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Morocco - Present Day

The afternoon market in Rabat, Morocco was crowded and busy. Locals dressed in traditional flowing robes and scarves mingled with more modern citizens in jeans and t-shirts, along with gawking American tourists and brazen sellers shouting their wares. The harsh sun beat down on the city, without a breath of wind or a single cloud in the sky. Moroccan Chaabi music drifted across the crowd from speakers at one of the vendor booths, almost drowned out by the loud hum of people talking.

An old woman sat against a crumbling portion of wall near the market, just inside a grassy area surrounded in a waist-high stone wall. She wore a long, tattered maroon robe with the hood up, obscuring her face. She robe was dusty and ragged at the hem, and was so long it covered her feet. She glanced up as people walked past, her eyes peering out from underneath the hood, her face hidden in shadow.

She reached into the hood and touched her ear. Then suddenly, she got up and brushed dust from her backside. She placed her hand on the edge of the wall and carefully looked out into the crowd. A group of Moroccan teenagers ran past her, laughing.

"Hey grandma, you need help?" one of the kids said in Arabic.

The old woman waved the kids away. "No, no, I'm fine," she replied, also in Arabic.

She proceeded to walk out into the bustling crowd, picking and weaving her way through the mass of bodies like a running back dodging through a defensive line. She skipped across the hot cobblestones as the edge of her robe swished behind her. People barely noticed her as she brushed by them. Her face remained hidden by the hood the entire time.

She ducked down an adjacent alleyway and scurried past crates and baskets lined up along the faded walls, marked with narrow doorways and tiny windows. The woman reached up and touched her ear again, then quickly increased her pace.

She emerged into an open street lined with small houses and open coffee shops, and cafés with white metal chairs and tables out on the sidewalk. The street was narrow and paved in brown stone. More tourists sat and enjoyed their drinks, while locals walked up and down the sidewalk. A few of them glanced in the old woman's direction, but paid her no heed.

Parts of Morocco featured ancient buildings and Berber homes that looked like the pueblo villages found in the southeastern United States. But this neighborhood was more modern, and the buildings were all tan or white with sloped roofs and gables, with tiny front yards enclosed by metal fences. The buildings along the same side of the street as the café were loft apartments, three stories tall with little square windows. The taller buildings cut a shadow down across the street, and the café customers got to sit in the shade.

The old woman peered out from underneath her hood and saw a pair of Arabic men wearing business suits standing at the corner, one of them reading a newspaper. The other looked over his shoulder. A tiny white earpiece was visible, tucked into his ear, the wire wrapped over his ear and then down under his collar.

There was a small blue van parked nearby. A man wearing a long gray robe had the back doors open and was taking out small crates of fruit and vegetables. He stacked them on the sidewalk and glanced around casually. An American couple walked down the street, looking up at the buildings and snapping photos with a digital camera. The man wore a blue t-shirt and khakis, while the woman wore a white sun dress and a wide-brimmed hat to block the sun.

There were always tourists in Morocco. It was one of the strongest allies the United States had in the entire Arab world, and certainly the oldest. Morocco had been the very first country to recognize the United States as a nation, all the way back in 1777, and their friendly treaty with the US was the oldest treaty in US history. In spite of this old alliance (or perhaps because of it), Morocco was a target for violence by Islamic terrorists, and had been the location of suicide bombings in 2003 and 2007.

The old woman folded her arms into her wide sleeves and continued down the street, which curved to the left as it went uphill. On the right side of the street there was a row of houses and a government building at the end of the street, surrounded by a tall metal fence. Two more Arabic men wearing traditional colored robes walked down the other side of the street. The old woman risked a glance back the way she had come, but saw no one looking at her.

She paused at the intersection, watching as a few small cars rolled down the street and the café full of tourists continued chatting. She could smell the scent of coffee even across the street. She turned the corner and went down the next street, crossing it after a few cars drove by, kicking up dust and sand.

There was another alleyway, and this one led behind the houses and the government building to the next street over. The old woman stepped up over the curb and glanced down the sidewalk before heading into the alley. A pair of foul-smelling dumpsters greeted her, next to a pile of garbage bags. The stone under her feet was cracked and split, and tufts of grass broke though here and there. The woman stood in the alley and waited for the space of a few breaths, sweating under her robe from the hot sun, smelling the garbage nearby, the taste of dust in her mouth.

From a doorway twenty yards away, a man emerged. He wore a gray suit, unbuttoned, with a white dress shirt and no tie. In contrast, he wore black boots and had on black leather gloves. A small duffel bag was slung over his shoulder. He faced the other direction, so the woman could not see his face, only his dark brown hair.

Suddenly, with one swift motion, the woman reached down to grab the bottom of her robe and then pulled it up. Underneath, she wore khaki pants and a black tank top. From under the folds of the robe, she pulled a fully automatic Colt Commando compact machine gun and aimed it down the alley. Her hood fell down, revealing that she was not an old Arabic woman at all, but a young Caucasian woman with short brown hair and bright blue eyes.

"Don't move!" she screamed in English. "Stop where you are!"

The man froze but did not turn around.

"Subject spotted in the alley behind the offices!" the woman shouted into her microphone. "Need backup here now!" She took a few steps forward, keeping her gun aimed forward, eyes looking right down the sights. "Put your hands in the air!" she shouted. "Turn around now!"

The man carefully lifted his hands, very slowly, but did not turn around. The woman's eyes went wide when she saw a detonator in the man's hand, his thumb right above the trigger button.

"Don't do it!" she screamed. "Drop it right now! We have this whole block surrounded! You have nowhere to go!"

The man's head turned a little, just enough for her to see a smile curving his lips. His thumb depressed the trigger.

In a moment, the world went black and red, and she was thrown backward by the tremendous shockwave. The entire block seemed to lift up in a cataclysm of fire and rubble, the blast of heat burning her skin. She flew through the air and miraculously landed in the pile of garbage bags, which cushioned her landing. A wave of smoke and dust flooded the alley, blinding and choking her. Rubble and debris crashed down like meteors.

The next thing she knew, someone was shouting her name.

"Burnett! Burnett! Jesus, are you okay?"

It was one of the Arabic men who had been reading the newspaper on the corner. He extended a hand and Burnett was pulled to her feet. In the man's other hand was a Beretta, and hanging from his breast pocket was a badge signifying him as a member of the Royal Moroccan Gendarmerie.

Alison Hart-Burnett looked down what was left of the alley. Half of the nearest building was missing, collapsed into the alley, blocking it completely. A huge fire raged on the other side, where the government offices had been. A tower of black smoke drifted up into the sky like a mushroom cloud. Her face was streaked with dirt and soot, and a trickle of blood trailed down the side of her face from when a piece of rubble had struck her.

"Come on," the man said. "Emergency vehicles are on their way."

"He was right here," Burnett said. "I was looking right at him."

"How did he get inside? We had the whole building locked up tight."

"I don't know, but I caught him leaving. He didn't even look like he was in a hurry." She leaned over and put her hands on her knees, taking a few deep breaths. She could feel the heat from the fire, even this far away. She wearily pulled the maroon robe all the way off and tossed it into one of the dumpsters. She saw her machine gun lying on the ground and walked over to pick it up.

"Where was he?" the man asked.

"Right down there," she said, pointing.

"If he was standing that close, the blast must have killed him."

Burnett silently shook her head. She didn't think he would have been that foolish. When they examined the wreckage, she felt confident that they wouldn't find a body. No matter how devastating the destruction, he always found a way out. Burnett had been chasing after him for four years, and she was always one step behind.

The terrorist known as the Firefly had gotten away again.