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By MICHAEL WALSH
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Michael Walsh
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBudapest, Hungary
From Castle Hill, the view was straight east, across the Danube and into central Asia. Nobody thought of it that way anymore, of course, but two hundred years ago, before unification, the change in topography mirrored the change in the people and in the culture. On the right bank was Buda, rugged and hilly, while on the left lay the old city of Pest, gateway to the steppes of central Asia. From here it was practically a straight shot across Hungary to Nyiregyhaza, through the Carpathians and into the Ukraine, and thence to the Ural Mountains, and Siberia.
He had been here; Devlin knew it. If he sniffed the air, he could practically smell him. He had lost the trail in France, in that horrible refuge the monster kept in the old Abbey of Clairvaux, now a maximum-security French prison. Lost him thanks to Milverton's nearly lethal knife thrust through his shoulder, and Skorzeny's final, desperate kick. Milverton had been every bit as good as he had thought, and Skorzeny even more dangerous and clever. But the former was no longer with us; for the latter, it would be only a matter of time. Devlin had sworn that to the President of the United States, to himself and, most of all, to her.
The sound of voices, speaking softly in Hungarian, wafted across the still night air.
The Hilton Budapest was a near-ideal blending of the sacred and the profane, constructed in and around the ruins of a 13th-century Dominican Church and a baroque-era Jesuit college. The St. Matthias Church stood nearby, and behind it the Fisherman's Bastion, with its seven towers and filigreed walkways. In the dark, it was a perfect place to hide. Devlin stepped back into the shadows and waited.
Operational security was everything.
The voice drew closer. Two men walked within fifteen feet of him, lost in conversation, wreathed in cigarette smoke. The rest of the civilized world had gradually kicked the habit, but not in central Europe. Good. Cigarettes dulled the senses, and not only of taste or, depending on which hand the smoker used, touch, but also of hearing. The small sounds associated with smoking, on a night as quiet as this, seemed many decibels louder: the inhaling, the exhaling, the spitting. Devlin had long ago learned to turn anything to an advantage, and now he was going to allow a filthy habit to shelter him until the moment was right.
He had trailed one of them from Geneva, Switzerland, across the Alps, through Austria, where he had narrowly missed him in Vienna and finally here to Budapest. His name was Farid Belghazi, an Algerian-born French scientist attached to the Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire, better known as CERN, and among the projects he had been assigned to was the Large Hadron Collider, the proton-smashing experiment that was attempting nothing less than to re-create the conditions that obtained at the dawn of the universe: the Big Bang. In short, they were searching for the "God particle."
Belghazi was hardly after anything so grand, but as someone who had a top security clearance throughout the facility, his knowledge of the other research into high-energy particle physics that was going on near the French-Swiss border could be invaluable to civilization's professed enemies. In addition, CERN had been the birthplace of the World Wide Web, and was actively involved in GRID computing to power data analysis; a virtual supercomputer of networked workstations, all working on the same problem. If you were going to insinuate a spy into a sensitive agency, CERN was probably the next best target after NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, itself. The National Security Agency had first picked up Belghazi's trail by flagging a series of phone calls and e-mails. As the lead operative of the Central Security Service's Branch 4, Devlin naturally had access to the information. Now he was going to find out what it all meant.
About ten meters ahead, Devlin shadowed the two men, keeping within the cover of the Fisherman's Bastion. Now he could hear the voices clearly. The pair was speaking Hungarian, one speaker a native, the other his man, Belghazi. Magyar was not one of Devlin's best languages, and he knew he could not hope to pass for a Hungarian unless the conversation was brusque and confined to a few sentences. He'd have to act fast before he aroused any suspicions.
In Devlin's experience, the direct approach was almost always the best. Fishing a pack of Marlboros out of his pocket, he stuck an unlighted cigarette in his mouth and stepped out of the shadows and into their path. "Have you got a light?" he mumbled, offering the pack around as was customary in this part of the world. Obligingly, the Hungarian instinctively extended a lighter. Although it was dark, he could see a light flash in Belghazi's eyes, but by then it was too late. Devlin grabbed the Hungarian by the wrist and yanked, sending him sprawling into the darkness behind them. Under the rules of engagement of a snatch-and-grab operation like this-rules that even applied to him-he was not allowed to terminate unknown civilians unless he was a) sure of hostile intent and b) had total deniability. Meanwhile, he had a more immediate problem.
Belghazi went for his knife, but Devlin was ready for it. He spun, his left hand chopping down hard on the knife thrust. At the same time, he crossed with his right and met the point of the Algerian's jaw, knocking him backward toward the road where, at that same moment, a small black Prius glided up soundlessly, its trunk already opened. In one motion, Devlin stuck a needle into the Algerian's neck and heaved him into the trunk; the drug would only incapacitate him, not render him unconscious. Without a trace of haste, he closed it as if he had just tossed in his suitcase. Then he walked around the car and got into the front passenger seat.
She was at the wheel, the car already moving as the door closed. The blond hair fell nearly to her shoulders. "What do we know?" she asked.
"Not much, but we'll soon know a lot more."
The Prius-still something of an anomaly in these precincts-made its way down the winding streets, heading for the Erzsébet hid-the Elisabeth Bridge-and Pest beyond. The safe house was there, disguised as a garage and tucked away in a service alley behind the row of glittering Western hotels that now lined the river.
The first sign that anything was amiss came on the bridge. "Trouble," said Maryam.
Devlin pulled out what to all outward appearances was an ordinary Nokia Surge, the kind with a rectangular screen that disguised a slide-out mini-keyboard and, indeed, it could function that way should anyone ask. This one, however, was also an infrared sensor/scanner that could monitor all electronic devices up to a range of fifty meters; in a few seconds they would know how many men were chasing them and even read and listen in on their communications.
Her eyes flicked to the rearview mirror, and then to the side mirrors. "Two Mercedes SUVs, tinted windows. One after another, behind us. They'll be on either side of us as soon as we leave the bridge.
"In the back."
Devlin looked down and saw a golf bag on the floor. He pulled it open to find an array of small arms, including a brace of Heckler & Koch Mark 23 Special Ops, a Beretta UGB autoloader shotgun, and a couple of Armalite semiautomatics. "They'll do," he said, handing her one of the HKs and sliding the shotgun, barrel down, between his legs.
They jumped off the Elisabeth Bridge and turned right on the Váci utca. There was no way they could outrun the Benzes, and compartmentalized security dictated that they go nowhere near the safe house. They were going to have to improvise, but they were both good at that-they had been doing it all their lives. The Prius dove into the maze of streets, the remnants of ancient cattle trails and goat paths that had somehow or other survived the grand visions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at its zenith, and had been allowed to remain as they were practically since Attila had swept out of the East, bringing revolution, retribution, destruction, and death.
They would use the streets as their defense.
There was no way the Benzes could follow them closely. European drivers, Devlin knew, could race down narrow passageways with a bravado that more cautious Americans would never dare; it was not unusual for drivers to kiss mirrors as they passed each other, but rarely did they scrape a building or knock down a passing pedestrian or bicyclist. Still, this was going to be a challenge, and all they needed was enough time to ditch the Prius and get the backup unit in place when they were ready to hop.
"How did they pick us up?" Maryam hissed as she drove. "I thought you said we had complete op sec."
"RoE," replied Devlin. "I should have taken the other guy out, but ..." He didn't need to finish the sentence. Since the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, every op had chafed at the ridiculous rules imposed on them, mostly by the State Department. Foggy Bottom had never met a country or even an enemy it didn't think it could bore to death in a great gaseous fog.
They whizzed along the narrow streets. In the old days, before the revolution of 1989, the streets would have been pretty much deserted at this hour, not only because communist governments deemed anyone out after hours as automatically suspicious but also because very few people could afford to own an automobile. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union that had all changed, but the late hour was working in their favor.
As Maryam drove-unpredictably, never following a pattern and sometimes reversing course in the middle of a street, and darting down one-way streets if circumstances allowed-Devlin punched in the safe house contact number. This was not the time for the flat-out emergency number, the one that signaled that the entire op had gone tits up and that an extraction team was necessary. Besides, under the terms of his incarnation as Branch 4's deadliest and most classified operative, his identity was to be kept secret at all times. The only people who even knew of his existence were the president, the secretary of defense, and the head of the NSA.
And now, of course, her. But that was by choice, not necessity or command.
The Nokia sent its signal. Even if they were monitoring the Prius's electronic transmissions, they would never be able to detect it. Devlin's infrequent field communications bounced through a row of encrypted cutouts, with a ping off Fort Meade, where they were re-encrypted via the Dual_EC_DRBG, a pseudo-random number generator, and then redirected, so that whoever was on the receiving end would have no way of telling the signal's provenance. In the never-ending war between the hunter and the hunted, The Building's encryption technology was subjected to relentless and rigorous upgrades; sometimes it seemed that half the best minds in the Puzzle Palace were at work and making sure their own SIGINT was safe from predatory eyes and ears, while the other half penetrated the bad guys' innermost defenses. Whether anyone would ever win this game was moot, but once you were in it, you were in it to win it.
Still, the Mercedes-Benzes shadowed them, keeping to parallel streets when necessary, but always on their tail, as if they were electronically tracking them.
"Are you sure this car is clean?" barked Devlin.
"Stole it myself this morning, completely randomly," she replied. "There's no way they could have known about it."
"Then they were following you."
"Impossible. I just got in country."
"Then they picked you up at origination."
"Also impossible. I bought three tickets to three different destinations, each one in a different name. No ghosts."
"That you saw."
She shot him a quick, angry glance. "Are you challenging my professionalism?" she asked, zipping the Prius between two oncoming vehicles and splitting them perfectly.
"Absolutely not," he replied, and that was the truth. She was as good as they came. Where she had grown up, and what she'd had to endure, had made her so. "But you know the old saying: when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."
"Wild Bill Donovan?"
"Sherlock Holmes, The Sign of the Four ..."
The car careered to the left, nearly tipped, then righted itself and regained traction. Behind them, the two Benzes gained.
"Slow down and let them pass us," said Devlin. Just as their pursuers were about to pull even, Maryam hit the brakes and the SUVs, their drivers caught by surprise, went zipping by. "Got 'em both," said Devlin. "Now lose 'em while I digest this."
Maryam wheeled left onto the Irányi utca, then made her way back north a couple of blocks to pick up the Kossuth utca, named after the 19th-century freedom fighter, a wide boulevard heading into the heart of Pest and then out to the motorway. They might be able to ditch them in the warren of back streets on either side, but Devlin doubted it. Unless they wanted to lose both their prisoner and their lives, they were going to have to stand and fight.
"Who are they?"
Devlin knew he had less than two minutes before the unknown tormentors would pick them up again. "There are six in all, two in the lead car and four shooters in the trailing vehicle."
"Up to us to make it better. Even things out."
She gave him a quick smile, then glanced back at the rearview mirror. There was no sign of the SUVs. "I think we might have lost them."
"Impossible. Even an amateur on a bicycle could follow this piece of Nipponese plastic. They're waiting for us, up ahead somewhere. Stop the car-over there."
Maryam pulled off into a side street, and circled the block three-quarters of the way. There was no place to park, but then there was never anyplace to park in Budapest, so she wedged the car perpendicularly between an ancient Lada and a new Ford and killed the lights.
Devlin climbed into the back and lowered one of the fold-down seats, keeping his HK trained on their unwilling passenger. "Farid, are you all right?" he asked his unwilling passenger in Arabic.
There was no sound from the trunk. Devlin turned the Nokia backlight on and peered in. Belghazi was relaxed, his eyes open, but he didn't look happy, and no sound came from his mouth.
"Maybe he didn't understand you," suggest Maryam. "I told you to polish your street Arabic."
"Yeah, well, let's see how you do in the back alleys of Magdeburg with that Bavarian honk," he said. "In the meantime, let's move. Pop the trunk."
Cautiously, Devlin switched off the dome light, opened the door and slid out, concealing himself between the other cars. Senses on full alert, he listened for the sound of a motor, but heard nothing. He moved around to the trunk and, standing, hoisted Farid out, and slung him over his shoulders. Maryam was already out of the car, weapons over her shoulder, searching for a place to hide.
European cities were not like American ones, full of open spaces, wide streets, and generous yards. Here, they nestled up against one other, sharing walls on both sides, and you were lucky to get a garden the size of a postage stamp in the back. Not that you entered the garden from the street: what gaps there were between buildings were closed off by high cement and stucco walls, their gates tightly locked. This part of the world had seen too many conquerors come and go to trust the good nature of their fellow man, or his benign designs.
A row of big European trash cans stood near the curb, the kind into which you could easily stuff a body or two. Devlin dumped Farid into one of them and closed the lid, marking it with a felt-tipped pen he produced from one of his pockets. He didn't care how unpleasant it might be inside, with the coffee grounds, rotten vegetables, and soup bones; that was Farid's tough luck. He should have thought ahead, before he started stealing secrets from CERN and passing them along to al-Qaeda. If that, in fact, was what he'd been doing. But with the rapid proliferation of nuclear technology, this was no time to take chances. The apocalyptic genie that had been confined to the bottle, largely successfully since the day after Trinity, was now well and truly loosed upon the earth.
Devlin scanned the street-and didn't like what he saw; at either end of the road, blocking access and egress, were the two SUVs. They were trapped.
Excerpted from EARLY WARNING by MICHAEL WALSH Copyright © 2010 by Michael Walsh. Excerpted by permission.
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