Wydawca: John A Grisham Kategoria: Sensacja, thriller, horror Język: angielski Rok wydania: 2018

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Opis ebooka Fast kill - John A Grisham

Vegeance meets absolute desperation when a man of incredible means was murdered by another man blinded by ambition. Everyone gets caught in the crossfire.

Opinie o ebooku Fast kill - John A Grisham

Fragment ebooka Fast kill - John A Grisham

FAST KILL

Copyright 2016 This is a work of fiction.  Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally; and any resemblance to people, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

All Rights Reserved

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only.  This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people.  If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient.  If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Amazon.com and purchase your own copy.  No portion of this book may be reproduced without the consent of the author.  Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

John A Grisham

Chapter One

The dream splintered into shards of red and black, a kaleidoscope gone wrong. Keegan Beeler sat up gasping for air and waited for his heart to stop pounding. The green numerals on the clock by his bedside read two-thirty in the morning.

Something wasn't right.

Had he set the alarms?

After a moment he got out of bed and shrugged on a robe. He moved to the stairs of his San Francisco home. Below, a pool of yellow light from a single desk lamp spilled across the polished wooden floor. The rest of the room was in darkness.

His old body protested as he descended the stairs. He started toward the alarm box. A large man stepped from the shadows and blocked his way. Beeler's heart skipped a beat and settled to erratic thumping.

"You! What are you doing here?"

Strong arms grabbed Beeler from behind and wrestled him to the chair by his desk. Someone wrapped tape around him. The robe fell open, exposing his pale genitals. He was helpless.

"Is it money? I have money. Tell me what you want."

The large man loomed over Beeler. He smelled unpleasant, a greasy smell of testosterone and stale sweat.

"Yes, money. And I want the book."

"What book?"

The large man slapped Beeler across the face, a casual blow.

"The book. The one from Bhutan."

Beeler tasted blood. "It's not here!"

"Then you will tell me where it is. First, the money. I want the account numbers and access codes."

Keegan Beeler was a rich man. Access to those accounts gave control over hundreds of millions of dollars.

"Who are you?"

"I am your worst nightmare. Tell me what I want or I will hurt you."

Almost as an afterthought, the man picked up and examined a delicate, antique porcelain vase covered with an exquisite design of flowers and birds. The soft glaze glowed in the dim light. He smiled.

There were only two things Keegan Beeler truly loved. One was his niece, Charlene. The other was the joy of things old and beautiful.

"Please be careful with that," he said. "It's very old."

The man looked at the fragile vase and smiled again. He held it in front of Beeler in his huge hand and squeezed. It shattered into dust. Beeler felt his chest tighten.

"If I ask a question and you do not answer, I will hurt you. Do you understand?"

"Yes."

"The numbers."

"I don't have them here. All that is in my office."

The man sighed. He went into the kitchen. Beeler could hear him rummaging through the kitchen drawers. He came back with a small red-handled pair of pruning shears Beeler used on the rose bushes in the garden.

He grabbed the old man's left hand and pinched the blades together and cut off the little finger.

Beeler screamed.

The man dug the point of the shears into the bone below Beeler's eye. Beeler screamed again from the pain. Blood ran down his cheek.

"The fog is thick, outside. The house is solid. No one will hear you scream. Your right eye is next."

The old man's bladder emptied, soaking his robe and the chair. Someone laughed, behind him.

"I'll tell you! I'll tell you! Don't hurt me again!" He began babbling the numbers, blurting them out. Sudden pain started and spread to Beeler's left arm, sharp and immediate, a burning, blossoming bolt of fire. He stopped speaking and tried to catch his breath.

"Where is the book?" The man was shouting.

Pain exploded in Beeler's chest. As vision faded, his last sight was the terrifying, angry face of his executioner.

Chapter Two

Terrence Harrod wasn't thinking about the grenade. He was thinking about the temperature gauge on his rental Ford, pegged in the red. He pulled into the parking lot at the Project and stepped out into the heat. Steam boiled under the hood. A green pool spread out under the car. His head felt like it was wrapped in iron. He wished he was back at his cabin in California, not standing in Virginia with his shoes sticking to the asphalt.

Harrod scanned the surrounding area. He noted the parked cars, all empty. He crossed the lot to the building housing the Project, like hundreds of others in the Metro area. The only difference to a casual observer was the array of antennas bristling on the roof.

Harrod went through security and walked past the elevator to the stairs. He climbed past the second floor housing the computers and backup generators and communications. He passed the third floor where the analysts lived. He exited the stairs on the fourth floor, the top floor, where Director Aaron's office was. He placed his hand on the biometric scanner outside the door of her office and went in.

Ivana Aaron looked up from behind her desk. She was small, with milk-white skin, small, pointed ears and raven black hair. Her eyes were like a cat's, wide and green. She looked like an elf dressed in black and white, but a kind of elf you wouldn't want to mess with.

On her desk was a file with his name on it, a silver pen that had belonged to FDR and a picture of the Twin Towers burning on 9/11. She kept the picture to remind herself of why she was there.

"Have a seat." Aaron opened the file.

He sat and waited.

"The shrink says you're fit to go back in the field. Are you?"

"I'm fine."

"No more flashbacks?"

"No."

Not for three months. He'd thrown out the pills the doctor had given him. They'd flattened everything into a narrow monotone that made him feel like he was living in a fading black and white picture. He didn't think Aaron needed to know about the dreams.

Aaron nodded. She made a note in the file and placed it in a drawer.

A large, flat monitor was mounted on one wall of the office. Aaron did something at her desk and the display came to life with a picture of an elderly man. His eyes were blue. He looked like the sort of man you'd like for a Grandfather.

She said, "This is Keegan Beeler. He was a very rich man. He was also a personal friend of the President."

"Was?"

"Someone tortured him until he died of a heart attack. They cut off one of his fingers with pruning shears. Then they transferred money from his accounts and tore his home apart."

An electric tension settled across his shoulders. Cutting off the finger of an old man made things personal, something he could grab on to. It was better when it was personal. He needed personal. It helped motivate him. Going forth for God and Country didn't work too well for him anymore, not since Afghanistan. Not since South America.

"That's cold. How much money?"

"Around four hundred million."

"Why are we getting involved with this? This looks like FBI or Treasury territory."

"We intercepted an encrypted satellite transmission last week from the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. There's a Colonel from Chinese Military Intelligence in the consulate named Wu. He pretends he's a trade official. He called his boss, General Weng. Weng is chief of their MI. Wu told him about an old book Beeler found in Bhutan and Weng ordered him to get the book and Beeler's money. The money went to accounts in Macau controlled by Weng."

"Chinese MI? Why would they do something as stupid as that? It doesn't make sense. What's in the book?"

"We don't know. Beeler had a niece who might know. I want to ask her about it. Doctor Beeler is coming here today."

"Doctor?"

"PhDs in oriental and ancient languages. She's one of the top experts in the country."

Harrod pictured an expert PhD niece. Someone academic looking. Maybe in an earth tone baggy suit, with large glasses and gray hair, around fifty.

Aaron said, "The FBI had Wu under routine surveillance. I requested a photo and they sent one over but my gut says they're holding something back."

Terry didn't respond.

"Simon Sidwell is the liaison. You know him. Talk with him and see what you can find out."

A voice came from the intercom on Aaron's desk.

"Director, Doctor Beeler is here."

"Escort her up."

While they waited, Harrod thought about his car and decided to call Triple A and ride back with the tow.

Chapter Three

Charlene Beeler didn't look like a fiftyish, gray-haired professor. It wasn't the way she looked that got Harrod's attention, though that would have been enough. It was the way she came into the room, all contained, taut energy, with the rippling grace of an athlete. She was in her thirties. Her hair was short and reddish blond. Her face was tan from the outdoors. She had high cheekbones and violet eyes. There was a small mole above her lip.

She wasn't wearing a baggy suit or big glasses. She had on a smooth silk jacket and slacks and a pale blouse that picked up the violet color. In her left hand she carried a black leather computer case.

Harrod stood and Aaron introduced him. They all sat down.

Aaron said, "What have you got there?"

"My uncle's laptop. He'd never left it with me before. I haven't looked at it, but I thought you might want to." Her voice was controlled. There were lines of tension in her face.

Got the lid on, Terry thought.

"Doctor Beeler," Ivana said.

"Please call me Charlene."

"Charlene. The people who killed your uncle were after a book he acquired in Bhutan. We need to know what's in it."

Charlene gave Aaron an odd look. How did she know about the book?

"It's gone. I don't know where it is. I haven't read all of it, but it's a copy of an ancient text about immortality, mostly written in Sanskrit. Books like that are rare, but this one is unique. What's in it is impossible."

"Impossible?" Aaron tapped her pen against her lip.

"Part of it is written in Linear A. If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes I'd never believe it. Linear A is one of two written languages from the Minoan Empire, before 1600 BCE. There are no books written in Linear A. There shouldn't be anything Minoan in the Himalayan region at all."

"You're sure the book is gone?"

"My uncle kept it on his desk, but it's not there now. He was going to scan it onto his computer."

"So it might be on that laptop you brought."

"It could be."

Aaron began tapping on her desk. "The money from your uncle's accounts went to China."

"China? Part of the book is about the first Chinese emperor, Jun Qinung."

"Emperor Qinung?" Harrod said. "The one with the soldiers and horses?"

"Yes. Qinung placed an army of terracotta soldiers and horses outside his tomb. Chinese farmers found it in '74. It's a big tourist attraction."

Charlene brushed a wisp of hair away from her forehead.

"The book described Qinung's search for immortality. He was obsessed with it. It also repeated old stories of treasure in his tomb. Everyone knows where it is but it's never been excavated."

Aaron told Charlene about the intercept.

"Then you know who did this! Can't you arrest him, this…Colonel, or whatever he is?"

"We don't have hard evidence. Besides, he has diplomatic immunity."

Terry's ear began itching. Since he was a kid it had itched when things were about to get complicated, a personal early warning system. Then again, sometimes it was just an itch. He scratched it.

Aaron set down her pen. "Maybe there's something on that laptop. Let's take a look."

Charlene handed her the case. Aaron took the computer out and plugged it into a port on her desk. The display booted up on the wall monitor. The screen filled with folder icons.

"Lots of files." She clicked on one labeled Beijing. The file was a list of bank account numbers in the Chinese capitol.

"That might help track the money. I don't see anything about a book."

Charlene said, "It looks like financial files labeled by location, like the Bahamas or Caymans, or by industry and city. There's one labeled Li Shan. That's where the emperor is buried. Open that one."

The file was a draft proposal to excavate the tomb of the First Emperor, complete with time lines and cost breakdowns. There was nothing about the book in the file.

"There's a file with my name," Charlene said.

"Let's see it."

It was a letter from Keegan Beeler to his niece, dated a week before his death.

My Dearest Charlene,

You know how I hate clichés. Please forgive me for the one I use now. Quite simply, if you are reading this letter then something has happened to me. I do not contemplate this with equanimity, my dear, but life sometimes forces unpleasant possibilities upon us. I am leaving this note and my computer with you in hopes you never read it.

I think I am being watched by agents of the Chinese government and that it has something to do with the book I acquired in Bhutan. My translation is incomplete, but it seems there are historical inaccuracies regarding the death and burial of the First Emperor, and that these relate to a supposed elixir of eternal life.

I have prepared a proposal regarding possible excavation of the First Emperor's tomb at Li Shan. A week ago I met with a Chinese consular official named Wu Chen to discuss obtaining permission to fund and participate in such an important project. Wu offered to put me in touch with the correct people in Beijing.

In the course of our meeting I talked about the book. Not long after that I noticed a large and rather menacing Chinese man observing me at a restaurant I frequent. Then I noticed that same man in other places, at other times. It may have nothing to do with Wu, but it seems too coincidental to me.

I feel threatened. So I write this letter to you, although it may be just the foolish act of an old man.

I have placed the book in a safe place. If it does hold a clue to the secret of immortality or a key to the emperor's treasures, it is a dangerous thing to have in one's possession.

Do you remember, when we used to have our summer time together at the old mine, when you were a child, the special place you found to secret away your most precious things? That is where you will find the book.

My dear Charlene, if you are indeed reading this, please know that you have always been a source of joy and delight for this old uncle of yours.

With all my love, Uncle Keegan

They read the letter again. Charlene sat rigidly in her chair. Harrod watched her. It was an old habit, watching. It told him things. Right now it told him Charlene was wound up tight. Close to her uncle, he thought, but she wasn't going to let anyone see it. How she really felt.

He knew what that was like.

Aaron said, "Do you know what he was talking about? The place he hid the book?"

Charlene's voice was controlled, neutral. "My family found gold in California in 1850. There's a house at the old mine property. In the front yard there's an ore cart full of rocks from the mine. When I was a child I hid things under the rocks. That must be where he put it. I'm surprised he didn't put it in one of his safe deposit boxes."

"No safe deposit box keys have turned up." Aaron twirled her pen.

"He had at least three."

"The FBI searched his office and home. We'll check with them."

"If they have the keys, they know what's in the boxes." Terry looked at Aaron. "I'll ask Sidwell when I talk with him."

"Do that. Then I want you to go to California with Doctor Beeler and retrieve that book. Does that work for you, Charlene?"

"Anything that helps."

"Why do you want me along?" Harrod said.

"They didn't get the book. If they think Charlene has it they might go after her. I want you to keep an eye out." She looked at her watch and turned to Charlene. "It's too late to get a flight today. We'll book one for tomorrow. What airport, Charlene?"

"Sacramento. The mine is only an hour away."

"We'll arrange a car."

Harrod said, "We can use mine. It's already there." He'd flown out of Sacramento. His truck was in the long term lot at the airport.

"Good. Hook up with Sidwell before you go. Call me after you find the book. We'll search the rest of these files and follow up."

"What do I tell Sidwell?"

Aaron tapped her pen on the desk. "Tell him about the financial accounts. We'll keep the book to ourselves for now. There's no need for the Bureau to know about it."

Chapter Four

Earlier that same day, Colonel Wu Chen was sitting in a secluded red leather booth at the Happy Family restaurant in San Francisco.

Muted sounds drifted up from the street below. The only other customer was an old man across the room reading his newspaper. The smell of rice, pork and noodles mingled with the murmured conversation of waiters huddled in a corner. Wu sipped his tea. He took a bright red carnation from the vase on the table and twirled it in his hands. He thought about his conversation with the General.

"Tell me about this book."

Weng's wet voice had echoed through the satellite link.

"The American obtained it in Bhutan. The book concerns the First Emperor. It is a medical text with a formula for a draught of immortality. That is why I contacted you."

The General was always interested in anything to do with the First Emperor and his quest for immortality. Wu needed to keep General Weng happy.

"What is the name of this book?"

"The American said it translates as 'The Golden Garuda'."

Wu heard a sharp intake of breath. When Weng spoke again, his voice was controlled. Wu sensed his excitement.

"I have an assignment for you."

"Sir."

"I require the book. Obtain it and deliver it to me." There was a pause. Wu waited. "The American is rich?"

"Yes, sir. He has great wealth."

"Access his financial accounts. Transfer the funds to the account numbers I send after this conversation."

"Yes, sir. Are there any restrictions?"

"Use any means necessary. Make sure there are no complications after."

"Yes, sir."

"Inform me when you have succeeded."

Wu toyed with the flower and sipped his tea. The book hadn't been in Beeler's home. The niece must know where it was. His agents would bring her to him for questioning.

Wu thought about interrogating her. He felt the beginning of an erection. He would strip her naked and bind her. That always unnerved prisoners, especially the women. Chum could question her, but sometimes his sergeant got carried away and damaged the subject beyond repair before Wu learned what he needed. No, he'd do it himself.

The water technique was effective, but time consuming if the subject was stubborn. Wu preferred the blowtorch and pliers. Or knives, the kind you'd find in any kitchen. Simple tools were always best.

He reached for his tea and glanced down. The shredded petals of the flower made a delicate pattern against the scarred table top. He brushed them aside with his hand. They fell to the floor in a shower of red, like drops of blood.

Tinkling green jade prosperity symbols over the restaurant doorway announced the arrival of his Sergeant.

Chum Gang's skin was the color of the Mongolian desert on a winter evening, betraying his mixed heritage. He was tall and weighed over two hundred and fifty pounds. His head was large and sat like a cantaloupe with crumpled ears on his massive shoulders. His hands were broad clubs, the knuckles scarred and bulbous.

Chum's fleshy face was marred with acne scars. His eyes were small and close set, almond-shaped, an odd golden color. A shiny blue shirt stretched taut across his massive chest and arms under a loose fitting brown jacket.

In the People's Liberation Army, Chum had found a home. In Colonel Wu, he had found a Master.

Chum cast a contemptuous glance at the elderly customer across the room. He squeezed into the booth. One of the waiters poured more tea. Wu ordered food in a rapid burst of Mandarin.

When the waiter was gone Wu said, "You had no trouble obtaining the information for Beeler's accounts?"

"No, sir. He resisted at first, but it didn't take much to convince him to give me the numbers." Chum thought about how the old man had screamed when his finger had been snipped off. He smiled, showing the gaps between his yellowed teeth.

"You are sure the book was not in Beeler's home?"

"Yes, sir. I am positive it was not there. His heart gave out too soon, before he revealed its location."

"That was unfortunate. But you did well. Now I have another task for you."

Wu watched Chum perk up. He's like a good dog, Wu thought. Give him something new and interesting to do and he's happy.

"The American owned a house three or four hours from here. Take some men tomorrow and search for the book. Use a vehicle from the black pool."

The black pool was a small fleet of cars untraceable to the Chinese Consulate.

Wu took an envelope from his jacket and slid it across the table to Chum. "Money and a driver's license. The directions to the place are also there."

Chum put the envelope in his jacket pocket as the waiter returned with steaming plates of food.

"Sergeant," Wu said, "enjoy this delicious dim sum. It's as good as we get at home."

Across the room, the elderly Chinese man took a last sip of his cold tea. He folded his newspaper and rose. He shuffled by the cash register to pay and carefully made his way down the steep stairs. His superiors would be pleased when they learned of the meeting he had just overheard.

Chapter Five

Terrence Harrod and Charlene Beeler stood in the heat of the parking lot. All the parked cars were still empty. Harrod put his phone away. Two and a half hours before Triple A could get him out of here.

"Can you give me a ride into town? My rental's no good." He gestured at the mess under his car.

"Of course. I'm parked just over there."

A new Mercedes CL600 gleamed in the late afternoon light. Twelve cylinders and over five hundred horsepower. A fast, luxury car. A driver's car. A money car. Not many women drove cars with that kind of power. It said something about her. Terry got his bag from the rental and climbed in.

"Nice car."

"I just got it a few weeks ago."

She started up, drove out of the lot.

"Where are you staying?" he asked.

"The Mayflower Renaissance. I stay there when I'm in Washington and leave the car there when I'm out of town."

"That's not far from my place. Where do you live when you're not in D.C.?"

"San Francisco. I've got a loft in North Beach."

They pulled onto the Interstate. The interior was quiet except for the whisper of the air conditioner. Harrod relaxed into the leather.

They were doing a little over seventy. Charlene glanced in the rear view mirror and switched lanes. A BMW 740 with blacked out windows passed her and cut sharply in front.

"Jerk," she muttered under her breath. In the side mirror Terry saw a black Suburban pull in behind, riding their tail. His ear began itching.

They entered a construction zone. The right lane of the highway was bordered by heavy cement barriers laid end to end. Orange signs warned of doubled fines and men at work.

The Suburban rammed into them and drove the Mercedes into the cement. The car rebounded from the barrier in a shower of sparks and fishtailed back onto the roadway. In front, the BMW blocked them. Charlene fought for control. The Suburban came alongside on the left and broadsided her back into the barrier.

The front right fender and hood buckled. Something flew over the roof. Sparks streamed by Terry's window. The Mercedes slid along the cement in a din of screeching steel.

Drivers swerved around them, horns blaring.

Harrod pulled out his .45. Charlene's eyes narrowed.

"Hang on," she said.

She hit the brakes and the big discs on the Mercedes grabbed the wheels. Harrod wasn't ready. The seat belt stopped his head inches from the dash. The Suburban surged past on the left, scraping strips from the car, taking the mirror with it. Charlene shifted down. She floored the accelerator and the five hundred horses came to life. She cut across panicked traffic into the outer lane.

They shot past the SUV and the BMW. The car filled with the smooth growl of the engine and the sound of pavement under the tires.

The speedometer climbed past ninety. Charlene wove in and out of the traffic and clipped a red Honda. It skewed across the highway and flipped over onto the grass median. In the side mirror, Harrod saw a gray sedan slam into an old pickup filled with furniture. Chests and chairs spilled across the roadway.

A quarter mile ahead a blinking yellow arrow on the back of a truck and a string of orange and white barrels funneled three lanes into two. They were about to run out of room. The cement streamed by on the right, a blurring, silent ripple of gray outside his window.

Shit, he thought. He calmed himself, lowered his heart rate, getting ready for whatever was coming. The gun rested on his thigh. He was out of control, but the car was so comfortable. Harrod glanced at Charlene. She gripped the wheel, her face set, absorbed in the traffic and the road. The speedometer hung at a hundred.

A long, wide gap in the cement barrier opened along the right onto an excavated parking area with neat rows of equipment and stacks of supplies. Charlene slowed, shifted down, stood on the emergency brake and wrenched the wheel over. The rear end slid smoking to the left in a howl of burning rubber. In one fluid motion she released the brake and whipped the wheel back to center. The Mercedes shot through the gap and went airborne over the edge of the road and down hard onto gravel.

The front tires blew out. The car corkscrewed and slewed sideways and sprayed gravel and dirt in a wide arc. They fishtailed across the lot. The car slammed to a jarring halt against a pile of  rebar and steel. Steam erupted under the buckled hood.

The BMW and Suburban caught up and stopped on the highway. Two men jumped from the car, guns in their hands. Two more piled out of the Suburban.

Harrod pushed Charlene down into her seat and fired twice at the windshield. The shots deafened him inside the car. The glass spider-webbed. He fired again. A large piece of the windshield blew out. He fired at the first man out of the BMW and missed. He fired again and the man spun backwards, arms splayed wide.

Harrod shot the second man in the chest, then turned toward the others. He ducked. The two from the Suburban opened up with their pistols. The car windows disappeared in a shower of flying glass. Bullets thumped into the sides of the car.

Something clipped his ear. Charlene was bent low behind the wheel with her hands covering her ears. He let off three more rounds over her head. A third man doubled over and fell face down on the pavement. The fourth ran back behind the Suburban. Harrod made out a driver hunched down behind the wheel and shot him.

The BMW drove away, fast. The last man pulled the body of the driver from behind the wheel of the SUV. He climbed in and took off on smoking tires. Harrod fired after him until the slide locked back on his pistol.

For one or two seconds the Suburban kept going straight. Then it heeled right in a tilting, impossible turn and flipped over onto the driver's side. It slid along the pavement showering sparks and shedding pieces of metal, glass and chrome until it came to rest. With a loud thump, it burst into flame.

The BMW was gone, out of sight.

"Are you all right?" His words sounded flat and far away. His ears rang from the pistol shots.

"What? Yes, I'm okay, I think." She sat up, brushed glass from her hair, and looked at him. "You're bleeding."

The Suburban burned with fierce, red beauty. A black column of smoke rose into a sky scattered with clouds turning pink and gold from the lowering sun. He felt blood dripping on the side of his neck.

He wanted to look in the rearview mirror but it was gone.

On the highway, people were getting out of their cars. Holding the .45 high, Harrod ejected the empty magazine and inserted a fresh one. He racked the slide.

His door was blocked shut.

"Can you open your door?"

She pushed hard. It groaned open with a sound of bent metal. Charlene got out. He slid across the seat and stood beside her.

"Stay here." Smoke from the flaming Suburban swirled around him. It smelled of burning rubber and roasting flesh. Terry felt his mind try to pull him back to Afghanistan. He pushed the memory away.

He walked toward the motionless figures on the ground, toe to heel, bent low, holding the .45 straight out in front with both hands. He nudged the first body with his foot. A pistol lay on the ground, a Beretta by the looks of it. He kicked it away.

The thick steel and leather of the Mercedes and bad shooting had kept the nine millimeter rounds from penetrating far into the body of the car. Something with more punch, he thought, he'd be dead. Charlene would be dead.

Sightless Asian eyes stared up at him. Harrod checked the others, one by one. His .45 hollow points had done a lot of damage. None of them were breathing. They all looked Asian. He figured the driver cooking in the SUV would turn out to be the same.

He put the pistol in his shoulder holster and went back to where Charlene stood by the car.

"What did they want?" She was pale under her tan.

"You. I don't think they expected trouble."

She clasped her arms around herself. He wondered if she was about to faint. Then her face got tight and angry.

"Goddamn it, this is America, not fucking Afghanistan! This isn't supposed to happen here. That was a new car. Look at it!"

She surprised him, the language. He hadn't figured her for someone who would swear like that. He looked at the car.

Her hundred and fifty thousand dollar Mercedes was totaled. The front end was buckled and listing to the right. The tires were spider webs of shredded metal and rubber. There was a long dented scrape along the driver's side. All the windows were gone. The ground around the car was littered with tiny fragments of broken glass. The beautiful paint job was pocked with bullet holes. Antifreeze and oil made a widening pool on the dirt.

"Maybe the insurance will cover it," he said. "I'm going to make a call."

She looked at him like he was crazy. She shook her head.

A news helicopter circled overhead, getting pictures to feed the greed for violence on the evening news. Sirens wailed in the distance. Harrod took out his phone and called the Director. She'd get them out of the clutches of the law a lot faster than explanations would.

At least his headache was gone.

Chapter Six

Word came down. Two hours later the cops let them go. The Director sent a car. They rode in silence over to the Mayflower.

"I need a drink," she said. "Let's get one here at the hotel."

Harrod's jacket and shirt were streaked with blood. His ear was bandaged where a round had taken off most of the lobe. He gestured at the ruined jacket.

"You think they'll let me in? Might scare the customers."

"They'll let you in. You're with me." She was wired.

They went inside. People turned to look and then quickly away again. They strode through the lobby and into the bar and took a table in back.

The waiter came over. He seemed not to see Terry's bloody appearance.

"Good evening, Art."

"Good evening, Doctor Beeler."

"I'll have a Long Island iced tea, with the premium."

"And you, sir?"

"A double Jameson's, straight up, soda back."

He wrote it down and left. They waited for the drinks. The waiter returned.

Charlene downed a third of her drink and set her glass on the table.

Harrod said, "I was going to offer you dinner somewhere. Maybe another time."

"People just tried to kill us and you're thinking about dinner?"

He shrugged. "Still have to eat. You all right?"

She took another hit from her glass. "Better."

"Want another?"

"Yes."

Harrod signaled the waiter.

When he came over she said, "Art, can you bring us some calamari and a cheese plate, maybe some bread and oil on the side, with some of those little sausages? And another round?"

Terry reached for his wallet. "I'll get it."

She touched his hand. "Please. Let me. If you hadn't been with me I wouldn't be sitting here right now."

True. He put his wallet away.

"Where did you learn to drive like that?" he said.

"I took a course in case I ever needed it. My uncle was wealthy, it made me a potential target. I thought I might have to get away fast some day."

"You were right. Why didn't the airbags deploy?"

"I turned them off. There's a switch on the dash." She emptied her glass. "I never thought anyone would shoot at me."

"They missed, that's what counts. Aaron's putting a guard outside your room tonight."

Charlene fiddled with her straw. "You always carry that gun?"

"Yes. You shoot?"

"I've got a Ladysmith, but I don't carry it. I never felt I needed to, but I will now. I'm a good shot."

She took the straw from her glass, looked down at it and twisted it in her hands.

"I can't get over how fast it was. I don't know what to think. People died out there."

"Better them than you."

"Maybe they just wanted money. I could have given them that."

"I don't think so. I think someone wants that book. It would have been bad if they'd grabbed you."

"You think they know about the house? Where we're going?"

"Probably not. They don't know the book is in California and they think you're here in D.C. It should be okay."

Harrod wasn't sure it would be okay, but there wasn't anything to do about it. Keep his eyes open.

Art brought the food and another round.

"How did you get involved with Aaron?" she asked.

"She recruited me when I came back from Afghanistan. A friend introduced us."

"What was it like, over there?"

The memories started. He didn't want them. "It was insane." He picked up his glass and changed the subject. "Aaron said you're a language expert?"

"Dialects and ancient languages. I give lectures and I consult with NSA. I come to Washington a lot." She sipped her drink. "Your Director seems pretty sharp."

"Not much gets by her."

"What branch of the service were you in?"

"Marine Recon, thirteen years."

There was an awkward pause. Harrod picked up a piece of bread.

She said, "You have any family around here?"

"No. My mother's in California. She's got Alzheimer's. My sister is two years older than me. We don't see eye to eye on things. My father's dead."

Something about Charlene made it easy to talk.

"My father was a drunk. He used to beat the hell out of my mother and me. He was one of the reasons I went into the Marines, to do something about people like him. People who use fear to get what they want. I figured the Corps would give me a shot at making a difference. It didn't work out like I thought."

Terry looked at the gleaming bottles behind the bar, thinking about his father.

"How about you?" he said.

Something flickered across her face, a moment's darkness. "My parents and brother died when I was ten. Uncle Keegan brought me up. There's no one else now."

She set a half eaten snack down on her plate. "How are we going to stop these people who came after us?"

"With Aaron on it we'll get them. It might take some time."

"I want to help."

"We need to know what's in the book and why they want it. Maybe you could translate it."

"The Sanskrit's no problem. Everyone guesses at Linear A."

Terry looked at his watch. "I have to make a call. Thanks for the drinks."

"My pleasure."

"Here comes your bodyguard." He gestured at a tall man coming into the bar. "Aaron will send a car in the morning. You want me to walk you to your room?"

"No, I'll be fine."

He got a cab outside the hotel and thought about her standing on a highway littered with spent shells and bodies. Standing in an instant war zone. She could have gotten hysterical. Instead, she'd been pissed about her car.

He liked her for that.

Chapter Seven

General Weng Siyu peered out at the barren wasteland of China's Lop Nur nuclear testing range. The desert rippled under the furnace glare of the Mongolian sun. Weng stood with his feet planted apart, hands clasped behind his back. The hardened concrete building smelled of stale stress and the dry odor of electricity. Racks of instruments lined the long room. Rows of fluorescent lights reflected from banks of electronic equipment, cold counterpoint to the searing sunlight outside.

A thin, dry, angry looking man stood next to Weng’s squat form. The creases on his immaculate uniform were as sharp as the harsh contours of his face. Lieutenant General Lu Cheng commanded the missile base at Luoweng, where China’s long range ICBMs were targeted on the West. Lu looked at the clock on the wall.

“Two minutes. This warhead will increase our strike range and destructive yield at the same time. We must have these.”

“If the test goes well.” Weng’s voice was wet, throaty.

“Vunin has assured me it will go well.”

Vunin Dengeli was chief research scientist in China’s nuclear weapons program. A graduate of America’s MIT, he was considered a treasure among the scientific elite of the People’s Republic, if always suspect because of his American education.

The treasure himself came over to the two generals. Vunin was a mouse of a man, small, his sparse hair slicked back from his domed forehead. Large glasses with thick plastic frames set crookedly over his nose. He wore a white laboratory coat two sizes too large on his stooped frame, making him seem even smaller. He nodded his head nervously at Weng, almost a bow, smiling to hide his feelings of unease.

He looks like one of those little dogs, Weng thought, a Pekinese under a white tent.

“Thirty seconds, General. I think you will be pleased with the result.”

The men watched as the countdown reached zero. In the distance three columns of white smoke rose skyward, marking the underground shaft where the warhead would detonate. A deep rumble under the ground vibrated through the thick concrete beneath their feet. The earth erupted in a black, towering geyser rising hundreds of feet into the air. The blast expanded outward in a wide ring, a boiling cloud of churning sand and dust racing across the desert floor.

Lu Cheng smiled.

Vunin glanced at the instruments recording every detail of the blast.

“Even better than we hoped. Eight point two megatons. Over fifty percent increase in output.”

Vunin looked again at the readings.

“A bit dirty. We’ll hear from the IAEA about this.”

“Let them wag their fingers and cluck like chickens,” Lu said. “There’s nothing they can do about it. How soon can we go into production?”

“There is the question of resources," Vunin said. "If we had a high grade source of ore and more centrifuges we could produce fifty of these warheads a year, even a hundred. As it is, perhaps eight or ten.”

China’s entire strategic arsenal consisted of only three hundred missiles of varying capabilities, and none carried a payload bigger than five megatons. Lu’s smile widened at the thought of a hundred powerful new missiles each year.

Weng spoke. “Begin production immediately. You will formulate two plans, one based on our current resources and one based on having what is needed for high production. The hundred or so you mentioned.”

“But we have no resources for so many,” Vunin protested.

“That is not your concern. Prepare the plan anyway. Or you may find yourself working on a different kind of project. Understood?”

Weng’s eyes were hooded and bulging under the red star on his green, high-peaked military hat. Vunin looked at Weng’s, coarse, toad-like face. The General was not a man to be denied.