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Authors: Steven Gore

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Thrillers, #Murder, #Espionage, #Private Investigators, #Conspiracies

Absolute Risk

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ABSOLUTE
RISK
STEVEN
GORE

For my dad,
Victor M. Gore.
He was a sweetheart of a man.

PROLOGUE

A
tonement.

Michael Hennessy felt the shadow of the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde enfold him like the unadorned robe of a novice monk, a fortress against evil and a refuge against sin. He stood behind the parapet of the neo-Byzantine church and stared down at Marseilles, its brick and stone, its white walls and terracotta rooftops, its chaos of steep steps and angled streets, all softening and fading to gray in the dying light of the winter evening.

As he gazed over the city, the variegated blue Mediterranean darkened to cobalt and the streetlights brightened, restoring solidity to the apartments and offices and monuments that spread out from the limestone hill beneath him toward the distant port.

He blinked hard against the breeze tearing his eyes, and then glanced at his watch: fifty-five minutes left. And his mind spoke again.
Atonement.

But this time the word resonated and he wondered why it came to him now and what it meant.

Then his mind asked,
Can there be atonement without confession and redemption without forgiveness?

He twisted his head upward toward the golden statue of the Virgin Mary atop the bell tower, but then realized that it wasn’t a religious question, for no saint could grant the absolution he sought, nor could there be reconciliation by proxy. It had to be done face-to-face, hand-to-hand, and man-to-man.

But where was that man?

Nausea waved through him. His muscles tensed. His jaw clenched. It was less a question than an accusation, one that over the years had left gouges in him like self-inflicted wounds that never healed, but only bled and bled into a vast emptiness.

Where … was … that … man?

Hennessy’s vision blurred. He saw the face of Professor Hani Ibrahim hovering before him, the same wide and disbelieving eyes as when he’d first displayed his FBI identification at the door of Ibrahim’s MIT office, snapped on the handcuffs, booked him into the detention center, and then walked him past news cameras into federal court for his arraignment.

As Hennessy watched what he knew was nothing but the projected face of his own guilt, the economist’s brows furrowed, and his pupils contracted into a stare, and then into a glare of accusation.

The image perished in a mortar burst of floodlights that exploded around him, turning night into artificial noon. Stripped of the shadow’s protection, Hennessy imagined crosshairs marking the front of his trench coat and a distant figure steadying a barrel and squeezing a trigger.

He bolted down the zigzagging marble steps and

ducked under the pedestrian bridge. But even as he bent over to catch his breath, with blood hammering at his temples and the frozen air biting at his throat, he cringed at his paranoia: Not everything worth dying for is worth killing for.

Hennessy crept to the shadow’s edge, where he obtained a view of the Vieux Port, fifteen hundred yards away. The building façades glowed yellow, orange, and purple in the lights reflecting off the water. He pulled binoculars from his coat pocket and scanned the bordering streets, his shoulder braced against a granite wall, afraid to blink, taking long, slow breaths to keep the lenses steady.

One minute passed, then two or five. The time seemed discontinuous, measured not by the watch on his wrist, but by a mental clock that pulsated with fear, guilt, and shame, and with the hope that the man he came to meet would find a way to meet him.

Hennessy wondered what excuse Federal Reserve Chairman Milton Abrams would give for his late arrival at the French president’s dinner, and whether it would be inert enough that it wouldn’t draw to him the intelligence services that enveloped the International Economic Forum like an invisible chemical cloud.

A procession of limousines emerged from the gap-toothed head of the port, down from the four-lane La Canebiere and from the direction of the Old Stock Exchange a block away that had hosted the Forum.

No. Not a procession. Just two. He’d seen more than what was there: If there were two, then there had to be—there had to be—twelve or twenty following behind, and one of those would be Abrams’s.

But there wasn’t.

Chance had once again imposed an order that didn’t exist, and self-doubt vibrated through him, for it had been this same trick of mind that made him see a crime nine years earlier where one hadn’t occurred and made him accuse an innocent man.

Where … was … that … man?

What had the secretary of defense called it in his speech to him and the other members of the FBI Antiterrorism Task Force?

“The prism of 9/11.”

Except Hennessy had realized too late that it hadn’t been a prism, it had been a mirror, or maybe a kaleidoscope in which every turn displayed the same pattern to men predisposed to see it.

He’d been one of those men, and now he trusted no one, not even himself.

As he stared out at the brilliant city, he wondered whether what he really wanted from Abrams wasn’t help in righting a wrong and in averting a disaster, but only someone to bear witness to his sanity.

Another minute. Or three. Or six.

Moving black specks slid across the unified frame of his binoculars’ lenses. More limousines. They headed west toward the water, then swung south along the Quai, a gravitational force seeming to link them in position, invisible strings, mysterious and unbreakable, threading through the chaos of traffic and beyond the reach of his tightening hands.

The last nine years of his life condensed into this instant. His breathing stopped. He felt his eyes turn catlike, lids tensed open, surfaces drying in the wind.

One of the limousines spun away, north into the woven

alleys of La Panier, the Basket—Abrams had broken free.

Hennessy’s eyelids shut and his held breath exploded. He pushed up his sleeve and looked down. The glowing face of his watch marked the remaining time: forty minutes to drive across town to the North African restaurant where the chairman would be waiting.

Hennessy slid along the foundation wall behind him until he could look down the dark hillside. Gray-scaled shadows between the trees and bushes tunneled toward streetlights below and marked the path toward his car.

A medieval gloom met him as he left the concrete curtilage of the church and descended into the obscurity of the forest. He sidestepped down into the blackness, reaching for branches and boulders, counting his steps, trying to impose a rhythm on his staccatoed pace.

His right shoe lost purchase. His spine wrenched as he jerked backward. Arms flailing, body twisting, tumbling through shrubs, sliding—sliding—sliding, and thudding against a tree trunk.

And silence.

Wings fluttered. A dog barked. Car tires squealed below.

Pain in his hip overwhelmed feeling in his arms and legs. Then hot panic. A terror of paralysis. Pinned to the earth and condemned to watch the hourglass of his hope for redemption drain away.

He clenched his teeth and hardened his body against the throbbing, and then rolled onto his stomach.

An image displayed itself on the screen of darkness: him walking vagrantlike, scraped and soiled, through the restaurant entrance. The chairman gazing up at him in disgust and in self-reproach for having agreed

to meet with a lunatic, then pushing back from the table and striding out through the door and escaping back into his limousine.

Hennessy felt for his notebook and cell phone, his palm resting for a moment on each as if over his heart. He then struggled to his knees and fingered the wet ground around him to discern whether anything had fallen from his pockets. After finding nothing, he rose and leaned against a pine and wiped his hands on its needles. He couldn’t risk another fall, so he covered his eyes with his palms and tried to force them to adjust to the dark.

His heavy breath drew in the smell of resin, bringing back memories of where his journey had begun almost a decade earlier, hiding in the Fisher Hill woods in Brookline, Massachusetts, watching his target and the men gathering around him, the professor’s house seeming more like a mosque than a home, and the special agent in charge encouraging him, pressuring him, whispering in his ear, “Get this guy. It’ll make your career.”

When Hennessy opened his eyes again, the blackness around him had grayed and a route reappeared.

A rush of vertigo shook him as he looked down. He grabbed the pine again to steady himself. When it passed, he descended, hoping to arrive on the street below near where he’d parked his car.

Twenty yards farther down, he emerged into a meadow. He covered one eye to protect its night vision, and looked over his shoulder at the glowing Madonna statue. He used it to approximate a path and then angled to his left until he reached the edge of the pavement. He crouched behind a bush and peeked out; first left, then right. A cat hissed at the darkness between him and his

car twenty yards away. His body realized his miscalculation before his mind, and it pulled him back. Someone was lying in wait.

Hennessy scanned the rooftop at the near end of the three-story apartment building across the road. A light blinked. Movement against the bright city. He made out the silhouette of a raised head. It rotated like a periscope and then lowered.

The hourglass again began to drain. Thirty minutes left. It was a twenty-five-minute drive and now no car to take him. The nearest taxi would be on Boulevard Notre Dame, two blocks away, but the shortest route wasn’t a straight line. Instead, it was a looping route through woods that would take him only to a connecting street.

Rushed and panicked by the clash of time and distance, he stripped off his trench coat, balled it up, and jammed it into a shrub. Even if it wasn’t muddy, it would’ve served as a bull’s-eye, for it had been his uniform during the last frozen weeks.

He paralleled the curving street, then slipped into the trees on the opposite side and followed a path behind the buildings. Lights cast from the windows above him made a twisted chessboard of the uneven trail. His ankles wobbled and his wrenched back ached. He steadied himself for a few seconds against a stucco wall, then pushed himself forward.

Against the background of kitchen noises and televisions and the distant rumble of traffic, Hennessy heard a couple arguing in Arabic. It seemed to echo, not off other buildings, but rather from across the reflecting surface of the Mediterranean, from Algiers, where he’d spent ten days looking for Ibrahim.

The voices jerked his thoughts out of the present, and for a moment he felt the vertigo of waking up in a hotel room and not knowing what country he was in. Then the mirrored images of the two cities triangulated his position; not fixed, but seeming to move in pace with a receding mirage.

He paused and listened for footsteps behind him, thinking how close he thought he’d come to finding Ibrahim in Algiers, only to discover that he’d followed a false scent, one that had taken him through merchant-mobbed streets and burrowlike alleys, and finally out to the universities in Ben Aknoun, El-Biar, and Bouzareah. Days spent watching the entrances to the faculties of economics, only to be met with the emptiness of failure.

Even now, as he readied himself to emerge from the shadows, he didn’t know who’d dragged that scent through that city, only that it had vanished like windblown smoke.

He glanced at his watch and then shielded his eyes as he stepped into the glare of the light-polished street to hail a cab. A quivering in his chest upwelled into a surge of self-doubt, and with it the dread that the scent he’d followed had been of his own manufacture and that it would now lead him, if not into the crosshairs of an unknown enemy, into an abyss of his own design.

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