Authors: Ridley Pearson
ALSO BY RIDLEY PEARSON
The Risk Agent
In Harm’s Way
Cut and Run
The Art of Deception
The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer
(writing as Joyce Reardon)
The Pied Piper
BOOKS FOR YOUNG READERS
KINGDOM KEEPERS SERIES
Kingdom Keepers: Disney After Dark
Kingdom Keepers II: Disney at Dawn
Kingdom Keepers III: Disney in Shadow
Kingdom Keepers IV: Power Play
Kingdom Keepers V: Shell Game
Kingdom Keepers VI: Dark Passage
Kingdom Keepers VII: The Insider
PETER AND THE STARCATCHERS SERIES
(with Dave Barry)
NEVER LAND SERIES
(with Dave Barry)
STEEL TRAPP SERIES
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
Publishers Since 1838
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) LLC
375 Hudson Street
New York, New York 10014
USA • Canada • UK • Ireland • Australia • New Zealand • India • South Africa • China
A Penguin Random House Company
Copyright © 2014 by Page One, Inc.
Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The Red Room / Ridley Pearson.
1. Istanbul (Turkey)—Fiction. 2. Suspense fiction. I. Title.
PS3566.E234R43 2014 2013051019
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
. . . as always, forStorey, Paige and MarcelleACKNOWLEDGMENTS
To get a story from brain to shelf takes more than a village, it takes a patient army. ForRed Roomthe list of soldiers includes: editors Christine Pepe and Genevieve Gagne-Hawes; assistants Nancy Zastrow and Jennifer Wood; copy editors Laurel and David Walters; literary agents Amy Berkower and Dan Conaway of Writers House; film agent Matthew Snyder and CAA; publisher Ivan Held, G. P. Putnam’s Sons.CONTENTS
ALSO BY RIDLEY PEARSON
Two men await a delivery van. Nameless men. Professionals. Proficient at blending in. The man with the camera—call him Alpha. The man who stands in the camera’s frame is Beta.
A white FedEx minivan appears in the camera’s field of view. It serves as the starting gun. Alpha eases the Nikon onto his chest. Turning away from the Sisli Merkez Mosque, he is jostled by Istanbul tourists posing for the perfect picture. It’s nearing the end of the day. Slanting sunshine slices through the smog, playing across the mosque’s stone dome and adjacent minaret. Hell of a photo.
Beta, looking so much like Alpha they might be mistaken for twins—each in a navy blue knit cap, black leather jacket, blue jeans—sees the camera lower and moves toward the curb. He cradles a canvas messenger bag beneath his right arm.
The van double-parks in front of a pharmacy, its emergency flashers pulsing.
Alpha walks incrementally faster, entering the pharmacy only seconds behind the FedEx deliveryman. His job is to provide cover. Beta opens the van’s panel door and slips inside. After five days ofsurveillance, they know the delivery kid, always in a hurry, never locks the van in this part of town.
THEPHARMACYSMELLSCHEMICAL. Alpha reaches the FedEx kid and, as if trying to slip past, allows himself to be tripped. He brings down most of the contents of a shelf as he falls. Turns and pulls the deliveryman along with him.
There is shouting as employees hurry to help. Boxes of medicine are spread across the floor, causing the employees to tiptoe as they approach. The delivery package has slid out of reach of both men.
The lens hangs broken from the camera’s body.
“Idiot! You clumsy bastard!” Alpha speaks English with an Eastern European accent. More training. The deliveryman is young, red-faced and unsure. He spouts apologies in Turkish.
BETASEARCHESthe contents of the first of six plastic bins arranged on the van’s open shelves, his fingers flipping through the packages like a collector in a vinyl-record store. He knows exactly what he’s looking for: he has its clone in his messenger bag.
Bin two. Bin three. An internal timer runs. The op calls for an abort at thirty. He’s at twenty-seven when his fingers stop at the air bill listing:
Seven packages. More slowly now. The third shows the sender as a Swiss address. He makes the swap, his for theirs.
Forty-three seconds and counting . . .
No reaction. No adrenaline or concern or anxiety. The lapsed time is merely a statistic to be noted. It’s filed and processed. He stuffs the switched package into the messenger bag and comes out of the van with his back to the sidewalk. He walks the curb like a balance beam. No one has shouted at him. No one has approached. He slips out his phone and sends the text. The signal.
ALPHA’SPHONEdings at his hip.
“My fault, my fault!” Alpha says. He helps the cautious deliveryman to his feet, making sure to keep the man faced away from the windows. In tourist Turkish, he manages something close to“Üzgünüm.”Sorry.
He inspects his broken camera, trying to force the lens back into place. He and the deliveryman exchange agonized looks. Alpha extends his hand, a peace offering. The deliveryman is delighted by his change of heart. They shake.
Alpha says in English, “All for some toothpaste.” A shared moment of tense humor.
Leaving the pharmacy, Alpha reads the text. It’s a smiley emoticon. Success.
He makes a phone call. Hears a click. No voice. He keys in a five-number string followed by three pound signs. Hears a second tone.
“It’s done,” he says, speaking Hebrew.2
NINE DAYS LATER
A veil of fog obscures the steep steel-and-glass-clad marvels that rise out of Hong Kong harbor. From the twenty-second-floor offices of Rutherford Risk in the Chamberlain Tower, John Knox thinks the trolleys and cars look like toys. On the glass, pinpricks of mist collect and join, growing into drops and skidding down the glass in a race, obscuring the view. It’s not raining, but will be within the hour.
Knox steals a look at his own reflection, while behind his image another appears: an imposing figure of a man, older by a few years, unable to disguise a brutal intensity that impressed Knox when the two first met in Kuwait, another Knox ago. David Dulwich still walks with a limp, although his gait has vastly improved since the car accident in Shanghai two-plus years ago. The men embrace.
“This way,” Dulwich says.
Knox notes the lack of small talk, wonders if the brief phone callthat detoured him to Hong Kong was as much of the personal stuff as he and Sarge were going to bother with.
The starkly contemporary offices of Rutherford Risk reflect the tastes of company president Brian Primer, whose warm side only surfaces when a client is present. Knox knows Primer as a calculating son of a bitch who concerns himself with margins and profitability, often at the expense of his assets—like Knox. He treats his clients almost reverently and stops short of tolerating loss of life on either side of the ledger.
Down the corridor, the maple office doors, marked only by a number, rise to ten feet and are a full meter across, ensuring that any visitor, no matter how large, feels physically insignificant.
Primer, a proponent of Frank Wisner’s “mighty Wurlitzer,” required his architect and interior decorator to work with a team of psychologists. Wisner, the first director of the CIA, created front organizations and planted media stooges in order to “play any propaganda tune needed.” Primer can work a meeting.
To Knox’s surprise, he’s led not to Primer’s office but to the secure elevator. It drops thirty stories so fast he feels like he’s floating. He’s ridden it only once before.
Hong Kong high-rises are anchored deeply into the mountains. Lessons learned from mudslides a century earlier have prompted the creation of structures able to withstand both the ground giving way and the pummeling of typhoon winds and rain. Twenty meters below grade, storm shelters and storage rooms are carved into the hillside. It’s here, outside a door markedPRIVATE, that Dulwich removes anything containing metal—coins, wristwatch, Bluetooth device, smartphone, belt. He places the items in a cubby, turns the lock and asks Knox to do the same. Knox does so and pockets the plastic key.
Dulwich swipes his ID card and admits Knox to a small vestibule,where they must wait for the door to close before a second can be opened. A body scanner hums. A green light indicates that they are clear.
“The Red Room,” Knox says. “So cloak and dagger.”
Still, Dulwich is silent. The barrier is seven inches of steel and insulating concrete weighing three hundred pounds, yet it moves fluidly, clicks shut and locks electronically. The Red Room is a twenty-square-foot bunker with pale green walls and a strip of exposed overhead lights. The furniture is clear, ensuring that nothing can be hidden inside it. Knox has heard of it, but took it to be company myth.
“I’ve never had the pleasure,” he says.
Dulwich checks his watch. “We don’t have long.” He produces an A4 manila envelope. Knox can’t believe he didn’t see it, marvels at how quickly one can lose one’s edge. He’s been back to import/export for a matter of months; the operation in Amsterdam is still fresh in his memory but apparently not in his skill set.
Dulwich slides the envelope across the table like it’s radioactive.
“Your schedule, not mine,” Knox says. He finds the Red Room claustrophobic. He can handle small spaces; a top-secret facility, impenetrable to all eavesdropping technologies, causes undue pressure.
Dulwich taps the envelope.
David Dulwich is usually not the melodramatic type. It’s one reason Knox doesn’t mind doing the occasional piece of work for him. The rest of his time, John Knox is a trader, traveling the world for rare goods, in business with his younger brother, Tommy. Dropping into a James Bond movie is a little much.
“They’re of you. The pictures. You love looking at yourself, Knox. So go ahead.”
“Moi?”Knox fails to entertain his host. “Why?”
“I have plenty of pictures of myself, all of them stunning.”
An uncomfortable smirk crawls across Dulwich’s lips. “Not like these you don’t.”
Knox suppresses the urge to take the bait. He wants more from Dulwich, who knows that Knox is a reluctant freelancer. His brother, Tommy, isn’t in the best shape—the experts call him cerebrally and physically impaired, autistic, mentally challenged. He is, in fact, highly functional with medication and care. Knox can’t risk leaving him alone on this earth—but he’s attracted to the work Dulwich offers for more than just the money. He has a savior complex that probably bleeds over from caring for his damaged sibling.
Still, he’s in no hurry to screw things up by rising to the wrong fly. Dulwich will eventually play the money card. Knox has been robbed, embezzled from by his company’s bookkeeper. Things are tight. Have been for some time.
But Dulwich doesn’t start there.
“I don’t go in for drama,” Dulwich says.
“This is an in-and-out—a week tops—that can do a lot of good.”
“Good, like Amsterdam?” Dulwich understands which buttons to push.
“No, not like Amsterdam. Not even close. Frog and the scorpion. Open the envelope.”
Knox doesn’t understand the reference but doesn’t want to appear ignorant. He wants to open the envelope—oh, how he wants to; but there’s commitment that accompanies the act, and he can’t bring himself to do it without knowing more.
“Political?” Knox wishes he had hidden the astonishment in his voice. Like all private contractors, Rutherford Risk’s bread and butter comes from U.S. government jobs: guarding convoys of supplies,providing security details, moving funds, interrupting the Internet, burning drug crops. It’s the occasional insurgency Knox wants no part of.
“Open the envelope.”
“Turns out you’re the only guy, or we wouldn’t be locked in the Red Room.”
“Maybe you should unlock the door.”
“Maybe you should open the envelope. There are good guys and bad guys on every team, Knox. Even good teams have their share of bad apples. But I wouldn’t put you on the bad team. Not ever. Now, goddamn it, look—”
Dulwich takes the envelope back, opens it and slams down a handful of 8x10s. Shot with a high-powered telephoto at a good distance.
Knox can’t pretend it’s not his profile. It takes him several long seconds to digest the look of the café and the apparent location: Bethany, Jordan. That gives him the other man in the photo, a man with Jordanian and Circassian blood, Akram Okle.
“I was never told flat out,” Knox says, defending himself, “that the piece was black market. Every antiquity has passed through too many hands to count. Sometimes that includes mine. I’m offered a piece; I know a buyer. More like a matchmaker. I can see how that might be politically embarrassing, but I don’t work for you, Sarge. I’m not your employee. I’m a contractor. I—”
“You are so off base you’re running around the outfield.” Dulwich flips through the stack of photographs. Three show Knox and Okle engaged in what Knox thinks must be their most recent deal; more troubling are the final two photos, which go back eighteen months earlier. There’s no way Knox has been followed for eighteenmonths; he keeps track of such things. So it’s Okle who’s being surveilled.
“Okay, I give up. The frog and the scorpion?”
Dulwich arches his eyebrows as if Knox should know this one. “Frog and a scorpion meet on the riverbank. Scorpion asks for a lift to the other side. Frog says, ‘Why would I do that, you’ll sting me.’ Scorpion says he won’t and they sign a treaty. The frog carries him on his back. Halfway across, the scorpion stings the frog. As they’re both going under, the frog says, ‘Why would you do this? We’re both going to die!’ Scorpion says, ‘It’s my nature . . .’”
“Akram’s a good client,” Knox says. “I see certain pieces, I think of him first. He only buys the rarest of the rare. There aren’t many people who can afford such things. You go where the market is.”
“He’s a middleman.”
“None of my business.”
“It is now.”
Rutherford Risk pays out six figures to employees at various Internet security companies, on top of the seven figures budgeted for their own hackers who roam cyberspace probing for firewall vulnerabilities. When a back door is discovered in an existing operating system, Rutherford receives an alert before Microsoft or Adobe or Sun or Apple can identify the issue, a day or two before they can offer a patch.
During that window—hours, or minutes sometimes—people like Grace Chu, a private contractor based in Hong Kong and specializing in forensic accounting, are able to slip through the back door undetected.
Thanks to other sources on the inside of those companies, Grace Chu is also told when to get out.
Most of her days are spent poring over spreadsheets or money wire transactions, establishing trails and hard evidence for the client, most typically Rutherford Risk. Today she works like a day trader, jumping in and out of the market, seizing opportunity, playing margins. She’s attempting to establish and trace an individual’s net worth. It’s a nerve-racking exercise not meant for the faint ofheart. A moment’s hesitation and the SEC or FBI will have her location. Get out too quickly and she loses her only chance at access.
Today she’s inside the server of a Jordanian bank; tonight or tomorrow, if the current back door holds, an Iranian investment firm. She’s curious about the op. Yesterday, Dulwich instructed her to data-mine this man’s financials. Dulwich wants her travel plans left open. He sounded uncertain. It’s new territory—Dulwich at sea, running her personally. Success will mean promotion; she can taste it. To prove herself as a field operative capable of on-the-fly intelligence gathering and analysis will put her in a class by herself. She knows of no one at Rutherford Risk with this particular hybrid skill set.
She works wirelessly using a “hopper”—a cellular Wi-Fi device that jumps among three carriers randomly, the same technology that makes her jailbroken iPhone impossible to eavesdrop on. It costs her some speed, but she has grown accustomed to the pauses.
She’s working from the downtown campus cafeteria of the University of Hong Kong, meaning her IP address is shared by a few hundred at a time, making a quick trace difficult, if not impossible. She’s stolen a user ID and password off a nearby, far too casual user.
The bank’s firewall is impenetrable. The last effective cyber raid was in 2004. This back door they’ve been given is far more benign—it’s for the bank’s local area network, which includes all web searches, most e-mail traffic, video conferencing data as well as the security server.
Grace monitors the cafeteria’s visitors, studying the face and body language of each new arrival. It’s lunchtime and therefore busy, which is both a blessing and a curse, but she chose the time slot to help support her cover. Her fine features—she’s been described as “haunting”—win the attention of males over twenty, many of whom underestimate her age, which is well north of that. She keepsher laptop screen angled slightly down; it wears a layer of plastic film that limits side views, but there’s a sweet spot she found from just above head height that concerns her.
She types a long string of commands. A year ago, she was fairly new to this cyber play, made anxious by it. Now she eats it up. Over the months, she’s grown addicted to these short bursts of information theft, much the way she imagines runners treasure their endorphins.
Working with remarkable speed, she moves through the root directory hierarchy, navigating to the security servers. In her mind’s eye, it’s like going down ladders and through tunnels, into anterooms and on to other tunnels and more ladders. Throughout the process, she raises her eyes, tracking newcomers, accounting for those already in place. Her memory is superior. Her mind has been trained to be nearly photographic. She has identified the two men back by the soda fountain, the woman by the trash can, another woman eating alone. Any of these could be a threat. There’s a male student who looks like he’s hoping to see up her skirt. She’d like to flip him her middle finger but keeps it on the keys.
One thing she’s learned about security servers: the systems are organized to accommodate and account for the intelligence level of those meant to operate them. Not every security guard is a Bill Gates in waiting. The video stream is labeledKAYMARA. Camera.
In seconds she’s opening a dozen video feeds, like surfing a traffic cam site. She closes them as quickly as they open. She’s not interested in the teller windows or the safe or the safe-deposit boxes. Not interested in the elevator interiors, the back hallway or the six exterior cameras.
All the while, a stopwatch app runs in the upper corner of her screen. She’s been online 2:07 minutes and counting. Even using aback door, she may be sniffed and identified for having an IP address outside the known database of approved users. She should be safe staying within five-minute usage intervals.
At 4:22, she clocks off.
The second hack, she heads directly to the camera list.
Her third breach hits gold: the camera is mounted behind four desks, with a view of the teller windows’ left side. One of the desks is occupied. Her fingers fly across the keys as she builds a macro that logs in, clicks through to the proper security camera, takes a video screen shot and logs out at the four-minute mark. The macro will loop until she shuts it down.
She hits Enter, angles the screen lower and is caught off guard by the young skirt-chaser’s approach.
Terminate or continue? These are the decisions that define her: when to run, when to admit temporary defeat, when to trust her instincts. Right now couldn’t be better—the hack is clean, the macro running flawlessly. She has the op teed up perfectly. She just needs the other two desks filled following lunchtime breaks.
This guy’s a problem. He asks in Cantonese if the seat is taken. It’s a dialect she has nailed but an accent she finds tricky even after two years living in the city. Her rebuff of him is polite but firm; her right pinky finger hovers over the F12 key while her left index finger covers the FN. These two keystrokes combined will log off the laptop and send it into a double-encrypted sleep mode that would require seventy-two hours on a Cray computer to have a hope of gaining access.
Appearances mean nothing. The boy’s approach is taken as a high-level threat. If he lifts a finger, she’ll break it like a twig, and his arm along with it. Apologies to cock-motivated boys like him are cheaper than excuses to Dulwich.
He offers a smile he’s practiced too many times in his dormitory mirror.
“Listen to me, cousin,” she says, losing her accent slightly to her temper. “I don’t appreciate boys . . .” she lingers on the word, savoring it, “looking up my skirt, or trying to. If you haven’t seen one before I’m not interested in you, and if you have, then you know it’s a woman’s secret treasure and she doesn’t wear it like a Shanghai billboard. If I wanted to share pictures of it, I’d post them on the corkboard over there by the register,neh? Back up and leave me alone or I’ll put my heel so deep in your crotch you’ll have shoe leather for a tongue.”
His sallow skin tone drains to the color of talcum powder.
The fact that he sits there, standing his ground, is cause for worry: he’s a cocky bastard.
She detests the thought of logging off when everything is going so well. She can’t bring herself to do it without further provocation. But her instinctive reaction is impatience and she’s trained to guard against it. Good things come to those who wait. She’ll have another shot at this data, she reminds herself.
So why can’t she bring herself to log off? It’s him and his obstinacy; she’s taken it as a gender challenge and she’s not about to cave.
She’s angled the screen too low to see what’s happening at the bank. The boy’s flirting will provide good cover, but the distraction has cost her: she’s lost track of who’s entering or exiting the cafeteria. Her best chance now is to keep this boy engaged for the sake of anyone who might be watching. The longer she has him with her, the longer her computer continues recording the bank’s video camera.
“A woman’s secret treasure, or her secret pleasure?” he says now, and draws the opposing chair back with his shoe, making space to sit.
“Pleasure cannot be kept secret,” she returns, suddenly enjoying the wordplay, “whereas treasure can.”
Keeping her prior threat in mind, he estimates the length of her extended leg and moves the chair far enough back to accommodate. He sits.
“Origin EON seventeen-S,” he says.
She wishes she could stop the blush that floods her face. John Knox has told her it’s a tell that could get her killed.
The boy has been lusting after her boutique laptop, not her crotch. She’s made a fool of herself, and he’s so smitten with her electronics that he’s played along.
He rattles off specs and she counters with the upgrades she’s opted for. Lunge. Parry. His eyes go wide—and then wider. His upper lip is sweating.
Has she misjudged his age? Is he too old to be a student? Teacher’s aide? Grad student? Or is he a risk-taking thief who dresses well and chats up girls on college campuses, snatches their laptops and disappears before they can rise from their chairs? The Origin is worth over four thousand USD. Mainland gamers would pay that or more.
If he manages to steal the unlocked laptop, she and Rutherford Risk would suffer. She plays the odds, pressing the two keys and protecting the data. She’s angry over being forced to do so, is tempted to knock the guy across the room.
Quoting a proverb, “‘Man’s schemes are inferior to those made by heaven,’” Grace casually closes the Origin. It’s heavy, but she one-hands it into the Trager Tru-Ballistic case.
“I was admiring it. And you. That’s all, cousin.”
“Next time you might consider antiperspirant on your upper lip, cousin.”
He holds up both palms in an act of surrender. Behind his eyes,he hungers to test her threats. That look convinces her he intended to steal the laptop. She has to wonder if he was hired.
She slings the case over her head so the strap, which will hold up to any box cutter or razor, crosses her chest, separating her breasts.
“I think I’m in love,” he whispers as she passes.4
The air in the Red Room is piped in through slit vents in the ceiling. The temperature is perfect. The humidity, perfect. The company, less than perfect.
Dulwich is not himself; he’s lost sleep, some color, and his throat is raspy, suggesting he’s stressed.
“Are we going to rewind,” Knox asks, “or am I supposed to keep up?”
“What do you think?” Dulwich scratches at the burn scar below his collarbone. The line of pink runs down into his shirt. The phantom itch is one of the man’s tells. He’s editing himself on the fly.
“Akram Okle owns a pair of Indian restaurants, both called Saffron. One in Bethany. The other in Amman. He’s done well. Not well enough to afford his last purchase, but the man knows his art and would have no problem forming a partnership to make a buy. He’s a family man, no connection to organized crime. Well educated. A pleasure to do business with. You’ve got the wrong guy.”
“His mother is gravely ill,” Dulwich says. “As we speak, he’s traveling to Istanbul to join some, or all, of his six siblings. Three brothers, three sisters. He’s not in partnership. He’s a middleman for his brother, Mashe.” He pronounces it “Masha.” “That’s who bought your piece.”
“Okay.” Knox does not appreciate Dulwich knowing what he knows. He circles back to the photos taken of Akram from a year and a half ago. Police. Interpol. A cultural ministry trying to stem the flow of precious art.
Dulwich’s focus can be laserlike. “After I saw these photos, when I realized you deal in more than nose flutes, it seemed so unlike you. So I go back through your college records to find out you were an art history major.”
“Minor. My major was sorority girls.”
“Save it for someone who laughs,” Dulwich says. “Why’d I never hear about this? Too soft for the tough John Knox?”
“I don’t tell everything on the first date.”
“So you’re an art dealer now?”
“Finger cymbals are folk art.”
“A while. Here and there, now and then. Better margins when I can find the right piece. It’s a pretty tight-knit club, gray market art. I have a long climb ahead of me, but yes, I enjoy it. Sue me.”
“You’re about to skip a few rungs,” Dulwich says. “Move to the front of the line. No more papier-mâché face masks for John Knox. What’s the gray market equivalent of Christie’s or Sotheby’s?”
Knox doesn’t answer. His heart is pumping. Dulwich has a disturbing way of knowing how to play him. Knox would love to get away from hill tribe trinkets and into the art world, gray market or not. But Dulwich can’t make such promises.
“YOUAREto offer Akram the bust of Harmodius.”
“Harmodius and Aristogeiton.” Knox doesn’t need Google.
Knox can tell Sarge is out of his element. “Athenians who paved the way for democracy. Bronzes were made of the heroes, the first art in human history to be commissioned out of public funds, adding to the gravitas of the pieces.”
“Listen to you,” Dulwich says.
“The statues disappeared, likely seized in wartime. Copies were commissioned. This is still four hundred years before Christ. A piece—just a piece!—of one of those copies surfaced in the 1980s and sold for millions.”
“You will be offering the head and left shoulder from the original Harmodius,” Dulwich says.
“That’s impossible. No one will believe that. Not even me. The originals were lost two thousand years ago. Come on.”
“It’s been tested. Assayed. Whatever. It can be tested again. It’s the real deal, Knox. And yes, you will have it. I’m told the estimated value is well north of ten million.”
“Well north,” Knox says.
“You’ll be asking five hundred thousand.”
“And why would I do that? Why would anyone do that?” But he knows the answer. It’s been stolen. It’s a piece for one’s bedroom, not one that can be seen by others. There are too many questions that need answering. Given the current climate of cross-cultural theft, trying to deal it to a museum would result in jail time.
“If you’re trying to court me, you’re going about it all wrong. What the hell are you and Primer up to?” Knox has a nose forDulwich bullshit. The closest they’ve been to the truth was the bit about good and bad players on the same team. That line’s been running through Knox’s head since Sarge said it.
“You deliver the Harmodius. Grace will make sure the money flows in the right directions. You’ll make a name for yourself in certain circles.”
A name?Knox thinks. He’ll be legend, and Dulwich is fully aware of this. He’s offering Knox a career change, a gold pass into the inner circles of the art world, gray market or not.The fucking Harmodius?
“Grace,” Knox says. He works occasionally with Grace Chu on Dulwich jobs. She’s a rising star within the ranks of outsourced Rutherford operatives like him. They have a platonic chemistry that Knox welcomes. She’s insanely smart, wildly ambitious and enough of a risk taker to keep up with him.
“You’re after Mashe Okle’s money stream?”
“It’s NTK.” Need To Know. “You make the offer. You make sure he bites. You and Grace deliver the Harmodius. An in-and-out. Like I said.”
“What’s the catch?”
“You need to sell directly to Mashe. I need you two in the room with Mashe for five minutes.”
“Play the lure? For what, a hit? No thanks.” Knox stands. The acrylic chairs are painfully uncomfortable.
“Bullshit. I lead you to him and some sniper takes him out that day or three days later. What’s the difference? You think if I never find out, it lessens my role? That’s bullshit. Who is he?”
“Who is he?”
“Fuck that. Good guys and bad guys on the same team, you said. So is he a bad guy on a good team or a good guy on a bad team?”
“I wasn’t talking about him.”
“The client? You were talking about the client?”
“NTK. I don’t need to know. You don’t need to know. Leave it at that. I . . . we’ve been promised no killing. For you: it’s fifty thousand on acceptance. How much are Tommy’s new meds? Once you two get the five minutes, a hun more. For a week, tops, including travel.”
“I won’t bait a guy for a bullet. He’d have to be a real monster. I would need proof. Who’s the client?” Knox resents Sarge for bringing up his brother’s medical situation. They know each other too well, he thinks, not for the first time.
But Sarge is right. There’s a compound currently in testing for Fragile X and the treatment of social withdrawal. The results are promising, but Tommy’s well above the test’s age limit of twenty-one. Getting him prescribed the drug will be tricky and expensive—and even if Knox succeeds, costs are estimated at ten thousand dollars a month.
“I’m telling you, I wouldn’t ask you to do this if—” He searches. “Listen, there’s no bullet. Not from us, not from our client. Could he take one? Of course. But not from us.”
Dulwich purses his lips. Knox changes tactics.
“What’s the right way for the money to flow? What are you after?”
Dulwich retains his expression.
Knox processes the use of the Red Room, the limited information he’s being offered, the eighteen months of photo surveillance. It feels like the work of Interpol’s Stolen Works of Art group or a domestic organization like Scotland Yard. He doesn’t like it.
“Art theft? That kind of politics? I need guaranteed amnesty,” Knox says.
“The client has no say over that. It’s beyond borders. Grace is your best bet. Trust Grace. She says run, you run.”
Dulwich has revealed more than he intended, a costly and unusual mistake. The client is either nongovernmental or a covert governmental group unable to interfere. Knox can’t put it together. He doesn’t like hearing that he’s to take direction from Grace; she’s become Dulwich’s star pupil. Knox has always been more the gum chewer in the back row. Grace’s importance to Dulwich is on the rise; his own status, he’s not so sure about. And it’s so out of character for Dulwich to slip up that Knox has to wonder if it’s an intentional ruse. Why would Dulwich game his own assets?
Because this is bigger than stink.
“The Brits’ stolen-art database is fifty thousand pieces,” Knox says. “Yet their total annual budget to investigate stolen art is less than four hundred grand. Italy loses thirty thousand pieces a year. Russia, seven. Stolen art is the most lucrative market out there. And the most underfunded on the investigative side. I like nice things, I deal in nice things, but I’ve never knowingly participated in the sale of stolen art. I need protection. I don’t think I’d like Turkish jail.”
“It’s not in my interests to see you in jail.”
“Well, that’s a huge relief.”
“Scheduling is critical. Clock is ticking. Lean on Grace. If she does her homework, and we both know that’s not an ‘if,’ we’ll know whether or not it’s safe for you two to take that meet.”
“The clock is always ticking.”
How much does Grace know? How much will she be willing to share? She can be a real Girl Scout. How much can Knox deduce by understanding what Grace is up to? The stop Knox had planned inShanghai is worth a fifth of just the down payment Sarge and Primer are offering.
Knox flashes back to the pile of money Tommy lost to the embezzling bookkeeper, money intended for Tommy’s care. Recovering that money is a work in progress, one that currently involves the voluntary help of Dulwich and Grace. In the interim, Knox is trying to cover in-home health care that costs the same as buying a new car every month. Adding drug therapy will kill the goose.
Dulwich’s expertise is manipulation, but in affairs of business only. His personal life is a minefield littered with craters behind him and tall weeds ahead. This job offer feels different, as if he’s dragging Knox into that field with him.
Knox tries for the jugular. “What makes this personal for you?”
Dulwich doesn’t so much as blink. “He’s important to the client.”
“Correct.” He repeats, “I’ll backfill as much as possible, whenever possible, assuming the client okay’s it. It’ll go through Grace. You and I can’t connect. Period.”
“I’ll be watched.” Knox looks down at the photographs. Feels a chill. Maybe he’s been under surveillance for some time.
“We play the odds.”
“What makes a buyer of art special?” Knox asks, thinking aloud. “The dollar value of the art is what’s significant. Right?”
Dulwich doesn’t want him going there. He says so with his eyes.
“Let’s say I’m a black ops agency trying to buy some RPGs or a few million rounds of ammo. I’m trying to back the Syrian rebels or some other Arab Spring do-gooders. My seller is unwilling to take currency of any kind. Currency can be traced. He can’t allow himself to be found out.”
Dulwich doesn’t stop him, but Knox can tell he’d like to.
“So the cash buys a piece of art. It’s a value market—a relativelysmall amount of cash buys a very valuable trade. The art is exchanged for the weapons. Untraceable. The guy who sells the weapons hangs the art in his dacha; the other guy reloads. Everyone’s happy.” Knox looks for the fallacies. It holds up. “Mashe’s facilitating war, insurrections, bloodshed.”
He’s a monster.
Dulwich can’t help himself: a small shrug says close enough.
“So the client—your client—is someone on the other side of the potential bloodshed. He doesn’t want the weapons sold. He’s looking to limit or shut down his enemy’s arsenal.”
“I need a go, no-go from you, John. You know how this shit works.”
“But the Red Room.”
“Don’t read too much into that.”
“Seriously?” Knox looks around the bunker. “The client can’t be seen using private contractors like Rutherford. He doesn’t trust his own people—good guys, bad guys. You said so yourself. I find that interesting.”
“Don’t find it anything. Just give me the go, no-go.”
“Stop pressuring me, Sarge. You need me. I’m the one in the photos. How long did it take your client to figure out who I was? To connect you and me? That can’t have been easy. Shit. Months? A year? Are these our guys? Homeland Security? The FBI? You can imagine why that would make me just a little nervous.”
Dulwich fails to react.
“Don’t make like if I pass on this you’re going to move down the list. There is no list. It’s one name. One guy. Me.”
“Flip the payments. The hundred now. Fifty if I get the five minutes with him.”
Knox shakes his head, disgusted with himself. That came far too easily. He could have gotten more. “I need an agent,” he says.
“I’m no expert on Istanbul. There’s a brass worker I do some business with in Merkez. The Grand Bazaar is overpriced. Can I parachute in? Sure. But don’t ask for anything ninja.”
“If Akram is playing middleman for his brother, I don’t see how I ask to meet the guy without raising flags.”
“You leave that to Chu,” he says, referring to Grace. “She can make that happen. I’m serious about it being an in-and-out for you. Show up. Watch movies in your hotel room. Chu does what she does. You do what you do. She will bring Mashe to you. You set up the deal with Akram. Take the meet. You and Grace hop a plane home.”
“How do I get a piece like that in-country? If I’m busted at Customs and spend twenty years in a Turkish prison, I’m going to come out very mad.”
“I’m counting on you.”
“I won’t take a hand-off. Not in a place like Istanbul. Couriers are bought and sold more than the artwork they transport. We need to get it in there ourselves. No middlemen.”
“I’m working on it.” Dulwich pauses. “In all likelihood, it’ll be a hand-off in Amman. After that, it’s up to you. You’ll think of something.”
“If you don’t mind my saying so: this doesn’t feel like you,” Knox says.
“And if I do mind?”
“You’re up against a tight schedule. I get that. This guy’s only on the ground a short time.” Knox feels the ice cracking beneath his feet and he hasn’t even accepted the job yet. “Since when do we takeon a client with bad guys on his team? You’re usually telling me not to ad-lib. You hate that about me. Now you’re telling me I’ll think of something.”
“This is actionable.”
“Getting that piece of art from Amman to Istanbul is actionable. You’re not the one making the trip. I’m the one making that mistake.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“I’ll take that as a yes.”5
By the time Grace reestablishes herself in a Starbucks on Queen’s Road, the sidewalks are quieting down from the lunch rush. She finds a corner table.
The second of the two four-minute recordings made while she fended off her young thief shows a bank officer returning to work. Taking her seat at one of the unoccupied desks, the woman quickly logs on to the bank’s computer network. The beauty of high-def recordings and retina displays makes itself clear in the ease with which Grace is able to zoom in on the woman’s hands and observe the keystrokes in stop-motion.
She dares not attempt to use this woman’s ID and password while the woman is logged on, so Grace reconnects with the live security camera repeatedly. Forty minutes later, the bank officer logs off and leaves her desk. Grace pounces.
SHEMEETSDULWICHon the upper level of an eastbound double-decker tram twenty minutes later and details the encounter with the man in the cafeteria.
“Mashe Okle, our POI,” she says—person of interest—“is indeed paying the medical bills for one Delbar Melemet—female, seventy-three—in care at Istanbul’s Florence Nightingale Hospital. Mashe Okle’s income is bifurcated. His deposits from state-generated Iranian paychecks put him at the mid-to-high end for research academicians. Additional phantom income, the result of pension funds that don’t appear to come with any restrictions, bumps that to six figures in U.S. dollars. He appears to have no mortgage, no housing costs. Utilities, even a wireless bill, all these are a no-show.”
Dulwich’s head pivots back to front, watching the passengers come and go. Experience tells her that even when Dulwich appears distracted, as now, he’s listening closely.
Beside him Grace also admires the well-heeled mix of Europeans and Asians crowding the sidewalk, reveling in the cleanliness of the streets and the elegance of the architecture. Nonetheless, despite its reputation as the “London of Asia,” Hong Kong carries a whiff of malfeasance beneath its white-collar façade—probably,Grace thinks,due to its pirate heritage. She waits until the tram is moving again, no new passengers having sat down within hearing distance.
“There was a cash withdrawal from the account on the day following the woman’s hospitalization. Fifty million rials. That computes to the cost of a round-trip, first-class ticket, Tehran to Istanbul, with enough left over for living expenses for several days.”
“An hour later, a first-class ticket is purchased with cash at an Emirates branch office in downtown Tehran under the name of Mashe Melemet.”
“Spell it.” Dulwich scribbles onto a busy piece of notepaper.
“Mashe Melemet, aka Mashe Okle, departs Monday,” she continues, glowing now like the star pupil in the first row. “With a two-hour layover in Dubai.”
“I may be able to pull a passport photo for the Melemet ID.” He tries to cover his excitement. She interprets, deciding he doesn’t have a photo of their mark; realizes she’s given him something he and, by inference, their client, need.
“Book yourself a flight arriving in Istanbul just ahead of his,” Dulwich says. “Arrange a driver and surveil Okle. Nothing stupid. You can pick him up again at the hospital, so you don’t need to stick to him.”
“Yes, sir.” Questions hang in the air. Grace wasn’t aware this would involve field ops. She’s thrilled. She’d love to get out of the office for good. Is she to work directly with Dulwich—no John Knox? She would view this as a promotion of sorts. She’s about to ask the obvious question when he subverts her.
“You’re Knox’s accountant, same as Shanghai,” he says. “Use your EU creds where necessary. They’ll hold up. But in terms of the mark, you’re there in the room to protect Knox from any kind of sting. You and I will need to know the players. You may not hear from me, but I want to hear from you.”
His mention of Knox is bittersweet. “Understood. If I may?”
“Who protects John Knox from himself?”
Dulwich smiles, which doesn’t suit his face. Two of his front teeth are chipped.
“If the POI’s cover is broken,” Dulwich says, “it will be bad for him and everyone around him.”
“Do we extract at that point?”
“You’d have to get in line. A long line, I expect.”
Dulwich smirks. “You and Knox make quite the pair. The point is . . . your takeaway is this: we need to know as much as we can about all the players. That’s how we protect the POI. It’s fluid. White water.”
He’s telling her that the events in Istanbul are moving dangerously fast. The mark, along with her and Knox, are all at risk. The information hit her as a welcome jolt. For the last few years, she has lived for such rushes.
“Look: you two are only there to make Knox’s deal. Anything and everything you do, Chu, has to make sense when viewed through that lens. Copy? You are Knox’s accountant, working to keep him clean in the deal. Nothing more. There’s no backstop. I don’t exist.”
She wants badly to ask about the deal. But Dulwich made it clear when he briefed her in the Red Room that this is a Need To Know op. She has never operated under such restrictions. She doesn’t know if Knox has or not, but she can guess he will not respond well to them.
In contrast, Grace can and does follow orders. She’s all about team play. A dozen questions crowd her thoughts. She says nothing.6
Amman, Jordan, is the color of bleached sand. The buildings, the roads, the clothing. The palm trees that attempt to interrupt the sameness of the bigger avenues look like candles on a sand-colored birthday cake.
Knox wears a sand-colored suit with a white shirt and no tie. Loafers without socks. His hair is moussed back. He wears wraparound Ray-Bans. A gold chain bracelet adorns his right wrist. None of this costume feels natural to him.
People who can take photos of a person over an eighteen-month period are people to steer clear of. Their employers are often identified by acronyms. If they can aim a camera, they can aim a rifle. And if they’re keeping an eye on Akram, on Saffron, his restaurant—and there’s no reason to think they are not—Knox will never know. The casual pedestrian won’t spot them; they won’t be holed up in a utility van across the street.
They will see him. He will not see them.
The loose disguise is an attempt to separate himself from his former self, to prevent an instant connect-the-dots moment on the partof the surveillance team. The computers may make the face recognition for them later, but for now he’s just another patron of an Indian restaurant. That the surveillance team may have an asset or audio/video on the inside must be considered. But Knox embraces such moments. He’s as comfortable in his skin as he ever gets.
He fingers the twenty-dinar note in his pocket. On it, written in Arabic, is Akram’s name followed by Knox’s phone number.
Knox has memorized a line of Arabic. He practices it in a head chaotic with thought.
He orderspalak paneer,dahi goshtand a beer from a subdued young woman with amazing skin and eyes like black olives.
He finds it impossible to immediately spot the plant, if he or she exists. Is troubled by the feeling of being watched, photographed, accounted for; he’d rather be the one doing the surveillance.
Dulwich had not confirmed or denied Mashe Okle’s connection to the weapons trade. Knox’s subsequent Internet searches returned only a holistic physician in Oceanside, New York. A Middle Eastern Mashe Okle does not exist. Knox is attempting to spend five minutes in a room with a nonentity, which has him wondering if Mashe is in fact real, or if Akram is the proxy for some other dark lord whom Dulwich cannot or will not divulge.
There’s a reason people on this side of the profession are called spooks. Knox prefers things clean and tidy. He already regrets taking this job. Spooks operate in Spookdom with their own rules, their own stakes. They are flag-wavers who can make toxic decisions because they’re weighing the good of an entire nation against an individual deed. They’re comfortable justifying anything.
Knox doesn’t want to be locked on that playground. But he gladly indulges in the adrenaline rush of sitting in an Indian restaurant, dressed as somebody else, waiting to make contact with a man he knows is likely out of the country. It’s Spooky behavior, and heenjoys it—it’s this stab of hypocrisy that troubles him. Waffling between a sense of displacement and yet enjoying the party . . . it doesn’t sit well.
The meal is excellent. As Dulwich said, and Knox planned for, Akram is nowhere to be seen; he’s in Istanbul at his mother’s hospital bedside. The stop in Amman is what’s known as a back door. For Knox to arrive in Istanbul without suspicion, he must arrange for Akram to invite him, to allow the man to think their meeting is his idea, not Knox’s.
Knox gives himself time to finish the beer. Orders another. He’s a man in no hurry.
He asks after the toilet, despite the sign, despite being aware of the floor plan. He’s directed to the back.
He approaches the counter where the waitstaff drop off dishes. His hand finds the bill in his pocket. As he reaches the dish drop, he peers inside at a gaunt, forty-something male wearing a head wrap and a heavily stained apron.
“Do this for me, it is yours,” he tells the man, handing him a day’s wages.
The dishwasher takes the note, mutters something. Knox translates only: “is mine.”
Knox lingers long enough to make sure the man sees the writing on the note. The dishwasher’s expression turns more severe as his eyes bore into Knox.
“Go,” the man says sharply in English.
The twenty-dinar note disappears beneath the apron.
As Knox urinates into a porcelain hole in the floor, he wonders about the severity of the dishwasher’s expression. Was it the result of his attempting to reach the owner? Was it that Knox is a Westerner trying to reach the owner? Will the clandestine nature of his effort cause him to be followed as he leaves?
He hopes so. The beer is tingling his head. He’s sorely missed this part of the game.
THESANDSTORMARRIVESATDUSK. Knox witnesses the diminished light from his second-story room at the Canyon Boutique Hotel. The sky darkens dramatically in little time. Parting the privacy curtains, he’s presented with a golden shimmer in the air, like a wand has been waved over the city, covering it in pixie dust. It is too beautiful to turn away, yet the color is foreboding. At first Knox mistakes it for toxic smog, an inversion or other weather phenomenon having nothing to do with the desert discharging a hairball.
But over the next five minutes, the sky changes from gold to bronze, from bronze to copper. Strong wind whips rooftop Jordanian flags. Fine, powdery grit infiltrates the louvered window frame, enticing Knox to test the iron lever. Finding it not quite sealed, he lowers it fully into a locked position.
The grit continues to invade.
In the reflection off the glass, the door’s security peephole blinks, going dark. Someone is out there. Knox is already moving toward the door, thinking that without the sandstorm, without being drawn to the window, without the contrast between the dark sky and the well-lit space, he wouldn’t have seen the flicker suggesting someone is there, in the hallway. Knox doesn’t consider himself a fatalist, more an agnostic with inclinations that allow for a force or presence behind creation. Yet he acknowledges internally that he’s the beneficiary of a string of events—that he’s been offered an opportunity.
He doesn’t question Dulwich’s ability to place a handgun in his hotel room safe. The man has his end of the bargain to uphold, whether it’s documents, background cover stories or small arms. Knox keys in the four-digit combination. Inside is a Jordanian-made9mm Viper in a SERPA CQC holster. Along with a hundred rounds of ammo is a CRKT folding tactical knife and a pick gun capable of picking 98 percent of all locks, dead bolts and nondigital car locks. Two prescription bottles containing antibiotics and pain medicine. Nine hundred dinars in small bills left in a brown A4 envelope.
Knox pockets the knife and cups the Viper, kneels as he trains the barrel into the wood of the door so he can shoot through it if required.
The glass peephole is now unblocked, but Knox is not about to put an eye to it, not about to announce himself or take a round in the head. Knox cannot be made small, but he can be made less big and lower. The door’s interior lever automatically unlocks the dead bolt. Crouching now, he yanks open the door.
The man on the other side is looking for someone at head height, lending Knox a split-second advantage. Knox comes to his feet spreading the man’s arms wide. He spins his visitor so the man’s throat slides into the crook of his own left elbow, grabs the right arm, wrenching it behind the man’s back with the barrel of the gun aimed into the base of the man’s skull. One twitch and they’ll be scraping gray matter off the ceiling.
He drags the choked man into his room and kicks the door shut. Total time in the hallway: four seconds. His victim has yet to register what’s happened. The man tries to speak, but can’t in the chokehold.
After thirty seconds without blood to his brain, the man slumps to the floor. Knox has already ID’ed him by holding him up to the room’s mirror: it’s the dishwasher from Saffron.
He ties the man’s ankles together with a terry-cloth robe belt. Secures his wrists with the laces from the man’s running shoes. Gags him with a washcloth. Slips the Viper into the small of his back—no need to advertise. Unfolds the knife, using its tip to coax open theman’s thin wallet and clamshell cell phone. He memorizes the last four numbers called. He’ll need to write them down in the next few minutes; his memory isn’t what it once was.
The dishwasher regains consciousness with a kind of terror in his eyes that serves a purpose for Knox: the man is not used to this kind of treatment. He’s new at this. An amateur.
Things just keep getting better and better.
Knox can taste the sandstorm; feel the grit between his teeth. A look out the window confirms a premature nightfall; the city’s in the heart of a violent dust cloud. The condition can last for days. It can ground aircraft, stop taxis and buses from running. Be a real pain in the ass.
Knox speaks kindergartner Arabic, hoping his message gets through.
“You were sent?” Knox says. He moves his own head first in a nod, then shaking to indicate “no.” He repeats his question.
The man nods.
Knox has found no weapons on the man.
“To hurt me,” he states.
The man panics.
“To watch me.”
Another violent shake of the head.
“To warn me.”
“To tell me.”
The man nods.
Knox plucks the towel from the man’s mouth. The dishwasher speaks far too fast. Knox picks out: “Akram,” “speak,” but loses the rest. He allows the man time to calm down.
“Again,” Knox says.
This time he gets: “Akram speak you.”
Knox toys with the man’s phone with the knife.
The dishwasher shakes his head.
“Machine café.” It takes Knox a moment to process “machine” as “computer.”
He glances back at the window, moving like the skin of a timpani drum as it’s buffeted by the wind.
“Shit,” Knox says.
Arriving at Atatürk International, Istanbul’s primary airport, Grace is both tired and hungry. She doesn’t want to do the math to determine how tired, but doesn’t require calculations to know how hungry. She has an hour and seven minutes before Mashe Okle, traveling as Mashe Melemet, is scheduled to land. She sits down with a salad at Greenfields, carrying a soy mocha from Starbucks. She calls her driver, tells him to wait. Kills forty-five minutes eating slowly while catching up on iPhone e-mails.
Grace does not do well with free time. Her brain gets ahead of itself and starts tripping over discarded thoughts like a lost hiker stumbling over fallen limbs in the forest. Even at a meal, as tired as she is, she can’t help herself.
She embedded code in the Emirates Airline’s server to alert her to any outside IP addresses searching the manifest for flight numbers 975 and 123. She built a trap to catch others like herself as a security measure, something Emirates should have done in the first place. Having received no such alerts, she has every reason to believe she’s alone in having identified the Melemet alias and flight schedule. But her mind won’t let it be.
Immigration desks are the fly strips of terrorism pest control. Face recognition software has improved exponentially in the past five years, to the point at which X-ray imaging in an airport’s full-body scanner can utilize an individual’s skull features to overcome attempts at disguise like glasses and wigs. If the man Grace is set to follow has tripped a list in Tehran or the UAE or is identified passing through Immigration here in Turkey, airport security will follow him. Turkish agents might arrest him. Where does that leave Dulwich’s plan? Why weren’t contingencies made?
A Knox rule she’s absorbed: you can’t win the game if you don’t know all the players.
Dulwich has either been told Okle is not in the international database of persons of interest, or Dulwich’s mystery client is none other than the Turkish government or one of its agencies—meaning the man can enter the country without being stopped. Atatürk Airport offers Grace an opportunity to identify such players if they exist. She notices a series of mirrored windows angled down toward the busy concourse from the mezzanine level. Despite her fatigue, she smiles at the advantage she has just discovered.
She assumes Dulwich will follow Okle once he’s out of the terminal, but it’s nothing but an educated guess. She begins plotting.
An agent or investigator wanting to follow Okle/Melemet out of the terminal would be far wiser to do so from a chair in a security office than with boots on the floor. Every square inch of the airport is monitored. Once the mark reaches Immigration Control and leaves, through a succession of cameras one would be able to follow him to a taxi, bus, passenger vehicle, rental or parked car.
One agent in the security room, another in a car parked somewhere along the airport exit route. The mark has no way of identifying his surveillance team.
But she does.
She’s filled with a sudden burst of energy, defying her fatigue. Her mathematical mind is well suited to strategic planning; she’s capable of linear thinking, of laying down stepping-stones on the fly, rarely having to backtrack and correct a step.
Abandoning the salad, she pulls her roll-aboard into the concourse and rides an escalator to the mezzanine and its pair of higher-end restaurants, administration offices and the secured entrance leading into the mirrored window area. She phones her car service, is patched through and informs the dispatcher she will be at the curb in twenty minutes—ten for the plane to land; ten, or more, for Okle to get through Customs and Immigration.
She kneels by a trash can and makes a point of unzipping her bag and rearranging some clothing. She needs the cover.
In the process, she places her iPhone slightly behind the trash can, lens pointing out, difficult if not impossible to see. The beauty of the device is that it allows still or video photography to be shot without having to unlock the phone. Its contents are Cloud-based; if the phone is confiscated, she will be able to access those via another identical phone in a matter of hours. Apple sells well in both Dubai and Istanbul. For now, it’s recording live video. She repacks, zips up the bag and leaves, returning to the concourse via the escalator.
She repositions herself with a view of International Arrivals. A crowd of weary drivers and enthusiastic relatives has formed on her side of a restraining tape, a gauntlet past which she can’t see. Despite the heels, she’s forced to a stretch as she tries to balance against a spinning rack of tourist pamphlets. As arrivals reach the open end of the roped-off gauntlet, people rush to meet them, further obscuring her view.
She overhears a woman ask an arriving passenger in English the flight’s origin. Delhi.
The crowd ebbs and flows, sorting itself out. There’s a lull. She has a chance to secure a place at the tape, but decides against it. Mashe Okle must not see her; she is supporting Knox and may meet the man face-to-face. Her interest is less in Okle than in who’s watching him. That, along with his entourage, if any.
She’s also monitoring the elevators and escalators for people like her—those who keep their distance and yet imply an interest in new arrivals.
She sends Dulwich a secure text:
mark on point
He made it clear she won’t hear from him over the course of the op, but that only serves to excite her: he’s trusting her, solo. Until she and Knox confab, she’s independent.
He expects her to fail at following Okle single-handed. Told her she can pick him up again at the hospital. But she has other ideas.
Dulwich’s penchant for secretiveness has a chilling effect on Grace. His methods, his need-to-know exclusivity, protects the chain of knowledge, secures the intelligence. Her first field op for Dulwich, in Shanghai, she felt expendable. Recently, she’s been led to believe she’s not simply secure with her outsource work for Rutherford Risk, but is a highly valued asset/provider. Brian Primer has invested in her cyber intelligence training. He must see big things ahead for her.
Knox knows Dulwich better than she, rarely believes everything Dulwich tells him. She often finds herself defending Dulwich onlyto wonder why later. She blames her ingrained sense of loyalty to her employer, her Chinese-ness, an inescapable connection to her heritage that she often wears like an albatross.
Time is suddenly impossible to measure. The minute hand of her watch won’t advance. It isn’t the adrenaline-induced special effect of time slowing, a phenomenon that can be mesmerizing and addicting. Instead it’s her anticipation and expectation, which feed her impatience. She wants the curtain to rise.
As so often happens in surveillance, when the logjam finally breaks with the arrival of Mashe past security and into the terminal, Grace finds herself in a perfect storm. She counts two other men traveling with him, possibly bodyguards; they aren’t making it obvious, but they aren’t hiding, either. They follow a step behind, emotionless and alert.
She sees a Middle Eastern male, wearing blue jeans and a leather jacket, walking down the moving escalator. The rubber rail guides his hand, his eyes on the arriving passengers. It’s his practiced scan of his surroundings that cues her: in a second or two he’s taken in the surroundings, including egress. He’s spotted a uniformed airport security team with a K9, as well as an undercover woman that Grace had missed.
He’s wearing iPhone earbuds, the undercover equivalent of the flesh-colored curly “pigtails” bodyguards wear emerging from their shirt collars. His lips move. Could be a phone call, but Grace knows better—he’s with a team. Private security? Police? Domestic intelligence? Foreign? Friendlies?
She calls Dulwich to pass along the intel of the extra set of eyes. He doesn’t answer the call, pissing her off. She assumes he must be nearby. Providing information like this should help solidify her stature as an effective field operative. There are a limited number of such opportunities on any op. The cream rises to the top because itseparates; she must separate herself from the nose-to-the-ground types who can’t think for themselves.
For now, she sends Dulwich a text, “company,” and leaves it at that. She avoids the man from the escalator. She’ll determine his role later. As he reaches the bottom floor, she locates and rides an elevator up one flight. She retrieves her phone, grateful it’s still there, and enters two passwords in order to unlock it and view the video. Back on the lower concourse, she replays the video a total of three times: she watches a man emerge from the secure area of the mirrored windows. He comes straight for the camera. Videoed from floor level, the perspective lends drama to his approach. When he’s three meters away, she pauses on a clean image of his face. It’s the same Middle Eastern man—the agent, the cop—who came down the escalator. A man who has been monitoring Melemet from inside airport security. Such access suggests Turkish law enforcement or an agent.
Like her, this man—and his team?she wonders—are surveilling Melemet.
Dulwich is going to love her.
She calls her driver for a second time.
“I’m coming out now,” she says. “Please be ready.”8
Knox wears a damp strip of torn hotel towel over his nose and mouth, sunglasses, the spaces against his face stuffed with wet toilet paper. The dishwasher introduces himself as Shamir. He wears a sweat-stained kerchief around his neck. The sidewalks are cleared of all but the stupidest, a category into which Knox puts himself, given the conditions. He now knows what a pork cutlet or tilapia filet feels like when it’s dredged through a bag of cornmeal.
Knox is sandblasted from all sides. Cars choke and die, windshield wipers swat at the dust like horsetails, car horns honk at double-parked vehicles blocking traffic. The leaves of the roadside plane trees rattle like the inside of a rainstick. Knox coughs. Shamir spits as he attempts in vain to screen his eyes.
Hunched forward, they stumble up the sidewalk, battling a directionless wind, caught in vortexes that suck all the oxygen out of the air. Knox chops at a wall of swirling sand, hoping to part the curtain.
Instead, it envelops him in an airless cocoon with a dust so fine it seeps through even the wet fabric to be ground between his teeth.It tickles his nostrils; stains his taste buds with a foul mixture of street grime, desert sand and the dung heap of humanity crushed into a fine powder and snorted. He tastes tobacco, rubber and motor oil, all behind a tinge of latex he doesn’t want to think about.
Shamir points across the street. They cut through a line of motionless traffic. Nothing is moving but the air and the street signs, many of which are losing their coats of paint as if in slow-motion animation.
They take shelter against a wall. The wind quiets. Coils of sand swirl at their feet. Plant life clings to crevices, whistling as if crying to hold on.
The sudden peace is shocking. He and Shamir hesitate before charging back into the stinging roar. Knox clears his sunglasses, pockets of trapped sand cascading down his cheeks.
“Not good,” Shamir says.
Knox understands him perfectly.
“Bad,” Knox says.
By now Knox is wondering about his choice. He might have fought harder to hold his ground at the hotel. The truth is: he loves this shit. The more difficult an op, the more he has to celebrate. But he worries he’s come off as soft to Shamir, that the man will report back to Akram how easily Knox was convinced to battle the elements for a meeting or a phone call. Due to the language barrier, Knox is still not convinced which it is to be.
It isn’t weather for standing around, and the man’s movement catches Knox’s eyes. He’s off to Knox’s right somewhere, sometimes visible, sometimes not. Knox’s first glimpse of him was from across the street as he and Shamir left the hotel. At the time, he stood out as an anomaly. Who hangs around outside in such conditions? Survival dictates taking shelter.
Initially, Knox assumed the man was awaiting a ride. But now,the same man is huddled against the sting of the sand, facing away from Knox and into the skin-shredding torrent. But Knox feels the eyes in the back of the man’s head. He considers the value of the Harmodius. Is there a group of art thieves after the treasure, too?
Knox signals Shamir back into the sandblaster. They push ahead for a block, Knox not looking back.
As they round a corner, Shamir again extends a finger, this time pointing to a swinging shingle sign at the bottom of which, below the Arabic, says in English:INTERNET!WI-FI!
Knox waves the man on ahead. Shamir hesitates, encouraging Knox forward. Knox speaks some of the few Arabic words he can command: “Go! Wait.”
Shamir doesn’t like it, but he trudges ahead anyway, entering the café.
The man following Knox is made careless by the storm. He’s blind, head down and craned forward in a determined stride. A thick wave of airborne grit envelops the street. The man is a step off his game. Knox hits him from behind. He’s good: he manages to drag Knox down with him. It isn’t instinct. It’s training that allows a move like that. It’s like trying to fight on ice. Knox fails to land an effective blow; he is slow to dodge a fist that catches his shoulder. They wrestle and roll. Knox’s glasses are dislodged; he can’t see a thing. Feels like he took a spoonful of salt in both eyes.
He wipes the grit from his eyes while clenching a fist. Deflects a blow and lands a sharp jab to his opponent’s kidney, buckling him. The guy lands an elbow to Knox’s head; damn near dislocates Knox’s jaw.
Knox’s spine is a Twizzler. The whining of the wind covers his howl as numbness fills his fingers and toes; he can’t feel anything past his elbows and knees. Tries to block the next blow, but can’t lift his arms. Deadweight.
He goes over backward, opening himself to a world of hurt. Prepares himself abstractly for a boot toe to the temple. Thinks of Tommy. Feels the fool.
Squinting, he rolls over painfully.
Nothing but the smoky, coarse air—sand and dust traveling horizontally at thirty miles per hour. Ancient rock walls surround him. His world is gray and hard. Pain arrives to his limbs like venom.
The man appears as a specter, fleeing from him, quickly absorbed by the sandstorm.
THECAFÉ, crowded with refugees from the storm, has the feel of a downtown Detroit bar during a power outage. The air might be cleaner outside, given the interior gray haze of tobacco smoke. Knox finds the bittersweet coffee aroma intoxicating, the loud conversation soothing. It’s a mixture of young and old, women and men, and probably the biggest crowd the café has ever seen.
It’s clearly not what Shamir expected. He prepays for time; they wait uncomfortably for a computer to come available. Shamir buys Knox an espresso.
“Who were these men?” Shamir asks in surprisingly decent English.
“I thought you were going to tell me,” Knox says, trying to play naive. Knox doesn’t have the looks for naive. Shamir isn’t buying it.
Hell, neither is Knox. Why did the man retreat when he clearly had the advantage? Who does that? Which of them had he followed: Shamir or Knox? All questions that need answering.
“You were followed,” Knox says, trying to put this at Shamir’s feet and keep suspicion off himself. “From the restaurant? Why?”
“It was you that is attacked.”
Knox was hoping the man might have missed that part. “Because I’m a Westerner? Robbery?”
“In this storm?” He doesn’t say what they both know: the man was dressed as a Westerner.
Knox takes note of what Shamir chooses not to say. It’s as important as what they do discuss.
They both realize they’re lying to each other and stop talking. Knox finds the café’s atmosphere entertaining; he keeps an eye on the entrance. So far, so good.
When their time comes, Knox is guided to the bar stool by Shamir, who pulls a pair of tangled earbuds from his pocket and plugs them into an older model Mac laptop crudely secured to the wall counter. The name on the Skype account is not Shamir’s, but of a woman named Victoria Momani. Knox wants badly to “slip” and open her contact information, which will come up if he can click on her name. Clearly Akram has no suspicions: he instructed Shamir to set Knox up on this account for the call, assuming Knox to be the import/export businessman Akram knows. Knox feels ugly about his true intentions.
“Mr. John?” Akram’s voice sounds thin through the earbuds. Knox can’t say for sure that it’s Akram he’s speaking with.
“Shamir tells me you wish to speak to me.”
Knox can hear he’s confused about Knox’s involving Shamir. “The waitress said she knew nothing about how I might reach you. This is time sensitive.”
“Please tell me.”
“I am sorry, my friend. This connection is not so good . . . Imust confirm . . . Let me ask you this, please. In Irbid, you and I once spent a nice hour in the shadow of a mosque as we talked. What is the museum near that mosque?”
There is an outside chance that an agent might be able to answer this, but it would take his team several minutes to collect the information. The timing by the man who says he’s Akram is the tell-all. Knox can’t believe he has to go to this kind of extreme; he wonders what must be running through Akram’s head, given Knox taking this kind of precaution.
“You exaggerate, my friend. The mosque was several blocks south of the museum. It was adjacent to a school.”
Knox collects his thoughts. “Listen carefully, my friend. I have a head for puzzles. A woman who tips the scale—think earth-shaking—restored this man’s arm.”
The line hisses intermittently. “Once again, please.”
Knox begins with having a head for puzzles, and continues to the end.
Another long silence intervenes, broken by Akram’s surprised voice. “This is not possible. Out of your wheelhouse.”
Knox is amused by Akram’s use of current vernacular. He reminds himself that this guy is smarter than he lets on. The piece is indeed well out of anyone’s wheelhouse. It’s so buried in myth as to seem fantastic. Knox has done eight or nine small middleman deals in the past two years. Three have been to Akram. None has been for over two hundred thousand dollars.
“I kind of fell into it.”Keep it light,he tells himself.
“A nice hole to fall into, if only it were true. I am afraid you have been conned.”
Akram’s distrust plays into Knox’s hand: Akram can now understand Knox’s use of Shamir and the secretiveness.
The Skype connection sparkles.
“You have a number in mind for this fantasy,” Akram says.
“Mid-sixes, U.S. dollars,” Knox says.
Akram coughs as he laughs. “Perhaps another time would have suited us both better.”
Knox’s heart sinks. He mustn’t beg. “As you wish.”
“You have other clients, I assume.”
“With patience, one can turn water into wine. Not to worry.”
“My problem, you see, Mr. John, is that I am not to return to my beloved Jordan for an undetermined amount of time. An illness in my family.”
“As-salaamu ‘alaykum.”Knox waits, hoping he hasn’t mispronounced it.Peace be upon you.
“If you were to have plans to visit Istanbul anytime soon . . .”
“Plans can change,” Knox says.
Shamir turns toward a ruckus in the far corner. Knox quickly opens the contact information for Victoria Momani, copies it. Closes it. Five seconds, tops.
“How shall I contact you?” Knox asks.
“My friend Shamir will take care of it.”
“Very well. Until then.” Knox ends the call. Opens the word processor. Pastes in Victoria Momani’s contact information. Hits Print. Ten seconds.
Shamir is turning back toward him as the print menu still hovers on the screen. Knox loses his balance intentionally, slips off the chair and shoves Shamir aside.
The print menu is off the screen by the time they both recover.
Knox apologizes. Says he has to take a piss. He’ll meet Shamir up front.
Shamir tells him he’s not going anywhere in this weather. Knox pays the man another twenty. “You may be hearing from me again.”
“It is my pleasure.” They are best friends.
On his way to the back, Knox places a coin down surreptitiously on the bar and manages to say, “Paper,” not knowing the word for “print.” He doesn’t wait for change, doesn’t want Shamir seeing this.
Knox snags the sheet from one of two beat-up printers on his way to the washroom. He folds and tucks the sheet into his pocket.
He doesn’t yet see a use for Victoria Momani. But the night is young.
You speak English, Besim?” Grace asks of her driver behind the wheel of a Mercedes. Her eyes never leave Melemet, his two bodyguards and the man following them. She has some Turkish, though her Arabic is stronger. She’d rather not show her cards to a driver; such men are known to talk.
One of the bodyguards takes the front seat of the Audi. A moment later he signals. Melemet is in, followed by the trailing guard. Traffic is intense. No one is going anywhere just yet.
The agent crosses to an island, waits and is met by a Land Rover. It stays at the curb, much to the disdain of a policeman who is waving it away.
“Some,” her driver responds. Balding, and with a short-cropped beard, he wears a black suit that brings out a caramel tone in his dark skin. She has yet to see his full face.
“Have you ever followed another vehicle?”
“Jealous wife. Jealous husband.” The beard puckers. He is smiling.
“I am—was—mistress to this man.” She points to the Audi. “We are going to follow him. He is not alone. He owes people money.Much money. You understand?” She points left to the Land Rover. “You see?”
“I would rather not be noticed.”
“Not easy to follow during nighttime.”
She passes a good deal of cash into the front seat. He won’t want to touch her. She drops it.
“Let us make it as easy as possible,” she says, avoiding the use of confusing contractions. “Our problem is: the ones following are very good. They will be watching for people like us. They do not wish to share.”
“This, not easy, ma’am.”
“I tell you,” he says, pulling out now, five vehicles behind the Audi, already on the job, “I know this car company.” He motions with his head. “My brothel’s nephew”—she doesn’t correct his mistake—“the brothel to his wife’s sister, he is, how do you say, radio man, this company.”
“Dispatcher.” Grace appreciates his sense of extended family, the intermarrying of cousins, the generations of business relationships between families the size of clans. Tribes. Not so very different from her native China.
“Precisely. Drivers, we together.”
“I am sure.”
“I call my brothel?” he asks. “He call nephew?”
“How much?” She doesn’t mind paying but doesn’t want to come up short when the time comes.
“I am your driver throughout stay in Istanbul. No need for these monies, ma’am.”
She presses. “I may need an ATM.”
Another smile. More a lascivious grin.
“I make call,” he says.
HERDRIVERmakes three calls. She picks up more of the conversations than she thought she might. Pats herself on the back.
“Is okay,” he says, backing off the pedal a bit. “Destination, Florence Nightingale Hospital. Forty kilometers.”
Given Dulwich’s briefing about the sick mother, Grace has assumed the hospital would be an early stop. The location doesn’t help her. She works to keep the irritation from her voice. “After that? His final destination?”
He catches her eye in the rearview mirror, his mental gears clearly grinding. She’s following a man, her supposed former lover, who just landed and is heading straight to a hospital; her tone suggests she knows all this and yet somehow knows the hospital is not his final stop.
“His mother is ill, Besim,” Grace explains in a more intimate and caring tone, trying to stay a step ahead of her savvy driver. “Of course the hospital must come first. If I am to speak to him, it must follow.”
“I have address,” he says. “You desire I should drive you this place?”
“Yes. Please. Tell me, Besim, can we arrive at the hospital ahead of him?”
“It is doubtful—possible, but doubtful. Very fast driver, as you see.”
The Audi has sped out of sight since Besim’s initial backing off.
“I would like that,” she says. “No matter, I must arrive to his final destination ahead of him. I must be waiting.”
His dark eyes slide into the mirror and out again.
“He has wronged me,” she explains.
Besim keeps his thoughts to himself, but he’s an open book: she needs a good backhand to the face. A little tune-up. Eye-tunes.
“The money he gambled was mine. The money he lost. The money these other men want.” The invented story comes with surprising ease. She’s not a natural born storyteller; she’s a number cruncher.
The true story reads differently: she has left her first and one true love behind in China, both disallowed by their families from pursuing the relationship. She was eager to do so; he refused, held tightly by the family reins. Besim doesn’t need to hear this. For him she is translating the language of the heart to the language of money.Stories are so interchangeable,she thinks, wondering why lives are not.
“He has taken my heart,” she says honestly. “I want my money back.”
Besim’s chipped teeth sparkle white. He wants to say something about her being Chinese, to sting her for entering a relationship with an Arab. She knows that look and resents it. Objectified. Reduced to what’s between her shoulders and legs. So easy to choke or garrote a man from the backseat. Her emotions swing with every lane change of the car. Besim knows his stuff; they are stitching their way through the congested traffic.
She doesn’t want to follow, would rather leapfrog.
“His final destination, please. You will drop me there, then wait with my bags at my apartment. It is okay?”
Her decision made, she sits back. Her thought process is linear, mathematical. If A equals B and B equals C, then . . . Were the agents waiting for Melemet, aka Mashe Okle, as they appear to have been? The “why” isn’t important to the equation, but the “how” definitely is. They must have been aware of his cover identity prior to his booking the ticket. If a known arms dealer, why not arresthim on the spot? Okle is in Istanbul to be at the bedside of his dying mother. Why put off his arrest? No matter how she manipulates the variables, the equation won’t yield a result. It’s an unsolvable proof. Unacceptable.
What is Dulwich not telling her, and why? This is the parenthetical product she’s lacking, the value that is throwing off the result.
When her phone vibrates and a sixty-four-character string of symbols and alphanumeric characters appears in the Messaging balloon, she knows it’s the password she’s been waiting for, the one she needs to raid Okle’s investment portfolio. She stares at the phone as if it belongs to someone else. The message doesn’t come from Rutherford’s Data Sciences division, but from Dulwich himself, the most digitally challenged man she knows. It’s a small inconsistency, but she’s trained to identify such variables.
She drums her fingers on her knee.What is Dulwich up to?
Outside the vehicle, the sparkle of the Istanbul lights emerges.
“You like?” Besim asks. He’s caught her look of awe in the mirror.
“It’s beautiful,” she says, admiring the twinkling hills, the dozens of mosque spires, and the sparkling vessels on the Bosphorus Strait. She doesn’t want to get her driver talking. She needs time to think.
The illuminated minarets of the mosques look like chalky fingers pointing to heaven.
Besim nods thoughtfully. “You will like this place.”
Grace is not so sure.10
The storm has turned the streets of Amman into a beach parking lot. The grit beneath Knox’s shoes gives him shivers; it’s like biting into a dry Popsicle. The air quality sucks, but at least he doesn’t feel as if he’s standing in front of the nozzle of a sandblaster anymore. It’s tolerable, and people return cautiously to the sidewalks and streets, their faces protectively covered. Some cars are moving. Many hoods are open, the driver leaning in to deal with a clogged air filter. There is little sense of irritation; such storms are an accepted occurrence here. Knox marvels at the universal adaptability of humans.
A text from Dulwich: Shepard Fairey’s Obama Hope poster and an address. A parenthetical: eightP.M. It’s coming up on seven. Knox knows not to put this off. A possible rendezvous, though the Obama reference eludes him. Dulwich’s cryptic messages can be frustrating. Knox returns to his thought about spooks, wondering what Dulwich and Primer have gotten him into. Rutherford Risk rarely discriminates against its clients. Knox is allowed that luxury. He picks and chooses, though Dulwich has his number, quite literally. Anything in six figures and Knox can’t seem to keep his fingers off it.
The corporation is in the business of problem-solving those problems that can’t be solved by conventional means. Over half their business is international kidnapping resolution. Knox can’t yet figure the client on this job, but assumes it’s a government wanting to block an arms sale, one that lacks a security division as capable as Rutherford Risk. Many countries fall into this category, leaving Knox to marvel at the power of Primer’s corporation and the leniency it is afforded. He is a small part of that, and often wonders if it’s a blessing or a curse. He understands this: the further down the food chain, the more expendable the individual. Working with Grace has taught him as much. In Amsterdam, it became clear that Brian Primer and Dulwich would protect Grace over him, making Knox feel like the team veteran about to be replaced by the rookie. As he does more jobs for Dulwich, does he become more of an asset, or a liability? Again: what the hell has he gotten himself into?
He flags down a share taxi, a white Volkswagen minibus. The driver sits on a backing of wood rollerballs. Talismans dangle from the rearview mirror. Knox crams in with eight others, the smell of body odor overpowering. He feels like Gulliver next to the two women on his bench. Eyes stare at him from headscarves arranged to limit his view. The passengers have gone quiet. The ride through the recovering city is treacherous; the driver does his best to control the skidding. They detour several times because of breakdowns blocking the road. Knox’s command of the Jordanian dialect is too pathetic to attempt conversation. He sits uncomfortably, banging his head on the ceiling with every bump. Someone lights a cigarette. No one complains. Knox is close to losing his temper by the time the van pulls over. The driver has to point at him to let Knox know they’re at his stop.
Merchants have come downstairs from their second-story apartments to sweep the sidewalk in front of shuttered stores. Women inabayas worn from the shoulders and colorful headscarves move silently and efficiently while men gather in small clusters, smoking. Knox dodges cardboard boxes, discarded appliances and a pair of worn shoes as he passes some unhappy shop clerks who were caught by the storm, unable to salvage their wares ahead of time. Discouragement weighs down their bent backs and slows their movement. The struggle of daily life hangs in the air as thickly as the residual dust left behind by the storm.
Knox’s iPhone mapping app reveals that the van dropped him at the wrong intersection. Maybe they got sick of him. Maybe they’re all laughing at dumping the American. He walks a winding kilometer uphill to reach Ali Ben Abi Taleb. Walks east and locates the address Dulwich sent.
The art gallery is called “brilliant.” All lowercase English. No name offered in Arabic. In the window to the left stands a sandstone egret; to the right, a collage of newsprint, pieces of lingerie and tufts of human hair, all covered in a thick layer of clear-coat. Knox double-checks the address.
He knows what he’s doing here: Dulwich has figured out how to pass him the Harmodius. No need for a courier. No black-market transaction. David Dulwich can be a real pain in the ass. As Sarge hinted, getting the bust from here to Istanbul is going to fall on Knox.
He pushes inside. An antique bell chimes. The sandstorm has been good for business—a dozen or more people are milling about. Three bottles of white wine are open on a side table, two empty. Plastic cups. Knox pours himself one. A young woman, nearly six feet tall, greets him. Australian. Nice calves. Fierce eyes. She welcomes him. They small-talk. Knox searches the wall for the Obama poster.
“I’ve had a recent interest in Shepard Fairey.” He laughs at himself. “I’m behind the times.”
“Not at all! He’s an interesting artist. Began as a skateboarder. Did you know that?”
“A digital Warhol,” Knox says, doing his best. “Though that’s taking it a little far.” He indicates a great distance with his large, scarred hands.
“They say you can tell a great deal about a person by his hands,” she murmurs.
“The most difficult part of the body to paint or sculpt,” Knox says.
“You have impeccable timing.” It sounds loaded. Hers are not eyes he could face when waking.
“We had a bust come in just today—very much like Fairey.”
“Not interested in sculpture.” He wants to make her sell him. Can’t seem eager.
“You should at least take a look.”
“I don’t think so. Wall art’s my interest.”
He allows her to steer him deeper into the gallery. It’s like a UN conference in here: Indian, Asian, African and Caucasian. The scent of incense intensifies.
He spots it atop a white pedestal. An oversized bust of Obama made from a hideous rainbow swirl of what appears to be bowling-ball plastic. The chins of the other gallery patrons lift; the eyes gaze up at the acoustic tile. Knox is forced to cover his smirk with his hand, as if considering the piece.
“Not exactly what I was looking for.”
“One of a kind,” she says.
“With good reason.”
“As close to Fairey as you’ll find in Amman.” She adds, “Which is why my owner chose to represent it.”
He shakes his head. He wants to be begged.
“Art is so personal, is it not? I cannot begin to suggest taste. But strictly as an investment—and I typically discourage clients from thinking this way—these political pieces, especially those tied to Fairey’s influence, are certain to gain in value. Politics is a fleeting business. As you know.”
It’s selling for six hundred U.S. dollars. Its plastic conceals a piece worth millions.
“Given my tastes, if I bought art as an investment I’d be a poor man.”
“I think you underrate yourself.”
If not for those eyes, he could play along. A body like hers can tumble. It would be a pleasant way to pass a lonely evening in Amman.
“I’ll think on it,” he says, wanting to sink the hook. He thanks her and studies a gaudy airbrush of a white horse in the desert. It reminds him of romance-novel cover art. Slim pickings in Amman. The rest is not much better.
He’s careful to get a look at everyone in the gallery. Dulwich didn’t put the ugly plastic over the Harmodius; he didn’t pack and deliver and convince the dealer to display it. There are too many intermediaries, no matter how trustworthy. The bust feels more like chum, and Knox does not want to feed too quickly.
To his surprise, of those who notice Knox, none seem particularly interested. If he’s being monitored, he’s once again reminded that it’s by people so good at their jobs.
Dulwich has handed him a way to take possession of the Harmodius, but moving it into Turkey remains the challenge. Dulwich has his reasons for passing it to Knox here: if the Harmodius “coincidentally” shows up in Istanbul the week the Okle brothers are there,the op could appear forced. If there’s a paper trail, no matter how obscure, that shows Knox shipping it from Amman to Turkey, the attempted sale to Akram Okle will seem all the more authentic. But accomplishing the task, given the earlier encounter and the questions it raises, makes things more complicated.
Knox spends a good deal of his time in front of some horrible art, thinking it through. Studying a nude who’s offering herself to a man’s head on an ape’s body, it dawns on him: Victoria Momani, whose contact information he got from his Skype with Akram. With the proper manipulation, she can be used to ship the Harmodius from Jordan to Istanbul with Knox’s name nowhere on it. The pieces stitch together better than they do on the fabric art by the window.
He approaches the woman docent.
“The wine must be getting to my head,” he says. “In a moment of weakness, I’ll buy it. But sadly, I can’t leave it behind on show. You won’t want me to, anyway, because by the sober light of day I know I’m going to regret this purchase. So it’s your call. If I buy it, I’m taking it with me, which I’m already beginning to think is a bad idea.”
“I think it will live better on its own.”
“It’s iconic. An archetype. For that, and that alone, I will find a place for it.”
“Since it appears to be a melted-down bowling ball, I assumed as much.”
He gets a rise out of her, though her eyes are prohibited from showing mirth. It’s the depth of the sockets and the smallness of the eyes themselves; she’d do better with Lady Gaga–sized sunglasses. He suggests she call a taxi, owning up to the fact that the storm congestion may delay it.
“More time to get to know each other,” she says cunningly, even hopefully.
Knox knows better. He hates to disappoint.
DESPITETHEFACTthat the bust is packed and crated, by morning light Knox feels like his X-ray vision can penetrate the box to reveal the hideous rainbow Obama bust. If he’d had the gallery ship it to Istanbul, he’d have left a means to tie him to a missing historical artifact. He can’t use a brick-and-mortar express shipping counter for fear of security cameras; he needs to ship it anonymously from a residential address. It could be picked up out front, leaving no face attached to the air bill. But for that, he needs a valid residential address.
In Amman, Jordan.
Victoria Momani answers his call speaking Arabic.
Knox speaks English. “Victoria? It’s John Knox, a friend of Akram’s.”
His introduction is met with silence.
“He suggested I . . . that we . . . that I should call you for a drink if I was ever in Amman.”
“I see.” Understandably skeptical of a stranger’s call.
“I’m in import/export. I’ve sold Akram some artwork.”
“John. Yes,” she says, making no effort to disguise her relief.
“Coffee? A drink? Do you have a spot?”
She names a teahouse and address, suggests lunch. OneP.M.
“I will try for one. I may be a few minutes late. See you there.” He hangs up.
He calls FedEx and supplies Victoria Momani’s address and a pickup time of one-thirtyP.M. He can’t count on her being perfectly on time. He asks the hotel concierge to help with the air billso his handwriting can’t be traced. Lugs the crate into the taxi at twelve-forty-five; arrives at her apartment building at the top of the hour. The teahouse is a twenty-minute walk, a five-minute cab. He waits outside for five minutes and, seeing no woman leave the building, decides she’s a walker. He takes a chance, his system charged with the elixir of adrenaline.
He carries the boxed bust up two flights of stairs rather than risk being seen in the elevator. It’s like lugging a small car in his arms. He puts it down outside apartment 222 with the air bill on top. He hurries down the stairs, leaving an unguarded fortune in the hallway. Arrives back to the waiting taxi and is off.
He’s only minutes late to the Turtle Green Teahouse.
Jordanian women don’t need the cosmetics they use. Knox finds most of the over-forty faces severe. Like the Italians, it’s the skin of the younger women he finds attractive.
The only woman willing to meet his eyes is sitting alone. Victoria Momani does not cover her hair. Her shoulders are square, her posture perfect. There’s no indication of smile lines.
They shake hands. Knox sits across from her and asks for recommendations, then requests she order for the two of them. He wants her to feel in control, to lessen any defenses she may have in place. His primary concern is to keep her here long enough to ensure the package is picked up with her name on the air bill. If he can stretch this to forty minutes, he’s in the clear. FedEx is reliable.
Knox orders an espresso for himself. She asks for hot tea.
“Here on business?” she asks. Her English is tinged with a delightful lilt that makes it poetic.
“What else? I’m a slave to it, I’m afraid.”
He shrugs. “Too kind a word. You might say I’m an arbitrageur. Move a piece of art or craftwork from one country to another whereit’s more valued, or where the currency conversion is favorable. Sell it; convert. Purchase. Resale. It’s less supply and demand than catching the idiosyncrasies of artistic taste.”
“You take advantage of people.”
“And me? Do you plan to take advantage of me?”
He might think she’s flirting, but her tone is accusatory bordering on angry.
“I beg your pardon.” He has already taken advantage of her. He wishes he could feel remorse over it, but does not.
“Why do you lie to me?”
“Akram would never recommend a drink with me. This is your mistake. So you are testing me, yes? A Westerner, no less. Bravo! An interesting twist, to be sure. But I still know nothing. You are wasting your time.”
To the contrary,Knox thinks, suddenly interested in how Akram might be testing her.
“You may have me mistaken for—” he says.
“I think not, Mr. Knox, if that is in fact your name.”
“Why meet me if you consider me such a liar?”
“To tell you, as I have told all of you before, to back off. What goes on between a man and a woman, it stays between the man and the woman.”
“Rarely,” Knox says. The word he hears is “before.”
“In this case, then.”
He’s caught between wanting to distance himself from whoever she thinks he is and playing the role in order to work the conflict for “incidental findings,” the unintended information she may yet divulge. Judging by her tone, she and Akram were once an item.Were—past tense. Akram or his people have tested her since thecollapse of the relationship. She believes these people have now gone to the trouble of hiring a Westerner to do their bidding. Boxes inside boxes—he’s intrigued.
Their drinks arrive. He adds sugar to the espresso, but it’s unnecessary: the bean makes for a smooth and slippery liquor in his throat.
“You like it,” she says.
“I do, very much.”
“You will please pass my message along.”
“I would if I could. Sadly, you mistake me.”
“I think not.”
“Your prerogative.” He pauses. “You recognized my name when I called. Akram has spoken of me.”
“You people . . . people like you . . . you can know any of that far too easily. Did you listen to us at the end? Did you enjoy it?” She can’t look at him, only the reflection in her teacup.
People like you,Knox hears the echo in his ears. People who eavesdrop. She’s talking about surveillance. She fears she’s been listened in on. Better with every bite. He says, “You mistake me for someone else. No one is keeping you here.”
Her eyes flash darkly.
They share olives, hummus and falafel. Knox could eat all afternoon, the coffee boring a bottomless pit in his stomach. Shredded onions deep-fried in garbanzo flour. The dishes keep coming. The act of sharing food lowers the wall between them; the connection is primitive but palpable. He orders a beer.
“So it was a bad breakup,” he says.
She shakes her head as if to tell him he knows this already.
“I’ve only met him a couple of times, but I like Akram.” He thinks he may be getting through to her, judging by a softening of her dark eyes. But she doesn’t take the bait.
“Leave me alone, please. You tell them: leave me alone.”
“I don’t know who they are.”
“If this is the truth, then there is no harm done, and I apologize for any inconvenience. But I know you are lying, Mr. Knox, and I wish to make the point that I must be left alone.”
“Point taken.” He capitulates for no other reason than laziness and the meal’s imminent end. He signals for the check, pulling receipts, his hotel key card and his thin wallet from his front pocket. He doesn’t want her to see the name on any of the cards. He removes some bills and stuffs everything back.
“These men. Police? Government? Criminals?”
She eyes him warily. Spitefully. Shakes her head in defeat.You people won’t stop,her eyes shout. “Is there so much difference?” she asks.11
Mashe Melemet and his two bodyguards take an additional two hours before arriving at the residential address that Besim, Grace’s driver, uncovered. It was likely time spent at the hospital, given that one of his guards is carrying takeaway food; dinner was an afterthought.
Grace has failed to spot anyone else interested in the apartment building, though she assumes that Dulwich could be watching. She expected to see the men from the airport, including the agent who descended the escalator, but she has not.
They interest her, and they will certainly interest Dulwich. The more information she can put together on them, the more thorough her work into who’s tailing Mashe Okle is, the more she’ll impress Dulwich. She has the men pegged as police, immigration officers or possibly Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization. Getting it right will earn her bonus points.
Is the takeaway dinner the result of a long day of travel or Mashe Okle’s—aka Mashe Melemet’s—avoidance of public places? If he’s afraid of restaurants, of being seen in public, it explains whyDulwich needed a plan—needed her—to put herself and Knox in a room with him.
To that end, she has to black-hat an investment server before she sleeps. Staying with Melemet is a guilty pleasure from which she finds it difficult to pull away. She left Besim and the black Mercedes four blocks back, going on foot, a scarf pulled tight over her head to hide her Asian features. She enjoyed walking the busy Turkish neighborhood for the past two hours. An operative. She continues walking past as the mark arrives. Takes no interest in him at all.
Comes around the block to the north—for the third or fourth time—and spots two men, one wearing the Euro-ubiquitous black leather jacket. Her suspect in the airport wore a jacket just like it. She’s unable to get close enough to see them clearly. They smoke cigarettes while talking, like a million other men in Istanbul.
Their location is significant. From where they stand, they have a view of Okle’s apartment building.His safe house?she wonders. A family residence? A rental? Are they protecting him, or pursuing him?
At this moment, she can’t be sure of anything.12
Sipping from an eight-dollar minibar beer for which Dulwich will eventually pay, Knox finds going through e-mails tedious. He can’t keep his mind off the men following him in Amman, or Victoria Momani’s implication that the fallout between her and Akram was related to a team surveilling Mashe. Is there a connection?
He can’t believe it, but he misses having Grace Chu around. Her mathematical mind has ways of cutting through the clutter. More than anything, he trusts her. He tries to never lose sight of the economic leash connecting Dulwich to Brian Primer.
Knox has decided the requirement of spending five minutes with Mashe has something do with tracking. He assumes there must be a device within either the plastic outer mold or the Harmodius Obama covers; a tagging device but, according to Dulwich, not for assassination. Maybe Grace could make sense of it. He can’t. He pushes right to the edge of drawing a conclusion, only to be knocked back by a screwball piece of evidence: Dulwich’s promise of no assassination; the attacker in Amman retreating at the moment of superiority; Akram’s level of secrecy.
Knox doesn’t feel safe. But he doesn’t jump at the sound of knocking. He shuts the laptop and eyeballs the peephole to the hall.
“One second, please,” he says.
He keys open the safe and leaves it ajar. He can have the gun in hand in a second, or less.
He opens the room door, his foot blocking it from the inside. She appears to be alone. He admits her and locks the door, security bar and dead bolt.
“I’m sorry,” he says, taking her by the forearm. “I’m going to need to search you and your purse.”
Victoria Momani’s eyes blink slowly, giving her consent. Knox is gentle but thorough, sparing no contact—up between the legs, under and around her breasts from behind. He dumps her purse on the carpet and inspects the contents as he returns them one by one. He pulls the battery from her cell phone and drops them both into the bag.
“Which agency do you work for?” he asks, still working her belongings. “You had me going with all the complaints. I bought that fair and square. A wonderfully executed diversion. Well done.”
“You cannot be so ignorant.”
“Who but a police officer or agent could find my hotel room in a city this size? And you did not follow me.”
“What kind of import/exporter can track who’s following him?”
He hands her back her purse, motions her to a chair. “The one thing you learn in my business is this: a simple robbery is rarely simple. At any given time, I might be carrying a coin or a stamp, a letter, a photograph worth a small fortune. One learns to protect his assets.”
“You answered a question with a question,” he says. “So you’re trained at this.”
“No. I am a woman.” She points to the table. Knox does not want her messing with his laptop. “You pulled out your key card when you paid the bill.”
Knox sees his key card on the table next to the laptop. The card’s paper slipcase carries the hotel logo. He can’t believe he made such a freshman mistake.
“A friend’s sister works on the hotel’s event staff. Amman is not such a big place. You . . . you stand out. It wasn’t hard. I was given five rooms to try. This was my third.”
“That’s a lot of effort to go to for a drink.” He’s bent at the minibar.
“White wine,” she says.
He pours it into a water glass. “So?”
“Your arrogance is insulting.”
“Your ignorance as well.”
“Is that so?”
“Then you knew it’s my gallery? Brilliant?”
Bile stings his throat. He works to mask his confusion with a wry smile. His mind grinds. When the shit flies in your face, you’d better be wearing goggles. He’s rarely forced to deal with bad luck; is something of an amateur at it.
“I am called by my gallery manager. Told we flipped—I believe you call it—a piece. Buy and sell same day. She describes a Westerner who buys piece. Same man meets me for a drink not so long after. I have neighbors, Mr. Knox, neighbors who saw a big man, a Westerner, enter my apartment building with a heavy crate or box, and leave empty-handed.”
He’s assembling his explanation as she continues.
“Shortly thereafter, same box picked up by delivery service. Object is heavy, but what? A bomb? Explosives? Ammunition? Somethingsent to Akram, perhaps? With my name and return address on it, his ex-girlfriend, someone to take blame.”
“Too much television.”
“I beg your pardon?” Irate.
“Far too dramatic, Victoria. Have you heard of value-added tax? Not nearly as sexy as bombs or ammunition, but I’m not an arms dealer. I’m in import/export. I just exported a pretty ugly piece of artwork I may find a market for outside of Amman. But if I pay the VAT and fail to recover it, I’m out what slim margin I might have to turn a profit. It shouldn’t take you too long to determine who might be interested in this artwork, eh? How else would I have gotten your contact information?”
She’s visibly upset, and to his surprise, it’s not directed at him. Again, he’s a fraction late in realizing what’s at play.
“You actually thought I was sending a mail bomb? Me?”
She holds a finger to her lips, silencing him. She points to her hairband. The one place he failed to check. It could easily contain a microphone or GPS chip.
Driven by her anger with Akram and Moshe Okle, her mistrust of Knox has resulted in a call to the police. Judging by her pallor—she’s an eerie green—she regrets that now.
Knox grabs the laptop, stuffs it into his messenger bag along with its power cord. His Scottevest jacket’s many pockets contain everything he values. The gun carries his prints. Can’t have that. He retrieves the safe’s contents and stuffs them away in the jacket, vowing to be rid of the gun—possession of a handgun will land him in Jordanian prison. Only shotguns and rifles are allowed, and they are hell to obtain legally. He appreciated being able to defend his castle, but out on the streets, he’ll need to rely on his wits. An art dealer doesn’t carry. He never gives the few clothes and toiletries he leaves behind a second thought.
He picks his hotel rooms carefully. Never takes a room above the third floor for a reason. He’s out on the private balcony in seconds.
To her credit, Victoria Momani is up there, shouting as if Knox is with her. She’s comparing him to a parasite, attempting to keep the police engaged and at bay.
Knox dangles from his balcony, swings and drops to the balcony below. He climbs over and hangs, facing too far a drop to the sidewalk. His only hope to save his legs is to aim for one of the rattan tables on the sidewalk terrace. He pushes off the wall and drops, knees bent to absorb the hit. Crashes dead center, rolls, clutching the bag. A few bruises. A stiff ankle. A crushed table. He hobbles off, staying close to the wall, working the rigid joint back to life.
The rapid footfalls behind him push him faster as he turns the corner. Police or worse. They think him a bomber or an arms dealer. Lovely. The narrow streets twist and turn. If he weren’t being chased, it would be an interesting neighborhood to wander. But whoever’s back there knows them better than he.
Testing the fitness of his pursuers, Knox turns to head uphill. Faces a dead end. Squeezes between two buildings ornately covered in ironwork. He vaults a low fence and finds himself in another narrow winding street.
The hill is terraced with major streets, cul-de-sacs and tighter lanes jammed between them. Knox moves in bursts of speed, gaining ground quickly but preserving endurance. He arrives at another thoroughfare and crosses through heavy traffic. Manages to do so without drawing the peal of a car horn. On the opposite side he reenters the puzzle of steep streets cluttered with parked vehicles. Zippered into the pockets of the Scottevest are the tools necessary to jack a car, but he fears the traffic. It’s faster on foot.
He smells spicy meat and fried bread and his mouth goes wet withsaliva. Hears Jay Z and Justin Timberlake cursing through an open window. Could be Brooklyn.
He pops out onto Khaled Ben Al Waleed and is crossing the wider avenue when a minivan skids to a stop on the skim of windblown sand. The side door slides open.
“In here!” The driver is leaning well out of his seat. Knox can’t place the accent. It’s definitely not Jordanian. The driver rolls a balaclava down over his face.
Knox pauses. He’s not getting into the van.
“Now! Or you’re with GID.” General Intelligence Department. The accent is vaguely Eastern European. Possibly forced. Croatia? Bosnia?
Knox’s efforts have done nothing to slow whoever’s coming up the hill; he knows only too well the training required.
“Shit,” he mumbles as he climbs reluctantly into the tiny van. “Go!” he says.
The van lingers.
Knox reaches to slide the door shut. A hand grabs hold from the other side—Knox assumes it belongs to the man following him, a man also wearing a balaclava. He shoves Knox out of his way as he boards. The van takes off. They don’t cuff him. Don’t speak.
“What the fuck?” Knox says. There are no weapons showing. He can take the man in the balaclava if he has to.
The flashing blue lights of police vehicles coil slowly up the hill. The van is well out ahead and currently in the clear; the police are searching for a man on foot. Knox puts it together: the one following him radioed how and where to intercept Knox. The why of it lingers. Dulwich is the easiest answer: Knox is being driven to Dulwich.
He wants to connect these two to the man who followed him to the Internet café, but it’s too big a leap. The easy answer is never the right one. The Iranian agencies recruit men and women who look like Israelis; the Israelis recruit Palestinians. There’s noWho’s Whoof black-ops agents. These guys could be on Dulwich’s payroll for all Knox knows.
“Someone going to say something?” Knox says.
The van obeys the modest speed limit as it climbs through a series of turns and then descends, slowing at an intersection.
Knox grabs for the handle, slides open the door and rolls out. He’s on his feet and running.
He hears, “Have it your way, asshole.” The vehicle pulls away.
He assumes the second guy followed him out. Knox has forced their hand: they’re going to kill him.
Or try to.
He glances back to measure his lead.
Have it your way, asshole!What kind of an accent was that?
He’s alone, suddenly wrapped in a swirling dust-dog of wind and sand.
“What the fuck?” he shouts, spinning in a full circle to see who, if anyone, he missed. The night air holds only a red glow, remnants of the sandstorm. The haze crystalizes the millions of lights. White diamonds in a ruby haze. He bends over and grabs his knees, his heart racing out of control.
Grace has arranged herself an apartment rented by the week in a building suited for Westerners. The idiosyncrasy—that in a Middle Eastern nation she might be considered Western—is not lost on her. She and Besim made three stops: grocery store, pharmacy and liquor shop. She has everything from feminine products and mascara to Greek yogurt and vodka.
The apartment is furnished and well appointed, with a kitchenette, nice linens, Wi-Fi and a flat-screen television with full satellite. It keeps her out of a hotel, allowing a lower profile.
Already at work attempting to hack Mashe Okle’s investment accounts, she maintains an open videoconference with Xin in Rutherford Risk’s Data Sciences division, which operates 24/7/365. Her VPN connection has been pinged around the world, aliased and encrypted. Slipping into an investment server undetected is impossible, so once again she must cloak herself. The going is tedious. Data Services is advising her as to the exact time to make the hack. She waits, her finger hovering above the Return key.
Her phone rings, the caller ID on her screen. She mutes the video and takes the call.
“Ma’am.” She doesn’t like being addressed this way but didn’t have the heart to tell her driver. By arrangement, he remains parked outside, on call through midnight.
“You have man friend maybe watching building?”
“Explain, please, Besim.”
“Man park twice. First time, west of building. Get out. Walk around building. Move car to see east side.”
“How alert of you, Besim,” she says.
“This is man you follow, perhaps?”
“Perhaps.” She thanks him for his attention. Asks him to let her know if anything changes.
Ending the cell call, she takes the videoconference off Mute. “Xin?”
“Wei.”Yes.Thousands of miles away on an island in the South China Sea, Xin sounds as if he’s next to her.
“You have my coordinates?”
“Within one meter.”
“How long for you to account for every cell phone turned on within one hundred . . . no, let’s say, fifty . . . meters of me?”
“How many carriers?”
“Enough to cover in the ninetieth percentile of coverage.”
“Soonest? Fifteen minutes. Longest? An hour.”
“Put someone on it, will you please?”
A symbol indicates he’s muted his line. She does the same, taking note of the time. The minutes drag out. After five minutes, she’s reconnected as Xin gives her a countdown to the hack.
She’s in. She celebrates the success by pouring herself warm vodka. Wishes she’d given it time to cool. Now, data-mining a major investment firm, she envisions herself as a salmon or sperm swimming upstream, seeking out a specific destination. It’s a journey. Sheknows she must be patient. As in a video game, there are dragons and demons lurking, traps set, awaiting a misstep on her part. Having extracted Mashe Okle’s password from the bank server, she uses it here, hoping he’s a man of convenience, and gains entrance to his investment portfolio.
She laughs at the irony of the Iranian’s savings being heavily invested in the U.S. stock market. She’s feeling the vodka.
He’s a wealthy man, but it’s not the kind of money she might have expected. The stocks and mutual funds favor scientific companies. She is annoyed by the worming thought that this doesn’t pass the sniff test for an arms dealer. Did Dulwich ever confirm that, or was it her assumption? She’s eager to speak with Knox; he knows Dulwich better. At the very least, he’ll have a keener sense of what’s at play. Knox is not one to take on in a game of cards.
She clicks through to the portfolio’s history, increases the time sample and prints to a PDF file. On point, she flies through menus so quickly another’s eye would be unable to keep up. Multiple files are saved and archived in a matter of seconds for later analysis. This is not a time for window-shopping. She prides herself on the speed and agility with which she extracts every morsel of relevant data. When she logs out of Mashe’s account, she’s at forty-seven seconds. She closes the firm’s web page at forty-nine, giving her a total of under a minute. She celebrates by throwing her arms in the air, an Olympian sprinter at the tape.
“Three hundred seventy-one.” It’s Xin from the video window in the corner of her screen.
“Within fifty meters?”
“Of those, how many have called or been called by known law enforcement, domestic or foreign, in the past ten days?”
“Published, or known to us?”
“Known to us,” she says.
“Back at you.” His line mutes. Xin loves this stuff as much as she does.
She pours herself another drink, this one on the rocks. Warns herself to take it easy. She likes vodka a little too much. Has no remorse about drinking alone. She’s always alone. Even in a mixed group she feels isolated, believing her mind more facile than most, her personal history more complicated. The truth is, most people bore her.
“No joy,” says Xin.
The trouble with vodka: it skews her sense of time. Ten minutes have passed. She’s been surfing Mashe Okle’s investment files offline. The vodka level is halfway down the ice.
“Calls and texts placed outside Turkey in past ten days,” she states.
“Hang on. That shouldn’t take but a moment.”
She finds the British accent on her fellow Chinese appealing. It’s either Xin or the vodka warming her.
“Better,” she says. “We can work with that. You’ll need a phantom caller ID. Untraceable. Australia. UAE. Israel. UK. Washington. Maybe a rotation.”
“I want you to ring each of the fifteen numbers in thirty-second intervals. Wrong number, but sell it. Maybe a child’s voice asking for mother.”
“Let me know when you’re ready. I’m here.” She mutes the video window. Considers another three fingers of vodka. Convinces herself it doesn’t negatively affect her thought process—if anything, it enhances it. Knows damn well it’s a lie. Pours more anyway.
She calls Besim. “Can you see him?”
“He can see you?”
“Not probably. My seat low whole time. Resting. Who knows?”
“I’m going to keep you on the phone. You need to tell me if he answers his phone. The moment he answers his phone. You un . . . derstand?” She slurs. Thinks nothing of it. Checks the glass. Half of what she poured is gone. She obviously shorted herself. Wouldn’t mind topping it off.
“Good. Stay on the line please.”
Feeling incredibly good, she closes her eyes, celebrating the vodka’s ability to cleanse her fatigue, settle her racing mind and warm her limbs. What’s not to love? Opens her eyes again when Xin speaks.
“You napping on me?”
“Will call all fifteen, thirty seconds apart.”
“Here we go.” Her head clears; she is instantly sober despite her efforts otherwise. This is not the first time this has happened; where the alcohol haze goes, she has no idea, but it’s undetectable. She has the cell phone to her ear. She watches Xin. He’s gotten a young woman in her early twenties to make the calls. The woman’s face glistens with a sheen of nervousness. Grace wants to caution her to do it right, but knows it would only add to the woman’s anxiety. She has to trust Xin. She chuckles to herself—his name, a common one, means “trust.”
“Something amusing?” Xin asks.
“You had to be there,” she says. She drains the remaining vodka. Trust is not found in her personal lexicon. She knows its absence is the source of much of her inner struggle.
The calls go out. The young woman does an excellent voice, sounding about thirteen and troubled. Three calls. Five. Grace keeps eyeing the vodka bottle, knowing she’s over her efficacious limit but wanting more.
“He’s on phone,” Besim says in her left ear.
“Joy!” Grace says to Xin, whose typically quiet face registers a thrill. “That’s the one we want.”
She mutes the video. “Thank you, Besim. That’s all for the night. But please, don’t leave for at least another thirty minutes. I will tell you when.”
“As you wish.”
She will turn off the apartment light before allowing Besim to drive off. She wants as little connection to the wrong number as possible.
Back with Xin, she says, “I need all calls, text messages and web access to and from that number over the past ten days to two weeks.”
“It will take a few hours. Likely a lot of data. I will post here. You can access it once I post. I will let you know.”
“Give me the GPS data as well.”
“Copy.” Xin ends the video call.
Grace is left with nothing on her computer screen but her wallpaper photo of a dog and cat curled together at the foot of a wingback chair. They’re not hers. She has no pets. No wingback chairs.
She isn’t who she pretends to be. She isn’t who she is.
As bad as that makes her feel, she feels damn good.14
Nee-hao.”Knox speaks over the phone’s earbud wire to retain his peripheral vision. His feet are tired, his belly empty; he’s back down the hill in Jabal, the nearest thing Amman has to a historic district. With each conquering army, one civilization has replaced the next, going back millennia. While the Jabal neighborhood is arguably also the most modern, these contemporary edifices are built cheek-to-jowl alongside ancient ruins. It’s a human stew of body odor, food scents and fossil fuel. Livelihoods are made on the streets, other lives are lost on the streets, and still others repair the streets.
Now they are teeming in the evening hour.
“Can you change a FedEx delivery address for me?” He speaks Shanghainese, a specific dialect of Mandarin. Of all the words, only “FedEx” is in English. It stands out like a black sheep.
“Are you sender or recipient?”
“Must be sender.” Grace’s tone is deliberate, professional.
“Electronically? Can you hack it?”
“I could check with Data Services, see if we have that capability. I would guess it would come down to timing.”
“No. I would think not.”
He hesitates. Victoria turned him in to the police, who will have located the shipment using her address as the point of origin. He’s counting on FedEx being so fast that the Harmodius is already in the air, or perhaps landed in Istanbul. The trick is to move it while the Jordanians debate how much to share with the Turks, and if they come to terms, the Turks set up surveillance to trap the recipient—Knox. Given the bureaucratic tangle likely to ensue, he can’t see either side anticipating the delivery location changing; it’s his one chance to steal the piece back before they seize it. And him.
Grace informs him that the sender can change the delivery address for a small fee.
“Can you impersonate the sender?”
“I am no expert on this. I would imagine there are safeguards. The sender must call from the phone number listed on the air bill. Something like this.”
“Shit.” Knox put Victoria Momani’s number on the air bill.
No names. No small talk. No locations. He and Grace haven’t spoken in several months. He likes hearing her voice. It’s an unexpected reaction.
He ends the call, knowing no offense will be taken.
FROMASECOND-STORYstairwell window across the street, Knox keeps watch on the cars—mostly European subcompacts—and pedestrians outside the apartment building across the street. It’s a residential area with no cafés or coffeehouses or galleries to hide in. It’s going on oneA.M., yet swarms of youth and pairs of both menand women fill the sidewalks. Oddly, there are few couples over thirty seen together; the Jordanians in this neighborhood separate by gender when out for the evening.
Knox takes note of every twitch of every tree leaf. Nothing escapes his eye. He spots no solo surveillance, though the complexities of spotting team surveillance that combines mobile and pedestrian remains. He gives himself an extra twenty minutes to make damn sure. The success of the op depends on the next hour. If the Obama bust is studied in depth by Jordanian authorities, if it should end up confiscated, Dulwich’s plan is compromised.
He wraps a white scarf bought from a street vendor in an open-air market around his head to fashion a turban. Angles his chin low as he descends the stairs and crosses the street. Enters the apartment building and climbs to the second floor.
Knocks. Waits. Knocks again.
Victoria Momani opens the door. She wears a large scarf like a robe. “Go away,” she says. “I was asleep.”
“It can’t wait.”
“You have been hurt.”
Knox hasn’t gotten to a mirror. The scuffle in the van, he assumes. “It’s been a busy evening.”
She checks the hall before she admits him. Once the door is shut: “Are you out of your mind?”
“I could be watched.”
He shakes his head.
“Who are you?” She waits. “I knew you people would not stop.”
“Stop what, Victoria? I told you: you got me wrong the first time. I am as I represented,” he says, still weighing his options. “Why else would you have let me in? You believe me. That’s important to me. To us both.”If only Grace were here,he thinks. She could makethis smoother. “But let’s stay here for a moment: who do you think I am? What have these people done?”
She appraises him. Shakes her head.
“‘You people,’” he repeats to her. “Organized crime?”
She is incensed by the suggestion.
“Police? Special police?” he asks.
His ignorance is winning her over. Her second evaluation of him is more forgiving.
“Are you police?”
She coughs up laughter. Doesn’t know what to do with him.
“Innocent bystander,” he says. Her eyes go glassy, contradicting her outward confidence. He’s a dentist with a pick.
“I need a favor,” he says.
“Because we are such old friends.”
“What caused the split with Akram?”
Impressively, she manages to keep her obvious emotion from her voice. “It is not yours to consider.”
“His brother,” Knox says. “Mashe.”
It is as if all the air is let out of her. As she contracts, she finds a chair to sit upon while she coils inward. “I knew it.”
“I am neither what nor who you think. I am, in fact, as I told you, a merchant. But I am helping others, as I know you would, were you able.” He stares her down; he’s reached her.
“You think me so gullible?”
“I think you’ve been hurt. Lied to, more than likely.”
“And you are the great purveyor of truth.”
Her command of English suggests he should avoid talking down to her. He regroups.
“I fashion the truth as needed,” he says. “I lie about another’s beauty, my own politics, my vices. But not about this.” Having little to no idea of what he speaks, he says, “Mashe Okle is trouble. Hecan be stopped. I am offering you that chance. The crate contains a piece of legitimate art. I promise you that. But, believe it or not, it’s important to my effort. I do not work for any government or police. I am a merchant enlisted by others—neither government nor police, nor any kind of criminal effort—to help expose the man for what he is. By now the Jordanians have alerted the Turks to monitor my package when and where it is delivered in Istanbul.”
“I do not believe you. It is a bomb. Something like this. I will not hurt Akram or have him involved in hurting Mashe, no matter what I think of the man. I will not be part of this.”
“It is not any kind of weapon or device, nor can it be used to make a weapon or a device. It is as I said.” He considers her. “Very well.”
He makes for the door, a gamble that causes each stride to seem artificially long and slow. Has he judged her incorrectly? Since when?
He works to hide the smirk. Successful, he turns.
“A phone call is all. One phone call,” he says.
Standing in Sisli Square, Grace can understand why a person would return to this place multiple times. Worn like a cocked cap, morning sunlight the color of candle flame catches the top of the minaret. There are more pigeons than people, more cars than pigeons. The mosque’s three gray-roofed domes rise above the rectangular entrance wall, trees lurching up from within an unseen courtyard. It’s all in the middle of a bustling neighborhood awaking for the day.
She’s arrived early, having sneaked out of the apartment and snagged a cab, leaving Besim to sip his morning tea out front for the sake of anyone watching.
There is an answer here, some reason the man following her has repeatedly visited the square. She watches for it, expects it. Awaits its jumping out at her. This added depth of knowledge is exactly what Dulwich will treasure: not just the fact that she’s being surveilled, but by whom and possibly why.
Dulwich has failed to answer calls she’s made from one of several anonymous pay-as-you-call SIM chips she carries. He had warned her that she and Knox would be on their own. Nonetheless she holdsout hope she’ll hear from him. She has provided him this place and time. She waits, and then spins once, slowly, holding her head scarf in place.
It reminds her of a Parisian avenue but with Turkish spices in the air and overseen by a towering minaret. Sisli was countryside in the late nineteenth century, transformed into a residential neighborhood at the end of the Ottoman Empire in the early years of the Turkish Republic, when French culture was au courant—wide avenues edged with wrought-iron balconies. It was an area of trade, soon taken over by Greek and Balkan immigrants. There isn’t a parking space to be had. The streets and even the newer buildings seem poised to be pushed over by the crush of pedestrians.
On her iPhone, she once again reads the data pertinent to Sisli Square. The man she and Besim identified as watching her the night before, the man from the airport, visited this place four times in three days. His phone’s GPS data reveals that he’s been in Istanbul but six days. Other than a discount hotel across town, this is the only place he has frequented.
Why? Beauty alone cannot account for it. Given that each visit was between four and five o’clock, it’s possible he performed afternoon prayers at this mosque, but it’s unlikely given the absence of any other repeated visit in the city. Grace decides to return at that hour if possible.
Her phone vibrates; the caller is listed as “Hopper 1.” Dulwich. The “hopper” designation assures her that the line is secure; Grace checks around her to ensure the area is as well. That’s when she sees him, sitting on a bench in the shade closer to the mosque, his back to the avenue.
“So?” Dulwich says.
“My apartment is being watched.”
“Then you were careless.”
“The GPS data from this man’s phone reveals a pay-as-you-go SIM chip initiated six days ago,” Grace says.
“You have tracked his phone?”
She thrills at the sound of his voice: shock and awe. “He has since visited this place where I sit four times in the past three days.” Grace waits. “Hello?”
“A policeman, perhaps agent, is most likely to use a pay-as-you-go SIM chip like this. Same way we do. Let us assume, therefore, that this man arrived in-country six days ago. He buys the pay-as-you-go and sets up his phone. From what country he comes, we don’t know. You received my text, yes? This man had access to the airport’s security room. He tagged the mark upon landing. Access to Turkish security. I later identify a similarly dressed man watching the mark’s residence. Could be same agent. He was paired.”
“And is that the same—”
“Unlikely, no. The mobile unit surveilling my apartment was a solo. Who are all these people, sir? It is a crowded field.” Grace takes in her present surroundings of pigeons, pedestrians with white iPhone wires hanging from their ears and a sea of colorful scarves.
“I wouldn’t worry,” Dulwich says. “What you’re seeing is likely protection. The mark is an important man.”
It’s her turn to be unintentionally quiet. Wouldn’t worry? Since when? She collects more data from Dulwich’s body language than the conversation. His posture has tightened with her every revelation.
Grace says, “So why would a man protecting the mark spend extended time on a bench in front of a mosque three out of the six days he has been in-country?”
“He’s religious? Do we care?” Dulwich doesn’t have to try to sound offensive.
Red flag. A rule of the game is to know more about your adversary than he knows about you. “I am not comfortable with such surprises. Such unknowns.”
“You understand the op?”
He’s insulting her. She regrets bringing him in without more information. He doesn’t want to be offered half a meal. She accepts the mistake as a learning moment. It’s all or nothing; he doesn’t appreciate being teased.
“Understood,” she says.
“Well, then . . .” Dulwich stands and puts his phone away, offers his back and is swallowed by the tumult a few seconds later.16
What the hell?” Knox sits by himself in a waiting lounge in Queen Alia International Airport. A white wire runs to his left ear; his right remains unplugged so he can overhear the activity in the terminal. He keeps his hand over his mouth to prevent lip reading. He makes the seat look small, like an adult in a preschool parent-teacher conference.
“That would depend,” Dulwich says.
The line is secure. But Knox is in public, so he will dance around specifics.
“If we’d wanted help, we’d have asked for it.”
“I was followed. Lost a step. Right when the guy could have cold-cocked me, he walks. What’s with that?”
Dulwich tells Knox more than he intends with his silence. This is new information; the man was not his.
“We may lose the . . . trophy,” Knox says.
“You had better not.”
“My lady friend is helping with that.”
“Your lady friend and I had a chat earlier.”
“Bully for you. I’m beginning to think we could use a couple boys from the old team.”
“Not going to happen.”
“It’s an in-and-out. Don’t overcomplicate it.”
“You said I’d be lying in bed with my feet up watching pay-per-view. That isn’t happening.”
“So complain to HR.”
“You said you and I wouldn’t have contact—that you don’t exist.”
Dulwich teases him by leaving only silence on the line.
“Friendlies? Is that why he walked?”
“Don’t overcomplicate it,” Dulwich repeats.
“It’s doing that by itself. Six months ago, Obama convinces Netanyahu to apologize to the Turkish prime minister for Israeli commandos killing ten Turkish protesters attempting to cross the Gaza blockade. Relations between Israel and Turkey immediately thaw; embassies are reopened. Now, wouldn’t you know, Rutherford Risk has an op in Turkey—complete with a priceless piece of art being given away for nothing and spooks that appear out of dust storms and then vanish. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.”
“You’re hallucinating. These are small speed bumps. They happen—especially early on. It’ll sort itself out. Don’t go all double-oh-seven on me.”
“If I’m being shadowed by a bunch of spooks, I could use a heads-up.”
“So here’s your heads-up: it’s not a can-do, it’s a must-do. That’s why the paycheck is so big. Ask fewer questions, keep your fists in your pockets, and it’ll sort itself out.”
“He followed me through a sandstorm.”
“I read about that. Sounded nasty.”
“Who does that? Who goes out in a sandstorm?”
“Now you’re just being rude.”
“Yeah, funny how that feels on the receiving end.”
Knox ends the call unceremoniously. His blood pressure lessens. He trusts Sarge with his life, yet he wouldn’t trust him to walk his dog if he had one. Knows he would never be wholly lied to by the man, but isn’t sure he ever gets the truth.
This operation has started poorly. He’d like to blame it all on the sandstorm. Takes it as an omen. Knox thinks of Tommy back in Michigan, and there’s a nagging ache in his chest telling him to abort. He worries he’s working for the department of defense, Rutherford Risk’s biggest client. Dulwich’s emphasis on importance has Knox convinced a government is behind the op.
But there are so many governments, and Rutherford Risk isn’t particular. Government work gets people killed. That’s why it’s contracted out. Knox has wandered off-trail in search of an extravagant paycheck, knowing all along there’s no philanthropy in his line of work. He’s being overpaid for a reason. Five minutes in the room with the mark, Dulwich said. He made it sound so small, but five minutes can be an eternity.
Knox’s flight is called. He has eyes in the back of his head as he boards.
EVERYSTUDENTof history should start with a school trip to Istanbul, Knox thinks. It’s the Kevin Bacon of history—everything’s connected. Throw a rock; dig a hole and try to miss. Turkey’s significance over three thousand years of Western civilization cannot be overstated. Knox is no academic, but his import business and knowledge of art history have given him a crash course in Western and Eastern civilization, an unintended consequence he appreciates, even cultivates.Spends far more time in museums now than he did a few years ago. Beds down with books he’d be embarrassed to be caught reading.
The Demirtas neighborhood of the Eminönü district is a tight tangle of short streets that compress in width the closer one gets to the Golden Horn inlet. Smog-stained Roman columns adorn corner buildings adjacent to the remnants of ancient city walls, all of it surrounded by tasteless two-story apartment buildings that make Knox think of the highway views driving by Detroit. Istanbul has been conquered and occupied by the Crusaders, Ottoman sultans, Romans and the original founders, the Greeks. Built on seven hills, the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, it was made into a fortress of palaces, golden domes, parks and towers. It has been sacked, nearly emptied of its population and rebuilt numerous times. In the middle of the seventeenth century, it was the largest city on earth.
It is currently the home to every ethnicity, culture, religion and sect, a kaleidoscope of the human species. Every scent. Every color of glass, clothing and skin can be found. Every culinary treat. The city’s Grand Bazaar, an endless warren of booths and shops, is all this diversity boiled down to commercialism. Knox walks the unbearably crowded bazaar first, just to remind himself of where he is and whose company he keeps. Overpowered by sweat, cinnamon, ginger and cardamom, incense, blue jeans and hammered brass lanterns, Knox roams the concourses in a herd of tourists and locals alike, content and comforted by how some things, some places, never change. Squint your eyes, and it could be 200B.C.
He keeps the Tigers cap pulled low as he settles himself onto a stone step across town. Doesn’t want his height and physique drawing undue attention. He wears his important belongings on his person, thanks to the Scottevest. Needs a stop at a department store for a change of clothing.
He continues his surveillance of the Yurtiçi Kargo storefront. Satisfied he’s spotting nothing out of the ordinary at the shipping center, but wary nonetheless, he crosses the street, lengthening his strides to reduce his height. He was with Victoria Momani when she called FedEx and requested an alternate delivery. He trusts that between the hand-off to Turkish authorities by the Jordanians—if such a hand-off ever took place, which is unlikely given the reluctant, sluggish nature of overly possessive international security divisions—any live monitoring of the bust’s movements is unlikely. More credible is that its air bill destination might have been shared or be under surveillance. He can’t imagine Victoria’s redirect to this branch office being picked up on. Bureaucracy has its blessings.
Inside, he presents false ID in the name of one of three covers he carries, John Chambers. The delivery is efficient, no tell apparent from the woman behind the counter. The bulk and weight of the crate creates problems, or would for most. Knox carries it like a hatbox in one hand, stunning the woman, who struggled to move it from cart to scale.
An instant later, he’s out in the street, eyes alert for those alert to him. It’s a strange and disconcerting element of this work; he imagines it being akin to the weight of celebrity. Knox is rarely indifferent to his surroundings, is perpetually preoccupied with survival. It’s a condition shared with animals in the wild—fight or flight, the underlying awareness that every moment is kill or be killed. Some will claim they can feel it, that they possess a prescience that can alert them to surveillance. Knox is not so lucky; he needs some sign. And although he has trained his senses well beyond those of the “average man,” spotting group surveillance continues to elude him. His only hope is to identify one of many and expand from there.
This is the task he puts himself to as he climbs into a taxi. His eyes roam, searching for faces he saw during his curbside vigil. He makes comments about how beautiful the city is to satisfy his driver’s curiosity. Knox makes an excuse of forgetting something, directing the driver to circle a block to return to the pickup—an attempt to spot mobile surveillance. Feigns discovery of the missing item on his person and redirects the cab once again. It’s a familiar routine, but far from comfortable. He’s crawling out of his skin within minutes.
He checks into the Alzer Hotel as himself. Is a returning guest and, as such, is treated like royalty. He declines an upgrade in order to remain on the first floor, one above street level. He looks down on the hotel’s café seating, has a view across an open plaza and a mosque beyond. Its spires and walls suggest an exotic fortress, a world secreted from prying eyes like his. Such treasures await the unsuspecting visitor on nearly every corner: a Roman bath, a Greek column and a mosque.
He keeps the Obama bust in its crate in the bottom of the armoire, displacing a pair of courtesy terry-cloth slippers and a shoeshine kit. Thinks back to Dulwich’s description of the op and wonders if things will settle down now.
They need no introduction when he makes the call, as the caller ID on her end has identified him as Hopper 7.
“We need to get together and go over the books,” she says. Her use of their cover, Grace as his bookkeeper, tells him she’s speaking somewhere she doesn’t believe is secure. He finds it easy to slip into his role.
“Indeed. Work up a budget for me, please, with an eye toward the improving climate.”
There’s something about the way she says it that takes his mind off the job at hand. “Why don’t you pick the location, as I’ve just arrived?”
“I am somewhat . . . preoccupied,” she says, choosing the word carefully, “with other clients. I could fit you in around drinks.”
She’s suggesting she’s being watched or followed. Knox mulls this over, compares it to his own situation in Amman. He should have pushed Sarge for more details about his “chat” with Grace; sometimes his wisecracking banter is a detriment, though he’s loath to admit it.
She picks a Starbucks near the Firuz Aga Mosque in the old city. Knox knows the adjoining park well: its handcarts selling fresh melon and bananas, the vegetation an unexpected mix of tropical and temperate. The choice of Starbucks disappoints him but is so in character he should have thought of it first. The time is set for three-thirty.
He gets a shower and a much needed nap. Buys two sets of clothes, head-to-toe, and puts them into the hotel express wash. Where once there was adrenaline and urgency, there is routine, a condition he cautions himself against.
GRACE’SFACEREMAINSPASSIVE, but her eyes light up at his entrance. They kiss cheeks and he sits across a small table from her. Before anyone else has a chance to enter the coffee shop, she reviews her arrival to the airport and the tail she collected, speaking quietly and fast.
“If I had to guess, I’d say Dulwich is a lying sack of shit,” Knox says.
Grace bites back a smile, chastising him with her expressive eyes,and opens her laptop to actual spreadsheets of Knox’s import business. They sit closer and she traces lines on the screen with a blue fingernail.
“You do not think this,” she says.
“No. I think he’s into something big—we’re into something big—that has political ramifications, and is likely another attempt to improve something that will never be fixed. He knows I’m a sucker for lost causes. He uses that. And even knowing that, I fall into it, so it’s on me.”
“This common interest in Mashe Melemet is shared by others,” she says.
“The mother is Melemet. Hospital records,” Grace says. “Oldest son, Mashe. Younger son, Akram. The spying is on Mashe.”
“You’ve had company,” he says.
“Me, too. You ID them?”
She shakes her head.
“Me, neither.” He never stops checking out the other occupants. Has them memorized by face and clothing. “So tell me about him—the brother.”
“He is quite well off. Income is paid through Iran’s Ministry of Industry and Mines.” Grace answers before he asks. “Regulation of industry, including mining. Promotion of export of mining products, including engineering and technology.”
“A cover for military research?”
“Possibly, though his investments suggest an academic. Sciences. Pharmas. Aviation. Space exploration. He could indeed be a researcher. And get this: all listings are on the NASDAQ and the NYSE.”
“I thought you would like that.”
“So, a scientific academic in Iran,” Knox says, leaving it in the air between them.
“He liquidated investments ahead of your previous sales to Akram.”
“He’s my collector.”
“And Brian Primer wants us both in a room with him for five minutes, but he swears it’s not a hit.”
He sees surprise.
“What?” he asks.
“The request is from David,neh, not Mr. Primer?”
Ever the realist,Knox thinks.
“My immediate role is to ensure the meet between you and Mashe.”
“You do that how?”
Her eyes say,please. Her voice says, “You like things clean.”
“Cleaner than this. We don’t know who we’re working for. We don’t know who we’re working against.”
“I . . . in the airport. It’s government, or someone who can buy his way into the Turkish equivalent of your TSA.”
“Well, that certainly clarifies things.”
“Have you made the call?” she asks.
“Tomorrow. I don’t want to appear overeager.”
“You are flirting. No wonder Mr. Dulwich selected you for this job.”
He almost finds it in himself to smile at her.
Checking her watch, she says, “Would you help me with something?”
“Shopping for a new watch, I hope.” She wears a Michael Korsaviator, platinum ringed, hinge-snap clasp. Its masculinity has no place on her delicate wrist.
She leads the way outside. Within minutes, they’ve joined the hordes of tourists that are forced to divide themselves between wonders-of-the-world mosques and exquisite Roman ruins. Soon they break away into Gülhane Park, inside which the city disappears.
“Have you been in?” Knox asks Grace, pointing out the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.
She checks her masculine watch again. “Not today.”
“Are we meeting someone?”
“I am not sure.”
They continue toward Topkapi Palace. “It once housed four thousand people. Was a miniature city for the sultan. Included a hospital, bakeries, nearly independent of the outside world. And now, tourists.”
“Like the Forbidden City,” she says. She turns them around. Knox can’t keep from surveying their surroundings.
“Anything?” she asks.
“No. But if they’re government . . .”
“I was able to track one. Xin was, actually. Data Services.”
“A man following me.”
“Track, as in . . . ?”
“I have his texts for the past several days. His locations. GPS fixes.”
“And you were going to tell me, when?”
“I just did.”
“He revisited Sisli Square four times in three days. Always between four and five.” She pauses. “Sent what could be a coded text at the end of his last visit.”
He now understands her double-checking the time.
“There will be taxis at the museum,” she says.
“It’s good to see you again,” he says.
She hooks her arm in his and they walk. It’s an uncommonly familiar gesture for someone as distant as she. It feels awkward until she speaks.
“In case we missed someone out there.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Of course.”
She holds him closer, or does he imagine it? In profile, she appears to be smiling. Or not. He feels off balance. First Dulwich, now Grace Chu. The leaves rustle overhead, sounding dry in the fall breeze. A boat horn haunts the sky. A Turkish kid skateboards past them wearing a Who T-shirt and Air Jordans.
Knox ditches the anxiety. He feels right at home.
THEYSITtogether in Sisli Square as afternoon prayers are called. Grace is enchanted by the nasally, electronic summons pealing from the minarets.
“Do you feel it? It is as if the city takes a breath,” she says.
“If they take too deep a breath, they’ll gag.” Car exhaust chokes the city when the breezes off the Bosphorus pause for even minutes. The smog residue crusts the older buildings in a black smudge and, on bad days, causes one’s nose and eyes to run—the scourge of the third world.
They both wear sunglasses; Grace, a head scarf. She explains whatthe GPS data has told her about the man seen watching her apartment.
“The mosque makes the most sense,” Knox says. “Afternoon prayers. He didn’t have to be attending. He could be surveilling someone.”
“By your own admission, there are any number of agencies who would want the mark. Yes? More important to me is not the who, but the why. This man entered the country six days ago. This we can assume. Four different times he spends at least an hour on this bench. Why? How does that relate to us? To say it does not is absurd,” she says, cutting off his objection. “A shipment? A middleman? Our safety relies upon—”
“—knowledge of the exigent circumstances. You take this stuff too literally. Chinese violinists are technically the most accomplished in the world, you know, but they lack soul. You need to loosen up.” He’s thinking:The frog and the scorpion. This is the Middle East. Anybody could be interested in Mashe Okle. Get in line.
“You need to consider what you say before you say it.”
“You realize we’re recording all this?” he says.
They laugh together. He never would have imagined such a moment a year ago.
“What I said,” Grace says, “my mother used to say to me. You would be surprised. I was once more like you than you imagine.”
“Are you implying I never matured?”
“You are impossible.”
Knox’s phone is still recording when a low-battery alert chimes. They end their recordings at thirty-two minutes.
“I’ll call Akram tomorrow morning and ask for the down payment. Get things going.”
“To be wired. The funds must be wired into the account.”
“Impossible. These things are always cash.”
“The data will enable me to hack his bank account and determine the source of the deposits.”
“Sarge didn’t explain any of this to me.”
“It is how we win the face-to-face.” Grace is unsure how much to share. If David Dulwich did not include Knox, there must be a reason, the most obvious of which is that should one of them be captured, he or she must not have the full picture. That leads her to wonder why the possibility they might be surveilled and captured was never mentioned.
“He’s compartmentalized us,” Knox says. “That can’t be good.”
“I was thinking same thing.” Grace hears herself drop the article as dictated in her native Mandarin. Knows it signals her anxiety. Sees Knox react to the red flag. They know each other too well; it’s a worrisome thought. The op in Amsterdam brought them closer. Not only are they more aware of each other’s idiosyncrasies, but also a shared hour in a brothel stripped them of the secrets typically kept between co-workers. They have information only lovers possess, and yet they are far from lovers.
“It’s got to be cash. He’ll smell it a mile away.”
Grace ruminates. “Yes. I understand.”
“You don’t have to look so glum.”
“It is a complication.”
“Maybe if it was explained to me, it wouldn’t be.”
Grace makes a point of weighing her response. A year ago, she would have stuck to David Dulwich’s instructions without question. Now, she wonders at the forces responsible for testing her this way.
After a moment or two of silence, she speaks quietly. She is afraid he will tease her. Sometimes this cuts her to her core. “‘When thewind of change blows, some build walls while others build windmills.’”
She sees Knox winding up to lash out, but he swallows it away. Perhaps they are both different from a year ago, she thinks. Condensing the plan she and Dulwich worked out, she offers it to Knox in its most simplistic form.
“Isn’t there some way around the wiring of the cash?” Knox asks.
Knox’s sense of what she does amuses her at such times.
He says, “It’s a boatload of money.”
“Maybe not if you’re an arms dealer, but—”
“He is not an arms dealer.” She blurts this out. “Or if he is, he is not so very good at it.” She explains the relatively small investment portfolio as well as her inability to follow the deposits. “The point is, the deposits are made directly from other bank accounts. If this was questionable income . . . I deal with questionable income. It is what I do for the company. This is not. You see?”
“It’s only one account,” Knox says.
“Yes. Are you going to tell me how to do my job?”
He’s about to. He stops himself.
She wants to reward him. “I apologize.”
“No. You’re right. You have me nailed.”
Maybe he’s jet-lagged. This isn’t the Knox she knows.
He says, “How certain are you?”
“I should not have said anything. I was mistaken to do so. An opinion is all.”
“Are you going to make me beg?”
“David did not confirm the man’s occupation to me. Did he to you?”
“What a snake.”
“He allowed us our assumptions,” Grace says. “Fair play.”
“He must have loved that we both jumped to the same conclusion.”
“He choreographed this. Yes?”
“I suppose he did.” Knox drops his head into his large hands in concentration. “How can Mashe possibly afford the Harmodius if he’s not in arms dealing?”
“Investors. A consortium. The money will be kept in a phantom account or will be held as cash in a safe-deposit box or home safe. It is possible it cannot be wired. If cash, it would be safer to carry it in. Physically transported.”
“But Mashe is already here,” Knox says.
“A friend or family member. A mule he trusts implicitly.”
“Or mistress, or cousin. It can be done,” she says. “But to convert such amounts of currency? At black market rates? It is very onerous. Funds wired from a ghost account would convert at bank rates, the most favorable possible.”
“Mashe would wire the funds here,” Knox speculates, trying to follow, “from a fake account. Akram would collect it as cash from various banks, bundle it and deliver to me. Leaving us where?”
“Leaving you stuck with too much cash to legally get out of the country. You say your previous dealings have been cash?”
“Yeah. But we’re talking small amounts.”
“This time it must be different. Can you take a meeting with Akram?”
“We will need a pickpocket,” she says. “Must be a thousand around the Hagia Sophia.”
“You going to put out a sandwich board offering employment?” he says.
She looks surprised. “Yes! I suppose it should be something like that.”
He wonders: is she mocking him, or is she being sweetly naive? Has she already formed a plan, or is she leaving it up to him? He grins privately as Grace allows a smirk beneath her oversized sunglasses. There is cunning in her expression, a high-spiritedness and a convincing smugness that suggests she is already three steps ahead of him.17
In order to harpoon his pickpocket, Knox performs a gag he learned off a middle schooler named Cameron Wood on a school trip to New York City. Warned by their chaperone of thieves in Times Square, Cameron and his buddies bought a street vendor wallet and put a note in it reading, “You are being electronically tracked by the NYPD.” Cameron then volunteered to be the one to carry the decoy wallet in his back pocket, keeping his real one in the front. When the class returned to the hotel from a walk around Times Square, Cameron realized the wallet was gone; he never felt a thing. He and his pals got a good laugh at what the pickpocket’s face must have looked like when he read their note.
Knox’s three notes, written in Turkish by the hotel receptionist, read, “I will pay five times this. Look for the tall American by the ticket window.”
He, too, carries a dummy wallet showing slightly from his back pocket. But unlike young Cameron, Knox knows exactly when each of the three wallets is stolen. Each carries a handwritten note and the equivalent of ten USD in Turkish liras.
He waits thirty minutes by the mosque’s ticket window. Theapprehensive boy is twelve years old with oversized eyes and a choirboy complexion. He keeps himself at arm’s length in case Knox turns out to be trouble.
Knox is trouble, but not in any way the boy will ever know.
KNOXANDAKRAMOKLEmeet two blocks from the DoubleTree on Mithat Pasa Caddesi, a narrow street that could be Paris or Brussels except for the occasional Red Crescent on a sign. Art galleries intermingle with boutique hotels. Nothing over three stories. Freshly painted neoclassical alongside colonial. The men are in blue jeans, long-sleeved shirts and sweaters. Running shoes. Not a woman in sight. Knox is spitting distance from the Grand Bazaar, the Beyazit Tower and the Calligraphy Museum. In any five-block area of the European side of Istanbul, there is more history than in all of Athens. He thinks they should put a glass dome over the entire city and preserve it as it is. The Syrians or Georgians or Kurds are bound to destroy it in a forgettable conflict and the world will lose a treasure, as it has lost Lebanon. He absorbs what he can with what little of him is not preoccupied surveying his immediate surroundings. He plays far too much defense; he’s eager to get himself on the other side of the ball.
Someone is grilling lamb nearby. There’s the scent of cardamom in the air, carried on a charcoal breeze. Knox is ready for lunch; to his delight, the source of the aromas is their meeting spot. He passes through a beaded curtain, keeps his eye on a pair of low ceiling fans and asks Akram to switch sides of the table with him as they shake hands, providing Knox a view of the entrance. It is an uncomfortable moment that neither man draws attention to.
They talk briefly about the time of year and the approach of cooler days. Knox expresses concern over the illness in the man’sfamily. Akram orders for them, telling Knox of a dish this restaurant does better than any other in the city. Knox settles in for a long lunch. Akram likes his food.
There are tourists scattered throughout, none fitting the descriptions provided by Grace, but Knox has every person sized up and he’s located the exit by the two restrooms, as well as the entrance to the kitchen. He drinks coffee that should be considered an alternative fuel, tolerates the cigarette smoke. Realizes a dentist could make more money in this city than a bond trader. He’s high on adrenaline and the approach of negotiation, feels it in his loins like he’s about to try to flirt an underwear model into leaving a party with him.
“So, this thing we talked about,” he says.
“Should I consider you interested?”
Akram lowers his eyes in consent. Knox finds the man’s face to be a confusion of contradictions. Bronze facial skin covered by a salt-and-pepper balbo beard that adds ten years to what is likely his early thirties. Nearly shaved head to lessen the impression of a receding hairline. Heavy, expressive eyebrows shield wide-set eyes that could be black glass, yet his gaze reveals that he’s multitasking. He’s an IRS agent who knows everyone cheats on his or her taxes, a priest awaiting the first stone. He’d run a fillet knife through you if you crossed him, but he’ll attend your son’s bar mitzvah no matter how far he has to travel. He wears a cracked brown leather jacket that might have trouble zipping shut when it reaches his chest. The tight fitting black T-shirt supports this assessment. He wears no jewelry. The face of his rubber sports watch is scratched, its black band cracked.
“It’s many times greater than that of any of our prior transactions.”
Knox withholds comment.
“First, let me say, my friend, that I mean no insult to your integrity.” He allows that to fester in Knox. “I must question how it is an item that has eluded the top archaeologists and researchers for several centuries, suddenly appears in the hands of a . . .” He’s searching for a word other than “amateur.”
Knox saves him. “Even a good copy is worth serious consideration. We both know that. And this is not a good copy.”
“The original Harmodius? This is not possible.”
“And yet we are here.”
“So it is.”
“I expect you will want authentication. I will agree to the specialist of your choosing, but I am to accompany the piece at every step, and I will determine the location. Your man has three days.”
Akram purses his lips. “Absurd. Three months, perhaps. Analysis of mineral composition, weathering layers, historical comparison. This takes time.”
“I have paperwork with me. An independent, well-respected expert. You can call him directly and he will confirm the contents of the paperwork. As to the funds, half will be placed into escrow. At that time I will permit verification to begin. Time is of the essence.”
“Someone has done a good job of selling you, my friend. I do not know whether to feel sorry for you or happy for them.”
“I mean no insult to your integrity,” Knox says deliberately, “but I will need a credit check, or asset verification. The sum is large and not easily raised.”
“I cannot think of a museum that would not do business with you, whatever terms you demand.”
“Do you read the news? The art world has become too accountable. What has happened to everyone?”
“Globalization,” Akram says. “We were far better off whenisolated in our own countries. We wanted blue jeans. We ended up with the EU. If only we had known.”
“You are able to raise the funds?” Knox asks.
“For a good copy, certainly. For the original? How long do we play this charade?”
The food arrives. Knox inhales deeply.
“I told you,” Akram said. “The chef is an artist.”
The presence of food lessens the tension. Akram shares a story about one of his six daughters, who is training as a gymnast back in Irbid, Jordan. She has started to grow taller, maturing early, and it’s a family crisis.
“You are wondering how I can afford such artwork,” Akram says, as the third course, the lamb Knox smelled out on the street, arrives.
“Not my business. Only that you’re able.”
“Let us assume it is a copy, to your great surprise.”
“It would be wise for us to have two prices in mind. Yes?”
“As to that, the down payment will be held in escrow. If you pass, your money will be returned.”
“So confident! Please pardon me, my friend. But are you so naive?”
Knox shrugs. This is some of the best lamb he’s ever tasted.
“It’s the marinade,” Akram says.
“More precious than your Harmodius, believe me.”
“I do not,” Knox says. “Five hundred thousand, U.S.”
Akram Okle offers his first tell: he pinches his nose to clear it. Knox had taken note of the tic earlier, but now he establishes its significance.
“I offer it to you first out of respect. You have only a matter of days to fund the escrow. I will then deliver the piece for analysis at a place and time of my choosing. It will be very last minute, I amafraid.” There are only a few labs in Istanbul capable of authentication. Arranging an ambush at multiple locations will present a challenge for Akram. Knox must cover every base.
“I would request the same.”
“As I said, I have test results,” Knox says. He unzips two of the nineteen pockets in the Scottevest to locate the paperwork Dulwich supplied. Passes it across the table, keeping his hand atop it. He wants the symbolism of the exchange to register.
Knox says, “I will accept half as a down payment. It must be received at least twenty-four hours before your people assay it.”
“Fifty percent. No less.”
“As you wish,” Akram says. He studies Knox carefully as he slides the paperwork his way. He shows tremendous strength in not looking at it. He won’t trust the contents, but it will set him drooling. It will help his people know what to verify in the short time Knox will give them at the lab. “Can you handle this, John? A deal like this? This size?”
“Our earlier deals . . . I was testing you,” Knox lies. “I thought you ready for this. If I am wrong . . .”
Akram pinches the bridge of his nose again and inhales. “It is impossible, the Harmodius. You must understand.”
“Half now,” Knox says. “The other half wired to the account of my choosing upon delivery.” He goes back to the lamb. Delicious.
Back on the same bench in front of the Sisli mosque, Grace speaks softly.
“Detroit is up in the World Series. Congratulations.”
“Verlander is a god,” says Knox.
“He cannot pitch every game. I will put ten dollars on the opponent in tonight’s game three.”
“Consider my heritage. You think mahjong is a game of fun?”
“What do we know of our boy’s movement?”
“His chip went unused the morning after we spotted him surveilling. He’s obviously careful.”
“Or well informed.”
Grace respects Knox’s ability in the field, is trying to learn from him. This work, the work she is doing right now, is dream work. Out from behind the desk, yet still able to use her accounting skills, sitting on a plaza bench in Istanbul riding an adrenaline high. She senses how close she is to being given a solo assignment. Sees down the road a boutique security firm, her picking and choosing ops thatsatisfy more than the bottom line—like the work she and Knox did in Amsterdam.
She worries that Knox won’t forgive her once he realizes how she has used him. She has evolved from tolerance, through acceptance, to appreciation of her sometime collaborator. Knox is like a piece of contemporary art: meaningless at first glance, but in time comes to speak to you.
“Sarge has withheld information from us,” Knox says.
“Possibly.” Grace feels a rush. “SOP. NTK.”
“Protecting the client?”
“And the mark,” she says. “This is how he explained it to me. Yes. Perhaps not only the client and mark. You were rescued by that van, or so you said.”
“But then what we’re saying is that this is something so heinous a government can’t be associated with the outcome. That’s the reality break for me. Sarge promised there would be no targeting of Mashe.”
“Sensitive, perhaps not heinous,” says Grace.
“Their own spooks handle sensitive. This has to be more than that.”
“David prefers we perform the operation as assigned.”
Knox ignores her. “It could be someone connected to Mashe. I could buy that—using Mashe to lure out a bigger fish. That would allow Sarge to promise me nothing’s going to happen to Mashe. I didn’t expand the playing field. My bad.”
“I could suggest we stay with the operation,” Grace says.
“Says the woman doing all the digging around. What’s gotten into you, anyway?” When she fails to answer, he asks, “Is there actually any hope that these videos will mean anything?”
Knox gets restless easily. His legs bounce. His feet start tapping.
“There is, of course, something of significance here. Four separate visits by the person we now think of as an agent of the client.” She speaks encouragingly. “A few more minutes, please.”
“If you sit still, the image will be clearer.”
The two ride out the remaining seven minutes. In that time, fifty or more people stream in and out of the mosque entrance. Several hundred cars flow past. It is a remarkable sight. Europeans, Americans, Africans, Japanese tourist groups, Arabs.
“Maybe your guy just likes people-watching.” Knox is in a snarky mood. She can’t blame him; he’s not a stakeout type. More the brass knuckle variety.
“Your opinion of Akram?” She tries to read his face.
“My opinion doesn’t matter. Sarge puts him as the messenger. He and his brother know that even an ancient copy of the Harmodius is invaluable. Many times what I’m asking, and I have a problem with a client willing to sacrifice millions—many millions—just so we can spend five minutes with Mashe Okle. Translation: whatever it is we’re supposed to accomplish would either cost the client those same millions, or the desired outcome is so impossible for them to accomplish on their own that it’s worth those millions. You see?”
Knox has a way of clarifying things. Grace is overly sensitive about her lack of this ability. She equates Knox’s faculty with the much-heralded American ability to create and innovate; her own tendency is toward rote technical skills. She thinks of Knox’s Chinese violinist example and flushes. Here, he has turned a double negative into a positive. It’s not the high price of the art; it’s the amount being given up by establishing a lower price that tells them something about the seller.
“You are more clever than you give yourself credit for,” she says softly.
“Do you hear me disagreeing?”
“You are also arrogant and rude.”
“And I wear it proudly.”
She reminds herself never to compliment him. “You can be such an ass.”
She expects another of his snide comebacks. Is surprised to see that she has stung him.
“I put out a feeler for a meeting with Sarge. I got back postponement.”
“He is here in Istanbul,” she says. “I feel it.”
“You know what? I hope not. I actually hope not.”
“Hope leads to disappointment; action to success.”
She doesn’t answer. “What do we do about it? About David?”
“We consider the people that pulled me into the van and the people who followed you as allies, at least of Sarge. Probably working for the client. We assume we are pawns, and you know how I feel about that. We need to come up with a way to do the op without their involvement, client or not. I don’t trust them.”
“Maybe this helps us determine who and why,” she says, indicating the two phones shooting video.
“I’d rather shoot a guy in the leg than shoot video,” Knox says. “Puts a person in a sharing mood real quick.”
“There is a surprise.”
“I have what I need.” Grace looks toward the mosque. “Xin and Dr. Kamat will help me to breach the bank firewalls. I have every confidence the plan will go forward as designed.”
“You never lack for confidence,” Knox says.
“You exaggerate, as usual.”
“Don’t give me that false modesty . . . that Chinese thing you do, going all humble and demure? It’s undignified.”
“On the contrary, it is quite dignified, which is why you do not recognize or understand it.”
“I won’t dignify that with a comment. Look, we wait a day for Mashe and Akram to settle out the funds. You need to be ready by then. Thirty-six hours, max. Then we’re on a plane home.”
“I may need more time. David’s plan is more . . . evolved. I am to challenge the sourcing of the funds, demand an explanation. This provides you—us—with the meet. The five minutes.”
“Doesn’t mean I like it,” he grumbles. “So, we’ll make our move once the deposit and sourcing are confirmed. ‘Action breeds success.’”
“Given that my work cannot commence until the deposit of the funds,” Grace says, “we are presented with ample opportunity to shoot more video tomorrow. We then download it to Xin for analysis. We meet here again tomorrow, sixteen hundred.”
“You’re putting too much on this,” Knox says.
“It is tangible. Actionable intelligence.” It will impress David. “We must know why this agent spent time here. Perhaps to meet his control.Neh?How pleasing would it be to identify not only this agent but also his control?”
“You’ve grown your hair longer,” he says. “And changed perfumes. This is tangible.”
She swallows her surprise, is able to contain her reaction.
“Enough! It is past five,” she says. “We are done here.”19
Maybe it’s the three beers or the bone-aching numbness of isolation, of time spent in his hotel. It may be the lively patter from the terrace below, the internal echo of the earlier call to prayer still reverberating through his body—whatever it is, Knox’s sense is that he’s missing out. His dedication to fixing Tommy up with private care for life rules out all else. Undermines him. He’s either chasing a deal on rattan chairs in Indonesia or pursuing black marketers in Amsterdam. He lives in airport lounges, discount hotels and the backs of cabs. When he gets a break like this—a four-star hotel in a picturesque location, gorgeous women planting their oversized lips on oversized wine goblets that chime when their nails ring against the glass—and he’s confined to his room, whether by dictum or common sense, he curses the likes of Dulwich and Primer—even Tommy and Grace—all those figures who in some way control him.
It’s the beer, he decides. Sometimes it fills him with elevated joy. At other times, despair. He guessed wrong tonight.
His big moment of the night comes when he wheels room service into the hall and heads to the hotel business center, an unpretentiousglorified closet containing three Dell computers and an HP printer. He transmits the videos he and Grace have taken to Hong Kong as requested. But bored—again he blames the beer—he also uploads them onto YouTube without sound. Posts them as tourist videos. Calls one up on the computer to his left, the second on the computer in front of him. Uses Rewind and Play to closely synchronize the two so they play at roughly the same minute of the day. Requests a fourth beer from room service, letting them know his location. Turns off one of the monitors as the beer is delivered.
With the opening of the door, he hears more activity from the lobby and the pulse of a Killers song. He pays for the beer. Lights up the dark monitor.
He studies the two videos side by side in ten-second clips. Chuckles to himself when he identifies the same pigeon. He can envision a children’s picture book,The Pigeon Is the Spy. Checking his mirth, he slows his consumption of the cold beer.
Person by person, nearly frame by frame, he compares faces, profiles, shoes, backpacks, head wraps and scarves. Smokers and nonsmokers. Right down to the make of cameras being used by the tourists. He keeps notes on a hotel pad using a hotel pen. The sight of the pigeon has him tracking dogs.
A hotel guest enters and prints a boarding pass on the third machine. Nothing is said between the two. But Knox knows the guy’s name and frequent flyer number, the flight he’s on and the fact that he’s not checking bags.
It’s the only interruption over a two-hour period. Knox shrinks the open windows when he takes a break to the washroom, returns to work refreshed. The cause of boredom isn’t sitting around; it’s lack of purpose. Energized by the puzzle of trying to spot similarities on the two screens, time passes quickly. The roughly one hour of video takes three hours to get through.
“Forest for the trees” becomes a mantra for him when he catches himself going screen blind. Rewinding.
When he spots the boy, he’s eager to call Grace and loop her in. But he knows the trap of such knee-jerk reactions; it’s better to finish the job and deliver a full list. Nearing midnight, he has all but settled on making the call. He’s reached the end of the two videos. Both are paused on their respective screens. Catching himself studying a woman’s backside, he runs a hand over his face: it’s bedtime.
Frozen alongside the woman is a white Mercedes G-Wagen in traffic and he’s reminded fondly of a buying spree in Morocco where he suffered two flat tires and was stung byButhus occitanus, a scorpion that caused a painful lump on his calf the size of a navel orange, an injury that nearly itched him to insanity.
“Oh, shit.” Knox says it out loud, acutely aware of his own nervous perspiration. “Fucking idiot!” A little too loudly. Doesn’t want to set off alarm bells for a sedated night desk clerk. Doesn’t like talking to himself. Hits buttons to return the two videos to their respective starts. Does his best to resynch them, but is less concerned with it this time through.
It’s all making sense now. Maybe the beer fog is lifting. Maybe it’s the stab of common sense, an ah-ha moment when the crystallization of thought coincides with reason. Maybe he’s overly tired and making less sense than he thinks. But at the moment, he’s Einstein. He’s being played by Russell Crowe or Vince Vaughn or Sullivan Stapleton. Tense music.
He deletes the two YouTube videos. Erases the history in both browsers and closes them. He returns to his room, moving with an invigorated stride. He can’t wait to call Grace.
“Are you kidding me?” He can hear Grace moving.
“In Delhi, maybe.”
“As if you were asleep.”
She doesn’t have a comeback.
“There’s a kid in the video. School uniform. I caught the backpack. Black and white. Unusual. Most of ’em are black or another solid color. This thing looks like a panda.”
“We are off the scent?” she asks, her voice more vibrant. “Not about Mashe or Akram, but one of their children? Or the child is to be used as leverage.”
“It has to be factored in.”
“Listen to you!”
He can hear the mirth in her voice. He’s used a math reference. She will take credit for it. Grace wants to change him. He wants to tell her others have tried, but he enjoys the pursuit too much to stop her now.
“You’ve been drinking,” he says. It slips out. It’s what his brain was thinking but not what he wanted to say.
An unnerving silence settles between them. He’s seen her hit the vodka before. Not often, but hard. Her reaction throws up the guilt flag.
“I’ve had four beers.” He tries to make light of it, to include her in the club. It isn’t working.
“Factored into what?”
“We were going to send the videos to Xin. What happened to that?”
“I did as you told me,” he said. That isn’t a sentence he’s used often in his life. Doesn’t sound like him. He looks around for anyone else, another speaker, but he’s all alone.
“Traffic,” he says. “We were focused on people. Faces. Shoes. Repeat visitors. We have the kid—the student, the panda—and maybe he’s worth something, but . . . listen, I don’t expect this to makesense, it’s more of intuition . . . and thinking it is one thing, saying it, another, but we’re in the business of speculation, right? Damned if we do, damned if we don’t. I watched the videos side by side, just now, trying to focus on nothing but the traffic—the cars, the trucks, motorcycles. Both lanes, okay? Forest for the trees,” he says, wondering if she’ll understand the reference. “And maybe there was . . . I mean there could have been . . . something I missed. Easily. But I tried to separate out the same vehicles, the same colors by antennas or how dirty they were, wheels, dings, stickers—anything to distinguish them. Okay? And sure, way too many Fiats, Opels and Renaults to know if I accounted for them all. It’s something your team back at the office can do better, or do again. But the one thing I did see, the one thing there was no mistaking, was a FedEx truck. White FedEx van in the near lane. North to south. If my timing’s right, and it may not be, it was maybe five minutes later the second day. But here’s the thing: in both videos, its blinker is on. Driver’s hitting the brake lights.”
“Pulling over,” Grace says.
He hears the blood in his head like a tsunami. It’s too late at night. He’s had too many beers. It was stupid to call her. He should have slept on it. You maintain your position of strength by keeping your trap shut until you know what the fuck you’re talking about. He knows this. Boy Who Cries Wolf, otherwise.
“You are brilliant,” she says softly and as intimately as if pillow talk. It arouses him. His groin is pulsing. Warming. Hardening. He wants to switch it off. Feels somewhat sick to his stomach over it. Grace? Since when?
“The text,” she says. “Hang on.”
He listens. Another rarity. She’s up and moving. He can see her in his mind’s eye. Remembers what she looks like from that hour inthe Amsterdam brothel. His friend in his pants is straining the seam of his jeans. No wonder they put rivets on the pockets.
“The fourth time,” she says—breathlessly, which doesn’t help matters. “The last time the man was at this GPS fix he sent a fifteen-string number by text.”
He doesn’t know whether to stroke his friend or ignore him. Checks that the shade is down. Works his belt loose.
“You there?” she says. He can hear her nails clicking on plastic keys.
“I’m here,” he says.
“You sound out of breath.”
“I get off on this stuff.”
“Right. If I am boring you, I can call back.”
More tapping. More images of Amsterdam. More confusion. What the hell?
“Oh . . . my . . . God. . . .”
She shouldn’t have said it. Not that way. His throat tightens. Eyes close.
“FedEx international shipments? The numbers? Fifteen digits.”
Say something more.
“This is it!”
“This is exactly what we wanted.”
“That’s it! That’s the connection. John? . . . John?”
Eventually, he speaks. “I do what I can.”
“It may be nothing, but it adds up.”
“Hong Kong can—No! What am I saying? Hold on.”
It’s way past that. He’s headed for the sink, the phone pinched to his shoulder. Six, seven minutes pass.
“Florence Nightingale,” she says. “The tracking number that was texted.”
“Brushing my teeth. Speak up.”
“Florence Nightingale Hospital. Sisli. Same district. It is on Abide-i Hürriyet Caddesi.”
“Say that three times fast.”
She misses the reference. Is about to ask him to explain.
“Date?” he says.
“Shipped overnight. Delivered the last day his GPS tagged him at this location.”
“Switzerland. The company is BioLectrics.”
He towels off. Puts the call on speakerphone while he Googles the company. Can hear her doing the same. It’s a race for him. Everything is a competition.
“Bizarre,” he says.
“Strange,” she replies.
“Medical electronics? Why would these bozos care about the delivery record for a package containing medical electronics?”
“It is too broad, too large a company. BioLectrics makes everything.” She reads, “Vascular intervention. Cardiac rhythmic management. Stents. Pumps. They run clinical trials. We need the invoice to know why this delivery is important. A product number. Product description.”
“Is this making any sense to you?” he asks.
“I got it wrong with the FedEx van?”
“It’s got to be one or the other.”
“We need more data. Do we copy David?”
There it is: the question he knew she’d ask. He wants to call her a goody-goody. Teacher’s pet. Knows he resents her rising importance in the company, an ascendance he’s witnessed over the past two years. If there’s a sacrificial lamb on Primer’s altar, it’s him. She’s immune.
“And look like we can’t figure this out ourselves?” He knows he’s appealing to her profound fear of appearing weak; he’s learned to trigger her paranoia as much as compliment her strengths, to feed her the information she needs—filtered, if necessary—to move her off of an idea and into his corner. If he had resisted her outright, she would have gotten her back up and been intractable.
He’s learning, or so he convinces himself.
Grace chides Knox for his impatience but only because she is no stranger to its irritating and unrelenting hold. It is an unusually warm fall day; golden sunlight floods the vast sea of red terra-cotta roof tiles, spills through the impossibly narrow streets, the ancient buildings so closely packed that, from a distance, they appear as a warped red mass rising slowly to the north, a packed line interrupted by pale chimneys, satellite dishes, minarets, domes and laundry lines.
On the apartment building’s rooftop, Grace occupies a patio chaise lounge. Her laptop is open as an iced tea glass sweats on the side table. Grace wears a collapsible hat; her mother has instilled in her a belief that her skin must never be exposed to the sun. She rechecks the ghost escrow account established by a Cayman lawyer’s office. No deposit has been made. She’s beginning to wonder if Akram Okle and his brother really intend to make a move for the Harmodius. If not, she and Knox will pack up and go home. For every two or three successful ops, there’s a failure. She has yet to be attached to one, dreads the day, but knows it will come.
She sloshes some of the iced tea onto the terrace’s rough gray tileas a thought paralyzes her brain like a seizure. Returns the glass to the side table with her right hand; her left is already working the computer.
Her vision dances between the expansive view, attempting to isolate a single large structure she knows is out there, and her computer’s screen, where Google maps is now open and determining her current location. Her right hand seeks out her iPhone, enters its passcode and texts a message to Knox.
Blames her racing heart on the tea. The map directs her eyes. She gets her bearings. Throws her legs off the chaise, moving to include the area 160 degrees from north.
Knox is perplexed by her text.
meet across from FNH—20 mins
Grace changes into her only pair of running shoes, not as white as she hoped, a form-fitting Nike T she wears to work out, and a pair of black yoga pants. On each op, she carries five sets of fake glasses. Selects a geeky but stylish pair. Ties a brown scarf over her head, imitating the Muslim women—far more for coverage than looks.
Has the op planned, but continues to hone it as Besim drives her across town. They pass handcarts carrying fruit, clothing and spices. Stall-sized shops manned by a merchant crouched on his haunches. The men smoke cigarettes while women toil. Boys play soccer in the streets.
Besim leaves her three blocks from her rendezvous. She must not attract attention, hopes the scarf hides her well.
On her walk, she passes a three-story white colonial on two acres behind twelve-foot rock walls. She wonders about its history, its former residents, but her mind makes no attempts to supply a story. Grace yearns for imagination. She questions what she and Knox are doing so far from home. She finds Istanbul’s continual reminders of history and the passage of time daunting. Its confused cultural identity dispirits her. She longs for the simplicity of China.
She wonders if this is contributing to her sense of vertigo. The concrete beneath her feet is undulating.
Grace locates a uniform supply store and purchases a slightly oversized nurse’s uniform. Pulling the dress on over her clothes in the dressing room, she now wears the uniform out onto the street. She carries two different colored head scarfs stuffed into her purse—tricks of the trade. Hide and seek.
Knox is enthroned at a café table, his legs stretched straight out, impossibly long as he semireclines. He’s well through a double espresso. Looks half asleep. Detroit Tigers baseball cap low over his eyes. That same windbreaker he always wears, with its many interior zippers concealing his worldly possessions.
For a split second she wonders once again what the world looks and feels like from inside the head of John Knox. Dismisses it quickly; there are times she doubts he has a single thought in his head. She has no idea what that would feel like.
He kicks back a chair for her.
“Now you’re messing with my fantasies, Nurse Jackie,” he says, admiring her garb.
On the facing street, seven-story office buildings trade places with apartments, the street-level retail space occupied by designer boutiques, camera shops, shoe stores and cellular carriers. It could as easily be a street in Moscow or Paris as Istanbul, the road divided, the island planted with scrawny immature trees. The city can go from fascinating to boring in a block.
Knox catches the attention of a twenty-something waitress with wide eyes. It’s clear she’s been awaiting his signal. She delivers a black tea with sugar substitute and milk on the side.
Grace doesn’t know whether to thank him or be annoyed with herself for being so predictable—an attribute to which she attaches negative connotations.
“So,” he says, studying the nurse’s uniform in a John Knox way that makes her incredibly self-conscious. “I can pretty much guess the first part of whatever’s going on.” He contemplates the hospital across the street. “But I seem to be missing something.”
She mixes the tea like a lab scientist. Sips. Adds a speck more sweetener. Examines her lipstick residue on the cup’s white china.
“The mother,” Grace says. She, too, looks across the street.
“Oh, shit. How stupid can we get?”
“It was late.”
“We’re idiots.” Knox attempts to process the FedEx shipment, to suss out how it connects to Akram Okle’s sick mother, who occupies a bed across the street. “What the hell?”
“I know, right?” Grace hears herself sound American. She attributes it to the two years in grad school in Southern California. Wonders if Knox notices. These expressions bubble up occasionally,catching her by surprise. She thinks of herself as entirely Chinese; not a view shared by her father, who considers her a traitor to tradition.
A young boy skateboards past. Grace instinctively squeezes her purse between her thighs.
“Why would they care about the mother?” Knox’s face is not meant for confusion. He looks boyish and lacking in confidence.
“Come on. What the hell do you hope to accomplish dressed like that?”
Knox is threatened by her fieldwork. She takes this as a compliment, but knows she still has much to learn. She wonders if a person can learn to ignore the ordered, logical, straight-line thinking that defines her. Envies the ability of his mind to spark and jump as it does.
“Before you go in there, we need to work this backward,” Knox says, his voice soft now. Sexy. “First, we have to consider whether or not the client is simply ensuring that whatever medical device the mother needs is on schedule. Perhaps he is literally tracking it, making sure no one messes with it en route. In that case, Mashe’s in league with our client and our client is simply looking out for his mother. Right?”
It’s like listening to chamber music, a melody going to an unexpected place.
“Or, the opposite, of course,” he says. “This agent interrupts the delivery of a medical device. Steals it in order to determine the true extent of her illness. Knowledge is power. Perhaps they want leverage over Mashe? Then there’s substituting one device for another. It’s more difficult and tricky, but possible.” He ruminates. She isn’t about to interrupt. Two years ago it might have been different,but they’ve both learned the footsteps of this dance. “Oh . . . God.” Her system charges with adrenaline as she meets his intense gaze. He’s looking through her.Intoher. “Long shot,” he announces, warning her. “The medical device is part of a dead drop. The device being shipped contains a data chip intended for Mashe. No Internet, no chance of interception. All you need is an insider at the device manufacturer who solders an extra memory chip into the device, and you’ve shipped information across borders. Which begs the question: who is Mashe Okle, or Mashe Melemet, or whatever name he’s traveling under this week? An Iranian arms dealer? Your financial investigation says no. An art dealer? A rich businessman? Maybe an agent, an Iranian agent? And what are the Iranians up to these days that they might be seeking classified information?”
Grace has the urge to reach across the cigarette-scarred table and take his rough face in her hands and plant a kiss on his lips. But Knox would take that as her handing him her hotel keycard. All she can do is let a ripple of excitement surge through her, sit back and sip the tea.
“You’re the computer tech,” he says. “Find him.”
“You think I have not tried? Mashe Okle’s past has been expunged.”
Knox says sarcastically, “Try harder. His university records. Scour the West for immigration records, trips abroad.”
Why is he able to conceive of a strategy she’s missed? She has asked Dulwich for Okle’s immigration records, but looking at that request through Knox’s suspicious eyes, she wonders if Dulwich has been honest with her, if there really is no significant travel out of country as Dulwich earlier reported.
“There are more than two hundred universities in Iran,” Grace says. “Do you know how long it would take to hack each of theadmission servers? Years. Do you think you can throw a switch and hack a national immigration database? You think the terrorists wouldn’t love to control such information? It is impossible, John. Firewalls as thick as the Great Wall.”
“He’s an agent,” Knox says.
“No. He is an unknown.”
“The device is a package. The mother, an unknowing courier.”
“The first step,” Grace says, “is for me to get in there and see her chart. To determine the extent of her illness. The office is working on this, too, but I can speed it up. Determine what device might have been shipped. Slip a piggyback onto the hospital’s network as I did in Amsterdam.”
Knox drags his hand down his face in frustration. “We’re off-mission,” he says. “Way off.”
She imagines Dulwich’s appreciation for her delivery of the information—her insight into Mashe’s true role and her discovery of the agent working behind the scenes. She doesn’t want to seem too eager, conceals her excitement from Knox. “You are right. We should perhaps go back to our respective rooms. Await contact from Akram. Proceed as intended.”
“Says the woman in the nurse’s uniform.”
Grace hangs her head demurely. Caught. These acts of contrition seem to be in her DNA, passed down a hundred generations. There is no place for such reactions in her professional life; she wishes she could rid herself of them. She strains to lift her head, but her neck muscles resist. Rigor mortis.
“We need Sarge to come clean.”
“David has been consistent, John. He has emphasized Need To Know protocol and demanded we protect the wishes of the client. You are correct, we are off-mission.” Knox reacts best to reverse psychology.
“We should return to our lodgings. Regroup.”
“Of course we should,” Knox says.
“If you go in the hospital, you are impossible to miss,” Grace says. “Whereas I am far more invisible.”
“You sell yourself short.”
She wonders if she was fishing for the compliment. Worries she was.
“How do you expect to find her room? It’s a big hospital.”
“Taken care of,” she says. Answers his inquisitive look. “I was forced to pull her account financials to get the lead on Mashe. Her room number is four-three-one.”
“Four-thirty-one,” he says correcting her. “You can be so Chinese.”
“I’ll flag a taxi,” Knox says. “I’ll find an alternative exit—something other than the front lobby—and text you my location. You will call me now, leave the line open. I want to hear everything you’re up to.”
“Agreed,” she says. It’s standard operating procedure, at least for the two of them.
“Nothing absurd,” he cautions. “You may meet some of these people later.”
“An in-and-out.” A look overcomes him.
“That’s what Sarge called it. Made it sound so—”
“That is his job,” Grace reminds him.
GRACESLIPSinto the nurse’s role as effortlessly as she donned the uniform. She crosses the hospital lobby head bent, shoulders slumped and the head scarf worn down her forehead as a brim to screen her face. She rides the elevator aware of the likelihood of security cameras.
She walks out onto the fourth floor wanting to impart a sense of familiarity with the floor plan when in fact it’s foreign to her. Many of the men in the waiting area wear the ubiquitous black leather jacket and she wonders if any of Mashe Okle’s bodyguards are among them. She angles her head away.
She marvels at how small the op’s boundaries have become. They are shrink-wrapped by a need for secrecy, by the clandestine nature of the work. Everyone wants the same thing while no one knows exactly what they want.
Three hallways extend like spokes off the hub of a semicircular nurse’s desk that roils with activity. It’s like an airline check-in counter twenty minutes before the flight. Doctors, nurses and orderlies swarm together with a clear delineation of power visible in who concedes to whom for countertop space.
Spotting an incorrect room number, she pivots in a course change and bumps into a doctor. Recovering, she moves toward the Melemet mother’s room. She didn’t need the tea; she’s riding an unhappy marriage of caffeine and adrenaline. Visitors crowd the rooms into which she peers. Some emit laughter. Some stifle sniffles or tears. Grace processes it in her gut rather than her head, suddenly weighed down by loss and shattered hopes. She harbors a fear of illness. Is worried that someday one of these beds will hold her mother or father; recognizes that her mother would welcome her company, but would her father allow her in? Worries she has waited too longto repair the damage between her and her father—heritage, generational tradition, familial honor. She allowed the love of a boy—a mere boy!—to separate them. Her father has not reached out to her since; but neither has she.
She must focus. The trick—the skill in such situations—is invisibility, to move among others in such an obnoxiously mundane manner as to not exist. The scarf and glasses create a decent enough disguise. What she must prevent is anyone addressing her or paying her any attention. She will, with any luck, meet Akram Okle in the near future.
Grace counts on a degree of racial prejudice as well as the white dress to help her blend in. Having already determined that the patient charts are stored at the foot of the bed, not in wall racks in the hallways, she knows she must infiltrate. She clears her throat; if required to speak, she will affect a moderately high, annoying voice with a Chinese accent, much like her mother’s. She can adopt the identity without thought, so accustomed was she to mocking her mother when with her brother.
Barely checking her stride, she enters room 431. Seeing only the far bed occupied, she walks steadily toward the chart that waits for her like a raised finger.
Beyond the partially pulled curtain sits a man; he’s facing away from her and toward the older woman in the bed. Occupying a stool on the window side is a man in his sixties with a thick white mustache and thin white hair.
Grace’s throat is dry as she slips the clipboard from the clear plastic pocket.
She has already asked Xin and the Hong Kong office to work backward from the woman’s hospital charges to determine her likely illness. It’s ongoing. Grace’s mission here is to look for scheduled surgery prep or the mention of a medical device that could be oneof the many BioLectrics products. She scans the first page. Nothing. She senses all eyes on her as she flips to the second. Scans this. Nothing. The third.
“Everything is good?” In Turkish.
Grace is confident in her execution of a limited vocabulary. “Yes,” comes easily. “Routine,” follows, also spoken well. She keeps her eyes low out of deference and respect, lowers her head, takes four steps and encounters a leather jacket.
“Excuse me,” she says, head still down.
“You are?” English, with a thickly Arabic accent.
“In a hurry, if you do not mind?”
The younger man behind the curtain, Akram or Mashe, she assumes, laughs.
“Easy!” this man says, instructing the one in front of Grace. “Let them do their work.”
“This one is new to us,” the bodyguard says.
The sitting man is standing now. He rakes back the privacy curtain angrily. “You have interviewed the entire hospital staff, I suppose?” Persian. Iranian. His irritation with his guards intrigues her; she compartmentalizes it for later analysis. This one, she is sure, is Mashe. “Let them do their jobs! The sooner my mother is well, the better for all of us. Do you hear me?”
The jacket steps aside. Grace has yet to look higher than the guard’s belt.
“I am sorry, nurse,” Mashe says.
Grace nods and passes into the corridor. She hears rapid footsteps approaching from behind.
An orderly runs past.
Grace bites back a smile. She eyes the chaotic nurse’s station, checks down the hall and spots one of Mashe’s guards. He is watching her, compounding his earlier distrust.
The guard sidles toward the nurse’s station. He’s calm and introspective, exceptionally smooth and practiced at appearing that way. In a few short steps he tells her more about Mashe Okle’s importance than she knew even following all her research.
Grace must not overreact. She and this man are testing one another. The crush of bodies is claustrophobic, preventing her from a quick escape. She eyes the elevators. The stairs are her second option. Men like him are deceptively fast in spite of their size. She’d rather not test him.
Grace doesn’t want a close quarters confrontation. She’s capable of self-defense, is as well trained as he. But the man has eighty pounds on her and a longer reach. It will be possible to postpone the damage, but only that. Instead, her best bet is to get out front and then keep it a race, all the while not allowing him to realize what’s going on. It’s time for smoke and mirrors.
The best way to accomplish this reality break is to instill doubt, to reaffirm her cover. Rather than separate herself from the nurse’s station, she turns and briefly joins three nurses studying paperwork. The guard can’t force his way into the nurse’s station. Instead, he comes around the front, eyes boring into Grace’s back.
Grace manages to block the background noise like noise-canceling headphones. She hears the guard ask someone if he could please speak “with her.” She feels the heat run up her spine. He explains he’s unfamiliar “with her” and that he wishes to discuss why she was just examining the chart in 431.
As this mostly one-way conversation carries on behind her, Grace quietly introduces herself to the two nurses as an employee of the Ministry of Health, an introduction that runs shivers up their spines. Her Turkish is passable, but since the ministry might easily employ doctors and scientists from around the globe, Grace is not overly concerned. She allows them to hear that she’s checking standardsand practices and that the annoying man at the counter behind them is about to unintentionally expose her, which will defeat her purpose here and might reflect poorly on the hospital.
She leaves it at that. No direct request, no suggestion as to how they conduct themselves.
When the woman at the counter tries to gain Grace’s attention, the older of the two nurses turns and chides her. They are not to be disturbed. If a patient’s guest needs something, they should apply to the attending nurse.
Grace keeps her attention on the paperwork.
A minute later, she overhears the receptionist asking the man to move on, pointing out the posted signs requesting that guests occupy either the waiting area or a patient’s room, but leave the corridors clear. Grace wishes she’d had the time and foresight to print bogus business cards—so useful at a time like this. The bodyguard has chosen the small waiting area, more of an alcove with airport seats, enabling him to keep an eye on the elevators and stairs.
Grace studies the metal engraved fire diagram mounted in the nurse’s station. There’s an exit at the end of each of the three corridors. Physical therapy takes place in the east corridor; she spots several patients walking slowly, holding on to the rolling stands carrying their IVs. It’s the busier of the two corridors available to her.
She leaves the station without so much as a glance toward the waiting area. She has at least a thirty-foot lead. She must pull this off without arousing suspicion, without compromising the op.
It’s a magic trick she has planned. She notes the location of a mobile laundry bin well down the corridor. She can use the knot of the slow-moving patients and their nurses to her advantage. Assumes but does not confirm that the guard is following her.
She can imagine that from his vantage point, he will briefly losesight of her among the addled parade of staggering patients when she enters a patient’s room. He will slow, maintaining a position that provides him with a line of sight to the doorway. But his view will be obscured for at least several long seconds.
He will try to see around the patients walking the corridor blocking his view.
When and if he dares to enter the hospital room, he will find its privacy curtains pulled back, exposing occupied beds. There will be no attendant in sight. No nurse. Nothing to suggest the woman he was following. She has vaporized.
He may try several more rooms. Eventually he will return to the nurse’s station.
“The woman? Brown head scarf? Short?”
The nurse stares at him as if he’s daft. “No idea.”
“The woman you were talking to.”
“Who are you?” she asks. “Why do you ask this?” The nurse knows that the Ministry of Health can make a world of problems if it so chooses.
He will not think to look into the laundry bin parked in the hallway, would have to dig to see a white nurse’s uniform and brown head scarf buried two layers down. Has only a vague recollection of a woman slipping into the stairway. Was she wearing yoga pants and an Under Armour top? He gives it no weight whatsoever, his full attention on finding the missing nurse who paid an unexpected visit to 431, who glimpsed the man there he’s sworn to protect.
Grace’s descent of the stairs is controlled but hurried. She moves quietly and stays close to the wall; she will not be seen nor heard by someone peering down into the narrow slit separating railings. She moves landing to landing like a wraith. Arrives at the street level and walks out into the cool air.
A taxi waits, a dark figure looming in the backseat.
Knox throws open the door. She climbs in. Knox says, “Go!” in Turkish. The cab rolls.
“Well?” Knox says.
Grace looks straight ahead as she shakes her head.
She repeats the gesture.
“No procedure scheduled?”
She looks into his gray-green eyes, chameleon eyes, sometimes blue, sometimes nearly brown. Lets him know that she’s as puzzled as he.
“Then why? Why the package?”
She has no answer that will satisfy. She can run them in circles, but imagines he’s already there with her, coming back around in an endless loop that will begin to ring like feedback in his ears. No easy explanation. No concise meaning or rationale for a probable agent tracking the movement of a shipment of medical supplies, but too many coincidences to discount.
Knox is taking them in the direction of his hotel. The cab leaves the busy streets for back alleys. The Chinese know how to keep their cities clean and free of litter. The Turks could learn a thing or two from them, Grace thinks.
“The package could be something pertaining to an earlier procedure,” she suggests. “The pieces must fit. They are not random.”
“Sarge knows,” he says accusingly. Emphatically.
“We are expected to operate blind.”
“Because he knew we might have questions,” he says. “Questions he doesn’t want to answer. So the real question is: why doesn’t he want to answer them?”
The cab pulls over. They stand on the sidewalk across from the Alzer Hotel.
“The client sent the package,” Knox speculates. “There’s a courierin the hospital who’s supposed to get something from the package to Mashe. It can all happen inside the mother’s hospital room—a controlled environment.”
“Protected by bodyguards,” she said. “They were afraid maybe I was planting a listening device, a camera. Just now. At the hospital.”
“But if this is about an exchange, then why the Harmodius and my five minutes with Mashe? What’s the point?”
“Electronics hidden in the sculpture?”
“No. They’ll X-ray it as part of the authentication. It has to be clean. Even so, what could be gained? Why do they need those five minutes?”
“I agree. I do not see the purpose of our involvement.”
“You need to contact Sarge.”
Her neck makes a pop, she spins her head so quickly.
“Use Xin to track him. I won’t contact him electronically. I understand how that could compromise us all. But in person? In the right setting? That’s different. If he fires us, he fires us. We need answers.”
“It is a mistake, John. We need first to know who Mashe is. My trail, the electronic trail, is nonexistent. But the brother . . .”
“Will never tell me anything,” Knox says. “And to ask . . .”
“There must be someone who knows this man!”
In his mind’s eye, Knox sees a woman opening a door for him. Sees her plaintive expression as she realizes she has betrayed him to the Jordanian police.
“Maybe there is,” he says.21
When Knox picks up the voice mail, he extends the iPhone to arm’s length, studying it as if it’s from another planet. He’s so nonplussed he doesn’t hear the message clearly the first time, only the woman’s voice; he has to start it again. Takes it off speakerphone and puts it to his ear. The SIM chip in the device is the phone number he uses for op contacts. He routinely checks it for text and voice messages.
He considers himself calm and rational, avoids emotional response and drama as much as possible when on the job. But he knows he can’t keep his heart out of his decisions or his head out of his motives. He doesn’t take kindly to coincidence; he’s programmed toward paranoia when it rears its head.
Years ago, inside a hotel room in a distant province of China, he complained to his roommate that hotel housekeeping had failed to leave complimentary bottles of filtered water; less than three minutes later, there was a knock, and the water was delivered. Coincidence? Only if the word is spelled “eavesdropping.”
But how could anyone have eavesdropped on his thoughts? He didn’t actually tell Grace that gallery owner Victoria Momani mightbe able to shed light on Mashe Okle. Yet it is her voice speaking cryptically from his phone.
“Orhan’s minis. Before fourteen.”
She is in Istanbul. His stomach turns.
This is an in-and-out, a week tops.
Knox didn’t give her his number, but her phone trapped his original incoming call. This shows him she is facile and a quick study. But what does she want?
He’s overreacting; he was going to have to contact her anyway; she has done him the favor.
But he thinks back to the water bottles in the hotel regardless.
The cryptic message can be taken one of two ways: she doesn’t want others to quickly or easily know the location of their meet; or she wants Knox to take her precautions as an indication that this is between the two of them when she’s actually leading him into a trap. As she’s betrayed him once already, she doesn’t have history on her side.
Quickly he switches SIM chips, starts walking while searching the midday traffic for an available taxi. He never uses the op SIM chip anywhere near his lodging in case callers intend to trace his location through a GPS fix. He’s up near Vatan Lisesi, a high school well away from the Alzer Hotel, when he dials.
Grace answers on the second ring.
He says, “‘Orhan’s minis.’ Mean anything to you?” He only has twenty minutes to make the rendezvous. He’s counting on Grace.
“Orhan Pamuk,” she says. The name resonates with Knox, but he can’t place it so he stays quiet.
Knox has it. “The writer.”
“The Nobel laureate. Correct.” She sounds as if she is barelytolerating him. “Dr. Pamuk has said his novelMy Name Is Redwas inspired by Islamic miniatures.”
“Orhan’s minis,” Knox says. “Where do I find them?”
“Stand by,” she says. He hears her nails spiriting along a plastic keyboard. “Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum. Down by—”
“Terzihane Square, more accurately.”
“I know the museum.”
“What do I need to know?” she asks.
A dozen wisecracks fill his head. He says instead, “Making progress. Might have Xin track this number for the next two hours.”
“Just as insurance.”
He ends the call before Grace becomes all motherly.
ENTERINGTHEPALACEGROUNDS, Knox proceeds through immaculate landscaping over grouted stone, gets the impression of a cloister or an Oxford garden. With the sounds of the city reduced to a distant hum, he hears a bird sing brightly and marvels at the age of the massive tree that leans in an ungainly fashion against the sign directing him to the museum entrance. A four-foot-tall pottery urn rests against ground cover. The interior courtyard housing the museum has the feel of a monastery. A confluence of architectural devices and methods causes Knox to think Turkish Tudor.
Once inside, the museum is warm colors, tapestries and dioramas. Dark wood posts support the ceilings. The smell of lanolin is in the air. He passes ancient brass bells, stone sundials and Asian armor.
“The Turks must have had superior eyesight to do such intricatework,” Knox says, speaking over the shoulder of Victoria Momani. If she’s a spy, she’s not a very good one; she’s more interested in the displays than Knox’s arrival.
And he answers himself: perhaps a very clever one.
He has taken his time. He questions if the man with the newspaper tucked under his arm, a man currently studying a tin incense burner, is in fact listening to the recorded guided tour. Has the audio player been replaced with a two-way radio? Maybe Victoria isn’t paying attention to him because the others surrounding him are.
Having located two security camera bubbles, he keeps a post between himself and one camera while using Victoria to partially block the other.
“The first writings of magnifying lenses date back to a play by Aristophanes. Four hundred years before Christ,” she says, continuing to study the details of a hanging rug.
One cool woman,he thinks. It’s as if they’d rehearsed the meeting.
“On vacation?” he asks. “You should have told me ahead of time.”
She moves to the next hanging rug, Knox following like an obedient dog. He knows of only one alternative exit, and it’s not close by.
“I meet you in courtyard, ten minutes. I am not finished with gallery.”
He suppresses a flash of anger; it’s not easy, given his fatigue. Wants to wring Dulwich’s neck for not being more up-front with him and Grace.
Outside, he doesn’t know if he has the right courtyard. Finds the building as beautiful as the artifacts it contains. It’s a Muslim Frick on steroids, possibly the most architecturally stunning museum he’s ever been inside.
He sits outside at a two-person table in the shadow of plane trees. She approaches with a model’s gait, a confident swagger that puts him back on his heels. A yellow head scarf frames her face; her browncardigan hangs open over a yellow and green floral top, flared white linen pants. She wears the scarf for fashion, not out of religious obligation; many Muslim women are Westernized here. Gold and silver bangles rattle. A beaded metal necklace bounces against her chest.
Once she reaches him, she hesitates. Knox stands and draws back the chair; she sits. She places a gray leather clutch in her lap. Waits for him to take his seat across from her.
“I have not seen man move as you did when we last met.”
“I was a gymnast in college.”
“No,” he says. “I majored in Budweiser.”
Her condescending expression says:If you are trying for charming, it is not working.She doesn’t speak.
His eyes reply:When I try for charming, you’ll be the first to know.
“I’m tired,” he says, apologizing. “Sleeping with one eye open has that effect on me.”
“Afraid? You? I think not.”
“Cautious. I’m not a fan of surprises. Though I make exceptions for a phone call from a beautiful woman.”
“So quick with flattery,” Victoria Momani says.
“I’m hoping this is a social call.”
“After your escape,” she says, “I was detained by authorities.”
“I don’t doubt it.” He looks around. “And now? Are you working with them?”
“I was questioned by Ministry of Culture,” she says. Her dark eyes catch the sky and go pewter. She looks alien. “I believed your VAT explanation,” she adds. “Stupid of me. When Ministry of Culture is involved I think to myself, What is Obama hiding? Why would ministry make such involvement?”
“What did you tell them?”
“I am an art dealer.” Victoria considers him. “You? You are government agent? Working for Mashe? Who else? You are selling to Akram. Yes? This puts him at great risk. All for the older brother. Of this, I have little doubt. Mashe gets whatever he wants. Always. He runs Akram around like his slave. I will take twenty percent of whatever deal you are making, or I report you to Turkish and Jordanian authorities. At very least, they interrupt your sale and detain you. Make business difficult for you.”
“Perhaps ministry discover you hide stolen art—I am guessing an antiquity—and they put you in jail for long time. I come out hero. Paid reward.”
His chest tightens like stepping into bitterly cold air. “Extortion?”
“It would be mistake to doubt me,” she says.
“Seven-point-five percent,” Knox says. “Even this will make you rich.”
“Ten is final,” he says. “And I get everything you know or have ever heard about Mashe Okle.”
“You are government agent,” Victoria claims.
“I am not. We’ve done this before, you and I. Make the call. Turn me in. They’ll never find the piece. You’ll have ten percent of nothing. And I’ll walk.”
“Because he’s the buyer, according to you. Possibly for the other pieces I’ve sold to Akram as well.”
“Definitely. Mashe is collector. Mashe will go to great lengths to acquire. It is maybe disease for him. Like drugs to addicted.”
“I make a point of knowing my buyers better than they know themselves. Keeps me out of trouble.”
“This, I understand,” Victoria says.
“The full download on Mashe. You know ‘download’?”
“Yes!” She’s insulted. He reminds himself: don’t talk down to her.
“And ten percent.” Knox adds, “Rich. Very rich.”
She eyes him cautiously. He knows how the rugs inside must have felt. “I will be present at appraisal.”
“Not going to happen.” He adds, “Understand?’”
“Akram will trust appraisal one hundred percent more with me in room.”
“I am not involving you.”
“In this way I know true value of sale and ensure I am not cheated.”
“What will Akram think of that?” he says testily.
“I just explain. You will propose me as person in middle. Akram remains in love with me. You will see.”
I don’t doubt it,Knox thinks. “Middleman,” he quips.
She nods faintly. “That, or Turkish cultural ministry. You make choice.”
Reaching inside his jacket and searching among the many zippers, he pulls out a small journal. Raises it. Shows her the pen he intends to write with.
“I won’t agree until I see how much detail you can provide.”
“The start? The first time I meet Akram?”
“Why not? I’m a good listener,” Knox says.
The story she tells plays out as a tale of promise and expectation. Victoria and Akram—Knox starts thinking of them as Victoria and Albert—met at one of her gallery openings during a Saturday-night gallery walk in the former embassy district, now the artsy, chic neighborhood of Jabal al-Weibdeh.
She knows his restaurant, has eaten there and is impressed by his humility, his knowledge of art. He’s ruggedly handsome yet soft-spoken. She spends more time than usual with him, while she knows she should be spreading herself around the crowded gallery. He buys two pieces, both from her back room, regional artists he collects, pieces she would have liked to own.
He charms her without outwardly trying. Avoids flirting. They talk history and architecture and film. Tells her to call ahead if she’s planning on coming to his restaurant—especially if she’s coming alone.
She sees it as an irresistible offer, puts an anxious week between the gallery walk and the dinner. He has held a window table for her. It’s set for two. The meal lasts three hours. He gives her a ride home on the back of his vintage American motorcycle and never once fishes for an invitation upstairs.
For their next date, he flies her to Istanbul, where he owns another restaurant. They gallery-hop, feast and spend the night in a two-bedroom hotel suite. Victoria blushes. Skips ahead.
Akram travels a good deal between Irbid, Amman, Istanbul and Ankara, where, at the time, he was starting a fourth restaurant. The courtship is romantic, undemanding, the best months of her life. She imagines giving him a family and knows he, too, is thinking about it.
On a trip to Istanbul, Victoria is introduced to his vacationing older brother and family elder, Mashe.
“Akram was different around Mashe. Weak. No spine.” Her voice tightens. “Mashe . . . how would you say? . . . Heassertshimself. We fight over something unimportant. Imagine how I feel when Akram takes brother’s side.”
“As territorial as dog is Mashe. I needed hair dryer. This is all!”
“He got angry over a hair dryer? You’ve lost me,” Knox says.
It pains her to talk about it. “I went into his room, you see? This is where hair dryer was to be found. On bed is ring. Stupid plastic ring. I look at this ring. It is blue. Has different family name. I ask him about this ring with different name. He makes explosion. Yes?”
“What kind of blue ring? Turquoise? A gem stone?”
“I tell you! Plastic ring! Worthless. Ugly. Very big,” she says, spinning several of her own rings on her fingers.
“His name was engraved?” Knox’s interest is heightened.
“Labeled. Like hospital bracelet. Not decorative ring. Functional. Not his name. Different last name. No big thing. Correct? Just on bed with keys. Wallet.”
“A blue plastic ring.”
“Are you listening?”
“I am,” Knox says. “It was big. It had a name on it. He was upset you had seen it.”
“Upset? He did not mention the ring, but he grabbed it up like a gambler with the die. Pocketed it. Exploded, shouting about how a man’s room is private, about how I had no permission to intrude upon his privacy. It is cultural.” Her expression changes to astonishment. “I am telling you these things, but I do not know your name. Is it Knox or Chambers?”
“Chambers” was the name he used on the FedEx package. He assumes she has discussed him with Akram, that the use of two names won’t surprise her given the fact that he was trying to smuggle out art. They’ve reached a tipping point. The ring, the argument with Mashe—it holds significance. His skin prickled with sweat tells him so. Close.
“Knox.” The truth is easier to defend.
“In our culture, John Knox, even Jordanian women . . .” She doesn’t complete the thought.
He needs to move her away from the ring’s importance. Doesn’t want her connecting the dots the way he has. “It caused a rift. Between you and Akram.”
She assays him. Her eyes grow nervous. “I will be watching you, and I will turn you over to the ministry without a second thought. Do you understand?”
“Mashe is the collector. I need to know it all.” He pauses. He’s gone too far. Decides on a more direct approach. “The last name on the ring, for instance. Something . . . it would allow me . . . I could run a credit check against that name. My accountant is here in Istanbul.” He tries to seed his operational cover; hopes Victoria might pass this tidbit about Grace along. “She will run the credit check, do background. You don’t sell this particular work without a firewall in place. You understand?”
“You don’t approve.”
“I am art dealer, Mr. Knox. You are art smuggler. The enemy.”
“Same things,” she says. “A divorce, perhaps. Adoption following a remarriage? It was never explained to me. Akram would not discuss it.”
Knox tries not to hide his confusion.
“Okle is the mother’s family name,” she says.
“Both brothers took their mother’s maiden name? Doesn’t sound like a remarriage to me.”
“The name on the ring. Mashe—”
“Melemet,” Knox says. The ring, “labeled like a hospital bracelet,” holds significance. Is Mashe Melemet a medical doctor on some kind of mission? Based in Iran? His brain spins, seeking out the most outrageous possibilities. An MD whose patient list includes Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
Knox recalls Grace mentioning that Mashe’s investments were heavily weighted toward scientific companies. He sees Mashe Okle in a new light.
“How could you know this? How could you possibly know this?”
Knox chides himself for always needing to prove he’s a step ahead. His mind races, looking for an out.
“A man named Melemet was the owner of the Jordanian restaurant prior to Akram. Records show he sold it for a third of its value. I never understood that transaction—but now I see: it was Akram selling it to himself after he changed his name. Simply updating the new name on the property would have left too easy a trail to follow.”
“Who are you, Mr. Knox?”
She nods demurely.
“One cannot be too careful,” he says.
“Nor too thin, nor too rich.”
He appreciates the attempt. Grace is humor-challenged, pragmatic and grounded in fact. The few attempts she makes at jokes register with Knox as lame clichés. As with so many people, she’s at her funniest when it comes unintentionally. Why he’s thinking about her is beyond him.
“You and Akram. Were serious?”
“Was I sleeping with him?”
Together they stop and appreciate a trio of intricately inlaid tables. The style is too busy for Knox’s taste, but there’s no dismissing the artistry. Why, he wonders, is such detail only seen in coastal Mediterranean cultures? Turkey. Morocco. Libya.
She says, “As if it is any of your business.”
“You wish to make it your business. Our business.” She establishes eye contact. All knowing. Serene. “It makes things messy.”
He’s thinking bedsheets. She is not.
“Ten percent. I am expecting six figures U.S.”
He coughs. “Low fives if we’re lucky.”
“I call the ministry now? I believe they will be interested in what Mr. Obama is hiding.”
“I think we can hold off on that.”
“You would not like Turkish prison, Mr. Knox.”
He remembers saying the same thing to Dulwich. What happened to a week of pay-per-view movies in the hotel and a five-minute meet-and-greet?22
Grace has to see his face when she tells him. Though she’s unsure when competition became an integral part of her relationship with Knox, she nonetheless cannot resist a chance to put a hash mark in her column.
She video-Skypes his phone. When he doesn’t answer, she sends a text. Five impatient minutes later, Knox answers her video call. He looks tired.
“We could not have been more wrong,” she says, enjoying the look of confusion overtaking his face. It’s a handsome face, though she hopes he doesn’t know she sees it this way. “Actually,” she confesses, “you were close. In some ways, close.”
“You’re enjoying this way too much,” Knox says.
“The brother’s blue plastic ring is a Landauer dosimeter ring. Science, yes. However, a specific medical—”
“Hazmat. Dosimeters measure exposure to toxins—”
“And radiation,” Grace says, interrupting. “Landauer manufactures radiation dosimeters. In this case, a finger ring that carries your identity, as your lady friend said.” She enjoys needling Knox about his promiscuity; though she’s plucked the occasionalbusinessman off a bar stool, she’s not proud of it. Currently her sex life is dismal to nonexistent. She is far more conservative than Knox, but that doesn’t take much. It also means she doesn’t see him as competition to her current life plan, which includes great financial gain and—eventually—her own security company. Rutherford Risk has paid too little attention to cyber crime and financial malpractice, two areas on which she would like her investigative company to focus. She cannot compete, nor would she, with Knox in the field. She considers it a symbiosis, mutualism more than parasitism, but if necessary she can see herself learning from him and draining him of his knowledge at his own expense, like a tick.
“Ahmadinejad is being treated for cancer?”
“Who said anything about Ahmadinejad?”
“Since when do bodyguards and agents follow a doctor around if—”
She brings a file up on the screen that hides him for a moment, though the video connection remains active in a window beneath.
“Mashe Melemet is a PhD, not an MD. He may design medical radiation equipment, but he does not practice on it.” Grace blames Knox for this cat-and-mouse gameplay. Prior to her working with John Knox, Grace was all facts and figures. She bowed at the altar of numbers. Knox has trained her by example to tease with information. She has come to enjoy the game. Immensely.
“What have you done?”
“I placed a call requesting his university transcripts, which were e-mailed to me.”
“This is why you are calling. You’re calling to crow.”
“Mashe Melemet took his doctorate at the Physics Institute’s LHEP—the Laboratory for High Energy Physics at UniversitätBern. His early research and published material, highly regarded.” She gives him the best smug look she can conjure. “He studied abroad eleven years. Returned to Iran. He teaches for eight months and then goes off the grid.”
“MasheOklesurfaces,” Knox says, speculating while emphasizing the change in family name. Nuclear physics.This is the Middle East.
“I love puzzles.” It’s true. Grace’s attraction to accounting, forensic accounting in particular, is the precision of the numbers always needing to agree. She loves a world where everything balances. Harmony. It’s the polar opposite of the family discord that drove her to seek independence.
“Jesus,” Knox says.
Grace gloats. She wants so badly to see his face. Is about to minimize the file in order to see the video window when the door to her apartment breaks open behind her.
Two men come at her, closing the distance before she fully swivels in her chair. Sitting is a position of vulnerability. She knows it. They know it. As she flexes to stand, one of them stiff-arms her back into the chair. Grace swings her foot, aiming for the outside of the other’s knee, but it’s a powerless blow and he barely reacts. Grace could try to fight, but reason gets the better of her.
The men reach for her, clearly expecting resistance. But Grace uses their tactics against them, allowing them to turn her back to the keyboard. One pins her arms as the other struggles to get a cloth bag over her head. This gesture triggers the floodgates of terror: confinement, torture, rape. She screams, bucking and writhing and straining to be free. A hand clamps over the bag, muffling her, hits her hard enough that her lips swell and she tastes blood. This, in turn, causes another instinctive struggle to be free.
Rutherford Risk deals with kidnapping on nearly a daily basis.Negotiation. Dead drops. The tracking and freeing of hostages accounts for over half of Rutherford Risk’s revenue. In this matter, Grace is far too well informed.
She is overpowered—itself a dreadful feeling. Her left hand stretches blindly for the keyboard. It’s a three key combination. Her first try misses. She fights to pull her right arm from the man’s containing grasp. He’s now bear-hugging from the side. She snaps her head decisively, knowing that the crown of the forehead can deliver a head butt with surprising strength and sustainability.
But that’s unavailable. Taking the blow just above her ear sends sparks shooting across her vision. Her opponent didn’t see it coming, though. He loosens his hold. It’s not much, more a reflex relaxation as the nervous system is stunned, but it’s enough for a final blind try at the keyboard.
Grace slides the index finger of her left hand across the keys, feeling for the raised bump on the F. Her middle and ring fingers form an isosceles triangle and she pushes down, with no way of determining if she has succeeded.
She hears the lid of the machine smack closed. Her hands are secured with a plastic tie. She’s gagged with duct tape; then the hood is lowered a second time. Stuff flies noisily off the desk. She imagines them taking both the laptop and iPhone power cords. In her mind’s eye: a face similar to one of the men guarding Mashe Okle. The same man?
Hears something dragging across the floor as she’s moved toward the door. Each man has her under an armpit. She makes herself dead weight, letting her bound ankles drag.
They bump her down the fire exit stairs, indifferent to her pain. She’s shoved into a car; a minivan based on the sound of its sliding door.
“Turn it off. Pull the SIM.”
Some noise indicating effort. “Yes.”
“Battery from the laptop.”
The discussion between them is in Persian and surprisingly level-voiced. She retires any thought of overpowering them—it’s impossible with her wrists and ankles secured. The poison of fear has overcome her. She attempts to see through it and focus on the story. Story is everything. Story is the key to her survival.23
Because of his brother Tommy’s often unstable and unpredictable condition, Knox uses a phone app to automatically record their video conversations. The same app records Grace’s abduction.
The video is jumpy, contributing to its surreal look. The first nail of panic spikes his chest; he works to remove it, strains to emotionally distance himself from Grace, knowing the importance of his response to her recovery.
His voice is deliberately, eerily calm, though his fingers tremble slightly as he dials Rutherford Risk’s emergency response number.
A fax tone. He keys in his ID. Three pronounced clicks.
“Case number?” A man’s voice.
Knox doesn’t recall being given one. “Unknown.” He recites his contract ID.
“ID comes back ‘on leave.’”
“Leave? I’m on an op, you idiot! My partner’s a two-oh-seven! Do your job. I need a track-and-trace ASAP. Give me Digital Services!” Two-oh-seven is the police code used for a kidnapping.
He connects with Kamat, Xin’s boss. Again, Knox uses the police code 207. Kamat’s reaction is professional and immediate.
“GPS tracks two blocks south-southeast and goes off-grid.”
“I will prioritize her signal with the lat/longs to be transmitted to you. Text number, please.” He sounds like he’s asking for a prescription.
Knox recites the phone number for the SIM chip currently in his phone. He repeats, “South-southeast?”
“For Istanbul? They are not web available. Is it possible for us to hack the system? Likely. Probable, even. Six to ten hours.”
“You’ve got operatives in theater here!”
“You’re shown as on leave. I see no case number. Admin error, I suppose. But we are currently blind to you and the op.”
“Well, how about we change that?”
“And I need traffic cams! Now!”
Hearing his own tone of voice, Knox apologizes. No sense in taking this out on Kamat. Sarge or some bean counter has screwed up the paperwork. Murphy’s Law.
He puts himself in Grace’s shoes.
“Set alerts for traffic incidents or accidents,” he tells Kamat. “Alarms. Police, fire and ambulance deployments. Traffic violations. Erratic driving.”
“Copy,” Kamat says.
“I’m sending over a low-rez vid of the abduction. Request facerecognition. Clothing. Voice. Tats. Anything you can give me on these two.”
Knox e-mails the video in three parts. Wants to do more.Now!The “rapture of capture” that he typically experiences—the palpable excitement brought on by his being hired for an extraction—is absent. Instead, he cares, cares deeply about the outcome, though he knows such emotion is more of a liability than an asset. The mantra that reverberates through his mind is this:Grace can take care of herself; I know her; her captors have no clue what they’ve taken on.
Through the anxiety, a hint of a grin steals across his face. Then a grimace, the sting of impatience. Her abduction implies her flat was under surveillance.
Knox calls Kamat back. “The cell phone Grace had you geo-track. Has that number popped back up on the grid?”
“That was Xin, I believe.”
“I can check the records. One thing to consider is an IMEI trace.”
“Give me the shorthand.”
“A different way to follow a phone. Hardware versus phone number. IMEI information moves with your billing. In a couple hours—”
“I need this now.”
“One last thing . . .” Knox has been considering how to approach this. He doesn’t want to admit that he’s out of contact with Dulwich; that could raise a red flag. Given that he’s listed as “on leave,” it might look to Kamat like Knox has gone rogue.
He continues. “Dulwich doesn’t want me contacting him directly on this op. This info is top priority.”
“I can contact him. No problem, John. You want to dictate the message? Stand by.” A beat. “Go.”
“G-C two-oh-seven. J-K Alzer.” The police code “207” to inform Dulwich about the kidnapping. “J-K” to indicate Knox is registered at the Alzer under his own name, not an alias.
Knox waits for Kamat to read back his message.
“Perfect,” Knox says.
So is Grace.
KNOX’SPHONEVIBRATESas he’s on his way to Grace’s apartment. It’s a text with three lat/long coordinates and times; Knox transfers them to the phone’s mapping app. The coordinates are eight, four and two hours old. Kamat has managed to lift a phone’s IMEI from a cell carrier’s logs. It’s for the man who kept vigil outside Grace’s apartment, the man who sat on a bench at the Sisli Mosque. A patient man. The eight-hour and two-hour locations are within a block of one another—at their center, the apartment housing Mashe Okle/Melemet whose address Grace provided to Knox.
Knox rides the Metro to Kabatas and the funicular up the steep hill to Taksim. Out on the streets again he enjoys the view across the Bosphorus, which is busy with white-wake ferries and boat traffic, to the city’s Asian side. Knox is unable to appreciate the beauty; instead, his head is crowded with plans. He shuffles imaginary tiles, trying to form an outline of the steps to come, the steps that will give him the greatest chance of success in his attempts to recover Grace.
Timing is everything. If she’s not already dead, he has twelve to twenty-four hours. After that, it will take a ransom to return her, a ransom he can’t imagine receiving from Rutherford Risk. It’s irrelevant, though: Grace was not taken for money, but for information. They’ll either dump her or kill her once they have whatever they’re after, and Knox is not willing to play those odds.
He returns to the Metro and rides to Sisli, the modernity of the train system juxtaposing everything else about the former Constantinople. It surfaces in front of the Sony Center and the enormous shopping mall. He takes a taxi to within a block of the lat/long locations, then pulls the Tigers cap low and stops to use the glass storefronts as dull mirrors, assimilating, memorizing. He’s in combat mode, as if a switch has been thrown, everyone’s a suspect, an enemy. No friendlies. His isolation armors him. He thrives, relishing the overwhelming data he must analyze, process and file. The woman with the two children is not dismissed, nor the squatting old man with the turban and a cigarette stitched to his lower lip. An aproned shopkeeper leans against his wooden stand of ripe red fruit, surveying the street no differently from Knox. There’s a baby stroller pushed by an attractive woman in her twenties who hides her waistline beneath a maternity blouse.
No one gets a free pass. He studies shoes, knowing they can often reveal impostors. Looks for bulges suggesting radios or weapons. For lips moving without the appearance of Bluetooth or earbud wires.
With a half block to go, Knox’s pulse elevates as his body works to keep up with his mind. His senses heighten to a point at which every sight, sound and smell is analyzed in nanoseconds. Possible threats enter his mental hotbox, a quarterback’s read of a sudden change in defense by the opposing team.
It’s four cigarette butts lying on the asphalt outside the driver’s door that alerts him to a man behind the wheel of a Fiat parked at the curb. The driver’s seat is cleverly laid back to take advantage of the frame between front and back window, and to position his head with a clear view of the apartment building now directly in front of Knox.
Across the next intersection, Knox lifts his phone as if checking a text but uses its camera to snap a photo over his right shoulder thatincludes the parked car. At the next intersection, now twenty meters past Mashe Melemet’s apartment, Knox crosses to the west. Out of sight of the car, he enlarges the photo until he can see the last five digits of the license plate. Progress. Texts the partial plate and the vehicle model to Kamat. Circles around the block, a plan of action defining itself. Feels sure he’s the victim of a conspiracy, one that’s primarily the result of Dulwich’s autonomy.
Rounding the final corner, Knox catches a wink of light in a passenger-side rearview mirror. The location of the car is consistent with what he’s observed. Whether it’s the driver or a second man in the passenger seat, it suggests the occupant of the car could be watching for him. This, in turn, indicates sophistication, a level of training that doesn’t match with a basic bodyguard or police. It kicks his opponent up a level to operative or agent, and reminds him of the surveillance conducted outside the Sisli Mosque and the tracked FedEx package.
What the hell has Dulwich gotten him into?
If these are operatives defending Mashe Okle, then the closer Knox draws, the more trouble will ensue. If he’s to play out his role as Knox the art dealer, he can’t be recognized as Knox the provocateur. The duality won’t work.
On the other hand, if Mashe’s people grabbed Grace, then this person or persons, also connected to Mashe, can likely provide information. Currently, Grace’s recovery is all that matters. Her abduction possesses him. It’s personal. It’s wrong. More important: it’s urgent.
Timing is everything.
He lowers the brim of the cap to disguise his face. Closer now, he sees it’s just the driver. The wink of the mirror must have resulted from its adjustment on the driver’s side. It moves again. Knox slips through two parked cars, coming up on the car’s left.
The agent will not anticipate Knox’s pick gun. Nor will he be prepared for Knox’s approach point. He may shoot Knox, but not if Knox is fast.
And Knox can be very fast.
The car’s trunk lock yields to the ingenuity of the pick gun—springs tripping tumbler keys at the squeeze of a trigger. Knox turns the device and the trunk pops open. His eyes go wide at the sight of the armory—Tavor assault rifle with nightscope, MP5 shotgun, stun grenades.
The Tavor confuses: Israeli-made, it could as easily signal a Mossad agent as someone pretending to be Mossad. This flashes through Knox’s mind as he rears back and kicks down the car’s backseat. He dives through, pulls like a swimmer and comes up behind the driver. Knox’s invasion has caught him by surprise.
Knox grabs the driver’s unclasped seat belt and pulls it tightly against the driver’s chest, pinning him to the seatback. Knox one-hands the seat belt and pats with his left hand, pinning the man’s hand as they both encounter the concealed handgun against the man’s hip and ribs. Knox briefly eases, giving the man a false sense of victory. Then Knox steals the gun from under the leather coat, drops the seat belt with his left hand and leans around to lock his forearm across the man’s throat. He grabs the man’s wrist and applies the chokehold. The driver bucks off his seat so hard he smashes his groin into the steering wheel. Knox feels him momentarily go limp.
“Where is she?” Knox asks in Arabic. From his time in Kuwait, his accent is good enough to mask his country of origin. “The Chinese woman. Where . . . is . . . she?”
The driver tries to shake his head. Knox releases long enough for a single gulp of air. “Do not know!”
The man’s move is swift and decisive. The driver has freed the seat adjustment with one foot while driving the seat back with theother. He crushes Knox’s knees, pins Knox into the broken backseat, and drives his right elbow into the gap between the seats, catching Knox on the cheek. The driver rips the rearview mirror from its support and swings awkwardly for Knox’s head.
Knox counters the blow with his forearm. His right hand goes numb, his arm wooden. The driver propels the back of the seat into Knox’s lap, pinning him further, and comes over in a reverse somersault, a move that has to be practiced. Knox doesn’t often find himself in over his head. He battles an unfamiliar surge of panic, pushes back the lactic acid that threatens to stiffen his joints. Pulls his right knee free. Feels something nearly lift his kneecap off the joint.
The driver, inverted and leveraging his strength by pushing against the ceiling, wedges his weight into Knox’s chest. The effect is like a scissors lock—Knox cannot breathe.
Knox scrabbles to find the man’s ear and pulls hard, like he’s trying to undo a stuck zipper. A scream, and blood.
Through it all, Knox hears the click of metal. Recognizes it immediately. Struggles to shift right, reaches down and yanks the cigarette lighter from where his knee has punched it. Plants it into the driver’s palm as the man chops at him. Knox pulls it back and makes contact with his adversary’s neck.
The screaming is deafening.
Knox punches the man in the temple, dumps him off, pops open the car door and rolls outside. He’s up and gone, running down the street as fast as his legs will carry him. The man’s words,Do not know,reverberate in his head.
Knox takes them as genuine.
Grace pieces together the events of the past few minutes. She’s blinded by the hood over her head, so must reconstruct what has happened without the benefit of sight.
Upon being stuffed into the vehicle—a minivan, again—they took away her phone. The man closest to her was instructed by the driver, in heavily accented English, though the accent was not immediately revealing—to remove the SIM chip. The van took two immediate rights and a left, increased speed, and has remained on this street since.
The driver swore—in Persian—complaining bitterly about his watch. This was followed by the rattle of a wristwatch’s metal band, then the sound of an object—the wristwatch?––hitting the floor.
Interrupted, the man closest to Grace, who is now her interrogator, repeats himself—also in struggling English.
“You are to tell me who is this that employs you.”
Her wrists are bound by a plastic tie—in front of her body. A mistake on their part.
Grace’s mother is overbearing, highly manipulative, not merely fast-talking but verbally dominating. Throughout her teen years,Grace deployed imitation to challenge her mother. As fast as her mother could dish it out, Grace could reciprocate. She and her brother would take turns mimicking their mother and playing her foil. Now, in response to her interrogator, Grace spews a stream of Mandarin from a verbal fire hose, drenching the man with a continuous high-pitched rage of indignity and offense. She levels a half-dozen curses on the man and his lineage while insulting the size of his sex organ and comparing his testicles to kidney beans.
Once past the curses, still speaking Mandarin, Grace explains that she is but a humble accountant in service to a Westerner and that both are in Istanbul on business and that it is by no means any business of the men in this van.
Not that her captor understands a word. The idea isn’t to be understood; it’s to take control of those trying to control you. To get away with as much as allowed. To test the boundaries and buy time and look for a quick way out. She has her best chance of escape while in transit. Once locked down in a fixed location, her chances of survival sink quickly.
Grace is further benefited by the van’s mechanical problems. Apparently the two men chose a lemon for an abduction vehicle; even as she continues her Mandarin assault, she hears the driver complaining. The engine misfires amid the storm of her cursing. The two men argue about what a poor job the driver is doing, taking the heat off Grace, who continues to protest her innocence defiantly.
“Fucking yellowtail,” her interrogator complains. “Cannot shut her up.”
“Fix it!” the driver says. “She spoke English when requesting the transcript. Get it out of her!”
Grace translates this from Persian while her tongue lashes out in Mandarin and her brain hears a translation in English. Mention of “the transcript” runs cold through her as she determines the natureof the house call. Points connect with vectors, arrows weave through her thoughts: these men are tied to her call to the university; the university connects her to the records of graduate Nawriz aka “Mashe” Melemet, who holds multiple degrees associating him with advance studies in particle physics.
They will beat the English out of her, she thinks. Rape her, gladly. Share her with every man.
She begins to fall down a tightening spiral of defeat. Too much knowledge can be dangerous. She has lived such outcomes through their clients, but always at a healthy distance.
Grace clutches at the unrealistic: the van will quit; they will be forced to move her on foot. But where? Is there a destination planned, or is it to be an interrogation and dump? Get what they can, as quickly as they can. Kill her. Move on.
“This fucking piece of shit!” the driver says, pounding the wheel.
“English!” her interrogator roars, attempting to create a wedge in her tirade.
“I am humble accountant,” Grace says suddenly in Mandarin-accented English, still breathless, “serving Westerner making sale of art. Due diligence. Background. Credit checks. No understand what you want.”
She buys herself time as he processes her statement.
“Simple background check,” she continues. “Do so dozen times. Banks. Investment. Education. What you want? What I do wrong? Simple phone call. No more. You have no reason treat me like this.”
“Working for who?”
“This my client!” Incensed.
“Who is this client?”
“I wish all things foul on you and your children. Your children’s children. This none of your business. This confidential.”
There’s a foul smell of fuel; the engine’s choking continues.Maybe she’s going to get her wish after all. Maybe divine justice is real. Maybe all the incense-burning her mother does means something. A twenty-foot golden Buddha with fruit piled at its chipped feet swims across her mind.
“What the fuck!” The driver keeps cursing—in English now. She wonders about a culture that apparently can’t come up with its own expletives.
Flung off the floor by a sharp turn, Grace is thrown back against the side door. Had her hands been bound behind her, this would have been her moment; she might have found the recessed door handle and bought herself freedom. Instead, she smacks her head. Her head sack catches and, as she bounces back onto her bottom, a few threads snag and fray at the bridge of her nose. The van shudders to a stop, coughs and dies.
Grace is thrown back, a forearm to her throat. The door comes open and she’s dragged out, held by her collar. She can see dark, looming shapes through the snag. It’s a parking garage.
She’s led up concrete stairs to a landing, and then on to a higher floor.
Her internal processor slowed by the blow to her throat and the adrenaline compromising her system, only now does she identify the square object mounted to the concrete block wall a level below. A fire alarm.
She’s forced to climb higher. At level two, another fire alarm in the same location on the wall.
Hands bound in front of her.
She knew that would cost them.25
The plaza across the street from the Alzer Hotel is an oasis of flagstone, immature trees and park benches, reminding Knox of a museum’s café courtyard, one where the coffee is overpriced and the quiche tastes store-bought. Well-dressed tourists and locals crisscross the space, their attention on the drama of the mosque to the east or the hum from the Parisian café tables in front of the Alzer to the west.
A man sits unmoving amid the plaza’s activity, his shoulders as wide as a gate, his face as ordinary and uninteresting as that of any school’s gym teacher.
David Dulwich might be a piece of urban art—Man on a Park Bench, sculpted from concrete. But his collar riffles in the breeze and he squints against the street dust and litter. Focused on the entrance to the Alzer, and now Knox, who has exited the building and is looking in his direction, Dulwich sits unmoving and stoic. Let the mountain come to Mohammed.
“You bastard!” Knox stands, hands shoved deeply into his jean pockets, looking nine feet tall.
“You want me to walk away, I will.”
“Go ahead and try.”
For a moment, as Dulwich shifts on the bench, it appears he might challenge Knox. But all he’s doing is making enough room for Knox to sit.
Knox remains standing. “Takes a two-oh-seven to hear from you.”
“I’ve had contact with Chu prior to this. You know that.”
“They’ve got her. And you’re sitting over here singing a chorus of ‘Feed the Birds’ like you haven’t got a care in the world.” Knox takes a step closer, a drunk begging for a bar fight.
Dulwich sits up taller, though he clearly doesn’t mean to give Knox the power in the conversation. “It’s what we do,” Dulwich says. “We’re good at this.”
“For our clients. We do this for our clients. Not our own people. Not like this.”
“Clete Danner,” Dulwich says, reminding Knox of the Shanghai op and why Knox took it in the first place.
“You can’t contact our company directly.”
“I did, didn’t I? Apparently I’m on leave. You said ‘an in-and-out.’ Wait around in a hotel room. What happened to that?”
“Grace is the company contact, not you. We can’t risk losing your cover. Grace can be replaced. You’re too important.”
“She’s indisposed, so I texted you.”
“And I handled it. We’re on it. What part of the assignment did you not understand?”
“They’ve abducted her!”
“Keep your voice down. Sit.” Dulwich indicates the space next to him. “Tone it down. Or I’m gone.”
“You say you’re ‘on it.’ How? What’s the plan?”
“What are you doing for her?” Knox closes the distance, putting his face an inch from Dulwich’s. “What the hell am I into? The Red Room? ‘On leave’? Some spook watching Grace, who’s monitoring FedEx shipments of medical devices?”
Dulwich is so well trained he has few tells, but Knox picks up a change of pulse in the flesh near the burn scar. “Digital Services has your video,” Dulwich says calmly. “They’re monitoring Istanbul police radio traffic and CCTV available cameras as you suggested—quick thinking on your part, for what it’s worth. If we’re lucky, we pick up some scraps. I’m here for your debrief.”
Knox hands over his phone, cued to the video. Dulwich produces earbuds. Knox doesn’t need to hear. He remembers nearly every word.
He cringes as he tries to read Grace’s lips.
“He studied abroad eleven years. Returned to Iran. Taught for eight months and then goes off the grid.”
“Mashe Okle surfaces.”
“I love puzzles.”
Her abduction feels faster this time. Knox wonders how time can condense and expand as it does in these moments.
“You know one of those guys,” Knox says, astonished, studying Dulwich in profile. “Who is he?”
“There’s a methodology, a science to it. You know that, Knox.”
“There’s not going to be a ransom.”
“No.” Dulwich’s first concession. One that Knox does not want. “What is she doing talking to you about the POI’s education? Where the fuck does it say she takes a flyer to dig into this guy?”
“It’s Grace, Sarge. You assigned her his finances—”
“But his education? You know who these people are?”
“That’s rhetorical, I trust.”
“Christ almighty! She hacked an Iranian university? What kind of response did she expect?”
“Not this. I guaran-fuckin’-tee you that. This thing is nine layers deeper than you let on. Surveillance on Grace. Hostiles chasing me and the Obama. Package intercepts. Sick people who maybe aren’t. Well people who may be sick.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“You’re not here. You don’t want to know.”
“Let me be the judge of that.”
“I don’t think so. It’s Grace’s intel. You recover Grace, she’ll download you.” Knox hopes that if Dulwich didn’t have enough motivation to throw everything at this extraction before, the fire’s lit now.
Dulwich stabs the bench. His fingers look like big pieces of broken sticks, most, but not all, with full fingernails. “This thing . . .” He shakes his head. Bears down on Knox with intensely angry eyes. A conversation passes between them, a dust devil dropping pieces of friendship, frustration, fear. “You are to sell the Harmodius. You and Grace spend five minutes in the room with the mark. You get the fuck out and go home to Tommy. What was not clear about that?”
Knox knows better than to answer. He has Dulwich right where he wants him: in need.
“What is this about the mark’s health?” Dulwich asks.
“You’ll need to ask her.”
Dulwich stabs the phone too hard. Knox takes it back and pockets it. “Motherfucker.” He tries to reassure himself. “She’s a big girl.”
“Inside, asshole. Brass onions, that girl. Clanging brass onions.”
“And we both know that’s what’ll get her killed. No way she’s going to talk,” Knox says.
“Not right away.”
“Iranians. You’re saying they’re Iranians who responded that fast to someone cracking a university site? Give me a break.”
“They responded that fast to cracking Mashe Okle.”
“His name’s Nawriz Melemet. He’s a nuclear physicist.” Knox would have gotten the same effect by delivering a blow to the man’s solar plexus. Sarge has gone slightly pale. He looks up to take in the pedestrians, the drivers, the dozens of men and women across the street at tables.
“You two fucked up. You fucked up good.”
“You encouraged Grace to dig.”
“Not with a backhoe.”
“Kick Xin in the butt,” Knox says. “Get me some reliable intel. We’re not waiting on this. We’re not handling this the way we tell our clients it should be handled.”
“Agreed.” Dulwich shoots him an unreadable look. “It’s only bigger—nine layers deep, you say—because you two dug the hole.”
“Primer will disavow. There’s no protocol for something like this.”
“Bullshit! It’s an extraction.”
“I don’t mean it like that.”
“There are two of us. We’re going to get her back. Right now.”
The two men exchange several years of personal history in a single look.
“Damn right,” Dulwich says.
Dulwich seldom admits to Knox being right about anything. The win comes at a time Knox can’t appreciate it.
“We . . . owe . . . her,” Knox says.
“I know. I know.” Dulwich nods.
Says nothing more.26
There are few advantages to being small. Grace has rarely had the opportunity to celebrate her feet, breasts or hands. If she so much as looks at food, she gains weight. In the department stores, they point her toward the children’s floor—there’s no fashion for the diminutive. One of the few advantages is expectation: size is mistakenly equated with strength. Her two captors each have six inches and fifty pounds on her. What they don’t know is: it’s not enough.
As if to illustrate the point, as the three approach the steel door on the second-floor landing, Grace drives her right elbow into the groin of one man, then uses her bound hands as a ramrod, a piston propelled into the unsuspecting chin of her second captor. She chops the glass on the fire alarm, cutting herself. Hooks her fingers around the lever and pulls so hard she loses her balance and falls flat onto her back as the alarm sounds.
To her surprise, her second captor is already on the floor. A glass jaw. Her single blow rendered him unconscious.
She rolls hard into the shins of the first man, who won’t urinate without pain for a week. He falls forward onto his knees like he’s inthe midst of afternoon prayers. She attempts a last-minute penalty kick—just her and the keeper—splitting his thighs from behind and striking him so hard he vomits before falling fully forward.
Her phone is all that can save her. Her laptop would be nice, but it’s too much to carry. Hands bound in front of her, she awkwardly searches the downed man, recovering her iPhone from his jacket pocket. No chip, rendering the phone useless.
She wants so much more: personal ID from both men; weapons; a look at any tattoos; clothing tags; currency. The fire alarm is a sharp peal of possibility; she has bought herself precious seconds.
Her wrists are bound, her hands bleeding. It’s not as if she can blend in. Temptation points her down—toward the street. Fresh air. Freedom. It’s what any hostage would do.
Instead, she climbs. One floor. Two.
A voice from below: one of the captors calling it in.
She tops out on the fifth floor. Nowhere to go.
Dulwich limps away from the bench. His bad knee has apparently given up along with the rest of him. His bulk looks cartoonish in comparison to the Turks on the plaza. A stovepipe arm lifts what looks like a toy phone. Then, slowly, the man’s shoulders pivot as he turns.
Knox knows the call has to do with Grace. He rises from the bench and closes the distance, moving with extended strides. His pounding heart drums in his ears.
“What?” Knox says.
Dulwich’s expression is patronizing. He says, “Got it,” and shuts down the call.
“Her,” Knox says.
“You told Kamat to watch the grid for fire alarms?” Perplexed. Annoyed. “You going to run all over town chasing mattress fires?”
“Talk to me.”
“It’s a confirmed safe house. On a list we got from the Pakis before things went to shit with them.”
“Iran,” Knox says. Gets no pushback from Dulwich. “How long ago?”
“Came in just now.”
“Could be. Trouble is, we don’t know.”
“You can’t make a one-man raid on a known Iranian safe house.”
“There are so many reasons why this is a no-go. I don’t have time to list them all. We can ask the local police to roll a fire truck to the scene. Nothing wrong with that. They can do a room-by-room for us. The Turks are friendlies. We can—”
“I’m on that truck.”
“We’ll see what Primer thinks.”
“Thin ice, my friend. You have no idea how deep and dark a hole you’re digging.”
“We’re digging. This is Grace. I’ll tell you what: you get on the truck. You give me the address in case they’re tardy or lazy.”
“If she tripped that alarm, they beat her senseless and/or moved her. By now she’s a dozen blocks away and moving fast.”
Knox steps forward. “If she pulled that alarm, then her hands are either free or in front of her. I’ve seen her in the field. You, too, in Amsterdam. You gotta pity those bastards. Now give me the fucking address.”
Dulwich spins his phone to reveal the message from Kamat. Knox types the address into his map app, careful of each number and letter. As precious as pearls.
“I’m going to need you as backup,” Knox says.28
Thinking is not an option. Grace reacts because she’s been trained to react by the PLA’s intelligence force. There’s a communal laundry wire strung between this building and the next, barely ten feet away, open windows on both sides. A vinyl basket tied to the wire holds clothespins. Handicapped by her bound wrists, Grace dumps the clothespins inside, unties the basket with her teeth and places it over the woven wire, holding the basket by its opposing handles. The basket collapses under her weight but serves as protective strap to guide her across the wire. She tests it against her weight, throws her ankles up onto the wire, contracting her knees to pull her along. She does not look down, but can’t ignore the basket’s vinyl is being slowly sawed into by the wire. She says a few prayers, grateful it’s ten feet across, not twenty, and speeds up her efforts. The basket about to break, Grace switches to her bare hands for the last few feet. The wire cuts through the flesh of her fingers.
Once she reaches the far building, it takes her three precarious tries to get her feet through the opposing window, and she’s losing strength by the time she manages.
An older woman in a hijab sees Grace’s bloody fingers and wrists and silently withdraws back into her apartment, shutting her door.
Grace hurries downstairs, before realizing she should have asked the woman to cut the ties.
No one follows. She would like to attribute her continuing freedom to her evasive skills, but Grace knows better. It’s not as if she incapacitated both her captors, so where are they? She pushes into a busy bodega, self-conscious at the stares caused by her lack of a head scarf, her bound wrists and the sweat cascading down her face.
A pair of scissors is chained to the counter alongside a beat-up calculator.
“Please,” she says, extending her wrists to a man in a soiled turban.
The clerk looks at her wrists and then meets eyes with Grace.
“My husband,” Grace says, appealing to a matronly woman behind her. “My husband. He beats me. Please!” She raises her voice. “He did this to me. He’s coming for me.”
“It is God’s will,” the clerk says. His eyes are dark brown, dead.
The woman who comes to Grace’s aid is college-aged and dressed unconventionally in a zippered jacket and blue jeans. She wears a head scarf, but fashionably. All eyes are on her as she shoves past the solemn matrons in line.
The clerk places his hairy hand over the shears, pinning them to the counter.
“It is inhumane,” the young woman says. “Only a coward must bind his wife’s hands like a prisoner.”
The sound of approaching sirens carry down the street outside, giving everyone pause.
The young woman doubts herself. “What have you done?”
Grace pleads, “Please! There isn’t much time!” The sirens form a chorus. “Whose side will they take?”
The young woman isn’t going to touch the man’s hand. She snags a butane lighter from a basket and lights its blue flame. She looks down at the curls of black hair on the back of the man’s hand.
Minding the flame, he takes his hand off the scissors, but the young woman and Grace are of like mind. Grace has angled her wrists and the girl is melting the plastic tie that binds them. It catches fire, emitting dark black smoke, and then pops as Grace applies outward pressure.
The matrons jump away as the burning plastic whistles to the floor.
Grace utters a Muslim blessing to the girl, who returns it.
“There is a door through the back.” The girl speaks English, her all-knowing look holding Grace. “Do not worry.” Again, English. “I say nothing.”
Grace rushes toward the rear of the shop.
The streets are narrow and as thick with people as the air, which hangs heavy with the smell of spiced food and human sweat. Smog cloaks the tops of the low buildings like morning fog over a river. She hears coughing and the scratch of grit beneath shoes, the roar of car engines, children’s voices and a barking confined dog. Despite its uncanny similarity to Shanghai’s claustrophobic neighborhoods, it is foreign to her. She is a stranger here, in looks, height, dress. She has no money. Her phone is worthless. She has no idea where she is in relation to the Bosphorus or any other city landmarks. Senses she is a target, that they are coming after her.
She swipes a head scarf from a woman’s shopping bag as she passes; pulls it on and cinches it beneath her chin. Wishes for a pair of dark glasses. Needs some sense of bearings. More minarets thanchimneys in Dickensian London. More people than a parade route. The buildings are too crowded, the street too winding for her to get a glimpse of the landscape. And all the while, there is the inescapable tension of the Pamplona bulls coming up behind her.
Head down. Long strides. She uses car mirrors to check the street. Cuts in front of taller vehicles, using them as screens. Looks for a bicycle, anything to move her faster. A part of her cannot believe anyone could find her given the crush, but she knows better. Rutherford Risk is in business because of the suffocating hold kidnappers maintain on hostages—even escaped hostages. Informal networks of payoffs. Corrupt cops. Gangs. The underground world is five times the size of the legitimate one. It runs on a currency of favor and fear, is a place where debts are final and betrayal is met with punishment that extends across generations.
Her phone vibrates in her pocket, stunning her. She fishes it out. The carrier is written in Arabic. Glancing back all the while in search of anyone following, she stops several people, asking in Turkish: “Please!” and holding out her phone. Finally, a woman stops.
“My phone,” Grace says, speaking Turkish. “What does this mean?”
The woman tries English. “This says, problem. How you say, problem? Difficulty?”
“Just so. Emergency. Yes. Like hospital.”
“I can dial an emergency number?”
“Yes, I believe so.”
“What do I dial for police?”
“This number is the one, the five, the five.”
“One, five, five. Thank you.”
“May I help, please?”
Grace fights back a surge of emotion. Her eyes glass over. The Turks are such warm people.
“You have. Thank you so much. Indebted.”
She spots a man a half block back, recognizes him as one of her captors.
Her newfound girlfriend picks up on the sudden fear coursing through Grace. Looks back and forth between the two with troubled eyes. “This man make trouble you?”
Perhaps she has seen the red, raw rings on Grace’s wrists or the dried sweat and smeared makeup. But no. It’s Grace’s feet: she is shoeless, wearing only ankle socks.
Even with its chip pulled, the phone can dial emergency calls.
“One-five-five. Thank you!” Grace speaks even as she runs from the man approaching.29
Go around,” Knox instructs the cabbie in crude Turkish.
The cabbie’s posted ID reveals a Muslim name to go with his Egyptian face. The vehicle skirts a small fire engine and two police cars pulled to the curb, negotiates the crowd of curious onlookers. Knox strains to look up from within the cab. It’s a nondescript apartment building, a perfect safe house.
He’s traveled by ferry to the Asian side of the city. Now the cab. Knox has no idea what he’s looking for, only knows that he’ll recognize it when he sees it. Tops on his list is the clothing seen in the Skype video—a distinctive light brown leather jacket on one of the two men; a more ubiquitous dark windbreaker worn by the other. Turks, Greeks, Spaniards, Italians—the stadiums of anyfutbolmatch are filled with a hundred thousand clones of the men he seeks.
To his left, a group of young boys flees down the sidewalk—following someone in a hurry? Somewhere nearby, sirens; hopefully Dulwich with the cavalry.
“This address?” The cabdriver points to the meter. He has tired of Knox’s impatience, wants to be free of him.
Knox isn’t much of a gambler. Feels himself coming apart. Raidthe building or follow the boys? Pictures Grace, her hands free enough to trip a fire alarm. Her captors playing her for the female computer hacker she is. A nerd. They wouldn’t expect her punch. No one would ever expect a woman as complex as she.
The sky in front of them is brighter than rain clouds behind. Knox knows the psychological reaction of someone frightened, someone fearing for her life, would be to move in the direction of the light.
The direction the boys were running.
“Drive on,” Knox says. “I will tell you the way.”
The driver huffs.
Grace needs a sanctuary, he thinks, somewhere to lose herself in a crowd. A mosque is too male-dominated. A restaurant is too static, and therefore risky. The neighborhood around the safe house is upscale: sidewalks of hand-laid pavers, trees in abundance, a mixture of contemporary and ancient architecture. The sidewalks remain a Benetton ad: Western, Indian, Arab, African. Not a Chinese in sight.
“A market? A street market?” Knox says.
“The Grand Bazaar, mister, is most famous—”
“This side of the strait! The south side!” Knox’s abrupt tone is off-putting to the driver. The man looks away from the rearview mirror, pretending his cab is empty.
Knox drops some liras into the front seat. “A food or spice market. Clothing? Household goods? A street market near here.”
“Kadiköy is not familiar,” the driver says.
“Call someone! Find out!” Knox says. “Turn here.” He points right. Directs the cab left at the next intersection. He’s all raw instinct—a water witcher. The purpose of training is to make you unpredictable, and Grace is well trained. She’s likely stuck on foot if she’s not dead in the safe house. He shudders. “Call someone now!” he shouts. “Public market!”
Cursing beneath his breath, the cabdriver reaches for his phone.
Knox attempts to further untangle the knot of Grace’s abduction. Mashe Okle, a nuclear engineer. The record of his higher education obscured but not redacted. Grace’s captors will want her to explain her interest in the man. To kill her would be to invite others to follow the same path. If she has escaped—as Knox is assuming—the Iranians will be trying to recapture her.
“Street market today,” the cabbie says, ending the call. “Many apologies. I forget the day it is.”
“Up the hill. Quite near.”
“Up the hill?” Grace has played contrarian, assuming that, like Knox, her pursuers will head downhill.
“I take you there?” The man wants Knox out of his cab. Smells trouble.
“You take me there,” Knox confirms. He wants Grace in the backseat with him. And he wants any one of the personnel pursuing her, too. Wants to confirm them as Iranians, wants to tune up someone to rid himself of the adrenaline poisoning him. Experiences a pang of guilt: he should have protected her from this ever happening.
Knox’s phone vibrates. “Yeah?”
“Police emergency line.” It’s Dulwich. “Woman speaking English says kidnappers are after her. Said she’s near a bull.”
“Bull!” Knox says to the driver. “Cow. Steer.”
“Yes. I tell you already. This is Kadiköy market.”
“Got it,” Knox says to Dulwich, ending the call. His mind is stuck back on Dulwich having access to voice traffic on Istanbul’s police emergency line. Can that be explained by Kamat’s or Xin’s involvement? Does it suggest outside resources available to Dulwich?
Knox drops more liras onto the passenger seat. “Fast!”30
Traffic is Grace’s enemy. Stopped with dozens of other pedestrians, she awaits a light change at a three-way intersection of wide avenues. The island in the center of the interchange is the destination, but the longer the light drags out, the more it feels to her as if she’ll never make it.
Adrenaline has given way to fatigue; her blood feels poisoned. The people are well dressed; Gap and Abercrombie anchor the intersection on opposite sides of the square. She clutches her phone, her lifeline. The emergency operator’s English was atrocious. Grace’s Turkish failed her. Grace told her she could see a bull, a sculpture of a bull. The woman operator told her to go there and wait. Help is on its way. At least that was what Grace thinks she said.
The man rudely pushing his way toward her clearly has other plans.
Grace tries to summon her strength, but while the physical power feels within her reach, her emotions are taxed. She is empty, unable to find a spark to light her will. She knows the terms to describe the psychological disconnect of hostages, has read the case studies;she saw these things firsthand on the Shanghai op. Her abduction was less than an hour long. How could it have affected her so?
And yet, she wants to sit down on the curb and tuck into a ball and hope no one sees her. She’s broken free and escaped; she’s beaten the odds. But this man aims to crush any hope she has of victory. She doesn’t think she can survive a second abduction. A part of her is tempted to run into the speeding traffic and take her chances, stocking feet and all.
The changing of the traffic light robs her of this option. It results in a footrace; the fresh legs of her pursuer against her own elephantine limbs. The police expect her at the rendezvous. It’s impossibly far.
And then a hallucination. Of all the faces she might have invented as her savior—her longtime lover, Lu Jian; her cadet training officer; her father—it is John Knox she envisions coming toward her through the undulating mass of pedestrians. It must be a hallucination because he doesn’t see her; he looks beyond her, his face caught in a stony expression. She angles in his direction, trying to catch his eye, struggling with vertigo amid the riot of people spinning around her.
“The taxi’s waiting across the intersection,” Knox says.
It sounds like Knox, but the man walks past without so much as a glance in her direction. Grace spins, trying to get a look back, but is turned again by a collision with a stranger. Finds herself facing the giant bull, realizes she’s only yards from the curb. The statue is a massive bronze beast in the exact center of the island. Curious tourists surround it.
Feeding her fantasy, she glances across to the far side of the intersection: a waiting taxi. Coincidence? The mind of the hostage is susceptible to all kinds of impressions; she supposes she must have spotted the taxi before inventing a Knox who instructed her to go there.
The crush of pedestrians disperses at the curb. Taxi or not, she’llnever make it. She knows better than to look back, to let her adversary know she’s on to him. It would only hasten his attack. But she forsakes her training and glances over her shoulder.
She only looks for a split-second, but it should have been enough. Now she looks left and right, expecting him to come at her from another angle.
Car horns sound well back. The knot of pedestrians ahead begins to move; the traffic light is in her favor. She steps off the curb, the asphalt warm on the soles of her feet.
Wrists crossed and held low in front, protecting the sternum. Chin averted to the side, in case his opponent’s head snaps forward, a rare but painful unintended consequence. A quick step to his left like a defensive tackle in a stunt. Knox plants the block perfectly, lifting the small but sturdy man fully off his feet and laying him back onto the street. His head hits concrete with an audible thud.
Knox drops his right knee into the man’s crotch. There’s no mistaking the parts caught between his patella and the asphalt. A good percentage of his two hundred and twenty-seven pounds are balanced on that knee.
It’s not the wallet that interests him—leatherbound fiction. Nor the 9mm handgun in a belt holster, which Knox removes, ejecting the magazine with one hand and skidding the weapon deeply under a truck that has stopped to allow the pedestrians to cross. The flurry of car horns doesn’t bother him; in truth, his focus is so intense, he barely hears anything but the blood whining in his ears.
It’s the man’s phone he wants, his data. Ones and zeros that connect this man to another, and he to she, and she to it. It’s the “it” hewants. Needs. The “it” may put this all into perspective, something Dulwich is clearly loath to do. If the data suggest Iranians, so be it. But if Israelis or another faction, it moves the five minutes with Mashe Okle/Nawriz Melemet into far more dangerous territory—the arenas of international politics and national security, a zone in which friends and allies are no more than conveniences. Though he doesn’t want to, Knox must consider the possibility that Dulwich and/or Primer have entered into this op naively, that he and Grace are now in too far to abort but may have been set up, intentionally or not, as scapegoats.
The inside zippered pocket. Knox has the phone practically before the man’s facial skin stops dancing from the contact with the pavement. He’s off him and moving. Elapsed time, seven seconds. Knox continues in the direction, away from Grace, alert for others like this one, who now lies unconscious in a thinning intersection.
He passes a yogurt shop, a jeans store, a window with more discount electronics than anything in Times Square. Crosses at the next intersection, reducing his height by bending his knees and taking longer strides. Same old tricks. Same old circus.
As he nears the far curb, the taxi jerks to a stop. Knox rounds the vehicle and climbs into the back, throwing his arm around her without saying a word. It’s Dulwich driving the cab.
Grace clings to Knox like a child.32
Who is this?” Victoria Momani comes out of the chair at the small desk in Knox’s hotel room. Her eyes narrow; her shoulders square, lifting her chest and reminding Knox of a tropical bird announcing its claim on territory.
“My accountant,” he answers as if on cue. “She’s been through hell. Give us a minute, a long one.”
Clearly, Victoria considers her options. She and Grace meet eyes, and Victoria nods, more to Grace than to Knox. “I am downstairs.” She collects her purse and cell phone, taking her time. Finally, she leaves.
“You make things so complicated,” Grace says weakly as Knox leads her by the arm into the bathroom and starts the shower, supporting her all the while.
“Sometimes, they make themselves,” Knox says. He unbuttons her shirt and helps her out of it. Unbuttons her pants and unzips them.
“That’s enough, John.” She forces a grin. Her eyes are sad and tired and he thinks he could kiss her. “Thank you,” she says.
“It’s not as if—”
“I need no reminder.”
Knox has seen her naked. Another time. Another op. Little remains about these two that would surprise the other. It’s as unique a relationship with a woman as Knox has ever had; platonic, yet deeply intimate.
“Call me,” he says.
She nods and again he wants to kiss her, to express how pleased he is to have her back.
The shower runs for twenty minutes. Finally, Knox taps on the bathroom door; when there’s no answer, he opens it to find the room a thick cloud of steam. Grace is sitting in a tight ball, arms around her shins in the corner of the shower, the water beating down on her. He opens the shower, takes her hand and leads her from the stall. Wraps her in a towel, the steam swirling magically around her, crosses it in front of her and hugs her. She hesitates, then accepts the embrace, locking her tiny hands around his strong forearms and holding to him, her grip painfully tight.
“It was nothing,” she says finally. The water is still running, the steam enveloping them. “I do not know why I should feel like this.”
Knox closes the embrace, their bodies pressed together, his front to her back. She sags her head against his biceps, her wet hair soaking through to his skin. He feels himself growing aroused and releases her out of embarrassment. He shuts off the water and slips past her. She reaches out for him, her fingers catching his shoulder. He pauses. It’s her way of thanking him.
GRACEEMERGESin one of Knox’s long-sleeved T-shirts and a pair of his boxer shorts rolled at the waist. Her black hair is neatly combed.The room is small. He’s in the desk chair. She tucks her legs beneath her and lies back against the headboard in a riot of pillows.
“What the hell?”
She so rarely curses, Knox has to look over to make sure it’s her.
“You tell me.”
“They knew that I’d called the university and breached their firewalls. They tried to sound like Eastern Europeans speaking English, did a decent job of it, but they swore in Persian.”
“Makes sense. The safe house is Iranian. Phone numbers from the cell I recovered in the street? All Iranian country code.”
“You made contact with David.” She can fill in the blanks; he appreciates this about her.
Knox doesn’t have the heart to punish her for drilling so deeply into Nawriz Melemet, to inform her that Dulwich’s star pupil has gone too far for once. She’s in as fragile a state as he’s seen her.
“He’s being a bigger bastard than usual,” he says, “but played good backup to your rescue; I’ll give him that. Honestly, I think this one is getting the better of him. He doesn’t seem like himself.” He could easily mention Dulwich’s discontent with her efforts; he has teed up his own ball. Elects otherwise.
“All they got from me was that I am your accountant. That I was hired to conduct a background check. Had my escape failed . . . We would be facing a more difficult situation.” Her eyes wander to the door, and he knows what she’s thinking.
“Her name’s Victoria Momani. I used her as a cutout in the shipment of the Harmodius. She . . . It didn’t work out exactly as I planned. She shows up here wanting a cut. Has me in a bind. She’s involved herself—not the way you think; there’s none of that—in a way that I can’t undo. We can’t have her compromising the deal. So, for now she squats. You know the expression?”
“Basically, we’re stuck with her.”
“The client may want her killed.”
“Which makes it all the more tricky. That’s not going to happen.”
“What is Mr. Dulwich’s opinion?”
Knox says nothing.
“You withheld this information?”
“Need to know,” Knox says, mocking Dulwich.
Grace shakes her head, mulling it over. “This is a mistake.”
“You’ll stay here with me,” he says. “I’ll put her in another room.”
“She is in this room? With you?”
“She won’t let me out of her sight. Doesn’t trust me.”
“I cannot return to my apartment, but I do not need to stay here, John.”
“You do, and you will. I have the Harmodius in a second room down the hall. I need to move it. If she finds out where . . . She’d as soon steal it as take a cut.” He considers his options. “It can’t be here. At some point, my room will be searched. I’ll think of something.”
“I have inconvenienced you.”
“You have.” He wins a faint smile from her. But she looks scared. “It’ll be over soon.”
“No worries,” she says.
It’s an expression he uses with her; her using it on him gestures to a larger conversation. He tries to find an appropriate retort, but he’s at a loss.
“You are a good man, John Knox.”
“Don’t let that get around.”
She closes her eyes, looking as if she will sleep.
KNOWINGVICTORIA’Sgreed to be the most immediate threat, Knox pays a bellman to move the crated Harmodius to the bellstand storage. A priceless relic, or a hell of a good copy, now sits in an intermittently locked closet on the lobby level, along with the roll-aboards of guests waiting for rooms to open up.
The conversation with Victoria takes place outside on the sidewalk terrace beneath a string of colorful lights surrounded by dancing bugs. It’s a cosmopolitan crowd drinking exotic martinis. The women are beautiful, the men competitive, the cigar smoke annoying. Victoria holds her own, her posture erect, her lips moist, her eyes alluringly tired. Made peevish by Grace’s intrusion, she taps out a distress code on the sweating cocktail glass with her index finger.
“If you are making lies, you will regret it,” she says.
“That’s not happening. She is necessary to the deal. Akram may have been compromised.”
“I would know this.”
“May be working for the ministry, setting a trap for businessmen such as myself. My partner excels at following money trails. She will ensure the financing is legitimate. I will not walk into a sale where the cash has been supplied by police or the ministry.”
“The cash comes from Mashe. Possibly small consortium of men like Mashe—art lovers not willing to let piece like this escape. It is not entrapment.”
“And for all I know, you’re part of the ruse. Convenient that you showed up here just before the sale, isn’t it?” Knox enjoys twisting the story back on her, watching her squirm as she sees her actions from another point of view. They both know it’s not true, but he pushes her back on her heels, right where he needs her.
“And so would any woman sent into a sting operation to convince the middleman the deal is safe. You don’t think I know the price I’ll pay if caught? You don’t think every move I make ismotivated by the consequences of failure? You are a variable I hadn’t planned for, and I plan for everything.”
“Do you threaten me?”
“I caution you: the consequences are not mine to bear alone. My reach is longer than you may think. No jail, no morgue will prevent this from coming back on you. You betray me, and neither prayer nor pistol will protect you.”
He’s gotten through. Victoria’s eyes alight with fear, the blue and red bulbs above her head setting off a kaleidoscope of concern. She uses the gin and tonic to busy herself.
Knox thinks his dark rum and tonic has never tasted quite so perfect. He appreciates meeting a challenge head-on, facing a powerful threat. His life with Tommy can’t supply this. He feels on edge, one foot on either side of a self-imposed line.
He would welcome being free of chess sets and tribal reproductions in exchange for gray-market Kandinskys and Bernards. The commissions on such sales would fast-track Tommy’s safety net and grant Knox an independence he hasn’t felt in five years. He cautions himself to not allow his hunger to get ahead of thoughtful precaution.
“She did not look well,” Victoria says from an intended position of authority.
“She’s not. And if I find out you had anything to do with it, you’ll think she looked good.” It’s the booze speaking, but the thing is, he likes it. This is a John Knox he enjoys playing, is comfortable playing. Alcohol could be his downfall.
Victoria tries to contain her surprise.
“You are extorting me,” he says. “Don’t think I don’t know it. For all your beauty and charm, I’m reminded that poisonous snakes are often the most alluring.”
“You think my bite so venomous?”
For two nights, this woman has slept beside him in the same bed. They have lived like a married couple, sharing a bathroom. He has fantasized about her bite. It has been one of the oddest forty-eight hours Knox has spent with any woman, especially one as beguiling as Victoria. Also like an old married couple, they have not touched, have not shared so much as a glimpse of nudity.
But now there is an offer on the table.
Knox brushes it away along with the corpses of brown bugs that have orbited the hot bulbs for the last time. They silently float to the sidewalk, snowflakes of wasted lives.
He takes her in her new room, starting by pinning her to the wall, her long legs wrapped around him and hooked at the ankles. They laugh as he fights to tear loose her thong and it stretches to an absurd size. It’s around her knees as he drops his jeans and together they direct him to the treasure. Then her eyes roll back and she says something in a language he can’t translate but understands. When her eyes come back to him, they say,You’re kidding me,and a smile seen only on women creeps across her lips. She laughs, groans and coughs, and drops her hand to join in her deliverance. It’s frantic and awkward, hard core and hard driving. Her eyes are open again and far away.
Knox feeds off that, thrills to it, loves the feel of her bottom in his hands and the spasms of muscles flexing and rippling as she exhales in a rush and shiver that connects to him and sends him over the top. He turns her and lowers her to the bed, her insides contracting and sparking, her throat cries guttural, her chin thrown back.
Later, she is leaning against him, and he against the headboard, both of them half undressed, her underwear now around a single ankle. They are dozing, not saying much. Occasionally she giggles and then holds his arms tightly around her.
He doesn’t tell her that it rarely feels like this. Doesn’t share that it’s hard to share. There’s usually some reserve held in the tank forthe sake of self-preservation and self-respect. But she demanded all of him and she got it and he can’t say that there are no more tricks or secrets held back within him.
He wants to say that it happens so rarely he can count the times on one hand. That it has as much, if not more, to do with the mystery about her, the situation they are in, the hold she has over him, as it does the intangibles of physical perfection and connection. To her credit, she doesn’t press for another throw. Perhaps she’s as surprised as he. How incredible if that were the case, if a man and woman could not only scale and reach their own peaks, but summit the same mountain.
Also to her credit, she hasn’t spoken. They are basking in an afterglow so intense that a single word would spoil it.
Another thirty minutes. He kisses her on the top of her head, and leaves her slumbering but not quite completely out, on the pillow. Pulls up his jeans, covers her and moves toward the door.
As the latch is about to click shut, he hears a faint “thank you.” In English.
THECALLfrom Akram comes as Knox is walking down the hall back to his room and Grace. He checks the time. Jesus.
“Yeah?” Knox says, answering.
“Where Itfaiye Caddesi crosses the aqueduct. How long?”
“Fifteen.” The call ends.
It takes Knox five minutes. A single streetlamp pours yellow light onto brown stones sixteen hundred years old, piled sixty feet high in double-stacked arches. The bottom arch leads through to a tree-lined pedestrian way.
The Turks are not superstitious or afraid of the dark, but Muslimsare devout and wary of displeasing Allah. New Yorkers, certainly a man from Detroit, would think twice about loitering along the aqueduct’s nearly thousand meters of randomly darkened arches at this time of night. The Itfaiye intersection, while busy with street vendors by day, lacks the lighted and noisy cafés and bars that abound near its Atatürk Boulevard crossing. Itfaiye Caddesi looks more like a pedestrian tunnel. Knox peers inside cautiously. The aqueduct is ten meters wide at its base. He sees no one.
While he appreciates the activity, even in the midst of it Knox can’t stop his mind from grinding. He’s not an analyst but an operative. He’s here because he was a truck driver in another life and he saved Sarge’s life. He’s been put in a position of doubting everyone and everything. His only touchstone is Grace, and she’s been through a psychological wringer from which it’s not easy to immediately recover. The setting feels like the Berlin Wall in a Cold War film; he’s a spy who doesn’t know which side he’s on. He took precautions to make sure he wasn’t followed from the hotel, but his efforts feel in vain as he itches under the invasive sense that he’s being watched. His skin crawls. He’s sweating despite the cool night air. He convinces himself he can smell the Bosphorus—a muddy, turgid tang swirling up in faint gusts along the aqueduct’s ancient route.