Minute Zero: Prologue
A sneak peak into Todd Moss’s latest thriller in the Judd Ryker series about a professor inside the State Department’s Crisis Reaction Unit.
September 19, 2015
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
Wednesday, 5.52pm Central African Time (CAT)
Before he saw the smoke, he heard the thunder. His ears hummed with white noise, the infinite, deafening rumble of the Zambezi River. It would also be the very last sound he heard.
The man, in his late twenties, was obviously American. His thick designer glasses, white socks, and neon-yellow running shoes gave him away to the German and Chinese tourists. He was also easily spotted by others watching him across the hotel lobby.
The American felt a twinge of adrenaline as he departed the colonial-era hotel to meet his contact. He had just gotten off the phone with his girlfriend back in Michigan, who had playfully peppered him with too many questions about his latest trip to Africa.
“Isn’t it dangerous?” she had asked with a giggle. The American exposed nothing classified, of course. But he told her just enough to hint that what he was doing was secret. And critical to national security.
Satisfied that he had projected a residue of intrigue without compromising the mission, his face flushed as he imagined his triumphant return to Detroit and another passionate reunion.
After his last overseas trip, his girlfriend had greeted him wearing only a raincoat and a mischievous grin.
“Hello, Mister Bond,” she had purred.
A loud “Good evening, saah!” snapped his mind back to Zimbabwe. The doorman was wearing a nineteenth-century British military uniform, an oversized ostrich feather on his hat. Both men averted their eyes, the Zimbabwean out of deferential habit, the American out of awkward embarrassment.
The American hurriedly descended the grand steps, dodged a pack of aggressive taxi drivers, and veered through a garden of Jacaranda trees and a finely clipped lawn.
As he crossed the line at the end of the hotel’s private property, the ground turned abruptly from lush green to parched brown. Among the unkempt scrub grass, he noticed burn marks where someone must have been setting fires.
The man’s stride quickened and his heartbeat accelerated as his body prepared itself for the encounter. The rumbling of the falls grew louder, and eventually, the noise blocked out all other sounds.
A light mist cooled his skin, reminding him of his summers spent at the lake. He suddenly found himself amidst an oasis, a tiny rainforest living off the permanent cloud of the great roaring waterfall.
The American regained his bearings as he arrived at a stone patio marking the scenic overlook. A plaque shared key details of what stood before him. Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, was a sheet of water over a mile wide and 354 feet high formed by the Zambezi River plunging over an escarpment.
The vapor rose more than a thousand feet in the air. The locals called it mosi-oa-tunya in the Tonga language or the smoke that thunders, and in 1855 Dr. David Livingstone had named it in honor of his queen.
No time for ancient history, he thought. The American placed both hands on the railing along the cliff’s edge and peered into the haze. His glasses immediately fogged. Just then, sharply on time, an older dark-skinned man with a grey beard and a black business suit gripped the railing beside him. Without making eye contact, the African spoke.
“My brother, all this smoke. I need to quit smoking.”
“What is your brand of cigarette?” asked the American.
The American nodded. “Where’s my dossier?”
“First, the gift.”
The American glanced over both shoulders and then eyed his contact. After a hesitation, he reached into his jacket and withdrew an envelope. It quickly disappeared into the old man’s pocket. “We walk.”
“That’s not the deal,” said the American, grabbing other man’s forearm. “Give me the dossier or I am leaving. With my money.”
“No. Too many eyes here,” he said. “Not safe.” He pulled away from the American’s grip and dialed a number on a cheap flip phone. In short bursts, he whispered, “The Marlboro man is here. We are on our way.” He snapped the phone closed, and grabbed the American’s hand. “This way, my brother.”
Silently the two men walked down another path toward the bridge spanning the 650-foot gorge between Zimbabwe and neighboring Zambia. The bridge had been built to signal friendship between the two allies, but instead, it provided a constant reminder of the stark trajectories of the two countries.
Two nations, two anchors of the British Empire in Africa. Zambia had been granted independence in 1964 and Zimbabwe, then called Rhodesia, was supposed to have been next, but white settlers pre-empted London and declared Rhodesia independent.
As Zimbabwe descended into a long and nasty civil war, Zambia basked in the confidence of a new nation, even allowing guerillas to use its territory to fight the Rhodesians and the South African apartheid juggernaut.
In 1980, the Rhodesian war ended and Zimbabwe gained its own independence, but by this time, Zambia had slumped into a morass of corruption and debt. Zimbabwe was the new hope.
Two decades later, the tide had turned again. Zambia was back on the rise, while Zimbabwe was rotting. As the young American stepped onto the Victoria Falls Bridge, Zimbabwe was poisoning itself with a toxic cocktail of greed, dictatorship, and fear.
At that moment, however, the American wasn’t thinking about that. After a few steps, he stopped. “I…I…I don’t like this. I’m going back.” He peered over the railing, scanning for crocodiles 400 feet below.
“My brother, it is up to you.” The African hid his impatience. “You have come all this way. The choice is yours.”
Shit, the old man was right. The American had spent most of the past eight months working toward this moment. All the hours spent digging into files, all the late nights tracking bank records, the long hot days taking testimony in a sweaty thatched hut.
He was now so close. Success depended on the final piece, the dossier. Success and a big promotion.
“Let’s do it,” he said, pointing at his contact’s chest. “But if you fuck me, you and your boss are dead.”
The old man laughed, not the reaction the American had expected. “There is no need for that, my brother.”
“Dead meat,” the American muttered under his breath.
The two strode across the bridge, passing a Swedish couple holding hands and a young Zimbabwean family. Most of the other tourists had retreated to their hotels for a sundowner — gin-and-tonics were still popular among certain crowds in this part of the world — and an early dinner of plate-sized steaks.
Two middle-aged African men, also in suits, approached from the opposite side of the bridge. One was holding a legal-sized manila envelope. The four men met at the very center, the border, the highest point.
The American accepted the envelope in silence, turning his back to the others to open it and claim his prize. The cover page was a fuzzy black-and-white photocopy of an Ethiopian passport. So far so good. The next page was blank, and the next, and the next. He scrunched his forehead as anger rose within him.
“What the fuck…” He twisted his body to turn back, but strong hands grabbed his arms and his ankles and lifted him high up over the railing. “No, no, nooooo….”
As he fell, his mind raced with thoughts of his mother, his little brown dachshund Alfredo, his messy loft apartment, his girlfriend’s laugh, his unfinished, incomplete life.
The white noise of Victoria Falls filled his ears, and 5.2 seconds later, was replaced by total silence and a bright white light as the American’s skull cracked on the rocks of the mighty Zambezi River.
The old man peered over the bridge railing and watched the body hit.
“Dead meat, my brother.”
Four hundred miles to the east, in a highbrow suburb of Zimbabwe’s capital city, Solomon Zagwe sat alone in the garden courtyard of his villa.
A light breeze was keeping him cool and the light of the setting sun turned the Jacaranda trees a bright purple. But Ethiopia’s former President and Supreme General didn’t notice any of his surroundings.
“Now. I need the money now,” he said, squeezing the phone tightly and clenching his jaw. Zagwe was concentrating on controlling his temper.
He knew that he had to convey the necessity of an accelerated timetable without revealing any vulnerability. If the man on the other end of the line knew his true predicament, it would cost him more money. “Let us agree today, Max,” he said.
The line went dead.
“Ah, dedabe,” he swore to himself in Amharic, slamming down the cell phone. A few seconds later, his phone buzzed and he quickly answered. “My apologies. No names. I won’t use names on the phone again.”
A servant boy in an all-white uniform entered the garden, carrying a polished silver tray holding a pot of coffee, a plate of small triangular sandwiches, and a single orchid in a glass vase. Zagwe scowled and shooed him away with a dismissive wave of the hand.
“I understand time is short,” Zagwe whispered, once the boy was gone. “If it was up to me, I would say very well. But my partners, they are difficult. They need the shipment now. This is not like it used to be with our Saudi friends. These people are impatient. It has to be now, even if it is a smaller package than usual…good… good.”
Zagwe’s shoulders relaxed. “No, there are no troubles,” he said. “Victoria Falls went well.” He laughed. “The mosquito buzzing in our ears has been taken care of it. No more buzz. It has been crushed.”
Editor’s Note: Excerpted from Minute Zero, (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, September 2015)
As Zimbabwe descended into a nasty civil war, Zambia basked in the confidence of a new nation.
Zimbabwe was poisoning itself with a toxic cocktail of greed, dictatorship, and fear.
The white noise of Victoria Falls filled his ears, and 5.2 seconds later, was replaced by total silence.