Sam Capra has one reason to live: to rescue his baby son from the people who abducted him. An ex-CIA agent, Sam now owns bars around the world as cover for his real mission-working undercover for a secret network as mysterious as it is powerful, while using his skills to find his child.
Now the kidnappers have offered a deadly deal: they'll surrender Sam's child...if Sam finds and murders the one man who can expose them. Teaming up with a desperate young mother whose daughter is also missing, Sam tracks his prey-and his son-across the country in a dangerous race against time, and must unravel a deadly conspiracy if he's to rescue the only person in the world that matters to him.
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The Last Minute
By Abbott, Jeff
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2012 Abbott, Jeff
All right reserved.
A VERY PRIVATE WAR
Upper West Side, Manhattan
I KNOCKED ON THE GREEN DOOR and knew that in the next five minutes I’d either be dead or I’d have the truth I needed.
The man opened the apartment door just as I raised my fist for the second, impatient knock. He did not look like a man who traded in human lives. He looked like an accountant. He wore a dark suit, a loosened tie with bands of silver and pink, and a slight air of exhaustion and impatience. His glasses were steel-framed and rectangular. His lips were greasy with takeout Thai, and the remains of a meal—maybe his last—scented the air.
He looked at me, he looked at the pixie of a woman standing next to me, then he looked at his watch.
“You and your wife are late, Mr. Derwatt,” he said. “One minute late.”
There were several misconceptions in his statement. First, my name was not Derwatt. Second, the woman standing next to me, Mila, was not my wife. Third, we were exactly on time; I’d even waited for the second hand to sweep past the twelve before I knocked. But I shrugged, full of graciousness, and he opened the door and Mila and I stepped inside. He looked her over. He did it all in a second but I saw it. She was glancing at the two thick-necked thugs who stood by the apartment’s dinner table. Then she cast her gaze down, as if intimidated.
Nice bit of acting, that. Mila could stare down a great white shark.
I offered the accountant a handshake. “Frank Derwatt. This is my wife, Lilia.”
“Mr. Bell.” He didn’t shake my hand and I let it drop down to my side. I threw in an awkward laugh for effect. I was wearing jeans and a navy blazer with a pink polo underneath. Mila had found a horrible floral skirt that I suppose approximated her bizarre idea of what an American suburban housewife would wear. She clutched her pink purse. We looked like we were more interested in a country club membership than an illegal adoption.
“I thought we were meeting alone,” I said. Mila stepped close to me, like she was afraid.
The accountant dabbed a napkin at the Thai sauce smearing his mouth. I wanted to seize him by the throat, throw him against the wall, and force him to tell me where my son was. But that would only get my son killed, so I stood there like I was the nervous suburban wannabe dad that I was playing.
“Face the wall,” one of the big men said. He was a redhead, with his hair sliced into a burr and freckles the size of pebbles on his face. “Both of you.”
We both did. I set down the small canvas briefcase I was carrying.
I didn’t argue. I was supposed to be a nervous, law-abiding citizen and, although I have been those things in the distant past, I wasn’t right now. No wire, no weapons. Just me and my shining personality and a rage I kept caged up in my chest. The redhead searched me thoroughly. Then he did the same to Mila.
“Frank,” she said, about halfway through, a tinge of fear in her voice. She was selling it.
“Just be patient, honey, it’ll be over in a minute,” I said. “And then we can get our baby.”
Mila made this soft hiss of assent, the patient sigh of a woman who wanted this deal to be her gateway to happiness.
“Mr. and Mrs. Derwatt are clean, Mr. Bell,” the redhead said. He stepped back from us. I took Mila’s hand for just a moment.
“Sit down, Mr. Derwatt,” the accountant said. “Excuse the mess. We decided on an early dinner. I don’t usually meet with clients at night.”
I knew that normally the accountant would now be on a commuter train back to New Jersey. I had checked into every nook of his life: a wife, two sons, a mortgage on a cozy little place to live, a life full of promise.
All the sweet elements I’d once had, and had lost.
The accountant and his toughs studied me. Let them, I thought. I’d been careful.
One opened the briefcase. He dumped the bricks of cash out onto the table and began to sort them.
Mr. Bell glanced at me.
“My wife and I,” I lied, “we’ve failed to conceive after three years of trying. It has nearly destroyed our marriage. I’m eager to give my wife a healthy, happy baby.”
“You could adopt through legit channels.”
“Yes. But, um, some of my business practices, I don’t care to have them scrutinized by well-meaning social workers. We simply wish to acquire a child.”
Mila moved close to me. “You have done our background checks, yes? We wish to make our selection and get a child.”
“It’s not that easy, Mrs. Derwatt.”
“I’ve brought the down payment. We select our child and then we go get him or her.”
He blinked at me.
“That was what was agreed,” I said.
“The money’s all here, Mr. Bell.” The redhead had counted with the precise quickness of a man used to handling banded stacks of cash. “Twenty thousand dollars.”
“There were some anomalies in your background checks,” Mr. Bell said.
“Anomalies. I do not know this word,” Mila said. She’d thickened up her eastern European accent.
“Um, questions, Mrs. Derwatt.”
I held my breath. We had been very, very careful in setting up these identities. Mila had worked on them while we tried our best to find any link to the one clue we had to my son’s whereabouts: a photo of a woman leaving a private clinic in Strasbourg, France, soon after my son’s birth. I had been told she’d sold my son. We still did not know who the woman was, but using Mila’s considerable resources we’d found a surveillance photo of her arriving in New York, a week after my son’s birth, walking out of the terminal with this man. Mr. Bell, whose face was in a criminal database maintained by the state of New York for having been convicted of embezzlement six years ago and had gotten parole. We matched him to the airport photo. Found out where he lived, where he worked and who his associates were. Slow, plodding detective work but it had paid off. We had sent out feelers as potential adopters of a child, provided background, gotten this meeting to pick out a son or daughter.
“We could not find a complete enough history for Mrs. Derwatt before she came over from Romania.”
Mila was from Moldova, but the languages are identical. She turned to me and said in Moldovan, “We will have to kill them.”
I forced a smile. “She doesn’t understand what you mean,” I said to Mr. Bell in English.
“You said you met Mrs. Derwatt through an online dating service that matches Western men with eastern European brides.”
“Yes. What does this matter? We’ve brought the money. We want a child.”
“She’s Romanian, why not adopt there?” Mr. Bell said. “You could just go to eastern Europe and buy yourself a kid like you bought yourself a wife.” Nice sneer at the end.
Somewhere, we’d left a hole in our story. Or, conversely, this was a test. I put on my outraged face. “We don’t care where the child comes from. I told you, I cannot use normal channels.”
“As many of our clients can’t, Mr. Derwatt. So you understand why we must be so cautious. Our potential parents are… dangerous people.”
“My business is my business. I’ve provided you with what you need to know about me. Anything more could be compromising.”
“For me or for you?” Mr. Bell asked.
“Darling, let’s gather up our money,” I said to Mila. “We’re leaving.” I continued to play the outrage card.
“Don’t touch the money, Mrs. Derwatt,” Bell said.
“We had a deal.” I pointed at the laptop on the table. “Pay a deposit, pick a baby from the list, pick him up, and pay the rest.”
“We can decline to do business with anyone who makes us uncomfortable.”
“What is problem?” Mila said. “Maybe you make misunderstanding, and this is easy to fix.” She tried a bright smile with him.
“You claim to be Lilia Rozan, from Bucharest, immigrated here three years ago.”
“No claim. Am.”
“That particular Lilia Rozan is currently in a cancer ward in New Jersey.”
Misstep. We’d used a bad identity. Mr. Bell stood a little straighter. He was nervous but he had the muscle here. “So, Mr. Derwatt, we want to know who you and the lovely missus are.”
“We’re wanted by the police,” I said. “We had to lie.”
Mr. Bell smiled. “Details, please.” The two men were on each side of him. They didn’t have their guns out but they thought they didn’t need to; we were unarmed.
I looked at Mila. “Look, our money’s good as anyone else’s. Please.”
The bald man moved behind Mila. She clasped a hand over her wristwatch.
“We want to know who you are. Right now. Or he starts in on your wife.”
Mila turned, hands clasped together as if in prayer. “Oh, no, please, don’t hurt me. We just want a baby. Please. That’s all we want.”
He shoved her into the wall. She kept her footing but tears sprang to her eyes. “Oh, please.”
I stayed very still. The bald man glanced back at me, frowning with disgust that I would let him manhandle my woman, and in that second Mila pulled the watch from its band. Connecting them was a thin steel wire. She leapt onto his back and looped the garrote over his neck, the watch and the band serving as handles so that she didn’t slice her fingers off. His yell became a gurgle in an instant.
I hammered a fist into Mr. Bell’s chest and he went heaving into the air and landed on my money. The redhead started to draw but he couldn’t decide, for one crucial second, whether to shoot me or save his buddy, now purpling under Mila’s wire. As he swung the silencer-capped Beretta 92FS back toward me—hello, self-preservation—I launched into him. I levered the gun down as he fired and he hit his own foot. He howled and I slammed a fist into his solar plexus and then into his throat. He staggered back and we fought for control of the gun. He was bigger than me. I wrenched the gun, pushing it back toward his chest. His eyes widened as he realized the barrel was going to slip under his chin. It did and I squeezed his hand and his own finger pulled the trigger. A spray of blood and flesh fountained as it carved a path into his face. He looked surprised before the bullet distorted his flesh.
I freed the gun from his fingers and whirled, aiming at Mila’s opponent. But that guy was already gone. She’s not big but still a hundred pounds, hanging on to a wire; a throat can’t survive the trauma. The bald man lay in a sprawl at her feet; she hovered over Mr. Bell, panting.
“You all right?” I asked her. She nodded. I felt a tickle of bile at the back of my throat and I swallowed it down.
“You killed them,” Mr. Bell said, gasping. People say the most obvious things when they’re in a daze.
“They sell people,” I said. “They’re worse than I’ll ever be.”
“Who are you?”
I didn’t answer. I’m just a man who wants his stolen child back. My son I’ve never seen, except on this video, being carried by a woman who sells human beings for profit. My child. I was much closer to finding my kid than I’d ever been. And I thought of the times I rested my hand on my wife’s pregnant swell, feeling the bubble of movement beneath the skin, knowing it was a baby but not knowing it was going to be Daniel, this unique and special person who I’d never gotten to see with my own eyes, hold with my own arms.
I’m coming, I told him, my breath like a prayer on the air.
Mr. Bell swallowed; his mouth quivered as he looked at the dead men. “Okay, you can have a baby. Whichever one you want.”
“I want one born on January 10th at a private clinic in Strasbourg called Les Saintes. His birth name on the certificate was Julien Daniel Besson but his real name is Daniel Capra. This woman took him from the clinic. All we’ve been able to find out is that she travels on a Belgian passport under the name of Anna Tremaine. Now, I asked around, and I found out that you work with Anna Tremaine.”
He gave a half-nod. He was scared to death, blinking at the bodies of the muscles.
“Where is my son?” I asked, very quietly.
“I didn’t handle that placement. Anna would know. Oh, God, please don’t hurt me.”
“Don’t lie to us.” Mila held up the watch-garrote, slicked with blood.
“I’m not lying. I’m not.”
I squatted by him, put the silencer—still warm—against his modishly unshaven cheek. “Did Anna know you were suspicious of me?”
“Um, no. We initially reject every adopter—we claim they aren’t suitable, that there’s a hole in their story. Our clients are normally so desperate, they will do almost anything not to be rejected. Usually we can pressure them into ‘qualifying’ by sharing information that is valuable—you know, insider info on a company, or they can render services to us that can be useful later.”
Extortion and blackmail, as if illegal adoption wasn’t enough. What charming people.
“So you meet us. We pass your test. Then what?”
“I call Anna. We set up a meeting. You give her the rest of the money. Then she makes a phone call and the child is brought to you.”
“Has my son been sold?”
“I told you, I don’t know. Please. Please!”
“Watch him,” I said to Mila. I opened the laptop. On the screen was a catalog in PDF format. Pictures of babies. Countries of origin. Description of parents, if known—but no names. The spring catalog featured over two dozen children. Beautiful kids on the auction block. I scanned it quickly. None was listed as being born in France and I didn’t see what the point of lying in the catalog would be.
“You’re going to call Anna Tremaine, and you’re going to set up a meeting.”
Mr. Bell’s lip trembled.
“Where is she based?”
“Her cell phone has a Las Vegas area code. But that’s not where she necessarily meets people,” he added in a little rushed lie.
“Las Vegas will be just fine.” I decided I’d make it extra easy for Anna Tremaine. “You tell her that Mr. and Mrs. Derwatt have checked out and that we’ll be in Vegas tomorrow night to collect our child and pay the money.”
“You have to pick one, then.”
“A child. You have to pick a child.”
“This one.” I just pointed to the infant whose picture was on the current page of the digital catalog.
“Okay.” His breathing slowed. “I’ll do it, please don’t kill me.”
“Call her. Now. And if you say a single syllable that I don’t like, I will kill you.” And I slipped Mila’s garrote around his throat. The bloodied wire lay against his shirt and I tightened it enough so that the steel lay against his soft throat. I gave him an address in Las Vegas to suggest as a meeting place. He nodded.
He dialed. He waited. I leaned close enough to hear.
“Anna. It’s Bell. The couple today, the Derwatts, they checked out okay. They’ve made their selection.”
I could hear the barest scratch of pen and ink. “All right.”
“They don’t want to meet in New York. I think they would be willing to come to Las Vegas.”
A pause. “All right.”
“Do you know a place called The Canyon Bar, just off the Strip?”
“Oh, wonderful,” she said. “Hipster parents.”
“They suggested meeting there. Tomorrow evening at nine.”
I thought she might suggest her own choice. But any public spot could be put under surveillance. Our locale was as good as any other. “That’s fine,” she said.
“All right, I’ll tell them.”
“You’re welcome.” The conversation felt off. Tense. But he hadn’t said anything I could pinpoint as a signal to her.
“The wife and kids all right?”
“Yes, Anna, thanks for asking.” He swallowed against the wire. “Brent starts flag football this weekend. Jared’s joined swim team.”
“Oh, that’s nice. All right, I’ll see the Derwatts tomorrow. How will I know them?”
“She’s very petite, dark-haired. He’s about six foot, wiry, dark blond hair, green eyes. Nice-looking couple.”
“Tell them to get a table, preferably in the back. Order me a martini, three olives, and leave it at the table with a seat for me. I don’t like the look of anything in the bar, I skip the meeting, and no baby.”
“I’ll tell them.”
“Very well,” Anna said. “Bye.”
He hung up the phone and dropped it to the floor. Shivering under the wire, waiting for me to kill him.
Mila knelt to meet his gaze. “You’re not going to die. You’re going to talk. You’re going to tell me everything you know about Novem Soles.”
“Novem Soles, also called Nine Suns.”
“What? I don’t know what you mean.”
“I mean the criminal ring that Anna works for.”
“I only know Anna. She’s self-employed.”
I pushed up the sleeves on his shirt. There was no marking tattoo, a fiery nine transformed into a blazing sun. Novem Soles’s mark of ownership; I’d seen it on too many arms back in Amsterdam. I checked the arms of the two muscles. One had a tattoo, but it was the Chinese symbol for luck. Hadn’t worked.
“She’s not working for herself,” I said. “She works for an incredibly dangerous group of people. They were plotting a mass assassination a month ago. You screw them over, you die.”
Mr. Bell’s lip trembled. He was trying to find his bravery but failing.
“You see them?” Mila pointed at the bodies.
“You’re not going to be like them unless you make trouble. You’re going to be locked up in a room and wait until we’ve taken care of Anna. And you tell my people all you know about Anna Tremaine and her operation,” Mila said. “Everything. And then you’re going to go back and live with your family and you’re going to stay the hell out of illegal activities.”
“Call your wife. Tell her you need to go out of town for a few days. Then call your office.”
He nodded, eager, hopeful he would live.
When he was done, he handed her back the phone. She took a pair of handcuffs off one of the dead men and cuffed Bell. I almost saw him shiver in relief. If she was cuffing him, she wasn’t killing him.
I had the information I needed, finally. I was going to find my son.
IT WAS A BREAKING OF THE RULES, punishable by death. His project; his failure. His only shield was that he controlled access to many secrets that made their work and their profits possible. He smoothed out the thin strip of blond hair that bisected his scalp, a low-cut mohawk, and tugged at the jacket of his Armani suit. He stood on the porch of the large house and waited for the other eight to arrive in the darkening evening.
Rain slashed the beach, wind whipped the waves. Thunder thrummed the sky and the world appeared to have been smeared with gray paint. Alongside the sodden beach ran an equally sodden road, with a sign marking that it had been closed for repairs. Over the course of two hours, eight cars came down the rain-smeared asphalt and went around the wind-buffeted sign without the slightest hesitation. Each of the Lincoln Navigators, with its windows tinted against prying eyes, had been hired out from a local company that usually specialized in transporting film actors and rock stars around the island.
The passengers in each car, in this case, were not famous, and each liked their anonymity.
The house nestled in a private cove. The drivers helped their passengers inside. Each had packed light and carried a single bag. The drivers—all former military, now security for hire, from a variety of English-speaking nations—then took up stations around the house, to ensure that no one approached via boat, or car, or plane. Shortly after the last passenger arrived, the sky began to break, the clouds parting as if a curtain was rising on a stage, the early evening stars as witnesses.
The house smelled of Italian cooking: a heady mix of oregano, garlic, simmering beef, and red wine. The host for this gathering of the Nine Suns, or Novem Soles as it was also known, had spent part of his wandering childhood in Rome. He loved food, and his nanny had taught him how to cook. So for dinner there was salad, grilled fish, hearty pastas, and fine wines imported from Tuscany and Piedmont.
The nine men and women ate and sipped wine and chatted about the world’s events: a financial crisis in South America, the increasing violence between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, the latest scandal in the American Congress—and the opportunities for expansion that all three presented.
The man with the blond mohawk accepted compliments on the food; he smiled and encouraged the quieter members of the group—quiet, that is, in the way of cobras, observing, considering when to strike—to join the conversations. He had wanted to arrange prostitutes for the visiting group, but had been sternly warned that, given recent events, this was no time for debauchery. He missed sex; he was reduced to being a spectator nowadays, but even watching, a feeble substitute, was better than nothing.
In these rooms they did not use each other’s names. They were known by their responsibilities: the Banker, the General, the Diplomat, the Courier. Titles passed down through long years, or kept by the original members of the nine. The blond mohawk was called the Watcher; it was a role he’d fought hard to get, and he had no intention of losing it now.
The Watcher waited for the Banker and the General to get into their usual bickering, but for once they did not. He heard English spoken, Russian practiced, the silk of Arabic whispered. These gatherings were always a good chance for everyone to practice their foreign language skills. But the meeting would be conducted in English, the group’s lingua franca.
After supper, the nine gathered in the large den. The Watcher stood at the head of the long table. He took a calming breath that he camouflaged under a welcoming smile. He was the youngest. Can’t be scared, boy. Be tough.
“I’m a firm believer in bad news first,” the Watcher said. “As you know, our recent mass assassination plot in the United States failed.”
Silence among the nine. It seemed like all the goodwill engendered by his fine food and wine evaporated like ice on summer concrete.
“A smuggling ring that we used as a cover to get experimental weapons into the United States was destroyed. The ring was infiltrated by a former CIA operative named Sam Capra. He should have died in our bombing of a clandestine CIA office in London dedicated to stopping illicit transnational activities. His office was part of the Special Projects branch—which, as you know, does the work that even the CIA is not supposed to discuss.” The mention of Special Projects caused a bit of a stir in the room: glances exchanged, water sipped, eyebrows raised. “These days Special Projects is specifically interested in any criminal, non-terrorist activities that can affect American national security.”
He paused; they stared. Waiting. He tapped on the laptop button and a picture of Sam Capra appeared on the screen. Brownish-blond-haired, green-eyed, the lean face of a runner, mid-twenties, boyish. “Capra survived only because he walked out of the office before it was bombed, however, and was regarded by the CIA as a likely traitor due to financial irregularities committed by his wife, and the inconvenient fact that his pregnant wife had told him to leave the office right before it was destroyed. Capra escaped from the CIA’s custody, went searching for his wife, infiltrated our group in Amsterdam, and disrupted the assassination plots.”
The nine waited while the Watcher took a long drink of water. He studied their faces. Most of them would not have been recognized by any government official, any police department, any journalist, any intelligence service. They were, for the most part, so ordinary. Frighteningly ordinary. The person who might sit next to you on the subway, or stand behind you in the grocery store line, or drop off their child at the same time you did at school. They came from around the world, yet they all seemed to have that same urban sameness. It was, the Watcher thought, a superior camouflage. Yet they had come so close to delivering a history-changing death blow to American stability, to bringing the country to a mad level of chaos that promised an erosion of the rule of law and, in turn, enormous profit.
Look how far we’ve come since the early days, the Watcher thought. A tremendous lesson could be learned from a tremendous failure. They were unbloodied and unbowed. “You will note that we lost our main CIA contact. He was killed in action by Capra. We have since lost two other low-level contacts I… recruited inside the CIA. They’ve been arrested. Fortunately we did not deal face to face with them, and they cannot betray us.”
“So right now, we have no eyes inside the CIA?” the Banker asked.
“We have an eye or two that never blinks.” He smiled. Let them know he still had information feeds inside the agency, but not exactly what kinds. “I do not know if they can see as well, or as far.” The Watcher cleared his throat. He could have shared a file two inches thick on Sam Capra’s life with his compatriots, but he’d decided not to play up the man’s importance. “We do, however, have leverage over Sam Capra. We have his infant child.”
“Children,” sniffed the Banker. She was a Chinese woman, petite, thin, with a lovely face that could have sold cosmetics by the tonnage. She made a frown, as though the word held a sourness.
“Control,” countered the General.
“Control of a puppet with no strings for us to pull. While we have control over his kid, there’s no way the CIA will let him close to any information that is useful to us,” the Diplomat said. He spoke with a deep baritone, a South African accent, hands tented before his face. “I say we kill him. Show that we cannot be defied.”
“Sam Capra,” the Watcher said, “doesn’t know that our group has steered him from six years ago, that we have guided his life as surely as a hand on a rudder. We made him into what he is, not the CIA. The setback with his wife was… unfortunate. But he only knows us as a name that means nothing, a vague threat. He doesn’t know who we are, he doesn’t know how we came to be.”
“He has damaged us like no one else has,” the General said. “I truly prefer that he be dead.”
“We should not be killing CIA agents unless absolutely necessary,” the Historian said. He was a heavy-set Russian, head shaved bald, muscles thick under the black of his tailored suit. “It provokes attention. It is bad for business. He’s no longer with the CIA, he is useless to us. He cannot hurt us. He cannot find us. He dies at our hand, the CIA will be coming to investigate.”
“I agree,” several of the others murmured. The Watcher scanned their faces, taking the temperature of their reactions. The Banker stared at him and he nodded at her and said, “You have a thought to share?”
“Yes. You wanted us to finance your ability to spy on very specific people. I want to know how much of that ability has been compromised by this failure.”
“The whole reason we were able to attempt a project of this scale was because of me. Because I have made it easy for us to access information that is critically damaging to some of the most vitally placed people in the world and use it to force them to do what we need. We had a failure. It doesn’t change the fact that I—I mean we—now own several people in key positions in government and business around the world.”
“So. You want to mount another project, using your resources.” The Banker’s tone mocked him. In another time he would have slapped her across the face, torn her silk suit from her body, taught her who was master. His jaw quavered. Those days were done. Instead he nodded gravely. “Yes. But first I want to clean up the mess that Sam Capra made for us, but I want you to understand why it’s a risk.”
The Banker nodded.
“We had an asset in Amsterdam, a computer hacker who had helped me with infiltrating the laptops of our targets so that we had a free view of the classified information that came into their systems. Nic ten Boom. He’s dead, killed by Capra. There is a loose end there that we have only now discovered.”
“What? Who?” the General asked.
“A young Chinese graduate student, a computer hacker named Jin Ming, was present at a shootout in a Rotterdam machinists’ shop that was owned by the smuggling ring we used in Amsterdam. He was Nic ten Boom’s hacking assistant. He wrote the software that enabled us to spy without being detected. But he doesn’t know who our targets were. Ming is in the hospital, recovering from his wounds.”
“The assistant may know nothing that can hurt us.”
“He may not. I would very much like to know if he is going to be a problem. We know that Nic ten Boom was most ambitious.” He had to be careful here. “In checking my own computer’s logs, I found out that ten Boom was trying to learn more about us, and about our organization when he died. We hired him to spy for us, but he was starting to spy on us.”
“Then I’m glad he’s dead, and you should hire with a more careful eye,” the Banker said.
“Nic was attracted by success. He wanted to move up the ladder.” The Watcher shrugged. “He didn’t seem to realize we require success before promotion.”
“Kids today are lazy,” the General said.
“Everyone else involved in the Amsterdam operation is dead, either killed by Capra or by one of our people, Edward, who sought to minimize our risks by eliminating those who could identify him. Edward is dead.”
There was no sentimentality about the death of a hireling.
“I did not know until now that this young man, Ming, was alive. He was grabbed by the CIA from an internet café, then we assume Ming gave them the Rotterdam address. They took him in when they raided our smuggling operation and Ming was shot. Apparently both our side and the CIA left him for dead. He is in an Amsterdam hospital, under police guard.”
“So have him killed.” The Banker gave a dismissive wave of her hand. “I can assure you, if there is a surfeit of anything in the world, it’s Chinese grad students.”
“I will. But why I’ve told you all this is because it’s all part of a bigger picture. We have shaped Sam Capra, over the years, like he was made of clay. And I don’t intend to let that wheel stop spinning until he is molded in just the way we need. The time has come. I have thought of a way in which Mr. Capra can be invaluable to us.”
“Because we have his child,” the Banker said. “You just got a new pawn on your chessboard, darling.” She actually smiled at him.
He did not like her changing his metaphor. “You have to seize what advantages you can,” the Watcher said. He felt the tension in his chest begin to loosen. At any moment any of the others would have been in their rights to call a vote on his life. They hadn’t.
“The CIA will never trust him while we have his child. Ever,” the General said.
“Oh, I know. I intend to take full advantage of that. It’s not like there’s a surplus of highly trained CIA operatives on the market. And most of them would never consider working for us.”
“But he will,” the Banker said.
The Watcher nodded. “Yes. He will.” He was going to get to live another day, he decided.
Amsterdam, the Netherlands
THE WOMAN WHO WAS NOT A NURSE but was dressed like one entered the hospital shortly after 11 p.m. Amsterdam time, while a group met and talked in the Bahamas and Sam Capra got the best lead yet on his son. The woman had been most careful in forging her credentials; she had stolen a nurse’s uniform earlier in the day from the hospital laundry; she’d had to settle for buying shoes that looked good enough to pass. The real trick was getting the passcard for the secure floor where her target slept. That had taken time, to pierce the hospital’s security provider database, to imprint a card with the necessary code, to break into the police department’s voicemail system and finally find a message that told her which room held Jin Ming. But she had done it.
And when she saw him, she was going to kill him.
Jack Ming was playing the Quiet Game, the one where you tried to see how long you could go without speaking. He was going on three weeks now, three weeks of such careful, cultivated silence that he wondered if his voice would still work. He lay in the hospital bed, the sheets pulled up close to him like a damaged cocoon. His throat bore the raw scar from where a bullet had furrowed across skin and muscle, the giant bruise on his temple from where he’d fallen against a piece of machinery. The injuries had kept him in a coma for nearly two weeks. The doctors and the nurses and the police investigators all called him Jin Ming, which wasn’t his real name, and he did not correct their mistake.
Keeping quiet became an exercise—like writing a program with the least possible lines of code, or breaking into a database in the fewest, most elegant steps. How long could you play the Quiet Game? His father and mother had made him do it, when he was a child and playing loudly or asking one of his endless questions about why was the sky blue or why did they fight so much or why couldn’t he buy a toy he wanted, and they would flash angry eyes at him, his father looking up from one of the books he always was reading, his mother from her desk where she seemed to live. Be quiet, Jack. You’re bothering me. Let’s play a game. See how long you can be quiet. But it was never a game; they were never quiet. A proper Quiet Game involved a stare down. This was simply a way for his parents to put him on a shelf.
So he stayed quiet.
He had woken up, sure that he must be dead. A bullet had scored along the flesh of his throat; another centimeter and he would have bled out in moments, his carotid artery emptying on the cool concrete floor of the smugglers’ den near the Rotterdam port. But the artery went untouched. Three days after he woke up the police moved him from Rotterdam to a hospital in Amsterdam. He slept: when he was wheeled inside they put a sheet over him, one of the officers told him. Like he was a secret they wanted to keep. He had his own room, he didn’t have to share. He wondered what this meant; he wanted to ask for a computer, but he didn’t want to speak. Not talking was, weirdly, very liberating. He didn’t have to tell the truth, he didn’t have to lie. After all these months he did not have to keep pretending to be someone he wasn’t.
At night he dreamed of the red notebook. Nic, drunk, had told him: “The people we work for would kill us if they knew I had all their secrets. All bound up. That’s my insurance policy. The red notebook.”
“If it’s a secret, why tell me? You’re drunk.” And foolish, Jack thought, but there was no point in stating the obvious.
“Because if something happens to me, I want them to suffer,” Nic had said in a beery slur. “The red notebook. You find it at my place, hidden. You’re smart enough to find it. It will bring the Nine Suns down.” Or more grandly, in Latin, Novem Soles.
The Nine Suns. Nic invoked them like they were cartoon boogeymen. Jack didn’t do an eye roll. No one wants to kill you, Nic, Jack had said. Stop being so dramatic.
But in the machinists’ shop, with the smugglers working for Nine Suns in front of him, and the CIA behind him, he’d seen Nic lying dead on the floor, before all the gunfire erupted.
If he had to protect himself, he needed to find Nic’s red notebook. Which was slightly difficult to do from a hospital bed.
Earlier that day they’d sent a new police inspector; as if a variety of interrogators would suddenly get Jack to speak. “The doctor says that you should be able to talk,” the police inspector said. His name was Van Biezen and he sat at Jack’s bedside and he watched Jack Ming watching him. He held a notebook in his lap and Jack could see the words on the paper: Jin Ming. Graduate student in computer science at Technical University of Delft. Found shot near bodies of known criminals, including hacker Nic ten Boom. Refuses to speak. No medical reason for not talking.
The writing on the inspector’s notebook looked as exact as a computer font. The precision scared him. This was a man like his own father, a man who was going to ferret out truths.
Jack stared at the policeman.
“I understand the wound in your throat was fortunately rather shallow. Your vocal cords are not damaged, Mr. Jin.”
Jack didn’t speak.
“We need to know your connection to the dead men in the machinists’ shop. Nic ten Boom and the Pauder twins.”
Jack stayed quiet.
“I know you’ve been told ten Boom is a known computer con artist. Did you know he was also a suspected internet pornographer?” Van Biezen let the next two words detonate, a soft bomb in the quiet hum of the room. “Child pornographer.”
Bile inched into the back of Jack’s throat. This was new. He hadn’t known that about Nic. It was a most unpleasant surprise. He closed his eyes and he tried not to shiver. When he opened them Van Biezen still sat across from him.
“He specialized in creating custom videos. You want a certain kind of child doing a certain act? He could deliver.”
Jack gritted his teeth. Closed his eyes. No, no, no. He had intended on complete silence but now a sickened moan rose in his throat, like a bubble loosened in a bottle. The first real noise he’d made in weeks.
“Our informants say Nic ten Boom had a rather global clientele. What can you tell me about them?”
Jack wished he could die, snap his fingers, stop his heart. Every time this gets worse, he thought. I think it cannot get worse, and it does. It does. But he kept his mouth shut.
“The Pauder twins are known freelance enforcers for a variety of criminal enterprises. Now, Mr. Jin, how does a nice graduate student in computer science get caught in a shootout with such bad people?”
Jack said nothing.
“I think your silence is to keep yourself from lying about who and what you are,” Van Biezen said. “I think it’s been tolerated far too long. You won’t even write a note on a pad. But you are going to talk to me.”
Jack raised an eyebrow.
Van Biezen opened a file. “Let’s see what’s true today, shall we? You are Jin Ming, and you are a Chinese citizen, born in Hong Kong. You speak perfect English, according to your classmates at Delft. That’s all we know. I’m waiting for you to explain to me how you ended up in a bullet-ridden shop, full of counterfeit cigarettes and dead criminals.”
Jack had imagined how to answer this during his enforced silence. His false identity—backed by a computer record in the university’s database, and inside a distant Beijing database of all students abroad—had held up. He could survive this and vanish again. So he spoke his first words in weeks. “I was kidnapped.” The words sounded scratchy, like sandpaper grating against wood.
Van Biezen raised an eyebrow at the unexpected sound of Jack’s voice. “He speaks. Very good.” He cleared his own throat. “Kidnapped.”
“Yes. Grabbed from an internet café over on Singel. The Café Sprong on 12 April. Ask the barista there. Three men came in and they pretended to be with the police. They pulled guns on everyone and ordered us to be still. Then they took me with them, they beat me up, and they took me with them to that shop.”
“Why would they kidnap you?”
“I believe because they wanted my computer skills.”
“You’re a hacker?”
“I am the opposite.” He injected dignity into his half-lie. “Check my work in grad school, speak with my adviser.”
“Then you know my thesis subject is computer security. No one knows system weaknesses better than a security expert. I specialize in RFID chip programming—you know, the chips that are placed on products to stop counterfeiting and to facilitate tracking.” He paused. “May I have some water?”
Van Biezen gave him a glass with a straw sticking out of it. The water tasted like heaven to Jack. “Check the date. I’m sure there was a police report filed. The barista was mad.”
“I will. And how did all these three men end up dead?”
Jack kept his gaze steady on Van Biezen. The cop had misunderstood; he thought the three dead men—Nic and the twins—were his kidnappers. Jack nearly wept with relief. If he mentioned that a team of three CIA agents, hunting one of their own named Sam Capra, had kidnapped him right now it would be unwise; he preferred to approach the CIA on his own terms. One of his kidnappers was called August—he would find him.
Because he had already decided that the CIA was going to help him get out of this mess. He swallowed and continued: “Other men came in and shot them. I don’t know why. Except…”
“They had crates of cigarettes. I assume they were smuggling them. If the cigarettes were stolen, then they might have wanted me to reprogram the RFID chips in the crates so they could not be tracked.”
Van Biezen said, “They weren’t stolen cigarettes. They were counterfeit brands.”
“Then I guess they wanted me for some other reason.”
Van Biezen did not look impressed. He said, “So, when we check your phone records, we’re not going to find any calls to Nic ten Boom or the Pauder twins. They were strangers to you.”
“Yes. Strangers to me.” He had been careful to use only the prepaid phones given directly to him by Nic; his own phone and email records were clean.
“I’m going to check your story. I hope for your sake it holds true.”
“So why did you not speak for so long?”
Jack said nothing. He put on his Mona Lisa smile and stared back at the detective. He’d returned to his Quiet Game.
Van Biezen left and Jack leaned back against the pillows. He considered. The CIA had killed Nic and the other men in the warehouse and left him to die. Or maybe they’d thought he was already dead. Which meant maybe Nine Suns and the CIA weren’t looking for him. He had no idea. But… he’d been here a while. He had his own hospital room. They’d brought him here, covered, and he was under police protection.
Were the police hiding him?
They must be. That was buying him time, very precious time he couldn’t waste lying in a hospital bed.
He needed that notebook.
He was not going to ask the police for help or for protection. The only protection was the notebook full of Nine Suns’ secrets and Nic had hidden it somewhere. He had to get out and he had to find it. The men who had taken him from the internet café would want it. The CIA, who had been hunting this group. Nine Suns must be special, international, if the CIA had an interest. They paid money for information. They protected informants. He could see his only course of action perfectly clearly. He could find Nic’s notebook and sell it to August, and then could go into hiding forever. He could not trust the police. He knew Nic had broken into the police department’s servers; even if the police hid him, Nine Suns could find him. He needed the most powerful ally he could muster. It would have to be the CIA.
Jack Ming studied the white purity of the ceiling of his hospital room. All he had to do now was to get the hell out of this hospital and find the red notebook.
The door opened. A nurse stepped inside. She was tall and black-skinned and had a strong face that wore a frown. He blinked. He wasn’t dreaming.
She closed the door and turned to him. His eyes widened in shock. A nurse’s uniform?
“Well,” Ricki said. She came close to the bed, leaned down to his ear. “You’ve been a lot of trouble to find.”
Jack decided to keep his ongoing silence, although he could not believe she stood before him.
“Do you know how worried I’ve been? I could kill you for not letting me know you’re okay.”
Jack made a noise.
“I’ve had to hack into you don’t want to know how many databases, looking for you.” Ricki was originally from Senegal, in West Africa, and her accent, fueled by anger, chopped the words into shards. “Aren’t you going to say anything?”
He shook his head, pointed to the surgical scar on his throat. She can’t know what I’ve been doing, he thought, I can’t put her in danger.
“Are you kidding me? I go through hell to find your hidden ass and you aren’t going to talk to me?”
His heart felt like it would burst. He let his lips form the beginning of a word: I am so glad you’re here, please get me out of this. But then he stopped. Ricki had known Nic, slightly. He couldn’t connect her to Novem Soles. He had to keep her away from these lunatics.
So he shook his head: no.
Then she fell onto him, crying softly, putting a kiss in his hair. Not on his lips. They’d broken up weeks ago. She held him and he thought he might cry, he might let all the emotion penned up inside him out, like a long-echoing wail.
She sat next to the bed.
He pointed at her nurse’s uniform and raised his eyebrows. She shrugged. “I had to wait for the night shift, and if I get caught I’m arrested. I had to sneak down here and talk my way past the guard because he hadn’t seen me.”
The door opened, the guard peering in. Ricki had his wrist, as though taking his pulse. Jack gave the guard a nod. The guard shut the door.
“The police have been hiding you.” Ricki leaned close in her whisper.
Hiding him. And yet she’d found him. He loved how smart she was. He wanted to take her hand but they’d broken up, he reminded himself. She kept hold of his wrist.
“Ming”—and it shamed him she didn’t know his real first name—“what have you gotten involved in?”
He shook his head, pointed at the surgical scar.
“You don’t fool me. You can talk. God knows most days you never shut up.”
He closed his eyes.
“Don’t protect me,” Ricki said. “Let me help you.”
The police officer outside opened the door and Ricki’s voice shifted into a louder tone. “So, everything looks okay. Sorry to have woken you.” She stood, nodded smartly. She glanced at the police officer.
And she walked out without a backward glance.
Let me help you. No one, though, could help him. Unless he found Nic’s red notebook.
Upper West Side, Manhattan
IT’S NOT EASY GETTING TWO BODIES of heavy-set men out of an apartment. We had to assume the apartment was tied to Bell, and right now we didn’t want people looking for him or linking him to two dead guys. We didn’t want his name in the papers.
I called Bertrand to help. He showed up an hour later. With a moving van and crates. He brought Mila a moving van uniform and a cap that seemed to cover most of her face. He raised one eyebrow at the bodies, muttered something in his Haitian-accented French, and got to work. The bodies were loaded and gone within fifteen minutes. He took Bell, too, now uncuffed from that corpse, shot up with a load of tranquilizer, and put into a crate.
“You’re not taking him back to the bar?” I asked.
“You want me to carry an unconscious man past customers?” Mila always seems to assume I’m brain dead. “I’ll stash Bell where he can’t be a problem and have a little chat with him. A man with a family to consider, he wants to keep a nice life, he will work with us. You go arrange travel to Las Vegas.”
I waited until they left. I watched the street to see if they were followed. The CIA had left me alone since I’d declined to return to the embrace of their employ, although I thought it likely that they might be checking in on me. I didn’t see a sign that anyone was following Mila and the truck.
I walked out onto the street. I glanced at the faces of those near me and committed them to memory. It was eight blocks to Columbus Circle. The early evening breeze felt good against my face. The night was oddly full of music. From the buildings I passed I heard the soft tones of a Mahler symphony, the spice of Cuban salsa, a thunderous beat that drowned out hip-hop lyrics. Music was something people living a normal life got to enjoy.
When your child is missing, you live in a limbo. A purgatory without clocks. A room without windows, without doors, pitched into black, and all you can do is fumble along in the darkness and hope you find the knob to the door, or the sash of the window. That is hope. That you can throw an exit open, let light flood back into your prison, and standing there will be your child, safe and sound.
I had no intention of staying in limbo.
I spotted the first tail boarding the subway one car down from me. A sixtyish woman, hair styled short, dark glasses, delicate blue earrings. She’d been standing on the corner down from Mr. Bell’s building when I walked out. Looking away from me. I’d walked at a good pace and she’d kept up.
I stayed on the train. So did she.
I got off at the next stop, which was Seventh Avenue. So did she and a moderate-sized crowd of people. I slowed, forcing her to get ahead of me. I had to figure she had at least one partner, someone who would stay with me if she peeled off, someone I hadn’t seen when I exited the building.
The woman, pushed slightly ahead of me by the crowd, climbed the stairs to street level and she had to choose. She went left with brisk, heel-clicking purpose. I headed right. I didn’t look back to see if she’d turned to follow me.
I didn’t hurry. I wanted to see if she would backtrack. I also wanted to see who was sticking close to me. I turned into a small convenience store and I browsed. I bought a bottle of red wine, a couple of apples, and a wedge of Cheddar cheese. I took my time, waiting to see what fly would stick in the honey. Seven other shoppers in the narrow aisles. I glanced at their faces, their profiles, without them noticing. One was familiar. He’d been on the subway with me. Late twenties, a bit older than me, dark hair, wearing a Yankees cap and a dark T-shirt and a light jacket although it’d been a warm day. Jackets change your appearance to the casual eye, and they’re easy to ditch. So are hats.
I paid for my purchases and I headed back toward the subway station. I didn’t look back but in the rearview of a parked car I saw the Yankees cap coming behind me. I ducked into a clothing store at the next corner.
At a distance he followed and in one of the mounted security mirrors I saw him enter the store. I grabbed a brightly colored shirt that would have embarrassed a peacock off one of the racks and I asked the clerk where the changing room was. He nodded toward the back and told me I couldn’t take my grocery bag in with me, like I’d planned to shoplift some ugly plaid. I gave it to him to keep under the counter and I went into the changing area. Four saloon-style doors, a tailor’s stand with a triptych of mirrors. I went inside one of the changing rooms and I waited.
If he’d seen me come with just one shirt he might wait. He might still think I hadn’t spotted him; at no point had I looked at him directly.
So I decided to really, really consider the merits of this kaleidoscope of a shirt.
Five minutes. Ten. The clerk hadn’t come back to check on me yet. Then I heard him. I knew it was him because he gently pushed open one saloon door. Then another. If he was just looking for a place to try on clothes he would have stopped with the first one.
If I was wrong I would apologize.
He pushed on the unfastened door to my cubicle and I seized his hand. I levered him forward hard, slammed him in the wall. I smashed his face against the wall and he ooofed. You got to love an oof. Then I cracked his head again.
I wrenched his arm hard against his shoulder blades. Checked the left ear. Empty. Right ear. Oh, there it was, like a tiny beige fleck of wax. The earphones get smaller every year. I reached down, flicked off the lead for his mike under his shirt.
“Who sent you?” I asked.
He didn’t answer.
“Special Projects?” That was the secret CIA branch I worked for; they have trouble saying goodbye.
He didn’t answer. He tried to lever back and free his arm. I kept my grip above his wrist, on the cloth of his shirt.
I don’t believe in giving multiple chances to cooperate. I battered the juncture of neck and shoulder, twice, and he folded. I took the mike, the earplug, and put them on, switched them to live. I searched his pockets. There was a wallet that I left alone, but a telescope, palm-sized. I took it. I put the unconscious shadow up on the small seat in the changing room. He was breathing just fine.
“Gato, respond.” He was being called. I knew the voice. So I answered in Special Projects code.
“He did a four-nine.” I’d heard him speak in the grocery, the barest tinge of a Boston accent, when the cashier asked if he had coupons. So I copied it. It only had to be good enough and I’m a decent mimic. Four-nine meant the subject had cut me loose in a crowd.
“Lucky, respond.” Now the speaker was calling the other agent; I figured this was the older woman from the subway. I looked around for her as I tossed the shirt I hadn’t tried on back to the clerk and scooped up my bag of groceries. I hurried back onto the street.
“I don’t have visual confirmation,” she said. “He did not return to the subway station.” She had hung close to the subway to pick me up if I doubled back.
“Return to base,” the voice said. “We’ll see if we can pick him on the traffic cameras.”
Yes, please, return to base. I waited. I had nothing more to contribute to class discussion as Gato, so I stayed quiet. If the unconscious man was found an alarm might be raised. And I had to hope that they were the only two on me. Normally a team of four would have been used. Either I didn’t matter or resources were thinner than usual. I didn’t care about the reason. This stopped now.
I melded into the constant stream of pedestrians on Seventh and cast my gaze down the street with my palm curved around the telescope, as though shading my eyes. I caught the woman walking away from me, back the way we’d come. She pushed back her hair and in the telescope I could see her blue earrings I’d noticed before. I followed at a distance.
Several blocks later, along West 58th Street, I saw her approaching a parked van. It advertised a floral delivery service. I thought that was funny because it’s an old CIA joke that Langley does more to keep florists and chocolatiers in business because spouses get neglected and we have to make frequent apologies.
I don’t have to worry about that anymore.
I ran. I caught up with her, put my palm under her ribs, and gently—and rather gentlemanly, I thought—propelled her forward.
“Open the door,” I ordered.
She did. She was smarter than Gato. She tapped on the van door, three times, and it opened.
My best friend sat on the other side. August Holdwine is a smart Minnesota farm boy: big, broad-shouldered, cherub-faced, with a blond burr of hair and ruddy cheeks and eyes of sky-pale blue. I love him like family.
“Cheese? Wine?” I offered.
He frowned at me. “Well. You can wipe the Cheshire cat smile off. Where’s my guy?”
“Sleeping it off.”
“Don’t tell me you actually hurt him.”
“Bruises heal. He’s okay and probably awake now. He might be too embarrassed to check in. I left him his cell phone. Call him.”
“You assaulted a CIA officer.”
“And you used the names of your childhood pets for your team. Stupid.” I glanced at the woman. “Lucky was the nice cat, so August says.”
“Get in the van, Sam,” he said. “Let’s talk.”
“That might be an illegal action. You aren’t supposed to be operating on American soil.”
“Go get yourself a coffee,” August Holdwine said to the woman. “We’ll talk later back at the office.”
“Your earrings,” I said to her. “The blue is a shade too bright against the gray of the street and the buildings. Too memorable. But they do set off your eyes.”
“Don’t be a punk,” she said and she turned and vanished into the river of people.
“Get in,” August said. “Please.”
“That would be stupid if the point of following me is to grab me.”
“It’s not. It’s to talk to you.”
“You could walk up and say hello.”
“Not while you’re with that woman. Mila.” He tossed his headphones on the computer keyboard in the back of the van.
“No one’s here, August. Don’t lie to me. Are you thinking I’m going to lead you to her?” But I needed to know why August and the CIA were interested in Mila. I needed to know now. So I got into the van. August moved up into the driver’s seat.
“Where to?” August said.
“What about your guy?”
“He can find his way home. Where can we go and talk in private?”
“I know a bar.”
JACK MING COULDN’T SLEEP. He watched the clock tick toward midnight. He remembered reading once that there were eighteen million cellular phones in the Netherlands, and it frustrated him that not a single one was within reach. With one call he could be out of the hospital, his bill settled, safe. He should have asked Ricki to leave him hers. But her showing up had surprised him too much, and she’d left before he’d thought to ask.
August. That had been the muttered name of the kind CIA officer who’d grabbed him, the one who stopped the others from beating him further. That was the name he was going to use when he phoned the CIA. He would call and ask for August. That was his ticket to safety, to money, to freedom.
Ten minutes after Ricki left, Van Biezen reappeared in his doorway, looking tired and rumpled, looking ready to go home. “Your story checked out about being grabbed from the café. I thought you would want to know.” He raised an eyebrow to see if Jack would speak.
“Am I going to be released now?”
“From the hospital or our protective custody?”
“I cannot speak for the doctors. But I think you should be careful. These smugglers were apparently part of a much bigger criminal enterprise.”
“What do you mean?”
“On ten Boom’s laptop we found evidence he had been hacking into police databases, downloading classified documents relating to far-ranging investigations. The sort of information that a criminal network would like to buy.”
“I know nothing about whatever this man was doing,” Jack said. “And if you are going to question me further along these lines, I would like to see someone from the embassy and I would like a lawyer.”
“I wasn’t questioning you. I was warning you. These are dangerous people, Mr. Jin.” Van Biezen’s voice was measured and careful, sleek as a diplomat’s. Just like his mother. “Are you planning to return to Hong Kong? I understand you have not given the doctors a clear answer.” Just a bit of sarcasm in his tone.
“I haven’t decided. I am already ruined for this semester. I have much work to do.” He paused. “You said you were giving me a warning. Do you think I’m in danger?”
“We have kept a guard by your room. He’s not for show.”
Immediately after Van Biezen stepped out, a polite functionary from the Chinese embassy stepped in, now that he was speaking; to be sure that he was all right, and that there was no issue of embarrassing the motherland with the police. It was frightening to Jack because he had no desire to be shipped off to Hong Kong and the fact that a bureaucrat was here so late at night made him nervous. But his false identity held. Yes, he said as Jin Ming, his parents and his grandparents were dead, he had no family back in China. He had been careful to craft an identity without family. The Chinese diplomat was concerned for his well-being and Jack reassured the man he was the innocent victim of a crime. He thanked the embassy visitor and when the man had left Jack stared at the window.
He wondered if his mother was looking for him; he thought not. She didn’t want him. He had been lucky, too lucky, and it was time to place a surer hand on the reins of his own fate.
He couldn’t sleep. He got up for a walk.
Each day, the doctors had encouraged Jack to walk to stretch his leg muscles, even if it was just around the floor for five tottering orbits, ambling past rooms and equipment in the hallway. His mind full of Ricki and his rapidly unraveling situation, he was walking back to his room and as he turned the final corner he saw, from down the hallway, a man he didn’t know in an orderly’s uniform enter his room.
His police guard was gone.
Jack stopped. The man looked short, thickly built. He shut Jack’s door behind him. He knew the night-shift orderly; he had seen him on the opposite side of the floor, during his walk.
If Ricki could steal a uniform…
He can see I’m not in the bed, Jack thought. He must think I’m in the bathroom.
He ducked back behind the corner, keeping one eye focused on the hospital door.
After thirty seconds, the man stepped into the hallway. Heavy eyebrows, pale skin, a soft mess of a mouth, a bottom lip long ago disfigured in a fight.
You’re a loose end, Jack thought. And now either someone who knew Nic, or someone who knows Novem Soles has come looking for you. They know you’re alive. They’ve either waited for the guard to go to the bathroom or they’ve paid the guard off. They want to be sure you can’t talk.
And if he was wrong, then no harm done. But if he was right…
The man saw Jack. The twisted lip smiled. He raised the eyebrows as if in greeting. Like he was a friend, come by to talk to Jack.
Or, rather, Jack stumbled in a loping run. He wasn’t entirely recovered from the bullet that had grazed arteries and windpipe. He wore a bathrobe and the hospital gown and flimsy slippers the nurses had given him. He saw a stairway and he hit the door, leaning out into the cool, slightly stale air of the concrete staircase. His mind moved as fast as it did when he was crafting a software program. If the guy was here to silence Jack he would expect Jack to try and escape.
Most immediate escape meant down, toward the ground floor.
So Jack headed up. He wasn’t used to physical exertion and little black clouds dotted his vision. His breath sounded loud in the stairwell. He hit the next floor, opened the door, stepped out into the unit. More recovery rooms but this floor was less crowded. He was on the opposite side of the floor from the main nurses’ station.
An old man in a brown bathrobe walked past him, ambling with an insomniac’s shuffle, carting an IV feed on a wheeled pole. Jack moved in the other direction. He had to hide. Get to a phone, get Ricki to come and pick him up at a nearby pub or café. He couldn’t stay out on the streets of Amsterdam dressed like a patient; even in the world’s most laid-back city after midnight, it would attract too much attention. He looked like someone who might have wandered away from the hospital and needed help.
He opened the door of one room, saw an elderly woman sleeping inside. He eased it shut, moved to the next door.
Behind him he heard the stairwell door open with a steely crank. As it did he stepped into another patient room, this one holding two beds, both empty. He left the lights off. An IV pole stood on duty by each bed, a drawn curtain dangling between them. He had no real place to hide. He pulled the curtain partway between the beds, and ducked behind its cover, the IV pole clanking into the wall behind him. Next to him was one of the adjustable wheeled tables for patients to use while lying in bed.
He closed his hands around the cool steel of the pole. He heard the door open. Maybe a nurse coming to see why he was trespassing in this room. He couldn’t see through the curtain.
He heard two footsteps and then silence.
The nurse wouldn’t just stand there, right? he asked himself. He was suddenly consumed by fear and certainty that this man was here to kill him.
Jack pushed the patient table into the curtain.
The two bullets sang out, cut through the fabric, pounded into the wood. The impact was louder than the firing.
Jack moaned, in fear, without thinking that he was baiting a trap.
As the man stepped around the curtain, Jack swung the pole, like a baseball bat, and he caught the man’s face between the bushy eyebrows and the tattered mouth.
“Uggghhhh,” the guy grunted.
Jack rocked his feet, swung again in the same vicious arc, hit again and again and then there was an oddly wet noise that sounded… final. The guy collapsed onto the floor. Shuddered, shook, gasped. He looked at Jack with blind surprise. Then his head fell back and a sagging shift downward trembled through his body.
The man’s nose was a splintered mess. Jack had not known he had the strength; it was as if all the energy he’d stored in the past few weeks roared out of him when he needed it. The man was very still. Jack knelt by him, dropping the pole with a clank to the tiled floor. He tested for a pulse, found nothing but a warm and sudden silence in the man’s throat.
Bone shard, Jack thought. First blow broke the nose, second sent a bullet of bone into the brain.
He clapped his hands over his face in shock. He had killed a man. Killed him.
Because he was going to kill you.
Jack picked up the gun and he stood. He footed the body under the adjustable bed. He picked up the gun and put it into the pocket of his robe.
He stepped back out into the hallway. In the next room the old woman still slept. He went through her bureau and he found ten euros and a mobile phone. He took it, feeling guilty about the theft, and he laughed because he didn’t feel guilty about killing the man. He hurried out into the hallway and back down the stairwell. In a few minutes he was in his room, sitting on the edge of the bed.
Who could he call?
Ricki. He could call her. They were still friends. He still kind of liked her even though she’d only really been his girlfriend for several weeks after he arrived in Holland, after he’d stepped into the secret life he’d made for himself. And clearly she cared about him, to have gone to so much trouble to find him. He cajoled her into coming to the hospital, picking him up, and bringing him clothes. The police had taken the clothes in which he had been shot as evidence, and they were stained with blood anyway. Ricki agreed and said she’d be there within an hour. He told her to meet him at a coffee shop nearby that he knew well.
When he got off the phone he lifted a pair of jeans from a room down the hall where a man lay zonked out on painkillers and grabbed a rugby jersey from the man’s closet. He left, sneaking past the nurses, riding the elevator down, stepping out into the cool quiet of the night. There was an old café down on the corner.
He walked out into the street. They found out you’re still alive. They’re coming after you. You’ve got one weapon to fight back. If Nic was lying about that notebook, you’re a dead man.
Midtown Manhattan, near Bryant Park
WE WALKED INTO THE LAST MINUTE, my bar near Bryant Park. The Last Minute’s a nice joint. Elegant, refined, oriented toward jazz. The bar itself is exquisite Connemara marble. The mirror behind the bar is huge and ancient, a leftover from a New York establishment from before the Civil War. We get a bit of tourist trade—any high-end bar in New York does once good reviews land on Yelp or on the guide sites—but we get a lot of Midtown office people, bored wealthies, regulars who actually know what goes into a proper Old-Fashioned or Sazerac. The post-work crowd had started to melt away. Eloise is at the piano, softly playing a Thelonious Monk arrangement. She’s older than God but the sparks of jazz in her body are apparently going to keep her alive forever. When I’d acquired the bar from Mila a few weeks ago, it had been called Bluecut, but I’d renamed it. The Last Minute was my base of operations in searching for my son, and it reflected my sense of urgency and my determination that I would never give up.
I nodded at the bartender and pointed at a stool for August. He sat. Then I went back behind the bar to make our own drinks, which is a statement in itself. I knew I had to let go of some secrets right now to protect others.
August looked like what he is, a Minnesota farm boy of Swedish and German descent. He glanced around at the beautiful people, at the elaborate décor, at the shimmer of lights. He’d met me here for a drink a few weeks before and, five minutes after he left, Mila showed up and gave me ownership of The Last Minute, and of thirty other bars in cities around the world. I hadn’t told him because so far he didn’t need to know. But as I moved to the other side of the expanse of Connemara marble, he raised an eyebrow at me. “You bartending now?”
I gestured, open-handed, at the charm and the glory. “The Last Minute is mine.”
“The bar is yours?”
He glanced around at the finery and absorbed the news. “Well. I was going to order a beer. But if you own the joint, then I’ll have a martini made with good gin.”
I crafted his martini, with all the care you would take for your best friend having his first cocktail in your new bar.
I slid a Plymouth English Gin martini in front of August, two olives. Not the most expensive gin but really a strong choice for a martini. August took a sip and nodded in approval. I poured another one for myself.
“Let’s go sit in a booth,” he said.
Old banquette-style leather booths lined one wall; they provided a modicum of quiet. August followed me to one.
“Why have you bought a bar?” he asked.
“I need a livelihood to support my search for my son,” I said. There was a lot more to the story, but he didn’t need to know how I’d come into possession of The Last Minute and its thirty sisters around the world. Mila’s bosses—a group known as the Round Table, who claimed to be a force for good in the shadows—had offered me the bars as a cover to travel the world, to track down my son, and to do the odd job for them that required my skills.
“You could have come back to work at the Company.”
“They don’t like to accuse you of treason and then backtrack by offering you gainful employment.”
My past with the CIA was a sore spot with him; he almost cringed as I spoke. To camouflage his embarrassment, he glanced around the bar, drinking it in as carefully as he’d sipped his martini. Some spy; he couldn’t keep the surprise off his face. “Really nice place, Sam.”
“So now you know where to find me. Why are you following me?”
He twisted the toothpick holding the olives. “This woman. Mila. Who helped you fight Novem Soles in Amsterdam. I want to know about her.”
“There’s nothing to know.”
“Sam, let’s not insult each other.”
Fine, I thought. I’d play. “You followed us today. Mila, too.”
I had had an early dinner in a favorite old haunt of mine; that must have been where August’s watchers had picked me up. Mila and I had met in Central Park, then gone to the apartment address Bell gave us. She hadn’t been here at The Last Minute in weeks. And she’d left with Bertrand. With her cap and sunglasses and moving van uniform the followers must not have spotted her leaving, else they would have followed her, not me.
“I want to know who she is.”
“Stop following her and ask her.”
“I’m not going to kidnap her off the street.”
“Because the CIA isn’t supposed to operate on American soil. And yet here you are, tailing people. I guess I should be grateful you haven’t set the FBI on me.”
August took an appreciative sip of the martini.
“I don’t need to kidnap her when I think you’ll tell me what I want to know.”
I slid the olives off the stick with my mouth and dropped the toothpick next to my glass. “Mouth full,” I said. “Can’t talk.”
“You’ve really picked your side, haven’t you, Sam? You’ve picked this Mila.”
“I can rely on her.”
“I told you we would help you find your kid.”
“I told you I would handle it myself.”
“Because you think you still have enemies in the Special Projects branch.”
“Yes. Who would use my kid against me.”
“You get to be after you get framed for treason, August.”
He took another sip of his drink. “You’re trying to find the woman who took Daniel.”
“No luck yet.”
“I’m betting you’re close.”
“August. Go home. Let me get my kid back.”
“Have you made progress? Can we help you?”
“I trust you. But if you tracked my kid and there’s another traitor inside the Company working for Novem Soles, then, well, maybe my kid is dead. Right now they don’t know what I’m doing and I have to keep it that way. I get him back, that’s all I care about. I’m not in the revenge business.”
“We don’t even know what Novem Soles is,” he said. “Some of the thinkers at the CIA are arguing that Novem Soles actually stands for ‘nothing special.’ They could just have been a few guys who decided to make some cash committing corporate espionage and smuggling weapons. They got a gang of low-level thugs to tattoo themselves and talk like they were part of a big deal and maybe it’s all just a grand illusion.”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I think they’re big.”
“I think you’re right. My hope is that Mila could tell me exactly what and who they are.”
“If she knew that they’d all be dead.”
“I’m glad Mila and I are on the same page, then. What were the two of you doing today up on the Upper West Side?”
“Meals on Wheels.”
August tapped a finger against the base of the martini glass. “Look, I want Daniel back for you. More than anything, Sam. But you can’t grab him back and just let these people roll on.”
“I am going to do what’s best for my kid and me.” I gestured toward his martini. “I want out, August. I want a normal life again. They took it from me and I’m going to get it back.”
“And, what, run a bar?”
“Sam. You did us, and the nation, a good turn here in New York.”
“You sound like an award plaque.”
He ignored my sarcasm. “I won’t ever forget it. But I’ve had to argue, repeatedly, not to pull you back in. I’ve protected you because we’re friends. I did it because I know you want it this way. But Novem Soles is much, much bigger than you. I’m running a task force in Special Projects on finding information about this network, what they want, who they are.” He turned the martini glass. “They’re something new. Different. I would expect a terrorist group to try to do a mass assassination. But not a criminal group. What’s the profit in it for them? Who are they? Why are they doing what they’re doing? It makes no obvious sense.”
“So. Let me help you. We’ll find them together.”
I let the piano music wash over me for a moment. “A few weeks ago I saw a redacted document from a Company file. It claimed that I could be controlled through my son. Inside the Company, August, on your side of the fence. I’m not exactly looking for help.”
He said, “Where did you get this document?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Well, I’ve certainly never seen it, Sam, and documents can be forged.”
“This wasn’t. Because it’s true. I can be controlled through my son. Which is why I and I alone am going to get him back.”
“You’re not alone. There is Mila. There’s no record of her in any government database we can find. Her name is Mila, right?”
“So the only reason you are following me is to find her?”
“Then you’re wasting your time. I don’t know where she is now or where she lives. I’m sorry. Would you like another martini before you go?”
“No, thank you. I saw her, I think, in the internet café in Amsterdam, when we grabbed that Chinese hacker that was tied to Novem Soles. I showed her picture to some people in Europe who provide us with information now and then, at a cost.”
“Well, if I wasn’t with her, I couldn’t say if you saw her or not.” I risked a smile.
The scene was vivid in my head. I’d tried to infiltrate a criminal ring in Amsterdam, and the Chinese hacker was some poor college kid they’d used to research my forged identity and had gotten caught by August. The hacker had died in a shootout later that day where most of the ring died as well, and I’d barely escaped with my own life. Mila had been watching me from the same internet café across the canal.
“You’re scraping the bottom of the barrel,” August said. “She does not have a nice reputation.”
I said nothing.
“There’s a price on her head. Did you know that?” August delivered this with the kind tone of a friend breaking bad news. “A cool million dollars for your Mila, preferably alive.”
The words hung in the air. I distantly heard the trill of piano jazz, the clink of the crystal, a drunken bray of laughter from a guy who’d had a pint too many.
“I mean, you can have someone killed rather cheaply these days—under ten thousand. There’s been a price deflation on hits, what with the economic downturns. But a million on her head, Sam.” August gave out an amused whistle. “That’s trouble. Some very bad people are looking for her to collect that payday. I wonder what she did that’s worth a million dollars.”
Maybe he already knew. He had been my one true friend in the CIA, and until he proved otherwise I had to consider him an ally. One of the waitresses passed. I pointed at August’s martini and raised two fingers. August’s brain needed picking.
“We could protect her, Sam. In exchange we’ll find out who has the contract on her and we’ll make it go away.”
Once again I said nothing. I couldn’t negotiate on Mila’s behalf. Someone must truly, truly hate her. It did not surprise me.
“Makes you wonder who she’s pissed off.”
“Who put out the bounty?”
“We picked it up on chatter online.” He leaned forward. “You’re welcome.”
“You’re not helping me.”
“Sam. She can tell us what we need to know. Clearly she’s connected to movers and shakers. She armed you, she financed you, she got you into the Netherlands and into the UK and into the United States with no trace of entry. She helped you get inside a major criminal ring that was planning the biggest assassination plot in American history.” He shook his head. “We want to know who she works for and what she knows about Novem Soles, Sam. Give her to me.”
“You have a very vivid imagination. Maybe I did all that hard work.”
“Not on your own. You didn’t have the resources, the money.”
“You following me today is no different than when you had me living in Brooklyn, waiting to see if someone from Novem Soles tried to kill me or grab me. I don’t work for you, August. I quit the Company. So you worry about your projects and let me worry about mine.”
“Let me talk to Mila, Sam. Please. We can help each other.”
“I’m not going to repay any help I’ve gotten from her by handing her over to you for interrogation. If she wants to talk to you, she will.”
The silence between us felt like one you’d find at a poker table when the cards still hold every possibility and the only measure you take is in your opponent’s face. “I don’t want to play hardball with you.”
“August, you don’t even know where the hardball court is located. Now. You’ve learned you can’t follow me, and you’ve had your most excellent drinks.” I stood. “I have to go tend to my business.”
“I find it fascinating that you now own a bar. Where’d you get the money?”
“Good night, August.”
“Who are you working for, Sam? What have you gotten yourself into, hanging with a woman who has a million-dollar bounty on her head? You and I both know that only happens when you get down and dirty with the very worst.”
“I’m going to find my son. No matter what it takes. Remember that.”
He was silent, staring at his martini glass. I know he wanted to help me. He was my friend. But he couldn’t.
“You said you wanted your life back. If that means working for Special Projects again, and it should, then have your lady friend talk to me. Tell me who’s been helping you. Give us them and get what you had back.”
“The Company showed me zero loyalty in my hour of need, August. Let me guess: you’ll run straight to them and tell them I own this bar now. Although it’s none of their business, and I want them to leave me alone.”
He sat silent for ten long seconds. “I don’t need to tell them your business. You may not think it, Sam, but I’ve always been your friend.” He looked more angry than hurt, and I knew he wasn’t playing me. He stared at me. “In the crazy hours, right after you were accused of killing everyone in London Special Projects, I thought—do I know him? Do I really know him, could what they say be right? You could have fooled me, could have fooled everyone else. You could have been the worst murderer and traitor in CIA history. But then I thought, no, if he killed them he wouldn’t have been so stupid about it to be there when the bomb blew. He would have vanished. Because Sam is not stupid. Sam always does a calculatedly good job.”
I missed August. Hated to admit it, but I did. I wanted to trust him. But I couldn’t trust Special Projects, not after what they’d done to me. “A compliment. Thanks. I can encourage Mila to talk to you. But I don’t know where to find her, and that’s the truth.”
“Getting your kid back, that’s huge to me. But I’m going to find Mila, Sam, with or without your help, and if you get in my way the friendship does not trump my duty.” He folded his heavy arms. August played college football at Minnesota, and he’s a lot bigger than me. More pure muscle. I am smaller and faster and a little less naïve.
The worst enemy is a one-time friend. I knew that.
“I’m not your enemy, Sam, and I won’t be, unless you choose to be mine.” His word choice made me feel like he’d read my mind. He picked up the martini, finished it with a toss.
“It’s too warm now, it’s no good.”
“Things don’t stay good,” he said, and I knew: something had happened. “I hope you get Daniel back, safe and sound. You know I hope that more than anything else, Sam.”
I used to fight with my brother Danny and the awkward, awful silence between us felt like the one now between me and August. A bitterness that could be sweetened with a word, but neither of us was willing to add that ingredient. He turned and he walked out, and I turned to go upstairs to pack for Las Vegas. The Round Table had a private jet I could use, and I wasn’t waiting a moment longer. I would head for Vegas tonight.
JACK AND RICKI HAD MET under less than auspicious circumstances: she appeared in a hacker’s chat room when he still was in New York City, looking to trade piracy software for counterfeit DVDs. Jack didn’t think film piracy was really very cool, he knew it was theft, but in her postings Ricki was funny and charming and she was Dutch and so he thought she was hot. No one on the hacker discussion group knew he was Jack Ming, the guy the New York police wanted to bring in for questioning.
I got to run and hide. My parents are so uncool, he’d written.
Come and hide in Holland, she wrote in answer.
So he had, just on impulse, and he and Ricki had met for coffee in Delft after he arrived on a fake passport a friend back in New York helped him get. Instead of the blond Dutch girl he imagined, Ricki was half a head taller than him and an immigrant from Senegal. She was funny, smart, pretty, and tough. He was thoroughly overwhelmed and intimidated by her. He didn’t know what to say. Their dates became fewer; he figured she was disappointed in him. He was a geek on the run. And he kept too much hidden in himself for her taste. How unappealing was that?
The hacker community tended toward what Jack thought of as a distant tightness. They stayed close online but they didn’t hang out much in real life. A person who was socially nimble behind the cocoon of a screen could be one who consistently missed normal interaction cues in a café or a pub. Ricki was one such individual. She arrived at the coffee shop thirty minutes late, stuck a wad of cash into one hand and a bag of cheap clothes into his other hand and said, “You owe me.”
“Where’d you get the clothes? All the stores are closed.”
She shrugged. “Old boyfriend before you left them behind, but I think they should fit. You’re about the same size.”
He tried to ignore the stab of jealousy he felt. “I’m going to owe you more. I need a place to stay. Just for tonight.”
“Please.” Ricki rolled her black-lined eyes. “Now you’ve decided to talk?”
“Just one night.” He glanced in the bag; the clothes were a lot more colorful and stylish than he would have selected.
“What kind of trouble are you in?”
“Nothing major, I just need a place to crash.”
“Do the police know you’ve checked yourself out of the hospital?”
Information was currency. “Look, I’ll write a program for you, a Trojan that’ll send you back information from the infected computer. Could be valuable.”
Ricki touched the corner of her mouth with her tongue. Please be greedy, Jack thought. Please.
“You don’t need to bribe me to help you, Jack!” She looked wounded. “I took a huge risk to find you.”
“Oh,” he said. “No. I didn’t mean… I didn’t mean that. I was going to give it to you as a gift. For helping me.” His voice trailed off.
She sighed. “So smart, so clueless. Buy me a coffee with the money I brought you and we’ll go back to my place. I’m just glad you’re okay.”
“Duh. No, I’ve often wished you dead. Honestly, you are dumb as a rock.” But Ricki smiled at him. A short, sweet flick of a smile and it nearly made him cry, he was so happy to see a friendly face.
He changed clothes in the tiny bathroom of the café. He bought her a coffee to go. He wanted to put as much distance between him and the hospital as possible. He felt he’d nearly gone insane waiting for her.
The first thing he thought when he saw her apartment was blink and wonder where she actually lived, because there was hardly space for her in the rooms. When they dated, she’d never let him come to her place. She was in Amsterdam, he lived in Delft and she came to see him. The apartment was small and too warm. One entire wall was full of bookshelves, each holding at least two dozen DVD burners. On the opposite side of the wall he saw neatly packaged DVDs, mostly of films currently playing in theaters. Hundreds of them. He started doing the math in his head.
“It’s probably about fifty thousand dollars’ worth,” she said.
“Wow. And you sell these on the street?” She had not really talked much about her “work.”
“I used to. That’s how I came here from Senegal. The counterfeiters start you off selling on the streets. I sold DVDs better than anyone. I got promoted. Now I have a street team.”
“What if you get caught?”
“Not me,” she laughed.
The machines whirred, all creating illicit product. Some began to beep, completing their copying, and she started to pull the finished discs from the machines.
She tossed him a T-shirt from a freshly opened box, for a new vampire film that wasn’t out for another three months, with a still shot of the main characters at a critical moment silk-screened on its chest.
“So. You got shot and had a vacation courtesy of the police,” she said. She glanced at the raw scar on his neck. He would, Jack thought, need a scarf. The thought of wearing the vampire shirt while having a healing neck wound nearly made him laugh.
“You’re a dangerous boy now, Jack.” She touched the skin below his scar. “Who shot you?” Excitement brightened her dark eyes.
“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, excuse the cliché, but in my case it’s apt.”
“Nic was shot to death,” she said. “It was in the news.”
“When you were shot?”
“No. Before. He was dead before I got there.”
Excerpted from The Last Minute by Abbott, Jeff Copyright © 2012 by Abbott, Jeff. Excerpted by permission.
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