n you gonna get jacked right here.”
The screen flickered once more and then came fully to life. They were staring at a man short in stature, in his seventies, with a deeply lined and tanned face. There was a rim of white near his hairline where the cap he normally wore helped to block the sun. But he was not in uniform now. He was dressed in a gray tunic with a high, stiff collar.
He stared directly at them.
Evan Tucker said, “Thank you for agreeing to communicate with us tonight, General Pak.”
Pak nodded and said, in halting but clearly enunciated English, “It is good to meet, face-to-face, as it were.” He smiled, showing off highly polished veneers.
The president attempted to smile back, but his heart was not in it. He knew that Pak would lose his life if exposed. But the president had a lot to lose too.
“We appreciate the level of cooperation received,” he said.
Pak nodded. “Our goals are the same, Mr. President. For too long we have been isolated. It is time for us to take our seat at the world’s table. We owe it to our people.”
Tucker said encouragingly, “We completely agree with that assessment, General Pak.”
“Details are progressing nicely,” said Pak. “Then you can commence your part in this. You must send your best operatives. Even with my help, the target is a very difficult one.” Pak held up a single finger. “This will be the number of opportunities we will have. No more, no less.”
The president glanced at Tucker and then back at Pak. “We would send nothing less than our very best for something of this magnitude.”
Potter said, “And we are sure of both the intelligence and the support?”
Pak nodded. “Absolutely sure. We have shared that with your people and they have confirmed the same.”
Potter glanced at Tucker, who nodded.
“If it is discovered,” said Pak. They all became riveted to him. “If it becomes discovered, I will surely lose my life. And, America, your loss will be far greater.”
He looked the president directly in the eye and took a few moments seemingly to compose his words carefully.
“It is why I asked for this video conference, Mr. President. I will be sacrificing not only my life, but the lives of my family as well. That is the way here, you see. So, I need your complete and absolute assurance that if we move forward, we do so together and united, no matter what might happen. You must look me in the eye and tell me this is so.”
The blood seemed to drain from the face of the president. He had made many important decisions during his term, but none so stressful or potentially momentous as this one.
He didn’t look at either Potter or Tucker before answering. He kept his gaze right on Pak. “You have my word,” he said in a strong, clear voice.
Pak smiled, showing off his perfect teeth again. “That is what I needed to hear. Together, then.” He saluted the president, who gave his own crisp salute in return.
Tucker hit a button on the console in front of him and the screen went black once more.
The president let out an audible breath and sat back against the leather of his chair. He was sweating though the room was cool. He wiped a drop of moisture off his forehead. What they were proposing to do was quite clearly illegal. An impeachable offense. And unlike the presidents impeached before him, he had no doubt the Senate would convict him.
“Into the breach rode the five hundred,” the president said in barely a whisper, but both Potter and Tucker heard it and nodded in agreement.
The president leaned forward and looked squarely at Tucker.
“There is no margin for error. None. And if there is the least hint of this coming out—”
“Sir, that will not happen. This is the first time we’ve ever had an asset placed that high over there. There was an attempt on the leadership last year, as you know. While he was traveling on the street in the capital. But it was botched. That was from low-level internal sources and had nothing to do with us. Our strike will be quick and clean. And it will succeed.”
“And you have your team in place?”
“Being assembled, and then they’ll be vetted.”
The president looked sharply at him. “Vetted? Who the hell are you planning to use?”
“Will Robie and Jessica Reel.”
Potter sputtered, “Robie and Reel?”
“They are the absolute best we have,” said Tucker. “Look what they did with Ahmadi in Syria.”
Potter eyed Tucker closely. He knew every detail of that mission. Thus he knew that neither Reel nor Robie had been intended to survive it.
The president said slowly, “But with Reel’s background. What you allege she did. The possibility of her going—”
Tucker broke in. Normally, this would be unheard of. You let the president speak. But tonight Evan Tucker seemed to see and hear only what he wanted to.
“They are the best, sir, and the best is what we need here. As I said, with your permission, they will be vetted to ensure that their performance will be at the highest level. However, if they fail the vetting, I have another team, nearly as good, and certainly up to the task of performing the mission. But the clear preference is not the B Team.”
Potter said, “But why not simply deploy the backup team? Then this vetting process becomes unnecessary.”
Tucker looked at the president. “We really need to do it this way, sir, for a number of reasons. Reasons which I’m sure you can readily see.”
Tucker had prepared for this exact moment for weeks. He had studied the president’s history, his time as commander in chief, and even gotten his hands on an old psychological profile of the man done while he was running for Congress many years ago. The president was smart and accomplished, but not that smart, and not that accomplished. That meant he had a chip on his shoulder. Thus he was reluctant to acknowledge that he was not always the smartest, most informed person in the room. Some would see that attribute as a strength. Tucker knew it to be a serious vulnerability ripe for exploitation.
And he was exploiting it right now.
The president nodded. “Yes, yes, I can see that.”
Tucker’s face remained impassive, but inwardly he breathed a sigh of relief.
The president leaned forward. “I respect Robie and Reel. But again, there is no margin for error here, Evan. So you vet the hell out of them and make damn sure they are absolutely ready for this. Or you use the B Team. Are we clear?”
“Crystal,” said Tucker.
WILL ROBIE, UNABLE TO SLEEP, stared at the ceiling of his bedroom while the rain pounded away outside. His head was pounding even more, and it would not stop when the rain did. He finally rose, dressed, put on a long slicker with a hood, and set out from his apartment in Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C.
He walked for nearly an hour through the darkness. There were few people about at this hour of the morning. Unlike other major cities, D.C. did sleep. At least the part you could see. The government side, the one that existed underground and behind concrete bunkers and in innocuous-looking low-rise buildings, never slumbered. Those people were going as hard right now as they would during the daylight hours.
Three men in their early twenties approached from the other side of the street. Robie had already seen them, sized them up, and knew what they would demand of him. There were no cops around. No witnesses. He did not have time for this. He did not have the desire for this. He turned and walked directly at them.
“If I give you some money, will you leave?” he asked the tallest of the three. This one was his size, a six-footer packing about one hundred and eighty street-hardened pounds.
The man drew back his Windbreaker, revealing a black Sig nine-mil in the waistband that hung low over his hips.
“Depends on how much.”
The man looked at his two comrades. “Make it a deuce and you’re on your way, dude.”
“I don’t have a deuce.”
“So you say. The
He went to draw the gun, but Robie had already taken it from his waistband and pulled down his pants at the same time. The man tripped over his fallen trousers.
The man on the right pulled a knife and then watched in amazement as Robie first disarmed him and then laid him out with three quick punches, two to the right kidney, one to the jaw. Robie added a kick to the head after the man smacked the pavement.
The third man did not move.
The tall man exclaimed, “Shit, you a ninja?”
Robie glanced down at the Sig he held. “It’s not balanced properly and it’s rusted. You need to take care of your weapons better or they won’t perform when you want them to.” He flicked the weapon toward them. “How many more guns?”
The third man’s hand went to his pocket.
“Drop the jacket,” ordered Robie.
“It’s raining and cold,” the man protested.
Robie put the Sig’s muzzle directly against his forehead. “Not asking again.”
The jacket came off and fell into a puddle. Robie picked it up, found the Glock.
“I see the throwaways at your ankles,” he said. “Out.”
The throwaways were handed over. Robie balled them all up in the jacket.
He eyed the tall man. “See where greed gets you? Should have taken the Benny.”
“We need our guns!”
“I need them more.” Robie kicked some water from the puddle into the unconscious man’s face and he awoke with a start, then rose on shaky legs. He did not seem to know what was going on, and probably had a concussion.
Robie flicked the gun again. “Down that way. All of you. Turn right into the alley.”
The tall man suddenly looked nervous. “Hey, dude, look, we’re sorry, okay? But this is our turf here. We patrol it. It’s our livelihood.”
“You want a livelihood? Get a real job that doesn’t involve putting a gun in people’s faces and taking what doesn’t belong to you. Now walk. Not asking again.”
They turned and marched down the street. When one of the men turned to look back, Robie clipped him in the head with the butt of the Sig. “Eyes straight. Turn around again you get a third one to look through in the back of your head.”
Robie could hear the men’s breathing accelerate. Their legs were jelly. They believed they were walking to their execution.
“Walk faster,” barked Robie.
They picked up their pace.
“Faster. But don’t run.”
The three men looked idiotic trying to go faster while still walking.
The three men broke into a sprint. They turned left at the next intersection and were gone.
Robie turned and headed in the opposite direction. He ducked down an alley, found a Dumpster, and heaved the jacket and guns into it after clearing out all of the ammo. He dropped the bullets down a sewer grate.
He did not get many opportunities for peaceful moments and he did not like it when they were interrupted.
Robie continued his walk and reached the Potomac River. This had not been an idle sojourn. He had come here with a purpose.
He drew an object from the pocket of his slicker and looked down at it, running his finger along the polished surface.
It was a medal, the highest award that the Central Intelligence Agency gave out for heroism in the field. Robie had earned it, together with another agent, for a mission undertaken in Syria at great personal risk. They had barely made it back alive.
In fact, it was the wish of certain people at the agency that they not make it back alive. One of those persons was Evan Tucker, and it was unlikely he was going away, because he happened to head up the CIA.
The other agent who had received the award was Jessica Reel. She was the real reason Evan Tucker had not wanted them back alive. Reel had killed members of her own agency. It had been for a very good reason, but some people didn’t care about that. Certainly Evan Tucker hadn’t.
Robie wondered where Reel was right now. They had parted on shaky ground. Robie had given her what he had believed was his unconditional support. Yet Reel did not seem to be capable of acknowledging such a gesture. Hence the shaky parting.
He gripped the chain like a slingshot and whirled the medal around and around. He eyed the dark surface of the Potomac. It was windy; there were a few small whitecaps. He wondered how far he could hurl the highest medal of the CIA into the depths of the river that formed one boundary of the nation’s capital, separating it from the commonwealth of Virginia.
The chain twirled several times in the air. But in the end Robie didn’t fling it out into the river. He returned the medal to his pocket. He wasn’t sure why.
He had just started back when his phone buzzed. He took it out, glanced at the screen, and grimaced.
“Robie,” he said tersely.
It was a voice he didn’t recognize. “Please hold for DD Amanda Marks.”
Please hold? Since when does the world’s most elite clandestine agency have its personnel say, “Please hold”?
The voice was crisp, sharp as a new blade, and in its undertone Robie could detect both immense confidence and a desire to prove oneself. That was a potentially deadly combination for him, because Robie would be the one doing this woman’s bidding in the field while she safely watched from a computer screen thousands of miles away.
“We need you in here ASAP.”
“You’re the new DD?”
“That’s what it says on my door.”
“We’ll talk when you get in here. Langley,” she added, quite necessarily because the CIA had numerous local facilities.
“You know what happened to the last two DDs?” Robie asked.
“Just get your butt in here, Robie.”
JESSICA REEL COULD NOT SLEEP either. And the weather was as bad on the Eastern Shore as it was in D.C. She stared at where her home had once been before it had been destroyed. She had actually done the deed herself. Well, she had booby-trapped the place and Will Robie had triggered the explosion that had almost claimed his life. It was incredible how a partnership could have been born out of such grim circumstances.
She pulled her hood tighter against the rain and wind and continued to tramp over the muddy earth, while the waters of the Chesapeake Bay to the west continued to pound the little spit of land.
She had departed from Robie feeling both hopeful and lost, such an unsettling feeling that she was unsure from which end to work through it. If there was even a way to do so. For most of her adult life her work had been her entire world. Now Reel wasn’t sure she really had a job or world left. Her agency despised her. Its leadership wanted her not merely out of the way but dead.
If she left her employment there she felt she would be giving them license to terminate her in that far more permanent way. Yet if she stayed, what would her future be like? How long could she reasonably survive? What was her exit strategy?
All troubling questions with no apparent answers.
The last few months had cost her all she had. Her three closest friends in the world. Her reputation at the agency. Perhaps her way of life.
But she had gained something. Or someone.
Will Robie, initially her foe, had become her friend, her ally, the one person she could count on, when Reel had never been able to do that easily or convincingly.
But Robie knew her way of life as well as she did. Her way was his way. They would forever share that experience. He had offered her friendship, a shoulder to lean on if it ever came to that.