."
Mark nodded his head, that would be perfect.

"Mark, Ross...Frank wants to see you in his office right away," Heather Franklin, the assistant to the executive producer called out from the conference room doorway.

Mark flashed an inquisitive glance over to Ross before getting up from his chair,
"I wonder what we've done now?"

Frank Russell was sitting behind his desk looking outside the window at the huge stage across the alley. Mark had a great respect for his boss, a former NBC news reporter some twenty plus years ago. Russell clung to the principles of classic journalism and spent most of his time fighting with either the network's top brass or their legal department. He'd mentored Mark, teaching him that the heart of reporting was the never let the ever present ivy-league executives and the pushy bean counters stop him from getting to the truth.

"Come in boys, take a seat," Russell ordered without turning from the window.

They quietly obeyed. A moment passed before Russell turned around in his squeaky executive chair. Although the same gruff exterior confronted Mark, he sensed something was up. The bald head shined from the reflection of the light above the desk as Russell tilted his head down to be able to see them above his reading glasses, His eyes! That was it. They were sharper, more alive than his normal tired-of-fighting-the network-executives look.

"I just received a call from Steve Thompson, the head of our cable news network in New York." He pulled his glasses off, then looked directly at Mark as the corners of his mouth raised ever so slightly. "It seems that you've been invited to interview Ahmad Hani Sa'id."

Mark blinked, attempting to comprehend what he'd just heard. Russell waited patiently for his response.

'It was Ross who spoke first, swearing excitedly.

"Are you s..serious?" Mark sta mmered.

"Dead serious, pardon the expression."

"But that's impossible," Mark exclaimed. Where? When? There were so many
questions running through his mind, but mainly, "How?"

"He's never agreed to an interview before," Ross blurted. "Why now? And why Mark?"

"I asked Steve those very questions," Russell explained. "Look, all we know is this--Josh Mclintock was approached by a Jihad al Sharia contact today in
Damascus. He made it very clear that Sa'id was ready to do an interview and that Mark Taylor was to be there in three days to do it. We don't know why, just when and where to make contact."

"It doesn't make any sense," Mark muttered more to himself than to the other two people in the room. "We have correspondents throughout the Middle East, news reporters for both the network and the news channel. I'm sure Mclintock is frothing at the mouth to do this himself, why me?"

"I can't answer that," Russell responded with a full blown smile. "But opportunity has knocked, my boy, all you've got to do is open the door and let her in."

"So we're going to do the interview?" Mark asked.

"You bet we are...." Russell paused, then looked intently at his young reporter with a slight tilt to his head. "Why wouldn't we?"

"I don't know," Mark said, trying to pull his thoughts together. "It just seems that with all that's happened over the past couple of months, do we really want to be the ones used to get his propaganda out?"

"Oh, come on Mark, we're journalists...that's what we do." Russell laughed until he saw the stern expression on Mark's face.

"But we're also Americans," Mark stood up, walking over to the window and looking outside, taking a quick moment to pray for guidance. "Right now, if I knew where he was, the first thing I'd want to do is have our Air Force bomb him straight back to hell." He turned back to Russell, "Frank, he's responsible for more deaths than bin Laden."

"You're serious about this, aren't you?" Russell asked.

"What could he possibly have to say that the world would want to hear except his confession in front of a firing squad."

"Mark," Ross cut in, "think about the potential for your career, for this show."

Mark grunted, walking back toward his seat while shaking his head. "This is so much bigger than my career or this show's ratings, Ross."

Russell leaned back in his chair as another squeak filled the room. "Ross, why don't you let me talk with Mark alone for a second."

"OK, Frank," Ross got up and headed toward the door. "Anything you say."

CIA Headquarters, Langley, Virginia
12:12 PM

"Can I see you for a minute?" Wendy asked after a sharp rap on the open door.

"Sure, come on in," Jack Murphy replied pulling away from his computer.

He was the Assistant Director of Central Intelligence for The Middle East, the head of Wendy's division that had been pulling unbearable hours since the latest wave of attacks. He looked the part, his suit coat was draped over the back of his chair, his sleeves rolled up, his tie lying somewhere around the cluttered office. Although only forty-five, the last few years in the intelligence agency had worn on him. His once thick head of hair was now thinned and receding, a defining gray highlighted the area just above his ears. Jack hadn't seen his home in two days.

"This must be interesting Wendy," Jack responded as he studied her determined face. She turned and closed the door behind her, then walked up to his desk and handed him a piece of paper.

"What've you got?"

Wendy took the seat opposite him, "NSA intercepted a conversation last night between Josh Mclintock-National Cable News station chief in Syria and Steve Thompson-head of the network in New York."

Jack raised his eyebrows as he scanned over the paper. It was always touchy when conversations were recorded from the news organizations of their own country. Whatever information they received had to be handled very carefully.

"What's the gist of it?"

"Basically, it looks like they've got an interview lined up with Sa'id," Wendy waited for her boss' eyes to look up and meet hers. "In three days."
Jack shot up from his chair, uttering a phrase mixed generously with both the religious and the profane. Then collecting himself he asked, "Any idea why now?"

"None, but to me this proves what I've suspected all along, Mclintock is connected to the Jihad al Sharia"

"I agree," Jack rubbed his chin, looking over the document at the exact wording of the phone conversation. He then looked up at Wendy, a smile spreading over his unshaven face.

"You know what this means Wendy?"

"Yes," she returned the smile, an overwhelming excitement enveloping her.
"We've got Sa'id!"