“I CAUGHT him on the rooftop, diagonally across from the club. It was twilight, the best time, in my opinion, for sniper work, so I was lucky. I admit that. I was also pretty pissed off: a fucking sniper at my rdv. A leak somewhere, that was what I was thinking when I came at him…”
“This was in Bangkok,” Jack McClure said.
Dennis Paull, the head of homeland security, nodded. “That’s right.”
The two men were sitting in Paull’s study, secreted within his red brick, Federal-era townhouse in Georgetown. Outside, a velvet night had descended, along with a rain that pattered softly, misting the windowpanes.
Jack shifted in the leather club chair. “How long ago?”
“Legere’s rendezvous or his debriefing?”
Paull opened a dossier on the desk in front of him. It was buff-colored, with a black stripe down the left side, denoting Eyes Only status. He looked sallow and worn, his pale gray eyes lying sunken within dark circles. “The encounter occurred eight days ago. The debriefing, which was conducted by myself, a day later.”
Jack sat forward. “You conducted the debriefing alone?”
“Legere is my asset.”
“I didn’t know about him.”
Paull’s eyes flicked up to encounter Jack’s steady gaze.
“Nor did I know why you had gone to Bangkok. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I’m telling you now.”
“Now,” Jack said, taking a sip of his Bulleit rye, “that there’s a problem.”
Paull sat back in his swivel chair. “And you’re my problem solver.” He cocked his head. “What is it, Jack?”
“Don’t give me that.”
Jack sighed, placed the old-fashioned glass on his boss’s desk. “Ever since I got back from Sharm el-Sheikh I’ve been under the impression there’s a glass wall between us.”
“You’re wrong.” Paull took up his three fingers of bourbon, sipped it thoughtfully, then placed the glass precisely three inches to the right of the open dossier. “It wasn’t Sharm el-Sheikh; Sharm el-Sheikh is where all the debts were settled, where Alli’s past was finally healed. How is she, by the way? Adjusting to Interpol’s procedures?”
“She’s based out of Paris, but currently she’s on assignment; a back of beyond where she’s unreachable.”
“Good for her. But, Fearington being an FBI feeder academy, I had assumed she’d apply there.”
“I don’t think that was ever her intention. In any case, she needed to gain some distance from recent events.” Jack waved away the diversion. “Let’s get back to the problem at hand.”
“We are faced with several problems,” Paull interjected. “Let’s start with Rome. It’s what happened in Rome that concerns me.”
“Specifically the Syrian, or should I say Iraj Namazi, the Iranian, so you have informed me.” His gaze fell heavily on Jack. “Annika is now with Namazi, in what capacity…” He paused, thinking out the route he would take. “Now that her grandfather is dead, she’s allied herself with Namazi, isn’t that right?”
Jack nodded. He didn’t trust himself to speak. His breath was hot in his throat, and his heart contracted at the reminder of Annika’s latest betrayal.
“This woman,” Paull said, “is perhaps the most dangerous female on the planet.” He reached for his bourbon, then seemed to change his mind. “This is the woman you love.”
“Loved,” Jack said, finding his voice. “Past tense.”
“Is that so?” Paull steepled his fingers, tapping the tips together ruminatively.
“It is, Dennis.”
“You can turn it on and off at will.” His tone made his skepticism clear. “You’d tell me if it were otherwise, wouldn’t you, Jack?”
“I would.” Jack nodded to the tape recorder on Paull’s desk. “Let’s get on with it.”
“We’re talking now of allegiance.” Paull turned his glass around and around on the desktop. “Speaking bluntly, my fear is that you’ll try to find her.”
“I’m your problem solver, Dennis. That’s why you hired me; that’s why I’m here.” But Jack now knew that Paull had a second agenda. In addition to being a fine administrator, he was an astute judge of human nature. Possibly the two facilities were intertwined. He knew full well how deep Jack’s love affair with Annika went. In addition, though he and Jack had never spoken of it, he suspected there was depth to Jack’s friendship with Annika’s grandfather, Dyadya Gourdjiev, murdered a year ago in Rome.
As if to prove Jack right, Paull said, “It’s not just Annika. Now that she’s shown her true colors, your relationship with her is, I think, complicated enough without members of her family further gumming up the works.”
“What works?” Jack said, a bit too sharply.
“Your thought processes.” Paull leaned forward suddenly, elbows on the desk. “Your intense loyalty is one of your strengths, Jack. But, in this case, I wonder if it might become a liability.”
“I haven’t thought about it,” Jack lied.
Under Paull’s penetrating gaze, he reached out and depressed the “play” button. Legere’s plummy voice rolled out across the wood-paneled study:
“He must have heard me because he swung the M82A3 Special Application scoped rifle right into my face—”
Jack stiffened. “That’s a U.S. Marine weapon.”
Paull nodded, silent.
“Beneath this thick bandage the wound is horrendous.”
“Legere was pointing to his cheek,” Paull said.
“I’ll need plastic surgery. I can’t go back into the field with this on my face. How would I ever melt into a crowd? It’s like a neon sign.”
Paull’s voice on the tape said, “The sniper,” guiding Legere back on track.
Legere: “Yes, well, I hope he was a better sniper than he was a hand-to-hand fighter.”
Paull: “And yet you killed him.”
Legere: “An accident. I hit him, his knees buckled, and he fell against the concrete parapet. The back of his head split open.”
Paull: “Pity he couldn’t tell you who he worked for.”
Legere: “I know who he worked for: the Syrian.”
Paull: “Have you brought me proof?”
Legere: “The sniper’s rifle. Who else but the Syrian would have access to a U.S. Marine rifle?”
Paull: “Please continue.”
Legere: “I found the sniper after twenty minutes of recon of the rdv’s immediate area. It was now one hundred hours. I went into the club.”
Legere: “WTF. It’s at Thonglor Soi 10. Very farang friendly, so I felt right at home. Lots of girls in shorts cut so high you can see the lower hemis of their ass cheeks. They’re all dancing in super high heels, though God alone knows how. Snotty kids, anyway.”
Paull: “Your contact, Legere.”
Legere: “Right. I bellied up at the far end of the neon-lit bar, just as planned. He came in several minutes later, ordered a drink, then, after checking out the nightlife, sauntered over to where I stood. We exchanged the proper parole and got right down to it.”
Paull: “What did he say?”
Legere: “You’re right. There’s a worm in the casket. The Syrian has a mole high up in the U.S. government. Very high up.”
Paull: “Which branch?”
Legere: “Well, I…”
Paull: “Out with it, damnit!”
Legere: [sighs deeply] “That’s just it. The contact’s head exploded, and I turned tail and ran.”
Paull: “You ran.”
Legere: “The place was a fucking madhouse—blood all over the bar, people screaming, vomiting at the sight of the contact’s brains and fragments of his skull bobbing in their gin blossom specials. I’d never have found the shooter, and the cops, who keep an eagle eye on these places after midnight, were already infiltrating the club floor. I did the only thing I could do: I got the hell out of there.”
Paull: “Without the name of the Syrian’s mole or where he works.”
Legere: “I fucked up. In retrospect, the sniper was a feint. The real assassin was waiting in the club. The Syrian’s as clever as a demon.”
Paull: “The question to answer now, Legere, is how your rdv was compromised. It wasn’t from this end. You and I were the only ones who knew about your assignment.”
Legere: “That means someone on the ground in Bangkok.”
Paull: “Someone you met or spoke to.”
Legere: “Boss, no one knew why I was in Bangkok. No one.”
Paull: “Clearly not true. Go back over it in your mind.”
Legere: “I’m clean, I swear. Maybe my contact said something inadvertently.”
Paull: “You were shadowing him that day. Where was he before the rdv?”
Legere: “At a massage parlor he frequents, off Phaholyothin Road, in Soi Aree.”
Paull: “That’s clear across town.”
Legere: “Which gave me the time to do my reconnoiter of the rdv site.”
Paull: “All right. What was the name of your contact?”
Legere: “Connaston. Leroy Connaston.”
Paull: “Whose idea was it to meet in Bangkok?”
Paull: “And WTF?”
Legere: “Also. He said he felt secure there, amid all the young people, all the frantic energy.”
Paull: “Maybe he had a death wish.”
Legere: “There’s another possibility.”
Paull: “Out with it.”
Legere: “The Syrian turned Connaston, promised him the world if he led him to me.”
Paull: “But it was Connaston the Syrian killed, not you.”
Legere: “The Syrian is a notorious paranoid. Would you trust a man who could be turned? Besides, he has now ID’d me. If he killed me, another agent he wouldn’t know would just follow in my footsteps.”
Paull: “The devil you know.”
Paull: “Okay, Legere, hang tight and don’t leave Bangkok. I’m going to need you again.”
Paull, reaching out, stopped the tape. He looked up at Jack. “That was the last time I—or anyone else, for that matter—had contact with Pyotr Legere. His mobile number is dead. The safe house he had been using has been cleaned out. None of my agents-in-place have been able to find him. He’s fallen off the face of the earth.” He sat back. “Which is where you come in.”
“You want me to follow in his footsteps,” Jack said.
Paull nodded. “It is imperative that we find the Syrian’s mole, Jack. Do you understand my concerns now?”
“Iraj Namazi had Dyadya Gourdjiev killed.”
“Interpol sent on the official police reports from Rome. Gourdjiev was a victim of a hit-and-run.”
“Why would you believe an Italian police report?” Jack said curtly. “Namazi killed him or ordered him killed. I want to find him, too.”
“Have you proof that the report is false?”
“I know what I know.”
“No, for you this is all emotion.” Paull’s eyes glittered in the lamplight. “This is what I’m talking about, Jack. Gourdjiev—”
“I knew Gourdjiev.”
“You thought you knew him. The man was a snake in human form. He lacked both morals and scruples.” Paull worried his lower lip with his finger. “You want to find Iraj Namazi. I’m ordering you to find Pyotr Legere and, with his help, run down Namazi’s mole.”
“I can do both.”
“God alone knows how much damage the mole has done or how much of our intentions abroad, our secret intel, Namazi possesses.”
“I wonder if you do, Jack. There is an obsessive streak in you.”
“Don’t try to fool me. The Dementieva woman has gotten under your skin. I’ll be honest. If I could find her, I’d terminate her with extreme prejudice.”
Jack sat very still, scarcely breathing.
Paull rose and, coming around from behind his desk, perched on the corner closest to where Jack sat. “I’m afraid that your obsession has blinded you as to just how dangerous Annika Dementieva is.”
Jack was silent.
Paull leaned forward, his hands clasped as if he were a priest. “If push comes to shove, Jack, would you be able to kill her, or would she kill you?”
Jack remained silent, his gaze unwavering.
Turning, Paull grabbed his drink and slowly sipped what was left of it. “You’re biting off more … you’re in danger of choking to death.”
“It’s my life, Dennis. My funeral.” He stood and held out his hand, and Paull, keeping the dossier open on his desk, handed Jack a micro SD card.
“This material is all I have, Jack. Take it in to the living room and memorize it before you leave.” He, too, stood up. “Take as long as you need.”
As he was about to enter the open doorway, Paull said, “I hope to God you’re ready for this, Jack.”
Jack turned back. “I think we both are.”
He took his drink and, slipping the SD card into his phone, went out of the study, down the darkened hallway, and stepped into the townhouse’s burnished-wood living room. The comfortable furniture was a vivid reminder of Louise, Paull’s deceased wife, who had supervised the decor. Photos and mementos of Paull’s college and service life, as well as family photos, lined the narrow shelves.
Jack chose a spot at the end of one of the plush sofas and, setting his drink down on a round end table, settled himself against the cushions and keyed on his phone, scrolling to the electronic copy of the dossier on Pyotr Legere. Apart from the written transcript of the debriefing Paull had played for him, there was some brief background on Paull’s secret contact.
At first the paragraphs looked like a school of frightened fish, swimming in all directions. This was Jack’s dyslexia at work. He took a deep breath. When he let it out, he emptied his mind of all thought, projecting himself to a spot of absolute calm just to the right of where he sat. From this place of utter peace, he looked again at the paragraphs, which now began to form into recognizable letters, chunks of letters—words—then sentences, lined up, one by one, in, neat, orderly progression.
He began to read:
Pyotr Legere grew up in Moscow, the only child of Galina Yemchevya, chief translator for the Kremlin, and Giles Legere, a trade legate for a prestigious Parisian and New York art gallery, in permanent residence in Moscow. An attached client list included everyone from the president, select Kremlin ministers, and FSB top-tier officers, to the oligarch overlords, who, in league with the Kremlin, ran the major businesses in Russia.
Jack came to a photo of Pyotr. Though black-and-white and slightly blurred, the photo revealed a darkly handsome man in his late twenties, with a long face. A distinctly Gallic nose and deep-set eyes leant him the curiously anachronistic demeanor of an eighteenth-century swashbuckler.
Pyotr owned a bookstore in central Moscow, a shop specializing in technical manuals, but occasionally he also sold paintings, doubtless left over from his father’s personal collection, though he had been seen purchasing the odd painting at auction. In addition, he operated a Web site, connected with the store, which offered specialized technical apps for mobile phones and tablets. Very cutting edge.
Jack now turned to the transcript of the debriefing. He went through it slowly and painstakingly, contrasting the words to what he had heard coming from the tape, so that he could almost taste them. He added to this the memory of Pyotr’s photo contained on the micro SD card. This image was most helpful when he came to sections he hadn’t heard. Paull had only played him the relevant parts; he absorbed the complete debriefing as it scrolled slowly across his mobile’s screen.
It was after two a.m. when he finished. Rising, he crossed the living room and went down the short hall, but when he stepped into Paull’s study his boss was nowhere to be seen and neither was the dossier, though Jack performed a thorough search. Probably Paull had gone up to bed. Shrugging, Jack went silently back through the house, letting himself out the back door. He spoke briefly with Lenny, one of the men on guard duty that night. Lenny told him a dirty joke and both men laughed, then Jack got into his car and drove home. Twenty minutes after he turned the key in his front door he was fast asleep, having only partially undressed.
* * *
He dreamt of walking down a seemingly endless corridor, dank and so poorly lit he could not make out any significant details. His rhythmic footsteps echoed off the bare walls. At some point he became aware of another set of footsteps, but whether they were behind or in front of him he could not tell, though he peered in both directions. His heart rate increased with his anxiety, until …
He awoke with a start, the sound of the other set of footsteps still in his ears. Then, as the last vestiges of sleep cleared, he sat up. There were the footsteps—they were in his house, moving stealthily about. Reaching out, he drew open the drawer of his night table, but his gun wasn’t there. Where had he last left it? He passed a hand across his forehead, came away with a slick of sweat. He couldn’t recall. He grasped the LED flashlight in the drawer instead.
Rolling off the bed, he crossed to his closet. Reaching inside, he grasped the baseball bat Gus had given him years ago and, turning, stepped out into the darkened hallway, moving to the head of the staircase to the ground floor. The house was pitch-black. It stood at the end of Westmoreland Ave, just over the Maryland border. There was no moon, and the nearest lights were streets away.
He stood stock still, listening to the movements. At first, he thought they were random, but soon enough he discovered that whoever was in his house was performing a formal grid search. Not a burglar or a street punk high on crack cocaine, then; a professional.
He slipped down the staircase, placing his bare feet carefully to avoid the old, dried-out wooden treads he knew creaked. It was an old house, one he had lived in from the time he had run away from home and been taken in by the former owner, a huge black man named Gus. Gus had owned a hockshop where Jack had worked until Gus had been murdered and Jack had set out to find his killer.
Jack felt Gus’s presence in every room of the house, a kindly, ghostly presence that he often fancied looked out for him. Jack stopped in the kitchen. The intruder was in the next room. He could feel the tiny electrical pulses coming through the open doorway to the dining room. Listening again, Jack deduced two things: whoever had broken in did not know the layout of the house’s interior, and the intruder was searching for his bedroom, which meant he or she was after him.
Pressing his back against the kitchen wall, he turned toward the opening, listening as the small, furtive sounds rose again. The intruder was heading toward him. He raised the flashlight and, as the shadowed figure appeared, switched it on, bringing the beam to bear on the intruder’s face.
At once, he saw the flash of a service pistol, and he swung the light away, palmed the kitchen light on. A dark-skinned hand over his plunged them both back into darkness.
“No lights, Jack.” Nona Heroe’s voice was both hushed and urgent. “No one must know that you’re home.”
Jack’s heart leapt. “Is someone watching the house?”
“Let’s hope not.”
Nona, a Metro police detective in charge of the violent crimes unit Jack had worked with last year, had recently been promoted to chief of detectives by the new commissioner, after her boss, Alan Fraine, had been killed. She was a fine detective, serious-minded, with a keen brain and an acute sense of danger. That, combined with her tone of voice, brought Jack up short.
“Nona, what’s going on?”
“Grab your coat.” As she followed Jack back through the darkened house to the entryway, she added, in her soft, round New Orleans–inflected tones, “Do you have your passport on you?”
“Get rid of it,” she said. “Leave it here.”
At that moment, twin beams of a vehicle’s headlights swung across the front windows.
“Another egress,” Nona snapped. “Quick!”
Now was not the time to question her, Jack knew. He heard car doors slamming, and he led her down to the basement. Gus, whose business had sometimes crossed the letter of the law, had made certain he had a way of exiting the house, should the need ever arise.
A dusty crawl space led to a large metal grate affixed to the concrete-block wall. Jack pulled it off, revealing a tunnel large enough for a grown man to comfortably crawl through on hands and knees. Gesturing Nona through, he followed her, turning in the cramped space, replacing the grate and locking it in place from the tunnel’s side.
He touched her back to gain her attention, gestured her forward. The tunnel ran for perhaps three hundred yards, before making a dogleg to the right. This section sloped upward. At its terminus was a short vertical metal ladder.
Squeezing past Nona, Jack led the way up, pausing long enough to unscrew a heavy metal grate. When it was free, he pushed it aside. The sounds of speeding traffic came to them as they emerged in a section of filthy trees and underbrush on the far side of an expressway.
Nona looked around for a moment, getting her bearings. Then she nodded. “This way.”
Risking a glance behind him, Jack saw light from his house streaming through the trees. People were inside. A siren wailed, approaching.
“Come on,” Nona urged, pulling him along.
He saw her on her mobile, speaking tersely, before pocketing it. Her service pistol was in her right hand, and this alarmed him all the more. More sirens, more lights—some red now—behind them, until they turned down a side street.
An enormous black SUV without any ID idled, waiting for them. Nona bundled him into the passenger’s seat, climbed in behind the wheel, and took off.
“Nona,” Jack said, “what the hell is going on?”
She turned to him, her beautiful chocolate-brown face shining with the sweat of effort of their narrow escape. “Secretary Paull is dead,” she said. “And the feds are convinced you killed him.”
Copyright © 2013 by Eric Van Lustbader