“It was terrifying. It was terrifying.
The scream of Inanna was terrifying.
The maiden Inanna’s scream drew nigh Heaven,
The scream drew nigh Earth,
Heaven and Earth it covered like a blanket,
Draped like a cloth.
Who was there could speak to Holy Inanna?”
-The Epic of Bilgamesh
Sumer, Circa 2000 B.C.E.
The woman let her eyes skim the messages in the Church of the Divinely Redeemed Sisterhood’s chat room. The message tonight was an inspiring one, full of the kind of pithy homilies that appealed to those looking for answers. Inspirational with just the right undertone of disquiet, designed to stir the psyches of the many thousands of followers she had carefully cultivated and nurtured. Inanna had spent many months and countless hours reinforcing her disciples with her exhortations and remonstrations and pleas for support.
And she had gotten it.
Not only was she the titular head of the Church of the Divinely Redeemed Sisterhood, Inanna Laius was also the very public face of the movement. Her weekly worship services had grown from modest gatherings to enthusiastic services that regularly attracted thousands of women. The services were also simulcast and streamed nationally via the internet, garnering even more followers worldwide.
Women were following her exploits daily, hungrily devouring every public utterance. Known to most of her followers simply as Sister Inanna, women from all walks of life found her messages inspiring, speaking to the feminine experience. Her social media accounts were some of the most heavily trafficked in the world, bringing her countless new converts with each passing day. She was a media darling, alluring, not only in the physical sense, but due to her messages and her calculatingly demure persona.
Traditional and electronic media outlets were diligent in featuring her prominently on their covers, their splash pages and crawling bulletins at the bottom of television screens. Pundits of every stripe found her irresistible and tried their best to outdo each other in fawning over her at every opportunity.
Still, she carefully downplayed all of the fervor exhibited by the media, which made her all the more desirable to them. They spent precious little time attempting to find chinks in her armor, instead finding ways to boost her and further enhance her image. Every aspect of her carefully-crafted identity was broadcast with little or no fact-checking because she was just so… sincere.
Her timing had been impeccable. She had risen from obscurity on the heels of the #MeToo Movement and other headline-grabbing events. Her rise was attributed primarily to her giving voice to the need for the positive social and spiritual empowerment of women. Women were drawn to her messages, which spoke to most of them on some deep, elemental level. Even those who hadn’t been overtly wronged were drawn by her messages of uplifting hope and courage in the face of the patriarchal world’s slights – real and perceived.
It was the perfect mix of fissionable material, and when she was ready, she would trigger it. For now, she was content to bask in the glory of adulation and quasi-religious zeal.
Smiling, she continued to scan the impassioned outpouring of raw emotion through the internet. “Be patient, my Sisters. The Day of Cleansing is coming…”
Two bullets bit into the concrete abutment that Flint and his partner, Cho-Soon Jeong, had pressed themselves against. Not an ideal location, but the pillar gave them at least some protection from the gunshots that kept them pinned down. The good news was that it was nighttime, and with the light limited to the pallid glow from temporary construction site lighting, their adversaries couldn’t pinpoint where they were. The bad news was the same was true for them.
Flint took a deep breath and attempted to peer around the corner. Four more shots barked as their assailants did their best to decrease their number by at least one. He had to give them credit: They were a sharp-eyed bunch in low light situations.
“We can’t hide here much longer, CJ,” Flint said quietly. “We’re hemmed in by the security fence with no way out. There’s four of them by my count, and pretty soon they’ll be trying to ambush us from all open sides if they’re not moving into position already.”
CJ huffed a lock of raven hair out of her face as she tried to somehow meld herself into the concrete. The moon passed through the clouds, momentarily allowing Flint to see her face out of the shadows. Her brows were knit in anxiety. “I figured that,” she hissed. “Do you have any ideas on how we can get out of this?”
He turned and grinned at her. “Actually, I do. But you’re gonna have to trust me on this one.”
CJ looked at Flint dubiously and muttered, “No way – absolutely no way, Flint. I always regret it when you say trust me.”
“Seriously, CJ, this is a great idea. Believe me, this will work.”
CJ rolled her eyes before fixing Flint with a stony stare, “Let’s hear it. Quick.”
* * *
Arkady Ivanova strained to hear the whistle signal from the three men who were moving stealthily into place to surround Stryker and the female agent Jeong. They were all moving quietly to position themselves to catch the two in an ambush.
They had surprised Flint and CJ as they were attempting to break into the on-site construction offices of Cermak Construction. Although Ivanova had no idea who the two were, the fact that they were attempting a break in after-hours meant they were up to no good. Cermak was a shell company owned by Tesar Arman, a shadowy underworld figure associated with the Russian Mafia, and loosely affiliated with numerous global terror organizations.
Cermak provided excellent cover for various money-laundering schemes facilitated by Arman and allowed him to do so under the plausible guise of operating a respectable business. When enough money flowed to the right individuals, it was relatively easy to operate just under the radar of the bureaucratic and legal system.
Moreover, Arman had plenty of former Spetsnaz agents like Ivanova on his payroll who were only too glad for the opportunity to make more money in a year working for him than in their previous occupations. All they needed to do was exactly what he required of them, no questions asked. It usually involved collecting protection payments and applying just the right amount of muscle when it was required. Other times it required killing and disposal of evidence. Today might prove to be one of those times.
Ivanova listened for the signal as the other agents moved into place. The construction site was for an underpass and exit ramp in the greater metropolitan area of Atlanta, Georgia. Additionally, there was a lot of renovation and new construction in the area, which afforded many places to hide and seek cover. Construction equipment and supplies provided by other shell companies were scattered throughout the site. It was often stolen and re-sold at a tremendous additional profit, which necessitated additional equipment purchases. It was just the sort of boondoggle that corrupt local politicians loved, and provided an excellent opportunity to line the pockets of all involved. Ivanova grinned. It had certainly been good to him.
He refocused. He’d better get his mind back to the problem at hand. Who were these two? Why would they be breaking into the construction offices of Cermak? What were they looking for? Ivanova puzzled that last one through and kept both hands on his Sig Sauer P320 as he crept steadily toward the ambush.
They’d do everything they could to take them alive. It might mean a bonus if they were able to get these two to Arman’s bodyguard, Hadeon Savchenko, for questioning.
Ivanova shuddered briefly, thinking of Savchenko. The guy was a pig – more of a disgusting brute than a man. Ivanova was no saint; he had done his share of gruesome things, but watching Savchenko question prisoners was more of a horror show than an interrogation. He shuddered again, mentally recoiling at the recollection.
Perhaps shooting these two dead on a construction site was a more merciful act than it sounded.
One of the other men gave a low whistle, which meant they were in place. The plan called for one of the other men to throw a stun grenade where the two agents were hiding, hopefully disorienting them long enough to take them into custody. Ivanova returned the low whistle, which was the signal to deploy the flashbang and attempt to subdue them.
Turning away, and covering his ears, he nonetheless heard the muffled sound of the loud bang, the bright flash muted by his scrunched eyelids. He gave himself a three-count before moving clear of the cover and aiming his gun at…
Aside from the other three goons standing with their guns at the ready looking at a plume of rapidly dissipating smoke, there was no one there.