In the newest international thrill ride from New York Times-bestselling author Ridley Pearson, John Knox and Grace Chu, the incomparable and often incompatible duo, team up again, this time in the exotic “city between two worlds,” Istanbul.
What’s it like to see yourself in a picture you never knew was taken?
John Knox is an expert at surveillance and delicate, international dealings. So he is understandably thrown when David “Sarge” Dulwich, his contact at Rutherford Risk, hands him a photo of a transaction he recently facilitated in the Middle East. More curious to him, he’s shown that photo while in the Red Room, the private security company’s highly secure underground bunker, where eavesdropping is impossible and privacy ensured. Why all the cloak-and-dagger?
Knox is pressured into accepting a job as an art broker in the mysterious Istanbul, a city situated on two continents where East meets West and Islam meets Christianity. It is a melting pot of spies, terrorists, and conflicting interests.
Teamed with smart, quick, and fearless Grace Chu, Knox must navigate a murky operation, the only goal of which is to spend five minutes in the proximity of a man they’ve never met. Why? What can it possibly matter? And why are so many others bound and determined to see it never happens—at any cost?
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
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2014 by Page One, Inc.
Two men await a delivery van. Nameless men. Professionals. Proficient at blending in. The man with the camera—call him Alpha. The man who stands in the camera’s frame is Beta.
A white FedEx minivan appears in the camera’s field of view. It serves as the starting gun. Alpha eases the Nikon onto his chest. Turning away from the Sisli Merkez Mosque, he is jostled by Istanbul tourists posing for the perfect picture. It’s nearing the end of the day. Slanting sunshine slices through the smog, playing across the mosque’s stone dome and adjacent minaret. Hell of a photo.
Beta, looking so much like Alpha they might be mistaken for twins—each in a navy blue knit cap, black leather jacket, blue jeans—sees the camera lower and moves toward the curb. He cradles a canvas messenger bag beneath his right arm.
The van double-parks in front of a pharmacy, its emergency f lashers pulsing.
Alpha walks incrementally faster, entering the pharmacy only seconds behind the FedEx deliveryman. His job is to provide cover. Beta opens the van’s panel door and slips inside. After five days of surveillance, they know the delivery kid, always in a hurry, never locks the van in this part of town.
The pharmacy smells chemical. Alpha reaches the FedEx kid and, as if trying to slip past, allows himself to be tripped. He brings down most of the contents of a shelf as he falls. Turns and pulls the deliveryman along with him.
There is shouting as employees hurry to help. Boxes of medicine are spread across the floor, causing the employees to tiptoe as they approach. The delivery package has slid out of reach of both men.
The lens hangs broken from the camera’s body.
“Idiot! You clumsy bastard!” Alpha speaks English with an Eastern European accent. More training. The deliveryman is young, red-faced and unsure. He spouts apologies in Turkish.
Beta searches the contents of the first of six plastic bins arranged on the van’s open shelves, his fingers f lipping through the packages like a collector in a vinyl record store. He knows exactly what he’s looking for: he has its clone in his messenger bag.
Bin two. Bin three. An internal timer runs. The op calls for an abort at thirty. He’s at twenty-seven when his fingers stop at the air bill listing:
FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE HOSPITAL
ABIDE - I HÜRRIYET CADDESI
Seven packages. More slowly now. The third shows the sender as a Swiss address. He makes the swap, his for theirs.
Forty-three seconds and counting . . .
No reaction. No adrenaline or concern or anxiety. The lapsed time is merely a statistic to be noted. It’s filed and processed. He stuffs the switched package into the messenger bag and comes out of the van with his back to the sidewalk. He walks the curb like a balance beam. No one has shouted at him. No one has approached. He slips out his phone and sends the text. The signal.
Alpha’s phone dings at his hip.
“My fault, my fault!” Alpha says. He helps the cautious delivery-man to his feet, making sure to keep the man faced away from the windows. In tourist Turkish, he manages something close to “Üzgünüm.” Sorry.
He inspects his broken camera, trying to force the lens back into place. He and the deliveryman exchange agonized looks. Alpha extends his hand, a peace offering. The deliveryman is delighted by his change of heart. They shake.
Alpha says in English, “All for some toothpaste.” A shared moment of tense humor.
Leaving the pharmacy, Alpha reads the text. It’s a smiley emoticon. Success.
He makes a phone call. Hears a click. No voice. He keys in a five number string followed by three pound signs. Hears a second tone.
“It’s done,” he says, speaking Hebrew.
NINE DAYS LATER
A veil of fog obscures the steep steel-and-glass-clad marvels that rise out of Hong Kong harbor. From the twenty-second-floor off ices of Rutherford Risk in the Chamberlain Tower, John Knox thinks the trolleys and cars look like toys. On the glass, pinpricks of mist collect and join, growing into drops and skidding down the glass in a race, obscuring the view. It’s not raining, but will be within the hour.
Knox steals a look at his own ref lection, while behind his image another appears: an imposing figure of a man, older by a few years, unable to disguise a brutal intensity that impressed Knox when the two first met in Kuwait, another Knox ago. David Dulwich still walks with a limp, although his gait has vastly improved since the car accident in Shanghai two-plus years ago. The men embrace.
“This way,” Dulwich says.
Knox notes the lack of small talk, wonders if the brief phone call that detoured him to Hong Kong was as much of the personal stuff as he and Sarge were going to bother with.
The starkly contemporary off ices of Rutherford Risk reflect the tastes of company president Brian Primer, whose warm side only surfaces when a client is present. Knox knows Primer as a calculating son of a bitch who concerns himself with margins and profitability, often at the expense of his assets—like Knox. He treats his clients almost reverently and stops short of tolerating loss of life on either side of the ledger.
Down the corridor, the maple off ice doors, marked only by a number, rise to ten feet and are a full meter across, ensuring that any visitor, no matter how large, feels physically insignificant.
Primer, a proponent of Frank Wisner’s “mighty Wurlitzer,” required his architect and interior decorator to work with a team of psychologists. Wisner, the first director of the CIA, created front organizations and planted media stooges in order to “play any propaganda tune needed.” Primer can work a meeting.
To Knox’s surprise, he’s led not to Primer’s off ice but to the se- cure elevator. It drops thirty stories so fast he feels like he’s floating. He’s ridden it only once before.
Hong Kong high-rises are anchored deeply into the mountains. Lessons learned from mudslides a century earlier have prompted the creation of structures able to withstand both the ground giving way and the pummeling of typhoon winds and rain. Twenty meters below grade, storm shelters and storage rooms are carved into the hillside. It’s here, outside a door marked PRIVATE, that Dulwich removes anything containing metal—coins, wristwatch, Bluetooth device, smart phone, belt. He places the items in a cubby, turns the lock and asks Knox to do the same. Knox does so and pockets the plastic key.
Dulwich swipes his ID card and admits Knox to a small vestibule where they must wait for the door to close before a second can be opened. A body scanner hums. A green light indicates that they are clear.
“The Red Room,” Knox says. “So cloak and dagger.”
Still, Dulwich is silent. The barrier is seven inches of steel and insulating concrete weighing three hundred pounds, yet it moves fluidly, clicks shut and locks electronically. The Red Room is a twenty-square-foot bunker with pale green walls and a strip of exposed overhead lights. The furniture is clear, ensuring that nothing can be hidden inside it. Knox has heard of it, but took it to be company myth.
“I’ve never had the pleasure,” he says.
Dulwich checks his watch. “We don’t have long.” He produces an A4 manila envelope. Knox can’t believe he didn’t see it, marvels at how quickly one can lose one’s edge. He’s been back to import/export for a matter of months; the operation in Amsterdam is still fresh in his memory but apparently not in his skill set.
Dulwich slides the envelope across the table like it’s radioactive.
“Your schedule, not mine,” Knox says. He finds the Red Room claustrophobic. He can handle small spaces; a top-secret facility, impenetrable to all eavesdropping technologies, causes undue pressure.
Dulwich taps the envelope.
David Dulwich is usually not the melodramatic type. It’s one reason Knox doesn’t mind doing the occasional piece of work for him. The rest of his time, John Knox is a trader, traveling the world for rare goods, in business with his younger brother, Tommy. Dropping into a James Bond movie is a little much.
“They’re of you. The pictures. You love looking at yourself, Knox. So go ahead.”
“Moi?” Knox fails to entertain his host. “Why?”
“I have plenty of pictures of myself, all of them stunning.”
An uncomfortable smirk crawls across Dulwich’s lips. “Not like these you don’t.”
Knox suppresses the urge to take the bait. He wants more from Dulwich, who knows that Knox is a reluctant freelancer. His brother, Tommy, isn’t in the best shape—the experts call him cerebrally and physically impaired, autistic, mentally challenged. He is, in fact, highly functional with medication and care. Knox can’t risk leaving him alone on this earth—but he’s attracted to the work Dulwich offers for more than just the money. He has a savior complex that probably bleeds over from caring for his damaged sibling.
Still, he’s in no hurry to screw things up by rising to the wrong fly. Dulwich will eventually play the money card. Knox has been robbed, embezzled from by his company’s bookkeeper. Things are tight. Have been for some time.
But Dulwich doesn’t start there.
“I don’t go in for drama,” Dulwich says.
“This is an in-and-out—a week tops—that can do a lot of good.”
“Good, like Amsterdam?” Dulwich understands which buttons to push.
“No, not like Amsterdam. Not even close. Frog and the scorpion. Open the envelope.”
Knox doesn’t understand the reference but doesn’t want to appear ignorant. He wants to open the envelope—oh, how he wants to; but there’s commitment that accompanies the act, and he can’t bring himself to do it without knowing more.
“Political?” Knox wishes he had hidden the astonishment in his voice. Like all private contractors, Rutherford Risk’s bread and butter comes from U.S. government jobs: guarding convoys of supplies, providing security details, moving funds, interrupting the Internet, burning drug crops. It’s the occasional insurgency Knox wants no part of.
“Open the envelope.”
“Turns out you’re the only guy, or we wouldn’t be locked in the Red Room.”
“Maybe you should unlock the door.”
“Maybe you should open the envelope. There are good guys and bad guys on every team, Knox. Even good teams have their share of bad apples. But I wouldn’t put you on the bad team. Not ever. Now goddamn it, look—”
Dulwich takes the envelope back, opens it and slams down a handful of 8x10s. Shot with a high-powered telephoto at a good distance.
Knox can’t pretend it’s not his profile. It takes him several long seconds to digest the look of the café and the apparent location: Bethany, Jordan. That gives him the other man in the photo, a man with Jordanian and Circassian blood, Akram Okle.
“I was never told flat out,” Knox says, defending himself, “that the piece was black market. Every antiquity has passed through too many hands to count. Sometimes that includes mine. I’m offered a piece; I know a buyer. More like a matchmaker. I can see how that might be politically embarrassing, but I don’t work for you, Sarge. I’m not your employee. I’m a contractor. I—”
“You are so off base you’re running around the outfield.” Dulwich f lips through the stack of photographs. Three show Knox and Okle engaged in what Knox thinks must be their most recent deal; more troubling are the final two photos, which go back eighteen months earlier. There’s no way Knox has been followed for eighteen months; he keeps track of such things. So it’s Okle who’s being surveilled.
“Okay, I give up. The frog and the scorpion?”
Dulwich arches his eyebrows as if Knox should know this one. “Frog and a scorpion meet on the river bank. Scorpion asks for a lift to the other side. Frog says, ‘why would I do that, you’ll sting me.’ Scorpion says he won’t and they sign a treaty. The frog carries him on his back. Halfway across, the scorpion stings the frog. As they’re both going under, the frog says, ‘Why would you do this? We’re both going to die!’ Scorpion says, ‘It’s my nature . . .’”
“Akram’s a good client,” Knox says. “I see certain pieces, I think of him first. He only buys the rarest of the rare. There aren’t many people who can afford such things. You go where the market is.”
“He’s a middleman.”
“None of my business.”
“It is now.”
Rutherford Risk pays out six figures to employees at various Internet security companies, on top of the seven figures budgeted for their own hackers who roam cyberspace probing for firewall vulnerabilities. When a back door is discovered in an existing operating system, Rutherford receives an alert before Microsoft or Adobe or Sun or Apple can identify the issue, a day or two before they can offer a patch.
During that window—hours, or minutes sometimes—people like Grace Chu, a private contractor based in Hong Kong and specializing in forensic accounting, are able to slip through the back door undetected.
Thanks to other sources on the inside of those companies, Grace Chu is also told when to get out.
Most of her days are spent poring over spreadsheets or money wire transactions, establishing trails and hard evidence for the client, most typically Rutherford Risk. Today she works like a day trader, jumping in and out of the market, seizing opportunity, playing margins. She’s attempting to establish and trace an individual’s net worth. It’s a nerve-racking exercise not meant for the faint of heart. A moment’s hesitation and the SEC or FBI will have her location. Get out too quickly and she loses her only chance at access.
Today she’s inside the server of a Jordanian bank; tonight or to- morrow, if the current back door holds, an Iranian investment firm. She’s curious about the op. Yesterday, Dulwich instructed her to data-mine this man’s financials. Dulwich wants her travel plans left open. He sounded uncertain. It’s new territory—Dulwich at sea, running her personally. Success will mean promotion; she can taste it. To prove herself as a field operative capable of on-the-fly intelligence gathering and analysis will put her in a class by herself. She knows of no one at Rutherford Risk with this particular hybrid skill set.
She works wirelessly using a “hopper”—a cellular Wi-Fi device that jumps among three carriers randomly, the same technology that makes her jailbroken iPhone impossible to eavesdrop on. It costs her some speed, but she has grown accustomed to the pauses.
She’s working from the downtown campus cafeteria of the University of Hong Kong, meaning her IP address is shared by a few hundred at a time, making a quick trace difficult, if not impossible. She’s stolen a user ID and password off a nearby, far too casual user.
The bank’s firewall is impenetrable. The last effective cyber raid was in 2004. This back door they’ve been given is far more benign— it’s for the bank’s local area network, which includes all web searches, most e-mail traffic, video conferencing data as well as the security server.
Grace monitors the cafeteria’s visitors, studying the face and body language of each new arrival. It’s lunchtime and therefore busy, which is both a blessing and a curse, but she chose the time slot to help support her cover. Her fine features—she’s been described as “haunting”—win the attention of males over twenty, many of whom underestimate her age, which is well north of that. She keeps her laptop screen angled slightly down; it wears a layer of plastic film that limits side views, but there’s a sweet spot she found from just above head height that concerns her.
She types a long string of commands. A year ago, she was fairly new to this cyber play, made anxious by it. Now she eats it up. Over the months, she’s grown addicted to these short bursts of information theft, much the way she imagines runners treasure their endorphins.
Working with remarkable speed, she moves through the root directory hierarchy, navigating to the security servers. In her mind’s eye, it’s like going down ladders and through tunnels, into anterooms and on to other tunnels and more ladders. Throughout the process, she raises her eyes, tracking newcomers, accounting for those already in place. Her memory is superior. Her mind has been trained to be nearly photographic. She has identified the two men back by the soda fountain, the woman by the trash can, another woman eating alone. Any of these could be a threat. There’s a male student who looks like he’s hoping to see up her skirt. She’d like to f lip him her middle finger but keeps it on the keys.
One thing she’s learned about security servers: the systems are organized to accommodate and account for the intelligence level of those meant to operate them. Not every security guard is a Bill Gates in waiting. The video stream is labeled KAYMARA. Camera.
In seconds she’s opening a dozen video feeds, like surfing a traffic cam site. She closes them as quickly as they open. She’s not interested in the teller windows or the safe or the safe deposit boxes. Not interested in the elevator interiors, the back hallway or the six exterior cameras.
All the while, a stopwatch app runs in the upper corner of her screen. She’s been online 2:07 minutes and counting. Even using a back door, she may be sniffed and identified for having an IP address outside the known database of approved users. She should be safe staying within five-minute usage intervals.
At 4:22, she clocks off.
The second hack, she heads directly to the camera list.
Her third breach hits gold: the camera is mounted behind four desks, with a view of the teller windows’ left side. One of the desks is occupied. Her fingers fly across the keys as she builds a macro that logs in, clicks through to the proper security camera, takes a video screen shot and logs out at the four-minute mark. The macro will loop until she shuts it down.
She hits Enter, angles the screen lower and is caught off guard by the young skirt-chaser’s approach.
Terminate or continue? These are the decisions that define her: when to run, when to admit temporary defeat, when to trust her instincts. Right now couldn’t be better—the hack is clean, the macro running f lawlessly. She has the op teed up perfectly. She just needs the other two desks filled following lunchtime breaks.
This guy’s a problem. He asks in Cantonese if the seat is taken. It’s a dialect she has nailed but an accent she finds tricky even after two years living in the city. Her rebuff of him is polite but firm; her right pinky finger hovers over the F12 key while her left index finger covers the FN. These two keystrokes combined will log off the laptop and send it into a double-encrypted sleep mode that would require seventy-two hours on a Cray computer to have a hope of gaining access.
Appearances mean nothing. The boy’s approach is taken as a high-level threat. If he lifts a finger, she’ll break it like a twig, and his arm along with it. Apologies to cock-motivated boys like him are cheaper than excuses to Dulwich.
He offers a smile he’s practiced too many times in his dormitory mirror.
“Listen to me, cousin,” she says, losing her accent slightly to her temper. “I don’t appreciate boys . . .” she lingers on the word, savoring it, “looking up my skirt, or trying to. If you haven’t seen one before I’m not interested in you, and if you have, then you know it’s a woman’s secret treasure and she doesn’t wear it like a Shanghai billboard. If I wanted to share pictures of it, I’d post them on the corkboard over there by the register, neh? Back up and leave me alone or I’ll put my heel so deep in your crotch you’ll have shoe leather for a tongue.”
His sallow skin tone drains to the color of talcum powder.
The fact that he sits there, standing his ground, is cause for worry: he’s a cocky bastard.
She detests the thought of logging off when everything is going so well. She can’t bring herself to do it without further provocation. But her instinctive reaction is impatience and she’s trained to guard against it. Good things come to those who wait. She’ll have another shot at this data, she reminds herself.
So why can’t she bring herself to log off? It’s him and his obstinacy; she’s taken it as a gender challenge and she’s not about to cave.
She’s angled the screen too low to see what’s happening at the bank. The boy’s flirting will provide good cover, but the distraction has cost her: she’s lost track of who’s entering or exiting the cafeteria. Her best chance now is to keep this boy engaged for the sake of anyone who might be watching. The longer she has him with her, the longer her computer continues recording the bank’s video camera.
“A woman’s secret treasure, or her secret pleasure?” he says now, and draws the opposing chair back with his shoe, making space to sit.
“Pleasure cannot be kept secret,” she returns, suddenly enjoying the wordplay, “whereas treasure can.”
Keeping her prior threat in mind, he estimates the length of her extended leg and moves the chair far enough back to accommodate. He sits.
“Origin EON seventeen-S,” he says.
She wishes she could stop the blush that floods her face. John Knox has told her it’s a tell that could get her killed.
The boy has been lusting after her boutique laptop, not her crotch. She’s made a fool of herself, and he’s so smitten with her electronics that he’s played along.
He rattles off specs and she counters with the upgrades she’s opted for. Lunge. Parry. His eyes go wide—and then wider. His upper lip is sweating.
Has she misjudged his age? Is he too old to be a student? Teacher’s aide? Grad student? Or is he a risk-taking thief, who dresses well and chats up girls on college campuses, snatches their laptops and disappears before they can rise from their chairs? The Origin is worth over four thousand USD. Mainland gamers would pay that or more.
If he manages to steal the unlocked laptop, she and Rutherford Risk would suffer. She plays the odds, pressing the two keys and protecting the data. She’s angry over being forced to do so, is tempted to knock the guy across the room.
Quoting a proverb, “‘Man’s schemes are inferior to those made by heaven,’” Grace casually closes the Origin. It’s heavy, but she one-hands it into the Trager Tru-Ballistic case.
“I was admiring it. And you. That’s all, cousin.”
“Next time you might consider antiperspirant on your upper lip, cousin.”
He holds up both palms in an act of surrender. Behind his eyes, he hungers to test her threats. That look convinces her he intended to steal the laptop. She has to wonder if he was hired.
She slings the case over her head so the strap, which will hold up to any box cutter or razor, crosses her chest, separating her breasts.
“I think I’m in love,” he whispers as she passes.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Chu-Knox Series
“Brainy … [a] Rubik’s cube of a thriller.” —Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review on The Red Room
“Pearson offers readers a rainbow of Istanbul’s local color.” — St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Pearson's third book in the Risk Agent series is an E-ticket adventure of lies, betrayal and violence… Pearson leaves no doubt that he can handle the espionage trade. The writing style is tense, breathless. The plot, a thick maze of questions.”
—The Arizona Republic
“Istanbul comes alive in Pearson’s prose, capturing its multiple flavors and presenting its fascinating conglomeration of East and West blended through thousands of years of history. Yet he keeps the plot racing along to the climax. This book will keep you turning the pages until the very end.”
— Suspense Magazine on The Red Room
“Pearson has crafted a great series with characters and settings the reader will enjoy, and demand will be heavy owing to his growing fanbase.”
—Library Journal on The Red Room
“Exciting…Pearson peels away the various layers of deception before the satisfying denouement.”
—Publishers Weekly on The Red Room
"It's obvious why Pearson has earned praise as thriller grand master; the pacing is flawlessly anxiety ridden, and the investigative elements are richly layered."
—Booklist on Choke Point
“Readers who like crime novels that teem with violence and provide more than a touch of sex will give Choke Point high ratings. So will readers who enjoy prose with a sharp edge.”
— St. Louis Today on Choke Point
“Rich with the atmosphere of Shanghai…and filled with breathtaking suspense. …Famous for his plotting and attention to details, Pearson is off to a great start with his compelling and multilayered new protagonists.”
—Library Journal (starred) on The Risk Agent
“A cunning thriller worthy of the promised series… Exotic locale. Credible heroics. Vicarious thrills. Fans will want more, and soon.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In the third novel in what is billed as an “international thriller series” (“Risk Agent” was the first entry), Ridley Pearson brings the return of John Knox, a man who has a useful ‘cover’ as a legitimate international exporter, and Grace Chu, a Chinese woman who speaks five or six languages, was a former forensic accountant and an accomplished computer hacker, with a background including a master’s degree in criminology from USC and training with the Chinese Army, now intrigued by the thought of a future in field ops and the potential independence that financial security holds. They are both now occasionally employed by Rutherford Risk, a private security firm, hired by John’s old buddy David “Sarge” Dulwich. This time out, each of the two is, separately, given a briefing on a new assignment by Dulwich in the eponymous Red Room, in the building overlooking Hong Kong harbor, the room distinguished by the body scanner through which one must pass before gaining entry and after relinquishing anything metal, a bunker contained by a barrier “seven inches of steel and insulating concrete weighing three hundred pounds,” very “cloak and dagger,” as Knox says. Everything dealing with this assignment is very strictly on a NTK (Need to Know) basis, something that doesn’t change from first page to nearly last. As confusing as things get for Knox and Chu, they proved even more so for this reader. The case has to do with the acquisition of a piece of what is called “gray market art,” specifically a work deemed one of the “rarer treasures in the history of Western civilization.” It brings our protagonists to Istanbul, and the descriptions of that exotic city are the most enjoyable parts of the novel, to my mind. It’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad, for the protags and the reader equally. As I have said before, though there are some notable exceptions (e.g., Lee Child/Jack Reacher novels), thrillers are not, generally, my favorite sub-genre. Having enjoyed the last book in the series, “Choke Point,” I looked forward to reading this newest entry. Unfortunately, I came away feeling my earlier leanings reinforced.
Absolute mess. Can't decide if it is a thriller, spy novel, unresolved relationship /romance, action and violence, or adventure of being a "special agent" which involves lots of RISK. Could not follow over half the time, and finally could not finish....... Do not waste time on this one.
So do you want to die.causevi can do that
did not finish to meany words nothing but wish i could get my money back