A breaking news story interrupted the broadcast of Jack O'Brian's favorite local soccer team on TV. A terrorist group had released a video recording they claimed showed the theft of a hydrogen bomb from a storage site in Colorado. The phone rang before he could pick it up. He answered the call from his office in Virginia, not surprised that it concerned the news broadcast on TV.
He reported to the conference room, along with other agents, who streamed in wearing whatever they had on when they heard the news. Jack admired Stella Longstreet, who showed up in white tennis shorts and tee-shirt, her blond hair tied in a ponytail. When the chairs were filled, Chief Harrison stood at the end of the long table and gaveled for silence. "You may have seen the video recording from an unknown terrorist group, broadcast a few minutes ago. We have the recording for review before our discussion. The recording originated three days ago, according to the source."
He signaled to the technician, who projected the recording onto the screen above the opposite end of the table. A bearded figure in a mask spoke. "Your attention please. Here is the first recording of the liberation of an atomic warhead from a storage facility in Colorado."
The screen shifted to a video that showed the bomb wheeled through a corridor by men who wore gas masks and white hooded decontamination suits. Other masked men carried machine guns. The men loaded the bomb into a truck, and the truck pulled away. The next picture showed the truck leaving through a gate in the facility.
When the picture ended, the Chief stood. "We have verified that one of our 50-Megaton hydrogen warheads is missing. All personnel who had access to the area since the last known inspection of the warhead have been detained. You will fly to Colorado and assist in the interview of these workers to discover a connection with any terrorist organization."
The Chief sat down and picked up his sky phone. After a few seconds, he rose. "I have just been told there is a second transmission." The technician turned on the projector, which showed the bomb unloaded from the truck into a wooden crate. The crate had a model number, 1K3 16-27, stenciled on it in large letters. The disguised men loaded the crate into another truck that looked nothing like the first vehicle, evidently to hide the identity of the truck carrying the bomb.
Jack raised his hand. "Can we see the second recording again?"
"Yes, agent O'Brian. You and agent Longstreet can stay and review the data. The rest of you will go to Colorado. See what you can learn from the security staff."
Jack smiled at the thought of working with Stella Longstreet, the attractive young analyst he wanted to get better acquainted with. They walked into the next room, to a table loaded with computer controls. A wide monitor hung on the opposite wall.
Stella knit her eyebrows. "Was there something specific you saw?"
"The second video was inside a building, and we might look at the light and shadow in that space."Stella typed on her keyboard, and halted on a view that showed the bomb loaded into a box. She typed again, and data on the screen showed the direction and intensity of lights illuminating the scene. "Is this what you're looking for?"
"Yes. That pattern reminds me of the old barn on my grandfather's farm, when I stayed with him one summer."
"We're looking for an old barn?"
"An old barn or a dilapidated warehouse. Can we look at the sky-scan around the storage facility, for barns and warehouses along the roads leading from the facility?"An alert tone sounded. "All agents return to the conference room for an update."
Back in the conference room, the Chief made another announcement. "We have another video, showing the next stage in this drama." The screen showed the wooden box loaded into a cargo plane. A familiar company logo identified the plane. The Chief looked at one of the men seated at the table. "Agent Phelps, can you check with that airfreight company, and get the info on that flight. Does anybody have an update on anything relevant at this time?"
Agent Longstreet raised her hand. "We studied the light and shadows on the second video, and found that the scene appeared to be in an old barn or warehouse. We're going to look at sky scan images along the roads from their exit gate to see if we can find likely buildings to investigate."
Jack smiled at the eager response from Stella. So what if she didn't give him credit. It was my idea, but she made the system confirm it. What a smart girl. Beauty, brains, and a great figure too. He smiled across the table at her.
Agent Phelps returned with a report. "The company confirmed that they flew the box nonstop to an airfield in Jordan yesterday. The manifest showed a large air conditioner for a hospital in Jerusalem. I have a tracer in on the cargo after it left the airport."
"Keep on it." The Chief said, and Phelps left the room.
Jack looked at the screen that showed a satellite view of the storage facility, and started expanding the search to surrounding areas. They looked for a barn off the main exit road. When they found one, they zoomed in on it. They saw nothing unusual about each one, but they stored the images in a portable computer and went on, widening the scan until they covered a hundred mile radius.
Jack rose and picked up the portable. "This should give us a good start. We need to look at the most likely barns first."
"You mean the most remote ones?"
They changed clothes before boarding the military shuttle plane for Colorado. Jack admired Stella in her navy blue pantsuit. They sat together on the long flight, and took this opportunity to get better acquainted. A Major in fatigues met them when their plane landed at the Colorado military airport. "Brigadier General David S. Abraham has directed me to give your teams all possible assistance." He directed them to a car for their use, and gave them maps of the area that Jack had requested.
They drove out of the airport, and Stella set the navigator to the first target, a nearby barn off the road a mile, with no other houses around it. She turned on the TV and tuned in the news station. A new picture, just received, showed the cargo plane landing at the Jordanian airport nearest Jerusalem. Disguised men unloaded the wooden crate from the cargo bay onto a truck. The next scene showed the truck parked near the entrance to a tunnel under the sacred mount. Disguised men unloaded the box onto a cart and wheeled it into the tunnel.
The station switched to a breaking news report from Jerusalem. An explosion had sealed off the tunnel entrance. A new report came in from an unknown terrorist site, saying they had booby trapped the tunnel to prevent anyone from trying to reopen it. A masked man explained that the nuclear bomb under the golden mosque was set to explode in seven days if their demands were not met. The transmission ended without a statement of demands.
Stella turned to Jack. "What do you think their demands will be?"
"Depends on who the terrorists are. They can't be Muslims, because the Golden Mosque is holy to them, and they wouldn't destroy one of the three most sacred sites to their faith. Jewish terrorists wouldn't use such a big bomb, because Jerusalem is the most sacred site for Jews. More likely a criminal gang is trying for the greatest payoff in history. On the other hand, there are terrorists with no stake in Jerusalem, who have their own objective they might hope for from this blackmail."
Stella made no answer. She sat quietly while they drove to the next remote barn. They climbed out of the car and went to the rundown house. They knocked at the front door, and waited. Hearing nothing, they walked around to the back. They knocked at the door and waited, but heard no response to their knock, and decided the place was abandoned. Jack searched for tire tracks, and found several that led to the barn. Stella remarked that the tires were from two different heavy trucks. One set of tracks was deeper than the others where they crossed a muddy low spot,
They studied the old barn. The roof had lost a few shingles, and Stella compared the computer generated picture she had made at the office with what she saw before her. "Looks like a pretty good match."
Jack walked around the barn and came back. "No sign of anyone around, so I guess we should look inside."
"Suppose it's booby trapped, like the tunnel in Jerusalem?"
"No reason for that, since the barn has served its purpose, and they left nothing of interest to anyone."
When they approached the barn door, they found a shiny new Hammerproof lock that hung on a new hasp. Jack studied the lock for a minute. "You'd better go back to the car while I pick the lock. If something happens to me you can call in the troops."
"Jack, if you think there's a risk, why don't we call in the bomb squad. They can send a robot in before we risk our lives."
"Time is short. Seven days sounds like a long time, but I think every minute counts. When you get inside the car, I'll pick the lock. They have no interest in this old barn now."
Stella hesitated a moment, but walked to the car. When he heard the car door slam, Jack pulled out his lock picks and started work on the padlock. The lock sprang open with little probing. He swung the door open and looked inside. He smelled the fresh hay piled on the floor. Just a big old barn, with the light patterns he expected. Plenty of room for two trucks. He heard pigeons cooing. They must have come in where the roof had a few missing shingles. The dust in the air bothered him a little, but he ignored that problem.
Jack went inside and looked around for any sign that the bomb had been here. He jumped at the sight of a flash of light, from a beam of sunlight that hit the tines of a pitchfork. He saw a shadow from someone at the door and whirled around with gun drawn. Stella stood there. He gave a sigh of relief. "I thought I told you to stay in the car."
"The door wasn't booby trapped, and I saw you go inside. I want to see what's here for myself. What have you found?" She walked over to him. The door slammed, and two men with machine pistols came out of a stall. He could not shoot both of them while Stella was in their field of fire. Jack dropped his Glock onto the hay and raised his hands. Stella dropped her purse and did the same.
They sat in chairs in a dusty old living room. Shackles chained their feet to the chair legs. The smell of dust in the air annoyed Jack. One of their captors spoke. "You can call me Sean. I'm afraid you will have to be our guests here for a few days. Don't try to escape and you won't be hurt. If you try to get away, or to communicate with anyone, we will be forced to kill you."
The man's voice held no trace of malice, and Jack recognized the accent from the "Old Sod." Is he an Irish terrorist, a mercenary, or a gangster?
They were allowed to hobble to the bathroom on request, but were chained to their chairs when they returned to the living room. A silent guard brought them food, but refused to respond to Jack's attempts to make conversation with him. Is he mute, or trying to conceal his accent?
"How long do you think they will keep us here?" Stella's voice showed more annoyance than alarm.
"Six more days I guess. After that it won't matter to them whether we're here or not."
"You mean after the bomb goes off?"
"Or not." Jack raised a finger to his lips.
They heard a TV turned on in the next room. The news reporter said, "The terrorists have demanded the settlement of the Jerusalem question or they will allow the bomb to go off, which will eliminate the reason for the dispute. The interested parties are meeting this morning in Geneva. The Swiss have agreed to act as go-betweens. The Pope is chairing the meeting, attended by the Prime Ministers of Israel and Palestine. There are Clerics from Iraqi Sunnis and Iranian Shia. An American Protestant leader and the President of the Arab League are there. The Secretary of the United Nations has offered to dispatch a peacekeeping force to evacuate the city of Jerusalem."
After the TV went off, Stella picked up an old bible from an end table and blew the dust off the worn cover. "The label on the box was, I think, 1K3 16-27." She leafed through the bible, and stopped at a page. "I thought so." She read a few lines.
Jack listened, and smiled. "I thought that might be it. We should be OK if we wait patiently until the meeting in Geneva reaches the logical conclusion. If they don't, we'll be stuck here for another six days." Jack tried to scrape the film off the frosted window with his fingernail, but the coating was on the outside of the glass. He picked at the decaying wood of the window frame with his fingernails.
Stella watched with furrowed brow. "I don't think you can take the window apart to get out, and if they see you trying they may shoot us both."
"You're right about not being able to take the window apart, but they must assume we'll try to escape. We should make them think we're trying. If not, they may suspect we have a plan they can't figure out. That might lead to additional security measures."
After the silent guard brought them chicken sandwiches that evening, the house became quiet. Jack dozed off in the uncomfortable chair. The door slammed open and a bright light blinded him. After their rude awakening, the guard checked out the room for a few minutes before he left.
Jack chuckled. "That's their security scheme for nights. We'll never know when they might pounce on us if we try to escape. We'll be safer making a break in daylight."
The guard brought them cereal for breakfast the next morning. After they finished it, they waited for him to return. He soon came back and studied them, before he took the dishes away. Jack grinned at Stella. "Did you see him looking at the window? He's sure we'll try to get out through it. I'll bet he's out there waiting for us."
Stella nodded. Jack reached over to the window sill and retrieved the finishing nail he had dug out of the rotten window frame. He bent over and picked the lock on his ankle chains. After he removed them, he went to Stella's chair and picked the locks on her chains. He crept to the door and listened for any sound on the other side. After a few moments he picked the lock on the door, and opened it a crack. He saw nobody on the other side. They sneaked out and made their way out the back door. They saw no one. They dashed into the trees behind the house, and picked their way through the thick brush.
Jack led the way. "I remember the map showed a creek behind the house. We need to find it and wade downstream in case they have dogs."
"I haven't heard any dogs bark."
"They wouldn't have dogs right on the property, because they want to make people think it's deserted. They are so well equipped that they might have thought of bloodhounds too."
By the time they reached the creek, they heard dogs baying, and the sound came from the direction of the house. They waded across the creek and into the bushes on the other side. He picked Stella up, and she gasped but didn't resist. She held onto him and he felt her warmth. He walked backward to the creek, each step in a track he had made in the mud. He let her down in the deepest part of the creek. They waded downstream. It was a struggle to pull their feet out of the mud at the bottom. The frigid water made their ankles ache, but they had to stay in the water. "I hope they follow our scent into the brush for a while, before they come back to the creek. We need to hurry and find a road."
Stella gasped for breath while she struggled through the mud and water of the shallow creek. She shivered from the cold, but struggled on. "I think the creek leads to the main highway. I hope we can flag down a car before those guys catch up."
"If not, we'll have to stay in the creek until we come to a farmhouse where we can call for help."
They heard the sound of a helicopter. It flew toward them. They halted under a willow tree. The willow branches spread across the creek to hide them from view. When the helicopter moved off, they heard the sound of hounds coming down the creek toward them. They hurried on.
When they reached the highway, they climbed the bank and stood a moment at the side of the road. They saw no cars in either direction, and the helicopter came back toward them. They dashed back down the bank and crawled through the culvert to the other side.
They waited in the culvert until the helicopter went away. The sound of baying hounds came closer, so they hurried on down the creek, which continued to get deeper. When they rounded a bend, they hid in some bushes and looked back at the road.
Two men and their dogs climbed onto the roadway. They stood for a minute, and waited for a car that came down the road and pulled over next to them. They had a brief discussion with the driver, who must have been one of the gang. Jack said, "I hope they think we got a ride."
The car drove off, and the men crossed the road and came down the creek, one man and a dog on each side. They didn't move fast, not sure their prey had continued this way. Jack and Stella hurried on down the creek. It kept getting wider and deeper. Soon they had to swim. The men on the banks could move faster, and would soon catch up.
They came to a tiny island in the middle of the stream, and hid in the small brush at the downstream end of it. They submerged themselves, except for their faces, when they heard the dogs approaching. The men and dogs paused on the banks across from the little hummock, but moved on downstream. The helicopter came back, and flew over them.
When the helicopter flew out of sight, Jack led the way back to the road and through the culvert, where they climbed out at the same place they had before, in case the dogs came back. An old pickup rattled down the road, and they stepped out in front of it. The brakes squealed, and the truck shuddered to a halt. An old greybeard looked out at them and wheezed, "You folks look like you been tryin' to drown yourselves in that little old creek. You must'a been pretty desperate to stand there and trust my old brakes. Climb in and I'll drop you off at the old ESSO station. They got a pay phone."
They huddled together for warmth in the passenger side of the truck cab. When the helicopter came over again they tried to keep out of sight. They hoped the dirty truck windows would prevent the overhead observer from seeing them. The old man wrestled the loose steering wheel, to keep the truck on the road. He paid no attention to his passengers until he slammed on the brakes in front of the abandoned station.
Jack and Stella jumped out of the truck and ran to the pay phone on the porch. The phone still worked, and Jack had a single coin, so he could make a collect call to Virginia. When his coin returned, he made a call to the military base. "They're sending a car for us."
Back at the base, they learned that the meeting in Geneva had agreed to the United Nations permanently taking over the security of Jerusalem. Israel would keep their capital in Jerusalem, except for the grounds around the Golden Mosque and a corridor the Muslims could use for access from the West Bank.
They met with the base commander, General Abraham, and Jack reported on their adventure. "You need to send a large force to that old barn, and secure the warhead before something else happens to it."
The general nodded. He turned to his MPs. "Take these two into custody until I return. Hold them incommunicado."
Stella gasped in shock, but Jack showed no sign of surprise. They waited in separate cells for the return of the general's task force.
Within an hour, Chief Harrison came to the cell block with Major General Thorpe and four MP's. The general ordered them released, and led them to the communications room, where they watched a screen that showed several armed vehicles at the old barn. Helicopters landed, and soldiers rushed out of them to surround the house and barn. Chief Harrison turned to Jack. "Where do you think the bomb is?"
"Under the hay on the barn floor."
"And the reason for that conclusion?"
"We saw no sign of animals around the barn, and a farmer wouldn't pile fresh hay on the floor unless he had animals to feed. All the tools in the barn were old and dusty, except for a new pitchfork. They must have brought in the hay to cover the bomb. They had no reason to guard the barn once they removed the bomb, so it must still be there. There is also the fact that only one set of tracks in the mud showed heavy weight. What have they found in the tunnel in Jerusalem?"
"Just an air conditioner ordered by the hospital. Strange, but the model number on the box, 1K3 16-27, didn't match the model number on the machine inside. I wonder what that means."
Stella jumped at the chance to volunteer. "First Kings, chapter three, verses sixteen through twenty-seven. It's the story of King Solomon's solution to the quarrel of two mothers who each claimed the same baby."
The Chief grinned. "That may explain why General David Solomon Abraham took matters into his own hands to arrange the blackmail. He's in military custody, and will stand trial for treason, for stealing a hydrogen warhead from his own facility. Did you know he's half Jewish and half Arab? I guess he was trying to settle an old family feud. He won't get a medal, but he may get a Presidential pardon."
Stella grinned. "I suppose it wouldn't be good politics for the Nobel Committee to award him a Peace Prize."