The ground sloped steeply upwards ahead of them, rising out of the forested valley, the cold wind whistling about their ears. They walked wearily in silence, and after a while Zo? lost the energy even to complain any more.
At the base of a towering limestone mountain, fifty metres above the valley, they found a cave entrance shielded from the wind by an overhanging lip of rock. Ben shone the Maglite inside, checking for signs of wild animal habitation. The cave would have been an ideal lair for a grizzly or a mountain lion, but there were no traces of droppings or half-finished kill. Alex and a resentful Zo? gathered dry boughs and fern leaves for bedding while Ben built a fire at the back of the cave, arranged so that the smoke would rise up to the roof and escape through the entrance. He lit the tinder with a match, and after a few minutes he had a good blaze going. Exhausted from pain and drenched with cold sweat, he collapsed on the leafy floor. Alex joined him, frowning in worry as she settled next to him. She felt his brow and ran her fingers through his damp hair.
Zo? flopped down opposite, ignoring them. She grabbed a blanket for a pillow and lay down. She was asleep soon afterwards.
Ben prodded the fire with a stick. ‘It’s time for you and me to talk.’
‘I’ll tell you what I know,’ Alex said. ‘But it’s not a hell of a lot.’
‘Tell me about Jones.’
She sighed. ‘I was assigned to his unit eight months ago. I never liked the guy. He’s a class A creep. I was about to request a transfer to a different unit when things started getting strange. I was part of a team watching a guy called Cleaver. Phone taps, email intercept, close surveillance, the works.’
‘But nobody told you why.’
‘The Agency works in mysterious ways a lot of the time. You accept that they don’t always disclose everything to the field agents. But this was different. Only Jones ever saw the transcripts of calls. The rest of us were kept in the dark. I even started listening at doors, and that’s how I knew some agents had been sent to Greece.’
‘Marisa Kaplan was one of them,’ he said. ‘Know her?’
‘No, but I found her name on a file. One I could have got in a lot of trouble for looking at. She’s ex-CIA. No longer active.’
‘Then about ten days ago,’ Alex went on, ‘there was this sudden flurry of activity. Jones was all keyed up, on the phone a hundred times a day, real grouchy. Next thing, a team of us were scrambled together and posted up here in Montana.’
‘That was when Zo? was brought here from Greece.’
She nodded. ‘They flew her by private jet as far as Helena, and then brought her out here by chopper. We were told she was a key witness to a terrorist bombing in Greece. But I never bought it. The Agency just doesn’t operate that way. I’ve never seen a holding facility like this. I think they’re using Government resources for their own unofficial business. I was just about to report it to the top level. But I didn’t do it.’
‘Why didn’t you?’
‘Because of what happened to Josh Greenberg. I didn’t know him well, but he seemed like a good guy. Jones shot him in the face.’
‘Jones seems to like shooting people in the face,’ Ben said.
‘When that happened, I was just too scared to think straight. I felt isolated. I wish I’d done something.’
‘I know the feeling.’
‘But I didn’t know who I could trust. Then suddenly the call came through that we were all to fly back down to Georgia. They’d found out about you. You know the rest.’
‘I remember you from the day they caught me,’ he said. ‘The look on your face. I could see you were different.’
She glanced at him. ‘I shouldn’t have let them take you that day. I should have done something.’
‘There wasn’t much you could have done. You’d just have ended up like the two cops. These people are killing anyone who stands in their way.’
She gazed through the firelight at Zo?’s sleeping form. ‘I don’t know what the hell she’s got that they want,’ she said. ‘But they want it pretty damn badly.’
‘Maybe more than you know,’ Ben said. He spent the next fifteen minutes telling Alex everything that had happened. Her eyes widened in stunned horror as he described the bombing. Then he went on. One baffling detail after another. Laying it all out. Skid McClusky. Clayton Cleaver. Augusta Vale’s hundred million. Zo?’s discovery. The blackmail.
She listened carefully to every word. By the time he’d finished, she was staring at him in bewilderment, struggling to grasp the enormity of it. ‘It’s so weird,’ she breathed. ‘None of it makes sense. Why would they want some piece of pottery? Why is some obscure matter of theology important to them?’
‘How long was your team watching Cleaver for?’
‘So that’s how they found out about Zo?. When she tried to blackmail him, they picked up the phone call. Then when Skid McClusky went to Cleaver’s office to deliver the box, they were already watching. They were the ones who went after McClusky. And if his ex-girlfriend hadn’t turned up, they were going to torture him to death.’
Alex’s brow crinkled in concentration. ‘So what you’re saying is that the whole thing with Zo? is just incidental.’
‘Cleaver is the key,’ Ben said. ‘It all revolves around him. But I don’t think he even knows it. The question is, why were they watching him in the first place?’
There was silence as they both sat trying to puzzle it out.
‘They’re planning something,’ she said. ‘I just know it.’
‘I wish I knew.’
She looked blank.
‘He was with Jones in the hotel. Red hair. Small build. Sharp suit. Didn’t look like a cop or an agent. He’s in charge of it. Jones answers to him.’
‘I never heard of any Slater,’ she said.
His shoulder was cramping, and he tried to make himself more comfortable against the hard wall of the cave. Agony lanced through him like a blade, and he shuddered. He was suddenly terribly weary from the mental effort of trying to work all this out.
She looked at him in concern. ‘You’re in a lot of pain, aren’t you? There’s some codeine left.’
‘Save it for tomorrow,’ he muttered.
‘Let me take a look at it.’
‘I’m OK,’ he protested.
‘I’m not going to let you die on me, Ben. I need you as much as you need me.’ She reached across and started unbuttoning the bloody shirt. He resisted, then relented and leaned back as she drew the shirt off and carefully unwound the bandages. ‘You’ve done this before,’ he said faintly.
‘Three years at medical school, before I dropped out to get a taste of adventure, travel the world. Dumbest thing I ever did.’ She shone the Maglite across his chest and shoulder. ‘And you’ve been shot before,’ she added, noticing pale scars on his torso.
‘Twice before. That one’s a shrapnel injury.’
‘Quite a collection,’ she said. She inspected the wound closely. ‘I don’t think there’s any internal bleeding, Ben. But we need to get that bullet out of there. You ought to be in hospital.’
‘Out of the question,’ he murmured. But he was too weak to protest. Alex bundled a blanket under his head, and he lay back on it as she bandaged him back up, winding the gauze expertly into a tight and secure dressing. Then she helped him get his shirt back on, and draped a blanket across him. ‘We should get some sleep,’ she whispered.
He watched in the flickering firelight as she made up a bed of fern leaves and settled herself into it. After a few minutes the steady rise and fall of her body under the blanket told him she was sleeping. He lay awake for a long time, listening to the yap of the coyotes in the distance.
Sometime in the night he woke to see Alex gazing at him in the dying glow of the fire. Her head was resting on her hands, her hair draped across her face. The last of the flames flickered in her eyes. ‘You were dreaming,’ she whispered sleepily. ‘About someone you love.’
He didn’t reply.
‘Are you married?’ she murmured. ‘Is there someone waiting for you at home?’
He hesitated before answering. ‘No. There’s nobody. What about you?’
‘There was someone,’ she said. ‘Back where I live, in Virginia. His name was Frank. I guess we never had much of a chance. It ended a couple of years ago. We never saw each other – he had his veterinary practice, I was always up at HQ or out in the field somewhere. It just kind of died on us.’ She smiled sadly. ‘I suppose I gave my heart to the Agency.’
‘I did that once,’ he said. ‘Gave everything I had to a badge. Then you realise one day how little it really means.’
There was silence for a while.
‘Something Jones said about you,’ she said softly.
‘What did he say?’
‘He said you were one of the most dangerous men alive.’
He shook his head. ‘It’s men like Jones who are the dangerous ones.’
‘I saw your file.’
‘That’s my past, Alex. It’s not me.’
She raised her head up a little and brushed the hair away from her face. ‘So who are you, Ben Hope? Really?’
‘I’m still working that one out,’ he whispered. Then he rolled over and closed his eyes.