The Last Minute
A VERY PRIVATE WAR
Manhattan, Upper West Side
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 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 onto 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 were 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.
Cable Beach, the Bahamas
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 suburban 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 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, if you will. Ming is in the hospital, recovering from his wounds.’
‘The assistant may know nothing.’
‘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 cafe, 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 to forge her credentials with care; 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 but it was strange: when he was wheeled inside they put a sheet over 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.’
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 cafe over on Singel. The Cafe 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.
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. 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. Which meant maybe Nine Suns and the CIA weren’t looking for him. 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 cafe 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 clear. He could find Nic’s notebook and sell it to August, and then could go into hiding for ever. 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 out 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. She 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 her 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 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 any more.
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. 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 under arms. 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 cafe. 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 a 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 wellbeing 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 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 cafe. He couldn’t stay out on the streets of Amsterdam dressed like a patient; even in the world’s most laid-back city around 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.
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 part-way 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 downwards 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 five whole minutes 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 and picking him up and bringing him clothes to the hospital. 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 cafe 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 bar. 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 decor, 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. Then 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. And 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 cafe 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 Canadian 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 cafe 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 a friend. 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 hit?’
‘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 naive.
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 was still 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 dainty Dutch girl he imagined, Ricki was half a head taller than him and an immigrant from Senegal. She was funny, smart, pretty, and oddly tough. He was thoroughly overwhelmed and intimidated by her. He didn’t know what to say. Their coffee 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 cafe 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. ‘Yes, I know. 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 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 cafe. 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’d dated months ago, she’d never let him come to her place. She was in Amsterdam, he lived in Delft and she came to see him, not the other way around. The apartment was small. 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.’
‘Don’t you get caught?’
‘Not me,’ she laughed.
The machines whirred, all creating illicit product. Machines 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 cliche, 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.’
‘Well, that wasn’t in the papers.’ Her voice rose. ‘Why not?’
‘Because it wasn’t.’
‘Why?’ Her voice sounded accusatory.
‘Because I suppose the police were protecting me.’
‘And, what, now they’re not.’
‘Now they’re not.’ He weighed his choices. He had few. ‘I killed a man there tonight, Ricki.’
She laughed. Then she didn’t. She sat and stared at him.
He fought down a surge of shivers. ‘Maybe some tea?’ he asked.
‘Yes, but decaf. You don’t need any more stimulation. You won’t sleep at all tonight.’ She got up and microwaved two cups of water and stuck a decaf English Breakfast teabag in each cup. He watched the steam curl and stayed silent while he let her process his confession. She produced a bottle of brandy from her cupboard and raised eyebrows at him and he nodded. Ricki dosed both cups.
He thought she might keep quiet. She would never go to the police, not at all. But now he had to win her sympathy to earn her continued help. She came looking for you, he told himself. She must want to help you. At least, until she finds out how dangerous this could be.
‘The man was sent to kill me. I have to vanish for a while. I’m not so scared of the cops but the cops can’t protect me, and I’m not going to jail. They won’t let people like you and me have a computer in jail. Ever.’
She folded her arms as though his dire prediction made her cold. She was immediately weighing her options, he could tell. She wasn’t easily given to shock.
‘Will you help me?’ he asked.
‘Who wants you dead?’
‘Nic got me involved. He did work with a group called Novem Soles. Or Nine Suns?’
She shook her head. ‘What, they’re Catholic computer hackers?’
‘Uh, no. They’re afraid I might know more than they think I do. I’m a loose end. I’m a mouth that could talk.’
‘Do you really know anything that could hurt them?’
‘No,’ he said. It wasn’t exactly a lie. The notebook – Nic’s self-described nuclear weapon – there was no point in mentioning it to Ricki. The less she knew, the safer she was.
‘So, what, you run for the rest of your life? This guy you killed, it was self-defense, right?’ Her voice rose slightly. ‘You won’t be able to finish school.’
‘I was kind of bored with school. You and me, we’re not suited to day jobs.’
She gave him a shy smile and sipped her tea. ‘So you run and to begin with I equip you.’
‘Well. If you can. I’ll pay, of course.’
‘What do you need?’
‘A laptop. I need to be able to transfer my money to a new account. I need to get documentation so I can get out of the country under a new name. And I know somebody who might be able to hide me from these guys, and I need a way to contact him without him finding me after I give him a call. I want to see him on my own terms.’
‘I can spare you a laptop, a year-old MacBook Pro with the latest operating system. I have an anonymiser program on it that can shield you from being easily traced. Is that good enough?’
‘Thank you.’ To hackers laptops were like racehorses; they always preferred the most muscle. A year-old computer was an antique to Jack; he routinely bought a new system every six months. But it would do.
Ricki tapped her lip. ‘A passport and credit cards? I know a guy in Brussels who works wonders, but he’s not cheap. He can probably have you a passport in three days, another day to overnight it.’
‘Your money, I can ask a guy in Russia. He moves a lot of funds for me. But I can’t promise. Could you just withdraw all the cash?’
‘Yes, but I’d prefer to keep it electronic, less likely to lose it.’ He did not want to add that he didn’t care to keep tens of thousands of euros he’d earned hacking for Nic’s criminal ring about his person. He wanted the money moved, cleanly, hidden where he could reach it under a new name. And where he wouldn’t have to worry about customs, or the police freezing his accounts if they figured out Jin Ming was a lie. He was a potential murderer in their eyes now, everything had changed. He needed to keep as many of his secrets close to him as he could.
‘Okay, this guy you need to contact. He doesn’t want to be found?’
‘He is part of a bureaucracy that can hide me.’
Ricki stared. ‘You want me to penetrate a top-level American government network. Did you go to a smoke bar after you left the hospital?’
‘No. I’ll do it. But if I run into a wall I will want your expertise.’
Flattery was the most potent currency in the hacker world. That and respect, acknowledgment of skills. She didn’t smile until she’d lifted the tea cup and she thought Jack couldn’t see her grin. ‘I thought you might have some programs to help me chisel my way in.’
‘I might. You hungry?’
‘I can cook some pasta, open some wine. Oh, I didn’t think about giving you more alcohol, are you on meds?’
‘I would very much like a glass of wine. And, no, I have no meds.’
‘Now that would be a challenge,’ she said. ‘Get an online pharmacy to send you what you need, without placing an actual order.’ She laughed and so did he, and for a moment the memory that he had killed a man, albeit an assassin, edged from the center of his thoughts. He was always happier when he had a problem with which to play.
‘Is that all you need?’
‘Yes,’ he said. But it was a lie. He knew where Nic lived. And Nic being dead, and the police would have had all his computers confiscated since he was a known con artist and trader in online filth. So had the police found the notebook and taken it? Surely that would be news, if a murdered man’s notebook could blow open an international crime ring. But the police could keep the discovery silent, the same way they’d shielded his name and location while he recovered.
Ricki brought him wine and sat down next to him. Close to him. She smiled at him, warmly. Was surviving a shooting… was that sexy? He’d avoided most girls at Delft because he didn’t want to risk blowing his cover story. Girls always wanted to know about you, to delve into secrets. But Ricki had secrets of her own. She might not ask too many more questions.
They drank the wine and before he knew it, before he could analyse it, he’d taken her wine glass and set it on the coffee table and he was kissing her warm mouth. She kissed him back. He was alive. He’d forgotten how good it could feel. So he did all the things necessary for living; he kissed her, he laughed with her, they ate dinner, they made love. Then they lay in bed and watched a movie she’d stolen from a studio’s laptop, a film that wasn’t hitting theaters for another three weeks.
When she fell asleep and the movie was over, Jack began to think. He needed a way to figure out where Nic would hide his most potent and powerful secret of all, and he would have to start by breaking into Nic’s house tomorrow morning.
I hit the ground wrong.
I rolled too sharply, and felt a pull in my shoulder. I stopped and the early morning desert sky loomed above me. Back in my London days I ran parkour – extreme running, where you vault up walls and use handholds and drop from heights without breaking bones (hopefully). It had been my release from the tension of work, exploring abandoned spaces, turning walls into roads, using precision to power through a space in a more efficient way. But I was out of practice; when your child is missing you don’t really want to take the time for exercise. I’d arrived around midnight Las Vegas time last night, and couldn’t sleep, too wound with excitement and tension. Today was a waiting game, with the rest of the day to kill before Anna Tremaine arrived for our meeting. So I’d gotten up early to try my luck against gravity. It was 5 a.m. and the quietest hour in Vegas, and no one around to see me run.
I’d decided to run through an unfinished building not far from my bar. The last thing I needed to do before capturing Anna – and I had every intention of taking her prisoner – was to hurt myself so I wouldn’t be at peak condition.
But the parkour helped my head. When I had to plan a run, a vault, a leap that I could barely make, only then I didn’t think of Daniel. Then I didn’t think of Lucy. Distraction is a sure way to break a leg or an arm. I got up, dusted off my butt. Looked at the wall before me, five feet high; beyond its rim was air.
I was tired of the walls around me, the false ones in the shapes of threats and violence. I wanted my son back. That was the only wall to conquer. I ran at the wall, did a saut de chat (jump of the cat). I went head first, my hands landed on the wall’s top surface. My legs powered past my arms as I flew from the wall. I landed fair and kept running.
I hadn’t had a clean run since the bombing, when my wife was taken from me before my eyes in a London street and I did a parkour run through a remodeled building, bomb-damaged scaffolding collapsing around me, running like I never had before to keep her in my sight, to not lose her.
But, of course, I did lose her, and in a worse way than if she had been kidnapped and killed.
I vaulted up a narrow staircase in the unfinished motel, bouncing off the walls, feeling the sweat explode from my skin. Burning off the too many drinks of the middle of the night, the worry about Daniel, the stress over whether I might be arrested or grabbed by August’s team to force me to tell them more about Mila and the Round Table.
I reached the roof and the desert early morning sun shone on me. Las Vegas, even at its edges, is never entirely hushed. I wished there were neighboring roofs. I used to run the council housing projects in London, and on a roof I felt like I had wings. I ran in a circle here, staying warm, building up my power, stopping only to study the balconies jutting off the side of the building, wondering if I could navigate the seven stories in a series of controlled jumps and drops from balcony to balcony. Who needs stairs?
Dropping from balcony to balcony might attract attention; the police are rarely parkour fans. I studied the line of movement it would take to do the balcony drops. Part of my mind said too risky, but another part wanted to feel like I’d pushed myself, like I was testing myself for the final stretch of confronting Anna Tremaine and getting my son back. I wanted to be sure I still had my nerve, my daring.
Drop, roll, vault, drop again, roll. I played the run in my head.
I dropped down to the first balcony and from the edge of my eye I saw the car on the facing road brake to a halt.
I should have checked first. I’d needed to be sure that I didn’t have a witness, someone who might call 9-1-1 on the crazy guy doing the balcony surfing. I stood up from the balcony.
The road near the unfinished motel was empty. Except for the one car, stopped at a light at a deserted intersection.
Okay, I thought, not me, it stopped for a light.
A green light. I could see the double glint of binoculars past the window.
I dropped back out of sight.
Waited. I heard the purr of the car’s engine moving. I glanced over the edge. I could see the driver below, a sleeve of purple jacket, a snug knit hat pulled tight over the head.
The car sped away.
Maybe he just stopped because he saw you jump. That’s it. Yes, that’s all.
But the run was ruined for me. I dropped down the rest of the balconies and ran back to my car.
Mila would be here this afternoon, and then Anna Tremaine. And, by tonight, I hoped, I would have my son back.
The doorknob to Nic’s apartment turned under his hand. Unlocked. But Jack stood and knocked for the fourth time, his heart hammering in his chest. If Nic had a woman or a roommate still living here, that person was also likely connected to Novem Soles. But he had to know. And he couldn’t wait. The police were looking for him. The dead man had been discovered at the hospital. The papers carried a picture of both Jack’s face and one of the man he’d killed. The online news site had the most up-to-date information, and by noon Amsterdam time the police had released the man’s identity: a Czech immigrant named Davel, who had an arrest record a meter long, mostly as a rented enforcer for eastern Europeans who were muscling into illegal activities in the West.
A hired thug, sent to kill Jack, and he’d ruined Jack’s plan to slip out of sight.
Jack remembered Hollywood blockbusters about a man on the run. Being on the run could look like a bit of a lark. You could always outpace and outthink the pursuers. It was not fun. Jack was sick with the thought that even walking on the street he would be seen, noticed, made for the man on the front page of the paper.
He pushed the door open and called out: ‘Hello?’
No answer. The apartment was small and not tidy. Old newspapers sat stacked, unread, on a coffee table. He could smell spilled lager. A muted television played in the corner, offering news of the world, ignored.
He had the gun he’d taken from his assassin in his pocket.
He stepped down the hallway to where a door was half closed and inside the room lay an old woman. She slept, a vodka bottle clasped loosely in her hands. Her pose could have been a poster highlighting the blight of alcohol. He glanced at the label: very cheap vodka, the kind the university kids with no money drank, and the room smelled as though she didn’t invest much in soap, either. She looked like a female, fragmented version of Nic – strands of red in the graying hair, short, stocky, a fleshy mouth.
Nic lived with his mother, at his age? Jack couldn’t imagine. Of course, Jack’s mother didn’t want him around. He stepped out and made sure the rest of the apartment was empty. He guessed a back bedroom had been Nic’s. Large desks with a slight settling of dust, with clean spots where computers and monitors had likely sat.
Naturally the police had taken all of Nic’s gear. It was evidence – he was a hacker and a scumball and he’d been murdered. He searched the rest of the room. Nothing electronic remained. He saw no papers, no records. The room had been picked clean except for Nic’s computer books.
No sign of a notebook. He didn’t even know how big it was, which could affect where it was hidden.
He checked the room a final time, being extra careful, and then went back to the old woman’s bedroom. She was snoring now.
He sat on the edge of the bed and shook her awake. He thought she would scream in horror at a stranger in her room. Her eyes stared at him, muddled, then widened in fear. ‘Who… Get away from me.’
‘I won’t hurt you. I’m a friend of Nic’s.’
‘Friend of Nic’s.’ She spat at him, made her face a scowl.
‘I am. He gave me a job.’
She stared at him. ‘Get out of my house.’
He pointed to the healing wound on his neck. ‘The people who killed your son did that to me. I want to make them pay.’ He tried to smile. What did you say in a situation like this? ‘I am his friend, I promise you.’
‘His friends got him killed. And now the police, they say all these lies about my Nic. That he did terrible things.’
‘Mrs ten Boom, please, let me help you.’ He got up and jetted water into a clean glass and brought it to her. She drank it down and then she glanced at the vodka bottle. Uncertain, he poured a tiny bit into the glass. She took a tiny sip, as though embarrassed, and then looked at him with sullen eyes.
‘I’ll leave you alone,’ Jack said, ‘but I know of a way to get back at the people who hurt Nic.’ Like avenging Nic was his motive. Lying to a grieving mother. Gosh, he was so proud of himself these days. A slow throb of headache began to pulse in his temples. He looked at the vodka glass instead of her, which was fine as she was looking at the vodka as well.
‘Nic was researching the bad people who led him astray. He learned their secrets. I helped him a bit, but I don’t know where he would have hidden the information.’
‘He kept everything on computers. I don’t even know how to work one. I don’t like them.’ She flapped her hands, as if computers were gnats floating near her face. Her voice turned a bit petulant.
‘It’s a notebook. With printouts in it from the computer. Where would he keep it?’
Her gaze went sly. ‘How do I know you’re not a cop, or one of the people who hurt Nic?’
‘If I was a cop, I’d arrest you and take you down to the station,’ Jack said. ‘If I was your enemy, I would not pour you vodka.’
‘You waited a long time to come.’
‘The people who shot me killed Nic,’ he said. ‘I just got out of the hospital. You see the news last night?’
‘Yes.’ She blinked at him and then sipped the vodka as though it would sharpen her recollections rather than dull them. And maybe, Jack thought, they would. ‘Yes. I remember you. Nic’s friend. At the coffee shop. The smart boy from Hong Kong.’
‘Yes. All right. Give me some more.’
He dribbled more vodka into the glass, feeling guilty with each chug of the clear liquid. No vodka like morning vodka, he thought. She drank it down, wiped her mouth with an age-spotted hand. ‘I can’t help you. The police came. They took all the computers. They said there were dirty pictures on them, and they said Nicky had hacked into the police’s own computers.’ She threw up her hands. ‘He’s dead. No one cares about his reputation any more except me.’
‘Well, I do. Do you remember him having a notebook, maybe one that he would have hidden?’
She blinked, considered, drank more of the vodka. These seemed new questions to her, Jack thought, ones the police hadn’t asked.
He poured another few fingers of vodka into the glass. ‘This notebook will protect you and it will protect me. Think.’
‘But you know him and his computers. He did everything on them.’ She blinked again, slurped more of her poison. ‘But he asked me to go to the store, just this once, and buy a red notebook and tape, something he needed for writing and photos. We didn’t have any photo albums. Not after Nic’s father left. I don’t like them.’
A few photos still dotted Nic’s room but Jack noticed he hadn’t seen any in this room, or the outer room. A lot of painful history in this apartment, he thought. That he understood. ‘So Nic asked you to buy a notebook for him.’
‘Yes, a big one, and it was red.’
‘Can you tell me where it is?’
Jack thought his patience would explode and scatter his brains around the bedroom. He took a calming breath. She was old, drunk, grieving, and she was his only hope.
‘Did the police search the entire apartment?’
‘Did they give you a list of what they took?’
She considered this. ‘Yes. They did.’
‘Where is it?’
‘I don’t know’, and then a rare neuron fired. ‘I signed it on the kitchen table.’
Jack got up and shuffled among the debris on the table. Found it: a list from the Amsterdam Police Department, offering an inventory of what they had seized. Four laptops, two desktop computers, financial files, cell phones. Jack wondered if any record there would lead back to him. It made him feel as though time were moving faster. He felt feverish. But there was no mention of a notebook. The police hadn’t taken it.
‘I have to know where that notebook is.’ He tried to keep the panic out of his voice.
She had followed him out of the bedroom. ‘I don’t know.’
‘You don’t have any money, do you? Or income, now that Nic is dead.’ It was a brutal truth.
She didn’t look at him. ‘Nic made so much I didn’t have to work.’
Because corporate espionage, spamming and porn paid so well. Jack pitied her. If he sold the notebook, he would have to make sure she got some of the money. ‘Think. Where would Nic have hidden the thing that mattered to him most? Did he have a storage unit? Another apartment? Anywhere?’
‘They said he did videos.’ Jack had to tear the words out of his mouth. ‘Um, illegal ones. Did he have a place where he might have filmed them?’
She bit her lip and he could see that if she’d known about her son’s horrible activities she’d chosen to ignore them. She sat down.
‘Mrs ten Boom. Please.’
‘He told me… he had stopped doing that.’ Her lips tightened into a line. ‘He promised me.’
‘He had an apartment… he paid cash for it. I think under a different name.’
‘Do you know where it is?’
‘Well, he never took me there,’ she said with some indignation. ‘But once… long ago, I followed him. He told me he’d quit, I wanted to be sure. It was like an addiction, you see.’
The irony seemed lost on her. ‘So I followed him and I saw another man bring three teenage girls to his door… ’ She blinked. ‘I came home and I had a drink and… ’ She left the sentence unfinished. But he could guess that painful moment would have been when her drinking started in earnest.
He said nothing for a long minute. He’d thought this woman a stupid old drunk and now he had an idea of what the knowledge of her son’s crimes had done to her.
‘He was my baby. Every person who does wrong in this world, they were once someone’s baby. Full of hope and promise. He was so smart. Where did I go wrong? Where did I bend him the wrong way?’
‘Nothing he did is your fault,’ Jack said. ‘Trust me on this one.’
She heaved a deep sigh and it seemed to take an effort to tear the words out of her chest. ‘I can take you there.’ She got up and went to the kitchen drawer. She pulled it free and turned it over. Under it was a key, taped into place. ‘This is it,’ she said. ‘This is the only one we’ve got.’
Jack was afraid to take the bus or the train with his face in the day’s papers so he’d borrowed Ricki’s little car.
‘He was such a smart boy. Like his father. Nic was always good at math, I was terrible at numbers. He got fired from his computer jobs, though. He was smarter than his bosses, they didn’t like him.’
Jack didn’t respond to this hollow praise. He turned into a parking lot down from a series of apartment complexes. The neighborhood was bad, and graffiti in a half-dozen languages marred the walls. Jack felt sick. Nic traded filth. Jack didn’t want to be here. If he’d known this about Nic he never would have worked with him. But what was done was done, and so now he had to see this through.
The address was an apartment in a section of De Pijp that retained the original gritty feel of the neighborhood, untouched by the gentrification that had pervaded this part of Amsterdam in recent years. The halls were clean, but they smelled of cigarette smoke and a heavy, delicious scent of Turkish food cooking. Jack and Mrs ten Boom walked up the stairs and found the door. Jack slid the key in and unlocked it and stepped inside, Mrs ten Boom following him, a slight humming noise coming from her throat.
She was afraid of what they might see here.
Jack did a quick survey of the small, cluttered apartment. In the kitchen were bottles of whisky. And cans of soda and bags of candy. Lures? Or bribes? The apartment made his skin itch with distaste.
He poured Mrs ten Boom a generous shot of whisky and turned on the TV to distract her. It was hooked up to a DVD player, and a children’s show was already loaded, bright colored dancing flowers and music. Jack thought he would vomit. He quickly switched the television to a news network.
‘Here, Mrs ten Boom, have a seat.’ Best if he searched alone, he thought.
Jack began a methodical search of the apartment. He started in the bedroom, going through every lining of clothing, every container in the closet, every box under the bed. Nic had weapons hidden in this place: a 9mm Glock, a Beretta pistol, a hunting knife with a wicked looking edge. Jack put those in a separate box.
He tore apart the mattress, dismantled the bed, pulled the headboard free. In the bedroom closet was a set of expensive camera gear. He searched through the equipment bags. Nothing. He tore up the carpet. Nothing.
A bubble of panic rose in his chest.
He finished in the bedroom. He went into the bathroom, searched every inch. He found a thousand euros hidden in a large plastic aspirin bottle. He went and pushed the cash into Mrs ten Boom’s hands; she stared at it in surprise, then put it in her pocket.
He went into the kitchen. There wasn’t much food inside the refrigerator: bottles of beer, sandwich meat, cheese furred with mold, jar of mustard. He closed the door on the rising smell. Then he pulled the refrigerator out from the wall. A layer of dust and grit lay on the floor. He began to search the cabinets and the drawers, removing dish towels, boxes of sugary cereal, bottles of hard liquor. Nothing. He pulled up the tatty lining paper to see if anything was hidden underneath. Zero luck. When the cabinets were empty he inspected them, tapping on them.
The top cabinet sounded different.
He tapped again. Then he stepped down and found a knife and worked it against the corner of the wood.
It gave slightly. He stuck the knife in and the wood folded back; there was a hidden hinge.
Wedged in the space was a red book, large, with a moleskin cover and an elastic band to keep it closed.
He pulled the red notebook free. He sat down on the kitchen floor and flipped through the pages. In the den he could hear Mrs ten Boom dribbling more whisky into her glass, moaning, a soft keening of grief.
The first few pages were numbers. Just numbers, in two columns. Maybe a code? Or maybe passwords? Or maybe account numbers. They were written in a neat, spare hand, as though they had been carefully copied.
He flipped to where the columns of numbers stopped.
Next page was a photo. A lean whippet of a man he’d never seen before, older, Caucasian, in a gray suit, walking with another man and a woman. The woman was Asian, striking, in her twenties. The other man was tall, heavy-set, black, also in a fine looking suit, scowling. Behind them was a rather grand house, with a huge porch and columns, with a curving driveway in its front.
He had no idea who these people were. Were these three of the Nine Suns? He realized he didn’t know if Nine Suns referred to nine specific people, or if it were simply a dumb code name. Written below the picture, in the same precise handwriting, First Day at The Nursery, 2001.
The Nursery. But there were no children in the picture.
He flipped through the rest of the book. It seemed that Nic had printed out an image from the computer screen capture and just taped it into the book. The red notebook was fat with paper. He studied. Photos of people: sometimes what appeared to be family photos, or people in meetings, talking together, in a range of settings: street plazas, sidewalks, office buildings. He did not recognize any of the faces.
Next were printouts of what appeared to be emails and transcriptions of phone conversations: ones where secret, illegal deals were struck between competitive companies, where bribes were subtly offered, where threats were made. The email addresses included government offices in the US, across Europe, and in Japan and Brazil, across Africa. And some of the world’s most powerful corporations. It was like a jigsaw of high-powered, white-collar crime: many pieces, and Jack couldn’t see how they all fit together.
Then a series of photos that looked like passport pictures, a dozen people, and in the top left of each photo a small notation: eliminated, and a date.
People that Novem Soles had killed? He flipped through the photos: he didn’t know who any of the people were. There were no identifiers.
Spreadsheets, partial, with items bought and prices paid: office rental in London, purchase of C-4 for London bomb, bribes to police inspector in Oslo. Jack’s stomach churned.
This is what his hidden programs had plucked for Nic: financial information that could gut or elevate markets, corporate secrets, a money trail of death, leverage for blackmail. If this was how Novem Soles was going to control people in key positions, and these were the people they used as levers, then one could deduce what their intentions and their targets were, and what their next major plot would be.
He read through the mass of stolen gems but no pattern formed. Maybe this was simply a way to control people in powerful positions who had troublesome secrets and could be manipulated. Other pages were filled with code, with more numbers that meant nothing to him.
But here was his shield; here was his sword. If he could not make full sense of it then he knew who could.
He found a landline phone in the apartment. He picked it up and was relieved to hear a dial tone. It hadn’t yet been disconnected. He unplugged the phone and plugged its cord into the MacBook Pro that Ricki had loaned him. He activated a cheap, throwaway dial-up account. Getting through to the CIA would not be easy. He would have to write a vivid note that would seize their attention, past all the cranks and weirdos who saw a conspiracy in every shadow and emailed their theories to the Agency. He needed to jump to the front of the line of incoming emails. On the CIA’s website he found a standard email form for people to share information or comments with the Agency.
He typed in the message page:
I have critical information for a CIA officer named August who was in Amsterdam several weeks ago. I offer serious, actionable dirt on the group called Novem Soles. This offer is only good for three days.
He entered in a prepaid cell phone number he’d bought after leaving Ricki’s apartment. He did not sign his name.
He reread the message. If he got too specific August might figure out who he was. This was tantalizing enough, he decided. He would talk to August and only August. August had kept him from being hurt worse; August had argued to leave him in the van, safe from danger.
He pressed Send. He stood, closed the laptop.
‘Mrs ten Boom, we should go.’
‘No. Nic will be here soon, won’t he?’ She was drunk again, a crooked smile back on her face. She’d refilled from one of the whisky bottles. ‘Nic will be here soon.’
Oh, God, Jack thought, he couldn’t leave her. But now that he’d contacted the CIA, he had to move quickly. He couldn’t be anchored with the old drunk woman. But he couldn’t leave her here either, in the horrible place of her son’s worst crimes.
‘Let’s go back to your place, Mrs ten Boom.’
She hit on the whisky bottle again and she lay down on the couch. ‘I want to stay here. Please.’
He stood watching her, and then he said, ‘Goodbye. Thanks for your help.’
She was asleep, holding onto the last shred of her son.
Jack Ming stumbled down the darkened stairs, clutching the most important book in the world to his chest.
August Holdwine took the subway to NoLita, the neighborhood North of Little Italy. He walked under the bright morning sky. The safe house sat above a clothing boutique off Mott Street. He went inside and in the kitchen he found his trackers waiting for him. The guy who Sam had manhandled sat at the wooden table, sourly drinking a caffe latte, ignoring Cuban pastries they’d picked up from August’s favorite neighborhood cafe. Instead of eating he pecked on a laptop keyboard.
‘Writing up a report on how you got played last night?’ August asked.
‘A complaint against you for not taking Sam Capra into custody after he attacked me.’
‘Be smarter next time,’ August said. ‘Email that to me and my supervisor, if you must, but why don’t you think about it some more?’
‘You should have grabbed him,’ the tracker said. ‘We got you breakfast, by the way.’
‘Did you spit in it?’
‘Thought about it. Thought you’d make him come back here and talk.’
‘Detention hasn’t much worked with him in the past,’ August said.
‘So, finding this Mila woman, what do we do now?’ the woman tracker asked.
August considered. That thought had kept him awake much of the night. He was charged with finding Mila; but what if, despite Sam’s protestations, this Mila was helping Sam find his son? Was he going to interfere with that? Duty and friendship were often uneasy partners. But duty had to come first.
His phone rang. He answered and listened and hung up, then he went upstairs to a makeshift office and locked the doors. Then he called the CIA headquarters back.
We have a phone-in, Langley had told him on his secured phone. Asking specifically for you, to call him at this number. It’s an Amsterdam exchange. Prepaid phone, no record of owner. That only meant the phone had been purchased in Amsterdam; the caller could be anywhere.
It rang. Nine times. Nine. Novem. Did that mean something? Then a male voice came onto the phone. ‘Hello?’
The tracking would begin immediately, August thought. The phone was connected to a laptop, showing on its screen a map of the world. Numbers began to flash across the top as the software traced the caller’s location. ‘Yes. My name is August. I understand you’ve been trying to reach me.’
‘Yes. I have.’ Male, American. No discernible regional accent.
‘About a subject of mutual interest.’
‘Oh, my God, you sound like a bad movie,’ the voice said. Young, August thought, younger than me. ‘Novem Soles. You’re one of the guys looking for them, aren’t you?’ A slight shaking in the voice.
‘Well. I can give Novem Soles to you.’
‘I have information for sale.’
‘Information for sale,’ August repeated. He would be repeating much of what the caller said. It was a standard ploy to extend the call, simplify the trace.
‘The price is ten million dollars.’
‘I can’t pay that amount.’
The laptop screen’s map trimmed down where the call was originating from. Europe. Then western Europe.
‘They’ve got their fingers and reach into governments around the world. I think I am giving you a bargain.’
‘Let’s say I agree to the price. What are your terms?’
‘I will deliver the information to you and you will place the funds in a numbered account in the Caymans. I want immunity from prosecution for any crimes I may have committed. Then the CIA gives me a new identity. I want sanctuary where they can never find me, in an English-speaking country.’
August listened carefully. Did he know this voice? Its tone tugged on the frail strings of memory in his mind. ‘I can’t commit that kind of money without seeing what the proof is.’
‘I have the proof.’
‘What is it? Names? Locations? Operations?’
‘It’s a notebook.’
‘Full of details on the people in government and business that Novem Soles owns.’
‘Scan the pages and email it to me.’
The call searcher narrowed. The Netherlands/Belgium/ Luxembourg glowed bright green on the map.
‘And once I’ve done that, then you have the proof, August, and I’m left out in the cold without money or immunity.’
‘What’s in the notebook?’
‘Everything you need to decapitate Novem Soles. They’re not just a criminal ring. They’re worse, a lot worse. It’ll be the best ten million you ever spent.’
‘How did you know my name?’
‘I have the information and I can either sell it to you or I can sell it to any other number of interested buyers.’ Not an answer to the question.
‘Well, I’d have to see the notebook, you understand that.’
‘I am willing to meet.’
‘I’ll call you back. Give me a number.’
‘I’d prefer to call you again.’
‘Oh, no. Not how I play, August. Give me a number or I vanish.’
August fed him his cell phone number. ‘I can’t get you any funds, or any promises, until I know what evidence you have. Until I see it. Tell me your name.’
‘Now knowing my name would be dangerous for you, and since we’re just getting to know each other, and you’re going to get me my beautiful ten million, I don’t want you getting yourself killed. We’re going to enjoy doing business together, August, you’re going to make your career and I’m going to buy my safety and my future. I’ll meet you in New York in two days.’
‘Where and when exactly in New York?’
‘I’ll let you know.’ The line went dead.
August sat and studied the laptop readout. The call had come from Amsterdam. The city where Sam had wrecked the Novem Soles plot.
Novem Soles. In English, the Nine Suns. The name for the criminal syndicate that had been behind the London bombing that had branded Sam Capra a traitor. Their reach was unknown but they had co-opted at least one high government official in the United States and had attempted to deliver a shattering blow to American society. Their ambitions, Sam had claimed, were limitless.
A criminal organization, not terrorist in its ideology, but one that had tried to destroy a CIA office and wreak political havoc in the United States.
What kind of criminals were these?
He had no answer. The entire Novem Soles cell in Amsterdam had been killed. The only survivor was Lucy Capra, caught in that comatose netherworld between life and death. Lucy knew some of the secrets of the group. But she was beyond helping him.
August replayed his recording of the conversation.
Who was this guy? he wondered. He kept using my name. Like it was a point of pride that he knew it. He said I was a nice guy. Have I met him before? I thought I knew the voice. But now he wasn’t sure.
Sam Capra might be paranoid about how deeply the criminal network’s claws reached into the government, but August Holdwine was not.
He dialed his boss’s number. He had to report the offer. But he knew what the bureaucratic response would be. Why pay off an informant when you could fold him under your wing and keep him shuttered up until he was ready to talk for free?
Fourteen minutes and thirty-seven seconds after August Holdwine said the phrase Novem Soles into his phone a text message appeared on another smart phone’s screen. Outside of intra-Company communications, there had been no mention of the phrase in the government’s phone and email monitoring database for weeks, since Sam Capra made his one and only statement for the CIA. The public did not know the phrase.
A large percentage of the world’s communications were vacuumed into the data tanks of the National Security Agency, to be studied and filtered. In the never-ending torrent of words, Novem Soles was a distinct outlier. Novem Soles were two words so unusual, so unmistakable, that the small bit of software hidden on the servers was able to find, within a few hours, any mention of the phrase and identify the sender and the recipient and provide a text transcript of the conversation during which the magic words were uttered. This transcript was sent to one man’s cell phone; he knew then, any time, when anyone in the United States was discussing Novem Soles.
It was, as the Watcher put it to his peers, an eye that never blinks.
The Watcher stepped out from the thrum of a restaurant on South Beach, a place that supposedly provided the best gourmet breakfast in Miami but the Watcher was unimpressed. He knew he could have done a better job in running it and he’d thought of buying it; how nice it would be to run a restaurant and have a simpler job. It was a cloudy, rainy day and in the morning haze of patio he studied the readout: it was the transcript of the entire call from the Langley office to August Holdwine. Someone had information on Novem Soles to sell, someone who had called from an Amsterdam number, and had called the Central Intelligence Agency with an offer.
He felt a jolt of nervous energy ride along his bones.
The Watcher closed the phone. He thought: Sam Capra, now. As soon as he had it rang again. He studied the phone log and answered.
‘ Bonjour,’ a woman’s voice said. ‘We have a problem.’
Greenwich Village, New York
Braun didn’t return from Langley to New York until mid-afternoon. The study in the Special Projects office smelled of fine cigars and exquisite coffee. August felt he should decline the coffee; he felt jittery enough. But you did not often say no to a legend, and Ricardo Braun was a legend. So August sat down in a heavy leather armchair, a fragrant Brazilian brew steaming from his cup. He had only been to the study once before; Ricardo Braun was an early retiree from CIA who’d come back into the fold a few weeks earlier when Special Projects needed mature, steady guidance after the disasters of the past few months. He made August feel like an ox; Braun was a spare, sleek man, bald, with a strong runner’s build, in his late fifties, with gray eyes and an air of unfailing confidence. He wore black slacks and a crisp white shirt. He had what appeared to August to be the world’s most elaborate coffee machine and he turned from it now, holding a thick mug of a brew that smelled amazingly rich, a curl of steam snaking from the porcelain.
‘What do you want me to do?’ August asked.
‘Well, write the informant a check, of course,’ Braun said. ‘Am I supposed to do all the thinking?’
August realized it was a joke so he ventured a smile. ‘Above my pay grade. But not yours.’
Ricardo Braun said, ‘We’re not paying this guy ten million dollars. Not someone who isn’t willing to come in. Not someone who wants to hand us off what might be worthless information and vanish before we can confirm it.’ He sipped at his coffee.
‘He can’t vanish, he said he wanted protection from us.’
‘Exactly what I’d say if I planned to vanish.’ Braun arched an eyebrow.
‘He can’t think he can hide from us.’
‘Novem Soles certainly has hidden themselves well. What do we truly know about them? Nothing. Dead ends and nowheres.’ Braun looked at the bourbon in his glass but didn’t taste it.
‘Do I open a case file?’ Special Projects operated by a unique set of rules, free from CIA bureaucracy. But records still had to be maintained, for the branch’s own reference. Special Projects could access and use Company databases, but it was not a twoway street. The branch had its own computer network, its own protocols for accessing information from police and corporate databases; some were illegal. It was this willingness to bend the rules that put Special Projects apart from the regular operations of the CIA.
‘Yes. Do. But we don’t report anything yet to the Company.’ He got up and walked to the reinforced glass in the study. ‘We know this group penetrated the Company once already, more than once, through bribery. Well, not on my watch. I didn’t give up daily rounds of golf and marlin fishing to come back and fail.’ He turned back with a stern stare at August. ‘We are not alerting any other traitors who are looking for a mention of Novem Soles in an email or a report or a conversation. I want this off the books, for now. Find this informant, bring him in, and we’ll see what he’s got.’ Braun paused. ‘Did you get anywhere with Capra?’
‘He spotted our shadows, took out one who got too close, and then bought me a martini at a bar he now owns, over by Bryant Park. Called The Last Minute.’
Braun smiled. ‘A bar. If I wasn’t so irritated with him I think I might get to like him.’
‘He won’t give any information on this Mila woman and he claims not to know anything more about Novem Soles. I get the sense he’s moved on with his life, well past us. He’s a businessman now, he’s wanting out of the game.’
‘And his kid?’
‘No news. So he says.’
‘I don’t believe he’s sitting around doing nothing,’ Braun said. ‘You don’t twiddle your thumbs if there’s a chance of finding your kid.’ Now he picked up his mug and tasted the rich brew within. The best coffee ever. It was so rich and perfectly roasted his tongue nearly went into shock. Braun gave him a smile.
This is a guy, August thought, who appreciates caring for every detail.
August knew Braun had read Sam’s file. ‘He may have run into the same walls we have.’
‘Could your informant know anything about the Capra baby?’
‘I have no idea. I did not ask.’ Guilt surged up through his chest. ‘The conversation didn’t lend itself to detailed questioning.’
‘That child could be used as leverage.’
‘Only to a point. Sam wouldn’t act against us if ordered. He would tell us of any demand made against him for his child’s safety.’
Braun raised an eyebrow. ‘Does your father love you, August?’
‘Would he kill to save you, if push came to shove?’
August said, ‘If I’m being honest, yes, my dad would.’
‘Sam might cut your throat to save his kid. Get the meeting. But be very careful.’ Braun fixed him with a look. ‘Langley says this informant asked for you. That means he must know you’re running the task force. This could be a meeting just to kill you, or grab you to see what you know.’
‘You’ve made me eager to get back to work.’ August stood. ‘Can I ask you something? It came up in talking with Sam.’
‘This Mila woman.’ He slid the picture over to Braun. ‘She was with Sam again last night. We lost her.’
Braun studied the picture. ‘I told you before, I don’t recognize her. I was out of the field for several years, though.’
‘We picked up some chatter. There is, and has been for the past three years, a million-dollar bounty on her head.’
‘I’ve never heard of a bounty that high funded by a crime ring. How on earth has she survived three years?’
‘Very good or very lucky.’
‘Maybe no one’s gotten close to finding her.’ Braun studied the photo again. ‘She looks like an elf. Seriously, put pointed ears on her and she’d be the perfect Santa Claus line monitor at Christmas. This big a bounty, and no one even knows who she is? Incredible. Where was this chatter?’
‘It’s come up on a few discussion forums – usually of extremists looking for funding.’
‘Who posted the bounty?’
‘It leads to a Gmail account that’s never been accessed. Or, I should say, has only been accessed by a non-traceable computer.’
‘Are the details in your report?’
‘Yes, I’ll write it up for you tonight.’
Braun handed him back the photo. ‘Make it happen, August. Get us this informant. Get us this woman.’
Or, August thought sourly, get another job.
The internet cafe was near the NYU campus. He walked there an hour after August left; he did not wish to use a CIA-owned computer. He also wanted to finish the exquisite pot of coffee he’d made. Ricardo Braun went inside and ordered a decaf with little hope that it would match his palate’s demands and sat at an internet terminal situated far from any other patrons. He opened an email account he had established six years before and that he only checked very infrequently. It was a hidey hole for him on the web, and he remembered a message he’d seen two years ago. There were only a couple of dozen messages in the account, all old, but kept squirreled away for when they could be useful. Requests for information. Offers of payment. CIA pensions were not what they should be, and, although he’d had family money, Braun felt that more cash was never to be turned down. As long as his small, creative side jobs did not hurt the country he loved, he saw nothing wrong with it. He was simply careful to clean it through investments; the CIA did watch the incomes of its former agents.
The message had held a picture of the woman called Mila. He’d seen her face then for the first time. That fine, elfin face.
He checked the photo stashed in the email address. It might well be the same woman. The cut of her hair was different but the bones were the same in her cheeks, the turn of the mouth, the sharp, haunted eyes. Mila. The photo of her was one with a gun in her hand, wearing a leather jacket and leather pants, glancing about a room. The sort of photo that looked like it had been lifted from a private security camera.
He reread the message. Text to 45899 to get details on job. High dollar. He wondered if the job was still open. He texted, on a phone that the CIA did not know that he owned.
He got an autoresponse, directing him to a private website, providing him with a password.
Braun jumped to the site. Its URL was a wild mix of numbers and letters, not the kind of site that someone would ever accidentally stumble upon. He entered the password.
The site opened. It showed more pictures of Mila, shot from the same camera. And the text, in five different languages: $1 MILLION US FOR THIS BITCH. I WANT HER ALIVE. Braun stared. This was the gold standard of hit contracts. A million dollars was usually a sum reserved for leaders of state, heads of organizations. Braun himself had spent CIA dollars to kill a Rwandan warlord for Special Projects for a hundred thousand. A drug kingpin in Ecuador for twice that amount. Braun had his own address book he could call upon when regular CIA personnel were not an option.
Who was this woman and who had the deep pockets to off her? He glanced at the last update: a month ago, a single message. Contract is still open. An email address, another blind one.
He sent an email: Is contract still open? I have a lead on an associate of hers but I need to know I’m dealing with someone who can guarantee payment.
He closed the email account, the website. He erased the browser history. He left the internet cafe and went and ate lunch, standing up in a narrow student-geared pizza joint, chewing on a thick slice, drinking a Coke.
A million dollars. The terms of the reward preferred that she be alive. That complicated things.
Braun ate his lonely pizza, then walked home and sat in his leather chair, and thought about Novem Soles, and Mila, and how he could collect that million dollars.
It’s not everyday that you a) inspect a new business you own, and b) make plans to meet a kidnapper there. Happy partiers filled The Canyon Bar, escaping the tourist-swollen casino hotspots, searching for revelry and the next place you wanted to be seen.
I was planning how to capture a woman who’d stolen my child.
The Canyon was not a tourist trap bar like so much of the Vegas nightlife scene. I’d noticed in the first hour there this evening that the servers and bartenders were extremely capable; attentive, engaging, focused. Of course, when I’d come around and introduced myself to the staff they might all have switched to best behavior, but you can’t hide sloppiness in the running of a first-class drinking establishment.
I’d seen one server gently talk an indecisive customer out of ordering a chocolate martini and into a handcrafted Old-Fashioned: a real drink for a real person. The decor was high-dollar: carefully sculpted beams of wood undulated along the curving walls, the tables were of polished granite, the chairs covered with faux rare animal hides. The Canyon was a destination bar for those too cool for the Strip or who wanted a break from the casino nights and the nerve-numbing rattle of slots, dice, and chips. The crowd was youngish, a mix of more daring visitors and well-heeled locals. There was a dance floor, small, and the DJ was mashing classic Massive Attack with the latest hip-hop star’s word play and drum beat.
I watched all this from the security cameras mounted in my office on the second floor of the bar.
I scanned the crowd. I knew Anna’s face, from the security photo and the passport photo we’d acquired: tall, dark hair, a beauty mark near the curve of her mouth. But those were elements easily changed. I didn’t see anyone who fit her description in the crowded club.
But I did see a face I knew, apparently a recent arrival. There she was, Mila, sitting at a back table, her hair dyed auburn now (or wearing a good wig), flirting with some thick-shouldered guy who wore a well-tailored gray pinstripe suit. His face was familiar, and that worried me until I recognized him – a guy who once played tight end for the New York Giants. Dude probably thought he was about to get Vegas-lucky. Mila wowed him a champagne-fueled smile, although the wine in her flute appeared to be untouched. His was empty. He refilled and guzzled his twice while I watched. I guessed she was conducting her own surveillance, observing every face that came and left the bar. She had to be careful, now that the Company had resumed its interest in me.
I went downstairs to a corner booth that I’d reserved for myself. I wore my hosting clothes: a pinstripe suit, a white shirt, a gray-silver tie. In your own bar, you have to look better than a lawyer. Sharper. And the jacket hid my Browning pistol and my slacks hid my knife, strapped to my calf.
Mila got up, whispering something that was (I am sure) most promising to her male camouflage, but came over and sat at my table.
‘I understand I am to be your wife. Every time I play this role, there is trouble.’
She’d taken a later flight than me – best if we didn’t travel together. She flew under an assumed name. But no one tailed me at the Vegas airport; I made sure.
‘I like the auburn,’ I said.
I could see the Giants ex glaring at me, waiting for her return. ‘Why did you sit with him?’
‘I generally ignore your American football. I thought maybe he was a bodyguard for Anna. I have talked to all the large, muscular men here.’ She surveyed the crowd. ‘Thin pickings. She might send a woman.’
‘You don’t have to work the crowd for long. We just need to get Anna up in the office, then we force her to tell us where my son is.’
‘Simple,’ Mila said.
‘I see no reason for this to be complicated.’
‘You are always such an optimist,’ Mila crossed her legs, inspected her fingernails. ‘This woman, Anna Tremaine, she tells you the name of the couple who bought your baby. Great. What do you do with her then? Lock her upstairs for a few days while we go collect your son?’
I raised an eyebrow.
‘You will have to kill her, Sam.’
‘Your bloodthirstiness is really not appealing.’
‘Truth is often very ugly, like the orange dress of that woman at the bar,’ Mila said. ‘An upstairs office is not built to keep a hostage for the long term. And you can’t let her go. She will warn whoever bought Daniel so they can run.’
‘You have Mr Bell stashed away back in New York.’
‘No. Mr Bell’s very small brain has been plucked. He is back with his family, and now he is in our pocket when we need him. He is a puppet on the string for me.’
‘He knows we killed two men.’
‘Yes, so he wants to stay on my good side.’
I let the sounds of the party rise and fall around us. ‘I have a plan.’
‘I am eager to hear this brilliant strategy.’
‘I’ll hand Anna over to the CIA. She can tell them all about her employers.’ It was certainly better than handing Mila over to them.
Mila seemed to sense the direction of my thoughts.
‘What would you do to get your son back?’
‘Anything covers so much.’ She glanced across the bar at her neglected conquest. ‘Oh, your American football player, I left him uncomfortable with anticipation. He does have a nice thick neck, though. I like a thick neck. Nice to hang onto.’
‘That neck is not supporting a large brain.’
‘Ha, brains.’ Mila gave me a sideways glance. ‘Brains do not matter so much as heart, Sam.’ She pounded her chest with her little fist.
‘Look. We get Anna Tremaine upstairs to finalize our purchase. After she talks, I load her up with an anesthetic and we leave her locked up in the apartment. We find where Daniel is and I go get him and you keep an eye on her.’
‘And then what?’
‘We give her to August Holdwine and Special Projects and she can tell all she knows about Novem Soles.’
‘I have missed the exciting announcement where you have rejoined the Central Idiot Agency,’ Mila said. ‘I thought you worked for me.’
‘And what does the Round Table do with her, Mila? You just told me I’d have to murder her. Am I supposed to think you won’t?’
‘The CIA won’t.’
‘Ah, yes. She will be their prisoner who goes on trial? No. They will make a deal with her. Protect her to talk. To tell what she knows. This is the way the world works. She sells your baby, she gets a plea bargain. A new life tucked away on the other side of the planet, in Sydney. I sometimes think half of Sydney must be people hiding from the rest of the world.’ She picked up my bottle of Pellegrino water, took a sip.
‘There’s a price on your head,’ I said.
She stopped mid-swig. She set down the bottle of mineral water. Her gaze met mine.
‘Is Mila short for a million? Because that’s the price tag. Huge for a hit on someone who says she’s a nobody.’
‘It’s gone up,’ she said. ‘The power of compound interest.’ Then she laughed. ‘Or compound hatred.’
‘Mila, who wants you dead?’
‘Don’t joke. Don’t joke at all about this.’
She took another long drink from the Pellegrino bottle. ‘It doesn’t matter, Sam.’
‘I believe it has the slightest of bearings on working with you.’
She rolled her eyes.
‘I want to know who wants you dead.’
‘What? So you can help me kill my tormentor? I’m not going to kill him.’
‘Someone beyond my reach,’ she said. ‘It’s an uncomfortable fact of life. Like the most beautiful shoes hurt your feet the most.’ She shrugged, as though my words, my concern, were nothing more than mist in the air.
‘If we’re working together, I deserve to know who’s hunting you.’
‘Just because there is a price on my head doesn’t mean there are takers.’
‘Have you killed everyone who’s come after you?’
‘You make me sound so bad.’
‘I know you perhaps were unfamiliar with capitalism growing up in Moldova’ – she answered my comment with a roll of her eyes – ‘but let me tell you, a million dollars on your head is going to lead to an endless supply of candidates stepping forward.’
‘They must find me. Then they must kill me.’ She shrugged. ‘It’s like the words at the end of a commercial for a contest: “Many will enter, few will win.” The many have failed. No winners so far.’
‘People have already been trying to kill you?’ I felt a creep of shock along my skin. I’d been worried about the CIA finding her. But they just wanted to talk to her. August didn’t want her dead.
She didn’t shrug again, because I think she read me and she knew pretend indifference would only make me mad. ‘Look. There is a man who is very angry at me. I humiliated him. It was worse than killing him.’
‘Not anyone who you should care to know, Sam.’
‘We get Daniel back first, then we will worry about my problems.’ She smiled. ‘I know how Daniel dominates your every thought. I am flattered you are concerned about me.’
I felt a sick mix of rage and annoyance and fear for her. Mila is not exactly my friend. She’s not exactly my boss. I don’t know what exactly she is but I could hardly let her be targeted and killed. If I wasn’t going to give her up to August I sure as hell wasn’t going to give her up to some hired killer.
‘And once you have Daniel, you will want a calmer, quieter life, Sam. This is only natural.’
‘There is no way that I am abandoning you.’
‘Life is a series of abandonings.’ She finished the Pellegrino. ‘Now. How did you know that my head had a price tag attached to it?’
‘August told me when I talked with him at The Last Minute.’
‘It’s flattering to be on his radar screen. I must have a file at the CIA now. How exciting. What percentage of the world has a file there? Minuscule. I feel special.’ She inspected her nails again. ‘Should I friend August on Facebook?’
‘He wants me to hand you over to them so you can tell them what you know about Novem Soles and who you work for. They are intensely interested in you.’
‘I am interested in August. In what he can find out. In how good he is. And in who will try and kill him when he finds out more about Novem Soles.’
‘You still think there are people working for Novem Soles inside the CIA.’
‘It’s a given.’ She watched the football player; he’d made friends with two blondes who looked like they’d missed the turn to the Playboy mansion. ‘If August is good at his job, likely he will die. If he is bad, he will retire and get a nice gold watch because he was never a threat to anyone.’
‘Do you know if there’s a mole?’
‘Of course not. And I am hurt you think I would keep such juicy gossip quiet. Plus, if I knew, I would sell his name to the CIA. I adore free markets.’
‘You told me when we met that you’d seen the tapes of when the Company interrogated me,’ I said. ‘You have your own mole inside.’
Again the sideways glance. ‘Well, I didn’t find the tapes on YouTube, Sam. If you must know I stole them off the server.’
‘You stole data off a CIA server.’ I didn’t want to know more.
‘I am making you nervous,’ Mila said. ‘I’ll go upstairs and wait for our friend to arrive. I’ll keep an eye on the cameras.’ I watched her go up the stairs at the back of the bar.
Anna Tremaine was coming.
The crowd had filled out, the bartenders moving in a constant blur of service. The music pulsed. I scanned the crowd, looking for anyone suspicious who might be here backing Anna. But maybe she didn’t need or want security. Maybe this would be easy. She didn’t know she was coming onto my turf. For me, the bar was both public and private. So many potential witnesses around would tie her hands but I could get her upstairs and then I’d have the truth.
But I felt haunted by the person who’d been watching me do the parkour run. Maybe the driver had just been curious. Maybe it was nothing more. Maybe I hadn’t made a mistake.
What would you do to get your son back?
It was the simplest question in the world, with the simplest answer. But if I made the wrong move, I could easily end up dead, or in prison, or with Daniel no safer than he was now.
Right now, somewhere, a husband and a wife were holding my child, calling him their own. Did they even know he was stolen? Did they care? Did they love him as much as I did, though I’d never even held him?
Here she came.
Anna Tremaine. I recognized her from the video in the French clinic. She was a tall woman, with wide shoulders and the bearing of an athlete. Graceful. Men noticed her as she walked through the crowd; you could see gazes flickering to her as she moved. She was dressed in black fitted jeans and a colorful shirt and an aquamarine and silver choker covered her ivory throat. She was coming, though not from the front door but from the back, where the restrooms were. Maybe she’d slipped in a back entrance. She looked about thirty, raven-dark hair, a hard, cold face that was beautiful in technical proportions, but not because of warmth or kindness.
I stayed perfectly still as she sat down across from me. I didn’t stand.
This was the woman who’d stolen my child. All I wanted to do was to fling the table aside and close my hands around that bejeweled throat and force her to tell me where Daniel was. That time would come. Now I had to prime the trap.
‘Yes, hello. Ms Tremaine?’
‘Your drink.’ I gestured at the martini she’d asked to have ready as a sign. It sat, a bit warm, three olives. She could choke on them as soon as I made her tell me where Daniel was.
‘That was only for an identifier. A bottle of Amstel Light, and please tell the waiter to open it at the table.’
Very cautious. She didn’t want to risk a drug being slipped into her drink. I waved over a waiter, repeated the order. I kept my voice steady. This was a business meeting and she was treating it like a potential trap. Which it was, of course.
‘Your wife isn’t here?’ Her voice was soft. I suppose you think a woman who steals and peddles babies would sound like the creaking crone from a fairy tale. She sounded educated. A French accent, but very slight, as though she spent most of her time conversing in English.
‘My wife is considerably nervous about this arrangement. She’s upstairs. She wants to continue to pursue conventional adoption but… ’ I shrugged. I felt sweat trickle down my spine, dampen my armpits. I didn’t get this nervous in a fight. Then my mind shut clear and I knew what I would have to do. This was worse than crossing a minefield. But she was here in my bar, my home ground, and she wasn’t leaving without telling me where my son was.
The waiter returned with her bottle of Amstel. He opened it for her at the table, she thanked him, he left, and then she took a long sip. ‘Your wife isn’t upstairs. Your wife, technically your ex-wife, is in a CIA-run hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, in a coma from which she is unlikely ever to recover. She’s your ex not because you are an asshole who divorced a critically ill wife but because she’s a traitor who saved your life and then tried to kill you when you came after her. She picked the wrong side and she paid the price.’
I kept my gaze locked on hers. Well. Anna Tremaine was no fool.
‘Your name isn’t Frank Derwatt, it’s Sam Capra.’ She took a dainty sip of beer. ‘You enjoy playing monkey in empty buildings when you’re not creating trouble for us.’
Fine. Who needs masks? ‘Where’s my son, Anna?’
‘See, I know more about you than you do about me. Anna’s not my real name.’
‘Where’s my son?’ I leaned forward. I could produce the Browning under my jacket in one second. I didn’t care if I set off a panic in The Canyon. She was going to tell me.
‘An hour ago, a friend of mine left a half-pound of C-4 explosive in the ladies’ room.’ Her smile went coy. She uttered her threat in the same tone as you might say I love what you’ve done with the place . ‘The trigger is under my control. You raise a hand against me and this bar burns, with everyone in it.’ She glanced at the partiers, the light pulsing in time to the music, laughing, drinking, oblivious. ‘I can’t say they’d be a real loss. These people are nothing, they serve no purpose.’
‘Unlike selling children.’ I battled the rage rising in my chest. The rage was like a strange heat. I had killed before, for the first time a few weeks earlier, and in normal circumstances it wasn’t ever anything you wanted to do again. But her. I could kill her.
She smiled, the cat’s smile at the mouse wriggling under its paw. ‘I sell happiness, Mr Capra. I give desperate parents exactly what they want.’
‘Where is my son?’
‘You keep asking like I’m actually going to tell you.’ She took another swig of her beer, scooted a bit closer in her chair like she had a cute story or a joke to tell me as we sat enjoying our evening in the primo bar. ‘I won’t tell you where your son is. I will tell you how you can get him back.’
‘I want you to kill a man for me.’ She enunciated each word carefully, as though I were impaired.
When I didn’t respond, she said, ‘It’s not like you haven’t killed before.’
‘Not in cold blood.’
‘Will it make it easier to swallow if I assure you he deserves it?’
‘My employer has a traitor. We want him dead.’ She smiled. ‘We have your son, so I think what we want is what you want.’
‘Kill him yourself.’
‘He’s not under our control at the moment. I think you are particularly placed to be able to find him and reach him. You kill him for us and we’ll give you back your son, alive and unharmed.’
‘And I should believe you why?’
‘Why? If we wanted you and your son dead, you would both be dead.’ She smiled, tasted her beer again. ‘Because you have no choice, Sam. That seems to me to be common sense. You must do as we say. We own you.’ She leaned back a little. ‘Your child is cute. He favors you in the eyes, he has his mother’s mouth.’
‘You sold him.’
‘So you were told. But we didn’t. We kept Daniel close, in case he was useful to us. I think it was a smart move.’
‘You want me to kill a man.’ My mind felt clouded. There must be something very special about this man. He must be hard to kill, or hard to reach, or hard to find.
‘And failure, as they say, is not an option. If you don’t kill him maybe we won’t kill Daniel – you will never know – but we won’t sell him to a sweet and kind family. There are all sorts of unappealing people… who will buy a baby.’
I wanted to fling the heavy table into her face. But I bottled the rage. Stuffed it down. Not the time. But I was going to make those words taste like ash in her mouth.
‘Uh, uh,’ Anna said. ‘Anger is destructive. Here is what happens now. Nod if you understand me – I’ve grown tired of your voice.’
Slowly I nodded.
‘Your target will be in New York tomorrow. You’ll have a partner in your hunt; a woman who’s a wizard at finding people who don’t want to be found, she’s gifted. And motivated, just like you.’ Anna gave a smug laugh, she sounded like a bird chirping. ‘So. Get to New York, find him and kill him.’
‘I need a guarantee that you will give me Daniel.’
She pulled a photo from her jacket and slid it across the table to me.
I knew it was Daniel. I knew it just like a soldier long separated from his child, by distance and normality, gets a picture and can see both himself and his wife in the baby’s face. He was wrapped in a blue blanket, green eyes looking up at the camera, not a smile on his face but he wasn’t crying, intrigued with the contraption above his head that was taking his picture. One arm reaching up, his mouth a toothless curl, cheeks full and fat. He looked good. He looked loved. Thin, blond hair crowned his head, like mine when I was a baby before it darkened, like his mother’s.
I gritted my teeth.
‘Now. When you’ve killed the target, and Daniel is returned to you, we are done. You don’t keep coming after us. You don’t help the CIA or the FBI or anyone else in pursuing us. You retire from the grand game. Go be a good daddy.’
‘I want the protocol for the exchange.’
‘When the target is dead, you will phone a number that I give you. When we have confirmed that you’ve completed your side of the bargain, then the child will be left, with a note with your contact information, at a church. A DNA test will confirm that the child is yours. Simple.’
‘No. You’re asking me to trust you far too much.’
‘You do not have a choice, Sam.’
‘If I can’t kill or find the target?’
She made a slow little wave with her hand. ‘Then I guess you’ll have that picture of him as your only memory. Would you like to keep it? Put it under your pillow?’
‘If you hurt or sell my son, I’ll kill you.’
‘Shut up. Do you really think you should threaten me right now? He could get by with nine toes as easily as ten.’
My mind went blank, in the way not of shock but of the way of calculation. I didn’t believe in a truce, not now. They were not going to threaten my child and go unpunished. But I didn’t let the decision show on my face.
‘So. Who is this target you want dead?’
She slid another photo from her jacket to me. ‘Him. His name is Jin Ming. At least that’s the name he used. I think it’s an assumed name.’
I studied the face. I recognized him, although I’d only seen him for a few moments. ‘I think you’ve made a serious mistake.’
THE RED NOTEBOOK
‘You want me to kill a dead man.’ I shook my head.
‘I hope you’re better at killing someone than finding a pulse. He’s not dead.’
I hadn’t had but a moment to look at him, he’d been sadly caught in the crossfire between Piet and his thugs and August’s CIA team and he looked dead enough to me. But I was running from the CIA then, and desperate to get Piet, the one surviving smuggler out of harm’s way, where I could put him to use – Piet had been my sole link to Edward, the kidnapper of my wife and my son. So I’d made a mistake. ‘Who exactly is this Jin Ming?’
‘A graduate student from Hong Kong attending the Delft University of Technology, focusing on computer sciences.’
‘And he’s a threat to you. He’s just a geek, a kid.’
‘His age is irrelevant. You’re going to find him and kill him before he surrenders to the CIA. You have two days.’
Jin Ming had walked in with August and the rest of the CIA team. If he wanted to turn against Novem Soles, would he turn to August? Perhaps this was why Anna was eager to use me. I could get close to August, and therefore close to Jin Ming.
‘Why hasn’t he surrendered to them already?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know. He set up a meeting with the CIA in two days. In New York. So get there and kill him.’
‘He has the goods on you. Poor, poor you.’
‘And we have the goods on you, Sam. Your child.’
I shut up.
‘Kill him before that meeting so it never happens and he never passes on whatever information he has. You do that, you get your son back. You don’t, your son is gone forever.’ She slid an iPhone to me. ‘This is yours. You do not tell anyone what you are doing. Anyone.’
Between her threat of a bomb in the club and my son, she had me pinned. I hate being pinned. Really, really hate it.
‘I’m going to leave now.’ She held up the remote control, another iPhone, with a call number selected. ‘You do not follow me. If you do, I call the cell phone attached to the C-4 and we have bits and pieces of drunken dancers landing in the parking lot. The signal has a five-mile range.’ She kept her thumb right above the number. One tap and we were all done.
‘Goodbye, Anna,’ I said. ‘I’ll see you very soon.’
‘No, you will never see me again. Do your job, earn your son, and then go on your way.’ She stood. ‘Don’t test that I’m bluffing.’ She moved toward the front door and a drunken guy bumped into her and for one moment I thought her thumb would hit the screen. She recovered and she pushed roughly by the drunk. I saw her go past the bouncer and out into the desert-cool night.
I ran toward the back of the club as Mila zoomed down the stairs. ‘Evacuate,’ I called to her. ‘Right now.’ Anna didn’t want me dead, but I couldn’t risk that there was a bomb here in a bar full of innocent people. Mila sprinted toward the DJ’s stand and before I reached the ladies’ room the lights were up and her voice boomed out over the loudspeakers, the music silenced.
‘People, hello, attention please. Please move to the exits in an orderly fashion. We need to clear the building immediately. There is no danger, no fire, but please move outside and across the street.’
I heard groans of dismay, but the staff moved quickly through the crowd, herding them.
I busted into the ladies’ room. Three women at the mirror, fixing make-up.
‘Hey, get the hell out of here!’ one turned and screamed at me, fueled by Cosmopolitans.
‘Evacuating the building, out now.’ There were six women total in the room and I hustled them out fast.
Where would she have put it?
The ladies’ room boasted a mirror edged with a fake lasso to continue the canyon theme. Stars to duplicate the night sky glittered on the tiled ceiling. I looked in each stall. Nothing. The air vents? It would have taken her minutes to unfasten the grates and put the bomb in; she would have been noticed, with a steady stream of customers.
I looked under the sink; nothing. Then I turned, my face level with the paper towel dispenser, and, beneath it, the metal disposal bin. You needed a key to open it, to access and pull out of the trash can. I peered down into the piles of dirty paper towels. Jammed my arm down as far as I could reach.
At the bottom I ran into a package. Rectangular. I felt a flick of wire along its edge.
Slowly, bracing myself against the wall, I pulled my arm up. The distant hum of people evacuating was growing quieter.
I pulled the package free from the pile.
C-4. It was wrapped in gift paper that read BABY’S FIRST BIRTHDAY . Four wires led off a cell phone, a cheap prepaid model, to curl into the packaging. I had no idea which wire to cut, no idea if the bomb was functioning.
I ran out the back door. Several patrons had gone out this way and I saw people getting into cars, leaving The Canyon now that the party had ended. I ran, holding the package, trying to find a deserted spot where I wouldn’t put anyone at risk. A small shopping center stood to my left and I arrowed behind it. Every store was in darkness.
Gingerly I unwrapped the package, careful not to disturb the wires. It was simple. Three of the wires were fakes, going nowhere taped under the paper, a blue one fed from deep in the explosive to the cell phone. I pulled out my pocket knife and I cut it.
I leaned against the building and then twenty seconds later the bomb’s phone rang.
When my heart settled back into my chest I answered. ‘You bitch.’
‘I don’t like being called names,’ Anna said. ‘You can tell how serious we are. You don’t deviate from the plan. You don’t cross us.’
‘You’re an idiot to give me a job and then risk blowing me up a minute later.’
‘There was no risk. You did exactly what we knew you would do. Just keep doing what we tell you.’ Anna hung up.
My hands wanted to shake and I wouldn’t let them, I fought the fear down. I walked back to the club.
Lots of the patrons had left but a good sized crowd remained in the parking lot, curious or optimistic. I took it as a compliment to The Canyon that they hung around. I was sure many had walked their tabs. It didn’t matter.
Mila met me at the front door. ‘Is everything okay?’
‘She knew who I was. The trap was on me, not Anna.’
‘Ah, Sam. I am sorry. What did she say?’
I took a deep breath. ‘Rough night. Let’s talk tomorrow. You have a place to stay?’
Her gaze burned like fire. ‘What are you not telling me, Samuil?’ Tension broke her voice; she only used the Slavic form of my name when she was upset.
‘There’s nothing you can do, Mila. Thank you for coming. This is my problem and mine alone now.’
‘If she knew who you are, then she had a reason to come meet you.’ Realization dawned in her eyes. ‘Daniel. She wants to make a deal for Daniel.’
‘This is now my problem,’ I said again. ‘Thank you for your concern.’
‘Do not do this alone. What is the ransom? God, let me help you.’
‘I can’t tell you. She’ll kill him.’ I kept my voice from breaking. Just barely.
‘Sam.’ So much in that one syllable. Pain for me, desperation to help, a simmering fury.
‘I play by their rules, and that means no you hanging around. Go, Mila. I’m sorry.’ The approaching whine of police sirens sliced through the night. Now, empty, the bar was quiet. The air weighed like steel between us. ‘I have to go. I have to be on a flight in two hours. If you want to help me, deal with the cops. Oh, and there’s a pound of C-4 explosive behind a Dumpster in the shopping center. Get rid of it. I’m not really inclined to leave it lying around.’
‘Sam.’ Her mouth worked. ‘What do they want you to do?’
‘It has nothing to do with you,’ I said, my voice rising. Her face was stone. This was the woman who had helped ensure the CIA didn’t find me while I hunted for my wife’s kidnappers, the one who had given me every support in my new life. She deserved better than my silence. ‘They want me to kill a man.’
‘Someone who is a threat to them.’
‘You commit one murder for them to save your son, they can ask for a thousand more. They can tell you a thousand lies, make a thousand promises, give you a thousand orders, and you will be their slave to save that child.’
I couldn’t breathe. ‘I don’t need you debating me. I do what I have to do.’
‘Then go. Go before the cops want to talk to you.’ Mila didn’t wait for me to answer. She bolted past me and out the door toward the arriving police cars.
I stood in the mess of knocked-over chairs, and half-full drinks, and the eerie serenity of a bar that has been emptied of people in a matter of minutes. The light machine kept playing and gleaming dots danced along my face, my skin.
Get to the airport. Get to New York. Find and kill this Jin Ming. Save my boy.
Leonie opened her eyes, then blinked. She’d fallen asleep at the desk and her cheek felt mashed and drool-stained. Charming, she thought, wiping at her face with her fingers. The computer kept playing music from Rent, turned low, set on repeat. She preferred songs with a story these days. She’d filled her iTunes library with musicals and movie soundtracks. She hit the space bar and the rising voices, imploring her to live for today, went silent. She blinked again in the sudden quiet, forcing herself to stay awake.
My God, what happened to me? Fourth or fifth time she’d fallen asleep while working this week. It was getting to be a bad habit. She’d had an early morning.
She glanced at the clock. She’d fallen asleep after putting the baby down. It was close to 10 p.m. Exhaustion had caught up with her. She was still in T-shirt and jeans and got up from the desk in the corner of her bedroom, shucked her clothes, put on thin cotton pajamas. She brushed her teeth, wiped the sleep from her eyes. Now she’d probably have trouble going back to sleep, and the baby would sleep straight through the night. Oh well, she could get some work done. Leonie had decided early on that they called it single motherhood because you had to make every single second work to your advantage.
‘Honey,’ her well-meaning octogenarian neighbor, Mrs Craft, would say, ‘why don’t you hire a nanny? I’m sure you can afford it.’ And Mrs Craft would look around at the granite countertops, the vaulted ceilings, the plush Persian rug over the immaculate hardwoods.
‘I don’t like having strangers in the house,’ Leonie said.
‘A nanny, once you get to know her, she’s no stranger.’
And Leonie had just shrugged instead of saying what was in her heart: I can’t take the security risk. I can’t have a nanny finding out what I do. The load of long, solitary working hours and taking care of Taylor was endurable. Taylor was worth every sleepless night.
Leonie brewed a pot of hazelnut decaf and switched to the Chicago soundtrack on her iPod, connected to a small set of speakers. The saucy strains filtered out quietly over the bedroom. She opened her laptop and checked her emails; she kept several anonymous accounts to stay in touch with clients.
Nothing from Gunnar. She heaved a sigh of relief. As clients went, Gunnar was being rather difficult. Kept changing his mind on what he wanted. First he wanted to relocate to New Orleans; no, he decided it was too close to Atlanta, he would see someone he knew, in the bars of the French Quarter. Too likely he’d be found. Then he wanted Canada. No, he realized actual winters, with actual snow, took place in Montreal. Now he wanted Panama but had started making noises about there being nothing to do in Panama, as though the entire country lacked nightclubs or movie theaters, beaches or bookstores. She couldn’t start creating his fake life without him choosing where to hide.
She wanted to say: when you leave your old life behind, you leave it behind, and not soon enough for me, and you have to decide. But you had to avoid getting too snotty with Gunnar, or any desperate client. She knew that too well. Handle him with care, get him set up where he could never bother her, and his life would start again. Panama. She would tell him that was the solution to keep him safe. She was the expert, after all; he would simply have to listen to her. He couldn’t continue to waffle.
Once a person had made the conscious decision to vanish, and contacted her for help, then indecision was a nightmare. It made exposure much more likely. A slip of the tongue, time spent on a traceable computer researching locales and such: any of those mistakes could return to haunt you. If you had ever looked in your browser at Seattle or Vancouver or Paris, then you needed to cut them from your vanish list. Fine. Decision made. She would create him bank accounts in Panama, find him a suitable house in Managua, in a good neighborhood where he would not attract interest. Get him a private Spanish tutor, one who could be trusted. Make him a New Zealander. She could get the right kind of paper for that passport, and the watermarks, within two days. She would rely on her network to cobble together a new name, and a new world for him. Best to get started now.
She got her coffee, ignored the thirst for a cigarette (six months now no smoking), and then she heard the traffic noise outside, a car rushing past, a rise of night breeze. And then a flap of curtain.
The sound seemed much louder than it should. She paused Chicago ’s singing murderers in the middle of the cell block tango. Listened again. She heard a hard gust of wind.
There was a window open somewhere.
A cold itch wriggled between her shoulder blades. She got up from the computer and went down the hall. She stopped at the nursery door, eased it open. The door faced the window, which looked out onto the backyard. The window stood open, the Pooh Bear drapes dancing in the gust.
Her heart shuddered to stone.
She hurried forward in the dark. The moonlight gleam showed her the crib was empty. Her baby was gone. She screamed, short and sharp, picking up the wadded-up yellow blanket as if Taylor might have shrunken and fallen into its maze of folds. Her scream turned molten in her throat.
She stumbled through the house. Be here, be here, be here, she said to herself.
But the rest of the house was empty, and the fear and the shock juddered through her like a hammer hitting bone.
The phone. Stunned, she stumbled to it. Picked it up. Pressed the 9, then the 1. Then she stopped.
What was she going to tell them? My child is gone. Questions would be asked. Who are you, ma’am? Who is the father? How long have you lived here, who might take your baby from you? What if their questions pierced the truth, that she lived here under a false name, that she wasn’t who she said she was.
She hung up the phone. She had to think before she called the police. She had been so careful. She had hidden so well. No one knew where to find her. Except…
The phone rang in her hand and she nearly dropped it as though the sound could turn to heat, scald her skin. She stared at the screen. The number, blocked.
‘Hello, Leonie. How are you?’ A woman’s voice, gentle, and known to her. Anna Tremaine.
‘Where? Where?’ she sobbed into the phone.
‘Oh, are you missing someone? Young mothers can be so forgetful.’
‘Where is my baby?’ she screamed. Now the fear was gone. Snap, vanish. Just a fury in its place.
Anna’s voice was calm. ‘Let me assure you your child is safe.’
A ragged moan escaped Leonie’s throat.
‘Are you listening, Leonie?’ Anna said. ‘It will be tiresome if I have to repeat myself.’
‘Why have you done this? Why?’
‘Because, Leonie, you are going to do something very important for me, and you’re going to do it right away, no argument.’
Leonie forced herself toward calm. ‘What do you want?’
‘You’re so good at hiding people for us, darling, but can you do it in reverse? Can you find someone who’s hiding?’
‘Yes,’ Leonie said. It was inconceivable to give any other answer. She’d do anything for Taylor.
‘All right. If you have another client right now, get rid of him.’
She thought of Gunnar. He needed to be hidden. Okay, whatever, he couldn’t decide what he was doing or where he wanted to go, screw him for eternity. He would have to wait. ‘Okay. Please don’t hurt Taylor. Please. Please.’
‘Get a hold of yourself. I need you to be calm.’
‘You could have just asked! You could have just asked me for help! You know I would, I already… ’
The woman’s voice was a slow purr. ‘I needed an assurance you would act.’
‘I’ll do whatever you want.’
‘You’re going to work with a gentleman. He, like you, is very motivated to do a good job for us.’
‘I don’t work with other people.’
‘You will now, Leonie. Unless you’re willing to pull the trigger on a gun yourself and kill a man in cold blood. Your job is easy. All you have to do is find a target. This man will then kill the target. And then you get Taylor back. Easy.’
Panic churned her guts. She sank down onto the couch. Okay, she thought, this is the reality of the moment. Deep breath and deal. ‘Um, who is this man I’m supposed to find and who is it I’m working with?’
‘I love the smell of cooperation in the morning,’ Anna Tremaine said. ‘You’re very good at making last-minute travel arrangements, darling. I’ll let you meet him at the airport. His name is Sam Capra. He can tell you the details.’
‘Anna, is Taylor all right?’
‘Perfectly fine. Asleep on a blanket.’
Leonie felt fear like ice pierce her skin. She forced herself to listen intently. Anna, or one of her people, must have taken the baby in the past couple of hours, while she was absorbed in her work, or dozing at her desk. Which meant that Anna might still be in Las Vegas, or was in a car. She tried to hear the hiss of tire against road on Anna’s side of the phone. She heard nothing. If Anna was pulled over, then there might be traffic as the background noise. A clue that would tell her where Anna was. The rumble of an eighteen-wheeler, a whine of engine passing Anna’s car. She heard nothing. She cursed herself for not listening sooner. But shock had frozen her. She tried to manipulate her memory: force herself into replaying every word of the conversation again. Every nuance. Because if she did what was asked, and her child wasn’t return ed, the person she would be finding and killing was Anna Tremaine.
‘You know not a hair on the head will be hurt,’ Anna said in a babyish sing-song. ‘Haven’t I always been nice to you? Check the email address we used in the past. Details will be there, and final instructions. Pack a bag for a few days. Be at your smartest. Be brave. Do a good job, Leonie. For your child’s sake.’ Then the phone went dead in her hand.
Final instructions? Leonie got up and ran toward the laptop.
I hurried toward the ticket counter at McCarran when a woman stopped me. She was slightly built, auburn-haired, with a full mouth and purple-smudged eyes. She wore jeans and a green blouse and carried a small briefcase and a travel bag. She was pretty but she looked like she’d had a night as rough as mine.
‘Sam Capra?’ Her voice shook slightly.
‘I have your ticket. For the flight to New York. I just bought it for you.’
‘Okay,’ I said. This was the woman who would find Jin Ming. My motivated partner, as Anna had said.
She gave me the ticket. Her hand trembled. Then she looked at me, studied me as if my face were an interesting map, then she turned away from me and went and sat down. The security lines were long but moving.
I followed her. We were being forced together and I did not want anyone else knowing my business; especially when my business involved killing a man. ‘Who are you?’
‘Leonie. I’m supposed to come with you.’ She wiped her nose with a tissue.
‘To help you find the target.’
‘I don’t need help.’
‘Well, I’m helping you because they have my kid. So you don’t get a vote.’ She said this staring straight ahead, not looking at me.
I sat down next to her. ‘Anna took your child?’
‘Yes. My daughter, Taylor.’ Leonie didn’t look at me. ‘We should go through security, we don’t want to be late for the flight.’
‘You could go to the police.’
‘Not an option.’ She looked past me, at the crowds. People seemed oddly happy and energetic in the Las Vegas airport. Happy to leave because they’d had a great time, or happy that they’d just arrived, flush with money and with promise and ready to spin the wheel.
‘Our lives are not each other’s business.’
‘I’m supposed to go on a job with you. I want to know what the hell I’m signing up for.’
‘You’re signing up to do what Anna tells you. She has your kid, too, right?’
I said nothing.
‘I’m sorry. I’m supposed to help you find this guy Jin Ming. We needn’t talk unless we’re discussing him.’ One stray tear of upset tracked her cheek and she wiped it away with quick resolve.
‘How are you going to find him?’
‘There is no place on earth he can hide from me.’ She stood. ‘We should probably go through security. I could use a drink. I really hate flying.’
We had thirty minutes before they would be calling our flight. I followed Leonie to a private lounge where we were admitted by our first class tickets. Inside was a scattering of business types and lushed-up couples, a few keeping the Vegas party going. One guy, lubricated with gin and tonic, complained with his mega-phone voice about having lost ten thousand dollars. I would have traded problems with him.
We sat down in a far corner. A sleek hostess – truly sleek, her hair was gelled back in a severe cut, her dress was silver, she looked like her day job was testing wind tunnels – brought Leonie a large glass of pinot noir and me a whisky, neat.
‘When did your kid vanish?’ I asked.
She took a fortifying sip of the wine. ‘Earlier tonight. Anna, or her people, took her from her crib while I was working in my bedroom. I fell asleep at my computer. I never even heard them in my house.’ The moment her voice started to quake she caught herself.
‘Listen to me.’
She looked at me.
‘Unlike most parents of missing kids, we know exactly what we have to do to get our kids back and we know who has them. We can’t waste mental energy on blame. We have a job to do. Our kids need us.’
She nodded; took another sip of the wine. ‘Wow, do you double as a life coach on weekends?’
‘No. Where’s your husband?’
‘I’m a single mother.’ She watched, past my shoulder, the drunk complainer order another round. ‘Where’s your wife?’
‘Ex. In a coma.’
‘Yes. One of Anna’s buddies shot her in the head a few weeks ago.’
She let five seconds pass. ‘That sucks.’
Really, what else do you say? Then she said: ‘I mean, I’m really sorry. I’m not quite myself this evening.’
Of course she wasn’t – she had to be in deep shock. ‘What’s your connection to Anna?’
‘None of your business. I don’t know you, Sam. All I want is my child back. That’s all.’ She rubbed at her jawline, glanced at the clock. She did not want to seem to look at me. Her daughter had been kidnapped only hours earlier. Her self-control was extraordinary. I reached out and touched her hand with my fingertips. Just a reflex. She flinched.
‘We’re on the same side. I’m in your shoes. They have my son, too.’
‘So Anna told me.’ She studied her wine. ‘Do we have to talk beyond finding Jin Ming? Seriously?’
It occurred to me that maybe she was a plant; someone Anna sent along to make sure I killed Jin Ming and didn’t try to use him back as leverage against Novem Soles. I didn’t know if she really had a kid or really had suffered a kidnapping tonight. She could simply be a convincing actress. She could be lying through her teeth. But I couldn’t get anywhere with her if she knew I harbored suspicions. She was supposed to be a panicked mom, I was a desperate father. Let us, I thought, play true to our parts.
‘Yes, we do have to talk. I know you are upset. I know what you’re feeling because I’m feeling it, too. If we can’t trust each other, we won’t get far in finding Jin Ming.’
She gave me a doubting look. ‘I tell you where he will be. You kill him. That’s all we have to discuss.’ She took another hit of the pinot.
‘Listen. This is the single worst day of my life. You are a dude who kills people. So I don’t want to know you. I don’t want to be your friend or join your support group for parents of kidnapped kids. I just want my Taylor home.’ She picked up the wine glass. She stared past my shoulder toward the loud group in the back corner. ‘If those assholes are on our flight, I may end up punching someone.’
A dude who kills people. That was so not what I was. But now wasn’t the time to reassure her I wasn’t some slavering ax-wielder. Winning her trust would be a slow process. ‘This target. What can you tell me about him? What does he know about Novem Soles?’
‘I don’t know.’ She didn’t flinch at the name of the group; she’d heard it before.
‘You must. That knowledge would be key to tracking him, predicting where he will run, who he will ask for help.’
‘All you need to do is kill him.’ She set the wine glass down hard. ‘You’re the bullet, I’m the brains. I just tell you where to shoot. The bullet doesn’t need any details except a location.’
Well. ‘Did Anna threaten your daughter if you tell me something you’re not supposed to?’
‘I would say kidnapping in itself would be threat enough. I… know Anna. Children are simply a commodity to her. Products that other people make for her and from which she profits. She’ll kill or sell our kids and we’ll never find them if we give her anything other than complete obedience.’
Was she trying to provoke me? See how I’d react? I studied her again. Fierce intelligence in the eyes. I leaned forward.
‘Has it occurred to you that neither of us is getting our kid back? We have zero guarantees she’ll honor her side of the bargain. We need to find a way to protect ourselves, to make sure she hands the kids back. We could trade her Ming, alive, for the kids.’
‘You listen to me.’ Leonie pointed a finger at my face. ‘You hear every word I’m saying. Don’t you dare think of going against Anna. If we deviate from the plan, Anna will kill the children.’ She lowered her voice to the barest whisper. ‘We are doing exactly what she tells us to do. If you try to fight back… well, you won’t.’
‘You’ll kill me?’
‘I’ll do anything for my child. Anything.’ Stare down between us.
‘We are on the same side,’ I repeated.
‘This is crazy. Please, Sam. Let’s just try to get along out of necessity.’
I’d mishandled this. But where was the primer for this situation? I got up and fixed us two sleek plates of appetizers, laid on the sleek buffet by the sleek hostesses. Leonie watched me. I brought back her food, set the silvery plate in front of her.
‘Thank you.’ She nibbled at a meatball, then at a carrot stick, out of politeness.
‘You hold yourself together remarkably well for someone whose child was just taken,’ I said. ‘I have the advantage. My child was taken weeks ago. I have had time to… adjust.’
‘That’s a white lie,’ she said. ‘I don’t think you’re adjusted at all. It’s all stifled just inside.’
I ate a slider, sipped at the whisky.
She looked at me. ‘Inside I’m a wreck.’
‘When my kid and my wife were taken – I couldn’t eat or sleep for days.’ I was also framed as a traitor, undergoing interrogation in a CIA-run prison in Poland, but that was an avalanche of detail right now for Leonie.
‘Your wife was taken. I thought you said… ’
‘Anna’s people grabbed my wife when she was seven months pregnant. I’ve never seen my son face to face.’
She just stared at me for a long moment. ‘How awful. I am sorry.’
‘Let me guess why you can’t go to the police. Anna provided you with your baby girl.’
She ate some more of the carrot. She did not seem the type for an impulsive admission. ‘Why would you say that?’
‘You said you work on hiding people which suggests to me you are breaking a few laws, committing forgery for new papers, maybe credit fraud. You know her. She got you your kid. What Anna giveth, Anna taketh away.’
She was good at concealing her emotions – after all, me dissing her was nothing compared to the agonies she must be feeling for her kid – and the only sign of betrayal on her face was the momentary quiver of her lip. ‘No. Taylor is mine. But I’ve done work for Anna. Sometimes the children she places with parents’ – note she didn’t say the unthinkable word of sells – ‘need birth certificates. I forge them for her. And I’ve helped hide people she sent to me.’
‘Did you do a birth certificate for Julien Daniel Besson?’ My breath couldn’t move in my lungs. I leaned in close and she leaned back. I grabbed her hands again. ‘That was the name my son was given at birth. He was born in France. Julien Daniel Besson.’
‘I didn’t. But if Anna’s using your child as leverage against you then she hasn’t placed him. She’ll only place him now if she doesn’t need him any more.’
Her words were a knife across my throat. She saw it.
‘I’m sorry, Sam. I really am.’
‘You help her, forging certificates.’
I thought I could hear the soft burr of her grinding her teeth. ‘It’s not a choice.’
I stared at her. ‘They have more dirt on you.’ I didn’t know yet if I could trust her. Cornering her about her secrets wasn’t going to win her over to my side.
‘I am not up for Twenty Questions.’ She stood. ‘Don’t talk about defying Anna. We do what she says, and nothing else. I’m not putting Taylor’s life at risk. And you shouldn’t be endangering your own child’s life, either.’ She spat the last word like I was the scum of parenting.
There was no point in saying, you’re wanting us to entrust babies to killers and murderers. ‘Okay, Leonie. Okay. Calm down.’
‘I don’t need to know you, you don’t need to know me.’ She downed the pinot noir in two hard gulps, picked up her bag. ‘Let’s go get on our plane.’
Flight 903, Las Vegas to New York
We sat together in first class. Most of the cabin, weary from partying in the desert and not looking forward to a work day tomorrow in New York, slept. I watched an old movie, Aliens, on my personal viewer in the chair back and thought, now there’s a movie about how you save a kid. I had seen the film a dozen times before and I could watch it without thinking, without having to follow the story. Leonie’s eyes were closed. She had spoken so few words to me on the flight I felt sure no one believed we were traveling together. I got up to splash cold water on my face in the lavatory. Most of the other passengers were locked in their own digital cocoons, watching movies on their personal movie screens or hooked into their iPods or iPads. Technology has made it easy for us to be totally alone in a crowded room. I envied those who slept. I needed sleep, badly, but I couldn’t settle my mind. I’ve never been good at sleeping on planes.
I sat back down and Leonie opened her eyes. She stared at me, blinking, as though unsure where she was wakening. I was surprised she’d managed to doze off. The adrenaline shock from her daughter’s kidnapping was fading, the inevitable exhaustion settling into her. She looked guilty at having done anything as weak and self-indulgent as sleep, when I knew it was the body’s natural response to cope with crippling stress.
‘You okay? You want something to drink?’ It’s the bar owner in me. I always want to offer a drink. The flight attendants should just let me man the beverage cart. They could go watch the movie.
She shook her head. The silence hung, like smoke ruining the air.
I started to put my earphones into place. No point in talking with her.
She put a hand on my arm. ‘Your son, he was given that name. If you got to name him, what would it be?’
‘Daniel. My ex did get to name him. For my late brother.’
Her mouth pursed, like she was tasting the name. ‘When did Daniel
‘Right after he was born. I’ve only seen a picture that Anna gave me.’
‘And you’re sure she gave you a photo of your kid.’
‘Show him to me.’
I showed her the picture of Daniel that Anna had given me. She studied it, then looked at my face. ‘He’s a handsome boy.’
‘He’s never been held by either of his parents,’ I said. ‘But there he’s smiling. How does that affect a kid – to not have been held except by people who want to use you?’ The words spilled, unexpected. I didn’t talk about Daniel. Who was I going to talk about him with? My crazy Moldovan boss with the million-dollar price on her head? My old friends in the CIA who weren’t my friends any more? My customers at the bar? No. Every flick of pain I felt about Daniel coalesced in my chest. I shut my mouth. I didn’t want to talk about him.
‘When you get him back, then don’t ever let him go.’ She handed me the photo. ‘How did you and your wife ever cross Anna’s path?’
‘My wife got bought by Novem Soles. She was a CIA officer. She was a traitor.’ It was a strange thing to say in the hush of a first class cabin. I glanced up from the photo. The flight attendants congregated in the galley ahead of us, people either slept or sat earplugged into oblivion. Yes, let me talk about my wife. The love of my life, the woman I gave my life to, the woman who betrayed both me and country and then tried to save me. Let me talk about the most incomprehensible person I ever knew and how machines keep her breathing and digesting and living like a ghost bound in flesh.
‘I’m sorry, that sucks.’ I was figuring Leonie was a master of understatement now.
Leonie pulled a photo from her purse. It was worn, dog-eared from too much handling, as though it had lived a hard life inside her wallet. ‘This is Taylor.’ She was a bigger baby than Daniel, a few months older, rounder-cheeked, with darker hair and soft, sweet, brown eyes.
‘She’s a cute girl.’
‘So never a husband?’
‘We’re not involved any more. I prefer to deal only with actual human beings these days.’
‘Not an amicable parting.’
She took Taylor’s photo from me and carefully fitted it into a back slot in her wallet, away from the credit cards. I could see a smear of ink drawn on the back as she worked the photo into the slot. She dumped the wallet in her purse. ‘No.’
‘How will you explain to him that Taylor’s gone?’
‘He is utterly indifferent to her. He couldn’t care less. He’s seen her once and made it clear he didn’t care to see her again.’
‘How old is Taylor now?’
‘Almost a year.’ She took a heavy, restoring breath. ‘So, Taylor is my life, Sam. Everything.’
‘We’ll get her back. We’ll get them both back.’
‘Anna must get both kids to New York.’ Her voice was just a whisper. ‘If she sticks by the agreement. I’m wondering how she’s doing that so quickly with mine.’
‘Because they’re lying to us,’ I said quietly.
Her gaze snapped to mine.
‘They might give us our kids back, but they’re not going to want us anywhere close by after we… deal with the target,’ I said. ‘This phone call, this church pickup – it has to be a lie, Leonie. They don’t want us getting caught. You don’t linger in the area after a job. You create distance.’
She was silent. She tensed when I said the word ‘job’, as though the drowsing businesspeople and hung-over Vegas escapees around us would translate ‘job’ into ‘hit’.
‘You’re not used to violence,’ I said.
She didn’t look at me. ‘No.’ She rubbed at her face. She leaned close to me. I could smell breath mints on her mouth. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but you don’t look like much of a killer.’
I had killed. Never before my wife had been taken. But I had killed, multiple times, to save myself or save others since my life had been derailed by Novem Soles. I would like to say it weighed on me heavily, this human cost, but that would be a lie. They’d taken my wife, my child. They’d gotten in the way of me getting them back. They’d tried to kill me. Why should I feel guilty? The deaths were nothing I savored, and I never wanted to kill again. I dreamed about it sometimes, and I didn’t want to think that the experiences were rewiring my brain, like a soldier who sees the worst horrors in battle.
But this kid, this Jin Ming. He’d been grabbed by the CIA, clearly, in Amsterdam, forced to give them access to the machinists’ shop where the gunfight erupted. And now he was turning against Novem Soles. I ought to be applauding him, protecting him, picking his brain. Putting him into my own witness protection plan so he could tell me what lovely, dirty secrets he knew and then I could start slicing the core out of the so-called Nine Suns.
He and I could have talks. The Best. Talks. Ever.
Instead, I was going to kill him. I closed my eyes. He was, what, twenty-two, twenty-three? At the beginning of his years. The thought that someone barely out of his teens could be a mortal threat to an international criminal syndicate (that was my theory as to what Novem Soles was, fancy-ass Latin name aside – maybe one of them had read a branding book and wanted to sound more gothic, ancient or mysterious) interested me.
I didn’t need to think about him. Just kill him. Be a weapon. I could do that and I’d worry about the mental cost later. Or, maybe, not worry about it at all. But if I did that, what sort of father would I be for my son?
‘I’m not much of a killer,’ I said to Leonie. ‘But I will be.’
Flight 902, Las Vegas to New York
In first class we got a decent dinner: shrimp salad and steak medallions, a potato galette and a wannabe creme brulee.
‘So. It’s up to you to find our guy. Where do you start, beyond knowing he’s in New York City?’
‘If you don’t mind, I’ll keep some secrets to myself.’
‘I think we need to discuss our options if they betray us.’
‘If I lose Taylor, it’s over for me anyway. I’m not continuing to breathe, Sam. I’m not existing then.’
There was nothing more to say; the flight attendant stopped and asked us if we wanted coffee. We both declined. Leonie announced she would sleep the rest of the flight. I closed my eyes and thought about a plan of action.
One thing I did do: I surreptitiously snapped a picture of Leonie while she dozed. I thought, for some reason, that it might be valuable to have a photo of her. She was a woman with a lot of secrets, and I might need to know more about who she was.
We landed at LaGuardia late, delayed by dodging a goliath of an early summer storm raging over Kentucky and Ohio. We rented a car – no way I was trusting cabs and the subway during a man-hunt – and drove to a midtown Manhattan hotel, the Claiborne, where Leonie had already booked us rooms across the hall from each other. The rest of the hotel seemed ready to rouse, the city stirring awake, but I was already dead on my feet. My energy was gone because we had no clue where Jin Ming was.
‘Go sleep,’ Leonie said at our doors.
‘I can’t have you hovering over me.’
‘How are you going to find him?’
She patted the laptop, raised the cell phone. ‘It’s what I do, bullet.’ She tried a smile but it was an awful, desperate thing and she knew it. ‘Sorry. Just trying to stay sane.’
‘Jin Ming vanished from Holland, no trace.’
‘There is always a trace,’ she said. ‘Always.’
New York City
Jack had a window seat on the flight from Brussels; no way he was going to fly from Amsterdam – Novem Soles would be watching, he thought, the train stations and the airports. Ricki drove him to Brussels and left him at the airport. He went into a bathroom stall and shut the door. Then he oiled and combed down his hair to look like his new passport picture. He stuck a thin, bulbous piece of plastic in each cheek, to subtly change the shape of his face. He put in the false teeth; they slid over his own teeth. This meant he could not eat during the flight but he didn’t care. He put on a pair of slightly tinted glasses. They were not to change his eye color but Ricki said that every bit that made him look less like himself, or hid him, helped. She’d almost cried as she slipped the glasses on his face.
He exited the stall and gave himself a short, quick glance in the mirror. He couldn’t stand and preen or adjust the implants. He still looked like Jack Ming but not exactly, and with any of the biometric scans at customs in the United States, if he was on a watch list, perhaps this would give him a cushion. He wore a white shirt and jeans and sneakers and looked anonymous.
He had no trouble in the Brussels airport. He tried not to watch everyone, for fear of looking paranoid, but he kept scanning faces, looking for another face looking back at him. He took his seat. An older lady sat next to him, immediately produced a thick novel with a swordsman and a dragon on the cover and opened it at the first page, almost defying him to try and make conversation with her. He sighed in relief. He cocooned himself with his iPod and wrapped himself in Beatles music. He closed his eyes then woke up with a start, one of the cheek implants almost half out of his mouth. I could have swallowed this. Not awesome if he choked on his own disguise in the middle of a transatlantic flight. He tongued the implant back into place and glanced at his traveling companion. She was lost in her own world, paying him no heed.
New York, shrouded in cloud, opened up beneath him and he stared down. Home. Never thought he’d see it again. Never thought he’d come back. But what choice did he have?
He walked through customs, the new burgundy passport identifying him as Philippe Lin, a Belgian national, remembered to breathe while the customs agent inspected it, scanned it, asked him his business in the country. He was here to visit family. She asked for the address where he would be staying; he gave her one provided by Ricki’s friend. She asked if he was traveling anywhere else other than New York. He said he was only visiting New York because no other city could compare. She looked hard at him, as though his affable tone were an affront to the seriousness of the moment. He thought: what the hell are you doing, trying to make a joke? His stomach twisted, dropped. She was a big-built, older lady who did not seem at all bored by her work. She glanced at her computer screen, glanced at him. He willed himself toward calm.
In Amsterdam, Ricki sat with her hands on the keyboard. She had pierced the main database for Belgian passport information, kept in the Federal Public Service Foreign Affairs department in Brussels. The database was accessed if there was a question about any Belgian passport from a friendly nation. The imprinted number could be scanned via a watermark or entered into the host country’s passport inquiry database. The confirmation was sent, a returning ping of approval coming back to the country’s host system.
She had made a few phone calls past midnight, and found a hacker in Antwerp who was willing to help her.
‘All I need,’ she said, ‘is for you to trick the system into approving every Belgian passport in a time window.’
‘I can do thirty minutes. I don’t want to leave an open feed into the system longer than that, and I don’t want to leave code behind,’ the hacker said.
‘Thirty minutes.’ And if it took Jin Ming longer than thirty minutes to get through customs…
‘Now,’ she said into the phone.
The hacker pressed the button.
According to the airline’s website, the flight from Brussels had landed. Don’t be in the back of the line, she thought.
Ricki heard a knock on her door. She stood up. Then she leaned down, typed a code into the program. The system logged out, encrypting itself to await further instructions.
Ricki put her eye up to the keyhole to see who was there, and the door smashed inward.
The customs agent glanced back toward her terminal screen.
Oh dear God, Jack thought. I’m sunk. The irony that he was an American trying to get into America under a false name and flag hit him hard. My face. How much is my face like what might be in their database? What if Ricki’s scheme hadn’t worked? And if he was arrested, what deal could he cut? I’m here to give the CIA proof that they need to bust a crime ring. Yes, you’re welcome, let me go now.
Then the customs agent stamped the passport, slid it back to him. ‘Thank you, Mr Lin, enjoy your visit in the United States.’
He nodded and he walked on, the agent’s eyes already turning toward the next arrival in line.
He kept the implants in place. The customs agents searched his bag and waved him through. He kept his head down as much as he could, navigating through the rest of the terminal, sure that he was being photographed on security cameras, just as everyone else had been. Novem Soles had already shown that they could pluck data from police and government, and he knew from the printouts in the notebook that they owned people inside several governments; maybe they were looking for him even here. He took the AirTrain to the Howard Street station and boarded the subway to take him into Manhattan. No one glanced at him, no one paid him any attention. As the subway chugged toward Manhattan, he ducked his head down and spat the teeth and the implants into his palm. Then he slid them into his bag.
He needed to be Jack Ming again, just for ten minutes. Just long enough to say goodbye.
Thank you, Ricki, he thought. You got me here, you’re the best.
‘You know, a friend is a good thing to have.’ The Watcher sat down across from Ricki; she perched on the edge of the couch, shivering. He had forced his way in, the gun steady on her.
‘You don’t need to be afraid.’ He smiled. ‘All I want is information and then I’ll leave.’ And to prove it he put the gun down. ‘We have a mutual friend. Pierre in Brussels, who just rushed creating documentation for a friend of yours. A Chinese boy.’
She said nothing.
‘Pierre found out that we were looking for your friend after he overnighted you the false IDs.’
‘Pierre doesn’t work for you.’
‘He doesn’t have to work for me. He’s just afraid of me.’ As soon as the Watcher had received the tip that someone using an Amsterdam exchange dial-up had contacted the CIA with crucial information on Novem Soles, he had known it must be the Chinese boy, the one their hireling had failed to kill. He was the only remaining loose end from the spring offensive. And now he was a real danger.
‘I don’t know anything about Ming’s business.’
The Watcher smiled at her. She was lovely. He’d spent a lot of time in Nigeria, in Italy, where many of the women in his former line of work were African. He had not taken one in a long time. So much for past pleasures.
He studied her wall of bootlegging machines. ‘You knew my friend Nic, too?’
‘Of course. You worked in film… and he worked in film. I guess content is really what computers are all about now. Remember when they used to be about solving problems? Thinking more creatively?’
Ricki stared at him.
The Watcher put on his warmest smile. It was a very cold flexing of the mouth but he was unaware of this; he thought it looked like a real smile. He smoothed a hand along his thin mohawk. ‘So you steal and copy movies and he made nasty ones.’
‘I didn’t know about that. I just knew him because he sold me software to crack the copyright codes.’
‘Nic was generous. And now you are generous to his friend Ming.’
Ricki ran her palms along her jeans. ‘Ming wanted to get out of the country. All I did was give him some names of people who could help him.’ She raised her gaze to his, her eyes defiant.
Oh, a bit of spark. He used to know how to stomp out that flicker of individual flame. ‘I want to know where Jin Ming is, and what evidence he has about the people Nic worked with.’
‘I don’t know the answer to either of those questions.’
‘He is eventually going to New York. I have someone trying to crack the flight reservations database to find out if he’s flying from here or another city. But I’m guessing you can just tell me and save me the money and effort.’ His steely gray eyes looked at her, then at the gun, then at her again.
She didn’t speak.
‘It’s really best that you help me.’ He stood up. ‘How much is this equipment worth to you?’ He pulled a weight from his pocket. A magnet, a large one, the kind you’d find in a factory. Pierre in Brussels had told him what kind of work Ricki did and so he’d decided to take it away from her. He began to run the magnet along the shelf.
‘Stop it, you’ll ruin them!’ She stood up, horror on her face.
‘Yes. I’ll erase’ – and he laughed at the idea of it – ‘about forty thousand euros’ worth of business in about five minutes if you don’t answer my question.’
He thought he saw one more flash of anger in her dark eyes. Then she gave in. ‘He flew to Dublin,’ she said quietly. ‘Then a direct flight to Boston. Then a train to New York. He was trying not to be obvious.’
‘Thank you. He is meeting the CIA there.’
‘I don’t know. He didn’t tell me.’
He believed her.
‘He has some evidence against me. What is it?’
Now her fear – and he knew it was there, under the surface of her false confidence – showed itself. ‘I really don’t know. He didn’t show me any evidence. He wouldn’t tell me, and I didn’t ask. Better I don’t know.’
‘Better, of course. Did he have a computer?’
‘Not when he got here. I gave him a spare laptop.’
‘What about a disc? Or a flash drive?’
‘I didn’t see one, but he could have hidden it.’
‘How can I reach him on the phone?’
‘He didn’t take a phone with him. I don’t have a way to call him. He didn’t want to implicate me if he got caught.’
Once again he believed her. ‘He has evidence I want. You know it.’ He slid the barrel of his gun along her jaw. ‘You have such a good bone structure, Frederique.’
She paused. ‘He… He… ’
She trembled. ‘He left today. Before he left, he got dressed… and when he was putting on his shirt I saw he had an envelope taped to his back. He lied and said it was a bandage but I could see it wasn’t.’
She made a rectangle with her hands. Maybe a bit smaller than a sheet of paper.
‘What was inside the envelope?’
She bit her lip. It made her look gentle, pretty. Oh, he thought. The hunger, it never went away. Ever.
‘Ricki. I’ll make sure your business is safe if you tell me. I’ll give you the equipment to grow it, young lady. Or I’ll destroy it. Your choice.’ He could tell by her hesitation that she knew. She knew. Maybe she’d looked at it when Jin Ming was in the shower, or while he slept.
‘It was a notebook,’ she said. ‘Like a journal. A red moleskin cover.’
‘And what was in this notebook?’
‘Photos. Emails. Screen captures. Spreadsheets. Printed out and pasted in. But I didn’t understand any of it, I didn’t. He said it was stuff Nic had stolen from people you were blackmailing.’
The Watcher’s mouth twitched. ‘Did he digitize the notebook?’
‘Not here. It would have taken a while.’
Her equipment would have to be taken or kept, analysed, checked to see what actions had been performed. Jin Ming might have left a trace to follow. The Watcher decided he had to get to New York, now.
‘Excuse me, please, Ricki.’ He opened up his phone, ordered the person who answered to come around to Ricki’s address. He said, ‘Hold on one moment’, cupped his hand over the receiver, and said, ‘Here’s what I can offer you, Ricki, and I’m sorry it’s not a better deal for you. My group is taking over your business. You will continue to run it, but we will take fifty per cent of your profits. Do well and we’ll help you take over other operations in Brussels, Antwerp, and you can run them. I’m going to have some people in here soon to go through your computers to make sure you’re telling me the truth. Then we’ll leave you alone.’
‘You can’t,’ she said, shock in her tone.
‘I certainly can. Now, if you decline or you betray us, what we’ll do is I’ll have one of my employees load you up with heroin, hand you over to a dealer in whores who will rape you and sell you, probably to a brothel in Nigeria or Morocco or South East Asia. You might have an easier time of it in Asia; a girl from Senegal would be considered more exotic, and would be treated better.’
She stared at him, speechless, jaw quivering.
He gestured to the phone. ‘I’m waiting.’
‘Get the hell out of here.’
He stood up and he slapped her, hard. She fell across a stack of counterfeit SpongeBob DVDs, scattering them to the floor.
‘Hostile takeover or heroin and whoring, bitch, decide. I don’t have all day.’
She looked up at him, her mouth trembling. ‘Hostile takeover.’
‘That’s the right decision. You’ll see I treat my employees very well. Unless you betray me. If that happens you’ll be dreaming up chances of suicide, because you’ll see death as the least of all evils.’
He opened his phone, made another call.
‘Bring someone who knows computers. I want to know what photos have been scanned here, what emails sent, even if they’ve deleted the photos or the emails. Keep Ricki off the systems.’ He listened. ‘No, man, you don’t get to rape her when you’re done. Behave, all right?’ He winked at Ricki. ‘She’s one of us now.’
He clicked off the phone. ‘I think Jin Ming will know when we find him that you must have squealed on him. Let him think you cared about him, until then. He calls you, you say nothing. You warn him, our deal changes.’ He patted the top of her head; she flinched.
He headed for Schipol airport to catch the next flight to New York.
A notebook. Of all the things to be afraid of. Of all the things that could destroy him.
Claiborne Hotel, Manhattan
I awoke with a start. I’d fallen asleep with my clothes on, on the bed, exhaustion piercing past the feverish high I’d had running for hours. I hate sleeping in my clothes; it always feels like the sleep has seeped into the fabric. I heard the knock on the door again, insistent. I’d put out the Do Not Disturb sign. I reached for my gun and then remembered I didn’t have one. There was so much paperwork involved in transporting a gun; I’d get one from my bar, The Last Minute, later.
‘Sam. It’s me.’ Leonie.
I glanced at the clock. Ten in the morning. I got to my feet and opened the door.
‘I want you to order coffee and breakfast for us, to your room. I don’t want the maid to see my room right now.’
Leonie rolled her eyes. ‘Do what I tell you. Coffee, two pots, French roast. Breakfast, make it big, I don’t know when we’ll eat again. Come get me when the food is here.’ She turned and went back into her room.
I obeyed her, ordering us a spread and two pots of coffee. I showered like a man running late, pulled on jeans and a fresh shirt that I could wear untucked. I checked my personal phone, where Mila would call me. There was no message. Maybe she’d keep her distance. There was no message on the phone Anna had given me.
The food arrived: two omelets, bacon, bagels, hash browns, juice, coffee. A New York room service breakfast only costs a fraction of the national debt. I signed the check and then knocked on her door.
‘Bring it here, it’s going to be a working meal,’ she said.
She held the door for me while I carried in the big trays.
The walls were covered with white sheets of paper, big ones, as though torn from a presentation pad, and scarred with heavy marker. The laptop lay open and it looked like she was in a chat room. An ashtray, full, sat next to it.
‘I didn’t know you smoked,’ I said.
‘I’d quit. When Taylor was born. Now I’ve started again and I hate it.’
Leonie sat down and began to shovel the cheese and mushroom omelet into her mouth. ‘I hate cold food,’ she said. She ate with concentration for a long minute while I drank a cup of coffee, which I needed like oxygen. ‘Okay. First things first. Jin Ming did not exist before he arrived at Delft.’
‘False identity.’ I raised an eyebrow, reached for my own plate of food.
‘His student transcripts are almost perfect.’
‘You broke into the university’s server?’
She shrugged. ‘Universities are easy to hack; they have to maintain large networks with lots of unsophisticated users – even at a technical university. Think of a college as one giant coffee shop, everyone with a laptop. It’s not hard.’ She ate some more, so fast I thought she wasn’t tasting the food. ‘All his documentation points to him being from Hong Kong. Makes it easy then to explain his excellent English. But I dug deeper. There is a Jin Ming from Hong Kong who shares his birthday on the university records; he died at the age of five, drowned in Repulse Bay.’
‘Our target hijacked an identity.’
‘Yes. And filled in the back details. He supposedly attended Hong Kong International School there, falsified transcripts. The actual prep school has no record of him.’
‘Did you break into their computer database?’
‘Oh, no. I called, pretending to be from New York University.’
I sat down. ‘Why would Jin Ming pretend to be from China so he could go to grad school? I mean, people fake IDs so they can clean money, so they can cross borders. Who the hell steals an identity so that he can go to graduate school in Holland? And pretends to be Chinese? What if he got deported? He’d totally be screwed.’
Leonie smiled. ‘So if you see someone with a Chinese passport, you don’t entertain the notion that he’s not Chinese. He can’t be who you’re looking for.’
‘Brilliant,’ I said slowly.
‘Jin Ming means “golden name”. A legitimate name, yes, but I think there’s even a sense of purpose behind his selection. A golden name, one perfect for him to hide behind.’
I rubbed my forehead. ‘This is not an ordinary kid, is he?’ Dumb people are easy to hunt; smart people are a challenge.
‘I think he’s a fugitive.’ Leonie crossed her arms. ‘Someone who is hiding but badly wants to continue his education, and especially at a prestigious technical university. And not very many people would think to falsify Chinese documents because they’re afraid of being deported to China and then not getting out. It’s actually very smart. Right now when I see a Belgian or a Costa Rican passport I straight away start to think it’s been faked; they’re the most popular nationalities for people who want to disappear. I think he picked Hong Kong because he’d been there before, maybe he could pass as a native. But my guess is he’s American or Canadian or English or Australian.’
‘Surrendering to the CIA in New York? He must be American.’
She shrugged. ‘Don’t make assumptions. For all their faults, the CIA is still the most powerful intelligence agency in the world, and our mysterious Mr Jin may just want to deal with the biggest.’
‘For all their faults?’ I said. ‘You sound like a veteran.’
A blush spread across her cheeks, up to her auburn hair. ‘Don’t. I’m not. I don’t have anything to do with the CIA.’
‘So what now? You look for criminal computer science students of Chinese descent who have gone missing?’
‘Yes, actually, I do,’ she said. ‘But here’s the other thing, Sam. New York. If Jin Ming wants to surrender to the CIA, why isn’t he doing it in Amsterdam? There are agents there. They could easily pick him up. Why does he need to run?’
‘You ask like you know the answer.’
‘I do. Right now he’s wanted in Amsterdam.’ She pulled up a web page of the Amsterdam English language paper. ‘He left a hospital where he was a patient. A man was found dead there, beaten to death with a metal pole. The dead man has a criminal history as hired muscle.’
‘They tried to kill him once before.’
‘Yes. And the supposedly helpless hacker killed the thug.’ Leonie sounded almost proud of him. ‘The police seem to think Jin’s in danger, and running, and are trying to get him to surrender.’
‘But he could still surrender to the CIA there. In fact, he has even more reason to because he’s being hunted. But he’s not turning himself in to the closest CIA office. What’s here? What’s in New York?’ I said. I hadn’t thought of this. The kid had to have a compelling reason to take the risk to come to New York.
‘Two reasons,’ I said. ‘He knows a CIA contact here.’ August had dealt with him in Amsterdam; maybe while in their care he’d heard something that tied August to New York, and wanted to meet him specifically. I didn’t know the whole story of what had gone on between them when August grabbed Jin Ming from the coffee shop.
‘Or he’s from here, and he’s running home.’
‘Why run home?’ she asked. ‘He’s been very smart as to how he hid himself. Very. If he’s a fugitive from here, it implies he’s wanted here. Huge risk to return.’
‘Maybe he has family he wants to collect and protect. Maybe he needs to say goodbye to them if he’s going to vanish.’
‘I assume that if he was living in Holland under a false name he’s already vanished once before.’ Exhaustion crept into her voice. We couldn’t let the toxic mix of lack of sleep and emotional turmoil derail us. ‘If he was already hiding, then why does he come home? That seems to be a bigger risk than he needs to take.’
I shrugged. ‘I’ve heard of people in witness protection coming home. They just get tired of living a lie.’
‘My clients don’t do that. Once I hide them they stay hidden.’
I don’t know what possessed me. ‘Nice. I mean, you shelter people fleeing murder raps. Scum that Novem Soles needs protected. Nice.’
‘You don’t know a single thing about what I do or who I help.’
‘As if you’d tell.’ She knew more about me than I knew about her. Whose fault was that?
She raised an eyebrow at me, took a long drink of coffee to let the tension melt in the room. I felt mad at myself for provoking her. I needed her right now; moral judgments had to be saved for later. ‘If he’s from New York, then that narrows down the possibilities considerably.’
I leaned forward and looked into her computer screen, studying the chat room, with nested columns of comments to show threads of conversation. ‘What is this site?’
‘DarkHand. A hacker community.’ She started to type. ‘That’s how I found out about Jin Ming. I found hackers who had existing back doors into the systems I needed to access. By the way, you’re paying them for their time.’
‘You’ll launder some money for them. Both are Chinese, they want to clean about fifty thousand bucks into US accounts. You’ll make that happen.’
‘Through your bar in Las Vegas.’
She knew about The Canyon Bar. Not just that it was where I’d met Anna but that I owned it. ‘Your hacker friends are not washing their dirty money through my bar.’ God only knew what the money might be. Hackers might have cracked open ATMs for cash, might have committed extortion not to bring company websites down. She was involving me in new crimes. She seemed almost amused at my outrage.
‘You can’t refuse. The deal is done. It’s for the children.’
She was, of course, absolutely right. ‘For the children’: the three most powerful words in the language. Fine, I thought. I’d deal with that problem later. ‘Don’t make any more promises you can’t keep.’
‘Do you want to find this guy or not?’ She stood up, rage bright in her eyes. ‘You’ll do what I say. No argument.’
‘Calm down,’ I said. ‘I have every right to know if you’re dragging me and my business into criminal activity.’
‘And I have every right not to care.’
I let five beats pass in peace. ‘So. Let’s operate under the proposition he has a personal tie back to New York.’
She nodded. ‘We find the tie, we find him.’ She turned back to the laptop. ‘Let me get back to work. Thanks for breakfast.’
‘And, what? I wait? No.’
‘Do you have any idea on how to be useful?’ Her voice had taken on a hard edge to it. ‘I find him, you kill him, bullet. You have the easier job.’
‘I don’t get to ask my crooked friends for help,’ I said. Which was a lie. I had resources, through the Round Table, that I had no intention of sharing with her. I gave her my cell phone number. She didn’t write it down but she repeated it back to me.
‘Where are you going?’ she asked as I headed for the door.
I didn’t answer her. She didn’t need to know. Her way was going to take too long.
Chelsea, New York City
Most code names in the Company are not jokes, but his was: Fagin. Charles Dickens’s master of thieves from Oliver Twist, who pulled in the wayward children of London to shape them into pickpockets. The Fagin I knew put his own modern take on the identity.
I took the subway south to Chelsea. It was mid-morning now, and shoppers walked the streets, eyeing the art in the many gallery windows. I walked down to the last address I knew for Fagin. I hoped he hadn’t moved. I went up to the top floor of his building, knocked, listened. I picked the lock and went inside.
It was a large apartment (I didn’t even want to think about how much it cost) and still his place. A picture of Fagin and his wife hung on the wall, smiling, tropical forest behind them. He was thin and wore a reddish beard and had very dark brown eyes, the color of coffee. Dirty breakfast dishes stood stacked in the sink; a coffee mug half full. I lived in spare apartments/offices above bars; I was starting to forget what it was like to live in an actual home. Lucy and I had owned a beautiful place in London, not far from the British Museum. A home that was a comfort to return to in the evening, full of touches of the life we were building together. Best not to dwell on that right now. You might guess that a person named for the Fagin in Oliver Twist would not respond to a sentimental plea to help me save my poor child.
It was a four-bedroom apartment. One bedroom had an IKEA bed, a scattering of men’s and women’s clothes on the furniture and the floor. Fagin was a bit of a slob. The second bedroom had six computers in it, all along a table, a bean bag chair, a TV with an elaborate game station attached. Fagin – still up to his old tricks.
Two young Oliver Twists – maybe sixteen or so – sat at the computers, plugged into their iPods. In their envelope of music they hadn’t noticed me. So I went back to the kitchen, got an apple from Fagin’s fridge, and washed it. I took a knife from a drawer because I didn’t know these sixteen-year-olds and I went back to the computer room.
I bit into my apple and came up behind the first Oliver Twist. He was a thin kid, brown, curly hair, a scattering of pimples on his cheeks. He was intent on what he was doing on the computer screen, fingers hammering on the keyboard.
I glanced at the screen over his shoulder. Computer code, but with comments written in Russian. I scanned them. Interesting mischief the Oliver Twists were conjuring.
I popped out an earplug and said, ‘Hi, whatcha doing?’
He jumped out of his chair. His eyes widened at the knife in my hand.
The other kid – African American, a bit older, wearing a New Orleans Saints T-shirt, jeans and the ugliest yellow sneakers I’d ever seen – bolted out of his chair. I showed him the knife and he stopped.
‘What. Are. You. Doing?’ I asked again.
Neither answered. ‘Hacking into China or Russia today, boys?’ I pretended like I hadn’t read over their shoulders and took another bite of the apple. ‘Or perhaps another country? Fagin loves putting the screws on Egypt and Pakistan.’
Again, neither answered. They glanced at each other.
‘Silence bores me,’ I said. ‘It makes me want to play knife games.’ Aren’t I nice, threatening teenagers?
‘Russia,’ the Saints fan said after a moment. ‘We’re laying data bombs into their power grid.’
‘Sounds very patriotic,’ I said. ‘Is Fagin due here soon?’
The Saints fan nodded. ‘Yes. He went to go get snacks.’
‘You poor, deprived things didn’t run out of Red Bull, did you?’
‘Um, actually, we ran out of Pepsi,’ the thin kid said.
‘Well, far be it from me to interfere,’ I said. ‘Fagin’s an old friend. I’m just going to wait for him.’
Slowly they sat back down and put their hands on their computer keyboards and resumed their work, typing at a much slower level. But neither slipped their earbuds back into place.
I ate my apple and watched them and waited.
Fagin showed up ten minutes later, opening his door, holding a paper bag of groceries. He dropped the bag when he saw me. An orange tumbled from the depths and rolled to my foot.
‘What the hell. Sam Capra.’
His mouth shut tight. I picked up the orange and tossed it to him. He caught it.
‘Are you going to run or shut the door?’ I asked.
He shut the door. He set the small bag of groceries down on the counter. He went to the door and made sure the two Oliver Twists were fine.
‘Please,’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t hurt your kids.’
‘He stole an apple,’ said the Saints fan.
‘Really? Did he interfere with your work?’
‘No,’ they both said.
‘Back to it.’
Almost as one, the Oliver Twists put their earbuds back in place. Fagin set a can of cold soda by each of them. The typing speed on the keyboards increased.
Fagin crossed his arms and said, ‘Whatever you want, the answer is no.’
‘That’s a harsh hello,’ I said.
I had met Fagin back in my days working on the CIA’s task force on global crime aka Special Projects aka The Dirty Down Jobs We Gotta Do But No One Is Supposed To Know. Our purview covered everything from human trafficking to arms dealing to corporate espionage, in the aspect of when it threatened national security. Crime at this level, hand in hand with terrorism, is a threat to the stability of the West. It reaches inside and poisons government, it undermines the basic social contract down to the bone of civilization. Twenty per cent of the economy is now illicit. The criminals are becoming more mainstream.
But in stopping this crime we sometimes committed crimes ourselves. Fagin was an example. Remember reading in the news, when Russia and its much smaller neighbor, Georgia, got into that brief war a while back? The Russians launched not only bullets and missiles at Georgia, they took down all of Georgia’s internet access. With a massive cyber attack against critical servers, the Russians managed to cut off an entire nation of four million people from the internet. If you were inside Georgia, and you tried to access CNN or the BBC web pages, you got served Russian propaganda. If you tried to withdraw money from Georgian banks, your funds stayed put. If you tried to email people in other parts of the country, you sat and stared at your unsent message still warming your mailbox. The cyber attack, the Russians claimed, was not done by government hackers, but rather by patriotic, good-hearted, milk-drinking Russians acting independently who wanted to help fight the enemy. After the war, NATO and the highly irritated Georgians determined that some of the hackers who launched the internet attack were tied to some of the most notorious criminal rings inside Russia. If this vigilante hacker corps wasn’t an official part of the government, they were at least protected by the government, and their presence gave the Russian leadership necessary and plausible deniability.
The best hackers are not always on government payrolls. Sometimes you need your hackers to not be connected to you, when you spend days breaking laws and flouting treaties.
Fagin was our back pocket, our deniable warrior. He and his digital Oliver Twists. When we needed things broken or stolen and there was no way it could be tied to the CIA, ever, then Special Projects and Fagin stepped in to pick the pocket and scurry away.
‘You don’t work for Special Projects any more, Sam,’ he said. ‘Get out.’
‘I’m a freelance consultant, like you. Not exactly on the formal benefits package.’
‘Really? Really? ’ Fagin’s favorite word, delivered with a sneer. I had once counted how many times Fagin uttered Really? in a meeting and stopped at fifty.
‘I am here to ask you for a favor.’
‘Really? I repeat. Get out.’
‘I’m pressed for time. Tell me what I want to know or I’ll tell the North Koreans about you and your crew. And the Russians. And the Chinese. And the Iranians.’ Fagin and his cadre of hackers spied on and created hassles for a variety of enemies. Maybe even some friends. Let me just say the French, the Brazilians, and the Japanese also all have reason to hate Fagin. They just don’t know it.
‘You really wouldn’t dare.’
‘My child’s life is really at stake, Fagin, so, yeah, I would. Sit down. We’re going to talk.’
He sat. He still looked like the computer teacher he’d once been, in a New York high school. On the back wall was a Teacher of the Year award he’d gotten years before, back when he still taught, smelling of chalk, dry-erase pens and fusty computer labs. Of course. Fagin had been so talented at encouraging young talent and honing minds. Unfortunately he encouraged them to hack into banks and government databases, usually as a prank. Special Projects had recruited him when he and his keyboarding artful dodgers tried to delve (unwittingly) into a front company for the CIA, kept him and his iPodded foundlings from a prison sentence and guided him toward more constructive pursuits. To the outside world he worked as a software design consultant.
‘Your child’s life? Aren’t you being really melodramatic?’
He didn’t know anything about my personal life – as far as I knew.
‘I’m looking for a young hacker, of Chinese descent, who might have grown up here in New York.’
‘Oh, that narrows it down.’ He rolled his eyes. ‘Really. Do you want the left or the right side of the phone book?’
‘Do you know a hacker who’s vanished in the past couple of years?’
‘No.’ I saw his crossed arms tighten for just a moment. I would have to ask very precise questions to get a useful answer. The basic principle of Fagin’s psychology is that knowledge and intelligence are the only currencies. Really.
I produced my cell phone. I didn’t say anything. I just wanted him to see it. Right now it was more frightening than a loaded gun.
‘I think he was from New York and he did something bad enough to hide out under a false name, Jin Ming, at grad school at Delft University of Technology. He has come back to New York, at huge risk, when he has every reason to dig a tunnel below a Dutch canal and hide for the next ten years. So I’m thinking it’s for a family reason.’
‘A lot of Asian kids study computers, but not a lot turn to hacktivism. Cultural mores. More respect for authority in Chinese families.’ Fagin studied his fingertips. ‘Not to stereotype or generalize, really.’
‘So how many do you know?’
‘Well, several, still. A few came through my, um, camp. I’ve kept tabs on them.’
‘Because you don’t want them talking about their work with you or because you’ll need them again?’
‘Both. If I show you their faces, will you leave?’
‘I need a name, Fagin.’
‘And then what?’
‘You don’t say anything to Special Projects that I was here, and I don’t give your home address and real name to your many enemies overseas.’
‘I’m really hurt. I don’t think you’d do that, Sam.’
‘My child. The rules are off.’
He stood. I followed him to one of the computers. I leaned close. I wanted to be sure he didn’t send an email to August or anyone else in Special Projects. Hackers are trickier and more subtle than pickpockets. He could hit a keystroke and reformat the entire network for all I knew. Watching Fagin at a keyboard was like watching the cobra slowly rise and undulate from the reed basket.
‘I keep a dossier on all the Oliver Twists,’ he said. He entered in a passcode too fast for me to register it, then another one, then another. He had a file labeled TWISTS and he opened it up. Dozens of names. He clicked on a few and their files opened. Complete with pictures. I doubt Fagin had made them stand still for a picture; these looked stolen from passport and driver’s license pictures. Or even school pictures: some of the kids looked to be barely thirteen or fourteen. Your government at work, ladies and gentlemen.
He began to click through the photos while I watched. ‘No. No. No,’ I said.
It would have been too much to hope that Jin Ming had worked for him; if so, then if he wanted to surrender to someone he could have run straight back to Fagin. ‘None of these are Jin Ming.’
‘Jin Ming. Jin Ming. I remember a Jack Ming.’
‘Jack Ming. That name’s too close to Jin Ming for it to be a good alias.’
‘Don’t be stupid. Jin would be the surname, not Ming. He’d be called Ming by his friends, not Jin. And a good alias is one you can remember.’ He sat down, searched on Jack Ming on a Google search. News reports came up. A picture.
‘Oh, yeah,’ Fagin said. ‘Him.’
It was the young Chinese hacker. ‘That’s him. What did he do?’
‘I only knew him by reputation. Supposedly he hacked Bruce Springsteen’s laptop once. Stole recordings of an album in development.’
‘That is such heresy. And that’s why he’s a fugitive.’
Fagin fidgeted. ‘Um, no, he was really good at hacking copiers.’
‘Copiers?’ I raised an eyebrow.
‘Yes. Office copiers. Most of them have microchips now, and they have internet capability. They can connect to the web if they have a repair that needs to be made. They can either self-download a fix if it’s a software problem or tell the repairman exactly what parts to bring.’
‘And Jack Ming would hack… copiers?’
‘Yes. He would rewrite the software in the copier.’ Fagin tented his cheek with his tongue.
‘To do what?’
‘Well, you could rewrite software on the chip to overheat the copier, damage it or destroy it. He set a copier on fire at a firm where his mother worked as a consultant. The sprinklers came out, caused several thousand dollars’ worth of damage.’
‘Big deal. Is his mommy ignoring him?’
‘Or,’ and Fagin gave his throat a polite clearing, ‘you could program the copier to save an image of everything it scanned and email it to you.’
‘Wow.’ Okay, that was huge. Consider what a compromised copier could give you: business proposals, legal filings before they were given over to the court, product plans, confidential memos. Even with email now, paper copies of critical documents were still used. You could learn a lot about a company, a project, sifting through every image that came across the copier. ‘Corporate espionage, Fagin?’
‘Maybe, just a touch.’
‘Is that why Jack Ming had to leave New York?’
Fagin gave a slow nod. ‘He stole secrets from companies, and he must have tried to sell them. Or somehow they backtracked the hacking to him. I think if he could make copiers spy for him, he could write other software to do the same.’
I considered. Maybe he had, maybe this was how he’d stolen Novem Soles’s secrets.
Fagin shrugged. ‘Um, I don’t think he’d come back here to see family.’
Fagin cracked his first smile. ‘Well, the rumor was, he caused his dad’s death.’
Midtown Manhattan, New York City
His mother’s apartment was several blocks north of the United Nations Plaza, on East 59th Street. It was convenient, and his mother had always treasured a smooth road in life. She was not a woman who cared for bumps along the ride.
Jack Ming didn’t recognize the doorman, and he didn’t have a key, so he sat in a small, elegant tea shop across the street, sipping a strong cup of Earl Grey, staving off jet lag, waiting for her to come home. The sky rumbled, louder than the traffic. The clouds began to smother the hard, bright morning light. A warm, gusty rain began to fall fitfully. He watched an umbrella salesman suddenly appear on the street corner; it was almost as if the rain had conjured the man out of thin air. It was unusually warm in New York after the unseasonable chill of Amsterdam.
He thought he would never be back here. He had expected a tidal wave of emotion; but instead, worse, he felt a slow, rising flood of remorse and sorrow. The kind that drowned you by inches.
He tasted the risk, like wet steel on his tongue. Novem Soles might send a hired troll, like the one he’d killed in Amsterdam, to watch his mother and kill him if he turned up. Or maybe the CIA had figured out who he was after he made his offer. Of all the moves he’d made since being shot, coming home felt like the most dangerous one. He glanced around. If her apartment was being watched then the watchers should have grabbed him the moment he appeared across the street. He tucked an earphone bud into place but he kept the iPod silenced. He had called the house using a prepaid phone he had bought when he arrived in Manhattan. As he got his mother’s answering machine, he had hung up and decided simply to go to her apartment. His father had been wealthy and the Mings had invested carefully from their days in Hong Kong and she still worked as a consultant from her home when she pleased.
Mom, come home, he thought. He tried her home phone again. No answer. She could be traveling for work, which could mean she was anywhere from South America to Hong Kong to Canada. She could be screening her calls. He could try and hack into her laptop; she wasn’t very security conscious. But that felt like rifling through her clothing drawers, or love letters from her teenage years. You didn’t hack your mom.
He waited, watching the warm, intermittent rain streak the glass, his heart pounding. She might spit in his face. She might scream for the police. She might call him his father’s murderer again and he wasn’t sure he could take that pain.
Fagin’s Nest, Chelsea, New York City
Fagin poured himself coffee. He didn’t offer me any.
‘Sandra Ming is former State Department. Now she consults. Very well connected in both business and government. She sits on boards of directors for two Fortune 1000 companies. American-born but related to a prominent Hong Kong family. The husband’s name was Russell Ming. Real-estate developer, he died about the time that Jack vanished. Owned properties around New York and New Jersey. Heart attack about the time Jack lit out.’
For a moment Fagin’s eyes went merry.
‘Heart attack over his son’s crimes?’ I asked.
‘The rumor mill suggested,’ Fagin said.
‘That’s a hard cross for a kid to bear,’ I said.
Fagin made a noise. He’d seen as many damaged kids as a social worker. ‘Life is full of hard crosses. If I could have recruited him I could have shielded him. The Oliver Twists have never, ever been caught.’
‘Connected to government and business,’ I said, repeating Fagin’s own words. Could his mother shield him, or help him reach the CIA without me finding him? I had one choice: I had to go to the mother’s house. I glanced up at Fagin.
‘Would Jack contact hackers here in town? Did he know any of your Twists?’
‘Not if he wants to keep his head low. If there’s a price on him, I might be tempted to collect it.’
‘At least you’re consistent, Fagin.’
‘And what a joy that makes me.’
‘But you, you’re not likely to turn him into the police. You don’t like talking to the police, Fagin.’
‘In my defense, they don’t much like talking to me, either.’
‘Where does Mrs Ming live?’
Fagin consulted a computer database. I looked at the photo of his mother we’d loaded into a browser: it showed an elegant woman touching her chin in that weird author-photo pose. She was pretty, but in a cold, cubic way.
He gave me Mrs Ming’s address.
‘That’s it? Thank you?’
‘You’re not going to tell anyone that I’m here, Fagin.’
‘Wouldn’t dream of it.’
‘Because I will tell the people who are looking for Jack Ming that you might know where he is. And if I do that, they will order me to force information from you, and then to kill you.’
‘You should find a better class of person for your associates,’ Fagin said. ‘And, really, you needn’t turn into a bully.’
‘Tell me, hacker man,’ I said. ‘Have you ever heard of a hacker in Las Vegas named Leonie?’
‘Leonie, growl, I like kitty-kat-style names,’ Fagin said.
‘No. But you know, online, we don’t use our real names.’ He widened his eyes. ‘Shocking, I know.’
‘She’s a relocator for people who want to vanish. She deals with hackers around the world to get information or to help her create new identities.’
‘She’s not a hacker, then, she’s an information broker. Hires hackers to do a bit of a job for her, then uses someone else. That way you never know exactly what it is she’s working on or who it is she’s working for.’
‘You know anything about her?’ I showed him the picture of her I’d taken on my phone when she slept.
‘You bored her into a sense of complacency to get this picture, right?’
‘Have you seen her before?’
‘No. But isn’t she the pretty one?’
‘You ever hear of a woman named Anna Tremaine?’
He considered, and shook his head.
‘How about Novem Soles?’
‘Sounds like a Catholic retreat.’
‘It means Nine Suns in Latin. You ever hear of a group with that name?’
I got up. ‘Thanks for what you could give me, Fagin.’
‘I can give you one more thing. Good luck, Sam, on finding your kid.’
I must have let my surprise show.
‘What, I can’t wish you luck?’
‘Just keep your mouth shut, Fagin, about me being here.’
‘I don’t stand between kids and their parents, man. By the time the kids come to me the parents have already shoved them away.’
Fagin watched Sam leave. Then he reached for a phone. Sam Capra could make all the threats he wanted, but he did not pay the bills.
Fagin reported the discussion, and then he hung up to go see if the Oliver Twists were done laying their electronic mousetraps inside Moscow’s power grid.
Midtown Manhattan, New York City
An hour later Jack saw her.
His mother came along the sidewalk, walking in her stiff, formal way, wearing a light blue raincoat. Her hair was impeccably styled and more gray streaked it than he remembered. She held bags from a local artisan grocery, and the plastic bulged with her purchases. He crossed the street, cutting toward her.
Please don’t turn away, he thought. Please don’t.
He stood and he waited for her to come to him. ‘Hi, Mom.’
She stopped and glanced up from the sheltering curve of the umbrella and seemed to study him as though he were a picture she’d found in a drawer, and couldn’t place when and where it had been taken. Every moment of her silence was an agony. He wanted the concrete beneath his feet to open like a chasm and swallow him. Drops of rain curtained off her tilted umbrella. ‘Jack. Hello.’ She just didn’t seem… surprised.
He reached for the bag of groceries. ‘Those look heavy.’ He could see in the bag rice and chicken, but also Oreos, apples, jalapeno potato chips. Weird, she still bought his favorites.
She allowed him to take them. ‘Yes, they are. Thank you.’
‘Could we talk for a minute?’
‘For just a minute?’ she asked and now he heard the slight edge of pain in her voice.
‘Not for long. I know you’re busy, Mom.’ It had been the litany of his youth: not now, Jack, I’m busy. Yes, darling, I’ll look at your painting in a minute, Mama’s busy. I can help you with your math later, Jack, right now I’m busy. And finally: what do the police want to talk to you about, I’ve got a meeting with the Ambassador. He remembered announcing once, when he was nine, that he was Ambassador of Kidonia, the nation of kids, and she’d laughed and hugged him and not realized he was begging for her attention. He was proud of himself for keeping the bitterness out of his voice.
‘Actually, I’m not, and I’m very pleased to see you.’ She reached over and gave him an awkward hug. The last hug he’d gotten from her was when he graduated early from NYU, two years ago. Before the FBI showed up at the doorstep, looking for him. He resisted the urge to embrace her, to seize her hard in a hug from which she couldn’t easily escape.
She put a hand on the side of his face. He tried not to close his eyes in relief. ‘What happened to you? Your neck, that’s a surgical scar.’
‘I was in an accident.’ They shot me Mom, I got shot. Your son got shot. But he couldn’t say this, even the thought of the words rising in his throat made him sick.
‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘Of course it matters, Jack. Why didn’t you call me? Where have you been?’
‘It doesn’t matter.’ The nakedness of the lie nearly made him gasp but instead he just held on tight to his mother. After a moment her hands touched his back, pressed into his flesh, cautiously.
‘Jack, are you all right? Perhaps we should go inside.’ A bit of panic edged her voice.
He pulled back from her and he felt, mixed with the wet air, tears on his face. He felt mortified. She said nothing as he wiped them away with the back of his hand. Her own face was dry, as it always was.
‘Have you come back to turn yourself in to the police?’
She was a diplomat, so he gave the diplomatic answer. ‘Yes. I’m tired of running, I’m tired of hiding. I wanted to see you first. Before I go to the police.’ No, Mom, I came to say goodbye, he wanted to say. Goodbye forever. I shouldn’t have come. It’s too hard.
‘Well come inside, we’ll have some coffee and we’ll call the lawyers.’
She was still briskly efficient, he thought. ‘I just want us to talk first. You and me. Before lawyers, okay?’
His mother hurried him past the doorman and they rode in silence in the elevator, up to the apartment. He wanted to look at her face but instead he watched the umbrella weep leftover rain onto the floor. Jack stepped inside and despite the muggy warmness of the spring day he felt chilled. The apartment was as he remembered: magazine-perfect, accented with her collection of Chinese art on the red walls, along with photos of his mother with presidents, business leaders, diplomats, and other notables. Art from her various postings in the State Department: Hong Kong, Vietnam, South Korea, Peru, Luxembourg. It was as though she’d played magpie around the world, plucking beauty wherever she stopped, decorating a nest where no other birds wished to live. There was a family picture of himself and his father, off in a corner. On the periphery of his mother’s life, the edge of the circle.
‘Would you like some decaf?’ she asked.
‘Do you have any regular coffee? I’m zonked.’
‘Um, no. I now find too much caffeine disruptive.’
Only a food could be disruptive to you, Mom, he thought. Jack felt torn by need and resentment, two ends of the same rope, tugging straight through him. ‘Decaf is great.’
‘Are you hungry?’
‘No.’ He followed her into the kitchen, watched her putter with the coffee maker. ‘How are you, Mom?’ I shouldn’t have come here. The sudden temptation to tell her everything, lay out an epic confession of the danger he faced, to ask her for help was overwhelming. Say your goodbyes, and go, and don’t look back, ever. No good will come of anything else.
‘I’m all right.’
‘You still consulting?’
‘Yes, here and there. Thinking of writing another book.’
She poured water into the coffee maker. ‘Jack, where have you been hiding?’
‘I suppose I should have considered that as a possibility. So many young people from around the world, crowding around the canals. You went there for the drugs, I suppose.’
‘No, Mom, I went to grad school. I tried pot but frankly I would rather read a good book or see a movie.’
She blinked. A smile wavered near her mouth. ‘Grad school. On the run from the police, you go back to school.’
‘Well, under an assumed name.’
‘How did you get a new identity? Transcripts? How did you pay for tuition?’ Then she raised her hand, as if warding off a flash of fire. ‘Never mind. Best I don’t know what additional crimes you’ve committed. You can tell the attorney. My God, now the Dutch will be bringing up charges against you.’
Including manslaughter, he thought, maybe. Best not to go there.
‘I would like to see Dad’s grave.’
‘There is no grave. I had him cremated. He’s in the study.’
Now she turned back toward the coffee maker. ‘Of course, did you think I threw him out?’
‘They call it spreading the ashes, Mom.’
‘Well, he’s still here.’
He wandered back into the den. An urn sat atop a large bookshelf, next to a row of volumes on art history. It was very pretty. He felt tears hot inside his face, aching for release. He glanced at the desk, at the carpet, the grief a well in him, deep and dark, and every awful memory rushed back in an unbidden surge.
‘How could you be so thoughtless?’ His father’s voice rising in shock and shame. ‘The police want to arrest you. What you’ve done is a felony.’
‘A felony! What the hell did your mother and I ever do to you to deserve this? You’ve destroyed your life, do you understand that? Over what? Pranks? Proving that you’re smarter than everyone else? Because all you’ve done, Jack, is prove that you’re stupid beyond compare.’
‘Yes. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’
‘Sorry you did it or that you were caught?’
‘I don’t know. I just did it.’
‘You’re not innocent? It’s not a mistake?’
‘No, sir. I did it all.’
‘Why? Why? Did you sell the information you stole?’
‘No. I don’t know why I did it.’
‘You expect me… ’ his father caught his breath, ‘you expect me to believe that a boy as smart as you is incapable of knowing his own motives?’
‘I just did it, it’s done.’ Jack’s voice broke. ‘I love you, Dad, I’m sorry. I love you.’
‘You love me? Then why do you flush your future down the toilet?’
‘That’s all you care about, my future?’
‘Are you trying to suggest you did this for our attention, Jack? Oh, please. That’s such a shallow reason. Babyish, almost.’
‘I don’t know why. I just don’t.’
The agony in his father’s eyes had cut Jack more deftly than any ax. Then his father had sat down at his desk, pulled a yellow legal pad toward him, picked up a pencil. He began scribbling thoughts on the paper. ‘We have to start considering your options. Your mother… and I… ’
And then his father, bunching up the cloth of his shirt over his chest with a surprised fist, saying ‘That’s not right… ’ and then collapsing to the carpet.
His mother, hurrying in, screaming his father’s name. Jack grabbing the phone, calling 9-1-1, pleading for the ambulance to hurry.
He’d set the phone down and then his mother, very calmly, said: ‘Get out.’
‘The ambulance is coming, Mom.’
‘I can’t, I won’t leave him.’
‘You did this. Your selfish stupidity did this to him and I want you gone.’ She knelt by her husband; she didn’t look at her son. ‘You have to go or the police will arrest you.’
‘Mom, I can’t leave Dad.’
‘You know, in jail, there will be no computers. I don’t quite know what you will do.’ Odd, her calm.
‘I don’t care.’
‘He’s dead.’ His mother looked at him with a fierce, burning glare that frightened him, because it was hatred. ‘You’ve taken him away from me. Go. Get out of my sight right now, Jack. I don’t ever want to see you again.’
He had turned and ran and when he went out of the building the ambulance was at the curb, lights flashing, too late.
His mother stood in the doorway, watching him stare at the urn. ‘I think, from a legalistic standpoint, Jack, you should surrender to an attorney immediately.’
‘I wanted a night here, Mom. At home first. Please.’
‘Of course.’ But the tension was tight in those two words. As if she was the one who was going to be in trouble. She walked back into the kitchen; he followed her.
‘I’ll stay out of sight. I know what you said before – but if you didn’t want to see me you wouldn’t have let me come up here. Don’t you want to spend time with me?’ She didn’t answer; she upended the precisely measured water into the brewer. The maker began to chug.
‘Of course,’ she said again. She was turning over his crimes in her head; he knew the pinched look on her face. What he had done here was nothing compared to his misdeeds in Amsterdam. Well, I hacked for some bad guys. I didn’t know how bad they were but now they want me dead and I have a notebook that they want so badly they will kill me for it because it will blow them open and I don’t even understand what I know means and I’m going to sell it to the CIA and you’ll never see me again, Mom. But you were already resigned to never seeing me again .
‘I think tomorrow we should call a defense lawyer.’
‘You’re right, Mom. Tomorrow, okay?’
His mother turned to him, an uncertain smile on her face. ‘I’m right? Um, you’ve never said that before. I don’t know what to say.’
‘I wouldn’t say I told you so. Maybe just enjoy being right. For once.’
She surprised him with a laugh. ‘All right, I’ll bask in the glow. I am happy to see you, Jack, I really am.’
The awkward silence felt like a curtain. Neither seemed to know what to say, how to lay the first plank in the bridge.
‘I wish I hadn’t gone to Amsterdam, Mom.’ He wanted to grab the words hanging in the air. What had possessed him to confess this? It was pointless. He’d only come to say goodbye before he vanished to Australia or Fiji or Thailand or wherever he went with the CIA money. What was he hoping for? She didn’t know what he was here for. She was just someone to whom he needed to say goodbye. ‘Jail would have been better. At some point I’d have been free. Now I never will be.’
She said nothing and the coffee maker gurgled in the quiet. ‘What kind of new trouble are you in, Jack?’
The back of his eyes felt warm. He blinked. ‘I’m not in any trouble, Mom. Any new trouble.’ He forced his emotions down, but the heat kept rising into his throat.
‘Don’t you lie to me, Jack. I know… I didn’t help you very much before.’ She twisted the dishrag in her hands. ‘Let me help you now.’
‘I… I got involved with some bad people… Some really bad people, Mom, I didn’t know how bad… ’
She took a step forward. ‘Tell me.’
‘They… nearly got me killed. I got shot. Hurt bad. Then in the hospital, they sent a guy to kill me.’
He saw her go pale with shock. ‘Oh, my God, Jack.’
‘I killed the guy. I killed him and I got away and I think they will try and kill me again.’
His mother knotted the dishrag. She didn’t take a step toward him and he could see her playing out the possibilities of what they should do next in her mind. ‘It was self-defense,’ he said.
‘Tell me what happened.’
‘Did you see the gun before you hit him?’
The question felt like a shove. ‘He shot at me. Mom, for God’s sakes, don’t you believe me?’
‘Yes. Of course. And then you fled.’
‘And then what?’
He did not want to tell her about the notebook. Right now it lay taped to the small of his back. ‘Then a friend helped me get out of the Netherlands. On a Belgian passport.’ He said this in the tone that he might once have used to admit he cut school.
‘You entered the United States under false pretenses, with the Dutch police looking for you?’
‘I had to.’
‘Jack, you always have to do the exact opposite of what you should do.’ She put the dishrag on the counter. ‘Perhaps something strong with our coffee.’
‘Mom. I’m sorry.’
Then she surprised him: ‘Don’t apologize, Jack. Not for surviving. Not for staying alive.’
‘I said more than I meant to.’
She had been walking toward the counter and his words stopped her in her tracks. ‘More than you meant to? You weren’t going to be honest with me?’
‘I was going to be honest with the lawyer,’ he lied. ‘I didn’t want to burden you.’
‘Oh, Jack. You think I’m the delicate widow?’
It was two jabs in one. ‘You’re not delicate, Mom. I don’t need to be reminded you’re a widow. You’re still a mother.’ The words spilled out like quicksilver, faster than he could stop them.
‘You’re right. You’re right. The way I spoke to you when your father died… well, it’s done now. You cannot blame me for you running away and getting into deeper trouble.’
He blinked. ‘I don’t blame you at all, Mom.’
‘Of course you do. You blame me for being a bad mother. You think I’m a bad mother.’
‘No. I don’t.’ He couldn’t look at her face.
She mercifully changed the subject. ‘Why exactly are these people after you?’
‘It’s a long story.’
‘I’m going to cancel my appointments this afternoon,’ she said. ‘We’ll plan out a strategy. Just you and me. They want you dead because you know something?’
‘Well, I don’t know anything. But they think I do.’ Telling her the truth was only putting her in danger. He couldn’t do that. He’d lost his father to his mistakes; he was not going to lose his mother.
‘All right. But you have information you can give the police. We need to be able to make a deal, Jack. That’s what I’m asking. What’s your leverage?’
Always the diplomat, always the deal maker. He wanted to turn around and leave. Just walk out the door. Would she call the police on him before he reached the elevator? Or would she let her only son simply vanish again, because in the end it would be less trouble for her?
‘I can give them some names. Guys in Amsterdam and New York.’
‘Well, then. That’s a start. But surely if they want you dead, you know more than that.’
‘Why don’t… I know you’re exhausted. Why don’t you go get showered? Your clothes – they should still fit, I kept them all.’
‘I knew you’d come home.’
You have more faith than I did, Jack thought. Suddenly the idea of his old room felt like heaven. A cocoon to transform himself, where he could be the old harmless Jack Ming again, not be the kid being chased by the bad guys, not be the guy sneaking into his own country under a false name, not be the disappointing son coming and confessing his sins to his mother. ‘I don’t want to talk to the lawyer until tomorrow, though, Mom. Okay? We’ll call him in the morning.’ He would get what he needed here, for the meeting with the CIA, and then he would vanish. This was the goodbye to his mother, every moment of it.
She poured him a cup of coffee and he drank it down in silence. It was delicious. His mother always made good coffee, and he thought it funny that this was the comfort food he remembered of her: not peanut butter sandwiches or handmade ice cream or wonton noodles, but coffee. She’d let him start drinking it too young. Never objecting when he’d dump a dollop from the coffee pot into his milk. Just to see what she would do.
‘Are you hungry?’ she asked him. Now she sounded like a mom.
‘Well, why don’t you go shower and get into some fresh clothes, and I’ll make us lunch. Then we can talk.’
She went to the refrigerator and opened it, peering inside, clearly hopeful that appropriate ingredients would be present. He went into his room. It seemed to be an echo of his old life: the framed certificate of achievements from his school in math, the worn paperbacks he’d plowed through as a kid, a neat stack of video games of which he’d explored every detail of every level. A row of CDs he’d forgotten he’d owned, bands that screeched about suburban angst. He thought he’d known then what feeling trapped was like, and, oh, was he wrong.
He turned on the shower, waited, flicked fingers beneath the water. Cold. He wanted it as hot as possible, to rinse the dirt of Amsterdam off himself. He hated to stand by a shower to wait for it to warm. He could go get what he needed while the shower heated; his mother was busy in the kitchen.
He ducked out of his room, padded down the hallway to his father’s study. Weird to think of Mom living here in an apartment that seemed more dedicated to men who had left her than to her own life. He ducked into the office. He stepped quickly around the desk – his dad’s heart had stuttered and failed, standing in front of that desk, and he didn’t like to let his gaze linger on the spot; it creeped him out: he could still hear the thud of the body striking the floor.
He opened the desk drawer. The keys to all seven buildings his father owned in the New York area remained in their places. Mother hadn’t sold them, thank God, and he knew better than to ask. He sat at the computer and brought up the Ming Properties website. The Williamsburg, Brooklyn, property was still empty. His father had not been willing to make the investment to renovate it alone and he’d died before he found a partner. Mom hadn’t done anything about it, either, and thank God. He took the one set of keys and tucked them into his pocket. She wouldn’t think to miss them, not with his surrender – his disappearance – on her mind.
Next to the keys: his father’s gun. He’d gotten it when he used to own buildings in neighborhoods that weren’t quite gentrified yet. Jack lifted the gun and studied it. He inspected the clip: three shots in it. He double-checked on the safety and he stuck it into his pocket. It felt awkward. He would put it in his knapsack.
He went back toward the shower – it should be nice and steamy now – and it was then that he heard the quiet of her voice. She must have thought he was still in the shower.
She stood, her back to him, speaking softly, over the hiss of boiling water. ‘Yes. He’s here. Where do you want me to bring him?’
He stood back from the door, the notebook itching in the small of his back.
‘No. I won’t do that. But I want to make a deal for him.’
Shock reached inside him and wrenched his stomach. She had lied. Who the hell was she calling? A lawyer.
‘So where do you want me to bring him?’
Bring him. You promised, Mom. He listened to his mother, sewing up his betrayal.
‘Send a car for us. He might… resist.’ She dumped noodles into the pot. She stirred in chopped vegetables. He took a step backward. ‘Not sure I can get him out of the apartment without help.’
Resist? A chill flicked along his spine.
‘No. No one else saw him. He wants to hunker down here today.’ Silence. ‘I am so glad you called me about him. Thank you.’
Jack Ming stepped slowly back from the kitchen. He tiptoed back to his room, back to the hissing steam of the shower. He grabbed his backpack. He left the shower jetting against the porcelain, the steam curling from the bathroom like fingers raised in farewell. He spared his childhood room a final, bitter glance. And then he hurried toward the door.
‘Jack?’ his mother’s voice sliced across the room.
He glanced back at her.
‘Goodbye, Mom,’ he said.
‘You lied to me!’ she said. And he knew she meant the shower, that she was the one outraged that he had not done what he said.
‘Goodbye. Forever. I still love you.’
‘Jack, wait! Wait! They can make all the charges go away. They called me, all right, they called me first… ’
She knew I was coming? Panic flushed through him. He ran, not wanting to wait for the elevator, feet hammering down the stairs.
He bolted into the lobby and out onto the street. He ran the whole way to the 59th Street subway station. He got onto the first train that arrived. He sat huddled on the cold plastic bench, holding the backpack close to him.
Send someone. He might resist. Who the hell had she been talking to? Who would call her before he arrived?
This can’t be. Not my mom.
He rode down to Union Square and then he changed trains and rode the L train into Brooklyn, getting off at Bedford Avenue station in Williamsburg. Trust no one, he thought. So much for help and shelter from his mother.
He exited onto Driggs Avenue and crossed the street and watched the faces of those who’d left the train with him. Could his mother have called someone? Could he have been followed? Her betrayal cut him to the point he could not breathe.
They can make all the charges go away. Then who the hell were they?
He was going to have to be very careful. A plan began to form in his mind.
On my walk to the subway I texted Leonie, told her that Jin Ming was really a guy named Jack Ming and to drive our rental car and meet me at the East 59th Street address. We were so close now.
If I didn’t find Daniel – well, that was an option I couldn’t face. Anna’s grim words I won’t sell him to nice people shivered in my blood, like a plucked wire. Daniel, with my eyes and his mother’s mouth, handed over to someone who would abuse him, use him, eventually kill him when his usefulness reached its end. Or, if he lived, would the horror he survived shape him into a person bent, wrong, broken. I had never held Daniel, never seen him with my own eyes, but I could never abandon him to such a fate. Never.
It was strange to ride the subway, knowing I was heading to kill someone. A guy who smelled of mints stood too close to me, a girl with purplish, lanky hair stared at my shoes and through her earphones, just once, I could hear distant strains of Mozart, wandering into the train like a lost tourist. Two people across from me chatted in Portuguese and I eavesdropped on their gossip. You spend your childhood traveling the world, you pick up a little of a lot of languages. They were talking about a boyfriend, his pros and cons, his smile, his cheapness in picking restaurants, normal everyday talk, and I was sitting there thinking about how to kill a young man in cold blood.
Across from Sandra Ming’s apartment tower stood a sushi bar. It was decorated in a spare, minimalist style and in the background regrettable Japanese pop played, but at least at a whisper. The chef seemed very angry; he scowled as he chopped at the ahi, the sea urchin, the inoffensive salmon. He muttered in Japanese and I nearly told him in his own language that he might consider anger management classes. I could tell from his face that he liked chopping flesh apart. It was good that a man like him had a creative outlet.
I got my lunch and sat watching in the window. The fish, the rice, the wasabi, all had no flavor to me. Rain, heavier in the morning, had lightened. Now the day was gray, the wind carrying the scent of the unfallen storm. I had not seen any sign of Mrs Ming or her son arriving at or leaving the building. I didn’t want to think of him as a Jack. Jack Ming sounded like the name of some kid I could have known in any of the American or Anglican schools I’d attended in fourteen different countries in my misspent youth, hauled around the globe by my parents, who worked for a relief agency. They were good people, but more concerned with fixing the world than paying more than five minutes’ attention to their own children. I loved them and they appeared to love me, and not much more else to say on that front. I’m sure the armchair psychologists would have a field day dissecting my youth and how it related to my stolen child. But it’s not like I could let any child be taken this way. My son or not. There are standards. You have to fight back.
Leonie slid onto the stool next to me. ‘You found him.’
‘Without a database.’ She made it sound like I had somehow cheated.
She opened up her laptop. ‘And now what? We sit here and wait for him to show up and’ – she lowered her voice – ‘you shoot him dead in the street?’
‘No.’ I swallowed the last bit of sushi on my plate. It offered only sustenance, not pleasure. Waiting to kill someone makes you feel dead inside.
‘We’re only supposed to do what Anna told us,’ she said and I wondered what she would do if I picked up the chopstick, oiled with soy sauce and wasabi, and shoved it into her ear.
‘I have done both my job and a key part of your job so far,’ I said. ‘You are rapidly losing your right to a vote in this.’
‘Sam. Okay. You had resources I didn’t. But I found out about Jack Ming, something you didn’t know.’
‘I don’t think he will come to see his mother.’
‘She blames him for his father’s death.’
I glanced at her. ‘How would you know?’
‘I built a network of names around Jack Ming,’ she said. ‘Yes, he went to NYU, so I did searches on people that were in his Facebook account before he canceled it. I wanted to expand our search, see how many links I could find, people where he might hide.’
I didn’t ask how she’d gotten this information; she’d worked her stealthy, smoky fingers into the right database or paid off the people who could. ‘And?’
‘And one of his friends wrote a blog post about Jack’s situation. Apparently his father died of a heart attack when he found out that Jack was wanted by the FBI for questioning for hacking copiers and stealing proprietary information from a number of law firms and software companies. He died… here. At Jack’s feet.’
‘His friend wrote about this?’ Honestly. People will say things on the internet now that they might once not have told their parents. A little secrecy is not a bad thing. I will confess I don’t get the whole need to Twitter and Facebook and share my every reaction to a TV show or to bad service at lunch or to post every news article I find remotely interesting. I’d spent five minutes looking at Twitter once and felt I’d wandered into a poker game where everyone immediately displayed their hands against the cool green of the felt. I suppose an ex-spy cannot get over his or her innate quiet, the need to keep thoughts and secrets close. But Jack Ming was a kid, and he’d left electronic breadcrumbs at the feet of his friends.
There is always a trace, she’d said, and now she’d found it.
‘His friend wrote about Jack’s mother.’ She opened the laptop, turned it toward me so I could read: I understand grief, I think, because my grandparents died when I was young, and my dog died last year. Death is part of life. But what I do not understand is blame. My friend Jack’s father died because he got a shock over something Jack is accused of doing, not anything proven. And even if Jack did do this, to blame him for killing his father? What kind of mother says that to her son? I am thankful for my mom right now.
Good Lord, I thought. What did we do before blogs? Would anyone have written this up and sent it into the newspaper’s letters’ section or stood on a tottery soapbox at the corner of the park and brayed out their thoughts about a private family matter while still somehow making it all about themselves? Jack must’ve confided in the friend after his father’s death.
I turned my gaze back onto Mrs Ming’s building doorway. The doorman stood there, watching the rain. ‘So our Jack and Mama Ming are not close.’
‘But he’s desperate. Truly desperate. And… ’
‘If he’s turning himself into the CIA, then he’s planning to vanish. Maybe he wants his mother to go with him. Or maybe he’s coming here to say goodbye to her. A final goodbye.’
‘I don’t know.’ I didn’t want to know this about Jack Ming. I didn’t want to know him as, you know, a person. I wanted to know where he stood at a certain moment and where I could kill him without getting caught. I closed my eyes. Novem Soles was going to form me into a monster, sure as Dr Frankenstein stitching together the quilt of corpses’ castoffs and blasting wasted vein and muscle with electricity. I didn’t know what I would be when I arose from the laboratory table, except I hoped I’d be a father with his child back.
But I didn’t want to know about Jack Ming’s… problems. His problems were all going to go away very soon.
Jack Ming’s dad dying at his feet. It made me think of Danny. My brother, not my son.
My brother. He’d died in an awful, humiliating way, gone to Afghanistan as part of a relief team. He’d pushed past the boundaries of common sense in his drive to help people, ventured with a college friend into the scrubby hills beyond Kandahar, gotten grabbed. No one heard from him for three weeks and then the video flickered into monstrous life, viraled by YouTube: Danny my brother kneeling on a dried mud floor, surrounded by balaclaved thugs who made him spout nonsense in a voice so quavering it was hardly his own, then spoke their own sacrificial junk, then cut off his head while the camera ticked off every final second. Then they cut his friend’s throat.
You think murder splinters a family or brings it closer together? I don’t know; depends on how thick the glue has already been laid. But execution is a different kind of murder. When your brother is decapitated with an arm-sized knife because he went to help people, and anyone in the free world can see his final moments courtesy of the unthinking, unblinking internet, then it is your family’s worst nightmare made public, made entertainment, made eternal. You can never block the memory of it; the horror is just a few clicks away.
Would you believe people emailed me the link to the video? They did. I don’t know why they would, what kink of cruelty drove them, but they did.
‘Do you think he could turn to one of these old friends?’ I asked.
‘He’s still wanted for questioning by the FBI. So, he might not get a warm reception from a friend who doesn’t want to be made an accessory.’
‘Those charges will go away if he gets his meet with the CIA,’ I said. ‘It’ll be part of the surrender deal, guaranteed.’
‘But surely his own mother would be the least likely person to turn him in.’
‘True. She’s a career diplomat. She has a lot to lose if he resurfaces; he could be an embarrassment.’
‘So what? We sit here and wait and scarf California rolls all day like private eyes on surveillance? He could have already been here and gone.’ The desperation painted her voice.
‘No,’ I said. ‘We go in and, if he’s there, well, that’s done, and if he’s not, we find out where he is.’
A limo slid up to the curb. A uniformed man with a strong build got out, spoke to the doorman.
A few moments later, Sandra Ming stepped outside.
‘Where’s the rental car?’ I said.
‘Around the corner, in a garage.’
‘I want you to follow that limo, I want to know where she’s going.’
Leonie slammed the laptop shut. Mrs Ming spoke with the driver; he appeared to be showing her some sort of ID. The doorman had taken a careful step back toward his usual perch. ‘It’ll be gone before I can catch up,’ Leonie said.
‘Just go, wheel around, she’ll still be here. I’ll make sure.’
‘I don’t know how to tail a car.’
‘Follow where it goes and don’t get caught. It’s for the children.’
‘Thanks.’ Leonie sprinted out of the sushi bar, the angry chef glaring at her like she was dodging the bill. I threw ample dollars at the wasabi bowl.
As I came out onto 59th, into the humid curtain of the day, the limo driver closed the rear passenger door behind Mrs Ming and ducked back behind the wheel. I had to time this as carefully as a shot. Get across the street without being hit by either a cab or a bicycle or another car; time it so I got a word with that driver.
I pulled my phone from my pocket, placed it before my eyes, the modern electronic blinder. My thumbs scrabbled on the touchscreen like I was writing the most urgent message in the history of humanity. I kept my gaze down, hung back from the car, trying to move fast enough and also not veer out of the driver’s blind spot. I risked a glance. A taxi barreled toward me, but I still had room. He was clearly expecting me to jog, pick up the pace. New York cabbies are reincarnated kamikaze pilots and they subscribe to the inarguable theory that it’s best that you get out of their way. It’s the food chain at work.
The limo yanked out from the curb, and I stepped right in its way. The right front fender clipped my leg, a nice hard tap that would register not only in my pain centers but inside the limo itself. I yelped and fell, sprawling back into the street, diving like a soccer player hoping for a red card against the opposition, and the cab stopped about a foot from my head; I could see the reflection of my face, carnival-house bent, in the gleam of its newly washed fender.
The driver and the cabbie both burst from their cars, the limo driver saying nothing, which made him very unusual. You might expect protestations of innocence, or of concern. The limo driver just looked at me with eyes carved from the same indifferent chrome as the cabbie’s fender. The cabbie practically brayed at me in English, accented with a sharp Hebrew.
The doorman, though, he was golden. He bolted forward, knelt by me. ‘Sir? You okay?’
‘Ohhhh,’ I moaned. ‘My leg.’
‘You stepped out in front of me,’ the limo driver said. ‘It’s your fault. Watch where you’re walking.’ He spoke with a mild eastern European accent.
Sandra Ming, I saw, remained in the limo.
‘You’re right,’ I said. Shakily, the doorman helped me to my feet. ‘I… I think I’m okay.’
The limo driver, the doorman, they exchanged a glance. Pure unease. The doorman’s said I don’t think this is the kind of guy who’s gonna sue if we help him. The driver’s said I don’t care. He looked like he’d just as soon run over me as he would a speed bump.
The cabbie hovered, uncertain. ‘Good you were paying attention,’ I said to the cabbie. ‘Unlike some others.’
There: I threw down the gauntlet. The limo driver slid his steely stare back onto me as the doorman forced me toward the curb. Traffic began to back up behind the cabbie, horns jeering in the infinitely patient way of New Yorkers. The cabbie saw I was now the doorman’s problem. He started to slide back into his taxi.
And, four cars behind him, I could see Leonie, in a silver Prius. She wore an expression on her face that mixed nervousness with the determination only a parent can have.
I staggered to the curb, waving off help. ‘I’m all right,’ I said. Normally a person might ask the driver for his license, or his phone number, in case there was a further injury. And I thought about it, but I weighed that it might send his suspicions soaring. I didn’t like the vibe from him at all; he was watching me in the way that the interviewers did years ago when I applied at Special Projects. Measuring me, solely as an enemy. I didn’t know who he was and I decided it was best to play nice now that Leonie was in position. I raised a hand. ‘It was my fault, you’re right, I wasn’t watching what I was doing. Sorry.’ I put my phone down at my side and powered it off.
The driver inspected me with a studied glance.
‘What? What the hell now?’ I said, earning an Oscar nomination for my role as Irritated New Yorker.
The limo driver got back into the car without another word and he inched away from the curb. Other cars caught in the jam had filtered past him, but, when he merged into the stop and start traffic, Leonie in the rented Prius was two cars behind him. She looked like she intended to cement herself to his bumper. I noticed she’d put on large, heavy sunglasses big and dark enough that she could have done welding wearing them, and her lush auburn hair was pulled back and covered with a Mets baseball cap. Something about her look was vaguely familiar.
I was nervous for her. She wasn’t trained to shadow someone, she’d been up most of the night and was running on excitement and fear. The driver looked like a tough customer. She was clearly smart, book-smart, and if she was used to dealing with criminals she must have developed her own toughness. She had to follow him.
‘You sure you’re all right?’ the doorman said.
‘My leg’s hurting and I think my phone’s broken. I just need to sit down for a minute.’ I was careful not to ask him to let me inside the building. Let it be his idea.
‘Sir, come here, why don’t you sit inside for a minute. Or at least wash the grit off your hands. Is there someone I can call for you?’
The air inside felt nice after the humid squeeze of the afternoon. The doorman pointed to a bathroom where I could rinse my bloodied knuckles and I thanked him.
‘I’m sure I’m okay, I don’t want to be any trouble. I’ll just wash up and let myself back out.’ I limped extra hard as I walked to the men’s room. Another resident, a heavy-set man pushing an older woman in a wheelchair, exited the elevator and the doorman moved to open the door for them. The heavy man was busy convincing the wheelchair lady that going for an outing, even with the chance of rain, was a good idea, his words running over the protestations of the woman like water gushing in a stream.
I washed my hands, quickly. Then I glanced out the bathroom door. The doorman was busy hailing the pair a cab. I had gotten very few lucky breaks since my pregnant wife vanished but this was one of them. I ducked into the elevator.
Sandra Ming was on the fourth floor.
The doorman would likely look for me, or he might assume I slipped out when he was hailing cabs or providing directions to confused tourists. So I didn’t have much time.
No answer to the knock at the Mings’ door. I dropped to my knees and brought out the lock picks. Thirty seconds later the door was open.
I shut it behind me and listened to the hush. No one was here. I didn’t have a gun with me and I moved through the rooms. Den, decorated with objet d’art from China, from Africa, from South America. A Mayan mask frowned at me from the wall. A kitchen. The coffee maker was on, the scent of dark French roast a caress in the air. A length of hallway, and a master bedroom. Immaculate. A woman’s room – it held a woman’s scent, a subtle mix of irises and Dior perfume. My wife had worn the same scent and for a moment grief overwhelmed my caution. Nothing like a memory of your wife’s skin to bring down the avalanche. I pushed it away.
Back down the hallway. Past a study, where I glanced into the doorway. A large desk, one with a masculine weight that didn’t quite match the feel of the rest of the apartment.
I stepped into a bedroom, frozen in post-collegiate amber. Jack Ming’s room. A framed diploma from NYU. A collection of books, but not textbooks: these were books he liked to read. A well-worn history of Hong Kong – had he been happy there? Biographies about computer pioneers like Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace and Steve Jobs. George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasies. A bound collection of graphic novels, of Iron Man, Spider-Man, the Avengers.
From the wall Jack Ming’s face looked out at me from a scattering of party pictures, the kind taken by a pro photographer at college events. His smile looked pained, as though the party wasn’t quite his deal. His hair was longer and his face was fuller. His friends often had buzzed smiles and protective arms around Jack’s slender shoulders. He had a shy but sincere grin.
He was just a kid, goddamn it, just a kid I was supposed to kill.
The apartment was cool, but a finger of humidity slid down my spine as I walked into the bathroom. I checked the tub. Droplets still beaded the surface. The bathroom was connected to his room. No reason for anyone else to shower in here.
Jack Ming had been here. Recently. Within the past hour. I might only have missed him, arriving at my perch at the sushi bar, by minutes.
Daniel could die because I’d missed him.
Dust, a light coating, touched his bedroom desk. It didn’t look like he’d set anything down in here. I could see the barest indentation on the bed where he had sat.
He’d come here, he’d left. Without his mother. Had he said his goodbyes? Was she not helping him? Your wanted son reappears, on the run, and within an hour the reunion is done and he’s fled and Mom’s in a limo with a driver who looks like he used to train boxers for the Russian Olympic team.
What had Jack Ming needed here? Something more than saying farewell to his mother?
I went back to her bedroom and made a fast but thorough search. I found nothing of interest: Sandra Ming had stripped her life down to the barest essentials. There was a small, elegant phone by the bedside. I picked it up and hit star-69. The phone rang.
On the fourth ring, someone picked up. But there was only silence.
I waited. The other side waited. I could hear a soft, soft breathing.
I took a jump: ‘Yes, I’m calling on behalf of Mrs Ming.’
The other side hung up.
Who would she call when her son arrives, out of the mists for a presumably unexpected reunion? Was that who had dispatched the limo driver?
I went into the study. Jack Ming’s father, Russell, had gotten his start in the madhouse of Hong Kong real estate and then set up a property development company here. Framed on the walls were photos of him with other famous developers, New York celebrities, smiling politicians. Several pictures of him and Jack, his arm around his son. People sure liked to put their arms on Jack’s shoulders. Maybe he was one of those people who inspired a need to protect, to shelter. I tried not to dwell on those pictures. He couldn’t be someone’s son, not like Daniel was. He just had to stay a target, faceless, inhuman. I hadn’t wanted to know about his life, just how to end it.
There were no pictures of Mr and Mrs Ming together. The absence of a picture is also worth a thousand words. A thin sheen of dust on the desk had been disturbed. It didn’t seem to be used by Mrs Ming; there were no papers or files on its surface. A screen saver danced across the monitor. I looked at the keyboard. Dust on some keys, not on others. Someone had used this keyboard for the first time in a long while. Jack.
I moved the mouse and the computer woke up. It wasn’t passworded. The screen background was a picture of Jack and his father. A click gave me the most recently used applications: Word, Firefox, Excel. I started them, went to the histories of each, opened the most recent files. The Excel spreadsheets were over a year old, and had been created by Russell Ming as part of his business. The Word documents were also all Russell Ming’s – mostly related to his business but one that was a letter to his son Jack.
Reading this felt like peering into a grave. I didn’t want to see it but you couldn’t help it, it was like a diary falling open to a page.
Dear Jack: First of all, you know this, but it bears saying. I love you. There is nothing you can do, or could ever do, that will lessen my love for you. I want you to tell me what it is that is troubling you so. And I want the truth, as much as it could hurt, I want to know what you think you’ve done. I want you to tell me. Not your mother. Let’s have this be between us. Because I don’t think that she will
And there the letter stopped, as though he’d decided not to continue with an unspoken, unspooled thought. What had he not wanted to say about his lovely diplomat wife? Did the heart attack take before he’d finished the sentence? I checked the date on the document. The day that he’d died. These might have been Russell Ming’s final writings. Or maybe this was when Jack came into the room, and it was better to talk to his son than to write him a letter. Daniel, if I find you, I promise my last word to you will not be an unfinished sentence.
I checked the browser history. The last website visited had been about a property in Brooklyn, in Williamsburg. It was on Ming’s company website. Seven commercial properties were listed and this one was empty, unrented. The browser showed the previous six entries were all for other Ming properties. Jack had checked all his father’s holdings, found one that wasn’t in use.
Maybe a good place for him to hide? I memorized the address. It was the only vacant property belonging to the management company.
I started to search the desk. Very little here: Russell Ming’s expired passport, pens and pencils, a legal pad with a faded pencil sketch that said Jack’s options. 1. Surrender to the police 2. Let Jack… and then nothing else written, as though the thought had been interrupted, like the Word document. In one drawer was a nest of keys, with tags on them, addresses marked in a careful blue pen. I searched through them. The keys for the Brooklyn property were gone.
An empty building, where he controlled access. The perfect place for him to surrender to the CIA and make his deal with August. He’d come home for the keys.
I looked through the rest of Russell Ming’s computer quickly. Jack Ming was a hacker, the kind of kid whose fingertips felt lonely without a keyboard. He had evidence against Novem Soles, and maybe he’d backed it up here. But in the machine’s history there was no sign of new files, or of downloaded or uploaded files on this system, no emails sent. He hadn’t even bothered to clean out the browser history. Maybe Leonie could make sense of it. I unhooked the laptop from the external keyboard and monitor.
Maybe – a thought rumbled in my ear. Maybe what he’s got on Novem Soles isn’t on a computer. Maybe it’s physical. Something he’s carrying. Maybe a hacker who knows just how vulnerable most computers are won’t trust this information to a machine.
I had to find him. Now.
He’d taken the keys to the Brooklyn building. Maybe that’s where he intended to hide, maybe where he would go right this moment.
Morris County, New Jersey
If there was something worse than feeling helpless, it was feeling useless.
Leonie gripped the steering wheel as she followed the limo. Sam had found Jin Ming, or, rather, Jack Ming, and she had done, what? Frittered her time away trying to delve into databases, bribing hackers to unlock the secrets of the man who had snuck into the country. Sat typing while these murderous freaks had her child, and… Now what? She didn’t know how to tail anyone. She kept expecting the limo to pull over to the side, the driver to watch her glide past with a knowing sneer, that he knew she was there and that he could lose her at any time. Or worse. Maybe he would kill her to protect Mrs Ming.
Was he CIA? Was he Nine Suns? If he was, why didn’t he just hand Mrs Ming over to her and Sam?
The limo headed west, into suburban New Jersey along Highway 80, finally turning north on 206 toward Lake Hopatcong. The rain parted like a curtain; the sky showed elusive patches of gray-blue, weak sunlight fell in rays among the breaks like a handful of sand sifting through fingers. She kept two cars between her and the limo, and every time another car tried to edge in she would grit her teeth and stand her ground and think, God, don’t let me lose them. She nearly wrecked twice driving through Parsippany, cars trying to get across lanes and her not yielding an inch. Her hands trembled on the wheel.
The limo turned off the highway into a stretch of parkland. She hung back; it was more dangerous to get too close to the limo. She craved a cigarette.
The limo whipped around a turn, shaded by oaks. Signs indicated this was private property and warned against trespassing in the strictest terms. She drove past and if the limo driver was watching her, was suspicious of her, he would think he was wrong.
She pulled the car off to the side of the road, nosing it into a thick grove of oaks. She could wait for Sam. That would be best.
And if the driver’s job was to eliminate Mrs Ming? Or to question her about Jack’s whereabouts? Then all was lost. She and Sam had to find him first, had to eliminate him before he could betray Novem Soles. She shivered.
She tried calling Sam. The call rolled to voicemail. She told him where she was and that she was going to follow the road the limo had taken on foot. She kept the tremble out of her voice.
If you stay in the car your baby could die. Don’t be afraid. You can do this. It’s up to you.
And a strength flooded her. She could do this.
She got out of the car and she started to walk through the dense woods. She could see the thin line of paved road the limo had taken. She reached a fence, eight feet tall. Another big NO TRESPASSING sign. She clambered over the fence, using the sign for leverage. She dropped down into high grass.
She ran parallel to the road, staying in the heavy growth of trees. Mud sucked at her shoes; the air felt stitched with the damp. Rain, lingering on leaves, fell onto her shoulders and her head.
The road turned again. She climbed over some rain-slick rocks, feeling breathless. She would see what the driver and Mrs Ming were doing. If she could she would get the woman away. Because if Mrs Ming was the key to knowing what Jack was doing next, then she must belong to her and Sam alone.
Nature, she thought. The air smelled heavy with moss and an underlying scent of heat-hurried decay. It wasn’t so bad out here. Maybe she should get away from the computer more. She imagined going for a long hike – although she hadn’t gone hiking since long childhood walks – with Taylor secure on her back, the sun warm on their faces. Not in Vegas. Too hot. She could take Taylor to Lake Tahoe for a long weekend, soon, when all this was over. Stroll in the shade of the trees, point out the flowers, imprint good memories. Do the things she’d said she’d do if she ever had a child… if she ever had another chance.
Grief prickled her face.
You can do this.
In the distance Leonie heard a woman scream, short and sharp. It was as though the wind carried the noise, dropped it into her lap like a gift.
For a moment she froze. Then she bolted, dodging through the trees. She slipped and skidded down a muddy incline. She’d slid down to the road, which curved hard and fed directly into an old house ahead of her. She saw the limo parked there, and no other car. The house needed paint, it needed a carpenter: odd impressions that flickered across her mind. Between her and the house there was a big square of clear lawn she would have to cross.
No sign of the driver, or of Sandra Ming.
She ran across the lawn. She went onto the porch, trying to be quiet. The boards creaked slightly, and every moan of the wood felt like a knife in the skin. She kept waiting for the driver to explode out of the front door. But the door stayed shut. She pressed an ear to a window. Listened. Heard nothing but the rasp of her own breathing.
Sam, please, where are you? Please get here. For a moment she thought: maybe whoever this is, CIA or whoever, maybe they got Sam. They left someone behind at the Mings to wait for Jack and they’ve killed Sam.
Maybe it’s just me left to save my kid. Me alone. You’ve gotten through worse, she told herself.
Curtains, thick, streaked with age, blocked her view through the window. The porch felt exposed. It offered little cover.
Weird, she thought, I’m thinking like a soldier.
She crept around the corner, staying on the porch, toward the detached garage. She stayed low and moved quickly and she was so proud of herself that for a moment she didn’t feel when the Taser needles hit her, but the charge made her dance off the porch, tumbling into the neglected rose bushes, the thorns pricking her face, the bolt surging pain into her bones like water flooding a pipe.
She turned, saw the limo driver thumbing the controls for another hit.
The last thing she smelled was the rose petals crushed under her body, like a grandmother smell, her mouth twisting, trying to scream for Sam to help her.
East 59th Street, Manhattan
I ran back down to the lobby. The doorman stood by the glass entrance and when he saw me exit off the elevator – carrying a laptop – he stormed back through the door. Well, stormed rather politely.
‘Sir, I know you needed to recuperate, but this is a private building and-’
I punched him, hard, one smart blow in the tender spot between the edge of the jaw and the lip. He staggered back and I hammered a fist into his gut and then into the vulnerable joining of neck and nerve.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘Really, mister.’ He folded. I knelt, went through his pockets and found a passkey. I stood and hurried down the hallway. Saw a door marked Security. I keyed the door with the passkey. A rented cop stood before a set of monitors. He charged at me, going for his holster. I knocked him down and I took the gun from him. I told him to sit down. He obeyed.
‘Turn around. And, no, I’m not going to kill you.’ I slammed the gun into the back of his head, three times, and he went down. I went to the security recording. Rewound. I saw myself enter, I saw Mrs Ming exit. I saw people come and go, as fast and as energetically as if they had espresso in their blood. Then him.
Jack Ming, leaving, alone, practically running out of the building. At the exit he turned left.
A bit more rewinding and I saw him enter the building with his mother. This I played slowly.
On another monitor a woman got off the elevator and screamed when she saw the fallen doorman. Okay, I was officially out of time, thank you for playing.
Footage of Jack Ming, walking inside the building with his mother. The body language was clear. The kid was anxious. He was holding two grocery bags and he kept swinging them over his feet. A small knapsack sat on his back that he’d left with as well. He kept glancing about, not even looking at his mother, while they waited for the elevator.
And Mrs Ming. You could tell this was not a happy reunion. She was not touching her child. She was not looking at her long-departed, wanted-by-the-police kid. She was looking at the tile floor, and her watch. Did she have an appointment to keep? She looked as though she wanted to wriggle free of her own skin and slither away. She kept shaking the rain from her umbrella. It was a constructive action, something to do other than watch her kid.
I stopped the digital recording. I erased it, from Jack’s appearance to now, and then I powered down the cameras. There was no point in me being remembered either.
I hurried out the door, past the woman crouching by the unconscious doorman. She had a cell phone pressed to her ear. She called to me to help her but I ignored her.
I let the traffic carry me along. I wanted out of this neighborhood now. I went down to the 59th Street subway station, rode the train to Grand Central, got off. I found a store in the terminal and put the laptop in a knapsack I’d bought.
I tried Leonie on the cell phone; there was no answer. I didn’t like that at all. Maybe she didn’t like to talk on the phone while she drove but I figured that for me she’d make an exception.
For a moment I felt torn. I had the address of an empty building where my target would be, and if you’re planning to kill someone an empty building in New York City is convenient. But having Leonie tag after the limo driver felt like a mistake now. Jack had left his mother behind, and maybe she knew where he was, but maybe she didn’t. I had an address, an actual, throbbing clue, and Leonie could be off with our car on a fool’s errand. I stepped back out onto the street, trying to decide what to do.
The wind broke the rain clouds into jagged curls of gray; the sun flooded the sky, weak as tea.
The iPhone rang inside my pocket. The phone that Anna had given me.
‘Sam?’ Leonie. Her voice tight and stiff, rattled by fear. There is a certain pronunciation made when the lips are bruised; you don’t quite form your words right.
‘Oh, God, I messed up, I messed up, please… ’
And then the limo driver’s voice. ‘You. You sent this woman to follow me. Who are you?’
‘Don’t hurt her.’
‘If you don’t want her hurt, then you come get her.’
No. Not now. I had the address where Jack most likely had run. I had Jack Ming in my grasp.
What would you do to save your child? she’d asked me.
A choice. What would I do to save my child? Would I sacrifice this woman who was basically a stranger? A little, awful voice inside me said, you don’t need her. You found Jack, not her. What good is she, what has she done to help save your kid? It was from a dark corner deep in the well of my soul, but when you are in a battle for your child’s life darkness stands close to you, whispers in your ear. Nine Suns wasn’t going to give me Daniel, or give Leonie her daughter, if Jack Ming breathed long enough to turn himself into the CIA.
‘I strongly suggest that you listen to me, mister. Retrieve your bitch. Or I’ll cut her throat.’
In the background I could hear Leonie, gasping, saying, ‘Don’t, don’t!’
I couldn’t tell if she was talking to me or to the driver. Then a piercing scream.
‘Where are you?’ I managed to say.
He gave me an address and directions to Morris County, in northern New Jersey.
I clicked off the phone. If I made the wrong choice I could be abandoning either a woman I barely knew, who seemed to hold me in contempt, to death, or my own child.
If the situation was reversed, what would I want her to do? Leave me to die? Absolutely. Go save the kids, lady, what happens to me is nothing. Go.
We hadn’t anticipated an enemy beyond Special Projects, who would not have grabbed one of us and threatened us with death. Caught up in the mad rush to find Jack Ming, I had not planned for this contingency. It was on me.
I went outside, stood on the sidewalk in the warming humidity, and I started to shudder. It felt like every nerve in my body was wired to open current. I gave myself thirty seconds of weakness and I stopped shivering then I put the decision aside. Leonie was in the greatest danger right now. I could no more leave her to die than I could anyone else.
I started to walk. I needed a car.
A couple of turns later I saw a parking garage, four suited men coming down the ramp to merge into the river of pedestrians. I maneuvered carefully, bumping directly into the one who’d had his hand in his right front pocket as he had turned from the ramp onto the sidewalk.
‘Jesus, watch where you’re going, jerkwad,’ he snapped at me.
‘My bad, I’m very sorry,’ I said. I turned into the parking ramp and hurried up the stairs. I didn’t even glance to see which keys I’d pickpocketed off him until I was on the second level. A Mercedes logo on the keychain. I ran along the parked cars, testing the automatic unlock, until headlights on an SE flashed at me.
One minute later I was heading toward the Lincoln Tunnel.
If you save her and Jack Ming gets away…
I had to get a grip. Focus. I wanted to make good time. The limo driver apparently had and I thought, please, don’t let there be bad traffic or an accident. Don’t let the guy whose car I’m stealing realize his keys are gone. Let the doorman and the guard be okay after I punched them. Forgive me everything I do to save my son.
Don’t let me fail.
Along Highway 206, New Jersey
The Garden State. You tend to forget that New Jersey deserves that name when you’re stuck driving through an endless unfurling of suburbia. I drove at top speed and the rain that had hurried in from the Atlantic passed through here. The rain was like a hand cleaning a slate. The air smelled wet and fresh and new.
I drove. I didn’t use the car’s GPS – if it had been reported stolen by now, I didn’t want the system tracking where I was. I kept it switched off.
Okay. Now: who had Leonie and Mrs Ming? Jack’s mom had called someone. And then the limo driver had collected Mrs Ming. Now, I would not put it past Special Projects if they figured out like I had that Jack Ming was their new best buddy – Fagin might have tattled – to scoop up Mrs Ming for her own protection against Novem Soles. And they might even, to lure me in close, pretend-threaten Leonie’s life. If August was at this house, fine, we’d talk, and maybe he’d let me take some photos of Jack Ming looking dead, if his people had already nabbed Jack.
But. But. If August was involved in this operation, the limo driver wouldn’t have been on the phone. It would have been August. Right?
I was not optimistic that Special Projects had Leonie. It had to be the dreaded ‘Someone Else’. An enemy I didn’t know.
The phone Anna gave me rang again as I turned into the address. ‘Yes?’ I said, sounding impatient.
‘Hello, Sam.’ Anna Tremaine.
‘I would like to know your status.’
‘I’ll call you when the job’s done.’
‘Has Leonie found the informant?’
‘I’ll call you when the job is done.’ I made the words short, clipped.
‘You know,’ she said, ‘I don’t think you’ve heard your baby cry. He’s been rather fussy today. Well, both these babies are unhappy. I wonder, do you think they can sense their… precariousness?’
I don’t know how to describe the dark surge over my heart. I don’t have the words for it. It was a blackness. I hadn’t felt it in my worst moments, when I saw my brother die on a scratchy video, when my wife was kidnapped in a street of fire, when I was tortured and accused of being a traitor, choking to death when I couldn’t give the Company answers I didn’t know. I’ve had more than my share of really bad moments. This was even darker. This was reaching into me and smearing something foul on my soul. It took all my will to keep my breath steady. ‘I am doing what you asked. You don’t hurt him. You do not hurt either of them.’
‘But the job’s not done yet and you won’t tell me what’s happening.’ She sighed. ‘I’m playing with his little fingers right now, Sam. They’re more delicate than bone china.’
I told her briefly what I knew, and what I was doing. For several moments she was silent.
Then she said, ‘Listen, Sam. Listen to your son. I’m going to put the phone right by him.’ And I could hear the phone, a hiss of breath, a gurgle. My son. I had never heard him. A soft ahhhhhh, all baby breath, all happy, toothless mumble.
Then choked, frustrated gurgling; he wasn’t happy. Bored or annoyed at the phone resting next to his face.
‘Daniel. Daniel, this is Daddy.’ Like he could understand. Like my voice would mean anything to him; my soft baritone was as alien to him as any other sound he’d never heard. My words, my voice, could give him no comfort. I’d never thought about what I’d say to him: he was a baby, what would he understand? I’d never been around babies. I was the youngest in my family. ‘Daniel. It’s Daddy. I’m coming to get you.’
He fussed, he squawked, he cried. Maybe he wanted Anna to pick him up again. He wanted Anna. The idea made me want to vomit. He wanted a woman who would hurt him. That was true innocence.
‘I’m going to be there soon, son, we’ll be together. Okay? This is Daddy. I love you, Daniel. I love you.’ I did love him. I loved him, sight unseen. ‘I love you. I love… ’
‘Sam,’ Anna’s voice was back. ‘Listen to me.’
Morris County, New Jersey
Leonie looked up from staring at the floor. The driver hadn’t planned on two victims, she supposed; he only had the one set of handcuffs and he’d chained Mrs Ming to another wooden chair. He’d bound Leonie with rope from a closet in the house. The living room was small, the wallpaper old and twenty years out of fashion, musty with grime. The house carried the feel of a way station, a place used infrequently. Leonie sat, her knees folded beneath her, watching the driver pace the floor.
The driver had moved into the front rooms, to watch the windows for Sam.
‘Help me,’ Mrs Ming whispered to her.
Leonie glanced at her. ‘I’m curious as to what you expect me to do.’
It wasn’t the answer Mrs Ming was looking for. ‘He’s not from the CIA. He’s not. They said they would send someone.’
‘Yes!’ Mrs Ming said.
Leonie inched closer to her. ‘The CIA is looking for your son.’
‘A man who said he was from the CIA called me this morning. They said Jack might be coming home. To call them if he did. I… I didn’t know to believe him, but I went to the grocery, in case. I got Jack’s favorite things to eat.’ Her voice sounded lost.
Leonie looked at her. ‘Where is your son?’
‘I don’t know… ’
‘He left, I don’t… ’
Leonie leaned back and head-butted the woman. ‘Tell me where he is!’
Mrs Ming howled in anger and pain.
‘Hey! Hey!’ the limo driver said, hurrying into the room, kicking Leonie onto her back. ‘Stop it!’ He murmured again into his open phone, too low to hear, and then clicked it off.
‘You’re not from the CIA!’ Mrs Ming said, blood oozing from the corner of her mouth, her forehead vivid with the imprint of Leonie’s head. ‘You cannot keep me here. You cannot. They will look for me.’
‘You,’ he said to Leonie. ‘You’re with Sam Capra.’
She said nothing and he responded, in his accented English, ‘Bitch, I am short on patience’, and he began to kick her. Hard. The first blow sent her across the room.
Then he asked her a question, received hazily through the pain, that made no sense to her at all. ‘Where is the woman called Mila?’
Morris County, New Jersey
I saw the rental Prius, nosed into a grove of trees. I turned in and climbed a wall and headed down a long, paved road. A sign read PRIVATE DRIVE. NO TRESPASSING. Ahead was a long, curving driveway and a house that looked like it might once have been a grand home or summer retreat from the start of the twentieth century. She’d tried to sneak in, but I was expected. Zero point in anything except walking straight into the house.
My phone rang again. ‘Come to the front door. Nothing funny or the redhead dies and you get to watch.’ Short and sweet.
I made my way to the front door, across a grand porch. I opened the door and stepped into a large foyer.
‘Here,’ a voice called.
I headed back from the front of the house and went to my left and entered what might once have been a library or study. The limo driver must have been a Boy Scout. He was extremely well prepared. He aimed a gun at me, and held another pressed against Leonie’s temple. He had a Taser tucked into the side of his pants. Leonie’s face was bruised along the jawline.
‘Hi,’ he said. ‘You heal fast, bumper boy.’
‘Vitamins and milk.’
‘But those are not brain food,’ he said. He tapped Leonie’s head with the gun for emphasis. ‘I’m thinking you know the drill.’
‘I’m not armed,’ I said.
‘Liar. If I check you and you have a gun, I’m going to shoot off this bitch’s thumbs.’
I produced the security guard’s gun from the back of my pants and dropped it on the floor.
‘Kick it over,’ he said.
I did as he said.
‘Who are you with?’ he asked me.
‘Me, myself and I,’ I said.
He switched the gun over to Mrs Ming’s head and she began to wail. ‘I don’t believe you. I’m not sure who you’re more interested in – your partner here or your target.’
‘I don’t want anyone hurt.’
‘Then who are you with?’
‘I’m with nobody,’ I said. ‘We’re looking for Mrs Ming’s son.’
‘And you thought I was bringing her to him?’
‘I did. Not now.’
He gave a twisted little laugh. Now that I was unarmed he put a gun up against each of their heads. Toying with me.
‘I’m not sure which one you want alive the most,’ he said.
‘Both of them.’ Ten feet separated us, plenty of time for him to shoot me if I made a move.
I knew at least that with Mrs Ming he was bluffing. He’d brought her here to hold her or to question her, on someone’s orders.
‘Are you with Novem Soles? Because we’re on the same side, then, and this is a misunderstanding.’ The thought that Anna could have opened up a bounty on Jack Ming occurred to me. They just wanted him dead; they wouldn’t care if it was by my hand.
‘Sounds like a slant restaurant.’ He seemed to be taking my measure with his gaze. Mrs Ming stared at him with hate in her eyes. ‘You’re the one answering questions, not me, who’s your friend?’
‘Her name is Leonie.’
‘And where would I find Mila? I gave your friend a roughing up and she didn’t know.’
Not a question I was expecting at all. What the hell just happened? ‘I have no idea.’
He eased the gun over toward Leonie’s eye. ‘I want you to tell me how to find Mila.’
‘Mila contacts me when it suits her,’ I said.
‘You’re going to tell me how I can find Mila, or I’m going to kill one of them.’ He shoved the guns hard against their skulls; Mrs Ming let out a twisted moan; Leonie bit her lip and her gaze locked with mine. ‘Not sure which. Guess we’ll know when I pull the trigger. On five. One. Two. Three.’
‘She sometimes meets me at a bar,’ I said in a rush. ‘She calls, she picks the bar.’
‘And define sometimes.’
‘Once a week, when I’m in New York,’ I lied. ‘But it’s on her schedule, not mine.’
He studied my face. ‘Sit down on the floor. Keep your hands behind your back.’
I obeyed. He took the gun off Sandra Ming and holstered it, and then he produced a cell phone from his pocket. He tapped buttons. And in Russian he said: ‘Yes, sir. I have him now. He says the woman will meet him at a bar every week, but she calls him.’ He listened for thirty seconds. ‘Yes. All right.’ He closed the phone.
It’s hard to keep three prisoners when one is unsecured. Right now he wanted me talking. But he hadn’t secured me; he’d used the women as hostages, but he was keeping his distance from me. The women were my bonds.
But his bonds were that he wasn’t master of his own fate. He had to call someone. Someone he called sir. He had to take orders from someone, and, speaking Russian into the phone, he hadn’t wanted me to know that. He hadn’t wanted me to know he was, well, not the top of the totem pole.
But he didn’t draw the second gun again. He felt very much in control. I watched him. He watched me. A minute ticked by. Then another. He didn’t shoot any of us or ask any questions or say what was going to happen next.
‘I find silences awkward,’ I said.
He clearly didn’t.
‘Let me guess. Your boss said not to ask us any questions.’
He looked at me.
‘I’m sure he doesn’t want you to know what the information we have is worth. You might cut a slice for yourself.’
‘Shut up,’ he said. ‘You bore me. You didn’t even try to fight. Coward.’
‘Did he tell you how much the bounty on Mila is?’
‘Shut up,’ he said again, but after a pause.
‘I presume once he gets here, all you do is dig the graves,’ I said. ‘I bet he doesn’t even give you one per cent of the cut on Mila. What are you, paid by the hour? I’m sure that was why you came to the land of opportunity, to dust grave dirt off your hands while your boss collects an insane amount of money he wouldn’t get without your help.’
He stared at me. His mouth opened and I could see a little strand of spit bridge his lips.
‘He told you to sit on us, he’d be out here soon. Or she.’ I was quiet for a minute. ‘He didn’t tell you how much Mrs Ming’s son is worth, either?’
He stared at me, but he swallowed at the same time.
I had a noose around his neck now, so to speak, so I gave it a hard tug. ‘Mila presently has the highest price on her head in the world, for someone who isn’t a head of state or terrorist. And I know how to get her, and you’re just going to hand over that information to your bosses and let them score the profit. But that’s okay, I guess you get to wash the limo at the end of the day.’
‘I would like to know who the hell Mila is,’ Leonie said.
‘Shut up,’ the driver said to her. He looked back at me and laughed. ‘Why would you want me to profit more than my boss? It makes no difference as to whether you live or die.’
‘I’ve been screwed over by a boss before,’ I said. ‘Very badly. I don’t much like bosses because I always did the hard, dangerous work and they got all the credit. Mila’s my boss and I’m not about to die for her.’ Then I played the trump. ‘A million. That’s what the bounty is. And I know some people who will pay at least a million, probably double, for Mrs Ming’s son. He stole something from them, they want it back. Your boss will be taking that money to the bank as well.’ Watch me tap dance, I love to improvise.
He said nothing, he just stared.
His cell phone rang again. He opened it and said, in Russian, ‘Yes?’ He listened. ‘Yes, I can stay longer. Of course. Is… is there anything you want me to find out from them?’ Silence. ‘Yes, sir.’ He clicked off.
‘Let me guess. He doesn’t want you talking to us,’ I said. ‘I love being right.’
‘He’s been delayed.’
‘And he doesn’t want you knowing what we know. You might decide that you could profit.’
‘I don’t want this man mad at me,’ he said.
‘Of course not,’ I said. ‘He has all the power. What do you have? He’s going to have three million dollars. A million for Mila, a million for the kid, a million for what the kid stole.’
His mouth worked.
‘What the hell are you doing?’ Leonie said. ‘Shut up.’ She stared at me, the barrel of the driver’s gun still indenting her hair.
‘You and I could cut a deal,’ I said. ‘You let these two go, and you and I collect the bounties. Together.’
He laughed. ‘And I trust you why? ’
‘Because I’ve told you the truth, and you suspect I’m right, and your boss hasn’t told you squat except spit out a bunch of orders and let you take all the risk.’ I put a heaviness on those final words. ‘You’re the errand boy. You’re not a player. I guess you’re not ready.’
‘Shut up,’ Leonie said.
‘You be quiet,’ the driver said. ‘I let them go, they go to the police.’
It’s always delicious when a not-bright person begins studying the angles.
‘No. The people paying the bounties have their kids,’ I said. ‘They’ve got control over them. They will go home and cry for their kids.’
Sometimes the unexpected happens. Sometimes a word is a bomb. Leonie’s eyes went wide with shock, her jaw trembled. She turned her head and the driver’s gun lay square in her forehead. She stared up past the gun at him, coiled. He glanced at her. Then he made his mistake. He looked up at me. ‘How do I know that any of what you said is true?’
Lying is not hard. I don’t know why the psychologists pronounce it as difficult. Lying is the easiest thing in the world. Truths are far more difficult. ‘Call your boss and tell him what I’ve told you,’ I said. ‘Tell him you know where Mila is, right now, and you know she’s worth a million. See how he reacts. See what he tells you to do.’
‘What if I kill the two of them and you and I work out a deal?’ he said. Testing me.
‘Sam, stop it,’ Leonie said, her voice a razor wire.
I shrugged. He smiled.
There are two kinds of killers. Those that don’t kill unless they believe they absolutely must, and those who kill with a greater ease. The driver was the second type. He liked the power. He liked the control. He was a small man on the inside, and killing made him feel big. I had made him feel small, seen the truth of who he was. It’s not complicated. The reaction tells you whether or not you can kill them without hesitation. I believe in do unto others, you know.
‘You throw her away easily,’ he said to me. He looked down at Leonie, as though considering what a waste that would be. She stared right back up into his eyes, the gun pressed now against her forehead, and ten feet away I could feel the fury radiating off her, the fire of inchoate anger and frustration.
‘Same as your boss is doing to you. Throwing you away.’
Later, replaying it in my head, I think that phrase did it. An accidental tripwire inside Leonie’s head. The idea of someone being thrown away. I didn’t know until much later how much of a nerve I struck with her, and at the time I thought she was thinking of Daniel and her daughter. I didn’t intend for her to fight the battle.
I just wanted him consumed with doubt, with greed, and if I got him close to me, to talk, then I could take him. That was when Leonie attacked. She timed it right. She did her best. Now, a person bound to a chair, it’s not really much of an attack – more of a low-aiming shove. She took advantage of the fact that he was standing right next to her and she slammed her weight, chair and all, into him, fueled by an incoherent rage.
Because he was going to interfere, and he would cause her child to die, to be thrown away.
Leonie knocked into the driver like a knee-hugging tackle, her feet kept propelling into him, and he staggered to the side, crashing into Sandra Ming, who obligingly screamed.
I ran forward.
Time didn’t slow. It always slows in the movies but in this dirty, abandoned old house it seemed to speed up, to accelerate beyond my control. The driver’s gun spoke, twice spitting, and I heard a scream, close as my ear as I dived toward them. The driver threw Leonie off him – picked her up, chair and ropes, and threw her at me – he was counting on me being kind and catching her. I didn’t. I ducked and the legs of the chair brushed my back. She slammed into the wall behind me, high up, falling to the gritty wooden floor. But throwing her off him meant he was off-balance, both hands employed in tossing her, and I charged at him. I pile-drove him hard into the wall, jamming forearm against windpipe, looking to crush it. But I hit him a fraction too high and I caught more jawline than throat.
We snapped back into the wall and he hooked a leg behind me. I fell and then I saw the gun, firm in his hand, and his wrist pivoted toward me. I caught the gun’s barrel and pushed it away. He lay atop me, in the stronger position, and I kept the gun at bay with my right hand. My left hand I used to make short, hard chops in every vulnerable spot: throat, solar plexus, testicles. Three fast brutal ones. He hissed out bad breath in sharp pain and I got a better grip and broke his wrist. The crack was loud. I slammed elbow into throat and he coughed and spat blood.
Money versus child. You tell me who fights harder.
Leonie landed on us. Her chair splintering had unbound her from the ropes. She pulled the gun away from him. He tried to lever an elbow back in her face and he missed.
She got the gun. But instead of shooting him she ran, simply trying to get the weapon out of his reach. She fired a round into Mrs Ming’s handcuff, anchored to the top rung of the chair, and pulled the older woman out of the room. Leaving me to fight the driver.
He slammed a roundhouse into my face with his good hand and I fell back against Mrs Ming’s damaged wooden chair. It was ladder-backed, no arms, worn with age. A weapon at hand. I grabbed the chair with one hand and swung its weight into him. Then again. Then again, each time dodging the blows he tried to connect against me. He screamed, in pain and frustration.
I had a good grip now and I swung for all I was worth. One of the legs cracked, separated from its weak nails and I flung it aside. He rolled and I smashed the chair into the floor, missing him, and the seat, torn from the chair, skittered across the floor. I was conscious of blood masking his face and coating my hands. He snarled; he was coming apart, same as the chair. He knew I was going to beat him to death.
He scrambled backward now, fleeing me, retreating back toward a window.
‘Tell me who your boss is and I’ll let you live,’ I said.
He made a noise and then he went backward, through the window, arms up to protect his battered body, flinging himself out onto the grassy hillside. It was only about a five-foot drop but he fell and rolled like he’d plunged from a great height.
The last big fragment of the chair still in my hand was a length of the ladder-back, with bits of wood dangling off it. I stripped them free; now all that was left of the chair in my grip was a two-foot length of tough oak, its top splintered into a sharp spear.
I jumped out the window after him.
He staggered through the trees, survival instinct fueling his run. But I’d broken him – maybe ribs along with the wrist – and his speed wasn’t top. Today had spun out of his control and he was bent by the reversal of fortune. He dodged me through the shade of the oaks and as we ran downhill he stumbled over a white outcrop of rock and he took a cruel fall.
I landed on top of him, knees digging in, the sharp wood raised above my head. ‘Talk,’ I said.
He spat at me.
‘Who do you work for?’
‘You are so fucked. You don’t even know who you’ve pissed off.’
He smiled through a bloody gash across his mouth. ‘No.’
I showed him the makeshift spear and said, ‘I will run this between your ribs and then stir.’
‘I was told to come get the Ming woman and her son if he was here. Bring them here. See what evidence the Ming kid has.’
‘And to hold us.’
‘Yes. For questioning.’
‘But you know about Mila.’
‘My boss does. He knew you were connected to her. I never heard of her until tonight.’
‘Who do you work for?’
‘I can’t tell you because I don’t know.’
‘You’re lying. He has to have a name.’
‘Do you think he’s ever told me his real name?’
‘How does he give you work?’
‘I get a phone call. I do what he asks, and a lot of money appears for me in a Caymans account.’
‘I used to be Latvian intelligence,’ he said.
Very small spy agency. ‘Didn’t it pay well?’
‘No. Money is better doing freelance work. I drive limo here, I do what my boss asks me. He knew my background before he ever called me. Please.’ He could see that if I hammered the spear into him it would slide deep into his windpipe. ‘Let me go,’ the driver said. ‘Please.’
I knew he would not have shown any mercy to me or Leonie.
‘Get up,’ I said. ‘Give me your wallet, your car keys.’
He obeyed. He wheezed; I’d broken ribs with the chair. His face was a bloodied wreck and his shirt and pants were torn. He wouldn’t look at my eyes. ‘You can’t leave me behind here, he’ll kill me. I know he’ll kill me.’
The wooden, pseudo-spear felt heavy in my hand. But I couldn’t kill him in cold blood. ‘Start walking. You can stop when you cross into Pennsylvania. If I see you again I’ll kill you without hesitation.’
He nodded. He stumbled, fell to the ground.
‘Get up,’ I said.
He nodded again, agreeing with me that getting up was a capital idea, and I leaned down to yank him to his feet.
The rock crashed into the side of my head and I went down to my knees, eyes thrumming with pain. He scrabbled across me, trying to seize the improvised spear and shoving my arm into the mud. Then he raised the rock again, slammed it into my face. I twisted my head so he missed my nose but hit my shuttered right eye. It hurt like hell.
I felt the butt of the spear grind into the mud and so I pushed him up. His feet scrabbled in the muck, obliging me, and then I drove the spear into him. It hurt him, he howled, but it didn’t pierce his side. He writhed away and then I was on top of him and I drove it, point down, hard into his belly.
I walked back up to the house, bleary with pain and my mouth tasting of puke. My eye was swollen nearly shut. It hurt but it wasn’t anything more than a black eye, I thought, not a broken socket. I stumbled and kept my feet moving.
Leonie stood in the door, shivering. With my good eye I could see her clutching at her elbows.
‘Mrs Ming… ’ she said. ‘Hurry, in here. Where’s the driver?’
‘Dead.’ I didn’t add it hadn’t been a good death to see.
‘You killed him?’
‘That’s usually what dead means. Thanks for the help. Thanks for shooting him once you got the gun and everything. Really appreciate it.’
‘I had to try and help Mrs Ming… ’ she moaned, and then I ran into the house.
The driver’s stray bullet had punctured her chest. Her skin was pale and gray as a clouded sky, blood easing from her mouth, her nose. Leonie had tried to staunch the bleeding. I knelt by her.
Her eyes fluttered open.
‘Mrs Ming. Where has Jack gone?’
Her bloodied lip thinned. ‘Won’t tell you… You people want to kill him.’
‘Is he going to go to his father’s building in Brooklyn? He took the keys from your house, I think.’
‘Tell you nothing… You want to hurt my son.’
‘I can help protect your son,’ I said.
Oh, God, please, I thought, please help her talk to me. ‘Mrs Ming. I worked for the CIA. I don’t want to hurt your son. Look at me.’ Her face focused on my bruises. ‘I just killed the man who kidnapped you. I’m trying to help you. I lied to that man. So I’m Jack’s only hope. The CIA is looking for him.’
‘The CIA called me… ’ she said. ‘Liars. All liars.’ Her eyelids fluttered.
Her words hit me hard as a punch. ‘Who in the CIA called you? Who?’
Her lips moved, and her breath gave what sounded like a final hush. ‘They wanted a deal… protect Jack, protect me… if you came I was to keep you at the house until they got there… ’
‘Who in the CIA did you talk to, Mrs Ming?’
But she didn’t want to talk about that, not with fewer breaths than fingers left. Mrs Ming said, ‘My son… help my son, please.’
What was I supposed to promise her? I was supposed to kill her son to save mine. I took her hand. ‘Jack will be all right,’ I said. ‘I promise you. I promise you.’
‘I loved him,’ she said. ‘Forgave him… ’ And the words, the breath, faltered and with a bubble of blood at her lips she was gone.
‘Oh, my God,’ Leonie said.
‘Are you all right?’
She nodded. She stared at the dead woman. She pressed fingers against her throat, so as to be sure there was nothing to be done. ‘What do we do? His boss is coming… ’
‘I know. These are our choices. I know where Jack Ming is hiding. He might be there if we go there now. Or we can wait and see if the driver’s boss shows up, learn who we’re up against. We can’t do both.’
‘Jack Ming,’ she said. ‘No question.’
Leonie drove, I sat hunched in the seat. She smoked a cigarette, blowing out the cracked window. I told her she wasn’t supposed to smoke in the rental car and she’d given me an incredulous stare and then laughed and kept smoking.
The phone call came as we were driving silently back into Manhattan. I answered.
‘Yes?’ I said.
Anna. ‘We have a confirmation that Jack Ming is going to meet his CIA contact tomorrow.’
‘Tomorrow. What time?’
‘He has told the contact he’ll call him at noon with instructions.’
So Anna had someone inside the CIA.
‘I know where Jack wants to meet them. So your worries are nearly at an end, Anna.’
‘I said tell me.’
‘We ran into a problem. I think you might have a leak on your side.’
‘Jack Ming’s mother is kidnapped and now dead, and so is her kidnapper. If you don’t have a leak, then a third party is interfering in our work.’
A chastised silence. ‘Don’t lie to me.’
‘I’ll talk to you after Jack Ming is dead.’
She hung up.
‘You can’t cross her,’ Leonie said. ‘She holds all the cards.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘She only thinks she does.’
‘So who’s trying to screw us? Is it the CIA?’
‘Anyone could say that they’re CIA,’ I said. ‘I don’t know. But as long as we find Jack Ming first, it won’t matter.’
‘Who is this Mila?’
How do you explain Mila? ‘A friend.’
‘Who has a price on her head.’ Her voice was steady.
‘An interesting friend.’
‘You were just trying to panic the driver.’
‘I wasn’t going to sell out anyone, thanks for the vote of confidence.’
‘Thank you. You got us out of that alive.’
‘We’re in this together.’
‘Yes,’ she said, but now we believed it in a way we hadn’t before. She fell silent. I thought about how Special Projects might have identified their informant as Jack Ming in the past few hours. I thought about Fagin. I thought about him talking to his bosses at Special Projects and whether anyone there would hire an ex-Latvian spy and current limo driver to do their dirty work.
We drove to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to the address of Russell Ming’s property, the one for which Jack had presumably taken the keys. All the windows were darkened. It was a squat, four-story building – it wore the look of having once been a small factory. It had not been redone into shops or studios or apartments for the throngs of young, hip professionals and former Manhattanites crowding into Williamsburg. The windows were boarded. A sign on the side read MING PROPERTIES.
‘Do we break in?’ she asked. Her voice was strained.
‘Yes. He could be inside right now.’
I picked the locks and we went inside.
An alarm sounded.
‘Hell,’ I said. We bolted back to the car. From a side street we watched. First a private security car responded. The guard went inside, stayed inside, turned off the alarm.
‘I don’t think Jack Ming is there,’ Leonie said.
After a few minutes the guard came back out, locked the door, did a final walkthrough around the building, and then left.
‘No Jack,’ she said.
But he’d taken these keys for some reason. If he wasn’t here now, he soon would be. I refused to consider the possibility that I was utterly wrong.
‘Do we wait here? Wait here for him to come?’ she said.
The pain in my head throbbed. My eye was nearly swollen shut; I was going to have a shiner and I didn’t want a shiner. Black eyes are memorable. I needed to be invisible.
‘We need a vantage point,’ I said. ‘We need to be able to watch the building, know how often the private security comes and goes.’
We drove past the building again and our headlights danced on the sign. Security by Proxima Systems. She looked them up on her iPhone. Then she pulled Mrs Ming’s phone from her pocket, listened to her voicemail and dialed the number.
‘Proxima New York.’
‘Yes, this is Sandra Ming of Ming Properties. I own a building in Williamsburg for which you provide security.’ Leonie made her voice brisk, slightly deeper.
‘Yes, ma’am, and may I have your account passcode.’
She hesitated about five seconds. ‘Jack.’
We could hear typing and then ‘Thank you, ma’am, how can I help you?’
I stared at her. How had she known?
‘I need to confirm the security check schedule for that building. I’ve heard from other property owners that there might be a crime increase going on in the neighborhood and I just got a phone call that there had been a breach.’
‘Yes, ma’am.’ Typing noises. ‘The guard comes by at 11 p.m., 1 a.m., 4 a.m., 6 a.m., then again at noon, with up to a ten-minute variant. If he will be later than that we contact you. Do you want to increase your patrol profile?’
‘Not now. Thank you,’ Leonie said. She hung up.
‘You should have canceled the service,’ I said dryly.
‘Generally that requires a face-to-face meeting, or a separate confirmation password,’ Leonie said. ‘I didn’t want to arouse attention. We know our time windows now.’
‘How did you know the password?’
‘Because I’m a mom. Moms use their kids’ or pets’ names, or a variant as passwords, like eighty per cent of the time. It was worth a try.’
‘So we know when the guard comes. Yes, and there’s a long gap when Jack and August can meet.’ I considered. ‘And I don’t think Jack is going to camp out inside the building. He risks being caught by a security guard as well, or being noticed. But we need to find a place to watch from, to be sure.’ I scanned the buildings. ‘There. Two away. That’s a hotel.’
Hotel Esper, Williamsburg/The Last Minute Bar, Manhattan
Leonie got the room at the Williamsburg hotel, a trendy, high-end spot with the meaningless name of Hotel Esper (was it short for esperanza, hope? Or did it imply you could read minds while a guest there? I wondered); just one room, with a window facing the Ming building. We were going to be awake in shifts and if anyone else – say a rogue element in the CIA – was looking for us, they’d be looking maybe for a man and a woman checking in together but in separate rooms. I drove back to our Manhattan hotel and washed my face clean of dirt and blood. I looked okay except for the black eye. It wasn’t so bad. I gathered all Leonie’s notes and papers and stuffed them into her small suitcase. I put on fresh, untorn clothes and collected our bags and checked out for us both.
Then I took the rental and swung by my bar, The Last Minute. I looked like a wreck going in and Bertrand raised an eyebrow at me. I went straight upstairs. There was an apartment up there but I didn’t dare bring Leonie to it. She already knew I owned The Canyon in Las Vegas but she didn’t need to know more of my business. And I didn’t need Mila knowing what I was doing.
But when I opened the door, there Mila was. Sitting at the computer, a neat Glenfiddich at her elbow.
She was typing something. She looked up at me and wiped her hand back across her eyes.
Seeing Mila cry? Never in my lifetime, I thought. But I actually hadn’t seen a tear.
‘You look like hell,’ she said.
‘I know. Are you okay?’
‘Fine. What’s going on?’
‘I need some gear.’
‘What are you doing, Sam?’
‘I am getting my son back. I need you not to ask questions, okay.’
She stared at me. It was weird to have Mila stare at me. She knew so much about me, and I knew so little about her.
‘But you asked me a question. I get to ask back,’ she said.
‘You wanted to know why there is such a high price on my head. I am writing you my detailed answer.’
‘You’re not exactly the essayist type.’ Mila was a woman of few words.
‘Please know I won awards for my essays in school.’ She put her fingers back on the keyboard but kept her stare locked on me.
‘So, in Moldova, a school prize is probably a goat?’
‘Not always. Once I won a copy of A Wrinkle in Time. The message of the book stayed with me. Never give up against darkness.’
‘And love conquers all.’
‘Yes, Samuil. Love conquers all. Or at least it tries.’ Now she looked back at the screen.
‘And when do I get to read your true confessions?’
‘I am sure publishers will fight to the death, gladiator-style, for my story. But you can read it first. And when you tell me what you’re doing and how I can help you.’
‘Help me by staying out of this.’ I went into the storage closet. I put two pairs of binoculars, a pair of small flashlights and a Glock in my bag. I selected a Beretta for Leonie, for her protection. Picked out rounds of ammunition. I packed a Burberry Prosrum suit I’d liked, shirt, tie and shoes to go with it. I might have to play a part to lure Jack close.
Mila stood in the doorway. ‘You don’t have to fight your war alone.’
‘I’m not alone.’
‘Why reject my help?’
‘Because you are in danger. Stay out of this. Get out of New York, Mila, now.’
‘I do not worry about muggers.’
‘I’m serious. I killed a man tonight who specifically wanted to find you, wanted me to give you to him, and he has a boss who wants you. Someone in the CIA.’
She made a dismissive wave. ‘They want me for questioning.’
‘I don’t think that’s it at all. I think someone’s after the bounty on you.’
‘Then for my own safety,’ she coughed, ‘I should stick with you. Help you. We will take the fight to them together.’
‘Because you want this informant alive. The guy who could give you Novem Soles.’
‘Of course he could give us Novem Soles. And maybe he in turn could give me the guy who posted the bounty,’ she said.
I let her words settle. ‘Novem Soles has posted the reward for you.’
She nodded. ‘One of them is behind it, yes. If I can kill the man who wants me dead, no one will fund his revenge. They won’t care. This is his private vendetta.’
‘Then why hasn’t this guy in Novem Soles asked me for you in exchange for my son?’
‘They don’t know we know each other,’ she said. ‘No one who could tell them that is still alive.’ She paused. ‘Except August, and whoever he has told inside the CIA.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘Because you have to kill the informant. For your son.’
‘The informant may know nothing about how to find the man who wants you dead.’
She shrugged. ‘You pick up a thread, unwind it, it can pull apart the entire blanket. My aunt always says so and she is right.’
‘Who wants you dead?’
‘He is a man called Zviman. He hides from me like I hide from him. There is a price on his head as well. We shall see who gets bought first.’
‘Why does he want you dead?’
‘It will be easier for you to read than for me to tell you. I have told my story only to one other person. I don’t normally talk about it.’ Mila’s voice went quiet.
‘I hurt his pride.’ Mila smiled. ‘Where are you going?’
‘Let me do this. If I can find where Zviman is from Jack, I will.’
‘That’s a sweet lie, Sam.’ She held the whisky glass. ‘Do you want me to tend to your eye?’
‘Good luck then.’ And then Mila did something she had never done before. She embraced me. I was holding the clothes bag and a backpack with the guns. Not really in hugging mode. Her hands ran down my back, then she patted the front of my shirt. ‘Be careful. I hope you get your son back.’
‘Thank you.’ I smiled. ‘Why are you in New York?’
‘Shoes,’ she said.
‘Ah. Don’t get killed, Mila. I would miss you.’
‘Do not get killed, Sam. I would miss you.’
I left without another word. My insides felt knotted. I went out into the cloud-smeared, starless night.
I was going to get my son back, and nobody, nobody, was going to kill Mila.
I patted my shirt pocket. She’d slid in a small chip, thin as paper, when she gave me my hug. I held it up to the streetlight. Tracker, like a modified phone SIM card. She wished me well but she wanted to know where I was going. To help me or to fight her own battle? I didn’t know. I tried not to care.
Two customers were leaving the bar and I thoughtfully hailed them a cab. A bit bleary from The Last Minute’s excellent martinis, they thanked me and as I opened the door for them I flicked Mila’s tracker onto the cab floor.
Let it take her where it would, out of the battle, into safety, perhaps.
I headed back to Leonie, and the long night of waiting.
Morris County, New Jersey
It is a very small world, and getting smaller, he thought.
Ricardo Braun stood above the speared body of the limo driver. He muttered a curse under his breath. He took his gun and with care shot off the man’s face. He had to do this by flashlight, with the moonless sky, and he was careful to avoid getting any blood or tissue on his shoes or his jeans. He reloaded and then blasted off the ten fingertips. This would buy him at most a few days if the body was found, but even a narrow margin of time had saved him in the past. Then he removed the limo’s plates and stripped out the forged registration and insurance papers. Its vehicle identification number had long ago been filed off. He dumped the corpse in the trunk, then put in Sandra Ming’s body.
There was a large pond on the property. He found a rock and put it on the accelerator and watched as the water settled over the limo. It took surprisingly little time for the car to sink. He waited until the water was still, the last ripple smooth.
Then he got into his Mercedes and he drove back to his apartment in Greenwich Village. It was very late now and he sat and drank coffee and watched the stars and wondered how much in danger he was. If anyone knew what he was doing, and why.
Sam Capra. He could have stopped him, if he had not had to meet with the assholes from Langley who’d insisted on a quick report. Special Projects was a beehive; and only he and August knew about the Jack Ming affair. Well, and now Fagin, but Fagin would never speak. Eliminating Fagin would create far too many questions; he was golden, untouchable. But a healthy deposit in Fagin’s account would ensure silence, and, hell, most of the Company had no idea Sam Capra had saved the CIA inconceivable humiliation in the Yankee Stadium incident. Most of them, if they knew who he was at all, thought he was still a suspect character, untrustworthy.
He felt a slight rage that he had allowed this to spin out of control. Right now he sat at his laptop and accessed a private website, within the Special Projects computer network, and clicked on an icon that read BANISH. That was the code word August had set up for the Jack Ming case. The only two people who could access this folder were August and Braun.
He read: heard from target via phone call, he will call me again at 12 ET tomorrow with instructions for meet
Tomorrow, then, this would all be settled. If Ming wasn’t dead before tomorrow’s meeting, then he would take custody of Jack Ming, tell him that his mother was already secure in a Special Projects safe house, seize whatever evidence he had, and he would make Jack disappear forever. The only way to be safe, the only way to be sure.
August might be a problem but a quick reassignment to another division would solve that dilemma. He was a good soldier; he’d take his orders. In a few months Braun would go out and visit him, treat him to a steak dinner, and tell him Novem Soles had been wrapped up, neat as a napkin.
And no one would ever know.
Ricardo Braun considered the one hint that he had for his other agenda: Mila. Sam had told the driver, who had relayed it to him, that she sometimes met Sam Capra at a bar. Not exactly actionable information to find Mila.
Unless Sam Capra wanted to be followed, wanted to see who it flushed out into the open.
It wouldn’t matter, though, would it, if Sam Capra was dead by tomorrow?
The whole incident was a shame. He had studied the Capra file. The world still did not know that the bombing of a London office was an attack against a Special Projects team; did not know that a CIA officer, pregnant by another officer, committed a grievous treason; did not know that more than one traitor, bought not by ideology or disaffection but by cold cash, had been flushed out of the Company. Did not know that a man scorned by the Company as a traitor had been its savior. Capra had done his duty.
Duty. It was the red in Braun’s blood, the oxygen that he breathed. Duty was all. Duty was what forced you to push boundaries, take chances, give your life to something and still have the bravery to reap the rewards from it.
Once Braun had written essays and poems on duty in his journal, to try to understand his own feelings about it, but finally he had burned them all.
If Capra had come back to Special Projects when the job was offered – if he had stuck to his duty – then this would not have to happen. It was a shame. He didn’t want Capra dead. At the least he wouldn’t be an enemy, but a sacrifice. That was somehow nobler, Braun thought.
With Andris the limo driver dead and floating in eternal company with Mrs Ming, he was going to need someone else to handle Capra and Jack Ming. The best thing about Special Projects was that, since it was supposed to be separate and deniable from the Company, he was allowed, when needed, to use non-Company personnel. And keep them out of the record. Like Andris and his limo company, funded by Company dollars that had been washed by Special Projects.
Or the sisters. Yes, the sisters would be a good choice for tomorrow. They always brightened his day.
Jack Ming sat in a movie theater. He was on his fourth feature film of the day. The theaters were nice, dark and quiet and he could think. Right now a romantic comedy, indifferently written and acted, played in front of him. He didn’t really want to see or hear anything violent or twisted. He didn’t like movies with gunfire, not since Rotterdam. Right now the movie’s hero thought his girlfriend’s mom had the hots for him, which wasn’t true, but, you know, was just hilarious. Not. His dinner had been a hot dog and a soda he bought at the theater and he rattled the ice in a jumbo cup.
His mother’s betrayal had stopped itching at him. He could not be surprised. She would never let him do as he wanted; the only freedom he’d had in his life was when he had run away and worn another name, in another country.
The notebook sat in a square, taped to his back. Earlier, in a Starbucks, he’d sat down in a lonely corner and paged through its mysteries again. Account numbers, pictures, email addresses. He studied the photo of the three people that had the words The Nursery written underneath. The word Nursery was suggestive: a place where something was born, or something was protected and grown. Just a photo of three people. But clearly three people who, by virtue of being together, revealed a secret about themselves. If Nine Suns meant nine people, then this was a third of them, and if you could take down a third, perhaps you could find out who the other six were. Perhaps you could cripple them.
He thought about trying to contact any of the people being blackmailed, but he decided against it. If he frightened them, they might vanish, and what would make the notebook valuable was if the people corrupted were still in place. If they took off running or hiding, then they would not be useful. On one page he’d found a single phone number. He was so tempted to call it, and fear and curiosity played over his heart.
More than ever, the notebook was his ticket.
But. He wondered why, if his mother had called the CIA, they weren’t already there when he arrived. Why not snatch him up at home? Had they just figured out it was him? If they waited for him to show up, and lounge around at home, they could take him with less fuss, perhaps.
He didn’t know what to believe.
He needed a place to sleep. Hostels were out of the question; he didn’t know who his mother would have looking for him, much less Novem Soles. If homeless people could sleep on the streets, he could as well. Just for one night.
He left the movie theater and ducked into another coffee shop. Lots of people his age, on laptops, chatting, pretending to write the next great American novel while they idled away their creative time on social networking sites. He got a decaf and sat in the corner and opened up the notebook, staring at the one phone number on the last page.
The Last Minute Bar, Manhattan
Mila ordered another Glenfiddich from Bertrand and a bacon sandwich from The Last Minute’s small kitchen. She put aside her confessions for Sam; the story of herself that she had only told one person before – and she opened up the tracking software on the laptop, which would tell her where Sam was going.
She studied the route. From The Last Minute to a hotel in Greenwich Village to a nightclub to another hotel. She didn’t believe he was nightclubbing. And she didn’t believe whoever he was tracking was out nightclubbing either. He’d found the tracker she’d planted on him and put it in a cab. She smiled. Sam was no fool. And now he knew she’d tricked him. For a moment she considered deleting the confession; she was mad at him, unreasonably, she knew, but mad all the same. She was alive and she felt sure his baby was probably dead or lost forever to him, no matter what promises Anna made. Novem Soles had no honor, no sense of justice, no kindness. They would never give him his child back and she knew it and she wished he could know it as well. She could not make him understand; she could not force him to abandon hope.
She could not do to him what had been done to her.
She took a long sip of the whisky and put her fingertips back to the keyboard, the letters on the electronic screen hanging like small, curved ghosts before her eyes.
The Watcher stepped off the plane. His mouth tasted sour from his in-flight doze. His suit wasn’t as clean as he’d like for it to be. He waited for the press of folks off first class to pass (to his great annoyance he couldn’t get a first class seat) and then he obediently followed the rest of the coach passengers off the jet. The flight attendants gave him robotic nods and thanks.
He waited in the queue at Customs for non-US citizens and finally presented his Dutch passport. It passed muster without a hesitation, and he even managed a smile for the customs clerk who wished him a pleasant stay in the United States.
He stepped out into the city – one of the greatest dining cities in the world, he dreamed of a vacation where he did nothing but eat and talk with chefs here, but he could not think of food now. Novem Soles had found the record of Jack’s alias taking a flight out of Brussels; Ricki had lied to him. She would pay when he had time to focus on her. Jack Ming was in this city now, with his book of secrets. Sam Capra and Leonie Jones were going to kill Jack Ming and then they would die. It would close a book on the CIA’s own investigation of Novem Soles, once a former CIA agent had been identified as Jack Ming’s murderer. And then the circle would be closed, and the circle would be safe.
His phone rang. ‘Yes?’
Silence on the other end.
‘Yes?’ the Watcher said impatiently. ‘Yes, hello,’ a voice said, and it was one he’d listened to in the recording of the CIA conversation before, a voice he knew by heart. Jack Ming.
‘Hello,’ Jack Ming said into the sudden silence.
The Watcher froze. ‘Who is this?’
‘You don’t know me,’ Jack Ming said, ‘but your phone number is in a book I found. May I ask who this is?’
‘Well, no, because I don’t know who you are,’ the Watcher said.
‘I think you are being blackmailed,’ Jack said. ‘Are you? Because if you are, maybe I can help stop the people who are hurting you.’
‘You… you.’ The Watcher said. ‘Who are you?’
‘Since you didn’t say no, I’ll assume you’re being blackmailed.’
The Watcher’s mind spun. What exactly was in this notebook? A cold chill inched up his spine. ‘Listen. Okay. I don’t know who you are, this could be a trick to get me to say something I shouldn’t.’ Play the victim, draw him close. ‘Tell me exactly how you got my number.’
‘A friend gave me a book. It has numbers – bank account numbers – and emails and photos in it. I think it’s a book used to extort people all over the world, people in positions of business and government.’ Silence. ‘Do you fit those criteria?’
‘I might. Oh, my God,’ the Watcher said. The fear in his voice wasn’t exactly false. He cursed. He was standing out near a taxi pickup line at JFK. He had no equipment with which to trace the call; no way to alert any of the technical resources of Novem Soles. He would have to draw Jack in himself. And, honestly, if you can’t do that with a grad student you don’t deserve your job. ‘Look, if this is a test, I’ve done what you said. I have. Everything. Please. Please.’
‘It’s not a test, I’m trying to help you. If you can tell me who you are and what they have you doing… ’
‘I’m not confessing anything. Oh my God, oh my God. You tell me who you are, where you are. Give me a reason to trust you.’ The Watcher made his voice a slice of panic.
‘I am going to give this information to the authorities,’ Jack said. ‘The whole book. Now. If you want these people broken and off your back, I can make that happen. I can tear off your phone number from the book before I give it to the authorities. That way, you are never exposed.’
You devious little bastard, the Watcher thought. I want to kill you all myself.
‘And then you’re never in trouble. I’ll do that for you, I’ll pull this page from the book, if you’ll tell me what they have you doing.’
‘I have to think for a minute,’ the Watcher said. Delaying.
‘Well, one minute is what you have,’ Jack Ming said, trying to sound tough.
‘Don’t threaten me, I’ll hang up.’
‘And then when the police show up at your work, or at your door, wanting to know why you cooperated with a criminal ring… ’
‘I’m not going to talk to you on the phone,’ the Watcher said. ‘Could we meet face to face?’
‘This is a Paris number and I’m not in Paris.’
‘I’m not either, I’m in New York.’
It was a gamble to admit this, that he was in the same city as Jack Ming. Jack was silent.
‘I’m here for them, they’ve made me come here.’ The Watcher said this as though tearing the words out of his own chest.
‘Your minute is about up,’ Jack said.
So the Watcher decided: ‘I work for a major financial services firm. I give them data from my company. I deliver it once a month. Financial particulars, insider information, plans for investment. Confidential knowledge that they can use to profit on the stock markets in France, the US, Hong Kong.’
‘What did they have on you?’
The Watcher thought. He had to sell this. ‘I engaged in some insider trading. They found out about it. They said they would expose me if I didn’t help them. I don’t trade any more, I just feed them the information. If I disobey them they’ll expose me and if I talk about them, they’ll kill my entire family. So please don’t tell any one. Please.’
‘Why are you in New York for them?’
‘They wanted me to get some information on a stock deal.’
‘I won’t say. If it leaks then they’ll know I leaked it.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Jack said. ‘Thank you. I’ll tear your number from the book.’
‘You can’t give that book to anyone,’ the Watcher said. He had to try. ‘You can’t. You’ll destroy dozens of lives.’
Silence. ‘How did you know they’re blackmailing dozens of people?’
‘Stands to reason if it’s enough to fill a book.’
The ten longest seconds – at least since he’d encountered Mila – of the Watcher’s life ticked past.
‘You’re not being blackmailed at all,’ Jack Ming said. ‘You’re one of them, aren’t you?’
‘I think a person being blackmailed would probably disconnect the phone immediately and not say a word. How do you know I’m not the police?’
‘The police would show up. They can’t trick a confession from you, not this way.’
‘They could if they had a bug on your phone,’ Jack said.
‘You cannot give them that book. Please.’
‘Your number won’t be in it now, so why worry? So concerned for your fellow victims?’
‘I just don’t want innocent people hurt.’ The night breeze, the smell of jet fuel in the airport wind, blew over him. He had to stop this little lunatic, somehow.
‘Very considerate of you. This has been so illuminating,’ Jack Ming said. ‘Thank you… ’
Time for Plan B. ‘They know who you are, Jack,’ the Watcher said. ‘Which means they know who Ricki is, and who your mother is. They will find everyone you’ve ever cared about and they will burn them and everything you love to the ground. Oh, yes. You know why I’m really here? I’m going to destroy you financially, your family, everything you hold dear. Your mother will be selling herself in alleyways after I’m done.’
Stunned silence on the other end. ‘What?’ Jack said finally.
‘There is another option for you. I’ll buy the notebook. I’ll buy your silence.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘Ten million. It’s a nice round number and you can easily live off that for the rest of your life.’
‘Unworkable,’ Jack said. ‘Ask the dead dude in the Amsterdam hospital if you think I’m going to meet you face to face.’
‘That was done without my approval, in panic, by a fool. Let’s deal like adults. I’ll put half the money in an account for you. You mail me the notebook and I’ll pay you the other half.’
‘And when I show up at your bank or move the money, you find me and kill me. No thank you. Plus, you can’t trust I haven’t copied the notebook.’
‘Let me propose this. A cash drop. We agree on a place for you to leave the notebook. And a place for me to leave you cash.’
‘Ten million in small bills is not exactly transportable by one guy in a hurry,’ Jack said. ‘I don’t trust you.’
‘I can give you a better deal than the CIA can. Twice the money.’
‘And dead twice as fast.’
‘Jack. Play nice, or I will burn you down.’
‘You’re just trying to lure me in. No. You know who I am. I know what you are. And when I’m done with you, you son of a bitch, there is no hiding place for you.’
This little nobody, threatening him. The Watcher heard the snap in his own voice. ‘You are nothing but a contemptible punk. When you die, and you will, I’ll throw a party. I’ll have people over for drinks and we’ll watch you being slowly tortured to death. I’ll have it catered. It won’t happen in some dark warehouse or basement. It will happen, with people standing around having drinks, laughing while they watch your skin pulled off, your eyes gouged, your ears burned to a crisp.’
‘Someone’s going to burn,’ Jack said, ‘but it’s not me.’ Then he hung up.
The Watcher stood there, the red rage slowly building in his eyes. He closed the phone and walked forward slowly to join the line of travelers awaiting a taxi.
Hotel Esper, Williamsburg
‘I want to know who owns that property in New Jersey,’ I said. We were in the hotel room; Leonie sitting at the table, me standing at the window, looking down toward the Ming building’s boarded windows.
She opened her laptop. ‘It would help if we had an address. It’s out in the middle of nowhere.’
‘It was marked as River Run Road. See you if you can find a county property map. Or find it on Google Maps.’
She tapped, and hummed under her breath. Leonie on a computer reminded me of my wife Lucy. My ex-wife. Lucy was very clever with computers, too. I stared out at the night and let her work. She tapped, found maps, compared them with the route we’d driven.
‘The property is owned by Associated Languages School.’
‘A language school?’ No wonder it was derelict. Didn’t most people learn foreign languages these days through software programs? And it was out in the boonies. ‘Maybe it’s supposed to be an immersion program?’
I watched her fingers fly across the keyboard; she nibbled her lip in thought. ‘They have a very basic website.’
‘Where are they headquartered?’
‘New York. They have immersion programs in rural New York, Florida and Oregon that they offer. But it says their next three sessions are full.’
‘Maybe the driver knew that the house was unoccupied.’
‘Yes. Maybe he drove students out there before and knew it was shuttered now.’
But it didn’t quite ring true. ‘Would it be shuttered if business was booming?’
I picked up my phone, sat down on the bed and called them. ‘You have reached the offices of Associated Languages School. We offer instruction and translation services in’ – and then the recording went into a tiresome listing of every major language spoken on four continents. I considered hanging up the phone. Maybe that’s what they wanted me to do. Finally, I was invited to leave a message. I hung up.
‘Front company,’ I said. ‘Nobody makes it that hard to do business.’
‘A front for Novem Soles?’
‘Maybe. Can we find out anything else on them?’
‘Yes, but is that going to help us find out anything about Jack Ming? Let’s not lose focus here, Sam. If we do this right we have our kids tomorrow. We vanish, and we don’t ever worry about Novem Soles again.’
I got up and stared out the window. She tapped away at her computer while I watched the night.
‘I got into Proxima Security,’ she said. ‘Via Sandra Ming’s account. I’ve got access to a monitor log. It will tell us if anyone enters the building and punches in a code.’
‘We know the guard has the code.’
‘And we can assume Jack does. We know the guard’s schedule. If someone comes at a different time, I think we’ll know it’s Jack.’
‘Could you disable the alarm?’
She shook her head. ‘Separate system.’
‘Well, at least we’ll know when people come and go.’
‘I’ll put an alarm on my laptop to chime if there’s an update to the log,’ she said. ‘Can I give you some advice?’
‘Give up on fighting Novem Soles when this is done,’ she said. ‘Revenge is the most worthless motive in the world. Your wife made her choice, yes? You get your son back, then you have all that matters. All right? Don’t try to keep fighting them. Go live a safe, good life.’
‘Move on and put out of my mind that I’m going to kill a young man who could bring them down.’
‘To save your son? Yes. Put Jack Ming as a human being out of your mind. People put ugliness out of their heads all the time. Jack Ming made his choice, same as your wife.’
‘And now he’s trying to unmake it,’ I said. ‘Does that count for nothing?’
She was silent.
‘He’s trying to be the good guy. If he’d turned on Novem Soles seven months ago he might be surrendering to me, and I’d be getting ready to take a bullet for him if that’s what it took to save him.’
Leonie got up and sat at the window. She stared down at the building. ‘Some choices can’t be unmade. So we should watch for him?’
‘If you want. But I seriously doubt he’s going to come around to be discovered by the security guard. We have to trust Anna’s source.’
‘I think so. He’s not a trained operative. Daylight is easier. He can see what he’s facing. I’m thinking he’s camped somewhere else tonight. He needs his sleep, too.’
‘But why not go to the CIA already?’
‘He must have a reason. He’s in control of the meeting. We know he wanted to spend time with his mom, but she kicked him out onto the curb and he lost his hiding place. So he might be seeing another friend, he might be studying the evidence he’s got against Novem Soles and – I don’t know – building his case. He could be making this up as he goes along. Don’t hackers improvise?’
We didn’t have an unobstructed view of the Ming building. We could see the back alley approaches to it, but not the entrance itself. The angle was impossible. I kept watching the black, boarded windows, for any seep of light, but there was none.
I left her at the window and lay down on the bed. My head ached. My eye hurt. Sleep. Just for an hour or two, I thought. ‘When you got Mrs Ming away during the fight… ’
‘I wasn’t trying to abandon you. But only she could tell us where Jack was. So I thought.’
‘Your focus is admirable,’ I said.
‘So is yours,’ Leonie said softly. ‘You killed that man.’
‘Yes.’ I kept my eyes closed. ‘Is it upsetting?’
‘You should hope not. I have to do it again tomorrow.’
We listened to the distant hum of traffic, the breathing of New York. ‘If only we’d caught Jack at his mother’s house.’
‘I got to see his room. He’s just a kid, in many ways.’
‘Not in any ways that matter. Don’t you start to feel sorry for him.’
‘I’ll feel what I like, thank you,’ I said. I thought I should have kept my mouth shut. All I did by showing sympathy to our target was increase Leonie’s distrust of me.
‘I knew a man who killed. It never, ever bothered him.’
I opened an eye. ‘Did you help him disappear, too? Give him a new identity?’
‘No. I gave myself one, to get away from him.’ She sat huddled by the window, knees drawn up to her chin. ‘I left him because he didn’t want kids. Too much of a hassle with his… work.’
‘Leonie.’ I wondered if it was her real name. It didn’t matter. I wouldn’t ever see her again when this was done.
‘I mean, you know, I could have had a killer as the father of my kids. There’s a wise choice. What a laugh he would have been at careers day.’
‘Leonie, it’s okay.’ I had killed and I was a father. What she was talking about wasn’t the same. Or was it? Yeah, I was going to be a cold-blooded killer by tomorrow. All so I could be a father. What a screwed-up world.
She moved a lock of her auburn hair out of her face. She came to the bed. She put her fingertips on the side of my face and inspected the bruising. ‘You have little cuts here from the rock.’
She didn’t take her hands from my face.
‘You have to kill Jack, Sam. You can’t feel sorry for him. You can’t feel emotion for him. You just have to kill him. It will be… easy.’
Easy because she didn’t have to claim a human life. I closed my eyes. Jack, in the pictures of him in his room. Arms around his thin shoulders, his protective college buddies looking out for the likable geek. The books he’d loved, the gap-toothed child smiling from the photos.
I needed him to be a faceless stranger but his mother had died holding my hand.
‘I’m full of crap,’ Leonie said. ‘It’s never easy, is it?’
She moved her hand from my cheek to my forehead, caught her fingers in my hair.
What? I thought. I’m just so clever.
‘You must have really loved your wife.’
It was a strange observation to make. I opened my eyes. ‘I don’t want to talk about her.’
‘Anna told me that you tried to find your wife… her way of saying you were a decent man. Anna didn’t want me to be scared of working with you.’
Scared? I was supposed to be the good guy. Raised by globetrotting Christian relief agency do-gooders, the nice boy who went to Harvard and stayed on track, the smart brother who didn’t go to Afghanistan and get himself and his best friend killed, the boy who became a man in the CIA, fueled by revenge but tempered (I hoped) by fairness. And now what was I? Someone who’d been accused of being a traitor because I’d married the wrong woman (an actual, technical traitor) and had dodged the CIA and now was in an awful limbo of untrustworthiness as far as that fine agency was concerned.
Death is a weird thing. The death for the driver was egregiously bad: being impaled is never anyone’s exit of choice. And for Mrs Ming, she had died with an awful uncertainty clouding her mind and corroding her last moments. Leonie and I had nearly died tonight. Death makes us thirst for life and all its basics: a comforting meal, the breeze of our own breath in our lungs, the warm press of human flesh.
Leonie leaned down and she kissed my bruised lips.
No woman had kissed me since Lucy. I froze for a moment. This was crossing a line I’d seen from the corner of my eye, this was knowing Lucy was gone and was never, ever coming back and even if she did come back that I wouldn’t want her back. I felt myself… unfreeze.
My whole face hurt but I pressed my lips to hers in response. The kiss didn’t accelerate, it grew slower. More thoughtful. She nibbled at my lower lip.
‘Sam,’ she said very quietly.
‘Afterwards, will we be cool?’
‘Yes.’ I didn’t exactly know what cool meant but I wasn’t going to say no.
She started to kiss me again. With heat. It didn’t matter that my face ached. I wanted her with a sudden, fierce certainty. I had not been with many women before Lucy. The idea that every spy is a womanizer is a patent falsehood. You are usually keeping people at arm’s length. I never had time and I didn’t now but that did not seem to matter. Her kisses were quick and darting and urgent. Her tongue, her fingertips were everywhere. I’m not even sure we got all our clothes off and then I joined to her, Leonie groaning against me, a low, throaty growl, her face close to mine.
After a delicious while, she shuddered, her breath warm against my bruised eye, looking deep into my face as though surveying curious terrain. Then she laid her face on my chest. I gasped in release a minute or two later, her urging me on with cooing sounds. Her body felt lush and warm and smooth.
It was good but it was more comfort than passion. We stripped off the rest of our clothes and clutched at each other. Neither of us wanted to talk. We just wanted to be.
‘Promise me,’ she said, lying curled next to me. ‘Promise me we’ll get our kids back.’
‘I promise,’ I said. What else could I say?
I just had to make it true. That promise bound us together. That promise would change everything.
Hotel Esper, Williamsburg
We slept late, longer than we should have. Normally I can’t sleep late in New York because the rising noise of the traffic is an automatic alarm clock. When I woke up Leonie was showered and dressed and tapping at her laptop. ‘No intrusions at the building other than those at the security guard’s regularly appointed rounds.’ She looked up at me and gave me a wan smile.
What did I do? Kiss her, nuzzle her, pretend last night didn’t happen? My marriage with Lucy – full of deception and lies and my own blindness – convinced me that I suck at relationships and it wasn’t like we were going to have a long-term one. We would get our kids and part ways and never see each other again, except in our memories about the worst few days of our lives.
The newspaper websites in New York and New Jersey carried no mention of two bodies discovered at the abandoned Associated Languages School in Morris County.
‘I’ll go get us some breakfast,’ I said. Leonie made the noise one makes when one is absorbed in a computer screen. Again, like Lucy.
‘What are you doing?’
‘I thought about what you said last night,’ she said. ‘I’m going to find out who that driver was.’
‘He doesn’t matter any more.’
‘You’re not working alone,’ she said. ‘Why presume that he is? We don’t know how much of a head start we have on finding Jack. We may have none. And I’m not going to sit here and fret and wait and do nothing while waiting for Jack to show up.’
I walked to a diner on the corner and got breakfast for us to go: mushroom and spinach omelets, hash browns, fruit, bacon, coffee, orange juice. You eat when you can because you never know when you might get your next meal on days like today.
When I came back we ate. I tried to make conversation.
‘Where are you from?’ I asked.
She seemed to measure her answer by staring into her Styrofoam coffee cup.
‘I know your real name isn’t Leonie, that you live under a false name.’
‘Trust me, it’s better you not know much about me. I am infinitely boring.’
‘I know that’s not true,’ I said with a smile.
She smiled back, just for a moment. ‘You, where are you from?’
‘All over. My parents worked for a relief agency. My mom’s a pediatric surgeon, my dad’s an administrator. I lived in over twenty different countries before I was eighteen.’ I finished my coffee. ‘If I don’t make it, and you get my son back from Anna, you can take him to my parents. They live in New Orleans. Alexander and Simone Capra. They’re in the phone book.’
‘Are you close to them?’
‘No. Not at all.’
‘My brother died and it ruined their hearts. They either want to take over my life entirely or shut me out completely. Him dying made them a little crazy.’
‘How did he die?’
‘He went to Afghanistan, to do relief work like they’d done for years, and he and his best friend from college, they got captured by the Taliban. Their throats were cut in a propaganda video.’
‘Oh, my God,’ Leonie said. ‘I’m so sorry.’ It was about the best thing she could say. Really, it’s so horrible, it shocks people. You cannot imagine what it is like to see your brother die, helplessly. To see his friend die. Then to see them discussed on every news channel, as though they are just names to learn, Danny Capra, Zalmay Qureshi, not people, just distant unfortunates, just names. ‘That was when I joined the CIA.’
‘But you’re not with them any more.’
‘When your wife betrays the CIA, it kind of destroys your career path.’
‘I would think.’
‘A constant cloud of suspicion.’ I stood up and shoved my Styrofoam food holder in the trash. ‘So we parted ways.’
‘And she had this baby while you were apart?’
‘What was she like? Your wife?’
‘Why do you care?’
‘I’m just curious. You seem too smart a guy to be easily fooled.’
‘We all have our blind spots. She was one as large as the Sahara to me.’
‘Sometimes we don’t pick wisely.’
‘No. And the price we pay is very heavy.’
Leonie turned back to her computer. ‘Any luck with tracing the driver?’
‘No,’ she said. Not looking at me.
‘Really? No track on his driver’s license or his limo plates?’ She had memorized the plates during the long haul out of Manhattan and New Jersey, following him.
‘Stolen, I guess,’ she said. Still not looking at me.
I stood up and watched the Ming building with my binoculars. Two o’clock couldn’t come soon enough for me. I needed inside that building now, in between the last pass of the security guard and Jack’s (presumed) meeting with August.
And then I thought of a way.
Hotel Esper, Williamsburg
I left Leonie in her room and went down to the lobby. I called Russell Ming’s property company, now owned by his wife.
‘Ming Properties,’ the woman answering the phone said.
‘Hi, may I speak to,’ and I looked again at the name I’d jotted down, the one under the number on the Ming Properties sign, ‘Beth Marley?’
‘This is she.’ She sounded bright and enthusiastic, like talking to me was the highlight of her day. I’m sure it was.
‘My name is Sam Capra, and I’m interested in the building in Williamsburg.’
‘I own the The Last Minute Bar, over by Bryant Park.’
‘I know that bar!’ she said.
‘Oh, that’s great. I’m interested in leasing some property in Brooklyn that you own, in Williamsburg. Would it be possible to see it today?’
‘Today might be difficult, sir. What about tomorrow?’
‘I’m just in town for the day. In fact, I might be interested in leasing the whole building. I just happened to see it and think it’s perfect for what I need.’
‘Well. Okay, let me do a little juggling.’ I could hear her flipping papers. ‘Sure. I could do eleven o’clock, would that work?’
‘You’re so kind. That will be great. I’ll just meet you there, okay?’
‘Thanks, Mr Capra.’
I hung up and went back to the hotel room. ‘Well, that was easy. I have an appointment.’
Leonie, crouching over her computer, didn’t answer.
Special Projects headquarters, Manhattan
Ricardo Braun was not concerned with legalities as much as expediency: after he had discovered the limo driver’s body, he had Fagin and the Oliver Twists setting up electronic surveillance on every person in New York connected to Jack Ming, with careful instructions to report only to Braun, not to August Holdwine or anyone else in Special Projects. Braun preferred that Jack Ming’s identity not be known to anyone else.
So Fagin and the Twists watched Jack Ming’s friends on his abandoned Facebook account (which were few, mostly friends from his NYU years), a few family friends, his father’s property company. The initial surveillance centered on monitoring Facebook pages and personal email accounts. The only phones to be tapped via a hack were the phone of his father’s company and the cell phones of his two closest college friends.
The silence on Jack was deafening. There was no mention of him at all.
Until a mid-morning phone call struck Braun’s interest, not because it was about Jack Ming. No. It was about Sam Capra.
Braun called the sisters. He hoped they could contain their crazy long enough to do the job the exact way he wanted it done. He got Lizzie on the phone. He would have preferred Meggie. She was the more reasonable one. But you didn’t put off Lizzie. She held grudges.
Lizzie listened to his instructions. ‘The two men, Ming and Capra. Can we play with them for a while?’ The sisters had a cabin in upstate New York where they entertained special guests when the need took Lizzie, or when Braun needed someone interrogated, with guaranteed results.
‘If you needn’t kill them straight out, they’re yours. I would like to know what they both know. Get that out of them and report back to me.’
‘What about anyone else with them?’
He thought of August, with regret. ‘You can kill anyone else if need be. If there is a woman named Mila with him, I want proof of her death.’ The sisters needn’t know about the bounty. He would collect it himself, throw them a little bonus.
Lizzie laughed. ‘Thanks for the work.’
She hung up and looked at her sister. ‘Go get dressed. We have a lead on the job.’
‘All right, but you promised to make those phone calls about the cruise.’ Her sister Meggie stood up from the couch. She had been reading a Special Projects file on Sam Capra that Braun had just emailed her. Know thy enemy.
‘Yes, yes,’ Lizzie said. ‘I’ll get to it.’
‘Don’t put it off,’ Meggie said. ‘They book up like a year in advance.’
‘Cruises are for old people,’ Lizzie said.
‘That is completely untrue.’
‘They keep a morgue on those boats because so many old people die during cruises. I saw that on TV,’ Lizzie said.
The sisters considered this interesting tidbit.
‘You are not going to have fun on a cruise. I mean, that kind of fun,’ Meggie said. ‘Parameters for today?’
‘Capture if we can, kill if we must. Capra’s sort of a pretty boy, don’t you think?’
‘His file says he runs parkour. That daredevil running where you jump from building to building.’ Lizzie’s smile sparkled. ‘Do you think I’ll get to chase him? I better use a weapon that helps me catch him.’
‘No.’ Meggie rolled her eyes. ‘He won’t get a chance to run. Let’s focus, Lizzie.’
‘Your standards are far too high,’ Lizzie said. ‘Not every apple has to be perfect, you got to give it a big bite to see how sweet it tastes.’ She glanced over at her sister’s laptop screen, at Sam Capra’s photo looking out at her. Brownish-blond hair, green eyes, high cheekbones, a full mouth. ‘I like his face. It would take a lot of time and careful thought to ruin it, truly. Those cheekbones, probably you’d need a touch of acid for them. And that runner’s body, lovely and spare. Braun had said I could play with them if we aren’t forced to kill them outright.’
Meggie didn’t care much for the fixated tone in her sister’s voice. This was always the way with Lizzie: an idea elbowed its way to the front of her mind and bit down in Lizzie’s brain with deep teeth, and wouldn’t let go until it was appeased. Her sister’s hungers were dark ones.
‘Naturally, but if we want to keep them for a while I don’t want to deal with gunshot wounds. Bandages are such a pain. I’m in kind of a Japanese mood today.’
‘Fine, but I don’t want you playing all week, you said you would research a cruise and book it.’
‘Fine, whatever. I’ll pack along the brochures.’
Ming Properties office, Lower Manhattan
My lucky day, Beth Marley thought. She’d already dodged a bullet: the other two employees in the office were out today, downed with food poisoning brought on by a highly questionable chicken curry they’d eaten while lingering at an unforgivably long lunch yesterday, one that Beth hadn’t gone on because, you know, she was too busy doing all three of their jobs.
And now this. Beth Marley tapped the stack of papers straight on her desk and thought: well, I can’t wait to tell Sandra that I might lease an entire building. Then Empress Ming’d have to get her ladder and climb down off my ass.
Beth canceled her lunch with her best friend via her BlackBerry, apologizing profusely, and saying that she might pay her back with drinks later in celebration of a big deal. And this would show Sandra Ming she could seriously handle the work: Mrs Ming always looked at her as though she weren’t quite sure Beth could tie her shoes much less manage properties around the city.
She sat down at her computer, summoned up the web browser, Googled Sam Capra. She got a number of hits relating to some poor guy getting killed in Afghanistan, with a brother who had granted a couple of interviews as the family spokesman; probably not related to this client. Not a lot on him. Hmmm. She Googled The Last Minute and found the bar’s website. She’d met girlfriends there for drinks a couple of times. Well, if he was thinking of a bar in the building, it would probably be high-dollar. The Last Minute was a well done space, clearly money had been dropped on it. She picked up the phone to call Sandra, and then decided to wait until she actually had good news. If she told Sandra she had a fish on the line but then didn’t reel it in, she’d never hear the end of it.
She was gathering her purse and her phone to leave when the office door opened. Which was weird, because there was an electronic passkey and you couldn’t just open the door. Oh, she thought, as two women stepped inside. I must not have shut it all the way. They were both stunning. One was blonde, hair pulled up into a bun, tall, with cool green eyes and cheekbones that Beth instantly coveted. The other was a brunette, with lovely chocolate eyes, her hair trimmed into a stylish short cut. Beth instantly wanted to ask: where do you get your hair done? Both women were, oddly though, dressed identically, in form-fitting gray pinstripe suits, and silky black dress shirts.
Beth couldn’t think of women who voluntarily dressed alike. She thought: missionaries?
‘Hi, may I help you?’ she said.
One of the women shut the door behind her. The other stood in front of Beth’s desk and smiled. ‘Yes. Are you Ms Marley?’
‘Super.’ She gave a bright smile in return. ‘This is what we’re going to need from you. Your cell phone, your car keys and the keys to the building in Williamsburg. Also, the alarm access code. Is there a closet where we can lock you up?’
Beth gave a nervous, uncertain laugh. ‘Is this a joke?’
‘No. We’re keeping your appointment at the building. So. Cell phone, please, and the closet would be where?’
‘Get the fuck out of here!’ Beth reached for the desk phone. Security was one press of the button away.
The brunette slammed a fist into Beth’s face. Hard. Beth had never been hit in the face in her life and the pain astonished her. Another blow to her throat cut off her scream, a third busted her nose. Faster than she would have thought, the brunette was over the desk and one hand was on her mouth, the other on her throat. Crushing against her windpipe.
‘Listen to me. I don’t wish to kill you. We have a phone tap on you, so we know you’re meeting Sam Capra. It would be really pointless for you to die over a cell phone and an appointment. Yes?’
Beth nodded, too dazed to cry, her nose bleeding, her mouth covered by the woman’s hand. The pressure on her windpipe eased very slightly.
‘In fact, you won’t die. Instead my sister will go kill your seven-year-old daughter in Ridgewood, and I will go kill your father in Queens. I often find people care about the lives of loved ones more than their own.’ She gave a little shrug. ‘Aren’t people funny?’
Terror flooded Beth.
‘Will you play nice nice?’
Beth nodded. Very eagerly.
‘Now don’t you get blood on my suit, I will be most unhappy,’ the brunette said, as though Beth could stop the blood oozing from her nose.
They shoved her into the small kitchen that doubled as an office supplies storage area. They handcuffed her to the sink pipe.
‘Now. The access code. If you lie to me your family’s dead. But we’ll come back here first and shoot off bits and pieces.’
Beth did not lie. She gave them the code. The pain in her face was now agony. She tried to fight back the tears.
‘Very good.’ The brunette pulled Beth’s cell phone from her purse. ‘Where are the property keys?’
‘My desk drawer. Tagged as Williamsburg.’ Her voice trembled.
The blonde vanished, returned in a moment, the keys dangling.
‘Please don’t hurt my family, please… ’
‘Beth, chillax, we’re all cool. You’re just going to tell whoever finds you that you were mugged. By two big Chinese guys. Just provide a couple of pointless yet specific details. They wore red shirts. They had body odor. Two details, no other. You’ll be very convincing. You never saw us. You will never speak of us. If you deviate from that story, your daughter and your father will die, guaranteed, no matter how long it takes. Because the threat against your family stands as long as you live. It doesn’t have an expiration date. But if you talk, then your family has an expiration date. They will die and the white lilies at their funerals will be from me and my sister. Are we clear?’
Beth nodded, tears brimming her eyes. They stuffed a wash-cloth from the kitchen drawer in her mouth, bound her lips with tape.
‘Have a nice day,’ the brunette said, and they left her.
Hotel Esper, Williamsburg
I decided to suit up for the meeting. I wanted to look like a legitimate business owner for the property management company, and I thought, given that I had a black eye, I needed every ounce of respectability I could muster. And I didn’t want Jack Ming, if he was hiding in the building, to see me as a soldier. I wanted to look like the other side of my life, the owner of a really nice bar. When I worked undercover for Special Projects I quickly learned that most high-level criminal groups adopt a stylish look. I would prefer myself to always be in T-shirt and jeans but life demands more. So I figured out, like a personal shopper to an assassin would, what suits worked for my build as well as what I could wear if I had to fight while dressed to the nines.
Also, even though I didn’t pay much attention to The Last Minute as I launched my search for Daniel, I was conscious of when I looked rattier than Bertrand (who always looks annoyingly dapper) and the staff. So, I’d grabbed from my office above The Last Minute the dark navy Burberry Prosrum suit, sleek-fitting. I put on a light gray shirt, a soft silver tie. To the back of the tie I attached a small, thin fighting knife; it stayed in place thanks to a customized loop I’d sewn in. The blade’s handle was extremely slender, and the weight of the knife kept the tie tucked against the shirt. I buttoned the jacket; you’d have to look hard to see the blade. I attached a holster to the small of my back; my Glock went there. Another thin blade was bound to an ankle; I put on a pair of Allen Edmonds shoes, with a slightly thick heel. I am man enough to kick when there is a need to.
I left Leonie tapping at her keyboard. ‘He’s probably not there, but if he is, and I get him, we’ll have to run quickly.’
You don’t rush in if you can help it. We had to be prepared for a couple of eventualities: that Jack Ming might somehow already be here, and have turned the building into his own fortress, and that the CIA might be here as well. Anna could be wrong about the rendezvous being set for tomorrow. Her source inside could be wrong, and, with our children’s lives on the line, neither Leonie nor I had any intention of walking into a trap. If we were caught, our children were lost to us.
Would Jack Ming hide where he planned to meet? Possibly. But if I were him, I would try to stay on the move as much as I could. Hunkering down in a place tied to his father could be dangerous, an unacceptable risk.
Of course, he was a twenty-two-year-old grad student, not a trained operative. He might not think the same way I would. But he’d run home, the most dangerous thing he could do if his false ID in the Netherlands had been cracked, and so he might commit a whole chain of mistakes. If he didn’t realize that his mother was gone, he might feel perfectly safe coming to this building that he knew to be empty.
He, after all, had to have taken the key for a good reason.
The building was enemy territory. It could be a kill zone. I had only seen it in the dark late last night and now it looked like a difficult place to defend. It was neat red brick, windows covered to keep damage and neglect at bay. An outdoor market was in full swing two streets over; pedestrians passed on their way to and from the stalls.
I walked down to the building a few minutes late. If Jack was inside I didn’t want him to spot me until the very last minute. I had no idea if he had seen me in the Rotterdam shootout, or if he would register my face from those horrible few minutes.
As I walked up to the door, a Volvo sedan with New Jersey plates pulled up. Two women got out. Great, I thought: if Jack Ming is holed up inside and gets violent then I’ve got two people to protect. They both wore practically identical pinstriped suits. Maybe Mrs Ming enforced a dress code. They were both in their late twenties, I would guess. One was dark-haired, dark-eyed, with a lovely face and a kind smile. The other was blonde, steel-eyed, a bit taller, but something in her face registered wrong. Like the smile was just for practice.
‘Mr Capra?’ This was the brunette.
‘Beth Marley.’ We shook hands. ‘This is my associate, Lizzie.’
She offered her hand, I shook it, and she held onto it a little longer than necessary. ‘Oh, what happened to your face?’ Odd tone to her question – she almost sounded disappointed. I thought for a moment she was going to reach out and touch my black eye.
‘Surely not a bar fight?’ Beth said.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘And that dude won’t walk a check again.’
‘Oh, rough stuff,’ Lizzie said. Her smile didn’t waver. I felt sure commercial leasing agents have seen nearly everything.
‘May I see your ID?’ Beth said.
I understand leasing agents have to be careful, going into buildings with strange men. I gave her both my New York driver’s license and my Last Minute business card, which looked even sharper than I did. She inspected them and handed them back to me.
Beth gestured to the building. ‘Shall we?’
Beth unlocked the door with a key with a small tag on it. She stepped inside and punched in the code for the building. She didn’t hide her tapping finger and I saw the code was 49678. She seemed to hesitate for just one moment, as if expecting the alarm to sound, but it stopped its warning chime and the indicator light turned green. But I stepped away from her before she could register that I’d been watching and turned my gaze critically to the ceiling, as though I expected to see a pox of water leaks. Lizzie stayed close to me. A little too close. I didn’t like her, all of a sudden.
On the first floor was some unfinished plasterboard, a wall left undone.
‘Did someone start to remodel and forget to finish?’
‘Apparently so. Of course, if you lease the whole space we’ll remove any left-behind renovations that were incomplete.’
Beth started to tell me about all the building’s wonderful features, of which there were three. She embellished in the way that best sales people do. I let her lead me but I stepped first through every door. I didn’t think Jack Ming, if he’d hidden himself inside here, seemed like the type to just start shooting; I didn’t even know if he had a gun. But I wasn’t going to risk the leasing agents getting hurt.
We walked through the building. The first two floors were configured for offices. Beth was giving me a very generic patter. On the top floor we could see the roofs of the adjoining building, which only went to three floors. This floor was mostly cleared concrete space.
‘So you’re thinking a bar on the ground floor?’
‘Yes. And private party rooms on the second and third floors,’ I said. ‘Office space on four.’
‘Oh, party space, I hope you’ll invite us,’ Lizzie said. ‘You won’t make us wait in line, will you? Can we jump the rope?’
I gave her a smile, but I didn’t much care for the smile she gave me back. She kept standing a little too close to me, clutching her oversized purse. ‘I’ll make sure you’re on the special guest list.’
‘Next door it’s being renovated into restaurant space,’ Beth said. ‘I believe the top floor is going to be a sushi bar. They’re opening next week, I think. You could have a synergy, depending on their clientele.’
‘I’m all about the synergy,’ I said. I never know how the hell to use that word in a sentence.
The fourth floor was mostly open space. Russell Ming was using it for storage. Boxes of all shapes and sizes, Chinese paintings, a set of rounded tables in a row, lightly covered with dust. Windows faced out onto the neighboring roof; below was a skylight that looked new. The sushi bar, celebrating natural light, I guess.
In the back corner there was a door.
I walked straight over to it and tried the doorknob. Locked.
‘What’s in here?’ I asked. My voice sounded a little louder than I’d intended.
‘Storage, I believe. Don’t know why it would be locked.’ She stepped forward. She opened the door with another key. I tensed in case Jack Ming had set up camp inside the room. He hadn’t. It was empty. I tried not to breathe a sigh of relief. He wasn’t in the building. I knew the access code now and I could pick the locks. I didn’t need Beth and Lizzie so best to get them out of the way, come back and wait for Jack Ming.
‘You seem to be… expecting to see something here,’ Lizzie said when I finished twisting the knob as I stepped away from the door. She leaned against one of the square tables.
‘Just counting the footage in my mind,’ I said.
‘I like math,’ Lizzie said. ‘I like to add things up.’
‘So,’ Beth said smoothly. ‘How would this property work for you, Mr Capra?’
‘I think it might work well indeed. How firm is the leasing price?’
‘Pretty firm, I would think. The original owner died a couple of years ago; his wife has it now, and she would rather hold out than lease too cheap.’
I had my back to them, surveying the adjoining roof. Could he enter the building this way? No, I thought not. ‘Well, I think I’ve seen enough,’ I said.
‘Enough to know Jack Ming’s not here,’ Lizzie said.
I turned. Beth had a Glock 9mm aimed at me. Lizzie was pulling from her oversized purse a metal chain, an iron weight at one end, a steel spike at the other, firm in her grip. Surujin. A weapon I’d seen before in Japan, mostly used these days for individual martial arts practice. The weight dangled like a pendulum; she started it on a gentle sway, just above her feet.
‘Hands still, where I can see them, please, Sam,’ Beth said.
‘Are you kidding me?’ I nodded at Lizzie’s toy.
‘You’re supposed to be a graceful runner. I brought it to leash you in case you ran. Don’t make me chase you.’ Lizzie’s smile didn’t quite just look socially awkward; now she looked coolly cruel.
‘I wouldn’t dream of it,’ I said.
‘We just want to talk,’ Beth – well, I knew now that wasn’t her name, but her name didn’t matter – said. Her aim steadied on my chest.
‘Gun on the ground, please,’ Beth ordered.
I obeyed. Dropped it to the hardwood floor, kicked it over to her. I kept my hands slightly raised, in front of me, where she could see them.
‘Hands on head. Lizzie, search him.’
She did with gusto, fingers dancing over me, exploring more than she should have, while Beth kept the gun leveled at my head. She probed my arms, my groin, my backside. She ran her hands along my ribs and my legs. Lizzie found the thin blade at my ankle. She ran her fingernails along the skin of my leg. She was so busy toying with me that her search was incomplete. She’d not thought to pat down my tie.
‘Boys and their toys,’ Lizzie said. She flicked the knife at my face. I didn’t flinch; she stopped a good inch away from my cheek.
It seemed to displease her I hadn’t given the reaction she wanted. ‘I can make you flinch,’ she said. ‘I will.’
‘Lizzie, step back,’ Beth said. Lizzie obeyed.
‘The preference is not to shoot you,’ Lizzie said. ‘It makes a mess.’ She stepped back, tucked my knife in her belt. She picked up the surujin and began its slow swing again. There is a whole subclass of punk-ass killers who have seen a Hong Kong or Tokyo gangster movie and decided to flash up their act a bit. One supposes they think it makes them look more dangerous. Most of them are older than me and honestly should know better. I’d dealt with one back in Amsterdam with a Japanese sword fetish and now he was dead.
Lizzie just kept smiling at me. Like she wanted to encourage me to ask her on a date.
‘Are you kidding me?’ I said again. ‘Put that down.’
She didn’t. She laughed. The little weight kept spinning, slicing the air; it sounded like a knife. ‘See, with this, I don’t kill you, I knock you around a bit, bad bruises, yes, cuts, yes, but those can heal without too much care. I can play with you a lot more. A gunshot takes forever to heal, trust me, it’s so annoying. And smelly.’
The other one – Beth – looked embarrassed, for just the barest moment. ‘Where is Jack Ming?’
‘I don’t know. I thought he might be here.’ Truth. ‘That’s why I was eager to look in that locked room.’
‘And why you tried to shield me in case he was there with a gun. Oh, how sweet,’ Beth said.
‘I won’t shield you again.’
Lizzie started swinging the surujin, harder, higher; it made a steel halo around her head.
‘Why are you looking for him?’ Beth said.
Well, I wasn’t expecting that question. But I like the cards on the table in moments like this. ‘Why are you?’
Lizzie threw the surujin. The weight slammed into my shoulder with the force of a savage punch. With a flick of the chain she’d drawn it back to her, whirling the weight in front of her. She actually knew how to use the thing. Where do you go to surujin school?
‘She can break your nose, shatter your teeth, shred your ears with it,’ Beth said. ‘I really suggest you tell us what we want to know.’
‘Talk, talk,’ Lizzie hissed.
‘Because the people who have my child want him dead.’
‘That’s very moving.’ Lizzie walked to one side of me, the weight orbiting her head. The sound it made was an awful whirring hiss. She was at both her weakest and her strongest when she threw it, if I could keep it from coming back to her. The spike was to stab someone tangled or stunned by the weight and the chain. It was like a Swiss Army knife of weapons.
‘And these people, they just want Jack dead?’ Beth asked.
‘Yes. Kill him and I get my kid back.’
‘That is so sweet,’ Lizzie said. ‘You’ll be the bestest daddy ever.’
Beth said, ‘Jack Ming is going to die. You can see it happen, if you like. But we do the job. Not you.’
Something inside me broke. They had a gun on me, fair enough, and the one playing at samurai was crazy as hell. But this was over.
‘You’ll forgive me if I don’t trust you to do what needs doing.’
‘We’re taking the responsibility off you, man,’ Lizzie said. ‘And then what?’
‘Then we talk.’
‘No. Then I go get my son if Jack Ming’s dead.’
‘No, that’s not going to happen, I’m sorry,’ Lizzie said. I wasn’t sure what she enjoyed more, the stab or the twist.
Beth said, ‘I would like to know where we can find your friend Mila.’
‘I don’t know,’ I said.
‘I think you’re lying,’ Lizzie said. ‘This – whatever you’re doing, on the side – it ends now.’
‘On the side?’
‘Working for someone other than Special Projects,’ Lizzie said. ‘We’re on the same side, babe.’ She made the last word sound like a plop of poison. ‘You just have to stand aside and let us clean up this mess.’
Oh. These two were going to kill Jack Ming, all right, but they were going to kill August, too, and whoever came with him, and they were going to kill me after I’d told them where Mila was.
Someone inside Special Projects was protecting Novem Soles and knew about the bounty on Mila, and had decided to kill the proverbial two birds with one stone. And that someone did not care one whit whether I lived or my child lived. August knew. Who else?
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘You kill Jack Ming, then I get my kid back and walk away.’
‘You walk away if you give us Mila,’ Lizzie said.
I didn’t nod for twenty seconds, and let the agony play out on my face. Then I nodded, once.
‘Where is she?’ Beth asked.
‘She’s coming here. In an hour. To help me dispose of Jack Ming’s body. She got a confirmation he was going to be here. A phone call to a friend.’
‘She’s hunting Ming?’
‘Why isn’t she here with you now?’
‘Because killing him is my job. Not hers.’
The surujin, wound in an increasing arc while I talked, lashed out at me.
It caught me in the side of the throat as I tried to dodge and felt like a baseball bat had swung into my flesh. I staggered back, choking.
‘He’s lying,’ Lizzie said. ‘I know a liar and he’s lying. He’s not giving Mila to us.’
She flicked it again at me and this time I whipped out my hand and caught the weight. It hurt – like a hammer pounding into my palm – but I yanked on the chain and Lizzie flew toward me.
I slammed a fist into her face but she kept her grip on the chain. So I threw her into Beth, who was holding fire to keep from shooting her partner.
The two women hit the floor. Where was my gun? Beth had kicked it somewhere. I didn’t see it.
First things first. Don’t get shot. Lizzie clambered to her feet. I whirled and powered a kick into her chest, knocking her back into Beth. The gun fired into the hardwoods; shards and splinters kicked up by Lizzie’s foot and she screamed. I couldn’t tell if it was rage or pain.
Right now the biggest threat was the gun. Lizzie threw three brutal sharp jabs, muay thai -style, connecting with my jaw, my nose, my mouth, and then kicked me in the chest. Strong as hell. I staggered back and she whipped the weighted end of the surujin downward, anchoring my hands, binding my wrists together. But now she didn’t try to drag me back; I was caught, she had the other end of the chain. The spike gleamed in her hand.
She rushed me, stabbing at my shoulder, just as Beth charged at me, gun in hand, doing what I would do to subdue a prisoner with useless hands: put the gun to my head, order me to stand down. So, no. I dodged two stabs of Lizzie’s, and since I was bound to her, she was bound to me. Beth lunged at me and I drove an elbow into her nose. It broke and she staggered back, for just a moment.
That was my advantage: they wanted me uninjured enough to talk, to give them Mila. I wanted them out of the way between me and my son and that could mean hurt or dead. It made no difference to me, at that moment in time.
I seized, with my bound hands, Lizzie’s arm with the spike, levered it up. I had to get free of her; Beth ignored the blood streaming from her nose, raising for her shot. There was a connection between them – they were partners, not just two people assigned to kill Jack Ming together. She would not risk a shot to Lizzie’s head. I hoped.
I swung Lizzie hard, and her arms plowed right into Beth’s head. Beth went down, and I yanked again, pulling Lizzie along with me. We trampled over Beth, then I yanked her back again, stumbling and stepping hard on Beth a second time. My foot hit the gun and I kicked, scuttling it into the mass of Russell Ming’s junk.
‘Goddamn it!’ Lizzie screamed. Easily frustrated, not calm.
I got my hand on the dangling weight since Lizzie still had her death grip on the spike. She jabbed the spike straight at the center of my chest, hitting my tie. It hit the metal of my knife, instead of soft flesh.
I clubbed the weight into the side of her head. She fell, hard.
I pulled free from the surujin, kicked back from her, just in time for Beth to nearly open my throat.
She had my blade, the one Lizzie had handed her from my ankle. I ducked as she slashed at me; she was only missing by a centimeter.
I threw myself back in a herky-jerky dance as she advanced, chasing me. The blade scored along the front of my jacket, slicing the lapel. She overextended on her thrust and I caught her and threw her to the side. I groped at my tie for my blade.
My tie was gone. She’d sliced the whole thing off, severing the silk, leaving a faint score on the shirt. Where the hell was it?
Beth stumbled, back on her feet, her hand bleeding from where the blade had turned on her. Lizzie, untangling her deadly Japanese not-really-a-toy. My severed tie lay on the floor between them.
I ran, grabbed the cloth, felt the reassuring weight of the knife under the silk. I skidded under the row of tables bordering the boxes where Russell Ming stored his junk. I worked the knife free from the silk, closed fingers around the handle.
The top of the table exploded into splinters, punctured by the weight of the surujin.
My shield – the table I was under – flew up, the two of them throwing it off me.
Which meant they each had one hand otherwise occupied.
I slashed with the knife, at knee-level. I caught Lizzie but not Beth. Lizzie howled but hammered the weight into the small of my back. Pain exploded along my spine. My knife clanged against Beth’s, slash, parry, slash. She cut at my suit sleeve. I sliced across her knuckles.
I backed away. She stayed level, knife out. She knew what she was doing. Next to her, Lizzie raised and started whirling the surujin. Then I saw the weight in her hand.
She whirled the end with the spike.
Lizzie exploded it toward me and it missed me by inches, drilling into one of the crates. She yanked at it with a gasp but it caught in the hole she’d pierced in the wood. Beth crouched before me, defending her partner. All that mattered was that for one moment the field was equal.
‘It doesn’t have to end this way, bitch,’ Beth told me. ‘We are going to win. We are going to wear you down.’ The fact that she was even negotiating was telling me I’d fought harder, hurt them more than they figured I would.
‘You’re between me and my kid. So you either walk away and don’t look back or you’re dead,’ I said.
‘When I get you in the playpen… ’ Lizzie hollered. ‘You will not ever make another threat to us again.’
‘We could see. Trade the notebook for my son.’ I yelled.
For the barest moment Beth paused. ‘What notebook?’
‘The one Jack Ming filled with dirty secrets.’ Our knives clanged as she pressed the attack. Behind her Lizzie yanked the spike free from the crate. She started whirling the damned surujin again, running toward us.
‘We’re sort of kind of on the same side,’ Beth said.
‘Who’s your boss,’ I answered.
Lizzie whipped the spike toward me, arcing hard. I parried it with the blade and it slammed, sideways, back into Beth’s head. Her temple, the soft part. The impact was squelchy and thudding and Beth fell, timbering, boneless, her head a sudden brutal mess on the side.
For a moment neither of us moved. The blade was broken by the blunt weight of the spike. I held it because I had no other weapon.
And then Lizzie began to scream, incoherent rage, the kind of fury that rises like a storm in the soul. She screamed: ‘Meggie!’ She yanked back the spike by seizing onto the chain, whipping it into a cloud of frenzy.
I dropped the broken knife, grabbed the one still clutched in Beth’s hand. I stood and the weight of Lizzie’s surujin began to spiral around my neck. Instinct to save my throat kicked in and I raised my arm. The weight and the chain caught it, pressing it against my face, the blade now above my head, wedged and useless. Lizzie yanked me toward her, the spike raised. The whirring had cleaned a fair amount of Beth’s brain and blood off of it.
No playpen for me. No keeping me alive now. Now there was just the vast, awful, empty rage in her eyes.
So I flowed with the tug on the chain and I threw myself into her.
We crashed to the floor. She hit me in the head with the spike and the weight at the same time, cymballing my head. I couldn’t shrug free from the chain to release my arm and she whirled me loose and snapped a brutal kick into my face. I fell back and then she looped the chain in a savage noose and began to squeeze, her knees in my back.
Colors swam before my eyes, broke apart, descended into grays. I gritted my teeth. The blade was beyond my reach. I pulled away from her, like a plow horse dragging an impossible weight. Grasping for the knife. She howled and shoved her foot hard against my spine.
Daniel. The thought of him fueled me. My hand closed around the knife.
She leapt over me clawing for it. And this is how a person dies.
The pressure on the chains eased.
We both grabbed for the knife.
I could hardly breathe. When she tried to pull it away, I let her do the work and I just steered it. With a thrust that surprised us both the blade pierced her chest.
She gasped, a very quiet sound for such a loud, bragging fool. I lay beside her. There was not a lot of blood because it had slid into the heart with a pure straightness.
She didn’t die as fast as Beth but then she was gone. I pushed her off me.
Special Projects was basically a rogue group. What happened when you had a rogue inside the rogue? They know about Mila, and they know about my son. I’ll do what they want and they’ll just ask for Mila next. It won’t ever end. Ever.
I staggered to my feet. I pulled the chain free from my throat like a man just spared from the gallows. I got to the window and I spat blood.
Think. I dug in my pocket, I found my cell phone. I just hoped I still had my voice.
Special Projects headquarters, Manhattan
The phone buzzed early, at 11 a.m., and August had changed the ring tone to match an appropriate song: Aretha Franklin’s classic cover of ‘Until You Come Back to Me’.
‘Hello,’ the informant said.
‘Hello,’ August said.
‘So, we’re doing this. An hour early. Forgive the change of plans.’
It didn’t surprise August; the informant was trying to keep him slightly off-kilter. He supposed it gave the informant a sense of control. ‘Yes.’
‘I want you and you alone showing up.’
‘Those people I pissed off are threatening to kill me and say they can do it as soon as I surrender to you. That they’ve got people inside your team ready to bring my head on a platter.’
‘That is what is known as a scare tactic, my friend.’
‘You’re not my friend.’
‘I’m trying to save your life.’
‘I can assure you of your safety.’
‘I am so reassured, August.’
‘You haven’t told me how you know my name.’
‘I’ll tell you when you’ve made me safe.’
August was silent.
‘You don’t tell anyone where you’re going. You come alone. Understood?’
‘And when I’ve seen the evidence we get you to a safe house and we get you your money.’
‘It’ll be worth it, August, I promise. They are insane that I have this. Insane.’
‘Don’t lie to me. I have had a shitty week. I want this to go smoothly and to be a day you talk about when they hand you the gold watch.’
‘I’m all for that,’ August said.
‘Go to the United Nations Plaza. Be there in thirty minutes. Alone, like you promised. I’ll call you then.’ He hung up.
August folded the phone. He headed out the door. He told no one where he was going. But two men on the street followed him.
A visitor might expect the United Nations plaza would be a riotous color of international garb, but it seemed most people wore the same dark suits nowadays. And everyone seemed to be speaking English. August stood at the plaza’s edge for four minutes before his phone rang.
‘You came alone.’
‘As promised. Where are you?’
‘Not here. Go to FAO Schwarz on Fifth. I’ll call you there. Stay alone. I’m watching.’
How? August thought. He pocketed the phone in annoyance. He understood the informant’s precautions but this seemed almost theatrical. Was the informant watching him now? He glanced around, smoothing out his pale hair with his hand. He walked and doubled-back. He did not spot a tail.
The two men tracking him fell off, to be replaced by two new ones, one staying ahead of August, one behind, frowning.
At FAO Schwarz, tourist children danced on keyboards and August thought: they still make those? Kids swarmed the aisles and standing there alone, childless, August thought: I don’t want to draw attention. One mother, with four-year-old twin boys orbiting her, gave him the greasy eyeball of doubt. He told himself he was a visiting businessman buying a gift for his own child and that’s how he would act.
The phone rang as he surveyed an astonishing display of action figures. I’d like my own action figure, August was thinking. New York Spy Skulking Guy. He answered the phone.
‘You’re supposed to be alone, August,’ the informant said. ‘I spy, with my little eye, two goobers who picked you up at UN and are still with you.’
August kept his poker face in place. How did he know he had agents following him, tasked to help him scoop up the informant?
‘Now. Those guys could be your buddies, backing you up, or Novem Soles, following you to get us both into a corner and to kill me dead. Lose them.’
August was silent. Shocked.
‘Do you know what they look like?’
‘No,’ August lied.
‘One is black, wearing a blue suit and dark rectangular glasses. The other has brown, slightly longish hair, wearing jeans and a maroon shirt. Lose them. When you have lost them I’ll call you back.’ He hung up.
August lingered for a moment in the aisle, shaken, and doing his best not to show it. When he walked out of the store he brushed his hand twice through his thick, blond hair. It was a signal: the meeting was off. The trackers would retreat back to the Special Projects office. He had not anticipated his shadows being spotted, not by a kid. He stood outside the store, hailed a cab and got inside.
The phone rang before he had the door shut.
‘Go to Brooklyn. The flea market in Williamsburg. Don’t be followed.’
August figured it out en route to Brooklyn. The clever little punk had hacked his way into the traffic camera system. And into the private security cameras at the toy store. Any place he sent August had an active, multiple-camera presence – all were very public spaces. That’s how he was watching August. He would have an entrance into the flea market’s camera system as well.
He called the Special Projects office.
‘He’s tracking us via traffic and store security cameras. See if you can trace him off the FAO Schwartz or Williamsburg Brooklyn Flea Market camera feeds, he’s hacking into them right now. Get a team to Brooklyn now, we need to scoop him up immediately when he gives me a final destination.’
August leaned back in the cab. The phone rang.
‘I changed my mind. Here’s where I want you to go.’
Ming building, Brooklyn
Leonie stared down at Beth and Lizzie. Her mouth trembled.
‘I know them,’ she said, in a hushed tone.
I sat on the floor, inspecting my injuries. I was sore and exhausted but I didn’t have time to hurt. Nothing was broken, as far as I could tell. I unknotted my slashed tie, threw it on the floor. ‘How do you know them?’
Her mouth worked. ‘I made new identities for them.’
‘As Lizzie and’ – I remembered the name Lizzie had screamed – ‘Meggie?’
‘No. Those were their real names. Lizzie and Meggie Pearson. They were from Oregon. Their father… he killed their mother in front of them and then told everyone his wife and kids had left him, but he kept the sisters in a cage in his basement for three years when they were little. The father finally got too close to the cage and the girls strangled him against the bars. They were maybe ten and nine. Didn’t you hear about that? One of those stories where they were all the news for five minutes then the world forgot about them.’
‘I grew up overseas, no, I never heard of them.’
‘They got put into foster care but… I don’t think they ever recovered. No family would keep them for long. Meggie was cold and calculating, Lizzie was crazy and vicious. They were in trouble with the law a lot; there was talk that they had killed a college student who knew Lizzie slightly, nothing was proven, but he was found dead in a cage in an abandoned cabin.’
‘They had to vanish.’ Leonie’s voice broke. ‘Oh God, oh God, we have to get out of here.’
Leonie stepped away from Lizzie’s body. Shuddering. ‘Because… someone I knew once wanted them to come work for him, and he needed them to have new identities. Not be the least bit notorious. New names. New histories. So they could work for him… unimpeded.’
‘As hired killers.’
‘Yes, and as interrogators. Lizzie is supposed to be good at getting information out of people.’
‘And you hid them.’
‘Yes. That’s what I did, for three years, hid people for him. Before I hid myself.’
‘The man I’m hiding from, Sam.’
‘His name is Ray Brewster. He must be behind all this. He must be.’
‘Who is he?’
She stared out the window, through the slats. Her fist pressed against her mouth. ‘They’re here.’
Ming building, Brooklyn
I stepped next to Leonie and I watched through the slats. August Holdwine approached the building from the sidewalk, via the back entrance along the alleyway. Alone. He was in jeans, a dark, untucked shirt, a summer-weight jacket, probably to conceal his weapon.
So if August was here, where was Jack Ming?
August moved along the alleyway, hand tucked under blazer, being careful. Maybe if I stood and waved he’d wave back. Could invite him up to hang out with Leonie and me and the dead sisters. After all, we’re all looking for the same guy.
‘Stay here,’ I said to Leonie. She’d heard my shocked intake of breath, come closer to the window.
‘What is it? Is it Ming?’
‘No. Someone else has shown up here.’
‘Who the hell is that?’
She sucked in breath. ‘Has he tracked him here?’
‘Either that or he’s meeting him, which means Anna’s source is dead-on right.’ Anna had someone inside Special Projects. Was it this Ray Brewster? I wasn’t sure if that theory made sense.
I had thought I could grab and deal with Ming before the meeting, before August or anyone else showed up. Now I was literally out of time. Where was Ming? He had to be close, probably watching August to ensure that he showed, and perhaps that he showed alone. Conditions for the meeting would have been set.
‘Stay here. Don’t let him see you. Let me handle this,’ I said. ‘If this goes wrong and we get separated or I’m captured, go to a bar called The Last Minute. It’s right by Bryant Park in Manhattan. Ask for Bertrand, tell him you’re a friend of mine. He’ll protect you.’
She nodded. ‘You know this man,’ she said, pointing down toward August.
Leonie clutched my arm. ‘You are not negotiating with this man, Sam. You have to kill Jack Ming. End of story. You must.’
‘Will your friend there walk away without a fight?’
‘His name is August. No. I know him too well. No.’
‘Then are you going to kill August? Who matters more, your friend or your kid?’
No, never, I thought. How far would you go to save your son? Leonie’s words ricocheted around my brain.
‘Quit being so bloodthirsty. It’s not your friend and your finger on the trigger. It’s not your conscience.’
She flinched. ‘I’m not bloodthirsty. I just want my child back. Don’t you?’ Then, before I could answer, she made her voice a knife. ‘Maybe not. It’s not like you’ve seen him. It’s not like you could really love him.’
I yanked my arm from her hand.
The shock on my face must have been reflected on her own. ‘Oh, my God, Sam, I am so sorry – I don’t know why I said that… Please… ’
‘Listen to me,’ I said. ‘Right now, call my cell phone. I’ll listen on the earbud. I’m going to keep August downstairs and talk to him. But I want to know if Ming comes into sight. I want to know immediately if you see him.’
‘Don’t hang up and don’t panic.’
Ming building, Brooklyn
I hurried down the stairs to the second floor. Were the doors unlocked? I waited at the top of the stairs that led down to the ground floor.
August opened the door. He came through with gun drawn, arm extended, classic stance to sweep the room. He froze when he saw me. I kept my hands raised, empty of a weapon.
‘Hi.’ I didn’t know what else to say.
My best friend stared up at me in shock. For one moment he wavered. Five long seconds ticked by. But he kept his gun leveled at me. ‘You look like you’ve been beaten to hell, man.’
‘Yes,’ I nodded.
‘What are you doing here, Sam?’
‘I have a favor to ask you. Biggest one ever.’
‘Come down here.’
I stayed put. ‘This is what I need you to do. Turn around and leave. You hear from Jack Ming again, you ignore it. Let him go.’
‘Jack Ming. Is that my new friend’s name? Why would you want me to give him the cold shoulder?’
‘Shut the hell up and just go.’
‘No. Why are you here, Sam?’ Now August’s voice rose.
I started to walk down the steps. My gun was holstered in the small of my back. My hands were in the air.
I knew there was a spy inside Special Projects. Another traitor who’d likely been bought. Maybe this Ray Brewster. And if I told August the truth the traitor could learn it, no matter how careful August was. It could be his team-mate, his boss. And they would never give me back Daniel if I exposed their man.
So I lied: ‘This is a trap. Novem Soles wants to capture you. Pick your brain.’
‘What are you doing here?’ And I heard what I didn’t want to hear in his voice. Suspicion. ‘How did you even know I’m here?’
He thinks I’m one of them now.
‘Oh, my God, Jack Ming is here,’ I heard Leonie’s voice in my earbud. ‘He just ran to the door from the building across the alleyway, he’s coming in now… ’
No time. No time to react.
The door slammed open and caught August with its edge. He staggered back. I saw Jack Ming power up a gun, aimed at August’s head.
‘Drop your gun,’ the young man screamed.
And August did and the young man looked up at me. I’d pulled my weapon and he still had his gun leveled at August.
‘Drop it!’ he screamed. ‘Drop it now!’
Shoot him, I thought. Just shoot him and this is over. But the gun, his gun, so close to August’s head. I couldn’t. I dropped the gun.
‘ You,’ he said and I wasn’t sure if he was speaking to me or to August. But he aimed his glare at me.
I was the surprise. Not August.
‘The Chinese hacker from Amsterdam.’ August paled. ‘You were shot.’
‘You were dead,’ I said. ‘We thought.’ He didn’t need to know I was hunting him. I wanted him to think I was just as surprised as August at his identity. Notice my clever use of we.
If he was surrendering to the CIA then let him think I was part of the CIA. Even if it bought me ten seconds of confusion.
I would have to kill him in front of August. That was that. Then run, like a coward, in the slim hope that Novem Soles would give me my child back.
August said, ‘The past is the past and I’m guessing since you’re coming to me that all is forgiven.’ I remembered the CIA team roughed up Jack a bit.
Jack gave a little shrug.
‘We had a deal. I’m ready to carry forward that deal. Lower your weapon. Let’s talk about Novem Soles,’ August said.
The young man’s gaze slid to me. I remained very still. If I moved for my gun he could blow August’s brains onto the wall.
But then he swung the gun toward me. ‘Not yet. Why is he here? He’s one of them.’
‘No. I’m not.’ This had all gone south. I couldn’t draw on him and risk August’s life. But for Daniel to live he had to die.
‘I saw you in Amsterdam,’ he said to me. ‘You were working with Nic.’
‘No. I was working with him.’ I nodded toward August. August, thank God, kept his mouth shut at this lie.
‘No. The CIA was hunting you. You’d run from them. They talked about you in front of me when they thought I didn’t understand.’ Jack Ming’s mouth narrowed. ‘What the hell is this? Why is he here, August?’
After a long, long moment, August said: ‘Answer the man, Sam.’
I said nothing.
August said, ‘Listen to me. Sam used to be CIA, he has fought against Novem Soles, and he’s okay. I can assure you of that.’ He stared up at me.
Jack’s hand with the gun was shaking, ever so slightly. The hacker had claws and didn’t know what to do. A weird back corner of me wanted to say your mother is dead, I’m sorry. I’m sorry it’s come to this kind of awful. I’m sorry I have to kill you.
I couldn’t use August to help me.
‘I said only you to come,’ Jack said to August.
‘I didn’t invite him,’ August said.
I played my hand. ‘Listen to me. There are two dead women upstairs. They were here waiting for you, Jack. Novem Soles is hunting you. I became… aware of this fact.’
‘And aware that this was where we were meeting? How could you know?’
‘Because I figured out who you were. Really were. Not a Chinese student from Hong Kong. Jack Ming, New Yorker and runaway hacker.’ I needed three seconds to shoot him. I needed him not to be aiming at August’s head. ‘I know because I was smart enough to find you.’
‘Who are these women, Sam? Did you kill them?’ August asked.
‘Kill Jack, what are you waiting for,’ Leonie hissed in my ear. ‘ What are you waiting for? ’
I was waiting because, if I didn’t kill him, I wanted to find a way to burn Novem Soles to the ground and still get my kid back. The thought had been in the back of my mind, a constant trickle I wouldn’t hear.
But consider the sisters. They tried to take me without killing me, and it didn’t work out. I couldn’t end up like them.
Ming swung the gun away from August and aimed it at the center of my chest. He clutched it with the other hand and for an amateur it telegraphed he meant to fire. August threw himself into Ming and the bullet cracked, two inches from my head. I jumped down from the stairs and pulled them apart. I wrenched the gun from Ming’s hand and knocked him to the floor. His gun dropped to the concrete. Jack’s foot hit it as we struggled and it skittered into shadows beyond the dim gleam of the entry light.
August stood, raising his own gun. Oh. Did not want that.
‘Thank you,’ I said, and slammed my fist into the side of my friend’s head. He staggered and I hit him again, hard, across his wrist. The gun fell from his nerveless fingers.
‘What the hell!’ he yelled and he parried my next blow. ‘What are you doing?’
Leonie, who had been silent, started screaming in my ear, wanting to know what was happening. I couldn’t shoot August. I wouldn’t shoot him. I just needed him sidelined so that I could kill Jack Ming. I would explain later, if he let me. If he didn’t shoot me on sight.
I hit August, a hard right cross, catching him off balance, and he fell. But as he hit the concrete, he kicked out at my legs. I hit the floor, mad. We’d entered Special Projects together, trained together, sparred together. August was bigger than me, heavy with Minnesota farm and college football muscle that he maintained. And now he was mad at me for screwing up what had to be a career highlight. He delivered a kick toward my chest and I caught his foot.
Corner of my eye, I saw Jack Ming scrambling for his gun.
He might shoot both of us. I would if I were him.
I pulled on the foot, going into a roll, knocking August off balance. He was bigger than me but I was more wiry and faster. I couldn’t think of him as a friend, I couldn’t. Not now.
He wrenched free from my grip – despite his bulk, I underestimated how strong he was – and kicked me, catching me in the face. Heel hit jaw, hurt like hell where I’d already been battered by the sisters. I felt blood on my lips. August circled me, a look mixing disgust and confusion on his face, and hammered three hard, fast punches into my chest. I fell back against the wall; I felt the raised thumbs of the light switches stab my spine. He started to scream at Ming and I, stumbling back, twisted to see Ming running. Gun in hand, but running. From both of us, throwing himself out into the alley.
‘Grab him!’ August screamed and I didn’t know if he was talking to me or to a partner who was listening in, same as Leonie.
I yelled ‘Ming’s heading out!’ But I already heard footsteps pounding on the stairs. Leonie dashed past me and August. He made a grab at her but she dodged him, mostly because I roundhouse-kicked him as hard as I could in the chest.
He fell but as I turned to pursue Ming I stumbled over his backpack. He’d left it behind in his panic. I fell. August, huffing, closed hands around my throat and threw me into the adjoining, unfinished wall I’d complained about to Meggie when she was pretending to be Beth Marley.
The drywall gave way and we tumbled through it together. Coughing, I fought to free his grip from my throat. He wouldn’t let go and those damn sausage-thick fingers started to squeeze the life out of me. He didn’t want me dead, he wanted me out of the way. So I sagged, like I was passing out. He let go and levered back a fist to slam it into my face.
I clawed my hands around his fist and held it still.
‘Why?’ he yelled.
‘They’re gonna kill my kid if I don’t,’ I said, before I could think.
‘Evacuate the informant if you have him,’ he yelled. Oh crap. He was talking to someone. He was wired. A team was here.
I shoved him off me and I seized a splintered support from the broken wall. I wrenched it free and I skimmed it right across the back of the skull. He collapsed.
For one horrifying second I thought I had killed him. I checked him. He was breathing.
I ran, stumbling into the alley, after Leonie and Jack, into whatever awaited.
The Streets of Williamsburg
Jack Ming bolted from the building into the cool of the alleyway. The red notebook, wedged in the back of his pants, hidden under a jacket, rubbed his skin at the top of his butt. He could hardly breathe.
This had been a trap. Either August had set him up or August had been set up himself. There would be no surrendering to him today. That Capra guy was after him. He stumbled. He had to get out of the neighborhood. Neither of those guys might be here alone.
He heard the chook of the discharge from a small gun, nearly soft in the humid air. He felt the heat of a bullet whizz close to his ear.
Someone was shooting at him. He stumbled, turned, and saw a woman racing after him. She was petite, red-haired, with mouth gritted. She wore jeans and sneakers and a blue T-shirt and she looked like a young suburban mother. She stopped and she stared at him as he stared back at her, backing away in shock, and for a second he screamed, ‘Get out of here, someone’s shooting… ’
But she raised a gun. It shook in her hand.
‘Forgive me,’ she said. ‘You have to die. I’m sorry.’
And she fired as he turned and ran toward the end of the alley. A black Lincoln Navigator slammed to a stop thirty feet ahead of him, blasting toward him.
He had nowhere to go.
I heard the distant pell-mell of shots. The space between them told me they weren’t fired with confidence. I hit the door and ran into the alleyway and headed toward the gunfire.
It was the battle of the hackers who couldn’t shoot straight. Leonie stood, discharging the weapon at the running Ming. She hadn’t hit him as far as I could see.
Two men in suits spilled out of a Lincoln Navigator, braked in the alley. I know Special Projects when I see it and these two were August’s men.
I hurtled past Leonie, told her to run, take cover.
Jack stopped, tottered, caught between the twin threats. One of the men seized him from behind as he turned back to Leonie – just as I ran past her – and levered him toward the Navigator. The other man – stocky, short, with a neck thick with muscle – raced toward us, aimed his weapon at me.
‘Don’t shoot!’ I yelled. ‘Holdwine is in trouble!’
And he paused. He knew me; we’d worked briefly in New York before Lucy and I moved to London. His name was Griffith. And that moment of recognition, tethered to doubt, bought me three seconds I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
‘He’s been shot by that kid!’ I yelled.
‘He’s lying!’ Ming screamed.
‘Stop,’ Griffith yelled. But too late: I slammed into him with a jump; if I’d stopped to throw a punch it would have telegraphed my half-truth of being on August’s side.
I knocked the wind out of his chest, tumbled to the pavement, rolled against a Dumpster. The other agent – who I didn’t know – strong-armed Jack toward the Navigator and aimed his pistol back across the hood at me. Jack fought him, and he had to turn his attention to Jack, to force him into the car, and I ran toward them both.
The agent shoved Jack into the driver’s side, then followed him into the Navigator.
He wheeled hard, rocketing out of the alley, backing into traffic with a blaring of horns. He had to wait several seconds to execute a U-turn. He was leaving Griffith and August behind. Which meant they were under orders that Jack Ming had to be protected at all costs.
I ran at full throttle. I hoped the adrenaline rush would make up for any lack of gracefulness like I showed in my sloppy running back in Las Vegas. I didn’t dodge into traffic behind them. I read the road, the direction they’d gone, with a glance – the level of traffic, the obstacles, the shifting pattern of the cars. You have to read the terrain in a parkour run and that’s why normally you only run where you’ve walked and explored, thoroughly. I was breaking a basic rule.
He was out in traffic, I couldn’t catch him. But. One chance. Insane but I did it.
Running at full power, I jumped onto the trunk and roof of a parked car next to the alleyway and launched myself, timing it to land on the side of a moving NY Metro bus barreling past, closing in on them. I gripped a side ad of the bus and clambered – past the astonished stares of the riders – onto the roof.
Everything hurt. Fingers, arms, chest, legs. Brain.
The bus driver, trying to figure out what that sound of an impact was against his bus, slowed. No doubt the passengers were telling him a crazy man was on board. I ran the length of the bus as it slowed, launching myself onto the roof of the Navigator.
Just one perfect shot and my son would be safe.
Training dictated that I eliminate the bigger threat: the other Special Projects agent. He could kill me before I got to Jack. And although I was willing to kill Jack I wasn’t eager to kill an innocent man.
The Navigator skidded into a parked car, on the passenger side.
I slid off the roof onto the trunk, on my knees, gun drawn. I emptied the clip into the windshield. The reinforced glass pocked but didn’t surrender to the bullets. I placed my shots hard and neat where Jack Ming sat and I swear above the roar of traffic and horns and the gun blasts I could hear Jack Ming screaming.
But the glass held. Through the blizzard of fractures in the windshield I could see Jack scrambling toward the back of the Navigator, squeezing between the driver and passenger seats. Wriggling toward the rear exit. Panicking.
The agent was brave. He was going to cover Jack Ming’s escape. Good guy, doing his job. My throat thickened at the thought of what I would have to do. He jacked down his window and he snaked an arm around the windshield to fire at me.
I dropped off the trunk, heard the first bullet kiss the paint. I was trapped in a narrow wedge between the parked car and the Navigator. The pavement was warm. The tire slanted toward me and I barely had room to curve and wriggle between the cars to get under the Navigator.
I started snaking toward the back. The car’s heat radiated against me.
To my left the driver’s door opened and I saw a foot hit the ground.
I shot the agent in the fleshy part of the calf. He howled and the leg withdrew into the car.
Ahead of me I saw red Converse sneakers hit the asphalt. Running. I writhed out from under the car, dodging through stalled and slowing traffic. The sidewalks had cleared at the first sound of the shots. Thank you, considerate, frightened pedestrians. But I had to dodge cars and Jack, fresh and unbeaten, bolted at full speed on the fast emptying sidewalks.
He rounded a corner and vanished.
I chased him. He glanced back, fear on his face. An ache tore through my ribs, in my chest, where August had dealt me a beating. Where I’d thrown myself against the bus. Trying to sneak up on them had hurt me.
A cheap street market loomed up ahead, one of those full of stuff like prepaid cell phones and knockoff purses and anything from lingerie to DVD players still in original packing, but not sold at original prices. People thronged between the booths, along the edges. Old folks, kids, babies in strollers, scatterings of families.
I couldn’t risk a shot at him. Not there. Too many people.
Jack dodged between the tables and the booths. Loud Chinese pop and a competing undercurrent of reggae thrummed the air. I risked a backward glance and saw Leonie, a few blocks back, weaving toward us. She’d had the presence of mind to hide the gun. I didn’t see either August or his men. But they would either be coming, very soon, or calling in reinforcements.
I tailed Jack Ming into the marketplace. He glanced back every ten seconds to see if I was following. We were blocks from where we’d started and this crowd was calm, and he wasn’t eager to panic them. He wanted them between me and him. He wasn’t screaming for help. Or for the police. He was determined to run. And he was determined to stay in a crowd.
The fear in his face tore at me. I didn’t want to kill this man.
August opened his eyes. His face hurt. Everything hurt. Blood on the back of his head, sticky. He got to his feet.
He heard the whine of the metal door opening, footsteps pounding the concrete floor. He groped for his gun. Gone. His head felt broken and dreamy and misty. Concussion, probably.
A woman. Petite, red hair pulled back into a ponytail, wearing jeans and a T-shirt. She stared at him and raised the gun in her hand.
‘Stay there,’ she said. ‘Stay right there.’
He stayed right there.
He saw her gaze dart about the room. She ran to Jack Ming’s knapsack, lifted it almost gently. Before she picked it up he could see in its unzippered opening a small laptop. She grabbed the knapsack, put it over her shoulder. She kept the gun leveled at August.
‘Just stay there,’ she ordered him.
‘Who are you?’ he said.
Of course she didn’t answer. She kept her gaze on him, tightened her grip on the gun.
She vanished back out into the alley.
August staggered to the door. Who the hell was she? Was she in league with Ming or with Sam?
He came out into the alley and she shot at him. Not close enough to hit but, you know, a bullet in your general direction is enough to make you retreat.
‘I told you to stay!’ she screamed at him.
One of the backups, Griffith, was lying in the alley, groaning, pawing at his ribs. No sign of the Navigator. He counted to twenty and risked coming out the door again. The redhead was gone.
He keyed his earphone. ‘Two, this is One, report?’
‘I’m getting the informant away, we’re being pursued, an armed male, he knew your name, he said you were shot-’
And then chaos. The distant thrum of metal against metal crashing, the drum-drum-drum of gunshots hitting bulletproof glass. Grimes cussing, screaming at someone to get down and stay down, Jack Ming’s voice answering I am getting the fuck out of here.
‘The hostile is trying to kill the kid,’ Grimes said and then more shots. Grimes howled and cussed again. August ran now. ‘Where are you?’
The hostile. Sam Capra. His best friend – who should have wanted nothing more than an informant from Novem Soles coming forward – was trying to kill their best hope of unveiling the ring’s every secret.
Ahead of me, Jack Ming dodged a booth full of DVDs from Bollywood and Hong Kong, leaping over the stacked tables, scattering packaging and earning a scream of annoyance and rage from the elderly vendor. The man hollered at him in a quilted howl of obscene English and Mandarin. Ming stumbled and his T-shirt hiked up his back. He reached for something in the small of his back and I thought it was a gun and I couldn’t let him shoot the old man but it was a swath of red leather. Like a book or a journal, firmly lodged in the back of his pants. He yanked his shirt back over it.
He was making sure it was still there.
The notebook. The secrets of Novem Soles.
I hollered in Mandarin: ‘He stole my wallet!’ There are decided advantages to having parents who give you a nomadic, worldwide existence as a kid. I can produce a large selection of random utterances in two dozen languages. I knew that phrase because I’d had it yelled at me, more than once, in Beijing when I was fifteen. I got bored easily.
The vendor grabbed at Jack, who screamed: ‘He’s lying, he’s trying to kill me!’
Which story is more likely to be believed in New York?
The vendor closed his hold on Jack, who kicked away from him, landing an awkward punch on the man’s face. The old man fell back onto a stack of Bollywood epics that now spread on the asphalt like a fallen house of cards.
I was jumping over the table when Jack proved himself.
Next vendor over was a stir-fry stand and Jack seized the searing hot pot and flung it at me.
I twisted and ducked and the scalding grease and shreds of meat landed against my jacket, in my hair. Real, honest pain. I dusted the meaty napalm free from my head and shoulders and singed my palms and fingers in the process. Glops of grease bubbled the plastic cases of the DVDs. The vendor caught a small splatter of it on his arm and cried out in pain.
I gritted my teeth, finally free of the searing mess, and ran out the booth.
Jack was gone.
Fifteen seconds is a lifetime in an urban chase; that was about what I had lost. Run. Catch him. How hard could it be to kill a computer geek?
I saw him skid into a cross-street and grab a cab. He piled in the back and the cab roared forward. I reached the intersection, hurrying to its middle, trying to see the cab name and a number. A guy in a Ducati motorcycle nearly ran over me, yelling at me in furious Spanish as he barreled past. He called out unkind words about my mother.
I ran after him. The Ducati slowed for braking traffic; the cab was several cars ahead. I stayed three steps behind Mr Ducati, just past the corner of his eye, and as he came to a stop I introduced an elbow to his throat, between the shielding of the helmet he wore and his jacket.
When I hit, I don’t tickle. I hit hard. It’s a lot harder blow than I look like I can deliver. The guy was blocky and squat and he perched on the Ducati like it was a mobile throne. He’d mouthed off at me, the fool in the intersection, and then forgotten about me, his eyes looking ahead for the next obstacle.
I slammed him off the bike. He didn’t yell, he just went over and he made a choking noise. I knew he’d recover; I’d pulled the punch.
‘Manners,’ I said in Spanish. And I roared onto the sidewalk.
People screamed and parted out of my way. I could see the cab, four or five cars ahead of me, to the right. I was surrounded by witnesses but he was here. He was here and I had to make this work. The gun felt heavy at the back of my ruined suit jacket. I left it there.
I veered the Ducati hard, past a parked truck between me and his cab.
And saw the cab’s back door open, swinging as the cab braked. Jack had jumped somewhere along the street. He’d seen me pursuing him.
I scanned the crowd. Alleyways, streets, doors.
Then I saw him. Stumbling, running in the distance.
I powered the Ducati, cutting across the traffic.
He ran up the stairs in front of a hipsterish, modern-architecture brownstone that was all glass and cube. And I saw him pull a small gun awkwardly from his pocket.
The door opened and a young woman exited. Jack waved the gun in her face and she screamed and crouched, obeying his order. Then Jack vanished inside. The cowering woman kept the door propped open, frozen in fear.
I roared the bike up the stairs after him, through the open door. I wanted him scared. I wanted him panicked. I wanted him not stopping to aim at me.
He ran up the apartments’ stairs as I vroomed across the tile floor of the lobby. Eyes forward, intent on fleeing. Only glancing at me.
I braked with a foot, wheeled the Ducati in a circle with a deafening screech, and powered the bike up the sleek steel stairs, the motorcycle jittered and roared, not built for this punishment, but I rocketed it. The roar of the bike made him run and he was about to run out of road, so to speak. I spun on the landing, zoomed up the next flight. My spine felt like it was about to separate from my body.
He ran up the final flight. I followed, the engine huffing its protestations. He glanced back at me once, but because I hunkered down on the bike, when he shot, the bullet zoomed well past me. He was unnerved.
I needed him to stay that way if this was going to work.
I reached the landing and Jack ran hard down the hallway, in the direction of the street, toward a window-covered dead end.
Fear is a weird mistress. She can stop you dead and cripple you, or she can harden your heart with courage.
Jack Ming’s heart hardened in those last few seconds.
He spun and he fired, the blasts from the gun bright and heat-dizzying in the dim of the hallway.
I fell back off the bike and it roared forward the remaining few feet, straight toward him. He threw himself out of the way. The bike rocketed past him, smashing through the glass wall. It tipped out into the sudden glare of the day, and I distantly heard it crash three stories down onto the pavement.
For a second, lying on my side, time froze. Jack leveled the gun at me, face wrenched with shock and horror – I had nearly run him down with the motorcycle, and the gust of wind from the window ruffled his hair.
Now I could see every detail of his face. He was barely past being a kid. He fumbled at a door lock, the door marked with a red Exit sign. The knob wouldn’t move.
I groped at my back, my fingers searching, my ragged voice saying, ‘I’m sorry.’
But my gun was gone from my holster.
He stared at me as he worked the knob.
Oh, God, I must have lost it, either in the jump to the car or along the hallway when I skidded.
Then he fired the gun. But not at me. He shifted its aim, sent a bullet into the lock of the door marked STAIRS. The lock broke. He shoved the door open and he ran.
I lurched to my feet as he bolted through the door.
I followed. He hurried up a short stairway and then through a rooftop door he opened and then slammed shut.
On a rooftop I could be king, and Jack Ming had no chance.
I grabbed the doorknob as he tried to shut it. The door froze in our tug of war. Then the little gun appeared in the gap, close by my head.
I ducked. He fired. I let go.
The door slammed shut.
I counted to ten. Fifteen. The moment I opened the door he could shoot me in the head.
Twenty. I yanked open the door, just a bit.
I could hear, in the open air, the approaching whine of a police siren. This building would soon be swarming with New York’s finest and, if they caught me before I could reach Jack Ming, my son was dead.
I eased out onto the roof. I didn’t see him. Lots of places for him to hide: water tanks; AC units; vents. All he had to do was wait until the police showed. Maybe he’d surrender to them and they’d ferry him to August or Special Projects. Compared with the option of dying at my hands, he’d prefer the police.
The roof was quiet. The neighboring roofs were both a half-story higher; but I didn’t think he’d have had time to clamber up them. Then I saw him. Running. He had scrambled onto the roof next door, hunkered down for a moment, but I could see the top of his head, ducking back down. He’d risked a look. It was a bad risk.
I ran toward him and scrambled onto the neighboring building – there was no alley dividing the two – and Jack sprinted full out, dodging between the obstacles on the roof and jumping across a narrow gap to the next building.
Most people hesitate at a jump. He didn’t. Brave. Or desperate.
His arms caught the wall. He screamed in terror, that sort of blind terror that makes your bones hurt, then he pulled himself over to safety.
My turn. I shoved my mind into the old parkour groove. See the obstacles, find the fastest and most effective way over them, under them, through them. I timed the jump and launched myself. I cleared the edge of the building and landed in a roll. My muscles howled – they had missed this particular form of exercise. I spotted Ming, running full out. Looking back at me once, terror bright in his gaze. Then he fired a shot at me and kept going.
Just chase him off the roof, I thought. If he falls he’s still dead at this height. And Daniel is safe.
I ran. I had to catch him. Daniel, the son I’d never held, crowded out every other thought but run, jump, catch. My blood fevered, my mind went primeval. Simple. He had a head start of fifty yards on me, and I had to catch him.
Forty yards. He pulled himself up a REMODELING NOW CONDOS AVAILABLE SOON! banner, using the edge of it like a rope, onto the roof of a neighboring building. I arrowed straight toward him. He stumbled again. I glanced behind me. The roof we’d exited onto was empty but it wouldn’t be for long. The police would be swarming. What with the cycle crashing and shots fired, it would be more than a single patrol car responding.
The thoughts went scattershot through my brain in seconds. I focused on running. Jack was running very, very hard. Survival instinct kicked into full. But I was trained in this, and I was faster.
‘Police!’ I heard a voice boom across the rooftops. ‘Stop! Lay down your weapons!’
I glanced back. Two officers, scrambling out the door where Jack nearly shot me in the head.
I put my gaze back to where Jack was running.
I scanned the roof I was approaching. Ming had been running across it, stupidly, in a straight line, and he’d vanished onto a lower roof when I’d glanced back at the sound of the pursuing officer. Now I’d lost him. No.
‘Halt!’ the police yelled as I topped the roof’s edge and dropped onto the next building. He’d run out of space. Chimneys, vents, a brick shack for the doorway to the stairs into the building. There was equipment up here, the bright blue blisters of building wrap, scaffolding climbing above the farthest edge of the roof. Renovations were underway. Maybe he’d ducked under the wrap, which was everywhere. Maybe he’d gone through the door. If he dropped down into a building’s stairwell I could run right past him. Panic frosted my heart. I headed for the door. I had to choose, now; the police would be broadcasting my location and other units responding would be directed to intercept me.