October 23, 2:09 P.M.
IT STARTED WITH the screams.
Sergeant Jordan Stone listened again to the snippet of an SOS that had reached the military command in Kabul at 4:32 that morning. He rested his elbows on the battered gray table, his palms pressing the oversize headphones against his ears, trying to draw out every clue the recording might offer.
A lunch of lamb kebabs and local lavash bread sat forgotten, though the smell of curry and cardamom still permeated the air, contributing to the nausea he felt as he listened. He sat alone in a small, windowless room at the Afghan Criminal Techniques Academy, a one-story nondescript building at the edge of Bagram airport outside Kabul.
But his mind was out there, lost in that firefight recorded on tape.
He strained, his eyes closed, listening for the fourteenth time.
First screams, then a spatter of words:
They’re coming again . . . helpushelpushelpus . . . !
The sound faded in and out, but that did nothing to hide the terror and panic of those simple words.
Next came gunfire—frantic, sporadic, uncontrolled, echoing around—interspersed by more chilling screams. But what raised the small hairs on the back of his neck was the silence that followed, dead air as the radio continued to transmit. After a full two minutes, a single phrase rasped forth, distorted, unintelligible, as if the speaker’s lips were pressed close enough to brush the microphone. That intimacy more than anything set his teeth on edge.
Jordan rubbed his eyes, then pulled the headphones from his ears. Plainly the situation out there had ended badly in the wee hours of the morning. Hence the need for Jordan’s team to be summoned. He and his men worked for JEFF, the Joint Expeditionary Forensic Facility, out of Kabul. His team served as crime scene investigators for the military: gathering evidence from insurgent suspects, examining and testing homemade bombs, tearing down mobile phones found at battlefield sites or ambushes.
If there was a mystery, it was their job to solve it.
And they were good at what they did. They’d solve this one, too.
“I’ve got more intel,” Specialist Paul McKay said as he entered and plopped down into a metal chair. It squeaked under his weight. The man stood a head taller and a belly wider than Jordan, and he knew his business, recruited out of an Explosive Ordnance Division. Smart and unflappable. “That recording came from an archaeological team up at Bamiyan Valley. Four men and a woman. All Americans. Command sent a team of Rangers to secure the scene. We’ve got an hour to figure out what we can here, then we’re supposed to follow them out into the field.”
Jordan nodded. He was used to the pressure, liked it even. It kept him running, kept him from thinking too much. “I’m going to work on this message. You and Cooper get a full murder kit together and meet me at the chopper.”
“You got it, Sarge.” McKay tossed him a quick salute and hurried out.
Jordan listened to the mysterious phrase at the end of the message again, then called in translators. That didn’t help. None of them could even tell him what language it might be; not even the local Afghanis recognized it. A few claimed that it wasn’t human at all, but some kind of animal.
Someone quickly tracked down a British historian and archaeologist, Professor Thomas Atherton, who had been working with the team in Bamiyan, and brought him to Jordan. A fit and sturdy scholar in his early sixties, the archaeologist had come to Kabul two days before to have a broken arm set. As the historian listened to the screams, he grew pale. He ran one hand through his well-trimmed gray hair.
“I think that’s my team, but I can’t be certain. I’ve never heard them scream like that.” He shuddered. “What could make them scream like that?”
Jordan handed him a Styrofoam cup of water. “We have a chopper full of Rangers on their way to help them.”
The professor looked like he knew such aid would arrive too late. He adjusted his wire-rimmed glasses on his narrow nose and said nothing. When he lifted the cup, his hand trembled so much that water spilled onto the desk. He set the cup back down, his cast clunking against the table.
Jordan gave him a minute to pull himself together. Listening to his colleagues’ deaths had hit him hard, a natural reaction.
“That last phrase.” Jordan rewound the recording to that final whispery phrase. “Do you know what language it is?”
He played it again for Atherton.
A muscle under the professor’s eye twitched. “It can’t be.”
He gripped the edge of the table with both hands, as if he expected it to fly away. Whatever it was, it unnerved him more than the screams had.
“Can’t be what?” Jordan prompted.
“Bactrian.” The professor whispered the word. His knuckles whitened as he tightened his grip on the table.
“Bactrian?” Jordan had heard of Bactrian camels, but never a Bactrian language. “Professor?”
“Bactrian.” The professor stared at the headphones as if they were lying to him. “A lost language of Northern Afghanistan, one of the least known of the Middle Iranian dialects. It hasn’t been spoken since . . . for centuries.”
So someone had attacked a group of archaeologists—then left a message in an ancient language. Or had the message come from a survivor? Regardless, to Jordan, that didn’t sound like a standard insurgent attack. “Can you tell me what it means?”
The professor didn’t lift his eyes from the table when he answered. “The girl. It means the girl is ours.”
Jordan shifted in his chair, anxious. Were those final words a threat? Did they indicate that one of the archaeology team—a woman—was still alive, maybe being held hostage or tortured? A few years ago he might have wondered who would do such a thing, but now he knew. When it came to dealing with Taliban forces or the isolated tribesmen, nothing surprised Jordan anymore.
And that worried him.
How had a farm boy from Iowa ended up in Afghanistan investigating murders? He knew he still looked the part, with his wheat-blond hair, clear blue eyes, his square-jawed face. No one needed to see the Stars and Stripes sewn onto the shoulder of his fatigues to know he was American. But if you looked closer—at the scars on his body, at what his men called his thousand-yard stare—you’d see another side of him. He wondered how well he would fit in those cornfields of his former home. If he could ever go back.
“How many women were there at the site?” Jordan asked.
The door opened and McKay poked his head in, a finger pointed at his wrist.