Author's Intro

Although this series takes place in the "24" universe, and uses the "24" time format, the vast majority of these characters are my own invention, as is the story itself.

CTU Minneapolis takes place between the first and second seasons of the TV series. It is written in prose format, not script format. I apologize to my Midwestern readers for the geographical liberties I have taken with Minneapolis and other points in the story. I also apologize for the length of the story -- a necessity, since I have to relate 3,600 seconds' worth of events per episode.

I cannot promise any regularity to the adding of chapters -- they will be added as I complete them. I will only promise that the day will, eventually, come to an end.

~WS

* * * *

CTU MINNEAPOLIS

The following takes place between midnight and 1:00 AM

on the day of the State of the Union address.

12:00:00

His name was Hassan, and he had eight minutes to live.

He drove the van, a recent acquisition of the Brotherhood, through the freeway tunnel, down the off-ramp, and into downtown. The streets were oddly quiet, even for a Sunday night. The usual night-goers must have turned in early -- still recovering from the holidays, perhaps. There certainly was cause to celebrate this year; the economy was doing unusually well, the new stadium bill had been passed, and the Vikings, against all expectations, had a good shot at the Super Bowl. Hangovers abound.

Hassan drove cautiously through the downtown streets, keeping well below the speed limit and coming to a full stop at every red light. He turned on the radio, listened briefly to a cheerful late-night newscaster talk about a possible storm front, and switched to the FM band. The local classic rock station was playing the Rolling Stones' "Angie." Had he known that it would be the last song he would ever hear, he might have listened more carefully.

He turned left onto Lyndale, drove a couple more blocks, and came to another stop at a red light. On the street a block up, he watched a young man and woman, obviously drunk off their rocker, stagger down the sidewalk, shouting incomprehensibly about something or other. A couple blocks farther up, he could see the rendezvous point.

The radio he had tossed onto the passenger's seat beeped. He picked it up, double-checked the scrambler code, and keyed it. "I am here," he said in Arabic.

"Report," came the response, also in Arabic, from a coarse, sandpaper-like voice.

"I have accomplished my mission, and am nearing the rendezvous point now. I will be there in less than a minute."

"Well done," the other voice said. "Well done indeed. We will be there shortly. Radio silence until you return to headquarters."

"Understood," said Hassan, and switched off the radio.

The light turned green.

Hassan smiled -- the smile of a man who could not possibly know that death was less than six minutes away -- and drove on.

12:02:17

Arthur Frost looked up from the paper in his hands. "Confidence?"

"Ninety percent or better," said Sonja Gilmour. She was a short woman in her late twenties, with short-cropped black hair, blue-tinted glasses, and a Nirvana T-shirt. Frost invariably had to make an effort not to wince at her disgruntled appearance. But because of her talents in research and intelligence, he tolerated her -- no, not just tolerated, but actively appreciated her. If there was anyone better out there, Frost would be surprised.

He laid the paper down on his desk and rubbed his temples. "Well . . . where to begin?"

"Sir, I know how it sounds . . ."

He looked up. "Since the ink on your transfer documents is still somewhat fresh, I rather doubt that you do. This is the Great White North – that's a grandiose way of saying the middle of nowhere. Minneapolis is the largest city in the state, and it is not even a tenth the size of your previous assignment. Who would want to . . . to do this to us? What is it about our little section of the prairie that pisses someone off so much?"

"With respect, sir, if I didn't trust my source, do you think I would be in here at midnight on a Sunday night waiting for his transmission?"

Despite himself, Frost felt a small grin come over his angular face. "I thought you were just trying to impress me." He leaned back in his chair and sighed. "All right. We'd better move fast, just in case you're really not a lunatic. I'll call Division and wake up somebody over there. Meantime, keep this quiet, but do what you can to confirm this."

Sonja nodded. "Should I call in the senior staff as well? Alex, at least, should know about this."

Frost shook his head. "That's still premature at this point. Give me ten minutes to talk to Division. We'll go from there. Deal?"

"Yes, sir."

12:03:28

Bobby Simmons was the perfect poster boy for the Minneapolis Police Department: tall, lean, handsome and genial. He seemed to have a smile for everyone, and if you had a problem, Bobby Simmons would listen to you. Ted Garfield regarded the young man while he zipped up his winter coat. Despite being the older and more experienced of the pair, Ted found himself having a certain admiration for the rookie.

"What are you doing on night shift, anyway?" he asked as they walked away from the all-night coffee shop and down the street.

"Needed the extra hours," Simmons said. "I had to take time off to help with my sister's kid."

"Niece or nephew?" Ted asked.

"Nephew. Going to turn four pretty soon. Aimee's boyfriend pulled the rug out from under her -- again -- and she didn't have anywhere else to go."

Ted, a black man in his mid-thirties, was a single father. He nodded in understanding. "Nice of you to help out."

"It's my sister. What else could I have done? Anyway, I need to make up for the time I missed, so here I am. Graveyard patrol."

Ted chuckled. "It's not as bad as you think this late into winter. Mostly you just stay warm and look out for people who are freezing to death."

"I'm surprised they even have graveyard patrol in winter." Graveyard patrol was MPD slang for foot patrol during the third shift. It was arguably the least glamorous job in the department, but the pay was surprisingly good.

"Like I said," Ted replied, "really we just look out for people who are freezing to death."

"What, like that guy up there?" Simmons pointed half a block up to an Arab standing next to a white van, wearing jeans and a thin jacket -- much too thin for the sub-zero temperatures. He was shivering like crazy.

"Yeah," said Ted, "like that guy. See, the criminal element can be divided into three groups: the malicious, the hard-luck cases, and the crazies. Nights like this, all the malicious and hard-luckers are sane enough to stay inside where it's warm. Whereas the crazies . . ."

Simmons laughed -- but Ted knew the signs. The stiffer posture. The slightly glazed eyes. The hand creeping closer to the holster at his side. Simmons was nervous. Ted didn't blame him. Graveyard patrol was enough to make any rookie nervous, winter or no winter, and the fact that this particular crazy was an Arab didn't help. Ted knew that the MPD went to great lengths to keep racism off of the Force, and he would have sworn up and down that he had no racist tendencies himself, but after 9-11 . . . well, what can you do?

They approached the man, who didn't notice them until they were a few paces away. "You doing all right, sir?" Ted asked.

The man nodded. "Yes, just fine, thank you." His accent was thick.

"That jacket doesn't look too warm," Simmons observed.

The man smiled through his chattering teeth. "Jacket is fine. Thank you."

"What're you doing out here at this hour, sir?" Ted asked.

"Oh, I'm waiting. Waiting for friend."

Ted looked at his partner and shrugged slightly. He didn't look particularly dangerous, he was legally parked, and there was no law against freezing your ass off. He eyes gazed from the Arab to his van. "This your van, sir?"

The man, still smiling, looked from the van to the cop. "Yes. My van."

"Don't you think you might be warmer waiting for your friend in the van?"

"No, I'm warm enough. Just fine. Thank you, man."

Ted nodded. "Sir, could I see some identification?"

The Arab's smile froze slightly, and then returned to full intensity. Ted's hand was now casually resting on the butt of his gun as the man reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. He extracted a driver's license and handed it to Ted. Ted looked at the card, which identified the man in front of him as Hassan al-Rahmad. He carefully compared the face on the card to the face in front of him. Finally, he nodded. "Mr. al-Rahmad," he said, "I wonder if you could also show me the registration and insurance information for the van."

"Sure, okay," Hassan said, and opened the van door.

12:06:45

"She says it's reliable," Frost said, "and I trust her. She's as good as they come, and she wouldn't use an unreliable source."

"Be that as it may," came the voice on the other end, "the source is unconfirmed. It would be irresponsible to act on one man's word, no matter how reliable he is believed to be."

"I understand," said Frost. "With your permission, however, we'll try to get confirmation on our own."

"Fine. Just don't step on anyone's toes."

12::07:17

Ted looked up at the sound of drunken laughter. The young couple that had been staggering their way were almost on top of them now. They looked at the two cops and the man standing next to the white van with interest. "Book 'em, Dano," the young man said, and they laughed again.

Ted turned back to the insurance sheet in his hands, dismissing them. Simmons said, "Why don't you two just move along?"

"Oh, but this is exciting!" the young woman said. "Are you going to arrest him? He's probably a terrorist, you know." She dissolved into giggles.

"Ma'am," said Simmons, "I'm really gonna have to ask you to get moving. Go somewhere warm."

"Somewhere warm?" the young man said. "I'll show you somewhere warm!" He turned around, unzipped his fly, and mooned the police officers. The young woman laughed so hard she staggered and almost lost her balance.

Simmons looked at Ted, who looked back at him and nodded slightly. He walked closer to the young man, now pulling his pants up and trying to keep his balance. He reached for his handcuffs. "How does a nice, warm drunk tank sound?"

"Well, uh," said the young man, half-turning to him. "There's, like, a problem with me and drunk tanks . . ."

"I don't want to hear it. Put your hands behind your back, please."

"It's just that . . . you'll have to catch me first!" He took off running down the street, laughing as he did so. Simmons took off after him. Ted opened his mouth, about to stop, him, then decided against it. The kid could use some action, he decided, even if it is just chasing down a drunk—

There are a number of sounds – firecrackers, backfiring cars, slamming metal doors, to name a few – that many people easily mistake for gunshots. For a police officer who has spent a good amount of time on the firing range, and even more so for one who has discharged his weapon in the line of duty, the sound of a gunshot is unmistakable. Instant identification of that sound is a necessity for the job, as it triggers finely-developed instincts that could save a cop's life. Those instincts took control of Ted Garfield before his conscious mind even registered the two gunshots in rapid succession.

He whirled, drew his gun, and dropped to his knees. "FREEZE!" he yelled, and then saw:

Hassan al-Rahmad was slumping against the van, two gunshot wounds in his chest. The girl was already running away, gun clutched in her left hand, and was behind the corner of a building before al-Rahmad had even hit the ground.

"I said FREEZE!" Ted yelled, already running after her.

He rounded the corner of the building, stopped, took aim with his pistol. Too late -- the girl had already taken off around another corner. She was fast! "Simmons," he yelled as he ran after her, "call for backup!"

He heard another gunshot, from the other side of the building. Simmons? Or the young man?

Around the second corner: a chain link fence, the height of a man. The girl was already jumping down the other side and bolting for the side street. He stopped, took aim again. "Stop right there!" he yelled. She was bolting down the street, heading for an idling green car – the young man climbed in behind the wheel as he watched. He took off again, leapt at the fence and hauled himself over it just as the car took off on squealing brakes. At the base of the fence, Ted took aim, fired twice at the tires. He missed.

Ted swore, called into headquarters on his shoulder set and relayed the situation, including the license plate number of the getaway car, and ran around the third quarter of the building to look for Simmons. He found him lying on the sidewalk, clutching the hole in his stomach.

12:08:50

Breckenridge, a town 50 miles south of and across the Red River from Fargo, North Dakota, was a sleepy town on a good night. And this was a good night, Richard Gaiman decided.

His small two-story house at the edge of town drew no attention, had nothing suspicious about it. It was the kind of place where kids could play in the yard without fear of flying cookware. Rick was even happy to retrieve lost balls from his small second-story balcony.

He was standing on that balcony now, smoking a cigarette and looking up at the stars. Orion was riding high, hunting his ever-elusive prey across eternity. He liked looking at Orion – it was about the only constellation he could recognize at a glance, aside from the Big Dipper, and he felt as though he were gathering strength from the great hunter. A psychological quirk, he knew, but Rick needed all the strength he could get.

Inside, his computer beeped. He glanced back, flicked the cigarette over the railing, and went inside. The computer screen was flashing DOWNLOAD COMPLETE. He sat down, mumbled a mantra to himself, and opened the file.

Perfect.

He double-checked the encrypted connection, and launched the chat program. It was a custom-built program, designed to establish a true one-on-one connection with the target computer, without having to go through a third-party server. It was not only faster; it was about as secure as you could get. His client was already waiting. He typed:

Guyster: Evening. How's the back doing?

Barely a moment passed before the answer came:

EcksMarks: Terrible!

This was a secret code between them -- it ensured that the client was not being monitored, or in some way compromised. Had "EcksMarks" responded that his back was doing fine, this would have meant that it was unsafe to transact. They would have talked about nothing for a few minutes, for the sake of any onlookers, then disconnected. The client's bad back meant a good connection.

Guyster: Sorry to hear that. Well, I got the files.

A moment, then:

EcksMarks: YES! You are the MAN!

Guyster: I know.

EcksMarks: Man, I love you for this! You made my day! Can you send it over now?

Guyster: Not so fast. That'll be 1.5K, please.

EcksMarks: !?!?!?!

Guyster: That's a special discount price. If we were not friends, and if I actually NEEDED money, it would be twice that.

EcksMarks: You mean you don't actually need money!?

Guyster: I have a pension. It's almost enough, but not quite.

EcksMarks: How about $1,300?

Gaiman sighed and stared up at the ceiling for a brief moment.

Guyster: 1.3K is fine, and that's as low as I'll go. Transfer the money whenever you're ready.

EcksMarks: I'm on it. Give me a minute.

It was, in fact, almost two minutes before Gaiman received an alert from another program: $1,300 had been transferred into his online account. He nodded to himself, satisfied, and began the process of transferring the downloaded material to his client.

Guyster: It's on its way. Final warning: if anyone catches you with it, I don't exist.

EcksMarks: Right, man, I'm talking to myself. So did you get it from PT's servers?

Guyster: There was an earlier version on the PT's servers, it was obsolete. They keep their more critical files in isolated terminals.

EcksMarks: Isolated terminals are a problem for you!?

Guyster: PHYSICALLY isolated. No lines in or out. You'd actually have to sit down at the computer to access it.

EcksMarks: I see......so how did you get it?

Guyster: Only one place had it on an NT: the Pentagon.

There was a good-sized pause.

EcksMarks: THE Pentagon?

Guyster: Yep.

EcksMarks: omg, you are the MAN! How the hell did you pull that off!?!?

Gaiman grinned.

Guyster: Magic, my boy. Pure magic.

12:14:24

The message appeared on Sonja Gilmour's terminal without warning:

From MPD: White Chevy van, CO plates, found on Lyndale. Driver dead.

Sonja blinked, then looked across the room. Jonathon Stolt was very pointedly not looking at her. "I hate it when you do that," she moaned.

Jon grinned. He was almost the mirror opposite of Sonja: six and a half feet tall, long red hair tied back in a ponytail, wearing a shirt and tie. "Sorry," he said, "but that's what you're looking for, isn't it?"

"Read me the plate number." He did, and she nodded. "That's the one. Wait a sec . . . it was captured on Lyndale? Our Lyndale?"

"None other."

"I wish I wasn't right all the time." She picked up the phone to call Frost.

12:14:58

The Minneapolis police worked fast: less than seven minutes after the first shot was fired, there were a dozen cops on the scene, including the chief of the precinct. The block was nearly roped off, the pictures were being taken, and things were generally under control. And Ted Garfield, in the midst of being debriefed, buried his face in his hands. The shock of the whole incident was only now beginning to catch up with him. One person dead, his partner down, and the criminals gone without a trace. Could it possibly have gone worse?

The chief, as if reading his thoughts, put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "You did the best you could, Garfield," he said. "Those guys were pros, and they made damned sure that nobody would see this coming."

Ted looked up. "That supposed to make me feel better, Chief?"

"Nope. Just stating a fact."

One of the medics walked up to the officers. "Simmons will probably make it," he said. "He's stabilized for the moment, and they've already got an OR waiting for him at the hospital."

Ted nodded, relieved. The rookie would be all right; they would pull something out of this mess. He felt a little better. Then he looked toward the van, saw Hassan al-Rahmad being loaded into a body bag, and his thoughts darkened again. He turned back to the chief, looking for a distraction. "Why do you say that they were pros? I mean, they were fast, and they were convincing at acting drunk, but--"

"But there's no way in hell they would have killed this guy in front of a cop unless they seriously wanted him dead."

"Yeah." He looked around, trying to take in the scene for the umpteenth time. "Yeah, you're right."

"Don't worry. We've already called the departments in the western suburbs and Saint Paul. They won't get far."

12:16:10

In a warehouse district near the city limits, a green car pulled up to one of the older specimens of warehouses and parked. A man and a woman, moving fast but not unduly rushing, climbed out and ducked inside. A moment passed, then a garage door in the side of the warehouse opened quietly and a blue minivan slipped out. It turned right onto the street, heading back through town.

12:16:55

The phone was ringing for the fifth time when Alexander Bowman was awake enough to answer it. Unlike most of his colleagues, Alex was not a night person -- he had already been sleeping for two hours when the call came, and the longest day of his life began.

"Grunh?" he said into the handset.

"Alex, it's Arthur. Wake up, and do it quickly."

Alex blinked, looked around at the clock on his bedside table. It was 12:17. "Art?" he muttered sleepily. "It's practically sunrise."

"That's what you think. I'll give you a couple minutes, but get up, come in, and I mean now."

Alex knew that Frost wasn't one to mince words, but he had rarely heard his boss sound so . . . well, bossy. His managerial style was more friendly, more relaxed. He only spoke in imperatives when something serious was happening. He sat up in bed, now quite awake. "PTA?" he asked.

"PTA."

"Bad?"

"Worse."

"Do I have time to shower?"

"No."

"I'll call you from the car," Alex said, and hung up. He dropped the phone on the bed, pushed aside the covers, and stood up. The room swam around him; stars drifted in and out of his vision. Had he been drunk? He couldn't have been, not while he was on call. He staggered to the open bathroom door, flipped on the light, and winced.

"Alex?" came a sleepy voice from the bed. Kirsten MacAndrew's head poked out from under the covers, her eyes squinting against the sudden light. Kirsten was not a night person either.

"Go back to sleep, babe," he said, turning on the sink and splashing cold water on his face. "They're calling me in."

"At this hour?"

"Yeah, that's what I thought." He reached for his contacts, but they weren't there. He glanced around the room -- no sign of them. "Babe, have you seen my contacts?"

Kirsten's head plopped back onto the pillow, and she yawned widely. "Aren't they by the sink?"

"They should be, but . . . oh, hell with it." He didn't feel like contacts anyway. He opened the mirror cabinet and pulled out his glasses case. He hadn't worn his glasses in months; it felt strange to be wearing them now. His vision now cleared, he looked in the mirror.

Alex Bowman was the assistant director at the Minneapolis division, the second-in-command to Frost. He was thirty-four years old, stood six-foot-two with a medium build, and short brown hair. He looked more like an intellectual than a Federal agent -- especially with the glasses on -- but a strict exercise regimen had kept him remarkably fit. He looked at his face, thought briefly about shaving, decided against it, and walked back into the bedroom. "Going to work in the morning?" he asked as a pulled a polo shirt over his head.

Kirsten grunted. "Few hours. We're finishing the PicoTech project this week."

Alex nodded. PicoTech was a software company universally agreed to be the only serious competitor to Microsoft. Picosystem was pre-packaged on a quarter of all the PCs now manufactured; it was a stable and user-friendly operating system, compatible with both Windows and Mac software. "These PT guys sound like slave masters."

"Not really," she mumbled. "They don't care how long it takes, they just want it done well."

He smiled as he pulled on a pair of jeans. "With you on the team, I'd say they'll get what they want." She chuckled a little. "Just don't push yourself too hard."

Kirsten rolled over and looked at him. "I could say the same to you," she said.

"I can look out for myself, Cat."

"You sure?"

He leaned down to kiss her on the forehead. "Positive."

A moment later he was fully dressed, and as presentable-looking as he was going to get. He left the bedroom, stopped in the kitchen long enough to grab his winter jacket and an iced cappuccino, and went out to the garage. It was a heated garage, which was nice on his jeep. He climbed into the jeep as the garage door opened, started the car, turned on the heater, and backed out of the driveway. Alex Bowman lived in Wayzeta, an upper-class community on the western side of the Metro Area. The drive to Minneapolis was about twenty minutes.

PTA. Probable terrorist activity.

He turned onto the road leading to the freeway, then pulled out his cell phone and called the switchboard. A voice answered, "CTU Minneapolis."

12:20:32

Sonja stood behind Jon's chair, a cup from the water cooler in her hand. "Got anything else?"

"Yeah," Jon said, "an ID. Looks like he's a Muslim -- now why doesn't that surprise me?"

"Watch it," she said. Her current boyfriend came from a Muslim family.

"Sorry. Anyway, the name on the driver's license is Hassan al-Rahmad."

"False name," Sonja said without hesitation.

Jon looked up. "How do you know?"

"Al-Rahmad is usually translated as 'the Almighty' or 'the Merciful.' It's a word that is meant to apply to God, and to God alone. There's no reason for a non-Muslim to have that as his given name, whereas to a Muslim it would be blasphemy. Like you naming yourself Jon the Christ and Savior."

He raised an eyebrow. "How do you know I'm not the Christ and Savior?"

The phone on her desk rang. She set the water cup down in front of Jon. "Turn this into wine," she said and walked back to her desk. Jon grinned to himself and went back to work.

At her desk, Sonja picked up her handset. "Gilmour."

"I've got Alex on the line," came Frost's voice. "Fill him in, please."

"Hey boss, where are you now?" Sonja asked. Although Frost was a good guy and a competent manager, he seemed to keep a fair distance from the lower ranks of the CTU hierarchy. He was therefore "Director Frost" or "Mr. Frost," while Alex Bowman was "the boss."

"I'm just about on 394, heading into town." The line with Alex's voice sounded crackly. Sonja had asked him several times when he would get a decent cell phone. "So what's the story?"

She sat down at her desk and pulled up windows on her terminal. "Okay, here's the short version. Four months ago, a batch of exotic virus samples was discovered in Syria. They had been stolen from the CDC in Atlanta some weeks previously. Problem was, only half the samples were there."

"And the rest of them?"

"Never recovered, but rumors abound that they were kept by some terrorist organization or another and being developed into more virulent, infectious strains."

"Al Qaeda?"

"We simply don't know, Alex."

"'Kay. Go on."

"Two hours ago, I received information from one of my sources in the Middle East. A very reliable source, before you ask. He says that a mutated form of one of the viruses was in a cargo container heading somewhere in the Midwest. He gave the serial number of the container, and I tracked its location. It was shipped to Duluth. It arrived this afternoon."

"So we're talking about a biological release weapon."

"A big one. Airborne, invariably infectious, mortality rate 72 percent. There's enough of the virus that, depending on the wind patterns, most of the Metro Area could be affected."

A long pause as Alex digested this information. "And it's here?" he asked quietly.

"It's here. The man who signed for the cargo container was driving a white van with Colorado plates. The signature was too illegible to get a name. That van was found in the downtown area fifteen minutes ago. The driver was killed, and a policeman was injured."

"How?"

"Two people came along and shot them."

"The van?"

"Empty."

"All right. I want a full briefing when I get in -- about fifteen minutes or so."

"You got it, boss."

12:25:01

Ted Garfield stood facing the white fan, which was now being poured over by a host of police officers. He doubted that they would find anything, but he was as curious as the rest of them about who the driver was, and why someone was determined to have him killed. The only hints so far were al-Rahmad's driver's license, and the registration and insurance information in the car. The registration showed the van to have belonged to Oakwood Enterprises, Inc. in Colorado Springs. The insurance was in order. So far, nothing helpful had turned up.

The chief came to stand next to Ted again. Ted looked at him. "Any word on Simmons yet?"

"They probably just got to the hospital," said the chief. "Have patience, Ted. As soon as we know something, you'll know it too, I promise."

Ted nodded. It would have to do.

Thie chief looked at him. "You've had a long night," he observed. "I'm sure we can finish the paperwork and what-have-you in the morning. Go and take the rest of the night off. Tuck your kid into bed."

Ted shook his head. "Shauna's in good hands with my aunt. Anyway, I'm not going to be able to sleep. Not for a while."

"Chief!" called one of the officers from inside the van. "Take a look at this!"

Ted followed the chief to the back of the van. The door was standing wide open, and one of the cops was holding a sealed test tube in a pair of tweezers. "Looks like it's empty," the cop said. "So are the rest of them."

"The rest of them?"

"Yeah, there are a few more back here. They were wedged between the seats. One of them is broken, but the rest are intact."

"Put that down, now!" said the chief. "Get away from the van! Everyone, clear the van immediately!"

The cops moved, and moved quickly. Ten seconds later, they were all standing at least twenty feet away from the van. Ted looked at the chief curiously. The chief triggered his radio. "Dispatch, we have a code 46 here -- possible bio-hazard. We need detox and decontamination units down here, and we need them ten minutes ago."

The radio squawked an acknowledgement. Ted said, "You think there's something in those test tubes?"

"It wouldn't surprise me," he said. "Probably I'm just being paranoid, but if this guy was up to something, then there'd be only one reason for him to have test tubes there. I just hope it's not too late . . ."

Ted shivered.

12:27:12

Omar ibn-Hammad answered the phone on the first ring. "Yes," he said in English.

"Mission successful," came an unaccented female voice on the other end. "Hassan is dead, and we are clear of the area."

"Excellent. Well done. What is your twenty?"

"We're now on 35, just passing the Interstate loop. ETA twenty-five minutes."

"Understood. What was the delay in reporting in?"

"There was a problem," came the response. "A couple of policemen were there at the time. We think we killed one of them."

"You think?" Omar's voice was ice. "What of the other policeman?"

"We evaded him successfully. We wanted to be sure we were clear before reporting."

"I understand." Omar paused for a moment, reflecting. "No harm done, as long as they can't trace your whereabouts. If there were only one or two eyewitnesses, we can safely see you out of the country before law enforcement gets its act together. I will make the arrangements now."

"And our fee?"

"Payment in full upon your return, as agreed."

"Very good." She broke the connection.

"Bitch," Omar muttered, and put down the phone. He turned to the large man standing impassively in a corner of the room. "I shall be gone for a couple hours," he said in French. "Your tasks have been assigned, and I would appreciate them completed before I return. Any questions?"

The large man shook his head.

"Fine," said Omar, and took his winter coat from the hook as the large man disappeared into the other room. Omar switched off the light, leaving the cabin in darkness, and stepped outside.

The air was cold, brisk, and the stars were shining down. Omar's eyes automatically turned to Orion, the Hunter. Although he could recognize most of the constellations at a glance, Orion had always been his favorite. He seemed to draw a certain amount of strength from it, from watching the hunter defeat his prey, holding it up in victory.

"We are so very much alike, you and I," he whispered. After a last moment's look, he turned and walked toward the car in the driveway.

12:29:48

"It's coming up on half past the hour," said the radio announcer. "Time for a news update, and the story right now is the weather. Today, of course, was nice and calm, but it looks as though that's all going to change pretty soon. A large storm front, which has been steadily growing in size all day, is expected to hit the Valley in the next hour to hour and a half. Expect blizzard conditions, icy roads, and gusts of up to forty-five miles per hour. Snowfall is expected to be between three and six inches. This system is coming in fairly quickly from the west-northwest, which means it should pass through quickly -- but as I said, it's a big one. So you night people out there, if you don't have to do any driving between now and sunrise, please stay off the roads. Stay inside where it's warm, and let the snowplows do their work. In regional news--"

Gaiman switched off the radio and pulled a cup of hot chocolate from the microwave. He intended to follow orders to the letter -- when you're standing inside looking out at the snow, it's beautiful. When you're out driving in it, it's crap from the skies.

The screen was now flashing, "UPLOAD COMPLETE." He set the cup of hot chocolate on the desk, leaned down to the keyboard, and typed:

Guyster: You're all set. Have a nice day.

He disconnected the program before the client could answer. Then he stepped out onto the balcony for one last smoke.

12:32:00

Reginald Chaplain appeared as pompous as the name suggested -- he always showed up to work in a full suit. The only other CTU agent to ever wear a full suit was Frost, and he only wore them for the sake of visiting dignitaries. His manner, however, was friendly and casual. Jon looked at him as he turned a revolving desk chair backwards and sat down to face him and Sonja. "You got here fast."

"I was at a party, already decked out for the occasion. So what's the story?"

Sonja and Jon spent the next few minutes filling him in. Chaplain listened wordlessly, not interrupting, only nodding thoughtfully. When they finished he said, "Lyndale. You know, I passed them just now, on my way in. I saw the van, and a whole bunch of cops."

"Oh?"

"Yeah, and they were all standing a good distance from the van."

Jon and Sonja exchanged looks. "Could it have been?" Jon asked.

"If so, it's too late now," Sonja replied. "The policeman would be infected, and Reggie, you might have even been infected just by driving by."

"Oh? What's the infection rate?"

"Virtually 100 percent."

Chaplain gave out a low whistle, then thought for a moment. "If the van was infected, then I agree, it's too late. And if that's the case, MPD will figure it out soon enough. So let's proceed, for now, on the assumption that we are not all screwed to high heaven. I assume that everyone's been called in?"

"Everyone on call, and then some. Frost is in his office, and Alex should be arriving any minute."

12:36:42

Alex turned onto Washington Avenue, drove a few blocks before coming upon the CTU building. It was a small structure, with no exterior markings or anything to indicate what it was. He turned into the parking lot, easily found a space, and parked. After turning the engine off, he simply sat there for a few seconds, relaxing. Days like this, peace and quiet were rare, and would only be found where you were able to find them.

Before the car started to get cold again, Alex opened the door and got out, shutting the door behind him. He did not bother to lock it.

The main entrance was on the side of the building: a simple double glass door. He entered, stomped the lingering snow off of his shoes, reached into his pocket and pulled out his ID card. "Evening, Phil," he said to the guard sitting behind the security desk as he inserted his card into the reader and placed his thumbprint on the optical scanner. He held it there for a few seconds, allowing the tiny processor inside the reader to make sure that the same Alexander Bowman identified by the card was the same Alexander Bowman who wished to enter the building. After a brief pause, the machine beeped and Alex removed his card.

"Long night, Mr. Bowman?" the guard inquired.

Alex half-smiled. "We can only hope not."

He went through the turnstile, down a short corridor and into the main room of CTU Minneapolis. It was neither as large nor as up-to-date as the main rooms in the larger CTU branches such as New York and Los Angeles, but it was fully functional nonetheless. The obligatory wall screens, the scattered computer terminals, the storage cabinets -- all there. There were perhaps a dozen people working at the moment, a few looking like they had just arrived as he had. He spotted Sonja and Jon sitting with Reggie Chaplain at Jon's desk, and walked toward them.

". . . field teams, so I think if anyone can find this bio-weapon, he can," Jon was saying. He looked up and saw Alex. "Speak of the devil."

"Jon," Alex said, throwing his coat over an empty chair, "please don't make any promises on my behalf. I'm notorious for them."

"I speak simple truth, Boss."

"Nothing is ever simple with you."

"Nice glasses, by the way."

"Har har." He sat down, grinning slightly at the good-natured ribbing. "Anything new?"

"You didn't drive down Lyndale, did you?" Chaplain asked.

"No, came straight down Washington."

"Good. You have survival instincts."

Sonja rolled her eyes and shook her head. Alex blinked. "What do you mean? Lyndale, that's where they found the van, right?"

"There's a possibility the bio-weapon may be, or have been, in the van," Sonja said. "MPD found apparently empty sealed test tubes, some of them broken."

"Oh boy." Alex ran his hands through his hair. "I knew I should have stayed in bed. Okay. Call MPD, have them send us one of the intact ones. I want our people to analyze it."

"We don't have the facilities--"

"I trust Lorraine," Alex said. "What about the assassins?"

"No word on them yet," said Jon. "One of the cops -- the one who wasn't shot -- got the make, model and license plate number of the getaway car. We're scouring the city now. They couldn't have gone far in that time."

"Alex!"

Alex looked over his shoulder, saw Arthur Frost standing at his office door, beckoning him. "I am summoned," he said, and stood up. "One more thing -- let's see if we can get that cop in here. I want to talk to him myself."

"They'll all probably wind up in medical quarantine until we can clear them," Jon said.

"I know. But as soon as possible, okay?"

"You got it."

Alex nodded, satisfied, and walked over to Frost's office. At the door, the two men shook hands. "Thanks for coming in," the director said, allowing him in. He closed the door behind him, walked behind his desk and sat facing Alex. "Sonja already told you what we know, so I don't have to tell you how bad it could be. Keep in mind, first of all, that so far our only basis for this PTA alert is one source, unconfirmed. So it's a good bet that this will turn out to be nothing. But . . ."

"But we don't like the size of the pot," Alex said.

"Exactly. We are trying to get confirmation, and in the meantime we treat it as probable, just to be on the safe side."

Alex nodded. "Well, you know us, Art. We work fast."

"I know you do." Frost paused for a moment, then leaned forward and lowered his voice slightly. "Alex, as a personal favor to me, keep your eyes open when you're among the troops."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, we can't afford any leaks to the outside."

Alex's gaze froze on his superior. "You're not serious. You suspect there's a mole?"

"I don't really suspect that," said Frost. "At least, I have no reason to think so. But as you said, it's a big pot, and we can't afford to make the mistake of not being sure. Especially after what happened in LA."

Alex nodded. "You don't need to remind me," he said.

"Good. As I said, I have no reason to suspect anyone. It's just something to file away at the back of your mind. We have to be sure."

"I understand."

12:43:05

The detox and decon teams had arrived, and were beginning their work. "What I need," said one of the decon workers through an air mask, "is for everyone who has been within fifty feet of the van to stand over here. Stay close together."

Ted moved with all the rest into the tiny space set aside for the police officers. Part of him thought that this was ridiculous, that they were being kept from actually getting some work done. He knew, as did every good officer, that murder investigations were almost invariably solved either within the first six hours, or not at all. This was taking precious time away from that. But another part of him insisted that this was probably a good idea . . .

"Hopefully," the decon officer was saying, "this will turn out to be nothing, and you can get back to work shortly. It will take about twenty minutes to run the toxic, viral and bacteriological checks. Please just be patient with us."

"Patient," muttered the chief. "Right."

Another decon officer, also sporting an air mask, approached the group of quarantined officers. "Which one of you is Garfield?"

"I am," said Ted.

"We just got a message from the precinct. Once you're done here, they want to interview you down at CTU."

"CTU?" Ted frowned. "The Counter Terrorist Unit?"

"Right."

"What if he has the Ebola virus?" one of the cops said, not completely joking.

"They said to stick him in a plastic bubble if we had to."

"You have plastic bubbles in that truck?"

"We have everything," the decon officer said without a trace of humor.

12:45:29

"They found it," Jon called out to Alex, scribbling something on a notepad.

"Found what?"

"The getaway car. MPD found it in the old warehouse district, just a few minutes from here. There's nobody there, though." He tore off the sheet of paper and handed it back to Alex. Alex looked at the address.

"The assassins probably switched cars," said Frost, looking over Alex's shoulder.

"If they're smart, they did."

"Trust me," said Frost. They're smart. Gutsy, too, to shoot that guy right in front of a cop."

"Yeah. I want to go anyway, Art. They might have left something in the car that we can use. It's also possible they're hiding in one of the surrounding buildings."

Frost considered, then nodded. "Take Chaplain. And don't be gone too long."

"I'm driving," said Chaplain, reaching for his coat.

Alex nodded, then turned back to Frost. "One more thing," he said. "I want to call Gaiman in."

Frost frowned. "Gaiman? Do you even know where he is these days?"

"Upstate somewhere, I forget which town. If we're right about this, we could really use his help."

"Alex, Rick Gaiman is--"

"I know what he is," Alex said, a little too sharply. Frost stared at him.

"You already have Jon," he said.

"Jon is good. Rick is the best."

"I agree with Alex, sir," said Jon. "Gaiman is better than I am. I think we could use him."

Frost sighed and nodded. "Call him in. But you're responsible for him, Alex." He waved a stern finger at his assistant director. "Anything goes wrong--"

"I'll watch him like a hawk. Thank you, sir." Alex had already pulled out his cell phone, and started to dial as he followed Chaplain to the doors.

12:47:57

Rick Gaiman was about to turn out the light when the phone rang. He sighed, swore softly, and waited in the hopes that whoever it was would just go away. Eleven rings later, it was obvious that they wouldn't. He snatched up the bedside phone receiver. "What is it?"

"Rick, it's Alex."

Rick paused for a long moment. "Alex?"

"Yeah, it's me, buddy."

Rick leaned back against the headboard and mused. "Isn't it way past your bedtime?"

"How soon can you get down here?"

"Not funny, Alex."

"Not meant to be. We have a situation."

"That's what CTU is all about, Alex: one long situation after another."

"Just listen, okay?" Alex spent a minute giving him the short version of events. Rick listened without comment.

"Okay," he said finally, "so this isn't just one of those things. But what do you need with me?"

"We need your skills. Your talents."

"You have Stolt."

"I said this just a few minutes ago, and I'll say it again now: Jon is good. You're the best."

Gaiman rolled his eyes. "Flattery will get you nowhere. Alex, I'm out. Remember? I'm done with the game."

"This is not a game. This is thousands of lives."

"Damn you." He closed his eyes, took in a long, deep breath and exhaled it. "I'll have to leave very soon," he finally said. "There's a storm system moving in, and I'll barely get out of town ahead of it."

"Fine. How soon can you be here? And where the hell are you these days, anyway?"

"Breckenridge, on the North Dakota border. I can be there in three, three and a half hours if I really push it."

"Really push it."

"Okay." He swung his legs out of bed, stood up and went into motion. "I just hope the old Nissan makes it that far."

"I'm sure it will. Come straight to CTU. We'll be waiting."

"Hey, Alex?"

"Yeah?"

"You owe me big."

He hung up the phone, stared at it for a long moment, asked himself what the hell he was doing. But he knew the answer.

He finished getting dressed.

12:50:28

"Sonja," said Jon, "I need a socket at my terminal."

"You got it." Sonja typed fast.

"Thanks." Jon worked for a moment as Frost, on one of his rare walks across the floor, looked over his shoulder. He frowned in puzzlement.

"I thought Sonja already went through the CDC files," he said.

"She did," said Jon. "This is different. A hunch I'm playing. I figure that to mutate a strand of viral DNA to a certain degree of specifity would take a great deal of resources. I'm trying to get a feel for what it would take to turn the most virulent of the stolen samples from Atlanta into the virus that Sonja's source tells us about."

"Money, I'm afraid, is something that many terrorist organizations are not short on."

"Yeah, well, money is only part of it. You need high-tech equipment, a safe lab environment, not to mention scientists -- or at least people with microbiological training." He looked back at Frost. "The hunch, sir, is that they would need custom-built equipment, or at least hard-to-find equipment."

Frost nodded in understanding. "And the more hard-to-find the equipment . . ."

". . . the more likely we can track it down."

"How long will it take?"

"We'd need to consult some specialists, so call it a matter of hours. Like I said, sir, just a hunch. Not high priority. I just thought--"

"You thought well," said Frost. "Keep it on the back burner, but do what you can with it. Good work." He clapped Jon on the shoulder and walked off to check on another agent.

12:53:03

The blue minivan pulled up to the darkened cabin. The young man looked at the young woman in confusion. "This the right address?"

The woman nodded. "Looks like nobody's home."

"They may not have arrived yet." He opened his door. "Come on, let's go in. I don't want to wait out here."

The woman shrugged and followed him out onto the driveway. As they approached the house, they saw that the front door was slightly ajar. The man and woman exchanged glances, then drew their pistols. The man moved slowly up the patio stairs toward the front door, the woman a close step behind him. Their eyes darted to and fro, noting every detail, looking for the slightest hint of movement. The man reached the front door, glanced inside -- it was much too dark to see anything. He looked at his partner, bent his head slightly, and they moved quietly to either side of the door.

The man squeezed his eyes shut, kept them shut for half a minute. When he opened his eyes again, they were adjusted to the darkened conditions, and he could make out much more detail in the moonlight. He bent his head back through the doorway, and saw the empty living room. He nodded at the woman, then quietly slipped into the cabin, pointing his gun this way and that. They took a step into the living room. Two steps. Three. The man looked to his right. The short hallway leading into the kitchen, the kitchen table, the assorted cabinets and cookware, and the large Frenchman with the infrared goggles and the silenced pistol were the last things that he ever saw. An instant later, there was a bullet in his brain.

The woman reacted instantly when she saw her partner begin to fall; her mind instantly noted the muted gunshot, the angle at which the man jerked back, the force of the impact. Her unconscious mind had sized up the situation before the man's body hit the ground, and instinct took over. She turned, moved to the side, scanned quickly for a man-sized target, found it, aimed her pistol, and fired -- all in less than one second.

In two seconds, she was dead.

The Frenchman took off his goggles, flipped on the light, and checked himself quickly. He was unharmed, but there was a slight tear in his plaid button-down shirt where the woman's shot had just grazed him. "Merde," he said, looking over the tear. It was nothing serious, but he would have to sew it up eventually.

He dropped the pistols and the goggles onto the kitchen table. He walked into the living room, stepped over the two corpses, and turned on the radio. A soft classical melody filled the room -- perfect. He turned up the volume, grabbed his coat, put it on and stepped outside. He glanced at his watch -- a good hour and a half before his employer would return. Plenty of time.

He opened the tailgate of the minivan and began to unload it, humming to himself.

12:54:58

Chaplain nodded at the warehouse ahead. "This would be it."

"Right." Alex pulled out his service pistol, checked it quickly, and stuffed it into his belt. Chaplain glanced at him as he pulled the car to the side of the road, behind three MPD squad cars. Alex returned the glance. "Never hurts to be cautious," he said.

"That's what my mom always said. Then she had me." Chaplain climbed out of the car, laughing at his own joke. Alex followed.

A uniformed officer was there to meet them. She was keeping one wary eye on the warehouse as she addressed them: "They went in that warehouse, probably had a car there waiting for them, took off right away. We just finished sweeping it. Except for a few old crates and containers, it's empty."

"Why is it dark inside?" Alex asked, peering at the darkened doorway into the warehouse.

"We're trying to find the light switch – ah, there we go," she said as the interior came alive with ceiling lights. "I imagine it's safe to go in. Forensics and the K-9 unit will be showing up soon, so don't mess anything up."

"Don't need to tell us twice," muttered Chaplain as he followed Alex into the warehouse. It was indeed mostly empty floor space within, with scattered crates and boxes, and a quartet of cops scanning the place. What immediately caught the eyes of both CTU agents was the large container right in the middle of the floor, fire engine red.

"Didn't your sergeant say that this place had been abandoned for a while?" Alex called to one of the cops.

The cop, a youngish man with a confident demeanor, nodded. "A couple years, at least. Not even squatters would bother with this dump."

"Then why is there no dust on that container?" asked Chaplain.

The cop turned, stared at the container for a moment. "You're right," he said. "I didn't think about it before, but it does look like a recent addition."

"Think about it now," Alex said, pulling out his cell phone. He auto-dialed headquarters as he walked around the container. On the back side of the container was a serial number, painted in large white characters: JS-0049163.

"CTU, Gilmour," came the voice over the phone.

"Sonja, Alex. Do you have the serial number of the cargo container that came out of Duluth?"

"Got it right here."

"Read it to me."

"Juliet sierra zero zero four niner one six three."

He glanced at Chaplain, who was pulling out a small digital camera, and nodded. "We got the container right here in the warehouse. Looks like our friends were here, but they've been gone a while."

"Okay, I'll tell Frost and we'll . . . squad and decon units."

Alex frowned. "Sonja, you're starting to break up."

"I said . . . sending the bomb squad and decon units."

"Right. I'll call you back – the reception is less than great inside the building." He disconnected the phone and walked over to Chaplain. "What's that?"

"What does it look like?" There was a small door on one side of the large metal compartment, slightly ajar. Chaplain bent down to open it further.

"Careful," Alex warned.

"I am always careful." Chaplain slowly pulled the door open. Inside was a small recess, which appeared empty. "An auxiliary compartment," he said. "Must have been knocked open during shipment. Don't think – hello, what's this?" He indicated the inside of the small door, on which was painted a message in flowing Arabic script. Chaplain looked up. "Uh-oh."

"Uh-oh is right. Are you sure there was nothing in there? What about biological or chemical agents?"

"This compartment isn't air tight. If there was anything in here, it was removed." Chaplain raised the camera, snapped a picture of the Arabic lettering, and handed the camera to Alex. "Set up the remote link, send that image to headquarters. Get it translated."

Alex nodded. "I'm going to go outside to do it; the reception is bad in here. Don't do anything I wouldn't do, Reg." He left Chaplain poking around inside the smaller compartment and headed for the warehouse door, dialing on his cell phone as he walked.

"CTU, Gilmour," came Sonja's voice again.

"Me. I'm sending you an image from the digicam. It's a message in Arabic, painted on the compartment. Get somebody to translate it."

"I can translate it myself," she said. "I'm fluent in Arabic."

Alex couldn't suppress a grin as he fiddled with the camera, initiating the file transfer to CTU. "Do you have any other talents I haven't found out about?"

"That would be telling, boss."

"I suppose. Are you getting it?"

"Yeah, it's coming."

A few seconds later, the miniature screen on Alex's camera flashed, TRANSMISSION COMPLETE. Sonja's response was immediate.

"It says, 'I am a bomb. You have sixty seconds to live.' Alex—"

Alex didn't hesitate. He whirled and ran back into the warehouse. "CHAPLAIN!" he yelled. "EVERYBODY! GET AWA—"

The container disappeared in a tremendous concussion of fire and thunder. The shock of the explosion lifted Alex clear off the ground, threw him five feet backward, and smashed him into the wall of the warehouse. His world became darkness and silence, and he felt no pain.

1:00:00