gplant so dark it made Lee think of the inside of a coffin. The windows were cathedral-size, the furniture large enough to become lost in and there were enough wood moldings, paneling and staircases to heat a typical midwestern town for an entire year. There were also stone fountains sculpted with naked people.
"The FBI, however, may suspect that he does know about her betrayal or may find out at some point. Thus, to the outside observer, no one in the world has greater motivation to kill Faith Lockhart than Danny Buchanan."
"And your point?" the questioner persisted.
"My point," said Thornhill tersely, "is quite simple. Instead of allowing Buchanan to disappear, we tip off the FBI that he and his clients discovered Lockhart's duplicity and had her and the agent murdered."
"But once they get hold of Buchanan, he'll tell them everything," the man quickly responded.
Thornhill looked at him as a disappointed teacher to pupil. Over the last year, Buchanan had given them everything they needed; he was now officially expendable.
The truth slowly dawned on the group. "So we tip the FBI about Buchanan posthumously. Three deaths. Correction, three murders," another man said.
Thornhill looked around the room, silently gauging the reaction of the others to this exchange, to his plan. Despite their protestations about killing an FBI agent, he knew that three deaths meant nothing to these men. They were from the old school, which quite clearly understood that sacrifices of that nature were sometimes necessary.
Certainly what they did for a living sometimes cost people their lives; however, their operations had also avoided open war. Kill three to save three million, who could possibly argue with that? Even if the victims were relatively innocent. Every soldier who ever died in battle was innocent too. Covert action, quaintly referred to as the
"third option" in intelligence circles, the one between diplomacy and open war, was where the CIA could really prove its worth, Thornhill believed. Although it was also at the heart of some of the Agency's worst disasters. Well, without risk there was never the possibility for glory. That epitaph could be put on his tombstone.
No formal vote was taken by Thornhill; none was needed.
"Thank you, gentlemen," Thornhill said. "I'll take care of everything." He adjourned the meeting.
THE SMALL, WOOD-SHINGLED COTTAGE STOOD ALONE at the end of a short, hard-packed gravel road, its dirt shoulders laced with the tangled sprawl of dandelion, curly dock and chickweed. The ramshackle structure rested on an acre of cleared flat land, but was surrounded on three sides by woods where each tree struggled to find sunlight at the expense of its neighbor. Because of wetlands and other development problems, the eighty-year-old home had never had any neighbors. The nearest community was about three miles away by car, but less than half that distance if one had the backbone to challenge the dense woods.
For much of the last twenty years the rustic cottage had been used for impromptu teen parties, and on occasion by the wandering homeless looking for the comfort and relative safety of four walls and a roof, however porous. The cottage's discouraged current owner, who had recently inherited the beast, had finally opted to rent it out. He had found a willing tenant who had paid the full year's rent in advance, in cash.
Tonight the calf-high grass in the front yard was pushed low and then straightened in the face of a strengthening wind. Behind the house a line of thick oaks seemed to mimic the movements of the grass as they swayed back and forth. It hardly seemed possible, yet except for the wind, there were no other sounds.
In the woods, several hundred yards directly behind the house, a pair of feet splashed through a shallow creek bed. The man's dirty trousers and soaked boots attested to the difficulty with which he had navigated the congested terrain in the dark, even with the aid of a three-quarters-full moon. He paused to scrape his muddy boots against the trunk of a fallen tree.
Lee Adams was both sweaty and chilled after the punishing trek. At forty-one years of age, his six-foot-two body was exceptionally strong.
He worked out regularly, and his biceps and delts showed it. Keeping in reasonably good shape was a necessity in his line of work. While he was often required to sit in a car for days on end, or in a library or courthouse reviewing microfiche records, he also, on occasion, had to climb trees, subdue men even larger than he was or, like now, slog through gully-filled woods in the dead of night. A little extra muscle never hurt. However, he wasn't twenty anymore either, and his body was letting him know it.
Lee had thick, wavy brown hair that seemed perpetually in his face, a quick, infectious smile, pronounced cheekbones and an engaging set of blue eyes that had caused female hearts spontaneously to flutter from fifth grade onward. He had suffered enough broken bones during his career, though, and other assorted injuries, that his body felt far older than it looked. And that's what hit him every morning when he rose. The creaks, the little pains. Cancerous tumor or merely arthritis? he sometimes wondered. What the hell did it really matter?
When God punched your ticket, He did so with authority. A good diet and messing around with weights or pitter-pattering on the treadmill wasn't going to change the Man's decision to pull your string.
Lee looked up ahead. He couldn't see the cottage just yet; the forest clutter was too thick. He fussed with the controls of the camera he had pulled from his knapsack while he took a series of replenishing breaths. Lee had made this same trek several times before but had never gone inside the cottage. He had seen things, though-peculiar things. That's why he was back. It was time to learn the secret of this place.
His wind having returned, Lee trudged on, his only companions the scurrying wildlife. Deer, rabbit, squirrel and even beaver were plentiful in this still-rural part of northern Virginia. As he walked along, Lee listened to the flit of flying creatures. All he could envision were rabid, foaming bats blindly cleaving the air around his head. And it seemed that every few steps he would run straight into a twister of mosquitoes. Though he had been paid a large amount of cash up front, he was seriously considering increasing his daily fee on this one.
When he approached the edge of the woods, Lee stopped. He had a great deal of experience spying on the haunts of people and their activities.
Slow and methodical was the best way, like a pilot's checklist. You just had to hope nothing happened to make you improvise.
Lee's bent nose was a permanent badge of honor from his time as an amateur boxer in the Navy, where he had taken out his youthful aggression in a square of roped canvas against an opponent of like weight and ability. A pair of stout gloves, quick hands and nimble feet, a cagey mind and a strong heart had constituted his arsenal of weapons. The majority of the time, they had been enough for victory.
After his military stint, things had worked out mostly okay for him.
Never rich, never actually poor despite being mostly self-employed over the years; never quite alone, though he had been divorced for almost fifteen years. The only good thing from that marriage had just turned twenty. His daughter was tall, blond and brainy, as well as the proud bearer of a full academic scholarship to the University of Virginia and a star on the women's lacrosse team. And for the last ten years, Renee Adams had had no interest whatsoever in having anything to do with her old man. A decision that had her mother's full blessing, if not her insistence, Lee well knew. And his ex had seemed so kind on those first few dates, so infatuated with his Navy uniform, so enthusiastic in tearing up his bed.
His ex-wife, a former stripper named Trish Bardoe, had married on the rebound a fellow by the name of Eddie Stipowicz, an unemployed engineer with a drinking problem. Lee thought she was heading for disaster and had tried to get custody of Renee on the grounds that her mom and stepfather could not provide for her. Well, about that time, Eddie, a sneaky runt Lee despised, invented, mostly by accident, some microchip piece of crap that had made him a gazillionaire. Lee's custody battle had lost its juice after that. To add insult to injury, there had been stories on Eddie in the Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek and a number of other publications. He was famous. Their house had even been featured in Architectural Digest.
Lee had gotten that issue of the Digest. Trish's new home was grossly huge, mostly crimson red or eg
What a kicker! A photo of the happy couple was included in the spread.
In Lee's opinion they might as well have captioned it "The Nerd and the Bombshell strike it rich in poor taste."
One photo had captured Lee's complete attention, however. Renee had been poised on the most magnificent stallion Lee had ever seen, on a field of grass that was so green and perfectly trimmed that it looked like a pond of sea glass. Lee had carefully cut that photo out and put it away in a safe spot-his family album of sorts. The article, of course, made no mention of him; no reason that it should. The one thing that had ticked him off, though, was the reference to Renee as Ed's daughter.
"Stepdaughter," Lee had said out loud when he read that line.
"Stepdaughter. That one you can't take away, Trish." Most of the time he felt no envy for the wealth his ex-wife now had, for it meant that his daughter would never want. But sometimes it still hurt.
When you had something for all those years, something you had made with a part of yourself, and loved more than it was probably good to love anything, and then lost it-well, Lee tried never to dwell for long on that loss. Big tough guy that he was, when he did let himself think about the massive hole dead center in his chest, he ended up blubbering like a baby.
Life was so funny sometimes. Funny like when you get a clean bill of health one day and drop dead the next.
Lee looked down at his muddy pants and worked a painful cramp out of his weary leg at the same time he swatted a mosquito out of his eye.
Hotel-size house. Servants. Fountains. Big horses. Sleek private jet..
Probably all a real pain in the ass.
Lee hugged the camera to his chest. It was loaded with 400-speed film that Lee was turbo charging by setting the camera's ISO speed to 1600.
Fast film required less light, and with the shutter opening for shorter periods of time, there was far less likelihood that camera wobble or vibration would distort any photos. He slipped on a 600mm telephoto lens and flipped down the lens' attached tripod.
Peering between the branches of a wild dogwood, Lee focused on the rear of the cottage. Scattered clouds drifted past the moon and deepened the darkness around him. He took a series of shots and then put the camera away.
As he stared at the house, the problem was he couldn't tell from here if the place was occupied or not. It was true he couldn't see a light on, but the place might have an interior room not visible from here.
Added to that, he couldn't see the front of the house, and there might be a car parked there, for all he knew. He had observed the traffic and foot patterns on his other trips here. There hadn't been much to see. Few cars came down this road, and no walkers or joggers did. All the cars he had seen had turned around, obviously having made a wrong turn. All, that is, except one.
He glanced up at the sky. The wind had died down. Lee roughly calculated that the clouds would obscure the moonlight for a few minutes more. He slung the pack across his back, tensed for a moment, as though marshaling all of his energy, and then slid out of the woods.
Lee glided noiselessly until he reached a spot where he could squat behind a copse of overgrown bushes and still observe the front and back of the house. While he watched the house, the shades of darkness grew lighter as the moon reappeared. It seemed to be lazily watching him, curious as to what he was doing here.
Though isolated, the cottage was only a forty-minute drive from downtown D.C. That made it very convenient for any number of things.
Lee had made inquiries about the owner and found him to be legitimate.
The renter, however, had been a little tougher to pin down.
Lee pulled out a device that looked like a cassette recorder but was actually a battery-powered lock-pick gun, along with a zippered case, which he opened. He felt the different lock picks inside, then selected the one he wanted. Using an Allen wrench, he secured the pick into the machine. Lee's fingers moved quickly, confidently, even as another bank of clouds passed over, deepening the darkness once more.
Lee had done this so many times that he could have closed his eyes and his fingers would carry on, manipulating his tools of felony with enviable precision.
Lee had already checked out the locks on the cottage with his spotting scope during daylight. That had also disturbed him. Deadbolt locks on all the exterior doors. Sash locks on both the first- and second-story windows. All the hardware looked new too. On a falling-down rental in the middle of nowhere.
Despite the cool weather, a head of nervous sweat surfaced on Lee's forehead as he thought about this. He touched the 9mm in his belt clip holster; the metal was comforting. He took a moment to put the singleaction pistol in a cocked-and-locked position-a round in the firing chamber, the hammer cocked and the safety set.
The cottage also had a security system. That had been a real stunner.
If he was smart, Lee would pack his tools of criminality and go home, reporting failure to his employer. However, he took pride in his work.
He would see it through at least until something happened to make him change his mind. And Lee could run very fast when he needed to.
Getting into the house wouldn't be all that difficult, particularly since Lee had the pass-code. He'd managed to get it the third time he'd been here, when the two people had come to the cottage. He had already confirmed the place was wired, so he had come prepared. He had beat the couple here and waited while they did whatever they were doing inside. When they had come out, the woman had entered the pass-code to arm the system. Lee, hiding in the same copse he was in now, just happened to have a bit of electronic wizardry that snatched that code right Out of the air like a fly ball neatly falling into a glove. All electrical current produces a magnetic field, like a little transmitter. When the tall woman had punched in the numbers, the security system had thrown off a discrete signal for each digit, right into Lee's electronic mitt.
Lee checked the cloud cover once more, slapped on a pair of latex gloves with reinforced fingertip and palm pads, readied his flashlight and took another deep breath. A minute later he moved out from the cover of the bushes and made it quietly to the back