Sandstorm by Alan L. Lee is a political thriller involving CIA agents, assassins, politicians, and a plot to kill thousands (available June 4, 2013).
Far away from government oversight, a secret partnership has been formed between an Israeli spymaster pulling the strings of the most efficient killing machine the Mossad has to offer and an exclusive billionaire boys club that wants to dictate the New World Order. In their pocket is a powerful U.S. senator who aspires to the presidency. Success means vast wealth and increased power, and they’ll stop at nothing to succeed.
CIA operative Nora Mossa is trained to kill when the situation calls for it. She’s also capable of disappearing into thin air. Being efficient, deadly, and beautiful, however, won’t be enough to protect her after her mentor Erica Janway is assassinated in her Maryland home. With everyone in the Agency suspect, Nora turns to the only person capable of keeping her alive while she uncovers the truth behind Janway’s demise—her former lover and ex–CIA agent Alex Koves. That is, if he will even speak to her.
With danger lurking in every corner of the globe, Koves and Nora must stay alive long enough to piece together the clues to a deadly plot capable of killing thousands in the Middle East. And the clock is ticking….
Erica Janway reflected on her past because she had no future.
Forty-eight years of living, most of them good. A decent childhood. No serious health issues other than a brief fondness for alcohol. The usual amount of bad dates before the right one showed up. She was proud to have served her country with honor, no matter what some of the assholes at the CIA thought. She’d get a black star chiseled into the white face of Vermont marble on the Wall of Honor at Langley. Her husband, Paul, was the rock of her foundation and the main reason the drinking stopped. There was plenty more to reflect upon, but she was out of time.
The ominous figure clad in a dripping wetsuit stood motionless a few feet away in her Annapolis, Maryland, kitchen. She knew his presence was of her own doing. She hadn’t been able to keep her nose out of things. When they’d reassigned her from station chief in Moscow back to Langley, she’d been able to deal with the indignity only for so long before it had really pissed her off. Working from a desk, she’d searched daily for trouble, and once she’d stumbled upon it, resisting the temptation to dig further had been impossible. She’d wanted to take her suspicions up the ladder to her superiors but had lacked concrete proof. Plus, she could ill-afford another blemish on her record.
As a puddle formed on the tile, Erica figured he’d been watching her for a long time from the inlet off the Chesapeake Bay, the water’s edge just a chip shot away. She’d been on the deck for most of the evening and hadn’t heard or seen anything unusual.
Erica stared at the 9 mm pistol pointed at her chest. “If it’s money you want, I only have about sixty dollars in the house.” She was trying to buy time. She knew he wasn’t here for money. Common criminals didn’t walk around with silenced weapons. She coyly eased toward the knife holder on the counter.
The intruder, of course, recognized what she was trying to do. He almost wanted to give her a fighting chance. While watching from the water, he’d discovered there was something playfully amusing about her. She hardly came across as the cold-hearted threat she was portrayed to be. But he’d never been given a reason not to trust his handler’s orders.
He focused his weapon squarely on Erica’s heart as she stood next to the knife holder. She didn’t bother to make the attempt, knowing it was futile. She prepared herself as best she could. There was nothing to say that would alter her predicament. The thought that she would not die in vain gave her a degree of comfort. She’d prepared a package to be sent in the event that something happened to her. They would have no way of knowing that.
She decided not to scream. There really was no point. The house was hidden away behind ample foliage down a path. One of the attractions about the property had been its privacy.
Erica closed her eyes, thinking of Paul. She heard the muffled thump as a bullet left the chamber and tore through her heart.
On his way out, Janway’s executioner paused to look at several notes she had scribbled on a note pad while sitting on the deck. As he read, he observed that some were pertinent to why he was here. In the lower right-hand corner, framed by subconscious doodling, were two letters firmly repeated a couple of times. They meant nothing to him, but as he tore the pages away, he decided he’d make sure “NM” was run through every database of Janway’s life. At this point, there could be no loose ends.
Maneuvering her way through the throng of people choking the Spanish Steps should have awakened her to the fact that she’d been aimlessly walking the streets of Rome for quite some time. She’d passed countless cafés, bars, and clubs, the nightlife openly beckoning. Nora Mossa was oblivious to it all.
She recalled seeing on television—maybe on the National Geographic channel or during Shark Week—that several species of shark had to keep moving or they’d die. She could relate. Obligate ram ventilators. That was the term. They had to swim forward in order to force oxygen-containing water through their mouths and over their gills. The shit you remembered at the weirdest times, she thought.
Like a great white, she wanted to rip something apart. Not necessarily to feed, but to get rid of the rising aggression overtaking her system.
She’d been waiting on a phone call that had never come, and now, the deadline had passed. Nora fought back the urge to vomit. Not getting that call meant that in all likelihood, her friend and mentor, Erica Janway, was dead.
Not caring about the risks, she took as many shortcuts as possible back to her Piazza Navona neighborhood. Three blocks past the Pantheon, she was at her apartment building. Instead of taking the elevator, Nora climbed the steps of the thirteenth-century building to the second floor. She leaned against the thick wooden door of her apartment after shutting it, taking a long, deep breath. She took a moment to focus on what she had to do next. Erica and the CIA had trained her not to panic. Procedure would help clear her mind. She was on her way to the bedroom when the faint smell of lavender and sandalwood tickled her nostrils.
She ducked just in time.
The move thwarted the man’s attempt to wrap a beefy arm around her neck, leaving him nothing to grasp but air. His momentum forced him to take an extra step, leaving him slightly off balance. Nora pivoted to his left side and put all her weight behind a punch that nearly doubled him over. He cringed but countered with a sweeping right hand. Again, she managed to avoid the effort. She took advantage of an opening to deliver a pair of sharp strikes just below the rib cage. She then took a step and knocked him forcefully backward with a kick to his midsection. He crashed into a table, nearly falling because he only tried to brace himself with one hand. Nora understood why when she located the knife in his right hand. Judging from how he tried to attack her from behind, she was sure it was sharp enough to slice her throat open in a single pass.
The next move was easy to anticipate but difficult to defend in the relatively close quarters of her living room. Nora backpedaled, her arms searching behind her while she kept the rapidly advancing man in front of her. He was within arm’s length when she grabbed a dining room chair. As his right hand zigzagged forward, searching for flesh, she brought the chair around, punishing his arm, dislodging the knife in the process. His quickness and recovery caught her by surprise. His left hand shot out and wrapped around her neck like a python, squeezing tighter and tighter. He lifted her up and shoved her against the wall. It was nearly impossible to get air into her lungs. Nora couldn’t loosen his grip, but she clenched her left hand and swung down onto the bridge of his nose as if trying to chop a tree trunk. She felt cartilage break as he quickly released his grip, trying to regain his equilibrium through watery eyes. Nora kneed him in the crotch and then used her knuckles to deal a blow that shifted his larynx. He staggered to the ground, clutching his throat. Nora went to retrieve the knife, knowing she had to hurry. Fighting through the pain, he attempted to pull out a gun, but the attached silencer’s bulk wouldn’t easily clear his jacket. Nora picked up the knife and, without thinking much about aim, let it fly. A hurried shot sailed a few inches past her head. The knife, however, found a target. All five inches of the blade sliced through the man’s left eye into brain matter. His body went limp after a few erratic jerks.
He was professional enough to not carry identification, but he had made the mistake of wearing cologne, which had given his presence away. It made her wonder if he had been out on the town when called away to go do a job. The body lying on the floor confirmed one thing for sure. She had to hurry. What if he wasn’t alone? And even if he was, he would be expected to report: when he didn’t, someone else would definitely come to see why.
She scurried from room to room in the apartment, making on-the-spot decisions about what was essential. The options were narrowed by what could conveniently fit in the small piece of luggage sprawled open on top of the bed. Several times she stepped over the dead man’s body as if it were an apartment amenity. Washer. Dryer. Corpse.
“Take the black dress!”
“There’s plenty of time. Take the black dress!”
“Take the black—”
“Damn it. Shut up!” The irritated utterance startled her, especially since the words surfaced from deep inside her head, which at the moment was running a marathon of emotions. Nora stood perfectly still until her nerves settled.
Given the circumstances, she shouldn’t have allowed herself to even entertain the frivolous thought of packing the black dress. Just taking a moment to consider it was stupid and a gross misuse of valuable time. Granted, it was a Versace that accentuated her figure in head-turning fashion. At over twelve hundred dollars, it was the single most expensive article of clothing she’d ever purchased. Still, it wasn’t worth dying over. From here on out, every move required extreme thought and caution.
Nora Mossa had to disappear.
Nora Mossa had to become someone else.
She had two fake identity kits supplied by the CIA. She’d pack them but had no intention of using either. There was a third, kept totally off the books. Hiding behind a fictitious identity wouldn’t guarantee safety, but it would buy time. And she needed time to figure this whole mess out and decide whom she could trust. Someone would have to be responsible for bringing her back in.
Erica Janway was missing, maybe for two days by now. A package had been waiting for Nora when she returned late from a date last night. It was addressed to Vivian Ward. Seeing the name had nearly made her heart skip a beat. “Vivian Ward” was Julia Roberts’s prostitute character in Nora’s favorite chick flick, Pretty Woman. It was also her code name designating extreme danger. She had immediately ripped the package open, revealing a series of notes and a letter addressed to her from Erica. She focused on every word. Erica was not a person prone to paranoia. She instructed Nora that if everything was okay, she’d phone her by noon Eastern Time the next day to alleviate her fears. Nora barely slept that night as she contemplated what it all meant. She wanted desperately to hear her friend’s voice. She hoped that this was just a precaution the two of them would laugh about one day while getting caught up. She had nervously stayed in her apartment, keeping a close eye on the comings and goings on the street below. By early evening, she couldn’t bear to stare at the clock any longer, so she went for a walk. No return call had come in the time allotted. In that scenario, Erica had been specific in her instructions.
The sound of her suitcase shutting echoed throughout the bedroom. She had been stationed in Rome for just over a year and was beginning to like the sound and feel of calling it home. Sadly, that was about to end. Satisfied that nothing essential was being left behind, she headed for the door and exited. With the key about to lock away a part of her life, she paused for reflection. She stomped her feet and hurriedly went back into the apartment. When she emerged in the hallway, slung over her arm was the black Versace dress. There were some things a woman just couldn’t do without.
The jet’s turbulence jolted Nora awake from what was a deep, fatigue-induced sleep. Her journey from Rome had begun with good intentions and meticulous preparation. She had spent an entire day at a hotel on the outskirts of the city, perfecting her look. She was no longer a blonde with hair that fell below the shoulders. Her hair was now brunette and short, fuller at the top and cropped neatly around the ears, sloping in toward her neckline. The eyes were also different. Gone were the light green opals, replaced by vibrant blue contact lenses. Her passport matched her newly acquired French accent as well. Nora wasn’t ready to embrace where circumstances were taking her, but there was little choice. Her life was inexplicably in danger. Her friend was missing and likely dead. But why? What had Erica uncovered? Some of the answers would come from the package Erica had sent. That information would have to be sorted out, and Nora knew she couldn’t go at this alone. She needed help, and that meant turning to someone capable of handling the situation—but more importantly, someone she could trust. That list was regrettably very short. If she had followed protocol after the attempt on her life, an emergency number should have been dialed immediately. Arrangements would have been made to bring her in safely. But Erica worked for the CIA as well, and there had to be a reason why she hadn’t alerted her superiors. Nora prayed the person she had to contact would help. They hadn’t been on speaking terms for years. An association and romance had both ended badly, and each had vowed not to see or speak to the other again. Now, she felt that same man was the only person capable of helping her. How could she convince him to help when, years ago, in a similar situation, she had doubted him? This was a man who used trust and faith as huge measuring sticks. He didn’t suffer fools gladly. He was capable of being kind and gentle in one setting and highly lethal in the next. She once loved him dearly. If he wouldn’t help, she felt her days might be numbered.
She was traveling under the name Nathalie Tauziat, French national, born in the seaport city of Calais. She was unmarried, an only child, making a good living as a corporate headhunter, a job that often required lots of travel as the stamps on her passport indicated. Given the stress of her job, it made perfect sense to pamper herself with a vacation. Plus, the name also belonged to a former professional tennis player. If questioned, the name would pass casual inspection, drawing perhaps a polite smile from a knowing customs agent who might have remembered a moment at Roland Garros Stadium. The age and physique of this Nathalie Tauziat would end any speculation on the spot.
The flight was roughly on schedule: the landing gear touched down at Charles de Gaulle airport two hours and ten minutes after takeoff. Nora had over six hours to burn before she had to return to the airport for a flight to JFK in New York. She decided to get lost in the mix, so after storing her bag in an airport storage locker, she opted to take the suburban express train into Paris. She took the train all the way to the Cluny–La Sorbonne station. She looked particularly comfortable as she exited the station with only her purse in tow. She’d changed clothes during the flight, and the effect allowed her to blend in well with the hundreds of young women who walked around the Sorbonne University campus. She sat on a bench, pulling out a paperback novel she’d purchased before boarding her flight. From time to time she scanned the surroundings from behind dark sunglasses, relieved to discover there was nothing out of the ordinary.
On the flight to New York, Nora’s mind refused to shut down. She landed and found a hotel near the airport. Unable to sleep much, she studied Erica’s notes once more. It was all just a collection of names, dates, and financial documents that appeared to be a complex set of monetary transfers between foreign banks. Two words circled in the notes with a question mark stood out in the middle of one page—Nuclear capability? Following it was a list that read like a who’s who of National Security nightmares: The Middle East? Iran, Pakistan, Syria, North Korea? China? CIA??? The names of individuals didn’t register with her. Two were Arabic. Others were Asian, German, Russian, and American.
Early the next morning, she boarded her flight at the last moment. Nora was sure her body was going to make her pay for all this travel, but it couldn’t be helped. Perhaps there would be a moment to rest where she was now headed.
It was both comforting and nerve-racking to hear the pilot announce that the plane was making its final descent for landing. There were a number of possible outcomes ahead. The absolute worst of all, she couldn’t bring herself to think about. It would take all her powers of persuasion to elicit help from the person she was going to see.
As the plane skidded down the runway, the flight attendant announced gleefully, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Caribbean and the beautiful island of St. Thomas. The temperature is a delightful eighty-six degrees.”
Copyright © 2013 Alan L. Lee
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Alan L. Lee is a broadcast journalist with thirty-plus years in the business. He’s interviewed former president Jimmy Carter as well as cabinet members and senators, and has developed an insider’s knowledge of the intelligence community, which helped fuel his passion for writing thrillers. A graduate of Purdue University, Lee anchors the morning news for Fox in Detroit. Sandstorm is his debut novel.