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CIA analyst Elora Monro is devastated. Her Delta Force fiancé was just killed during a failed raid on a terrorist compound in northern Iraq. Now, Elora is hellbent on tracking down the mastermind behind the Islamic militant group responsible for her fiancé’s death—the New Dawn Underground. Posing as a Washington Post correspondent, Elora travels to the Middle East and embeds with the New Dawn militants under the guise of helping the group tell their side of the story to Western media. Driven by vengeance, Elora strives to gain enough intel while on the inside to destroy New Dawn from the inside out. Prepared to sacrifice her life to accomplish her mission, Elora is wholly unprepared for the enigmatic Zaidan Al-Sadiq, right-hand-man to the militant group’s newly appointed leader. Elora quickly realizes Zaidan is far from a Jihadist extremist. Highly intelligent and intensely brooding, he helps open her eyes to the complexity of what’s going on beneath the surface of Iraq’s multi-dimensional political landscape. Elora discovers nothing in Iraq is ever black or white and finds herself ensnared in a twisted net of passion, violence, and political fallout. She thinks she’s got it all figured out when her world is once again flipped upside down. Will she listen to what may be the voice of reason in her head, or will she risk everything to follow her heart?
PrologueNorthwestern Iraq - March 12, 2012
Two Black Hawk helicopters sliced their way through the pitch darkness of the Iraqi night. They had lifted off minutes ago from Balad Airbase just north of Baghdad and were en route to a remote area of northwestern Iraq. U.S. Army Major Brendan Jacobs and his elite Delta Force team readied themselves. Their mission was a Top Secret Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) operation to capture or kill the mastermind of an Islamic militant group. Between his thumb and forefinger Jacobs clutched a small white gold band. The ring belonged to his fiancée Elora. She'd pressed it into his palm three days earlier with instructions to keep it with him for good luck. He held the ring to his lips for several seconds before slipping it into a small chest pocket on his uniform.
The Black Hawks flew low, tightly hugging the curvature of the Earth to avoid radar detection as they approached the rural compound. According to intel, the destination served as the northern base of operations and private residence of Malik Khalid, leader of the militant terrorist organization New Dawn Underground, referred to simply as NDU by U.S. intelligence. The group had been steadily growing in Iraq and was recently responsible for a string of coordinated bombings across Baghdad. NDU had detonated massive explosions at the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Defense and the unofficial headquarters of an Iranian-backed militia. Dozens of Iraqis and several Americans perished in the attacks, including the U.S. Ambassador, Richard Casey, and three men in his security detail. U.S. intelligence agencies were conflicted as to whether NDU had specifically targeted Ambassador Casey or if he’d simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Either way, the Ambassador's death prompted the U.S. to designate NDU a foreign terrorist organization, and Washington, along with the American public, demanded justice for the murder of the Ambassador and other Americans. That justice was now on its way.
"ETA two minutes!" the chopper pilot’s voice rang out through the comms headset in Major Jacobs’ ear.
The soldiers conducted a final lock-and-load check of their HK416 assault rifles and braced for landing. The raid was scheduled to begin at 0300 local time and was to be wrapped up with choppers back in the air by 0345. That gave the team under an hour to locate and capture or kill Malik Khalid, get him on a chopper, and sweep the compound for intel. They had limited details regarding Malik Khalid’s identity. They only knew he was 30-35 years old, between 5'10" and 6'0" tall, born and raised in Baghdad, and spoke fluent English. It was not a lot to go on, but infrared satellite images of the compound indicated there were only eight to ten individuals currently inside. If worse came to worse, the Delta team would zip tie and haul them all back to Balad and sort out who was who later.
Jacobs felt the chopper take a sudden dip and descend. The Black Hawks landed on opposite corners of the compound just outside the perimeter wall. Coming to a bumping halt on the ground, the soldiers poured out of the bellies of the choppers.
Twenty-year-old NDU security guard Ahmed Assad was patrolling the perimeter of the compound when he heard a low rumble approaching from the depths of the blackened desert. He stood paralyzed in terror as he watched a Black Hawk touch down a dozen yards from the compound's outer wall. Fuck, Americans! Swallowing his fear, the young militant regained control of his legs and dashed inside the compound's three-story building to warn the others, including his uncle, Hakim Assad, who served as NDU's de facto Chief Financial Officer.
"Amo Hakim! Amo Hakim!" Ahmed bellowed for his uncle in Arabic as he stormed up the stairs to the second floor of the compound. "The Americans are here!" he shouted as he burst through a door leading into a living area. Inside, half a dozen men were gathered around a large table cluttered with laptop computers, documents, and random dirty dishes from a meal long over. They had already heard the choppers and were taking countermeasures. They’d covered their faces with traditional red-checkered head scarves, and several were destroying the laptops with hammers while others stuffed documents into a cast iron oven to incinerate them.
"Leave the rest!" One of the masked men shouted to the others. "Grab the detonators and get down to the tunnel." Another man swiped two mobile flip phones off the table as the group abandoned the room.
Fearing the gates into the compound may be booby-trapped, each Delta Force team used explosives to breach separate portions of the perimeter wall on opposite sides of the compound. Once inside, they conducted precision sweeps across the yard as they moved toward the main building. A pair of soldiers located the compound's main power supply and cut the electricity, plunging the building and yard into total darkness.
The militants inside scrambled down the stairs to the ground floor and passed through a doorway behind the stairwell leading to a small kitchen. The men filed across the dark kitchen, feeling their way to the door of a small storage closet. The first man to reach the closet yanked the door open, jumped inside and frantically slid his hands up and down the back wall searching for a latch. Once his fingers found the latch, he yanked it to the side and a small hinged door popped open in the false wall. The men began squeezing through the tiny door one-by-one and scurrying down a ladder that dropped into an escape tunnel. Before it was his turn to slide through the escape door, Hakim stopped in his tracks and spun around to push his way back into the kitchen. "The external hard drive," he whispered wide-eyed in frantic Arabic to the man behind him.
"Leave it," the masked man replied.
"We can't. It contains the only complete list of account numbers. Without it we are fucked. I have to go back."
"No." The man pushed Hakim back toward the escape door. "You go into the tunnel; I'll get the hard drive."
The masked insurgent doubled-back through the kitchen and poked his head out the doorway beneath the stairwell to scan the area. It appeared the Americans hadn't breached the main building yet. He darted through a doorway across from the stairs, snatched a small black hard drive off a shelf, shoved it into his pocket and sprinted back to the kitchen. Stepping into the kitchen, he charged forward in the direction of the storage closet but had the wind knocked out of him when he slammed into what felt like a brick wall.
Major Jacobs had entered the kitchen seconds earlier, cleared it, and was falling back to exit when he collided with the masked insurgent. Significantly larger and heavier than the insurgent, Jacobs was able to maintain his footing following the collision while the insurgent collapsed flat on the floor.
"Kef! Don't move!" Jacobs commanded in Arabic as he shoved the barrel of his rifle down into the man’s masked face. "Show me your hands!"
The insurgent froze in surrender with his hands palms up next to either side of his head. Unable to confirm if the masked man was their primary target, Jacobs opted not to put a bullet in his head in case they needed to pump him later for intel. Jacobs was about to radio for backup to assist in securing his detainee when a loud clatter came from inside the small storage closet. For a split-second, Jacobs took his eyes off the man on the ground to assess the possible new threat. The insurgent seized the opportunity and made his move, performing a lightning-fast leg sweep that threw Jacobs off balance. Springing to his feet, the militant followed it up with a skillful butterfly kick that sent Jacobs flying across the kitchen. Jacobs slammed hard onto his back and his rifle landed several feet away. The insurgent tried to make a move for Jacob’s rifle, but Jacobs twisted and got a hand on the man's leg tripping him up before he could get to the weapon. Jacobs pounced on top of the masked man and the two rolled across the kitchen floor, wrestling for dominance. As they scuffled, the insurgent clawed at Jacobs, tearing off his reverse American flag patch from the right shoulder of his uniform.
When the pair stopped rolling, Jacobs ended up on the bottom. He swung up and landed a solid right hook to the insurgent’s face. The blow stunned his attacker long enough for Jacobs to reach down and unsheathe his field knife from a holster near his thigh. With the knife in his right hand, Jacobs stabbed at the man on top of him. The blade connected with its target, ripping into the flesh on the left side of the insurgent's lower back. The man cried out in agony as the blade flayed his skin, but Jacobs failed to bury the knife deep enough to immobilize his assailant. The blade sliced the man at an angle resulting in a gnarly gash but didn’t hit any vital organs or cause debilitating injury. Jacobs drew back to stab at the man again, when a gunshot rang out causing a deafening reverberation in the tiny kitchen. While the two had been rolling across the floor, the insurgent had managed to reach down and pull a 9mm pistol from an ankle holster above his right foot.
When Jacobs' arm came down to jab again with the knife there was little force behind the blow and his arm sank to the floor. The insurgent scrambled to his feet, revealing a point-blank gut shot wound to Jacobs' lower left abdomen, just below his body armor. Jacobs pressed a hand to his wound and attempted to reach for his rifle with the other, but the insurgent stomped a booted foot on Jacobs' lower arm. The insurgent’s eyes darted back and forth several times between Jacobs and the pantry door behind him. Finally, he dropped to one knee, grabbed Jacobs by the front of his uniform and yanked him to a sitting position. Jacobs cried out in pain and tried to resist, but in one swift move the insurgent was behind him and had him in a choke hold. Jacobs felt himself slipping toward blackout as the insurgent tightened his arm around his neck, applying precision pressure to his carotid artery. Seconds from passing out, Jacobs heard the thud of boots approaching the kitchen. The insurgent heard them too. He released his hold on Jacobs, letting him fall back to the floor. Popping back up to his feet, the masked man looked down at Jacobs, aimed the pistol and pulled the trigger. He watched as the bullet tore a fatal hole through Jacobs' throat. Convinced Jacobs would remain forever silent, the insurgent spun around and made his getaway through the storage closet in plain view of Jacobs. He slipped out through the false wall and closed the small door behind him before sliding down the ladder and escaping into the tunnel. As he scrambled down the tunnel, he ripped the checkered scarf from around his face, balled it up and pressed it into his stab wound to squelch the bleeding. Halfway down the tunnel he came across Ahmed and Hakim.
"Are they following you?" Hakim asked, his eyes scanning the tunnel.
"We thought they got you," Hakim said as Ahmed flicked on a lighter so the men could see each other in the dark tunnel.
"It was close - too close." He glanced down at his side where he was pressing the scarf into his wound. It was now soaked in blood.
"Are you shot!" Hakim asked, noticing the bloodied scarf.
"No, stabbed. I'll live."
"Did you get the hard drive?"
The man reached into his pocket, pulled out the sleek black external hard drive and gave it a small triumphant shake.
"Thank God," Hakim said with a relieved sigh.
The three men continued out the tunnel to where it dumped into a drainage ditch approximately 300 yards from the compound. Their fellow escapees were lying in the grass just outside the tunnel opening waiting for them to catch up. When they saw Hakim and the others emerge from the shaft, they sprang up to continue their getaway.
"Down, back down!" Hakim ordered. "They aren't following us." Hakim squinted into the darkness toward the compound, but it was still in total blackness. "Who has the detonators?" he asked looking around at the men. One of the escapees crawled over to Hakim and placed the small flip phones in his waiting open palm. Hakim handed one of the phones to the man with the stab wound; both flipped the phones open and proceeded to punch a series of numbers on the keypads.
Back at the compound, a mortally wounded Jacobs was soon discovered by his fellow Delta Force team members. "Man down, man down," the call went out over the radio. The team did their best to dress Jacobs' wounds there on the kitchen floor before rushing him to one of the waiting Black Hawks. The chopper lifted off into the night with Jacobs and several team members, leaving the rest of the unit behind to finish sweeping the compound and bagging evidence.
The Delta Force Commander radioed the situation room back at Balad airbase where the General and other high-ranking officers who'd planned and organized the raid were anxiously awaiting a mission status report. "Primary target NOT yet located. Team is currently sweeping for intel and searching for possible escape tunnel access. One team member injured and medevacked to Balad. Permission to extend mission deadline by twenty mikes to locate the escape point and track targets."
"Damn, this whole thing has gone fucking sideways," the General spat from within the situation room, ensuring he was muted to the team on the ground before he made his comment. "Pull them out of there and send in the drone to light the place up before shit gets even worse."
The officer in charge of comms flipped the switch to connect the General with the Delta Force team. "Negative, extract your teams and prepare for Liz Taylor," the General commanded. Liz Taylor was the code phrase for Plan-B, sending in a Reaper drone to level the compound with Hellfire missiles strong enough to penetrate and destroy any subterranean bunkers or tunnels.
"Roger," the Delta Force unit leader responded.
The Delta Force team evacuated the compound and fell-back to the remaining Black Hawk. As the chopper was lifting into the air the compound exploded into a massive ball of flames reaching hundreds of feet into the desert sky. The explosion was so powerful it rocked the Black Hawk, tossing the men inside around like shoes in a dryer.
"We have NOT cleared the blast zone!" the Black Hawk pilot radioed. "Repeat: We are not yet clear!"
"What the hell is going on out there?" the General in the situation room roared as he banged a fist on the table. "Who cleared the drone for launch?"
"The drone hasn’t fired its missiles yet sir," the situation room communications officer replied shaking his head. "It wasn't us."
"What's your status?" the General barked, addressing the Black Hawk pilot.
“The blast reverb rocked us but we’re okay.”
The insurgent escapees watched as the flames from the compound licked up at the night sky, illuminating the surrounding desert. Hakim and the man with the stab wound both stared expressionless into the flames, their thumbs still resting on the green SEND buttons of the flip phones in their hands.
Jacobs was still semi-conscious as the chopper screamed across the black void racing back to Balad Air Base. From where he was lying, he had a perfect view of the night sky out the Black Hawk’s open door. He stared in awe at the millions of stars stretching across the sky in a magnificent arc, wrapping the desert in a sparkling blanket. His thoughts wandered to Elora, and he whispered to the stars that he was sorry he let her down. He thought of his two children, thirteen-year-old Bryce and nine-year-old Brooklyn, and asked God to watch over them. Halfway between the compound and Balad, Major Brendan Jacobs exhaled a final labored breath and slipped peacefully into the night.