Authors: Will Jordan
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Military, #Thrillers
Dehiba, Tunisia – 10 May 2009
Drake took a breath, the scorching dry air searing his throat, tiny grains of windblown sand stinging his eyes. Overhead, the sun beat down mercilessly from a cloudless sky, raising beads of sweat on his already burned and reddened skin.
Around him, locals and small groups of tourists moved back and forth through the crowded central square, paying little attention to the Westerner in dishevelled clothes leaning against the wall beside a small cafe. Perhaps the cuts and bruises marked him out as someone to studiously avoid, or perhaps the dangerous flicker in his eyes was what really kept them away. Whatever the reason, the ebb and flow of humanity seemed to part around him like a river slipping past an implacable boulder.
Glancing up, Drake turned his gaze towards the low hilltop about half a mile away overlooking the bustling town centre, where the weathered and tumbled walls of the ancient settlement still rose up against the pristine blue sky, heavy stone blocks jutting from the parched earth.
That was the place where it was supposed to happen; the place where the tumultuous events of the past week would reach their final, deadly conclusion. Everything he had fought for, everything he had sacrificed, every compromise he had made...it had all led him here.
He would live or die by what happened today.
His pulse was pounding strong and urgent in his ears, almost drowning out the tinny ring of the cell phone as he held it against his head. The man he was trying to reach would be wary of calls like this. He wouldn’t answer readily, might not answer at all in fact. Either way, there was nothing he could do to change it.
All he could do was wait, and hope.
And just like that, the ringing stopped. He was connected.
‘So you’re still alive, Ryan,’ a voice remarked on the other end of the line. A smooth, confident, controlled voice. Not the voice of a man whose own future hung in the balance just as much as Drake’s. ‘And you’re late. Didn’t I make it clear what was at stake?’
‘You did,’ Drake replied, his eyes scanning the crowds around him. ‘I have what you want.’
‘Then I suggest you bring it to me, so we can finish our business.’
Drake knew this was the moment of choice. His last chance to back out.
‘No,’ he said, speaking with calm finality.
There was a pause. A moment of confusion and doubt; a chink in the armour momentarily exposed. ‘Excuse me?’
‘We both know I’m dead the second I hand it over. You’d never let me live after everything I’ve seen, everything I know.’ He was committed now. There was no going back – the only choice was to move forward. ‘So I suggest you remember this moment, because this is as close as you’re ever going to get to what you want.’
To his credit, his adversary remained surprisingly composed in the wake of this blatant act of defiance. A different man might have railed against him, shouted down the line about how foolish Drake’s actions were and how he would surely be punished for them.
But this man was another sort.
‘Ryan, maybe you’ve forgotten the reason we’re in this position,’ the calm, pleasant voice went on. ‘If you need reminding, I’m quite prepared to leave behind a piece of her at our meeting place. And believe me, it’ll be a piece she’ll miss.’
Drake closed his eyes for a moment, swallowing down the fear and horror at what he was hearing, because he knew well enough that this was a threat his adversary was quite prepared to make good on. A sadist who took pleasure in inflicting suffering on others.
‘You won’t do that,’ he replied, sounding more confident than he felt.
‘Really? Enlighten me.’
‘I’m offering you something better.’
‘And what would that be?’
‘There are three ways this could go. First, you kill her, I release the files across the internet, then I turn all my attention to hunting you down. Believe me, I’m good at finding people, and I’m prepared to devote every waking moment of my life to finding you. And when I do, anything you do to her will be nothing but a happy memory compared to what I do to you. Second, you kill me before I can get to you. The files have been uploaded to an automatic email server, and without me to stop it, everything you’ve worked to cover up gets released within two hours of my death.’ He allowed that prospect to hang there for a moment or two. ‘Either way, you lose.’
‘As do you, Ryan,’ he reminded him.
‘There’s more at stake here than you and me. We both know what you’re really playing for. Are you ready to give all that up, watch it fall down around you?’
There was a pause. A gambler weighing the risks against the potential rewards. ‘I presume there’s a third option?’
Drake took another breath of the sandy, stifling air. ‘You give her back to me, unharmed. I agree not to interfere with your plans or tell anyone what we found, you agree not to come looking for me, and everyone walks away. It’s that simple.’
‘Very heroic of you,’ he remarked with dour humour.
‘I’m no hero. Never was,’ Drake said, truly meaning it. ‘And this isn’t my war. I just want it to end.’
This was it. He had said and done everything he could. The rest depended on the man on the other end of the line.
And then he heard it. Not some vicious curse, not a growl of anger or even a muttered promise that he would pay for this one day.
What Drake heard instead was a low chuckle of amusement. The laugh of a man finally springing a trap that had been long in the making.
‘Come now, Ryan. We both know this can only end one way.’ He paused a moment, allowing his words to sink in. ‘Look down.’
Glancing down, Drake saw something on his stained and crumpled shirt. A splash of red light that hadn’t been there before. The glow of a laser sight.
‘Wouldn’t run if I were you. You’re covered from two different directions, and my friends are just itching to pull those triggers.’
They had found him. Somehow they had tracked him here, predicted this move, known exactly what he was going to do. And now they had him out in the open, the time had come to spring their trap.
No sooner had this thought crossed his mind than a black SUV pulled up nearby. The rear doors flew open and a pair of men leapt out. Men Drake had encountered before. Men who had tried to kill him more than once over the past few days, and who wouldn’t hesitate to do so now if they were given the order. Their hands were on weapons hidden just inside their jackets, ready to draw down on him if he so much as twitched.
‘Like I said, Ryan,’ the voice on the line said, filled with the confidence of a man in total control of the situation. ‘This can only end one way.’
Drake lowered the phone as the retrieval team closed in on him.
To date, at least fifty-four countries are known to have participated in the CIA’s extraordinary-rendition programme, many playing host to so-called ‘black sites’ where detainees are held and interrogated for an unlimited period of time without any legal rights. The number of people imprisoned in this fashion may never be known.
Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia – two weeks earlier
The sheer scale of Arlington Cemetery never ceased to amaze Drake. Occupying more than 600 acres of land on the west bank of the Potomac and located a mere twenty-minute walk from the White House, the immense complex was both physically and symbolically close to the heart of the nation. Its size and scale served as an eternal reminder of the sacrifices made by generations of Americans, from the Civil War all the way up to the present day. And it was here, beneath the gentle shade of blossoming trees, that 400,000 of America’s war dead rested, their graves laid out in neat rows of white headstones that stretched almost beyond sight.
It was a sobering, reflective sort of place, and one that Drake had visited more than once in the past few years, either to pay respects to fallen comrades or just to be alone with his thoughts.
Today however he had a different purpose here.
Turning left off Roosevelt Drive, he began his ascent up a steep grassy hill towards the memorial complex at the top, passing a group of people heading in the opposite direction. A mixture of ages and genders, but comfortable enough around each other that they almost certainly belonged to the same family. An old man in the centre of the group, leaning heavily on a walking stick as he made his way down the hill, was likely the reason for their visit. He was wearing a dark blue navy cap with the name of some warship emblazoned in frayed gold lettering, though he’d passed by before Drake could get a close look at it.
He didn’t suppose it mattered. It meant something to its owner, and that was what counted.
Strange how differently America regarded its war veterans, he thought with a fleeting sense of regret as he ascended the steps. Here they were treated with respect, even reverence. The old cliché that a man in uniform could walk into any bar in the country and have at least one guy buy him a beer was, in Drake’s experience, still alive and kicking. Back in the UK, the best they could hope for was a shoddy state pension and bingo night down at the ex-servicemen’s club.
He did his best to push these thoughts from his mind as he reached the top of the steps, taking in the scene beyond. Standing in the centre of the wide open plaza was an immense marble sarcophagus, its white surface bright in the afternoon sun.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was one of the most sacred places in the whole of Arlington; an eternal monument to the thousands of soldiers who had perished unknown on the battlefields of the world, their identities forever lost.
It was guarded twenty-four hours a day, no matter the weather, by the Sentinels – elite members of the 3rd US Infantry Regiment known as the ‘Old Guard’ – and today was no exception. Uniform immaculate, back ramrod straight, sunlight gleaming off his mirrored sunglasses, a single soldier carrying an old M14 rifle paced slowly back and forth in front of the tomb. So precise were his movements, and those of every other Sentinel who had come US before him, that a perfect square had been worn into the marble paving by the long decades of their watch.
A few tourists were there taking pictures of the spectacle, probably viewing it as a curiosity akin to the Queen’s Guard standing motionless outside Buckingham Palace. Drake was content to bypass them as he headed for the Memorial Amphitheatre located behind the tomb.
To a casual observer his demeanour was little different from any of the hundreds of other people milling around the cemetery that day. He walked with the easy, comfortable pace of a man heading somewhere with no great urgency, neither hurrying nor dawdling. His posture was relaxed without appearing nonchalant, confident without swagger, his expression conveying little beyond the superficial interest of an average visitor.
Only his eyes, hidden behind dark sunglasses that didn’t look the least bit out of place on that warm sunny afternoon, betrayed the keen, eager gaze of a trained operative, drinking in every detail of his environment and the people within it. His gaze leapt from face to face, looking for any hint, any telltale clue that they weren’t who they were pretending to be.
Drake had made a living out of finding people, many of whom didn’t want to be found, and he’d become very good at spotting something out of place. A gaze that lingered a little too long, a twitch that betrayed tension and intensity where none were warranted, an involuntary shift of posture to accommodate the uncomfortable bulk of a concealed weapon. He’d seen it all in his time, and his senses were on alert for it now.
He relaxed a little as he drew closer to the amphitheatre, content for now that no one amongst the spectators had shown undue interest in him. That didn’t mean no one was watching, of course, but Drake had grown used to covering his back over the past couple of years.
He’d grown used to a lot of things over the last couple of years.
Normally reserved for Veteran’s Day services and other public events, for the most part the massive outdoor theatre stood empty and unused. There was little for tourists to see or do inside, and no monuments stood within its columned walls, so few people lingered there long.
In short, it was a good place to talk without fear of interruption or eavesdropping. And this was one conversation he didn’t want overheard.
Edging around one of the big stone columns that formed the outer boundary of the theatre, Drake paused a moment to survey the space within. Rows of benches radiated outward from the main stage, rising up gradually towards the outer periphery of the theatre.
Not one of them was occupied.
Drake glanced at his watch and took a breath, considering his next move. He could break cover and venture out into the centre of the theatre, making his presence known to anyone who might be waiting, but doing so would leave him exposed and vulnerable. It went against his instincts to go into a situation like this at a disadvantage.
On the other hand, he could remain where he was and see if his contact decided to take the initiative. However, meetings like this often lived or died based on mutual trust, and it was possible his contact was harbouring similar doubts. The last thing he wanted was for them to get cold feet and walk away, especially since he had gone to such pains to make this happen in the first place.
He was about to begin a circle of the theatre’s outer wall when he heard footsteps on the stone floor, coming his way. Slow and heavy, accompanied by slightly laboured breathing. An older man, overweight, perhaps not in good health.
Gripping the Browning high-powered automatic hidden in a pancake holster at the small of his back, Drake readied himself for the hundred different ways this could go wrong, and slipped out from behind the pillar.
The man standing facing him was in his early sixties, black, of average height and above average weight, his close-cropped hair and moustache speckled with silver. Even a cursory glance revealed a man who wore his years with some discomfort; his shoulders were stooped, his forehead deeply lined by years of care and worry. The collar of his expensive suit was loosened, and there was a visible sheen of sweat on his brow.
The climb up here had clearly not been a pleasant one for him.
He tensed for a moment at Drake’s sudden appearance, but quickly regained his composure at the realization this was the man he’d come here to meet. The young Shepherd team leader who had contacted him covertly through an intermediary, who had insisted on a face-to-face meeting away from Langley, who had promised he possessed information of great importance to the Agency.
‘I hope you didn’t drag me all the way out here just to shoot me, son,’ he remarked coolly, his dark eyes flicking downward, indicating the hand that Drake was keeping behind his back. ‘I’m sure they’ve got a nice spot picked out for me at Arlington, but I’d rather not take it just yet.’
Drake’s grip on the weapon relaxed, some of the tension easing, though he didn’t let go of it yet. ‘Director Hunt.’
‘So they tell me.’
Charles Hunt was the officer in charge of the CIA’s Counterproliferation Division, tasked with monitoring and intercepting the flow of illegal arms worldwide, from missing ammunition crates at Russian supply depots all the way up to Iranian attempts at purchasing nuclear secrets. Their job was stop weapons from ending up in the hands of America’s enemies.
‘Are you here alone?’Drake asked.
‘As alone as any of us can be these days,’ he said, glancing upward, as if they might glimpse a surveillance drone circling overhead.
Drake’s eyes hardened. ‘I’m not playing games. If you were followed here—’
Hunt’s greying brows drew together in a frown. ‘Mr Drake, I’m not in the habit of lying to people. And I’m also not in the habit of dragging my fat ass out of my very comfortable office for secret meetings at national monuments with every crackpot who tries to contact me. But I know who you are, so I chose to show some faith in you today. Maybe you should do the same with me, and lose the attitude, along with the gun.’
Reluctantly Drake let go of the weapon.
‘Better,’ Hunt remarked.
‘You said you knew who I was,’ Drake prompted him.
‘You made a name for yourself with that business in Russia last year. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing remains to be seen, but you can bet your ass people are taking notice. That makes you either an enemy to be destroyed, or a commodity to be used.’ He surveyed Drake with a critical eye. ‘Personally, I’m not sure whether you deserve a commendation or a firing squad after the shit you pulled.’
Drake decided to let that one pass. His actions the previous year technically amounted to treason; he’d aligned himself with a foreign intelligence service without any kind of authorization, not to mention aiding and abetting a wanted terrorist. Not for the first time, he caught himself wondering just how many enemies he’d made over the past couple of years.
‘I’d settle for ten minutes of your time,’ he said instead. Despite the tension of their initial meeting, he was very much aware that a divisional director of the CIA wasn’t the sort of man to be trifled with. Simply getting access to him without alerting a dozen different department heads had been an ordeal in itself, forcing Drake to negotiate a minefield of protocol and hidden lines of reporting, not to mention calling in a few favours.
Whether or not it had been a wasted effort hinged on what happened in the next ten minutes.
Hunt glanced at his watch – an old model bearing the US Marine Corps seal – then turned his dark eyes back on Drake. ‘All right, Mr Drake. Ten minutes. I suggest you make it good.’
Drake certainly couldn’t promise that. The only thing he could guarantee was that it would be worth hearing.
Reaching into his pocket, he produced an electronic device that resembled a small walkie-talkie with several aerials affixed to it, and flicked a switch mounted on the side. A single green light was the only indication that the signal jammer was now active, though anyone trying to use a cell phone or any other communications device within fifty yards would certainly know about it.
Hunt regarded the device with a raised eyebrow. ‘That bad, huh?’
Drake gestured to one of the benches nearby. ‘You might want to sit down for this.’
He did, and he listened for a lot longer than ten minutes as Drake related the events of the past two years, from the operation to rescue a prisoner named Maras from a Russian jail, to the dirty war being waged by a private military company in Afghanistan and the death of the chief of Russian intelligence last year. And all of it tied together by the legacy of one man: Marcus Cain.
Cain, who was now the Deputy Director of the CIA, and next in line for the top position if the current leader stepped down.
‘That’s quite a story, son,’ Hunt remarked when Drake finally brought his extended narrative to an end. Despite his flippant choice of words, it was clear Drake’s tale had nonetheless made an impression on him. ‘But why tell it to me?’
The enemy of my enemy is my friend. A very old saying, and one that was often misused in trivial rivalries. In this case however, Drake could only hope that the adage proved true.
If so, he could think of no better enemy for Cain than the man whose position he had usurped two years ago. Hunt himself had once occupied the post of Deputy Director, and been hotly tipped to assume the mantle of leading the world’s foremost intelligence agency before too long. That was until an abrupt reshuffle of the Agency’s executive level had seen Hunt effectively demoted to divisional leader. Still a position of some power and influence, to be sure, but the message was clear – there was a new star player on the field, and his name was Marcus Cain.
Drake was certain that such a demotion, especially in the closing years of Hunt’s career, must have left a deep impact on him. Deep enough, perhaps, for him to aid Drake in destroying the man who had so derailed his plans. It was a rotten trick to use a man’s bitterness and resentment for one’s own ends, but the chance to win an ally in the highest levels of the Agency’s power structure was something Drake couldn’t pass up.
‘Because I’m not the only one who wants to see Cain take a fall,’ Drake answered. ‘I know he replaced you as Deputy Director, and I’m guessing it wasn’t your decision to step down. He fucked you over, just like he fucked over everyone else he’s ever come into contact with. Whatever you were expecting to do with the rest of your life, it’s all been taken away because of him. Well, this is your chance to take something back. Help me expose the things he’s done. Help me stop him before more innocent people get killed. I can’t promise you’ll get back everything you’ve lost, but I can promise he’ll lose a lot more than you ever did.’
Drake had never been one for stirring speeches or impassioned monologues. All he could do was set out what he knew, what we wanted, and what Hunt could do to make it happen. It was a gamble, to be sure – this whole meeting had been a leap of faith, in fact – but it was a gamble he felt he had to make.
And now, his sentiments delivered, all he could do was wait for Hunt’s reply. It wasn’t long in coming.