APRIL 8, 2003         4:05 A.M.


Adara Dunbar opened her eyes to find herself floating in a world gone brown. The air shimmered and folded in on itself in constantly moving circles. Nothing stayed solid.

Where was she?

She clawed at thoughts to catch hold of them, but they, too, darted past her, spinning out of control. It was disconcerting, the effort needed to lay claim to some shred of her identity, of her surroundings.

Then she moved slightly and with the tearing pain in her abdomen came a shock of lucidity. She had been shot. She had been captured. She was on a cot, in a tent.

There had been a man in the black robes of the Fedayeen, Saddam Hussein’s trained assassins. He had a sharp nose and a black beard, shaved close. But his eyes were what she remembered. They were violet. In a woman, they might have been beautiful. In his face, they blazed hatred. He had asked her questions. He had delighted in causing her pain.

She stirred again, and the tent walls seemed to fall in on her. She closed her eyes quickly, but the world did not stop spinning. And her stomach lurched as well, vomit rising in her throat. Suddenly her nausea and confusion made sense.

She had been drugged. That was the only answer.

For the first time, she panicked.

What had she said?

Adara opened her eyes again to see where the guards were. She was alone in this tent with the cot, but she could see shadows against the walls of the larger tent adjoining hers. How many were there? Four?  Six? She could hear low mutterings in Arabic.

God, help me, she whispered. Give me wisdom. Give me strength.

She was a messenger, delivering the most important information of her life. It concerned safeguarding the secret that had shaped humankind for millennia—and, most likely, the real reason for the war that had started days before.

How had these men found her? Where had their information come from? How had they gotten this close?

She reached under the black hijab, the head scarf that also covered her neck. With great relief, she felt the small silver chain still there, the pendant still intact.

There was no question. She had to deliver the message.

Her hand was sticky, and as she held it up, she saw it dripping with blood. She tried to move, to ascertain the extent of her injuries, but the pain of even a small shift caused a sharp intake of breath. She did not want to call attention to the fact that she was conscious. Why was no guard left here with her?

She forced herself up, pushed the wine-colored fabric of the robe from her right side—and she knew. She had been left for dead.

From outside, a new voice was heard, shockingly loud, strikingly nonchalant.

“Muleskinner One Two, this is Rock Three November. Over.”

The American accent was dead-on. He repeated, “Muleskinner One Two, this is Rock Three November. Over.”

The response came over the crackle of a radio. “Rock Three November, this is Muleskinner One Two. Over.”

The new voice was female. It was familiar.

“I have been tasked to relay the following message from Muleskinner Six. Break. Be advised, a ROM site has been established along MSR Falcon. Break. Are you prepared to copy grids? Over.”

 “Ready to copy.”

And with those three words, Adara knew. She had given them the name of her backup.

The man outside her tent continued. “Proceed along MSR Falcon to grid Papa Victor 17771667. Turn left onto dirt road and continue for 200 meters. ROM site located at Papa Victor 17751660. How copy? Over.”

“I copy Lima Charlie. Thanks for the relay. If you are in contact with Muleskinner Five, tell him we should arrive in about three zero mikes. Over.”

It was Jaime. The sound of her voice sent Adara reeling back into Dr. Hayden’s history of world religions class. An unusually hot September day in Princeton; Professor Hayden’s hair flaring from his head like leaping sunspots. The two women sat next to each other. They had formed a bond the first day of class, the only students actually paying attention in what was obviously a beyond-boring required course for the majority of their classmates.

“Muleskinner One Two, Rock Three November. Wilco. Out.”

She had led them to Jaime Richards. She had as good as arranged the ambush; she had signed Jaime’s death certificate.

With an incredible act of will, Adara held up her right arm. It was bare; the bracelet was gone. Hot tears crowded her eyes.

Short of a miracle, her mission had failed completely.

If there was one thing she had learned in her short life, it was that there was little use in waiting for miracles. Sometimes you had to create them yourself.

End of Excerpt




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