NEST-Retribution Cover

NEST: Retribution

Prologue

The first golden rays of the early morning sun gleamed off the glass face of Boston’s John Hancock Tower three miles in the distance. At sixty stories, it dwarfed the other buildings along the skyline, many of which weren’t even visible past the multi-colored foliage lining the edges of Southside Park.

Thousands of women, as well as a healthy showing of men, all donning purple clothing, hats, and accessories of every kind, gathered at the park to brave the crisp fall air for the annual Rally for US

What started a few years earlier as a march to show strength and solidarity in the face of what organizers had seen as an anti-female political climate had turned into an annual event to raise money and awareness for issues affecting women at both the local and global level. By the time Sarah Williamson, an increasingly powerful congresswoman and a national leader in women’s rights and civil rights, took the stage in mid-morning, the crowd was well-caffeinated and ready to go.

“Good morning, ladies!”

The crowd erupted in cheers.

“Just a few short years ago, we stood on this very lawn, joined by millions of women and men across the country and across the world to protest archaic ideas about the treatment of women that were being thrust back into the mainstream and the dangerous climate in Washington, D.C. This annual event here in the great city of Boston sends a powerful message to our politicians and to the world: Women’s rights are human rights! We will not be marginalized! We will not be ignored! We will all stand together!”

Stronger cheers erupted from the crowd.

“All of us! Women—”

She paused amid the continued cheers.

“men—”

Again, the crowd interrupted in cheers, although at a slightly lower octave.

“and children—”

Cheers again erupted from the crowd as mothers encouraged their daughters to applaud and fathers brought their young children’s hands together.

“Yes, women, men, and children—we all stand together. We choose freedom over oppression. Education over ignorance. Progress over inaction, or even more dangerous than inaction, regression. Yes, we choose progress over regression and your antiquated policies. And most important of all, we choose love over hate.”

*          *          *

The New England Special Terrorist Division, or NEST as it was normally referred to, sat tucked into a nondescript industrial building toward the backside of the UMass Boston campus, a stone’s throw from the JFK Presidential Library. NEST was one of nearly a dozen regional anti-terrorist task forces created years ago in the wake of 9/11 under the umbrella of Homeland Security.

Director Luis Huerta took a sip from his coffee as his eyes soaked in the vast array of mounted screens broadcasting live coverage of the event just a few miles to the north. No sound came from them, though the room was far from silent. Dozens of technicians and analysts busily processed huge amounts of data pouring in from around the region.

Luis was twice the age of the average analyst in the building, a fact made clear by his graying temples, but he also put in twice the work. He’d been on site for hours already, analyzing the data and preparing for what they all hoped wouldn’t happen. It was the same drill every day, particularly on days of high-profile events like this one.

He shed his suit jacket and rolled up his sleeves.

As the local congresswoman, Sarah Williamson, took the stage, Luis turned to a technician behind him. “Any new chatter on the event?”

“Nothing, Director. Nothing this morning, nothing period.”

Another technician sitting next to him said, “Sir, I think you can breathe easy. If there were anything, we would have picked it up by now.”

Luis glared at the young technician for a moment. It was that sort of attitude that would get them killed. They needed to be vigilant and never assume they caught everything. Luis turned toward one of his senior analysts.

“Kate, any hits on facial recognition?”

“No, sir. We’ve processed about 25,000 images in the last hour. Nothing yet.”

The main screen broadcast the live feed from the local news. Luis stared at the smaller screen to the side where the facial recognition package ran nonstop. Faces flickered across the screen at an impressive speed, but not fast enough as far as the director was concerned.

Between their agents on the ground—plain-clothed but with small cameras mounted on their jackets—local traffic cameras capturing pedestrians as they streamed into the park, and the feeds from the news station, it was unlikely there was anyone at the event whose image had not been captured. The servers were currently working at capacity to process these images against a federal database of thousands of known terrorists. That was a time-consuming process. Ruling out 25,000 with tens of thousands to go did nothing to ease Luis’ mind.

On the main screen, Congresswoman Williamson was ending her remarks, raising both hands to wave at the crowd. Luis checked his watch and patted another senior analyst on the shoulder. “All right, Ace, we’ve got a good picture of what’s going on at ground level. How do things look in the air?”

*          *          *

Fathi adjusted the backpack slung over one shoulder and looked out over the crowd with disdain. He couldn’t decide which disgusted him more: the women—the so-called feminists—or the men who supported their movement.

A group of young women in front of him, decorated in rainbow apparel, whooped and cheered each time the speech called for such a reaction. English was not a strong point for him. In fact, he understood little of what the congresswoman said, but that was no matter.

It’s better that way, he thought as he cheered and clapped when the crowd cheered and clapped. He decided it was best that he did not know what he was cheering for. He knew he was cheering for a singular reason–to not stick out in the crowd.

Fathi moved closer to the stage, fighting against the deafening cheers of the crowd. Such pandering for cheap applause. It sickened his stomach with every step he took. Still, he moved toward her. He hoped to be very close to the politician when the time came.

That will be a truly great victory, indeed, he thought.

A young girl next to him jumped up and down, screaming at whatever the politician was saying. Suddenly, she lost her footing and fell toward him.

She went to grab onto his hand, which he immediately pulled away, though she managed to grab onto his forearm, inadvertently helping her to right herself.

“Thank you!” she said, smiling at him. Then, “Sorry.”

He simply nodded and forced himself to smile, doing his best to hide his disgust for the non-believer who had just touched him. Walking a few steps away, he quickly glanced around. No one else seemed to have noticed the exchange. No one paid him any attention.

Sheep he thought.

Fathi then turned and inched his way closer to the stage, off to the side where the street was more open. A light breeze rustled the orange and red leaves on the trees as he rubbed his chin with his left hand. He was not used to cool air on his face, having worn a beard for many years—until this morning. He had been conflicted about shaving it off, having grown and proudly worn his beard since being able to do so. But while he wore it to distinguish himself from the disbelievers, it was necessary to remove it in order to blend in with them and achieve his ultimate goal.

The congresswoman appeared to be nearing the end of her remarks, and the crowd was worked into a frenzy. He adjusted his backpack again and checked his watch.

Soon.

*          *          *

As the congresswoman wrapped up her remarks, Luis concentrated on the people in the crowd and in the background of the shot.

He tossed back the last of his coffee and put down the cup, walking closer to the large screen, barely a foot away now. Whether during his time with the military police, an analyst at the bureau, or his position here at NEST, Luis always took pride in his ability to read people. Who didn’t belong? Whose body language wasn’t right?

Focusing on the lower left-hand corner of the screen, he felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickling. Without taking his eyes from the screen he asked, “Who’s on the ground this morning, closest to the main stage?”

A male voice spoke up from behind. “Team 3 is on the north side, but local PD has the main stage and the buffer around there.”

Luis considered that for a moment, pointing toward the screen. “This guy,” he said low, almost to himself, but everyone in the room suddenly had their attention on the lower left-hand corner of the giant screen.

Kate spoke up. “I’ve got him, Director. Doing a priority run on facial recognition.”

As the man’s photo moved to the smaller screen off to the side and the system began running algorithms searching for a match, Luis tapped his ear bud. “JJ, this is Director Huerta. What’s your location?”

A military voice snapped over the com. “North side, approximately twenty yards from the stage. The team is fanned out in a perimeter.”

Luis said, “I want you to send two guys to the northwest corner.” He quickly consulted a street grid map on another screen, “Intersection with Old Colony Avenue, to the left of the main stage. Suspect is male, sunglasses, dark shirt, bag over his right shoulder.”

*          *          *

“Yes, sir,” JJ said into the com. Then, “Benoit, Evensen, you’re closest. Move northwest toward the stage, intersection with Old Colony Avenue.”

“You got it, boss,” Benoit said.

“I can’t see shit from here. The crowd is too thick,” Evensen said.

JJ consulted the aerial view on his phone and directed his agents via the radio. “Evensen, approach straight on from the front. Benoit, swing left. Come up the street and watch the egress. If he runs, it’ll be down the alley to your left.”

“Got it.”

“Remember,” JJ said. “Male, dark shirt, bag over his right shoulder.”

“I’ve got eyes on him,” Evensen said.

JJ said, “We need to find out what’s in the bag. Quickly.”

“Suggestions on how to go about that?” Evensen chuckled.

“Ask him. You’ll know everything you need to within about half a second.”

“You got it, boss.”

*          *          *

Fathi was perfectly placed, happy to see the congresswoman move to the side after her speech as another woman took the microphone to work the crowd. It appeared she was going to stay onstage.

He smiled wickedly to himself, knowing that in this vast crowd, only he knew what was coming.

He glanced at his phone, checking the time. Less than two minutes.

Then it hit him. He was really doing this. He was sacrificing himself for Allah.

His heart raced. The anticipation of what was about to come was overwhelming. Adrenaline coursed through his veins, and he forced himself to take several deep breaths.

The years of searching, the months of planning, all came down to today. He was honored to have been chosen to strike the first blow. Very soon his father and brothers back home would hear of his bravery and learn why he had disappeared from home.

His heart swelled with pride and excitement.

As he slid his phone back into his pocket, a man moving through the crowd caught his eye. The man was dressed in cargo pants and a windbreaker, a light purple hat pulled down low on his brow.

It was not his dress that caught Fathi’s attention, though—it was the look in his eye and the bulge under his left arm.

Police.

The man wasn’t dressed like a police officer, but he carried a weapon and moved with military precision. And most concerning, he was headed straight toward Fathi.

Fathi began to sweat despite the chill in the early morning air. His stomach tightened as he reached into his pocket and placed his thumb over the detonator.

He took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a moment, finding peace.

*          *          *

Evensen tried to move naturally, but time was not on his side. Once he’d gotten a good look at the suspect, all his internal alarm bells went off. Evensen glanced over the suspect’s shoulder, his eyes stopping briefly on the backpack before finding Benoit at the rear.

Ten feet to go, and he moved with purpose through the crowd. He did his best to get around the spectators in his way without drawing attention to himself, but was forced to push himself around a large woman whooping, clapping, and completely oblivious to his presence. As he did so, he tripped over a stroller that he hadn’t seen behind her, sending him off balance and causing him to lose sight of the target momentarily.

He scanned the crowd and picked up the man again. He quickly strode forward, stopping directly in front of the man in the dark shirt with the bag over his shoulder.

“What’s in the bag, sir?” he demanded.

The man looked at him, “Excuse me?”

“I said, ‘What’s in the bag?’ I’m a federal agent. This is no time to screw around.”

“This is unreal,” the man protested.

“You’ve got about three seconds,” Evensen demanded.

An angry look came over the man’s face as he ripped open the zipper of the bag and quickly reached in.

Evensen wasted no time reacting. He seized the bag, with the suspect’s hand inside, and expertly wrenched the suspect around. Sweeping his legs, the suspect fell to the ground, where Evensen landed on top of him, putting a knee in the middle of his back.

One woman screamed upon seeing Benoit, gun drawn, pointing it at the suspect’s head. “Federal agents,” he announced to the crowd. “Give us some space.”

“This is bullshit,” the man on the ground said. “Just because I have dark skin and a beard doesn’t mean I’m a terrorist.”

*          *          *

Fathi opened his eyes, prepared to meet the gaze of the police officer before offering the ultimate sacrifice. Stare your enemy in the eyes before you kill him, his instructor taught him. Show him your courage before you die. Fathi’s eyes followed the man, when, to his surprise, the officer rushed by him, stopping in front of a bearded young man in a black shirt and jeans standing just ten feet behind Fathi.

He stared in disbelief as the officer gruffly demanded, “What’s in the bag?”

His heart was in his throat a moment later as the officer took the man to the ground and another drew his weapon. A woman’s scream got the attention of some of the others around, but it was too late to stop what was about to happen.

The crowd chanted something he didn’t understand at first, but it soon dawned on him, “SARAH! SARAH! SARAH!” The congresswoman’s name.

She walked back toward the edge of the stage, waving and soaking up the adulation.

Yes, Sarah, come a little closer.

Fathi fully felt a sense of calm as peacefulness spread over him.

Looking to the heavens, he screamed, “Allahu akbar!” at the top of his lungs.

The officers behind him swung their heads toward him, panic on their faces.

The officer on the ground leapt up, diving toward Fathi, but it was too late.

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