Countdown to Mecca by Michael Savage is an international thriller where a Russian terrorist attack puts the world on the brink of global war (available May 12, 2015).
A plane bound for Amman, Jordan goes down in the Caspian Sea. The crash yields no survivors—save the Russian mercenary who hijacked the flight—and a cask containing an agent of unprecedented destructive potential is missing from the wreckage. A carefully plotted terrorist attack has been put into motion, and the resulting chaos might be enough to push America toward another costly war.
The one man who might be able to stop the attack is Jack Hatfield, a freelance reporter who has never shied away from controversy. After making a politically incorrect statement about Islamic extremists, he has been discredited as a journalist and left to pick up the pieces of his career. But when his half-brother Sammy calls him, saying that his neighbor Ana overheard something she shouldn't have and now both their lives are in danger, Jack realizes he's stumbled upon a conspiracy to destroy Mecca. Now he, and a group of likeminded friends on the fringes of the law, must uncover who is behind the plot and stop them—or else witness the collapse of the world into a war of mutually assured global destruction.
Saint Petersburg, Russia
Pyotr Ansky’s pale eyes were dead as he walked through Terminal Two toward his flight. He saw everyone without empathy or interest. It had been that way since his first assignment years before.
Passing through the last of three security checkpoints, Ansky glanced uncaring at two middle-aged transportation officers, his face like that of any distracted, put-upon, thirty-something traveler. That was his disguise this day. Pulling on his shoes at the end of the security line, Pyotr imagined himself to be what his visa said he was: a computer contractor headed for a programming job in Jordan.
Pyotr made his way through security without incident. Rossiya Airlines was justly proud of its Aviation Security Program, which found no weapons or contraband on him, or in his backpack, during his third and final search prior to boarding.
He smiled as he found his seat at the rear of the cabin. Pyotr allowed himself a sliver of satisfaction as he appeared to stretch before sitting. He was not just an assassin. There were plenty of those on the international market. He was one of a unique breed: a professional chameleon doing a consummate infiltration.
There was no time to savor his successful boarding. Pyotr went to the lavatory where he reviewed the next scene of operations. The 737-500 had a cruising speed, 850 kilometers an hour. Maximum flight altitude was 12,300 meters. Seating capacity was 117. He mentally reviewed the layout, the exits, the cockpit configuration.
He emerged and looked around.
The flight was not full but Pyotr noted every face onboard: intense young businessmen, older businessmen drunk from the airport bar, a family with an eight-year-old, women in burkas accompanied by their husbands or brothers.
Pyotr did that for every single face of the ninety-four people onboard before deciding who the Russian security agent was. Pyotr had no doubt there would be a plainclothes undercover operative. This was, after all, a flight to Amman, Jordan. Islamic terrorism had long been considered a major threat to the security of Russia, both before and after the Soviet era.
Four things would mark him. He would have a sport coat to cover his weapon. He would possess a penetrating stare as he analyzed passengers for potential threats. He’d be middle-aged, retired from the military, but with enough bulk to suggest he’d once been athletic. And he would be a man: there was only one woman in the force, and Pyotr already knew she was assigned to flights originating to Moscow and New York.
Ahead, aisle seat. Row sixteen, aisle seat, economy class. Near the exit door. He saw the shadow of a shoulder holster as the agent leaned forward.
The man sat alone. That would make things easier.
Satisfied, Pyotr Ansky fell into his seat but did not relax after takeoff. As the aircraft started over the Black Sea one thousand miles from Pulkovo, the copilot emerged to use the bathroom. Pyotr knew that was coming: the man had used the lavatory when he boarded to put a full bottle of Putinka vodka in the trash. Many Russian pilots, also former military aviators, had a drinking problem. The agents who had taken this flight during the past fortnight reported where the copilot and first class flight attendant kept the key to get back in.
As soon as the cockpit door opened, Pyotr rose and removed his wallet. He grabbed a blanket from the overhead bin, slung it over his shoulder, and slipped the Nalchik Bank ATM card from its pocket. He walked forward nonchalantly as if to be next in line for the lavatory. As he reached the aisle seat where the Russian security agent was sitting Pyotr appeared to stumble. He leaned on the back of the agent’s seat, extended his right arm, and sliced the sharpened edge of his credit card deep across the agent’s neck, from ear to ear. His body shielded the view of the young woman across the aisle. The wound gurgled as the man drew breath, the air rushing into the wound, not his mouth. Pyotr dropped the credit card and gripped the MP-443 Grach semiautomatic in the dying, gurgling man’s holster. Pyotr quickly spread the blanket across the doomed operative, who was busy drowning quietly in his own blood. He moved swiftly now toward the front of the plane.
He held the agent’s sidearm low and in front of his leg. It was not so unobtrusive that it couldn’t be seen, but he passed smoothly and a gun was the last thing anyone expected to see—especially since Pyotr’s face displayed no sense of the power or arrogance that often comes with a gun.
A male flight attendant finally took notice of Pyotr as he neared the cockpit door. The man seemed about to protest when the passenger failed to stop at the lavatory door. He never got the words out. Pyotr pressed the gun into his chest and pulled the trigger, angling down to keep the bullet inside the body. Decompression, now, would not be good for the mission. Pyotr took the key from a chain around the man’s neck.
The rest happened quickly. Though muffled, the noise alerted about a dozen people in the front of the plane but it also froze them for the moment Pyotr needed. He unlocked the door, pushed into the cockpit, and locked the panel behind him.
The pilot heard the commotion as the door opened and he began to turn. Pyotr pushed him down, pressed the gun barrel into the crown of his skull, then pulled the trigger. The 9mm bullet went through the man’s brain and most of his body before lodging in his coccyx.
Not bothering to move the pilot, Pyotr slipped into the copilot’s vacant seat, buckled up, turned off the transponder that broadcast the plane’s identity and position, then shifted the course southeast. Someone, probably the copilot, shouted from behind the door, then began pounding. Pyotr ignored it. With the partition’s reinforced bolts, no one would be getting in.
Pyotr also ignored the radio, whose questions were becoming more strident. Instead, he appreciated how smoothly he transitioned from flight simulator lessons to airline control. In reality, once he’d reprogrammed the course, the autopilot did ninety percent of the work. The only tricky part would be to get down.
He began his descent into the sunset.
The pounding got louder but Pyotr concentrated on the plane’s descent. By then, the airport was starting to announce that if he didn’t acknowledge at once the air force would shoot the 737 down.
The threat was certainly real, but Pyotr knew the nearest Russian command was more than forty-five minutes away. Even if they had a plane in the air—they rarely did—his assignment would be completed before any could intercept him.
Checking his position, he adjusted his course slightly so that he was over the center of the 143,000-square-mile sea—far enough from the shore and the oil platforms to avoid being seen. Finally parallel to the Azerbaijan coastline, he steepened his descent by two degrees, lining precisely into the glide slope he had memorized during flight training.
There was a loud crash at the cockpit door. The passengers and crew had decided to use a service cart as a ramrod. A decade and a half before, that tactic had saved America’s Capitol Building, as a group of brave Americans stormed the cockpit of Flight 93 over Pennsylvania and managed to take the plane down.
But that was before cockpit doors and bulkheads had been uniformly reinforced. A service cart would no longer cut it.
Pyotr pressed the DITCH button that closed the outflow, extract, and flow control valves, as well as the air and avionics inlets. In theory, a water landing wasn’t much different from a runway landing. An American pilot had done it on a river in 2009; in June 2011 a South African aircraft belly-flopped in the Atlantic. In both cases, all aboard survived.
With the exception of himself, Pyotr didn’t care who lived or died on this water landing. Like the people he’d seen in the airport, they were inconsequential. Nothing mattered except the mission.
He steered the plane into the wind to slow it down, watching as his airspeed slipped toward one hundred knots. He needed to slow down, but not too slow. If the plane stalled it would nosedive into the water. If it went too fast it would literally shatter on impact.
At fifty meters above the waves, the left wing jerked up suddenly from a rogue current of air spitting off the Caspian. Pyotr resisted the urge to overcorrect as he’d done in the simulator. Coolly, he got the wings parallel to the dark shadow of the water and kept the wings exactly parallel, nose up, tail drooping as if for a normal landing.
There was a jolt followed by a loud, metallic clang as the rear of the plane struck the water. The plane jerked, shuddered, but it did not come apart. His hands remained firm. The plane coursed through the water like a bullet through gelatin, the cabin bucking, twisting, and screeching, but the old Russian bird held. The Caspian waves pounded against the fuselage. He heard the shrieks of passengers still in their seats, the cries of those who fell. They seemed to get louder as the engines shut down. Now, there were only the screams and the slosh of sea water.
The engines fell off as they were designed to do on impact, disappearing into the depths so they wouldn’t drag the plane with them. The surface of the sea was just below the windows. Pyotr threw off his seat belt, pulled himself from the seat, unlocked the cockpit door, and emerged gun first. Lit by the emergency lighting system and the shadowy dusk penetrating the windows, the cabin was a disjointed collection of wailing passengers and fallen luggage.
The copilot, who’d been standing when the plane hit the water, was curled on the floor near the first row in business class. Pyotr drove his left foot into the man’s side, more to get him out of the way than to guard against a threat. Then he cast an eye toward the back of the cabin, making sure no one was in a position to interfere.
Certain that they were all too distracted to bother him, he stepped into the small crew area directly behind the cockpit. There was a tall cabinet here; he opened it, exposing a set of metal lockers used to transport high-value cargo.
The strident word cut into his mind like a laser. He snapped his head around to see, standing in the aisle, a mother and her baby. Pytor had noted the child in her mother’s arms when he first came aboard. There was blood and a deep crack in the infant’s thinly haired skull. The baby was limp. The mother was not enraged or vengeful. She just seemed confused, clearly in shock.
Certain she was no threat to him, he just answered her honestly while reaching beneath his shirt for a plastic key that was taped there.
“Because it’s easier this way.”
He left it at that as he opened a locker and took out a small attaché case. His employers had originally wanted to smuggle this attaché case onto a military plane to avoid just this sort of collateral damage to innocent victims. But he couldn’t figure out how to get it there, and then retrieve it, without setting off alarms in every major military office in the world. He remembered the chain of events, the intense investigation, that a Chinese attack on an American military chopper in Afghanistan had wrought the year before. It was safer to attack civilian aircraft. Only the insurance companies cared until they wrote a check. Then this “act of terror” would be forgotten.
He pushed past the woman and went back into the main cabin as passengers began to organize an egress. Flight attendants were trying to organize the removal of seats for flotation. The back of the plane had suffered extensive damage, but the middle and forward sections were entirely intact, and one of the men in the emergency exit rows began struggling with the door over the wing. Blue twilight flooded in as it opened. People in the seats nearby began to shout to others to come and escape.
That was fine with Pyotr. Concerned with survival, they left him alone. He turned and went to the main door, pushing the handle without arming the slide. The door was heavy and difficult to open; he had to give his full attention to it. This left an opening for two passengers from the first class cabin who wanted to follow him out. As he pulled the door back, water flooded in.
One first class passenger came up behind him, yelling, “Out! Go, go!”
Pyotr shot him in the head, then looked outside as the other passengers fell back, blood-spattered and wailing. The relatively calm, black waters were bathed in yellow, gold, and orange, the sun slipping behind the low hills at the west. But Pyotr only had eyes for the rigid-hulled raft speeding toward him from the distant shadows.
Everyone who wasn’t dead or unconscious were out of their seats now, struggling to escape the downed plane without getting near the gunman. The rigid-hulled raft pulled up next to him without incident. Pyotr swung the attaché case at the nearest man in a wet suit aboard the craft. That man stumbled with it and landed seat first in the bottom of the boat.
“Careful!” Pytor shouted in Russian. “It’s worth your life. More than that.”
“Sorry, sir,” huffed the man, trying to regain his balance.
Pyotr had hopped into the raft. He cut the man some slack because it had been he, disguised as an airline galley supplier, who had gotten the case onboard. “Get us out of here.”
“Yes, sir,” said another man at the engine.
They backed from the plane, then turned. Someone yelled from the aircraft, pleading for help. Other voices joined the cry, like the Sirens of Greek mythology.
“Stop,” Pyotr told the man at the engine.
As the operator throttled back, Pyotr reached for the large, waterproof bag that sat between him and the man in the bow. He unzipped it, revealing the case of a Russian rocket-propelled grenade launcher. He removed the launcher and made it ready to fire.
Russian rocket-propelled grenade launchers had become the de facto man-portable weapon among terrorists and guerillas everywhere; they were rugged and dependable. The most famous weapon, the RPG-9, dated from the early 1960s. It came in a number of different flavors, including a folding paratrooper model, and had a range of explosive charges. The weapon in Pyotr Ansky’s hands packed even more destructive power, with greater range and accuracy.
Known as the Kryuk, the RPG-30 had been designed to fire an armor-piercing, two-part projectile capable of penetrating a main battle tank. Such a shell would have probably flown entirely through the aircraft before exploding; that would not do. So instead, Pyotr was using a hand-built phosphorous explosive shell. The explosive had been developed in China and recently sold to Syria, which had also acquired a small amount of RPG-30s to fight against its rebels. Anyone examining the destruction would see the connection, and be misled.
Pyotr looked through the night sight, setting the crosshairs on the wing root, aiming for the center fuel tank that sat between the wings under the passenger deck. He glanced over his shoulder, making sure he had a clear path behind him for the escaping gases, then pulled the trigger.
The air itself seemed to sizzle. The explosion that followed was disappointingly quiet and small, more a flare than the spectacular cascade of red and white. But the secondary explosion, as the fuel tanks caught, was far more showy, with brilliant orange flames reaching to an impressive height.
“Circle, to make sure there are no survivors,” Pyotr told the man at the controls. He threw the launcher over the side, putting the briefcase into the waterproof container. Then he took out his satellite phone. “Keep the engine noise down,” he said as he punched in the number. “I have to tell the general that his parcel has been procured.”
“Colonel,” said the man who had fallen. “Is that wise?” His expression and the circling motion he made with his hand communicated the sentiment that ears were everywhere.
“Do not worry,” he told his subordinate. “No one will think anything of a pleasure boat that happened to witness an explosion.”
San Francisco, California
Samuel Michaels was dozing on his comfortable, threadbare sofa when he heard a key move in the door of his second floor Montgomery Street studio apartment. As his eyes opened so did the door. A blonde, barefoot, platinum-eyed vision in a low-cut, form-fitting black micro-mini-dress jumped in, panting. His neighbor Anastasia Vincent and his half brother Jack were the only ones who had a key—and this definitely wasn’t Jack Hatfield. Jack hadn’t been here in over a year, which was the last time they spoke. It was to thank him for a jazz CD Sammy had sent as a birthday present and peace offering.
“Sam!” she gulped in her charming Russian accent. “They are after me!”
“Who is?” Sammy asked.
“Very bad men!” she said, shaking. Her eyes, normally alert as those as a Nordic wolf, seemed wary, frightened.
Sammy’s Marine training was a little rusty. He hadn’t worn a uniform for years, not since he was on one of his motorcycles when a teen driver had hit him, sending him into a year of physical therapy and paving the way for a handsome settlement with the insurance company. Still, as the saying goes, Once a Marine, Always a Marine. Sammy was up and moving past her in an instant. He slammed his apartment door shut behind her, rattling the painting he’d bought at a flea market showing a shipwreck in the Farallon Islands, out in the Bay. Then he locked and bolted the door and turned toward her.
“It’s okay,” he said. “You’re safe now.”
Her Arctic eyes locked on his. “Are you sure?”
He wasn’t, but he said, “Absolutely. No one would ever expect to find a beautiful girl in my apartment.”
She smiled halfheartedly. “You are making a joke.”
“I wish. Now, relax and tell me what’s going on,” Sammy coaxed.
She began to calm. He maneuvered her to the sofa and sat next to her, looking intently into her eyes. It was easy. They were the brightest, lightest blue he had ever seen. But he kept one ear trained on the door, on the steps outside. They were old wooden steps and they creaked. It would be difficult for anyone to sneak up on him.
Anastasia Vincent was a strong, very special girl. Within weeks of her moving here from Moscow he had learned she was a high-class call girl. That was probably how she got into this country, paying her way with favors, but that didn’t matter. If there was one thing he’d learned in his thirty-seven years, people did what they had to do. Hell, he was a professional party clown. Not a party animal, but a bona fide clown: big red wig, big red nose, big red slippers, and lots of polka dots in between. Who was he to judge others? Ana had character, wisdom, and she had seen more in her twenty-seven years than most women see in a lifetime. He figured she was on the lam from an angry john, someone he could handle.
“You want a drink? Water? Something stronger?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Thank you, though.” Once Ana caught her breath it all came out in a rush. “I met a military officer six months ago at a party hosted by a wealthy armament manufacturer. He introduced himself as General Montgomery Morton. He seemed very taken by me.”
Sammy smiled. “That doesn’t exactly put General Montgomery Morton in the genius class for pickers.”
“You are very sweet,” she replied graciously.
Ow. Sammy was used to hearing that from women, which is why there weren’t many of them trying to get in to see him. They wanted the younger, the studlier, the wealthier. Even in San Francisco, there were still enough straight guys like that to shrink the dating pool for guys like him to zero.
“So you met this general,” Sammy said.
“Yes. Soon he was calling me every week and paying very well,” she said. “We were always staying in the city’s best hotels, ordering room service, expensive champagne.” She smiled wryly. “No gifts, though. Nothing that could be traced. But that was all right. His money was good. The last time we met he asked me to bring other women to party with his friends. That was today. He said it was a special occasion.”
“A birthday? A promotion? An appointment?”
“He did not tell me,” Ana said. “We met at a Tower Suite of the Fairmont Hotel.”
She was right about him spending lavishly: a suite like that, high on Nob Hill, cost more each night than he made in a couple of weeks.
Anastasia explained that she had brought along Ritu, a voluptuous girl from India, and Miwa, an ethereal Japanese girl. The oldest man, whom she mentally named “Pallor” for the whiteness of his skin, lit up at the sight of Miwa. The youngest man—whom Anastasia nicknamed “Kid”—immediately put his arm around Ritu’s shoulder and drew her toward the bedroom.
“The general took me to the couch,” she said. “He seemed to be thinking about something far away. But I had gone there to do a job and—I did.”
She said that for the next hour the general was rougher than usual, though it was nothing she couldn’t handle.
“Still, I was relieved when it was over,” she said. “The two other girls left but I stayed to get ready for my next engagement. I went to dress and fix my makeup in the bathroom and was about to step out when the general’s smartphone rang. As he answered he jumped over and slammed the bathroom door but didn’t realize there was a towel on the floor. The door did not shut all the way.”
Ana decided to wait until he was done. There was a short silence and then the general uttered a single word. “Good.” The next pause was longer, so long that she thought the call was over. But just as she placed her hand on the doorknob she heard him again.
“He said, ‘Firebird moves to stage two,’” Ana told Sammy. “It was spoken softly, almost like a prayer.”
“Military code?” Sammy wondered.
“That was what I thought,” Ana told him.
When the call was finished, she said she shook her hair, opened the door, and froze. The general’s eyes were on the rumpled towel, on the open door. And then they were on her.
“His expression was dark and very, very angry,” Ana said. “He demanded to know what I had heard. I told him I hadn’t heard anything. He just stared at me with those evil eyes. “‘What did you hear?’ he shrieked, this time rising from the bed and coming toward me. I repeated that I had heard nothing, but he didn’t believe me. He lunged for me, like he wanted to grab my hair, but I got around him because he was still tangled in a sheet. I ran toward the door.”
“Wow,” Sammy marveled. “That’s quite an extreme reaction, especially for a high-ranking military officer.” He shook his head after considering the matter. “He must be under enormous pressure to go off like that.”
“No, he wasn’t under pressure once we finished,” Ana said innocently.
Sammy stifled a grin; he knew she meant it as a professional observation.
There were tears in the girl’s eyes as she recounted how he had shouted for the others to stop her. Pallor and the Kid tried to grab her, but Ana said that she had spent a lifetime escaping—from local bureaucrats who wanted favors when she was sixteen to border dogs when she was eighteen and left the country without permission. The next thing she knew she was out in the hall, running.
“You ran here from the Fairmont?” Sammy asked. He glanced at her legs, following their shapely curve down.
She raised her luminous eyes to the face of a man she had come to like, to trust. She nodded.
“That’s nearly a mile, most of it up hill!” Sammy said incredulously.
She nodded. “I have run farther.”
She seemed surprised when he said that. She looked at her feet. Her stockings were torn, the bottoms bloody. “Oh. I could not run in those heels and I dared not stop. I just left them in the lobby.”
“A regular Cinderella,” he said, trying to inject some levity. It didn’t seem to work. Her eyes were still full of fear. “Did they follow you?”
“I do not know,” she admitted.
Even if they had, Sammy did not think a group of officers would go after her in broad daylight. “Well, it’s over now. Relax and we’ll see what we can find out about this General Morton and Firebird.”
He walked around the kitchen table and moved the clown suit that was stretched out there to dry after he had sprayed it with fabric freshener. He had come back from a gig just an hour before and, as usual, the costume was damp with sweat, along with splashes from excited kids holding cups full of juice. Anyone who thought making balloon animals, doing magic tricks, honking a horn on his belt, and talking in a funny voice was easy should walk a mile in his oversize shoes.
He grabbed his laptop from the table and brought it back to the sofa. He pressed theON button and looked at Ana.
“I have never seen and heard a man so frantic,” she said.
“When men take chances, and those chances bite them in the posterior, they are already a little on edge or guilty or both,” Sammy said.
“He never worried about that before,” she said.
“Maybe he was afraid you heard someone’s name and would blackmail him, threaten to tell a wife or superior.”
She shook her head. “I only heard ‘Firebird,’” she insisted. “No names.”
“Well, we’re gonna get through this,” he assured her as he tapped in the word ‘Firebird.’ “Sammy Michaels doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘retreat.’”
“You can look that up after ‘Firebird,’” she joked.
He grinned. That was actually pretty funny coming from a woman who was afraid for her life.
The first cite on the search engine was from that day, just ninety minutes earlier. He clicked on it as Ana sat and hugged his arm. It felt good.
“I feel safe with you,” she said. “I always have.”
“Even if it was just talking at the mailbox, you made me feel like I had a neighbor, a home, a friend.”
Those weren’t exactly the words Sammy had wanted to hear, though it was a start.
“But who is—what did you call her?” Ana asked. “Sindrella?”
He grinned. “Cinderella. A fairy tale character. A poor girl with a fairy godmother, loses her glass slipper at the prince’s ball—”
“Ah, Zalushka!” she said. “It is a Russian story.”
“Of course it is,” he said as her cell phone beeped. “The Russians came up with everything.”
She didn’t seem to have heard him, her expression souring as she retrieved her phone from her purse.
“You expecting any calls?” Sammy asked. She shook her head as she looked at the text message. Sammy started reading the Firebird reference on the computer then heard Ana gasp. “What is it?”
Her breathing sped again as she handed Sammy the phone. We know where you are. Come back now.
“How could they know?” she asked.
Sammy felt a chill but remained composed. “With the NSA spying on every American, you ask how the military knows something?” he asked. “He probably cloned the GPS signal from your phone the first time he met you.”
“Copied your data, just in case you ever tried to blackmail him.”
“Chyort voz’mi!” she said and rose suddenly.
Sammy didn’t know any Russian, but that sounded like something you wouldn’t say or hear in polite company.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“I don’t know, but my father taught me that waiting for the executioner was the worst way to live. It is better to keep one step ahead. I’ll have to go.”
“You mean—for good?”
“What choice do I have?”
“I don’t know, but there has to be one.”
“An escort cannot go to the police—”
“No,” he said firmly. “But I have another idea.”
He took his own cell phone from the end table beside the couch.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
“I’m calling the one man in this town who can help.”
“Someone I thought I’d never call again,” he responded hollowly. “My big brother.”
Copyright © 2015 Michael Savage.
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Dr. Michael Savage is a multimedia icon in the conservative movement. The Telegraph in the U.K. ranked him as one of the most influential conservatives in the United States, and with 10 million weekly listeners, the Berkeley Ph.D. is the third most listened-to conservative talk-show host. Recently featured in The New Yorker and Playboy, Dr. Savage is the author of twenty-five books, including four New York Times bestsellers.