Can Sonia help the country she loves?
At eighteen, she escaped. Sonia had a dream. After med-school, a career in the army as a doctor and professor, she wanted to help the country she left behind and dearly loved. Could a terrorist’s daughter mend the wounds her father left on their people?
The CIA thinks she can.
Will this mission be too much?
With a command of the language, an understanding of the terrain, and her medical skills, she’s the perfect operative. The U.S. military and World Health Organization want to rebuild a hospital destroyed by ISIS. That’s her mission.
But Aleppo is a dangerous place…
…and she’s being watched.
You’ll love this medical thriller, because the mix of armed conflict, brutality, hatred, love, and hope make for a undeniable page turner. You won’t want to put it down.
Get it now.
Release date: November 7, 2019
Publisher: Bluestone Valley Publishing
Print pages: 168
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I jumped from my bed and crouched on the floor; my arms folded around my head like fragile armor. My eyes frantically searched the dark for my enemy.
Finally, I saw it. I saw the apparition of the monster! His cruel eyes shone black with hate. I waited, my breath ragged. The noise echoed in my room. My body quivered with fear and anticipation. Terror consumed my soul, and panic shot through my body as I waited for it to begin. My heart thudded against my ribcage, my lungs burned from not breathing, and I placed my hand on my chest to keep my heart from exploding. I didn’t want to be discovered. I was terrified I would be. I closed my eyes in terror.
A sharp noise — the slap! The reverberating smack echoed in the room. My face dug into the floor as I tried to escape the sound of my enemy. My mind emptied of all conscious thought as my sympathetic nervous system took over and readied me for action.
A second blow and a cry of pain. I heard bones crack. I shook like a leaf. A thousand eyes watched me. They observed my every move. I was frightened; as frightened and panicked as I’d been years ago when I was three years old. That slap and the cracked bones shattered my life forever over thirty years ago.
I felt a wisp of air pass as a large hand sliced through the air and separated the molecules. Another slap! I heard the bones crack. The victim whimpered. The sob eased into a quiet moan.
I opened one eye and peeked. My mother, crumpled like a broken doll, cried softly on the floor near me. Her breathing sounded funny. Her cheeks glistened with blood and tears, and her broken nose destroyed the symmetry of her beautiful face. Radcliff-educated, Melody Fitzpatrick, the daughter of an American diplomat, was a mass of crumpled flesh, blood, and bones. I closed my eyes at the sight. My mother had fallen in love with the monster who now assaulted her body and mind, blinded by the love that only comes once in a lifetime.
Of course, he wasn’t a monster when my mother married him – that came later, when he became a jihadi terrorist, filled with hate for all things Western, including his devoted wife.
I lay helpless for an eternity. I felt the sweat dry and evaporate from my body. When I opened my eyes, it was dawn. I was at home, in my townhome, safe and sound on the outskirts of Washington DC. I was safe.
At least for now.
I pulled my brand-new dark green Volvo Cross-County into my assigned spot at the Army War College in Bethesda, Maryland. I loved the vehicle and was proud to own it. I’d just retired from active duty in the United States Army serving twenty years as an Army physician. After three months of full-time retirement, I’d figured out I had too much time on my hands. I didn’t know how to cope with extra time, although my mother and her friends had kept me busy buying and furnishing a townhome close to Walter Reed Army hospital where I was a staff physician. I had also taken the time to hang out with Tessa, a Belgian Malinois, my retired war dog. Tessa had accompanied me on dozens of trips to the Middle East on official army business. Most of the time though, we’d both been working. I’d been gathering intel while Tessa sniffed out the bad stuff. My hero war dog had saved thousands of American lives by sniffing out IEDs and dirty bombs.
Now, she traveled to work with me each day, made rounds with me as I visited my patients in the hospital, and laid on a rug next to my teaching lectern when I taught at the Army War College. In a sense, we were both happily retired.
I raced to my office and smiled at my personal administrative assistant. Frances was a tall woman, fiftyish, with iron-gray hair that she wore up in a bun every day.
The defining word for Frances was “prim.” She met the definition of straight-laced in every puritanical way. Her shoes were army issue and manly. She wore a white blouse with a circle pin attached to the round collar and a dark colored skirt every day. On cold days, she added a sweater to her austere outfit. On a special occasion, like a meeting with the brass and higher-ups, she added a colorful scarf to her attire and perhaps a pair of tiny earrings. Her earrings were almost always pearls, but on special occasions like my retirement party, she’d worn little blue stones. Frances’ wardrobe offered few, if any, changes week after week. Nevertheless, she was a huge asset to me. She was efficient, dependable, and trust-worthy.
Her organizational skills extended far beyond those written in her job description — she kept me straight and made sure I attended all the meetings for the physician group faculty and war college professors. But, Frances’ most incredible asset was her longevity in her job at the Army War College and her knowledge of the agency’s history and culture. She knew everyone — plus she knew everything about everyone — present, past, and future. She had an incredibly well-honed intuition that let her read people and their thoughts. Her insight was so uncanny, it sometimes made me nervous, and I had to beg her to stop.
Most of all, Frances was loyal, and her devotion to me was absolute. I loved her for that.
Frances stood and gave me a curt smile as I walked into her office. “Good morning, Dr. Amon. May I get you some coffee?”
I flashed her a grin. “Frances, for the millionth time, please call me Sonia. If you don’t, I’m gonna start calling you Franny Thomas. How’d you like that?”
Frances’ eyes flashed disapproval. She didn’t approve of casual banter. “I don’t like that at all, Dr. Amon.” Her voice was serious, her tone condemning, and her face displayed her displeasure.
I touched her shoulder. “I’m just teasing you, Frances. You know that.”
Frances offered a half smile. “Yes, I suppose I do, Dr. Amon. I need to get used to your sense of humor. I’ve worked here for thirty-five years, and there has been little foolishness or humor associated with the Army War College or Walter Reed Hospital during my tenure.”
I rolled my eyes and nodded. As much as I hated to admit it, she was correct. “Yes, I know. We’ll need to change that in our little part of the world,” I suggested. “Life is too hard not to have fun sometimes.”
Frances took a deep breath and picked up her clipboard. “Well, you’re wanted down in the main conference room on the third floor. It’s the joint task force committee that overlooks the health of the Middle East, specifically Syria, as it relates to our troops and Syrian citizens. Here’s your agenda.”
As I took the two-page document from Frances, I noticed how closely clipped she kept her fingernails and how they mirrored her no-nonsense approach to life. I smiled when I saw she’d highlighted the agenda items that pertained to my mission and me. Public health was among them.
I continued to study the agenda as I left my office at the Army War College where I taught management and military science. It was not public knowledge, but the CIA owned part of me as well. My father was Syrian, and I was tall with dark eyes and long coppery-brown hair. I knew I could easily pass for an Arab woman because I had done it many times.
Before I retired from the United States Army three months ago, my specialty was working small, black ops missions, particularly in search of chemical and biological weapons. During my twenty years of service, I fought as a soldier, healed as a physician, and stole secrets as a covert spy.
I impatiently punched the elevator buttons repeatedly, wishing the cumbersome car would appear. When the doors opened, I jumped in the elevator, grateful I was the only person on it. I pressed three and held my breath as the iron monster slowly descended four floors. I rushed down the blue-carpeted hallway and arrived at my meeting just in time.
A tall Indian man stood. “Good afternoon, Dr. Amon. Welcome to our task force meeting. I’m Dr. Batak Basheer with the World Health Organization, and I’m in charge of this committee. I received notice a few weeks ago that you’d officially been assigned to all health matters — military and civilian — as they pertain to the Middle East region.” The man smiled gently as he looked into my eyes.
I smiled. “Yes, yes, I knew that, and I’m honored to be on this task force. But, let me say, the entire Middle East is a large assignment.”
Dr. Basheer smiled pleasantly. “Yeah, yes, it is. I understand you’ve spent time in the Middle East and more specifically, Syria.” He raised his dark bushy eyebrows and scrutinized me. He reminded me of the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland.
I smiled. “Yes, I was born in Syria. I’ve spent quite a bit of time on the ground there as well.” I paused and flashed a smile as other physicians and military members entered and sat down at the table, then I continued, “And also on the ground in many parts of the Middle East, both as an Army physician and as a child.”
“You were born in Syria?” Dr. Basheer questioned as his eyebrows crawled even closer together.
“Yes, I was.” I saw a few looks of confusion on my colleague’s faces. The initial group had been joined by several others. “You see, my mother worked for the State Department, and her father was assigned to the Embassy in Turkey. At any rate, she met my father, they fell in love and married. Later, they divorced, and I lived in various parts of the Middle East until I was eighteen years old.” I’d given the committee the shorthand version. After all, I wasn’t up for exposing the dirty family laundry on the first day.
“Oh my, what a wonderfully romantic story,” exclaimed a woman with the deepest shade of claret lipstick I’d ever seen. “I just love a romance!” She stood, came over, and offered me her hand. “I’m Dr. Carmen DeQuentez, and I’m from the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. I’m delighted to meet you.”
I held my hand out to Carmen and immediately decided I liked her warmth, vitality, and the honest look in her eyes. She was quite beautiful. I knew that one day I’d have to tell her my parents’ marriage was a love-tinged tragedy, and certainly not a love story. But today wasn’t the day. In the meantime, I decided to keep quiet and study these people I’d be working with. “Thank you, Carmen,” I said simply.
Dr. Basheer continued with introductions. “Dr. Amon, this is Dr. el Syed, the Iraqi health minister from Iraq, and Dr. Agnosio, the health minister from Italy.”
Dr. Agnosio was a short, stocky, distinguished-looking man with salt and pepper hair. I smiled a greeting, and he flirted with me with his dark eyes. Dr. el Syed and I exchanged platonic pleasantries.
“Lastly, Dr. Amon,” Dr. Basheer said, “this is Mr. Jeff Hansen, who works with the State Department in the Middle East. He’s a specialist on all things Middle Eastern.”
I smiled at Jeff who winked at me. I’d known Jeff for years. He was the CIA handler who’d kept me alive and out of trouble as best he could for close to twenty years. I grinned at Jeff, and he gave me a secret smile and nodded.
“Pleased to meet you, Dr. Amon.” Jeff greeted me with a coy smile. Jeff was handsome, over six feet tall with amazing hazel eyes, and was one of my dearest friends.
“Coffee?” Carmen asked as she headed toward the snack table against the far wall.
“That’d be great,” I said. “Two sugars, please.” One of the committee members looked down at Tessa. “Oh, by the way, this is Tessa. She’s my retired war dog, and she has saved hundreds of lives — military and civilian. I’ve adopted her.
We’ve made dozens of trips to the Middle East together, and she goes everywhere I go. We’re inseparable.” I leaned down and petted my beloved dog.
Dr. Basheer rubbed Tessa’s ears. “Ah, a very fine partner indeed, Dr. Amon.” He gave me a quizzical look. “Doesn’t ‘Sonia’ mean ‘wisdom’ in Syrian culture?”
I nodded, pleased for some reason. I liked him. “Yes, Dr. Basheer, it does, and Amon means ‘a good person.’ It’s hard to live up to the moniker of a ‘wise, good person’ but I do my best!” I smiled as my face reddened with embarrassment. My madly in love parents had named me before my father became radicalized and tried to kill my mother.
“Well, I already think you’re a wise, good person, Sonia.” Carmen smiled at me. She had perfect, strong white teeth and beautiful long, shiny dark hair. “You’ve given me no reason to consider otherwise. Now, I suppose we should get to work.”
Carmen led me to a chair next to hers as Tessa moved into the corner of the room to take a nap. A moment later, Carmen introduced me to a late comer to the meeting. Dr. Betty Ballowe was a tall blonde and the WHO representative for Syria. She smiled at me as I watched Dr. Basheer walk toward the podium.
“My colleagues, as you know, many parts of the Middle East are in a full-scale health crisis. Today, we’ll address Syria. War-torn Syria is a mess, and a health-care nightmare, just like other parts of the Middle East. Between the bombs and bullets, this poor country faces other growing threats, particularly disease outbreaks. Infections are rapidly mounting, and outbreaks are inevitable.” Dr. Basheer’s eyebrows arched in concern.
“Have there been any outbreaks?” Dr. Agnosio asked.
Dr. Basheer shook his head. “Fortunately, no, but there could be any day. The other concerns are, of course, the caches of biological and chemical weapons we’re sure are there. Based on current knowledge and the duration of Syria’s longstanding biological warfare program, we believe, both at the World Health Organization and at NATO, that some elements of the program may have advanced beyond the research and development stage. We think Syria may be capable of producing biological weapons.”
The audience gasped.
Syria was able to produce chemical weapons. I shivered. I didn’t know Syria had that capability. That scared me to death. I looked at Jeff, and he nodded slightly.
“You think Syria is prepared to release a biological weapon? I know they’ve released chemical weapons.” Carmen’s face paled and I could have sworn her lipstick did too. “Since when?” She paused then asked, “And who would release them? The government? ISIS?”
Basheer shook his head. “We don’t know. Maybe both. Nevertheless, we need to be prepared to meet a crisis such as this head on.”
He turned and looked at me as though I was supposed to single-handedly stop a biological or chemical weapons attack. My anxiety escalated.
I raised my hand. “Dr. Basheer, I didn’t know Syria had successfully weaponized any biological agents.”
Dr. Basheer shook his head. “You are correct, Dr. Amon. It’s not known if Syria has successfully weaponized biological agents for an effective delivery system, but Syria does possess conventional and chemical weapon systems that could be modified for biological agent use. We need to be cognizant of that, as part of the work of this task force is to anticipate catastrophic events and respond to them.”
I nodded as panic seized me. I remembered my childhood home, just fifteen minutes outside of Aleppo, in a beautiful area with shade trees, a swing set, toys, and pets. I’d had my very own playhouse on the second story of the barn where I had a day bed and all my toys. My mother and I used to play there together in my playroom every day. My nanna, my mother’s helper, played with me too. The barn at my father’s compound was special. If my father hadn’t become a monster, my childhood would have been almost perfect. I wondered if my father had stockpiled chemical weapons back then and stored them in his barn.
“In addition to the concern for biological weapons, we must remember that all the risk factors that enhance the transmission of communicable diseases are present in Syria and throughout the Middle East as well,” said Dr. Agnosio. “It’s the perfect storm over there for a catastrophic outbreak event of epic proportion.”
I saw a muscle in his jaw clench. He was handsome in many ways as were most Italian men. But his words were dire. I shivered again and rubbed the chill bumps off my arms. Syria could be the root cause of a worldwide epidemic of any number of diseases that would escalate in the Middle East and spread to the rest of the world. Yes, that was entirely possible.
My heart rate accelerated, and my jaw clenched, but I managed to speak. “Yes, when we consider population movement both inside Syria and across borders, together with poor and deteriorating environmental health conditions, outbreaks are inevitable.” I rubbed away more chill bumps. Everyone’s eyes were on me. As the newbie on the committee, they were testing me.
“When were you last in Syria, Dr. Amon?” Dr. Basheer asked.
“I was there six months ago, shortly before my retirement from active duty and the public health systems had already collapsed.” After a short pause, I added, “I think it’s important that we remember the Middle East is not homogeneous.
Countries, governments, and religions are as varied as the terrain. The different ethnicities cross national boundaries, and, of course, there are tribal considerations that vary from country to country. Countries are different, the terrain varies, governments are different, and religions are viewed differently.
There are also so many different ethnicities that cross national boundaries and of course, there are tribal considerations that vary from country to country. We must be cognizant of that as we move toward rebuilding the health systems there. Things differ from the GCC countries through Iraq to Syria and Jordan.”
“Good points, Dr. Amon. I read last week that vaccination rates have plummeted and almost half of the hospitals are closed. Many of the health care workers have gone to the front or have been killed by Assad’s men,” Dr. DeQuentez added.
“This is all true,” Dr. el Syed added in a quiet voice. “Plus, there is a concern that a new SARS-related virus has a perfect breeding ground in Iraq and Syria.”
Jeff Hansen spoke up. “Regions in parts of Syria are unstable, and leadership is unreliable. Your very worst nightmare could happen there at any time.”
I nodded and added, “More than four million internally displaced Syrians are living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.”
Dr. Betsy Ballowe intervened. “Dr. Amon is correct. Even at the less crowded refugee shelters, one toilet is being shared by fifty to seventy people.” Her voice conveyed distress, and she paused a moment to sweep her long blonde hair behind her ears before she continued. “And the ratio of one toilet to seventy people is in a good area, such as Damascus.” She paused to make her point. “In other areas of the country, it is much worse. Disease is spreading, and the death toll is rising. We must get in there quickly and do something!”
Dr. Basheer nodded; his face solemn as he made notes on his yellow legal pad. “What else do you know, Dr. Ballowe? I haven’t been to Syria for several years.”
I held my breath. I dreaded the answer. There were parts of my homeland where I hadn’t been since I was a child.
“That’s the gist of it, Dr. Basheer. The region is ripe for catastrophic outbreaks of diseases due to lack of vaccinations and unsanitary conditions.” Dr. Ballowe made notes inside a gold-covered pad.
I stood and spoke. “What Dr. Ballowe has said has already happened. Syria has seen a resurgence of measles, mumps, chickenpox, and other childhood diseases that were formerly eradicated. Since the war, the vaccination programs have disbanded, and vaccination rates have plummeted. The fear of terrorism is high. Mothers and infants have been murdered on their way to get vaccinations,”
I said even though it sickened my stomach. “War against soldiers is one thing, but war against women, elders, and children is quite another.” My pulse quickened as I thought about Muslim extremists murdering women and children on their way to the clinic to get a polio vaccine. I clenched my hands. I hated to feel helpless, and yet I’d felt helpless for a large part of my life.
From the podium, Dr. Basheer added, “Efforts to implement emergency vaccination campaigns have failed due to the terrorists. Syria was free of measles five years ago, but this year there have already been over five hundred cases.” He sighed. “All in all, communicable disease is rising, especially in the refugee camps that are all over Syria and Iraq.”
Dr. Agnosio tapped his pencil against the table, and a flush of anger reddened his face. “Given the scale of population movement, both inside Syria and across borders, together with deteriorating environmental health conditions, outbreaks are inevitable.”
I responded as calmly as I could. “We can only expect them to become worse. I find the new SARS-related virus that’s emerged in Syria in the past year or so to be particularly troubling.” I studied the faces around the table and realized I wasn’t calming anybody. Tessa, asleep in the corner, was the only calm one.
Dr. Agnosio grimaced and stroked his short beard. “Yes, I agree. Syria has become a perfect breeding ground for epidemics of all kinds that will spread globally.”
“What should we do?” I asked. “We must have a plan. What is the state of the public hospitals in the country?” It was clear that I had my work cut out for me.
Dr. Ballowe shook her head. “Not good. The World Health Organization estimates at least thirty-five percent of public hospitals are closed. In some areas, up to seventy percent of health workers have fled due to threats from the terrorists or to protect their own families. There is very little, if any, public or acute health care in the country for citizens.”
“So, what we have are more than four million internally-displaced Syrians that are living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions,” Dr. Basheer added. “We must rebuild the public health system and send in medical people to organize immunization and basic medical-care clinics.”
“I believe the United States military and our allies can help with that goal,” Jeff suggested. “The State Department is concerned about public health in the Middle East, primarily Syria and Iraq, and is happy to offer assistance.”
I smiled at Jeff. I knew he wanted me to go to Syria and help open medical clinics. We’d already spoken about it, and I was ready to leave any time.
Dr. Basheer nodded. “Thank you, Mr. Hansen. We’ve asked NATO to provide Humanitarian Aid and requested U.S. help to rebuild the health systems in Syria and Iraq. In the meantime, I’ll look for opportunities to quickly assemble a few simple medical clinics that will offer immunizations and basic medical care.”
I nodded. “Why don’t I work with Dr. Ballowe, and we can decide which areas have the most need and where we should build the first few clinics. Perhaps Mr. Hansen can help us coordinate that with the military organizations currently peacekeeping in these two countries.” I was breathless, but to establish a basic public health system in the country of my birth was a humbling opportunity for me. I needed to do it!
Jeff grinned at me and shook his head. I’d said exactly what he’d planned for me to say. I knew I was going to Syria in the next few months. Jeff and I worked well together. We’d gathered large amounts of covert information and Intel over the years. I was sure we’d continue to collect some intel, even in my retirement.
He gave me a thumbs up.
A shiver ran through me. I was always afraid in Syria because my father was Faisal Muhammed, widely considered a mass murderer by most of the free world. He was second in command of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. He hated me because I’d escaped him. But then, sometimes I think he loved me too. There was no question that he was a conflicted man, but to me it was simple. He was a monster.
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