David Webb, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, was buried beneath a stack of ungraded term papers. He was striding down the musty back corridors of gargantuan Healy Hall, heading for the office of Theodore Barton, his department head, and he was late, hence this shortcut he had long ago discovered using narrow, ill-lighted passageways few students knew about or cared to use.
There was a benign ebb and flow to his life bound by the strictures of the university. His year was defined by the terms of the Georgetown semesters. The deep winter that began them gave grudging way to a tentative spring and ended in the heat and humidity of the second semester's finals week. There was a part of him that fought against serenity, the part that thought of his former life in the clandestine service of the U.S. government, the part that kept him friends with his former handler, Alexander Conklin.
He was about to round a corner when he heard harsh voices raised and mocking laughter and saw ominous-seeming shadows playing along the wall.
"Muthfucka, we gonna make your gook tongue come out the back of your head!"
Bourne dropped the stack of papers he had been carrying and sprinted around the corner. As he did so, he saw three young black men in coats down to their ankles arrayed in a menacing semicircle around an Asian, trapping him against a corridor wall. They had a way of standing, their knees slightly bent, their upper limbs loose and swinging slightly that made their entire bodies seem like blunt and ugly aspects of weapons, cocked and ready. With a start, he recognized their prey was Rongsey Siv, a favorite student ofhis.
"Muthafucka," snarled one, wiry, with a strung-out, reckless look on his defiant face, "we come in here, gather up the goods to trade for the bling-bling."
"Can't ever have enough bling-bling," said another with an eagle tattoo on his cheek. He rolled a huge gold square-cut ring, one of many on the fingers of his right hand, back and forth. "Or don't you know the bling-bling, gook?"
"Yah, gook," the strung-out one said, goggle-eyed. "You don't look like you know shit."
"He wants to stop us," the one with the tattooed cheek said, leaning in toward Rongsey. "Yah, gook, whatcha gonna do, kung-fuckin-fu us to death?"
They laughed raucously, making stylized kicking gestures toward Rongsey, who shrank back even farther against the wall as they closed in.
The third black man, thick-muscled, heavyset, drew a baseball bat from underneath the voluminous folds of his long coat. "That right. Put your hands up, gook. We gonna break your knuckles good." He slapped the bat against his cupped palm. "You want it all at once or one at a time?"
"Yo," the strung-out one cried, "he don't get to choose." He pulled out his own baseball bat and advanced menacingly on Rongsey.'
As the strung-out kid brandished his bat, Webb came at them. So silent was his approach, so intent were they on the damage they were about to inflict that they did not become aware of him until he was upon them.
He grabbed the strung-out kid's bat in his left hand as it was coming down toward Rongsey's head. Tattoo-cheek, on Webb's right, cursed mightily, swung his balled fist, knuckles bristling with sharp-edged rings, aiming for Webb's ribs.
In that instant, from the veiled and shadowed place inside Webb's head the Bourne persona took firm control. Webb deflected the blow from tattoo-cheek with his biceps, stepped forward and slammed his elbow into tattoo-cheek's sternum. He went down, clawing at his chest.
The third thug, bigger than the other two, cursed and, dropping his bat, pulled a switchblade. He lunged at Webb, who stepped into the attack, delivering a short, sharp blow to the inside of the assailant's wrist. The switchblade fell to the corridor floor, skittering away. Webb hooked his left foot behind the other's ankle and lifted up. The big thug fell on his back, turned over and scrambled away.
Bourne yanked the baseball bat out of the strung-out thug's grip. "Muthafuckin' Five-O," the thug muttered. His pupils were dilated, unfocused by the effects of whatever drugs he'd taken. He pulled a gun---a cheap Saturday-night special---and aimed it at Webb.
With deadly accuracy, Webb flung the bat, striking the strung-out thug between the eyes. He staggered back, crying out, and his gun went flying.
Alerted by the noise of the struggle, a pair of campus security guards appeared, rounding the corner at a run. They brushed past Webb, pounding after the thugs, who fled without a backward glance, the two helping the strung-out one. They burst through the rear door to the building, out into the bright sunshine of the afternoon, with the guards hot on their heels.
Despite the guards' intervention, Webb felt Bourne's desire to pursue the thugs run hot in his body. How quickly it had risen from its psychic sleep, how easily it had gained control of him. Was it because he wanted it to? Webb took a deep breath, gained a semblance of control and turned to face Rongsey Siv.
"Professor Webb!" Rongsey tried to clear his throat. "I don't know---" He seemed abruptly overcome. His large black eyes were wide behind the lenses of his glasses. His expression was, as usual, impassive, but in those eyes Webb could see all the fear in the world.
"It's okay now." Webb put his arm across Rongsey's shoulders. As always, his fondness for the Cambodian refugee was showing through his professorial reserve. He couldn't help it.
Rongsey had overcome great adversity---losing almost all his family in the war. Rongsey and Webb had been in the same Southeast Asian jungles, and try as he might, Webb could not fully remove himself from the tangle of that hot, humid world. Like a recurring fever, it never really left you. He felt a shiver of recognition, like a dream one has while awake.
"Loak soksapbaee chea tay?" How are you? he asked in Khmer.
"I'm fine, Professor," Rongsey replied in the same language. "But I don't...I mean, how did you...?"
"Why don't we go outside?" Webb suggested. He was now quite late for Barton's meeting, but he couldn't care less. He picked up the switchblade and the gun. As he checked the gun's mechanism, the firing pin broke. He threw the useless gun in a trash bin but pocketed the switchblade.
Around the corner, Rongsey helped him with the spill of term papers. They then walked in silence through the corridors, which became increasingly crowded as they neared the front of the building. Webb recognized the special nature of this silence, the dense weight of time returning to normal after an incident of shared violence. It was a wartime thing, a consequence of the jungle; odd and unsettling that it should happen on this teeming metropolitan campus.
Emerging from the corridor, they joined the swarm of students crowding through the front doors to Healy Hall. Just inside, in the center of the floor, gleamed the hallowed Georgetown University seal. A great majority of the students were walking around it because a school legend held that if you walked on the seal you'd never graduate. Rongsey was one of those who gave the seal a wide berth, but Webb strode right across it with no qualms whatsoever.
Outside, they stood in the buttery spring sunlight, facing the trees and the Old Quadrangle, breathing the air with its hint of budding flowers. At their backs rose the looming presence of Healy Hall with its imposing Georgian red-brick facade, nineteenth-century dormer windows, slate roof and central two-hundred-foot clock spire.
The Cambodian turned to Webb. "Professor, thank you. If you hadn't come...."
"Rongsey," Webb said gently, "do you want to talk about it?"
The student's eyes were dark, unreadable. "What's there to say?"
"I suppose that would depend on you."
Rongsey shrugged. "I'll be fine, Professor Webb. Really. This isn't the first time I've been called names."
Webb stood looking at Rongsey for a moment, and he was swept by sudden emotion that caused his eyes to sting. He wanted to take the boy in his arms, hold him close, promise him that nothing else bad would ever happen to him. But he knew that Rongsey's Buddhist training would not allow him to accept the gesture. Who could say what was going on beneath that fortress like exterior. Webb had seen many others like Rongsey, forced by the exigencies of war and cultural hatred to bear witness to death, the collapse of a civilization, the kinds of tragedies most Americans could not understand. He felt a powerful kinship with Rongsey, an emotional bond that was tinged with a terrible sadness, recognition of the wound inside him that could never truly be healed.
All this emotion stood between them, silently acknowledged perhaps but never articulated. With a small, almost sad smile, Rongsey formally thanked Webb again and they said their good-byes.
Webb stood alone amid the students and faculty hurrying by, and yet he knew that he wasn't truly alone. Despite his best efforts, the aggressive personality of Jason Bourne had once again asserted itself. He breathed slowly and deeply, concentrating hard, using the mental techniques his psychiatrist friend, Mo Panov, had taught him for pushing the Bourne identity down. He concentrated first on his surrounding, on the blue and gold colors of the spring afternoon, on the gray stone and red brick of the buildings around the quad, of the movement of the students, the smiling faces of the girls, the laughter of the boys, the earnest talk of the professors. He absorbed each element in its entirety, grounding himself in time and place. Then, and only then, did he turn his thoughts inward.
Years ago he had been working for the foreign service in Phnom Penh. He'd been married then, not to Marie, his current wife, but to a Thai woman named Dao. They had two children, Joshua and Alyssa, and lived in a house on the bank of the river. America was at war with North Vietnam, but the war had spilled over into Cambodia. One afternoon, while he was at work and his family had been swimming in the river, a plane had strafed them, killing them.
Webb had almost gone mad with grief. Finally, fleeing his house and Phnom Penh, he'd arrived in Saigon, a man with no past and no future. It had been Alex Conklin who had taken a heartsick, half-mad David Webb off the streets of Saigon and forged him into a first-rate clandestine operative. In Saigon, Webb had learned to kill, had turned his own self-hatred outward, inflicting his rage on others. When a member of Conklin's group---an evil- tempered drifter named Jason Bourne---had been discovered to be a spy, it was Webb who had executed him. Webb had come to loathe the Bourne identity, but the truth was that it had often been his lifeline. Jason Bourne had saved Webb's life more times than he could remember. An amusing thought if it hadn't been so literal.
Years later, when they had both returned to Washington, Conklin had given him a long-term assignment. He had become what amounted to a sleeper agent, taking the name of Jason Bourne, a man long dead, forgotten by everyone. For three years Webb was Bourne, turned himself into an international assassin of great repute in order to hunt down an elusive terrorist.
But in Marseilles, his mission had gone terribly wrong. He'd been shot, cast into the dark waters of the Mediterranean, thought dead. Instead, he had been pulled from the water by members of a fishing boat, nursed back to health by a drunkard doctor in the port they'd set him down in. The only problem was that in the shock of almost dying he'd lost his memory.
What had come slowly back were the Bourne memories. It was only much later, with the help of Marie, his wife-to-be, that he had come to realize the truth, that he was David Webb. But by that time the Jason Bourne personality was too well ingrained, too powerful, too cunning to die.
In the aftermath, he'd become two people: David Webb, linguistics professor with a new wife and, eventually, two children, and Jason Bourne, the agent trained by Alex Conklin to be a formidable spy. Occasionally, in some crisis, Conklin called on Bourne's expertise and Webb reluctantly rose to duty. But the truth was that Webb often had little control over his Bourne personality. What had just happened with Rongsey and the three street thugs was evidence enough. Bourne had a way of asserting himself that was beyond Webb's control, despite all the work he and Panov had done.
Khan, having watched David Webb and the Cambodian student talking from across the quad, ducked into a building diagonally across from Healy Hall, mounted the stairs to the third floor. Khan was dressed much like all the other students. He looked younger than his twenty-seven years and no one gave him a second look. He was wearing khakis and a jeans jacket, over which was slung an outsize backpack. His sneakers made no sound as he went down the hallway, past the doors to classrooms. In his mind's eye was a clear picture of the view across the quad. He was again calculating angles, taking into account the mature trees that might obscure his view of his intended target.
He paused in front of the sixth door, heard a professor's voice from inside. The talk about ethics brought an ironic smile to his face. In his experience---and it was great and varied---ethics was as dead and useless as Latin. He went on to the next classroom, which he had already determined was empty, and went in.
Quickly now, he shut and locked the door behind him, crossed to the line of windows overlooking the quad, opened one, and got to work. From his backpack, he removed a 7.62-mm SVD Dragunov sniper rifle with a collapsible stock. He fitted the optical sight onto it, leaned it on the sill. Peering through the sight, he found David Webb, by this time standing alone across the quad in front of Healy Hall. There were trees just to his left. Every once in a while, a passing student would obscure him. Khan took a deep breath, let it out slowly. He sighted on Webb's head.
Copyright 2004 by the Estate of Robert Ludlum