The Islamic terrorist group known as al-Qaeda recently ramped up their efforts in the Middle East by funneling significant resources to Palestinian resistance movements in the West Bank.
Al-Qaeda's aim is to take down the Israeli state and turn the region into an Islamic caliphate. Their more immediate goal is to derail peace talks designed to wrap up a final status agreement leading to an independent Palestinian state existing side by side with Israel.
A dramatic upsurge in attacks against Israeli settlers and soldiers has set off alarm bells around the world. Recent Israeli seizures of arms caches, including bomb-making materiel, in the West Bank triggered the Central Intelligence Agency, Washington's covert arm abroad, to launch an effort to deny weapons to the region.
To that end, CIA operative Dean Wells, an Arabic speaker who knows the region well, was dispatched to Syria to infiltrate and buy off key players in militant Palestinian organizations to discourage them from doing business with al-Qaeda.
Dean Wells stepped onto the sidewalk and shaded his eyes. The street was crowded. People, cars, motorbikes and food stalls competed for space.
It was Sunday, but in Syria, it was a workday.
"A taxi cab, Mr. Dean?" the hotel doorman asked.
Dean smiled and shook his head. "La mamnuun." No thanks.
He had work to do: U.S. Government work.
He took a deep breath and headed up the sidewalk. Women hidden in burqas picked through local produce. Children squealed and ran freely. He ducked under an awning and slid between hunks of mutton and camel meat that buzzed with flies.
At the top of the hill, he stopped and looked beyond the bustle of Aleppo, the cultural and culinary capital of northern Syria. Nut and fruit orchards stretched as far as he could see. If only the rest of the Middle East were so prosperous.
He was already sweating through his business suit. How could women survive in those black, all-concealing robes? Not so long ago, women in Syria wore white, open-faced headscarves. It was unnerving how a wave of fundamentalism had swept over the Middle East.
"Oh, just another Sunday driver out for the scenery," he muttered.
He found the bookshop he wanted and stepped through the doorway just as the car wedged with a metallic shriek between the building and a juice stand.
It was cool inside the shop. The neatly aligned books all had Arabic titles. He translated a few titles in his mind. They were sacred Koranic texts.
The small shop was empty except for a chubby man standing at a counter stacking up Syrian pounds. The denominations were large, the value was small.
Dean approached him. Was this his contact? He studied the white hair, the broad features, the heavy gold ring. Palestinians lived all over the Middle East, from Syria to the Gulf States. Was this the middleman for the Palestinian militant he wanted to meet?
"I have some items for Abdul Aziz," Dean said, referring to the militant by name. He wouldn't open his briefcase in public, but it contained tens of thousands of dollars and two student visas to America for Abdul Aziz's daughters.
The man kept counting the money.
Dean glanced around the shop. It was the kind of business that didn't attract much foot traffic. Outside, an argument was heating up between the food stall operator and the driver.
Dean was about to repeat his message concerning his items for Abdul Aziz when a shot rang out at the doorway. The dispute was getting ugly.
The bullet zinged into the shop and the man hit the floor.
Dean ducked between bookcases. Who were they aiming at?
Syria was growing more dangerous. Not so many years ago, he had spent leisurely summers in Damascus watching passers-by and sipping Turkish coffee. There were no angry words spoken on the crowded streets. Now, people had short tempers and seemed on edge.
The street was silent. The shop's air, with moldy paper and musty leather bindings, had a new smell. Gun smoke.
The incident was interfering with his mission.
The man began gasping. It wasn't the sound of exasperation.
Footsteps on the sidewalk receded into the hum of the city. Maybe one of the ubiquitous plainclothesmen was chasing the gunman.
Dean rose and walked to the counter. He was surprised to see blood spurting from the man's chest. The man's lungs had collapsed and he writhed in pain.
"Good God," Dean said, and knelt to help him. "I thought you had al-Qaeda protection."
The man winced and nodded.
Dean had to keep him alive long enough to answer some vital questions. He pressed a palm over the wound in the center of the man's chest. Blood bubbled up between his fingers.
"Who will deal with me?" Dean whispered.
A bundle of yellowed pages fell from the man's hand and fluttered to the floor. Dean squinted at the familiar-looking script, handwritten characters punctuated with curious dots. It was an ancient Hebrew text.
He had no time to read the words, but could appreciate the time and effort it had taken to create the manuscript.
He wasn't there for an ancient manuscript, yet here it was, close to the blood that spurted from the man's chest.
"This is a symbol of our good faith," the man said in a fading voice.
Dean pressed a second hand over the wound. It felt sticky and warm.
"Read the first page," the man said with closed eyes. "There you will find Aziz."
The man rolled his eyes toward Dean with a jerky motion.
"Only you can bring us peace."
Then the man's face relaxed. The blood stopped flowing. He was dead.
Footsteps were returning. Dean had little time to react. He wiped his hands on the man's shirt, gathered the pages and stuffed them into his briefcase. Then he headed for the back door.
A moment later, he slipped into an alleyway and quickly put distance between him and the shop. With luck, no one could place him at the scene.
He had to get the parchment to Washington for analysis. It contained the location where he could meet Abdul Aziz, the Palestinian militant. But it would take several days to get the coppery smell of blood and the bookstore owner's imploring look out of his mind.
Does plucky CIA operative Dean Wells have a darker side? Why do all his Middle East contacts end up dead and witnesses accuse him of the assassinations? Lovely CIA psychologist Carla Martino thinks she has the answer, and it lies deep within his psyche. But the government has no time for a diagnosis and puts Dean on an international hit list.
Enjoy this tightly plotted inside look at the CIA and high-stakes chase from Aleppo to Hebron, and from the Red Sea to Jerusalem. You'll feel the hot desert wind blowing down your neck as Carla tries to unravel the mystery and Dean races to thwart al-Qaeda's plot to blow up peace talks.
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