The bourne ascendancy, p.1
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       The Bourne Ascendancy, p.1

         Part #12 of Jason Bourne series by Robert Ludlum
 
The Bourne Ascendancy


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  For Victoria, as always…

  1

  Seven ministers entered the famed Al-Bourah Hotel in Doha. Seven ministers from Jordan, Syria, Qatar, Iraq, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, grim-faced, all carrying briefcases locked to their wrists by chains, each needing their personal thumbprint to open. They held themselves like kings, these ministers, and in some cases they were as powerful as the kings of past ages. They were accompanied by their bodyguards—men grimmer still than their masters, as heavily muscled as they were armed, ready for any sudden noise or movement.

  In the vast lobby, the entourage passed between two rows of gigantic marble pillars, then through the elaborate security screening process their respective countries had paid for, commanded by a dozen uniformed, battle-hardened mercenaries hired specially for this occasion.

  The ministers and their bodyguards rode in a pair of elevators to the top floor, walked silently down a thickly carpeted hallway studded on either side with more mercenaries, and entered an enormous light-filled conference room.

  They took their places around a polished rosewood table, thumbed open their hard-sided steel-and-titanium-reinforced briefcases, removed files red-stamped TOP SECRET. Their bodyguards uncapped iced bottles of water, sipped the water first, then poured it into glasses that had been hand-washed by trusted personnel. With military precision, the bodyguards stepped back to a spot just behind and to the right of their respective masters.

  Besides the bottles of water, oversized cut-glass ashtrays had been set out in front of each chair. More than half the ministers shook out cigarettes and lit them. They inhaled deeply and gratefully.

  Behind them, through bulletproof windows, Doha was already baking in the morning sun. Heat ignited ripples that rose up the glass-and-steel sides of the sleek modern buildings like smoke. Beyond the grand Corniche, the bay, for which it was said Doha had been named, sparkled like a latticework of diamonds in the raking sunlight.

  The minister from Qatar, being the representative of the host nation, began to speak.

  “We are here today to answer the call of a catastrophic problem,” he said. He was a small man, distinguished-looking in his robes of state. “Over the past eighteen months, a series of deadly arms shipments have made their way into the African nations to the south—countries notable not only for their oil, but also for natural gas, diamonds, uranium, and rare earth elements.”

  The minister paused at this juncture to take a sip of water. As he did so, he took the opportunity to look around the room, regarding each face separately. “Thinking of the nations not represented here,” he continued, “Egypt is in such continuing flux no coherent leader can as yet be recognized, let alone be counted upon to speak for the nation as a whole. As for Saudi and Iran, well, they are both the subjects of our discussion this morning. Nothing could be gained by inviting representatives from their countries.” He cleared his throat. “And the less said about Israel the better.”

  “All Israelis are terrorists,” the minister from Iraq said, distaste twisting his thick lips. “Their so-called country was founded by terror and now they subjugate the Palestinians in ever smaller quarters through terror tactics well known to us all.”

  The minister from Qatar, staring at the Iraqi, was silent for a moment. “Quite so,” he said at last. Turning his gaze elsewhere, he went on: “To date, our best people have been unable to trace the source of the shipments. What we do know is that they contain ever more modern, and therefore deadly, armaments. The endpoints of these shipments are leaders of various local insurgent groups—terror cells bent on death alone.” Here he lifted an iPad from the dossier. He tapped its screen, and projected onto the opposite wall was a list of the enemies of the states, enumerating their kills, destruction of property, enslavement of children and young adults, and the success rate of their various indoctrination programs.

  “As you can see, the success rate is phenomenally high.” He used a laser pointer to underscore his words. “Extreme poverty, disenfranchisement, a promise of martyrdom as well as money for their families bring recruits at such a pace that the high death rate of these recruits becomes meaningless.” He switched off the screen. “Thus we see with our own eyes the truth of the Western criticism of radical Islam: It demeans life as it devalues it.”

  At this, the minister from the UAE rose. “This cycle of radicalism must stop,” he said. Unlike the minister from Qatar, he was a tall man—majestic even—dark of eye and hair, with skin like ancient leather: cracked and worn, but still tough as nails. His fist pounded the table. “While the terrorists proliferate, wreaking havoc in their wake, it is we who reap the whirlwind they have created. We wish an end to the purposeful violence, a violence that rebounds onto us. It is our people who are dying in consequence.”

  He sat, having said his piece. The minister from Qatar nodded, as did most of the ministers ranged around the table. The minister from Syria, who had been watching the proceedings with a particularly keen eye, noted the others’ reactions.

  At a break in the meeting, he left the table and went down the hallway to the men’s room. Ensuring it was empty, he wedged a piece of wood under the door to keep it from opening. Then he stared at himself in the mirror. He touched the bulbous prosthetic nose, removed the plastic inserts that puffed out his cheeks. He rearranged his beard, first applying a bit more spirit gum to several key spots.

  Still, Jason Bourne scarcely recognized himself.

  That was, of course, all to the good. If he didn’t recognize himself, no one else was going to either. For many years, Bourne had been living off the funds he had provided for himself, lodged in a Zurich bank vault. Now that those funds finally had been used up, he needed a new way to make a living.

  For the past year he had been hiring himself out to the highest bidder, impersonating ministers and businessmen who were scheduled to attend high-level diplomatic and business meetings in hot spots around the globe. Rather than risk assassination, these ministers hired him to take their place. In the jargon of the trade, he had become a Blacksmith. And what a Blacksmith! In the space of twelve months he had amassed almost as much money as he had originally stashed in Switzerland.

  He took out a mobile phone with software that scrambled all his calls, both incoming and outgoing, and pressed a speed dial button. The moment Sara Yadin answered, he recited chapter and verse the information on the terrorist groups in Africa that had been projected onto the conference room wall.

  “More later,” he said, cutting the connection.

  He did not normally pass on the relevant product he gathered at these meetings to third parties. He did so this time because he loved Sara, an operative of Mossad. He did it also because of his ever-deepening friendship with Sara’s father, Eli Yadin, Mossad’s director. He wanted to keep them safe; this was an expedient way.

  Smiling at his reflection, he reinserted the cheek prosthetics, adjusted them minutely, took one last look at himself, and, satisfied, returned to the conference room.

  * * *

  Apart from the mercenaries on patrol, the lobby of the Al-Bourah was a virtual ghost town. Not a guest came in or out, not a single limousine pulled in
to the semicircular driveway, not a soul could be seen passing by on the wide, curving Corniche. The security net was as taut as a drawn bow. It was all the phalanx of uniformed young men and women at the front desk and the concierge’s station could do to hold back their yawns. Nothing to do, nowhere to go. They were forbidden even to exchange pleasantries, or the juicy celebrity gossip that usually fueled their workdays.

  It was so quiet, in fact, that several of the mercenaries had taken to darting furtive looks at the various young women behind the concierge desk. Several minutes later, the most beautiful of these came around the end of the curved granite desk holding a tray in one hand. On the tray were a number of small cups of tea. The mercenaries’ eyes fixed on her, first warily, then hungrily as she approached them, a provocative smile etched on her face.

  She distributed the cups to the men, who sipped the tea gratefully. Only one declined her offer. She held out the teacup, but again he refused. By this time, his compatriots seemed to have developed rubber legs. They staggered and lurched, then, in twos and threes, collapsed onto the polished marble floor. As the lone remaining mercenary in the lobby brought up his semiautomatic weapon, the concierge shot him through the temple at point-blank range.

  That was the signal for the terrorists posing as hotel staff to spring into action. Racing across the lobby, they scooped up the mercenaries’ weapons.

  The four mercenaries stationed outside were frantically pushing their way through the revolving door. Two of the terrorists turned and fired their assault rifles in short, accurate bursts, killing the last of the ground-floor mercenaries, trapping them in a no-man’s-land of shattered glass.

  Now one of the terrorists spoke briefly on his mobile phone. Thirty seconds later three enormous American-made SUVs pulled up in front of the hotel, disgorging sixteen more men. The leading terrorists shot out what remained of the glass revolving door, and the cadre, at the center of which was its legendary leader, stepped over the corpses and entered the hotel.

  Phase one had been accomplished without a hitch.

  * * *

  Upstairs in the conference room, the ministers had returned to their debate.

  “There is every reason to believe,” the Iraqi minister was saying, “that the illegal Jewish state is the entity behind these shipments. It would be just like the Mossad to fund terrorist cells bent on destabilizing countries from which they can never reap economic benefits.”

  A number of other ministers nodded their tacit agreement. The Qatari minister, rising to his feet again, turned to Bourne. “Minister Qabbani, we have not heard from you on this subject.”

  Bourne nodded. “Easy enough to hang Israel in effigy, but I am more interested in the actuality of the situation. It seems to me that there are entities with far more to gain from arming these cadres than Mossad.”

  “Such as?” the Iraqi minister said darkly.

  “Such as Iran,” Bourne said. “Such as Russia.”

  “Russia?” the Iraqi said, startled.

  “China burns natural resources faster than any other nation. It has spent the last five years bribing and buying its way into the African countries with the richest sources of oil, natural gas, and uranium. Russia would dearly love to undermine China’s incursions. What better way to do so than by financing cadres bent on destabilizing the governments of those nations?”

  “In regard to Russia, our esteemed colleague makes an excellent point,” said the minister from the UAE, even while the Iraqi snorted in derision. He turned his head. “You disagree, Minister Boulos?”

  “Strenuously,” Boulos said.

  “Correct me if I’m wrong, Minister Boulos,” Bourne said, “but isn’t Russia a client of yours?”

  The Iraqi bristled. “China has taken the largest stake in my country’s oil industry.”

  “Which is why,” Bourne said, “elements in the Kremlin have hired you to slip as many legislative spanners as possible in the works to deter China’s advance.”

  The UAE minister’s head turned on his neck like a falcon’s. “Is this true, Boulos?”

  “Of course it’s not true!” But the louder the Iraqi minister’s protestations, the less anyone was inclined to believe him.

  Returning his attention to Bourne, the minister from the UAE said, “Have you suggestions for the way we might proceed from your thesis?”

  * * *

  From the elevators and the fire stairs the terrorists poured into the top-floor hallway. Three mercenaries already in the hallway who were in the terrorists’ pay thrust knives into those nearest them, or else wound garrotes around their necks, pulling tight, holding on with a knee jammed firmly into the small of their victims’ backs. The remainder were dispatched silently and efficiently by the newcomers, who, following hand signals from their leader, then headed toward the closed doors of the conference room.

  * * *

  “With the split within the FSB,” Bourne said, “Russia’s spying policies have become far more aggressive in both the defensive and offensive spheres. My contacts within the organization have confirmed that FSB-2, even more dangerous than FSB-1, has been responsible for—”

  At that moment, the doors burst open and the atmosphere inside the room was shattered by the rapid fire of assault weapons wielded by four masked terrorists. Blood, brains, and shards of bones of the ministers from Qatar, the UAE, and Jordan sprayed through the air like an infernal fountain. The terrorists slammed the doors shut, locking in their victims.

  Using the gore as cover, Bourne swung up his briefcase and hurled it at the terrorist closest to him. As the man was spun off his feet, Bourne grabbed one of the cut-glass ashtrays and smashed it directly into the face of the second terrorist. Blood fountained out of him as he was thrown backward against a wall.

  His two compatriots were busy gunning down the ministers from Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, the last of whom had drawn a nasty-looking pistol from his briefcase. By this time, Bourne had claimed the weapon of the first fallen terrorist.

  He aimed, squeezed off a short burst that flung the third terrorist off his feet, his chest a mass of blood and shredded tissue. The last remaining terrorist swung his assault rifle to bear on Bourne, but Bourne was already on the move, and a second burst from the weapon he wielded nearly cut the man in half.

  Bourne stood. Through the red rain still falling, he checked the other ministers for vital signs. There were none.

  Still armed, he turned from the carnage and opened the doors, to find the jihadist known as El Ghadan confronting him. El Ghadan, which meant “Tomorrow,” was flanked by a dozen men armed with submachine guns, all aimed at Bourne.

  El Ghadan stepped forward, took the automatic rifle from Bourne’s hands, pulled off Bourne’s beard and nose, and, smiling, said, “Hello, Mr. Bourne.”

  Part One

  2

  El Ghadan gestured. “Please come with me.”

  Bourne said nothing, nor did he move.

  El Ghadan said, “So the rumors about your stubbornness are true.” His smile grew into a scar. “Search him.”

  A burly man stepped up and, his black eyes burning with hatred, patted Bourne down. He stepped back and nodded.

  “Let’s return to the scene of the crime.”

  A man grabbed each of Bourne’s arms, turned him around, and frog-marched him back into the blood-spattered conference room.

  “One, two, three, four murders,” El Ghadan said as he took in the corpses of his men. He stepped in front of Bourne. He was not a tall man, but he was wide-shouldered. He had the narrow waist of a dancer, but that was where the resemblance ended. His coarse features, pockmarked cheeks, and enormous, powerful hands marked him as a laborer, a Bedouin born and bred in the terrible wastes of the desert.

  “Martyrs, all.” His lips were thick, his eyes narrowly focused, as if on the future rather than the present. Possibly that was how he got his name. “But that fact hardly absolves you of your crime.”

  Bourne had heard of El Ghad
an, though they had never met. He had read his file at Treadstone, but though mostly accurate when it came to actual facts, files were notoriously incomplete—or, worse, inaccurate—when it came to the subject’s personality. With fanatics like El Ghadan—and he was far and away the worst of the extremist bunch—understanding their personalities was the key to defeating them. Therefore, Bourne extended all his senses, focusing his attention strictly on El Ghadan.

  “Aren’t you concerned about the police?” he said.

  “The police.” El Ghadan laughed, the sound as harsh and dry as a desert wind. “I own the police here.”

  Bourne noted his response. Arrogance and contempt. When adversaries felt so in control of a situation that they considered you beneath them, you held a certain advantage. Bourne was building an invaluable knowledge base.

  El Ghadan snapped his fingers and the two men holding Bourne sat him down on a chair between two of the fallen terrorists. He held out his hand, and his second in command slipped a tablet into it.

  El Ghadan swiped the screen and turned it to face Bourne. On the screen was a live image of Soraya Moore, her daughter, and her husband—Aaron Lipkin-Renais, an inspector in the French Quai d’Orsay. The three were seated in a row, hands tied behind their backs. Soraya’s daughter, not more than two years old, looked panicked; she started to cry.

  Bourne felt his stomach contract painfully. His relationship with Soraya Moore was long, complicated, and, at times, intimate. How had El Ghadan captured her and her family? His estimation of the terrorist rose exponentially.

  Soraya was looking straight at the lens. Bourne had not seen her in over three years, but knew she had given up her co-directorship of Treadstone after marrying Lipkin-Renais. Not long afterward, she had moved to Paris permanently, starting the next phase of her life with him and her daughter, Sonya, who was born in the City of Lights. Nevertheless, her image was forever etched into his memory.

 
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