The Prometheus Deception/Sigma Protocol

Robert Ludlum

St. Martin's Griffin

The Prometheus Deception/ The Sigma Protocol
Prometheus swept down from the heavens bringing the gift of fire.
Wrong move.
Carthage, Tunisia 3:22 A.M.
The driving rain was unrelenting, whipped into a frenzy by howling winds, and the waves surged and crashed against the coast, a maelstrom in the black night. In the shallow waters just offshore, a dozen or so dark figures bobbed, clinging to their buoyant, waterproof haversacks like survivors of a shipwreck. The freak storm had caught the men unawares but was good; it provided better cover than they could have hoped for.
From the beach, a pinpoint of red light flashed on and off twice, a signal from the advance team that it was safe to land. Safe! What did that mean? That this particular stretch of Tunisian coastline was left undefended by the Garde Nationale? Nature's assault seemed far more punishing than anything the Tunisian coast guard could attempt.
Tossed and buffeted about by the heaving swells, the men made their way toward the beach, and in one coordinated movement clambered silently onto the sand by the ruins of the ancient Punic ports. Stripping off their black rubber dry suits to reveal dark clothing and blackenedfaces, they removed their weapons from their haversacks and began distributing their arsenal: Heckler & Koch MP-10 submachine guns, Kalashnikovs, and sniper rifles. Behind them, others now came ashore in waves.
Everything was precisely orchestrated by the man who had trained them so exhaustively, so tirelessly, for the last months. They were Al-Nahda freedom fighters, natives of Tunisia come to free their country from the oppressors. But their leaders were foreigners--skilled terrorists who also shared their faith in Allah, a small, elite cell of freedom fighters drawn from the most radical wing of Hezbollah.
The leader of this cell, and of the fifty or so Tunisians, was the master terrorist known only as Abu. Occasionally his full nom de guerre was used: Abu Intiquab. The father of revenge.
Elusive, secretive, and ferocious, Abu had trained the Al-Nahda fighters at the Libyan camp outside of Zuwarah. He refined their strategy on a full-scale model of the presidential palace and instructed them in tactics both more violent and more devious than anything they were used to.
Barely thirty hours ago, at the port of Zuwarah, the men had boarded a five-thousand-ton, Russian-built break-bulk freighter, a cargo ship that normally hauled Tunisian textiles and Libyan manufactured goods between Tripoli and Bizerte in Tunisia. The powerful old freighter, now battered and decrepit, had traveled north-northwest along the Tunisian coast, past the port cities of Sfax and Sousse, then swung around Cap Bon and entered the Golfe de Tunis, just past the naval base at La Goulette. Alerted to the schedule of the coast guard patrol boats, the men had dropped anchor five miles from the Carthage coast and swiftly launched their rigid-hulled inflatables, equipped with powerful outboard motors. Within minutes, they had entered the turbulent waters of Carthage, the ancient Phoenician city so powerful in the fifth century B.C. that it was considered Rome's great rival. If anyone in the Tunisian coast guard happened to be monitoring the ship on radar, he would see only a freighter pausing momentarily, then heading on toward Bizerte.
On the shore, the man who had flashed the red signal was hissing orders and cursing in a low voice with unquestioned authority. He was a bearded man in a military-issue rain anorak worn over a keffiyeh. Abu.
"Quiet! Keep it down! What do you want, to bring out the wholegodforsaken Tunisian Garde? Quickly, now. Let's move it, move it! Clumsy fools! Your leader rots in jail while you dawdle! The trucks are waiting!"
Next to him stood a man wearing night-vision goggles and silently scanning the terrain. The Tunisians knew him only as the Technician. One of Hezbollah's top munitions experts, he was a handsome, oliveskinned man with heavy brows and flashing brown eyes. As little as the men knew about Abu, they knew even less about the Technician, Abu's trusted adviser. According to rumor, he was born to wealthy Syrian parents and raised in Damascus and London, where he was schooled in the intricacies of arms and explosives.
Finally the Technician spoke, quietly and calmly. He pulled his black, hooded waterproof garment tight against the torrential rain.
"I hesitate to say it, my brother, but the operation is going smoothly. The trucks loaded with matériel were concealed just as we had arranged and the soldiers encountered no resistance on the short drive along the Avenue Habib Borguiga. Now we have just received the radio signal from the first men--they have reached the presidential palace. The coup d'etat has begun." As he spoke he consulted his wristwatch.
Abu nodded imperiously. He was a man who expected nothing less than success. A distant series of explosions told Abu and his adviser that the battle was under way. The presidential palace would be seized imminently, and in a matter of hours, the Islamic militants would control Tunis. "Let us not congratulate ourselves prematurely," Abu said in a low, tense voice. The rain was letting up now, and in a moment the storm passed just as suddenly as it had appeared.
Suddenly the silence on the beach was shattered by voices shouting at them in strident, high-pitched Arabic. Dark figures raced across the sand. Abu and the Technician tensed and reached for their weapons, but then saw it was their Hezbollah brethren.
"A zero-one!"
"An ambush!"
"My God! Mighty Allah, they're surrounded!"
Four Arab men approached, looking frightened and out of breath. "A zero-one distress signal," panted the one carrying a PRC-117 field radio on his back. "They were able to transmit only that they were surroundedby the security forces at the palace and taken captive. Then the transmission was killed! They say they were set up!"
Abu turned to his adviser in alarm. "How can this be?"
The youngest of the four young men who stood before them said, "The matériel left for the men--the antitank weapons, the ammunition, the C-4--all of it was defective! Nothing worked! And the government forces were lying in wait for them! Our men were set up from the beginning!"
Abu looked visibly pained, his customary serenity vanished. He beckoned his number-one adviser. "Ya sahbee, I need your wise counsel."
The Technician adjusted his wristwatch as he came close to the master terrorist. Abu put one arm around his adviser's shoulders. He spoke in a low, calm voice. "There must be a traitor in our ranks, an infiltrator. Our plans were leaked."
Abu made a subtle, almost undetectable gesture with a finger and thumb. It was a cue, and his followers immediately grabbed the Technician by the arms, legs, and shoulders. The Technician struggled mightily, but he was no match for the trained terrorists who held him. Swiftly, Abu's right hand shot out. There was a flash of metal and Abu plunged a serrated, hooked knife into the Technician's abdomen, yanking the blade down and then out to inflict the maximum damage. Abu's eyes were blazing. "The traitor is you!" he spat out.
The Technician gasped. The pain was obviously excruciating, but his face remained a stolid mask. "No, Abu!" he protested.
"Pig!" spat Abu, lunging at him again, his serrated knife aimed at the Technician's groin. "No one else knew the timing, the exact plans! No one! And you were the one who certified the matériel. It can be no one else."
Suddenly the beach was flooded with blindingly bright carbon-arc light. Abu turned and realized that they were surrounded and vastly outnumbered by dozens upon dozens of soldiers in khaki uniforms. The Groupement de Commando of the Tunisian Garde Nationale, machine guns pointed, had abruptly appeared from over the horizon; a thundering racket from above announced the arrival of several attack helicopters.
Bursts of automatic gunfire hit Abu's men, turning them into jerking marionettes. Their bloodcurdling screams were abruptly silenced, andtheir bodies toppled to the ground in strange and awkward positions. Another burst of gunfire, and then it stopped. The unexpected silence that followed was eerie. Only the master terrorist and his munitions specialist had not been fired upon.
But Abu seemed to have only one focus of attention, and he spun back around to the man he had branded a traitor, positioning his scimitarshaped blade for another attack. Badly wounded, the Technician tried to ward off his assailant, but instead began to sink to the ground. The loss of blood was too great. Just as Abu lunged forward to finish him off, powerful hands grabbed the bearded Hezbollah leader from behind, slamming him down and pinning him to the sand.
Abu's eyes burned with defiance as the two were taken into custody by the government soldiers. He did not fear any government. Governments were cowards, he had often said; governments would release him under some pretext of international law and extradition and repatriation. Deals would be struck behind the scenes, and Abu would be quietly released, his presence in the country a carefully kept secret. No government wanted to bring on itself the full fury of a Hezbollah terror campaign.
The terrorist master did not struggle, but instead caused his body to go slack, forcing the soldiers to drag him away. As he was dragged past the Technician, he spat full in his face and hissed, "You are not long for this world, traitor! Pig! You will die for your treachery!"
Once Abu was taken away, the several men who had grabbed the Technician gently released him, easing him down onto a waiting stretcher. Obeying the instructions of the battalion captain, they backed away as the captain approached. The Tunisian knelt beside the Technician and examined his wound. The Technician winced but uttered not a sound.
"My God, it's a wonder you're still conscious!" said the captain in heavily accented English. "You have been badly injured. You have lost a great deal of blood."
The man who had been known as the Technician replied, "If your men had responded to my signal a little more speedily, this wouldn't have happened." He instinctively touched his wristwatch, which was equipped with a miniaturized high-frequency transmitter.
The captain ignored the barb. "That SA-341 up there," he said, pointing up to the sky, where a helicopter hovered, "will take you to a high-security government medical facility in Morocco. I'm not permitted to know your real identity, nor who your real employers are, so I won't ask," the Tunisian began, "but I think I have a good idea--"
Just then the Technician whispered harshly, "Get down!" He quickly pulled a semiautomatic pistol from the holster concealed under his arm and fired off five quick shots. There was a cry from a copse of palm trees, and a dead man toppled to the ground, his sniper rifle clutched in his hand. Somehow an Al-Nahda soldier had escaped the massacre.
"Mighty Allah!" exclaimed the frightened captain of the battalion as he slowly raised his head and looked around. "I think we're even now, you and I."
"Listen," the Arab-who-was-not-an-Arab said weakly, "tell your president his minister of the interior is a secret Al-Nahda sympathizer and collaborator who conspires to take his place. He's in league with the deputy minister of defense. There are others ..."
But the loss of blood had been too great. Before the Technician could finish his sentence, he passed out.
Washington, D.C. Five weeks later
The patient was conveyed by a chartered jet to a private landing strip twenty miles northwest of Washington, D.C. Although the patient was the only passenger on the entire aircraft, no one spoke to him except to ascertain his immediate needs. No one knew his name. All they knew was that this was clearly an extremely important passenger. The flight's arrival appeared on no aviation logs anywhere, military or civilian.
The nameless passenger was then taken by unmarked sedan to downtown Washington and dropped off, at his own request, near a parking garage in the middle of an unremarkable block near Dupont Circle. He wore an unimpressive gray suit with a pair of tasseled cordovan loafers that had been scuffed and shined a few too many times, and looked like one of a thousand midlevel lobbyists and bureaucrats, the faceless, colorless staffers of a permanent Washington.
Nobody gave him a second look as he emerged from the parking garage, then walked, stiffly and with a pronounced limp, to a dun-colored,four-story building at 1324 K Street, near Twenty-first. The building, all cement and gray-tinted glass, was scarcely distinguishable from all the other bland, boxy low-rises along this stretch of northwest Washington. These were the offices, invariably, of lobbying groups and trade organizations, travel bureaus and industry boards. Beside its front entrance a couple of brass plaques were mounted, announcing the offices of INNOVATION ENTERPRISES and AMERICAN TRADE INTERNATIONAL.
Only a trained engineer with highly rarefied expertise might have noticed a few anomalous details--the fact, for example, that every window frame was equipped with a piezoelectric oscillator, rendering futile any attempt at laser-acoustic surveillance from outside. Or the high-frequency white-noise "drench" that enveloped the building in a cone of radio waves, sufficient to defeat most forms of electronic eavesdropping.
Certainly nothing ever attracted the attention of its K Street neighbors--the balding lawyers at the grains board, the grim-faced accountants in their ties and short-sleeved shirts at the slowly failing business consulting firm. People arrived at 1324 K Street in the morning and left in the evening and trash was deposited in the alley Dumpster on the appropriate days. What else did anybody care to know? But that was how the Directorate liked, to be: hidden in plain view.
The man almost smiled to himself when he thought about it. For who would ever suspect that the most secretive of the world's covert agencies would be headquartered in an ordinary-looking office building in the middle of K Street, right out in the open?
The Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia, and the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland, were housed in moated fortresses that proclaimed their existence! Here I am, they seemed to say, right here, pay no attention to me! They virtually dared their opponents to breach their security--as inevitably happened. The Directorate made those so-called clandestine bureaucracies look about as reclusive as the U.S. Postal Service.
The man stood inside the lobby of 1324 K Street and scanned the sleek brass panel, on which was mounted a perfectly conventional-looking telephone handset beneath a dial pad, from all appearances the sort of arrangement that appears in lobbies in office buildings around the world. The man picked up the handset and then pressed a series of numbers, apredetermined code. He kept his index finger pressed on the last button, the # sign, for a few seconds until he heard a faint ring, signifying that his fingerprint had been electronically scanned, analyzed, matched against a preexisting and precleared database of digitized fingerprints, and approved. Then he listened to the telephone handset as it rang precisely three times. A disembodied, mechanical female voice commanded him to state his business.
"I have an appointment with Mr. Mackenzie," said the man. In a matter of seconds his words were converted into bits of data and matched against another database of precleared voiceprints. Only then did a faint buzzing in the lobby indicate that the first inner set of glass doors could be opened. He hung up the telephone receiver and pushed open the heavy, bulletproof glass doors, entered a tiny antechamber, and stood there for a few seconds as his facial features were scanned by three separate high-resolution surveillance cameras and checked against stored, authorized patterns.
The second set of doors opened onto a small, featureless reception area of white walls and gray industrial carpeting, equipped with hidden monitoring devices that could detect all manner of concealed weapons. On a marble-topped console in one corner, there was a stack of pamphlets emblazoned with the logo of American Trade International, an organization that existed only as a set of legal documents and registrations. The rest of the pamphlets were given over to an unreadable mission statement, filled with platitudes about international trade. An unsmiling guard waved Bryson past, through another set of doors and into a handsomely appointed hall, paneled in dark, burled walnut, where about a dozen clerical types were at their desks. It might have been an upscale art gallery of the sort one might find on Fifty-seventh Street in Manhattan, or perhaps a prosperous law firm.
"Nick Bryson, my main man!" exclaimed Chris Edgecomb, bounding from his seat at a computer monitor. Born in Guyana, he was a lithe, tall man with mocha skin and green eyes. He'd been at the Directorate for four years, working on the communications-and-coordination team; he fielded distress calls, figured out ways to relay information to agents in the field when it was necessary. Edgecomb clasped Bryson's hand warmly.
Nicholas Bryson knew he was something of a hero to people likeEdgecomb, who yearned to be field operatives. "Join the Directorate and change the world," Edgecomb would joke in his lilting English, and it was Bryson he had in mind when he said it. It was a rare event, Bryson knew, that the office staff saw Bryson face-to-face; for Edgecomb, this was an occasion.
"Somebody hurt you?" Edgecomb's expression was sympathetic; he saw a strong man who had been hospitalized until recently. Then he continued hastily, knowing better than to ask questions: "I'll pray to Saint Christopher for you. You'll be a hundred percent in no time."
The Directorate's creed, above all, was segmentation and compartmentalization. No one agent or staffer should ever know enough to be in the position to jeopardize the security of the whole. The organizational chart was shrouded even to a veteran like Bryson. He knew a few of the desk jockeys, of course. But the field personnel all operated in isolation, through their own proprietary networks. If you had to work together, you knew each other only by a field legend, a temporary alias. The rule was more than procedure, it was Holy Writ.
"You're a good man, Chris," Bryson remarked.
Edgecomb smiled modestly, then pointed a finger upward. He knew Bryson had an appointment--or was it a summons?--with the big man himself, Ted Waller. Bryson smiled, gave Edgecomb a friendly clap on the shoulder, and made his way to the elevator.
"Don't get up," Bryson said heartily as he entered Ted Waller's third-floor office. Waller did anyway, all six feet, four inches and three hundred pounds of him.
"Good Lord, look at you," Waller said, his eyes appraising Bryson with alarm. "You look like you came out of a POW camp."
"Thirty-three days in a U.S. government clinic in Morocco will do that to you," Bryson said. "It's not exactly the Ritz."
"Perhaps I should try being gutted by a mad terrorist someday." Waller patted his ample girth. He was even larger than the last time Bryson had seen him, though his avoirdupois was elegantly sheathed in a suit of navy cashmere, his bull neck flattered by the spread collar of one of his Turnbull & Asser shirts. "Nick, I've been tormenting myself since this happened.It was a serrated Verenski blade from Bulgaria, I'm told. Plunge and twist. Terribly low-tech, but it usually does the job. What a business we're in. Never forget, it's what you don't see that always gets you." Waller settled weightily back in the tufted-leather chair behind his oak desk. The early-afternoon sun filtered through the polarized glass behind him. Bryson took a seat in front of him, an unaccustomed formality. Waller, who was normally ruddy and seemingly robust, now looked pallid, the circles under his eyes deep. "They say you've made, a remarkable recovery."
"In a few more weeks, I'll be as good as new. At least that's what the doctors tell me. They also say I'll never need an appendectomy, a side benefit I never thought of." As he spoke, he felt the dull ache in his lower-right abdomen.
Waller nodded distractedly. "You know why you're here?"
"A kid gets a note to see the principal, he expects a reprimand." Bryson feigned lightheartedness, but his mood was tense, somber.
"A reprimand," Waller said enigmatically. He was silent for a moment, his eyes settling on a row of leather-bound books on the shelves near the door. Then he turned back and said in a gentle, pained voice: "The Directorate doesn't exactly post an organizational chart, but I think you have some inkling of the command-and-control structure. Decisions, particularly ones concerning key personnel, do not always stop at my desk. And as important as loyalty is to you and to me--hell, to most of the people in this goddamned ptace--it's coldhearted pragmatism that rules the day. You know that."
Bryson had only had one serious job in his life, and this was it; still, he recognized the undertones of the pink-slip talk. He fought the urge to defend himself, for that was not Directorate procedure; it was unseemly. He recalled one of Waller's mantras: There's no such thing as bad luck, then thought of another maxim. "All's well that ends well," Bryson said. "And it did end well."
"We almost lost you," Waller said. "I almost lost you," he added ruefully, a teacher speaking to a prize student who has disappointed him.
"That's not pertinent," Bryson said quietly. "Anyway, you can't read the rules on the side of the box when you're in the field; you know that. You taught me that. You improvise, you follow instinct--not just established protocol."
"Losing you could have meant losing Tunisia. There's a cascade effect: when we intervene, we do so early enough to make a difference. Actions are carefully titrated, reactions calibrated, variables accounted for. And so you nearly compromised quite a few other undercover operations, in Maghreb and other places around the sandbox. You put other lives in jeopardy, Nicky--other operations and other lives. The Technician's legend was intricately connected to other legends we'd manufactured; you know that. Yet you let your cover get blown. Years of undercover work compromised because of you!"
"Now, wait a second--"
"Giving them 'defective munitions'--how did you think they wouldn't suspect you?"
"Damn it, they weren't supposed to be defective!"
"But they were. Why?"
"I don't know!"
"Did you inspect them?"
"Yes! No! I don't know. It never crossed my mind that the goods weren't as they were represented."
"That was a serious lapse, Nicky. You endangered years of work, years of deep-cover planning, cultivation of valuable assets. The lives of some of our most valuable assets! Goddamn it, what were you thinking?"
Bryson was silent for a moment. "I was set up," he said at last.
"Set up how?"
"I can't say for sure."
"If you were 'set up,' that means you were already under suspicion, correct?"
"I--I don't know."
"'I don't know'? Not exactly words that inspire confidence, are they? They're not words I like to hear. You used to be our top field operative. What happened to you, Nick?"
"Maybe--somehow--I screwed up. Don't you think I've gone over it and over it in my mind?"
"I'm not hearing answers, Nick."
"Maybe there aren't any answers--not now, not yet."
"We can't afford such screwups. We can't tolerate this kind of carelessness. None of us can. We allow for margins of error. But we cannotgo beyond them. The Directorate doesn't tolerate mistakes. You've known that since day one."
"You think there was something I could have done differently? Or maybe you think somebody else could have done it better?"
"You were the best we ever had, you know that. But as I told you, these decisions are reached at consortium level, not at my desk."
A chill ran through Bryson upon hearing the bureaucratese that told him Waller had already distanced himself from the consequences of the decision to let him go. Ted Waller was Bryson's mentor, boss, and friend, and, fifteen years ago, his teacher. He had supervised his apprenticeship, briefed him personally before the operations he worked on early in his career. It was an immense honor, and Bryson felt it to this day. Waller was the most brilliant man he'd ever met. He could solve partial differential equations in his head; he possessed vast stores of arcane geopolitical knowledge. At the same time his lumbering frame belied his extraordinary physical dexterity. Bryson recalled him at a shooting range, absently hitting one bull's-eye after another from seventy feet while chatting about the sad decline of British bespoke tailoring. The .22 looked puny in his large, plump, soft hand; it was so under his control that it might have been another finger.
"You used the past tense, Ted," Bryson said. "The implication being that you believe I've lost it."
"I simply meant what I said," Waller replied quietly. "I've never worked with anyone better, and I doubt I ever will."
By temperament and by training, Nick knew how to remain impassive, but now his heart was thudding. You were the best we ever had, Nick. That sounded like an homage, and homage, he knew, was a key element of the ritual of separation. Bryson would never forget Waller's reaction when he pulled off his first operational hat trick--foiling the assassination of a moderate reform candidate in South America. It was a taciturn Not bad: Waller had pressed his lips together to keep from smiling, and to Nick, it was a greater accolade than any that followed. It's when they begin to acknowledge how valuable you are, Bryson had learned, that you know they're putting you out to pasture.
"Nick, nobody else could have accomplished what you did in the Comoros. The place would have been in the hands of that madman,Colonel Denard. In Sri Lanka, there are probably thousands of people who are alive, on both sides, because of the arms-trading routes you exposed. And what you did in Belarus? The GRU still doesn't have a clue, and they never will. Leave it to the politicians to color inside the lines, because those are the lines that we've drawn, that you've drawn. The historians will never know, and the truth is, it's better that way. But we know that, don't we?"
Bryson didn't reply; no reply was called for.
"And on a separate matter, Nick, noses are out of joint around here about the Banque du Nord business." He was referring to Bryson's penetration of a Tunis bank that channeled laundered funds to Abu and Hezbollah to fund the coup attempt. One night during the operation more than 1.5 billion dollars simply disappeared, vanished into cyberspace. Months of investigation had failed to account for the missing assets. It was a loose end, and the Directorate disliked loose ends.
"You're not suggesting that I had my hand in the cookie jar, are you?"
"Of course not. But you understand that there are always going to be suspicions. When there are no answers, the questions linger; you know that."
"I've had plenty of opportunities for 'personal enrichment' that would have been far more lucrative and considerably more discreet."
"You've been tested, yes, and you've passed with flying colors. But I question the method of diversion, the monies transferred through false flags to Abu's colleagues to purchase compromisable background data."
"That's called improvisation. It's what you pay me for--using my powers of discretion when and where necessary." Bryson stopped, realizing something. "But I was never debriefed about this!"
"You offered up the details yourself, Nick," said Waller.
"I sure as hell never--oh, Christ, it was chemicals, wasn't it?"
Waller hesitated a split-second, but just long enough that Bryson's question was answered. Ted Waller could lie, blithely and easily, when the need dictated, but Bryson knew his old friend and mentor found lying to him distasteful. "Where we obtain our information is compartmented, Nick. You know that."
Now he understood the need for such a protracted stay in an American-staffed clinic in Laayoune. Chemicals had to be administeredwithout the subject's knowledge, preferably injected into the intravenous drip. "Goddamn it, Ted! What's the implication--that I couldn't be trusted to undergo a conventional debriefing, offer the goods up freely? That only a blind interrogation could tell you what you wanted to know? You had to put me under without my knowledge?"
"Sometimes the most reliable interrogation is that which is conducted without the subject's calculation of his own best interest."
"Meaning you guys thought that I'd lie to cover my ass?"
Waller's reply was quiet, chilling. "Once assessments are made that an individual is not one hundred percent trustworthy, contrary assumptions are made, at least provisionally. You detest it, and I detest it, but that's the brutal fact of an intelligence bureaucracy. Particularly one as reclusive--maybe paranoid is the more accurate word here--as we are."
Paranoid. In fact, Bryson had learned long ago that to Waller and his colleagues at the Directorate, it was an article of faith that the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and even the National Security Agency were riddled with moles, hamstrung by regulation, and mired in an arms race of disinformation with their hostile counterparts abroad. Waller liked to call these, the agencies whose existence was emblazoned on Congressional appropriations bills and organization charts, the "woolly mammoths." In his earliest days with the Directorate, Bryson had innocently asked whether some measure of cooperation with the other agencies didn't make sense. Waller had laughed. "You mean, let the woolly mammoths know we exist? Why not just send a press release to Pravda?" But the crisis of American intelligence, in Waller's view, went far beyond the problems of penetration. Counterintelligence was the true wilderness of mirrors. "You lie to your enemy, and then you spy on them," Waller had once pointed out, "and what you learn is the lie. Only now, somehow, the lie has become true, because it's been recategorized as 'intelligence.' It's like an Easter-egg hunt. How many careers have been made--on either side--by people who have painstakingly unearthed eggs that their colleagues have just as painstakingly buried? Colorful, beautifully painted Easter eggs--but fakes nonetheless."
The two had sat talking through the night in the below-ground library underneath the K Street headquarters, a chamber furnished with seventeenth-centuryKurdish rugs on the floor, old British oil paintings of the hunt, of loyal dogs grasping fowl in their pedigreed mouths.
"You see the genius of it?" Waller had gone on. "Every CIA adventure, botched or otherwise, will eventually come under public scrutiny. Not so for us, simply because we're on nobody's radar." Bryson still remembered the soft rattle of ice cubes in the heavy crystal glass as Waller took a sip of the barrel-proof bourbon he favored.
"But operating off the grid, practically like outlaws, can't exactly be the most practical way to do business," Bryson had protested. "For one thing, there's the matter of resources."
"Granted, we don't have the resources, but then we don't have the bureaucracy, either, the constraints. All in all, it's a positive advantage, given our particular purview. Our record is proof of it. When you work in ad hoc fashion with groups around the world, when you don't shy from extremely aggressive interventions, then all you need is a very small number of highly trained operatives. You take advantage of on-the-ground forces. You succeed by directing events, coordinating the desired outcomes. You don't need the vast overheads of the spy bureaucracies. All you really need is brains."
"And blood," said Bryson, who had already seen his share of it by then. "Blood."
Waller had shrugged. "That great monster Joseph Stalin once put it quite aptly: you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs." He spoke about the American century, about the burdens of empire. About imperial Britain in the nineteenth century, when Parliament would debate for six months about whether to send an expeditionary force to rescue a general who had been under siege for two years. Waller and his colleagues at the Directorate believed in liberal democracy, fervently and unequivocally--but they also knew that to secure its future, you couldn't play, as Waller liked to say, by Queensbury rules. If your enemies operated by low cunning, you'd better summon up some good old low cunning of your own. "We're the necessary evil," Waller had told him. "But don't ever get cocky--the noun is evil. We're extra-legal. Unsupervised, unregulated. Sometimes I don't even feel safe knowing that we're around." There was another soft rattle of ice cubes as he drained the last drops of bourbon from the glass.
Nick Bryson had known fanatics--friendlies and hostiles both--and he found comfort in Waller's very ambivalence. Bryson had never felt he'd fully had the measure of Waller's mind: the brilliance, the cynicism, but mostly the intense, almost bashful idealism, like sunlight spilling through the edge of drawn blinds. "My friend," Waller said, "we exist to create a world in which we won't be necessary."
Now, in the ashy light of the early afternoon, Waller spread his hands on his desk, as if bracing himself for the unpleasant job he had to do. "We know you've been having a hard time since Elena left," he began.
"I don't want to talk about Elena," Bryson snapped. He could feel a vein throbbing in his forehead. For so many years she had been his wife, best friend, and lover. Six months ago, during a sterile telephone call Bryson had placed from Tripoli, she had told him she was leaving him. Arguing would do no good. She had clearly made up her mind; there was nothing to discuss. Her words had wounded him far worse than Abu's blade. A few days later, during a scheduled stateside debriefing--disguised as an arms-acquisition trip--Bryson arrived home to find her gone.
"Listen, Nick, you've probably done more good in the world than anybody in intelligence." Waller paused, and then spoke slowly, with great deliberateness. "If I let you continue, you'll start to subtract from what you've done."
"Maybe I screwed up," Bryson said dully. "Once. I'm willing to concede that much." There was no point in arguing, but he couldn't stop himself.
"And you'll screw up again," Waller replied evenly. "There are things we call 'sentinel events.' Early warnings signs. You've been extraordinary for fifteen years. Extraordinary. But fifteen years, Nick. For a field agent, those are like dog years. Your focus is wavering. You're burned out, and the scary thing is, you don't even know it."
Was what happened to his marriage a 'sentinel event,' too? As Waller continued to speak in his calm, reasonable, logical way, Bryson felt a rush of different emotions, and one of them was rage. "My skills--"
"I'm not talking about your skill set. As far as fieldwork is concerned,there's nobody better, even now. What I'm talking about is restraint. The ability not to act. That's what goes first. And you don't get it back."
"Then maybe a leave of absence is in order." There was an undertone of desperation in his voice, and Bryson hated himself for it.
"The Directorate doesn't grant sabbaticals," Waller said dryly. "You know that. Nick, you've spent a decade and a half making history. Now you can study it. I'm going to give you your life back."
"My life," Bryson repeated colorlessly. "So you are talking about retirement."
Waller leaned back in his chair. "Do you know the story of John Wallis, one of the great British spymasters of the seventeenth century? He was a wizard at decrypting Royalist messages for the Parliamentarians in the 1640s. He helped establish the English Black Chamber, the NSA of its time. But when he retired from the business, he used his gifts as professor of geometry at Cambridge, and helped invent modern calculus--helped put modernity on its track. Who was more important--Wallis the spy, or Wallis the scholar? Retiring from the business doesn't have to mean being put out to pasture."
It was a vintage Waller rejoinder, an arcane parable; Bryson almost laughed at the absurdity of it all. "What did you have in mind for me to do? Work as a rent-a-cop at a warehouse, guarding T-beams with a six-shooter and a nightstick?"
"'Integer vitae, scelerisque purus non eget Mauris jaculis, neque arcu, nec venenatis gravida saggittis pharetra.' The man of integrity, free of sin, doesn't need the Moorish javelin, nor the bow, nor the heavy quiver of hunting arrows. Horace, as you know. In the event, it's all arranged. Woodbridge College needs a lecturer in near-eastern history, and they've just found a stellar candidate. Your graduate studies and linguistic mastery make you a perfect match."
Bryson felt eerily detached from himself, the way he sometimes did in the field--floating above the scene, observing everything with a cool and calculating eye. He often thought he might be killed in the field: that was an eventuality he could plan for, take into account. But he had never thought he would be fired. And that it was a beloved mentor who was firing him made it worse--made it personal.
"All part of the retirement plan," Waller continued. "Idle hands arethe devil's workshop, as they say. Something we've learned from hard experience. Give a field agent a lump sum and nothing to do, and he'll get himself into trouble, as night follows day. You need a project. Something real. And you're a natural teacher--one of the reasons you were so good in the field."
Bryson said nothing, trying to dispel a wrenching memory of an operation in a small Latin American province, the memory of looking at a face in the crosshairs of a sniper-scope. The face belonged to one of his "students"--a kid named Pablo, a nineteen-year-old Amerindian he'd trained in the art of defusing, and deploying, high explosives. A tough but decent kid. His parents were peasants in a hillside village that had just been overtaken by Maoist insurrectionists: if word got out that Pablo was working with their enemies, the guerrillas would kill his parents, and most likely in cruel and inventive ways--that was their signature. The kid wavered, struggled with his loyalties, and decided he had no choice but to cross over: to save his parents, he'd tell the guerrillas all he knew about their adversaries, the names of others who had cooperated with the forces of order. He was a tough kid, a decent kid, caught in a situation where there was no right answer. Bryson peered at Pablo's face through the scope--the face of a stricken, miserable, frightened young man--and only looked away after he squeezed the trigger.
Waller's gaze was steady. "Your name is Jonas Barrett. An independent scholar, the author of half a dozen highly respected articles in peerreviewed journals. Four of them in the Journal of Byzantine Studies. Team efforts--gave our near-eastern experts something to do in their down time. We do know a thing or two about how to build a civilian legend." Waller handed him a folder. It was canary yellow, which signified that the card stock was interlaced with magnetic strips and could not be removed from the premises. It contained a legend--a fictive biography. His biography.
He skimmed the densely printed pages: they detailed the life of a reclusive scholar whose linguistic capacities matched his, whose expertise could be quickly mastered. The lineaments of his biography were easily assimilated--most of them, that was. Jonas Barrett was unmarried. Jonas Barrett never knew Elena. Jonas Barrett was not in love with Elena. Jonas Barrett did not ache, even now, for Elena's return. JonasBarrett was a fiction: for Nick to make him real meant accepting the loss of Elena.
"The appointment went through a few days ago. Woodbridge is expecting their new adjunct lecturer to arrive in September. And, if I may say so, they're lucky to have him."
"I have any choice in the matter?"
"Oh, we could have found you a position at any of a dozen multinational consulting firms. Or perhaps one of the behemoth petroleum or engineering companies. But this one is right for you. You've always had a mind that could handle abstractions as easily as facts. I used to worry it would be a handicap, but it turned out to be one of your greatest strengths."
"And if I don't want to retire? What if I don't want to go gently into that good night?" For some reason, he flashed back on the blur of steel, the sinewy arm plunging the blade toward him ... .
"Don't, Nick," Waller said, his expression opaque.
"Jesus," Bryson said softly. There was pain in his voice, and Bryson regretted letting it show. Bryson knew how the game was played: what got to him wasn't the words he had been listening to so much as the man who was speaking them. Waller hadn't elaborated, hadn't needed to. Bryson knew he wasn't being offered a choice, and knew what lay in store for the recalcitrant. The taxicab that swerves suddenly, hits a pedestrian, and disappears. The pinprick a subject may not even feel as he makes his way through a crowded shopping mall, followed by the open-and-shut diagnosis of coronary failure. An ordinary mugging gone awry, in a city that still had one of the highest rates of street crime in the nation.
"This is the line of work that we have chosen," said Waller gently. "Our responsibility supersedes all bonds of kinship and affection. I wish it were otherwise. You don't know how much. In my time, I've had to ... sanction three of my men. Good men gone bad. No, not even bad, just unprofessional. I live with that every day, Nick. But I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Three men. I'm begging you--don't make it four." Was it a threat? A plea? Both? Waller let his breath out slowly. "I'm offering you life, Nick. A very good life."
But what lay ahead for Bryson wasn't life, not just yet. It was a sort of fugue state, a shadowy half-death. For fifteen years, he had devoted his whole being--every brain cell, every muscle fiber--to a peculiarly hazardous and strenuous endeavor. Now his services would no longer be required. And Bryson felt nothing, just a profound emptiness. He made his way home, to the handsome colonial-style house in Falls Church that barely seemed familiar any longer. He cast his eyes over the house as if it were a stranger's, taking in the tasteful Aubussons that Elena had picked out, the hopeful pastel-painted room on the second floor for the child they never had. The place was both empty and full of ghosts. Then he poured himself a water tumbler full of vodka. It was the last time he would be fully sober in weeks.
The house was full of Elena, of her scent, her taste, her aura. He could not forget her.
They were sitting on the dock in front of their lakeside cabin in Maryland, watching the sailboat ... . She poured him a glass of cold white wine, and as she handed it to him she kissed him. "I miss you," she said.
"But I'm right here, my darling."
"Now you are. Tomorrow you'll be gone. To Prague, to Sierra Leone, to Jakarta, to Hong Kong ... who knows where? And who knows for how long?"
He took her hand, feeling her loneliness, unable to banish it. "But I always come back. And you know the expression, Absence makes the heart grow fonder."
"Mai rãrut, mai drãgut," she said softly, musingly. "But you know, in my country, they say something else. Celor ce duc mai mult dorul, le pare mai dulce odorul. Absence sharpens love, but presence strengthens it."
"I like that."
She raised an index finger, wagged it in his face. "They also say something else. Prin depãrtare dragostea se uitã. How do you say--long absent, soon forgotten?"
"Out of sight, out of mind."
"How long before you forget me?"
"But you're always with me, my love." He tapped his chest. "In here."
He had no doubt the Directorate had him under electronic surveillance; he hardly cared. If they assessed him as a security risk, they would certainly sanction him. Perhaps with enough vodka, he thought grimly, he might even save them the trouble. Days passed, and he saw and heard from no one. Maybe Waller interceded at consortium level to cut him slack, because he knew it wasn't just the severance that caused him to fall apart. It was Elena's departure. Elena, the anchor of his existence. Acquaintances would sometimes say how calm Nick always seemed, but Nick seldom felt calm: calm was what Elena had provided. What was Waller's phrase for her? A passionate serenity.
Nick hadn't known he was capable of loving somebody as much as he loved her. In the vortex of lies where his career played out, she was his one true thing. At the same time, she too was a spook: she would have had to have been for them to build a life together. In fact, she was cleared almost all the way to the top, because she worked in the Directorate's cryptography division, and you never knew what sort of thing they'd come across. The typical hostile intercept often contained morsels of intelligence about the United States; decrypting them meant the possibility of being exposed to your own government's innermost secrets--information most of the agency's division heads weren't even cleared for. Analysts like her lived desk-bound lives, the computer keyboard their only weapon, and yet their intellects roamed the world as freely as any field agent.
God, how he loved her!
In a sense, Ted Waller had introduced them, though in fact they had met in the least promising of circumstances, a result of an assignment Waller had given him.
It was a routine package transport, which Directorate insiders sometimes called the "coyote run," referring to the smuggling of human beings. The Balkans were on fire in the late 1980s, and a brilliant Romanian mathematician was to be exfiltrated from Bucharest with his wife and daughter. Andrei Petrescu was a true Romanian patriot, an academician at the University of Bucharest specializing in the arcane mathematics ofcryptography. He had been pressed into service by Romania's notorious secret service, the Securitate, to devise the codes used in the innermost circles of the Ceauescu government. He wrote the cryptographic algorithms, but he refused their offer of employment: he wanted to remain in the academy, a teacher, and he was revolted by the Securitate's oppression of the Romanian people. As a result, Andrei and his family were kept under virtual house arrest, forbidden from traveling, their every movement watched. His daughter, Elena, said to be no less brilliant than her father, was a graduate student in mathematics at the university, hoping to follow in her father's footsteps.
As Romania reached a boiling point in December of 1989, and popular protests began to break out against the tyrant Nicolae Ceauescu, the Securitate, the tyrant's Praetorian guard, retaliated with mass arrests and murders. In Timisoara, a huge crowd gathered on Bulevardul 30 Decembrie, and demonstrators broke into Communist Party headquarters and began throwing portraits of the tyrant out of the windows. The army and the Securitate fired on the unruly crowd throughout the day and night; the dead were piled up and buried in mass graves.
Disgusted, Andrei Petrescu decided to do his small part to fight the tyranny. He possessed the keys to Ceauescu's most secret communications, and he would give them away to the tyrant's enemies. No longer could Ceauescu communicate in secret with his henchmen; his decisions, his orders, would be known the moment he uttered them.
Andrei Petrescu wrestled with the decision. Would this imperil the lives of his beloved Simona, his adored Elena? Once they had discovered what he had done--and they would know, for no one else outside the government knew the source codes--Andrei and his family would be rounded up, arrested, and executed.
No, he would have to get out of Romania. But to do that he needed to enlist a powerful outsider, preferably an intelligence agency such as the CIA or the KGB, that had the resources to get the family out.
Terrified, he made cautious, veiled inquiries. He knew people; his colleagues knew people. He made his offer, and his demand. But both the British and the Americans refused to get involved. They had adopted a hands-off policy toward Romania. His offer was rebuffed.
And then very early one morning he was contacted by an American, a representative of another intelligence agency, not the CIA. They were interested; they would help. They had the courage the others lacked.
The operational details had been designed by the Directorate's logistical architects, refined by Bryson upon consultation with Ted Waller. Bryson was to smuggle out of Romania the mathematician and his family, along with five others, two men and three women, all of them intelligence assets. Getting into Romania was the easy part. From Nyírábrány, in the east of Hungary, Bryson crossed the border by rail into Romania at Valea Lui Mihai, carrying an authentic Hungarian passport of a long-haul freight driver; with his drab overalls and his callused hands, he was given barely a once-over. A few kilometers outside Valea Lui Mihai he found the truck that had been left for him by a Directorate contact. It was an old Romanian panel truck that belched diesel. It had been ingeniously modified in-country by Directorate assets: when the back of the truck was opened, the cargo bay seemed to be stacked with crates of Romanian wine and tzuica, plum brandy. But the crates were only one row deep; they concealed a large compartment, taking up most of the cargo area, in which all but one of the Romanians could be hidden.
The group had been instructed to meet him in the Baneasa forest, five kilometers north of Bucharest. Bryson found them at the designated rendezvous point, a picnic spread out before them, looking like an extended family on an outing. But Bryson could see the terror in their faces.
The leader of the eight was obviously the mathematician, Andrei Petrescu, a diminutive man in his sixties, accompanied by a meek, moonfaced woman, apparently his wife. But it was their daughter who arrested Bryson's attention, for he had never met a woman so beautiful. Twentyyear-old Elena Petrescu was raven-haired, petite, and lithe, with dark eyes that glittered and flashed. She wore a black skirt and dove-gray sweater, a colorful babushka tied around her head. She was silent and looked at him with profound suspicion.
Bryson greeted them in Romanian. "Buna ziua," he said. "Unde este cea mai apropiata statie Peco?" Where is the nearest gas station?
"Sinteti pe un drum gresit," responded the mathematician. You are on the wrong road.
They followed him to the panel truck, which he'd parked in the shelter of a copse of trees. The beautiful young woman joined him in the cab, as was the preordained arrangement. The others took their seats in the hidden compartment, where Bryson had left sandwiches and bottled water to get them through the long journey to the Hungarian border.
Elena said nothing for the first several hours. Bryson attempted to make conversation, but she remained taciturn, though whether she was shy or just nervous he could not tell. They passed through the county of Bihor and neared the frontier crossing point at Bors, from where they would cross over to Biharkeresztes in Hungary. They had driven through the night and were making good time; everything seemed to be going smoothly--too smoothly, Bryson thought, for the Balkans, where a thousand little things could go wrong.
So it did not surprise him when he saw the flashing lights of a police car, a blue-uniformed policeman inspecting oncoming traffic, about eight kilometers from the border. Nor did it surprise him when the policeman waved them over to the side of the road.
"What the hell is this?" he said to Elena Petrescu, forcing a blase tone as the jackbooted policeman approached.
"Just a routine traffic stop," she replied.
"I hope you're right," Bryson said, rolling down the window. His Romanian was fluent but the accent was not native; the Hungarian passport would explain that. He prepared himself to quarrel with the cop, as would any long-haul truck driver annoyed by some petty inconvenience.
The policeman asked him for his papers and the truck's registration. He inspected them; everything was in order.
Was something wrong? Bryson asked in Romanian.
Officiously, the policeman waved a hand toward the truck's headlights. One of them was burned out. But he would not let them go so easily. He wanted to know what was in the truck.
"Exports," replied Bryson.
"Open," said the policeman.
Sighing with annoyance, Bryson got out of the cab and went to unlock the tailgate. A semiautomatic pistol was holstered at his back, concealed inside his gray muslin work jacket; he would use it only if he had to, for killing the policeman was enormously risky. Not only was there thechance of being seen by a passing motorist, but if the officer had radioed in the truck's license plate numbers while he was pulling them over, his dispatcher would be waiting for a further communication. If none came, others would be called in, the truck's plates flagged at border control. Bryson did not want to have to kill the man, but he realized he might not have any choice.
As he pulled open the rear door, he could see the cop eyeing the crates of wine and tzuica greedily. Bryson found that reassuring: perhaps a bribe of a case or two of spirits would be enough to satisfy the man and send him on his way. But the policeman began pawing through the crates as if inventorying them, and he quickly reached the false wall, a mere two feet or so in. Eyes narrowed in suspicion, the Romanian tapped at the wall, heard the hollowness.
"Hey, what the fuck is this?" he exclaimed.
Bryson slipped his right hand around to the holstered pistol, but just then he saw Elena Petrescu saunter around the back of the truck, one hand placed saucily on her left hip. She was chewing gum, and her face was heavily made up with too much lipstick, mascara, and rouge: she must have applied it while she sat waiting in the cab. She looked like a vamp, a prostitute. Working her jaw up and down, she leaned in very close to the policeman and said, "Ce curu' meu vrei?" What the fuck do you want?
"Fututi gura!" said the policeman. Fuck you! He reached behind the crates with both hands, running them along the false back, obviously feeling for a pull or knob or lever to open it. Bryson's stomach plummeted as the man gripped the indentation that opened the secret compartment. There was no explaining the seven concealed passengers; the policeman would have to be killed. And what the hell was Elena doing, antagonizing him further?
"Let me ask you something, comrade," she said in a quiet, insinuating voice. "How much is your life worth to you?"
The cop whirled around, glaring at her. "What the fuck are you talking about, whore?"
"I ask you, how much is your life worth? Because you're not just about to end a good career. You're about to buy yourself a one-way ticket to the psychiatric prison. Maybe to some pauper's grave."
Bryson was aghast: she was destroying everything, she had to be stopped!
The policeman opened the canvas pouch that hung around his neck and took out a bulky, old, military-style field telephone, which he began to dial.
"If you're making a call, I suggest you make it directly to the Securitate headquarters, and ask for Dragan himself." Bryson stared incredulously: Maj. Gen. Radu Dragan was the second-in-command at the secret police, notoriously corrupt and said to be sexually "dissolute."
The policeman stopped dialing, his eyes searching Elena's face. "You threaten me, bitch?"
She snapped her gum. "Hey, I don't care what you do. If you want to interfere with Securitate business of the highest and most confidential nature, be my guest. I just do my job. Dragan likes his Magyar virgins, and when he's done with them, I always drop my girls off across the border like I'm supposed to. You want to get in my way, fine. You wanna be the hero who makes Dragan's little weakness public, it's up to you. But I sure as hell wouldn't want to be you, or anyone who knows you." She rolled her eyes. "Come on, dial Dragan's office." She recited a number with a Bucharest area code and exchange.
Slowly, dazed, the policeman punched out the numbers, then put the handset to his ear. His eyes widened and he quickly disconnected the call: he had obviously connected with the Securitate.
He turned around quickly, striding away from the truck, muttering profuse apologies as he got into his cruiser and drove off.
Later, as the border guards waved them through, Bryson said to Elena, "Was that really the Securitate's phone number?"
"Of course," she said indignantly.
"How did you--?"
"I'm good with numbers," she said. "Didn't they tell you that?"
At the wedding, Ted Waller was Nick's best man. Elena's parents had been relocated, under new identities, to Rovinj, on the Istrian coast of the Adriatic, under Directorate protection; for reasons of security, she was not allowed to visit them, a proscription she accepted, with a heavy heart, as a terrible necessity.
She had been offered work as a cryptographer in Directorate headquarters doing code-breaking and signals-intercept analysis. She was immensely gifted, perhaps the finest cryptographer they'd ever had, and she loved the work. "I have you, and I have my work--and if only I had my parents near me, my life would be perfect!" she once said. When Nick first told Waller that things were getting serious between the two, he felt almost as if he were asking permission to get married. A father's permission? An employer's permission? He wasn't sure. A life in the Directorate meant that there were no sharp boundaries between matters private and professional. But he had met Elena on Directorate business, and it seemed appropriate to let Waller know. Waller had seemed genuinely overjoyed. "You've finally met your match," he said, grinning broadly, and he instantly produced an iced bottle of vintage Dom Perignon, like a magician extracting a nickel from a child's ear.
Bryson thought back to their honeymoon, spent in a tiny, verdant, nearly uninhabited island in the Caribbean. The beach was pink sand; a ways inland were almost magical groves of tamarisk beside a little brook. They went exploring there for the sole purpose of getting lost, or pretending to, and then losing themselves, losing themselves in each other. Time out of time, she'd called it. When he thought of Elena, he recalled their setting out to get lost--it was a minor ritual of theirs--and reminding themselves that so long as they had each other, they were never lost at all.
But now he had lost her for real, and felt lost himself, rootless, anchorless. The big empty house was silent, but he could hear her bruised voice over the sterile line as she said, quietly, that she was leaving him. It was a thunderbolt, yet it shouldn't have been. No, it wasn't the months of separation, she insisted; it was far deeper than that, far more fundamental. I don't know you anymore, she had told him. I don't know you, and I don't trust you.
He loved her, goddamn it, he loved her: wasn't that enough? His pleas were clamorous, impassioned. But the damage had been done. Falseness, hardness, coldness--they were traits that kept a field operative alive, but they were also traits that he'd started to bring home, and no marriage could survive that. He had kept things from her--one incident in particular--and for that he felt enormously guilty.
And so she was going to leave, to rebuild her life without him. Request transfer out of headquarters. Her voice on the sterile line sounded both as close as the next room and eerily distant. She said nothing heatedly, and yet her very lack of expression was what was so hard to bear. Seemingly, there was nothing to discuss or debate: it was the tone of someone pointing out a self-evident fact--that two plus two was four, that the sun rose in the east.
He remembered the stricken sensation that came over him. "Elena," he said, "do you know what you mean to me?"
Her response--leaden, beyond hurt--still echoed in his mind: "I don't even think you know who I am."
Once he returned from Tunisia and found her gone from their house, all her things gone, he'd tried to track her down, implored Ted Waller to help, with whatever resources were at his disposal. There were a thousand things he wanted to say to her. But it was as if she had vanished from the face of the earth. She did not intend to be found, and she would not be found, and Waller would not violate that. Waller was right about her; he'd met his match.
Alcohol, in sufficient quantities, is Novocain for the mind. The trouble is that when it wears off, the throbbing pain returns, and the only remedy is more alcohol. The days and weeks that followed his return from Tunisia became mere shards, fractured images. Images in sepia. He would take out the garbage and notice the sound, the bright clinking of glass liter bottles. The phone would ring; he never picked it up. Once the doorbell rang: Chris Edgecomb was at his door, in violation of every Directorate stricture. "I got worried, man," he'd said, and he looked it, too.
Bryson didn't want to think about what he himself might look like to a visitor--haunted, unkempt, unshaven. "They send you?"
"Are you kidding? They'd have my ass if they knew I was here."
Bryson supposed this was what was called an intervention. He couldn't remember the words he spoke to Edgecomb, only that he'd pronounced them with emphatic finality. The kid wouldn't come again.
Mostly, Bryson remembered waking up after a binge, twitching andblinking, his nerves feeling peeled raw; he had the vanilla stench of bourbon, the juniper acridity of gin. Staring at his morning face in the mirror, all inflamed capillaries and dark hollows. Trying to force down some scrambled eggs, and gagging at the smell.
A few isolated sounds, a few scattered images. Not a lost weekend; a lost three months.
His neighbors in Falls Church evinced little interest, perhaps out of politeness or indifference. He was, what, a corporate accounting exec for some industrial supplies firm, wasn't he? Guy must have got laid off. He'd either pull out of it, or he wouldn't. The professional-managerial casualties of the Beltway economy seldom invite compassion; besides, the neighbors knew better than to make inquiries. In suburbia you kept your distance.
Then one day in August, something shifted within him. He saw the purple asters start to bloom, flowers that Elena had planted the year before, pushing through with defiance, as if nurtured by neglect. He would do likewise. The trash bags no longer clinked as he toted them to the curb. He began to eat real food, three times a day, even. He still moved shakily at first, but a couple of weeks later he slicked his hair down, shaved carefully, got into a business suit, and made his way to 1324 K Street.
Waller tried to mask his relief with professional detachment, but Bryson could see it in his glittering eyes. "Who was it who said there are no second acts in American lives?" Waller said quietly.
Bryson returned the gaze steadily, calmly. Waiting, at peace with himself at last.
Waller smiled, just barely--one would have had to know him well to recognize it as a smile--and handed him the canary file folder. "Let's call this a third act."
Five years later
Woodbridge College, in western Pennsylvania, was a small school, but it exuded a sense of quiet prosperity, of exclusivity beyond the norm. One saw it in the manicured greenness of the place: the emerald lawns and perfect flower borders of an institution that could pay lavishly for aesthetic incidentals. The architecture was the brick-and-ivy, collegiate-Gothic style typical of so much university construction from the twenties. From a distance, it might have passed for one of the ancient colleges of Cambridge or Oxford--if the college was taken out of those shabby, lightindustrial towns and placed in the middle of Arcadia. It was a sheltered, secure, conservative establishment, a place to which America's richest and most powerful families had no anxieties about sending their impressionable scions. The campus convenience stores and eateries did a brisk business in latté and focaccia. Even during the late sixties, the college remained, as its then-president had once famously joked, a "hotbed of rest."
"Jonas Barrett," to his own surprise, turned out to be a gifted lecturer,his courses far more popular than the subjects he taught would normally have justified. Some of the students were bright, and almost all of them more studious and better behaved than he'd ever been in his own college days. One of his faculty colleagues, a wry, Brooklyn-bred physicist who used to teach at the City College of New York, had observed to him, shortly after he'd settled in, that the place made you feel like an eighteenth-century live-in tutor, responsible for educating the children of an English lord. You lived amid splendor, but it wasn't exactly yours.
Still, Waller had told the truth: this was a good life.
Now Jonas Barrett looked out over a packed auditorium, at a hundred expectant faces. He'd been amused when the Campus Conftdential had called him, after only his first year of teaching at Woodbridge, an "icily charismatic lecturer, more Professor Kingsfield than Mr. Chips," and remarked on his "stone-faced, slyly ironic visage." Whatever the reasons, his course on Byzantium was among the most popular classes in the history department.
He glanced at his watch: it was time to wrap up the lecture and gesture toward the next. "The Roman Empire had been the most astonishing political achievement in human history, and the question that has haunted so many thinkers is, of course, why it fell," he intoned in a high professorial manner laced with a tincture of irony. "You all know the sad tale. The light of civilization flickered and dimmed. The barbarians at the gate. The destruction of humanity's best hope, right?" There was murmured assent. "Horseshit!" he exclaimed suddenly, and a surprised titter was followed by a sudden hush. "Pardon my Macedonian." He looked around the lecture hall, his arched-brow expression challenging. "The Romans, so called, lost their claim to the moral high ground way before they lost their claim to empire. It was the Romans who avenged an early set-to with the Goths by taking Goth children they'd seized as hostages, marching them into the public squares of dozens of towns, then slaughtering them one by one. Slowly and painfully. As far as sheer calculated bloodthirstiness, nothing the Goths ever did could compare. The western Roman Empire was an arena of slavery and bloodsport. By contrast, the eastern Roman Empire was far more benign, and it survived the so-called fall of the Roman Empire. 'Byzantium' is only what the Westerners called it--the Byzantines always knew themselves as the true RomanEmpire, and they safeguarded the scholarship and the humane values we cherish today. The west succumbed not to enemies from without, but rot from within--this much is true. And so civilization didn't flicker and dim. It just moved east." A pause. "You can come by and pick up your papers now. And enjoy your weekend, as much as you deem wise. Just remember Petronius: Moderation in all things. Including moderation."
"Professor Barrett?" The young woman was blond and fetching, one of those students who listens gravely and always sits in the front rows. He had stowed away his lecture notes and was fastening the straps of his battered leather satchel. He barely listened as she talked, complaining about a grade received, the tone urgent, the words banal, utterly familiar: I worked so hard ... I feel I did my very best ... I really, really tried ... . She followed as he walked toward the door, then to the parking lot outside the classroom building, until he reached his car. "Why don't we discuss this during office hours tomorrow?" he suggested gently.
"But Professor ..."
Something's wrong.
"I guess I feel it's the grade that was wrong, Professor."
He hadn't realized he'd spoken aloud. But his antennae were buzzing. Why? Out of some sudden, baseless paranoia? Was he going to end up like one of those Vietnam posttraumatics who jump whenever they hear a car backfire?
A sound, something definitely out of place. He turned toward the student, but not to look at her. Instead, to look past her, beyond her, to whatever had flickered in his peripheral vision. Yes, there was something amiss in the general vicinity. Strolling too casually in his direction, as if enjoying the spring air, the verdant setting, was a broad-shouldered man in a charcoal flannel suit, white shirt, and perfectly knotted rep tie. That wasn't academic garb at Woodbridge, not even for administrators, and the weather was too warm for flannel. This was indeed an outsider, but one feigning--attempting to feign--that he belonged.
Bryson's field instincts were signaling wildly. His scalp tightened and his eyes began scanning from side to side, like a photographer testingdifferent focal points in rapid succession: the old habits were returning, unbidden and somehow atavistic, rudely out of place.
But why? Surely there was no reason to be alarmed over a campus visitor--a parent, an official from Washington's educational bureaucracy, maybe even some high-level salesman. Bryson did a quick assessment. The man's jacket was unbuttoned, and he caught a glimpse of maroon braces holding the man's trousers up. Yet the man was also wearing a belt and the trousers were cut long, breaking deeply over the man's black, rubber-soled shoes. A surge of adrenaline: he'd worn similar attire himself, in a previous life. Sometimes you needed to wear a belt as well as suspenders because you were carrying a heavy object in one or both of your front pockets--a large-caliber revolver, say. And you needed the cuffs a little too long to ensure that your ankle holster was well concealed. Dress for success, Ted Waller used to advise, explaining how a man in evening dress could conceal a veritable arsenal if the fabric was tailored just right.
I'm out of the game! Leave me in peace!
But there was no peace; there never would be any peace. Once you were in you could never get out, even if the paychecks stopped and the health benefits expired.
Hostile parties around the world thirsted for revenge. No matter what precautions you took, no matter how elaborate the cover, how intricate the extraction. If they really wanted to find me, they could. To think otherwise was delusional. This was the unwritten certainty among the Directorate's operatives.
But who's to say they're not from the Directorate itself, doing a full sterilization, in that cynical phrase--removing the splinters, mopping up? Bryson had never met anyone who had retired from the Directorate, though surely such retirees did exist. But if someone at the consortium level in the Directorate came to doubt his loyalties, he, too, would be the victim of a full sterilization. It was a virtual certainty.
I'm out, I've put it behind!
Yet who would believe him?
Nick Bryson--for he was Nick Bryson now, Jonas Barrett gone by the wayside, discarded like a snake's shed skin--looked closely at the man in the suit. The man's salt-and-pepper hair was brush cut, the face broad and ruddy. Bryson tensed as the interloper approached, smiling as he didso and showing small white teeth. "Mr. Barrett?" the man called from halfway across the emerald lawn.
The man's face was a mask of reassurance, and that was the final giveaway, the mark of a professional. A civilian hailing a stranger always exhibited at least some tentativeness.
Directorate personnel were better than this, smoother and less obvious.
"Laura," he said quietly to the student, "I need you to leave me and go back into Severeid Hall. Wait at my office upstairs."
"Now!" he snapped.
Speechless and scarlet, Laura turned and hurried back toward the building. A change had come over Professor Jonas Barrett--as she would explain it to her roommate that evening, he suddenly seemed different, scary--and she quickly decided she'd better do what he told her.
Soft footsteps were audible from the opposite direction. Bryson spun. Another man: redheaded, freckled, younger, wearing a navy blazer, tan chinos, and bucks. More plausible as a campus costume, except for the buttons on the blazer, which were too bright and brassy. Nor did the blazer lie quite flat over his chest: a bulge was visible where you'd expect to find the shoulder holster.
If not Directorate, then who? Foreign hostiles? Others from the more overt U.S. agencies?
Now Bryson identified the noise that had alerted him in the first place: the sound of a car that was idling, quietly and continuously. It was a Lincoln Continental with dark tinted windows, and it wasn't in a parking space but parked in the lane where he'd left his own car, blocking it.
"Mr. Barrett?" The larger, older man made eye contact with him, his loping stride swiftly decreasing the distance between them. "We really need you to come with us." The accent was bland, Midwestern. He stopped barely two feet away and gestured toward the Lincoln.
"Oh, is that right?" Bryson said, his delivery cold. "Do I know you?"
The stranger's reply was nonverbal: hands on hips, chest out to display the contours of his holstered handgun beneath his suit jacket. The subtle gesture of one professional to another, one armed, the other not. Then abruptly the man doubled over in agony, his hands grabbing at his stomach.With lightning speed, Bryson had driven the steel nib of his slim fountain pen into the man's muscled belly, and the professional responded with an unprofessional, if wholly natural, move indeed. Reach for your weapon, never the wound: one of Waller's many axioms, and though it meant countermanding a natural instinct, it had saved Nick's life more than a few times. This man was not top-rank.
As the stranger's hands flailed at the ruined flesh, Bryson plunged his hands into the man's jacket and retrieved the small but powerful blue-steel Beretta.
Beretta--not Directorate issue; then whose?
He slammed the butt against the man's temple--heard the sickening crunch of bone against metal, heard the senior agent slump to the ground--and with the weapon pointed, spun to face the redheaded man in the blue blazer.
"My safety's off," Nick shouted to him, urgent and demanding. "Yours?"
The play of confusion and panic on the young man's face gave away his inexperience. He had to have calculated that Nick would easily be able to squeeze off the first shot the instant he heard the click of the safety release. Bad odds. But the inexperienced could be the most dangerous, precisely because they didn't react in a rational and logical manner.
Amateur hour. His gun aimed steadily at the redheaded field man, Bryson backed up slowly in the direction of the idling vehicle. The doors would be unlocked for immediate access, of course. In one fluid motion, all the while keeping the Beretta leveled at the redheaded novice, he yanked open the car door and slid into the driver's seat. With a glance he knew the vehicle's windows and windscreen were bulletproof, as they had to be. Bryson had only to throw the gearshift out of park, and the car lurched forward. He heard a bullet strike the back of the car--the license plate, he judged from the clatter. And then another struck the rearview window, pitting it but doing no further damage. They were firing at the car's tires, hoping to stop his flight.
In a matter of seconds he was roaring through the tall, ornamental wrought-iron gates of the campus. Barreling down the tree-lined maindrive, one assailant down and the other firing wildly yet ineffectually, his mind raced. He thought: Time's up. And: Now what?
If they'd really intended to kill me, I'd be dead.
Bryson sped down the Interstate, his eyes scanning the lanes ahead and behind for pursuers. They caught me unarmed and unaware, deliberately so. Which meant that they were up to something else. But what? And how did they find him in the first place? Could someone have gained access to a 5-1 classified Directorate database? There were too many variables, too many unknowns. But Bryson felt no fear now, only the icy calm of the seasoned field operative he had once been. He wouldn't drive to any of the airports, where they'd certainly be expecting him; instead, he'd drive directly back to his house on campus, the least expected place to go. If this was inviting another confrontation, so be it. Confrontation meant exposure of limited duration: flight could go on indefinitely. Bryson no longer had the patience for protracted flight: Waller had been right about that, at least.
Turning down the campus road to his residence on Villier Lane, he heard, then saw, a helicopter raking the sky, making its way toward the small campus helipad atop the science building tower donated by a software billionaire, the tallest building on campus by far. It was normally used only by major donors, but this chopper had federal markings. The helicopter was a follow-on; it had to be. Bryson pulled up in front of his house, a ramshackle Queen Anne-style dwelling with a mansard roof and plaster facade. The place was empty, and he knew from the alarm system, which he had installed himself, that no one had entered the house since he'd left it that morning.
Entering, he verified that the system hadn't been tampered with. The strong sun streamed through a parlor window onto the wide pine floorboards, giving rise to a resinous, evergreen smell. That was the chief reason why he'd bought the house: the scent reminded him of a happy year he'd spent in a half-timbered house outside Wiesbaden when he was seven and his father was stationed at the military base there. Bryson was no typical army brat--his father was, after all, a general, and the familywas usually provided with comfortable living quarters and a household staff. Still, his childhood was all about learning how to pick up stakes and put them down again in some other part of the world. Transitions were helped by his natural facility with languages, which others always marveled at. Making new friends didn't come quite as easily, but in time he developed a skill at that, too. He'd seen too many army brats who styled themselves as surly outsiders to want to join their ranks.
He was home now. He would wait. And this time the meeting would be on his territory, on his terms.
It didn't take long.
Only a few minutes elapsed before a black government Cadillac sedan, complete with a small U.S. flag flying from the antenna, pulled into his driveway. Bryson, watching from the house, realized that the very overtness of the display was meant to provide reassurance. A uniformed government driver got out and opened the vehicle's rear door, and a short, wiry man stepped out. Bryson had seen him before--a fleeting face from C-SPAN. Some sort of intelligence official. Bryson stepped out onto his porch.
"Mr. Bryson," the man said in a husky voice, the accent New Jersey. He was in his mid-fifties, Bryson estimated, with a thatch of white hair, the face narrow and creased; he wore an unstylish brown suit. "You know who I am?"
"Somebody with a lot of explaining to do."
The government man nodded, his hands raised in a gesture of contrition. "We fucked up, Mr. Bryson, or Jonas Barrett if you prefer. I take full responsibility. Reason I've come up here is to apologize to you personally. And also to explain."
An image from a TV screen came to Bryson, white letters beneath a talking head. "You're Harry Dunne. Deputy chairman of the CIA." Bryson remembered watching him testify to a Congressional subcommittee once or twice.
"I need to talk to you," the man said.
"I've got nothing to say to you. I wish I could direct you toward your Mr. Breyer or whatever his name is, but I'm drawing a blank."
"I'm not asking you to say anything. I'm just asking you to listen."
"Those were your goons, I take it."
"Yes, they were," Dunne admitted. "They overstepped the bounds. They also underestimated you--they figured, wrongly, that after five years out of the field you'd gone soft. You've also taught them a couple of key tactical lessons that will no doubt come in handy for them down the road. Especially Eldridge, once he gets stitched up." There was a dry rattle in his throat when he laughed. "So now I'm asking you nice as I can. All aboveboard." Dunne walked slowly over to the porch where Bryson was leaning against a wooden column, his arms folded behind his back. Taped to his upper back was the Beretta, which he could mobilize in an instant if he had to. On television, on the Sunday-morning talkinghead shows, Dunne possessed a somewhat commanding presence; in person, he seemed almost shrunken, a little too small for his clothes.
"I have no lessons to teach," Bryson protested. "All I did was defend myself against a couple of men who were in the wrong place and didn't seem to wish me well."
"The Directorate trained you well, I'll say that much."
"I wish I knew what you were talking about."
"You know full well. Your reticence is to be expected."
"I think you've got the wrong man," Bryson said quietly. "A case of mistaken identity. I don't know what you're referring to."
The CIA man exhaled noisily, followed by a rattling cough. "Unfortunately, not all of your former colleagues are as discreet, or maybe the correct word is principled, as you. Oaths of fealty and secrecy tend to loosen their holds when money changes hands, and I do mean serious money. None of your former colleagues came cheap."
"Now you've really lost me."
"Nicholas Loring Bryson, born Athens, Greece, the only son of General and Mrs. George Wynter Bryson," the CIA man recited, almost in a monotone. "Graduated from St. Alban's School in Washington, D.C., Stanford, and Georgetown's School of Foreign Service. Recruited while at Stanford into an all-but-invisible intelligence agency known to the very few who know about it as the Directorate. Trained in fieldwork, fifteen highly successful and secretly decorated years of service, with operations ranging from--"
"Nice bio," Bryson interrupted. "Wish it were mine. We academics sometimes like to imagine what it might be like to live an active lifeoutside these cloistered, ivied walls." He spoke with some bravado. His legend was designed to evade suspicion, not withstand it.
"Neither one of us has any time to waste," Dunne said. "In any case, I do hope you realize that we intended no harm."
"I realize no such thing. You CIA boys, from everything I've read, have a long menu of ways to inflict harm. A bullet in the brain, for one. Twelve hours on a scopolamine drip, for another. Shall we talk about poor Nosenko, who made the mistake of defecting to our side? He got the red-carpet treatment from you gentlemen, didn't he? Twenty-eight months in a padded crypt. Whatever it took to break him, you were all too willing to do."
"You're talking ancient history, Bryson. But I understand and accept your suspicion. What can I do to allay it?"
"What's more suspicious than the need to allay suspicion?"
"If I really wanted to take you down," Dunne said, "we wouldn't be having this conversation, and you know that."
"It might not be quite as easy as you think," Bryson said, his tone blase. He smiled coldly to let the CIA man pick up on the implied threat. He had given up the pretense; there seemed little point.
"We know what you can do with your hands and your feet. No demonstrations are required. All I'm asking you for is your ears."
"So you say." How much did the Agency really know about him, about his Directorate career? How could the security firewall have been breached?
"Listen, Bryson, kidnappers don't supplicate. I guess you know I'm not a man who makes house calls every day. I've got something to tell you, and it won't be easy to hear. You know our Blue Ridge facility?"
Bryson shrugged.
"I want to take you there. I need you to listen to what I've got to tell you, watch what I've got to show you. Then, if you want, you can go home, and we'll never bother you again." He gestured toward the car. "Come with me."
"What you're proposing is sheer madness. You do realize this, don't you? A couple of third-rate thugs show up outside my class and try to strong-arm me into a car. Then a man I've seen only on TV news shows--a high official in an intelligence agency with little credibility to speak of,frankly--shows up on my front lawn trying to entice me with a titillating combination of threats and lures. How do you expect me to respond?"
Dunne's gaze did not waver. "Frankly, I expect you'll come anyway."
"What makes you so sure?"
Dunne was silent for a moment. "It's the only way you'll ever satisfy your curiosity," he said at last. "It's the only way you'll ever know the truth."
Bryson snorted. "The truth about what?"
"For starters," the CIA man said very quietly, "the truth about yourself."
In the Blue Ridge mountains of western Virginia, near the borders with Tennessee and North Carolina, the CIA maintains a secluded area of hardwood forest interspersed with northern spruce, hemlock, and white pine, about two hundred acres in all. Part of the Little Wilson Creek wilderness, within the Jefferson National Forest, it is a rugged territory of a wide range of elevations, dotted with lakes, streams, creeks, and waterfalls, far removed from the main hiking trails. The nearest towns, Troutdale and Volney, are none too close. This wilderness preserve, enclosed by electric security fence and topped with concertina wire, is known within the Agency by the generic, colorless, and quite forgettable name of the Range.
There, certain exotic forms of instrumentation, such as miniaturized explosives, are tested amid the rocky outcroppings. Various transmitters and tracking devices are put through their paces there, too, their frequencies calibrated away from the surveillance range of hostile parties.
It is entirely possible to spend time on the Range and never notice the low-slung concrete-and-glass building that serves as combination administrative headquarters, training and conference facility, and barracks.This building is situated a hundred yards or so from a helipad clearing that, owing to peculiarities of elevation and vegetation, is nearly impossible to find.
Harry Dunne had said little during the trip there. In fact, the only opportunity for chat had been the brief limousine ride to the campus helipad; during the helicopter trip to Virginia, both men, accompanied by Dunne's silent aide-de-camp, wore protective noise-insulating headphones. Debarking from the dark green government helicopter, the three men were met by an anonymous-looking assistant.
Bryson and Dunne, the assistants in tow, passed through the facility's unremarkable-looking main lobby and descended a set of stairs into a subterranean, spartan, low-ceilinged chamber. On the smooth, whitepainted walls were mounted, like blank rectangular canvases, a pair of large, flat, gas-plasma display monitors. The two men took their seats at a gleaming table of brushed steel. One of the silent assistants disappeared; the other took a seat at a station just outside the closed door to the chamber.
As soon as Dunne and Bryson were seated, Dunne began to speak without ceremony or preface. "Let me tell you what I believe you believe," he began. "You believe you're a fucking unsung hero. This is in fact the central unshakable conviction that has enabled you to endure a decade and a half of tension so brutal, any lesser man would have cracked long ago. You believe you spent fifteen years in the service of your country, working for an ultraclandestine agency known as the Directorate. Virtually nobody else, even at the highest levels of the U.S. government, knows of its existence, with the possible exception of the chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and a couple of key players in the White House who've been cleared up the wazoo. A closed loop--or rather, as close as you can come to a closed loop in this fallen world."
Bryson took measured breaths, determined not to betray his emotions by any visible display of shock. Yet he was shocked: the CIA man knew of matters that had been cloaked with extraordinary thoroughness.
"Ten years ago, you even received a Presidential Medal of Honor for services rendered above and beyond," Dunne went on. "But, your operations being so hush-hush, there was no ceremony, no president, and Ibet you didn't even get to keep the medal." Bryson flashed back to the moment: Waller opening the box and showing him the heavy brass object. Of course, it would have put operational secrecy unacceptably at risk if Bryson had been invited to the White House for the presentation; still, he'd swelled with pride all the same. Waller had asked him if it bothered him--the fact that he'd achieved the highest civilian honor in America and nobody would ever know. And Bryson, moved, told him honestly no--Waller knew, the president knew; his work had made the world just a little safer, and that was enough. He'd meant it, too. That, in a nutshell, was the ethos of the Directorate.
Now Dunne pressed a sequence of buttons on a control panel embedded in the steel-topped table, and the twin flat screens shimmered into vibrant display. There was a photograph of Bryson as an undergraduate at Stanford--not an official portrait, but a candid, taken without his knowledge. Another of him in a mountain region of Peru, clad in fatigues; this dissolved into an image of him with dyed skin and grizzled beard, impersonating one Jamil Al-Moualem, a Syrian munitions expert.
Astonishment is an emotion impossible to sustain for any length of time: Bryson felt his shock gradually ebbing into sharp annoyance, then anger. Obviously he'd been caught in the middle of some interagency squabble over the legality of Directorate methods.
"Fascinating," Bryson interjected dryly, finally breaking his silence, "but I suggest you take up these matters with others better placed to discuss them. Teaching is my only profession these days, as I assume you know."
Dunne reached over and gave Bryson a comradely pat on his shoulder, no doubt intended to reassure. "My friend, the question isn't what we know. It's what you know--and, more to the point, what you don't. You believe you've spent fifteen years in the service of your country." Dunne turned and gave Bryson a penetrating stare.
Quietly, steely, Bryson answered, "I know I did."
"And you see, that's where you're wrong. What if I told you that the Directorate in fact isn't part of the United States government? That it never was. Quite the fucking contrary." Dunne leaned back in his chair and ran a hand through his rumpled white mane. "Ah, shit, this isn't going to be easy for you to hear. It's not easy for me to say, I'll tell youthat. Twenty years ago, I had to bring a guy in. He thought he'd been spying for Israel, and was a real zealot about it. I had to explain to him that he'd been false-flagged. It was Libya that was paying for his services. All the contacts, the controls, the hotel-room rendezvous in Tel Aviv--all part of the setup. Pretty flimsy one, at that. Fucker shouldn't have been double-dealing anyway. But even I had to feel sorry for him when he learned who his real employers were. I'll never forget his face."
Bryson's own face was burning hot. "What the hell does that have to do with anything?"
"We were supposed to arraign him in a sealed Justice Department courtroom the next day. Guy shot himself before we had the chance." One of the gas-plasma screens dissolved into another image. "Here's the guy who recruited you, right?"
It was a photograph of Herbert Woods, Bryson's adviser at Stanford and an eminent historian. Woods had always liked Bryson, admired the fact that he spoke a dozen languages fluently, had an unsurpassed gift for memorization. Probably liked the fact that he was no slouch as an athlete either. Sound mind, sound body--Woods was big on that.
The screen went blank, then flared with a grainy photo of a young Woods on a city street that Bryson immediately recognized as the old Gorky Street in Moscow, which after the end of the Cold War became Tverskaya once again, its pre-Revolutionary name.
Bryson laughed, bitterly, not bothering to hide his ridicule. "This is insanity. You're going to 'reveal' to me the 'damning' fact that Herb Woods was a commie when he was young. Well, sorry: everyone knows that. He never hid his past. That's why he was such a staunch anti-Communist: he knew firsthand how seductive all that foolish utopian rhetoric could be once upon a time."
Dunne shook his head, his facial expression cryptic. "Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself. I told you before that all I wanted you to do was listen. You're a historian now, right? Well, bear with me while I give you a quick history lesson. You know about the Trust, of course."
Bryson nodded. The Trust was widely regarded as the greatest espionage ploy of the twentieth century, bar none. It was a seven-year sting operation, the brainchild of Lenin's spymaster, Feliks Dzerzhinksi. Shortly after the Russian Revolution, the CHEKA, the Soviet intelligenceorganization that grew into the KGB, secretly founded a fake dissident group involving a number of supposedly disaffected high-ranking members of the Soviet government who believed, or so the word was quietly put out, that the collapse of the USSR was imminent. In time, anti-Soviet groups in exile were drawn into working with the Trust; in fact, Western intelligence units grew dependent upon the information--entirely fraudulent, of course--it provided. Not only was the hoax brilliantly designed to mislead those governments around the world who sought the Soviet Union's demise, it was, further, a superbly effective way for Moscow to penetrate the networks of its chief enemies abroad. And it worked phenomenally well--so well, in fact, that the Trust became a case study of the perfect deception operation, taught within intelligence agencies the world over.
By the time the nature of the subterfuge was exposed, in the late twenties, it was too late. Exiled leaders had been kidnapped and murdered, networks of collaborators destroyed, would-be defectors within Russia executed. The in situ forces of opposition to Soviet rule never recovered. It was, in the words of one eminent American intelligence analyst, "the deception operation upon which the Soviet state was built."
"Now you're the one talking ancient history," Bryson said in disgust, shifting in his seat impatiently.
"Never discount the power of inspiration," Dunne said. "In the early sixties, you had a small circle of brainiacs at the GRU--Soviet military intelligence, if you don't consider that a contradiction in terms." He chuckled. "These guys concluded that their intelligence agencies were all neutered, ineffectual, feeding out of the same trough of disinformation each one had created--or, to put it another way, a whole lot of ink and not much squid. The way these guys figured it--and they were geniuses, understand, IQs off the charts, the real deal--the intelligence agencies were spending most of their time chasing their own tails. These guys, they called themselves the Shakhmatisti, the chess players, chess club. They despised their own clumsy Russky operatives, and they had utter contempt for the sort of Americans who cooperated with them: sad sacks and losers, in their book. So they took another look at the Trust and tried to see if there was a lesson to be learned. They wanted to recruit the best and the brightest within their enemy's camp, same as us, andthey figured out a way to get them. Same as us. Recruit them for a life of adventure."
"I'm not following."
"Neither were we, until very recently. It was only in the last few years that the CIA learned of the Directorate's existence. And, far more crucial, what the Directorate meant."
"Try talking sense."
"We're talking about the greatest espionage gambit in the entire twentieth century. The whole thing was an elaborate ruse, do you see? Like the Trust. These GRU geniuses, their masterstroke was to establish a penetration operation right on enemy soil--our soil. A super-secret spy agency staffed by a lot of gifted people who had no idea as to the identities of their real bosses, known only as the consortium, and who were instructed to conceal their work from any and all U.S. government officials. Now, that's the beauty part. You can't tell anybody else, especially not the government you're ostensibly working for! I'm talking about good, red-blooded Americans who got up in the morning and drank their Maxwell House coffee and toasted their Wonder Bread and drove to work in their Buicks and Chevys, and went out into the world and risked their lives--yet never knew who their real employers were. It went like clockwork--like a classic 'big store' con of old."
Bryson couldn't endure this litany any longer. "Goddamn you, Dunne! Enough! This is all lies, a goddamn pack of lies. If you really think I'd fall for this crap, you're out of your goddamn mind." He stood up abruptly. "Get me the hell out of here. I'm tired of your little low-rent theatrical production."
"I hardly expected you to believe me--not at first," Dunne said calmly, barely even shifting in his seat. "Hell, I wouldn't believe it either. But bear with me for a sec." He gestured toward one of the screens. "Know this guy?"
"Ted--Edmund Waller," Bryson breathed. He was looking at a photograph of Waller as a much younger man, stocky but not yet obese, wearing a Russian Army dress uniform at what appeared to be some kind of ceremonial occasion in Red Square. Part of the Kremlin was visible in the background. Scrolling up to the side of the image were biographical details. Name: GENNADY ROSOVSKY. Born 1935 in VLADIVOSTOK.Childhood chess prodigy. Trained in American English, by a native speaker, since age seven. Certificates in ideology and in military science. A list of medals and other military honors followed.
"Chess prodigy," Bryson muttered to himself. "What the hell is this?"
"They say he could have beat Spassky and Fisher both, if he'd wanted to make a career of it," Dunne said, a harsh edge in his voice. "Too bad he decided to play for bigger game."
"Pictures can be doctored, pixels manipulated digitally--" Bryson began.
"Are you trying to convince me or yourself?" Dunne said, cutting him off. "Anyway, in a lot of cases we've got originals, and I'd be happy to have you inspect them. I can assure you we've been over everything with a microscope. We might never have known about the operation. Then our luck changes. Mirabile fucking dictu, Professor, we got access to the Kremlin archives. Money changed hands; buried archives were unearthed. There were one or two scraps of paper with pretty tantalizing stuff in them. Which would have told us nothing, to be honest, except for the lucky break of a couple of midlevel defectors, who gave us all they had. In isolation, their debriefings were meaningless. Taken together, with the Kremlin documents thrown in, patterns began to emerge. Which was how we learned about you, Nick. But it wasn't a whole lot, since apparently the inner circles kept the whole operation incredibly segmented, the way terror cells operate.
"So we started to wonder about what we didn't know. It's been a toppriority project for the past three years. We've got only the foggiest idea of who the real principals are. Except, of course, for your friend Gennady Rosovsky. He's got a sense of humor, got to hand him that. You know who he named himself after? Edmund Waller was the name of an obscure and extremely slippery seventeenth-century poet. He ever talk to you about the English civil war?"
Bryson swallowed hard and nodded.
"You'll get a laugh out of this, I know you will. During the interregnum, this Edmund Waller wrote praise poems for Cromwell, the Lord Protector. But, you see, he was also a secret conspirator in a Royalist plot. After the Restoration, he was honored at the Royal Court. That make anykind of sense to you? Guy calls himself after the great double-agent of English poetry. Like I said, I'm sure it's a laugh riot to you highbrows."
"So you're claiming that I was recruited at college into some ... some kind of cat's-paw organization, that everything I did after that was a sham, is that what you're saying?" Bryson spoke bitterly, skeptically.
"Only the machinations didn't start then. They started earlier. A lot earlier."
He tapped a sequence on the control panel, and another digitized image came to life on the screen. On the left, he saw his father, Gen. George Bryson, robust, handsome, and square jawed, next to Nick's mother, Nina Loring Bryson, a soft-spoken, gentle woman who taught the piano, followed her husband to his postings around the world, and never breathed a word of complaint. On the right, another image--a grainy image from the police riles--showed a crumpled vehicle on a snowy mountain road. The remembered pain slammed Bryson in the gut; after all these years, it was still almost unbearable.
"Let me ask you something, Bryson. Did you believe this was an accident? You were fifteen, already a brilliant student, terrific athlete, prime of American youth, all that. Now both your parents are suddenly killed. Your godparents take you in ..."
"Uncle Pete," Bryson said tonelessly. He was in a world of his own, a world of shock and pain. "Peter Munroe."
"That was the name he took, sure, not the name he was born with. And he made sure you went to college where you did, and made a lot of other decisions for you besides. All of which pretty much guaranteed that you'd end up in their hands. The Directorate's, I mean."
"You're saying that when I was fifteen, my parents were murdered," Bryson said numbly. "You're saying my entire life has been some kind of ... immense deception."
Dunne hesitated, wincing. "If it makes you feel any better, you weren't alone," he said gently. "There were dozens just like you. It's just that you were their most spectacular success."
Bryson wanted to press the point, argue with the CIA man, show the essential illogic of his reasoning, point out the flaws in his case. But instead he found himself overcome by an intense feeling of vertigo, aharrowing sense of guilt. If what Dunne said was correct, even anywhere near correct, then what in his life was real? What had ever been true? Did he even know who he was himself? "And Elena?" he asked stonily, not wanting to hear the answer.
"Yes, Elena Petrescu, too. Interesting case. We believe she was recruited out of the Romanian Securitate, assigned to you by the Directorate in order to keep tabs on you."
Elena ... no, it was inconceivable, she wasn't Securitate! Her father was an enemy of the Securitate, a brave mathematician who turned against the government. And Elena ... he had rescued her and her parents, they had built a life together ... .
They were horseback riding along an endless stretch of deserted sandy beach in the Caribbean. Coming off a full gallop, they slowed to a trot. The moonlight was silvery, the night cool.
"Is this island all ours, Nicholas?" she exulted. "I feel like we're all alone here, that we own everything we see!"
"We do, my darling," Bryson said, infected by her playful exuberance. "Didn't I tell you? I've been diverting funds from discretionary accounts. I've bought the island."
Her laugh was musical, joyful. "Nicholas, you are terrible!"
"'Nick-o-las'--I love the way you say my name. Where did you learn to ride so well? I didn't know they even had horses in Romania."
"Oh, but they do. I learned to ride on my grandmother Nicoleta's farm in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains, on a Hutsul pony. They're bred to work in the mountains, but they're so marvelous for riding, so lively and strong and sure footed."
"You could be describing yourself."
The waves crashed loudly behind them, and she laughed once more. "You never really saw my country, did you, my dear? The Communists made Bucharest so ugly, but the countryside, Transylvania and the Carpathians, is so beautiful and unspoiled. They still live in the old way, with the horse-drawn wagons. Whenever we tired of university life we would stay with Nicoleta in Dragoslavele, and every day she'd make us mamagliga, fried cornmeal mush, and ciorba, my favorite soup."
"You miss the homeland."
"A little. But mostly I miss my parents. I miss them so terribly. It's such agony for me not to be able to see them. The sterile phone calls maybe twice a year -- it's not enough!"
"But at least they're safe. Your father has many enemies, people who would kill him if they knew his whereabouts. Securitate remnants, professional assassins who blame him for giving away the codes that led to the downfall of the Ceauescu government that kept them in power. Now they're in hiding themselves, inside Romania and abroad, and they haven't forgotten. There are teams of them, called sweepers, who track down their old enemies and execute them. And they desperately want revenge against the man they consider the worst turncoat of all."
"He was a hero!"
"Of course he was. But to them he was a traitor. And they will stop at nothing to extract their vengeance."
"You frighten me!"
"Only to remind you how important it is that your parents remain in hiding, protected."
"Oh God, Nicholas, I pray nothing ever happens to them!"
Bryson pulled on the reins, bringing his horse to a stop as he turned to face Elena. "I promise you, Elena. Anything I can humanly do to keep them safe, I will."
A minute of silence passed, and then another. Finally, Bryson, blinking hard, said, "But it doesn't make any sense. I did goddamned valuable work. Time and again I--"
"--fucked us up the ass but good," Dunne interrupted, toying with a cigarette but not lighting it. "Every one of your great successes was a devastating setback to American interests. And I say this with the greatest professional respect. Oh, let's see. That 'moderate reform candidate' you protected? He was in the pay of the Sendero Luminoso, the Shining Path terrorists. In Sri Lanka, you pretty much destroyed a secret coalition that had been on the verge of brokering a peace between the Tamils and the Sinhalese."
Another image was downloaded onto the high-resolution screen, as aspray of pixels scrambled into colors and contours. Bryson recognized the face while it was still half a blur.
It was Abu.
"Tunisia," Bryson said, breathing hard. "He--he was going to stage a coup, he and his followers--fanatics. I moved in, leveraged some opposition groups, figured out who in the palace was playing both sides ... ." It was not an episode he remembered altogether fondly: he would never forget the carnage along the Avenue Habib Borguiga. Nor the moment when Abu unmasked him and nearly took his life.
"Let's see now," Dunne said. "You burned him. Took him down, and handed him over to the government."
That was true. He'd turned Abu over to a trusted group of government security men, who jailed him along with dozens of his henchmen.
"Then what happened?" Dunne prompted, as if he was testing.
Bryson shrugged. "He died in captivity a few days later. I won't tell you I shed any tears."
"I wish I could say the same," Dunne said, his voice suddenly hard. "Abu was one of ours, Bryson. One of mine, I should say. I trained him. He was our chief asset in the whole region. I'm talking the entire goddamn sandbox."
"But the attempted coup ..." Bryson put in feebly, his mind whirling. Nothing was making any sense!
"A bullshit cover story, to keep up his bona fides with the lunatics. He was leading the Al-Nahda, all right--right off the fucking cliff. Abu worked deep, deep cover. Needed to if he was going to survive the day. You think it's easy penetrating terrorist cells, especially Hezbollah, the big kahuna? They're all so goddamned suspicious. If they haven't known you and your family your entire goddamned life, they want to see you shed blood by the gallon, the blood of Israelis, otherwise they never trust you. Abu was a slick bastard who played rough, but he was our slick bastard. And he had to play rough. Thing is, he was getting close to Khadafy. Very close. Khadafy figured if Abu took Tunisia, he could make it a Libyan province, more or less. Abu was getting to be an asshole buddy of his. We were on the verge of having a direct feed to every Islamic terror group north of the Sahara. Then the Directorate sandbagged him, planted phony munitions -- and by the time our people discovered we'dbeen stung, it was too late. Pretty much set back our whole network about twenty years. Brilliant work. Got to hand it to those Shakhmatisti whiz kids. Brilliant, really fucking brilliant, to have one American spy agency undoing the work of the other. You want me to go on? Tell you about Nepal and what you really accomplished? What about Romania, where you guys probably thought you helped get rid of Ceauescu? What a farce. Just about everyone from the old regime changed clothes one day and became the new government, you know that! Ceauescu's underlings had been plotting the bastard's downfall for years--they delivered their boss to the wolves so they could stay in power. Which was just what the Kremlin wanted. So what happens? There's a fake coup d'etat, the dictator and his wife try to escape in a helicopter that suddenly develops 'engine trouble' so they can't escape, they get arrested and tried in a closed, kangaroo court, and face a firing squad on Christmas Day. The whole thing was a goddamned setup, and who benefited? One by one, all the Eastern European satellites were falling like dominoes, kicking out the old Party apparatchiks, going democratic, breaking away from the Soviet bloc. But Moscow wasn't going to lose Romania, too. Ceauescu had to go, he was bad PR. The guy was a goddamned pain in Moscow's ass anyway, always was. Moscow wanted to keep Romania, maintain the security apparatus, install a new puppet. And who's there to do their dirty work? Who else but you and your good friends in the Directorate? Jesus, man, how much do you really want to know?"
"Damn it!" Bryson shouted. "This makes no sense! How ignorant do you think I am? The goddamn GRU, the Russians--that's all the past. Maybe you Cold War cowboys at Langley haven't yet heard the news--the war's over!"
"Yes," Dunne replied raspily, barely audible. "And for some baffling reason the Directorate is alive and well."
Bryson stared at him mutely, unable to get any words out. He felt his brain working, spinning in circles, circuits overheating, sparks flying.
"I'll level with you, Bryson. There was a time when I wanted to kill you, kill you with my bare hands. That was before we'd figured out the whole story, the way the Directorate worked. Nah, let's be straight with each other, I'd be bullshitting you and me both if I said we have anything remotely approaching the whole story. We still hardly know more thanisolated segments. For decades there had been rumors, no more substantial than dandelion wisps. Once the Cold War's over, the whole operation falls into quiescence, as best as we can figure. It's like the old parable of the blind man and the elephant. We can feel a trunk here, a tail there, but on the highest levels, we still don't know what kind of beast we're dealing with. What we do know--and we've had you under surveillance for the past few years--is that you were one deluded piece of shit. Which is why I'm talking to you real nice and not wrapping my hands around your throat." Dunne laughed bitterly, and the laugh turned into a cough--a smoker's hack. "See, here's what we speculate. Seems like after the Cold War, the organization broke off from its original masters. Control shifted into other hands."
Warily, sullenly, Bryson ventured: "Whose?"
Dunne shrugged. "Don't know. Five years ago, the organization apparently went into a period of relative dormancy: you weren't the only agent to be terminated--a whole lot of people were let go. Maybe the place was being shut down; it's impossible to say with any certainty. But now we've got reason to think it's being reactivated."
"What's that supposed to mean, 'reactivated'?"
"Not sure. That's why we decided to bring you in. We hear stuff. Your old masters appear to be accumulating arms, for some reason."
"For some reason," Bryson repeated dully.
"You could say they're poised to foment global instability--anyway, that's how our overeducated analysts might phrase it, in their Locust Valley lockjaw. But I ask myself, for what? What are they after? And I don't know. Like I say, what scares me is the stuff I don't know."
"Interesting," said Bryson sardonically. "You hear 'rumors,' you 'speculate,' you give me a goddamned digital slide show like some corporate consultant, yet you don't have the faintest clue what you're really saying."
"That's why we need you. The old Soviet system may be down, but the generals aren't down for the count. Look at General Bushalov--he's looking like a strong challenger on the political scene in Russia. Say something bad happened that he could blame on the United States--my prediction is, he'd be catapulted into power. Deliberative democracy? Plenty of Russkies would say, Good riddance to that. In Beijing there's a powerful reactionary cabal within both the National People's Congressand the Central Committee. Not to mention the Chinese Army, the PLA, the People's Liberation Army, which is a force unto itself. No matter how you look at it, a lot of yuan are at stake, and a lot of power is, too. One school of thought has remnants of Shakhmatisti teaming up with a handful of their Beijing brethren. But I'm just blowing smoke out my ass. Because nobody really knows but the bad guys, and they ain't saying."
"If you really believe all this, truly think that I was some kind of chump in the biggest con game of the last century, what the hell do you need me for?"
The two men locked eyes for a long while. "You apprenticed with one of their masterminds, one of their founders, for Christ's sake. Gennady Rosovsky -- back in Russia his nickname was apparently Volshebnik, 'the Sorcerer.' Know what that makes you?" Dunne's laugh turned into a hacking cough again. "The sorcerer's apprentice."
"Damn you!" Bryson exploded again.
"You know how Waller's mind works. You were his best student. You do realize what I'm asking you to do, don't you?"
"Yeah," Bryson replied sardonically. "You want me to get back inside."
Dunne nodded slowly. "You're our best bet. I could appeal to your patriotism, to the better angels of your being. But goddamn if you don't owe us one."
Bryson's mind was reeling. He did not know what to think, what to say to the CIA man.
"Don't take offense," Dunne told him, "but if we're trying to scent them out, then at least we should send out the best bloodhound we can find. I mean, how can I put this?" He'd been toying with the unlit cigarette so long that tobacco crumbs were beginning to spill from it. "You're the only one who knows what they smell like."
The strong midday sunlight bleached the buildings along this particular block of K Street, shimmered and glared against the plate-glass windows of the office buildings. Across the street, Nicholas Bryson intently watched 1324 K Street, a building at once deeply familiar and profoundly strange. Sweat rolled down his face, dampening his white dress shirt. He stood at the window of a deserted office space, tiny binoculars discreetly held to his face, curled in, and concealed by one hand. No doubt the commercial real-estate agent who had given him the keys to the vacant rental space thought it was strange that this international businessman wanted to spend a few minutes alone in what might be his office, in order to get a feel for it, the feng shui and all. The real-estate agent surely thought Bryson was another one of those touchy-feely New Age businessmen, but at least he'd left him alone for a while.
His pulse raced, his temples throbbed. There was nothing comforting or welcoming about the modern office building that served as the headquarters of his employer, that for so long had been home base, a place of sanctuary and renewal, an island of continuity and calm reassurancein his ever-shifting, violent world. He watched from the dark, empty office suite for a good quarter of an hour, until a knock at the door came; the real-estate agent was back and curious to know the verdict.
It was immediately apparent that 1324 K Street had changed, though the transformations were subtle. The plaques on the front of the building, announcing its occupants, had been replaced with others, though just as banal-sounding as the previous ones. Harry Dunne had told him the K Street headquarters had been abandoned, but Bryson refused to accept his assurance on face value. The Directorate was also great at hiding in plain sight. "Naked is the best disguise," Waller used to say.
So was it indeed gone? THE AMERICAN TEXTILE MANUFACTURERS BOARD and THE UNITED STATES GRAINS PRODUCERS BOARD sounded just as plausible as the other notional organizations whose plaques had been put there by some creative camouflage artists within the Directorate, but what necessitated the change? Too, there were other alterations at 1324 K Street. In a quarter-hour of discreet surveillance, Bryson had seen an unusually high number of people pass through its front doors. Far too many, certainly, to be Directorate employees or blind contractors. So something different was going on here.
Maybe Dunne was right after all. But his early-warning system had been triggered. Accept nothing at face value; question everything you're told. Another of Ted Waller's lines. That went for Waller and Dunne and everyone else in the business for that matter.
The matter of how to get into the building without alerting its occupants was one he had been wrestling with for hours. He approached the issue as yet another fieldwork conundrum to be solved; in his mind, he had worked out dozens of ingenious methods of entry. Yet all of them carried risks without commensurate odds of success. Then he recalled one of Waller's -- damn it, Gennady Rosovsky's -- truisms: When in doubt, go in the front door. The best and most effective stratagem would be to enter the building openly, brazenly.
Yet duplicity was a necessary part of the game plan; it would always be so. He thanked the real-estate agent, told him he was interested, and asked him to prepare a leasing agreement. He handed over one of his false business cards, and then told the man he had to rush off to anotherappointment. He approached the building's front entrance, his senses hyperalert to any sudden movements, any shifts in crowd patterns or coloration, that might signal a threat.
So where was Ted Waller?
Where was the truth? Where was sanity?
The jarring traffic noises swelled all around him, the cacophony overwhelming. "It's the only way you'll ever know the truth."
"The truth about what?"
"For starters, the truth about yourself."
But where was the truth? Where were the lies?
"You believe you're a fucking unsung hero ... . You believe you've spent fifteen years in the service of your country, working for an ultraclandestine agency known as the Directorate."
Stop it! This was madness!
Elena? You, too? Elena, the love of my life, now departed from my life as abruptly as you first appeared?
"You believe you've spent a decade and a half in the service of your country."
The blood I spilled, the gut-wrenching fear, the innumerable occasions I almost lost my life, extinguished the lives of others?
"We're talking about the greatest espionage gambit in the entire twentieth century. The whole thing was an elaborate ruse, do you see?"
"You're saying my entire life has been some kind of ... immense deception!"
"If it makes you feel any better, you weren't alone. There were dozens just like you. It's just that you were their most spectacular success."
"You're the only one who knows what they smell like."
Someone crashed into him, and Bryson spun in a crouch, hands flat and stiff at his side, ready to attack. It was no professional, but instead a tall, athletic-looking executive carrying a gym bag and a squash racquet. The man fixed Bryson with a scowl contorted with fear. Bryson apologized; the executive glared and moved on, quickly, nervously.
Face it, face the past, face the truth!
Face Ted Waller, who was not Ted Waller! This much Bryson knew by now. He still had his own sources from the old KGB, the old GRU,men living in retirement or gone into new lines of work in a mercenary post-Cold War world. Inquiries were made, records checked, data confirmed. Telephone calls placed, false names used, meaningless-sounding but in fact highly significant phrases employed. Men were contacted, men whom Bryson had known in a past life, a life he was sure he had left behind. A diamond dealer in Antwerp; an attorney-businessman in Copenhagen; a highly paid international trade "consultant" and "fixer" in Moscow. Once key sources all, former Soviet GRU officers who had since emigrated, left behind the spy world as Bryson thought he had. All of whom maintained records in safe-deposit boxes, stored on encrypted magnetic tape, or simply archived in their formidable brains. All of whom were surprised, some unnerved, frightened even, to be contacted by a man who had attained legend status in their former trade, who had once paid them generously for their information, their assistance. Separately, identifications were provided, checkable and confirmable several times over.
Gennady Rosovsky and Edmund Waller were one and the same. There was no doubt about it.
Ted Waller -- Bryson's best man, boss, confidant, employer--was indeed a GRU sleeper agent. Once again the CIA man, Harry Dunne, was correct. Madness!
Arriving in the outer lobby, he noticed that the intercom panel where he had once entered a coded, constantly changing series of numbers had been removed; in its place was a glass-encased directory of law firms and lobbying organizations located within. Below each firm name was a list of its chief officers and their office numbers. He was surprised to find that the front door opened with no annunciation apparatus, no locks or barriers of any sort. Anyone could come in and out.
Beyond the glass doors, which now appeared to be of regular window glass, not bulletproof, the inner lobby looked little changed -- a standard reception area with one security guard/receptionist seated behind a tall half-moon of curved marble counter. A young black man in a blue blazer and red tie looked up at him with little interest.
"I've got an appointment with--" He hesitated but a split-second ashe called to mind a name from the directory in the outer lobby--"John Oakes of the American Textiles Manufacturers Board. I'm Bill Thatcher from Congressman Vaughan's office." Bryson affected a slight Texas twang; Congressman Rudy Vaughan was a powerful ranking member from Texas whose opinion, and committee chairmanships, no doubt meant quite a bit to the textile board.
The usual preliminaries were gone through. The director of the lobbying board was telephoned by security; his executive assistant had no record of any scheduled visit by Congressman Vaughan's chief legislative aide but was more than happy to accommodate such an important figure. A sprightly young woman with frosted blond hair came down and escorted Bryson into the elevator, apologizing all the while for the mix-up.
They got off on the third floor and were met right at the elevator by a blond man whose hair looked a little "refreshed," wearing an expensive suit, looking a little too polished. Mr. Oakes all but ran up to Bryson, arms outstretched. "We're grateful for Congressman Vaughan's support!" the lobbyist exclaimed, shaking Bryson's hand with both of his. In a confiding voice he added, "I know Congressman Vaughan understands the importance of keeping America strong, free of cheap, underpriced imports. I mean, Mauritanian fabrics -- that is not what this country is about! I know the Congressman understands that."
"Congressman Vaughan is interested to learn more about the international labor standards bill that you're supporting," Bryson said, looking around as the two of them strode down the hallway that was once so familiar. Yet there were none of the old personnel, no Chris Edgecomb nor any of the others whom Bryson knew only by face. None of the communications workstations or modules, the global satellite monitors. Nothing was the same, including the office furniture. Even the floor plan had been altered, as if the entire floor had been gutted. The old smallarms storeroom was gone, replaced by a conference room with smokedglass walls and expensive-looking mahogany table and chairs.
The too-well-dressed lobbyist led Bryson into his corner office and invited him to sit. "We understand the Congressman is up for reelection next year," the man said, "and we consider it vital to support those members of Congress who understand the importance of keeping America's economy strong."
Bryson nodded absently, looking around. This was the office that had once belonged to Ted Waller. If there had been even an inkling of doubt, that was now vanished. This was no notional organization, no cover.
The Directorate had vanished. There was no trace of Ted Waller, the only man who could confirm--or deny--the truth of CIA man Harry Dunne's account of the truth behind the Directorate.
Who's lying? Who's telling the truth?
How could he reach his old employers when they had vanished off the face of the earth as if they'd never existed?
Bryson had hit a wall.
Twenty minutes later, Bryson had returned to the parking garage, returned to his rented vehicle, and ran through all the checks that had once been second nature to him. The tiny pressure-sensitive filament he had pressed into place along the door handle on the driver's side was still in place, as was the filament on the passenger-side door handle; anyone who had attempted to pick the lock or otherwise gain entry to the car would have dislodged the indicators without knowing it. He knelt quickly and did a brief visual survey of the underside of the automobile, confirming that no devices had been placed there. He had not been aware of any attempts to follow him to K Street or into the parking garage, but he could no longer satisfy himself with such countersurveillance efforts. As he started the car he felt the old familiar knot in his stomach, the ganglion of tension that hadn't been there for several years. The moment of truth passed uneventfully; there was no ignitiontriggered detonation.
He drove down through several levels to the garage exit, where he inserted his magnetic-striped ticket into the card reader that controlled the liftgate arm. The ticket popped back out, rejected. Damn it, he muttered to himself. It was almost amusing -- almost, but not quite--that for all his precautions, he would be delayed by a simple mechanical glitch. He inserted the card again; still, it failed to activate the arm. The boredlooking parking attendant came out of his booth, came up to Bryson's open window, and said, "Let me give it a try, sir." The attendant inserted the ticket into the machine, but still it was rejected. He glanced at theblue paper ticket, nodded with sudden understanding, and approached the car window.
"Sir, is this the same ticket you were issued when you entered?" the attendant asked, handing it back to Bryson.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Bryson said irritably. Was the attendant questioning whether this was in fact Bryson's vehicle, whether Bryson might be trying to take someone else's? He turned to look at the attendant and was immediately bothered by something, some aspect of the man's hands.
"No, sir, you're misunderstanding me," the attendant said, leaning in. Bryson suddenly felt the cold hard steel of a gun barrel pressed against his left temple. The attendant held a small-caliber, snub-nosed pistol to Bryson's temple! It was insane! "I'm saying, sir, that I want you to keep both of your hands on the steering wheel," said the attendant in a low, steady voice. "I'd rather not have to use this thing."
Jesus Christ!
That was it! The hands, the manicured nails--they were the soft, well tended hands of a man who took inordinate care with his appearance, who likely traveled in exclusive, moneyed circles and had to fit in--not the hands of a parking-garage attendant. But the realization had come an instant too late! The attendant abruptly opened the car's rear door and leaped into the backseat, the gun once again to Bryson's temple.
"Let's go! Move it!" shouted the fake attendant, just as the barrier lifted. "Don't remove those hands from the wheel. I'd hate to slip, pull the trigger by accident, you know? Let's go for a little drive, you and me. Get some fresh air."
Bryson, having stowed his weapon in his glove compartment, had no choice but to drive out of the garage and onto K Street, following the false attendant's directions. As the car entered traffic, Bryson felt the gun barrel cut into the flesh of his left temple, and he heard the low, steady, conversational banter of the man behind him.
"You knew this day was going to come, didn't you?" the professional said. "Odds are it'll happen to all of us at some point. You overstep, go a little too far. Push when you should have pulled. Stick your nose into something that's no longer your business."
"Care to fill me in on where we're going?" Bryson said, trying to keep his voice light. His heart hammered, his mind raced. He added, as an aside, "Mind if I put on the news ...?" He casually reached out his right hand for the radio knob, then felt the pistol's barrel slam into his head as the hit man roared, "Goddamn you, get those hands back on the wheel!"
"Jesus!" Bryson exclaimed as the pain spread. "Watch it!"
The killer had no idea that Bryson's Glock was nestled against the base of his spine, in his rear waist holster. But he was not going to take any chances.
Then how to retrieve it? The hit man--for he was a hit man, Bryson knew, a professional, whether on the Directorate payroll or a contract employee--insisted that Bryson keep his hands visible at all times. Now he had to follow instructions, waiting for a moment of distraction on the part of the hit man. The earmarks were in everything about the man: the confident plan of action; the quick, efficient moves; even the glib speech.
"Let's just say we're going someplace outside the Beltway, someplace where a couple of guys can talk freely." But talking, Bryson realized grimly, was the last thing on the hit man's agenda. "A couple of guys in the same business who just happen to be on different ends of a gun, that's all. It's nothing personal, I'm sure you realize that. Strictly business. One minute you're looking through the sights, next minute you're looking at the barrel. Happens. The wheel's always turning. I'm sure you were very good in your time, which is why I have no doubt you're going to take this like a man."
Bryson, considering his options, didn't reply. He'd been in roughly similar circumstances countless times before, though never, except during his early training days, on the other side of a pistol. He knew how the man in the seat behind him was thinking right now, the way the flow chart was patterned: if A, then B ... How a sudden move on Bryson's part, a direction ignored, the steering wheel spun in the wrong direction, would initiate a countermeasure. The hit man would try to avoid pulling the trigger while they were in traffic, for fear the vehicle might careen out of control, imperiling both men. This familiarity with the options available to his enemy was one of the few cards Bryson had to play.
Yet at the same time Bryson was quite aware that the man would not hesitate to fire directly into Bryson's head if he had to, lunging forward to grab and steady the steering wheel. Bryson didn't like the odds.
Now they were crossing the Key Bridge. "Left," the man barked, indicating the direction of Reagan National Airport. Bryson obeyed, careful to seem compliant, resigned, the better to put the other man off his guard.
"Now take this exit," the killer resumed. The exit would take them toward the area immediately outside the airport where most of the rentalcar agencies had offices.
"You could have done me back there at the parking garage," Bryson muttered. "You should have, actually."
But the hit man was too skilled to be drawn into a discussion of tactics or to allow Bryson to challenge his competence. Obviously the expert had been fully briefed as to the nature of Bryson's mind, how Bryson would likely react in such a circumstance. "Oh, don't even try that," the professional said with a low chuckle. "You saw all the videocams back there, the potential witnesses. You know better than that. You wouldn't have done it there either, I'll bet. Not based on what I hear about your skills."
A slip there, Bryson reflected. The man was definitely a contract employee, an outsider, which meant any backup was unlikely. He would be operating on his own. A Directorate staffer would be protected by others. This was a valuable piece of data to store away.
Bryson steered the car into a deserted, vacant parking area, the far end of what was once a used-car lot. He parked as instructed. He turned his head to his right to address the other man, then felt the barrel of the gun grind painfully into his temple: the professional made no secret of his displeasure. "Don't move," came the steely voice. Turning his head back around, staring straight ahead, Bryson said, "Why don't you at least make this quick?"
"So now you're feeling the way the other guys felt," said the professional, amused. "The fear, the sense of futility, of hopelessness. Of resignation."
"You're waxing entirely too philosophical for me. I'll bet you don't even know who's issuing your checks."
"Beyond the fact that they clear, I don't really care."
"No matter who they are, what they do," said Bryson quietly. "No matter whether they're working against the U.S. or not."
"Like I said, so long as the checks clear. I don't do politics."
"That's a pretty short-term way of thinking."
"We're in a short-term business."
"It doesn't have to be." Bryson let a moment of silence pass. "Not if we come to mutually agreeable terms. We all lock some away; it's expected of us. Discretionary accounts, reimbursed expenses, overstated of course--a percentage of our expense allowance salted away, laundered clean, invested in the market. Put your money to work for you. I'm willing to put some of it to work for me right now."
"To buy your own life," the professional said solemnly. "But you seem to forget that my livelihood goes beyond one transaction. You may be one account, but they're the entire goddamned bank. And you don't bet against the house."
"No, you don't bet against the house," Bryson agreed. "You just report back that the mark was even better than you'd been led to believe, more skilled. Managed to escape, Jesus, the guy's good. They're not going to doubt you on that; it's what they want to believe anyway. You'll still keep your retainer, your deposit, and I'll double the contract amount. Sound business practice, my friend."
"Accounts are watched very carefully these days, Bryson. It's not like when you were in the game. Money is digital, and digital transactions leave tracks."
"Cash doesn't leave tracks, not if it's unsequenced."
"Everything leaves tracks these days, and you know it. Sorry, I've got a job to do. And in this case, it's facilitating suicide. You have a history of depression, you know. You had no personal life to speak of, and the groves of academe could never compare to the excitement of spy work. Your clinical depression was diagnosed by a top-rank psychiatrist and psychopharmacologist--"
"Sorry, the only shrinks I've ever seen were government-issue, years ago."
"A few days ago, according to your health-insurance records," replied the killer, a grim smile in his voice. "You've been seeing a shrink for over a year."
"That's bullshit!"
"Anything's possible in this day and age of the computerized database. Pharmacy records, too--antidepressants prescribed for you, purchased by you, along with antianxiety drugs, sleeping pills. It'll all be there. A suicide note left on your home computer, too, I'm told."
"Suicide notes are almost always handwritten, never typed or computer generated."
"Granted--we've both set up hits to look like suicides, I'm sure. But believe me, no one's ever going to dig into this that far. There'll be no postmortems for you. You have no family to request an autopsy."
The professional's words, though no doubt prescripted, still wounded, because they were the truth: he had no family, not since Elena had left. Not since my parents were killed by the Directorate, he added to himself bitterly.
"But let me say, I'm honored to be given this assignment," the hit man resumed. "They say you were one of the top field men, after all."
"Why do you think you were assigned?" Bryson said.
"I don't know, and I don't care. A job's a job."
"You think you're expected to survive it? You think they want you around telling tales? Who knows how much might have told you? You think you're going to survive this last job?"
"I don't really give a shit," said the man unconvincingly.
"No, I don't think your employers ever planned to let you live," Bryson went on, grimly. "Who the hell knows what I spilled to you?"
"What are you trying to say?" asked the hit man after a moment of uncomfortable silence. He seemed to hesitate for an instant; Bryson could feel the grinding pressure of the pistol barrel momentarily let up. It was all the opportunity he needed, this second or two of genuine indecision on the part of his intended assassin. Quietly, he slipped his left hand off the steering wheel and slithered it down around to his back. He had the Glock! With lightning speed he pointed it toward the back of his seat and, firing blind, squeezed the trigger again and again in quick succession. Three rapid explosions filled the car's interior as the large-caliber bullets pierced the seat cushions, the noise ear-shattering. Had he hit the man? In an instant he got his answer as the barrel of the pistol fell away from the back of his head. Bryson spun around, whipping his pistolaround, too, as he did so, and he realized that the man was dead, half of his forehead blown away.
They met at Langley this time, in Dunne's seventh-floor office in the Agency's new building. Standard security procedures were bypassed; Bryson was admitted to CIA headquarters with a minimum of ceremony.
"Why does it not surprise me the Directorate boys declared you beyond salvage?" Harry Dunne said with a hoarse laugh that became a sustained hacking cough. "I just think they must have forgotten who they were dealing with."
"Meaning what?"
"Meaning that you're better than anyone they can send after you, Bryson. For Christ's sake, you'd think those fucking cowboys would know that by now."
"They also know they don't want me in this office, in this building, spilling my guts."
"Wish you had anything to spill," replied Dunne. "But they knew how to keep all of you isolated, atomized. You don't know real names, just legends, and a fat lot of good that does us. Legends that are, or were, internal to the Directorate yield nothing in our own in-house data search. Like this 'Prospero' you keep mentioning."
"I told you, that's all I knew him as. Plus, it was over fifteen years ago. In the field, that's a geological era. Prospero was, I believe, Dutch, or at least of Dutch origins. Very resourceful operative."
"The best Agency sketch artists have produced a drawing based on your description, and we're trying to match the image against stored photographs, sketches, verbal descriptions. But the artificial-intelligence software still hasn't advanced enough yet. It's arduous, hit-or-miss work. So far we've had just one hit, as the digital hard-disk jockeys like to say. A fellow you said you worked with in Shanghai on a particularly sensitive exfiltration case."
"Ogilvy. Frank Ogilvy, of Hilton Head, South Carolina. Or maybe I should say, late of Hilton Head."
"Moved? Transferred?"
"A crowded beach, a hot day. Seven years ago. Keeled over from a massive heart attack, apparently. Caused a minor commotion on the boardwalk that day, one witness told us, so crowded and all."
Bryson sat quietly for a moment, examining the windowless walls of Dunne's office, contemplating. Abruptly he said, "If you're looking for ants, go find yourself a picnic."
"Come again?" Dunne was once again absently shredding a cigarette.
"That was one of Waller's sayings. If you're looking for ants, go find yourself a picnic. Instead of looking for them where they were, we need to figure out where they are. Ask yourself: What do they need? What kind of spread are they in the mood for?"
Dunne put down the ruined cigarette and looked up, suddenly alert. "Weaponry, the word is. Seems they're trying to stockpile an arsenal. We think they're instigating some kind of turbulence in the southern Balkans, although their ultimate target is elsewhere."
"Weaponry." Something was turning in Nick's mind.
"Guns and ammo. But sophisticated stuff." Dunne shrugged. "Things that go boom in the night. When the bombs and bullets start flying, your own generals always start to look more appealing. Whatever they're hatching, we've got to put an end to it. By whatever means."
"'Whatever means'?"
"You and I understand the definition. Though a straight-shooter like Richard Lanchester never could. A whole lot of good intentions, but where does all that idealism get you in the end? Notice all the saints are dead." The venerable and revered Richard Lanchester was chairman of the National Security Council in the White House. "Dick Lanchester believes in rules and regulations. But the world doesn't play by rules. Anyway, sometimes you gotta break 'em to save 'em."
"Can't play by Queensbury Rules, is that it?" Bryson said, recalling Ted Waller's words.
"Tell me how you used to get hold of weaponry. You sure weren't using U.S. government requisitions. You pick up stuff on the street, or what?"
"Actually, we were always particular about our 'instruments,' as we called them. The munitions. And you're right--given the restrictions, the deep secrecy, we had to round up the stuff ourselves. We couldn't exactly drive up to an army warehouse with a transfer order. Take a fairly typicalordnance-intensive operation--like the one in the Comoros, in 'eighty-two, where the idea was to stop a band of Executive Outcome mercenaries from overtaking the place."
"They were CIA," Dunne put in, almost wearily. "And all they were after was a dozen Brits and Americans that some loony-tunes named Colonel Patrick Denard had kidnapped and was holding for ransom."
Bryson flinched, but pressed on. "First, a few hundred Kalashnikov assault rifles. They're cheap, reliable, lightweight, and they're made in about ten different countries, so they're hard to trace. You'd want a smaller number of sniper rifles with night-vision scopes -- preferably a BENS 9304 or Jaguar Night Scope. Rocket launchers, and rocket grenades, preferably CPAD Tech. Stinger missiles can come in handy--the Greeks make a lot of them under license, and they're easy to come by. You've got your Kurdish guerrillas, the PKK, raising cash by selling them to the Tamil Tigers, the LTTE."
"You're losing me."
Bryson sighed impatiently. "Where you're routing arms illegally, there's always substantial quantities that go astray. Somehow they lose a few with every truckload."
"Fall off the back of the truck."
"In a manner of speaking, yes. Then, of course, you want to stockpile ammunition rounds. That's where the amateurs would always go wrong--they end up with more guns than ammo."
Dunne looked at him strangely. "You were good, weren't you." It wasn't a question, and it wasn't a compliment either.
Bryson stood up suddenly, his eyes wide. "I know where to find them. Where to start, anyway. Right around this time of year"--he looked at the date on the face of his digital watch--"hell, in about ten days' time or so, there's going to be an annual floating arms bazaar off the Costa da Morte--in international waters off Spain. It's something like a twentyyear institution, as regular an event as the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. An immense container ship filled with major-league munitions, and a lot of major-league gunrunners to keep them company." Bryson paused. "The ship's registered name is the Spanish Armada."
"The picnic," Dunne said with a sly smile. "Where the ants gather. Sure. Not a bad idea."
Bryson nodded, his thoughts far away. The thought of returning to his old line of work--especially now that he realized how he was deceived into it -- filled him with repugnance. Yet there was something else, too, another emotion: rage. The desire for revenge. And one more emotion as well, a quieter one: a need to understand, to delve into his own past. To force his way through all the secrets and lies to something like truth. A truth he could live with. "That's right," Bryson added wearily. "For any group, whether outlaw or deep-undercover governmental, that's interested in acquiring arms without official scrutiny, the Spanish Armada is always a picnic."
Atlantic Ocean Thirteen nautical miles SW of Cabo Finisterre, Spain
The immense ship seemed to materialize out of the fog, looming vast and unlovely, as long as a city block, maybe several city blocks. It was a thousand feet long, its black hull sunk deep in the water. The supercarrier was loaded with cargo, multicolored, corrugated metal containers stacked three high and eight across, maybe ten rows from bridge to bow, each box twenty feet long and nine feet high. As the Bell 407 helicopter circled the ship and then hovered directly above the forecastle, Bryson did a quick calculation. Two hundred and forty giant boxes, and that was just on deck; belowdecks, in the hold, he knew, the ship could carry three times the number of containers above. It was an immense load of cargo, made all the more ominous by the bland sameness of the metal boxes, the contents of each a mystery.
The helicopter's lights garishly illuminated the flat, cleared deck; all the way at the stern end of the ship, the tall superstructure towered abovethe rows of containers, white with dark windows, its bridge bustling with modernistic-looking radar and satellite antennae. The deckhouse looked as if it belonged to another type of vessel entirely, a luxury yacht, not a freighter. For this was no mere container ship, Bryson reflected as the helicopter gently landed atop the giant H in a circle that was painted on the forecastle deck.
No, this was the Spanish Armada, a legend in the shadowed world of terrorists and covert operatives and other illegal, or semilegal, operators. The Spanish Armada, though, was no armada, no fleet: it was just the moniker of one immense ship packed with weaponry both exotic and mundane. No one knew where Calacanis, the mysterious lord of this floating arms bazaar, obtained his wares, but it was whispered that he purchased many of them quite legally from the stores of nations with too many arms and not enough cash, countries like Bulgaria and Albania and other Eastern European states; from Russia, from Korea and China. Calacanis's customers came from all over the world, or really the underworld: from Afghanistan to Congo, where dozens of civil wars raged, conflagrations stoked by illegal arms purchased by representatives of legally elected governments who came to pay their calls on this very ship, anchored thirteen nautical miles off the Spanish coast, above the relatively shallow continental shelf yet outside Spanish territorial waters, and thus free to do business, constrained by no country's laws.
Bryson removed his headset when the other three passengers did the same. He had flown to Madrid, then took a connecting flight on Iberian Airlines to La Coruña, in Galicia. He and another had boarded the helicopter at La Coruña, then made a quick stop at the harbor town of Muros, forty-seven miles southwest; and from there flew the thirteen miles to the ship. They had said little to one another beyond polite, meaningless banter. Each assumed the others were coming to shop, to strike deals with Calacanis; nothing needed to be said. One of them was Irish, probably Provo; another appeared Middle Eastern; the third Eastern European. The pilot was a sullen, equally taciturn Basque. The interior of the helicopter was luxurious, with leather seats and bubble door windows: Calacanis seemed to spare no expense anywhere.
Bryson wore a stylish Italian suit, far flashier than the conservative clothes he normally wore, purchased and tailored just for the occasion atAgency expense. He was traveling under an old Directorate legend that he had himself created some years ago.
John T. Coleridge was a shady Canadian businessman known to be deeply involved in some dirty business deals, acting as a middleman for several crime syndicates in Asia and a few outlaw states in the Persian Gulf, occasionally even a procurer for assassinations. Although Coleridge was an elusive figure, his name was known in certain circles, and that was the important thing. True, Coleridge hadn't been seen for seven years, but that wasn't so rare in this strange business.
Harry Dunne had insisted that Bryson use a new legend specially created for him by the wizards of the CIA's technical services division, graphic arts reproduction branch--master forgers who specialized in what was euphemistically called "authentication and validation." But Bryson refused. He wanted no leaks, no bureaucratic paper trails of any kind. Whether he could trust Harry Dunne was an open question; he knew he didn't trust Dunne's organization. Bryson had spent too many years watching and hearing tales about CIA leaks and gaffes and indiscretions to trust them. He'd provide his own cover, thank you very much.
But Bryson had never met Calacanis before, never once set foot on the Spanish Armada, and Basil Calacanis was famously careful about who he was willing to meet with. In his business it was too easy to get burned. So Bryson had prepared the way to ensure his acceptance here.
He had brokered an arms deal. Money hadn't changed hands--it hadn't gone that far, the deal hadn't been consummated--but he established contact with a German arms broker he had met a few times as Coleridge, who lived in a luxury hotel in Toronto and who had recently been ensnared in a web of bribes he had paid to leaders of Germany's Christian Democratic Party. Now the German was living in Canada, in fear of being extradited to Germany, where he would surely stand trial. He was also known to be badly in need of funds. So Bryson was not surprised that the German had been extremely interested in John Coleridge's proposal that they do a little business together.
Bryson made it known that, in the guise of Coleridge, he represented a consortium of generals in Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and Congo who desired to purchase some high-powered, hard-to-procure, and very expensive weaponry--which only Calacanis could provide. But Coleridge was realisticenough to know that he could hardly broker the deal without entrée to Calacanis's arms bazaar. If the German, who had done quite a bit of business with Calacanis, would make that introduction, he would get a piece of the action, a decent chunk of the commission for doing little more than sending a fax of introduction to Calacanis's ship.
As Bryson and the other passengers got out of the helicopter, they were met by a young, powerfully built, balding redheaded man who shook their hands and smiled obsequiously. He did not say their names aloud, but introduced himself as Ian.
"Thank you so much for coming across," Ian said in an upper-class British accent, as if they were old companions come to help a sick friend. "You've picked a fine night to pay us a visit--calm seas, full moon, couldn't ask for a more glorious evening. And you're all just in time for dinner. Please, step over this way." He indicated a spot just off the landing pad where three bulky guards toting submachine guns stood waiting. "I'm dreadfully sorry to make you go through this, but you know Sir Basil." He smiled apologetically, shrugged. "Terribly security-conscious, you know. Sir Basil can't be too careful these days."
The three swarthy guards expertly frisked the four new arrivals, glowering at them suspiciously. The Irishman was outraged and snapped at the man frisking him but made no move to stop him. Bryson had expected this ritual, and so he had brought no weapon. The guard who patted him down checked all the usual places and some of the unusual ones besides, but of course found nothing. He then asked Bryson to pop open his briefcase. "Papers," the guard said in an accent he determined was Sicilian.
The guard grunted, mollified.
Bryson looked around, noticed the Panamanian flag at the bow, saw the Class One/Explosives labels plastered over many of the containers. Certain privileged buyers were permitted to inspect the goods they were buying, actually look into the containers. But nothing was offloaded here. The Spanish Armada would later call at selected safe harbors, such as the port of Guayaquil, in Ecuador, which was believed to be Calacanis's home base; or Santos, in Brazil -- the two ports were the most corrupt pirates' dens in the entire hemisphere. In the Mediterranean the ship would call on the Albanian port of Vlorë, one of the world's greatestsmuggling centers. In Africa, there were the ports of Lagos in Nigeria, and Monrovia in Liberia.
Bryson had passed.
He was in.
"This way, please," Ian said, gesturing toward the deckhouse, where the crew's quarters, the bridge, and Calacanis's staterooms and offices surely were. As the four passengers walked, they were shadowed at a discreet distance by the armed guards. The helicopter lifted off, and as they reached the superstructure, the racket subsided. Now Bryson could hear the familiar sounds of the sea, the gulls, the lapping waves, and he could smell the saline odor of the sea mixed with the powerful, acrid smell of the ship's diesel fuel. The moon shone brightly over the Atlantic waters.
The five men just barely fit in the small elevator that lifted them from the main deck level to the 06 deck.
When the elevator opened, Bryson was astonished. He had not seen such luxury in the yachts of the most extravagant billionaires. No expense had been spared. The floors were marble-tiled; the walls, dark mahogany paneling; the fittings, gleaming brass. He passed an entertainment center and screening room, a fitness center equipped with the most elaborate machinery, a sauna, a library. Finally they came to an enormous saloon, the owner's stateroom, which faced aft and to port. It was two levels high, and it was outfitted with an opulence rarely seen in the grandest of grand hotels.
There were four or five other men standing by a bar, which was tended by a bartender in black tie. A white-uniformed stewardess, a dazzlingly beautiful blonde with stunning green eyes, offered him a flute of Cristal champagne and smiled shyly. Bryson took the champagne, thanked her, and looked around, trying not to be too obvious about it. The marble floors were mostly covered with oriental rugs; plush sofas were arranged in seating areas; several walls were lined with books that, upon closer inspection, proved to be fake. There were crystal chandeliers. The only peculiar touches were large fish, stuffed and mounted on the walls, evidently trophies from game fishing.
Looking at the other guests, some of whom were chatting with one another, he realized that he recognized a few of them. But who were they? His head spun; his prodigious memory was being taxed to its limit.Gradually, dossiers attached themselves to vaguely familiar faces. A Pakistani middleman, a highly placed officer in the Irish Provisional Army, a businessman and arms trader who had done more than perhaps anyone to stoke the Iran-Iraq war. These and others were middlemen, retailers, here to acquire their goods wholesale. He went cold with tension, wondering whether any of these men had met him in his previous life. Did anyone here know him, whether as Coleridge or by another one of his many identities? There was always the risk of being unmasked, being hailed by one name when he had identified himself by another. The risk went with the job; it was one of the many occupational hazards; he always had to be on the alert for such a possibility.
Still, no one gave him more than a curious glance, the sort of look cast by fellow predators who want to know their competition. None seemed to recognize him. Neither did he get that prickly feeling at the back of his head that told him he was supposed to have known any one of the men here. Slowly he felt the tension subside.
He overheard one of them muttering something about a "multimode Doppler radar," someone else mentioning Scorpions, Czech-made Striela antiair missiles.
Bryson caught the blond waitress stealing a glance at him, and he smiled pleasantly. "Where's your boss?" he asked.
She looked embarrassed. "Oh," she said. "Mr. Calacanis?"
"Who else could I mean?"
"He will be joining his guests for dinner, sir. May I offer you caviar, Mr. Coleridge?"
"Never liked the stuff. Al-Biqa?"
"Pardon me?"
"Your accent. It's a Levantine dialect of Arab, from the Bekaa Valley, am I right?"
The waitress blushed. "Nice party trick."
"I see Mr. Calacanis draws from all over. Sort of an equal-opportunity employer."
"Well, the captain is Italian, the officers are Croatian, the crew Filipino."
"It's like a model U.N. here."
She smiled bashfully.
"And the clients?" Bryson persisted. "Where do they come from?"
Her smile faded at once, her manner suddenly cold. "I never ask, sir. Please excuse me."
Bryson knew he had pushed too far. Calacanis's staff would be friendly but above all discreet. It would not do to ask about the man himself, of course, but between Dunne's briefing and his own time with the Directorate, he had managed to put together a profile. Vasiliou Calacanis was a Greek born in Turkey to a good family, was sent to Eton with a son of one of England's most powerful arms-manufacturing families, and somehow thereafter -- no one knew for sure how--established an alliance with the classmate's family, then went into business selling arms on behalf of the British family to the Greeks fighting the Cypriots. Somewhere along the way, powerful British politicians were paid off, potent connections established, and Vasiliou became Basil and then Sir Basil. He belonged to the best London clubs. His ties to the French were even stronger; one of his main residences was an enormous château on the Avenue Foch in Paris where he entertained regularly the powers from the Quai d'Orsay.
After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, he did a major trade in surplus Eastern European weaponry, particularly dealing with Bulgaria. He profited immensely from selling to both sides of the Iran-Iraq war, shipping scores of helicopters to both. He struck major deals with the Libyans, the Ugandans. From Afghanistan to Congo, several dozen civil wars raged, ethnic and nationalist conflagrations, which Calacanis had fueled by providing easy access to assault rifles, mortars, pistols, land mines, and rockets. He had furnished his yacht-cum-freighter with the blood of hundreds of thousands of innocents.
One of the stewards began to speak discreetly to each of the guests one by one. "Dinner is served, Mr. Coleridge," he said.
The dining room was even more opulent, more outlandishly extravagant, than the stateroom from which they came. On each wall was painted a fantasy mural of the sea, so that it appeared as if they were dining alfresco, on a calm ocean during a bright afternoon, surrounded by graceful sailboats. The long table was covered in a white linen cloth, set with crystal and candles, beneath a great crystal chandelier.
One of the stewards escorted Bryson to a seat near the head of the table, next to a very large barrel-chested man with a close-cropped graybeard and olive complexion. The steward inclined his head toward the great bearded man, whispering something.
"Mr. Coleridge," said Basil Calacanis in the deep rumble of a Russian basso profundo. He extended his hand to Bryson. "Pardon me if I don't get up."
Bryson shook Calacanis's hand firmly as he took his seat. "Not at all. It's a pleasure to meet you. I've heard so much about you."
"Likewise, and likewise. I'm surprised it's taken us so long to meet."
"It's taken me altogether too long to eliminate the middleman," Bryson said wryly. "I got tired of paying retail." Calacanis responded with a booming laugh. As the others were seated around the table, they pretended not to be eavesdropping upon the exchange between their host and his mysterious, favored guest. Bryson noticed one of the dinner guests who seemed to be listening intently, a guest he had not seen at the bar. This was a stylishly dressed man in a pinstriped double-breasted suit with a shoulder-length mane of silver hair. Bryson felt himself go cold with foreboding; the man was familiar to him. Though they had never met each other, Bryson knew the face from surveillance videos and photographs in dossiers. He was a Frenchman who moved nimbly in these circles, a renowned contact for extremist terrorist groups. Bryson could not recall the name, but he knew the longhaired man was an emissary from a powerful, far-right French arms dealer named Jacques Arnaud. Did that mean that Arnaud was supplying Calacanis, or the other way around?
"Had I but known how pleasant it is to shop here, I'd have come long ago," Bryson continued. "This is an extraordinary ship."
"You flatter me," the arms dealer said dismissively. "'Extraordinary' is hardly the word I would use for this old rust bucket. She's just barely seaworthy. Though you should have seen her when I bought it a good ten years ago from the Maersk shipping line. They were retiring the old tub, and I'm never one to pass up a bargain. But I'm afraid Maersk got the best of me there. The damned boat was badly in need of repair and repainting. Plus about a ton of rust had to be scraped off." He snapped his fingers in the air, and the beautiful blond stewardess appeared with a bottle of Chassagne-Montrachet, pouring a glass for Calacanis and then for Bryson. She barely acknowledged Bryson's presence. Calacanis lifted his glass in Bryson's direction and said with a wink, "To the spoils ofwar." Bryson toasted as well. "Anyway, the Spanish Armada sails at a decent ctip--twenty-five, thirty knots--but she gulps two hundred and fifty tons of fuel a day. This is what you Americans call overhead, hmm?"
"I'm Canadian, actually," Bryson said, suddenly alert. Calacanis did not seem the sort of man who made such slips. He casually added, "I doubt she came furnished like this."
"The damned living quarters looked like an old city hospital." Calacanis was looking around the table. "They never come with the amenities one requires. So, Mr. Coleridge, I understand your clients are Africans, is that right?"
"My clients," Bryson said with a polite smile, the avatar of discretion, "are highly motivated buyers."
Calacanis gave another wink. "The Africans have always been some of my best customers--the Congo, Angola, Eritrea. You've always got one faction battling another one down there, and somehow there always seems to be plenty of money on both sides. Let me guess: they're interested in plain-vanilla AK-47s, crates of ammo, landmines, grenades. Maybe rocketpropelled grenades. Sniper rifles with night-vision sights. Antitank weapons. Am I barking up the right tree?"
Bryson shrugged. "Your Kalashnikovs -- they're genuine Russian?"
"Forget Russian. That stuff's crap. I've got boxes of Bulgarian Kalashnikovs."
"Ah, nothing but the best for you."
Calacanis smiled in appreciation. "Quite so. The Kalashnikovs made by Arsenal, in Bulgaria, are still the finest ones around. Dr. Kalashnikov himself prefers the Bulgarian make. How do you know Hans-Friedrich again?"
"I helped him broker a number of big sales of Thyssen A. G. Fuchs tanks to Saudi Arabia. I introduced him to some oil-soaked friends in the Gulf. Anyway, as for the Kalashnikovs, I'll certainly defer to your expertise," Bryson said graciously. "And assault rifles--"
"For those you simply can't do better than the South African Vektor 5.56mm CR21. Terribly sleek. Once they've tried it, they'll never use anything else. Its integral Vektor reflex optical sight can enhance the probability of a first-time hit by sixty percent. Even if you don't know what the hell you're doing."
"Depleted uranium shells?"
Calacanis arched an eyebrow. "I may be able to dig some up for you. Interesting choice. Twice as heavy as lead, the best antitank weapon you can find. Slices through tanks like a hot knife through butter. And radioactive besides. You say your clients are from Rwanda and Congo?"
"I don't believe I said." The back-and-forth was stretching Bryson's nerves to the breaking point. It was not a negotiation, it was a gavotte, a highly orchestrated dance, each partner watching the other closely, waiting for a misstep. There was something about Calacanis's manner that seemed to indicate he knew more than he was letting on. Did the wily arms merchant accept John T. Coleridge at face value? What if his web of contacts extended deeply, too deeply, into the intelligence world? What if somehow, in the years since Bryson had left the Directorate, the Coleridge legend had been rolled up, exposed as fiction by a hypercautious--or vengeful--Ted Waller?
A tiny cellular phone on the table next to Calacanis's dinner plate suddenly rang. Calacanis picked it up and said harshly, "What is it? ... Yes, Chicky, but he has no credit line with us, I'm afraid." He disconnected the call and placed the phone back on the table.
"My clients are interested in Stinger missiles as well."
"Ah, yes, these are very much in demand. Every terrorist and guerrilla group seems to want a crate of them these days. Thanks to the U.S. government, there's quite a decent inventory of them floating around. The Americans used to pass them out to their friends like candy. Then in the late 1980s some of them found their way onto Iranian gunboats and shot down U.S. Navy helicopters in the Gulf, and suddenly the U.S. was in the embarrassing position of having to buy them back. Washington's offering a hundred thousand dollars for the return of each Stinger, which is four times their original cost. Of course, I pay better." Calacanis fell silent, and Bryson realized that the blond stewardess was standing to the Greek's right, bearing a covered serving tray. When Calacanis nodded, she began to serve him a breathtakingly elaborate timbale of salmon tartare with pearly black caviar.
"I take it Washington's a good customer of yours as well," Bryson suggested quietly.
"They have, how do you say, deep pockets," Calacanis murmured vaguely.
"But in certain circles one hears that the pattern of buying is being stepped up recently," he went on in a low tone of voice. "That certain organizations in Washington, certain covert agencies that have the latitude to operate without oversight, have been acquiring rather ... heavily from you."
Bryson tried to affect a casual tone, but Calacanis saw right through it and gave Bryson a sidelong glance. "Are you interested in my wares, or in my clients?" the arms dealer said coldly.
Bryson felt himself go numb, realizing how badly he'd miscalculated.
Calacanis started to get up. "Will you excuse me, please? I believe I'm neglecting my other ... guests."
Quickly, in a low, confiding voice, Bryson said, "I ask for a reason. A business reason."
Calacanis turned to him warily. "What sort of business can you possibly have with government agencies?"
"I have something to offer," Bryson said. "Something that might be of interest to a major player not officially connected with a government but who has, as you put it, deep pockets."
"You have something to offer me? I'm afraid I don't understand. If you wish to transact your own business, you certainly don't need me."
"In this case," Bryson said, lowering his voice yet further, "there's no other acceptable conduit."
"Conduit?" Calacanis seemed exasperated. "What on earth are you talking about?"
Bryson was almost whispering now. Calacanis bent his head to listen. "Plans," Bryson muttered. "Blueprints, specifications that may be worth a great deal of money to certain parties with, shall we say, unlimited budgets. But in no way can my fingerprints be on this. I can't be connected in any way. Your services as conduit, as middleman, for want of a better word, will be remunerated quite handsomely."
"You intrigue me," Calacanis said. "I think we should continue this discussion in private."
Calacanis's library was furnished in delicate French antiques that were invisibly bolted to the floor. Roman blinds and curtains covered two glass walls; the other walls were decorated with framed antique nautical charts and maps. In the middle of one wall was a paneled oak door; where it led, Bryson had no idea.
That the Greek had been so quick to leave his own dinner party was testament to the allure of the blueprints and specification sheets Calacanis now held in his hand. They had been prepared by the graphic artists of the Agency's technical services division, designed to pass close inspection by an arms dealer with long experience in reading such plans.
Calacanis made no attempt to hide his excitement. He looked up from the blueprint, his dark eyes gleaming with avarice. "This is a new generation of the JAVELIN antitank weapon system," he said in hushed awe. "Where the hell did you get this?"
Bryson smiled modestly. "You don't divulge trade secrets, and neither do I."
"Lightweight, man-portable, fire-and-forget. The round's the same--the 127-millimeter-diameter missile, of course--but the command launch unit appears to have gotten far more sophisticated, highly resistant to countermeasures. If I'm reading this right, the hit rate's now almost one hundred percent!"
Bryson nodded. "So I'm given to understand."
"Do you have the source codes?"
Bryson knew he meant the software that would allow the weapon to be reverse-engineered. "Indeed."
"There will be no shortage of interested parties; the only question will be who has the resources. This will fetch quite a price."
"I take it you have a customer in mind."
"He's on board the ship at this very moment."
"At dinner?"
"He very politely turned down my invitation. He prefers not to mingle. At the moment he's inspecting the goods." Calacanis picked up his cellular phone and punched out a number. As he waited for it to ring, he remarked, "This gentleman's organization has been on quite the buying spree of late. Massive quantities of mobile armaments. A weapon such asthis will interest him, I have no doubt of it, and money seems to be no object for his employers." He paused and said into the phone, "Can you ask Mr. Jenrette to stop by the library, please?"
The interested party, as Calacanis had identified him, appeared at the door of the library barely five minutes later, escorted by the balding redheaded man named Ian who had first greeted Bryson at the helicopter.
His name was Jenrette, but Bryson knew at once that "Jenrette" was only the latest in a series of cover identities. As the middle-aged, tiredlooking man with the scraggly gray hair crossed the study to Calacanis's desk, his eyes met Bryson's.
The rooftop bar at the Miramar Hotel.
Jenrette was a Directorate operative he knew as Vance Gifford.
"This gentleman's organization has been on quite the buying spree of late. Massive quantities of mobile armaments. A weapon such as this will interest him, I have no doubt of it, and money seems to be no object for his employers."
Money no object ... this gentleman's organization ... quite the buying spree.
Vance Gifford was still attached to the Directorate, which meant that Harry Dunne was right: the Directorate still lived.
"Mr. Jenrette," said Calacanis, "I'd like you to meet a gentleman who has an interesting new toy I think you and your friends might like to purchase." Ian the bodyguard and aide-de-camp stood with his back erect against the doorjamb, watching in silence.
Vance Gifford stared in shock for the briefest instant before his expression softened, and he gave a smile that Bryson immediately recognized as false. "Mr.--Mr. Coleridge, is it?"
"Please call me John," Bryson said casually. His body was paralyzed; his mind raced.
"Why do I have a feeling we've met somewhere before?" said the Directorate man, feigning joviality.
Bryson chuckled, causing his body to relax. But it was a feint, a ruse,for he was studying the man's eyes, the minute changes in facial musculature that signaled the truth beneath the lie. Vance Gifford is an active, present Directorate operative. Bryson was sure of it.
He was active when they met eight or nine years ago in East Sector, a strictly scheduled rendezvous in the Miramar bar in Kowloon. We barely knew each other, spent maybe an hour talking business, covert funding and dead drops and the like. Given the compartmentalization, neither one of us had any idea what the other really did in the organization.
And Gifford had to be active still, otherwise Calacanis wouldn't have summoned him here to inspect the prototype--the lure.
"Was it Hong Kong?" Bryson asked. "Taipei? You look familiar as well." Bryson acted blase, even amused by the unspecified, unexplained mix-up in identities. But his heart was racing. He felt perspiration break out on his brow. His field instincts were still there, still finely honed; but his psychology, his emotions, were no longer in the proper, hardened condition. Gifford's playing it straight, Bryson realized. He knows who I am, but he doesn't know why I'm here. Like a seasoned field man, he's rolling with it, thank God. "Anyway, wherever and whenever it was, it's good to see you again."
"I'm always in the market for a new toy," the Directorate man said offhandedly. Gifford/Jenrette's eyes were keen; they regarded Bryson furtively. Surely he knows I'm out. When a Directorate agent was burned, the word was circulated at lightning speed, to prevent infiltration attempts on the part of the disenfranchised one. But how much does he know of the circumstances of my termination? Does he regard me as a hostile? Or as a neutral? Will he assume that I've gone private, like so many covert operatives did after the end of the Cold War, gone into military procurement? Yet Gifford's smart: he knows he's being offered stolen top-secret technology, and he knows that's hardly an ordinary business deal, even in this strange world of black-market arms dealing.
One of several things can happen now. He may assume he's being set up, offered bait with a hook in it. If he does, then he'll conclude I've gone over -- to another government agency, even another side! Baited hooks were a classic recruitment technique employed by the main foreign intelligence services. Bryson's mind whirled. Maybe he'll assume I'm part of some interagency, internecine bureaucratic battle, a sting of some sort.
Or worse -- what if Gifford suspects me of being an impostor, of running an operation against Calacanis, maybe even against Calacanis's clients?
This was madness! There was no way to anticipate Gifford's response, no way to be sure. The only thing was to be prepared for anything.
Calacanis's face betrayed nothing. The Greek beckoned the Directorate man to his desk, across which he had spread out the blueprints and specs and source codes for the sophisticated weapon design. Gifford walked over and bent down to inspect the plans with great intensity.
Gifford's lips barely moved while he whispered something to the arms merchant without looking at him.
Calacanis nodded, looked up, and said blandly, "Will you please excuse us, Mr. Coleridge? Mr. Jenrette and I should like to confer privately."
Calacanis rose and opened the oak paneled door, which Bryson now saw led to a private study. Jenrette followed, and the door closed behind them. Bryson sat on one of Calacanis's antique French side chairs, frozen like an insect trapped in amber. Outwardly he was waiting patiently, a middleman greedily contemplating great riches from a deal about to be consummated. Inwardly his mind was spinning, desperately trying to anticipate the next move. It all came down to how Jenrette decided to play it. What had the man whispered? How could Jenrette reveal how he knew Bryson without telling Calacanis about his work with the Directorate? Was Jenrette prepared to do that? How much could be divulged? How deep was Jenrette's cover? These were unknowable things, fundamentally. Too, the man who called himself Jenrette had no idea what Bryson was doing here. For all he knew, Bryson had indeed gone private and was selling weapons designs; how could Jenrette/Gifford know otherwise?
The study door opened, and Bryson looked up. It was the blond stewardess, holding aloft a tray of empty glasses and a bottle of what looked like port. Obviously she had been summoned by the Greek and had entered Calacanis's private study by means of another passage. She seemed not to notice Bryson as she retrieved used champagne flutes and wineglasses from the desk Calacanis had been using, then approached Bryson. Briefly stooping to pick up a large glass ashtray, laden with the remains of Cuban cigars, from the small end table next to Bryson, she suddenly spoke, her words low and almost inaudible.
"You're a popular man, Mr. Coleridge," she murmured without even giving him so much as a glance. She placed the ashtray on her serving platter. "Four friends of yours await you in the next room." Bryson looked up at her, saw her eyes dart to the oak paneled door on the other side of the library. "Try not to bleed on the Heriz runner. It's quite rare, and one of Mr. Calacanis's favorites." Then she was gone.
Bryson stiffened, his body surging with adrenaline. Yet he knew enough to keep still, betray nothing.
What did this mean?
Was an ambush being set up in the adjacent study? Was she part of the setup? If not -- why had she just warned him?
The door to Calacanis's study suddenly opened again. It was Calacanis himself, with Ian, his bodyguard, looming just behind him in the doorway. Gifford/Jenrette stood farther in the background.
"Mr. Coleridge," Calacanis called out, "won't you join us, please?"
For a split-second Bryson stared, trying to assess the Greek's intentions. "Certainly," he replied, "in a moment. I think I left something important in the bar."
"Mr. Coleridge, I'm afraid we really have no time to waste," Calacanis said in a loud, harsh voice.
"This won't take a minute," Bryson said, turning toward the exit door that led to the dining room. It was blocked, he now saw, by another armed guard. But instead of staying put, Bryson continued his stride toward the exit as if nothing were wrong. Now he was but a few feet away from the stocky bodyguard who had just arrived.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Coleridge, we really must have a word, you and I," Calacanis said with a slight nod that was clearly a signal to the guard at the door. Bryson's body surged with adrenaline as the stocky bodyguard turned to secure the door.
He lunged forward, slamming the bodyguard against the hard wooden doorframe of the open door, the sudden movement catching the bodyguard unprepared. The guard struggled, reaching for his weapon, but Bryson hammered his right foot into the man's abdomen.
An alarm suddenly went off, ear-piercingly loud, clearly triggered byCalacanis, who was shouting. As the bodyguard momentarily lost his balance, Bryson took advantage of the brief moment of vulnerability to sink his right knee into the man's midsection, at the same time gripping the face with his right hand and forcing him to the floor.
"Stop right there!" thundered Calacanis.
Bryson turned quickly and saw that Ian, the other bodyguard, had assumed a marksman's stance, leveling a gun, a .38 caliber pistol, with both hands.
In that instant, the stocky bodyguard beneath him managed to rear up, screaming, exerting all of his strength, but Bryson leveraged that motion against his adversary, pushing the man up and over, his right hand clawing the bodyguard's eyes, so that the man's head was a shield of sorts, right in front of his own face. Ian would never fire with such a high probability of striking another guard.
Suddenly there was an explosion, and Bryson felt the spray of blood. A dark red hole appeared in the middle of the bodyguard's forehead; the man slumped, dead weight. Ian had, surely by accident, killed his own colleague.
Now Bryson pivoted, arced his body suddenly to one side, just missing the explosion of another bullet, and spun through the open door and into the hallway. Bullets exploded behind him, splintering wood and pockmarking the metal bulkheads. With alarms shrieking all around him at deafening volume, he broke into a run down the corridor.
Washington, D.C.
"Let's face it. You're not going to be deterred whatever I say, isn't that right?" Roger Fry looked at Senator James Cassidy expectantly. In the four years that Fry had been his chief of staff, he had helped draft policy statements for the Hill and speeches for the hustings. The Senator had turned to him whenever a thorny issue arose. Fry, a slight, red-haired man in his early forties, was someone he could always depend upon for an instant electoral read. Price supports for dairy farmers? City advocates could cry bloody murder if you took one position, while the agribusinesslobby would come after you if you took the other. Often enough, Fry would say, "Jim, it's a wash -- vote your conscience," knowing that Cassidy had made a career of doing so anyway.
The late-afternoon sun streamed through the venetian blinds, casting slats of shadows on the floor of his Senate office and bringing out the glow from Cassidy's burnished mahogany desk. The senator from Massachusetts looked up from his briefing papers and met Fry's gaze. "I hope you realize how valuable you are to me, Rog," he said, a smile playing at his lips. "It's because you're so good at looking after the pragmatic, temporizing, horse-trading side of this business that, every once in a while, I can actually get on my hind legs and say what I believe."
Fry was always struck by how distinguished, how damned senatorial Cassidy looked: the coifed mane of wavy silver hair, the chiseled features. A little over six feet, the senator was photogenic with his broad face and high cheekbones, but up close, the eyes were what made him: they could grow warm and intimate, making constituents feel as if they'd found a soul mate, or turn cool and unsparing, drilling through a squirrelly witness who'd come before his committee.
"Every once in a while?" Fry shook his head. "Too damn often, if you ask me. Too damned often for your own political health. And one of these days, it's going to catch up with you. The last election wasn't a walk in the park, if I may remind you."
"You worry too much, Rog."
"Somebody has to, around here."
"Listen, the constituents care about these things. Did I show you this letter?" It was from a woman who lived on Massachusetts's north shore. She had sued a marketing company and discovered they had thirty singlespaced pages of information on her, going back fifteen years. The company knew, and was in the business of selling, more than nine hundred separate items of information about her--including her choice of sleeping aids and antacids and hemorrhoid ointments and the soap she used when she showered; it itemized her divorce, medical procedures, credit ratings, her every traffic infraction. But there was nothing unusual about this; the company had similar dossiers on millions of Americans. The only thing unusual was that she found out about it. That letter, and a few dozen like it, was what first aroused Cassidy's concern.
"You forget, Jim, I answered that letter personally," replied Fry. "I'm just saying you don't know what you're stirring up this time around. This goes to the heart of the way business works today."
"That's why it's worth talking about," said the senator quietly.
"Sometimes it's more important to live and fight another day." But Fry knew what Cassidy was like when he had a bee in his bonnet: moral outrage would trump the cool calculation of political interest. The senator wasn't a saint: he sometimes drank too much and, especially in his early years when his hair was a glossy black, slept around too freely. At the same time, Cassidy had always maintained a core of political integrity: all things being equal, he did try to do the right thing, at least where the rightness of the thing was as clear as the political cost of doing so. It was a strain of idealism that Fry railed against and, almost despite himself, respected.
"You remember how Ambrose Bierce defined a statesman?" The senator winked at him. "A politician who, as a result of equal pressure from all sides, remains upright."
"I was in the cloakroom yesterday and found out you've got a new nickname," Fry said, smiling thinly. "You'll like this one, Jim: 'Senator Cassandra.'"
Cassidy frowned. "Nobody listened to Cassandra--but they should have," he grunted. "At least she could say she told 'em so ... ." He broke off. They'd been through it; they'd had this conversation. Fry was being protective of him, and Cassidy had heard him out. But on this subject, there wasn't anything left to talk about.
Senator Cassidy was going to do what he was going to do, and there was no stopping him.
No matter what it cost.
Footsteps thundered behind him on the steel deck as Bryson raced toward the center stairwell. Spying the elevator, he paused but a split-second before he rejected that option; the elevator moved slowly, and once inside it, he would be in a vertical coffin, easy prey for anyone able to shut off the elevator mechanism. No, he would take the stairs, noisy as they were. There was no other way out of the superstructure. He had no choice. Up or down? Up toward the wheelhouse, the bridge, would be an unexpected move, yet it risked his getting trapped on an upper deck with few egresses. No, that was a bad idea; down was the only way that made sense, down to the main deck and escape.
Escape? How? There was only one way off the ship, and that was off the main deck and into the water--whether by jumping, which was suicide in these cold Atlantic waters, or down the gangplank, which was too slow and too exposed a descent.
Jesus! There was no way out!
No, he mustn't think that way; there had to be a way out, and he would find it.
He was like a rat in a maze; that he didn't know the layout of thisimmense ship put him at a distinct disadvantage to his pursuers. Yet the very size of the vessel guaranteed endless passages in which to lose the chasers, hide if needed.
He vaulted to the stairs and began taking them two and three at a time, while above him came shouts. One of the bodyguards was dead, but there were no doubt quite a few others, alerted and summoned by the various alarms and by two-way radios. The footsteps and shouts grew increasingly loud and frantic from the stairwell. His pursuers had increased in number, and it was likely a matter of just seconds before others emerged from other parts of the ship.
The ship's whistles and alarms sounded in a cacophony of raucous whoops and metallic grunts. A landing led to a short passageway that seemed to open onto an outside section of a deck. Quietly he opened the door, closed it behind him silently, ran straight ahead, and found himself on the aft deck, open to the elements. The sky was black, the waves lapped gently at the stern. He ran to the railing, looking for the welded steel grips and steps one sometimes found on the side of ships that were used for emergency escape. He could climb down to another level of the ship, he quickly thought, and lose them that way.
But there were no steel grips on the hull. The only way out of here was down.
Suddenly there came the explosion of gunfire. A bullet ricocheted off a metal capstan with a high-pitched pinging sound. He spun away from the railing and into the shadow behind a steel mooring winch on which the steel hawse cable was wound around capstan drums, like some giant spool of thread, then dove behind it for cover. Another round of bullets pitted the metal just a few feet from his head.
They were firing without restraint here, and he realized that with the open sea behind him they could fire heedlessly without fear of damaging any of the ship's delicate navigational equipment.
Inside the ship they would have to be more careful when firing rounds. And that was his protection! They would not hesitate to kill him, but they would not want to damage their ship--or its precious cargo.
He would have to get out of the open areas and back into the belly of the ship. Not only would hiding places be numerous there, but he could take advantage of their hesitance to fire freely.
But now what? Here he was, trapped out in the open, with only a great steel capstan as protection. This was the most hazardous place for him on the entire ship.
There seemed to be two or three gunmen here, no more and no less. Clearly he was outnumbered. He needed to divert them, misdirect them, but how? Looking around wildly, he spotted something. Behind an iron bollard, a tall cylinder rising several feet from the deck, he noticed a paint can, left there no doubt by a deckhand. He crawled forward along the deck and grabbed the can. It was almost empty.
There was a sudden burst of gunfire as he was spotted.
He drew back quickly, grasping the handle of the can, then immediately hurling it forward toward the railing, where it struck the hawse pipe. He peered around the barricade, saw both men turn toward the source of the clatter. One of them ran toward it, away from where Bryson had concealed himself. The other spun around in a classic marksman's position, looking from one side to another. As the first man raced toward the starboard side of the ship, the second circled around toward the port side, his weapon pointed toward the mooring winch the whole time. This man saw through the ruse, suspected Bryson of having caused the diversion, believed Bryson was still huddled behind the winch.
But he did not expect Bryson to come around the winch toward him. Now Bryson was just a few feet away from the second security guard. A sudden shout came from the first man, a declaration that Bryson was not there, an unprofessional move. The second man, just inches away from Bryson, turned, distracted.
Bryson lunged and tackled the man to the deck, slamming his knee into the man's stomach. The man gasped as the air left his lungs, and as he reared up, Bryson slammed his elbow into the man's throat. He could hear the crunch of cartilage as he vised the man's throat in a hammerlock. The man roared in pain, which gave Bryson the opportunity he needed to grab the security man's gun, try to wrench it out of his hand. But the security guard was a professional, and he would not give his weapon up so easily; despite the great pain Bryson was inflicting, Calacanis's soldier struggled, refusing to yield the pistol. Gunfire came from the other sideof the deck, fired by the first gunman as he ran toward his colleague, which was jarring his aim. Bryson twisted the weapon around until the man's wrist cracked; the ligaments tore audibly, and the gun now turned back toward the man's own chest. His index finger jabbed at the trigger, finally grabbed it, and Bryson bent his wrist and fired.
The soldier arched backward, his chest punctured. Bryson's aim was perfect, even in the confusion of the struggle; he had hit the man's heart.
Grabbing the weapon from the limp fingers, he sprung to his feet and began firing wildly in the general direction of the running man, who stopped to fire back, knowing that firing while running made for terrible aim. That instant's pause was the window Bryson needed. He let loose a volley of semiautomatic fire, one round piercing his attacker's forehead. The man toppled to one side, crumpled against the railing, dead.
For a few seconds he was safe, Bryson calculated. But he could hear footsteps on the deck, growing louder and coming closer, and he heard the accompanying shouts, and that told him he was hardly safe at all.
Now where?
Immediately up ahead he saw a door marked DIESEL GENERATOR ROOM. This had to lead to the engine room, which at the moment seemed the best place to escape. He raced across the deck, yanked open the door, and ran down a steep, narrow set of metal stairs painted green. He was in a large, open area that was deafeningly loud. The auxiliary diesel generators here were in operation, providing power for the ship, since its engine was off. With several large strides he ran across a railing that circled the room above the mammoth generators.
Through the rumble he could hear that his pursuers had followed him down here, and in a moment he saw several silhouetted figures racing down the metal steps, visible only as shadows in the dim light with its sickly green cast.
There were four of them, running down the steep stairways with a stiffness, an awkwardness, that puzzled him for a moment, until he saw that two of them were wearing night-vision goggles, the others carrying sniper rifles outfitted with night-vision scopes. The outlines were unmistakable.
He raised the stolen pistol, quickly aimed at the first man down the stairs, and--
Suddenly all was darkness!
The lights in the room had been extinguished, probably from some central control room. No wonder they carried such equipment! By eliminating all light they hoped to gain the advantage provided by their sophisticated weaponry. On a ship such as this, a floating arsenal, there would be no shortage of such matériel.
But he fired anyway, into the darkness, in the direction toward which he had been aiming just a second or two ago. He heard a cry, then a crash. One man was down. But it was insanity to just keep firing into the darkness, using up precious ammunition when he had no idea how many rounds remained in the weapon and had no way to obtain any more.
It was what they wanted him to do.
They expected him to respond like a cornered animal, a drowning rat. To flail away desperately. To fire into the darkness with abandon. Use up the ammunition pointlessly, foolishly. And then, aided by their night vision, they would easily hunt him down.
Blinded in the darkness, he extended his arms, felt around for obstacles, both to avoid and to hide behind. The men wearing infrared monocular night-vision units, the lenses strapped against their eyes by means of a head harness and helmet mount, were doubtless also carrying handguns. The others had rifles fitted with advanced infrared weapon sights. Both allowed the user to see in total darkness by detecting the differentials in thermal patterns given off by animate and inanimate objects. Short-range thermal-imaging scopes had been used with great success during the Falklands war in 1982, in the Gulf in 1991. But these, Bryson recognized, were state-of-the-art RAPTOR night-vision weapon sights, lightweight, super accurate, with extreme long-range accuracy. They were often used by combat snipers, mounted on their .50 caliber sniper rifles.
Oh, dear God. The playing field was hardly level, as if it ever was. The noise of the generator seemed, in the darkness, even louder.
In the pitch blackness he saw a tiny, dancing red dot flit across his field of vision.
Someone had located him and was aiming directly at his face, his eyes!
Triangulate! Estimate the sniper's location based on the direction from which the infrared reticule was aiming at him. This wasn't his first timeas the target of a sniper with a night-vision scope, and he had learned to estimate the distance of the shooter.
But every second he paused to aim gave his enemy, who saw him as a green object against a darker green or black background, time to aim as well. And his enemy knew for certain where he was located, whereas Bryson was relying on luck and rusty experience. And how could he possibly aim at blackness? What was there to aim at?
He squinted to bring up available light, but there really was none to be summoned into his eyes. Instead, he raised his pistol and fired.
A scream!
He had hit someone, though how well he couldn't yet tell.
But a second or two afterward, a bullet spat against the machinery to his left, pinging loudly. Night vision or no, his enemies had missed. They did not seem to care whether their rounds struck the generator or not. The machinery was encased in steel, heavy-gauge and durable.
That meant they did not care what they hit, or whether they missed.
So how many more were there? If the second man was indeed down, that meant two remained. The problem was that the generator was so loud he could not hear footsteps approaching, nor the ragged breathing of a wounded man. He was in effect both blind and deaf.
As he raced down the catwalk, one hand outstretched before him to protect him from striking unseen objects, the other grasping his weapon, he heard gunfire again. One round whizzed so close to his head he could feel the gust of wind against his scalp.
Then his searching hand struck something hard--a bulkhead. He had come to a wall at one end of the cavernous room. He swung his weapon first to one side, then to the other, each time striking steel railing.
He was trapped.
Then he became aware of the dancing red bead in the darkness, as one of the snipers aimed at the green oval that was, in the night-vision scope, his head.
He thrust the pistol into the air in front of himself, prepared to aim at nothing again. Then he shouted: "Go ahead! If you miss me, you risk damaging the generator. That's a lot of delicate electronic equipment there, microchips easily shattered. Kill the generator, and you kill all the power in the ship--and see what Calacanis thinks about that."
A split-second of silence. He even thought he saw the red dot waver, though he knew he might be imagining things.
There was a low chuckle, and the infrared reticule passed across his field of vision again, steadied, and then--
The spit of a silenced weapon, and then three more spits, and then came a scream and the sound of another body crashing to the steel floor of the catwalk.
Who had fired at his enemy? Someone had done it--Bryson knew it hadn't been him! Someone had fired a round of shots using a silenced pistol.
Someone had fired at his pursuers--and perhaps even eliminated them!
"Don't move!" Bryson shouted into the darkness at the one remaining gunman he calculated had to be out there. His cry made no sense, he knew--why should any of his adversaries, equipped as they were with night-vision goggles or sights, pay any attention?--but such a shout, unexpected and even illogical, could buy him a few seconds of confusion.
"Don't shoot!" came another voice, faint against the deafening noise of the generators.
A woman's.
It was the voice of a woman.
Bryson froze. He thought he had seen only men descend the metal stairs into the room, but the bulky equipment could easily disguise a female silhouette.
But what did she mean, don't shoot?
Bryson shouted, "Put down your weapon!"
Suddenly he was blinded by a flash of light, and he realized that the lights in this room had suddenly gone on! Brighter than they'd been before.
What was going on?
In a second or two his eyes readjusted to the light, and there, standing on a catwalk high above, he could make out the shape of the woman who had been speaking to him. The woman wore a white uniform--the uniform of Calacanis's steward from the dinner that seemed so much a part of the distant past.
On her head she wore a helmet and head-harness, the lens of an infrared monocular night-vision unit obscuring half her face. Yet Bryson recognized her as the beautiful blonde he had exchanged a few words with before dinner, and who had spoken a few hasty words to him just before the violence had begun--words he now recognized as indeed a genuine warning.
And here she was, crouched in a marksman's stance, gripping the butt of a Ruger with a long silencer attached, moving it from one side to another, steadily back and forth. He realized, too, that there were four bodies sprawled at different points around the generator room--two from the deck close to the generator, one at the beginning of the catwalk on which he was standing, and a fourth lying a mere six feet away, alarmingly close.
And he saw that the woman was not aiming at him. She was covering him, aiming everywhere else, protecting him against others! The stewardess was standing by a small bank of controls and switches; that was where she had turned the lights on. "Come on!" she shouted over a dull roar. "This way!"
What the hell was going on?
Bryson stared in bafflement.
"Come on, let's go!" the woman shouted angrily. Her accent was definitely Levantine.
"What do you want?" Bryson shouted back, more to stall for time than to elicit any response. For what could this be but a trap -- a clever one but a trap nonetheless?
"What the hell do you think?" she shouted, turning her gun toward him, returning to the marksman's stance. He aimed his gun directly at her, and just as he was about to pull the trigger, he saw her shift the barrel a few inches to her right, heard the cough of another silenced round.
And at the same instant he both heard a crash and saw a body topple from the catwalk just above him.
Another sniper with a night-vision-equipped rifle. Dead.
She had just killed him.
The sniper had stolen silently up to him, about to kill him, and she had dropped him first.
"Move it!" the woman shouted to him. "Before any others come here. If you want to save your own life, move your ass!"
"Who are you?" Bryson shouted back, stunned.
"What does it matter right now?" She pushed the night-vision monocular up and off her face, so that it rested on the top of her head. "Please, there's no time! For God's sake, look at your situation, calculate your odds. What the hell choice do you have?"
Bryson stared at the woman.
"Come on!" she called, her voice rising in desperation. "If I wanted to kill you, I would have done so already. I've got the advantage, I've got the infrared--not you."
"You don't have the advantage now," Bryson called back, his grip steady on his stolen weapon, lowered at his side.
"I know this ship inside and out. Now, if you want to stay here and play games, be my guest. I have no choice now but to get off the ship. Calacanis's security force is large -- there are plenty of others, probably on the way right now." With her free hand she pointed toward an object mounted high on one of the bulkheads near the ceiling of the generator room. Bryson recognized it as a surveillance camera. "He has much of the ship on camera, but not all. So you can follow me and save your life, or you can stay here and be killed. The choice is yours!" She turned quickly and raced down the catwalk and up a short set of metal stairs to a hatch cover. Unlatching it, she glanced back and jerked her head toward the opening, signaling him to follow.
Bryson hesitated no more than a few more seconds before he did so.His mind spun; he tried to make sense of the woman. Questions! Who was she? What was she doing, what did she want, why was she here?
The woman was obviously no mere ship's steward.
So who was she?
She beckoned; he came through the hatchway behind her, all the while gripping his weapon.
"What are you--?" he began.
"Quiet!" she hissed. "Sound carries far here." She shut the hatch door behind him and slid home a large deadbolt. The painfully loud noise of the generator room was gone. "This is an antipirate ship, fortunately for us. Specially constructed so passages can be closed, locked."
He caught her eyes, momentarily distracted by her remarkable beauty. "You're right," he said quietly yet forcefully, "I don't have much choice right now, but you'd better tell me what's going on here."
She gave him a stare that was at once forthright and defiant and whispered, "No time for explanations right now. I'm undercover here, too. Following arms transfers to certain parties that want to blast Israel back to the Stone Age."
Mossad, he told himself. But her accent told him she was Lebanese, from the Bekaa Valley; something wasn't quite right. Would a Mossad field operative be Lebanese, not Israeli?
She cocked her head as if hearing some distant noise he could not perceive.
"This way," she said abruptly, vaulting up the steel stairs. He followed her to a landing, then out a hatch that opened into a long, empty, dark corridor. She paused for a moment, looked both ways. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he saw that the tunnel went on and on, as far as he could see. It seemed to run the entire length of the ship, from bow to stern; it appeared to be a little-used service alley. "Come!" she hissed, suddenly breaking into a run.
Bryson followed, lengthening his strides to adjust to the woman's lightning-fast pace. He observed that her tread was odd: springy and light, virtually silent. He emulated her, realizing that she was attempting to minimize the reverberation against the steel surface--both to keep from being heard and to be able to listen to any followers, he guessed.
Within a minute, when they had run a few hundred feet down thedark tunnel, he thought he heard a muffled noise coming from the aft end, behind them. He turned his head, noticed a shift in the pattern of the shadows at the far end. But before he could say anything to her, he saw her swerve to the right and flatten herself against the steel bulkhead, behind a vertical steel girder. He did the same, though not a second too soon.
There was an explosion, a burst of automatic gunfire. Bullets spat into the bulkhead, ringing, clattering against the deck.
Whipping his head to his left, he saw a plume of flame shooting from a machine gun at the far end of the tunnel, the shooter shadowy and indistinct. There came another burst of gunfire, and then the killer was running down the corridor toward them.
The woman was struggling with a hatch cover. "Shit! It's painted shut!" she whispered. With a quick glance back down the long, dark passage at the approaching assassin, she said, "This way!" Suddenly leaping forward, away from the protective shelter of the bulkhead and its steel girders, she raced ahead. She was right to move; otherwise, they would be trapped here, obvious targets. He peered quickly around the girder, looked back, and saw the shooter slow his pace, raise his Uzi submachine gun, and aim it directly at the woman.
Bryson did not hesitate. He pointed his pistol toward the killer, squeezed the trigger twice in succession. One round exploded; the second squeeze of the trigger produced nothing more than a small click. The chamber was empty, as was the magazine.
But the shooter was down. The pursuer's Uzi crashed to the deck as he tumbled awkwardly to one side. Even from this distance Bryson could see the man was dead.
The steward turned back with a grim, fearful expression and saw what had happened. She gave Bryson a quick look of what might have been appreciation, but said nothing. He raced to catch up with the woman.
For the moment they were safe. Now, suddenly, she veered off to the right and stopped abruptly at another section of bulkhead, also divided by vertical girders. She leaned over, grabbed a bar that was mounted over an oval opening in the bulkhead the size of a manhole, and agilely swung her feet into the hole like a child playing on monkey bars. In an instantshe had disappeared. He did the same, though somewhat more awkwardly: as physically agile as he was, he lacked her apparent familiarity with the ship.
They were in a box-shaped, low-ceilinged compartment that was almost totally dark, the only light coming from the dim service alley. When his vision adapted to the dark, he realized they were in a square space that connected to another one, by means of another manhole, and then another, and another. He could see clear across to the other side of the ship. This was a thwartships passage, he realized, the sections separated by heavy steel girders. She was peering into the next compartment, then without warning she grabbed on to the bar and swung her body inward, feet first.
He followed suit, but the moment he got to his feet, he heard her whisper, "Shh! Listen!"
He could hear the distant hammering of footsteps on steel. The sound seemed to be emanating from the service alley from which they had come, and also from a level above. It sounded like at least half a dozen men.
She spoke quickly, in a low voice. "I'm sure they've found the one you killed. Which tells them you're armed, probably a professional." Her English was heavily accented but remarkably fluent. Her intonation seemed to be questioning, though he couldn't see her facial expression. "Although it's obvious you are, if you've survived this far. They also know you--we--can't have gotten too far yet."
"I don't know who you are, yet you're risking your life for me. You don't owe me anything, but an explanation would be appreciated."
"Look, if we get out of here, we'll have time to talk. Right now we don't. Now, do you have any other weapon on you?"
He shook his head. "Just this damn thing, and it's empty."
"Not good. We're way outnumbered. There are enough of them to fan out, search every passage, every hold. And as we've just seen, they're equipped with some serious weaponry."
"There's no shortage of it on this ship," Bryson remarked. "How far are we from the containers?"
"The boxes. The cargo."
Even in the semidarkness he could see a white flash of smile as she realized what he was saying. "Ah, yes. Not far at all. But I don't know what's in them."
"Then we'll just have to look. Do we have to go back out to the service alley?"
"No. There's a passageway cut into the floor of one of these box girders. But I don't know which one, and without lights, we run the risk of just stepping down into it."
Bryson reached into a pocket, retrieved a book of matches, lit one. The compartment instantly lit up with a feeble amber light. He walked over to the next opening, the rush of air extinguishing the flame, and he lit another. She ran alongside and looked into the adjoining space. "There it is," she said. Bryson waved the match out just before it burned down to his finger. She reached out her hand to take the matchbook; he handed it over, understanding that, since she was in the lead, she had the more immediate need.
As soon as the darkness returned, she grabbed the steel bar, lifted her feet, and thrust them through. As she pulled herself erect by means of another handhold mounted inside the next compartment, she tapped her feet against the deck, searching out solid steel. "Okay. Careful."
He swung himself through the manhole, alighting carefully, keeping to the edges of the compartment floor. She was already descending into the vertical passage by means of a steel ladder that was welded in place. As Bryson waited to follow her down, he heard loud footsteps approaching, accompanied by shouts; then he could see a beam of light from a powerful flashlight illuminate the service alley they'd come from. He ducked down to the steel floor just as a flashlight beam shone directly at them. The light moved from side to side slowly.
He froze, his face pressed against the cold steel. He was aware of the loud ship's Klaxons, still blaring ceaselessly, but strangely, they had become almost background noise against which he could now hear other, more subtle, sounds.
He held his breath. The light moved to the center of the passage, then stopped, as if they had located him. He felt his heart hammer so loudly he swore it was audible. Then the beam moved off to one side and was gone.
The loud footsteps seemed to be passing by. "Nothing here!" a voice called out.
He waited a full minute before allowing himself to move. It seemed an eternity. Then he gingerly felt around for the smooth round edges of the opening in the floor until his fingers encountered the jutting steel of the ladder.
In a few seconds he, too, was climbing down the ladder.
They seemed to be descending for hundreds of feet, though he knew it had to be less than that. Finally the ladder came to an end, and the two of them were crawling through a long, dark horizontal tunnel whose floor was damp and smelled of bilge water. The tunnel was so low that they could not stand erect. The footfalls of the pursuers were now so distant and muffled they were all but inaudible. The woman moved rapidly through the tunnel, bent over, almost crab-walking, and Bryson found himself doing the same. Then the tunnel branched to the right, and she grabbed hold of another vertical metal ladder and began climbing nimbly upward. Bryson followed, but this ascent was a brief one; it led to what looked like another alley. The woman lit a match, whose flame revealed that on either side of the alley were steep, high corrugated-steel walls; in a moment, he realized that the walls were in fact the ends of steel shipping containers packed closely together. The walkway ran between two long rows of containers.
She stopped, knelt, lighted another match, and inspected a label plastered at the end panel of one container. "Steel Eagle 105, 107, 111 ..." she read quietly.
"Knives. Field-grade, tactical-ops. Keep looking."
She moved on to the next container. "Omega Technologies--"
"Electronic warfare components. Jesus, they've got everything here. But that's not going to do us any good."
"Mark-Twelve IFF Crypto --"
"Crypto systems for transponders or interrogators. Try the next bay. Hurry!"
Meanwhile, Bryson was squatting in front of a container in the row opposite, trying to make out the label by the dim light emitting from the woman's match a few feet away. "I think we got something here," he said."XM84 stun grenades, nonlethal, nonfragmentation. Flash-and-bang." He muttered to himself, "I'd prefer something lethal, but beggars can't be choosers."
Quietly, she continued to read aloud: "AN/PSC-11 SCAMP."
"Several-Channel Anti-Jam Man-Portable. Keep going."
She waved out one match and lit another. "ANFATDS?"
"Army Field Artillery Tactical Data System. Not going to help us much either."
"Special Operations High Frequency Radio. Nope."
He cut her off. "Israeli telecommunications and electronics maker. From your homeland. Nothing we can use."
Then he noticed the label on the adjoining container: M-76 grenades, and M-25 CS riot grenades, used by the military and police for crowd control. "Here we go," he said excitedly, though restraining the volume. "This is exactly what we need. Now, do you know how to open these things?"
She turned back toward him. "All we need is a bolt-cutter. These containers are high-security-sealed to prevent pilferage--they're not really locked in any serious way."
The first container came open easily once the high-security seal was snapped off. The metal lashing gear crisscrossing the front end of the nine-foot-high container slid out quickly, and then a door opened. Inside were stacked wooden crates of grenades and other armaments: a veritable Aladdin's cave of weaponry.
Ten minutes later they had assembled a pile of assorted arms. Once they had familiarized themselves with how to use them and how to keep them from going off accidentally, Bryson and the woman began stuffing the smaller objects, the grenades and ammunition and the like, into the pockets of their Kevlar body armor plates. The larger objects, they secured to their shoulders and backs by means of makeshift holsters, rucksacks, and slings of rope; the largest ones they would simply carry. Each wore Kevlar helmets with attached face shields.
Suddenly there came an enormous crash from directly overhead, thenanother. The screech of metal scraping against metal. Bryson slipped into the narrow gap between two containers and wordlessly signaled to the woman to do the same.
A sliver of bright light appeared above as a trapdoor in the ceiling appeared to open, actually an opening in the hatchway covering this bay of the cargo hold. The light came from high-intensity flashlights, several of them, in the hands of three or four of Calacanis's soldiers. Behind them, beside them, there were others, many others, and even from this angle, diagonally below, Bryson could see they were heavily armed.
No! He was expecting a confrontation, but not here, not so soon! There had been no opportunity to formulate a strategy, to coordinate with the nameless blond woman who had for some reason become his accomplice.
He seized the grip of the Bulgarian-made Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle and slowly angled it upward, mentally running through his options. To fire at the men from here would be the equivalent of sending up a flare confirming his location. Calacanis's men couldn't be certain that Bryson and the woman were here.
Then Bryson caught a glimpse of the array of large weapons that lay abandoned on the steel walkway floor. That told his enemies that they had guessed right, or rather, that they had accurately pinpointed the sounds from below--that their quarry was either here or had just been here.
But why weren't they firing?
When you're outnumbered, go on the offensive. His instincts told him to fire first, to pick off as many of his pursuers as he could, whether it gave away their positions or not.
He raised the Kalashnikov, peered through the low-light, variableintensity illuminated sight to zero the reticle, and squeezed the trigger.
An explosion, followed instantly by an agonized scream, and one of Calacanis's soldiers toppled from the ramparts above all the way down to the steel ramp a few feet away. Bryson's aim was precise; the man, struck in the forehead, was dead.
Bryson pulled into the shadows of the recess between containers, bracing for the full-automatic explosion of gunfire that he knew would be the response.
But nothing came!
There was a shout from above, a barked command. The men drew back and assumed firing stances, but did not fire!
Why the hell not?
Baffled, Bryson raised his weapon again and squeezed off two more carefully aimed shots. One of the men went down right away, dead; another sagged to his feet, screaming in pain.
Suddenly Bryson realized: they had been ordered to hold their fire!
They could not risk firing their weapons so near the containers! The corrugated-steel shipping crates were filled with the most explosive, highly flammable arms -- not all of them, of course, but enough to make it dangerous. One misplaced round that penetrated the thin steel skin of a container might detonate a cache of bombs, of C-4 plastic explosives, or who knows what else, setting off a conflagration so immense that it might sink the vast ship.
As long as he sought cover between containers, then they would not fire. Yet the instant he or the woman emerged and were safely away from the containers, a sharpshooter would attempt to take them out. This meant that Bryson was safe as long as he remained in position here--but there was no escape, no way out, and his enemies surely knew that. They could wait him out, wait for him to blunder.
He released his hold on the Kalashnikov, let it dangle by its strap at his side. From here he could see that the blonde was crouched between two containers twenty feet away or so, watching him, waiting to see what he would do. Bryson jabbed his thumb first to the left, then to the right, an unspoken question: Which way out?
Her reply was immediate, also signaled by means of hand gestures: the only way out was to emerge from the shelter of the containers, and take the ramp back in the direction from which they had come. Shit! They had no choice but to expose themselves! Bryson pointed to himself, telling her that he would go first. Then he raised his other major tactical weapon, a South African-made Uzi submachine gun. At the same time he began to sidle out from the protective alley, keeping his back against one of the containers, until he was out in the open, the Uzi pointed toward the guards above. As swiftly as they could, given the burden of the load of weaponry they were saddled down with, they moved toward their only escape.
Slowly the woman emerged, too, and now both of them sidled down the ramp, their backs against the enormous steel boxes. Several powerful, crisscrossing beams of light shone directly at them, in their eyes, illuminating their every move. In his peripheral vision Bryson could see several of the shooters shifting positions, aiming at them from oblique angles so they could fire at them without fear of striking the containers. But it would take precise marksmanship.
And Bryson did not intend to allow them the opportunity.
He shifted the Kalashnikov toward the shooters, and as he released the safety, he heard a loud clattering from behind. He turned quickly to look and saw men clambering out of the hatch that had been their escape route! These men, at much closer range, their aim therefore more reliable, might not be so hesitant to fire. Now they were surrounded, their sole means of escape gone!
A sudden hailstorm of machine-gun fire. It was coming from the woman, who then ducked back between the shelter of two containers. There were shouts, screams, and several of the advancing men collapsed to the ground, wounded or dead. Taking advantage of the gunfire, Bryson reached into the pocket of his flak jacket, retrieved a burst-fragmentation grenade, pulled out the pin, and hurled it up toward one group of Calacanis's men above. A chorus of shouts arose and the men scattered just as the grenade exploded, sending an immense shower of shrapnel everywhere, knocking several of the men out. Metal fragments clattered against Bryson's own face shield.
Another round of machine-gun fire from the woman, just as several of the men who had just emerged from the hatch advanced toward them, fanning out, pistols drawn. Bryson pulled out another grenade and hurled it upward; this one exploded much more quickly, with equally devastating results. He then fired a burst from the Uzi at the approaching soldiers. Several were hit; two of them, equipped with bulletproof vests, kept moving. Bryson fired at them again. The impact of the rounds even against the Kevlar vests was sufficiently powerful to knock one of them over. Bryson fired one long sustained burst and hit the other man in an exposed portion of the throat, killing him instantly.
"Come!" the woman shouted. He saw that she was backing up farther into the narrow passage between containers, deeper into the darkness.She seemed to have another route in mind; he would have to trust her, take on faith that she knew what she was doing, where she was going. Wildly firing off another long burst of artillery as cover, Bryson dove out from his protective cover to the open ramp. As he ran he was firing all around him, seemingly crazily. But it worked: he made it to the passage across the way, just in time to see her disappear to the left in a crawlspace between the ends of several containers, dragging a long heavy object behind her.
He recognized the weapon. Just before he turned, he pulled out another grenade and hurled it back toward Calacanis's men--at least, those who remained standing.
It was insanity! The woman was lugging this oversized, rifle-shaped weapon that was slowing down their escape!
"Go on," he whispered to her. "I can get it."
"Thank you."
He grabbed the weapon, swung it over his shoulder, pulling the canvas strap around his chest. Now she was climbing down a railing that led to the next row of containers below. He climbed down as well, then followed close behind as she shimmied between another set of containers. Now he could hear footsteps all around, though chiefly above and behind, and he deduced that their pursuers were splitting up into small teams. Where was she going? Why did she insist on their carrying this goddamned weapon?
She was weaving a strange, jagged path--between containers, then climbing down the railing to the next level down. There were eight or so levels of containers belowdecks, below the hatch covers, and who knew how many rows, which provided a great maze. That's what she was doing: she was trying to lose them in the maze! He was disoriented; he had no idea which way she was going, but she was moving quickly and seemingly with purpose, so he continued to follow her, his agility somewhat impaired by having to carry the weapon.
At last they came to another vertical tunnel with a steel ladder mounted within. She vaulted up it almost as if running. Bryson was starting to feel winded. The additional thirty or forty pounds he was carrying didn't help. The woman was in peak physical condition, he observed. This tunnel rose fifty feet or so and stopped at a dark, horizontal tunnelthat was tall enough to stand up in. As soon as he had come through, she shut the hatch door behind him and bolted it shut.
"This is a long tunnel," she said. "But if we can make it to near the end, to the oh-two deck, we're out of here."
She broke into a run, her stride long, hurried; Bryson followed close behind.
A sudden loud, echoing, clicking sound, and they were instantly plunged into absolute darkness.
Bryson threw himself onto the steel deck by force of habit, learned from long years of field ops, and he heard the woman do the same.
The explosion of a gunshot was followed immediately by the sound of steel hitting steel as a round hit the bulkhead just inches away. The aim was too good, too close, to be anything but enhanced by a thermal night-vision scope. Another explosion, and Bryson was immediately struck in the chest!
The bullet tore into his Kevlar vest with the impact of a powerful fist slamming him in the chest. Bryson had no night-vision; that had not been among the Aladdin's cave of armaments they had managed to turn up in their quick forage through the shipping containers. But the Lebanese woman did.
Didn't she?
"I don't have it!" she whispered harshly, as if reading his thoughts. "I dropped it somewhere back there!"
Now they could hear footsteps coming closer and closer in the blackness -- not running but briskly walking, with great determination. The determination of someone who can see in the dark, can see his target as clearly as if it were high noon. The confident stride of a killer approaching in order to improve his sight lines.
"Stay down!" Bryson hissed as he took out the Uzi and fired off a burst in the general direction of the killer. But it did nothing; the killer was advancing toward them steadily, Bryson could sense.
In the left pocket of his flak jacket was a jumble of hand grenades. M651 CS teargas grenades, which would be a mistake, because in this contained space it would get them, too: they had no protection. M90 pyrotechnic smoke grenade dischargers, which generate thick smokescreens, would do no good either, since thermal scopes could see through it.
But there was another one, he knew: a high-tech species of hand grenade that might do the trick.
There had been no time to explain to the woman what he was about to do. He had simply grabbed a few of the weapons from Calacanis's store. Now what? He needed to tell her without the killer, or killers, understanding.
Just move!
He found the grenade, identifying it by its unusual contours, its smooth body. Swiftly he pulled out its pin, waited the requisite few seconds, and lobbed it a few feet short of where he estimated Calacanis's soldier had reached.
The explosion was brief but blindingly bright, phosphorus-white, and it illuminated the killer in freeze-frame like a trick of the camera. Bryson could see the man, submachine gun hoisted in firing position, jerk his head up in astonishment. But the light disappeared just as quickly as it had appeared, and Bryson could feel the air fill at once with burning-hot smoke. The killer was caught off guard, taken by surprise, and Bryson seized the moment to scoop up the long steel projectile and then propel himself forward, coming at the woman with great velocity. As he did so, he called to her in Arabic, "Run! Straight ahead! He can't see us now!"
Indeed, the American-made M76 smoke grenade, once detonated, had released a thick smoke screen laced with hot brass flakes that floated in the air and descended to the ground very slowly. It was a high-tech obscurant, specifically designed to block detection of infrared waves by thermal imaging systems. The hot metal fragments confounded the killer's scope, so it could no longer distinguish the heat of the human body from the cooler background. Now the air was filled with a hot metallic haze; the assassin's field of vision was now nothing more than a densely speckled cloud.
Bryson rushed onward, the woman racing just ahead of him. By the time their enemy recovered a few seconds later and began firing madly, indiscriminately, Bryson and the woman were well beyond him down thecorridor. Artillery exploded everywhere, clattering against the steel bulkheads aimlessly.
He felt a hand reach out to make contact with him: the blond woman was guiding him through a hatchway, pulling him up onto a steel ladder until he had his bearings and was able to make his way up the rungs in the utter darkness. From behind he could hear another hailstorm of bullets as the soldier fired away blindly, and then the barrage abruptly stopped. He's out of ammunition, Bryson thought. He'll have to reload.
But he won't have time.
The woman opened a hatch cover, and suddenly he could see. In the same instant as he felt the welcome, cold night air hit his lungs, he saw that they were outside, in the open, on a small, starboard section of deck. She closed the hatch behind them and slid home the deadbolt. The sky was dark and starless, cloudy, but it seemed almost bright by contrast.
They were on the 02 deck, one level above the main deck. Bryson noticed that the Klaxons had ceased; the alarms had stopped ringing. Nimbly making her way around several large piles of greasy cables, like tangles of snakes, the woman took several quick strides toward the bulwark.
She knelt and untied a cable from a pelican hook, which released a boom, a davit arm, which now swung outward. Secured to the davit cradle was a twenty-seven-foot-long rescue boat, a Magna Marine patrol craft, one of the fastest speedboats made.
Then the two of them climbed into the boat, which swayed unsteadily on its bridle rig. She yanked at a line, releasing the brake, and abruptly they plummeted downward, the boat crashing into the water, free of all restraints.
She powered it up and the motor came on with a throaty roar, and then the boat lurched forward, almost flying over the surface of the water. The woman took the steering wheel while Bryson maneuvered the long steel tube, the immense missile he had lugged throughout the ship. They barreled full-throttle ahead at a speed of around sixty miles per hour. Calacanis's immense ship loomed as large as a skyscraper, its tall black hull ominous.
The loud noise emitted by the Magna patrol boat seemed to have alerted Calacanis's security forces, for suddenly the black sky was lit up with blindingly bright beams of light, thunderously loud explosions. Security men now ringed the bulwarks, standing on the railings and various other perches, their submachine guns and sniper rifles blazing. They were ineffective; Bryson and the woman were out of range.
They had escaped, and they were safe!
But then Bryson noticed the rocket launchers being hoisted onto the deck, targeted directly at them.
They're going to blow us out of the water.
He became aware of the whine of an outboard motor, which crescendoed into a powerful roar. Directly ahead, coming around the ship's stern, was a Boston Whaler patrol boat, twenty-seven-foot Vigilant class, with mounted machine guns. This was no Spanish coast guard vehicle; it was clearly private.
And as it raced toward them, growing closer and closer, its machine guns were firing nonstop.
The woman heard, then saw, and she didn't need to be prompted. She opened the throttle even further, accelerating to maximum speed. The boat they were on had no doubt been chosen by Calacanis for maximum speed, but so had the approaching patrol boat.
They were speeding toward the shore, but there was no certainty that they would win any contest. Now the pursuing patrol boat was almost within firing range, its guns blazing all the while. It was a matter of seconds before it overtook them. The sea was flecked, churned, by the hailstorm of bullets from the machine guns.
And the huge rocket launchers on board the Spanish Armada were clearly about to fire; the missiles were within range.
"Fire it!" the woman shouted. "Before they blow us up!"
But Bryson had already raised the Stinger to his shoulder, the gripstock in his right hand, launch tube in his left, canvas strap around his chest. He peered through the sight, squinting his other eye. The Stinger's superadvanced software made for extreme accuracy, using a passive infrared seeker. They were well beyond the recommended minimum distance of two hundred meters.
Bryson aligned the target in the optical sight, hit the override on the Identification Friend or Foe interrogation function, then actuated the missile function.
The audible tone signaled that the missile had locked on the target.
He fired.
There was an explosion of astonishing force, a recoil that knocked him backward as the dual-thrust rocket motor ignited, propelling the missile forward. The disposable missile launch tube dropped into the water.
And the heat-guided missile soared into the air, tracing a long arc toward the patrol boat, trailing a long plume of smoke like a hasty scrawl in the night sky.
A second later the patrol boat exploded into a fireball, a sulphurous cloud of smoke spewing upward. The ocean was roiled, huge waves rushing toward them even as they raced on ahead.
The air was pierced by a long, loud blast of the Spanish Armada's emergency whistle, followed by a series of short blasts and then one long one.
The woman had turned around, staring in horrified fascination. Bryson could feel a wave of intense heat on his face. He lifted the second missile -- the only remaining one, which had been bundled with the first -- and shoved it into the firing apparatus. Then he turned the missilelauncher to his left and fixed in the infrared sights the superstructure of the Spanish Armada itself. It began to beep, indicating that it had locked onto the target.
Heart pounding, holding his breath, he fired.
The missile streaked toward the enormous container ship, swerving as it corrected its own path, headed right for the very heart of the ship.
An instant later came the explosion, which seemed to begin within the bowels of the ship and expand outward. Pieces of the ship flew upward amid the black smoke and thrusting flame, and then, in some sort of peculiar sequence, there came another blast, even louder.
And then another. And another.
One by one the containers had superheated, detonating their highly flammable contents.
The sky was filled with fire, an immense rippling sphere of flame and smoke and detritus. The noise hurt their ears. A black oil slick spreadinto the water, and that, too, immediately burst into flames, and everything was smoke and fire and crashing waves.
Calacanis's huge vessel, now a ruined hulk, listed to one side, the wreckage all but hidden in an acrid black cloud, and it began to sink deep into the ocean.
The Spanish Armada was no more.
THE PROMETHEUS DECEPTION Copyright © 2000 by Myn Pyn LLC and THE SIGMA PROTOCOL Copyright © 2001 by Myn Pyn LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.