Who killed two thousand innocent people, and how? More importantly, can they be stopped from striking again?Infectious disease expert Dr. Susan Lyle teams up with Blaine McCracken, ex-CIA operative, in the search for answers. Hideously deformed cadavers and a missing teenage genius are their only leads. The chase takes them all the way down the eastern seaboard and across the country, and they soon realize that at the heart of the puzzle lies a whole new generation of biological weapons. Should the wrong people get their hands on them, no one will be able to prevent the horrifying effect of...The Fires of Midnight. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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November 01, 1996
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Excerpt from The Fires of Midnight by Jon Land
CARDENAS, CUBA; MONDAY, 1:00 P.M.
Blaine McCracken had a feeling something was wrong, even before he spotted the white-haired man sitting on the opposite side of the bar. His first thought was to back his way out before the situation deteriorated. It could be the white-haired man hadn't seen him, but McCracken knew better. The two men had crossed paths only once before, on an occasion when each had been given the task of killing the other.
But leaving the bar now could mean jeopardizing the mission he had come to Cardenas, Cuba, to complete. He had been contacted only the previous night by a former KGB Wet Affairs operative who claimed to have extensive information about the North Korean missile network. His instructions were to wait in the Buena Vista Hotel bar for a phone call advising him of the rendezvous point, and there was no contingency to fall back on if he deviated from the plan.
In the end that fact determined McCracken's decision. Nine-millimeter SIG-Sauer within easy reach beneath his white linen jacket, he glided around the long sweep of the bar, keeping his hands in plain view.
Years ago the Buena Vista had been one of the most fashionable establishments in the coastal resort community of Cardenas, before time and politics had stolen most of the region's luster. The shapes of other seaside hotels were marred by boarded-up windows and crumbling foundations, leaving the Buena Vista the lone reminder of Cuba's prosperouspast, when people flocked to its casinos and nightclubs. Those casinos and nightclubs were gone, but more than just the polished mahogany of the Buena Vista's bar reaffirmed a stubborn attachment to the traditions of the past. The hotel's stucco exterior had been given a fresh coat of paint and the family of palm trees fronting it breathed green instead of the dying brown most of the country seemed to be afflicted with. The floor in the lobby was a checkerboard of Italian marble and the walls were paneled in glowing mahogany, the theme of polished wood picked up inside the bar.
When McCracken's path took him past the mirrored wall lined with shelves holding various bottles of liquor, he couldn't help comparing the glance he caught of himself with his glimpse of the white-haired man. Andre Marokov's shoulders were hunched and stiff, suggesting he could no longer make the lightning-fast moves required to survive in his chosen profession. His eyes were clouded and the hand clutching his drink was covered with liver spots.
The look McCracken had stolen of himself in the mirror, on the other hand, showed a man pretty much unchanged by the years. His black wavy hair had been shorter at the time of their first encounter and his coarse, close-trimmed beard had been all pepper and no salt. The emptiness in his eyes then had been replaced with maturity and cunning now. He was bigger in the chest and arms, smaller in the waist from daily three-hour workouts that had become ritual. And the scar that ran through his left eyebrow hadn't even existed until the day of his only previous meeting with Marokov.
The Russian sat at the bar twirling a straw through a drink that was largely ice, looking for the bartender who had vanished. Marokov had the entire far side of the bar to himself until McCracken straddled the stool two down from the Russian, ready to move if it came to that.
"Greetings, Comrade," Marokov said, sliding over to take the stool between them.
McCracken half expected him to have a gun in his hand, but all Marokov held was his dwindling drink. "I'd like to say it's been a long time, but ..."
"Since we were never formally introduced, of course."
"We shared the same jungle and a burning village once. That's close enough."
Marokov smiled faintly and nodded. "A drink to old times, then, eh?"
He drew the glass upward and drained whatever liquid remained amidst the ice. The cubes collected against his lips, and only then did Blaine feel totally safe; no way would the Russian have left himself in so vulnerable a position for that long if he had any hostile intentions. Marokov brought the glass back down and the ice cubes sloshed together, jangling.
"I'd offer you one, Comrade, but it is common knowledge the great McCracken does not drink."
"I did over there."
"We both did many things over there that I suppose are better left in the past. On that subject, congratulations are in order. After all, you won."
Marokov raised his glass in the manner of a toast but returned it to the hardwood bar without touching it to his lips. Once again he looked around for the bartender, seemed disgruntled when the man remained nowhere to be seen.
"I mean, Comrade, that's what our years in the jungle were all about: determining which way of life would prevail. There could be only one. There always can be only one."
Blaine studied him. He had not seen a file on Marokov in nearly five years and the Russian had aged even worse than his first glimpse had indicated. His eyes said it all, bloodshot and slow, bled of life and feeling, as if they had stopped seeing anything other than what lay directly before them.
"Not necessarily," McCracken corrected.
"Referring to the two of us, of course. You with your Operation Phoenix, me with my Spetsnatz squads. Opposite numbers, eh, Comrade?"
"If your commanders only realized the hell your assassination teams caused us. Pity you hadn't started a few years earlier. Would have saved me the time I spent with those wretched savages."
"The savages were on both sides."
"And yet we fought with them."
"We were younger."
"And the times, Comrade ..."
"Simpler, clearer. Often I miss them. Especially now. I'm down here because I can't go home. Well, I could but there's nothing to go home to. Consider yourself lucky you still have a cause to fight for."
Marokov impatiently eyed the bartender, who had returned to his post behind the bar, and pointed to his glass. The bartender poured fresh Scotch over the remnants of the ice cubes. Blaine waved the man off when he looked his way.
"To simpler times," Marokov said, raising his glass in the semblance of a toast again.
In point of fact, Blaine recalled, they hadn't been so simple at all. What the Russian had not admitted was that it had been McCracken's presence in Vietnam that had led to Marokov's assignment there. Operation Phoenix's assassination teams were causing so much disruption in the Vietcong's chain of command that the Cong's Soviet advisers had no choice but to send for equally proficient teams of Soviet Spetsnatz commandos. Atthe same time McCracken was being briefed on Marokov's presence, the Russian was being handed Blaine's intelligence file along with a termination order. Neither man knew of the other's sanction instructions and both set out, in typically expert fashion, to kill the other.
They weren't alone. Each was accompanied by a team, McCracken's in this case being composed of Vietnamese nationals who escorted him to the area off Highway 9 near Khe Sanh. Marokov's team members spoke perfect English and had been dressed and outfitted in the guise of American soldiers. Apparently the disguises worked too well, because the Soviets fell victim to an ambush by young Cong guerrillas operating outside the loop. Marokov and two other survivors found themselves seeking refuge in a small village Blaine's team happened to be approaching.
Of course no one knew McCracken was there; no one in command ever knew where he really was. So when the ambush of Marokov's team in American guise was reported to Eye Corps by friendlies nearby, an airstrike was ordered on the village off Highway 9 the hostiles had fled toward. Within seconds of McCracken's arrival, huge plumes of orange engulfed the bamboo huts and angular wooden structures. The deafening explosions roared one after the other, swallowing the oxygen and leaving pockmarks along the jungle earth.
McCracken had just managed to find cover when what looked like a trio of American soldiers, a pair dragging a wounded third between them, skirted the smoke before him. As Blaine emerged to help them, the second wave of bombers swooped in for another pass, more of the village perishing in gulfs of orange fissures. Blaine ducked back down and, before he could emerge again, heard the trio of "American" soldiers exchanging desperate words in Russian. He held his ground to let them draw closer, the smoke providing the camouflage he needed. The return of the first wave of bombers whistled overhead and then McCracken heard something else:
Blaine turned and saw them through a break in the smoke. A pair of kids, six or seven maybe, climbing out of a tunnel belching black, their faces darkened and bleeding. One dragging the other.
The wave dropped in fast.
McCracken didn't hesitate. Reshouldering his weapon, he bolted toward the tunnel and scooped up the kids in a single motion. The angle of the incoming rounds forced him into a dash that brought him to the outer rim of the jungle, just as the trio of Russians in American uniforms cleared the smoke line.
The Russians on either side of the wounded third had their M-16s raised and ready before McCracken could trade grasp of the kids for his rifle. But then the man in the center, moving with a savage fluidity that defied his condition, tore the weapon from one's hand and doubled theother over with a blow Blaine lost to smoke and speed. A single bullet emerged from the second man's rifle and stitched a savage line through McCracken's left eyebrow. That eye filled instantly with blood and the brief instant that followed gave him his only glimpse with his right eye of the man who had saved him: Andre Marokov. McCracken held the steel stare briefly, before lifting up the children and darting into the woods.
They had been the hardest eyes Blaine had ever known, but now, a generation later, they had lost all that, having traded purpose for Scotch. If eyes were truly the window to the soul, he figured the Russian had lost that, too. The country he had dedicated his life to had disintegrated, turning Marokov into the worst kind of rogue: one who has lost his past as well as his future.
"Something I always wanted to ask you," Blaine said. "Did you ever report sighting me?"
The Russian let the glass stay on the bar. "I was not inclined to."
"And the men on either side of you?"
"Regrettably they did not reach the rendezvous point alive," Marokov said, and for just an instant the old life danced in his eyes. "I falsified the report. Made up some spectacular nonsense that had the brains behind everything fearing you more than ever."
"Told them you wanted to keep going after me."
"How did you know?"
"I did the same thing."
"Kept the game between ourselves, eh, Comrade?"
"We had plenty to do without the additional bother, Andre."
Marokov turned his stool toward McCracken at the latter's casual use of his first name. "A few minutes ago I was hoping you were going to ask me something else, Comrade."
"Like why you didn't kill me. I didn't ask that because I already knew the answer. If the situations had been reversed, I would have done the same thing."
"Because of honor?"
"And respect. The code makes us what we are. Others can't understand it and probably think we're crazy, but the thing is we're still alive. After twenty-five years of it we're still alive."
Marokov went back to the Scotch. "Some of us more than others."
"You weren't given the same chances, Andre."
The Russian kept his stool facing Blaine's way. "The truth is I've been doing some work for the Americans. One of your many layers, CIA, I think, but don't quote me. I'm here waiting for a phone call from them now."
McCracken bent a straw he'd been fiddling with in two. Thoughts flooded through his head, water from a broken dam.
"They have a job for me," Marokov was saying, pulling a folded picture from his pocket. "This man. Someone I believe you know."
Blaine gazed at the picture absently, registering it, but his mind was elsewhere. The two of them meeting in the same bar at the same time. Both in Cardenas. Both ... waiting.
McCracken's gaze fell on the bartender, the man who had been missing from his post for several minutes after Blaine came in. He was now talking to a pair of men seated at the center of the bar, facing its mirror. New arrivals, their stools set back so there would be plenty of room to move; reinforcements undoubtedly summoned from the lobby when things had not gone at all as planned. They couldn't have known the truth about him and Marokov and now they would pay for it.
McCracken drew his SIG-Sauer in the same instant he jerked Marokov off his stool to the floor behind the bar's cover. He opened fire while the two men were still twisting and bringing their pistols around. Unable to properly aim, he was lucky for the shoulder hits that spun the gunmen away from the bar before they could start shooting. Blaine was just steadying the SIG on them again when he heard the familiar click-clack of a shotgun being cocked. He caught a glimpse of the bartender wielding a Mossberg sliced-handle pump in time to duck behind the bar's cover next to Marokov, who was fighting to steady an ancient Greysa pistol in a trembling hand. The first blast carved a huge fragment from the bar top and the second showered chunks of wood over both of them. Blaine bounced back up above the bar to find the original gunmen wheeling toward him, wounded, their pistols spitting orange. It took four more shots to drop them. But backing up to steady his aim had given the bartender a clear shot at him. The man had the Mossberg steadied dead on him when Marokov lurched up into its line of fire. A shotgun blast shattered the Russian's chest as he squeezed off a single round from his Greysa that snapped the bartender's head backward. Marokov's frame slammed back into McCracken, spilling both of them to the floor.
Blaine pulled himself from beneath the Russian and leaned over him. "Andre--"
Too late. The Russian's eyes had locked open in death, looking strangely at the end as they had in the jungle that day near Highway 9.
Blaine rose just as three men wielding Ingram submachine guns tore into the bar. McCracken drained the rest of his clip at them to cover his dart for the swinging kitchen door. He crashed through it and heard yelling in Spanish directed at him, which ceased when the workers saw his gun. He bolted past them and negotiated the clutter of stoves and counters where chefs were busy preparing meals. That route took him through a storage area lined with messily stacked shelves, the bottoms of which held a number of propane tanks.
Blaine propped two of them against the other side of the door, certain to be knocked over as soon as his pursuers came crashing through. Hebacked down the hall, reloading, and held his ground until the door rocketed open. In that instant, McCracken fired twice, once for each of the tanks that had clattered to the floor.
The explosions rocked the corridor and brought sections of both walls and the ceiling tumbling inward. Blaine was close enough to feel the heat of the blasts before he sped through the exit that took him outside the Buena Vista.
Three jeeploads of Cuban militiamen had arrived, and the last of the uniformed men were just racing toward the hotel. He waited a moment until all of them had vanished inside before lunging atop the lone jeep featuring a pedestal-mounted machine gun. He turned his SIG on the remaining jeeps and shot out two tires in each before speeding off.
The objective now was to get off the main avenue as quickly as possible, use back roads to reach the extraction point at an airfield a twenty-minute drive from here. Since this had been a setup all along, though, chances were the airfield would be covered by more Cuban militiamen before he reached it, and no pilot in his right mind would chance a landing under such conditions.
Blaine had no choice. The airfield was his only option.
He pushed the jeep on at top speed, the events at the Buena Vista flashing through his mind. He and Marokov had been set up, lured here by men certain that these two apparently implacable enemies would not be able to resist the endgame that had eluded them for so long. If only they had known the truth ...
The only truth that mattered at this point was that McCracken had been lured to Cuba to do a job somebody wanted done. Marokov had said he'd been working with some faction of the CIA. Maybe he had outlived his usefulness to them and this was their way of paying him back. Involving Blaine had been a mistake they would be paying for now.
McCracken sped off the main drag and thumped down the back roads, hoping he could outrun the reinforcements certain to be summoned by the soldiers he had left stranded at the hotel. The ride passed uneventfully, and he had actually begun to relax by the time the thin, poorly paved road spilled out onto another primary route that would take him the last stretch to the airfield.
Then he froze, brakes jammed hard and jeep screeching to a sideways halt.
Directly before him, up a slight rise, an armored personnel carrier was parked sideways across the road. He glimpsed men scampering into better positions of cover behind it, weapons readied. Blaine swung the jeep around only to find a pair of troop-carrying trucks steaming toward him from a half-mile away.
He had resigned himself to fighting it out with the jeep's fifty-caliber machine gun when a distant whirring sound grabbed his ears. It wasfamiliar and yet forgotten, as impossible as the sight that followed it out of the west.
An old Helio Courier, something he hadn't seen since the Nam days, banked free of the mountains and dropped for the road. It wasn't the craft Blaine had arranged for his extraction and this certainly wasn't the pilot. Helio Couriers had been used by Air America pilots to ferry Operation Phoenix personnel in and out of impossible situations. Utilized for their ability to fly low and to land with virtually no airfield, they had saved many a life, their pilots--like the famous Harry Lime--as crazy as the men they transported.
The Courier seemed to stop dead in the air and drop out of the sky, whining as it split the wind. Its wing-mounted machine guns began clacking, carving up chunks of the roadbed in the direct path of the troop carriers heading Blaine's way. The lead one swerved to avoid the fire and the trailing truck slammed into it. McCracken watched both spin onto the shoulder, while behind him soldiers hurried back into their armored personnel carrier to give chase.
But the Helio Courier was already into its rapid descent, kissing the road like an old friend and coming to a hunkering halt just two yards from Blaine's jeep. The cockpit hatch popped up, revealing a man dressed in a polyester Hawaiian shirt complete with lei.
It couldn't be!
But it was.
"At your service, Captain!" Harry Lime yelled down to McCracken, flashing a mock salute. "Better get yourself on board."
Blaine squeezed into the cockpit and took the copilot's seat as a spectator. The strands of Harry's lei bobbed a bit in the air. The wind caught his baggy Hawaiian shirt and ballooned it outward until Blaine sealed the hatch behind him. Then he watched Harry deftly maneuver the old plane back into takeoff mode, whizzing by the disabled trucks even as the closing armored personnel carrier's machine gun opened fire. If the bullets bothered Harry Lime, he didn't show it. He expertly skimmed the tree line low enough to leave branch scratches on the Helio Courier's underside and flew in zigzag fashion until he reached the Atlantic. Once there he gave the plane full throttle and let her hum over the water so low the ocean spray dropletted the windshield.
"You're better than ever, Harry."
Lime tried to smile, almost blushing, working an unlit cigarette from one side of his mouth to the other. "Good to see a guy like you still needs a guy like me, Captain."
"Castro'd be smoking me like one of Havana's best if you hadn't shown up when you did."
"Got my own reasons this time."
Only then did Blaine notice the quivery expression that had crossed Crazy Harry Lime's face. "Keep talking."
"You gotta help me. You're the only one who can. That's why I took this run. That's why I had to come get you. Leave you down there in Castro's shithouse and I'm fucked as bad as you."
"Hard to believe, Harry."
"It ain't, trust me. See, Captain, something happened ... ."