Tara Chace was once the most dangerous woman alive. And now that the international spy network thinks she’s as good as dead, she’s even more dangerous than ever.
Only one thing could coax Tara back into the game: a chance to vindicate herself. The torture and execution of Dina Malikov has set off a cutthroat grab for power in strategically crucial Uzbekistan. Tara’s job is to slip into the country and extract Dina’s pro-Western husband and their young son before they are murdered—by his ruthless sister.
But there are a couple of wild cards in the deck, including a missing mobile weapons system that can bring down a commercial airliner, not to mention powerful political careers. Now, as she vanishes into hostile territory with a man who may or may not be what he seems, Tara is going to find out that the war on terror is more terrifying than anyone knows. For in a battle where betrayal is a conventional weapon, loyalty is a weakness, and anyone—even a child—is a legitimate target: it’s every spy, every woman, for herself.
Combine a thriller that defies every expectation with a heroine for whom nothing is out of bounds, and the result is Private Wars, a suspense novel so explosively realistic, it should be classified.
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Malikov Family Residence
9 February, 0929 Hours (GMT+5:00)
They gave it an hour after the husband left, just to be certain he hadn't forgotten anything, that he wouldn't be coming back, before they knocked on the door. Four of them went to do it, while another two waited in the second car, the engine idling.
The two who waited were jealous of the four who went. They thought they were missing the fun.
All were men, and all wore business suits of the latest style, acquired for them in Moscow and Paris and Switzerland, then altered by tailors here in Tashkent, men who were paid pennies to adjust clothing worth thousands. All six finished their look with neckties of silk and shoes of Italian leather and cashmere-lined kidskin gloves. A few wore overcoats as stylish as the suits they covered, to ward off the howling chill that blew down out of the mountains in Kazakhstan to the north.
The only thing that marred the line of their clothing, each in turn, was the slight bump at hip or beneath an armpit, where they carried their guns.
Back before Uzbekistan had declared its independence from the creaking and cracking Soviet Union, before the failed hard-liner coup in August of 1991, when they were still called the KGB, none of them would have dreamed of wearing--let alone owning--such finery. Signs of Western excess, such garments would have flown in the face of Communism. Certainly they would have made a mockery of the subtleties required for their work.
But those days were long past, and fewer and fewer of them remembered a time when orders came from Dzerzhinsky Square. They weren't KGB, and they weren't Communists. They called themselves the National Security Service now, the NSS, and if they believed in anything anymore, it was in power and money, in that order. They were the secret police, and they didn't care who knew it. They were beholden to--depending upon whom you spoke to--one of two people. Either they marched to the tune played by their nation's leader, President Mihail Izmaylovich Malikov, the man who had led the country since he declared its independence in August 1991, or they danced to the music played by his elder child, his daughter, Sevara Malikov-Ganiev. That's where the true power was. While President Malikov's other child--his only son--Ruslan, had influence and friends of his own, they paled in comparison to that held by both his father and his sister.
This was why the four NSS men who entered Ruslan Mihailovich Malikov's house at half past nine on a frigid February morning had no hesitation whatsoever in arresting his wife, Dina, for espionage and treason. This is why they did not hesitate to beat her in front of her two-year-old son when she tried to keep their hands from her body. This is why they did not hesitate when they had to drag her, flailing and screaming, down the stairs and out onto the street.
And this was why they did not hesitate at all when it came time to torture her.
They hooded her once they had her in the car, and they bound her hands, and when she made a noise, they struck her, telling her to be quiet. Best as Dina Malikov could tell, they didn't drive for long or very far, and when the car stopped, she was dragged from the vehicle, and felt the instant bite of winter on her skin. They propelled her down echoing corridors, yanking and shoving her, sometimes pulling her hair, sometimes her shirt. There was the cold sound of heavy metal sliding on concrete, and someone shoved her so hard then that she couldn't keep her feet, falling to the floor. Red light exploded across her vision as she was hit in the head again, and when she could see once more, the hood had been removed.
She'd seen this room before, but never in person. It was larger than she'd thought it, lit by a string of naked bulbs that dangled from the ceiling, shining too bright, banishing all shadows and all illusions of the safety to be found in them. The floor was cold, poured concrete, the walls of gray cinder block. The odors of urine and mildew and cigarette smoke combined, still not strong enough to obscure the scent of feces.
There was a table, wooden and stained, and three chairs, also wooden. A video camera stood on a tripod in one corner, and beside it, on the floor, a red metal toolbox. Other tools lay nearby, devices designed for one purpose that could be redirected to another, far crueler. Against the opposite wall, a claw-footed old bathtub sat, anchored by two pipes, one to fill it, one to drain it.
Three men stood staring at her. Two of them she didn't know, didn't recognize, but the third she did, and that terrified her more than any of what had come before, because it drove home to her exactly how bad things were going to get. As they had taken her from her home, as they had dragged her and beat her, she had allowed herself the illusion of hope, that Ruslan would return, that her marriage would offer her some protection, that she might survive. But looking at Ahtam Zahidov as he removed his suit jacket and carefully draped it over the back of one of the chairs, for the first time, Dina Malikov thought she was going to die.
"Dina," Zahidov said, and he gestured to her with his left hand, absently, and the two other men took this cue to move forward, and they began to strip her. She struggled, alternately cursing and pleading with them, with Zahidov, and Zahidov merely watched, and the other two hit her in the back and the belly until she had no air, until she couldn't struggle any longer. The two men tore the clothes away from her, mocking her, mocking her husband, and when she was finally naked they forced her to the table. Again, she tried to fight them, and again they beat her until she could not, and they laid her across the tabletop, and they held her down.
Ahtam Semyonovich Zahidov moved behind her, and put one hand on the back of her neck, and with his other forced himself inside her.
"Where did you get the tape?" Zahidov asked. "Who gave it to you?"
She tried not to sob, shaking on the floor, tears and blood mingling on her face.
"Who gave it to you?" Zahidov asked.
She drew a long inhale, feeling the air burn her torn lips. "My husband--"
"Is in Khanabad for the day, making nice with the Americans at their air base, and will not be home until evening." Zahidov canted his head to one side, as if seeing her for the first time. "Tell us what we want to know, and you will be home before he returns. Back with your boy. He needn't ever know what happened here."
She spat at him.
"We can blame the extremists, Dina," Zahidov said, his voice soothing with reason. "He doesn't ever have to know."
The sob escaped her without her meaning it to, the shame scorching through her, hurting more than her body itself. Ruslan would believe it, if she told him, if she blamed the Islamic extremists, if she blamed Hizb-ut-Tahir, he would believe it. She could be home, she could hold Styopa again, hold her baby again, and Ruslan would come home. So easily he would believe it, he would want to believe that she had been taken, had been kidnapped, that it was the Islamic extremists who had wanted her as a hostage, but she had escaped, somehow, some way, and she could tell him, and he wouldn't know, he wouldn't ever have to know what had happened, what had really happened, what
Zahidov had done, had let the others do, all it took was a name, one name--
"Just tell me who, Dina," Zahidov said. "Tell me, and this will all end."
She blinked through her tears, through the glare of the lights at him, sitting in the chair, looking at her like he was her friend.
Dina Malikov shuddered, and closed her eyes, and said, "I can't."
She heard him sigh, a sound of mild disappointment almost lost in the size of the room, and then she heard the rasp of metal on metal, as the toolbox was opened.
In the end, she told Zahidov everything.
She told him the name of the NSS officer who had given her the videotape documenting the torture of Shovroq Anamov's sons while the old man watched, helpless to ease the suffering of his children. The tape that recorded the obviously false confession of the old man as he swore up and down that, yes, he had been south to Afghanistan, yes, he had met with the terrorists, yes, he had helped arrange the bombings that had struck the market in Tashkent in the spring. The tape that showed the tears running down the old man's face and captured his keening when his eldest boy, shocked one time too many, stopped moving the way a human being moved, and instead jerked like a fish on the end of a line.
She told Zahidov how she arranged to get the tape out of the country, how she'd made contact with a junior political officer at the American Embassy by the name of Charles Riess, how it had happened at the Uzbek Independence Day party this past December, hosted by Ambassador Kenneth Garret at his residence, just outside of town. How it had been Riess she'd been passing information to, so Riess could in turn pass it on to the State Department. How it was her fault that the White House was withholding another eighteen million dollars in aid to their ally Uzbekistan.
She told Zahidov everything.
In the end, though, it wasn't enough.
In the end, they put her in the tub and filled it with boiling water.
The NSS officer who had served as her informant was arrested before nightfall, and shot before midnight.
Zahidov would have done it himself, but he was too busy arranging the arrests of the extremists responsible for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Dina Malikov. One of them was a schoolteacher in Chirchik who had continued to try to incorporate passages from the Qur'an into his lessons. The other two had also insisted on practicing their religion outside the manner permitted by the state, and one of them, a woman, had led a group of forty in signing a petition to be presented to President Mihail Malikov demanding their right to worship as Muslims. All three were arrested by midmorning the next day.
Near the home of the schoolteacher, half buried beneath rocks, was discovered the body of the missing Dina Malikov. She had been horribly beaten and burned, her teeth shattered and the nails of her fingers and toes torn from their digits.
She was so disfigured, in fact, that Ahtam Zahidov had to send a request to Ruslan Mihailovich asking that he come at once, to identify his wife's body.
London--Vauxhall Cross, Operations Room
10 February, 1829 Hours GMT
Paul Crocker had known Operation: Candlelight was a bad idea the moment it crossed his desk.
He'd known it the same way he'd known his elder daughter had become sexually active, long before he'd heard the fact from his wife, Jennie. He'd known it the way he'd known that he'd been passed over for promotion to Deputy Chief, long before his C, Sir Frances Barclay, had smugly confirmed it for him. He'd known it the way he'd known he was losing Chace when she came off the plane at Heathrow eighteen months earlier, and he knew it the way he knew that Andrew Fincher would be a poor replacement for her when Donald Weldon, in his last act as Deputy Chief of Service, railroaded Crocker into taking the agent on as his new Head of the Special Section.
Part of it was instinct, part of it was experience, honed from almost twenty-five years in Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service, through countless operations all over the globe. Jobs he'd worked, jobs he'd planned, jobs he'd overseen. The successes, and more important, the failures.
Candlelight had been bad news from the start, and what Paul Crocker saw now on the main plasma screen of the Ops Room wall--or more precisely, what he wasn't seeing--only drove the point home.
He should have been looking at a live satellite transmission from Kuala Lumpur, where, according to the callout on the world map on the wall, Operation: Candlelight was "Running," and the local time was two-thirty in the morning. He should have been seeing what Minder One, Andrew Fincher, was seeing, as the Head of the Special Section made his way along the harbor to the target site. He should have been hearing it as well, the susurration of the water, the hushed transmissions relayed between Fincher and Minder Two, Nicky Poole, stationed at the ready point with the SAS brick, waiting for Fincher's go signal.
But no, instead, Crocker got static. Static to look at on the plasma wall, in the box above Southeast Asia where the feed should have been coming through, and static to listen to on the speakers, instead of the low calm of the voices of men, preparing to do work.
Julian Seale, seated at the map table to the left of where Crocker now stood, glaring at the garbled screen, coughed politely.
"Might want to do something about that," Seale said.
"You think?" Crocker snapped, not bothering to look at him. Instead, he strode forward, to the Mission Control Desk, where William Teagle was frantically attacking his keyboard with his fingers. "Bill, what the hell's happened to the feed?"
"Checking now, sir." Teagle twisted in his chair, turning to another of the consoles surrounding him at the MCO station. Teagle was new on the desk, only three months in, and Candlelight was his first major operation, and Crocker thought the stress of it showed on the man's face, the perspiration shining on his forehead. If he'd been inclined to it, Crocker might've been sympathetic. As it was, he didn't have the time.
"Is it the upgrades?" Seale asked Crocker.
Crocker frowned at the plasma wall. "Possibly."
The entirety of the Ops Room had seen a renovation in the past year, from the plasma screens to the computers to the secure communication arrays that kept the SIS headquarters here in London in touch with stations and agents around the world. It had been long overdue, and when it had happened, Crocker had believed it to be a good thing, and it had given him hope for his new Deputy Chief of Service, Alison Gordon-Palmer. It had been Gordon-Palmer who had forced the proposal through the FCO, it had been Gordon-Palmer who had bullied C into securing the necessary funding, and it had been Gordon-Palmer who had gone out of her way to consult with Crocker as to just what the upgrades should entail. By the end of the process, Crocker had come to believe two things about the new DC.