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Chaux de Mont, Switzerland
All days should be like this. All moments. Gerhard Shoutens hurtled down an expert ski run that paralleled a razorback ridge, following his friend Kristoph Maas. Sunlight drenched the snow-mantled Alps, and the wide sky was a vault of sapphire blue.
Gerhard reveled in the soaring exhilaration of speeding through the crisp new powder. "Das ist Wahnsinn!" he shouted into the wind.
Kristoph whooped in agreement. "Super! Toll!"
They flashed through a hushed stand of pines and into an open area, their velocity increasing, their skis hissing as the trail took them along the winding rim of a couloir. On one side spread a slope of pristine snow. Gerhard glanced down the othera spectacular gorge so deep that house-size boulders at the bottom appeared to be mere pebbles. It was breathtaking.
"Sieh dir das mal an!" he yelled.
But before his friend could admire the view, his entire body seemed to recoil as if he had struck some obstacle hidden in the snow. He gave an outraged bellow, his skis lifted off the track, and he was airborne. Gerhard leaned low into his skis, frantically trying to reach him. But Kristoph shot off the edge and into the void.
Two days later
Allenwood Federal Correctional Complex
At 6:40 a.m., ten minutes past morning call at the crowded federal penitentiary in the Susquehanna Valley, a stranger in civilian clothes marched down a gray cellblock, staring straight ahead. A Bureau of Prisons lieutenant led; two guards followed. All looked uneasy.
The man paused at a cell. As soon as the door opened, he moved inside and glared down at the solitary cot. The blanket had been yanked aside to reveal blue prison trousers and shirt stuffed with crumpled newspapers and arranged to mimic a man lying on his side. There was also a fake wood arm covered with flesh-colored upholstery from the prison factory. With the pillow pounded high as if it covered a head, and the blanket on top exposing part of the arm, not even the obligatory flash of a guard's light during nighttime checks would reveal that no one slept there.
"Clever bastard." The stranger jerked a cell phone from his pocket. He punched in a number and kept his voice low: "He's gone, all right. I'm in his cell now. I'll"
"Seal it off," the voice on the other end of the line ordered. "No one's to search it, understand? And for God's sake, make sure no one tells the press that Jay Tice has escaped!"
At 9:06 a.m. Laurence Litchfield, the CIA's Deputy Director of Operationsthe DDOhand-carried a sealed white envelope down from the seventh floor to the Staff Operations Center, the SOC, which was responsible for case-management support to colleagues in the field. In his mid-forties, Litchfield was lean, with a runner's wiry body and a lanky gait. His eyes were carved deep into his face. Above them, wide brows formed an ink-black line across his forehead.
The SOC chief looked up from her desk. "Good morning, Mr. Litchfield. We got some overnight requests from our people in Yemen and Qatar. I was going to memo you about our progress with the intelligence summit, but I can fill you in now."
"First I need to talk to one of your peopleElaine Cunningham."
She noted the envelope in his hand. "Cunningham? You know she's sidelined."
"I know. Show me where she is."
She nodded and led him out the door and down two long corridors and into a room crammed with gray modular cubicles, which someone long ago had cynically dubbed the Parking Lot. Here a glacially changing landscape of some three dozen field officers waited like used cars collecting dust, futures uncertain. Their covers had been irrevocably blown, or they had proved inept, or they had run into Langley politics. For many, the next stop was the tedium of personnel or recruitment or curriculumor, worst case, dismissal.
The chief pointed out Cunningham's cubicle among the maze, and Litchfield thanked her. "Go up to my office. I'll meet you there."
She left, and he turned down the narrow aisle and found Elaine Cunningham in her cramped enclosure, marching back and forth beside her desk, arms crossed, her shoulder propping her phone against her ear as she talked quietly into it. She was a small woman, twenty-nine years old and blond, dressed in an unbuttoned black jacket, white T-shirt, and belted black pants.
As he leaned against the frame of her cubicle to study her, she glanced up and recognized him. She winked one large blue eye in greeting.
And continued talking into the phone: "So, your missing source is a broker in Brussels. He's a morose Dane, unmarried, follows soccer. He didn't show up for a blind date yesterday and missed the alternate meet this morning. Now you have word he's in the wind, and Copenhagen can't find him." She pursed her lips. Her pace quickened. "All Scandinavians tend to be stereotyped as morose, but there are real national differences. It's the Swedes who are mostly angst-ridden, while the Danes are more happy-go-lucky. So your morose Dane may actually be Swedish, and if he's driving home, he probably didn't stop in Copenhagen but took the Øresund Fixed Link across the sound into Malmö. When amateurs change identities, they usually create legends based on what they already know. If he's Swedishespecially if he comes from the Malmö areait's possible he knows Copenhagen well enough to fake it as his hometown, and if he does, it's a good bet he speaks Danish like a native."
Cunningham paused, listening. "My pleasure. No, this is the end of the Langley road for me. Hey, it's been great working with you, too. You always give me interesting questions." As she hung up, she grabbed the single sheet of paper in her printer tray. "Morning, Mr. Litchfield. This is my lucky day. Who would've thought I'd get to resign to the DDO himself. Just to make it official, here's my letter."
Litchfield was unsurprised. "You'll make your psychologist happy." He took the letter, folded it into his pocket, and sat in the only side chair.
"That's what I'm all aboutmaking CIA clinicians happy." Her smile did not involve her eyes.
"I suspect you don't really want to quit. People who excel seldom do."
As Litchfield continued to watch, she blinked then sank into her desk chair. Dressed in her simple black and white clothes, her hair smoothed back into a ponytail at the nape of her neck, and wearing little makeup, she could pass as a cop or the leader of a gang of thieves. This flexibility of affect would be easier for her than for some, because she was neither beautiful nor ugly. Still, she was pretty enough that she could use her looks: Her face was slender, her cheekbones good, her classic features slightly irregular, and her golden hair shone. Litchfield had studied her file. Now he had seen her. So far, she was perfect.
"What you say has a certain truth to it," she acknowledged. "But I've also heard it said that a rut is just like a graveonly longer. I'm in a rut. I'm not doing Langley any good, and I'm not doing myself any good. It's time to get on with my life, such as it is." She gazed at the white envelope in his hand then peered up at him curiously. "But I think you have something else in mind."
He inclined his head. "I have a job tailored to your talents . . . and to your limitations. To do it, you'll be in the field alone, which you seem to prefer anyway."
"Not necessarily. It's just that the bodies Langley kept sending to partner with me turned out to be less than stellar."
"You don't trust anyone, do you?"
"My mother. I'm fond of my mother. I trust her. Unfortunately, she lives far away, in California."
"You trusted your husband, too. But he's dead. Afghanistan, right?"
For a moment she appeared speechless. She seemed to shrink, grow calcified, as hard as a tombstone.
He pushed her again: "You've had a problem working with people since he died. Your psychologist has recommended Langley let you go."
Instead of exploding, she nodded. Her expression was grim.
"You were one of our best hunters," Litchfield said. "Right now I need the best." As a hunter, her specialty was locating missing spies, assets gone to ground, "lost" foreign agents, anyone in the covert world of interest to Langley who had vanishedand doing it in such a way that the public never knew.
He watched a reflective look cross her face. It was time to change the subject: "Why do you think you were so successful?"
"Probably because I simply have a knack for it," she said. "I steep myself in the psychology of my target until the physical evidence and clues take on new meaning. That's all there is to it."
For the first time, he smiled. "No, there's far more than that." She was modest, and she had not lost her temper. All things considered, she was clearly his best choice.
Eyeing him speculatively, she said, "When the DDO comes to call, I figure something important has happened. And when I'm on the verge of being fired and he still comes to call, I figure it could be crucial. So let me help you outif you think I can do the job, tell me what it is, and I'll tell you whether I can or want to take it on."
He looked around. "Not here. The assignment is with one of our special units. And it's M-classified." "M" indicated an extraordinarily sensitive covert operation. Among the highest the United States bestowed, single-letter security clearances meant the information was so secret it could be referred to only by initials.
Her blue eyes snapped with excitement. It had been a long time since she'd had such an opportunity. "Give me back my resignation letter. As long as I don't have to mommy fools, I'll deliver."
He handed it to her along with his envelope. "Here's the address and the name of your contact, plus my phone number. It's the usual protocolyou hunt, our regular people capture. Read, memorize, then shred everything, including my number. Good luck."
The Catoctin Mountains, Maryland
Dense forests flowed dark and primeval down the ridged sides of the Maryland mountains to where a roadside stop had been built on a green basin of land off busy Highway 15. A cool breeze typical of the early hour at this time of year blew around the two-pump gas station and parking lot and café.
Jay Tice stood utterly still in shadows. His bloody clothes announced he should be considered dangerous, but there was something else about him that was perhaps even more sinister: It was in his aging face, where intelligence and violence warred just beneath the skin. His hair was short, the color of iron shavings. Two crevices curved down from either side of his nose to his mouth. His chin was as firm as ever, marked by the dramatic cleft.
He moved off through the trees. At the rear of the café, he dropped to his haunches. There were four windows on the back wallone was opaque glass, two displayed customers eating, and the fourth, next to the doorway, showed a desk and file cabinets. That was the office, just where he remembered. The back door was open. From it drifted the greasy odors of fried sausage and bacon. Tice looked around then sprinted to the doorway. He peered cautiously inside.
"Two eggs, easy!" A voice yelled from the end of the cluttered hall. "Half stack!"
Within seconds he slipped unnoticed into the office. He locked the door and activated the computer and, while it booted up, opened the window. From somewhere inside the café, a newscast described a terrorist bombing by a group thought to be connected to al-Qaeda. He sat down at the computer and created a new Yahoo! e-mail account from which he opened a blank e-mail, addressed it, and typed into the message window:
Dog's run away. Call home.
As soon as he hit send, he addressed another e-mail with a different message:
Unexpected storm forced evacuation. In touch soon.
Deleting all copies saved to the computer, he turned it off. He slid out the window, stifling a groan as his hip grazed the lip, furious that he was not as agile as he once was. He closed the window and seconds later was in the forest again, moving swiftly away.
Copyright © 2006 by Gayle Hallenbeck Lynds