Thursday, July 4th
It couldn’t be broken.
Canceling the mission was not an option; he would have to proceed regardless, and if it had broken, he would not survive.
Panic shot through Cardel Boudreaux’s chest, hollowed his stomach, and the stale air inside the sedan seemed to spike twenty degrees. He dodged the steering wheel, bent double to the floorboard, and looked closer at the glass vial he had dropped.
No spillage. No milky-white serum on the floorboard. The vial seemed intact . . .
Afraid to believe his eyes, he lifted it, pinching his forefinger and thumb, and then gently rocked the vial end to end. There was no seepage, no serum, slicking the outside of the vial.
He let the truth that he had survived a near miss settle in; lower his pulse, his heart rate. When his hand stopped shaking, he slid the vial back into its sheath, rewrapped the sheath in bubble wrap, zippered it into its gray pouch, and then returned the pouch to his backpack.
Carelessness kills, Cardel.
It did. In his profession, religiously. Leaving his damn backpack open . . . he must have been out of his mind.
He abandoned his rental car in long-term parking, where it would be a little more difficult but not impossible to locate, and eased his backpack’s strap onto his shoulder. Near the main terminal, he tugged his white cap down on his forehead, so its visor shielded his eyes and the U.S. flag pin attached to it was clearly visible, and then he entered the airport.
Every second of his time had been structured specifically to maximize his odds for success, including booking his flight during the airport’s heaviest departure-and-arrival traffic.
Weaving through the thick bustle of people, Cardel blocked out dins of insignificant noises and made his way straight to the concourse dedicated to international flights. Security would be tightest there, but the Consortium, who had hired his organization, had connections worldwide, and his own superiors anticipated no challenges. Yet, like any other Global Warrior worth his fee, Cardel had prepared for unanticipated events that sometimes popped up, particularly on international missions. That preparation made his fee seven figures, rather than the typical six earned by the majority, and clients always seemed eager to pay it.
For fifteen years, he had worked hard to build and maintain a sterling reputation. He left no loose ends, offered no excuses, rarely made mistakes, and he had never compromised a client.
Sidestepping a mother who was half-dragging, half-cajoling a crying little boy, Cardel entered the restroom and took stock. Only four of the sixteen stalls were occupied. The two open rows of urinals were all in use. Surveillance cameras bolted to the wall were positioned high overhead, focusing on the entrance and exit.
Seeing nothing that hadn’t been included in his briefing, he stepped into the nearest stall, shut the door, and unzipped his backpack. Inside, he found the gray padded pouch. He pulled it out, removed a syringe and the small glass vial. His mouth went dry.
Swallowing hard, he banded his upper arm with a thin strip of rubber, filled the syringe, and then injected himself. As the milky liquid entered his vein, his fear the vial might break before he could inject himself died.
He set the vial and empty syringe on the tile floor behind the toilet, crushed them with his shoe, then mopped up the bits of glass with toilet tissue and dumped them in the toilet. Next, he saturated the stall floor with chlorine bleach. No trace of the serum could be found; the Consortium had been emphatic about that.
“Flight 127 to Miami, Florida is now boarding.”
Hearing the tinny loudspeaker announcement, Cardel glanced at his watch. He had seven minutes and twenty seconds to finish his work and get on that plane.
Moving quickly, he uncoiled a thin, clear hose, stuffed it down the waist of his slacks, further down the inseam of his right leg. The tip cleared the top of his shoe, remained concealed by the hem of his slacks.
He pulled a quart-sized canister out of his backpack, put it in a special holster crafted to carry canisters of the same size and shape, and then strapped it to his chest. A second canister remained in his backpack.
This is almost too easy.
It was. And normally that would have concerned Cardel. But this mission should be easy. The entire operation had been in the works for over a year. Every facet of it had been scrutinized, studied, tested, and then scrutinized again.
Calm and controlled, he connected the holstered canister to the hose, slid on a nasal oxygen mask, and then buried its unconnected hose from sight inside the holster. A quick twist and the canister’s valve opened.
A clear liquid drained through the hose and puddled on the floor near his feet. Stepping into it, he coated his shoes, and then left the stall.
After walking a path before the urinals, the stall doors, and the sinks where men stood washing their hands, Cardel left the restroom, careful to keep his chin tucked to his chest so his cap would block the security camera from recording a clear picture of his face. He stepped out onto the crowded concourse and tapped a release button on the canister near his waist. A thin trail of the liquid contaminant seeped onto the floor.
Obscured by heavy foot traffic, it was not noticed.
Because these passengers were heading for destinations worldwide, they would spread the contaminant to their various flights, infect others, who would go on to infect still others, and the diffusion would be accomplished. Tracing the contaminant back to its source would be impossible. In political circles, both Paris and Miami, Florida would have plausible deniability. That was vital to Cardel’s client. Why, Cardel didn’t know, nor did he care.
“Attention passengers. Flight 127 to Miami, Florida, this is your final boarding call.”
Cardel stepped up to the only middle-aged male security screener on duty. Slumping beside his machine, he looked bored. Heavy, dark circles rimmed his eyes. Definitely innocuous. Cardel approved the mission planner’s choice. “Long shift?”
“A double,” the screener said, grimacing. “Damn cutbacks.”
Offering a sympathetic nod, Cardel passed over the canisters and the oxygen certification provided by headquarters, which would get the canisters on the plane. “Rough times all over,” he said, then adjusted the nasal tabs in his mask and smiled, knowing it wouldn’t touch his eyes.
The screener didn’t smile back. He gave the certification and the canisters a cursory glance, and then passed them back. “Better hurry.” His voice sounded as flat as the loudspeaker. “They’ve already made the final boarding call.”
“Thank you,” Cardel said, and then made his way to the gate, where he produced the certification, canisters, and his ticket for the flight attendant. It had been purchased weeks ago with a credit card that would soon disappear. These days, cash transactions and one-way tickets raised obvious red flags with monitors. “Sorry I’m late. I got held up by Security.”
“Doesn’t everyone these days?” Totally forgiving, she quickly reviewed the certification and the numbers on the canisters. On verifying the match, she returned them, smiled, and then rushed him onto the plane.
In short order, the plane took off. When it leveled out at high altitude and they were gliding over the Atlantic, Cardel checked his watch. As if on cue, the seat-belt sign went off. Right on schedule.
He left his seat and headed toward the back of the plane to the restroom. On the walk down the center aisle, he depressed the canister button and held it, silently dispensing the contaminant. Odorless and colorless, it failed to draw the flight attendants’ attention, or that of the passengers seated along the aisle.
Smiling back at a blue-haired grandmother seated across the aisle, he stepped into the restroom and then closed the door. At this moment, only a fool wouldn’t be on edge. If the canister failed to eject . . .
Sweat beaded on his forehead, above his upper lip, and his hands shook. He removed the canister from its holster, dropped it down into the toilet, flushed, and waited to see if the mission planners had properly prepared for the disposal.
The canister disappeared from sight.
A moment of pure joy lifted him. There was no broken vial, no jammed canister, and no evidence. Expelled from the plane, the canister would end up somewhere in the Atlantic, and the truth of its origins would be lost for all time.
He loosened his limbs, relaxed. His portion of the mission would be a success. He was out of danger on the flight, and nearly finished. Once the plane landed, he had only to holster and connect the second canister, and then to take a stroll through a couple Florida orange groves.
Piece of cake.
Pleased with himself, Cardel stepped out of the restroom—and came to a dead halt.
Bright red, yellow, green, and blue plastic cubes littered the contaminated center aisle. And among them crawled a curly-haired toddler.
In a cold sweat, Cardel stared at the child. Over the years, the mission planners had been flawlessly professional, but this time—on the Global Warriors’ most intensive U.S. attack ever—the planners hadn’t considered that a parent might put a child on the aisle floor to play so early in the flight.
Cardel blinked hard, forced himself to look away and return to his seat. He snapped on his safety belt and then signaled the flight attendant for a drink. “Scotch and water, please.”
“Yes, sir.” She smiled down at the toddler.
Cardel’s gaze invariably followed. If the child died before the plane landed, the mission would be a disaster. “Make it a double.”