91

Frederick County, Maryland, USA
December 5—0722 Hours GMT–5

“Hello?”

Lawrence Drake took a hesitant step forward, the sound of frozen leaves beneath his feet shockingly loud in the silence of the clearing. “Is someone out there?”

“Larry, who are—,” Dave Collen said from inside the helicopter, but Drake cut him off.

“Shut up and secure those papers!”

The dense clouds to the east glowed dully with dawn, transforming the vague shapes into the outline of an SUV and a large panel van. Four human figures — three men and a woman — stood motionless in front of the vehicles.

The cold morning air caught in Drake’s chest and he stopped, looking around him at the black wall of trees surrounding the clearing.

It was obvious now that the helicopter’s mechanical failure had been staged — that the pilot had been paid to put down there. But by whom? Terrorists? Foreign agents? Were they here to kill him?

A few years ago, this would have been impossible. But the Muslims didn’t play by the rules that had been set out during the cold war. No one was off-limits. Death was something to be courted, not avoided.

“What do you want?” he said through a bone-dry mouth.

Dawn’s glow continued to intensify, adding detail to the scene in front of him. The woman was tall and athletic, with blond hair that gleamed in the semidarkness. Despite the fact that her face was still in shadow, there was something familiar about her, about the strength and grace that projected even when she was motionless.

He began to back away but then stopped short at the sound of her voice.

“Where do you think you’re going, Larry?”

“Russell?” he responded. “Randi Russell? What the hell is this? What are you doing here?”

“I found the team you sent after Jon and Peter.”

He tried to keep the shock and fear from his face but in the end could only hope that the gloom hid it. “What are you talking about?”

“It was all fake,” she said. “Everything you saw about them crossing into Iran came directly from me and Chuck Mayfield: their plane’s flight path from Diego Garcia, the satellite photos of the car taking them into the mountains. Everything. They were a hundred miles away the whole time.”

For a moment, Drake found it hard to draw air into his lungs, but then he forced himself to relax. There was a way out of this. He just had to think.

If what she said was true and he had been working with disinformation, Smith was almost certainly still alive and involved with what was happening in Avass. That meant the call from Sepehr Mouradipour had been a setup and undoubtedly recorded.

He didn’t dare a look back at Collen, but the papers he was collecting consumed his mind. It was all there — everything they’d done, everything they’d kept from Castilla.

Calm down!

If Russell got her hands on those documents, it would be extremely complicated, but perhaps not the ruinous disaster it seemed on the surface. Politics could be a very messy business.

“I want to talk to the president.”

Russell shook her head slowly. “I don’t think he wants to talk to you.”

Drake grunted in pain as a blow to the back of his legs drove him to the ground. His arms were wrenched behind his back and he heard the metallic clack of handcuffs over the shouts of Dave Collen being dragged from the damaged helicopter.

When Drake was pulled to his feet again, Russell was walking across the clearing toward him.

“What are you going to do, Randi? Prosecute me? Do you know how much of this country’s dirty laundry I have locked up in my head? The black ops, the renditions, the backroom deals? And what about you and Smith? Who exactly is it you work for? Could it be that the president has put together a group that exists outside the law? Because that could turn out to be very uncomfortable for him if it goes public.”

She stopped a few feet away, her head tilted slightly as she examined him. “The docs told me that if the shooter you sent to my house had aimed an inch more to the left, the body armor wouldn’t have saved me. At best I’d be paralyzed.”

“You’re a hell of an operator, Randi. I’ll give you that. But you’re out of your depth now.”

“And you’re a man who swore to protect this country and the people who live in it!” she shouted. “You owe them your loyalty, and you sure as hell owe your loyalty to the operatives out there risking their lives for you every day.”

“Do you have any idea how na?ve you sound, Randi? Now, get these damn handcuffs off me. And tell Castilla I’ll be willing to offer my resignation for personal reasons. But that offer isn’t going to last forever.”

“Then off to a lucrative private-sector job, huh, Larry? No need to get bogged down in all this nonsense about you covering up a bioweapon that could kill millions of Americans. And what about all those innocent people in Uganda? Or the ones dying right now in Iran? What about Jon and Peter, who won’t ever be coming home? We’ll just forget all that too, right?”

Her reputation, combined with the very real fury in her voice, was admittedly enough to make him sweat. But it was all bluster. Randi Russell was just another soldier — an expendable cog in a machine that she didn’t even have the capacity to fully understand.

“You can rant all you want, Randi, but Castilla isn’t going to put me on the stand with what I know. And after the Lazarus fiasco, the CIA can’t afford another black eye.”

She laughed and started back toward the vehicles parked at the edge of the clearing. “Who sounds na?ve now, Larry?”

Drake felt a gun against the back of his head and he was forced to follow. Collen came alongside, similarly motivated by a man carrying the briefcase containing their papers.

Ahead, the back of the panel van was open and Russell’s men were pulling out three large sacks. Confused, Drake watched as they began dragging them toward the helicopter. It was only when they passed that he was able to identify what was inside the black plastic.

Corpses.

“Wait!” he said, stopping short. “What—”

The man behind Drake pushed him forward hard enough that he barely managed to keep from pitching onto the icy ground. Randi grabbed him by the back of the neck, pulling him upright, and shoved him into the back of the van. “Like you said, Larry, the CIA can’t afford another black eye.”

“No!” he shouted as Collen was thrown in after him.

The door slid down, leaving them in blackness as the engine came to life and the vehicle began lurching forward. A moment later, he heard a sound that he’d been dreading — the explosion that would incinerate the helicopter and the three bodies inside.

The entire world would believe he died in the crash.

There would be a state funeral, a eulogy praising his selflessness and service to the country. His wife would accept the flag from a coffin containing the body of a stranger, never knowing that her husband was lying in an unmarked grave carved from the country he’d betrayed.

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