Chapter 1

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JULY. TEHRAN, IRAN. IT wasn’t just hot. It was hell. The heat would meltshoes to the pavement if a person stood in one place too long. The night air should bring some relief with its cool, musty smell of sand and sweat. However, it seemed this evening the cooling desert would not give up any of its pride and send a much-needed breeze into the city. No, this night was muggy, sticky, and just plain miserable.

Despite the heat, tonight was like any other night for Hokamend. Seated on a pillow in his private quarters, he was reading, like he did every night. This evening, the book was The Fall of America.

He and his best friend, who’d been killed in a bus bombing six years earlier, had spent countless hours together going over the plans and drawings of the Chicago metro system, trying to find the perfect place to set off the explosive.

Muttering a prayer to Allah for success, he looked through the open window at the sky and noticed it was devoid of stars. A storm was moving in to tease them with the possibility of sweet relief from the godforsaken heat. But he knew in the end the cloud would leave without so much as a drop of rain.

He envied his friend, who was in a place beyond this world, a place he could only dream of. He turned back to his book, reminding himself of all the work yet to be done. Someone had to complete the job, someone had to finish off those arrogant Americans.

His hatred for America and disdain for the people who infested the land made him want to spit. He pictured their smug faces and fancy cars. He would bring the infidels to their knees. He would wake the sleeping giant, then rip its head off.

A bodyguard walked past his door. He heard footsteps and it jolted him out of his daydream. His guards were the best that money could buy. They walked in four shifts and in different patterns every hour to keep lurking enemies confused. Hokamend was a careful man. He never took chances with his own life. True, he demanded his followers to give up their lives in service to Allah, but he was different. With a half-million-dollar American government bounty on his head, he was worth more, much more.

On the other hand, such a reward for betrayal could cause even friends to consider the offer. But he was no fool. Chopped off fingers, toes, and even a tongue now and then had a way of driving the truth home—under no circumstances should one cross Hokamend.

He slipped to his feet and walked to the double French doors leading out to a balcony, lighting up a cigar.

He touched the small scar above his right eye and smelled the cigar. “A battle wound,” he would say. He was proud of his many scars. They proved his devotion to Allah. They proved he was not just an administrator but that he’d fought in the battles.

A small flicker flashed against the night sky as he struck the lighter and drew on his hand-rolled Cuban. He scanned his property, searching for snipers or anything that might be out of place but found nothing amiss, which didn’t surprise him. After all, this was the perfect location for his palace. Situated at the apex of a hill, the mansion was surrounded by a high wall with guard towers at each corner manned by armed snipers. Beyond the wall, two chain-link fences made a wide circle around the perimeter of the grounds. Razor wire coiled across the tops of both fences, and fifteen highly trained guard dogs roamed in between. If someone were to make it past the first fence and was lucky enough to avoid the dogs, then the snipers would ensure he didn’t see another sunrise.

An open lawn devoid of obstructions surrounded the palace in a one-mile circle. Deliberately designed so an enemy could not hide behind anything, the grounds looked more like a park than a secure compound.

He watched the city lights in the distance twinkle and blink like little bat eyes staring back at him, trying to ascertain if he was friend or foe. He took a deep draw, let out a cloud of thick smoke and wondered when they would figure it out, if ever. No, they don’t have the stomach for it. They are weak.

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