In this “enthralling” thriller by the New York Times–bestselling author (San Diego Union), Jay Becker, an overworked, underpaid musician, is trying to earn some extra cash by giving sailing lessons on Puget Sound. When a mysterious woman named Marlene hires him for what appears to be a simple expedition, he has no idea that he will be drawn into a plot that involves the CIA, the FBI, and a kaleidoscope of spy, counterspy; cross, double-cross—with the lives of himself, the woman he loves, and his best friend hanging in the balance . . .
“Pearson skillfully spins this thriller with sense-of-place, breakneck pace, and economically drawn, believable characters.” —Library Journal
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About the Author
Hometown:St. Louis, Missouri
Date of Birth:March 13, 1953
Place of Birth:Glen Cove, New York
Education:Kansas University, B.A., Brown University
Read an Excerpt
The man, dark and handsome in a rented tuxedo, spoke quietly to the demure woman across from him. He had last worn a tux at a State Department dinner so long ago that in the interval he had forgotten how to tie a bow tie. His attempt hung crooked at his Adam's apple, a propeller ready for take-off.
The young woman's sleepy eyes contained a shade of her cocoa-colored hair, which she wore curled under at her shoulders. Her chin was hard and jutting, her nose small and out of place on her face, but her neck was long and elegant. Her pearl-white gown shone in the candlelight, clinging tightly to her modest curves, which were made more imposing by her impeccable posture.
Around the couple, the Hotel Regensburg dining room hummed with conversation, wine glasses glinting, winking with the sudden movement of an arm. White-gloved waiters weaved silently through the close tables bearing trays of gänseklien, hechtenkraut, and kugel. The Regensburg's patrons had just attended a recital and so feet tapped beneath the tables, keeping time to memorable melodies.
Outside the hotel windows the approaching darkness of early evening enveloped the city, enhanced by storm clouds blown in from Czechoslovakia to the east. The low rumble of distant thunder and bolts of lightning on the horizon warned of summer rain. Sporadic gusts of wind swayed red geraniums rooted in brightly painted window boxes — the only color on the drab façades of the buildings that lined the narrow, cobblestoned streets. The wind teased the treetops, bending branches and flashing the silvery undersides of leaves as pedestrians hurried below.
Inside the dining room the man turned to his companion and asked, "Do you know your way to the train station, Sharon?"
Her lips pursed. "I'll have no problem getting out, Brian. Please, don't worry so much."
"I wish I shared your optimism."
Sharon wasn't concerned. Brian had staged it well: they were both hotel guests, both Americans; he had made an obvious pass at her in the lounge following the recital. He had led her to a table in the hotel's crowded dining room. In his tuxedo, he blended in to the surroundings. She looked radiant. During the first course he had given her some important information. All that remained was to give her the photo. No reason to be concerned. Tomorrow she would board a train for Paris.
He sipped his tea, glancing over the cup's delicate rim. "You look fit. You must exercise regularly."
"Yes, I do," she said, and added, "Thank you."
"Are you as healthy as you look?"
"I suppose so," she conceded.
"That's nice. I haven't felt well for weeks. It's this food. Too much meat and potatoes. It's all you can get. You'd think the Germans would be smarter than that, wouldn't you?" He didn't wait for her response. "Too much meat. Not enough grains and vegetables." He looked at her again. "I bet you eat a lot of fruit and vegetables."
She nodded. He suddenly seemed more nervous to her, his attention fleeting. Distracted. She found it disconcerting.
"The two in the doorway. I can't make them out. Describe them to me."
This caught her by surprise. He had obviously been studying the reflection in the window behind her. She glanced casually over his shoulder in the direction of the lobby. Normally two men in business suits wouldn't have attracted anyone's attention; but with everyone else dressed in formal attire, these two stood out like weeds in a well-tended garden. The taller of the two scanned the crowd. His closely set eyes met her curious expression and steadied. She did not break the eye contact. She smiled at him and then lowered her eyes shyly to the table. She lifted her napkin and patted her lips.
Still looking into the window, Brian stated, "He saw you."
"Yes." Her mouth was hidden behind the napkin.
"The smaller of the two I don't recognize. Describe the taller one. Black hair? Big lips?"
"Thick lips, yes. Hard eyes and a pronounced brow."
Brian shifted in his chair restlessly. The wood squealed.
She returned her napkin to her lap, head held rigid, shoulders square, and looked into Brian's eyes. "Anything in particular you would like me to do?"
"Just keep talking. Enjoy yourself."
He continued, "That proves it: my cover's blown. It's up to you now."
"I have no problems with that," she said confidently.
"I screwed up somewhere," he said to himself, ignoring her. Then, "I hope I haven't blown you as well."
"Calm down," she instructed.
"Calm down?" he whispered. "What if I've blown you as well?"
Sharon laughed theatrically. Very convincing. It would appear that they were a couple enjoying each other's company.
Brian was not hysterical — agents learned to block hysteria — but he was anxious. "I may not have all the proof just yet. But I tell you, I know when I'm right."
"Brian," she chided, hoping to shut him up, laughing to cover, again. Sharon Johnson had been re-routed here, unexpectedly, from her embassy post in Bonn. Now she was a mule with "vital information" for Washington. Just like that. Few knew of her assignment; no local authorities were to be involved. With each gust of wind, triangular pennants snapped outside the window behind her, sounding like hands clapping. Or gunshots.
She knew Brian had been here, in Regensburg, West Germany, just over six months, working out of the CIA's Special Operations. His cover as a lawyer had evidently worked well enough, but the going had been rough: no real progress for the first five months. Then he had stumbled onto a disgruntled employee and, after a so-called "courtship," had managed to buy a few pieces of hard information. And now Sharon was to deliver this information to the directors of both the CIA and the FBI. No one else.
She had reviewed case histories of deeply buried agents in her first year at Langley. Brian fit the description of a blowout: an agent whose cover unravels, whose mind frays. The problem with becoming someone else was that in order to be convincing you could never — never — fall back, never break your cover identity, not even to yourself. Especially to yourself. You had to live every moment of your life as that other person; in doing so, you crossed a thin line where make- believe was real, and real no longer existed. You ate, slept, thought like that other person. However, this other person was only a shell — a cardboard character of names, numbers, and places — fifteen pages of double-spaced, twenty- weight bond — a memorized past, a creative present. There was no solid ground beneath you, just a manila folder, some photographs, and all those "facts." Never allowing your real self to be present, it quietly hid behind a door never opened.
Yes, Brian certainly fit the description of a blowout: a nervous twitch to his left eye; his index finger tapping throughout the dinner; odd facial expressions; dull, penetrating eyes. Small beads of perspiration clung to a few unshaven stubs of whiskers below his lower lip. "What are they doing now?" he asked, the skin beneath his left eye still jumping. A blowout. Brian was falling apart right before her eyes. Of course she would have to report it; she would have to tell them. She knew his condition might negate the importance of his information in the eyes of her superiors.
She smiled at him — a patronizing smile — and reached out in an attempt to quiet his tapping finger Rule number one: settle him down.
He jerked his hand away and placed it in his lap. He looked frightened.
"Perhaps we should go," she recommended, becoming nervous herself now. She envied a woman two tables away who seemed to be trouble-free and enjoying the meal. The low light of the room made the woman seem far away.
"Perhaps we should go?" Sharon repeated.
"No, not yet," he snapped at her.
She withdrew her hand from where it rested on the linen tablecloth and dabbed the edges of her lips with her napkin, saying, "Brian, it's nothing to worry about."
"It's him! The tall one is the henchman. He's come for me."
"Henchman? Brian, is there more I should know?" Spoken like a mother to a guilty son.
He sputtered, "Companies, within companies, within companies." The beads of perspiration had grown to small droplets. One trickled down his chin. "Boxes within boxes, within boxes. Free samples. Just free samples."
She had read that when the mind finally broke through the imposed wall that separated the real person from the contrived identity, it would take hold of any familiar image. Brian had chosen free samples.
He told her, "You walk to the end of the lane. The trees are turning and Sam Kane is burning leaves. You go to the mailbox and open it up. There's a box inside the mailbox, and a box inside of that. A box of dishwashing soap, or fabric softener ..." He was scaring her now. How to take him out of here? " ...or cereal. Kid's cereal. Captain Crunch. Frosted Flakes." He cocked his head, now Tony the Tiger, "They're grrreat!"
They've drugged him, she thought, as he continued on mindlessly. He's under stress, certainly, but they've drugged him. Her eyes danced between his fixed gaze and the food on the table. She felt fine. So how had they drugged him? Salt? Pepper? No.
He raised his voice and then his arms, illustrating his sudden enthusiasm for bicycles, which was now his topic. He and his sister, he explained, had once rented a tandem bicycle while on vacation with their parents in Bermuda.
His entrée? Unlikely.
Some of the guests at nearby tables were noticeably upset, shifting restlessly in their seats and casting glances toward their table. Whatever the drug, he was approaching light-speed. She guessed it might be a combination of amphetamines and mild hallucinogens.
"Jesus!" he shouted. "I'm fucked up."
An older woman sitting at the table next to them gasped.
"Brian," Sharon said calmly. But it was the wrong thing to say, and she realized it too late. He was too high, and he wasn't Brian. Brian didn't exist except in some folder. His real name was Robert Saks. She reached for his tea, held it under her nose, and sniffed: no way to tell.
His face reddened. He was having trouble breathing. She grabbed his hand. "Let's go."
He drew back violently, accidentally tipping his chair. He reached for support but took hold of the linen tablecloth. His chair went over backward; the tablecloth followed, and the tableware with it.
Sharon stood up abruptly; her chair also tipped over. She hurried to Brian's side, her tight evening gown restricting her movements. Spilled food covered him grotesquely. She saw in his face a young boy, in his eyes, an old man. She had never seen anyone die before, but she knew this was death. He reached for her and pulled her down by her hair. A matronly woman at the next table screamed as if her own hair had been pulled.
He withdrew a black-and-white photograph from his inside coat pocket. Then the pain hit and his hand clamped down on the photo. Sharon tried to pull it loose; he wouldn't let her. She tugged, but he held on. She rocked his wrist and looked at the photo: a group of men, a single face circled in black. She studied the face, pulling again on the photo. Brian held it tightly.
"I'm scared," he gasped. His final words.
Two waiters hurried over quickly. The tall thick-lipped man by the lobby began to walk toward Sharon.
She stared down at Brian. Unthinkable. A man who had spoken to her only moments before now lay staring at the chandelier, a twisted grin pasted on his face, beads of sweat still clinging to his lower lip. She glanced up and saw the waiters standing over her.
The tall man edged closer, his attention trained on Sharon. Again their eyes met, but this time she did not smile. She stood.
The frantic waiter called loudly, "Doktor! Doktor, bitte." He knelt down and pounded on Brian's chest, pinched the dead man's nose, and bent down to apply mouth-to-mouth.
The tall thick-lipped man reached over and grabbed Sharon by the forearm. His hand was cold. She broke his grip and squeezed between two chairs. Her gown hooked a loose tack on the back of a chair and ripped. She pushed through, frantic now herself. Her pursuer followed but, being bulkier, had to force his way between the tables. A man at one objected. The tall man shoved the protestor back into his seat. Sharon slipped between two chairs at the next table. "Hilfe!" she pleaded. A large man with pink cheeks and bushy eyebrows rose to confront Sharon's pursuer. He, too, was pushed into his seat.
Sharon made her way into the kitchen and was suddenly surrounded by overpowering aromas and a handful of overweight men, all eyeing her torn dress and grinning. She took hold of a large knife and stabbed through the fabric between her legs, dragging the knife from thigh to ankle before dropping it on the floor. One of the fat cooks whistled at the sight of her thighs.
Her pursuer came charging in behind her, his face flushed and angry. She pressed past two of the cooks, kicked off her high- heeled shoes, and sprinted for the outside door. "Help!" she shouted as she yanked open the door. In the kitchen, one of the cooks blocked the aisle, stopping her pursuer. The other cooks ganged up on the man. As she rounded a corner, she slipped and tumbled to the cobblestones, bruising her elbow badly. She looked back: there he was, running toward her. She pulled herself up and fled down a narrow lane past wooden, numberless doors to ancient rowhouses. Thirty yards farther up the lane she spotted the spire and ornate façade of a church. She could hear him — a half block back perhaps, and gaining quickly. She reached the stone steps and again looked back at him. He ran with single-minded determination. She pulled on the giant door and opened it a crack, slipped inside, and pulled it shut. She walked briskly past row after row of dark wooden pews. Her wet feet slapped the stone floor and echoed around her. Only the altar was lit: Jesus nailed on the cross, bleeding from wrists and ankles. "Hello?" she pleaded, her voice reverberating aimlessly.
As she heard the large door groan open she dove between two pews and folded herself under one of them, quickly trying to slow and quiet her breathing.
Echoing footsteps. She bit down nervously on her index finger. What to do? Think of something! Nowhere to go. Hiding in the House of God. A shredded piece of her dress lay where it might be seen. The squishing of his wet soles drew closer. She tugged the fabric out of sight.
He walked slowly, looking down each pew, searching for her. She held her breath. She could hear him breathing, like a man snoring.
"You are looking for something?" the soft High German of a man some distance away inquired calmly.
The black shoes stopped right next to her. She felt dizzy. Blood pulsed loudly in her ears.
She wanted to cry out for joy. A priest! Thank God.
"You appear to be searching for something. Did you lose something?"
"No, Father. I ... I came to pray."
"Then we shall pray together. Come, my son. Approach the altar. Pray with me."
The shoes squished past. She heard knees creak as the two men knelt. The priest began a monotone prayer that lasted several minutes. Then the black shoes came back down the aisle and past her. She heard the large door open and thump shut. She sighed, on the verge of tears.
"You may come out now. Let me see you. He is gone," the priest's voice echoed.
Surprised, she inched her way out and cautiously poked her head above the pews, looking first toward the rear doors, then turning to face the priest. He was an older man with hair the color of Christmas tinsel and the sapient face of a man of God. She was a mess: wet stringy hair, her white dress soaked through and clinging to her. She crossed her arms, covering her breasts. He walked slowly toward her, unhurried, serene.
"What is it?" he asked.
She shook her head, frightened. "I seek refuge."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Blood of the Albatross"
Copyright © 2014 Ridley Pearson.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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