Meet Rachel Proulx, an FBI agent with a tough mission in a thrilling short story from Olen Steinhauer, leading up to his novel, The Middleman (August 2018).
Rachel has been researching underground leftwing movements on the West Coast, but she knows she won't get any real info unless she goes undercover. So she heads out to San Francisco, moving into a tiny studio, and puts her ear to the ground. But what happens when she joins a group of them for a night party in Sonoma gets her more than she bargained for - and may even get her killed.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|File size:||4 MB|
About the Author
OLEN STEINHAUER, the New York Times bestselling author of several novels, including The Middleman, All the Old Knives, and The Cairo Affair, is a Dashiell Hammett Award winner, a two-time Edgar award finalist, and has also been shortlisted for the Anthony, the Macavity, the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger, the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, and the Barry awards. Raised in Virginia, he lives in New York and Budapest, Hungary.
Read an Excerpt
Rachel was in the house's spacious pantry when he arrived, sitting straight, her scratched hands resting on a scratched chopping-block table, beside a now-empty Smith & Wesson M&P pistol. Sixty years ago, this had probably been a servants' dining room, but that time, and that America, were long gone. She looked at the sleeve of her shirt, at the splatter of blood that she'd been able to wash off her skin but not her clothes. The knees of her jeans were stiff and heavy from it. Vertigo swelled again.
There were tricks, she knew, ways to focus the mind on little things, to grab onto pickle jars and rusty hinges and the girl who was still passed out in the upstairs bedroom, and use them as life rafts to keep yourself afloat. But sitting in the semidarkness she couldn't remember quite how those tricks worked.
She'd heard his car roll up and knew that he would have parked next to Layla's Subaru and Peter's Jeep. She imagined his first move would be to check inside both cars, just to be sure they were empty. No doubt he wondered why Rachel wasn't outside waiting for him — she, after all, had called him — and by now he'd probably taken out some inconspicuous pistol before entering the house.
"Hello?" she heard, his voice echoing in the grand foyer. "I'm looking for Susan Hill."
"Back here," she called. But it was a big house, and she wasn't sure he could hear her. So she raised her voice. "In the back, off the kitchen!"
When he eventually appeared, a Bureau-issue Glock hanging from his fist, she was finally able to put a face to the voice on the phone she only knew as "Toby": blond mustache, sideburns, blue eyes — so damned California. "You hurt?" he asked.
She shook her head.
"Where are they?"
He thought a moment, then disappeared and returned with a bottle of Evian. He cracked it open for her. "Hydrate."
As he watched, she drank the cool French spring water and followed him into the expansive kitchen. The air was stuffy and sweet, stinking of cigarettes, so she opened the back door and stepped out onto the gravel. She looked but couldn't make out the vineyards in the darkness. They went on for acres and acres. To the east, Sonoma was a mild glow on the rolling horizon, but here there was only soil, vines, and dead bodies in a mock-gothic monstrosity at the end of a long private lane. Soon, the sun would be rising.
"Let's go downstairs," she heard. He was standing behind her in the doorway, his Glock now in a conspicuous shoulder holster.
"Do I need to?"
He considered that, then shrugged and stepped outside to join her. "You'll have to go down eventually."
"But not yet."
Together, they slowly walked around the enormous house, crunching gravel, and when they reached the east side they were battered by fragrant wind from across the fields. To get the ball rolling, Toby said, "Headquarters filled me in on the important points. You've been based in San Fran for three months under a legend: Susan Hill. A research project on the left-wing underground. I have it right?"
"Yeah," she admitted, even though the purpose of her move from the East Coast to the West sometimes escaped even her. It was nice to have an objective reminder.
"Pretty far on it?"
She shrugged. "It's coming together."
"And it involves ... what?"
She looked at him, at first unsure what he was asking. Then she got it. "Infiltration."
"Right," he said, and she wondered if the judgment she heard in his voice was really there, or if her insecurity was inventing it. He wouldn't be the first — back in D.C., she knew, her old colleagues in the Hoover Building, trapped behind desks and stacks of money laundering reports ... well, they all thought Special Agent Rachel Proulx had finagled a paid, six-month vacation out of them. Toby looked like he was thinking the same thing.
Well, fuck them, and fuck him.
She said, "You don't learn anything real from the outside."
"You can learn a lot," he countered.
"You can learn what, and you can learn when. But you can't learn why."
Toby wasn't having any of that. "We know why — they're a generation that's been coddled and spoiled, and they're still too young to accept that hypocrisy is the human condition." He shrugged. "But you're a bigger person than me: I wouldn't last five minutes without slapping them upside their skulls."
Rachel halted, and it took him a couple more steps to realize he was alone. He turned to face her. "Did I say something wrong?"
Though he had — this kind of wild simplification was precisely why she had grown to believe in the necessity of her report — she said, "No," then nodded at him. "Did headquarters give you any directive?"
"Just make sure your cover isn't blown."
"It already is," she said.
"This? Anything can be cleaned up."
This particular mess wasn't what she was thinking of, but there was time to get to that explanation.
Toby looked up at the starry sky, as if watching out for drones. "So why don't you tell me what brought you to this fancy-ass house? Then we'll see where we are."
Rachel peered out into darkness, and when she reached back in her memories was surprised that it had only started yesterday.CHAPTER 2
A steady backbeat pestered Rachel as she came out of her dream, but it was just an echo of last night, of Nathan pressing replay, hour after hour, on "No You Girls," until the jangly guitars and flat bass drum etched a groove in the LP of her mind, so that when she woke to strange sunlight in an empty bed that Franz Ferdinand riff still played in her head.
She filled her cigarette-tattered lungs with fresh air and got herself moving. In the living room, Gary was sprawled on an IKEA couch, mouth open beneath his Sonny Bono mustache, eerily silent. Rachel pushed on to the bathroom and had a good long pee, then went at her face with water, gargling desperately to get some kind of moisture back. Mornings like this, she really felt her age. By the time she turned off the water, someone had decided they hadn't heard enough last night, and had cranked the song again:
No you girls never know How you make a boy feel
Gary was up now, stretching by the window, and in the kitchenette Layla was filling a coffee filter. She'd already made up her face in signature goth — Siouxsie Sioux eyes and a merlot smile just for Rachel. "You're gonna want a cup."
"Thanks," Rachel said as she joined Gary at the window. Together, they gazed at the San Francisco Bay. The fog was just lifting, and sunlight from the east broke over the Berkeley hills. The condo they'd occupied for the night was in a modest complex on the edge of Tiburon, and it had been Peter's idea to party in the land of the undeservedly rich. He apparently did this sometimes, came up with unexpected places to hang out and party and talk. The only perk to being a real estate agent, Peter told her last night between kisses, was the lockbox key. He claimed he hadn't paid rent in over a year, and every night he had a new place to sleep.
"In case you're wondering, Peter drove Nathan back to town," Layla said, handing her a steaming cup. "They'll meet us at the Roxy tonight."
"Where'd they go?"
A shrug. "I don't ask."
That was Layla for you, a uniquely incurious human being. Rachel had even called her that in her report — uniquely incurious. Gary turned from the window. "Where's my coffee?"
"Suzie's drinking it."
"Shit," he said, and stomped over to the kitchenette.
Layla grinned and stood with Rachel, both sipping coffee. Off to the left, the open water was clotted with boats, little yachts and unfurled sails, dot-com money luxuriating under the Pacific sun.
"Bet you couldn't imagine this a year ago," Layla said.
Rachel cupped her hands around her drink, taking in the warmth. "This?"
"Partying until four in the morning with a bunch of kids like us."
Rachel was in her late thirties, but to twenty-four-year-old Layla she might as well have been sixty. "You'd be surprised the kinds of things you can imagine when you're signing divorce papers."
Layla grunted; they'd discussed Rachel's life in East Coast suburbia, as well as her abusive ex-husband. Nothing more needed to be said.
"Where's Peter from?" Rachel eventually asked.
Layla kept her eyes on the boats and said, "Yugoslavia, right?"
"There is no Yugoslavia anymore. Is he Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Slovenian? Montenegrin?"
Layla shrugged, perhaps to cover for her ignorance of Balkan geography, then looked squarely at Rachel. "It's not a question I ask because I'm not a nativist. I wouldn't ask where you came from."
"Because you know. I grew up in Boston, got myself into a shitty marriage, and spent most of my adult life in D.C. Gary's from Sacramento. You grew up in West Virginia until the mines closed and your parents died of cancer. Isn't it weird we don't know anything about Peter?"
Layla let out a sotto voce laugh. "You tell me. Aren't you fucking him?"
The question embarrassed Rachel, though it shouldn't have. Both Layla and Gary had seen her and Peter necking last night, then heading to the bedroom, and why wouldn't these two old farts have gone all the way?
She'd hung with Layla and her friends for nearly a month in her search for the deep-underground movements that were rumored to exist up and down the West Coast. But there had been little progress — like most angry ideologues they were more talk and drink than anything resembling action. She was preparing to ease out of their orbit until, only two nights ago at the Roxy, Layla had dragged in a graying, Slavic-accented man carrying a thick tome on the fall of the Roman Empire. He'd just returned from a trip to Europe, and his cultural touchstones were closer to Rachel's own than they were to Layla's — Jimmy Carter, Fantasy Island, the Cold War, and Chernobyl. Peter Kozul was a surprise, because Layla and Gary and Nathan believed that anyone old enough to be their parents had been too warped by the Old World to ever be woke. But Peter — he was different. He'd grown up in communist Yugoslavia, and when he opened his mouth he spoke in the revolutionary vitriol that was their bread and butter. When Rachel asked which part of Yugoslavia he'd come from, he'd simply said, "My country is a country that no longer exists," then kissed her again.
"Where'd you first meet him?" Rachel asked, trying not to sound like she cared.
"Discussion group. Antifa."
Though she knew very well, she said, "Anti-what?"
"Anti-fascist. It's a European thing, fighting against fascists in the streets. With fists. Like the black bloc, but we don't hide our faces. Good thing to import."
Rachel nodded into her cup.
"You want to know where he's from," Layla said. "I just want to know how he got so fucking smart." She shook her head. Not quite a swoon, but almost.
They turned back to find Gary sitting at the kitchen island, his head on his crossed arms, asleep.CHAPTER 3
"Wait," said Toby. "Are you telling me you fucked this guy ... this Peter?"
"Have you ever worked undercover?"
Clearly, he hadn't, but that didn't loosen the knot of his disapproval.
"Look," she said. "I'm not going to stand here and justify my sex life to you."
He raised his hands. "I'm just saying — you didn't even know who he was."
"I don't know who you are, Toby, but I know I'm not going to fuck you. I don't need a biography to decide who I'm going to sleep with. Do you?"
Even in the darkness she could see his cheeks flush in embarrassment, or maybe it was anger. He looked toward the high, lit windows that had an ecclesiastical feel. One of them, near the roof, was shattered. He said, "I get it. I'd be shaken, too." He took a measured breath. "But you at least sent in Peter Kozul's name, right? What came up?"
Rachel decided — and it was a decision — to let him off the hook. She remembered Layla dropping her off in the Mission, where the pulse of Latin music finally pushed the angular Scottish pop out of her head. She smiled at her neighbor, Miguel, who smoked on the front stoop, and he gave her a wink as she entered and climbed the narrow steps to the little studio apartment that had been her home for the last four months — the mattress in the corner, her secondhand dresser, and the desk she'd found abandoned on the street a week after arriving in town, which Miguel had kindly helped her carry up. But she never used the desk, instead, like today, taking her laptop to bed, where she piled pillows against the cracked wall to support her back and worked her way through the Word document that had been her raison d'être in San Francisco. A research project that had come to her while staring at a pile of divorce papers in a D.C. lawyer's office.
"Headquarters got in touch around two o'clock yesterday," she told Toby.
"Yeah," she said, though that was only part of it. What she didn't tell Toby was that Bernard, her SAC, had opened the conversation by telling her that someone had called the office looking for her. Who had called?
Sitting on her mattress, the smell of roasting corn wafting through her window, her stomach had contracted painfully at the sound of her ex- husband's name. "What did he want?"
"Something about boxes he found in the beach house?"
"Did you believe him?"
"That's my problem, Rachel. I believe everybody."
Down in the street, she'd heard two boys fighting over a basketball.
"What do you want me to tell him?"
"Tell him I don't care about any boxes."
Not even a full day later, Toby stepped closer, a look of concern on his face. "You all right?"
Shit, she thought, and continued walking under the gaze of those windows. She said, "Peter Kozul, forty-two years old. Entered the US back in December on a Serbian passport. Student visa."
"He's a student?" Toby asked.
She shook her head. "He's not even Peter Kozul." Now Toby looked surprised, which made her feel as if she was getting back some control. She said, "His passport was flagged because the numbers lined up with a batch of forgeries used by the Zemun clan a few years ago."
She nodded. "Same guys who killed Zoran ?in?i?, back in '03."
"Pro-Western politician, shot in Belgrade. You really don't remember?"
Toby considered this, fingers pulling at his lower lip. She didn't know anything about Toby, not really. He was an emergency phone number, nothing more. Maybe his specialty was so narrow that the Byzantine power plays of Balkan politics were simply beyond him.
"What's your focus, Toby?"
"I mostly track Russians."
"In San Francisco?"
A shrug. "Their consulate likes to keep an eye on emigres. Turn or blackmail them. The usual — and we keep an eye on them."
"You're an expert?"
"Three years in Moscow. I know my shit."
"I see," she said. "And over the space of three years in Moscow you never worked undercover?"
Toby raised an eyebrow, but he wasn't here to talk about himself. He wanted to talk about her. "You work under Bernard Treptow?" When she nodded he grinned. "I thought we'd cleared out all those Russia-hating Cold War geriatrics."
"So who," he asked, "is Peter Kozul, really?"
"We don't know. He never smelled like organized crime to me. No prison tattoos, no speeches about ethnic injustice, no historical lectures about the fourteenth century." In answer to his questioning look, she said, "The Battle of Kosovo."
He gave her another look but didn't ask a thing. Instead, he reached into his jacket and took out a pack of Marlboros, offered them to her, and when she refused lit one for himself. The snap and crackle of burning tobacco, and then a breeze tugged the smoke back and forth across his features before ripping it away.
"So, no," she told him. "I don't really know who he is. I'm not even sure he's Yugoslav."
Toby drew on his cigarette as they reached the front corner of the house. There was the circular driveway and three parked cars — Peter's Jeep, Layla's Subaru, and a black Mercedes that made Rachel wonder what Toby did when he wasn't moonlighting for the FBI. In the center of the ring slouched a crumbling concrete fountain, long out of use, that had probably been put up by some Hollywood producer in a sad imitation of European glory days.
"Up here," Toby said.
Rachel knew what he was doing, leading her here, and though a part of her resisted she knew it was the only way. He wanted her to take him through it, step by step, on location.
"What was on the agenda?" he asked.
"Yeah. You guys talked politics, right? Call the meeting to order, read the minutes from last session, lay out the night's topics?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Vandals"
Copyright © 2018 Third State, Inc..
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