Excerpts for Blowback
The quick slap of a runner's stride against asphalt broke the late-afternoon hush of Vienna's Prater garden. Vanessa Pierson tensed, catching a flash of blue and white in her peripheral vision. Lean legs encased in a warm-up suit, slightly scuffed running shoes, rhythmic breathing--an athlete training for Vienna's annual marathon? She exhaled as he passed, but the knot behind her solar plexus tightened and sweat broke on her forehead, her body's message that she'd moved way beyond normal operational adrenaline.
But there'd been nothing normal about this op from the beginning.
Her Iranian asset had sent her a private message embedded within the careful content of the e-mail that prompted this meeting. He'd used the code they'd agreed on the last time they met in person. A phrase that told her the meeting was so urgent it warranted the risk entailed. "Although my conference schedule is extremely busy, I'm hoping to visit the Klimt paintings in the Belvedere Palace."
And now you're forty-two minutes late, Arash.
Fear for him whispered through her. What if he'd been detained, arrested--
She forced her mind away from the worst-case scenarios. Screwed-up Agency commo plans were legendary--the most intricate and carefully arranged meetings blown by someone forgetting whether to move the clock forward or back by one hour or two.
She'd played tourist for the last ninety minutes, strolling the main avenue, circling the park's ornate lake to feed the raucous ducks, the burn phone in her pocket pressing against her hip. Only one person had the number: Chris Arvanitis, her boss at the counterproliferation division, the only one at CIA Headquarters who still had her back.
Now, retracing her steps, she followed the path to the amusement park, where the Riesenrad, the Giant Wheel, spun ponderously against a low gray sky. When Arash arrived, he would head toward their landmark.
They hadn't had any contact since their last meeting in Copenhagen, almost two years ago. For a few minutes they'd walked through Tivoli Gardens, the last gleam of sunset reflecting off the lake. As a swan stretched its gray wings, sending ripples over the water's metallic shimmer, she'd pressed a flash drive into his damp palm, squeezing his hand gently. To calm him, she quietly joked, "For one of your colleagues at Natanz who enjoys the soft porn of Game of Thrones. Leave it where it will be used often and shared."
He had offered a faint smile, but the skin around his dark eyes tightened and Vanessa read the spike of fear. He knew better than to ask what the drive contained--he would put the pieces together easily enough, even before the story burned through the international press and the virus contained on the flash drive irrevocably changed the nature of covert war. Knowing she would not see him again soon, if ever, she'd walked away without looking back. Almost whispering the silent request: Be very careful, Arash Farah. Stay safe, my friend.
The Riesenrad groaned to a halt just as the lights sparked on in the amusement park, a small rainbow glowing against fading sunlight. A handful of laughing teenagers stumbled from a carriage on the huge wheel, and a small, screaming boy of about four tugged desperately on his mother's arm. But Vanessa focused on the solitary male pedestrians within sight. No Arash, but a pale, dark-haired man turned away from her gaze abruptly.
The first glimmer of the icy panic rose. A panic that had dogged her since the shit storm from Prague and Jost Penders's disappearance.
Even when the pale man waved to an elderly woman shepherding twin boys of about ten, the fear remained, irrational now.
She reined herself in, but all her instincts pushed her to move. Turning in slow motion, scanning the amusement park and the green tree-shaded park beyond, marking: the teenage heavy metal fan, neopunk leaking from his earbuds; the tourist family; the fraught woman with the noisy toddler.
A group of college students brushed past her on their way to the biergarten, voices rising over the groan of gears and piped music. She sidestepped them, abruptly brought back to ground.
She would give Arash ten more minutes.
"Komm schon! Vorwarts! Venez-vous! Come on!" The barker at the faded shooting gallery beckoned, calling out in assorted tongues, Come on, pretty lady, three shots for a Euro!
She flashed a smile that didn't reach her eyes--the open booth offered an easy view of the Hauptallee; at the same time, its proximity to the Reisenrad meant Arash would spot her quickly. She stepped up. "Nur drei?"
"Ordnung, drei, ja," the barker offered with a dodgy wink. He took her euros and handed her a scuffed target rifle.
Pushing strands of her dark bobbed wig behind one ear, Vanessa set the butt of the rifle squarely to her right shoulder. She took a breath and began the slow squeeze on the trigger. Four shots, four targets blown apart.
The barker fanned his forehead with his hand and whistled..
She powered through her next shots, annihilating four new marks, refusing another go--"Nein, nein"--abandoning the target rifle on the counter of the faded green booth.
Even if it was a timing mix-up, Arash should have been there by now. She had to move and--damn, the screaming toddler was dragging his mother her way.
Vanessa pivoted toward the main avenue, with its green canopy of chestnut trees, catching a glimpse of her distorted image in the mirror of the adjacent fun house, her jeans, boots, and jacket melding together, her slender body twisted to a freakish cipher.
Still the child screamed, a sound capable of shattering glass.
"Sie gewinnen!" The barker thrust a huge red plush panda into Vanessa's arms just as she saw a familiar figure in a black overcoat in the near distance: Arash walking briskly along the Hauptallee, the recognizable hitch in his stride, his black overcoat flapping slightly in the breeze, a tuft of blue-black hair falling over his high forehead, five-o'clock shadow emphasizing his softening jawline.
Relief at the sight of him surged through her, its intensity catching her off guard.
Vanessa handed off her prize to the tearful child. She barely registered the mother's surprised thanks because she was already moving to meet Arash. She quickened her pace to reach him while he was still on the main avenue.
Abruptly, a small shock ran through her body--the burn phone in her pocket vibrating against her hip.
Arash was no more than ten meters away, and he pulled up straighter when he saw her. His step lightened.
With her fingers pulling the phone quickly from her pocket while she tensed reflexively, she glanced down to read one word: Ephesus.
Abort, Vanessa thought--code to call off the operation.
No fucking way. Headquarters didn't have eyes on this op, so why were they calling her off? Why was Chris calling her off? Had something gone seriously wrong? Or was it overcaution on the side of Headquarters?
But she was too damn close now to abort. Arash had always brought her solid intel. She shoved the phone back into her pocket, pressing forward even as Arash slowed for an instant. Had he seen her hesitate?
She strode the last few paces, close enough to read his face--strain, exhaustion, the flush of urgency. But still he managed a twisted half-smile.
She slipped her arm through his and whispered, "Am I glad to see you. Now look happy, I'm your girlfriend."
Arash gripped her hand, almost stumbling as he tried to match his step with hers. "I didn't know if you'd still be here."
"I'll always wait for you as long as I can--but what happened? Why are you late?"
He shook his head. "The Sepah watch me; they watch us all. I had to wait until I could get away."
Sepah--literally, "army"--was the term used by many Iranians to refer to Iran's Revolutionary Guard without expressing loyalty to the Regime. She felt the burn phone pressing against her thigh. "Are you positive you weren't followed?"
But he'd hesitated a second before answering.
"I was very careful. I did everything you taught me."
"All right, that's good." But she pictured Arash as he hurried toward the meet: vigilant, pausing anxiously to glance into shop windows, looking for familiar reflections, stepping inside shops to force a shadow to pass and backtrack, all of it along a route he'd no doubt studied on a map. What must have been a very rusty and rushed surveillance-detection routine. Was that enough? Was she putting him in harm's way?
As if he sensed her doubts, he tightened his grip. "Yes, it's good. When I found out they were sending me here, I knew we had to meet, whatever the risks."
"Then tell me what you've got, because we don't have much time."
"What I've got . . . it's very important," he said, slowing almost imperceptibly. "How much will your government pay?"
"The usual transfer to your account." She shook her head, impatient now, steering him away from the avenue, into the park and the neat rows of chestnut trees. It wasn't like him to ask about money. "You know there's no time for renegotiation, not right now." She eyed him sharply. "Arash, tell me what you know that's so important."
"Do you remember your promise? If anything happens to me, you will take care of my family."
"Of course I remember. And I promise, I swear, I will keep them safe."
They were following a neat gravel path. She knew the small yellow pavilion in the near distance offered privacy as well as a vantage point. They would be able to see but not be seen.
"You have been looking a long time for the weapons facility that you suspect Bhoot, your ghost, is operating."
Vanessa tensed internally at the mention of Bhoot. She'd been hunting the phantomlike arms dealer and nuclear proliferator for three years, since the first rumors of his existence began surfacing in international intelligence communities. She'd come close to a new lead last year in Prague. "Bhoot?" She forced herself to breathe normally. "Yes. We've been looking for an Iranian weapons facility linked to him."
"Well, I have seen it," Arash said, his voice gone flat.
She shivered--but not from the deepening chill in the air.
They passed a handful of families and couples sprawled on blankets. Ahead, an aspiring boy director with a camera called out directions in French to his group of jaded friends.
Vanessa leaned her body against Arash, keeping her voice low. "You've been to this facility yourself?"
"Yes. And I heard what they are planning--"
"You saw Bhoot, the ghost?"
"Not yet--but there are rumors he will be there--" He shook his head, speaking so rapidly now that he stuttered.
She clutched his hand even more tightly. Over the next seconds, as his story began to unfold, she tried not to betray her primary emotion--dark elation. She had a hundred questions to ask him, but she knew her immediate priority was to memorize the geo-coordinates that would mark the facility's location. But even as he agreed, something caught her attention.
She tipped her head to identify the fragments of a sound, the wrongness of it: a high-pitched whine growing louder. An engine revving up?
A black-and-silver motorcycle, roughly a hundred meters away, slalomed over grass, tearing a path through the chestnut trees.
Her body quickened as adrenaline surged. The bike accelerated--a Suzuki, showering divots on a man and a woman entwined on a blanket. They bolted up, and the woman cursed loudly in German.
The driver, thick-shouldered and masked in black, skidded into a half-turn, dodging low-hanging branches. Forty meters away now. Headed for Vanessa and Arash.
"The pavilion," Vanessa hissed, pushing Arash toward it.
The bike swerved past the group of teenagers beneath the trees.
Vanessa got a first look at the biker's gloved right hand.
"Gun!" Running now, she pulled Arash with her until he matched her stride. She felt the motorcycle closing the distance.
Five meters to reach the pavilion. Too far to make it--
Arash stumbled over a tree root, and she grabbed for his jacket, pushing him down, sheltering him.
The Suzuki pulled even with them, splattering dirt, the helmeted driver braking as he looked their way--almost close enough that Vanessa could see their reflections in his helmet shield.
He aimed a black pistol--
Vanessa's fingers contracted reflexively, cutting into her palm. She cursed the rule that kept NOCs from carrying guns without express permission.
But he didn't fire!
A toy gun?
Abruptly, the biker peeled into a hard right turn, raining turf in his wake.
A sick joke?
A rapid rush of relief mixed with outrage surged inside Vanessa as the Suzuki disappeared in the shadows of the trees, the whir of the engine fading quickly.
The reprieve brought her to her feet. "Stay down," she told Arash. She scanned the area around them. She had to get him away from there, to a safe house, if possible.
Later, she wouldn't be sure what caught her eye. The glint of metal through the far trees? The slightest motion in the distance where the ground rose slightly and a sniper could take a shot?
Instinctively, she turned toward Arash.
He was halfway to his feet.
She felt the rush of air between them--heard a small, hard snap.
A piece of tree bark slapped her cheek as she reached out for Arash--"No!"
Saw the fear and confusion in his eyes.
Almost instantly there was a second hiss of air, a second snap of sound, and Arash's head jerked back and his body seemed to hover for an instant before he crumpled to the ground.
Vanessa dropped to her knees next to him. The bullet had hit him between the eyes. A shudder ran through her as his death registered viscerally. Then shock shut her down, leaving only the instinct for survival. Was she still in the shooter's sights?
She had to get away from there as quickly and as invisibly as possible. But first she searched Arash's pockets for anything that would give her more information about the facility--he'd been seconds away from verbally giving her the coordinates to memorize. She found nothing.
She rose numbly to her feet, turning from the few gathering onlookers. As she forced herself to walk intently through the dark-limbed trees toward the park boundary, the world jerked back to life, harsh voices, sirens. The polizei would show soon; Interpol and Europol soon after.
When she believed she was alone, she slipped the scarf from her neck and tied it over her head. She slowed for a few strides as disparate emotions overpowered the shock. But she pushed them back and kept moving. Already she could hear the sound of traffic from the main boulevard. She'd moved deliberately toward the shooter's location, knowing the shooter was gone--but trying to gether as much info as possible. She passed the knoll she would have chosen to take her shot.
Was he just ahead of her? Why hadn't he killed her, too?
As she walked quickly under the last of the tree canopy, she heard sirens.
She reached the boulevard, stepping into twilight. She hesitated, looking toward the noise. The city's inhabitants and tourists were strolling the avenue, enjoying a pleasant September evening.
But not the man leaving the park less than a half-block away.
He was more shadow than substance beneath a gray overcoat and fedora. Judging from the people around him, he stood under six feet tall. Was he stocky? Probably not, because the overcoat looked padded at the shoulders and long in the sleeves, while his gloved hands seemed disproportionately large. As he moved, he scanned the area intently, and she noted the high cheekbones and sharp Slavic angles of his face. At a guess, she'd tag him for Eastern European.
He turned away from the intersection, moving with other pedestrians, staying close to the park boundary. A satchel hung heavily over his left shoulder. Black, ubiquitous--half of Europe carried one. It wasn't long enough to contain a full rifle. But a pro could assemble and disassemble a customized rifle in a matter of seconds. He wouldn't leave it behind.
Vanessa followed, keeping to the shadows as they skirted the park.
He didn't look back, but Vanessa sensed his wariness, almost kindred with her own. If she was right about his sniping position, he'd fired from a distance of about six hundred or seven hundred meters. A windless day made it an easy shot for a decent sniper--except it was dusk, and the falling light made the shot more difficult.
Is that why he'd missed her?
The question raced through her mind even as she walked in a numb haze, still fighting against the shock of Arash's murder.
No way to be tracking a target.
As he approached a busy intersection, she moved to close the distance between them.
Just as he turned his head and looked back at her.
She hesitated, letting her mind overpower her instinct to keep tracking him.
He timed it perfectly, waiting for the light to change, moving toward the trolley stop just as the queue surged forward.
In a matter of seconds, he vanished.
Had he joined the quick rush of pedestrians who jumped the trolley?
Was he still ahead of her, halfway down a gloomy side street?
But what the hell could she do? She was a NOC--a nonofficial cover officer. If she let herself get caught up in an international imbroglio involving the assassination of a high-level Iranian target in Austria, the CIA would disavow any knowledge of her. End of story.
Her job demanded she stay under cover and avoid getting caught. An asset's life depended on it. So could her own.
She stopped with a shudder, and Arash's face filled her mind. She saw him falling, saw the dark hole in his head.
Barely aware of the curious glances of a few passersby, she clutched her jacket tightly, fighting free fall, working to regain control. She had to get out of Vienna as quickly as possible.
In this instant she had only one purpose: Get Arash's intel to Headquarters.
She pivoted back toward the park and then away, drawn north. She knew Vienna. She'd visited as a child. It was part of her world map.
The street address of the safe house came to her. Not far from here. She pushed back from the edge and forced herself to move through the falling darkness.