71

Jesus Christ, what’s happened here?” Staughton asked, surprised to see the corpse of his director stretched out on the floor with a vacant stare, dead. A tear ran down his face, a suppressed sorrow, genuine, unforeseen. “How could this happen?”

The rest of Barnes’s team and those of Littel and Phelps returned to the interrogation room astonished. Phelps was absent. He’d gone to find the prisoners. They all looked at Barnes’s lifeless body.

“We’ve received a call from the Oval Office,” Littel explained.

“From the Oval Office?” Sebastian Ford asked.

“Exactly,” Littel affirmed. He approached Sarah and used his own silk handkerchief as a gag. “The president in person ordered us to finish everything and leave no survivors.” He looked at Sarah warningly.

Thompson and Staughton were in shock. They couldn’t believe their eyes. Barnes was immortal, invincible.

“Barnes was angry with the president’s decision.” His voice trembled with emotion. He spoke in a low voice, almost a whisper. “He even got rude. He said things had to be carried out to the end. It gave a bad impression. The president raised his voice and said the final word was his, and if Barnes didn’t know his place, he’d have to be better informed.” He was silent for a few seconds, letting his words sink in. “As soon as the president was off the phone, he put the gun to his head and fired.”

“My God,” Staughton exclaimed.

“And now?” Thompson asked in a restrained voice. In spite of being accustomed to death, when it happened to your own, in your own house, unexpectedly, you suffered like anyone else.

“We’re going to obey the president’s orders. Eliminate the prisoners and lock the door,” Littel declared, condescending to the general feeling in the room.

Staughton and Thompson were the most upset, understandably, since they’d worked daily with Barnes for many years. The man had an intimidating voice, could act impulsively, eat like a savage, swear constantly, flip over the table if things weren’t going his way, but he was fair, a friend in his way, a companion, cautious. He never risked the life of an agent.

How was it possible that Geoffrey Barnes, a career man with an enviable record, used to working under pressure, could have ended his life in such… such… a cowardly way? In spite of everything, Barnes was balanced. For Staughton and Thompson this ending was like a mathematical operation, adding two and two, the result of which was five or three.

“Nobody expected it. It was too much for anyone,” Littel argued. “Staughton, Thompson, go home. Take a few days to get over it. We’ll finish the operation.”

“No,” Staughton dissented. “We want to stay with the chief.” He didn’t take his eyes off the cadaver.

“Staughton,” Littel shouted. He had to get in front of him and shake him to make the traumatized Staughton look at him. “Staughton. Today Barnes will be on a plane going home.”

“I want to go with him.”

“Me too,” Thompson declared.

“Very well.” He turned to the lieutenant colonel. “Wally, go with these two good men. Take them around Rome.”

“To Saint Peter’s?” Wally Johnson suggested.

“To Saint Peter’s,” Littel agreed. “Excellent idea. Pray a little, refresh their ideas, and at the end of the day put them on the same plane with their boss. It’s a promise.”

Littel gave Staughton a friendly slap on the shoulder and turned his back. Wally Johnson helped him toward the door. Thompson followed. Their last look before leaving the room was at Geoffrey Barnes, their unhappy director.

Three went out, another three came in, Phelps with the remaining prisoners, Rafael and Simon, who had an expression deeper than panic. Fear of death. Rafael could now support himself on his feet, although a little shakily. A swollen eye impeded his full vision. They were forced to sit on chairs next to Sarah.

“Take that body out of here,” Littel ordered no one in particular.

Since the only helpers worthy of the name in the room were Priscilla and Herbert, there was no doubt to whom the task fell. Herbert approached Barnes, took him by the feet, and dragged him toward the door.

“That’s not the most dignified way to treat the body of a director of the CIA,” Colonel Garrison warned. “There is protocol-”

“That can’t be observed at the moment,” Littel interrupted.

“If you want, I can take him by the arms,” Herbert malevolently challenged.

Stuart Garrison shot him a look of hate. Under other circumstances that boy would eat those words one by one.

Herbert continued the operation, dragging the corpse in stages. Immediately sweat began to run down his face. Barnes was very heavy.

“Now us.” Littel turned toward Simon, Rafael, and Sarah.

Phelps faced them euphorically. These three deaths were going to be expensive, but at least the loose ends had been tied up for three out of four. JC alone was missing, the astute old man. One only had to find the right time.

Sarah and Simon closed their eyes, anticipating the worst.

“Herbert,” Littel called. “Do the honors.”

Herbert promptly left off what he was doing. Barnes wasn’t going anywhere, after all. He drew his gun from the holster.

“With pleasure.”

“Do you want to say anything?” Littel asked with a sarcastic smile.

The silence spoke for itself. Simon didn’t dare open his mouth, Sarah was gagged. Even though she didn’t want to be silent, she had to be.

“Courage is stupidity in this case,” Phelps said. “I have a question, if you don’t mind.” He was speaking to Rafael. “Who did you speak with in the apostolic apartments that morning in the Vatican?”

Rafael smiled bleakly. “No one.”

“You won’t answer?” Phelps was furious.

“I am answering. No one. We were only there to arouse your curiosity. I knew that would draw you in more. You think you fooled us all, even the pope. It was completely the opposite.” His smile changed to a loud laugh.

Littel gestured with his head that Herbert was authorized to summarily execute the prisoners. Soon they’d only be names that passed from earth without leaving their marks on history. Rafael Santini, Sarah Monteiro, Simon Lloyd, forgotten by the world, would cease to count or even figure in the death statistics.

Herbert removed the safety on the gun, provided with a silencer, but Phelps grabbed it from his hand, infuriated, and pointed it at Rafael.

A shot.

Two shots. Whispered.

Before they understood anything, we see Herbert grab his chest and fall. The same for Phelps, who was already dead before he fell. A thin stream of blood ran from a hole in the middle of his head. He died without knowing how.

Rafael got up before any reaction. Priscilla screamed in panic. Sarah and Simon opened their eyes to see this hellish scene. Three corpses on the floor, Colonel Garrison trying to draw his gun, Marius Ferris shocked, completely astonished, Rafael behind Littel, his gun pressed into the assistant subdirector’s head.

“Do you want to say anything?” he asked close to Littel’s ear.

“Don’t do anything stupid,” Marius Ferris said.

“More than you’ve done would be impossible.” He pressed the barrel harder against Littel’s head. “Be calm,” Rafael advised him. “Look what you’ve done.”

“Me? I need to warn you it’s a serious crime to interfere with an agent of the federal government.”

“I’m not going to interfere. I’m going to kill you,” Rafael warned, grinding his teeth.

“Let’s be reasonable,” Garrison argued. “Surely we can come to an agreement without wasting more lives.”

“Are you concerned about your own, Colonel?” It was a rhetorical question. “I don’t remember seeing you concerned about lives in Moscow,” he added bitterly.

Garrison lowered his head.

Rafael looked at Sarah.

“Take off that gag.”

Sebastian Ford obeyed the order, shook out the silk handkerchief, and let it fall on the floor. Littel turned red. Sarah breathed in desperately, like someone had just pulled her from underwater.

“Barnes didn’t commit suicide.” She pointed at Littel. “He’s the one who killed him.”

Priscilla looked at her, frightened. Garrison lifted up his head in fury.

“How could you?” An accusing finger from the colonel.

“Ten million dollars,” Sarah clarified. “That was motive enough.”

“Right. Are you going to take the word of a criminal?” Littel countered with a superior attitude in spite of his precarious situation.

Rafael pushed him forward so hard that he fell on the floor next to the bodies of Phelps and Herbert.

“Look at the patriot.” Stuart Garrison pointed his gun at Littel.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Littel shouted. “Kill him,” he ordered.

The colonel shifted his aim to Rafael, who kept his gun on Littel.

“Don’t even think about it,” Sebastian Ford said, pointing a gun in turn at Stuart Garrison’s head.

“Drop the gun, Sebastian,” Littel ordered.

“Until we verify what happened here, there will be no more deaths. I’m starting an investigation, and if you’re guilty, Harvey… God and the president have mercy on your soul.”

“The president gave precise orders to kill the prisoners,” Littel shouted.

“And did he give orders to kill Barnes in cold blood?” Sebastian argued in the same tone. He turned to Rafael. “Get out of here. Disappear.”

“You can’t do that, Sebastian,” Littel alleged.

“This smelled wrong to me from the start, Harvey. Let them go now.”

Marius Ferris raised his hands to his chest and fell on the floor. A sharp pain ran through his coronary arteries, his heart put to the test by extreme emotion.

Rafael bent over him and murmured in his ear.

“God doesn’t sleep. The dead are going to take care of you now. Live many years with them. We’ll see you in the beyond.”

He escorted Sarah and Simon out of the Center of Operations.

In the room Priscilla cried like a child, Marius had fainted from the pain of the heart attack, Sebastian Ford remained with the gun pointed at the head of the hesitant colonel.

“Give me the gun, Colonel,” Sebastian ordered. Littel stayed crouched on the floor, looking into space, desperate, frustrated.

Sebastian Ford took the cell phone and made a call.

“Sebastian Ford, code 1330. I want a rescue team in the Center of Operations in Rome, ASAP.” He looked at Littel. “There are agents dead and arrested.”

He disconnected, and straightened the neck of his shirt.

It was over.

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