The Truth Itself

The Truth Itself

by James Rayburn


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A school shooting in snowbound Vermont; an American journalist beheaded in war-torn Syria; a passenger jet exploding in the Thai jungle—everything connects to Kate Swift, CIA assassin turned whistleblower, on the run from a sinister intelligence unit.

With her six-year-old daughter, Suzie, she flees across the Canadian border to begin a perilous journey to Berlin and then Thailand in search of the only man who can keep them alive: Harry Hook, a disgraced ex–CIA case officer living rough in the wilderness, battling the bottle and ghosts from his past.

Can Hook conjure an inspired but desperate plan that will save Kate and Suzie and bring him the redemption he yearns for?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781982546496
Publisher: Blackstone Publishing
Publication date: 09/24/2019
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

James Rayburn is the pen name of crime writer Roger Smith.

Read an Excerpt


When Kate Swift, sitting at the wheel of her old Jeep, saw the two young men break the line of winter-stripped birches on the eastern perimeter of the elementary school and trudge through the fresh snow toward the entrance to the squat brick building, the tails of their identical black trench coats flapping like crows' wings in the raw wind that knifed down from Canada, she knew it was over.

Knew that the artfully spun weaving of half-truths and carefully calibrated lies that had been her life story these last two years was about to be blown away like gossamer.

"It's here," she said to herself. "It's here, Kate."

As she spoke her name — her real name, not the one she had been hiding under in this tiny northern Vermont town — she whip-panned from the youths to the knot of first graders hurtling into the school, glimpsing her daughter's long dark hair and pink Hello Kitty backpack disappearing through the open glass doors.

It was here, but it hadn't come the way she'd always feared: a policeman's midnight knock at her door or a sniper's bullet fired from the woods. No, watching the advancing boys, she felt the cold breath of karma on the back of her neck.

A familiar rush of adrenaline charged Kate's body, and she heard the thrum of blood in her ears as she reached for the door handle of the Jeep and stepped down, her leather boots sinking into the snow, the cold slapping her.

She choked back a yell, knowing her daughter wouldn't hear her but they would. The young men, who were free now of the snow, marched in step like catwalk models down the narrow strip of asphalt that had been plowed clear to the school entrance, thick with kids eager to get out of the cold.

When Kate had opened her eyes that morning, lying in the darkness of her bedroom under the heavy quilt, she'd done what she'd trained herself to do every day these past two years: she'd silently run her story.

She was Holly Brenner. She was twenty-eight. She was the single parent of six-year-old Suzie.

She'd forced away the fear and the dread that was with her each day upon waking, the certainty that today was the day it would end.

The day she would be revealed.

The day that Lucien Benway would have his revenge.

Quelling her anxiety, she'd reached out a hand, the downy hairs on her forearm teased to standing by the chill, her index finger landing on a rectangle of frigid plastic, muting the alarm clock just as it clicked to 6:00 AM.

She'd padded through to her daughter's room and kissed her on the forehead.

"Morning, baby," she'd said.

The child had opened her eyes and smiled. "Morning, Mommy."

"Who are you, baby?" she'd asked as she did every morning.

"I'm Suzie, Mommy."

"Suzie who?"

"Suzie Brenner."

When they'd gone underground two years ago, she'd decided the risk of keeping her daughter's first name — the name that Suzie, a late talker, had taken so long to say — was outweighed by the confusion of teaching her a new one.

She'd kissed her again. "Good girl. Get ready now."

She'd gone downstairs and made them breakfast, doing her best not to show her irritation when Suzie had taken too long to dress and missed the yellow school bus that'd wheezed along their street in the wake of a snow plow.

And so she was sitting in her Jeep at the school, watching as fate blindsided her, tapping into the fear that haunted every parent in the wake of Sandy Hook.

Dismissing the superstitious notion that it was preordained, that she was meant to be here, Kate left the Jeep and hurried toward the two boys who were closing in on the entrance that was manned by the school security guard, Pops, in his rent-a-cop uniform, his white hair flapping in the wind. As he raised a friendly hand, his greeting "Hiya fellas, where ya headed?" was blown toward her.

The youths kept on walking and she saw them exchange smiles.

They closed in on Pops who took a step back and said, "Now hold on, what's your business here?" She hoped her instincts were wrong, that they were mime artists or acrobats or parkour traceurs come to entertain the kids, and that the lines of their jackets were ruined by the hidden tools of whatever trendy trade they plied, but the blonder boy swept his coat wide and, producing a Bushmaster M4 Carbine, shot the guard twice, the old man dead before he hit the snow. The other boy laughed and tried to free his weapon, which snagged on the torn lining of his coat.

The first boy fired a burst, the recoil sending the rounds just over the heads of a group of screaming kids. He adjusted his aim and his finger was about to squeeze the trigger again when Kate, shaking off the rust of years of inactivity, hit him from behind and sent him sprawling as she grabbed the carbine from him and kicked him in the face, hearing the cartilage of his nose crack, while she turned the barrel on the other youth who had finally freed his weapon and was lining it up at her. Firing, Kate threw herself sideways and his bullets stitched the brick over her head.

She was sure she'd hit him in the shoulder, but he took off running as she lined up on him again. There were kids in the way and she couldn't take the shot and then he was gone into the classroom closest to the door — her daughter's classroom.

Kate heard a ratcheting sound and turned to the prone boy as he cocked a SIG Pro semi-automatic pistol. Too close to take a shot with the carbine, she hit him in the throat with the stock, took the SIG and killed him.

She found another clip in the dead boy's coat and smacked it into the Bushmaster as she sprinted for the classrooms at the side of the building.

She knew that the windows were triple glazed (she'd contributed to the funding drive to upgrade the insulation of the classrooms for the long winter months) and was already calculating what effect the tempered glass would have on a round she fired.

Kate stopped and sneaked a look into the room.

The second boy was standing with his back to the locked door. His left arm hung limp and there was blood on his jacket and his neck.

With his right hand he waved the Bushmaster at the wailing kids and when the teacher, Marie Benet, a young newlywed, approached him, her hands raised, he fired at her and she fell, the recoil driving him backward against the door, more rounds hitting the ceiling, taking out the strip lights and sending down a shower of glass.

Louder screams. Kate searched the crouching children for Suzie. She couldn't see her.

Kate got closer to the window, knowing she would have to take the shot despite the deflection and loss of accuracy, when she saw her daughter's face close to the glass, saw her hand working the stiff catch, praying to who knew what or who as the cold, trembling little fingers battled the catch that suddenly gave. Kate grabbed the window and swung it inward and raised the Bushmaster in one movement, just as the boy looked her way and she shot him three times, twice in the chest and once in the head, his blood and brains red on the white door. His weapon hit the floor before he did.

Then she was dropping the Bushmaster and reaching in for her daughter, hauling her out the window and finding a crazy strength that allowed her to hold her child close as she sprinted through the snow, driving her legs, lifting her knees, feeling the burn of the cold in her lungs. She raced for her car, hearing the wail of the sirens bearing down on them, knowing she had no more than a minute to get to the Jeep and get away.


Kate went into the turn too fast and the tires found a patch of black ice and all at once the Jeep was like a runaway Zamboni doing donuts, trees and low pewter sky and cute little camera-ready houses spinning by and Suzie screaming a choked, juddering wail.

Kate's training kicked in and she turned into the skid, her feet riding the pedals, her right hand a blur on the gear shift, digging all the right moves out of her muscle memory. As the Jeep came to a halt (perilously close to a tree) she saw the Sheriff's cruiser howling in right at them, the lightbar doing disco, before turning toward the school and disappearing from view with nothing more than the hint of a fishtail — these yankees knew how to drive in a blizzard.

Kate looked across at Suzie. The child was silent, but her face was red and tear-streaked, mouth open and wet with spittle, her big, dark eyes fixed on her mother.

Kate reached over and embraced her.

"Who were those men, Mommy?"

"I don't know, baby."

"They were killing people."

"Yes, they were."

"Because of us, Mommy?"

"No baby, not because of us."

She kissed the girl on the forehead and put the Jeep into gear and headed toward their house, driving fast but carefully, the seconds of freedom emptying like sand in a timer.

"Now, I need you to do something for me, Suze, something that's crazy hard, but you have to do it. Okay?" The child nodded. "Okay."

"Baby, I'm sorry, but the thing I told you might happen someday, well it's here."

"It's here?"

"Yes. Because of what happened back at the school people are going to be coming after me."

"But you saved us, Mommy."

"It doesn't matter. They'll know who I am and they'll be coming. So we have to go, understand?"

"We have to leave town?"

"Yes," Kate said.

"I have to leave my friends?"


"Can I say goodbye?"

"No. I'm sorry."

Suzie choked back her sobs. "You were brave back there, Mommy."

"So were you."

"I'll be brave now."

"I know you will."

Kate stopped the Jeep in the driveway of a small white wooden cottage with a pitched roof and twin dormer windows, a place that had felt cloyingly cute when they'd moved in two years ago, but that she'd grown to love. She ran up the stairs to her bedroom, furnished in what she'd once called "High Hallmark" — lacy curtains and comforter, fluffy animals on the bed, antithetical to her own stripped- down, austere taste — and shoved the antique brass bed aside, pulled up a throw rug and loosened three boards on the hardwood floor.

In the space beneath she'd stowed a bag, packed for a day like today. A wad of cash. Anonymous clothes with all labels removed. Fake identities. A medical kit. Nothing to connect her and her daughter to who they had pretended to be these last years.

Or who they once had been.

Kate hefted the bag and ran out onto the landing calling for Suzie. The child appeared from her bedroom, carrying three of her favorite dolls.

Kate shook her head. "You can't take them, baby. I'm sorry."

The girl teared up again, then she sat the dolls on a table and she kissed each one goodbye. Kate took the bag and stowed it in the Jeep then drove them through the neat streets toward the black woods that grew thick across the invisible line that marked the unprotected border between the U.S. and Canada.



"When we get where we're going?"


"Can I get a puppy?"

"Yes, baby, you can get a puppy."

What was one more lie?


Lucien Benway stood in the shadows of the windowless basement watching as his man-of-all-work, Dudley Morse, used the Jordanian yellow pages to beat the American reporter tied to the kitchen chair.

An incandescent bulb dangled from the stained ceiling directly above the chair, its cylindrical aluminum shade focusing a hard shaft of greenish light onto the bleeding journalist.

When Benway cleared his throat, Morse, a very tall and very pale man, lowered the telephone directory and stepped back, his breath coming in gusts, his white shirt patterned with sweat and blood.

Benway stared at the reporter who sagged forward, prevented from falling from the chair by the nylon rope that restrained him. In a deep voice that carried just a trace of swamp Texas, he said, "You think you look like George Clooney, don't you?"

And although the journalist, with his thick black hair shot with gray and his photogenic jawline did resemble the Hollywood actor, he turned toward the invisible Benway and shook his head.

"No, not particularly."

"But you've been told you do? Women have told you this?"

"Maybe. Sometimes." He spat an incisor onto the cracked mosaic floor tiles.

"But you're not George Clooney. Are you hearing me?"

"Yes. I am not George Clooney."

"And this is not a movie. Nobody is going to yell 'cut.' you understand?"

"Yes, I understand."

"Y you're still telling me nothing?"

"Because I have nothing to tell you."


"Only that I'm innocent."

"You're innocent?"


"How do you know you're innocent?"

"Because I've had no covert dealings with Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, Khorasan, AQAP, Al-Nusrah, the Houthis, or any other faction."

"Is that what you think this is about?"

"Isn't it?"


"Then what? What is this about?"

Benway stepped out of the shadows, his hands in the pants pockets of his seersucker suit. He was barely five feet tall with the body of a pre-pubescent boy and a massive head covered by a downy fuzz of pale hair. The harsh light threw into relief the latticework of wrinkles that covered the papery skin of his face.

The reporter found a laugh. "I see."

"You do?"


"And do you still profess your innocence?"

"I didn't know who she was."

"Y didn't?"

"Well, not until it was too late."

"I think you're confusing ignorance with innocence."

Benway took a soft pack of the Turkish Samsun cigarettes he favored from the pocket of his jacket, shook one loose and lit it with the Ronson lighter he'd taken from the body of the first man he'd ever killed, catching a whiff of butane and then the rich fume of tobacco.

"What are you going to do to me?" the reporter asked.

"Behead you and dump you across the Syrian border," Benway said, exhaling twin plumes of smoke through his nostrils.

The reporter shook his head and opened his one good eye as wide as he could and said, "Cunning."

Benway waved his cigarette at Morse. "Leave us."

The tall man hesitated.

"Go," Benway said.

Morse placed the yellow pages on the folding table that stood near the chair, turned and opened a door onto a flight of narrow wooden stairs, allowing a burst of a muezzin's warbling call into the room. The door closed and the room was silent again.

Benway dropped his cigarette onto the tiles and ground it dead under the heel of his tiny loafer, handmade by a cordwainer in downtown Washington D.C., then he lifted a long-bladed knife from the table.

The journalist stared at the gleaming blade as Benway stepped into the circle of light.

"What? I don't even rate a fuckin video?"

And, as he flashed that Clooneyesque grin, Benway could see exactly what had made his wife want this man, why he alone among her legion of lovers had tempted her to leave her husband of twenty years.

Benway cut the reporter's throat, then took him by his thatch of hair and finished the business of decapitating him.


Driving the Jeep along the Autoroute 55 through the snowy plains of southern Quebec with Suzie dozing at her side, Kate could almost convince herself that she was making one of her too-frequent road trips to Montreal. Each time she'd crossed the border she'd known she was taking a risk, but she was a big city girl and had needed the kind of stimulation not to be found in a tiny village in the Northeast Kingdom. When she'd taken Suzie to the Quartier Latin, they'd pigged out on sweet, wood-fired bagels followed by sugar pie and strolled the cobbled streets of the old city, the French in their ears causing Suzie to break out her Inspector Clouseau accent that had never failed to crack them both up. Kate had shopped in the chic little boutiques and specialty shops for a few trifles to put in her store back in Vermont, selling trinkets to the visitors that seldom came, the town never quite gaining traction as a tourist destination — the reason why, along with its proximity to the border, she'd chosen it.

But on those days she'd listened to old Leonard Cohen songs (all about him saying so long to Marianne, or Suzanne taking him down to the river and feeding him tea and oranges) that had transported her into another time and another place, not the breaking news on WDEV-FM out of Waterbury giving an update on the shooting at Suzie's school.

Details were sketchy. Minor injuries were reported among the kids. Two staff members had been killed along with the two gunmen who had not yet been identified. Kate didn't care who the twisted little fuckers were, cared only that she had stopped them before they'd massacred the children who'd been their targets. There was nothing about her in the news report.

Not yet.


Excerpted from "The Truth Itself"
by .
Copyright © 2018 James Rayburn.
Excerpted by permission of Blackstone Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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