The Operative (Ryan Kealey Series #5)by Andrew Britton
After more than a decade on the deadly front lines of the war on terror, Ryan Kealey believes he's finally put danger behind himand some of his demons to rest. But his calm is shattered when he's swept into a merciless terror attack during a charity gala in downtown Baltimore. Among the dozens of casualties is the wife of CIA Deputy Director John Harper. With normal channels of investigation obstructed, Harper turns to Kealey, the one man with the resources, expertiseand freedom from government interferenceto pursue the awful truth.
Following a string of secrets and violence, Kealey blazes a trail from the confines of the innermost chambers of government and big business to the dimmest reaches of the human psyche, forced to match wits with a new nemesis aided by new allies, each with a unique agenda. Slowly, Kealey unspools an unimaginable conspiracy that suggests America may in fact be its own worst enemy.
"[Britton] may well give Tom Clancy a run for the money." –St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"No-holds-barred action and gripping suspense." Library Journal on The Exile
"The 'best' of Tom Clancy, Michael Connelly, and Robert Ludlum all rolled into a single book." armchairinterviews.com on The Assassin
"Brilliantly well-written with plotting sharper than a fence full of razor wire, a sizzling page-turner." Brad Thor, New York Times bestselling author on The American
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By ANDREW BRITTON
Kensington Publishing Corp.Copyright © 2012 Andrew Britton
All right reserved.
Chapter OneQUEBEC, CANADA
The silver-white Gulfstream IV charter jet was idling outside its hangar at Jean Lesage International Airport. It was nearly 11:00 a.m., and the sounds of commercial jetliners coming and going rumbled toward the cavernous building every two minutes or so.
Reed Bishop took comfort in the sound. Being in a strange airport was like going to church or McDonald's in a foreign land: you always knew just what you were going to find. For an FBI agent, predictability of any kind was a godsend. Sights, ambient sounds, traffic patterns, personal habits. It was all part of the baseline. It helped you realize when something was off, either because it stood out or it caused a ripple effect.
So far, everything was normal. But then, there were a lot of moving parts in this operation. There was still enough time for something to go wrong.
Bishop spotted the black Mercedes as it pulled around a slow-moving catering truck and sped along the service road. He squinted his forty-three-year-old eyes to check the tag irregularity that he'd been told about before he took off. The macron, the accent over the E, ran the entire length of the letter, instead of partway. That meant the car was bona fide Canadian Security Intelligence Service. If there'd been a hijack, a substitution along the way, there was a sure way to tell. It was one less thing to worry about. The car flashed its brights. That was the second way to tell. A hijacker wouldn't have known to do that.
The sun was hidden behind thickening gray clouds, making the sedan's dark windows seem even more opaque, more forbidding. A chill crept along Bishop's arms. The FBI agent spit his chewing gum to the tarmac and reached into his Windbreaker for his cigarettes, feeling a pinch of guilt. He'd promised his ten-year-old daughter he would quit by her eleventh birthday. That left him two weeks to make good on his pledge. But he'd barely managed to cut down from his usual two packs a day, and the nicotine gum only made him want it more. He'd have to SARR the habit—follow the Self-Administered Recovery Regimen, as they called outpatient work in Allison Dearborn's deprogramming division.
He remembered when they called it "cold turkey." It was difficult then, and it would be just as difficult however it was dressed.
Cold turkey or aversion training or hypnotherapy or whatever the hell, he would deal with it after this business was done, he promised himself. When the prisoner was airborne, he could relax a little. It had been two weeks since her capture. He'd practically lived in his small office on Pennsylvania Avenue since then. There had been arrangements to make; egos to deal with; rules to bend, rewrite, or ignore. And he still had his regular work to do, tracking the internal flow of information on top secret operations and counterespionage activities so that none of the intel went from the inside out.
He lit up, aware of others on the tarmac looking at him. Smokers had become like FBI agents, acutely aware of their surroundings and who was glaring at them. He ignored them. The SOBs were breathing jet fumes, for God's sake. And they were Pakistani. Surely they were around smokers enough to not give a damn.
Bishop did not know the three men standing beside the jet, nor had he seen the faces hidden by their balaclavas. The Pakistanis had worn the masks since he arrived at the airfield an hour ago. Dressed in black suits, like corporate ninjas, they had gathered silently outside the hangar to await their prisoner's arrival. Bishop was here as a representative of FBI internal affairs. He was present in case human rights watchdogs heard about what was going on. He was supposed to give the transfer a veneer of international legality.
It was all a public show, of course. He was partnered with Jessica Muloni of the CIA's Rendition Group One—"the waterboarding people," as they laughingly called themselves. She wasn't here to make sure the prisoner's rights were protected. And he wasn't here to make sure she was held accountable. Though he was technically in charge of this operation—another of Homeland Security's increasingly less uncommon joint, cross-jurisdictional operations—professionally and ethically he felt their captive deserved whatever Muloni and the Pakistanis had planned.
He took a deep pull of smoke, held it in his lungs for a glorious moment, then let it swirl from his nose into the morning breeze. He should have worn his leather flight jacket. It was chilly even for Canada, the sky low and overcast. The damp gusts carried the smell of pines and imminent rain from the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.
They could have told me the weather before I left, he thought. He and Muloni had left Washington on a 7:00 a.m. flight. Before he headed to Dulles, the Canadians had given him details about the Mercedes, photos of the agents, satellite images of the terminal. Everything but the goddamn weather report.
Maybe it was a sign from God. The weather was ugly to suit the job he and Muloni had arrived to manage.
He drew hard on the cigarette as he watched the progress of the charcoal Mercedes. He was glad, at least, that the CSIS was the one who had made the nab. So far, the Canadians were proving more co-operative than some of Washington's other "allies," who insisted on follow-through and quid pro quo and complicated every mission threefold. It was tough to be clandestine when you had a half dozen agents trying to be inconspicuous, instead of one who actually was.
A woman came up behind him.
"How's the room?" he asked without turning.
"Fine. Clean." There was something in the clipped tone of her voice he didn't like. Perhaps he'd thanked God too soon. "What's wrong, Agent Muloni?"
"You lost me."
"The question should be, 'What's right?' The answer—nothing. I just got word that our plans have been modified."
Bishop slowly turned to face the African American woman, saw the cell phone in her hand. "Got word from whom?"
"Someone we can't just ignore, like we'd usually do," she said.
She wobbled the phone. "Our consul general here called me directly. Seems that two high-level CSIS officials paid him a visit in the middle of the night."
"Official, or did they creep through a window?"
"All on the up-and-up," she said. "They insisted that the Mounties accompany Veil to her destination."
"You're not serious."
"I am so serious."
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the CSIS were one unit until 1984. Since then, there had been very few jurisdictional battles because the responsibilities were clearly defined: the CSIS collected intelligence, while the RCMP acted on it. This job was what Bishop's people called a fence straddler.
Bishop snapped his cigarette butt to the ground. Why give up smoking at all? He'd only have to start again when crap like this came down the chute. "He told them it would compromise security, having extra targets?"
"Yes," the woman replied. "He said that the Canadians were intransigent. They told him that if we wanted their prisoner, we'd have to trust their guys."
"It's not about trust, for Christ's sake. It's about numbers."
"Don't tell me," she said.
Bishop shook his head. "Not a good precedent."
"I'm not happy, and word is the prime minister isn't thrilled, either," she said. "If something goes wrong, he doesn't want to catch any blowback."
"But the Mounties want to share the glory if everything goes right—"
"When," she said firmly.
It took a moment for him to understand. "When everything goes right," he corrected himself.
Jessica Muloni smiled. He regarded the woman's big brown eyes. There was nothing about them to suggest that her calm had been ruffled by the unexpected turn of events. She did not in any way fit the stereotypical mold of a cold CIA field operative. She was warm and easygoing. There was something about her that made you trust her, not just personally but professionally, a combination of her relaxed confidence and poise. Plain, thin, her natural brown hair cut functionally short, she wore almost no makeup and shapeless clothes, giving her a subdued, relaxed appearance. In her case, looks were somewhat deceptive, however. According to her file, she was easygoing until someone displayed the kind of dangerous incompetence that frontline personnel could not afford. Whether Jessica's takedown was a physical assault, a psychological strike, or any combination thereof, witnesses reported it was a frightening thing to be- hold.
"Listen," she said. "Let's give them some leeway here. The CSIS found her, the Mounties snatched her from the school, and the Canadians are letting us circumvent their deportation laws without squawking."
"Without squawking too much," Bishop corrected her.
"Fine," she agreed. "Look, there are legitimate concerns, and the brain trust here feels they need to have hands-on, so it's not technically a turnover. Seems they read File four-oh-four-one-one in the ASD."
The ASD—the Archive Sharing Database—employed by the FBI, the CSIS, Britain's MI5, Interpol, and twenty-four other agencies, had a different name in Washington: Ass So Demolished, from the number of times the United States got screwed in that exchange program. Not that he didn't see the Canadians' point. Bishop had been part of that operation in 2001, at Bromma Airport in Stockholm, when Egyptian asylum seekers Ahmed Agiza and Muhammad al-Zery were turned back by Sweden at the request of the FBI, which had Middle Eastern resources to protect. The file contained a detailed explanation of the diplomatic maneuvering that took place to make it seem like a Swedish decision in response to concerns voiced by Cairo, and not a decision cooked up in Washington. Even so, Sweden took a lot of heat for having failed to let the United Nations Human Rights Council study the case before taking unilateral action. It wasn't just Swedish neutrality that took a hit, but the country's reputation for independent action. Canadian authorities would accept the first, not the second.
"Are we expected to fly all three to Pakistan?" Bishop asked.
"No. Just two of them," she said.
"Well, there's a blessing," Bishop said cynically. Two sets of regionally trained eyes on the worldly Pakistani operatives, a gaggle of suspicious Pakistani eyes on the territorial Canadians, fewer eyes on the package. "You cleared them?"
She wriggled the phone again. "They're clean. Uninspiring but stainless."
He produced a weary, resigned sigh and shifted his attention back to the vehicle. There was no point arguing over the stipulation if the diplomats had consented to it. No point, and no time. It was times like this that made him want to become a green badger—the nickname for former Bureau personnel who joined private industry to handle security in global hot spots. The stress was high, but the bureaucracies were thinner and the pay was better. And frankly, it was easier to protect a region or a city or just a business with international outlets, instead of the whole damn world.
Bishop watched as the Mercedes eased to a halt and the stocky driver exited. A moment later a second man in civilian clothes slid from the backseat, followed by a blond woman in a leather jacket and jeans who emerged from the opposite side and then turned to lean back in, reaching to unclip the prisoner's seat belt.
Muloni took pictures of each individual with her cell phone. She tapped a six-digit code on the keypad. Facial recognition software from the Company's sophisticated XApps database compared the images with the JPEGs she'd been sent. The password she'd used was phone specific; without it, the app would not function.
She showed the results to Bishop. The images all matched. They had no reason to prevent the Canadians from sticking around.
Bishop and Muloni had already been ID'd at the outside gate. Still, he thought, the first Mountie to emerge from the car should have done a backup check. All it would have taken for ringers to get through and cut them down was one bribed guard.
Bishop's eyes narrowed as a fourth party, the notorious killer Veil, emerged from the vehicle. She had been named in at least a dozen attacks, from pinpoint assassinations to RPG attacks. Her hands were cuffed behind her back; her ankles shackled; the second plain- clothesman helped to steady her on her feet. She wore a short black skirt over a wine-colored blouse that drew Bishop's attention to her figure for longer than he hoped anyone had noticed. Her beige slip- on sneakers didn't match the rest of her clothes: the Mounties had removed whatever shoes or boots she was wearing when she was bagged to make it easier for her to walk in restraints.
"Dressed to kill," Muloni remarked.
"No, really," the woman replied. "You wouldn't have been watching her hands, would you?"
"Damn it." She was right. And he was busted.
"My great-grandmother was a painter in Uganda," the woman said. "Made her own pigments, stretched animal skins for canvas. She painted village life. There were a lot of bare-chested women, and do you know why?"
"It was a hundred and ten in the shade?"
"That, plus it inured men to the sight of barely clad women so they wouldn't be distracted in tribal wars or in trading," she told him.
"I wonder what those women thought when they encountered European women," Bishop said.
"The Zulus thought they were comical," Muloni told him. "Not the kind of high ground the British missionaries wanted."
Bishop didn't want to tell her that overexposure wouldn't have worked with most of the men he knew. Then again, some of them— like himself—might actually have been studying the woman's face instead. Veil's expression was nondescript. No anger, no frustration, no fear. Just neutral. It wasn't even a kind of practiced blankness that made you think something might be working inside her skull, like a plan of escape. She was simply a woman who was going along with whatever came from moment to moment. Undistracted, if an opportunity presented itself, she'd be ready. That was how assassins worked. But all that aside, there was something riveting about a woman who seemed to have no opinion in her expression.
Bishop reached for a cigarette, thought of his promise, then let it go. He chewed his cheek and watched as the woman shuffled ahead amid her captors, her shoulders squared, her head high and defiant.
The woman the Bureau had code-named Veil—she called herself Yasmin Rassin, though that was believed to be an alias—was responsible for the deaths of at least fourteen individuals around the world. She was wanted in the United States for trying to kill the deputy director of the CIA, Jon Harper, outside his home in Washington, a hit paid for by Tehran, according to a mole in the Majles-e Khobregan, Iran's ruling council of clerics. The trail that led to her capture had been long and convoluted. Photographed by a street-corner security camera, she had vanished for almost a year after the attempted hit. Eight months ago, a pair of MI5 antiterror agents on another assignment had made a chance ID at Heathrow and taken her into custody. On the way to Thames House in London, their car disappeared. It was later found burning in a field northwest of the city. A month later, the body of one of the agents was recovered from the water under the Westminster Bridge. His throat had been cut with a razor. Pink cotton fibers found in the wound suggested the razor had been tucked into the sweater she was wearing, probably the sleeve. Though her hands had been zip-tied behind her, shavings suggested that the restraints had been slashed, apparently by another razor blade. Rassin had undoubtedly made a lengthwise slit in the back of her leather belt and tucked the razor inside so its edge was even with the top of the belt.
The other driver remained missing.
Despite a hunt involving the cooperation of multiple international security and intelligence groups, Rassin had again gone to ground until last May, when the CSIS got a tip about an Egyptian boy who kept to himself at school, never took gym class due to vague religious restrictions, and—what had surprised fellow students—remembered his locker combination the very first day. Simultaneously, the Mounties turned up an inconsistency in his passport that had been recorded at customs and eventually passed along: the customs agent had clandestinely noted the young man's travel history—routine with young men coming from the Middle East—but there was no record of his having gone to the places stamped on the document. The Mounties tracked Rassin's movements, compared photographs of the "boy" with the computer-enhanced security camera image of her, and finally made the arrest.
Excerpted from The Operative by ANDREW BRITTON Copyright © 2012 by Andrew Britton. Excerpted by permission of Kensington Publishing Corp.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Born in England, Andrew Britton moved with his family to the United States when he was seven, settling in Michigan, then North Carolina. After serving in the Army as a combat engineer, Andrew entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and received his degree just before his death in 2008, at the age of 27.
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