3

Fifteen minutes later, precisely on schedule, the doorbell rang. Buchanan peered through the door’s security eye and saw a fortyish, short-haired, portly man in a brown-checkered sport coat. The voice on the phone had not been familiar, so Buchanan wasn’t surprised that he’d never seen this man before, assuming that the voice on the phone belonged to this man. All the same, Buchanan had hoped that one of the controllers he’d dealt with previously would show up. He’d been through too many changes.

He opened the door warily. After all, he couldn’t take for granted that the man was his contact. But the man immediately allayed his suspicions by using the same cheery tone that Buchanan had heard earlier. “Don, you look fabulous. In your postcards, you didn’t say you’d lost weight.”

“My diet didn’t agree with me. Come on in, Alan. I’ve been thinking, maybe we shouldn’t go out to eat. I’m not in the mood for a piano player.”

“Whatever.” The man who’d earlier identified himself as Alan, undoubtedly a pseudonym, carried a metal briefcase into the apartment and waited while Buchanan locked the door. Then the man’s demeanor changed, as if he was an actor who’d stepped out of character when he walked off a stage. His manner became businesslike. “The apartment was swept this afternoon. There aren’t any bugs. How are you feeling?”

Buchanan shrugged. The truth was, he felt exhausted, but he’d been trained not to indicate weakness.

“Is your wound healing properly?” the man asked.

“The infection’s gone.”

“Good,” the man said flatly. “What about your skull? I’m told you hit it on a-”

“Stupid accident,” Buchanan said.

“The report I received mentioned a concussion.”

Buchanan nodded.

“And a skull fracture,” the man said.

Buchanan nodded again, the movement intensifying his headache. “A depressed skull fracture. A small section of bone on the inside was pushed against the brain. That’s what caused the concussion. It’s not like I’ve got a crack in the bone. It’s not that serious. In Fort Lauderdale, I was kept in the hospital overnight for observation. Then the doctor let me go. He wouldn’t have let me go if-”

The portly man who called himself Alan sat on the sofa but never took his gaze from Buchanan. “That’s what the report says. The report also says you’ll need another checkup, another CAT scan, to find out if the bruise on your brain has shrunk.”

“Would I be walking around if my brain was still swollen?”

“I don’t know.” The man continued to assess Buchanan. “Would you? Agents from Special Operations have a can-do attitude. Problems that would slow someone else down don’t seem to bother you.”

“No. The mission comes first. If I think an injury impairs my ability to perform the mission, I say so.”

“Commendable. And if you thought you needed some time off, you’d say that, too?”

“Of course. Nobody turns down R and R.”

The man didn’t say anything, just studied him.

To change the subject as much as to relieve his curiosity, Buchanan asked, “What happened in Fort Lauderdale after I left? Was the situation dealt with to everyone’s satisfaction? Were the photographs-?”

The man lowered his gaze, worked the combination locks on his briefcase, and opened it. “I wouldn’t know anything about that.” The man pulled out a folder. “We have some paperwork to take care of.”

Uneasy, Buchanan sat across from him. His instincts troubled him. It might have been the consequence of fatigue, or perhaps it was due to the aftermath of stress. For whatever reason, there was something about the man’s attitude that made Buchanan uncomfortable.

And it wasn’t just that the man was brusque. In his eight years of working deep cover, Buchanan had dealt with controllers of various types, some of whom had a manner that would disqualify them from a popularity contest. But being personable wasn’t a requirement for the job. Being thorough was, and sometimes there wasn’t time to say things politely, and it wasn’t smart to establish a relationship with someone whom the odds were you would never see again.

Buchanan had learned that the hard way over the years. In his numerous assumed identities, he’d occasionally found that he felt close to someone, to Jack and Cindy Doyle, for example. As much as he guarded against that happening, nonetheless it sometimes did, and it made Buchanan feel hollow after he moved on. Thus he could readily understand if this controller didn’t want to conduct the debriefing on anything but an objective, unemotional basis.

That wasn’t it, though. That wasn’t what made Buchanan feel uncomfortable. It was something else, and the best he could do was attribute it to his experience with Bailey, to an instinct that warned him to be extra cautious.

“Here’s my signed receipt,” the portly man who called himself Alan said. “Now you can give me Victor Grant’s ID.”

Buchanan made a snap decision then. He didn’t trust this man. “I don’t have it.”

“What?” The man looked up from the receipt.

“I had to abandon the ID in the car when I drove it into the water in Fort Lauderdale. . so the authorities would have a way to identify the driver after they couldn’t find a body. . so they’d decide Victor Grant was dead.”

“Everything? You left everything?

“Driver’s license. Credit card. Social Security card. The works. I had to leave them in a wallet in a jacket so they wouldn’t float away. And I had to leave all of them. The police would have thought it strange if all they found was a driver’s license.”

“But the passport, Buchanan. I’m talking about the passport. You wouldn’t have left the passport. You know that’s the ID we care about. Anybody with a brain can arrange to get a fake driver’s license. Who cares if the cops get their hands on it? But a fake passport, a first-class fake passport, hell, better than that because the passport blank came from the State Department. If the police had an expert study that passport, there’d be all kinds of questions that the people at State couldn’t answer. And then maybe the questions would come in our direction.”

“I had to leave it,” Buchanan lied. The passport was, in fact, in the bedroom, in a small travel bag that he’d bought along with a toilet kit and a few spare clothes before leaving Florida. The travel bag also contained the handgun that Jack Doyle had given him. Buchanan wasn’t about to tell this man about the handgun, either.

He continued, “If the authorities did a thorough investigation of Victor Grant, they’d find out I’d been in Mexico. They’d find out I’d shown my passport down there. So they’d have to ask themselves, Where is it now? They’ve got my wallet. They’ve got my suitcase-I left it in the trunk of the car. They’ve got all of Victor Grant’s possessions. Except they don’t have his body and they don’t have his passport? No way. A good detective might decide that Victor Grant faked his death, then walked away with his passport, the only identification he’d need if he wanted to get out of the country. But since I left the passport in the jacket with my wallet, the authorities have one less detail to trouble them.”

“Smart, Buchanan,” the portly man said. “There’s just one problem.”

“Oh?”

“The police didn’t find the passport.”

“What? Then it must have floated away.”

“But not the wallet?”

“Hey, the wallet was heavier. How do I know what happened? My orders were to make Victor Grant disappear. I did it the best way I knew how.”

The portly man stared at him.

“Has the missing passport made the cops think something’s wrong?” Buchanan asked.

The portly man stared harder. “You’ll have to sign this document saying that you couldn’t surrender the passport.”

“Whatever,” Buchanan said. He signed and returned the document, then watched the man who called himself Alan put it in his briefcase.

“The next order of business.” With an air of efficiency combined with distaste, the portly man opened and dumped the contents of a paper bag onto the coffee table.

Buchanan looked at the sprawl of magazines, catalogs, video- and record-club solicitations, and various other forms of bulk mail. The items were addressed to several persons, Richard Dana, Robert Chambers, Craig Madden, and Brian MacDonald, the most recent pseudonyms that Buchanan had used before becoming Ed Potter in Mexico.

“Housecleaning,” the portly man said.

Buchanan nodded. To appear believable in an assumed identity, he had to be equipped with more than just fake ID. Mail, for example. It wasn’t natural for people never to get mail. Bills had to be paid. Letters had to be received. Magazines-lots of people subscribed to magazines. If you said your name was Brian MacDonald and you got a magazine addressed to that name, the magazine became another bit of evidence that proved you were the person you claimed to be. So, under various names, Buchanan subscribed to magazines wherever he expected to live for an extended time. But just as he created individual characteristics for each person he pretended to be, so he had to make sure that the magazines matched each character’s personality. Richard Dana subscribed to Runner’s World. Robert Chambers liked Gourmet. Craig Madden was a movie fanatic and received Premiere. Brian MacDonald enjoyed Car and Driver. Because magazines often sold their subscription lists to catalog companies, soon Buchanan’s various characters would begin receiving catalogs about the subject in which they were supposedly interested, and this extra mail would help legitimize his characters.

Eventually, though, Buchanan would receive a new assignment and move on, discarding one identity, assuming another. In theory, the previous identity would no longer exist. Still, even though Buchanan had made arrangements to stop mail from coming to his former characters, a few items would inevitably arrive at places where his characters used to live. To avoid arousing suspicion, he always left a forwarding address with the landlords at those places. That forwarding address was known in the trade as an accommodation address, a safe, convenient mail drop, usually a private mail service owned by-but not traceable to-Buchanan’s controllers.

“Is there anything here that needs to be dealt with?” the portly man who called himself Alan asked. “Some loose end that needs to be tied? We ought to know before we destroy this stuff.”

Buchanan sorted through the items. “Nope. These magazines can go. These catalogs. This circular is exactly what they call it-junk. This. .”

He felt a chill as he lifted a postcard. “It’s addressed to Peter Lang. I haven’t used that name in six years. How the hell did it get lost this long?”

“It didn’t. Check the postmark. Someone mailed it from Baltimore. . Last week.”

“Last week?” Buchanan felt cold. “Who’d want to get in touch with Peter Lang after six years? Who’d remember him? Who’d care enough to. .?”

“That’s what we want to know,” Alan said, his calculated gaze threatening. “And why a postcard? Why not a letter? And what do you make of the message?”

Troubled, Buchanan studied it. The message was handwritten in black ink, the script small, the strokes thin, the lettering ornate yet precise.

A woman’s handwriting. No name.

Five sentences, some of them incomplete, seeming gibberish.

But not to Buchanan. He didn’t need a signature to tell him who had sent the postcard. Because she would have taken for granted that several people, especially Buchanan’s employers, would have read the message by now, he admired her indirection.

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