Publisher: Crossroad Press under the Gordian Knot imprint
Formats: Paperback | e-book (Kindle, iBook/Apple, Nook, Kobo)
“Why would al-Qaeda, the Mexican Brotherhood and the Sinaloa cartel work together?” It is the question Derek Almer, Naval Aviator and CIA contract pilot started asking his contact at the intelligence agency in the spring of 2015.
Al Qaeda’s Ayman al Zawahiri is frustrated by the lack of success of the organization’s attempts at planting bombs to bring down several airliners at roughly the same time. With bin Laden dead, Zawahiri decides to send Harun al-Rashid to the United States with the mission to kill 10,000 Americans in one attack
Before he joined al Qaeda, al-Rashid was Mohammedh Haaq, a chemical engineer working for Saudi Aramco. Lonely and wanting a wife, friends Mohammed met at the mosque in Ras Tanura, Saudi Arabia, introduce him to Hanifa, a Jordanian nurse as a means to recruit him. On vacation in Athens, Haaq learns the Saudi police want to question him after his phone numbers are found on a phone at a safe house used by the attackers who killed 19 foreigners.
Afraid he will be tortured by the Saudis if he returns, Haaq calls a number given to him by Hanifa to use if he ever was “in trouble.” Al Qaeda offers Haaq sanctuary and a new identity if he agrees to help.
In the U.S., Derek Almer’s fiancée Eileen Bertram is injured and her mother shot in a carjacking. The Plano (Texas) Police Department is reluctant to do little more than report the crime. Suspicious that there may be more behind the hijacking, Derek, and his future father in law and retired cop Jack Bertram, start digging.
The trail leads them to the leader of Mexican Brotherhood gang whom they spot leaving a house with a Middle Eastern looking man in McKinney, Texas. The Plano PD is reluctant to ask the Feds for help so on a hunch, Derek sends a photo of the man and police sketches of the two hijackers to a contact in the Mossad. The Israelis send the Interpol Red Notices as well as international arrest warrants for al-Rashid.
Members of the president’s administration want Derek silenced and if possible, in jail because his hypothesis runs counter to their narrative that the war on terrorism is over and al Qaeda incapable of launching an attack on the U.S. Bureacratic finger pointing among he CIA, Immigration and the FBI are has begun because a known terrorist has entered the country without their knowledge. Corrupt cops and the Sinaloas want Derek dead.
Convinced he is right, Derek risks all as he pursues al-Rashid in an attempt to prevent the attack that, if successful, could kill more than al Qaeda’s original goal of 10,000.
Taken from Chapter 3 – UNPLANNED CAREER CHANGE
Friday, July 14, 2006, 0855 local time, Piraeus
The Gulf Trading Company, Inc. was in a very old office building on Zaimi Street a few blocks from the ferry terminal in Piraeus, the port for Athens. At 0830, Mohammed tried the knob on the door. It resisted turning so Mohammed moved on. Now that he knew which building, he continued down the street less tense than when he left his hotel room.
The narrow streets of Piraeus were awake, reminding him of what Beirut looked like before the civil war. The soft July sun was beginning to penetrate the darkness and gave the shadows a soft, gentle edge.
Breakfast smells mixed with coriander, basil, and oregano made him think of his childhood. He followed the scent of fresh bread mixed with the strong smell of freshly brewed coffee into a café on Tompazi Street, just five blocks from Zaimi.
At 0857, he entered the building on Zaimi Street and off the tiny lobby was a stairway. With each step, the stairs creaked loudly and Mohammed thought they probably had done so for generations. Only the numbers 307 differentiated the Gulf Trading Company, Inc. door from the other six off the third- floor landing. He pressed the little white button next to the door handle and heard the door unlatch.
Inside, an unshaven man with a scarred face pointed to a chair and as soon as he sat down, the unkempt man went into another office and locked the door, leaving Mohammed alone. He forced himself to remain calm and do nothing to betray his fears.
Rather than read his book, he studied his surroundings. A large wooden desk with peeling varnish dominated the room that was about three meters wide and five long. The paint above the paneling appeared less old than the desk and the room had an odd odor. The chemist in him said it was a mix of stale tobacco, tea, and disinfectant.
Mohammed sat on one of only three old wooden folding chairs along the wall in front of the desk. If anyone employed by Gulf Trading Company, Inc. ever met with customers, Mohammed was sure it was not in this office.
It seemed like an eternity, but his watch said it was only twenty minutes when Mohammed heard the office door unlock. He half expected a man to come out with a silenced pistol and shoot him. Instead, the man had a handful of papers in a clear plastic folder and motioned him to sit in front of him at the desk.
“This is your new Syrian passport with your new name.” He slid it to one side next to the plastic folder. No introduction as the man looked him in the eye. Mohammed guessed he had been given a detailed description of who was coming.
“Your passport application shows you grew up in Beirut and applied for Syrian citizenship after graduating from American University in Beirut. Your application was granted because you are a chemical engineer and Syria needs them.”
The man looked at Mohammed to make sure he was paying attention. He was. The man continued in an emotionless monotone. “This is your Syrian work permit along with a national identity card. Because of your education, military service was waived. I understand you have been to Damascus and know the city.”
How did they know I have been to Damascus? I was sent there by Saudi Aramco and I never told Wali or Hanifa. They must have access to my personnel file.
Mohammed took the statement as a question and nodded his head yes, afraid to speak.
The man looked directly into his eyes. Mohammed felt he
was being inspected like a piece of meat. “This is a current Syrian driver’s license showing you live in a flat off Sami al Droubi. This is a valid credit card and is clean. You can use it but keep receipts or you pay out of your own pocket.”
“I understand.” Money was not his problem at the moment. Getting out of Greece without being arrested or killed was. “When am I leaving?” The real question is how much longer do I spend in the hotel in Piraeus?
The man held up his hand. “We have made a reservation on Egypt Air for you to fly from Athens to Cairo in two days. Your passport has the appropriate visas and travel stamps so going through immigration should not be a problem. I understand you traveled frequently for business so airports should be familiar to you.”
A pause was followed by a nod from Mohammed. “You will stay in Cairo for two days as a Syrian tourist on holiday. We made a reservation in your new name at a hotel in Cairo near the airport. It is pre-paid. Then use this ticket for a flight to Karachi. Do you need money for food and taxis?” He pushed a paper airline ticket plus more sheets of paper outlining flights, hotel names, addresses and phone numbers across the scarred desk.
“No, I have money.” Between what he had spent on the five- star hotel, meals, and the hotel in Piraeus, he was down to about U.S. $8,000 in traveler’s checks. Do I need more?
“Give me your cell phone.”
The man popped out the battery and pried out the SIMM card. From a small plastic bag on the table, he took another SIMM card and inserted it in the phone. “Your phone now has a new number so we can reach you if plans change. Do not make calls, turn it off, or program it with phone numbers.”
“What do I do when I get to Karachi?”
“A man will meet you when you come out of customs. He will ask you for the coupon for the flight from Karachi back to Cairo.” Mohammed suspected what he said was all he was going to get.
42 MARC LIEBMAN
“Okay….” Mohammed reached for the passport and as he did, the man put his hand on top of his as if to say, I am not finished.
“We set up an e-mail address for you in your new name at AOL. It uses your first and last name with no periods. If we need to communicate with you, we will send an e-mail. Use only Internet cafés and check it once in the morning, after one in the afternoon, and after dinner. If it is critical, we will call you. We know your itinerary so we can send e-mails to meet this schedule. Once you read an e-mail, delete it. Also, please make sure you create your own password the first time you log on.”
“I understand completely. How long will it take to get a response if I send an e-mail?”
The withering “how the hell should I know?” look made him feel like a fool. “I have been told you could be very important to our movement. We have called in many favors to quickly prepare these documents. Don’t do anything stupid.”
“Good. Safe travels and may Allah be with you.” The man nodded, his work done.
Mohammed opened the passport to find his picture staring back at him. It looked very similar to the photo on his Saudi visa and Saudi Aramco identification card and badge. How did they get copies? Flipping through the pages, the passport had a stamp matching his original arrival time, date, and entry into Greece and entry and exit stamps for Lebanon, Cyprus, Jordan, Pakistan, and Egypt. They must have gotten them from his passport.
His driver’s license and identity booklet all had different close-up photos taken recently in Saudi Arabia and he wondered how and when? The plane ticket was missing the Damascus to Athens coupon and Mohammed wondered who had used it. Slowly, he read all the documents thinking if there was a time to ask questions, this was it. As he began to organize and gather all the papers, the man slid a clear, open plastic folder across the table as a way saying put the papers in here.
Once more, their eyes locked. “Good, good. Thank you.” It was all Mohammed could think of saying.
“Good-bye. Allah will protect you.”
Mohammed Haaq, the Lebanese citizen and Gas Research and Development Director for Saudi Aramco, left the room as Harun al-Rashid or Aaron the Rightly Guided, wondering who chose the name and why.
Before he left Athens, he made two transfers of 9,900 Euros each from his American Funds accounts and collected the cash at two different Barclays’ branches. On the day he left, he paid three years rent for a safe deposit box and stuffed all but one thousand Euros into the box along with his Lebanese passport, and Saudi and Lebanese driver’s licenses identifying him as Mohammed Haaq.
Taken from Chapter 5 – THE LEGEND
The same day, 2106 local time, Plano
Eileen was replaying in her mind the second time Derek and she had made love Sunday night when the ringing phone interrupted her reverie. “Eileen, is everything all right? We didn’t hear from you all weekend and were worried.” It was her dad and he sounded concerned but she’d bet money her mother had nagged the hell out of him to call. Several times a week, Eileen talked to her parents and liked to think, since they were retired and in their sixties, they were checking in with her rather than the child reporting to the parent.
“You sound tired.” Her mother was on the other extension. “I am. It was a long weekend. I’m sorry, I didn’t call but I was out with a guy.”
“On a Sunday night?”
“Yup. I spent two days out at his ranch.”
“He owns over five hundred acres. I went out there Saturday to spend some time with him.”
“And…?” Her mother wanted more details, but Eileen wasn’t ready to part with them yet.
“Dad, do you know or have you ever heard of a Navy helicopter pilot by the name of Derek Almer.”
“He’s guy who owns the ranch.”
“THE Derek Almer?” Her dad was incredulous. The tone in her dad’s voice was clearly one of admiration.
“What do you mean?” Eileen was now a lot more awake. “What does he look like?”
“Around six feet, about 180, graying hair, average size, but I’ll bet he is pretty athletic. He has citations for a Navy Cross, a Silver Star, and three Distinguished Flying Crosses in his study.” Since she was a little girl, her dad would quiz here about her surroundings because he said you never knew when you needed the information.
“I didn’t know he lived around here. If, and that is a big IF, he is the Derek Almer I heard about from my SEAL buddies, he’s a top-notch warrior. He’s pulled a lot of them from some really shitty situations.”
Her father’s use of the word ‘warrior’ got her attention. When Jack Bertram used it to describe a person, it was a compliment. “What do you mean?”
“Let me tell you a story. I know it’s late and you are tired, so I’ll make it short. And, I’ll give you a question you can ask and depending on the answer, you’ll know if we’re talking about the same person.”
Eileen knew she should listen. No, I want to listen. Jack Bertram started without waiting for her Okay. “I was told this story by my friend, Abe Saranow, who was a SEAL I served with in Vietnam. He’s a fellow tribal member from Philadelphia and he told me a couple of years ago at a SEAL/UDT (Underwater Demolition Team) reunion how Derek pulled his son, Ed, out of a world of hurt back in 2011.” After a short pause, Jack recounted the story told to him by the older Saranow, and by his son Ed, in five minutes.
“Dad, did Derek get into trouble for going?”
“No. The asshole Army colonel tried to write Derek up for flying an unauthorized mission. Derek was chewed out because an Army general backed the colonel. Cooler heads later prevailed and no charges were filed. I’m sure it didn’t help his career but he did what was right.”
“Dad, what should I ask him?”
“Ask him who was the female helicopter aircraft commander he flew with in Afghanistan. Her name was Abby.”
“Dad, thanks for telling me. I really appreciate it. Good night.” Lucie was watching her with her head resting on her thigh while Eileen scratched her ear. “Looks like both of us may have found an awesome boyfriend.”
Taken from Chapter 12 – ESCAPE
The same day, 1407 local time Camelot
When he installed the gate and its iron framework arch with the word Camelot at the top, Derek also mounted two cameras on top of the frame. Both had conventional electrical power with solar panels and batteries as a back-up. The camera signals were sent via landline to his house with a wireless back up. Derek could call up the images on any monitor or TV in the house via his Wi-Fi network.
“Derek, we have visitors.” Eileen was getting a Coke from the refrigerator when she saw the gray Ford Taurus stop at the gate. A small tendril of smoke rose from the right wheel well. In the monitor, she saw an arm reach out and press the buzzer.
“U.S. Marshals. We’re here to see Derek Almer.”
“Please show your badge.” A folder with a silver emblem was held in front of the camera.
Eileen zoomed the camera in so she could read the badge and clicked the mouse to record the picture.
“May I see the other agent’s badge, please?” Another badge was presented and the image recorded.
When the Taurus crunched to a stop on the gravel, Derek was waiting where the driveway forked to the house and barn. All five dogs scampered around, anticipating new friends. Neither man bothered to put on their suit coats as they headed to Derek since it was already 95 degrees.
“Are you Mr. Derek Almer?”
“I am. What can I do for you?”
“Mr. Almer, it is my duty to serve you with this Federal cease and desist order.” He handed Derek the folded blue cover with the order inside. “It forbids you to engage in any type of law enforcement, counterterrorism, or counter drug activities as a private citizen in the United States or its territories until it is lifted. If you violate the restraining order, you will be subject to prosecution by the Federal government and possible jail time.”
“Okay. Consider it delivered.” So, if the CIA offered me a contract, I would be free to take it. I’ll bet the attorney who wrote this doesn’t know I am a contractor to the CIA. Derek slid it into the back pocket of his jeans without looking at it.
The marshal lowered his head and then looked Derek in the eye. “Sir, we’re just doing our job. This order is bullshit. It came out of the DOJ’s headquarters in D.C.”
Derek chuckled. “Duly noted. Would you like something to drink? It is hot as hell out here.”
“Yes, sir. Some water would be great. However, we have a favor to ask.” The agent paused fearing he would get a negative reaction. “May we use your phone? Our headquarters in D.C. ordered us to report as soon as we served you. Our cell phones don’t work out here and our boss is being a real prick about delivering this restraining order. He wants us to report when we’ve delivered so he can report back to his boss in D.C.”
“Out here, we like not having cell phone coverage. Come inside and you can use my house phone.”
Ten minutes later, the agents couldn’t start their car. When they opened the hood, pieces of the fan belt were everywhere and a pool of coolant under the car.
“I’ll put the car on my trailer and bring it to your Sherman office.”
“Mr. Almer, sir. We can have a wrecker come out.”
“True, but it will take them hours. I can have you and your car in Sherman in an hour.”
“My pleasure. Not a problem. Happy to help out. Why don’t you let your office know what’s happening while I put your car on a trailer?”
Before he hooked the trailer to his Dodge 3500 dually, Derek used the winch on the front of the trailer to pull the marshal’s Taurus onto the bed. While he tied the car down, the marshals transferred their bullet proof vests, rifles and shotguns to his truck.
Derek turned off Highway 78 and was just accelerating down the access road to U.S. 82 north of Bonham when a Chevrolet Impala swerved in front of him. As he tried to avoid a collision, the distinctive snout of an AK-47 poked out of the Chevy’s rear window.
Derek yelled, “Get down!!!” as he yanked the steering wheel to the left. The head of the agent in the front seat exploded as the 7.62mm X 59 slugs tore into the Dodge. Several rounds from the second burst hit the second agent in the head, chest and arm as the truck plunged into a ditch and lurched into the embankment.
Another long burst sent shards of glass and interior plastic flying as Derek kicked open the door and dove out. Peering under the extended cab truck, he could see a pair of legs coming toward him. In the silence, he heard the distinctive metallic ping of an ejected magazine hitting the ground and clang when another was seated in the rifle and the bolt slammed forward, seating a round in the firing chamber.
Derek pulled his Winchester Model 94 out from behind the front seat, and pushed the safety off as he crawled behind the rear wheels where he could get a clear view of the man approaching his truck. He popped up over the bed, found his target and fired. At less than fifty feet, the energy from the 30-30 caliber 170-grain soft nosed lead bullet knocked the shooter into a lifeless sprawl.
Derek levered in another round and fired at the driver of the car before ducking down to dodge a long burst which punched a row of holes through both sides of the pick-up truck’s bed. Another dozen bullets shattered the window of the Taurus on the trailer sticking out into the road.
Time to change positions. Derek moved to behind the engine and front wheel. He stood up as the Malibu accelerated down the road and fired six more rifle rounds into the Impala. The Impala and its dead driver slammed into a tree alongside the road. Steam hissed noisily from the radiator.
Derek slumped down on the grass with his back to the front wheels of the truck. This is getting out hand and definitely not cool. Maybe I am in over my head.
Rage and anger at the unnecessary deaths of two men caused his hands to tremble so much he had trouble dialing his satellite phone. Before he knew it, Bonham police officers and an ambulance pulled up beside his truck, way too late for either agent.
Reviewed by Robert Buccellato, Manhattan Book Review
April 2021 | 4/5 stars
How do you find your way back from a war without an end? How can a slowly crumbling and divided America successfully defeat a faceless foe? The short answer is that you look towards those that are struggling to come to terms with their past to defend you and give their lives a purpose. Flight of the Pawnee is the first of a proposed four-book novel series based on a new character named Derek Almer.
In the book terrorist group, Al Qaeda has grown frustrated at the west’s ability to kill off their leadership structure and the continued conflicts in the region. They ambitiously form a new goal – to kill three times as many Americans in one attack as died on 9/11. The main villain in the story devises a plan to kill upwards of 20,000 people. With or without the help of the CIA and the FBI, Almer undertakes to investigate the group’s actions and it quickly leads them along with our protagonists Almer and his partner former cop Jack Bertram down a harrowing path across two continents. Society in the book is slowly being overrun with darkness and a single solitary man and a “Pawnee”. This is the consuming chess match of our times and he finds himself at the forefront of the book’s events. His attempts at uncovering the truth, force his own government to view him as a threat, and they seek to silence him.
The main characters of the book are indeed figures of heroic gallantry and complex natures. But they are largely people caught up in the affairs of their betters. The game of cat and mouse between the cultural impulses of the times and the terrorists are the 21st-century equivalence of the sport of kings. The kind of mind games that important figures play on one another that carries low risk and high reward. However, for people like Almer, their tasks are a matter of life and death. It is effortless for the reader to be transported in this richly created literary world. We can see as the curtain slowly falls even more and spins a complex web of secrets and revelations that keep the audience engaged throughout. The book has some of the most creative and fully flushed out characters in modern fiction. The book’s narrative is both nuanced and breezy. The book’s visuals are compelling and revealing. The defining conflict is presented with haunting clarity.
Author Marc Liebman, himself a veteran, is commanding with his writing, and this book will continue to prove engrossing and enchanting for years to come. This is a great triumphant book! A spectacular literary experience and a refreshing, suspenseful thriller.
Review by: Tom Kirk, Editor of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association magazine The Aviator
Issue 40-01, January/February 2021